Volume I, Chapter I
See, Winter comes, to rule the varied year,
Sullen and sad, with all his rising train;
Vapours, and clouds, and storms.—
Near the centre of the great State of New-York lies an extensive district of country, whose surface is a succession of hills and dales, or, to speak with greater deference to geographical definitions, of mountains and valleys. It is among these hills that the Delaware takes its rise; and flowing from the limpid lakes and thousand springs of this country, the numerous sources of the mighty Susquehanna meander through the valleys, until, uniting, they form one of the proudest streams of which the old United States could boast. The mountains are generally arable to the top, although instances are not wanting, where the sides are jutted with rocks, that aid greatly in giving that romantic character to the country, which it so eminently possesses. The vales are narrow, rich, and cultivated; with a stream uniformly winding through each, now gliding peacefully under the brow on one of the hills, and then suddenly shooting across the plain, to wash the feet of its opposite rival. Beautiful and thriving villages are found interspersed along the margins of the small lakes, or situated at those points of the streams which are favourable to manufacturing; and neat and comfortable farms, with every indication of wealth about them, are scattered profusely through the vales, and even to the mountain tops. Roads diverge in every direction, from the even and graceful bottoms of the valleys, to the most rugged and intricate passes of the hills. Academies and minor edifices for the encouragement of learning, meet the eye of the stranger, at every few miles, as he winds his way through this uneven territory; and places for the public worship of God abound with that frequency which characterizes a moral and reflecting people, and with that variety of exterior and canonical government which flows from unfettered liberty of conscience. In short, the whole district is hourly exhibiting how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws, and where every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth, of which he knows himself to form a distinct and independent part. The expedients of the pioneers who first broke ground in the settlement of this country, are succeeded by the permanent improvements of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or, perhaps, of the son, who, born in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father. Only forty years have passed since this whole territory was a wilderness.
Very soon after the establishment of the independence of the States by the peace of 1783, the enterprise of their citizens was directed to a development of the natural advantages of their widely extended dominions. Before the war of the revolution the inhabited parts of the colony of New-York were limited to less than a tenth of her possessions. A narrow belt of country, extending for a short distance on either side of the Hudson, with a similar occupation of fifty miles on the banks of the Mohawk, together with the islands of Nassau and Staten, and a few insulated settlements on chosen land along the margins of streams, composed the country, that was then inhabited by less than two hundred thousand souls. Within the short period we have mentioned, her population has spread itself over five degrees of latitude and seven of longitude, and has swelled to the powerful number of nearly a million and a half, who are maintained in abundance, and can look forward to ages before the evil day must arrive when their possessions will become unequal to their wants.
Our tale begins in 1793, about seven years after the commencement of one of the earliest of those settlements, which have conduced to effect that magical change in the power and condition of the state, to which we have alluded.
It was near the setting of the sun, on a clear, cold day in December of that year, when a sleigh was moving slowly up one of the mountains in the district which we have described. The day had been fine for the season, and but two or three large clouds, whose colour seemed brightened by the light reflected from the mass of snow that covered the earth, floated in a sky of the purest blue. The road wound along the brow of a precipice, and on one side was upheld by a foundation of logs, piled for many feet, one upon the other, while a narrow excavation in the mountain, in the opposite direction, had made a passage of sufficient width for the ordinary travelling of that day. But logs, excavation, and every thing that did not reach for several feet above the earth, lay promiscuously buried under the snow. A single track, barely wide enough to receive the sleigh, denoted the route of the highway, and this was sunken near two feet below the surrounding surface. In the vale, which lay at a distance of several hundred feet beneath them, there was what in the language of the country was called a clearing, and all the usual improvements of a new settlement; these even extended up the hill to the point where the road turned short and ran across the level land, which lay on the summit of the mountain; but the summit itself yet remained a forest. There was glittering in the atmosphere, as if it were filled with innumerable shining particles, and the noble bay horses that drew the sleigh were covered, in many parts, with a coat of frost. The vapour from their nostrils was seen to issue like smoke; and every object in the view, as well as every arrangement of the travellers, denoted the depth of a winter in the mountains. The harness, which was of a deep dull black, differing from the glossy varnishing of the present day, was ornamented with enormous plates and buckles of brass, that shone like gold in those transient beams of the sun, which found their way obliquely through the tops of the trees. Huge saddles, studded with nails of the same material, and fitted with cloths that admirably served as blankets to the shoulders of the animals, supported four high, square-topped turrets, through which the stout reins led from the mouths of the horses to the hands of the driver, who was a negro, of apparently twenty years of age. His face, which nature had colored with a glistening black, was now mottled with the cold, and his large shining eyes were moistened with a liquid that flowed from the same cause; still, there was a smiling expression of good humour in his happy countenance, that was created by the