Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter XXIX.

     For an Indian isle she shapes her way
     With constant mind both night and day:
     She seems to hold her home in view
     And sails as if the path she knew,
     So calm and stately in her motion
     Across the unfathomed, trackless ocean.
                                           -- WILSON.

It has been said that Peter was in advance. When his canoe was nearly abreast of the usual landing at the hut, he saw two canoes coming out from among the rice, and distant from him not more than a hundred yards. At a greater distance, indeed, it would not have been easy to distinguish such an object on the water at all. Instead of attempting to avoid these two canoes, the chief instantly called to them, drawing the attention of those in them to himself, speaking so loud as to be easily overheard by those who followed.

"My young men are too late," he said. "The pale-faces have been seen in the openings above by our warriors, and must soon be here. Let us land, and be ready to meet them at the wigwam."

Peter's voice was immediately recognized. The confident, quiet, natural manner in which he spoke served to mislead those in the canoes; and when he joined them, and entered the passage among the rice that led to the landing, preceding the others, the last followed him as regularly as the colt follows its dam. Le Bourdon heard the conversation, and understood the movement, though he could not see the canoes. Peter continued talking aloud, as he went up the passage, receiving answers to all he said from his new companions, his voice serving to let the fugitives know precisely where they were. All this was understood and improved by the last, who lost no time in turning the adventure to account.

The first impulse of le Bourdon had been to turn and fly up stream. But, ascertaining that these dangerous enemies were so fully occupied by Peter as not to see the canoes behind, he merely inclined a little toward the other side of the channel, and slackened his rate of movement, in order not to come too near. The instant he was satisfied that all three of the canoes in advance had entered the passage mentioned, and were moving toward the landing, he let out, and glided down stream like an arrow. It required but half a minute to cross the opening of the passage, but Peter's conversation kept his followers looking ahead, which greatly lessened the risk. Le Bourdon's heart was in his mouth several times, while thus running the gauntlet, as it might be; but fortune favored them; or, as Margery more piously understood the circumstances, a Divine Providence led them in safety past the danger.

At the mouth of the river both le Bourdon and Gershom thought it highly probable that they should fall in with more lookouts, and each prepared his arms for a fight. But no canoe was there, and the fugitives were soon in the lake. Michigan is a large body of water, and a bark canoe is but a frail craft to put to sea in, when there is any wind or commotion. On the present occasion, there was a good deal of both; so much as greatly to terrify the females. Of all the craft known, however, one of these egg-shells is really the safest, if properly managed, among breakers or amid the combing of seas. We have ourselves ridden in them safely through a surf that would have swamped the best man-of-war cutter that ever floated; and done it, too, without taking on board as much water as would serve to wash one's hands. The light vessel floats on so little of the element, indeed, that the foam of a large sea has scarce a chance of getting above it, or aboard it; the great point in the handling being to prevent the canoe from falling broadside to. By keeping it end on to the sea, in our opinion, a smart gale might be weathered in one of these craft, provided the endurance of a man could bear up against the unceasing watchfulness and incessant labor of sweeping with the paddle, in order to prevent broaching to.

Le Bourdon, it has been said, was very skilful in the management of his craft; and Gershom, now perforce a sober and useful man, was not much behind him in this particular. The former had foreseen this very difficulty, and made all his arrangements to counteract it. No sooner, therefore, did he find the canoes in rough water than he brought them together, side by side, and lashed them there. This greatly lessened the danger of capsizing, though it increased the labor of managing the craft when disposed to turn broadside to. It only remained to get sail on the catamaran, for some such thing was it now, in order to keep ahead of the sea as much as possible. Light cotton lugs were soon spread, one in each canoe, and away they went, as sailors term it, wing and wing.

