Mama and the girls were getting the cooking things situated in what would serve as our kitchen for the next few days. It was a
small bricked area just behind the deckhouse, with a frame designed to support a pot or pan hanging over an open fire. Mama moved surely, with no wasted motion, to get her area organized so she could start making our first dinner on the river.
“Papa,” I have a name for our boat,” said Barney, tugging at his arm. “What’s that, son?”
“The Hallelujah. Hallelujah, we are finally going to Arkansaw!” Everyone laughed, and with that our flatboat had a name.
We moved out into the middle of the slow-moving Cumberland in hopes of picking up our pace. James and I pushed against the sweeps to hasten it more. We floated quietly and smoothly around the first few big bends. Like all the rivers in these parts, the Cumberland twists, turns, and even doubles back on itself for every mile of its length. The trip from Carthage to Nashville is over 120 miles on the river, but no more than 50 miles as the crow flies.
“James, what is your judgment of our speed?” Papa asked as we started to get into a rhythm with the sweeps.
“Why, no better than three miles in an hour. If we push, we can make it four,” James replied.
“We don’t need to be in that much of a hurry,” said Papa. “We’ll take our time and get familiar with this craft.”
“All right by me,” said James, but I wasn’t sure he meant it. After all, we had a schedule to keep, and he was responsible for us doing so.
There are things you notice about the land when you travel on a river that you might not otherwise. It was a bright, sunny winter morning, and the river sparkled with a foot or two of ice along the water’s edge. On our left, a steep bank of ten to fifteen feet with leafless oaks of all different sizes rose up protecting a wall of rocks, which blended into rolling hills covered with more oak as well as a few green pines. Many of the oaks closest to the water grew out at an angle in a decades-long steady tilt toward the river. On our right, just beyond the next bend I saw a lone tall pine rising up, a sentinel to the hills that rolled away from the river.
After a couple of hours enjoying the ever-changing scenery, I spied low winter clouds starting to move in. It got colder. The wind picked up. Only slightly, but enough to make us move about a little more to stay warm.
Papa and James had told me that it was not unusual to see spots where the water shoaled to a depth of less than two feet. Even so, James said the water was at a level lower than he wished to see. The Hallelujah scraped the river bottom three times before we were even a mile out of Carthage. This was not good, and we endeavored to stay in the river’s middle current—or whatever nautical term James would use—as much as possible.
Papa was keeping a sharp eye on our progress. This was hardly his first turn on the Cumberland, and he said to Mama, “Margaret, we are going to be making some sharp turns for the next little bit. It would be a good idea to get the children set down and out of the way of anything that might fall.” He always said her full name when it was a serious matter, otherwise he called her Mag.
Joel was on spotter duty while James and I worked the sweeps. Barney was back behind the crates, tossing hard twists of leather for the two dogs to fight over. Martha and Mary were in the deckhouse, laying out bedding in a corner.
In a few minutes, Mama had the three children with her at the back of the deckhouse. “John, I think we are ready.”
“All right, let’s get a feel for this craft.” Papa looked at us three boys and said, “Does anyone see any dangers up ahead?”
We all answered in the negative.
“Joel, what do you say if you see an underwater stump on the right side of our course? Let’s hear it.”
“Uh…uh. Sawyer! Starboard!”
“Hard to port, men!” Papa yelled. Our navigation practice had begun. James, on the port sweep, reversed the direction of his thrust and pulled hard against the current. I pushed equally hard with the current on the starboard side. At the same time Papa jumped to the starboard
side of his rudder and pulled. The Hallelujah swung sharply to the left. “Now that was fine, wouldn’t you agree, James?” Papa said.
James nodded. Joel and I grinned at each other. Papa had called us “men.” “Now let’s straighten her up before we drift into the shoals.” We moved quickly to correct the Hallelujah’s course before she veered into shallow water.
Over the next few hours we worked similar drills, exchanging positions so each of us got experience at each post. Twice while I manned the rudder we ran into short rapids that increased our speed through the rocky underwater terrain. Our drills served us well and our crew navigated skillfully through these stretches.
