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The Story of Capt. Paul by Jonathan F. Kelley


I love to speak, I love to write of the mighty West. I have passed ten happy and partly pleasant years travelling over the immense tracts of land of the West and South. I have, during that time, garnered up endless themes for my pen. It was my custom, during my travels, to keep a “log,” as the mariners have it, and at the close of the day I always noted the occurrences that transpired with me or others, when of interest, and opportunities were favorable to do so.

Several years ago I was stopping at Vevay, Indiana, a small village on the Ohio river, waiting for a steamboat to touch there and take me up to Louisville, Ky. It was in the fall of the year, water was very low, and but few boats running. Shortly after breakfast, I took my rifle and ammunition and started down along the river to amuse myself, and kill time by hunting. Game was scarce, and after strolling along until noon, I got tired and came out to the river to see if any boats were in sight, as well as take shelter from a heavy shower of rain that had come on. I sought an immense old tree, whose broad crown and thick foliage made my shelter as dry as though under a roof, and here I sat down, bending my eyes along the placid, quiet and noble river, until I was quite lost in silent reverie. The rain poured down, and presently I heard a footstep approaching from the woods behind, and at the same moment a rough, curly dog came smelling along towards me. The dog came up to within a few rods of me and stopped, took a grin at me and then disappeared again. But my further anxiety was soon relieved by the appearance of a tall, gaunt man, dressed in the usual costume of a western woodsman, jean trowsers, hunting shirt, old slouched felt hat, rifle, powder horn, bullet pouch, and sheath knife. He was an old man, face sallow and wrinkled, and hair quite a steelish hue.

“Mornin', stranger,” said he; “rayther a wet day for game?”

I replied in the affirmative, and welcomed him to my shelter. Having taken a seat near me, on the fallen trunk of a small tree, the old man, half to himself and partly to me, sighed—

“Ah! yes, yes, our day is fast gwoin over; an entire new set of folks will soon people this country, and the old settler will be all gone, and no more thought of.”

“I imagine,” said I, interrupting his soliloquy, “that you are an old settler, and have noted vast, wonderful changes here in the Ohio Valley?”

“Wonderful; yes, yes, stranger, thar you're right; I have seen wonderful changes since I first squatted 'yer, thirty-five years ago. Every thing changes about one so, that I skearse know the old river any more. 'Yer they've brought their steamboats puffin', and blowin', and skeerin' off the game, fish, and alligators. 'Yer they've built thar towns and thar store houses, and thar nice farm houses, and keep up sich a clatter and noise among 'em all, that one fond of our old quiet times in the woods, goes nigh bein' distracted with these new matters and folks.”

“Well,” said I, “neighbor, you old woodsmen will have to do as the Indians have done, and as Daniel Boone did, when the advancing axe of civilization, and the mighty steam and steel arms of enterprise and improvement make the varmints leave their lairs, and the air heavy and clamorous with the gigantic efforts of industry, genius, and wealth, you must fall back. Our territories are boundless, and there are yet dense forests, woods, and wilds, where the Indian, lone hunter, and solitary beast, shall rove amid the wild grandeur of God's infinite space for a century yet to come.”

“Ah, yes, yes, young man; I should have long since up stakes and rolled before this sweeping tide of new settlers, only I can't bar to leave this tract 'yer; no, stranger, I can't bar to do it.”

“Doubtless,” I replied; “one feels a strong love for old homes, a lingering desire to lay one's bones to their final resting place, near a spot and objects that life and familiarity made dear.”

“Yes, yes, stranger, that's it, that's it. But look down thar—thar's what makes this spot dear to me—thar, do you see yon little hillock—yon little mound? Thar's what keeps old Tom Ward 'yer for life.”

The old man seemed deeply affected, and sighed heavily, as he wiped the moisture from his eyes with the back of his hand. I gazed down towards the spot he had called my attention to, and there I beheld, indeed, something resembling a solitary and lonely grave; wild flowers bloomed around it, and a flat stone stood at the head, and a small stake at the foot.

“'Tisn't often one comes this way to ask the question, and the Lord knows, stranger, I'm always willing to tell the sad story of that lonely grave. Well, well, it's no use to grieve always, the red whelps have paid well for thar doins, and now, but few of 'em are spared to repent—the Lord forgive 'em all,” to which I involuntarily echoed—“Amen!”

“Well, stranger, you see, about five-and-thirty years ago, I left Western Virginia to come down 'yer in the Ohio valley. I well remember the first glimpse I got of this stream; it war a big stream to me, and I gloried in the sight of it. Thar war but few settlements then upon its banks, and thar war none of your roarin', splashin' steamboats about; but I like the steamboats—thar grand creatures, and go it like high-mettled horses. Well, I war a young man then; me and my brother and our old mother joined in with a neighbor, built a family boat, put in our goods, and started off down the stream, towards the lower part thar of Kentucky.

“Captain Paul, our neighbor, war an old woodsman, though he war a young man; he had a wife and several fine, growin' children along with us, and our journey for many days war prosperous and pleasant. Capt. Paul's wife's sister war along with us, a fine young creature she war too. My brother and her I always carc'lated would make a match of it when we reached our journey's end; but poor Ben, God bless the boy, he little dreampt he'd be cut off so soon in the prime of life, and leave his bones 'yer to rot. I war young too, then, and little thought I should ever come to be this old, withered-up creature you see me now, stranger.”

“Why, you appear to be a hearty, hale man yet,” said I, encouraging the old man to proceed in his narrative, “and no doubt shoot as well and see as keenly and far as ever?”

