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Chapter 20

CHAPTER 20

"Land of Albania! let me bend mine eyes On thee; thou rugged

nurse of savage men!"--Childe Harold

The heavens were still studded with stars, when Hawkeye came

to arouse the sleepers. Casting aside their cloaks Munro

and Heyward were on their feet while the woodsman was still

making his low calls, at the entrance of the rude shelter

where they had passed the night. When they issued from

beneath its concealment, they found the scout awaiting their

appearance nigh by, and the only salutation between them was

the significant gesture for silence, made by their sagacious

leader.

"Think over your prayers," he whispered, as they approached

him; "for He to whom you make them, knows all tongues; that

of the heart, as well as those of the mouth. But speak not

a syllable; it is rare for a white voice to pitch itself

properly in the woods, as we have seen by the example of

that miserable devil, the singer. Come," he continued,

turning toward a curtain of the works; "let us get into the

ditch on this side, and be regardful to step on the stones

and fragments of wood as you go."

His companions complied, though to two of them the reasons

of this extraordinary precaution were yet a mystery. When

they were in the low cavity that surrounded the earthen fort

on three sides, they found that passage nearly choked by the

ruins. With care and patience, however, they succeeded in

clambering after the scout, until they reached the sandy

shore of the Horican.

"That's a trail that nothing but a nose can follow," said

the satisfied scout, looking back along their difficult way;

"grass is a treacherous carpet for a flying party to tread

on, but wood and stone take no print from a moccasin. Had

you worn your armed boots, there might, indeed, have been

something to fear; but with the deer-skin suitably prepared,

a man may trust himself, generally, on rocks with safety.

Shove in the canoe nigher to the land, Uncas; this sand will

take a stamp as easily as the butter of the Jarmans on the

Mohawk. Softly, lad, softly; it must not touch the beach,

or the knaves will know by what road we have left the

place."

The young man observed the precaution; and the scout, laying

a board from the ruins to the canoe, made a sign for the two

officers to enter. When this was done, everything was

studiously restored to its former disorder; and then Hawkeye

succeeded in reaching his little birchen vessel, without

leaving behind him any of those marks which he appeared so

much to dread. Heyward was silent until the Indians had

cautiously paddled the canoe some distance from the fort,

and within the broad and dark shadows that fell from the

eastern mountain on the glassy surface of the lake; then he

demanded:

"What need have we for this stolen and hurried departure?"

"If the blood of an Oneida could stain such a sheet of pure

water as this we float on," returned the scout, "your two

eyes would answer your own question. Have you forgotten the

skulking reptile Uncas slew?"

"By no means. But he was said to be alone, and dead men

give no cause for fear."

"Ay, he was alone in his deviltry! but an Indian whose tribe

counts so many warriors, need seldom fear his blood will run

without the death shriek coming speedily from some of his

enemies."

"But our presence--the authority of Colonel Munro--would

prove sufficient protection against the anger of our allies,

especially in a case where the wretch so well merited his

fate. I trust in Heaven you have not deviated a single foot

from the direct line of our course with so slight a reason!"

"Do you think the bullet of that varlet's rifle would have

turned aside, though his sacred majesty the king had stood

in its path?" returned the stubborn scout. "Why did not the

grand Frencher, he who is captain-general of the Canadas,

bury the tomahawks of the Hurons, if a word from a white can

work so strongly on the natur' of an Indian?"

The reply of Heyward was interrupted by a groan from Munro;

but after he had paused a moment, in deference to the sorrow

of his aged friend he resumed the subject.

"The marquis of Montcalm can only settle that error with his

God," said the young man solemnly.

"Ay, ay, now there is reason in your words, for they are

bottomed on religion and honesty. There is a vast

difference between throwing a regiment of white coats atwixt

the tribes and the prisoners, and coaxing an angry savage to

forget he carries a knife and rifle, with words that must

begin with calling him your son. No, no," continued the

scout, looking back at the dim shore of William Henry, which

was now fast receding, and laughing in his own silent but

heartfelt manner; "I have put a trail of water atween us;

and unless the imps can make friends with the fishes, and

hear who has paddled across their basin this fine morning,

we shall throw the length of the Horican behind us before

they have made up their minds which path to take."

"With foes in front, and foes in our rear, our journey is

like to be one of danger."

