Fit for Freedom (part 35)
The Peace Council Begins
In the words of Tolkien, this section “grew in the telling” a bit and I split it into two parts.
Nat had still been wiping the sleep from his eyes by the time he arrived at the house where Governor Tyler had taken up lodging ahead of the peace council. It was near where the acting governor of Kentucky stayed. As a consequence, not a single Wyandot or Delaware or Shawnee or native of any description was to be found within a thousand yards of the place. The distrust was palpable in the air of the town, and so Nat was convinced that the Indians were just as eager to stay away from the area as the white men were determined to keep them out.
Governor Tyler had summoned him very early that morning. It was even earlier than usual, Nat thought. He was not fond of the walk from the dirty public house on the other end of town to where the governor was situated, but it had been his own choice. Tyler had generously offered him a room—albeit one to be shared with another adviser—but Nat had surprised himself by turning down the invitation. As politely as he could manage it, he had told the governor that he would rather prefer to stay with Black Fox.
Although the governor seemed open to the idea of finding a place there for the young Shawnee, his other adviser (who seemed to have taken on the role of something like a bodyguard) lodged a strenuous objection. Monroe, who Nat assumed might have been more sympathetic, had yet to arrive from Virginia.
“I am sorry, Mr. Aldridge. You can see my dilemma, I’m sure,” Tyler had said.
Nat had merely nodded.
Why he had supposed anything different would result, he could not imagine any more easily than why he had insisted in the first place. He distrusted the Indians every bit as much as his Virginian and Kentuckian comrades, and yet it had still felt unsettlingly like some kind of betrayal to separate himself from his guide and companion who had hardly left his side over the past months.
The lodgings they were eventually able to obtain were less than even Nat had anticipated. The nameless public house was one of only a handful of places in Louisville where Black Fox was known at all. Even then, Nat was only able to convince the owner of the establishment to allow Black Fox to take up a corner of the common room and sleep on a bench. Protection from the weather was better than nothing, he supposed.
When Nat was ushered into the room that had been serving as Governor Tyler’s office he was not surprised to see that the man seemed to have been at work for quite some time.
“Ah yes, Mr. Aldridge,” he said, without looking up for longer than necessary to determine who his visitor was. “I won’t keep you long.”
That was fortunate, Nat thought, for every surface, including the other seats, was covered by papers, including not a few maps that appeared to show white settlements and tribal areas.
“What I most need from you and your companion today is every last word that these sachems say to one another. Is your friend up to the task?”
“I don’t think you need to worry about Black Fox, sir.”
“Very well, very well. Noon. Don’t be late.” The unstated “that will be all” hung in the air and Nat saw himself out.
Returning to the public house, Nat found Black Fox seated in a corner by himself, using a heel of bread to sop up the bacon grease from his plate. He procured a plate for himself and sat down beside him on the bench.
“Will they come?” Nat asked in between bites.
“You can see the smoke from the campfires as well as I can. You know they are already here.”
“But will they come in and talk peace, I mean?”
“They have come too far not to.”
“And Red Cap?”
Black Fox shrugged. “Who can know such a thing? Is it not true that he and his people have the most to lose by negotiating with the white settlers?”
“Viewed differently, does not he not also stand to gain the most?” said a voice from behind them.
Nat turned to see the eager but weary face of his young friend Camden Page.
“I thought you would not come!” were the first words Nat could manage as he rose to greet Camden.
“So did I—that is until Mr. Monroe prevailed upon me. I have the unpleasant distinction of being the chief reason for his delayed arrival. We were able to hire a coachman who was willing to drive through the night last night, or else we might have missed the beginning of the council altogether.”
Camden sat down and a girl brought a plate of food from the kitchen: the same bacon, eggs, and a crust of bread that were served to all the other patrons.
“I take it Monroe went directly to meet with Governor Tyler?”
“Indeed. His offense is one the governor is liable to forgive, but the proper penance must be made sooner rather than later.”
Nat and Black Fox gave Camden the latest developments surrounding the council and briefed him on the plan of action for that day. Camden expressed his disappointment that the two of them had been forced to lodge at the public house, but was met with Nat’s strong rebuff when he hinted at staying with them. They both appreciated the gesture, but Nat knew what even a small breach of propriety could mean for someone in Camden’s position.
