Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter VII.

      We call them savage--oh, be just!
        Their outraged feelings scan;
      A voice comes forth, 'tis from the dust--
        The savage was a man!

As soon as le Bourdon reached the commencement of that which might be called his path across the marsh, he stopped and looked backward. He was now sufficiently removed from the low acclivity to see objects on its summit, and had no difficulty in discerning all that the waning fire illuminated. There stood the Chippewa erect against the tree as if still bound with thongs, while the sentinel was slowly approaching him. The dogs were on their feet, and gave two or three sharp barks, which had the effect to cause five or six of the savages to lift their heads in their lairs. One arose even and threw an armful of dried branches on the fire, producing a bright blaze, that brought everything around the hut, and which the light could touch, into full view.

The bee-hunter was astonished at the immovable calmness with which Pigeonswing still stood to his tree, awaiting the approach of the sentinel. In a few moments the latter was at his side. At first the Pottawattamie did not perceive that the prisoner was unbound. He threw him into shadow by his own person, and it required a close look to note the circumstance. Boden was too far from the spot to see all the minor movements of the parties, but there was soon a struggle that could not be mistaken. As the Pottawattamie was examining the prisoner, an exclamation that escaped him betrayed the sudden consciousness that the Chippewa was unbound. The sound was no sooner uttered than Pigeonswing made a grasp at the sentinel's knife, which however he did not obtain, when the two closed and fell, rolling down the declivity into the darkness. When the Pottawattamie seized the Chippewa, he uttered a yell, which instantly brought every man of his party to his feet. As the savages now united in the whoops, and the dogs began to bark wildly, an infernal clamor was made.

At first, le Bourdon did not know how to act. He greatly feared the dogs, and could not but think of Margery, and the probable consequences, should those sagacious animals follow him across the marsh. But he did not like the idea of abandoning Pigeonswing, when a single blow of his arm, or a kick of his foot, might be the cause of his escape. While deliberating in painful uncertainty, the sounds of the struggle ceased, and he saw the sentinel rising again into the light, limping like one who had suffered by a fall. Presently he heard a footstep near him, and, calling in a low voice, he was immediately joined by Pigeonswing. Before the bee-hunter was aware of his intention, the Chippewa seized his rifle, and levelling at the sentinel, who still stood on the brow of the hill, drawn in all his savage outlines distinctly in the light of the flames, he fired. The cry, the leap into the air, and the fall, announced the unerring character of the aim. In coming to the earth, the wounded man fell over the brow of the sharp acclivity, and was heard rolling toward its base.

Le Bourdon felt the importance of now improving the precious moments, and was in the act of urging his companion to follow, when the latter passed an arm around his body, whipped his knife from the girdle and sheath, and dropping the rifle into his friend's arms, bounded away in the darkness, taking the direction of his fallen enemy. There was no mistaking all this; Chippewa, led by his own peculiar sense of honor, risking everything to obtain the usual trophy of victory. By this time, a dozen of the savages stood on the brow of the hill, seemingly at a loss to understand what had become of the combatants. Perceiving this, the bee-hunter profited by the delay and reloaded his rifle. As everything passed almost as swiftly as the electric spark is known to travel, it was but a moment after the Pottawattamie fell ere his conqueror was through with his bloody task. Just as le Bourdon threw his rifle up into the hollow of his arm, he was rejoined by his red friend, who bore the reeking scalp of the sentinel at his belt; though fortunately the bee-hunter did not see it on account of the obscurity, else might he not have been so willing to continue to act with so ruthless an ally.

Further stay was out of the question; for the Indians were now collected in a body on the brow of the hill, where the chief was rapidly issuing his orders. In a minute the band dispersed, every man bounding into the darkness, as if aware of the danger of remaining within the influence of the bright light thrown from the fire. Then came such a clamor from the dogs, as left no doubt in the mind of the bee-hunter that they had scented and found the remains of the fallen man. A fierce yell came from the same spot, the proof that some of the savages had already discovered the body; and le Bourdon told his companion to follow, taking his way across the marsh as fast as he could overcome the difficulties of the path.

