At sunup Monday morning we were at the wharf, loading the overnight things into the Ohio’s hold. It was overcast and cold. Not the best weather for any river cruise, much less for the one we were embarking upon.
Joel and Barney went over to the Hallelujah one last time to get Andrew and Jackson. They had been tied up on the flatboat overnight and were glad to be free to stretch and do their business. I retrieved Old Nick from a corral just off the docks and walked him on to the Ohio.
Our three keelboats were identical to each other, except for the names on their sterns. They were about eighty-foot-long and about twenty-five-foot-wide with a half-sunk cabin in the middle.
I had seen this type of boat before, once on my trip to Nashville with Papa. Unlike the flatboats I was mostly familiar with, the keelboats were more like small ships with storage capacity underneath the deck. Trunks and other large cargo were dropped below deck by means of a rope pulley. These boats, with their ribbed frame, are pointed at both bow and stern. They are capable of navigating either downstream or upstream, all the while pushed by several strong polemen or towed along from the riverbank by means of a cordelle, which is a heavy, thick length of rope tied through a steel ring on the prow. Some keelboats even have sails, but they don’t do much good on the twists and turns of our American rivers. I had to admit, I was excited to be aboard one myself.
We had, amongst all ten families, fifteen horses, which were being walked up the gangplanks, then secured by short rope halters to iron rings bolted into the aft deck. Andrew, Jackson, and the other dogs were allowed to roam freely.
Valac LaBrot had not appeared, as promised, to examine my arrow. This seemed a little odd after expressing his concern for the local townsfolk at the social Saturday night. Later that morning I saw him carrying his belongings aboard the Missouri. Apparently, Mr. LaBrot was not a man early to rise.
For a while it seemed like general chaos on the docks, with animals, trunks, draymen, passengers, and boat crews engaged in all manner of activity. By and by it settled down to resemble an orderly enterprise under Ben Torbett’s watchful eye. Each boat had her assigned captain and three mates, one each for the port and starboard sweeps and one on the rudder. All were working swiftly to get us ready to launch.
It was midmorning before we pushed away from the wharf. Mr. McKellar gave one more speech and prayer, then our three boats departed the docks at five-minute intervals. The Arkansaw was first with Mr. Dyer piloting and Ben Torbett on deck. The Missouri, guided by Mr. Duty, followed, and our Ohio with James on the rudder brought up the rear. By noon, Nashville seemed like a distant memory. Our expedition now belonged to the river.
The keelboating experience was quite different than the Hallelujah raft. Not so much because of the design of the vessel but because these professional keelboatmen were quite efficient in handling the sweeps and poles. Being relieved of this duty left us passengers with considerable time on our hands. In fact, the three weeks we spent from Nashville, first on the Cumberland, then the Ohio, then the Mississip’ on our way to the mouth of the Red River, were the most idle I’ve spent before or since. I took the time to study several of the books that Mr. Burlingame had provided, while also filling some pages in my journal.
On board the Ohio were three families beside our own. Between them there were four boys between twelve and eighteen years of age, plus myself and Joel. Aside from my reading, we spent a great deal of time playing cards and dice. Our conversations often drifted to hunting, fishing, and the females on our expedition, not necessarily in that order. The only one of the girls with quarters aboard the Ohio was Jane Ann Peterson, but she tended to spend most of her time on the Arkansaw where her four cohorts resided. I suspect this was a wise decision on Jane Ann’s part, although I often thought it would be a fine thing to have Mattie on our boat. But after reflecting more on the thought, I decided it was better she was not.
By nightfall on Monday we were successful in making Clarksville, a small village almost 60 miles west of Nashville where the Cumberland turns north toward Kentucky. The three craft were docked, and the horses were led off to the livery to be fed and secured for the night. Afterward, Mr. Torbett, Mr. McKellar, and a few of the other men responsible for organizing the expedition made their way from boat to boat to see how everyone had fared on their first day. I went along with them, just to see who I might run into.
When we arrived at the Arkansaw, I saw Mattie, Eliza, and Melissa, quite busy helping prepare supper. Melissa glanced up at me from peeling potatoes, and although I received a couple of smiles and a sweet “Hello, Mr. Murrell,” as I passed by Eliza, there was no interaction with Mattie that evening. I wished there had been, but surmised she felt Eliza’s greeting spoke for all of the girls. The men talked some about the stage of the river, the weather, and their satisfaction at our progress that day as I dutifully stood by, acting as if I was participating in the conversation, which I was not.
When we moved down to the Missouri the conversation was much the same, that is until Mr. LaBrot emerged from the deckhouse. He stepped out with a countenance that seemed to imply someone ought to have invited him into our conversation or asked him about his day. Neither invitation was forthcoming. This seemed to dissipate his cockiness. After some minutes, out of either curiosity or pity, I’m not sure which, I walked over to him.
