Virginia, early October 1861
Twilight Dumont was both desperate and scared, but at least now she wouldn't have to make a decision. It was being made for her.
She held Harvey's letter and stared out the shack's window at the smoldering ruins of her Virginia plantation. Damned Yankee renegades had burned the place to the ground two days ago while she hid in terror. The slaves had run away weeks ago, headed north.
Twilight ran her hand through her tangled brown hair and sighed, feeling guilty because she didn't really like her stepbrother, Harvey, even though they'd been raised together. She reread the letter she'd gotten two days ago:
I know things must be dreadful for you with your dear husband killed in the war.
It had been a disastrous marriage, but Pierre had been a friend of her stepbrother, and Harvey had encouraged the match. Certainly Harvey had thought Pierre's money would give her an easy life, and she hadn't argued over it. Genteel Southern ladies usually did what they were told.
. . .Twilight, do come out here to Indian Territory and join me. I have a flourishing sutler's store near the fort and there's a good chance to make a fresh start. I'm enclosing money for the stagecoach.
Twilight's petite form shuddered at the thought of savages. Everyone knew that faraway place was wild and uncivilized. Well, at least there was no war there. Twilight sighed and looked out at the smoldering ruins again. Yes, the decision had been made for her. She would throw her few things in a valise and journey to Indian Territory.
Indian Territory, mid-October 1861
Yellow Jacket frowned as he watched his niece comb her hair. “Heruse, where do you think you are going?”
She stopped humming and turned to face him. Her name meant
in the Muskogee language, and it suited her. “Uncle, must you question my every move?”
He rubbed his chin and frowned. His dead brother's child was so lovely and so naive. “You're only sixteen, and I feel responsibility to your father.”
Her beautiful face saddened; then she shrugged. “I can look out for myself.”
“Stay away from the soldiers,” he ordered. “They will tell an Indian girl anything to get them into their blankets. Remember, they killed your father.”
She played with the blue beaded bracelet her uncle had given her, and didn't look at him. “I swear I'm not seeing any soldier. I'm merely going over to visit a friend.”
Yellow Jacket shook his head. “I think you'd better stay here. It'll be dark soon, and with rebel soldiers camped all around, I don't like you being out alone.”
Her dark eyes flashed fire. “I'm not a child. You can't tell me what to do.”
“Yes, I can,” he answered patiently. “I owe that to my dead brother.”
She whirled on him. “That was an accident. At the fort, they say they mistook him for a hostile in the dark.”
“He was hunting for food for us all,” Yellow Jacket reminded her. “Now, stay here and get ready for bed. I've got a meeting with the council.”
“All the council does is talk, talk, talk,” she complained, pouting.
“That's because there's so much riding on their decision.” Yellow Jacket sighed. “The leaders are meeting with our leader, Opothleyahola, tonight to decide what to do. There's talk our people might go to Kansas to join the Union forces there.”
She blinked, askance. “Kansas? That's crazy. I'd just as soon stay right here.”
“It's not your decision to make. Now, do as I say. I'll be back late.”
“I hate you!” she yelled after him.
Yellow Jacket didn't bother to answer as he went out into the dusk and shut the door behind him. His brother's death weighed heavily on his soul, and he hated the rebel soldiers for it. If he learned which one was responsible, he would kill that man very slowly. Yet, he had no time for personal revenge. Events were in upheaval for all the Five Civilized Tribes of the eastern Indian Territory because of the white man's Civil War raging to the east of them, far, far away.
As he slipped through the night to the meeting place, he fingered the big knife in his belt. It was dangerous to be out after dark, but Yellow Jacket, named for the aggressive stinging wasp, was a seasoned warrior who was afraid of nothing . . .except that he might let his dead brother down in rearing the wild, pretty Heruse.
The weather had a chill to it. The coming winter might be a bad one with snow and cold winds. That would not be good for the tribes in their temporary shacks and tents who had gathered around their old leader, Opothleyahola.
Yellow Jacket crept through the grove of blackjack oak, his moccasins as soundless as a bobcat moving through the forest. Now he saw the silhouette of a sentry and paused in the shadows, scarcely breathing.
“Halt! Who goes there?” The rebel soldier sounded young and scared.
Yellow Jacket did not move or answer. He could easily slip up on the green youth and cut his throat, but it would only bring trouble to his people when they found the body tomorrow.
After a time the soldier resumed his march, and Yellow Jacket continued his trek through the trees until he came to an old tent deep in the woods. Outside, Smoke, the mixed-blood black-Muskogee former slave stood guard. “Yellow Jacket?”
“Yes, Ekkuce.” He came up to the big man and smiled. The black people had been slaves and then comrades. There were many with black blood mixed into their tribe. “Is everyone here?”
The other nodded. “Waiting for you.”
Yellow Jacket's big frame stooped and entered nodding to the many tribal leaders gathered around the small fire. “I was dealing with my niece. Sometimes dealing with women is worse than fighting ten warriors.”
The others laughed, and he sat down cross-legged.
“She is not satisfied to be a Muskogee girl?” Alligator, the Seminole chief asked.
Yellow Jacket shook his head regretfully. “Now that we have all been uprooted, she sees the easy life of the white girls and envies it.”
Ancient Opothleyahola sighed. “Once we were a proud people; now that they have marched us to this land at gunpoint, we are not much better than beggars.”
