Before you read this tale, as the subject is a beloved and much studied and debated one, I would like to offer my explanation for some of the choices made.  I do not claim any perfect knowledge of the Shawnee nation, only my love of our lands' indigenous peoples and my sincere desire to tell their tale with humility and love.  I have had comments on my use of the name 'Shawanoese' and on the Shawnee words in this tale and others.  I work at a historic site in Ohio and the man whose house I lead tours through was an Indian Agent who worked with the 19th century Shawnee.  He wrote of their customs and life, and also composed a small dictionary of their tongue entitled 'Specimen of Shawanoese & Wyandott, or Huron Language'.  Since the Shawnee in my tales are 18th century, I bow to John Johnston's superior knowledge of them.  

If anyone is interested in a copy of this dictionary, it is available through our site for $7.50 and I would be happy to obtain a copy and send it to you for this cost plus $2 shipping.  Email me at: dfair@woh.rr.com

 

 

Panther Crosses the Sky

Chapter One

   

The native boy’s head turned sharply.  He stopped; his weapon in hand.  Listening carefully he waited.  When at last it came he was sure.  Someone was calling him.  But who?  No one was to know where he was hunting today.  He had been careful not to leave any signs of his passing by hopping from boulder to boulder and walking in the stream.  Now it seemed he had been discovered.

            Or missed.

            Careful not to leave any tracks, the boy left the stream and moved into the underbrush.  The tall cattails bowed to him as he entered their leafy hall.  He grinned and bowed back, thanking them for their protection.  Gripping his knife in his hand, he moved forward silently, stopping only when it came again.

            The whistle that was his name.

            The native boy frowned and reached out with his free hand to part the tall swaying stalks.  A river ran before him, its’ silver face reflecting the battle that raged in the skies above.  The sun had fought most of the day for dominion but, at the last, a line of dark gray clouds had conquered it, thrusting their war shields before its face.  Now all that remained were pale yellow ribbons of light falling from the sky to the earth, brushing the tall grasses and trees, and gilding the feathers of the herons on the river’s banks.  The boy looked up and shook his head.

“Better to fight another day, my brother, when you can win,” he whispered.

            The whistle came again.

            The boy shifted in his hiding place so he could see farther down the bank.  Something was moving there.  Pursing his lips, he whistled back his brothers’ names.  There was no reply.  Puzzled, he moved forward until the tall cattails gave way to wild carrots and knee-high grasses.  Crouching in their midst, he waited.

            Less than one hundred heartbeats passed before the whistle came again.  This time it was followed by a voice.

            “Come on, boy.  Don’t be afraid.  I ain’t gonna hurt ya.”

            The native tensed as a boy appeared and his eyes narrowed.  Something else was moving on the bank.  It was the color of tame, the corn, and low to the ground.

            “Come on.  Come back from the river, boy,” the strange boy called.  “It ain’t safe.  What’s the matter with you?”

           Wi’si.  A dog.  It was frightened and backing toward the rushing water.  A moment later the animal slipped and became entangled in the branches of a thorny bush that overhung the bank.

            “Now look what you’ve gone and done.  Criminetly!”

            The boy spoke the language of the Shemanese, but he did not sound like the ones in the bright red coats who had visited their village – the ones called ‘English’ with whom their chief Blackfish had talked.  He had to be one of the  ‘settlers’.  The native boy’s older brother, Chiksika, had told him the Shemanese had come to their land uninvited and, unlike the English, intended to stay and make the Shawano lands their own.  His small fingers tightened on his knife as he watched the boy with hair as white as the milkweed slip down the bank toward the terrified animal, his attention riveted on the dog.  It was obvious the Shemanese boy’s father had not taught him to remain wary and watchful as his father, Puckeshinwau, had done with him.

            The native boy closed his eyes.  His father had been a mighty warrior.  He could still feel Puckeshinwa’s hands on his arms as he helped him pull the bow; could see him sitting across the fire with his mother, Methoataske.  He missed him.  The boy’s deep hazel-brown opened.  In his father’s honor, he would kill the boy who belong to the Shemanese settlement.

