Crockett rode up one morning wanting to know if I’d be interested in doing some exploring, a little surveying in the territory northwest, almost halfway to the Mississippi, and thought I might want to look around there, perhaps laying claim to a homestead for myself. I had been splitting logs close to the boat’s mooring when he rode up behind me. Everyone else was over at the Wilkes place. I was glad it had worked out that way.
I accepted his invitation without hesitation. I had not expected to see him for awhile. He had begun his first term as statesman in September, having won the election, so he should have been in Murfreesboro, but I didn’t question him. I still hoped I could hire on with the surveying party, and I knew Lola would be fine without me, safe there with her parents. Crockett said he would meet me at the trading post at the next sunrise.
Deciding to avoid any more trouble with Danny, I waited until Lola and I were in bed that night to tell her about my plan. She cried some, then took my hand, placing it on her belly, and asked only for my promise to return before the baby came in August. I gave her my solemn oath that I would, and held her in my arms all night long. Early the next morning, kissing Lola goodbye, I repeated my promise to return in July, giving myself ample time to have our new home completed, ready for her and the baby. Even now, I can still taste the sweetness of that tender kiss. I left before Danny and Mana awoke, having no patience for explaining my decision. I knew there’d be hell to pay with Danny when I returned, but I hoped Lola and Mana could talk some understanding into him in my absence.
Riding up river to meet Crockett, I was glad I had never told Danny, or anyone else, the whole truth about the way I had deserted my family. I told him that I had been captured by the Americans during the 1812 war, but that they had allowed me to go, after a while, to return to my mother and siblings, since my father had been killed in battle. I returned home, I lied. I told him I was met with news that my family had all died of the yellow fever. My fabrication continued. I had no one left alive in the world, I said, so I struck out with other emigrants for the new American frontier. I shamed myself telling that story but once told, I stuck with it. That morning as I rode to meet Crockett, I was glad that Danny would never know about that act of desertion, for leaving to find a new place for me and Lola, without a word to him, would discredit me enough.
I left with my pouch of gold nuggets I had earned as a day laborer for Homer over the years. That would be enough to cover the expense of the trip, for buying land, and the cost for building a cabin. At the trading post, I bought a bedroll, gun powder, bullets, coffee, tobacco, some flint, an ax, a hatchet, some dried fruit, nuts, and a small amount of dried meat. We could hunt if necessary on the way for our food. I took nothing from Danny‘s house except my clothes, my saddled horse, my pistol and my long rifle.
We would be riding for at least three days to our destination, which was about 150 miles away. That morning’s sunrise promised a clear, sunny day, but a couple of hours away, the sky became completely overcast, a steel blue gray, and before long snow began falling, intermittently. We had not expected snow that early.
“I wish I had my dogs,” Crockett said, scanning the thick forest, our trail hardly defined at all, though the crowded timber. “The bear will be hibernatin’ soon, easy and fat.”
I hunkered over my saddle, pulling the collar of my heavy wool coat up more in the back, and my hat down in front, to keep some of the snow out of my face. This was the first time I’d been this far away from the Tennessee River since arriving.
“What’s it like, up near Forked Deer?” I asked.
“Well, they’s few folk there yet, which suits me all the better! A good day’s ride between cabins is close enough for me, although that’s not too practical in these parts. They’s a goodly number of settlers already, ‘spect they’ve already laid the whole district out in counties by now. I heared they’d be building a school this year, or next, ‘nough younguns already for that.
I could tell from what Crockett said, and how he said it, he much preferred electioneering, mingling with country folk, being a part of the hard scrabble action of nation building much more than the business of politics at the Capitol. “That fellar callin’ me the Gentleman from the Cane got me riled up! At first, but now I think it suits me. Canebrake country is where I’m from, and can’t stay away from it long!
“Now, ‘round the river, they’s the best farmin’ land I ever seen. Flush with wildlife, fish and fowl, and bear, and deer. Squirrel! A family can live high on the hog, just by plantin‘ corn, and vegetables.“ He laughed and charged into one of his oratories about the freedom of the frontier, the challenges, and the advantages, his eyes searching the area constantly, on guard, alert.
After a while, he turned in his saddle, toward me. “There’s a fellow by the name of Alexander, the justice of the peace and in charge of the land office for that district. I’ll take you to see him.”
“I hope to run into Lawson, the surveyor, if it’s not too late to take him up on his job offer.”
“Alexander’ll know ‘bout any work in the area, and could be Lawson’s still there.”
