Nashville to Nacogdoches – April 1836
“Name’s Jack. Jack Hays.” The young man shouted, his high-pitched voice challenging the tavern noise. “I’m from Nashville.”
Jack Hays laid his room key on the bar and fingered a shot of whiskey. He’d pushed back the brim of his weathered, wide-brimmed hat so he could see the face of the taller man standing next to him. The owner of the Goins Inn and Drinking Establishment was fifty, maybe a little older, and he wore good city clothes, so he’d obviously made money in life. William Goins wasn’t White, but he wasn’t a Negro, either. Leastways not the kind Jack had known back in Tennessee. But the man did have kinky, sort of grayish hair, so there was some black blood in him from somewhere.
Goins was a Freeman, for sure. So why did he own slaves? Jack was pretty sure Mr. Goins was a slaver. One of the barefoot Negro boys in the man’s service had taken Jack’s horse down to the smithy just after he rode in. Clear as could be, Texas was new territory. Lots of surprises out here. Might be less people, but there were more kinds of them. Even the whiskey tasted different. Tennessee corn whiskey didn’t burn from gum to gut like this East Texas piss did.
The barkeep’s sunken eyes and thin lips had tired wrinkle lines all around. Jack had noticed that when the man was up close and pouring his first shot. Everybody else in the place looked weather-beaten and wore down, too. Sort of like those old oaks around his great aunt’s mansion back in Nashville.
The longer he stood at the bar rail, the noisier the place got. Jack chewed bits of buffalo jerky, sipped at a second whiskey and peered around the dimly lit saloon. William Goins, he’d said to call him Willie, leaned against the bar and surveyed his patrons. The tavern owner had kept his eye on that same table in the corner all night. Much of the loudest talking and commotion was coming from over there.
Three rough-looking men sat in the half-light of an oil lamp with a fourth hulking, barrel-chested fellow. The big man was standing now, pouring more whiskey. A scraggly, red beard covered the jaw of his large, pockmarked face. His soiled black mariner’s cap was pulled down hard, flattening a reddish, dusty mop of hair. A red-and-white bandana sagged around his thick neck. He’d jammed a massive flintlock pistol with a heart-shaped handle into his dirty shirtwaist. Wide, black suspenders over a half-open shirt strained against the weight of the pistol to hold up the man’s sagging, gray breeches.
The crowd and the racket made Jack a little jumpy. Open land and being outdoors alone was sure as hell better than this. He sipped his whiskey and listened to Goins try to talk past the laughter and shouting. From what Jack could make out, the big man in the corner was some Swedish drifter named Sven “Big Red” Olafsson. According to the proprietor, the Swede and his boys never caused the saloon any trouble and always had cash from somewhere. But they were known to be more than a nuisance to many of the good people of Nacogdoches.
“I just come here to Texas.” Jack Hays shouted, “Hoping maybe to help folks like Colonel Crockett and General Sam Houston have done.” He was getting hoarse trying to tell his story over the din. “Guess I missed the real fight’n. But as a fact, I’m on to find General Houston, wherever he’s at. Got the wants and means to be of help wherever I’m called on.”
Jack drew the front of his unbuttoned oilskin duster aside and patted a flintlock pistol in the waist of his leather leggings. He smiled at Willie Goins, his youthful grey eyes wide, but serious. He might have just turned nineteen, but Jack Hays hadn’t ridden all this way without purpose.
“Got a letter of introduction, too. For Gen’ral Sam.” Jack explained. “Letter’s from Mr., I mean President Andrew Jackson. He’s married to my kin, Miz Rachel Jackson. Maybe his say-so’ll be enough for the General, then I can stay a spell and sign on with the military.”
Goins stared at him. Was he doubting Jack’s story? The inn owner might’ve been ready to say something, but a gravelly snarl erupted from the Swede’s table in the far corner, hushing the tavern. A chair clattered to the floor. The big ugly one was standing, his sleeves rolled past his elbows and one hand on his pistol handle. He stretched out the other muscular arm and waggled a meaty hand in Jack’s direction.
“Hey Willie. Willie Goins. You gottdam’ half-nigger.” The Swede bellowed, “Why, I declare, you got a new little buddy there? Dat little shit gonna be new mascot for da bar?”
Olafsson was pointing his sausage of an index finger at Jack. The Swede’s boys chuckled, but no sound came from the rest of the smoke-filled room. Men stopped playing cards. Jittery. Listening. Waiting. Everybody expected the newcomer to respond. To say or do something. An ominous, stony silence hung over the place.
