Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 4

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

It took me until the end of the year to completely recover from the gunshot wound inflicted on me by the raider. My recovery was slower than I’d hoped, because the wound became septic and Ma had to remove more of the flesh surrounding the bullet’s entry point. The turning of 1866 found me hale and hardy, though, and the incident was reduced to a jagged scar on my buttocks that I could not see anyway.

We loaded the wagons and made our final preparations during the first week of March. We thought it safe to leave during the final weeks of winter because we would be traveling a route that would keep us well into the Deep South for the first two months. At first light, on the tenth day of March, our small wagon train pulled away from the farm. JC led us off riding one of the horses we captured from the raiders while Anne drove the first wagon in line, one of the covered drays. We had kept six of the captured horses; the other two we traded for a milk cow and her calf.

We crossed the muddy Chattahoochee River at Bartlett’s Ferry on Mister Bartlett’s flat bottomed barge. It took four trips to transport us, our wagons and our livestock across. The river crossing put us in Alabama. We took the road that led west-southwest from the ferry dock and started the first of what would be a seemingly endless string of plodding days on the road and crisp nights along side it. We had set a goal of 20 miles a day and for the most part we managed about that many. We traveled six days a week and, at Ma’s insistence, we rested on the Sabbath. The trip was made less odious because we were all with people we liked and loved. Even as young as I was at the time I knew that, in the long run, liking someone was every bit as important as loving them.

We rolled into Opelika, Alabama around noon on our third day of travel. We were all excited about actually arriving somewhere, even if it was only a town fifty or so miles from the farm. From Opelika, it took us four days to reach Montgomery, the state capital. We stayed outside of Montgomery for two nights and spent all of one day reprovisioning and seeing the sights. Montgomery had survived the war in much better shape than Atlanta. Although Montgomery was under Union military rule, everyone we met was still unapologizingly Confederate. Thankfully, the new JC was still as good a forager as he had been during the war so we left Montgomery with enough supplies to last us a couple of weeks. In amongst the supplies was a leather bound folio of sheet music that JC had snapped up for a silver dollar. That book and my fiddle provided us with many a night of entertainment during our trip.

We made steady but unspectacular progress across western Alabama and crossed into Mississippi on the twelfth morning. We stopped in Meridian for our nooning on Saturday, our seventeenth day on the trail and our fourteenth day of actual travel. We set up camp outside of town. JC took the family into town to shop and look around whilst Curtis and I greased the wagon wheels and performed the other small but vital tasks required to keep us moving. Saturday evening we all took a bath then stayed up late as I fiddled and we sang every song any of us could think of. Sunday morning we dressed up and went to church.

The war had not been kind to the congregation of the Meridian Baptist Church as most of the women at the service were wrapped in widow’s weeds, while the few men there in the congregation were missing limbs or disfigured in some other manner. My mother, sisters-in-law and Rachael had plenty of sad company, all praying for the men they’d lost in the horrible war.

It took us twenty-six days total to reach Vicksburg and the Mississippi River. We had traveled approximately three hundred and sixty miles. Unfortunately, that distance was only about one quarter of our trip and we were already road weary. We camped outside of the bustling river port town, held a family meeting and decided to rest our stock and ourselves for a couple of days before crossing into Louisiana. As soon as the meeting ended, JC frocked himself in his Sunday go to meeting clothes and without a word of explanation saddled his horse and rode into town. I was worried that JC had back-slid into his old wastrel ways, but Anne seemed unconcerned so I kept my mouth firmly closed.

We were all relaxing by our fire, me sawing on my fiddle, when JC rode back into camp. Anne shot me a look when her husband showed up as if to say she never doubted he’d be with her at bedtime. JC unsaddled his mount, put away his tack and sauntered over to the fire. He grinned at my inquisitive and slightly censorious look, then pulled Anne to her feet and kissed her soundly. When he finally let the poor woman catch her breath he turned to me.

“No whiskey on my breath Jeb, and no smell of gambling on me. Instead, I walked the water front and secured us transport up the river clear to Saint Louis. Going up river will shorten our trip by at least three weeks.”

Three weeks less in the saddle or wagon seat was great news. Yet, before I jumped on JC’s bandwagon I had to remind him of something.

“If we go up river to Saint Louis, we won’t be going through Texas and you’ll miss seeing your family.”

JC shrugged and pulled Anne tighter against his side.

“I reckon Texas ain’t going no place, and I’m with my family right now,” he averred.

When JC said that, I swear Anne’s eyelids fluttered as if she were about to swoon. She turned her head sharply to look at him, flashed him one of her rare and beautiful smiles and practically dragged him off to their wagon.