It was now much easier steering, though untiring vigilance was still necessary. A boat may appear to fly, and yet the "send of the sea" shall glance ahead of it with the velocity of a bird. Nothing that goes through, or on, the water--and the last is the phrase best suited to the floating of a bark canoe--can ever be made to keep company with that feathery foam, which, under the several names of "white-caps"--an in-shore and lubber's term--"combs," "breaking of the seas," "the wash," etc., etc., glances by a vessel in a blow, or comes on board her even when she is running before it. We have often watched these clouds of water, as they have shot ahead of us, when ploughing our own ten or eleven knot through the brine, and they have ever appeared to us as so many useful admonishers of what the power of God is, as compared to the power of man. The last shall construct his ship, fit her with all the appliances of his utmost art, sail her with the seaman's skill, and force her through her element with something like railroad speed; yet will the seas "send" their feathery crests past her, like so many dolphins, or porpoises, sporting under her fore-foot. It is this following sea which becomes so very dangerous in heavy gales, and which compels the largest ships frequently to heave to, in order that they may present their bows to its almost resistless power.

But our adventurers had no such gales as those we mean, or any such seas to withstand. The wind blew fresh from the south, and Michigan can get up a very respectable swell at need. Like the seas in all the great lakes, it was short, and all the worse for that. The larger the expanse of water over which the wind passes, the longer is the sea, and the easier is it for the ship to ride on it. Those of Lake Michigan, however, were quite long enough for a bark canoe, and glad enough were both Margery and Dorothy when they found their two little vessels lashed together, and wearing an air of more stability than was common to them. Le Bourdon's sail was first spread, and it produced an immediate relief from the washing of the waves. The drift of a bark canoe, in a smart blow, is considerable, it having no hold on the water to resist it; but our adventurers fairly flew as soon as the cotton cloth was opened. The wind being exactly south, by steering due north, or dead before it, it was found possible to carry the sail in the other canoe, borne out on the opposite side; and from the moment that was opened, all the difficulty was reduced to steering so "small," as seamen term it, as to prevent one or the other of the lugs from jibing. Had this occurred, however, no very serious consequences would have followed, the precaution taken of lashing the craft together rendering capsizing next to impossible.

The Kalamazoo and its mouth were soon far behind, and le Bourdon no longer felt the least apprehension of the savages left in it. The Indians are not bold navigators, and he felt certain that the lake was too rough for the savages to venture out, while his own course gradually carried him off the land, and out of the track of anything that kept near the shore. A short time produced a sense of security, and the wind appearing to fall, instead of increasing in violence, it was soon arranged that one of the men should sleep, while the other looked to the safety of the canoes.

It was about nine o'clock when the fugitives made sail, off the mouth of the Kalamazoo; and, at the return of light, seven hours later, they were more than forty miles from the place of starting. The wind still stood, with symptoms of growing fresher again as the sun rose, and the land could just be seen in the eastern board, the coast in that direction having made a considerable curvature inland. This had brought the canoes farther from the land than le Bourdon wished to be, but he could not materially change his course without taking in one of his sails. As much variation was made, however, as was prudent, and by nine o'clock, or twelve hours after entering the lake, the canoes again drew near to the shore, which met them ahead. By the bee hunter's calculations, they were now about seventy miles from the mouth of the Kalamazoo, having passed the outlets of two or three of the largest streams of those regions.

The fugitives selected a favorable spot, and landed behind a headland that gave them a sufficient lee for the canoes. They had now reached a point where the coast trends a little to the eastward, which brought the wind in a slight degree off the land. This change produced no very great effect on the seas, but it enabled the canoes to keep close to the shore, making something of a lee for them. This they did about noon, after having lighted a fire, caught some fish in a small stream, killed a deer and dressed it, and cooked enough provisions to last for two or three days. The canoes were now separated again; it being easier to manage them in that state than when lashed together, besides enabling them to carry both sails. The farther north they got the more of a lee was found, though it was in no place sufficient to bring smooth water.

