The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

Chapter 5.

“In such a night

Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew;

And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself.”

Merchant of Venice.

The suddenness of the flight of his guide, and the wild cries of the pursuers, caused Heyward to remain fixed, for a few moments, in inactive surprise. Then recollecting the importance of securing the fugitive, he dashed aside the surrounding bushes, and pressed eagerly forward to lend his aid in the chase. Before he had, however, proceeded a hundred yards, he met the three foresters already returning from their unsuccessful pursuit.

“Why so soon disheartened!” he exclaimed; “the scoundrel must be concealed behind some of these trees, and may yet be secured. We are not safe while he goes at large.”

“Would you set a cloud to chase the wind?” returned the disappointed scout; “I heard the imp, brushing over the dry leaves, like a black snake, and blinking a glimpse of him, just over ag’in yon big pine, I pulled as it might be on the scent; but ‘twouldn’t do! and yet for a reasoning aim, if anybody but myself had touched the trigger, I should call it a quick sight; and I may be accounted to have experience in these matters, and one who ought to know. Look at this sumach; its leaves are red, though everybody knows the fruit is in the yellow blossom, in the month of July!”

“’Tis the blood of Le Subtil! he is hurt, and may yet fall!”

“No, no,” returned the scout, in decided disapprobation of this opinion, “I rubbed the bark off a limb, perhaps, but the creature leaped the longer for it. A rifle-bullet acts on a running animal, when it barks him, much the same as one of your spurs on a horse; that is, it quickens motion, and puts life into the flesh, instead of taking it away. But when it cuts the ragged hole, after a bound or two, there is, commonly, a stagnation of further leaping, be it Indian or be it deer!”

“We are four able bodies, to one wounded man!”

“Is life grievous to you?” interrupted the scout. “Yonder red devils would draw you within swing of the tomahawks of his comrades, before you were heated in the chase. It was an unthoughtful act in a man who has so often slept with the war-whoop ringing in the air, to let off his piece within sound of an ambushment! But then it was a natural temptation! ’twas very natural! Come, friends, let us move our station, and in such a fashion, too, as will throw the cunning of a Mingo on a wrong scent, or our scalps will be drying in the wind in front of Montcalm’s marquee, ag’in this hour to-morrow.”

This appalling declaration, which the scout uttered with the cool assurance of a man who fully comprehended, while he did not fear to face the danger, served to remind Heyward of the importance of the charge with which he himself had been intrusted. Glancing his eyes around, with a vain effort to pierce the gloom that was thickening beneath the leafy arches of the forest, he felt as if, cut off from human aid, his unresisting companions would soon lie at the entire mercy of those barbarous enemies, who, like beasts of prey, only waited till the gathering darkness might render their blows more fatally certain. His awakened imagination, deluded by the deceptive light, converted each waving bush, or the fragment of some fallen tree, into human forms, and twenty times he fancied he could distinguish the horrid visages of his lurking foes, peering from their hiding-places, in never-ceasing watchfulness of the movements of his party. Looking upward, he found that the thin fleecy clouds, which evening had painted on the blue sky, were already losing their faintest tints of rose-color, while the imbedded stream, which glided past the spot where he stood, was to be traced only by the dark boundary of its wooded banks.

“What is to be done?” he said, feeling the utter helplessness of doubt in such a pressing strait; “desert me not, for God’s sake! remain to defend those I escort, and freely name your own reward!”

His companions, who conversed apart in the language of their tribe, heeded not this sudden and earnest appeal. Though their dialogue was maintained in low and cautious sounds, but little above a whisper, Heyward, who now approached, could easily distinguish the earnest tones of the younger warrior from the more deliberate speeches of his seniors. It was evident that they debated on the propriety of some measure that nearly concerned the welfare of the travellers. Yielding to his powerful interest in the subject, and impatient of a delay that seemed fraught with so much additional danger, Heyward drew still nigher to the dusky group, with an intention of making his offers of compensation more definite, when the white man, motioning, with his hand, as if he conceded the disputed point, turned away, saying in a sort of soliloquy, and in the English tongue —

“Uncas is right! it would not be the act of men to leave such harmless things to their fate, even though it breaks up the harboring place forever. If you would save these tender blossoms from the fangs of the worst of serpents, gentleman, you have neither time to lose nor resolution to throw away!”

