Chapter 5: Under Attack

At first, I didn’t realize we were being attacked. I was lying against the gunwale of the pole boat, daydreaming and watching the opposite riverbank streaming by in the warm midday sun. One hand played in the water as the boat glided gently downstream, carried along by the current and guided by the long pole held in my father’s sturdy grip. An eagle flew high overhead, and kingfishers swooped and chattered, startled by a lone moose ambling along the river’s edge. What a gigantic animal, I marveled. Surely it was as high as a standing man and half as long as the boat. I reckoned I could throw my whole bedroll into the magnificent beast’s crown of antlers. The mighty Delaware flowed almost due south here. When we began this morning, Father consulted his map and told us we would be passing through the Walpack Bend today, where the river turns back on itself before coursing once more due south. Already we had passed two or three small islands. I inspected them as we passed, thinking they would make a fine places to explore. Now ridges and mountains began squeezing the river on both sides, creating a faster water flow and some mighty rapids which Father and Jacob negotiated with skill and a certain amount of cursing. Looking downstream, I could see a mountain apparently blocking our way. Suddenly this rock wall disappeared and the river rushed through the breech, turning eastward and then northeastward, completely reversing directions. Now the rock ledge that was originally the left bank appeared on the right. The river hugged the right bank in the shade of this imposing cliff wall and the water was dark and scary. Looking into the deep waters below us I could see occasional huge boulders broken off ages ago from the cliffs above us, some reaching up to within inches of our boat. This was Walpack Bend. After that, the river widened somewhat and became less deep. This made our way much easier, for which we were all thankful. Suddenly Isaac cried out and pointed to the near shore. Father hissed at me, “Quick, into the bow, son.” It snapped me out of my daydreams. We had gone through this drill before, but I knew this time was different. I dropped to the floor of the boat and tucked my head into the bow, pulling an old, gray woolen blanket over my legs for cover. For several long minutes I couldn’t see or hear anything. Quietly I turned my head to watch Father. Father crouched in the stern, five yards away, hiding behind two large boxes of household goods stacked amidships. He swore quietly as he scanned the trees, only a few dozen

yards distant. His rifle was loaded and at the ready across the boxes. Suddenly he stiffened and ducked his head, then very slowly rose up to peek over the boxes. What did he see? Indians? The thought frightened me. Of course I had seen a quite a few at Fort Decker, three days back up river. They were dark, quiet, strange. Mostly they came to trade with the settlers, doing their business then disappearing back into the forest or their lodges nearby. The settlers seemed to accept them, but certainly not as friends. With my head stuck under the gunwale at the bow, I could only see backwards. I heard only the sounds of water against the skin of the boat, a few birds overhead, and the heavy breathing of my kin. Very slowly, Father took aim and fired. The gun belched a cloud of flame and noise. Immediately he dropped behind the box and reloaded, and as he did so, Jacob rose up and fired off two shots, followed by Isaac. Now a long, piercing scream came from the riverbank, then a loud whoop, then another. Did Father hit one of them? How many were there? My head hurt with fear and confusion. The shouts of the Indians grew louder. I heard splashing in the water now. Were they launching canoes? Or swimming out to the boat? Can Indians even swim? I did not know. An arrow whistled over the bow, just a few inches from my head and definitely too close for comfort. My legs shook with terror. I couldn’t see the action along the riverbank, and I longed to peek over the side of the boat. Yes, I wanted to fight, but also to see the savages closeup. My heart raced. While the three adults fought off the attackers, Balthus frantically tried to pole the boat to the other side of the river. Not of strong build, he was having a tough time of it. Here the river made a wide sweeping turn to the east, forcing the boat toward the western shore close to a grove of tall willows. Another deafening report from Father’s flintlock, more whoops from the shore, but louder this time. It sounded like dozens and dozens to me. I was still covered by the blanket; I pulled a large coil of rope to cover my legs, but I could not cover the clatter of my shaking knees and I was certain the attacking Indians could hear it. Over the shouts, over the rushing of water against the boat, I heard Father and Jacob cursing the Indians and shouting encouragement to Balthus, all the while pouring powder and ball down their rifle barrels and packing it. Once Father’s eye flicked over to the bow. I met his determined glance with a frightened one of my own. “Stay down,” he whispered. I nodded, then saw an arrow flash past my hat, nearly catching the feather plume pinned to it. Father bobbed down and back up, swung the rifle up onto the boxes, squinted, aimed, and fired, all in one skillful, fluid motion. Suddenly the current caught the boat. Balthus pushed on the pole, guiding the boat away from the shore. The boat picked up a little speed, but the sounds from the bank grew louder still. I heard arrows thumping into the side of the boat and falling into the water; several hit the boxes. I didn’t dare breathe. Isaac fired a round and ducked down to reload. Balthus dropped the pole in the boat and ducked, too. More arrows flew overhead, and then quiet from the shore. What was happening? Did the Indians give up?

