So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:8-10 (NIV)
Some of you may remember that in 2007, I posted installments of a novel as I wrote it. The story of the first settlers of the island where I live serves both as a history lesson on Florida from 1840 until about 1870 and an illustration of one woman’s journey of faith. It took me nine months to write. Many of you were encouraging to me during that time. For almost three years, Eliza’s Story has been sitting in my computer. Periodically, I pull it up, dust it off, make a few revisions and then, bury it again. I read that many books never get published, not because it is so hard to find a publisher, but because author’s won’t let their story go. Kind of like sending your child off to kindergarten. In 2007, I fixed all the grammatical and spelling errors. In 2008, I cut 200 pages from the 500 page manuscript to make it an acceptable length to today’s reading public. That was as painful as carving out my heart. When I was done, I couldn’t look at the story for a year and a half. I think about it often, and people constantly ask when my book will be published. I answer honestly that I am a big chicken and can’t bear the rejection notices. The truth is I had one more obstacle to overcome and couldn’t figure out how to fix it. Many people who read the original draft said they though it was a children’s book because it begins when Eliza is four years old. In the massive cut in 2008, much of her childhood hit the trash can (figuratively, not literally, don’t panic, I still have it!) But, many of her childhood experiences can’t be eliminated. They are critical to the choices she makes later in life. In the last few months, I have been doing a lot of reading. Several of the novels were been written in first person. I love that perspective because it draws me into the book right away. Then, it clicked. That is how I can tell Eliza’s childhood stories without people thinking the book is only about a child. So, over the last week, I have been sitting at my computer changing every, “Eliza sailed” or “Eliza cooked” to “I sail” or “I cook”. It is tedious work. I have to focus carefully on what I am doing or I get the tenses mixed up. The process takes almost five minutes per page. Multiply that by 386 pages, and you know what I am facing. But, I think this just might work. Read below and see if you agree. In the meantime, I was thinking that the best way to tell people about how God works is to tell them from my perspective in my own words. That’s what this blog is all about. He becomes real when I tell you about His impact on me. Maybe someday, you will be able to read Eliza’s story as well.
“Daughter, why are you so quiet? When you begged to come along, you promised to keep me company.”
From atop the broad high back of Papa’s mule, Dan, I look down on my father as he walks ahead of me. Papa swings his machete in even strokes clearing a path though the saw palmettos. Traveling overland means more work for him. He complains that the brush grows so fast a man could be surrounded in the time it took him to blink. Ordinarily, Papa would sail from our house and store on the northern bank of the Manatee River to the farm on Terra Ceia. Today, he needs the mule’s help to prepare the fields for planting. So we must walk. Rather Dan and Papa do. I ride, but I smile as I imagine the mule loaded into the bow of Papa’s ketch. No, that will never happen.
Papa glances back over his shoulder. “Ah, a smile. I was beginning to wonder if you regretted your choice to come with me. What were you thinking about that made you so solemn?”
I squirm in the saddle. How to tell Papa my true thoughts? If there is one thing I’ve learned in my twelve years, keeping a secret from Papa is nearly impossible. How to say that the stillness of the air and the heat of the sun remind me of the hurricane? Six years gone by, but not one day passes that I don’t think about it. The storm destroyed more than my home. That day marked the moment I set aside my reliance on Mama’s God. More than the many moves to find a better home, more than school and the torments suffered there because of my heritage, if a single event could shape a person, I blame the storm for emptying my heart of any trust in a good and loving God. Even as I helped rebuild the log cabin, I wondered, “Where was Mama’s God while the storm raged about us?” While Mama sang of God’s greatness and compassion, He let the wind have its way with our home. In the end, God abandoned us.
I can’t tell Papa any of that so I kept my peace. As we cross through the pine forests and along the south shore of Terra Ceia Bay, I fan my face with my hand. Dan’s shoulders glisten with sweat. His feet kick up dust that turns to mud on his flank. I hold tightly to his mane to keep from slipping off. No, better not to bother Papa with questions.
“I think perhaps you are disappointed with my mule,” Papa teases. “Dan is not like those fancy ponies of Chief Billy.” Now there is something we can talk about.
“Oh, no, Papa, Dan is fine. I love riding him.”
“Now, Eliza, it can’t be nearly as fun as Chief Billy’s ponies.”
