How these mountains came to be is a mystery. The native tribes all have their tales of hills being carved from the wings of giant buzzards, large serpents, and other fantastic stories like that. The incoming whites believe that the world was created by God, who placed the rolling blue peaks here for some all-knowing purpose we are all unaware of. They all even have legends of how we all got to this remote and vertical frontier. The Indians have always been here, and have an almost cosmic and spiritual right to this land, down to the last cove and creek hidden under the trees. The whites have some idea that they can just rip that rug out from under them, and that a long, terrifying journey by sea somehow makes them more entitled to it.
Then there is us. Portuguese Indians, Mustee, Melungeons. We go by many names, some nicer than others. Sure, we were here after the Indians but before most of the whites, and we dress different than the Indians and worship the same God the whites do, but no one knows where we came from or how we got here. All we know is that we are at home in the mountains, and whether we are Indian or some breed of white man, we all have a story on how we made it here and how we survived in the land closest to heaven but as harsh as hell. This here is mine.
It all began that time of year when the mountains shed their leafy blue coats for fiery skins of autumn. My fifteenth birthday was only a few weeks away, and for some reason that made me antsy. This was the year that I’d be a man, according to my people. I could marry, I could have a say in colony gatherings and at church, and best of all, the other men, including my brothers, wouldn’t treat me like a child anymore. I knew that a big trading day was coming up for us, though I had never been allowed to go. The river, which we used as a sacred space, was my boundary. To go any farther would warrant one of my siblings dragging me back up the rocky hill by the collar of my shirt.
This year would be different, I thought. I’d get to see what existed beyond the black waters, and I’d make my folks proud by being a good trader, just like my oldest brothers. I had the darkest complexion out of the lot of us, a trait from Pa’s side of the family. Mama got lucky with olive skin and dark auburn hair, and the majority of my siblings inherited these traits except for my youngest sister and me. This was the reason I had been kept at home all the time, and on the days when I had managed to finish my chores early, Pa would corner me and ask me prodding questions regarding race and origin.
“Silas, if anyone asks, what are you?”
“A person.” It really was the simplest answer.
“No.” He’d shake his head. “I mean about your color. What d’you tell them?”
“That’s right, boy. You’re Indian. And don’t you forget it.” He’d nod satisfyingly as he smoked his pipe.
Though looking back, I reckon Indian worked best. I had the look for it anyway. But my unruly brown hair and light blue eyes would probably give me away since not many full or mixed-bloods had traits like that. And no one ever came to our alcove on Hawktail Ridge, save for a few traveling tradesmen and missionaries. They didn’t stay long, if at all. So I figured I’d never have to worry about answering the questions I was always warned about.
Then there were the names that Mama used to scare me. I’ve been called by many names in my past, but most of them were ones I could have lived well without.
“If you go to the settlement, they’ll spit on you,” Mama would say. “Call you terrible things like Gypsy, Negro, or . . . Melungeon.”
“What does Melungeon mean?” I asked her once.
“It’s one of the worst things you can call a person. Melungeon means mixed-blood; it means neither Indian nor Negro nor white. To them, it means misfit, savage . . . an outcast. They see us as people who ain’t really people at all.”
Every family in our village had a different story to their origin or upbringing. Most recalled being from some neighboring Indian tribe, others claimed to have escaped slavery or servitude. Ours was that I had grandparents that were Indians and rogues, therefore making me some descendant of a tribe I couldn’t name. Being “Indian” was all I had ever known, though I reckon we didn’t live much different from everyone else. This seemed to be the best time for me to find out.
Mama always made us go to the water to pray. We would always face east because “that’s where all light comes from, so that’s where God is,” she told us. To the east, no matter where we were. Not just in honor of God, but to always be reminded where we were going, and most importantly, to never forget where we had been. Beyond the tree-covered hills, you could hear the river whispering among the singing birds. It surrounded our mountain on both sides, providing not just protection but solace and peace. I hated it.