In this manner several more hours were passed, and six times as many more miles were made in distance. When le Bourdon again landed, which he did shortly before the sun set, he calculated his distance from the mouth of the Kalamazoo to be rather more than a hundred miles. His principal object was to ascend a bluff and to take a look at the coast, in order to examine it for canoes. This his glass enabled him to do with some accuracy, and when he rejoined the party, he was rejoiced to have it in his power to report that the coast was clear. After refreshing themselves, the canoes were again brought together, in order to divide the watches, and a new start was made for the night. In this manner did our adventurers make their way to the northward for two nights and days, landing often, to fish, hunt, rest, and cook, as well as to examine the coast. At the end of the time mentioned, the celebrated straits of the Michillimackinac, or Mackinaw, as they are almost universally termed, came in sight. The course had been gradually changing toward the eastward, and, luckily for the progress of the fugitives, the wind with it, leaving them always a favorable breeze. But it was felt to be no longer safe to use a sail, and recourse was had to the paddles, until the straits and island were passed. This caused some delay, and added a good deal to the labor; but it was deemed so dangerous to display their white cotton sails, objects that might be seen for a considerable distance, that it was thought preferable to adopt this caution. Nor was it useless. In consequence of this foresight, a fleet of canoes was passed in safety, which were crossing from the post at Mackinaw to ward the main land of Michigan. The number of the canoes in this fleet could not have been less than fifty, but getting a timely view of them, le Bourdon hid his own craft in a cove, and remained there until the danger was over.

The course now changed still more, while the wind got quite round to the westward. This made a fair wind at first, and gave the canoes a good lee as they advanced. Lake Huron, which was the water the fugitives were now on, lies nearly parallel to Michigan, and the course was southeasterly. As le Bourdon had often passed both ways on these waters, he had his favorite harbors, and knew those signs which teach navigators how to make their prognostics of the weather. On the whole, the fugitives did very well, though they lost two days between Mackinaw and Saginaw Bay; one on account of the strength of the wind, and one on account of rain. During the last, they remained in a hut that le Bourdon had himself constructed in one of his many voyages, and which he had left standing. These empty cabins, or chientes, are of frequent occurrence in new countries, being used, like the Refuges in the Alps, by every traveller as he has need of them.

The sight of the fleet of canoes, in the straits of Michillimackinac, caused the fugitives the only real trouble they had felt, between the time when they left the mouth of the Kalamazoo, and the ten days that succeeded. By the end of that period the party had crossed Saginaw, and was fast coming up with Point au Barques, a landmark for all who navigate the waters of Huron, when a canoe was seen coming out from under the land, steering as if to intercept them. This sight gave both concern and pleasure; concern, as it might lead to a hostile encounter, and pleasure, because the bee-hunter hoped for information that might be useful in governing his future course. Here his glass came in play, with good effect. By means of that instrument, it was soon ascertained that the strange canoe contained but two men, both Indians, and as that was just their own force no great danger was apprehended from the meeting. The craft, therefore, continued to approach each other, le Bourdon keeping his glass levelled on the strangers much of the time.

"As I live, yonder are Peter and Pigeonswing," suddenly exclaimed our hero. "They have crossed the Peninsula, and have come out from the point, in that canoe, to meet us."

"With important news, then, depend on it, Benjamin," answered the wife. "Tell this to brother, that he and Dolly may not feel more alarm than is necessary."

The bee-hunter called out to his friends in the other canoe, and communicated the discovery just made, the two craft keeping always within hailing distance of each other.

"Them Injins are not here for nothing," answered Dorothy. "You will find they have something serious to say."

"We shall soon know," called out le Bourdon. "Ten minutes will bring us alongside of them."

The ten minutes did that much, and before the expiration of the short space, the three canoes were fastened together, that of Peter being in the centre. The bee-hunter saw, at a glance, that the expedition of the Indians had been hurried; for their canoe, besides being of very indifferent qualities, was not provided with the implements and conveniences usual to a voyage of any length. Still, he would not ask a question, but lighting his pipe, after a few puffs, he passed it courteously over to Peter. The great chief smoked a while, and gave it to Pigeonswing, in his turn, who appeared to enjoy it quite as much as any of the party.

"My father does not believe he is a Jew?" said le Bourdon, smiling; willing to commence a discourse, though still determined not to betray a womanish curiosity.

"We are poor Injins, Bourdon; just as the Great Spirit made us. Dat bess. Can't help what Manitou do. If he don't make us Jew, can't be Jew. If he make us Injin, muss be Injin. For my part, b'lieve I'm Injin, and don't want to be pale-face. Can love pale-face, now, juss as well as love Injin."

"Oh, I hope this is true, Peter," exclaimed Margery, her handsome face flushing with delight, at hearing these words. "So long as your heart tells you this, be certain that the Spirit of God is in you."

