Ashes on His Boot

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Finding General Sam - late April 1836

Jack pushed the new pony hard and rode southwest until a half moon rose in the evening sky. Days were already hot in Texas territory, but nights cooled down quickly. By the time Jack had eaten and bedded down, he needed his blanket and trail duster for cover.

His pony had watered back at a small stream. Now, tethered to a mesquite bush, the saddled animal nibbled sparse greens off the underbrush. Supper for Jack had been bull cheese and hardtack, and he washed it down with half his second canteen of water. No campfire. Might be warmer and drive off four-legged prowlers, but fires also attracted the unwelcome two-legged bastards.
Last evening, back in Nacogdoches, Adolphus Sterne had said General Houston would be somewhere in Washington town or nearby Nolansville. Jack would be riding again before daybreak, headed for Washington-on-the-Brazos. He aimed to find the General.
By mid-afternoon the next day, Jack tied his lathered mount to the rail in front of the Fanthorpe Inn, the main stagecoach stop on the outskirts of Nolansville. He’d ridden most of the way at a gallop. These mustangs didn’t need much caring for, and they sure liked to run. Jack’s pony could go further on less feed and water than any horse he’d ever ridden. Being small and slight of build himself, Jack reckoned he and his mustang matched up pretty good. Plus, he was born to run, too.
Hays, with his pommel bag slung over one shoulder, took three stairs in two strides onto the spacious, white-railed wooden porch. He pushed through the oak-and-glass front door of the inn. High ceilings trapped most of the spring heat in the gathering room. Hotter here than back home. Flies were already buzzin’ around. Heat wouldn’t keep him from his search, but the stickiness and damned flies were hard to ignore.
The staircases to the balcony at one end were curved and had steps covered in expensive-looking red carpet. Hadn’t seen anything like that since Nashville. A thin, spectacled girl in a pink-and-white dress sat at a small, cluttered desk shuffling papers. She neither acknowledged nor greeted him when he walked up. That loose dress and those white polkadots, now that reminded him of Aunt Rachel, for sure.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” Jack said, doffing his hat, polite as possible. “Name’s Hays. Jack Hays. I’m lookin’ for Gen’ral Sam Houston.”
The girl looked up and gave a one-sided sneer punctuated by several missing teeth. She said something, but her voice was weak and hard to understand. After some time and effort, she’d made it clear that Jack had to pay in silver coin if he wanted a night’s lodging. He obliged, and she handed over a heavy, worn key. The girl pushed her thick glasses further up her sliver of a nose and stared at Jack like he oughtn’t be there.
“Thar ye be. Y’all’s got a room. Got plenty anyways this time a year.” The girl spoke loud and slow, maybe to make sure he was listening. “And you? Best y’all hush up ’bout Gen’ral Sam. We don’t never tell nobody where he be.”
“Time-to-time,” she continued, “He stay with us here at the inn. I cain’t say he come ’ner gone a’ready, ‘cause you got no concern to be inquirin’. Less’n he knows you, ain’t likely to see you noways.”
Jack had had enough. Where the hell was the owner? Somebody more forthcoming and hospitable to a paying guest than this halfwit desk clerk? He persisted, persuaded. In the end, Jack prevailed on her to fetch the inn’s owner.

Jack followed the lanky, balding Henry Fanthorpe onto the wide veranda. A small, olive-skinned porter with a stained khaki apron struggled to keep up, then veered off down the front steps toward Hays’ pony. Fanthorpe led Jack around the east corner of the inn and continued along the side porch. Jack tried to adjust his eyes to the shade. A man sitting alone with one stretched leg stirred off in the distance.
The man’s black, bushy eyebrows widened and his forehead pushed into a scowl at Jack’s approach. The fellow probably would’ve rather been left undisturbed to enjoy the afternoon shade. He wore a dark blue military jacket trimmed in gold braid, unbuttoned and open to the heat. Underneath was a starched white shirt and black tie, and Jack now saw that the man’s outstretched leg favored a heavily wrapped ankle splint protruding from his gray military trousers.
“General Sam, this here’s a fellow Tennessean,” the innkeeper announced. “Name’s Hays. John Coffee Hays. Young man says he come all the way from Nashville and brought you a private message from President Jackson hisself.”
As best as he knew how, Jack Hays stood at rigid attention in front of the man he’d ridden weeks to meet. The General fixed his gaze on him for a spell, then un-furrowed his brow and dismissed Fanthorpe with a nod and the wave of an upraised hand.
Houston reached for a tin flask on the table next to him and took a long sip, grimacing all the while. The General was younger than Hays had imagined, but damn, he looked just as weary as everybody else in Texas. Had that ankle been hurt in the San Jacinto battle? What was in the flask? Whiskey? No, most likely laudanum - for the pain.

