James Fenimore Cooper.

Oak openings, or, The bee-hunter online

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At length le Bourdon found a bee to his mind, and
watching the moment when the animal was sipping sweets
from a head of white clover, he cautiously placed his
blurred and green-looking tumbler over it, and made it his
prisoner. The moment the bee found itself encircled with
the glass, it took wing and attempted to rise. This carried
it to the upper part of its prison, when Ben carefully intro
duced the unoccupied hand beneath the glass, and returned
to the stump. Here he set the tumbler down on the platter
in a way to bring the piece of honeycomb within its circle.

So much done successfully, and with very little trouble,
Buzzing Ben examined his captive for a moment, to make
sure that all was right. Then he took off his cap and
placed it over tumbler, platter, honeycomb, and bee. He
now waited half a minute, when cautiously raising the cap
again, it was seen that the bee, the moment a darkness like
that of its hive came over it, had lighted on the comb, and
commenced filling itself with the honey. When Ben took
away the cap altogether, the head and half of the body of
the bee was in one of the cells, its whole attention being
bestowed on this unlooked-for hoard of treasure. As this
was just what its captor wished, he considered that part of
his work accomplished. It now became apparent why a


glass was used to take the bee, instead of a vessel of wood
or of bark. Transparency was necessary in order to watch
the movements of the captive, as darkness was necessary in
order to induce it to cease its efforts to escape, and to settle
on the comb.

As the bee was now intently occupied in rilling itself,
Buzzing Ben, or le Bourdon, did not hesitate about remov
ing the glass. He even ventured to look around him, and
to make another captive, which he placed over the comb,
and managed as he had done with the first. In a minute,
the second bee was also buried in a cell, and the glass was
again removed. Le Bourdon now signed for his compan
ions to draw near.

" There they are, hard at work with the honey," he said,
speaking in English, and pointing at the bees. "Little do
they think, as they undermine that comb, how near they are to
the undermining of their own hive! But so it is with us
all ! When we think we are in the highest prosperity we
may be nearest to a fall, and when we are poorest and hum
blest, we may be about to be exalted. I often think of these
things, out here in the wilderness, when I m alone, and my
thoughts are ac/yz^."

Ben used a very pure English, when his condition in life
is remembered ; but now and then, he encountered a word
which pretty plainly proved he was not exactly a scholar.
A false emphasis has sometimes an influence on a man s
fortune, when one lives in the world ; but it mattered little
to one like Buzzing Ben, who seldom saw more than half a
dozen human faces in the course of a whole summer s hunt
ing. We remember an Englishman, however, who would
never concede talents to Burr, because the latter said, d
rAmericaine, European, instead of European.

"How hive in danger?" demanded Elksfoot, who was
very much of a matter-of-fact person. "No see him, no
hear him else get some honey."

" Honey you can have for asking, for I ve plenty of it


already in my cabin, though it s somewhat arly in the sea
son to begin to break in upon the store. In general, the
bee-hunters keep back till August, for they think it better
to commence work when the creatures" this word Ben
pronounced as accurately as if brought up at St. James s,
making it neither " creatur " nor " creature " " to com
mence work when the creatures have had time to fill up,
after winter s feed. But I like the old stock, and, what is
more, I feel satisfied this is not to be a common summer,
and so I thought I would make an early start."

As Ben said this, he glanced his eyes at Pigeonswing,
who returned the look in a way to prove there was already
a secret intelligence between them, though neither had ever
seen the other an hour before.

"Waal! " exclaimed Gershom, "this is cur ous, I ll allow
that ; yes, it s cur ous but we ve got an article at Whiskey
Centre that ll put the sweetest honey bee ever suck d, alto
gether out o countenance! "

" An article of which you suck your share, I ll answer for
it, judging by the sign you carry between the windows of
your face," returned Ben, laughing; "but hush, men, hush.
That first bee is filled, and begins to think of home. He ll
soon be off for Honey Centre, and I must keep my eye on
him. Now, stand a little aside, friends, and give me room
for my craft."

