The Cobbler In The Devil's Kitchen by Mary Hartwell Catherwood
THE COBBLER IN THE DEVIL'S KITCHEN
From Mackinac And Lake Stories", 1899
By Mary Hartwell Catherwood
Early in the Mackinac summer Owen Cunning took his shoemaker's bench
and all his belongings to that open cavern on the beach called the
Devil's Kitchen, which was said to derive its name from former
practices of the Indians. They roasted prisoners there. The inner rock
retained old smoke-stains.
Though appearing a mere hole in the cliff to passing canoe-men, the
Devil's Kitchen was really as large as a small cabin, rising at least
seven feet from a floor which sloped down towards the water. Overhead,
through an opening which admitted his body, Owen could reach a natural
attic, just large enough for his bed if he contented himself with
blankets. And an Irishman prided himself on being tough as any French
voyageur who slept blanketed on snow in the winter wilderness.
The rock was full of pockets, enclosing pebbles and fragments. By
knocking out the contents of these, Owen made cupboards for his food.
As for clothes, what Mackinac-Islander of the working-class, in those
days of the Fur Company's prosperity, needed more than he had on? When
his clothes wore out, Owen could go to the traders' and buy more. He
washed his other shirt in the lake at his feet, and hung it on the
cedars to dry by his door. Warm evenings, when the sun had soaked
itself in limpid ripples until its crimson spread through them afar,
Owen stripped himself and went bathing, with strong snorts of enjoyment
as he rose from his plunge. The narrow lake rim was littered with
fragments which had once filled the cavern. Two large pieces afforded
him a table and a seat for his visitors.
Owen had a choice of water for his drinking. Not thirty feet away on
his right a spring burst from the cliff and gushed through its little
pool down the beach. It was cold and delicious.
In the east side of the Kitchen was a natural tiny fireplace a
couple of feet high, screened by cedar foliage from the lake wind. Here
Owen cooked his meals, and the smoke was generally carried out from his
flueless hearth. The straits were then full of fish, and he had not far
to throw his lines to reach deep water.
Dependent on the patronage of Mackinac village, the Irishman had
chosen the very shop which would draw notice upon himself. His
customers tramped out to him along a rough beach under the heights,
which helped to wear away the foot-gear Owen mended. They stood
grinning amiably at his snug quarters. It was told as far as Drummond
Island and the Sault that a cobbler lived in the Devil's Kitchen on
He was a happy fellow, his clean Irish skin growing rosier in air
pure as the air of mid-ocean. The lake spread in variegated copper
lights almost at his feet. He did not like Mackinac village in summer,
when the engagés were all back, and Indians camped tribes strong on the
beach, to receive their money from the government. French and savages
shouldered one another, the multitude of them making a great hubbub and
a gay show of clothes like a fair. Every voyageur was sparring with
every other voyageur. A challenge by the poke of a fist, and lo! a ring
is formed and two are fighting. The whipped one gets up, shakes hands
with his conqueror, and off they go to drink together. Owen despised
such fighting. His way was to take a club and break heads, and see some
blood run on the ground. It was better for him to dwell alone than to
be stirred up and left unsatisfied.
It was late in the afternoon, and the fresh smell of the water
cheered him as he sat stitching on a pair of deer-hide shoes for one
Léon Baudette, an engagé, who was homesick for Montreal. The lowering
sun smote an hour-glass of light across the strait which separated him
from St. Ignace on the north shore, the old Jesuit station.
Mother-of-pearl clouds hung over the southern mainland, and the wash of
the lake, which was as pleasant as silence itself, diverted his mind
from a distant thump of Indian drums. He knew how lazy, naked warriors
lay in their lodges, bumping a mallet on stretched deer-hide and
droning barbarous monotones while they kicked their heels in air. If he
despised anything more than the way the French diverted themselves, it
was the way the Indians diverted themselves.
Without a sound there came into Owen's view on the right an Indian
girl. He was at first taken by surprise at her coming over the moss of
the spring. The shaggy cliff, clothed, like the top of his cave, with
cedars, white birch, and pine, afforded no path to the beach in that
direction. All his clients approached by the lake margin at the left.
Then he noticed it was Blackbird, a Sac girl, who had been pointed
out to his critical eye the previous summer as a beauty. Owen admitted
she was not bad-looking for a squaw. Her burnished hair, which had got
her the name, was drawn down to cheeks where copper and vermilion
infused the skin with a wonderful sunset tint. She was neatly and
precisely dressed in the woman's skirt and jacket of her tribe, even
her moccasins showing no trace of the scramble she must have had down
some secret cliff descent in order to approach the cobbler unseen.
He greeted her with the contemptuous affability which an Irishman
bestows upon a heathen. Blackbird was probably a good communicant of
some wilderness mission, but this brought her no nearer to a son of
Good-day to the quane! And what may she be wanting the day?
Blackbird's eyes, without the snake-restlessness of her race, dwelt
unmoving upon him. Owen surmised she could not understand his or any
other kind of English, being accustomed to no tongue but her own,
except the French which the engagés talked in their winter camps. She
stood upright as a pine without answering.
It flashed through him that there might be trouble in the village;
and Blackbird, having regard for him, as we think it possible any human
being may have for us, was there to bid him escape. With coldness
around the roots of his hair, he remembered the massacre at Fort
Michilimackinaca spot almost in sight across the strait, where south
shore approaches north shore at the mouth of Lake Michigan. He laid
down his boot. His lips dropped apart, and with a hush of the soundif
such a sound can be hushedhe imitated the Indian war-whoop.
Blackbird did not smile at the uncanny screech, but she relaxed her
face in stoic amusement, relieving Owen's tense breathing. There was no
plot. The tribes merely intended to draw their money, get as drunk as
possible, and depart in peace at the end of the month with various
outfits to winter posts.
Begorra, but that was a narrow escape! sighed Owen, wiping his
forehead on his sleeve. He was able to detect the deference that
Blackbird paid him by this visit. He sat on his bench in the Kitchen, a
sunny idol in a shrine, indifferent to the effect his background gave
His mouth puckered. He put up his leather stained hand coyly, and
motioned her unmoving figure back.
Ah, go 'way! Wasn't it to escape you and the likes of you that I
made me retrate to the shore? Nayther white, full haythen, half, nor
quarther nade apply. To come makin' the big eyes at me, and the post
swarmin' wid thim that do be ready to marry on any woman at the
droppin' of the hat!
Mobile blue water with ripple and wash made a background for the
Indian girl's dense repose. She could by lifting her eyes see the
pock-marked front of Owen's Kitchen, and gnarled roots like exposed
ribs in the shaggy heights above. But she kept her eyes lowered; and
Owen stuck his feet under his bench, sensitive to defects in his
foot-wear, which an artist skilled in making and mending moccasins
Blackbird moved forward and laid a shining dot on the stone he used
as his table; then, without a word, she turned and disappeared the way
she came, over the moss of the spring rivulet.
Owen left his bench and craned after her. He did not hear a pebble
roll on the stony beach or a twig snap among foliage.
Begorra, it's the wings of a say-gull! said Owen, and he took up
her offering. It was a tiny gold coin. Mackinac was full of gold the
month the Indians were paid. It came in kegs from Washington, under the
escort of soldiers, to the United States Agency, and was weighed out to
each red heir despoiled of land by white conquest, in his due
proportion, and immediately grasped from the improvident by merchants,
for a little pork, a little whiskey, a little calico. But this was an
old coin with a hole in it; a jewel worn suspended from neck or ear;
the precious trinket of a girl. On one side was rudely scratched the
outline of a bird.
Begorra! said Owen. He hid it in one of the rock pockets, a trust
in a savings-bank, and sat down again to work, trying to discover
Blackbird's object in offering tribute to him.