The leader was very old and frail. Everyone knew he had fought on the side of the British many, many years ago in the War of 1812. Yellow Jacket said with great politeness, “O great one, we will tame this new land yet and be prosperous, once the bluecoats and the graycoats stop fighting each other and go away.”
Alligator said, “we all must now drink the black drink,
and purge the impurities from our bodies before we meet in council.”
They all went outside into the darkness and passed the ceremonial drink among them. The powerful herbal drink soon made them all vomit, and now they were cleansed and ready to make momentous decisions.
They returned to the ragged tent, and someone lit a pipe and passed it around. The Seminole chief, Billy Bowlegs, took a puff. “I think they will never go away. The whites will not be satisfied until they have every inch of every bit of land.”
It was true; Yellow Jacket was certain of it. “Tell us, oh, ancient leader, if you have reached a decision.” He accepted the pipe and took a puff of the fragrant tobacco.
Opothleyahola's rheumy eyes surveyed the gathered men. “Yellow Jacket, you are one of the leaders of my people, the warrior the others will follow.”
Yellow Jacket ducked his head modestly. “Our people follow you, great leader.”
The old one stared into the sacred fire that had been brought all the way from their old homeland in the South. The original ashes had been buried with ceremony here in Indian Territory at Tulsey Town. “I am old and frail. Soon the Indian Territory will become a battleground as the gray ones from Texas fight the bluecoats from Kansas. We are unlucky enough to be in the middle of this land they both want.”
The others looked at each other. One of the mixed-black braves said, “Which side shall we go with, great leader?”
He shook his gray head. “I do not know if, in the long run, it matters. Whichever we choose means disaster for our tribe and our relatives, the Seminole.”
The others considered his words. Yellow Jacket looked around. There were leaders from almost twenty tribes sitting around the fire. One of them said, “Both sides promise us much to join them.”
“And both sides lie,” Yellow Jacket snapped. “Can we not ignore this white man's war and stay neutral?”
Opothleyahola considered. “The western tribes like the Comanche and Kiowa are doing that, but here in the eastern part of the Nations, the whites will pull us into their war whether we like it or not. We must be on the winning side for the sake of our people.”
Yellow Jacket nodded. “I say that will be the bluecoats.”
The old leader considered. “Perhaps, perhaps not. The graycoats have won several battles lately in their faraway country to the east, if gossip is to be believed. The graycoats offer us muchârifles and food and blanketsâif we side with them. They say that when they win, they will make Indian Territory a separate state, and no white man will ever be allowed to trespass here again.”
Yellow Jacket could not stop himself from snorting in derision. “It is the Southern whites who have run us out of Alabama and Georgia, stolen our land there. Have any of you forgotten how many of our people died on the Trail of Tears? There is not a man sitting here who did not lose many ancestors on that long forced march. I am only here because my older brother carried me on his back most of the way.”
“We are all sorry for the death of your brother at the hands of the rebel soldiers.” Opothleyahola took the pipe and smoked it. For a moment there was no sound save the crackle of the fire and the chill autumn wind blowing outside the tent. “Yes, Yellow Jacket, we hate the Southerners as much as you, and yes, we all remember how they stole our land and sent us here to this hostile place.”
“Will we be any better with the North?” Alligator asked.
The Muskogee leader nodded. “I have had a message from the great white chief, Abraham Lincoln, this past summer. He promises that he will provide us with the supplies we need and protect us if we will stay loyal to the bluecoats.”
Yellow Jacket shook his head. “I trust them no more than the graycoats.”
Smoke took the pipe. “So great leader, what would you have us do?”
He considered. “I have been stalling the rebels as they press me for an answer about joining their cause, but they grow impatient. They are insisting on an answer.”
“Maybe we can remain neutral,” Smoke suggested. “This is, after all, a white man's war.”
The Seminole Billy Bowlegs shook his head. “No one will be allowed to remain neutral; the whites will not allow it. Like my friend Yellow Jacket, I trust the Southerners the least.”
Old Opothleyahola nodded. “Yes, I agree. We must gather our people and head north. If we can make it to this place called Kansas, the bluecoats there will protect our women and children.”
“Kansas?” The others looked at each other askance.
“Old One,” Yellow Jacket reminded him gently, “Kansas is hundreds of miles away, and the snows are coming.”
“Would you have us sit here and be harried by the graycoats or be caught in the middle of the white man's battles?”
Another warrior cleared his throat. “But we have thousands of people gathered here; old ones, women, children. There are even some of the other Union tribes coming, to say nothing of all our livestock.”
“I am aware of that,” the ancient one said. “Did not the white man's Good Book speak of God's chosen people escaping from their enemy and marching toward the promised land with old people, women, children, and livestock?”
Alligator chewed his lip. We are surrounded by the graycoats. They will try to stop us from leaving.”
“Then we will fight our way through,” Yellow Jacket said.
“We will lose many,” said another.
“Better to die trying to join the Union forces than remain here and be killed by the graycoats, whom we know we cannot trust,” Yellow Jacket said.
“Well spoken,” said the ancient one. “I have prayed to the Master of Breath and feel there is no other answer.”
The others looked to Yellow Jacket, and he turned the alternatives over in his mind. It would be like the Trail of Tears all over again, marching thousands of people through the cold, with not even time to bury their dead if they fell.