The following excerpt is from River Passage, which won the 2010 Best Book Award. It is the true story of Mary Neely and three hundred settlers who ventured west in 1779. They traveled the Tennessee River, moving through Chickamauga Territory at the height of the Chickamauga Indian War. The book was determined to be so historically accurate that the original manuscript now resides at the Nashville (TN) Metropolitan Government Archives for future historians and researchers.
For the first time in her life, she heard an animalistic cry more terrifying than anything she had ever witnessed. It pierced the air and grew with intensity, the sound reverberating through the valley with such force that it seemed to be everywhere at once.
“Get the muskets!” Ike yelled as he leaned into the tiller, pushing and turning the long pole. “Push forward!” he yelled to those with poles. “Gather speed!”
Mary dashed to the cabin, her legs spread wide to keep her balance on the swiftly moving boat. As she raced toward the back, she caught a glimpse of the Jennings boat, the people moving about frantically, trying to navigate further to the northwest to outrun the Indians.
She reached the door and slung it open, grabbing the muskets that stood just inside.
She leaped and lunged back across the boat. Ma was racing toward her and as they nearly collided, she grabbed two of the muskets. “Hurry, Mary, hurry!” Ma screamed as she flew past her, tossing one of the muskets up to the bridge.
Mary could see Ike still frenetically moving the pole through the water, his body leaning forward as if he could will the boat to move faster. He anxiously glanced over his shoulder as Mary passed below him.
“Put down the guns and grab a pole!” he shouted over the din.
Mary quickly laid the muskets on a pile of sack cloth, grabbed a pole and paddled like she’d never paddled before.
“Put your back into it!” Ike was shouting. In tandem, the Neelys sliced their poles through the waters.
The Jennings boat was dropping back as only Mr. and Mrs. Jennings appeared to be paddling the small, overstuffed boat.
Ike turned to look in the same direction and then his eyes swiftly searched the boat. Seeing Sam at the stern, he called out, “Sam, keep rowin’, no matter what! Stay in the center, away from the north shore shoals, so’s we don’t get hung up. If any Injuns try to board, shoot to kill. Do not try to help nobody in the other boats. You hear me?”
Mary watched Sam as he nodded grimly and kept slicing his pole through the waters.
Then Ike called out to Mary, “Mary, take a musket and get to the children!”
She grabbed one of the muskets from the sack cloth and with a final glance at Ike, raced through the boat toward the cabin hatch. As she passed each of the Neelys, they looked at her with the same terror-stricken panic—all but Sam, who had a look of anticipation on his face that was more harrowing to Mary than the others’ fear.
“The children—” Ma managed to holler as she worked the pole.
“I’ll take care of ‘em,” Mary shouted as she raced to the cabin.
The cabin hatch faced the back of the boat. When she threw the door open, Meg screamed as though a murderer was bearing down on her.
“It’s me!” Mary shouted, rushing inside. In a split second, she’d taken in the image of Meg in the corner of the cabin, her thin arms pulling six-year-old Johnny and four-year-old Jane as close to her chest as she could. Jane was screaming and crying. “Are the Injuns attacking?” she screamed.
“No!” Mary shouted. “Pipe down! Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to you.”
The Indians were stopping the chase, she realized as she watched. Dozens of canoes were simply stopping. As if the world had taken on a surreal, slow-motion quality, she saw their heads turning to look behind them.
As the Neely boat continued to put distance between them, she realized the Jennings boat had continued to drop back. They were too near the northern shore, she thought, too close to the shoals in their effort to escape the Indians attacking from the south. The beaches would jut far into the water, the shallows trapping any boat that came too close to shore. Especially a boat overloaded with furniture and heavy boxes.
And around a curve a mile behind them, the Stuart boat limped into view.