(John and Margaret Eaton entertained a delegation of Cherokee Indians who were in Washington to sign a treaty John had helped negotiate on behalf of President Andrew Jackson. One of the gifts they brought their hostess was strange, indeed.)

“He that delicately bringeth up his servant from a child
shall have him become his son at the length.”
Proverbs 29:21


Washington DC – 1830

“What are you doing out here? Spying?”

Seventeen-year-old Annabelle Lang was so startled by the voice she nearly gasped aloud. Her guardian’s new wife had caught her loitering in the hallway and peeking into the parlor to look at visiting dignitaries. How embarrassing.

Biting her lip, Annabelle shook her head enough to make her flaxen blond side curls swing against her rosy cheeks and replied, “No, ma’am. I just wanted to see the Indians

“Well, you’ve seen them. Now stop wasting time, get back to the kitchen and help Lucy finish preparing the lemonade. I want both those new washtubs filled to the brim.” With that, Margaret Eaton swept past, skirts and petticoats belling and swishing, long, dark, side curls bobbing, to make a grand entrance into the parlor and join her husband, John.

Annabelle’s heart pounded. Her feet were unwilling to carry her away. She had no clear recollection of her early years, before coming to live with the first Mrs. Eaton, yet the mere sight of the Cherokee delegation stirred her emotions and left her light-headed.

Little wonder! These men were tall and stately, some wearing the kind of tall hats, vests and cutaway coats with which she was familiar. Others were garbed in turbans and long tunics with elaborately woven sashes at the waist. None was bearded, nor did they seem the downtrodden savages she had overheard Mrs. Eaton railing about. These men were regal-looking to the point of inspiring awe.

Before she could turn away, John Eaton spied her peeking from behind the doorjamb.

He gestured. “Annabelle. Come here and take these gentlemen’s hats and capes. We must make our guests comfortable.”

Trembling and wondering if she was going to be able to walk steadily enough to do as instructed, she started forward. Everyone glanced at her except Margaret, an advantageous snub Annabelle prayed would continue.

Not all of these Indians had swarthy complexions and ebony eyes, she noted. Some were grayed with age, particularly the largest, most impressive old gentleman. His clothing was not only embellished with lace and gilding like that of nobility, his bearing befit royalty and inspired respect.

Several of the younger members of his party had the fairer hair and the blue or light-brown eyes of folks she saw every day. Perhaps that was because these men were the offspring of mixed marriages. She’d been told that was the way of many Cherokee, including prominent tribal leaders. They also spoke and read at least two languages, English and their own, a feat for which Annabelle admired them greatly.

One particularly stalwart young man whom she guessed to be in his twenties caught her eye. She chanced a surreptitious glance at him as she approached and found that he was studying her, too. It was as if she were a captive of his startling blue gaze, unable to break away, unable to consider anything or anyone but him.

His dark hair was fairly long, thick and slicked straight back, and he had his top hat in hand, having politely removed it when he’d entered the parlor. As Annabelle received it from him in passing she saw a tiny smile twitch one corner of his mouth. That simple acknowledgment made her insides quaver like dry leaves in a Potomac storm.

A much smaller version of that stately Cherokee emissary stood stoically by his side. The two were so similar, except for age, she wondered if they might be brothers.

She’d almost reached the doorway when Margaret let out an excited squeal. Annabelle stopped to look back. There was an expression of delight on the older woman’s face.

One of the venerable Indians, the one bedecked with all the lace and gilding, was speaking while a younger man who bore a strong resemblance to him translated his message into perfect English. Words and phrases of both languages flowed like the impressive political orations she had heard her foster father make.

“We have brought you a fine tea service as a token of our esteem.” As his speech was repeated, the elder Cherokee gave a slight bow that was less than submissive but nevertheless did not lack gentility.

A member of the Cherokee party had first unwrapped a finely-tooled, gleaming, silver teapot. Now, her fan fluttering like the wings of a demented butterfly, Mrs. Eaton watched a matching silver tray and other accoutrements follow.

Annabelle knew little about such elaborate trappings, except that they needed constant polishing, but she could see that her new foster mother was clearly impressed with the gift. That, alone, was remarkable since Margaret was so terribly hard to please.

John Eaton offered his hand to the original spokesman and said, “Thank you, Major Ridge. We are honored to accept your exceptional gift.”

The Indian leader then gestured to the rear of his entourage and the crowd parted like the waters of the Red Sea had for Moses. He was pointing toward the handsome young man and little boy who had taken Annabelle’s fancy moments before.

The translation began anew. “This child is the most valuable of our gifts, a presentation from Chief John Ross. You may call him after yourself, as well. From this day forward he is John H. Eaton Ross.”

Annabelle’s jaw dropped. She knew she was staring but could not help herself. The young man she had been watching so closely placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders to guide him forward. The child’s hair was almost ebony but his eyes were the color of a summer sky, just like those of his apparent supervisor.

The boy’s expression was stoic, perhaps even tinged by hostility, yet he stepped boldly and stood tall in his tailored white-man’s clothing. How brave he was. And how distressed he must be to have been given away like a stray cur’s unwanted pup.

As Annabelle watched, Margaret’s beseeching gaze focused on her statesman husband, silently begging him to refuse. Instead, he shook his head ever so slightly. Obviously, this was an offer they must accept graciously. To do otherwise would be to commit a grievous social and political error.

Annabelle’s heart went out to the young child. She knew exactly what it was like to become someone’s ward, especially when the adults involved were not happy about the situation. Yes, John Eaton had continued to care for her after his first wife’s death but she had quickly learned that he did not consider her a daughter. And when he married Margaret? Then Annabelle had learned what it was like to be truly ostracized.

She wanted to go to the Indian child now known as John and bestow the welcoming smile that the rest of the family was denying him. Naturally, she could not. Her place in the household was tenuous at best and the less trouble she made the more likely it would be that she would soon be sent to boarding school in Connecticut for a proper education, as she’d been promised.

The drawing room fell so silent that Annabelle was certain everyone could hear the rapid beating of her heart. No one moved. No one spoke.

Finally, because her armload of garments was so heavy and cumbersome, she began to edge toward the arched doorway nearest the hall.

One of the Cherokee wraps dragged just enough to tangle her ankles. She faltered. Staggered. Was about to fall and disgrace her guardian in front of all these important emissaries!

Closing her eyes for an instant, Annabelle silently prayed to regain her balance.

A strong hand grasped her billowy sleeve at the elbow. Stopped her descent. Righted and steadied her.

Preparing to thank her rescuer she looked up - and straight into the eyes of the Cherokee gentleman she had admired mere moments ago.

There was steadiness to his gaze, yes, but she imagined empathy, as well. He seemed to sense that she was held in little regard here.

It was hard to be certain of his age but she guessed him to be only a few years older than she. He was wiry yet muscular, strong yet gentle. There was a control within him that she admired and also envied.

A cautious smile lifted the corners of her mouth as she whispered, “Thank you, sir.”

His answer was a brief nod but in Annabelle’s eyes he had just bestowed a most pleasing grin.

One meant only for her.

When he leaned closer to say, “Pleased to be of service, Miss Annabelle. My name is Charles,” she was afraid the floor was going to fall away beneath her feet.