The Republic of Texas
I woke up that first morning contemplating my next move in this new place. I didn’t know anything about the area. Was there a trading post, other settlers? If there were others, they would most likely be along the river, probably further southwest. It was an uncertain time in the territory. The both of us traveling a distance on one horse was risky but we had no choice. We needed tools, basic supplies, a mule and a wagon.
Dee stirred beside me, and as if she had read my thoughts, she spoke to me. Her tone was urgent. She sat up and pointed east, “Ku’-a’-na!” Then she was on her feet, beckoning me with her hands to come on. “Ku’-a’-na! Cooh’-cooh-ah-tsi-yo!”
She shook her head, dark eyes bright and serious. She pretended to be eating, gathering with her hands, then putting it into her mouth. That is how we communicated in the beginning; the few words or phrases she spoke that I understood, I would repeat in English. Hand gestures worked well, too. She wanted to go back to her home; I grasped that much, that she was telling me that there would be food there. It made sense there might still be supplies we could use. I should have thought of that before. It was doubtful the soldiers had taken much in their raid; hopefully they had not destroyed the village. I also wondered about others on the river that may have already ransacked and pillaged, or taken over the place. We would have to proceed with caution.
I whistled for my horse where she was grazing in the meadow. Willie lifted her head, twitched her ears, and hesitated a minute as though she needed to think about it. She was willful, that mare, that’s how she got her name. But after a minute she came trotting toward us, to stand beside me waiting to be mounted, and for her handful of corn. I lifted Dee into the saddle and then climbed up behind her. She snuggled against me and I hugged her tightly, as we rode toward the path that would take us to the river.
I kept my eyes and ears tuned to our surroundings, listening and watching for any sign of human life. Animals were plentiful. We saw deer, rabbit, squirrel, turkey, and wild boar as we rode. Dee had directed me toward a wider, more traveled path that veered to the south. It was a cool cloudy morning, but spring was all around us. Trees fully leafed, and wild fruit beginning to ripen on berry and grape vines. “Cah-us cah’-dee,” Dee said, pointing to the big thicket of plum trees beside the trail. “Plums,” I said, nodding.
By the time the sun had reached mid-day, the wider the path had become. “Ne-ot’-tsi,” I said, knowing the word for road. She nodded her head. “Ne-ot’-tsi,” I repeated, then indicated width with my arms. “Road,” I said. “Road,” she repeated, and then pointed to a trail leading off that road, motioning for me to go there. “Kwi-ki-wa-wa,” she said, her voice catching, as she began to sob. I turned Willie to that direction, and we continued on through the forests, crossing a running creek. I would learn that trail made the creek crossing less difficult, and was also a shortcut to her village on the Sabine.
Then we heard the whinnying of another horse. Willie jerked at the sound, and Dee and I stiffened, me with rifle ready. Through the thicket we could see him watching us. Dee shouted, “Detumah!” She moved to dismount, and I knew that she recognized the horse. He came toward us, a young black stallion. Dee touched his face gently and he nuzzled her. She began to cry, and to speak, but I could not understand. Later, I learned she was telling me he was her uncle’s horse, a?-ah’-ti’ti’. She climbed onto the horse’s bare back, leaning forward to caress his neck and mane, before she rode him out onto the road in front of me. I followed them all the way to the settlement where her family had lived.
We watched from a distance for some time before me approached the large cone-shaped grass huts and other covered structures. Sorrow overcame Dee as she crept into the settlement. She dropped to the ground, sobbing, her mouth open in silent wailing; her body heaved in deep heartbreaking sobs. I tried to comfort her, and we sat on the ground, clinging to each other until her sobbing ceased.
Just a few days before it had been a thriving, organized community. Another spring had arrived as it had every year for her people since before memory. Crops were planted. Rains fell, crops grew. The men hunted, the women tended the village, tanned the hides, cooked the meals and cared for the children. The people were happy.
They may have had no idea that everything west of the river was now a country separate and apart from that on the east side, as Dee and I had yet to learn. The politics and the boundaries of the white men made no sense to the native people. They were forced to abandon the home that had been theirs from the time of creation, driven away as though they were trespassers. Their possessions remained for the most part undamaged, undisturbed. Canoes waited on the river bank, indicating to me that there had been no one there since the raid.