About sunset he lighted a fire in his low grate to cook his supper,
and put the finished boots in a remote corner of the cave until he
should get his pay. As he expected, Léon Baudette appeared, picking a
barefooted way along the beach, with many complimentary greetings. The
wary cobbler stood between the boots and his client, and responded with
open cordiality. A voyageur who gave flesh and bone and sometimes life
itself for a hundred dollars a year, and drank that hundred dollars up
during his month of semi-civilization on Mackinac, seldom had much
about him with which to pay for his necessary mending.
Léon Baudette swore at the price, being a discontented engagé. But
the foot-wear he was obliged to have, being secretly determined to
desert to Canada before the boats went out. You may see his name marked
as a deserter in the Fur Company's books at Mackinac Island. So,
reluctantly counting out the money, he put on his shoes and crossed his
legs to smoke and chat, occupying the visitor's seat. Owen put his
kettle to boil, and sat down also to enjoy society; for why should man
He learned how many fights had been fought that day; how many bales
of furs were packed in the Company's yard; that Étienne St. Martin was
trying to ship with the Northern instead of the Illinois Brigade, on
account of a grudge against Charle' Charette. He learned that the
Indians were having snake and medicine dances to cure a consumptive
chief. And, to his surprise, he learned that he was considered a
medicine-man among the tribes, on account of his living unmolested in
the Devil's Kitchen.
O oui, declared Léon. You de wizard. You only play you mend de
shoe; but, by gar, you make de poor voyageur pay de same like it was
work! I hear dey call you Big Medicine of de Cuisine Diable.
Owen was compelled to smile with pleasure at his importance, his
long upper lip lifting its unshaven bristles in a white curd.
Do ye moind, Leen me boy, a haythen Injun lady by the name of
Me, I know Blackbird, responded Léon Bau-dette.
Is the consoompted chafe that they're makin' the snake shindy for
married on her?
No, no. Blackbird she wife of Jean Magliss in de winter camps.
John McGillis? Is it for marry in' on a haythen wife he is?
O oui. Two wives. One good Cat'olique. Jean Magliss, he dance every
night now with Amable Morin's girl. The more weddings, the more
dancing. Me, Léon shrugged, I no want a woman eating my wages in
Mackinac. A squaw in the winter camps't assez.
Two wives, the bog-trotter! gulped Owen. John McGillis is a
Oui, what you call Irish, assented Léon; and he dodged, but the
cobbler threw nothing at him. Owen marked with the awl on his own
First a haythen and then a quarther-brade, he tallied against his
countryman. He will be takin' his quarther-brade to the praste before
the boats go gut?
Léon raised fat eyebrows. Amable Morin, he no fool. It is six
daughters he has. O oui; the marriage is soon made.
And the poor haythen, what does she do now?
Blackbird? She watch Jean Magliss dance. Then she leave her lodge
and take to de pine wood. Blackbird ver fond of what you call de
Owen was little richer in the gift of expression than the Indian
woman, but he could feel the tragedy of her unconfirmed marriage. A
squaw was taken to her lord's wigwam, and remained as long as she
pleased him. He could divorce her with a gift, proportioned to his
means and her worth.
When Léon Baudette departed, Owen prepared and ate his supper,
brewing himself some herb tea and seasoning it with a drop of whiskey.
The evening beauty of the lake, of coasts melting in general
dimness, and that iridescent stony hook stretched out from Round Island
to grapple passing craft, was lost on Owen. Humid air did not soften
the glower which grew and hardened on his visage as he made his
preparations for night. These were very simple. The coals of drift-wood
soon died to white ashes in his grate. To close the shop was to stand
upon the shoemaker's bench and reach for the ladder in his attica
short ladder that just performed its office and could be hidden aloft.
Drawing his stairway after him when he had ascended, Owen spread and
arranged his blankets. The ghosts that rose from tortured bodies in the
Kitchen below never worked any terror in his imagination when he went
to bed. Rather, he lay stretched in his hard cradle gloating over the
stars, his wild security, the thousand night aspects of nature which he
could make part of himself without expressing. For him the moon cast
gorgeous bridges on the water; the breathing of the woods was the
breathing of a colossal brother; and when that awful chill which
precedes the resurrection of day rose from the earth and started from
the rock, he turned comfortably in his thick bedding and taxed sleepy
eyes to catch the wanness coming over the lake.
But instead of lying down in his usual peace when the nest was made
to suit him, Owen wheeled and hung undecided legs over the edge of his
loft. Then he again put down the ladder and descended. He had trod the
three-quarters of a mile of beach to the village but once since the
boats came in. Now that his mind was fixed he took to it again with a
loping step, bending his body forward and grasping his cap to butt
through trailing foliage.
As he passed the point and neared the post, its blare and hubbub
burst on him, and its torch-light and many twinkling candles. He
proceeded beside the triple row of Indian lodges which occupied the
entire water-front. At intervals, on the very verge, evening fires were
built, throwing streamers of crimson flicker on the lake. Naked
pappooses gathered around these at play. But on an open flat betwixt
encampment and village rose a lighted tabernacle of blankets stretched
on poles and uprights; and within this the adult Indians were crowded,
celebrating the orgy of the medicine-dance. Their noise kept a
continuous roll of echoes moving across the islands.
Owen made haste to pass this carnival of invocation and plunge into
the swarming main street of Mackinac, where a thousand voyageurs roved,
ready to embrace any man and call him brother and press him to drink
with them. Broad low houses with huge chimney-stacks and dormer-windows
stood open and hospitable; for Mackinac was en fête while the fur
season lasted. One huge storage-room, a wing of the Fur Company's
building, was lighted with candles around the sides for the nightly
ball. Squared dark joists of timber showed overhead. The fiddlers sat
on a raised platform, playing in ecstasy. The dark, shining floor was
thronged with dancers, who, before primrose-color entirely withdrew
from evening twilight, had rushed to their usual amusement.
Half-breeds, quarter-breeds, sixteenth-breeds, Canadian French,
Americans, in finery that the Northwest was able to command from marts
of the world, crossed, joined hands, and whirled, the rhythmic tread of
feet sounding like the beating of a great pulse. The doors of double
timber stood open. From where he paused outside, Owen could see mighty
hinges stretching across the whole width of these doors.
And he could see John McGillis moving among the most agile dancers.
When at last the music stopped, and John led Amable Morin's girl to one
of the benches along the wall, Owen was conscious that an Indian woman
crossed the lighted space behind him, and he turned and looked full at
Blackbird, and she looked full at him. But she did not stay to be
included in the greeting of John McGillis, though English might be
better known to her than Owen had supposed.
John came heartily to the door and endeavored to pull his countryman
in. He was a much younger man than Owen, a handsome, light-haired
voyageur, with thick eyelids and cajoling blue eyes. John was the only
Irish engagé in the brigades. The sweet gift of blarney dwelt on his
broad red lips.
He looked too amiable and easily entreated, too much in love with
life, indeed, to quarrel with any one. Yet as Owen answered his
invitation by a quick pass that struck his cheek, his color mounted
with zest, and he stepped out, turning up his sleeves.
Is it a foight ye want, ye old wizard from the Divil's Kitchen?
laughed John, still good-natured.
It's a foight I want, responded Owen. It's a foight I'm shpilin'
for. Come out forninst the place, where the shlobberin' Frinch can lave
a man be, and I'll shpake me moind.
John walked bareheaded with him, and they passed around the building
to a fence enclosing the Fur Company's silent yard. Stockades of
sharp-pointed cedar posts outlined gardens near them. A smell of fur
mingled with odors of sweetbrier and loam. Again the violins excited
that throb of dancing feet, and John McGillis moved his arms in time to
Out wid it, Owen. I'm losin' me shport.
John McGillis, are ye not own cousin to me by raisin of marryin' on
as fine a colleen as iver shtepped in Ireland?
I am, Owen, I am.
Did ye lave that same in sorrow, consatin' to fetch her out to
Ameriky whin yer fortune was made?
I did, Owen, I did.
Whin ye got word of her death last year, was ye a broken-hearted
widdy or was ye not?
I was, Owen, I was. 46
John McGillis, do ye call yerself a widdy now, or do ye not call
yerself a widdy?
I do, Owen, I do.
Thin ye're the loire, and Owen slapped his face.
For a minute there was danger of manslaughter as they dealt each
other blows with sledge fists. Instead of clinching, they stood apart
and cudgelled fiercely with the knuckled hand. The first round ended in
blood, which John wiped from his face with a new bandanna, and Owen
flung contemptuously from his nose with finger and thumb. The
lax-muscled cobbler was no match for the fresh and vigorous voyageur,
and he knew it, but went stubbornly to work again, saying, grimly:
I've shpiled yer face for the gu'urls the night, bedad.
They pounded each other without mercy, and again rested, Owen this
time leaning against the fence to breathe.
John McGillis, are ye a widdy or are ye not a widdy? he
challenged, as soon as he could speak.
I am, Owen Cunnin', I am, maintained John.
Thin I repate ye're the loire! And once more they came to the
proof, until Owen lay upon the ground kicking to keep his opponent off.
Will I bring ye the dhrop of whiskey, Owen? suggested John,
His cousin by marriage crawled to the fence and sat up, without
I've the flask in me pouch, Owen.
Kape it there.
But sure if ye foight wid me ye'll dhrink wid me?
I'll not dhrink a dhrop wid ye.
The cobbler panted heavily. The loikes of you that do be goin' to
marry on a Frinch quarther-brade, desavin' her, and the father and the
mother and the praste, that you do be a widdy.
I am a widdy, Owen.
The cobbler made a feint to rise, but sank back, repeating, at the
top of his breath, Ye're the loire!
What do ye mane? sternly demanded John. Ye know I've had me
throuble. Ye know I've lost me wife in the old counthry. It's a year
gone. Was the praste that wrote the letther a loire?
I have a towken that ye're not the widdy ye think ye are.
John came to Owen and stooped over him, grasping him by the collar.
Candle-light across the street and stars in a steel-blue sky did not
reveal faces distinctly, but his shaking of the cobbler was an outcome
of his own inward convulsion. He belonged to a class in whom memory and
imagination were not strong, being continually taxed by a present of
large action crowded with changing images. But when his past rose up it
took entire possession of him.
Why didn't ye tell me this before?
I've not knowed it the long time meself.
What towken have ye got?
Towken enough for you and me.
Show it to me.
I will not.
Ye're desavin' me. Ye have no towken.
Thin marry on yer quarther-brade if ye dare!
To be unsettled and uninterested in his surroundings was John
McGillis's portion during the remaining weeks of his stay on the
island. Half savage and half tender he sat in his barracks and smoked
large pipes of tobacco.
He tramped out nearly every evening to the Devil's Kitchen, and had
wordy battles, which a Frenchman would have called fights, with the
cobbler, though the conferences always ended by his producing his
ration and supping and smoking there. He coaxed his cousin to show him
the token, vacillating between hope of impossible news from a wife he
had every reason to believe dead, and indignation at being made the
sport of Owen's stubbornness. Learning in the Fur Company's office that
Owen had received news from the old country in the latest mail sent out
of New York, he was beside himself, and Amable Morin's girl was
forgotten. He began to believe he had never thought of her.
Sure, the old man Morin and me had some words and a dhrink over it,
was all. I did but dance wid her and pinch her cheek. A man niver knows
what he does on Mackinac till he comes to himself in the winter camps
wid a large family on his moind.
The blarney of your lip doesn't desave me, John McGillis,
responded his cousin the cobbler, with grimness.
