REVENGE OF A FATHER
by Michael Cook
Wisps of fog rose from the surface of the lake like ghosts rising from their final resting place, only to disappear on a wind that snatched multicolor leaves from their lofty perches. The leaves swirled around in colorful twisters until they floated to the forest floor and the surface of the lake. The smell of damp earth and pine needles filled the air.
A pair of woodsmen crouched on the bank, watching, listening. Birds sang and flitted about. Caleb Stewart looked at his son and was proud of what he saw. The young man of seventeen years had grown to be an excellent woodsman. Luke was smart like his mother and inquisitive like his father. At six-foot, three inches, he was a big man with a big heart.
“What are you looking at, Pa?”
“Ah, thought I saw a deer across the lake.”
Caleb glanced away, embarrassed at being caught staring. He deeply loved and cared for his family but putting it into words wasn’t something he was capable of doing.
The sound of a squirrel fussing stopped their conversation and the two men quickly slipped into the thick brush. They searched and listened to their surroundings. The squirrel fell silent and moved away through the treetops.
Caleb put his hand on Luke’s shoulder and signaled for him to move up the hill. The young man nodded, hefted his rifle, and silently crept away.
Luke took it as a compliment his father had such confidence in him. His father was known far and wide as an accomplished woodsman and Indian fighter and was respected for his bravery and courage. Caleb letting Luke take a separate trail showed him his father respected his ability as well. He had long since matured past any of the adolescent feelings that sometimes caused problems between a father and a son. Caleb’s confidence and respect meant a lot to Luke.
Caleb took the lower trail with his rifle at the ready. The last thing he wanted was to walk into a bear. Or worse. A bend in the trail loomed ahead so he moved ahead cautiously. He knew Luke was searching on the cliff which rose on his right. The brown, green, and burgundy of their clothing blended well with their surroundings and the fringed edges broke up their silhouettes. Like spirits, they made very little noise.
Caleb continued forward until he heard a blood-chilling noise – a chorus of war whoops. They were coming from above, up where . . .
Caleb turned, only to be brought up short by the muzzle of a musket pointed at his face. On the other end stood a young Shawnee Indian. The warrior’s black eyes bored into him, and Caleb knew he was about to die.
Oh, God. Luke would die thinking his father hadn’t come to help. He couldn’t let this happen. But what could he do? He was helpless.
He saw the warrior’s finger tighten on the trigger. Caleb tensed, preparing for death. The Indian squeezed the trigger.
But no hot lead of death came from the musket. A harmless puff of smoke rose from the lock. A flash in the pan. Misfire!
Caleb acted, ducking to the right and pushing the muzzle to the left. At the same time, he unsheathed his hunting knife.
A slow burn! The musket fired and the shot grazed the side of Caleb’s shoulder. He ignored the pain. His solitary thought was to help Luke.
Caleb turned the knife edge down and plunged it into his attacker just below the Indian’s ribs. He drove it down, ripping him open to the waist. The warrior dropped his musket and grabbed his stomach. It was a useless attempt to stop the inevitable.
Caleb slashed again, cutting the warrior’s throat to stop the warning cry he was about to raise. The Indian fell and Caleb, sheathing his knife, was on him. He pulled the shooting bag and powder horn from the Indian’s body and slung both over his left shoulder. He grabbed the musket and his own rifle and then ran as fast as he could to where Luke had ascended the hill.
Caleb slung his own rifle over his shoulder and began reloading the musket as he ran. He got to the top and saw evidence of a struggle, but Luke was nowhere to be found. That meant he wasn’t dead – at least not yet. If he was a captive, there was still a chance to save him.
“I’m coming, son,” he said softly.
He crouched and began looking for tracks to determine the direction they’d gone. In his fear and concern, he almost missed the approach of someone from behind. He sank down in the brush and peered through it at a warrior carrying the one he’d just killed. He slid up behind a large tree and waited.
Caleb saw the man was going to pass right by his hiding spot. He reached around to his lower back and pulled his tomahawk from his belt. As the warrior came even with him, Caleb swung it and buried the blade in the man’s chest. Both warriors dropped and Caleb seized the additional powder horn, ammunition, and musket.
He circled the area and found the tracks of the war party and those of his son. A sigh of relief expelled from his lungs. Luke was still alive. Caleb headed west at a ground-eating run, following the tracks.
Luke had the hell beat out of him. His knife, pistols, and rifle had been taken from him, along with his shooting bag and powder horn. His lip was bloody and his left eye was swollen shut. There was also a deep cut from a tomahawk in his left upper arm. His sleeve was soaked with blood. His hands were tied behind his back and a warrior pulled him along by means of the rope which was tied around his neck.
He knew things would only get worse when they got to the Shawnee village. There would be torture and they would make him run the gauntlet. His only hope was his father. If Caleb was still alive, he knew he would come for him.
Caleb ran until his legs screamed for relief. Then he slowed to a walk and kept moving toward his son. Finally, he had to stop. Fear, anxiety, and exhaustion took over and he heaved. His whole body jerked and everything in his stomach came up. He filled his mouth with water from his canteen, spit it out, and then took a couple of small swigs.
He rested only a few minutes before he walked on. Finally, feeling better, he caught his breath and began running again. One way or the other, he would catch up to them before sunset.
Luke knew he had to somehow slow his captors. He stumbled and fell, making them stop and help him up. He took a couple of kicks to the ribs for his trouble but he’d slowed them down and managed to leave a lot of evidence of their passing.
When he stumbled a second time the beating was worse, but the war party decided to stop for the night. Luke felt like he’d been kicked by a mule but at least he’d accomplished what he wanted. If his father was still out there, he’d catch up soon.
