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Chapters 1 and 19 of A Good Place

Chapter 1   A Good Place

WHEN Daddy shoved me under the table, I knew this wasn’t
just any storm.
As the crow flies, our Louisiana log cabin was a hundred miles
from the Gulf of Mexico. When this day had quietly begun, no
one had any idea a hurricane was churning ashore. Here we were
less than twelve hours later, however, riding it out under our
kitchen table.

Watching Momma trying in vain to keep the lantern lit,
a knot of fear as big as a turnip formed in my throat. Giving
up on the lantern, she turned to Daddy. “This ain’t no normal
thunderstorm. Do you think . . .?”

She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say the word. In her eyes was
something I’d never seen before—raw fear. Her hand trembled as
she placed it on my knee. Momma’s obvious alarm moved Daddy
into action, and he said the word she’d couldn’t. “Hurricane—this
has to be a hurricane.”

Crawling from under the table, he said to her, “Eliza, get the
windows covered best you can.” Then he grabbed me. “Mayo,
come with me to get the animals in.”

On that August evening in 1862, I was nearly 12 and didn’t
have enough sense to realize the danger, so I eagerly joined him.
As soon as we cleared the lee of the house, the wind whipped
us, tearing Daddy’s hat right off his head. He ran toward the barn,
not even looking back as the lightning outlined his silhouette
with each strike. Reaching the building and pulling me inside, he
said, “Pen the animals, and throw some hay in their troughs.”

He hurried out, leaving me alone in the building’s growing
darkness with only whimpering animals. I found our horse,
Dallas, and began stroking his mane. He was snorting, pawing,
and shaking as bad as Momma, sensing some kind of evil blowing
in that howling wind.

Daddy stuck his head back in, “Hurry, it ain’t safe. Let’s git.”
Hunkered down, we ran by our outbuildings, stopping only to
bolt the smokehouse and adjacent kitchen.

I cowered under the walkway that connected our kitchen and
house, holding onto a post. With my other hand, I covered my
head as debris whizzed by.

A flying object struck Daddy square in the back, causing
him to stumble. He turned and shouted, “Whoa! Let’s go.”
Scampering onto the porch, I heard the first tree crash, causing
both the house and my heart to shudder.

As we went through the door, my dog, Bo, brushed straight
past me and hunkered down under the table with my mother and
sister, Colleen. Momma, who was in the family way, squatted on
the dirt floor, still fiddling with the flickering lantern.

“There ain’t no use fooling with that thing,” Daddy said,

“There’s too much wind blowing through the cracks for it to stay
lit.”

Holding out the cypress shingle that’d struck him in the back,
he knelt by Momma. Frowning and rubbing the whelp on his
back, he whispered, “It’s real bad out there.”

“Honey, are—are you all right?” she asked.

Before he could answer, another crashing tree jarred our
house and Colleen cried, “Daddy, wh—what’s happening? Is
this the war?” Colleen, half my age, had a fear that the ongoing
War Between the States was coming to kill us. The noise
outside assured her that its cannons had finally reached Western
Louisiana.

Another crashing tree, this one even closer, caused her to
scream, “It’s a big gun.”

“No, Child, that was a tree falling.” Momma said as she
watched Daddy at the window peering out. I was watching him
too, and knew one thing for sure, my father would get us through
this.

“Eliza, kids, listen to me,” Daddy said in a steady voice. With
the howling wind outside, we had to lean in real close, but when
he spoke, his words seemed to drown out the storm. “Now, this
has gotta be a hurricane. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but we’re
gonna be all right ‘cause we’re together. We’ll trust the Lord to
get us through. This may’ve caught us flat-footed, but we’ll get
through it together.”
We’ll get through it together. That was all I wanted to hear,
and it was what I needed to hear: Together.

“Daddy, are we gonna blow away?” Colleen asked. I glanced
up at our creaking roof, wondering the same thing.

Before he could answer, Momma pulled my sister closer,“Baby, this house was built ‘horse high, bull tough, and pig tight,’by your daddy and it’ll stand up to anything any storm throws at
it.”
Colleen nervously burst out giggling at Momma’s saying,
causing us all to laugh in spite of our fear. However, our smiles
soon faded as the storm intensified and the rafters lifted and
shuddered with every strong gust.
“I feel—I feel so helpless,” Momma said, holding Colleen
closer.
Daddy repeated, “We will get through this. Together, we can
do it.”
At that moment, I hoped he was right.
Sitting under the table as the wind howled, it was hard to
believe this day had started so quietly. Looking back over it, we’d
missed several signs—omens of the approaching storm.
#
The coming storm’s first clue had occurred earlier that
morning when Daddy had met me at the barn for chores. “Listen,
Mayo.”
“To what?”
“It’s too quiet—even the crickets have stopped chirping.”
Daddy was almost whispering.
Later, as daylight appeared, he’d nodded toward the rising sun
before saying, Chomh deargle le fuil.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s Irish for ‘Red as blood.’ Look at the sun—where I grew
up along the Irish coast, the sailors always said, ‘Red sun at night,
sailor’s delight. Red sun at mornin’, sailor take warnin’.”
Shrugging his shoulders, he sniffed the air and added, “Air
even smells funny. Gives me the doggone willies.”

