Home on The Tennessee River
I stood on the deck of the houseboat, looking out over the Tennessee River, the sun just coming up over the treetops. A cold wind blew that fall morning, for which I was grateful. It had been a hot summer, although Danny assured me Tennessee summers were nothing compared to further south. The day Danny brought me home with him, now a few years back, he took me in as his own son. The turn things took after that was most certainly on my mind that morning.
He sold the flatboat at the end of our destination, receiving a good amount for it, along with the commission for delivering the cargo. I presumed Danny to be a rich man. He obviously had substantial buying ability, judging from the heavy pouch of gold and silver he produced when paying for the team of horses and a wagon he purchased from a trader on the river, along with a small pack mule. We were well into the day before we began our long trip back following a trail along the Obion River, making it finally to the Duck River.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at a thriving trading post where we stopped for the night. We would continue the last leg of our journey the next morning, heading east along well-traveled trails taking us along the Tennessee River, to the homestead of his in-laws, located in what later became Humphreys County.
You could buy anything at that trading post, was more like a general store; I’d not seen such an array of goods since leaving Montreal. By that time, cargo had begun arriving from New Orleans by steamboat. To my dismay, one of the new river craft had departed shortly before we arrived, new merchandise already unloaded and stacked on the docks. We were greeted by farmers, hunters, trappers, river folk, and a few Indians with black slaves. Most, like us, were there for supplies, for farm implements, for various commodities. Some came for news from the outside world. They came from their farms, from their sturdy log cabins scattered amongst the rolling hills, from along the bountiful rivers which forked off one another like heavy veins through the wilderness. They brought fresh produce, even livestock and chickens, to barter or sell. Some were trappers, or craftsmen, trading their wares.
We loaded the wagon. Danny purchased barrels of sugar, flour, salt, tea, and whisky, along with kegs of gun powder, a goodly supply of flint, and corn for spring planting. And tobacco and coffee, and dried beef and dried venison, some of which we packed on the mule. He bought gifts for his wife and daughter, including bolts of linen and calico, thread and needles, and lace and ribbon.
It saddened me, thinking about my own mother and siblings, how little they had. At the same time, I hoped that they had stayed in Montreal, and I felt down deep in my heart, with some degree of certainty, that they had. My mother was a strong, industrious Irish woman, and it eased my conscience a little, knowing that given half the opportunity, she’d make a permanent home for herself and her children.
She had longed for the more settled life, and I have an idea she stayed there, if at all possible, rather than returning with the other military wives and their husbands. I also felt she would have remained, anticipating my possible return. I had no doubt that she had been advised of my fate, and had found comfort knowing I had survived. Aware of her distaste from the beginning, regarding my joining the army, I also had an idea she found no shame in my desertion.
For my pay, he said, Danny outfitted me with clothes, new boots, a rifle, a hunting knife and sheath, a saddle and other tack, with a promise to purchase a horse for me from his father-in-law. I had enough sense to know that my earnings amounted to a miniscule portion of what he spent on me, but I felt like somebody, bolting proudly onto the wagon seat beside him. I tried to look like it was old hat for me when, in fact, it was the first wagon seat I’d ever sat my bony arse upon.
In my mind’s eye now, all these decades later, I see myself looking out over the river that morning, thinking about all that had passed since Danny had returned to his family with me in tow. I can still feel how the boat rocked gently, the current more rapid that morning that usual. I remember how Lola slipped her arm around my waist, hugging me tightly. A good foot shorter than me, her head hardly reached my armpit. A tiny, female version of her father in appearance, she was in every other way, her mother’s quietly patient, thoughtful, and gentle daughter.
“Where you at, Billy?” She asked. “You have that look in your eyes again.”
“I was thinking about the first time I saw you,” I said.
She leaned her head against me.
She was the only girl I’d really every noticed in the way a man notices a woman, and it hit me hard the first time I saw her. Even now, after all that I have experienced, my old heart flutters at the memory of my first love, the landmark point in my life of purest innocence.
“Come give your papa a hug, Missy,” Danny hollered, bolting from the wagon that late afternoon we pulled into the yard of his in-laws. Lola had stood on the porch of the largest log house I‘d ever seen, next to her mother, whose jet black curls were a shocking contrast to her daughter’s coppery ringlets. Lola approached Danny so shyly he could have been a stranger.
“Go on, Lola, give your pa a kiss,” her mother coaxed, moving behind her toward the two of us.
She had only been thirteen, a shapely wisp of a girl, her hair framing her porcelain-smooth face in wild abandonment. She stood looking up at her father, her hands clasped timidly behind her back, blue eyes shining.
He scooped her up, swinging her around, squeezing her so tightly I feared she would shatter. Standing there awkwardly, feeling stiff from the long ride on the buckboard and self-conscious in my new surroundings, I couldn’t look away from her. I know I blushed crimson when her eyes met mine from above her father’s head, before he lowered her to the ground again.