thoughts of his home, and a Christmas fireside, with its Christmas frolics. The sleigh was one of those large, comfortable, old-fashioned conveyances, which would admit a whole family within its bosom, but which now contained only two passengers besides the driver. Its outside was of a modest green, and its inside of a fiery red, that was intended to convey the idea of heat in that cold climate. Large buffalo skins, trimmed around the edges with red cloth, cut into festoons, covered the back of the sleigh, and were spread over its bottom, and drawn up around the feet of the travellers—one of whom was a man of middle age and the other a female, just entering upon womanhood. The former was of a large stature; but the precautions he had taken to guard against the cold, left but little of his person exposed to view. A great-coat, that was abundantly ornamented, if it were not made more comfortable, by a profusion of furs, enveloped the whole of his figure, excepting the head, which was covered with a cap of martin skins, lined with morocco, the sides of which were made to fall, if necessary, and were now drawn close over the ears, and were fastened beneath his chin with a black riband; its top was surmounted with the tail of the animal whose skin had furnished the materials for the for the cap, which fell back not ungracefully, a few inches behind the head. From beneath this masque were to be seen part of a fine, manly face, and particularly a pair of expressive, large blue eyes, that promised extraordinary intellect, covert humour, and great benevolence. The form of his companion was literally hid beneath the multitude and variety of garments which she wore. There were furs and silks peeping from under a large camblet cloak, with a thick flannel lining, that, by its cut and size, was evidently intended for a masculine wearer. A huge hood of black silk, that was quilted with down, concealed the whole of her head, except at a small opening in front for breath, through which occasionally sparkled a pair of animated eyes of the deepest black.
Both the father and daughter (for such was the connexion between the two travellers) were too much occupied with their different reflections to break a stillness, that received little or no interruption from the easy gliding of the sleigh, by the sound of their voices. The former was thinking of the wife that had held this their only child to her bosom, when, four years before, she had reluctantly consented to relinquish the society of her daughter, in order that the latter might enjoy the advantages which the city could afford to her education. A few months afterwards death had deprived him of the remaining companion of his solitude; but still he had enough real regard for his child, not to bring her into the comparative wilderness in which he dwelt, until the full period had expired, to which he had limited her juvenile labours. The reflections of the daughter were less melancholy, and mingled with a pleased astonishment at the novel scenery that she met at every turn in the road.
The mountain on which they were journeying was covered with pines, that rose without a branch seventy or eighty feet, and which frequently towered to an additional height, that more than equalled that elevation. 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 their horizontal limbs, that were covered with the meager foliage of an evergreen, affording a melancholy contrast to the torpor of nature below. To the travellers there seemed to be no wind; but these pines waved majestically at their topmost boughs, sending forth a dull, sighing sound, that was quite in consonance with the 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, which were lighted by the unsullied covering of the earth, 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 sounds reached the ear of the gentleman, whatever might have been the subject of his meditations, he forgot it; for he cried aloud to the black—
“Hold up, Aggy; there is old Hector; I should know his bay among ten thousand. The Leather-stocking has put his hounds into the hills this clear day, and they have started their game, you hear. 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, stept from the sleigh upon a bank of snow, which sustained his weight without yielding more than an inch or two. A storm of sleet had fallen and frozen upon the surface a few days before, and but a slight snow had occurred since to purify, without weakening its covering.
In a few moments the speaker succeeded in extricating a double-barrelled fowling-piece from amongst 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 directly 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 traveller 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 practised eye and steady hand, drew a trigger; but the deer dashed forward undaunted, and apparently unhurt. Without lowering his piece, the traveller turned its muzzle toward his intended 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 before her, 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 fire-arms. 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 once of twice with its own velocity. A loud shout was given by the unseen marksman, as triumphing in his better aim; 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 would not have fired,” cried the traveller, moving towards the spot where the deer lay—near to which he was followed by the delighted black, with the sleigh; “but the sound of old Hector was too exhilarating to let me 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 robin popgun in your hand? There’s plenty of pheasants amongst the swamps; and the snow birds are flying round your own door, where you may feed them with crumbs, and shoot enough for a potpie 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 has killed a deer before now,” said the traveller, smiling good-humouredly. “One barrel was charged with buck shot; but the other was loaded for birds only.—Here are two hurts that he has received; 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 surily, “I suppose the cretur 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 is two balls through the deer, I want to know if there wasn’t two rifles fired—besides, who ever saw such a ragged hole from a smooth-bore, as this is 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 ‘ither; 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 under tone as to leave nothing audible but the grumbling sounds of his voice.