In the large cone shaped cane and grass hut that had been Dee’s home, surrounded by new crops in neat fields, we found the bodies of both sets of her grandparents, murdered, left to the animals, the elements. In more huts, we found others. The soldiers had slaughtered the elders, the ones too old to walk. Across the river were more grass houses, crops. Bodies.
Due to the conditions of the bodies and fear of disease from the handling of them, Dee understood we could not perform the normal burial ceremonies practiced by her people. We torched her clan’s hut first, burning everything inside. Then we did the same for the other huts where we found bodies, on both sides of the river.
We gathered blankets, pottery, wooden utensils, tools, and clothing from huts nearest those we had to burn, in case the fire got out and destroyed everything. There was a brisk wind that day. We used two canoes to move the things from the opposite side of the river. There was a deep sadness over Dee, but I could see that she wanted to remain. I hoped the familiarity of the place would lend her solace, help her deal with her loss more quickly. She cried out in anguish, grief literally leaving her unable to stand, as the grass huts burned everything inside that had belonged to her family. She had loved her grandparents and seeing their bodies in the condition we found them, then burning them, devastated her.
For now, this place offered us what we needed, more than what we needed. Beans already grew in some of the fields. Squash, pumpkins, and melons, too. Corn grew in others. It seemed logical to me that we stay there in one of the abandoned grass huts, on the west side of the river since that would be closest to Dee’s family home. The crops needed to be tended, and then harvested. Certain that the river was a trade route through that part of east Texas, it surprised me that the village had not been looted. Even the food supplies in tact. Dee showed me bushels of corn from the last year. And flavorful roots and yams, dried nuts, fruit, beans stored in clay pots and large wooden bowls.
The construction of those beehive structures fascinated me. They were made from cane that grew along the river, the long poles shaped to form cone tops, then sealed with the red clay and covered in rows of dried leaves from the cane, from top to bottom. These were the winter houses. The summer houses were built off the ground on short stilts, with the walls open, and the flat roof covered with cane and leaves. There were mats made from the cane for the floors, and to hang on three sides of the summer house, for shade and to keep rain out. The Caddo worked with wood, and the houses were comfortably furnished with tables and chairs, and beds. There were wooden bowls and utensils made from the hard bois d’arc wood that grew there. Everything the people had made, used in their daily life, remained undisturbed. Even deerskins left hanging on the racks, drying.
Dee pointed to the end of the rows of one of the fields of corn. Through the green stalks with small ears forming, I saw the wagon. It was long and narrow, unlike any I had seen before. I could see upon inspection that it was sturdy, and practical in design, could easily navigate the trail we had used from the silver lake. I had not expected to see a wagon or even a cart, but had learned from Old Luke that the Caddo loved to trade, were highly social, civilized people and traded with the Spanish and the French from Louisiana, and anyone else who travelled the river. They were curious about other cultures, and customs. So the wagon may have been traded to them for furs, produce, wood furniture, bowls or any number of items. I wondered if they had built it. I would learn all the answers in time.
Other horses appeared in the open grazing areas, three in all, counting the black stallion. I fished and hunted, canoeing down river, but careful not to wander too far. I had no doubt that the area had been unvisited since the soldiers, otherwise it would have been cleaned out, pillaged. The horses taken. I expected traffic on the river. I expected human contact at some point, even thought the soldiers might ride back through. But days passed, and we saw no one. The isolation grew more eerie each day. I longed for other men to talk to, to hear about the outside world. We talked to each other, half the time neither of us had any idea what the other was saying, and we laughed. We enjoyed each other as we worked the fields, tended the animals, fished and hunted.
Dee armed herself with a knife and handled a bow and arrow like a man, killing a deer one day. Strangely, despite her ordeal, she seemed not at all uneasy. She seemed at peace after a few days, accepting her loss and becoming more familiar with me. I hoed the black ash left on the surface of the ground from the burned houses, mixing the remaining ashes and fragments into the reddish sandy loam. The days passed without incident.