Jack turned from the bar to fully face Olafsson, then leaned back and took a deep breath. He pushed the brim of his hat further up to get a better look at the man. Damn near twice his size, by God. Jack’s long trail duster was still open so the Swede could plainly see his weapon.
Eyes narrowing, Olafsson howled, “Sonny! Oh, sonny boy, you got no gottdam business come in here with a gun like dat. You maybe hurt yourself.”
His mouth curled into a sneering smile. The Goliath stepped away from his table and ambled toward the bar. Jack hoped he signaled no hint of fear. Staring, he waited with both arms outstretched along the rail. The Swede was even bigger now that he was coming into better light.
“Mr. Hays. Uh, Mr. Hays, don’t mind Mr. Olafsson there,” Goins spoke up, waving one hand in the plodding Swede’s direction. “He’s somewhat the legend ’round these parts. He’s got Viking in his blood. Makes him want to take charge of everything and everybody.” Goins turned away from Jack and shouted toward the Swede. “Big Red, why don’t you just sit back down over there? I’ll have the barkeep bring you and your boys a round on the house.”
“Shut your hole, Willie,” Olafsson barked. “I maybe do that after I get me a look on baby boy’s flintlock. Don’t think he needs such big gun near bad as I do.” Olafsson patted his own pistol and growled. “Why…. Why, I bet his lil ass fly clean over da bar he try to shoot that thing.”
Olafsson, close now, whisked a broad knife from somewhere behind his back. Shit, the Swede was quicker than he looked. The point waved near Hays’ face. Jack flinched once, then took in the man’s every move. Couldn’t ignore that blade, even for a split second.
“Now come on, lil boy,” Big Red warned. “Gimme dat gun ’fore you get yourself killed.”
Jack kept his voice low and even. “Mister, you are truly about the ugliest, stinkin’est thing on two legs I ever laid eyes on. For sure, you’re the most ill-tempered.” He tipped his head in William Goins’ direction, then barked again. “I believe you owe Mr. Goins here an apology.”
The Swede’s left eyelid twitched over a bloodshot eye. He stepped back and lowered the knife. His pox-scarred brow wrinkled. Would the big man lunge or maybe slash at him? Hays tensed and touched his flintlock handle. He challenged the Swede again.
“As for me…. If you want my gun so bad, you’ll just have to take it.”
Now Olafsson’s ears turned crimson. He blinked rapidly, as if to clear some pesky gnat from his eyes. The man sure hadn’t been around this kind of backtalk. The giant’s breathing shortened as his chest heaved.
“And you?” Jack pressed on. “You with no more’n that ol’ dull knife you’re wavin’, and that sissy-man’s pistol stuck down where your balls oughta be? Well, that just ain’t gonna happen, now is it?”
Olafsson’s forehead flashed purple and immediately beaded sweat. He lunged and thrust the knife toward Jack’s throat while his other hand fished for Hays’ pistol. Jack parried the knife thrust and ducked to one side, drawing his flintlock in one fluid motion. He’d sidestepped Olafsson’s clumsy assault. Jack’s half-empty shot glass spilled whiskey across the bar and bounced to the floor next to the Swede’s still spinning knife. Jack now held the muzzle of his double-cocked pistol inches from the man’s meaty face.
The Swede, breathless, his crooked eyes bulging, slowly leaned back against the bar and clung to the brass rail. Jack Hays glared, his pistol closer now to the big man’s chin. That heart-shaped gun handle still stuck out of the Swede’s belt.
Two metal-on-metal clicks came from somewhere to Jack’s right. He glanced over his shoulder, then snapped back to Olafsson. No move. The bartender had aimed a double-cocked Kentucky long-rifle at the Swede’s accomplices. They stood ready with hands on undrawn pistols. Saloon patrons shuffled and scattered. Chairs clattered over as several men scuttered out. Others ducked down and lay flat, many hiding under their tables.
“Gentlemen, I reckon it’s time for you to head out.” Goins spoke up, glancing first at Big Red, then at his three comrades across the room. “No need to concern yourselves with settling up now. Just get-on gone.”
Big Red muttered something under his breath, maybe in Swedish. He bent and snatched at his fallen cap. Jack kicked the big man’s knife out of reach with one flick of his boot toe and moved the flint cock of his weapon to its safety position. Then he eased his sidearm back into his trouser waist. Had his attacker had enough?
Olafsson straightened. A one-sided grin warped his sweaty face. Damn, that big flintlock was now in one of his dirty, fat hands, a metallic double click and the muzzle pointed at Jack’s face.
Shoot the Swede or die.