The hours between breakfast and the appointed time for the council passed quickly. Camden brought small news items from back East. Thomas Jefferson had recently returned from his post as Minister of France and was expected to appear before the Congress in person; his seeming sympathies toward the French revolutionaries may have put his ministerial appointment in jeopardy. Aside from that, the Vermont Republic’s decision about whether to join the Confederation or unite with Quebec was imminent, but the outcome seemed to defy prediction. Then, of course, was the news of his engagement, the announcement of which caused Nat to give his friend more than a few hearty slaps of congratulations across the young man’s broad, farmer’s shoulders.
“You’ve done very well, Mr. Page. From everything I know, you’ve found yourself a very fine woman in Ms. Burwell.”
Glancing up at the mantlepiece clock that looked more than a little out of place, Nat saw that the time was nearly half past eleven.
“It’s not a long walk, but we’d best head out.”
Black Fox rose in silence, collected a small satchel from under the bench that had served as his bed, and exited ahead of the other two men.
“Is he well?” Camden asked.
“As well as he probably can be. He’s lived on the edges of or outside both his own world and ours for so long . . . well, it can’t be easy to have to watch them come crashing together like this. And on top of all that, he finds himself at the center of the whole thing, with Governor Tyler relying on him for assistance yet unwilling to be seen near him. I fancy myself to be more than fair at judging what a man is thinking, but I can never quite read in Black Fox’s face what I might be able to in other men. But that’s my best guess at it, for whatever it may be worth.”
Several minutes later the two of them arrived at the site that had been arranged for the peace council. A picturesque meadow on the edge of the town was ringed by a freshly-cut rail fence that was already beginning to fill with spectators. Governor Tyler and Isaac Shelby, presently acting as governor of Kentucky, were seated together, along with a handful of aides and advisors. Monroe took his place a few places to Tyler’s left, his chair positioned so that one foot stuck out from under the large tarp that had been erected for shade. Camden sat in the empty chair behind him.
A second tarp had been erected parallel to the other with a gap of a few yards in between, close enough that one could talk to someone seated under the other without raising his voice, but well beyond grasping distance. Not that Nat thought any kind of grappling was likely—the white men that had already assembled under the first tarp as representatives of their respective states were not, as a group, in the full vigor of their youth. The tribal leaders with whom they had come to deal were sure to be much the same. Long tables also divided the two assemblages, presumably for the use of chiefs and governors to sign papers. If so, Nat pondered whether that might have been presumptuous.
As Nat and Black Fox seated themselves on the grass, a little to the left of Monroe, a low murmur was swirling its way around the delegation. From what Nat could make out, there was no little discontent at the fact that the appointed hour was nearly upon them, and not a single chief or sachem had yet to appear. Nat was on the verge of suggesting that Black Fox leave to see what he could find out when a pair of men stepped out from the tree line across the meadow.
The men wore buckskin trousers that had been dyed black and were ringed with red tassels. Their red shirts billowed slightly in the sleeves and would not have seemed terribly out of place in many a Philadelphia tailor’s shop. The distinctive way in which they wore their ceremonial turkey feathers identified them as Delaware, Nat thought, though recalling the lessons that Black Fox had given him was difficult at that moment.
One of the official translators stood at the end of the row of tables and eyed the approaching chief. The two men came to a halt under the tarp and the elder began to speak in a tongue utterly foreign to Nat’s ears. He spoke in measured, sonorous tones, pausing at intervals to let the translator keep up.
“I am Shingahelas, sachem of my people. This is my son, Kithanink. We have walked many days and crossed many rivers to come here. We come in peace, seeking peace. Though our land has seen much war with you white men, that does not have to continue. We may never be brothers or friends, but we shall see today whether we can live beside each other.”
The translator seemed to wait for more, but the chief signaled that he had made an end of his speech. The son made a display of the conspicuous battleax that he had been carrying and then placed it on the table in front of him, before he and his father took up seats under the shade of the tarp. Nat took that gesture as their sign that their aspirations for peace were genuine.
