I tried to remember exactly what had happened in the quicksand, but I could not. How I knew where to find Peter I’ll never understand. Perhaps it was not my place to understand. I am not what you would call pious. I go to church on Sunday because—to say the truth—well, because you’re supposed to. But I sincerely wondered if God had crept into my brain and told me where to find Peter McKellar. I could think of no other explanation. One of us had been placed in great danger, but another force—God, fortune, or something else—had stepped in. I began ruminating again about this Red River, and how so far it had caused us nothing but trouble. To my mind it was a red devil, and we would have to be on our guard against its malevolence at all times.
For Peter’s return-from-the-dead supper, Mrs. McKellar and the other Arkansaw wives served up smoked venison, johnnycakes, and beans, but the real treat was dessert, a hasty pudding made of cornmeal, milk, and maple syrup. Blaise and I sat at the table with Ben, Pa, Mr. McKellar, and George Duty. We ate our fill with only a little conversation passing between us. Ben was telling Pa that he could expect to find horses, cattle, seed, and farming tools in Natchitoches. I turned to Blaise and said, “Yesterday you were about to tell me about the log jam up the river.”
Big Joe Dyer was an imposing man, with a big belly, a scruffy black beard and a bald head. He hooked his thumbs in his armpits and rocked back and forth as he looked at us and said, “You mean the Great Raft?” “Yessir,” I said, “that’s the name all right. I was asking Blaise yesterday. if he had ever seen it.”
“I seen it,” said Joe, and Ben nodded. I knew James had as well.
“It’s a hunnert mile of pure hell,” said Joe, and the Red River devil got conjured up in my mind again.
“A solid log jam from riverbank to riverbank,” said Ben.
“Trees, stumps, limbs, underbrush, ennethin’ that was once’t alive and stickin’ up out of the banks, it’s in the Great Raft,” said Joe. “And any number a dead animules here and there to boot.”
I was both fascinated and filled with dread. “Long Prairie. We’re going past the Great Raft to get to Long Prairie, isn’t that so, Pa?” He nodded.
“You don’t get past it,” said Ben. “You got to go through it.”
Blaise sensed my discomfort, put his arm across my shoulder again, and said, “Thomas, you are the man who saved Peter McKellar’s life. If you can do that, you are a man who can make his way through the Great Raft to your promised land.”
Although unconvinced, I nodded just the same.
After we finished eating, I needed to get away from it all and walked back to the stern of the Arkansaw where four cows were tied up. It smelled of cow dung, so I leaned over the gunwale, looking out at the river. It was peaceful, the night sky brilliant with stars and a moon in its last phase. The river, now black instead of red, reflected the half- moonlight, and I listened as its waters rippled slowly past. Far to the south, what looked like a thunderhead peeked just above the trees. There was a good chance rain was coming. I heard footsteps behind me and knew without looking who it was.
“It was a fine thing you did yesterday, Mr. Murrell,” said Mattie. I turned around. She stood with moonlight bathing her face and lighting her smile. She was beautiful.
“Oh, hello, Miss McKellar. It was nothing that anyone else on this expedition wouldn’t have done. I just happened to be the first to see what had happened.”
“That may be so, but Father told me how you went headfirst into the quicksand. I’m not sure just anyone would have done that.”
“You never know what you’ll do until a situation presents itself. Out here, you must be prepared for whatever comes.”
“Yes, I agree,” said Mattie. “I recall we had this discussion back at the social in Nashville. You prepare for what you can. The rest depends on what you have in your heart. What you have, young sir, is a lion’s heart.” I looked down at my shoes to avoid her gaze. “I don’t know about that,” I said, somewhat embarrassed. “Situations arise. One must act. In
this instance, I believe I acted before I realized how I was acting.” Mattie laughed. “You acted as though you had done so before.” “I have not, and that’s a fact. I just reacted.”
“Still in all,” said Mattie, “even acting upon an impulse requires courage.”