Sometime later, he asked, “You ready to stop, stretch a bit, eat a bite?”
“Looks like a good spot, ahead there, a little clearing’.” I said.
“An old Indian camp,” he said.
The horses drank from a stream, and I fed them corn from the saddle bags. We walked around a bit, chewed on some dried venison, dried peaches and pecans. All around us, magnificent silence, except for the crunching of our feet on the ground, and the sound of the animals chomping the corn. The woods were striking in their pure, white coated, muted darkness. I’ll never forget the vastness of the valley we had entered. Crockett lowered his voice, continuing to talk about the new place we were going, his words quieter, I believe, out of reverence for the natural beauty surrounding us.
“They’s already a lawyer in the parts, perhaps a day’s ride from my location. Folks steadily movin‘ in there already, no time at all settlements will be all around my place. Wouldn‘t surprise me to see ‘em already puttin’ up a courthouse, or layin‘ out the plans for one! Reckon they’ll take to me and my politickin‘?” He tore off a plug of tobacco, and I did the same. “Be’ll a whole fresh bunch of ears!”
“I ‘pect they will!” I spat in the snow.
“They’s a good tradin’ post, and won‘t be long ‘fore someone starts a grist mill. They‘s a ferry operatin’ on the south fork already, bringin‘ in dry goods, sugar, flour, and salt, as well as takin‘ produce out.
“Start up an ordinary house, and the preacher and the church house will follow!” Keepers of “ordinary” houses sold liquor.
He spat out the plug of tobacco, and took a bottle from his pocket, taking a long swig before passing it over to me. The whisky blazed all the way down, and I felt its warmth in my veins almost immediately. I took another short swallow and handed it back to him.
By the end of the day, we had covered nearly 50 miles. We made good time, given the denseness of the area, and roughness of the trail. We setup camp, ate flap jacks and venison, and hunkered down for the night, taking turns keeping watch. The snow had let up, but the sky was pitch black. Silence surrounded us.
“You’ve listened to my yappin’ all day, now tell me somethin’ ’bout yourself, Featherstone.”
“Ah, ain’t much to tell.” I stalled. I never have liked talking about myself, much preferred listening to other folks.
“Both parents English?” he asked.
“Nope, only my pap, my mum was Irish.”
“How’d you hook up with Keogh?”
Now, I don’t know if it was the whisky talking, or if Crockett just garnered my trust in a way no one else had, not even my own wife, but I found myself telling him the truth about my presence in this country. Everything. He listened, quiet for a change. When I finished, I felt better. I had a sense about my companion, that my story was safe with him. And he evidently had a sense about me, because when I had finished my tale, even the part about my falling out with Danny and leaving my Lola alone with her pregnancy, he said, “For a man not yet grown, William Featherstone, knowing what’s right, even against the grain, and going ahead with it, is a brave thing! I wager to say I ain’t swapped stories with anyone more dedicated to his own principles!”
We headed out at daybreak, into more snow. The night had been uneventful, but freezing cold. By the second night, we rode through snow a good foot deep in places, but it had stopped falling. That night we camped in a small cave, the blanketed ground made even whiter by the bright moonlight. So far, we had not seen one Indian. We, in fact, had not passed a cabin, or any kind of settlement since noon. By midday on the third day, we approached the ferry on the Forked Deer River, now a few hours away from our destination; we hoped to get there before dark. The operator of the ferry was an informative bloke, full of gossip and questions, curious about us, where we came from, and where we were headed. Crockett got into an exploratory discussion with the man, curious about the political leanings in those parts. By the time we landed on the other side, the two were swiggin’ whisky, talking about mutual acquaintances, and swappin’ bear stories.
The snow had melted already, and the rich, dark soil appeared to be a mixture of clay and sand, an orangish color. Timbered with an abundance of poplar trees, different oaks and hickories were scattered throughout, along with sweet gums, ash, maple, and mulberry. We crossed over a number of sluggish streams and little tributaries before Crockett broke his horse into a run across the valley we had entered which lay along the South Fork of the Obion River. I raced behind him.
“This is it, Bill.” He pulled back the reins, and threw one long leg over the horse, planting both feet firmly on the ground beside my horse. Hands on each hip, wide-stanched, shoulders thrown back, his eyes, bright and excited as a kid‘s on Christmas, peered up at me from his bearded face. “Whadya think? This ain’t only God‘s country, it‘s mine!” The sun slipped away, darkening the valley with shadows.
