Pistols for the Botanist - January 1840
Hard to believe she’d let Samuel Colt talk her into coming back to work for the Colt Arms Company. He’d sounded pathetic and desperate, and, after all, Emily did need the money. When this stint with Colonel Bayley and his raggedy-assed Florida regiment was done, she’d better be well rewarded for putting up with such bumpkins and bastards. These Floridians made people in Texas, if Emily could ever get back to them, seem easy to deal with.
She’d waited a long time for a day like this. Ten dusty, unshaven men stood on the firing line, a double arms’ length separating each one. The Florida militiamen wore planters’ dress, square-cut white or tan shirts stuffed into pantaloons or trousers. White belts crossed their chests under dark-colored, open vests. Some wore straw hats. Others, cloth foraging caps. All wore crude, unpolished shoes or boots. Today, each man held a loaded, half-cocked Paterson Colt revolver in one hand, pointed down range. Emily West, in leather pants, polished riding boots and white blouse, her eyes shaded by a broad-brimmed straw hat, paced the line five yards behind the squad. Emily’s hard work, all the sacrifice, would start to pay off if these men could be trained.
“Ready and steady on the line.” West shouted, looking left to right. “Remember the drill. If you hear ‘cease fire,’ that by God means no more shooting.”
She took a breath. Were they ready? Was she capable of controlling this rabble?
“On my command of ‘fire at will’,” Emily announced. “You are to fully cock and discharge your first five rounds, exchange cylinders from your pouches and engage the targets with another five rounds. Understood?”
One or two nods, but more side-to-side head shakes and grumbling came from the hard-faced, sullen troops. She eyed their firing positions, pacing left then right along the silent, rag-tag line. Only two of the men had paid Emily any attention at all when she’d shown them the firing and reloading process and given the safety talk. Even those two had mostly leered, looking her up and down. They’d been openly insulting, practically undressed her with their eyes.
“Missy, you don’t worry none ‘bout me and my boys,” Corporal Johnny Edwards, the squad leader, had said through broken yellow teeth and cracked lips. “We been shootin’ Redskins and runaway niggers a long time.” He’d waved his new Paterson Colt in her face. “You ever git tired a’ playing with these here toy pistols, I’ll let you play with a real gun, pretty girl.”
Emily came back to the present. “Gentlemen,” Why the hell was she addressing these loathsome men with such a polite term? “You may fire at will.”
Ten random metallic clicks sounded along the firing line. The first volleys cracked and zipped down range. Dust kicked up where the errant rounds struck. Very few rounds hit their targets. One board splintered, then two more split in half. Emily strode behind the group, one hand resting on her own holstered Paterson Colt pistol, the other over one ear. Terrible marksmen they were, but no problems mechanically, so far. Most of the squad exchanged cylinders and began their second round of firing.
A muffled, percussive thump erupted on her right. Not the Paterson Colt’s normal sharp muzzle report, but a dull thud. Emily knew that sound. Big trouble. Either a bad percussion cap or fouled breech. She dashed toward the third militiaman down the line.
“Cease fire,” Emily shouted. Shots still echoed, left and right, non-stop. “Cease fire on the line, dammit!”
A louder, ear splitting crack exploded and grew into ominous rolling echoes. The right side of her firing line disappeared into a blue-black cloud, lit with long fingers of reddish-yellow flame. Hats, caps, pistols and pistol fragments, soared into the air. The uncontrolled explosion swallowed fully one-third of the men. The rest of the squad flattened themselves in the dirt. No damned “Cease fire” with these insolent flatlanders.
Emily dashed toward the expanding cloud. Two bent and bloody militiamen, supporting each other, staggered out of the gun smoke and debris. West ran past the two as they collapsed in the sand. Smoke and dust drifted away from the explosion site. A third militiaman now visible, lay motionless on his side. Emily gripped one shoulder with both hands and rolled him onto his back. Blood pooled and soaked into the sandy soil under an open head wound. The side of his face was gone. One empty eye socket stared back at her. Broken teeth lined the bare jawbone. Brain matter, pinkish in the sunlight, bulged where the side of his skull had been. Two bad accidents already last week, and now? Well, this boy was dead for sure.
West sat in Colonel W. J. Bayley’s sparse office, summoned for yet another official debriefing. The Colonel, sour-faced with a skin pallor that matched his drab gray uniform, sat with a sheaf of papers in one hand. He stopped reading and looked up at her across the rickety table. A Colt repeater pistol, the empty cylinder extracted, lay between them. So who’d get the blame? Her? Maybe Sam Colt’s pistols? For certain, not the inattentive, surly bastards in the Florida militia.
“Miz West,” Colonel Bayley spoke in his heavy Florida drawl, barely above a whisper. “Mo’ bad news, Ah’m afraid. I simply no longer trust this here Paterson Colt.” He pointed at the weapon on the table. “My boys don’t neither. When the damn contraption works, ain’t nothing like it.” Colonel Bayley’s countenance darkened. “But we got us three big misfires lately. Now we got a dead boy, too.” Colonel Bayley thrust the papers across the table. “They all yo’ company’s problems from bad metal or goddamn new-fangled design, I reckon.”
