Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper
He turned him round, and fled amain With hurry and dash to the beach again; He twisted over from side to side, And laid his cheek to the cleaving tide; The strokes of his plunging arms are fleet, And with all his might he flings his feet, But the water-sprites are round him still, To cross his path and work him ill. --The Culprit Fay.
The first step in the conjuration of the bee-hunter was, to produce an impression on the minds of his untutored observers, by resorting to a proper amount of mummery and mystical action. This he was enabled to do with some effect, in consequence of having practised as a lad in similar mimicry, by way of pastime. The Germans, and the descendants of Germans in America, are not of a very high class, as respects education, taken as a body, and they retain many of the most inveterate of the superstitions of their Teutonic ancestors. Although the bee-hunter himself was of purely English descent, he came from a State that was in part peopled by these Germans and their descendants; and, by intercourse with them, he had acquired a certain knowledge of their notions on the subject of necromancy, that he now found was of use. So far as gravity of mien, solemn grimaces, and unintelligible mutterings were concerned, le Bourdon played his part to admiration; and by the time he had led the party half the distance he intended to go, our necromancer, or "medicine- man," had complete possession of the imaginations of all the savages, the two or three chiefs already mentioned alone excepted. At this stage of the proceedings occurred a little incident, which goes to prove the disposition of the common mind to contribute in deceiving itself, and which was of considerable assistance to le Bourdon, in maintaining his assumed character.
It will be remembered that the place where the Indians had found their strongest scent was on the hill-side, or the spot where the half-filled barrel had let out most of its contents. Near this spot their new fire was still brightly blazing, and there Wolfseye remained, regaling one of his senses, at least, with an odor that he found so agreeable. But the bee-hunter knew that he should greatly increase the wonder of the savages by leading them to a new scent- spot, one to which there was no visible clew, and where the odor was probably much stronger than on the hill-side. Accordingly he did not approach the fire, but kept around the base of the hill, just enough within the influence of the light to pick his way readily, and yet so distant from it as to render his countenance indistinct and mysterious. No sooner, however, had he got abreast of the scent-spot known to the savages, than the crowd endeavored to lead him toward it, by gestures and hints, and, finally, by direct intimations that he was going astray. All this our "medicine-man" disregarded; he held his way steadily and solemnly toward that place at the foot of the hill where he knew that the filled barrel had let out its contents, and where he, reasonably enough, expected to find sufficient traces of the whiskey to answer his purposes. At first, this pertinacity provoked the crowd, which believed he was going wrong; but a few words from Crowsfeather, the principal chief, caused the commotion to cease. In a few more minutes le Bourdon stopped, near the place of his destination. As a fresh scent of whiskey was very perceptible here, a murmur of admiration, not unmixed with delight, passed among the attendants.
"Now, let the young men build a fire for me" said the bee-hunter, solemnly--"not such a fire as that which is burning on the hill, but a medicine-fire. I smell the whiskey spring, and want a medicine- light to see it."
A dozen young men began to collect the brush; in a minute a pile of some size had been accumulated on a flat rock, within twenty feet of the spot where le Bourdon knew that the cask had been dashed to pieces. When he thought the pile sufficiently large, he told Crowsfeather that it might be lighted by bringing a brand from the other fire.
"This will not be a medicine-light, for that can come only from 'medicine-matches,'" he added; "but I want a fire to see the shape of the ground. Put in the brand, brothers; let us have a flame."
The desire of the bee-hunter was gratified, and the whole of the base of the hill around the spot where the filled cask had broken, was illuminated.
"Now, let all the Pottawattamies stand back," added le Bourdon, earnestly. "It might cost a warrior his life to come forward too soon--or, if not his life, it might give a rheumatism that can never be cured, which is worse. When it is time for my red brothers to advance, they will be called."
As the bee-hunter accompanied this announcement by suitable gestures, he succeeded in ranging all of the silent, but excited savages on three sides of his fire, leaving that next his mysterious spring to himself, alone. When all was arranged, le Bourdon moved slowly, but unaccompanied, to the precise spot where the cask had broken. Here he found the odor of the whiskey so strong, as to convince him that some of the liquor must yet remain. On examining more closely, he ascertained that several shallow cavities of the flat rock, on which the cask had been dashed, still contained a good deal of the liquor; enough to prove of great assistance to his medicine character.
