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CHAPTER 6

 

JACKSON'S THUNDER.......................................................... FEBRUARY 1815

Lightning outlined the gigantic man against the darkness outside the Sublette Tavern doorway. "C'mon in," 14 year old Milton Sublette yelled over the cloudburst's roar. "Most folks don't knock."

Tumbling thunder followed the black bearded giant inside. Wet air hung about him like his own cloud. He clawed his cape off and draped it over a wall peg. Puddles fanned from sodden leather boots rising above his knees. He stood his rifle, barrel-down, in the corner to drain. His sopping buckskin shirt had rents showing the hair on his bear-sized chest. "Stalled my mount in yer stable," he grunted.

The giant looped his rain-beaded sabre's handguard over a wall peg. It wasn't a dress sword. Its oily blade was notched and battered. He dumped his soaked saddle bags under the sabre and plopped his hat on them.

"You're somebody, ain't you, Mister?" Milton asked.

"Everybody's somebody, lad." the man grated.

Milton paraded him like a prize stallion between the tables of gawking patrons. Most quit eating to watch his ponderous strides. The man dwarfed the empty chairs, so Milton sat him on the oak bench beside the hearth. It creaked but held.

Tavern slave Artemis helped Milton slide up a table that barely fit over the man's tree-stump legs. "Hot buttered rum, Mistah?" She yelled over the rain's noise.

"Got coffee that ain't fulla chicory?"

"We gonna fix you some right pure," Artemis replied flashing white teeth with a space between the front two.

"Bring me the pot. I got a deep cold place."

She disappeared in a flurry of skirts.

Milton knew Artemis had been into the rum agin so he'd steer the pot onto the table when it came. Pitchin' hay and diggin' post holes had filled him out. Milton looked good flexin' his muscles inna mirror, but he was a robin beside this feller.

"Git my wet Muskogee tunic too hot, lad, you'll be cuttin' it offa me when the buckskin shrinks."

"Wanta sit someplace else, Mister?" Milton asked, for once actually wanting to please somebody.

"Naw. Good to let my bones know we's not in the grave yet. This's February. Don't it know when to snow in Kentucky?"

"Does most years. Where ya from, Mister?"

" Tennessee. Got a room left?"

"Jist the loft," Milton nodded at the stout ladder beside the fireplace.

"Good fer me, if it is fer the ladder. Bring your register."

Milton wasn't one for caterin' to patrons, but he trotted for this one. Couldn't read the name the feller scribbled in their book but sealed the loft deal with wet coin. "Roast's nigh done," Milton said, going to get the order of a hunter waving a tankard.

The massive man mused, "Guess I'll smoke out my appetite with a good pipeful." He groped his soggy pockets, then leaned toward the bald weasel of a man with wire-rimmed spectacles at the next table. "Would ya have dry tobacco, sir?"

With barely a nod, the skinny man stopped eating, fished out a limp leather bag and tossed it to the burly stranger.

"Mighty decent, sir. Thank you." He packed his cracked ivory pipe and lit it with the stubby candle on the table. White smoke wreathed the big man's head.

The bespectacled man sucked his teeth, then went after them with his silver tooth pick as he tucked his tobacco pouch back in his worn vest pocket. He proffered a tiny white hand. "Editor of the weekly paper just across the Crab Orchard in Stanford. Avery's my name. Always looking for story."

The giant's clasping hand had the heft of an anvil. Its chairleg-sized fingers, latticed with white scars, were missing the first joint of the finger he'd used to pack his pipe. He let the time to say his own name pass through the four smoke rings he blew.

"Been any place of interest?" the editor asked.

"Probably."

"Like where?"

"Emuckfa -- Tallashatchee -- New Orleans."

The room quieted. Heads turned toward the huge man as thunder bombed the rain hammering the tavern's roof.

"Musta served under Andrew Jackson."

The giant's nod coincided with thunderclaps tumbling like epic dominoes into the darkness.

"Hafta tell you, our editorial policy didn't favor entry into the war -- or Andrew Jackson."

"My own editorial policy toward Andy Jackson's had its ups and downs."

"Why's that?"

"Servin' Andrew Jackson is like ridin' sky-thunder one minute and gropin' through a coal mine the next." The giant leaned back and fashioned four more smoke rings, the last ring firing through the third. Patrons tip-toed to set their chairs down around the big man's hearth side. He had an eye men trusted and the voice of a spellbinder.

Milton Sublette set the dented coffee pot on the giant's table, then sprinted through the rain to get his 15 year old brother Bill from the garret in the barn where he lollygagged over cipherin' books. Maybe the big feller knew how Grandpa Whitley was killed at some place called Thames. Papa Phillip was abed with ague, so they'd tell him about this later.

Milton and William splatted back through sheeting rain to the tavern with Milton winning handily. After toweling off, they eased through their patrons to the hearth.

William hadn't believed anybody'd be big as Milton said. Now William wondered if this ox outweighed the jenny-mule he used to plow Dix River farm's rocky bottom land. William ached to ask the ox about Grandpa Whitley, but there was no way to bust in on the big man's voice. William slicked his long hair back and squatted too near the hearth's shimmering coals for comfort.

