Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter VIII.

     The elfin cast a glance around,
     As he lighted down from his courser toad,
     Then round his breast his wings he wound,
     And close to the river's brink he strode;
     He sprang on a rock, he breathed a prayer,
     Above his head his arm he threw,
     Then tossed a tiny curve in air,
     And headlong plunged in the water blue.

An hour had intervened between the time when le Bourdon had removed the canoes of the Pottawattamies, and the time when he returned alone to the northern side of the river. In the course of that hour the chief of the savages had time to ascertain all the leading circumstances that have just been related, and to collect his people in and around the hut, for a passing council. The moment was one of action, and not of ceremonies. No pipe was smoked, nor any of the observances of the great councils of the tribe attended to; the object was merely to glean facts and to collect opinions. In all the tribes of this part of North America, something very like a principle of democracy is the predominant feature of their politics. It is not, however, that bastard democracy which is coming so much in fashion among ourselves, and which looks into the gutters solely for the "people," forgetting that the landlord has just as much right to protection as the tenant, the master as the servant, the rich as the poor, the gentleman as the blackguard. The Indians know better than all this. They understand, fully, that the chiefs are entitled to more respect than the loafers in their villages, and listen to the former, while their ears are shut to the latter. They appear to have a common sense, which teaches them to avoid equally the exaggerations of those who believe in blood, and of those who believe in blackguardism. With them the doctrines of "new men" would sound as an absurdity, for they never submit to change for change's sake. On the contrary, while there is no positive hereditary rank, there is much hereditary consideration; and we doubt if a red man could be found in all America, who is so much of a simpleton as to cite among the qualifications of any man for a situation of trust and responsibility, that he had never been taught how to perform its duties. They are not guilty of the contradiction of elevating men because they are self-taught, while they expend millions on schools. Doubtless they have, after a fashion of their own, demagogues and Caesars, but they are usually kept within moderate limits; and in rare instances, indeed, do either ever seriously trespass on the rights of the tribe. As human nature is everywhere the same, it is not to be supposed that pure justice prevails even among savages; but one thing would seem to be certain, that, all over the world, man in his simplest and wildest state is more apt to respect his own ordinances, than when living in what is deemed a condition of high civilization.

When le Bourdon reached the point whence he could get a good view of the door of the hut, which was still illuminated by the fire within, he ceased using the paddle beyond the slight effort necessary to keep the canoe nearly stationary. He was quite within the range of a rifle, but trusted to the darkness of the night for his protection. That scouts were out, watching the approaches to the hut, he felt satisfied; and he did not doubt that some were prowling along the margin of the Kalamazoo, either looking for the lost boats, or for those who had taken them away. This made him cautious, and he took good care not to place his canoe in a position of danger.

It was very apparent that the savages were in great uncertainty as to the number of their enemies. Had not the rifle been fired, and their warrior killed and scalped, they might have supposed that their prisoner had found the means of releasing his limbs himself, and thus effected his escape; but they knew that the Chippewa had neither gun nor knife, and as all their own arms, even to those of the dead man, were still in their possession, it was clear that he had been succored from without. Now, the Pottawattamies had heard of both the bee-hunter and Whiskey Centre, and it was natural enough for them to ascribe some of these unlooked-for feats to one or the other of these agents. It is true, the hut was known to have been built three or four years earlier, by an Indian trader, and no one of the party had ever actually seen Gershom and his family in possession; but the conjectures on this head were as near the fact, as if the savages had passed and repassed daily. There was only one point on which these close calculators of events were at fault. So thoroughly had everything been removed from the chiente, and so carefully the traces of its recent occupation concealed, that no one among them suspected that the family had left the place only an hour before their own arrival. The bee-hunter, moreover, was well assured that the savages had not yet blundered on the hiding-place of the furniture. Had this been discovered, its contents would have been dragged to light, and seen around the fire; for there is usually little self-restraint among the red men, when they make a prize of this sort.

