Authors: Eric Flint
He was holding the weapon as if he knew exactly how to use it, too. Most slaves didn’t.
“You got enemies, Mr. Sam. Remember? Turrible enemies, people say.”
Houston shook his head and waved the steak around the room. “Not here, surely! Chester, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Even thinking such a thing!”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Sam. Sorry ’bout that.” He didn’t seem any more abashed by that rebuke than he’d been by the first one.
“As you should be! Why, I oughta have you apologize personally to every man in this room. Would, too, ’cept”—he paused for a moment while he sawed off another piece of steak and swallowed.
“Except that wouldn’t be proper,” he continued. “You being a black slave and them being free white men. Apology presumes equality, you know. All the philosophers say so.”
He turned and scowled at his slave. “You got no excuse, neither, since you read the same philosophers. I know, ’cause I taught you how to read.”
Teaching slaves to read wasn’t illegal except in Virginia—yet, anyway. Calhoun and his followers were pressing for that, now, along with freedmen exclusion. Still, it certainly wasn’t the custom in slave states like Kentucky.
But that, too, was part of Houston legend. He might as well have had
Custom Be Damned
for a crest on a formal coat of arms.
“Yes, Mr. Sam. No, sir, I mean, it wouldn’t be proper.”
Houston chewed the last piece of steak more slowly than he had any of the others. With a thoughtful expression on his face, now.
When he was finished, he rose from the table. Then, suddenly and abruptly, shoved the table aside. Baxter, who’d been frozen in place for the past few minutes, started to jump from his chair, but Houston’s big left hand jammed him back in his seat.
The young colonel held the knife in front of his face. Baxter’s eyes were round, and his complexion was ashen.
“You’ll have to excuse me, sir,” Houston said politely. “I need to clean my knife, and there’s nothing else handy. I daren’t soil my blanket, of course. It’s a personal gift from none other than Major Ridge himself. He’d be most offended if I showed up in the Confederacy with stains on it.”
Quickly and efficiently, he wiped the blade clean on the shoulder of Baxter’s coat. Then, moved the blanket aside and slid the knife into a scabbard.
“My thanks, sir.” He bestowed the beaming smile on him. “And now, I must be off.”
He turned and strode toward the door, where Chester was waiting. The slave raised the pistol as if to offer it to his master, but Houston shook his head.
“No, no, you keep it. I
have enemies, it’s true enough. Some of the rascals might be lurking outside. Since you shoot better than I do, best you keep the pistol.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Sam. If you say so.”
Houston stopped abruptly. “Of course I do! Makes sense, doesn’t it? The slave shoots them, and the master guts ’em.”
He patted the knife under his blanket, turned around, and bestowed the grin on the whole room.
“You see, gentlemen? Easiest thing in the world to figure out, if you’re not an imbecile like Calhoun.
never have trouble with runaway slaves. You’re not planning to flee from lawful bondage, are you, Chester?”
“No, sir. Don’t need to. ’Bout another two months, and I’ll have saved up enough to buy my way free.”
Houston’s eyes widened. “Why…so you will. And since you learned how to blacksmith along the way, you won’t have any trouble setting yourself up.”
Akins didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, seeing Baxter get his comeuppance was worth its weight in gold. On the other…
Hiring out slaves as craftsmen was common, of course. Many of them were quite skilled, in fact. But Houston’s practice of letting his slaves
their wages was just plain…
“Some people say I’m a lunatic, Chester,” Houston boomed. “A veritable bedlamite!”
“Yes, Mr. Sam. But maybe we ought to be going, now. Before your enemies learn where you are.”
“Probably a good idea. Mr. Akins, the bill, if you please.”
Less than a minute later, Akins had the money—a tavern still intact, too—and Houston was on his way.
He watched him and the slave Chester for a while. The slave rode a horse just as well as the colonel did.
“That man is pure crazy,” he muttered.
His wife had come out of the tavern and was standing next to him.
“I thought you said—bean’t more than two months ago—that if Colonel Houston ever ran for senator from Kentucky, you’d vote for him.”
“Well, yes. He got rid of the Indians for us, didn’t he? And he backs Jackson against the stinking bank. The Senate’s way out there on the coast, anyway. But I sure wouldn’t vote for him as
“Nobody would,” his wife agreed, “outside of a bedlam house.”
“Probably shouldn’t have done that,” Sam admitted, a couple of hours later. They’d stopped at a creek crossing to let their horses drink.
Chester studied the creek intently, as if the small stream were vastly more fascinating than any other body of moving waters on the face of the globe. “ ‘Probably’ meaning how, Mr. Sam? ‘Probably,’ as in ‘I probably shouldn’t have baited that bear’? Or ‘probably,’ as in ‘I probably shouldn’t have stuck a pitchfork in Sam Hill’?”
Houston grinned. “Oh, surely the latter. But since I’m not a sinner—well, not much of one—what do I have to fear? Sam Hill won’t have no hold on me, when the blessed day comes. Hand me the whiskey.”
