The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.
The summer sun beamed down through the treetops and illuminated the forest floor below, while hidden cicadas buzzed incessantly from their branches. A column of men clad in buckskin slowly coiled its way along a well-worn deer path. Most of the men sat on horseback, but some rode in a small supply wagon in the middle of the formation. The year was 1818, six years before the first white settlers would arrive in the area that became Coles County, and a few remaining Native Americans, most notably the Kickapoo, refused to leave their lands and join the tribal relocation beyond the Mississippi.
Most of the westward-bound pioneers avoided the wild region of east-central Illinois, but some, like John Parker, would eventually stop and erect cabins near large groves or adjacent to rivers and streams. John Parker and his four sons, Benjamin, Daniel, Silas, and James, would, in a few years hence, build a mill (later known as Blakeman’s Mill) on the banks of the Embarras River to service the handful of local farms.
It was near the site of this mill that the legendary Indian fighter General Samuel Whiteside and his Illinois Rangers camped while in pursuit of a Kickapoo, Pottawatomie, and Winnebago raiding party that had stolen some horses and terrorized a group of settlers a week earlier.
The river sparkled as it flowed around a bend in the trees, and it provided a quick drink for the horses of the men as they crossed. The animal’s hooves splashed and clopped on the smooth stones below. General Whiteside rode at the head of the column, with two men at his flanks. He raised his arm and the company halted. “I see a good campsite down yonder,” he announced. “This will be a fine place to stay for the night. These ridges will hide our fires. Have a couple of men search the woods for some grub for supper.”
“Isn’t this whereabouts those surveyors got into that scrap with the redskins last year?” the man to his right inquired.
Whiteside paused a moment. “I do believe so,” he replied, and turned toward the man on his left. “Colonel, have the men set up camp.”
“Yes sir, General Whiteside,” the man, whose name was Robert Forester, replied as he wheeled his horse and headed down the column of men. A bird chirped loudly in the distance as he headed off, and the horses grew uneasy.
Farther up the river, two scouts, Thomas Adams and Douglas Fervor, crawled to the peak of a ridge, one of several that had been carved out of the landscape by small streams flowing towards the river. The southern half of what would become Coles County had been spared from the last great glacial period, and the terrain was much more like that of Kentucky or Tennessee. It was comforting to the settlers who would eventually venture to that part of Illinois, because it reminded them of home.
Thomas peaked his head over a thick log. “That’s a raiding party out there,” he whispered, referring to the group of six American Indian braves that rested about fifty yards from them on the side of a ridge. One of the Indians, near a tree, bent down and seemed to be digging something out of the weeds. A tall man wearing two feathers whistled over to him. The Indian that had been digging pulled up a medium sized turtle and whistled back, the pitch of the whistle varying in different degrees.
“Those are Kickapoo,” Douglas whispered. “You can tell by the whistling. They’re the only tribe around these parts that does that.”
“What do you think they’re up to?” Thomas asked with concern.
“Looks like they’re finding dinner,” his companion replied as he angled himself to get a look, “just like us.” Then, he added when he could see the whole group, “This is a little party. The fact we can’t see the rest of ‘em worries me.”
“Should we get on back to General Whiteside?” Thomas wondered out loud. “Or maybe we should ambush these varmints now and save us the trouble later.” The sun was beginning to go down, and the tops of trees were gradually painted an orange hue.
“Don’t get too excited,” Douglas said, and then, referring to the group of Indians who had attacked the white settlements a few weeks ago, “We don’t even know if these are the redskins that done it.” One of the braves turned his head in their direction and seemed to scan the ridgeline. His head stopped, and Thomas felt the Indian’s eyes lock with his. Douglas saw it too. “It looks like we don’t have a choice now,” he spat as a cry rang out from the Indian camp. Thomas went for his weapon. “Wait a minute,” Douglas frantically said. “No one’s done any shootin’ yet.”
Before he could say anything else, Thomas fired a shot from his musket, which had been lying at his side. The small lead ball rocketed out of the smoke and struck a tree. Splinters of bark flew wildly. The Kickapoo braves ducked down, but collected themselves quickly and gathered up their bows. Thomas uncorked his powder horn and started to fill the barrel of his rifle, but his friend grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet.
“There’s no time for that!” he yelled and then cursed. “Dang it! You’ve really stirred up the hornet’s nest now!” The two stumbled down the side of the ridge with a scatter of arrows whistling above their heads.
* * *
The sun had nearly set over the small encampment of the Illinois Rangers. The rangers, mostly made up of volunteers from across the state, were grouped around several campfires. General Whiteside walked among them with his eyes pointed towards the sky. He smiled at anyone who approached, but he wouldn’t stop to talk or exchange greetings. “It was nice to dig out these three old ‘taters,” he heard one of his men say in a voice thick with bitter sarcasm as he walked past a campfire.
“At least we’re eatin’ something other than squirrel and deer,” Whiteside heard another reply. He continued his stroll to the edge of the camp and looked out over the Embarras River from the top of the short drop-off that led to the water. The river flowed slowly past and carried leaves and other debris from the forest to their new location somewhere downstream. A branch snapped behind him, but he didn’t turn around or show any sign that he had heard it.
“Yes, Colonel Johnson?” he asked without turning around to see who it was.
“Not Johnson, sir,” the man corrected him with hesitation. “Colonel Forester.”
“Ah,” General Whiteside replied. “Any word from those two scouts we sent out?”
“Not yet, sir,” Forester informed his commander. “They should have been back by now.”
Whiteside shuffled his feet and began chewing on a stem of tall grass. “They probably deserted,” he theorized with a bitter and condescending voice.
“I don’t think so, sir,” the colonel responded. “That’s not like neither of them. Fervor is too reliable and Adams wouldn’t back down from a fight.” There was a long moment of silence as Colonel Forester waited for a response. “Should we deploy skirmishers for the night?” he asked when no reply came.
“The redskins won’t attack us in the dark,” Whiteside finally said. “They’ll riddle each other with arrows and be on the run before the sun comes up. I believe those varmints are running for their lives as we speak.” He nodded his head as if he was agreeing with himself.
Colonel Forester grit his teeth and walked off in frustration.
Read the exciting conclusion to this story and more in Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today.