A Ranger's Question 



Dante A. Cinelli

© Copyright 1999 by Dante A. Cinelli


As the sun lowered to the horizon, Langston Pend had broken his leg in two places when the large dried limb from a fallen skeleton-like tree cracked. He tumbled twenty feet onto a large gray boulder. His friends in the Ranger raiding party's vanguard reset the leg and strapped it tightly around three long branches with leather thongs over his green-dyed deerskin trousers. They had given him Mohawk tobacco to chew on; he only grimaced. They had cut the length of the trouser to replace the fibula protruding through the flesh.

 He might have slowly limped back to the river and used one of their canoes to make his way back alone to Crown Point. It was feasible with a broken fibula, but the second break at the ankle negated that slim possibility. His companions said nothing, for there was nothing to be said. They replaced the blood-soaked moccasin on his foot. He sat up on that boulder with a few extra bits of deer jerky and an extra canteen of water. He was in the path of six hundred Hurons and French following the main force.

 He loaded his firelock musket with buckshot, laid his long knife along side with the leather thong on the handle open to quickly wrap around his wrist. His hatchet was laid on the other side. He doubted he'd have time to reload his piece after his initial shot. It would probably take out two or three rushing Indians. Then he would go to his knife and hatchet. He was adept with the knife. He could throw it and hit his target at twelve paces. An Abenake Indian and two French sentinels could attest to that, were they still alive.

 When Major Rogers ascertained the position of the sun and the concern of Pend's friends, he gave the order to halt, sending pickets to the rear as an extra precaution. He knew Indians rarely fought a night and that the French were a day behind him.

 The party of almost two hundred Rangers rested as they bivouacked for the night. There were not to be fires for warmth or cooking. At dawn, they would break camp and move north, eventually to St. Francis, east of Lake Champlain. Rogers' Rangers were attacking the large camp of the Abenake Indians. It was revenge for years of attacks on their homes around Portsmouth. There had been five years of murder, scalpings of stragglers, rape and kidnap of their women, and the "braining" of infants against a tree. Although almost every man had a dark score to settle, the main objective was to destroy the source of their pain so that their peers and remaining families would survive in peace however short-lived it might be.

 Those factors made the number of this force become, not the actual two hundred in body, but two thousand in spirit. Their physical actions would be greatly enhanced with the energy of quiet, raging hatred. The strength and resolve in battle would be ten fold, ready to sacrifice themselves to the harsh world of war among men. Most were just simple, uneducated men. They were but a small part of a constant parade of unknown giants who walk this sweet earth in anonymity, then pass on into history without a trace of ever having been here. Perhaps a single line in a history book would mark their presence as an epitaph.

 Langston Pend was such a man. He was of the fourth generation of pilgrims who came to these shores, but he was the last of his branch of family. His home and small family were destroyed. They were only alive in his memory. His friends, white bearded Jesse Murdoch and stocky Regis Twoumey, slept near him during the chilly September night. The moon shone a brilliant silver with myriad stars spread between moving branches in the autumn night. Pend looked at them with the same awe he felt as a boy a thousand years ago.

 Jesse and Regis had set Langston's leg. They had been friends and neighbors since 1744, well nigh fifteen years as farmers and woodsmen. They had joined the Rangers together. Only middle-aged Regis had a surviving ten-year-old daughter living with relatives in Boston.

 Langston thought of his family during the night between intermittent snatches of sleep and pain. His only regret was the lack of a warming fire during his last night on earth, but he understood and accepted the order of no cooking fires as necessary and right. He would build one in the late morning after his companions were long gone and safe. He knew the Hurons trailing would inevitably find him. He would treat himself with the stored warmth of the sun in the wood's fire from perhaps twenty years ago. His two little girls were alive basking in it just four years ago. The sunlight that shone on them would be released in its glow. It was a small enough gift to give himself for nearly the thirty-three years of the toil and pain he'd endured. He wasn't complaining to himself or anyone else. There were many sweet times in his life when he cuddled his little girls by the glowing hearth as he listened to his wife read the bible by the orange light of the fireplace. He was always amazed how marks on a page could be translated into the sound of a gentle human voice. "It's a wonderment," he would say as he smoked his corncob pipe.

 When he lay with his wife, felt her warmth, and smelled her flesh, he was as rich as any man with money. All his wants, needs and desires were fulfilled. His happiness ended when he found her body ravished and scalped in the small woodshed where she was hiding. The young ones were found nearby with their heads crushed by tomahawks. They somehow were granted a quick death. Perhaps there was a warrior-chief in the party who disdained suffering for children, perhaps not. He never knew. But eventually over eighty Abenakes had paid a heavy price nevertheless.

