May 11, 2018

Historical Fiction by Kaelin Shipley: "Home Coming"

I have lived in Tippecanoe County since 1967 and while in school pursued a degree in History and Education. I currently belong to the Tippecanoe County Arts Federation Women's Creative Writing Group.
I have always found this area of Indiana to be rich in history, which is often passed over for the more romantic period of westward expansion later in the 19th century. As a frequent visitor to both the Tippecanoe Battlefield and Fort Ouiatanon the history of the area speaks to me. This piece came out of those whisperings. It took three years to hear what the protagonist wanted me to say, but I think I finally got it.
When I am not writing I spend my time with my adult children, my dogs, working as a mortgage loan originator, political activity, and reading.





Tippecanoe Battlefield -Wikipedia


Home Coming
   
Something wasn’t adding up.
 Eli Ross scratched at the stubble on his cheek and surveyed the military encampment. He dropped his bedroll on the west side of the quadrangle that had been hastily chosen as the campsite for the 4th Regiment of the US Infantry. He was exhausted. Over the past few weeks the thousand man army had hacked and lurched its way one hundred and fifty miles north through the thick undergrowth and forest, sleeping with one eye open in case of attack
  This place too made him uneasy. Bounded by a thick stand of trees to the west and surrounded on two sides by swampy bottom land with open prairie on the east, he wasn’t convinced it was the best spot for General Harrison’s army to spend the night. Not with the place the soldiers called Prophetstown and seven hundred warriors, only a couple of miles distant.
 The tents were aligned in straight rows, campfires sputtering in the evening drizzle. The men stood close to the flames rubbing their hands together attempting to stay warm. When they left Vincennes in mid- October the weather had been balmy, the remains of a late Indian Summer convincing many of the soldiers to abandon their blankets and woolen underwear. Eli knew better, he’d grown up in the Indiana Territory. Experience had taught him the weather was as changeable as the wind. This time of year, one day could be hot as June, the next you’d be up to your knees in new snow. If he’d counted the days correctly, it was now early November. The weather would only get worse.
  He knew the country. His family had a patch of ground where they scratched out a living along the Tippecanoe River, near what was now the Indian village called Prophetstown.  Five years ago, when he was fifteen, his pap died and his Potawatomie step mother, Wawetseka and half- brother Ahanu headed west to Illinois country to live with Wawetseka’s people. He went south working odd jobs in the settlements along the Ohio and Wabash Rivers for several years before he’d hired on as a guide with the army.
  Eli ran a hand through his thick blonde hair. “I don’t much like being this close to the Shawnee.” he worried aloud.
 “General knows what he’s about. You don’t mind if I bunk here, do you? Private Morton Winslow, at yer service.”  The man dropped his own bedroll next to Eli’s. “You saw that little pow-wow with the savages when we got here? General Harrison can take any of them.  He’s a fighter and has drove many an injun off. Don’t be gettin’ all soft and scared.” Winslow chuckled and sat, feet stretched out close to the fire. “Damn! I can’t feel my toes.”  Placing an index finger under his nose to protect his black walrus moustache, he sneezed loudly then wiped his finger on his dirty uniform pants. “Durned if I don’t catch my death out here.”
 “These Shawnee might not be so agreeable. Rumor is they’ll fight this time.”  Eli remembered the stories Wawetseka told about the Shawnee and the ferocity of their fighters.
 “Wonder if ole Tecumseh hisself is here?” Winslow speculated.
 “Don’t know, but his brother, The Prophet, is. He’s only got one eye. He’ll be in charge if Tecumseh isn’t around.”  Eli turned and looked back into the trees. They were out there, watching. He knew it sure as he knew his own name.
Winslow snorted. “If that’s all they got for a war chief…,” he shook his head. “Why’s he called the Prophet?”
“A few years back he told his folks that if they didn’t go back to Indian customs and forget white man ways the sun would go dark.  Sure enough, the sun disappeared and he prayed and chanted and it appeared again. They believe he’s got powerful magic. You need anything? I’m going to see if the stew is ready.”  Eli pulled a tin bowl out of his rucksack.
“Nah, you go on. That’s quite a story. You seem to know an awful lot about these injuns.”  Winslow eyed Eli warily as he threw a piece of deadfall on the fire.
 “I grew up nearby.” Eli decided that was as much as Winslow needed to know.
 “You don’t say. General says sleep on your gun tonight; gave orders that the horses stay saddled. Seems he thinks those injuns are up to somethin’. The private lay back on his bedroll and pulled a waxed wool cloak over himself. “Myself, I’m going to get some shut-eye.”
