Wacousta/Volume II/Chapter IV

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Wacousta
by John Richardson
Volume II, Chapter IV

Chapter IV[edit]

There were few forms of courtesy observed by the warriors towards the English officers on entering the council room. Ponteac, who had collected all his native haughtiness into one proud expression of look and figure, strode in without taking the slightest notice even of the governor. The other chiefs imitated his example, and all took their seats upon the matting in the order prescribed by their rank among the tribes, and their experience in council. The Ottawa chief sat at the near extremity of the room, and immediately facing the governor. A profound silence was observed for some minutes after the Indians had seated themselves, during which they proceeded to fill their pipes. The handle of that of the Ottawa chief was decorated with numerous feathers fancifully disposed.

"This is well," at length observed the governor. "It is long since the great chiefs of the nations have smoked the sweet grass in the council hall of the Saganaw. What have they to say, that their young men may have peace to hunt the beaver, and to leave the print of their mocassins in the country of the Buffalo?--What says the Ottawa chief?"

"The Ottawa chief is a great warrior," returned the other, haughtily; and again repudiating, in the indomitableness of his pride, the very views that a more artful policy had first led him to avow. "He has already said that, within a single moon, nine of the strong holds of the Saganaw have fallen into his hands, and that the scalps of the white men fill the tents of his warriors. If the red skins wish for peace, it is because they are sick with spilling the blood of their enemies. Does my father hear?"

"The Ottawa has been cunning, like the fox," calmly returned the governor. "He went with deceit upon his lips, and said to the great chiefs of the strong holds of the Saganaw,--'You have no more forts upon the lakes; they have all fallen before the red skins: they gave themselves into our hands; and we spared their lives, and sent them down to the great towns near the salt lake.' But this was false: the chiefs of the Saganaw, believing what was said to them, gave up their strong holds; but their lives were not spared, and the grass of the Canadas is yet moist with their blood. Does the Ottawa hear?"

Amazement and stupefaction sat for a moment on the features of the Indians. The fact was as had been stated; and yet, so completely had the several forts been cut off from all communication, it was deemed almost impossible one could have received tidings of the fate of the other, unless conveyed through the Indians themselves.

"The spies of the Saganaw have been very quick to escape the vigilance of the red skins," at length replied the Ottawa; "yet they have returned with a lie upon their lips. I swear by the Great Spirit, that nine of the strong holds of the Saganaw have been destroyed. How could the Ottawa go with deceit upon his lips, when his words were truth?"

"When the red skins said so to the warriors of the last forts they took, they said true; but when they went to the first, and said that all the rest had fallen, they used deceit. A great nation should overcome their enemies like warriors, and not seek to beguile them with their tongues under the edge of the scalping knife!"

"Why did the Saganaw come into the country of the red skins?" haughtily demanded the chief. "Why did they take our hunting grounds from us? Why have they strong places encircling the country of the Indians, like a belt of wampum round the waist of a warrior?"

"This is not true," rejoined the governor. "It was not the Saganaw, but the warriors of the pale flag, who first came and took away the hunting grounds, and built the strong places. The great father of the Saganaw had beaten the great father of the pale flag quite out of the Canadas, and he sent his young men to take their place and to make peace with the red skins, and to trade with them, and to call them brothers."

"The Saganaw was false," retorted the Indian. "When a chief of the Saganaw came for the first time with his warriors into the country of the Ottawas, the chief of the Ottawas stood in his path, and asked him why, and from whom, he came? That chief was a bold warrior, and his heart was open, and the Ottawa liked him; and when he said he came to be friendly with the red skins, the Ottawa believed him, and he shook him by the hand, and said to his young men, 'Touch not the life of a Saganaw; for their chief is the friend of the Ottawa chief, and his young men shall be the friends of the red warriors.' Look," he proceeded, marking his sense of the discovery by another of those ejaculatory "Ughs!" so expressive of surprise in an Indian, "at the right hand of my father I see a chief," pointing to Captain Erskine, "who came with those of the Saganaw who first entered the country of the Detroit;--ask that chief if what the Ottawa says is not true. When the Saganaw said he came only to remove the warriors of the pale flag, that he might be friendly and trade with the red skins, the Ottawa received the belt of wampum he offered, and smoked the pipe of peace with him, and he made his men bring bags of parched corn to his warriors who wanted food, and he sent to all the nations on the lakes, and said to them, 'The Saganaw must pass unhurt to the strong hold on the Detroit.' But for the Ottawa, not a Saganaw would have escaped; for the nations were thirsting for their blood, and the knives of the warriors were eager to open their scalps. Ask the chief who sits at the right hand of my father," he again energetically repeated, "if what the Ottawa says is not true."