The men complied, and le Bourdon was now all intense
attention to his business. The bee first taken had, indeed,
filled itself to satiety, and at first seemed to be too heavy to
rise on the wing. After a few moments of preparation,
however, up it went, circling around the spot, as if uncer
tain what course to take. The eye of Ben never left it, and
when the insect darted off, as it soon did, in an air-line, he
saw it for fifty yards after the others had lost sight of it.
Ben took the range, and was silent fully a minute while he
did so.

"That bee may have lighted in the corner of yonder


swamp," he said, pointing, as he spoke, to a bit of low land
that sustained a growth of much larger trees than those
which grew in the "opening," "or it has crossed the point
of the wood, and struck across the prairie beyond, and made
for a bit of thick forest that is to be found about three miles
further. In the last case, I shall have my trouble for

"What t other do?" demanded Elksfoot, with very ob
vious curiosity.

" Sure enough ; the other gentleman must be nearly ready
for a start, and we ll see what road he travels. Tis always
an assistance to a bee-hunter to get one creature fairly off,
as it helps him to line the next with greater sartainty."

Ben would say ac/jw, and sartein, though he was above
saying creatoore, or creatur . This is the difference between
a Pennsylvanian and a Yankee. We shall not stop, how
ever, to note all these little peculiarities in these individu
als, but use the proper or the peculiar dialect, as may hap
pen to be most convenient to ourselves.

But there was no time for disquisition, the second bee
being now ready for a start. Like his companion, this
insect rose and encircled the stump several times, ere it
darted away toward its hive, in an air-line. So small was
the object, and so rapid its movement, that no one but the
bee-hunter saw the animal after it had begun its journey in
earnest. To his disappointment, instead of flying in the
same direction as the bee first taken, this little fellow went
buzzing off fairly at a right angle! It was consequently
clear that there were two hives, and that they lay in very
different directions.

Without wasting his time in useless talk, le Bourdon now
caught another bee, which was subjected to the same proc
ess as those first taken. When this creature had filled it
self, it rose, circled the stump as usual, as if to note the
spot for a second visit, and darted away, directly in a line
with the bee first taken. Ben noted its flight most accu-


rately, and had his eye on it, until it was quite a hundred
yards from the stump. This he was enabled to do, by
means of a quick sight and long practice.

"We ll move our quarters, friends," said Buzzing Ben,
good-humoredly, as soon as satisfied with this last obser
vation, and gathering together his traps for a start. " I
must angle for that hive, and I fear it will turn out to be
across the prairie, and quite beyond my reach for to-day."

The prairie alluded to was one of those small natural
meadows, or pastures, that are to be found in Michigan,
and may have contained four or five thousand acres of open
land. The heavy timber of the swamp mentioned, jutted
into it, and the point to be determined was, to ascertain
whether the bees had flown over these trees, toward which
they had certainly gone in an air-line, or whether they had
found their hive among them. In order to settle this mate
rial question, a new process was necessary.

" I must * angle for them chaps," repeated le Bourdon ;
"and if you will go with me, strangers, you shall soon see
the nicest part of the business of bee-hunting. Many a
man who can * line a bee, can do nothing at an 4 angle ."

As this was only gibberish to the listeners, no answer
was made, but all prepared to follow Ben, who was soon
ready to change his ground. The bee-hunter took his way
across the open ground to a point fully a hundred rods dis
tant from his first position, where he found another stump
of a fallen tree, which he converted into a stand. The
same process was gone through with as before, and le Bour
don was soon watching two bees that had plunged their
heads down into the cells of the comb. Nothing could ex
ceed the gravity and attention of the Indians, all this time.
They had fully comprehended the business of "lining" the
insects toward their hives, but they could not understand
the virtue of the "angle." The first bore so strong an
affinity to their own pursuit of game, as to be very obvious
to their senses; but the last included a species of informa-


tion to which they were total strangers. Nor were they
much the wiser after le Bourdon had taken his " angle " ; it
requiring a sort of induction to which they were not accus
tomed, in order to put the several parts of his proceedings
together, and to draw the inference. As for Gershom, he
affected to be familiar with all that was going on, though
he was just as ignorant as the Indians themselves. This
little bit of hypocrisy was the homage he paid to his white
blood : it being very unseemly, according to his view of the
matter, for a pale-face not to know more than a redskin.