It has already been intimated that it was not easy, if indeed it were possible, to cross that piece of low wet land in a direct line. There was tolerably firm ground on it, but it lay in an irregular form, its presence being generally to be noted by the growth of trees. Le Bourdon had been very careful in taking his landmarks, foreseeing the probability of a hasty retreat, and he had no difficulty for some time in keeping in the right direction. But the dogs soon left the dead body, and came bounding across the marsh, disregarding its difficulties; though their plunges and yells soon made it apparent that even they did not escape altogether with dry feet. As for the savages, they poured down the declivity in a stream, taking the dogs as their guides; and safe ones they might well be accounted, so far as the scent was concerned, though they did not happen to be particularly well acquainted with all the difficulties of the path.

At length le Bourdon paused, causing his companion to stop also. In the hurry and confusion of the flight, the former had lost his landmarks, finding himself amidst a copse of small trees, or large bushes, but not in the particular copse he sought. Every effort to get out of this thicket, except by the way he had entered it, proved abortive, and the dogs were barking at no great distance in his rear. It is true that these animals no longer approached: for they were floundering in the mud and water; but their throats answered every purpose to lead the pursuers on, and the low calls that passed from mouth to mouth, let the pursued understand that the Pottawattamies were at their heels, if not absolutely on their trail.

The crisis demanded both discretion and decision; qualities in which the bee-hunter, with his forest training, was not likely to be deficient. He looked out for the path by which he had reached the unfortunate thicket, and having found it, commenced a retreat by the way he had come. Nerve was needed to move almost in a line toward the dogs and their masters; but the nerve was forthcoming, and the two advanced like veterans expecting the fire of some concealed but well-armed battery. Presently, le Bourdon stopped, and examined the ground on which he stood.

"Here we must turn, Chippewa," he said, in a guarded voice. "This is the spot where I must have missed my way."

"Good place to turn 'bout," answered the Indian--"dog too near."

"We must shoot the dogs if they press us too hard," returned the bee-hunter, leading off rapidly, now secure in the right direction. "They seem to be in trouble, just at this time; but animals like them will soon find their way across this marsh."

"Bess shoot Pottawattamie," coolly returned Pigeonswing. "Pottawattamie got capital scalp--dog's ears no good for nutting any more."

"Yonder, I believe, is the tree I am in search of!" exclaimed le Bourdon. "If we can reach that tree, I think all will go well with us."

The tree was reached, and the bee-hunter proceeded to make sure of his course from that point. Removing from his pouch a small piece of moistened powder that he had prepared ere he liberated the Chippewa, he stuck it on a low branch of the tree he was under, and on the side next the spot where he had stationed Margery. When this was done, he made his companion stand aside, and lighting some spunk with his flint and steel, he fired his powder. Of course, this little preparation burned like the fireworks of a boy, making sufficient light, however, to be seen in a dark night for a mile or more. No sooner was the wetted powder hissing and throwing off its sparks, than the bee-hunter gazed intently into the now seemingly tangible obscurity of the marsh. A bright light appeared and vanished. It was enough; the bee-hunter threw down his own signal and extinguished it with his foot; and, as he wished, the lantern of Margery appeared no more. Assured now of the accuracy of his position, as well as of the course he was to pursue, le Bourdon bade his companion follow, and pressed anew across the marsh. A tree was soon visible, and toward that particular object the fugitives steadily pressed, until it was reached. At the next instant Margery was joined; and the bee-hunter could not refrain from kissing her, in the excess of his pleasure.

"There is a dreadful howling of dogs," said Margery, feeling no offence at the liberty taken, in a moment like that, "and it seems to me that a whole tribe is following at their heels. For Heaven's sake, Bourdon, let us hasten to the canoes; brother and sister must think us lost!"

The circumstances pressed, and the bee-hunter took Margery's arm, passing it through one of his own, with a decided and protecting manner, that caused the girl's heart to beat with emotions not in the least connected with fear, leaving an impression of pleasure even at that perilous moment. As the distance was not great, the three were soon on the beach and near to the canoes. Here they met Dorothy, alone, and pacing to and fro like a person distressed. She had doubtless heard the clamor, and was aware that the savages were out looking for their party. As Margery met her sister, she saw that something more than common had gone wrong, and in the eagerness of her apprehensions she did not scruple about putting her questions.

"What has become of brother? Where is Gershom?" demanded the sensitive girl, at once.

