Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper
There is no other land like thee, No dearer shore; Thou art the shelter of the free; The home, the port of liberty Thou hast been, and shall ever be Till time is o'er. Ere I forget to think upon My land, shall mother curse the son She bore. --Percival.
The independent, not to say controlling, manner of Peter, would seem to put all remonstrances and arguments at defiance, Le Bourdon soon had occasion to see that both the missionary and the corporal submitted to his wishes, and that there was no use in gainsaying anything he proposed. In all matters he did as he pleased; his two companions submitting to his will as completely as if one of them had seen in this supposed child of Israel, Joshua, the son of Nun, and the other even Aaron, the high-priest, himself.
Peter's preparations were soon made. Everything belonging to the missionary and the corporal was removed from the canoe, which then contained only the extra clothing and the special property of the Indian himself. As soon as ready, the latter quietly and fearlessly paddled away, his canoe going easily and swiftly down before the wind. He had no sooner got clear of the rice, than the bee-hunter and Margery ran away to the eminence, to watch his movements, and to note his reception among the Pottawattamies. Leaving them there, we shall accompany the canoe, in its progress toward the northern shore.
At first, Peter paddled quietly on, as if he had no other object before him than the passage of the river. When quite clear of the rice, however, he ceased, and undid his bundle of clothes, which were carefully put away in the knapsack of a soldier. From this repository of his effects, the chief carefully drew forth a small bundle, on opening which, no less than seven fresh human scalps appeared. These he arranged in order on a wand-like pole, when, satisfied with the arrangement, he resumed the paddle. It was apparent, from the first, that the Pottawattamies on the north shore had seen the strange canoe when it entered the river, and they now collected in a group, at the ordinary landing beneath the chiente, to await its approach. Peter ceased his own exertion, as soon as he had got within a hundred yards of the beach, took the scalp-pole in his hand, arose, and permitted the canoe to drift down before the wind, certain it would take the desired direction, from the circumstance of his having placed it precisely to windward of the landing. Once or twice he slowly waved the pole in a way to draw attention to the scalps, which were suspended from its end, each obvious and distinct from its companions.
Napoleon, when he returned from the campaign of Austerlitz; or Wellington, when he entered the House of Commons to receive the thanks of its speaker, on his return from Spain; or the chief of all the battles of the Rio Bravo del Norte; or him of the valley of Mexico, whose exploits fairly rival those of Cortes himself, could scarcely be a subject of greater interest to a body of spectators, assembled to do him honor, than was this well-known Indian, as he drew near to the Pottawattamies, waving his scalps, in significant triumph! Glory, as the homage paid by man to military renown is termed, was the common impulse with them all. It is true, that, measured by the standards of reason and right, the wise and just might find motives for appreciating the victories of those named differently from the manner in which they are usually regarded through the atmosphere of success; but in the common mind it was all glory, alike. The name of "Onoah" passed in murmurs of admiration, from mouth to mouth; for, as it appeared, the person of this renowned Indian was recognized by many on the shore, some time ere he reached it himself.
Crowsfeather, and the other chiefs, advanced to meet the visitor; the young men standing in the background, in respectful admiration. Peter now stepped from the canoe, and greeted each of the principal men with the courteous gravity of a savage. He shook hands with each, calling one or two by name, a proof of the parties having met before; then the following dialogue occurred. All spoke in the tongue of the Pottawattamies, but, as we have had occasion to remark on previous occasions, it is to be presumed that the reader would scarcely be able to understand what was said, were we to record it, word for word, in the language in which it was uttered. In consequence of this difficulty, and for other reasons to which it may not be necessary to allude, we shall endeavor to translate that which passed, as closely as the English idioms will permit us so to do.
"My father is very welcome!" exclaimed Crowsfeather, who, by many degrees, exceeded all his companions in consideration and rank. "I see he has taken many scalps as is his practice, and that the pale- faces are daily getting to be fewer. Will the sun ever rise on that day when their wigwams will look like the branches of the oak in winter? Can my father give us any hope of seeing that hour?"
