Back | Next

Chapter 9

When they were gone, Jackson took off his hat and gestured with it toward a chair on the other side of the table. "Have a seat, Sam."

It was the first time he'd ever used Houston's first name. After Sam took his seat, Jackson laid the hat on the table—gently, this time, taking care not to damage it even further—and pulled out a chair on his side. As soon as the general sat down, he spoke.

"I'm going to break them, Sam. All of them. The Cherokees and the Choctaws just as much as the Creeks. Don't have any doubt about it. Know that, right from the start."

Sam took a deep breath. Before he could say anything, Jackson waved his hand impatiently.

"Spare me your objections. Tarnation, I didn't say it was fair. What in the name of Jesse has 'fair' got to do with any of it? Is it fair that a Cherokee needs eight square miles of land to enjoy his customs and habits, but a crofter in Scotland or Ireland—or England, or Germany, for that matter—has to eke out a living on a tiny patch of poor dirt? Am I supposed to tell my kinsmen—yours, too—who are pouring into America that they should go back and knuckle their foreheads to their noble betters in the old country?"

He laughed harshly. "Not a chance, Sam. I wouldn't do it even if I could. My loyalties are clear. They're to my own people, and be damned to anyone else. That I learned from my good old mother. And you're going to have to make the same decision, one way or the other."

Sam had been holding his breath all the way through, without realizing it. Now, he let it out.

"I don't have a problem with that, General. A man should have his loyalties, and live by them. But I do have a problem— might, anyway—with how it's done."

"I don't care how it's done," Jackson said firmly. He ran bony fingers through his hair. "If it can be done humanely, though, then that would be fine by me."

For a moment, his face came as close to softening as that intrinsically ferocious face ever could. "I know the Indians are calling me 'Sharp Knife,' and frankly I don't regret the fact. Not one bit. Rather like it, actually, since it makes things easier for me. But I don't cut people for the pleasure of it, either."

That was true enough. Andrew Jackson was probably the most belligerent man Sam had ever met, but he wasn't one of those people who took a sick enjoyment in inflicting pain. He could be utterly callous, yes, but you couldn't honestly call him cruel. By reputation, he even treated his slaves better than most plantation owners—although God help a slave who was insubordinate or tried to run away. Jackson would have them lashed, chained, and then sell them.

Sam thought about it. "It won't be easy," he said.

"To put it mildly! Say whatever else you want about the sava—ah, our noble red brethren—but nobody's ever accused them of being cowards. Sure, they'll resist. I'll still break them. If I have to, I'll crush them out of existence. Just like some of my none-too-noble ancestors crushed others out of existence. Where are the Ostrogoths and the Lombards now?" The general flicked fingers across his cheek. "Somewhere in here—and in your face, too—mixed in with everything else."

Sam wasn't surprised by the general's knowledge of history. Whether or not there were any extra hats in Jackson's chests, Sam knew there were books. And not just the Bible and The Vicar of Wakefield that, by reputation, were said to be Jackson's only reading matter. The general's written English might be riddled with eccentric spelling and syntax, but Jackson was far better educated—self-educated, anyway—than most people realized.

"I don't care about that part of it either," Sam said bluntly. "The Indians aren't any different from our own barbarian ancestors. The Cherokees haven't been in their area for more than a few centuries, probably. They came from farther north, driven out by some other tribe—and I'm sure they didn't hesitate to drive someone else out to make room for themselves. The whole Creek Confederacy is a patchwork of conquered tribes, when you get right down to it.

"Still and all, they aren't Huns. Once the Creeks broke a tribe, they let them join. Are you prepared to do the same? Make them citizens?"

To Sam's surprise, Jackson nodded.

"Real citizens, I mean. Not that half-and-half business we do with the freedmen."

Freedmen weren't slaves, but they weren't really citizens, either. Not, at least, in any state Sam knew about it. They couldn't run for office—couldn't even vote, for that matter—and were restricted by law in any number of other ways. They couldn't marry whites, for instance.

Jackson shrugged. "I'm not the Almighty, Sam. I don't have a problem with letting the Indians become full citizens of the country—if they agree to give up their independence. But that's just my personal opinion. You know as well as I do that most states wouldn't agree to it. Not in full, anyway."

Sam was rather proud of the fact that his eyes—blue, like the general's, if a softer shade—never left Jackson's face.

After a moment, it was the general who looked away. "All right, tarnation. I'll promise to do what I can. Within reason."

Jackson usually couldn't stay seated for very long. He rose to his feet, and began pacing.

"But that's no real solution, and you know it as well as I do." Jackson jerked his head toward the entrance of the tent. "Is that John Ross fellow still here with you?"

