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The Halloween Project 2019 Story 8: Mind the Forest

My father lay on his back moaning with pain. The log that had crushed his legs would have been far kinder had it fallen on his head. God has little in the way of mercy here in the Ohio Wilderness.

Four days now he lingered. He muttered only, "Mind the forest! Mind the forest." The doctor had come on a flatboat up the Muskingum River from Marietta to the small homestead we had settled eight year ago. I may be only 15 but I could tell by the look on the doctor's face there was little hope. A flat expression on my mother’s face mirrored the doctor's. My two older brothers tended the corn and vegetable patches with grim visage. My sisters read to him from the Bible, all the while he muttered, "Mind the forest."

At the time of my father's accident there were seven of us in all. We had been nine but two of my younger siblings met with terrible fates. Mother and father, four boys, three girls, ages ranging from 5 to 21. Mother had lost two babies in childbirth as well and this took a toll on her, but she fought back and fought hard. Being a pioneer in Ohio in 1809 was a difficult life accented by never-ending, dangerous work, the occasional devastating illness and the constant threat of attack from savages.

The Shawnee who welcomed us at first began to grow less friendly as more and more settlers arrived. Marietta grew into a small town on the Ohio River. We had settled five miles north. The natives began to turn against us. We knew that they roamed the forest killing as many animals as they could to try and drive us away. We constantly came upon the ravaged corpses of deer, raccoon, bear, wolf and even squirrel left to rot.

As we cleared woodland to put in crops we suffered several mishaps. Our log cabin, barely big enough to house our growing family, mysteriously burned to the ground. My mother lost a baby. Crops failed despite sufficient rain and warm, sunny summers. My youngest brother, Jacob, only three at the time, playing in the woods had a large limb fall on his head and we buried him on the hill under a towering maple. A month later Joshua fell from a tree, never again awoke, and he joined Jacob.

It was then my father went to see The Prophet, an elder of the Shawnee, brother of Tecumseh. He could speak English and French as well as his own native tongue having lived through the trappers, the river explorers and now the settlers. My father returned after a long afternoon that ventured into darkness. He said that The Prophet was an honorable man and that all would be well from this point on. But he did tell us, then and always, "Mind the forest."

Matters improved from that day forward. Crops flourished. Health maintained us. My mother and father seemed happy and content. But my two older brothers complained. Abraham, the oldest, had taken a wife, and she, above all else, poured ambition into his ear.

"Father," he would protest at every opportunity, "We need to clear more forest land. We have acres after acres that are good for nothing but birds and squirrels. We could be rich, selling our extra crops in Marietta. We could build nice homes, hire workers, not break our backs as we do, year in, year out."

For the longest time my father would reply, "Abraham, I understand what you are asking and it's not unreasonable, but God and nature have provided all that we need. Why must we ask more? Mind the forest, that is enough," is how he always ended.

Abraham would stalk away. As the months ensued both he and our next oldest, Aaron, would pester my father, night and day. Finally, bowed down by their incessant pleading, he relented. He shook his head, "Do it if you must. Perhaps enough time has passed." And they began, hiring mule teams from Marietta, they cut, logged and stumped first a parcel, then a half acre, then two. They imagined the future in their minds and the wealth that might be theirs.

One afternoon, exhausted muscles tight, Aaron missed a chop with his swinging axe and planted the sharp blade in his ankle. Infection spread and within a week he was dead. My sisters, playing in the woods with switch sticks, whacked and swatted until one pierced into Sara’s left eye. For the remainder of her life her blindness in that eye tormented her. And then my father. The logs, piled high and ready to be moved for a new log cabin, tumbled and crushed both his legs.

When he died I went to see The Prophet. He welcomed me to his fire and knew who I was. I spoke of the recent past and he nodded respectfully.

“Your father was a good man. Your brothers…” his voice trailed off, “I am sorry for both.”

“Did we not ‘Mind the forest’ as my father always taught us?” I asked in all sincerity.

“Mind?” The Prophet asked. “What is Mind?”

“To be careful,” I explained.

“No, no,” The Prophet shook his head, “Not to mind the forest. To Obey. Obey the Forest.”

I returned back to our homesite and explained my meeting with The Prophet to my mother and brother. My mother nodded, but deferred. My brother ranted, “Hypocrisy! Witchcraft! Heresy!” and stormed from the room. We never spoke or saw each other again.

I left the next day. For fifteen years I worked on the Ohio River. I loaded freight and steered boats. I brought more and more travelers, settlers, con men and pioneers to the Ohio territory. I remained alone, solitary. I worked from New Orleans to the far north. I had few friends.

One day my longboat docking at Marietta I grabbed my rucksack and disembarked. Walking the five miles to our land, I stood before our cabin, now only ramshackle debris. On the hill there were more graves but not enough.

I looked to the forest. It stood, strong, noble, alive. And I departed.