Choices: Chapter 8

old hand writing for journal

Chapter VIII
Loose Ends
August, 1822

Upon my return, I noticed something peculiar in CB’s behavior.  He seemed preoccupied, on edge, not at all himself.  At first I thought it had to do with me personally, something I had done, or said. It nagged at me that he could be holding me accountable for the death of Louis, finding himself somehow caught in the middle, between the Friedel loss and my part in it. He had become close with the Friedel family, visiting their farm often, tending a full blown romance with Isabel.  Or, I surmised, perhaps he was simply ill at ease with me, not knowing how to address my loss.  He had expected me to return with my wife and baby, my family. It could be that my bereavement was more than he was sophisticated enough to process, not as acclimated in the white man’s ways as I had thought.

Hans and Eva were devastated by Louis’ death, by the violent senseless circumstances, by the fact that his body would never rest with the remains of the rest of his family. Their boy, for all eternity in a cemetery of strangers, made the loss even worse.  Of all the emotions the family exhibited, expressed, or experienced that day when I returned the pinto mare and the rest of Louis’ belongings to them, blame towards me was not one of them. For that I am grateful.

The shock of such a loss is impossible to express, much less absorb, during the learning of it. The ears hear the words, the eyes shed the tears, the cries of agony escape from the bottom of one’s being, but only time can heal that most painful gaping wound a human suffers. They expressed their sympathy for my loss, in the depths of their own despair, and I left them later that evening with the final reality: Louis would never come home again. In the end the parents, Isabel, and Martin would cherish Louis’ final selfless act as the noblest tribute to his memory.

Martin, however, had the most trouble accepting the loss.  He and Louis were as close as brothers can be, best friends. CB hired Martin to stay on as his assistant in the boot shop, both as a coping mechanism for the boy and out of CB’s need for the help. By the end of the summer, Martin knew as much about the craft of shoe-making as I did.

I felt like a fifth wheel, more in the way than needed.  My presence made people uncomfortable, as though they didn’t know what to say to me, how to act, once the proper condolences had been paid, and offers for any assistance needed had been made. I felt their pity.

Nursing a broken heart is debilitating, and a lonely desolate affair. I piddled around the farm, wandering up and down the river, mingling with the boat people coming and going, mostly just killing time. More and more, I left the business details of both the farm and the cobble shop to CB.  Living alone in the riverboat added to my depression, reminders all around me inside the carefully planned quarters, best laid plans that would never be realized, that I could never see my Lola or little Danielle again.

CB’s strange discomfort around me grew more unsettling with time; instead of getting better, he had become more nervous.  At times, I felt as though he wanted to talk to me, but when I attempted conversation, he’d clam up. He kept to himself at night, after work, none of the sitting around the fire talking as we had always done before.  I realized he had gotten involved with others in his life, stayed busy with his own activities apart from me now. Before, our days had been consumed with hard work, starting the business, building my houseboat, the farming, getting everything ready for Lola and the baby; we had a common purpose which we no longer shared.

I wondered if CB wanted to leave me, go off on his own, and marry Isabel. Possibly, they wanted to establish their own place back in the forest, closer to her family. Maybe he was afraid to tell me, afraid to tell her family, afraid they wouldn’t give him their permission, him being half Chickasaw. But that made no sense, they had not objected to the romance thus far.  Could be he feared it might not be accepted in the village. It was one thing, a white man living with an Indian woman, but quite another, the other way around.

I didn’t know what to think, but the drastic change in him worried me. The more I thought about it, and observed the way he withdrew from others, even some of his best customers, I began to suspect that whatever was wrong had little to do with me, or Louis’ death.  By nature, CB was outgoing, and pleasant, always friendly with everyone.  What I saw in him now was a side of him I had not seen.

One day in October, I got my answer. It was the middle of the afternoon; I was in the cornfield pulling and piling up dried corn stalks. I was surprised to see CB ride up since he had been busy with customers when I left.  I thought something had happened; alarmed me the way he had dismounted so quickly, coming toward me in a hurry.  I stopped what I was doing, put down my grubbing hoe, and stood there, waiting.  Clearly, he was ready to talk.