“Nay, Natty,” rejoined the traveller, with undisturbed good humour, “it is for the honour that I contend. A few dollars will pay for the venison; but what will requite me for the lost honour 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 this season already, and has only brought in one wood-chuck 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 disdainful resignation. “The time has been, when I have 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 from the cretur, he had only to watch a-nights, and he could shoot one by moonlight, through the cracks of the logs; no fear of his over-sleeping himself, n’ither, 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 druve them from the venison I was smoking on the chimbey top—that dog is more to be trusted nor 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 struck the notice of the young female, who had been a close and interested observer of his appearance and equipments, from the moment he first came into view. He was tall, and so meagre 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 fox-skin, 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 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 colour 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 over-dress he wore. A kind of coat, made of dressed deer-skin, with the hair on, was belted close to his lank body, by a girdle of coloured worsted. On his feet were deer-skin 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 buck-skin breeches, had obtained for him, among the settlers, the nick-name of Leather-stocking, notwithstanding his legs were protected beneath, in winter, by thick garments of woollen, duly made of good blue yarn. Over his left shoulder was slung a belt of deer-skin, from which depended an enormous ox horn, so thinly scraped, as to discover the dark powder that 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 fox-skin cap.
The traveller had been closely examining the wounds during these movements, and now, without heeding the ill humour of the hunter’s manner, he exclaimed—
“I would fain establish a right, Natty, to the honour of this capture; 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, Leather-stocking.”
“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 ‘ither your’n or mine, as I said before.”
“What say you, my friend,” cried the traveller, turning pleasantly to Natty`s companion; “shall we toss up this dollar for the honour, 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’s.
“Here are two to one, indeed,” replied the Judge, with a smile; “I am out voted— 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 deuse is in it, but I make a good story about its death.”
“The meat is none of mine to sell,” said Leather-stocking, 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, gravely, 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 rough 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 over-coat that he wore, and exhibiting a hole in his under garment, 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—ay, and forever afterwards, too.”
“I thank you, sir, for your good intentions, but 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, for ever. Leather-stocking 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, and now muttered in an under tone—
“There’s them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo’s right to shoot in these hills, is of older date than Marmaduke Temple’s right to forbid him. But if there’s a law about it at all, though who ever heard tell of a law, that a man should’nt kill deer where he pleased!—but if there is a law at all, it should be to keep people from the use of smooth-bores. A body never knows where his lead will fly, when he pulls the trigger of one of them fancified fire-arms.”
Without attending to the soliloquy of Natty, the youth bowed his head silently to the offer of the bank note, and replied—
“Excuse me, sir, I have need of the venison.”
“But this will buy you many deer,” said the judge; “take it, I entreat you,” and lowering his voice to a whisper, he added—”it is for a hundred dollars.”
For an instant only, the youth seemed to hesitate, and then, blushing even through the high colour that the cold had given to his cheeks, as if with inward shame at his own weakness, he again proudly declined the offer.
During this scene the female arose, and, regardless of the cold air, she threw back the hood which concealed her features, and now spoke, with great earnestness—
“Surely, surely—young man—sir—you would not pain my father so much as to have him think that he leaves a fellow-creature in this wilderness, whom his own hand has injured. I entreat you will go with us, and receive medical aid for your hurts.”
Whether his wound became more painful, or there was something irresistible in the voice and manner of the fair pleader for her father’s feelings, we know not, but the haughty distance of the young man’s manner was sensibly softened by this appeal, and he stood, in apparent doubt, as if reluctant to comply with, and yet unwilling to refuse her request. The judge, for such being his office, must, in future, be his title, watched, with no little interest, the display of this singular contention in the feelings of the youth, and advancing, kindly took his hand, and, as he pulled him gently toward the sleigh, urged him to enter it.
“There is no human aid nearer than Templeton,” he said; “and the hut of Natty is full three miles from this;—come—come, my young friend, go with us, and let the new doctor look to this shoulder of thine. Here is Natty will take the tidings of thy welfare to thy friend; and should’st thou require it, thou shalt be returned to thy home in the morning.”
The young man succeeded in extricating his hand from the warm grasp of the judge, but continued to gaze on the face of the female, who, regardless of the cold was still standing with her fine features exposed, which expressed feelings that eloquently seconded the request of her father. Leather-stocking stood, in the mean time, leaning upon his long rifle, with his head turned a little to one side, as if engaged in deep and sagacious musing; when, having apparently satisfied his doubts, by revolving the subject in his mind, he broke silence—
“It may be best to go, lad, after all; for if the shot hangs under the skin, my hand is getting too old to be cutting into human flesh, as I once used to could. Though some thirty years agone, in the old war, when I was out under Sir William, I travelled seventy miles alone in the howling wilderness, with a rifle bullet in my thigh, and then cut it out with my own jack-knife. Old Indian John knows the time well. I met him with a party of the Delawares, on the trail of the Iroquois, who had been down and taken five scalps on the Schoharie. But I made a mark on the redskin that I’ll warrant he carried to his grave. I took him on the posteerum, saving the lady’s presence, as he got up from the amboosh, and rattled three buck shot into his naked hide, so close, that you might have laid a broad joe upon them all—” here Natty stretched out his long neck, and straightened his body, as he opened his mouth, which exposed a single tusk of yellow bone, while his eyes, his face, even his whole frame, seemed to laugh, although no sound was emitted, except a kind of thick hissing, as he inhaled his breath in quavers. “I had lost my bullet mould in crossing the Oneida outlet, and so was true, and did’nt scatter like your two-legged thing there, Judge, which don’t do, I find, to hunt in company with.”