“How can such a wish be doubted! have I not already offered —”

“Offer your prayers to Him who can give us wisdom to circumvent the cunning of the devils who fill these woods,” calmly interrupted the scout, “but spare your offers of money, which neither you may live to realize, nor I to profit by. These Mohicans and I will do what man’s thoughts can invent, to keep such flowers, which, though so sweet, were never made for the wilderness, from harm, and that without hope of any other recompense but such as God always gives to upright dealings. First, you must promise two things, both in your own name and for your friends, or without serving you, we shall only injure ourselves!”

“Name them.”

“The one is, to be still as these sleeping woods, let what will happen; and the other is, to keep the place where we shall take you, forever a secret from all mortal men.”

“I will do my utmost to see both these conditions fulfilled.”

“Then follow, for we are losing moments that are as precious as the heart’s blood to a stricken deer!”

Heyward could distinguish the impatient gesture of the scout, through the increasing shadows of the evening, and he moved in his footsteps, swiftly, towards the place where he had left the remainder of his party. When they rejoined the expecting and anxious females, he briefly acquainted them with the conditions of their new guide, and with the necessity that existed for their hushing every apprehension, in instant and serious exertions. Although his alarming communication was not received without much secret terror by the listeners, his earnest and impressive manner, aided perhaps by the nature of the danger, succeeded in bracing their nerves to undergo some unlooked-for and unusual trial. Silently, and without a moment’s delay, they permitted him to assist them from their saddles, when they descended quickly to the water’s edge, where the scout had collected the rest of the party, more by the agency of expressive gestures than by any use of words.

“What to do with these dumb creatures!” muttered the white man, on whom the sole control of their future movements appeared to devolve; “it would be time lost to cut their throats, and cast them into the river; and to leave them here, would be to tell the Mingos that they have not far to seek to find their owners!”

“Then give them their bridles, and let them range the woods,” Heyward ventured to suggest.

“No; it would be better to mislead the imps, and make them believe they must equal a horse’s speed to run down their chase. Ay, ay, that will blind their fire-balls of eyes! Chingach — Hist? what stirs the bush?”

“The colt.”

“That colt, at least, must die,” muttered the scout, grasping the mane of the nimble beast, which easily eluded his hand; “Uncas, your arrows!”

“Hold!” exclaimed the proprietor of the condemned animal, aloud, without regard to the whispering tones used by the others; “spare the foal of Miriam! it is the comely offspring of a faithful dam, and would willingly injure naught.”

“When men struggle for the single life God has given them,” said the scout sternly, “even their own kind seem no more than the beasts of the wood. If you speak again, I shall leave you to the mercy of the Maquas! Draw to your arrow’s head, Uncas; we have no time for second blows.”

The low, muttering sounds of his threatening voice were still audible, when the wounded foal, first rearing on its hinder legs, plunged forward to its knees. It was met by Chingachgook, whose knife passed across its throat quicker than thought, and then precipitating the motions of the struggling victim, he dashed it into the river, down whose stream it glided away, gasping audibly for breath with its ebbing life. This deed of apparent cruelty, but of real necessity, fell upon the spirits of the travellers like a terrific warning of the peril in which they stood, heightened as it was by the calm though steady resolution of the actors in the scene. The sisters shuddered and clung closer to each other, while Heyward instinctively laid his hand on one of the pistols he had just drawn from their holsters, as he placed himself between his charge and those dense shadows that seemed to draw an impenetrable veil before the bosom of the forest.

The Indians, however, hesitated not a moment, but taking the bridles, they led the frightened and reluctant horses into the bed of the river.

At a short distance from the shore they turned, and were soon concealed by the projection of the bank, under the brow of which they moved, in a direction opposite to the course of the waters. In the meantime, the scout drew a canoe of bark from its place of concealment beneath some low bushes, whose branches were waving with the eddies of the current, into which he silently motioned for the females to enter. They complied without hesitation, though many a fearful and anxious glance was thrown behind them towards the thickening gloom which now lay like a dark barrier along the margin of the stream.