Peter made no answer, but he looked profoundly impressed with the novel feeling that had taken possession of his soul. As for the bee- hunter, he did not meddle with Margery's convictions or emotions on such subjects, resembling, in this particular, most men, who, however indifferent to religion in their own persons, are never sorry to find that their wives profoundly submit to its influence. After a short pause, a species of homage involuntarily paid to the subject, he thought he might now inquire into the circumstances that brought the Indians on their route, without incurring the imputation of a weak and impatient curiosity. In reply, Peter's story was soon told. He had rejoined the chiefs without exciting distrust, and all had waited for the young men to bring in the captives. As soon as it was ascertained that the intended victims had escaped, and by water, parties proceeded to different points, in order to intercept them. Some followed in canoes, but, being less bold in their navigation than the bee-hunter, they did not make the straits until some time after the fugitives had passed. Peter, himself, had joined Bear's Meat and some twenty warriors who had crossed the Peninsula, procured canoes at the head of Saginaw Bay, and had come out at Point au Barques, the very spot our party was now approaching, three days before its arrival.

Tired with waiting, and uncertain whether his enemies had not got the start of him, Bear's Meat had gone into the river below, intending to keep his watch there, leaving Peter at the Point, with three young men and one canoe, to have a lookout. These young men the great chief had found an excuse for sending to the head of the Bay, in quest of another canoe, which left him, of course, quite alone on the Point. Scarce had the young man got out of sight, ere Pigeonswing joined his confederate, for it seems that this faithful friend had kept on the skirts of the enemy the whole time, travelling hundreds of miles, and enduring hunger and fatigue, besides risking his life at nearly every step, in order to be of use to those whom he considered himself pledged to serve.

Of course, Peter and Pigeonswing understood each other. One hour after they joined company, the canoes of the fugitives came in sight, and were immediately recognized by their sails. They were met, as has been mentioned, and the explanations that we have given were made before the party landed at the Point.

It was something to know where the risk was to be apprehended; but le Bourdon foresaw great danger. He had brought his canoes, already, quite five hundred miles, along a hazardous coast--though a little craft, like one of those he navigated, ran less risk, perhaps, than a larger vessel, since a shelter might, at any time, be found within a reasonable distance for it. From Pointe au Barques to the outlet of the lake was less than a hundred miles more. This outlet was a river, as it is called--a strait, in fact--which communicates with the small shallow lake of St. Clair, by a passage of some thirty miles in length. Then the lake St. Clair was to be crossed about an equal distance, when the canoes would come out in what is called the Detroit River, a strait again, as its name indicates. Some six or eight miles down this passage, and on its western side, stands the city of Detroit, then a village of no great extent, with a fort better situated to repel an attack of the savages, than to withstand a siege of white men. This place was now in the possession of the British, and, according to le Bourdon's notion, it was scarcely less dangerous to him than the hostility of Bear's Meat and his companions.

Delay, however, was quite as dangerous as anything else. After cooking and eating, therefore, the canoes continued their course, Peter and Pigeonswing accompanying them, though they abandoned their own craft. Peter went with the bee-hunter and Margery, while the Chippewa took a seat and a paddle in the canoe of Gershom. This change was made in order to put a double power in each canoe, since it was possible that downright speed might become the only means of safety.

The wind still stood at the westward, and the rate of sailing was rapid. About the close of the day the party drew near to the outlet, when Peter directed the sails to be taken in. This was done to prevent their being seen, a precaution that was now aided by keeping as near to the shore as possible, where objects so small and low would be very apt to be confounded with others on the land.

It was quite dark when the canoes entered the St. Clair river. Favored by the current and the wind, their progress was rapid, and ere the day returned, changing his direction from the course ordinarily taken, Peter entered the lake by a circuitous passage; one of the many that lead from the river to the lake, among aquatic plants that form a perfect shelter. This detour saved the fugitives from falling into the hands of one party of their enemies, as was afterward ascertained by the Indians. Bear's Meat had left two canoes, each manned by five warriors, to watch the principal passages into Lake St. Clair, not anticipating that any particular caution would be used by the bee-hunter and his friends, at this great distance from the place where they had escaped from their foes. But the arrival of Peter, his sagacity, and knowledge of Indian habits, prevented the result that was expected. The canoes got into the lake unseen, and crossed it a little diagonally, so as to reach the Canada shore in the middle of the afternoon of the succeeding day, using their sails only when far from land, and not exposed to watchful eyes.

