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Lucy of the Trail of Tears

From survivor of the "Trail," to Seminary graduate...to falling in love with Andrew, Lucy's life is a living testimony of faith as she rides into old cowtown Wichita in the 1960's. Can she find a home there?

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Lucy of the Trail of Tears

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      Back in the Oklahoma woods, Lucy listened to mixed commands. "Now it ain't so bad," Supervisor Haggler yelled, ordering the recruits and captains to pitch the few canvas tents, which would house less than one-third of The People.

      "Plenty of nice shade, shelter in the underbrush fer the others," Haggler's mouth twisted. He spat.

      One would have expected groans from The People, but this time, they remained silent.

     "We sent recruits and an agent for oxen, horses and wagons. Government says you folks get to ride all the way, we gonna see to it, best we can." He fumbled for his last tobacco chaw and now was reduced to borrowing from someone else.

      "We'll be all right, won't we Mother? Todd and I'll take care of you. That new soldier, Mr. Greenway, will help us." Lucy knew that childhood was something, for now at least, best left behind under the towering chestnut trees of New Echota, Georgia.

      "They're giving the tents to the old folks and the sick," Three Killer Hughes called to Lucy, Todd, and Abby. "If we need to put up shelter, I'll help you cut poles and throw on some branches. Reasonable weather now, but it may change." Three Killer surveyed the sky through the white-branched sycamores and burr oaks, noting how the wind tossed their top branches.

      "We'll rest peacefully here beneath this hickory. I love hickory trees, see how yellow the leaves are now? And, Lucy, Todd, scrape through the leaves, you may find a few fallen nuts." Abby leaned against the trunk of the hickory, but the shag bark hurt her back. I must hold on. One step. One more hour. The children, Lucy, Todd. Oh, Benjamin, we're almost there. Her head fell forward on her breast.

      The Velocipede hooted a parting wail as if it were ashamed of having dumped them on a forbidden shore. The captain thrust it into reverse, face betraying that he hoped he wouldn't have to back seven miles before he could manage to turn it around. Shamans actually smiled as they, bending and nodding, digging and searching, raked through the undergrowth and woods to replenish their herb and root supplies. Not far now, from the new land. At last, they could gain control over the mysterious forces of the bad times, cholera, smallpox, measles, and ague.

      The People were at home with the trees, the blowing winds, the changing seasons. It was not these that chilled their hearts. It was the unknown. Soon they would be in their new homeland, receive their back payments, dig in to build homes. Traces of hope flamed upwards.

      They sang. Preacher Bushyhead led an evening service.

      "We've made a long journey. God has brought us nearly home." His hand, trembling perpetually from holding it over so many graves, clasped his worn Bible. "Soon, the voices of our people, the Old Settlers, those who went ahead three years ago, will greet us. We'll see the smiles on their faces. We'll enter the churches they've built and sing our hymns together."

      The People smiled and nodded. "Amen. Amen," they whispered.

      "We must greet them as brothers and sisters. We are one in faith. Like Ruth of old, let us say: 'Your people shall be my people.' We must put aside old differences that brought hostility and hurt, 'this party, or that party.' We are one people."

      The People nodded and sang and prayed, as the evening winds turned chill and autumn leaves circled down from the trees and fell upon feet in shredded shoes, feet in torn moccasins and bare feet exposed to the elements.

      Abby opened her eyes, trying to ignore her throbbing head. She noticed that Three Killer Hughes stood at the edge of the circle of worshipers, arms folded across his chest, staring, unsmiling, at preacher Bushyhead's remarks.

      She watched The People nibbling on small hoe cakes. A few, half-green hickory nuts, cracked open with a hand-held rock. Water lifted by hand from a spring. Paw paws, but not enough for the crowd.

      "Can't dig a slit-trench in this rocky ground with the underbrush, but plenty of trees and bushes when nature calls," Supervisor Haggler yelled. Faith still surged in their hearts.

      "Meat. Supervisor Haggler said that the overseer at Fort Gibson is sending us some meat. See how God provides?" Smiles spread at such good news shared by Hog Killer.

      One day. Two days. Grey clouds spread across the sky from west to east. Temperatures dropped. They plunged again. Heavy frost coated the bent grasses and curling leaves. Coughing rose up through the pall of smoke spreading in the fog. The People shivered and waited. Three days. Six aged ones passed silently into the future land of happiness, their lungs filled with fluid as their fatigued bodies refused to cast off the hold of pneumonia.