The answer was given in a low voice, and in that sort of manner with which woman struggles to the last to conceal the delinquencies of him she loves.

"Gershom is not himself, just now," half whispered the wife--"he has fallen into one of his old ways, ag'in."

"Old ways?" slowly repeated the sister, dropping her own voice to tones similar to those in which the unpleasant news had just been communicated. "How is that possible, now that all the whiskey is emptied?"

"It seems that Bourdon had a jug of brandy among his stores, and Gershom found it out. I blame no one; for Bourdon, who never abuses the gifts of Providence, had a right to his comforts at least; but it is a pity that there was anything of the sort in the canoes!"

The bee-hunter was greatly concerned at this unwelcome intelligence, feeling all its importance far more vividly than either of his companions. They regretted as women; but he foresaw the danger, as a man accustomed to exertion in trying scenes. If Whiskey Centre had really fallen into his old ways, so as to render himself an incumbrance, instead of being an assistant at such a moment, the fact was to be deplored, but it could only be remedied by time. Luckily they had the Indian with them, and he could manage one of the canoes, while he himself took charge of the other. As no time was to be lost--the barking of the dogs and the cries of the savages too plainly letting it be known that the enemy was getting through the marsh by some means or other--he hurried the party down to the canoes, entering that of Whiskey Centre at once.

Le Bourdon found Gershom asleep, but with the heavy slumbers of the drunkard. Dolly had removed the jug and concealed it, as soon as the state of her husband enabled her to do so without incurring his violence. Else might the unfortunate man have destroyed himself, by indulging in a liquor so much more palatable than that he was accustomed to use, after so long and compelled an abstinence. The jug was now produced, however, and le Bourdon emptied it in the river, to the great joy of the two females, though not without a sharp remonstrance from the Chippewa. The bee-hunter was steady, and the last drop of the liquor of Gascony was soon mingling with the waters of the Kalamazoo. This done, the bee-hunter desired the women to embark, and called to the Chippewa to do the same. By quitting the spot in the canoes, it was evident the pursuers would be balked, temporarily at least, since they must recross the marsh in order to get into their own boats, without which further pursuit would be fruitless.

It might have been by means of a secret sympathy, or it was possibly the result of accident, but certain it is, that the Chippewa was placed in that of le Bourdon. As for Whiskey Centre, he lay like a log in the bottom of his own light bark, cared for only by his affectionate wife, who had made a pillow for his head; but, fortunately, if no assistance just then, not any material hindrance to the movements of his friends. By the time le Bourdon and the Chippewa had got their stations, and the canoes were free of the bottom, it was evident by the sounds, that not only the dogs, but divers of their masters, had floundered through the swamp, and were already on the firm ground east of it. As the dogs ran by scent, little doubt remained of their soon leading the savages to the place of embarkation. Aware of this, the bee-hunter directed the Chippewa to follow, and urged his own canoe away from the shore, following one of three of the natural channels that united just at that point.

The clamor now sensibly increased, and the approach of the pursuers was much faster than it had previously been, in consequence of there no longer being wet land beneath their feet. At the distance of fifty yards from the shore, however, the channel, or open avenue among the rice-plants that the canoes had taken, made a short turn to the northward; for all the events we have just been recording occurred on the northern, or leeward side of the river. Once around this bend in the channel, the canoes would have been effectually concealed from those on the beach, had it even been broad daylight, and, of course, were so much more hidden from view under the obscurity of a very dark night. Perceiving this, and fearful that the dip of the paddles might be heard, le Bourdon ceased to urge his canoe through the water, telling the Chippewa to imitate his example, and let the boats drift. In consequence of this precaution the fugitives were still quite near the shore when, first, the dogs, then a party of their masters, came rushing down to the very spot whence the canoes had departed scarcely two minutes before. As no precautions were taken to conceal the advance of the pursuers, the pursued, or the individuals among them who alone understood the common language of the great Ojebway nation well, had an opportunity of hearing and understanding all that was said. Le Bourdon had brought the two canoes together; and the Chippewa, at his request, now translated such parts of the discourse of their enemies as he deemed worthy of communicating to the females.

"Say, now, nobody dere!" commenced the Indian, coolly. "T'ink he no great way off--mean to look for him--t'ink dog uneasy--won'er why dog so uneasy."

