DUNLAP, Tenn. - Pauline Cain had probably made the trip hundreds of times during the 70-plus years she lived on Old Mill Road along the banks of the Sequatchie River.
She used to carry a pan to a nearby spring that emerged from the ground under an old black gum tree, and collect sand for her beloved chickens to scratch.
The weather-worn old home is where she raised her children, Wayne and Juanita.
It's where she grew a garden and the sense of humor that she was known for.
Cain, a 95-year-old Sequatchie County native and aunt of the sheriff's wife, was found floating in about 14 to 16 inches of water at the edge of the river behind her house Monday night as temperatures fell into the single digits and winds gusted to 17 mph.
Sheriff Ronnie Hitchcock believes the "very independent" near-centenarian was trying to get water for her chickens after her water pipes froze on Monday.
"Her son checked on her regular. He lived there next door," the sheriff said Wednesday.
When Cain's son, Wayne, checked on her Monday around lunchtime, she was heating water on the stove to give to the dozen or so chickens she kept in a chicken coop near the house.
The chickens' water had frozen.
Later in the day, Wayne went to check on his mother again, but this time he couldn't find her.
"She's not in the house. I can't find her outside nowhere," the frantic caller told Hitchcock.
"This was about a quarter till 7 Monday night," he said. "We ran up there and started looking and searching.
"Her son said, 'I don't understand why she's got everything pulled out from under the kitchen sink out of the cabinet sitting in the floor with the doors open on it. I said, 'Let's go in the house,'" Hitchcock recalled. "I went in there and I flipped the lever. I said, 'She's out of water.'"
The pieces started to fall into place.
Hitchcock knew Pauline Cain wouldn't leave her chickens without water, and he knew she wouldn't ask for help. She would go to the Sequatchie River behind her house.
She would take care of the problem herself.
"I went outside. There's a little trail that goes from her house down to the river," Hitchcock said. "There was a little bit of snow and I started seeing her footprints."
A few moments later, Hitchcock discovered that his hunch was right and he had found his wife's "Aunt Pauline."
The dark green waters of the Sequatchie River, which is 60 or 70 feet wide at that point, were no more than knee-deep where her body was floating face up, mostly above the surface. Hitchcock couldn't be sure whether she slipped, fell and hit her head or had a medical problem and fell in, he said. An autopsy will make that clearer.
The home place is among a half-dozen or so houses along the rural one-lane road where neighbors are separated by a patchwork of fields lined with trees.
B.W. Davenport went to nearby Ewtonville Baptist Church for 55 years with the woman he called "Trouble."
"She was quite a case," said Davenport, 69. "Everybody knew Pauline Cain. If you didn't want to know what she was thinking, you'd better not ask her."
She liked to trade jokes and barbs, and when she shook your hand, she'd squeeze till it hurt to demonstrate that her strength hadn't waned even after 95 years, Davenport said.
On Sundays, she often delivered her "chicken report" to keep church members up to date on the latest happenings around her little chicken house.
On a recent Sabbath, her son, Wayne, was out of town, so rather than ask someone else for a ride she started walking the three-mile route to church.
"She had walked from her house over past the Cookie Jar [restaurant], over the hill, and some feller on a four-wheeler pulled up beside her and asked her if she wanted a ride. She came riding into church on the back of a four-wheeler," Davenport said, laughing.
"That was the kind of woman she was," he said. "Outside my mother, I probably had more respect for her than any woman I've ever known."
Around the Sequatchie County Courthouse, the mention of her name brought a smile.
County Executive Keith Cartwright said Cain was known for her candor and her sense of humor, "but she always had a kind word for you."
None of the three men who talked about Cain on Wednesday was too surprised by the way her life ended.
It was the way she was, fiercely independent and always looking out for those who made her happy, especially concerning her family, but even when it came to her beloved chickens.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.