Alta California - The Bandits
Juan Ortiz sat astride his horse watching his prey below. Ortiz, hidden by trees, wrinkled his nose at the foul odor of rotten eggs. The smell was coming from the hot sulfur springs at the base of the hill. Overlooking the hill quilted in spring flowers, Juan counted three two-wheeled ox carts, four armed men, eight women and as many children. While the men were talking and watching the children, the women were scrubbing great heaps of white linens in the waters of the hot springs.
When Ortiz raised his hand, six men rode out through the trees and joined him. The horsemen and Ortiz wore sombreros, vests over simple white shirts and chaps over their leather trousers. They were all armed with muskets, pistols, and knives. The man next to Ortiz stood in his stirrups and looked down the slope. He eased back in his saddle and looked expectantly at Ortiz.
Ortiz told the man, “Chico, take three men and move down the hill and stay out of sight. I will take the rest and attack from here. When we start firing and have their attention, you attack from the rear. There are only four men. It should be simple and quick.”
On a nearby hill, two men dressed in buckskins were watching Ortiz and his men.
“That looks like trouble,” said Isaiah Crow, the larger of the two men. “Those folks at the springs won’t stand a chance.”
“Bandits! Those bastardos will kill the men and children, but it will be worse for the women. They will rape and abuse them. When they tire of them, they will sell them on the black market as slaves,” said LeRue.
“That just doesn’t sit well with me; how about you?”
“I figure we could be of some help,” said LeRue matter-of-factly.
“It looks like they are going to split up. I’ll follow the ridge from here so I can get a shot at the leader. If you ride fast on the backside, you can pick off some of the second bunch from behind.”
With a nod, LeRue spurred his mount with his heels and began racing through the trees.
“Come on boy,” Crow said to his mount, “let’s make some wolf meat.”
The Battle Of Hot Springs
At the hot springs, the women were on their knees, scrubbing the wet, heavy linens on the rocks in the hot, smelly, water. With their sun-browned hands and a rock, they rubbed and washed the fabric to a bright white. There was a sense of pride that their Don had three carts of linens. The other ranchos were envious of such wealth.
As the four-armed vaqueros smoked and talked, they appeared casual and unaware, but they had positioned themselves so they could keep an eye on their charges and the surrounding area.
The children were playing chase when the bandit leader fired the first shot. The women dropped the linens and immediately ran to the children. The men shouldered their muskets ready to meet the threat.
From the trees, five horsemen came charging down the hill. As the horse’s hooves churned clods of sod into the air, Ortiz fired his musket, the heavy lead ball striking one of the guards in his leg.
Behind the bandits, Crow raised his rifle and fired. The ball hit Ortiz between the shoulders. Dead, he fell from his saddle. Crow let out a hair-raising war-whoop and charged down the hill.
Hidden by the hill, the second group of bandits, having heard the shooting, charged. From behind the bandits, LeRue aimed at the last villain in the group and pulled the trigger. His shot hit the bandit dead-center in the small of his back, knocking him from his saddle. He gripped his rifle in one hand and drew a war-hawk from his belt with the other. As he caught up with the unsuspecting bandits from behind, one by one, he began to kill them.
At first, the guards at the hot springs could not believe their eyes. The bandits were charging, chased by a wild man on horseback, a rifle in one hand an axe in the other. As he caught up with the bandits, he began to kill them with his axe. The guards, quickly regaining their senses, joined the fight. It was over in moments. Seven bandits lay dead or dying as their horses fled across the fields.
Crow and LeRue rode up to the group at the springs. The women were comforting the children, while two men tended to the wounded guard. From the group, one man, younger than the rest but better dressed, greeted their rescuers. He saw before him, two men. The tall one had broad shoulders and a full beard that enhanced his blue eyes. He wore his thick black hair in a pompadour that was caught up in a woven net at the nape of his neck. The second man was a bit smaller. His beard could not hide the smile on his face as he said in Spanish, “Hola, me llamo Jacques LeRue, y esto es Isaias Crow. ¿ Habla usted Inglés? (Hello, I am called Jacques LeRue, and this is Isaiah Crow. Do you speak English?)”
The young man, handsome with a gracious smile, replied in English, “I am Carlos Batista.”
Crow stepped down from his saddle. “My compadré and I were on the hill when we saw the bandits. It looks like we got them all. How’s your man? Is he going to make it?”
“Yes, I think he will have supper with his wife tonight. Thanks to you, we will all go home.”
“We are going to San Diego. Is it far?” asked Crow.