Chester rummaged in the saddle pack and came out with the bottle. He didn’t say anything, but the expression on his face made clear his disapproval.
“And stop nattering at me,” Sam said.
“Didn’t say a word.”
“Didn’t need to.” He opened the bottle, took a hefty but not heroic slug from the contents, stoppered it up, and handed it back to Chester. “See? Just needed something to take the taste out of my mouth. Blasted meat was practically raw.”
As always, the warm glow in his belly steadied his nerves. Which needed it, in truth. There’d been a lot of encounters like that over the past two or three years. They’d been getting uglier, too.
The United States had been hit by a series of crises, coming in quick succession. Sam thought people would have handled the Panic of 1819 and the economic dislocation that followed. They’d also have handled—well enough, anyway—the Missouri Compromise that Henry Clay had engineered the following year, and the political tensions that came with it. Sam was no admirer of Clay, but he’d admit the man’s vaunted political skills had been fully evident in that crisis.
But together, the Panic and the Compromise had brought the nation to a heated point just short of boiling—and then John Calhoun had seized upon the Treaty of Oothcaloga and the Algiers Incident to advance his proslavery political program. His speeches and actions had met a receptive audience in much of the South and the West. Almost overnight, it seemed, Sam Houston had gone from being a man generally admired both for his heroism in the war with Britain and for his settlement of the most acute Indian land questions, to the architect of a fiendish scheme to undermine the supremacy of the European race in America in favor of its lesser races.
“Still not sure how that happened,” he muttered, looking down at the back of his hand. “My own skin’s still as white as ever.”
“What was that, Mr. Sam?”
Houston glanced at Chester. “Just talking to myself.”
He decided to change the subject. “When
you planning to buy your freedom, by the way? It’d be handy if you’d let me know a bit ahead of time, you rascal, so’s I don’t get caught in the lurch.”
Chester went back to his creek-scrutiny. “Well. Wasn’t actually planning on it, all that soon, Mr. Sam. Thought I’d keep saving up my money. Once we get to Arkansas, I can put it in Mr. Patrick’s bank. It’ll be safe there.”
“Wonderful! Now you’ll make me a liar, too.”
Chester smiled apologetically but didn’t look away from the water. “You didn’t say anything about it in the tavern, Mr. Sam. I was the one said I could buy my way free in ’bout a couple of months. Wasn’t lying, neither. I
But ‘could’ and ‘would’ is two different things. I just don’t see the point in being a freedman when I wouldn’t have enough money left to do anything more than work for someone else. I’m gonna do that, might as well keep working for you. There’s really not all that much difference for a poor man, when you get right down to it, between a master and a boss—and, either way, you’re the best one I know.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “In other words, you’re agreeing with Calhoun. Slavery’s just the thing to elevate the black man. While his poor downtrodden white master pays the bills.”
Chester’s smile widened and lost its apologetic flavor. “Begging your pardon, Mr. Sam, but I don’t recall Mr. Calhoun ever saying anything about black men being free, at any time, for any amount of money.”
Sam scratched his chin. “Well, no. Of course not. If Calhoun had his way, freedmen wouldn’t exist at all. How’d he put it in his recent speech to the Senate?”
His accent took on a mimicry of a much thicker and more Southern one. “ ‘I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color as well as intellectual differences, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding states between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.’ ”
Sam dropped the accent and shook his head. “Not much room there for freedmen. Now that they’ve gotten exclusion acts passed in most states, Calhoun and his people are pushing to make manumission illegal altogether. Not to mention getting laws passed that make teaching slaves how to read and write illegal.”
Chester stopped smiling, then.
“He’s a prize, Calhoun is.” Sam leaned over and spit in the creek. Not so much as a gesture of disgust—although that was there, too—as to get rid of the taste of raw meat he still had in his mouth. The whiskey had helped some, but not enough.
For a moment, he contemplated taking another slug but decided against it. He’d already drunk almost a quarter of the bottle this morning. He wasn’t worried about being able to ride a horse, of course. Sam could manage that with a full bottle under his belt. But he had an awkward interview coming up today, and he needed his wits about him.
“Come on,” he said. “The horses have had enough, and I’d like to make it to the senator’s house by midafternoon.”
He grinned at the twin girls scampering around the front yard of Blue Spring Farm, as Richard M. Johnson’s house and plantation were called. “Settle down, will you? You’re making the horse nervous.”
The admonishment had as much effect as such admonishments usually have on twelve-year-old girls. Fortunately, Sam’s horse was a placid creature.
He decided to try the tactic of parental authority. “And you know your daddy doesn’t like it when his girls don’t act proper. Him being a United States senator and all.”
That had no effect, either, not to Sam’s surprise. Richard Johnson was a genial man toward just about everybody, especially his own daughters. Threatening them with his wrath was as useful as threatening them with a snowstorm in July.