“I suppose,” I said, “but if that is true, it was a courage I did not know I possessed.”
She smiled. “My grandmother has spoken many times about the roots of our behavior, in aphorisms and stories, of course. She has a sensibility about life that I myself lack, perhaps because of my youth, but more likely because she has a wisdom that comes from her inner spirit.” “I believe you mentioned that your grandmother was half French, half Indian?”
“Yes,” said Mattie. “Choctaw.”
“Therefore, your mother is one quarter Indian blood?”
“Yes. I think that’s one of the reasons Father considered going on this expedition. He has faith in my mother’s ability to stand up to the frontier.”
“I think it likely you will develop sensibilities akin to those of your grandmother and mother. But what about yourself? What do you think about this journey into the frontier?” I asked.
“One would be a fool not to have substantial apprehension about being so very far away from the world we have known since our birth, the one in which we could take our comfort. We are among the first in this territory. The threats from hostile natives and reprehensible individuals from our own society are considerable. But the opportunities are equally so.”
Mattie moved closer to me and continued. “There are certain advantages of the heart and of the mind that may come about from this experience, things we never dreamt possible in our plain, safe existence back on our Tennessee farms. Back home, one could expect today to be pretty much the same as yesterday and tomorrow, too. Out here, it is already quite evident that no two days are alike, and any one of them could be absolutely thrilling!” she exclaimed. “The chance to be the first to have such experiences comes to most only once in a lifetime, if at all. This is our chance. I, for one, want to seize this chance and have these experiences.”
“You sound much like my pa…er, father,” I said calmly, even as I found myself inspired by hearing her speak so.
“Do you disagree?” said Mattie.
“No, I do not. All you say is true. It is just that the opportunity in Long Prairie for me is mostly in back of a plow. There will be a similitude to my life in Tennessee which I’m afraid will be neither mentally nor physically enriching. I’m not afraid of hard work, and I will do all that I can to make our venture a success. Though if it were up to me, this is not the place I would choose as my life’s destination.”
Mattie looked into my face for several moments. I could see her eyes moving back and forth in the pale light of the moon, then she said, “It is not what your heart desires?”
“No, it is not,” I replied. “And what might that be?”
“The law. The legal profession offers much to a man who wishes to help the citizens of our land seek justice, as well as to be a participant in our young country’s formation and advancement. A neighbor of ours in Tennessee has spent many hours guiding my studies of the law and has provided me with books for this journey so that I can continue learning while in Long Prairie. I hope someday to complete my formal education and obtain an apprenticeship with a practicing attorney.”
I caught myself. “I’m sorry. I am certainly boring you, going on about matters of no consequence to you,” I said.
“Not at all. I find talking with you most interesting, I hope you are able to attain this goal someday. Sadly, that may be difficult where we are going.”
“I know,” I said. “And Mr. LaBrot said as much. He said that I was going in the wrong direction.”
“Hmm. Perhaps geographically, but not educationally,” said Mattie. “I’m certain you can have enriching studies of the law anywhere.” She stopped, then she said, “But that Mr. LaBrot. I don’t know what to make of him.”
I paused to consider my own opinions and views of Valac LaBrot before speaking. “Well, at first he seems like a straight enough fellow. But as soon as I begin a conversation with him, I begin to wonder after his motives, which seem to be twisting and turning just under the surface of his words.”
Mattie nodded, and I said, “I would think with your interest and knowledge of the Indians he would have already pursued such discussions with you.”
“No, he has not, and as you may know we are both on the same boat each day. From what I have observed, he prefers to keep his own company. Why, I could not say. But my knowledge of the Indians around Long Prairie is quite limited, truly to just a rudimentary fluency in Kado language, and perhaps he is aware of that. I’m sure Mr. LaBrot has far greater knowledge of the Kado than I possess and is simply not interested in anything I might know.”
