TIME SPIKE – snippet 9:
Geoffrey Watkins sat next to what was left of the small fire used to heat their afternoon meal. He didn’t do so for the warmth. That was hardly needed now. It just gave him something to do.
The women and children lay in the shade. The old men sat next to the women, watching the woods. The soldiers had their camp by some trees not far away. A horse whinnied. A bird called.
He listened to the whispering of the trees in the breeze and forced himself to sit straight. He was weary, bone weary. At the age of fifty-four, he felt too old for this trip. Many of those with him were too old. That, or too sick.
The Treaty of New Echota had forced the evacuation of all Cherokees. He, and those with him, had been among the last to leave for the new land across the big river assigned to them by the United States.
They had left Ross’ Landing in November of 1838 by wagon—a party of three hundred and seventy Cherokees, escorted by a unit of U.S. soldiers. They had crossed the Tennessee River, the Cumberland River, and then the Ohio River. The trip had been long and hard. It was still months from completion. And now he did not know if it would ever end, or where they would be if it did.
It had been winter and the snow was inches deep. They had been in southern Illinois, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers when their world disappeared and this new world showed up. Everything familiar was lost.
The snow and cold had been two of the things that vanished when their world shook and screamed. Watkins was grateful for that. He was not grateful for the other things that were missing: the food, tools, equipment, and people.
Their wagons and most of the horses were gone. Some of their people and the soldiers, too. Only eight soldiers were caught up in the storm that blew the Cherokees to this land, wherever it was. Eight soldiers and three hundred and twenty-one of his own people.
The soldiers relinquished any authority they might have over the Cherokees to Geoffrey, once they realized they were no longer in southern Illinois. That had been a wise move on their part, as outnumbered as they now were. The Cherokees had been stripped of their land and many of their possessions, true, but they still owned some things. Among them were guns and knives.
Even then, had the soldiers been Georgia militiamen instead of U.S. regulars, they would have been killed. The Georgians had committed many personal atrocities against the Cherokees in the course of the relocation, including murder, rape, robbery and mutilation. But all you could honestly accuse the regulars of doing was following the orders of their government. Their own conduct had been well-disciplined. And many Cherokees knew from Chief John Ross that Major General Winfield Scott, the man in charge of the U.S. troops overseeing the relocation, had tried to get President Van Buren to stop the relocation once he saw the epidemics developing in the camps. But Van Buren had refused.
So, there had been no violence toward the soldiers, even if relations were tense.
His people were tired unto their soul, and they were hungry. And many of them were sick, including his wife of twenty-five years. She had pneumonia. She was burning up with fever. Her labored breathing had kept him awake most of the night. Now, in the light of day, she seemed even worse.
“Chief,” Bradley Scott called. “We’ve got company.”
Watkins stood up. Things had changed, but in some ways they were still the same. The Cherokees in his group were traditionalists. Not all of them were full-blood—he wasn’t, for instance—but many of them were. So they were not encumbered by the need to watch over black slaves, and they retained many of the skills that most of their people had lost in their attempt to emulate the Americans. There’d been enough men in the group with the needed skills that he’d been able to send out scouting parties almost immediately. Now, another one was returning.
But he had nothing more to report than the others. They’d all encountered strange creatures and strange plants, some of them quite fearsome, but none had found the missing farms or the missing towns.
“Sorry, Geoffrey. I could find nothing. Not even a hunter’s lean-to.”
Watkins nodded, letting no trace of apprehension show. “McQuade is still out. He was to follow the river three days, and then return. Perhaps he will be more successful.”
Stephen McQuade had been his close companion for many years. They had fought together in alliance with the American general Andrew Jackson at the Horseshoe Bend during the Creek war, almost twenty-five years earlier. He was a man Geoffrey had counted on many times.
And he was starting to get desperate. McQuade had to succeed.
They needed food and shelter, of course. But most of all, they needed the tools and instruments by which they could obtain those things. Blankets, pots, knives, and ammunition. Even traditionalists like his people had come to rely on the technology of the white man, to a large extent.
Most of all, though, they needed information. Ignorance was the greatest enemy of all. It had taken more lives than disease, war and weather combined.
The sun was down and the fires were lit. Watkins looked at the flickering flames, hoping they would be enough to keep the new animals at bay.
Geoffrey didn’t turn around to look at Susan Fisher, one of the Cherokee healers. She was good at what she did, but she didn’t perform miracles. And without food, water and medicines, a miracle would have been needed. He knew what she had to tell him. He had been listening to the sound of his wife’s ragged breathing for hours, holding his breath each time she grew silent. Breathing a sigh of relief when he heard the gurgling sound of air being dragged into lungs laden with water.
The mother of his children—three sons and two daughters—was gone.
He had known the second she passed. The death rattle was something no man could mistake for anything else, once he’d heard it. And he had heard it many times over the years.
“I’m sorry,” the small woman whispered.
Chief Geoffrey Watkins nodded. Hard times, bad luck. They seemed to be his fate these days. And the fate of his people.
Hernando de Soto, Pedro Moreno, and Hernando de Silvera spent the morning looking for the missing river. The huge watercourse had disappeared the night the demons broke free of hell and carried them from North America to this accursed land. The fertile soil that had stretched for seventy miles north to south, and ran twelve miles east to west, had also disappeared. In its place was a conifer forest, and soil so thin that it would do poorly for growing the corn and other food the conquistadors and their men needed.
Worst of all, most of the natives who would have provided that food for their new masters had vanished also. Some remained, but not the great numbers they needed.
As the sun rose to its zenith, de Soto’s second in command, Luis de Moscoso, was six legua comuns south of the main camp. He was dealing with one of the devil-worshippers who had cursed the expedition, thus causing God to abandon them and giving the devil the power to torment the Spaniards in this evil land. He sat on his horse staring at the native. The heathen was one of six such men found over the last few days. The slaves—taken before the spawns of Satan were loosed upon the Spaniards—had not recognized the tribe these men were from.
This newest one was dressed like the others. He wore nothing more than a loincloth. He carried no weapon and had no food on him. He was obviously a fool, or took the Spaniards for such. Each of the interpreters had tried to talk to him. And each time the captive indicated he could not understand what was being said.
Disgusted, Moscoso gave his orders. If the savage continued to pretend not to understand what he heard, chop his ears off and feed them to the pigs. If that didn’t make the man talk, cut his tongue out and force it down the fool’s own throat.
The Spanish soldiers holding the Indian by his arms shoved him to his knees. In the Year of the Lord 1541, if you were part of Hernando De Soto’s expedition to North America, it was unwise to hesitate when a direct order was given.
The Indian, a member of a nascent Mississippian chiefdom from the year 637 A.D., struggled to get away as the men dressed in elaborate body armor advanced with steel knives drawn.