“Take it easy, boy,” Houston spoke, his voice both gentle and clear with authority. “You liable to pass out if you keep them knees locked together like that. Sit. Your ass ain’t too saddle sore to sit, is it?”
Hays snatched off his hat, opened his trail duster and hastened to a seat in the rocker next to Houston. He pushed with his boot heel and slid the rocker around some so he could see the General better. He tried to breathe. How had movin’ a chair gotten him this much out of wind?
“Now, let me see that paper you carryin’,” Houston ordered. “You claimin’ it was written by Andy Jackson?”
Jack fumbled and fished a thin, oilskin-wrapped packet out of his shirt. His fingers trembled when he handed over the pouch. He couldn’t remember ever being this nervous.
“You’re his wife’s kin?” The General asked. “Andy Jackson and Miz Rachel took you in as an orphan, that right?”
Hays nodded, still too hesitant to speak. Houston unfolded the packet and laid the oilskin wrapper aside. He studied the two papers. Sweat beaded on Jack’s forehead. He dabbed at it with a loose bandana.
Houston stared at Jack and grumbled, “Had some disagreements with Andy Jackson myself. Hard man to like sometimes.”
The General cleared his throat and began reading, first Andrew Jackson’s letter, then Adolphus Sterne’s glowing commendation. Hays shifted side-to-side, not at all comfortable. The chair squeaked with every move. He stopped moving and began rolling his hat brim with both hands, trying to collect himself. Houston quit reading and glared at him with one dark eyebrow raised.
“Sir, I,” Jack stammered. “I go by the name of Jack. Jack Hays, that is. I really appreciate…”
Houston waved his free hand and stopped Hays in mid-sentence. Agonizing minutes passed as Jack sat motionless and rigid. Eventually, Houston looked up and stared straight into Hays’ wide-open eyes.
“Sir, as you can see from… ” Hays managed to lower his voice a bit.
Houston waved again, one palm in the air that demanded silence. The General sipped from his flask and sighed. He rubbed his propped leg. Jack still couldn’t tell what happened to that ankle. Horse accident? Musket ball? Gout, maybe? Whiskey sure as hell wouldn’t help the gout none.
“Son, rest easy now,” Sam Houston said. “I already knew who you were ’fore I even read President Jackson’s letter.”
Houston smiled. Must’ve liked what he’d read. But he said he knew of him before. How? The General waved Nacogdoches Mayor Sterne’s letter in the air between them.
“Is this all true?” The General asked. “Did you actually do what Mayor Sterne says here you did?”
Hays nodded. The General shook his head and glanced down at the floor, then looked up and took another long, deliberate pull off his flask. Jack was expected to do more than nod now. He had to say something.
“Yessir, yes Sir.” Jack said, “Afraid so. Not much choice in the matter. That Swedish feller, he was wound up tight as a cheap watch. When I heard his flint cock set, I figured it was time I got to him ’fore he got to me.”
The General pulled a kerchief and wiped his brow. He looked Jack up and down then fixed unblinking eyes on the flintlock pistol stuck in Hays’ trouser waist.
“Everybody in town seemed right happy about how it all come about,” Hays went on. “Had a hard time gettin’ outta Nacogdoches. Lots of waves and smiles from folks,” Jack looked down at his new boots, still embarrassed, maybe a little ashamed of what he’d done. “And I got me a present or two from the Mayor to boot.”
“Jack Hays,” the General said. “Son, you might’ve got to Texas too late for the war with Santa Anna,” He rested a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “But there’s plenty of fightin’ left. We got Comanche, we got highwaymen, common horse thieves and the damnable Mexicans. Hell, even el Henerale Santa Anna, before all’s said and done.”
Hays’ steel-gray eyes locked on Houston’s. Was he about to get a lecture on fightin’? Or maybe the General did have a real job for him.
“I want you and me to sit down tonight.” Houston stretched his leg. “We’ll talk about it all at supper. I got somethin’ in mind for you that’ll be just what you come to Texas for. I’m eatin’ early, though. Come down to my table ’bout sunset, all right?”
Hays nodded agreement and stood, sensing he’d been dismissed. Jack finally felt his body relax. Sure had been nervous about his first meeting with General Sam Houston.