The morning after, JC told me about going north on the Mississippi to Saint Louis we held another family meeting. JC explained his idea in detail and gave us his rationale for taking the river instead of striking out over land. The only real bone of contention with the whole idea was the cost. The river men wanted eighty dollars to transport us the four hundred miles up to Saint Louis. JC told us that he thought he could negotiate us a better deal by bartering off some of our surplus of weapons. We finally all agreed that JC’s plan was our best option and decided that we would allow him to trade one of our extra Spencer Carbines. Every one of us had great confidence in JC’s bartering ability. He haggled like a Yankee fishwife.

Later that morning, JC went back into town and returned with the riverboat captain. Captain Nathaniel Greene was a Yankee from Ohio. He had spent the war doing the same thing for the Union that he had been doing for the twenty years before, ferrying freight up and down the mighty Mississippi. Captain Greene lived in Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. JC met him at the wharf while he was unloading a shipment of mules and horses for the Union garrison. Vicksburg’s commercial water front and wharves were not on the Mississippi. Instead, they were on the Yazoo River, a slow moving tributary of the Mississippi.

Captain Greene looked over our wagons and livestock and pronounced that he could easily carry us and all our possessions up to Saint Louis but wanted to know why we just didn’t steam all the way to Saint Joe (Saint Joseph, Missouri). That idea got all of our attention and JC and the Captain moved a ways from the camp to dicker over the price of such a trip. The men settled on a price of one hundred twenty dollars which included four cabins on the riverboat. We had originally thought we’d be stuck on the barge the Captain pushed with his old side wheeler riverboat, so one-twenty with rooms included sounded as if it were a bargain. Ma and the other women out-did themselves on the supper they prepared that night with Captain Greene as our guest of honor. We sent him back to his boat stuffed to the gills on fried ham, black-eyed peas and Ma’s sweet cornbread. With Ma in charge of meals, good victuals were never a problem for us.

The following morning we loaded up the two large covered freight drays and JC and I drove them down to the wharf. I was impressed with my first glimpse of the Belle of Ohio. The riverboat was about a hundred and twenty-five feet long, thirty feet wide and two full decks high. The wheelhouse was perched atop the second deck at the front of the boat. The boat was painted a gleaming white with red piping and the paddles on the side wheels were painted blue with white stars. The barge was at least one hundred feet by fifty feet. Half the barge was fenced off for animals. Even the barge seemed freshly whitewashed and was sparkling clean. The condition of the boat and barge greatly eased my mind about embarking on them.

Captain Greene’s crew was just as well turned out as his boat, and they were efficient to boot. In less than an hour, both wagons were lashed to the deck of the barge and our horses and mules were settled into the fenced off portion of the deck. JC and I stowed our harness tack in one of the wagons and rode back to our camp on the spare horses we had brought with us. The rest of the family was loaded up and ready to go by the time we made it back to camp. Our second trip went as smoothly as the first. By two in the afternoon we were all loaded and our families were settled into their cabins on the boat.

Sorting out who would occupy which cabin was a chore because we were only allotted four of them for twelve of us and the cabins were tiny. Curtis said he wanted to sleep near our animals to keep them from being frightened and, in the end, I decided to stay on the barge also. Ma shared a cabin with her grandsons, while Florence and Rachael shared one, and the three girls bunked together. That left Mister and Missus Colbert in a room by themselves for the first time since they met.

The crew of the Belle of Ohio pushed her away from the wharf with long poles at first light the following morning. Captain Greene expertly steered a passage out of the mouth of the Yazoo and turned upstream on the broad, flat as glass, Mississippi. The mighty river was placid in advance of the flooding that usually followed the spring thaw, still a month in the future. Although Captain Greene called the Belle a tow boat, we actually pushed the barge up river in front of us. The Captain explained that having the barge in front made it easier to control and kept it in his view at all times. The barge also would be the first thing to hit any obstructions in the river allowing Greene time to save his boat.

JC, Curtis and I all stayed with the livestock as we got underway. The horses were alarmed and skittish as the boat started moving but the mules, cow and calf took it in stride. Curtis was a wonder as he gentled the horses down with a soft sing-song voice. I was amazed at what a clear and sweet singing voice he had, and with the fact that he knew all the words to the hymns and other songs we sang around the camp fire at night. Never once had he joined in the singing, although he always tapped his toe in time with my fiddle and seemed to enjoy listening to the rest of us. It took an hour or so for the horses to acclimate to the swaying and lifting of the deck under their feet.

After the plodding pace of our travels by wagon, the riverboat’s progress was swift and smooth. Captain Greene informed us that we were making a steady six knots against the river’s current.

“The Navy replaced our boilers in ‘62,” he explained, “so we have a more powerful and efficient propulsion system than before.”

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