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Chapter Nine: The Pack and Run


A steady breeze keeps the temperature in the shade tolerable. Mr. Blackwell sits directly across from me at the table under the tree. Florence’s red stars dance above our heads. She’s created a lovely setting for our little party this afternoon. I study the color emanating from Mr. Blackwell’s head and shoulders. The dark indigo of his aura pulsates as if it’s trying to break through and take on a lighter shade of blue. I sense Mr. Blackwell has unfinished business in his life—business that keeps him from feeling truly happy. Cousin Wahya, who is currently inside the house with Florence and Johnny, is more of a mystery.

At first, I thought I might not be able to discern Wahya’s color at all. Sometimes I need time to get to know a person before their color shows itself. Occasionally, I’ve met someone I could never see clearly. But as I watched Wahya this afternoon, I realized he has a pure white aura—almost invisible, but it’s there—glistening around him. I’ve never seen anything like it. It doesn’t take intuition to see that Wahya is kind and generous. Judging by how he has dedicated his life to caring for this family and Mr. Blackwell, in particular. Perhaps he’s generous to a fault. I’ve heard the story about how Billy Blackwell found little Wahya. The Blackwell family took the little boy in as one of their own. He grew up as Cousin Wahya, and he was the little brother Billy never had. Every other person in Mr. Blackwell’s family left him. They either ran away or died. It’s easy to understand why Wahya stayed by his side. But at what cost?

“While we’re waiting on those cookies, Mr. Blackwell, I’ve got a couple of questions I’ve been dying to ask you,” Frank says.

“Fire away, son,” Mr. Blackwell replies, leaning back in his chair.

“First off, did you really win the Pack and Run in a late-night card game while you were drinking whisky with old man Bushyhead?”

Billy Blackwell laughs and slaps his knee. “Oh, I love it when a good story takes on a life of its own,” he says. His deep blue color brightens as he straightens his posture in anticipation of telling the tale. “It’s true, there was a card game between me, Jeb Bushyhead, and his father Clarence that ran into the wee hours of the morning. But what we were discussing was the damned Dawes Roll and the impending land allotment.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the Dawes Roll or land—” Frank breaks off.

“Allotment,” Mr. Blackwell finishes the sentence for him. “Here’s your quick Cherokee history lesson, Mr. Davis.” He leans forward and puts his arms on the table. “Beginning in the 1830s, the US Government forced the five civilized tribes from their ancestral lands in the southeast. They promised each tribe sovereignty over their new territory in what is now Oklahoma.”

“Sorry,” Frank interrupts, “who are the five civilized tribes?”

“The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole,” Eddie answers.

“I’d only heard about the Cherokee on the trail of tears,” Frank mutters.

“We were the largest tribe they relocated, but they removed five tribes in all. Oh, they thought we were ‘civilized’ because we’d learned to dress like them, pray like them, and farm like them. Some Cherokees even ran plantations and owned slaves,” Mr. Blackwell adds with a somber shake of his head. “As if that was a sign of being ‘civilized.’”

“Cherokees owned slaves?” Albert asks and Mr. Blackwell nods.

Johnny joins the group, sets a plate of cookies on the table and takes Wahya’s empty seat at the table. Mr. Blackwell reaches for a cookie and takes a bite.

“Yup, when the soldiers rounded our ancestors up to walk to Oklahoma, they made any Cherokee-owned slaves walk with their owners,” Mr. Blackwell says, taking another bite, “including the slaves belonging to my mother’s family.”

Even I’d never heard that bit of history—slaves on the Trail of Tears. I search Edna’s face to see if she’s as shocked as the rest of us. She takes a cookie and holds it in both hands without taking a bite.

“My mother was born in Georgia and her family owned a large plantation. Mother named my older sister Hattie after her best friend, a slave girl about her own age who helped take care of her younger siblings.”

“The ones who died on the trail?” Johnny asks, his voice soft and somber.

