by Ken Davis
Screams pierced the heavy autumn air, disturbing the scent of freshly fallen leaves wrapping the Allegheny foothills. The woeful cries made Thomas shiver as he struggled to crawl under an ancient rotting log. Moisture from orange shards of wasted hemlock fiber seeped through his coarse wool hunting shirt, fortifying goosebumps created by fear. All the while, the searing fire of a smithy’s forge burned in his right thigh.
He had run wildly through the smoke of ambush, blasting a load of buckshot at a blue-clad French marine who jumped at him with his tomahawk. He knew not if his aim was true, only that John Marsh to his right and Henery Kuhns to his left crumpled into dying heaps from the same volley that ripped a ball through the flesh of his leg. The hot pain had not slowed his flight.
Now he lay on his back, hiding for life, an empty fowling gun wedged tightly against his body. He tilted his head to look at the deerskin leggings covering his breeches. Halfway down his right thigh beside the hamstring, a soot-singed oblong gash was slowly pooling with blood. He wiggled the toes on his right foot, looking for movement through the moccasin’s layer of elk hide. Of course, they move, he thought. Just ran a hundred yards.
The musket ball had plowed through the layers of his skin leaving a deep, wide furrow. He pressed his right hand as a fleshy compress over the burning wound to stop the bleeding until it was safe enough to bandage.
Not far away another crazed scream was followed by the whoosh of an object cutting through the air, ending in a cracking sound. Voices spoke in French, most with Iroquois accents.
“Allez vous . . . a’ gauche!” (watch out, on your left)
“Faites attention!” (pay attention)
Thomas prayed that the French and their allies had not traced his flight.
“Je prends du chevelu!” (I’m taking the scalp)
His French was rusty, but what he remembered told him the enemy was not interested in prisoners. For an instant he thought how disappointed his grandmother might be witnessing the degree he allowed his native language to suffer from neglect.
It mattered little now. His friends were either dead or would be when the swing of a tomahawk splintered the next skull.
“Aw . . . Ohhhhhhhh!”
The first howl was short, raw and guttural, spat into the air by a savage when he pared a scalp off his enemy.
The second an octave higher, drawn out as a wolf’s mournful wail.
“Aw . . . Ohhhhhhhh!”
Thomas prayed to God that the decaying trunk might screen him, or he would most surely join his comrades in eternity.
A lifetime passed, maybe five minutes. Terrifying screams had ceased; voices grew silent.
Then ghastly, drawn out whistles began, Iroquois warriors and French marines pursing their lips to create catalysts of panic, creating more horror for ambush survivors. The eerie vibrations floated to his ears from every direction.
They’ll not flush me into the open like some grouse from its blind, he thought, shivering, determined to control his fear and not try a dash to safety.
Thomas glanced to his hand pressed over the burning wound. The hole through his deerskin legging was blotting to a rich blackish red from blood trickling with every pump of his heart. If only he could move his body enough to rip a strip from his cravat and wrap it around the wound. If only he could calm his heart’s rapid beating.
A sudden, benign rustling of fallen leaves reached his ears. He looked to the laurel branches above. They were still. It was not the wind. He froze, trying to assume the guise of rotting bark.
Thomas stared straight ahead, afraid to breathe. It seemed as if even the putrid smells of his fowler’s dirty barrel were conspiring to expose him.
His eyes moved towards the odor to see a musket barrel pointing at him, inches from his face, its charred opening leaking sulphury smell into Thomas’ nose.
No more than an arm’s length away, an Iroquois warrior stood. From the savage’s leggings belt, a freshly peeled scalp dripped blood on his moccasins.
Thomas waited for the explosion that would hurl his soul into the next world.
It did not come.
Thomas’ eyes fixed on the warrior. His head was plucked clean of hair, save a scalp lock supporting a red dyed deer-tail roach pierced by a red hawk’s tail feather. Around his neck hung a scalping knife encased in a quill-worked sheath. A deerskin sleeveless shirt hung to the top of his loincloth and leggings, decorated with beads, stitching and large patches of soot and blackened bear grease.
The warrior’s head, face, neck, arms, and hands were smeared with black war paint, a sign that he was taking no prisoners. Brown eyes peered out of the depths of the fearsome blackened face, fixed on Thomas’ expression. Only beaded earrings hanging from elongated lobes slit apart from the ear and wide silver armbands broke the pall of the death paint.
Yet the warrior did not squeeze the trigger. Instead, he knelt, a blood-stained iron tomahawk with a rattlesnake handle gripped in his right hand, held high near a grotesque ear, ready to smash into Thomas’ brain at the slightest provocation.
The savage set his musket down amongst the leaves and moved his left hand towards Thomas’ cheek, to a dingy red birthmark. His penetrating eyes never seemed to blink.
Thomas struggled to show no fear, to not cringe.
The warrior brushed at the birthmark with his grimy fingers, as if he was trying to rub it off.
