Corporal Flint’s Murder by James Fenimore Cooper
Corporal Flint’s Murder was published by P.F. Collier in an anthology, International Short Stories: American (1910). “A man who could look death so closely in the face, with so much steadiness, became a sort of hero in Indian eyes.”
Half an hour passed after the execution of the missionary before the chiefs commenced their proceedings with the corporal. The delay was owing to a consultation, in which The Weasel had proposed despatching a party to the castle, to bring in the family, and thus make a common destruction of the remaining pale-faces known to be in that part of the Openings. Peter did not dare to oppose this scheme, himself; but he so managed as to get Crowsfeather to do it, without bringing himself into the foreground. The influence of the Pottawattamie prevailed, and it was decided to torture this one captive, and to secure his scalp, before they proceeded to work their will on the others. Ungque, who had gained ground rapidly by his late success, was once more commissioned to state to the captive the intentions of his captors.
“Brother,” commenced The Weasel, placing himself directly in front of the corporal, “I am about to speak to you. A wise warrior opens his ears, when he hears the voice of his enemy. He may learn something it will be good for him to know. It will be good for you to know what I am about to say.
“Brother, you are a pale-face, and we are Injins. You wish to get our hunting-grounds, and we wish to keep them. To keep them, it has become necessary to take your scalp. I hope you are ready to let us have it.”
The corporal had but an indifferent knowledge of the Indian language, but he comprehended all that was uttered on this occasion. Interest quickened his faculties, and no part of what was said was lost. The gentle, slow, deliberate manner in which The Weasel delivered himself, contributed to his means of understanding. He was fortunately prepared for what he heard, and the announcement of his approaching fate did not disturb him to the degree of betraying weakness. This last was a triumph in which the Indians delighted, though they ever showed the most profound respect for such of their victims as manifested a manly fortitude. It was necessary to reply, which the corporal did in English, knowing that several present could interpret his words. With a view to render this the more easy, he spoke in fragments of sentences, and with great deliberation.
“Injins,” returned the corporal, “you surrounded me, and I have been taken prisoner—had there been a platoon on us, you mightn’t have made out quite so well. It’s no great victory for three hundred warriors to overcome a single man. I count Parson Amen as worse than nothing, for he looked to neither rear nor flank. If I could have half an hour’s work upon you, with only half of our late company, I think we should lower your conceit. But that is impossible, and so you may do just what you please with me. I ask no favors.”
Although this answer was very imperfectly translated, it awakened a good deal of admiration. A man who could look death so closely in the face, with so much steadiness, became a sort of hero in Indian eyes; and with the North American savage, fortitude is a virtue not inferior to courage. Murmurs of approbation were heard, and Ungque was privately requested to urge the captive further, in order to see how far present appearances were likely to be maintained.
“Brother, I have said that we are Injins,” resumed The Weasel, with an air so humble, and a voice so meek, that a stranger might have supposed he was consoling, instead of endeavoring to intimidate, the prisoner. “It is true. We are nothing but poor, ignorant Injins. We can only torment our prisoners after Injin fashion. If we were pale-faces, we might do better. We did not torment the medicine-priest. We were afraid he would laugh at our mistakes. He knew a great deal. We know but little. We do as well as we know how.
“Brother, when Injins do as well as they know how, a warrior should forget their mistakes. We wish to torment you, in a way to prove that you are all over man. We wish so to torment you that you will stand up under the pain in such a way that it will make our young men think your mother was not a squaw—that there is no woman in you. We do this for our own honor, as well as for yours. It will be an honor to us to have such a captive; it will be an honor to you to be such a captive. We shall do as well as we know how.
“Brother, it is most time to begin. The tormenting will last a long time. We must not let the medicine-priest get too great a start on the path to the happy hunting-grounds of your——”
Here, a most unexpected interruption occurred, that effectually put a stop to the eloquence of Ungque. In his desire to make an impression, the savage approached within reach of the captive’s arm, while his own mind was intent on the words that he hoped would make the prisoner quail. The corporal kept his eye on that of the speaker, charming him, as it were, into a riveted gaze, in return. Watching his opportunity, he caught the tomahawk from the Weasel’s belt, and by a single blow, felled him dead at his feet. Not content with this, the old soldier now bounded forward, striking right and left, inflicting six or eight wounds on others, before he could be again arrested, disarmed, and bound. While the last was doing, Peter withdrew, unobserved.
