McKenzie ... a short story : LUSENET : FRL friends : One Thread


This is told for The Bears, not lost to us forever, but waiting to return ...

The rain was mixed with ice again. McKenzie eased his tired horse to a halt in a small grove of pines. He decided to quit before the gloom turned to full dark. He dismounted and started pulling his gear off of his horse.

The horse jerked his head toward the middle of the grove. McKenzie drew his gun silently, a habit he was hardly aware of now. The horse continued to gaze, ears pricked, into the shadows. McKenzie crept forward, thankful for sodden pine needles to muffle the sound of his boots.

He could barely make out small shapes on the ground ahead of him. He thought he was looking at bundles of rags arranged in a rough circle. Nothing seemed to be moving. He continued slowly until he stood over the circle of bundles.

The bundles were dead people. McKenzie gently moved one with his foot. The body was stiff. They had been dead at least a day, by his estimation. He leaned over each body in turn and studied the faces. One of the dead was an old man. Two were old women, and one looked like a young girl. All of them had the deeply hollowed cheeks that marked starvation.

It looked like the little group had tried to build a fire with no luck. A small bundle of half-charred twigs lay near the old man's withered hand. McKenzie could find no hint of food or cooking equipment. They must have fallen here, too weak to continue, and frozen to death.

McKenzie was too tired to be shocked. These people were Cherokee, driven out of the east on foot in the dead of winter. He had found hundreds of hastily covered graves scattered along creeks and rivers. As the winter grew colder, the graves had become simple piles of rocks covering the dead as they lay on the ground. Any animal could pry the rocks away and ... McKenzie shook his head. He could not bury these people in the ground, but he could try to cover them with logs at least.

The sun was setting. He decided to move them together and cover them with brush for the night. He would cover them more carefully in the morning. He gently picked up the old women and placed them on either side of the old man. He nestled the young girl next to one of the women.

McKenzie had been avoiding the smallest bundle. It had to be a small Cherokee child, and he dreaded touching it. He slowly lifted the little pile of rags and nearly dropped it in shock.

The bundle moved! A thin mewling rose from somewhere under the cloth. A second weak cry joined the first. Two little Cherokee babies struggled feebly in McKenzie's hands. He almost put them back on the ground. He was a soldier, a soldier absent without leave at that, and not a wet nurse.

A tiny fist emerged from the rags. McKenzie would never be able to say why, but the little fist made his decision for him. He pulled the little ones to his chest and wrapped his poncho around them.


Two days later McKenzie was out of rations. He had eaten almost nothing in order to save as much as he could for the babies. Cornmeal mush mixed with grease had made the little ones sick. They threw up constantly. What little food they were able to keep down re-emerged in foul diarrhea. McKenzie's clothes, his blanket, and his saddle were stiff with the constant outpourings. The food had given them just enough energy to complain in a constant high-pitched keening. McKenzie thought he would go mad.

One of the babies was a boy child who looked to be around a year and half old. The other was a girl just about half that age. He called them brother and sister, but he knew there was no way to know for sure. All of their people were dead, and he had found nothing in the group's meager clothing to indicate who they were or which clan they belonged to. McKenzie had a hazy notion that the government might have a place for these orphans, but he had no idea how to find it.

He rigged a sling to keep both of them safely snuggled to his chest so he could use both hands to ride and keep his gun close at hand. He gritted his teeth against the smell and looked for signs of human habitation. It was still a sparsely settled country, and he was afraid to leave the banks of the river to strike inland. He might miss a farm by a few hundred yards and wander for days. He knew that rivers eventually led to people, so he and his miserable burden plodded slowly onward.

On the third day he smelled wood smoke. He was disappointed to find it came from a rough camp instead of a house, but he was glad to see signs of people.

The people he found were decidedly not glad to see a filthy soldier with an armload of Indian trash. He was advised to move on at gunpoint. McKenzie held his ground, pleading with them quietly to give them something to eat. He finally got half a pound of moldy cornmeal and a stern warning to get miles away before stopping to eat it.

He thought the babies were too quiet when he finally found a place to make camp. It was starting to snow, and he rushed to build a fire before they could get too cold. The cornmeal looked to have maggots in it. McKenzie thought savagely that at least they would have some meat in the gruel.

Brother and Sister waited listlessly. McKenzie blew carefully on the gruel and dipped his grubby finger into it. He touched his finger to Brother's mouth, teasing him to open his lips and accept the food. Brother locked eyes with him gravely. McKenzie spoke softly to him, begging him to eat. The little boy gave a sigh and allowed the gruel to be placed in his mouth.

McKenzie repeated the process with Sister. She in turn locked eyes with him. Then she gave him the ghost of a smile. He held his breath and smiled back. She accepted the food.

Later that day McKenzie killed a deer, the first he had seen in weeks. He cooked the blood and brains and fed it to the babies. He filled his own belly with meat. They rested well that night, snuggled together in McKenzie's blanket. He had stopped noticing the smell and noticed instead how the tiny hands gripped his shirt even in sleep.


A week later they rode into the military outpost on the outskirts of Indian Territory. Suddenly McKenzie was soldier again, and the children were pronounced orphans. Civilization decreed that the two did not mix.

