The God of his Fathers
Silently the wolves circled the herd of caribou deer. Gray bellies close to the ground, the wolves in the pack surrounded a pregnant deer. They pulled her down and tore out her throat. The rest of the caribou herd raced off in a hundred directions. The wolves began to feed.
Once again the Alaska territory was the scene of silent death. Here, in its ancient forests, the strong had killed the weak for thousands and thousands of years.
Small groups of Indians also lived in this land at the rainbows end. But their Stone Age life was ending. Strange men with blond hair and blue eyes had discovered the lands of the North. The Indian chiefs ordered their warriors to fight them. Stone arrow met steel bullet. The Indians could not stop the strangers. The White men conquered the icy rivers in light canoes. They broke through the dark forests and climbed the rocky mountains.
One of these men sat in front of a tent, near a river. His name was Hay Stockard. Over the smoke and flames of his fire, he watched an Indian village not far from his own camp.
From inside his tent came the cry of a sick child, and the gentle answering song of its mother. But the man was not concerned now with them. He was thinking of Baptiste the Red, the chief of the Indian village, who had just left him.
«We do not want you here,» Baptiste had told him. «If we permit you to sit by our fires, after you will come your church, your priests and your God.» Baptiste the Red hated the White mans God. His father had been an Englishman; his mother, the daughter of an Indian chief. Baptiste had been raised among White men.
When Baptiste was a young man he fell in love with a Frenchmans daughter, but her father opposed the marriage. A Christian priest refused to marry them. So Baptiste took the girl into the forests. They went to live among his mothers people. A year later, the girl died while giving birth to her first child.
Baptiste took the baby back to live among the White people. For many years he lived in peace with them, as his daughter grew up — tall and beautiful. One night, while Baptiste was away, a White man broke into their home and killed the girl. When Baptiste asked for justice, he was told the White mans God forgives all sins. So Baptiste killed his daughters murderer with his own hands, and returned forever to his mothers people.
«I have sworn to make any White man who comes to my village deny his God if he wants to live,» he told Hay Stockard. «But since you are the first, I will not do this if you go and go quickly.»
«And if I stay?» Hay Stockard had asked quietly as he filled his pipe. «Then soon you will meet your God, your bad God, the God of the White man!» The Indian chief rose to his feet and left Hay Stockards camp to return to his village.
The next morning Hay Stockard watched with angry eyes as three men in a long canoe came to the river bank. Two of the men were Indian. The third, a White man, wore a bright red cloth around his head. Hay Stockard reached for his gun, and then changed his mind. As soon as the canoe landed, the White man jumped out and ran up to Stockard.
«So we meet again, Hay Stockard! Peace be with you. I know you are a sinner, but I, Sturges Owen, am Gods own servant. I will bring you back to our church».
«Listen to me,» Stockard warned, «if you stay here youll bring trouble to yourself and your men. Youll all be killed and so will my wife, my child, and myself!»
Owen looked up to the sky. «The man who carries God in his heart and the Bible in his hand is protected.»
Later that morning, the Indian chief Baptiste came back to Stockards camp. «Give me the priest,» Baptiste demanded, «and I will let you go in peace. If you do not, you die.»
Sturges Owen grabbed his Bible. «I am not afraid,» he said. «God will protect me and hold me in his right hand. I am ready to go with Baptiste to his village. I will save his soul for God.»
Hay Stockard shook his head. «Listen to me, Baptiste. I did not bring this priest here, but now that he is here, I cant let you kill him. Many of your people will die if we fight each other.»
Baptiste looked into Stockards eyes. «But those who live,» he said, «will not have the words of a strange God in their ears.»
After a moment of silence, Baptiste the Red turned and went back to his own camp. Sturges Owen called his two men to him and the three of them kneeled to pray. Stockard and his wife began to prepare the camp for battle.
As they worked they heard the sound of war-drums in the village.
As Sturges Owen waited and prayed, he began to feel his religious fever cooling. Fear replaced hope in his heart. The love of life took the place of the love of God in his mind. The love of life! He could not stop himself from feeling it. Owen knew that Stockard also loved his life. But Stockard would choose death rather than shame.
The war-drums boomed loudly. Suddenly they stopped.
A flood of dark feet raced toward Stockards camp. Arrows whistled through the air. A spear went through the body of Stockards wife. Stockards bullets answered back. Wave after wave of Indians warriors broke over the barrier. Sturges Owen ran into his tent. His two men died quickly. Hay Stockard alone remained on his feet, knocking the attacking Indians aside.
Stockard held an ax in one hand and his gun in the other. Behind him, a hand grabbed Stockards baby by its tiny leg and pulled it from under his mothers body. The Indian whipped the child through the air, smashing its head against a log. Stockard turned, and cut off the Indians head with his ax.
The circle of angry faces closed on Stockard. Two times they pushed up to him, but each time he beat them back. They fell under his feet as the ground became wet with blood. Finally, Baptiste called his men to him.
«Stockard,» he shouted. «You are a brave man. Deny your God and I will let you live!»
Two Indians dragged Sturges Owen out of the tent. He was not hurt, but his eyes were wild with fear.
He felt anger at God for making him so weak. Why had God given him faith without strength?
Owen stood shaking before Baptiste the Red. «Where is your God now?» demanded the Indian chief.
«I do not know,» Owen whispered.
«Do you have a God?»
«Very good,» Baptiste said. «See that this man goes free. Let nothing happen to him. And send him back to his own people so he can tell his priests about Baptiste the Reds land where there is no God.»
Baptiste turned to Hay Stockard. «There is no God,» Baptiste said. Stockard laughed. One of the young Indian warriors lifted the war spear.
«Do you have a God?» Baptiste shouted.
Stockard took a deep breath. «Yes», he said, «the God of my fathers.»
The spear flew through the air and went deep into Stockards chest. Sturges Owen saw Stockard fall slowly to the ground. Then the Indians put Owen in a canoe. Sturges Owen went down the river to carry the message of Baptiste the Red, in whose country there was no God.
Jack London, 1901.