"Cherokee Reel," Chapter One --
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Chapter One — Lisa
“Who am I, Ezra?” Lisa Waters preens atop a second-story stairs and views a color riot of dancing couples.
“You’re the social queen of Fort Smith, Arkansas. I think maybe the entire state?” The anointed’s husband slips a hand around his spouse’s corseted waist and guides the twenty-six-year-old onto the stairway.
At the base of the steps, in an immense ground floor parlor, adorned and posturing dancers prance and promenade.
“Look. Everyone important dances to my Cherokee Reel.” The hostess claps both hands with satisfaction.
Hoop dresses spin around women who follow the leads of prominent Native American, mixed-race, and Anglo men.
Formal but politically uneasy guests crowd the floor and step with partners to the rhythm of the music.
The rising star of an aggressive legal, political and financial western center, Ezra Waters, grins at his partner. “When you invited these people, I thought many would decline.”
“Why? They enjoy a Cherokee Reel.” The hostess pretends a pout.
“No, this band plays a plantation cake walk. Listen. Do you think our musicians mock their ex-overseers?”
Wife strokes her man’s arm, “Dance now, Husband. Talk politics when there’s no music.”
Ezra nods. “I hear you. Tonight, I’ll limit my talk to tea parties or female friendly gossip.”
Lisa pats his hand. “Only this evening, my Dear. I love you for saving my party. You found waiters and performers.”
“Hired is a better word. The fiddler is Judge Steel’s blacksmith.” The attorney points discretely. “His name is Moss. He recruited the others.” The husband kisses his wife’s forehead. “Never forget your father freed me. He disliked the idea of owning a man. So do you.”
“Or woman.” Lisa scans the dancers. “Most of these people own slaves. Even John Ross. I’m glad the President accepted this invitation despite my liberated beliefs.” She slips an arm around her husband’s waist. “I hope he comes with his new wife. I so want to meet her.”
Music inspires an animated gown collection that spins, swirls and sways. With hand fans, embroidered bonnets and flushed faces, female guests parade with partners in a square. At the corner turns each male, on the inside, displays individual style, from flourish to foolery.
A violinist, guitar strummer and spoon rhythm man, talented freedmen hired for the festivity, surround a pianist and create the reel.
Fort Smith and Gibson army officers, rich Arkansas River shippers, and prosperous rice and cotton plantation owners socialize, hosted by the town’s burgeoning legal establishment.
Treaty Party representatives lift knees high as they corner in the cakewalk. Wealthy New Arrivals compete in the gateway to the west’s society to display grace and precision.
As oil and vinegar in a glass jar, supporters of these feuding political positions do not mix. They cluster on each square’s side with others of similar affiliation.
Party goers sip raspberry brandy, watch the Tsalagi (ᏣᎳᎩ, Cherokee) adaption of the traditional plantation cake walk square, and support each other’s politics.
Most whisper condemnation and eye those with opposing points of view.
A few budding temperance advocates refuse the hired freedman waiters, who present glasses on silver trays. They raise noses at those who enjoy and sip brandy.
Judge Bennet Steel, the preeminent adjudicator in charge of Arkansas federal courts and Ezra’s mentor, with his gracious full-blood Choctaw wife, entertains a non-dancing clutch in one corner of the room.
The hosting couple stars of the festivities descend the stairway to join their guests. “After President Ross lost Quatie on the trail that winter, I am surprised he remarried.” Ezra notices a flurry of movement at the front entrance.
Lisa accepts a glass of intemperance. “I don’t see anybody here who walked the northern route.”
“Unfortunate that Ella isn’t attending,” Husband slips his hand around his wife’s waist and guides her toward arrivals.
“My sister’s celebrity might have enlivened this party. People flock to meet the Cherokee Rose. But I’m worried. I haven’t heard from her in months.” Lisa swings her gown’s hoops forward. “Ross’s first spouse sounds the same as my sister. They say Quatie gave her winter blankets to a sick child.”
“Then she died of pneumonia.” Ezra finishes the thought as he follows his wife toward the entrance.
As the hosts pass, party guests turn and stare at an arriving couple.
The attorney extends a hand. “President Ross. Welcome to this home and to Fort Smith.”
“And to the United States of America. You’re far from Dahlequah, Mr. Waters.” The dignitary removes a black top hat. “My last correspondence from Justice Steel tells me you are his indispensable man. And my business contacts say you’ve both done commerce on the river successfully.”
“Thank you, Sir. The judge signed my free papers in Georgia when I was young and educated me in the law. I consider him my father and I’m pleased he speaks well of me.” Ezra shakes the hand of the leader of the eastern Cherokees and a political hero of new immigrants to the territory. “As for your nation’s shipping needs, I admit to many contacts on the Arkansas. May I introduce my wife, Lisa?”
Ross sweeps his hat toward his companion. “And this southern belle is my bride, Mary Stapler.”
Attired in an ornate fashionable gown, a young and striking woman clings to her thirty-seven-year-old famous husband. She smiles at the hostess, one of the few in the room near her age. “I am so pleased to meet the social queen of Fort Smith. John, why don’t you and Mr. Waters work this political crowd as you always do? She and I must become friends.”
