As most of you hippies and Indians already know, the dreaded Tahlequah triad (Debbie Duvall, James Murray, and me Murv Jacob) have been working on a novel for years now— here’s a chapter of this soon to be published work for you to read and discuss—any and all comments are so welcome
1841 – RACES IN TAHLEQUAH
Rich Joe Vann bought him out of the slave pens in Fort Smith in 1841 and he was without name on the sale bill. That document stated simply – Male, field hand, age about 19, can play banjar reasonably well. He went walking behind a wagon to the plantation at Webber’s Falls and it was several weeks before Rich Joe’s overseer, a white Indian named Petite, called him to the side of the field they were clearing. “I been hearin you play that banjo of a night. What’s your name?” Petite asked and the slave seemed unsure.
“I bin called lotsa things, mosely John or Jack. I’se named fo High John the Conqueroo,” he answered.
“Oh you were, were you?” Petite took a step back. “Well, that ain’t no good name for a slave around here.” Petite thought for a moment and then quickly decided, “I shall call you Cassius. How does that strike you?”
“Yes suh,” Cassius answered.
Petite continued, “Now young Cassius, go about your business in a productive manner and obey my orders as though they were the word of Almighty God and no misfortune shall befall you.”
Several weeks later Cassius and some other slaves were driving five beeves and ten fat hogs into Tahlequah. These animals were to be given from Rich Joe to the public dining halls in the capital town where all who were in need of supper or dinner could feast well at no personal expense. The slaves carried sticks and poked the beasts from behind, urging them forward to their demise. When they forded a small creek, Cassius looked up to see three black men on horseback splash into the water, heading towards them.
They were unlike any negroes Cassius had ever seen. These men wore wide-brimmed hats and tall boots, with colorful woven sashes tied around their waists into which were thrust long wicked knives and heavy dragoon pistols. Silver dangled from their ears. The riders pulled up to a halt and Cassius spoke before thinking of any decorum, “What kinda nigras is you-all?”
The men laughed, dark eyes flashing, and one of them answered, “We is de Seminoles.”
Cassius was processing this information when one of the negro Seminoles asked a question of his own. “To whom do you-all belong?”
A slave named Ol Buck answered proudly, “Weese a bunch of Rich Joe Vann’s hands.”
“Rich Joe Vann?” The dusky Seminole smiled.
“Dat right,” Ol Buck said. “He de richest man in de world.”
The riders laughed wildly. “De richest man in de world?”
“Dat right. Rich Joe got de fastest hoss, de most steamboats, de tallest jackass, de biggest big house, de most cotton and de most nigras workin’ dan any man who ever lived! An he got a brother name Crazy James!”
“Dem hogs is mighty fat,” noted one of the riders to his fellows.
“A hog git mighty fat eatin’ Rich Joe’s slop!” Ol Buck’s eyes widened with his grin.
“Is dis Rich Joe a white man or an Indian?” The riders inquired.
“Ah, I reckon he about half a one and half a de other.” Ol Buck turned back to tend the hogs.
The riders laughed again and rode away south. Cassius and the slaves continued poking the livestock towards Tahlequah. “Doan seem right,” Cassius commented, “Rich Joe is da richest man alive den whys we walkin? Why cain’t we ride hosses like dem boys? We ain’t even got no shoes.”
“Hush yourn talk fool.” Ol Buck shot him a warning glance.
“I’se jus wishin I wuz ridin a big hoss.”
“Don’t git all high-headed or Trouble will be yo new name, fool.”
The slaves drove the stock into a holding pen at the communal cookhouse in Tahlequah. The smell of that good food cooking had both the slaves and the hogs watering at the mouth. An elderly woman with thick white hair drawn tightly back into a bun on her neck looked out of a window into the pens. She quickly counted the animals and checked them against a piece of paper. She smiled over at the slaves.
“Wait right there,” the white-haired woman said, and in minutes she reappeared, from a side door this time, followed by several young kitchen helpers who carried plates of food. She wore a long blue dress gathered tight beneath her ample breasts. “You men go there and sit,” she said. She pointed to a tree a ways off from the main eating tables. Beneath it was a wooden table, clean and long and surrounded by woven chairs. When the slaves were seated, the youngsters laid a plate of food and a cup of sweet tea before each one. “You boys enjoy your meal,” the woman said, taking her leave.