"Andy Jackson come by his hatred of the British honestly -- and young. He's told of servin' as a boy of 13 with the Revolution's Continental Infantry in the spring of 1780 at the Waxhaw under Colonel Abraham Buford. Their outfit got surrounded by Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton's 700 British cavalry. American surrender flags was hoisted."

"But agin rules o' war, Tarleton's men of horse rode through American ranks, bloody blades aflashin'. Americans yelled for quarter. None was given. Infantry's not a match for cavalry at close quarters -- 113 Americans perished. Over 50 Americans, too maimed to move outa the swamp o' their own body parts, was left to die -- while Tarleton's butchers hazed 50 others through the awed streets of Camden. That massacre spawned our rebel vengeance cry of Tarleton's Quarter -- meanin' none given!"

"Hardly enough to make a boy despise an entire race for life," editor Avery observed.

"Seen many men put to the sword, have ya, Mr. Avery?" The unanswered question hung surrounded by four more smoke rings. "But the massacre's not the nub. In Camden, one of Tarleton's officers ordered Andy to clean the mud off his boots. Andy spit on him. The officer sabre-slashed the boy, layin' his jaw open, missin' his throat by the length of a forefinger. If that sabre-slash was three inches lower, how ya spose the Battle of New Orleans woulda come out, gentlemen?"

Answering voices were crushed under a rolling barrage of thunder. William Sublette's finger traced the deep scar in his chin. He wondered how it matched up agin Jackson's scar. He wished his was cut by a sabre too stead o' bein' bit by a pig -- like Milton was always tellin' folks. Several people said William was Jackson "faced." Maybe the scar's what they meant.

"Is Andrew Jackson myth, bully or bandit?" the editor asked, sipping his ale tankard.

"Andy might be all that. Might be none of it. Andrew Jackson's not like any man you ever dreamt of. He can be a ragin' lion then go kind as a kitten in one beat of his heart."

"Explain," Avery asked.

"At the end of August 1813, Andy got a report that 1,000 Red Stick Creeks under Red Eagle swarmed Ft. Mims, killin' 250 people. Children seized by the legs was brained agin the stockade. In Nashville, Andy was too weak from his wounds to git outa bed, but he vowed to avenge Ft. Mims. Ordered himself tied to his horse and led us south to Alabama."

"At Ft. Strother, Andy roused us a couple hours fore first light o' November 3rd. Ordered us to remember Ft. Mims. Andy loves the pincer tactic. We closed on the Red Stick village of Tallashatchee. Our cavalry leveled it, killin' all 186 men. We captured 84 women and children. One baby of a dead mother was bout 10 months old. None o' them women would feed him. General Jackson give 'em a direct order with shoot in his eyes. I never seen nobody refuse a direct order from Andrew Jackson before."

"I suppose he had the women shot," Avery surmised.

"No siree! General Andrew Jackson took that baby boy into his own tent, mixed brown sugar with water and cooed at him till he tuck it. Andy sent baby Lyncoya by a captive squaw to Andy's very own home in Tennessee. Lyncoya still lives there. That squaw went free fer keepin' her bond to General Jackson."

"Just how do you explain that?"

"Two words. Andrew -- Jackson."

Artemis brought the big man a cutting board bearing a steaming bread loaf, a butter ball and a dish of blackeyed peas. Slipping a dirk from his boot, he sliced the bread in deft strokes.

"Old Hickory's a lunatic -- kills Indians because he loves to coddle 'em," the editor hollered through a thunderclap.

The expression in the big man's eyes left no doubt he'd tired of the newspaper man's anti-Jackson remarks. "You gotta develop a sense o' humor, Mr. Avery."

"Nothing funny to me about Andrew Jackson!" "That's what the British said at New Orleans last month. But Andy does have a streak o' fun. He ordered every man jack of us, if captured, to confess under torture that our side had 20,000 men. O' course we only mustered bout 5,000 -- mixture o' U.S. Army and Navy regulars, cavalry, conscript pirates, free blacks, backwoodsmen and a passel o' Choctaws. Andy was death-sick with dysentery. Had wife Rachel down from Tennessee to nurse him so's he didn't die fore the British could finish the job they'd started when he was 13. Ammo was low and morale was lower."

"Our spies learned 60 British ships o' the line was haulin' 14,000 troops that'd just slaughtered the most powerful land army in the world -- takin' their midget Emperor prisoner. Officers' wives aboard was dancin' cotillions with their tinklin' music afloatin' through the fog. Single officers lusted for New Orleans' booty and beauty!"

" New Orleans was a dreamy city of divided factions lyin' helpless above the mouth of the Mississippi -- awaitin' under trees hung with Spanish moss."

The giant mopped up the last of his blackeyed peas with a fat hunk of bread. "Andy stationed five American gunboats on Lake Borgne. On December 13th Redcoats lowered 45 barges into Lake Borgne and manned them with a thousand sailors and marines. Next mornin', as the British always do, they made a spectacle o' their attack. It was a chillin' sight, even from the hills where I set my horse -- a unbroken front o' barges, red-shirted sailors bristlin' shiny muskets, dippin' their six oars to a side in perfect time, and sportin' a cannon in each bow. Our gunboats put up a fierce fight, but before tea time, all five was at the bottom of Lake Borgne. We's sweatin' if we's all gonna die."

