( Originally Published Early 1900's )
This is the first of the Leather-Stocking Tales in point of sequence so far as the stories are concerned, but in point of publication it is the last. It was long after Cooper had written The Prairie, in which he describes the death of his hero, that he wrote The Deerslayer, where Natty Bumppo, the Deerslayer, Leather-Stocking, the Pathfinder, or Hawk-Eye—the various names under which he is known—makes his appearance as a young hunter.
N the eighteenth century, a few years before the time of the French and Indian wars, a strange structure rose in the middle of Lake Otsego, in that untrodden wilderness that is now central New York.
There an adventurer of mysterious antecedents built for himself a singular habitation. He drove great spiles into a shoal that rose to within a few feet of the surface—the only shoal in this whole body of water. On these spiles he erected a massive dwelling of logs fully two feet thick, loopholed for rifles and provided with a further protection in the shape of a palisade of saplings driven into the shoal and open only at one entrance, where a platform offered a landing-place.
The very daring of this plan formed its security. Though it was so conspicuous, it was quite inaccessible except by boat; and the spoils to be obtained were hardly sufficient to induce Indians to transport or make birch-bark canoes for the purpose of attack, while the expedient of attacking by raft threw all the hazard on the assailing party.
In this water-fort the owner, who called himself Thomas Hutter, lived with his daughters: Hetty, who was generally considered a little deranged, or at least feeble-minded; and Judith, a dark, glowing beauty, who had turned the head of more than one British officer in the settlements, and, if rumor spoke truly, had not withstood their wooings with entire blamelessness.
Hutter's wife, a beautiful, gentle, distinguished woman, strangely different from the rough, savage man whose name she bore, had not lived long after entering the wilderness, and was buried in the deepest part of the lake.
For the purpose of trapping and hunting Thomas Hutter built a great vessel, scow-like in construction, bearing a long deck-house with sides thick enough to be bullet-proof. The "ark," as it was known to the few frontiersmen who visited the lake, was absent on one of his expeditions, when two young men in garments of tanned deerskin broke through the June forest, and, after casting about in the underbrush for some time, drew forth a birch-bark canoe from the hollow of a fallen tree, where it had been hidden. They were two of the most famous of the adventurers in that great forest.
Though they had made their way together from the settlements, they were only chance companions. The gigantic Hurry Harry, so named because of his hasty and impetuous temper, was pressing forward as a messenger of war to warn the Hutters that the French and their Iroquois allies were moving from the north to attack the English and their allies, the Delawares.
The other hunter, Nathaniel Bumppo, named Deerslayer by the Delawares, with whom he lived, was on his way to meet his friend Chingachgook, son of the chief Uncas of the Mohicans, the noblest of the Delaware tribes. These two young men were to start together on a dual mission: to fight on the side of the English and to search for Chingachgook's Indian sweetheart, Hist, who had been stolen from her wigwam by a Mohican renegade, Yocommon, or Briarthorn, and carried off to an Iroquois band.
Having paddled to the castle and found it deserted, the two hunters proceeded cautiously down the lake; and, anchored just within the mouth of the river, they discovered the ark.
They found old Hutter prepared for their news, and anxious lest the Indians should cut him off before he could get the ark out of the close quarters in which she lay. The three men hurried the girls into the security of the cabin and hauled powerfully on the cable. To their joy, the unwieldy craft cleared the narrowest part of the river without interference and reached a spot where the open lake could be seen.
In obedience to instructions Deerslayer then retired into the cabin and watched through the loopholes for attack from astern, while the other two men, comparatively secure in the bow, hauled up to the grapnel that lay in the lake.
The ark, in clearing the mouth of the river, swung under an overhanging sapling. The next instant Deerslayer shouted: " Pull for your life!" and half a dozen Indians in full war-paint ran along the tree and leaped for the scow.
Five missed the boat because it had begun to dart ahead. The leader struck just within the stern. Before he could pull himself together, Judith, her dark beauty flushing crimson from excitement, rushed from the cabin and pushed him overboard. Bullets pattered around the ark, but in another moment the craft was out in the lake and the grapnel lifted.
When the girls were safely in the house and the ark secure behind the palisade, the three men launched a canoe and paddled quietly to shore to get the two remaining canoes that were hidden in hollow trees, the possession of which would enable the savages to creep on the castle.