The river was full and cool this time of year, and we purified ourselves the way Mama taught us before bowing to the east in respect to heaven, though we were the only family on the ridge to do so. Most people did the east-facing practice as well but used the iron bell in the center of the village to dictate when to offer up prayers. Many families in our colony sang hymns as a way to ask for blessings, but in our family we saved hymns for Sundays, as my parents believed singing in a large group made the effect of the hymn greater. I often hummed to myself whichever one I felt best described my situation at the time.
That day I had chosen the last verse of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” hoping maybe I could find some comfort remaining where I was or wherever I was planned to go. After our worship, we sat around the banks and talked for a while. I overheard Pa and my older brother Vardan discussing the upcoming trade. I stood thigh-deep in the water and acted like I was still in prayer, but I was really listening to see if I could hear anything interesting.
“Though we gotta be careful this time ’round,” Pa said. “With that law they’ve passed, we can’t afford to be getting ourselves into any unneeded trouble.”
“Isaiah is usually good about that,” Vardan replied, referencing our oldest brother, “Mama is, too. We should be fine. I think we just need to act like we don’t know the difference anyhow.”
They were talking about the laws Tennessee had passed the year before that forbid any “colored” people from voting or holding themselves up in court. Unfortunately, my people fell under that “colored” category. I was afraid to ask if I could go with them to the valley; seeing as how I was the darkest one in the house, it probably wouldn’t go well. But if I didn’t ask, I knew my chances of seeing the world would be gone. The iron bell tolled on the ridge above, echoing down the rocky cliffs, signaling that it was time to begin the upward walk to home. When we got settled back in, I decided to ask while I helped Mama prepare supper.
“No. No. A thousand times no. Absolutely not.”
“But, Mama . . .”
“No buts, Silas. I can’t allow you to set foot down there. There’s no telling what those folk will do.”
She was just trying to scare me again. “How d’you know what they’ll do? Maybe things aren’t like they used to be. Pa, will you tell her that I’d be fine?”
He wasn’t convinced by my begging and casually lit a cigarette. “They’d hang him . . . or just shoot him.”
Her eyes widened, and she nodded in agreement. “You see?”
“Ugh, just one time, please! Have someone go with me or something. Just please get me off of this godforsaken mountain!” My voice had gotten louder than I had planned, and Vardan was smiling at the whole spectacle from the loft. He seemed to be the only one enjoying the scene.
“So you want to be one of them?” That was the dreaded question, and it always came out of nowhere. The one that ended all arguments to do with the valley. Pa was known for being wary of outsiders, and his quickly flamed temper didn’t help.
“W-what . . . but . . . I . . .”
“So you do, then.”
My chest tightened. I didn’t even know why I was getting so worked up over this. Maybe it was because I suddenly felt like I had something to prove.
“I don’t want to be one of them. I just don’t want be stuck up here forever. Please just let me go once, try to earn some money. And if they stone me or spit on me, I never have to go down in the valley again. Just once.”
“Why not let him go?” This came from Vardan.
Vardan was the “luckiest” one out of all of us kids. He got pale olive skin, gray eyes, and auburn hair—all genes from Mama’s side. The only thing that distinguished him as a Melungeon was the coppery tone his skin took in the summer. “If he really wants to go, why not let him? He’s marrying age now; maybe he’ll even meet a nice girl who doesn’t care about him being dark.”
He winked at me. “Besides, since he’s old enough, he could go without your permission.”
I glared up at him. “I just don’t think that they’ll treat me as bad as you say. Times change.”
Mama sighed, shaking her head as she wiped her hands on her apron. “I just don’t know. You know what happened to us, and you were just a child then. And if someone hurt you . . .”
“But that was ten years ago, Mama. I’d be careful! And I could just use what Pa taught me and tell everyone I’m Indian. Indians get treated better, right?”
