The sun crept over the horizon as Robin sped west on the Tamiami Trail. The speed signs read 55 mph, but there was little traffic so there was no one to question 80mph instead. Robin’s mind turned over Billy Osceola’s reaction when he had called to arrange a meeting with Billy’s sister, Talking Panther.
“Hey man, no can do. For our tribe, she’s the purity. Most of our people don’t want a white man tainting her presence. Sorry, Robin, I can’t do it.”
“Billy,” Robin had pushed, “this is life or death. My life and others.”
Something had been bothering his friend. Robin had heard it in his voice. Could Billy be involved in the fraud. If he is, I’m really in trouble. No one needs to follow me. I’ll be walking right into my own trap, deep in the Everglade swamps. Anything could happen there. And nobody even knows where I am.
This don’t matter. He could not go back, so he turned off the Tamiami Trail and drove north up Highway 27. He stepped on the gas. The road was badly in need of repair but the Duragno shocks generated even more power made from this type of surface.
He watched a steamy flat landscape and was reminded why this land was called the Devil’s Garden. There was little beyond forsaken scrub with swamp and alligators. Fifty miles from here was Miami. Yet this was some of the wildest land in the United States. No wonder Billy’s tribe hides his sister here.
What is her secret?
Robin had little to do but wonder how the book directed him to contact Billy’s sister. He was still astonished. A note in the book had told him to contact Billy Osceola’s sister who was an unknown tribal healer and lived in the Devil’s Garden reservation. The story of Billy having a sister who was a medicine woman was one he had heard but had dismissed.
What‘s the connection? Me, the book, Ian Fletcher, con men in England and Seminole Indians?
He began to list the links.
Each is part of my life. Billy and Ian don’t know each other. They’re thousands of miles apart. I am the only link and don’t even know Billy’s sister.
He pushed the Durango harder and remembered the first night he and Billy had talked about the Seminole Center at Devil’s Garden.
“We, the Seminole, have long understood the white man’s insatiable avarice. They are stupid and greedy. The white men outnumber us and have always been better armed so the best we can do is a standoff. But we’ve never surrendered, man. Instead, long ago we created a secret place and hid our most valued knowledge there. We only let you see what we want you to see. Your society can’t last. You don’t keep the balance. You don’t give back. Even our most primitive ancestors knew the laws of giving-you can’t take without giving in return.
“We’ve been waiting a hundred and fifty years for your society to fall. We’re patient, man, but we won’t have to wait much longer. The real jungles aren’t in the wilderness anymore. They’re the cities. And when everything falls apart, we’ll have the words and the secrets of how to live in perfect harmony with nature. The People will survive.”
Robin raced towards one curious outcome of the tribe’s plan-a great Seminole charade created right in the middle of the Devil’s Garden. One of the largest bingo halls in the world stood far from the white man’s civilization, among swamp cabbage, mangrove, palmetto ledge and fields of fennel. Built long before the tribe purchased Hard Rock gambling operation, this hall had hosted avid gambling fans from all over the state. Few knew the real reason it had been built. The bingo hall wasn’t built just for profit. It had been put up because it provided the perfect cover for large numbers of Seminoles to congregate. They met at the hall, then melted into the swamp and carried out their mysterious rites; no one took any notice. Practicing their oracles this way unobserved but right under the white man’s nose, was a great source of Seminole humor. Billy had often joked about it with Robin.
Robin did not see any humor now. That building now loomed out of the morning fog.
He stomped harder on the accelerator making the Durango surge ahead. Turning left on a dirt road, the SUV left billows of dust as it raced past the bingo hall. He drove down a trail surrounded by swamp and forest so thick that few humans could penetrate it. This was the secret heart of the reservation.
He shifted into four-wheel drive, and drove another mile down a muddy track to small, grassy meadow centered with oak trees and palm hammocks. He parked and tread along a heavily obscured trail working out his tension with a fast pace.
As he hiked quickly through thick brush, Robin recalled how he had first met Billy. Years ago he had been fishing by himself in the Everglades and had stepped on a rattlesnake. The bite struck a major artery and venom had flooded his system, leaving him paralyzed and in terrible pain. He thought he was going to die alone in the swamp when Billy Osceola, stumbled upon him.
Billy had known what to do. ”I’ll get Swamp Jimson for you, man. A wild part of the nightshade family. Our people use it for snakebites. Its leaf eats the poison. Scientifically, I think the alkaloids in the plant break down the venom. Be careful not to let this get on your hands or touch your mouth. You’ll go crazy if you do. Jimson Weed is powerful stuff, man. “
The Jimson had given Billy time to get help.
Years later, Robin repaid the favor. The Federal government had pressed charges against a Seminole tribal chairman for killing an endangered Florida panther on tribal land as part of an ancient rite.
Robin had used his government connections to get the indictment dismissed. Even though Robin downplayed his involvement, the Seminoles accepted him as a brother and had initiated him into many of their rites. Over years of friendship, MacAllen had become familiar with the tribe’s secret center, their hidden way of life and their waiting game. He heard that Billy had a sister named Talking Panther, a secret spiritual leader and medicine woman. He though this a fable. Billy had had only laughed when Robin asked.
Now, he knew Billy actually did have a sister, and Robin needed very much to see her.
Without hearing a sound he was suddenly grabbed from behind.
He stopped, paralyzed. Instinctively his body reacted though he knew it would be too late. He had been sloppy and was going to pay the price. Relaxing for just an instant he broke the grip, jumped back and started to swing.
A man whispered “Hey, man, quiet down. You sound like a herd of wild pigs crashing through the brush. What do you think you’re doing?”
It was Billy. Robin checked his swing at Billy’s muscular hulk and embraced him instead.
Billy did not produce his normal broad smile, but motioned ominously for Robin to be quiet.
“Thanks for setting this up Billy.” His old friend nodded, then motioned more urgently for Robin to be silent and follow him. He turned around and headed further into the dense swamp on a path Robin had never seen.