The rumor in the mess line that day was the 59th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment was moving out for home. Samuel smiled grimly. He’d heard the same thing since Lee surrendered in April. He’d heard then that the Army had been ordered to discharge as many men as possible as soon as possible. Samuel believed he would be discharged, just not that it would happen immediately as some accounts stated. Over the months, he’d come to the realization that for the 59th at least, immediately didn’t mean the same thing to the Army as it meant to everybody else.
That realization wasn’t really new. It was just a continuance started by what he’d experienced since he’d volunteered at the St. Louis Arsenal in September of 1861. The Union was desperate for troops to fight the Confederacy, yet just getting him sworn in, supplied with uniforms, a rifle, and all the other things an infantry soldier carried had taken a week.
Life over the past four years had been boring weeks of waiting in dirty, smelly encampments interspersed by hours or days of gun smoke, flying bullets and cannon balls, and most of all, sheer terror.
The 59th was expecting a speedy return to Illinois via the railroads. Instead they were marched from Nashville to the Tennessee River and loaded onto riverboats. The riverboats slowly made their way to Cairo, Illinois. At Cairo, the anxious soldiers expected to turn north up the Mississippi and home, but the Union was not done with them yet. Instead, they were loaded on other boats going south to New Orleans, Louisiana.
From New Orleans, they were ferried by ship across the Gulf of Mexico to the port of Indanola, Texas. From Indianola, they were moved to San Antonio, and then to New Braunfels where they had duty, on and off, until December.
Much to Samuel’s surprise, this rumor proved to be true. The regiment was marched back to Indanola. Two days later, they’d been loaded onto steamboats and taken up the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois and then by train to Camp Butler in Springfield, Illinois. On December 7th, the regiment was mustered out, and on December 8th were paid and discharged.
Samuel returned home just in time for Christmas. His mother had cried on his shoulder for half an hour while she held him tight to her breast. His father hadn’t shed any tears, but his voice sounded a little choked.
There was little to do on a farm in winter except care for the livestock and split firewood to feed the insatiable appetite of the fireplace and cook stove. Samuel took over both of these tasks. His father was often stricken with bouts of rheumatism because of the cold Illinois winters, and Samuel wanted to spare him the pain of that work.
He also listened to his mother’s subtle hints about wanting grandchildren, though Samuel wasn’t particularly attracted to any of the young girls who attended the little church in town. Before the war, he’d had a favorite or two. Now, they all seemed so immature and silly to him. They’d collapse into titters at anything, and seemed to spend all their time talking about which girl was being courted by which boy.
His own thoughts during the day were about what lay ahead for him. Though he’d assumed most of the work on the farm, after two months he began to be unsettled. The past four years had been boring, but also filled with excitement and anticipation. He wasn’t sure he could ever be happy with the quiet life of plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting that would occupy most of the daylight hours through spring, summer, and fall. Winters would be the same as what he was then living, routine tasks that interrupted the long hours of doing nothing.
By the time the maple and oak trees in his parent’s front yard began sprouting buds, Samuel knew he could never be a farmer again. Already the routine of caring for the animals was becoming a task he dreaded even though it did space out the hours of idle time. It seemed so pointless to him.
Every morning and evening, he forked piles of hay from the stack in the mow in the barn into the racks in the stalls. He’d then go into the stalls and clean out the manure dropped by the horses and cattle. That manure and the straw bedding had to be carried out to the pile in back of the barn to be saved until it could be spread on the fields before plowing them. After cleaning the stalls, he forked new straw into them. It never ended and would never end until he died.
If not farming, what course would he steer through life? Samuel had been taught how to farm since he could remember. He’d followed his father through the fields as the plow sliced furrows into the soil. He’d followed his father as he planted the seed that would grow into corn, oats, and wheat. As soon as he’d grown strong enough, he helped shuck the ears of corn from the stalks and throw them into the horse drawn wagon that followed them through the field. Samuel had never learned any other skills other than those required to maintain the equipment used on the farm.
Living in the countryside meant Samuel and his parents got all the news about happenings after the church service in town on Sunday. That Sunday, he listened as one of the members told of the letter he’d received from his brother.
The brother had moved to Kansas before the war and had built a farm. During the war, there had been little trouble with the Indians in the area. After the war, according to the letter, more and more settlers had moved there, and the Indians had begun raiding the farms to steal livestock. A few farmers had been killed, but that was about to end. A “privet general” from the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and been given command of the 7th US Cavalry. Though the 7th Cavalry had been greatly reduced in size after the war, they had been ordered into the area to force the Indians onto a reservation and end the raids. According to the letter, they were looking for recruits to refill the ranks.
That Sunday night, Samuel considered his options. The only skills he possessed other than farming was soldiering. He could stay on the farm, an option he knew he would hate, or he could join the Army again. His parents wouldn’t like it if he left home. His father needed him. That bothered Samuel, but he finally decided he needed to look after himself. His uncle had helped his father during the war and would continue to do so if Samuel wasn’t there.
On Monday, Samuel sat down with his parents and explained his decision. His mother wept, but said he should do what was best for him. His father said he was proud. Both knew it was likely they wouldn’t see him again.
On Tuesday morning, Samuel said goodbye to his parents and walked to town with what remained of his Army pay in a small bag tied inside his shirt. In the knapsack the Army had let him keep were his clothes, a little food, and other things he would need. He purchased a train ticket to St. Louis, Missouri.
Samuel arrived at Ft. Riley, Kansas a week later, and went to find out where he could enlist. By the end of the next day, he was Private Samuel Kerner of the 19th Kansas, 7th Cavalry and had been issued uniforms, a new knapsack with bedroll, a .45 caliber Colt single-action revolver and a Springfield .44/55 trapdoor rifle. By the end of the week, he’d been issued a horse, a bay gelding named Sampson, and a McClellan saddle with bridle.
Samuel felt comfortable again. His days began early with feeding, grooming and caring for Sampson. The standing order in the cavalry was if the horse wasn’t in prime condition the trooper walked, so horses were looked after before anything else. After that came breakfast followed by drill or horsemanship training. Afternoons might be more drill, or marksmanship training with both the revolver and rifle, and sometimes both. Evenings were caring for Sampson again, and then supper.
His days went by quickly, and Samuel felt more at ease than since he’d left the war. The meals were not especially good, but they were better than a lot of what he’d eaten during the war. He slept on a cot in a tent instead of the ground as he had during the campaigns of the Civil War.