No response. “Right?”
She lowered her head, still shaking. “Ezekiel, what do you think?”
I looked expectantly at my father. What he said was law. He was my last chance. “Silas, sit down.”
I did as he asked, but I was still impatient for an answer.
“I want you to understand why your Mama and I are so against you going down there. You don’t remember much because you were just a child then, but you know that we used to live in the valley, don’t you?”
“Yes, but what does that have to do with—”
“And you’re aware that we no longer live there, but it wasn’t our choice to move.”
My mouth flattened into a line, and he sighed. “We were run out of town and the church by the white settlers. The more of them that came in, the worse things got. We tried our best to be friendly to them, but after a few years, they wouldn’t have it because they only wanted more land. Rumors started spreading that we were escaped slaves or had Negro blood and that we didn’t belong in white society, even though we did everything the same as them. Most of the traders wanted the creek bottom land we had, and by the time enough of them had come in, we were run off. Just because of our skin color and sheer greed. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
“I think so,” I said.
“I know you’re going to go down there whether we say you can or not. But if something happens to you, don’t say we didn’t warn you. If they didn’t trust us, they more than likely won’t trust you.”
Pa allowing me to go down to the valley wasn’t well taken by the family. It would turn out that only my oldest brother, Isaiah, and me would go since Mama wanted Vardan to help look after the house. My other brothers decided they would rather stay and tend their fields, and Mama was such a nervous wreck that morning that she stayed behind, too. Isaiah promised he’d look after me and make sure I didn’t get myself into any trouble. After all, he could pass for white well enough, so he usually didn’t get questioned too often. I, of course, was too excited to worry about what people would think of me.
The trip down the mountain was a bit long, but it wasn’t too difficult to navigate. The road was an underbrush path that curved wildly down the hill, nearly straight up and down. A few small cliffs and rocky impasses interrupted the road, but it wasn’t like we couldn’t climb over or around them; we were people of the mountains after all. It was mostly a clunky walk for me because I was forced to wear shoes. I had nothing against the practice, but I lost my sense of grace that I usually had when barefoot. Stockings and shoes themselves were luxuries for us, and we all made sure we had one nice pair for the two most important occasions: church and going to town.
Isaiah made sure to run through the directions with me in case we got separated once we neared the outskirts. I knew my way after a certain point, but this was new territory for me, so I needed to be sure to remember everything he told me. The scent of smoke caught my attention as we neared the edge of the forest, and sounds unfamiliar to me reached my ears.
And that’s when the nerves began to set in. I was all tough when I was high up on our mountain stronghold, but down among other people, I was just a kid that couldn’t live up to his fighting words. My teeth clenched, and I couldn’t help but feel a little skittish in this new place. Even though the buildings looked the same as ours, just the fact that they were valley buildings left me in awe. The expanse of the town was so . . . flat. No grass existed within the boundaries of the town, only mud and maybe a stray bunch of wildflowers, but to be honest, I think that the flowers wouldn’t bloom in such a downtrodden village. Houses sat relatively close together on the outskirts of both ends of town, and some sat on the cliffs directly above. Only a few buildings made up the center of town, which I assumed were the trading post and other useful establishments.
The stench of animals and wood smoke almost made it impossible to breathe, and I couldn’t believe how loud everything was. I couldn’t even hear the birds over the people talking. This was what I was so anxious to see? My footsteps halted, and I tried to get my senses together before they made me dizzy and so I could get my sudden fear and confusion under control. A few people gasped and glared at me when we first walked into town, and my heart dropped into my guts when all their eyes turned to me.
“I-I don’t think this was such a good idea after all. I don’t think I can do this.”
“Too late to back out now,” Isaiah whispered in my ear as he pushed me onward with his fist in my back. “Just act natural. Act like you belong. You’ll be fine.”
