Ashes on His Boot

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Colonel Hays goes to Washington - February 1847

Bone tired, Jack Hays stepped down the gangway of the side-wheel steamship that had docked at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River port barely an hour earlier. He’d been on coastal steamers and riverboats for more than a month since boarding in Galveston just after Christmas. Jack wore his heavy canvas duffel across his back, bandolier style. A ship’s porter followed Jack with his leather valise. The red-and-yellow sign on the building across the street read, “Butterfield Coach Lines, 100 Duquesne Way,” Jack’s next transport point.

Back in December, Governor Henderson had ordered him east for a private meeting with President James Polk and testimony before Congress. Texas needed more resources to wage the war with Mexico. To the Governor’s way of thinking, Jack was a war hero, the right man to ask for the money, even though he’d gotten that ass-chewing and official reprimand from General Taylor the year before.
The wind stung Jack’s cheeks and made his eyes water. He took his valise from the porter, crossed the street and pushed his way into the Butterfield Coach Lines’ waiting area. Two hours later, chewing a string of beef jerky and holding a tin of strong coffee, he stepped into the cold again and boarded a chartered coach for his five-day trip from Pittsburgh to Washington. Secretary of State Burnet had arranged the private transport.
The red-lacquered Concord Celerity coach was the latest design. A thorough leather-suspended cabin, insulating curtains and wide axle stance promised stability and comfort for the rough terrain ahead. A double-layered canvas top made the coach lighter on the road than any Jack had been on in Texas. This was transportation well suited for mountain roads in winter. Jack tinkered with a seat back strap and found that the Celerity’s cabin also had a fold-down pair of padded seats for sleeping. His coach ride into Washington should be a more comfortable end to the long trip than he’d expected.

Four days and nights on the Old Washington Road brought Jack to his last morning of swaying in the coach cabin. Only twenty more miles to Washington. Jack stared out the window at the passing landscape. The snow had vanished now that they were down out of the Allegheny highlands. Sunshine warmed his coach, and horses romped in a muddy pasture close to the road. Jack stretched his legs and yawned.

The easy sway of the carriage and seeing the horses caused Jack to reflect. Weeks had passed since he’d been on his pony, even longer since that confrontation with General Taylor. Had the General been right? Were Jack and his Rangers the lawless killers that Taylor had insisted they were? Was Jack Hays just another barbarian, a savage like Buffalo Hump? For that matter, was the Comanche Chief truly a savage and as evil as most Texans thought he was?

The fresh four-horse team clattered across a wooden bridge and the stagecoach jostled, tossing Jack side-to-side. The noise and abrupt movement brought back the reality that he would soon arrive in the Nation’s Capital. Jack was about to romp in the mud of Washington politics and hear the clatter of the nation’s politicians. His rangering experience and military expertise would probably be of little use in Congress Hall. One thing was certain. He’d know soon.

The Willard Hotel, a block from the White House, was as grand as he’d been told, even if the establishment was cobbled together out of six homes. Jack stared up at the massive lobby columns, then over to a winding, red-carpeted staircase that appeared to go nowhere. Lot of money must’ve gone into fixing the hotel up, but for some reason, the effect made him uneasy. No matter, the Willard was where he’d been told to stay.
Jack registered without incident, then hustled to catch up with the hotel porter and his bags. He’d need to dig into his duffel and valise as soon as he could to find the damned new clothes and the bowtie Susan had so carefully done up for him. Jack couldn’t be late for his appointment with President Polk and dinner at the White House tonight.
Inside his hotel room, his nervousness grew. Dark and heavy velvet curtains blocked the light, and some kind of newfangled indoor privy with a copper bathtub loomed behind a set of towering open double doors. The bed covers were slick and shiny, and the bed was even bigger than the one in Susan Calvert’s family house back in Seguin. So different. So damned fancy. Not sure he could sleep in a place so free of grit.
A big oak footlocker sat at the foot of the hotel bed. At least that thing was practical. Jack could lock his pistols and ammunition inside, even his pommel bag. Couldn’t wear those Colt pistols to the White House, and he didn’t need to take money along. Damn, he’d be meeting the President and the First Lady. Should he take her something? Flowers? A bottle of good champagne? A little late to be thinking of presents. Getting dressed and ready would take all his time between now and his dinner appointment. He hoped he wouldn’t sweat through his clothes before even setting foot in the White House.

