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"I've had 14 duels with a spate of war wounds in between."

Andrew Jackson

 

 

 

CHAPTER 37

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE THINNEST VENEER ..................WINTER 1831-32

 

         All partenaires of P. D. Papin & Company had gotten responsible positions in the American Fur Company after selling out to Astor's empire except for Michel Sylvestre Cerré. 

          Though he was well off, Michel had implored John Jacob Astor's staff for a worthy task. When it seemed beyond hope, suddenly it had come!

          He re-read Alfred Seton's letter. Michel was to begin assembly of a 110 man expedition and 20 freight wagons in St. Louis! This grand land fleet would  set out May 1, 1832 -- five days before Michel's 30th birthday. After being so long in the shadows of his prominent family, what more could a young man ask to show his worthiness?

          Seton's letter said little about this Benjamin Bonneville. Though Michel was delighted Bonneville was born in France, only his Army career was mentioned. Who was he?  But Seton left no doubt that Cerré was to maintain the appearance of answering to Bonneville. All reports Bonneville made to his superiors were to first be reviewed for any commercial value they might have to AFC's fur interests.         

          Reports Cerré made to AFC about Captain Bonneville would be in strict confidence. Astor's personal instruction was that no convict nor sinister person be hired in the event the expedition's true sponsorship should ever surface.

          Michel Cerré vowed to search St. Louis for men, mules, wagons and supplies immediately after the Blessed Christmas. Now his brother Gabriel, trading on the Missouri, and his sister Catherine Louise, married to his former partinenaire P.D. Papin, would grasp the magnitude of his stature, not from his words, but the funds that would fatten his personal account. 

          Every man had to grow into himself. With 30 staring him in the eyes like the black hearted bayou snake it was, Michel Cerré would don himself like a greatcoat and march proudly into a grand new life.

  

          Few places in this world could feel colder than Washington, D.C. in the dead of winter. Captain Benjamin Bonneville was keen to learn what the New Year 1832 held for him. His task now was to hurdle bureaucratic barriers and keep his mission headed West.

          After months of wrestling arcane instruments at West Point, he'd created the semblance of competence with them, though it might not stand the scrutiny of a scientist. He was a soldier -- not a bookworm.   

          He'd received word to report to the White House. The mere hint that some perverse change might bar his name from America's annals beside those of Lewis and Clark chilled him more than the winds off the Potomac.

          Bonneville prayed Washington's internecine wars would not kill his expedition. The bloodbath over re-chartering the United States Bank soaked the front page of every newspaper.  Some sided with Jackson, demanding an end to the national menace. Others backed Bank President Nicholas Biddle. Bonneville knew Astor was a Biddle man and vowed to walk wide of that political bog.

          The White House stood majestically in drifted snow. Bonneville knew he would always remember it this way like a painting by the masters. He entered and started through the armada paid to keep people from seeing the President -- even if they had an appointment.

          Unbeknownst to Captain Bonneville, President Jackson had summoned a Philadelphia surgeon to the White House who arrived the same hour as the good Captain's appointment. Jackson's assistant directed Bonneville to the waiting area outside the President's private office where he sat readying answers for all contingencies that might hamstring his mission.

          Inside the President's office the renowned Dr. Harris of Philadelphia examined the shirtless Andrew Jackson. "Mr. President, you are a mass of scars."

          Jackson replied, "I've had 14 duels with a spate of war wounds in between."

          "Which scar in your collection brings me here today?"

          "As we discussed by letter, it won't be Charles Dickinson's ball lodged against my heart, though the Lord knows it pains me most. Today, Jesse Benton's ball must be removed. Was in my left shoulder, but it's settled lower."

          "This scar is old."

          "Nigh 20 years."

          "I can't feel the bullet, Mr. President.  Where is it?"

          Jackson elevated his skinny arm. "Worked itself inside my arm to hang right there most painfully."

          "Whiskey, Mr. President?"

          Jackson's eyes flared. "Would you have me making decisions for the nation in a befuddled state?" Jackson gripped his walking stick and gritted, "Go ahead."

          Dr. Harris made the incision, squeezed the President's arm and out popped a flattened ball. He staunched the wound, then began suturing it with gut.

          "Let me see that ball," Jackson ordered, trying to feign that he didn't feel dizzy and weak.

          Depositing the mangled bullet in Jackson's unsteady hand, the surgeon resumed stitching the wound.

          Jackson mused, "Lead was a good deal flattened by striking my bone and looks somewhat hackled around the edges. See my secretary for your fee."

          After Dr. Harris departed, President Jackson dressed, stifled his urge to kill the pain with a jolt of liquor and had the Army officer ushered in as though nothing had happened. "Sit down, Captain."

          Bonneville eyed the bloody towel on the floor by the President's desk, doffed his cap, inserted it under his arm and saluted, "Captain Benjamin Lewis Eulalie Bonneville, 7th Infantry Regiment reporting as ordered, Sir!"

