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The Oak Openings - Or, The Bee Hunter

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The time of this story is 1812, in the beginning of the second war with Great Britain. The scene is in the southwestern part of the great peninsula which is now the State of Michigan, on the little Kalamazoo river, an affluent of Lake Michigan. All this region, then an unpeopled wilderness, with the exception of a narrow belt along the Detroit river, is what is called a "rolling" country, from some fancied resemblance to the surface of the ocean when undulating with a "ground-swell." It was wooded at the time chiefly with the burr-oak, a small variety of its genus, which, growing with irregular spaces between, covered with verdure and flowers and often of singular beauty, formed what were called "openings." The two appellations combined give this form of native forest the name "oak openings."

NEAR the close of July, 1812, four men met in an oak opening of some fifty or sixty acres, near the Kalamazoo river, an elbow of which was just visible in the distance. Two of these were whites and two Indians; and what is remarkable, all were strangers, none of the four having seen any of the others until the meeting in that grassy glade, though somewhat acquainted through their reputations. Three of the party were interested and silent observers of the fourth, known as a bee-hunter. The real name of this individual was Benjamin Boden, though he was extensively known throughout the northwest as Ben Buzz, and by the voyageurs and other French of the region as Le Bourdon, or " the drone," not because he was lazy, but be-cause he lived on the products of the labor of others. He was the most skilful and most prosperous of his craft in that region, and many of the families on the banks of the Detroit never purchased their winter supply of honey until the arrival in autumn of the capacious canoe of Buzz. He was dressed in the ordinary costume of the American rifleman—green, with yellow fringe, a skin cap, and moccasins, and his arms were of the best.

The second white was a different person—tall, sinewy, gaunt, and evidently strong, but stooping and round-shouldered, and with a face that would have done credit to Bardolph. In short, whisky had dyed the countenance of Gershom Waring with a telltale hue that betrayed his destination as infallibly as his speech indicated his New England origin. Of the Indians Elksfoot, a Pottawattamie, was known at all the trading-houses and "garrisons" of the Northwest Territory. The other was a young Chippewa or Ojibway, whose name among his own people was Pigeonswing, so called from the length and rapidity of his flights, he having a reputation as a messenger or "runner."

The three watched Le Bourdon's movements, as he tracked the bees to their hive in a hollow tree, with much curiosity, and were greatly surprised, after Gershom had felled the tree, to find in it so large a store of honey that it was necessary to leave it until the next morning for removal, the bee-hunter promising each a good share. Meanwhile he invited the strangers to the hospitalities of his shanty, a cabin on the banks of the Kalamazoo, in a beautiful grove of burr-oak, near a little bay of the river, in which his canoe found secure moorings. This was the second season that Le Bourdon had occupied "Castle Meal," as he himself called it, a corruption of Chateau au Miel (" honey "), a name given it by a wag of a voyageur, who had helped him build it. It was just twelve feet square in the interior, built of pine logs, and had a single entrance and but one window, both strongly secured against the bears, who have an intense liking for honey.

"You set consid'rable store by your honey, I guess, stranger," said Gershom, "if a body may judge by the care you take of it. We an't half so partic'lar down our way, Dolly and Blossom never puttin' up so much as a bar to the door, even when I sleep out."

"Whereabouts is `down our way'? " asked Le Bourdon, unlocking his door.

"Why, down at Whisky Center, as the v'y'geurs and other boatmen call the place."

"And where is Whisky Center?" demanded Ben.

"Where I happen to live, down at the mouth of the Kalamazoo."

"And pray who are Dolly and Blossom; I hope the last is not a whisky blossom?"

"Not she; she never touches a spoonful. She tries hard to reason me into it that it hurts me; but that's all a mistake, as anybody can see that just looks at me."

Ben did look at him and came to a different conclusion.

"Is she so blooming or so young that you call her Blossom?"

"The gal's a little of both. Dolly is my wife, and Blossom is my sister. Blossom's real name is Margery Waring, but everybody calls her Blossom, and so I gi'n in to it."

Le Bourdon probably lost a good deal of his interest in this flower of the wilderness as soon as he learned of her near relationship to Whisky Center, for he pursued the subject no farther, but set about his duties of hospitality.