They found the first without any adventure, and towed it to the middle of the lake, where they set it free in such a way that it would drift toward the castle. The second one was hidden some distance down the shore. Just as they had launched it and Hutter and Hurry Harry had taken their positions in it, their eyes caught the gleam of an ember under the trees.
At once they decided, despite the remonstrances of Deer-slayer, to creep on the camp and try for scalps; for the British colonies had declared a bounty on the scalps of Indians fighting on the French side. Deerslayer refused to join them, but agreed to lie off shore in his canoe. After they had disappeared, he got the vacant canoe and set it free on the lake, and then floated close to the shore, waiting.
Suddenly a cry of terror rang out. Rifles roared under the trees. Bushes and branches crashed. The two hunters burst on the beach; but even as Deerslayer urged his canoe toward them, they fell under a swarm of savages and were speedily tied up.
Knowing that he could not aid his imprudent companions, Deerslayer started for the castle. On his way he picked up one canoe, but could not find the other until the first gray glimmer of dawn showed the little boat drifting ashore near the foot of the mountain.
Just as he reached the precious craft, a rifle-shot came from the woods. He jumped like one shot fatally, and fell face down. The stratagem succeeded. A painted Iroquois came bounding to seize the boat only to be laid low by the white hunter's rifle.
Deerslayer paddled his recovered canoes swiftly to the castle; and at sunset Chingachgook made his way through the hidden watchers around the lake and added another deadly rifle to their little force.
They held a council of war and agreed that to free Hutter and Hurry Harry by force or trick was out of the question; but Deerslayer believed that it might be possible to ransom them. Among Hutter's possessions he found little to tempt savages, except a beautiful rifle, which was famous far and wide under the title of Killdeer; but eager as Indians were to own so mighty a weapon, it alone would not induce them to give up two such formidable white enemies. At this juncture Judith suggested that they open a great chest, which Hutter always had guarded with jealous care, refusing to let his daughters peer into it.
After a long search the keys were found and the lifted lid disclosed splendors strange indeed for a wilderness cabin. Rich coats, scarlet and gold, were drawn forth, and below them lay still richer garments—glorious dresses in brocade and silk, finer than any that Judith had ever seen on the officers' ladies in the forts.
Silver-mounted pistols succeeded. Next came something that surprised even Chingachgook out of his Indian stoicism and forced him to utter exclamations of delighted wonder. It was a set of uncommonly large and beautiful ivory chessmen. The Indian's greatest wonder was aroused by the castles, which were mounted on large elephants; and he gazed at the "two-tailed beasts" with almost superstitious awe.
"Buy whole tribe—buy Delaware, almost!" said he.
At that instant a sound outside startled them. Deerslayer crept out and saw a raft at the palisades, with an Indian lad in it. Before he could stir Hetty stood before him. A few words sufficed to explain what had happened. The feeble-minded girl had stolen ashore in a canoe, which she shoved back into the lake after she had landed, so that the Iroquois should not get it, and then made her way to the Indian camp.
With the veneration that the Indians accorded to all whose intellects were deranged, the Iroquois offered her no harm. She was permitted to wander around the camp, and to talk with her father and Hurry Harry. She had also seen Chingachgook's bride, Hist, who had managed to impress on the feeble-minded girl a message telling Chingachgook that she would try to creep to a certain spot on the shore when the evening star should appear above the tops of the hemlocks on the next night.
After some hours the Indian lad had ferried her to the castle to deliver a message from the warriors in which they asked for some canoes so they might deliver their captives to their friends.
This proposal, of course, was not accepted; but the lad offered the opportunity desired to treat for ransom. He was permitted to examine the elephants, which elicited evident delight, and returned soon with two chiefs, who agreed to take the wonderful things in exchange for the prisoners, who were duly delivered.
That this did not mean peace, however, was proved a few moments afterward, when a bundle of faggots, with the ends dipped in blood, was tossed on the platform outside of the palisade.
On seeing this signal of war, Deerslayer counseled that the party desert the castle for the night and take to the ark, with the canoes in tow, to escape a siege; and soon the big craft was loaded with all the valuables, including the chest, and skimming silently down the lake. While the others were sleeping, Deer-slayer and Chingachgook paddled toward the Indian camp to attempt Hist's rescue.
Chingachgook landed and Deerslayer paddled around a point and lay motionless in the black shadow of the shore, where he could see the Iroquois.
