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Broken Branches: Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

Jumping Fish was pleased with the birth of Tomas, but he was never the same after losing White Grass, Lazy Mouse and Red Snake.  He died around a year after Tomas was born.  I think it was mostly from a broken heart, but neither am I a medical doctor of any sort.

Fat Rat had been already asked to act as chief.  When the council of elders made it official after the death of Jumping Fish, it was almost like the village itself let out a deep exhale.  Even some smiles were starting to be seen, which would become especially pronounced when Tomas would accompany Fat Rat as he went around checking to see if someone might need some help with something.

Hey, Tomas was pretty fast for a toddler, but he sometimes fell behind.   However, Fat Rat was always good to wait until he caught up, which put even bigger smiles on some faces.

Then the soldiers came one day with orders to dismantle the village and move all of the inhabitants to a reservation.  They came in such numbers that Fat Rat decided against resisting.

It was a decision he sorely regretted for the rest of his life.  For all of the assurances Fat Rat received concerning the good treatment of his people at the reservation proved to be blatant lies.

Oh, and it did not take long for the truth to become all too painfully clear to see, either.  For as soon as all of the villagers were secured behind the high fences topped with barbwire of what turned out to really be a temporary internment camp, interviews were conducted to determine identities and demeanors.

Adding injury to insult, no effort was made to keep immediate families together when it came time to transfer the villagers to several different locations that started out as reservations for other specific tribes.  When Juanita failed to provide enough information for the satisfaction of the authorities, Tomas was officially identified as a mixed-race orphan by the name of Thomas Nelson Hardeman, after the publisher of the Bible on the desk of the interviewing officer and the name of the Texas county they were in, and sent to an orphanage in Alabaster, Arkansas.

It was indeed a very dark day.  For Tomas was shoved rather roughly into the back of a wagon and sent well on his way to the orphanage by the time Juanita was allowed to re-enter the general population of the internment camp, and he never saw her, his Grandmother Starling, Fat Rat, or any of his other loved ones in the village again.

Before my flight off of Boston Mountain, I made a few trips through Alabaster, and the strongest memory I had of the place was the stench from a paper mill on its north side.  After seeing the way the children at the orphanage were treated, I now wonder if what I smelled before was actually more due to lingering evidence of long-past truly egregious child abuse.

Of course, the administrators of the orphanage would insist that their efforts were as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to the Lord.  For the place was run by a firebrand of a Methodist minister and his even more zealous wife, who believed that they were called by God to drive the devil out of Indian savages and Mexican heathens, including professing Roman Catholics, by any and all means at their disposal.

Those means included giving a child a painful whack with a wooden paddle for each time they broke one of the Ten Commandments.  Tomas received one for lying every time he insisted that his name was not Thomas, and they added up to be quite a few before he gave up and accepted that his name was now Thomas.

It was a wonder to me that Tomas was not subjected to what those caught, or just accused of, telling bigger lies were.  This was having their mouths roughly washed out with lye soap.

Several children accidentally swallowed some of the lye soap and lost the ability to speak entirely, which the pious minister and his wife insisted was a blessing from God.  For one who could no longer speak could no longer tell a lie.

Those judged to have reprobate minds were kept in isolated cells in the basement of the main hall.  Not many lasted very long down there, and their lifeless bodies were paraded in clear of the rest of the children before being cast into a burning pit that had been dug to symbolize Hell on the edge of the property.

A fast on the Sabbath was strictly enforced to teach that a true child of God is sustained by more than food.  When a child was caught with something they had snuck out of the dining hall, they were forced to eat dog vomit.

No, Tomas was never subjected to any of the more harsh punishments, but seeing others suffer so much pushed him over the edge.  He had just turned ten when he came to the conclusion that he would be better off dead than live another day in that place.

Furthermore, Tomas knew that he was not alone in his thinking.  No one dared speak openly about it out of fear of being caught, but he could tell from a look here and a slight gesture there that he would not be the only one to try to escape from the orphanage when the time came.

The time came when the main gate was opened to allow a wagonload of supplies to enter while Tomas and five other boys of around the same age were tasked with picking up hog manure with their hands and placing it in a pile outside of a pen not far away.  Tomas took off for the open gate at a dead run, and the other boys followed him.

The teamster in the wagon saw them and caused his horses to rear up.  This distracted the guards enough for the boys to make it out of the gate.