After my break for a dinner of Mama’s beans, salt pork, and johnnycakes, I took the rudder post for two hours. James was on the starboard sweep with Joel on port. We didn’t talk much except to point out the occasional rabbit or deer, barely visible through the leafless trees and tall pines. It was an exercise that sharpened our eyes and made us more attentive in all respects.
I found that I particularly enjoyed manning the rudder from atop the deckhouse and looked forward to that duty during the remainder of the trip. Not because it was the command position, but because when things settled down you really got a chance to see and to feel the river.
When you are standing up high on a moving boat like I was, you feel more akin to the river and notice everything. Branches rustle up in a tree, perhaps due to birds in hiding. A creature, probably a beaver, slides from the bank into the water just as you round a turn. Smoke from the chimney of a distant cabin drifts upward. Seeing plumes of smoke is reassuring. Even out here, away from any town, you are comforted by the sense that there are other people, other settlers, perhaps five or ten miles away in almost any direction.
For the first time, I could almost believe I was going to enjoy our journey.
The afternoon hours passed, and by the time the day’s sunlight was about an hour above the trees, James declared we had made twenty- five miles, and he figured the small community of Hartsville to be about five miles ahead. My shift ended, and James took the rudder. Now I was on port, Joel on starboard, and Papa was spotting, looking for a good place to put in for the night. He said, “All right, men, let’s slow her down and veer toward that small rock cove just beyond those trees up ahead. We’ll see what the bottom looks like.” Papa was trying to move out of the current so Mama and the children could get ashore without wading through water. “Now, this looks promising. Let’s pole on in. I hope to give everyone time to stretch their legs before it gets dark.”
We altered our course like veteran rivermen and soon were drifting into a cozy bay formed from a limestone outcropping. The river was more than four-feet deep up to the rock ledge, well out of the main current, but it would be easy enough to land and disembark the raft.
“Mr. Murrell, we couldn’t ask for a better spot,” said James. As we moved slowly to abut the rock ledge, he jumped out onto it. “Tom, throw me them lines and I’ll get us tied up.” It was not long before the Hallelujah was secured. Joel and I joined James on the ledge, but Papa told mama and the girls to wait on the raft.
“James, Tom, I want you two to scout the area. Take Andrew and do a sweep around our position. Walk about half a mile back upstream, swing wide in an arc around the Hallelujah so as to arrive about half a mile downstream, then walk back along the river to the boat. Keep a sharp eye out for any signs of bandits or other hostiles.”
“Yessir,” said James, grinning and tossing off a good-natured salute to Papa.
“Can I go too?” said Joel.
Mama glanced at Papa with a worried look but turned back to fixing supper.
Papa shook his head no, and Joel sighed. “There’s been no trouble in these parts for some time, and I don’t expect you’ll see anyone,” he said to us, “but we can’t be too careful.”
I figured this was a reasonable and cautious thing to do, even though the vicinity had been pacified more than a decade earlier. After all, we were only a few miles from Hartsville, and for the past few river miles we had seen several columns of smoke marking the location of cabins on either side of the river.
We jumped onto the raft, pulled our rifles from a narrow cabinet built just inside of the deckhouse, and clambered back onto the rocky outcrop. I whistled for Andrew, and the three of us turned and headed into the woods. Jackson would stay with the raft, on alert to any unwanted visitors.
There was no trail to follow and I was grateful for the protection my tall boots afforded over the soft moccasins James wore on his feet. We did not talk and walked quietly, about thirty or forty feet apart. Andrew stayed off to my side a short distance, trotting just a little ahead. With his dappled patches of brown, black and white, he was easy enough to follow. I was glad we had left Jackson with his all-over dark brown and red coat, back at the raft.
It was very quiet. The chill in the evening air was turning to downright cold, but at least the wind was still. In several spots the underbrush had grown up so thick between the trees that no man could have blazed through it, so we were constantly twisting and turning like the old Cumberland. There were no signs that any man, white or red, had passed through here before us. The occasional deer scat was the only evidence of any living thing.
