Title: The Death of Wind-Foot
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as unsigned]
Date: June 1845
Whitman Archive ID: per.00328
Source: The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, and Science 1 (June 1845): 639–642. Transcribed from digital images of an original issue held at the American Antiquarian Society.
Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock, Nicole Gray, and Kirsten Clawson
THE DEATH OF WIND-FOOT.1
THREE hundred years ago—so heard I the tale, not long since, from the mouth of one educated like a white man, but born of the race of whom Logan and Tecumseh sprang,2—three hundred years ago, there lived on lands now forming an eastern county of the most powerful of the American states, a petty Indian tribe governed by a brave and wise chieftain. This chieftain was called by a name which in our language signifies Unrelenting. His deeds of courage and subtlety made him renowned through no small portion of the northern continent. There were only two dwellers in his lodge—himself and his youthful son; for twenty moons had filled and waned since his wife, following four of her offspring, was placed in the burial ground.
As the Unrelenting sat alone one evening in his rude hut, one of his people came to inform him that a traveler from a distant tribe had entered the village, and desired food and repose. Such a petition was never slighted by the red man; and the messenger was sent back with an invitation for the stranger to abide in the lodge of the chief himself. Among that simple race, no duties were considered more honorable than arranging the household comforts of a guest: those duties were now performed by the host's own hand, his son having not yet returned from the hunt on which he had started with a few young companions at early dawn. In a little while the wayfarer was led into the dwelling by him who had given the first notice of his arrival.
"You are welcome, my brother," said the Unrelenting.
The person to whom this kind salute was addressed was an athletic Indian, apparently of middle age, and habited in the scant attire of his species. He had the war-tuft on his forehead, under which flashed a pair of brilliant eyes. His rejoinder was friendly and brief.
"The chief's tent is lonesome—his people are away?" continued the stranger, after a pause, casting a glance of inquiry around.
"My brother says true that it is lonesome," the other answered. "Twelve seasons ago, the Unrelenting saw five children in the shadow of his wigwam, and their mother was dear to him. He was strong, like a cord of many fibres. Then the breath of Manito snapped the fibres one by one asunder.3 He looked with a pleasant eye on my sons and daughters, and wished them for himself. Behold all that is left to brighten my heart!"
The Unrelenting turned as he spoke, and pointed to an object just inside the opening of the tent.
A moment or two before, the figure of a boy had glided noiselessly in, and taken his station back of the chief. Hardly twelve years seemed the age of the new-comer. He was a noble child! His limbs, never distorted
with the ligatures of civilized life, were as graceful as
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the ash, and symmetrical and springy as the bounding stag's. It was the last and loveliest of the chieftain's sons—the soft-lipped, nimble Wind-Foot.
With the youth's assistance, the preparations for their frugal meal were soon completed. After finishing it, as the stranger appeared to be weary, a heap of skins was arranged for him in one corner of the lodge, and he laid himself down to sleep.
It was a lovely summer evening. The moon shone, the stars twinkled, and the thousand voices of a forest night sounded in every direction. The chief and his son reclined at the opening of the tent, enjoying the cool breeze which blew freshly upon them, and flapped the piece of deer-hide that served for their door, sometimes flinging it down so as to darken the apartment, then raising it suddenly up again, as if to let in the bright moonbeams.
Wind-Foot spoke of his hunt that day. He had met with no success, and, in a boy's impatient spirit, wondered why it was that others' arrows should hit the mark, and failure be reserved for him alone. The chief heard him with a sad smile, as he remembered his own youthful traits; he soothed the child with gentle words, telling him that brave warriors sometimes went whole days with the same perverse fortune.
"Many years since," said the chief, "when my cheek was soft, and my arms felt the numbness of but few winters, I myself vainly traversed our hunting grounds, as you have done to-day. The Dark Influence was around me, and not a single shaft would do my bidding."
"And my father brought home nothing to his lodge?" asked the boy.