“That’s right son. My mother was thirteen when soldiers broke down the door to their fine home. The family was gathered at the supper table. Soldiers forced them out at gunpoint. They didn’t even allow them to grab coats or an extra pair of shoes,” Mr. Blackwell pauses to take another bite of cookie, “let alone a blanket or bedroll.”

“Eddie told me a little of their story when we went to the cemetery for Decoration Day,” Frank says.

“You already took him to the cemetery?” Mr. Blackwell asks Bessie, raising an eyebrow.

She shrugs. Frank puts his arm around her and gives her a squeeze. Bessie’s been quiet as a church mouse this afternoon with her father here, but her pink aura shines crisp and clear in the safety of Frank’s embrace.

“Yup, he offered to drive us to Claremore the first weekend he was in Bartlesville,” Eddie answers with a shake of his head.

“You were on the fast track to win my daughter’s heart. Bessie loves that darn flower project.” Mr. Blackwell smiles and laughs as he gestures to Bessie. “Wahya and I stopped by last week, and the family plot looks mighty fine.”

I hear genuine admiration and pride in Mr. Blackwell’s voice when he speaks to his daughter. Does Bessie hear it? The wounds of our youth stay tender long after the scars fade.

“Now, back to the timeline leading up to my late-night poker game,” Mr. Blackwell says controlling the direction of the conversation effortlessly.

“The tribe had barely established itself in our new location when the Civil War broke out. And the war devastated the Cherokee people almost more than Removal. Principal Chief John Ross tried to remain neutral, but some Cherokee sided with the Union while others fought for the Confederacy. Ross officially denounced the Confederate cause, but a longtime rival of his named Stand Waiti became Principal Chief of a group calling themselves the Southern Cherokee. In 1863, the official Cherokee National Council abolished the practice of slavery. About 4,000 slaves were living in Cherokee Indian Territory at the time and they became Cherokee Freedmen. But in the end, because good ole Stand Waiti was a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army and was one of the last Cherokee to lay down his arms, we ended up having to negotiate yet another new treaty with our good friends in Washington. They used war reparations as a way to steal back the land they gave us under the Indian Removal Act.”

“That’s not fair,” Johnny exclaims.

“You’re right, Johnny. Nothing about removal or our treatment after the Civil War was fair,” Cousin Wahya adds. I hadn’t noticed Wahya rejoin the group. He stands behind Johnny and puts his hands on the boy’s shoulders.

“What happened next?” Albert asks.

Mr. Blackwell takes a sip of iced tea before continuing—heightening the tension. Over the years, the Blackwell clan has shared quite a few tales about Wild Billy Blackwell the store owner and revered storyteller. Rarely does someone live up to my expectations, but this man is everything I imagined and more. His fluffy white hair, bushy white eyebrows, and overall stature make him impossible to ignore. But it’s more than his appearance. It’s the richness of his voice and the skill with which he commands an audience—controlling the pace and delivery of his story, leaning in and sitting back, and using his hands for emphasis at exactly the right moment. I’m captivated and by the looks of it, so is everyone else around the table.

“What happened next,” Mr. Blackwell draws out the words. “Enrollment and allotment. Both were a devastating blow to the tribes. An act designed to destroy our way of life and undermine the authority of our leaders. And a scheme to steal millions of acres of land rightfully promised to the Indian Nations, and sell it to white settlers.” Mr. Blackwell’s color deepens. He pauses for a sip of iced tea as if that could rinse the bitterness from his words.

“Enrollment required us to register with the Dawes Commission. For the first time in history, the U.S. government decided who was a member of the Cherokee tribe and who wasn’t,” Wahya says. “After everyone was registered, they started divvying up the land. They allotted parcels of land to everyone they considered Indian and took the rest to sell to pioneers,” he scoffs.

“Our friends in Washington not only stole millions of acres from us, but they also stole our connection to the land, to our culture, and to each other. I believe allotment did more to destroy the Cherokee people than any other act of treachery by the U.S. government.” Mr. Blackwell looks down at the table.