There then emerged from the trees a long line of men, some in similar, eye-catching attire to the first two and others in the kind of plain, homespun clothes that any white settler would have worn. Each group, pair, or individual representative of the various tribes, bands, and nations approached the meeting area and made a similar demonstration of their peaceful intentions followed by a speech that carried much the same tone and words as the first. Some chiefs were brief and others went on at considerable length; some sounded almost apologetic while others sounded positively warlike.
By the position of the sun, Nat estimated that the procession must have lasted at least an hour. At the end of it, dozens of chiefs and their entourages of various sizes were seated facing the small congress of American officials and their advisors and assistants. Acting Governor Issac Shelby rose, approached the center of the long tables, and began to speak. Two translators echoed his words in one of the native Algonquian dialects and—somewhat jarringly, Nat thought—in French. Between the three tongues, however, everyone seemed to understand; Nat only noticed one or two of the young men engaged in additional, hushed translation for the benefit of their elders.
“War has ravaged our peoples,” Shelby began. “But it need not do so forever. Many of you have lived alongside many of us in peace. There is plenty of land. Many animals inhabit the woods.”
Nat would have thought that that line in particular would grab Black Fox’s attention, but as he looked over at him, the Shawnee’s attention was on the Indian delegation. He was scanning the crowd, as if he were looking for someone. Shelby continued speaking.
“What is it?” Nat whispered.
“Red Cap,” Black Fox whispered back. “I do not see him.”
Nat surveyed the group for himself. Indeed, if Red Cap were in attendance, he had hidden or disguised himself very well. The more likely explanation was that he had not come at all. Shelby continued speaking for several minutes, but Nat was lost in his thoughts.
It seemed incredible that the absence of one man might foreclose any chance of the council’s success, but Nat knew enough to be sure that no peace they reached would last unless it included the mighty chieftain who had once been his captor. The problem was whether there was anything that could be done about it.
After Shelby finished, the American assistant laid out several large maps on the tables. Governor Tyler and Shelby met two of the chiefs at the table and began talking with them through the French translator. They spoke for a considerable length of time, making frequent references to the map. When they had finished another group was invited to join the American governors at the table and the Alongquian translator stepped into the fray.
The small conferences over the maps went on well into the afternoon. Nat was on the verge of dozing off when a loud bang snapped him back to attention. A young warrior wearing a bright red, old British infantry coat had slammed his fist on the table. Tyler, Shelby, and their assistants stood motionless as the translator struggled to keep up with the man’s frenetic dialect.
Just as Governor Tyler was about to respond, however, a rumble of low voices started to work its way forward in waves from the back of the Indian side of the gathering. Black Fox rose, making his way slowly toward the tables, but kept his eyes fixed on the commotion.
The crowd parted and the unmistakable face of Red Cap emerged, followed in train by some half a dozen of his warriors. The famous war chief strode up to the tables; he matched piercing gazes with Governor Tyler, who looked as if he were about to speak. Nat noticed, however, that just as the man was beginning to open his mouth, Black Fox put a hand on his shoulder. He knew that although the white man’s etiquette suggested that Red Cap should wait his turn to be heard, nevertheless, to dishonor Red Cap as a guest and an equal party to the negotiations by cutting him off would do far more harm than good. It was plain on their faces that neither Governor Tyler nor Shelby cared much for that concession, but they seemed content for the moment to resign themselves to it.
Red Cap made a grand gesture and then spoke in clear, commanding tones and in better English than Nat thought he had heard all day.
“I am Red Cap. You all know me well. I have fought many of those on both sides of this council. I fought to keep our wives safe and our children fed. I do not want to keep fighting forever, but I will not stop one day before I must. I will hear what the white men have to say. I will look at their maps. I will protect my people.”
As Red Cap finished speaking he took several steps back from the center. The conversation at the table resumed and the young men who accompanied him spread an assortment of blankets and furs on the ground, in between the tables and the other assembled chiefs. He had been the last to arrive, but then took up a position as if he were at the head of the whole business. It struck Nat as hopelessly arrogant, but also as consistent with the kind of man he believed Red Cap to be: supremely confident in his own abilities. It remained to be seen how his presence would affect the prospects for peace.
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