"What the Ottawa says is true," rejoined the governor; "for the chief who sits on my right hand has often said that, but for the Ottawa, the small number of the warriors of the Saganaw must have been cut off; and his heart is big with kindness to the Ottawa for what he did. But if the great chief meant to be friendly, why did he declare war after smoking the pipe of peace with the Saganaw? Why did he destroy the wigwams of the settlers, and carry off the scalps even of their weak women and children? All this has the Ottawa done; and yet he says that he wished to be friendly with my young men. But the Saganaw is not a fool. He knows the Ottawa chief had no will of his own. On the right hand of the Ottawa sits the great chief of the Delawares, and on his left the great chief of the Shawanees. They have long been the sworn enemies of the Saganaw; and they came from the rivers that run near the salt lake to stir up the red skins of the Detroit to war. They whispered wicked words in the ear of the Ottawa chief, and he determined to take up the bloody hatchet. This is a shame to a great warrior. The Ottawa was a king over all the tribes in the country of the fresh lakes, and yet he weakly took council like a woman from another."

"My father lies!" fiercely retorted the warrior, half springing to his feet, and involuntarily putting his hand upon his tomahawk. "If the settlers of the Saganaw have fallen," he resumed in a calmer tone, while he again sank upon his mat, "it is because they did not keep their faith with the red skins. When they came weak, and were not yet secure in their strong holds, their tongues were smooth and full of soft words; but when they became strong under the protection of their thunder, they no longer treated the red skins as their friends, and they laughed at them for letting them come into their country." "But," he pursued, elevating his voice, "the Ottawa is a great chief, and he will be respected." Then adverting in bitterness to the influence supposed to be exercised over him,--"What my father has said is false. The Shawanees and the Delawares are great nations; but the Ottawas are greater than any, and their chiefs are full of wisdom. The Shawanees and the Delawares had no talk with the Ottawa chief to make him do what his own wisdom did not tell him."

"Then, if the talk came not from the Shawanees and the Delawares, it came from the spies of the warriors of the pale flag. The great father of the French was angry with the great father of the Saganaw, because he conquered his warriors in many battles; and he sent wicked men to whisper lies of the Saganaw into the ears of the red skins, and to make them take up the hatchet against them. There is a tall spy at this moment in the camp of the red skins," he pursued with earnestness, and yet paling as he spoke. "It is said he is the bosom friend of the great chief of the Ottawas. But I will not believe it. The head of a great nation would not be the friend of a spy--of one who is baser than a dog. His people would despise him; and they would say, 'Our chief is not fit to sit in council, or to make war; for he is led by the word of a pale face who is without honour.'"

The swarthy cheek of the Indian reddened, and his eye kindled into fire. "There is no spy, but a great warrior, in the camp of the Ottawas," he fiercely replied. "Though he came from the country that lies beyond the salt lake, he is now a chief of the red skins, and his arm is mighty, and his heart is big. Would my father know why he has become a chief of the Ottawas?" he pursued with scornful exultation. "When the strong holds of the Saganaw fell, the tomahawk of the 'white warrior' drank more blood than that of a red skin, and his tent is hung around with poles bending under the weight of the scalps he has taken. When the great chief of the Ottawas dies, the pale face will lead his warriors, and take the first seat in the council. The Ottawa chief is his friend."