"Them dogs are very likely to scent us here in the canoes, we are so near them," whispered le Bourdon.

"S'pose he do, can't catch us," coolly answered the Chippewa-- "beside, shoot him, don't take care--bad for dog to chase warrior too much."

"There is one speaking now, who seems to have authority."

"Yes--he chief--know he voice--hear him too often--he mean to put Pigeonswing to torture. Well, let him catch Pigeonswing fust--swift bird do that, eh?"

"But what says he?--it may be of importance to learn what the chief says, just now."

"Who care what he say--can't do nuttin'--if get good chance, take his scalp, too."

"Aye, that I dare say--but he is speaking earnestly and in a low voice; listen, and let us know what he says. I do not well understand at this distance."

The Chippewa complied, and maintained an attentive silence until the chief ceased to speak. Then he rendered what had been said into such English as he could command, accompanying the translation by the explanations that naturally suggested themselves to one like himself.

"Chief talk to young men," said the Chippewa--"all chief talk to young men--tell him dat Pigeonswing must get off in canoe--don't see canoe, nudder--but, muss be canoe, else he swim. T'ink more than one Injin here--don't know, dough--maybe, maybe not--can't tell, till see trail, morrow morning--"

"Well, well; but what does he tell his young men to do?" demanded the bee-hunter, impatiently.

"Don't be squaw, Bourdon--tell all by'em bye. Tell young men s'pose he get canoe, den he may get our canoe, and carry 'em off--s'pose he swim; dat Chippewa devil swim down stream and get our canoe dat fashion--bess go back, some of you, and see arter our canoe--dat what he tell young men most."

"That is a lucky thought!" exclaimed le Bourdon--"let us paddle down, at once, and seize all their canoes before they can get there. The distance by water, owing to this bend in the river, is not half as great as that by land, and the marsh will double the distance to them."

"Dat good counsel," said Pigeonswing--"you go--I follow."

This was no sooner said, than the canoes again got in motion. The darkness might now have been a sufficient protection had there been no rice, but the plant would have concealed the movement, even at noon-day. The fire in the hut served as a beacon, and enabled le Bourdon to find the canoes. When he reached the landing, he could still hear the dogs barking on the marsh, and the voices of those with them, calling in loud tones to two of the savages who had remained at the chiente, as a sort of camp-guard.

"What do them chaps say?" asked le Bourdon of the Chippewa. "They yell as if striving to make the two men at the door of the hut hear them. Can you make out what they are bawling so loud?"

"Tell two warrior to come down and take care of canoe--dat all--let 'em come--find two here to take care of dem--got good scalp, them two rascal Pottawattamie!"

"No--no--Pigeonswing--we must have no more of that work to-night, but must set about towing these four canoes off the shore as fast as we can. Have you got hitches on your two?"

"Fast 'nough--so fast, he follow," answered the Indian, who, notwithstanding his preparations to help to remove the canoes, was manifestly reluctant to depart without striking another blow at his enemies. "Now good time for dem rascal to lose scalp!"

"Them rascals, as you call them, begin to understand their friends in the marsh, and are looking to the priming of their rifles. We must be moving, or they may see us, and give us a shot. Shove off, Chippewa, and paddle at once for the middle of the bay."

As le Bourdon was much in earnest, Pigeonswing was fain to comply. Had the last possessed a rifle of his own, or even a knife, it is highly probable he would have leaped ashore, and found the means of stealing on some of his enemies unawares, and thus secured another trophy. But the bee-hunter was determined, and the Chippewa, however reluctant, was compelled to obey; for not only had le Bourdon kept his rifle at his side, but he had used the precaution of securing his knife and tomahawk, both of which he carried habitually, the same as a red man.

The canoes had now a somewhat difficult task. The wind still blew fresh, and it was necessary for one of these light craft, pretty well loaded with its proper freight, and paddled by only a single person, to tow two other craft of equal size dead to the windward. The weight in the towing craft, and the lightness of those that were towed, rendered this task, however, easier than it might otherwise have proved. In the course of a couple of minutes all the canoes were far enough from the shore to be out of sight of the two Indians, who, by that time, had got down to the beach to look after their own craft. The yell these savages raised on finding themselves too late, not only announced their disappointment, but communicated the extent of the disaster to their friends, who were still floundering through the marsh.

