THE HORNED SERPENT OF THE SWAMP
Short story by Donald Williams Jr
(All rights are reserved)
With the Ohio River crossing now behind them, and their canoes being well hidden, the raiding party of the Munsee Wolf Clan ventured into a region of northeastern Kentucky that was unfamiliar to them. There were twenty-two of them in all, some very young, but all were battle- hardened warriors of the recent war in which the Great King’s rebellious children had fought for and won their independence. Those same rebellious children, called Americans, now told the tribes of the Ohio country that there lands no longer belonged to them. “By right of conquest we now own the lands north of the Ohio,” they said.
“How can that be?” the sachems of the tribal councils cried out. “Never once have they defeated us. How is it they now claim our lands?” The British refused to help, so the tribes themselves decided to take up the hatchet and strike at the Long Knives, as they called the White Americans, before they could settle north of the Ohio. It was for this purpose that this particular Munsee war party crossed into Kentucky country.
Black Cloud, their war captain, now brought a halt to their advance. It was Jagatamoewi Gischuch – time of the honey bee. Summer. The war party hid itself in a bushy thicket to avoid discovery. A scout was dispatched to reconnoiter the area up ahead and locate a target. “Be careful, Little Fox, and above all do not be seen,” said Black Cloud. The size and numbers of militia units in Kentucky had increased since the war ended, and the war party would be vastly outnumbered if discovered by one of them.
By early evening, Little Fox returned. He informed Black Cloud that only a short distance from them was a cluster of three farm houses, with barns and pens. There was livestock in the yards. Also, clothes were hanging from some lines to dry. Some clothes were men’s, with others belonging to women and children.
“Did you see anyone,” asked Black Cloud. Little Fox had seen no one. He said that he didn’t remain for long, and assumed the men were still out planting.
Black Cloud called his warriors together to discuss the intended target. “We will remain here tonight, and attack at dawn.” Not forgetting his past promise to the spirits, he ordered that no women or children were to be killed. “You may take captives, but only grown men and older boys must die. Their scalps are to be taken,” he said. He instructed that the houses, barns, and pens were to be burned, and the livestock destroyed. “Take some of their foul for food.”
White Lynx, a close friend of Black Cloud, listened as his war captain spoke. He had the utmost trust in this leader who had been sent a vision by Mesingw, the mask spirit, during his Youth Vigil. Black Cloud was reminding his warriors how Kitanitouit, the Great Spirit, had given his people, the Delaware, the lands in which they had their council fires. He told them without bold action on their part, surely the Long Knives would come to destroy them and their families. “They must have a great fear of us,” he said.
Baptized with the name of Etienne Chalfont, Black Cloud was a mixed blood French Munsee of thirty-two snows. He was tall, lean and muscular, with his hair shaved into a scalp lock, his face painted in colors of vermilion and black, wearing a hunting shirt, breech clout, and moccasins. He was armed with a tomahawk, musket, and his sacred weapon, the Spirit Bow. His warriors knew that Black Cloud had powerful medicine and was often favored by the spirits.
When the warriors bedded down for the night, White Lynx spoke to his friend.
“I believe that striking at the Long Knives in their own homes this side of the river, Etienne, will only cause them to rise with all their strength and come to destroy us,” said White Lynx, who had accompanied Black Cloud on many past raids and battles.
“If they understand, White Lynx, that we can strike at the very heart of their settlements at our discretion and inflict terrible damage, they will forbear coming recklessly into our
country. They must be shown they will suffer terrible losses if they disturb us.” With that, Black Cloud walked off to commune with the spirits.
. . .
The night dew was still clinging to the soil at dawn as Black Cloud and his warriors crawled through the taller brush toward the grouping of houses. He could feel his heart pounding rapidly in anticipation of the attack. He divided his men into three groups, each with a specific house and barn to attack. Separating the high grass in front of his face so he could see better, and detecting no movement, his mind began to race. “Something is wrong,” he murmured to himself. Then, just as he was about to give the signal to attack, he froze. They had been discovered.
“It’s an ambush!” he called out. “Run back.”
As he and his warriors jumped up from the grass, the sound of horse hooves pounding on the forest floor could be heard. They were many and moving rapidly in the direction of the war party.
Between the houses,” cried Black Cloud, turning his men away from the impending charge. He and his warriors began running as fast as possible toward the cluster of houses. Black Cloud yelled to his warriors to use the buildings, fences, and pens for cover and prepare to engage the oncoming attackers. They had almost reached the houses when an ambuscade of musket fire erupted from windows and behind water toughs. Several warriors fell with this first volley. The Munsee returned fire, their shots going wild as chaos ensued. The air was filled with smoke from the muskets, and the attacking militia was now closing fast. Caught in a deadly crossfire, the hunter now became the hunted.
“Follow me,” cried Black Cloud as he turned and dashed toward the thicker woods. His remaining men followed close behind, a few stopping to fire their muskets in hopes of slowing their pursuers. The thick trees would also make it hard for riders to pursue them, slowing them considerably. Soon, the musket fire from the windows was no longer be able to reach them. Their skills of using the forest to their advantage, along with speed and stealth were all that could save them now. The mounted militia company, many times their number, closed on the tree line which the warriors had just entered.
Musket balls crashed against the tree trunks, sending splinters of bark into their faces as they ran. The mounted pursuers were gaining on the fleeing warriors, even with the difficulty presented by the thicket. Another warrior cried out and went down. There was no time to check on him, they had to keep running.
Black Cloud felt as though his heart would soon burst from his chest if he didn’t slow down. Suddenly, he heard the sound of splashing as he ran. Then with each raising of his foot there was a sucking sound. The floor of the forest had become sludge, and swarms of bugs were upon them. Now they were running in more water and higher grasses, with the trees, bald cypress and black willows, standing in water. Fallen branches were water logged. “Mas keek!” yelled one of the warriors. They had run into a swamp.
Soon the sounds of the mounted pursuers began to fade, and Black Cloud realized that they had refrained from entering the swamp with their mounts. An occasional musket ball screamed past as the warriors kept up their evading action. After what seemed an eternity, they found themselves out of range from the deadly musket fire. They were no longer being pursued. After stopping to catch his breath and survey his surroundings, Black Cloud called his warriors to him. The war party that had started as twenty-two strong was now down to fourteen warriors, three of them with severe wounds. Many had lost their muskets in their flight into the swamp, and most of them, with the exception of a few, had gotten their powder wet from falling over sunken branches as they fled. They now stood in the foul-smelling water which was above their knees.
“What now, Etienne?” asked White Lynx, who stood next to him covered with blood from a wound where a ball had just brushed his left arm.
The war captain looked around for a moment and listened. “We wait,” he said.
“You mean just stand here in this water as if we are willows?” asked White Lynx with sarcasm in his voice.
“Like willows,” came the answer. White Lynx frowned and looked down at the water, making no more inquiries. He knew that the situation was desperate, but if he could trust anyone it was Etienne. Even though it may not seem so at the moment, White Lynx was sure that his war captain held a certain favor with the spirits.
From the distance came shouts of “they be trapped. They ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Other cries of “let none of ‘em escape. Kill ‘em all,” could be heard echoing back. Black Cloud understood little English, but enough to understand that the militia company was riding around the perimeter of the swamp, just waiting for them to attempt an escape. They had no reason to enter the swamp. They would just wait for the soon to be thirsty and delirious warriors to come out. Black Cloud needed time to think and to commune with the spirits.
Black Cloud took a moment to reassure his warriors, who stood in the putrid and undrinkable water. “Find concealment behind the trees and stay vigilant,” he told them. “We will find a way out of here,” he said to them. Meanwhile, he moved away and began to entreat the spirits. It was still early morning, but the heat was already beginning to worsen.
Placing his hand on the medicine bag he wore around his neck, Black Cloud beseeched Kitanitouit for help and guidance. He realized that he and his warriors were in grave trouble, and that only with the help of the Great Spirit would they be delivered from this perilous swamp. Most of their weapons were gone, they were lost, a militia awaited them, and they were growing more and more thirsty. “We are trapped here in this swamp, which is the domain of the Horned Serpent,” he uttered in a low voice. “I pray to my helping spirits, the Thunder Beings, to destroy the power of the Horned Serpent and lead us to safety.” With that, he threw some sacred tobacco from a pouch onto the water.
Returning back to his men, White Lynx regarded his war captain, waiting for a sign that the spirits had shown him a way out of this. However, the look on Black Clouds face gave no such indication.
