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By Ronald Lee Weagley
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Ronald Lee Weagley
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Canoe travel across the Great Lake through the giant pin oaks and towering white pines to the top of the Patapsco basin could strap muscles if only tapping the reservoir of strength available to Rachatack, son of Bear Coat, chief of the Choptank-Tuckahoe, an Algonquian-Wakashan language Nanticoke Nation tribe in the extended Cherokee Nation family of Ababeues, Hutsawaps and Tequassimoes.
Normally, paddling the hued white pine canoe was light work at worst. But, when dragging either an oak, maple, hickory, hackberry or walnut fashioned raft in tow, and when the ebb and flow of the tide either doubled as a foe, as a friend or both, and depending upon the trip destination and the strength as well as the wind direction, the chore was weighty if not downright burdensome.
The elk hunt party departed long before day's break. Dawn had been held at bay by a large north east wind-cloud parade. The mix of a southern flow bumping against a northeast blast produced a late-winter early-spring fog that dampened night-vision into a wanting for the confirming reassurance of qualified experience at the task.
The fog drifted in with the north wind dropping the temperatures to precisely the correct combination in order to both dampen and darken the delayed day. Twists in the weather frequently revealed the expected but on occasion they heralded the unanticipated. Early morning fog in the spring of the year normally left hunters in search of a warm cover. So it was for chief Bear Coat.
Bear Coat, chief of the Tuckahoe, family and friend of the Nanticoke and feared enemy challenger for the Iroquois, received his surname as a product of a signature day in his youth, now years past. He made an unannounced and completely unscheduled confrontation with a giant female great-black bear in the oak and pine forest of the Patapsco rolling hills. The unexpected happening was precipitated by fear for the safety of two cubs in the protective charge of an unusually large and threatening mother bear. The battle began with a fierce charge and a halting grand hind leg stand with front paws flailing the air that carried the bear bellows of hostility through the forest directly to the ears of Bear Coat.
At the time of the momentous encounter Bear Coat was a very young teen that had grown in physical stature to the extent of the daring and dashing cavalier. He returned the blaring blast of the mother bear with an arm extended thrust and a screech modeled hawk-caw-yell of his own making.
Not too often, the transaction in retelling was cause to laugh with a snicker of respect for courage and insight if not for mature judgment or comedy.
As it was always told, Bear Coat quickly removed himself from bear view and hid behind a giant oak. He prepared his arrows and listened for a shift in the sounds that matched the bear shadow in his peripheral view from behind his oak advantage.
The bellow roar continued. Bear Coat swirled from the cover of the tree and sent an arrow strike into the bear's throat. The strike angled up-through the neck and into the back of the bear's head. As the arrow flew, Bear Coat quickly prepared another and as one struck its mark, another was in flight directly striking near the bear's heart. The heart strike caused the Bear to wince in pain. It stood stunned into disbelief. Bear Coat leaped from behind the oak tree shield, in the opposite direction while trying to avoid eye contact. He again quickly adjusted his stance position, his hand shaking with nervous excitement as he leaped into view. He sent his third arrow to its mark near the heart.
As told, while still on alert, Bear Coat scampered to a ravine wash. He leaped into its shallow draft with his spear in hand, poised for battle. He adjusted his position stance in preparation for a bear lunge. He stood erect to capture the attention of the bear, now standing on all fours panting and gasping. Bear Coat yelled. He shook his spear in the air while waving his arms broadly and boldly.
The bear turned and charged again!
Bear Coat leaped atop the edge of the ravine, spear in the ready and waiting. As the bear approached, it lifted to its hind legs again and lunged forward. Bear Coat stepped backwards into the ravine with his left knee on the bank and his right leg extended with the spear against the rear ravine wall. The bear fell upon the spear spewing a cry that became a whimper-snort-blasting groan. The sounds ceased when a stone axe in the hand of Bear Coat crashed between its eyes.
The courage and ingenuity of Bear Coat converted the weight, size and staggering physique agility of the great black bear from a threat to an advantage. Three arrows and a spear shaft dropped the great black. But it was the axe that ushered the issue into finality. The story was told before tobacco tribe fires for years. Each repeat added to the confidence of the Tuckahoe warriors that they were in the hands of a strong protector, a gallant leader and a masterful hunter. The story deserved the repeats.
Bear Coat returned to his chief's tent-cabin to retrieve his famous signature-name bear-coat garment, as preparations were made for their departure in the damp black of night. The coat and the fog were indications that their companion, cool weather, was near and inclined to remain in position, spring or no spring thaw.
Rachatack and his father Bear Coat, naturals as they were known by the colonials who periodically appeared in the Choptank River First Haven waters, had made the trip to the Patapsco many times. Each time they hauled Tuckahoe roots west and a kill or two along with a load of tobacco seed back east to First Haven. Their village was on the Choptank at the southeast side of the Great Lake. It had been a training ground for Rachatack through the years. He tested both his talents and his temperament. He admired and worshipped his father. He accepted his glances and curt wishes as commands to be taken as compliments.
Bear Coat's wife Tall Willow suffered chronic attacks of the ague-plague fevers. She remained on site to prepare for the anticipated cargo and to oversee its management, cutting, drying and salting appropriately. Small drying salt beds produced sufficiently to pack and store meats of small critters such as quail, pheasant, rabbits, fox and squirrels, as well as other abundant local air critters, ducks and geese. Elk volume required more extensive preparations. But if managed correctly, the quantity allowed extended abundance for the village. The available salt easily preserved the vast runs of shad and herring fish that schooled in the local waters along with the bass and blues, but elk was another task in itself. The evaporating water mix was best for distilling salt if it came directly, deep from within the Great Lake. Much had been extracted in anticipation.
While Tall Willow waited and prepared in the wood, clay and straw oblong tent-cabin in the center of the village, Bear Coat felled a mighty White Oak from a position adjacent to sufficient water depth by using his sons and tribal warriors as laborers. Oaks fall in a special thunder taking all in their path to task. Skill and planning for a fall were essentials to the process, not a luxury extra. Logged rollers combined with strong backs, shoulders and arms pushed from plank legs to afford positioning of the product for raft-towing from the west bank of the Great Lake to the village in the east First Haven. Carving craft was done at home by skilled craftsmen.
Rafts and canoes for use both in still and in torrent waters were needed to transport cargo: potatoes, tobacco, game, hides and dry good supports from the inner depths of the Tuckahoe Creek and the lesser Choptank tributaries to the beach shores edging the mouth of the deep entrance into First Haven. Hacking the hollow of a canoe required strength in the swing of a stone head axe as well as in the lift and strike of a metal hewing hoe. The colonial's metals allowed precision and quality but the temperament of patience and task definition were natural characteristics.
Rachatack methodically paddled as if trapped in the testing rhythm of stroking. The paddle-splash was background support as he lifted fond memories of tales from times past, especially Bear Coat stories regarding the colonial invasion. Bear Coat had initiated some of the first visits, strictly out of curiosity. The giant ships captured his eye at a distance and his heart when up close. Their grand dimensions as well as their sleek lines were favorite gestures used by Bear Coat to push emphasis on a point.
Initially, colonial visits were for food and water. Later, frequent stops were for barter trades of tobacco, salt and potatoes for metals. Launch exchanges were non-threatening. Sporadic trading became routine by season but only at locations agreeable with the colonial's big ship drafts. First Haven was a favorite respite for the weary seafarer in search of food and water, both of which abounded in the Choptank basin.
Rachatack had fond memories of colonial visits which he experienced during his childhood. His fear of the grand vessels of the seas as they lay off-shore in silence, pervasive in presence, haunted him until familiarity redeemed the emotion.
Paddling, Rachatack smiled and tipped his head left to right in a nervous survey of distant land marks for the trip. Rachatack possessed a natural gift for sight and clarity. Like a hawk, a nickname he coveted as a youth, he could see for miles at sea and judge to absolute detail when at hand. His curiosity peaked as his awareness processed the details his eyes provided his mind. His eye, his body and his mind were synchronized.
Hand eye coordination allowed him the honor of show when his father would ask, "What is in the tree several hundred yards away, over there," pointing with a finger?
Rachatack would answer, "An Osprey."
Occasionally, on hunts for small game during Rachatack's youth, Bear Coat would ask, "Can you hit that squirrel with a stone?"
Quickly Rachatack would retrieve a stone from his waist pouch and with the slight swing of the arm and a coordinated twist of the wrist he would stun the furry critter knocking it from its protection. Then he would race to its capture as it fell, frequently arriving beneath the tree as the critter floated toward the earth. He would catch it mid-flight fall for an evening meal of tuckahoe potatoes and squirrel.
The memories drifted for Rachatack, waning and waxing with shadows but when Lord William Whitehead's name danced into and across Rachatack's mind, so did the Lord's daughter, dance and sway in his memory. The thought elevated his senses.
Bear Coat had often stressed rhythm and patience with a measure of focused consistency as the remedy against and for failure. Stoke the paddle lightly, just sufficiently in depth to capture a blade of water as the paddle slips into the depth. Then press forward on the left hand and pull back with the right, gently but methodically, in a coordinated rhythm. "Pay attention at all times," words from the lips of Bear Coat that rang in Rachatack's ears, to stir him to alert focus.
