Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter III.

              --Ho! who's here?
      If anything that's civil, speak; if savage,
      Take, or lend--


Not another syllable did le Bourdon utter to the Chippewa, or the Chippewa to him, in that sitting, touching the important event just communicated. Each carefully avoided manifesting any further interest in the subject, but the smoking continued for some time after the sun had set. As the shades of evening began to gather, the Pottawattamie arose, shook the ashes from his pipe, gave a grunt, and uttered a word or two, by way of announcing his disposition to retire. On this hint, Ben went into the cabin, spread his skins, and intimated to his guests that their beds were ready for them. Few compliments pass among border men on such occasions, and one after another dropped off, until all were stretched on the skins but the master of the place. He remained up two hours later, ruminating on the state of things; when, perceiving that the night was wearing on, he also found a nest, and sought his repose.

Nothing occurred to disturb the occupants of "Castle Meal," as le Bourdon laughingly called his cabin, until the return of day. If there were any bears scenting around the place, as often occurred at night, their instinct must have apprised them that a large reinforcement was present, and caused them to defer their attack to a more favorable opportunity. The first afoot next morning was the bee-hunter himself, who arose and left his cabin just as the earliest streaks of day were appearing in the east. Although dwelling in a wilderness, the "openings" had not the character of ordinary forests. The air circulates freely beneath their oaks, the sun penetrates in a thousand places, and grass grows, wild but verdant. There was little of the dampness of the virgin woods; and the morning air, though cool, as is ever the case, even in midsummer, in regions still covered with trees, was balmy; and, at that particular spot, it came to the senses of le Bourdon loaded with the sweets of many a wide glade of his favorite white clover. Of course, he had placed his cabin near those spots where the insect he sought most abounded; and a fragrant site it proved to be, in favorable conditions of the atmosphere. Ben had a taste for all the natural advantages of his abode, and was standing in enjoyment of its placid beauties when some one touched his elbow. Turning, quick as thought, he perceived the Chippewa at his side. That young Indian had approached with the noiseless tread of his people, and was now anxious to hold a private communication with him.

"Pottawattamie got long ear--come fudder--" said Pigeonswing; "go cook-house--t'ink we want breakfast."

Ben did as desired; and the two were soon side by side at the spring, in the outlet of which they made their ablutions--the redskin being totally without paint. When this agreeable office was performed, each felt in better condition for a conference.

"Elkfoot got belt from Canada fadder," commenced the Chippewa, with a sententious allusion to the British propensity to keep the savages in pay. "Know he got him know he keep him."

"And you, Pigeonswing--by your manner of talking I had set you down for a king's Injin, too."

"Talk so--no feel bit so. My heart Yankee."

"And have you not had a belt of wampum sent you, as well as the rest of them?"

"Dat true--got him--don't keep him."

"What! did you dare to send it back?"

"Ain't fool, dough young. Keep him; no keep him. Keep him for Canada fadder; no keep him for Chippewa brave."

"What have you then done with your belt?"

"Bury him where nobody find him dis war. No--Waubkenewh no hole in heart to let king in."

Pigeonswing, as this young Indian was commonly called in his tribe, in consequence of the rapidity of his movement when employed as a runner, had a much more respectable name, and one that he had fairly earned in some of the forays of his people, but which the commonalty had just the same indisposition to use as the French have to call Marshal Soult the Duc de Dalmatie. The last may be the most honorable title, but it is not that by which he is the best known to his countrymen. Waubkenewh was an appellation, notwithstanding, of which the young Chippewa was justly proud; and he often asserted his right to use it, as sternly as the old hero of Toulouse asserted his right to his duchy, when the Austrians wished to style him "le Marechal Duc Soult,"

"And you are friendly to the Yankees, and an enemy to the red- coats?"

Waubkenewh grasped the hand of le Bourdon, and squeezed it firmly. Then he said, warily:

"Take care--Elkfoot friend of Blackbird; like to look at Canada belt. Got medal of king, too. Have Yankee scalp, bye'm by. Take care--must speak low, when Elkfoot near."