"If the pale face be the friend of the Ottawa," pursued the governor, in the hope of obtaining some particular intelligence in regard to this terrible and mysterious being, "why is he not here to sit in council with the chiefs? Perhaps," he proceeded tauntingly, as he fancied he perceived a disinclination on the part of the Indian to account for the absence of the warrior, "the pale face is not worthy to take his place among the head men of the council. His arm may be strong like that of a warrior, but his head may be weak like that of a woman; or, perhaps, he is ashamed to show himself before the pale faces, who have turned him out of their tribe."

"My father lies!" again unceremoniously retorted the warrior. "If the friend of the Ottawa is not here, it is because his voice cannot speak. Does my father recollect the bridge on which he killed his young warrior? Does he recollect the terrible chase of the pale face by the friend of the Ottawa? Ugh!" he continued, as his attention was now diverted to another object of interest, "that pale face was swifter than any runner among the red skins, and for his fleetness he deserved to live to be a great hunter in the Canadas; but fear broke his heart,--fear of the friend of the Ottawa chief. The red skins saw him fall at the feet of the Saganaw without life, and they saw the young warriors bear him off in their arms. Is not the Ottawa right?" The Indian paused, threw his eye rapidly along the room, and then, fixing it on the governor, seemed to wait with deep but suppressed interest for his reply.

"Peace to the bones of a brave warrior!" seriously and evasively returned the governor: "the pale face is no longer in the land of the Canadas, and the young warriors of the Saganaw are sorry for his loss; but what would the Ottawa say of the bridge? and what has the pale warrior, the friend of the Ottawa, to do with it?"

A gleam of satisfaction pervaded the countenance of the Indian, as he eagerly bent his ear to receive the assurance that the fugitive was no more; but when allusion was again made to the strange warrior, his brow became overcast, and he replied with mingled haughtiness and anger,--

"Does my father ask? He has dogs of spies among the settlers of the pale flag, but the tomahawk of the red skins will find them out, and they shall perish even as the Saganaw themselves. Two nights ago, when the warriors of the Ottawas were returning from their scout upon the common, they heard the voice of Onondato, the great wolf-dog of the friend of the Ottawa chief. The voice came from the bridge where the Saganaw killed his young warrior, and it called upon the red skins for assistance. My young men gave their war cry, and ran like wild deer to destroy the enemies of their chief; but when they came, the spies had fled, and the voice of Onondato was low and weak as that of a new fawn; and when the warriors came to the other end of the bridge, they found the pale chief lying across the road and covered over with blood. They thought he was dead, and their cry was terrible; for the pale warrior is a great chief, and the Ottawas love him; but when they looked again, they saw that the blood was the blood of Onondato, whose throat the spies of the Saganaw had cut, that he might not hunt them and give them to the tomahawk of the red skins."

Frequent glances, expressive of their deep interest in the announcement of this intelligence, passed between the governor and his officers. It was clear the party who had encountered the terrible warrior of the Fleur de lis were not spies (for none were employed by the garrison), but their adventurous companions who had so recently quitted them. This was put beyond all doubt by the night, the hour, and the not less important feet of the locality; for it was from the bridge described by the Indian, near which the Canadian had stated his canoe to be chained, they were to embark on their perilous and uncertain enterprise. The question of their own escape from danger in this unlooked for collision with so powerful and ferocious an enemy, and of the fidelity of the Canadian, still remained involved in doubt, which it might be imprudent, if not dangerous, to seek to have resolved by any direct remark on the subject to the keen and observant warrior. The governor removed this difficulty by artfully observing,--

"The great chief of the Ottawas has said they were the spies of the Saganaw who killed the pale warrior. His young men has found them, then; or how could he know they were spies?"

"Is there a warrior among the Saganaw who dares to show himself in the path of the red skins, unless he come in strength and surrounded by his thunder?" was the sneering demand. "But my father is wrong, if he supposes the friend of the Ottawa is killed. No," he pursued fiercely, "the dogs of spies could not kill him; they were afraid to face so terrible a warrior. They came behind him in the dark, and they struck him on the head like cowards and foxes as they were. The warrior of the pale face, and the friend of the Ottawa chief, is sick, but not dead. He lies without motion in his tent, and his voice cannot speak to his friend to tell him who were his enemies, that he may bring their scalps to hang up within his wigwam. But the great chief will soon be well, and his arm will be stronger than ever to spill the blood of the Saganaw as he has done before."