It had been a long time since anyone had said a kind word to Cassius. Something about that old Cherokee woman reminded him of his grandmother. He had lived on the same plantation with her after his mother was sold and his father was killed trying to find her. He remembered how his grandmother had stood up proud and tall when the overseers had carried him away to the slave auction. He had taken her cue, standing tall like she did, holding in the fear and the need to scream out his pain while they chained his arms and legs, willing back his tears.
“Dat woman dere,” Ol Buck said to Cassius, interrupting his thoughts. “She doan believe us nigras should live like dis, like we do.” His voice was a whisper. “She always feed us good, if she workin dat day.”
“So how you know what she believe?” Cassius asked.
“She done told it to me, jus like I said it. ‘Ceptin she said ain’t no man should own another’n.” Ol Buck looked around to see if anyone heard. “She said it sho-nuff.”
Cassius concentrated on the delicious hog meat and beans, big chunks of purplish red tomatoes and hot corn cakes. Secretly Ol Buck’s words cheered him, made him glad that the grandmotherly woman believed that way. He tried to eat slowly, to enjoy it better, but soon found himself sopping up the last of the bean soup with the last bite of corn cake. Everyone else finished just as quickly, but all were reluctant to leave those comfortable chairs. Ol Buck looked about ready to go to sleep when Cassius spoke up. “Look, dere’s dem nigras with the hosses and guns. Les go over dere.” The black Seminoles hitched their horses under some shade and noticed Cassius and the others approaching.
“Rich Joe Vann’s nigras,” said a tall man with a tiny patch of black curls in the cleft of his chin. “Where you all goin’?” He laughed when Cassius leaned in to look at the silver chains around his neck. “De chains I wear are of my own choosin,” he said.
“So who yo massa is?” Cassius wanted to know. “He shoe give you mighty fine hosses to ride and guns to carry.”
“We got no massa,” the tall man said, “we is free nigras.”
“You is?” Cassius did not believe it. “Dem hosses belong to you, all you men?”
Cassius shook his head. “How come dem Seminoles set you free?”
“Because we fought for each other, against de white Americans. Dat makes us brothers.”
“I taint never heard of nuthin like dat,” Cassius shook his head with wonder, “Ya’ll is nigras an injuns?”
The big Seminole just laughed. “Somethin like dat. Yes.”
“Lawd. Lawd.” Cassius marveled. “What dey call you?”
“Blue Alligator,” the big Seminole answered. “Who’re you and where you from, boy?”
“My name is High John, but de boss call me Cassius. I come up from dis plantation in Louisiana. Dey wuz tryin to work us nigras to death. I sho am happy Rich Joe bought me up to live wit dese injuns. He bought me a new banjar too.”
“Dat so? It seem like a Cherokee got sense bout like a white man.”
Across the street from where Cassius and Blue Alligator were speaking, three large Osage men leaned against posts. They stood head and shoulders taller than any Cherokee on the street. Their heads shaved clean except for a violent strip of hair down the center of the skulls, the men were the objects of much fascination. Various Cherokees stared openly at their one-time enemies. The Osages were dressed in their ancient fashion, buckskin leggings with blankets wrapped around their bare torsos. Geometric tribal tattoos delineated their faces and they wore silver and bone jewelry in their ears, noses and lips. They stared back at the Cherokees and said nothing. Cassius saw them and turned to the Seminole. “Is dem wild injuns?”
Blue Alligator laughed and said, “Doan be worried bout dem Osage boy. Dey much rather kill an uppity white Cherokee dan a field nigra.”
“Dat right boy. But dey made a peace. Doan do no killin back an forth no more, least not till afta dark.” Blue Alligator found his clay smoking pipe and stuffed it with tobacco. “What you gotta worry bout boy is wild Comanch.”
“Comanch take you to Texas on de back of a mule iffins dey git a chance.”
“I doan wan to go to Texas wit no Comanch.”
“No you doan boy.”