“Harris came back after you and Louis left.”

“Lambert’s brother-in-law?”

CB never wasted words. Nodding his head up and down, he cut right to the point.

“He pulled a Bowie knife on me.”

“Where?  At the shop?”

“No, over there. I was cuttin’ timber.” He pointed towards the clearing we had made for more planting. “He was about half drunk, talking crazier than he was that day he and Lambert came by.  Said I was half-bred white, said that didn’t get rid of the Injun part, no matter how uppity I acted, tryin’ to pass for white. Told me if I had some fancy notion about beddin’ that German girl, I had another think comin’.”

It was like a dam had burst inside CB, the way it all came pouring out of the man. He paused, squinted and looked over to the clearing, hesitating for a moment, before he looked back at me. “Said time to put a stop to white women marryin’ devils like me.”

His body was tight as a clenched fist, and his dark eyes bored a hole through mine. “He lunged at me, Bill, with that knife. I swung my axe at him, caught him in the right shoulder and he dropped the knife.  I chopped him down to the ground,  and kept chopping. Chopped him to death.”

“What did you do with him, CB?” I could see the torment he had kept pinned up inside spilling out of him, like I imagined the life had gushed out of Harris.

“Kept chopping at him.  Couldn’t stop, something took charge of me, and I kept chopping him. To pieces.”

“Has anyone come looking for him?”  I didn’t need any more of the gory details. I had heard enough to know there hadn’t been much left of Harris by the time CB came to his senses.

“Lambert.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Told him I hadn’t seen him.”  What else? His eyes asked.

“What did you do with him?”

“Took the pieces over to the hog pen. Fed him to the hogs. All but his head. It’s buried way back in the woods. Deep.”

“CB, I knew something was wrong, that something had happened.  I could tell the way you were acting, but never did I expect this.”  I put my arm around my friend.  I felt the tension leave his body.  We stood there, shoulder to shoulder for a minute, both of us looking beyond the clearing, into the heavy timber .

“Seems to me,” I said, “all things considered, Chiska Brown, you did the right thing.”

CB grinned at me, at the use of his full name, and I knew that it pleased him.   From then on, he became Chiska to me, Mr. Brown to some, and still CB to others.

“It don’t feel right, what I did, but it don’t feel wrong, either,” Chiska said. “He would have done it to me, no doubt in my mind. He came down here to kill me.”

As I sit here today, reliving so much of my life, I still think Chiska did the right thing. It was the only way to handle a man like Harris. Men who thrive on bullying and belittling those they believe to be of less import than themselves. Men who easily kill rather than compromise their own views, their own sense of power, even false power. That kind of man, the tribulation they sow in this world, leaves good men no other choice. I have seen it proven many times in my life. But on that day, standing there with Chiska, that was only the second time I knew it to be true. But it is a fact. There are men you just have to kill.

“I’d wager ol’ Harris got mixed up with the wrong Cajun on one of those riverboats, you reckon?”

“That’s what I been thinkin’,” Chiska said, picking up on the direction I was going, “probably got thrown overboard one night, out drinkin’.  Picked the wrong fight, most likely.”  He pulled tobacco from his shirt, cut off a chaw, then offered me a plug.

“Could be the pirates got him, fed him to the alligators on down the river. Who knows what coulda happened to him.” I shook my head, then spat out the wad of tobacco. “Next time Lambert mentions his brother-in-law, we’ll suggest that is likely what happened to him.”

“And same goes for anyone else. That’s a rumor that needs spreadin’.”  Chiska spat out his own wad.

I knew Chiska had not told another soul what he told me that day. And I knew he never would, not even Isabel.  This accounting is the first time I have spoken of it since. After that, everything was as it had always been with me and Chiska.  I noticed some odd reactions when I referred to him as Chiska, at first, but soon it went unnoticed.  It took some getting used to for me, but out of respect for what he had to do as a man, it seemed fitting and proper that he be called by his full name. Martin began calling him Chisk.  But he would always be CB to Isabel and her parents.

