1) The Day
I’ve learned through a whole lot of living, that there’s a day in every life that
you look back on and say, “Yep, that’s the day. That’s when it all changed.” Nothing’
s as it was before, and it won’t be again. My day was my twelfth birthday. Folks don’
t countenance a twelve year old being a man, but I became one that day.
The morning was clear with a million stars in the sky. It promised a bright,
beautiful day. It was April and even in the dark, you could feel and smell spring. I
had rushed to do my morning chores to have as much of the day to myself as I
Before I left the barn and stockyard to go back to the cabin, I wandered the half mile
or so to the bluff that overlooked the Big South Fork River. Our place was on Lick
Creek which flowed into this river, which made its way on into the Cumberland,
north of home. I had never been there but Pa had told me about it.
The sun lightened the sky from the east at my back. I looked out over the river and
watched the far bank go from black to gray while the beach fifty feet below looked
like a pit. A long ways behind me, way beyond the cabin, a wolf howls calling my
attention to home. I knew Ma would be at the stove cooking up something special
for my day, and I suspected there was a gift waiting, so I turned and ran back to the
Long before I got to our cabin, I knew I was right about the cooking. I could smell
the bacon frying up and imagined it jumping and sizzling in the pan. I hoped there
were pancakes to go with it.
I busted into the cabin on the run. “Mornin’ Ma!” I bellowed, excited for everything
“Nathanial James, hush, you’ll wake your sister!”
I was born Nathanial James Buchannan, but had been called Buck by Pa from about
five minutes into my life. It riled me when folks used my given name. It usually
meant I was in trouble.
I didn’t say nothing about waking Elizabeth. Today was my day. I didn’t much care
if I woke her or not.
“What’s got you roused so early this morning? Most days I have to pour water on
you to get you moving,” Ma teased. She had never had to do it. The threat was
I played along with her kidding me. “I don’t know, just seemed like a day I didn’t
want to waste none of.”
“Any of,” she corrected.
“Any of,” I repeated. Ma was real educated. She’d been raised in Boston, and
wouldn’t tolerate my not speaking good. I’ve since lost some of it, but those early
grammar lessons stick with me. Those and the ones taught to me by my particular
“What’s so special about today?” She teased.
“Oh, I don’t know. Just had the idea it might be.”
I’d been bothering her to know if Pa was going to be back from wandering in time for
today and what he’d bring me for a present. He’d been gone longer this time. She’d
told me half teasing, half worried, to not expect either Pa, or a gift, but I knew one of
those weren’t true. I knew she’d come up with something to surprise me. Pa was
Pa is Blue Buchannan, a wanderer, adventurer, and explorer. No distance was too
far, no mountain too high, no river too swift or wide, and forever in his eyes was the
question, “I wonder what’s over that next ridge?” No place held him long, not even
our home with his beautiful wife, my mother, Mary Beth.
Adventuring led Blue to Boston when he was sixteen where he met Mary Beth
Wilkerson. Her beauty and elegance knocked him over the first time he saw her
walking with her mother along Tremont Street. Mary Beth noticed the dark young
man with his pack of furs and his rifle, as did my grandmother. Seeing what was
going on, she took her daughter by the arm and squeezed just enough to let her
know that eye contact with a ruffian wasn’t appropriate.
Mary Beth dropped her copybook so the handsome frontiersman would find it and
her address. He did, and presented himself at the Wilkerson residence on Orange
Street that evening, cleaned and polished, dressed in buckskins. Pa had a way of
charming folks, and when a servant answered his knock, he convinced the man that
it was only proper for him to return to book to the young woman’s hand.
Greeted by Mary Beth’s physician father, Blue soon had him under his spell too.
Mrs. Wilkerson was immune and glared at her husband, but Mary Beth was allowed
to meet the half-Cherokee young man with the blue eyes.
As she entered the room, Pa rose to meet her, took her hand as he had been told to
do in a drinking establishment on Wharf Street, and bowed to her. She curtsied and
as he stood and looked her in the eye, both knew they would be together.
He came and went, and courted Mary Beth for a year or two. Her folks loved Pa, but
didn’t see how it could ever work. Pa had made clear his manner of living and even
though the two were in love, he left the option to Mary Beth to follow, or stay in
Boston. She chose to follow.
When he was about to leave again, she couldn’t bear to be without him, so there was
a nice little wedding in the Wilkinson home, lots of tears and promises to write, and
Mary Beth left the comforts of Boston for a life on the edge of the Kentucky
They traveled the better part of two years before Ma was pregnant with me. Pa,
knowing the needs of a family, claimed our spot near the Big South Fork River in
southern Kentucky and built a home on a bluff overlooking the river.