Before long he discovered Hist under the watchful eye of an old squaw. As it was evident that she would not be able to creep away to the rendezvous, Deerslayer paddled back and held counsel with Chingachgook. In a few minutes the canoe crept into the shadow of the shore like a shadow itself, and two forms melted into the bushes.
Warned by the little chirrup of a squirrel from a tree immediately behind her, Hist was on the alert when the old squaw called to her to go along to the spring behind the camp for water, and gripped her by the wrist as they started down the trail. Scarcely had they reached the spring before Deerslayer had the old woman by the throat while Chingachgook seized Hist and carried her swiftly to the canoe.
Unluckily for the white hunter, his aversion to killing for-bade his choking the old woman sufficiently, and she managed to utter one screech, which brought the Iroquois about his ears in a rush.
Running to the beach where Chingachgook and Hist crouched in the canoe, paddles in hand, he dropped his rifle into the boat and stooped to shove it off when an Indian leaped on his back. Without hesitating a second Deerslayer gave the canoe a mighty push that sent it out into the lake, and grappled with his assailant.
A dozen others sprang on him, and Deerslayer was made captive, to the vehement joy of the Iroquois, who felt that they had struck a great blow at the hated Delawares by capturing that tribe's famous white brother.
Hutter and Hurry Harry, forgetting their own recent capture, censured Deerslayer's imprudence, and showed little anxiety to save him when Chingachgook and Hist arrived at the ark with the news. They set sail for the castle, and Hutter steered boldly toward it, heedless of Chingachgook's warning that he saw signs of Indians being in hiding there.
Perceiving that the reckless frontiersmen were bent on entering without precaution, Chingachgook and Hist held the ark outside of the palisade after the two white men had boarded the canoes and paddled within. The Mohican's wisdom was soon apparent; for suddenly the whole interior of the building seemed alive.
Cursing and fighting, Hurry Harry presently emerged from the doorway with two or three Indians hanging to his huge form. He hurled one from him so mightily that the Indian rolled into the lake unconscious and did not reappear. Then he seized a second one and bent him backward with such force that the savage's eyes began to stare as in death. But the others leaped on the white man, tied him hand and foot and dropped him on the platform at the entrance to the stockade.
Chingachgook swung the ark around at that moment and shouted to Harry to roll overboard. As he touched the water Hist threw a line, which coiled around him so that he could seize it with his teeth and with his tethered hands. The ark filled away under the patter of bullets and dragged him off. As soon as the craft was out of range he was brought safely aboard.
At the end of an hour they saw the Iroquois leaving the castle on rafts and in the canoes which they had captured. After careful reconnoitering from a distance Chingachgook brought the ark back to the palisade. They entered and found Huffer lying on the floor, scalped.
Before sunset his body was lowered into the lake near that of the girl's mother. As the ark was slowly moving from the spot those on board became aware of a canoe advancing steadily toward them. A glance sufficed to show that its solitary occupant was Deerslayer; but his approach was strangely deliberate for a fugitive.
If any on the ark thought at first that he had escaped, they were undeceived as soon as the hunter came aboard, for he told them that the Iroquois had reprieved him only until noon of the next day, and had given him a message, which was that they would let Hurry Harry and Chingachgook depart unmolested, providing Hist, Judith and Hetty were delivered over to become the wives of Iroquois. As for himself, they would not let him off, but were determined to put him to the torture.
None on the ark thought for even a moment of entertaining the offer, with the exception of Hurry Harry, who had asked Judith to be his wife that day and had been rendered furious by her refusal. He openly declared that he would go that night, and accordingly Deerslayer paddled him ashore as soon as darkness fell. When he returned to the ark he found Judith awake and waiting for him.
She insisted on searching through the chest again in the hope of finding something that might tempt the Iroquois to accept it as ransom for the young hunter. Deerslayer humored her, though he knew too well that the Iroquois, angry because they had failed to induce him to enter their tribe, would not forego torturing him for any bribe that could be offered.
To Judith's bitter disappointment, the chest failed to yield anything except a bundle of letters. Under any other circumstances these would have proved of overwhelming interest to her, for they disclosed to her the fact that Hutter was not the father of herself and Hetty, but a fugitive hunted by the British Government for piracy on the high seas. He had married the girls' mother only after she had been deserted by their high-born but unnamed father.
Seeing that no hope of ransom remained, Judith besought Deerslayer not to return to the Iroquois. She confessed her love for him, and urged that no consideration of honor could go so far as to compel a man to submit voluntarily to such frightful tortures as the Iroquois were certain to inflict. Deerslayer, however, was firm, and Chingachgook sadly but sternly upheld him.