“Anyway, that’s a mess of backstory to give you as to what happened the night I was playing cards with Jeb and Clarence Bushyhead,” Mr. Blackwell says, looking up and skillfully bringing us back to where we started. “Jeb was a rancher and had a large herd of cattle, and he was worried about losing access to his grazing lands. I was fed up with farming and working out at my parent’s place, heck, I was fed up with just about everything at that time, but I’d been thinking about opening a little store and trying my hand at being a merchant. Jeb’s mother and father lived in a nice little house Jeb had built for them—a real wooden house with a porch. It sat right on one of the major roads between Oologah and Claremore.

“That night over cards and some whisky,” Mr. Blackwell inclines his head to Frank as once again, he weaves the threads of his story into a cohesive pattern, “Jeb and I decided I should move into Clarence’s house, and Clarence and Jeb’s mom should move into a cabin on the south end of Jeb’s property where he grazed his cattle. If Clarence established himself there, chances were good father and son would be allotted adjoining parcels and Jeb would have access to enough land to graze his cattle. I’m not sure I can express how difficult it was for the Cherokee to understand land ownership. How can you own the grass, the fish in a stream, or the deer in the forest? But the three of us agreed it was a solid plan. I would get me up and running as a merchant and protect Jeb’s grazing land. So, the next day, I showed up at Clarence Bushyhead’s house and helped him and his wife move to the cabin.”

“What?” Johnny interjects. “No shotgun departure? You didn’t give him ten minutes to ‘pack and run’ to his son’s house?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Johnny, but no. Jeb thought the rumor of me winning the house in a card game would be a good cover story for our plan, just in case any of those Washington types got suspicious of the Bushyhead’s adjoining parcels. I’m not sure who added the part about me leveling a shotgun at the old man and giving him ten minutes to pack and run. Sounds like something Clarence would have come up with. He was a real character.” Mr. Blackwell rubs his chin.

“I can’t believe I’ve never heard the real story,” Bessie says.

“Did your plan work? Did the Bushyheads get their grazing land?” Edna asks.

“Yup, they got their adjoining allotments. The Cherokee were the last tribe to finalize their agreement with the government. Around 1900, they divided our tribal lands into equal parcels. When all was said and done, though, we were no longer a tribe living together on communal lands. And the government had taken millions of acres from the five civilized tribes.”

“Millions?” Johnny asks, leaning forward.

“They took 90 million acres of land away from the tribes, Johnny,” Wahya says. Johnny sits back in his chair, speechless.

“Sorry, I got a little sidetracked on my history lecture there,” Mr. Blackwell says, rubbing his forehead. His color momentarily disappears and then returns, like someone flicking a light switch off and then back on. I’m not sure what that means, but my guess is Mr. Blackwell lost part of himself when the Cherokee lost their communal lands.

Albert rises from his chair. “If anyone should apologize, Mr. Blackwell, I feel like it should be those of us who represent the Washington types in this story.” He extends his hand to Mr. Blackwell, who looks at his hand for a moment and then shakes it. “Thank you for an illuminating lesson. You’d make an excellent professor yourself. Mildred, do you feel like stretching your legs?” Albert turns to me and offers his hand.

“Oh, yes. A little walk after all that food would be wonderful.” I rise to meet him.

“May we join you?” Edna asks. She and Douglass get up from the table and stretch.

“Certainly. In fact, I have a few things I’d like to discuss with you about my departure date,” I say.

“Frank, why don’t we go inside and give Florence a hand tidying up,” Bessie says.

“Grandpa, would you like to take a walk, too?” Johnny asks Mr. Blackwell. “There’s a little park at the end of the street.”

“Is there shade?” Mr. Blackwell asks.

“Yes, sir. Wahya, would you like to come with us?” Johnny asks and Wahya nods in the affirmative.

“Can I tag along?” Eddie asks Johnny. Wahya and Johnny exchange a curious look.

“Sure, Uncle Eddie. You’re welcome to join us.”

And with that, the lunch portion of our party is over and everyone goes their separate ways.


Next Chapter: Chapter Ten: Making Baskets