We arrived at Long Prairie hungry but too late for dinner, but Mattie and Mrs. McKellar fixed us up a big early supper. Mattie kept turning toward me from the hearth, smiling and smiling. I was looking forward to getting her alone so I could give her the letters and perhaps some kisses. While we ate, in came a small rainstorm outside that cooled the hot summer day nicely.
“I hope we’re getting this rain down to Flat Lick, too,” I said. “What with our late planting, we need all the help we can get from the heavens.” I pointed up and everyone smiled.
The McKellars, one and all, wanted to hear all about Flat Lick, what we had done to fix the place up and all about our new neighbors, the Aldens. Joel and I did everything we could to oblige and then asked after the Long Prairie news of the past month.
“Beth Wallace did not survive the fever,” said Christiana McKellar. Joel and I mumbled our condolences. Duncan McKellar worried the loss of both children would cause the Wallaces to return to Tennessee, but instead they decided they would just move farther off the river.
“Everyone is of the same mind now,” said Duncan, and I nodded, deep in my heart blaspheming that evil river for every imaginable sin. “Otherwise, the Long Prairie community is doing well. An Indian has visited, selling his handmade goods, but we have had no trouble.”
“Was the Indian named Joe?” asked Joel.
“Why, yes, he did say his name was Joe,” Duncan replied.
“Old Joe Fields, that’s his name. He is a trader and a friend to Mr. Alden and Mrs. Johnson. He travels up and down the Three Notch. They ask for things, and he brings them. He is a good man to know.”
“Well, don’t that beat all,” said Duncan. “I’ll let everyone know.”
I asked if they had seen any cavalry from down in Natchitoches, as Pa had asked me to do, but they had not.
The rain had cooled the evening, and it was still light after we finished supper. Joel and me and Mattie washed and put away the dishes. I summoned my courage and said, “Mattie, would you like to take a walk outside before it gets too dark?”
“Why, yes, Tom. Thank you.” “I’ll come too!” said Joel.
I gave him a look that would turn wolves away, and he said, “Aw, maybe not. Go ’head on without me; I’m pretty tuckered out.”
We climbed to the ridge for a view of the Red below. Long Prairie rolled away behind us, to the left, the right, the rear. We could see the big old stone cliff rising above the river a couple of miles to the west. The sun was sinking, its light turning the river the color of blood. It made me shudder a little.
“It is nice out here tonight,” said Mattie. “Thank you for asking me for a walk.”
“Yes, it is,” I said, without complete sincerity after seeing the Red. I took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’m happy everything has turned out well for your family.”
“I would not say everything is turning out well, Tom. We’ve been here but a few months now, yet everyone already knows this land is not going to give us an easy life. At least not for many a year. Some say never. They curse the Red for its yellow fever and anything else gone wrong. They say there are good reasons why this area has not been settled before.”
“That may be true, Mattie. Mr. Alden told us they had not been sick even once in their four years down the Three Notch Trail. They’re many miles away from the Red.”
“Then you are fortunate to have found your salt lick place to live,” she said, with a bit of sadness in her voice. “Now we all know that the way to stay healthy is to live a far ways off from the Red River.”
“What?” said Mattie.
“It’s called Flat Lick. Not salt lick.”
We laughed. I turned toward Mattie and took her other hand. “Thank you for your letter. It’s the first one a girl ever wrote to me. You write beautifully, Miss McKellar.”
I took this opportunity to kiss her gently on the lips. She did not object. “I have many letters for you, in my saddlebag.”
She smiled, and I kissed her again. “Tom,” she sighed. “Yes?”
“On the day you and Joel left for Flat Lick, you told Stephen and me that you had some kind of premonition that something was wrong here in Long Prairie. We never had the chance to talk about that. Do you think that feeling was real?”
“I just don’t know. Come here.” We walked down the ridge to our old cabin, where we sat on one of the logs. “I’ll tell you what I haven’t told anyone else,” I said, and proceeded to recount how Tiatesun, the Kado Xinesi, grabbed my arm and rubbed it into his wound, mixing his blood with my own. “I’ve wondered over and over what that was about. Then getting them premonitions. I’d never had one before, and it made me wonder if the one I got had something to do with that Indian’s blood mixing with mine.”
“I believe it could be so, but rest assured you’re not the only one who has such—sensibilities,” said Mattie, “for I have them, too. It is often just what we call intuition, a very human trait of which we lack much understanding.”
“But this was, I think, different. It wasn’t like some new idea coming into your mind. No, it was immediate and powerful and real, a sudden chill that went throughout my body. And I think it was triggered by a wagon’s wheel making racket in a particularly familiar pattern.”
Mattie leaned closer to me, staring deep into my eyes. “Pray tell, Tom. What pattern?”
“Mattie, I think it was the very same pattern those Indian drums made that night when we were stuck out on the Great Raft. Do you remember?”
