Last Trip East
Louis and I headed east early in the morning, as soon as the sun came up. There was not a cloud in the sky, and despite the July heat, there was a good breeze blowing. Louis, at seventeen, was the older of the Friedel brothers, although with his slight build and bashful grin, he looked maybe fourteen. He had been east of the Mississippi River no more than a few miles since his family had settled there, so he was raring to go. A wiry fellow, and agile, his movements quick and purposeful, I thought him a well-suited assistant, should we run into trouble: road, wagon, or worse. He could shoot, too.
The wagon’s jockey box was attached to the side, and I had outfitted it with extra bolts, linch pins, nails, tools, including a jack, for repairs when needed. On the other side, I carried a water barrel, a feed trough for the animals, plenty of corn, shovel and axe, and a tar bucket filled with tar. I sat atop the single driver’s seat, with the brake to the side of my left foot. The wagon was smaller than the prairie schooners used for longer treks, and lightweight enough to require no more than a double yoke of oxen. It was roomy enough to provide shelter, sleeping quarters at night, needing only to be large enough to accommodate Lola and the baby, her trunk, and the baby’s cradle. I had tarred the wagon bed carefully, making sure it would be water tight when we forded the deep waters I remembered, for we followed the same route Danny and I had traveled years earlier.
Louis rode a short distance ahead on his pinto mare, scouting for any kind of peril, although the road had become well-trodden over the years. I was surprised to see several settlements, with inns, taverns, and trading posts frequently situated along the rivers we crossed. The warmth of the sun, now well-risen, made me drowsy, and the steady bouncing relaxed me into reverie, into thoughtful contemplation, as we rolled along the first leg of our journey.
The earlier notion I’d entertained with Crockett about seeking out surveying work no longer interested me. It occurred to me that the appeal I had found in that profession had simply been the enticement I had needed to pull me away from Danny, giving me the incentive to break away, to explore my own course. I recall now, looking back on that trip to Lola as she prepared to give birth to our child, the unfettered optimism I felt. That kind of naiveté can belong only to a twenty-year-old with his future stretching ahead of him.
I can still feel that morning’s sun warming my face, the tight bounce of the new wagon. I can still smell the oxen droppings along the well-travelled Tennessee trail, and hear the sounds like echoes from the wooded riverbanks of my youth. I can still see Louis, sitting as tall as he possibly could in his saddle, his slender frame taut with attention, as he continuously scoured the area in front of us. I marvel now at my innocence. My ignorance. My oblivion to the swiftness of time, how the days so quickly would accumulate into years. And the cruelty of Fate. The finality of one misstep.
It is starkly curious to me now, the twists and turns my life has taken. In my own winding pursuits through time, every fork, every bend along the way, revealed a better understanding about myself than I had before. Yet, I wonder. Had I veered in a different direction at just one of those intersections, would it have made a difference? Or, is Fate the omniscient guide, always leading us to the predetermined places of our future, no matter the choices we believed were ours to make, or the star we perceived as ours to follow?
How else can distant experiences, invisible to us in the present, be realized? How else would our shared destinies be fulfilled, if left entirely to our own careless whims? How can anyone possibly chart a course independent from the will of that power greater than ourselves, whose determination overrides all?
I am simply a man fraught with human frailty, short-sighted by birth, left only to the adjustments forced upon me by a series of adverse situations, some of my own doing, some not. How fleet-footed, my lifetime, culminating in this journal of history: a book of memories. I must not allow myself to lose my thought, to meander too far into my own revelries, for it is important I continue with my accounting. Again I dip my pen into the indigo ink, and scribble on.
Into the second day of our trip, we ferried across the Tennessee River in the company of merchants, the Houston brothers returning from Memphis, with inventory purchased there for their new general store recently established in a logging village near the Duck River in Bedford County. Two Haitian females, obviously a mother and her pregnant teenage daughter, both black as pitch and speaking not one word of English, hunched in the back of the wide, canopy covered, cargo wagon.
Amid bundled stacked goods, everything from housewares to farm tools, from staple foods and planting seeds to guns and ammunition, from barrels of whiskey and syrup to crates of rich colorful finery, from fabrics and textiles to millinery and footwear, all shipped from the port of New Orleans, the women clung to each other, their heads lowered, eyes downcast. I noticed the shackles on their calloused bare feet at the same time as Louis, our eyes meeting in mutual concern. The two were hobbled together; the girl’s right ankle was shackled to her mother’s left one. The skin was rubbed raw around the metal, and flies crawled over the bloody crusted, skinned flesh.