Soon, the leaves began falling, and I could smell frost in the air. Our first year of farming had been less productive than we had hoped, but the corn crib in the barn was full enough to last the livestock all winter. Winter rye was planted. We had several barrels of dry beans, enough ground corn, and a store room of potatoes and yams for the winter. We had a cow with a new calf. We decided against the planned hog killing; both of us had lost our appetites for pork. We planned to do a lot of fishing that winter, anyway.

Chiska was already laying out the crop design for next year. I had no interest at all in farming.  I had no interest in anything, felt like a ship adrift in uncharted waters, in the unfamiliar territory of a life without purpose.

I was twenty one years old and restless. I missed Crockett, expected to see him ride up in a wandering mood, but he never came. Odd how people pass through your life,  briefly but profoundly. Crockett was like that with me. Political talk along the river no longer interested me.

I drifted through the winter fishing, hunting, and watching the river traffic going back and forth from my deck on the houseboat.  That was the longest winter of my life.  But finally it ended, and spring came again. With it, my mood lifted some, and although planting the new crops didn’t excite me the way it did Chiska, the money coming in from the cobbler shop did.  It had been accumulating and my share had become a sizeable sum.  I found myself thinking about moving on one day, on down the river, further south, then west.  I had something on my mind I wanted to discuss with Chiska when the time was right, a plan I thought would benefit us both. I no longer wanted to be tied to the farm, to the land, and entertained no thought at all of a wife.

I began to wonder if I had lost my manhood! Not natural a man my age, without a woman.  Chiska told me to go see the woman who ran the brothel in Key Corner. He insisted, adding that is all I needed, to lay with a woman, to get my juices flowing again. “How long, now? In all the time I’ve known you, Bill, you ain’t ever been with a woman!”

“I was married, Chiska!”

“You ain’t now! You’re a free man.”

“What do you know about the woman who runs the brothel? You been up there?”

Chiska’s face grew red. “Once or twice.”

“Well?” I pressed him for more, for all the good it did me.

“Go see for yourself, Billy Boy!” He grinned at me and went back to hammering a heel on a boot. Martin came in and that conversation ended.

Rose’s Garden, run by Madam Rose, was no secret to anyone in our vicinity or along the river for miles, in either direction.  I had paid close enough attention to know that Rose and her girls had come in on a steamboat one day from New Orleans.  Several told us how they had watched as they unloaded all kinds of fancy furniture, curtains, bedding, even a couple carved bathtubs, described by some as “mighty high falutin’!”

Rose set up shop above a saloon owned by a man named Anderson, from Cincinnati. He was said to be wealthy, and he must have been, for his was the largest ordinary house, as saloons were called in those days, on the Mississippi at that time, not counting the ones in New Orleans.   The brothel was a separate enterprise upstairs. Professional and discrete in her dealings, talk was that Rose’s establishment appeared to be flourishing. The red sign out front, close to the river, advertised in fancy black inked lettering: “Rose’s Garden of Private Pleasures”.  I had passed there many times, heard the piano music from the saloon drifting out to the river bank, and admit to being curious about what went on inside.  But never enough to open the swinging doors and find out.

The girls were all free women of color. Creoles, they were called, thought to be of a variety of mixed breeding.  Some French, perhaps Spanish, maybe Indian, and Negro. Rose herself was described as a mysterious woman of Haitian descent, a voodoo woman who could cast spells, and she sold magic potions called aphrodisiacs.  She was a striking black-haired, blue-eyed beauty, I had heard, although getting on in years, probably close to fifty.  Chiska told me that a night with one of Rose’s girls was by appointment only for the price of two dollars paid in advance. That included a meal, a bath and shave.

