When you’re a negro living in Elbert County, Georgia, it ain’t never a good thing to see the local sheriff walkin’ up to your cabin porch, especially not when the pits of his uniform is tight and sweaty. At least, I’m old. The law don’t mess as much with negros’ old as me.
“Are you the man,” asked the Sheriff, “who told them railroad track-layers not to dig along the line of trees in that field on the other side of that ridge?”
“Yessir,” I said, “I done told ’em that.”
“Is it because of what they found in the ground?”
“Maybe. Don’t rightly know what they found in the ground.”
“Don’t get smart with me, now. They found skeletons. Six of them. Lined up in a fine row.”
“Yessir, I worried they might find those.”
“What do you know about them?”
“I know some. Tell me, were they necks broke or do they gots holes in they heads?”
“County Coroner’s up there right now trying to figure out their cause of death.” The Sheriff stepped up onto the porch, walked to me and used his heavy foot on the front stub of my rockin’ chair to tilt me toward his lowered glare. “He’s good too – specializes in foul play. Tell me now, were you the cause of their deaths? Did you murder them folk?”
“Me?” I couldn’t help but let loose a chuckle. “Hell no. Dem bones was buried in that ground goin’ on more ‘an fifty years before I’s born.”
“And, how old are you?”
“Goin’ on ’round abouts eight-two years, sir.”
“It’s 1912 – and you’re eighty-two, so you’re saying they were buried fifty years before that even?” The Sheriff did the math on his fingers. “That would make their deaths around 1780, or so. Is that right?”
“Sound about right. Maybe a year or two earlier.”
“How’d you know they were there?”
“Gramps told me – long time ago.”
“Did he kill them?”
“Did he see who did?”
“I reckon he saw some of it.”
“Did he tell you who did kill them?”
“Who? Who killed them?”
The Sheriff took his foot off my rocker and I swayed back and forth with a smile. He stared at me, a confused gaze on his face, he asked, “Is that English you’re speaking?”
“No, sir. Cherokee.”
“You know, them red folks who used to live around these parts. Your people chase ’em away, as they told it – on ‘a trail of tears’ – about the time I took to walking.”
“I know who the Cherokee are. Are you trying to tell me indians killed them folk?”
“No, sir, I told you Wahatche killed them – she was – something else.”
“She? Alright, who was Wahatche?”
I motioned him toward the other rockin’ chair. He sat. I offered him some lemonade from the pitcher beside me and he took it. I thought a second about how Gramps told me the story was a secret an’ how I shouldn’t go ’round talkin’ ’bout it, but I don’t see how it much matters anymore. All them folks’ been dead a long spell. For sure, most they kids been dead a spell too. I cleared the rattle from my throat and I began the story as it was told me.
The timbers of her long-gone cabin, which stood just on the other side of my ridge, were as rough hewn as was she. She was an imposing women, as tall as she was ugly. Six foot, some said. Her hair was as fiery-red as her temper; her face pitted by smallpox scars. Her eyes sat as cross as her attitude toward those that crossed her. Exacting vengeance against any that brung harm to friends and family was her passion, though she had no reservations browbeatin’ and hen pecking her husband, herself. No, there weren’t no doubt about who weared the pants in that family. Somehow her husband managed to get a mess of children out of her, and he couldn’t have found a better frontierswoman; strong, knew her plants and was a deadly shot to any squirrels or opossums foolish enough to come within a mile of their home. The red men, even their fiercest warriors, knew to give that cabin a wide berth. The Indians called her Wahatche, which means War Woman, but her Christian name was Nancy Hart.
A fearless heart and hate is a dangerous combination. And, what did she hate most of all? What pitious creature earned her most vehement fury? Tory-Redcoats. Some said she badgered the king’s soldiers ’cause she couldn’t get to the king, himself. Here and there, she’d put on the uniform of a common soldier and pretend to be a man – that’ll tell you something ’bout how much beauty had forsook her. She would sneak into their camps, gather all types of information and deliver it to her husband – a lieutenant in the Georgia militia. There were rumors she actually fought with the men in the Battle of Kettle Creek against the Loyalist militia, but ain’t no one can prove that. All I can trust is what Gramps told me and what he said was this. One day, he was diggin’ up wild onions nearby when an American soldier, escaped from capture, stumbled up to her door for help. The soldier was in a panic, convinced his captors were in fast pursuit. She gave him water, a loaf of bread, directions to where her husband’s militia had set camp outside the nearest village and sent him quick on his way. He had barely limped around the bend in the road when a patrol of redcoats marched into view. Gramps was far enough off, but swore he actually saw a slight smile come to her face. She grabbed a basket of cracked corn and made busy tossing it to her three prized turkeys whom she’d, as a staunch patriot, named Liberty, Justice and Independence.