It was a brilliant morning, clouds drifting off allowing the sun light to strike with full force. The rhythm of the paddle was blurred occasionally by a dancing maiden in the mind, leaving Rachatack slightly disoriented; but, eventually, the canoes struck the shore and were tied fast securely without harm or foul.
The sun pierced through the green canopy of cover offered by the elegant aging oak and pine trees. It streaked to its destination on the forest floor as if fall would be delayed endlessly, dependent only upon its arrival. A shaded mist drifted through the branches in ghostly fashion, leaving the still ominous quiet of anticipation.
The hunt began as Rachatack moved his eye across the terrain to determine the most advantageous positions. His gifts in a hunt were heralded by his family and tribe to the maximum. On a march that would drive game to a passage point, always Rachatack was positioned to draft the first arrow mark. Often it circled in his mind about how it was that he could so quickly pull a bow and thrust an arrow into flight to strike a perfect mark? But the answer was always the same regardless of the analysis or the players, "I don't know how I do it. I just do it, fast."
Poised beneath an oak in attack position, left knee upon the ground, right leg braced beneath a right forearm and bow drawn slightly in preparation, Rachatack, son of Bear Coat and Tall Willow made ready. He was making ready for a repeat survival battle that consumed most of his formative years, years accented with lessons in technique, in skill and most pressing, in patience. To fell an elk, thereby providing meals for weeks not days, clothing for seasons, not months and stories for age's not isolated firesides was to be within a single stroke of the ultimate apogee in existence for the natural.
The crack of a broken branch trumpeted through the morning mist as Rachatack felt the warmth of a sun ray upon his check causing him to wince as the ray moved slowly toward his right eye. A strange sensation engaged Rachatack, a sensation that transcended the hunt. It was as if he were being observed. He passed the emotion with a rapid eye movement to scan the vista. The crack broke the silence again and his focus returned to the hunt.
If he were to realize success he had to protect his vision, especially the vision afforded by his sighting eye. The nearly motionless movement of his right hand that cradled the feathered tip of the arrow shaft and the synchronized lifting of his left knee from the ground to a more extended position was joined by an adjustment of his face with a left ear tilted slightly toward the disturbing foreign and out of the ordinary sounds in the forest.
Rachatack's breathing slowed, his grip on the bow tightened simultaneously with a gentle adjustment to the clasping grasp of the shaft tip. The elk bellow that blasted the mist was deafening but unfettering as he quickly pulled the bow string taunt, whirled out from behind the oak and stood face to face with a thousand pound rack of antlers, hide and fear.
An elk stood ten feet away. Its eyes betrayed the startling surprise of an unanticipated invader in elk space.
In a sweeping silent motion that revealed years of preparation and training, Rachatack completed the necessary strokes. The arrow erupted from the bow string with precision. It struck the right shoulder at the base of the neck and entered the heart of the elk with a thud matched only by the sound of the elk's collapse at Rachatack's feet.
The battle ended as quickly as it began, leaving a single victor hovering over a vanquished foe. Quickly, Rachatack unsheathed his knife and prepared to strike to insure success. Motionless, wide-eyed and bleeding from the single stroke slash of the knife across the throat, the elk pawed the air in a futile if not valiant effort to rise to its feet again. Silence fell upon the moment as blood dripped from the tip of Rachatack's blade, still poised for a second stroke. One final release of air through the nostril was the best effort the elk could produce.
Silence returned only to be broken by the blood-curdling hawk call of Rachatack, both hands held high to the sun's rays while holding the bow in the left hand and the knife in his right and standing astride the neck of the elk.
Victory! Success! Power!
Rachatack relished the win in the wrappings of necessity. He quickly set about preparing his conquest for immediate transport into transference. He removed the vital organs, respectfully caring for them as food products, while attending to the collateral benefits afforded in the hide, the antlers and the skeleton.
The hides of the east deer were thin, small and delicate compared to the grand size, weight, texture and strength of the west elk.
Naturally, Rachatack removed his arrow shaft, taking great care to retrieve the hand fashioned arrowhead that served him so well. The oak shaft had withstood the trauma, as had the balance hawk feathers. Washing them in the spring water allowed him to inspect them carefully, stroking each feather and testing the shaft for fractures. He placed the shaft on the ground next to his bow as his eye scanned the gut wrapped elk-hide bow-string for flaws. He knew he could use each again.
Quickly, he wrapped his cargo in fashioned elk hide containers for the journey. He placed the vessels on the drag-cart with his bow and arrows. His victory call produced fellow warriors that provided assistance in hauling the meat to the launch site. He worked with an efficiency that practice allows.
Excerpted from TRIBE ARPEGGIOS by Ronald Lee Weagley Copyright © 2010 by Ronald Lee Weagley. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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