As we’d returned to the house for breakfast, I’d noticed Bo
under the steps and called him out. He wouldn’t budge, even
when I whistled and hollered, “Hunt ‘em up, Bo.”
Another omen missed.

By midday, the morning’s clear weather was long gone—
replaced by dark clouds rolling northward on a gusty wind.
Darkness came early, seemingly snuffed out by the rising wind,
which began driving the rain through the cracks in the walls.
So, less than twelve hours after a clear sunrise and promising
day, we were huddled under the table as our whole lives were
being blown away.

From time to time, Daddy crawled out and peered out the
window. Flashes of lightning lit the worry on his face as he
whispered, “Well, this ain’t my first storm.”

I knew he was right. He’d come to Louisiana fourteen years
ago as a lonely teenager at the end of a long journey, from another
land of storms—Ireland.
Here in this area called “No Man’s Land,” he’d grown into a
man, met and married my part-Indian mother, and made these
piney woods his home. He even named the hill where he built
our house “Westport” after his hometown in Ireland, laughingly
saying, “This spot’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a mountain in
Louisiana.”

Daddy loved Louisiana’s clear creeks, tall trees, and the
freedom it offered—and, until the day he died, referred to it as “a
good place to be.”

Watching him made me wonder if he thought of it as a good
place at this moment. Another crash outside jolted the whole
house, prompting Momma’s warning, “Joe Moore, get back under
here.”

He hadn’t been back under the table ten seconds, when a
huge oak tree smashed through the cabin wall right where he’d
stood. As wood splintered and contents of the shelves crashed to
the floor, we hunkered tighter under the table.

“Lord, have mercy! It’s the end of the world,” Momma said.

Reaching out in the dark, I grasped onto a dripping wet limb,
thinking It may not be the end of the world, but it’s sure gonna
be a long night.

Chapter 19   The Raft Trip

May 1863
The weather cleared off on Saturday. Enough rain had fallen
upstream that the creeks stayed up, so the six men decided to
leave on Monday morning.

Other men who’d helped cut and stack the timber would
stay behind and share in the money from the sale. Their job was
to look out for the families, take care of their places, and keep
everyone’s crops in good shape.

That Monday there was an air of excitement among the
men and their families. Most had never been past Sugartown or
Hineston, and this would be a world-class journey for them. My
dad, being an immigrant, was the most traveled member of the
crew, even though he’d never been on a log float, and as Momma
said, “He wouldn’t know a sawmill if it hit him in the mouth.”

Even though I wasn’t going on the float—at least they
thought I wasn’t—I walked with them to the creek for the launch.
The men going—Daddy, Unk, Pistol Perkins, and his son
Dan, as well as Ben Tyler and Caleb Johnson—were accompanied
by their families. Several neighbors came along to see the launch.
Bart Cooley, one of the local skeptics on this venture, tagged
along to the launching point. He’d passed on being part of the
float, but hadn’t passed on making fun of it. This was his last pretrip
chance to ridicule the adventurers, so he came along.
“I hope you fellows don’t miss Lake Charles. If you do, hang
a right when you get to the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve heard there’s
sawmills in Galveston, Texas.”

It was evident he’d looked forward to this day as much as the
floaters, and had practiced his sarcasm. Pointing at Pistol, who
had a long beard, he said, “Hey Noe, since y’all are floating the
Ark down the Calcasieu—where’s all your animals?”
“You’re just jealous, Bart, ’cause you ain’t goin’,” Pistol said.
“How are you fellows gonna know when you get there? None
of you would know a city from ‘Adam’s off ox.’” He laughed hard
at his own joke and continued a steady stream of banter, until
Caleb Johnson spoke up. “That’s enough. Now you shut up and
go home.”

Even Bart was scared of Caleb, so the tormenting stopped.

As they loaded gear on the rafts, I noticed that each man
had brought his musket and powder horn. Several of them also
wore sidearms. Their guns reminded me that the trip wasn’t just a
lark—instead there was much unknown and wild country ahead
of them.

Fred Wilson, standing beside his pregnant wife, waved and
hollered, “Von Boyage, fellows. Von Boyage.”

I turned to Daddy who had one foot on the raft. “What’d he
say?”
Daddy laughed. “Fred thinks he’s Ten Mile’s version of
Shakespeare. He meant to say ‘Bon Voyage.’”
“What’s that?”
It’s French for “Have a good trip.”

