Read The Pioneers Online

Authors: James Fenimore Cooper

The Pioneers (4 page)

The mountain on which they were journeying was covered with pines that rose without a branch some seventy or eighty feet and which frequently doubled that height by the addition of the tops. Through the innumerable vistas that opened beneath the lofty trees, the eye could penetrate until it was met by a distant inequality in the ground or was stopped by a view of the summit of the mountain which lay on the opposite side of the valley to which they were hastening. The dark trunks of the trees rose from the pure white of the snow in regularly formed shafts until, at a great height, their branches shot forth horizontal limbs that were covered with the meager foliage of an evergreen, affording a melancholy contrast to the torpor of nature below. To the travelers there seemed to be no wind, but these pines waved majestically at their topmost boughs, sending forth a dull, plaintive sound that was quite in consonance with the rest of the melancholy scene.
The sleigh had glided for some distance along the even surface, and the gaze of the female was bent in inquisitive and, perhaps, timid glances into the recesses of the forest, when a loud and continued howling was heard, pealing under the long arches of the woods like the cry of a numerous pack of hounds. The instant the sound reached the ears of the gentleman, he cried aloud to the black:
“Hold up, Aggy; there is old Hector; I should know his bay among ten thousand! The Leatherstocking has put his hounds into the hills this clear day, and they have started their game. There is a deer track a few rods ahead, and now, Bess, if thou canst muster courage enough to stand fire, I will give thee a saddle for thy Christmas dinner.”
The black drew up with a cheerful grin upon his chilled features and began thrashing his arms together in order to restore the circulation to his fingers, while the speaker stood erect, and, throwing aside his outer covering, stepped from the sleigh upon a bank of snow, which sustained his weight without yielding.
In a few moments the speaker succeeded in extricating a double-barreled fowling piece from among a multitude of trunks and bandboxes. After throwing aside the thick mittens which had encased his hands, that now appeared in a pair of leather gloves tipped with fur, he examined his priming and was about to move forward when the light, bounding noise of an animal plunging through the woods was heard, and a fine buck darted into the path a short distance ahead of him. The appearance of the animal was sudden, and his flight inconceivably rapid, but the traveler appeared to be too keen a sportsman to be disconcerted by either. As it came first into view he raised the fowling piece to his shoulder, and, with a practiced eye and steady hand, drew a trigger. The deer dashed forward undaunted and apparently unhurt. Without lowering his piece, the traveler turned its muzzle towards his victim and fired again. Neither discharge, however, seemed to have taken effect.
The whole scene had passed with a rapidity that confused the female, who was unconsciously rejoicing in the escape of the buck, as he rather darted like a meteor than ran across the road, when a sharp, quick sound struck her ear, quite different from the full, round reports of her father's gun, but still sufficiently distinct to be known as the concussion produced by firearms. At the same instant that she heard this unexpected report, the buck sprang from the snow to a great height in the air, and directly a second discharge, similar in sound to the first, followed, when the animal came to the earth, falling headlong and rolling over on the crust with its own velocity. A loud shout was given by the unseen marksman, and a couple of men instantly appeared from behind the trunks of two of the pines, where they had evidently placed themselves in expectation of the passage of the deer.
“Ha! Natty, had I known you were in ambush, I should not have fired,” cried the traveler, moving towards the spot where the deer lay—near to which he was followed by the delighted black with his sleigh. “But the sound of old Hector was too exhilarating to be quiet, though I hardly think I struck him, either.”
“No—no—Judge,” returned the hunter, with an inward chuckle and with that look of exultation that indicates a consciousness of superior skill. “You burnt your powder only to warm your nose this cold evening. Did ye think to stop a full-grown buck, with Hector and the slut open upon him within sound, with that popgun in your hand? There's plenty of pheasants among the swamps; and the snowbirds are flying round your own door, where you may feed them with crumbs and shoot them at pleasure any day; but if you're for a buck, or a little bear's meat, Judge, you'll have to take the long rifle, with a greased wadding, or you'll waste more powder than you'll fill stomachs, I'm thinking.”