Hays trailed the waiter over to the General’s table on the other side of the small dining room. Sam Houston sipped at his tin of ale and motioned Hays into the chair opposite him. A full ale sat on the blue-and-white checkered tablecloth at Jack’s seat.
Hays hung his gray hat on his chair post, then sat and turned to face his host. Houston lifted his ale tin and looked Jack in the eye. A toast. Jack raised his tin mug in a return salute. The brew was bitter, but at least it was cool. Jack drank deeply before he put it down. Damn, he had a powerful thirst. Been through a lot to get to this moment.
A heaped pile of chitlins scrambled into eggs was put in front of Jack, along with corn grits, bitter steamed greens and thick slabs of toasted bread. General Houston stirred a spoon of molasses into his grits. Houston’s idea of supper seemed more like a Tennessee country breakfast, not the evening meal Hays had expected. But he ate and sipped, and he responded when addressed.
Houston warned him between forkfuls about drifters, highwaymen, Indians and Mexicans. For strangers, best shoot first and talk later was his fork-waving advice. Jack listened to the General’s pointed, colorful commentary, mainly about war with the Mexicans and problems with Indians. Through the whole evening, the man hadn’t gotten out that small medicine flask. Why not?
The General finished off his second full plate, then wiped his chin and peered into his empty ale tin. A bony hand went up to signal the waiter. Houston bent down stiffly, reached into a heavy, well-worn leather case on the floor beside him, and drew out Hays’ oilskin letter pouch, along with a scrawled sheet of paper.
“Jack Hays,” Sam Houston said, handing him the pouch and paper. “This here’s my personal order to you, plus your letters from Gen’ral, er, President Jackson and Mayor Sterne. You do read awright, don’t you, son?”
Hays nodded and took the packet. Sure he could read and write. After all, he’d been trained for land surveyin’ back home.
Houston went on. “Well, all my scribblin’ says you are to proceed on to Goliad, Texas tomorrow. Little over 200 miles of hard ridin’, mostly south a’ here. Once there, you’ll report to Lieutenant Deaf Smith of the Texas Rangers.”
Hays took it all in, straight-faced. Inside, he felt the adrenalin rush. The excitement. He’d made it. Jack was joinin’ the fight.
“Lieutenant’s real name’s Erasmus, but we call him Deaf. Some boys say Deef.” Houston intoned, his voice full of emotion and respect. “He cain’t hear goddamn thunder no more. He was a sapper for me in the war, and a damn good one.” Houston used his bandana to wipe his face. “Lit one too many kegs ’a black powder, I reckon.”
Black powder? Went deaf? Strange way to fight a war. It was one thing to get bad ears from cannon fire, but settin’ off black powder close by, that was crazy.
“Helluva fightin’ fellow. But ol’ Deef’s headin’ a burial detail right now.” Houston looked down. “More’n three hundred good men murdered by that little Mexican bastard, Santa Anna.”
Hold on. Wait a minute. This didn’t sound like fighting. Not how Jack had pictured his first duty in Texas. Was he headed to a Ranger unit run by a deaf man to do nothing but bury a pile of dead folks?
“Mexicanos burned the bodies. Left ’em stacked like firewood outside town. Worse’n the damned Comanche. Both of ‘em, Comanche and Mexicans, ain’t nothin’ but enemies. Enemies of Texas.” Houston brightened, then finished, “Goliad. Fort Defiance. It’ll be your first assignment. I expect, though, you’ll find more to do than just bury folks. Leastways our folks, before long.”
General Sam Houston stood, a little unsteady at first. Dinner and the briefing were done. Hays bolted up from his seat and hurried to aid Houston, as did the waiter, but the General waved them off and straightened, erect and soldierly.
Favoring his bad ankle, Sam Houston fetched his white hat from the chair post. He gripped the ornate wood-and-silver cane and adjusted the brim of his hat, ready to leave. Jack turned and faced the General, having to look up a bit to be eye-to-eye.
“General Houston,” Jack spoke, thoughtful. “I am much in your debt for dinner and all. And for the Rangerin’ order, too. You can be sure I’ll do my part and more.” Hays extended his hand. “I’ll represent the Rangers well, whatever I’m called on to do. You don’t have to worry ‘bout me and fightin’.”
Hays kept his eyes on the General. Sam Houston took Jack’s hand and smiled. The General had long, thin hands with a lot of callouses. Jack Hays couldn’t tell from the handshake just what the General thought of him. Didn’t matter much, though. The evening was over, and Jack Hays was now a Texas Ranger by personal order of General Sam Houston. He couldn’t ask for more than that.

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