Four days later and after a few hours spent exploring Flat Lick, Joel and I arrived at the Alden-Johnson home. Of course, the first thing we told Mrs. Johnson was of our wish to move to Flat Lick. What I did not mention was that we had left off a considerable amount of belongings already back at what Joel called “The Log Plantation.” Although I would not claim to be surprised by her response, it was nevertheless a bit of a shock to have her throw herself into my arms and begin weeping her tears of joy. Still, I had had my fill of weeping women for a spell.
Mr. Alden came into the kitchen, and I repeated my news. I explained that the cause of my premonitions was the yellow fever and that while most folk in Long Prairie were almost well, it seemed to play a role in Pa’s decision to move to Flat Lick.
“Oh, Isaac, we are finally going to have neighbors,” said Mrs. Johnson. “A woman to sew, cook, and talk with. Boys, I am so sorry to hear about your people’s illness, but we are mightily pleased that you are moving down here. First thing in the morning we’ll get ourselves over to Flat Lick and start getting that place cleaned up for your family.”
“Thank you very kindly, Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Alden,” I said. “Please, Tom, if you’re going to be our neighbors, you may call me Isaac.”
“Yes, sir, I will,” I said.
“And you may call me Alicia,” said Mrs. Johnson.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
We stayed the night with Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Alden and were over to Flat Lick the next day by midmorning. We brought some tools for repair work, but Isaac had brought his own scythe, some varmint traps, a block and tackle, and such. Alicia brought one of her pots so she could cook for us.
Just as soon as we arrived, she grabbed Joel, and they set to sweeping and cleaning out the dirt, leaves, and infestations inside of the house, knocking down the spider webs, washing windows, and building fires in both fireplaces to run off the varmints. After a few hours of hard work, I overheard Alicia say, “Joel, you are a good worker. It’s a pleasure to have your company. Let’s see about getting some supper cooking. Tomorrow we’ll clean the upstairs and scrub all the walls and floors spotless.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Joel. He appeared to be having a good time. No doubt glad to be working with his hands after the weeks of acting as a full-time nursemaid to his siblings and mother.
Meanwhile, Isaac and I worked outside, inspecting the house for needed repairs, rebuilding the corral, chopping wood, and clearing a pathway from the hitching post to the front porch. As I scythed through the switchgrass, a few snakes slithered off. Some did not make it to safety. Scything the big clearing tomorrow was likely to result in more of the same unpleasantness.
That night we stayed in the house, which had been designed to provide some ventilation through the structure even in the hot Louisiana summer. I had to admit that Alicia Johnson was a true frontierswoman. She did not shirk from any work, no matter how hard or unpleasant, and delighted in conversing with my brother and me, learning everything we could tell her about each member of our family.
The next day, Isaac and I built three sturdy bed frames for our sleeping pouches. Now Mama, Martha, and Mary would have the proper beds they had gone without for so long. We would build beds for Pa and us boys as time permitted. Isaac returned to splitting firewood, meanwhile sending me out to the onerous task of clearing the switchgrass, scrub, saplings, and snakes.
For the next week, we did everything possible to make Flat Lick like a home for the family, who would be arriving before we knew it. We built shelves and a pantry, which Alicia stocked with all manner of things. We dug out the root cellar and put in new supports. We drove the longhorns over from the Alden place and herded them onto a nice parcel we had prepared for them. Isaac brought his plow and horse over and the three of us took turns furrowing some of the fields that ole Bosel had cleared years earlier but where weeds and brush now grew once again.
It was getting on late July, but not too late for planting what the Indians called Late Corn or Tall Corn. Me and Isaac sowed it in one of the smaller nearby fields in a day. A fortunate afternoon rain shower confirmed our seedlings. I was sure we could easily get some production for the family and the animals.
By the time Pa rode up with the family on Wednesday, July 29, Flat Lick looked like folks actually lived here. As a fact, we more or less did, Isaac, Alicia, Joel, and me. We came out on the porch to wave as the family arrived. Andrew and Jackson, upon seeing me and Joel, set up a whooping only coonhounds can make and came racing for us, covering our faces with their slobber.
“Oh John!” cried Mama, her health clearly restored. “This is beyond anything in my wildest imagination. John, this is a home!”