In fact, they started laughing. And they were
bouncing up and down.
Fortunately, the girls’ mother emerged onto the front porch.
Right this minute, Imogene, or I’ll smack you proper! You too, Adaline!”
That did it. In an instant, the girls were the very model of propriety and demure behavior. Their father might be easygoing, but their mother was not. Julia Chinn was so well organized and disciplined that she almost managed to keep the senator from losing his money.
Almost, but not quite. But Sam didn’t think anyone else could have kept him from going broke years earlier.
Sam got off his horse and handed the reins to Chester, who began leading the horses to the barn around the side. Sam stepped up onto the porch and took off his hat. He gave a polite nod to the two disabled veterans sitting on chairs further down the porch, and then turned to the lady of the house.
Her stern look vanished. “Hello, Sam. It’s so nice to see you visit again. It’s been…what? Over a year, now. You shouldn’t stay away so long.”
Before he could answer, she waved a hand. “Yes, yes, I know. You’re a frightfully busy man.”
Richard Johnson came out onto the porch just in time to hear the last words.
“Frightfully busy troublemaker, more like,” he said gruffly. But he didn’t even try to disguise the smile with which he said it.
As the two shook hands, Houston took a moment to size up the senator’s appearance. It was…
Even more sloppy and eccentric than usual. The clothing itself simply consisted of the plain and unassuming garments that Johnson had always worn, which were part of his appeal to Kentucky’s poor farmers and the workingmen of the nation’s northeastern states. Nothing peculiar, in and of itself—except for the fact that the man who wore that humble apparel came from one of Kentucky’s premier families and was himself one of the state’s largest landowners. One of its largest slave-owners, too.
No, it was the rest of it. His hair was disheveled, his cravat was askew—only half tied, at that—and his boots had long since abandoned the status of “humble” and were pretty well past the stage of “worn down.” Give them another few months, and they’d be able to proudly claim holes in the soles and heels that were nothing but memories.
The face, though, was the same. Johnson was a plain-looking man and always had been. Unassuming, in both his appearance and his manner. If you didn’t know better, you’d find it hard to reconcile the man himself with his flamboyant reputation.
Flamboyant it was, too, even by the standards of the frontier. The Great Hero who’d personally shot Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames after suffering terrible wounds himself in the battle—so the story went, anyway, and Johnson had never done anything to detract from it—was also the Great Almagamator. The disreputable fellow from Great Crossing—a United States senator, to boot!—who lived in an open state of quasi-marriage with a mulatto and who persisted in treating his quadroon daughters as if they belonged in proper society. Even took them in his own carriage to church on a Sunday!
Andrew Jackson had shown Sam some of the letters he’d gotten from outraged gentility in Kentucky and Tennessee, demanding that the general disavow his political ties to Johnson.
“They can take
to Sam Hill,” Jackson had growled, tossing the letters back into a drawer of his desk. He even lapsed into blasphemy for a moment. “I’ll be damned if I will. Johnson’s as stalwart as they make ’em, even if he is a blasted race-mixer.”
Fortunately for Johnson, most of his own constituents felt much the same way about the matter. Whatever they felt personally about his notorious relationship with Julia Chinn, they overlooked it in favor of the rest.
Not the gentility, of course. During the six consecutive terms Johnson had served as one of Kentucky’s members in the U.S. House of Representatives, most of the state’s wealthy slave-owners had been indifferent to his personal habits. He didn’t represent
after all, for the most part. The scandalmongering with regard to Julia and the girls hadn’t really started until John J. Crittenden resigned from the Senate in 1819 and Johnson was appointed to fill out Crittenden’s term of office. A congressman was one thing; a senator, another.
But most of Kentucky’s citizens were neither wealthy nor slave-owners. So far as they were concerned, Johnson’s family arrangements were his own business. What mattered was all the rest: the fact that he was a genuine war hero; the fact that he was politically allied with Andrew Jackson’s wing of the Democratic-Republican Party; most of all, the fact that Johnson had led the fight to get debt imprisonment abolished in Kentucky and was striving to do the same thing on a national level.
And, besides, every
personal habit of Johnson’s led poor settlers on the frontier to favor him. Both as a Kentucky legislator and now as a national one, Johnson had made great efforts to gain compensation for the recent war’s disabled veterans or their widows and orphans. If Blue Spring Farm was notorious as a place where a black woman presided over the dinner table and black children sat at it, it was also famous as a place of refuge for disabled veterans and their families. The two veterans on the porch—one missing an arm, the other a leg—would have half a dozen counterparts somewhere about the house or farm. Or their widows and orphans. No one in need was ever turned away from Richard M. Johnson’s estate—never mind that the aid itself was often passed over by the dark-skinned hands of his common-law wife.
Kentucky’s gentility had been disgusted to see Johnson appointed to serve out Crittenden’s term in 1819. They’d been positively outraged to see him handily win the election for another term in the Senate in 1822.