"The talk of the Ottawa chief is strange," returned the governor, emphatically and with dignity. "He says he conies to smoke the pipe of peace with the Saganaw, and yet he talks of spilling their blood as if it was water from the lake. What does the Ottawa mean?"

"Ugh!" exclaimed the Indian, in his surprise. "My father is right, but the Ottawa and the Saganaw have not yet smoked together. When they have, the hatchet will be buried for ever. Until then, they are still enemies."

During this long and important colloquy of the leading parties, the strictest silence had been preserved by the remainder of the council. The inferior chiefs had continued deliberately puffing the smoke from their curled lips, as they sat cross-legged on their mats, and nodding their heads at intervals in confirmation of the occasional appeal made by the rapid glance of the Ottawa, and uttering their guttural "Ugh!" whenever any observation of the parlant parties touched their feelings, or called forth their surprise. The officers had been no less silent and attentive listeners, to a conversation on the issue of which hung so many dear and paramount interests. A pause in the conference gave them an opportunity of commenting in a low tone on the communication made, in the strong excitement of his pride, by the Ottawa chief, in regard to the terrible warrior of the Fleur de lis; who, it was evident, swayed the councils of the Indians, and consequently exercised an influence over the ultimate destinies of the English, which it was impossible to contemplate without alarm. It was evident to all, from whatsoever cause it might arise, this man cherished a rancour towards certain individuals in the fort, inducing an anxiety in its reduction scarcely equalled by that entertained on the part of the Indians themselves. Beyond this, however, all was mystery and doubt; nor had any clue been given to enable them to arrive even at a well founded apprehension of the motives which had given birth to the vindictiveness of purpose, so universally ascribed to him even by the savages themselves.

The chiefs also availed themselves of this pause in the conversation of the principals, to sustain a low and animated discussion. Those of the Shawanee and Delaware nations were especially earnest; and, as they spoke across the Ottawa, betrayed, by their vehemence of gesture, the action of some strong feeling upon their minds, the precise nature of which could not be ascertained from their speech at the opposite extremity of the room. The Ottawa did not deign to join in their conversation, but sat smoking his pipe in all the calm and forbidding dignity of a proud Indian warrior conscious of his own importance.

"Does the great chief of the Ottawas, then, seek for peace in his heart at length?" resumed the governor; "or is he come to the strong hold of Detroit, as he went to the other strong holds, with deceit on his lips?"

The Indian slowly removed his pipe from his mouth, fixed his keen eye searchingly on that of the questioner for nearly a minute, and then briefly and haughtily said, "The Ottawa chief has spoken."

"And do the great chiefs of the Shawanees, and the great chiefs of the Delawares, and the great chiefs of the other nations, ask for peace also?" demanded the governor. "If so, let them speak for themselves, and for their warriors."

We will not trespass on the reader, on whom we have already inflicted too much of this scene, by a transcript of the declarations of the inferior chiefs. Suffice it to observe, each in his turn avowed motives similar to those of the Ottawa for wishing the hatchet might be buried for ever, and that their young men should mingle once more in confidence, not only with the English troops, but with the settlers, who would again be brought into the country at the cessation of hostilities. When each had spoken, the Ottawa passed the pipe of ceremony, with which he was provided, to the governor.

The latter put it to his lips, and commenced smoking. The Indians keenly, and half furtively, watched the act; and looks of deep intelligence, that escaped not the notice of the equally anxious and observant officers, passed among them.

"The pipe of the great chief of the Ottawas smokes well," calmly remarked the governor; "but the Ottawa chief, in his hurry to come and ask for peace, has made a mistake. The pipe and all its ornaments are red like blood: it is the pipe of war, and not the pipe of peace. The great chief of the Ottawas will be angry with himself; he has entered the strong hold of the Saganaw, and sat in the council, without doing any good for his young men. The Ottawa must come again."

