It was the very first night we occupied our new log cabin. As we were finishing supper Pa surprised me by saying, “Tom, next week you and I will set out for Natchitoches to purchase at least ten head of cattle. You’ll ride Old Nick. Mr. McKellar has allowed me to hire a horse of his, so we should be able to make the trip down and back in less than a month. He will bring Surefoot here on Sunday, and we will be off at daybreak on Monday.”
I nodded as he turned to face my little brother.
“Joel, you will be the man of the house while we are away. Mind your Mama and take care of your brother and sisters.” Joel sat very silent, staring Pa in the face with widened eyes. Pa looked across the table at Martha, Barney, and Mary, and pointed a finger at them. “You children hear that? I want you to mind what Joel says while we are away.”
“I have to mind Joel?” exclaimed Martha. “Papa, he’s only two years older than me! Why, he’s liable to tell me to go jump in the river.”
“Now, dear, I don’t think so,” comforted Mama. “I’m sure Joel will honor the task your father has given him.”
“I can do it,” said Joel. “You can trust me. I’ll take care of things real good…Pa.”
Pa nodded with a smile. “Yes, I know you will, son.”
Early on Monday we rode away from Long Prairie, me on Old Nick, and Pa on Mr. McKellar’s roan, Surefoot. Both horses were docile and pleasant to ride, perhaps anticipating a journey instead of a plow. We forded the Red, now running a bit shallow, and traveled in an easterly direction much as Joel and I had. It took us the better part of the morning to bush-whack the ten miles until at last we met up with the Three Notch Trail.
“Look, Pa,” I said and pointed to the three-slash trail blaze cut into a nearby tree and another one farther along. We had seen a hand- drawn map of the Three Notch nailed up on the wall at Mr. Laplace’s mercantile. This was of a certainty our path to Natchitoches. Our route would keep us well clear of the Red and the Great Raft, for which I was grateful, as I had no desire to see that body of water and its malevolent aberration again.
Pa had not seemed much surprised when Joel and I first told him about coming upon the trail, but today was different. “Well I’ll be, son,” he said, as if only now fully believing me.
That first day we rode the Three Notch for perhaps a dozen miles in a southeastwardly direction before we found a suitable spot to encamp. Pa figured we were close to the border between Louisiana and the Arkansaw Territory. I nodded, unsure how he could know such a thing but not particularly caring one way or the other. For me, the only trail markers were days. We watered Old Nick and Surefoot at a trickling stream, then hobbled them where they could eat some grass. Believing it best to avoid any Indian or white man traversing the Three Notch, our camp was quite a ways off the trail. We built a fire using some dry brush and hard oak to minimize the smoke.
“Pa, we ain’t seen a living person all day,” I said. “You still think Indians roam the Three Notch?”
“The white men in these here parts are probably more dangerous than the Indians,” he replied. I realized his concern was valid. After all, he had enough Spanish gold coins from his trips to New Orleans to buy the cattle, a fact that we had not discussed but of which we were both intensely aware.
As we rode ahead on the second day, our path ran alongside a good- size creek.
“Looks like we are going to listen to these happy waters for a while,” said Pa. “We are getting into the thickets again, but for now the trail is cutting a clear path. Before the crick diverges from the trail, we’ll fill our botas from its waters.”
“Yes sir,” I said, “and keep the horses watered as well. It is a pleasant sound, this crick. I wonder if any people live around here?”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than we heard the sound of rifle fire. Three shots in rapid succession. We jumped down from our horses. In the time it took us to dismount, there were two more reports.
“No more than a mile off,” said Pa. “Somewheres up ahead of us. And it ain’t hunters. Not takin’ that many shots. It could be someone in trouble.” He shook his head sadly. “Can’t really be anything else. We have to help if we can. Head that direction.”
We mounted our horses again and clucked them ahead, having no idea what we were heading into. But Pa was right. Out here, a man had a responsibility not to ignore such things.