The men climbed aboard the five rafts, untied the mooring
ropes, and pushed off with long poles. They floated slowly along
Cherry Winche toward its junction with the Calcasieu River. We
walked along the bank, watching as they eased into the faster
current of the river and began the journey southward.
Bessie Tyler yelled at her husband Ben, “How long do you
think y’all will be gone?”

He looked back and shrugged. “Don’t rightly know.”
Truer words have never been spoken.

The spectators watched the rafts disappear down the river
before turning to walk home as a group. After we’d walked about
a quarter mile, I said, “I forgot my hat back at the creek. Y’all go
on, no need to wait for me.”

I really had left my hat back at the creek, but not by accident.
Quickly retrieving it as well as a knapsack I’d hidden, I began
slipping southward along the river and soon spied the last of the
rafts. It was now a matter of staying close enough to keep them in
sight, without being discovered.

A hot day of walking through the swamp followed, with
mosquitoes buzzing around me every step. Several times, I came
to small creeks that I waded or swam. Because the river made
such a winding course, I’d cut across the bends and actually be
hiding in the woods as the rafts slowly drifted by.

Having a boy’s vivid imagination, I fancied myself as an
Indian watching these strange explorers coming down my river,
totally unaware that a great warrior was stalking them.

My plan was to camp nearby when they stopped for the
night. However, it hadn’t entered my mind that they might not
stop.
As darkness fell, I realized they weren’t pulling up for the
night. Fear gripped me as I wondered how I’d follow them in the
dark. As the nighttime sounds came alive, darkness surrounded
me, and I began second-guessing my plan.

It was decision time: I could wait the night out here, abandon
my plan and return home tomorrow, making up some believable
story before I got home to face my mother’s wrath.

Or I could continue with my plan, even though it meant
walking through these woods all night, a thought that filled me
with dread. But turning back wasn’t an option. I’d planned too
long to abandon ship now. The waning moon rose about an
hour after dark and supplied me with just enough light—and
courage—to move ahead.

What followed was a long night of scrambling through briar
patches, wading through sloughs, and hoping not to step on a
snake or encounter a panther.

I believe I busted through every spider web in Calcasieu
swamp. I’d feel spiders on my face and quickly brush them
off. Even though they were harmless garden spiders, I was still
terrified.

Often I would trip over a muscadine vine or a root and sprawl
face first in the wet leaves. However, my die was cast. There was
no way out but forward.

The rafters had lit several torches, and the flickers of light
helped me to follow them. I lost sight of them when a large
slough blocked my path. I got turned around, and panic welled
up like a flood in my throat as I wandered aimlessly for about an
hour. Finally, I calmed down, found the Big Dipper and North Star
through an open gap in the tree line, and regained my bearings.
Soon I was back by the river and stayed along its right bank
working my way downstream.

I heard the rafters before I saw them again—and knew it was
Dan Perkins, who considered himself a good singer, singing “Old
Dan Tucker.” His singing and the pine torches kept me oriented.
I followed along to,
“Old Dan Tucker, he got drunk.
Fell in the fire and kicked out a chunk.
Coal of fire got in his shoe,
Oh my, how the ashes flew.”

Repeatedly, he sang his song, and the night air carried it as
a beacon for me. Daylight came not one moment too soon. My
arms and face were scratched and bloody from the briars. I ate
the last of the beef jerky I’d brought and re-filled my canteen with
creek water.

When I caught up with the floaters, they were stopped. One
of the rafts was snagged in the bank. The men were all pushing
hard with their poles to back it off into the current. It took about
thirty minutes before they budged the heavy raft free and poled it
back into the river’s channel.

That day was full of walking and then waiting. I’d figured out
about the bends and easily stayed ahead of them by cutting across.
On one bend, I was hiding behind a pin oak when a skiff
holding Ben and Dan came around a sharp bend. They tied a
long rope just above the water’s height across the point of the
bend, securing it to two stout river birches at the water’s edge

134
A G O O D P L A C E

about fifty feet apart, before hurriedly paddling upstream.
I huddled down, curious to see what would happen next.
I heard the rafts approaching as they bumped along, and Dan
singing,
“Get out of the way, Ol’ Dan Tucker.
You’re too late to eat your supper.
Supper’s over, and dinner’s cooking.
Ol’ Dan Tucker just stood there a lookin’
And a lookin’.”

I watched closely as the lead raft came into view and floated
up against the rope, which pulled taut. As it caught the raft, it
eased it around the bend, avoiding the delay that had happened
when it snagged. Each raft easily made the turn, and Ben and
Dan paddled back, untied the rope, and caught back up with the
rafts.

Throughout the day, they repeated this procedure at each
sharp bend in the river.
Creeping along all day, I constantly pulled ticks off. I could
feel the redbugs working around every joint of my body as well as
the stinging of the briar scratches all over my face as I sweated.
I was hot, tired, and hungry before I made my decision: I
was not staying in the woods tonight—one way or the other, I’m
going to be aboard by dark.

