The Wayfaring Stranger Chapter 1
I am a poor wayfaring stranger,
Traveling through this world of woe.
There is no sickness, toil, or danger
In that world to which I go.
“The Wayfaring Stranger”
I knew my life would finally end this way.
That was the burning thought in Joseph Moore’s mind as he lay hidden behind the stone wall. With his heart pounding, he tried to calm himself to hear the barking of the tracking dogs. He felt the aching from the dog bite below his knee and withdrew his hand to see blood.
The dirt felt cool against his face as he lay on the ground. The sweat from fear and exertion ran down his cheek in a trickle onto the dirt. Wiping his face, Joseph watched through a hole in the wall, scanning carefully for any sign of the men and dogs.
Lying there, he breathed in the smell of the soil he knew so well. Normally, he loved the unique smell of the dirt of western Ireland; but today was not a normal day. It was a day full of events that would change his life forever—if he survived.
On this day, in the year 1849, Joseph Moore from the village of Westport, Ireland, was a young man of seventeen. A tall, lanky teenager with sandy hair and a pleasant, freckled, ruddy face.
His deep green eyes peering from the stone wall were intense, fiery, and passionate. In the last four years, these eyes had seen plenty of pain and death up close. The blight-caused failure of the potato crop had brought widespread famine and cost the lives of thousands throughout Ireland. Coupled with the desperate mass emigration of even more who’d left by boat, it seemed Ireland was becoming barren of people.
The smell of the dirt beneath his face was also a reminder of the many graves he had helped dig. He thought, I just wonder if someone will be digging me own grave before this mess is over.
Joseph reflected on the day’s events that had brought him to this terrifying moment: This spring morning had begun innocently enough. There were always plenty of chores to do on the small Moore farm. What had earlier been a family of seven consisted of now him and an older widowed sister. Everyone else was gone: his dad’s exile to Australia by the authorities; other family members who had emigrated to England or America; plus the rest who were dead from starvation or the famine fever that had swept through during the worst days of the past four years.
When the trouble started on this particular spring morning, Joseph was digging with a shovel in the potato rows. He had planted this spring’s crop early on the treeless hills, so maybe the crop would make before the potato rot hit.
Joseph was just out of sight from the last possessions of the family farm: their small sheep herd that consisted of an old ram, two ewes, and two young lambs. They grazed in the next field—hidden from view by the stone wall.
Along with the garden, these sheep were the livelihood of his sister and himself. They were so precious that he brought them nightly into the dirt-floored cottage.
That was exactly why the sounds Joseph heard filled him with fear: Dreadful bleating mixed with loud yelping came from the adjacent field. Shovel in hand, Joseph ran toward the noise. What he saw as he reached the stone wall sickened him: A pack of four dogs was attacking the sheep.
As is their nature, the sheep were huddled helplessly in the corner of the stone wall. Blood poured from the neck of one of the ewes as a young lamb lay twitching in convulsions of death beside her.
Joseph sprinted toward the dogs filled with sudden rage, shouting as he waved his shovel. All but one of the dogs loped off. That dog, a big yellow hound, did not run but rather bit down on the neck of the other lamb. Angrily, Joseph struck the dog across the back with his shovel. The snarling dog turned on him and with lightning quick speed latched onto his right leg.
Joseph let out a painful yell and felt a blind rage. He began to strike the dog repeatedly on the head. It quickly released its grip on his leg and fell yelping in pain.
The dog lay with blood pouring out of its mouth and one ear. Even after he had hit the dog enough to kill it, he continued a steady rain of blows. It was as if all the anger—from the heavy-handed abuse of the landlords, the potato failure, the constant hunger and poverty, the unending death of family and friends—seemed to pour forth from Joseph and be directed at the body of the prone dog.
