Best Laid Plans
I noticed, topping the bluff and looking down at the river, that there was no houseboat moored in front of the cabin. All that was there was the pier, level with the ground. The cabin’s back yard backed up to the river, and a canoe lay on the bank. We rode onto the property using the main road separating the Wilkes homestead from Danny and Mana’s. Work on the new home had been almost completed when I left, with only light finishing remaining for Danny to do. A fence now enclosed the place.
The dogs stood at a distance barking at us as I hopped from the wagon. Then, recognizing me, they came loping up to us, sniffing at Louis’ boots as he tied his horse to the railing next to the front gate. Satisfied, they both ran back to the barn. The front yard was large, with a long walkway leading to the house from the gate. Bushes of red roses lined the path and in the heat, the fragrance was heavy. Louis followed me into the yard.
I expected Lola, in full bloom with the baby due in a few weeks, to burst through the door, arms open wide for me; I stopped in my tracks when Danny walked out on the porch, holding his rifle in both hands. I’ll never forget the look on his face, or the words he spoke. “Get off my property!”
“Where’s Lola?” Instinctively I knew his anger had something to do with Lola, but my mind was spinning. I had known he would be angry with me, for leaving the way I had. Now, in the face of the rage confronting me, I knew something had happened to Lola. “What’s wrong?”
“Get off my land while you still can, you ungrateful low-life son of a bitch, get out of my sight!” The anger in his voice matched the fury on his face, in his rigid stance. It terrified me.
“Danny, what’s wrong? Where’s Lola?” My voice shook in fear and confusion. Fear that something awful had happened to Lola and confusion due to the intensity of Danny’s wrath. He raised his rifle, pointed it at me, finger on the trigger.
I yelled, “Lola! Mana!” Eyes glued to that trigger finger, I took another step toward the porch. Then I was being pushed to the side, hitting the ground as a gun fired. Louis stumbled over me, falling to his knees, blood spreading over the front of his shirt. Aiming his pistol at Danny, he fired. I froze, watching Louis fall forward, face down in the yard, the pistol smoking in his limp hand. From somewhere a woman screamed.
Dogs were barking, and Homer Wilkes came running with Nathan. In a daze, I heard them speaking. I lifted Louis, turning him over, and stared in disbelief at the blood-soaked front of his shirt. Traumatized and numb, I held his body. “Omigod, Hans, look what I have done to your boy.”
“Mana, go to your mama! Nate, take your sister to your mother, go on, son. Take care of your sister.” Homer spoke calmly, but with urgency. “Now!”
In shock, my attention went to the porch where Danny lay crumpled, half on, half off the front steps. His rife lay on the ground. Part of his head was gone.
I placed Louis gently on the ground, and tried to stand, but my knees were like rubber, I couldn’t balance myself. I started crawling to Danny. Homer had covered him with his own body the best he could, to hide the horrible injury from Mana. Hysteria overcame her, and she fell. Nate picked her up and carried her out of the yard.
“He’s gone, Bill. Danny’s gone. What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know, Homer, I don’t know.”
I managed to control my legs enough to stand, and went back to Louis, lying as dead as Danny, a few feet between them. I felt dazed, nothing made sense. I ran to the porch, screaming, “Lola! Lola!”
In the house, I searched for her, from room to room. Calling out her name, over and over, I knew she wasn’t there. In a bedroom, a baby cried. A tiny baby in a cradle next to the bed. My baby? I knew that it was.
I heard more voices outside, someone asking who that boy was. Homer came into the house for sheets to wrap the bodies. I sat on the bed, staring down at the baby. It kept crying, so I picked up the little body and held it to my heart, rocking back and forth. The baby stopped crying, but I kept rocking back and forth.
“Lola died first week of June, Bill,” Homer said. I hardly recognized him, he had aged so much. I had to look away from the agony in his face. His sorrowful blue eyes were grief-stricken. He was a beaten, heartbroken, old man. “Been a bad year, Billy,” he said.
I kept rocking the baby. “Give her to me, Bill, I’ll take her to Mana.”
“A girl? Is she alright? She wasn’t due til August. How can this be? So tiny.”