Blue stayed close for near three years before the lust to wander came on him strong.
By now, Elizabeth Ann had been born, fifteen months after me, and not too long
after, Pa left. He’d come back every six months or so, stay for however long it took
to secure the place, repair, plant, or harvest, then he’d be gone. Ma, his Mary Beth,
didn’t like his leaving and worried ever time he did, but learned to live with it and
was content, if not happy.
She flipped the pancakes and said, “These are going be ready in a just a minute. You’
d better go wash up.” I was so hungry that I hoped the pancakes were all for me and
ran to the wash shed out back.
When I came back, the stack of jacks was on the table with butter melting on them
and the bacon next to them. Next to that was my gift. The one I had begged for, the
one that would change my life.
Pa had been promising me a “man’s bow” since I had started shooting at the age of
eight. I had gotten good too. I was proud of being able to put meat on the table.
Because of the small size of my “boy’s bow”, I was pretty much limited to shooting
small game such as rabbits and squirrels. I did get a turkey once. She’d wandered
within ten yards of me. At that range, I knew the bow could do the work, but would
I miss? I didn’t.
The new bow was made of an ash limb I had seen Pa pick up one day while we were
out together. He hid it from me well, because I never saw it again until today.
“Where did that come from?” I blurted.
“Your Pa made it at nights while you were sleeping.”
I was struck dumb, but managed to get out, “It’s beautiful.” It was fashioned like Pa’
s, an English long bow. Pa talked about how his Pa shot with one and how he had
learned from an archer who had fought in England ages ago. Now it was my turn. It
was longer than the ones the Cherokee and local Indians used. It took special skill to
hunt with it because it was hard to use in heavy brush, but in the open, there was no
equal. It would kill at sixty yards easy. I’d seen Pa do it. The skill of the bowman
was the key. It would take a man to pull this one.
Next to the bow with its rawhide and sinew string, was a quiver of arrows. There
were twelve of them. I took one out. It was black, made so by Pa passing the willow
shaft through a fire to cure it and make it as hard as iron. The arrowheads were
made of steel that Pa had fashioned with his blacksmith tools. He’d fixed them to
the shaft with fine strips of rawhide. They’d been soaked in water, then fired to
draw tight, making the shaft and steel arrowhead as near like one as possible.
The fletching were turkey feathers. One dyed orange, one black with the other left
natural. These would be my colors. Pa’s were orange and blue. We’d know who had
shot what, and anyone else would know that there were two Buchannan men now.
“Ma,” was all I could muster as I turned the arrow in my hand.
“It took him a year working here and while he was on the trail to make you those.
He was thinking of you every minute.”
This was almost as good as him being here. “He’s been gone powerful long this time
Ma.” The rest didn’t need saying. We all knew that if Pa died out there, it could be
years before we heard of it, if ever. I sure wanted him home, especially today.
“After you eat.” She knew I was wanting to go shoot the bow. It was still early
enough that the deer hadn’t bedded yet, and I knew of a big buck down by Lick
Creek, near where I had my hideout. I wanted to go take a look-see if he was about.
I opened my mouth to argue, but Ma shut me up with a cocked head, a look, and a
pointing finger to sit and eat. I did, but I don’t think I tasted any of it I wolfed it
down so fast. I ate it all, and it was a good thing. I would need every bite of it and
more before that day was over.
Ma was smiling. I don’t think I had ever seen her prettier. The sun was just peeking
in through the east window near the stove and was backlighting her with a glow that
made her blonde hair look like a halo. “Go on,” she said, “be careful.” Those were
always her last words to me, but today would be the last time I heard them.
I grabbed the new bow, hefted it, and slung the quiver’s strap over my shoulder. My
face was aching I was smiling so big. I was almost glad Pa wasn’t there. This way,
when he came back, I would be practiced and ready. I bolted for the door.
I slowed my leaving long enough to hug Ma and say, “Thank you. I love you.”
“You’re welcome, and I love you too,” she said, then, “go kiss your sister.” I didn’t
want to, I wanted to get going. I went to her bed, leaned in and kissed her cheek.
She looked like a doll. Her gold curls were spread out on her pillow and she smelled
like lavender, just like Ma. I smiled at them both and ran out the door. I’m real glad
I did. As it turns out, that was the last time I would do any of those things, for this
day was my watershed.