City Jail

Green, Green Grass of Home - Elvis Presley

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June Bug Taylor

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Chapter One

It was the summer of 1867, and I sat watching as Grandpa Taylor was stropping his razor, preparing to shave before church that Sunday morning. I had just turned five, and even though I knew the answer already, I still had to ask the same question I had asked an untold number of times. “Paw Paw, when is Daddy gonna come home?”

The old man laid his razor down on the washstand, took a deep breath and said, “June Bug, like I’ve told ya before, I got no idee, not a clue. Last I heared, he was still a Yankee pris’ner up ta Camp Douglas. War’s been over for a long time now, an’ he shoulda been back already. But he ain’t here, an’ there ain’t a damn thing I can do about it.”

I sat back sullenly wishing I actually knew my father as something more than the photo of he and my mother that hung on the wall of our cabin. It was all I had of either of them; just that old, faded photograph.

My father had answered the call to war right after hostilities broke out, joining the Confederacy just a few miles from our small farm outside of Crockett, Texas. Grandpa Taylor said I was still in my mother’s belly. When I was just old enough to understand, Grandpa told me father had been captured early on in the war, sometime in 1862 in a place I had never heard of. That winter, both my mother and my grandmother became ill, and died, leaving Grandpa Taylor and I all alone, and I was just a baby.

It was a sweltering hot day, and the church was like an oven inside. I’m sure it was even hotter the way that preacher went on, but he finally gave up warning us of the plagues of sin when one of the women passed out from the heat. Grandpa and I had been invited to eat with one of the widow women who did their best to catch the old man’s attention, and he was busy trying to get out of it when I saw the thin, sallow skinned man dressed in a tattered uniform ride up to us on a skinny mule and fall out of the saddle right at our feet.

Grandpa stood looking down at the body, stunned into immobility, until he finally gasped and yelled, “Somebody get me some water! You men there, give me a hand getting my boy ta the shade!”

“Well, alright. But we’re just about ready to find a carriage for the ride into town, and I’d like to get him paid as well.”

Then he stooped down on one knee, tears streaming down his face as he lifted the man’s shoulders off the ground, and started speaking softly to him in a tone of voice I had never heard him speak. “Jesse, son, I been sa worried ’bout ya. Where ya been, boy? Ah, hell that don’t matter none, just so’s you’re home again.”

I was confused, as the man Grandpa was talking to didn’t come even close to resembling the picture of my father on the wall at home, yet Grandpa was calling him son, boy and Jesse, the name I shared with my father. Could it be? Was this shell of a man my father? He was so dirty, and looked so old and thin and frail. He had scraggly hair and a ragged beard, and only had one arm.

“June Bug, ya been askin’ when your daddy was gonna come home. Well, here he is, sho’ as my name is Zachariah Taylor. Damn, where’s that water?”

“Here, Zack. Here’s my jug,” Alton Simms said, handing Grandpa the gallon crock jug he was never without. “It ain’t water, but it’ll likely be what he needs right now.”

Grandpa pulled the cork with his teeth, spit it out, and then slowly tipped the mouth of the jug up to my father’s lips. My father sputtered a couple of times, and then seemed to want to suck that jug dry until Grandpa pulled the jug away. “Now, now, that’s ’nough for now, son. What you need is ta get ya some food in that belly o’ yorn.”

Handing the jug back to Simms, who had retrieved the cork, Grandpa just nodded. A large crowd had gathered around, and several women were offering to take care of him, but Grandpa shook them off, saying, “I’ll tend ta the boy my own self, thank ya very much.” Then, scooping the thin body off the ground, Grandpa said, “June Bug, gather up that mule an’ tie him off ta the back o’ the wagon whilst I put your daddy in the bed, an’ then let’s get for home.”

When I didn’t move immediately, he snapped at me, “Now, dammit. Get a move on!”

***

It took over five years for my father to finally shake off the effects of captivity and regain his weight, but the war never left him, not even for a moment’s rest. The only time he really looked at peace what when he was sitting on the ground talking to my mother at the foot of her grave. But that was also the time he often looked the saddest, and cried the hardest. Still, we grew closer as the years went by, as he tried to make up for the many years he had been away.

He learned to do most things with his right arm, but it was also about that same time that one of the things he did best with that arm was to tip up a jug of corn liquor. I should have tried to interfere, but Grandpa said that he’d put the jug back down in time, so I let it be.

But he didn’t put it down, nor did he put down his .36 Colt Navy. Instead of going to church with Grandpa Taylor and I, he would go off toward the end of the pasture and shoot until time to do the evening chores. The stump he used for target practice finally all but blew apart one Sunday afternoon after dinner, but he just switched stumps to shoot at.

