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MY NAME IS John Caperton. I have known and been a friend of Jack Hays since we were young boys teaching ourselves how to hunt and fish and live rough in the forests of Tennessee. I am six months younger than Jack. I followed him, and now I leave a record of his story.
We arrived in Nacogdoches thirsty and decided to have a beer. Jack stood at the end of the ten-foot bar sipping at the mug of beer he held in his left hand. I was leaning against the far wall, no more than six or seven feet away. Jack was then nineteen, but he appeared to be maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. He's still slight and is an inch or two shorter than most of the men in any room. His complexion is fair, his nose slightly aquiline. His mouth is firm with thin lips. His chin is square. His beard struggled to be noticed. He didn't move his head, but his deep-set hazel eyes moved continuously, taking in everyone and everything in the room.
All the men in the room, with the exception of the bartender, were dressed roughly. Their wool pants were baggy and dirty with constant use, their shirts dirty and frayed at their collars and cuffs. The men's coats were a variety of styles, including some uniform coats from 1812. Almost all the men wore wide leather belts with one or two pistols jammed in between belt and coat. Some held rifles. Most had large knives in sheaths hanging from their belts. All wore battered hats of indeterminate style and age.
Jack was also wearing wool pants, but his were less baggy. The collar of his homespun shirt was stained but not frayed, and his coat was a heavy wool with a tight weave. His hat was beaver felt, the crown crushed flat, the brim drooping. He had two pistols jammed in his wide belt, the heavy grips facing each other. His bowie knife resided in a sheath close to his right hand. A Tennessee long rifle was slung by a leather strap over his left shoulder.
The continuous murmur of men in quiet conversation pervaded the cramped room. Occasionally, the sound of chairs and boots scraping on the wide-plank pinewood floor penetrated the hum. The floor planks, apparently nailed down while green, were twisted. Men often stumbled while making their way to the bar, not always the result of having imbibed too much alcohol. Every time a newcomer entered the room, there was a shout of greeting. Adding to the ambiance was the sharp sound of playing cards slapped with enthusiasm onto the three rickety tables crowding the space. All the sounds were punctuated by the noise of shot glasses and beer mugs set down on the bar and tables. Chunks of thick, sticky Nacogdoches mud dried in the warm closeness of the room and fell in clumps from the boots of the men who were in the bar longest. This was all accompanied by the stench of stale beer, rough whiskey, cigar smoke, and the stink, rising like steam, from the filthy clothing of unwashed males.
Jack watched as some men left and others arrived, crowding past one another through the narrow doorway. The single room of the rough board cabin that served as the bar filled as more men crowded in.
"Shut the damn door!" someone yelled.
It was late April 1836. Wind and rain pounded the town of Nacogdoches in the new Republic of Texas.
The door crashed open again, and a very large man pushed through. This time nobody shouted a greeting. He shoved men aside to claim a place at the bar.
"Whiskey, damn it, George," he shouted at the harried bartender, who, after glancing to identify the speaker, stopped pouring beer into the three mugs he held in one hand. He set the mugs down and poured a shot of whiskey, sliding it through the spilled beer lubricating the bar top.
The big man took up the glass, turned to survey the room, and then drank the cheap whiskey in a gulp. He returned the shot glass to the bar without turning.
"Hit me again, and keep them coming, George. Don't just stand there with your thumb up your ass."
I leaned in toward the man standing next to me and whispered, "Who is that guy?"
"The local bully," he whispered back. "Before long, he'll taunt somebody and wave one of those fists in his victim's face."
I noticed all the men in the bar did their best to avoid looking at him, except for Jack, who didn't take his eyes from the huge fellow.
The man standing next to me whispered again. "I noticed you came in with that young man at the bar. If he's your friend, you best tell him not to do anything to provoke. After a couple shots of that rotgut, Big Al will try to pick a fight with someone, and if that youngster doesn't stop staring at him, he'll be the one."
Jack kept his place at the bar and continued to gaze at the bully.
The big man quickly consumed three more shots of whiskey and then suddenly shoved the man standing next to him. "Back off, shithead. Don't crowd me, or I'll beat the crap out of you."
The man backed away, gulped what was left of the beer in his hand, put the mug down on a table, and ran from the bar.
The bully smiled, pleased with the reaction he forced. Then he noticed Jack looking at him. "What you smilin' about, twerp?" he shouted, pushing past three men to stand very close to Jack.
I left my place at the wall to move closer.
The bully was a full head taller and at least ninety pounds heavier than Jack. His broad shoulders tapered into a thick neck. Although I was three feet away, I could smell his rotted teeth. Jack did not back away from the stench. The bully clenched his fists.
"Wipe that smile off your face, shithead, or would you rather I wipe it off for you?" The bully raised his right fist and waved it in front of Jack's face. "I said to wipe off that smile, or I'll wipe it off for you."
