Jack — or “Old One Eye”

The long rays of a bright winter sunset shone through a very dusty, cobwebby windows in the basement of a large bank barn upon a very young girl who wore an old-fashioned quilted hood and a man’s coat. With milk pail in hand, she was leaning against a cow she was about to milk and watching, with questioning wonder, the scene the brilliant light so strongly illuminated. A long line of cows were quietly munching their feed in the stancions behind her. In a temporary pen directly under the window stood a very sorry-looking old horse — flea-bitten. One eye was dripping pus from its empty socket. A very large bearded man, dressed in rough but warm clothing was holding a bucket of warm mash temptingly to the horse’s nose. The poor animal was doing his best to please the man by slobberingly tasking the mash which it was evident he did not want. the girl had many times known that this man put sick or disabled animals out of their misery with a pistol which at the moment was lying on the work bench in the shop on the floor above. Why was he taking so much pains with this sorry beast? The question came at once, the for the girl was used to ask many of this man — her father – and always received ready answers.

“What are you doing, Papa?

“Trying to get Old Jack to eat. I am afraid he is going to starve to death. He has no teeth you know.”

“Why don’t you shoot him?”

The man’s keen blue eyes filled with quick tears, “Oh No! I could not kill Old Jack. He went all through the Army with me.”

The girl stood silent for a moment watching the man and the horse. Then the question, “What is the matter with his eye?”

“It was shot out by a bullet and I guess it is going to kill him at last.”

This answer apparently satisfied the girl and she took her place on the one-legged stool she held in her hand and proceeded with her job.

It may have been one or several days after this the girl was sitting in the living room of their home with her feet on the hearth of an old-fashioned box stove watching a swirling snowstorm through the double window before which her mother sat busily writing in a large book. It was to be the very last entry this woman was to make in her journal which she had so faithfully kept for twenty years.

The stove had been gradually getting to a glowing red and the woman asked the girl to close the draft. She stooped over and did so, and as she raised her head, she saw that her mother was crying as she wrote. Again came a childish question, “What is the matter, Mama?” Hastily the mother brushed away the tears as though half-ashamed of them and answered, “Old Jack is dead.” Again the room is quiet and the storm outside — which is the reason of the girls absence from school — holds her attention. Directly a large figure passes the window and in a few moments the father enters with an armload of wood. His whiskers and eyebrows are covered with icicles and his coat with snow. He removes his home-made cotton flannel mittens which are lined with a pair of yarn ones the mother has knitted and hovers over the stove soaking in the heat. Looking up from her writing the mother asks, “Is the ground pretty hard?” he shakes some of the dripping icicles from him. “The frost is three feet thick.”

“Can you do it?”

“I will but I cannot do it as I would like to do it.”

They seem to understand each other perfectly and after a few more minutes of thawing, he goes away through the storm. The girl goes to the window and watches him bow before it until he is quickly hidden by the enveloping snow.

It was many years before I realized the significance of these two scenes. In fact, not until recently when I made a sentimental journey over part of the routes this man and horse had taken during those crucial days of the nation’s history and read and reread his daily journals kept during those dreadful days of sickness, long tedious marches, heartaches from the separation from his loved ones, defeats and successes, did I begin to see the fullness of my father’s love for a horse; days when they had to cut down trees that their horses could have a little forage because they country through which they traveled had been so completely denuded of any food for either man or beast; when men slept on the bare ground with their horses bridles over their arms and the horse standing patiently over them. the men often rode miles from their camps to find a few precious ears of corn which they carefully kept in their saddle bags by day and under their saddle-bag pillow at night during that dreadful raid after Price through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Many years after my mother had suffered death by a runaway horse, and my own family were old enough to enjoy the stories my aged father loved to tell, did I finally wake up and gather from many conversations the history I now write.

