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Chapter 21

CHAPTER 21

"If you find a man there, he shall die a flea's death."--

Merry Wives of Windsor

The party had landed on the border of a region that is, even

to this day, less known to the inhabitants of the States

than the deserts of Arabia, or the steppes of Tartary. It

was the sterile and rugged district which separates the

tributaries of Champlain from those of the Hudson, the

Mohawk, and the St. Lawrence. Since the period of our tale

the active spirit of the country has surrounded it with a

belt of rich and thriving settlements, though none but the

hunter or the savage is ever known even now to penetrate its

wild recesses.

As Hawkeye and the Mohicans had, however, often traversed

the mountains and valleys of this vast wilderness, they did

not hesitate to plunge into its depth, with the freedom of

men accustomed to its privations and difficulties. For many

hours the travelers toiled on their laborious way, guided by

a star, or following the direction of some water-course,

until the scout called a halt, and holding a short

consultation with the Indians, they lighted their fire, and

made the usual preparations to pass the remainder of the

night where they then were.

Imitating the example, and emulating the confidence of their

more experienced associates, Munro and Duncan slept without

fear, if now without uneasiness. The dews were suffered to

exhale, and the sun had dispersed the mists, and was

shedding a strong and clear light in the forest, when the

travelers resumed their journey.

After proceeding a few miles, the progress of Hawkeye, who

led the advance, became more deliberate and watchful. He

often stopped to examine the trees; nor did he cross a

rivulet without attentively considering the quantity, the

velocity, and the color of its waters. Distrusting his own

judgment, his appeals to the opinion of Chingachgook were

frequent and earnest. During one of these conferences

Heyward observed that Uncas stood a patient and silent,

though, as he imagined, an interested listener. He was

strongly tempted to address the young chief, and demand his

opinion of their progress; but the calm and dignified

demeanor of the native induced him to believe, that, like

himself, the other was wholly dependent on the sagacity and

intelligence of the seniors of the party. At last the scout

spoke in English, and at once explained the embarrassment of

their situation.

"When I found that the home path of the Hurons run north,"

he said, "it did not need the judgment of many long years to

tell that they would follow the valleys, and keep atween the

waters of the Hudson and the Horican, until they might

strike the springs of the Canada streams, which would lead

them into the heart of the country of the Frenchers. Yet

here are we, within a short range of the Scaroons, and not a

sign of a trail have we crossed! Human natur' is weak, and

it is possible we may not have taken the proper scent."

"Heaven protect us from such an error!" exclaimed Duncan.

"Let us retrace our steps, and examine as we go, with keener

eyes. Has Uncas no counsel to offer in such a strait?"

The young Mohican cast a glance at his father, but,

maintaining his quiet and reserved mien, he continued

silent. Chingachgook had caught the look, and motioning

with his hand, he bade him speak. The moment this

permission was accorded, the countenance of Uncas changed

from its grave composure to a gleam of intelligence and joy.

Bounding forward like a deer, he sprang up the side of a

little acclivity, a few rods in advance, and stood,

exultingly, over a spot of fresh earth, that looked as

though it had been recently upturned by the passage of some

heavy animal. The eyes of the whole party followed the

unexpected movement, and read their success in the air of

triumph that the youth assumed.

"'Tis the trail!" exclaimed the scout, advancing to the

spot; "the lad is quick of sight and keen of wit for his

years."

"'Tis extraordinary that he should have withheld his

knowledge so long," muttered Duncan, at his elbow.

"It would have been more wonderful had he spoken without a

bidding. No, no; your young white, who gathers his learning

from books and can measure what he knows by the page, may

conceit that his knowledge, like his legs, outruns that of

his fathers', but, where experience is the master, the

scholar is made to know the value of years, and respects

them accordingly."

"See!" said Uncas, pointing north and south, at the evident

marks of the broad trail on either side of him, "the dark-

hair has gone toward the forest."