Then Mana embraced her husband, and the two of them lost sight of anything else, leaving Lola and me to stand there looking at each other. Lola’s grandfather rang the bell in the yard, announcing our arrival and her aunt and uncle came hurrying from their houses in the surrounding area, to welcome the long-gone Danny home. I raised everyone’s curiosity.
Lola looked as fragile as glass, but I soon discovered she was real flesh and blood and a lot stouter that I thought. After a few days, I felt more at ease, more at home than I could remember feeling anywhere. Before long, Lola and I were like a puppies rolling and tumbling around on the grassy banks of the river where we swam and fished late in the afternoon after our chores for the day were over, talking about almost everything. I told her how I had first met her father, about the day I had come aboard Danny’s flatboat and our travels together down river.
After that new beginning, now long behind me, I’ve not forgotten the excitement of discovering the strange new territory. I told her about the friendly Chickasaws we came upon one day on one of our treks through the wilderness where there were no more than two or three homesteads belonging to white settlers. One day we came upon a small Indian village built around a trading post. Established by an early French trader, as we learned from the English-speaking Chickasaw man of mixed blood who ran the place, business thrived between the Indians and the few settlers in the area. He told us wagons loaded with pioneers from the east were coming through steadily, more all the time. As a result, the Chickasaw farmers traded produce and furs for various items including colorful fabrics, silver ornaments, manufactured boots and household items found in the pioneer homes. Danny and I, however never met one such wagonload of settlers.
One day we passed through another Chickasaw village along one of the many creeks and rivers flowing through some of the most fertile bottom lands imaginable, a place I found favorable indeed. The Indians lived in log cabins no different than those the whites built. Everyone in the village welcomed us as we rode by. Slowing down, as we did, to signal our greeting in return, one of the men, in broken English, offered us food and shelter for the night. Danny gruffly declined. There was uneasiness in his manner which I failed to understand.
The Chickasaw women wore cotton dresses with aprons very similar to the ones the pioneer women of the settlements back in Missouri had worn. Some of them wore silver combs in their hair, with colorful ribbons attached, long enough to reach their feet. The men wore the same style of pants, cotton shirts, hats, and boots me and Danny wore. They favored hat band decorations, feathers of some kind. The good use they made of body language fascinated me, the way they communicated with sign language and facial expressions. It seemed to me, just an ignorant lad, that these people not only had accepted the newcomers, but were adopting our ways, as well. I would have liked to have tarried in the village, finding the native people fascinating.
I told Lola these things, about my desire for friendship with the natives, although I had not told her father. Instinctively, I knew Danny wouldn’t appreciate the way I felt. His expectations for me had become clear early on, how I should reflect his thinking and his beliefs, and how he planned for me to settle on land near him which we would develop together, when I was older.
Danny and I began building their houseboat right after we returned. He didn’t like living with his in-laws a day longer than necessary. Not that he wasn’t fond of Mana’s family, the Wilkes, but he didn’t always see eye to eye with her younger brother, Nathan. I felt such a gratitude to Danny, and wanting more than anything to repay him for taking me into his family, I privately took his side when he opposed Nathan’s political views about certain issues. I owed Danny everything, and falling in love with Lola—–there was no doubt that had happened—–had tightened the bond with her father. I knew Danny thought of me as the son he didn’t have.
Lola’s grandparents were sociable people, their house the center of gatherings, rallies for one political candidate or the other. I had not formed my own opinions about the government affairs they all hashed and rehashed, being too young both in years and to the country, to understand all that was being discussed. Debating went on and on, sometimes way into the night as men positioned themselves, often red-faced and bellowing, in one political camp or the other.
Electioneers came through often giving rousing political speeches, seeking the support of Homer Wilkes. Politics seemed complicated to me, so I hung back and listened, trying to learn all I could about both sides of issues. I dared not voice my view, even if I had one, certainly not to Danny who had no problem voicing his own.
The Wilkes family obviously carried considerable influence, being one of the first families to the area. Mr. Wilkes cleared and tamed his land several years preceding statehood in ‘96, under the harshest conditions. By the time I met them, they hosted frequent barbecues, with abundant food and whisky, and shooting matches where neighbors came bringing the prizes. Farm produce, baked goods, clothing, tools, homespun cloth, tanned leather, guns and ammunition, even portions of dried beef or venison were spread out on a long table for all the marksman to inspect, deciding which prize they wanted to shoot for. There wasn’t a bad marksman among them and competition was serious.
Before my eighteenth birthday, work had begun on Danny and Mana’s new cabin. Quarters were cramped in the little houseboat. He envisioned a fine plantation someday, like the ones he had seen around Nashville, where he would grow rich, raising cotton, corn, and race horses. The closer our wedding date, the more insistent Danny grew for me to stake my claim on one of the tracts adjoining his, certain the two of us would combine our properties and our efforts in the plantation life he now found appealing.