James stopped, pulled out a chaw of tobacco, and stuck it in his mouth. I didn’t think much of that habit, but I didn’t say anything. It also seemed as though he was making too much noise. I figured to mention both of these things to James when we got back to the Hallelujah.
There were rock outcroppings we had to climb over, similar to those where we had docked the boat. They slowed us down a mite, but about halfway around our arc we were finally walking through a forested area without much undergrowth or rock. Still, this forest was thick, filled with oak interspersed with pine. It was nearing dusk, and the branches over our heads blocked enough of the remaining light to make it difficult to see more than about thirty or forty yards. I saw that the landscape ahead was about to change back to thick undergrowth on the right and a rock outcropping uphill to the left.
Then we heard it. The two sounds were simultaneous. Pifft! Crack!
The swish of an arrow and its impact striking a massive oak less than twelve inches in front of me. Level with my nose. My brain flashed sheer terror. I dropped to the ground. James was already down, about fifteen yards ahead in the undergrowth. About the same distance to my left was the outcrop. Andrew was frozen, and his ears stood straight up like a bat’s.
The arrow had come from the direction of the outcrop. Judging the angle, it must have come from an Indian up top of the rocks, probably hiding behind a few boulders. Strangely, Andrew was looking straight ahead, not toward the outcrop. But there was no way that the arrow had been fired from that direction. Andrew’s behavior was puzzling. He should have smelled someone if they were there. Was there more than one Indian tracking us?
James and I crawled on our bellies and made our way behind a tree in line with the outcrop. We lay still, listening. There was no sound. I checked my knife in its scabbard. We waited. Nothing. After what felt like forever, but was probably only ten or fifteen minutes, James rose to a crouch and motioned in front of our path with a rock in his hand. I knew he was going to try to draw out our assailant. He threw and the rock hit a tree twenty yards in front of us. No sound. The attacker was either gone or very patient. Or possibly not fooled.
I motioned to James to stay put. I thought we needed to make sure we weren’t walking into a trap. But he signaled something different. He would move toward the direction of the shot and come up on the left side of the outcrop. I would move in the same direction, keeping an eye out and providing cover should he need it. I reluctantly acknowledged his plan with a nod, got to my feet and we moved as slowly and silently as we could, taking cover behind each tree along the way. Andrew shadowed me. No sound from the outcrop. We moved to its face. Still nothing.
James motioned me that he would rush to the top and for me to cover him as best I could. My eyes widened, and I shook my head: too risky. But he ignored me and was off. Andrew, apparently smarter than James, remained at my side. I got my rifle and my knife ready for a fight. James had jumped up and taken five wide steps to get himself just below the top. I moved back to get a bead on anything that moved, but nothing did.
James put his beat-up black beaver felt hat on the end of his rifle barrel and lifted it up to draw our attacker out. Still nothing. Finally, he climbed over the edge of the outcrop, up to the top, and motioned me to follow. Both Andrew and I were quickly up top. All three of us scouted for any sign of who shot the arrow. There was nothing to see. No footprints, no bent twigs, no horse’s hoof marks on the rocks. Andrew picked up no scent. We looked all around the outcrop, where we should have been able to see someone either standing still or moving, but again nothing. If there was no arrow embedded in the tree below us, we might doubt whether it had ever happened. We looked at each other, and James spoke first.
“Not a thing. I heard the bow, saw the arrow, and I was down.” “No sign here. Whoever it was knows how to cover a trail.”
Neither of us stated the obvious. From this vantage point, anyone with the skill to sink that arrow into the tree and disappear from the embankment would have had no trouble in putting that arrow straight through me, and probably doing the same to James before either of us knew what had happened. Instead, the arrow was embedded in a tree. Not that I was complaining, but it made no sense.
“There may be more’n one of them red bastards out here. We need to get back to the boat an tell your pa.”
“I agree on both counts,” I said. “We should be about parallel to the spot where we docked. Let’s forget the rest of the arc and cut straight through to the river. But first, I’ll get the arrow out of that tree.”