She was proficient in her chores. She worked the deer hide, prepared it for tanning. She cut the meat in thin strips for drying. Cooking over an open fire, she roasted venison, made pan bread which was delicious with the dried beans she cooked in clay pots, seasoned with salt from small carved wooden bowls. Sometimes I hunted for rabbit and squirrel, and other days I fished. Dee gathered berries, and grapes when ripe enough. We bathed in the river, although the water wasn’t yet warm, and we slept in a bed at night.
We were into the second week there, when a small barge appeared up river, coming in our direction. My heart hammered in my chest, from excitement and apprehension, not knowing what to expect considering the new politics. Hoping for news from the capital, information about trading posts, neighbors, if any, I raised both arms and waved my hat above my head as the flat boat approached, preparing to stop. I didn’t even know the name of the county. Dee and I had found ourselves in a brand new country, this Republic of Texas, and had begun to think we had it all to ourselves!
The craft was smaller than what I had seen on the Mississippi. There were two men on deck. Dee obviously knew the barge, so I assumed it likely came through regularly. She grew animated, and came to stand beside me on the river bank. The current was good, and the two had to make use of the long poles to steer it to a stop at the bank where we stood, the younger one jumping off quickly to tie it to a tree.
The men seemed surprised to see us, and the older one greeted Dee in Hasinai, “Ha?ahat Haht’-av’-baw’-sa? Si-dant’-a?” She nodded. He looked around the village, shaking his head in sorrow, showing his awareness of what had happened to the people.
I spoke to the younger man, now on the ground standing next to me, introducing myself. “Bill Featherstone. Good to see you fellows, too.” I had understood the greeting to Dee. They both eyed us curiously, but neither conveyed any displeasure at the obvious relationship between us.
“Glad to make your acquaintance. I’m Junior Crane, and this here is my daddy, Homer Crane, Sr. What can we do for you, this morning, Mr. Featherstone?”
“I got some questions I hope you can answer for me, Junior. I rode in from Tennessee and find myself in need of directions!” I smiled. “And basic supplies.”
“Jenkins Brothers Trading Post has tobacco, whiskey, tea, gunpowder, flint, some tools, and. . .” Junior paused, scratching his head. “What else, Daddy? Oh, yeah, dry goods, utensils, sugar, flour, salt and tools, and wagons.”
“It’s about twenty miles on downriver. They can fix you right up!” Homer replied. “But get ready to spend some money! You settlin’ here?”
“Most likely. What county might this be?”
“Nacogdoches. You looking to apply for land certification?”
“Yes sir, some mighty find country here. Already feels like home to me!”
“Opportunity here, plenty of it!” Junior said.
“How long you been here?” Homer looked around the village, over all the crops. “Appears army left everything alone ‘cept for the people. Uh, uh, um,” he said, giving Dee a sympathetic look. “Been tradin’ with the Caddo here for a good while.” Homer shook his head, sucked on his teeth, and spit over the railing into the river.
“She escaped.” I put my arm around Dee, and pulled her next to me. “I rode in couple of days ago, doing some exploring, and found her alone in the woods.”
“Oh, I see,” Homer said, studying my face for a minute, before he continued. “Guess you know, the east side of the river is the United States. West, where you are, is The Republic of Texas. You seen any activity over there?” He pointed to the other side.
“Nope, not yet. You two fellows the only other living souls I’ve seen since I left Arkansas, except for Dee. And sure glad to see you coming down the river, I can tell you that!”
“Army won’t be back, they did what they had to do. Indians about all gone from here. Get ready for some neighbors though, they are pourin’ in here, from the east, soon as they get the Land Office opened in Nacogdoches. They say it won’t likely be til sometime early part of next year. Cotton farmers needin’ new land already coming in, just finding land, like you, and squattin’ on it.” He spat again into the river. “Fine lookin’ beaver pelts, and deer skins over there.” He pointed toward the racks. “Caddos tanned some mighty fine leather.”
Dee looked up at me, eyes questioning, but she remained silent.
