As we saw Nashville growing larger on the horizon, it was hard not to get excited. The river was smooth, and bright sunshine filled the skies, causing it to be quite warm for a February afternoon. We drifted past houses more and more frequently. We passed other rafts and boats being poled down or dragged up the river, and for the most part the crews were friendly and talkative. James and I were on the sweeps, and I’m certain we had gotten the Hallelujah moving five or six miles per hour around the big turns coming up to the town. Mama had put on a nice dress and had Martha and Mary do the same. We were coming into real civilization, and, to be honest, my heart yearned to remain here when our boat departed.
“Men, we need to slow her down some, or we’ll fly right on by Nashville,” said Papa.
I had been to Nashville about two years before, on a trip with Papa, but none of the other Murrell children had ever been to a city as big as this. Joel was staring from the bow, while the girls and Barney were standing next to the deckhouse, taking it all in.
It seemed as though Nashville had grown during my absence. With no leaves on the trees, we could get fair glimpses of the town as we drifted along. Finally, we rounded the last bend and had a clear view of churches, storefronts, a hotel, and all manner of buildings and houses. Some were clapboard, others brick. Papa pointed out some of the sights and were there ever sights to see. My eyes couldn’t take in enough to make my heart happy.
“Right there is the Bank of Nashville. That building is Cumberland College. Up ahead are the Nashville docks, and James, I suppose those are our three keelboats.”
“Yes sir, they’s would be ours,” he replied.
We slowed down and moved the raft toward the docks, where a lot of people were milling around. Rough-looking men were loading crates onto boats, trying as they might to get past the well-dressed men standing in their way talking and smoking. A few ladies were strolling along the boardwalk in colorful dresses and bonnets.
As we moved forward to dock, my eyes were drawn to five girls, about my age, dangling their bare feet and ankles in the water off a small pier next to one of the keelboats.
They kicked the water up into little sprays, which they seemed to find extraordinarily humorous. Their laughter filled all the air, and for me it was like the world had stopped. A strange wave of terror convulsed through me, weakened my knees, and made me break into a sweat. It was the same kind of terror I felt when that arrow whacked the tree in front of me, but just what it was about this current circumstance that inspired my feelings in this manner was a complete and utter mystery to me.
It was not like I had never seen a girl. There were quite a few back in Smith County, and most times I saw them in school, church, or the few church socials I attended. But the girls back home didn’t look or act like these girls. We were about to tie up next to five of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen in my life, their blue, green, and yellow dresses all fluffed up by petticoats and pulled up to their knees, their bare calves and ankles and toes on full display without a lick of modesty.
“Tom, pay attention!” said Papa, startling me. My sweep was dragging behind us in the water like an anchor. Mama smiled. I flushed with embarrassment but still had a hard time taking my eyes off of those girls. Could it be true they were going to Long Prairie with us? I was having a hard time comprehending such a thing.
We drifted into the dock on the port side, where James had the sweep, coming to rest just behind the pier with the girls. James jumped off and began tying us up. I looked around for something to do and picked up a rope to hand to him. “That’s the spare coil, Tom,” he said, laughing.
“Tom, help your Mama and sisters off the boat,” said Papa, seemingly rescuing me from my foolish behavior. “And let’s get the overnight trunks on the dock.”
James was already assisting Mama and Martha before I had a chance to get to them, so I helped Mary and Barney up onto the dock, my little brother protesting that he needed no help from me. In the meantime, Joel had not only climbed onto the dock but was making a beeline for the girls. I had to admire his gumption. I could no more do that than jump over the moon.
“Are you girls goin to Long Prairie with us?” Joel asked.
“Why, yes, suh. We are indeed going to Long Prairie,” said the golden-haired girl in the yellow dress sitting closest to him. “And who might you be?”
“My name is Joel Waters Murrell. We are the Murrell family from up around Carthage.”
“Pleased to meet your acquaintance, young man. We have been expecting your family and are glad to know you have arrived, aren’t we, girls?” The others burst into laughter, clearly causing Joel some consternation. “Might you be so kind as to introduce us to the others in your party?”
“Sure.” Joel came running back to the flatboat. “Those girls over there wanna meet you,” he said, sticking out his finger toward them.
“Who?” said James. “They wanna meet who?”
“Well, they said they wanted to meet the others in our party, but from the way they were giggling, I think they were talking about you and Tom.”
“Well, then, let’s just saunter over there an introduce ourselves, Tom,” said James.
I cast my eyes in the other direction, toward Papa. He looked back at me and nodded. I didn’t say anything. I knew I had to go but was having a hard time getting my feet moving. The world was no longer stopped, but it was still moving awful slow. I finally got myself over to where James and Joel were standing on the pier.
“Ladies,” James said, bowing slightly, “may I introduce myself. I am James Madison Torbett, head pilot for your upcomin’ expedition to the Territory of Arkansaw. I’ve been guiding the Murrell family on the trip down from Carthage these past four days.” He delighted them with a huge smile, to which they applauded and giggled some more.
