The Bushfighters/Chapter 4

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Bushfighters by Hugh Pendexter
IV. The Medicine of the Potawatomi

pp. 18–22.



THE night was oppressively warm, and the darkness sagged like a black tent over the little clearing. Back in the woods rose the sound of some occasional four-legged prowler, while the mournful interrogation of an owl caused the men of the garrison to cease their smoking and stare at the black wall and ask themselves who the next victim would be.

The witchcraft delusion was threescore years behind them, but fragments of superstitions still remained, and the influence of the dark woods, stretching across the Iroquois land and hiding many mysteries, was strong upon many a pioneer. Some of the men whispered how the sentinels had been killed by supposedly friendly Indians, men of the Iroquois, who had taken them away to use as sacrifices in awful rites. Others ominously insisted that the secret slayer would never be caught, intimating it was something more than flesh and bone.

Had Putnam realized the grotesque conjectures of the men he would have told them, as he already had informed the lieutenant, of finding the bodies in the creek. He had withheld the information at the request of the lieutenant, who feared the news would seriously affect the spirits of the men.

So while the men smoked and whispered and at last turned in with their guns by their sides Putnam on sentinel duty leaned on his smooth-bore and cocked his ear to test the weird hoo, hoo-hoo of the owl. He accepted the night call as genuine and relaxed. He did not anticipate any visit from the mysterious slayer until the post was asleep; and his thoughts ran backward rather than to the menace he hoped would soon assail him.

It was a little more than twelve months back that Sir William Johnson—plain William then—had been named to command the expedition against Ticonderoga and Crown Point. His selection by Governor Shirley of Massachusetts was intended to avoid the controversies sure to rise were a New England man named. From a political standpoint the choice was most wise as it aroused no New England jealousies, while it soothed the pride of New York and was extremely pleasing to the Long House.

Shirley's commission made Johnson major-general of the Massachusetts forces. The other provinces issued similar commissions; and although he knew nothing of warfare he took the field with a fine feeling of optimism. Then had followed his council with the leading men of the Iroquois, when he threw down the war-belt on the fourth day and an Oneida had picked it up.

The delays in preparing the roads to Lake George and in moving the army made Putnam grit his teeth in remembering, and had impelled the founder of Williams College to complain:

“We may possibly see Crown Point this time twelve months. The expedition goes on very much as a snail runs.”

Putnam lived it all over again as his ears kept watch on the forest. There were the three hundred Mohawks painting the face of their beloved leader General Johnson, who knew their hearts, sang their songs and danced their dances and who was to marry Molly Brant, one of their women. There was Johnson, always genial and pleasing, finding time for his wine and lunch although the delays and muddlings piled up to a grotesque extent.

Already the French knew of the proposed campaign from letters found on Braddock's stricken field. There was the aged and corpulent Hendrick, mighty chief of the Mohawks, who told Johnson on the morning of the battle with Dieskau's forces that the English detachments sent into battle were “too few to fight and too many to be killed.” A brave man was Hendrick, son of the Wolf, a Mohegan man, and a Mohawk woman; for although he knew he was going to his death he harangued his warriors from a gun-carriage, and being too fat to walk to war borrowed a horse of Johnson and went out to be bayoneted to death. Had General Johnson heeded the old chief's advice there would have been no “bloody morning scout” as a preliminary to the capture of Baron Dieskau.

But if the English had missed an opportunity there was at least the satisfaction of knowing the enemy was not a harmonious unit.

From prisoners taken by the rangers it was commonly known that Vaudreuil did not want Montcalm, but had hoped himself to-be commader-in-chief of all the French.

The fact of his father having governed New France before him imbued him with a great respect for his own abilities. Then again he was Canadian born and had little liking for those from France.

This cleavage between the governor and general was noticeable also in the army. The troops of the line from France viewed the colonial regulars with contempt. The interests of the latter were almost entirely confined to Canada and the development of the fur trade. Then came the militia, caring only for Canada, excellent bushfighters but of small caliber when it came to war in the open.

There was no branch in the French army which was self-dependent, but neither the troops of the line, the colonial regulars, nor the militia would ever admit as much. No; it was not all easy sailing for the French, although their consolidated command, the fact that nearly all Canadians were soldiers and not home-builders, as were the English, gave them a great advantage in taking the initiative. When it came to sticking and taking punishment and doggedly holding on, they lacked the inspiration of homely homes and rude clearings.

And now that Oswego had fallen Putnam believed the white and violet of the French regulars and the white and black of the Canadians would soon sail up Lake George, preceded by their militia and their howling red allies.