          Andrew Jackson couldn't resist returning the smart salute though himself clad as a civilian.  There was something precious about military tradition and the men who practiced it. "Do sit down, Captain."

          Bonneville sat erectly.

          "The 1818 Joint Occupation Treaty of Oregon with Britain is an infernal nuisance, but it gives you the right to go where you wish up there. It's not enough to know where the British are or what they are doing. I want to know what they are thinking! I want your estimate of the force necessary to take Fort Vancouver.  Are you remembering this, Captain?"

          "Most assuredly, Sir! I've never conversed with another President."

          "Find out how California is garrisoned and what it will take to reduce it.  You going there soon?"

          "Joseph Walker will go. He fought in your command at Horseshoe Bend with his brother Joel and Sam Houston.  Joseph also served as Sheriff of Independence, Missouri, Sir."

          "I remember Joel Walker.  He served under me in Florida as well. I can't place the other Walker, though I remember Sam Houston most acutely."

          "Joseph Walker is a black-bearded behemoth of a man, though he was but a boy of 15 when he served under you on the Tallapoosa River. Claims he still hasn't got his Army pay."

          Jackson laughed at Bonneville's audacity in bringing that up. "Captain, you need to shield your thought of the moment with clever subterfuge if you're to succeed as an operative."

          "I shall, Mr. President, but I shall never be less than candid with my Commanding Officers."

          Andrew Jackson chortled, "Then you'll likely spend a long time in grade as a Captain!"

          Bonneville reddened, "About California, Sir. I will get Walker's passport and visa before I leave Washington. What shall I do about Texas?"

          "Absolutely nothing!" Jackson snapped. 

          "You'll do fur trapping to pay costs of this enterprise?"

          "That's our intention, Mr. President."

          "Do not ever contact me directly from the field. Channel your reports through the Commanding General of the Army or the Secretary of War -- and by all that's holy -- be careful with your reports. Stray paper is far more deadly than artillery and every bit as apt to hit that at which it is not aimed."

          "I understand, Sir."

          "Do you really.  We shall see, Captain.  Good day, Sir."

  

          Joe Walker led his string of six handsome horses into the draw. They snorted and looked about, eyes wide, ears flicking. When they did not graze right away, Joe looked up and down the draw. He walked among them, patting them to quiet their stomping. He sensed somebody was watching, but saw no one.

          His mission to find the Delawares just west of Fort Osage had turned to a hair shirt. The weak winter sun was sink-ing into the rolling hills. Tracks of eight ponies gouged the snow, but they'd circled again and fanned out. He decided to make camp before it got too dark to find the best place to sleep.

          Walker hobbled his horses, then pounded the stakes for their 12 foot ropes deep into the hard ground. They could graze on the tan grasses spearing through the snow. He knew a man seeking company at night makes a fire, so he started one with dry wood off his pack horse. Then he collected branches shed from the cottonwood, ash and persimmon trees standing with slender mantles of snow along their limbs. He strung the branches out to dry by his fire. New moccasin tracks barely visible in the dark snow told him he was not alone. He waved toward his fire.

          "Why you follow us, Blackbeard?" asked the smallest of the several Delawares in the shadows.

          "Eat with me, and I'll tell you, "Joe replied, kicking his tree branches closer to the snap-popping fire to dry.

          "We eat no white man's food, but we will sit."

          Joe hunkered down beside the fire with three of the Delawares well aware of two more just beyond the firelight.  He eyed their heads, shaved except for their scalplocks. "Don't your heads get cold?" he asked, watching their hands.

          One Delaware replied, "Is your face cold?"

          Joe said, "Not like the rest of me."

          "We are all face," the Delaware grunted.

          The smallest Delaware said, "I am called Joe. Why you want us?"

          Walker smiled, "I am also Joe. Your tribe is prized by the fur companies. You have kept the faces that made you feared in the Appalachians and the strength that lets you wander from Mexico to the Arctic barrens. My friends will soon send an outfit to the big waters in the West. We want to hire you as trappers. How many are you?"

          "You know there are eight from the tracks of our horses. We know you are one with six horses fit for Chiefs. Why should we not let your blood into the snow and take your horse people?"

          The hair stood on Walker's neck, but he smiled.  It was easy to see why Delawares terrified western Indians and struck Whites speechless. Delawares were wolves of the plains with the thinnest veneer of civilization. He said softly, "Because you are so different from me, I see you as a child looks in wonder at the night sky. I am peaceable in all my life's doings, but I have been the Sheriff of Missouri, and my killers will lie with me in my grave."

          Delaware Joe rasped, "You speak like a squaw, but you are a true warrior of death -- like us.  We will council, but my heart tells me we will run with you, Black Wolf of the Plains."

 

 

 

Editor's Note: Joe Walker's 1837 painting

by famous portraitist Alfred Jacob Miller.

[From our Mighty Joe Walker audiobook

album cover]

 

 

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