On The Mississippi
“CB, I’m gonna build me an ark. You ever seen an ark?”
I picked up a stick, and smoothed away a writing surface on the ground, sketching out the plans for the boat I had in my mind to build. It would be a hundred feet long and twenty-five feet wide, vee-shaped at the ends, but with a cabin in the center like those along the river on the common flatboats. There was plenty of redwood with which I planned to build the boat, but for the house portion, I would use poplar.
“House canoe!” CB said. “Big house canoe. We can build house canoe.”
“Big enough to move livestock, and everything else I might someday own, further down the river.”
First, we built a small shack, temporary shelter, where the two of us slept while building the ark. At times, CB hunted for turkey, and deer or elk, tanning the leather and curing the meat, keeping us well supplied. He killed a bear one cold day, butchering it and salting it down. He rendered the fat into lard, some of which he mixed with rainwater strained through charcoal ash to make soap. Early on, we had discovered an artesian spring bubbling through the rocks deep in the woods, and devised a water trough for holding fresh water.
That winter ended sooner than expected, the days and nights for the most part had been unseasonably mild, as I recall it now. Perhaps, my enthusiasm and youth rendered the cold ineffective, determined as I was to establish my place there. CB helped me clear the land first by cutting the timber, and then, with the use of a sturdy double yoke of oxen I acquired; the logs were dragged away by wrapping them with a heavy log chain hitched to the animals. The stumps were pulled out the same way, and then we made the land ready for planting. Grubbing out the remaining rocks and roots, we broke up the dirt using small scooter plows, one to a single yoked ox. The two of us doing the work of four men, using the two plows, laid out ten acres in three weeks. We labored hard, from dawn to dusk, harder than I ever worked again in my life. We planted potatoes first. After threat of frost had passed, we planted oats, then corn, beets, cabbage, and onions, before beginning construction on the houseboat.
By May, the ark was done, and no finer boat, moored to two large maple trees on the bank, had ever bobbed and jostled as lazily on the river. It was a sight to behold, drawing frequent visitors, for the river was crowded with flatboats going downstream, and keel boats capable, although with much effort, of going upstream.
I moved into the three room two-story boat cabin, furnished with only a table and chairs, and a bed. I had traded the pair of boots CB had given me with someone on the river for the crude furniture. I hated to part with those boots, for they were more comfortable than the other pair I owned, but CB insisted, saying he’d make another pair.
The houseboat was warmed enough for me during the remaining cool nights of late spring by the little step-top iron range and oven I bought off a steamboat from New Orleans, but I planned to install a large wood stove before next winter. Before building the buckboard wagon I needed, we planted beans, squash, tomatoes and watermelon.
CB stayed on in the little shack, which he had improved considerably, preferring to live there alone after the boat was finished. He put a floor in the little cabin, and laid out the bearskin for a rug. Neither of us spoke about the partnership we had established; it just happened, the way our friendship had, and seemed natural for CB to stay on with me. He wasn’t much on conversation any more than I was, but he had a likeable, polite way about him.
CB bartered several pairs of deerskin boots on the river for tobacco, coffee, bullets and gun powder, corn, sugar, flour, and an occasional bottle of whiskey. Not for himself, for he never touched liquor, having seen its dishonoring effects on his people, but thought we might need it for medicine.
In the evenings, the two of us warmed ourselves near the campfire. Looking out over the river’s obsidian-like surface, shimmering in the moonlight the way nothing else can, we watched the fireflies, and listened to the sounds of the waterfowl and other wildlife all around us. Some of that wildlife was of the human kind, the disorderly drunkards and gamblers on the river boats. Their raucous and savage assaults upon one another could be heard nightly coming from their vessels moored up and down the river.
None of them bothered us, other than an occasional crude remark yelled out in passing, cursing my boat for hogging the river, which, of course, it wasn’t. The river was wide there, ample passage enough for any number of boats and barges. There was the incident where a smashed sailor hurled a bottle onto the deck, sending it crashing and shattering again the side of the house, but that only happened the one time. We kept our rifles handy, all the same.
One night, I told CB about an idea I’d been mulling around, about starting a full-fledged shoemaking business given his skill for tannery and boot making. Throwing in my little bit of learning from my apprenticeship days in the cobbler’s shop in Montreal, the next thing we knew, we had worked our way into a commercial partnership.
CB had no use for shoe lasts used by every other shoemaker I had ever seen. He used a method of wrapping the soft upper leather around one’s foot, marking and pinning the material in place so accurately, in much the way I’d seen dressmakers fit their clients, that every pair he made was custom fitted to each foot. He taught me his technique and, combined with what I knew about shoemaking, our new venture soon prospered, bringing in not only steady orders for new boots and ladies’ shoes, but shoe repairs as well.
Word trickled up and down the river, from dock to dock, from settlement to settlement, and our reputation as shoemakers spread. We added on to CB’s cabin, moving the operation from the boat to a larger, more convenient cobbler shop, complete with bench, worktable, and storage for the tanned hides and other supplies.
CB’s energy for hard work, his eagerness to lend a helping hand, and the sense of humor Crockett had admired earned him an uncommon respect from the settlers. Upon leaving his village, he had allowed his facial hair to grow, and in no time his handsome face was full-bearded, like mine. His shaven head was now covered with straight brown hair. His English improved, and by June, when he turned twenty-five, CB’s physical appearance was more that of a Scots-Irishman than Chickasaw.
