We rode long days, up at first light until sunset, my arm aching all the while. I would greet sunrise with a fire, so we could drink some coffee and eat some grits. We would try to kill some fresh game to roast for dinner. Pa was forever taking the bandage off and inspecting my wound, which I wished he would simply ignore. It was reddish- brown with dried blood and somewhat puffed up round the edges. Pa walked over to the crick, squatted, and washed my bandage until the water ran clear, then he tied it back on my arm. The cool and wet brought relief, and eventually the pain lessened.
This third day on the Three Notch Trail took us almost due south, winding our way through the bosom of a forest so dense that we rarely saw the sun. There were trees of every imaginable variety. Pines stood over one hundred feet tall, some growing with less than three or four foot between their trunks, the unperturbed ground densely covered with pine needles, cones, nuts, and leaves. Interspersed with the pines and just as high were majestic oak, hickory, maple, and walnut. Pa pointed out the sweet gum and black gum, trees I was less than familiar with. Below the larger trees there grew another, newly born forest— thickets composed of saplings just five to fifteen feet tall and choked with bushes, vines, brambles, and weeds.
My thoughts drifted to imagining all this forestation flooded, then drawn into the Red River where it would be consumed and killed by the Great Raft. It was a saddening thought. Nature could be cruel. But so could human beings. Did we not cruelly kill one another? But perhaps the taking of life was not considered cruel to Nature. These were issues my mind and experience were unprepared to consider further.
The narrow trail cut through this second forest of undergrowth, the only passable way for travel. I looked for three-notch trail markings but found none. Indeed, for this passage they were quite unnecessary. Old Nick required no attention from the reins or my heels as he moved along behind Pa’s roan. We rode steadily and carefully until nearly sunset, when the trail widened out into a small clearing. After scratching our legs and the horses’ flanks for hours against the underbrush, it seemed a good place to stop, dismount, and water the horses.
Pa took a long drink from his bota and passed it to me, for I had emptied mine some miles before.
“Look there. Up ahead,” he said. “There is a three-notch marking on that tree and another trail to the right splits off the main trail.”
We walked our horses up to it. Pa took to studying the ground once again.
“It is grown over. It don’t appear that anyone has used it for some while.”
“Pa, take a look at that three-notch marking. They’re not like the other markings we’ve seen on this trail. The marks are slanted, left to right, with the mark in the middle just a bit smaller than the other two. That looks a bit like the bands on the Hartsville arrow, don’t you think, Pa? And don’t it seem like they are pointing us to take the trail to the right?” Pa gave me a look of skepticism. But I kept on. “I’m sure those markings are just coincidence, but I really think we should take a look,” I said. “Such a well-worn trail must lead somewhere.”
I just had an odd feeling about this trail. Of course, it would make absolutely no sense that the markings here would have anything to do with the arrow that almost impaled me back at Hartsville. But it seemed to me that we ought to know where this side trail went. Pa seemed none too pleased about this diversion but nodded his assent, perhaps just a bit curious himself.
It took us nearly half an hour of unpleasing riding, trying to stay away from the scrub on either side of the trail. I could sense Pa getting ready to turn around. I was about to declaim that proposal myself, but at that moment we saw it up ahead. Through the trees, we saw what appeared to be sunlight reflecting off a glass window pane.
Pa stopped and said, “It’s someone’s homestead, to be sure. I do not recall any mention of white settlers in this vicinity.”
We rounded the next bend and came into a former clearing about twenty-five yards wide and fifty yards deep. Weeds and saplings grew three or four feet high on land that had once been cleared. The thick undergrowth spread up the side of the small hillock and all ’round the house. Clearly no people lived here. It looked long abandoned.
“It’s a farmhouse built of logs,” I said. “A great big log cabin farmhouse.
Ain’t it beautiful, Pa?”
