“But, mother, now a shade has past,
Athwart my brightest visions here,
A cloud of darkest gloom has wrapt,
The remnant of my brief career!
No song, no echo can I win,
The sparkling fount has died within.”
Margaret Davidson, “To my Mother,” 11. 7–12.
Hist and Hetty arose with the return of light, leaving Judith still buried in sleep. It took but a minute for the first to complete her toilet. Her long coal-black hair was soon adjusted in a simple knot, the calico dress belted tight to her slender waist, and her little feet concealed in their gaudily ornamented moccasins. When attired, she left her companion employed in household affairs, and went herself on the platform to breathe the pure air of the morning. Here she found Chingachgook studying the shores of the lake, the mountains and the heavens, with the sagacity of a man of the woods, and the gravity of an Indian.
The meeting between the two lovers was simple, but affectionate. The chief showed a manly kindness, equally removed from boyish weakness and haste, while the girl betrayed, in her smile and half averted looks, the bashful tenderness of her sex. Neither spoke, unless it were with the eyes, though each understood the other as fully as if a vocabulary of words and protestations had been poured out. Hist seldom appeared to more advantage than at that moment, for just from her rest and ablutions, there was a freshness about her youthful form and face that the toils of the wood do not always permit to be exhibited, by even the juvenile and pretty. Then Judith had not only imparted some of her own skill in the toilet, during their short intercourse, but she had actually bestowed a few well selected ornaments from her own stores, that contributed not a little to set off the natural graces of the Indian maid. All this the lover saw and felt, and for a moment his countenance was illuminated with a look of pleasure, but it soon grew grave again, and became saddened and anxious. The stools used the previous night were still standing on the platform; placing two against the walls of the hut, he seated himself on one, making a gesture to his companion to take the other. This done, he continued thoughtful and silent for quite a minute, maintaining the reflecting dignity of one born to take his seat at the council-fire, while Hist was furtively watching the expression of his face, patient and submissive, as became a woman of her people. Then the young warrior stretched his arm before him, as if to point out the glories of the scene at that witching hour, when the whole panorama, as usual, was adorned by the mellow distinctness of early morning, sweeping with his hand slowly over lake, hills and heavens. The girl followed the movement with pleased wonder, smiling as each new beauty met her gaze.
“Hugh!” exclaimed the chief, in admiration of a scene so unusual even to him, for this was the first lake he had ever beheld. “This is the country of the Manitou! It is too good for Mingos, Hist; but the curs of that tribe are howling in packs through the woods. They think that the Delawares are asleep, over the mountains.”
“All but one of them is, Chingachgook. There is one here; and he is of the blood of Uncas!”
“What is one warrior against a tribe? The path to our villages is very long and crooked, and we shall travel it under a cloudy sky. I am afraid, too, Honeysuckle of the Hills, that we shall travel it alone!”
Hist understood the allusion, and it made her sad; though it sounded sweet to her ears to be compared, by the warrior she so loved, to the most fragrant and the pleasantest of all the wild flowers of her native woods. Still she continued silent, as became her when the allusion was to a grave interest that men could best control, though it exceeded the power of education to conceal the smile that gratified feeling brought to her pretty mouth.
“When the sun is thus,” continued the Delaware, pointing to the zenith, by simply casting upward a hand and finger, by a play of the wrist, “the great hunter of our tribe will go back to the Hurons to be treated like a bear, that they roast and skin even on full stomachs.”
“The Great Spirit may soften their hearts, and not suffer them to be so bloody minded. I have lived among the Hurons, and know them. They have hearts, and will not forget their own children, should they fall into the hands of the Delawares.”
“A wolf is forever howling; a hog will always eat. They have lost warriors; even their women will call out for vengeance. The pale-face has the eyes of an eagle, and can see into a Mingo’s heart; he looks for no mercy. There is a cloud over his spirit, though it is not before his face.”
A long, thoughtful pause succeeded, during which Hist stealthily took the hand of the chief, as if seeking his support, though she scarce ventured to raise her eyes to a countenance that was now literally becoming terrible, under the conflicting passions and stern resolution that were struggling in the breast of its owner.
“What will the Son of Uncas do?” the girl at length timidly asked. “He is a chief, and is already celebrated in council, though so young; what does his heart tell him is wisest; does the head, too, speak the same words as the heart?”
“What does Wah-ta-Wah say, at a moment when my dearest friend is in such danger. The smallest birds sing the sweetest; it is always pleasant to hearken to their songs. I wish I could hear the Wren of the Woods in my difficulty; its note would reach deeper than the ear.”