All this while the bee-hunter kept one portion of his faculties on the alert, in order to effect his escape. That he might deceive for a time, aided as he was by so many favorable circumstances, he did not doubt; but he dreaded the morning and the results of a night of reflection and rest. Crowsfeather, in particular, troubled him; and he foresaw that his fate would be terrible, did the savages once get an inkling of the deception he was practising. As he stood there, bending over the little pools of whiskey, he glanced his eyes toward the gloom which pervaded the northern side of the hill, and calculated the chances of escape by trusting to his speed. All of the Pottawattamies were on the opposite side, and there was a thicket favorably placed for a cover, so near that the rifle would scarce have time to perform its fatal office, ere he might hope to bury himself within its leaves. So tempting did the occasion appear, that, for a single instant, le Bourdon forgot his caution, and his mummeries, and had actually advanced a step or two in the direction toward which he contemplated flight, when, on glancing an uneasy look behind him, he perceived Crowsfeather and his two intimate counsellors stealthily preparing their rifles, as if they distrusted his intentions. This at once induced a change of plan, and brought the bee-hunter back to a sense of his critical position, and of the indispensable necessity of caution to a man in his situation.
Le Bourdon now seemingly gave all his attention to the rocks where he stood, and out of which the much-coveted liquor was expected to flow; though his thoughts were still busily employed in considering the means of escape, the whole time. While stooping over the different pools, and laying his plans for continuing his medicine- charms, the bee-hunter saw how near he had been to committing a great mistake. It was almost as indispensable to carry off the canoe, as it was to carry off himself; since, with the canoe, not only would all his own property, but pretty Margery, and Gershom and his wife, be at the mercy of the Pottawattamies; whereas, by securing the boat, the wide Kalamazoo would serve as a nearly impassable barrier, until time was given to the whites to escape. His whole plan was changed by this suggestion, and he no longer thought of the thicket and of flight inland. At the same time that the bee hunter was laying up in his mind ideas so important to his future movements, he did not neglect the necessary examination of the means that might be required to extend and prolong his influence over the minds of the superstitious children of the forest on whom he was required to practise his arts. His thoughts reverted to the canoe, and he concocted a plan by which he believed it possible to get possession of his little craft again. Once on board it, by one vigorous shove he fancied he might push it within the cover of the rice-plants, where he would be in reasonable safety against the bullets of the savages. Could he only get the canoe on the outer side of the narrow belt of the plant, he should deem himself safe!
Having arranged his course in his own mind, le Bourdon now beckoned to Crowsfeather to draw near, at the same time inviting the whole party to approach within a few feet of the spot where he himself stood. The bee-hunter had brought with him from the boat a fragment of the larger end of a cane fishing-rod, which he used as a sort of wand. Its size was respectable, and its length about eight feet. With this wand he pointed out the different objects he named, and it answered the very important purpose of enabling him to make certain small changes in the formation of the ground, that were of the greatest service to him, without permitting curious eyes to come so near as to detect his artifices.
"Now open your ears, Crowsfeather; and you, Cloud; and all of you, young braves," commenced the bee-hunter, solemnly, and with a steadiness that was admirable; "yes, open wide your ears. The Great Spirit has given the red man a nose that he might smell--does the Cloud smell more than common?"
"Sartain--smell whiskey--this Whiskey Centre dey say--nat'ral dat such smell be here."
"Do all the chiefs and warriors of the Pottawattamies who are present, also smell the same?"
"S'pose so--why he don't, eh? Got nose--can smell whiskey good way, tell you."
"It is right they should smell the liquor here, for out of this rock a whiskey spring will soon begin to run. It will begin with a very small stream, but soon will there be enough to satisfy everybody. The Great Manitou knows that his red children are dry; he has sent a 'medicine-man' of the pale-faces to find a spring for them. Now, look at this piece of rock--it is dry--not even the dew has yet moistened it. See--it is made like a wooden bowl, that it may hold the liquor of the spring. Let Crowsfeather smell it--smell it, Cloud--let all my young men smell it, too, that they may be certain that there is nothing there."