We rode slowly through the switchgrass and fledgling trees to the dwelling and dismounted. Up the few steps was a porch that wrapped around the front of the house, with six equally spaced posts reaching up to support a second-story porch and the roof. The porch flooring was hewn wood planks raised a foot off the ground. On the left side I could see evidence of a shallow root cellar running underneath the house, now mostly caved in. I got off Old Nick and climbed up the porch steps. Still mounted, his hand on his rifle butt, Pa yelled, “Hello! Is there anyone home?”
There was no response. There was naught a sign that anybody could still be living here. Pa took his hand from the rifle and rested it on his pommel while he sat studying the house. “This here is a fine piece of workmanship. I wonder what happened to the people?”
I loosened the leather cinch that held the front door closed and stepped inside. Pa soon followed.
Inside were two good-size rooms separated by a hallway and a staircase. Both rooms had rock fireplaces that faced one another at opposite sides of the house. There was a table in one of the rooms, but otherwise they were empty. The floors were covered with dead spiders, bird and bug carcasses, and varmint droppings.
“Ain’t this place sumpthin’,” said Pa. “A downstairs and an upstairs to boot. No one has been here for three or four years, if not longer.” I nodded in agreement. Judging from the trees growing in the clearing, it might easily have been four or five years. “Wonder why. It would take many months and some few men to build a place like this. Why then would the owner go off and desert it?”
“Must have been Indians that ran these folks off,” I said. “Surely no one would move away from such a fine homestead of their own volition.”
We walked through the rooms on the first floor, then took to the stairs and did the same on the second floor. We descended, turned, and passed out through the rear door, stepped off the small porch, and walked around the back. As we did, I thought I saw several deer leap out of the switchgrass and head into the woods. Curious, I stepped through the underbrush toward where I had seen them.
Pa came up beside me for a look. “A salt lick,” he said. All it looked like was a small pool of water next to where an embankment had eroded, exposing some clay and stone. I crouched down, dipped my finger into the water and licked. Yep, it was salty all right. And there were deer hoofprints all around. Pa smiled, and we headed back toward the house. The exterior structure was like our own small cabin, large logs laid atop one another, tightly fitted together and mudded, but much in need of replenishment. As we walked through the switchgrass back toward our horses, I stumbled over something. It was a sign with white letters painted upon it, although now difficult to read. What was legible was
I could not decipher it and asked Pa if he could. He shook his head. I gazed back at the house and thought it to be the finest rural homestead I had seen since Mr. and Mrs. Burlingame’s stately mansion. But with the spiders and bugs and varmints all about this house, it was not habitable, and so that night we laid out our bedrolls on the trail, right at the edge of the clearing.
Pa and I lay on our backs, gazing up at the stars that filled the night sky. “We’re gonna have us a real homestead soon, Tom. Perhaps not as fine as this. But we will start building a proper dwelling for your ma just as soon as we get our new cows back to Long Prairie and get our next crop in.”
“Somebody surely built a proper homestead here,” I said, “and I shall ever wonder why they deserted it.”
“Perhaps he and his family grew desperate for the society of others,” said Pa. “It is hard to live in these circumstances.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I replied and drifted off to sleep.
We rose at dawn, and Pa checked and cleaned my wound again but said nothing. This was a bit disturbing to me, but I observed he seemed to be desirous of moving along more quickly once we got back on the Three Notch. The woods had thinned, and the trail grew wide enough to allow us to trot Old Nick and Surefoot now and again. Within a few hours we had, by my reckoning, traveled another twelve miles, when we came upon another turn-out. Set back only a couple of hundred yards, we could see a smaller cabin, also made of logs. What it had that the other did not was people. There was smoke rising from a chimney. We turned up the path.
As we rode up, a man walked toward us from a field of just-sprouting corn and a woman came to the cabin door. She looked about as happy as I had ever seen a living soul. Upon closer view, this log cabin lacked the first-rate construction of the abandoned place.
Pa looked over to me. “Tom, I am happy we have found this place and I want us to meet these folks. I hope they can take a look at your wound, but I do not want to say anything about the Indian attack back up the trail. I hope we will not need to say how you got injured, and I’ll be happy to leave it at that. We might mention it before we leave, but not until we have had the opportunity to know these folks better. I want to keep the situation tight for now. They may know something; they may know nothing. We need to find that out before we open our mouths.”
