Two weeks later, we had walked through snowfall after snowfall. Although it made the going rough, it also froze the venison and kept the smell down from the hides. I had shot another deer the same day we told Andrew there was little hope of finding his parents, so we all had something to lie on. Caleb continued using the tablecloth.
I was looking for a river that would lead to the Mississippi. We could fashion a raft and float down that river to the bigger one, where we would try to find a real boat. Laurel said she was sure there was such a river. She had studied such things to be a teacher. “I’m not sure what it was called or exactly where it was,” she told me.
“That’s all right,” I answered. “As long as you know it’s somewhere around here, we’ll find it.”
Andrew’s mood gradually improved, although he still had sad spells. I didn’t blame him much when he did. I felt the same way when my parents died.
We were on a trail that sloped downward, and one morning around what must have been Christmas, Laurel stopped.
“What are you stopping for?” I asked her.
“Shhh. I hear something.”
Her hearing was so much better than mine. I think women hear things that men don’t, sometimes even when there’s nothing there.
She listened a while longer. “It sounds like—sounds like—WATER! We’re close to a river!”
“That has to be the one we’re looking for,” I shouted. “Andrew, you run ahead and see what you can see and come back and tell us about it.” I knew he was faster than either of us, and he didn’t carry as much. He dropped what he did have and tore down the path.
“You’re convinced this is it?” Laurel asked me.
“Yes! Now that I can hear it, I can tell it’s a big one! Just what we’ve been looking for! What a Christmas present! This is working out just fine!”
Andrew came back in a few minutes. “Yes! It’s a big one! What we’re been looking for!”
Laurel laughed. “That’s what Caleb just said. We can finally escape!”
We quickened our pace, eager to see what the river looked like. We topped a rise, and there it was—wide and stretching off in both directions, with a current that didn’t look too fast. It would be ideal for what we planned to do.
We camped along the bank, ate, and then Andrew and I set about gathering timber for our raft. The only tool I had that I could use was a the big serrated knife I used to butcher game. It took a while to saw through branches, but Andrew and I spelled each other when we got tired, and we were able to cut enough wood that we could start on the raft the next day, since the light was fading fast.
We sat around our campfire thinking of how far we had come, and not really paying any attention to how far we had yet to know. Laurel went over and started rooting around in he basket. She came back with a small tin of something.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Something I’ve been saving for a special occasion, and if this isn’t one, I don’t know what is.” She opened the tin, and the smell of real coffee came to my nose.
“You have coffee!” I exclaimed. “I haven’t had real coffee since I was in Georgetown the first time. It’s been so long!”
Laurel brewed up the coffee and poured it into the tin mugs she brought. She brought something else out of her basket.
“I don’t have any milk, of course, but here’s some honey to sweeten it.”
And so we sat with our backs against some trees, feeling the warmth of our drinks as they went down and listening to the rushing of the river.
“Merry Christmas,” Laurel said, raising her mug.
“Merry Christmas,” Andrew and I echoed.
She smiled. “And God bless us, every one.”
The next morning, Andrew and I got up early, even before Laurel was awake, to begin work on our raft. Fortunately, I had some rope in my pack that we used to lash the logs together. I had never built a raft before, but Andrew had an uncle who was in the timber business, and occasionally he would help his uncle tie togs together to float them to market. I hate to think how the raft would have turned out without Andrew there to tell me what to do.
We worked hard and had it assembled before lunch. We went out into the woods and cut a couple of poles that would enable us to steer our creation and also to pole it through shallow places. We had lunch and then worked on getting what we had aboard. I had also never been on a raft before, but again, Andrew had and told us what to do. He made sure the load was balanced and then looked at me. “Are you ready to try this?”
“I don’t know how ready I am,” I said, “but we need to get going.”
With that, Andrew got on the raft first so he could help Caleb and Laurel climb on. Then I jumped on. Andrew took one pole and I took the other.
“Push off!” Andrew called.
“Aye, aye, sir!” I figured that since we were on the water, I should talk like a sailor.
We poled out into the current and then drew in our poles and let the current take us. I sat with my pack at my back while Andrew leaned against our supply of venison. “This is the way to travel!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, it sure beats having to tear through underbrush,” Andrew answered. Laurel didn’t say anything, but from her smile I could tell she was pleased as well.
We drifted along until it got dark, when we put into a likely place on shore. Without a light, I didn’t want to chance being run over by some bigger boat that couldn’t see us. I wouldn’t have wanted to run at night with a light. We didn’t know the river, and I’m sure there were currents and eddies we would want to see, along with whatever might be in the water.
We had our supper and settled down to talk after we ate.
“How far do you reckon we’ve come?” I asked Andrew.
He thought for a moment. “From what I can tell, I’d say we made about thirty miles, and a whole lot faster than if we had walked.”
“That’s for certain.”
“Laurel says this river we’re on leads to the Ohio. How long do you think it will take us to get there?”
He scratched his chin. “I’d say a couple of days more. It depends on the currents and the weather.”
“The Ohio goes into the Mississippi.” I looked at Andrew and Laurel. “Do you think we should try going down that?”
Laurel put out her hand, and I took it. “Why don’t we wait until we get there and see. We don’t know what’s going on in the war over there, and maybe we can find someone who can tell us.”
“That sounds like a good plan.”
We sat there a while longer, and then went to bed. I lay on my back, looking at the stars, which seemed brighter and closer from where we were. I didn’t know what would come, of course, but I felt good about having my family—including Andrew—with me.