I straightened up and tried to act like I wasn’t the only dark-skinned person around, but it was obvious, to say the least. I avoided eye contact with most of the people, and no one had directly called us out yet, but even when looking at the ground, I could tell I was being watched. Isaiah led me to a good-sized cabin on the outskirts of town.
As we approached, Isaiah leaned in to whisper in my ear. “We do business with a man named Roy Calhoun. He claims he’s some relative of an important statesman in Washington, and he thinks he’s the richest man in town, though he ain’t by far. He can be rough around the edges, but if you’re polite, we should be fine.”
On the front porch sat an older, bearded man dressed as if he hadn’t bought new clothes since the Revolution. His eyes widened and his pipe dropped from his lips when he caught sight of me.
“Vanover, what the hell do you think you’re doin’? Who is this?”
My brother shoved me toward the man as I attempted a rather sloppy bow. “Mr. Calhoun, this is my kid brother, Silas. He’s looking to trade a few things today. It’s his first time in the valley in a while.”
Calhoun scanned me, gripping his pipe in his wrinkled hands. His piercing brown stare out of bloodshot eyes made me nervous, like looking down a rabid dog or an angry bear. “Brother, huh? I dunno. Awful swarthy, ain’t he? You know I’d never hear the end of it for tradin’ with a Ne—I mean, someone as dark as him. It’s hard enough already with you’uns being ridge folk and all.”
“But he’s pretty good with the valley ways,” Isaiah explained, as cool-headed as ever. “Give him today and you’ll see. And you won’t have to worry about him getting into trouble, on account of you having me around.”
Calhoun ran his hand over his graying beard, scowling a bit. He knew that if he turned me away, he’d probably lose valuables from the ridge. “So what’d you bring in today, kid?”
Silently, I dropped the sack that I had lugged down the mountain and opened it. “Mostly ginseng and some silver.”
Calhoun’s eyes widened and sparkled. “God almighty, look at all that ’sang! You hunt all that yourself?”
I shook my head. “With the folks, of course.”
The old trader grinned like a fox. “You know, despite how you’uns look, you Vanovers never disappoint me.” He rubbed his hands together as if he was trying to warm himself over a fire. “Haul that inside, kid, and my shopkeep will see what he can get you.” He sat back down in his chair, and I swear I heard him mumble something about “Gypsies,” but I was probably just on guard, like Pa told me to be.
I followed Isaiah inside, still a bit uneasy about this whole setup. “Why d’you work with him? He seems really . . .” I paused, looking for the right word to describe him, “unpleasant.”
“He’s the owner of the post, the only man for miles that will let us trade, Silas. He doesn’t make good deals, but it’s better than nothing at all. Part of living life between home and the valley is that you learn to be grateful for the little things that you can get. Hopefully, you’ll understand soon.”
I swung the sack onto the counter, and a white boy with curly blond hair greeted me. He was much friendlier than Calhoun, but it was obvious how tense he was at our presence in the post.
“Would you boys like cash or credit for this?” he asked.
“Um . . .” I looked at Isaiah, who responded, “Credit.” He looked back to me. “With credit, we can buy items that equal the total value of what we have brought in.”
And this is where bartering began. Bartering was a terrifying ordeal for me since I didn’t know what our shipment was worth, nor was I sure what anything else was worth or cost with hard money. After a few minutes of stuttering and gabbling, I fell back to let my brother handle the official matters while I looked around for supplies I knew we needed.
The post was like a haven in the bustling town. I took a deep breath; instead of manure, the sweetness of the cedar walls mixed with cinnamon; instead of jabbering people and barking dogs, it was silent, save for metal chimes tinkling as they blew in the breeze. I was amazed at how much they had there. Although I expected a wide range of items from knowing our list of must-haves, I couldn’t help touching everything. Clear jars of bright red-hot peppers, strips of fatback wrapped in paper, ceramic jugs for water or liquor, iron skillets bigger than a grown man’s head, fabric of all colors and textures, beads, and even books, which caught my attention the most.