On this invitation, accompanied as it was by divers flourishes of the wand, and uttered in a deep, solemn tone of voice, the whole party of the Indians gathered around the small hollow basin-like cavity pointed out by the bee-hunter, in order both to see and to smell. Most knelt, and each and all applied their noses to the rock, as near the bowl as they could thrust them. Even the dignified and distrustful Crowsfeather could not refrain from bending in the crowd. This was the moment for which le Bourdon wished, and he instantly prepared to carry out his design.
Previously, however, to completing the project originally conceived, a momentary impulse prevailed which urged him to adopt a new mode of effecting his escape. Now, that most of the savages were on their hands and knees, struggling to get their noses as near as possible to the bowl, and all were intent on the same object, it occurred to the bee-hunter, who was almost as active as the panther of the American forest, that he might dash on toward the canoe, and make his escape without further mummery. Had it been only a question of human speed perhaps such would have been the wisest thing he could do; but a moment's reflection told him how much swifter than any foot of man was the bullet of a rifle. The distance exceeded a hundred yards, and it was altogether in bright light, by means of the two fires, Wolfseye continuing to pile brush on that near which he still maintained his post, as if afraid the precious liquor would start out of the scent-spot, and be wasted should he abandon his ward. Happily, therefore, le Bourdon relinquished his dangerous project almost as soon as it was entertained, turning his attention immediately to the completion of the plan originally laid.
It has been said that the bee-hunter made sundry flourishes with his wand. While the savages were most eager in endeavoring to smell the rock, he lightly touched the earth that confined the whiskey in the largest pool, and opened a passage by which the liquor could trickle down the side of the rock, selecting a path for itself, until it actually came into the bowl, by a sinuous but certain channel.
Here was a wonder! Liquor could not only be smelled, but it could be actually seen! As for Cloud, not satisfied with gratifying the two senses connected with the discoveries named, he began to lap with his tongue, like a dog, to try the effect of taste.
"The Manitou does not hide his face from the Pottawattamie!" exclaimed this savage, rising to his feet in astonishment; "this is the fire-water, and such as the pale-faces bring us for skins!"
Others imitated his example, and the exclamations of wonder and delight flew from mouth to mouth, in a torrent of vehement assertions and ejaculations. So great a "medicine" charm had never before been witnessed in that tribe, or in that region, and a hundred more might succeed, before another should equal this in its welcome character. There was whiskey, of a certainty, not much in quantity, to be sure, but of excellent quality, as several affirmed, and coming in a current that was slowly increasing! This last sign was owing to the circumstance that le Bourdon had deepened the outlet of the pool, permitting a larger quantity to flow down the little channel.
The moment had now come for a decisive step. The bee-hunter knew that his precious rivulet would soon cease to run, and that he must carry out his design under the first impressions of his charm, or that he probably would not be permitted to carry it out, at all. At this moment even Crowsfeather appeared to be awed by what he had seen; but a chief so sagacious might detect the truth, and disappointment would then be certain to increase the penalties he would incur.
Making many sweeps of his wand, and touching various points of the rock, both to occupy the attention of the savages, and to divert it from his pool, the bee-hunter next felt in his pocket and drew out a small piece of resin that he knew was there; the remains of a store with which he resined the bow of his fiddle; for our hero had a violin among his effects, and often used it in his solitary abodes in the openings. Breaking this resin on a coal, he made it flash and blaze; but the quantity was too small to produce the "medicine-fire" he wanted.
"I have more in my canoe," he said, addressing himself to the interpreter; "while I go for it, the red men must not stir, lest they destroy a pale-face's doings. Least of all they must go near the spring. It would be better for the chiefs to lead away their young men, and make them stand under the oak, where nothing can be done to hurt the 'medicine-charm.'"
The bee-hunter pointed to a tree that stood in the direction of the canoe, in order to prevent distrust, though he had taken care to select a spot whence the little craft could not be seen, on account of an intervening swell in the land, Crowsfeather led his warriors to the indicated place, where they took their stations, in silent and grave attention.