Many were the “hughs” and other exclamations of admiration that succeeded this display of desperate manhood! The body of The Weasel was removed, and interred, while the wounded withdrew to attend to their hurts; leaving the arena to the rest assembled there. As for the corporal, he was pretty well blown, and, in addition to being now bound hand and foot, his recent exertions, which were terrific while they lasted, effectually incapacitated him from making any move, so long as he was thus exhausted and confined.
A council was now held by the principal chiefs. Ungque had few friends. In this, he shared the fate of most demagogues, who are commonly despised even by those they lead and deceive. No one regretted him much, and some were actually glad at his fate. But the dignity of the conquerors must be vindicated. It would never do to allow a pale-face to obtain so great an advantage, and not take a signal vengeance for his deeds. After a long consultation, it was determined to subject the captive to the trial by saplings, and thus see if he could bear the torture without complaining. As some of our readers may not understand what this fell mode of tormenting is, it may be necessary to explain.
There is scarcely a method of inflicting pain, that comes within the compass of their means, that the North American Indians have not essayed on their enemies. When the infernal ingenuity that is exercised on these occasions fails of its effect, the captives themselves have been heard to suggest other means of torturing that they have known practised successfully by their own people. There is often a strange strife between the tormentors and the tormented; the one to manifest skill in inflicting pain, and the other to manifest fortitude in enduring it. As has just been said, quite as much renown is often acquired by the warrior, in setting all the devices of his conquerors at defiance, while subject to their hellish attempts, as in deeds of arms. It might be more true to say that such was the practice among the Indians, than to say, at the present time, that such is; for it is certain that civilization in its approaches, while it has in many particulars even degraded the red man, has had a silent effect in changing and mitigating many of his fiercer customs—this, perhaps, among the rest. It is probable that the more distant tribes still resort to all these ancient usages; but it is both hoped and believed that those nearer to the whites do not.
The “torture by saplings” is one of those modes of inflicting pain that would naturally suggest themselves to savages. Young trees that do not stand far apart are trimmed of their branches, and brought nearer to each other by bending their bodies; the victim is then attached to both trunks, sometimes by his extended arms, at others by his legs, or by whatever part of the frame cruelty can suggest, when the saplings are released, and permitted to resume their upright positions. Of course, the sufferer is lifted from the earth, and hangs suspended by his limbs, with a strain on them that soon produces the most intense anguish. The celebrated punishment of the “knout” partakes a good deal of this same character of suffering. Bough of the Oak now approached the corporal, to let him know how high an honor was in reserve for him.
“Brother,” said this ambitious orator, “you are a brave warrior. You have done well. Not only have you killed one of our chiefs, but you have wounded several of our young men. No one but a brave could have done this. You have forced us to bind you, lest you might kill some more. It is not often that captives do this. Your courage has caused us to consult how we might best torture you, in a way most to manifest your manhood. After talking together, the chiefs have decided that a man of your firmness ought to be hung between two young trees. We have found the trees, and have cut off their branches. You can see them. If they were a little larger their force would be greater, and they would give you more pain—would be more worthy of you; but these are the largest saplings we could find. Had there been any larger, we would have let you have them. We wish to do you honor, for you are a bold warrior, and worthy to be well tormented.
“Brother, look at these saplings! They are tall and straight. When they are bent by many hands, they will come together. Take away the hands, and they will become straight again. Your arms must then keep them together. We wish we had some pappooses here, that they might shoot arrows into your flesh. That would help much to torment you. You cannot have this honor, for we have no pappooses. We are afraid to let our young men shoot arrows into your flesh. They are strong, and might kill you. We wish you to die between the saplings, as is your right, being so great a brave.
“Brother, we think much better of you since you killed The Weasel, and hurt our young men. If all your warriors at Chicago had been as bold as you, Black-Bird would not have taken that fort. You would have saved many scalps. This encourages us. It makes us think the Great Spirit means to help us, and that we shall kill all the pale-faces. When we get further into your settlements, we do not expect to meet many such braves as you. They tell us we shall then find men who will run, and screech like women. It will not be a pleasure to torment such men. We had rather torment a bold warrior, like you, who makes us admire him for his manliness. We love our squaws, but not in the war-path. They are best in the lodges; here we want nothing but men. You are a man—a brave—we honor you. We think, notwithstanding, we shall yet make you weak. It will not be easy, yet we hope to do it. We shall try. We may not think quite so well of you, if we do it; but we shall always call you a brave. A man is not a stone. We can all feel, and when we have done all that is in our power, no one can do more. It is so with Injins; we think it must be so with pale-faces. We mean to try and see how it is.”