They waited. The day grew hot, humid, and the bugs were ferocious. The warriors were thirsty, and still Black Cloud did not have a plan. Some of the warriors were growing doubtful of his ability to save them, and a few began to gesture in silence toward each other. A silent rebellion was forming.
The swamp vapors seemed to be closing in on them by late afternoon, and the lack of drinking water was confusing their thoughts. All at once three warriors broke away, and began moving slogging off through the water toward what they hoped was an escape. Only moments after they disappeared from sight, a few cries were raised from outside the swamp, followed by an explosion of musket fire. A few more shouts, the language being English, and then all was quiet.
“They didn’t make it, Etienne,” said White Lynx, whose attention had been focused on one of the three wounded warriors who had just slipped under the water and died. Their number was now ten.
“Perhaps we should sing our death song, Etienne. I, for one, see no way out of this,” said White Lynx, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard.
Etienne Chalfont, – Black Cloud – looked at his friend in disbelief. “Hear me, White Lynx. We have fought many battles together, and never did I see you resolved to quit. Do not do so now. I need you.”
White Lynx was ashamed of being admonished. “I am sorry for those words, Etienne. Please forgive me. I think it is the lack of water that scrambles my head.”
“We will not perish in this watery place,” said Black Cloud to his friend. “We all know that water is the domain of the Great Horned Serpent, and that he is an evil spirit that can destroy us.” White Lynx nodded that he understood that. Black Cloud continued. “And is it not the purpose of the Thunder Beings to protect us from the Great Horned Serpent who lives under the water?”
“Yes, Etienne. But the Thunder Beings can sometimes be very dangerous and can choose to harm us, can they not?” replied White Lynx.
“That is true, White Lynx. But as you have seen, the Thunder Beings have always shown themselves to protect me, because they know I have had a vision that I must fulfill,” continued Black Cloud. “I know they will kill the spirit of the Great Horned Serpent of this swamp, and we will be saved. So, we wait.” White Lynx nodded his approval of what Black Cloud had said.
The sun no longer shinned through the canopy of leaves above the swamp. Soon it would be twilight. Black Cloud did his best to hide his own discouragement as there was still no sign from the spirits. He began to have his own doubts that the Thunder Beings would intervene. But his faith in them was all that he had. Now a second warrior died from his wounds as they waited. Nine remained. Would anyone survive this swamp? Black Cloud had always believed. He would not change that now.
“Pennau!!” Look! White Lynx pointed to something moving in the water. “Achgook.” A snake. “He wants us to follow him. It is the spirit of the Horned Serpent beckoning us to follow him to our death,” said White Lynx, frightened at the appearance of this creature.
Black Cloud closed his eyes, grabbed his medicine bag, and stood silent for a moment. “No, White Lynx. The Thunder Beings are driving away the serpent. We are to follow him and we will find our way out of here.”
Several of the warriors hesitated, believing Black Cloud to be wrong about the snake. “Then do as you wish,” he told them. “Stay here and die, or trust the spirits.”
To die here of thirst, or die by the militia’s hand, what difference does it make, they thought. At least following Black Cloud offered some hope. Soon nine men were moving silently and quickly as possible through the quagmire, hoping not to lose sight of the snake.
As darkness enveloped the swamp, the whisper of men’s voices became audible above the sounds of the swamp creatures. The snake was no longer visible, but Black Cloud knew from the nearby voices that they were almost free. But there path was blocked by a party of militia. Barely able to see but a few feet in front of them, the warriors found themselves only ankle deep in water, their high moccasins sinking into muck and mire. Here they stood motionless, listening, waiting for direction from Black Cloud. Their throats parched, each warrior was driven more by the want of water, than by fear of the militia. Thirsty, hungry, and fatigued, still the warriors mustered up the strength to fight.
Hoping his warriors saw his signal to remain still in the obscure light near the edge of the swamp, Black Cloud inched forward. Crouching behind some high vegetation, his feet now on dry land, he saw the shadowy movements of men preparing to retire for the night. He could hear, more than see, the sound of horses tethered nearby. One man had been assigned to keep a vigil, and he now walked slowly along the edge of the swamp, watching for any sign of an attempted escape in his direction.
The number of militiamen appeared to be five or six, and Black Cloud realized that the militia company had been broken into smaller segments and posted at intervals along the edge of the swamp. Although there was difficulty in being able to see due to the night being cloudy and overcast, Black Cloud clearly made out the flicker of a few distant fires. There were three, to be exact.
“Fires from the hearth of the farm houses,” he mumbled to himself. He now realized that they had followed the snake through the swamp to the exact place where they had entered it. They were not far from the trail they had followed into this place. Black Cloud felt a real sense of hope. “The Thunder Beings are with me.”
Returning back into the swamp he told his warriors his plan. As he counted his men, there were now eight, not nine, to include himself. The third wounded warrior had slipped away and died. White Lynx saw the pained look on his friend’s face. They were losing too many warriors.
“We cannot ponder over those we have lost, Etienne. We must get as many of our warriors back to safety as we can.” With that, White Lynx gathered the warriors that were to go with him and moved forward to the edge of the swamp. Black Cloud and his men did the same.
The militia sentry, a man of middle-age, wearing a floppy hat, a hunting shirt, breeches, and carrying his musket in his right hand, his left hand being busy with swatting mosquitoes, walked past White Lynx who waited in ambush. Like a panther pouncing on its prey, White Lynx grabbed the sentry from behind, threw him quickly to the ground and dispatched him with a tomahawk. Another man, who had sat up to resettle himself more comfortably, observed what just happened. “Get up! They’re on us,” he cried while reaching for his musket. A blow from Little Fox’s tomahawk silenced him before he could cry out more.
The remainder of the men started to rouse, but it was too late. They all quickly fell to the tomahawk or scalping knife of the Munsee. Only one lone figure now stood silhouetted by the darkness, this figure being much smaller than the rest. As Black Cloud stepped in closer, tomahawk ready, he saw the large, frightened eyes of a boy, no older than his own son, starring at him. The boy did not speak. He couldn’t swallow or stop his shaking. He just stood starring pathetically at the war captain. He saw the tomahawk and closed his eyes.
Black Cloud lowered his weapon. His mind raced back to a place called Ruddle’s Station, and a British Indian Agent named Simon Girty. Black Cloud remembered how Girty ordered an attack in which not only men, but women and young children were brutally and barbarically massacred. Black Cloud had vowed to Kitanitouit that he would never take the life of a woman or a child in war.
As he stood there gazing at the boy, another warrior stepped up and prepared to strike. It was White Lynx who seized him by the arm, preventing the fatal blow.
“Why do you not kill him?” asked the surprised warrior. White Lynx knew of his friend Etienne’s vow.
“Leave him,” he told the warrior, who complied.
“You go,” said Black Cloud to the boy. “You run.” The youngster turned away from the war captain and ran off into the darkness. Meanwhile, the five dead militiamen had been stripped of their weapons, and a water bag being discovered, everyone quenched their burning thirst. Horses were rounded up, there were six of them. The bridles and saddles had not been removed, and they were ready to ride. The warriors mounted the horses, two of them being mounted by two men. Just as they turned onto the trail, a shot rang out. The boy had a pistol which Black Cloud failed to see in the dark. Despite their having eliminated the militia party in complete silence, their presence was now made known.
“Na-wa-lil.” Follow me. Black Cloud lead his men at a fast trot toward the light gleaming from the farmhouses. They could not ride at a full gallop due to darkness and unfamiliar surroundings. Unable to mask the sounds of the horse’s hooves, just as they were about to pass the farmhouses musket fire rang out. The shots went wild in the dark and no one was hit. Black Cloud saw the opening in the tree line leading to the path they had come in on. He turned his horse in that direction, his warriors following, when another ambuscade let go from the cluster of houses. A horse fell dead beneath one of the warriors, who then jumped onto the back of another horse, now making three horses with two riders. Only Black Cloud and White Lynx were singularly mounted.
Onto the path they rode, the smell of damp wood filling their nostrils. Black Cloud felt the pain his legs from aching muscles that had stood too long in stagnant water. The lack of food, fatigue, and starring into the darkness was beginning to take a toll on all of them. They could hear mounted militiamen not far behind. The sky had almost vanished completely overhead now, and they were being struck with branches which ripped at the skin of their legs as they struggled to stay on the dark path. After what seemed an eternity, they came to a creek.
