Life in Paucanla took on a pattern that was similar to many pioneering families in that time and in that place. There was always the work of tending to the animals, the daily chores involved in farming, and for the Mead family, getting the boys off to school in the mornings, milk pails and lunch boxes in hand. There were the usual squabbles or jokes, depending on the general mood of the little band of brothers, marching off to their school duties. It was a good life. But no one was prepared for what was to come.
Joe Tiger and Obedience showed up at Mattie's door. Behind Joe, standing in front of Obedience stood two little Indian boys. Obedience's arms seemed to wrap around the boys' shoulders. Joe's face was somber and Obedience looked frightened. The little boys seemed to be about six and eight years old and they stood with their eyes cast to the ground in traditional Indian "respect" for an elder.
Mattie looked at the boys and could see that dried tears had streaked their dirty faces. There was a strange smell about their clothes—a smell of smoke. Mattie invited all of them out of the cold fall day and into the house. She looked from the boys' faces to Joe and Obedience in a look of bewilderment. "What is it? What is wrong, here?" she asked, knowing that something terrible had happened.
Joe began. "These boys Cherokee—like you. They don't speak English. You speak Cherokee. They wander up to our house. We don't know what happen 'cause we don't talk Cherokee." Obedience hugged them closer. Mattie invited them all to sit down. She saw the boys look at some food left on the table. She asked them in Cherokee if they were hungry. They nodded yes. She told them to sit at the table and she began serving them.
She turned to Joe and Obedience. "What can you tell me?" Obedience said, "I find them in my hen house, asleep. They had eaten some egg and sleep there. I try talk but they don't speak English. From clothes, I think they Cherokee. They very scared."
Mattie asked them their names in Cherokee. The older boy replied that he was Wilbur Wolf and the other boy was Tandy Eskey. She asked where they came from and they merely pointed toward the North. She asked them to tell her what happened to them. The older boy looked terrified and only said, "Fire" in Cherokee. Then, the younger one began to cry. Mattie hugged them both and told them that it was all right; that they were safe now; that they should continue eating.
They seemed rather hungry and they devoured their food. Mattie didn't want to press them further on what happened but decided they should let them eat in peace and then let them rest.
"Joe, I think something terrible has happened to these boys. They were in a fire of some kind but they are too upset to tell me about it. Do you have any idea where they came from?" Joe indicated that he didn't and Obedience shrugged her shoulders.
As Mattie and Joe and Obedience talked, they didn't notice that Tandy, the younger boy had fallen asleep at the table, until he dropped his fork on the floor. Joe picked up the sleeping boy and Mattie pointed to a bed in the next room. The older boy followed and joined the other boy in bed. They fell asleep almost immediately.
"Joe, go and see if you can find anyone who has lost some children and see if anyone has had a fire. See if there are any Cherokee families around here. Obedience and I will look after the children," Mattie said. Joe left immediately.
Obedience looked in on the children and then turned to Mattie. "I go talk to neighbors. I bring food for boys. They be all right here?" Mattie shook her head yes. "I'll take care of the boys, Obedience. Don't you worry. I think they are exhausted and the best thing for them is rest."
Joe Tiger didn't return for two days but when he did, he still had not found out where the boys came from. He left word with distant neighbors to inquire about a fire or two lost children. Soon the whole community seemed to be aware of the two lost orphaned boys and all were on the lookout for where they had come from.
Mattie insisted on taking care of them because they could understand only Cherokee. Obedience said that she would keep them but there was the communication problem. The boys seemed traumatized about their experience and so Mattie didn't try to pursue the investigation with them. She seemed content to keep them as her own boys.
In a few weeks, the two boys seemed more relaxed and at home with all of the Mead boys. Mattie put down extra bedding in the loft for the two boys and soon, they seemed to be a part of the family. She began teaching them English and before long they were talking fairly good English. But each time Mattie brought up their whereabouts or the fire subject, they withdrew and seemed frightened. So, she dropped the subject altogether.
Billy and Mattie decided that Wilbur and Tandy should be in school so they took them and enrolled them in the Paucanla school. The teacher didn't complain but she did ask if the boys were Indian. "We think they are Cherokee," Billy said. "However, they are orphaned as far as we can tell and we are taking care of them. They are living with us-as our boys. So we want them in school."
The teacher said nothing to the Meads but thought that they should be in Indian school for Indians. She decided she would talk to the superintendent next time he came through Paucanla. In the meantime, Wilbur and Tandy began going to Paucanla school with the Mead boys.
One day, a knock came at the door. A short, fat man stood at the door and asked if he could come in. "I'm Simon Garrett, Indian Agent for the Territory. I understand you have two orphan Indian boys here living with you." Mattie motioned for the agent to sit down. "Yes, we have two boys that just showed up. We don't know where they came from but they were hungry and frightened. We have kept them until someone could claim them. Do you know who they belong to?"
"No, but I believe they should be going to Indian school instead of here with the white children," he added with emphasis. "It's the law, you know." He looked at Mattie with a steady gaze.