A guard in the closest watchtower fired his shotgun at the boys.  Two were hit, and one could not continue on foot.  Tomas wanted the group to help carry him, but the other boys insisted that it would just get them all caught.

The wounded boy screamed at Tomas and the others to go on without him.  Then the dogs were let loose, and when the boys heard them coming, they took off running again.

Tomas sure wished he had not made one last look back.  For it was in time to see two catahoulas tear the wounded boy to pieces.

The boys crossed a flooded rice field to mask their scent from the dogs and took refuge in an old barn a good distance away from any houses.  By nightfall, they were feeling a lot safer.

They actually were.  For after seeing the catahoulas kill the one escapee so viciously, the minister and his wife were quite confident that those still in their custody had been given another clear sign of what happens to those who dare to go against the will of God and called off the search for Tomas and the others.

The next morning, the escaped boys decided that they should go their separate ways.  Tomas was sad to see the others go, but he understood that traveling in a group could draw more attention than traveling alone.

Tomas wanted to find his family, but he had no idea just where he actually was or where they might be now.  He remembered that the sun would go down toward the back of the wagon that took him to the orphanage, though.  So, he decided to follow the path of the sun across the sky.

He would walk on the edge of the road he was on and dive for cover whenever he spotted someone ahead or behind him.  Food was gathered where it safely could be, and nights were spent where he did not think he could be found.

It was as Tomas was reaching for a chicken egg he spotted in a patch of grass near the edge of the road that he heard a kindly voice tell him that he would probably be much better off leaving the egg be.  Tomas snapped his head up to see where the warning had come from, and he saw an old man with a long white beard standing on the other side of a split-rail fence in front of him.

Tomas froze in fear for a few seconds, and then he told the old man in a barely audible voice that he was sorry for trying to steal the egg.  The old man smiled broadly and told him that he was not concerned with that.

The old man also told Tomas that his name was Henry and that one of his favorite hens loved to lay eggs where he could not easily find them.  When Tomas gave him a puzzled look, Henry explained that the hen was one of his favorites on account of looking for her eggs added a little excitement to his life.

Henry let out a little chuckle and went on to further explain that the reason why he had warned Tomas about picking up the egg was because of not being sure of just when it had been laid.  For rotten eggs have a tendency to explode when they are jarred enough.

Tomas still looked like he was not quite sure of what to think.  So, Henry asked him to gently pick up the egg and hand it to him over the fence.  When that was accomplished, Henry placed the egg on the top of a fence post.  He then took a stick and gently pushed it off of the fence post on Tomas’ side.  The egg exploded the instant it hit the ground.

Tomas jumped back and started to gag from the smell of…um…well…a rotten egg!  I suppose it would be more accurate to describe the smell as being sulfuric, but since the smell of sulfur is often described as being like that of a rotten egg, I think I will stand uncorrected on this one.

Getting back to Tomas and Henry, a huge laugh erupted from them both, but the mood quickly turned dour.  For Tomas could not remember the last time he was able to genuinely smile—let alone have a laugh like that.

Henry watched Tomas go from sharing a great belly-laugh with him to sobbing like a baby in a matter of seconds.  In a feat that defied his age, Henry quickly climbed over the split-rail fence and held the grief-stricken boy in his arms until Tomas regained some of his composure.

Henry sure wanted to ask Tomas about what was wrong, but he felt like he should wait until the boy was ready to tell him.  That is, of course, if he ever did.

When Henry saw that Tomas did not act like he was so afraid of him anymore, he asked him if he was hungry.  Tomas nodded yes, and Henry told him that he was in for a treat.  For he would bet good money that his wife made the best meatloaf in the ArkLaTex region and it just so happened that she was making one when he left the house to go hunt for some eggs.

Remembering what Henry had told him about hunting eggs adding a little excitement to his life almost brought another chuckle out of Tomas, and he followed Henry back to his home with a glimmer of hope peaking over his horizon.  His belly began to growl when he caught the first whiff of meatloaf wafting in the breeze as they neared a nice looking two-story farmhouse surrounded by several outbuildings.

Henry’s wife’s name was Hannah, and she squealed with delight when she saw Tomas follow Henry through the front door.  For their babies had long since grown up and now had families of their own much too far away in her opinion.

