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On Tuesday morning, at sunrise, Mr. Heald, merchant, Mr. Cotton, our head carpenter, and myself started to Fort Smith to participate in the anniversary celebration of our national independence. Two of us were well mounted on mustang horses, and the third upon a Santa Fe’ mule. The distance was fifteen miles, down the river, through heavy timber which shaded the road, rendering our equestrian exercise delightful.
Mr. Heald and myself had been chosen to address the people on the occasion. The church in which we spoke was much too small to contain the audience. At the door of the church Captain Hoffman, of the United States army, as marshal, formed the procession, and conducted us to a beautiful grove, where a bountiful dinner had been prepared by the citizens. While we sat at the well-furnished table, the head of which was honored by the presence of General Zachary Taylor, the military band gave us most excellent music. There were no intoxicating drinks upon the table; perfect order and decorum were preserved; not an event transpired to mar or lessen the pleasures of the occasion, and so our national festivities passed off most delightfully.
At three O’clock in the afternoon we mounted our horses to return to Fort Coffee. In crossing the Poteau river, in a ferry-boat, we fell in with the mail-carrier, who made weekly tours through the border tribes on horseback. Mr. Heald was in the habit of acting as an assistant or deputy postmaster at the Agency, and, leaving the key in his pocket, kindly consented to open the mail-bags and ascertain if there were any papers or letters for Mr. Cotton or myself. During the examination he related some amusing incidents relating to and illustrative of the method of transacting business by officers on the frontiers. The usual method was for the officer to label the crown of his hat with the word “office,” and then, carrying his papers with him, he was always found in his office, and ready to transact business in a legal manner, by the roadside, on the bank of the river, with his fishing-rod, or in a bear-chase in the forest. It was a very excellent interpretation of the statute, and enabled officers to comply with the requirements of the statute without making any great sacrifice.
Leaving the Poteau we entered a dense canebrake, which extended for many miles. To one who has never gazed upon a forest of reeds language will scarcely convey a correct idea of what a canebrake is, and that one especially. In that deep alluvial deposit of sand and rich loam, which was nothing less than an immense hot-bed; the canes were almost equal, in the luxuriance of their growth, to the bamboos which flourish, in the tropical climates, and of vehicle the natives of Central America build their hovels. The canes stood so thick there seemed to be little room for other timber; there were a few cottonwoods, elms, and pecans.
We arrived at home, in the twilight of the evening, greatly to the relief and joy of the family, who had begun to tremble at the thought of spending the night alone; for, though we apprehended no danger in the midst of an Indian population, yet the females were timid, especially at night; and our German cook had even less fortitude than the women.
On Saturday, the eighth day of July, Mr. May, one of the carpenters, signified his intention of leaving us, and demanded the amount due him for his labor. The treasury was empty, or nearly so; Mr. Goode had left no money on hand, but there was an order upon the Choctaw Agent for money, but the time had not yet arrived for presenting the order. But, having no private funds with which to do business, I took the Superintendent’s order and rode over to explain the matter to the Agent, and to ask for a small advance to relieve us from our embarrassments. The Major listened politely, and then replied that he was only authorized to pay certain amounts of money semiannually and at the dates specified in the law. He then significantly intimated that it was our duty to live within our income, and, as the money was not yet due for two full weeks, he could not then pay it.
Riding home again I made a rigid examination into the financial condition of a friend, and thus succeeded in borrowing a sufficient sum to meet the demand. Then, on the day that the money was due to the Academy, the order was presented to the Agent and the installment was paid over. We had considered Major Armstrong rather wanting in the spirit of accommodation when he declined paying us a few dollars in advance, but we have since concluded that he only did his duty in the premises.
The time had come when our crop of corn and vegetables required no more work, so that we were able to reduce the expenses. We were gratified to be able to dismiss Sam, the plowman, and to be rid of his presence. He worked ‘faithfully, but was an artful, sly man, who was destitute of moral principle. He had built a small skiff, in which he crossed the river to spend every Sunday at the house of a Cherokee woman, who had a grown-up daughter. During the week he would sometimes go over and spend the evening. We were well satisfied that his intentions were not honorable, but, as we had no proof of his guilt or efforts at intrigue, we bore with him till it was convenient to dispense with his services.
We had employed Mr. R., a brick-mason and plasterer, by the day, to repair the old buildings, but he progressed so slowly that I became convinced that his purpose was to make a lengthy and profitable business of it; and to hasten the work and to secure a reasonable amount of labor for the compensation given, I set an active and willing mason to assist in the repairs; but Mr. R., finding himself caught, became very indignant, and quit in disgust, but greatly to our relief.
The new dwelling-house progressed rather slowly; it could not be otherwise, as the framing-timbers were cut and hewed in the forest. A large oak was felled and worked up into shingles for the roof. The carpenters dressed all the lumber by hand, and made the doors and window-sash for the entire establishment. There was no machinery for dressing lumber in the country, and no dressed lumber, or work done by machinery, in market.
On Monday, the sixteenth of July, I concluded to amuse myself for an hour at fishing. Years had passed since I had cast a baited hook into the river, or had made any such attempt at amusement. Having procured a cane rod, twenty feet in length, with a stout cord, and a hook as large as the tine of a table-fork, I went down to the river, and, baiting the hook with an ounce of fresh beef, cast it out into the deep and turbid stream. In a few minutes I realized that thrilling and exquisitely delightful sensation, which is known only to fishermen, resulting from a “bite.” It was not a “nibble,” with which a mere tyro might become exultant, but a veritable bite, which took hold and fastened upon the hook. To lift the fish out of the water at the end of the rod was impossible: hence the only plan which promised success was to give him a slack line, and let him run back and forth till his strength was exhausted, and then drag him out upon the sandbar. He proved to be a white catfish, and weighed twelve pounds and eight ounces, which was considered rather small for a fish of that species; they sometimes exceed one hundred pounds in weight.
A gentleman related to us a circumstance which is worthy of record, and, though it is a fish story, he assured us that it was truthful. Near the mouth of the Canadian river, about forty miles above Fort Coffee, a number of Indian lads were in the water bathing, when an enormous catfish seized a child six years of age and instantly carried him to the bottom. The boys were greatly excited, but could extend no aid to the perishing child. The friends assembled, and, with the aid of a fishing seine, succeeded in dragging both fish and child to the shore. The fish had taken the child’s head entire within its jaws, but could proceed no further, and thus both had perished. The circumstance would seem almost incredible, yet it was so well authenticated that we could not question its truthfulness.