Papa is right, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. I first met the Seminole Indian leader, Hollatta Micco or Chief Billy Bowlegs as the other settlers call him, while we lived in Fort Brooke. After the hurricane, Mama took a job working for Colonel Belknap the commander of the small regiment of soldiers stationed there. Chief Billy loved Mama’s cooking and often came to visit.
I cannot help but smile when I think of Chief Billy. He saved my life once. I have always been fascinated with horses, and Colonel Belknap owned a fine pair. Once, I slipped away from the house and climbed into the corral. From the ground, they looked a lot bigger. I eased closer to the one nearest the fence. With his nose to the ground, he nibbled at the grass. I thought the horse was ignoring me and reached out to touch his shiny black mane, but he spun quickly, turning his back and raising his hind leg to kick me. It seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw the danger, but my legs would not work.
Just as the black hoof came within inches of my face, I felt myself lifted into the air and swung around out of harm’s way. Twisting to see my rescuer, I was face to face with a dark skinned man dressed in an odd costume. Wearing a shirt made of bright colored fabric patches, he wore around his neck many strings of beads. A band, like a large crown, encircled his forehead and from it were six tall plumes of soft feathers. His black piercing eyes gazed into mine, and I realized that I was in the arms of Billy Bowlegs himself.
“Little girls should not go near big horses,” he said in rhythmic tones so heavily accented that I had to think carefully about their meaning. Then, he set me on the other side of the fence away from the horses. “Someday, I give you ride on my horse. Today, you stay away from these.” Not knowing whether to stay or to run, I stood my ground. This was a real Indian! People said Indians were bad, but Billy Bowlegs said he would give me a ride on a horse. From this angle, I saw why he had earned his nickname for his legs were in the shape of a bow.
“What happened to your legs?”
Grinning, he replied. “Not afraid, little miss? Don’t you run away?”
“I want a ride on your horse. You promised.”
“Even if your legs turn crooked like mine?”
I hadn’t thought of that. But, maybe just one ride wouldn’t hurt. I nodded.
And so, I took my first horseback ride upon Billy Bowlegs’ very own horse. Someday, I will have a horse of my own. But, for now, I settle for a ride on Papa’s mule.
I break my silence. “Where do you think Chief Billy is today?”
“Life cannot be easy for him, I am afraid,” Papa sighs.
He tells me that just recently Florida’s governor authorized the establishment of a group of mounted volunteers to begin removing the Indians from Florida and that the federal surveyors push farther and farther south in an effort to prepare those lands for settlement.
“Just last month, three Indians were hanged at the Tampa jail.”
“Oh, no!” I cannot bear to think of my friend in danger. “What about Chief Billy?”
“I expect your friend is hiding in the Everglades. He is a smart man. He knows that the surveyors and soldiers don’t know how to survive in the swamps much less track an Indian who has lived there his whole life. I am sure he is safe and sound.”
Seeing my distress, Papa changes the subject and gestures towards his left.
“See that herd of cattle over there? Those are ours, too.”
Cattle? I know about our small herd on Terra Ceia, but this is still the mainland.
“We own cows on this side of the bay?”
“Our herd multiplied over the years. There are now too many for the island to support, so I forded some over here. See they all have the letter A marked on them for a brand.”
As the shore of the bay turned north, we pass the Petersen brothers’ boat landing.
“Do Christian and Henry still live here?” I ask.
“Yes, and also some new settlers as well. The Craigs and the Mitchells.” Papa frowns as he says their names. He starts to speak again and then, stops. Changing the subject again, he says, “Look Eliza. See the spoonbills?”
We pause for a moment. Hundreds of pink birds bend and scoop their spoon shaped beaks into the mud at the edge of the bay.
I laugh when Papa says, “They are having mud soup for dinner!”
The path soon leaves the edge of the bay and winds through the oak hammock. I begin to recognize our surroundings. After an hour later, we emerge from the forest and approach our farm. Papa rebuilt our cabin after the hurricane. Though we now live farther south on the Manatee River closer to the other settlers, I still think of this as home.
“I know you are eager to look around,” Papa says, “but first we must take care of Dan and pay him for the ride home.”
I twist around until my belly is flat against Dan’s back. With my feet dangling in the air, I let go and dropped to the ground. I walk beside Dan as he follows Papa to the small paddock behind a log cabin. Dan heads straight for the water trough and drinks. Then, he lies down in the soft dirt of the paddock and turns over on his back wiggling and rolling in the warm sand. It blows in puffs around him as he gyrates. I laugh and clap my hands at the show.