“How long they been shackled like that?” I called to the older brother, from my wagon seat, as I nodded toward the women. The ferry barge was wide enough to accommodate both our wagons, with Louis and his horse squeezed in between the two.
“Probably since New Orleans. That’s where they come from, well, through there anyway. We bought ‘em off a trader in Memphis. Since they’s shackled, he left ‘em that way, he called it insurance, said they most likely were runners, given the way they was hobbled when he bought ‘em.”
“The condition the girl’s in, she won’t be doing no running. Looks like those sores need tending to,” I said. “Infection sets in, could lose a foot.”
“They be alright,” the other brother, who’d introduced himself to us earlier as Garrett Houston, shouted, swatting a fly off his face. “We’ll clean ‘em up good when we get home, gotta a buyer lined up. That little ’un, bein‘ ‘bout ready to give birth, is a bonus. Could be a healthy buck comin’ outa her any minute.”
That’s when I noticed the water pooling around the girl’s feet. She cradled her belly, and threw her head backwards, her face distorted in pain. Her mother’s black eyes met mine, panic gripping her weathered face, as she hugged her daughter’s rigid body. The girl stifled a moan, her small hand clasping her mouth in the throes of an obvious contraction.
“She’s fixin’ to have it!” Louis shouted, dismounting his horse and bounding into the wagon, climbing over the bundles to get to the girl. “We gotta help her!” He spoke directly to me.
“Jest move one of them barrels, give her a little more room, they birth them babies anywhere, she’ll just squat, and out it’ll pop. The mammy’ll know what to do, just leave ‘em be!” The meanness in the older Houston’s tone struck fear in the mother, and I knew there was dire potential for trouble unless I chose my words carefully.
Louis stood with his hands on each hip, a look of furious bewilderment on his face, his brow furrowed over piercing blue eyes boring into mine. I went to him, and together we attempted to make the girl as comfortable as we could. “Unshackle her feet, for god sake!” I shouted to Houston.
“Only way’s to cut the irons off, and then what? They’ll run like rabbits I’m tellin’ you!” He spoke gruffly, but less aggressively.
“She can’t give birth shackled like that, man! Louis, get what we need to cut that iron!” I spoke firmly, my voice steady, but my heart pounded. We had entered contentious territory with these two strangers, a matter of tampering with their property. We were legally in treacherous waters. I kept my hand on my sidearm.
Louis was back in an instant with a sledge hammer and axe. I held the axe blade in place, gripping the handle with both hands, at the weakest joint in the leg shackle. After several heavy blows with the hammer, the iron restraining her ankles broke. The mother coaxed the girl into a squatting position there in the filth of the wagon, and by the time we had reached the other side of the crossing, her baby girl slid head first, screaming like a little black banshee, into the grandmother’s cradling arms.
At the ferry landing, we parted company with the Houston brothers, not another word between us. We had done all we could for the women, but Louis said little to me the rest of the day. The episode had impressed itself upon his young mind. The boy had witnessed perhaps for the first time the naked contempt some humans held for those they perceived to be weaker and more vulnerable than they. He saw up close, the cruel injustice ingrained in the life and times in which we lived.
The day had grown hotter, after crossing the ferry, and we saw few people along the trail the deeper we moved into the forest. I don’t recall much else about the last part of that trek through the wilderness, due to all that erupted upon our historic return. Oh, the tragedy of it! I will never forget one bloody instant of the horrific turn my life took upon entering the front yard of the new Keogh cabin that immutable summer day. But the night before, I was oblivious to all that was to come. Insects became pesky towards the end of the day, and we prepared our camp.
We expected to arrive by mid-afternoon the next day. I was eager to see my Lola, and hoped she had fared well in my absence, feeling some guilt that I had left her alone, but excited to tell her all that had happened, about CB, the river, and about our new home. As I have always been prone to do, I justified my actions with the belief that our lives would be much improved because of them. I bolstered myself for Danny’s temper; it would not be pleasant but I would make the best of the situation. As soon as Lola and the baby were ready to travel, we would head back to the freedom of living our own lives, in our own place. A new family.