Sam nodded. "Yes, he is. He and James Rogers decided to stay, when all the other Cherokees left. I'm pretty sure The Ridge—Major Ridge, he's calling himself now—told them to do so."

Jackson grinned. "Major Ridge, is it? He'll grab what he wants from us, in other words, and leave aside the rest. So, tell me, Sam: Is that young Ross, who looks like the spitting image of a Scotsman, any different from the rest? Is he more willing than any of them to give up his political independence?"

The worst thing to do when dealing with the general was to lie, or even to try fudging the truth. "No, sir. He's flexible, mind you. But he's just as determined as any of them to stay a Cherokee. There are some exceptions, but not many of them would want to become U.S. citizens, even if they had the chance."

"I didn't think so. And that leaves us with only two options. Let's face the truth squarely, Sam."

Again, the general jerked his head toward the tent flap. "The United States of America already has an estimated eight million citizens, with more coming across the Atlantic every week. There were eighty thousand Americans alone just in Tennessee when we got statehood twenty years ago—and the population's probably doubled since then. How many Cherokees are there, all told? For that matter, how many people in all the southern tribes put together?"

Sam spread his hands. "Who knows, really? At a guess—but it's probably a pretty fair one—I'd say there are about twenty thousand Cherokees. They're the biggest tribe, except for maybe the Creeks, so... All told? Maybe eighty thousand."

Jackson nodded. "And that's eighty thousand people. Not eighty thousand warriors. At best, I doubt all the tribes together could field fifteen thousand men in a war. Not all at once, anyway. And however fierce they can be in a battle, their tribes are fragile because of the way they live. I'll just burn them out, all of them, like I've been doing to the Creeks. They'll surrender soon enough."

The general's words were harsh, but Sam knew they weren't anything more than the simple truth. Jackson's soldiers had been systematically burning the towns and riverbank crops of the hostile Creeks as they marched. By now, the Upper Town Creeks were on the edge of starvation, and hundreds of them were coming in to surrender. Soon, it would be thousands.

The traditional way of war among the southern tribes was a thing of clan feuds and tribal clashes. Short battles and ambushes, usually, followed by a peace settlement. The kind of relentless total war Jackson was waging was simply not something they could deal with.

Jackson drove it home, as relentlessly as he'd driven the campaign. "They don't stand a chance, Sam, not in the long run. Leave me out of it. Leave the whole U.S. Army out of it. Then what? I'm not even their worst enemy. They can call me Sharp Knife, but what do they think those cussed Georgians are? Tens of thousands of rapacious little razors, that's what."

And that, too, was no more than the truth. Even by the standards of white settlers on the frontier, the Georgians were notorious for their land avarice. They were just about as notorious—among Tennesseans, anyway—for not being worth a damn in a straight-up war against the hostiles. But it didn't matter, not in the long run. Georgians might run for cover every time the Indians went on the warpath, but they were back again soon enough. Killing Indians whenever they had a chance, grabbing their land, burning everything they couldn't steal.

If they had the martial reputation of locusts, they had the voracity as well. And the numbers.

"You could . . ." But Sam didn't even have the chance to finish the sentence.

"Stop them? How?" Jackson's expression wasn't quite a sneer. Not quite. "How am I—how is the whole U.S. government, for that matter—supposed to stop hundreds of thousands of settlers from shoving in on Indian land? Stop playing the innocent, Sam. You know those people as well as I do, because they're our own. The 'people of the western waters,' some call them. They're Scots-Irish immigrants, the most of them. Being honest, not all that much different from the Indians. Just as feisty, for sure—and there are a sight more of them."

Sam couldn't help but smile. The truth was, the people who had produced both he and Jackson weren't very far removed from being barbarians themselves, even today. They were flooding into North America just like, in ancient days, the Gauls and Germans had flooded into Western Europe. Today's "people of the western waters" had been yesterday's border reivers, often enough.

"How is anyone supposed to stop them, Sam?" The general picked up his hat and, for a moment, looked like he might smash it back onto the table.

"What would it take?" he demanded. "I'll tell you what."

He did smash the hat back on the table. "We'd have to scrap our precious republic and replace it with something like the stinking tsars have set up in Russia, that's what. Turn everyone into serfs so we could establish a level of taxation necessary to keep a huge standing army in the field. That would keep the people in their place. Over my dead body!"

Sam studied the hat. He'd studied mathematics, too, when he'd been a schoolboy. And he could recognize an immovable equation when he saw one.

Jackson flicked the much-battered hat aside. "So that's one option," he stated flatly. "Give it twenty years—thirty, at the outside—and 'the Cherokees' will just be a name. Something schoolboys study in books."