The sun was beginning to set when Caleb smelled the smoke. There was at least one campfire up ahead. Maybe more. He stopped and checked the loads of the two muskets, his rifle, and his two pistols. Then he climbed to an overlook, took off all but his own shooting bag and powder horn, dropped to his stomach, and eased up to the edge.
He counted seven warriors in the camp below. Luke sat off to one side. He wished he could catch his son’s eye to let him know he was there. But Luke, tied to a tree, appeared to be sleeping.
Caleb slipped down from the overlook and into the thick brush. He knew his best chance was to wait for nightfall then move in to rescue Luke once the Indians had bedded down. He ate some jerky and then dozed. It was a fitful sleep, and he awoke with a start a few hours later.
Checking the stars, he figured it was almost midnight. He stretched and got ready by checking each gun he had one last time. He checked his own shooting bag and powder horn, strapped on the other two powder horns, slung his rifle across his back, stuck his pistols in his belt, and picked up the muskets.
His earlier anger and fear turned to a slow simmering desire for revenge. The warriors might kill him and Luke, but they would do so only after Caleb exacted a great toll on them for taking his son. If he had his way, none of them would live to tell the story of what had happened in these woods.
He made his way down to the trail and crossed it, slipping through the woods like a ghost. With several hours of darkness left, there was no need to hurry.
As Caleb got close to the camp, he saw movement up ahead and dropped to the ground. He searched the woods and spotted the guard about forty yards from the edge of the camp. The man had made a fatal mistake. He was facing the camp rather than away and wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings.
Experience told Caleb that the light of the fire had destroyed the Indian’s night sight. He propped one of the muskets against a tree and then crept forward another twenty yards. He laid the second musket on the ground and drew his knife. He silently stepped up behind the guard, put his left hand over his mouth, and shoved the long blade into his rib cage, piercing his heart. The man tried to yell but no sound came as Caleb dropped him to the ground.
He crept forward again, drawing his tomahawk. With murderous determination, he ran into the camp. The first warrior to see him sprang, but a smashing tomahawk blow to the Shawnee’s head split it open like a gourd.
The camp erupted into chaos. A chorus of war whoops broke the night quiet. Another warrior sprang from beside the fire and reached for his musket. As his fingers wrapped around the stock, Caleb swung his tomahawk, chopping off the man’s arm. Spinning, he drove his knife into the man’s chest.
Luke could only watch as his father fought like a man ten years younger. His long, salt and pepper-colored hair was loose and wild-looking as he moved about the camp. He thought Caleb resembled an angry silver tip grizzly and struggled to free himself so he could help.
Caleb wrenched his knife free just as one of the others jumped him from behind and forced him to the ground. The man rose and straddled Caleb’s back. He raised his war club but Caleb pushed up and bucked toward the fire, rolling the warrior off and into the roaring flames. The Indian’s old, dirty clothes caught fire, engulfing him. He rolled out the other side, howling in pain and batting at the flames in a useless attempt to put them out.
Caleb sprang to his feet and spun around as four warriors came after him. He pulled one of the powder horns from over his shoulder and dropped it in the fire as he leaped over it and ran to the far edge of the camp. The horn exploded, killing three of the warriors and mortally wounding the fourth.
Caleb turned to see the warrior he’d first batted away crouched behind his son with a knife to his throat. Blood covered the side of the man’s head and neck and he appeared dazed. The point of his blade pierced Luke’s neck.
Caleb didn’t think. He just reacted. In one quick move, he drew one of his pistols, and fired a hastily aimed shot at the Indian’s head. The warrior jerked as the hot lead ball tore through his left eye and exploded out the back of his head.
Luke’s neck muscles tightened as the blade dug deeper. He stared wide-eyed at his father. Pushing back, Luke rolled with the warrior and the knife fell away from his neck.
Tears welled up in Caleb’s eyes.
“No . . . ”
Dropping the pistol, he rushed to his son. The cut was small but deep enough to bleed like a stuck pig. Caleb tore a strip from the hem of his hunting shirt and soaked it with water. Gently, he cleaned Luke’s neck and then bandaged the cut.
“It’s alright, Pa. I’m alright. Untie my hands. I can’t feel them.”
“Aye, I can do that.”
Caleb moved behind his son. Once Luke was cut loose. Caleb walked to each warrior and made sure each was dead. He reloaded his pistol, stuck it in his waist belt, and then retrieved his knife and tomahawk. Then he walked back over to his son.
Offering his hand, he helped Luke to his feet and was rewarded with a bear hug for his efforts. Caleb fought back tears as relief flooded over him. Luke was safe, and that was all that mattered. Exhaustion over came him and Luke had to hold him up.
“Pa. You alright?”
“Aye. Let’s move on.”
The camp was filled with death – death he’d brought upon it – and he had no desire to sleep in its midst, but Luke was able to persuade him to at least sit for a while and let the tension drain away.
Caleb felt very old and tired. After some time, Luke came over and offered his hand. Caleb took it and was lifted to his feet.
“Let’s put out the fire and move on,” Luke said. “I think it’ll be good to get back and see how Ma and the rest of the family are doing. What do you think?”
“Sounds good to me, son,” Caleb agreed.
“Should we bury the Indians?” Luke asked, looking around the camp.
“No. The varmints have to eat as well, so leave them. They’d done nothing better for you or I.”
As they left the camp, Caleb stopped and looked back. A dozen men had died that day, and he was thankful his son hadn’t been one of them. He felt no remorse for what he’d done. He knew if any of these men had his child taken, he’d have done the same.
Turning away, he walked to catch up with his son.