Read The Pioneers Online

Authors: James Fenimore Cooper

The Pioneers (40 page)

“Did you ever hear the singular ways of this Natty spoken of, Miss Temple? They say that, in his youth, he was an Indian warrior; or, what is the same thing, a white man leagued with the savages; and it is thought he has been concerned in many of their inroads, in the old wars.”
“The thing is not at all improbable,” returned Elizabeth; “he is not alone in that particular.”
“No, surely; but is it not strange that he is so cautious with his hut? He never leaves it without fastening it in a remarkable manner; and in several instances, when the children, or even the men of the village, have wished to seek a shelter there from the storms, he has been known to drive them from his door with rudeness and threats. That, surely, is singular in this country!”
“It is certainly not very hospitable; but we must remember his aversion to the customs of civilized life. You heard my father say, a few days since, how kindly he was treated by him on his first visit to this place.” Elizabeth paused, and smiled, with an expression of peculiar archness, though the darkness hid its meaning from her companion, as she continued—“Besides, he certainly admits the visits of Mr. Edwards, whom we both know to be far from a savage.”
To this speech Louisa made no reply but continued gazing on the object which had elicited her remarks. In addition to the bright and circular flame, was now to be seen a fainter, though a vivid light, of an equal diameter to the other at the upper end; but which, after extending downwards for many feet, gradually tapered to a point at its lower extremity. A dark space was plainly visible between the two; and the new illumination was placed beneath the other; the whole forming an appearance not unlike an inverted note of admiration. It was soon evident that the latter was nothing but the reflection, from the water, of the former; and that the object, whatever it might be, was advancing across, or rather over, the lake, for it seemed to be several feet above its surface, in a direct line with themselves. Its motion was amazingly rapid, the ladies having hardly discovered that it was moving at all, before the waving light of a flame was discerned, losing its regular shape, while it increased in size, as it approached.
“It appears to be supernatural!” whispered Louisa, beginning to retrace her steps towards the party.
“It is beautiful!” exclaimed Elizabeth.
A brilliant, though waving flame, was now plainly visible, gracefully gliding over the lake and throwing its light on the water in such a manner as to tinge it slightly; though in the air, so strong was the contrast, the darkness seemed to have the distinctness of material substances, as if the fire were imbedded in a setting of ebony. This appearance, however, gradually wore off; and the rays from the torch struck out, and enlightened the atmosphere in front of it, leaving the background in a darkness that was more impenetrable than ever.
“Ho! Natty, is that you?” shouted the Sheriff. “Paddle in, old boy, and I'll give you a mess of fish that is fit to place before the Governor.”
The light suddenly changed its direction, and a long and slightly built boat hove up out of the gloom, while the red glare fell on the weather-beaten features of the Leatherstocking, whose tall person was seen erect in the frail vessel, wielding, with the grace of an experienced boatman, a long fishing spear, which he held by its center, first dropping one end and then the other into the water, to aid in propelling the little canoe of bark, we will not say through, but over, the water. At the further end of the vessel a form was faintly seen, guiding its motions, and using a paddle with the ease of one who felt there was no necessity for exertion. The Leatherstocking struck his spear lightly against the short staff which upheld, on a rude grating framed of old hoops of iron, the knots of pine that composed the fuel, and the light, which glared high, for an instant fell on the swarthy features and dark, glancing eyes of Mohegan.
The boat glided along the shore until it arrived opposite the fishing ground, when it again changed its direction, and moved on to the land, with a motion so graceful, and yet so rapid, that it seemed to possess the power of regulating its own progress. The water in front of the canoe was hardly ruffled by its passage, and no sound betrayed the collision, when the light fabric shot on the gravelly beach for nearly half its length, Natty receding a step or two from its bow, in order to facilitate the landing.
“Approach, Mohegan,” said Marmaduke; “approach, Leatherstocking, and load your canoe with bass. It would be a shame to assail the animals with the spear, when such multitudes of victims lie here, that will be lost as food for the want of mouths to consume them.”