We kicked the horses up to a canter, stopping ever so often to listen. We hadn’t gone far before we heard shouting. Harsh, loud voices. Two more reports pierced the air. We pulled our rifles from their scabbards, climbed off our horses, and squatted low down. When we didn’t hear any more shots or voices, we tied up the horses and went ahead on foot. I could see a clearing up ahead, next to a large rock outcrop. Small clouds of gunpowder smoke hovered in the tree branches over the spot where an Indian lay still, faceup on the ground.
Suddenly there were screams. Pa and I crouched behind a tree, wondering just what was happening. Water was splashing and there were more screams that sounded like children. They had to be in the creek. We moved carefully, staying behind a dense growth of trees. Two Indians came out of the woods opposite us, heading toward the wounded man on the ground. They had not seen us and knelt at his side, set their long rifles down, and pulled their knives out as if about to take his scalp. I could not see the screaming children. Whatever was happening here was terrible, quite beyond my comprehension.
“Tall. Osage, I bet,” whispered Pa. “You take the one on the right.” I looked at Pa. His face was grim, eyes hardened, lips pressed tightly together. He gave me a quick nod that said, “Do it.”
Just as we raised our guns they saw us, but by the time they had snatched up their rifles and were on their feet again, it was too late. We had already taken aim and fired. Boom! Boom! Both of those Indians fell, twitched some, then went still.
Instinctively, we moved behind two large pines to reload. Pa was much more skilled at this, tamping the black powder, wad, and ball down the barrel in twenty seconds. It took me considerably longer, how long I have no way of recollecting, for my hands were shaking so hard I could barely still them. It is a mighty vulnerable feeling, trying to reload while at the same time listening for the footfall of a murdering Indian. I promised myself to spend more time practicing the reload. Pa looked at me, nodded his head in approval, and we moved carefully just inside the trees toward the three men lying in the dirt. The Indian we had seen first moved his arm, then his torso, trying to turn over to see who was approaching, which was Pa and me. Then we heard the screaming again. I looked down to the creek. Two Indian children were tied together by their wrists, back to back, and flailing in the rapids. Their heads were bobbing up and down in the water, clearly in danger of drowning.
“You take care of them. I’ll cover you from here and tend to this Indian,” said Pa. “Watch it. There could be more of them hiding behind those rocks.”
Without thought I ran to the crick, propped my long rifle against a rock, and jumped into water nearly up to my neck. Their terrified faces bobbed in the water. I grasped their arms, but something restrained them. I dove into the water and found their ankles were tied together to a large rock. I came up for a lungful of air, drew my hunting knife, and dove down again, cutting them free. I took a child in each arm, waded up the bank and headed back for Pa, who was bent over the injured native.
The children pulled their faces away from my shoulders and looked up at me. They were boys, perhaps six or seven years of age. I could see fear and danger flashing in both pairs of eyes. I turned quick to look behind me, just in time to see another Indian—very tall, an Osage, I was certain—who had run out of the woods and was rushing for me, a large knife held high. I dropped to one knee, pulled the boys in close, and raised my right arm as if it were a shield. It was not. The tip of his blade plunged into the flesh of my forearm and hit bone, which halted any further penetration. I felt no pain, but a dervish of anger welled up in my breast. I let the children slip from my arms as I leapt up against my attacker. I did not yet know what I was going to do next, but I knew if I did nothing I would soon be dead. The brave pulled back and raised his arm to strike again. His furious face, painted red and black, was the personification of the Devil himself. A shot rang out, and he dropped to the ground. For a moment, I was frozen. I looked down at him, then at my bleeding arm. The children stood where I had dropped them, gazing at me with faint smiles. Pa was standing behind me, already reloading his rifle. He had saved my life. But the look of fear on the boys’ faces had saved my life as well.
“What the hell is this?” I finally spat out.
“Careful, there may be more,” Papa cautioned. He was down on one knee, looking intensely through the trees all around. Then he moved closer to me and looked at my arm. The sleeve of my new shirt from Mr. Laplace’s had a big slash in it, from which came a lively issue of my own blood.