When supper was finished, and the party had seated them-selves under the oaks to smoke their pipes, Le Bourdon asked, after waiting a decent interval, that the Indians might not think him possessed of feminine curiosity, if there were any news.

"Ask my young brother," said Elksfoot. "He know—he runner."

Pigeonswing seemed to be little more communicative than the Pottawattamie, but after smoking several minutes, he said :

"Bad summer come soon. Palefaces call young men together, and dig up hatchet."

"I have heard something of this," answered Le Bourdon. "If the English and Americans fight, it must be a long way from here, near the great salt lake."

"Don't know—nebber know, till see. English warrior plenty in Canada."

"I do not think the British will attempt Mackinaw," re. marked the bee-hunter, after a long pause.

" Got him, I tell you," answered Pigeonswing.

"Got what, Chippewa?"

"`Him—Mac-naw—got fort—got so'gers—got whole island. Know, for been dere."

This was astounding news, indeed. To Western notions Michilimackinac was another Gibraltar, though really of little strength, and garrisoned by only one small company.

On the next morning Le Bourdon was the first up and out of the cabin. As he stood enjoying the beauties of the scene, he was approached noiselessly by Pigeonswing, who said:

"Come fudder—Pottawattamie got long ear."

Ben led the way to the spring, where the two made their ablutions.

"Elkfoot got belt from Canada Fadder," said Pigeonswing, alluding to the British propensity to keep the savages in pay. "Know he got him—know he keep him."

"And you, Pigeonswing—by your talk I had put you down for a King's Injin, too."

"Talk so—no feel bit so. My heart Yankee. Take care; Elkfoot friend of Blackbird. Got medal of King, too. Have Yankee by'm by. Take care. Speak low when Elkfoot near."

"You wish me to believe, Chippewa, that you are a friend to America, and that the Pottawattamie is not. What is your business here?"

" Go to Chicago, for Gen'ral."

"Where is this General you speak of?"

"At Detroit—got whole army dere—warrior plenty as oak in opening. Eat Bri'sh up!"

"Now, redskin, have you any proof of what you say?"

The Indian looked carefully around him, then opened his tobacco-pouch and took from the center of the cut weed a let-ter rolled into the smallest compass possible. Unrolling this, he showed the address to "Captain Heald, U. S. Army, commanding at Chicago." In one corner were the words, "On public service, by Pigeonswing."

"Dat tell trut'—b'lieve him?" asked the Chippewa.

Le Bourdon gave the Indian's hand a hearty squeeze. "I put faith in all you say, Chippewa. Now, as to the Pottawattamie, which way do you think he is traveling?"

Guess on path to Blackbird. Blackbird on war-pathgo to Chicago."

After breakfast the Pottawattamie gave a hand to each and departed. Shortly afterward Pigeonswing also set out, saying: "By'm by come back and eat more honey—no Canada here—all Yankee."

The next day Gershom aided Le Bourdon in securing the honey from the felled tree. "I believe this must be the last hive I line this summer," said the bee-hunter. "In troublous times one should not be too far from home. I am surprised, Waring, that you have ventured away from your family while the tidings are so gloomy. I intend to close up and return to the settlements before the redskins break loose. If you will lend a hand to embark the honey and stores, you shall be well paid."

"Waal, I'd about as lief do that as anything else. I come up here thinkin' to meet you, for I heer'n tell you was a-beein' it, and there's nawthin' Dolly takes to with greater relish than good wild honey."

On the following morning, after loading the canoe ready to depart, the two went into the woods about three miles to bring in the remains of a buck Le Bourdon had killed and hung up. Hive, the bee-hunter's mastiff, accompanied them. When near the place where the deer had been left, the dog acted so singularly as to attract attention.

Suddenly Gershom exclaimed: "Yonder is an Injin, seated at the foot of that oak. The critter is asleep—he can't have much dread of wolves or bears!"

"I see him," answered Le Bourdon, "and am as much surprised as grieved to find him there. The man is dead. See there is blood on the side of his head, and a rifle-bullet has left its hole there."