As the speaker concluded, he drew his bare hand across the bottom of his nose and again opened his enormous mouth with a kind of inward laugh.
“The gun scatters well, Natty, and it has killed a deer before now,” said the traveler, smiling good-humoredly. “One barrel was charged with buckshot, but the other was loaded for birds only. Here are two hurts; one through the neck and the other directly through the heart. It is by no means certain, Natty, but I gave him one of the two.”
“Let who will kill him,” said the hunter, rather surlily, “I suppose the creature is to be eaten.” So saying, he drew a large knife from a leathern sheath which was stuck through his girdle or sash and cut the throat of the animal. “If there are two balls through the deer, I would ask if there weren't two rifles fired—besides, who ever saw such a ragged hole from a smoothbore, as this through the neck?—and you will own yourself, Judge, that the buck fell at the last shot, which was sent from a truer and a younger hand than your'n or mine either; but for my part, although I am a poor man, I can live without the venison, but I don't love to give up my lawful dues in a free country. Though, for the matter of that, might often makes right here, as well as in the old country, for what I can see.”
An air of sullen dissatisfaction pervaded the manner of the hunter during the whole of this speech; yet he thought it prudent to utter the close of the sentence in such an undertone as to leave nothing audible but the grumbling sounds of his voice.
“Nay, Natty,” rejoined the traveler with undisturbed good humor, “it is for the honor that I contend. A few dollars will pay for the venison, but what will requite me for the lost honor of a buck's tail in my cap? Think, Natty, how I should triumph over that quizzing dog, Dick Jones, who has failed seven times already this season and has only brought in one woodchuck and a few gray squirrels.”
“Ah! The game is becoming hard to find indeed, Judge, with your clearings and betterments,” said the old hunter with a kind of compelled resignation. “The time has been when I have shot thirteen deer, without counting the fa'ns, standing in the door of my own hut!—and for bear's meat, if one wanted a ham or so, he had only to watch anights, and he could shoot one by moonlight, through the cracks of the logs; no fear of his oversleeping himself neither, for the howling of the wolves was sartin to keep his eyes open. There's old Hector”—patting with affection a tall hound, of black and yellow spots, with white belly and legs, that just then came in on the scent, accompanied by the slut he had mentioned. “See where the wolves bit his throat, the night I druv them from the venison that was smoking on the chimbly top. That dog is more to be trusted than many a Christian man, for he never forgets a friend and loves the hand that gives him bread.”
There was a peculiarity in the manner of the hunter that attracted the notice of the young female, who had been a close and interested observer of his appearance and equipments from the moment he came into view. He was tall, and so meager as to make him seem above even the six feet that he actually stood in his stockings. On his head, which was thinly covered with lank, sandy hair, he wore a cap made of foxskin, resembling in shape the one we have already described, although much inferior in finish and ornaments. His face was skinny and thin almost to emaciation; but yet it bore no signs of disease—on the contrary, it had every indication of the most robust and enduring health. The cold and the exposure had, together, given it a color of uniform red. His gray eyes were glancing under a pair of shaggy brows that overhung them in long hairs of gray mingled with their natural hue; his scraggy neck was bare and burnt to the same tint with his face, though a small part of a shirt collar, made of the country check, was to be seen above the overdress he wore. A kind of coat, made of dressed deerskin with the hair on, was belted close to his lank body by a girdle of colored worsted. On his feet were deerskin moccasins, ornamented with porcupines' quills after the manner of the Indians, and his limbs were guarded with long leggings of the same material as the moccasins, which, gartering over the knees of his tarnished buckskin breeches, had obtained for him, among the settlers, the nickname of Leatherstocking. Over his left shoulder was slung a belt of deerskin, from which depended an enormous ox-horn, so thinly scraped as to discover the powder it contained. The larger end was fitted ingeniously and securely with a wooden bottom, and the other was stopped tight by a little plug. A leathern pouch hung before him, from which, as he concluded his last speech, he took a small measure, and, filling it accurately with powder, he commenced reloading the rifle, which, as its butt rested on the snow before him, reached nearly to the top of his foxskin cap.