As the months went by, the 7th saw some minor actions. There were raids by the Cheyenne on some of the outlying farms. When Lieutenant Colonel Custer learned of a raid, he would send out a company to find and kill the Indians. Samuel had been in a few skirmishes and had fired both his revolver and the Springfield, but as the Indians were riding away at the time, could not confirm if his bullets hit any of his targets.
That was usually how it went. The company, led by one of the Indian scouts, would track the Indians. When they found them, instead of turning to fight, as had the Confederate soldiers during the war, the Indians would ride away as fast as their ponies would run. Often the group of fleeing Indians would separate into three or four groups, all riding in different directions.
Samuel was confused at first as to why the Company didn’t follow at least one group and wipe them out. The grizzled First Sergeant spat a glob of tobacco spit on the ground and then frowned.
“The Cap’n knows better. Lost a whole company that way a few months back. Them Indian’s ain’t split up like it looks. They’ll let one bunch lead the troops away. The others’ll circle back and follow and once the column is in some place they can’t turn around, them Indians will all attack. No, it’s better to let them go. We’ll get ‘em one o’ these days.”
That day came in November of 1868 at an Indian winter encampment on the Washita River in Oklahoma. As it was explained to the troops, the 7th had received orders to track the group of hostile Indians until finding their winter camp and then kill as many warriors as possible. This was to teach the Indians they had to live on the reservations as ordered.
Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s plan was to attack the encampment from three sides, kill all the warriors, and take the women and children hostage. The hostages would be used to ensure a safe departure from the battlefield if they hadn’t killed all the warriors. Indians valued their families and would not attack if there was a danger of injuring or killing women and children.
On the morning of the attack, Samuel leaned over Sampson’s neck with his Colt revolver in his outstretched hand. The charge order was given, and the three companies of men raced through the sleeping village firing at any Indian they saw as well as into the tipis.
Samuel was careful to not shoot at women and children. The orders were to leave them unless they attacked one of the troopers. They would be herded together once the battle was over. As he rode through the tipi’s arranged in neat rows, he saw the other men in the companies weren’t being as selective.
Samuel was sickened by the sight of women and children shot in the back as they attempted to flee the carnage. The soldiers on both sides of the war could be cruel and inhumane in their treatment of the dead and dying, but women and children were non-combatants and were nearly always left alone by both sides. He watched in horror as some of the troopers shot wounded women and children again to end their lives.
The three columns quickly took control of the village, assumed defensive positions, and then began ransacking it. They rounded up every woman and child still alive and placed them under guard, then began burning everything in the encampment that would burn. After that, the troopers rode through the herd of Indian ponies and killed all of them except for the number required to transport the prisoners.
Only one group of troops pursued the warriors who had managed to reach their ponies and ride from the village. That group was still in pursuit when Lieutenant Colonel Custer ordered the companies to form a column with the women and children in the center. On the horizon, Samuel could see Indians on horseback as if preparing to attack. The columns were ordered to advance toward those Indians. Shortly after the column began to move forward, the Indians vanished behind the hills just as Lieutenant Custer had planned. The 7th was ordered to turn around and ride back to the supply train.
The detachment of troops that had pursued the Indians did not return that day or the next. Samuel’s company was then ordered to search until they found them in order to recover any survivors and bodies. He was struck dumb when they found the twenty men. All had been stripped of clothing down to their union suits. All had multiple arrows sticking from their bodies, their scalps had been removed, and their bodies had been mutilated. Most had knife slashes on their bellies and arms and legs. Some had even been castrated.
Once back in the 7th Cavalry encampment, Samuel listened to the men boast of how many they’d killed, and the vows to kill more to avenge the twenty who had foolishly pursued the fleeing Indians. He felt no pride in what the 7th had done. The 7th had lost twenty one men killed and four wounded. They had killed a few warriors, about twenty or so the Indian scouts said, but many of those killed were men Samuel thought were probably too old to fight. The total of women and children was even more saddening to Samuel. They had captured only fifty three out of over a hundred present in the encampment. The rest lay dead amongst the smoldering embers of the tipis.
Samuel could not excuse the desecration of the corpses of the twenty he’d helped find, but he could understand. As had sometimes happened during the war, an atrocity on one side caused a like or worse atrocity on the other. The only thought that mitigated his shame was that he had not killed any women or children.
The battle at the Washita River had the effect desired. The Indian raids in that part of the country mostly stopped, and the remaining Indians moved to the reservation. The 7th remained in encampment and fought no other major battles that year. Army life became as it was before the battle – caring for the horses and drill.
In the spring of the next year, Samuel’s enlistment was up and the conduct of the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry had sickened him against remaining one of them. Samuel didn’t drink whiskey, didn’t gamble, and didn’t use the services of the “soiled doves” in town, so he had saved most of his pay over the years. He walked away from the 7th Cavalry with two hundred and fifty dollars in the pouch tied inside his shirt and made his way to the town surrounding Ft. Riley. There he purchased a yellow dun gelding named Dusty, a saddle and bridle, a Winchester 1866 repeating rifle and a Colt single action revolver identical to the one he’d carried in the 7th. After purchasing five hundred rounds for each firearm, a side of bacon, ten pounds of corn meal, five pounds of coffee, two pounds of salt and a frying pan, coffee pot and cup, Samuel mounted Dusty and rode south. He had no idea where he was going to end up.
Atsila had walked for hours and was hungry and thirsty. The village had given her nothing except the clothes she wore when they cast her out. She had understood the risk when she began to entice Chayton, but had thought herself smart enough no one would find out. In her mind, doing so was necessary.
Several months had passed since their wedding night and she was not yet with child. The Medicine Man had given Atsila and Anahu, her husband, medicine and said his chants, and had finally determined the spirits did not wish her to bear children. His explanation was her name. Atsila meant “fire”, and the Cherokee believed fire to be the intermediary between earth and the Sun God. The Sun God did not want this special person to be burdened by children.
Atsila desperately wanted to suckle a child at her breast, and secretly did not believe the Medicine Man. She believed the fault lay with Anahu, for he had been injured as a child and his seed did not flow as the other women related their husband’s did. She would find another man, a man of a different clan than she to avoid angering the spirits and lay with him in hopes of becoming pregnant. If she did, she would praise the healing powers of the Medicine Man and everyone would believe that to be the truth.
Had it not been for the suspicions of her husband such might have been the case, but Atsila did not see the small, dark red spot Chayton had left on her left breast. Her husband knew such a mark could only be left by another mouth, for he had given Atsila the same marks himself. He also knew he had not done anything to cause such a spot in the past several days because he had been away hunting with the other men of the village. Only Chayton, husband of Nieti, had remained in the village, complaining of an ankle made too painful to walk. Anahu said nothing to Atsila. Instead, he spoke to her brother.