“A chilly evening we have tonight, don’t you think Mr. LaBrot?” I said.
“Why, indeed it is. And sir, forgive me but what was your name again?”
“Murrell. Tom Murrell. John Murrell, one of the organizers of our expedition, is my father,” I said in counter to his intended slight. “I met you on Saturday night when we discussed the arrow that narrowly missed me up near Hartsville.”
“Well, of course, Mr. Murrell, I remember you now. You sat at the table with Miss McKellar. You and James Torbett were shot at while out on a scouting excursion, were you not? I believe we discussed that I should examine this arrow of yours to determine the presence of a savage threat.”
Clearly, he had forgotten his interest in notifying the Nashville community of any impending danger. Or perhaps he had just been saying it to boast of his importance. I elected to ignore this and press the matter of his examination.
“Would you like to see it this evening?” I asked.
He seemed distracted, ruminating on what I knew not, but I suspected with thoughts similar to mine.
“Well, of course. Please go retrieve the arrow, and I will examine it without delay. In order to avoid causing undue worry, I suggest that you not allow others in our party to observe you with it.”
I was irritated, having opened myself to spending inordinate time and effort with this gentleman, but it was too late now to do anything about it. Even so, I had the presence of mind to say, “In that regard, perhaps it would be best for you to accompany me to the Ohio, where we can examine the arrow without other eyes prying into our business.” He nodded his assent, and we walked up to my boat. I fetched the arrow from Papa’s satchel and held it out to him.
LaBrot took it to hand, turning it round and round. “Hmmm. I do not recognize the design. Without its distinguishing arrowhead it makes it more difficult to identify the tribe. The notch is a wide V shape; not that distinctive. But these markings on the shaft—they are quite unusual. I believe this to be a ceremonial arrow. It is similar to the arrows used in the peace rituals of many tribes. Of course, savages have no written language, so these markings cannot be interpreted as words. But they probably have some meaning that refers to the tribal gods or rituals of the Indian who made the arrow.”
He spoke with some authority and logic. Perhaps my initial judgment of Mr. LaBrot as a pompous dandy was a bit too hasty.
“That is interesting, Mr. LaBrot,” I said. “But why would an Indian want to shoot a ceremonial arrow at me?”
“Valac. Please call me Valac. And your first name is?” “Thomas,” I repeated.
“Well Tom, there is no accounting for what a savage may do. Their minds do not operate in the manner of yours and mine. However, I suspect that this shooting may have been a rite of passage for a young buck, perhaps obliged to kill a white man in a tribal coming-of-age ritual. If this was the state of affairs, his failure to embed the arrow into your skull could have been a catastrophe for him, resulting in a rapid and humiliating retreat back to his village. I believe this is again consistent with your experience, yes? The shooter disappeared without a trace. Given this likelihood, I see little threat for the community in the general area of your attack. We do not need to worry anyone in our expedition with these circumstances.”
I had to admit that his analysis was plausible. Certainly just as credible as anything I had come up with. All the same, I nevertheless thought him a pompous braggart.
“Mr. LaBrot. Valac,” I said, “you seem to have a worthy appreciation for Indian society and customs. May I ask how one comes to such an understanding and a position with the Office of Indian Trade?” I felt there was no harm in humoring the man so as to maintain good relations with him.
“Of course. It is a rather simple tale. I am from Charleston, South Carolina, where my family has prevailed for three generations. My father and two uncles are lawyers, so quite naturally I took up the family trade. After spending a year handling civil lawsuits, probate, property deeds, and other such mundane tasks, I came to desire a more interesting application for my mental skills.
“Fortunately, my father was acquainted with John Jamison, appointed as the new Indian agent for Northern Louisiana two years ago. He wrote a letter of introduction, and Mr. Jamison informed me that the position of his assistant was open, for which I might be considered if I had a practical knowledge of the local savages. Subsequently, I took it upon myself to study a few of the Western tribes and something of their history and to learn a few words of their dialects. I accomplished much of this by reviewing the writings of Dr. John Sibley, the first Indian agent for the region. A politician friend of my father’s in Washington obtained copies of Sibley’s documents for me. With these notable qualifications established, I was accepted, and I am now on my way to Natchitoches to assume my position. Upon completion of Mr. Jamison’s tour of duty a few years hence, I am confident I will be named the next regional U.S. Indian Agent.”
“Well, congratulations are certainly in order,” I ceded. “You have yourself quite the opportunity. I too have an interest in the law and hope to be apprenticed to a respected law firm in Nashville or Knoxville at some point in the future.”
LaBrot drew himself up, casting a glance out across the river and said, “Thomas, I believe you are headed in the wrong direction for that.”