The bee-hunter raised a sort of shawl thrown over his head and exposed the features of Elksfoot, who had left them but a little more than twenty-four hours before. That Pigeonswing had slain and scalped his late fellow-guest Le Bourdon had no doubt, and he sickened at the thought.

On the evening of the third day of navigation the two reached Whisky Center at the mouth of the river, and found everything as Waring had left it. Waring landed at a point projecting into the river, where Dolly awaited him with joyful tears. Le Bourdon sought Blossom, whom he found to be a charming girl with blue eyes, golden hair, and a clear, trans-parent complexion.

"You are then my brother's friend," said Margery, taking the hand he offered her. "We are so glad he has come back.

We have passed five terrible nights, believing every bush a red-man."

That danger is over now," said Le Bourdon, "but there is still an enemy to overcome."

"An enemy!"

"His name is Whisky. Show me the place where he is kept, that I may destroy him."

"Dare you?" asked Margery, pointing toward her brother, her face becoming scarlet and then pale as death. "It is under the shed, behind the hut."

Le Bourdon did not hesitate, but ran to the shed and rolled both barrels down the declivity on the rocks below, where they were dashed into pieces, the hoops and staves going down the stream into the lake.

"That job is well done!" he said, returning to the cabin. "God be praised!" said Margery. "You have been sent by Providence to do us this good."

Shortly after Gershom and his wife entered. Dolly was not so beautiful as her sister-in-law, but was still a comely woman, though showing signs of sorrow.

Dolly said that three canoe-loads of Indians had passed that afternoon, going up the lake; but, as the fire was out, they probably thought the hut was vacant. Later, the wind rose, and the canoes were seen coming back. Le Bourdon suggested that the cabin should be dismantled and that they should take refuge in the canoes, which were hidden in a thicket of the wild-rice plant. This was done at once, all the movables being carried from the cabin back into the woods and concealed. When Waring looked for his whisky Le Bourdon explained that, fore-seeing the danger of the savages getting it, he had rolled the casks down the hill.

The Indians returned at night and set up a shout when they found the deserted shanty, about which they gathered and built a fire. Le Bourdon counted twenty-one by the light of the fire, and noted that they had a prisoner whom they bound to a tree. By the use of his spy-glass he recognized the captive as Pigeonswing.

Le Bourdon at once announced his intention to attempt the rescue of his friend. This he succeeded in doing that night, with the aid of Margery, who guided them through the swamp behind by means of a dark lantern. When they reached the canoes Waring was found in a drunken sleep, having found the bee-hunter's jug of brandy. Le Bourdon emptied the rest of the contents into the river, to the great relief of the women, and, with the aid of Pigeonswing, paddled the canoes out into the stream. At the suggestion of the Chippewa, they went around to where the Indians had landed and secured their four canoes, which they towed to the opposite side of the river.

On the next day a canoe was seen coming in from the lake, and the savages on the north shore began making signals to it. To counteract their designs, Le Bourdon ran down to the shore and invited the strangers to land where he was. A gesture of assent was made and the canoe, containing two whites and an Indian, came to shore.

The foremost to land, a soldier in a 'United States uniform, said :

"We are traveling toward Mackinaw, and hope to fare as friends while in your company."

"Do you expect to find at Mackinaw an American or an English garrison?"

"One of our own, to be sure," said the soldier, as if struck by the question.

"Mackinaw has fallen, and is now an English post, as well as Chicago."

"Then we must alter our plans, Mr. Amen," said the soldier, addressing the other white man, whose costume proclaimed him a missionary.

"You are right, corporal. I see no better course to pursue than to put ourselves altogether in the hands of Onoah."

Le Bourdon was astounded. Onoah was the Indian name of a dreaded savage called by the English Scalping Peter or Pete. Ile was simply dressed in a cotton hunting-shirt, with a wampum belt in which were his knife and tomahawk, and wore a single eagle's feather attached to his scalp-lock.

"Sago, sago!" said Peter. "Sago all, ole and young, friend come to see you—eat in your wigwam—which head-chief, eh?"

"We have neither wigwam nor chief here," answered Le Bourdon. "I left my wigwam, up the Kalamazoo, last week, and came to the hut on the other shore when the Pottawattamies drove us over here."

