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A Cherokee Woman's Stewardship

(Charles Frazier tells the story of a small detail of U.S. Army soldiers, commanded by a young Lieutenant Smith, whose mission is to roust Cherokees out of their mountain homes and send them on their way to a mustering-point for the Trail of Tears…)

The people all walked away from their homes fearing what their new lives held for them. A very few cried and a few made grim humor of their situation, but mostly they went wordless with their faces composed into an expressionless mask, as if they had placed a large wager on whether or not they could conceal any hint of their thoughts or emotions.

Tagrags and offscourings and white trash followed behind the little column with the attentiveness of buzzards circling a kill.... Then, as each farmstead was vacated, they would rush in behind the soldiers to collect livestock and possessions left behind. There was nothing to be done about it. Sometimes the rabble fell upon a place so soon after vacancy that the owners could look back and see them trying to straddle a plow mule or struggling to lead away a reluctant hog by a rope around its neck or flailing about in the farmyard chasing old big-breasted and flightless hens that ran squawking with their wings trailing in the dust. Sometimes out of exuberance the followers would set fire to a place after they'd emptied it....

That morning, Lieutenant Smith's party had ridden up a green cove, their first mission of the day to roust out an old woman, a widow living solitary in a cabin with tied bundles of sage hanging stems-up under the eaves of her porch to dry, the cabin hemmed in by fenced garden plots, corn and beans and squash growing in her fields, chickens scratching in the yard, straw skeps humming with bees, carefully pruned apple and peach trees busy putting out fruit. A bold creek cutting through the middle of the farm, running clear over mossy stones. In every direction, mountains hanging like green curtains from the sky.

This particular old Indian woman had her grey hair pulled back into a fist-sized bun, and she wore a greasy apron over a blue skirt that fell in limp folds from her wide hips. When she saw who they were and what they had come for, she went into the cabin and came out very quickly with two blankets and a little black pot. She spread the blankets on the porch floor and folded some of the herbs and the pot into the blankets, and with a quick knot she fashioned a shoulder sling of the bundle. Then she stopped and insisted on feeding her chickens before she was taken away.

Smith wanted to tell her not to bother. The chickens would not live out the morning but would have their necks wrung and be roasting on a spit for someone's dinner. But he guessed she did not understand a word of English, and perhaps the longevity of the chickens was not her point of concern but just her stewardship, maintaining it until the last moment. So Smith squatted on the ground with the other soldiers and refilled his pipe and smoked. One of the enlisted boys, an Irishman, said that other than for the hue of her skin the old woman looked much like his last sight of his grandmother when he was a boy. He told how he and his family had been set to sail for America, and they had gone from Galway out past Spiddal for a last visit. The Irishman recalled how his grandmother had refused to acknowledge that the journey meant she would never see any of them again in this life. When they got ready to leave, she had said, Be off with you, then. Said it in a tone as if they would be back in a week or two. And then she started feeding her chickens from grain she held basined in her apron.

The rabble that followed the soldiers to loot the farmsteads stood off at the edge of woods and waited.

The woman moved about the dooryard casting crumbled bits of dry leftover cornbread onto the ground with a rattling motion of her hand and wrist, like shaking and throwing dice. The brown chickens gathered and so did wild mourning doves. The birds mingled together and scratched the ground with their tripartite toes and ate the crumbs of bread, and then the chickens scattered across the bare ground and the doves flew away, their wings beating with a sound of mittened children clapping hands. The woman struck her palms against each other twice, with a hard brushing smack.

It turned out she did speak English, for she said in a loud clear voice, I spit on my past. Let's go.

And then she shouldered her bedroll and walked off into exile.

Her house was afire and black smoke rose to meet the low clouds before she made the second turning in the trail. But it was all the same to her, for she didn't look back.

At the end of such days, Smith said he went to sleep with a bitter taste like ash from a coal fire in his mouth.

- Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons (Random House, 2006), pp. 211-214.

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