Natty’s apology to the delicacy of the young lady was unnecessary, for, while he was speaking, she was too much employed in helping her father to remove certain articles of their baggage to hear him. Unable to resist the kind urgency of the travellers any longer, the youth, though still with an unaccountable reluctance expressed in his manner, suffered himself to be persuaded to enter the sleigh. The black with the aid of his master threw the buck across the baggage, and entering the vehicle themselves, the judge invited the hunter to do so likewise.
“No—no—” said the old man, shaking his head; “I have work to do at home this Christmas eve—drive on with the boy, and let your doctor look to the shoulder; though if he will only cut out the shot, I have yarbs that will heal the wound quicker than all his foreign ‘intments.” He turned, and was about to move off, when, suddenly recollecting himself, he again faced the party, and added—”If you see anything of Indian John, about the foot of the lake, you had better take him with you, and let him lend the doctor a hand; for old as he is, he is curious at cuts and bruises, and it’s likelier than not he’ll be in with brooms to sweep your Christmas ha’arths.”
“Stop—stop,” cried the youth, catching the arm of the black as he prepared to urge his horses forward; “Natty—you need say nothing of the shot, nor of where I am going—remember, Natty, as you love me.”
“Trust old Leather-stocking,” returned the hunter, significantly; “he hasn’t lived forty years in the wilderness, and not larnt from the savages how to hold his tongue—trust to me, lad; and remember old Indian John.”
“And, Natty,” said the youth eagerly, still holding the black by the arm. “I will just get the shot extracted, and bring you up, to-night, a quarter of the buck, for the Christmas dinner.”
He was interrupted by the hunter, who held up his finger with an expressive gesture for silence, and moved softly along the margin of the road, keeping his eyes steadfastly fixed on the branches of a pine near him. When he had obtained such a position as he wished, he stopped, and cocking his rifle, threw one leg far behind him, and stretching his left arm to its utmost extent along the barrel of his piece, he began slowly to raise its muzzle in a line with the straight trunk of the tree. The eyes of the group in the sleigh naturally preceded the movement of the rifle, and they soon discovered the object of Natty’s aim. On a small dead branch of the pine, which, at the distance of seventy feet from the ground, shot out horizontally, immediately beneath the living members of the tree, sat a bird, that in the vulgar language of the country, was indiscriminately called pheasant or a partridge. In size, it was but little smaller than a common barn-yard fowl. The baying of the dogs, and the conversation that had passed near the root of the tree on which it was perched, had alarmed the bird, which was now drawn up near the body of the pine, with a head and neck erect, that formed nearly a straight line with its legs. So soon as the rifle bore on the victim, Natty drew his trigger, and the partridge fell from its height with a force that buried it in the snow.
“Lie down, you old villain,” exclaimed Leather-stocking, shaking his ramrod at Hector as he bounded toward the foot of the tree, “lie down, I say.” The dog obeyed, and Natty proceeded with great rapidity, though with the nicest accuracy, to re-load his piece. When this was ended, he took up his game, and showing it to the party without a head, he cried—”Here is a tit-bit for an old man’s Christmas— never mind the venison, boy, and remember Indian John; his yarbs are better nor all the foreign ‘intments. Here, Judge,” holding up the bird again, “do you think a smooth-bore would pick game off their roost, and not ruffle a feather?” The old man gave another of his remarkable laughs, which partook so largely of exultation, mirth, and irony, and, shaking his head, he turned, with his rifle at a trail, and moved into the forest with short and quick steps, that were between a walk and a trot. At each movement he made his body lowered several inches, his knees yielding with an inclination inward; but as the sleigh turned at a bend in the road, the youth cast his eyes in quest of his old companion, and he saw that he was already nearly concealed by the trunks of the trees, while his dogs were following quietly in his footsteps, occasionally scenting the deer track, that they seemed to know instinctively was now of no farther use to them. Another jerk was given to the sleigh, and Leather-stocking was hidden from view.
Volume II, Chapter II
“Speed! Malise, speed! such cause of haste
Thine active sinews never braced.” —Scott.