“Of course, that is true,” I admitted. “But my father’s need for my assistance in Long Prairie is important to our family. I hope it will be only for a short period of time, then I intend to return to either Nashville or Knoxville and pursue my study of the law with full attention and diligence.”
“Well, if you should do just that,” said Valac with an imperceptible sigh, “I believe that you will find yourself in the company of a few fine men who know and practice the law in either of those growing cities. This is a guild to which I aspired at one time in my life, because I believed the opportunities to be in my favor. Yet within a short time I found it the work of dullards with their noses buried in law books day in and day out. Simply put, it lacked the adventurousness I sought. Nevertheless, I retain important connections with lawyers, judges, and politicians, and would be happy to assist you wherever and whenever possible.”
Could I have misjudged LaBrot? This man was offering to help me to achieve The Plan, and it seemed he had the wherewithal to do it.
“Thank you very much for your kind offer, Mr. LaBrot. Valac. I would be in your debt for any help you can provide.”
Valac smiled a thin, slightly crooked smile. With that, it occurred to me that such a debt had already crossed his mind.
The next day we continued on, reaching Sailor’s Rest, a slight put-in near the Tennessee-Kentucky border, by nightfall. We tied up along the bank, but since there was no populous landfall in sight, everyone stayed on board their respective craft.
By Wednesday night we had docked at Smithland, Kentucky, where the Cumberland flows into the Ohio River. As befits a town at such a juncture, Smithland was a place where water travelers heading down the Cumberland would stop before moving onto the Ohio, while boaters from the northern Ohio heading toward West Tennessee or points below might lay to for provisions and repairs. James, having been here a number of times, said that this was where a good many idle boys and unemployed boatmen tended to congregate, but when we arrived just after sundown, there was no such assembly in sight.
That could have been due to the weather, which had taken a decided turn for the worse; it appeared a late winter snowstorm was imminent. Ben Torbett advised us passengers to take a room at the local Bell Tavern Inn, and most all of the families took his advice. Although feeding near eighty people was a strain on the proprietor and especially his poor wife, he was able to provide a fine supper for us. It turned out Ben’s decision was a wise one, because as the night progressed it snowed hard, and strong winds created near-blizzard conditions. We were thankful to be docked at a location where the boats, as well as the horses and the dogs, could be secured and protected from the storm’s greatest ferocity.
On Thursday morning, we were greeted with a clear sky and a truly beautiful, brilliantly white landscape. The deep and pristine snowfall was made all the more dramatic by our first good look at the mouth of the Cumberland pouring its waters into the Ohio. Yet the Ohio was so large and majestic as to call into question the use of the word “river” to characterize the much smaller Cumberland.
Refreshed and energized by the landscape, we were underway by nine o’clock. The captains of our expedition ignored the six-foot ice sheath extending from each bank out into the river, which was not as thick as it looked. We joined the Ohio River, passed the small town of Paducah, and by late afternoon had arrived at Cairo Point, yet another even more sizeable intersection of waterways, the Ohio and Mississippi. The Mississippi was everything Papa had said, more like a moving ocean than a river. As the Cumberland was diminished by the Ohio, so was the Ohio by the grand old Mississip’. I could just barely see the treetops on the opposite bank across the greenish-brown expanse of water. Boat traffic was more evident as numerous keelboats and rafts glided by. A paddle-wheeler, its smokestack puffing a dark plume of smoke, passed us going upriver. “That’s the Washington,” Ben called out to us. “She’s one of the first steamers to navigate all the way up here on the Mississip’, a-comin’ up from New Orleans.” Passengers waved to us from its decks, and we all waved back.
Friday morning was still cold but some of the snow had melted. The rivermen spoke of the river being up some, which was generally thought to be a good thing because stronger currents would hasten us along. We were in the vicinity of New Madrid, Missouri, where Papa and Ben had experienced firsthand the big quake six years earlier. I expected the next few days would be reflective times for Papa.
There was much anticipation of getting off the boats and into town as we drifted into the dock at New Madrid that evening. The mayor, a Mr. Laubin, came down to the docks himself to meet our party. “Welcome to New MAD-rid,” he said, and spent a good hour showing and telling us the town’s story of repeated destruction and how deeply it affected the townsfolk. Papa had told me that by the time the third of the big quakes hit, every building in town had been knocked down. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that following the quakes, the town had been entirely rebuilt. Aside from a couple of big cracks in the earth, maintained by the locals as attractions to draw in river traffic, there was little evidence of any earthquake at all. New Madrid was by any account a handsome place, befitting its handsome name.
