As the Crow Flies
Copyright 2011 Curt Iles and Creekbank Stories
My name is Nancy Cotten, and I was born into a family of thieves. That explains why Daddy kept looking over his shoulder when our horse-drawn wagon reached the ferry at Hineston. “We’ll be safe across the Calcasieu River,” He said, nodding at the towering trees. “They call this ‘No Man’s Land’ and claim the law don’t come past here.”
Daddy, who now called himself Henry Cotten, had pulled off one of his schemes in the Red River town of Alexandria just before Christmas of 1882. When he’d scammed several citizens, we’d cleared out one step ahead of the law.
While we waited for the river ferry to return, four crows circled behind our wagon, cawing something fierce. Momma handed my baby brother, Fred, to me. “They’re a sign from God for us not to cross.”
I saw Daddy’s hackles rise and he lifted his hand. Daddy raised his hand. “I don’t want to hear no more of that.”
She waited until he walked down to the river, then turned to me. “Nancy, it’s a sign we’re headed for trouble.” The crows landed and were picking about in the red clay road. “They’ve been following us for the last mile.” One of the crows, cawing harshly, hopped nearer. “That one there with the bad wing. It’s trying to tell us something.”
I tried not to show the irritation blistering in my heart. “Momma. . . .”
“It’s a murder of crows.”
“A murder of crows?”
“That’s what you call a group of crows: a murder.”
“I thought they were a flock?”
She gestured at the birds. “That’s a murder of crows and it only means.…” I studied her face and saw the old darkness descending. She was dropping into that deep place where she sometimes stayed for days or weeks.
She counted the crows out loud. “One . . . two . . . three . . . four,” and turned to me. “Four of them will die.”
“Four men are going to die near here.”
She was studying the crows. “I don’t rightly know yet.” She pointed out the cawing crow with the bad wing. “Listen. It’s laughing at us.”
“Momma, are you getting sick again?”
“I may be. The black dogs are barking at me.” It was how she often described the inky depression she often sank into. She glanced back at the birds. “Those black crows are roosting in my hair and …” She hushed as Daddy climbed back on the wagon,
I wanted to hug her, but this wasn’t the time. He peeked behind the wagon but wasn’t looking for crows: he was making sure a Rapides Parish Sheriff’s posse hadn’t caught up with us. He clucked to the horses and they waded down to the river and reluctantly boarded the creaky ferry.
Momma shivered. “Henry, do you think this will get us across?”
He scanned the far bank. “They say it’s nothin’ but open country for fifty miles and no law until Texas. Sounds like my kind of place.”
I saw Momma’s mouth move and gently placed my hand on hers. The terror in her eyes told me that even if no one else believed the omen, she did.
The Calcasieu wasn’t a large river at all. Regardless, it seemed as though we were wading into Caesar’s Rubicon. I felt that once we were across, there’d be no turning back. Our future—good or bad—stretched westward. I held my breath as the leaky ferry slipped into the river’s swift current.
When we finally bumped against the far bank, Daddy hurriedly unloaded. “It’s time to catch fire out of here.” He was in some kind of a hurry to get out of civilized Louisiana and onto what he considered “safe footing.”
Once we reached level ground above the bluff, he pulled the team to the side of the rutted trail and crawled under the wagon. “That back axle bearing’s not going to take us much further.”
Baby Fred was fretting in the wagon and Momma sighed. “I’m sure tired of hearing that squealing.”
“You talking about the axle or that baby?” Daddy’s voice had that edge to it.
“Both.” Her one word answer told me another of their fights was brewing. “If you hadn’t let us run out of axle grease.”
He squirmed out from under the wagon. “Woman, shut your mouth now.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to ask a passing wagon for a little grease.”
He drew his fist back. “Shut up or else I’ll shut you up.” I quietly slipped off with a bucket to draw some water and escape the coming storm.