Again Hist experienced the profound gratification that the language of praise can always awaken when uttered by those we love. The ‘Honeysuckle of the Hills’ was a term often applied to the girl by the young men of the Delawares, though it never sounded so sweet in her ears as from the lips of Chingachgook; but the latter alone had ever styled her the Wren of the Woods. With him, however, it had got to be a familiar phrase, and it was past expression pleasant to the listener, since it conveyed to her mind the idea that her advice and sentiments were as acceptable to her future husband, as the tones of her voice and modes of conveying them were agreeable; uniting the two things most prized by an Indian girl, as coming from her betrothed, admiration for a valued physical advantage, with respect for her opinion. She pressed the hand she held between both her own, and answered —
“Wah-ta-Wah says that neither she nor the Great Serpent could ever laugh again, or ever sleep without dreaming of the Hurons, should the Deerslayer die under a Mingo tomahawk, and they do nothing to save him. She would rather go back, and start on her long path alone, than let such a dark cloud pass before her happiness.”
“Good! The husband and the wife will have but one heart; they will see with the same eyes, and feel with the same feelings.”
What further was said need not be related here. That the conversation was of Deerslayer, and his hopes, has been seen already, but the decision that was come to will better appear in the course of the narrative. The youthful pair were yet conversing when the sun appeared above the tops of the pines, and the light of a brilliant American day streamed down into the valley, bathing “in deep joy” the lake, the forests and the mountain sides. Just at this instant Deerslayer came out of the cabin of the Ark and stepped upon the platform. His first look was at the cloudless heavens, then his rapid glance took in the entire panorama of land and water, when he had leisure for a friendly nod at his friends, and a cheerful smile for Hist.
“Well,” he said, in his usual, composed manner, and pleasant voice, “he that sees the sun set in the west, and wakes ‘arly enough in the morning will be sartain to find him coming back ag’in in the east, like a buck that is hunted round his ha’nt. I dare say, now, Hist, you’ve beheld this, time and ag’in, and yet it never entered into your galish mind to ask the reason?”
Both Chingachgook and his betrothed looked up at the luminary, with an air that betokened sudden wonder, and then they gazed at each other, as if to seek the solution of the difficulty. Familiarity deadens the sensibilities even as connected with the gravest natural phenomena, and never before had these simple beings thought of enquiring into a movement that was of daily occurrence, however puzzling it might appear on investigation. When the subject was thus suddenly started, it struck both alike, and at the same instant, with some such force, as any new and brilliant proposition in the natural sciences would strike the scholar. Chingachgook alone saw fit to answer.
“The pale-faces know everything,” he said; “can they tell us why the sun hides his face, when he goes back, at night.”
“Ay, that is downright red-skin l’arnin’” returned the other, laughing, through he was not altogether insensible to the pleasure of proving the superiority of his race by solving the difficulty, which he set about doing in his own peculiar manner. “Harkee, Sarpent,” he continued more gravely, though too simply for affectation; “this is easierly explained than an Indian brain may fancy. The sun, while he seems to keep traveling in the heavens, never budges, but it is the ‘arth that turns round, and any one can understand, if he is placed on the side of a mill-wheel, for instance, when it’s in motion, that he must some times see the heavens, while he is at other times under water. There’s no great secret in that; but plain natur’; the difficulty being in setting the ‘arth in motion.”
“How does my brother know that the earth turns round?” demanded the Indian. “Can he see it?”
“Well, that’s been a puzzler, I will own, Delaware, for I’ve often tried, but never could fairly make it out. Sometimes I’ve consaited that I could; and then ag’in, I’ve been obliged to own it an onpossibility. Howsever, turn it does, as all my people say, and you ought to believe ’em, since they can foretell eclipses, and other prodigies, that used to fill the tribes with terror, according to your own traditions of such things.”
“Good. This is true; no red man will deny it. When a wheel turns, my eyes can see it — they do not see the earth turn.”
“Ay, that’s what I call sense obstinacy! Seeing is believing, they say, and what they can’t see, some men won’t in the least give credit to. Neverthless, chief, that isn’t quite as good reason as it mayat first seem. You believe in the Great Spirit, I know, and yet, I conclude, it would puzzle you to show where you see him!”
“Chingachgook can see Him everywhere — everywhere in good things — the Evil Spirit in bad. Here, in the lake; there, in the forest; yonder, in the clouds; in Hist, in the Son of Uncas, in Tannemund, in Deerslayer. The Evil Spirit is in the Mingos. That I see; I do not see the earth turn round.”