But whin will ye give me the word you've got, Owen?
I'll not give it to ye till the boats go out.
Will ye tell me, is the colleen alive, thin?
I've tould ye ye're not a widdy.
If the colleen is alive, the towken would be sint to me.
Thin ye've got it, said Owen.
Poor John smoked, biting hard on his pipe-stem. Ignorance, and the
helplessness of a limited man who is more a good animal than a
discerning soul; time, the slow transmission of news, his fixed state
as a voyageurall these things were against him. He could not adjust
himself to any facts, and his feelings sometimes approached the melting
state. It was no use to war with Owen Cunning, whom he was ashamed of
handling roughly. The cobbler sat with swollen and bandaged face,
talking out of a slit, still bullying him.
But the time came for his brigade to go out, and then there was
action, decision, positive life once more. It went far northward, and
was first to depart, in order to reach winter-quarters before snow
At the log dock the boats waited, twelve of them in this outfit,
each one a mighty Argo, rowed by a dozen pairs of oars, and with
centre-piece for stepping a mast. Hundreds of pounds they could carry,
and a crew of fifteen men. The tarpaulin used for a night covering and
to shelter the trading-goods from storms was large as the roof of a
Quiescent on lapping water they rested, their loads and each man's
baggage of twenty or fewer pounds packed tightly to place.
The cobbler from the Devil's Kitchen was in the crowd thronging dock
and shore. The villagers were there, saying farewells, and all the
voyageurs who were soon to go out in other brigades snuffed as
war-horses ready for the charge. The life of the woods, which was their
true life, again drew them. They could scarcely wait. Dancing and
love-making suddenly cloyed; for a man was made to conquer the
wilderness and take the spoils of the earth. Woodsman's habits
returned upon them. The frippery of the island was dropped like the
withes which bound Samson. Their companions the Indians were also
making ready the canoes. Blackbird stood erect behind the elbow of John
McGillis as he took leave of his cousin the cobbler.
Do ye moind, Owen, exclaimed John, turning from the interests of
active life to that which had disturbed his spirit, convinced
unalterably of his own widowed state, yet harrowed unspeakably, ye
promised to show me that word from the old counthry before the boats
I niver promised to show ye any word from the old counthry,
responded Owen, having his mouth free of bandages and both eyes for the
Te tould me ye had a towken from the old counthry.
I niver tould ye I had a towken from the old counthry.
Ye did tell me ye had a towken.
Ye said it proved I was not a widdy.
Show me that same, thin.
Owen looked steadily past John's shoulder at Blackbird, and laid in
John's hand a small gold coin with a hole in it, on one side of which
was rudely scratched the outline of a bird.
John McGillis's face burned red, and many expressions besides
laughter crossed it. Like a child detected in fault, he looked
sheepishly at Owen and glanced behind his shoulder. The faithful
sunset-tinted face of Blackbird, immovable as a fixed star, regarded
the battered cobbler as it might have regarded a great manitou when the
island was young.
How did you come by this, Owen?
I come by it from one that had throuble. Has yerself iver seen it
before, John McGillis?
Is it a towken that ye're not a widdy?
The boats went out, and Blackbird sat in her Irish husband's boat,
on his baggage. Oars flashed, and the commandant's boat led the way.
Then the life of the Northwest rose like a great wavethe voyageurs'
song chanted by a hundred and fifty throats, with a chorus of thousands
on the shore:
[Illustration: Cobbler in the Devil's Kitchen 076]
Dans les chantiers nous hivernerons!
Dans lea chantiers nous hivernerons!
When Owen returned to his Kitchen he found a robe of the finest
beaver folded and laid on his shoemaker's bench.
Begorra! observed the cobbler, shaking it out and rubbing it
against his cheek, she has paid me a beaver-shkin and the spalpeen
wasn't worrth it. But she can kape him now till she has a moind to turn
him out herself. Whin a man marries on a hay then, wid praste or widout
praste, let him shtick to his haythen.