I’d turned fifteen two months ago, and it was now the week of Christmas. We’d been traveling like this for as long as I could remember. We’d stay somewhere long enough to make a little money or run afoul of the law, then move on westward. Cotten wasn’t even our real family name. We’d changed our names before arriving in Louisiana during the late summer of 1882. Our wagon was the last one in a snaking line of eight wagons. As we crawled through the cotton fields of the Red River area near Alexandria, Daddy announced. “Our new name’s going to be ‘Cotten.’ That’s C-O-T-T-E-N. That should throw off those folks in Natchez if they’re looking for us.” I didn’t have much school learning but had devoured anything I could read and knew that cotton was spelled with two o’s, but he wouldn’t listen—or maybe just didn’t care—he only wanted to get shed of the past and get away from the law and those folks he’d stolen from in Natchez, and Starkville, and a dozen other towns in our past.
The road past the Calcasieu was called the Sugartown Road. Sugartown, about forty miles ahead as the crow flies, was one of the few actual towns in the No Man’s Land. That was Daddy’s next destination as we limped along in our squeaking wagon. He’d been told there was a hotel there as well as several stores. This meant people and people always meant a way to make an easy buck from some traveler or Good Samaritans.
PINE NEEDLES SHOWERING DOWN Our wagon soon passed out of the hardwood swamp up into a pine forest. As far as one could see towering magnificent pines stretched endlessly. Their height was such that their canopies blocked out the sun and the forest became much cooler. The only sound was the steady wind in their crown and our creaking wagon. Even the wagon rode quieter on the thick bed of pine needles on the trail. The huge pines and the eerie quietness under them comforted as well as filled me with dread. This was a different land from the plantation and cotton country we’d been in for the last hundred miles. I understood why they called it No Man’s Land. It appeared to be a place where humans were unwelcome.
That evening, when we reached a small creek, the wheel finally froze up. That was as far as we were going, at least for now. As if in recognition of our predicament, a cold rain started, and the temperature soon began dropping. All night long honking geese flew over. As I shivered on the thin blanket that served as my mattress, I wished to fly off into the dark with the geese. I remembered what King David had said in one of his Psalms, “If I had the wings of a bird….” If I recalled rightly, he was in the middle of some serious trouble himself when he wrote that. As always, it seemed as if time was my greatest enemy. We never stayed anywhere long enough for me to make friends. Like a plant pulled up too early, I’d never been allowed time to grow deep roots.
Trying to sleep in the crowded wagon, I wished for a future day when I could enjoy a joyful Christmas in a warm house, with a loving family, and enough money to give presents to the ones I loved. It was only a dream—but dreaming keeps hope alive and right at the moment, I needed a hearty dose of hope.
The next morning we were awakened by the passing wagon of a family headed toward Alexandria. Daddy asked the man on the buckboard, “Where are ya’ll headed?”
“Back to civilization, and I’d recommend the same for you.” He stopped the wagon and five blond-headed children piled out. From inside, I heard a baby’s horrible coughing. As I walked to the wagon, a girl about my age stood by the canvas flap. I said, “That baby sounds bad sick.”
“That’s why we’re headed back—no doctors or medicine out here.” I peered in under the canvas, where a sad-eyed woman sat holding a newborn. Its cough had a deep rattle that gave me a chill. I said to the woman, “My momma’s a healer—she might can help with that cough.”
She didn’t answer, staring past me at something no one but her could see. The girl said, “Can your momma really help?”
“I can try.” It was Momma.
The baby’s mother peered up, hope flooding her blank eyes. “Can you help him? He’s gonna die if something don’t happen. We done buried two other children in this God-forsaken place.”
Momma tenderly took the baby. “What’s his name?”
The woman averted her eyes. “We ain’t named him yet—waiting first to see if he makes it.”
“I’ll try to help heal him, but you’ve got to promise to name him now. Don’t nobody deserve to live or die without a given name.”
The woman scowled. “What’s your name?”
“Clara. Clara Cotten, and this is my daughter, Nancy. ” Momma grimaced as she repeated our alias. “We’re the Cotten family.” Right then and there I made myself a promise: one day I’d have a name I could be proud of, and it sure as heck wouldn’t be “Cotten.”
The mother gazed at her baby. “I like that name; we’ll name him Cotton. All of my other kids have cotton-tops. That’ll fit just right.” She turned to my mother. “How you gonna heal him?”