"Danger!" repeated Hawkeye, calmly; "no, not absolutely of

danger; for, with vigilant ears and quick eyes, we can

manage to keep a few hours ahead of the knaves; or, if we

must try the rifle, there are three of us who understand its

gifts as well as any you can name on the borders. No, not

of danger; but that we shall have what you may call a brisk

push of it, is probable; and it may happen, a brush, a

scrimmage, or some such divarsion, but always where covers

are good, and ammunition abundant."

It is possible that Heyward's estimate of danger differed in

some degree from that of the scout, for, instead of

replying, he now sat in silence, while the canoe glided over

several miles of water. Just as the day dawned, they

entered the narrows of the lake*, and stole swiftly and

cautiously among their numberless little islands. It was by

this road that Montcalm had retired with his army, and the

adventurers knew not but he had left some of his Indians in

ambush, to protect the rear of his forces, and collect the

stragglers. They, therefore, approached the passage with

the customary silence of their guarded habits.

* The beauties of Lake George are well known to every

American tourist. In the height of the mountains which

surround it, and in artificial accessories, it is inferior

to the finest of the Swiss and Italian lakes, while in

outline and purity of water it is fully their equal; and in

the number and disposition of its isles and islets much

superior to them all together. There are said to be some

hundreds of islands in a sheet of water less than thirty

miles long. The narrows, which connect what may be called,

in truth, two lakes, are crowded with islands to such a

degree as to leave passages between them frequently of only

a few feet in width. The lake itself varies in breadth from

one to three miles.

Chingachgook laid aside his paddle; while Uncas and the

scout urged the light vessel through crooked and intricate

channels, where every foot that they advanced exposed them

to the danger of some sudden rising on their progress. The

eyes of the Sagamore moved warily from islet to islet, and

copse to copse, as the canoe proceeded; and, when a clearer

sheet of water permitted, his keen vision was bent along the

bald rocks and impending forests that frowned upon the

narrow strait.

Heyward, who was a doubly interested spectator, as well from

the beauties of the place as from the apprehension natural

to his situation, was just believing that he had permitted

the latter to be excited without sufficient reason, when the

paddle ceased moving, in obedience to a signal from

Chingachgook.

"Hugh!" exclaimed Uncas, nearly at the moment that the light

tap his father had made on the side of the canoe notified

them of the vicinity of danger.

"What now?" asked the scout; "the lake is as smooth as if

the winds had never blown, and I can see along its sheet for

miles; there is not so much as the black head of a loon

dotting the water."

The Indian gravely raised his paddle, and pointed in the

direction in which his own steady look was riveted.

Duncan's eyes followed the motion. A few rods in their

front lay another of the wooded islets, but it appeared as

calm and peaceful as if its solitude had never been

disturbed by the foot of man.

"I see nothing," he said, "but land and water; and a lovely

scene it is."

"Hist!" interrupted the scout. "Ay, Sagamore, there is

always a reason for what you do. 'Tis but a shade, and yet

it is not natural. You see the mist, major, that is rising

above the island; you can't call it a fog, for it is more

like a streak of thin cloud--"

"It is vapor from the water."

"That a child could tell. But what is the edging of blacker

smoke that hangs along its lower side, and which you may

trace down into the thicket of hazel? 'Tis from a fire; but

one that, in my judgment, has been suffered to burn low."

"Let us, then, push for the place, and relieve our doubts,"

said the impatient Duncan; "the party must be small that can

lie on such a bit of land."

"If you judge of Indian cunning by the rules you find in

books, or by white sagacity, they will lead you astray, if

not to your death," returned Hawkeye, examining the signs of

the place with that acuteness which distinguished him. "If

I may be permitted to speak in this matter, it will be to

say, that we have but two things to choose between: the one

is, to return, and give up all thoughts of following the

Hurons--"

"Never!" exclaimed Heyward, in a voice far too loud for

their circumstances.

"Well, well," continued Hawkeye, making a hasty sign to

repress his impatience; "I am much of your mind myself;

though I thought it becoming my experience to tell the

whole. We must, then, make a push, and if the Indians or

Frenchers are in the narrows, run the gauntlet through these

toppling mountains. Is there reason in my words, Sagamore?"

The Indian made no other answer than by dropping his paddle

into the water, and urging forward the canoe. As he held

the office of directing its course, his resolution was

sufficiently indicated by the movement. The whole party now

plied their paddles vigorously, and in a very few moments

they had reached a point whence they might command an entire

view of the northern shore of the island, the side that had

hitherto been concealed.

"There they are, by all the truth of signs," whispered the

scout, "two canoes and a smoke. The knaves haven't yet got

their eyes out of the mist, or we should hear the accursed

whoop. Together, friends! we are leaving them, and are

already nearly out of whistle of a bullet."

