In the Devil’s Garden: A Short Story about the Seminole War by Rickey Pittman
Fort Jupiter in the Everglades August 1840
Private Orin Allen of the 7th Infantry came to attention before Captain Stephenson’s cabin. The door was open. “Sir!”
“Enter,” the captain said. The officer, sitting on his folding canvas stool, pulled on his clay pipe and exhaled. “Well, what is it?
“Private Monroe has returned from his patrol. He is with the surgeon.”
“Is he wounded?”
“Yes, sir. And he will need some clothes. I’ll fetch him what I can.”
“He has no clothes? Where are the three men I sent with him?”
“He came back alone, sir. On foot.”
“When the surgeon’s done, send him to me to make his report.” Stephenson stood and stepped outside his small hut serving as officers’ quarters. He and a squad of twenty men had been sent to Fort Pleasant to serve as a distribution center of supplies to other outposts and then on to Fort Jupiter to scout the hammocks and streams for the Seminole. It was the sickly season, and half of his men suffered from malaria and could barely perform their duties. The heat and mosquitoes in this season were unbearable. And now only one of his four best men had returned.
Their pine log fort was near that part of the Everglades called the Devil’s Garden. Stephenson thought that a fitting description. Sam Jones, also known as Abiaka the Devil, was hiding there. He and his Seminole were invisible, elusive, tough and elusive. Trailing every patrol he sent out, his troops were in constant danger from their sniping. His men well remembered the Dade Massacre and lived and worked in constant anxiety. He dreaded to hear Monroe’s report, but he was sure it would not be good news.
Private Allen, bracing Monroe, led him to the Lieutenant. Monroe’s bare feet were swollen and steaked with cuts. Allen had managed to find him trousers and a cotton shirt. His face was blistered and sunburnt and his hair matted.
Captain Stephenson set his own stool down and said, “Sit here, private.”
Monroe sat down. “Thank you, sir.”
“Now, where are the other soldiers?”
“And the Creek guide?”
“He vanished. I assume he was captured too,”
“It was the Seminole? I suppose they took your firearms and the canoe.”
“Yes, sir.” With his hand he shielded his bloodshot eyes from the sun.
“How did you escape?”
“I didn’t escape. They let me go. They knew your name and wanted me to tell you what I saw.” Monroe wept fiercely. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Stephenson shook his head. “They let you go? Do not weep, soldier. Stand it like a man and tell me what happened. Start at the beginning.”
Private Monroe said, “Yes, sir.”
* * *
“Your orders were to patrol the hammocks, looking for signs of Seminole activity and if lucky, to find the camp of Sam Jones. We disembarked when we reached a pine island and bivouacked the first night alongside the creek. When we woke in the morning, Private Finney was missing. Our Creek guide was also gone. We searched the surrounding area for them without success and marched on by compass.
Leaving the pine island, we marched a few miles, weaving and wading our way through scrub and cypress. We stopped for lunch and afterward Private Eldridge led our line of march. His pace was quick and soon he was out of sight. We marched on but never saw him again. Private Austin, Private Smith and I marched till dark and bivouacked on another pine island.
Around midnight, we were roughly awoken by several Seminole who marched us to Sam Jones’ camp, beating us along the way. Our rifles and cartridge pouches were stacked near a pile of booty—blankets, pots, and other items obviously taken from a plantation. The warriors shared a jug of whiskey and grew wilder and louder. I watched as my comrades were stripped and tied to a pine tree. They were scalped while still alive. Slivers of pine lightwood were stabbed into their flesh and set on fire. Torches were also set at their bare feet. Their screams and slow death inflamed the Seminole who danced wildly about them. Five or six hours later, my comrades mercifully died.
When they turned their attention to me, I was sure that I would be next. Like my comrades, I was stripped. An aged Indian walked to me. A negro warrior interpreted his words: “I am Sam Jones. You have heard of me? I am going to spare your life so that you may return and tell your people what you have seen and tell them they will never find us.” He pointed to the charred bodies of my comrades. “Tell your Captain Stephenson that this fate awaits any who come looking for us. Now, go and tell them what you have seen—what you found in the Devil’s Garden.”
“It was dawn and they drove me from their camp. I started walking and somehow found my way back to the fort. I am sorry, Captain.” He started weeping again.
Captain Stephenson motioned to Private Allen. “Take him to the surgeon’s cabin so he can rest.”
The captain cursed under his breath. He cursed the government that had started this war. He cursed the Army and the leaders who had sent him to this post near the Devil’s Garden.
Private Allen returned. “Monroe is resting. Your orders, sir?”
Captain Stephenson wiped his face with a handkerchief, his mind struggling to make a decision. Send another patrol to find Sam Jones? He shook his head. He couldn’t afford to lose any more men. Send a dispatch to Fort Brooke or Fort King for help? Help, if sent at all, would likely not arrive in a timely fashion. He looked at the tired eyes of Private Allen. He was a young man, barely nineteen. “Tell Sergeant Moore to select eight men to patrol near the Fort and see if there’s any sign the Seminole are nearby. Saddle my horse as I’ll go with them myself. Then tell the cook to slaughter one of the beeves we took from the Seminole.”
Allen saluted. “Sir.”
That evening after “Scott Tattoo,” Stephenson drank two whiskeys and lay down. Like other nights, his sleep and dreams were troubled. That night’s dream saw Sam Jones slip silently through the darkness to his cabin. Jones entered, knife drawn. In the light of the burning piece of lightwood in Jones’ hand, he could see his eyes—black, cold, and hard. Sam Jones wrinkled face showed an evil smile—the smile of a devil. Stephenson tried to rise from his cot, but he could not. He felt his heart pounding, his breath growing shallow, and his mind crying out, Don’t burn me . . .
He woke with a start, pushed aside his mosquito netting, found the whiskey jug, opened the cabin door, stared into the darkness, and sat on his camp stool. The devil didn’t come that night, but he knew that someday, maybe the next day he was on patrol, the devil would come and find him and he, like the men he had sent out on patrol, would indeed burn in the Devil’s Garden.
Note about the author: Rickey Pittman is a Seminole War reenactor, songwriter featured on his CD, Songs of the Seminole War. To order the CD, email the author at rickeyp at bayou.com. He is currently working on his historical novel about the Seminole, Death in the Little Winter Moon. This short story is one of the novel’s early chapters.