The Mask of Death, will blanket the land,
The Harvester’s task to do,
By the fire of their soul, he seeks his prey,
No peace for those is due.
Warriors will come, the challenge it seeks,
But fate will follow too,
Brothers at war, who meet at death,
To free those whom he slew.
* * *
The cold night air was still carrying reminders of the recent storm that earlier dropped a few fresh inches of powder on the older snow pack. Powder well describes the type of snow that drifts easily in the wind, yet rests soft and light on a dry windless night. It was the kind of dusting that lays a blanket of quiet over the mountains and muffles the normal sounds of dead branches and weathered trees of this northern terrain.
Ben’s heart quickened under his soft steps as the full moon made its appearance through an open pocket in the cloud mass above. The full moon’s light reflected off the new snow, giving the appearance of dawn to the midnight landscape. Empty shadows emerged across the forest floor in a strange pattern of night and day stopping the mountain man in his tracks. This could certainly put a damper on my fun, he thought; his plans hindered by the glow of the giant orb.
Most would probably consider him crazy. The Blackfeet were not what one would call friendly to white men. Before Lewis and Clark had arrived revealing the plan to supply all the tribes equally with firearms, they were the only people with muskets, which they acquired from the French by fur trade. Through warfare over the years, they had established themselves as the dominant nation over the other tribes in this northern land. The plan to give arms to their enemies immediately turned the Blackfeet against Lewis and Clark’s party and set in motion a constant state of hostilities with whites and Indians alike.
At this point in time the focus of the Blackfoot’s pursuits centered on raids and theft. If caught, Ben would more than likely face the same fate of Grizz; a fellow trapper in these parts whom Ben happened on last week. Well, I guess you would say the remains of. To Ben, it looked as if Grizz had fallen into a three-day peeling. An art form perfected by the Shawnee and stolen by the Blackfeet. A regular ritual performed on those that were unlucky enough to get caught on their land.
Legend has it, The Peeling, was a death that prevented the soul from entering the afterlife. If skinned while alive the soul does not remain long enough after death for the guardian of passage to collect the soul. Ben put no stock in such nonsense. He knew the Blackfeet just plain enjoyed it. But the image of Grizz’s 6’8” frame still haunted him. Held upside down with a make shift rope, made from his own skin, tied to his ankles. Grizz’s frozen features still expressed the empty realization of his impending death: with his lidless eyes, lacking the luster of color, staring endlessly at his lost future; his mouth frozen in an open, silent scream, as if saying, “This can’t be happening.”
Ben could envision clearly the blood-icicles stretching out like daggers, curved from the strong winds like the bloody claws of a large predator after the kill. But the haunting memories of the gruesome butchery did not frighten him. In Ben’s life as a mountain man, he’d seen many bloody works perpetrated on the unfortunate. No, what bugged him about Grizz was not the fact that he was hung, but that the remainder of his hide was missing, and his weapons were left untouched; it just didn’t seem normal.Why did the Blackfeet take most of the man’s hide instead of just the scalp, and why not the weapons?
Ben had cut him down and concealed the body in the trunk of an old rotted out oak. The code of the mountain man entitled Ben to the meager possessions of those no longer needing them. It was viewed as the natural thing to do considering the dangerous life they all shared. The trapper acquired the well maintained 50 caliber lead belcher and a sound German horse pistol that day, but Grizz had been traveling light respecting food stuffs or traps. The disparaging questions of the scene still haunted him, but this was no time to reflect on inconsistencies. The dangers at hand needed to be the focus of the mountain man’s concerns.
Ben had hoped to play a practical joke on the small group of Indians, probably returning from a hunting trip or perhaps a raid on some other tribe in the area. Besides they were more than likely the ones who attacked Grizz, which made Ben’s planned fun all the more enjoyable. The Blackfeet were a superstitious lot; more than susceptible to a little mountain humor; if you could call it humor. Mountain humor usually entailed theft, sometimes dismemberment, or even death. It was a serious game played by men who faced death on a daily basis. As long as it was someone else that suffered, it was funny, and Ben was intent on having his fun.