"It is a long path from the salt-lake out of which the sun rises, to that other salt-lake in which it hides itself at night. The sun sleeps each night beneath water, but it is so hot that it is soon dried when it comes out of its bed in the morning. This is the Great Spirit's doings, and not ours. The sun is his sun; the Indians can warm themselves by it, but they cannot shorten its journey a single tomahawk handle's length. The same is true of time; it belongs to the Manitou, who will lengthen or shorten it, as he may see fit. We are his children, and it is our duty to submit. He has not forgotten us. He made us with his own hand, and will no more turn us out of the land than a father will turn his child from the wigwam."
"We hope this is so; but it does not seem thus to out poor weak eyes, Onoah. We count the pale-faces, and every summer they grow fast as the grass on the prairies. We can see more when the leaf falls than when the tree is in bud; and, then, more when the leaf is in bud than when it falls. A few moons will put a town where the pine stood, and wigwams drive the wolves from their homes. In a few years we shall have nothing but dogs to eat, if the pale-face dogs do not eat us."
"Squaws are impatient, but men know how to wait. This land was given to the red man by the Great Spirit, as I have often told you, my children; if he has let in the pale-faces for a few winters, it is to punish us for having done wrong. Now that we are sorry for what we have done, he will help us to drive away the strangers, and give us the woods again to hunt in by ourselves. Have not messengers from our Great Father in Montreal been among the Pottawattamies to strengthen their hearts?"
"They are always whispering in the ears of our tribes. I cannot remember the time when whispers from Montreal have not been among us. Their blankets are warm, their fire-water is strong, their powder is good, and their rifles shoot well; but all this does not stop the children of Uncle Sam from being more at night than they were in the morning. The red men get tired of counting them. They have become plentier than the pigeons in the spring. My father has taken many of their scalps, but the hair must grow after his knife, their scalps are so many."
"See!" rejoined Peter, lowering his pole so that all might examine his revolting trophies, "these come from the soldiers at the head of the lake. Blackbird was there with his young men; no one of them all got as many scalps! This is the way to stop the white pigeon from flying over us in such flocks as to hide and darken the sun."
Another murmur of admiration passed through the crowd, as each young warrior bent forward to count the number of the scalps, and to note, by signs familiar to themselves, the ages, sex, and condition of the different victims. Here was another instance among a hundred others of which they had heard, of the prowess of the mysterious Onoah, as well as of his inextinguishable hatred of the race, that was slowly, but unerringly, supplanting the ancient stock, causing the places that once knew the people of their tribes "to know them no more." As soon as this little burst of feeling had subsided, the conversation went on.
"We have had a pale-face medicine-man among us, Onoah," continued Crowsfeather, "and he has so far blinded us that we know not what to think."
The chief then recounted the leading events of the visit of the bee- hunter to the place, stating each occurrence fairly, as he understood it, and as fairly confessing that even the chiefs were at a loss to know what to make of the affair. In addition to this account, he gave the mysterious Onoah the history of the prisoner they had taken, the death of Elks-foot, their intention to torture that very morning the Chippewa they had captured, and his flight, together with the loss of their young man, and the subsequent escape of their unknown enemies, who had taken away all of their own canoes. How far the medicine-man had anything to do with the other events of his narrative, Crowsfeather very candidly admitted he could not even conjecture. He was still at a loss whether to set down the conjurer for a pretender, or as a real oracle. Peter, however, was less credulous even than the chiefs. He had his superstitious notions, like all uneducated men, but a clear head and quick intellect placed him far above the weaknesses of the red man in general. On receiving a description of the person of the unknown "medicine-man," he at once recognized the bee-hunter. With an Indian to describe, and an Indian to interpret or apply, escape from discovery was next to impossible.
Although Onoah, or the "Tribeless," as he was also frequently called by the red men, from the circumstance of no one's knowing to what particular section of the great Indian family he belonged, perfectly understood that the bee-hunter he had seen on the other shore was the individual who had been playing the part of a conjurer among these Pottawattamies, he was very careful not to reveal the fact to Crowsfeather. He had his own policy, and was fully aware of all the virtue there is in mystery and reserve. With an Indian, these qualities go farther even than with a white man; and we of the Caucasian race are not entirely exempt from the folly of being deceived by appearances. On the present occasion Peter kept his knowledge to himself, still leaving his red brethren in doubt and uncertainty; but he took care to be right in his own opinions by putting as many questions as were necessary for that purpose. Once assured of this fact, he turned to other subjects of even greater interest to himself and his companions.