“Yes, Mag. This is our home.”
I introduced Alicia and Isaac to Mama, who cried while Martha held her hand and looked around with her mouth open. Mary and Barney, obviously feeling much better, had jumped off the cart and run inside, then out the back, looking, they said, for the salt lick. The dogs followed on their heels.
Pa looked up at the house. “Lord, this is something. I asked you to clean the place up, but you have quite thoroughly made it over.”
“You have these two folks to thank for that, Pa,” I said, wrapping an arm around each of them. Alicia broke free and said, smiling, “Come with me, Mrs. Murrell; let me show you around Flat Lick.”
We walked inside. Mama looked at the well-stocked kitchen shelves and pantry in awe. “I declare! A real wood-burning stove!” She ran a hand over the cast-iron surface. “And where did all these things and all this food come from?”
“We tend to stock up on things when we go to Natchitoches,” Alicia said with a little laugh. In fifteen minutes, you would have thought the two of them had known each other their entire lives.
Barney came running back inside, all out of breath. “Mama, there is a stream just out back, and the water is crystal clear. It tastes so good! And we saw a deer in the woods, just standing there, so close I could have hit it with a rock! And there’s a whole herd of cattle outside in the pen! Is this really all ours?”
Pa looked at Isaac, who nodded. “Yes, son, this is all ours. Today we have much to be thankful for.” Pa put his hands together and offered up a little prayer while we bowed our heads in gratitude.
I took this moment to reflect on all that we had accomplished over the past few weeks. For a certainty, Flat Lick was a lot better place to live than Long Prairie. The only possible drawback was it being too great a distance between me and Mattie. I was very pleased when Mama handed me a letter from Mattie, which I stuffed into my shirt to read later. I would read it many times. I had so much I wanted to say to her. I wanted to hold her hand, look into her eyes, touch her face, and kiss her lips, but I could do none of these things. All I could do was remember our last moments together, and those were both bitter and sweet.
So I had done the only thing I could, which was to take up a quill and write her. Sitting beside the candle while Isaac and Alicia slept, night after night I wrote her about my days and how much I missed her. I described Flat Lick, and how I felt my time here would pass much more pleasantly until I could put The Plan to work in my life. I would write each night until the candle guttered out and seal the pages in an envelope. They grew into quite a pile.
That first evening together, Mama and Alicia fixed a fine supper, and we all sat talking late into the evening. It had been a long, hot July day, but no one seemed to mind the heat. It had been a very good day. We were home. Flat Lick truly did feel like our home.
However, it was the last day of rest we had for a while. Over the next two days, Pa and I rigged up a first-class Armstrong grist mill. This mill, though simple in appearance, combined several of the mechanical powers, operating a spring pole attached to a pestle into a mortar box—a hole burnt into the end of a heavy block of wood. The spring pole is worked up and down by hand, hence the mill was named “Armstrong.” The sifting apparatus of this mill was made of a dried deerskin from which the hair had been shaved, stretched tightly over a broad wooden hoop and then burned full of holes with a hot spindle. It was a great success, far surpassing the hand pestle and mortar we had been using back in Long Prairie. Soon we were grinding meal from the grain we had brought from Tennessee, along with that provided by Mrs. Johnson. Then we waited with high anticipation for loaves of bread to emerge from the cookstove’s oven.
Isaac Alden had assured us that the woods abounded with all manner of game, and it was true. What we trapped and shot became our main source of food. A turkey for dinner required hardly an hour or so of hunting, and venison steak, still on the hoof, so to speak, was as close as our salt lick. Mr. Alden told us to expect to see bear, which would provide us with the best bacon we had ever tasted. And it did.
Isaac’s warnings about the foxes, wolves, and bears turned out to be no less true. Mama left her butter churn at the creekside one afternoon; wolves carried it off and gnawed it to pieces. Pa immediately decided the dogs would stay in the cattle pen at night. We were all more alert and watchful after that.
Toward the end of August, Pa sent Joel and me back to Long Prairie on Old Nick and Jim Dandy. We would collect our harvest and haul it and the remainder of our things back to Flat Lick on our travoises. I was eager to make this journey and give Mattie the stack of letters I had written her.