“I don’t wonder they call you the Sarpent, Delaware; no, I don’t! There’s always a meaning in your words, and there’s often a meaning in your countenance, too! Notwithstanding, your answers doesn’t quite meet my idee. That God is observable in all nat’ral objects is allowable, but then he is not perceptible in the way I mean. You know there is a Great Spirit by his works, and the pale-faces know that the ‘arth turns round by its works. This is the reason of the matter, though how it is to be explained is more than I can exactly tell you. This I know; all my people consait that fact, and what all the pale-faces consait, is very likely to be true.”
“When the sun is in the top of that pine to-morrow, where will my brother Deerslayer be?”
The hunter started, and he looked intently, though totally without alarm, at his friend. Then he signed for him to follow, and led the way into the Ark, where he might pursue the subject unheard by those whose feelings he feared might get the mastery over their reason. Here he stopped, and pursued the conversation in a more confidential tone.
“’Twas a little onreasonable in you Sarpent,” he said, “to bring up such a subject afore Hist, and when the young women of my own colour might overhear what was said. Yes, ’twas a little more onreasonable than most things that you do. No matter; Hist didn’t comprehend, and the other didn’t hear. Howsever, the question is easier put than answered. No mortal can say where he will be when the sun rises tomorrow. I will ask you the same question, Sarpent, and should like to hear what answer you can give.”
“Chingachgook will be with his friend Deerslayer — if he be in the land of spirits, the Great Serpent will crawl at his side; if beneath yonder sun, its warmth and light shall fall on both.”
“I understand you, Delaware,” returned the other, touched with the simple self-devotion of his friend, “Such language is as plain in one tongue as in another. It comes from the heart, and goes to the heart, too. ’Tis well to think so, and it may be well to say so, for that matter, but it would not be well to do so, Sarpent. You are no longer alone in life, for though you have the lodges to change, and other ceremonies to go through, afore Hist becomes your lawful wife, yet are you as good as married in all that bears on the feelin’s, and joy, and misery. No — no — Hist must not be desarted, because a cloud is passing atween you and me, a little onexpectedly and a little darker than we may have looked for.”
“Hist is a daughter of the Mohicans. She knows how to obey her husband. Where he goes, she will follow. Both will be with the Great Hunter of the Delawares, when the sun shall be in the pine to-morrow.”
“The Lord bless and protect you! Chief, this is downright madness. Can either, or both of you, alter a Mingo natur’? Will your grand looks, or Hist’s tears and beauty, change a wolf into a squirrel, or make a catamount as innocent as a fa’an? No — Sarpent, you will think better of this matter, and leave me in the hands of God. A’ter all, it’s by no means sartain that the scamps design the torments, for they may yet be pitiful, and bethink them of the wickedness of such a course — though it is but a hopeless expectation to look forward to a Mingo’s turning aside from evil, and letting marcy get uppermost in his heart. Nevertheless, no one knows to a sartainty what will happen, and young creatur’s, like Hist, a’n’t to be risked on onsartainties. This marrying is altogether a different undertaking from what some young men fancy. Now, if you was single, or as good as single, Delaware, I should expect you to be actyve and stirring about the camp of the vagabonds, from sunrise to sunset, sarcumventing and contriving, as restless as a hound off the scent, and doing all manner of things to help me, and to distract the inimy, but two are oftener feebler than one, and we must take things as they are, and not as we want ’em to be.”
“Listen, Deerslayer,” returned the Indian with an emphasis so decided as to show how much he was in earnest. “If Chingachgook was in the hands of the Hurons, what would my pale-face brother do? Sneak off to the Delaware villages, and say to the chiefs, and old men, and young warriors —‘see, here is Wah-ta-Wah; she is safe, but a little tired; and here is the Son of Uncas, not as tired as the Honeysuckle, being stronger, but just as safe.’ Would he do this?”
“Well, that’s oncommon ingen’ous; it’s cunning enough for a Mingo, himself! The Lord only knows what put it into your head to ask such a question. What would I do? Why, in the first place, Hist wouldn’t be likely to be in my company at all, for she would stay as near you as possible, and therefore all that part about her couldn’t be said without talking nonsense. As for her being tired, that would fall through too, if she didn’t go, and no part of your speech would be likely to come from me; so, you see, Sarpent, reason is ag’in you, and you may as well give it up, since to hold out ag’in reason, is no way becoming a chief of your character and repitation.”