"Know dem Pottawattamies," said the Indian. "Can tell 'em great way off."

"We fear them, having women in our party," said Le Bourdon.

"You Yankee—dey Bri'sh. Muss cross over—else Pottawattamie think it strange—yes, muss cross over."

"Yet they are Injins of the British, and I see you in company with a soldier of Uncle Sam."

" Onoah go where he please—sometime to Pottawattamiesometime to Iroquois. All Ojibways know Onoah. All Six Nation know him. All Injin know him. Muss cross river and shake hand with Crowsfeather."

"You can trust to Peter, friend bee-hunter," the missionary said, drawing Le Bourdon aside. "I know him well, and what he promises he will perform. He is to be depended on."

Peter crossed over and had a talk with the Pottawattamies. On his return, he informed his new friends that he had promised them that their canoes should be returned. He pointed out to Le Bourdon that it was useless to attempt to go south on the lake, as the troops had left Chicago and the fort was destroyed; and suggested that the best thing to be done was to return to oak openings. Le Bourdon took his advice, cached his honey, and loading the canoes with Gershom's household effects, ascended the river again to " Castle Meal," where everything was found as he had left it. The following week was one of very active labor. Le Bourdon's shanty was given to the women and a new one was constructed hard by for the others. Corporal Flint insisted, after it was finished, that a palisade should be built; and though the bee-hunter objected to this as a waste of time, Castle Meal was finally surrounded with a strong picket.

One night the bee-hunter and tho corporal went into the forest, attracted by the peculiar actions of Hive, the mastiff, who led them on until they came in sight of a fire around which were seated about fifty Indians in war-paint. Finding a copse where they could conceal themselves, they patiently watched the proceedings at the council fire. The savages kept perfectly quiet, apparently awaiting an arrival. No one spoke, coughed; laughed, or exclaimed for half an hour. At last all faces turned in one direction, and two persons came out of the obscurity into the firelight, whom Le Bourdon at once recognized as Peter and Parson Amen. Peter, who was evidently expected, looked unmoved on the scene, but the minister appeared bewildered by what he saw.

Le Bourdon and the corporal listened to long harangues by Peter and other of the chiefs, and lastly to a talk by Parson Amen, who tried to impress upon his hearers the truths of Christianity, as well as his own belief that the red men were the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. While the council was in progress a runner brought news of the capture of Detroit, the most important post held by the Americans along the line of the great lakes.

When Le Bourdon returned home, Pigeonswing tried to persuade him to go back to the settlements. "Dis bad place for paleface now. Better go home. Bess go soon as can; and bess go alone. No good to be troubled wid squaw, when in hurry."

"I understand you, Chippewa," he said, "but I shall do nothing of the sort. If the squaws can't go, too, I shall not quit them. Why can't we all get into the canoe, and go down-stream, when another night sets in? Before morning we could be twenty miles on our road."

"If can't go alone, can't go at all," said Pigeonswing. "No good to try canoe. Catch you in two day—p'raps one."

In the morning when Le Bourdon went to the spring he met Peter returning from the council.

"My brother wanted to-day to show Injin how to find honey," said Peter.

"I am very willing to teach the chiefs my craft," replied the bee-hunter, " because I do not expect to practise it much longer —at least not in this part of the country."

"Expec' go away soon?" asked Peter. "Now Bri'sh got Detroit, where my broder go? Bess stay here, I t'ink."

Le Bourdon gave an exhibition the following day to the assembled chiefs of his skill in bee-lining and in finding honey. With the aid of his spy glass and the sagacity of his dog he showed them where to find bears, and disclosed the hiding--place of several hundred Indian warriors, who were quietly awaiting the results of the council, thus taking all by surpriso and winning the reputation of a great medicine-man.

For some reason best known to himself, Peter tried to in-duce the minister to bring about an immediate marriage between Le Bourdon and Margery, who were now so well acquainted as to feel little reserve on the subject.

"I do not understand your motive, Peter," said the parson, "but what you ask is wise and according to God's law, and it shall be done."