In the mean while, le Bourdon continued his incantations aloud; walking toward his canoe, waving his hand, and uttering a great deal of gibberish as he slowly proceeded. In passing the tree, our hero, though he did not turn his head, was sensible that he was followed by the chiefs, a movement against which he did not dare to remonstrate, though it sadly disappointed him. Neither hastening nor retarding his steps, however, in consequence of this unpleasant circumstance, the young man continued on; once or twice sweeping the wand behind him, in order to ascertain if he could reach his followers. But Crowsfeather and his companions stopped when they reached the swell of land which concealed the canoe, suffering the "medicine-man" to move on alone. Of this fact le Bourdon became aware, by turning three times in a circle, and pointing upward at the heavens with his wand, as he did so.
It was a nervous moment when the bee-hunter reached the canoe. He did not like to look behind him again, lest the chiefs should suspect his motive, and, in shoving off from the shore, he might do so within a few yards of the muzzle of a hostile rifle. There was no time to lose, however, for any protracted delay on his part would certainly cause the savages to approach, through curiosity, if not through distrust of his motives. He stepped into his light craft, therefore, without any delay, still flourishing his wand, and muttering his incantations. The first thing was to walk to the stern of the canoe, that his weight might raise the bow from the shore, and also that he might have an excuse for turning round, and thus get another look at the Indians. So critical was his situation, and so nervous did it make our young hero, that he took no heed of the state of matters in the canoe, until the last moment. When he had turned, however, he ascertained that the two principal chiefs had drawn so near as to be within twenty yards of him, though neither held his rifle at "ready," but each leaned on it in a careless manner, as if in no anticipation of any necessity to make a speedy use of the weapon. This state of things could not last, and le Bourdon braced his nerves for the final trial. On looking for his paddle, however, he found that of three which the canoe had contained when he left it, not even one was to be seen! These wily savages had, out of all question, taken their opportunity to remove and secrete these simple, but almost indispensable, means of motion.
At the instant when first apprised of the loss just mentioned, the bee-hunter's heart sunk within him, and he fell into the seat in the stern of the canoe, nearly with the weight of so much lead. Then a species of desperation came over him, and putting an end of his cane wand upon the bottom, with a vigorous shove he forced the canoe swiftly astern and to windward. Sudden as was this attempt, and rapid as was the movement, the jealous eyes and ready hands of the chiefs seemed to anticipate it. Two shots were fired within a few seconds after the canoe had quitted the shore. The reports of the rifles were a declaration of hostilities, and a general yell, accompanied by a common rush toward the river, announced that the whole band now understood that some deception had been practised at their expense.
Although the two chiefs in advance had been so very prompt, they were not quick enough for the rapid movement of the canoe. The distance between the stern of the boat and the rice-plants was so small, that the single desperate shove given by the bee-hunter sufficed to bury his person in the cover, before the leaden messengers reached him. Anticipating this very attempt, and knowing that the savages might get their range from the part of the canoe that was still in sight, le Bourdon bent his body far over the gunwale, grasping the rice-plants at the same time, and hauling his little craft through them, in the way that sailors call "hand over hand." This expedient most probably saved his life. While bending over the gunwale, he heard the crack of the rifles, and the whizzing of two bullets that appeared to pass just behind him. By this time the whole of the canoe was within the cover.
In a moment like that we are describing, incidents pass so rapidly as almost to defy description. It was not twenty seconds from the instant when le Bourdon first put his wand down to push the canoe from the land, ere he found his person emerging from the cover, on its weather side. Here he was effectually concealed from his enemies, not only on account of the cover made by the rice-plants, but by reason of the darkness; the light not extending far enough from the fire to illumine objects on the river. Nevertheless, new difficulties presented themselves. When clear of the rice, the wind, which still blew strong, pressed upon his canoe to such a degree as not only to stop its further movement from the shore, but so as to turn it broadside to, to its power. Trying with his wand, the bee- hunter ascertained that it would no longer reach the bottom. Then he attempted to use the cane as a paddle, but soon found it had not sufficient hold of the water to answer for such an implement. The most he could effect with it, in that way, was to keep the canoe for a short distance along the outer edge of the rice, until it reached a spot where the plant extended a considerable distance farther toward the middle of the river. Once within this little forest of the wild rice, he was enabled to drag the canoe farther and farther from the north shore, though his progress was both slow and laborious, on account of the resistance met.
All this time, the savages were not idle. Until the canoe got within its new cover, it was at no instant fifty yards from the beach, and the yells, and orders, and whoopings sounded as if uttered directly in le Bourdon's ear. A splashing in the water soon announced that our fugitive was pursued by swimmers. As the savages knew that the beehunter was without a paddle, and that the wind blew fresh, the expectation of overtaking their late captive, in this manner, was by no means chimerical. Half a dozen active young men would prove very formidable to one in such a situation, more especially while entangled in the mazes of the rice-plant. The bee-hunter was so well convinced of this circumstance, that no sooner did he hear the splashes of the swimmers, than he redoubled his exertions to pull his canoe farther from the spot. But his progress was slow, and he was soon convinced that his impunity was more owing to the fact that his pursuers did not know where to find him, than to the rapidity of his flight.
Notwithstanding his exertions, and the start obtained, le Bourdon soon felt assured that the swimmers were within a hundred feet of him, their voices coming from the outer margin of the cover in which he now lay, stationary. He had ceased dragging the canoe ahead, from an apprehension of being heard, though the rushing of the wind and the rustling of the rice might have assured him that the slight noises made by his own movements would not be very likely to rise above those sounds. The splashing of the swimmers, and their voices, gradually drew nearer, until the bee-hunter took up his rifle, determined to sacrifice the first savage who approached; hoping, thereby, to intimidate the others. For the first time, it now occurred to him that the breech of his rifle might be used as a paddle, and he was resolved to apply it to that service, could he once succeed in extricating himself from the enemies by whom he was nearly environed, and from the rice.
Just as le Bourdon fancied that the crisis had arrived, and that he should soon be called on to kill his man, a shout was given by a savage at some distance in the river, and presently calls passed from mouth to mouth, among the swimmers. Our hero now listened to a degree that kept his faculty of hearing at a point of painful attention. The voices and plashes on the water receded, and what was startling, a sound was heard resembling that which as produced by a paddle when struck incautiously against the side of a canoe. Was it then possible that the Chippewa was out, or had the Pottawattamies one boat that had escaped his attention? The last was not very probable, as he had several times counted their little fleet, and was pretty sure of having taken it all to the other side of the river. The sound of the paddle was repeated, however; then it occurred to the bee-hunter, that Pigeonswing might be on the scent for another scalp.
Although the conjecture just mentioned was exceedingly unpleasant to le Bourdon, the chase of the strange canoe gave him an opportunity to drag his own light craft ahead, penetrating deeper and deeper among the wild rice, which now spread itself to a considerable distance from the shore, and grew so thick as to make it impossible to get through the waving mass. At length, wearied with his exertions, and a little uncertain as to his actual position, our hero paused, listening intently, in order to catch any sounds that might direct his future movements.
By this time the savages ceased to call to each other; most probably conscious of the advantage it gave the fugitive. The bee-hunter perfectly understood that his pursuers must be aware of its being entirely out of his power to get to windward, and that they would keep along the shore of the river, as he did himself, expecting to see his canoe sooner or later driven by the wind on the beach. This had made him anxious to drag his boat as much toward the outer edge of the rice as he could get it, and by the puffs of wind that he occasionally felt, he hoped he had, in a great measure, effected his purpose. Still he had his apprehensions of the savages; as some would be very apt to swim quite out into the stream, not only to look for him, but to avoid being entangled among the plants. It was only in the natural channels of the rice, of which there were a good many, that a swimmer could very readily make his way, or be in much safety. By waiting long enough, moreover, the bee-hunter was sure he should tire out his pursuers, and thus get rid of them.