“My brother is not himself; he forgets that he is talking to one who has sat at the Council Fire of his nation,” returned the other kindly. “When men speak, they should say that which does not go in at one side of the head and out at the other. Their words shouldn’t be feathers, so light that a wind which does not ruffle the water can blow them away. He has not answered my question; when a chief puts a question, his friend should not talk of other things.”
“I understand you, Delaware; I understand well enough what you mean, and truth won’t allow me to say otherwise. Still it’s not as easy to answer as you seem to think, for this plain reason. You wish me to say what I would do if I had a betrothed as you have, here, on the lake, and a fri’nd yonder in the Huron camp, in danger of the torments. That’s it, isn’t it?”
The Indian bowed his head silently, and always with unmoved gravity, though his eye twinkled at the sight of the other’s embarrassment.
“Well, I never had a betrothed — never had the kind of feelin’s toward any young woman that you have towards Hist, though the Lord knows my feelin’s are kind enough towards ’em all! Still my heart, as they call it in such matters, isn’t touched, and therefore I can’t say what I would do. A fri’nd pulls strong, that I know by exper’ence, Sarpent, but, by all that I’ve seen and heard consarning love, I’m led to think that a betrothed pulls stronger.”
“True; but the betrothed of Chingachgook does not pull towards the lodges of the Delawares; she pulls towards the camp of the Hurons.”
“She’s a noble gal, for all her little feet, and hands that an’t bigger than a child’s, and a voice that is as pleasant as a mocker’s; she’s a noble gal, and like the stock of her sires! Well, what is it, Sarpent; for I conclude she hasn’t changed her mind, and means to give herself up, and turn Huron wife. What is it you want?”
“Wah-ta-Wah will never live in the wigwam of an Iroquois,” answered the Delaware drily. “She has little feet, but they can carry her to the villages of her people; she has small hands, too, but her mind is large. My brother will see what we can do, when the time shall come, rather than let him die under Mingo torments.”
“Attempt nothing heedlessly, Delaware,” said the other earnestly; “I suppose you must and will have your way; and, on the whole it’s right you should, for you’d neither be happy, unless something was undertaken. But attempt nothing heedlessly — I didn’t expect you’d quit the lake, while my matter remained in unsartainty, but remember, Sarpent, that no torments that Mingo ingenuity can invent, no ta’ntings and revilings; no burnings and roastings and nail-tearings, nor any other onhuman contrivances can so soon break down my spirit, as to find that you and Hist have fallen into the power of the inimy in striving to do something for my good.”
“The Delawares are prudent. The Deerslayer will not find them running into a strange camp with their eyes shut.”
Here the dialogue terminated. Hetty announced that the breakfast was ready, and the whole party was soon seated around the simple board, in the usual primitive manner of borderers. Judith was the last to take her seat, pale, silent, and betraying in her countenance that she had passed a painful, if not a sleepless, night. At this meal scarce a syllable was exchanged, all the females manifesting want of appetites, though the two men were unchanged in this particular. It was early when the party arose, and there still remained several hours before it would be necessary for the prisoner to leave his friends. The knowledge of this circumstance, and the interest all felt in his welfare, induced the whole to assemble on the platform again, in the desire to be near the expected victim, to listen to his discourse, and if possible to show their interest in him by anticipating his wishes. Deerslayer, himself, so far as human eyes could penetrate, was wholly unmoved, conversing cheerfully and naturally, though he avoided any direct allusions to the expected and great event of the day. If any evidence could be discovered of his thought’s reverting to that painful subject at all, it was in the manner in which he spoke of death and the last great change.
“Grieve not, Hetty,” he said, for it was while consoling this simple-minded girl for the loss of her parents that he thus betrayed his feelings, “since God has app’inted that all must die. Your parents, or them you fancied your parents, which is the same thing, have gone afore you; this is only in the order of natur’, my good gal, for the aged go first, and the young follow. But one that had a mother like your’n, Hetty, can be at no loss to hope the best, as to how matters will turn out in another world. The Delaware, here, and Hist, believe in happy hunting grounds, and have idees befitting their notions and gifts as red-skins, but we who are of white blood hold altogether to a different doctrine. Still, I rather conclude our heaven is their land of spirits, and that the path which leads to it will be travelled by all colours alike. Tis onpossible for the wicked to enter on it, I will allow, but fri’nds can scarce be separated, though they are not of the same race on ‘arth. Keep up your spirits, poor Hetty, and look forward to the day when you will meet your mother ag’in, and that without pain, or sorrowing.”
“I do expect to see mother,” returned the truth-telling and simple girl, “but what will become of father?”
“That’s a non-plusser, Delaware,” said the hunter, in the Indian dialect —“yes, that is a downright non-plusser! The Muskrat was not a saint on ‘arth, and it’s fair to guess he’ll not be much of one, hereafter! Howsever, Hetty,” dropping into the English by an easy transition, “howsever, Hetty, we must all hope for the best. That is wisest, and it is much the easiest to the mind, if one can only do it. I ricommend to you, trusting to God, and putting down all misgivings and fainthearted feelin’s. It’s wonderful, Judith, how different people have different notions about the futur’, some fancying one change, and some fancying another. I’ve known white teachers that have thought all was spirit, hereafter, and them, ag’in, that believed the body will be transported to another world, much as the red-skins themselves imagine, and that we shall walk about in the flesh, and know each other, and talk together, and be fri’nds there as we’ve been fri’nds here.”
“Which of these opinions is most pleasing to you, Deerslayer?” asked the girl, willing to indulge his melancholy mood, and far from being free from its influence herself. “Would it be disagreeable to think that you should meet all who are now on this platform in another world? Or have you known enough of us here, to be glad to see us no more.
“The last would make death a bitter portion; yes it would. It’s eight good years since the Sarpent and I began to hunt together, and the thought that we were never to meet ag’in would be a hard thought to me. He looks forward to the time when he shall chase a sort of spirit-deer, in company, on plains where there’s no thorns, or brambles, or marshes, or other hardships to overcome, whereas I can’t fall into all these notions, seeing that they appear to be ag’in reason. Spirits can’t eat, nor have they any use for clothes, and deer can only rightfully be chased to be slain, or slain, unless it be for the venison or the hides. Now, I find it hard to suppose that blessed spirits can be put to chasing game without an object, tormenting the dumb animals just for the pleasure and agreeableness of their own amusements. I never yet pulled a trigger on buck or doe, Judith, unless when food or clothes was wanting.”
“The recollection of which, Deerslayer, must now be a great consolation to you.”
“It is the thought of such things, my fri’nds, that enables a man to keep his furlough. It might be done without it, I own; for the worst red-skins sometimes do their duty in this matter; but it makes that which might otherwise be hard, easy, if not altogether to our liking. Nothing truly makes a bolder heart than a light conscience.”
Judith turned paler than ever, but she struggled for self-command, and succeeded in obtaining it. The conflict had been severe, however, and it left her so little disposed to speak that Hetty pursued the subject. This was done in the simple manner natural to the girl.
“It would be cruel to kill the poor deer,” she said, “in this world, or any other, when you don’t want their venison, or their skins. No good white man, and no good red man would do it. But it’s wicked for a Christian to talk about chasing anything in heaven. Such things are not done before the face of God, and the missionary that teaches these doctrines can’t be a true missionary. He must be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I suppose you know what a sheep is, Deerslayer.”
“That I do, gal, and a useful creatur’ it is, to such as like cloths better than skins for winter garments. I understand the natur’ of sheep, though I’ve had but little to do with ’em, and the natur’ of wolves too, and can take the idee of a wolf in the fleece of a sheep, though I think it would be like to prove a hot jacket for such a beast, in the warm months!”
“And sin and hypocrisy are hot jackets, as they will find who put them on,” returned Hetty, positively, “so the wolf would be no worse off than the sinner. Spirits don’t hunt, nor trap, nor fish, nor do anything that vain men undertake, since they’ve none of the longings of this world to feed. Oh! Mother told me all that, years ago, and I don’t wish to hear it denied.”
“Well, my good Hetty, in that case you’d better not broach your doctrine to Hist, when she and you are alone, and the young Delaware maiden is inclined to talk religion. It’s her fixed idee, I know, that the good warriors do nothing but hunt and fish in the other world, though I don’t believe that she fancies any of them are brought down to trapping, which is no empl’yment for a brave. But of hunting and fishing, accordin’ to her notion, they’ve their fill, and that, too, over the most agreeablest hunting grounds, and among game that is never out of season, and which is just actyve and instinctyve enough to give a pleasure to death. So I wouldn’t ricommend it to you to start Hist on that idee.”
“Hist can’t be so wicked as to believe any such thing,” returned the other, earnestly. “No Indian hunts after he is dead.”
“No wicked Indian, I grant you; no wicked Indian, sartainly. He is obliged to carry the ammunition, and to look on without sharing in the sport, and to cook, and to light the fires, and to do every thing that isn’t manful. Now, mind; I don’t tell you these are my idees, but they are Hist’s idees, and, therefore, for the sake of peace the less you say to her ag’in ’em, the better.”
“And what are your ideas of the fate of an Indian, in the other world?” demanded Judith, who had just found her voice.
“Ah! gal, any thing but that! I am too Christianized to expect any thing so fanciful as hunting and fishing after death, nor do I believe there is one Manitou for the red-skin and another for a pale-face. You find different colours on ‘arth, as any one may see, but you don’t find different natur’s. Different gifts, but only one natur’.”
“In what is a gift different from a nature? Is not nature itself a gift from God?”
“Sartain; that’s quick-thoughted, and creditable, Judith, though the main idee is wrong. A natur’ is the creatur’ itself; its wishes, wants, idees and feelin’s, as all are born in him. This natur’ never can be changed, in the main, though it may undergo some increase, or lessening. Now, gifts come of sarcumstances. Thus, if you put a man in a town, he gets town gifts; in a settlement, settlement gifts; in a forest, gifts of the woods. A soldier has soldierly gifts, and a missionary preaching gifts. All these increase and strengthen, until they get to fortify natur’, as it might be, and excuse a thousand acts and idees. Still the creatur’ is the same at the bottom; just as a man who is clad in regimentals is the same as the man that is clad in skins. The garments make a change to the eye, and some change in the conduct, perhaps; but none in the man. Herein lies the apology for gifts; seein’ that you expect different conduct from one in silks and satins, from one in homespun; though the Lord, who didn’t make the dresses, but who made the creatur’s themselves, looks only at his own work. This isn’t ra’al missionary doctrine, but it’s as near it as a man of white colour need be. Ah’s! me; little did I think to be talking of such matters, to-day, but it’s one of our weaknesses never to know what will come to pass. Step into the Ark with me, Judith, for a minute; I wish to convarse with you.”
Judith complied with a willingness she could scarce conceal. Following the hunter into the cabin, she took a seat on a stool, while the young man brought Killdeer, the rifle she had given him, out of a corner, and placed himself on another, with the weapon laid upon his knees. After turning the piece round and round, and examining its lock and its breech with a sort of affectionate assiduity, he laid it down and proceeded to the subject which had induced him to desire the interview.
“I understand you, Judith, to say that you gave me this rifle,” he said. “I agreed to take it, because a young woman can have no particular use for firearms. The we’pon has a great name, and it desarves it, and ought of right to be carried by some known and sure hand, for the best repitation may be lost by careless and thoughtless handling.”
“Can it be in better hands than those in which it is now, Deerslayer? Thomas Hutter seldom missed with it; with you it must turn out to be —”
“Sartain death!” interrupted the hunter, laughing. “I once know’d a beaver-man that had a piece he called by that very name, but ’twas all boastfulness, for I’ve seen Delawares that were as true with arrows, at a short range. Howsever, I’ll not deny my gifts — for this is a gift, Judith, and not natur’— but, I’ll not deny my gifts, and therefore allow that the rifle couldn’t well be in better hands than it is at present. But, how long will it be likely to remain there? Atween us, the truth may be said, though I shouldn’t like to have it known to the Sarpent and Hist; but, to you the truth may be spoken, since your feelin’s will not be as likely to be tormented by it, as those of them that have known me longer and better. How long am I like to own this rifle or any other? That is a serious question for our thoughts to rest on, and should that happen which is so likely to happen, Killdeer would be without an owner.”
Judith listened with apparent composure, though the conflict within came near overpowering her. Appreciating the singular character of her companion, however, she succeeded in appearing calm, though, had not his attention been drawn exclusively to the rifle, a man of his keenness of observation could scarce have failed to detect the agony of mind with which the girl had hearkened to his words. Her great self-command, notwithstanding, enabled her to pursue the subject in a way still to deceive him.
“What would you have me do with the weapon,” she asked, “should that which you seem to expect take place?”
“That’s just what I wanted to speak to you about, Judith; that’s just it. There’s Chingachgook, now, though far from being parfect sartainty, with a rifle — for few red-skins ever get to be that — though far from being parfect sartainty, he is respectable, and is coming on. Nevertheless, he is my fri’nd, and all the better fri’nd, perhaps, because there never can be any hard feelin’s atween us, touchin’ our gifts, his’n bein’ red, and mine bein’ altogether white. Now, I should like to leave Killdeer to the Sarpent, should any thing happen to keep me from doing credit and honor to your precious gift, Judith.”
“Leave it to whom you please, Deerslayer. The rifle is your own, to do with as you please. Chingachgook shall have it, should you never return to claim it, if that be your wish.”
