After another week on horseback, Pa and I arrived in Natchitoches midday on Saturday, June 27. It had taken us altogether thirteen days, and I couldn’t have been any happier to climb out of the saddle. I thought we’d made pretty good time, what with the near-two-day visit at the Alden place. What I was eager for was a hotel bed and, truth be known, having a doctor look at my arm.
But I could tell Pa was already worried about our being away from the family for so long. He had said he wanted to get down to Natchitoches and back in a month. So we needed to get back on the trail pretty darned quick.
As if reading my mind, Pa said, “One day, Tom,” and pointed a gloved finger into the air. “One day here in Natchitoches. I should like for us to be back on the trail tomorrow, the earlier the better. We got five things to do. First, purchase cattle and, if possible, another horse. I would like to buy from Mr. Abbadie if his animals look good and the price is right. “Second, we must replenish our supplies with a visit to Mr. Laplace’s general store—”
“And get me a new shirt,” I said.
“Yes, we shall get you a new shirt,” said Pa. “I would also like to have a confidential conversation with Oats about the, ah, incident we met up with.
“Third, after speaking with Oats, I may have to report the Osage attack to the commander at Fort Claiborne. I believe that is expected of me. To help the Army ensure there is no trouble brewing with the natives.
“Fourth, I want a doctor to take a look at your arm. That poultice Mrs. Johnson put on it, I think that was a real good thing for your cut. But it’s been on there for a while, and I think we ought to ask a doctor if your wound needs more attention. Perhaps there is one at the Army post who can examine you. Lord knows an Army doctor has seen his share of battle wounds!” Pa chuckled a bit. “Lastly, we must stop at Mr. T.J.’s dock and pay him for his pirogue. We will proceed in that order.”
Typical Pa. He had it all figured out, about how much time each task would take and how to plan from one to the next. Everything orderly and rational.
Questions burned in my mind to ask Pa about the drawing in the Bible. Was it really a map? Where might it lead? Who could read it? I had not seen the map, if indeed that is what it was, since Tiatesun drew it. I knew Pa would know how to deal with it when the time was right. Until then, its secret was safe in his saddlebag.
We rode into a busy Natchitoches amongst horses, people, dogs, and carts going up and down the thoroughfare. We passed the tavern from which came loud voices and boisterous laughter. I was hungry, but Pa rode on with a singular mind to see Mr. Abbadie. I was glad to see the man was at his corrals and able to begin discussions at once, so we could get to the table sooner.
The cows were healthy, young, and bountiful. Mr. Abbadie tugged on a few of their teats to prove it. The bull was a handsome, gruff beast he called Titan. The horse, which Mr. Abbadie said was named “Jeem Dandee,” was a gelding of no particular character. Pa walked around him a few times, then said, “What else have you?”
“Unfortunately, Monsieur Murrell, he is the only horse in my stables at the moment. I had une demi-douzaine, but they were all sold a few days ago to a big cattle drive. But Jeem is a fine animal, monsieur, with une disposition aimable. You’ll be using him as a plow horse?” Pa nodded.
“You will find him well suited to the task.”
Pa walked around Jim Dandy a few more times, rubbing his whiskers, murmuring, until Mr. Abbadie finally reduced his asking price. For most of his Spanish gold coins, Pa purchased ten cows, Titan—the bull—and Jim Dandy, which seemed to me a handsome deal. Pa asked Mr. Abbadie if he would allow us a corral for them until morning. “Ah, that will cost you un peu more, monsieur,” he said, pinching his fingertips together and grinning, but Pa seemed well enough satisfied with the transaction. We left our horses to be liveried as well. “You drove a good bargain, Pa,” I said as we walked up Amulet Street. “How did you get Mr. Abbadie to drop his price for Jim Dandy?”
Pa smiled at me and said, “My hesitation let him know he wasn’t the only horse dealer in town.”
“Did you save enough money so’s we can get some dinner?” I asked smiling, pointing to the tavern on Jefferson and rubbing my belly. He nodded.
It was a little less noisy as we took seats. A pretty, jolly woman with an abundant bosom came right up and set two huge bowls down in front of us. It was a stew of sorts, and it smelled delicious. “C’est du gumbo.” She poked her finger at the ingredients, floating in the dark broth, as she talked. “Saucisse, riz, okra, and the Looziana Holy Trinity.” She paused, looking back and forth at us. “That’s peppers, celery and onions, en anglais, ha, ha, ha! Quelque chose à boire? Somethin’ to drink?”