The only book I had really seen was the Bible, so being able to look through other writings was a new discovery. Some had drawings of faraway places or brave men fighting off beasts, but past the etchings, I was lost as to what they actually said. But the leather bindings and shining scrollwork on the covers fascinated me, and I continued to pick up one after the other to see if I could discern any clues to what it said without knowing the words.
As I set a rather thick book back on the dusty shelf, another pair of people walked into the post, breaking the quiet I was enjoying.
“Shiyo!” the counter boy said to the visitors. “Oshigwotsu, Inola?”
An old, tanned woman neared the counter. “Oshigwo. Ihina?” she said.
“Osda. S’gi.” That was all I could manage to make out before the shopkeep and the woman flew off into a full conversation in their mysterious language, far too quickly for me to understand. I noticed that Isaiah smiled and stepped away to look at some tools, allowing the others to banter.
The sound of boots clacked on the wood floor nearest me, and I was taken aback by a girl about my age reaching for a book above her. A loose, dark braid hung over her shoulders beneath a blue kerchief, and her dress was a bright pink calico framed with a white-and-blue diamond pattern. Her skin was darker than the whites, but her features were similar to many of the girls in our village. Was she a person like us? Whether she was or not, she was definitely beautiful. I wanted to talk to her, but how do you talk to an outlander? Just say anything, I thought.
“Whatcha reading?” I asked her, suddenly embarrassed at my awkward attempt at conversation.
“This one is King Arthur, I believe.”
“Oh.” I had no idea what that meant. “Is it any good?”
“From what I’ve heard. Would you like to take a look?” She went to hand it to me, but I shook my head. “No . . . I’m just looking.”
Her shoulders bobbed in a shrug, and she moved down the shelves to look at the cookware. Her eyes didn’t leave a stack of mixing bowls when she said, “You know, I don’t think I know much, but I doubt you’ll get any entertainment from that cookbook in your hands.”
I looked down at the simple cover and sighed. Although I did cook for my family a good deal of the time, it was probably some sort of oddity to see a teenage boy reading a cookbook, of all things. “So that’s what this is.”
“Unless you plan on hitting someone with it,” she said, smirking.
Warmth rose up into my face as I placed it back on the shelf and she neared me again. “You’re a strange-looking fellow, not like the other people here. Are you new to these parts? I don’t think I’ve seen you at this post before.”
My shoulders tensed at her observation but calmed when she stuck her hand out stiffly, with intent for a handshake, which I had never seen a woman do. “My name is Amadahy Kingfisher. And you are?”
“Silas Vanover.” I returned her shake, and her grip was much too firm.
She curtsied slightly. “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Vanover. You enjoy reading, I assume?”
“Not much. I just like looking at things.”
“And are you new to Ellistown?”
“Sort of,” I responded, pushing a chunk of hair out of my eyes.
“Where are you from? You look like you might be a mixed-blood from a neighboring tribe.”
“I reckon so,” I mumbled, a little surprised at her bluntness. “But I live up in the mountains. On a ridge.”
“Ridge? Hawktail Ridge?”
My brows furrowed, though it excited me that she knew it. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
Her whole demeanor suddenly changed. She stepped back from me, her mouth hanging open slightly, her eyes wide with shock. “You’re one of them—you’re a Melungeon!”
My glance shot back over to my brother, hoping he didn’t hear someone utter the forbidden word.
“Shh!” I hushed her. “Don’t say that word.”
Amadahy cupped her hand over her mouth and looked over at the counter. My brother, the old woman, and Bailey had continued on. “I’ve heard about your people, but I’ve never seen one before!”
“You’ve heard about us?”
“My father told me about your kind. Said you were dangerous.”
A frown pulled at my mouth. “We ain’t dangerous. We just don’t like being threatened.”
“Were you the people run out of town all those years ago?”