“Has Hetty been consulted in this matter? Property goes from the parent to the children, and not to one child, in partic’lar!”
“If you place your right on that of the law, Deerslayer, I fear none of us can claim to be the owner. Thomas Hutter was no more the father of Esther, than he was the father of Judith. Judith and Esther we are truly, having no other name!”
“There may be law in that, but there’s no great reason, gal. Accordin’ to the custom of families, the goods are your’n, and there’s no one here to gainsay it. If Hetty would only say that she is willing, my mind would be quite at ease in the matter. It’s true, Judith, that your sister has neither your beauty, nor your wit; but we should be the tenderest of the rights and welfare of the most weak-minded.”
The girl made no answer but placing herself at a window, she summoned her sister to her side. When the question was put to Hetty, that simple-minded and affectionate creature cheerfully assented to the proposal to confer on Deerslayer a full right of ownership to the much-coveted rifle. The latter now seemed perfectly happy, for the time being at least, and after again examining and re-examining his prize, he expressed a determination to put its merits to a practical test, before he left the spot. No boy could have been more eager to exhibit the qualities of his trumpet, or his crossbow, than this simple forester was to prove those of his rifle. Returning to the platform, he first took the Delaware aside, and informed him that this celebrated piece was to become his property, in the event of any thing serious befalling himself.
“This is a new reason why you should be wary, Sarpent, and not run into any oncalculated danger,” the hunter added, “for, it will be a victory of itself to a tribe to own such a piece as this! The Mingos will turn green with envy, and, what is more, they will not ventur’ heedlessly near a village where it is known to be kept. So, look well to it, Delaware, and remember that you’ve now to watch over a thing that has all the valie of a creatur’, without its failin’s. Hist may be, and should be precious to you, but Killdeer will have the love and veneration of your whole people.”
“One rifle like another, Deerslayer,” returned the Indian, in English, the language used by the other, a little hurt at his friend’s lowering his betrothed to the level of a gun. “All kill; all wood and iron. Wife dear to heart; rifle good to shoot.”
“And what is a man in the woods without something to shoot with?-a miserable trapper, or a forlorn broom and basket maker, at the best. Such a man may hoe corn, and keep soul and body together, but he can never know the savory morsels of venison, or tell a bear’s ham from a hog’s. Come, my fri’nd, such another occasion may never offer ag’in, and I feel a strong craving for a trial with this celebrated piece. You shall bring out your own rifle, and I will just sight Killdeer in a careless way, in order that we may know a few of its secret vartues.”
As this proposition served to relieve the thoughts of the whole party, by giving them a new direction, while it was likely to produce no unpleasant results, every one was willing to enter into it; the girls bringing forth the firearms with an alacrity bordering on cheerfulness. Hutter’s armory was well supplied, possessing several rifles, all of which were habitually kept loaded in readiness to meet any sudden demand for their use. On the present occasion it only remained to freshen the primings, and each piece was in a state for service. This was soon done, as all assisted in it, the females being as expert in this part of the system of defence as their male companions.
“Now, Sarpent, we’ll begin in a humble way, using Old Tom’s commoners first, and coming to your we’pon and Killdeer as the winding up observations,” said Deerslayer, delighted to be again, weapon in hand, ready to display his skill. “Here’s birds in abundance, some in, and some over the lake, and they keep at just a good range, hovering round the hut. Speak your mind, Delaware, and p’int out the creatur’ you wish to alarm. Here’s a diver nearest in, off to the eastward, and that’s a creatur’ that buries itself at the flash, and will be like enough to try both piece and powder.”
Chingachgook was a man of few words. No sooner was the bird pointed out to him than he took his aim and fired. The duck dove at the flash, as had been expected, and the bullet skipped harmlessly along the surface of the lake, first striking the water within a few inches of the spot where the bird had so lately swam. Deerslayer laughed, cordially and naturally, but at the same time he threw himself into an attitude of preparation and stood keenly watching the sheet of placid water. Presently a dark spot appeared, and then the duck arose to breathe, and shook its wings. While in this act, a bullet passed directly through its breast, actually turning it over lifeless on its back. At the next moment, Deerslayer stood with the breech of his rifle on the platform, as tranquil as if nothing had happened, though laughing in his own peculiar manner.