"The Unrelenting came back without any game," the other answered; "but he brought what was dearer to him and his people than the fattest deer or the sweetest bird-meat—he brought the scalp of an accursed Kansi!"
The voice of the chief was deep and sharp in its tone of hatred.
"Will my father," said Wind-Foot, "tell—"
The child started, and paused. An exclamation, a sudden guttural noise, came from that part of the tent where the stranger was sleeping. The dry skins which formed the bed rustled, as if he who lay there was changing his position, and then all continued silent. The Unrelenting proceeded in a lower tone, fearful that they had almost broken the slumber of their guest.
"Listen!" said he: "you know a part, but not all the cause of hatred there is between our nation and the abhorred enemies whose name I mentioned.—Longer back than I can remember, they did mortal wrong to your fathers. The scalps of two of your near kindred hang in Kansi lodges, and I have sworn, my son, to bear them a never-ending hatred.
"On the morning of which I spoke, I started with fresh limbs and a light heart to search for game. Hour after hour, I roamed the forest with no success; and at the setting of the sun, I found myself weary, and many miles from my father's lodge. I laid down at the foot of a tree, and sleep came over me. In the depth of the night, a voice seemed whispering in my ears; it called me to rise quickly—to look around. I started to my feet, and found no one there but myself: then I knew that the Dream-Spirit had been with me. As I cast my eyes about in the gloom, I saw a distant brightness. Treading softly, I approached. The light was that of a fire, and by the fire lay two sleeping figures. O, I laughed the quiet laugh of a deathly mind, as I saw who they were—a Kansi warrior, and a child, like you, my son, in age. I felt the edge of my tomahawk—it was keen as my hate. I crept toward them as the snake crawls through the grass. I bent over the slumbering boy; I raised my weapon to strike. But I thought that were they both slain no one would carry the tale to the Kansi tribe. My vengeance would be tasteless to me if they knew it not—and I spared the child. Then I glided to the other; his face was of the same cast as the first, which gladdened me, for then I knew they were of close kindred. I raised my arm—I gathered my strength—I struck, and cleft the warrior's brain in quivering halves!"
The chief had gradually wrought himself up to a pitch of loudness and rage, and his hoarse tones at the last part of his narration, rang croakingly through the lodge.
At that moment, the deer-hide curtain kept all within in darkness; the next, it was lifted up, and a flood of the moonlight filled the apartment. A startling sight was back there, then! The strange Indian was sitting up on his couch, his distorted features glaring toward the unconscious ones in front,
with a look like that of Satan to his antagonist angel.
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His lips were parted, his teeth clenched, his arm raised, and his hand doubled—every nerve and sinew in bold relief. This spectacle of fear lasted only for a moment; the Indian at once sank noiselessly back, and lay with the skins wrapped round him as before.
It was now an advanced hour of the night. Wind-Foot felt exhausted by his day's travel; the father and son arose from their seat at the door, and retired to rest. In a little while, all was silence in the tent; but from the darkness which surrounded the bed of the stranger, flashed two fiery orbs, rolling about incessantly like the eyes of an angry wild beast.The lids of those orbs closed not in slumber during the night.
Among the former inhabitants of this continent, it was considered rudeness, of the highest degree, to annoy a traveler or a guest with questions about himself, his last abode or his future destination. Until he saw fit to go, he was made welcome to stay, whether for a short time or a long one. Thus, on the morrow, when the strange Indian showed no signs of departing, the chief expressed not the least surprise, but felt indeed a compliment indirectly paid to his powers of entertainment.4
Early the succeeding day, the Unrelenting called his son to him, while the stranger was standing at the tent-door. He told Wind-Foot that he was going on a short journey, to perform which and return, would probably take him till night-fall. He enjoined the boy to remit no duties of hospitality toward his guest, and bade him be ready at evening with a welcome for his father.5
The sun had marked the middle of the afternoon—when the chief, finishing what he had to do sooner than he expected, came back to his own dwelling, and threw himself on the floor to obtain rest,—for the day though pleasant, had been a warm one. Wind-Foot was not there, and after a little interval the chief stepped to a lodge near by to make inquiry after him.