            Careful not to make any noise, the young Shawnee boy began to move toward his unsuspecting prey.

 

                                                                                         ###

 

            “Criminetly.  No!”  Israel Boone put his hand to his tricorn hat and looked up at the sky.  There had been a crack of lightning and suddenly the heavens had opened and rain had begun to pour.  He looked back at his friend’s dog and shook his head.  “This sure woulda been a whole lot easier if you had just come to that whistlin’ I done.”

            The dog turned its large black eyes on him and howled.  The rain had made the bank beneath its feet soft and its claws were digging in and ripping it away.  The heavy animal was slipping closer and closer to the rushing water.

            “Boy!  Calm down, boy!”  Israel glanced around.  Yadkin was out there somewhere.  They had been fishing together.  Yad had gone to gather some more worms, leaving him to watch the poles, when his friend Tommy’s big yellow dog, Chance, had gone running by.  Without really thinking Israel had taken off after him.  Well, what with running and turning, and chasing and whistling, he had managed to get himself lost.  He hadn’t even heard Yad call him, and that meant he had to have really gone the wrong way.  Israel ran a hand through his soaked bangs and shook his head.

He wasn’t gonna be able to sit down for a whole week once his Ma heard about this.

            Dropping to his knees Israel continued to plead with the dog.  “Chance.  Come on, boy.  Quiet down.  Didn’t nobody ever teach you that runnin’ your legs in a mud hole will just get you covered with mud?”  Israel scooted out another few inches and reached for the loose skin hanging over the dog’s rope collar.  “Chance!  Hang on!”  Israel stretched his fingers out almost straight.  “I’ve...just...about...got...you.”

            The terrified animal snarled and snapped at his hand.

 

                                                                                            ###

 

            The young Shawnee had drawn up behind his victim.  His knife was in his hand, but now that he had arrived he could not decide what to do.  His father had taught him it was not right to take a life, even that of an animal, without honor.  And what honor could be found in killing the son of the Shemanese if his back was to him?  The native boy blinked and thrust his wet black hair out of his eyes.  He saw now, as well, that the boy was trying to save the dog’s life.  Willingly risking his own.  He glanced at the rushing water that flowed nearby, carrying with it branches and leaves and limbs from trees.  The settler boy was very brave to venture so close.  As the thunderbirds roared overhead – their deep voices rumbling through the forest – and the light flashed from their eyes cutting through the sky, the native boy sheathed his knife and turned away.

            A startled scream made him spin around.

            The Shemanese boy was gone.

 

                                                                                           ###

 

Israel’s foot slipped and he plunged into the water.  He clung desperately to the out-stretched fingers of the bush and winced as the thorns cut into his fingers.  “Help!” he cried.  “Help!  Yad!”  There was really little hope that Yadkin, or anyone else for that matter, was nearby but he couldn’t help it.  He had to try.

“Help!  Please, someone!  Help!”

            Tommy’s dog was howling too.  Israel blinked as the water rushed past and tugged at them both.  He gripped the branch so tightly blood ran down his hands.  Surely Yad would hear one of them.  “That’s it, Chance.  Good boy, you call out too.  Help!  Help, someone! Please h – ”

            Chance was still howling, but Israel fell silent.  An Indian boy had appeared at the edge of the trees.  He was balanced on the top of the bank, looking at him.  By the flash of the lightning Israel couldn’t really tell how old he was, but he looked like he was kind of small and on the skinny side.  Maybe not a lot older than he was.  Eight or nine at most.

“Oui-shi-cat-to-oui!” the Indian shouted as he began to carefully descend the bank, hunting for firm footholds in which to place the toes of his moccasin boots.

            Israel frowned.  Whatever that meant.

The boy was speaking Shawnee.  Israel didn’t know much of their language, though his Pa had tried to teach him a few words.  Most of the time white people didn’t take time to talk to the Shawnee – they were too busy either running or shooting.

            The Indian boy was kneeling on a ledge above the water now.  His narrowed eyes were surveying it; trying to find a secure purchase from which to reach him.

