Author’s note, from the Foreward:
The word ‘nigger’ will appear. The author, of course, in no way wishes to validate the use of this word. The intention is to portray the intolerance shown African Americans through hateful and ignorant speech once all too common in this country.
Crickets and cicadas sang like a chorus in the pine woods around the store. Sam watched his master, Erastus Rogers, step forward and block out the sun. His hand snapped out and slapped Sam across the face. “Where you goin’, boy?”
Sam cringed from the rising hand. “Just thought I’d come with y’all to watch the wrestlin’.”
Erastus grabbed Sam’s arm and started pulling him in. “I’ll give you wrestlin’! C’mere you little nigger!”
The clerk, John Kitzler, spoke up. “Easy there, Erastus. Go easy on the devil. Been workin’ him day and night for over a week now. We’re done around here. Boy could probably use a break.”
“I’ll give him a break.” Erastus squeezed Sam’s arm and gave it a quick twist before letting go. “Fine. He’s all yours to mind, John.” Erastus walked away.
Sam turned to meet John Kitzler’s narrow eyes. The clerk glared and spit out some black tobacco juice. “Don’t you get no funny ideas now, boy.”
Sam shook his head.
Kitzler probably meant running away, but Sam just wanted to see some wrestling. Having just been sold down to Fort King, he didn’t even know which way to run. He was only thirteen, and he knew better chances to escape would eventually come.
The fort sat on the next rise, where men gathered in front of pine poles lashed together for a fence. Two wooden towers rose behind that. White tents lined the slope because the fort couldn’t hold all the soldiers. Fort King, the store, and the Indian Agent’s office were the only things out there.
Local Seminole Indians held knives and beads to wager with. Deerskin loincloths tied at the waist were the only things covering their chestnut-colored skin. Their heads were shaved except for a black strip along the top, black bangs in front, and two black locks curling down over their ears.
Erastus grabbed a soldier and bet thirty cents on the Irishman. Sam looked around and knew the Irishman had to be the huge white man with red hair on his chest. His arms looked as big as Sam’s thighs.
Across from the Irishman, an Indian pulled a knife from a sheath at his side and laid it on the grass. The Seminole was smaller, and Sam figured he didn’t have a chance. Both men were in their late twenties.
Sam was tackled by Robbie Suggs, a white boy the same age who worked at the store. Suggs sat on Sam and pinned his shoulders with his knees.
“That a way, Robbie,” said Kitzler. “Show that boy who’s boss.”
Suggs dribbled spit down onto Sam’s face before giving him a quick slap. He jumped up and turned to watch the match like nothing had happened.
Sam picked himself up and fought back the urge to give Suggs a blindsider of his own.
Ten lashes wasn’t worth it.
A circle had formed, the two wrestlers crouched in the center and sizing each other up. Sam got another good look at the Indian. Though not as big, the Seminole’s body was lean and muscular, his dark eyes hard and focused.
The sun set behind the trees, and the two wrestlers slapped arms and hands, trying to get a good grip. Finally, their fingers locked and everyone cheered. The Irishman bore down on the Indian, but the Seminole stood his ground. They pushed against each other, both shaking from the effort.
It looked like the big soldier was strong enough to win. The crowd cheered again when the Seminole started falling. The Irishman saw his chance and dove in for the finish. He threw all of his weight into the pin, but now the Indian wasn’t falling straight back anymore. Their bodies twisted, and by the time they hit the ground, the Seminole was somehow on top. He pinned the Irishman, lifted his head, and made a quick, high-pitched cry.
He jumped clear of the wrestler and waved to the Seminoles, who cried, “Asi-yaholo!”
Sam started cheering, but Erastus shot him a look that said he would get his if the Irishman lost. Sam hid his excitement and had to check himself again when he almost called out for the Seminole to be careful. The big red-head was back on his feet, and now his face was red. He was mad and embarrassed and running full-speed for the Indian.
The Seminole slipped into his fighting stance, holding his ground until the last possible second. He fell back again, this time into a full spin that brought him around to land on the soldier’s back. They went down together, the Irishman’s face hitting the ground first. The Seminole jabbed the big man’s back and jumped in the air.
The other Indians surrounded him and slapped him on the back. “Asi-ya-ho-lo! Asi-ya-ho-lo!”
Sam was surprised to see most of the soldiers smiling and nodding as they paid off their losses. Few had thought the huge Irishman could lose, but now the Seminole seemed too quick to match. He laughed and shook hands with soldiers and officers.
Sam moved to go shake his hand, but Erastus grabbed him. “Get back to the store now, boy. Suggs, you and the nigger get back and find some work to do. I’ll be right behind.” Erastus handed his coins to the man who took his bet. “C’mon, Stevens, you’re buyin’ us some rum with them winnin’s.”
Stevens was a wiry soldier missing a few teeth. He shook his head. “Don’t think so, Rogers. This here’s for the poker game tonight.” He turned to walk off for the tents.
“Fine,” Erastus said, following after him and Kitzler. “I’m winnin’ that money back.”
Suggs gave Sam a shove. “C’mon, blackie, let’s have a wrestlin’ match!” He took off his shirt and crouched in the same fighting stance the Seminole had used. Sam was ready since all he wore was an old pair of field pants cut off at the knees, but he didn’t know if he was allowed to wrestle or not.
He didn’t have time to think about it. One of the soldiers standing around gave him a shove in the back that sent him flying straight at Suggs, who was ready with a fist that landed square in Sam’s belly.
Soldiers laughed as Sam hit the ground. When he started to get up, Suggs pushed him back down.
Sam couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed Suggs by the foot and yanked. Suggs hit the grass, and Sam pinned him. He raised his fist, eager to get even for everything he had to put up with.
A soldier grabbed his arm. “Now wait a minute, boy. Don’t you know the rules here?” He yanked Sam up. “Niggers not allowed to punch white folks.”
Suggs jumped up and wiped off his pants with a scowl. More soldiers had come around.
“Dime on the Suggs boy!”
“Nickel on the nigger!”
The two boys ran into each other, scratching and clawing for leverage. They were both the same height, but Sam was skinnier. Like the Seminole, he would have to figure out another way to beat Suggs.
Sam broke off their hold and jumped back. When Suggs came after him, Sam dodged away, too sweaty for Suggs to get a hold. He did this several more times, knowing Suggs was getting frustrated. A full circle of soldiers and Indians had gathered around, most of them laughing and joking.
“Can’t you catch that little coon?”
“Where you runnin’, boy?”
Sam finally saw what he had been waiting for. When Suggs made a lazy lunge and left himself wide open, Sam lowered his head and tackled him, using all his weight to smash the boy’s ribs. Sam immediately butted foreheads with Suggs, and when he opened his eyes, Suggs was out cold.
Sam shook his head and stood up to a mix of sounds. Some of the men still laughed and clapped. Others asked if he was allowed do that. What Sam didn’t expect to hear was the high-pitched hollering of all the Indians. He looked over to them waving their arms and calling, “Estee-lustee! Estee-lustee!”
The Seminole who beat the Irishman smiled, and Sam noticed something different about him now. Instead of so hard and focused, his eyes were soft and kind. The Seminole’s expression suddenly changed, a look of alarm the last thing Sam saw before something hard cracked against the back of his head and sent him tumbling into the darkness.