Title: The Half-Breed; A Tale of the Western Frontier
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as A Brooklynite]
Date: June 9, 1846
Whitman Archive ID: per.00361
Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and King's County Democrat, June 9, 1846: . Transcribed from digital images of a microfilm reproduction of an original issue.
Contributors to digital file: Sara Duke and Nicole Gray
cropped image 1
Original Novelette (Continued).
A TALE OF THE WESTERN FRONTIER.
BY A BROOKLYNITE.
"Ha! ha! ha!" came the children's laughter.
It was a simple, and yet awful commentary on the dispositions of human hearts—that laughter! For the merry tones were the same to all appearance, which had been uttered several days previous, when Master Caleb gave his flock a holiday, for Peter Brown's wedding. This second laugh, and just as gleesome, commemorated the bestowal, that morning, of another holiday, for the hanging of Peter Brown's murderer.
The day was warm and sunny. A languid breath of wind, now and then, fluttered the leaves of the trees—but for the most time, the sun shone down as upon a sleeping and lifeless place. Even the laugh of the heedless children soon hushed, of their own accord; for a sombre spirit pervaded the people of Warren—a resolute spirit, however—resolute to have the life-blood of him who had taken life.
Let us open the doors of the strong room and go in there. Arrow-Tip stood against the wall, by a window—it was the only one, and a little child's body could not have been twisted through, so small was it—and gazed forth upon the land, and the trees, and a small strip of the bright river beyond.—He could see only a small strip—but it was pleasant; and many minutes glided on as he gazed. Haply, he pondered upon scenes and people far away in the early years—scenes not to come any more, but which it was a great delight to think of. A smile passed over his face then.
The sounds of talking outside, and something like disturbance, interrupted the chief's meditation. His brother, the Deer, entered and stood before him.—They had consented to let him pay this visit, at last. Mr. Thorne had interceded in his behalf.
For several minutes neither spoke. Arrow-Tip himself was as calm as the most placid lake in the forest,—but the features of the other were convulsed in agony.
"Brother!" said the chief, with dignity, "I see the eyes of our parents looking down upon us.—Very soon I shall talk to them. They will ask me of news about my brother: Let me not say, I left him weeping like a girl!"
His remonstrance produced the effect he wished. Shortly, the face of the Deer was as calm as his own.
"The path," said the new comer, "will be dark, and the white man's taunts hot, for the last hour of a warrior's life!"
"I can bear both," was the laconic answer.
"And my path," plaintively continued the younger brother, drawing nigh, and resting his face on Arrow-Tip's shoulder, "as I look forth upon the passing of the moons—it is bitter and lonesome, not for an hour, but for years. O, brother, the Great Spirit has frowned upon our race. We melt away, like the snows in spring."
"It is the will of the Spirit."
"Yet I am glad," continued the Deer, true to the instincts of his people, "I am glad that you die like an old brave! We will laugh in the very faces of the whites.
Arrow-Tip smiled, quietly. He, too, had been bred in the school of those sturdy stoics.
"Death is but a puff of air," said he, "and in the distance lie the Green Hunting Grounds of the honest Indian. They are fair. Our kinsmen beckon me to them with smiles and friendly gestures. Why should I fear to go?"
"But the tidings will cloud the faces of our tribe in darkness.
"Tell them," rejoined the chief, "that I met my punishment as a hunter grasps the hand of one he loves. Tell them of the customs of those white people—our own are the same—which require of him who destroys one of their number, his own life as a sacrifice. When I came hither, not many days since, I was near to death, even then—and my fate would have happened to me, but for the medicine-knowledge of two or three kind men of the settlement. Brother, wait till the last is over, and then carry me away a little distance from the sight of these people's dwellings, and bury me with my face toward the Pleasant Hunting Grounds. Let us talk no more!"
The courage of the younger Indian failed him at this speech again. The piteous sight of a man abandoned to the excess of sorrow, is fearful at any time. It could not but be doubly so, in the present case, from the general apathy and haughtiness of the savage character.
It was now ten o'clock, and the sun stood high in the heavens. On the green where Arrow-Tip had received judgment, the day before, the people of Warren were assembled again to witness the performance of that judgement.
While they were waiting thus, some of them chatting in groups, and others vacantly gazing at the rude scaffold2 and rope—Quincy Thorne came hurriedly in among them, and inquired for Master Caleb, the teacher. Finding him, the two drew aside from the mass, the boy leading his companion. They conferred together a few minutes, with much animation and many gestures of wonder—and then both hurried away toward a path which led from the village along the river's edge.
We will pause here a moment to explain. Two of the school-boys who had received their permission of a holiday that morning, determining to enjoy it to the utmost, agreed to take a ramble in the forest, on some juvenile project or other, which they might do, and still return on some juvenile project or other, which they might do, and still return in time to behold the sight—as they termed the event of the day. Unconsciously, in their wanderings, they came upon the very opening where Brown and the chief had fought. The sudden recollections brought up by seeing the place, and the blood which was even yet visible on the ground, frightened one of the children: and in their hasty retreat from the spot, how much more were they alarmed on gaining the banks of the stream, to see, reclining there in the sunshine, the shape of the now wan and pallid-faced Peter Brown himself. To their horrified imaginations, it was the spectre of a murdered corpse. They ran, pale and breathless, toward the village, and meeting Quincy there, told him with gasping voices, what they had witnessed. The youth lost not a moment in seeking out his friend, Master Caleb, and in conveying the information to him. Joined with the strange manner of Boddo, and with Quincy's previous strongly entertained suspicions, the teacher and his young intimate had no doubt that the case as, as it in truth was, and as it has been related to the reader.—They immediately determined on their plan of action.