Joseph’s green eyes now were filled with a burning passion and rage. Breathing heavily, he knelt down beside the three dead sheep and the dying dog. His leg throbbed from the dog bite. He looked at the sheep on the ground and tears filled his eyes realizing what this meant for him and his sister. He hung his head as tears poured down his cheeks, seemingly finally beaten down by the hard life of this difficult time.
As Joseph knelt over this tragedy, he had no idea an observer had watched the entire episode. This witness to the attack also knew to whom the dogs belonged. They were the property of the English land agent, Smith, who oversaw the rental land near Westport. The dead dog, lying by Joseph, was the man’s prize hunting hound. The observer also knew the land Joseph lived on was part of Smith’s land holdings.
The silent observer didn’t wait long to send word to the Englishman Smith’s estate about the Irish peasant who had killed his best dog. As in any rural town anywhere, most of the village knew about the encounter by noon that day. Not only did the news of the incident spread, but also Smith’s echoing threat to kill the boy who had dared to kill his best hunting dog.
When a neighbor ran to tell Joseph’s sister, Bridget, of this threat, terror filled her heart. Everyone knew this wealthy English land agent meant what he said and was used to getting his way. She was not surprised that the nobleman would place a hunting dog above the life of a mere Irish peasant boy. Bridget remembered last year how Smith had allowed the public flogging of a salmon poacher caught trespassing on his private river. The resultant beating was so severe that the man nearly died. When townspeople complained of the flogging’s brutality, Smith’s icy comment was, “I bet the next man who thinks about trespassing will be reminded to stay out of my river.”
Recalling this, Bridget took her younger brother by the shoulders and said, “Brother, ye must go. Run for yer life! Only death awaits ye here. Aye, Go—Go now!” She tenderly kissed him and pushed him on his way as she crying out, “God bless ye, Joseph. May God lead ye away from this horrible place.”
Her push was not one moment too soon. As he went out the back door, four men approached about two hundred yards away. Joseph, easing along the side of the house, recognized Smith first. On each side of him were British soldiers. One of the soldiers had two tracking dogs on leashes. A fourth man dressed in civilian clothing cradled what appeared to be a shotgun. He also carried something in his other hand that Joseph could not quite make out.
Joseph ran for
the safety of the nearby three-foot high stone wall. As he reached it, he leaped over and hid. Joseph crouched and crawled along—out of sight of his pursuers. He soon reached the end of the wall, which had no cover past it. Crouched there, he thought of how a fox on the run must feel.
Watching over the wall, he saw the men pass the house, ignoring Bridget who stood in the doorway. He could now see what the shotgun-toting man had in his other hand—it was a long crowbar. When a landlord wanted to evict a tenant, a crowbar was used to knock down the entire stone cottage. This was called “tumbling down” and meant nearly certain starvation for the evicted family.
Fearfully, Joseph watched the approaching men. He had several minutes to watch the dogs trying to pick up his scent. The dogs led the men in circles—sometimes moving nearer his hiding place and then over the fields where he had worked earlier.
This gave Joseph time to think. For some reason, the words of his beloved mother echoed in his heart. He recalled the statement she had always repeated, “Joseph, every step of your life will be led by God. In times and days where ye don’t quite know where to turn, he will guide you. He has put a compass in your heart to send ye along the right path.”
These oft-repeated words came to him now behind the stone wall. He was not sure he completely believed them but was desperate at the moment. So he prayed, “Lord, I’m definitely in a bind here. I do need ye to guide me steps. If ye don’t—I probably won’t get out of this mess.”
As he continued watching the hunters, again his mother’s words came back to him, “Son, ye have a good name. I named ye after Joseph of the Old Testament. He was a young man whom God guided every step of his way. His path was not an easy one, but God’s plan was to guide his every step. It will be the same for ye, my son.”
Joseph spoke aloud as if his mother was right beside him behind the wall, “Well, Ma—your Joseph is in a real bind right now. He’s gonna need some step-by-step guidance, for sure.”
As he said this, he watched the hounds, noses to the ground, moving closer toward his hiding place. He took a deep breath and steadied himself: Well, they may shoot me, but they’ll have to hit a running target.