The mountain man smiled to himself as he considered the trick for tonight. The beaver had been scarce as of late. So, to Ben’s thinking, A few extra hides would be nice; not to mention the Indian ponies tethered to the east. Or if they were a hunting party he could, relieve them of their prize. Maybe he could even make it look like, the game got up and walked off by itself. The man chuckled to himself; It will be fun to play on their superstitions.
Ben had been standing stone still within 50 feet of the camp when the moon made its appearance. The band had picked a small clearing for their camp on the downhill side of a small ridge. Ben studied the camp under the new light when a sudden apprehension came over him. Something’s not right. Blackfeet don’t post sentries when on the hunt. Why is that brave,—if just up late,—not by the fire? The mountain man then took note of the camp’s deceptively peaceful state. Do they know I‘m here?
Ben continued to stand motionless probably for the better half of 20 minutes. Then something stirred behind him. Had he walked into an ambush? His grip tightened on his muzzleloader. Through his heavy fur gloves he could feel the smooth wood stock and polished steel of the weapon, giving him a feeling that as long as he held it he could survive anything thrown at him. And he was sure he would take a few with him. All Ben’s senses were on full alert. He would react when need be, but to move now would only seal his fate. He was sure if the Blackfeet had known where he was at they would have already attacked.
The sound behind him now seemed to be off to his left. Apparently they knew his proximity, but not location. There’s still a chance to get away, but patience would be required.
Ben dropped his head ever so slowly. So slowly and so discreetly, that even a doe at five yards would not have noticed it. Even to the trained eye, Ben would be hard to locate. Ice clung to the fur of his outer garments like the frozen rain clings to prairie grass after a sudden freeze. With his makeshift bearskin poncho, draped over his stocky frame, and large beaver hat resting down over his shoulders, Ben looked like a snow covered bush in the shadows of the moonlight. In this stance, with his chin pressed firmly against his chest, he could see the camp but limit the light his eyes might reflect from the meager fire near the sentry. It would also better conceal any visibility of his breath in the cold night air.
The warriors continued to flank him. What were they doing? The man began to study his surroundings, what had he missed? Little things began to stand out. The position of the brave. The fire was bigger than it should be. Even the horses were not near the camp. Why such unusual behavior?
Then it dawned on him, The ambush’s not for me. This had the feel of a trap; for the mountain man was well acquainted with the tactics of his enemy. In his youth he had joined the Kentucky militia at 18, about six months before his parents moved north to Michigan. Ben experienced first hand the red man’s deceptive ability and skill in the art of ambush, while fighting in the battle of Fort Meigs.
In 1813, the Kentucky militia was encamped above the fort on the Maumee River. Harrison, in command of a small garrison there had entrenched his men to hold the fort against the British. Under attack and in desperate need of reinforcements, he sent two men to deliver a message for the militia to take out a line of cannons pounding the fort with a relentless rain of hot shot from heavy artillery stationed on a nearby ridge.
Hot shot was used very effectively in sea battles against ships because of the tremendous fire hazard it presented against vessel and sail. Metal shrapnel or cannon balls were heated to near melting temperature in stoked fires then loaded into the cannons. The only thing separating the almost liquid metal from the powder was a water soaked wad to prevent immediate ignition. In the war of 1812, it was unleashed against any wooden structure, hailing down a sometimes devastating torrent of flaming death.
The red-hot ammunition took great skill in loading on the part of artillery units, due to the danger of the hot metal and powder in such close proximity. Its use against Fort Meigs proved somewhat ineffective due to heavy rains, which caused both cannon balls and hot shot to make a sickening sizzling sound as the artillery impacted the muddy embankments and watery trenches constructed in defense of the fort. The thick nasty smelling steam proved somewhat gagging but hardly disabling to the men dug in to hold the fort, though outnumbered two to one. But the constant pummeling of cannon fire did keep the fort from delivering any kind of an offensive.