In 1841 in a very cold February, a young husband died leaving his wife and seven children — one yet unborn — on a newly made farm in south central Henry County, Iowa. John Abraham and his wife Sarah had bought from land dealers in 1841 a number of small tracts and by heroic effort had made a comfortable cabin home in what had become since 1835 a thickly settled community of thrifty and intelligent people who mostly came from Ohio and Virginia. John had worked all the daylight hours and much of the night and when stricken by what we now know as pneumonia, though a doctor was called from Burlington, and much bleeding and steaming was done, he had not sufficient endurance left and was laid to rest on a knoll on his precious acres just following one of Iowa’s severest cold and snowstorms.

The widow with her five girls and two boys — four and five years old — made what seemed at times to be a losing battle to maintain the home, keep the farm, and feed and clothe the children in a manner that would keep them attending the school built at a corner of the farm by the forward looking folk in the fall of 1841. It was only a rude log structure with stick chimney fireplace for heat, but because it was the first school in the community it became the center of all social ice. Often as many as sixty children — from four to twenty years — were in the school and there was more real education derived from the contacts with others than from the too few books. Sarah put all the children out to work as soon as they could be of service to any neighbor for she was a staunch advocate of the law of work as a character builder.

When the boys were nine and ten years old in 1847, she obtained a court order to sell a piece of land with the proceed of which she bought a mare with colt at side as an added means of education — especially for the boys, Lot and John. They had already learned much of riding technique from borrowed horses and by working with neighbors horses. In fact, the lack of animals of their own had whetted their desire for them. It was a real tragedy when this first little colt was bitten by a rattlesnake. The next colt was born in a ditch and was drowned. Colt number three lived and grew into a beautiful animal. In 1851, when the men began returning from the 1849 gold rush, it was sold for $25 in gold pieces which Lot carried in his pocket all summer. By this time, Sarah allowed the boys to a great extent to use their own judgement in trading. Once, at a sale, where Lot bought an unruly animal that much older men feared to ride, the male element debated fiercely whether a widow’s boy should be allowed to handle such a dangerous beast. Both thought they could, and mostly could, ride our drive anything in horse flesh. The the fall of 1851, Lot traded his cherished gold pieces and the old mare for another with colt at side. Again the cold died and again Lot was disconsolate.

Then Queen — the mother mare (and from that time on there was always a Queen among Lot’s horses) — in the spring of 1856 gave birth to a puny little animal with very peculiar markings. The family named it Jack. Soon after its arrival, the entire family — to help entertain a ¬†visiting cousin — went to the home of the eldest daughter who had married a miller and now lived at the mill at Webster’s Crossing on the Skunk River a few miles distant. It was, however, a full days journey in the wagon with little Jack following his mother, he being too young to leave [at home] all day. They crossed Big Creek safely although the going was deep. But at the River, they had to halloo to brother-in-law Dick [Jackman] to bring the ferry boat to take them across, that being a part of his job. Lot and John were on the driver’s seat with Lot at the reins. All the seats were just boards laid across the wagon bed. He drove onto the ferry boat and it started across. They were fairly in midstream when Jack made a sudden dash to the front of his mother having gotten onto the boat almost beneath her. He only glanced at the rushing muddy flood and most unexpectedly plunged into it. Without a moment’s hesitation, Lot threw the reins to John and dove from his seat into the icy water. A brief struggle placed the youngster back upon the boat. The mischievous sisters had something new to tease Lot about for many days. To their giggling years, it was all a joke. Thy could not know how the boy loved the promise held out by the tiny bit of horse flesh.

During the time of that spring’s planting by the boys and their not too strong team, Jack was taught to drink cows milk from a bucket since the mother could not provide enough nourishment. And then to cap all its trouble, he bike its leg. Many would have thought it had better been put out of its misery but those young folk were of a different mind. It was carefully bandaged and everyone helped to care for it. Lot and the team were hired to a neighbor at two dollars per day to help to get in his crop. It seemed always that folks thought the widow and fatherless were their especial targets for as they were constantly cheated in business matters. However, none of the family were afraid of hard work. Every morning Jack was taken, after being carefully loaded into the wagon, to they field, placed in the shade and watched and fed very often. Somehow, in response to all this care, he was healed and lived, and thrived.