Nevertheless, there was one point about which even those keen- scented children of the forest were much puzzled, and which the bee- hunter perfectly comprehended, notwithstanding the distance at which he was compelled to keep himself. The odor of the whiskey was so strong, in and about the chiente, that the Pottawattamies did not know what to make of it. That there should be the remains of this peculiar smell--one so fragrant and tempting to those who are accustomed to indulge in the liquor--in the hut itself, was natural enough; but the savages were perplexed at finding it so strong on the declivity down which the barrels had been rolled. On this subject were they conversing, when le Bourdon first got near enough to observe their proceedings. After discussing the matter for some time, torches were lighted, and most of the party followed a grim old warrior, who had an exceedingly true nose for the scent of whiskey, and who led them to the very spot where the half-barrel had been first stove by rolling off a rock, and where its contents had been mainly spilled. Here the earth was yet wet in places, and the scent was so strong as to leave no doubt of the recent nature of the accident which had wasted so much of a liquor that was very precious in Pottawattamie eyes; for accident they thought it must be, since no sane man could think of destroying the liquor intentionally.

All the movements, gestures, and genuflections of the savages were plainly seen by the bee-hunter. We say the genuflections, for nearly all of the Indians got on their knees and applied their noses to the earth, in order to scent the fragrance of the beloved whiskey; some out of curiosity, but more because they loved even this tantalizing indulgence, when no better could be had. But le Bourdon was right in his conjectures, that the matter was not to end here. Although most of the Indians scented the remains of the whiskey out of love for the liquor, a few of their number reasoned on the whole transaction with quite as much acuteness as could have been done by the shrewdest natural philosopher living. To them it was very apparent that no great length of time, a few hours at most, could have elapsed since that whiskey was spilled; and human hands must have brought it there, in the first place, and poured it on the ground, in the second. There must have been a strong reason for such an act, and that reason presented itself to their minds with unerring accuracy. Their own approach must have been seen, and the liquor was destroyed because it could not be removed in time to prevent its falling into their hands. Even the precise manner in which the whiskey had been disposed of was pretty nearly conjectured by a few of the chiefs, acute and practised as they were; who, accustomed to this species of exercise of their wits, had some such dexterity in examining facts of this nature, and in arriving at just results, as the men of the schools manifest in the inquiries that more especially belong to their habits and training. But their conclusions were confined to themselves; and they were also sufficiently enveloped in doubts, to leave those who made them ready enough to receive new impressions on the same subject.

All this, moreover, le Bourdon both saw and understood; or, if not absolutely all, so much of it as to let him comprehend the main conclusions of the savages, as well as the process by which they were reached. To obtain light, the Indians made a fire near the charmed spot, which brought themselves and their movements into plain view from the canoe of the bee-hunter. Curiosity now became strongly awakened in the latter, and he ventured in nearer to the shore, in order to get the best possible view of what was going on. In a manner, he was solving an enigma; and he experienced the sort of pleasure we all feel at exercising our wits on difficulties of that nature. The interest he felt rendered the young man careless as respected the position of his canoe, which drifted down before the strong breeze, until le Bourdon found himself in the very edge of the wild rice, which at this point formed but a very narrow belt along the beach. It was this plant, indeed, that contributed to make the young man so regardless of his drift, for he looked upon the belt of rice as a species of landmark to warn him when to turn. But, at no other spot along that whole shore, where the plant was to be found at all, was its belt so narrow as at this, immediately opposite to the new fire of the savages, and almost within the influence of its rays. To le Bourdon's surprise, and somewhat to his consternation, just as his little craft touched the rice, the forms of two stout warriors passed along the beach, between him and the light, their feet almost dipping in the water. So near were these two warriors to him, that, on listening intently, he heard not only their voices, as they communicated their thoughts to each other in low tones, but the tread of their moccasined feet on the ground. Retreat, under the circumstances, would not be safe, for it must have been made under the muzzles of the rifles; and but one resource presented itself. By grasping in his hand two or three stalks of the rice-plant, and holding them firmly, the drift of the canoe was arrested.