McKenzie stepped into a small office where he had been directed to take the children. The babies were on guard, gripping his shirt tightly and hiding their eyes from the frightening strangers around them. An unsmiling woman, gray of hair and surly of manner, made a face when their odor reached her nose. She said something under her breath to the fat little government agent behind the desk. He chuckled.

The babies pressed hard into McKenzie's chest. He could feel their heartbeats under his hands. He didn't like these people, and he did not want to leave the babies with them. He had no choice. He was under orders to turn them over. He would be assigned to a new company with no mention of his absence. It was a common way to deal with soldiers on relocation duty. What politicians decreed, good men found difficult to implement. Most honorable men had turned away from the Cherokee duty in horror at one time or another. All would be forgiven after he turned the babies over to the agent in charge.

The woman instructed McKenzie to leave the babies in a large wash basket in the corner of the office. He leaned over the basket and tried to gently pry the little hands from his shirt. The babies began to whimper, then to wail. He freed his shirt and swiftly set them down. Brother pulled himself up to the top of the basket and howled. Sister held her little arms up to him. He turned away, wiping at his eyes.

The fat little man asked the gray woman what names he should put on the papers for the babies. She said he could name them himself, if he liked. The fat little man chuckled and began to write. The woman looked over his shoulder and smiled an ugly smile.

McKenzie stopped by the door. He was a slow man not given to words, and fury choked him for a moment. Brother locked eyes with him.

"They have names," he snarled through gritted teeth. "That boy is John McKenzie, like me. And that girl is Eliza McKenzie, for my sister. They are mine and I will be looking in on them from time to time." He stared at the gray woman. "They are mine," he repeated.

McKenzie's children lived. They grew up and had children and grandchildren. The story of how they came to be called McKenzie is still told today. As long as a person is remembered, he lives.

-- helen (, May 14, 2003



-- bump (bump@in.the.night), May 14, 2003.

Great story and writing, Helen! (It sounds true). I liked the ending the best, and that line about politicians made me LOL ;-)

-- (sonofdust@thanks.Helen), May 15, 2003.

Super story Helen. Thank you.

-- Carol (, May 15, 2003.

Glad you liked it. The story is true. I am honored to have heard the story from one of the McKenzie descendants.

"The trail where they cried" is now referred to as The Trail of Tears. At least one out of every four Cherokees caught in the relocation died on the trail. Whole families were wiped out.

There were many soldiers like McKenzie.

-- helen (story@for.all.times), May 15, 2003.

great story!

-- mebs (thank@you.helen), May 15, 2003.

That was WONDERFUL Helen! BRAVO! *clapping furiously*

You are such a great storyteller! One of these days when you have a little time (I know..... what's time?) ;-) we're still waiting for the end of the end-of-the-world story. Do you still remember how it ends?

-- Gayla (, May 16, 2003.

I just made it in here, and read this, I loved it, thanks Helen!.. I will be gone a few days, but will come back and read more!

on my way now to finish up and get to bed!

-- SAR01 (, May 16, 2003.

I wept Helen. Beautiful story of the love one can have for a child, through tribulations and the hardship that life can bring us. Reminds me so, of the love Lon has for Kit, and will always have. As Clarence the Angel in my all-time favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life" said to George, toward the end of the movie, when he was questioning the value of his very existence, when his life was seen from the perspective of how his life had influenced lives around him, "You see George, you really had a wonderful life".

My thanks and love to each of you, who share yours with us here.

-- Aunt Bee (, May 18, 2003.

There are so many stories in the Native American community that are ... they speak of events you know from history books, but from their histories. It's a completely different perspective, and hearing the stories leaves me wondering how any have survived.

Speaking of survival ... the end of the world story ... I was afraid if I finished it, the world would actually end. heh. Too much real life was going that direction for a while. I'll get back to work on it.

-- helen (c@w.y), May 18, 2003.

You're very good at the re-telling, then Helen!

And an end to the end of the world?! Wow!

-- Tricia the Canuck (, May 19, 2003.

Now, THIS is why I keep hanging around here!

Helen, your stories always have such a personal light that shines through. Somehow, i knew this to be a true story before you told us. I feel almost like I've been sitting at your kitchen table while you spoke.

It inspires me to continue with my long-lingering story.

-- Lon (, May 20, 2003.

I love all the stories from all our story tellers here! (Go, Lon, go!)

-- Tricia the Canuck (, May 20, 2003.

No, Lon, don't go!

Stay, Lon, stay! (You've gone enuf already in May.)

(But keep writin' and readin'....)

-- Robert & Jean Cook (RobertCook@stayinghere.with Lon), May 20, 2003.

I've only got a minute (I have some catching up to do that will have to wait until tomorrow) but I wanted to pass on a message I received from Helen.

She emailed me from school because her computer at home is being repaired (something about the modem). Anyway, she'll be back online as soon as possible and just wanted you guys to know why there was a delay.

-- Gayla (, May 20, 2003.


I won't have much access from home. I can still use the software, so I could finish the other story and post from here at school.

And Lon ... welcome home.

-- helen (darned@inconvenient.but.better.than.nothing), May 22, 2003.

This is a get well wish for Helen's computer.

Helen I hope one day when things are running a bit smoother, you might find time to write some more Native American history.

-- Carol (, May 22, 2003.

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