Tomas was somewhat taken aback by her reaction, but he melted into her arms when she ran to give him a big hug.  His glimmer of hope was shining brighter with each passing second.

It took him a few days, but Tomas finally told Henry and Hannah about what had happened to him and that he would like to find his family much sooner than later.  The tears flowed freely from his eyes, and they promised to help him to do so after having a good cry of their own.

Henry insisted that a good place to start would be at the orphanage in Alabaster, with his reasoning being that there would be a record on the premises of where Tomas had come from for legal purposes.  When he came out of the house with his trusty old Greener 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun and a determined look on his face, it was fairly obvious that he was not planning on asking nicely for the information.

He was halfway to the horse barn before Hannah could get him to stop and listen to her better way of handling the situation.  This involved asking one of their sons-in-law, who was magistrate judge in a neighboring country, to look into what could be done about the orphanage.

Henry reluctantly agreed to first try it her way, and after their son-in-law pulled some strings in Little Rock, an honest investigation was conducted.  This resulted in the minister and his wife, along with their staff and several local businessmen who had been getting rich off of their dealings with the orphanage, facing a number of very serious charges, including several counts of murder to varying degrees.

The orphanage was left open, however.  For the state was not prepared to make a lot of effort relocating the in habitants, but the new administrators made sure of life there being quite different than it had been.

Tomas could not bring himself to go see for himself.  For the bad memories of his life at the orphanage were still way too vivid, but he was glad for the children still there.

No record of a Thomas Nelson Hardeman ever living at the orphanage was found, but this did not dampen the spirits of Henry and Hannah.  For they were quite confident of their oldest son being able to find at least traces of Tomas’ family.  For he was a high-level executive in a company that supplied provisions to Indian reservations all over the west, but after months of searching high and low, it was as if Tomas and the rest of the villagers had never existed.

Tomas was very disappointed, but he let it go.  For he knew that Henry and Hannah had tried their best—especially in consideration of their advanced ages, and he was very happy with the home they had made for him.

Henry and Hannah loved Tomas as much as they did their own children, and all of their children loved him as much as their parents did.  Oh, and one of their daughters had a daughter by the name of Sarah, whose eyes would sparkle every time she saw Tomas.

Tomas became very adept at finding hidden eggs, and Sarah, who was three years younger than Tomas, would insist on helping him when she was over to spend some time with her grandparents.  The usual routine would start with Henry fussing about feeling neglected and Hannah telling him to be quiet.  Tomas would then claim that he did not need any help, and Sarah would take off on the hunt without him.  The final act of the play would have Henry and Tomas shaking their heads in feigned disgust before Tomas scooted out of the door to catch up with Sarah.

The good times continued to roll as the years went by, and after testing at a very high intellectual level, Tomas was offered a full scholarship to attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  Henry and Hannah were thrilled, but Tomas turned it down.  For he could see that Henry and Hannah were starting to really feel their ages, and he wanted to be there to care for them as much as they had cared for him.  Besides, he had a thriving egg business to keep running.

No, his egg business was not dependent on finding hidden ones.  For over the years, Tomas had slowly built up a flock of several hundred hens faithfully laying eggs in their nests around the hen houses he had constructed.

Along the way, Tomas started selling chickens for meat, as well.  This endeavor eventually became the greatest source of revenue for his company.

Tomas named his company Fanchier Farms in honor of Henry and Hannah Fanchier.  Ironically, his biggest contract in the beginning was with the orphanage at Alabaster.

Well, Sarah certainly did not mind him sticking around, and Tomas started seeing her in an entirely different light.  For that pesky little girl had blossomed into a very beautiful young woman.

Henry and Hannah noticed the changes, and they hoped that nature would take its course.  Sarah’s parents were not so sure, but they made no move to nip the romance in the bud.

Tomas and Sarah were married on March 18, 1917 in a simple ceremony at the Southern Baptist church that Henry and Hannah had been married in, as well as being longtime members of.  It was also the church that Sarah’s parents had been married in.

The pastor performed the ceremony as a favor to Henry and Hannah.  For Tomas had never darkened the door of the church, but with Henry and Hannah vouching for him, the pastor id not think the Lord would mind.

Henry and Hannah had not insisted on Tomas attending church services with them.  For the Methodist minister and his wife had succeeded in instilling a great deal of actual fear of God in the children at the orphanage, and Tomas had wanted to stay far away from where he suspected that God might be, such as in a church.