Flat on his stomach, Father looked around the end of the nearest box. I watched him intently, while straining to hear any sounds above the lapping water. He rose up on one knee and looked over the box, rifle at the ready. Balthus sat up slowly, his back against the gunwale. He placed the pole in his lap. “Hold off,” Father said very quietly. “Stay low. Those savages are not done with us yet.” He continued to search the bank. We all felt a gentle nudge at the bow. Father and Balthus glanced forward. The boat was coming to rest on a sandbar in the middle of the turn. The Indians saw it, too, and renewed their attack. “Push us off, quickly,” Father whispered urgently, reloading the gun. Balthus squatted up on his knees and leaned over the side away from the Indians, straining hard with the pole. Isaac grabbed another pole and pushed even harder. At first the poles sank deep into the sand and the boat stayed put. A wave of new terror swept over me. Finally, sweating and heaving, they were able to back the boat off the sand and the current caught us. We were moving again. In that moment of small jubilation, an arrow caught Balthus high in the back. I saw the tip push through the front of his shirt, just below his throat. Balthus looked down, and I have never seen such a look of surprise and pain. He reached up with both hands to grab the tip, gasping and crying out as he did so. Another arrow knocked him forward. He pitched into the bottom of the boat and crumpled sideways, so I could see his face. His eyes stayed open, but a cloud came across them. I shivered. Father’s rifle roared again. As he ducked down, he saw Balthus lying on his side. “Mon Dieu,” Father gasped. He leaned over my cousin, saw the arrow through the windpipe, and let out a gut-wrenching moan. Then with a mighty shout he swung back up. He aimed and fired. At that instant two arrows thudded into him. One hit him full in the chest, another pierced his right arm. Stunned, Father’s head snapped backward and he tumbled to the bottom of the boat next to Balthus. He pulled the rifle toward himself, poured out a quick measure of powder and dropped in a ball. Ramming it in quickly, he hoisted the rifle onto the box with his left arm. His eyes were nearly shut, but he pulled the trigger anyway. The ball exploded in the chest of an Indian just hoisting himself up onto the gunwale. The savage let out an awful scream and fell off into the water with a loud splash. Father turned toward me and opened his eyes just a slit. “Stay low, son, stay low. They may not know you’re on board.” His eyes shut. He sagged back against the gunwale, just as another arrow slammed into his chest. Now he gave a low groan; his head flopped to one side. Jacob looked over at Father just in time to see him draw his last breath. Jacob quickly reloaded and fired from the stern just as Isaac fired off a shot from the gunwale. But still the arrows rained down onto the boat. I could not see Jacob now behind the boxes, but all at once I heard his unmistakable cry, a cry like I hope never to hear again. I knew an arrow had found its mark. That left just Isaac and me. I could clearly see him backed up against the gunwale opposite from the Indian attack, partly hidden from their view by the boxes amidships. Isaac leaned over and grabbed Jacob’s rifle, loaded it, and laid it across the box to take careful aim. By this time the boat had entered a bit of turbulence, rocking from side to side. Apparently the

Indians could see this, too, for they seemed to perfectly time their next volley of arrows. As the boat rocked toward the Indian’s side, it exposed Isaac behind the box. Several arrows slammed into his chest, neck, and arms all at once. The force of the impact knocked his body clean out of the boat. He was dead in an instant. Now I could hear the whooping again from the shore. It sounded like the Indians were celebrating! I listened closely. Were they still chasing the boat? No, the sounds seemed to be falling behind as the current continued to carry the rudderless boat down the river. I looked at Father, then Balthus, then Jacob. I crawled over to them. I took my father’s hand. Father squeezed gently, then dropped my hand to the deck. Then nothing more. Balthus, the same. I peeked over the side of the boat. I could see several Indians, hopping around in a loose circle on the beach. They were about fifty yards behind now. It seemed they had lost interest in the boat, at least for now. I let the boat drift with the current. I couldn’t think and did not dare to look out again, huddled between Father and Balthus. I wondered why they didn’t get up. I whispered their names: “Father? Balthus? Jacob?” Nothing. “The Indians are gone now,” I whispered to them. Still nothing. I nudged Father gently with my foot. “Father?” And then I knew: They would not rise again.

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