The roads of Otsego, if we except the principal highways, were, at the early day of our tale, but little better than wood-paths. The high trees that were growing on the very verge of the wheel-tracks excluded the sun’s rays, unless at meridian; and the slowness of the evaporation, united with the rich mould of vegetable decomposition that covered the whole country to the depth of several inches, occasioned but an indifferent foundation for the footing of travellers. Added to these were the inequalities of a natural surface, and the constant recurrence of enormous and slippery roots that were laid bare by the removal of the light soil, together with stumps of trees, to make a passage not only difficult but dangerous. Yet the riders among these numerous obstructions, which were such as would terrify an unpracticed eye, gave no demonstrations of uneasiness as their horses toiled through the sloughs or trotted with uncertain paces along the dark route. In many places the marks on the trees were the only indications of a road, with perhaps an occasional remnant of a pine that, by being cut close to the earth, so as to leave nothing visible but its base of roots, spreading for twenty feet in every direction, was apparently placed there as a beacon to warn the traveller that it was the centre of a highway.
Into one of these roads the active sheriff led the way, first striking out of the foot-path, by which they had descended from the sugar-bush, across a little bridge, formed of round logs laid loosely on sleepers of pine, in which large openings of a formidable width were frequent. The nag of Richard, when it reached one of these gaps, laid its nose along the logs and stepped across the difficult passage with the sagacity of a man; but the blooded filly which Miss Temple rode disdained so humble a movement. She made a step or two with an unusual caution, and then, on reaching the broadest opening, obedient to the curt and whip of her fearless mistress, she bounded across the dangerous pass with the activity of a squirrel.
“Gently, gently, my child,” said Marmaduke, who was following in the manner of Richard; “this is not a country for equestrian feats. Much prudence is requisite to journey through our rough paths with safety. Thou mayst practise thy skill in horsemanship on the plains of New Jersey with safety; but in the hills of Otsego they may be suspended for a time.”
“I may as well then relinquish my saddle at once, dear sir,” returned his daughter; “for if it is to be laid aside until this wild country be improved, old age will overtake me, and put an end to what you term my equestrian feats.”
“Say not so, my child,” returned her father; “but if thou venturest again as in crossing this bridge, old age will never overtake thee, but I shall be left to mourn thee, cut off in thy pride, my Elizabeth. If thou hadst seen this district of country, as I did, when it lay in the sleep of nature, and bad witnessed its rapid changes as it awoke to supply the wants of man, thou wouldst curb thy impatience for a little time, though thou shouldst not check thy steed.”
“I recollect hearing you speak of your first visit to these woods, but the impression is faint, and blended with the confused images of childhood. Wild and unsettled as it may yet seem, it must have been a thousand times more dreary then. Will you repeat, dear sir, what you then thought of your enterprise, and what you felt?”
During this speech of Elizabeth, which was uttered with the fervor of affection, young Edwards rode more closely to the side of the Judge, and bent his dark eyes on his countenance with an expression that seemed to read his thoughts.
“Thou wast then young, my child, but must remember when I left thee and thy mother, to take my first survey of these uninhabited mountains,” said Marmaduke. “But thou dost not feel all the secret motives that can urge a man to endure privations in order to accumulate wealth. In my case they have not been trifling, and God has been pleased to smile on my efforts. If I have encountered pain, famine, and disease in accomplishing the settlement of this rough territory, I have not the misery of failure to add to the grievances.”
“Famine!” echoed Elizabeth; “I thought this was the land of abundance! Had you famine to contend with?”
“Even so, my child,” said her father. “Those who look around them now, and see the loads of produce that issue out of every wild path in these mountains during the season of travelling, will hardly credit that no more than five years have elapsed since the tenants of these woods were compelled to eat the scanty fruits of the forest to sustain life, and, with their unpracticed skill, to hunt the beasts as food for their starving families.”
“Ay!” cried Richard, who happened to overhear the last of this speech between the notes of the wood-chopper’s song, which he was endeavoring to breathe aloud; “that was the starving-time, Cousin Bess. I grew as lank as a weasel that fall, and my face was as pale as one of your fever-and-ague visages. Monsieur Le Quoi, there, fell away like a pumpkin in drying; nor do I think you have got fairly over it yet, monsieur. Benjamin, I thought, bore it with a worse grace than any of the family; for he swore it was harder to endure than a short allowance in the calm latitudes. Benjamin is a sad fellow to swear if you starve him ever so little. I had half a mind to quit you then, ‘Duke, and to go into Pennsylvania to fatten; but, damn it, thinks I, we are sisters’ children, and I will live or die with him, after all.”
“I do not forget thy kindness,” said Marmaduke, “nor that we are of one blood.”
“But, my dear father,” cried the wondering Elizabeth, “was there actual suffering? Where were the beautiful and fertile vales of the Mohawk? Could they not furnish food for your wants?”