Atsila’s brother had been outraged at the accusation, but listened to Anahu, for Anahu was known to be an honest and honorable man. At Anahu’s request, Atsila’s brother agreed to follow Chayton if he left the village.
They were discovered entwined on a blanket in a thicket one hill over from the village. Atsila’s brother surprised them and after they separated, pounced on Chayton while Atsila ran back to the village.
Her brother returned some time later and explained Chayton had been so shamed he had taken his own life by hanging himself from a tree. Atsila suspected her brother had killed him, but as she was now viewed with shame, her brother’s account would be accepted as the truth. The actions of Atsila’s mother and the rest of the village were dictated by their beliefs.
According to Atsila’s brother, Chayton had confessed to agreeing to the liaison when Atsila proposed it, but was now sorry for doing so. Chayton was buried without the usual funeral rites so that his spirit would wander and never go to the Happy Land. To the village, depriving his spirit of a comfortable afterlife was a fitting punishment.
Atsila’s punishment was perhaps less severe, but designed to yield the same result. All her possessions except the clothes she wore were burned while she watched, and she was then cast out of the village. She would be left to fend for herself without shoes or even a knife with which to obtain food or to defend herself. It was likely she would die somewhere and never be found again. The coyotes and buzzards would eat her remains and her spirit would endure eternity in the dark world below.
Atsila was a strong woman, and had accepted the punishment without comment, for it was the punishment dictated by the beliefs of the Cherokee. She knew the ways of the prairie and the wooded areas just as did all the men and women of the village. She was confident she could find food and shelter somehow and she would survive.
After resting for a few minutes, Atsila began walking again. In the distance she saw willow trees. Willows only grew near water. Willows meant water and water might mean food.
She was half way to the willows when she looked at the sky and saw the gathering dark clouds. Soon, the sky would open up and the oncoming heavy rain would soak her to the skin. She looked for some place to weather the storm but found only a few trees off in the distance. She quickly covered the distance and then crouched at the foot of the largest. She would still get wet, but the canopy of leaves overhead would offer some protection.
As she watched the coming storm from beneath her tree, Atsila saw a disturbance in the clouds. The disturbance quickly became an enormous swirling snake of wind that reached from the clouds to the earth, and immediately after it touched down, she felt the wind increase in strength.
She was spellbound as she watched the swirling column meander over the countryside, and gasped when it drew near. The thing seemed to span her entire view and she could see whole trees trapped in the spinning column. This was the u-ge-da-li-yv, the swirling wind that would level trees and homes as easily and completely as she would sweep a leaf from her arm. Every year a few had passed by her village but had done little damage. This one was so large it could have covered all the homes in her village.
Atsila began to run away from the storm and was looking for some sort of shelter as she ran. She could hear the sound now, a loud, low pitched moaning sound that was a background to what sounded like the screams of the female puma trying to attract a mate. She felt the blast of the wind grow ever stronger as she ran.
A minute later, and feeling heavy rain pelting her, Atsila saw the huge uprooted tree. The roots hung like skeletal fingers clawing at the air over the deep hole that had been opened when the tree fell. Atsila jumped into the hole and tried to wedge her body into the tree roots as the screaming, swirling cloud overtook her.
The tree began to shake as the wind howled around her. She tried to wedge her body deeper into the roots and held on with all her strength. The tree shuddered again, then seemed to lift a little. There was another shudder and then a snap. The tree trunk had been snapped from the limbs and began rising. In seconds, the tree was whisked away with Atsila trapped inside the roots.
Samuel had been watching the sky all day, and when the clouds began to circle, he didn’t like what he saw. Illinois didn’t have a lot of twisters, but he’d seen some and knew he needed to get somewhere deep, like a river bank or low area between two close hills. As the sky darkened enough it seemed to be dusk instead of mid afternoon and the clouds began to swirl faster he began looking in earnest.
The area was fairly flat, and though there were a few trees here and there, he found no depression in the ground deep enough to be of any use. He urged Dusty to a trot at right angles to the approaching storm and kept looking.
The funnel cloud of the tornado was on the ground and near enough he could hear the screech of the high winds when he saw the rise in the land. It wasn’t very high, only about four feet at the top, but at least it wasn’t flat ground. Samuel touched his heels to Dusty’s sides and the horse broke into a canter.
When he reached the small hill, Samuel dismounted and pulled off Dusty’s saddle, and then lifted the horse’s left foreleg. He then looped the right rein over the horse’s back and pulled. Dusty turned his head to ease the tension on the bit and by doing so, was thrown off balance. The horse fell quickly onto his left side. Samuel stretched out beside the horse’s neck with one hand on his nose to hold him down. With the other hand, Samuel pulled the saddle up over his head. The saddle might protect his head from any falling debris dropped by the twister as it passed. Dusty would protect some of his body, just as the cavalry horses had served as cover during battle.
The tornado approached him quickly, and fortunately for Samuel, turned and passed by a few hundred feet from where he lay. A few small tree branches and a lot of grass and dirt fell on him and Dusty as the tail end of the twister trailed off into the distance. A half hour later, the clouds were gone and the afternoon sun shone brightly overhead.
Samuel pushed the saddle off his head and shoulders when he stood up. Dusty stood up then and shook to remove the twigs and grass that covered his side. Samuel checked the horse carefully for injuries and finding none, checked himself. He saddled Dusty then, and an hour after the storm passed was riding toward a stand of willows in the distance. He’d camp by the stream that supplied the large quantity of soil moisture the willows required, and continue in the morning.
He didn’t see the woman until Dusty snorted and pricked his ears in the direction of the fallen tree. He didn’t actually see her then. All he saw was a slender arm and hand dangling from among the tree roots. Samuel reined Dusty in that direction.
She wasn’t very old, he thought as he dismounted. She was an Indian, but he couldn’t just leave her here for the coyotes and buzzards. That’s what had happened at Washita and it sickened him to remember it. No human deserved that fate.
He was walking to the fallen tree when he heard the faint moan. The girl was alive.
Samuel ran to the fallen tree and gently pulled the girl out of the tree roots, then laid her on the ground. Her breathing was regular if a little shallow, he thought, and when he put his hand on her chest, he felt the steady thump thump of a beating heart.
Her cotton dress was soaked from the rain and muddy from the dirt between tree roots. Samuel was wet too and was starting to feel the chill of the cooler air behind the twister. The girl must be even colder. They both needed a fire to dry out and warm up.