The conference which now took place between the "Tribeless" and Crowsfeather was held apart, both being chiefs of too much importance to be intruded on at a moment like that. The two chiefs exhibited a very characteristic picture while engaged in this conference. They seated themselves on a bank, and drawing their legs partially under them, sat face to face, with their heads less than two feet asunder, occasionally gesticulating with dignity, but each speaking in his turn with studied decorum. Crowsfeather was highly painted, and looked fierce and warlike, but Onoah had nothing extraordinary about him, with the exception of the decorations and dress already described, unless it might be his remarkable countenance. The face of this Indian ordinarily wore a thoughtful cast, an expression which it is not unusual to meet with in a savage; though at times it lighted up, as it might be with the heat of inward fires, like the crater giving out its occasional flames beneath the hues of a saddened atmosphere. One accustomed to study the human face, and to analyze its expressions, would possibly have discovered in that countenance lines of deep artifice, together with the traces of a profound and constitutional enthusiasm. He was bent, at that very moment, on a scheme worthy of the loftiest spirit living; the regeneration and union of the people of his race, with a view to recover the possessions they had yielded to the pale-faces; but it was a project blended with the ferocity and revenge of a savage-noble while ferocious.
Not idly had the whites, scattered along that frontier, given the sobriquet of "Scalping" to Peter, As his pole now showed, it had been earned in a hundred scenes of bloody vengeance; and so great had been his success, that the warrior, prophet, and councillor, for all these characters were united in his single person, began to think the attainment of his wishes possible. As a matter of course, much ignorance of the power of the Anglo-Saxon race on this continent. was blended with these opinions and hopes; but it was scarcely an ignorance exceeding that of certain persons of far higher pretensions in knowledge, who live in another hemisphere, and who often set themselves up as infallible judges of all things connected with man and his attributes. Peter, the "Tribeless," was not more in fault than those who fancied they saw the power of this great republic in the gallant little band collected at Corpus Christi, under its indomitable chief, and who, march by march, nay, foot by foot, as it might be, have perseveringly predicted the halt, the defeat, the disasters, and final discomfiture, which it has not yet pleased Divine Providence to inflict on this slight effort of the young Hercules, as he merely moves in his cradle. Alas, the enemy that most menaces the overthrow of this new and otherwise invincible exhibition of human force, is within; seated in the citadel itself; and must be narrowly watched, or he will act his malignant purpose, and destroy the fairest hopes that ever yet dawned on the fortunes of the human race!
The conference between the chiefs lasted fully an hour. Crowsfeather possessed much of the confidence of Peter, and, as for Onoah, neither Tecumseh, nor his brother the Prophet, commanded as much of the respect of Crowsfeather as he did himself. Some even whispered that the "Tribeless" was the individual who lay behind all, and that the others named merely acted as he suggested, or advised. The reader will obtain all the insight into the future that it is necessary now to give him, by getting a few of the remarks made by the two colloquists, just before they joined the rest of the party.
"My father, then, intends to lead his pale-faces on a crooked path, and take their scalps when he has done with them," said Crowsfeather, who had been gravely listening to Peter's plans of future proceeding; "but who is to get the scalp of the Chippewa?"
"One of my Pottawattamie young men; but not until I have made use of him. I have a medicine-priest of the pale-faces and a warrior with me, but shall not put their scalps on my pole until they have paddled me further. The council is to be first held in the Oak Openings"--we translate this term freely, that used by Peter meaning rather "the open woods of the prairies"--"and I wish to show my prisoners to the chiefs, that they may see how easy it is to cut off all the Yankees. I have now four men of that people, and two squaws, in my power; let every red man destroy as many, and the land will soon be clear of them all!"
This was uttered with gleamings of ferocity in the speaker's face, that rendered his countenance terrible. Even Crowsfeather quailed a little before that fierce aspect; but the whole passed away almost as soon as betrayed, and was succeeded by a friendly and deceptive smile, that was characteristic of the wily Asiatic rather than of the aboriginal American.
"They cannot be counted," returned the Pottawattamie chief, as soon as his restraint was a little removed by this less terrific aspect of his companion, "if all I hear is true. Blackbird says that even the squaws of the pale-faces are numerous enough to overcome all the red men that remain."
"There will be two less, when I fasten to my pole the scalps of those on the other side of the river," answered Peter, with another of his transient, but startling gleams of intense revenge. "But no matter, now: my brother knows all I wish him to do. Not a hair of the head of any of these pale-faces must be touched by any hand but mine. When the time comes, the knife of Onoah is sure. The Pottawattamies shall have their canoes, arid can follow us up the river. They will find us in the Openings, and near the Prairie Round. They know the spot; for the red men love to hunt the deer in that region. Now, go and tell this to your young men; and tell them that corn will not grow, nor the deer wait to be killed by any of your people, if they forget to do as I have said. Vengeance shall come, when it is time."
Crowsfeather communicated all this to his warriors, who received it as the ancients received the words of their oracles. Each member of the party endeavored to get an accurate notion of his duty, in order that he might comply to the very letter with the injunctions received. So profound was the impression made among all the red men of the north-west by the previous labors of the "Tribeless" to awaken a national spirit, and so great was their dread of the consequences of disobedience, that every warrior present felt as if his life were the threatened penalty of neglect or disinclination to obey.
No sooner, however, had Crowsfeather got through with his communication, than a general request was made that the problem of the whiskey-spring might be referred to Onoah for solution. The young men had strong hopes, not-withstanding all that had passed, that this spring might yet turn out to be a reality. The scent was still there, strong and fragrant, and they could not get rid of the notion that "fire-water" grew on that spot. It is true, their faith had been somewhat disturbed by the manner in which the medicine-man had left them, and by his failure to draw forth the gushing stream which he had impliedly promised, and in a small degree performed; nevertheless little pools of whiskey had been found on the rock, and several had tasted and satisfied themselves of the quality of the liquor. As is usual, that taste had created a desire for more, a desire that seldom slumbered on an Indian palate when strong drinks were connected with its gratification.
Peter heard the request with gravity, and consented to look into the matter with a due regard to his popularity and influence. He had his own superstitious views, but among them there did not happen to be one which admitted the possibility of whiskey's running in a stream from the living rock. Still he was willing to examine the charmed spot, scent the fragrant odor, and make up his own estimate of the artifices by which the bee-hunter had been practising on the untutored beings into whose hand chance had thrown him.
While the young men eagerly pointed out the precise spots where the scent was the strongest, Peter maintained the most unmoved gravity. He did not kneel to smell the rocks, like the other chiefs, for this an innate sense of propriety told him would be undignified; but he made his observations closely, and with a keen Indian-like attention to every little circumstance that might aid him in arriving at the truth. All this time, great was the awe and deep the admiration of the lookers-on. Onoah had succeeded in creating a moral power for himself among the Indians of the northwest which much exceeded that of any other red man of that region. The whites scarcely heard of him, knew but little of his career, and less of his true character, for both were shrouded in mystery. There is nothing remarkable in this ignorance of the pale-faces of the time. They did not understand their own leaders; much less the leaders of the children of the openings, the prairies, and the forest. At this hour, what is really known by the mass of the American people of the true characters of their public men? No nation that has any claim to civilization and publicity knows less, and for several very obvious reasons. The want of a capital in which the intelligence of the nation periodically assembles and whence a corrected public opinion on all such matters ought constantly to flow, as truth emanates from the collisions of minds, is one of these reasons. The extent of the country, which separates men by distances that no fact can travel over without incurring the dangers of being perverted on the road, is another. But the most fatal of al he influences that tend to mislead the judgment of the American citizen, is to be found in the abuse of a machinery that was intended to produce an exactly contrary effect. If the tongue was given to man to communicate ideas to his fellows, so has philosophy described it as "a gift to conceal his thoughts." If the press was devised to circulate truth, so has it been changed into a means of circulating lies. One is easily, nay, more easily, sent abroad on the four winds of the heavens than the other. Truth requires candor, impartiality, honesty, research, and industry; but a falsehood, whether designed or not, stands in need of neither. Of that which is the most easily produced, the country gets the most; and it were idle to imagine that a people who blindly and unresistingly submit to be put, as it might be, under the feet of falsehood, as respects all their own public men, can ever get very accurate notions of those of other nations.