Two hours later, Colonel Jack Hays walked the short distance down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. He felt stiff as hell in his new black trousers and white shirt with bow tie, and the dark gray vest and cutaway black jacket made him feel uncomfortably decorative. Jack was bare headed, the only man on the path not wearing some kind of hat or cap for the February night. His head wasn’t cold, but his feet hurt, thanks to the damned five-eyelet brogans Susan had insisted he wear. How in the hell did people walk in those things? Jack would throw ’em away when this trip was done, for certain. His old high top trail boots were a lot more comfortable.

The White House towered in front of him in the gathering darkness. Was that President Polk himself standing at the top of the steps and waving? Must be Missus Polk standing beside him. The Hermitage back in Nashville was big, but this White House? My God, what a mansion. Hard to believe the damned British had put the torch to the place when Andrew Jackson had been a general in the Army. He’d sure as hell paid them back for that deed down in New Orleans.

“Colonel Hays! John Coffee Hays,” President James Polk bounded down the stone steps shouting. “Welcome to Washington and the White House. Come on up here and meet Sarah.”

Jack Hays shook the President’s hand and strode up the steps behind Polk onto the wide, two-story veranda. Damn, Jim Polk was about the same size and build as him. Shorter than most men. Good. But the olive-skinned woman waiting near the entrance was much taller than him and the President. Willowy and aristocratic. Even her smile was intimidating.

“Colonel Hays,” the President spoke. “This is the First Lady, my wife, Sarah Childress Polk.”

Jack took Sarah Polk’s soft fingers and bowed just enough. Not much time in the kitchen or garden with those hands. He looked up. Sarah Polk had to be almost six feet tall and as dark as Emily West. God, the thought of Emily had come to him again. Why was it always Emily in his head and not Susan? After all, Susan was his fiancé.

Sarah Polk had her dark hair parted in the middle and let ringlets dangle around her ears. She wore a perfectly tailored lavender evening gown. The overall effect was striking, if not a little arrogant. Sarah Childress Polk was American royalty, and Jack felt somehow common.

“Good evening, Colonel Hays.” Sarah Polk’s voice matched her velvet handshake. “I am honored to meet the man that James says is single-handedly taming the Western Indians and vanquishing the Mexicans. Bravo.”

A familiar heat crept up under Jack’s shirt collar. He simply could not abide such flattery, especially from the wife of the President. Some kind of stupid grin crossed his face before he could even consider a proper response. President Polk intervened. He ushered the First Lady and Jack through the open doors and toward a first-floor dining room.

Once inside the massive eating space, the President gestured with one hand to Jack’s chair at the long table. A fancy, gold-colored, velvet-cushioned seat beckoned, but Jack stood until James Polk had helped his wife to her place.

“Please, Colonel Hays,” the President said. “Be seated and welcome. Secretary of War Bill Marcy will join you and me after dinner for a brandy. But first, I wanted the three of us to have some time alone. Talk about Tennessee and Texas. Secretary Marcy can sometimes dominate an evening.”

Jack nodded to the President and his wife and took his seat at James Polk’s right side, across from Sarah Polk. The three sat around the end of the long table. Lots of plates, glasses and silverware in front of Jack. A big vase of mixed flowers stood far down in the middle of the linen-decked table. Could’ve had another nine or ten people sitting around, if they’d been invited. Jack marveled at the gold and porcelain chandelier, matching gold-trimmed white draperies, and the long, ornate mahogany sideboard where the first part of their meal was laid out. He wished he had a drink….ale, whiskey, anything to sooth his travel weary nerves.

A simple nod from James Polk brought liveried Negro waiters – must be freemen, not slaves – to the sideboard. They moved with almost military precision, bringing the evening meal to the table. An array of meats, sauces, vegetables and breads quickly spread out before Jack. A hell of a dinner. Best looking meal he’d seen since the Calverts’ spread last Christmas.

The Polks offered him well water and unfermented apple cider, but no ale. No wine or whiskey, either. Sarah Childress Polk had already explained at some length that she was against people drinking alcohol. Good Presbyterian upbringing. Jack would have to wait for a real drink until the meeting with Secretary Marcy.

“Mr. President, Missus Polk,” Jack said over dinner. “Texas is sure a long way from Washington. Coastal steamers and river boats and a rough coach ride. I’m proud to be invited and to make your acquaintance. Governor Henderson extends his regards. He says you ought to visit him and Miz Henderson in Austin, just as soon as we can get this pesky war with the Mexicans behind us.”

Sarah Polk raised one eyebrow at the suggestion of a Texas visit. She’d probably never set foot west of the Mississippi. Just not her style. The President nodded wordlessly and waved to the chief steward for the next course. James Polk was not getting into this conversation.

