Folk Tale
Harold Raley
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The Prodigal

“Nathaniel, son, come back!” were the last words I ever heard my father say. They still echo in my memory as they echoed in the deep forests and ravines that surrounded the Tennessee town of Maryville, built on the site of our ancestral Cherokee village. I recall clearly how he stood by our tent, waving and repeating his plea until I was out of hearing. I turned only once to wave. Then I rapped my horse smartly with the bridle rein, urging him into a gallop up the mountain slope. The years have softened the discontent I felt at the moment and increased my nostalgia for the old matters of life forever lost in the past.
I could recite by heart the stories and names of my ancestors and the romance of my great great-grandparents Matthew and Agali Stokesbury. True to his promise to Chief Mardok, Great great-grandfather Matthew gathered books and materials and taught the tribe all he knew of the Christian faith, and with it the English tongue. Chief Mardok’s two sons, born to his first wife, were always hostile to my great-great grandfather Matthew Stokesbury and abandoned our village, leaving Agali, though adopted, as his only surviving child. Eight years after my great-great parents were declared married according to tribal custom, Chief Mardok, who felt the burden of years upon him, adopted Matthew as his son and relied increasingly on his counsel.

Other tribesmen privately grumbled that a white man, a unega, was their chief in all but title. But none openly challenged Chief Mardok, who reminded them that all the chiefs who had borne the name for many generations were descendants of Mardok’s son, the first unega chief. Thus it was that my great-great grandfather acted as a sub-chief during Mardok’s final years. Before he died in the winter of 1694-95, “old and full of years,” as Matthew recited from the Bible in his funeral eulogy, none protested when he declared that Matthew would be the next Chief. But he added the stipulation that from now on his title must also be his name. Thus after many generations, another Welshman, bearing the same name as the legendary first Mardok, was again chief of the Cherokee.
But if unega was a revered word in old Cherokee legend, it became a curse when between 1740 and 1750 lawless whites began crossing the mountains to raid, plunder, and murder. It was, I am sure, a personal burden for my great-grandfather, also named Nathaniel. He was the fairest of his siblings. His green eyes told not only of his paternal ancestry but perhaps reflected his grandmother’s ancient European lineage as well, if the old legends could be believed. He protested when children began calling him unega (“whitey”) but soon it became his tribal nickname, used alike by children and grownups, who found his English name hard to pronounce. His siblings Mary and Hamilton had no noticeable European features but greatly resembled instead the other Cherokee children. From the first he perceived that he was different and the perception convinced him that he would never be taken for a true Cherokee, chiefly perhaps because he did not think of himself as such. He devoured all the books he could come by, but chiefly those about travel and geography. I inherited his bookish trait and read everything I could lay hands on, included a few that remained from his time.
It was a mystery to me why my Grandfather never left the village to explore the world beyond the mountains. He died before I could ask him, and the family would give me no reasonable explanations. On the contrary, they responded angrily when I asked, which caused me to wonder if some unhappy family secret was behind the mystery. All they told me was that no one in their right mind would leave their homeland to venture out into the strange and hostile white world. Perhaps they were right, but the white world was absorbing or annihilating everything in its path. Soon there would be no place of safety left for those who wanted no part of it.
With one notable exception, most of my Cherokee people had little to do with the war of independence from England. The exception was my father Nathaniel who served as a scout for the rebel forces at the battle of King’s Mountain. He was immediately hailed for his accurate information about the movement of the British forces. But as soon as the battle was over, he was dismissed with indifference and no small amount of scorn. He returned to Maryville, as our village was called by that time, an embittered man who never again wanted anything to do with whites, British or American.
After the war with England and the news that the American colonists had formed their own nation, the over-mountain raids increased and the whites began to settle and intermingle with our Cherokee people. This and the susceptibility of the Cherokees to the alcohol and diseases they brought soon reduced the pureblood Cherokees to a small minority. In my own case I am certain that my blood is more white than Cherokee, even though I could not document the legitimacy of my ancestral line. To tell the unhappy truth, many of the Cherokee women were violated and the men killed or destroyed by alcohol and disease. Although my eyes are blue and my beard almost as thick as those of white men, I have black Cherokee hair and skin a shade darker than most full-blood whites. Our tribal history was quickly disappearing; only a few elderly Cherokees still remembered the old language, and the young, myself included, chose to speak only English.
My father’s desperate pleas for me to return grew fainter, but I did not pause. I had my life to live and he had his to finish. In spirit I had separated from the family long before the day I rode away on the dead Frenchman’s pony, and unlike my Grandfather, I meant to make the break, not to think uselessly about it until my life was too far spent. My father spoke often of the workings of Providence. I paid little heed to his teachings and had my doubts about a God I could not see and who responded with silence to the prayers father taught us. As for the old Cherokee teachings that I remembered, I dismissed them as superstitions and myths.
