BLACK DRESS TRILOGY VOLUME 3
They rode out to the corner of La Calle del Norte and paused. Boots glanced to his right. “I don’t think they went north,” he presumed. “Not a big enough market for slaves up there, not unless they know someone, and I doubt they do. They won’t go back to Louisiana. Most likely they’re wanted by the law there. I figure they’re going down to the lower settlements here in Texas, down to the plantations.”
Molly glanced left and said, “I’m glad you want to get Nomusha back.”
“What I really want is to get those freebooters,” Boots explained. “I might even get a chance at Murrell himself.”
“Would you go after them if they didn’t have Nomusha?”
He looked at her and smiled. “You went and got yourself attached to him, didn’t you?”
“And you haven’t?” she asked.
“Suppose I have,” he admitted. “I told you awhile back that chasing slaves wasn’t our job, and now that’s just what we’re about to do. Somehow though, I don’t think of Nomusha as a slave, and I haven’t figured that one out yet.”
“You fell in love with him.”
“Well, I . . . Molly, you have a part in this, too. It has to do with how you wanted to help Nomusha, and the way you’re always helping folks who are down on their luck. It gives you a certain kind of charm that I’m growing fond of.”
“You love him. Why don’t you admit it?”
“Suppose I do.” Reining his horse left, he smiled at her and nudged his horse south on La Calle del Norte adding, “But, I can’t bring you back to town after we get him.”
“Can’t bring me back to town?” she asked. “What do you mean? I have to come back to town. I’m not finished with Margie and her youngsters yet.”
“A man can get himself killed bringing you to town,” he continued. “It almost got me killed today.” Then he kicked his horse, smiling yet as he galloped away.
Molly galloped after him, past Brody’s and across Main Street. Galloping south, they continued until they reached La Casa Piedra, the sparkly brown-stone commercial building, which was being renovated into a courthouse. A crew of carpenters worked outside on the porch decks, hammering and sawing on their work tables all at the same time and making the jobsite sound like a banging battlefield. Boots pulled up and whistled at them. The hammering and sawing stopped as they turned their faces to him.
Around his mouth Boots cupped his hands and hollered, “Did y’all see a bunch of freebooters ride past here, six or eight of them with a little slave boy?”
“Sí!” One of the workers nodded. Another agreed, and both pointed down the Coushatta Trace.
Molly drew a quick breath and said, “That means they’re going to Fort Teran.”
“Not what I expected either,” Boots added. To the carpenters he raised his hand, and hollered, “Obliged.” Then the hammering and sawing began again.
Cantering across the La Nana, and then past the few homesteads at the outskirts of town, he motioned for Molly to ride up beside him. “This could get real dangerous,” he said. “I think you got the fight in you, but I want to make sure you know what you’re getting into first. I want to be sure you still want to do this.”
“I do,” she testified. “It’s the right thing to do. I feel it in my heart. You couldn’t stop me from going.”
“You could get killed. Both of us could get killed. Aren’t you afraid?”
“A little.” She nodded. “Okay, a lot. I’m a lot afraid, but that hasn’t stopped me yet.”
“You said just the right thing, Molly. You admit your fear, and that’s what will keep you alive.”
“But, I’ve always heard that the Texas Rangers have no fear. They say that folks who show fear can’t serve.”
“Well, that’s right,” Boots explained. “Showing fear is just plain cowardice. We won’t let folks like that in the service, but I’ll let you in on what folks aren’t saying. What they aren’t saying is that fear is what keeps us from getting stupid. Courage is what makes us successful. I won’t ride with someone who has no fear. Folks like that get reckless, and they can get other folks killed. I’m used to riding with experienced Rangers when I do something like what we’re about to do. I’m used to riding with courageous Rangers, who are afraid of being stupid. There’s usually a lot more than just two of us, and there sure enough aren’t any lone Rangers.”
“Would it be better if we go back? Do you want to get more help?”