After a moment's reflection, le Bourdon was better satisfied with this new station than he had been on first gaining it. To have ventured on such a near approach to his enemies, he would have regarded as madness; but now he was there, well concealed among the rice, he enjoyed the advantages of observation it gave him, and looked upon the chance that brought him there as lucky. He found a thong of buckskin, and fastened his canoe to the stalks of the plant, thus anchoring or mooring his little bark, and leaving himself at liberty to move about in it. The rice was high enough to conceal him, even when erect, and he had some difficulty in finding places favorable to making his observations through it. When the bee-hunter made his way into the bow of his canoe, however, which he did with a moccasined and noiseless foot, he was startled at perceiving how small was his cover. In point of fact, he was now within three feet of the inner edge of the rice-plant, which grew within ten feet of the shore, where the two warriors already mentioned were still standing, in close communication with each other. Their faces were turned toward the fire, the bright light from which, at times, streamed over the canoe itself, in a way to illumine all it contained. The first impulse of le Bourdon, on ascertaining how closely he had drifted to the shore, was to seize a paddle and make off, but a second thought again told him it would be far safer to remain where he was. Taking his seat, therefore, on a bit of board laid athwart, from gunwale to gunwale, if such a craft can be said to have gunwales at all, he patiently waited the course of events.

By this time, all or nearly all of the Pottawattamies had collected on this spot, on the side of the hill. The hut was deserted, its fire got to be low, and darkness reigned around the place. On the other hand, the Indians kept piling brush on their new fire, until the whole of that hill-side, the stream at its foot, and the ravine through which the latter ran, were fairly illuminated. Of course, all within the influence of this light was to be distinctly seen, and the bee-hunter was soon absorbed in gazing at the movements of savage enemies, under circumstances so peculiar.

The savages seemed to be entranced by the singular, and to most of them unaccountable circumstance of the earth's giving forth the scent of fresh whiskey, in a place so retired and unknown. While two or three of their number had certain inklings of the truth, as has been stated, to much the greater portion of their body it appeared to be a profound mystery; and one that, in some inexplicable manner, was connected with the recent digging up of the hatchet. Ignorance and superstition ever go hand in hand, and it was natural that many, perhaps most of these uninstructed beings should thus consider so unusual a fragrance, on such a spot. Whiskey has unfortunately obtained a power over the red man of this continent that it would require many Fathers Matthew to suppress, and which can only be likened to that which is supposed to belong to the influence of witchcraft. The Indian is quite as sensible as the white man of the mischief that the "fire-water" produces; but, like the white man, he finds how hard it is to get rid of a master passion, when we have once submitted ourselves to its sway. The portion of the band that could not account for the fact of the scent of their beloved beverage's being found in such a place, and it was all but three of their whole party, were quite animated in their discussions on the subject, and many and crude were the suggestions that fell from their lips. The two warriors on the beach were more deeply impressed than any of their companions, with the notion that some "medicine charm" was connected with this extraordinary affair.

The reader will not be surprised to hear that le Bourdon gazed on the scene before him with the most profound attention. So near did he seem to be, and so near was he, in fact, to the savages who were grouped around the fire, that he fancied he could comprehend what they were saying, by the expressions of their grim and swarthy countenances. His conjectures were in part just, and occasionally the bee-hunter was absolutely accurate in his notions of what was said. The frequency with which different individuals knelt on the ground, to scent an odor that is always so pleasant to the red man, would of itself have given a clew to the general character of the discourse; but the significant and expressive gestures, the rapid enunciation, and the manner in which the eyes of the speakers glanced from the faces near themselves to the spot consecrated by whiskey, pretty plainly told the story. It was while thus intently occupied in endeavoring to read the singular impression made on the minds of most of those wild beings, by an incident so much out of the usual track of their experience, that le Bourdon suddenly found the bow of his canoe thrusting itself beyond the inner margin of the rice, and issuing into open water, within ten feet of the very spot where the two nearest of the savages were still conferring together, apart. The buckskin thong which served as a fastening had got loosened, and the light craft was again drifting down before the strong southerly wind, which still continued to blow a little gale.

Had there been an opportunity for such a thing, the bee-hunter would have made an effort to escape. But so sudden and unexpected was this exposure, that he found himself almost within reach of a rifle, before he was aware of his approaching the two warriors on the shore, at all. His paddle was in the stern of the canoe, and had he used the utmost activity, the boat would have grounded on the beach, ere he could have obtained it. In this situation, therefore, he was absolutely without any other means than his hands of stopping the canoe, had there even been time.

Le Bourdon understood his real situation without stopping to reflect; and, though his heart made one violent leap as soon as he perceived he was out of cover, he immediately bethought him of the course he ought to pursue. It would have been fatal to betray alarm, or to attempt flight. As accident had thus brought him, as it might be on a visit, to the spot, he at once determined to give his arrival the character of a friendly call, and the better to support the pretension, to blend with it, if possible, a little of the oracular, or "medicine" manner, in order to impose on the imaginations of the superstitious beings into whose power he had so unwittingly fallen.

The instant the canoe touched the shore, and it was only a moment after it broke through the cover, le Bourdon arose, and extending his hand to the nearest Indian, saluted him with the mongrel term of "Sago." A slight exclamation from this warrior communicated to his companion an arrival that was quite as much a matter of surprise to the Indians as to their guest, and through this second warrior to the whole party on the hill-side. A little clamor succeeded, and presently the bee-hunter was surrounded with savages.

The meeting was marked by the self-command and dignified quiet that are so apt to distinguish the deportment of Indian warriors, when they are on the war-path, and alive to the duties of manhood. The bee-hunter shook hands with several, who received his salutations with perfect calmness, if not with absolute confidence and amity. This little ceremony gave our hero an opportunity to observe the swarthy countenances by which he was surrounded, most of which were fierce in their paint, as well as to reflect a little on his own course. By a fortunate inspiration he now determined to assume the character of a "medicine man," and to connect his prophecies and juggleries with this lucky accident of the whiskey. Accordingly, he inquired if any one spoke English, not wishing to trust his explanations to his own imperfect knowledge of the Ojebway tongue, which is spoken by all the numerous tribes of that widely-extended nation. Several could render themselves intelligible in English, and one was so expert as to render communication with him easy, if not very agreeable. As the savages, however, soon insisted on examining the canoe, and taking a look at its contents, previously to listening to their visitor's explanations, le Bourdon was fain to submit, and to let the young men satisfy their curiosity.

The bee-hunter had come on his hazardous expedition in his own canoe. Previously to quitting the south shore, however, he had lightened the little craft, by landing everything that was not essential to his present purpose. As nearly half of his effects were in the canoe of Whiskey Centre, the task was soon performed, and lucky it was for our hero that he had bethought him of the prudence of the measure. His sole object had been to render the canoe swifter and lighter, in the event of a chase; but, as things turned out, he saved no small portion of his property by using the precaution. The Indians found nothing in the canoe, but one rifle, with a horn and pouch, a few light articles belonging to the bee-hunter's domestic economy, and which he had not thought it necessary to remove, and the paddles. All the honey, and the skins and stores, and spare powder, and lead, and, in short, everything else that belonged to le Bourdon, was still safe on the other side of the river. The greatest advantage gained by the Pottawattamies was in the possession of the canoe itself, by means of which they would now be enabled to cross the Kalamazoo, or make any other similar expedition, by water.

But, as yet, not a sign of hostility was betrayed by either party. The bee-hunter seemed to pay no attention to his rifle and ammunition, or even to his canoe, while the savages, after having warily examined the last, together with its contents, returned to their visitor, to re-examine him, with a curiosity as lively as it was full of distrust. At this stage in the proceeding, something like a connected and intelligible conversation commenced between the chief who spoke English, and who was known in most of the north- western garrisons of the Americans by the name of Thundercloud, or Cloud, by way of abbreviation, on account of his sinister looks, though the man actually sustained a tolerably fair reputation for one of those who, having been wronged, was so certain to be calumniated. No man was ever yet injured, that he has not been slandered.

"Who kill and scalp my young man?" asked Cloud, a little abruptly.

"Has my brother lost a warrior?" was the calm reply. "Yes, I see that he has. A medicine-man can see that, though it is dark."

"Who kill him, if can see?-who scalp him, too?"

"An enemy did both," answered le Bourdon, oracularly. "Yes; 'twas an enemy that killed him; and an enemy that took his scalp."

"Why do it, eh? Why come here to take Pottawattamia scalp, when no war-path open, eh?"