He looked over at me, eyes challenging me to speak. I felt like my tongue was swollen so big that no words could squeeze their way out of my mouth.
Before I had a chance to utter a word, Joel blurted out, “This is my brother Tom. Thomas Jefferson Murrell.”
A dark-haired girl splashed water with her feet and giggled. “Sakes alive, we have two presidents before us. I wouldn’t be surprised if George Washington himself were to ride up on his horse just any ol’ minute.”
At that, they all laughed and laughed. It appeared it didn’t take much to get these girls a-laughing. Before any one of us could think of anything clever to say back, the golden-haired girl looked at the girl who had just spoken and said, “Mary Evelyn, you hush up. These gentlemen will think we have no manners.” She turned back and looked up at us. “I am Jane Ann Peterson, and these are my friends, Miss Melissa Manning, Miss Mary Evelyn Robinson, Miss Eliza Hudson, and Miss Mattie McKellar.”
“Very nice to meet you young ladies,” I finally managed. “As my brother stated, I am Tom Murrell.”
James jumped in to the conversation. “An where do y’all hail from?” “Why, most of us come from right here in Davidson County, up by Jones’s Bend,” Jane Ann replied, proud as could be.
“Less than a day’s ride from Nashville,” said Mary Evelyn, who clearly would not be shushed up.
As the girls went on to answer James’s questions in more detail, my eyes drifted down to the girl on the farthest end, Mattie McKellar. So far, she had said nothing. When I thought about it, she had smiled but not giggled with the rest of the girls at the little joke about the presidents. Her hair was brown, with her braids fixed up around her head, and her eyes were blue as the sky. She wore a simple, light-blue print cotton dress with a lace collar. Unlike Jane Ann, who was quite beautiful with her long coils of blonde hair falling around her shoulders, Mattie was attractive but not in the obvious way, serious but with a little smile that made me like her in spite of myself. I wasn’t much listening to the conversation until Mattie spoke, seeming to address me directly.
“How was your trip down the Cumberland?” she asked innocently. “Tom almost got himself kilt by an Injun!” said Joel, who was not much for keeping things to himself as Papa had requested.
“My goodness, Tom, what happened?” said Eliza, obviously shocked. It was not my topic of choice, but at least my little brother had given me the opportunity to address these beauties and hopefully not trip over my tongue.
“Well, we were stopped for the night just above Hartsville. James and I were scouting through the woods to make sure the area was safe. ’Course we had my dog, Andrew, with us—that’s for Andrew Jackson— sniffing every which way, but we didn’t hear or see a single thing when an arrow got shot into a tree right in front of my nose.” I held a finger and thumb up to my face to show how close the arrow had come, perhaps foreshortening the distance just a bit.
All the girls’ eyes were on me, little sighs and gasps escaping from their lips. I went on. “James and I made our way over to the most likely location of the shooter, but we didn’t see anyone. There was a rock ledge, and we thought…but between us and the rock we found no tracks and…so James—”.
“Ladies, we are confident there is no cause for alarm,” interrupted James. “After examinin the area, we found no sign of an Injun war party. We gave spirited pursuit of the shooter. Our aggressive response surely put the fear ’o God into him, an he got himself outta there right quick. Upon explaining the circumstance to Tom’s father, Captain John Murrell, who is one of the leaders of this expedition, we surmised it was a lone brave, perhaps out to terrorize a couple of travelers just to amuse himself. We seen no other sign of Injuns since.”
I nodded. I had to admit that James could tell a good story.
“That must have been just terrifying, Tom,” said Jane Ann. “You boys are mighty brave.” The girls nodded in unison. “I’m certain I speak for all of us when I say I’m so pleased to hear that you don’t think we are in any danger from the savages. And that we have brave, strong young men to protect us if such a circumstance were to occur, although we pray to God it never does.” The five girls nodded again. I looked at James and Joel. They were both grinning like loons.
About that time, we saw Ben Torbett and three other men walking down the dock toward us.
“Excuse us, ladies. We have business to attend to,” said James. He gave that little bow again. I did the same and turned quickly away.
We walked up to the men. Ben and James gave each other a big slap-on-the-back hug. “Well, son, I see you didn’t lose none of these fine folks.”
“No, sir,” James replied with a grin. “The river was slow, an we had to hit the sweeps pretty hard a couple of days. But otherwise we fared just fine,” said James, quite smug and cleaning up his speech considerably.
“Hello again, Tom. And this must be Joel,” said Ben shaking our hands. He wore a big smile that didn’t seem to want to leave his face, and his brown eyes twinkled with merriment. Like his son he had black hair, and he too wore it long.
Just then, Papa walked up from the raft and said, “Good to see you again, Ben.” Ben and Papa exchanged a firm handshake and big smiles. You could tell that they had high respect for each other. “Your son did a fine job for us. If you don’t watch out,” Papa said, pointing toward a building with a big sign above the door that read Torbett and Son, Mississippi River Transportation Co. and clapping James on the shoulder, “he’ll soon have his own company and be competing with you for river trade.” James grinned from ear to ear, and so did his father.