The traveler had been closely examining the wounds during these movements, and now, without heeding the ill-humor of the hunter's manner, he exclaimed:
“I would fain establish a right, Natty, to the honor of this death, and surely if the hit in the neck be mine, it is enough; for the shot in the heart was unnecessary—what we call an act of supererogation, Leatherstocking.”
“You may call it by what larned name you please, Judge,” said the hunter, throwing his rifle across his left arm, and knocking up a brass lid in the breech, from which he took a small piece of greased leather, and wrapping a ball in it, forced them down by main strength on the powder, where he continued to pound them while speaking. “It's far easier to call names than to shoot a buck on the spring, but the cretur came by his end from a younger hand than either your'n or mine, as I said before.”
“What say you, my friend,” cried the traveler, turning pleasantly to Natty's companion; “shall we toss up this dollar for the honor, and you keep the silver if you lose; what say you, friend?”
“That I killed the deer,” answered the young man with a little haughtiness, as he leaned on another long rifle, similar to that of Natty.
“Here are two to one, indeed,” replied the Judge, with a smile. “I am outvoted—overruled, as we say on the bench. There is Aggy; he can't vote, being a slave; and Bess is a minor—so I must even make the best of it. But you'll sell me the venison; and the deuce is in it, but I make a good story about its death.”
“The meat is none of mine to sell,” said Leatherstocking, adopting a little of his companion's hauteur. “For my part I have known animals travel days with shots in the neck, and I'm none of them who'll rob a man of his rightful dues.”
“You are tenacious of your rights this cold evening, Natty,” returned the Judge, with unconquerable good nature. “But what say you, young man; will three dollars pay you for the buck?”
“First let us determine the question of right to the satisfaction of us both,” said the youth, firmly but respectfully, and with a pronunciation and language vastly superior to his appearance. “With how many shot did you load your gun?”
“With five, sir,” said the Judge, a little struck with the other's manner. “Are they not enough to slay a buck like this?”
“One would do it; but”—moving to the tree from behind which he had appeared—“you know, sir, you fired in this direction—here are four of the bullets in the tree.”
The Judge examined the fresh marks in the bark of the pine, and shaking his head, said, with a laugh:
“You are making out the case against yourself, my young advocate—where is the fifth?”
“Here,” said the youth, throwing aside the rough overcoat that he wore and exhibiting a hole in his undergarment, through which large drops of blood were oozing.
“Good God!” exclaimed the Judge with horror. “Have I been trifling here about an empty distinction, and a fellow creature suffering from my hands without a murmur? But hasten—quick—get into my sleigh—it is but a mile to the village, where surgical aid can be obtained; all shall be done at my expense, and thou shalt live with me until thy wound is healed, aye, and forever afterward.”
“I thank you for your good intention, but I must decline your offer. I have a friend who would be uneasy were he to hear that I am hurt and away from him. The injury is but slight, and the bullet has missed the bones; but I believe, sir, you will now admit my title to the venison.”
“Admit it!” repeated the agitated Judge. “I here give thee a right to shoot deer, or bears, or anything thou pleasest in my woods, forever. Leatherstocking is the only other man that I have granted the same privilege to, and the time is coming when it will be of value. But I buy your deer—here, this bill will pay thee, both for thy shot and my own.”
The old hunter gathered his tall person up into an air of pride during this dialogue, but he waited until the other had done speaking.
“There's them living who say that Nathaniel Bumppo's right to shoot on these hills is of older date than Marmaduke Temple's right to forbid him,” he said. “But if there's a law about it at all, though who ever heard of a law that a man shouldn't kill deer where he pleased!—but if there is a law at all, it should be to keep people from the use of smoothbores. A body never knows where his lead will fly when he pulls the trigger of one of them uncertain firearms.”

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