“Oddly, yes, she seems to be fine. Born almost two months early, but we had a midwife come over from the Cain’s place when Lola went into labor, and she did all she could for her. But Lola lost too much blood. Hemorrhaging. Couldn’t stop it. So much blood, Bill. She went to sleep and never woke up again.
“The midwife checked the baby over from head to toe, said she seemed healthy, her color was good, her lungs surprisingly strong. Said if we could get her to take goat’s milk from a bottle, she might live. She said she had delivered premature babies before. Said most don’t survive, even with a mother.”
“Mana fed her warm water and sugar first three days. Danny went to Reynoldsburg as soon as she was born; being the county seat, he thought he might find out if anyone around here had goats. Sure enough, there was a herder up the river a ways who had a nanny goat with a baby. They’re out there in the pasture now. Danny milked her every morning and night. Mana keeps the crock of milk in the underground spring in the root cellar. Keeps it from spoiling.
“I’ll need to milk Nanny tonight, before it gets dark. Doesn’t take much at a feeding for little Dani here,” Homer said, his voice cracking. “But she’s gaining weight, and is healthy.”
I couldn’t speak, too devastated by the shock, the horror. I had never felt despair like that, not even when my father died. My beloved Lola. I sat on the bed holding the tiny little bundle in my arms and cried. Homer took the baby, and left. I was utterly alone and inconsolable. I don’t know how long I sat there on the bed. The house grew dark. People came and went. Someone lit the lamps. I could smell food, but I couldn’t eat.
Nate came into the room. “Who was the boy, Billy? What happened here?” He brought me a shot glass and a bottle of whisky. “Let’s go out on the porch.”
It was dark by then. We sat in rocking chairs at the end of the porch. I drank and Nate smoked. Nate never was a drinker. Me either, normally. I explained to him what happened. Who Louis was. How he was just a neighbor boy I had hired to come with me, and that he had saved my life. “Danny meant to kill me, Nate, and he would have shot me dead, if Louis hadn’t stopped him.”
“We all feared this would happen, after Lola died. You know how much Danny loved his Lola. He took it personally when you left, that’s how he was, controlling and domineering, taking everything personally. He didn’t use to be like that!” Smoke from Nathan’s pipe smelled good, and the whisky made me sleepy. I remember watching the fireflies, the yard seemed full of them, flickering, flickering, flickering.
“Especially considering Lola was expecting the baby, he could not accept that you went off and left her, especially then. Lola and Mana tried to smooth it over, but his Irish temper just got the better of him. He seemed to forget all those years he left Mana to raise Lola alone, with us. He was not a family man when she was a baby, was off somewhere all the time. But, well, he changed, after you came. He never expected you to have a mind of your own, I guess.
“After Lola died, he named the baby Danielle, Dani after him, and he told us all then that she was to be raised here, not with you. Mana has been her mama since she was born. I don’t know what your plans are, Billy, but Dani has to stay here with Mana.”
I drank myself to sleep that night. The next morning we buried Danny next to Lola in the family cemetery. I publicly paid my last respects to Danny, although it was purely an act of obligation to the Wilkes and a farce on my part. Showing respect to my would- be killer, to the man who was responsible for the death of the boy who died defending me, was more than my nature allowed. Nate went with me to make the arrangements for Louis’ burial. We laid him to rest that afternoon in a small German Cemetery just north of Waverly. I hoped his family approved. I didn’t know what else to do with his body, and that seemed the best place at the time.
I tried to console Mana, but she wanted nothing to do with me. It broke my heart, the sight of her lying in bed at her father’s house. She refused to look at me. She cradled Dani in her arm, her eyes fixed on the baby. It was the day after we buried Louis and Danny, early in the morning. I had spent the night alone in the Keogh house, but got up before sunrise and joined the Wilkes for breakfast, on Nate’s invitation.
“Just let me hold her. Please, Mana.” Her arm tightened around the baby, pulling her closer.