The arrowhead was buried deep into the oak’s trunk. The arm that pulled the bowstring to launch that arrow was mighty powerful. I grasped the shaft and tried to loosen the arrowhead but was unsuccessful. The arrow broke off, leaving me with about three-quarters of its length.
I stuck it in my belt, and we headed back toward the Hallelujah, now with every sense on high alert. We stopped often to listen for any noise, watch for any movement, and to give Andrew the opportunity to catch a scent. As before, we detected nothing.
Soon enough we were back at the raft. Mama was busy cooking, Martha and Mary helping out. We calmly walked up to the boat so as not to alarm the family, but Papa knew something had happened. Apparently, it was written all over our faces. Besides, we should have been coming from downriver.
Papa drew us aside on the bank and said, “Speak! Quickly!”
“Half a mile south. Someone welcomed us with this.” I showed him the arrow. “It went into a tree just inches in front of me. Andrew gave us no warning. We never saw anything. We looked all around for any sign, but the whole area was clean as a whistle.”
Papa grasped me by the shoulders, hard. “Thank God you’re safe.” Turning toward the raft he called out, “Margaret, get the children into the deckhouse.”
For a moment, the family was frozen. Joel, Barney, Martha, and Mary were wide-eyed. Then I realized their eyes were fixated on the arrow I held in my hand.
Mama called out, her voice shaky and high-pitched. “My gracious, John. There has been a treaty with the Cherokee and Chickasaw in these parts for fifteen years. Why would Indians be attacking us? Why us? Why now?”
“No telling. Since they didn’t follow up or stay around, it was probably just some young brave out to scare a couple of boys from a flatboat. But please get these children inside now until we know more.”
As they scurried into the deckhouse, Papa continued. “If it was an attack, we would know about it. Tom, let me see that arrow.”
He studied it intently for a few minutes.
“Three bands, slanted left to right. Band in the middle just a bit smaller than the other two. And some markings.”
That was all he said.
Papa went into the deckhouse and emerged with a ball of thick twine and a dozen cups made of wood and tin.
“James, Tom. Come with me. We’ll set warning alarms around our position so no one gets close without us knowing it.”
The three of us moved quickly about ten yards from the boat. Now out of Mama’s earshot, Papa turned to face us again and said, “Boys, I don’t know what it means, but I’m sure you know that any Injun that could put this arrow into a tree so close could just as easily have put it in your ear. Perhaps it was some kind of warning or message. I don’t know, but we’re taking no chances. Tie these cups together in threes and hang them from a spot where they’ll make a racket if someone moves through the brush. We’ll run string between them just off the ground. It is a long shot, but doing something will make me and your Mama feel better. Tonight we will do double watch, one toward land, the other toward the river.”
Standing watch every two hours made for a long night. The half moon rose high, and a deep chill settled down hard and fast on the river. The moonlight was to our advantage, though, and we could see plainly up to shore where the tree line rose like an impenetrable black wall, just as well as we could see across the shimmering river waters to the far bank. While I was on watch I heard plenty of the forest’s night sounds. I was on tenterhooks. Not a single sound nor movement escaped my attention.
I had learned a lesson. We had to be ready for anything, at any time. I would never again assume my surroundings were safe. Even so, all through the night there was no signal that another human was in the vicinity.
I felt quite alone, at the least alone with my thoughts. I began thinking about this first day’s events: how I was coming to appreciate Nature and her ways, how it might be possible I could enjoy some aspects of this journey, but mostly these thoughts were focused on the strange matter of the Indian arrow. There was no denying it was difficult to explain. Even Papa said so. All these thoughts moved through my head, and as they did so, I felt a compelling desire to set them down on paper before they could get chased away. Upon finishing my watch, I got out my Bible and sat near the lantern where I could see well enough to scribble on a blank page. I figured I would embellish the words as I wrote more, but for now I was pleased. Finally, I laid down on my bedding, holding my Bible to my chest, and fell fast asleep.