“You could get a branch!” Israel yelled.  When the Shawnee frowned and shook his head, he tried a few other words.  “A limb.  From a tree.  A stick.  One of these for goodness sake!”

Israel tried pointing at one of the tree limbs that hung down over the bush he was holding, but the gesture set him to swinging and he almost got sucked into the current.  Fortunately the bush also slowed the water’s progress right where he was, otherwise he might have already been carried away.  He looked back up and saw the Indian boy had understood him.  He had hunted and found a loose branch dangling from a tree.  The other boy returned to the ledge, so he was only three feet or so away, and leaned out as far as he could and lowered it to him.  Israel drew a deep breath and shifted so he could catch hold of it.  His fingers closed on the sturdy branch and he let the breath out as the boy began to pull him up.

            At that very moment Chance managed to get a purchase in the mud and he broke free.  Now, Chance wasn’t as big as a grizzly by any means, but he was a large dog.  And soaked to the skin with water, he was a heavy dog.  He plowed into the branch that connected the two boys, snapped it in two, and clawed his way up the river bank past them to disappear into the woods.

            Israel fell backwards and the Indian boy fell forwards, and both of them landed with a splash in the raging river and were quickly propelled downstream.

 

                                                                                           ###

 

            “Boy!  Where are you, boy?  Israel?”

            Yad had stopped for a minute to rest beneath a large tree.  He took his hat off and wiped the rainwater from his eyes.  For some time he had been hunting Daniel’s boy.  At first he had just assumed Israel was playing games with him, hiding and deliberately not answering when he called.  But now, with the storm, Yad figured the boy had to be just plain lost.  He had promised to take Israel fishing and today had seemed a good day, what with his pa away on business for the Continental Army and not expected back for a day or two.  The two of them were supposed to have met up with Mingo at dusk.

            That was two hours ago.

            Yad put his hat back on and moved to the edge of the protection of the tall tree’s canopy of leaves.  He had searched in a radius of almost a mile in every direction except one.  He drew a deep breath and turned toward it.  Even here he could hear the powerful river rushing through the land. 

            If the boy had gone that way.

            “Israel!” Yadkin called again.  “You hear me, boy?  If’n you do, answer me!”

            He waited.

There was nothing but the rain, pounding in chorus with the terror rising in his heart.

 

                                                                                         ###

 

            Israel gasped and thrust his head up out of the water.  They were approaching the bend in the river and he knew there was a big old tree right on the edge whose root system reached way out over it.  The two of them had managed to catch hold of a large branch and were floating side by side, out of control, along with the angry swollen water.  He looked at the other boy and shouted.  “The tree!  We need to catch hold of its roots!  You understand?”

            The Indian boy nodded.  “Yes, I understand!” he called back.

            Israel didn’t have time to be surprised.  “Gosh,” he shouted, “you coulda told me you knew English!”  The tree was rushing up fast.  “Get ready!  Now!”

            Both boys let loose of the branch they had been using as a raft and leapt for the roots of the old willow tree.  Israel’s fingers caught hold first and he started to reach for the other boy to help him.  Even as their fingers locked together, a stray branch came rushing up behind them.  It took the Indian boy in the back of the neck and shoulder and knocked him out.

            Israel heard him cry out and felt his fingers go slack.  He caught the other boy’s wrist and held on for dear life.

“Help!  Help!  Someone, please!  Help us!” Israel cried.

 

                                                                               ###

 

            Yad’s head came up.  “Israel?  Israel Boone, is that you?”

            “Yad?” came the small reply.  “Yad?  Over here!  You gotta help us!”

            The woodsman started to move forward and then paused.  “Us?  Who you got with you, boy?”

            “Yad, just hurry!  I’m gonna drop him!  Hurry!”

            “Hold your horses, young’un!  I’m comin’!”  Yad followed the sound of the boy’s voice and soon found himself at the edge of the swiftly flowing river.  He gazed at the rushing water and called again.  “Where are you, boy?  I can’t see you!”

            “The big tree, Yad!  Here!  We’re here!”

