Everywhere around him, the innocuous sounds of imminent violence. The swishing of branches slapping back into place after being displaced by human forms caused Seth to cover himself in the just budding foliage beside the heavily trod path. He had been cowering in the brush for hours evading the metallic clinking of white man's implements. Whispered words, close at hand, sending the knife edge of fear through him. At least four voices, too low to understand, but each a danger. Each human sound, possible immediate death. There were no friends in this awful wood, only enemies bent on his destruction.
The white men to his right suddenly got quiet, they too had heard the new person tromping noisily through the unending forest. Seth sucked in his breath and held it as the muffled footsteps and noise of disturbed branches came closer, mixed with a strange dragging sound. He silently checked the prime on his rifle and loosened the knife in his belt. His life expectancy shortening with each approaching step.
Hearing was his main sense. You couldn't see more than a few yards in the heavy cover of the primal forest. He had spent months evading humans and his ears were finely tuned to the sounds around him.
When he saw her, he quietly let out his breath in a slight release of tension. He had known that it would be an Indian walking down the path, the muffled footfalls of moccasin clad feet had told him that. The noise she made contrary to the legends of deathly quiet sneaking warriors that he had grown up with. She was a danger, but not the same threat a hunting party would have been.
The Indian woman was young with a lithe figure and long flowing black hair. She wore buckskin leggings and a skirt adorned with colorful beads and buttons. Like her male counterparts, she was naked from the waist up. Under different circumstances he would have thought her a beautiful girl. She was on the move, behind her she drug a travois heaped with things. Trading or moving? Seth didn't know, didn't care.
The nearness of the white men made her dangerous. If she saw him, a single word would send them after him, intent on his destruction.
She moved past him without seeing him. The noise faded as she moved further down the path toward the white men he knew lurked quietly around the next twist of the trail.
He had expected to hear greetings, instead he heard a shrill female scream of terror followed by the heavy thump of a body being thrown to the ground. More screams followed and the sound of thrashing in the brush. Male screams of pain and excitement mingled with her guttural sounds. The girl was giving the men a good fight, but the outcome was clear.
Yells, screams, noise. The screams of the woman cutting through his very core. Anger welled up in him. There was a burning inside him that told him that he had to do something.
What in God's green earth was he doing here? This was French territory and any American would be killed on sight, as he well knew. He could not know that the French and Indian War was only three years in the future. He could know that the fur rich Ilini country was alive with violence directed against any illicit American/English encroachment on French trapping claims.
His brother, his best friend, his sole companion for almost a year in this god forsaken land, had died only a week before. Died a horrible death of fever and pain, after some French trappers had found them. The knowledge of potential instant violence had been taught to him in blood.
He should close his ears and ignore the scene unfolding only a few yards away. The men's yells were in English. He knew what that meant. They could not afford to allow her to live and bring down the wrath of other Indians. They were going to rape her and then they had no choice but to kill her.
Had they simply shot her where she stood, he would have come up to them and not thought further about it. They could have been his salvation from nearly sure death in the wilderness. But the screams cut through him. His anger boiled over.
He had no business being here. He should ignore the noises wait and approach them. He longed for home, and feared it as well.
The sounds were coming from 50 yards to his right, the scene hidden from view by the dense underbrush. He did not need to see, to know. The girl's scream pierced him, causing almost a physical pain that shot through his soul, cutting through the agony and the grief that filled him. The sound of the thrashing brush, testament to what was happening, and that knowledge fueled his anger. Rage that burned through his despair and his fear.
This was not his concern, he tried in vain to tell himself. The law said he should not be here, and his presence had cost him a brother, now beginning to rot in the shallow grave Seth had dug with his own bare hands and watered with his tears, only a week before. The only thing he wanted was to escape this fearful land and get home to the disgrace of his family blaming him for Joshua's death.