One morning in December I woke up with Rose’s Garden of Private Pleasures on my mind.  So, I got dressed, saddled my horse, and rode up river. It was cold, the wind was blowing, but it was a bright sunny morning.  I entered the saloon to an empty room.  All was quiet, so I went over to the crackling fire to warm myself, and waited. Soon a round red-faced bald headed man with a white beard stuck his head through the opening at the end of the bar. “You here to see the madam?”

I nodded.

“Top of the stairs, right end of the hall. Knock.”

I tipped my hat and followed the stairs up to the second landing to the door on the right, and knocked.  A girl about my age greeted me.  Tossing her head to one side, black ringlet curls bouncing over her amply exposed bosom, she slid her dark eyes up and down my tall skinny frame. With a strange unfamiliar accent, she said, “Remove the hat, please.”

I obeyed, and she smiled, full red lips over flashing white teeth.  “Come in, and follow me.”

I had never seen a room like the one I entered, hat in hand.  Heavy red velvet draperies covered the shuttered windows, and two finely upholstered lounging sofas were in the center of the room facing each other.  Dark varnished tables were placed around the room.  Paintings of nude ladies in different posed positions hung in elaborate gold frames on every wall.  Red oil lamps lighted every corner of the room. The unmistakable scent of vanilla was everywhere.

The girl I followed was tiny, doll-like. She was scantily dressed in a flowing gown I could see right through.  She led me to an opening and pulled aside a frilly lace curtain, ruffled from top to bottom. Standing to one side, she ushered me into the room with a wave of her hand. I felt like a fool standing there surrounded by femaleness.

Behind a huge glossy black desk sat the captivating Madam Rose. She leaned forward, exposing the largest breasts I had ever seen before, or after, the bodice of the red satin gown cut so low nothing was left to my imagination. Her skin glowed dark like coffee rich with cream, and her clear blue eyes, the color of the sky, flashed like blue diamonds as she studied me. Her face was perfection, appeared sculptured, flawless, and I was paralyzed by her, under her spell immediately.  Her eyes not leaving my face, she opened a large leather book in front of her. When she pulled her gaze away to set my appointment, I felt like she had released me from some kind of magnetic trance.

“Which night would please you most?” Her husky voice drew me back again, the words heavy with seduction, smooth as silk.

“Now?” I surprised myself with my own voice. “With you?”

Her deep-throated laughter enveloped me like satin.  “No, sweetheart. Not me. Not now.”  Her slender hand reached for a golden bell and she rang it gently, three times.  Into the room the girls paraded before me.  Six of them.  Each displaying herself, an offering for one night.  The choice was mine. They came in different shapes and sizes, each one darkly exotic; which one of them made no difference to me.

“You choose,” I said, to Madam Rose. “I can’t.”  The look we exchanged was telling, she knew my choice was not one of the six, so any one of them would do.

“You may have Raven, then. Tomorrow night. Evening meal served after seven in the dining room at the other end of the hallway.  When you arrive, wait here in the parlor for Raven.” Rose wrote something in the book.

Raven, a tall slender, dark skinned woman with long straight hair as black as a raven’s feather brushed her fingers lightly across the back of my neck, over my shoulders as she circled me on her exit. The other girls had already left the room.

Alone with me again, Rose spoke. “Two dollars, sweetheart.”

It may seem strange to you, reading this now, considering that I am recollecting a part of my life most men hold secret from their families, their wives, but it is important to me that you know that I was a healthy normal male, virile in my youth, despite a long spell that might lead you to think otherwise.  I was alone and in need of a woman’s companionship, but not in need of a wife. Not at that time in my life. Lola was still too real to me; time had more healing to do. Madam Rose turned out to be the magic potion I needed.

I arrived the next evening at seven o’clock as instructed, knocked again on Madam Rose’s door, and was seated in the parlor to wait for Raven.  The scent of vanilla and the flickering red oil lamps were relaxing and stimulating, an enjoyable sensation.  Soon the door opened and Raven beckoned me gracefully with outstretched arms, wearing barely more than the seductive smile on her face.  She had the look of a Cherokee princess I  saw years later in a photograph, the Indian and Negro blood a good mix. Her features were lovely. Her accent was French.

