marry someone, you marry their family.
Joseph Denson didn’t mind it when a cousin of his wife Mary’s late first husband
Will Clements, who had been killed during the Civil War, showed up at their place
in rural Karnes County and asked if he could spend the night. Putting up young
Wes seemed no great imposition.
That hospitable act in the early 1870s would, however, provide Denson with an
engaging tale he would tell with relish for the rest of his life. His descendants
kept the story alive.
had ridden up to their farm late one afternoon, tired and hungry. Mary got supper
ready and the young man partook both heartily and appreciatively. After the big
meal, Wes said he needed to call it a day and turned in early.
While Wes sawed figurative logs, Denson sat in his rocker on the porch, enjoying
the winding down of another day of hard work. About dark, he noticed that Wes
had gotten up – he must have left through the back door -- and walked out into
the pasture. The young man soon reappeared in front of the house leading Denson’s
saddle horse, which he tied to the gate.
Providing food and a place to
spend the night was a simple act of kindness, but such courtesies normally did
not include a man being free to help himself to his host’s ride. Of course, maybe
his wife and said Wes could borrow the pony.
As Denson chewed on that,
Wes came up on the porch and set him at ease about the horse. Well, kind of.
“Uncle Joe,” he began, “I’ve brought your horse up and tied him to the gate.”
That much was clear enough.
“I’m going back to bed because I’ve
just got to get some rest,” he continued. “But if the cock crows before midnight,
I’m not going to stay here.”
understood that Wes wasn’t saying that just because he didn’t want to be disturbed
by a loud-mouthed rooster. For centuries, the crowing of a rooster before its
regular daybreak cacophony had been accepted as a portent of bad luck. While some
said it only meant it was going to rain, the more standard supersitition held
that a rooster’s premature crowing meant someone was going to die or at minimum
experience something unfortunate.
Wes didn’t have to explain the significance of a cock crowing before midnight,
he did fill Denson in on what he would do if that happened: He would be departing
immediately for another acquaintance’s house (Wes named the person but that name
has not survived the family re-telling of the story) to spend the rest of the
I’m gone,” Wes went on, “if someone comes here looking for me…after they’re gone,
I want you to ride over to [the unnamed neighbor’s] house and let me know.”
that was why Wes had brought his uncle’s horse up to the house.
went back to bed, and before long Denson hit the hay. But sure enough, before
midnight, the Denson’s rooster cut loose with a noctural call that sent their
nervous guest quickly scurrying to the other house about a mile away.
10 minutes later, a party of armed horsemen arrived and inquired if there might
be someone by the name of Wes at the Denson home. Standing before the men in his
nightshirt, Denson truthfully told the riders that no one was there other than
he and his wife. The leader of the group seemed satisfied that Denson wasn’t lying
and the men rode off.
waited until they had been gone for a while and then, still wearing his nightclothes,
he jumped bareback on his horse and galloped to the other house to warn Wes that
some gentlemen who seemed to have urgent business with him had been looking for
Hearing that, Wes didn’t have to be told twice to get gone.
Unfortunately for Denson, he soon stood charged with haboring a fugitive, said
wanted man being outlaw John Wesley Hardin – Texas’
most prolific killer of the 19th century. But the law wanted Hardin more than
it did his kinfolks, so the case against Denson never proceeded.
to his great-granddaughter Josephine White, who wrote about it in her self-published
book “Sunbonnet Angels: Hitch Your Wagon to a Star,” the incident was the highlight
of Denson’s life.
Finally having fled his native Texas,
Hardin was arrested by Texas Rangers in Florida in 1877 for the murder of a deputy
sheriff in Comanche County. Sentenced to 25 years in prison, he did 17 years in
of time on his hands, Hardin studied law behind bars. Following a gubernatorial
pardon in 1894, he moved west to El
Paso to pursue his new legal career.
Old habits are hard to break.
While he never killed anyone following his release from prison, he drank too much
and gambled. On Aug. 19, 1895, hanging out in El
Paso’s Acme Saloon, he threw a set of dice about the time Constable John Selman
threw down on him with his sixshooter and put a bullet in his head.
somewhere in town, a cock had crowed prematurely.
Cox - April
12, 2012 column
Outlaws | Texas
People | Texas Towns | Columns