Suddenly Joe Vann’s overseer Petite charged between Cassius and Blue Alligator. In his rush, the ornate turban he wore went askew and he paused to right it on his head. “Goddamn you jabbering nigras.” He shoved Cassius away from the Seminole. “Stay away from those damnable zambos,” he told Cassius. “That bunch will get you tied to a post and whipped to ribbons.”
“I’se sorry Mista Po-teet.”
“I might just whip your sorry ass myself,” Petite said.
“But Mista Po-teet, he wuz tellin us bout wild Comanch.”
“Tain’t no Comanche in the Territory, you durn fool.” Petite glowered at Cassius and the others. “You nigras git over there to the stables and help those boys with Mr. Vann’s horses!” he barked his orders and the slaves scattered. “Comanches can eat shit,” he muttered to himself and sauntered off.
As Ol Buck led the way to the stables, Cassius looked back at the Seminoles who stood watching them depart. Blue Alligator no longer seemed amused, and the look the tall negro gave the retreating Petite was a shot of pure hate. Still he raised a hand of farewell to Cassius.
Cassius turned his attention to the crowd in the street that seemed to be growing by the minute. One fine carriage after another, complete with liveried drivers, passed by him. They were filled with wealthy white Indians wearing the latest French fashions.
“Dey sho is a lot a rich people livin in dis here town,” Cassius commented to Ol Buck.
“Naw, dey ain’t all from here, boy. Today’s race day. Deys comin in from all aroun. Ranjo’s hoss is runnin, Miss Lucy Walker, her name is.”
“Ranjo? Who dat?”
“Yo massa Rich Joe Vann, dat who Ranjo is. Dat his secret name – his nigras calls him dat.”
“An his hoss is runnin in a race an we gits to watch it?”
“Yes and we gits to clean up de hoss shit when it over, too.” Ol Buck laughed. It was days like these that made his life bearable. The one brief run-in with Petite was the only time he had suffered the overseer’s insults all day.
The festival atmosphere in Tahlequah was contagious and Cassius whistled while he busied himself raking straw and shoveling droppings. He begged another slave to let him curry the race horse just one time. Her black legs and hooves glistened and her sleek dark sides shone as he ran the curry comb over them. He slid his hand down the rippling muscles and imagined how it must feel to stretch those powerful legs and run. But even she, the beautiful Miss Lucy Walker, could only run so far. She too is a slave, Cassius thought - a pampered slave, but a slave just the same. Cassius held his ear to her chest, seeking out her powerful heart.
A commotion nearby brought all the slaves running out of the stable. A crowd gathered around a white man who stood in the back of a wagon making announcements. “Slave auction after the races!” he exclaimed. “Octaroons and quadroons from New Orleans! Field hands and young slave girls, and boys too!” Cassius trudged back to his work, choosing to store the anger at hearing those words away for a better time. Right now Miss Lucy Walker had a race to run and Cassius could hardly wait. He had never seen a real horse race before.
On the fenced-off infield paddock of the teeming race track grounds, two luxurious black carriages met at a prearranged spot under the shade of a large pecan tree. The drivers both tipped their fancy silk top hats and the carriages pulled up right alongside each other. In the back of one of the carriages sat the most powerful politician the Cherokees had yet endured, Principal Chief John Ross. His young Cherokee consort sat by his side. In the other carriage rode the richest man in the Territories, quite possibly the wealthiest man in all of America, the half-Scottish, half-Cherokee Joe Vann – Rich Joe Vann. He was attentively accompanied by a wide-eyed mulatto girl wearing a billowing red dress. Chief Ross scooted across the waxed tan leather seat as close to Vann’s carriage as he could get so they could speak intimately.
Vann spoke in earnest to Ross. “Goddamn it to bloody hell, ya li’l Scottish bastard! D’ ya see those goddamn Seminole Zambos on the main street? Them half-nigra sons of bitches are carrying arms! Carrying arms Johnny! We cain’t be letting our good niggers be seeing such a sight. The American army barely put a whipping on those arrogant black zambos, and now they’ve shipped em here right into our midst. You and your cock-sucking council need ta pass a law against such moral outrages. You need ta have your Washington City friends put them on their own land – as far from here as you can manage. Hell-fire, man!”
