It was a great event in the quiet life of our little family of three when he came, as he did every two or three years, to pay us a short visit. He no sooner set foot in the house than my mother began to cook bread, cakes, puddings and pies. I have seen him make what he called a delicious breakfast on nothing but buttered toast and coffee. That was because he did not get any bread where he lived except on Christmas Day. Every pound of freight that went up the river above Fort Union in the company's keel-boats and bateaux was for the Indian trade, and there was no room for such luxuries as flour.
While Uncle Wesley was with us, mother always let me put away my books, and not say any lessons to her, and I went with him everywhere in the town. That is what St. Louis was in those days—just a good-sized town. I liked best to go with him to the levee and see the trappers and traders coming in, their bateaux loaded down with beaver and other fur pelts. Nearly all these men wore buckskin clothes and moccasins, and fur caps of their own make. They all had long hair and big whiskers and mustaches that looked as if they had been trimmed with a butcher-knife.
Every time my Uncle Wesley came out of the Far West he brought me a bow and arrows in a fine case and quiver; or a stone-headed war-club; real weapons that had killed buffalo and been in battles between the tribes. And once he brought me a Sioux scalp, the heavy braided hair all of four feet in length. When I asked him where he got it he laughed a little and said, "Oh, I got it up there near Fort Union." But I had seen my mother shake her head at him, and by that I knew that I was not to be told more. I guessed, though, that he had taken that scalp himself, and long afterward I found out that I had guessed right.
One night I heard the family talking about me. I had been sent to bed and was supposed to be asleep, but as the door to my room was open and I was lying wide awake, I couldn't help hearing. My mother was taking Uncle Wesley to task. "You know that the presents you bring him only add to his interest in trapping and trading," she said, "and as it is, we don't succeed very well in interesting him in his studies, and in the life we have planned for him."
"You know how our hearts are set on his going to Princeton," said my father, in his always low, gentle voice, "and then becoming such a preacher as his grandfather was before him. You must help us, Wesley. Show the boy the dark side of the plains life, the hardships and dangers of it."
In our little sitting-room there was a picture of Grandfather Fox, a tall, dark man with a long wig. He wore a long-tailed coat with a tremendous collar, knee-breeches, black stockings, and shoes with enormous buckles. I thought that I should not like to be a preacher if that was the way I must dress. And thinking that, I lost the rest of what they were saying and fell asleep.
Uncle Wesley stayed with us only a few days that spring. He intended to remain a month, but one morning Pierre Chouteau, the head of the great fur company, came to our house and had a long talk with him, with the result that he left for Fort Union the very next day, to take the place of some one who had died there.
So I went back to my studies, and my parents kept me closer at home than ever. I was allowed to go out on real play spells only for two hours on Saturday afternoons. There were very few American boys in the town in those days. Most of my playmates were French Creoles, who spoke very little English, or none at all, so naturally I learned their patois. That knowledge was very useful to me in after days.