She raised her eyebrows, pressed her lips together, and nodded.
I fell silent, then said, “I haven’t really told you everything that happened that day.” She took my hand and gazed into my face with her large, beautiful, blue, imploring eyes. And so, I told her every moment of every detail what happened that day on the Three Notch Trail when Pa and I heard gunshots, I killed a man, saved two Indian children from drowning, was stabbed by an Osage warrior, and shared blood with a Kado Xinesi. The day that henceforth my life would never again be the same.
When I had finished, Mattie said, “You were blessed by Tiatesun for saving his Coconicis, and giving him the Bible, and…” she hesitated, “and even killing the Osage warrior. Perhaps he thanked you in the only way he could, by sharing his holy man blood with you. It was the only gratitude he could give.”
“Yes, I suppose that could be true,” I said. “But killing, that was the most awful feeling I have ever had—knowing I killed another living man.” “What if you had not, Tom? Did you really have a choice? The Indians say that a man is given many trials which he must overcome to become the man he is intended to be. You’ve had other trials on this journey, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I suppose I have,” I said, thinking back to rescuing her brother Peter. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t a few more in store for me. For us.” I stopped then, as another thought came to mind. “Have you ever heard of something called Na-Da-cah-ah?”
“No, I haven’t. What does it mean?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. It was a word Tiatesun kept saying. It’s a place.”
After a few moments, Mattie asked, “Do you still think about your Plan? What you told me about when we were coming up the Red River?”
“Of course I do,” I replied.
“And you have discussed it with your father? He knows your intention to leave in two years’ time?”
“No. No, I have not. It’s not been the right time. His mind is fully occupied with Flat Lick.”
“I understand that, Tom. There is always a best time for something to happen. Then again, sometimes the time for an action chooses us, rather than the other way around. You will know when it is the right time to act.”
“You are not the first person to say something like that to me,” I said, “You seem to have a proclivity for coming up with words of wisdom, Miss McKellar.” I grinned at her.
Mattie smiled, and it was such a beautiful smile that I knew it was indeed my right time to act, and that act was to kiss her smile. So I did, and she gave it all back to me.
When we stopped kissing, I kept my arm around her back. Then I said, “My Plan, well it was not so much a plan after all. More of a dream, I guess.”
“Dreams are important, Tom. Your father is making his dream come true. Someday you will do the same. I see that for you.”
“And what about your dreams, Mattie? You have dreams. I know you do. You think a lot. You see a lot. You’re unlike any girl I’ve ever known.”
I surprised myself by being so direct. I waited for her reaction. “In what way?” Her tone was rather matter-of-fact.
“Well. Like learning to speak Kado,” I said, taking her hand.
“Oh, that was just being practical. I knew we were coming to Kado lands and wanted to be prepared.”
“All right. Like putting LaBrot in his place back in Nashville. Most girls are not so outspoken.”
“You mean rude?” She drew her hand away, but I took it back. “No.” I laughed a little. “More like confident.”
She smiled. “Men must respect women, not treat them like chattel. If women don’t ask men for respect, none will be given.” Mattie moved up close to my face, her eyes flashing. “Tom, my dreams are similar to those of most girls. What may be different is my willfulness to act upon my dreams. What will happen to me if I do not? How can I do otherwise?” She paused.
“It just stays a dream,” I said. She nodded.
“I believe a woman can be more than a wife and mother. I believe a woman can contribute through what she knows as well as what she does. An education is just as important for a woman as for a man. But some men don’t like that kind of thinking. In actual fact, most men don’t.”
“It doesn’t bother me. In fact, I think it is good.”
“I figured that out about you quite some time ago, Tom Murrell.”
I smiled. I really liked Mattie McKellar. I was powerfully attracted to her, and not just for her kisses but for her thoughts and opinions as well. Being at Flat Lick had caused me to miss her and want to be with her all the more. Yet the distance between us made that very difficult.
“Uh. Miss McKellar. Would you mind if I came up to Long Prairie now and again to, uh, court you?”
“Why indeed, the answer is yes, Mr. Murrell. I would like that.” She paused and once again moved her face very close to mine, and looking deep into my eyes she said, “I would like that very much.”
I was on top of the world. I took Mattie in my arms and gave her the best kiss ever, and she gave the same right back to me. The feeling lasted all that night, through the morning meal, and was still going ’round inside me as we bid each other good-bye. Mattie, all smiles, reached out and touched my fingers. I held her hand as long as I could. Then Joel and I were poling the raft across the river, which we had found more efficient than tugging the overhead rope.
I was pretty quiet on the ride down the Three Notch. Even after we climbed on our horses, all I could think about was kissing Mattie and holding her hand. Joel, with a maturity beyond his years, kept his mouth shut and let me be alone with the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart.