The Shadow Hunters
The Great North Woods, Circa 1830
... all that really matters between a man’s birth and his death, are his dreams.
Woodsman Boss Stalker guided the birch bark canoe toward the bank along the tranquil wilderness river. He maneuvered the craft with the skill of one born to it. Then, before the canoe’s delicate skin scrapped against the gravel river bottom, he threw a leg over the side and stepped into the clear, shallow water. He felt the cool pull of the river current against his legs. The great northwoods pines grew tight to the river bank to engulf him. The tall. spire tops swayed gently in the breeze along the steep forest ridge side and whispered a warning down to him. A chill quivered across his shoulders then down through his body. The hairs on his neck stood on end. Something was wrong.
The woodsman moved slow, he put down the canoe paddle and picked up his rifle. No fast moves. He turned his head to face first down river, then up. He wasn’t sure who, or what he was looking for, but he was looking just the same.
Once satisfied he was alone Boss lifted the light weight canoe out of the water and carried it to the river bank where he hid it in the underbrush. Then, with his 50 caliber Hawken rifle in hand, he disappeared into the forest, amongst the trees again, hidden from all the world. As much as he enjoyed his trips on the river, gliding across the surface as quiet as a water spider, Boss always felt better when he was back among the trees.
The woodsman walked through the pine scented forest and up the steep hill without breaking a sweat. He was plenty use to climbing hills, this was ridge country and along the river they were steep, step like razorback ridges carved by the maze of streams and rivers that criss-cross these big woods. Once on top he didn’t pause to rest or take in the spectacular view of the endless river valley below. Instead he stepped quickly to an ancient jackpine, a tree with a long life and deep roots. It served as the local message post and he wanted to see who had left their mark, who else had come here to hunt this neck of the woods; his neck of the woods. But the woodsman was not prepared for what he found there, for if he read the signs correctly he was marked for ... murder!
Boss stood slack-jawed and stared ahead at the large tree with dark shaggy bark and short green needles. He squeezed the rifle in his hand. It was as if he’d just seen a ghost.
“Sioux!” The woodsman, blood brother to the local Chippewa Indians, spat out the word! It was the name of his and his adopted people’s sworn enemy. It was as if the word left a bad taste in his mouth, as if it were poison. Truth be told, for Boss and the Chippewa, it was poison!
There, among the slash marks made over the years with hatches and knives, above some carved initials, was an arrow. It was made of forest ash and was almost 3 feet in length. The shaft was straight and thin with brown and white hawk feather fletchings. It was sticking out of the century old tree in this mixed forest of pine, popple, oak, birch, maple, and many others. It wasn’t just the arrow that sent a shiver through Boss, but the fact the arrow was piercing a heart, a red, bloody human heart.
Boss’ mind began to race. Whose heart could it be? Was it that settler he saw passing through on the river a few days before? Or maybe he thought, it was one of his Chippewa brothers who liked to hunt this area for big bucks the same as him. Then, when he looked closer, he wondered if it wasn’t just a bear’s heart. But that was all besides the point, because he knew what this sign meant. Boss had seen it before all right. A sign for death, a sign for the killing of an enemy.
Boss reached up and touched the arrow. Then he touched the heart. The blood was sticky and still warm. Someone had taken a bite out of it. On closer inspection, he recognized the arrow. It bore the owner’s mark; 3 red lines were painted around the arrow shaft signifying the arrow of a warrior who killed three men or more, followed by a tiny painting of a double edged knife, painted black with the tip of a porcupine quill. It was the warrior’s signature. This arrow belonged to an old enemy, to a warrior and war chief named Ajassin Etawikoman, which translated to Dull Knife. An image of the mighty warrior with a jagged scar across his face flashed into Boss’ mind. He was puzzled, he hadn’t seen the warrior in years and assumed he was dead. He is a man Boss had fought before, someone who hated the woodsman, who vowed to kill Boss. The warrior bragged he would do to Boss what he’d just done here, “Devour his heart while it still beats with his life.”