The well-known crack of a rifle, whose ball came skipping

along the placid surface of the strait, and a shrill yell

from the island, interrupted his speech, and announced that

their passage was discovered. In another instant several

savages were seen rushing into canoes, which were soon

dancing over the water in pursuit. These fearful precursors

of a coming struggle produced no change in the countenances

and movements of his three guides, so far as Duncan could

discover, except that the strokes of their paddles were

longer and more in unison, and caused the little bark to

spring forward like a creature possessing life and volition.

"Hold them there, Sagamore," said Hawkeye, looking coolly

backward over this left shoulder, while he still plied his

paddle; "keep them just there. Them Hurons have never a

piece in their nation that will execute at this distance;

but 'killdeer' has a barrel on which a man may calculate."

The scout having ascertained that the Mohicans were

sufficient of themselves to maintain the requisite distance,

deliberately laid aside his paddle, and raised the fatal

rifle. Three several times he brought the piece to his

shoulder, and when his companions were expecting its report,

he as often lowered it to request the Indians would permit

their enemies to approach a little nigher. At length his

accurate and fastidious eye seemed satisfied, and, throwing

out his left arm on the barrel, he was slowly elevating the

muzzle, when an exclamation from Uncas, who sat in the bow,

once more caused him to suspend the shot.

"What, now, lad?" demanded Hawkeye; "you save a Huron from

the death-shriek by that word; have you reason for what you

do?"

Uncas pointed toward a rocky shore a little in their front,

whence another war canoe was darting directly across their

course. It was too obvious now that their situation was

imminently perilous to need the aid of language to confirm

it. The scout laid aside his rifle, and resumed the paddle,

while Chingachgook inclined the bows of the canoe a little

toward the western shore, in order to increase the distance

between them and this new enemy. In the meantime they were

reminded of the presence of those who pressed upon their

rear, by wild and exulting shouts. The stirring scene

awakened even Munro from his apathy.

"Let us make for the rocks on the main," he said, with the

mien of a tired soldier, "and give battle to the savages.

God forbid that I, or those attached to me and mine, should

ever trust again to the faith of any servant of the

Louis's!"

"He who wishes to prosper in Indian warfare," returned the

scout, "must not be too proud to learn from the wit of a

native. Lay her more along the land, Sagamore; we are

doubling on the varlets, and perhaps they may try to strike

our trail on the long calculation."

Hawkeye was not mistaken; for when the Hurons found their

course was likely to throw them behind their chase they

rendered it less direct, until, by gradually bearing more

and more obliquely, the two canoes were, ere long, gliding

on parallel lines, within two hundred yards of each other.

It now became entirely a trial of speed. So rapid was the

progress of the light vessels, that the lake curled in their

front, in miniature waves, and their motion became

undulating by its own velocity. It was, perhaps, owing to

this circumstance, in addition to the necessity of keeping

every hand employed at the paddles, that the Hurons had not

immediate recourse to their firearms. The exertions of the

fugitives were too severe to continue long, and the pursuers

had the advantage of numbers. Duncan observed with

uneasiness, that the scout began to look anxiously about

him, as if searching for some further means of assisting

their flight.

"Edge her a little more from the sun, Sagamore," said the

stubborn woodsman; "I see the knaves are sparing a man to

the rifle. A single broken bone might lose us our scalps.

Edge more from the sun and we will put the island between

us."

The expedient was not without its use. A long, low island

lay at a little distance before them, and, as they closed

with it, the chasing canoe was compelled to take a side

opposite to that on which the pursued passed. The scout and

his companions did not neglect this advantage, but the

instant they were hid from observation by the bushes, they

redoubled efforts that before had seemed prodigious. The

two canoes came round the last low point, like two coursers

at the top of their speed, the fugitives taking the lead.

This change had brought them nigher to each other, however,

while it altered their relative positions.

"You showed knowledge in the shaping of a birchen bark,

Uncas, when you chose this from among the Huron canoes,"

said the scout, smiling, apparently more in satisfaction at

their superiority in the race than from that prospect of

final escape which now began to open a little upon them.

"The imps have put all their strength again at the paddles,

and we are to struggle for our scalps with bits of flattened

wood, instead of clouded barrels and true eyes. A long

stroke, and together, friends."

"They are preparing for a shot," said Heyward; "and as we

are in a line with them, it can scarcely fail."

