Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter VI.

      And long shall timorous fancy see
      The painted chief and pointed spear;
      And reason's self shall bow the knee
      To shadows and delusions here.

A bright moon reflected on the earth for about an hour the light of the sun, as the latter luminary disappeared. By its aid the bee- hunter, who still continued in the tree, was enabled to watch the movements of the canoes of the Indians, though the persons they contained soon got to be so indistinct as to render it impossible to do more than count their numbers. The last he made out to be five each in three of the canoes, and six in the other, making twenty-one individuals in all. This was too great an odds to think of resisting, in the event of the strangers turning out to be hostile; and the knowledge of this disparity in force admonished all the fugitives of the necessity of being wary and prudent.

The strangers landed just beneath the hut, or at the precise spot where Whiskey Centre was in the habit of keeping his canoe, and whence Boden had removed it only an hour or two before. The savages had probably selected the place on account of its shores being clear of the wild rice, and because the high ground near it promised both a lookout and comfortable lodgings. Several of the party strolled upward, as if searching for an eligible spot to light their fire, and one of them soon discovered the cabin. The warrior announced his success by a whoop, and a dozen of the Indians were shortly collected in and about the chiente. All this proved the prudence of the course taken by the fugitives.

Blossom stood beneath the tree, and the bee-hunter told her, as each incident occurred, all that passed among the strangers, when the girl communicated the same to her brother and his wife, who were quite near at hand in one of the canoes. As there was no danger of being overheard, conversation in an ordinary tone passed between the parties, two of whom at least were now fond of holding this sort of communion.

"Do they seem to suspect the neighborhood of the occupants of the cabin?" asked Margery, when the bee-hunter had let her know the manner in which the savages had taken possession of her late dwelling.

"One cannot tell. Savages are always distrustful and cautious when on a war-path; and these seem to be scenting about like so many hounds which are nosing for a trail. They are now gathering sticks to light a fire, which is better than burning the chiente."

"That they will not be likely to do until they have no further need of it. Tell me, Bourdon, do any go near the thicket of alders where we have hidden our goods?"

"Not as yet; though there is a sudden movement and many loud yells among them!"

"Heaven send that it may not be at having discovered anything we have forgotten. The sight of even a lost dipper or cup would set them blood-hounds on our path, as sure as we are white and they are savages!"

"As I live, they scent the whiskey! There is a rush toward, and a pow-wow in and about the shed--yes, of a certainty they smell the liquor! Some of it has escaped in rolling down the hill, and their noses are too keen to pass over a fragrance that to them equals that of roses. Well, let them scent as they may--even an Injin does not get drunk through his nose."

"You are quite right, Bourdon: but is not this a most unhappy scent for us, since the smell of whiskey can hardly be there without their seeing it did not grow in the woods of itself, like an oak or a beech?"

"I understand you, Margery, and there is good sense in what you say. They will never think the liquor grew there. like a blackberry or a chestnut, though the place is called Whiskey Centre!"

"It is hard enough to know that a family has deserved such a name, without being reminded of it by those that call themselves friends," answered the girl pointedly, after a pause of near a minute, though she spoke in sorrow rather than in anger.

In an instant the bee-hunter was at pretty Margery's side, making his peace by zealous apologies and winning protestations of respect and concern. The mortified girl was soon appeased; and, after consulting together for a minute, they went to the canoe to communicate to the husband and wife what they had seen.

"The whiskey after all is likely to prove our worst enemy," said the bee-hunter as he approached. "It would seem that in moving the barrels some of the liquor has escaped, and the nose of an Injin is too quick for the odor it leaves, not to scent it."

"Much good may it do them," growled Gershom--"they've lost me that whiskey, and let them long for it without gettin' any, as a punishment for the same. My fortun' would have been made could I only have got them two barrels as far as Fort Dearborn before the troops moved!"

"The barrels might have been got there, certainly," answered le Bourdon, so much provoked at the man's regrets for the destroyer which had already come so near to bringing want and ruin on himself and family, as momentarily to forget his recent scene with pretty Margery; "but whether anything would have been in them is another question. One of those I rolled to the brow of the hill was half empty as it was."