The girl didn’t have any cuts or bruises, so Samuel picked her up and carried her to where Dusty stood. With no way to get on Dusty and then lift the girl by himself, he draped her, belly down, over the saddle and then mounted himself on Dusty’s rump. After traveling the few hundred yards to the willows, Samuel stopped at a shallow bend in the stream.
The first thing to do was keep the girl warm. He’d learned that lesson in the winter campaigns of the war. An injured man who stayed cold usually died. If he was kept warm, he’d probably survive long enough to make it to the surgeon’s tent. Samuel did the only thing he could think of at the time.
After laying the girl on the ground as gently as he could manage, he untied his bedroll from the saddle and spread it on the ground. By rolling her from one side to the other, he managed to get the girl’s dress off over her head. Then, he carried her to his bedroll and put her between the blankets. After finding and breaking off a few branches from a dead tree, he began building a fire.
Atsila woke up and looked around her. She’d expected to see the monsters that lived in the dark world or at least something other than a lone man bent over a small fire. Why wasn’t she dead? She remembered climbing into the scraggly roots of the large tree just before the storm had overtaken her. She remembered the screeching wind and she remembered the tree lifting from the ground and taking her with it. She remembered the crashing jar when the tree fell back to the ground. It was then that everything went black until now.
Instead of waking up inside the tangle of tree roots she was laying on and covered by some sort of blanket, wool she thought, because it was a little scratchy against her bare skin.
Bare skin! Atsila quickly moved her hands over her body. She was naked under the blanket. What had the man done to her? She felt between her thighs and found nothing unusual. If he hadn’t raped her, why was she naked? Was he just waiting for her to wake up before he did?”
The man stood then, walked a ways from the fire, and picked up an armload of branches. He sat back down and added a few to the fire. Once they caught flame, he stood again and walked to where Atsila lay. Atsila kept her eyes closed as the man felt her forehead and then spoke.
“Little lady, you don’t seem to be hurt but you won’t wake up. Must have hit your head pretty hard I guess. Maybe a little water will help. You’re face is muddy anyway, so a little washing won’t hurt anything.”
Atsila still had her eyes closed when she heard the man rise and walk away. He quickly came back and she felt a wet cloth on her forehead.
He was gentle, as gentle as she’d have been doing the same thing to a newborn child. She heard the trickle of water as he rinsed he cloth and wrung it out, and then the same gentle touch to her left cheek.
As Samuel cleaned the girl’s face he didn’t find what he’d expected to see. She’d been dressed in the typical Cherokee dress he’d seen as he passed through Cherokee territory, but her face was a little less rounded. By the time he had cleaned the mud from both cheeks, he decided she was a very pretty woman, well, girl really. He didn’t think she could be more than twenty if that. He rinsed his bandana in the cooking pot of water and wrung it out again, then began wiping her nose. It was then the girl opened her eyes, and what Samuel saw in those dark brown eyes was fear. He stopped stroking her nose and smiled.
“You don’t need to be afraid of me. I’m not gonna do anything to you except clean off some of the mud.”
Her voice was a croak when she replied.
“Who are you?”
Samuel smiled again.
“Well, how about that. You speak English. I’m Samuel Kerner, Ma’am. You sound dry as corn meal. You need a drink?”
Atsila nodded and watched as Samuel went back to the fire. He came back with a tin cup.
“Here. I filled it fresh from the stream.”
Atsila sipped the water, then drank it down in three gulps. Samuel grinned.
“You really were parched. You want some more?”
Atsila nodded, and Samuel brought her another cup of water. Atsila took another gulp and then looked at Samuel
“Where is my dress?”
“It’s over there by the fire drying out. It’s still pretty muddy, but I figured I’d let you wash it however you want.”
“How did I get here?”
“I found you stuck in he roots of a tree after the twister passed. You weren’t awake, your dress was soaked, and it was starting to get cooler. I brought you here to get you warmed up and awake again.”
Atsila took another sip of water.
“That’s all you did to me?”
“Yes, well, I did take off your wet dress. You wouldn’ta got warm wearing a wet dress.”
“What are you going to do now?”
Samuel took off his hat and scratched his head.
“Well, before I found you, I aimed to camp here, fix me some supper, and then go to sleep. I figure on doing the same except I guess I’ll be sleeping by the fire instead of in that bedroll. Fire’s about down to coals. You hungry?”
Atsila sat up and pulled the blanket around her as Samuel walked away. He was white, so she didn’t really trust him. Her grandmother had told her tales of what she called the “Old Lands”. The Cherokee had been friendly toward the white men and had tried to be like them. They changed their clothing from deer skins to cotton cloth, and built the same cabins as the white men. They’d adapted their religion to that of the Jesuit priests who came to teach them English and other skills. Still, in the end, the white men had taken their lands and forced them to come to Oklahoma territory. Many had died along the way. Her own grandfather was one of those.
In Oklahoma Territory, the land was different, the weather was different, and the white men did not live up to their promises. Still, the Cherokee had survived in spite of the white man. This man seemed to be a good man, but other white men had smiled and said good things too. She was still trying to decide when he brought her three slabs of bacon and a fried bread made from corn meal.
“All I got’s bacon and cornmeal. It probably ain’t what you’re used to, but it’ll fill you up. I eat out of the skillet and I ain’t got no plate, so this pot lid will have to do.”
With that, the man who called himself Samuel Kerner got up and went back to sit by the fire. Atsila watched as he ate the same thing he’d brought her and drank water from his coffee pot. She finished eating and then tried to stay awake in case he tried to do anything, but the fatigue of the day combined with a full stomach quickly caused her to begin nodding her head. Atsila fell asleep moments later.
After he finished eating, Samuel banked his fire to keep the coals alive until morning and then stretched out beside it. His thoughts were confused.
At first, he’d seen fear in her eyes, but after they’d talked a little, the fear had disappeared and was replaced by something else, a look of…Samuel wasn’t sure what it was, but the woman didn’t seem to be afraid of him anymore. She was wary, to be sure, but not afraid. She was probably Cherokee, so maybe she was just as brave as had been the Cherokee Confederate soldiers he’d fought against in the war. He’d seen Cherokee women as he traveled south, but had never actually met one, so he didn’t know if they were brave or not.
He didn’t even know her name, but already he felt only respect and not hate for her. He couldn’t hate a woman anyway, even an Indian woman, and he felt a need to help this one. He hoped if he did, it might partly atone for the women and children at Washita.