“Ay, ay, I can drive a centre purty well yet; but my hand begins to tremble sometimes, and I'm failing—yes, yes, I know I'm failing. But, to go on with my story: I acted as sort of pilot. Then the country were yet pretty full of Ingins, and mighty few cabins war made along the river in them times. The whites and red-skins war eternally fighting. I won't say which war to blame; the whites killed the creatures off fast enough, and the Ingins took plenty of scalps and war cruel to the white man whenever they fastened on him.

“Our old ark or boat war well loaded down; a few loose boards served as a shelter from the sun and rain, and a few planks spiked to the sides 'bove water, kept the swells from rollin' in on us. Two black boys helped the captain and I to manage the boat, and an old black woman waited on the wimin folks and did the cooking.

“You see yon pint thar, up the river?” continued the narrator, pointing his long, bony finger towards a great bend, and a point on the Kentucky side of the stream.

“Yes,” I replied, “I see it distinctly.”

“Well, it war thar, or jest above thar, about sunset of a pleasant day, that we came drifting along with our flat-boat, or broad horn, as they were called in them days, when Captain Paul said he thought it would be a snug place just behind the pint, to tie up to them same big trees yet standin' thar as they did then. Ben, poor Ben and I concluded too, it would be a clever place to camp for the night; so we headed the boat in—for, you see, we always kept in the middle of the stream, as near as possible, to keep clear of the red skins who committed a mighty heap of depredations upon the movers and river traders, by decoyin' the boat on shore, or layin' in ambush and firin' their rifles at the incautious folks in the boats that got too nigh 'em. Guina and Joe, the two black boys, rowed enough to get around the pint. We had no fear of the Ingins, as we expected we war beyond thar haunts just thar; mother war gettin' out the supper things, and Captain Paul's wife and sister were nestling away the children. Just then, as we got cleverly under the lee of the shore thar, I heard a crack like a dry stick snappin' under foot—

“'Thar's a deer or bar,' said the captain.

“'Hold on your oars,' says I—'boys, I don't like that—it 'tain't a deer's tread, nor a bar's nether,' says I.

“By this time we had got within thirty yards of the bank—another slight noise—the bushes moved, and I sung out—'Ingins, by the Lord! back the boat, back, boys, back!'

“Poor Ben snatched up his rifle, so did the captain; but before we could get way on the boat, a band of the bloody devils rushed out and gave us a volley of shouts and shower of balls, that made these hills and river banks echo again. Poor Ben fell mortally wounded and bleeding, into the bottom of the boat; two of the captain's children were killed, his wife wounded, and a bullet dashed the cap off my head.

“I shouted to the boys to pull, and soon got out of reach of the Ingins. They had no canoes, bein' only a scoutin' war party; they could not reach us. The wounded horses and cows kicked and plunged among the goods, the wimin and children screamed.

“Oh! stranger, it war a frightful hour; one I shall remember to my dyin' day, as it war only yesterday I saw and heard it. It war now dark, the boat half filled with water, my brother dyin', Captain Paul nerveless hangin' over his wife and children, cryin' like a whipped child. I still clung on to my oar, and made the poor blacks pull for this side of the river, as fast and well as thar bewildered and frightened senses allowed 'em.

“My poor mother leaned over poor Ben. She held his head in her lap; she opened his bosom and the blood flowed out. He still breathed faintly—

“'Benjamin, my son,' said she, 'do you know me?'

“'Mother,' he breathed lowly. Mother tried to have him drink a cup of water from the river, but he war past nourishment—and she asked him if he knew he war dyin'?

“He gasped, 'Yes, mother, and may the Lord our God in heaven be merciful to me, thus cut from you and life, mother—'

“'God's will be done,' cried my mother, as the pale face of her darlin' boy fell upon her hand—he was gone.

“We reached shore, but dar not kindle a light, for fear the Ingins might be prowlin' about on this side; yes, under this very tree, did we 'camp that gloomy night. The whole of us, livin', dead, and wounded, lay 'yer, fearin' even to weep aloud. About midnight, I took the two blacks, and we dug yon grave and laid poor Ben in it, and the two children by his side. It war an awful thing—awful to us all; and our sighs and sobs, mingled with the prayers of the old mother, went to God's footstool, I'm sure. We made such restin' places as circumstances permitted. I lay down, but the cries of poor Captain Paul's wife and sister, cries of the two survivin' children, and moans of us all, made sleep a difficult affair. By peep of day I went down to the grave, and thar sat the old mother. She had sat thar the live-long night; the sudden shock had been too much for her.

“Two days afterwards the grave was opened and enlarged, and received two more bodies, the wife of Captain Paul, and our kind, good old mother. Thirty-five years have now passed. Could I leave this place? No; not a day at a time have I missed seeing the grave, when within miles of it. No, here must I rest too.”

The old man seemed deeply affected. I could not refrain from taking up the thread of his narrative to inquire what had become of Captain Paul and his wife's sister.

“Well, poor thing, you see it war natural enough for her to love her sister's children, and the captain, he couldn't help lovin' her too, for that. The captain settled down here, about two miles back, and in a few years the sister-in-law and he war man and wife, and a kind, good old wife she is too. I've 'camped with 'em ever since, and with 'em I'll die, and be put thar—thar, to rest in that little mound with the rest. But I must bide my time, stranger—we must all bide our time. Now, stranger, I've told you my sad story, I must ax a favor. Seeing as you are a town-bred person, perhaps a preacher, I want you to kneel down by that grave and make a prayer. I feel that it is a good thing to pray, though we woods people know but little about it.”

I told him I was not a minister in the common acceptation of the term, but considering we all are God's ministers that study God's will and our own duty to man, I could pray, did pray, and left the poor woodsman with an exalted feeling, I hope, of divine and infinite grace to all who seek it.

A boat touched Vevay that evening, and I left, deeply impressed with this little story.


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