Just as le Bourdon began to think this last-mentioned purpose had been accomplished, he heard low voices directly to windward, and the splashing of water, as if more than one man was coming down upon him, forcing the stalks of the plants aside. He grasped the rifle, and let the canoe drift, which it did slowly, under the power of the wind, notwithstanding the protection of the cover. The swimmers forced their way through the stalks; but it was evident, just then, that they were more occupied by their present pursuit than in looking for him. Presently a canoe came brushing through the rice, forced by the wind, and dragged by two savages, one of whom swam on each bow. The last did not see the bee-hunter, or his canoe, the one nearest having his face turned in the opposite direction; but they were distinctly seen by the former. Surprised that a seizure should be made with so little fracas, le Bourdon bent forward to look the better, and, as the stern of the strange canoe came almost under his eyes, he saw the form of Margery lying in its bottom. His blood curdled at this sight; for his first impression was, that the charming young creature had been killed and scalped; but there being no time to lose, he sprang lightly from one canoe to the other, carrying the rifle in his hand. As he struck in the bottom of the boat of Gershom, he heard his name uttered in a sweet female voice, and knew that Margery was living. Without stopping, however, to inquire more, he moved to the head of the canoe, and, with a sharp blow on the fingers, made each of the savages release his grasp. Then, seizing the rice-plants, he dragged the little craft swiftly to windward again. All this was done, as it might be, in an instant; the savages and the canoe being separated some twenty feet, in much less time than is required to relate the occurrence.
"Bourdon, are you injured?" asked Margery, her voice trembling with anxiety.
"Not in the least, dear Margery--and you, my excellent girl?"
"They caught my canoe, and I almost died of fright; but they have only dragged it toward the shore."
"God be praised! Is there any paddle in the canoe?"
"There are several--one is at your feet, Bourdon--and here, I have another."
"Then, let us search for my canoe, and get out of the rice. If we can but find my canoe, we shall be safe enough, for the savages have nothing in which to cross the river. Keep your eyes about you, Margery, and look among the rice for the other boat"
The search was not long, but it was intently anxious. At length Margery saw the lost canoe just as it was drifting past them, and it was secured immediately. In a few minutes, le Bourdon succeeded in forcing the two craft into open water, when it was easy for him to paddle both to windward. The reader can readily imagine that our hero did not permit many minutes to elapse, ere he questioned his companion on the subject of her adventures. Nor was Margery reluctant to tell them. She had become alarmed at le Bourdon's protracted absence, and taking advantage of Pigeonswing lying down, she unloaded her brother's canoe, and went out into the river to look for the absent one. As a matter of course--though so feminine and far removed from all appearance of coarseness, a true American girl in this respect--Margery knew perfectly well how to manage a bark canoe. The habits of her life for the last few years, made her acquainted with this simple art; and strength being much less needed than skill, she had no difficulty in going whither she wished. The fires served as beacons, and Margery had been a distant witness of the bee-hunter's necromancy as well as of his escape. The instant the latter was effected, she endeavored to join him; and it was while incautiously paddling along the outer edge of the rice, with this intention, that her canoe was seized by two of the swimmers. As soon as these last ascertained that they had captured a "squaw," they did not give themselves the trouble to get into the canoe--a very difficult operation with one made of bark, and which is not loaded--but they set about towing the captured craft to the shore, swimming each with a single hand and holding on by the other.
"I shall not soon forget this kindness of yours, Margery," said le Bourdon, with warmth, when the girl had ended her simple tale, which had been related in the most artless and ingenuous manner. "No man could forget so generous a risk on the part of a young woman in his behalf."
"I hope you do not think it wrong, Bourdon--I should be sorry to have you think ill of me!"
"Wrong, dear Margery!--but no matter. Let us get ourselves out of present difficulties, and into a place of safety; then I will tell you honestly what I think of it, and of you, too. Was your brother awake, dear Margery, when you left the family?"
"I believe not--he sleeps long and heavily after drinking. But he can now drink no more, until he reaches the settlements."
"Not unless he finds the whiskey spring," returned the bee-hunter, laughing.
The young man then related to his wondering companion the history of the mummery and incantations of which she had been a distant spectator. Le Bourdon's heart was light, after his hazards and escape, and his spirits rose as his narrative proceeded. Nor was pretty Margery in a mood to balk his humor. As the bee-hunter recounted his contrivances to elude the savages, and most especially when he gave the particulars of the manner in which he managed to draw whiskey out of the living rock, the girl joined in his merriment, and filled the boat with that melody of the laugh of her years and sex, which is so beautifully described by Halleck.