Sam took another deep breath. He took off his own cap and ran fingers through his hair. "And the other?"

"You know it as well as I do. Relocation. Let the Cherokees— all of the southern tribes—move across the Mississippi. If they want to keep their independence, fine. Let 'em do it somewhere else."

Sam smiled crookedly. "You sound like my foster father—his older brother Tahlonteskee, even more. That's what they've been advocating for almost twenty years now."

Sam's hair was even bushier than the general's, so he could keep busy with it for a while. "Not with much luck, though, in terms of convincing most of the Cherokees. Their opponents keep asking difficult questions. Just for starters: What's to keep the same thing from happening down the road a spell? Give it another fifty years—a century, for sure—and there'll be more settlers wanting their new land."

The general started fiddling with his hat, trying awkwardly with one hand to press it back into shape. Sam's smile got more crooked still, and he reached across the table.

"Here, General, let me do that. Out of curiosity, by the way, do you have a bunch of these stashed away somewhere?"

Jackson handed over the hat, chuckling. "Of course." A long, bony finger indicated one of the chests in a corner of the tent. "I had Rachel send me half a dozen, after Coffee gave me the idea. I'd like to salvage this one, though, if we can. I've only got two left, and the things are blasted expensive."

As Sam did his best to knead the hat back into shape, Jackson went on.

"If that turns out to be the case, then to blazes with them. Am I supposed to be their nursemaid, too? Tarnation, Sam, if the Indians are given half a century to put together a real nation of their own out there—and they still can't manage the affair— then let them go the way of all broken nations. Let them join the Babylonians and the Trojans. That's just the way it is. Always has been, always will be—just like the British will break us if we let them."

That seemed fair enough, to Sam, at least in the broad strokes. The devil, of course, was in the details.

"I'll help you, sir, as best as I can," he said evenly. "I'll do my best to convince them. But you know as well as I do that there are a hundred different problems. The help that the U.S. government always promises the Indians somehow never materializes, or if it does so, it's always in dribs and drabs. Why? Well, let's start with the fact that most Indian agents are crooks and swindlers and thieves, and the ones who aren't—like Colonel Meigs or Benjamin Hawkins—are the ones you usually quarrel with the most."

Jackson glared at him. "Can't stand the bastards," he growled. "Nothing but blasted injun lovers, the both of 'em."

"So am I, General," Sam said mildly, "when you get right down to it. I grew up among them, and I've got as many Cherokee friends as I do white ones. If I'd stayed a few more years, I'd probably have wound up marrying a Cherokee girl. I can even tell you her name. Tiana Rogers, my foster father's niece." He handed the hat back to Jackson.

Jackson snatched the hat, still glaring. Sam sat up straight in his chair and returned the glare without flinching. "That's the way it is, sir. Take it or leave it."

After a moment, and not to Sam's surprise—no longer, now that he'd taken the general's measure—Jackson began to chuckle.

"My own injun lover, is it?" He placed the hat gently back on his head. "Well, why not? Maybe you can do with magic and your glib tongue what I'd have to do with a sword and a torch. Well, if you can, I won't object."

Sam took another deep breath. "That's not enough, General."

The glare flared up again. It was like staring into two blue furnaces.

"What?" he demanded. "You're adding conditions, too?"

Sam smiled easily, and spread his hands again. "I wouldn't call them 'conditions,' sir. Not exactly. Let's just say I want a promise from you that you'll back me up, when the time comes, as much as I'll back you up until then. I don't know when or where that'll be, I admit, or even if it'll ever be. But I still want your word on it."

At first Jackson didn't say a word, and, for a moment, Sam was sure that he was about to snap a flat and angry refusal.

But, whatever he would have done, he was interrupted before he could respond. A man stepped through the tent's entrance, pushing the flap aside, and came two steps into the tent. Then he stood still and very erect. He had a dark complexion, like a part-blood Indian, but he was wearing a white man's clothes.

Jackson's glare was transferred onto him. "Who in the blazes are you, sir? I don't recall inviting you to intrude upon my privacy!"

The man replied in perfectly fluent English. "Yes, you did. The word is in all the towns that you are looking for William Weatherford."

Jackson lunged to his feet, his anger instantly replaced by eagerness. "You know where the murdering bastard's to be found? Splendid! There'll be a reward for you, be sure of it."

The man's face showed no expression at all. Suddenly, Sam rose and reached for his sword.

But the man ignored him.

"I am not an informer. I am William Weatherford. Also known as Red Eagle. I led the attack on Fort Mims. They say you intend to hang me for it.

"Do it then, Sharp Knife."

Back | Next