The truth was that Peter had promised the scalps of the entire party of whites, but was willing that Le Bourdon should escape, provided Margery also could go unharmed. Margery was easily persuaded, as she had learned to love and to respect the bee-hunter; and the two made their vows at once before the minister.

But on the following day another council was held, and it was unanimously decided that all the whites in the openings should die. Peter, after offering various objections, assented, and by way of closing the debate, said:

"Brothers, I have not seen straight. I have been in a fog. I now see clearly. I see that bee-hunters ought not to live. Let this one die; let his squaw die, too!"

In thus acquiescing, Peter was quite sincere. He only asked the power of directing the details of the contemplated massacre. By some means Pigeonswing became aware that a crisis was at hand, though he had not been present at the council, and he told the bee-hunter that it was now a question of Peter's scalp or his own.

"You look hard at Peter when he come in. If he t'ink good deal, and don't say much when he do speak, mind what he say. If he smile, and very much friend, must hab his scalp."

"Chippewa, Peter is my friend, lives in my cabin, and eats of my bread. The hand that touches him touches me."

"Which bess—his scalp or your'n? If he very much friend when he come in, his scalp muss come off or your'n. Know Injin better dan you know him. If Peter don't smile, but look down, and t'ink, t'ink, den he mean no hurt, but try to get you out of hand of chiefs."

Struck by the words and the manner of Pigeonswing, Le Bourdon watched Peter closely when he came in, and noted his thoughtful eye and melancholy manner. Margery gave the Indian food, and he sat and ate without speaking, as if oppressed with some great grief. When he had finished he drew Le Bourdon aside and told him plainly the result of the council, which had condemned all the whites to death.

"My wish is to cut off all the palefaces. This must be done, or the palefaces will cut off the Indians. There is no choice. I do not understand a religion that tells us to love our enemies. But I understand that we ought to love our friends. I have called your squaw daughter, and my tongue is not forked like a snake's. Once I meant to scalp her; but now I do not. My hand shall never harm her, and my wisdom shall tell her how to escape from the red men who seek her scalp. You, too, now you are her husband, and are a great medicine-man of the bees—my hand shall not hurt you either."

Peter then told of his attempts to secure from the council a safe passage to the settlements for Le Bourdon and Margery, and of its total failuro. But what shocked the bee-hunter most of all was the Indian's naive confession that he himself had no wish to save any but Le Bourdon and Margery.

As if his task were done, the chief now coolly arose, went to a little grove where the missionary and the corporal were lying on the grass, and invited them to go to see the chiefs once more. The parson assented cheerfully, saying he would like one more opportunity of speaking the truth to them. The corporal held back, but the missionary said gladly: "Lead on, Peter, and we will follow."

The corporal, ashamed to oppose so confident an enthusiasm as the minister displayed, followed Parson Amen in Peter's footsteps. The Indian led them about two miles away until they came to an open glade where they found two or three hundred red men assembled.

"There," said Peter sternly, "there are your captives. Do with them as you will. As for them that have dared to question my faith, let them own that they are liars!"

Parson Amen, time having been given him to make a short address and to pray for his enemies, met his fate like a Christian; but the corporal found an opportunity to brain one of the chiefs before he was put to death. The disposition of two of their enemies only increased the thirst of the savages for blood, and a demand was made for Peter; but Peter could not be found. It was suggested that he had gone to the palisaded hut for more scalps, and that all ought to go thither to aid him. In half an hour the whole band collected around "Castle Meal," but out of reach of rifle-shots. Everything seemed closed, but no de-fenders were visible. All they heard was the howling of Hive. After a long consultation, it was determined to fire the buildings. Several braves undertook this and succeeded in lighting the roof. " Castle Meal " was soon in a blaze; the dog was shot, and a general rush was made for the palisade. To the surprise of all, the gate was found unlocked; and then the truth flashed on the minds of the savages: Le Bourdon and his friends had escaped.

With the aid of Peter and Pigeonswing, the party, in three canoes, first went up the river, to deceive the savages; and then, lying hidden by day, succeeded in getting out of the river by night. They followed the shores of Lake Michigan to the Straits of Mackinac, thence into Huron and through the St. Clair River and Lake and Detroit River into Lake Erie, reaching Presque Isle in safety.



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