“I come from the council of the young men, where the blood of our kin cries for the avenger. The Sons of the West Wind have seen the courage of the stranger, and would give him the right of combat as a free man and a brave. Is my brother ready to meet our young men in battle?”
I was about as fit to right as an old horse to leap a fence, but I had the wit to see that my only hope lay in a bold front. At any rate, a clean death in battle was better than burning, and my despair was too deep to let me quibble about the manner of leaving this world.
“You see my condition,” I said. “I am somewhat broken with travel and wounds, but, such as I am, I am willing to meet your warriors. Send them one at a time or in battalions, and I am ready for them.”
It was childish brag, but I think I must have delivered it with some spirit, for I saw approbation in his eye.
“When we fight, we fight not as butchers but as men-at-arms,” he said. “The brother of one of the dead will take on himself the cause of our tribe. If he slay you, our honour is avenged. If he be slain, we save you alive, and carry you with us as we march to the rising sun.”
“I am content,” I said, though I was very little content. What earthly chance stood I against a lithe young brave, accustomed from his childhood to war? I thought of a duel hand-to-hand with knives or tomahawks, for I could not believe that I would be allowed to keep my pistols. It was a very faint-hearted combatant who rose and staggered after Onotawah into the clear morning. The cloudy weather had gone, and the glen where we lay was filled with sun and bright colours. Even in my misery I saw the fairness of the spectacle, and the cool plunge of the stream was grateful to my throbbing eyes.
The whole clan was waiting, a hundred warriors as tall and clean-limbed as any captain could desire. I bore no ill-will to my captors; indeed, I viewed them with a respect I had never felt for Indians before. They were so free in their walk, so slim and upstanding, so hawklike in eye and feature, and withal so grave, that I could not but admire them. If the Tidewater was to perish, ’twould be at the hands of no unworthy foes.
A man stood out from the others, a tall savage with a hard face, who looked at me with eyes of hate. I recognized my opponent, whom the chief called by some name like Mayoga.
Before us on the hill-side across the stream was a wood, with its limits cut as clear on the meadow as a coppice in a nobleman’s park. ’Twas maybe half a mile long as it stretched up the slope, and about the same at its greatest width. The shape was like a stout bean with a hollow on one side, and down the middle ran the gorge of a mountain stream.
Onotawah pointed to the wood. “Hearken, brother, to the customs of our race in such combats. In that thicket the twain of you fight. Mayoga will enter at one end and you at the other, and once among the trees it is his business to slay you as he pleases and as he can.”