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Authors: Robert Lautner

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BOOK: The Road to Reckoning
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My father willingly signed on for a job for which he would not be paid. Another five minutes and my father would have been paying him. We
were being let in on the ground floor of a great enterprise. I noted when we left that there was another gentleman who was also waiting to be let in on this secret ground floor.

It was commission work and I will accept that that is still work, for my father earned the same for the spectacles he sold, but he still had a stipend for his day-to-day living. But people needed spectacles as they were. They did not require reinventing. At the time, beyond his charming of us both, I saw no prospect in this mister Colt reinventing the pistol.

He called it the ‘Improved Revolving Gun,’
improved
being normal devious bluffen brag for a stolen idea and snake oil sold from a buckboard.

This young man, Samuel Colt, now famous throughout the world for ‘improving’ the act of murder, was aware as any that Collier’s revolving flintlock was a fine gentleman’s gun and that the percussion cap had led to the development of the new Allen pepperbox pistol, which put several shots in a man’s fist, mostly the shaky hands of gamblers and barkeeps and others of ill repute whose reputations mister Colt wished to expand by his own invention.

His ambition was to bring unto the world a gun that could be machine made by a labor-line rather than a craftsman. A factory gun. A cheaper gun. The parts could be interchangeable, fixed on the fly (which, in my opinion, was admitting to its faults), and, with a good-sized factory, his arms could be mass-produced for the military.

He had made several hundred revolving carbines and pistols and had provisionally sold some of these down in Texas to the independents (they were fighting with the Seminoles again and always with the Mexicans) and mister Colt claimed that he had won the U.S. patent for his revolving gun the day after the battle for the Alamo began, although he had applied a year before, and, as he declared, if only providence had come sooner the outcome may have been different. He assured my father that he was to be one of the few who would change the course of the history of warfare.

I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot.

My father agreed to carry twelve.

Mister Colt held his faith in an army and navy contract, be it American, French, or British, for he had traveled and patented the gun to them all, but like any good salesman who is confident in his product, rather than one that sells and runs, he believed that if he put the guns in enough American hands that would do just as well. He kept back in his history that the army had already rejected his weapon as too flimsy for any good field let alone a bad one. It could be disassembled; it could break just as well because of that. Besides, the country was at peace. Even war-makers draw a line at spending sometimes.

So my father was to become a salesman—more, a spokesperson as mister Colt put it—for the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. We would travel west and promote the gun, the pistol not the carbine, my father well aware that this was not a new thing. Even in New York revolving rifles were sold, although mister Colt was adamant to point out that those were hand-turned and not mechanical and thus just inferior sporting guns. My father took four models each of the machined pistol, all blued steel.

There were four of the belt models with straight, plain grips. Belt model being as imagined: a gun for a man’s belt for short duty, for street-work; not noble like a horse-pistol fired from a saddle holster in defense of Indian attack.

Four others were the scabbard type, with longer barrels and larger bore for carrying in leather. These had straight or flared walnut grips like the handle of a plow. The remainder were boxed models of both with tools and fancy linings. Mister Colt declined to offer us to sell the smaller pocket model. He would do that himself from his office in the city. Country-folk, he said, would not need such a small gun.

These were all ‘small’ guns to my mind when most used musket-bores. And why would someone hinder and confuse himself by carrying two loads of shot, one for his rifle and another for a pistol? That still does not make sense to me. However, mister Colt, a natural carpenter, and by that I mean one of those who can look at trees and envision chairs, had made a wooden model of the gun, which he gave up to me and until that point in my life was the nicest thing I had ever seen made.

This wooden gun replicated the others. That is to say the pulling back of the wooden hammer ‘revolved’ the wooden chambers of the pistol, and the cylinder locked as on a ship’s capstan as it cranked and ratcheted the hawser-chain by the sweat of men. It was on a ship, as he evoked to us both, where mister Colt fancifully dreamed up his design by watching the capstan’s ratchets. He had carved this very gun from an old ship’s block in the same manner as he had his first. I did not swallow that either.