 Just once, he spared a young Indian boy of nine or so, singing his father's death song in a pine tree. He couldn't understand it at the time, but for some unfathomable reason, he felt good about it, as the boy ran away to the hills where old people were hiding.

 So here was Langston's crossroads in his journey through this life. By tomorrow's afternoon sun , he'd know the answer he'd been seeking for many of his thirty-three years. Strangely, even to him, his fear was minimal compared to the resignation in his soul. He pondered for some moments and then pushed it out of his consciousness after the question again flashed across his mind: What's it to be? God or oblivion?

 The morning light crept silently with pink fingers up to the slow moving gray clouds. He'd only slept deeply the last hour and the sleep was graced with a short dream of walking in his green cornfield, smelling the sweet vegetation and earth working in tandem to produce their many small golden miracles.

 He awoke earlier than usual, gently opened his blanket, and slowly limped with a staff to a copse of white birch. When he returned, he sat on the boulder and prepared himself again. The party would be gone within a quarter hour after a silent reveille.

 The Abenake village was three days march with rough, high terrain to cross. Shortly, the movement began in silence as men meandered to the birches and returned to pack their haversacks and equipment, checking their powder horns and firelocks again.

 Major Rogers mounted a boulder eight yards away and gave his instructions on the day's forthcoming marching orders. "The French are about a half day behind us. We've been heading in a beeline for their little fort on Lake Champlain. That's what we want them to think. When we reach the swamp in a few hours, we'll veer 45 degrees to the east towards the Abenake village. Don't use dry patches of land. Stay in the water the whole time. We don't want any tracks. Have your usual wonderful breakfast of jerky and water." The men laughed and guffawed lightly.

 "We move in five minutes. That's all, men."

 Jesse and Regis approached him.

 "Major, 'bout Pend…." said Jesse.

 "The answer is 'no'."

 "But ye ain'ta heard what.."

 "No, you can't take him back and you can't stay with him, " he said gently.

 "Supposen we quits the Rangers, Major?" asked Regis respectfully.

 "Then I'd have you shot on the spot, and I'd lose three good men instead of one. He knows what you have to do and he knows we all want to help him, but we can't. He knows that better'n anybody."

 After a long pause of looking into Rogers' cold steel hazeled eyes, Jesse looked down and sighed as he scooted red soil with his moccasin.

 "Guessin yer right, Major. But I'd hate ta be as right as yer are all these times."

 "I have to be..... but someday when I'm not commanding these men and you meet me in a tavern, you'll have to show me a little pity."

 Jesse nodded a few times and Regis looked down.

 The major removed one of his two pistols from his belt and handed it to Jesse.

 "Give this to Pend….. so he…"

 "I know, Major, an he'll know too. It's a mighty fine pistol. We thank ye, Sir."

 Five minutes later, the column formed silently. With a wave of a hand, it moved forward like a large green caterpillar up the incline and into the next valley where the swamp lay far in the morning mist. It was like a giant mirror with protruding trees spreading on the orange and green earth.

 Jesse and Regis glanced at Langston perched on his rock as they marched by. The branches and faggots they had gathered on the side of the boulder were ready to give him his last earthly gift. Their eyes spoke as Pend nodded one final time chewing the vile tobacco.

 Rogers' stopped by him for a moment and offered him more tobacco. He took it with a nod of thanks.

 "Thinking of setting here a while, are you?"

 "Yep. Figured I'd rest a while an maybe do a little huntin'. I'm loaded with buckshot. I'm feelin' kinda tired, Major. Mebbe, I'll catch up to you all in a few days if'n I feel better. Thanks fer this weapon, Sir. It sure is a beauty. Sure you don't want ta take it back?"

 "No, no, you'd better keep it for me. Besides I got another. You give it back when you see me again.... some sundown."

 "I'll sure try ta do that, Major."

 The major stepped back and slowly saluted him. Pend returned it as Rogers turned to follow the company and disappeared over a ridge.

 In the morning chill, Langston lit some dry grass with sparks from a flint and dropped it onto more dry grass interwoven for him among the small and large branches. It took hold and he had his gift of warmth.

 As the sun started its descent at noon, he heard the cry of a loon on his left answered with the sound of a whippoorwill on his right. He smiled slightly. He knew there were no loons in this high dry country.

 "A youngin'," he thought.

 In three minutes, just after unleashing his buckshot, he knew the answer to his question: God or oblivion?

Contact Dante

(Messages are forwarded by The Preservation Foundation.
So, when you write to an author, please type his/her name
in the subject line of the message.)

Dante's Story List and Biography

Book Case

Home Page