Lisa nods agreement.
Ezra guides the President to an initial group of well-wishers who surge to greet their champion.
“Your home is scrumptious and perfect for entertaining.” The first lady squeezes her white-gloved hands together with pleasure. “It’s metropolitan, social and sophisticated.”
The hostess beams satisfaction.
Mary leans closer. “I cannot tolerate Dahlequah. It’s such a territorial place. John built me what he calls Ross Cottage in Park Hill. It’s the only home livable in miles.”
“My friends say your bungalow is a two-story house with a fine view and a mile of fenced driveway.” Lisa smiles at the younger woman. “I understand it’s nicer than residences in this town.”
“The President loves to entertain his people. I relate, but we were married in a more metropolitan Philadelphia. Not of snooty society, however. I’m a proper Quaker raised by family in Brandywine.”
The hostess taps her foot with the music as she listens.
“My father’s beliefs allowed no slave workers in our home. I hear your waiters and musicians are hired freedmen?”
“Yes, my husband agrees with your family. Plus, he was born a slave and rejects the condition.”
“With my childhood’s religious training, I appreciate that point of view, but I am aware this territory demands an attitude readjustment.”
“We Presbyterians enjoy less discipline than your Society of Friends. Ezra and I came west from Georgia with the Cherokee removal.” Lisa winks at her guest. “Adjustment is a mild word for a forced march. This is his home, and he is content.”
“Speaking of satisfied spouses, who in that tall man in uniform with my husband?”
“That’s Colonel Mathew Arbuckle, Commandant of Fort Gibson.”
Both women watch the lanky officer greeting President Ross.
Lisa gossips into a handkerchief. “Ezra provides legal service to the post. He says the army will replace the commander.”
Mary enjoys the tidbit and points a fan at a guest whose icy stare follows John’s progress through the room. “And that shorter stocky fellow, I don’t believe he supports my husband?”
“That’s Standhope Watie, an old settler and plantation owner and a New Echota signee.” Lisa’s voice lowers. “He and your spouse lead different sides of this political talk. But they shook hands in Washington after signing that treaty.”
“No handshakes tonight.” Mrs. Ross watches the opposition’s head nod to several followers.
The dissentions’ leader presses a path to the door without acknowledging his opponent’s presence.
A freedman waiter balances a silver tray laden with refreshments and interrupts, “Excuse me. Someone wishes to speak with Madam at the back entrance.”
“At the rear?”
The attendant leans close and whispers into Lisa’s ear, “A woman. Says she’s your sister, but we believe she smells your brandy. The lady’s drunk and filthy.”
“Oh no!” Lisa turns to Mrs. Ross. “Mary, there’s a detail in the kitchen I must handle. Please excuse me. Let me introduce the charming wife of Judge Steel before I go.”
“Yes! Please do. I hear she is a full blood Choctaw. How interesting!”
Moments later, the freedman waiter ushers his employer to the rear door of the home. “We insisted this person wait outside. Because of the smell.”
Lisa steps into the back yard and lifts the hem of her hoop gown above the soil.
With shoulders propped against the house’s wall and legs spread around a liquor bottle, a woman slumps on the dirt. Her hair hangs in strings from a worn woolen hat and her clothing stinks of alcohol and trail dust.
“Ella!” Lisa’s voice breaks. “You’re drunk!”
“Not near enough, little sister.” The sibling waves an empty H and H jug in the air. “Got any whiskey?”
The younger drops to both knees. “Oh no! You can’t handle liquor? Where’s Dideyohvsgi (ᏗᏕᏲᎲᏍᎩ, Di-de-yo-huh-ss-gi, Teacher?)”
“The old shaman died in Georgia, as I should have.” Ella’s giggle bubbles across alcoholic lips. “You know what he said before he passed?”
“How can I help you?” Lisa grasps her sister’s hands.
The woman slobbers and laughs. “That’s funny! No, nothing like that. My hero stuck an eagle feather in my hair and asked me who I am. I told him the Cherokee Rose. He made me promise to never forsake the eastern mountains. Then the old man died.” She grins and drools at the corner of the mouth. “The next morning, I forsook.”
Ella passes into a drunken stupor.
Freedman musicians, on break, step from the house.
The fiddler freezes as he spies his employer’s wife. “Mrs. Waters, can I help?”
“Yes. Please. This is my sister.”
“Let’s take her inside and put her in bed.”
“Not in this condition,” younger sibling fusses. “She’s drunk and hasn’t had a bath in weeks. We can’t let the guests see.”
The big musician slips muscular arms underneath the limp form and lifts, “What’s her name, Mrs. Waters?”
His employer blocks the rear entrance. “Ella. You may not believe this, but she is not a lush. Her detachment on the northern trail called her Cherokee Rose for many good deeds.”
“I’ll take her where it’s warmer.” Moss moves toward the back door.
“No. Somebody will see. Wait while I get money. Rent a room somewhere in town and watch over her until the party ends.”
“I can’t go. Mr. Waters pays me to play the fiddle for the guests.”