In those days all young stock was turned loose in the unfenced, thickly wooded wild portion of the community to look out for themselves during the summer. In 1857, Jack was turned loose. He took up with another colt belonging to a young girl near Lot’s age [Clara Shortridge]. Lot had to take much teasing from his fun-loving sisters and Irish mother because he and this girl had to go often to look after their colts. (This girl and family later went to California and she became “the Silver-tongued Orator of the Pacific Slope.” She was the first woman lawyer of the Naion [actually California], a fine oman, a great leader, and much beloved.)

Jack was broken to ride when two years old. [He] must have been taught many tricks. Anyway his mischievous ways in later years was no doubt due to the brother’s influence. I seem to remember that Lot always loved horses that were smart enough to pull off unexpected stunts.

One day Lot rode to a neighbors where he saw a fine team of mules so spoiled by bad handling that the owner was anxious to get rid of them. Lot proposed to trade Jack for the team. After some days of dickering, he did make the trade by throwing in some young cattle [see Lot’s Diary Entry for 3 August 1859]. Lot was now a big-boned, long-legged, broad-sholdered fellow, good-looking — and knew it — and very fond of the girls. He often rode many miles in all directions to attend dances, singing schools, debating societies, and other social functions. John followed closely in his footsteps, especially in his attraction for the girls. But this team of mules proved too much for them. They would lay down and roll when the boys tried to ride them, and would destroy the harness in the same way when hitched. They were soon traded for other horse flesh.

His new owners traded Jack often after he had been broken to harness. He had several unattractive habits — especially that of running off at the least provocation. He was once owned for a short time by a milkman in Mt. Pleasant but undertook to deliver milk on his own account. He scattered milk and utensils all over the main part of town. The disgusted man sold him to a man from a distance and Lot lost track of him for several years.

Then came the Civil War with much so-called patriotic server. At the schoolhouse at Liberty, a company of Home Guards absorbed the attention of the community, all able-bodied men drilling on the school grounds regularly. Thomas Lehew drilled them on special occasions but they mostly went by the manual of arms. Many of these men enlisted and became part of Co. D, 4th Iowa Cavalry. At the Fourth of July Celebration in Mt. Pleasant in 1861 in their cheap red-trimmed gray uniforms, the entire regiment took part prominently in the exercises of the day. In August, Lot rode many days getting recruits for the regiment and he signed for the service and went into Camp Harlan early in September. His mother was bitterly opposed to his action as she considered she needed him at home. John also wanted to enlist but the brothers agreed that he should stay with the mother until he should be drafted. The draft never came to John’s name.

Jack and Lot soon met in Camp Harlan. Col. Porter was in charge of buying the regimental horses and one morning here came Jack, now completely white, with a bunch of horses from which all the white ones were allotted to Co. A, which was known as the White Horse Company. During the entire four years, Jack was always with the Fourth Iowa [Cavalry] in all its maneuvers.

Whenever and wherever the companies had their reunions in later years, many were the stories told of Old Jack’s exploits. Very early in the war, one eye was shot out. He henceforth was known as “Old One Eye.” One day in a heavy march, Jack had to be left behind. All that day Lot grieved, but that night curses began to be heard throughout the camp. “Old One Eye” was at his trick of stealing the corn from under the saddles they were using as pillows. It was then so considered that if he was able to steal, he was able to work, and he was taken back into the company. One hot summer morning with the Curtis Army on the White River in Arkansas near Helena, word came that fighting was on. Mounting hastily, the men went tearing out of camp. About four miles out, they met Lee Williamson on Jack. Lee, with his long hair flying, had been shot. Blood was flowing all over the horse who had also been grazed by a bullet along the back. It was a very wild and gruesome sight. Both Lee and Jack recovered. Two men were shot off his back in Arkansas. Jack could not be tied anywhere for he could slip out of any halter or bridle. His bridle reins were always thrown to the ground. Otherwise he was headed for mischief.