Thus was it with Onoah. His name was unknown to the whites, except as a terrible and much-dreaded avenger of the wrongs of his race. With the red men it was very different. They had no "forked tongues" to make falsehood take the place of truth; or if such existed they were not believed. The Pottawattamies now present knew all about Tecumseh, [Footnote: A "tiger stooping for his prey."] of whom the whites had also various and ample accounts. This Shawanee chief had long been active among them, and his influence was extended far and near. He was a bold, restless, and ingenious warrior; one, perhaps, who better understood the art of war, as it was practised among red men, than any Indian then living. They knew the name and person, also, of his brother Elkswatawa, [Footnote: "A door opened."] or the Prophet, whose name has also become incorporated with the histories of the times. These two chiefs were very powerful, though scarce dwelling regularly in any tribe; but their origin, their careers, and their characters were known to all, as were those of their common father, Pukeesheno, [Footnote: "I light from fly--"] and their mother, Meethetaske.[Footnote: "A turtle laying her eggs in the sand."] But with Onoah it was very different. With him the past was as much of a mystery as the future. No Indian could say even of what tribe he was born. The totem that he bore on his person belonged to no people then existing on the continent, and all connected with him, his history, nation, and family, was conjecture and fancy.
It is said that the Indians have traditions which are communicated only to a favored few, and which by them have been transmitted from generation to generation. An enlightened and educated red man has quite recently told us in person, that he had been made the repository of some of these traditions, and that he had thus obtained enough of the history of his race to be satisfied that they were not derived from the lost tribes of Israel, though he declined communicating any more. It is so natural to resort to secrecy in order to extend influence, that we can have no difficulty In believing the existence of the practice; there probably being no other reason why Free Masonry or Odd Fellowship should have recourse to such an expedient, but to rule through the imagination in preference to the judgment. Now Peter enjoyed all the advantages of mystery. It was said that even his real name was unknown, that of Onoah having been given in token of the many scalps he took, and that of Wa-wa-nosh, which he also sometimes bore, having been bestowed on him by adoption in consequence of an act of favor extended to him from an Ojebway of some note, while that of Peter was clearly derived from the whites. Some of his greatest admirers whispered that when the true name of the "Tribeless" should get to be known, his origin, early career, and all relating to him would at once become familiar to every red man. At present, the Indians must rest content with what they saw and understood. The wisdom of Wa-wa- nosh made itself felt in the councils; his eloquence no speaker has equalled for ages; as for his vengeance on the enemies of his race, that was to be estimated by the scalps he had taken. More than this no Indian was to be permitted to know, until the mission of this oracle and chief was completed.
Had one enlightened by the education of a civilized man been there, to watch the movements and countenance of Peter as he scented the whiskey, and looked in vain for the cause of the odor, and for a clew to the mystery which so much perplexed the Pottawattamies, he would probably have discovered some reason to distrust the sincerity of this remarkable savage's doubts. If ever Peter was an actor, it was on that occasion. He did not, in the least, fall into any of the errors of his companions; but the scent a good deal confounded him at first. At length he came to the natural conclusion, that this unusual odor was in some way connected with the family he had left on the other shore; and from that moment his mind was at ease.
It did not suit the views of Peter, however, to explain to the Pottawattamies that which was now getting to be so obvious to himself. On the contrary, he rather threw dust into the eyes of the chiefs, with a view to bring them also under the influence of superstition. After making his observations with unmoved gravity, he promised a solution of the whole affair when they should again meet in the Openings, and proposed to recross the river. Before quitting the shore Peter and Crowsfeather had a clear understanding on the subject of their respective movements; and, as soon as the former began to paddle up against the wind, the latter called his young men together, made a short address, and led them into the woods, as if about to proceed on a march of length. The party, notwithstanding, did not proceed more than a mile and a half, when it came to a halt, and lighted a fire in order to cook some venison taken on the way.
When Peter reached the south shore, he found the whole group assembled to receive him. His tale was soon told. He had talked with the Pottawattamies, and they were gone. The canoes, however, must be carried to the other shore and left there, in order that their owners might recover their property when they returned. This much had Peter promised, and his pale-face friends must help him to keep his word. Then he pointed to the Openings as to their place of present safety. There they would be removed from all immediate danger, and he would accompany them and give them the countenance and protection of his name and presence. As for going south on the lake, that was impossible, so long as the wind lasted, and it was useless even could it be done. The troops had all left Chicago, and the fort was destroyed.