Mrs. Wilkes, standing in the doorway, spoke to me firmly, as was her way. “Leave her be, Billy. She needs time, not sure there will ever be enough but, Good Lord willin’, she’ll get through this. She’s lost everything that matters most to her, except Dani.” She sighed, wiping her eyes with the handkerchief she held in her hand. “Mana is all that baby has. There’s no place for you here now. You need to go on back to wherever it is you’ve been, and leave us to take care of our own.”
“I just want to hold my baby, to look at her face.”
Mrs. Wilkes walked over to the bed, and gently touched her daughter’s shoulder. Mana opened her arm as the old woman turned the baby toward me. Dani frowned and looked around the ceiling. I placed my finger in her hand and she gripped it tightly, turning her eyes to me. Her tiny face was the image of Lola. Same mouth and nose and eyes. My heart caught, and I sobbed. Her head was covered in thick coppery curls. She was a perfect replica of her mother, and she held tightly to my finger. I caressed her little hand with my thumb until Mana pulled her back into the crook of her arm, away from me. I took a long breath, and said, “Bye, Danielle. Your daddy loves you.”
“You are so young, Billy. This little ‘un is all Mana has of Danny and Lola.” Mrs. Wilkes’ voice softened. “You’ll only be a sad reminder of what happened to them, the longer you stay.” I moved passed her, out of the room, and she followed. “There will be more children for you, Billy. Go live your life. It’s for the best. Why, what would you do with a little thing like Dani? I know you want what’s best for her!” She patted me on my arm. “This is what Lola would want,” she said, and walked away.
I left as soon as I could. Isaac Cain rode along with me as far as the trading post, followed me in his wagon since he needed supplies anyway. I didn’t want to ride alone, and welcomed the company. It would be a slow difficult trip back in the wagon, with Louis’s horse tied to the rear of it. Just too much for one man. A lone traveler through primitive country in those days was asking for nothing but trouble. Never knew what nature had in store, the weather was unpredictable, flooding perilous, not to mention robbery. Or worse. Fortunately, there was a party of settlers at the trading post travelling to Obion County, so I joined up with them for the rest of the journey home. Home!
Home can be the emptiest word there is for it is true: Home is where the heart is. My heart was empty now. I felt forlorn, hopeless. I had never been a hopeless sort. Always, I had felt the future waited for me, and I had never for one minute experienced the kind of gloom and despair as I did at that time.
On top of my loss, I had to face Hans and his family with their son’s horse, the saddle in the back of the wagon with Louis’ gear and his rifle. The pistol. I dreaded delivering them the awful news more than anything I had ever faced before. Also, nagging at the back of my mind was the worry that CB may have had some trouble with Lambert’s brother-in-law. I couldn’t help being concerned about my place, my friend, and what might have happened there in my absence.
July heat can be unbearable in the woods, no breeze stirring, and most of the trails back were through heavy timber. Mosquitoes were bad, lots of streams and creeks flowing into the rivers. But as I look back, there was nothing of much import that happened to us, our little party of strangers. We all visited at night around the campfire, but other than that, I don’t recall much about that westward trek. Other than it was hot and long, joyless.
I wondered about Crockett, and for a minute considered going by his place for a night. I longed to talk to him, to tell him what had happened, to hear his stories, but decided it was too risky. Likely he would be gone anyway. Besides, I needed to stay with the group. There would be another time to visit Crockett.
I moved through the rest of the journey back, somehow making the daily motions. By the time I left the group at Key Corner, and headed toward the Friedel farm, I had begun pushing back the thoughts of Lola and our little baby left behind in Humphreys County, recessing them deeper into my mind. It hurt too much. Lost to me forever, I decided I had to accept that.
Louis’s demise weighed heavy on me, the guilt of it. He was such an innocent lad, but in that instant of instinctive action, he died my hero. I think that thought helped me through the hard time of dealing with my loss. I had to make my life as worthy as Louis’ final deed, and live up to the high price of it. He had made the ultimate sacrifice any man can make for another. I resolved to be open to new adventure, to go where Louis would never go, in his honor.
It was late in the afternoon when I turned toward the Friedel place, and out of the blue, it dawned on me, the day of the week. It was July 13, 1822, my 21st birthday.