      On the evening of the third day, the waiting hordes raised their weary heads to the approaching sounds.

      "Wagon wheels," Todd Wyeth said, shaking Lucy, who had huddled under their blanket, trying to keep herself and her mother from the biting cold.

      "I hear oxen lowing. God heard our prayers. They're coming," cried Preacher Bushyhead, struggling to hide his own pain from the rheumatism in his joints.

      They lumbered through the woods and down the narrow, rutted trail; six wagons, three double-teams of mismatched lowing oxen, and three double-teams of mean-looking mules, ears lowered in defiance.

      Supervisor Haggler's mouth turned down as he muttered to himself: "Robbed us. Them redneck settlers back there. Knew we had no other choice. Government allowed us two dollars for a wagon a day, charged us four. Government budgeted a dollar per horse or ox. Charged us three. And, with only six wagons, what we gonna do with these stinking Indians?" He spat away from the wind.

      "Six wagons and over 400 people?" Three Killer, scowled, arms folded.

      "Supervisor says more of The People are coming up river right on our tail. Push us off the path if we don't skedaddle," a young army recruit said, wiping his runny nose with his sleeve.

      "You'd think we could kill some deer, some squirrels, even a bear. There's wild life aplenty in these parts," Timber Wolf said, eyes scanning a giant red oak for squirrels.

      "Too many emigrants tromped this trail. Wild life aplenty, but they've scattered. Creek tribes moved through here, settled back beyond them hills. Migrations been going on now for years. Animals hightailed it outta here. Have to tighten our belts and wait for that meat from Fort Gibson. Blessing they have us in mind. We won't starve," Three Killer encouraged.

* * *

      "Mother, when they stop the wagons again, I'll ask Mr. Greenway to help you in, you shouldn't try to walk anymore." Lucy leaned in to her emaciated mother, who sagged toward her. One step. Two steps. Again, another step. Her narrow foot, now bare and bleeding from cuts on the rocks, shredded shoes long disappeared.

      "My child, I can endure it if I think it's a little journey of one step. One step at a time. With you holding me and by concentrating on where I put each foot, I don't even think about my headache."

      "But Mother, you should climb into a wagon. You shouldn't be walking."

      "Hush, child. The aged and the sick lie flat in the wagons. The infants and their sick mothers line the sides. No, child. It would be wrong for me to crowd them out."

      Lucy walked silently, her heart near breaking.

      "Look, children. Cast your eyes at the edges of the trail. See, we're in it, the earth, the beauty of it. Each step. We can make it a step at a time, if we concentrate on that yellow-orange persimmon bush, the red sumac on the left. Look at the pink tickle grass, the little sunflowers, the big sunflowers, the blue..." but her cough drowned out the rest of the sentence.

      The temperature had not risen above 40 degrees the entire day, the cold wind lingered and the black cloud spread from horizon to horizon, casting a shadow over the countryside and the staggering emigrants, the lurching wagons pulled by decrepit mules and mismatched calves called oxen.

      Allowing five minutes only for a rest stop, the supervisor commanded: "On your feet. Crack the whip, get them straggly oxen and obstinate mules moving again. We got a sizable creek, Bull River, ahead four miles. Get across it come nightfall, and we'll have provender arriving from Fort Gibson."

      Lucy and Abby were not encouraged by the rest or by the anticipation of food by Bull River, come evening. Their feet were too weary, their minds too saturated with the mixture of evil and such a minuscule of good that they couldn't concentrate on it at all. Obey, obey. The role of the slave is obedience, they knew by now.

      "March. Heeee, haw. Crack that whip. Captains, make sure you don't leave a woods Indian behind. Count your crew." The Supervisor scowled.

      When the tops of the trees tossed and twisted together, The People knew. Rain would soon drench them.

      "They'll let us stop if it storms," Todd said, as he picked up a fallen stick to aid his plodding feet.

      Lightning cracked, flashing through three-quarters of a purple sky. Mules whinnied. Oxen lowed and dropped dung. They raised their tails and rolled their eyes in fear of the jagged streaks.

      The rains pelted. Cold, miserable drops.

      At first, the path beneath Lucy's unfeeling feet rose up slick and slimy. But in an hour, it no longer rose to meet a pounding heel, a bending toe. The heel and toe, foot and ankle sank into the squishy mud. Cold legs ached. Pull, plod. Pull, plod.