Pa picked up my long rifle and handed it to me. Then he took each of the little Indian boys by their free hands. “You were a man here today, Tom. I’m proud of you.”
“But Pa, I just killed a man! How can I be proud of doing that?” “Sometimes a man chooses the fight, but sometimes the fight chooses the man. The fight chose you today. Now, let’s get us some tree cover and see about that arm.”
As we began to walk the few yards back into the forest, my knees failed me. I fell to the ground in a near faint, and as I swooned I tried to ascertain what was afflicting me. It was not, I believed, due to the wound, although that clearly had had an effect upon me. Was it to do with saving the two Indian boys? Was it the shootout with the two Indian braves? Yes, of course it was that. But was it all of these events which had occurred within so few moments? And then, like a rider on horseback charging out of a cloud of dust, it became clear that my knees giving way was the result of having shot another human being.
I had killed a man, an Indian, yes. A violent Indian intent on causing death himself—in fact, my own—but nevertheless it was I who had wielded the instrument of his death. I had pulled the trigger of my long rifle, releasing an explosion, which propelled a lead ball, that had struck him and taken his life.
Never had I contemplated the true implications of a weapon’s purpose and power. To be sure, I had hunted with pleasure and killed animals for food. I had practiced long hours cleaning, loading, and firing my rifle. I recalled the day my father handed it down to me—how proud I had been, how eager to learn proficiency in its use. Little did I ever imagine that I, I would use it to kill another human being!
Yes, my father had given it to me. It had once been his own. We had hunted together, but how else had he used it? Was this the rifle he had carried into the Indian Wars? I had never asked him, and these were events in his life he did not want to talk about. For the longest time, I had thought he bore ill will toward General Jackson. But had he not said, not long ago, that too much blood had been shed? The thought grew on me that the taking of human lives was the true reason for his refusal to converse about his wartime experiences.
These thoughts ran rapidly through my brain. As I considered them, I gained yet another new understanding of my father and his values, his heroism in the face of all of life’s adversities. The taking of lives was no small matter to him; he never wished to speak of violence and killing, no matter the reason or war. I knew I loved my father. I knew I respected his wishes, even if I did not always agree with him. But I knew now that the truest sense of love and respect I bore for him was founded in his desire to always live an honorable, rational life. In this, to me, he was the truest of heroes, a man who it would always be an honor to emulate.
Pa gently pulled my shirt off and inspected the stab wound, then the rest of my upper body for other wounds, but found none. “You are fortunate, son. It is just a shallow puncture. Had that savage cut at you instead of stabbing, he would likely have caused great damage to your arm. It bleeds, but not profusely.” He cut the sleeve from my shirt and wrapped it tightly around my arm. “Once we arrive in Natchitoches, we will seek a doctor’s attention,” he said, tying off the ends. “And we will buy you a new shirt.” We exchanged a smile.
We readied ourselves for another onslaught, but it did not come.
After about ten minutes, Pa said, “Let’s go see about that Indian.”
We cut the leather cords that bound the boys’ hands, and they ran to the wounded Indian.
He nodded as we walked up and said, “Háwwih.”
That means “thank you” in Kado, a word I recognized from Mattie’s lessons. He was an old man, and I could see he had been mortally wounded. His own blood had stained his buckskins black. The boys knelt down by his side and began wailing.
“These are my Coconicis,” he said, touching their heads.
I replied in the best Kado I could manage, “Kumbakiihah Tom.”
“My name is Tom.”
I continued, “This is my father, John. Are there more attackers?” “Hunnah—No. There were but hiwi—four. My protector is over there in the bah ka hee—the woods. I do not think he lives.”