Therefore, Tomas was quite reluctant to be married in a church, but his great desire to be pleasing to Sarah and her family won the day over his great actual fear of God.  He also greatly appreciated the pastor’s personal efforts to help ensure that the children now at the orphanage were well cared for.

The next day, a letter addressed to Thomas Nelson Hardeman arrived in the mail.  It was a draft notice.

Sarah was absolutely devastated, but Tomas did not think that he could ever truly respect himself if he did not answer the call to duty.  Henry and Hannah stayed out of the discussion, but they both found it rather curious that here was a draft notice for someone they could find no official record of ever existing not all that very long ago.

Since he and Sarah had planned on staying with Henry and Hannah to begin with, Tomas felt like he had no reason to worry about how well his three closest loved-ones would do without him being around for as long as was required.  He also believed that Fanchier Farms would continue to prosper with Sarah at the helm.  So, he actually reported to the local draft board in Texarkana without as much trepidation as he thought he should feel.

Frustration was another matter, though.  For when the draft officials saw that Thomas Nelson Hardeman looked like he might have a lot of Mexican in him, an argument broke out among them over whether or not he was fit for duty.  Tomas felt like this was utterly ridiculous.  For he was of the opinion that if a man was willing to fight for his country when called to do so, he should be allowed to fight.

Tomas was subjected to a battery of tests meant to determine his intelligence and loyalties before being examined by a medical doctor.  He passed all of the tests with flying colors, and it was determined that he could serve in some capacity supplying provisions to the front.  However, the final decision was in the hands of Army Major General Culver.

Tomas was held in the Miller County Jail until word was heard from Major General Culver.  He was told that it was for his own protection from those outraged over the recent news of Germany making overtures to encourage Mexico to enter the war on their side and against the United States.

Tomas spent ten days in isolation, and since he was classified as a military prisoner, no one at the jail was told his name.  Furthermore, no official record of his incarceration was made public.  Therefore, not even Henry and Hannah’s son-in-law, the magistrate judge, knew that he was there.

Instead of dispatching a subordinate, Major General Culver came himself to supervise Tomas’ transfer to an internment camp in a very remote part of northern New Mexico.  Tomas felt a chill run down his spine when he saw the general walk up to his cell, but he did not understand why.

No, it was not the first time Tomas had seen the general.  For then Lieutenant Colonel Culver was in command of the Army unit that had moved his Comanche family to the temporary internment camp long ago, and he had actually placed Tomas in the back of the wagon that took him to the orphanage in Alabaster.

What the orphanage started, nineteen and a half months at the New Mexico internment camp for having the wrong color of skin finished.  For Tomas’ spirit was finally completely broken, and when the swine flu pandemic reached the camp, he was one of the first to die.

Sarah did her best to not lose hope, but not knowing what had happened to Tomas after he left to report to the draft board was taking quite a toll on her.  She wrote letters to him each and every day, and addressed the letters to the draft board office in the hope of them being passed along to where Tomas was actually stationed, but she never received a reply back.  She held up pretty good for the first ten months or so, but after not receiving a reply to her letter telling him of the birth of their son, Henry, who was being called Hank to save confusion, giant cracks in her brave fa├žade were starting to show.

The war ended and there was still no word of where Tomas might be.  According to the Army, there was no record of him servicing.  The same news was received from the Navy and Marines.

As Sarah sank deeper and deeper into a depression over her missing husband, she cared less and less about the daily operations of Fanchier Farms.  Since she and Tomas had been careful to make each employee feel like an integral part of the company, the business did not suffer much at first, but it needed to keep growing in order to truly flourish.

I looked on in horror as the swine flu pandemic swept through Hank’s extended family like a Biblical plague.  I knew better by then to not ask my guide about what was going on, but it sure looked to me like God had targeted them for destruction.  For in a matter of a few short weeks, even all of his unofficially-adopted uncles and aunts on Sarah’s side of the family lay dead, but little Hank remained as healthy as he could be.

Adding all the more to my horror was seeing the pastor of the Southern Baptist church that Tomas and Sarah had been married in decline to take Hank in.  For this meant that he would be surely heading for an extended stay at the Alabaster orphanage.  Considering how things had been going, I fully expected to see Major General Culver show up to take Hank there, but it was actually the Little River County sheriff, who did.

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