Jack continued to smile while gently placing his mug on the bar. The bully pulled back his fist. The pistol on Jack's left side was in his right hand. The fist started forward, a cap exploded, and the coat over the big man's heart burst into flames. He fell straight back, stiff as a felled tree. He was dead when the back of his head hit the floor, pushing his hat over his still snarling face.
Jack pushed his pistol back through his belt and then swept his eyes around the room. "Anybody think that man was not about to hit me?" he asked.
One man pushed his chair back from the table where he sat. The feet of the chair screeched and then caught on a twisted board. The man stood, pushing the chair over backward.
"That son of a bitch beat me near to death three weeks ago, and others in this room have suffered at those fists. Thanks, young man. We are well rid of that scum."
Several other men in the room voiced their agreement.
"Is there a lawman in this town?" asked Jack. "I suppose I'm in deep shit for killing this man, but I wasn't going to allow him to hit me."
"It was self-defense. We all saw it," said the man as he extricated his feet from the turned-over chair on the floor.
The door slammed open, hitting the wall on the hinge side. A gray-haired man with a four-day-old beard, his potbelly hanging over his gun belt, entered with a pistol in his hand and a badge pinned to his coat.
"I heard a shot. What the hell has Big Al Cranston done now?"
Jack motioned at the body on the floor with his chin. "Is that Cranston?"
One of the men in the room spoke up. "It was completely justified, Sheriff. Couldn't expect the young man to wait until that asshole hit him. I want to buy our hero a drink."
I finally found my voice. "I can verify that man on the floor was about to hit him, sir."
Several men shouted at the bartender to pour Jack a drink.
Jack waved a hand in the air. "Thanks, gents. I've had all the alcohol I need. Maybe another time. We're just passing through." He grabbed my right arm above the elbow. "Believe we'll be on our way, unless there is something else, Sheriff."
"I'll need you and your friend to come to my office and sign a statement, young man. You too, Sam, and anyone else who agrees Big Al was asking for it. I'll have to file a report with the judge whenever he comes around again. What's your name, youngster?"
"John Coffee Hays, sir," Jack answered.
"Any relation to Harmond Hays of Tennessee?"
"Yes, sir. He's my daddy."
"How's he doing?"
"He and my ma both died of the cholera about four years ago."
"Sorry to hear that. I served with him in 1812 under General Jackson. Didn't one of your uncles marry Andrew Jackson's sister?"
"Yes, sir. She's my great-aunt Cage, my ma's side."
"Well, boys, the tree this lad sprouted from is one tough giant of the US of A. Let me shake your hand, John Coffee Hays. Nobody in this town is likely to weep over the loss of Big Al. Some of you boys haul his carcass out of here. Leave him on the porch of my office until I can order a coffin, but wrap him up in a tarp first. No sense in spreading his blood all over town. George, looks like you'll have a mess to clean up."
The bartender replied. "He rarely paid for what he consumed, so no great loss. A bucket of water sloshed on the floor will get most of it. The rest will just mix with the dirt."
As we followed the sheriff to his office, Jack whispered, "So that's how it feels to kill a man. Glad I didn't take the time to think about what I was doing. Just a reflex. Still, I'm glad I'm not in trouble. Wonder if Big Al has family who will mourn him?"
* * *
Four weeks prior to arriving in Nacogdoches, I rode to Jack's uncle's plantation to tell Jack about the slaughter at the Alamo. I knew Jack had returned to the plantation the previous evening after completing a land survey working with his cousin.
News of the Texans' struggle to rid themselves of Mexico reached Tennessee daily, and many, including Davey Crockett, had already made their way south to offer aid. The possibility for adventure had a strong pull on me, Jack, and our friends. We talked about joining the fight. Jack told me he took the step of accumulating letters of introduction from relatives and family friends who were personally acquainted with some of the leaders of the Texas insurrection. The letters included one from Gen. Andrew Jackson, whose sister was married to one of Jack's uncles on his mother's side. The hermitage was close to the plantation at Little Cedar Lick, Tennessee, where Jack was born. As a child, he spent many hours absorbing knowledge of horse breeding, military strategy, and, of course, politics from the childless Jackson.
"I'm on my way to New Orleans, Jack," I told him. "A company of volunteers is forming. I hear men from Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi are gathering there. Word is all we need to join up is a pistol, a knife, a rifle, and a good horse. As soon as enough men arrive, we're on our way to Texas. We'll make them Mexicans pay for what they done to the heroes of the Alamo. You in? I'm sure not going to miss out on this."
"I'm in, John. Give me some time to rustle up some supplies and gear, and I'll catch up to you on the road. I have to say goodbye to my family. Any of the other boys going?"
"Just me and you, so far, but I'm on my way to talk to Rory and Ian."
"It won't take me long to catch up. We're finally in for some excitement."