Boss turned around slowly to survey the surrounding forest. Was the warrior still here? How did he know Boss would be here? Or had the woodsman’s enemy left the message for anyone to find? A fight! Boss had not anticipated a fight. This was just a hunting trip. Especially now, in autumn when friends and enemies alike were usually more interested in preparing for winter then making war. The woods were so peaceful, so beautiful this time of year. Boss looked out over the river valley.
The forest canopy below was a patch work of colors: Reds, yellows, orange, and the green for as far as the eye could see. It painted a picture of breathtaking beauty. The pine tops, vivid green, whispered to him from high above as they swayed in the crisp autumn breeze. A few white clouds, puffy on top and flat on the bottom, floated through the sky. Seeing the bright blue sky through a screen of green pine needles was a sight Boss never grew tired of, a sight that usually made him feel glad. It meant he was in the forest, meant he was home. But this day was different. He didn’t feel glad. For there was no discounting the chilling message attached to that very recognizable arrow. Danger was emanate!
The wind gusted and tossed the woodsman’s long, brown hair. Boss felt the chill in the air and a pang of nerves flutter through his stomach. The hairs on his neck bristled again and, uncharacteristically, panic began to churn inside of him. He had to leave, to run, he knew it. He could feel it. For he knew his enemy was alive and here in these woods, looking, waiting, and likely, at that very instant ... watching.
Boss jumped when he heard the partridge flush behind him. He spun around and flinched as an arrow streaked from the underbrush some 30 yards away. Then came several arrows. One nicked his shoulder; the sharp blade cut his buckskin shirt and sliced open a gash in his skin. Another arrow passed through his left biceps and hit the tree behind him.
Blood gushed from his arm and shoulder. The pain was hot and immediate. Boss was stunned. Then blood curdling battle cries erupted from the thicket. Boss’ panic overflowed as several Sioux warriors, naked but for loincloths and knee high moccasins, leaped from the woods. Their long black hair fell down behind them, their deep copper colored faces and bodies were painted for war in colorful reds, blues, and yellows, and in black and white.
There was no time to think. Boss’ rifle came up and he fired from the hip. The rifle barrel belched fire and smoke, thunder rumbled through the woods. One of the lead warriors fell. But there were still four others and they were coming fast.
Boss did what any man would do who wanted to feel tomorrow morning’s sun warm his face, to smell the bacon, to thank God he was still alive. He turned and ... ran!
Boss Stalker had lived and survived in these big woods all of his life. He was raised by the Indians. He fought with them and against them, he loved some of them and hated some of them, but mostly, he knew them. Knew their ways and their customs, and now, as he raced through the underbrush, his own shoulder length hair flowing behind him, his blood soaking through his shirt and spilling onto the forest floor, he realized why these Sioux hadn’t just kill him outright. It was for this ... the chase! He knew they were skilled at shooting their arrows on the run. He also knew they sought an enemy’s terror as much as his blood. A victim’s fear was as much of the telling tale as was the kill and scalping.
Boss knew the Indians loved a contest of strength and skill. They hold physical feats in high regard. Running was surely one of them, and that’s what he was doing now. Running! Running as fast as his pumping arms, his churning legs, and his heaving chest would allow. Running through the woods he loved so much. He streaked between the trees and through the underbrush; running like the wind, running for his life, running like the wild man he’d become.
Boss moved quickly beneath the thick canopy of trees and colorful falling leaves; it was shady and cool in the lush forest that grew near the river and only occasionally a late afternoon sunbeam streamed through to the forest floor. He sprinted up another ridge side and through an oak grove on top where he scattered several deer. Their white tails bobbing away to disappear in the distant shadows; he wished he could disappear as easily as the deer. He ran down the opposite ridge side and through a forest of birch trees. They were known as the tree of life to the natives who used its bark to make homes and canoes. They made bowls, plates, and storage containers. The tree provided medicine treatment for arthritis, gout, and even fluid retention. There were many uses for birch bark. The shaggy trees grew by the milllions in tight clumps. It was an eerie place, so much white in a dark shadowy forest. It seemed almost like a spiritual place. In the day time, during winter, with deep snow on the ground, the area transforms into a complete white out. One can’t get his bearings, it all looks the same ... white!
There were men who had entered one side of the birch forest on a winter hunt and never came out. The following spring all that was ever found of them was their bones, bones that wolves had chewed and coyotes had scattered. And now, in all his panic, all the excitement, Boss wasn’t exactly sure which way he was going. He knew he didn’t have the time to stop and check for landmarks.
An arrow whizzed past the woodsman’s ear, its sharp bone tip buried deep into the soft white wood. He flinched and dodged and kept running. Boss splashed through a shallow creek that cut through a narrow gully near the bottom and kept going until he finally ran out of the birch forest.
Like all men who survive the wilds Boss was proficient at loading his single shot black powder rifle under any conditions; be it a thunder storm, or the blackness of midnight, or even at an all out panic stricken race for his life. He had to know how to do this, it was a vital survival skill. For a woodsman was often times on the run; chased by a bear, or a rampaging moose, or claim jumpers, or as now, by Indians who wanted to cut off his hair, his ears ... his balls.
The powder horn was strung around Boss’ neck on a strong piece of sinew. He pulled out the cork with his teeth as he leaped a log, then dodged beneath a low branch. He brought his rifle barrel up and heard the whoosh of another arrow streak past his ear. He spilled some gun powder and felt it blow back into his face, but he did manage to pour a measure down the barrel. The lead ball in a shirt pocket was easy to grab and it followed the powder and some wadding down the barrel. He used his stick to push it all tight. He was loaded.
The screaming Indians didn’t sound like they were gaining. But they didn’t sound like they were fading either. Boss had hoped to lose the Sioux altogether in the birches, or at least gain a little more ground on them. But they navigated through the birch forest as easily as he had.
Boss’ mind flashed back to the message tree and Dull Knife. Though, with all of the face and body paint, he did not recognize his old enemy. All he knew for sure was he’d counted five Indians. Four were left. His bravado came to the front, a surge of adrenaline bolstered his courage in spite of the fix he was in. “They are Sioux, and just four of them to one of me ... I don’t like their odds.” Of course then his nerves of steel came crashing down as another thought flashed through his mind. He realized, even feared, there could always have been more Indians behind the first wave.
“No!” he said out loud.
Boss would not accept this line of thinking, he had enough to worry about with the Indians he had seen; he sure didn’t need to start fearing something that might not even be real.
Yes, that was that, just the five, and one of them was down and out of it. Boss could handle that.
Sweat poured down the woodsman’s face. He tasted the salty water leak into his mouth; it stung as it ran into the corners of his eyes. His arm and shoulder wounds throbbed in pain. His stomach ached and he gasped for breath as he topped yet another steep hill and ran straight into thorny raspberry brambles. The hardy stems grew thick to his waist and were stubbornly holding onto most of their browning leaves. Which way now Boss wondered? His head shifted frantically from side to side. That’s when the idea came to him.
Boss dove to the ground, beneath the lush, leafy underbrush and disappeared like a duck diving under the water. Thorns tore at his skin as he flattened to the ground among the twisted stems. The sandy soil was damp and covered with wet, decaying leaves. The strong, acid-like smell burned his nostrils.
It was but a few seconds before the woodsman heard the Indians run into the thicket. Several moccasin covered feet almost stepped on him as they passed. But pass they did. For an instant he allowed himself the idea that maybe his raspberry tactic had worked. But then the last Indian, who was trailing well behind the others, tripped and fell into his lap.
Boss was ready. He pulled a large antler handle skinning knife from a sheath strung across his chest, the polished blade shone bright, and he lunged for the surprised and fallen man. Boss saw terror in his eyes as he buried the blade into the enemy’s throat. A scream was cut short. The only sound the warrior could manage was a gurgled. Then he spit blood and fell dead.
Boss pushed the convulsing body away, retrieved his blade and put the knife back in the sheath without taking time to wipe it clean. He jumped to his feet and out of the brush. The other warriors were already coming back. How did they know? Boss raised his rifle and fired. The warrior in the lead, who had half of his face painted black and the other half white, which Boss knew signified the life and death struggle, was just 20 yards away.
The lead ball slammed into the warrior’s chest and blood exploded out of the Indian’s back. He screamed and fell dead. A thought came quickly to the woodsman ... the black half had won. Then Boss turned and was on his way again.
Boss felt his bravado returning in spite of his fear. Three down, two to go. But just like before his false courage disappeared as he felt the great pain of an arrow sink deep into his right thigh. Boss gasped and stumbled, but quickly caught his stride and continued his run. Apparently the Indians, having seen 3 of their own fall dead to the woodsman’s hand, decided the game was over. They were now aiming to kill. Boss could picture the rage welling in Dull Knife’s eyes.
Bravado or not, Boss knew the odds were stacked very high against him. Even so, he wouldn’t give up. Couldn’t give up. In spite of the arrow sticking out of his leg, he ran on. But for how long Boss wondered? How long would he be able to keep going? How long could he stay ahead? He wasn’t sure himself.
Boss held tight to his empty rifle. He chanced a glance over his shoulder. The warriors were gaining on him. He could stop and fight the remaining Indians. But in his badly injured state, he knew if he stopped and even managed to kill one of them the last standing warrior would surely catch up to him. Boss knew, in his current condition, he would be no match for a strong, angry warrior. Let alone two. He was growing weak. He was hurting bad. Hurting like never before. It was all just too much. He was slowing down, he couldn’t help it, the pain was intense, though he didn’t quit.
Another arrow sailed past very close to his head. In fact, it would have hit him had it not ricocheted off the branch of a sapling between him and his pursuers. The warriors were closing in ... fast!
Boss could hear them gaining on him. Hear their footfalls, their heavy breathing. He could sense their desire to catch him, to spill his blood. He was now overwhelmingly afraid. What to do? His panicked mind was racing faster than were his heavy legs. What to do?
“Great Spirit in heaven above,” Boss prayed as he ran. “If you could see fit to spare me one more time I’d be most ... “
That’s when the forest, but for a few tall pines, opened to a small clearing and beyond that ... to sky. To clear, beautiful blue sky, behind a screen of green pine needles, right in front of him. Boss felt glad again as he ran toward the edge of a 50 foot cliff overlooking the Namekagon River. The Ziibi Bagosendam. the River of Hope is one name his brothers the Chippewa Indians called it, and now Boss supposed, he would too. It was such a surprise. He must have gotten turned around in all of the panic and pain. But this woodsman didn’t survive all these years in the woods without grasping at opportunity. That’s what Boss did now, without a second thought, without losing a stride ... he jumped.
The woodsman felt the rush of air hit his face as he fell through the crisp autumn air. Felt the joy of freedom in his heart as he fell like a stone toward the river surface below. The cold water came up on him fast and his body hit so hard it nearly knocked him out. He disappeared beneath the splash.
Boss surfaced seconds later. He was only half conscious and the current swept him downstream as two arrows hit the water a few inches on either side of him. Lucky again! With but a glimpse back to the cliff top he spotted two painted warriors standing close to the edge. Their disappointment showing through their war paint. The woodsman had beat Dull Knife and the Sioux again. Now if he could only survive the river and his numerous wounds.
The river was narrow here. It ran deeper, the current stronger. Plus, autumn rains had come early and often and the small wilderness river was swollen, the water was cold. After a while, Boss wasn’t sure how long he’d actually been in the water or exactly how far downstream he’d gone, he began to move in and out of consciousness and fought hard to keep his face out of the water. Occasionally, he would bounce off a submerged boulder or log. The current first pulled, then pushed him along like a fallen leaf to be carried downstream at the river’s whim.