“But such is not the case for me,” I said. “My father and Mr. Torbett have told me a few stories about the Kado. How they were once the greatest of all Indian traders. Today, little is known of them. I’m fascinated to learn more.” I paused, giving thought to what I was about to say, then the words jumped out of my mouth anyway. “Would you consider instructing me in their language, Miss McKellar?”
“I would be quite pleased and honored to do so, Mr. Murrell.” “Thank you. And if you please, I wish you would call me Tom.”
“I shall, if you will call me Mattie. And now I’ll bid you a good night.” As she turned to walk away, her fingertips brushed my own.
Later that night, the thunderhead I had seen as Mattie and I talked kept on moving toward us. What began with a simple spell of rain turned into a violent storm, hitting us hard just after midnight. Thunder shook our boats and lightning lit the sky, terrifying the children. The wind blew the rain in sheets across the boat decks, everyone fleeing into the cabins except us men who had to lash down everything above decks. We warped the boats close together at the riverbank, then most of us stayed up all night, ready to react to whatever effects the storm might have in store for us.
On the Ohio, Mama and Mrs. Robinson kept the coffeepot going for us men up on the deck. I came down to get a cup and warm up, my slicker shedding water everywhere. “Thomas, would you please take that thing off and hang it by the door?” asked Martha. I complied.
Ben and Pa were sipping their coffee. “This is not like the rain we experienced on the Mississippi last month, is it?” Pa said to me, pouring me a cup.
“No, sir,” I answered. “It was nothing on this order. More like the snowstorm up on the Ohio. To my mind, this river is quite pernicious.” The men laughed.
Most of the folk figured the rain would end by the morning. It did not. It rained off and on, mostly heavily, for the next two days. The river kicked up a fuss, so we rode out the storm tied to the bank. We had to adjust our berthing frequently as the Raging Red rose over three feet. Large logs and snags floated down the main channel. Folks waited out the vile weather huddled up in the close quarters of our keelboat cabins, passing more time than they wanted with idle hands.
Fortunately for myself, I took advantage of the interlude by spending time with Mattie, my new language instructor. We usually sat cross- legged on the floor facing each other, and in so doing I had much opportunity to study her face. She had the friendliest, brightest blue eyes I had ever seen, a small, slender nose, slightly pudgy cheeks, and a lovely, full mouth that smiled and danced in front of perfect white teeth. As she pronounced some very basic words and phrases for me, I memorized her face—and the Kado words, of course. Among the Kado words I learned were --
|My name is Tom
|What is your name?
|Haahat ts’i ahyati
|It’s good to see you.
|I am hungry.
|I am sorry.
|What do you want?
As might be expected in the course of such conversing, we came to know a great deal about each other and our lives growing up back home. And if I may say so, we became friends. She told me many humorous and interesting stories about her education in a red one- room schoolhouse with her eleven classmates. It was her father who built the school and hired the schoolmistress, so that his children, as well as those from neighboring farms, would have benefit of an education. I spoke of my specialized learning from Mr. Burlingame, who had been a barrister and a judge before retiring to his country manor house. I inquired after Mattie’s interest in language, her expectations about living in Long Prairie, and what the future beyond might hold for her.
“As I said the other night on deck, Tom, I have come to regard living in Long Prairie as an adventure of sorts. An opportunity to learn and grow in different ways than were possible back in Davidson County. Many farm folk do not embrace change, but I do. I’m not certain if Jane, Mary Evelyn, or the other girls love change quite as much as I do. I believe I learned my love of change from my father.”
For a fact, Mattie McKellar was not at all like any girls I had known in Carthage. I considered that I might need to revise my decision to exclude my growing friendship with her from The Plan.
On March 23, it finally cleared up, and we resumed our struggle up the Red, or in Kado the Báhtinu, against a much swifter current. The only way to make progress was to stay close to the flooded banks, which meant floating debris was much more of an obstacle. I soon realized how it was possible for something like the Great Raft to accumulate on this treacherous river. It took our party another three days before we arrived in Natchitoches.