“I-I don’t know. Can we not talk about that?” I remembered Pa’s talk about being excommunicated from church and being sent into the woods, but I didn’t know that it was such widespread news.
She didn’t speak, but I cleared my throat and asked, “So where are you from?”
Her head nodded forward as if to point north. “Atsinahi. Cedar Hill. The Cherokee village outside of town.”
I nodded silently in response. Who would have known that Pa’s Indian ploy didn’t work on actual Indians? A low rumbling in my stomach suddenly broke my thoughts, loud enough for Amadahy to hear.
“Have you not eaten?” she asked.
“Not since before sunup,” I said, hoping that placing my hand there would stop it from making noise.
“That was over six hours ago. Hold on a minute.” She turned and walked up to the counter and began talking to the old woman in what I believe was Cherokee. I saw Amadahy point to me and nod. After a few minutes, she pulled me over to the counter. “Silas, was it? This is my grandmother, Inola.”
I half nodded, half bowed to her, and she said something I didn’t understand. “It’s nice to meet you,” I replied, hoping not to seem too stupid.
“We thought it would be a good idea for you to come over to our house for dinner,” Amadahy said. “After all, I bet it’s a long hike up the mountain, and you don’t want to be doing that on an empty stomach.”
Her kindness baffled me, but it was a refreshing change from Calhoun’s gruffness and the piercing stares of the settlers. “Sounds fine to me, but I have to ask my brother first.”
Isaiah turned around from his tools. “I heard everything. I reckon it’s all right with me, but we don’t want to impose.”
Inola shook her head, and Amadahy translated. “It’s not a problem. After all, it’s the Cherokee way to feed the hungry and offer hospitality. Why don’t you boys finish your business and then we can be on our way.”
We picked up an array of spices, fabric, and tools for our own use. Isaiah claimed it was the most successful day we’d had in a long time, and my heart practically burst at hearing that. Town itself wasn’t so scary now that I thought about it. The main road only housed the trading post, a jail, and a few other buildings with unknown purposes to me. To be honest, it wasn’t terribly different from our own village, and people willing, I could probably feel right at home after getting used to the commotion.
As Amadahy led us toward the ring of Cherokee cabins, the sounds and smells of a different world drifted to us. The smoke of Cedar Hill was much sweeter than that of Ellistown, and the blend of people and animal scents didn’t outright smack you in the face like they did behind the fort walls. Everything mixed like it did in nature, from the birds singing, to fires crackling, and the sounds of laughter. The grass and trees softened the transition to civilization, something that almost seemed like a distant memory to me.
The Kingfisher cabin was slightly smaller than ours. Inola walked up the steps to greet whoever was inside while Amadahy had us drop our haul in the yard. “Wait here.”
Though as we stood there, I noticed something painfully similar to Ellistown: the staring. Those who were working or playing outside stopped to observe us, and any who had gotten a glimpse from their doorways had come out to whisper about us, too. Granted, I didn’t understand Cherokee, so I didn’t know if what they were saying was good or bad. I thought I saw a motion for us to come in, so I hopped up the porch steps and walked into the house. A turbaned man stood from the table and said in a heavy accent, “No! You stay outside.”
I recoiled back out onto the porch, confused about my etiquette and the apparent intrusion I made into the house. Amadahy called back to him, and he and Inola began what sounded like a very heated conversation. Amadahy rolled her eyes and came outside with three plates balanced on her arm and in her hands.
“Sorry, boys. Looks like we’ll be having a picnic.”
We sat on the edge of the porch with our meals, and she pointed out everything. “This is deer meat, bean bread, hominy, and squash. For dessert, we have apples or peaches if you like. Hope you enjoy it.”
The food was delicious, especially so after going so long without a full meal. Amadahy spoke up suddenly, “I’m sorry my father was rude to you. He’s wary of outsiders, so that’s why we’re eating on the porch.”