“It was a season of scarcity; the necessities of life commanded a high price in Europe, and were greedily sought after by the speculators. The emigrants from the East to the West invariably passed along the valley of the Mohawk, and swept away the means of subsistence like a swarm of locusts, Nor were the people on the Flats in a much better condition. They were in want themselves, but they spared the little excess of provisions that nature did not absolutely require, with the justice of the German character. There was no grinding of the poor. The word speculator was then unknown to them. I have seen many a stout man, bending under the load of the bag of meal which he was carrying from the mills of the Mohawk, through the rugged passes of these mountains, to feed his half-famished children, with a heart so light, as he approached his hut, that the thirty miles he had passed seemed nothing. Remember, my child, it was in our very infancy; we had neither mills, nor grain, nor roads, nor often clearings; we had nothing of increase but the mouths that were to be fed: for even at that inauspicious moment the restless spirit of emigration was not idle; nay, the general scarcity which extended to the East tended to increase the number of adventurers.”
“And how, dearest father, didst thou encounter this dreadful evil?” said Elizabeth, unconsciously adopting the dialect of her parent in the warmth of her sympathy. “Upon thee must have fallen the responsibility, if not the suffering.”
“It did, Elizabeth,” returned the Judge, pausing for a single moment, as if musing on his former feelings. “ I had hundreds at that dreadful time daily looking up to me for bread. The sufferings of their families and the gloomy prospect before them had paralyzed the enterprise and efforts of my settlers; hunger drove them to the woods for food, but despair sent them at night, enfeebled and wan, to a sleepless pillow. It was not a moment for in action. I purchased cargoes of wheat from the granaries of Pennsylvania; they were landed at Albany and brought up the Mohawk in boats; from thence it was transported on pack-horses into the wilderness and distributed among my people. Seines were made, and the lakes and rivers were dragged for fish. Something like a miracle was wrought in our favor, for enormous shoals of herrings were discovered to have wandered five hundred miles through the windings of the impetuous Susquehanna, and the lake was alive with their numbers. These were at length caught and dealt out to the people, with proper portions of salt, and from that moment we again began to prosper.”
“Yes,” cried Richard, “and I was the man who served out the fish and salt. When the poor devils came to receive their rations, Benjamin, who was my deputy, was obliged to keep them off by stretching ropes around me, for they smelt so of garlic, from eating nothing but the wild onion, that the fumes put me out often in my measurement. You were a child then, Bess, and knew nothing of the matter, for great care was observed to keep both you and your mother from suffering. That year put me back dreadfully, both in the breed of my hogs and of my turkeys.”
“No, Bess,” cried the Judge, in a more cheerful tone, disregarding the interruption of his cousin, “he who hears of the settlement of a country knows but little of the toil and suffering by which it is accomplished. Unimproved and wild as this district now seems to your eyes, what was it when I first entered the hills? I left my party, the morning of my arrival, near the farms of the Cherry Valley, and, following a deer-path, rode to the summit of the mountain that I have since called Mount Vision; for the sight that there met my eyes seemed to me as the deceptions of a dream. The fire had run over the pinnacle, and in a great measure laid open the view. The leaves were fallen, and I mounted a tree and sat for an hour looking on the silent wilderness. Not an opening was to be seen in the boundless forest except where the lake lay, like a mirror of glass. The water was covered by myriads of the wild-fowl that migrate with the changes in the season; and while in my situation on the branch of the beech, I saw a bear, with her cubs, descend to the shore to drink. I had met many deer, gliding through the woods, in my journey ; but not the vestige of a man could I trace during my progress, nor from my elevated observatory. No clearing, no hut, none of the winding roads that are now to be seen, were there; nothing but mountains rising behind mountains ; and the valley, with its surface of branches enlivened here and there with the faded foliage of some tree that parted from its leaves with more than ordinary reluctance. Even the Susquehanna was then hid by the height and density of the forest.”
“And were you alone?” asked Elizabeth: “passed you the night in that solitary state?”
“Not so, my child,” returned the father. “After musing on the scene for an hour, with a mingled feeling of pleasure and desolation, I left my perch and descended the mountain. My horse was left to browse on the twigs that grew within his reach, while I explored the shores of the lake and the spot where Templeton stands. A pine of more than ordinary growth stood where my dwelling is now placed! A wind— row had been opened through the trees from thence to the lake, and my view was but little impeded. Under the branches of that tree I made my solitary dinner. I had just finished my repast as I saw smoke curling from under the mountain, near the eastern bank of the lake. It was the only indication of the vicinity of man that I had then seen. After much toil I made my way to the spot, and found a rough cabin of logs, built against the foot of a rock, and bearing the marks of a tenant, though I found no one within it —”
“It was the hut of Leather-Stocking,” said Edwards quickly.