"Swamp skirmishes follered, but the genuine battle stepped off in endless ranks of British regulars at 4:00 a.m. of a Sunday at Chalmette Plantation on the 8th of January -- last month -- though it seems a century ago. Andy dug our cannon in on a levee behind a canal and positioned his long rifles to fire from behind cotton bales sunk in the mud. Nothin' eats bullets like a bail o' cotton."

"British 44th Regiment led the advance through the mist marchin' to their pipes and drums. They was to carry bundles o' sugar cane called facsines to fill the canal and ladders to scale the levee, but they plumb forgot 'em, then scrambled back through their own advancin' troops to git 'em."

"Congreve rockets screamed red rainbows at us through the fog. Thousands o' Redcoats steppin' to their drum cadence come straight at us American Dirty Shirts. Before British troops got in musket range, Andy's boomin' long rifles felled rank after rank -- like the scythe o' the Grim Reaper. When they reached the canal, Andy's cannon fired canister shot and chain point blank in their faces. British was blowed backards in bloody giblets. We raked their retreat with cavalry attacks. Kept on till the British left the field -- save a wounded drummer boy that kept playin' till Andy's boys come out to tend the wounded."

"Battles is numbers. Over 2,000 British was killed includin' most o' their field grade officers -- 1262 wounded -- 500 captured er missin'. We lost 13 killed, 39 wounded and 20 missin'. European domination of the western hemisphere got its back broke at Chalmette, and Andy shipped the body o' British Commandant, Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, home butt-up in a keg o' rum. Treaty o' Ghent was ratified by Congress this month. Can you bleeve that Ghent Treaty was actually signed by all emissaries on Christmas Eve 1814, a fortnight before the greatest battle ever fought on this continent."

All but the newspaper editor bellered for a drink to toast the victory, sending William, Milton and Artemis scurrying.

"I notice your tale never gets around to the treason conspiracy with Jackson's long time crony and house guest, Aaron Burr," the editor needled.

"What of it? That treason ruckus was near ten years before the Battle o' New Orleans!"

"Well, there's never been a clear resolution of who all was guilty of treason."

"Far's I'm concerned there has. Grand jury right here in Kentucky indicted Aaron Burr fer treason and conspiracy, and attorney Henry Clay beat all them charges."

"Wasn't Henry Clay Andrew Jackson's own personal lawyer?"

"No, Clay represented a tradin' firm that Jackson and I owned. Andy himself was a lawyer and a Judge for many years

-- handled all his own legal matters."

"I reported on that federal trial in 1807! It was based on President Jefferson's proclamation of a conspiracy in progress and called for the conspirators' apprehension. Some high American officer was peddling military secrets to the Spanish and planning the destruction of New Orleans as a preliminary to destroying the Union. It wasn't the district's other ranking officer, General Wilkinson! Instead of embracing Aaron Burr, Wilkinson turned Burr over for prosecution. Wilkinson didn't sell those boats to Burr to attack New Orleans. Jackson sold Burr those boats. Maybe you did too."

The giant's jaw muscles writhed under his black beard as Artemis stepped between the men with a platter of steaming roast beef. Mindful of the dirk in the mammoth storyteller's boot, the circle of patrons began to ease their chairs back.

The giant's eyes flamed, but his voice was steady. "Because of your civilian ignorance of military affairs, you sir, are in the position of takin' a knife to a gunfight. When James Wilkinson got cozy with Benedict Arnold, he was forced to resign in the Conway Cabal. Took a bribe from the Spanish in 1791, then sold Burr out after conspirin' with the Spaniards again. But Wilkinson wasn't any better General than he was a traitor, and his career ended with his despicable Montreal campaign in 1813. By contrast, Andrew Jackson is the most fiercely patriotic American I've ever known. You'd be neck deep in British Infantry right now if Andy hadn't been the savior of the very city you're claimin' he betrayed."

Basking in the unaccustomed attention, the editor retorted, "I don't believe I got your name. The many engagements you've placed yourself in and the events you describe don't fit any single man I'm aware of. Are you some writer who's injected himself into the life and times of Andrew Jackson?"

The editor having challenged the giant as an impostor besides branding him and Andrew Jackson as traitors, Sublette Tavern bystanders edged away from what was certain to be a gory killing.

The giant leaped to his feet. His crouch said any moment he'd lunge forward.

Artemis gripped a pistol under her shawl. William's bullet pouch was clenched sweatily in his fist. Milton grabbed a wrought iron poker from the hearth. Tension hushed all but the peals of thunder.

The behemoth said quietly, "Name's John Coffee -- Brigadier General John Coffee. He bent over the cringing editor's table, "Mr. Avery, if it wasn't for the unwaverin' bravery of General Andrew Jackson, your newspaper would now be Stanford, Kentucky's town crier for King George the Third! Try that fer yer editorial policy, sir! Now, could I trouble you for a pinch er two of that salt for my roast beef?"

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