Over the next two weeks, we made our way down the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Red River. The trip was easy and rapid, thanks to the current being in our favor. The workload was light, and the variety of river traffic provided occasional entertainment for those of us who had spent most of our lives staring at fields of corn and cotton. Sometimes we saw keelboats such as ours heading upstream, while other times we overtook a flatboat moving its cargo downstream to New Orleans. We saw the occasional group of Indians in a pirogue, the French word rivermen used for a dugout canoe. But of course the big treat was the sight of another paddle-wheel steamboat, the first of which we saw back where the Ohio met the Mississip’, but at some distance.
We would not see another.
We were in constant movement. During the entire six-hundred-mile stretch on the mighty Mississip’ we stopped only once for provisioning, at the old Spanish Fort Nogales, which the locals were now calling Vicksburg. It is at the site of huge cliffs near the mouth of the Rivière des Yazous—the Yazoo River—where it joins the Mississippi.
At dark the three boats tied up, we ate our supper, were soon asleep, and on our way at the next dawn. Each day and night was the same routine, which, along with our duties, made passengers visiting from one boat to another quite impracticable. I rarely saw Mattie. When I was not assisting James with the boat or Papa with this or that chore, I spent much of my time either writing in my journal or reading Mr. Burlingame’s books.
But I also spent time with some of the boys my age. Will Robinson was on board the Ohio with his family. Jimmy Dooley came over from the Missouri, and Bobby Farrell and sometimes Stephen McKellar came from the Arkansaw. We played cards and dice, told tall stories, and generally raised a ruckus on deck until the adults put us to work on one thing or another.
It was March 14, a decidedly warmer day than the weather we had experienced just a month earlier in Tennessee. Ben Torbett called out in a thunderous voice that we had arrived at the mouth of the Red River. The other boys and I rushed to the bow to see a wide river to port vigorously pouring its reddish-brown waters into the Mississip’. I asked Mr. Torbett where we were exactly. “About two hundred miles northeast of New Orleans,” he replied. “This here Red River comes down from the north and west through Indian territory.”
“Sounds like we are about as far away from any place civilized as we can get,” said Will Robinson to nobody in particular. “Why is this river water so red?”
“From the red dirt it picks up, you dunderhead,” said Jimmy Dooley. “Red from the iron in the earth,” said Mr. Torbett. “Like rust.”
We pulled into a spit of land just before we entered the Red River’s mouth, which I learned was about thirty miles south of St. Francisville, Louisiana. We all knew that the time of our easy cruise was over. From here on, instead of drifting peacefully downriver, we would be poling or towing our keelboats upriver.
The boats would be moved upstream by means of poles. Several boatmen, stationed on both sides of the prow, would drop a long setting pole to the bottom of the river and push against it as they walked toward the stern of the boat. Then they would lift their poles and run back to the bow and push again. On occasion, sweeps were used to assist or take the place of poling. The poling took a lot of manpower, so it was usually necessary for the menfolk passengers to relieve the boatmen.
When conditions warranted, we could make better time towing the boats with the cordelle. Ten or more of us menfolk would take up the cordelle, which is quite long, get out on the shore and pull the boat along by grabbing trees and bushes to provide leverage and support. This the boatmen called “bush-whacking.” If the underbrush grew too dense, preventing us from towing, the other end of the cordelle would be taken upriver and looped around a stump or a tree at the river’s edge and we would “warp” the boat forward by standing firmly on the deck, pulling hand over hand with all our strength to move the boat until we reached the end of the rope. It was very tiring work, and we were lucky to make ten miles a day.
For the first five days, the only evidence of other people was an occasional plantation along the river. There were no towns and only the rare flatboat met us—going downriver, of course. A sense of this river’s desolation settled upon me. The river itself, thick with red silt, was ugly. At times in my imagination it was flowing blood, not water.
On the evening of the fifth day we reached Pineville, nothing more than a general store that served as a collection point for tobacco and sugar crops produced by the plantations we had been passing. There was nothing but stillness here, not even a muskrat or swamp rabbit moving. Yet we stopped, mostly because Ben and Papa sought to obtain information about any troublesome situations we might encounter further on.
Feeling better from this brief overnight respite, we made the best time we could, and by midday Thursday, March 19, Ben and James figured we were only a few days away from Natchitoches. That was uplifting news to everyone within earshot. The stretch of the Red we were on was deep and narrow in the main channel, but its banks were abundantly overgrown with underbrush and fallen trees. There was no way we would be able to tow the boats, and since we had learned days earlier how difficult it was to obtain good leverage with poles, Ben thought it best for us to warp them upriver.