With a strangely serene voice, he spoke to Thomas in clipped English, “Red turtle skin. How make?”
Thomas’ birthmark, a source of teasing when he was young, seemed to be all that was keeping him alive. He searched his mind for the correct answer, and the impatient Iroquois jabbed his neck with the blade of the bloody hawk, leaving a sticky blotch across his jugular.
“How get you?”
In a firm voice that he hoped would camouflage his fear, Thomas gave a simple answer, “God gave it to me.”
“Turtle Face!” The savage poked the tomahawk blade into Thomas’ neck again, to emphasize that he was Turtle Face. “Where born?”
Thomas was perplexed why he cared, but he knew that so long as the Iroquois was talking, there was a chance of staying alive.
“Not far from here, east along the Juniata,” he said with the same strong voice.
“Twenty-four years ago, before your French came down the Ohio.”
“Me Cayuga, not French,” the savage proudly stated.
It didn’t much matter to Thomas.
Then the Cayuga asked, “You D’Ivor?”
Thomas’ senses tottered with shock. His family name had been D’Ivor, three generations ago when they fled France after the Huguenot persecutions.
“Yes, Devore,” said Thomas, pronouncing his surname carefully in his English accent. “Thomas Devore.”
The Cayuga set down his tomahawk at what he thought was a prudent distance. He unwound the linen cravat from Thomas’ neck and ripped the cloth in half. From a faded green wool hunting bag hanging under his left arm, he took a clump of dried sphagnum moss.
Lifting Thomas’ hand from the wound, he moved it to his chest and urged in a soft voice, “Tommy, cry out not.”
Thomas nearly fainted, whether from loss of blood or the shock of hearing his name formed by the tongue of this blood splattered savage.
Taking a ruddy scalping knife from the sheath around his neck, the warrior cut slits into the leggings, at angles away from the musket-ball hole, and folded them under the remaining material to better expose the wound.
“We shoot English down like one pigeon. Tommy run like devil, even with hole in leg.”
If not for the savage’s horrible appearance and stoic demeanor, the remark could have been humorous.
The Cayuga ripped the moss into several pieces, spit on the wound, and scrubbed at the skin with one of the sphagnum shreds to remove powder residue. The pain was terrific, and Thomas clenched every muscle in his body to stifle a scream. As new blood began its flow, the warrior pressed a larger fragment of gray moss into the wound and firmly wrapped the linen strip around the thigh until it completely covered the fungus. The burning eased to an ache.
While tying the two ends together in a simple squared knot, the warrior said, “Tommy safe here. Wait for sun to hide behind mountain. When moon make shadows on face, fly to family.”
With unexpected tenderness, he pressed his palm on Thomas’ bandaged injury and held it there for many seconds. Then with both hands he grabbed Thomas’ head, so the long dark hair fell away from his face. The warrior stared.
Thomas’ muscles froze, afraid to blink because the Cayuga’s eyes were so intense. He knew not what to do or to say, or what to fear.
And then, as if reassured with the birthmark
evidence, the Cayuga said, “Come not to Juniata while French and English kill each other.”
The warrior pointed to himself with the remaining length of cravat, his ferocious head gave a slight nod and he said, “Then me, Sosondowa, bring neckcloth, find brother Tommy at butter spring.”
Thomas was stunned. He had forgotten about the stone-lined trench that brought water from a spring into the basement of their old home in a past life. His mother had stored fresh-churned butter in small crocks, to be kept cool by spring water flowing through the basement trough. In his eighth year, she disappeared, along with a brother and a sister while picking black berries. In the fall, what was left of his mother’s body was discovered. His father thought mountain lions had killed her. His brother and sister were never found. Could this warrior be his missing brother?
Sosondowa released his grip and began gathering hands full of leaves to throw over Thomas until he was completely covered.
“Remember neck cloth,” the warrior said to the fresh heap of leaves as he stuffed the other half of Thomas’ cravat into his hunting bag.
Just as quickly, the Cayuga disappeared. Thomas heard distant voices and laughter, then a hush settled across the blood-soaked soil. Light dimmed in the silent forest, chasing shadows into the fading colors of its surroundings.
The Iroquois mythic hero Sosondowah was a great hunter known for stalking a supernatural elk, Sosondowah was captured by Dawn, a goddess who needed him as a watchman. He fell in love with Gendenwitha (she who brings the day), a human woman. He tried to woo her by singing to her in spring as a bluebird, in summer as a blackbird and in autumn as a hawk, who then tried to take Gendenwitha with him to the sky. Dawn tied him to her doorpost and then changed Gendenwitha into the Morning Star, so he could watch her all night but never be with her.
(Harriet Maxwell (Ya-ie-wa-no); Arthur Caswell Parker (Ga-wa-so-wa-neh), December 15, 1908; "Myths and Legends of the New York State Iroquois")