“It was; though I at first supposed it to be a habitation of the Indians. But while I was lingering around the spot Natty made his appearance, staggering under the carcass of a buck that he bad slain. Our acquaintance commenced at that time; before, I had never heard that such a being tenanted the woods. He launched his bark canoe and set me across the foot of the lake to the place where I had fastened my horse, and pointed out a spot where he might get a scanty browsing until the morning; when I returned and passed the night in the cabin of the hunter.”
Miss Temple was so much struck by the deep attention of young Edwards during this speech that she forgot to resume her interrogations; but the youth himself continued the discourse by asking:
“And how did the Leather-Stocking discharge the duties of a host sir?”
“Why, simply but kindly, until late in the evening, when he discovered my name and object, and the cordiality of his manner very sensibly diminished, or, I might better say, disappeared. He considered the introduction of the settlers as an innovation on his rights, I believe for he expressed much dissatisfaction at the measure, though it was in his confused and ambiguous manner. I hardly understood his objections myself, but supposed they referred chiefly to an interruption of the hunting.”
“Had you then purchased the estate, or were you examining it with an intent to buy?” asked Edwards, a little abruptly.
“It had been mine for several years. It was with a view to People the land that I visited the lake. Natty treated me hospitably, but coldly, I thought, after he learned the nature of my journey. I slept on his own bear—skin, however, and in the morning joined my surveyors again.”
“Said he nothing of the Indian rights, sir? The Leather-Stocking is much given to impeach the justice of the tenure by which the whites hold the country.”
“I remember that he spoke of them, but I did not nearly comprehend him, and may have forgotten what he said; for the Indian title was extinguished so far back as the close of the old war, and if it had not been at all, I hold under the patents of the Royal Governors, confirmed by an act of our own State Legislature, and no court in the country can affect my title.” “Doubtless, sir, your title is both legal and equitable,” returned the youth coldly, reining his horse back and remaining silent till the subject was changed.
It was seldom Mr. Jones suffered any conversation to continue for a great length of time without his participation. It seems that he was of the party that Judge Temple had designated as his surveyors; and he embraced the opportunity of the pause that succeeded the retreat of young Edwards to take up the discourse, and with a narration of their further proceedings, after his own manner. As it wanted, however, the interest that had accompanied the description of the Judge, we must decline the task of committing his sentences to paper.
They soon reached the point where the promised view was to be seen. It was one of those picturesque and peculiar scenes that belong to the Otsego, but which required the absence of the ice and the softness of a summer’s landscape to be enjoyed in all its beauty. Marmaduke had early forewarned his daughter of the season, and of its effect on the prospect; and after casting a cursory glance at its capabilities, the party returned homeward, perfectly satisfied that its beauties would repay them for the toil of a second ride at a more propitious season.
“The spring is the gloomy time of the American year,” said the Judge, “and it is more peculiarly the case in these mountains. The winter seems to retreat to the fast nesses of the hills, as to the citadel of its dominion, and is only expelled after a tedious siege, in which either party, at times, would seem to be gaining the victory.”
“A very just and apposite figure, Judge Temple,” observed the sheriff; “and the garrison under the command of Jack Frost make formidable sorties—you understand what I mean by sorties, monsieur; sallies, in English—and sometimes drive General Spring and his troops back again into the low countries.”
“Yes sair,” returned the Frenchman, whose prominent eyes were watching the precarious footsteps of the beast he rode, as it picked its dangerous way among the roots of trees, holes, log bridges, and sloughs that formed the aggregate of the highway. “Je vous entends; de low countrie is freeze up for half de year.”
The error of Mr. Le Quoi was not noticed by the sheriff; and the rest of the party were yielding to the influence of the changeful season, which was already teaching the equestrians that a continuance of its mildness was not to be expected for any length of time. Silence and thoughtfulness succeeded the gayety and conversation that had prevailed during the commencement of the ride, as clouds began to gather about the heavens, apparently collecting from every quarter, in quick motion, without the agency of a breath of air,
While riding over one of the cleared eminencies that occurred in their route, the watchful eye of Judge Temple pointed out to his daughter the approach of a tempest. Flurries of snow already obscured the mountain that formed the northern boundary of the lake, and the genial sensation which had quickened the blood through their veins was already succeeded by the deadening influence of an approaching northwester.
All of the party were now busily engaged in making the best of their way to the village, though the badness of the roads frequently compelled them to check the impatience of their animals, which often carried them over places that would not admit of any gait faster than a walk.
