The Wild Country
Upper Louisiana, 1799
Into the Land of Milk and Honey
They would later say that the day we came into Chit Valley all the children's fevers broke and everybody's bowels were righted. But from the way we first arrived in that place, you would never think that Preacherfather would become their fighting prophet, their bloody savior. As it stood, we almost didn't make it there.
Some miles below the falls at Louisville the captain of the flatboat we'd taken grew tired of Preacher-father and his talk of baptism, and so had us flung over the side along with what baggage fellow passengers felt like tossing after us, our horses, kit, and feed left behindor flowing on ahead of us, as it may be. This was before the western territories had been redeemed or given any settled name and the country we passed into was then known as Upper Louisiana, though so was much of the world. Now it's called Missouri, a dangling fragment of the carved-up Union.
It was a hard time to be a Baptist. The tar was always bubbling then and there were many who had no love for preaching. We were used to rough treatments, and if the boatmen and their passengers hadn't caught us mid-sermon, by surprise and from behind, we might've shown them something of a fight, rather than being sent tumbling into the swirling cold of the river. The laughter of the flatboat riders passed away with the splashes of our bags, then the voice of Preacherfather called out my name. I whirled enough to see him bobbing some distance behind me. He thrashed ahead until he was near enough to catch me by the hand, and so I held fast to my father and together we fought across the current to a stand of limbs lying partway in the water.
So there came days of wandering through marshes, being eaten by insects till we were scabbed and shivering in our soaked leathers. Though by guesswork I was thirteen, I was still shorter than the grass, and the deeper we went into the marsh the taller it grew until I was swallowed up entirely and spent days without the sun. My skin grew gray and wrinkled and I kept my eyes to his footprints in the slough those that weren't immediately swallowed up by water and mudso that I could follow on the good ground. We flattened reeds to sleep dry, but still I would sink into the earth and by morning would be half-drowned. I lay those nights with my head on my hands so that my ears would not fill with mud while Preacher-father wandered, calling on God and on the river, shouting, Hey, miss! Hey, miss! like it was a woman out there waiting, and he suffered to find it the same fool way most men hunt for women.
When at last he found the river, Preacher-father mistook it for more of the Ohio. We crossed that dark and swirling parallel on a raft we hewed and poled ourselves, not knowing until we came upon some other travelers, heading north to Cape Girardeau, that we had made the river and were now into the west.
For days more we followed ruts and traces in the grasslands, daily thanking God for our deliverance, through forests and up a rise of hills where the trees ended at the lip. Among the scrabble-scratch of branches we stumbled upon a squat of Indians all laid up in a grove. They were covered in sores and too sick to move or talk, nor give us more than a roll of flyspecked eyes. Preacher-father kept his hand on the handle of his hatchet all the same as we moved through their camp, which looked as though it had been set there forever, and we passed nearest to a squaw whose cheeks were so eaten away that I could see her teeth, though she was still breathing. After we'd left them and were heading down into the valley, my father said to me, That's how you know you're on the track to Christians, son. The heathen withers and dies even in their proximity.
In those wild and thinly populated reaches we found sullen Christians living at peril of soul and fearful of the avarice of the Indian. These beleaguered whites lived in holes dug underground; the only watch kept over the endless plain was by their meager stock. A homestead would only be marked by the lonesome beasts in their pens and the stovepipes trailing smoke from the fires stoked below.
THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN © 2013 by Kent Wascom; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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No Man's Land
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