“Whatever you say, Pa.” By this time, I knew Pa sought the trust of others before all else.
“My gracious, my gracious. Isaac, we have visitors. Welcome to you gentlemen. Please, get on down off those horses and come inside.”
The man, frowning a bit, was clearly more cautious. I looked back at the woman at the door and noticed a shotgun leaning against the log wall beside her. They were ready to defend their home if necessary. We needed to let them know right away that there was no cause for concern.
I looked at Pa. He had sensed the same circumstances as I. We smiled, tipped our hats, and quickly dismounted. Pa spoke first.
“Good afternoon sir, ma’am. My name is John Murrell, and this is my son Tom. We are new settlers on the Red River up above the Great Raft, on our way to Natchitoches to purchase cattle. You are the first people we’ve seen residing on the Three Notch Trail, and we’re mighty glad to make your acquaintance. I had no idea there were folks living out here!” He said this last with laughter in his voice.
“Well, howdy to you, sir,” said the small man. He wore the thick clothing of a farmer, crude high-low boots and gold-framed glasses with thick lenses. “My name is Isaac Alden, and this here is Mrs. Johnson. We’ve been here for a couple of years.”
“Five years ago, come next spring, Isaac,” said Mrs. Johnson. She was a comely woman, neither thin nor heavy-set, with her hair done up in a bun. She, too, wore the same boots as her husband, heavy twill trousers and a bodice.
“Four years, then,” he said. “So, you’re the ones settling up in the Arkansaw Territory?”
So they were not “the Aldens.” I wondered why a man and a woman of different families were living under one roof.
“Yup, that’s us. Nine families, sixty-eight souls, making our new homes at a spot called Long Prairie up on the Red River. Just two days above the mouth of the Sulphur.”
“Hmm,” said Mr. Alden, “Never been to the place. But that’s no nevermind. Heard about you settlers, though. Old Indian Joe, he told us there was a party, three boats, I believe he said, makin’ their way through the Great Raft. Old Indian Joe Fields, he’s ’bout the only one passes by here. Ain’t seen white folk through here in some time.”
Pa nodded and smiled as Mrs. Johnson cried out in joy, “Oh-oh- oh, nine families? It is so good to meet you and learn of this! Please, gentlemen, come in. May I get you some coffee or sassafras tea? With sugar?” She smiled at me as if having sugar made her proud.
“Yes ma’am, that would be mighty fine. I’ll take some coffee,” said Pa. “And I’ll take some of that sassafras tea, if you please,” said I.
Over the next few hours we shared stories of our experiences. Mr. Alden and Mrs. Johnson had been part of a group of settlers that came up to Natchitoches from Missouri expecting to settle near the new US Fort Claiborne they were building at the time and found land either unavailable or too expensive. Apparently, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson disagreed on the solution to their problem. Mr. Johnson decided to return to Missouri while Mrs. Johnson decided to carve out a new life with Mr. Alden here in northernmost Louisiana. That was all the details that I had any interest in hearing. They were kind folk, and I enjoyed their company.
While we sat at the table with our hot drinks, Alicia Johnson had noticed my torn shirt and bandage. She asked if I had sustained some sort of injury. Pa jumped in to tell her all he wanted to say about it, and even as he did so, Alicia rose from her chair and took hold of my arm. Untying my bandage and seeing my wound, she was neither shocked nor becalmed but simply said it needed a poultice. She went into her kitchen and began preparing hot water, herbs, honey, and some kind of flour. Combining them, she made a small breadlike loaf with which she covered my wound, wrapping it tightly to my arm with a clean cloth of her own. I thanked her, and so did Pa. I felt comforted by her attentions. I was tired and asked if I might lie down for a short rest, a request to which they were most accommodating. I slept the entire afternoon and awoke feeling much restored.
That night, Alicia Johnson fixed up a fine meal of venison steaks, boiled potatoes, johnnycakes, and fresh beans, topped off with a blackberry cobbler. It was every bit as good as Mama’s best cooking back in Tennessee. At some point in the meal, the conversation turned to those who had chosen to settle in this area of Louisiana.