“Two sassafras teas, if you please,” said Pa.
I took in the room as we ate, dominated as it was by a long bar. Behind it stood a multitude of liquor and wine bottles surrounding several beer casks, over which hung a painting of a naked woman. So this was the type of establishment where James took his pleasures. Two bouviers—I suppose one would call them French cowboys—were talking rather loudly, drinking shot upon shot of what I presumed to be whiskey. Of a moment, one of them burst into a bawdy French tune that I did not understand, but the way the other men at the bar laughed, I had no doubt it was rich in sexual references. He had a fine voice but was clearly quite drunk. Upon finishing, the room filled with guffaws and a little applause. The singer’s partner grabbed him by his vest and dragged him out the swinging saloon doors, setting the patrons laughing again.
Our bellies filled, we stepped out onto Jefferson and headed down it toward the mercantile.
As we stepped through the St. Denis front door, I heard Mr. Laplace say, “Eh, bien. If it isn’t the Murrells! I did not think we would see you until next year. What brings you back to our fair city?” He came around the counter to shake our hands. Seeing my torn sleeve and bandaged arm, he said in a soft tone of voice, “Why, Tom, it appears you’re in need of a new shirt already!”
He laughed, and we joined in. Oats came out of the back and took one look at my arm and said, “Tom!” Then, in Kado, “What happened to you?” Mr. Laplace and Oats immediately glanced at each other, seemingly avoiding any expression.
Before I could answer, Pa said, “Good to see you, Mr. Laplace, and you, too, Oats. We come back to buy a few cows.”
“Well,” Mr. Laplace replied, missing nothing said or unsaid, “you men will just have to have a sit and tell us what you’ve been up to.”
He locked the front doors and took us into the back room, where Oats scraped a couple of extra chairs across the floorboards and up to a flimsy old table. I had the oddest feeling that he already knew what had happened to us, even though no words had passed our lips.
Pa began talking about our trip through the Raft, arriving at Long Prairie, cultivating the land, and the Robinsons’ departure, omitting mention of the events of our journey down the Three Notch Trail.
All the while, Oats stared at me with barely a whit of patience. Finally, he blurted out, “Tiatesun!” interrupting Pa’s conversational narrative. Pa stared at him but said nothing. Nor did I.
“It was you, w-was it not?” Oats said in Kado. “You are the w-white men.
You found Tiatesun. You saved the Coconicis.”
Mr. Laplace gave Oats an exasperated look.
“How did you know?” I replied in kind and turned to Mr. Laplace. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t speak much Kado or French, and Pa speaks neither. I ’spect we should confer in English.”
Oats repeated himself in the English tongue. “How is it you knew?” Pa asked Oats.
“Of course, we did not know it was you,” he replied. “All we knew was that it was two white men, and we wondered if it was someone from your group of settlers above the Great Raft. What we did know we—l—learned from my people at T-T’soto. Their ch-chief, Dehahuit, tell my chief, Tehowainia. As soon as we saw the two of you walk in the store and I saw your arm, I…I knew it must be you who found him. T-T-Tiatesun was our people’s most important medicine man. The Xinesi. How you say, ‘high priest.’”
“I would appreciate this conversation be kept to ourselves,” said Pa. Mr. Laplace nodded. “Of course, Monsieur Murrell.”
Now Pa and I told them the story they wanted most to hear, leaving out the part about the Bible.
“What else do you know about what happened?” said Pa, leaning toward the two of them across the table.
“Tiatesun was on his yearly p-pilgrimage with the young brave Kianhoon and his two spirit-guides,” said Oats. “All Kado know about that.”
“They call the spirit-guides Coconicis?” I said. “Yes! You re-rescued them, yes?” Oats asked.
“Yes, at some cost,” I said, raising my wounded arm. “But they ran off in the night. We don’t know what happened to them.”
“Do not worry. They returned safely to our people. They told our holy men what they saw. That the Osage killed Tiatesun and his protector, and that two white men killed the Osage.”
“So you know all this already?” asked Pa.
“Yes, M-Monsieur M-Murrell. I was told about these events by a Kado who comes here from my birthplace up at Natchitoches Village.”