"Gershom is so troubled with the ague, if he don't take stimulant in this new country," put in the wife, in the apologetic manner in which woman struggles to conceal the failings of him she loves. "As for the whiskey, I don't grudge that in the least; for it's a poor way of getting rich to be selling it to soldiers, who want all the reason liquor has left 'em, and more too. Still, Gershom needs bitters; and ought not to have every drop he has taken thrown into his face."

By this time le Bourdon was again sensible of his mistake, and he beat a retreat in the best manner he could, secretly resolving not to place himself any more between two fires, in consequence of further blunders on this delicate subject. He now found that it was a very different thing to joke Whiskey Centre himself on the subject of his great failing, from making even the most distant allusion to it in the presence of those who felt for a husband's and a brother's weakness, with a liveliness of feeling that brutal indulgence had long since destroyed in the object of their solicitude. He accordingly pointed out the risk there was that the Indians should make the obvious inference, that human beings must have recently been in the hut, to leave the fresh scent of the liquor in question behind them. This truth was so apparent that all felt its force, though to no one else did the danger seem so great as to the bee- hunter. He had greater familiarity with the Indian character than any of his companions, and dreaded the sagacity of the savages in a just proportion to his greater knowledge. He did not fail, therefore, to admonish his new friends of the necessity for vigilance.

"I will return to the tree and take another look at the movements of the savages," le Bourdon concluded by saying. "By this time their fire must be lighted; and by the aid of my glass a better insight may be had into their plans and feelings."

The bee-hunter now went back to his tree, whither he was slowly followed by Margery; the girl yielding to a feverish desire to accompany him, at the very time she was half restrained by maiden bashfulness; though anxiety and the wish to learn the worst as speedily as possible, prevailed.

"They have kindled a blazing fire, and the whole of the inside of the house is as bright as if illuminated," said le Bourdon, who was now carefully bestowed among the branches of his small tree. "There are lots of the red devils moving about the chiente, inside and out; and they seem to have fish as well as venison to cook. Aye, there goes more dry brush on the fire to brighten up the picture, and daylight is almost eclipsed. As I live, they have a prisoner among 'em!"

"A prisoner!" exclaimed Margery, in the gentle tones of female pity. "Not a white person, surely?"

"No--he is a red-skin like all of them--but--wait a minute till I can get the glass a little more steady. Yes--it is so--I was right at first!"

"What is so, Bourdon--and in what are you right?"

"You may remember, Blossom, that your brother and I spoke of the two Injins who visited me in the Openings. One was a Pottawattamie and the other a Chippewa. The first we found dead and scalped, after he had left us; and the last is now in yonder hut, bound and a prisoner. He has taken to the lake on his way to Fort Dearborn, and has, with all his craft and resolution, fallen into enemies' hands. Well will it be for him if his captors do not learn what befell the warrior who was slain near my cabin, and left seated against a tree!"

"Do you think these savages mean to revenge the death of their brother on this unfortunate wretch?"

"I know that he is in the pay of our general at Detroit, while the Pottawattamies are in the pay of the English. This of itself would make them enemies, and has no doubt been the cause of his being taken; but I do not well see how Injins on the lake here can know anything of what happened some fifty miles or so up in the Openings."

"Perhaps the savages in the canoes belong to the same party as the warrior you call Elksfoot, and that they have had the means of learning his death, and by whose hand he fell."

The bee-hunter was surprised at the quickness of the girl's wit, the suggestion being as discreet as it was ingenious. The manner in which intelligence flies through the wilderness had often surprised him, and certainly it was possible that the party now before him might have heard of the fate of the chief whose body he had found in the Openings, short as was the time for the news to have gone so far. The circumstance that the canoes had come from the northward was against the inference, however, and after musing a minute on the facts, le Bourdon mentioned this objection to his companion.

"Are we certain these are the same canoes as those which I saw pass this afternoon?" asked Margery, who comprehended the difficulty in an instant. "Of those I saw, two passed first, and one followed; while here are four that have landed."

"What you say may be true enough. We are not to suppose that the canoes you saw pass are all that are on the lake. But let the savages be whom they may, prudence tells us to keep clear of them if we can; and this more so than ever, now I can see that Pigeonswing, who I know to be an American Injin, is treated by them as an enemy."

"How are the savages employed now, Bourdon? Do they prepare to eat, or do they torture their prisoner?"

"No fear of their attempting the last to-night. There is an uneasiness about them, as if they still smelt the liquor; but some are busy cooking at the fire. I would give all my honey, pretty Margery, to be able to save Pigeonswing! He is a good fellow for a savage, and is heart and hand with us in this new war, that he tells me has begun between us and the English!"

"You surely would not risk your own life to save a savage, who kills and scalps at random, as this man has done!"

"In that he has but followed the habits of his color and race. I dare say we do things that are quite as bad, according to Injin ways of thinking. I do believe, Margery, was that man to see me in the hands of the Pottawattamies, as I now see him, he would undertake something for my relief."

"But what can you, a single man, do when there are twenty against you?" asked Margery, a little reproachfully as to manner, speaking like one who had more interest in the safety of the young bee-hunter than she chose very openly to express.

"No one can say what he can do till he tries. I do not like the way they are treating that Chippewa, for it looks as if they meant to do him harm. He is neither fed, nor suffered to be with his masters; but there the poor fellow is, bound hand and foot near the cabin door, and lashed to a tree. They do not even give him the relief of suffering him to sit down."

The gentle heart of Margery was touched by this account of the manner in which the captive was treated, and she inquired into other particulars concerning his situation, with a more marked interest than she had previously manifested in his state. The bee-hunter answered her questions as they were put; and the result was to place the girl in possession of a minute detail of the true manner in which Pigeonswing was treated.

Although there was probably no intention on the part of the captors of the Chippewa to torture him before his time, tortured he must have been by the manner in which his limbs and body were confined. Not only were his arms fastened behind his back at the elbows, but the hands were also tightly bound together in front. The legs had ligatures in two places, just above the knees and just below the ankles. Around the body was another fastening; which secured the captive to a beech that stood about thirty feet from the door of the cabin, and so nearly in a line with the fire within and the lookout of le Bourdon, as to enable the last distinctly to note these particulars, aided as he was by his glass. Relying on the manner in which they secured their prisoner, the savages took little heed of him; but each appeared bent on attending to his own comfort, by means of a good supper, and by securing a dry lair in which to pass the night. All this le Bourdon saw and noted too, ere he dropped lightly on his feet by the side of Margery, at the root of the tree.

Without losing time that was precious, the bee-hunter went at once to the canoes and communicated his intention to Waring. The moon had now set, and the night was favorable to the purpose of le Bourdon. At the first glance it might seem wisest to wait until sleep had fallen upon the savages, ere any attempt were made to approach the hut; but Boden reasoned differently. A general silence would succeed as soon as the savages disposed of themselves to sleep, which would be much more likely to allow his footsteps to be overheard, than when tongues and bodies and teeth were all in active movement. A man who eats after a long march, or a severe paddling, usually concentrates his attention on his food, as le Bourdon knew by long experience; and it is a much better moment to steal upon the hungry and weary, to do so when they feed, than to do so when they sleep, provided anything like a watch be kept. That the Pottawattamie would neglect this latter caution le Bourdon did not believe; and his mind was made up, not only to attempt the rescue of his Chippewa friend, but to attempt it at once.

After explaining his plan in a few words, and requesting Waring's assistance, le Bourdon took a solemn leave of the party, and proceeded at once toward the hut. In order to understand the movements of the bee-hunter, it may be well now briefly to explain the position of the chiente, and the nature of the ground on which the adventurer was required to act. The hut stood on a low and somewhat abrupt swell, being surrounded on all sides by land so low as to be in many places wet and swampy. There were a good many trees on the knoll, and several thickets of alders and other bushes on the lower ground; but on the whole, the swamps were nearly devoid of what is termed "timber." Two sides of the knoll were abrupt; that on which the casks had been rolled into the lake, and that opposite, which was next to the tree where Boden had so long been watching the proceedings of the savages. The distance between the hut and this tree was somewhat less than a mile. The intervening ground was low, and most of it was marshy; though it was possible to cross the marsh by following a particular course. Fortunately this course, which was visible to the eye by daylight, and had been taken by the fugitives on quitting the hut, might be dimly traced at night, by one who understood the ground, by means of certain trees and bushes, that formed so many finger-posts for the traveller. Unless this particular route were taken, however, a circuit of three or four miles must be made, in order to pass from the chiente to the spot where the family had taken refuge. As le Bourdon had crossed this firm ground by daylight and had observed it well from his tree, he thought himself enough of a guide to find his way through it in the dark, aided by the marks just mentioned.

The bee-hunter had got as far as the edge of the marsh on his way toward the hut, when, pausing an instant to examine the priming of his rifle, he fancied that he heard a light footstep behind him. Turning, quick as thought, he perceived that pretty Margery had followed him thus far. Although time pressed, he could not part from the girl without showing that he appreciated the interest she manifested in his behalf. Taking her hand, therefore, he spoke with a simplicity and truth, that imparted to his manner a natural grace that one bred in courts might have envied. What was more, with a delicacy that few in course would deem necessary under the circumstances, he did not in his language so much impute to concern on his own account this movement of Margery's, as to that she felt for her brother and sister; though in his inmost heart a throbbing hope prevailed that he had his share in it.

"Do not be troubled on account of Gershom and his wife, pretty Margery," said the bee-hunter, "which, as I perceive, is the main reason why you have come here; and as for myself, be certain that I shall not forget who I have left behind, and how much her safety depends on my prudence."

Margery was pleased, though a good deal confused. It was new to her to hear allusions of this sort, but nature supplied the feeling to appreciate them.

"Is it not risking too much, Bourdon?" she said. "Are you sure of being able to find the crossing in the marsh, in a night so very dark? I do not know but looking so long at the bright light in the cabin may blind me, but it does seem as if I never saw a darker night!"

"The darkness increases, for the star-light is gone; but I can see where I go, and so long as I can do that there is not much fear of losing my way. I do not like to expose you to danger, but--"

"Never mind me, Bourdon--set me to do anything in which you think I can be of use!" exclaimed the girl, eagerly.

"Well then, Margery, you may do this: come with me to the large tree in the centre of the marsh, and I will set you on a duty that may possibly save my life. I will tell you my meaning when there."

Margery followed with a light, impatient step; and, as neither stopped to speak or to look around, the two soon stood beneath the tree in question. It was a large elm that completely overshadowed a considerable extent of firm ground. Here a full and tolerably near view could be had of the hut, which was still illuminated by the blazing fire within. For a minute both stood silently gazing at the strange scene; then le Bourdon explained to his companion the manner in which she might assist him.

Once at the elm, it was not so difficult to find the way across the marsh, as it was to reach that spot, coming from the chiente. As there were several elms scattered about in the centre of the marsh, the bee-hunter was fearful that he might not reach the right tree; in which case he would be compelled to retrace his steps, and that at the imminent hazard of being captured. He carried habitually a small dark lantern, and had thought of so disposing of it in the lower branches of this very elm, as to form a focus of it, but hesitated about doing that which might prove a guide to his enemies as well as to himself. If Margery would take charge of this lantern, he could hope to reap its advantages without incurring the hazard of having a light suspended in the tree for any length of time. Margery understood the lessons she received, and promised to obey all the injunctions by which they were accompanied.

"Now, God bless you, Margery," added the bee-hunter. "Providence has brought me and your brother's family together in troublesome times; should I get back safe from this adventure, I shall look upon it as a duty to do all I can to help Gershom place his wife and sister beyond the reach of harm."

"God bless you, Bourdon!" half whispered the agitated girl. "I know it is worth some risk to save a human life, even though it be that of an Injin, and I will not try to persuade you from this undertaking; but do not attempt more than is necessary, and rely on my using the lantern just as you have told me to use it."

