A New Leaf
I left Tennessee toward the middle of February, halfway thinking about following my old friend Crockett to Texas to see what was happening there. The Colonel had lost his appetite for Washington politics, according to a man who came into the shop one day saying he had read about it in a copy of the Alabama Watchman. I suspect Davy simply tired of having his honor trampled by the likes of Andrew Jackson, and opted for more worthy pursuits. For whatever reason, most likely adventure, he went to Texas.
I rode as close as possible to the riverbank by day, camping by night. I traveled through Tennessee with first one group, then another, revealing nothing of myself to anyone. Conversation dealt mostly with the fighting in Texas, the Mexicans. I had not yet developed any kind of opinion about that conflict, not having educated myself enough about it. Talk always moved to politics and Jackson, the Indian removal, opinions most often contrary to my own being opposed as I was to Andrew Jackson. After days of riding, I have forgotten how many, I finally crossed over the Mississippi by ferry, into the brand new state of Arkansas.
Then, the word came. The Alamo Mission in San Antonio had fallen to Santa Anna, ending a battle that had been going on for weeks. The Texians, as they were called then, fought bravely to the end, they all said, as tales of horrendous hardship and cruelty circulated. When I heard Crockett was believed to be among the dead there, I could not believe it. Crockett dead? That was the most unbelievable news, and it took a while for the shock to leave me.
Anywhere I came across men gathering, they were talking about Crockett and the other brave men who fought so bravely against all odds. Young men in some of the settlements were planning to ride south to join Sam Houston in his pursuit of Santa Anna. Then word came that Santa Anna had been captured, at the Battle of San Jacinto, and Texas independence was won! The new Republic of Texas was now my destination!
Knowing Crockett the way I did, I find it hard to believe even now that they actually could have taken him down. He seemed larger than life to me, a man of extraordinary leading ability. He would have been a great force in the further building of this great democracy, had he lived. The days I spent with him were some of the most meaningful spent with any man. He taught me how to stand up for myself, how to make a decision and not back down. He was the smartest, most independent, man I ever knew; I wish I could have known him longer.
I continued on westward along the main road leading deeper into the territory of the Caddo Indians, riding off alone finally coming upon a crossing called Dooley’s Ferry between Texas and Arkansas. I had left Tennessee with few possessions. I carried my sidearm and long rifle, ammunition, hunting knife, bedroll, dried venison, fruit and nuts, water jug, and full whisky flask. The two leather pouches buried deep in my saddle bags contained all the gold I had in the world, other than the few silver and gold coins in my pocket. Enough to re-establish myself, when the right circumstance presented itself. Opportunity had long been a friend of mine, although misfortune too often followed close behind, so I knew to be cautious.
Next to the ferry, there was a small trading post run by a young man and wife, Ernest and Louise Mitchell. I purchased more corn for my horse. The couple was curious about where I had come from and where I was heading. I enjoyed the visit with them, have always been a social kind of person. Louise was expecting their first baby, and from the looks of her, anytime. She worried I wasn’t getting enough to eat on my travels, and she insisted I stay for their noon meal, having made a pot of chicken stew and cornbread. I couldn’t resist, and enjoyed the hearty dish and friendly talk. Then she brought me a piece of the best chocolate pie I ever tasted, and a cup of steaming coffee. I mentioned Crockett, the Alamo, and turned out they knew him. We shared stories, and expressed similar shock and sorrow over the loss of the great man and patriot. It did me good, talking to them about my old friend, and I rode away with a lighter heart and fuller stomach. As Fate would have it, that would not be the last time I would enjoy the company of Ernest and Weezie, as Ernest called her.
Exploring the wilderness of East Texas gave me new purpose, and reminded me of the earlier days, when I had dreamed of being a surveyor. I had a fondness for Indian culture, was fascinated by the different tribes in Tennessee, so I decided to explore the area of the Caddoan habitat in the vicinity between the Red River and the Sabine. I had heard that most of the native people had been either bought out, or run out of the area, making land available for the white settlers coming in from the east. I followed the Red River on the south side after crossing at the ferry, heading for northeast Texas.
I came upon a wide trail leading southwesterly, deeper into the heavy timber; I decided to follow it, leaving the Red River behind me. I was not sure where the Sabine began, but expected to come upon its headwaters which should be shallow enough to cross without much difficulty. I rode a few more miles, and then decided to make camp for the night, expecting to be approaching the Sabine the next day. I slept lightly, uneasy there in this strange country alone, and feeling somewhat lost. I was riding again before daybreak.
I rode all the next day without coming upon the river. Again, I made camp. Not another living soul had I encountered. The woods had become deeper, wilder, and difficult to pass through. I dismounted and led my horse by the reins, pushing the tree limbs away so we could pass. Before long a glistening reflection through the branches caught my eye. A spectacular lake, shimmering like silver in the morning sun, could be seen a good distance away, further southwest. It was not the river. I decided that I had crossed over too far north, missing the beginning of the Sabine as I had anticipated, and was now west of it. The wildlife was plentiful, and the birds noisy, but I had not seen another human in the area.