The great advantage that the party of the bee-hunter had now obtained must be very apparent to all. In possession of all the canoes, their enemies were, or would be for some time at least, confined to the northern side of the river, which was so wide near its mouth as to present an effectual barrier between them and those who occupied the opposite bank. The canoes, also, enabled the weaker party to change their position at will, carrying with them as many effects as were on board, and which included the whole of the property of le Bourdon; while their loss deprived their enemies of all extra means of motion, and would be very likely to induce them to proceed on their expedition by land. The objects of that expedition could only be conjectured by the bee-hunter, until he had questioned the Chippewa; a thing he did not fail to do, so soon as he believed the party quite safe under the south shore. Here the fugitives landed, proceeding up a natural channel in the wild rice in order to do so, and selecting a bit of dry beach for their purpose. Margery set about lighting a fire, in order to keep the mosquitos at a distance, selecting a spot to kindle it, behind a swell on the land, that concealed the light from all on the other shore. In the morning, it would be necessary to extinguish that fire, lest its smoke should betray their position. It was while these things were in progress, and after le Bourdon had himself procured the fuel necessary to feed pretty Margery's fire, that he questioned the Chippewa touching his captivity.

"Yes, tell all 'bout him," answered the Indian, as soon as interrogated--"no good to hide trail from friend. 'Member when say good-by up in openin' to Bourdon?"

"Certainly--I remember the very instant when you left me. The Pottawattamie went on one path, and you went on another. I was glad of that, as you seemed to think he was not your friend."

"Yes; good not to travel on same path as inimy, 'cause he quarrel sometime," coolly returned the Indian. "Dis time, path come together, somehow; and Pottawattamie lose he scalp."

"I am aware of all that, Pigeonswing, and wish it had not been so. I found the body of Elksfoot sitting up against a tree soon after you left me, and knew by whose hands he had fallen."

"Didn't find scalp, eh?"

"No, the scalp had been taken; though I accounted that but for little, since the man's life was gone. There is little gained by carrying on war in this manner, making the woods, and the openings, and the prairies, alike unsafe. You see, to what distress this family is reduced by your Injin manner of making war."

"How you make him, den--want, to hear. Go kiss, and give venison to inimy, or go get his scalp, eh? Which bess fashion to make him afeard, and own you master?"

"All that may be done without killing single travellers, or murdering women and children. The peace will be made none the sooner between England and America, because you have got the scalp of Elksfoot."

"No haben't got him any longer; wish had--Pottawattamie take him away, and say he bury him. Well, let him hide him in a hole deep as white man's well, can't hide Pigeonswing honor dere, too. Dat is safe as notch cut on stick can make him!"

This notch on a stick was the Indian mode of gazetting a warrior; and a certain number of these notches was pretty certain to procure for him a sort of savage brevet, which answered his purpose quite as well as the modern mode of brevetting at Washington answers our purpose. Neither brings any pay, we believe, nor any command, except in such cases as rarely occur, and then only to the advantage of government. There are varieties in honor, as in any other human interest: so are there many moral degrees in warfare. Thus, the very individual who admires the occupation of Algiers, or that of Tahiti, or the attack on Canton, together with the long train of Indian events which have dyed the peninsulas of the East in the blood of their people, sees an alarming enormity in the knocking down of the walls of Vera Cruz, though the breach opened a direct road into San Juan de Ulloa. In the eyes of the same profound moralists, the garitas of Mexico ought to have been respected, as so many doors opening into the boudoirs of the beautiful dames of that fine capital; it being a monstrous thing to fire a shot into the streets of a town, no matter how many came out of them. We are happy, therefore, to have it in our power to add these touches of philosophy that came from Pigeonswing to those of the sages of the old world, by way of completing a code of international morals on this interesting subject, in which the student shall be at a loss to say which he most admires--that which comes from the schools, or that which comes direct from the wilderness.

"So best," answered the bee-hunter. "I wish I could persuade you to throw away that disgusting thing at your belt. Remember, Chippewa, you are now among Christians, and ought to do as Christians wish."

"What Christians do, eh?" returned the Indian, with a sneer, "get drunk like Whiskey Centre, dere? Cheat poor red man; den get down on knee and look up at Manitou? Dat what Christian do, eh?"