This was not his fight, and if he joined it, surely he would join his brother in death within the next few minutes. The girl was an Indian, a heathen, less than human, at least that was what most of eastern society would have him believe. He should not be so concerned about what happened to her.
She screamed again, and the sound of her foot connecting with one of her assailants echoed through the woods. There was an answering scream of foul language, a short laugh and the sound of a fist striking fragile feminine features.
The THUNK of the fist connecting with the girl burned through him. Seth could not turn his back. He could not walk away. He would die here in the Ilini country, die now, defending the honor of a girl he did not know. A girl of another race, some said only an animal. Seth did not believe that, the Indians were as much human as he. Even if they were not, no beast deserved to be raped and killed and he had no doubt that they intended to do both to her.
Anger replaced fear, but it did not cloud his thinking. Seth looked around him considering how to approach the rapists and their victim. The thrashing of the people fighting in the woods would cover any sounds he made, but still he could make better time along the worn game path, than cutting through the woods.
Seth's blue eyes burned with anger as he stood. The path only five steps from where he had concealed himself behind the shaggy bush. He carefully checked the prime on his rifle; he made sure his vicious skinning knife was loose in his pants. From the sounds he knew there were several of them. He had heard four distinct male voices. Four against one. He had little chance. He would die in the next few moments, but perhaps the woman would escape. At least he would meet his end in an attempt to prevent a wrong, and he would not have to face his parents and tell them of Joshua's death.
Seth was no stranger to death, he had killed his share of wild animals and butchered the family livestock. He had never killed a man before and he knew that he would have to. Blood lust was upon these men. The only way to stop them would be to kill them. He would not hesitate. He also knew he would not survive.
He pushed the clinging green vegetation out of his way as silently as possible as he stepped toward the narrow trail, of bare dirt, where the deer and other animals had worn away the low clinging plants to expose the soil. Humans had cleared the overhanging branches to make a walkway a person could traverse without fighting the leaves and branches. The loose soil was marked by many tracks. There were deer prints and other animals, with the tracks of moccasin clad feet and hobbled shoes laying over the top of the animal prints.
Months of practice sneaking up on game allowed Seth to move rapidly but almost noiselessly toward the sounds. It took him only a few seconds for him to get into a position where he could see what was happening. What he saw disgusted him.
The Indian girl was putting up a valiant fight but she was no match for the four soldiers who held her pinned to the ground. Seth had expected at least one of the men to be standing guard, but the girls thrashing required them all to hold her down. The odds were better than Seth had expected but still he had little chance to survive.
He took in the scene for a moment, deciding how to proceed. The soldiers were all still fully clothed in their dirty red jackets, made filthy by months of wilderness hiking. Their white pants, now gray from the grime of the trail. Their long bulky Brown Bess muskets and other equipment were strewn several arm lengths from where they held down the helpless girl. One soldier pinned each arm, another sat astride her thrashing legs, his full weight and strength unable to keep her from moving. The fourth held a long fighting knife as he knelt beside her and tried to cut the soft leather of her clothing from her.
There was never any hope of dissuading them. No prayer of ending this without further violence. His only hope of survival was in brutally killing all four. There was little hope of that but he would try. The man with the knife was the biggest threat. Seth had only one shot and there would be no time to reload. He took careful aim at the head of the man with the knife. To shoot lower, risked the bullet passing through him and striking the girl.
The click of the hammer of the rifle being pulled into firing position was enough to alert the four soldiers but Seth pulled the trigger before any could do anything. There was a snapping sound and a small puff of acrid gray white smoke billowed from the pan, followed a moment later by the roar of the rifle's discharge as a billowing cloud obscured his vision. It didn't matter, Seth was already reversing the rifle to turn it into a club as he ran through the smoke.
The Sergeant's dead body had not had time to fall before Seth was through the haze. A spray of blood and brains had splashed over the Indian girl's face and upper body. The skin of her lower torso up to her breasts was exposed allowing a gory froth to cover the naked skin of her belly. The dead man fell over the girl.