A deep but subdued expression of disappointment passed over the features of the chiefs. They watched the countenances of the officers, to see whether the substitution of one pipe for the other had been attributed, in their estimation, to accident or design. There was nothing, however, to indicate the slightest doubt of their sincerity.

"My father is right," replied the Indian, with an appearance of embarrassment, which, whether natural or feigned, had nothing suspicious in it. "The great chief of the Ottawas has been foolish, like an old woman. The young chiefs of his tribe will laugh at him for this. But the Ottawa chief will come again, and the other chiefs with him, for, as my father sees, they all wish for peace; and that my father may know all the nations wish for peace, as well as their head men, the warriors of the Ottawa, and of the Shawanee, and of the Delaware, shall play at ball upon the common, to amuse his young men, while the chiefs sit in council with the chiefs of the Saganaw. The red skins shall come naked, and without their rifles and their tomahawks; and even the squaws of the warriors shall come upon the common, to show the Saganaw they may be without fear. Does my father hear?"

"The Ottawa chief says well," returned the governor; "but will the pale friend of the Ottawa come also to take his seat in the council hall? The great chief has said the pale warrior has become the second chief among the Ottawas; and that when he is dead, the pale warrior will lead the Ottawas, and take the first seat in the council. He, too, should smoke the pipe of peace with the Saganaw, that they may know he is no longer their enemy."

The Indian hesitated, uttering merely his quick ejaculatory "Ugh!" in expression of his surprise at so unexpected a requisition. "The pale warrior, the friend of the Ottawa, is very sick," he at length said; "but if the Great Spirit should give him back his voice before the chiefs come again to the council, the pale face will come too. If my father does not see him then, he will know the friend of the Ottawa chief is very sick."

The governor deemed it prudent not to press the question too closely, lest in so doing he should excite suspicion, and defeat his own object. "When will the Ottawa and the other chiefs come again?" he asked; "and when will their warriors play at ball upon the common, that the Saganaw may see them and be amused?"

"When the sun has travelled so many times," replied Ponteac, holding up three fingers of his left hand. "Then will the Ottawa and the other chiefs bring their young warriors and their women."

"It is too soon," was the reply;. "the Saganaw must have time to collect their presents, that they may give them to the young warriors who are swiftest in the race, and the most active at the ball. The great chief of the Ottawas, too, must let the settlers of the pale flag, who are the friends of the red skins, bring in food for the Saganaw, that a great feast may be given to the chiefs, and to the warriors, and that the Saganaw may make peace with the Ottawas and the other nations as becomes a great people. In twice so many days," holding up three of his fingers in imitation of the Indian, "the Saganaw will be ready to receive the chiefs in council, that they may smoke the pipe of peace, and bury the hatchet for ever. What says the great chief of the Ottawas?"

"It is good," was the reply of the Indian, his eye lighting up with deep and exulting expression. "The settlers of the pale flag shall bring food to the Saganaw. The Ottawa chief will send them, and he will desire his young men not to prevent them. In so many days, then," indicating with his fingers, "the great chiefs will sit again in council with the Saganaw, and the Ottawa chief will not be a fool to bring the pipe he does not want."

With this assurance the conference terminated. Ponteac raised his tall frame from the mat on which he had been squatted, nodded condescendingly to the governor, and strode haughtily into the square or area of the fort. The other chiefs followed his example; and to Major Blackwater was again assigned the duty of accompanying them without the works. The glance of the savages, and that of Ponteac in particular, was less wary than at their entrance. Each seemed to embrace every object on which the eye could rest, as if to fix its position indelibly in his memory. The young chief, who had been so suddenly and opportunely checked while in the very act of pealing forth his terrible war whoop, again looked up at the windows of the block house, in quest of those whom his savage instinct had already devoted in intention to his tomahawk, but they were no longer there. Such was the silence that reigned every where, the fort appeared to be tenanted only by the few men of the guard, who lingered near their stations, attentively watching the Indians, as they passed towards the gate. A very few minutes sufficed to bring the latter once more in the midst of their warriors, whom, for a few moments, they harangued earnestly, when the whole body again moved off in the direction of their encampment.