"Hound never ran on a more beautiful scent," responded the

scout, dashing forward, at once, on the indicated route; "we

are favored, greatly favored, and can follow with high

noses. Ay, here are both your waddling beasts: this Huron

travels like a white general. The fellow is stricken with a

judgment, and is mad! Look sharp for wheels, Sagamore," he

continued, looking back, and laughing in his newly awakened

satisfaction; "we shall soon have the fool journeying in a

coach, and that with three of the best pair of eyes on the

borders in his rear."

The spirits of the scout, and the astonishing success of the

chase, in which a circuitous distance of more than forty

miles had been passed, did not fail to impart a portion of

hope to the whole party. Their advance was rapid; and made

with as much confidence as a traveler would proceed along a

wide highway. If a rock, or a rivulet, or a bit of earth

harder than common, severed the links of the clew they

followed, the true eye of the scout recovered them at a

distance, and seldom rendered the delay of a single moment

necessary. Their progress was much facilitated by the

certainty that Magua had found it necessary to journey

through the valleys; a circumstance which rendered the

general direction of the route sure. Nor had the Huron

entirely neglected the arts uniformly practised by the

natives when retiring in front of an enemy. False trails

and sudden turnings were frequent, wherever a brook or the

formation of the ground rendered them feasible; but his

pursuers were rarely deceived, and never failed to detect

their error, before they had lost either time or distance on

the deceptive track.

By the middle of the afternoon they had passed the Scaroons,

and were following the route of the declining sun. After

descending an eminence to a low bottom, through which a

swift stream glided, they suddenly came to a place where the

party of Le Renard had made a halt. Extinguished brands

were lying around a spring, the offals of a deer were

scattered about the place, and the trees bore evident marks

of having been browsed by the horses. At a little distance,

Heyward discovered, and contemplated with tender emotion,

the small bower under which he was fain to believe that Cora

and Alice had reposed. But while the earth was trodden, and

the footsteps of both men and beasts were so plainly visible

around the place, the trail appeared to have suddenly ended.

It was easy to follow the tracks of the Narragansetts, but

they seemed only to have wandered without guides, or any

other object than the pursuit of food. At length Uncas,

who, with his father, had endeavored to trace the route of

the horses, came upon a sign of their presence that was

quite recent. Before following the clew, he communicated

his success to his companions; and while the latter were

consulting on the circumstance, the youth reappeared,

leading the two fillies, with their saddles broken, and the

housings soiled, as though they had been permitted to run at

will for several days.

"What should this prove?" said Duncan, turning pale, and

glancing his eyes around him, as if he feared the brush and

leaves were about to give up some horrid secret.

"That our march is come to a quick end, and that we are in

an enemy's country," returned the scout. "Had the knave

been pressed, and the gentle ones wanted horses to keep up

with the party, he might have taken their scalps; but

without an enemy at his heels, and with such rugged beasts

as these, he would not hurt a hair of their heads. I know

your thoughts, and shame be it to our color that you have

reason for them; but he who thinks that even a Mingo would

ill-treat a woman, unless it be to tomahawk her, knows

nothing of Indian natur', or the laws of the woods. No, no;

I have heard that the French Indians had come into these

hills to hunt the moose, and we are getting within scent of

their camp. Why should they not? The morning and evening

guns of Ty may be heard any day among these mountains; for

the Frenchers are running a new line atween the provinces of

the king and the Canadas. It is true that the horses are

here, but the Hurons are gone; let us, then, hunt for the

path by which they parted."

Hawkeye and the Mohicans now applied themselves to their

task in good earnest. A circle of a few hundred feet in

circumference was drawn, and each of the party took a

segment for his portion. The examination, however, resulted

in no discovery. The impressions of footsteps were

numerous, but they all appeared like those of men who had

wandered about the spot, without any design to quit it.

Again the scout and his companions made the circuit of the

halting place, each slowly following the other, until they

assembled in the center once more, no wiser than when they

started.

"Such cunning is not without its deviltry," exclaimed

Hawkeye, when he met the disappointed looks of his

assistants.

"We must get down to it, Sagamore, beginning at the spring,

and going over the ground by inches. The Huron shall never

brag in his tribe that he has a foot which leaves no print."