            Yadkin turned toward a huge old willow tree that was bent bad as a crooked old man walking with a cane.  He strained his eyes and then saw Israel’s pale hair.  The boy’s head was bobbing like a white-tailed duck just above the water.

            Israel was in the river.

            Shoving his own terror aside, Yad bolted to the tree and quickly sized up the situation.  Then he started to climb out.  Before he did, he anchored the toe of his boot under a loop of the tree’s roots on the bank.  It wouldn’t do either one of them much good if he went plunging headlong into the churning waters.  Yad stretched out his hand.  “Take hold, Israel!  I can pull you up.”

            “What about him?”

            Yad frowned.  He had forgotten the ‘us’.  “Him who, boy?  You been makin’ friends with the fishes?”

            “He’s an Indian, Yad.”  Israel was growing weak.  The boy’s teeth were chattering.  The water on his legs would have made them cold by now, and that cold was probably creeping up into his chest and fingers.  “Yad.  I don’t think I can hold him much longer,” Israel whimpered.  “Or hold on myself.”

            “Boy, now don’t you give up!”  Yad drew a deep breath and released his foothold.  If he was going to have to haul up two boys, he would have to actually climb out onto the thinner branches and lift them up together.  He eyed the web of leaves and bare roots.  He wasn’t entirely certain they would take his weight, but he had to try.  “I’m a comin’, boy!  You just hang on another min – ”  Yad had started to scoot out onto the biggest of the trees toes, but suddenly found he couldn’t go any farther.  Something had caught his ankle.

            It felt like a hand.

            Slightly spooked Yad pivoted at the waist and glared back, half expecting to see the ghost of some dead Shawnee what intended to drop him in the drink.

            He wasn’t too far off.

 

                                                                                         ###

 

            “Mingo!” Yad called out at the sight of his familiar feathered head.  “What do you mean scaring the bee-geezus out of a feller like that?”

            The Cherokee’s grin was grim.  “It seemed you were in need of a hand.”  He nodded toward the stream.  “What are you trying to reach?”

            “Mingo?”  Israel’s voice had grown even weaker.  “I can’t hold on...”

            “Dear God!”  The Cherokee swiftly moved past Yadkin and walked the network of jutting roots as if he were a trapeze artist.  He knelt and with one hand caught hold of his friend’s small son.  Then he started.  “There are two of them!” he called back to Yad.

            “I know.  Some Injun boy.  Don’t know who he is.”

            “Can you reach out and catch Israel?” Mingo asked him.

            Yad nodded.  He scooted out onto the branch.

            “Not too far.  It is precarious.”  Mingo caught hold of Israel with one hand.  “When I say so, take him swiftly.  I will have to catch the other boy before he falls.”

            Yad nodded.

            “Ready....  Now!”  With one hand Mingo pulled Israel up and swung him towards the other man.  Even as he did Daniel’s son released his grip on the native boy.  Mingo dove forward quickly and caught him by the hair.  He winced, thinking how much that would have hurt, but hauled the strange boy up by it anyhow and then wrapped his arm about his slender waist.  There was blood on the back of the child’s head and he was unconscious.

            “Got him?” Yad called.

            Mingo nodded.  “Yes.”  He turned back into the rising wind and rain. “We must find shelter!”

            “Ain’t too many caves around here won’t be filled with river water.  There is that shelf.  You know the one I mean?”

            “By the prairie?  Yes.  It is a bit of a walk.”

            Yad shrugged.  “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

            Mingo nodded.  He had removed his outer coat and wrapped it about the native boy.  “Is Israel all right?”

            “Out like a snuffed candle,” Yad said as he did the same with his buckskin jacket and Israel.  “I think he’s just plumb wore out.  How about that one?”

            Mingo touched the back of the boy’s head.  There was already a nasty knot forming and the child’s shoulder felt like it had been pushed out of joint.  “There’s no way of knowing until I can examine him more closely.”  He rose with the boy in his arms and worked his way back carefully along the roots.  “Let’s go!”

 

- Continued in Chapter Two -