Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Thomas Bangs Thorpe (18151878)
[Born in Westfield, Mass., 1815. Died in New York, N. Y., 1878. The Mysteries of the Backwoods. 1846.]
IT was on a beautiful Southern October morning, at the hospitable mansion of a friend, where I was staying to drown dull care, that I first had the pleasure of seeing Tom Owen. He was straggling on this occasion up the rising ground that led to the hospitable mansion of mine host, and the difference between him and ordinary men was visible at a glance; perhaps it showed itself as much in the perfect contempt of fashion he displayed in the adornment of his outward man as it did in the more elevated qualities of his mind that were visible in his face. His head was adorned with an outlandish pattern of a hat; his nether limbs were ensconced in a pair of inexpressibles, beautifully fringed by the brier-bushes through which they were often drawn; coats and vests he considered as superfluities, and hanging upon his back were a couple of pails, and an axe in his right hand formed the varieties that represented the corpus of Tom Owen. As is usual with great men, he had his followers, and with a courtier-like humility they depended upon the expression of his face for all their hopes of success. The usual salutations of meeting were sufficient to draw me within the circle of his influence, and I at once became one of his most ready followers. See yonder! said Tom, stretching his long arm into infinite space, see yondertheres a bee. We all looked in the direction he pointed, but that was the extent of our observation. It was a fine bee, continued Tom, black body, yellow legs, and into that tree, pointing to a towering oak, blue in the distance. In a clear day I can see a bee over a mile, easy! When did Coleridge talk like that? And yet Tom Owen uttered such a saying with perfect ease.
After a variety of meanderings through the thick woods, and clambering over fences, we came to our place of destination as pointed out by Tom, who selected a mighty tree whose trunk contained the sweets, the possession of which the poets have likened to other sweets that leave a sting behind. The felling of a mighty tree is a sight that calls up a variety of emotions; and Toms game was lodged in one of the finest in the forest. But the axe was laid at the root of the tree, which, in Toms mind, was made expressly for bees to build their nests in, that he might cut them down and obtain possession thereof. The sharp sounds of the axe as it played in the hands of Tom, and was replied to by a stout negro from the opposite side, by the rapidity of their strokes fast gained upon the heart of the lordly sacrifice. There was little poetry in the thought that long before this mighty empire of states was formed Tom Owens bee-hive had stretched its brawny arms to the winters blast and grown green in the summers sun. Yet such was the case, and how long I might have moralized I know not, had not the enraged buzzing about my ears satisfied me that the occupants of the tree were not going to give up their home and treasure without showing considerable practical fight. No sooner had the little insects satisfied themselves that they were about to be invaded than they began one after another to descend from their airy abode and fiercely pitch into our faces; anon a small company, headed by an old veteran, would charge with its entire force upon all parts of our body at once. It need not be said that the better part of valor was displayed by a precipitate retreat from such attacks.
In the midst of this warfare the tree began to tremble with the fast-repeated strokes of the axe, and then might have been seen a bee-hive of stingers precipitating themselves from above on the unfortunate hunter beneath. Now it was that Tom shone forth in his glory.
His partisans, like many hangers-on about great men, began to desert him on the first symptoms of danger; and when the trouble thickened, they, one and all, took to their heels, and left only our hero and Sambo to fight their adversaries. Sambo, however, soon dropped his axe and fell into all kinds of contortions; first he would seize the back of his neck with his hands, then his shins, and yell with pain. Dont holler, nigger, till you get out of the woods, said the sublime Tom, consolingly; but writhe he did, until he broke and left Tom alone in his glory.
Cutthwack! sounded through the confused hum at the foot of the tree, marvellously reminding me of the interruptions that occasionally broke in upon the otherwise monotonous hours of my school-boy days. A sharp cracking finally told me the chopping was done, and looking aloft, I saw the mighty tree balancing in the air. Slowly and majestically it bowed for the first time towards its mother earth, gaining velocity as it descended, shivering the trees that interrupted its downward course, and falling with thundering sound, splintering its mighty limbs and burying them deeply in the ground.
The sun, for the first time in at least two centuries, broke uninterruptedly through the chasm made in the forest, and shone with splendor upon the magnificent Tom standing a conqueror among his spoils.
As might be expected, the bees were very much astonished and confused, and by their united voices they proclaimed death, had it been in their power, to all their foes, not, of course, excepting Tom Owen himself. But the wary hunter was up to the tricks of this trade, and, like a politician, he knew how easily an enraged mob could be quelled with smoke; and smoke he tried until his enemies were completely destroyed. We, Toms hangers-on, now approached his treasure. It was a rich one, and, as he observed, contained a rich chance of plunder. Nine feet, by measurement, of the hollow of the tree was full, and this afforded many pails of pure honey. Tom was liberal, and supplied us all with more than we wanted, and toted, by the assistance of Sambo, his share to his own home, soon to be devoured and replaced by the destruction of another tree and another nation of bees.