What was he going to do with her now? She didn’t seem to have anything except the dress, not even any type of shoes. If he rode off and left her here, she’d probably die. He could try to find another Cherokee town and leave her there, but he had no idea where any were.
He’d take her with him if she wanted that, but it would slow him down. Dusty couldn’t travel as fast with two people on his back because he’d have to be rested more often. Samuel smiled to himself then. It wasn’t like he had anywhere to be on any particular day. He didn’t really know where he was going and wouldn’t until he got there. Getting there a little slower wouldn’t matter.
If he asked her to go with him, would she think he expected her to give herself to him? He wouldn’t, of course, but she wouldn’t know that. She’d probably think the worst and run off as soon as she got a chance. She wouldn’t survive on her own, and he’d be responsible for that.
It wasn’t that the idea hadn’t occurred to him. When he’d taken off her dress, the sight of her firm breasts and rounded hips, and the small thatch of black hair between her thighs had stirred his manhood. When he’d picked her up, the feeling of her breasts against his chest and her bare legs against his bare arm had only increased that stirring.
Samuel had let those feelings die as he started the fire, and when he came back with the pot of water to wash her, they didn’t come back as strongly because she was covered. Now, they came back again as he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Yes, she was a woman and he was a man and it was natural for him to feel that way even though he didn’t know the woman. Men didn’t act on the desire he felt, not unless the woman was his wife. She wasn’t.
The sun was just beginning to light up the willows at the edge of the stream when Samuel woke. He stirred the coals of the fire until he had a mound of red, glowing heat, then added small twigs until they flamed. He was adding larger sticks when the woman woke up.
“Is my dress dry?” she asked.
“I expect so. I’ll bring it to you, and don’t worry, I won’t look while you put it on.”
Samuel went back to his fire and added a few larger sticks. He heard the rustle of the blankets and then the softer sound of the woman dressing. He was putting two large branches on the growing flames when she walked up beside him. Samuel looked up and smiled.
“Mornin’ Ma’am. You feeling better now?”
“Yes. Thank you for helping me. I didn’t think white men cared about Indians.”
“Well, maybe I’m different. You needed help and I decided to help you. Want some breakfast? It’ll be just bacon and corn cakes again. Don’t know if Indians drink coffee, but I’ll have some of that in a bit too.”
They ate in silence for a while. Samuel was still thinking about what he was going to do with the woman. As Atsila ate, she looked around for something she could use as a weapon in case he tried to do anything to her. All she saw was a short section of tree branch the man had cut for firewood. When the man turned to the fire to fill his coffee cup, she quickly pulled the branch to her side. Samuel heard the rustle and turned back to look at her, then smiled.
“I see you still don’t trust me. That stick wouldn’t stop me if I wanted to do anything, but you needn’t worry.”
The look in the woman’s eyes told him she still wasn’t sure. He smiled again and reached for the knife at his belt. When the woman picked up the stick, he held out both hands.
“Don’t go getting’ all upset. I’m gonna give you my knife.”
Samuel slowly pulled the knife from its sheath, took it by the blade and handed it to the woman.
“Here. Maybe this’ll convince you I’m not gonna do anything to you.”
The woman cautiously took the knife by the handle and put it in her lap. Samuel grinned.
“Well, now that you can fight me off, maybe you’ll tell me your name.”
“Atsila. I’m Atsila.”
“You a Cherokee?”
“How’d you get out here and all tangled up in them tree roots?”
Atsila thought for a moment. She couldn’t tell this man the real reason.
“I – I was out looking for cattail roots when the storm started. I climbed inside the tree roots so it wouldn’t carry me away, but it picked up the tree and me too.”
“Well, you’re a lucky woman. That was a big twister, bigger than any I’ve seen before. Where’d you come from? I was riding in this direction and didn’t see any Indian towns along the way.”
“My village is a long way from here, I think. I don’t know how far the wind carried me.”
Samuel didn’t think she was telling him the truth, or at least, not all of it because she seemed a little nervous and looked at the ground when she spoke. That didn’t change the fact that she still needed help.
“Whatcha gonna do now? Try to find your town?”
“I would, but I don’t know where to look.”
“Well, the twister was coming from the south, so if it blew you here, you must live further south. You plan on walkin?”
Samuel smiled when Atsila looked at him with a wry look on her face. There was a little spirit left in this woman.
“I don’t have much choice, do I? I don’t have a horse.”
Samuel sipped his coffee and then stared out over the plains.
“No, but I do.”
“You’re saying I should come with you?”
Samuel turned to look at Atsila and saw she had her hand on the knife in her lap.
“No, I’m saying I’ll help you find your town. Looks to me like that dirty dress is all you got. It’s gonna be hard to walk very far without food or shoes. I’m just offering you a ride, that’s all. You got my knife so I can’t try anything, right?”
Atsila sat behind Samuel as the horse walked slowly toward the south and further away from her village. The man’s knife was tucked under a belt she’d made from a strip torn from the bottom of her dress. It would be easy to get to if she needed it.
She didn’t know what she’d do if they did come to another village. Hunters from other villages often met each other on the plains, and they always exchanged the goings on of their village. It had been only one day since she was cast out, so another village might not yet know, but they soon would. No woman who had committed adultery would be welcome in any village, and she would be cast out again.
She could tell him the truth, but if she did, what would he think? When her aunt had told her of the ways of men and women, she said the whites thought adultery was a sin against their God. Surely Samuel would think she was an evil woman and leave her there in the middle of nowhere. If she didn’t tell him, he’d keep looking until he found a village and she’d have to tell him anyway. She couldn’t decide which would be worse.
As Samuel sat easily in the saddle as Dusty walked, he could not ignore the woman behind him, though he tried. She was rocking back and forth with each step Dusty took, and that rocking often pressed her breasts into his back. She also rode with her thighs against his, and when he’d looked down once, he’d seen her dress had pulled up and bared her lower legs.
It wasn’t right, he thought, to be thinking about an Indian woman that way, but he was. If only she’d been ugly he wouldn’t be affected, but such wasn’t the case. He hoped he’d find a trail soon that would lead to a Cherokee town. Even if it wasn’t her town, he’d leave her there. The people of the town would help her get back home.
The sun was high overhead when they passed through an area of rocky ground. Samuel let Dusty pick his own way because the horse had enough sense not to step where he’d risk tripping or falling. He heard the warning buzz of the rattlesnake at the same time Dusty shied to the left and away from the snake. The next thing he knew, he was falling to the ground.
