On Promised Land


Florida, 1841

after a brief battle with American soldiers

No word of Americans. They learned the Bolek band was still in the Grassy Waters, too, along with Snake and Halleck and their people. The secretive Chief Pascofar still eluded soldiers and refused to be removed.

Whan Sanchez recovered his senses and began to mend. Blue Eagle's band moved back north to be safer from hurricanes. On separate small hammocks not far from their usual summer camp, they hunted and made new tools and clothes. Heat and storms coursed over them with regularity. Blue Eagle's wife died, but Crane Clan harvested the beans they had planted before fleeing south. Everyone began to believe the Americans wouldn't bother them again-at least not until winter when the water was low.

Late in the moon of ripe blackberries, Tru awakened, his blood cold in his veins. Early morning. Clear sky and no thunder, but Tru heard the air rip right before the belching roar of a cannon. Building supports crashed. Screams erupted into the predawn. He jerked to action, flinging himself from the mat bed and pulling Kate from her pallet. Tall Deer struggled up, moving awkwardly in her seventh month of pregnancy.

Toby dashed in. "They killed Lone Bear and the other sentries. Where's that rifle? We need to fight!"

Tru took up the weapon Mose had given him, but didn't hand it to his brother. "Get your belongings, Toby. This, we hide or they will steal it from us."

"They can't steal if they're dead!" Toby said, jerking at the piece, but Tru didn't relent. "If Azikewe was here, he'd let me use it!" Toby declared before dashing off to get his pistol. Tru gritted his teeth against fear.

Gunfire...Another cannon roar. Kate helped Tall Deer gather their possessions. Tall Deer wrapped the rifle in her old deerskin skirt and pushed it to the bottom of a bundle. She looked up at Tru. No reproach in her glance, only a quick exchange; mutual acknowledgment that their sheltered environment was finally tearing open and spilling them into something new-something formidable.

Fire flashed beside the small house. Tru had built the chikee when they came here. He and Tall Deer lived together. Tru planted crops and the union was considered official. But now banana trees swayed and bloomed orange, whisking feathers of flames over the frond roof. Kate screamed and ran for the door as fire raced down a mat wall. Tru rushed out behind her and Tall Deer; they headed for the trees.

Too late.

They had been flushed like a covey of turkeys, and the hunters were waiting-thirty-two soldiers with rifles and bayonets, their white trousers brown to the thighs from wading through the heavy peat and saw grass. The blue coats with high collars seemed to squeeze the white faces into view. At least that, Tru thought. At least these weren't Muskogee slave hunters. But they were caught.

"No. No! I won't go!" Morning Leaf, screamed. She dashed for the woods. A soldier stepped in front of her, smacked the stock of his rifle up under her chin, and she sprawled to the ground, unconscious. Dives-with-Otters yelled his outrage and ran forward. The bayonets of two soldiers pierced through his deerskin shirt, his chest and stomach, out his back. Blood arced onto the smooth earth of the village square.

"Dives!" Tru yelled.

Others cried out as if they had been stabbed; then the shock of their circumstances choked the previous hysteria to silence. A soldier sliced off Dives-with-Otters' ears and put them in a pouch on his belt. Tru wondered who else's ears were in there. Probably their sentry, Lone Bear, a boy only twelve years old.

Toby began wrestling with a soldier, wanting to keep his pistol. His adolescent limbs looked fragile and thin compared to the thick-muscled white man. Only Kate's grip on Tru's arm kept him from aiding his brother. The soldier secured Toby's weapon and the boy cried while other soldiers pushed in from the woods with two captured men. From behind, someone jerked Tru's knife from his waist sheath. He flinched, smelling sweat and old tobacco on the soldier. His bow was yanked from his shoulder; the sinew string chafed his flesh; Kate's nails pulled up skin when the soldier forced him away from her so he could be shackled with the other men. Tall Deer grabbed Kate so she wouldn't follow.

Billie wasn't there, nor Dives' father. Tru hoped they had escaped. He knew they wouldn't attack now, not with the families surrounded.

Tall Deer stood beside Fani, agony in her dark eyes. The long-bladed knife she carried was taken from her, and other women were searched.

A tall man strode forward. "Is there a micco for this raggedy group?" he asked in English.

Many of the band understood English, although they didn't speak it well. No one moved. A baby wailed. A pall of smoke hung over them and the crackling of flames increased as the soldiers torched the remaining houses.

Two soldiers pushed forward Blue Eagle and a limping Whan Sanchez. Blue Eagle spoke in Mikasuki: "These are my people," he said. "You are stinking yellow sharks to kill us like young mackerel and steal our land, but Breath Maker has chosen to leave us today. You have broken your word, and you have broken us. We have no choice but to go with you."

Cora wept while Whan translated Blue Eagle's words into English, leaving out the part about sharks.

The officer grunted and signaled his men to action. The soldiers prodded the people to a tight cluster, the shackled men at the rear. Morning Leaf, roused to consciousness, screamed and pulled her hair when she saw her husband on the ground, blood still seeping from him and spreading on the town square.

"We have men dead. Can we not tend them?" Whan implored.

"Move!" the officer growled.

Cora and Dives' sister took hold of Morning Leaf, compelling her on with the others.

Fani had to be urged forward; her face held a stricken look Tru had never seen on her. Tall Deer, looking dismayed, took her mother's elbow and aided her as if the older woman was infirmed.

Most people trudged along, dry-eyed angry and carrying their meager possession. The army shoved them onto two large flatboats. The cannon was maneuvered onto the second one, and Tru wondered how long the army had planned this. Perhaps they found the camp while The People were living south and decided to raid when the village returned during high-water time. There had been four moons of calm, lulling them to hope and to no good end.

Sunshine had burned away the morning mist and cast everything in golden brightness. Turkeys gobbled from the brush. Tru studied the sky. No hint of storm, but the air around them seethed.

"Blue Eagle wants to know where you're taking us," Whan asked the officer as the boat was poled into a channel. Four men on each side were needed to maneuver the large craft. But with high water, they had no problem.

"To Fort Brooke at Tampa Bay. Steamboats will carry you from there, west."

"West," Tall Deer muttered angrily.

Tru watched a white egret lift from a strand and circle the boats as if curious; then it flapped low over the water, angled up and soared toward the morning sun. While we go West.