The bees were some little time in filling themselves. At
length one of them came out of his cell, and was evidently
getting ready for his flight. Ben beckoned to the spectators
to stand farther back, in order to give him a fair chance,
and, just as he had done so, the bee rose. After humming
around the stump for an instant, away the insect flew, tak
ing a course almost at right angles to that in which le
Bourdon had expected to see it fly. It required half a
minute for him to recollect that this little creature had gone
off in a line nearly parallel to that which had been taken
by the second of the bees, which he had seen quit his origi
nal position. The line led across the neighboring prairie,
and any attempt to follow these bees was hopeless.

But the second creature was also soon ready, and when it
darted away, le Bourdon, to his manifest delight, saw that
it held its flight toward the point of the swamp into, or
over which two of his first captives had gone. This settled
the doubtful matter. Had the hive of these bees been be
yond that wood, the angle of intersection would not have
been there, but at the hive across the prairie. The reader
will understand that creatures which obey an instinct, or
such a reason as bees possess, would never make a curva
ture in their flights without some strong motive for it.
Thus, two bees taken from flowers that stood half a mile
apart would be certain not to cross each other s tracks, in
returning home, until they met at the common hive: and


wherever the intersecting angle in their respective flights
may be, there would that hive be also. As this repository
of sweets was the game le Bourdon had in view, it is easy
to see how much he was pleased when the direction taken
by the last of his bees gave him the necessary assurance
that its home would certainly be found in that very point
of dense wood.


How skilfully it builds its cell,

How neat it spreads the wax,
And labors hard to store it well

With the sweet food it makes.


THE next thing was to ascertain which was the particular
tree in which the bees had found a shelter. Collecting his
implements, le Bourdon was soon ready, and, with a light
elastic tread, he moved off toward the point of the wood,
followed by the whole party. The distance was about half
a mile, and men so much accustomed to use their limbs
made light of it. In a few minutes all were there, and the
bee-hunter was busy in looking for his tree. This was the
consummation of the whole process, and Ben was not only
provided for the necessities of the case, but he was well
skilled in all the signs that betokened the abodes of bees.

An uninstructed person might have passed that point of
wood a thousand times, without the least consciousness of
the presence of a single insect of the sort now searched for.
In general, the bees flew too high to be easily perceptible
from the ground, though a practised eye can discern them
at distances that would almost seem to be marvellous. But
Ben had other assistants than his eyes. He knew that the
tree he sought must be hollow, and such trees usually give
outward signs of the defect that exists within. Then, some
species of wood are more frequented by the bees than oth-


ers, while the instinct of the industrious little creatures
generally enables them to select such homes as will not be
very likely to destroy all the fruits of their industry by an
untimely fall. In all these particulars, both bees and bee-
hunter were well versed, and Ben made his search accord

Among the other implements of his calling, le Bourdon
had a small spy-glass; one scarcely larger than those that
are used in theatres, but which was powerful and every way
suited to its purposes. Ben was not long in selecting a
tree, a half-decayed elm, as the one likely to contain the
hive; and by the aid of his glass he soon saw bees flying
among its dying branches, at a height of not less than sev
enty feet from the ground. A little further search directed
his attention to a knot-hole, in and out of which the glass
enabled him to see bees passing in streams. This de
cided the point; and putting aside all his implements but
the axe, Buzzing Ben now set about the task of felling the

" Stranger" said Gershom, when le Bourdon had taken
out the first chip, " perhaps you d better let me do that part
of the job. I shall expect to come in for a share of the
honey, and I m willing to arn all I take. I was brought up
on axes, and jack-knives, and sich sort of food, and can cut
or whittle with the best chopper, or the neatest whittler, in
or out of New England."

" You can try your hand, if you wish it," said Ben, re
linquishing the axe. " I can fell a tree as well as yourself,
but have no such love for the business as to wish to keep it
all to myself."