“What is he doing?” I ask when I finally catch my breath.
“Scratching his back,” Papa replies. “And the sand covers his skin to protect him from the bugs.”
I could stay all day watching Dan as he grazes on the grass within the paddock, but Papa reminds me there are other things to see.
“You can go exploring if you like. I need to get a fire started, so when we want to cook supper, it will be hot. Then, I must check to see if the fields are ready to plow. I don’t know how I will manage to get all the work done, but somehow, I will. Go on, now. Have a look around.”
Oh, how I have missed my island. When Mama decided to open a store on the north side of the Manatee River, we moved from the Terra Ceia farm. Mama likes being closer to the Village of Manatee, but Papa and I miss the isolation and peace of the island. I breathe deeply. Home! It even smells differently. I walk to the spring and watch it flow from the ground creating a large bubble out from which ripples drift across the small pool. I kneel down in the damp earth beside it and peered into the water. Though small for my age, my face no longer has the chubby roundness of a little girl. I rub the slim wedge of my chin and feel the hollows of my cheeks. I wish my hair were a more exotic color. Plain brown makes my features look pale and my dark eyes too recessed. If only my eyelashes were longer. Suddenly, I hear a loud grunt in my ear. I jump and start to scream, but a brown hand clasps my mouth shut. I struggle against whoever holds me tight, but their grasp is too powerful.
Then, beside my own face in the water, I see the smiling face of Chief Billy. He removes his hand and steps away from me. Though my knees are trembling I stand. Furious, I rise on my tiptoes to be as tall as I can be.
“Chief Billy, don’t ever do that to me again. I could have hurt you. How do you know I was not carrying a knife? I might have stabbed you before I knew who you were!”
The Indian tilts back his head and roars with laughter. “Little Miss would need a big knife and thrust deep to pierce this thick old skin. But, you are a mighty brave little girl so Billy Bowlegs will be more careful next time.”
How good it is to see my old friend. I set aside my indignation and reach up to hug Chief Billy.
Wrapping my arms around his waist, I press my cheek against his brightly colored shirt and ask, “Where have you been? I’ve been so worried about you. All this time, I did not know where you were.”
“Ah, but Chief Billy sees you on your travels. I know your cabin on the river’s edge. You leave many traces and are easy to track. I follow you all the way here. I watch to make sure you are safe and see you ride so tall and bold upon that mule. You cross the river without fear. You don’t know where I am, but I know where you are all the time.”
Despite my excitement, I feel a stab of fear. He watches me, but I don’t know he’s near?
Then, Chief Billy offers his hand. “Come, let’s find your father. I must talk with him.”
Papa is pleased to see Chief Billy. He invites the Indian to stay for supper.
“It will be simple fare,” Papa warns. “My wife is not here so you will have to put up with my cooking.”
“I know you left her and the other little one behind,” the Chief concurs. “We did not disturb them, but followed you here instead.”
Again, I feel uneasy knowing that the Chief noticed everything we do. How long did he spy on them? Was Papa uncomfortable as well? I cannot tell as he busies himself frying bacon and eggs over the fire.
“Eliza, slice some of the bread your mother sent and we will have some toast.” While we work, I feel Billy Bowlegs’ eyes upon me and wonder why he is here. After a hastily prepared meal, Papa and the chief move to the porch to smoke. I admire the silver medallions that Chief Billy wears around his neck.
“Where did you get them?” I ask.
“I hammer them from silver coins I get in Washington, DC when I see the President a long time ago.”
He lets me feel the raised images on the coins and the smooth edges worn down from their beating. Once my curiosity is satisfied, I sit on the steps and listen to them talk. Papa offers Billy Bowlegs some of his tobacco.
“You grow?” he asks.
“Yes,” says Papa. I can hear the pride in his voice. “This land will grow anything you put in it. The east portion of my property is just the right soil for tobacco. When John Jackson made his map of the island, he noticed it, too and called that area Tobacco Bluffs. I chose well when I selected this place. I just wish my homestead papers would come from the government.”
The Indian grunts in agreement. “This is fine land. Once my people were happy here. Do not get too comfortable,” he warns. “Some day, someone else will want this land and will take it from you just as they did to us.”
“I fear they already are,” Papa sighs. “I can’t help but think that there is more than meets the eye in the difficulties I have over settling my claim. Despite the good men who stand up for me, I still do not have proof that this is my homestead.”