“It is several days ride from here. However, first, I must take you to my father, Hernando Batista. He would never forgive me if I did not bring you home so that he could thank you for what you have done.”
“That is right kind of you. We have been traveling a long way and could do with a rest. Perhaps we could buy some supplies?”
“But of course. We will finish here and return to the rancho." Carlos turned to one of his men. “Take one of the horses. Tell my father what has happened here. Tell him that we are all safe, but will be later than usual. Go now!” He called to one of the men tending to the wounded man, “José, collect the weapons from these bastardos. See if you recognize any of them.”
The sun was beginning to cast shadows as the oxen plodded along pulling the three carts stacked high with the washed linen. Alongside each ox, one of the older boys would occasionally encourage the beast with a long staff. The children and most of the women sat atop the linens on the first two carts. The wounded man lay under a blanket on top of the linens in the last cart.
Later, as the procession began to climb a hill, Crow saw a man on horseback appear at the top accompanied by six armed men. Crow and LeRue immediately readied their rifles.
“It is my father! Do not shoot!” shouted Carlos.
The horsemen arrived in a cloud of dust. One man pulled up next to Carlos. Crow saw the concern mixed with anger on the face of the man. “You are all right, Carlos?”
“I am fine father, thanks to these two men.” Reining his mount around, Carlos continued, “This is Isaiah Crow and his compadré Jacques LeRue. They saved our lives with great courage.”
The older man, tall and lean, his dark face clean-shaven, maneuvered his mount between Crow and LeRue and offered his hand to each man. In English, he said, “I am Hernando Batista. I thank you for saving my son and my people. We will escort you back to the rancho. We will have something to eat, and we can talk.” Next, Hernando greeted each of the guards, “I hear you fought bravely. You each will be rewarded.” He moved to the cart and the wounded man who tried to rise. “No, no, stay still. We will take you home. Your family knows that you live, and they are waiting.”
Hernando nodded at his son. Carlos raised his hand and motioning toward the hill called out, "¡Vamos a casa! (Let us go home!)”
As the horsemen and carts arrived at the rancho, a crowd of more than twenty people shouted greetings. The group was mostly vaqueros and Indian house servants. A woman and a young girl stood in front of the group. As the carts stopped and the men dismounted, everyone rushed forward to greet their friends and loved ones.
Crow and LeRue stood apart from the others. They watched as Hernando and Carlos approached them with the woman and the girl. Crow was struck by the beauty of the girl. Though she was young, she had a presence about her. Hernando said to the women, "These men are Señor Crow and Señor LeRue. They are responsible for the safe return of Carlos and the others. This is my wife, Señora Carmen Batista and our daughter, Francisca.”
The woman and the girl wore bright, white dresses. Each had their hair pulled back in a bun. The woman was striking in her mature beauty. With a voice pleasant to the ear, she said in Spanish, “Welcome to our home. I am grateful to you both for saving the lives of my son and our people.”
Crow, obviously uncomfortable, turned to LeRue. LeRue responded, "Estamos encantados de que podríamos estar de servicio. (We are happy that we could be of service.)”
“You speak Spanish well Señor LeRue,” replied Señora Batista.
“I’m a Texican Señora and a citizen of Mexico. Isaiah speaks some Spanish, but is not fluent.”
In English, she replied, “We will try to speak English until you are comfortable, Señor Crow. We are preparing a meal for you, but you will want to freshen yourselves first.” The Señora motioned to one of the Indian servants who rushed over. “Take these gentlemen to the guest room.” To Crow and LeRue she said, “I will send Carlos for you when the meal is ready.”
As Crow and LeRue were led to the hacienda, Francisca turned to her brother. “They are interesting men.”
Carlos, at first distracted, looked at the two departing men and then at his sister. “Yes, interesting, and perhaps… handsome?”
Francisca’s face flushed, “I meant only in the way they dress and speak!”
Carlos, with a knowing smile that seemed to infuriate his sister more, replied “Of course, the way they dress and talk. They are fascinating.”
Before Francisca could respond, her mother said, “Come, Francisca, we must see that everything is ready for our guests.”
With an indignant glare at her brother, Francisca joined her mother as she walked to the hacienda.
Hernando, placing his hand on his son’s shoulder asked. “Do I owe these men, Carlos?”
“Yes father, we had no idea the bandits were on the hill. Crow and his friend did not have to do what they did. Had they not stepped in, we all would have died.”
“The man Crow, there is something about him, something different.”
“LeRue told me on the ride back that Indians raised Crow. Do you see that shirt he wears under his coat, with the tufts of hair and the quill work? LeRue said that is a Crow Indian war-shirt, and that Crow had been what is called a Dog Soldier.”