“Give something to settle our nerves and I'd thank God for their coming. One good stand-up give-and-take fight, and we'd own all this country for all time,” he told himself as the desire for a decisive battle surged through his veins and for a bit allowed him to forget the purpose of his vigil.

“Hoo, hoo-hoo?” called the owl from the pitch black of the forest tops.

“Regular and correct,” mechanically classified the ranger.

An animal scurried through the undergrowth at the edge of the woods without causing the sentinel to turn his head. The owl ceased its queries and for a while there was silence. There came the soft pad, pad of some creature sniffing and snuffling through the bushes. There was no more suggestion of concealment than any wild creature would practise on stealing close to a camp where men slept.

Putnam's ears, tuned to catch very vague alarms, at first passed over the awkward attempt at stealth of this prowler. Subconsciously, however, he caught up the shuffling steps and the snufflings that told him it was a bear, and began analyzing them. The snuffling continued, supplemented by sounds of rooting at the foot of a tree or under a decaying log.

Putnam placed his hat on a post and dropped on one knee. The animal, seemingly less cautious, gradually drew nearer the sentinel. Putnam carefully located the sound and softly called out—

“Who goes there?”

He had no intention that his voice should carry to the intruder's ears, but orders were orders.

The rooting continued, also the eager snapping of hungry teeth. Speaking even more gently and much more rapidly than on the first call, Putnam twice repeated the challenge and fired. As he fired he leaped from the stockade with his ax in his hand.

Something floundered and kicked convulsively for a few moments, but the sounds ceased as Putnam gained the bush. He had visualized the spot in his mind and proceeded to swing wide of it in the thick darkness as if he were working in broad daylight. He passed around it, then gradually narrowed his circle, his ears on the alert.

Finally something told him that his quest was ended; and, stretching out his ax, he touched something that yielded. He gave it several prods, then leaped upon it with the lightness of a lynx.

At first he was filled with shame, thinking it was a bear; for his fingers had passed over the furry coat of bruin. A further sweep of his hands, however, restored his self-esteem. Stepping aside he jerked off the bearskin and swiftly examined the naked body beneath. It was that of a gigantic Indian, and the balls from his smooth-bore had riddled the head.

GOOD ——! It's got Putnam!” yelled a frantic voice from the post. “Here's his gun and cap!” Lights began to spring up.

“Fetch out a torch and my gun, men,” called out Putnam. “I'm still alive and kicking. That's more'n I can say of some other folks in this neighborhood.”

“A French trick!” cried a soldier.

“Is that really you, Captain Putnam?” demanded an anxious voice.

“It couldn't really be any one else,” dryly retorted Putnam. “Bring a light. I've bagged the sentinel-killer. And bring my gun and cap.”

With a whoop of rejoicing the men streamed into the bush, waving torches of bark and pitch-pine. As they came up to Putnam they cried aloud in amazement on beholding the immense bulk of the dead Indian. He was naked, oiled and painted, and armed only with a knife.

“He's a Potawatomi,” said Putnam. “Lived out beyond the big lakes. We got three that was prowling round Fort William Henry and killing the sentinels with arrows. That's their strong point; sneaking in and killing a man at a time. They was all big fellows.

“The Mission Indians are the best reds that Montcalm has. Priests keep them under control, and they're not cannibals. But this dog!”

And in loathing he shook the torch at the stark form, hideous with its bands of black and red and yellow, with the head shaven except for the top-knot.

With a growl of rage a soldier pulled a knife and ripped off the scalp. Putnam would have remonstrated at this trespass on his prey, but another whispered—

“His brother was killed by the beast two nights ago.”

“Very well. But I must have that hair. I may have use for it,” said Putnam. “I'm going on a scout. There'll be no trouble tonight. Don't shoot me when I come in. I'll sing out my name.

“This —— had a camp near here. His friends must be waiting for him to report.”

All fears dropped from the soldiers, and to a man they were keen to go with the ranger; but he refused their company, insisting it was a one-man job and that he would let them know if he needed them.

Reloading his gun and taking the scalp, he used a torch in following the tracks until they brought him to the creek. Observing that they came from the west, he threw the torch into the water and began making his way up the creek, confident he would find the Indian's companions camped somewhere near the stream.

Such a camp, he knew, would be small, as only a small band would venture this far south of Lake George. His progress was slow, but after two hours of travel he discerned a reddish glow ahead.

Reconnoitering, he came to a little opening and all but walked upon a warrior seated with his back against a tree. Putnam had made no noise, yet some animal sense aroused the warrior. He stood up and lifted his head, and as he glared about he sniffed the air suspiciously.

