The Cherokee Child

Mary Donovan watched through the cabin door as her husband, Ben, pulled his black, wide brimmed hat down, wrapped the wool jacket close around his tall, bent frame and struggled into the snowy, late-December wind.  He stumbled toward the stream that ran south from the nearby James River across their farm.  As the cold seeped in, she shut the door against the whirling snow and her own fears.  This thing with the Cherokees had her spooked.

She still remembered the scare, a year ago, in 1836, when several bands of Osage crossed back from Indian Territory into Missouri.  Their proud, fierce looks, and strange dress, had unnerved her.  New to the Ozarks, she’d been terrified by stories of Osage war parties that had kidnapped earlier settlers in the Ozarks.

Heathens. Savages, all of them.  She wrapped her arms tight around her chest against her fears.  Still, she couldn’t countenance the Government’s driving the Cherokees from their homes in Georgia and Tennessee, and marching them all the way to Indian Territory.  As terrified as she was, when they came down through Springfield and southwest past the farm, her heart cried out at the sight.  Mr. Cannon, the conductor of the march, had said his was only the second group of Indians, with many more to come.

She shook off the memory of that terrible line of beat-up wagons, scrawny horses, half-dead livestock, and human refuse, that had floundered in the bitter cold along the Fayetteville Road two weeks before.

Turning back to her work, she ran the feather duster aimlessly over the small, carved, blanket chest her father had made her for her wedding, pulled and straightened the coverlet she and her mother had quilted one winter back in Tennessee and set the breakfast dishes to soak in a pan of hot water on the fireplace hearth.  The dirt floor, cold across the small room, felt hot against her knees where she knelt in front of the fire.

She and Ben had settled the small acreage below Delaware Town, on the prairie southwest of Springfield, two years before.  The rich, dark soil and plentiful water had yielded bumper crops the last two seasons.  Mary hated the bitter winds and ice storms that swept the winter prairie here.  She longed for the moist, green smell of April grasses and the low, endless, gray-blue of the spring squalls that made the tall grass dance and sing.

Through an opening in the cabin wall, where the mud chinking had come loose, Mary watched Ben and laughed.  As he struggled up and over the little rise this side of the stream, he gradually disappeared and his black hat seemed to move along the rise of its own volition.  Though the stream flowed year round, the top was now frozen.  Knowing the cattle would be looking for a place to drink, he’d taken the axe to chop some of the ice away.

Their four month old, Caroline, began to fuss.  Mary unbuttoned her blouse, lifted the baby from the cradle and put her to her ample breast.  Through the crack in the chinking, she watched the hat stop, disappear and reappear, as Ben stooped, then, raised the axe.  It hovered in the air for a moment before it fell from her husband’s hands and he let out a long, anguished yell.  She saw the hat turn and her husband reappear, as he stumbled blindly toward the house.

Hearing his cry, she ran out the door of the cabin with the swaddled baby still nursing at her breast.  “Is the Indians comin’ again, Mr. Donovan?”

When she saw that her young husband could not speak, she pulled him into the cabin, laid the cranky baby in the cradle and began loading his smoothbore musket.

“Put it away, Wife.  We ain’t in any danger.”

Ben, still in his hat and jacket, sat on the little three-legged stool by the large, stone fireplace and sobbed – his ruddy Irish face buried in his hands.   His long brown hair hung in strands that tangled between his wet fingers and caught in the rough beard and moustache.

Mary placed the musket back over the cabin door and hung the powder horn on its peg.  She’d never seen her husband weep.  She brushed a wisp of her hair back into its bun and knelt beside him in alarm.  “What is it, Ben?”

“A child, floating under the ice in the creek.”  He raised his head, his eyes teary, his face still sallow with shock.  “It’s dead.”

“Oh, my Lord!  What’ll we do?”

He peered around the cabin, his eyes coming to rest on the now sleeping baby, as if she might suddenly wake and give him the answer.  At last, he said, “Reckon I’d best chop it loose and see if we can figure where it come from.”

“I’ll fetch a quilt.  You can wrap the poor thing in it.”  Mary hurried to pull one of the older blankets from the chest near the bed.

After he left, Mary paced around the room, trying to decide where they would place the child when Ben came back.  At last, she decided on the stout wood table at the kitchen end of the room near the fireplace and spread another old quilt over it.  Then, unable to think further, she sat down beside the sleeping baby and waited.

The wind picked up outside the cabin, rattling the greased paper that covered the small window.  She could hear the hacking of the axe in the distance.  She closed her eyes and turned from the sound, but she could not get an image of her own dear Caroline, frozen and blue, out of her mind.  She touched the little hand that lay curled on top of the blanket near her own.  The warmth comforted her.

She ran through a list of neighbors, in her mind, searching for one that might have a small child and wondered why, if one was missing, there had been no frantic knock at the door, no one pleading with her husband to join in a search.

The sound of the axe stopped and she rose to pace the floor again, waiting for Ben’s footsteps.  Suddenly chilled, she reached for her heavy wool shawl and wrapped herself in it.

At last, she heard his slow, heavy steps and his stomping as he dusted the snow off his boots.  She steeled herself against the unhappy chore ahead and opened the door.

Oh, God.  Such a small bundle.

“She was snagged on a tree root.”  Ben laid the bundle on the table his wife had prepared.

“A girl?  Do we know her?”

Ben shook his head and peeled back the blanket.  “She looks like she’s about four.”

Mary took one look at the body and stepped back, her hand clutching the gray wool shawl she’d wrapped herself in.  “My Lord, it’s one of them Cherokee whelps.”

