The men who live in the woods behind my house had been getting out of hand for some time. They were all in their mid-fifties, golfers formerly, and meat eaters -- jolly men in general -- but since... [+]
Vada felt the first drops of rain hit her on the top of her head. It reminded her that she had left her straw hat down by the creek. She had thought about it earlier, when she saw the clouds gathering in an ever darkening sky. She had been working hard in the garden, pulling onions and picking peas, and now she welcomed the cooling rain. The hot, sticky, still air gave way to winds that bent the tops of the trees as the rain came down harder around her. She picked up her full basket and headed back to the creek for her hat. Her long skirts dragged through the red dirt that was fast turning into mud. She picked up her pace, almost running now. She got to the creek and saw her hat where she had left it. She had just settled it on her head when she heard a ruckus coming through the woods. Her father George and her six brothers were just getting home from a Cherokee Nation meeting at Fort Payne, a two hour walk from where they lived.
“Vada, you better run or you’ll get wet,” Lavay, Vada’s twin brother said as he caught up to her. He reached out and took the basket from her hands. Vada smiled at him as they broke into a run, the thunder cracking and lightning flashing around them. They reached the log cabin and Vada saw that her mother Sara stood in the open doorway. Sara and George hugged, and Vada saw a worried look pass between them.
In the evening, after a supper of peas and cornbread, they went outside and watched as the sun set on the hills. The rain had stopped and the sky had cleared. The first stars of the night would soon begin to twinkle. George built a smut fire to keep the mosquitos and gnats away from them. The family all sat cross-legged around the fire.
“George, what did you find out at the meeting?” Sara asked her husband. George began to answer but stopped when he saw Sara’s parents coming towards them. Vada’s maternal grandparents lived just a short distance away and had come to welcome their son-in-law and grandsons home and find out what news they had. George began speaking when the elders had settled themselves around the fire.
“The President is not going to change his mind. He still says we have to go. We are supposed to go to Ft. Payne before the summer ends. From there we will be taken to Indian Territory in the West.” Vada’s stomach churned as she observed the reaction on her mother’s face. Sara was close to tears as she clung to George’s arm. “John Benge did all he could to stop this, but there is no reasoning with the government. They want us out.” George stopped for a moment to allow that information to sink in.
“The army has put John in charge of our group leaving from Ft. Payne. They will not make us go with the soldiers.” George patted Sara’s hand as she began to cry. Vada had never seen her mother cry before and it scared her.
She was twelve years old and had heard her father and brothers talk about the Indian Removal Act before, but what had once seemed to be a distant nightmare was now becoming reality.
“I don’t want to leave here. How can they make us go away from our homes?” Sara said, as she began to rock back and forth, more and more upset. Vada felt fear and anxiety move in. She moved closer to her mother and began to cry with her. She didn’t want to leave her home either. Some of the older boys said that maybe they could make a new, peaceful life out in the West. The three oldest had families of their own. They decided to follow their nation on the trip west. The younger three decided to stay with their parents. George looked at his family gathered around the fire and made a decision.
“Sara, we have to leave our home here on the tribal land. The soldiers will come here looking for us, but we don’t have to go to Indian Territory with John Benge and the rest of the nation. We can move to the caves on the forgotten lands. The government doesn’t know about them. They’re farther out than the soldiers have been before. We can stay, but only if we hide.”
Sara stopped crying and looked at George and then at her parents. She dried her eyes and a resolute look came over her face. She had forgotten about the caves because it had been so long since she had traveled there. Now they seemed like a lifeline. “We can do that. I believe we could live out there. Father, what do you think?”
“We can hunt, fish and still grow some plants, but not a garden. We will gather berries and nuts. We will live as our parents did before we left our tribal village,” Sara’s father said. “Do you want to live that way Sara?” he asked his daughter.
“Yes, I would rather do that than leave. I think maybe the soldiers will forget about us after a while. Then we can build a new cabin, deeper in the woods, right George?”
“Maybe so Sara, I hope for that.” George looked tired. Before he had talked to Sara he had resigned himself to moving out west. This new plan was almost as dangerous as the long trip would be. But at least they would be free, as long as they could avoid capture anyway. He wanted Sara to be happy and he was glad she had stopped crying. Living in the caves wouldn’t be easy but he would make it work for them.
Vada began to feel hopeful as she listened to her parents make plans, but then she got angry. They shouldn’t have to leave their cabin. Her father and grandfather had built it years before she was born. It was on their tribal land. It wasn’t fair.
Fair or not, it didn’t matter. It was a fact of life. Her older brothers took their families and began their trip to Ft. Payne, then eventually to the Indian Territory. Vada knew that she would probably never see them again. She vowed to be brave and not cry when they left. It took everything she had to watch them go and to refuse to allow the tears to fall. She was the only daughter and the youngest in the family. She would miss her older brothers and their families intensely, but she consoled herself that at least she still had her twin brother and her two older brothers. Counting her parents and grandparents, they were now a family of eight. It seemed too small.
Vada was resigned to the situation when they moved to the caves a few days later. She was still angry at having to leave, but she made the decision to be brave and make the best of her new life.
She would never forget the home they left behind. They spent two years in hiding before they were able to leave the caves without fear of imprisonment. Her father acquired some land near their former tribal home. It was a bittersweet homecoming. Vada and Sara planted Cherokee roses at their new cabin to remember their missing family members. The roses grew tall with beautiful, pure white petals. The fragrance of the roses drifted throughout the yard and cabin, so that even when they couldn’t see the flowers, they were reminded. Vada would never forgive the people who had made her family leave, and she vowed to never trust government people. When she had her own family she taught her children to keep their own words true, but to be careful in whom they placed their trust. She taught them to be self-sufficient and courageous, following the examples of the generation before them.