We heard about a blacksmith living on the adjoining tract, and I rode over one day for the ironwork I needed to complete the wagon, for the time for returning to Lola was upon me. The months away from her, filled with backbreaking work and daily purpose, left little time for anything else. We ate, we slept, and we worked. But at night in bed alone, I missed my wife’s body next to mine, her soft whisperings in the darkness, her lilting laughter, the scent of rosewater in her hair, and the way her eyes lit up when she saw me. I felt an urgency to return to her. By June, I began making final arrangements for the long ride back.
The blacksmith, a big brawny German by the name of Hans Friedel, offered, within a few days, to bring the linch pins and solid iron bands, the lock chain, yoke rings, backing pins, and bolts I needed to finish my wagon. He insisted on delivering the work to me for he had a keen interest in my famous ark, and the shoemaking shop. Three days later Friedel arrived, accompanied by his wife and pretty young daughter, Isabel.
Both women needed new shoes and Hans asked for a fitting for each. I’d never seen CB behave the way he did that day when Isabel daintily lifted her skirt, exposing her slender barefoot for him to measure. Usually deft and efficient, CB fumbled awkwardly at a task he could do in his sleep. I noticed he held each foot longer than necessary, saying he wanted to make sure his measurements were correct. I also noticed that she allowed it, even encouraged the fondling of her feet. Her parents noticed too, for Hans sharply nudged his wife. Mrs. Friedel coughed nervously, then promptly sat down beside her daughter on the wooden bench, and began removing her own shoes.
CB slipped Isabel’s old shoes back onto her feet, carefully tying the laces. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he said, lifting his dark eyes to hers, his most engaging grin breaking across his face. “I’ll make you the finest shoes.” He moved to the mother’s feet, but Isabel’s eyes remained glued on CB as he worked. His neck grew increasingly red under her gaze.
A little past the middle of June, I was ready to head back east, for the baby would be coming in a couple of months, and I wanted to be there with Lola during the last of her pregnancy. I prepared for the worse with Danny, couldn’t imagine any favorable outcome there. Taking Lola and his grandchild away would end our relationship, but I could see no way around that. It was what it was.
Hans hired out two of his sons to me. Martin would work with CB at the shop, watch over the place, help with the livestock, and gather our crops. Our one cow was about to freshen. Louis would make the trip with me.
The rains had been so heavy, all the rivers and streams were apt to be out of their banks, and I worried that the road would be washed out. I needed to give myself enough leeway, so as not to arrive too late.
Lambert paid me a visit a couple of days before my departure, asking if I’d seen anything out of Crockett after their bear hunt. His brother-in-law, a hard-eyed, rough looking Irishman came with him. They found me near the barn, putting the finishing touches to the wagon. Having tightly stretched the double fold of heavy cotton like a bonnet over the four u-shaped, pre-formed, hardwood bows attached to each side of the wagon’s bed, I was busy securing the fabric in place when they rode up.
“I’ve been curious about Crockett, myself, although I don’t expect to see him, not ‘til this legislature session ends. You and him shoot any bear?” I asked, jumping to the ground from the back of the wagon.
“Shot five, him four, me one!” Both men remained on their horses.
“That yore Injun there?” The brother-in-law, Lambert introduced as Rayford Harris, nodded his scruffy face and shaggy head toward CB, who was tanning deer hides next to the shop. “Shore don’t look like no Injun, but heared you had one.” Harris ducked his head to the side, and spat a stream of tobacco juice at my feet.
“He’s my partner, Chiska Brown. CB to folks that know him.”
“Stinkin’ halfbreed vermin! Thicker‘n ticks, them woods is crawlin‘ with ‘em,” Harris muttered, but not quite under his breath.
“Half Chickasaw,” I said, glancing toward CB, who kept working, appearing not to have heard the vile remark, although I knew he had.
“He’d pass for white, wouldn’t you say, Patrick?” Harris, a cocky sneer fixed upon his face, turned to Lambert.
“Cut it out, Rayf, that won’t work here.”
“What’s diff’rent ‘bout here? That fancy houseboat?”
“Look,” I said, directing my attention to Lambert, “I got work to do. Anything else you need?”
“Nah, I’s just wonderin’ ‘bout Crockett, don’t let us hinder you none.” Lambert touched the brim of his hat, sending me an apologetic look. “That’s a first-rate wagon you got there,” he added. You goin’ back East?”
I nodded to Lambert, squatted down, and resumed hammering a band in place. “Going back for my family. My wife and baby, “I said, reaching for another iron band to fit around the wheel hubs.
“By jove, that’s mighty fine, young chap like you needs his woman with him. A baby, you say?”
“Due in August.”
Harris spat again, this time directly on my new boot. Lambert hadn’t noticed, his eyes still admiring my wagon. I stood up, hammer in hand, and wiped the toe of my shoe on the back of my breeches, meeting Harris’ blood streaked stare with my own black-eyed glare, forcing him to look away.
“C’mon, Patrick, let’s git to the boat dock, here comes The Cajun.” Harris jerked his horse around, leaving. I heard a steamboat whistle blowing down river.
“Take care, Featherstone. When you returnin’?”
“Soon as possible,” I said.
Again, Lambert touched his hat, giving me a parting nod, before riding after Harris.
“You steer clear of that Harris,” I told CB when the two had gone. CB didn’t say anything, just nodded his head and kept on with his work.