Boss knew he had to do something, knew he had to get out of the water. But then he remembered the Sioux. He wasn’t sure he could run or even walk along the river bank. The best he could do if he could get to the bank would be to hide. But then he wasn’t sure he had the strength to make it even that far. Maybe, he thought, Dull Knife had won after all.
Loss of blood and the cold were already taking a toll on Boss. He felt so weak. The fight in him was gone.
Then, as he was about to slip beneath the dark surface, to slip into a watery grave, he felt himself being pulled from the current. At first he thought he was hallucinating. When he realized he was, indeed, conscious, all he could do to defend himself was to swing the rifle weakly, for he still held the weapon tight in his hand. Dead or alive, a woodsman never lets go of his rifle. His protest was nothing but a raspy whisper. He was in bad shape, and now he was caught.
“Hold on there, Man,” a deep voice came from above Boss. “I’m trying to help you.”
Boss was pulled from the water and dragged up a slight gravel beach. He half expected to feel the sting of a knife across his throat, but then, in his jumbled mind he realized ...
“Eng, English!” Boss sputtered as he spit out the word. He hadn’t heard anyone speaking English for almost two years. “Who, who are you ... ?”
That was the last thing the woodsman remembered until he awoke hours later. He was laying on his back, staring up through the treetops, into a black sky that was glimmering with twinkling stars. He was simultaneously burning with fever and shivering beneath several tightly wrapped wool blankets. His rifle was missing. He smelled smoke and roast meat, but felt nauseous. His body hurt all over and he began to cough, then retch.
“Well, now.” It was that same deep mysterious voice he’d heard at the river’s edge.
Am I dead, Boss wondered? Is this the Great Spirit speaking to me? Is this the other side? Had he traveled the path of spirits and entered the Great Beyond that he and his native brothers were always wondering about?
“Sorry I cinched you up so tight in those blankets,” the voice said. It was coming from somewhere in the darkness beyond a campfire. “But you got real wild there for a while, thrashing and kicking and speaking in that Chippewa language. Then you fell so quiet I worried for awhile there I was gonna lose you altogether.”
No, Boss thought, his mind began to clear in spite of his misery and pain. This couldn’t be the after-life or the Great Spirit. If it was, he wouldn’t be hurting so bad, he’d be happy and healthy and ...
A man’s face appeared above him. The white skin had a stumble of a beard but still it reflected off the campfire. He looked down at Boss. The woodsman didn’t recognize him and wasn’t sure of his motives, but then Boss read compassion in the stranger’s eyes.
“Who, who?” Boss could barely get the words out.
“Name’s Matthew Chase,” the stranger said holding a metal cup. “I’m a little green to these woods. I come into this country to stake my claim. That’s what I was doing. Exploring along this here river watching for Indians and looking for a suitable cabin site to build my trading post when, to my utter surprise, I saw a man, a white man, come floating past.”
Boss coughed again and Matthew reached to him and put his hand behind the woodsman’s head. He raised up Boss’ head a little and brought the cup filled with some kind of broth to the woodsman’s lips. It was warm and Boss could smell the meat. It was venison. Then he noticed for the first time a little half skinned doe hanging from a meat pole near the fire.
“I know you probably don’t feel much like eating,” Matthew said. “But you got to get something warm in your belly to build your strength and warm you from the inside. Try to drink. It will help.”
Boss drank a cup down with some difficulty but Matthew was patient, when he was finished the woodsman fell back into his blankets and went to sleep. His dreams were varied and vivid. There were Indians dancing around great bonfires. There were dead men laying about; he dreamed of woods and wolves and there was a woman. She was beautiful and she was smiling all the time. Her eyes shone a deep, intoxicating blue. She walked behind him through the dense forest, and then slowly, surely she caught up to him. When she moved closer to kiss him he ...