“No, not if we want to catch them. Any delay we give them will just be that much harder to make up for. And Molly, I believe in you. You’ve shown your courage. You have it in you, just like me. If I didn’t think we could do this, I wouldn’t be here with you now. We’re both sanctioned Rangers of the Republic of Texas. That means we are the law. There isn’t anyone else to do this job except us. We are the judge, jury, and executioner until a judicial system can be established in the land. We are the only protection folks have. Like it or not, you’ve been appointed, and no one can stand in your way, except me, Colonel Karnes, and General Houston himself.”
“That’s understandable. These aren’t the sort of things womenfolk usually have to deal with. They’re not expected to take to fighting the way you have. You don’t hesitate and you’re fast. That’s your advantage.”
She nodded and said, “Aunt Ruthie said the same thing. So, what do we do from here? We’re on campaign now, aren’t we? I’ve never done anything like this.”
“Yes, we are on campaign, and we’re outnumbered almost four to one. Does that mean anything to you?”
“It means we’re probably in trouble.”
“Good,” he said. “That’s good. You said the right thing again. Remember the Nacodochito’s village?”
“Yes. I can still taste that awful pipe you made me smoke.”
“Well,” Boots continued. “Come sunset that’s about where I figure we’ll be. What do you think of Nacogdoches so far?”
“I think the town is too rough for me.”
“You seem to be fitting right in.” He laughed.
“It’s wearing me down.”
“Nacogdoches or the Ranger Service?” he asked.
“Yes, it does wear you down. It wears me down, too. I haven’t seen many recruits stay in it for long. I could hardly get my eyes open when I woke up this morning. But, Molly, I never said it was easy, remember? All I said was that I lived more in a few seconds than most folks live in a lifetime. Sometimes those seconds can turn out to be rewarding, especially when folks are better off for it, like Margie and Hamadi and Adama, and those youngsters, but mostly it’s not easy and not very fun.”
“It’s not just that, Boots. I agree. I think the Service itself is rewarding, but I’m having trouble with more than that. You see, I’m just not angry anymore. I’m tired of being angry.”
“You have a right to be angry, Molly, after the suffering you went through. Everyone in Texas has a right to be angry.”
“Maybe so,” she added. “Maybe that’s what’s been driving me to do the things I’ve been doing. Maybe that’s what keeps driving me to find Amy. I don’t know.”
“You love Amy.”
“Of course, how can you even say something like that?”
“Love and anger are next of kin, Molly. You wouldn’t be angry about the things that happened to you if you didn’t love the folks who were hurt by it. That’s what I love about you.”
For a moment she glanced over at him and lost herself in the depths of his ghost-blue eyes, and then rescued herself from the undertow of his unsuppressed expressions toward her. “I’ll be glad when it’s over,” she replied. “I’ll be glad when we can leave here, and I’ll be glad when we can go back to Tuck’s Landing where it’s peaceful and safe.”
“With me?” he asked.
She didn’t answer.
“Could you love me like that?” he asked. “Could you love me until it makes you angry?”
“You promised not to talk about this,” she reminded him.
“It’s still Emmet, isn’t it? You haven’t said much about him.”
“I suppose I haven’t. I guess I don’t like to talk about him. He changed so much after we were married that he wasn’t the same man I met. I felt like I didn’t know him anymore. The only one who understood was Emily. We used to talk a lot. I suppose I probably should talk about it more considering the likeliness that he’s no longer alive, but it makes me uncomfortable to do that. I don’t like to say bad things about folks no matter what they did, and everything I have to say about him is bad.” Molly sighed. “I’d give anything if I could talk with Emily again, like I used to.”
“Do you still love him?” Boots asked. “Do you still love Emmet?”
For a long while she didn’t reply, then she said, “I think it was the farm that changed him. The farm wasn’t what he thought it would be. It wore him down, and his hard work didn’t pay much. He heard stories about folks coming down here and getting rich off the land, and there are a lot of rich plantation owners down here, but he wasn’t one of them. We were barely getting by and it made him angry. It turned him into an angry man, Boots, kind of like Dugan Hoxie, but without principles.”