Late in the afternoon, they pulled up on my side of the river,
lashing the rafts securely before setting up camp.
I figured they were far enough along that Daddy wouldn’t—
or couldn’t—send me home, so it was time. The men were
gathered around the fire cooking supper when I walked out of the
woods. All movement stopped as they saw me. Unk spoke first,
“By Lazurus’s grave, it’s Mayo.”

One of the other men said, “Son, what in tarnation are you
doin’ here? Is somethin’ wrong back home?”

Scared to death, but trying to grin, I said, “I came along to
help you fellas.”
Unk said, “Son, you look like you got in a fight with a buzz
saw and lost. Where’d all those cuts come from?”
“I been squirrel hunting.”

They all had a good laugh except one—my daddy. He didn’t
smile or say a word—just left the campfire, walked over to a
nearby pine, and broke off a stout limb.

I knew what was coming, and I’d already counted the cost. As
he came toward me, I pulled off my belt and held it out for him.
He ignored the belt, which I dropped at his feet, and began
wearing me out with the pine limb. It stung like crazy as he
thrashed up and down my backside, but I steeled myself to not
move or yell.

He whipped me until the limb finally broke. Tossing it aside,
he pulled off his own belt and continued tearing my butt up.
The only thing that stopped the whipping was when his britches
began to sag.

He stepped back, looking me in the face. I knew I’d
embarrassed him by showing up like this, but once again, I’d
counted the cost—counting the whipping worth it to be on this
trip.

His heavy breathing from anger and exertion was the only
sound on the creek bank. No one else dared say a word, until Unk
broke the silence. “Like father—like son.”

Daddy gave him a hard look, but Unk continued, “Well,
Joe—he came by it honest being a stowaway—learnt it from you.”
The other men all laughed in agreement, and even Daddy
smiled and I saw a mixture of bewilderment, anger, and
amusement in his eyes. I believe I even detected a hint of pride
from how I’d taken my whipping like a man.

“Son, was it worth it?” he asked.
“Yes sir, I expected it.”
“Well, we’ll see if it’s worth it. There’s a lot of this trip left.
We’ll see.”

I thought of Momma’s “we’ll see” horse/broken leg story. I
started to comment, but thought better of it.

Pistol, who’d never taken his eyes off me, cocked his head.
“Joe, your boy took more of a whipping from them briars and
brambles than anything a pine limb or belt could do.”

He motioned me over. “Son, you been sliced up good, and
you stood your ground while your daddy dusted your britches

real good. If it’d been me, I’d been hopping like a flea on a hot stove.”
Sizing me up from head to toe, he asked, “How’d you get
here?”
I picked up my belt and put it back on. “I followed y’all along
the river since you left.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “That’s some of the thickest
woods in West Bay. You’re lucky a catty-wampus or rattlesnake
didn’t get you.”
Daddy stood behind him, shaking his head.
Unk, who was trying to help me, said, “Another thing, Joe. I
jes’ believe there is some reason the Lord sent this boy on this trip.
‘Fore it’s over, maybe we’ll understand why.”

Daddy pulled me by the collar toward the circle of the fire.
“Son, I hope the Lord told your momma that He sent you. What
is she gonna think has happened to you?”

I had my answer ready. “Sir, I left a note with Colleen
explaining my trip, making her promise to give it to Momma
today. I don’t write too well, and I know Momma don’t read too
much better, but the letter will explain it.”

“All I can say is you’ll have a lot more explaining to do when
we get home.”

I’d counted that cost, too. “I know, but we’ll cross that bridge
when we git to it.”
“There ain’t no bridges to cross between here and Lake
Charles, or on the long walk home,” he said.

I had no idea what lay between here and home. If I’d known,
I probably would have re-traced my walk back to Ten Mile right
then.

Daddy’s final words on this were. He looked at my cuts and
tattered clothes, shook his head and said, “Well, if you’re gonna
be dumb, you’ve gotta be tough.”

The men welcomed me one by one, patting me on the back,
offering me a plate of beans and cornbread. It seemed they were
making me “one of the guys.” I’d done what every one of them
would have loved to have tried at my age—slipped off on a real
adventure.

This newfound respect showed in the way Dan Perkins
handed me my plate, “Here you go, Columbus. You’re one of the
travelers now.” Redbones loved nicknames, and now I had one.
That night Daddy called me something else—he called me
a man. “Son, if you’re going to be on this float trip and the long
walk back, you’ll hafta act like a man. I’m gonna treat you like a
man, and I wanna see you work and act like one.”

“You’ll be glad I’m along.”

“We’ll see. Yep, we’ll see.”

About Curt Iles

I write to have influence and impact through well-told stories of my Louisiana and African sojourn.

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