“No, no, Judge,” returned Natty, his tall figure stalking over the narrow beach, and ascending to the little grassy bottom where the fish were laid in piles: “I eat of no man's wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout, when I crave the creaters; but I wouldn't be helping to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries. If they had fur, like a beaver, or you could tan their hides, like a buck, something might be said in favor of taking them by the thousands with your nets; but as God made them for man's food, and for no other disarnable reason, I call it sinful and wasty to catch more than can be eat.”
“Your reasoning is mine: for once, old hunter, we agree in opinion; and I heartily wish we could make a convert of the Sheriff. A net of half the size of this would supply the whole village with fish for a week at one haul.”
The Leatherstocking did not relish this alliance in sentiment; and he shook his head doubtingly, as he answered:
“No, no; we are not much of one mind, Judge, or you'd never turn good hunting grounds into stumpy pastures. And you fish and hunt out of rule; but, to me, the flesh is sweeter where the creater has some chance for its life: for that reason, I always use a single ball, even if it be at a bird or a squirrel. Besides, it saves lead; for, when a body knows how to shoot, one piece of lead is enough for all, except hard-lived animals.”
The Sheriff heard these opinions with great indignation; and when he completed the last arrangement for the division, by carrying, with his own hands, a trout of a large size, and placing it on four different piles in succession, as his vacillating ideas of justice required, he gave vent to his spleen.
“A very pretty confederacy, indeed! Judge Temple, the landlord and owner of a township, with Nathaniel Bumppo, a lawless squatter and professed deer killer, in order to preserve the game of the county! But, 'duke, when I fish I fish; so, away, boys, for another haul, and we'll send out wagons and carts in the morning to bring in our prizes.”
Marmaduke appeared to understand that all opposition to the will of the Sheriff would be useless; and he strolled from the fire to the place where the canoe of the hunters lay, whither the ladies and Oliver Edwards had already preceded him.
Curiosity induced the females to approach this spot; but it was a different motive that led the youth thither. Elizabeth examined the light ashen timbers and thin bark covering of the canoe, in admiration of its neat but simple execution, and with wonder that any human being could be so daring as to trust his life in so frail a vessel. But the youth explained to her the buoyant properties of the boat and its perfect safety when under proper management; adding, in such glowing terms, a description of the manner in which the fish were struck with the spear, that she changed suddenly, from an apprehension of the danger of the excursion, to a desire to participate in its pleasures. She even ventured a proposition to that effect to her father, laughing at the same time at her own wish and accusing herself of acting under a woman's caprice.
“Say not so, Bess,” returned the Judge. “I would have you above the idle fears of a silly girl. These canoes are the safest kind of boats to those who have skill and steady nerves. I have crossed the broadest part of the Oneida in one much smaller than this.”
“And I the Ontary,” interrupted the Leatherstocking; “and that with squaws in the canoe, too. But the Delaware women are used to the paddle and are good hands in a boat of this nater. If the young lady would like to see an old man strike a trout for his breakfast, she is welcome to a seat. John will say the same, seeing that he built the canoe, which was only launched yesterday; for I'm not overcurious at such small work as brooms, and basketmaking, and other like Indian trades.”
Natty gave Elizabeth one of his significant laughs, with a kind nod of the head, when he concluded his invitation: but Mohegan, with the native grace of an Indian, approached, and taking her soft white hand into his own swarthy and wrinkled palm, said:
“Come, granddaughter of Miquon, and John will be glad. Trust the Indian; his head is old, though his hand is not steady. The Young Eagle will go and see that no harm hurts his sister.”
“Mr. Edwards,” said Elizabeth, blushing slightly, “your friend Mohegan has given a promise for you. Do you redeem the pledge?”
“With my life, if necessary, Miss Temple,” cried the youth, with fervor. “The sight is worth some little apprehension; for of real danger there is none. I will go with you and Miss Grant, however, to save appearances.”
“With me!” exclaimed Louisa. “No, not with me, Mr. Edwards; nor, surely, do you mean to trust yourself in that slight canoe.”