“I’m a shoe and bootmaker by trade, gonna be settin’ up a cobbler shop soon as I can. We will be busy tannin’ more. How far is it to Nacogdoches?” I gave Dee a hug.
“About fifty miles or so, maybe little less, a two day ride by horseback, that direction.” He pointed southwesterly. Just follow the old Indian trail, follow the road all the way.”
“Where are you from, Mr. Crane?”
“We settled a tract northwest of here, in Red River County, a few days ride on the other side of the river, just us and one other family livin’ up there that I know of. We came from NC down through Tennessee nearly ten years ago.
“People gonna be flockin’ into Nacogdoches, they gonna be wagon trains of families comin’ in together from the east. Heard folks talkin’ about how they ain’t never heared of anything like it!” Junior said. “They’s gonna be givin’ away land to most anybody, ain’t that right, Daddy?” I guessed him to be about twenty years old, obviously dimwitted, but friendly.
“Where you fellows headin’?’” I asked.
“To the ferry crossing. Hope to swap the barge for a couple of mules and a wagon. Mexican trader there.” Homer said.
“How far is the ferry?”
“Good ten more miles. I think. Ain’t it, Daddy?”
“That’s right, Junior, ’’bout that far.” He picked up the long pole. “Best of luck to you, Featherstone, we best be shovin’ off, take advantage of this current, seldom this swift. Untie us, Junior.” With a wave of their hands, the two floated on south.
I decided Dee and I would stay close to the village, for the time being, make do with the Indian tools and the supplies we had there, harvest the crops, and explore more of the land west of us, including areas north and south of the silver lake. I had plans to own as much of it as was possible, as soon as I could get the papers on it.
We spent the rest of 1836 planning our future, learning to communicate with each other and falling more in love. We literally lived off the land freely, isolated from other human interaction other than on the rarest occasion when someone drifted by on the river. Dee was my perfect companion in every way, compatible and wise beyond her years. She was a strong and capable huntress, as proficient in dressing the deer and tanning the hides as Chiska had been. We explored the land she knew already, and she delighted in being my guide.
That summer passed without any calamity or misfortune. We had a good harvest, added food to the storehouse. In the fall we built a cane and grass hut near the silver lake. We would live there when the time came to build our cabin. We prepared for the trek to the land office after the first of the year. By that time I knew exactly the area I wanted to claim as our own. We would follow the road like Mr.Crane said. I was curious about how much of that free land I could get!
Each day I found myself thinking less of my old life in Tennessee, even of my little baby girl there, of the horrible ending to my friendship with Nathan, Mana and the Wilkes. As the year progressed, as my life melded completely with Dee’s and with the land, Lola seemed like a dream, a teenager’s dream. I sometimes imagined Danielle, growing into a young woman much as Lola had, except without her father. I trusted the Wilkes were giving Dani the life I was unable to, and that soothed my conscience. I missed Chiska, and wondered how they were all fairing, but it was with little regret. I was confident in the life Chiska had built for himself with the Friedel’s, and hoped that in many ways Chiska filled the hole left in the family by the loss of Louis. When Tennessee did cross my mind in that year of 1836, I smiled. By then, I remembered my time on the Mississippi River with fondness, a period of growth, maturity, a transition for me. My fondest memories were of Madam Rose, the ample hospitality she had shown me, bringing me fully into my manhood.
I will rest my pen for a while; my hand grows weary, stiff. Outside, ice and snow covers everything and the path leading into the woods is invisible; it has been a cold February, my old bones crack and grind when I move. I see Frank and Dovie at the barn tending the livestock. The snow is falling again, big fluffy flakes. I watch Dovie through my window, so much like her mother working alongside her husband. Warms my heart to see the two of them like that, and grateful to have them close. Dee is beside me, placing a cup of black steaming coffee in front of me. She draws the blanket more snugly around my shoulders, and leans into my back, embracing me. I feel the long braid of her hair falling over her shoulder to lay against the back of my neck. She kisses the top of my mostly bald head and whispers, “I have been thinking about our first February together. Before we built this cabin. Have you told about that yet, Bill?”