Likewise, I disbelieved the stories about the legendary Madok. To me they were also the fanciful product of ignorance, like others that some of the old people still told us around hearth and campfire. Yet I did not object to the convenient thought that God ordained the death of the Frenchman Trémont in our village, who by his dying words made it clear that my father was to inherit the mare and her colt was to be mine.
This seems to be as good a time as any to say that should any of my family chance to read this account of my early life and wanderings, let them do so knowing that it is flawed in irremediable ways. The man I am now only partly continues to be the youth I was when most of these events occurred. It has always been a mystery to me—and another reason why I once had doubts about an all-wise God—why our most life-defining events seem to occur before we have the knowledge and skill to deal effectively with them. In the midst of youth and ignorance, we are obliged to deal the great perplexities of life. Perhaps our ancestral pagan gods still live and take delight in our confusion, tormenting us as children sometimes torture small animals. We claim the love of divine origin, but is that only because we fear to describe the real nature of things? At that time I had no answer to the question, nor have I yet, though my assertions have grown stronger, as they tend to do with old men.
And there is another problem. Many years have passed and while my faith has returned in great strength, I am not sure whether some of my toils and troubles were at all as I recall them. Instead they may consist of invented memories. Truth weakens like a drying stream as it stretches back into the past, and time often betrays memory with stronger fancies. With much time and much altering, perhaps like the Madok legends, stories sprout branches, roots, and fruits that were not part of the original, but now seem truer than what was real at the earlier and actual time. I claim no peculiarity for myself in these misgivings, for I see my friends and acquaintances with very different histories experiencing similar lapses, if indeed they can be called that.
But before I become hopelessly bogged down in soft-brained sentimentalities, let me return to the tale of my life. After a day’s ride into the mountains, I entered unfamiliar terrain. As yet I had discerned no trace of white settlements, but guessed from what travelers had told me that they lay not far ahead of me. A thrill of fear and excitement gripped me. What would I find there? Danger? Fortune? None of the stories I knew prepared me, and as I learned later, none could have. For I was already past a point of no return and was soon to be subjected to dangers for which my most extravagant daydreams could not have forewarned or prepared me.
An hour before dusk, these and other idle thoughts came to an abrupt end. Suddenly three white men emerged from the trees. Before I could react, one jerked the reins from my hand and two others pulled me from the frightened horse and threw me to the ground. I looked up to see a musket aimed at my head.
“Could be Cherokee or a half-breed from the looks of his hair,” said the tallest of the three. “Shoot him, Jake, or cut his throat and throw the body in the bushes, and bring the horse along. It’s young and looks to be in good condition. We can sell or trade it or maybe keep it for our own use.”
“But Jarvis, do you think that Harry Bradmore would give us money for the boy?” asked the shorter, thin-faced Jake.
“I doubt it. What would he be good for? When they’re mountain bred and scrawny like this one they’re not suitable for regular service or work.”
“But he was riding a horse, and that’s peculiar in itself,” said the stocky, gray-bearded third man. “These mountain Indians don’t have horses. Why don’t you ask him how he came by the animal? There might be more where this one came from. You speak some Cherokee, don’t you, Jarvis?”
“Some, but nowadays most of these mountain Cherokees, pure or mixed, speak some English.”
The tall man started to ask me in butchered Cherokee, but I answered him in English. “A Frenchman, a fur trader on his way west, died in our village four years ago and left me the horse, then a colt. It is mine.”
“Well, what dya know! He does speaks English,” said the gray-beard, shaking his head.
“Yeah, and better than you, Frank,” laughed Jake. “How come you speak such good English, boy? And what’s your name?”
“I learned it from my folks. We’re white. My name is Nathaniel Stokesbury.”
“Big name for such a scrawny kid. But you know, Jarvis, he could be telling the truth. His skin is whiter than any Indian I ever saw, and now that I look at him up close, his eyes are blue and he’s sprouting some beard. Who ever heard tell of a blue-eyed, bearded Indian?”
“Where was you headed when we caught you?” Jarvis asked, prodding me in the side with his boot.
I gave no answer.
“Boy, I asked you where you was heading,” he said angrily, giving me a swift kick in the ribs.
“To Hampton,” I gasped out the name of the only city that popped into my mind. By this time I fairly shook with fear that they would kill me, as the tall one called Jarvis had first threatened.
“And what’s your business there?”
“To apprentice myself for a trade,” I said, unable to think of a better answer. “I cannot live any longer in Cherokee country with the fighting and sickness. I am a white man, as you can see.”
“I’d say you ain’t no kind of a man yet,” Jake laughed. “Hell, you ain’t nobody, are you boy?”
I did not answer him.
“And mayhap never will be after we finish with you,” Jake threatened.
“Tie him up,” Jarvis ordered, “and tight so he don’t run away while we’re deciding what to do with him. Bradmore might take him off our hands at the Cumberland Camp. It’s worth a try. And keep your eyes open, in case there are more of them out in the bush.”