“I don’t think I’d call Dugan Hoxie a principled man,” Boots balked.
“Then you see my point?” Molly added.
“You said you weren’t angry anymore. What did that mean?”
Molly thought for a moment and then said, “Something inside me can’t stay angry anymore. I’ve been angry for a long time about Emmet, Emily, Innis and Amy. I thought I hated those men who did all those bad things, but I realized that I didn’t really hate them. I just wanted to make them stop doing the things they were doing.”
“Then you’ve changed, Molly, because I remember when the only thing in the world you wanted was vengeance for your suffering.”
“You think that’s what it was? I was vengeful?”
“It was written all over you.”
“I suppose I was, now that you put it that way. I could see that all that hate and anger was changing me into someone I didn’t want to be. It changed me into an angry person just like Emmet, and that scared me, Boots. It really scared me.”
Looking over at her, he said, “I notice a difference in you. You look softer in the eyes and mouth. You’re pretty. Even that shiner you got is pretty, now that it’s turned all green instead of purple.”
“You’re such a flatterer,” she said with a laugh and watched him again. “You’ve got some green on your face, too, from those bruises. At least the swelling went down, so you look like yourself again.”
“You never answered my question,” he reminded her.
“Do you still love Emmet?”
“I don’t want to.”
“You don’t want to love Emmet, or you don’t want to tell me? Is that supposed to be an answer?”
“It has to be for now, Boots.”
When they reached the Nacodochito camp, they joined the braves who had gathered around the fire to eat with their youngsters. Their women had cooked a mush-like stew and distributed it in wooden bowls. Boots and Molly traded cigars for their supper and fed themselves with their fingers, in the manner of the braves. The elder had joined them, and as they ate, Boots asked him if the freebooters had ridden through with Nomusha.
“We see men with white skin ride with black child,” the elder replied. “They do not come here.”
“Do you think they’ll ride all night to Fort Teran?” Molly asked Boots.
“I’m not sure what they’re up to, Molly. They already did a pretty good job of throwing us off.”
“Are we going to Fort Teran?”
“There isn’t much else we can do.” He held his bowl out to a woman, who offered to refill it with a mixture of corn-mush and meat. Then he continued, “The thing that’s bothering me is the freebooters know there isn’t anything else we can do.”
“They’re going to ambush us, aren’t they?”
“So, are we going to Fort Teran, or are we going back to Nacogdoches?”
“What do you want to do, Molly? Do you want to run, or do you want to fight?”
“I guess I don’t want either. I just want Nomusha back.”
“Is he worth dying for?”
“Yes,” Molly replied without hesitation. “Yes, I would die for him, if that’s what it comes to.”
“You are a rare kind, Molly.” Setting his bowl in the dirt beside him, he stood and faced her saying, “I don’t know anyone who would die for a slave. I admire that in you. If you want to fight for Nomusha, then I’ll fight with you. We’ll ride out in the morning. If we die tomorrow, then we’ll die together.”
Molly spread her bedroll by the fire, but her eagerness to rescue Nomusha had begun to fade with the reality of an ambush and the certainty of death. She began to doubt her ability to survive in such an unfavorable situation. The freebooters would lay in wait and then strike from a cloak of surprise. They were experienced fighters, and their shots would not miss. She would never see it coming. She dozed on and off throughout the night until Boots woke her, saying, “Let’s get on with it,”
Saddling their horses they prepared to ride out.
The Nacodochito elder joined them as they mounted up, and his braves joined him as he asked, “Do white men, who ride with black child, go to chief with white skin named Earl?”
Boots paused, turning to face the elder and replied, “They might be going to meet their chief. We don’t know for sure. Their chief has a meeting place at Fort Teran. The men might be taking the black child to meet with him there.”
The elder pursed his lips, and said, “The chief with white skin has stolen our hides, and he has killed our brave. For this we will repay him. We will ride with you to Fort Teran. You say that today you die. If you die, we will die with you.”