President Polk didn’t say a lot through the whole meal, just tried to emphasize that settling the West was the right of Americans. What God had intended. Jack had heard that argument years before from Andrew Jackson back in Nashville. Something politicians these days called Manifest Destiny. How the hell did they know what God wanted? Probably the Comanche and even the damned Mexicans had their own idea about The Almighty’s intent.

Sarah Polk kept interrupting Jack’s eating with questions, more of an inquisition than her husband’s sparse pronouncements. She wanted to know all about San Antonio, the Rangers and the Comanche. And Sarah Polk knew a lot about the Mexicans, almost as much as Emily West did. Missus Polk was probably the kind of wife who gave her husband too many unsolicited opinions. How many of her recommendations had the President ever taken seriously? Jack, on the other hand, had welcomed advice from Emily West in tough situations. Not so much from Susan, though. Susan had little use for politics or war. What would she have to offer in matters of life and death…or Manifest Destiny, for that matter?

All in all, the damned dinner went on a little too long, but Jack did his best to be sociable. He answered questions polite as he could and smiled a lot, probably too much. Finally, the First Lady took her leave. Despite feeling the need for sleep, Jack followed the President into a drawing room for a cigar, finally some brandy and the promised meeting with William Marcy.

With his stern, ruddy countenance framed by curly black hair and well-trimmed sideburns, Bill Marcy looked every bit a Secretary of War. His round, chattering head was punctuated by a pair of well-fed chins that jiggled over a too-tight white collar and black tie. The man paced the drawing room floor on short, bowed legs, puffing at his cigar and giving a briefing on what to expect when Jack presented the Texas request for war money to the joint congressional session. President Polk sat without interrupting, smoking his cigar and sipping brandy.

“Colonel, tomorrow won’t be pretty,” Marcy opined through the smoke. “Whigs are against the war. We’ve the votes to override them, but their representatives will have their say. One in particular, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, he’ll do his best to rile you up. Let him rant, but stick to your message.”

James Polk echoed the words of William Marcy at the end of the late evening meeting. Jack hadn’t needed that last brandy, considering his lack of sleep and all the traveling he’d just done. Maybe the President and Secretary Marcy saw that he was beat down and needed rest. For whatever reason, they bid Jack a good night and let him take leave for the cold walk back to the Willard Hotel.

Jack’s breath clouded the midnight Washington air as he stepped briskly along the gaslit path. What could he expect tomorrow? He’d be facing professional politicians. And if the national congress was anything like the Texas legislature, most of them would be loud-mouthed, ass-covering simpletons. Too bad he couldn’t strap on his Colt repeaters for the session.

The next day, Jack stood nervously to one side of the massive oak-framed entryway to Congress Hall, the US House Chamber. Noisy, pale, mostly bearded, surly men in dark suits filled the room to capacity. They waved hands filled with papers and gestured, pointing fingers and pursing lips. Some shouted to be heard above the din. A haze of tobacco smoke hung heavy over the milling crowd. Jack had been with politicians before, but never with this many at once, and not in any group of sober men who were so unruly. At least not indoors. Not even in Texas.

In the midst of the commotion came a steady hammering. A repeated rapping of wood on wood from the frizzle-haired man with a gavel, Vice-President George Dallas. Jack had eaten breakfast with him earlier at the hotel. The Vice-President now stood frowning behind his desk on the raised platform behind the podium. Younger Senators and Congressmen strutted toward their seats, the older ones hobbled. The Whigs shuffled to one side of the aisle, Democrats took seats on the opposite side. The noise died down enough so Jack could hear individual voices. He recognized only one man in the crowd – a tall, sad looking young lawyer from Illinois. Everybody knew Abraham Lincoln.

President Polk stood at the podium and introduced Jack Hays with a bunch of flowery language about being a genuine hero, the man who’d built the Texas Rangers into a legend. Applause started, louder from the Democrats’ side than from the Whigs. Heat flooded into his face and neck. Jack was reddening again. Damn, he hated all this attention. Why couldn’t these people just pay for the guns and enough men to beat the damned Mexicans without him having to deal with all this politicking? Pretty simple, truth be told. Not worth a long trip from Texas to Washington for anybody.

After some final whistles, a few shouts and a “whoopee” or two, the applause died down. Jack Hays shook James Polk’s hand and took his place behind the wooden podium. He laid out his scribbled notes, short of breath and patience. Dammit all, he needed to be calm to make his case. His nerves were on edge, but not the same sort of feeling as going into a firefight. This was different. Nobody was trying to kill him, but somehow these men were threatening all the same.

How to begin? Jack looked over the audience, still collecting his thoughts. One steely-eyed, hawk-faced congressman on the Whig side glared at him and stood up. The man pocketed his eyepiece, about to speak. The President and Secretary of War had said last night Jack had best be ready for anything. So now would he be attacked before he’d even made his case?