The drinking got worse and worse, until he finally all but stopped eating, and no amount of prodding would get him to the table with us. Just after I turned sixteen, it had gotten so bad that we rarely even saw my father unless he needed money. Grandpa got kicked in the head by one of the horses, and I knew it was too late by the time I got the doctor to the farm.

By the time I got back from town, he was gone—still lying on the bed where I had put him after I found him in the corral. Father showed up a week later, smelling of cheap, rotgut whiskey, stumbling all over the place and demanding money. He didn’t take it too well when I turned him down, and then told him that if he wanted money he needed to sober up and help me with the farm now that his father was dead.

Apparently, the word of Grandpa’s passing hadn’t reached him until that moment, because he suddenly seemed to sober up, and all but fell into one of the chairs we kept on the porch. He sat silently for the next several hours, until after I finished the chores and had made something to eat. He waved off the plate I tried to hand him, but took the cup of chicory coffee, and three more cups over the next half hour.

Father did pretty good for about two years after that, only slipping off to town a couple of times, and not returning for about a week each time. But then the night tremors started working on him again as he relived every horror he had suffered at the hands of the Union prison guards in Camp Douglas.

That wasn’t the only thing that remained constant with Jesse Zachariah Taylor, Sr. He never skipped his Sunday target practice, no matter the weather, or how hot or how cold it was, and the only change was his retiring the Navy Colt in favor of a Colt Frontier in .44-40. He even talked me into buying one and learning to shoot it, though I preferred my Greener or my Winchester. But as I became more sure of myself, I started getting faster and faster, until I was half again faster on the draw than my father—who was pretty fast in his own right—and more accurate as well.

By the time I turned twenty, father had slipped away again, this time not coming home a week later as was his usual habit. I had done a good bit of trapping of anything I could find worth trapping, and had saved up enough to buy another forty acres next to our place. Eighty acres was too much farm for one man to handle, so I first turned half of it into pasture, and then let the whole place go to grass as the price of fat cattle made a lot more for me than trying to raise corn or cotton.

When father didn’t come home after a month, I got it into my head that I needed to find him and bring him home again. I hired the neighbor’s boys to keep an eye on the place, giving them a double eagle and telling them I had no idea when I’d be back. I saddled up my bay gelding the next morning and rode into Crockett, hoping to find him either in the hotel, the saloon, or in jail. No one had seen him for over two weeks, where Sheriff Bayne said he thought my father had ridden up to Grapeland to catch up with a war buddy.

I hadn’t planned on that, but figured I still had most of the day to get there, so I swung back up on the back of the bay and turned him north. Just south of Grapeland, I found my father’s sorrel gelding stripped down and grazing in a pasture. When I asked at the house, the lady didn’t seem to know where the horse had come from, or how he ended up in her pasture. All she could tell me was that the saddle and bridle were in the barn, and that I was welcome to take the horse. I did just that, finding his saddlebags, an empty scabbard, and his sougan still on the saddle.

I pressed the lady when she came to the barn to check on me, only to find out that she had lost her husband a week before, and that they had bought the place from the bank after it had been foreclosed on two weeks before that. I decided to try my luck in Grapeland, but all I learned was that the farm had belonged to a Jed Turner, the man my father had served and suffered with in Camp Douglas. Jed had apparently been unable to keep up the payments, and had ridden off with a buddy in his wagon. The man they described could have been none other than my father.

The man at the general store told me they had bought supplies, a couple jugs of whiskey, and talked about catching up with a friend from the war who now lived in Palestine. I followed suit, buying supplies, but skipping the whiskey, and started out for Palestine. I made it halfway to Elkhart before making camp, and then rode into Palestine the next day—only to find out I was a week behind them. The sheriff made certain to let me know that neither man was welcome back in his county again, and that if they ever showed up there again, he’d lock them up and throw away the key.

I pushed hard, knowing that I might have a chance to catch them in Athens, but I was three days behind them there. The sheriff of Anderson County said pretty much the same thing about the two men, now joined by a third and fourth survivor of the Camp Douglas POW camp and heading for Kaufman seeking some late revenge from a former guard who had been particularly vicious at the camp.

I rode daylight ’til dark until I reached Kaufman, and arrived just in time to catch up with the four men as they walked into The Biergarten. “Daddy, hold up there.”

“June Bug, what the hell are ya doin’ here? This ain’t no place for you, Now, g’won back home ’fore ya end up hurt.”