When Samuel woke up, he was laying on his bedroll under a clear, black sky dotted with the sparkling of stars. He heard the quiet murmur of a stream somewhere close. Atsila’s silhouette was framed by the flickering flames of the fire she knelt over. He tried to rise, but fell back on the bedroll because of the stabbing pain in his head. When he groaned at the pain, Atsila came to his side.
“You’re awake. That’s a good sign. You fell on the rocks and hit your head, and I thought you might not wake up.”
Samuel started to feel his head, but Atsila caught his arm.
“No, don’t touch it. It’ll start bleeding again.”
Samuel put his arm down.
“I got cut?”
“Yes. There’s a deep cut on the side of your head. I put squirrel tail leaves on it and it stopped bleeding, but it you move around it will start again. Lay still. I’m boiling some willow bark. When it cools I’ll give you some to take away the pain.”
“Where did you get willow bark? We weren’t close to any water.”
“No, but we are now. I couldn’t get you on your horse, so I rolled you onto the canvas cover of your bedroll and tied it to the saddle. It wasn’t far to a stream, just over the next hill. Let me see if the medicine is cool enough to drink.”
Atsila came back with his cup partly filled with something. He took a sip and said, “Ugh”. Atsila chuckled.
“It is bitter, but the bitter takes away the pain. Drink some more.”
Samuel did as Atsila said, and a while later, the pain in his head seemed to decrease. He felt tired then, tired like he’d just walked ten miles. Atsila’s soft voice came to him just before he drifted away again.
“The wild lettuce I put in with the willow bark will help you sleep.”
As the man slept, Atsila smiled. When the horse had shied, she’d just slipped off his rump and landed on her feet. Samuel had pitched headlong into a pile of rocks. She’d found blood on the rocks when she rolled him over, and had then seen the deep cut. It was bleeding badly and she knew that had to be stopped.
The village healer knew all of the medicines there were, but there were certain medicines every Cherokee knew about, and squirrel tail was one of them. She’d found some a short distance from where Samuel had fallen, gathered a handful and placed them over the cut, then ripped another strip from the bottom of her dress to tie them in place.
The man’s horse was calmly grazing a few feet away. Atsila was happy he didn’t run when she approached. It would take time before Samuel could travel again and they needed a place to camp with water and firewood. Without the horse, she couldn’t move Samuel. She used the canvass cover from his bedroll as a sort of sled and started walking the horse further south.
She’d found the stream just over the next hill. Once there, she hobbled the horse, pulled off the saddle and left him to graze. It took more squirrel tail leaves to stop the bleeding that had started again, but as soon as that had been done, Atsila used Samuel’s flint and steel to start a fire. She stripped willow bark from one of the trees by the stream and added the bark and some wild lettuce leaves to water in Samuel’s cooking pot.
Atsila hoped it was enough to stop the bleeding and relieve some of the pain Samuel would feel when he woke up. If he was injured worse, if his head had been hurt more than it looked, his spirit might leave and he might not wake up. She’d known of one time that had happened. The man was always asleep, couldn’t eat or drink, and just wasted away until he died.
When Samuel had groaned, Atsila was happy because he was alive and awake. She didn’t want him to die. She needed him to live because she had begun to feel safe around him.
When Samuel woke again, the sun was halfway to being overhead. He tried to raise his head, but the stabbing pain stopped him. He groaned as he eased his head back to the bedroll.
“I said you should lay still”, said Atsila. “Here, drink some more of this. There’s no wild lettuce to make you sleep again, but it will help with the pain.”
Atsila lifted his head gently and put the cup to his lips. Samuel forced down the bitter drink. When Atsila took the cup away, he asked, “How long was I asleep?”
“Just last night and part of this morning. Do you feel better?”
“Yes, except for my head but I can live with that. We need to get moving again and find your village.”
“No, not until you start to heal. That will take a few more days.”
“I can’t just lay here and do nothing.”
“Yes you can. I won’t let you do anything else. Now, I have things to do, so you stay quiet while I’m gone. I won’t go far.”
Astila had one thing to do that day that couldn’t be postponed, and she’d have to do it for the rest of the week as well. Her aunt had explained that women prepare a soft bed for a new child inside their bodies, and if that bed was not used, her body would change it and make a new one. Astila’s body was doing that now, and she needed the things that would contain the flow.
She had found the moss on some rocks near the stream, and had gathered enough to do what was needed. Another strip torn from the bottom of her dress served to hold the moss in place. She had only to replace the moss twice a day.
The other thing she needed to do was find better food for Samuel. Bacon and corn meal were fine if one was healthy, but an injured man needed more. By pulling a few threads from her dress and twisting them into thin cords, she had fashioned snares she placed where she saw the paths of rabbits in the grass. She needed to check them.
She found two rabbits in her snares, removed them, and then reset the loops. On her way back to where Samuel lay, she gathered several cattail roots and some wild onions.
Samuel had fallen asleep again when she returned to camp. Atsila said a prayer to the spirits of the rabbits, cattails, and wild onions, thanking them for letting her take them, and then dressed the rabbits. They went on green sticks hung over the fire. She then washed the cattail roots and onions in the stream, balled them together in mud, and laid them in the coals.
Samuel woke from his nap, smelled food, and realized he was hungry. He tried to raise his head and found that didn’t hurt so badly. Rising to a sitting position left him a little dizzy, but he was glad to not still be lying on his back. Atsila saw him and grinned.
“I said to lay still.”
“Well, I feel a lot better and I’m hungry. Whatever you’re cooking smells good.”
Atsila grinned again.
“It’s just rabbit and some cattail roots and wild onions. You need something better than bacon and corn cakes if you’re going to heal.”
Every day for the next five days was the same. Atsila would fix something to eat in the morning – some rabbit left from the night before or a couple of small fish she’d trapped in the stream – along with corn cakes or cattail stalks. After they ate, she’d caution Samuel to stay on his bedroll and then leave him for a couple of hours.
Every evening they’d eat more rabbit or a prairie chicken Atsila had killed with a thrown stick and some type of wild vegetable she’d gathered. As night fell, Samuel would fall asleep on his bedroll while Atsila slept by the fire.
On the sixth day, Samuel asked if she thought he could travel again.
“I feel fine and my head doesn’t hurt anymore. It itches like blazes, but it doesn’t hurt. Ready to go find your town?”
Atsila had hoped they would stay a few more days. When she’d been married, she had thought she was happy, but it had not felt like this. She’d thought she was happier once she began her affair with Chayton, but that too wasn’t what she felt with Samuel. Neither man had made her feel as if they really liked being with her.