Mr. Laubin took us to a small storefront selling drawings of the destruction and reconstruction by local artists. Laid out on a table were some memorabilia for sale, such as rocks that were said to have erupted out of the earthquake, miniature replicas of the church and bank which had been destroyed, a real de a ocho, or Spanish dollar, at quite a price but said to have been minted in the other Madrid—the one in Spain— and several excellent woodcuts depicting the earthquake. I didn’t see anyone in our group purchase anything.
As we made our way back to the keelboats, I did notice Papa conversing with Mr. Laubin about something. Back on the boat I asked after it, but he did not offer up the topic of his conversation, and so I thought nothing more about it. However, as I made my journal entry later that night and reflected further on it, I surmised Papa was asking him about the Indians again.
On Saturday, Ben joined us aboard the Ohio, and we took the lead on the next stretch of river. I stood at the bow with Papa and Ben for the better part of the morning, just listening. They were ruminating about their fateful time six years earlier when the earthquake hit and the river ran north. Every once and a while they would point out some large crevice or mass of fallen trees as evidence of the destruction wrought by the quakes.
At two in the afternoon, one of the mates relieved James so he could join us for dinner. When we finished eating, Papa and Ben motioned for James and me to accompany them at the bow. We were just out of earshot of the other passengers.
“Tom, James, this is where it happened,” said Papa. “We had tied up at the willow bar just over there. Most of our group was fast asleep when it hit. Loudest thing I ever heard. Ever’ single one of us jumped straight up, wondering what on earth had happened.” Both James and I had heard the story more than once, but this was different, seeing the exact place where it had happened and hearing it described at the same moment, even though little evidence of the devastation remained.
He continued, “There was something else that happened that night. At least I think it happened. It is something you boys need to know of, but it needs to stay right here. Just the four of us.”
We nodded. Now Papa had our full attention.
He began the story of the Indian who had, it seemed, saved him and Mr. Douglass from drowning. He recalled waking up to find the old Indian sitting on a log and recited every word he spoke, at least as Papa understood him, even replicating the old Indian’s sign language gestures. And how, when he wasn’t looking, the old Indian disappeared without a trace.
“Boys, I could never be sure about this old Indian. Douglass would never allow me to speak a word about it. There is not a single piece of evidence to convince me or anyone else. Yet it seemed very real to me at the time. Eventually I let it go and have only told the story to Ben, since he was in charge of our three boats,” said Pa. “And now to you. I chose not to alarm the others traveling with us at that time, and for the same reason Ben and I have not spoken of it to our group. I just don’t know how it would sit with folks if they were to think our family was heading up the Red River because I was following some damned-fool Indian prophecy. I expect we will probably never know if what happened was real or not, or if there was any meaning to the old Indian’s words.” Ben nodded his agreement.
We were all silent for a little while, then Papa pointed to two large boulders about ten feet from the riverbank. “I’m pretty sure that Mr. Douglass and I emerged from the woods out from between them two rocks.”
I had to ask the obvious question. “Father, we aren’t headed for Long Prairie because of what you heard the Indian say that night?”
“No, son,” he replied, “we are most certainly not. In fact, I probably would never have said anything about it, but the strange incident with the arrow gave me cause to reconsider. There are some God-fearing folk who believe everything happens for a reason. Even when we don’t know or understand the reason. I’m one of those folk. Ben and I discussed all this between ourselves and thought you boys should hear this story.”
“We don’t claim the two events have a relationship between them,” said Ben, speaking for the first time. “But what they have in common is Indians and strange happenings that can’t be explained.”
“But I say again, we are not here because of that old Indian’s prophecy,” said Papa. “When I first started to learn about the opportunities in the Territory of Arkansaw, I pushed that old prophecy right out of my head. I made the decision based on practical facts. I was convinced that what was best for our family was to be found in the Long Prairie region compared to our place in Tennessee.” Papa raised his arms and turned his palms upward, which I took to be a gesture asking for our understanding. “I stand here in front of you certain of my reasoning, but even so, I admit that thoughts of what I heard that old Indian say that night cross my mind from time to time.”
Ben picked up where Papa left off, speaking directly to me. “It’d be hard not to do so. Tom, I’ve been on this river for a long time and have come to believe that there are things in this land that the white man does not, and cannot, understand. Your pa’s encounter is one of them. That arrow that almost got you back at Hartsville may be another. We are headed into a world the Indian has dominated ever since time began. We must never assume that we white men can truly understand their world. We can only hope to live alongside them in their world in peace.”
I thought about Papa’s story a lot over the next few days and wondered aloud to James about the strange circumstances of the Hartsville arrow. All reason would tell you that these were isolated occurrences. Random events that just happened to intersect in the proximity of our family. To believe otherwise would mean that there was some unknown destiny not of our own making guiding us, perhaps waiting for us in Long Prairie. That, of course, was nonsense. I just needed to focus on The Plan and devote more time and thought to studying my Burlingame books.