“Not unless you go with me, Daddy.”

“Can’t. Got business here. Business that’s been a long time brewin’, son.”

“And all four o’ you have the same business?” I pressed.

“Yup, we do. The feller with one eye,” he said, pointing to the man with a patch over his right eye, “that’s Jed Turner. He lost that eye at the Douglas prison. The gent missin’ his right leg just above the knee, that’s Curley Daws, who left his leg at Camp Douglas. An’ the other feller is Bob Caldwell, but Bob don’t talk these days. Not since they cut his tongue off up there in that hellhole. There was three guards that done this to us, an’ tried ta starve us ta death while they was doin’ it. Two of ’em is already dead, but the main guard is livin’ here in Kaufman now. An’ believe this ’r not, but he’s a deputy sheriff. Don’t matter. We’re here ta even the score, an’ I don’t want you ta get caught up in this mess.”

“No chance. If you don’t quit this an’ come home with me now, then I’m tossin’ in with ya.”

“Quit your damn yappin’, Jesse. If the boy is all ya say he is, let him stay. But let’s get the hell inside an’ get some grub ’fore that big sumbitch shows up an’ the fur starts flyin’,” Turner said gruffly.

Daddy waved me forward, so I tied off the two horses and stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the beer garden. Stepping through the doors, the smell of beer and sauerkraut hit me in the face like a hammer. Daddy grabbed me by the arm, yanking me toward the left side of the café and saloon, and shoving me into a chair at the corner table. As I sat down, Turner sat down on my left, while Caldwell and Daws sat opposite where Daddy and I sat with our backs to the wall.

A robust young woman with jiggly breasts came bouncing up to our table, and asked with a German accent, “You vant a pitcher o’ bier, ya?”

“Yeah, but ya best make it two pitchers ta start. Ya got any stew ’r the like?”

“Ya, ve got pichelsteiner. Ya each vant a bowl?”

“Yeah, all five of us.” After the waitress bounced away, Daddy focused his attention on me. “Son, why couldn’t ya just listen an’ get the hell out o’ here? I ain’t sure we’re gonna come out o’ this thing standin’ an’ I don’t want ya gettin’ hurt.”

“Well, like Paw Paw always said, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound.’ I’m stickin’, an’ one way ’r tother, you’re comin’ home ta stay when we leave here.”

“Then you need ta know, somebody is likely ta die tanight, an’ ya might have ta do some killin’ if ya plan ta walk away. While ya wrap your head around that, let’s enjoy this meal an’ the beer while we can. Hell, if he’s got the men I reckon he does, we might none o’ us come out o’ this thing alive. An’ ’fore the dance starts, we best fill ’em empty chambers, gents. Now let’s just relax an’ act natural. Here comes our beer.”

The top-heavy young waitress placed the German style mugs on the table, and started pouring beer into them, making certain to shove her breasts into the face of every man sitting there, and flashing a toothy smile as she did. A few minutes later, she came back with spoons and napkins, and yet another few minutes later she carried out the five bowls of stew balanced on a large tray, deftly landing each bowl on the table without spilling a drop.

“Der anytink else ya vant?” the waitress asked, smiling coyly as she pushed her shoulders back.

“No, not right now. But keep an eye on these pitchers, an’ if they run dry, fill ’em back up again, will ya?” Daddy asked.

“Ya, han’some, I’ll do dat,” she said with a wink before spinning and bouncing away toward the kitchen.

“Damn, Jesse, looks ta me like she’s set her cap for ya,” Daws chuckled, while Caldwell made what must have been intended as a laugh, but sound more like a gargle.

“Won’t do her no damned good, Curley. I reckon she’s more Bob’s style o’ woman, don’t you, Jed?”

“Naw, I think we ought ta sic her on this here boy o’ yours. Fix him right up, doncha think?”

“Sorry ta let ya down, Mr. Turner, but I don’t need fixed up. We walk out of this, I got my eye on a little gal I been going’ ta church with for the last dozen years—if she’ll have me. Now then, who wants to tell me what we’re up against, an’ give me the whole story o’ what went on up in Illinois?”

“Yeah, after we eat an’ have a few beers, boy, then I’ll tell ya the whole story. Includin’ how your paw kept us all alive up there in that Godforsaken place. But ya’d best eat now, ’cause I don’t reckon you’d be able ta eat once ya hear all the details,” Turner said.

“No, if anybody is gonna tell him, it ought ta be me, Jed.”

“Naw, ’cause you’ll leave out the part you played in it all, Jesse.”

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