"Pottawattamie, the truth must always be said to a medicine-man. There is no use in trying to hide truth from him. There is a war- path open; and a long and a tangled path it is. My Great Father at Washington has dug up the hatchet against my Great Father at Quebec. Enemies always take scalps when they can get them."

"Dat true--dat right, too--nobody grumble at dat--but who enemy? pale-face or red-skin?"

"This time it was a red-skin--a Chippewa--one of your own nation, though not of your own tribe. A warrior called Pigeonswing, whom you had in thongs, intending to torture him in the morning. He cut his thongs, and shot your young man--after which he took his scalp."

"How know dat?" demanded the Cloud, a little fiercely. "You 'long, and help kill Pottawattamie, eh?"

"I know it," answered le Bourdon, coolly, "because medicine-men know most of what happens. Do not be so hasty, chief, for this is a medicine spot--whiskey grows here."

A common exclamation escaped all of the red men, who comprehended the clear, distinct, and oracular-like language and manner of the bee-hunter. He intended to make an impression on his listeners, and he succeeded admirably; perhaps as much by means of manner as of matter. As has been said, all who understood his words--some four or five of the party--grunted forth their surprise at this evidence of their guest's acquaintance with the secrets of the place, in which they were joined by the rest of their companions, as soon as the words of the pale-face had been translated. Even the experienced and wary old chiefs, who had more than half conjectured the truth, in connection with this mysterious odor of whiskey, were much unsettled in their opinions concerning the wonder, and got to be in that condition of mind when a man does not know what to think of any particular event. The bee-hunter, quick-witted, and managing for his life, was not slow to perceive the advantage he had gained, and he proceeded at once to clinch the nail he had so skilfully driven. Turning from Cloud to the head-chief of the party, a warrior whom he had no difficulty in recognizing, after having so long watched his movements in the earlier part of the night, he pushed the same subject a little further.

"Yes; this place is called by the whites Whiskey Centre," he added-- "which means that it is the centre of all the whiskey of the country round about."

"Dat true," said Cloud, quickly--"I hear so'ger at Fort Dearborn call him Whiskey Centre!"

This little circumstance greatly complicated the mystery, and le Bourdon perceived that he had hit on a lucky explanation.

"Soldiers far and near--soldiers drunk or sober--soldiers with scalps, and soldiers without scalps--all know the place by that name. But you need not believe with your eyes shut and noses stopped, chief, since you have the means of learning for yourselves the truth of what I tell you. Come with me, and I will tell you where to dig in the morning for a whiskey spring."

This communication excited a tremendous feeling among the savages, when its purport came to be explained to the whole party. Apart from the extraordinary, miraculous nature of such a spring, which in itself was sufficient to keep alive expectation and gratify curiosity, it was so comfortable to have an inexhaustible supply of the liquor running out of the bowels of the earth, that it is no wonder the news spread infinite delight among the listeners. Even the two or three of the chiefs who had so shrewdly divined the manner in which the liquor had been spilled, were staggered by the solemnity and steadiness of the bee-hunter's manner, and perhaps a little carried away by sympathy with those around them. This yielding of the human mind to the influence of numbers is so common an occurrence as scarcely to require explanation, and is the source of half the evils that popular associations inflict on themselves. It is not that men capable of seeing the truth are ever wanting; but men capable of maintaining it, in the face of clamor and collected power.

It will be readily conceived that a medicine-man who is supposed to possess the means of discovering a spring that should overflow with pure whiskey, would not be left without urgent demands for a speedy exercise of this art. This was now the case with le Bourdon, who was called on from all sides to point out the precise spot where the young men were to commence digging in order to open on the treasure. Our hero knew that his only hope of escape was connected with his steadily maintaining his assumed character; or of maintaining this assumed character, with his going on, at once, to do something that might have the effect, temporarily at least, of satisfying the impatience of his now attentive listeners. Accordingly, when the demand was made on him to give some evidence of his power, he set about the task, not only with composure, but with a good deal of ingenuity.