Watching their approach, he selected a small shrub beside the road, and then looked behind him at the next stone wall, about fifty yards away. He thought, when the dogs reach that shrub, I’m going to jump up and run for me life. If I can make it to that wall, I’ll be safe.
He had selected the roadside shrub because he felt the pursuers were still out of shotgun range at that distance. He just hoped the soldiers with their side arms were slow and had poor aim.
Then he prayed again, “Lord, if ye could, please turn those dogs. I sure need a little help to get out of this one.” However, as he ended this heartfelt prayer, he was betrayed by a bird. In the bushes along the wall, a corncrake had built a nest. This common bird, with its scratchy metallic call, was a common resident of the fields of Ireland.
Because Joseph had disturbed the corncrake, it began calling with its loud grating call. Joseph said, “Lord, I asked ye to turn the dogs and instead ye sent a loud corncrake to give me away Thanks a lot!”
The dogs—and the men—turned toward the bird’s call. As if the corncrake had just announced his name, the men started trotting toward the stone wall.
Standing to run, Joseph thought, Well, it’s now or never! With a yell that seemed to be a curious mixture of pent-up rage and extreme fear, he began sprinting. He never knew if he heard one or two shots. Everything happened fast, and he definitely wasn’t looking back. He heard the pellets whistle past him and felt a sting in his arm, leg, and butt. He bellowed, but in spite of these wounds, was making tracks for the wall’s cover, hurdling the potato rows.
Joseph, reaching the wall, never even considered slowing down. He ran a long time before the baying of the hounds faded behind him. Finally, stopping to stoop over, he placed his hands on his knees and tried to get air into his lungs. Looking back over the treeless fields, he saw his pursuers, now holding the dogs, watching from a distance of about a quarter mile.
Joseph heard Smith yell with cupped hands in a distinctly English accent, “You can run young Irish but you can’t hide! We’ll get you tomorrow—or the next day. It’s only a matter of time; jest a matter of time. You know for sure how this will all end; we’ll get ye!”
As Smith’s voice faded away, Joseph heard another voice, unspoken but clear. He was not sure if it was his mother’s voice, sister’s, or maybe even the Lord answering his prayer: “You cannot stay here. You must go.”
Eliza Jane Clark came awake in the night. She glanced out the window and could sense dawn was approaching. As her bare feet hit the dirt floor of her family’s cabin in Louisiana’s No Man’s Land, she moved quickly. Slipping out of her bedclothes into a blouse and dress, she tiptoed took the clock off the mantel above the fireplace. The fire’s light gave enough light for her to see that the time was just after five o’clock. Sunrise that morning would be before six, and she needed to be at the creek long before then.
Slipping to the door, she put on a jacket, unlatched the door, and went outside. That morning’s date was Thursday, April 6, 1849. Eliza was sure of the date because it was her sixteenth birthday.
As Eliza tiptoed outside on this cool morning, her eyes began to adjust to the darkness, and the awesome canopy of stars became clear in the sky above. As always, their brightness and clarity astounded her. She had observed the night sky all her life and never ceased to be amazed about their beauty. It seemed as if she could just reach up into the sky and touch them. With a shiver, she whispered, “Lord, when I look at that nighttime sky, I always know that you’re up there.”
The morning was cold enough for her breath to vaporize as she spoke. In spite of the cool morning and that she was barefooted, Eliza didn’t feel chilled. Normally, outside in the dark, she would have put on some shoes, but because the weather was still too cold for snakes, she could walk the trail barefooted.
Eliza Clark, on this birthday morning, began walking the descending trail to Cherry Winche Creek. This beautiful, flowing stream, a quarter mile from her home, was the source of life for the families that lived along it. The creek supplied water for washing, swimming, and bathing.
The morning was completely quiet as she hurried toward the creek. A nearby noise startled her. She stopped completely still as she heard steps approaching from behind. In the darkness, she couldn’t make out what, or who, was coming.