      "Had we been able to snatch a jacket," Silver Wing said, "but the way it was, being dragged off to a stockade, I couldn't even bring a wrap."

      Abby leaned forward, her shoulders nearly bare as her homesppun dress, rotted in the weather, caught in a blackberry bower miles back, tore off her shoulder and flapped in the cold wind.

      "We'll plant our feet together, Mother. There, one, two, one, two." But, even brave Lucy was rapidly losing faith. What would she do if her mother slipped to the mud below?

      They began to fall, the old ones at first, back 20 yards. There, up ahead. Grandmother, grandfather. An old man dragged his feet out of the ruts and collapsed before the wide trunk of a hackberry tree. Groaning, he opened what was left of his shirt, extended his palms outward, and stared ahead, waiting for one of the Above Beings to come for him.

      Their gnashing caught in the wind, drifting, circling above their heads into the twisted treetops.

* * *

      Up at Fort Gibson, Lieutenant Anderson, knowing that another emigrant train of Cherokee Indians was descending upon the Fort, and upon Tahlequah, dropped his ledger and commanded: "Recruits, those barrels of meat, salt pork we've been keeping in the cellar here at the Fort. Haven't been able to open them and feed the meat to the recruits. Roll 'em out."

      Rusty hinges squeaked and large, oak barrels groaned and rumbled on the stones beneath them.

      "Yes, those barrels. Been here now for four years. Government's gonna charge me for those barrels of good pork if we don't use them. Can't rightly feed them to the soldiers here, but the meat's good enough to sell to the Indians."

      Recruits Stumpff and Billings heaved and shoved the barrels, rolling them outside the cellar to follow Anderson's orders.

      "Open the barrels. Spread out the meat. You recruits take them scrapers there and scrape off the rot. Good meat underneath."

      Strapped with such unwelcome task, Stumpff and Billings leaned over the table.

      "Look here," recruit Stumpff said, "this meat's too slick to grab ahold of. Gotta have pincers to hold these slimy pieces." Then recruit Stumpff vomitted.

      "Blow your head off, the smell." Billings gagged. "Probably poison us, too, breathing it in." He turned and raced to the door to empty his heaving stomach.

      Finished with the grisly task, vowing never to eat meat the rest of their lives, they rolled the barrels up the board inclines to the wagonbed as the driver waited for the full load of the four-year-old pork.

      "Giddayup. Hee." The driver cracked a whip as the recruits swung aboard, heading down the trail toward Bull River and the Indians, who, they'd been told, would just gobble up anything-anything at all. And Lieutenant Anderson here at the fort could match up the figures in his books, so he wouldn't have to fish in his pockets for the United States of America. Blessing, how things worked out. "Only thing," Billings murmured, shoulders rolling from the rough ride, "how on earth I ever gonna get the smell of rot and death from them slimy barrels off of my hands?"

* * *

      One thing good about going to the Oklahoma settlement to hire teams and wagons, thought Supervisor Haggler, was a chance to get something to warm his chilling bones. He sneaked a drink from a whiskey flask he'd hidden in his pocket.

      The People waited in clusters. Those without tents crawled back in the undergrowth to protect themselves from the wind and the rain.

      Lucy, Todd, and Abby huddled under a stand of willows by Bull River, their soggy blanket draped around them.

      "Well now, if that ain't a sight." Supervisor Haggler's cursings caught in the cold wind. "Them river banks too steep to get the wagons across. Gonna have to dig inclines down to the water and up again on the other side."

      Silence. No groans. Just the sighing of the autumn, rain-laden wind. Shivering men waited for orders to begin digging, knowing they had little strength, but the digging might keep them from freezing.

      "It'll warm us, pitch the dirt," Three Killer Hughes yelled. Abby, looking on, knew that it was anger and bitterness that kept him going, step after laborious step. Ignore the freezing feet. Ignore the pains in the gut. Ignore the ignorant commands of officers and supervisors, bewildered and lost themselves.

      "Provender's coming. A messenger at the settlement where we got the wagons said a wagon load of meat and corn is on the way. Probably just around the bend yonder on the other side." The supervisor had hoped his words would encourage and calm, instead, they only added to the feelings of despair and abandonment.

      Abby knew that if she was to reach Tahlequah alive, she must chew and swallow some food. Racked with chills, she turned to Todd. "Son, look in Black Bee's sack. Believe we have a nubbin of corn still there."