Setting the example himself, the scout engaged in the

scrutiny with renewed zeal. Not a leaf was left unturned.

The sticks were removed, and the stones lifted; for Indian

cunning was known frequently to adopt these objects as

covers, laboring with the utmost patience and industry, to

conceal each footstep as they proceeded. Still no discovery

was made. At length Uncas, whose activity had enabled him

to achieve his portion of the task the soonest, raked the

earth across the turbid little rill which ran from the

spring, and diverted its course into another channel. So

soon as its narrow bed below the dam was dry, he stooped

over it with keen and curious eyes. A cry of exultation

immediately announced the success of the young warrior. The

whole party crowded to the spot where Uncas pointed out the

impression of a moccasin in the moist alluvion.

"This lad will be an honor to his people," said Hawkeye,

regarding the trail with as much admiration as a naturalist

would expend on the tusk of a mammoth or the rib of a

mastodon; "ay, and a thorn in the sides of the Hurons. Yet

that is not the footstep of an Indian! the weight is too

much on the heel, and the toes are squared, as though one of

the French dancers had been in, pigeon-winging his tribe!

Run back, Uncas, and bring me the size of the singer's foot.

You will find a beautiful print of it just opposite yon

rock, agin the hillside."

While the youth was engaged in this commission, the scout

and Chingachgook were attentively considering the

impressions. The measurements agreed, and the former

unhesitatingly pronounced that the footstep was that of

David, who had once more been made to exchange his shoes for

moccasins.

"I can now read the whole of it, as plainly as if I had seen

the arts of Le Subtil," he added; "the singer being a man

whose gifts lay chiefly in his throat and feet, was made to

go first, and the others have trod in his steps, imitating

their formation."

"But," cried Duncan, "I see no signs of--"

"The gentle ones," interrupted the scout; "the varlet has

found a way to carry them, until he supposed he had thrown

any followers off the scent. My life on it, we see their

pretty little feet again, before many rods go by."

The whole party now proceeded, following the course of the

rill, keeping anxious eyes on the regular impressions. The

water soon flowed into its bed again, but watching the

ground on either side, the foresters pursued their way

content with knowing that the trail lay beneath. More than

half a mile was passed, before the rill rippled close around

the base of an extensive and dry rock. Here they paused to

make sure that the Hurons had not quitted the water.

It was fortunate they did so. For the quick and active

Uncas soon found the impression of a foot on a bunch of

moss, where it would seem an Indian had inadvertently

trodden. Pursuing the direction given by this discovery, he

entered the neighboring thicket, and struck the trail, as

fresh and obvious as it had been before they reached the

spring. Another shout announced the good fortune of the

youth to his companions, and at once terminated the search.

"Ay, it has been planned with Indian judgment," said the

scout, when the party was assembled around the place, "and

would have blinded white eyes."

"Shall we proceed?" demanded Heyward.

"Softly, softly, we know our path; but it is good to examine

the formation of things. This is my schooling, major; and

if one neglects the book, there is little chance of learning

from the open land of Providence. All is plain but one

thing, which is the manner that the knave contrived to get

the gentle ones along the blind trail. Even a Huron would

be too proud to let their tender feet touch the water."

"Will this assist in explaining the difficulty?" said

Heyward, pointing toward the fragments of a sort of

handbarrow, that had been rudely constructed of boughs, and

bound together with withes, and which now seemed carelessly

cast aside as useless.

"'Tis explained!" cried the delighted Hawkeye. "If them

varlets have passed a minute, they have spent hours in

striving to fabricate a lying end to their trail! Well,

I've known them to waste a day in the same manner to as

little purpose. Here we have three pair of moccasins, and

two of little feet. It is amazing that any mortal beings

can journey on limbs so small! Pass me the thong of

buckskin, Uncas, and let me take the length of this foot.

By the Lord, it is no longer than a child's and yet the

maidens are tall and comely. That Providence is partial in

its gifts, for its own wise reasons, the best and most

contented of us must allow."