Those young persons had not yet known each other a single day, yet both felt that confidence which years alone, in the crowds of the world, can ordinarily create in the human mind. The cause of the sympathy which draws heart to heart, which generates friendships, and love, and passionate attachments, is not obvious to all who choose to talk of it. There is yet a profound mystery in our organization, which has hitherto escaped the researches of both classes of philosophers, and which it probably was the design of the Creator should not be made known to us until we draw nearer to that great end which, sooner or later, is to be accomplished in behalf of our race, when "knowledge will abound," and we shall better understand our being and its objects, than is permitted to us in this our day of ignorance. But while we cannot trace the causes of a thousand things, we know and feel their effects. Among the other mysteries of our nature is this of sudden and strong sympathies, which, as between men for men, and women for women, awaken confidence and friendship; and as between those of different sexes, excite passionate attachments that more or less color their future lives. The great delineator of our common nature, in no one of the many admirable pictures he has drawn of men, manifests a more profound knowledge of his subject, than in that in which he portrays the sudden and nearly ungovernable inclination which Romeo and Juliet are made to display for each other; an inclination that sets reason, habit, prejudice, and family enmities at defiance. That such an attachment is to be commended, we do not say; that all can feel it, we do not believe; that connections formed under its influence can always be desirable, we are far from thinking: but that it may exist we believe is just as certain as any of the incomprehensible laws of our wayward and yet admirable nature. We have no Veronese tale to relate here, however, but simply a homely legend, in which human feeling may occasionally be made to bear an humble resemblance to that world-renowned picture which had its scenes in the beautiful capital of Venetian Lombardy.

When le Bourdon left his companion, now so intensely interested in his success, to pick his way in the darkness across the remainder of the marsh, Margery retired behind the tree, where the first thing she did was to examine her lantern, and to see that its light was ready to perform the very important office which might so speedily be required of it. Satisfied on this point, she turned her eyes anxiously in the direction of the hut. By this time every trace of the bee-hunter was lost, the hillock in his front forming too dark a background to admit of his being seen. But the fire still blazed in the chiente, the savages not having yet finished their cooking, though several had satisfied their appetites, and had already sought places where they might stretch themselves for the night. Margery was glad to see that these last individuals bestowed themselves within the influence of the fire, warm as was the night. This was done most probably to escape from the annoyance of the mosquitos, more or less of which are usually found in the low lands of the new countries, and near the margins of rivers.

Margery could distinctly see the Chippewa, erect and bound to his tree. On him she principally kept her looks riveted, for near his person did she expect first again to find the bee-hunter. Indeed, there was no chance of seeing one who was placed beneath the light of the fire, since the brow of the acclivity formed a complete cover, throwing all below it into deep shade. This circumstance was of the greatest importance to the adventurer, however, enabling him to steal quite near to his friend, favored by a darkness that was getting to be intense. Quitting Margery, we will now rejoin le Bourdon, who by this time was approaching his goal.

The bee-hunter had some difficulty in finding his way across the marsh; but floundering through the impediments, and on the whole preserving the main direction, he got out on the firm ground quite as soon as he had expected to do. It was necessary for him to use extreme caution. The Indians according to their custom had dogs, two of which had been in sight, lying about half-way between the prisoner and the door of the hut. Boden had seen a savage feeding these dogs; and it appeared to him at the time as if the Indian had been telling them to be watchful of the Chippewa. He well knew the services that the red men expected of these animals, which are kept rather as sentinels than for any great use they put them to in the hunts. An Indian dog is quick enough to give the alarm, and he will keep on a trail for a long run and with considerable accuracy, but it is seldom that he closes and has his share in the death, unless in the case of very timid and powerless creatures.

Nevertheless, the presence of these dogs exacted extra caution in the movements of the bee-hunter. He had ascended the hill a little out of the stream of light which still issued from the open door of the hut, and was soon high enough to get a good look at the state of things on the bit of level land around the cabin. Fully one-half of the savages were yet up and in motion; though the processes of cooking and eating were by this time nearly ended. These men had senses almost as acute as those of their dogs, and it was very necessary to be on his guard against them also. By moving with the utmost caution, le Bourdon reached the edge of the line of light, where he was within ten yards of the captive. Here he placed his rifle against a small tree, and drew his knife, in readiness to cut the prisoner's thongs. Three several times, while the bee-hunter was making these preparations, did the two dogs raise their heads and scent the air; once, the oldest of the two gave a deep and most ominous growl. Singular as it may seem, this last indication of giving the alarm was of great service to le Bourdon and the Chippewa. The latter heard the growl, and saw two of the movements of the animals' heads, from all which he inferred that there was some creature, or some danger behind him. This naturally enough induced him to bestow a keen attention in that direction, and being unable to turn body, limbs, or head, the sense of hearing was his only means of watchfulness. It was while in this state of profound listening that Pigeonswing fancied he heard his own name, in such a whisper as one raises when he wishes to call from a short distance with the least possible expenditure of voice. Presently the words "Pigeonswing," and "Chippewa," were succeeded by those of "bee- hunter," "Bourdon." This was enough: the quick-witted warrior made a low ejaculation, such as might be mistaken for a half-suppressed murmur that proceeded from pain, but which one keenly on the watch, and who was striving to communicate with him, would be apt to understand as a sign of attention. The whispering then ceased altogether, and the prisoner waited the result with the stoic patience of an American Indian. A minute later the Chippewa felt the thongs giving way, and his arms were released at the elbows. An arm was next passed round his body, and the fastenings at the wrist were cut. At this instant a voice whispered in his ear--" Be of good heart, Chippewa--your friend, Bourdon, is here. Can you stand?"