We worked out a system for how many men were needed on a boat to do the warping. One of the younger boys would wade a hundred yard or so upstream from the lead boat and attach the cordelle to a stout tree as near the bank as possible. The tail end would be tied off to a small bush for ease of retrieval when the boat reached the tree. The first boat’s crew would warp up, basically pulling on the cordelle to move the boat forward. Upon reaching the end they would pass their end of the cordelle to the second boat and its crew would begin warping. When the third boat had warped up to the tree end of the cordelle, a boy would jump off, untie it from the tree and carry it to another tree a hundred yards or so ahead of the boats. Then we would repeat the system again, and again, and again. It was slow, tedious work.
We had ten to twelve men working the cordelle for each boat, including two or three boatmen, the male family heads, and eleven of us boys over sixteen. I was helping Ben Torbett work the cordelle on the Arkansaw, Mattie’s boat. Three of the younger boys—my brother Joel, Hiram Driscoll, and Peter McKellar, Mattie’s youngest brother— were taking turns tying off and fetching the cordelle. By midafternoon, we had been pouring our sweat into this warping system for over nigh on six hours.
The first mate, or bossman, on the Arkansaw was Blaise Lejeune, an Acadian from the area around St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. “Tous les messieurs,” he said in a big barrel-chested voice. Some few years older than me and James, he had a handsome, clean-shaven, ever-smiling face. His only affectation was tying his long hair with a black ribbon at the nape of his neck. “All right, mes amis. I believe we should get back to the poles after this last chaîne. Monsieur McKellar, tie us off to that large oak about seventy-five yards ahead, s’il vous plait.” He delivered his “if you please” with a hearty laugh. We pushed nearer the bank and shallower water so Peter would be no more than waist deep.
As Peter went over the side into the icy-cold water, the menfolk took the opportunity to sit down for a smoke. I stood next to Monsieur Lejeune at the prow, engaging him in conversation about his navigational experience on the various rivers in these parts.
“What river conditions tell you when it is the right time to go back to poles?” I asked.
Blaise thoughtfully rubbed his chin as we watched Peter move closer to shore, keeping himself as far out of the deeper icy water as possible.
“The water is getting colder,” called Peter.
“Move along,” I called back. “The sooner you get the rope tied, the sooner you’ll be out.”
“Well, most of the important knowledge of a river can only be obtained by repeated journeys upon it,” said Blaise, in a vague response to my question. “Then, of course, the wise boatman knows the river he is on is never the same river twice. Alors!” He laughed. “So, we can know that our Red River is getting shallower and the bottom more solid. These conditions give us better leverage. Je pense—I think—soon we can forget about the cordelles. Je pense some of our passengers are tiring of this chore, n’est pas? But we will likely have un peu, a little more, of towing tomorrow.”
“What about this mass of logs I hear about, up above Natchitoches?” I asked. “Have you been up there? Is it navigable?”
“Alors, you refer to the terrible Great Raft,” he answered, but before he could finish his sentence we both watched as Peter dropped completely out of sight. In one moment he was standing on a sandbar we could see was jutting out into the river. The next moment, he had disappeared.
“Mon Dieu!” My God! cried Blaise. Without thinking, I was in the water. There was no question in my mind that the sandbar was quicksand and Peter had been drawn into it.
I heard Blaise yell for the other men, then a splash. He had followed me into the water, but I was already twenty yards ahead of him, swimming as fast as I could. I looked ahead between furious strokes, but there was no Peter.
When I got to the sandbar where Peter disappeared I lay flat and floated so as not to sink myself. There was no sign of him. I grabbed onto an exposed root and shoved my arm into the sand. I felt nothing but sand. Blaise splashed up beside me.
“Lay flat! I’ll hold your feet and push you out,” said Blaise, grasping the root as I released it.
I laid there as he pushed me onto the sandbar. I felt the muddy liquid below me. It was like I was floating on water. But in this water if you went down, you didn’t come up. The other men were splashing toward us, but I heard none of it.
“Put one arm into the sand. Use the other to keep yourself flat!”
“Push me to the left and farther out!” I said.
Blaise responded, and in a heartbeat both my arms and head were down. I held my breath and was headfirst into the quicksand. Suddenly I felt fingers. Then a wrist. I gripped the wrist with all my might, then twitched my ankle and bent my knees as a signal to Blaise. Fortunately, he understood.
Blaise started pulling me in, but he was not able to prevail over the wet, sucking sand.
I felt someone grab my other ankle. I later learned it was Stephen McKellar. I hung onto Peter’s wrist with all my strength. My breath was running short, but Blaise and Stephen pulled and pulled until I felt us starting to rise. I lost track of time. My lungs were running out of breath, but then my head broke the surface of the water. I took a huge gasp of air, air filled with the sound of men and women hollering at the top of their lungs. Peter broke the surface, face up. His eyes were closed tight. Mud ran from his nose and mouth. He was not breathing.