***
 “It’s an attack!” The alarm spread throughout the camp before dawn. Men shot up to grab their arms and rush towards the sound of gunfire. The discharge of muskets and yells from the Indians reverberated off the trees.  Confused soldiers who’d been sleeping on the north and northwest edges of the campsite retreated into the interior. In the chaos General Harrison mounted, and shouting orders, surged through the throng scattering soldiers as he commanded them back to defend the lines that had been penetrated.
 Eli bolted from beneath his blanket as a shriek next to him caused him to leap to his feet.    Private Winslow, hands on his pistol, slumped, a tomahawk embedded in his forehead. Blood seeped out of the wound as Eli gawked. A bullet shattered a branch above his head. Another ricocheted off a rock. He hit the ground.  Seeing movement he identified three warriors as they threaded their way among the trees. He grabbed his musket and ran after them.
 As Eli crouched in the underbrush, he forced his eyes to focus in the dark. He could feel them out there, waiting. Waiting for him to make a mistake, show himself. Periodically a splatter of lead balls thudded into the trees around him. He kept low, splinters raining down on his head.  He felt something warm and sticky at his hairline. Putting a finger to the spot he realized it was wet, smelled of blood. He must have been hit. He probed with an index finger. A groove ran across his temple. No ball buried there. He swallowed hard, and wiped his sweating hands on his pants.  His heart beating so loud he couldn’t hear himself think. He needed his wits about him or he’d die, of this he was sure. He’d never fought Indians before.
 A group of soldiers ran past through the woods ahead of him. He caught motion to his right – a warrior – slipped away in the opposite direction. Cautiously, Eli moved to follow him towards the swamp.
   Moving faster, he broke through the trees into the marsh in pursuit. The sounds of battle echoed behind him. A trickle of blood where the ball had grazed his temple dripped into his eye. He batted it away like an annoying gnat. Damn! Between the morning mist and the dead cattail stalks, high and thick, he couldn’t see where the blazes the Indian had gone. He ducked low into the vegetation and listened. Had he heard something? He cocked his head, trying to determine the direction of the sound, muffled by the fog.  Yes, there, a soft slurp, then again. As he moved slightly to his left a weight crashed into his body. His gun flew off into the reeds. In an instant he had gone from hunter to prey. He rolled with his attacker trying to keep his face out of the water seeping up through the mud. The slippery muck allowed him to slide out of the Indian’s grasp. He pushed up attempting to get traction. Fingers clutched at his long hair. He shook his head violently and freed himself. Turning, he threw a fist into the man’s belly. An emphatic grunt rewarded the effort. Eli flung himself at his assailant. They fell back into the mire. Then he saw the Indian’s face, dotted with tattoos in a familiar pattern.
 “Ahanu! My brother,” Surprised, Eli loosened his grip, and sat back on his heels, panting.  “What are you doing here?”
 “Eli?” Ahanu pulled himself to his knees. “I heard Tecumseh’s words so I came – to fight.  The great white chief, he is dead?” Ahanu gasped, trying to catch his breath.
“What?”
“The Prophet said your chief rides a white horse. Is he dead?”
  Eli recollected General Harrison galloping by at the start of the attack. “No.  He was riding a dark horse.”
  Ahanu shook his head in disbelief. “We have failed. But you are here. Why?”
 “I’m a guide – for the army.”
 “You brought them here? Ahanu rose, water dripping from his leggings.
 “Brother, I didn’t know there would be a fight, we came to make a treaty.  Settlers are coming, nothing will stop them. I hoped we’d reach an agreement we could all live with.” Eli spoke with hurried intensity, trying to make Ahanu understand.
   Ahanu spat. “There can be no agreement. We won’t sign your treaty.”  
  Shouts broke through the trees at their backs. “He’s got one! Kill the injun!” A shot whistled over Ahanu’s head. He turned and looked into his brother’s eyes, a look that chilled Eli to the marrow, then turned and ran. Eli glanced at the soldiers as they drew closer and took off following his brother. A volley of shots rang out behind him.
 Eli didn’t know someone could die gracefully; that a man shot in the back could be so elegant in death.  The ball that passed just under Ahanu’s left shoulder blade and pierced his heart lifted him off his feet. No scream marred the event. He turned towards his brother as if to say goodbye.  Eli caught up to him and held him, struggling to keep him upright. Ahanu grunted a slight expelling of air, white vapor released into the cold November morning. Then his body folded upon itself, like a cloak carelessly draped over a chair. The light faded from his dark brown eyes as Eli gently lowered him to the ground. He stood stupidly over the body, disoriented. His little brother was dead, how could that be?
 The soldiers caught up, excited by the kill. “I say take his hair.”  A private pulled out his knife.
 “Let’s see if he’s got anything else worth takin.’” A second soldier leaned down to turn the body.