“This is the creek we followed in from the river,” said Black Cloud, feeling some sense of relief. “We need to follow this and soon we will arrive at the river. Once across, we will be safe.” As he spoke, he could hear the sound of thunder off in the distance, even above the sound of the rushing creek. They had left their canoes well-hidden along the river bank. Across the Ohio River two warriors awaited with the war party’s horses.
But Black Cloud’s hope for a quick end to their troubles was dashed by the sudden sound of many horse hooves pounding on the forest floor. The militia was closing fast. “Quick,” yelled Black Cloud, “we are slower than they, and they will soon be upon us.” A horse with two riders would easily be overtaken by horses with a single rider, particularly riders who were familiar with the path, even at night. Knowing the river was close now, Black Cloud urged his warriors forward at the utmost haste. If the militia caught them in the forest, there would be no hope of escape. They had to make it to the canoes, or perish.
At last they broke out of the woods and onto the grassy river bank. The wind had increased and the thunder crashed overhead. As the warriors searched in the dark for the spot where they left their canoes, the militia burst out of the forest. “Dismount,” cried Black Cloud. “White Lynx, you must find those canoes. The rest of us will face the militia.” The warriors loaded the muskets they had taken from the dead men and made ready to fire. Lightning crashed overhead and struck a nearby tree, splitting it in two. The militia came on, aiming their weapons as they rode. The rain started. It became difficult to see.
“Jucke!” Now! Black Cloud ordered the warriors to fire. There was an explosion of musket fire and several militiamen fell from their saddles. A few others managed to get off a shot before turning their horses away from the deadly musket fire. One warrior slid down the river bank, dead. It was Little Fox. Within moments it poured rain so hard as to render the muskets useless. Then a strong bolt of lightning struck nearby, momentarily lighting up the shore line.
“Found them. They are over here,” cried White Lynx through the storm. The illumination from the lightning had allowed him to locate the canoes. The warriors, upon hearing this, all scrambled toward the canoes. The militia major, knowing he had lost the advantage, decided to break it off at this point. To attempt to fight the warriors using knives or hatchets against their skills with these weapons would prove disastrous. The major ordered a retreat.
Black Cloud waited until the militia was gone before attempting to get to the canoes. “We are safe now,” he cried out. As he turned to join his companions, a wounded militiaman lying on the ground nearby rose up and saw the war captain turning to run. He pulled a pistol he had kept dry from under his body, cocked it, too aim, and fired.
. . .
The storm had since abated and the clouds had cleared away, allowing moonlight to show through. The warriors had carried Black Cloud across in the canoe and laid him on the ground. They stood around him starring down at their war captain. He did not stir.
“Have we lost him?” a warrior asked White Lynx.
“Not yet,” came the reply. “He still breathes.” The warriors moved away, leaving White Lynx with his friend.
The only sounds were the screech of an owl and a squirrel dashing from its nest.
Suddenly the silence was broken. “He stirs,” cried White Lynx.” The others came running. He was awake but disoriented, a terrible ringing in his ear near where the musket ball had grazed his face, knocking him unconscious.
“Where am I?” asked Black Cloud. “The last thing I remember was being on the shoreline in the pouring rain watching the militia leave.”
“We are safely back in Ohio country,” replied White Lynx, explaining what happened. “That storm saved us from certain death at the hands of those Long Knives.”
Black Cloud smiled now. “First, the Thunder Beings defeated then forced the spirit of the Horned Serpent to save us from that deadly bog. Then, while making our escape, we would certainly have been murdered by the Long Knives had the Thunder Beings not intervened, causing a great storm which drove them away. Did you not see this with your own eyes, White Lynx?”
The warrior smiled back at his friend. “Yes, Etienne, I saw it. No power on this earth could have delivered us from that swamp or the militia.”
Black Cloud rose, went off into the night, and made offerings to Kitanitouit and the Thunder Beings. It could have been none other than they which saved them. The wind blew the tall grasses which seemed to whisper “It was not your day to die.”
The following morning, as the bodies of the slain militia party were being collected from the edge of the swamp, the young boy who had fired the warning shot the night before was seen to be playing with something near the water. On closer inspection, it was found to be a rather large water snake. The snake was dead.