After a short talk with his aunt, uncle, sister, and little brother, Jack gathered some cans of beans and a cloth bag full of beef jerky. He packed the food in one of his saddlebags along with an extra shirt and his letters of introduction sealed in a waterproof pouch. He rolled up a heavy wool blanket and his rain slicker inside a canvas ground cloth and tied them behind his saddle. Caps for his rifle and pistols, along with gunpowder and shot, extra lead, and his shot mold, went into the opposite saddlebag. He took a gunnysack, half-full of a mixture of cracked corn and rolled oats, tied the opening of the sack with a leather thong, and hung the sack over his saddle horn.
He was barely fifteen when his father and mother died within a few weeks of each other. Their deaths left Jack's older brother, William; two younger sisters; and three younger brothers orphans. Jack, his sister Sarah, and his brother Robert, then only five years old, were sent to live with their mother's brother, Robert Cage. His uncle and aunt were kind people but already had a large family of their own. Jack soon decided he was a burden. His large extended family included a cousin who was a professional surveyor. Jack signed on as a chain boy. Within a few months, he had mastered the intricacies and math necessary to survey land and was running his own crew on subcontracts from his cousin.
Jack, Ian Fleming, Rory McCloud, and I were all born within six months of each other, lived in the same area, and were schoolmates. We arrived in New Orleans and found the company of volunteers headed for Texas. When the enlistments reached ninety, the company departed New Orleans, traveling on two steamboats up the Mississippi River and then overland to Nacogdoches. It wasn't until after we arrived that we learned of the Texans' victory at San Jacinto.
Because there was no fighting for us to do, most of the volunteers returned home. Jack and I decided to stay an extra day in Nacogdoches to talk about what to do next. Ian and Rory decided to return home, but Jack wanted to see more of Texas and I decided to stick with him. We saddled our horses and traveled to Washington-on-the-Brazos.
"This is the place where Texas declared its independence," said Jack.
"If you say so," I replied.
"I want to visit a man by the name of Isaac Donohoe. He's an old friend of my uncle Abner Cage. Lives not far from here on Clear Creek. We'll ask someone how to get there."
A gray-bearded man, his skin darkened by many years of exposure to the elements, was sitting on a straight-backed chair on the porch. He was leaning back against unpainted vertical lapboard siding, the front legs of the chair a full six inches off the rough wood floor.
"Mr. Donohoe, I'm John Coffee Hays. I have some letters for you from my relatives, including your old friend my uncle Abner, and from my grandpa. This here is my friend John Caperton."
The old man leaned forward, and the front legs of the chair hit the porch floor with a bang.
"Well, you boys get down from those horses and come inside. You're one of Elizabeth's boys, aren't you? Sorry to hear about your folks." He stood up but remained slightly bent over. He shuffled his legs to shake out the stiffness in his knees. "Come up, come up."
Donohoe looked back over his left shoulder at the open door to the house. "Sarah, have we got any lemonade left to serve these young men?"
"I'll make some fresh. You'll have to come inside for it, though. I'm not going to serve it to you."
Jack smiled at the exchange, dismounted, removed his battered hat, and ran his fingers over his matted-down hair. "My aunt told me you came here with Stephen F. Austin."
"Yep, that's God's truth. Texas has been good to me and mine. Why are you here, John Coffee?"
"My grandpa Hays nicknamed me Jack. That's mostly what I answer to."
"All, right, Jack it is. What brings you this far west?"
"I had hoped to kill some Mexicans, but it appears they are already beat — no army left to join."
"Not so, Jack. Gen. Tom Rusk is chasing the Mexican Army back to Mexico. Santa Anna got himself captured by Sam Houston, and I hear Rusk is now somewhere northeast of Goliad. If you find him, I'm sure he will welcome you."
"That's an interesting possibility," said Jack.
"Well, we'll find you both a bed for the night and some grub. You can rest your horses in the barn, and there's grain for them. You can stay as long as you like, but I expect you'll want to be off at first light."
"Yes, sir. Thank you for your hospitality. We'll go take care of our horses."
"You do that, boys. I'm going to catch up with my old friends from these letters you brought me."
He sat back down, leaned back in the chair, and opened the letter on top of the pile Jack handed him.
* * *
We rode into the main camp of the Army of the Republic of Texas in late May. After we explained we wanted to volunteer and had letters of introduction to General Rusk, we were escorted to the general's tent. We waited patiently outside until several officers exited, and then a sergeant showed us in.
The general was reading some documents. He did not rise or look up.
"General Rusk, my name is John Coffee Hays, and this is John Caperton. I have letters of introduction from Isaac Donohoe and Gen. Andrew Jackson."
Still without looking up or speaking, Rusk held out his left hand. Jack placed the two letters in his hand. Rusk leaned back in his canvas camp chair and unfolded the letters. He read through them quickly and then more slowly.
"Well, Mr. Hays, you seem to be quite an accomplished young man. According to these letters, an exceptional horseman, a crack shot with both rifle and pistol, and not afraid of a fight. I can use a man of your talents in my spy company. Mr. Caperton, do you have some letters?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Defender of The Texas Frontier"
Copyright © 2019 David R. Gross.
Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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