"The young brave," said a woman, who appeared to answer his questions, "went away with the chief's strange guest many hours since."
The Unrelenting turned to go back to his tent.
"I cannot tell the meaning of it," added the woman, "but he of the fiery eye, bade me, should the father of Wind-Foot ask about him, say to the chief these words, 'Unless your foe sees you drink his blood, that blood loses more than half its sweetness!'"
The Unrelenting started as if a scorpion had stung him. His lip trembled, and his hand involuntarily moved to the handle of his tomahawk. Did his ears perform their office truly? Those sounds were not new to him. Like a floating mist, the gloom of past years rolled away in his memory, and he recollected that the words the woman spake were the very ones he himself had uttered to the Kansi child whose father he slew long, long ago, in the forest! And this stranger? Ah, now he saw it all. He remembered the dark looks of his guest—and carrying his mind back again, traced the features of the Kansi in their matured counterpart. And the chief felt too conscious for what terrible purpose Wind-Foot was in the hands of this man. He sallied forth, gathered together a few of his warriors, and started swiftly to seek his child.
About the same hour that the Unrelenting returned from his journey, Wind-Foot, several miles from home, was just coming up to his companion, who had gone on a few rods ahead of him, and was at that moment seated on the body of a fallen tree, a mighty giant of the woods that some whirlwind had tumbled to the earth. The child had roamed about with his new acquaintance through one path and another with the heedlessness of his age; and now while the latter sat in perfect silence for several minutes, Wind-Foot idly sported near him. It was a solemn spot; in every direction around were towering patriarchs of the wilderness, growing and decaying in solitude.
At length the stranger spoke:
The child, who was but a few yards off, approached at the call. As he came near, he stopped in alarm; his companion's eyes had that dreadfully bright glitter again—and while they looked at each other, terrible forebodings arose in the boy's soul.
"Young chieftan," said the stranger, "you must die!"
"The brave is in play," was the response, "Wind-Foot is a little boy."
"Serpents are small at first," replied the savage, "but in a few moons they have fangs and deadly poison. Hearken, branch from an evil root!—I am a Kansi!—The youth your parent spared in the forest has now become a man. Warriors of his tribe point to him and say,
'His father's scalp adorns the lodge of the Unrelenting, but the wigwamwgiwam of the Kansi is
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bare!'—Wind-Foot! it must be bare no longer!"
The boy's heart beat quickly—but beat true to the stern courage of his ancestors.
"I am the son of a chief," he answered, "my cheeks cannot be wet with tears."
The Kansi looked at him a few seconds with admiration, which soon gave way to malignant scowls. Then producing from an inner part of his dress a withe of some tough bark, he stepped to Wind-Foot, and began binding his hands. It was useless to attempt resistance, for besides the disparity of their strength, the boy was unarmed, while the savage had at his waist a hatchet, and a rude stone weapon resembling a poniard. He pointed to Wind-Foot the direction he must take, gave a significant touch at his girdle, and followed close on behind.
When the Unrelenting and his people started to seek for the child and that fearful stranger, they were lucky enough to find the trail which the absent ones had made. None except an Indian's eye could have tracked them by so slight and devious a guide. But the chief's sight was sharp with paternal love: they followed on—winding, and on again—at length coming to the fallen tree. The train was now less irregular, and they traversed it with greater rapidity. Its direction seemed towards the shores of a long narrow lake which lay adjacent to their territory. Onward went they, and as the sun sank in the west, they saw his last flitting gleams reflected from the waters of the lake. The grounds here were almost clear of trees; and as they came out, the Unrelenting and his warriors swept the range with their keen eyes.
