The boy walked slowly across the road, dragging his deerskin moccasins in the dust, more slowly than his mother could ever remember him walking. He wanted to be a man, to be brave and work hard, everything that his mother asked him to be – but he was only five years old, and he was not feeling particularly courageous today.
He looked back. His mother was waving.
The boy knew that he was royalty. This was his legacy. His grandfather was a Grand Sachem, and his father, Sylvester Pharaoh, was a Grand Sachem, the chief of the Montaukett tribe. Eventually, Stephen would become Grand Sachem as well.
Although it all sounded important, it didn’t seem to matter much to most people. The original settlements in East Hampton and Southampton, established around 1640, started to grow and thrive with the help of the Great Chief Wyandanch; but once the English gained a foothold, the Montaukett Indians, like so many tribes everywhere, began to be phased out of their lands. By the early 1800’s, the Montaukett land was all but gone. Even the proud legacy of his family name – Pharaoh – was rarely used except by tribal members. More often, the family went by the name of Taukus, and their white neighbors, speaking the name roughly the way they heard it, turned the name into the rather undignified “Talkhouse”.
Stephen did not feel very royal as he walked towards New Fireplace Road, his bare feet kicking up a low cloud of dust in the road behind him. He felt his mother’s eyes burn through his thin shirt, and he refused to look back again. He was going to be a man. She told him so. His father and mother wanted Stephen to have a better life than they had, to learn skills that would enable him to be respected by white and native alike. And so, when Colonel Parsons, who owned a prosperous farm five miles away and typically indentured local boys to work for him, expressed an offer for Stephen, his parents eagerly agreed. It was a good bargain: forty dollars for a forty-pound boy. The child did not know how long he would be expected to work for Parsons, only that his parents seemed enthusiastic, and so he would be, too.
But now the boy wasn’t quite so sure. He started off briskly to impress his mother, but now he walked slowly, his steps dragging in the dirt.
Stephen had no way of knowing what the future would hold. He hoped Colonel Parsons would be a good master, not cruel as Stephen feared, as other natives said their masters could be.
He thought about all the things his people became when they grew up, when they became men. Soldiers. Sailors. Whalers. Away from the drudgery of the land, free on the open seas, sailing all over the world and visiting far-off, exotic places with names like Wahoo and Atooie, spearing whales in the ocean and bringing back the precious oil. Stephen’s grandfather once told him about how the Montaukett used to wait and watch for the whales to beach on the shore. But the white man, with no patience, launched small wooden boats and hunted the whales with hand-held harpoons right off the Montauk coast. By 1800, the North Atlantic right whales were nearly extinct. Stephen did not know the reasons, but he knew that the whales did not come anymore, and what had once been a gift from the Great Spirit to the natives was no longer given.
One day he would indeed fish whales from far-away places, escaping his indenture to join a ship’s crew in Sag Harbor; but like so many other young men, he would become disillusioned with the backbreaking work and miserable pay, and never go to sea again. He would later become a Civil War soldier, enlisting in Company G, 29th Connecticut volunteers, and fight alongside other Indians and free black men for the Union and for freedom.
He could never have dreamed that he would become renowned, not as a soldier or a whaler, but by doing the most natural thing in the world – walking. Walking fast.
The boy’s pace slowed to a crawl.
After the war he returned home and began work as a farm hand. Every morning he walked the twenty-so miles to Southampton, did a full day’s work, and then walked back again. He walked faster than most people could run.
It was not long before Stephen – tall, gaunt, black hair flowing, moving as fast as a deer through the woods – became a local legend. One story claimed that a man, struggling with his horse and buggy in a downpour, looked up ahead and saw Stephen, undaunted by the rain and walking as fast as always. As the buggy neared, the man shouted to him, asking if he wanted a ride. Stephen looked at the man, with his rain-soaked buggy and mud-splattered horse, and thanked him for his offer, but said no – he was in a rush.
The little boy stopped and adjusted his sack; he peered into the sky, watching a hawk making lazy circles overhead, his haunting long screech piercing the sky. Free, it seemed to be calling. Free.
The boy sighed.
He would become famous when circus impresario P.T. Barnum hired him as one of his acts. People would line up and put down their money to race Stephen, “The Last King of the Montauks”. The claim was not true, but the showman said it sounded more dramatic. Stephen guessed perhaps Mr. Barnum was right, because people kept putting money down to race him, and Stephen kept winning.
The boy felt salt burning in his eyes. He blinked and swallowed hard, but his tongue stuck in his mouth. He had no spit. A mockingbird on a nearby branch cocked its head, regarding the boy. Are you going to cry? it seemed to say. Men don’t cry. Stephen pulled his sack angrily onto his tiny shoulder and began to walk again.
He would eventually become chief of the Montaukett. But he could not imagine the irony that after all of his years of walking outdoors, he would develop consumption. His health deteriorated quickly. He was only fifty-eight years old and Grand Sachem for little more than a year when he was found by a neighbor, dead on a path near his home. He was buried the traditional way, sitting upright, with samp, wampum and other offerings, to rest in the company of natives who passed before him.
But he could never have known that he would indeed accomplish what his parents wanted for him. He become so respected in the town that after he died, local veterans – claiming that Stephen Talkhouse was a veteran and therefore entitled to it – erected a small, government-issue stone over his burial site, engraved with his name. The only gravestone in the Indian Fields cemetery, it stands upright among the circles of stones marking the other Indian graves surrounding it.
He might have been amused to learn that for decades after his death, when children would ask their parents to drive them, East Enders would refuse and tell their children to “walk like Stephen Talkhouse.” His name would survive nearly two hundred years later in a circular drive called Talkhouse Walk, and at Talkhouse Lane, where his house once stood, and, seemingly inexplicably, in the name of an Amagansett nightclub, where drums would beat at night and people come to dance.
No, the boy could not know any of this, and perhaps would not believe it even if he had been told. But none of that far-away future mattered now. The boy walked slower and slower, fighting with himself; but finally he could bear it no longer and turned back for one more glimpse of his mother, to see her eyes one more time.
But his mother was no longer there, and he understood that there was no reason to turn back any more. He felt tears stinging, and steeled his gaze back onto the road. He could never have known how much it would hurt, the deep pang of realization that he was never going to live with her again. He walked and listened to the beat of his broken heart. He listened to the drumming, like the drums of the tribe when it mourned or celebrated. He listened to his heart breaking, and could do nothing. He could not imagine what it might mean to be an adult. He walked, and his tears burned, and his broken heart drummed, and he walked on, starting from one part of the road as a child, praying that he wound up at the other end as a man.