“There’s no great trial of the pieces in that!” he said, as if anxious to prevent a false impression of his own merit. “No, that proof’s neither for nor ag’in the rifles, seeing it was all quickness of hand and eye. I took the bird at a disadvantage, or he might have got under, again, afore the bullet reached him. But the Sarpent is too wise to mind such tricks, having long been used to them. Do you remember the time, chief, when you thought yourself sartain of the wild-goose, and I took him out of your very eyes, as it might be with a little smoke! Howsever, such things pass for nothing atween fri’nds, and young folk will have their fun, Judith. Ay; here’s just the bird we want, for it’s as good for the fire, as it is for the aim, and nothing should be lost that can be turned to just account. There, further north, Delaware.”
The latter looked in the required direction, and he soon saw a large black duck floating in stately repose on the water. At that distant day, when so few men were present to derange the harmony of the wilderness, all the smaller lakes with which the interior of New York so abounds were places of resort for the migratory aquatic birds, and this sheet like the others had once been much frequented by all the varieties of the duck, by the goose, the gull, and the loon. On the appearance of Hutter, the spot was comparatively deserted for other sheets, more retired and remote, though some of each species continued to resort thither, as indeed they do to the present hour. At that instant, a hundred birds were visible from the castle, sleeping on the water or laying their feathers in the limpid element, though no other offered so favorable a mark as that Deerslayer had just pointed out to his friend. Chingachgook, as usual, spared his words, and proceeded to execution. This time his aim was more careful than before, and his success in proportion. The bird had a wing crippled, and fluttered along the water screaming, materially increasing its distance from its enemies.
“That bird must be put out of pain,” exclaimed Deerslayer, the moment the animal endeavored to rise on the wing, “and this is the rifle and the eye to do it.”
The duck was still floundering along, when the fatal bullet overtook it, severing the head from the neck as neatly as if it had been done with an axe. Hist had indulged in a low cry of delight at the success of the young Indian, but now she affected to frown and resent the greater skill of his friend. The chief, on the contrary, uttered the usual exclamation of pleasure, and his smile proved how much he admired, and how little he envied.
“Never mind the gal, Sarpent, never mind Hist’s feelin’s, which will neither choke, nor drown, slay nor beautify,” said Deerslayer, laughing. “’Tis nat’ral for women to enter into their husband’s victories and defeats, and you are as good as man and wife, so far as prejudyce and fri’ndship go. Here is a bird over head that will put the pieces to the proof. I challenge you to an upward aim, with a flying target. That’s a ra’al proof, and one that needs sartain rifles, as well as sartain eyes.”
The species of eagle that frequents the water, and lives on fish, was also present, and one was hovering at a considerable height above the hut, greedily watching for an opportunity to make a swoop; its hungry young elevating their heads from a nest that was in sight, in the naked summit of a dead pine. Chingachgook silently turned a new piece against this bird, and after carefully watching his time, fired. A wider circuit than common denoted that the messenger had passed through the air at no great distance from the bird, though it missed its object. Deerslayer, whose aim was not more true than it was quick, fired as soon as it was certain his friend had missed, and the deep swoop that followed left it momentarily doubtful whether the eagle was hit or not. The marksman himself, however, proclaimed his own want of success, calling on his friend to seize another rifle, for he saw signs on the part of the bird of an intention to quit the spot.
“I made him wink, Sarpent, I do think his feathers were ruffled, but no blood has yet been drawn, nor is that old piece fit for so nice and quick a sight. Quick, Delaware, you’ve now a better rifle, and, Judith, bring out Killdeer, for this is the occasion to try his merits, if he has ’em.”
A general movement followed, each of the competitors got ready, and the girls stood in eager expectation of the result. The eagle had made a wide circuit after his low swoop, and fanning his way upward, once more hovered nearly over the hut, at a distance even greater than before. Chingachgook gazed at him, and then expressed his opinion of the impossibility of striking a bird at that great height, and while he was so nearly perpendicular, as to the range. But a low murmur from Hist produced a sudden impulse and he fired. The result showed how well he had calculated, the eagle not even varying his flight, sailing round and round in his airy circle, and looking down, as if in contempt, at his foes.
“Now, Judith,” cried Deerslayer, laughing, with glistening and delighted eyes, “we’ll see if Killdeer isn’t Killeagle, too! Give me room Sarpent, and watch the reason of the aim, for by reason any thing may be l’arned.”
A careful sight followed, and was repeated again and again, the bird continuing to rise higher and higher. Then followed the flash and the report. The swift messenger sped upward, and, at the next instant, the bird turned on its side, and came swooping down, now struggling with one wing and then with the other, sometimes whirling in a circuit, next fanning desperately as if conscious of its injury, until, having described several complete circles around the spot, it fell heavily into the end of the Ark. On examining the body, it was found that the bullet had pierced it about half way between one of its wings and the breast-bone.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07