"I begin to understand you, Chippewa; you wish me to believe that you are a friend to America, and that the Pottawatamie is not. If this be so, why have you held the speech that you did last night, and seemed to be on a war-path against my countrymen?"

"Dat good way, eh? Elkfoot den t'ink me his friend dat very good in war-time."

"But is it true, or false, that Mackinaw is taken by the British?"

"Dat true too--gone, and warrior all prisoner. Plenty Winnebago, plenty Pottawatamie, plenty Ottowa, plenty redskin, dere."

"And the Chippewas?"

"Some Ojebway, too"--answered Pigeonswing, after a reluctant pause. "Can't all go on same path this war. Hatchets, somehow, got two handle--one strike Yankee; one strike King George."

"But what is your business here, and where are you now going if you are friendly to the Americans? I make no secret of my feelings--I am for my own people, and I wish proof that you are a friend, and not an enemy."

"Too many question, one time," returned the Chippewa, a little distastefully. "No good have so long tongue. Ask one question, answer him--ask anoder, answer him, too."

"Well, then, what is your business, here?"

"Go to Chicago, for gen'ral."

"Do you mean that you bear a message from some American general to the commandant at Chicago?"

"Just so--dat my business. Guess him, right off; he, he, he!"

It is so seldom that an Indian laughs that the bee-hunter was startled.

"Where is the general who has sent you on this errand?" he demanded.

"He at Detroit--got whole army dere--warrior plenty as oak in opening."

All this was news to the bee-hunter, and it caused him to muse a moment, ere he proceeded.

"What is the name of the American general who has sent you on this path?" he then demanded.

"Hell," answered the Ojebway, quietly.

"Hell! You mean to give his Indian title, I suppose, to show that he will prove dangerous to the wicked. But how is he called in our own tongue?"

"Hell--dat he name--good name for so'ger, eh?"

"I believe I understand you, Chippewa--Hull is the name of the governor of the territory, and you must have mistaken the sound--'is it not so?"

"Hull--Hell--don't know--just same--one good as t'other."

"Yes, one will do as well as the other, if a body only understands you. So Governor Hull sent you here?"

"No gubbernor--general, tell you. Got big army--plenty warrior--eat Breesh up!"

"Now, Chippewa, answer me one thing to my likin', or I shall set you down as a man with a forked tongue, though you do call yourself a friend of the Yankees. If you have been sent from Detroit to Chicago, why are you so far north as this? Why are you here, on the banks of the Kalamazoo, when your path ought to lead you more toward the St. Joseph's?"

"Been to Mackinaw. Gen'ral says, first go to Mackinaw and see wid own eye how garrison do--den go to Chicago, and tell warrior dere what happen, and how he best manage. Understan' dat, Bourdon?"

"Aye, it all sounds well enough, I will acknowledge. You have been to Mackinaw to look about you, there, and having seen things with your own eyes, have started for Chicago to give your knowledge to the commandant at that place. Now, redskin, have you any proof of what you say?"

For some reason that the bee-hunter could not yet fathom, the Chippewa was particularly anxious either to obtain his confidence, or to deceive him. Which he was attempting, was not yet quite apparent; but that one or other was uppermost in his mind, Ben thought was beyond dispute. As soon as the question last named was put, however, the Indian looked cautiously around him, as if to be certain there were no spectators. Then he carefully opened his tobacco-pouch, and extricated from the centre of the cut weed a letter that was rolled into the smallest compass to admit of this mode of concealment, and which was encircled by a thread. The last removed, the letter was unrolled, and its superscription exposed. The address was to "Captain--Heald, U. S. Army, commanding at Chicago." In one corner were the words "On public service, by Pigeonswing." All this was submitted to the bee-hunter, who read it with his own eyes.

"Dat good"-asked the Chippewa, pointedly-"dat tell trut'-b'lieve him?"

Le Bourdon grasped the hand of the Indian, and gave it a hearty squeeze. Then he said frankly, and like a man who no longer entertained any doubts:

"I put faith in all you say, Chippewa. That is an officer's letter, and I now see that you are on the right side. You play'd so deep a game, at first, hows'ever, that I didn't know exactly what to make of you. Now, as for the Pottawattamie--do you set him down as friend or foe, in reality?"

"Enemy--take your scalp--take my scalp, in minute only can't catch him. He got belt from Montreal, and it look handsome in his eye."

"Which way d'ye think he's travelling? As I understood you, he and you fell into the same path within a mile of this very spot. Was the meeting altogether friendly?"

"Yes; friendly--but ask too many question--too much squaw--ask one question, den stop for answer."

"Very true--I will remember that an Indian likes to do one thing at a time. Which way, then, do you think he's travelling?"

"Don't know--on'y guess--guess he on path to Blackbird."

"And where is Blackbird, and what is he about?"

"Two question, dat!" returned the Chippewa, smiling, and holding up two of his fingers, at the same time, by way of rebuke. "Blackbird on war-path;--when warrior on dat path, he take scalp if can get him."

"But where is his enemy? There are no whites in this part of the country, but here and there a trader, or a trapper, or a bee-hunter, or a voyageur."

"Take his scalp--all scalp good, in war time. An't partic'lar, down at Montreal. What you call garrison at Chicago?"

"Blackbird, you then think, may be moving upon Chicago. In that case, Chippewa, you should outrun this Pottawatamie, and reach the post in time to let its men know the danger."

"Start, as soon as eat breakfast. Can't go straight, nudder, or Pottawatamie see print of moccasin. Must t'row him off trail."

"Very true; but I'll engage you're cunning enough to do that twice over, should it be necessary."

Just then Gershom Waring came out of the cabin, gaping like a hound, and stretching his arms, as if fairly wearied with sleep. At the sight of this man the Indian made a gesture of caution, saying, however, in an undertone:

"How is heart--Yankee or Breesh--love Montreal, eh? Pretty good scalp! Love King George, eh?"

"I rather think not, but am not certain. He is a poor pale-face, however, and it's of no great account how he stands. His scalp would hardly be worth the taking, whether by English or American."

"Sell, down at Montreal--better look out for Pottawatamie. Don't like that Injin."

"We'll be on our guard against him; and there he comes, looking as if his breakfast would be welcome, and as if he was already thinking of a start."

Le Bourdon had been busy with his pots, during the whole time this discourse was going on, and had warmed up a sufficiency of food to supply the wants of all his guests. In a few minutes each was busy quietly eating his morning's meal, Gershom having taken his bitters aside, and, as he fancied, unobserved. This was not so much owing to niggardliness, as to a distrust of his having a sufficient supply of the liquor, that long indulgence had made, in a measure, necessary to him, to last until he could get back to the barrels that were still to be found in his cabin, down on the shore of the lake.

During the breakfast little was said, conversation forming no material part of the entertainment, at the meals of any but the cultivated. When each had risen, however, and by certain preliminary arrangements it was obvious that the two Indians intended to depart, the Pottawatamie advanced to le Bourdon, and thrust out a hand.

"Thankee"--he said, in the brief way in which he clipped his English--"good supper--good sleep--good breakfast. Now go. Thankee-- when any friend come to Pottawatamie village, good wigwam dere, and no door."

"I thank you, Elksfoot--and should you pass this way, ag'in, soon, I hope you'll just step into this chiente and help yourself it I should happen to be off on a hunt. Good luck to you, and a happy sight of home."

The Pottawatamie then turned and thrust out a hand to each of the others, who met his offered leave-taking with apparent friendship. The bee-hunter observed that neither of the Indians said anything to the other touching the path he was about to travel, but that each seemed ready to pursue his own way as if entirely independent, and without the expectation of having a companion.

Elksfoot left the spot the first. After completing his adieus, the Pottawattamie threw his rifle into the hollow of his arm, felt at his belt, as if to settle it into its place, made some little disposition of his light summer covering, and moved off in a southwesterly direction, passing through the open glades, and almost equally unobstructed groves, as steady in his movements as if led by an instinct.

"There he goes, on a bee-line," said le Bourdon, as the straight form of the old savage disappeared at length, behind a thicket of trees. "On a bee-line for the St. Joseph's river, where he will shortly be, among friends and neighbors, I do not doubt. What, Chippewa! are you in motion too?"

"Must go, now," returned Pigeonswing, in a friendly way. "Bye'm by come back and eat more honey-bring sweet news, hope-no Canada here," placing a finger on his heart-"all Yankee."

"God be with you, Chippewa-God be with you. We shall have a stirring summer of it, and I expect to hear of your name in the wars, as of a chief who knows no fear."

Pigeonswing waved his hand, cast a glance, half friendly half contemptuously, at Whiskey Centre, and glided away. The two who remained standing near the smouldering fire remarked that the direction taken by the Chippewa was toward the lake, and nearly at right angles to that taken by the Pottawattamie. They also fancied that the movement of the former was about half as fast again as that of the latter. In less than three minutes the young Indian was concealed in the "openings," though he had to cross a glade of considerable width in order to reach them.

The bee-hunter was now alone with the only one of his guests who was of the color and race to which he himself belonged. Of the three, he was the visitor he least respected; but the dues of hospitality are usually sacred in a wilderness, and among savages, so that he could do nothing to get rid of him. As Gershom manifested no intention to quit the place, le Bourdon set about the business of the hour, with as much method and coolness as if the other had not been present. The first thing was to bring home the honey discovered on the previous day; a task of no light labor, the distance it was to be transported being so considerable, and the quantity so large. But our bee-hunter was not without the means of accomplishing such an object, and he now busied himself in getting ready. As Gershom volunteered his assistance, together they toiled in apparent amity and confidence.

The Kalamazoo is a crooked stream; and it wound from the spot where le Bourdon had built his cabin, to a point within a hundred yards of the fallen tree in which the bees had constructed their hive. As a matter of course, Ben profited by this circumstance to carry his canoe to the latter place, with a view to render it serviceable in transporting the honey. First securing everything in and around the chiente, he and Gershom embarked, taking with them no less than four pieces of fire-arms; one of which was, to use the language of the west, a double-barrelled "shot-gun." Before quitting the place, however, the bee-hunter went to a large kennel made of logs, and let out a mastiff of great power and size. Between this dog and himself there existed the best possible intelligence; the master having paid many visits to the prisoner since his return, feeding and caressing him. Glad, indeed, was this fine animal to be released, bounding back and forth, and leaping about le Bourdon in a way to manifest his delight. He had been cared for in his kennel, and well cared for, too; but there is no substitute for liberty, whether in man or beast, individuals or communities.

When all Was ready, le Bourdon and Gershom got into the canoe, whither the former now called his dog, using the name of "Hive," an appellation that was doubtless derived from his own pursuit. As soon as the mastiff leaped into the canoe, Ben shoved off, and the light craft was pushed up the stream by himself and Gershom without much difficulty, and with considerable rapidity. But little driftwood choked the channel; and, after fifteen minutes of moderate labor, the two men came near to the point of low wooded land in which the bee-tree had stood. As they drew nigh, certain signs of uneasiness in the dog attracted his master's attention, and he pointed them out to Gershom.

"There's game in the wind," answered Whiskey Centre, who had a good knowledge of most of the craft of border life, notwithstanding his ungovernable propensity to drink, and who, by nature, was both shrewd and resolute. "I shouldn't wonder"-a common expression of his class--"if we found bears prowling about that honey!"

"Such things have happened in my time," answered the bee-hunter, "and twice in my experience I've been driven from the field, and forced to let the devils get my 'arnin's."

"That was when you had no comrade, stranger" returned Gershom, raising a rifle, and carefully examining its flint and its priming. "It will be a large family on 'em that drives us from that tree; for my mind is made up to give Doll and Blossom a taste of the sweets."

If this was said imprudently, as respects ownership in the prize, it was said heartily, so far as spirit and determination were concerned. It proved that Whiskey Centre had points about him which, if not absolutely redeeming, served in some measure to lessen the disgust which one might other-wise have felt for his character. The bee-hunter knew that there was a species of hardihood that belonged to border men as the fruits of their habits, and, apparently, he had all necessary confidence in Gershom's disposition to sustain him, should there be occasion for a conflict with his old enemies.

The first measure of the bee-hunter, after landing and securing his boat, was to quiet Hive. The animal being under excellent command, this was soon done; the mastiff maintaining the position assigned him in the rear, though evidently impatient to be let loose. Had not le Bourdon known the precise position of the fallen tree, and through that the probable position of his enemies, he would have placed the mastiff in advance, as a pioneer or scout; but he deemed it necessary, under the actual circumstances, to hold him as a reserve, or a force to be directed whither occasion might require. With this arrangement, then, le Bourdon and Whiskey Centre advanced, side by side, each carrying two pieces, from the margin of the river toward the open land that commanded a view of the tree. On reaching the desired point, a halt was called, in order to reconnoitre.

The reader will remember that the bee-elm had stood on the edge of a dense thicket, or swamp, in which the trees grew to a size several times exceeding those of the oaks in the openings; and le Bourdon had caused it to fall upon the open ground, in order to work at the honey with greater ease to himself. Consequently, the fragments lay in full view of the spot where the halt was made. A little to Gershom's surprise, Ben now produced his spy-glass, which he levelled with much earnestness toward the tree. The bee-hunter, however, well knew his business, and was examining into the state of the insects whom he had so violently invaded the night before. The air was filled with them, flying above and around the tree; a perfect cloud of the little creatures hovering directly over the hole, as if to guard its treasure.

"Waal," said Gershom, in his drawling way, when le Bourdon had taken a long look with the glass, "I don't see much use in spy-glassin' in that fashion. Spy-glassin' may do out on the lake, if a body has only the tools to do it with; but here, in the openin's, nature's eyes is about as good as them a body buys in the stores."

"Take a look at them bees, and see what a fret they're in," returned Ben, handing the glass to his companion. "As long as I've been in the business, I've never seen a colony in such a fever. Commonly, a few hours after the bees find that their tree is down, and their plans broken into, they give it up, and swarm; looking for a new hive, and setting about the making more food for the next winter; but here are all the bees yet, buzzing above the hole, as if they meant to hold out for a siege."

"There's an onaccountable grist on 'em"--Gershom was never very particular in his figures of speech, usually terming anything in quantities a'grist"; and meaning in the present instance by "onaccountable," a number not to be counted--"an onaccountable grist on 'em, I can tell you, and if you mean to charge upon sich enemies, you must look out for somebody besides Whiskey Centre for your vanguard. What in natur' has got into the critters! They can't expect to set that tree on its legs ag'in!"

"Do you see a flight of them just in the edge of the for-est--here, more to the southward?" demanded le Bourdon.

"Sure enough! There is a lot on 'em there, too, and they seem to be comin' and goin' to the tree, like folks"--Gershom would put his noun of multitude into the plural, Nova-Anglice--"comin' and goin' like folks carryin' water to a fire. A body would think, by the stir among 'em, them critters' barrel was empty!"

"The bears are there," coolly returned the bee-hunter; "I've seen such movements before, and know how to account for them. The bears are in the thicket, but don't like to come out in the face of such a colony. I have heard of bears being chased miles by bees, when their anger was up!"

"Mortality! They have a good deal of dander (dandruff) for sich little vipers! But what are we to do, Bourdon? for Doll and Blossom must taste that honey! Half's mine, you know, and I don't like to give it up."

The bee-hunter smiled at the coolness with which Gershom assigned to himself so large a portion of his property; though he did not think it worth his while, just then, to "demur to his declaration," as the lawyers might have it. There was a sort of border rule, which gave all present equal shares in any forest captures; just as vessels in sight come in for prize-money, taken in time of war by public cruisers. At any rate, the honey of a single tree was not of sufficient value to induce a serious quarrel about it. If there should be any extra trouble or danger in securing the present prize, every craft in view might, fairly enough, come in for its share.

"Doll shall not be forgotten, if we can only house our honey," answered the bee-hunter; "nor Blossom, neither. I've a fancy, already, for that blossom of the wilderness, and shall do all I can to make myself agreeable to her. A man cannot approach a maiden with anything sweeter than honey."

"Some gals like sugar'd words better; but, let me tell you one thing, stranger-"

"You have eaten bread and salt with me, Whiskey, and both are scarce articles in a wilderness; and you've slept under my roof: is it not almost time to call me something else than stranger?"