Her marriage had been arranged by her mother, and she barely knew Anahu. He had proved to be a good husband as far as providing food, but didn’t seem to be as close to her as other women said their husbands were. Chayton had seemed to like her, but she’d begun to understand that was only because of what she offered him.
Samuel wasn’t like either, and Atsila had realized she was happier with him than she’d been in months. She didn’t want to leave him and she didn’t want him to leave her. He was bent on finding her village and returning her to her people, but she couldn’t go back to the Cherokee. There was only one way.
“Samuel, I…I can’t go to any village, not my old village or any other.”
Samuel’s brow furrowed when he saw tears in Atsila’s eyes.
“Because of what I did.”
“What did you do that was that bad? You didn’t kill somebody, did you?”
“No. I was married, but I…my husband couldn’t give me children. I thought another man could so I convinced him to…to lay with me. My husband found out and I was cast out of the village. The other villages will find out about me, and I won’t be able to live in them either.”
“That’s why you had only your dress, isn’t it.”
“They burned everything else I had. It is the way Cherokees punish a woman for doing what I did.”
“So what will you do now?”
“I thought I would die when the storm came, but you saved me. I don’t want to die, and if you leave me at a village, that’s what will happen.”
Atsila paused and Samuel saw her smile through the tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Samuel, I feel safe with you. Can I go where you’re going?”
Samuel’s brow furrowed.
“I don’t know where I’m going. Haven’t since I started out. You might not like where I end up.”
“Wherever that is, if I’m with you I’ll feel safe. I’ll cook for you and raise corn and squash and make you as happy as I can.”
“That sounds like you’re saying we should get married. It’s supposed to work the other way around. I’m supposed to ask your father if I can marry you.”
Atsila smiled back at him.
“Since I’m Cherokee, you would ask my mother. I am dead to her, so you can’t ask her…even if you wanted to.”
Samuel felt as if he was being talked into something. He hadn’t given any serious thought to anything but getting Atsila back to her people. What she was proposing was staying with him as a wife would stay with her husband and never going back to her own people. He didn’t quite know what he thought about that, and started giving Atsila reasons why they shouldn’t do such a thing.
“Even if I did, the Cherokee wouldn’t think much of a Cherokee woman marrying a white man, would they?”
“There have been several Cherokee women who did. My grandfather was a fur trader in the Old Lands. He was white, from a place called Scotland my mother said.”
Samuel nodded. That would explain her slender body and face.
“Well, there’s no preacher in less than two hundred miles.”
“Samuel, there was no preacher when I was married. My husband brought me a piece of deer meat and I cooked it for him and he ate it. After that, the village knew we were married.”
“I haven’t brought you a piece of deer meat.”
“No, but you took care of me after the storm. That means more to me than a piece of deer meat.”
Samuel thought while Atsila smiled and watched him. He wasn’t about to think of them as married, no matter what she said. He wasn’t ready for a wife or for the responsibilities that entailed. It would be nice to have her along though. Roasted rabbit with cattail roots tasted a lot better than bacon and corn cakes. He’d also found it was nice having someone to talk to.
“I guess you can come with me, but that’s all. Understand?”
Atsila nodded and smiled.
“I’ll give you back your knife now. I don’t think I’ll be needing it.”
Two days later, Atsila inspected the cut on Samuel’s head and said it would be all right for him to travel as long as he didn’t try to ride too far or too fast. After Samuel saddled Dusty and climbing into the saddle, Atsila took his hand and he swung her up behind him. She put her arms around his waist and they started south again.
Samuel figured they were getting close to Texas. He just wasn’t sure how close. He’d know when then came to a wide but shallow river. That would be the Red River one of the troopers in the 7th had told him about. In late afternoon of the second day, he saw it in the distance. Her turned his head toward Atsila.
“That must be the Red River. Once we cross it, we’ll be in Texas.”
“Is Texas a good place to live?” she asked.
“I was there once, but not anywhere around here. All I know is what this feller told me once. He said there’s wild cattle and horses you can round up and call your own for free, and enough land for thousands of farms. I guess we’ll see.”
“We will unless we starve to death on this side. The bacon is all gone and so is most of the corn meal.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem” said Samuel. “I’ll just shoot us a couple rabbits and you can find us some more cattails by the river.”
Half an hour later they surprised a pronghorn antelope who’d come to the river to drink. The antelope stood there looking at them instead of running.
“The Cherokee often hunt from a horse. The antelope can’t tell there are people on the horse so it isn’t afraid. Shoot it before it runs away.”
Samuel slowly pulled his Winchester from the scabbard under his right leg, quietly worked the action to chamber a round, and then took aim.
The antelope jumped straight into the air, and was running when it came back down, but it didn’t go far before falling down and waving its legs. It was still when Samuel and Atsila got off Dusty. Atsila didn’t ask for Samuel’s help. She just took the knife from his belt and began skinning the antelope. After half an hour, she had one rear quarter skinned out and cut away from the carcass. She carried that quarter back to where Samuel stood with Dusty.
“I said a prayer to the antelope and thanked him for letting us kill him. I hope he understands we don’t have time to dry the rest of the meat and take it with us like I told him.”
“If you told him that, I think he probably does. Let’s go find us a place to spend the night. We’ll cross the river in the morning.”
Samuel had never had roast antelope before, but what Atsila made tasted better than any of the beef he’d had at Ft. Riley. The wild carrots and onions she’d baked in the coals were really good too. Both brought back memories of the beef roast his mother had cooked all day in her oven. By suppertime, the meat would just melt in your mouth and the potatoes and onions would too. Atsila’s antelope was the same.
He groaned and patted his stomach.
“Atsila, you cook good antelope. I’ll have to remember that and shoot another one when we get to Texas.”
“If you do, we’ll stay in one place long enough to smoke what we don’t eat. That way, we’ll have meat and won’t have to stop again to hunt.”
Samuel nodded. It would be good to stop for a while. He was constantly becoming aroused by Atsila riding behind him. The last two days she’d seemed to push her breasts into his back with every step Dusty took, and her arms around his waist had seemed tighter.
“Well, I think I’ll turn in. It’s pretty warm tonight, so I’ll take one blanket and you take the other. That all right with you?”
“Yes, but I have to stay awake a little while longer. I need to thank the moon for bringing you to help me. I didn’t do that before because the moon wasn’t full, but it is tonight.
Samuel was beginning to doze off when he felt his blanket being lifted. He opened his eyes to see Atsila spreading that part of the blanket out on the ground. The light of the full moon was bright enough he could see her naked breasts and the darker nipples that tipped them as well as the patch of black hair on her mound.
