Woodsman Boss Stalker dropped his heavy bundle of pelts onto the forest floor and approached the Ojibwa message tree. The old pine was tall and stately and stood like a sentry near the edge of a steep sand ridge overlooking a slow moving wilderness river. Boss searched the trunk for a message. But there were no new marks indicating which warrior may be hunting in the area. Only old scars and gouges marked the grayish red bark. He reached up to touch the last mark he'd left more than a year before when, suddenly, an arrow streaked from the woods behind him. It nipped the top of his ear as it passed and stuck into the tree with a quivering "thump".
"Sioux," Boss said the instant he saw the colorful fletchings.
The Woodsman wheeled around and brought his 50 caliber Hawken rifle up as he moved. But a second arrow flashed through the clearing and hit him in the right shoulder. The burning pain surged through him. His rifle fell from his hand ... unfired. He ducked down quickly and barely dodged another arrow, he wondered how many more were coming. Suddenly, bloodcurdling screams and great howling shrieks erupted from the underbrush. Three bare chested Sioux warriors charged from the woods toward Boss. They all carried bows. One also carried a war club fashioned from a heavy tree limb, with a sharp, metal hatchet head on one side and long pointed deer antler tinges on the opposite side. All three warriors had painted faces and many feathers tied into their long, flowing black hair.
Boss had all he could do to stand up and stay conscious. His shoulder was exploding in hot, throbbing pain. Blood poured over his buckskin shirt, ran down his arm, dripped off his hand, and between his fingers. His head shifted from side to side searching for a weapon or ... escape.
The painted warriors were a terrifying sight, especially the leader. Half of his face was painted blue and the other half yellow, with wavy red streaks crossing his nose.
Boss turned and looked toward the ridge side overlooking the river. He clutched his shoulder and stood hunched over for the pain. He moved several steps to the rim of the steep ridge. It was his only chance. He took one final look at the charging warriors, turned, and threw himself down the near vertical sand hill.
The woodsman bounced head over heels, tumbling through a cloud of dust, between trees, and through the brush and brambles all the way to the river below. He hit the water with a splash and, for an instant, disappeared under the surface. The Sioux warriors, not at all desperate for their lives, did not follow but watched from the forest above. Boss's body surfaced downstream, it lay face down in the steady current. Seconds later it disappeared into the river depths again.
The warriors didn't follow. The bundle of prime winter pelts Boss had been taking to trade at a spring rendezvous and the rifle were enough to satisfy them. A scalp could be taken another day.
Boss surfaced down river and turned slowly in the current until only his face was visible bobbing along. He was still bleeding and could feel the wicked arrow head dig deeper into his shoulder with every movement.
Boss drifted for several miles. The current carried him peacefully through the lush spring forest. Finally, miles downstream from his attackers, on a wide sweeping bend, the river spread out and the current moved him to a shallow gravel bar a few yards from the bank. He reached up for a birch sapling growing out over the river. But the pain raced through his whole body. It pushed him back into the river. His world went suddenly black.
It seemed only seconds later he was dreaming. A nightmare perhaps. He felt the hands laying on him. The Sioux, his groggy semi-conscious mind rationalized. He could feel his body being dragged from the water, up the river bank, and across the moist forest floor. He waited for the cold, biting steel of the knife blade cutting across his throat. Or for the bite of a dull Sioux ax hacking off his scalp. But blackness intervened once again.
Sometime later Boss woke from his stupor. The knife blade flashed before his eyes. The face of an ancient, gray haired Indian appeared behind the knife. The blade spun closer and closer toward him. But he was too weak, too tired to defend himself. A second later the blade disappeared and blackness came again.
Hours passed before Boss came to again. He woke with a start and sat bolt upright to the sound of chirping birds and cooing doves. The morning sun shined into a pine bough lean-to he was sitting under. An elderly Ojibwa medicine man sat opposite a flickering campfire just a few yards away.
"You are in the camp of Thunder Hawk," the old man answered the question before Boss could ask it.
"How did you find me?" Boss asked.
The woodsman put his hand to his injured shoulder and felt a bandage. The smell of crushed marrow leaves was strong. Thunder Hawk held up the jasper arrowhead. The yellows and reds in the stone sparkled in his hand. The arrow shaft was broken off three inches behind it. He tossed the bloody stub to Boss.
"It is you who found me," Thunder Hawk said. "I removed the arrowhead."
Boss stared at the old Ojibwa warrior, a man of many years, a wise man and he realized this was the face behind the wielding knife in his dream.
"I knew you were coming," he told Boss. "I have dreamed many nights about Makwa, the great bear, and the white warrior, the great Agawate-nitagewinini, who would come and slay the beast."
Boss winced in pain as he leaned on his elbow. Thunder Hawk lit his pipe with a burning twig from the fire and took a
long draw. Then he reached across the fire and handed Boss the pipe. Boss drew deep of the Kanicook, a special blend of ground tobacco, tree bark, herbs, and crushed maple leaves. He handed the pipe back to the medicine man.
"They call you different names," Thunder Hawk spoke matter-of-factly to Boss. It was as if he'd known Boss for years. "The Long Knives talk of the great woodsman Boss Stalker at their rendezvous..."
Thunder Hawk puffed his pipe. The cloud of blue/gray smoke engulfed his head, giving his face a ghostly, spiritual appearance.
"...while many of our people spend cold winter nights in their lodges telling stories of the mighty white warrior Shadow Hunter."
Thunder Hawk passed the pipe back to Boss.
"You be that warrior?" Thunder Hawk said.
Boss nodded, though his affirmation was not necessary.
"Soon many nations will speak across many fires the tale of Makwa and the woodsman Warrior," Thunder Hawk continued. "For it is you, the Shadow Hunter, who will run through the pines along the river; I have seen it. There is much blood. There is a great madness and rage. The monster's long yellow fangs and flashing black claws wait in deadly ambush. Be aware! Watch for the piercing heart and flashing light. And listen closely, for I have heard a great clasp of thunder and a mournful, fleeting death song. And finally, echoing across these Big Woods, there will be a roar. A roar spawned from the ages and nurtured by evil. It will not die easy."
At first Boss did not respond, so much of it was confusing. But he knew the Ojibwa put much stock in their dreams, usually with good reason. The woodsman suddenly felt uneasy.
"There is no other warrior so close," Thunder Hawk explained. "For now is the time. Today! No other warrior is so close to stop Makwa before he moves upriver to our village, to our families, and ... children. You must go. You must kill the beast."
"How, how can this be Father?" Boss used the sincerest form of respect by referring to Thunder Hawk as Father. "The Sioux ..."
It all came suddenly back to Boss. The deadly arrows, bloodcurdling screams, and the painted faces. But he remembered little after throwing himself down the steep ridge side.
"The Sioux have taken my rifle," Boss continued. "I cannot slay the great bear without my..."
Thunder Hawk put out his hand to silence Boss. The old medicine man rose slowly to his feet. In his hand he held the long, curved bow, cut of fir and bone polished to a shiny luster. It was a most impressive and beautiful weapon, adorned with eagle, hawk, and raven feathers and mink and coon tail. In his other hand the old man was holding a long, straight arrow with a sharp, yellow arrowhead made of jasper like the Sioux arrowhead.
"This bow is a warrior's bow," the old Ojibwa said.
Then he held up a single arrow.
"This arrow must pierce the bear's heart," Thunder Hawk explained. "But not until thunder rumbles and light flashes, not until the death song is heard, not until then will Makwa be defeated and a brotherhood spawned."
Boss looked back at the medicine man. He shook his head. Thunder, arrows, death song and now... brotherhood. He was already brother to the Ojibwa. Boss handed the pipe back across the fire. It had been a while since he hunted with a bow. But he liked it and was a good shot. There was a span of three or four years when he didn't have lead or gun powder and a bow was all he had to hunt, to survive.
"Our pipe is clean," Thunder Hawk interrupted. "Our talk is finished. You must go now. For the blood is already flowing."
Boss sat in silence for several minutes. Then he climbed to his feet. He knew there was no point trying to argue with Thunder Hawk. His head spun him into a dizzy stupor at first. The pain in his shoulder was great. But he took the bow and arrow from Thunder Hawk. The Ojibwa were his people as well as the Long Knives. He would walk to the very gates of hell and back for his brothers, as they would for him.
"You must conquer the pain and the fear," Thunder Hawk said. "Now go with all speed Woodsman for you must catch up, there is little time."
Without another word Boss moved out of the camp and through the woods along the river. He couldn't help but wonder what he was getting into. His only comforting thought was if the Sioux warriors that had attacked and shot him were just moving into the country, they too were probably heading up river, looking for the enemy Ojibwa village.
Maybe he could catch them, Boss thought. He wanted his rifle back. I could sure use it, he thought as he looked at the bow in his hand and then up at puffy white clouds moving lazily across a bright blue sky. He wondered about Thunder Hawk's dreams.
"Thunder?" Boss said out loud. "It sure don't look like a storm's a brewin' to me. Not even out on the horizon."
Boss soon came to the message tree again. This time he was careful to stay back in the woods and check the area before blundering into another ambush. There was no sign of the Sioux but he did come across his furs under fresh cut pine branches. They had been stashed to be pick up on the return trip. Boss moved them to another place in the thicket some hundred yards away.
Finally, Boss walked over to the message tree. The ground was churned, but the Sioux had made an effort to wipe out all of their footprints by dragging a piece of underbrush across the sand. Boss found a stone near the ridge edge with blood on it. His blood.