There was little room to move along the path and not as much as he would have liked to swing the rifle. The gap in the trees that made up the trail was only about a foot wide. Seth closed on the man holding her feet. He raised the rifle over his head and brought it down on his head. There was a cracking sound as the man's head was crushed and he rolled off the girls feet.
The two men holding her arms had already begun to move toward their muskets, each moving a different direction. There was no room to properly swing the rifle again, although Seth tried to put all his strength into a blow at the man moving to his right, but the soldier caught it as it struck him in the ribs. Seth let go of the long rifle that was actually in his way as he closed, drawing his skinning knife as he advanced, stepping nimbly over the dead man he had struck with the rifle. The knife flashed and the soldiers eyes sprung wide as the knife entered his chest below his breastbone and was pulled upward. The man was dead before he fell.
It had taken only seconds, but Seth knew it was too long. The fourth soldier, now behind him must have reached his musket by now. Seth expected to feel a ball smack into his back and hear the roar of the gun. He fully expected his next and last sight to be the forest floor rushing up to strike his face, his last sound to be the roar of the rifle, the last smell to be of expended gunpowder, and his last taste to be the sulfur of the smoke.
He did not wait for it, first he reached a discarded musket and then he spun to face the ball that should be hurling toward him even now. He was half way around when he heard something he had not expected. A masculine howl of pain. As Seth turned the soldier held a musket in one hand but he was falling, the fighting knife that the Sergeant had been using to cut away the girls clothing was stuck into his thigh to the hilt.
As the soldiers let go of her to face the new threat, the girl had kicked at the dead sergeant pinning her feet as she grabbed his knife. She could not get free from the dead weight quickly enough to rise to her feet but she did the best she could. She stabbed at his exposed legs with all her strength, lodging the knife in him. That thrust had caused him to lose his balance just as his hand found his discarded musket.
That wound had given Seth the seconds he needed. He quickly brought the musket to his shoulder and fired. When the smoke cleared, all four soldiers lay dead, the final man with half his head blown off by the ¾ inch ball of the musket.
Seth stood there, his chest heaving. The whole fight had lasted less than thirty seconds, but it had drained him totally. He had never been so tired in his life. It was all he could do to stand and suddenly he was thirsty, his mouth so dry his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He turned back toward the girl and backed less than one step into the trunk of a tree and then slid down it to sit heavily on the ground. He was surprised to be alive, and yet it was not really a relief. He reached for his canteen to quench his thirst as he looked at the girl for the first time.
She was the first Indian of the Ilini country he had been this close to. He and Joshua had left their home on the edge of the wilderness in New York in the late summer of 1749 with two canoes packed with provisions and heads filled with dreams of riches. The two brothers had paddled for weeks and weeks it seemed, avoiding everyone both white and Indian.
They had been lured by tales of the wealth of the furs in the French country. The Spanish had first tapped into the gold of Central America. The French had claimed the far north, and its riches of fur. The English had taken the land in the middle, land that brought little to the European sponsors. It was rich in many ways, but none that brought the value of either the Spanish or French holdings.
Their very survival depended on avoiding people. The land was controlled by the French and the Indians they traded with. No American was allowed to tap into the riches. Any Englishman or American found by either the French trappers or their Indian allies were killed on sight. They had glided quietly through great lakes and up powerful rivers, lured on by the thought of riches, beaver pelts worth almost half a silver Spanish dollar, the coin of the America's in that year.
They had no idea where they were going, only westward into French territories. Both the French and the Indians were hostile and Seth and Joshua did not belong. Either faction would kill them. They glided silently past Detroit, a small trading post where the big lake met the river, in the darkness. They had paddled on around the great peninsula until they judged they were as far from the post at Detroit as they could be and then they had turned inland on a river on the other side of Michigan.