“Where was Tiatesun going?” I asked Oats. We looked at him, waiting for an explanation. Finally, Oats said, “We do not know.”
“But you know that Tiatesun was on a pilgrimage?” “Y-Yes.”
“Because of your fellow tribesman?” I asked. Oats nodded.
Oats said, “I t-told you, all Kado know the Xinesi goes on his spiritual p-p-pilgrimage every year. We don’t know where he goes. Only known to chiefs and our medicine men. It is a s-sacred place in the mountains. This is all we know.”
“We white folks know very little about these Indian rituals,” said Mr. Laplace. “Except for what Oats here tells me, I myself am unfamiliar with Kado traditions.”
I could not say why, but Mr. Laplace’s words did not ring true to me. I wondered why he would pretend he knew so little about the Kados.
Turning back to me and Pa, he said, “We’ve not had Indian trouble with either the Kados or the Osage down here for many years. Most of the Kado live peaceably at Kado Lake. That is what we call it, but they call it T’soto. Most of the Osage are way up above the Ozarks, all the way into Missouri territory, minding their own business.”
“Except for Wey Chutta’s renegade Wah-Sha-She, M-Mr. Laplace,” said Oats. “And th-th-they are a malicious lot, and still threaten our people. Chief Dehahuit only wants to live in peace with both white men and Osage. All people. The s-s-same cannot be s-said of Wey Chutta’s Osage.” Then he was quiet.
“What Oats says is true, Monsieur Murrell. Years ago, the Kado had a lot of trouble with the Osage attacking them above the Great Bend,” Mr. Laplace continued. “That’s upriver, west and north of you folks.”
“That’s pretty much the reason why many of the Kado, ah, moved down to their lake,” Mr. Laplace continued.
“Oui, monsieur. These days the Osage tribe stays way up north, away from the whites. But I think it was Wey Chutta’s Wah-Sha-She that attacked T-Tiatesun, not the Osage tribe,” said Oats.
Pa looked at Oats and said, “Just who is this Wey Chutta, and what is his ‘Wah-Sha-She’?”
“He’s a renegade Osage, cast out of the Osage tribe some years ago,” said Laplace. “He is un homme mauvais, un homme fou who hates and kills and steals whatever he wants. He once had une centaine d’hommes Osage, but many were killed in battle or deserted him. À présent, I hear they have braves from other tribes, mostly renégats banished by their own people. The Wah-Sha-She prey on other tribes, stealing pelts, guns, cattle, horses.” His face grew long, sad, dark as he said, “And sometimes women.”
We were, all four of us, quiet for some moments, pondering the grave danger posed by this Wey Chutta and his band of cruel renegades. To my mind, and I’m sure to Pa’s as well, there could be little doubt that it was they who attacked Tiatesun. And me. The question was, Why?
“Je crois comprendre that they trade most of what they’ve stolen to disreputable French traders for guns and ammunition,” said Mr. Laplace. “I have had nothing but assurances from everyone I’ve asked that we have settled in a civilized territory and are safe from marauding Indians,” said Pa, barely containing his anger. “And now I hear about this pack of them on the loose and that we ought to be mighty concerned about it.”
His right hand curled into a fist.
“Well, Monsieur Murrell,” said Mr. Laplace, “for the past few years, we know that Wey Chutta’s band has been holed up somewhere beyond the Ouachitas and have not been a problem for whites in the Arkansaw Territory. Cependant, je suis triste de le dire there are tales told of them, ah, raiding the Kados and some of the other peaceful tribes.”
“Excuse me, sir, but you’ve used the word ‘Wa-chi-tas,’” I said to Mr.
Laplace. “That’s the name of a mountain range?”
Oats said, “Oui, the Ouachita Mountains. It was once part of my tribe’s homeland and lies to the north and east of your Long Prairie. The Ouachitas were t-taken from my p-people by the Osage. This m-made much of the Kado tribe decide to move to T’soto. Now the Osage tribe is up above the Ozarks, ’ceptin for that Wey Chutta. We think a party of them Wah-Sha-She came south looking for Tiatesun. If this is true, how they knew he was going on the pilgrimage is a great mystery.”
“And if they were looking for Tiatesun, they found him,” said Mr. Laplace. “Wey Chutta has got a très mauvais caractère. As I have said, he once had over one hundred warriors. Now peut-être quarante.”