Then she heard the voice of her younger brother, Elijah, “Sister, where do you think you’re going?”
She breathed a sigh of relief as he ambled up and joined her. In his squeaky ten-year-old’s voice he added, “I heard you leave the house. Where are you headed?”
Eliza didn’t answer, but that didn’t faze her brother, “Now, you know Poppa and Momma told you not to be sneaking off in the dark no more. Remember what happened last time—“
Eliza cut him off, “If you’re going with me to the creek, you’ll have to be quiet and keep your mouth shut.” She tried to act annoyed at her brother’s intrusion, but was actually glad to have him come along.
The land they were now crossing belonged to their family. Like most settlers in this part of the young state of Louisiana, the Clark family lived on a homestead—their tract was about two hundred acres. Most of this land was set among the tall longleaf pines that dominated the area. Her family’s home was built on the higher ground where these pines thrived. To
wering and magnificent, these trees, also called long-straw pines, blocked out the sun and kept the ground beneath them clear of other trees and vegetation.
In daylight, Eliza loved how you could see for long distances under these pines. She had never traveled far from their shadow in her entire life.
Entering the edge of the swamp, the dirt beneath her feet turned to oozing mud. It felt good between her toes and made her glad to be alive.
Her dad had carefully chosen their home site on the higher pine grasslands that were always free from flooding. However, it was also essential to be near this ‘bottomland’ for year-round access to water and firewood, as well as to a steady supply of acorns and beech mast for their woods hogs.
Coming to the creek, she could hear the sound she loved dearly: the creek gurgling over the flattened log they used for washing clothes. Eliza called the sound of the water “the music of the swamp” and its song always brought a peace to her heart.
They eased down the creekbank and sat on the edge of the log. Elijah nestled up close to his big sister and started to say something, but she put her hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Shh , it’s nearly time. Just listen real close.”
Using a stick, she scraped the mud and creek sand off their feet. Eli said, “That mud and sand reminds me of momma’s sugar cookies.”
Finishing her scraping, Eliza said, “Well, I don’t hardly believe it’d taste the same!”
Pointing to their muddy feet, she spoke quietly, “Now, this here mud on our feet is Clark mud. It’s from land owned by Poppa and Momma that one day’ll belong to you and me. Let me put it the way poppa says, ’Liza, this here land really belongs to God and he’s just loaning it to us for a while.’
“I once asked poppa, “Do we have any papers proving we own this land?” He answered, ‘Honey, if you mean could I go to the courthouse in Alexandria and show you a piece of paper proving I own this land? The answer to that would be no—but this is our land. Our ancestors settled here generations ago. The Spanish, the French, and now the Americans, have all claimed to own the land, but the truth is, it belongs to us.’
“Then poppa said something else: ‘Liza girl, I don’t know so much if we own this land. It’s more of a matter that this land owns us.’”
Elijah leaned his head on his big sister’s shoulder and said, “Eliza, all I know is that this here is where I hope to live the rest of my life. How about you?”
“Eli, it ain’t never even entered my mind to live anywhere else. Why would a person want to live anywhere but in the freedom of the piney woods? This is our home and where God put us.”
Her brother then asked, “Why’d you come to the swamp this morning?”
“I came ‘cause it’s ‘whip-poor-will day.’ You probably don’t remember how ‘Ma’ always said this date, April 6, was “whip-poor-will day.” She’d add, “If a girl hears the first one before the morning light and that call is answered by another nearby whip-poor-will, it means her future man will think of her today.”
Elijah smirked, “You don’t believe that, do you?”
She replied, “Course not, but I still like to be in the woods on this morning to remember Ma.”
Eli said, “But Eliza, I thought there was a saying about the whip-poor-will’s call and death? When Ma died, didn’t a whip-poor-will call her soul away?”
Eliza grimaced, “Eli, I don’t want to hear you say that!”
