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[July 16, 1768 —Saturday]
Simon Girty stood silently in the dense cover fringing the area of the hunting camp, his garb blending so well with the underbrush about him that it would have required a keenly trained eye to pick him out and, even then, the eye would have to know exactly where to focus. His head turned slowly from side to side, cocking now and again as he listened intently for anything that might indicate the danger still existed.
A man of slightly less than average height, Girty was of a chunky, muscular build. His hair was black and flowed free to his shoulders, his features were well formed, and many of the women he encountered considered him quite handsome. But those features could harden into fierce, harsh lines at times, and now was one of those occasions. His expression was set in grim lines, making him look rather older than his 27 years, and his dark gray eyes probed deeply into the dappled foliage, searching as intently as his ears were listening. A jay scolded briefly from a nearby tree and his gaze flicked instantly to the source, then moved away and his head swiveled slightly when a trio of crows cawed raucously from the uppermost bare branches of a dead tree some 300 yards upriver.
To the west, the distant opposite shore of the Shawanoe showed no signs of movement. The river itself issued only a faint hissing gurgle as it slid past, heading for its junction with the Tennessee some 20 miles downstream and then, ultimately, with the Ohio another 25 miles below that.104 Girty let his gaze move back to the scene before him, and a muscle in his jaw twitched as he studied the jumbled bodies more closely. He could not decide from this distance whether anyone of the party was missing, but he knew he would find out soon enough.
He had known from the beginning that it was a mistake coming here; Shawnees did not take lightly to white hunters trespassing on their Kan-tuck-kee hunting grounds. The others had not listened to his warnings, however, and despite the presentiment that had risen in him, he had allowed himself to be talked into it.
They had left Kaskaskia on this hunt just two weeks earlier in two large canoes, each towing a sturdy piroque behind for transporting their take. All 19 in the party were traders or hunters associated with the Baynton, Wharton and Morgan Company. Not one of them had ever met either John Baynton or Samuel Wharton—those two, in recent years, rarely left the firm’s headquarters in Philadelphia—but all were fiercely devoted to George Morgan, field superintendent for the company. Morgan, some years ago, had become a partner in the firm, not because he had married the beautiful Molley, Baynton’s daughter, but because he was a man of consummate ability in his position, a man whose diminutive size belied his toughness and sagacity, and who somehow had the knack of extracting the utmost in loyalty from his men. It was that very devotion, in fact, that now drove Girty to make the extra effort to go back to Kaskaskia and tell Morgan what had happened here, rather than move on to Fort Pitt, as he would have much preferred doing.
Remaining in place in the underbrush, Girty felt a welling of mixed anger and pity for these men who had been slain. How short a time ago they had been filled with life; laughing, joking and raising a purse among them as a prize to go to the best hunter. They had paddled down the Mississippi from Kaskaskia to the mouth of the Ohio and then upstream on the latter, not doing any real hunting until reaching the Shawanoe. And what hunting they had discovered here! They had found this secluded little bottom along the riverbank and made their camp, and over the succeeding ten days of actual hunting, they had delightedly competed and bagged nearly 100 deer and 39 bears, along with a number of wolves, a few buffalo and three elk. Their evenings in camp had been busy, relating their tales of the hunt as they skinned the animals, bundled the hides, quartered and salted down the meat and rendered the bear fat to oil. One of the piroques was already two-thirds full of bear oil, and the other one was half full with the meat and hides.
The hunting had been markedly less fruitful yesterday, and last night, working about the camp and discussing whether to continue the hunt or return, they had decided to ascend the river perhaps another 20 miles to hunt a few more days and fill the boats to capacity before starting back. Then, just as they were starting to load their gear into the boats at dawn this morning, a barrage of 30 or more shots had come, and most of Girty’s companions had fallen where they stood. Two besides himself had managed to leap away, rifles in hand, but one of these was downed in a few steps. Girty had no idea what happened to the other since he was himself being pursued by four. He raced away downriver through the woodland at all the speed he could muster. Two of the Shawnees had quickly been outdistanced, but one had followed him at an equal pace until at last Girty dodged behind a tree, waited a moment while swiftly checking his gun, then emerged from the other side and put a ball through the leading Shawnee’s heart at close range. He raced off again at an angle, heading toward a huge rock he had seen while hunting and, reaching it, crouched behind cover at its base, swiftly reloading.
The fallen Indian’s two companions came into sight, cried “Waugh!” at seeing their dead companion and halted. They looked about fearfully but, seeing nothing, picked up the dead man and carried him back toward the camp. Girty had then quickly scaled the rock and thrown himself prone on top. Though the river was barely visible through the foliage, he could not see the campsite. The yells of the Indians reached him faintly, but after a while the sounds diminished. A short time later the two large canoes floated past, aimlessly adrift on the current, and then there was only silence. Nevertheless, he remained on the rock for over an hour longer. At last, ready to flee in an instant, he descended and stealthily approached the camp to this place in hiding where he now stood.
Still there was no sound or movement, and so with infinite care he made a wide semicircle around the camp, studying the ground for what he was sure he would find and soon did: traces that the Indians had left, moving toward the southeast. He also found, at the treelined edge of the bottom, the body of the man he hoped might have escaped, his gun, powderhorn, shirt, and shoes gone, along with his scalp. Girty shook his head and walked boldly into camp and surveyed the carnage. Seventeen bodies were there, all scalped, many mutilated with tomahawk blows or knife thrusts. All their guns, powder and lead were gone, along with their pouches and selected articles of clothing. The two piroques had been scuttled, the bear oil loosed into the water and the salted meat and bundles of furs thrown into the river, all of which convinced Girty that his surmise was correct: The attackers were a war party traveling light, possibly marching against the Cherokees and not wishing to be encumbered with plunder. That they had encountered the white hunting party had evidently been sheer happenstance.
Girty looked around a final time and grimaced. “Reckon I’d’a won our bet, boys,” he murmured. Then he turned and left without a backward glance.