by Michael Stein
Before the battle had begun he knew it would be his last. The field was too narrow, the hills too small, the trees too few. For several weeks he had spent each day preparing his warriors for this singular event, and while the enemy would soon be upon them his greatest obstacle was the skittish Englishman standing by his side. Allowing a white man to choose the site of a major engagement was always risky but handing over command to this particular white man went against everything he believed in. Sadly, there was no other way. Even as the most respected, and notorious, Indian war chief of the young century, he had limited access to European weapons or technology.
Tecumseh grew up in the Ohio region, almost three hundred miles south of where he now stood in southwest Ontario. From his earliest days he had witnessed the white man’s inexorable westward march, laying waste to everything in their path, including his father and brother. Now, at the age of forty-five, he trusted none of them. English, French, Dutch, or American, it made no difference, regardless of the language their tongues spoke falsely.
The death of his family only strengthened his resolve and crystallized his life’s mission, to unite the tribes against their common enemy and drive the whites beyond the sea. But even after five long years of negotiations and unbroken promises he still lacked the numbers within his alliance to forever rid the land of the haughty, unwelcome Americans. Tecumseh heard many tales of their stunning victory over the Mother Country just a short time ago. It had taken place in the eastern lands of the once powerful Iroquois nation who had chosen to fight alongside the English. By the end of the struggle the six united tribes of Iroquois, once the uncontested rulers of the east, found themselves destitute, homeless, and vulnerable to attack.
As the Americans snatched up large tracts of western territory the English were eager to supply weapons to the Indians who understood perfectly well that a second war was inevitable; who the Shawnees would side with, however, was not. With their limited understanding of the terrain and guerrilla-style warfare, the infantry valued their Indian scouts nearly as much as their muskets. Tecumseh schemed to take advantage of the animosity and embarrassment the English crown still felt after the most feared military in the world lost a protracted war to a small band of volunteer militiamen.
Staring out across the field where two armies would soon meet, Tecumseh could only shake his head in bewilderment. He had lived through countless skirmishes and had organized many successful raids. Not only was he the principal war chief of the Shawnees, he was also revered by all neighboring tribes and feared by the white settlers for his stealth and tenacity. Nevertheless, with all his success a sadness filled his heart. He could find no option other than to hand over command to the erratic white man, and in doing so, commit his most loyal braves to fight and die with him.
Once entrenched, however, there was no turning back. The English soldiers, numbering just under one thousand, fell into their famously rigid ranks; a strategy that made no sense to the independently-minded native. The Shawnees, meanwhile, settled into a swamp on the outer edges of the battlefield, hoping to flank the Americans and temporarily confuse them. By now every warrior had lost faith in the judgment of General Procter but set their hopes in Tecumseh’s leadership as well as the terrifying fire stick that the soldiers called cannon.
Many of the braves had not reached their twentieth year and it was only Tecumseh’s presence that gave them the confidence they needed. More than a war chief, they viewed Tecumseh as a savior who would bring about lasting salvation for Moneta’s people. On the day of the battle he gave no instruction, instead he moved his hard stare from one warrior to the next, offering silent ablutions to keep the bullets at bay. As he turned to face Paheto, a courageous young brave with no war experience, Tecumseh held his gaze for what felt like a lifetime.
“Remain here,” he ordered.
“What?” Paheto was sure he had misunderstood.
Barely out of his teenage years, Paheto grew up expecting nothing less than a life filled with conflict. Tecumseh himself had prepared him for the bloodbath that would follow four previous years of relative peace. But now, when he was finally ready, Tecumseh lifted his right hand and pointed from Paheto to a handful of other young braves who stood by his side.
“You will all remain here. Do not join the battle until most of the Americans have been turned away.”
No one dared question Tecumseh, but for Paheto it was a crushing blow. He had traveled many miles and was eager to gain honors as a warrior. Just before turning around Tecumseh locked eyes with Paheto once more and his gaze softened. No words were spoken but Paheto was transfixed, certain that a gentle voice was echoing inside his head. He stared back, puzzled, but had no time to search for clues as the familiar sound of horse hooves suddenly broke through his reverie.
The American cavalry, under the command of Colonel Richard Johnson, arrived first, but the full force of over three-thousand Americans knew they were fighting under the somber eye of General William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana territory. Paheto had been present at the council meeting when Harrison and Tecumseh came dangerously close to shooting each other, so today’s encounter felt like the natural culmination of their bitter rivalry.