“Nope, there is nary a soul within twenty mile of here,” said Mr. Alden, “’ceptin that half-breed Joe Fields I tole you about. He lives somewheres east of here, and I do not know exactly where.”
“What takes him out on the Three Notch?” asked Pa.
“He’s a trader,” said Mrs. Johnson. “There’s also a Frenchman who trades wit’ the Indians. He has a small trading post over to the Arkansaw River somewhere.”
“Do you know this Frenchman?” asked Pa.
She shook her head. “Not that I would want to,” she said. “Now, Allie,” said Mr. Alden.
“Don’t you shush me, Isaac,” she said tartly. “That…man…sells guns to the Indians.” But that ended it.
Perhaps hoping to change the subject, Mr. Alden said to us, “I think Allie would give her eyeteeth for a female hereabouts to do quiltin’ with.”
Mrs. Johnson nodded in agreement.
“Well, ma’am,” I said, “I assure you there are many womenfolk in our party, and I am reasonably certain some of them would be glad to quilt with you.” I hesitated to carry the point any further.
“What about them folks who lived in that big homestead cabin about two miles off the Three Notch up north of here? What happened to them?” said Pa.
“So you saw that, did you? It’s a ways off the main trail. That there was the Bosel’s place,” said Mr. Alden. “They called it tha Flat Lick.”
Flat Lick, I thought. The sign I had found.
“Them Bosels was just settlin’ in there about the same time as us,” Mr. Alden continued. “They’s house was all built. Took them quite a while with a number of hired men working on it, then took ’em quite a while more to get situated in it. A while after that, some o’ Bosel’s neighbors from back in Missourah came up ta visit. We was invited over for a social with these folks. They was movin’ to the Spanish country, a spot about a hundert and fifty mile down the El Camino Real. Somehow, they convinced Bosel to uproot and move all the way out there with ’em.”
“They were all dear friends of one another,” said Mrs. Johnson. “T’wasn’t a mystery why the Bosels went with them. Only mystery to me was why on earth they moved out here to begin with.”
“Callum Bosel. Now, there was a strange man,” said Mr. Alden. “A builder, they said, back in Missourah. A man o’ means, else how could he bring all those men and such up here to build his house?”
“And then, in less than a year, to just walk away on it?” finished Mrs. Johnson. “Real glass windows and all,” she said with a sigh.
“Perhaps it was always his intent to sell it once it was built,” said Pa. “Oh, we don’t think so. Mind you, he offered it to us,” said Mr. Alden. “When he first said he wanted to sell it, I tole him we weren’t interested. We’d built out our domicile and were a year into workin’ our land. I din’t want to start that all over again.” He shook his head. “Then he tole me he’d pay me to sell it for him. I tole him no to that one, too. So in the end he just left it. Jest walked out the door with his whole family well over a year ago.”
“It was over three years ago, Isaac,” Mrs. Johnson corrected. “I remember exactly, because it was on the second anniversary of my leaving my damned fool husband.”
Isaac Alden smiled at her, and she smiled back. “Poor Allie hasn’t let one day go by without grousing about that situation. The Bosel house, that is. At one point we considered moving there, but now it’s gone to seed. Anyhows, it’s much too big a place for the two of us. So it sits empty and unmaintained so nobody can live there, for a fact. And it has left my missus without the prospect of a woman friend livin’ within twenty miles.”
Again, Mrs. Johnson nodded in sorrowful agreement. “It is a fine place. If it were not so large and if our crops were not already thriving in the ground here, we might have considered moving there. So much work goes into a farm, doesn’t it? From what you’ve told us, the same has been true for you up there at Long Prairie. Praise the Lord you’ve had so many souls to lend a hand.”
She sat quietly, hands in her lap for a few moments, then said, “What about your family, Mr. Murrell? I suspect the Bosel place would be a lot more comfortable for Mrs. Murrell and all your children than building your own place from the dirt up. In particular since you have not yet begun that task. Now, the Bosel place is just there for the taking.”