The Kentucky militia including Ben, his brother, and a few Indians who took the American side of the conflict, made up a party of 800 strong, flanked the enemy by coming down the river by foot and canoe. Taking the enemy by surprise they quickly subdued the artillery field, spiking the cannons with their musket ramrods, to render the heavy weaponry useless.
It was here, while standing by the cannons cheering their victory, that a group of Indians allied with the British were seen gathering in the nearby woods. Propelled by their recent victory the militia charged into the woods after the elusive enemy against the counsel of their Indian allies. Forty-five minutes later, the number of the militia was reduced to less than 200 demoralized soldiers retreating in desperation from the well-designed ambush.
Ben survived the slaughter only because of his training in hand-to-hand combat while with the militia and the woodcraft he had learned from his youth in the Kentucky wilderness and Ohio basin. These and similar events from his past, many near death experiences from his youth, provided a lucid reminder,— memories burned into the hollows of a vivid mind, recollections regarding the battle-ready guerillas and the type of warfare that always seemed to catch their opposition off-guard.
And now he wondered, had he again found himself the victim of a cunning enemy who was in total control? Or had he walked right into a snare set for someone else? They couldn’t know of his presence. Ben wasn’t following them. He had come upon them on his trapping run. If Ben had any hope of surviving he would have to rely on his skill, stealth and self-taught patience. The man mentally gripped one of his two pistols with his left hand. He knew he’d be putting them to use tonight.
Minutes seemed like hours as the braves made their silent advance. He mentally dropped each brave. He knew it would be a difficult fight with some hand-to-hand. First one to go would have be the one on his right. The one on his left was closer and would be easier to drop on the second shot after the start of the attack. Finally, the one in the camp he would have to shoot with the rifle. To Ben it seemed simple enough as he pondered when the Blackfeet would attack. Hopefully, he could wait them out, and work his way over to the horses. It would give Ben a better idea of how many braves were in the party. This would put the mountain man in a better position to just slip away unscathed or continue the game. Ben would probably choose the latter. Confrontations and battle offered a thrill to the mountain man that is hard to describe.
As the time passed he started thinking, what if his flank was not the real flank, but in fact, perhaps these were warriors of an opposing tribe, and this ambush was intended for them? Had he fallen into a war zone? He couldn’t be the target. Ben continued to wait, knowing that time would reveal the answer.
The braves slowly came into view and Ben could clearly see they were part of the Blackfeet and therefore, part of the ambush. They apparently expected an attack on their camp and were searching for the would-be attackers. Or was he the target? Were they alerted to his presence? Ben began to give a sigh of relief, when it came to him, Maybe this was a trick to get me to reveal my position. This certainly added to the game.
Ben began to wonder just what would happen next, when a small breeze kicked up. The wind brought with it an unusual smell to the mountain man’s nose: The smell of dead and rotting flesh. But this didn’t make sense; it was below freezing temperature. Things froze before they got a chance to rot, and it was beyond him how this smell, which was undoubtedly the stench of rotting flesh, was so pungent. An uneasy feeling came over Ben. Things were just not adding up, and Ben wasn’t alone, the lone sentry stirred to life after he inhaled the odor.
* * *
The lone brave in the camp stood silent, waiting for the signal. He shivered in his fur coat, which was unable to fight off the cold night. The fur was thinner than normal, to allow for movement during the ambush, which was making standing so far from the fire unbearable.
Bear Claw made a silent prayer to the Great Spirit that their plan would work. If not, the Demon Hunter would continue to terrorize his tribe. That’s when the telltale sign of Demon presence came to his nostrils. The brave flung off his fur, pulling out his tomahawk, and ran to the fire grabbing a flaming limb. He turned in time to feel intense pain as long sharp talons locked onto his neck, lifting him from the ground. White lightning issued forth from the wraith as the warrior swung his tomahawk downward feeling it sink into the flesh of his unseen attacker.