The corporal understood very little of this harangue, though he perfectly comprehended the preparations of the saplings, and Bough of the Oak’s allusions to them. He was in a cold sweat at the thought, for resolute as he was, he foresaw sufferings that human fortitude could hardly endure. In this state of the case, and in the frame of mind he was in, he had recourse to an expedient of which he had often heard, and which he thought might now be practised to some advantage. It was to open upon the savages with abuse, and to exasperate them, by taunts and sarcasm, to such a degree as might induce some of the weaker members of the tribe to dispatch him on the spot. As the corporal, with the perspective of the saplings before his eyes, manifested a good deal of ingenuity on this occasion, we shall record some of his efforts.
“D’ye call yourselves chiefs and warriors?” he began, upon a pretty high key. “I call ye squaws! There is not a man among ye. Dogs would be the best name. You are poor Injins. A long time ago, the pale-faces came here in two or three little canoes. They were but a handful, and you were plentier than prairie wolves. Your bark could be heard throughout the land. Well, what did this handful of pale-faces? It drove your fathers before them, until they got all the best of the hunting-grounds. Not an Injin of you all, now, ever get down on the shores of the great salt lake, unless to sell brooms and baskets, and then he goes sneaking like a wolf after a sheep. You have forgotten how clams and oysters taste. Your fathers had as many of them as they could eat; but not one of you ever tasted them. The pale-faces eat them all. If an Injun asked for one, they would throw the shell at his head, and call him a dog.
“Do you think that my chiefs would hang one of you between two such miserable saplings as these? No! They would scorn to practice such pitiful torture. They would bring the tops of two tall pines together, trees a hundred and fifty feet high, and put their prisoner on the topmost boughs, for the crows and ravens to pick his eyes out. But you are miserable Injins! You know nothing. If you know’d any better, would you act such poor torment ag’in’ a great brave? I spit upon ye, and call you squaws. The pale-faces have made women of ye. They have taken out your hearts, and put pieces of dog’s flesh in their places.”
Here the corporal, who delivered himself with an animation suited to his language, was obliged to pause, literally for want of breath. Singular as it may seem, this tirade excited great admiration among the savages. It is true, that very few understood what was said; perhaps no one understood all, but the manner was thought to be admirable. When some of the language was interpreted, a deep but smothered resentment was felt; more especially at the taunts touching the manner in which the whites had overcome the red men. Truth is hard to be borne, and the individual, or people, who will treat a thousand injurious lies with contempt, feel all their ire aroused at one reproach that has its foundation in fact. Nevertheless, the anger that the corporal’s words did, in truth, awaken, was successfully repressed, and he had the disappointment of seeing that his life was spared for the torture.
“Brother,” said Bough of the Oak, again placing himself before the captive, “you have a stout heart. It is made of stone, and not of flesh. If our hearts be of dog’s meat, yours is of stone. What you say is true. The pale-faces did come at first in two or three canoes, and there were but few of them. We are ashamed, for it is true. A few pale-faces drove toward the setting sun many Injins. But we cannot be driven any further. We mean to stop here, and begin to take all the scalps we can. A great chief, who belongs to no one tribe, but belongs to all tribes, who speaks all tongues, has been sent by the Great Spirit to arouse us. He has done it. You know him. He came from the head of the lake with you, and kept his eye on your scalp. He has meant to take it from the first. He waited only for an opportunity. That opportunity has come, and we now mean to do as he has told us we ought to do. This is right. Squaws are in a hurry; warriors know how to wait. We would kill you at once, and hang your scalp on our pole, but it would not be right. We wish to do what is right. If we are poor Injins, and know but little, we know what is right. It is right to torment so great a brave, and we mean to do it. It is only just to you to do so. An old warrior who has seen so many enemies, and who has so big a heart, ought not to be knocked in the head like a pappoose or a squaw. It is his right to be tormented. We are getting ready, and shall soon begin. If my brother can tell us a new way of tormenting, we are willing to try it. Should we not make out as well as pale-faces, my brother will remember who we are. We mean to do our best, and we hope to make his heart soft. If we do this, great will be our honor. Should we not do it, we cannot help it. We shall try.”
It was now the corporal’s turn to put in a rebutter. This he did without any failure in will or performance. By this time he was so well warmed as to think or care very little about the saplings, and to overlook the pain they might occasion.