"Waal, I can say, I like it," answered Gershom, first pass
ing his thumb along the edge of the axe, in order to ascer
tain its state; then swinging the tool, with a view to try its

"I can t say much for your axe, stranger, for this helve
has no tarve to t, to my mind ; but, sich as it is, down must


come this elm, though ten millions of bees should set upon
me for my pains."

This was no idle boast of Waring s. Worthless as he
was in so many respects, he was remarkably skilful with
the axe, as he now proved by the rapid manner in which he
severed the trunk of the large elm on which he was at work.
He inquired of Ben where he should " lay the tree," and
when it came clattering down, it fell on the precise spot
indicated. Great was the confusion among the bees at this
sudden downfall of their long-cherished home. The fact
was not known to their enemy, but they had inhabited that
tree for a long time; and the prize now obtained was the
richest he had ever made in his calling. As for the insects,
they filled the air in clouds, and all the invaders deemed it
prudent to withdraw to some little distance for a time, lest
the irritated and wronged bees should set upon them and
take an ample revenge. Had they known their power, this
might easily have been done, no ingenuity of man being
able to protect him against the assaults of this insignifi
cant-looking animal, when unable to cover himself, and the
angry little heroes are in earnest. On the present occa
sion, however, no harm befell the marauders. So suddenly
had the hive tumbled that its late occupants appeared to be
astounded, and they submitted to their fate as men yield to
the power of tempests and earthquakes. In half an hour
most of them were collected on an adjacent tree, where
doubtless a consultation on the mode of future proceedings
was held, after their fashion.

The Indians were more delighted with le Bourdon s in
genious mode of discovering the hive than with the richness
of the prize; while Ben himself, and Gershom, manifested
most satisfaction at the amount of the earnings. When the
tree was cut in pieces, and split, it was ascertained that
years of sweets were contained within its capacious cavities,
and Ben estimated the portion that fell to his share at more
than three hundred pounds of good honey comb included


after deducting the portions that were given to the In
dians, and which were abstracted by Gershom. The three
last, however, could carry but little, as they had no other
means of bearing it away than their own backs.

The honey was not collected that night. The day was
too far advanced for that ; and le Bourdon certainly never
was name less merited than this sobriquet, as applied to the
active young bee-hunter but le Bourdon, to give him his
quaint appellation, offered the hospitalities of his own
cabin to the strangers, promising to put them on their sev
eral paths the succeeding day, with a good store of honey in
each knapsack.

" They do say there ar likely to be troublesome times,"
he continued, with simple earnestness, after having given
the invitation to partake of his homely fare ; " and I should
like to hear what is going on in the world. From Whiskey
Centre I do not expect to learn much, I will own; but I am
mistaken if the Pigeonswing, here, has not a message that
will make us all open our ears."

The Indians ejaculated their assent; but Gershom was a
man who could not express anything sententiously. As the
bee-hunter led the way toward his cabin, or shanty, he made
his comments with his customary freedom. Before record
ing what he communicated, however, we shall digress for
one moment in order to say a word ourselves concerning
this term " shanty." It is now in general use throughout
the whole of the United States, meaning a cabin that has
been constructed in haste, and for temporary purposes. By
a license of speech, it is occasionally applied to more per
manent residences, as men are known to apply familiar
epithets to familiar objects. The derivation of the word
has caused some speculation. The term certainly came
from the West perhaps from the Northwest and the best
explanation we have ever heard of its derivation is to sup
pose " shanty," as we now spell it, a corruption of " chienti"
which it is thought may have been a word in Canadian


French phrase to express a " dog-kennel." " Chenil? we
believe, is the true French term for such a thing, and our
own word is said to be derived from it " meute " meaning
" a kennel of dogs," or " a pack of hounds," rather than
their dwelling. At any rate, "chiente" is so plausible a
solution of the difficulty, that one may hope it is the true
one, even though he has no better authority for it than a
very vague rumor. Curious discoveries are sometimes made
by these rude analogies, however, though they are generally
thought not to be very near akin to learning. For ourselves,
now, we do not entertain a doubt that the sobriquet of
" Yankees " which is in every man s mouth, and of which
the derivation appears to puzzle all our philologists, is
nothing but a slight corruption of the word " Yengeese,"
the term applied to the " English," by the tribes to whom
they first became known. We have no other authority for
this derivation than conjecture, and conjectures that are
purely our own ; but it is so very plausible as almost to
carry conviction of itself.*