"No stand," answered the Indian in a low whisper--"too much tie."

At the next moment the feet of the Chippewa were released, as were also his knees. Of all the fastenings none now remained but that which bound the captive to the tree. In not cutting this, the bee- hunter manifested his coolness and judgment; for were the stout rope of bark severed, the Indian would have fallen like a log, from total inability to stand. His thongs had impeded the circulation of the blood, and the usual temporary paralysis had been the consequence. Pigeonswing understood the reason of his friend's forbearance, and managed to rub his hands and wrists together, while the bee-hunter himself applied friction to his feet, by passing his own arms around the bottom of the tree. The reader may imagine the intense anxiety of Margery the while; for she witnessed the arrival of le Bourdon at the tree, and could not account for the long delay which succeeded.

All this time, the dogs were far from being quiet or satisfied. Their masters, accustomed to being surrounded at night by wolves and foxes, or other beasts, took little heed, however, of the discontent of these creatures, which were in the habit of growling in their lairs. The bee-hunter, as he kept rubbing at his friend's legs, felt now but little apprehension of the dogs, though a new source of alarm presented itself by the time the Chippewa was barely able to sustain his weight on his feet, and long before he could use them with anything like his former agility. The manner in which the savages came together in the hut, and the gestures made by their chief, announced pretty plainly that a watch was about to be set for the night. As it was probable that the sentinel would take his station near the prisoner, the bee-hunter was at a loss to decide whether it were better to commence the flight before or after the rest of the savages were in their lairs. Placing his mouth as close to the ear of Pigeonswing as could be done without bringing his head into the light, the following dialogue passed between le Bourdon and the captive.

"Do you see, Chippewa," the bee-hunter commenced, "the chief is telling one of the young men to come and keep guard near you?"

"See him, well 'nough. Make too many sign, no to see."

"What think you--shall we wait till the warriors are asleep, or try to be off before the sentinel comes?"

"Bess wait, if one t'ing. You got rifle--got tomahawk--got knife, eh?"

"I have them all, though my rifle is a short distance behind me, and a little down the hill."

"Dat bad--nebber let go rifle on war-path. Well, you tomahawk him-- I scalp him--dat'll do."

"I shall kill no man, Chippewa, unless there is great occasion for it. If there is no other mode of getting you off, I shall choose to cut this last thong, and leave you to take care of yourself."

"Give him tomahawk, den--give him knife, too."

"Not for such a purpose. I do not like to shed blood without a good reason for it."

"No call war good reason, eh? Bess reason in world Pottawattamie dig up hatchet ag'in' Great Fadder at Wash'ton--dat no good reason why take his scalp, eh?"

In whispering these last words the Chippewa used so much energy, that the dogs again raised their heads from between their forepaws and growled. Almost at that instant the chief and his few remaining wakeful companions laid themselves down to sleep, and the young warrior designated as the sentinel left the hut and came slowly toward the prisoner. The circumstances admitted of no delay; le Bourdon pressed the keen edge of his knife across the withe that bound the Indian to the tree; first giving him notice, in order that he might be prepared to sustain his own weight. This done, the bee- hunter dropped on the ground, crawling away out of the light; though the brow of the hill almost immediately formed a screen to conceal his person from all near the hut. In another instant he had regained his rifle, and was descending swiftly toward the crossing at the marsh.

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