The Native Irishman

I wrote this book a long time ago now and never did anything with it. I’d be interested to hear any opinions on the first chapter…

 

 

 

1847

 

The Arkansas Intelligencer

HUNDREDS LOST ON WALK OF DEATH

PLEA TO HELP STARVING THOUSANDS

 

A CORRESPONDENT REPORTS terrible tragedy upon the western coast of Ireland where the devastating famine persists. This article was kindly compiled by our colleague at the Illustrated London News who was moved by the devastation he witnessed; it reveals the horror for those unfortunates living under this dreadful calamity.

Mr J.T. Mahoney writes: ‘I started from Galway, by the mail, for Clifden. It was not long upon that highway that we encountered the dying, the living and the dead lying indiscriminately along the roadside. We were quickly surrounded by a mob of men and women, more like famished dogs than fellow creatures, whose figures, looks and cries all showed they were suffering the ravening agony of hunger. We assisted in whatever small manner we could and proceeded on our way, met every hundred yards by the sight of a funeral or a coffin, half buried or open to the elements for the dogs to feed upon. The desperate souls were more like skeletons than men and women, scourged as they were by hunger. Their presence spoke better than any article ever could of the devastation that is being wrought. Drooping forms and vacant stares were to be seen around every bend, their breaths hanging ghostlike in the frosty air as we passed. At Westport, the spectacle was equally bleak. Human wretchedness seems concentrated here for it was near this town that the culmination of physical degradation was reached with a dreadful calamity on the Louisburgh Road. Several days prior to our arrival, a group of approximately six hundred had gathered in the market square to seek sustenance from the Relieving Officer. Alas, that gentleman instructed these frail, empty-bellied sacks to travel ten miles over mountainous tracks and barren, windswept bog to Delphi Lodge, where the Board of Guardians was in session. It is with dismay that I report that these gentlemen found the presence of this ravenous band unsettling and sent them upon their way, back to the very Officer who had ordered them there to plead their cause. It was a journey beyond most and they soon succumbed to the elements. Witnesses spoke of a strong gale blowing off the looming mountain of Mweelra, which overlooks the road upon which they travelled. Such was its force that many of this starving band were carried to their deaths into the waters of Doo Lough, which borders the highway. The famished convoy – men, women and little children – perished in the freezing gale or were swallowed by the icy lake. Some of the stronger ones lingered longer until they too felt their fragile grip on life loosed and they slipped to the ground, huddled masses of skin and bone; human milestones on a road of death.

I implore all with a Christian soul to assist these unfortunates who die by the hundred every day. From the sights that have scarred my eyes it is clear that the Government cares not a whit for the travails of its citizens. Therefore, it falls upon us all to act where they have failed. We must help these people, for God’s sake.’

This publication concurs with the honorable sentiments of the reporter. In these desperate times we must all be forthcoming. It falls to us now to lend a hand to a benighted land from the bosom of which many of our settlers have travelled. Let no one say that we were found wanting when it came to helping our fellow man in his hour of need.

 

 Indian Territory, 1846

 

THEY RODE in silence; a tiny bell – its striker removed – hung on the bridle of his horse glistening in the sunlight as the pony jostled him up the steep slope to the edge of the village. The smell from the man next to him hung in the air; bad whiskey, puke, pure funk and the three graces – blood, sweat and tears. Light Horse captain Chenubee stole a glance at the sad sack of misery clinging to the pommel of the saddle beside him. The Mexican’s cuts oozed blood, the pores of his skin wept fear. As they crested the brow of the hill and reached the outskirts of the village the man whimpered and another more pungent odour was released. Chenubee’s nose wrinkled and he spat in disgust.

‘Tushpa[1]!’ he muttered, flicking the reins along the pony’s neck as he urged her forward.

