The black top hat and neatly trimmed mustache sets the man apart from the native folk of the small town. Wide circles are made around him and whispers by the town gossips abound.
“Who do you suppose he is?”
“I heard he’s one of them government men.”
“Nah can’t be. He’d been shovin’ papers in someone’s face afore now.”
“He’s got plenty of paper, for sure.”
“Martin at the hotel says the man’s name is John Piton, and he thinks the man’s a writer for one of them big Boston newspapers. I bet he’s wantin’ to do a story about the growing West and -”
“You think you know everything, Thelma. So happens I talked to Burt at the general store and he says Mr. Piton is here to write about them-”
The writer steps onto the porch of the hotel, silencing the gossips. A pad is tucked under his arm and a pencil twirls in his fingers.
A distant figure is running down the muddy road. Moments later, the young boy slides to a halt in the middle of Main Street, waving to the sheriff.
“They’re comin’,” the young boy gasps, pointing. “They’re taking ‘em this way after all. You gonna let ‘em stop in town?”
Thumbs hooked in his vest the sheriff leans back on his boot heels and shakes his head at the gathering crowd. “Nah. I don’t reckon we have to worry 'bout them stoppin' here. Too much daylight left.”
The icy wind seems to reflect the feelings of the townspeople as they begin moving to the mouth of their domain. The road forks at the edge of the last building and the human barricade leaves only one way.
Pad in hand, the writer steps from the hotel porch and strides to the point of the fork. He stands alone, eyes on the road where the dark cluster grows larger. He is oblivious to the fingers pointing his way and the idle chatter of those in the crowd. In the moment, the only thing of interest is the long train of human beings in a slow march.
The first wagon rolls by. No sounds are heard from the townspeople. They are content in leaving the marchers alone provided they receive the same in return.
Gripping his pad, the writer begins to sketch the first reddish brown face. The man walks solemnly, an elaborate carved walking stick preceding his steps. When he reaches the writer, the man turns to face his people as they move past the town.
The writer opens his mouth, but pauses. The man’s face is withered with more than age. Though his head is held high, his shoulders sag slightly in…what? Weariness? Defeat? Hopelessness?
A shout comes from the crowd. “Hey, don’t leave that one behind!”
The small boy stands to the side of the line of marchers. Two fingers are in his mouth as he rubes his bare feet on top of one another. Tears glisten on his cheeks before the freezing wind dries them.
Riding past, a uniform clad man shouts a reply, “His folks drowned when we crossed the river. Don’t worry; one of them squaws will pick him up.”
The soldier is right. A young woman steps from the march and wraps her tattered blanket around the child’s body before scooping him into her arms. As the two pass the writer, he hears her murmuring to the child in a sing song voice. The writer’s eyes focus on the blood caked to the bottom of the child’s feet.
The writer continues sketching as his questions come. “Sir, how do you feel about the removal? Your people being forced to leave their homes, their farms, all the bounty they knew in Mississippi?”
For a long moment, the elderly man does not speak. But as the last straggling members of the band pass, he says, “We must forgive.”
A note is scribbled. “How would you describe your journey?”
The silence stretches long between the two. An eagle feather wisps together with graying strands blown into the weather worn face. The reply is simple.
“This has been a trail of tears and death.”
The marchers fade into the distance and the townspeople disperse in hushed conversations. The writer gazes at his scribbling and sketches.
That winter, in the year 1831, John Piton's story on the government forced removal of the Choctaws appears in the Arkansas Gazette. Its title headlines the front page:
The Trail of Tears
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