Le Bourdon, it will be remembered, had, with his own hands, rolled the two barrels of whiskey down the declivity. Feeling the great importance of effectually destroying them, he had watched their descent, from the top to the bottom of the hill, and the final disappearance of the staves, etc., into the torrent which brawled at its foot. It had so happened that the half-filled cask broke and let out its liquor at a point much more remote from the stream, than the filled. The latter had held together until it went over the low rocky precipice, already mentioned, and was stove at its base, within two yards of the torrent, which received all its fragments and swept them away, including most of the liquor itself; but not until the last had been spilled. Now, the odorous spot which had attracted the noses of the savages, and near which they had built their fire, was that where the smallest quantity of the whiskey had fallen. Le Bourdon reasoned on these circumstances in this wise:--if half a barrel of the liquor can produce so strong a scent, a barrel filled ought to produce one still stronger; and I will manifest my medicine-character, by disregarding for the present moment the spot on the hill-side, and proceed at once to that at the foot of the rocks. To this latter point, therefore, did he direct all the ceremony, as well as his own footsteps, when he yielded to the solicitations of the Pottawattamies, and undertook to point out the position of the whiskey spring.

The bee-hunter understood the Indian character too well to forget to embellish his work with a proper amount of jugglery and acting. Luckily, he had left in the canoe a sort of frock of mottled colors that he had made himself, to wear in the woods in the autumn as a hunting-dress, under the notion that such a covering would conceal his approach from his game, by blending its hues with those of the autumn leaf. This dress he now assumed, extorting a good deal of half-suppressed admiration from the younger warriors, by the gay appearance he made. Then he drew out his spy-glass to its greatest length, making various mysterious signs and gestures as he did so. This glass proved to be a great auxiliary, and possibly alone kept the doubters in awe. Le Bourdon saw at once that it was entirely new, even to the oldest chief, and he felt how much it might be made to assist him. Beckoning to Cloud, and adjusting the focus, he directed the small end of his glass to the fire, and placed the large end to that Indian's eye. A solitary savage, who loved the scent of whiskey too much to tear himself away from the spot, was lingering within the influence of the rays, and of course was seen by the chief, with his person diminished to that of a dwarf, and his form thrown to a seeming distance.

An eloquent exclamation followed this exhibition of the medicine- man's power; and each of the chiefs, and most of the other warriors, were gratified with looks through the glass.

"What dat mean?" demanded Cloud, earnestly. "See Wolfeye well 'nough--why he so little?--why he so far off, he?"

"That is to show you what a medicine-man of the pale-faces can do, when he is so minded. That Indian is named Wolfseye, and he loves whiskey too well. That I know, as well as I know his name."

Each of these exhibitions of intelligence extorted exclamations of wonder. It is true, that one or two of the higher chiefs understood that the name might possibly have been obtained from Cloud; but how was the medicine-man to know that Wolfseye was a drunkard? This last had not been said in terms; but enough had been said, to let those who were aware of the propensity feel that more was meant than had been expressed. Before there was time, however, to deliberate on, or to dissect this specimen of mysterious knowledge, le Bourdon reversed the glass, and applied the small end to the eye of Cloud, after having given it its former direction. The Indian fairly yelled, partly with dread, and partly with delight, when he saw Wolfseye, large as life, brought so near him that he fancied he might be touched with his own hand.

"What dat mean?" exclaimed Cloud, as soon as surprise and awe enabled him to find his voice. "Fuss he little, den he big--fuss he great way, den he close by--what dat mean, eh?"

"It means that I am a medicine-man, and this is a medicine-glass, and that I can see with it into the earth, deeper than the wells, or higher than the mountains!"

These words were translated, and explained to all three. They extorted many ejaculations of wonder, and divers grunts of admiration and contentment. Cloud conferred a moment with the two principal chiefs; then he turned eagerly to the bee-hunter, saying--

"All good, but want to hear more--want to l'arn more--want to see more."

"Name your wants freely, Pottawattamie," answered le Bourdon, with dignity, "they shall be satisfied."

"Want to see--want to taste whiskey spring--see won't do--want to taste"

"Good--you shall smell first; then you shall see; after that you shall taste. Give me room, and be silent; a great medicine is near."

Thus delivering himself, le Bourdon proceeded with his necromancy.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.