******

TOBIAS Smolt sighed heavily, ran his finger around the folds of flesh that threatened to overwhelm the cravat beneath, and then sighed some more just for good measure. Smolt covered upper lip with lower lip, shifted in his seat, shaking his head in sadness and exasperation.

‘It’s too much; I’d like to offer more but it’s impossible – I’d be losing money myself if I did. Really Osyka[2], 25 cents a bag is generous.’

The Choctaw maize grower stared impassively at the fat man.

‘I can get 30 at Fort Towson and you know it.’

Smolt shrugged, lifted a cheek and cracked a fart as the chair beneath creaked in protest.

‘Go on then. You want to spend two days in the saddle you do it… if you can spare the time that is…’

Osyka shifted. Smolt waited, the beginnings of a smile playing about his lips, the dark shadows of the shop hiding the expectant glint in his eyes. Two days from now the biggest event in the Choctaw social calendar was going to take place – a tolik ­– a grand ball play against the men from Skullyville, and betting would be heavy. He leaned forward and the chair wobbled as its thin legs fought gamely against the lumbering frame above.   The drone of a bee broke the silence as the maize grower mulled things over. Spend up to two days there and back and miss the biggest ball game they had played in years… The last time any of them had even held a tolik stick was back in the old country, in Mississippi before the removal, before the time when the bloom of their youth would wither and die in the freezing cold of a death march that lasted months and whose effects were still being felt all these years later. Preparations for the game had been going on for weeks. Osyka was a good player, or at least he used to be. He was keen to prove he’d lost none of his prowess and, besides, he could win a small fortune with all the betting.

Smolt knew the answer before the man spoke, but just as he was going in for the kill he heard his voice say something that his mind couldn’t quite comprehend:

‘Alright, alright…I’ll make it 28 cents a bag, but that’s my final offer.’

The maize grower smiled; a fleeting sense of relief flickering across his face.

‘It’s a deal.’

‘Well, of course it is!’ barked Smolt, irritated at his own largesse. ‘Just don’t spend it all at the ball-play, eh!’

Osyka laughed. ‘You, too, Coushatta[3]. I remember you on the field when we were younger… a feared opponent – now you must make do gambling instead of playing.’

‘Yes, but it is more satisfying when you win!’ replied the trader.

He stood in the doorway of his trading post and watched the maize grower recede into the distance, his gaze wandering lazily across the narrow dirt road and up to the scraggy brow of the hill that marked the start of Eagletown, the Choctaw district capital just north of the mighty Red River, and sandwiched between the Mountain Fork and Little River. Coming over it through the midday haze were two horsemen – well, two silhouettes… but he didn’t have to see the face of the one on the left to know who he was. Some people were good hunters or good farmers – Smolt had green fingers when it came to money – but the captain of the Light Horse coming down the hill, the Miko Loosa as he was known, was in a category all his own.

The two riders were almost level with Smolt’s store. The businessman levered his bulk from the creaking frame, watching them pass. Chenubee’s bright cotton shirt fluttered, a zephyr tugged at his shoulder-length hair, the face was mask like: chin square, lips thin, tightly closed. He squinted against the sunlight, causing the lines that ran on either side of his mouth up past his nostrils to deepen. The brow was lined and the right temple bore a red circle and three black dots. Time and the weather had left their mark on the war chief, but the handsome features which had turned many a squaw’s head in his youth were still there. His expression was impassive, almost – there was a hint of haughtiness to it, noted the trader, as there was, too, in the way he rode. Only the eyes betrayed his true bloodline; they were bright blue. Chenubee, like Smolt, was a half-breed, but a more full-blooded indian you’d never find anywhere in the country. Despite the mixed blood, Chenubee was Choctaw through and through.