"The tender limbs of my daughters are unequal to these

hardships," said Munro, looking at the light footsteps of

his children, with a parent's love; "we shall find their

fainting forms in this desert."

"Of that there is little cause of fear," returned the scout,

slowly shaking his head; "this is a firm and straight,

though a light step, and not over long. See, the heel has

hardly touched the ground; and there the dark-hair has made

a little jump, from root to root. No, no; my knowledge for

it, neither of them was nigh fainting, hereaway. Now, the

singer was beginning to be footsore and leg-weary, as is

plain by his trail. There, you see, he slipped; here he has

traveled wide and tottered; and there again it looks as

though he journeyed on snowshoes. Ay, ay, a man who uses

his throat altogether, can hardly give his legs a proper

training."

From such undeniable testimony did the practised woodsman

arrive at the truth, with nearly as much certainty and

precision as if he had been a witness of all those events

which his ingenuity so easily elucidated. Cheered by these

assurances, and satisfied by a reasoning that was so

obvious, while it was so simple, the party resumed its

course, after making a short halt, to take a hurried repast.

When the meal was ended, the scout cast a glance upward at

the setting sun, and pushed forward with a rapidity which

compelled Heyward and the still vigorous Munro to exert all

their muscles to equal. Their route now lay along the

bottom which has already been mentioned. As the Hurons had

made no further efforts to conceal their footsteps, the

progress of the pursuers was no longer delayed by

uncertainty. Before an hour had elapsed, however, the speed

of Hawkeye sensibly abated, and his head, instead of

maintaining its former direct and forward look, began to

turn suspiciously from side to side, as if he were conscious

of approaching danger. He soon stopped again, and waited

for the whole party to come up.

"I scent the Hurons," he said, speaking to the Mohicans;

"yonder is open sky, through the treetops, and we are

getting too nigh their encampment. Sagamore, you will take

the hillside, to the right; Uncas will bend along the brook

to the left, while I will try the trail. If anything should

happen, the call will be three croaks of a crow. I saw one

of the birds fanning himself in the air, just beyond the

dead oak--another sign that we are approaching an

encampment."

The Indians departed their several ways without reply, while

Hawkeye cautiously proceeded with the two gentlemen.

Heyward soon pressed to the side of their guide, eager to

catch an early glimpse of those enemies he had pursued with

so much toil and anxiety. His companion told him to steal

to the edge of the wood, which, as usual, was fringed with a

thicket, and wait his coming, for he wished to examine

certain suspicious signs a little on one side. Duncan

obeyed, and soon found himself in a situation to command a

view which he found as extraordinary as it was novel.

The trees of many acres had been felled, and the glow of a

mild summer's evening had fallen on the clearing, in

beautiful contrast to the gray light of the forest. A short

distance from the place where Duncan stood, the stream had

seemingly expanded into a little lake, covering most of the

low land, from mountain to mountain. The water fell out of

this wide basin, in a cataract so regular and gentle, that

it appeared rather to be the work of human hands than

fashioned by nature. A hundred earthen dwellings stood on

the margin of the lake, and even in its waters, as though

the latter had overflowed its usual banks. Their rounded

roofs, admirably molded for defense against the weather,

denoted more of industry and foresight than the natives were

wont to bestow on their regular habitations, much less on

those they occupied for the temporary purposes of hunting

and war. In short, the whole village or town, whichever it

might be termed, possessed more of method and neatness of

execution, than the white men had been accustomed to believe

belonged, ordinarily, to the Indian habits. It appeared,

however, to be deserted. At least, so thought Duncan for

many minutes; but, at length, he fancied he discovered

several human forms advancing toward him on all fours, and

apparently dragging in the train some heavy, and as he was

quick to apprehend, some formidable engine. Just then a few

dark-looking heads gleamed out of the dwellings, and the

place seemed suddenly alive with beings, which, however,

glided from cover to cover so swiftly, as to allow no

opportunity of examining their humors or pursuits. Alarmed

at these suspicious and inexplicable movements, he was about

to attempt the signal of the crows, when the rustling of

leaves at hand drew his eyes in another direction.