The Sioux made a good attempt to cover their trail. They crossed back and forth on the river several times. At times venturing more than a mile away from it, but always they moved back to the river. They had to, it was their only map.
It was after coming back out of the forest interior to the river for a third time that Boss came across the first body. It was one of the Sioux warriors. Or what was left of his body. The river bank was covered with...
"Blood," Boss said as he thought of Thunder Hawk's dream. "There will be much blood."
It was quite apparent what had happened. Besides the mangled, headless body the sand was covered with tracks. Grizzly tracks. The running Sioux were no longer interested in taking the time to cover their trail. They were on the move and so was the bear. Boss's Hawken was nowhere in sight.
"Makwa," Boss said out loud as he squeezed his bow and looked at the bright blue heavens. "Sure could use a little storm. Thunder storm, that is."
Boss picked up the easy trail. The bear was moving fast and so were the retreating Sioux. But he could find only one set of tracks from the warriors. They must be traveling separately. Probably one on each side of the river. That's why they hadn't shot the bear with Boss's Hawken.
Two miles upriver from the body, Boss found the spot where the Sioux had stopped. Maybe to hide, maybe to lay in ambush. He would never know. He found a second dead warrior behind a log near the river trail. Again, lots of blood. The bear was a vicious killer. And again no Hawken.
Boss moved many more miles along the river. The stream had narrowed since he'd left Thunder Hawk's camp that morning. Dusk's shadowy gray had already begun to filter through the forest when he heard it. A rumbling, angry roar.
Boss froze. The echo along the forest river was confusing. He couldn't tell exactly from which direction it had come. His eyes shifted back and forth as he moved in a slow circle looking for the bear. The evening breeze tossed his shoulder length hair. The air carried a mixture of odors. There was the fragrance of sweet pine and the sickening smell of ... bear.
Suddenly, the underbrush forty yards in front of him erupted as the giant brown bear appeared. Boss saw a man laying on the ground. He was the third and final Sioux. He was bleeding but still alive. Then, with little hesitation, the bear charged toward the woodsman. Its menacing roar and gaping mouth filled with long, yellow teeth struck terror into Boss' heart.
Boss fumbled with the bow. The bear stopped suddenly and stared at the woodsman. Its long snout wrinkled back curling up to reveal long, deadly fangs. Its madness burned in fiery eyes. The long silver tipped hairs on its shoulder hump bristled. Boss had seen this kind of behavior before. He notched an arrow. The bear roared again and lunged into another charge. The bow string came back in one fluid motion. The grizzly snorted and kept coming. Boss aimed and...released.
The carefully crafted Ojibwa arrow whistled through the air and buried deep into the charging bear's chest. A heart shot. But still the beast kept coming. Closer and Closer. Boss could hear the wicked claws gouge deep into the earth with every lunging step. This fight was not over. He pulled his knife from the sheath at his side, squared his body and prepared to meet...
A flash appeared from the shadowy woods where the bear had been. The rifle shot erupted, cracking open the silent evening air. The left side of the grizzly's head jerked and splattered blood and the huge bear tumbled to the ground a few yards in front of Boss. The dying beast roared in agony and tried to get to its feet. But it fell back to the ground writhing. Boss stood frozen, watching. Finally, the big bear threw its head back and bellowed one last, mournful wail of sheer despair. Seconds later the bear's bloody head dropped to the forest floor with a thud and it gasped its final breath.
For many seconds after the bear's plaintive death song lingered in the tree tops. It was eerie. As if the living spirit refused to die, even if all the life it could muster was contained in its fading roar.
Boss stood frozen. His heart was pounding. His knees shaking as he stared down at the dead bear only a few yards before him. A deadly silence now fell over the evening forest.
Boss turned toward the woods from where the shot had come. The remaining Sioux warrior appeared out of the shadows. His painted face streaked and marked from much sweating. Blood ran from claw marks crossing his bare chest. There appeared to be bite imprints on his shoulders and arms.
The warrior walked slowly to the woodsman. The Sioux looked down at the dead bear, then at Boss. Without speaking a single word the Indian raised up the Hawken and handed it back to Boss.
Boss received the gun with a smile. He then handed the bow, a warrior's bow, to the Sioux who had just saved his life.
Boss reached out and the two warriors clasped hands. They stared into each other's eyes, as if searching the other's soul.
"I saved your life and you saved mine," Boss said. "Our brotherhood will forever be linked with the bear. Whenever I think of Makwa, or see his image sparkle in the night sky I will think of you ... my brother."
The Sioux warrior nodded his agreement.
"May the spirit of Makwa," the Sioux said, "walk with you from this day always, my new brother."
With that, the warriors turned and walked their separate ways along the sparkling wilderness river.