Richard continued in advance, followed by Mr. Le Quoi; next to whom rode Elizabeth, who seemed to have imbibed the distance which pervaded the manner of young Edwards since the termination of the discourse between the latter and her father. Marmaduke followed his daughter, giving her frequent and tender warnings as to the management of her horse. It was, possibly, the evident dependence that Louisa Grant placed on his assistance which induced the youth to continue by her side, as they pursued their way through a dreary and dark wood, where the rays of the sun could but rarely penetrate, and where even the daylight was obscured and rendered gloomy by the deep forests that surrounded them. No wind had yet reached the spot where the equestrians were in motion, but that dead silence that often precedes a storm contributed to render their situation more irksome than if they were already subject to the fury of the tempest. Suddenly the voice of young Edwards was heard shouting in those appalling tones that carry alarm to the very soul, and which curdle the blood of those that hear them.
“A tree! a tree! Whip—spur for your lives! a tree! a tree. “
“A tree! a tree!” echoed Richard, giving his horse a blow that caused the alarmed beast to jump nearly a rod, throwing the mud and water into the air like a hurricane.
“Von tree! von tree!” shouted the Frenchman, bending his body on the neck of his charger, shutting his eyes, and playing on the ribs of his beast with his heels at a rate that caused him to be conveyed on the crupper of the sheriff with a marvellous speed.
Elizabeth checked her filly and looked up, with an unconscious but alarmed air, at the very cause of their danger, while she listened to the crackling sounds that awoke the stillness of the forest; but the next instant her bridlet was seized by her father, who cried, “God protect my child!” and she felt herself hurried onward, impelled by the vigor of his nervous arm.
Each one of the party bowed to his saddle-bows as the tearing of branches was succeeded by a sound like the rushing of the winds, which was followed by a thundering report, and a shock that caused the very earth to tremble as one of the noblest ruins of the forest fell directly across their path.
One glance was enough to assure Judge Temple that his daughter and those in front of him were safe, and he turned his eyes, in dreadful anxiety, to learn the fate of the others. Young Edwards was on the opposite side of the tree, his form thrown back in his saddle to its utmost distance, his left hand drawing up his bridle with its greatest force, while the right grasped that of Miss Grant so as to draw the head of her horse under its body. Both the animals stood shaking in every joint with terror, and snorting fearfully. Louisa herself had relinquished her reins, and, with her hands pressed on her face, sat bending forward in her saddle, in an attitude of despair, mingled strangely with resignation.
“Are you safe?” cried the Judge, first breaking the awful silence of the moment.
“By God’s blessing,” returned the youth; but if there had been branches to the tree we must have been lost—”
He was interrupted by the figure of Louisa slowly yielding in her saddle, and but for his arm she would have sunk to the earth. Terror, however, was the only injury that the clergyman’s daughter had sustained, and, with the aid of Elizabeth, she was soon restored to her senses. After some little time was lost in recovering her strength, the young lady was replaced in her saddle, and supported on either side by Judge Temple and Mr. Edwards she was enabled to follow the party in their slow progress.
“The sudden fallings of the trees,” said Marmaduke, “are the most dangerous accidents in the forest, for they are not to be foreseen, being impelled by no winds, nor any extraneous or visible cause against which we can guard.”
“The reason of their falling, Judge Temple, is very obvious,” said the sheriff. “The tree is old and decayed, and it is gradually weakened by the frosts, until a line drawn from the centre of gravity falls without its base, and then the tree comes of a certainty; and I should like to know what greater compulsion there can be for any thing than a mathematical certainty. I studied math—”
“Very true, Richard,” interrupted Marmaduke; “thy reasoning is true, and, if my memory be not over-treacherous, was furnished by myself on a former occasion, But how is one to guard against the danger? Canst thou go through the forests measuring the bases and calculating the centres of the oaks? Answer me that, friend Jones, and I will say thou wilt do the country a service.”
“Answer thee that, friend Temple!” returned Richard; “a well-educated man can answer thee anything, sir. Do any trees fall in this manner but such as are decayed? Take care not to approach the roots of a rotten tree, and you will be safe enough.”
“That would be excluding us entirely from the forests,’ said Marmaduke. “But, happily, the winds usually force down most of these dangerous ruins, as their currents are admitted into the woods by the surrounding clearings, and such a fall as this has been is very rare.”
Louisa by this time had recovered so much strength as to allow the party to proceed at a quicker pace, but long before they were safely housed they were overtaken by the storm; and when they dismounted at the door of the mansion-house, the black plumes of Miss Temple’s hat were drooping with the weight of a load of damp snow, and the coats of the gentlemen were powdered with the same material.
While Edwards was assisting Louisa from her horse, the warm-hearted girl caught his hand with fervor and whispered:
“Now, Mr. Edwards, both father and daughter owe their lives to you.”
A driving northwesterly storm succeeded, and before the sun was set every vestige of spring had vanished; the lake, the mountains, the village, and the fields being again hidden under one dazzling coat of snow.