"Well, Bourdon, if you prefer that name; though stranger is a name I like, it has sich an up and off sound to it. When a man calls all he sees strangers, it's a sign he don't let the grass grow in the road for want of movin'; and a movin' man for me, any day, before your stationaries. I was born on the sea-shore, in the Bay State; and here I am, up among the fresh-water lakes, as much nat'ralized as any muskelunge that was ever cotch'd in Huron, or about Mackinaw. If I can believe my eyes, Bourdon, there is the muzzle of a bear to be seen, jist under that heavy hemlock--here, where the bees seem thickest!"

"No doubt in the world," answered le Bourdon, coolly; though he had taken the precaution to look to the priming of each of his pieces, as if he expected there would soon be occasion to use them. "But what was that you were about to say concernin' Blossom? It would not be civil to the young woman to overlook her, on account of a bear or two."

"You take it easy, stranger--Bourdon, I should say--you take it easy! What I was about to say was this: that the whull lake country, and that's a wide stretch to foot it over, I know; but, big as it is, the whull lake country don't contain Blossom's equal. I'm her brother, and perhaps ought to be a little modest in sich matters; but I an't a bit, and let out jist what I think. Blossom's a di'mond, if there be di'monds on 'arth."

"And yonder is a bear, if there be bears on earth!" exclaimed le Bourdon, who was not a little amused with Gershom's account of his family, but who saw that the moment was now arrived when it would be necessary to substitute deeds for words. "There they come, in a drove, and they seem in earnest."

This was true enough. No less than eight bears, half of which, however, were quite young, came tumbling over the logs, and bounding up toward the fallen tree, as if charging the citadel of the bees by preconcert. Their appearance was the signal for a general rally of the insects, and by the time the foremost of the clumsy animals had reached the tree, the air above and around him was absolutely darkened by the cloud of bees that was collected to defend their treasures. Bruin trusted too much to the thickness of his hide and to the defences with which he was provided by nature, besides being too much incited by the love of honey, to regard the little heroes, but thrust his nose in at the hole, doubtless hoping to plunge it at once into the midst of a mass of the sweets. A growl, a start backward, and a flourishing of the fore-paws, with sundry bites in the air, at once announced that he had met with greater resistance than he had anticipated. In a minute, all the bears were on their hind-legs, beating the air with their fore-paws, and nipping right and left with their jaws, in vigorous combat with their almost invisible foes. Instinct supplied the place of science, and spite of the hides and the long hair that covered them, the bees found the means of darting their stings into unprotected places, until the quadrupeds were fairly driven to rolling about on the grass in order to crush their assailants. This last process had some effect, a great many bees being destroyed by the energetic rollings and tumblings of the bears; but, as in the tide of battle, the places of those who fell were immediately supplied by fresh assailants, until numbers seemed likely to prevail over power, if not over discipline. At this critical instant, when the bears seemed fatigued with their nearly frantic saltations, and violent blows upon nothing, le Bourdon deemed it wise to bring his forces into the combat. Gershom having been apprised of the plan, both fired at the same instant. Each ball took effect; one killing the largest of all the bears, dead on the spot, while the other inflicted a grievous wound on a second. This success was immediately followed by a second discharge, wounding two more of the enemy, while Ben held the second barrel of his "shot-gun" in reserve. While the hurt animals were hobbling off, the men reloaded their pieces; and by the time the last were ready to advance on the enemy, the ground was cleared of bears and bees alike, only two of the former remaining, of which one was already dead and the other dying. As for the bees, they followed their retreating enemies in a body, making a mistake that sometimes happens to still more intelligent beings; that of attributing to themselves, and their own prowess, a success that had been gained by others.

The bee-hunter and his friend now set themselves at work to provide a reception for the insects, the return of which might shortly be expected. The former lighted a fire, being always provided with the means, while Gershom brought dry wood. In less than five minutes a bright blaze was gleaming upward, and when the bees returned, as most of them soon did, they found this new enemy intrenched, as it might be, behind walls of flame. Thousands of the little creatures perished by means of this new invention of man, and the rest soon after were led away by their chiefs to seek some new deposit for the fruits of their industry.

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