The Indian nods. “Yes, I understand this problem.” He explains. “I come to you because you seem an honest man. My friend, Colonel Belknap, called you his friend. He never lied to me. Will you tell me the truth as well?”
Papa extends his hand to the Indian. “I promise.”
Billy Bowlegs continues, “General Twiggs will not rest until the last of my people are driven from this land. At first, they promise us the river of grass. We agree to go even though we miss the rolling hills of our homeland and the vast forests full of game. As long as we can stay here, we will share this land. Tell me, what have you heard about my people in the settlements?”
“There are many tales of your brutality. They say six teamsters died on the route from Fort Mellon to Fort Frazer on the Kissimmee. When we ask why the mail does not come, we are told that the mail riders cannot get through because of your strength. The settlers in Manatee are begging for more troops. They build their fortifications sure that there will be war soon. General Twiggs plans a series of forts from Manatee across the state. He wants one every ten miles with two companies at each post. While he requests a mounted company of three hundred men, he is also gathering boats as the navy does not have the equipment it needs to follow you up every shallow creek and river in south Florida. They are making plans. They will not rest until there is war. You must be alert and ready.”
Chief Billy looks towards the bay. The light fades as the sun sets and twilight settles upon the island. His voice is steady and strong. “The settlers are greedy. They do not share. They want what was promised to us. They will get it by telling falsehoods about us. We do not kill unless we are provoked. Just ask the surveyors. Ask your friend John Jackson. They do their work and move throughout our land freely. It is only the soldiers and settlers who take what is ours that we resent.” Turning to Papa, he extends his hand as well. “But I thank you for your honesty. Now, I have one more favor to ask of you.”
He stands. His swiftness catches me by surprise. He waves his hand in the air. Like lightening, in front of the cabin, five more Indians emerge from the trees. I gasp, not out of fear, but delight for each one sits upon an Indian pony. Two of the braves lead two riderless ponies behind them.
“Come, you are safe here,” the Chief calls.
From the darkness of the woods, a black man stumbles toward the house. The chief stands waiting for him to make his way forward, but Papa hurries to help him onto the porch and into an empty chair. The man wears clothes so old that they are mostly rags. Through them, I can see his bones sticking out at odd angles.
“Eliza! Get some water and slice some bread. Our guest is hungry.”
I hurry to do as I am told. Bringing the food, I offer it to the man who hesitates to take it.
“Go on,” Papa urges. “It is alright. Eat.”
The speed at which he devours the bread and drinks the water is alarming as is the way his eyes dart back and forth from me to Papa to the Chief and back. I make two more trips to the kitchen for bread and water and a little bit of leftover bacon. The stranger eats it all.
When the food is gone, Chief Billy speaks again. “This is Henry. He is a runaway. He wants to go with me to my people, but he is not strong enough to make the journey. I ask of you a great favor, but I do so knowing your heart. Will you take him? When he is able, he will be of great help to you. I see the size of your farm. You cannot do this work alone. May he stay?”
Papa is quiet, then, replies, “I do not believe in slavery, Chief Billy. I will hold ownership over no man.”
“I am not asking you to take him as your slave, but as your hired worker,” the Indian states. Then, he repeats, “He will be of help to you.”
“But, he is someone’s property. It is against the law to harbor him. I am already in a precarious position with no legitimate claim to my land. You are asking me to risk it all,” Papa argues.
“I only ask you to lend aid to a man in trouble. You would do if for me, would you not?” Papa nods and beside him, I nod as well. “Then, do it for Henry.”
With that, the matter is settled. The Chief steps off the front porch and into the grass.
“To thank you for your kindness, I have a gift for your daughter.”
Once again, he waves his arms and one of his men rides forward leading a small grey pony. On the mare’s forehead is a white diamond and her rear left leg appears to have a white stocking upon it. Chief Billy reaches back and beckoned to me. I run forward, and he lifts me on her back.
“A brave little miss like you should not be riding a stubborn old mule. She is more suitable for your skill and courage. Her name is Niihaasi which means Moon. Treat her well and she will take you to the stars and back.”
Then, the other man brings the remaining riderless horse forward. Chief Billy jumps upon its back, and the group disappears as quickly as they came. If not for the feel of the little mare beneath me and the gaunt runaway slave sitting on the porch, I might have imagined the whole affair.