      "Yes, but it's not ground, besides, I think weevils ate most of it long ago," Todd said, his trembling fingers fidgeting with the draw-string.

      "We can eat it. We can," Lucy said. She took the five-inch nubbin of yellow pockmarked corn. Holding it in her right hand, she began to shell off the grains. In less than a minute, the pitiful grains lay in the lap of her dress. She counted. "Mother, here, 12 for you, 12 for Todd and 12 for me."

      While the waters rushed by in Bull River and the willow fronds swayed, dropping their slivers of gold, they huddled, teeth grinding the hard grains, two or three at a time.

      "Not so bad, is it, Mother? And, they say that meat and corn meal is coming." Abby realized Lucy was trying to encourage. She also knew that she had to keep hope alive within her own breast. She realized it would be easy to crawl over to the ancient oak, lean back in the blowing rain, face upturned, palms out and wait for God to take her. I must not yield to such thoughts. "When I go through the waters, they shall not overwhelm me..." she prayed.

      "Children, there will soon be a new home for us. Our people welcoming us. Money to build or rent a portion of a cabin or house. We'll have a fireplace, a kettle. I can roast a wild turkey. We can make a deer stew, and bean bread. Oh yes, and Lucy, your father is coming. I know he is coming." Her voice faded as a sob worked its way up her throat.

      Darkness. Temperatures dropped. Ice gathered on the ends of branches as the wind howled. Smoke from trembling, half-hearted campfires stung the eye and caught in the throat.

      Funeral wailing began again. Five infants and little ones, overcome by fevers and the chest-squeezing fingers of pneumonia, died before morning.

      Shamans, busy trying to sort their newly gleaned herbs and roots, dropped them to again take up their chants and discern the source of the disaster. Like the long-faced Christian preachers, they seemed unwilling to give up hope.

      Another day of waiting while those who still possessed a minuscule portion of strength shoveled and heaved the mud, making an incline for the oxen, horses and wagons down to the eastern bank and up on the other side. A day of silence. A day of huddling in smoke-layered fog and pestilence.

      A half-day for crossing. Lurching wagons sloshed waters and mud. Infants and grandmothers buried on the riverbank-funeral moans prevailing more than the westerly winds.

      By now, Todd and Lucy no longer noticed the corpses or the muddy holes where they were dropped. Their ears didn't even register the sounds of the grieving, shrieking mothers, the Shaman's rituals, the preacher's prayers and readings. It was all the same. Grey fog, grey flesh, icy cold, and bone-shattering chills.

      On the western side of Bull River at last, the rain ceased and, blessedly, the sun peeped through the hazy clouds. Sounds of breaking bushes and cracking wheels indicated the wagons were coming.

      "They're coming. They're here. Blankets. Food. The meat we were promised. Cornmeal. See how God provides." A few encouraged voices lifted in the cold air.

      Abby knew that when folks are starving, the promise of food lightens the step and heartbeat. Light glistens in the eye. The sight of wagons, seemingly loaded with barrels of meat and sacks of meal, caused dry mouths and chilled tongues to drool.

      "Stand back. Take turns. Enough meat for everybody," supervisor Haggler commanded. "Recruits, pry open them barrels. What? You didn't bring any corn or meal? Oh well, we'll be in Fort Gibson in no time at all. Open them barrels, I say."

      The People in their eagerness did not notice that Supervisor Haggler stepped back a goodly distance from the barrels and took out his red handkerchief as if he needed to blow his nose. "Bring your cups, your vessels," Haggler ordered, trying to turn his head away from the grey-slick mass inside the barrel. Plunging in a long knife, he brought a portion of the scraped pork to the edge.

      "OOOOOOOOOhhhhh," the ones first in line groaned as gut-wrenching smells of rot blasted their noses.

      "Try it. Try it. Don't turn down the food. Probably better underneath," they encouraged one another.

      But the unfortunate people could not even hold on to the slimy pieces of pork which seemed alive and leaped out of their hands like slippery eels.

      Ruby Three-Killer threw a couple of slices of the grisly slabs into her pan of water and attempted to thrust the pan over the fire before she was overcome with vomiting.

      "It's rotten and putrid. Don't eat it. We'll surely die. Oh, Above Beings, they surely don't want us to live."

      And all the People wept.

[End of Excerpt]

ISBN Number: 0-7388-9961-5 (softcover)
ISBN Number: 0-7388-9960-7 (hardcover)

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