Boss woke with a start. The sun was high and the blankets were no longer wrapped tight around him but laid over him. At first he didn’t remember where he was or what ... then it all came back to him. The arrow, the heart, chased by Sioux, the long jump into the river, and finally, the stranger who pulled him from the water. And the woman? Where was the ... but then his mind cleared and he whispered, “she was just a dream.”
Matthew was stooped over the fire. Boss still felt cold and miserable. And now there was a searing pain in both his left arm and right leg where the arrows had hit. When Matthew turned around he was holding another cup of broth in one hand and the broken shaft of an arrow with a sharp bone broadhead in the other.
“I dug this out of your leg at sunrise,” Matthew said. “Then I patched your arm and leg with yarrow leaves. But the shoulder gash took 13 stitches. Used most of my extra sewing thread on it.”
Matthew held up the broken arrow to show Boss up close. It was made to kill a man. The sharp point was carved from animal bone and fashioned on the end of the shaft crossways to fit between the ribs of a man, not an animal.
“Those Sioux,” Matthew said. “They sure know how to make an arrow.”
Boss drank the cup of broth with Matthew’s help, then he drank another.
“How do you know it was Sioux? Where did they go?” Boss asked minutes later as he took a third cup of broth with his right hand and drank it without assistance. He was, indeed, feeling warmer and stronger.|
“That’s easy,” Matthew said. “This here is the Namekagon River Valley, Chippewa Indian land. They are called Ojibwa too, and they are friendlies. At least to me and I suppose to you if you are the mighty white woodsman I heard them talk about when I visited their village down river at Dogtown.”
This man knew a lot Boss thought. He must, indeed, be on good terms with the locals. Boss needed to know more about him.
“You know Dogtown and my brothers the Ojibwa?” Boss asked, surpised the stranger knew the native’s regional name.
Boss would stay and recuperate in Matthew’s camp for several days. The Sioux did not show up again. He knew it had been a small war party. The Sioux, ever hateful for being pushed from this land decades before, would occasionally venture into the region to kill as many Chippewa Indians, or anyone else they came across, before quickly leaving the area again. It was hit and run warfare. This party that had attacked Boss had suffered heavy losses in spite of the presence of the great war chief, Dull Knife. Boss couldn’t help but wonder if under all that war paint, the chief wasn’t one of the three that died. But then he shook his head. He doubted the great warrior would go that easy. Even so, the two remaining warriors, Dull Knife or not, had obviously decided to take off and lick their wounds and mourn their losses over their own fires in their home territory some 200 miles south of there.
“So what is your purpose?” Boss finally asked Matthew.
The stranger didn’t hesitate a second. He was actually anxious to share his dream.
“I plan to move here, to settle here,” Matthew said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I will leave my lumber and logging business and my home down in Prairie on the big river to my daughter Abbey and live out my days in these beautiful woods. Same as you I suppose. I will trade with the Ojibwa Indians and any trappers passing through. Same as you, I suppose.”
It was a good plan and one the woodsman heard before, but he knew most men didn’t follow through, most never follow their dreams.
“I’m serious about this,” Matthew said. “In just a few years I will be living here. It is my dream. You will see. I feel it is a calling of sorts. But I am not a missionary. I am not coming here to bring my life to the natives, but more to bring the natives’ life to me. I mean, the way I see it ... all that really matters between a man’s birth and his death, are his dreams.”
Boss ventured a smile.
“Yes I will see,” the woodsman said, “or not see.”
Boss doubted it would ever happen.
“But in the meantime,” Boss said handing his empty metal cup back to Matthew. “I’m much obliged to you for saving my life.”
Now Matthew smiled.
“Maybe someday you will return the favor to me,” Matthew said to his new found friend.
“Maybe I will,” the woodsman Boss Stalker said as he downed another cup of tasty broth. “Maybe I will.”