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About the middle of December Major Armstrong received at Fort Coffee sixty thousand dollars in specie, to be paid over to the several Indian agents, to be distributed as annuities to the tribes embraced in that superintendence. It had been boxed and officially sealed at the New Orleans mint, each box containing one thousand dollars.
The boat had come late in the afternoon, and the boxes of coin were delivered to Mr. Armstrong, at our mission, about sunset; but, before it was possible to bring a wagon and horses to remove the treasure, a messenger arrived from the Agency with the sad intelligence that Mr. Irwin, the brother-in-law of Mr. Armstrong, was dying. He must go at once to the bedside of his dying friend; but it was impossible to carry the money with him, for its weight was over two tuns avoirdupois. What could be done under the circumstances? It was almost dark; it would require a stout team of horses to draw it, and no such team was at hand. It would not be secure in the hands of his servants; for the Choctaw and Cherokee Indians knew of its arrival, and might be tempted to take possession of it and appropriate it to personal and private uses.
After consultation it was thought proper to convey the money up the hill and deposit it in the little log office, and appoint H. C. Benson to guard it till morning. Now, it must be remembered that the office was scarcely six feet high, built of small logs, had a frail door and window, and was covered with “shakes,” or clapboards. Our Cherokee neighbors were not scrupulously honest, for they had amalgamated with the whites till they had greatly deteriorated, and acts of robbery and murder were not rare occurrences with them. Many of them knew the money to be at Fort Coffee: hence the guarding of such an amount was thought to involve a degree of peril.
The arrangement was made, and Mr. Armstrong went to the bedside of his dying friend. I was placed on duty. To guard so much treasure was a responsibility of no trifling character, especially in so frail a castle. It was necessary to be armed, but there were neither Sharpe’s rifles nor Colt’s revolvers on the premises, and the only weapons from which a choice could be made were the old ax, with which the cook split his wood for the stove, and the shot-gun, with which I had sometimes amused myself in shooting rabbits. The former was thought to be the most available, and consequently selected. A fire was kindled in the chimney, a mattress and blankets spread upon the floor, the door locked, and the ax placed in a convenient position. After reading two or three hours I lay down, with my head in close proximity to a box which contained five thousand dollars in gold, and there I slept soundly till sunrise in the morning. On waking up I made diligent examination and found myself and the money all on hand; the robbers had not come.
During the night Mr. Irwin died, and preparations were made to bury him in the little graveyard at Fort Coffee, where soldiers had been interred during the time that the troops were stationed at that place.
Mr. Irwin was a single man, a native of Tennessee, and had served for some time in the office of the Choctaw Agent as a clerk. For years he had been suffering with pulmonary consumption. At four o’clock in the afternoon we conveyed the lifeless remains to the little graveyard in the edge of the forest. There were about twelve persons in attendance, and no ladies except Mrs. G. and Mrs. B.
The funeral services were conducted by Mr. Goode; they were peculiarly solemn and impressive. It seemed sad to commit a friend to the dust in a wilderness country, where no mother, sister, or female friend would ever pour out tears of fond affection over the sleeping one. We learned anew the lesson of our mortality while we stood in that wild cemetery on the hillside. The words of Dr. Young occurred to our recollection with a force and vividness hitherto unfelt:
” This is creation’s melancholy vault;
The vale funereal, the and cypress gloom,
The land of apparitions, empty shades!
All, all en earth is shadow; all beyond
Is substance ; the reverse is folly’s Creed
How solid all where change shall be no morel”
After the funeral services were closed a wagon with four horses came for the treasure, and I was relieved from guard duty.