On the other side of the opening was a fire, and from beyond it came the sound of wailing and groaning and diabolic yowling. At first Putnam feared some prisoner was being tortured, but a second thought told him this could not be, else the warrior close at hand would be back at the fire watching the sport.

Laying aside his rifle and taking his ax, the ranger glided forward until the same tree sheltered him and the sentinel. It was a pine some six feet in diameter, and with his ax drawn back the ranger began creeping around it. Inch by inch he advanced until he was almost within the light from the fire. Now he could hear the deep breathing of the savage.

Another inch, and through the smoke of the fire he observed a line of warriors with their backs to him, their eyes fastened on a skin lodge, or medicine-tent. Satisfied that their attention was held for a minute, he gripped his ax, stepped round the boll and shattered the sentinel's head, and caught the falling body and eased it down into a sitting posture. The dead sentinel clutched a bow and arrow in his hands.

So this was the lair of the beast that killed at night. Already a plan for reprisal was working in the ranger's mind. The presence of the medicine-tent and the absence of guns so far as he could see told him these were Western Indians, undoubtedly Potawatomis. Next to exterminating them the best thing would be to frighten them so thoroughly that they would go and stay away.

“Guess I'll need your hair,” he mused.

With a grunt of disgust he bent over the sentinel and circled his knife about the filthy scalp-lock and its ornaments of feathers. Adding it to the one he had brought from the post, he glided back into the woods and crept half-way around the tent, or until he stood behind it.

Peeping around the edge of the lodge, he beheld a dozen Indians and a Frenchman. The latter was enveloped in a beaver skin blanket like his companions, but retained his black three-cornered hat, marking him as one of the troops of the line, probably a petty officer.

Indians and white men were intently watching the medicine-tent. In the front of this at the height of a man's head, was a small opening. Occasionally the sorcerer's head appeared here, a fearful head with its layers of paint, its terrible, grimacing features and continuous crackling of speech issuing from the frenzied lips.

Although Putnam did not know it this was a famous sorcerer who far behind the big lakes was renowned for his power. He could kill a man many sleeps away simply by making an image of the man and willing him to death.

Here within a short journey of the outpost he had dared to set up his death-lodge and work death against the soldiers. The big brave who wore the bearskin was merely the executioner. The sorcerer was the one to receive the credit. Between the lodge and the fire and close to the former were two crotched sticks. Suspended to the sapling suspended between these were five scalps stretched on frameworks of birch.

The sorcerer thrust his fearful visage up to the open and commenced a frenzied prophecy. He told the Indians and the Frenchman that scalps and dead bodies were coming this night to the camp of the Potawatomi. No longer would the Creeping Bear be satisfied with one victim, but he would slay many.

On the morrow the Potawatomi with their brave white ally would attack the post, all dressed in the skins of bears, and find the garrison so frightened that they would kill them like so many rabbits. Had Putnam understood this blood-curdling harangue he would have half-believed such an attack was bound to succeed had not the midnight slayer been discovered and slain.

So absorbed were the spectators in watching the lodge that Putnam ventured to crawl much closer to the lodge. Now the sorcerer withdrew from the opening, screaming madly and calling out that his manito was with him and giving him great power. The lodge shook and trembled as if being flung about by demons.

The Indians at the fire crouched lower in their blankets; the officer unconsciously crossed himself. Suddenly the sorcerer raised the flap of the sacred lodge and danced out into full view, For part of a minute he stood here in the full glare of the fire, his eyes rolling, his teeth showing like a wolf's fangs, and his whole naked body seemingly in the grip of some mighty convulsion.

But what impressed the spectators and caused even Putnam to open his eyes wide in amazement was that the sorcerer appeared to be sweating blood.

Vanishing inside the lodge as abruptly as he had emerged, the sorcerer renewed his screaming. There came the sounds of other voices—one that was very deep and rumbling, another as thin and piping as the voice of a child. Then was added a third, the groaning of a woman.

These typed the victims awaiting the stout-hearted attack of the Potawatomi—the deep-voiced Englishman, little children and their mothers. The Indians clutched their axes and knives and breathed hard as they had visions of slaughter along the northern frontier.

Again the Frenchman crossed himself: Even Putnam, although ignorant of their language, sensed the symbolical meaning of the ventriloquial display and gritted his teeth and softly swore a round Saxon oath.

“Time I give them some new kind of witchcraft, the heathens!” he grimly decided as he wormed backward until squarely behind the lodge.

