As Papa was coming to, the first thing he saw and felt was a blazing fire someone had built against the cold night. He got to his feet, wet and very sore, but alive. His head hurt. He touched dried blood in his hair.
As Papa looked around to get his bearings, he was surprised to see an old Indian sitting on a fallen tree near the fire, about ten feet away. Charlie Douglass lay motionless nearby. Papa scrambled over to check on him. He didn’t say anything to the Indian, nor did the Indian speak to him.
Papa knelt down. Douglass was breathing. Papa tried to rouse him, but Douglass didn’t budge. He looked back at the old Indian.
The Indian made a sign. Papa was no expert in Indian sign language, but he understood the basics. The Indian pointed toward Douglass and made the sign of the rising sun, then of a man standing. When the sun rises, he will be all right. He nodded, and Papa nodded back. The Indian opened his left palm to the sky as he moved his arm to the left and down, as if to say, Please be seated. Papa sat down on the log near the Indian.
Papa had been looking all around, sizing up the situation ever since he opened his eyes. No evidence of Charlie being dragged. No sign of other Indians. Just the three of them, all alone. Papa thought, How can this be? The roaring was gone, and the rocking had subsided. Trees were down in every direction.
Daylight was breaking. Papa could see they were about twenty-five yards back from the riverbank, but there was no sign of the boats or any of the rest of their group. He surmised the Indian must have saved both Douglass and himself, although the Indian wasn’t wet. It didn’t look like he’d been in the river, which now flowed more calmly, silently, in its normal southward direction.
The two men studied each other intently. The Indian’s dark-skinned face was filled with wrinkles. Long braids hung over each shoulder and down his deerskin shirt all the way to his waist. He raised his hand and bracelets jingled. The two were quiet for what seemed to Papa like a long time.
Then the Indian spoke. “Jo-mura.”
Startled, Papa touched his chest and said, “Did you say my name?”
The Indian pointed at Papa and said again, “Jon Murrah,” this time more clearly—unmistakably Papa’s name.
“How do you know me?” Papa’s mind raced. Possibly he had said his name while he was out. Or Douglass could have been conscious and told the Indian his name.
The Indian sat, quiet and patient, for a while longer, then he began to sign, speaking in Indian language as he gestured.
“Sah-coo dahyahyut na hayuh.” Sah-coo come from the sky.
He shook our land. Many of our people will think that this be a warning to the white man, and it will be the end of white man in this place. They are wrong. Shaking was to awaken our people. We must protect our ancient places. We must change and learn new ways. We must see the truth, just as our fathers did in ancient times. If we fail, the Kadohadacho will perish from this world.
The words were foreign, and the signs were hard to follow, but Papa got the gist of what he was saying. He knew it had to do with the quake, and that it was some kind of a message to his tribe. The Indian went on. You and your family will make long journey from your kiwat— your home. You must go up bahat hatinu—the Red River. Go through Great Raft. Settle family near ancient home of the Kadohadacho. Here your family will befriend ours. Help my people overcome great evil. Help us remember fathers. Then Kadohadacho bestow prosperity on you and your family in your new home. All will be in harmony with the land.
Once again, Papa was able to understand most of the old Indian’s message. For some reason, this Indian was apparently telling Papa to pull up his family from our farm in the Cumberland and set out on a journey which, we were to learn, led into the southern part of Louisiana Territory, an unknown frontier west of the Mississippi, just above the infamous Great Raft. Back then, though, Papa knew little about the territory or its Indian inhabitants.
All he knew at this time was that for some unfathomable reason, this old Indian was trying to send him, his wife and five children away from their home, out to the unsettled edge of the frontier to help his tribe there. In return, they would give him some kind of reward. It made absolutely no sense.
The objections and questions spilled out of Papa. “I don’t understand. Why should I uproot my family? I can’t just pick up and take my wife and children into the wilderness. And why me? What do I know about this kado-ha-daku people? Who are you to suggest such a thing?”
The Indian held up his palm and said nothing. The two men looked silently at each other as the sky continued to brighten.
Douglass began to stir. He moaned, “Where am I?”
Papa jumped up and went over to him, turning his back to the Indian. “Charlie, are you all right?”
“No, John, I’m not at all right. I feel like I been run over by a herd of wild horses. What the hell happened to us?”
“You were thrown out of your boat by the earthquake,” said Papa. “I jumped in to haul you out. As I was getting us to the bank, we were hit by a falling tree. This Injun here must have saved us and built this fire.”
Douglass looked around and said, “What Indian?”
Papa wheeled around, but the old man was no longer there. Papa looked into the few trees still standing and down toward the riverbank but saw nothing. He searched the ground for moccasin tracks, but saw only the muddy boot prints he had made earlier.
It was like the Indian had never been there.
Papa and Mr. Douglass made their way back to the riverbank. By noon they had caught up with the rafts that had been tied up a ways downstream on the east side of the river. By some miracle all three had survived the quake. The river was sluggish, thick with silt, and dangerous, full of sawyers and whole uprooted trees. Everyone had been at work pulling goods out of the water and getting things back in order. As they moved downriver again, they heard many accounts of the quake and saw for themselves how it had destroyed homes, stores, docks, and boats.
The quake slowed them down considerably, but they made New Orleans in another four weeks. When they finally docked, it was not long until they heard the first piece of good news to come their way in some time. The quake had disrupted river commerce, and as a result prices for everything, including cotton and cornmeal, but especially whiskey, were sky high. Even after taking account of their cargo losses, each man made a greater profit than he had expected from the trip.
On January 23, 1812, Papa, Douglass, and Fuller were getting ready to leave New Orleans to return to Tennessee when they felt the earth tremble again. A couple of weeks later, on the trail north, they felt another shock. They later learned it had destroyed the entire town of New Madrid and that all three quakes were felt all over the country, as far away as New York City. Papa said, “Whatever warning the Indian god wanted to get across was sure something that all people heard.”
Papa was back in Tennessee by March with two new horses; some fine store-bought clothes for Mama and one of my little sisters, Martha (Mary being too young for such things); and a new rifle for himself, a Harper’s Ferry 1803 flintlock army rifle. It was a handsome gun with brass plating and an octagon-shaped barrel. That meant I got Papa’s old gun, a “Kaintuck” long rifle. It was my first, and I immediately set to work learning to clean and load it and polish its beautifully carved maple stock. I was one mighty proud Tennessee boy.
Papa told us all about the earthquakes, but he kept the Indian’s part of the story to himself for several years. Perhaps he was uncertain whether it had truly occurred or if he dreamt it. He must have struggled to make sense of it. Whatever the truth, it changed our lives and turned out to be more prophetic than Papa could ever have imagined.