Ben turned toward the three men standing beside him. “John, boys, this here is Big Joe Dyer and George Duty. They is going to captain the other two keelboats with James. John, I believe you already know Duncan McKellar.”
“Yes, sir. Good to see you again, too, Duncan,” said Papa. More hands were shaken all around. McKellar. McKellar? He was as tall as Papa, but lacked the appearance of a man who worked long and hard outdoors as did Mr. Duty and Mr. Dyer. For an instant I wondered how it happened that Papa knew Mattie McKellar’s father. Then I remembered. This was the Mr. McKellar he had met on a previous river trip and one of the other men who had organized this expedition.
For the next half hour we stood on the dock as the men discussed preparations for the trip, such as which families would be on which keelboat and how to organize the transfer of everyone’s belongings. Some were sitting in Mr. Torbett’s warehouse, while some were still on flatboats, such as ours. Dockhands would be hired for this task, and we needed to make sure the right crates got on the right boats.
Once these matters were settled, Papa said, “I think you men should know about this,” and mentioned the arrow, reiterating our lone brave theory.
Mr. Duty offered up a suggestion. “Mr. Murrell, we have someone joining us on this trip who may have an interest in this. He is a young fellow, out of the Carolinas, I believe, named Valac LaBrot. He is on his way to Natchitoches to take up a job with the US Indian agent in those parts. I’m sure he’ll be interested and might be able to explain something about it.”
Ben opened his mouth to speak but, just as quick, shut it again. “Fine idea,” said Papa. “We will meet Mr. LaBrot before departing Nashville? Good.”
They finally finished their palavering, and everyone went their separate ways. Papa and I got Mama and the children off to the Nashville Hotel, where they would be staying. Then he and I headed back to the Hallelujah where we spent the night, so’s to make sure no one ran off with our things. I had the opportunity to mention to Papa that Joel had told the young ladies about the arrow.
“Figures,” Papa said.
While he slept, I scribbled a few notes in my Bible for the third time. Now I was certain I wanted to keep a journal of our expedition but had no more room in my Bible. I resolved to find a more suitable volume in which to preserve my writings.
The next day was Saturday, and with the help of the dockhands we transferred our things from the Hallelujah to the keelboat they called the Ohio. We would leave the trusty Hallelujah here at the docks with Ben’s agents, either to sell or barter away to someone who could use it.
James didn’t seem to be around nor had we been able to find him the previous night. I had my suspicions but no time to concern myself with him. He would show up eventually. I found myself with several hours of my own time and headed into Nashville. A few blocks from the hotel I spied a bookstore. A real bookstore! I couldn’t pass it by.
As I entered, my nostrils flared at an odd smell. A very charming, tall young woman greeted me kindly and asked what she might be able to help me with. I had no thought of a particular subject or volume in mind, but as I glanced around it occurred to me that I might find my journal here. I inquired and was not disappointed. She showed me several of differing sizes and bindings. Some possessed a stiff cover and were overlaid with cloth. Others were of a more flexible nature and covered in tooled leather, often with a leather tongue or a rawhide string to hold them closed. I said the leather-covered volumes appealed to me greatly and told her what it was for.
“Do you intend then, young sir, to become a writer?” she asked with a warm smile on her very pretty face, upon which she wore red rouge on her cheeks. Her long golden hair caught the sunlight coming through the window. Her large blue eyes lavished attention on me until I became quite flustered.
“Ah, um, no, Miss. My plan is to become a lawyer. But I wish to keep a journal of my travels with my family to our new homestead up the Red River.”
“I am not familiar with that region, but I commend you on your journal writing.” She picked a particularly handsome volume and said, “I believe this to be a good choice for you.” I agreed it was. “Will you need a paper knife?”
“I would not know what that is used for, Miss,” I said. She showed me that the vellum pages were folded into fourths and sewn into the binding uncut. It would be my task to slice them apart as I wrote, in order to reveal more blank pages.
“This is a centuries-old practice,” she explained, opening the pages she had cut, “dating from the first printing press in the 1400s. The folded pages are called a quarto because there are two folds, making four pages.”
“I shan’t need a paper knife for that,” I said and pulled my hunting knife from its sheath, resting the large blade on the table.
She smiled and nodded. “Will you need quill and ink?”
“Oh yes, indeed I shall.” The sharpened piece of charcoal I had been using would not do for writing in such a fine book as this. She escorted me to a writing desk, where she handed me half a dozen quills and a glass bottle of black ink. I feared these instruments of my journal writing would cost me dearly, but the kind lady told me she would be happy to accommodate my impoverished purse, given my lofty goal to record our expedition to Long Prairie. As she wrapped my treasures in paper and string, she asked after my name and if I would please write to her with an account of our journey. I so promised, and she wrote her name, Callie Mitchell, on the last page of my book. She gave me a charming smile, a little curtsy, and a gentle handshake, and we bid each other good-bye. I was almost out the door when I turned and asked, “I beg your pardon for inquiring, Miss Mitchell, but what is that smell which pervades your bookshop?”
“Why, that is the smell of printer’s ink, Mr. Murrell.”