The man on the right didn’t look too happy, Smolt noticed. Manero, the Mexican whiskey peddler; every Choctaw knew him and the damage he caused. The man had ignored warnings not to sell his cheap liquor here; he was paying for that stupidity now. The Mexican’s shirt stuck to his plump, sweaty body, as he swayed in the saddle. The cool stares of the silent villagers lining the street appraised the arrivals; only the wheezy breathing of the peddler and an occasional snort from his pony as it stepped through the horse apples that dotted their path broke the silence. Smolt watched them halt outside a long log cabin with a window at each side and a door in the middle. A large stone chimney sat at the gable end and a wide porch fronted the building. The Chief’s lodge; it was the biggest house in the village and the best built.

Tuskogee[4] had ordered an end to the peddling, but the Mexican had ignored it and had continued to push his whiskey on braves, getting them so drunk they spent what money they had on the liquor, letting their families go hungry while they whooped it up away from the village. Now he would pay the consequences.

A small crowd gathered as the Miko Loosa dismounted and, ignoring their questions, ran his hand gently – lovingly – over his pony’s nose and whispered in its ear.  Those hands that so softly caressed it were large and scarred, the skin calloused from years spent on the trail of men and beasts.

The hands left off with the petting to grab the Mexican’s shirtfront and drag him from the saddle. Manero offered up a feeble protest as he felt an iron grip in his hair, a knee shoved hard into the small of his back as his face pushed down into the dirt. Just as quickly the peddler felt the pressure ease and he turned his head in time to see the swing of a foot and felt a sharp pain in his ribs. Choking on dust and rising bile, he lay there watching the feet of the indian walk towards the chief’s cabin.

From the brow of the hill to the entrance to the chief’s house, oblivious to the Mexican’s desperate pleadings, the Miko Loosa had not uttered one single word.

******

TUSKOGEE lay on the floor propped on one elbow, smoking a pipe. The room, one of two in the building, was relatively bare. Hides and furs made the log floor more comfortable, there was a stool by the fire and a small iron kettle simmered in the background. An empty wooden bowl with a horn spoon inside it lay between the chief and his young squaw, who immediately left the room on seeing Chenubee. The chief gestured for him to sit.

‘You have just missed tafula[5], there is some more in the kettle if you want it?’

‘No, I’m not hungry, but thank you.’

Instead he accepted the pipe that was offered and both men puffed away in silence for some time. The chief peered at the Miko Loosa through the clouds of smoke. ‘Did you get him?’

‘He’s outside. We caught up with him at Mud Creek, broke his bottles and told him to go home. I sent my men to search the woods in case he has a stash there, but I think he would have told me.’

Tuskogee smiled; he knew Chenubee well enough to understand what that meant. It was good… he himself would give the man his final warning. The peddler wouldn’t be back, the chief was sure of that. For now, he’d let him sweat it out in the noon sun. Tuskogee peered at his leading warrior through the blue smoke haze that hung in the air.

‘You seem troubled though, what is it?’

Chenubee shifted a little as he sat. He composed himself before staring directly at the chief.

‘It’s Neshoba[6], I think I was wrong about him.’

Tuskogee puffed on the pipe and eyed his guest cautiously.  He didn’t like it when the tribe’s chief enforcer disagreed with his own punishment ruling.

‘You are our war chief; you heard the evidence, everybody spoke and now you must accept the decision that your own Light Horse men came to – Neshoba must be punished. He shot Koonowa[7] in the back… it was the act of a coward, and now he must pay.’

‘Yes, but I am the one who will have to use this rifle on him. Painting a red dot on his chest and shooting him down like a dog is not the act of a brave.’

‘You’re wrong; it takes a very brave man to do such a thing. And whether you like it or not, it’s your duty to carry out the punishment. Neshoba is stupid, but he will be there on the day to take his medicine. If it makes you feel better, I do believe that Coushatta – or Mr Smolt as he prefers to be called – will accept compensation rather than blood.’

Chenubee grunted at the mention of the trader’s name. As head of Koonowa’s family, Smolt could decide whether to take monetary compensation for the death of his relative or to take the life of his cousin’s killer. Knowing Smolt, Chenubee thought that maybe the chief was right; the trader would take the easy money.