"They who do such things are Christian but in name--you must think better of such as are Christians in fact."

"Ebberybody call himself Christian, tell you--all pale-face Christian, dey say. Now, listen to Chippewa. Once talk long talk wit' missionary--tell all about Christian--what Christian do--what Christian say--how he eat, how he sleep, how he drink!--all good-- wish Pigeonwing Christian--den 'member so'ger at garrison--no eat, no sleep, no drink Christian fashion--do ebbery t'ing so'ger fashion--swear, fight, cheat, get drunk--wuss dan Injin--dat Christian, eh?"

"No, that is not acting like a Christian; and I fear very few of us who call ourselves by that name, act as if we were Christians, in truth," said le Bourdon, conscious of the justice of the Chippewa's accusation.

"Just dat--now, I get him--ask missionary, one day, where all Christian go to, so dat Injin can't find him--none in woods--none on prairie--none in garrison--none in Mack'naw--none at Detroit--where all go to, den, so Injin can't find him, on'y in missionary talk?"

"I am curious to know what answer your missionary made to that question."

"Well, tell you--say, on'y one in ten t'ousant raal Christians 'mong pale-face, dough all call himself Christian! dat what Injin t'ink queer, eh?"

"It is not easy to make a red man understand all the ways of the pale-faces, Pigeonswing; but we will talk of these things another time, when we are more at our ease. Just now, I wish to learn all I can of the manner in which you fell into the hands of the Pottawattamies."

"Dat plain 'nough--wish Christian talk half as plain. You see, Bourdon, dat Elksfoot on scout, when we meet in openin', up river. I know'd his ar'nd, and so took scalp. Dem Pottawattamie his friend-- when dey come to meet ole chief, no find him; but find Pigeonwing; got me when tired and 'sleep; got Elkfoot scalp wid me--sorry for dat--know scalp by scalp-lock, which had gray hair, and some mark. So put me in canoe, and meant to take Chippewa to Chicago to torture him--but too much wind. So, when meet friend in t'odder canoe, come back here to wait little while."

This was the simple explanation of the manner in which Pigeonswing had fallen into the hands of his enemies. It would seem that Elksfoot had come in a canoe from the mouth of the St. Joseph's to a point about half-way between that river and the mouth of the Kalamazoo, and there landed. What the object of the party was, does not exactly appear, though it is far from being certain that it was not to seize the bee-hunter, and confiscate his effects. Although le Bourdon was personally a stranger to Elksfoot, news flies through the wilderness in an extraordinary manner; and it was not at all unlikely that the fact of a white American's being in the openings should soon spread, along with the tidings that the hatchet was dug up, and that a party should go out in quest of his scalp and the plunder. It would seem that the savage tact of the Chippewa detected that in the manner of the Pottawattamie chief, which assured him the intentions of the old warrior were not amicable; and that he took the very summary process which has been related, not only to secure his scalp, but effectually to put it out of his power to do any mischief to one who was an ally, and by means of recent confidence, now a friend. All this the Indian explained to his companion, in his usual clipped English, but with a clearness sufficient to make it perfectly intelligible to his listener. The bee-hunter listened with the most profound attention, for he was fully aware of the importance of comprehending all the hazards of his own situation.

While this dialogue was going on, Margery had succeeded in lighting her fire, and was busy in preparing some warm compound, which she knew would be required by her unhappy brother after his debauch, Dorothy passed often between the fire and the canoe, feeling a wife's anxiety in the fate of her husband. As for the Chippewa, intoxication was a very venial offence in his eyes; though he had a contempt for a man who would thus indulge while on a warpath. The American Indian does possess this merit of adapting his deportment to his circumstances. When engaged in war he usually prepares himself, in the coolest and wisest manner, to meet its struggles, indulging only in moments of leisure, and of comparative security. It is true that the march of what is called civilization is fast changing the red man's character, and he is very apt now to do that which he sees done by the "Christians" around him.

Le Bourdon, when his dialogue with the Chippewa was over, and after a few words of explanation with Margery, took his own canoe, and paddled through the rice-plants into the open water of the river, to reconnoitre. The breadth of the stream induced him to float down before the wind, until he reached a point where he could again command a view of the hut. What he there saw, and what he next did, must be reserved for a succeeding chapter.

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