Oats stuck his fingers up four times as he said, “Forty. But then they encountered the two of you, and now four of his warriors are dead. He’s got to be plenty mad about losing four men.”
Pa’s expression went from curious to grave. “This was an Indian attack, even though it was between two tribes and did not involve whites.” Pa paused. “I believe I should take action with this information. Is it not our responsibility to inform the Army?”
Mr. Laplace finally spoke. “Under most circumstances, I would say yes—that you ought to notify Major Trimble about the incident. He is commander of the Western Section of the 8th Military District and can usually be found at Fort Claiborne. But in this case, making such notification may not be in your best interests. For a couple of reasons, monsieur,” he added, leaning back in his chair and pressing his fingertips together. “First of all, it is only myself and Oats who know it was you who killed the Osage. Sans doute, it had to be Wey Chutta’s Wah-Sha- She. If so, he may now have revenge on his mind, and if somehow it got back to him that it was you, well…” He let his chair fall back on its front legs with a thunk. “Vous et vos familles sont en grave danger.”
I knew little French, but I clearly understood the words family and grave danger well enough. I looked at Pa and deduced the same grasp of Mr. Laplace’s warning. “And you think if we tell the Army, it would get back to this Wey Chutta?” said Pa.
“There are m-many eyes that see and ears that hear in Natchitoches,” said Oats. “It would not be the Army that would tell Wey Chutta. . .” He paused, and his message sank in without more words. Then he said, “But the f-fewer people who know it was you, the better off you’ll be.” Mr. Laplace nodded in agreement and said, “And there is yet another reason to keep your activities to ourselves, which has to do with the Army and the Kados. Old Dehahuit has been complaining about white men settling on what, en vérité, were not long ago Kado lands, north of the Great Raft. Dehahuit hopes to take his people back there some day, as unlikely as that may be.”
“But we have settled that land, and it is now ours,” objected Pa. “C’est vrai, c’est vrai. But the rights to land in these parts are toujours always, as you say, qui sait quoi? You never know when a treaty might come along to change things. And en plus Wey Chutta will certainement cause trouble for any Kado up above the Raft. Et vous! With all these possible goings-on, no one can know how this mort de’ Tiatesun will play out between the Indian tribes, the government, and your own community at Long Prairie. Mais c’est certain, if anything eventually comes of this round of conflict between the Kado and the Osage, you don’t want to be a part of it. Je regrette…I am sorry to speak so much en français, Monsieur Murrell!”
Pa made a “never mind” gesture with his hand and said, “The notion of possible retaliation had certainly crossed my mind, which makes me think that we have an obligation to notify the authorities of Indian trouble. The Army must already know about Wey Chutta and his war party. They may even have heard about the Osage attack on Tiatesun and that men were killed.”
“That, monsieur, is a distinct possibility.” Mr. Laplace tipped his chair back again and said, “but regardless, it is not necessary that you do so. Why don’t you leave this situation up to Oats and me? We live here. We know all the parties involved. We can make sure that Major Trimble and his second in command, Major Riddle, get the information they need.” He tipped forward onto all four chair legs again and said, “But only what they need.” He sat up straight and said in a clear, masterly voice, “We are in la plus enviable position to provide trusted information without letting them know who or where the information came from.”
“Yes, sir. He’s right Monsieur M-M-Murrell; we can do that for you,” said Oats. “The Army knows we hear things here at the m-mercantile. S-sometimes an officer will come in and ask if we ha-ha-have heard anything they ought to k-know about. They do t-trust us and appreciate it when we inform them of what we’ve learnt. Sometimes a c-citizen tells us some thing or other just so’s we can pa-pa-pass it on to the Army. Th-that’s the way information gets to the right people here in Natchitoches. We just ca-collect what we learn and pass it along to who best needs to hear it. W-we can get this news of yours to the soldiers and let them figure out what to do about it.”
“That seems to me a fine solution, gentlemen, and we thank you,” said Pa. I could tell he was relieved to have received their assistance so we could get back to our chores, but I still wondered if he really trusted the decision. “Let us get on to Mrs. Murrell’s shopping list. If we miss something, there will be a fate worse than Indians waiting for us when we get back to Long Prairie.”
“And-and-and we need to get Tom a new sh-shirt,” said Oats, causing a laugh to go around the table.