Parson Amen and Corporal Flint, both of whom were completely deluded by Peter, fancying him a secret friend of the whites, in consequence of his own protestations to that effect and the service he had already rendered them, in appearance at least, instantly acquiesced in this wily savage's proposal. It was the best, the wisest, nay, the only thing that now could be done. Mackinaw was gone, as well as Chicago, and Detroit must be reached by crossing the peninsula, instead of taking the easier but far more circuitous route of the lakes. Gershom was easily enough persuaded into the belief of the feasibility, as well as of the necessity, of this deviation from his original road, and he soon agreed to accompany the party.
With le Bourdon the case was different. He understood himself and the wilderness. For him the wind was fair, and there was no necessity for his touching at Mackinaw at all. It is true, he usually passed several days on that pleasant and salubrious island, and frequently disposed of lots of honey there; but he could dispense with the visit and the sales. There was certainly danger now to be apprehended from the Ottawas, who would be very apt to be out on the lake after this maritime excursion against the fort; but it was possible even to elude their vigilance. In a word, the bee- hunter did not believe in the prudence of returning to the Openings, but thought it by far the wisest for the whole party to make the best of its way by water to the settlements. All this he urged warmly on his white companions, taking them aside for that purpose, and leaving Peter and Pigeonswing together while he did so.
But Parson Amen would as soon have believed that his old congregation in Connecticut was composed of Philistines, as not to believe that the red men were the lost tribes, and that Peter, in particular, was not especially and elaborately described in the Old Testament. He had become so thoroughly possessed by this crotchet as to pervert everything that he saw, read, or heard, into evidence, of some sort or other, of the truth of his notions. In this respect there was nothing peculiar in the good missionary's weakness, it being a failing common to partisans of a theory, to discover proofs of its truths in a thousand things in which indifferent persons can find even no connection with the subject at all. In this frame of mind the missionary would as soon think of letting go his hold on the Bible itself, as think of separating from an Indian who might turn out any day to be a direct representative of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Not to speak irreverently, but to use language that must be familiar to all, the well-meaning missionary wished to be in at the death.
Corporal Flint, too, had great faith in Peter. It was a part of the scheme of the savage to make this straight for-ward soldier an instrument in placing many scalps in hit power; and though he had designed from the first to execute his bloody office on the corporal himself, he did not intend to do so until he had made the most of him as a stool-pigeon. Here were four more pale-faces thrown in his power, principally by means of the confidence he had awakened in the minds of the missionary and the soldier; and that same confidence might be made instrumental in adding still more to the number. Peter was a sagacious, even a far-seeing savage, but he labored under the curse of ignorance. Had his information been of a more extended nature, he would have seen the utter fallacy of his project to destroy the pale-faces altogether, and most probably would have abandoned it.
It is a singular fact that, while such men as Tecumseh, his brother the Prophet, and Peter, were looking forward to the downfall of the republic on the side of the forest, so many, who ought to have been better informed on such a subject, were anxiously expecting, nay confidently predicting it, from beyond the Atlantic. Notwithstanding these sinister soothsayers, the progress of the nation has, by a beneficent Providence, been onward and onward, until it is scarcely presumptuous to suppose that even England has abandoned the expectation of classing this country again among her dependencies. The fortunes of America, under God, depend only on herself. America may destroy America; of that there is danger; but it is pretty certain that Europe united could make no serious impression on her. Favored by position, and filled with a population that we have ever maintained was one of the most military in existence, a truth that recent events are hourly proving to be true, it much exceeds the power of all the enemies of her institutions to make any serious impression on her. There is an enemy who may prove too much for her; it exists in her bosom; and God alone can keep him in subjection, and repress his desolation.
These were facts, however, of which Wa-wa-nosh, or Onoah, was as ignorant as if he were an English or French minister of state, and had got his notions of the country from English or French travellers, who wished for what they predicted. He had heard of the towns and population of the republic; but one gets a very imperfect notion of any fact of this sort by report, unless previous experience has prepared the mind to make the necessary comparisons, and fitted it to receive the images intended to be conveyed. No wonder, then, that Peter fell into a mistake common to those who had so many better opportunities of forming just opinions, and of arriving at truths that were sufficiently obvious to all who did not wilfully shut their eyes to their existence.