As the Americans spilled out onto the field Paheto closed his eyes, summoned up Tecumseh’s reassuring voice, and thought only of the glorious victory Moneta would hand them. All at once more than five-hundred braves charged forward, howling their high-pitched war cries that sent spasms of panic through the bowels of many young soldiers. With Tecumseh leading the way, they rushed headlong toward the front line of Americans, staring at them, daring them, throwing their bodies into battle as if impervious to the bullets that now sailed past their heads.
The young braves in the swamp could do nothing but launch their arrows at the cavalry, but from such a distance the Americans barely noticed. Paheto kept his eyes fixed on Tecumseh, who lifted his tomahawk and raced forward to engage the enemy. Both whites and Indians were being shot down by the English infantry but Tecumseh seemed oblivious to the chaos. Diving at one man’s ankles, he knocked the soldier to the ground and sank his blade into the back of the man’s neck. He quickly rebounded to his feet and fired squarely into the stomach of another soldier. After pulling his tomahawk from the chest of a third victim Tecumseh dropped to one knee and surveyed the situation.
As usual the Shawnees were doing most of the hand-to-hand fighting while the English hung back at a safer distance and fired into the throng of bodies that was slowly becoming more of a burial ground than a battlefield. But as the Americans inched closer to the English officers the cannon misfired and Colonel Johnson’s men seized the opportunity to cut through their line of defense. Confirming his worst suspicions, Paheto watched helplessly as General Procter ordered an immediate retreat. As the Englishmen jumped on their horses every Shawnee warrior turned their gaze to Tecumseh, who immediately raised his tomahawk high overhead, screamed out above the din and led them in a counter attack.
This was too much for Paheto to bear. He bolted towards Tecumseh with the rest of the young braves following close behind. Desperate to see action, he fired wildly as he ran, striking the horse of a mounted soldier and knocking the stunned rider to the ground. Paheto sprinted forward with his blade drawn, thirsty for his first kill, but suddenly another warrior blocked his path. A shot rang out, something splattered across his face, and all at once his eyes were forced shut. He wiped them clean but saw that his outstretched hands were covered with blood. Tecumseh’s blood.
A bullet had struck Tecumseh in the side of the neck, but rather than fall to the ground, the great warrior fell forward to engage his enemy. The next bullet entered his right shoulder, forcing the tomahawk from his hand and knocking him to the ground. Paheto screamed. He had just witnessed the unimaginable. Lunging forward, he attacked before the soldier could reload but his blade missed its mark. The American grabbed his wrist and they fell on top of each other, rolling in the dirt until their bodies were covered in mud.
The soldier was a large man and Paheto could feel the knife slowly slipping from his grip. Using all his strength, he grabbed the handle with both hands, pushed it overhead, and moved in as close as he could. Paheto bit down hard on the soldier’s neck, shifted his weight to one side, and drove the blade into the large man’s back. The soldier screamed for only a brief moment. In an instant Paheto yanked out his knife, raised himself a few inches, and pierced the man through the heart.
Exhausted, Paheto fell on top of the soldier and took the opportunity to be sure he was dead. He scalped the man with one quick swipe of his blade and then crawled along the ground until he could lift Tecumseh’s head into his hands. Tecumseh’s wounds were obviously fatal, but even with blood pouring from two gaping openings the indomitable warrior would not die. Each breath sent shivers throughout his body as Tecumseh motioned for the young brave to come closer so he could be heard. Paheto scooped out a handful of blood from Tecumseh’s mouth, put his ear to the dying mans lips, and heard faint whispers of a narrative he would never forget.
Tecumseh struggled to say more, but with blood entering his lungs there was no time. Gazing into Paheto’s brown watery eyes he could tell the message had been absorbed, so he took one last breath and shifted his focus. “Lay down. Do not join the battle again. You must live…to pass on the prophecy. Tell our people, tell them…”
Paheto sensed that these would be Tecumseh’s final words. Instinctively, he placed his ear to the great man’s chest and listened intently to the slowing beat of a heart that would not easily die. He kept his head down and wept as the terror continued on all sides, but all he could hear was a muffled voice in his head and a slow muted pulse, until no ripples remained.