The " chiente " or shanty of le Bourdon stood quite near
to the banks of the Kalamazoo, and in a most beautiful
grove of the burr-oak. Ben had selected the site with much
taste, though the proximity of a spring of delicious water
had probably its full share in influencing his decision. It
was necessary, moreover, that he should be near the river,
as his great movements were all made by water, for the con
venience of transporting his tools, furniture, etc., as well as
his honey. A famous bark canoe lay in a little bay, out of
the current of the stream, securely moored, head and stern,
in order to prevent her beating against any object harder
than herself.

The dwelling had been constructed with some attention

* Since writing the above, the author has met with an allusion that has induced him
to think he may not have been the first to suggest this derivation of the word " Yankee."
With himself, the suggestion is perfectly original, and has long since been published
by him; but nothing is more probable than the fact that a solution so very natural, of
this long-disputed question in language, may have suggested itself to various minds.


to security. This was rendered necessary, in some meas
ure, as Ben had found by experience, on account of two
classes of enemies men and bears. From the first, it is
true, the bee-hunter had hitherto apprehended but little.
There were few human beings in that region. The north
ern portions of the noble peninsula of Michigan are some
what low and swampy, or are too broken and savage to
tempt the native hunters from the openings and prairies
that then lay, in such rich profusion, further south and west.
With the exception of the shores, or coasts, it was seldom
that the northern half of the peninsula felt the footstep of
man. With the southern half, however, it was very differ
ent; the "openings," and glades, and watercourses, offering
almost as many temptations to the savage as they have
since done to the civilized man. Nevertheless, the bison,
or the buffalo, as the animal is erroneously, but very gener
ally, termed throughout the country, was not often found in
the vast herds of which we read, until one reached the great
prairies west of the Mississippi. There it was that the red
men most loved to congregate; though always bearing, in
numbers, but a trifling proportion to the surface they occu
pied. In that day, however, near as to the date, but distant
as to the events, the Chippewas, Ottawas, Pottawattamies,
kindred tribes, we believe, had still a footing in Michigan
proper, and were to be found in considerable numbers in
what was called the St. Joseph s country, or along the banks
of the stream of that name ; a region that almost merits the
lofty appellation of the garden of America. Le Bourdon
knew many of their warriors, and was much esteemed
among them ; though he had never met with either of those
whom chance now had thrown in his way. In general, he
suffered little wrong from the red men, who wondered at his
occupation, while they liked his character; but he had sus
tained losses, and even ill-treatment, from certain outcasts
of the tribes, as well as from vagrant whites, who occasion
ally found their way to his temporary dwellings. On the


present occasion, le Bourdon felt far more uneasiness from
the circumstance of having his abode known to Gershom
Waring, a countryman and fellow-Christian, in one sense
at least, than from its being known to the Chippewa and
the Pottawattamie.

The bears were constant and dangerous sources of annoy
ance to the bee-hunter. It was not often that an armed
man and le Bourdon seldom moved without his rifle has
much to apprehend from the common brown bear of Amer
ica. Though a formidable-looking animal, especially when
full grown, it is seldom bold enough to attack a human
being, nothing but hunger, or care for its young, ever in
ducing it to go so much out of the ordinary track of its
habits. But the love of the bear for honey amounts to a
passion. Not only will it devise all sorts of bearish ex
pedients to get at the sweet morsels, but it will scent them
from afar. On one occasion, a family of Bruins had looked
into a shanty of Ben s, that was not constructed with suffi
cient care, and consummated their burglary by demolishing
the last comb. That disaster almost ruined the adventurer,

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperOak openings, or, The bee-hunter → online text (page 2 of 41)