Vann looked intently at John Ross. The man only resembles a Cherokee in the paintings he himself commissions, he thought. His cousin in no way resembled an Indian, but looked rather like a well-groomed Scots-Irish attorney sitting beside the girl, who busied herself counting coins out of one carpetbag into another. He saw Ross as small, and darkly dangerous, and Rich Joe knew that, under his silk tie and velvet coat, John Ross was as skinny and tough as a monkey. He would certainly have several dragoon pistols lying hidden at hand’s reach.
Ross leaned closer to Vann’s ear, smiled faintly and spoke softly, “Indeed Joseph, I have been thinking, we definitely need a new code of legislation regarding those darker races in our midst.”
“Well then! Goddamn it Johnny! Get it done. Pull those councilmen out from behind their fuckin whiskey bottles and have the lame bastards vote some strong new laws! That’s why we pay em.”
“Rest assured. That will be done.” John Ross answered quietly.
“Tomorrow’s not soon enough, goddammit!”
Ross flinched, his anger rising, and peered over at Vann’s fancy carriage. He was lucky to inherit such wealth, Ross thought, and despite all his property, he remains rather coarse. He noticed Vann’s dark fingernails and the kinks in his hair. Could the rumor be true? That he carries more than a drop of negro blood?
Rich Joe called Petite, who was skulking nearby, over to his carriage. Petite approached swiftly and gave Vann a crisp nod. “Petite, I want you to grab a couple of Chief Ross’s Lighthorsemen and send those nigra Seminoes packing. Send them straight out of town, and be careful ya don’t get cut up or shot by those savage black peckerwoods.”
The crowd grew thick and milled around while races were being staged one after another. A mixed blood Cherokee wearing a huge top hat stood atop a makeshift platform in the bed of a wagon and hollered out to the rowdy assemblage, “This here race is fer a fine 5X Saint Louie beaver hat. One circuit of the track. Three hundred yards!”
He tipped the huge grey hat to the crowd. They cheered and jeered loudly at him. He produced a large pistol and fired it off, black powder burning as loud as cannon fire, and the race began. Horses scrambled and careened around the grassy track, steered by small brightly-dressed jockeys. People leaned on the whitewashed fences and watched intently, and silver coins passed quietly hand to hand. When the horses hurtled past the finish mark, half the crowd celebrated, while the others mourned their loss of fortune.
In the big carriages Vann leaned over close to Ross. “I need your Cherokee tribal council to send me a bank draft for that last big herd of beeves. When it appears I’ll have my man Petite bring you your twelve-and-a-half percent in coin of the realm.”
Ross penciled a figure into a small notebook. He leaned in and smiled at Vann, barely whispering the words, “Gold, not silver. I need some traveling coin.” Then Ross stood up in his carriage and said, “Look at this Joe, sent by my friends in Washington City,” He pointed at the new Ross hunting tartan kilt he was wearing.
Vann laughed “Haw, haw, Johnny – ya know that kilt would look a helluva lot better if ya didn’t have those skinny yeller rooster legs. Haw, haw, haw.”
Ross sat down, handing over a small silver flask of scotch to Vann, and stated, “Yer a rich bastard and a truly sorry son of a bitch my Scottish-Cherokee cousin.”
Vann took a healthy snort of the fine single malt and returned the chief’s flask with a sly grin. Another race was being staged, and the announcer bellowed that “this race is for a long Hawken rifle, hand-made and hand-engraved, shiny, deadly, modern perfection.” The announcer waved to silence the crowd. “Two laps around. Six hundred yards.” He pointed the long slender gun high above the crowd, pulled the silver trigger and started the next race with a sudden loud blast. Both Vann and Ross jumped slightly at the sound. Then their leisurely talk continued.
“Johnny,” Vann said, “I’m sorry the slate wasn’t wiped clean of all those goddamn Treaty Party bastards. Watie needs his throat cut to the backbone. And now that damned Irishman James Starr is breeding his own half-blood army over on the Baron Fork. I heard he’s got four wives and twenty sons. He was on the goddamn list Johnny! Why the hell is that bastard still living?”
Ross leaned in and said, “Starr could well become a problem. His ambitions appear large.”