“With the help of the good Lord and that fire over there.”
The mother drew back. “I’m not sure.”
“Please trust me—I need you to trust me—I only want to help.” Momma pleaded.
My mother was from a long line of healers. The secrets had been passed down through generations: using Bible scripture to stop bleeding, rub a burn out, and cure poison ivy and thrush throat. I’d never been brave enough yet to try it myself but was learning from Momma, so she could one day pass it on to me.
The woman silently handed the baby to Momma. I’d never watched her heal with smoke before, so I moved closer. Momma knelt at the smoldering fire and held the baby in the smoke. Unwrapping his blanket, she turned him where he’d have to inhale. The baby began choking and crying louder. The children’s curious looks turned to concern. Daddy and the man from the wagon watched from a distance. Finally, the man walked toward us. “What are you doing to my baby”?
The mother waved her hand. “Leave her alone. She’s healing him.” It looked to me as if she was killing him instead. Momma kept wafting smoke in the baby’s face and whispering in its ear as it howled. Finally, she handed him back to the mother. “I think Cotton’s a good name for a boy. He’s gonna grow up to be a fine man.”
The baby was still wailing, red-faced, but the mother’s jaw had loosened and she smiled wearily. “Thank you kindly.”
Momma patted her shoulder. “You should still try to get to a doctor in Hineston, but I believe he’s gonna be better.”
She turned to Momma. “Where’d you get your gift?”
“From the Lord.”
“God’s blessed you with a gift.”
“I’m not sure if it’s a gift or a curse.”
The woman reached into her pocket. “I don’t have much, but I’d like to give you something.”
“No, I don’t take nothin’ for helping. That ain’t how it works.”
I glanced at Daddy and wasn’t surprised at his scowl. As the family loaded in the wagon, the baby’s screaming only intensified. I stood by Momma. “You really think that’ll help it?”
She nodded. “It already has.”
The wagon slowly moved away and the mother called out. “May God help you.”
Daddy spat. “God he’ps those who he’p themselves and we just missed our chance.” He grabbed Momma’s arm. “Those people wanted to give us money—and you turned them down—and us with a broken wagon.”
She turned away. “You know I can’t take money for my gift.”
He angrily turned to me. “That man in the wagon said there’s a general store about three miles across this creek. We need some supplies, and I’m sending you for them.”
I was used to him taking it out on me. “What about money?”
He pulled out a crumpled dollar and several coins. “I’ve got a little, but it’ll be up to you to get the rest.” I cringed, knowing exactly what he meant. He led me away from the wagon, naming the things we needed. “Beg it, or steal it, or do whatever you’ve got to do, but bring it back.” As I walked away, I rubbed my cheek, but it wasn’t due to tears. I was remembering the spot where he’d hit me last time when I didn’t bring back what he wanted. I hurried away, afraid that he’d remember something else he wanted stolen.
At the creek crossing, an old man was fishing on the far bank. He halloed, then added, “Use that log right there for crossing. Where it ends, it ain’t but knee deep.” I hiked my skirt up and went across, studying him as he waded out to the log. He was dark-skinned and looked more Indian than anything. He stood at the end of the log, hand out for me, wearing a lop-sided grin that revealed he wasn’t quite right. However, I didn’t feel one bit scared. He gave off a sense of trustworthiness. Besides, he was so old, I could easily outrun him if he started any trouble. He scanned the ragged clouds being cleared out by the cold front. “It’s hog-butchering weather today, ain’t it?” I didn’t answer, but that didn’t faze him. “Where are you headed, honey?”
What’s your name?
“Nancy. Nancy, uh …” My mind went blank, and I could only gape into his dark eyes. “Nancy. . . Cotten.” I was going to have to get used to this new name real quick.
“Well, Nancy-Uh-Cotton-Whatever, you mind if I walk with you?”
“Only if you’ll tell me your name.”
“I’m Nathan. Nathan Dial.” He winked. “Nate Dial—and it appears I know my name better than you do yours.” He was studying me as if he already’d figured me out. “But folks around here just call me ‘Unk.’ Maybe you’re like me—got several names to remember.”