The words. The words--- white children - the words stung her face and pierced her eyes. The words of her father came ringing back to her in a flash. "Your children will not be citizens. They will have to go to Indian schools. You will be considered less than human." She felt a very tight knot in the pit of her stomach.
She tried to pull her thoughts together. She wondered if he was looking at her as an Indian. She felt the darkness of her hair, her dark eyes, her dark skin, her Indian features. Fear gripped her. And then her courage returned.
She sat taller on the chair. Her face recovered a look of cool superiority. She stood and looked down on this puffed up little man and icy tones flowed from her voice. "Mr. Garrett. Until you can produce some sort of paper work that gives you the authority to take these boys from here, I will ask to leave, sir, " she added with emphasis.
"But, Mrs. Mead. I am—” Mattie was already at the door with it open, looking back at him as if he were a bug. Rather flustered, he stood and walked toward the door. "I am only trying to help these boys, Mrs. Mead," he offered. She snapped back quickly. "The boys are fine. They don't need your help, Mr. Garrett. Now, if you don't mind, I have work to do." She all but shut the door on him.
She knew perfectly well that Mr. Garrett did have the authority to take those boys to Indian school, but if there was any way she could avoid it, she would hide the boys or do whatever to keep them with her family. These boys were her people and she wasn't going to give them up easily.
That evening, when the boys came home from school, she took them aside and explained what had happened. "I don't know what happened to you, Wilbur, Tandy, and that doesn't matter any more. What does matter is that you stay with us and go to school, here. You are part of my family now until you can return to your own; until then, you are my sons," and she embraced them both. "If either of you see this man, Mr. Garrett, hide from him. I will help you hide."
She took them outside, and showed them the iron triangle that was their dinner bell. "If Mr. Garrett comes looking for you again and I can manage to do it, I will take the dinner bell and place it on the ground. From that, you will know he is in the house or near it and you should hide until he leaves. All right?" They agreed and it seemed settled.
Mattie shared none of this with Billy. It was the first secret she had ever kept from him. But this was something different. This was about her people. She didn't think he would understand. She didn't want him to understand. She only wanted to make those boys safe from the cruelty of a man whose authority could destroy their happy life in the Mead home. She was like a mother bear, protecting her cubs. She would not allow anyone to harm them.
She went to her bedroom and picked up her looking glass. Mattie was a neat, fastidious woman who dressed in the Victorian style of the time—floor length dresses, mostly black, sleeves down to her wrists and a high-necked collar. She looked in the mirror at her face. Her hair was pulled back tightly in a bun at the nap of her neck. She brushed back an imaginary loose lock of hair with her hand. She looked closely at her features—high cheek bones, dark skin and eyes, and black, raven-black hair.
"I am Cherokee," she said to the mirror. And this was her condemnation—for being alive—alive as a Cherokee—an Indian, a subhuman. Her sons were Cherokee, too, but she had not told them. She had been warned.
I must be careful. They must be careful.
After that day, Mattie was always careful to keep a lookout for Mr. Garrett. Wilbur and Tandy did hide from Mr. Garrett until he finally stopped coming. The boys lived with the Meads as their own sons for some time. Eventually, the boys were surrendered to Mr. Garrett even though Mattie tried to get him to let the boys stay with them. But there was no talking to Mr. Garrett. He made it clear that "it was the law." And although Mattie was heartbroken, she finally relented and told the boys that they could go to school in the Indian school and come home on vacations to the Mead house, just like her own boys. But when the agent took them away, Mattie never saw them again.
Years later, Worth met Wilbur Wolf at a horse race. "Wilbur, don't you know me?" Worth asked. Wilbur only grunted recognition and nothing more was said until the next day when Worth was awakened early in the morning. Standing outside was Wilbur with two very fine saddle horses.
"Worth, I want you to go home with me." Worth said, "How far?" Wilbur responded, "About fifteen miles." So Worth went home with him on one of the saddle horses. When they got there, Worth could see that Wilbur was still unmarried but that he had acquired a number of cattle, hogs, sheep, goats and a wonderful herd of thoroughbred horses. Then, Wilbur made an amazing offer.
"Take a pack horse and wander around anywhere in this great reservation. You pick out land you want and I will go before the Indian Agency and swear that you are my adopted brother and my cousin and get the land for you. Then I will stock it with cows, sheep, goats and horses for you. I would love do this for you for what your father and mother did for me. The land is going fast and not long before white men will own it all anyway and it is just as well that you have yours first."
Worth was quite taken by the offer but he said, "No, Wilbur, I cannot do that, it would be a lie for us both, and I cannot let you do it. I really have no right to land under the Indian rule." Wilbur was not happy with Worth's response and they argued about it. Wilbur became offended by Worth's refusal and never invited Worth to his home again. It was the last time he saw Wilbur.
[Author's Note] Worth Mead's account in 1937 describes Mattie's "adoption" of the two indian boys as her own.