“Have Starr killed then.” Vann made a secret Masonic sign to Ross. “This country can only support so many rich men.” They laughed and Vann continued, “I goddamn sure didn’t move to this Territory to share pieces of the pie with a common squaw-man like James Starr.”
Ross nodded seriously and sadly. “If we let them gain wealth then they will want political power.”
“Not in my lifetime.” Vann stuck a cigar in his mouth and the adolescent mulatto who shared his carriage struck a match and lit the tobacco for him. Vann smiled at the girl and rubbed her leg through the French plaited skirt she wore. He turned back to Ross. “And goddamn it Johnny,” he said, “do you know what these good niggers of ours need? And I’ll pay for it myself…”
“And that would be, cousin?”
“Some good Christian preaching. We need more goddamn preachers in this Territory! These niggers need Jesus like I need a woman! Morning, noon and twice at night!”
Ross laughed. “Only twice at night?”
“You get the goddamn point Johnny!”
Ross and Vann continued their bantering and suddenly Vann became excited. “There she is, goddamit!” Vann pointed over to where a spectacular black thoroughbred mare was being led across the paddock toward the starting line. Vann hopped down from the big cabriolet carriage and hurried across the field of onlookers to inspect his racehorse, Miss Lucy Walker. He too wore a kilt with the top hat and velvet jacket of a southern planter. As Ross joined him, he scrutinized his horse from head to tail. A tiny young African jockey strode up and Vann himself boosted him aboard the fierce, snorting equine. The boy wore Rich Joe’s colors, gold and blue. As the jockey shortened up the reins, the mare reared and twirled with such force the onlookers fell back in awe. The boy could barely control the raging mare, and additional attendants were sent to lead her to the starting line.
Miss Lucy Walker lined up beside her challenger and the announcer stepped forward. “Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! The last race of the day! Five laps around this fine racetrack! One mile! The Kentucky Legend, the fastest horse in all Kaintuck running against the Miss Lucy Walker, owned by the Cherokee Nation’s favorite son – Mister Joseph Vann!” The man stepped back and fired off his large handgun and the horses leapt wildly into a full gallop, barreling around the track. The crowd of onlookers cheered madly, some throwing hats into the air, some firing pistols at the flying hats.
Miss Lucy Walker galloped at full speed, at first pulling slowly ahead of Kentucky Legend. After long moments of pounding fury, the race ended as Miss Lucy Walker crossed the finish line well ahead of her challenger. The crowd cheered drunkenly at the tops of their lungs. Vann showed little emotion at the victory of his horse and Ross handed him a small gold coin with an Indian head on it. “For luck, Cousin,” he drawled softly. The men tipped their top hats at each other and went their separate ways.
Cassius, Ol Buck and the other slaves were celebrating Miss Lucy Walker’s victory along with the rest of the crowd when Petite bumped into them with his shoulder. “Come with me,” he said. They followed him over to where Miss Lucy Walker was receiving her rub-down in preparation for the journey back to Spring Place – Vann’s plantation, so named in honor of the Vann family home back in Georgia.
When the great mare was ready, the party moved off south. Petite and a white man rode horses and the slaves walked. Miss Lucy Walker was led behind a wagon that carried a pet goat. Cassius sat in the wagon beside the goat and banged out a soft, somber tune on his new banjo. A worn out Petite rode nearby and seemed lost in the music. Cassius looked up as night fell and saw the full moon rising. He thought of the wild Comanches that Blue Alligator had warned him about – wild Indians who might drag him off to Texas. He stopped playing the banjo. “Mista Po-teet?” he asked out loud.
“What is it fool?”
“You tink deys any Comanch injuns out here?”
“Hell no you crazy nigger. Ain’t no Comanch in this territory.”
“Dat Seminole dey calls Blue Alligator say….”
“To hell with those goddamn zambos! Don’t listen to those half-breeds!”
From their vantage point on a wooded ridge above the trail to Spring Place, five Comanche warriors sat upon their mounts and watched in stillness as the weary travelers and Rich Joe’s valiant mare passed down the moonlit road below.
Here’s the link to another chapter of the Secret History ”The Last Beloved Woman”, click here, go there:
To sart at the beginning of the novel here’s a link to the intro