I stepped back onto the log. Sensing my fear, he waved. “Oh, don’t worry about that, Nancy Cotten. Nobody listens to ol’ Unk anyway. They say I’m touched in the head.”
For some reason, I decided I could trust him, so I waded out of the creek and put my shoes on as I studied him. Although his gait and slurred speech implied slowness, there wasn’t anything dull about his eyes. They were smoky black and seemed to suck in everything around him. He shook the water off his pants. “Cherry Winchie Creek is cold this time of the year.”
“Why do y’all call it ‘Cherry Witchie’”?
“It’s Cherry Winchie. My grandma said it got its name from a Cherokee woman that lived on the creek. You know, Cherry … Chero-kee.” He followed me up the bank. “Mind if I walk with you to the store?”
I’d been around varmints and leeching men all of my life, but judged him to be neither. “I guess not.”
He motioned down the road. “Past the store is another creek. It’s called Ten Mile. It got its name from being ten miles to Sugartown.” Whether I wanted it or not, I had a tour guide. He continued, “West of there is Six Mile Creek. I bet you can guess….”
I scratched my head. “It must be six miles from there to Sugartown.”
“You’re pretty smart for a girl that don’t know her own last name.”
“And you’re pretty nosey for a man that’s touched in the head.”
He grinned as he led me around the mud holes on the narrow road. “Being touched in the head comes in plenty handy sometimes. It kept me out of the war, and lets me hear lots of things I wouldn’t normally know.”
“Is the store up this path?”
“Another mile or so. Ain’t you a little scared being out here on your own? No Man’s Land’s no place for a lone girl.”
“I can handle myself.”
We came up the hill to the store where a group of men were gathered in front of the steps. Unk Dial jerked me behind a stand of trees. I started to pull away until I saw the fear on his face. “Trouble’s standing there. Don’t go no further.” I peered around the trees at the huddle of men. One held a rifle in the crook of his arm, and they all sported side arms. Unk pulled me back. “Don’t let ‘em see you.”
“Who are they?”
“That tall one’s Gordon Musgrove and the one with the rifle is named Watson. Trouble’s been brewing and they’re in the middle of it.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Trouble between them and my people.”
“Your people? What are you?”
“I’m Redbone. We got a good dose of Indian, a pinch of pirate blood, and a lot of who- knows-what-else. Anyway, trouble’s been building with those outsiders.” He pointed at the four men. “It came to a head last week at a horse race. There was this race between the Redbones and those white men. The storeowner, an Irishman named Joe Moore, had a fast horse named Vernon and it lost a disputed race to our Redbone horse and that’s led to the trouble. I’m a’feared somebody’s gonna get kilt ‘fore it’s over.”
I visualized Momma counting those crows. Two … three . . .four. This shocked me back to my mission’s purpose. “I’m going in the store.” He tried to grab my arm, but he was too late.
The men studied me as I neared the steps, making no effort to move out of the way. The youngest one squarely faced me. “And who are you”?
“Just passing through. I came to get supplies.”
“A girl as pretty as you shouldn’t be walking around here alone.”
I signaled back to where Unk hid. “Who said I was alone?” They still didn’t move, revealing themselves as the kind of men that liked picking on someone smaller or weaker. They were misjudging me and I readied myself to plow right through them.
A man’s voice boomed from the doorway. “You fellows don’t have enough manners to let a lady through?” It was a rich Irish voice, like the kind I’d heard on the docks back in Savannah. A ruddy sandy-headed man stepped forward, smiling as he said, “You fellows let that girl into my store. It looks like she’s got money burning a hole in her pocket.” They shuffled out of the way. This Irishman—who I assumed was the storeowner—evidently had the respect of the loitering men. He put out his hand. “My name’s Moore and this is my store.” He winked. “It rhymes, doesn’t it?” He appeared to be out of good stock and I immediately liked him. In addition to his enduring smile, he had the most piercing green eyes I’d ever seen. The only way I could describe them was fierce. They seemed in a struggle with the fine smile he carried and I wondered which facial trait defined his soul.
“Girl, what’s your name?”