Accordingly, Deerslayer walked into the Iroquois camp next day at noon as quietly as if he had come on a visit to friends. When he delivered the answers of Chingachgook and the three girls there was a movement of angry excitement among the warriors; and when, in addition, he again refused for his own part to join the tribe and marry a squaw, the brother of the jilted woman hurled a tomahawk at his head.
Deerslayer did not move head or body; but his arm shot out like lightning. He caught the weapon by the whirling handle and hurled it back, striking the Indian full in the forehead and killing him instantly.
Even as the savage fell, Deerslayer darted away as swiftly as a stag; and before the Indians could yell he had gained the woods. None of the Iroquois could outrun him, and for a time he managed to elude them, gained the shore by a roundabout way and took possession of a canoe, his only hope of safety. But then the superior number of his pursuers told, and in the end he was retaken and carried back to camp.
Here the whole band closed around him. They bound him against a young tree, with his hands laid flat against his legs. The women and boys began to make pine splinters, which he knew were to be stuck into his flesh and set afire. Others prepared a firo to furnish burning brands.
A young warrior leaped to the space in front of the bound man, whirled his tomahawk and let it fly. It cut a chip out of the tree close to Deerslayer's cheek. He neither moved nor winced, and did not even shut his eyes, determined that the Indians should not triumph over him by making him show fear.
A second warrior threw his tomahawk so well that it actually forced some of Deerslayer's hair into the cleft that it made in the tree. Tomahawk after tomahawk was delivered now, one following the other like lightning. Then came warriors who threw knives. But not once did they succeed in making the white man move a muscle.
Furious, and determined that the hunter's nerve must be broken down, they prepared for the real torture. The great fire was lit and the warriors advanced to it, when every hand was arrested by a wonderful apparition. It was Judith, dressed in the splendid brocade that had lain concealed so long in the chest.
Even the oldest warriors could not refrain from exclamations of surprise and delight, while the younger ones and the women pressed eagerly forward. Mingled admiration and awe quite took out of their minds any thought of harming the beautiful vision.
Judith at once began a long harangue, claiming to be queen of the land and demanding Deerslayer's release. During the progress of her speech she managed to approach the captive and whisper to him that all that was needed was to gain half an hour's delay.
Unfortunately the Iroquois did not grant this truce, for they recovered from their astonishment in a few minutes and began to ask questions that showed that their reason was getting the upper hand of their admiration. Soon some of the more eager warriors began to close around Deerslayer again, and the chief gave the signal to proceed.
The flames of the temporarily neglected fire sprang up a second time. The warriors felt their knives and tomahawks. Judith was forced back. Deerslayer braced himself for the exquisite torment to come, when suddenly a knife slashed his bonds and a rifle was pressed into his hand!
Ere he knew what had happened Chingachgook stood by his side with another rifle; and in the same instant the Mohican hurled his knife, which buried itself in the heart of Briarthorn, the renegade.
A fearful yell burst from the Iroquois. It was answered by a thundering English cheer. Before the Iroquois could move, the scarlet uniforms of British soldiers came down from all directions in a furious bayonet-charge that overwhelmed them in hopeless, helpless defeat.
Few of the soldiers were wounded; but Hetty, who had followed Judith into the camp, had been hit by a stray bullet and died before the little army returned to the settlement.
It was fifteen years afterward when Deerslayer again saw Lake Otsego. He and his friend Chingachgook were hastening to the forts to join the colonists on the eve of another and still more important war. A stripling accompanied them—Chingachgook's son—on his first warpath.
Hist lay buried under the pines on the Delaware, and Chingachgook sadly pointed out to the lad the scenes of his youthful love-story. They paddled over the spot where Hetty and her mother and Hutter lay. The castle still stood, but was fast falling into decay. The ark was stranded and rotting.
In its cabin Deerslayer found a ribbon that he recognized as having belonged to Judith. He picked it up gently and caressingly and tied it to his rifle. His inquiries after Judith had been ineffective. He had been able to learn only that one of the British officers, who had long known the girl, had suddenly retired from the service after the fight in the wilderness and was living on his paternal estate in England with a lady of rare beauty who had great influence over him, although she did not bear his name. He never asked for further news of her, but often, in his subsequent career, when he had become the scourge of the Iroquois and Hurons, he thought of Judith of the Lake and sighed.