“Colonel Bayley,” Emily spoke, knowing the man wouldn’t admit any culpability, “I and Mr. Colt regret the incidents. And though there’s always risk, a fatality is the most serious matter.” She hefted the Colt revolver and snapped the cylinder into the frame. “As I’ve told you, we are most familiar with the malfunction. I have been a victim myself. There’s little to do with design in this case, most likely the percussion cap.” She put the weapon down and spoke with authority. “I personally inspected all the weapons, the lot. The real problem though was discipline, or lack of such on the part of your men.”
The Colonel wouldn’t look at her. He shook his head side-to-side. What more could she say to convince Colonel Bayley that Sam Colt’s invention was what he needed for the Seminole War? This venture with the Florida Militia was finished. Probably just as well. She had another idea.
“Colonel, you know as certainly as I,” she weighed her next words. “Your men certainly were not blameless. Not in this last incident. My ‘cease fire’ command was completely ignored.”
Bayley snorted and stared up at the ceiling. He crossed his arms. Emily had had to say it. Most of the Florida militiamen could neither read nor write, and none of them paid her any professional attention or respect. The boys were more interested in verbally abusing and mentally undressing her than learning to use the repeater pistol. Was any of that in the Colonel’s reports?
“My men, madam,” Colonel Bayley spoke, louder now, “will take their chances, single shot, against the Seminoles, rather than risk being felled by Mister Colt’s mad machine. Collect your weapons and leave us be. There’ll be no recompense from the Florida Territory Treasury.” Colonel Bayley rose from his chair, handed her the Colt revolver and guided West by one elbow toward the door.
“Good day, Miss West.” the Colonel said. “You may collect your weapons and any remaining ammunition an hour after reveille tomorrow. I’ll hear no more.”
The door shut behind her. Emily West walked toward the light at the end of the dank Militia Headquarters hallway and stepped into the cool humidity of winter in south Florida. Felt just like Galveston Bay this time of year, but this was definitely not Texas.
She might be leaving this assignment, but Emily was not going back to New Jersey having failed. Sam Colt needed money. She did, too. And besides, the damned pistols worked when they were properly loaded, fired and kept clean. Another few days in Florida shouldn’t be a problem, not if her second plan worked.
Two days later, Emily West stood at the starboard railing of the coastal steamer and felt the comforting thump of the engine through the deck boards. Indian Key was smaller than she’d imagined, certainly not as developed as Key West had been five years back. Sweaty, dark dockhands guided the vessel to a berth alongside a small pier. The gangplank secured, she disembarked behind one other passenger, leaving the weapons crates secured in the ship’s hold. Sweat beaded on her neck. Even in the winter, the sticky heat this far south in the Florida Keys was palpable.
Emily dabbed with her kerchief at the moisture and pushed her way, carpetbag in hand, past laborers bustling around the small ship. These men were either prisoners or slaves, judging from their ankle chains and filthy off-white clothes. She followed the sandy walkway through botanical gardens toward the Charles Howe Mansion, the tiny island’s largest house. The mansion loomed in the distance above the vegetation. Tropical growth, green foliage with flowering reds, blues and yellows, punctuated and perfumed the stagnant air along the path. For Emily’s new plan to work, her meeting with Dr. Henry Perrine must go well.
The botanist’s red brick Victorian mansion dominated the jungle of plants and trees at the end of the path. Gables towered and a white-railed porch ran along three sides. The good doctor must have profited handsomely from his work since she’d first encountered him in Key West half a decade ago. Now, from what Emily had heard, the second Seminole uprising was getting in the way of Dr. Perrine growing and selling sisal. She had an answer for that.
West reached the foot of the front staircase. A manservant she remembered from years earlier greeted her and took her heavy valise, bowing without recognition. My God, André was still there. Doctor Perrine stood, hands on narrow hips on the covered veranda, peering out under an oversized straw hat. Emily lifted her skirt with one hand and climbed the stone steps.
“Doctor Perrine, I am Emily West.” She smiled. “My employer, Samuel Colt and I wish to sincerely thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”
The botanist shrugged and touched his hat brim, spectacles low on his nose and a sunken grin on his lips. God, the moist heat. Even in winter it was hard to breathe here. Or was it more Emily’s nerves?
“I hasten to add,” Emily remarked, “That my visit has nothing to do with botany, though I am intrigued by your exotic gardens.”
“My passion,” Doctor Perrine spoke with an elegant Northeastern accent. “Has always been to prove the commercial worth of my plantings.” He wiped his brow with a white kerchief. “In the moment, though, I am hindered in my research and development by the local savages. You may be familiar with the Seminole. These simple folk have no appreciation for my work, and I cannot abide their wishes to keep these islands wild and primitive.”