The two dead braves in war paint Pa and I had killed lay where they had fallen, rifles at their sides. I walked into the pines where the old Indian had pointed. He was right. A young brave lay dead in the woods, a bullet hole in his heart. The youth had no gun. Ten foot away lay his bow and arrows scattered from his quiver. I lifted my eyes and saw another body not far away. I moved over to the dead man, who lay on his back in the scrub. An arrow was lodged deeply in his chest. The Kado had killed the attacker but was then killed himself. I ran back to tell Pa.
“Gut shot,” Pa said of the old Indian as I came back across the clearing. “It cut the bile and probably some vessels. He won’t be with us for long.” I was about to ask the old Indian something when he spoke again, slowly and quietly. I just could make out some words. He signed something Pa could understand.
“You take care of Coconicis. They are wise beyond their age. Give them food. They know way to return to our people. Only Xinesi and connas can know them. They are Coconicis.”
“Tom, you understand any of what he’s talking about?” Pa asked. “Are these his grandchildren?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know the word Coconicis. I think he said that we should feed them and let them find their way back to their village.” “We certainly won’t do that with children their age. None of this makes sense to me. Why would these braves take the trouble to tie them up and throw them in the creek? If they wanted them dead, why not just slash their throats?”
The old Indian spoke again. “The bullet passed through me. I will not live.”
“We will take care of your boys,” said Pa.
“I must tell you.” The old Indian gasped for breath. He spoke very softly so I bent down, putting my ear close to his lips.
Another word I did not understand.
“What is Na-Da-cah-ah?” I said. “Is that your name?”
All of a sudden, he reached up, grabbed my injured arm by the wrist and pulled my wound into his wound.
This caught me completely by surprise. “What are you doing?!” I exclaimed. The boys looked up at me with their sad little faces.
Still holding my arm tight to his stomach, the wounded Indian looked up with the most intense look in his eyes and said again, “Na-Da-cah- ah.” Then relaxed his grip.
I pulled my arm free. His blood was all over my forearm and had soaked through the bandage into my wound.
He smiled, as if that was exactly what he was trying to accomplish. “Pa, what do you think that was about?”
“I do not know, son. I have heard tell of the blood oath in ancient cultures. It bound men in allegiances, but since this Indian has said nothing…”
I bent down to the Indian again and looked into his face. It was calm, and it caused me to feel a degree of serenity myself. I spoke a few words to him in Kado. “What is your name? Why do you share your blood with me?”
His soft brown eyes arrested my own and held them in the deepest way I had ever experienced. “I am Tiatesun. I am Xinesi of the Kadohadacho. I must go to Na-Da-cah-ah. You must take me there.”
He reached very slowly and painfully into a small pouch at his side and withdrew what looked like a hawk feather.
“Book. Give me Good Book.”
“Pa? He wants us to give him the Bible? Do you think he wants to pray? Perhaps he wants us to pray for him.”
“I think he wants to write something. Tom, get my Bible from my saddlebag. He wants paper so’s to write something down.”
I ran down the path to our horses and grabbed Pa’s Bible. The Indian must have somehow figured we would have a Bible with us.
“Open it to the blank family pages in the middle, then give it to him,” said Pa.
I did so and handed it to the old Indian. Tiatesun dipped his quill into his wound and using his own blood as ink, began scratching lines, dripping blood on the page in the process. It began looking like a drawing. A landscape. Yes, it was a map. With surprising detail he drew what looked to be rivers, mountains, and some other features I did not recognize. To the top left, he drew something that looked like a sun, with a line drawn from it to mountains at the top right. Again and again he repeated that word, “Na-Da-cah-ah.”
“What is Na-Da-cah-ah? You want us to take you there?” I asked. Tiatesun looked deep into me as he said, “Our forefathers. Our Hope.
I must rest there.” He breathed deeply and choked, then continued. “You are good men. Good Book you must give to Kadohadacho. Only to rightful Kadohadacho. In wrong hands, would mean death of my people. Help us.”
“We will get this to the rightful Kadohadacho people,” I said. “I promise.”
He sighed. His eyes closed and did not reopen. The old Kado named Tiatesun was dead. I took the Bible from his hands, marked the page with his quill and closed it.