As the hammer locked, the trigger would drop out from the wooden frame cute as a wooden toy-horse nods as you roll it across the floor, and I, as a boy, thought that he would do a far better trade selling these masterpieces as playthings.

He smiled and put it into my hand and my fist wrapped around the bell-like walnut grip, flared like some of the others, and my body took to it as naturally and as comfortable as shaking a hand. It was a stained dark wood the color of leather. I can see it still, now as I write, and in my mind I become small again, my hand shrunk by the gun. I can smell the oil on my fingers.

Mister Colt patted my head; I was small for my age and men tended to do this. I did not know if they did it to their own. I have never done it.

‘Well, Thomas,’ he asked, ‘what do you think of my gun?’

‘It has real beauty about it, sir.’ I declared this about the wooden one that I now thought was gifted to me. I would come to despise the iron ones.

If all wars were fought with wooden guns I would not have read a telegram (and mister Colt also had some invention in that bearer of bad news) that told me to dig two graves for my sons when America stopped being his brother’s keeper and mowed him down.

I have no doubt that the repeating weapon shortened wars, but only because it multiplied man’s ability to shorten the number of his enemies, and not because it would
belay the horror of his work.

I was not to have the wooden gun. Its purpose was to enable my father to enter a general store without terror to the owner and demonstrate the practicality of the Paterson, as the gun was named, before securing a sale.

And that was our journey.

My father would gather only orders, take no money, and upon returning to New Jersey, Colt would pay him commission on those orders, mister Colt having informed him that we would be rich in a month. The working samples were to be demonstrated and sold to fund our passage as need may arise; deducted from the commission, naturally.

He never once asked my father, who sold spectacles to old ladies, if he could load and fire a gun. Hands were shook.

We bought half a wheel of cheese and dodgers and crackers and with only my mother’s Dutch oven, jerky, a brick of bohea tea, and a bag of sofkee, for which we would just need to add water to feed an army, it being but little more than cornstarch and rice with some added pease, we set off on what we thought was the best road.

My father told me we had a little over twenty-nine dollars. This was more money than I had ever known in my life and I estimated my father to be a rich man. And this was coin; none of this trust in paper that we have now. I was sure that if I lodged carefully and lived on eggs and candy I could subsist on twenty-nine dollars for the rest of my life.

I was twelve and about to spend more time alone with my father than I had ever done even if you added together all the months of my life.

I will say with excitement even now that the prospect of the road held no adventure greater than the thought of being arm to arm with my father on the seat of our Brewster wagon. Every word he spoke would be to me.

It is a fault of nature that fathers do not realize that when the son is young the father is like Jesus to him, and like with Our Lord, the time of his ministry when they crave his word is short and fleeting.

But for now I had him and we went together and alone. I talked like a bird waking and my father listened all the ways out of New Jersey.

We did not make the west.

THREE

Our gelding, Jude Brown, named on account of his brown eyes and not his fawn-and-roan coat, was a hay horse. This made him slow to the road and, once he got a flavor of the grain we had brought with us, became slower still and fair plodded along as if he carried a whole town behind.

Towns were not those so incorporated that we know now. Boroughs for the most. Some of their names have changed, either through disease or shame, and only their counties remain as their forebears.

We were to travel through Pennsylvania using the lakes, rivers, and canals as our guide, which are the most populous routes, aided with only a compass. This was not such a daunting prospect as it sounds. The method was to visit one settlement and, if successful or not, get directions to the next. A man who does not want to buy your goods is most willing to direct you well to elsewhere. These directions were west anyhow and the road straight.

We camped for the most to save money and I woke almost every day smelling of smoke but glad for it, for April is not a bad month.