I learned a lot from Crockett. He was a wealthy man. I don’t know about his possessions or money, but he was rich in human experience far exceeding his years. He owned a fierce enthusiasm, sucking every particle of pleasure from the most basic of life‘s offerings, relishing every minute. His fantastic accounts, some of which I am certain had more to do with his imagination than fact, told of a life grubbed out of hardscrabble adventure and brutality. While he had ascended to the height of passion only to fall into the abyss of despair, he had always risen again. Fighting the Creeks under Andrew Jackson ended his soldiering career, he said, for he hadn’t the stomach for any more of that. His heart was now set on providing for his family, hunting plenty, and governing the country. He aspired to be president one day, and I didn’t doubt he would.
He had been on his own since he was a boy, about the age I had been when I began my own short-lived quest, knowing nothing but toil and trouble. He’d been heartbroken by at least two women, before marrying for the truest of love, only to lose her too soon. His sweet Pollie had died shortly following the birth of their daughter in 1815, leaving him with four children to raise. He had remarried quickly, to Elizabeth, a sturdy, industrious, self-sufficient widow, with children of her own. What began as a marriage of convenience grew into a mutually satisfying union, this I learned from the glowing reports of the woman’s good instincts in homemaking and childrearing. There were about eight children in that cabin. Crockett’s respect for his wife‘s independent survival capabilities was evident not only in his words, but in the fact that he could leave her alone for months, knowing that his homestead would not only survive, but flourish in his absence. Giving him the freedom he loved, he said, strengthened the bond they shared. He called her Betsy.
I found the colorful yarns of incredible events entertaining, and the folksy political hullabaloo thought-provoking. But more than that, this common man rising on the merit of his own wit, always seeing the larger picture, inspired me. The limitations I had felt encumbering, stuck as I had been in the rut of Danny’s expectations over the past 5 years, fell away like unlocked shackles with every new Crockett account. I became determined to steer mine and Lola’s ship of dreams in another direction, for the life Danny had laid out for us was not it.
“I’ve got a yearnin’ to see the big river again, the Mississippi,” I told Crockett the second morning. “Been thinkin’ on buildin’ myself a houseboat, would like to float on down that great river one day. Thinkin’ the farmin’ life alone ain’t for me. No more’n is necessary. I’m set on going west a ways more, if you want to ride with me all the way to the Mississippi.”
“Let’s go! Been wantin’ to see that river again myself!”
So we rode out again, keeping close to the water’s edge. I pushed the idea of finding the surveying party to the side, so great was the westerly pull on my spirit. The days were sunny, and crispy, and bands of hunting Chickasaws greeted us from time to time on the trail. The first night we accepted lodging in one of their villages. There was a young chief there, who called himself Moonlight, who spoke broken English. He had no hair on his body, clean shaven from head to toe, but covered in tattoos, as were the other men in the village. The people were gracious and hospitable, although sadness shrouded their eyes. The children hung back behind their mothers, fearful of us, our presence.
Moonlight wanted to talk about the end days of his people on their land, questioning us about the future, the place they would be going, about the uncertainty facing all the native people, for the inevitability of their removal was fact by this time. Many of the neighboring clans, according to Moonlight, had moved out of Western Tennessee already, into Mississippi. That accounted for our not having seen any Indians over the first leg of our travels. As more pioneers moved in, most of the Indians retreated further away from them. Some of their women married white men, and remained behind.
We slept on the dirt floor of a cabin in front of an open hearth fire, having enjoyed a hearty supper of roasted turkey and cornbread dressing, at the split log table of a half breed named Chiska Brown and his mother. Chiska was tall, over six feet, as were most of the Chickasaw men. He offered to guide us, for the price of a half dollar, over a little-known trail to a place called Gold Sky, on the misi-ziibi, he called it, meaning the Great River.
He listened intently when I explained I wanted to build a houseboat, and live on the big river. “No,” he said. “Gichi-ziibi is Big River, misi-ziibi is Great River!”
“Misi-ziibi, then!” I replied, “for it is one great river!”
Chiska’s white teeth flashed as he grinned from ear to ear. “Mista Featherstone on the misi-ziibi!”
“You’re a goodun, CB!” Crockett said, “I like an Indian with a sense of humor!” He slapped Chiska on the shoulder, and the two men stood side by side, same height, similar build, eye to eye.
From then on, Chiska Brown was CB. His skin was lighter toned than the full bloods. Free of any hair like the others, he had no tattoos that we could see. He wore deerskin boots that reached all the way up to his thighs, and presented each of us with a pair the next morning, for protection against the brambles and briars.