“Well.” Boots smiled. “I wasn’t expecting this. You have no obligation to help us. This is our fight. It’s not your fight.”
“It is our fight,” the elder insisted. “Today we make this our fight.”
“Then we shall fight together,” Boots agreed. “Do you have rifles?”
“We have three good rifles, and we have bow, arrow, tomahawk, knife, and good horses.” The elder turned to the others, and in their language he explained what he wanted to do.
To their huts some of the Nacodochito men ran, others ran to the corral and placed bridals on their horses. Mounting up, they assembled, and Molly counted fourteen armed Nacodochito braves in all.
Boots climbed again up on his horse, turned to Molly, and said, “I think our chances of surviving today and getting Nomusha back just got a lot better. It’s good to have friends in places like this, isn’t it?”
The elder Nacodochito rode up and joined Boots and Molly, and motioned his braves into two columns as they clopped down the Coushatta Trace. On his head the elder had placed a war bonnet, a colorful, beaded headband circled with duck feathers, like a king’s crown. From the rear of the bonnet dangled a train of feathers down his back, and in his hand he carried a spear decorated with tassels and feathers.
“I know this word you say,” the elder explained. “I know this word ambush.”
Looking back, the elder swung his spear. Two of his braves galloped up from the rear past the columns. They rode on ahead about four or five hundred paces as the elder explained, “The white men who ride with black child will not ambush braves. They will let braves pass. You they will ambush. You watch braves. They will show us where white men will ambush you. Then I will ride to them on road. White men who ambush you will watch me while braves walk in forest and hunt white men like deer.”
“Your plan is good,” Boots said. “I will walk in the forest with your braves.” Glancing over at Molly, he added, “There’s enough of us to do this, Molly. I want you to stay behind.”
“I’m not afraid to fight,” she argued.
“I know you’re not, but I don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. I’d never forgive myself if anything ever happened to you. Please, don’t put me in that position.”
She didn’t respond, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Her head was telling her of the immense danger she faced, but her heart was telling her that she was facing it for Nomusha. To free him she would do anything, and she would do it without regard for the potential consequences to herself.
Hours passed and the sun was about four hands above the trees when they turned a bend in the road and the elder raised his spear. Everyone stopped. Boots turned to Molly with his finger pressed to his lips. Far up the road Molly could see the two lead braves. They had turned around and faced them from a great distance. The elder shook his spear to the right and then shook it to the left. Dismounting, his braves led their horses into the thicket. Boots entered the thicket on the left and disappeared. Molly dismounted and followed four other braves into the thicket on her right. The fight was on. Everything in her body rushed to attention, and she was quickened.
Four braves tied their horses and spread their hands, indicating to Molly their intention to stop her from following them. Pulling her repeaters from their hiding place beneath her shirt, she held them up with the barrels pointed into the sky. The brave’s eyes widened, and then one of them motioned that she should join him.
Silent and swift, the braves separated and drifted deep into the forest. Their lack of sound amazed her. Drifting along with them, she carefully placed her steps where they would not break the smallest twig or disturb a single leaf. Turning, the braves began to circle back toward the road, and silently they assigned her a place between them. When they slowed, she slowed. A bright strip between the trees ahead told her that they were near the road, and flashes of color between the trees told her that the elder and some of his braves were passing by at that very moment.
The brave next to her motioned her forward, and then she noticed a freebooter standing behind the trunk of large tree. Around the massive trunk he peered at the elder on the road with his back to her, and in his hands he wielded a rifle. Intently he watched the braves following the elder, clopping down the road, seemingly oblivious to the danger approaching him from behind. Beyond him she could see another freebooter peering around another tree.
The first freebooter, who was glancing up the road, turned his head enough for Molly to see the pink scar on his nose. Realizing that he was the scoundrel from Brody’s Hostel, she surmised that this machination was a personal vendetta against her. That was why he was here.
As the elder and his braves clopped passed them, she heard a man scream from the other side of the road. The freebooters shouldered their rifles and watched across the road as she and the braves moved closer.