I came into a little clearing. The sun spilled a hazy light through the leaves. There seemed to be a spirit in the place, I felt a presence. I tensed, my hand on my sidearm. Then something caught my attention, a slight movement. At first, I thought it was a deer. Then I saw her, a girl in a buckskin dress. My eyes locked onto her large black ones, and I saw her fear before I saw her beauty. Startled, she drew back, gasping in terror.
Now, I had heard about the tribes who lived in the area and their proud kinship with the land, how they considered it sacred and powerful. I had spent most of the last few years learning all I could about the culture of East Texas, the people there. Three tribes made up the large Caddo Confederacy. My teacher had primarily been an Indian guide in the employ of a Baptist preacher, of all people, whose acquaintance I had made one day quite by accident. Fate?
The older I get, I am sure there is a natural plan at work in human affairs, certainly in mine. I have not decided yet, and it may be another mystery my mind must leave unsolved, whether this natural force is selective or random, or does it already know those of us open to it? It is my personal belief that there is a magic flowing though some of us, bloodline to bloodline, a magnetized force drawing us toward a particular place, at a particular time. Fate, whatever you want to call it, throughout my life has undoubtedly arranged my presence in life-altering events that moved me like a game piece from one point to the other, willing my actions through the mental processes occurring inside my own mind. Powerful involuntary processes to be sure.
The preacher called himself a missionary, and he believed he had been sent by God to the native people to save their souls, if not their lives. I called him Preacher. I spent a lot of time with Old Luke, Preacher’s Indian guide, when he became good friends with Chiska, helping us at times in the cobbler shop. He had a broad understanding of the different tribes along the Red River, having accompanied Preacher as his translator at any port he could dock his steamboat and find an Indian to baptize. Old Luke spoke the Caddoan language, and I learned enough from him to communicate a little. I have no doubt something divine and mystical had a hand in that acquaintance, using Old Luke as a teaching tool.
The predatory horror inflicted upon the native people out of ignorance and greed made me ashamed of my own race. I could imagine the vile atrocity that caused the young girl to shrink in horror at the sight of me that warm May morning. Reaching into my shoulder bag, I produced some dried venison. Her eyes fell immediately to the food being offered, and, hesitantly, she reached out to take it. Scooting backward, further into the safety of the hollowed out clump of honeysuckle , she chewed hungrily on the meat.
Watching her, an easy smile softened my face, and I stood there for a minute — arms crossed, legs spread, my rifle slung over one shoulder, supply bag hanging from the other—before attempting a clumsy greeting. “Kúha?ahat?”
She studied me, and I knew my awkward attempt at speaking what I assumed to be her language sounded strange to her. “Kúha?ahat?” I repeated. “Hello.” I decided to alternate the greeting, hoping for a response. “Kúha?ahat?” I touched my chest with my forefinger and then turned the finger toward her. “Hello. Kúha?ahat?”
“Hello,” she said cautiously, clearly baffled by my sudden appearance, and surprised I was speaking to her in her language. I knew what she was thinking as she looked my tall frame up and down. What does he want and who is he? I wore my buckskin hunting garb, with my pant legs worn inside my knee-high boots. My hair was long, black and curly, beneath my hat. My face was tanned, bearded and weathered, and my body was lean and hard; at that time I was in the prime of my life, thirty-five years old my last birthday. I relaxed my manner and my stance more, hoping to calm her. It worked. She loosened a bit, and some of the tension in her shoulders left. A fawn scampered into the woods behind us, following its mother.
Slowly, I tethered my horse, and sat down on the ground opposite her, my hands resting on both my knees. I continued to speak to her in kindness, with my eyes. I attempted the limited Caddoan phrases I knew, repeating them alternately with the English translation. I grinned broadly when she repeated some of the words, nodding her head slightly when I offered the English meaning, at times attempting to mimic me in her response.
“Kúmbak’ihah Bill. My name is Bill.” Again, I pointed to my chest, and repeated the phrases several times.
Finally, a smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. “Bill,” she said timidly, pointing back at me.
“Sisímbak’ihah? What is your name?” I asked.
We sat there, observing each other for a long time, getting acquainted. When the sun had almost reached the middle of the sky, shining down upon us in the clearing, I offered my hand to her. She hesitated, her eyes searching mine. Her facial expression was a mix of fear, sadness, and curiosity.
After a while, I led her and my horse further west, toward the large expanse of glistening water in the distance. We walked through the enormous hardwood trees and the berry thickets, honeysuckle, and grapevines with some difficulty, until we came to an area where the oak and other timber gave way to a forest of giant towering pines. The lake lay just beyond, below what appeared to be a meadow where the land sloped a little into the water. I lifted Dogwood Flower into my saddle and squeezed in behind her, embracing her slender body with both my arms as we headed toward the lake.
She pointed beyond the meadow, her finger indicating a path for us to follow. By now the sun was moving a little into the western sky and blinding us as we rode into the more open terrain. I squinted, hoping to see where the expanse of water ended, but was unable to see. After about a mile, we rode to the water’s edge, where fine light sand formed a flat bank all around, similar to a delta, for lack of a better way to describe it. But it was a sandy perimeter extending several yards away from the water. We rode on around the lake.
