The Shaking Ground
A Short  Frontier Story by 
 L. L. Rigsbee


   All the same, they worried.   Hadn't Tecumseh's prophecy about the star been accurate?  Only thirty sleeps ago the moonless night had been pierced by a greenish-white light that had flashed from the southwest, leaving a long tail as it streaked across the heavens.  A shooting star; the sign under which Tecumseh had been born and named.  If the second part of  Tecumseh's prophecy came true as well, tomorrow the earth would tremble, a sign that the confederacy was complete.  Those who had pledged their allegiance to the confederacy were to take up their weapons and start for the British fort of Malden, on the north side of Lake Erie.  
   Walks-Far huddled under one of the blankets that he had bartered from a French trader and again wondered about the wisdom of antagonizing the Long Knives.  The new colonies of the white man were growing.  This he had seen with his own eyes only a few moons ago.  The Long Knives had learned much in their fight against the Red Coats.  Now they ghosted through the forest and fought like the Indians.  Tecumseh had learned much by watching the white armies fight with each other over who owned the Indian hunting grounds.  He had learned that strength lay in unity.   But the Hunkah had learned much in the past by fighting beside the French.  They had felt the retaliation of the Red Coats, and their children had felt the bite of  hunger because the hunters were kept on the war path well into the hunting season.  For as long as Walks-Far could remember, the Hunkah had fought with the Caddo and other enemy tribes along the Arkansas and Mississippi.  Yet the Hunkah and all the other tribes never fought over ownership of the land - only hunting privileges.  The white man was different.  He wanted not only that which he could use, but everything he could see as well - and from there on.  
   The evening sun stained the horizon blood red.  All was quiet . . . too quiet, as if the trees and the animals of the forest were waiting.  The cool night air carried the sound of Small Mouse's voice as she hushed their children in the lodge behind him.  Walks-Far smiled.  Small Mouse had been a good wife and companion for ten years now.  She had given him two children: Little Bear, who was unusually strong for his eight summers,  and Laughing Otter, who had kept a smile on her face most of her five summers.   
   He turned, and from his perch, he could see the glistening waters of the St. Francis river.  Their village had moved many times since he was a child, always striving to avoid the French, the Spanish and sometimes British.  Now settlers, both white and Cherokee, were moving into Hunkah hunting grounds.  Walks-Far had fought many battles, but now he often spoke of peace at the council.  It was much easier for the youth to advocate war.  They didn't have to look into the innocent eyes of their children, knowing that the Indians were hopelessly outnumbered.  Nor did they have the wisdom of experience.  They thought they were invincible.  It hadn't been so many summers since Walks-Far had felt the same way.  He sighed heavily.   The moons of cold had been particularly kind this year.  Perhaps he was getting soft like the white settlers who lived across the Mississippi.  They grew fat in their log homes, and already they were preparing for a feast to celebrate the birth of their Lord.  On their lips were the words of peace, but in their hearts beat the drums of war.  
   Walks-Far rose from the ground in one lithe movement.  His shaven scalp was protesting at the cold of the night.  Even the blanket and his buckskin leggings and moccasins could no longer keep the cold at bay.   He  strode across the open ground to the lodge.  It was late, and he sought the warmth of his buffalo robes.  There he lay awake for hours, until exhaustion finally claimed his troubled thoughts.

   Walks-Far woke to the sound of dogs howling - not one, but many.  The eerie sound made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.  Something was wrong.  The inside of the lodge was dimly lit by the coals of the night fire, and the room looked hazy.  He checked to see if the hole in the roof had been covered by snow.  Nothing . . . only a black sky.  Not one star visible.  And then he heard the distant sound of thunder  - a sound that grew until every pole in the lodge shuddered.  It continued until the ground vibrated with its mighty rumbling.  Suddenly the night air was filled with a stench not unlike rotten bird eggs.   
   "What is it?" Small Mouse gasped as she threw the buffalo robes aside.  Instinctively she reached for the children, but they were already awake and scrambling from their robes.
   "Tecumseh is stamping his foot, just like he said he would!"  Little Bear exclaimed.
   "It isn't Tecumseh," Small Mouse snapped.  She was growing weary of Little Bear's open admiration of the chieftain, but it was fear that sharpened her words.  Not fear because a Hunkah boy cherished a Shawnee war chief, but fear born of a mother's instinct.  The fear in her voice brought chill bumps to Walks-Far's arms, and silence to the lips of their children.  
   The rumbling continued to grow, and the lodge swayed until the hickory poles began to rip from the ground.  Walks-Far grabbed his musket and barely had time to tug his wife and children from the lodge before it collapsed.  They staggered on the shaking ground as other lodges around them tumbled and caught fire.  The ground continued to heave and roll in the firelight, and a strange haze hung around the darting figures of the villagers.  The rumbling grew to a roar, and then the wind came . . . raging through the forest, throwing down the trees as if they were no more than sticks pushed into the ground.  Their roots erupted from the heaving ground with wrenching groans and reached up desperately to the inky sky. 
   Walks-Far staggered as he reached for Little Bear.  It was impossible to stand under his own power, much less keep his family together.  The wind tore at his buckskin shirt and breechcloth and jerked him to the ground.  He crawled against the wind toward Little Bear, who clung wild-eyed to a bush.  To his right Walks-Far  saw Small Mouse on the ground, clutching Laughing Otter to her breast.  Her eyes were wide and her face was pale.  Walks-Far finally reached Little Bear and took the boy's hand.
   With a deafening roar, the ground split a short distance away, ripping a deep gash that spewed sand into the air.   The screams of humans, the howling of dogs, and the frightened calls of birds added to the cacophony and confusion of the night.  
   Walks-Far drug the boy to him, and together they rode out the last waves of rolling earth.  Finally the shaking became less violent and the ground gradually became steady enough to stand upright.  Walks-Far glanced around and found that he and his family were separated from the village by a great fissure.  Laughing Otter's teeth chattered as she stared with horror at the fires of their lodges.  Even Little Bear was silent, watching the ground as if it might part beneath his feet at any time.  Small Mouse wrapped a buffalo robe around Laughing Otter and held her close.  Little Bear found a place so close to Walks-Far that he could feel the heat of the child's body.   
   Wah' Kon Tah had shaken the ground many times before, but never like this.  Only rage could explain such violence.      Was this the punishment for not following Tecumseh?  Was this the sign that the Shawnee chieftain had prophesied?    But how could they follow him now?  Everything had been burned, destroyed or swallowed up by the earth.  There was no food . . . no place for the women and children to stay.  Nothing was left but the clothes on their backs - and the few muskets that the men had thought to grab before leaving their lodges.   They would have no choice but to walk down to the Hunkah camp near the Mississippi River.

   By the light of dawn, the ground had shaken many times, and the carnage caused by Wah' Kon Tah's rage was everywhere.  In some places it was necessary to detour around huge sink holes . . . and there were hills where none had existed before.  Everywhere trees had fallen, and sometimes entire sides of cliffs had collapsed to the ground, carrying trees with them.  Travel was difficult, and sometimes the scouts had to double back because they had lost their way in the newly changed environment.  
Walks-Far scouted for game, but all the animals had fled the forest.  It was a hungry and cold camp that night, frequented by rumblings from the ground.  If they slept at all, it was only because they were so exhausted.
The next day Walks-Far shot a rabbit, and Small Mouse cooked it in a hastily carved bowl, along with some roots that the women had found in the forest.  There was only enough for the children, so it was another cold, hungry night for the rest of the weary villagers.
On the third day they circled around a Cherokee homestead.  The stone fireplace had collapsed, but the rest of the house looked intact.  The surrounding forest wasn't as damaged as it had been around their village.    Perhaps the Hunkah village on the Mississippi had escaped damage.  Still, the ground shook many times during the day and night, and there was no game to be had.  Again they ate a thin soup of  roots boiled in yellowish foul-tasting water.  
On the fourth day, Walks-Far left the marching villagers behind and went deep into the forest to hunt.  The long march without food was beginning to have its effect on the old ones.  They must have food.
Ahead, he saw something flicker in the forest.  He crept forward, his musket ready.  A deer stepped into the open, and Walks-Far's heart hammered as he lifted the musket.  As he was taking aim, he saw motion from the corner of his eye.  He froze, expecting another deer -  maybe a larger one.  Finally the shadow moved into the open.  A white man on a horse, and neither of them looked too healthy.  The men spotted each other at the same time, and the horseman swung his musket to cover Walks-Far.  The deer would get away, but Walks-Far had no choice.  He lifted the muzzle of his musket and took careful aim at a button on the horseman's shirt.  For a moment they all stood, both men and the deer as well.   If they shot each other, neither would get the deer.  Yet if Walks-Far shot the deer, the white man would shoot him and take the deer.  No doubt, the white man was thinking the same thing.  Walks-Far made his decision suddenly and swung his musket around to shoot the deer.  His movement startled the deer, and it leaped, causing Walks-Far to miss.  Almost as if it were an echo, the other musket fired.  Walks-Far waited for the feel of the lead ball tearing through his body, but it was the deer that fell to the ground. 
   Walks-Far stared at the horseman, who waved an inviting hand and nudged his horse toward the deer.  He dismounted and glanced back at Walks-Far.  Again he waved, and said something in the language of the white man.     Walks-Far couldn't believe his luck.  The white man was inviting him to share the kill!  
Walks-Far helped the man skin the deer, and the man took only a small portion of the meat.  He wrapped it in a cloth and mounted his horse.  Tipping his tri-cornered hat in a salute, the horseman rode away.
   Walks-Far wasted no time retrieving the remainder of the deer and joined the marching column.  That night they feasted around the fire and listened to Walks-Far's story about the horseman.  It was a good sign.  Perhaps Wah' Kon Tah  was no longer angry with the Hunkah.    

   On the fifth day they finally reached the Hunkah village on the Mississippi.  Though the village had sustained little damage, the Hunkah people of the Mississippi told stories of islands that had completely disappeared, and how the river channel had even changed in one place.  In fact, some of the landslides had been so large that the river had been completely shut off for a short time and forced to flow backwards.
   They had received word that Tecumseh had joined forces with the Red Coats to defeat the Colonists.  Walks-Far thought of the horseman.  Perhaps Tecumseh had been wrong in thinking the shaking of the ground had been a signal to unite and fight.  Perhaps it had been a signal for the people of the middle waters to unite and find peace - wherever it existed, and however small.  Today the Hunkah would honor Wah' Kon Tah. The ground continued to shake occasionally, but the villagers must demonstrate their gratitude that no lives had been lost.  Tomorrow they would build more lodges, and in the days of sun, they would move again. The forest would grow back, and once again there would be a smile on the face of Laughing Otter.

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A Hunkah* villiage is destroyed during the New Madrid earthquake.  The people must travel the ravaged earth to reach a neighboring village.  What is discovered in that journey is more than they expected.
*Hunkah means earth people - better known as the Osage Indians.  A little Native History is sprinkled into this delicious frontier story.

   In the nine years since the Great White Chief had purchased so much of the Indian hunting grounds from the French, Tecumseh had united many tribes.  It was the Shawnee chieftain's dream to form a confederacy of tribes and stop the invasion of white settlers.  
   To Walks-Far, it seemed a futile task.  After all, hadn't it already been tried by Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa? Yet Tecumseh insisted that it could be done.  The Hunkah leaders had listened, but they would be sending no warriors against the Red Coats.  To Walks-Far, it seemed a futile task.  
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