Sleeping on the Brewster for fear of snakes and such, I even found comfort in my father’s snoring. That was the first time I had ever slept with anybody, having no siblings, and I still do not know why people complain so. I could barely sleep for grinning.

We had flint, striker, and char cloth for the fire and it was my role to gather the wood and stones, which takes longer than you think. The small animals have no fear of you but rather chatter and chide with the birds that you are disturbing their house. We had some anthracite to fire the oven with kindling added and we made our tea first, with water from the rivers, which tasted of iron. We poured out and kept the tea in a kettle and fetched more water for the sofkee and put in the jerky to soften so it became like bacon. With the corn bread on the side, that was our dinner, and we kept to the hours of between noon and three if we were able and ate supper when we felt we had done enough. Supper would be the cheese and crackers and any sofkee meal we had left. At breakfast we would mash the dodgers with water and the scrapings of the sofkee and rewarm our tea, which would make me giddy with its strength overnight.

I did not complain, but I missed eggs and pork and I did not think it would have weighed Jude Brown too much to have carried eggs at least. I think my father had expected more farms or the towns to be larger but he never said a word on this.

Five days in, over the Delaware by ferry, and we had gained a hundred miles and made Berwick before noon. The place was busy with engineers and carpenters, the town having lost its bridge two years before due to an ice flood and keen to have it rebuilt. This progress of the bridge across the Susquehanna had brought great trade, although the men worked for half of what they would have done last year and someone with a big hat and cigar knew that and profited.

A poor businessman will pay his worker as much as he can afford. A rich one, in times disadvantageous, as little as he has to. That is the world. Still is. Your vote will not change it. You know that now. I work my land for somebody else and get on with it beside you. Maybe I am writing this to be a boy again. Maybe you are reading it for the same. A time before writs and accounts. I say a bill is not a bill until they come tapping at your window.

This place, Berwick, at least had hotels, the cheapest being eighty coronet cents and the greatest two dollars. We stayed at the cheapest, which gave us a hammock, but breakfasted farther up the street where we could get ham and eggs for one shilling, our New York term for the Spanish real, but we settled wiser on fried eggs and bread for nine red cents, thinking less of Gould’s saloon, where our hammocks were, who would charge you an extra three cents for toast. Even I knew that was costly. Jude Brown ate at the hostler and probably did the better for it.

We had made good sales so far. My father sold the Patersons for ten coin dollars, fifteen if it was sold with its kit, which included a spare cylinder and combination tool. That breakfast we had paper orders for one hundred and twenty dollars and even I knew that was not bad. It was with high hearts that we left Berwick, and even Jude Brown could sense our lack of troubles for he fair skipped along. But the towns got smaller, the road meaner, and it is along that a bit that I would meet Henry Stands. We still had the twelve Patersons, the wooden one occasionally my plaything, and I pointed it and shot at ghosts of Indians along the road.

It was the last time I played until I met my own children.

FOUR

We now approached the endless green of the Allegheny mountains, the low end of the Appalachians, which got no closer as you went toward, and we came into the skirts of Milton, still following the Susquehanna. This was a tannery place and also a great lumber town and the air was thick with the smell of sawed wood and the dust of it in your nose. They had a proper sawmill fed by the river and also their own steam-powered mill, which we did not see but did hear aplenty.

It was at that time a bustling settlement where anyone could make a house and call it a hotel. There were tents outside the town and these were the abodes of those waiting for better fortune.

With so much wood there were stores nailed up every day. It had a bank, which was still open, and a main street called Front street although I did not see a Back street to accompany it. Lumber and shingles seemed to be in everybody’s hand. This was good to see. Everywhere else the hammers and the pickaxes had gone down. For ten years America had gone through a juncture of construction that had shamed the pyramids. The canals, the roads, and the bridges. Work in one place one day, walk a ways up the road and sign on as a teamster somewhere else. Now the only things building new were prisons. And we were worldwide proud of those.

BOOK: The Road to Reckoning
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