"Get you, then, into the bottom of the canoe," returned the

scout; "you and the colonel; it will be so much taken from

the size of the mark."

Heyward smiled, as he answered:

"It would be but an ill example for the highest in rank to

dodge, while the warriors were under fire."

"Lord! Lord! That is now a white man's courage!" exclaimed

the scout; "and like to many of his notions, not to be

maintained by reason. Do you think the Sagamore, or Uncas,

or even I, who am a man without a cross, would deliberate

about finding a cover in the scrimmage, when an open body

would do no good? For what have the Frenchers reared up

their Quebec, if fighting is always to be done in the

clearings?"

"All that you say is very true, my friend," replied Heyward;

"still, our customs must prevent us from doing as you wish."

A volley from the Hurons interrupted the discourse, and as

the bullets whistled about them, Duncan saw the head of

Uncas turned, looking back at himself and Munro.

Notwithstanding the nearness of the enemy, and his own great

personal danger, the countenance of the young warrior

expressed no other emotion, as the former was compelled to

think, than amazement at finding men willing to encounter so

useless an exposure. Chingachgook was probably better

acquainted with the notions of white men, for he did not

even cast a glance aside from the riveted look his eye

maintained on the object by which he governed their course.

A ball soon struck the light and polished paddle from the

hands of the chief, and drove it through the air, far in the

advance. A shout arose from the Hurons, who seized the

opportunity to fire another volley. Uncas described an arc

in the water with his own blade, and as the canoe passed

swiftly on, Chingachgook recovered his paddle, and

flourishing it on high, he gave the war-whoop of the

Mohicans, and then lent his strength and skill again to the

important task.

The clamorous sounds of "Le Gros Serpent!" "La Longue

Carabine!" "Le Cerf Agile!" burst at once from the canoes

behind, and seemed to give new zeal to the pursuers. The

scout seized "killdeer" in his left hand, and elevating it

about his head, he shook it in triumph at his enemies. The

savages answered the insult with a yell, and immediately

another volley succeeded. The bullets pattered along the

lake, and one even pierced the bark of their little vessel.

No perceptible emotion could be discovered in the Mohicans

during this critical moment, their rigid features expressing

neither hope nor alarm; but the scout again turned his head,

and, laughing in his own silent manner, he said to Heyward:

"The knaves love to hear the sounds of their pieces; but the

eye is not to be found among the Mingoes that can calculate

a true range in a dancing canoe! You see the dumb devils

have taken off a man to charge, and by the smallest

measurement that can be allowed, we move three feet to their

two!"

Duncan, who was not altogether as easy under this nice

estimate of distances as his companions, was glad to find,

however, that owing to their superior dexterity, and the

diversion among their enemies, they were very sensibly

obtaining the advantage. The Hurons soon fired again, and a

bullet struck the blade of Hawkeye's paddle without injury.

"That will do," said the scout, examining the slight

indentation with a curious eye; "it would not have cut the

skin of an infant, much less of men, who, like us, have been

blown upon by the heavens in their anger. Now, major, if

you will try to use this piece of flattened wood, I'll let

'killdeer' take a part in the conversation."

Heyward seized the paddle, and applied himself to the work

with an eagerness that supplied the place of skill, while

Hawkeye was engaged in inspecting the priming of his rifle.

The latter then took a swift aim and fired. The Huron in

the bows of the leading canoe had risen with a similar

object, and he now fell backward, suffering his gun to

escape from his hands into the water. In an instant,

however, he recovered his feet, though his gestures were

wild and bewildered. At the same moment his companions

suspended their efforts, and the chasing canoes clustered

together, and became stationary. Chingachgook and Uncas

profited by the interval to regain their wind, though Duncan

continued to work with the most persevering industry. The

father and son now cast calm but inquiring glances at each

other, to learn if either had sustained any injury by the

fire; for both well knew that no cry or exclamation would,

in such a moment of necessity have been permitted to betray

the accident. A few large drops of blood were trickling

down the shoulder of the Sagamore, who, when he perceived

that the eyes of Uncas dwelt too long on the sight, raised

some water in the hollow of his hand, and washing off the

stain, was content to manifest, in this simple manner, the

slightness of the injury.

"Softly, softly, major," said the scout, who by this time

had reloaded his rifle; "we are a little too far already for

a rifle to put forth its beauties, and you see yonder imps

are holding a council. Let them come up within striking

distance--my eye may well be trusted in such a matter--

and I will trail the varlets the length of the Horican,

guaranteeing that not a shot of theirs shall, at the worst,

more than break the skin, while 'killdeer' shall touch the

life twice in three times."