Perrine removed his hat and beckoned her into the mansion. Emily stepped into the cool, welcoming darkness. The botanist’s office occupied one wing of the first floor. Aromatic wood paneled the walls and ceiling. Bookshelves, probably filled with reference books, stood along the wall behind his massive desk. Doctor Perrine seated her, and André positioned the valise at Emily’s side. She accepted tea brought in by a second servant. The girl, probably Haitian, couldn’t have been more than twelve, the age when Emily had started her own work as a servant.
West began, the cup and saucer on her lap. “You may recall hosting a dinner party for Captain James Morgan and others in his company several years ago. I attended that spectacular affair at your Key West residence.”
Perrine nodded. Ah, a glimmer of recognition, then confusion, crossed his face. He took a sip of tea. The Doctor’s small eyes scanned Emily from head to foot.
“Miss, uh, Miss West.” Perrine scratched at stubble on his chin. “West is it now? Yes. Yes, it’s coming back to me. You indeed were with Colonel Morgan and his party, headed to the wild frontier of Texas. But were you not introduced as the wife of my acquaintance at my dinner party, His Excellency, Lorenzo de Zavala?”
Emily smiled and looked down. Not up to her to go into the past. At least the doctor was ready to talk, ready to listen. She could see she’d piqued his interest.
“No matter,” Doctor Perrine intoned. “Those were unusual times for us all. Though, I dare say we had quite the stormy evening, what with the weather and my friend John Houseman’s untimely demise. Your party’s hasty exit, too, always puzzled me. But enough of old times. What brings you to me today?”
“Good Sir. Doctor Perrine,” Emily began her plea. “We all must play our part to advance the cause of liberty. So it was back then, and so it is today.” Emily had to keep focused on selling pistols and not get caught up in the past. “To my point, you face the intrusion of, as you put it, Seminole savages. A considerable threat, not only to you and your enterprise, but to the liberty of Dade County itself. Perhaps a menace to the development of the entire Florida Territory.”
Perrine nodded agreement. Emily West bent to one side and opened the valise. She lifted out a Paterson Colt revolver and laid the weapon on his desk. The doctor’s eyes widened, then he smiled broadly.
“You are a scientist. An inventor,” Emily said, her voice earnest and direct. “My employer, Mr. Samuel Colt, is likewise an inventor. I am here at his behest to offer you and your security forces on Indian Key new weapons technology.” She pointed to the pistol with an open hand. “With as few as fifty of these repeating pistols in the service of your private army, you can tip the scales of battle with the Seminoles.”
Emily picked up the weapon and presented it to the Doctor. He grasped the pistol, grinned more with that strange line of a mouth. His frail thumb half-cocked the hammer. The Doctor knew pistols, liked what she’d brought. Now Emily just needed to close the deal.
She laid out wads, lead balls and percussion caps, cradled in paper, on his desk. Emily spent the next two hours demonstrating the mechanics of the pistol and its function.
“Miss West,” Perrine said, waving the Colt revolver, “if this repeater works even half as well as it appears intended, I’ll take it. I’ve gambled on far less certain matters and won.”
He handed the weapon back to her, handle first. Emily smiled and put the pistol back in her valise. The trip to Florida would pay off after all, despite the failure of the Militia deal. She would demonstrate the Paterson Colt, develop a training routine for Dr. Perrine’s forces and collect her payment. The look on Samuel Colt’s face when she told him the story would be worth all the hassle of Florida.
“What say you, Madam?” Dr. Perrine brought Emily back to the present. “Are you willing to provide me a bit of sport?” He winked. “I am merely asking for a firing demonstration, Miss West. Then perhaps dinner with me and my Militia Commander this evening.”
Emily West wondered how long she’d be in getting the good news to Samuel Colt. This wasn’t the deal she’d gone to Florida to administer, but Doctor Perrine had bought the entire cache of weapons.
The training had gone well. First, she’d briefed his militia commander and two senior Haitian officers on the weapons’ use and care. In less than a week on the firing range, Emily had run through drills and target practice with more than forty disciplined mercenaries. The Doctor’s men, wherever he’d found them, were a far better lot than the boys she’d come across in the Florida Militia.
For Emily, this had been quite a favorable outcome. Sometimes revisiting the past indeed helped one celebrate the future. Wonder who’d said that? And what would Samuel Colt say to this latest turn of events?
She strode up the gangplank of the New York-bound coastal steamer. Emily presented her papers to the ship’s captain. Minutes later, she followed the first officer to cramped but adequate quarters in a secure area of the vessel. If all went well, she’d be back in New York in a week at the most.
She nodded a silent goodbye to the Florida Keys fading in the distance over the railing of the ship. After two eventful visits in a decade, Emily had no plans to return.
Back in her quarters before dinner, Emily unlocked the sea chest at the foot of her bunk and checked the contents of her valise. Two thousand dollars in federal fifty-dollar banknotes lay in the folds of her red-and-brown carpetbag. She took her heavy leather purse from her shoulder and drew out a canvas pouch with another five-hundred dollars in Coronet Half Eagle gold coins. Those Emily secured in the chest as well. By God, now she was truly in business with Samuel Colt.