There’s no town today where Indian Hollow, Illinois, used to be. You could start at Cairo and head six or seven miles north to Mound City and never find a trace of Indian Hollow along the way. But if someone told you there used to be a town in between Cairo and Mound City that’s not there anymore, you could maybe figure out what had happened to it because for the whole six or seven miles you’d see the Ohio River on your right. You might guess that flooding had made the town disappear even if you’d never heard of the Ohio River flood of 1937. The flood of 1937 killed four hundred people and left a million homeless. It put Mound City under twelve feet of water.
Unlike Mound City, Indian Hollow couldn’t come back from the flood of 1937. But a century earlier, when the itinerant musician Thomas Kelly passed through Indian Hollow, he never considered the precarious situation of a small town clinging to the banks of a mighty river. His mind was on Willie Tarr, hanged for killing the girl who’d refused to marry him.
Kelly had outdone himself with his ballad about Willie Tarr. He’d been moved to compose it in a single day, hardly less time than had elapsed between murder and hanging. Willie had confessed without prompting, then begged for execution. The entire population of Indian Hollow knew that Willie was a good boy, undone by one terrible, irreversible mistake. It had broken the hearts of the jury to convict and it had broken the judge’s heart to pronounce sentence. Willie’s lawyer had wanted to appeal the conviction, but Willie asked to die the next day.
That late spring afternoon, for the first time in their lives the oldest spectators watched an executioner weep openly. While the hangman finished his work after needing the day to construct the scaffold, the weather turned. The grieving spectators agreed that the sudden turbulence expressed God’s own state of mind. The wind tossed the corpse about as the hangman composed himself to take him down. Meanwhile, Kelly made a dozen sales of his hastily printed ballad. His purse swelled as the buyers joined one by one in the chorus:
And only say that you’ll be mine
In no others’ arms entwine
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.
Kelly hadn’t yet wept for Willie Tarr. The sacred obligation to transmute Willie’s fate into art had forced him to maintain some distance from the tragedy. But now, with sobbing spectators clamoring around him and the beauty of his own words in his ears, Kelly’s tears fell upon the sheets of music. He made another dozen sales. His tears almost prevented him from ensuring the accuracy of the transactions.
Kelly wasn’t ready to declare that the success of “Banks of the Ohio” signaled a reversal of his recent run of bad luck. Yet on this particular day, he’d been fortunate. He was going to make the most of it. He’d gone too many months sleeping out of doors or in barns. But with darkness approaching he resolved that on this night he would buy himself a proper meal and get drunk and sleep in a proper bed.
The first owner of the Black Horse Tavern had ignored the power of the Ohio River. In 1770, Henry Johnstone had built so close to the banks that his popular outdoor seating area, sitting at lower elevation than the rest of the Black Horse, would twice need rebuilding during the ensuing decades. After Henry’s grandson sold the Black Horse to Zebulon Ross in 1831, a third flood persuaded Mr. Ross to dispense with outdoor seating.
Thus, Thomas Kelly had only indoor seating to choose from on an evening that would have been ideal for eating and drinking outdoors. He spotted an empty table. He pulled out a chair. He sat proudly, folding his hands on the table like they were a flag for planting. He was confident that some of the patrons would recognize him as the composer of the touching ballad.
A strapping red-haired woman attended to him. He was smitten by her height, which exceeded his own, and by her breasts. They hung behind the low neckline of her white blouse like fruit ripe for picking.
“Whatever food and drink’s best for body and soul, darling,” he said.
She brought a full tankard and a plate of pressed duck and bread sauce.
“Was you wrote the ballad about Willie Tarr, then?” she said. “I was at the stretching to hear the singing of it afterward.”
Kelly tasted his ale.
“I am indeed Thomas Kelly, composer of ‘Banks of the Ohio.’ What’s your name, darling?” “Polly,” she smiled.
“Pretty Polly,” he smiled back.
Pretty Polly seized every chance provided by a quiet night at the Black Horse to sit with Kelly so that he might serenade her. She also seized every chance to refill his tankard.
Eventually, they were left alone.
“Time you show me my bed,” he said as he struggled to his feet.
She took his arm to stabilize him.
“Got to lock up for Mr. Ross,” she said. “Then going to find a special bed for you.”
She led him out. He swayed in place as she secured the door. She led him around to the back of the Black Horse, into a small room. It was lit by a fire under a cauldron.
“This my room?” he asked. “Have I paid yet?”
“Oh, you’ll pay, dear.”
She locked the door behind them.
“It’s my room,” she said. “But before you share my bed, you’ll need a bath. I slipped away a few minutes ago to fill the tub with boiling water. Should be the perfect temperature now.”
“Slipped away? You weren’t with me the whole time?”
“That’s proof you’ve had a bellyful to drink. You need help undressing?”
“Don’t know if I need help,” he grinned. “But, you know.”
When she’d finished undressing him, he reached for her breasts. She slapped his hand away.
“But you can see I’m ready.”
“You’re small,” she laughed. “But not where it matters. A bath won’t reduce that measure of enthusiasm.”
With Pretty Polly’s assistance, Kelly climbed into the bath without falling.
Her room was sparsely furnished: the bed and a chair. She brought the chair over to the tub and sat in it. She handed him a glass.
“You looking at me,” he said. “That’s guaranteed to keep up my enthusiasm.”
“You’re a fine man to look at.”
She dipped her hand in the water, between his knees. He held his breath, but she withdrew the hand and splashed water on her face.
“I’ve given up my own bath because you’re in such need,” she said.
Kelly shut his eyes.
“Yes, you’re a fine man to look at, but we should also talk.”
“We should talk about your ballad. Lovely bit of music, but raises certain questions.”
Keeping his eyes shut, Kelly drank again. The hot water felt so good and the whiskey tasted so good that he thought he might leave the feeling and tasting of Pretty Polly for the morning. She would still be there.
“Questions like, why does Willie get to tell the story? Why not Hannah?”
“Hannah?” Kelly said.
Through the crack that he was able to open his eyelids, he saw that her skin had flushed. It looked fine with her red hair. His eyelids fell. He imagined the fine morning he had in store.
“Did you forget her name?” she said. “Isn’t in the song.”
He thought she looked fine even though the light wasn’t good like it had been in the tavern.
“And Willie gets to tell his story,” she said. “You think Hannah, who’s with Jesus now, wouldn’t like to tell her story?”
He thought that in the morning he would see her by the light of day. Every inch of her.
“Willie gets to say why he killed her,” she said. “You think Hannah wouldn’t like to explain why she refused his hand?”
Her voice rose.
“You think my friend Hannah might have thought Willie was the sort who could kill?”
His last thought before spilling his whiskey was that in the morning he would make her voice rise again.
Kelly having succumbed to sleep, Polly stopped talking. She wondered if someday a murdered woman might have her story told properly by a man. She knew that Thomas Kelly would never be that man.
She submerged his head, thinking of the end of Kelly’s ballad, when the Sheriff tells Willie to come down to the banks of the Ohio to view the body of his unnamed victim. Polly thought she would bundle the little musician out of the tub, into Mr. Ross’s wheelbarrow for transport to the banks of the Ohio.
Image: Banks of the Ohio River – Ravenonhealth / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)