“What to call you? William, or Bill? Willy or Billy?” She teased me with her eyes and lilting laugh.

“William.”

I took her offered hand and she led me toward the other end of the long hallway.  Below us in the saloon, I heard clinking glass, men talking, some loudly, but the area below was walled off from the establishment upstairs.  Our passage down the hallway was not for public viewing.  We passed a number of closed doors toward the end of the long corridor. We entered a dining room with individual tables arranged along the walls, behind elaborate screens.  On each linen covered table, a red oil lamp flickered.  We sat across from each other, and Raven poured a shot glass of whisky from the bottle on the table, and handed it to me.  I drank it quickly, and one more.  Underneath the table, her barefoot caressed my legs, and her dark eyes never left my face.

A young colored man placed a plate of food in front of me, along with a sparkling goblet of sweet tea with a lemon slice.  The first tea I had ever tasted!  I devoured the hearty serving of creole flavored chicken, vegetables and rice, and buttered yeast rolls. Raven smiled across from me, opening her thin covering completely, as her feet moved lazily up and down my legs.

After the meal, I followed her into another room, a room with several partitions.  The walls were lined with mirrors, from floor to ceiling. Red lamps flickered, vanilla fragrance blended with other scents unfamiliar to me. In a far corner, a naked woman sat at a piano and played soft romantic music.

“Come, William.” It was hardly more than a whisper. She pulled me inside the private cubicle, removed the flimsy black lace that had draped her.  She began to undress me.  It was strange, standing there, with her, in that place, alone. I decided to relax and live in the moment. No yesterday, no tomorrow. I surrendered myself to the strange new eroticism as she led me to an ornate bathing tub, filled with warm soapy water.

She bathed me from head to toe. Gently, expertly.  The experience was like none I had ever imagined.  When my face was shaved, mustache trimmed, hair groomed and fragrantly oiled, Raven produced a large golden goblet filled with an aromatic potion, as she called it, of warmed rainwater, fenugreek seed and savory, along with other secrets known only to Madam Rose. I lay back in the tub and sipped slowly as instructed, until it was gone.

Then, I was following a nude Raven through another doorway, into a bed chamber. “Lie down, William,” she whispered, pulling me onto an elaborate bed in the center of the room where she sat crossed legged, her beauty more defined by the flickering flames from several red oil lamps about the room.  The fragrance wafting around the place scented the soft bedding; I was enveloped in vanilla, my head on a soft feather pillow. I had lost all concept of time. Only the moment was real. “Sleep, William,” she said, soothing me with her voice and hands. “For a little while, then I will wake you.”

And she did.

I will end the accounting, now, keeping the rest of that night, along with all the others that followed, private.  Rose and each of the girls who worked for her were my monthly indulgences during the following decade spent on the farm in that houseboat on the Mississippi River. And they were worth every dollar.

The years passed, Chiska and I worked hard.  When it was time, I sold my farm and everything I owned, except what I needed to travel, to my friend and partner, and left Tennessee forever.  It saddened me, saying goodbye to Chiska, Isabel, their three children, and the Friedels.  They were family to me.

Riding away, along the river, heading for Texas, I thought of tiny little Danielle, knowing that if she lived, she would be about the age Lola had been when I first saw her. I bid them both farewell that day, not knowing then how much a part of me they would be forever.

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My House of Many Rooms

I am a private person, but need a place to publish my writings, which have accumulated over the years.   I am in the autumn of my life, and feel the need to preserve some of what I have written in forms of poetry, short stories, and articles.  I have written one novel and now am working on my second one. I live quietly with my husband of 57 years, as of this coming November, in Texas.  My ancestors first came to Texas prior to the Civil War.  Other than the five or so years when we moved out of state, I have lived my life here. Anything more you may wish to know about me, you can hopefully gather from my writings, as far as my values, my character, and my impressions of humanity -- in as much and as far as I have experienced it, or imagined it.

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