The bee-hunter and his friends landed that afternoon at the cabin of a Canadian Frenchman, on the shore of the lake, and at a safe distance from the outlet which led still farther south. Here the females were hospitably received, and treated with that kindness which marks the character of the Canadian French. It mattered little to these simple people, whether the travellers were of the hostile nation or not. It is true, they did not like the "Yankees," as all Americans are termed by them, but they were not particularly in love with their English masters. It was well enough to be repossessed of both banks of the Detroit, for both banks were then peopled principally by their own race, the descendants of Frenchmen of the time of Louis XIV., and who still preserved much of the language, and many of the usages, of the French of that period. They spoke then, as now, only the language of their fathers.

The bee-hunter left the cottage of these simple and hospitable people, as soon as the night was fairly set in; or, rather, as soon as a young moon had gone down. Peter now took the command, steering the canoe of le Bourdon, while Gershom followed so close as to keep the bow of his little craft within reach of the Indian's arm. In less than an hour the fugitives reached the opening of the river, which is here divided into two channels by a large island. On that very island, and at that precise moment, was Bear's Meat lying in wait for their appearance, provided with three canoes, each having a crew of six men. It would have been easy for this chief to go to Detroit, and give the alarm to the savages who were then collected there in a large force, and to have made such a disposition of the canoes as would have rendered escape by water impossible; but this would have been robbing himself and his friends of all the credit of taking the scalps, and throwing away what is termed "honor" among others as well as among savages. He chose, therefore, to trust to his own ability to succeed; and supposing the fugitives would not be particularly on their guard at this point, had little doubt of intercepting them here, should they succeed in eluding those he had left above.

The bee-hunter distrusted that island, and used extra caution in passing it. In the first place, the two canoes were brought together, so as to give them, in the dark, the appearance of only one; while the four men added so much to the crew as to aid the deception. In the end it proved that one of Bear's Meat's canoes that was paddling about in the middle of the river had actually seen them, but mistook the party for a canoe of their own, which ought to have been near that spot, with precisely six persons in it, just at that time. These six warriors had landed, and gone up among the cottages of the French to obtain some fruit, of which they were very fond, and of which they got but little in their own villages. Owing to this lucky coincidence, which the pretty Margery ever regarded as another special interposition of Providence in their favor, the fugitives passed the island without molestation, and actually got below the last lookouts of Bear's Meat, though without their knowledge.

It was by no means a difficult thing to go down the river, now that so many canoes were in motion on it, at all hours. The bee-hunter knew what points were to be avoided, and took care not to approach a sentinel. The river, or strait, is less than a mile wide, and by keeping in the centre of the passage, the canoes, favored by both wind and current, drove by the town, then an inconsiderable village, without detection. As soon as far enough below, the canoes were again cast loose from each other, and sail was made on each. The water was smooth, and some time before the return of light the fugitives were abreast of Malden, but in the American channel. Had it been otherwise, the danger could not have been great. So completely were the Americans subdued by Hull's capitulation, and so numerous were the Indian allies of the British, that the passage of a bark canoe, more or less, would hardly have attracted attention. At that time, Michigan was a province of but little more than a name. The territory was wide, to be sure, but the entire population was not larger than that of a moderately sized English market town, and Detroit was then regarded as a distant and isolated point. It is true that Mackinac and Chicago were both more remote, and both more isolated, but an English force, in possession of Detroit, could be approached by the Americans on the side of the land only by overcoming the obstacles of a broad belt of difficult wilderness. This was done the succeeding year, it is true, but time is always necessary to bring out Jonathan's latent military energies. When aroused, they are not trifling, as all his enemies have been made to feel; but a good deal of miscalculation, pretending ignorance, and useless talking must be expended, before the really efficient are allowed to set about serving the country in their own way.