The rear of the lodge was too sacred for warriors to trespass upon, as their presence would embarrass the sorcerer in performing his ghastly tricks. Once more the lodge commenced to sway back and forth, its sides bellying out as if a tempest were trying to uproot it. The sorcerer set up a yelping defiance as if daring the wind-gods to do their worst.

As Putnam crawled nearer, a lean brown hand darted out from under the flap and snatched a rattle from the ground. Then came the voice of the rattle on the inside; and this clamor was kept up for half a minute. As it was thrust outside again the voices returned.

Apparently the fierce screaming of the sorcerer continued steadily; thus demonstrating that the other voices were those of spirits. There was the man's voice, now crying aloud as he went to the torture, the feeble complaints of the little children and the hopeless shrieks of the women.

“That's more'n a human being ought to stand,” muttered Putnam, his face now hard as granite:

Grunts of amazement and fear sounded from the row of spectators.

“I'll give them some new medicine, the ——!” gritted Putnam.

LEAVING his gun on the ground and pulling his knife, he crouched by the lodge and ran his fingers under the flap. Waiting until the clamor inside increased to unusual proportions—for now the sorcerer was about to complete his masterpiece in effect—Putnam raised the flap and entered. The sorcerer was bending over a gourd of white earth and was rapidly smearing it over his face, all the time screeching like a demon.

Suddenly he leaped erect and thrust his head through the opening. The spectators gasped in fear at the hideous pallor of his countenance, more terrible than the paint. Ducking back, he reached for the gourd, but stiffened, his mouth open, yet uttering no sound.

He sensed the ranger's presence and slowly turned his head, his mouth still agape. Putnam caught him by the throat, breaking the spell. The death-cry rose in a shrill crescendo, accompanied by a frantic thrust with a French trade-knife. Putnam parried the blow and drove his own blade home. The death-yell terminated with startling abruptness and evoked a grunt of astonishment from those outside. The Frenchman crossed himself and exclaimed—

“Mille diables!”

The sorcerer's form collapsed. He barely struck the ground before his hair was off. Crouching below the small opening, Putnam hurled the scalps of the sorcerer, the sentinel and the sentinel-killer into the group before the fire.

With yelps of terror the warriors glared at the ghastly trophies. Their minds were stupefied. From the lodge had come the voices of the English about to die beneath their axes. That had been a welcome assurance. But this death-cry of the medicine-man himself, so strangely terminated, formed a discord.

Of course the sorcerer's manito had presented them with the three scalps; therefore they must be scalps of enemies. They stared stupidly at the three exhibits. Undeniably they were beholding examples of Potawatomi hair decorations. With an inarticulate cry one of the warriors advanced a trembling finger and designated the scalp-lock of the sorcerer, calling attention to the streak of gray that identified it beyond all doubt.

Putnam by this time had rubbed some of the white earth over his face. Grimacing horribly, he allowed his pallid countenance to be seen at the opening for the space of two seconds. The savages howled at this astounding display of magic. The sorcerer, aided by his powerful manito, had scalped himself. Just what this marvelous and grewsome magic portended was beyond their simple minds to understand.

Suddenly one of them gave a hoarse shout, thinking he had discovered the purpose of the magic. He frantically told his companions that the medicine-man had painted his face white to represent a white man. His manito was again telling them they should have white scalps. Now he would cause his scalp to leap back into the lodge and to its place on his head; and the seance would be over.

But Putnam had not achieved his grand climax. Seizing the center pole of the lodge, he began tumbling and rocking the lodge violently. To the spectators this was a familiar evidence of the manito's presence; and they braced themselves for further demonstrations of the god. Yanking and pulling on the pole, Putnam ducked under the flap of skin. As he crawled into the free air he carried the end of the pole with him.

As he gained the bushes the lodge wilted to the ground and began to turn inside out. Finding his rifle, the ranger braced his heels and pulled the wreckage of the lodge toward him, thereby exposing the dead sorcerer. His whitened face and red poll were in fearful contrast. As one man the row of savages and the Frenchman rose to their feet, glaring at the dead man, then slowly shifted their gaze to the gray scalp at their feet.

The sorcerer had been killed and scalped by his manito. The midnight slaying of English sentinels had angered the god. Lifting their voices in a long-drawn-out scream, savages and white ally bolted from the scene.

As they ran the foremost man tripped over the body of the dead brave at the foot of the pine and pitched headlong. The mob swept over the prostrate man. And as he staggered to his feet it was only to go down again with the ranger's ax in the back of his head.