Amid the cold night air, a ghostly shriek echoed through the camp, mingled with the defiant war cry of Bear Claw.
Dropping his makeshift torch, the warrior jerked in the throes of pain as razor sharp hooks punctured his skin, ripping his exposed skin from his chest.
* * *
Ben could not believe what he was seeing. A strange red light shot across the snow in front of the brave to his left. Moments later white lightning shot from the camp near the fire and the chest of the brave to Ben’s left exploded. In the camp almost simultaneously the brave who ran to the fire seemed to be floating in midair with blood gushing from his chest. His screams were met with the shrieks of his comrades as they charged into the camp.
The mortally wounded floating brave, swung his tomahawk downward and shortly after dropped his torch into a large pile of pine needles and branches that circled the campsite. The fire began to spread quickly through the kindling, lighting up the forest, and giving Ben the feeling he was in hell itself.
Everything was happening in a matter of seconds, yet to Ben, time had stopped. Before the torch hit the ground however, another streak of lightning thundered—stopping the brave to Ben’s right. The brave’s back erupted in a geyser of blood and gore as the white lightning passed through his body while expanding on impact. Other braves were charging the camp from all sides still screaming their war cries. That’s when Ben saw a glint of red, in the shape of three dots forming a triangle, next to the floating, helpless brave. In a glimmer, more hide was pulled from the floating Indian. At the same time white lightning shot once,—twice,—three times, dropping three more warriors in the gruesome throes of death. The last brave continued his charge reaching the camp’s outer perimeter only to meet the same fate as the others.
Ben stood in shock; the whole battle lasted under a minute. There was no way that just happened, he thought to himself.
Ben didn’t really believe in God, but he was sure he had just witnessed the workings of the devil himself. The torture continued on the only survivor of the ambush as the invisible force toyed with his prey.
Tabby with his mouse. This was taking the game to a whole new level. Ben spied the evil still unable to see the perpetrator as the whimpering, partially skinless victim was tossed aside.
Ben thought the firelight was playing with his eyes as he watched a glimmering shadow move through the camp. It looked like the heat waves of the fire; yet, it seemed to have a specific form. The shape, distorting the background behind the apparition had the frame not unlike a very large man. The ghostly apparition floated effortlessly through the firelight like the waves of desert heat in a mirage driven dream.
Ben had never heard anything like it before, but now coming from the camp a loud eerie roar burst forth. Ben shuddered, as suddenly the creature became visible. It was immense,—— shaped like a man with a makeshift poncho of what appeared to be the hide of a grizzly bear. Large, bulging eyes burned deep within like the coals of a dying embers, shrouded by the curved horns of what was probably Satan himself. Having pulled the tomahawk from its right arm the creature sat down and began working on its wound for a few minutes. In no time it was on the move again.
Ben watched shocked as the Indian killed last was lifted into the air and mutilated under the eyes of the dying sentry. This Demon’s a twisted buzzard.
The skin was stretched into a makeshift rope and the withering life of the sentry was tied to a limb like a side of buffalo. Then the monster disappeared. Another body was drug before the vanquished.
The thing’s gathering its kills. Ben now realized he was much too close to the dead Blackfeet near him. He would only have moments to act. If he stayed the creature would walk right over him. Did the creature see the movement of the ambushing dead braves? Is that how he knew where they were? Will it see me if I move? If I stay I’m dead. Ben reasoned quickly. His only choice was to back off. Get out…what if the ghost were to see my tracks?
He would have to hide them through appearance, behind the brave to his left. Maybe the hideous giant would not notice them. Ben moved silently to his left and back. He figured he had maybe one minute to get some distance between himself and the two dead Blackfeet. There was a nice big tree just a few paces back. If he could get himself behind its trunk he might have a chance.