Jake tied my hands and feet with buckskin thongs. They talked out of my hearing for a while as my dread built up into near panic. Then gray-bearded Frank came back, untied my ankles, and ordered me to my feet. “You’ll walk tied behind the horse, and you better hope he’s broke good so that he don’t spook. If he does and runs away, he’ll drag you to your death over these rocks or leave you so battered that we’ll have to do it for him.”
“Why can’t I ride my horse? You could tie him to your mount.”
“You’ll walk because that’s what Jarvis says, and what he says goes. Don’t cross him, boy. If he says jump, you better make like a jackrabbit.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“You’ll know when we get there. Now no more questions, because you’ll get no more answers.”
I walked for hours until the mounted whites camped for the night, chewing on dried venison and sharing water from a buckskin bag. Once the bearded man called Frank got up to offer me a cut of meat and a drink, but Jarvis stopped him.
“Frank, give him a drink but don’t go wasting vittles on the boy. We’re running short. He’ll last till we get to the Cumberland Camp tomorrow or the next day, but if he drops aforehand, the forest varmints can feast on him.”
“Why drag the kid along?” Jake said, “He’s more trouble than he’ll ever be profit to us. But I’ve been thinking about that horse and I sure could put it to good use.”
“You leave horse and kid to me and stay a distance away if you know the good of it for you,” Jarvis answered in a menacing tone. “I’m head man here and working out the profit is my business. And don’t you forget it.”
“I was just making talk, Jarvis,” Jake whimpered.
We reached the Cumberland Camp around the middle of the third day. I was hungry, thirsty, and scratched but not really the worse for wear. In happier conditions I had walked much farther in the mountains. Frank tied my hands around a birch tree and served himself a sizeable piece of venison, grinning at me as he chewed but offering me nothing. Meanwhile Jarvis negotiated with two men in a large white tent. The tantalizing vapors tortured me with images of food and water.
Later Jarvis told me that I was to be hauled in an ox cart to a city named Williamsburg where I would appear before a magistrate to answer to a criminal charge.
“What crime? I have committed no crime.”
“Oh, but you have, boy. What about the horse you stole from me? There it is, plain as day.”
“But, sir, the horse is mine!”
“I have two witnesses that will swear it’s mine. Can you prove them wrong? You got documents proving ownership of the animal?”
It happened as Jarvis said it would. After two and half days of bouncing overland in an ox cart and four more locked in a Williamsburg jail, a black-robed Williamsburg magistrate declared me guilty—of stealing my own horse—and sentenced me to a public whipping and six months of incarceration.
“You got off light, boy,” a constable whispered in my ear. “Maybe because you’re young and mostly white, so they tell me. You could have received a hanging sentence.”
At that moment a tall, corpulent man rose in the attending public and asked to address the magistrate.
“Sir, I shall hear you only if it pertains to the matter with which we are presently occupied.”
“It does indeed pertain to the matter at hand, your honor. With respect, I am Harry Bradmore, son of John Bradmore, of the Hampton Bradmores. I come in representation of my father who regrets that ill health prevents him from appearing in person before you.”
“The esteemed Mr. John Bradmore is favorably known to this court, and as his son and representative, you are received cordially in his name. Please explain, sir, the business that brings you before us.”
“Your honor, if it please the court, on behalf of my father I am instructed to pay all fines and public expenses incurred in the arrest, incarceration, trial, and conviction of the felon Nathaniel Stokesbury yonder seated and request in consequence that he be turned over to my father’s estate in indentured servitude for a period of time that this court in its wisdom will see fit to set. My father has authorized me to declare on his honor as a gentleman that the fellow shall be treated humanely and shall do honest labor to compensate for the crime committed, all the while obeying the principles and rules of Christian behavior.”
“The court so rules, taking into account the disposition of Mr. John Bradmore and stipulating the following conditions. Let the court records show that the prisoner is hereby sentenced for a period not less or more than five years to the service and supervision of Mr. John Bradmore or his agents subsequent to payment of fines and costs, as Mr. Harry Bradmore has stated. The prior sentence is accordingly set aside, subject to re-imposition of the same or to graver punishment should this court become cognizant of further unlawful acts by this person.”
The following months now appear to contract to a much shorter time. Yet for nearly a full year I labored with a baker’s dozen of indentured Irish and Scottish servants on the Hampton plantations belonging first to the elder Bradmore and, upon his death several months later, passing by inheritance to his son Harry Bradmore.
An incident during my second year of servitude that set the course of my life on a new and unexpected pathway. As son and heir to the Bradmore estate and fortune, Harry Bradmore set about ambitiously to reorganize his plantations and servants. Having proved myself to be an adept worker, I was released from my dull task as herdsman in the back pastures and plantations near Hampton to join an experienced cadre on a vast plantation near Williamsburg where Bradmore himself had resettled his family in an opulent residence. There he named me apprentice to his blacksmith Hiram Hardin, a squint-eyed, emaciated man who drank rum constantly and paid little attention to me."