“Dogs can do little but bark; ‘specially Injin dogs,” he said. “Injins themselves are little better than their own dogs. They can bark, but they don’t know how to bite. You have many great chiefs here. Some are panthers, and some bears, and some buffaloes; but where are your weasels? I have fit you now these twenty years, and never have I known ye to stand up to the baggonet. It’s not Injin natur’ to do that.”
Here the corporal, without knowing it, made some such reproach to the aboriginal warriors of America as the English used to throw into the teeth of ourselves—that of not standing up to a weapon which neither party possessed. It was matter of great triumph that the Americans would not stand the charge of the bayonet at the renowned fight on Breed’s, for instance, when it is well known that not one man in five among the colonists had any such weapon at all to “stand up” with. A different story was told at Guildford, and Stony Point, and Eutaw, and Bennington, and Bemis’ Heights, and fifty other places that might be named, after the troops were furnished with bayonets. Then it was found that the Americans could use them as well as others, and so might it have proved with the red men, though their discipline, or mode of fighting, scarce admitted of such systematic charges. All this, however, the corporal overlooked, much as if he were a regular historian who was writing to make out a case.
“Harkee, brother, since you will call me brother; though, Heaven be praised, not a drop of nigger or Injin blood runs in my veins,” resumed the corporal. “Harken, friend redskin, answer me one thing. Did you ever hear of such a man as Mad Anthony? He was the tickler for your infernal tribes! You pulled no saplings together for him. He put you up with ‘the long-knives and leather-stockings,’ and you outrun his fleetest horses. I was with him, and saw more naked backs than naked faces among your people, that day. Your Great Bear got a rap on his nose that sent him to his village yelping like a cur.”
Again was the corporal compelled to stop to take breath. The allusion to Wayne, and his defeat of the Indians, excited so much ire, that several hands grasped knives and tomahawks, and one arrow was actually drawn nearly to the head; but the frown of Bear’s Meat prevented any outbreak, or actual violence. It was deemed prudent, however, to put an end to this scene, lest the straightforward corporal, who laid it on heavily, and who had so much to say about Indian defeats, might actually succeed in touching some festering wound that would bring him to his death at once. It was, accordingly, determined to proceed with the torture of the saplings without further delay.
The corporal was removed accordingly, and placed between the two bended trees, which were kept together by withes around their tops. An arm of the captive was bound tightly at the wrist to the top of each tree, so that his limbs were to act as the only tie between the saplings, as soon as the withes should be cut. The Indians now worked in silence, and the matter was getting to be much too serious for the corporal to indulge in any more words. The cold sweat returned, and many an anxious glance was cast by the veteran on the fell preparations. Still he maintained appearances, and when all was ready, not a man there was aware of the agony of dread which prevailed in the breast of the victim. It was not death that he feared as much as suffering. A few minutes, the corporal well knew, would make the pain intolerable, while he saw no hope of putting a speedy end to his existence. A man might live hours in such a situation. Then it was that the teachings of childhood were revived in the bosom of this hardened man, and he remembered the Being that died for him, in common with the rest of the human race, on the tree. The seeming similarity of his own execution struck his imagination, and brought a tardy but faint recollection of those lessons that had lost most of their efficacy in the wickedness and impiety of camps. His soul struggled for relief in that direction, but the present scene was too absorbing to admit of its lifting itself so far above his humanity.
“Warrior of the pale-faces,” said Bough of the Oak, “we are going to cut the withe. You will then be where a brave man will want all his courage. If you are firm, we will do you honor; if you faint and screech, our young men will laugh at you. This is the way with Injins. They honor braves; they point the finger at cowards.”
Here a sign was made by Bear’s Meat, and a warrior raised the tomahawk that was to separate the fastenings. His hand was in the very act of descending, when the crack of a rifle was heard, and a little smoke rose out of the thicket, near the spot where the bee-hunter and the corporal, himself, had remained so long hid, on the occasion of the council first held in that place. The tomahawk fell, however, the withes were parted, and up flew the saplings, with a violence that threatened to tear the arms of the victim out of their sockets.
The Indians listened, expecting the screeches and groans;—they gazed, hoping to witness the writhings of their captive. But they were disappointed. There hung the body, its arms distended, still holding the tops of the saplings bowed, but not a sign of life was seen. A small line of blood trickled down the forehead, and above it was the nearly imperceptible hole made by the passage of a bullet. The head itself had fallen forward, and a little on one shoulder. The corporal had escaped the torments reserved for him, by this friendly blow.