‘I think you are a wise chief,’ he said, standing up and reaching for his rifle. Now I must sleep before the dance tonight. Thank you for hearing my words.’

Tuskogee nodded his assent, puffed on his pipe and watched his bravest warrior leave the cabin. This Miko Loosa, who tried so hard to keep the white man’s ways from the village, sometimes showed some of his own white blood, even if he didn’t realise it. This was one of those times, thought the chief. It was one reason why he could never be the tribe’s leader – that white man’s mentality sometimes got in the way.

Tuskogee lay back and thought of the time when one of their own chief’s treachery had sold them out to the whites for a few thousand acres and sent thetribe on a road to hell, a road that they all still walked in their dreams at night. He recalled Chenubee; tireless Chenubee, always willing to help the weak as he silently grieved for his own loved ones who had been lost on the way. All were gone but he, and so for Chenubee the whole tribe became his family. Tuskogee could still remember him as he struggled each day up and down the line, urging them on, offering encouragement and a helping hand as they struggled with their loads through snowdrifts and freezing winds. He had been magnificent. It was his bravery on the trail as much as after it that gave him the respect of all. And now here they were, thirteen years later, still living with the scars as they struggled to build themselves a future.

Tuskogee leaned forward and from beneath a fur skin took a general goods catalogue advertising items from Turner’s Mercantile, of Little Rock, Arkansas – ‘Proprietors of the Finest Goods Emporium in the United States’. The chief flipped through the well-thumbed brochure until he found what he was looking for … Furniture – two fireside chairs: $5. He marked the item, puffing on his pipe, humming an ancient burial song before moving on to the next section.

******

Mary McCrae sat cross-legged beneath the spreading branches of the apple tree and watched the sun-dappled head of Cyrus Bingley as he deftly whittled away at the wood, shaping it into a small figure. The hands that held the boning knife moved smoothly, picking out details here and there, using the grain and blemishes to his advantage when he could. The scent of apple blossom hung on the air as the Quaker’s eyes flicked from the carving to the little girl who watched him work the wood. Her fingers toyed idly with the ribbon on her modest dress. Her long black hair shone in the sun, its head crowned with a chain of daisies. He never ceased to be amazed by the indians. So at one with the nature around her was she that Wordsworth himself could have written an ode to her beauty, thought Bingley. He shook his head in bemusement. It was hard to believe that this nymph was the daughter of a riverboat captain whose fondness for whiskey and women led to him causing about a dozen little McCraes to be born along this stretch of the river.

Mary was known as Panola[8] by the villagers, but Bingley insisted on calling all the children by the Christian names he had allotted them, though he would never dare do such a thing to the man now leaving the chief’s cabin.  Chenubee broke stride just once; to deliver a well-directed kick at the whiskey peddler, before continuing on his way. Bingley shuddered with distaste. The little girl coughed, bringing him back to his work. Slowly, as though by magic, the shape of a baby in a papoose emerged from the wood: first the blanket, then the face… that of a sleeping child.

‘Now… there you go Mary, you run along and play.’ He handed over the toy. The girl took it eagerly, giggled and ran towards the cornfield.

Bingley’s attention returned to the figure of Chenubee walking towards his own cabin. As usual, the so-called Miko Loosa looked dour, thought the preacher. The man was an unreconstructed savage – despite the civilised blood that flowed through his veins. Bingley grunted at the sight of the tall, tanned warrior with the aloof air. He tutted his disapproval; knowing in his own way he was as much a warrior as this buffoon of a war chief, only he was God’s warrior; this savage fought out of sheer devilment. Bingley twitched in irritation as he recalled the latest example of the Miko Loosa’s heathen stubbornness – his refusal to allow a simple blessing be given to the players before the tolik started. Why anyone would object to a benediction was beyond him. As far as Bingley was concerned it showed a closed mind… something that he was determined to change in the village at all costs.