“But I was just asking—Isn’t it true?”
Sharply she replied, “Shh, get quiet. I’ll tell you about it some other time.”
He sat quietly, knowing his question had somehow touched a nerve. Even in the darkness, he could see a tear rolling down his sister’s cheek.
Eliza preferred to think about the romantic adage of the whip-poor-will’s call. As a child, she frowned at the thought of boys. Now, at age sixteen, that had long ago changed. Not only did she closely notice the boys—the boys had definitely taken a liking to her. There was no doubt she was a beautiful young woman and, although the attention somewhat embarrassed her, she liked the boy’s attention and it secretly filled her with joy.
“Filled with joy”—now that was a term that best described Eliza Jane Clark! She was a woods girl who found joy and laughter in the entire world around her in both nature and people. She had a natural curiosity that seemed unquenchable, always wanting to know about things, people, and nature. Sometimes her curiosity caused trouble—like her sneaking out of the house this morning—but this inquisitiveness was also an appealing quality that made folks naturally like her.
Breaking the silence, Elijah asked her, “Why do you like whip-poor-wills?”
“Oh, they’re mysterious. I’ve only seen one in my whole life. They have big dark eyes that help them see how to fly at night.”
He said, “Robert Ray Thompson told me you have the darkest and prettiest eyes of any girl in Ten Mile.” Elijah said with an impish smile.
Eliza scowled, “I don’t really care about what Robert Ray Thompson said.”
“Everybody says you’re gonna marry him one day.”
Eliza, threw her stick in the creek and said, “What everybody says don’t mean it’s going to be so.”
“I heard Aunt Bertie say what a fine pair you’d make. She said that his family has the most livestock in the whole woods and momma said that he’d be a fine catch for you.”
“Well, I’m not trying to catch him—and he ain’t going to catch me either.
Eli, not knowing to be quiet, continued, “So you’re here this morning to hear that whip-poor-will and know he’ll be thinking of you?”
“Eli, I don’t plan on marrying Robert Ray Thompson.”
Eli studied his sister, then said in admiration, “Your eyes are what folks say set you apart. Robert Ray told me that your long black hair and deep dark eyes are what he made him fall in love with you.”
“Eli, why don’t you just hush up and listen.” But she quickly added, “Did he really say that.”
But Eli took her first statement and hushed up. After he’d been quiet a few minutes, he went to sleep and leaning on Eliza, began snoring softly.
Eliza decided she would wake him when the first whip-poor-will sang. Several minutes later, she heard the call she’d come for. It came from the woods to the east. The sound was loud, clear, and urgently repeated a dozen times. It was a whip-poor-will! Each syllable was accented in a unique way: “Whip-poooor-will.” The sound was beautiful, lonesome, and haunting—all at the same time.
The accents were on the first and last syllables: WHIP poor WILL, WHIP poor WILL.
Eliza sat quietly as the bird called over and over. She’d always thought what a lonely call this bird had. It seemed to live in a solitary world. This bird was spread throughout the swamps, just like the Ten Milers—a people who were kin, yet each family living separate and isolated—never willing to be part of a village or town.
As Eliza listened to the lone whip-poor-will’s repeated calls for several minutes with no answer, she finally heard a reply—a long, long distance away. The returning call was faint, and at first, she wasn’t sure if she’d only imagined it. Then she heard the call for sure—another whip-poor-will was answering. Because of the great distance through the swamp, this returning call was much fainter, but it was all the nearby bird needed. The two whip-poor-wills—one close and the other seemingly far, far off—began calling back and forth in the quie
t woods of Cherry Winche Swamp as the eastern light began to build through the silhouettes of the oak, beech, and hickory trees.
Eliza Clark, age sixteen on this day, leaned over and whispered to her still sleeping brother, “Well Eli, do you think my future husband’s thinking about me?” She sighed and added, “And just where do you think he might be right now?”
Copyright 2007 by Creekbank Stories Curt Iles