At Bear Creek, Mississippi, Jack was shot in the thigh and his rider killed. Jack always went his own sweet gait, or just as he felt like doing, always having to be spurred. In a charge the regiment made on the prairie when following Price in Missouri, Lot saw the man riding Jack spurring him furiously to a steady accompaniment of oaths. Once they were loading a bunch of horses onto a barge on the Mississippi River to be sent to the next station of the regiment. A call came, “The barge is sinking!” Lot was in charge and yelled, “Untie the horses.” “Old One Eye” was one of the first to swim to land. He was so very capable of taking care of himself that though in every skirmish or fight, he was one of three that was sent home by August 1865. At Davenport where the regiment was mustered out, Lot bought four of the government horses and brought them to the home farm to carry on the farm work. John was now married and Lot married the sweet heart who had waited faithfully during the war years. Neal Alden became Mrs. Abraham a very few days after Lot’s return. Jack and his mate Jule, Pomp and Ballie were the two teams that were to serve these two ambitious young people many years.

I’ve often wondered if Jack remembered his birthplace on his arrival. Ballie was the horse Lot had ridden as captain and lived much longer than Jack but both helped educate the four young Abrahams that came into the home of Lot and Neal. At some time all of us rode Jack but it was always a risky business for he could pick out a low hanging limb and walk beneath it to brush off his unsuspecting rider with unerring accuracy. Or he could slip his bridle and leave the unwary one to walk home. Don not disparage such education. It is of the best. Falling off a horse is much easier and safer than landing from a parachute as our boys in training are many of them doing today.

One of the big tasks of Jack and his mates was the hauling of railroad ties for the C.B.Q. from a very large cutting and mill two miles south of the Abraham [farm]. Two trips per day every possible day all one winter. Ot at four in the morning, back in the stalls at ten at night. Twenty grueling miles with a heavy load and twenty home again. Those horses and men had need of their stamina.

Another long and arduous task in which Jack took part was in the spring and summer on 1872 when a new barn was being built on the farm. Jack with a new and young partner did much of the needed hauling — rock for the foundation, timber cut and hauled from the woods for the frame, and many loads of dressed lumber and shingles. 100 loads was counted by Lot, but these were only a part of the total number. This was to be the largest and finest barn in the community as befitted a Captain’s rank. That was a typical “wet spring.” The roads were in the muddy, rutted condition that made hauling trying to both man and horses. Jack and his mate were in the harness early and late.

On June 30th, one hundred friends and neighbors gathered at the barn raising and, without accident, so well was the preliminary work done, the frame went into the air on the firm stone foundation. With many women helping Neal set a long table of boards in the yard at which thirty loaves of bread, thirty-five pies, ten large cakes, homemade sausage, roast beef, and ham topped off with ice cream and raspberries were served to those present.

On September 8th, the barn — now nearing completion — was the scene of all life’s sorrows the saddest. Sarah, the aged mother, had been called to her eternal home, and because her home was too small to house her friends from the falling rain, the services were held in the new barn. That Jack had a part in the funeral cortege is certain for many wagons were needed to take the family and friends down across the pasture to lay this pioneer woman beside her husband on the knoll he had chosen for his resting place.

At the end of twelve years after the war, Jack was given the run of the farm — his working days over. His eye was bad and he showed that he still carried the bullet. When I say that he was given the run of the farm, I mean just that, for he knew the ways of gates and barn and corn crib doors. Their fastenings were no secret to him. He was liable to be found anywhere it pleased him to go. Lot was sincerely grieved that he could not give Jack a regular military funeral. He chose for him a spot just east of the barn, and this has since been the resting place of Old Ballie and the other one, Nick, who served Lot so well and so long the last years of his life. A large boulder has been placed to mark these graves.

I have among my papers a short biography of Jack written by someone I cannot now identity but written while Jack still lived. It ends by saying, “When Jack comes to die, he will surely go to horse heaven, wherever that is.” Whether he will ever be forgiven completely for the naughty twinkle in his eyes and heels when he scattered that milk wagon, when he stole the precious corn from under the very heads of the soldiers, when he left town on his own with his rider behind to get home the best way he could, when he let the other horses into the grain bins, or when he brushed off an annoying child beneath a green wood tree, I am always going to have a few doubts as to the kind of place he now enjoys.

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