Atsila laid down beside him and pulled her blanket over them both, then put her arm over his chest. Samuel looked at her face and saw she was smiling.
“Atsila, what are you doing”
“You brought me meat, I cooked it, and you ate it. Now, I’m your wife.”
“It was antelope, not deer like you said.”
She stroked his chest.
“It was deer meat because there were deer. The way I think is if the village had been where the buffalo are, it would have been buffalo. If you’d killed me a rabbit, it would be the same to me.”
Samuel looked at the woman beside him, but he wasn’t looking at her body. He was looking at her eyes. Her eyes told him she really did believe they were married.
Did he? As Samuel thought back over the last week, he didn’t see an Indian lying beside him. What he saw as a woman who’d done what she did only to give her husband children. When she’d been cast out of the village, she hadn’t given up. She’d fought to stay alive. She was a strong woman, just as strong as his mother.
When he’d fallen and cut his head, she could have taken his horse and ridden away, but she didn’t. She stopped his cut from bleeding and then used her head to get him someplace where he could recover. It was a little odd the way she‘d treated him like his mother, but it was comforting to know she had. A man could do a lot worse in his life.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Yes, Samuel, I am. I hope it’s something you want too.”
Samuel didn’t answer. He just took her in his arms and held her.
Their lovemaking wasn’t hurried. Samuel wasn’t certain what he should do because he’d never had the experience. Atsila sensed this and began to guide his hands to the places that would excite and ready her for their coupling.
Samuel marveled at the way Atsila responded once he’d figured out what to do with her lush body. She gently pulled his hand to one breast and then squeezed her hand over his. She sighed then, and sighed again when he did the same to her other breast. She gently pulled his index finger to her right nipple and then moved that finger in a circle. Samuel felt the nipple stiffen and then the mass of ridges and tiny bumps that formed on the dark skin around the nipple. Atsila moaned then, and kept moaning every time he touched the taut nubs.
After a while, Atsila guided his hand down her smooth belly and then to the black hair that covered her sex. She squeezed his hand again, and when he began gently rubbing her mound, she opened her thighs wide and pushed his hand down further. Samuel felt the soft swell of her secret lips and then the wetness when his finger accidentally slipped between them. Atsila rocked her hips and moaned. He did it again, pressing a little deeper this time, and felt the ripples and folds of her inner lips close around his finger.
“Put your finger inside me”, she whispered
As soon as Samuel found her entrance and started pushing gently, Atsila lifted her hips and pushed her body over his finger. She caught her breath, and then whispered, “in and out”.
Samuel felt her slender fingers stroke down his belly and then under the waistband of his trousers. When they found his cock, he shuddered. Atsila whispered,“You should take off your clothes now. I need you.”
Once he lay naked beside her and began sliding his finger in and out of Atsila’s slippery passage, she stroked his rigid cock until he thought he couldn’t take any more. Atsila stopped then, pressed her face against his cheek and whispered, “Samuel, make me your wife now”.
Atsila pulled him down on top of her after he’d entered her, and held him there for a few seconds, then began rocking her hips to show him the speed. Samuel followed her rhythm. It was slow enough for him to stroke deep with each stroke, and slow enough he was able to enjoy the sensations of Atsila’s body against his.
After a while, Atsila began clutching his back and moaning with each of his strokes. Those moans and her hands on his back were taking Samuel to what he knew was the inevitable conclusion. After that, each stroke caused Atsila to thrust her hips up and to gasp. The gasps became panting, and soon after that, Atsila cried out and began to rapidly rock her hips. Samuel spent his seed inside her clasping, rocking body and then leaned on his arms gasping for breath.
Atsila pulled him down on top of her again and held him tight. She stroked his back until his cock softened and slipped from her body and then murmured, “Now I am your wife.”
Samuel eased himself off Atsila and rolled to her side. He felt her snuggle against him and then drifted off to sleep.
Atsila lay awake a little longer. She smiled as she spoke silently to the Moon God.
“Thank you, Moon, for hearing my prayer.”
Then, she cradled her face on Samuel’s arm and fell asleep.
As I read over what I’ve written above, I realize some readers may believe my tale is purely fiction conjured in the mind of one who writes for the pleasure of seeing his thoughts transformed into words. Mine is not, though it is not accurate to call it fact either. The true actions and thoughts of people dead for over sixty years have usually been lost through poor memory or changed over time with multiple re-tellings.
What I know as fact is my great grandfather was born in a log cabin on Salt Creek, about twenty five miles north-west of Springfield, Illinois. He did indeed fight in the American Civil War. His name is listed in the roster of Illinois Civil War Veterans. I know he did enlist in the 7th Cavalry during the Indian wars in Kansas and Oklahoma because his name is on the roster of one of the companies that were recorded as fighting at Washita River.
It is also a fact that my great grandmother was a Cherokee by birth. I know of my great, great, great grandfather’s Scottish origin through the oral family history. A DNA test confirmed both my great grandmother’s Cherokee and his Scottish blood flow through my veins along with Samuel’s German contribution to my genetic makeup.
I do not have any memories of my great grandfather. He passed away before I was born, still living and working the cattle ranch he and Astila started in Texas. I run that ranch now, and often I see a relic of his handiwork. It won’t be much, just the mark left by an axe when he squared a tree trunk into a barn beam, or the forgotten, worn horseshoe I found when digging the foundation for a new house beside the simple log cabin he built.
Atsila bore and raised him seven children in that small cabin, four boys and three girls. My grandmother was the youngest of them all, and I think somewhat of a favorite of Atsila’s.
I do have some memories of my great grandmother, as she lived out her years at our house. Atsila Kerner was her legal name, but she never actually used that last name. She always wanted to be called “Mother Atsila” or “Grandmother Atsila”. On her headstone is the latter. I think she would like to be remembered by that name.
I was eight when she passed three months short of her hundredth birthday, at least by her reckoning. I remember her as still strong of mind if not so strong of body. She sat with me for hours and told me of the ways of the Cherokee and of her life with Samuel.
When I asked her for more stories, she would smile and begin another tale of growing up in a Cherokee village or a tale from Cherokee folklore or a tale of how Samuel did something or other to make her life easier. Her eyes would always sparkle when she talked about Samuel. Later in life, I wondered at that sparkle. Most men and women back then married in order to share the work of living. I think Atsila married for more than that, or at least found more than that over the years.
The rest of my tale, I am afraid, is just that – a tale told from vague memories embellished by my flights of fancy into what might have been. I do like to think things might have happened this way. It seems a fitting way for two people so far apart in culture to meet and decide to make a life together.