Meanwhile, Brown, wondering that some of his neighbours had not at least called at the cave to see him, was importunate with the monk that he might be allowed to walk home. Solitude had few charms for the blacksmith, whatever Father Luke thought upon the subject. As he returned to the cave from the idle lounge in the sun, where he had unconsciously so alarmed the two school-boys, he again asked the monk when he could safely walk the distance of the village:
"Though judging by the cool kindness of my friends," said he, peevishly, "it will make little difference if I remain away for months."
"Patience, my son!" said the holy father; "tomorrow I will myself accompany you thither. As yet your strength is hardly equal to the task."
And the invalid though ill-satisfied was forced to be content.
"But, see!" exclaimed the monk, "as if to reprove you for your ungrateful vexation, yonder come two of your townsmen—and with a pace which speaks little of indifference for your company."
The two were Master Caleb and Quincy Thorne.
It would be superfluous here, were we to dwell on the rapid and graphic narration of the visitors to Brown and Father Luke. With a flushed cheek, and without speaking, the blacksmith snatched up a blanket—the blanket the two hunters had thrown over his senseless form in the forest—and strode forth from the cave.
At about the same period when the teacher and his companion first appeared to the sight of the monk—the self-appointed guard opened the doors of the room where Arrow-Tip was confined, and bade him come forth. He did so, and his brother with him. What wondrous power those rude savages have over the expression of their features! The condemned Indian, you might have thought, was starting upon a hunt, instead of marching to an ignominious death! The other, also, had mastered his agony once more.
They passed through the multitude, and the chief stood upon the scaffold.
O, God of the Innocent! throw strength amid the sinews of that sweaty-faced man in the forest, who, with strained eyes, and unsteady steps, is dashing through the tangled shrubs and the thick underwood—whose thorny and jagged branches have wounded him in many places, though he sees not the trickling blood, nor feels the smart!
All around the scaffold were the dogged and lowering countenances of men—telling of an unrelenting purpose, and of no hope. It was a strange spectacle. Those hewers of the forest—and even the women and children, had gathered there—and the lofty bearing of the chief—and that, still more difficult to uphold, calm aspect of his brother—and all this in the bright glare of a noon-day sun—and the spot, far, far away from the bound of the cities—may it not well be called a strange spectacle?
They arranged the last dread and sickening preparations, immediately preceding the death of criminals by that awful method. Could it be that high heaven should look down and see this unjust doom consummated—and not interpose?
No sound disturbed that horrible silence, except the shuffling movements of two men, to whose lot it had fallen to act in the execution. The men started at the noise they themselves made—for it seemed unnatural, and struck upon the ear with a strange vibration.
O, what a quiver was that which ran through the limbs—and, as it were, the very souls—of all those assembled thereabout! It was followed by perfect silence.
Wo-hoa-a!—Wo-hoa-a!—came a faint and hoarse shout from a bend in the road, at some thirty rods distant. Very faint and very hoarse it came. It was too late!
Then, with wild and ghastly visage, and with the phrenzied contortions of a madman in his worst paroxysm, Peter Brown dashed along the path and among them. His blood-shot eyes were fixed upon a hideous object dangling in the air. He rushed up to the scaffold—but his limbs failed him, and he could not ascend the ladder. His head vibrated to and fro, like the pendulum of a clock, and he beckoned and tried to speak, though for several moments they could not hear what he said, or rather tried to say.
"Quick! Quick!" came at last from his throat, in a gasping whisper; "cut the rope, he may not yet be dead!"
It was all too late.
Three days after these events, a pilgrim traveller might have been seen, wending his way through the regions of the west, toward the north-east. He was not unaccompanied. An Indian, who seldom spoke, and over whose face a gloom and wildness were spread, trod at his side. They were the monk, called in this narration Father Luke, and the miserable brother of Arrow-Tip.
—An aged and gentle hearted friar, some few years after, was laid away to his last repose, beloved of his fellows; and at the same time, many hundred miles distant, an Indian leader, the remnant of his family, led his tribe still farther into the west, to grounds where they never would be annoyed, in their generation at least, by the presence of the white intruders.
Scorned and abhorred by man, woman, and child, the half-breed, through whose malicious disposition the fatal termination took place which has been narrated, fled the settlement of Warren. Whether he perished in the wilds, or even now lives a degraded and grovelling life, in some other town, no one can tell.
Master Caleb has risen in his fortunes. As the extent and population of the town wherein we have introduced him, increased, it was thought fit to have an incorporated academy. Master Caleb is at the head of it. Quincy Thorne, a popular and intelligent young man, whom they think of holding up as a candidate for a respectable legislative office, still keeps communion of friendship with his early and excellent teacher. Peter Brown, although he has quite a family of little children, finds time, now and then, to utter eloquent homilies in praise of the young political aspirant—than whom he thinks no one is more worthy.
[To be continued.]3
1. A poem by Felicia Hemans that appears on the page just above this last installment, here titled "Nameless Martyrs," is part of a longer poem originally titled "The Graves of Martyrs." The subject of this poem, the unmarked graves of martyrs who died "For Truth, for Heaven, for Freedom's sake," seems to resonate with Arrow-Tip's hanging in this chapter for a crime he did not commit. [back]
2. A scaffold is an elevated platform structure, generally made out of wood, that was used in the nineteenth-century for the execution of criminals. [back]
3. No additional installments of this story have been located in subsequent issues of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. [back]