“We are looking for a traitor and a spy who came this way,” said one of the soldiers. “Is he here?”
“I ain’t seen nothing from nobody ’round here for days,” she snapped.
A sound came from inside the cabin.
“Nobody around, you say? Who’s in there?”
“My children only.”
“Mind if we look for ourselves?”
“I told you, we ain’t seen nobody?”
“So many of you colonists are cool liars and I find you cooler than most.”
A musket shot cracked from the group of soldiers and a shower of turkey feathers fluttered through the afternoon air. Two dirty boys and a girl with braids came running to the doorway. “Mama?” they cried. Several of the soldiers trained their muskets on the youngsters.
“Git inside, children.”
“Our turkey!” the youngest boy cried.
“Mind me, now! Git inside!”
She walked slowly to her dead turkey and lazily flung the basket of corn to the ground beside it. “You killed my turkey.”
“We’re coming in to do some searching and some questioning,” laughed the soldier with the smoking musket. “While we search and talk, I figured you might as well cook us some dinner. Fugitive hunting is hard work. I’m famished.”
She picked up the dead bird by its feet and started feverishly plucking away its feathers. “Make up the fire girls!” she called before mumbling under her breath, “Time to feed these boys some of my Justice.”
One by one, the six soldiers entered the cabin. It had but one room and a simple half-loft above. It didn’t take long to figure no fugitive was there, so they hurried into removing their pouches and sacks and made themselves comfortable at the rough wooden table. They stacked their guns and equipment in the corner beside the fireplace and demanded something to drink.
“You like port, fellas?!” Nancy asked, slammin’ two bottles onto the table.
Their laughter, howls and fist-pounds on the table answered her question. They made quick work of the first bottle, and when they moved onto the second, she deposited a third in their midsts.
“I think we have a Loyalist in this cross eyed Lass,” bellowed one. “Tell me, Red, where do your loyalties lie?”
“My loyalty begins and ends with liberty.”
“Oh yes, that which the King provides, you mean.”
“Ain’t no one but God providing it – and ain’t no one, even fat old King George, that’s gonna take it,” she belched for punctuation.
They sat quiet for a moment before breaking into laughter. The rich sweetness of the wine and scent of roasting turkey lulled them men into an easy mood. They didn’t care none when Nancy sent her daughter to fetch some water from the spring, nor did they notice when Nancy started, here and there, sliding their muskets through a hole in the wall to her daughter outside. She’d passed three of ’em outside before anyone noticed what she was doing. When he lunged forward to stop her, she put lead through his head. Another rose to attack and she butted him in the head with his own musket before taking up another, still loaded, one. “My eyes may be crossed fellas, but it don’t hurt my marksmanship!”
She had ’em sitting outfront in the mud and turkey feathers when her husband’s militia showed up. The fugitive soldier had heard the gunshot which took her turkey and backtracked enough to see them Redcoats going into the cabin. He ran faster ‘an ever to that camp an’ told ’em all to git over there. Them Georgia boys showered Nancy with guffaws when they seen what she done. Gramps done danced circles around them redcoats as the sun began to set and was privy to the juicy debate ’bout what to do with the remaining Redcoats. Lieutenant Hart and the militia said because they was soldiers in uniform they had to be shot, but Mrs. Hart said shootin’ was too good for ’em and argued for their hanging. Mr. and Mrs. Hart battled so long about it, Gramps got called home for supper and never knew whose strength held out in that debate. He asked about it over the next few days, but anyone who knew told him nothin’, and that he should forget the dirty business ever happened. It was to stay a secret – and until now, it has.
“Here comes the coroner, now,” the Sheriff pointed as he rose from the rocking chair. The coroner walked off the road and across the grass to the porch. “What did you find?”
“All the victims are men, but I’d say they been there a least a hundred years.”
“How about their causes of death? Could you figure on that?”
“Yes, Sheriff. One died from a gunshot wound to the face. The others had broken necks common to those found in a hanging.”
The Sheriff shot a glance at me and finished his lemonade.
“Yes, sir,” I said with a smile, “Wahatche.”