At one point we were able to see across to the other side, and kept riding until we had circled to the area. Dogwood tugged at me, indicating she wanted to dismount. On the ground she removed her moccasins and ran to the sand at the edge of the water. Gathering her dress to the side, pulling it halfway up her thighs, she tied it in a big knot, then waded slowly into the water. It was clear she was familiar with the lake. I dismounted and followed her. She looked up at me and smiled, motioning me to come closer, pointing into the water.
Swimming all around just beneath the clear sparkling surface were enormous fish!
Dogwood Flower reached down with both hands and pulled out one! Struggling to hold on to it, she raised the huge flopping fish as high as she could for me to see. Her long dark hair framed her face as the most open, purely happy smile I had seen from her that day captured my heart. The image of her standing in the water, holding that fish, smiling radiantly in the afternoon sun beneath a clear blue sky, the lake like liquid silver all around her, still takes my breath away. I shall never forget it; it is as clear in my memory now as if it was yesterday. She remains as beautiful today, after all these years, as she was then. She greets me every morning with that same joyful smile.
She released the fish into the water. It rejoined the others swimming like giant minnows. We explored the rest of the afternoon, wandering freely all around the lake, into the surrounding areas, nibbling on the nuts and fruit from my saddlebags. Dogwood led me to a running stream and we cupped the water and drank it from our hands. I filled my water pouch with more of it and, and just before the sun was about to slip behind the trees, we found a place to camp for the night. I started a fire. Then again, Dogwood tied up her dress, waded into the water, and brought out a fish.
While I cleaned it she made a rack from hardwood branches and grapevine, and we cooked our supper over the fire. Later, beneath the alabaster glow of the full moon above us, beside the silver water reflecting the trees all around us, Dogwood Flower came to lie beside me in my bedroll where she became my wife. She was seventeen years old.
Dee, my name for her, could not tell me all that had befallen her before I found her until she had learned enough English. At first she tried to tell me in her own language, thinking I was more fluent in Caddo Hasinai than I was, but soon realized my very limited ability. We easily adapted to the other’s ways, learning each day from each other. She was patient and gentle by nature, accepting the abrupt change that had ripped her cruelly from one life into another one foreign to her in every way. But youth is resilient. She learned English quickly, and the time would come when she could tell me her story. Most of it I had already concluded by that time.
She had lived with her clan, the last of the Caddo Hasinai who had assimilated with the Cherokee residing along the Sabine River. The day the soldiers came to remove the Cherokees, they removed the remnants of all that remained of the Hasinai in East Texas, for most of the indigenous Caddo had been killed off either by diseases spread by the Spaniards, or by other intruders. The roots of Dee’s ancestry reached deep into the rich, red dirt, buried beneath the ancient gnarled tree roots.
On that fateful day, Dee was away from her lodge. The circular hut, covered with cane, housed eight other families of her clan. For many years they lived among the Cherokee. She had wandered into the woods searching for beauty berries used for painting the tattoos the women found so attractive. From her perch high in a tree, she heard approaching horses, the shouts of the riders besieging her village. She never forgot the screams of the people—her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, her brothers and sisters. From her view, she saw them whipped, then roped and bound, herded like animals toward the river. She crouched there watching, shivering in terror, from shock, until they all disappeared. She waited for darkness before climbing down to the ground, finding safety inside the hollow of another tree.
She waited through the next day, for the second darkness. Heartbroken, panic-stricken, she grieved for her family, for all the people. She could not have known the full extent of the change coming, but she knew that she could never return to the lodge. Out of necessity, she left the safety of the cypress trees, the coarse Spanish moss hanging like so many ghostly gray scalps in the moonlight, and crept further into the shadows of the giant cedars and pines. The crowded timber blocked the moonlight considerably, offering cover from any watching eye. Her beaded moccasins made no noise as she flitted, invisible as the wind spirit and swift as a hummingbird, over the floor of the forest toward the eternal natural spring that had served her people for as long as there was memory. There she drank water cupped in her hands.
Further away, she found a small clearing, and carefully crawled inside the opening where a mother deer and her fawn rested. She had nestled into a bed of leaves and pine needles next to the animals; they remained undisturbed beside her sensing somehow that she meant them no harm and needed the closeness of their bodies. The doe brushed her arm gently with her black nose, and Dogwood Flower fell asleep in the moonlight. I awakened her.
She said she thought I might be a great white xinesi priest, famous in Caddo legend, sent by Caddi Ayo, the god of all creation, to rescue her. And she still believes that Caddi Ayo did send me to her. Who knows?
Later, Dee told our children the stories about her life as a child, about her people, their proud, ancient heritage. Their names, how they looked, their words and their deeds, and their sacred respect for the land would become inscribed in the consciousness of our family, to mingle with the scant tales of my history, the true story of what I knew of my parents and my brothers and sisters.
What became of my family is another mystery, one I will never solve. I have waited too long. But not a day passes that I don’t think of them. Remembering my mother today as I scrawl into this journal the details of a life of wandering, of new beginnings, tears well up in my eyes and my heart aches. In my youth I left everyone behind me to follow my own dreams. Was I wrong? Was the choice ever really mine?