******

James Nolan, the half-breed Choctaw warrior otherwise known as Chenubee or the Miko Loosa, lay on his furs in the dark of his small cabin, the white stripes of sunlight poured through the planks of his door as he berated himself for being so weak.

How could I… I’m like a woman crying over an unpleasant task. If I was more a man I would never have said anything about Neshoba. I’ve killed men before. The chief is right this IS harder than going on a raid or going on spirit quest. But I am brave, I can do this. Neshoba was wrong and should be punished. It is my duty.

 He tossed and turned, blaming himself and his white blood for all his imagined failings, until finally a kind of peace settled on him and sleep came. Chenubee stirred as he lay on the hides, the faint noises of the village filtering through the cabin’s door, as he hauled up the past and sieved it for gold dust memories.

He dreamed of his father, Thomas – strong of arm, fair of hair (curly), big of smile and the bluest eyes any Choctaw had ever seen. From the start, the Irishman seemed to understand, almost instinctively, the influence that Choctaw women had on daily life; the braves could talk all day of their hunts and battles but it was the women ­who ruled the roost. He’d accepted completely that his wife would control both his possessions and hers. It was how things should be.

Chenubee had the best of both worlds growing up. In Choctaw villages it was the mother and her male relatives who raised the children, yet because Thomas was so loved by his squaw and her family he’d been just as influential on the boy. His eyes would glitter in anticipation at his father’s tales about the warriors on the small island across the great sea – the island where Thomas grew up, a place from which the greatest of all warriors lived: Cuchulainn. He could fight ten men at once and be the only one left standing at the end of the battle, so his father told him. Chenubee could still remember his uncle Mishawaka[9] bridle at the mere mention of the name, seeing it somehow as a slight against the great chief Pushmataha. He could almost hear the arguments between them to this day….

‘What would you know of real warriors Onalaska[10]‘, Mishawaka would say.  ‘Pushmataha was the greatest warrior who ever stood on this ground. I could spend five sunrises telling you of his bravery. How could any man compare to the most honoured Choctaw of them all, who brought terror to those cowardly dogs the Callagehahs when they dared attack him and his hunting party.’

Mishawaka would proceed to tell of the great event, as much for Thomas’s benefit as the boy’s. In that assault, so the story went, several Choctaw braves were killed, but Pushmataha spent the rest of that summer tracking his attackers and taking their scalps before returning to his village. Even then that wasn’t enough; later, he led two more war parties against the Callagehah, killing many without loss of even one of his own party.

‘Pushmataha was truly the greatest warrior. Your Cuchulainn would not even be allowed hold his tomahawk.’

Had anyone been watching Chenubee in his half-sleep they would hardly have believed their eyes because, like snow in summer or a bear out roaming in the depths of winter, the rarest of things happened – a smile began to creep across the grim mouth of the dozing Miko Loosa. He could still see his father’s face break into a grin and then switch to mock-seriousness as he debated with an increasingly agitated Mishawaka about the prowess of warriors in Ireland….

‘Ah now, I’m sure your Pushmataha was a man to be reckoned with – a fierce fellow, no doubt. But Cuchulainn – he was sent straight from the gods. Do you know a man who could hit a ball far into the air and run so fast that he could catch it before it fell to the ground? Or a man who could kill the fiercest of beasts without a gun in his hand, nor a knife, nor a tomahawk for that matter? Or a man who could fight whole tribes of warriors for an entire day and walk away the victor? A man who could play tolik alone against a whole tribe of the best players the Choctaw’s could muster?’

This last point would enrage the boy’s uncle, as he was one of the most skilled tolik players in the tribe.

‘Now you insult me!’

‘No… no… no…’ Thomas would soothe. ‘I only mean to say that of my people Cuchulainn is the greatest of all warriors. My boy here is lucky to have such mighty fighters in his bloodline. With their skills coursing through him he himself could become the mightiest warrior of them all.’