They had trapped all winter, filling the canoes with pelts as they drained them of supplies. The winter had been brutally cold but the trapping good. Spring had finally come and they were jubilant. They were rich! Their canoes jammed to the gunnels with furs. They had almost 2000 pelts of muskrat and beaver. Perhaps 1000 Spanish dollars, a decades cash for an American.
Then disaster had struck. They were paddling toward the great lake, when what was perhaps the inevitable happened. A French trapping party had come upon them. They yelled greetings in French, but neither brother could reply in that language. No further questions were asked, the seven trappers had opened up on them with musket fire. A ball had struck Joshua in the chest and Seth had had no choice but to beach his canoe as he drug Joshua's behind to the safety of the perpetual forest.
Seth had grabbed all he could and helped, half dragged Joshua into the brush. The Frenchies had not bothered to chase them. They simply took the canoes and what was left of their supplies and deserted them to die in the wilderness. Joshua had lingered for three weeks but finally he had succumbed to the grievous wound that had left him to scream in pain and thrash in the delirium of fever.
Those three awful weeks still affected Seth. The helplessness of watching his brother, his best friend, die, withering in pain, burning in fever. Seth unable to do anything to help. Unable to sleep both because of Joshua's screams, and the ones that yelled inside his head, replaying the moment of violence every time he closed his eyes. He had never been so forlorn. He had lost everything, his riches, his supplies, his best friend, and his way out of this god forsaken wilderness. He was lost, desperate and forlorn. His stomach empty. Despair heavy on his soul.
Few people walked through the heavy timber of the Ilini country. The trees and tangled underbrush too difficult to travel, navigation too hard. Any paths that existed were either wandering game trails that went nowhere, or worse human walkways that led to people who would kill him on sight. Avoiding those same paths, meant struggling through tangled briers and vines that made walking very difficult, even painful. It was so much simpler to travel by water in any kind of boat but his had been stolen.
For an American trapped in French country, the lack of a canoe was nearly a death sentence. If the hardships of the land did not kill him, the enemies of his country would. If he could escape this wilderness, then he would have to face his parents, and tell them of Joshua's death, something he held himself accountable for.
Now he had added the deaths of four English soldiers to his list of sins. He drank the water from the canteen and looked at the girl for the first time. Strangely he saw beauty.
She had thrown off the dead body of the Sergeant and stood facing Seth, her eyes watching him, full of emotion. He saw fear, anger, relief, horror, and distrust of him. Her chest was heaving, the adrenalin slowly wearing off her as well.
Her long flowing black hair caked with dirt and leaves, her face smudged by mud and a red welt was rising on her jaw where one of her assailants had struck her. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. Her dirty deerskin skirt slit nearly in two draped away from her body and was now splattered with blood and brains; the same gore that was stuck to the soft curves of her olive skinned belly and matted in her visible black pubic hair. She was young and lithe. Somehow Seth saw beauty through the wretched sight of her.
Keezheekoni watched him, wondering why he had saved her, what he wanted, what he would do. Her only contact with White men before had been a few vile French trappers who had come to her villages to trade. They had brought steel, and muskets and powder and beads, beautiful beads. They had been nice enough in the village, but her people had not really trusted them once they left their sight.
She watched him, taking her time to decide that the danger was over. He sat there, slumped in the exhaustion of the fight. He made no move toward her. Strangely, he did not seem to consider her a threat. The man made no move toward any of the scattered weapons. He just watched her. He may have been her salvation, but still she did not trust him.
She looked into his blue eyes for several minutes, finding no malice there. Keezheekoni knew that it was unlikely she could talk to him. She had no way to know that he felt the same depression that filled her.
Keezheekoni walked to the body of the man Seth had killed with his knife and kicked the body to roll it over, then pulled the knife from his chest. She felt nothing for the man. She was hardly sorry that the monster who had held one of her arms was dead. She felt Seth's eyes watching her, but he made no move to protect himself. She wiped the blood from the knife on the soldiers dirty white pants, then reversed the weapon to grasp it by the cold steel.