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2017-02-23

McCombs' hand–to–hand fight to the death

By Raymond V. Carter, Jr. BCHC Research Historian ©2017

When I was a young boy, I stayed a great deal of the time with my grandparents. My grandfather, Pete Coffman, was a cowboy and lawman. Grandpa Pete was the oldest son of Walter Dow and Alma (Whitley) Coffman, born on December 23, 1901 near Pleasanton, Atascosa County, Texas. He rodeoed and worked as a ranch hand starting at the age of 12. He worked on ranches such as the Pony Jim Martin, Bell, Atkinson, Campana, Ray and Shinner. He served as a Webb County Deputy Sheriff for 16 years in the 1930s and 40s and as a River Rider for the Border Patrol in the early 50's, living at Bruni, Webb County, Texas.
In the 1950s even though they had a TV, I spent most of my time outside burning up energy, energy I wished I had today. After grandpa would come home from work, after supper, and when things settled down (if he was in the mood) he would tell stories of his life and of his kinfolk. One time he got to talking about Indians and Indian raids made in and around Atascosa County and his Uncle Wesley McCombs.
John Wesley McCombs (1844-1924) married my grandpa's grandmother, Penelope Whitley's sister, Sarah Jane Rowland (1848-?). John and Sarah were married in Medina County on July 13, 1876. Uncle Wesley was born in Florida and was the son of Richard and Mary Ann (Lavine) McCombs. They came to Texas in 1849/50. Grandpa described his uncle as a big man. He must have been a huge man and what I mean is a strong muscular man. My grandpa was 6' 1", a tall big boned or framed man himself, and for him to say his uncle was big must have meant he was big! Uncle Wesley served in the frontier protection as a Ranger and the militia during the 1850s thru the 70s. Wesley 's brothers were, Lewis, Samuel and George, and his brother–in–law, Nathaniel Davis, also served as frontier rangers and militia.
In the chapter on Lon Moore in A.J. Sowell's ''Texas Indian Fighters" pages 599-600, Moore tells of their exploits chasing the Indians after they killed Rube Smith on April 15, 1864 below Hondo, Texas. The rangers, including the McCombs’ brothers and Nathaniel "Nathan" Davis, chased and fought these murdering raiders and then followed them above Bandera. This is just one of the encounters that these McCombs’ brothers made with the Indians. In the February 1929 issue of J. Marvin Hunter 's "Frontier Times", p. 200-201, Hunter reprints the San Antonio Express, October 7, 1928 story of a "Survivor of Medina County Indian Fight." This is an interview of Sam McCombs, who was 17 at the time of the Rube Smith murder. His account gives the date of April 16, 1864 (other accounts say April 15th). This interview tells of them chasing the Indians from the Devine area of the Hondo Creek up into the hills and in this Uncle Sam gives insight to some history of his life. It is a real good realistic read of what these men went through.
One encounter that is not in the history books concerns a hand–to–hand fight in which Uncle Wesley was involved. Grandpa told me this story when I was very young and it was something to listen to as a boy. I do not know the year (probably the 1860's) or where this fight took place, but it was somewhere in the hill country, above Helotes or above the Hondo country. I do not know Uncle Wesley's age at the time of this fight either, but boys grew up to be men fast in those days. In Sowell's chapter on Lon Moore, he stated that Moore was 12 years old when he went on an Indian chase along with men like Big Foot Wallace. Lon Moore, later on, also helped chastise the Indians who killed Henry Hood, brother-in-law to my grandpa's great Aunt Mary Josephine Coffman who married Charles W. Hood.
I do not remember grandpa mentioning any other ranger names on this chase. I don't think grandpa remembered either, because he heard the story some forty years before he told it to me. It was during one of these Indian raids into this area that the men took after them to reclaim stolen horses or for vengeance. Uncle Wesley and the rangers caught up with the Indians and a fight ensued. It evidently was a close fight, because Uncle Wesley got all tangled up with an Indian in a hand–to–hand knife fight. According to the story the Indian was so slippery that Uncle Wesley had all kind of trouble trying to hold on to him. He said "it was like you had put your hands in axle grease and tried to climb a pole, you couldn't." Uncle Wesley said, "this Indian had smeared bear grease all over his body and it was hell trying to get a grip." As the fighting and shooting was going on around them, Wesley and the Indian tried desperately to stick each other with their knives. Uncle Wesley would try and grab a hand full of dirt with his free hand in order to get a better grip on this "greased up" Indian. The dirt would cause friction and help prevent his grip from slipping. Uncle Wesley had a strong hand–grip and finally got a good hold onto his enemy and found the right spot in the Indian's body to bury his knife. He struck him as hard as he could, pushing the knife upward. He said the Indian just made a grunt after the knife found its mark just above the belly, jerked some and fell. When the Indian fell all the other Indians quit fighting and scattered. The Indian who Uncle Wesley killed must have been their leader. Uncle Wesley said that "it was the hardest fight he ever was in, it was him or me."
Uncle Wesley was once in another tight spot. He was shooting at an Indian who was hiding behind a tree. Uncle Wesley was also using a tree as cover, but the tree wasn’t as big as Uncle Wesley was. He had trouble hiding from the Indians bullets, which were tearing the bark off the tree that he was hiding behind. He would shoot at the Indian and the Indian would shoot at him, back and forth. Uncle Wesley was doing his best to hide and dodge the Indian's bullets behind this little tree. This went on until finally the Indian showed enough of his head to where my Uncle made his aim true. He blew the top of his skull clean off.
These stories are not unique to the old west, they only represents some of the incidents that men and women of the old west had to endure. "Them" that fought all odds to tame this country and build homes, farms and ranches for their families. It took this kind of people, neighbors and friends, to stick it out and prevail. Texans!