“Well, Tom,” my Pa said, “this Tiatesun fellow might be asking us to take him to this Na-Da-cah-ah place, but I’m afraid he ain’t going no further than the earth beneath us. Put my Bible back in my saddlebag. Let’s get him and his brethren buried so’s we can be on our way.”
I straightened up but continued to kneel beside him. I lifted my head to the heavens and thought, So much death today; so many people dead. I have never seen death before, and now in one day, one hour, I have seen…too much death. What was this old Kado doing out in the wilderness with a young brave, two children, and no guns? Were they on some kind of a pilgrimage? Was it a map he had drawn? That is certainly what it looked like. And what of this strange word, Na-Da-cah-ah? They were no war party. Why, then, did these braves feel they needed to kill them?
I had many questions and no answers.
Over the next few hours we dug graves for Tiatesun and his Kado brave with sharp-edged flat rocks and our hatchets. By then my wound had begun to ache, and I was not much help to Pa for digging. The boys were, though. They helped us cover the bodies of Tiatesun and the young brave with dirt and placed rocks atop their graves to ward off animals. I wondered if once they returned to their Kado village they could tell their chief what happened, so he could return to claim these bodies.
We did not pay the same respect to the four attackers’ bodies. Pa was pretty sure they were Osage, a very tall, warlike tribe from up north of Arkansaw Territory. We tossed them into a deep gully behind the rock outcrop. Something the old Indian had said kept urging its way back into my mind, something about the promise I had made to him, but I could not make it come clear. We took up their rifles, munitions, and some articles with tribal markings and cached them under a nearby rock outcropping, figuring to retrieve them upon our return trek to Long Prairie. I went back to the river’s edge and found the knife the warrior had used to attack me and made it my own.
By the time we had finished, the sun was low in the sky. Pa suggested we make camp in the clearing, but I wanted no further part of this place, so we rode on down the trail for another hour, each of us with a Kado boy sitting behind us, before making camp for the night.
Pa cooked up a pemmican stew for supper. It was simple, hot, and bore a thick, rich grease. The boys gobbled it down, and I must admit I enjoyed it as well, much more so than I had the night before. We bedded the children down in one of our bedrolls. One of us would sleep while the other would be standing watch throughout the night.
Pa took the first watch. I wrapped myself up in the remaining blanket, but my right arm pulsed with a dull pain, and my mind would not stop working, trying with all its might to make sense out of what had happened this day. What was the map this Tiatesun drew? Why did he call the boys Coconicis? Were we to let them guide us to their village and then take the Kados back for Tiatesun? What or who or where was this Na-Da-cah-ah? Would the Kados know Tiatesun wanted to go there?
When it was my turn to keep watch, I kept right on thinking. The pain from the wound combined with my puzzlement kept me from sleep.
Neither Pa nor I could figure how or when it happened, but sometime during the night the boys ran off. In the morning we discovered their saddle blanket lumped up to look like they were under it. They must have snuck off down the trail.
“Pa!” I said. “Where is the Bible?”
He bent down to pick up his saddlebag and opened it. “It’s here,” he said. “I rested my head on it last night.”
“Pa, I’m sorry. I must have drifted off at some point during my watch.” “Son, don’t go blaming yourself. The old Kado said that we should let them go, and it turns out that is just what happened. They must be pretty smart boys. They probably done that journey with old—what was his name? Tiatesun?—before and know just how to find their way back to their village.”
I turned and began tying up the bedrolls and getting our saddles ready for Old Nick and Surefoot. As we got underway after breaking our fast, we kept on looking for signs of them. At one point a few miles on we saw their little bare footprints on the bank of the crick, but the tracks disappeared at the water’s edge.
“Do you see signs of their tracks, Pa?” I said, for he was a far better tracker than I.
“No. They wisely walked in the river. There is no way we will be able to track them now,” said Pa. “Let’s get on down to Natchitoches. Perhaps we can gain some understanding if we tell that Oats fella what happened.”