Mishawaka would smile, nod his head and look closely at the little boy who stared wide-eyed at the two men before him.

******

Outside in the noon-day heat, Cyrus Bingley watched in dismay as Manero was tied to the punishment pole, stripped naked and beaten. Tuskogee then drew his hunting knife, the blade glinting in the bright afternoon light as several dozen pairs of eyes followed its movement. The old chief weaved it slowly in front of the Mexican’s face before placing it on the peddler’s quivering thigh. The sharp point nicked the tender flesh, causing Manero to yelp. A rivulet of blood slid slowly down his leg, which vibrated like a freshly plucked bowstring. Tuskogee grabbed the peddler’s balls – Bingley winced as an animal cry pierced the air. The chief flashed the knife in front of the man’s eyes.

‘You see that? Well it will make short work of this piece of useless meat I hold in my hand. Come here again and I’ll feed your balls to the dogs.’

Bingley couldn’t make out what the sobbing Mexican was saying, but it was safe to say that he got the message. Manero was strapped to his horse and run out of the village, the squaws and children chasing alongside in fits of laughter. Sticks and stones pelted the whiskey peddler from all sides, adding to the injuries he’d already sustained. His cries of pain were drowned beneath the neighing of the alarmed horse and the taunting of the crowd. Amid all the commotion and through the swirling dust kicked up by the horse’s hooves, Bingley could see a beautiful mane of dark glossy hair crowned with daisies, its owner giggling merrily as she hurled another clod of earth at the retreating Mexican.

He shook his head in despair. Sometimes he wondered whether he was making any progress educating these people in the ways of the Lord or was it all a waste of time.  Whatever the answer, he knew, though, that the Heavenly Father would reward him for his efforts. He thought of his days back on the family farm; the memories somehow helped whenever he harboured any doubts of his mission. Enrolling as one of the Almighty’s foot soldiers had been the greatest moment in Bingley’s life. His love of books and an inquisitive nature had propelled him from the family farm and into the city where, until his forty-second birthday, he had worked as an accounts clerk with Mason, Stockard and Bell, New England’s pre-eminent haberdashery store. A combination of itchy feet, religious fervour and the novels of James Fennimore Cooper had impelled him into missionary life and given him a desire to work among savages. This was proving to be a disappointing day for his congregation’s march towards righteousness, though, but he reminded himself that his Quaker testimony was to be a true apostle of Christ, and that meant shining His light into darkened corners.

He didn’t know it but his inroads with them were largely down to an accident of birth on his behalf. Simply put, the Choctaw had never seen anything like Cyrus Bingley before. Despite his best efforts, his genteel manner could not disguise the tough farming stock from which he came. Thickset – just like his father – with a barrel chest and short, hairy forearms, he didn’t look like your typical man of God. His clothes were those of the frontiersman, not the bible-basher. A blue check shirt and brown, corded trousers were his typical attire. Many whites who saw him took him for a passing logger. His appearance was topped off by a bald dome surrounded by a half moon mass of wild red hair that flicked across his scalp like flames licking at a log. The Choctaw, never having seen a bald man before, never mind one whose whole head seemed to be ablaze, called him Wisakchi Humma4. Intrigued enough by his appearance and his odd behaviour they let him stay. Blessed are the ways of the Lord.

____________

[1] Choctaw for ‘hurry’

[2] Choctaw for the crane bird

[3] Choctaw for ‘broken arm’

[4] Weather Warrior  i.e. a warrior who predicts the weather

[5] walnut and meat dish

[6] Wolf

[7] The Walker

[8] Cotton

[9] Mishawaka – one raised in abundance

[10] Onalaska – To arrive wet. Thomas Nolan was given the name by Mishawaka on their first meeting, when the indian fished Nolan half drowned from the Tallahacthie River

[11] Wisakchi Humma – Red Top

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About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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