Was it so indeed?—There, on the grass not twenty rods from the shore, were the persons they sought—and fastened near by was a canoe. They saw from his posture that the captive was bound; they saw, too, that if the Kansi should once get him in the boat, and gain a start for the opposite side, where very likely some of his tribe were waiting for him, release would be almost impossible. For a moment only they paused. Then the Unrelenting sprang off, uttering the battle cry of his tribe, and the rest joined in the terrible chorus and followed him.
As the sudden sound was swept along by the breeze to the Kansi's ear, he jumped to his feet, and with that wonderful self-possession which distinguishes his species, determined at once what was safest and surest for him to do. He seized Wind-Foot by the shoulder, and ran toward the boat, holding the boy's person as a shield from any weapons the pursuers might attempt to launch after him. He possessed still the advantage. It was a fearful race; and the Unrelenting felt his heart grow sick, as the Indian, dragging his child, approached nearer to the water's edge.
"Turn, whelp of a Kansi!" the chief madly cried.6 "Turn, thou whose coward arm warrest against children! Turn, if thou darest, and meet the eye of a full-grown brave!"
A loud taunting laugh was borne back from his flying enemy to the ears of the furious father. The savage did not look around, but twisted his left arm, and pointed with his finger to Wind-Foot's throat. At that moment, he was within twice his length of the canoe. The boy heard his father's voice, and gathered his energies, faint and bruised as he was, for a last struggle. Vain his efforts! for a moment only he loosened himself from the grip of his foe, and fell upon the ground. That moment, however, was a fatal one to the Kansi. With the speed of lightning, the chief's bow was up at his shoulder—the cord twanged sharply—and a poison-tipped arrow sped through the air. Faithful to its mission, it cleft the Indian's side, just as he was stooping to lift Wind-Foot in the boat. He gave a wild shriek; his blood spouted from the wound, and he staggered down upon the sand. His strength, however, was not yet gone. Hate and measureless revenge—the stronger that they were baffled—raged within him, and shot through his eyes, glassy as they were beginning to be with death-damps. Twisting his body like a bruised snake, he worked himself close up to the bandaged Wind-Foot. He felt to his waistband, and drew forth the weapon of stone. He laughed a laugh of horrid triumph—he shouted aloud—and just as the death-rattle sounded in his throat, the instrument (the shuddering eyes of the child saw it, and shut their lids in intense agony,) came down, driven too surely to the heart of the hapless boy.
When the Unrelenting came up to his son, the last signs of life were fading in the boy's countenance. His eyes opened and turned to the chief; his beautiful lips parted in a smile, the last effort of expiring fondness. On his features flitted a lovely look, transient as the ripple athwart the wave, a slight tremor shook him, and the next minute Wind-Foot was dead.
1. "The Death of Wind-Foot" was first published as an embedded tale within the second chapter of Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times, when it was published as an extra edition of The New World newspaper in November 1842. Whitman later revised the tale, making a number of changes to the original language before publishing this version in the American Review in June 1845. The American Review publication was the first printing of the story as a stand-alone tale under the title of "The Death of Wind-Foot." Two months later, this version of the tale was printed as a work of serial fiction in two installments on August 29–30, 1845 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The installment divisions are recorded in our footnotes. For a complete list of revisions to the language of the Franklin Evans version of the tale made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the American Review, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 133–143. For a detailed publication history of the story, see "About 'The Death of Wind-Foot.'" [back]
2. Logan was a Native American war leader who became well known as an orator. Tecumseh was a Shawnee leader who opposed treaty negotiations that involved the distribution of alcohol or payments of large subsidies to Native Americans in an effort to obtain or in exchange for their land. [back]
3. In Algonquian beliefs, Manitou refers to a fundamental life force. The term can also be used to mean a Great Spirit. [back]
4. When Whitman republished this story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle he divided the story into two serial installments. The first installment, which ran on the second page of the August 29, 1845, issue of the paper, ended with this sentence. [back]
5. When Whitman republished this story as a two-part serial in the Eagle, the second installment, published on the front page on August 30, 1845, began with this sentence. [back]
6. "Whelp" is often used to refer to the young of an animal such as a dog or a wolf. [back]