In this respect, thanks to West Point, a well-organized staff, and well-educated officers, matters are a little improving. Congress has not been able to destroy the army, in the present war, though it did its best to attain that end; and all because the nucleus was too powerful to be totally eclipsed by the gas of the usual legislative tail of the Great National Comet, of which neither the materials nor the orbit can any man say he knows. One day, it declares war with a hurrah; the next, it denies the legislation necessary to carry it on, as if it distrusted its own acts, and already repented of its patriotism. And this is the body, soulless, the very school of faction, as a whole of very questionable quality in the outset, that, according to certain expounders of the constitution, is to perform all the functions of a government; which is not only to pass laws, but is to interpret them; which is to command the army, aye, even to wheeling its platoons; which reads the constitution as an abbe mumbles his aves and paters, or looking at everything but his texts; and which is never to have its acts vetoed, unless in cases where the Supreme Court would spare the Executive that trouble. We never yet could see either the elements or the fruits of this great sanctity in the National Council. In our eyes it is scarcely ever in its proper place on the railway of the Union, has degenerated into a mere electioneering machine, performing the little it really does convulsively, by sudden impulses, equally without deliberation or a sense of responsibility. In a word, we deem it the power of all others in the state that needs the closest watching, and were we what is termed in this country "politicians," we should go for the executive who is the most ready to apply the curb to these vagaries of faction and interested partisans! Vetoes. Would to Heaven we could see the days of Good Queen Bess revived for one session of Congress at least, and find that more laws were sent back for the second thoughts of their framers than were approved! Then, indeed, might the country be brought back to a knowledge of the very material constitutional facts that the legislature is not commander- in-chief, does not negotiate or make treaties, and has no right to do that which it has done so often--appoint to office by act of Congress.

As a consequence of the little apprehension entertained by the English of being soon disturbed in their new conquests, le Bourdon and his friends got out of the Detroit River, and into Lake Erie, without discovery or molestation. There still remained a long journey before them. In that day the American side of the shores of all the Great Lakes was little more than a wilderness. There were exceptions at particular points, but these were few and far asunder. The whole coast of Ohio--for Ohio has its coast as well as Bohemia [Footnote: See Shakespeare--Winter's Tale.]--was mostly in a state of nature, as was much of those of Pennsylvania and New York, on the side of the fresh water. The port which the bee-hunter had in view was Presque Isle, now known as Erie, a harbor in Pennsylvania, that has since become somewhat celebrated in consequence of its being the port out of which the American vessels sailed, about a year later than the period of which we are writing, to fight the battle that gave them the mastery of the lake. This was a little voyage of itself, of near two hundred miles, following the islands and the coast, but it was safely made in the course of the succeeding week. Once in Lake Erie and on the American side, our adventurers felt reasonably safe against all dangers but those of the elements. It is true that a renowned annalist, whose information is sustained by the collected wisdom of a State Historical Society, does tell us that the enemy possessed both shores of Lake Erie in 1814; but this was so small a mistake, compared with some others that this Nestor in history had made, that we shall not stop to explain it. Le Bourdon and his party found all the south shore of Lake Erie in possession of the Americans, so far as it was in the possession of any one, and consequently ran no risks from this blunder of the historian and his highly intelligent associates!

Peter and Pigeonswing left their friends before they reached Presque Isle. The bee-hunter gave them his own canoe, and the parting was not only friendly, but touching. In the course of their journey, and during their many stops, Margery had frequently prayed with the great chief. His constant and burning desire, now, was to learn to read, that he might peruse the word of the Great Spirit, and regulate his future life by its wisdom and tenets. Margery promised, should they ever meet again, and under circumstances favorable to such a design, to help him attain his wishes.

Pigeonswing parted from his friend with the same light-hearted vivacity as he had manifested in all their intercourse. Le Bourdon gave him his own rifle, plenty of ammunition, and various other small articles that were of value to an Indian, accepting the Chippewa's arms in return. The exchange, however, was greatly to the advantage of the savage. As for Peter, he declined all presents. He carried weapons now, indeed, merely for the purpose of hunting; but the dignity of his character and station would have placed him above such compensations, had the fact been otherwise.

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