So soon as Cora and Alice were seated, the scout, without regarding the element, directed Heyward to support one side of the frail vessel, and posting himself at the other, they bore it up against the stream, followed by the dejected owner of the dead foal. In this manner they proceeded, for many rods, in a silence that was only interrupted by the rippling of the water, as its eddies played around them, or the low dash made by their own cautious footsteps. Heyward yielded the guidance of the canoe implicitly to the scout, who approached or receded from the shore, to avoid the fragments of rocks, or deeper parts of the river, with a readiness that showed his knowledge of the route they held. Occasionally he would stop; and in the midst of a breathing stillness, that the dull but increasing roar of the waterfall only served to render more impressive, he would listen with painful intenseness, to catch any sounds that might arise from the slumbering forest. When assured that all was still, and unable to detect, even by the aid of his practised senses, any sign of his approaching foes, he would deliberately resume his slow and unguarded progress. At length they reached a point in the river, where the roving eye of Heyward became riveted on a cluster of black objects, collected at a spot where the high bank threw a deeper shadow than usual on the dark waters. Hesitating to advance, he pointed out the place to the attention of his companion.

“Ay,” returned the composed scout, “the Indians have hid the beasts with the judgment of natives! Water leaves no trail, and an owl’s eyes would be blinded by the darkness of such a hole.”

The whole party was soon reunited, and another consultation was held between the scout and his new comrades, during which, they whose fates depended on the faith and ingenuity of these unknown foresters, had a little leisure to observe their situation more minutely.

The river was confined between high and cragged rocks, one of which impended above the spot where the canoe rested. As these, again, were surmounted by tall trees, which appeared to totter on the brows of the precipice, it gave the stream the appearance of running through a deep and narrow dell. All beneath the fantastic limbs and ragged tree-tops, which were, here and there, dimly painted against the starry zenith, lay alike in shadowed obscurity. Behind them, the curvature of the banks soon bounded the view, by the same dark and wooded outline; but in front, and apparently at no great distance, the water seemed piled against the heavens, whence it tumbled into caverns, out of which issued those sullen sounds that had loaded the evening atmosphere. It seemed, in truth, to be a spot devoted to seclusion, and the sisters imbibed a soothing impression of security, as they gazed upon its romantic, though not unappalling beauties. A general movement among their conductors, however, soon recalled them from a contemplation of the wild charms that night had assisted to lend the place, to a painful sense of their real peril.

The horses had been secured to some scattered shrubs that grew in the fissures of the rocks, where, standing in the water, they were left to pass the night. The scout directed Heyward and his disconsolate fellow-travellers to seat themselves in the forward end of the canoe, and took possession of the other himself, as erect and steady as if he floated in a vessel of much firmer materials. The Indians warily retraced their steps towards the place they had left, when the scout, placing his pole against a rock, by a powerful shove, sent his frail bark directly into the centre of the turbulent stream. For many minutes the struggle between the light bubble in which they floated, and the swift current, was severe and doubtful. Forbidden to stir even a hand, and almost afraid to breathe, lest they should expose the frail fabric to the fury of the stream, the passengers watched the glancing waters in feverish suspense. Twenty times they thought the whirling eddies were sweeping them to destruction, when the master-hand of their pilot would bring the bows of the canoe to stem the rapid. A long, a vigorous, and, as it appeared to the females, a desperate effort, closed the struggle. Just as Alice veiled her eyes in horror, under the impression that they were about to be swept within the vortex at the foot of the cataract, the canoe floated, stationary, at the side of a flat rock, that lay on a level with the water.

“Where are we? and what is next to be done?” demanded Heyward, perceiving that the exertions of the scout had ceased.

“You are at the foot of Glenn’s,” returned the other, speaking aloud, without fear of consequences, within the roar of the cataract; “and the next thing is to make a steady landing, lest the canoe upset, and you should go down again the hard road we have travelled, faster than you came up; ’tis a hard rift to stem, when the river is a little swelled; and five is an unnatural number to keep dry, in the hurry-skurry, with a little birchen bark and gum. There, go you all on the rock, and I will bring up the Mohicans with the venison. A man had better sleep without his scalp, than famish in the midst of plenty.”