"We forget our errand," returned the diligent Duncan. "For

God's sake let us profit by this advantage, and increase our

distance from the enemy."

"Give me my children," said Munro, hoarsely; "trifle no

longer with a father's agony, but restore me my babes."

Long and habitual deference to the mandates of his superiors

had taught the scout the virtue of obedience. Throwing a

last and lingering glance at the distant canoes, he laid

aside his rifle, and, relieving the wearied Duncan, resumed

the paddle, which he wielded with sinews that never tired.

His efforts were seconded by those of the Mohicans and a

very few minutes served to place such a sheet of water

between them and their enemies, that Heyward once more

breathed freely.

The lake now began to expand, and their route lay along a

wide reach, that was lined, as before, by high and ragged

mountains. But the islands were few, and easily avoided.

The strokes of the paddles grew more measured and regular,

while they who plied them continued their labor, after the

close and deadly chase from which they had just relieved

themselves, with as much coolness as though their speed had

been tried in sport, rather than under such pressing, nay,

almost desperate, circumstances.

Instead of following the western shore, whither their errand

led them, the wary Mohican inclined his course more toward

those hills behind which Montcalm was known to have led his

army into the formidable fortress of Ticonderoga. As the

Hurons, to every appearance, had abandoned the pursuit,

there was no apparent reason for this excess of caution. It

was, however, maintained for hours, until they had reached a

bay, nigh the northern termination of the lake. Here the

canoe was driven upon the beach, and the whole party landed.

Hawkeye and Heyward ascended an adjacent bluff, where the

former, after considering the expanse of water beneath him,

pointed out to the latter a small black object, hovering

under a headland, at the distance of several miles.

"Do you see it?" demanded the scout. "Now, what would you

account that spot, were you left alone to white experience

to find your way through this wilderness?"

"But for its distance and its magnitude, I should suppose it

a bird. Can it be a living object?"

"'Tis a canoe of good birchen bark, and paddled by fierce

and crafty Mingoes. Though Providence has lent to those who

inhabit the woods eyes that would be needless to men in the

settlements, where there are inventions to assist the sight,

yet no human organs can see all the dangers which at this

moment circumvent us. These varlets pretend to be bent

chiefly on their sun-down meal, but the moment it is dark

they will be on our trail, as true as hounds on the scent.

We must throw them off, or our pursuit of Le Renard Subtil

may be given up. These lakes are useful at times,

especially when the game take the water," continued the

scout, gazing about him with a countenance of concern; "but

they give no cover, except it be to the fishes. God knows

what the country would be, if the settlements should ever

spread far from the two rivers. Both hunting and war would

lose their beauty."

"Let us not delay a moment, without some good and obvious

cause."

"I little like that smoke, which you may see worming up

along the rock above the canoe," interrupted the abstracted

scout. "My life on it, other eyes than ours see it, and

know its meaning. Well, words will not mend the matter, and

it is time that we were doing."

Hawkeye moved away from the lookout, and descended, musing

profoundly, to the shore. He communicated the result of his

observations to his companions, in Delaware, and a short and

earnest consultation succeeded. When it terminated, the

three instantly set about executing their new resolutions.

The canoe was lifted from the water, and borne on the

shoulders of the party, they proceeded into the wood, making

as broad and obvious a trail as possible. They soon reached

the water-course, which they crossed, and, continuing

onward, until they came to an extensive and naked rock. At

this point, where their footsteps might be expected to be no

longer visible, they retraced their route to the brook,

walking backward, with the utmost care. They now followed

the bed of the little stream to the lake, into which they

immediately launched their canoe again. A low point

concealed them from the headland, and the margin of the lake

was fringed for some distance with dense and overhanging

bushes. Under the cover of these natural advantages, they

toiled their way, with patient industry, until the scout

pronounced that he believed it would be safe once more to

land.

The halt continued until evening rendered objects indistinct

and uncertain to the eye. Then they resumed their route,

and, favored by the darkness, pushed silently and vigorously

toward the western shore. Although the rugged outline of

mountain, to which they were steering, presented no

distinctive marks to the eyes of Duncan, the Mohican entered

the little haven he had selected with the confidence and

accuracy of an experienced pilot.

The boat was again lifted and borne into the woods, where it

was carefully concealed under a pile of brush. The

adventurers assumed their arms and packs, and the scout

announced to Munro and Heyward that he and the Indians were

at last in readiness to proceed.

James Fenimore Cooper