“I am your employer. Please carry her.” Lisa points at a rear property stable. “You’ll find a grain storage pit with door covers. No one will know she’s there.”
“After the company clears, should I move her to a bedroom?”
“No, Mary Ross stays tonight while the President leaves on a political junket. I don’t want the first lady disturbed.” Lisa follows the fiddler and his burden to the stable. “After you finish playing, take her to a hotel. I will pay well.”
“No need. Your husband provides work and I owe the man plenty.”
The drunk woman in the fiddler’s arms, as he carries her weight toward the grain storage, focuses on her sister’s party finery. “And who do you pretend you are?”
Lisa glares at her sister.
The older sibling giggles. “Who am I, Dideyohvsgi asked? Like you, the daughter of a slave and a Tsalagi.” Ella and the fiddler disappear into the shed.
Lisa turns to the house. “True, Big Sister, but I’m pretending to be a white debutante.”
The following morning, the sun colors the night’s atmosphere gray.
Wife sleeps with husband in a second level bedroom on the opposite outskirts of Fort Smith from the town’s new military fortification.
Their property includes a stable, and a rose garden enclosed by an expansive picket fence. Beyond the house, the Arkansas River curves and cuddles the land within an arc.
Lisa wakens and shakes Ezra’s shoulder. “I think a bird broke the window.”
She slips from bed and into a robe. As Ezra stirs, the wife pads to the room’s viewpoint.
Below, Moss hurls a second stone, which smacks the pane. She recoils. “Your fiddler’s chunking rocks.”
Lisa opens the upstairs frame and leans out into the darkness.
“Something awful happened!” A rock clenched by fingers pauses.
“Shh. You’ll wake the guests. Come to the back door.”
Moments later, the couple sits at a kitchen’s table as the fiddler shakes with nerves and apprehension as he explains. “She’s dead.”
Lisa’s voice cracks. “Who do you mean?”
“She bathed and went to bed. I was outside the rooming house, but your sister slipped past me to Miss Harley’s. Only place that has liquor so late.”
“Yes, Lisa.” Ezra grasps her fingers. “It’s a brothel.”
“She wanted a drink.” Moss looks at the two. “I couldn’t stop her once she got there, Mr. Waters. Nothing I could do.”
“Tough men there.” Husband clasps his wife’s hands between palms. “Freedmen can’t go into that establishment. They might have hung you.”
“But I peeked in a window.” The fiddler’s eyes tear and his lips tremble. “A man whipped your sister with a pistol.”
“Oh!” Lisa feints. Her forehead impacts the table.
“Until she died, Mr. Waters.”
The spouse assists his wife. “Moss, please wait while I get her to our room and waken someone to stay with her. Then, take me to Miss Harley’s.”
Later, morning daylight floods the bedroom as Lisa’s eyelids flutter open. She focuses.
At the end of the bed, Mrs. Ross, in mourning attire, sits.
“Mary, my husband?”
Her companion leans forward and clutches the older woman’s hands. “So sorry to hear of your sister. Ezra said you knew. They say she’s dead. He went there to supervise a murder investigation.”
Lisa bursts into grief tears.
The younger woman gathers her hostess friend into her arms. “Cry. Let the hurt out.”
“She suffered on the trek here,” a mourning heart blubbers. “She and an old shaman returned to Georgia. Too extreme for anyone. I should have gone with her.”
Mrs. Ross comforts, “That didn’t kill her. Ezra said a freedman saw it. The murderer pistol whipped your sister when she refused his advances.”
“She was not a prostitute!” Lisa’s spine shudders. “She had to have liquor. That pulled her inside.”
“The witness mentioned that the killer was prosperous, dressed as a planter, with one of those new Patterson Colt revolving pistols.” Mrs. Ross’s eyes open wide, and immaturity surfaces. “He could have attended your party.” She covers her mouth.
“Did Moss know him?”
“Said no, but would if he ever saw the man again.” Mary Stapler nods affirmative. “He got a good look.”
Lisa grasps her friend’s hand. “I didn't have the strength to do things my sister accomplished. But she died a helpless acholic. I want to keep this mess private.”
“Yes. Ezra understands. He’s an attorney and a businessman. No need for a scandal that damages our lives. Can you imagine what people would whisper if they knew Ezra’s sister-in-law passed while drunk in a bawdy house? I will speak to my husband. We must conceal this.”
“I understand,” Mary grips her friend’s hands. “At your party, you called it attitude adjustment.”
“You and Moss know of this. The others work with Ezra, and he can control them. So does the fiddler. Please, promise to not talk of this embarrassment.”
“If that is your wish, Lisa?”
“It is. Don’t even tell your husband.”
“Do you want your sister’s murderer punished?” Mrs. Ross raises her eyebrows.
“Ezra’s a lawyer. I understand trials and couldn’t live with the publicity. They called my sister a hero. A trial would destroy her legacy.”
“John left with supporters after your party last night. He doesn’t know.” The president’s wife smiles.
Lisa and Mary Stapler hug each other.
“My lips seal forever, unless you release me from this oath.” The most prominent lady of the Cherokee nation cements a lifelong friendship.