We found ourselves, after a full day, riding through the rolling hills, through hard wood timber. I could smell the river, the silt, the rich bottom land, and felt home again. In the distance, we heard a shrill whistling sound.
“Steamboat!” Crockett yelled.
“Gold Sky not far.” CB said.
The wind blew colder, and the moon had risen, and I hoped the temperature remained above freezing. “Let’s make camp, I could sure use some hot coffee,” Crockett said.
Writing this account now all these decades later, sitting here at my golden oak desk in front of the living room window looking out over Silver Lake, deep in East Texas, I haven’t forgotten camping with Crockett that night, how it had reminded me of the first night on Danny’s flatboat when I was fifteen years old. The two memories of both those life-altering nights live in my memory alone now, Crockett and Danny long gone.
By the time I met Crockett, I had finally learned to crave hot bitter coffee!
I chuckle under my breath as I re-ink my pin. Memories overlapping memories, all inside the head of a dying old man. Will anyone even read these words?
We were on the trail again before sunrise, eager to reach the river’s edge. Just outside of the settlement called Gold Sky, the rolling hills having disappeared into occasional bluffs, we found the place populated with nothing more than a small trading post, and two cabins, that we could see right off. Then we entered the flood plain, the delta created by the river’s extensive flooding. We rode all the way to the river, stopping on a small inlet which CB said had been made by the great earthquake.
Not far away we saw a log cabin built on tall stilts, tree trunks actually. We hallooed the cabin, with no response. The place was vacant, abandoned due to frequent flooding we assumed. Dogs barked from the edge of the forest and, through the bare limbs, we saw smoke coming from a chimney. Two hounds loped toward us down the incline of a bluff, followed by a man dressed in a shaggy, furry garment, which appeared to be made of raccoon skins, worn fleshy side inward, for warmth. The tails hung from around the bottom of the long shirt with reached below his knees, over loose-fitting breeches, tucked into homemade deer hide boots. His English accent was unmistakable in his greeting. “Hidey, ho, chaps!” He hollered from several yards away.
“Crockett. David Crockett,” Crockett announced, his hand reaching out to the man. “Meet Bill Featherstone, and our guide, CB.”
The man responded with his own name, returning the shake, “John Lambert, here, biddin’ you welcome.”
Lambert and his brother-in-law were the first two settlers in the area as far as he knew. The trapper whose cabin on stilts we had first come upon, had died of yellow fever, and we were warned to stay away from the cabin, with Lambert saying his brother-in-law would be burning it. When I told him my intent to purchase an “acre or two”, he was quick to offer me part of his grant, upriver a number of miles. A bit higher ground there, not far from Key Corner, he told us.
“Ever heared of a fellar by the name of Porter?” Crockett asked.
“Ben Porter? Famous bear hunter?” Lambert ducked his head and looked at Crockett in a teasing way.
“We be in his vicinity?”
“Practically on his doorstep!”
“Well, then, you fellars don’t need me monkeyin’ in your bidness affairs! Do you, Bill? I mean, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll sniff out Porter, after we get to your point of interest, see if he’s in the mood to hunt!”
“Soon‘s we deal, I‘ll ride with you, me and my dogs are rarin’ for a bear hunt!” Lambert piped.
So, we rode out with Lambert in the lead, his hounds staying on his horse’s heels, sniffing the ground continuously. In the direction of Key Corner, the terrain rose considerably above the water’s level, and the vegetation and timber became thicker, while the river seemed to widen. Since I had just enough of an area in mind to supply timber for my houseboat and other needs, with enough soil to raise a garden and some corn come springtime, the place offered me just what I needed.
I wound up dealing with Lambert on 120 acres, giving me ample frontage, at a fair price. There was a busy port upriver a few miles, where the steamboats loaded and unloaded regularly, bringing goods from the north and the south. The prospects for my future excited me in a way I hadn’t been in too long to remember, and I had much to do, including spring planting before going for Lola and the new baby.
Crockett and I parted company with a hearty shake and boisterous farewell, promising to catch up with each other if not sooner, then later. Before riding off with Lambert, he shouted, I gotta get back to legislatin’ before the good folks of Hickman and Lawrence Counties come lookin’ for me!” The man was a character, he loved hunting, particularly bear hunting, and he was the sharpest shooter, both as a marksman and a statesmen, I ever met.
CB and I went right to work staking off the new site. I was twenty years old.