“It is?” said I, incredulous. “But you just said—”
“Oh, he never finished the story,” said Mrs. Johnson. “The day Callum Bosel left, he rides up on his horse to say his good-byes. His family had already gone to Natchitoches! Why, you could have knocked us over with a feather duster. Callum asks us if we would mind it ’til another family come along that might avail themselves of the place. But of course, we have not had the time or wherewithal to mind the place.” “But it’s a fine home, sturdy and fair, and quite comfortable,” said Mr. Alden.
“Moving down here just would not be practical,” said Pa, clearly understanding their words. “But perhaps we could come visit from time to time. And you folks will always be welcome in our home.”
Mrs. Johnson’s face said, just as clearly and without speaking, that Pa’s offer was of little interest to her.
“But Pa,” I said. He gave me his look, and I fell silent.
“Like you, we have crops in the ground and considerable work on our property has already been completed. Perhaps most important, I have a responsibility to all these folk we brung these many miles, to help watch over them and ensure their safety and welfare.”
“What about Mr. McKellar? He’s the one in charge,” I said. Pa shot me a stern look, and I shut my mouth.
Mr. Alden began talking about all kind of advantages to living in these parts. He spoke of the abundant game, saying “A body can walk a mile in any direction and bring home dinner with little effort. Deer and turkey abound. Plentiful game of the smaller species, such as squirrels, quail, and waterfowl, can always be found. And we have turkeys. Lots of turkeys.” He spoke of the soil and its ease of cultivation. Like any place, there were predators, he said, mentioning the fox, the wolf, and the bear, but they were no worse than in any other area of the western territories. “And of course, a resident of Flat Lick would have a neighbor who knows the area to help in all ways, at any time.”
As he spoke, I could see that Pa was giving him a careful hearing. His occasional nods of the head told me he was appraising these advantages. “And healthy? Well, neither me nor Allie been sick a day since we been here. The water is clean, and we are well away from those plagues that pass through ever’ few years, especially over to Natchitoches and the Injun villages. And speaking of the Injuns, we’ve never had any of them save Joe Fields come up to our cabin from the trail to our propitty.” “Mr. Alden,” said Pa, “you are indeed a fine salesman. I’ll be sure to tell some of the next crop of settlers coming in about the Bosel house and the benefits to be found living in this area. We expect to receive settlers from several more keelboats arriving in a couple of months.” Mr. Alden raised his eyebrows, made a smile toward Alicia Johnson,
and turned his palms toward the sky as if to say, “I done my best.”
Mrs. Johnson touched her hankie to her eyes and smiled as well as she could, which was not very well.
Before we left the next day, I saw Pa talking to Mr. Alden out of Mrs. Johnson’s earshot. Back on the trail, he confirmed what I assumed. They had been palavering on the subject of our Indian attack.
“Yup, Tom. I told Alden that we come upon the aftermath of a skirmish between some Kados and Osage, that they all ended up dead, and that we put them…ah, to rest. I figured he should be the one to decide how much to concern Mrs. Alicia Johnson with what happened. Alden said he was surprised the Osage had come down this far, but he was not surprised about the killin’. He said they’re big ole, mean-spirited Indians, always spoilin’ for a fight with the Kados. Said the two tribes have been at each other’s throats since before anybody can remember.” “I didn’t see no reason to go into the part about the Indian boys and the Bible picture,” Pa continued. “Didn’t figure that information would help him any, and I figure the fewer who know about it, the better. At least for now. At least until we can figure out what to do with that map in my Bible.”
“Tiatesun said we were to give the Bible—the map—to the Kadohadacho,” I said, “but that’s the name of the tribe. Are we to give it to just any Kado we meet?”
“You raise a good point, son, and that is precisely why I want us to keep them sort a’ particulars close to the vest ’til we better understand just what is going on.”
Close to the vest. That’s where Pa kept most everything. I figured he was lucky he could still fit in that vest, all the stuff he was keeping close inside of it.