The young man started, and recoiled a few paces

instinctively, when he found himself within a hundred yards

of a stranger Indian. Recovering his recollection on the

instant, instead of sounding an alarm, which might prove

fatal to himself, he remained stationary, an attentive

observer of the other's motions.

An instant of calm observation served to assure Duncan that

he was undiscovered. The native, like himself, seemed

occupied in considering the low dwellings of the village,

and the stolen movements of its inhabitants. It was

impossible to discover the expression of his features

through the grotesque mask of paint under which they were

concealed, though Duncan fancied it was rather melancholy

than savage. His head was shaved, as usual, with the

exception of the crown, from whose tuft three or four faded

feathers from a hawk's wing were loosely dangling. A ragged

calico mantle half encircled his body, while his nether

garment was composed of an ordinary shirt, the sleeves of

which were made to perform the office that is usually

executed by a much more commodious arrangement. His legs

were, however, covered with a pair of good deer-skin

moccasins. Altogether, the appearance of the individual was

forlorn and miserable.

Duncan was still curiously observing the person of his

neighbor when the scout stole silently and cautiously to his

side.

"You see we have reached their settlement or encampment,"

whispered the young man; "and here is one of the savages

himself, in a very embarrassing position for our further

movements."

Hawkeye started, and dropped his rifle, when, directed by

the finger of his companion, the stranger came under his

view. Then lowering the dangerous muzzle he stretched

forward his long neck, as if to assist a scrutiny that was

already intensely keen.

"The imp is not a Huron," he said, "nor of any of the Canada

tribes; and yet you see, by his clothes, the knave has been

plundering a white. Ay, Montcalm has raked the woods for

his inroad, and a whooping, murdering set of varlets has he

gathered together. Can you see where he has put his rifle

or his bow?"

"He appears to have no arms; nor does he seem to be

viciously inclined. Unless he communicate the alarm to his

fellows, who, as you see, are dodging about the water, we

have but little to fear from him."

The scout turned to Heyward, and regarded him a moment with

unconcealed amazement. Then opening wide his mouth, he

indulged in unrestrained and heartfelt laughter, though in

that silent and peculiar manner which danger had so long

taught him to practise.

Repeating the words, "Fellows who are dodging about the

water!" he added, "so much for schooling and passing a

boyhood in the settlements! The knave has long legs,

though, and shall not be trusted. Do you keep him under

your rifle while I creep in behind, through the bush, and

take him alive. Fire on no account."

Heyward had already permitted his companion to bury part of

his person in the thicket, when, stretching forth his arm,

he arrested him, in order to ask:

"If I see you in danger, may I not risk a shot?"

Hawkeye regarded him a moment, like one who knew not how to

take the question; then, nodding his head, he answered,

still laughing, though inaudibly:

"Fire a whole platoon, major."

In the next moment he was concealed by the leaves. Duncan

waited several minutes in feverish impatience, before he

caught another glimpse of the scout. Then he reappeared,

creeping along the earth, from which his dress was hardly

distinguishable, directly in the rear of his intended

captive. Having reached within a few yards of the latter,

he arose to his feet, silently and slowly. At that instant,

several loud blows were struck on the water, and Duncan

turned his eyes just in time to perceive that a hundred dark

forms were plunging, in a body, into the troubled little

sheet. Grasping his rifle his looks were again bent on the

Indian near him. Instead of taking the alarm, the

unconscious savage stretched forward his neck, as if he also

watched the movements about the gloomy lake, with a sort of

silly curiosity. In the meantime, the uplifted hand of

Hawkeye was above him. But, without any apparent reason, it

was withdrawn, and its owner indulged in another long,

though still silent, fit of merriment. When the peculiar

and hearty laughter of Hawkeye was ended, instead of

grasping his victim by the throat, he tapped him lightly on

the shoulder, and exclaimed aloud:

"How now, friend! have you a mind to teach the beavers to

sing?"

"Even so," was the ready answer. "It would seem that the

Being that gave them power to improve His gifts so well,

would not deny them voices to proclaim His praise."

James Fenimore Cooper