His passengers gladly complied with these directions. As the last foot touched the rock, the canoe whirled from its station, when the tall form of the scout was seen, for an instant, gliding above the waters, before it disappeared in the impenetrable darkness that rested on the bed of the river. Left by their guide, the travellers remained a few minutes in helpless ignorance, afraid even to move along the broken rocks, lest a false step should precipitate them down some one of the many deep and roaring caverns, into which the water seemed to tumble, on every side of them. Their suspense, however, was soon relieved; for aided by the skill of the natives, the canoe shot back into the eddy, and floated again at the side of the low rock before they thought the scout had even time to rejoin his companions.

“We are now fortified, garrisoned, and provisioned,” cried Heyward, cheerfully, “and may set Montcalm and his allies at defiance. How, now, my vigilant sentinel, can you see anything of those you call the Iroquois, on the mainland?”

“I call them Iroquois, because to me every native, who speaks a foreign tongue, is accounted an enemy, though he may pretend to serve the king! If Webb wants faith and honesty in an Indian, let him bring out the tribes of the Delawares, and send these greedy and lying Mohawks and Oneidas, with their six nations of varlets, where in nature they belong, among the French!”

“We should then exchange a warlike for a useless friend! I have heard that the Delawares have laid aside the hatchet, and are content to be called women!”

“Ay, shame on the Hollanders10 and Iroquois, who circumvented them by their deviltries, into such a treaty! But I have known them for twenty years, and I call him liar, that says cowardly blood runs in the veins of a Delaware. You have driven their tribes from the sea-shore, and would now believe what their enemies say, that you may sleep at night upon an easy pillow. No, no; to me, every Indian who speaks a foreign tongue is an Iroquois, whether the castle11 of his tribe be in Canada, or be in New York.”

10 The reader will remember that New York was originally a colony of the Dutch.

11 The principal villages of the Indians are still called “castles” by the whites of New York. “Oneida castle” is no more than a scattered hamlet; but the name is in general use.

Heyward, perceiving that the stubborn adherence of the scout to the cause of his friends the Delawares or Mohicans, for they were branches of the same numerous people, was likely to prolong a useless discussion, changed the subject.

“Treaty or no treaty, I know full well, that your two companions are brave and cautious warriors! have they heard or seen anything of our enemies?”

“An Indian is a mortal to be felt afore he is seen,” returned the scout, ascending the rock, and throwing the deer carelessly down. “I trust to other signs than such as come in at the eye, when I am outlying on the trail of the Mingos.”

“Do your ears tell you that they have traced our retreat?”

“I should be sorry to think they had, though this is a spot that stout courage might hold for a smart skrimmage. I will not deny, however, but the horses cowered when I passed them, as though they scented the wolves; and a wolf is a beast that is apt to hover about an Indian ambushment, craving the offals of the deer the savages kill.”

“You forget the buck at your feet! or, may we not owe their visit to the dead colt? Ha! what noise is that?”

“Poor Miriam!” murmured the stranger; “thy foal was foreordained to become a prey to ravenous beasts!” Then, suddenly lifting up his voice, amid the eternal din of the waters, he sang aloud —

“First born of Egypt, smite did He,

Of mankind, and of beast also;

O, Egypt! wonders sent ‘midst thee,

On Pharaoh and his servants too!”

“The death of the colt sits heavy on the heart of its owner,” said the scout; “but it’s a good sign to see a man account upon his dumb friends. He has the religion of the matter, in believing what is to happen will happen; and with such a consolation, it won’t be long afore he submits to the rationality of killing a four-footed beast, to save the lives of human men. It may be as you say,” he continued, reverting to the purport of Heyward’s last remark; “and the greater the reason why we should cut our steaks, and let the carcase drive down the stream, or we shall have the pack howling along the cliffs, begrudging every mouthful we swallow. Besides, though the Delaware tongue is the same as a book to the Iroquois, the cunning varlets are quick enough at understanding the reason of a wolf’s howl.”

The scout, whilst making his remarks, was busied in collecting certain necessary implements; as he concluded, he moved silently by the group of travellers, accompanied by the Mohicans, who seemed to comprehend his intentions with instinctive readiness, when the whole three disappeared in succession, seeming to vanish against the dark face of a perpendicular rock, that rose to the height of a few yards within as many feet of the water’s edge.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06