 Slowly the words arranged themselves into intelligible sense in Eli’s brain. “No! Don’t touch him!” He shoved the soldier who held the knife.
 “Well what have we got here?” The private bounced up, balancing on the balls of his feet waving the knife in Eli’s face. “A Goddamned traitor?  Is that what we have? You gonna stop me?”
Eli lunged at the man. The light from an explosion flashed across his eyes followed by a searing pain in his knee. His leg collapsed under him.  The second soldier stood, his pistol smoking, a half- smile on his face.
 “Stop!” A third voice echoed across the swampy ground. A mounted office came toward them; his horse picking its way carefully through the mud. “What happened here?”
 The private jerked his head towards Eli. “Got us a traitor. He’s trying to help this injun escape.”
 “Is this true?” The lieutenant turned to Eli.
  Eli shook his head no, then yes.
 “We’ll sort this out later.” The lieutenant leaned forward in his saddle. “We’re headin’ out. Rumor is Tecumseh’s on his way back. Gotta pull outta here quick ‘afore they get a second wind.  You two.” He indicated the two soldiers standing over Eli. “Help this man back to camp, set him with the wounded. He won’t be going anywhere. And leave the Indian’s body alone. We don’t have time for trophy taking today. General’s orders.”
***
 Eli grit his teeth as the wagon bumped over a rut. The pain from his kneecap shot like a bolt of white lightning, slashing through the leg up to his brain. It was all he could do not to cry out.  He envied the other men in the wagon bed. They could at least wrap white knuckled fingers around the sideboard of the bouncing vehicle, transmitting their pain into the worm eaten wood. His hands were firmly bound behind his back. With no way to brace himself, his body was jostled this way or that, rebounding off the men that surrounded him, earning their curses and groans.
  If the agony from the throbbing in his leg wasn’t bad enough, his belly gnawed at him as if it was a starving rodent. They’d been traveling south for three days. He hadn’t eaten since the night before the battle. The cattle herded along to sustain the army had been run off in the attack. Outside of some caches of squash and beans that were rooted out near Prophetstown, there was no food to be had. He didn’t know which was worse, his empty gut or his leg.  
 The regimental doctor had come by to take a look at the knee early that morning.  When he cut away what remained of his pants, the look on his face told Eli all he needed to know.
 “Son, that leg’s putrefying.  Only cure is to cut it off.”
 “He’ll need both legs to stand when they hang him,” a corporal with his arm in a sling observed.
 “If it don’t come off he won’t make it back to Vincennes to be hung.” The surgeon shoved his hands in his pockets. “We’ll see to that leg when we make camp tonight.”
 “I’m keeping my leg. I was born with two, I’ll die with two.” Eli delivered his argument to the doctor’s retreating back. That was this morning. Now he wasn’t so sure. The pain was excruciating.  The pus and blood that soaked through the bandage, created a nauseating odor. Maybe they wouldn’t hang him. He hadn’t turned against the army. Ahanu was his brother. Who wouldn’t understand that?
  He clenched his jaw as another spasm of agony coursed through his body. His teeth chattered from cold and fever.  He had to talk to Wawetseka. He didn’t want her to hear about Ahanu from anyone else. This was his burden, he would bear it.  He had to tell her he loved her; that one of her sons survived.
  Wawetseka.  The name meant Pretty Woman in the Potawatomi parlance. In his opinion, her name described her perfectly. He loved her stories, dark eyes snapping with good humor, long black hair falling across her face, a protective arm encircling his shoulders. “When you were a small boy,” she’d say, “You and Ahanu practiced hunting with wooden spears made of oak branches. You’d be gone all day chasing rabbits and squirrels through the tall grass. But you never came home with a rabbit for the pot.” Then she’d laugh. Her laughter sounded like water burbling down a small brook. She always treated him like she was his Ma even though his own Ma died birthing him.  When all this treason and hanging nonsense was over, he’d go to the Illinois Country. When he got there he’d lay his head on her shoulder like he did when he was a boy. She’s stroke his thick hair and say, “Shush, be quiet. It will be all right, you can sleep now, sleep for a little while. Ahanu will be here when you wake up.” Yes, that’s what he’d do, he’d go to see Wawetseka, but right now; he was so tired. Right now he’d sleep.
***
   Fog seeped up from the ground obscuring the landscape. The river flowed on as rivers always do, hidden by the swirling mist just to the west. Spectral branches of Sycamore trees protruded like bony fingers reaching out of the gloom that engulfed its bank. A barred owl called from an oak, autumn leaves still clinging to its branches, as night fell across the Indiana Territory.  A newly- turned mound of dirt rose above the earth fifty miles south of Prophetstown. Eli Ross had come home.
~Kaelin Shipley


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