“Colonel Hays,” the man spoke through thin lips, a glint in his eye. “I am Daniel Webster from the great state of Massachusetts. I dare say the President has directed you here to ask for more money and more men to pursue a second diabolical war against Mexico.” Webster took a breath. “Though you are but the simple instrument of his perfidy, I must inform you, clearly this is an unconstitutional war of aggression begun by your Republic of Texas and now forced upon these United States.”

Hoots and angry shouts erupted from the Democratic side, loud applause and stamping of feet from Whigs. Jack Hays took in the spectacle. War of aggression? How the hell would this man, Webster, know who the aggressor was? He’d probably never been west of Pennsylvania, if even that far. The enemy had attacked United States citizens in Texas. They had to be put down.

The gavel hammered behind him, the Vice President pounding for order. Quiet returned to the gathering. Jack took a couple of deep breaths and his heartbeat slowed.

“Mr. Senator…Mr. Webster, is it?” Jack said evenly and returned the senator’s glare. “Smart men like us, we usually avoid saying stupid things. But we do make mistakes, sir, and you’re damned-sure makin’ one now.”

Scattered “aye’s” of approval and applause, this time from the Democrats’ side, rumbled through the chamber. Whigs booed and hooted. Again the Vice President gaveled for order. Jack Hays smiled, close-mouthed, and waited. Daniel Webster, red hair matching his flushing cheeks, was not done.

“All merely a thinly-veiled disguise by this President, sir.” Webster retorted, looking first at Jack, then at James Polk. “Mr. Polk would illegally maintain land seized from Mexico, subdue the native Indians and expand Negro slavery throughout the West.”

Louder responses of support for Webster came now from the Whig side of the aisle. The senator remained on his feet facing Jack. The Vice President’s pounding gavel cut through the din. The assembly came back to order in fits and starts. Jack pondered his next remarks. He’d had quite enough of Senator Webster already. The fight in Texas was over the issue of the United States territory being violated by a foreign power and had nothing to do with Negroes or slavery.

“Nobody,” Jack objected. “Not Mexicans, not Indians…nobody’s got any more right to Texas territory than we do, Senator. Comanche kicked the Apache’s asses and took their homeland. And the damned Mexicans?” Jack frowned and snarled. “Hell, they just come up and invaded everybody. Whites, free Negroes, Indians, Spaniards, folks from the Canarys. Didn’t matter to the Mexicans. You didn’t see that stack of more’n four hundred rotted Texas men piled up on the road outside Goliad. I did. I helped bury ’em. From the Alamo and Goliad on, Santa Anna and his damned Mexicans have broken every peace. They’ve killed everybody that’s gotten in their way, and they’re still killing, too. That’s why I’m here.”

A shuffling of feet. Men shifted in seats, but little more. No shouts or interruptions came from the assembly. Mostly quiet now. Matters had gotten serious. Jack stared at Daniel Webster until the Senator sat down. Jack glanced down at his notes. Not much he’d written would help from here on in. These people, Webster and his lot, were comfortable in Washington and had no idea what he was up against out on the frontier.

One row away on the Whig side, another man, much older than Webster, struggled out of his chair before Jack had collected his thoughts. The congressman couldn’t quite straighten up, so he rested one gnarled hand on the rail in front of him. White, thick hair topped the old man’s head and ran down his jaw to his jutting chin. His jacket was rumpled, and the fellow appeared to be short of breath.

“Colonel, I…I’m John Quincy Adams,” The speaker stuttered, trembling on the rail. “Are you not the grand nephew of…of Rachel Jackson,” Adams coughed into a kerchief several times, “the wife of that scalawag? That slave owner? That Negro hater and murderer, Andrew Jackson?”

Adams’ words brought stirrings back to the assembly. The old man coughed again into a second kerchief, then put his gnarled hands to his neck in a single, dramatic motion. Was the old man choking?

“I dare say, Colonel Hays,” John Adams tried to shout, keeping his hands at his throat, “that, for many of General Jackson’s and…and your reputed escapades, we’d have seen fit to hang you both in Massachusetts!”

So this was “Old JQ.” Andrew Jackson had told Jack about him. He had defeated Adams when the man ran for a second term back when Jack was a boy. A goddamn pacifist was how Jackson had described John Quincy Adams, and a man who’d given too much away to the British after the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson had never forgiven Adams for that.