“But I shall; for I have no apprehensions any longer,” said Elizabeth, stepping into the boat, and taking a seat where the Indian directed. “Mr. Edwards, you may remain, as three do seem to be enough for such an eggshell.”
“It shall hold a fourth,” cried the young man, springing to her side with a violence that nearly shook the weak fabric of the vessel asunder. “Pardon me, Miss Temple, that I do not permit these venerable Charons to take you to the shades unattended by your genius.”
“Is it a good or evil spirit?” asked Elizabeth.
“Good to you.”
“And mine,” added the maiden, with an air that strangely blended pique with satisfaction. But the motion of the canoe gave rise to new ideas, and fortunately afforded a good excuse to the young man to change the discourse.
It appeared to Elizabeth that they glided over the water by magic, so easy and graceful was the manner in which Mohegan guided his little bark. A slight gesture with his spear indicated the way in which the Leatherstocking wished to go, and a profound silence was preserved by the whole party, as a precaution necessary to the success of their fishery. At that point of the lake, the water shoaled regularly, differing in this particular, altogether, from those parts where the mountains rose, nearly in perpendicular precipices, from the beach. There, the largest vessels could have lain, with their yards interlocked with the pines; while here a scanty growth of rushes lifted their tops above the lake, gently curling the waters, as their bending heads waved with the passing breath of the night air. It was at the shallow points, only, that the bass could be found, or the net cast with success.
Elizabeth saw thousands of these fish swimming in shoals along the shallow and warm waters of the shore; for the flaring light of their torch laid bare the mysteries of the lake, as plainly as if the limpid sheet of the Otsego was but another atmosphere. Every instant she expected to see the impending spear of Leatherstocking darting into the thronging hosts that were rushing beneath her, where it would seem that a blow could not go amiss; and where, as her father had already said, the prize that would be obtained was worthy any epicure. But Natty had his peculiar habits, and, it would seem, his peculiar tastes also. His tall stature and his erect posture enabled him to see much further than those who were seated in the bottom of the canoe; and he turned his head warily in every direction, frequently bending his body forward, and straining his vision, as if desirous of penetrating the water that surrounded their boundary of light. At length his anxious scrutiny was rewarded with success, and, waving his spear from the shore, he said in a cautious tone:
“Send her outside the bass, John; I see a laker there that has run out of the school. It's seldom one finds such a creater in shallow water, where a spear can touch it.”
Mohegan gave a wave of assent with his hand, and in the next instant the canoe was without the “run of the bass,” and in water nearly twenty feet in depth. A few additional knots were laid on the grating, and the light penetrated to the bottom. Elizabeth then saw a fish of unusual size floating above small pieces of logs and sticks. The animal was only distinguishable, at that distance, by a slight, but almost imperceptible motion of its fins and tail. The curiosity excited by this unusual exposure of the secrets of the lake seemed to be mutual between the heiress of the land and the lord of these waters, for the “salmon trout” soon announced his interest by raising his head and body for a few degrees above a horizontal line, and then dropping them again into a horizontal position.
“Whist! whist!” said Natty, in a low voice, on hearing a slight sound made by Elizabeth in bending over the side of the canoe in curiosity. “ 'Tis a skeary animal, and it's a far stroke for a spear. My handle is but fourteen foot, and the creater lies a good eighteen from the top of the water; but I'll try him, for he's a ten-pounder.”
While speaking, the Leatherstocking was poising and directing his weapon. Elizabeth saw the bright, polished tines, as they slowly and silently entered the water, where the refraction pointed them many degrees from the true direction of the fish; and she thought that the intended victim saw them also, as he seemed to increase the play of his tail and fins, though without moving his station. At the next instant the tall body of Natty bent to the water's edge, and the handle of his spear disappeared in the lake. The long, dark streak of the gliding weapon, and the little bubbling vortex which followed its rapid flight, were easily to be seen; but it was not until the handle shot again into the air by its own reaction, and its master catching it in his hand, threw its tines uppermost, that Elizabeth was acquainted with the success of the blow. A fish of great size was transfixed by the barbed steel, and was very soon shaken from its impaled situation into the bottom of the canoe.

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