“I am looking forward to dinner. I want to learn more about these men.”
Carlos, remembering Francisca’s reaction to Crow thought, ‘You are not the only one who wants to learn more, father.’
Carlos and his father headed to the hacienda. In one of the small whitewashed cottages, the wounded vaquero lay upon his bed. His face was slowly regaining its color. His anxious wife sat, while his two teenage sons stood next to the bed. “I will be fine. The ball passed through. You must not worry.”
His wife, silent tears slowly rolling down her cheeks, reached out and took his callused hand. “We could not help but to be concerned about you.”
One of the boys asked, “Poppa, the two men in buckskins, they saved your lives?”
“Oh, you should have seen it!” his father replied, a spark of excitement in his eyes. “The big one, the one called Crow; he shot the bandit leader while riding on horseback! He let out a yell that made our hair stand on end. He had an axe in his hand, and he rode right into the middle of those bandits! It was something to see. He is el Guerrero (a warrior)!”
The boys were spellbound as their father told his story. Later, after their father slipped off into sleep, they met with the other young men who lived at the rancho. The story spread about the buckskin Guerreros and the one they now called ‘el hombre con el hacha’ (‘the man with the axe’).
The Story Of White Crow
In a guest room of the hacienda, LeRue and Crow were changing their shirts. The red woolen shirts were prized possessions and were worn only for special occasions. Crow, like LeRue, wore his shirt outside his pants. He had just tied his belt around his waist and was reaching for his knife when LeRue said, “It would not be proper to go armed to dinner.”
“Nothing?” asked Crow.
“Nothing!” replied LeRue. “Our rifles and knives will stay here in the room. Everything will be safe, as will we.”
Reluctantly, Crow left the knife. “Should we bring a gift for our host?”
LeRue went into his pack and brought out a bundle of furs. Moving to the bed, he placed the bundle on the bed and removed the fur wrap. Inside was a jug with a cork in its spout, sealed with wax. “I figured I would give ‘em a taste of corn whiskey,” said LeRue.
Crow turned and went to his possibles bag and rummaged around inside it. From the bag, he removed a leather pouch, the size of his opened hand. The leather was nearly white, with a leather drawstring at its opening and decorated on both sides with colorful beadwork and geometric designs with black-and-white quills. “I will give this,” said Crow.
There was a knock at the door. LeRue went to the door and opened it. Standing in the hallway was Carlos. “Ah, I see you are ready,” he said to LeRue.
LeRue opened the door wider, “Please, come in.”
As Carlos entered the room, Crow returned to his possibles bag and reached inside. He withdrew a knife in a highly decorated sheath. He turned to Carlos and handed the knife to him. “You fought well today and have brought us to your home. I want you to have this.”
Carlos took the sheathed knife and marveled at the intricate beadwork on the scabbard. He took the stag-horn handle in his hand and withdrew the knife. The blade was thick at the top. Its honed edge slightly curved to a clip point. The point was sharpened upper and lower. Carlos positioned the guard at the side of his open palm and smiled at the balance of the knife. “This is a beautiful gift. Where did you obtain such a knife if I may ask?”
“I made the blade from an old butcher knife. The handle is from the antlers of an elk I killed. The sheath is from a buffalo hide. I did the beadwork during the winter so that I would not get cabin fever.”
“I will carry this with pride! Muchas gracias, amigo. And now, let us eat! My mother and sister have had an excellent meal prepared. ”
Led by Carlos, Crow and LeRue entered a large room where a long table commanded the center. Crow and LeRue, more accustomed to a one-room cabin or more often, eating around a campfire, were nearly overwhelmed. Six high-backed leather-upholstered chairs lined each side of the table. There were two slightly more ornate chairs at each end.
Carmen and Francisca had changed for the occasion, wearing colorful formal gowns. Crow had to force himself not to stare at Francisca. LeRue, the jug of whiskey cradled in his hands, leaned close to Crow and said, “Are you all right my friend, you look a little flush.”
Glancing at LeRue, Crow caught the knowing smile on his friend’s face. Before he could speak, LeRue stepped away.
“Gentlemen, welcome,” said Hernando. LeRue moved over to Hernando and presented him the jug. “We thought you might enjoy this. It is what we call bourbon whiskey. At the last rendezvous, a man from Kentucky brought this. It is made from corn and is amazingly smooth.”
Hernando took the jug, flashing a satisfied smile at LeRue. “Gracias. Perhaps we will have a taste after our meal.” Hernando was placing the jug in the middle of the table when Crow stepped up to him.