Jack inhaled and folded his notes. He wouldn’t need them today. Instead, he’d set the record straight, once and for all. This coward, John Quincy Adams, had insulted him and the man who’d taken Jack in as an orphan, his great aunt’s husband and a national hero. Not gonna let him get away with that. Besides, Jack was no stranger to ass-chewings. General Zachary Taylor had given him a fine one, but at least he’d earned that reprimand. This was quite another matter, one of honor.

“Mr. Senator. Er, President Adams, I reckon. All respect, sir.” Jack kept his voice even. “Nobody told me that President Jackson or myself would be accused of being criminals when I was invited to Washington. Is that what you’re saying, sir? Me and President Jackson are nothin’ but common criminals?”

A stony silence fell on the Congress Hall. Jack scanned the gathering, then returned his attention to Adams. Jack pointed a finger at his adversary, who leaned more on the rail for support.

“Senator, I ain’t on trial here,” Jack said. “Not me, and not Andrew Jackson, neither. Even you can see that much. General Jackson fought, died and was buried with honor. He was a true patriot. And as for me, if you want me hung, you’d best come to Texas and do your goddamndest, because I got no plan to ever come up to Massachusetts.”

Laughter rippled through the Democratic side. Jack even got a few smiles from silent Whigs. Not as many folks in old John Q’s camp after all, it seemed. Jack relaxed some. He had enough support to go on.

“Now about Negro people and slavery,” Jack still eyed John Adams. “I care not a whit about a man’s color, just long as it’s not yellow. Ain’t no yellow cowards workin’ for me. We got Reds, Whites, a few Browns, maybe a Chinaman, and a few‚ I-don’t-know-what’s’ in Hays’ Rangers. But none…not a damn one of ’em is a slave or indentured servant. They all fight hard for this country, and we pay ‘em all the same fair wages. Long as they still breathin’.”

Louder chuckles came now from both sides of the legislative chamber. John Quincy Adams trembled, but remained on his feet, swaying and gripping the brass rail. He wagged one long finger in Jack’s direction.

“Colonel Hays.” Adams got his voice back, louder. “Andrew Jackson was a shameless slave owner and a dueler. And you,” his voice quivered, “You needed no more than slight provocation, I’m told, to…to gun down a hapless drunk Norwegian in a bar fight.”

Noise and shouting erupted again. Jack put up his hands. The gavel behind and above his head echoed through the legislative chambers. Hard to believe that these men, especially this old bastard, had ever been voted into office by reasonable people. And who the hell had told Adams the old Nacogdoches bar fight story anyway?

“Congressman, let me set you straight,” Jack snarled, “It was a god-damned Swede I killed in Nacogdoches, not a Norwegian. And the bullying bastard had it coming. Just like the Mexicans do now.”

Men stood and applauded, whistled and stamped to thunder their agreement. The Vice President pounded his gavel. Jack waited until the noise from both sides of the aisle had died down.

“You want to talk about killing?” Jack went on, pointing a finger at Adams. “I said it already, and I’ll say it again. Santa Anna’s the Goliad killer. He’s the Alamo murderer. Santa Anna’s the real criminal this body ought to bring to justice. General Houston in Texas, Andrew Jackson when he was President, maybe some of you in this room…all of you trusting that sonofabitch, Santa Anna. You made a terrible mistake! Now just give us the goddamn money and we’ll finally deal with him and his whole bunch. We’ll keep the great state of Texas for America.”

This time the applause was disciplined, respectful, and came evenly from both sides of the aisle. Jack wiped his brow. Wasn’t exactly what he’d written in his notes, but maybe he’d done the job anyway.

It was damned hot in this meeting room, especially for February. Jack mopped his forehead again and gave a quick bow to the remaining applause. The men in the room stood and echoed words of support and encouragement. Anybody in Congress that didn’t want war with Mexico was overruled today.

John Adams was not up to any further sparring. He’d sat down, the only one left seated, the old geezer. It appeared as if the Rangers and the Army would get the money they needed to finish the job. Meanwhile, these congressmen could stay here, fat and happy in the Capitol, and argue shit that didn’t matter none.

Jack Hays snatched up his papers and strode off the platform toward the Congress Hall doorway. Spring would probably come to Texas before he could get home, and he had a woman there who needed tending to. And by God, some unfinished business with Mexico.

President Polk hastened alongside him and pumped Jack’s hand hard with a tight grip, trying to hold him fast and keep him in the meeting room. But Jack broke away with a smile and a terse farewell. He pushed past the sergeant-at-arms and into the hallway, the thunderous sounds of Congress Hall and good wishes quickly fading behind him. Jack had done all he cared to do in Washington. No reason to tarry where he didn’t belong. He had to get to his hotel room and pack up.

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