“God sakes, Mary.  She’s a child.”  Ben turned toward her in anger.  “What difference does it make who birthed her?  Them was civilized people and Christians, too.  I hear they had the Bible writ in their own language.”

She stared at his somber face.  “I’m sorry.  Of course, it don’t make no difference.  I was just expecting to see one of the neighbor children.”  She reached out and moved a strand of the child’s long black hair.  The soft brown eyes, surrounded by long, straight lashes, were wide open, but her face seemed oddly peaceful.  “She was a pretty little thing, wasn’t she?”

“Awful thin.  Don’t reckon them folks had much to eat, for all the way they come.”

“You suppose someone will come back, looking for her?”

Ben sighed.  “Don’t think so.  Mr. Hair, up on the James, said one of his neighbors was out to their camp near by Delaware Town after the Indians left.  Found a live baby – little girl that was left behind.  They kept her.  Named her Annie.  No one’s come back for her and that’s been a week or more ago.”

Mary shook her head.  “How could a mother leave a baby in weather like this?”

“Someone told me those Cherokee folks had been marched all the way from Georgia, nearly 800 miles.  Mr. Cannon, the conductor of that last group, said they’d been dying like flies all along the way.  Maybe the baby’s mother died too.”

Mary stared at the little girl, fighting her revulsion of the cold, soggy flesh.  “Her clothes are so thin.”  She fingered the wet cotton blouse and the long print skirt.

“Looked like there was a blanket down there in the creek too, but …”

“Still, they’re just summer clothes.”  She felt one of the pale, blue feet.  “Oh, Ben, her little feet are all scarred.”

He turned away.  “I suppose we ought to bury her.  I’ll have to use the pick axe to break up the soil afore I can dig out a grave.”

Mary hesitated.  The child needed a fit burial.  At last, she said, “I’ll clean and wrap the body.”

As Ben left, she laid her shawl aside, poured a pan of warm water from the kettle on the hearth and stripped the clothes from the child.  After she rinsed them, wrung them out and hung them to dry by the fire, she turned back to washing the body.  Where are your mam and pap, little one?  Are they alive?  Were they as terrified as I would have been when they found you were gone?

Mary scrubbed at a dark spot on the child’s face and left a dimple in the spongy, gray-blue flesh.  “Oh, baby child, I’m so sorry …”  She burst into tears and turned away, needing to compose herself before she could go back to the task.  When she finished, she took the two burial coins from a box on top of the pie cabinet, closed the child’s eyes and set the coins on top to keep them closed.  After laying a quilt over the slender body, she found a piece of sheeting to tear into strips while the clothing dried.  As she worked, she heard the sound of pounding from the shed out back.  She nodded in silent approval.  Ben was making a casket.

After the clothing dried, she redressed the little girl and began wrapping her body in the long, winding strips.  She stopped at the arms.  Walking over to the trunk by the bed, she took out the small rag doll her mother had sent from Tennessee for her new grand daughter.  She looked down at Caroline, still sleeping, then turned and walked back to the table.

Laying the doll on the child’s chest, she folded the thin arms around it.  “I don’t … I don’t want you to be alone.”  She removed the coins from the now closed eyes and finished the wrapping.

When Ben brought the small pine casket in, Mary lined it with the piece of quilting, and they lifted the body in.

“Don’t weigh a feather’s worth, does she?”   Ben tapped the lid down.  “I’ll bring the wagon around.”

Mary put on the wool shawl and her bonnet, and helped him carry the casket to the wagon.  Back inside, she hesitated over baby Caroline for a moment, closing her eyes against the earlier image.

Ben entered again.  “You ready?”  Seeing her look, as she gazed down at their daughter, he said, “She’s safe, Wife.”

“I know.”  She drew a ragged breath and wrapped the baby in a heavy wool coverlet.  She gathered the baby and her Bible, and joined Ben.

At the grave, Ben lowered the casket, then held Caroline while Mary opened the Bible to the book of Matthew, and read, “But Jesus said, Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  She closed the book and reached down for a handful of dirt to drop into the open grave.  “Don’t worry little one.  Whoever you were in this world, you’ll be a princess in the Lord’s kingdom.”

Ben smiled as he handed Caroline back to her mother.   He bowed his head.  “Lord, if her mam and pap are up there, would you make sure she finds them?  Amen.”  He picked up the shovel and filled in the grave.

As an afterthought, he reached down for a couple of small branches laying in the snow.  He pulled a piece of hemp cord out of his jacket pocket, tied the two pieces of wood together in the form of a thin, crooked cross and tucked it into the black soil at the head of the grave.

They turned back to the wagon; Caroline began to stir.  The wind picked up again, frosting the burial mound with snow.  Mary pulled her shawl around her neck.  Ben yanked his hat down, wrapped his wool jacket close around his tall, lean frame and looked back one last time at the small, bare grave before he turned the horse toward the cabin.


4 Responses to The Cherokee Child

  1. Earl Reeves says:

    Beautiful story and lovingly written. Proud of you.

  2. graveday says:

    Hi,Linda. I enjoyed the story. I think it is the first time I really noted the term ‘burial coins’ and that folks actually kept them around. Death was a lot more personal in those days.
    Have you yet read ‘Rifles for Watie’?

  3. theozarker says:

    Thanks Grave. Yes, death was certainly a lot more personal then – especially out in the rural and hill country which were often quite isolated.

    Haven’t read the book. I assume it’s about Stan(?) Watie who led the Cherokee brigade that fought with the South here in the Ozarks during the Civil War? Will have to check it out.

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