Other men were by now converging on us, holding me upright and cradling Peter in many arms. Using the root, Blaise pulled himself onto the bank. “Alors! Get him over here, now! Hold him up! Put him on his back here, next to me.”
The men and I pulled and floated Peter over to the river bank as Blaise commanded. He very quickly opened Peter’s mouth and used his fingers to expel as much mud as possible. Blaise locked his arms around Peter’s back and made a quick upward thrust to his stomach, provoking him to choke up more mud. There was still no response. Blaise thrust again and again, cursing in French under his breath. Finally, Peter coughed up more mud and water. Then he choked and breathed. He was alive.
Duncan McKellar rushed up just as Peter caught his first breath. “Thanks be to God. Thanks to you, sir,” he said to Blaise. “Let me see him.” He knelt down and lifted Peter’s eyelids. Peter’s eyes moved back and forth, and color came back to his cheeks. “He will be all right. Let’s get him to the Arkansaw. His mother will be beside herself.”
Peter seemed to slip back into unconsciousness, but the rise and fall of his chest indicated he was breathing regularly. Blaise and I stood beside him, dripping water. Stephen McKellar, also drenched, reached out to shake our hands.
“Thank you. Thank you both. You saved my brother’s life. You are both very brave. Very, very brave.” His chin began to tremble, and he rushed off after his father and brother.
I hadn’t been trying to be a hero. I wasn’t trying to do anything except save Peter. I didn’t once think about the consequences. I just knew what I saw and knew what I had to do. Even if all fifteen men had dived off the boat at the same time, I still would have done what I did. We swimmers waded back to the boats together. Blaise and I splashed along, side by side. It was only at that point I realized the water was freezing cold. There were many pats on the back and words of thanks. I still had not wrapped my thoughts around everything that had happened.
“This was the damnedest thing I ever seen,” said Blaise. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Mon ami, how did you know he was farther out and to the left? I would have guessed straight down.”
“Is that what I said? I don’t remember.” And I didn’t. I didn’t know where Peter was. How could I? Blaise just shook his head and threw an arm across my shoulder.
By the time we got to the Arkansaw, Duncan was lifting Peter over the railing. He opened his eyes as Mrs. McKellar, Mattie, and her two younger sisters stood around him, every one of them crying.
“What happened?” Peter asked, lying on the deck in a growing pool of river water.
“You fell in the mud, son,” said Duncan. There was laughter and applause all around. “Christiana, please get a blanket over our boy,” he said to his wife. She and her three daughters just kept right on crying.
I struggled to climb aboard, exhausted after the excitement. Several of the men hoisted Blaise and me up on the deck, quite wet, cold, and still somewhat muddy.
“These two courageous men saved my brother’s life,” exclaimed Stephen McKellar to everyone within earshot. “You should have seen it. Tom here was upside down in the quicksand when he found Peter and fished him out. I’ll never know how he found him down there, but he did.”
There was more clapping and handshakes from the dozen or so menfolk who had followed Blaise and me into the water. I looked around at them, a little embarrassed. Then I saw Valac LaBrot, standing a ways back in the crowd. His clothes were bone dry, and he was staring straight at me.
Mrs. McKellar walked up to me and Blaise, followed by her three daughters. “Thank you, both of you,” said Christiana McKellar, tears still raining down her cheeks. “I will never, ever, be able to thank you enough.”
Her two little girls ran up and grabbed Blaise and me around a leg in bear hugs, giggling, even though they were getting all wet and muddy. Mattie, smiling and crying, hugged Blaise then turned to me, stood on her toes, put her arms around my neck, and kissed me on the lips. Oh, it was a sisterly kiss, a thank-you kiss to be sure, but a kiss just the same. A kiss from the only girl in the world I cared to be kissed by. It was followed by yet another round of roaring laughter and clapping.
And I thought I had been embarrassed a few moments earlier.
Christiana, her eyes still pouring tears, her light brown hair now completely fallen into disarray, put a blanket round Peter’s shoulders. He sat on the deck, looking around, still quite confused.
The day after the quicksand incident, the families of the Arkansaw invited everyone down to their boat for supper. Normally dinner was our large meal, but this feast was a special occasion on the Arkansaw.
As usual, Mr. McKellar offered up a prayer thanking the Lord for our progress to date and safe passage thus far on our expedition, especially His bringing Peter back safely to the family. He turned to me and Blaise. “I want young Tom and Blaise to stand up and be recognized by all you folks,” he said. “These two reacted with lightning speed and without a single concern for their own safety to save my son from certain death in quicksand. May we continue to be surrounded by brave souls on the remainder of our journey.” Voices rose in cheers and the deck resounded in hands clapping and feet stomping. He went on a bit, but I had stopped listening. My father stood beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. I could not recall whether this had ever happened before.
“I’m very proud of you, son,” said he. “Th-thank you…Pa,” I replied.