“Nancy Cotten. Our wagon’s broken down and my father sent me for some supplies. I need some wagon grease and a handful of eight-penny nails, plus a small bag of flour. He disappeared into the back of the store allowing me to freely wander up and down the well-stocked aisles. I was browsing through the tobacco supplies when I walked right into someone. Looking up, I said, “I am so sorry.”
A grinning boy, wearing a work apron and leaning on a broom stood there. I surmised he’d meant to bump into me by the look on his face. He was olive-skinned with the same high cheekbones of Unk Dial. But instead of dark eyes, his were green—the same shade as the Irishman. He also had the Irishman’s smile. “I’m Will Moore. It’s nice bumping into you.”
I stammered. “So you’re the son of the Irishman who owns this store?”
“Well, actually, I own it and he just works for me.”
At first I thought he was serious but the grin washed that away. I blurted, “But you look different from him. Are you Irish?”
“The inside of me is.”
“My mother’s a local. I’m a little of both.”
Behind us, the Irishman coughed. “Will, I believe there’s work you need to be doing.” The man handed me the grease and led me to the nail bin. At the counter, I had them measure out flour for the rest of the money I had and made my exit. To my relief, the men were gone and I hurried to where Unk had been hiding, but he was gone. I hurried on down the road, determined to get as far away as fast as I could. In my haste, I didn’t hear the horse and rider behind me. I slipped into the wood’s edge, but the rider called out, “Come on out. I mean you no harm.” I watched him dismount and stand, arms crossed. It was the Irishman, Joe Moore.
I asked innocently, “Is something wrong, Sir?”
“You forgot something at the store.”
I wondered what it could have been as he walked to a roadside stump, and pulled out a pipe, tapping it against the stump. “I’d sure like a good smoke. Could I borrow some of your tobacco?”
“Tobacco? I don’t have any tobacco.”
He pointed. “It’s in your left pocket there.”
I jutted my jaw, then pulled out the pack of tobacco and tossed it to him. He methodically opened it, filled his pipe, tamped it down, and lit it. I thought about running but knew I might as well face the music. He puffed contentedly blowing a fine cloud of blue smoke as he watched me squirm. “It’s not everyday that I meet a pipe-smoking girl.”
“I don’t smoke a pipe.”
“Or one your age that dips snuff.”
I pulled two cans of Garrett’s Sweet Snuff out of my other pocket and sheepishly handed them to him. “Are you going to have me arrested?”
“Maybe.” His smile struck me that this was game he enjoyed playing. It reminded me of watching our wagon cat, Claws, torture an injured mouse. His ever-present smile was still there, but the smoke was too thick to compare the smile to those green eyes.
“Does anyone else know?”
I bit my lip. “Are you going to tell Will”?
“Well, he did say I worked for him, so I guess I’ll have to.” He shrugged. “No, I don’t plan to tell him unless it happens again.” He grinned. “Why wouldn’t you want Will to know”?
I blushed. I didn’t even know the answer to that. There was just something about him.
Moore saved me from an explanation. “But I do need to talk with your father.”
I shouldn’t have told him, but knew I must. “Poppa’s the one who sent me to steal it.”
The Irishman stood to his feet. “Your poppa told you to steal?”
“A good beating awaited me if I came back empty-handed.”
The Irishman sat back down on his stump, puffing rapidly a long time. I could see the embers flaring up in his pipe. When he finally stared up, his green eyes were also afire. He tossed the tobacco and snuff at my feet. “You take this contraband on home.” As I shuffled away, he added, “And I’ll expect to see you at work tomorrow morning at eight.”
“At the store. You’ll be working off what you stole.”
“Are you serious?”
He mounted his horse. “See you at eight, and don’t be late.” I stood frozen until Joe Moore, the Irishman, disappeared over the hill. The spot was about halfway between our wagon and the store. Back at the wagon, a man waited for whom I had absolutely no respect. In the other direction, riding a horse back toward the store was a man that I’d already come to admire in less than half an hour.
I wondered what would happen next. I knew one thing for sure: it was time for my life was going to change. And that was a good thing—it couldn’t get any worse. Could it?