“It’s fine,” Isaiah said, smiling, “It’s his house, so we’ll follow his rules. Kind of reminds us of home, right, Silas?”
“Though it’s actually my grandmother’s house,” Amadahy mumbled. She leaned in as I took a bite of bread. “The reason I wanted to bring you here was so I could learn more about you.”
I swallowed. “Me?”
She nodded. “I’m curious,” she said, keeping her voice low. “About your people and who you really are. I hope you don’t mind me asking.”
“I reckon not . . .”
“There’s just something odd about you, Silas.”
“Like the fact that I was trying to read a cookbook?” I asked.
She chuckled. “Yes. I wouldn’t consider it prime reading material.”
Isaiah had been listening to our talk, and I thought I saw him smile.
“Well, to be honest, I haven’t read a lot. And I actually enjoy cooking a little bit,” I said this while forcing a laugh, as if I were joking.
“Well, it isn’t that. Just something.”
“Is that a compliment or . . . ?”
Amadahy smirked and then sat upright again so she could finish her meal. I quietly ate mine, assuming she didn’t intend to answer my question. Was there something odd about me? If so, what was it, and why didn’t she want to tell me?
We gathered our things and began to head out, but she stopped me. She stood on her tiptoes and whispered to me, “I hope to see you soon, boy from the mountains.”
My face felt hot again, and I heard Isaiah whistle and chuckle. I knelt down and pulled a silver bracelet I had made that the post hadn’t taken. It had violets and vines carved on its surface. Although it was valuable, the post hadn’t taken it with our other crafts, and I personally felt that her help exceeded its value. I handed it to her. “Consider this a thank you for the meal,” I said, “and for making my first time in the valley a little easier.”
Her cheeks reddened as she slowly clasped it around her wrist. “Thank you, Silas.”
“No, thank you, Amadahy.”
She waved good-bye to us as we walked away. We left Cedar Hill just as the sun was about to set, the sky now glowing orange and gold. Isaiah nudged me as we climbed the rocky path. “Look at you being smooth today and meeting a girl. You’re going up in the world.”
“Oh, hush. Just don’t tell Pa or Mama.”
“Hmm . . . I think I’m liable to.” He grinned.
I jumped up on a rock edge and glared down at him. “You better not.”
“Better not what?” My heart dropped when I saw my mother on the edge of the road. She probably had come halfway to help us carry things now that her spell was over, but instead she was now giving me the questioning look I always dreaded as a kid.
“Silas met a girl,” Isaiah blurted.
“For the love of . . .” As mature and as old as Isaiah was, he didn’t lose the need to tattle or tease all of us young’uns. I dropped my bag and threw my hands in the air, trying to brave my mother’s gaze. “It’s nothing, Mama. She was kind to me today, is all.” I turned my eyes back to my older brother, attempting to make my stare as venomous as possible. “Nothing more.”
“She invited him to dinner and whispered things to him. He even gave her one of those silver bracelets he made,” Isaiah said, smiling.
Before I could count to five, she had marched over and had an iron grip on my ear.
“Ow! What did I do?”
“Listen closely, boy. You ain’t to touch a valley woman, no matter how kind to you she is. You hear?”
I was sure she was going to rip my ear off with her bare hands. Isaiah tried to save me from her wrath, but we both knew all too well how futile those efforts were.
“Whoa, go easy on him, Mama. He did a good job today. You raised him with enough gumption and charm for ten men.”
She lowered her hand, but I had to check my ear for blood. “Well, all that gumption’ll get him shot one of these days. If one of the white men saw you with their women . . .”
I didn’t even have the chance to tell her that said woman was Cherokee. I reeled back when I saw her hand reach for me again, but she pulled me in by the collar. “We’ve got enough problems, and we don’t need you adding to them, you hear? Now get yourself home.”
Rubbing where she had left her mark on my ear, I slumped, defeated. “Yes, ma’am.”
It was back to the green-leafed prison for me.