In one lightning motion, Jack pulled his pistol, touch-fingered the trigger and stroked the filed-down flint cock with his other open hand. Noise. Thunder. A shattering crack-crack ripped through the tense, silent bar. Not one shot, but two.
Sparks, fire and smoke trailed the heavy, forty-four caliber ball from Jack’s weapon. Olafsson’s shot passed Jack’s ear and shattered bottles and a mirror behind the bar. Jack’s round slammed into the Swede’s barrel chest. The giant’s massive red head and heavy arms snapped forward. He was lifted from the floor and flung backward. His skull struck the floor first with a dull crack and splintered boards. His body thudded into a heap, scattering dust and board fragments.
The barman kept his rifle trained on Big Red’s boys. Silence. Jack Hays slowly lowered his flintlock, then turned and nodded a wordless apology to William Goins. He stared down at the big Swede. Blood from the chest wound pooled under his body, and wisps of smoke rose from scorch marks on Olafsson’s reddening shirt.
Murmurs broke the stillness, then the chatter of tavern patrons returned. Ale tins and whiskey glasses clinked. Men relit cigars. Some raised drinks or doffed their hat in salute to Jack. Big Sven Olafsson was dead. The man sure as hell wouldn’t bother anyone else.
Jack checked his pistol flint, then tamped black powder down the still-warm barrel and rammed a patch-wrapped ball home. He had to be reloaded and ready – could be more trouble soon. After one more quick look around and another nod to his host, Hays stepped away from the bar and strode the stairs two at a time to his room. Once inside, he turned the heavy iron key to lock the door and wedged a rough bench from the foot of the bed against the door handle. Jack sat on the bed and grappled with the reality of what he’d done. He was alive, but he’d just killed a man. Anyway, provoked or not, the bastard had aimed to do him in.
Jack let his breath settle to its natural rhythm. His ears were ringing. After a time, he stretched out with his boots still on and his reloaded flintlock close by. No sense being unprepared for a midnight encounter with Big Red’s boys.
“Last anybody saw of ’em,” William Goins bragged, “The Swede’s boys were high-tailing it down El Camino Real, looking for the fastest way out of town.”
Jack sat beside Nacogdoches Mayor Adolphus Sterne at breakfast and listened to William Goins recount the previous night’s events. The Mayor fiddled with his pocket watch. Hays sat silent and downcast, only half-listening. He’d barely slept, partly from fear, but mostly from remorse. Jack had been in fights plenty of times before – threatened by drunken Cherokees, facing down horse thieves and the like – but he’d never killed a man.
“Son, you must, and you will, get past this moment. Schnell, quickly.” Mayor Sterne declared in his distinct German accent. “Our town, all of us, we see you as…as some kind of liberator. Perhaps we can make you sheriff, no?”
The Mayor went through the insults and intimidations Big Red and his cohorts had put the good folks of Nacogdoches through over the last few months. Guess it was good riddance, as far as most were concerned. But Jack was not planning on staying around. He had to make General Sam’s acquaintance, maybe even join up with the new Rangers he’d heard about.
His second and last evening in town was “Jack Hays Night” at Mayor Sterne’s house. People said the place was the town’s finest residence, but the outside was just an ordinary white-framed structure with a long-railed porch. Inside was a different story. More than a hundred candles flickered in two crystal chandeliers suspended over a massive oak dining table. Oil paintings hung on every wall. Silverware, glass and fine china surrounded Jack at the table. More eating tools than he knew what to do with, really. Felt almost like he was back in Nashville at his Great Aunt Rachel’s mansion. But even there, when Andrew Jackson was home, he’d never seen this many happy people eating, drinking and celebrating.
After dinner, Jack sipped at a German brandy, so strong and acidic he needed ale to wash the stuff down. He half-listened to Adolphus Sterne’s speech. Something about him being the third Tennessean honored with an official dinner at the mayor’s residence. Jack was in good company. Congressman David Crockett and General Sam Houston had been the other two.
The next morning, Jack sat astride a fresh local mount, a mustang. Willie Goins had suggested he ride a smaller, faster pony out here on the frontier. Jack trotted along El Camino Real, headed west out of Nacogdoches. He wore new, knee-high black boots and slung a finely tooled pommel bag over the horn of his Spanish saddle – all gifts of Mayor Sterne.
Had the whole damned town turned out today? Hats, scarves and hands waved as the townspeople cheered and applauded. Jack tipped his freshly dusted hat to the crowd. His head hurt, probably from the brandy, but he smiled anyway.
Even though Jack regretted killing the big Swede, life felt pretty good right now. Big Red’s pistol ball that broke so much glass over Goins’ bar, the thing could have gotten him. But it hadn’t. Could life keep going that well?