The Pioneers

by James Fenimore Cooper

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XVI

"Watch (aside). Some treason, masters-- Yet stand close."--Much Ado About Nothing.

It was fortunate for more than one of the bacchanalians who left the "Bold Dragoon" late in the evening that the severe cold of the season was becoming rapidly less dangerous as they threaded the different mazes through the snow-banks that led to their respective dwellings. Then driving clouds began toward morning to flit across the heavens, and the moon set behind a volume of vapor that was impelled furiously toward the north, carrying with it the softer atmosphere from the distant ocean. The rising sun was obscured by denser and increasing columns of clouds, while the southerly wind that rushed up the valley brought the never-failing symptoms of a thaw.

It was quite late in the morning before Elizabeth, observing the faint glow which appeared on the eastern mountain long after the light of the sun had struck the opposite hills, ventured from the house, with a view to gratify her curiosity with a glance by daylight at the surrounding objects before the tardy revellers of the Christmas eve should make their appearance at the breakfast- table. While she was drawing the folds of her pelisse more closely around her form, to guard against a cold that was yet great though rapidly yielding, in the small inclosure that opened in the rear of the house on a little thicket of low pines that were springing up where trees of a mightier growth had lately stood, she was surprised at the voice of Mr. Jones.

"Merry Christmas, merry Christmas to you, Cousin Bess," he shouted. "Ah, ha! an early riser, I see; but I knew I should steal a march on you. I never was in a house yet where I didnt get the first Christmas greeting on every soul in it, man, woman, and child--great and small--black, white, and yellow. But stop a minute till I can just slip on my coat. You are about to look at the improvements, I see, which no one can explain so well as I, who planned them all. It will be an hour before Duke and the Major can sleep off Mrs. Hollisters confounded distillations, and so Ill come down and go with you.

Elizabeth turned and observed her cousin in his night cap, with his head out of his bedroom window, where his zeal for pre-eminence, in defiance of the weather, had impelled him to thrust it. She laughed, and promising to wait for his company re-entered the house, making her appearance again, holding in her hand a packet that was secured by several large and important seals, just in time to meet the gentleman.

"Come, Bessy, come," he cried, drawing one of her arms through his own; " the snow begins to give, but it will bear us yet. Dont you snuff old Pennsylvania in the very air? This is a vile climate, girl; now at sunset, last evening, it was cold enough to freeze a mans zeal, and that, I can tell you, takes a thermometer near zero for me; then about nine or ten it began to moderate; at twelve it was quite mild, and here all the rest of the night I have been so hot as not to bear a blanket on the bed. --Holla! Aggy--merry Christmas, Aggy--I say, do you hear me, you black dog! theres a dollar for you; and if the gentle men get up before I come back, do you come out and let me know. I wouldnt have 'Duke get the start of me for the worth of your head."

The black caught the money from the snow, and promising a due degree of watchfulness, he gave the dollar a whirl of twenty feet in the air, and catching it as it fell in the palm of his hand, he withdrew to the kitchen, to exhibit his present, with a heart as light as his face was happy in its expression.

"Oh, rest easy, my dear coz," said the young lady; "I took a look in at my father, who is likely to sleep an hour; and by using due vigilance you will secure all the honors of the season."

"Why, Duke is your father, Elizabeth ; but Duke is a man who likes to be foremost, even in trifles. Now, as for myself, I care for no such things, except in the way of competition; for a thing which is of no moment in itself may be made of importance in the way of competition. So it is with your father--he loves to he first; but I only; struggle with him as a competitor."

"Its all very clear, sir," said Elizabeth; "you would not care a fig for distinction if there were no one in the world but yourself; but as there happens to be a great many others, why, you must struggle with them all--in the way of competition."

"Exactly so; I see you are a clever girl, Bess, and one who does credit to her masters. It was my plan to send you to that school; for when your father first mentioned the thing, I wrote a private letter for advice to a judicious friend in the city, who recommended the very school you went to. Duke was a little obstinate at first, as usual, but when he heard the truth he was obliged to send you."

"Well, a truce to Dukes foibles, sir; he is my father, and if you knew what he has been doing for you while we were in Albany, you would deal more tenderly with his character."

"For me!" cried Richard, pausing a moment in his walk to reflect. "Oh! he got the plans of the new Dutch meeting-house for me, I suppose; but I care very little about it, for a man of a certain kind of talent is seldom aided by any foreign suggestions; his own brain is the best architect."

"No such thing," said Elizabeth, looking provokingly knowing.

"No! let me see--perhaps he had my name put in the bill for the new turnpike, as a director."

"He might possibly; but it is not to such an appointment that I allude."

"Such an appointment!" repeated Mr. Jones, who began to fidget with curiosity; "then it is an appointment. If it is in the militia, I wont take it.

"No, no, it is not in the militia," cried Elizabeth, showing the packet in her hand, and then drawing it back with a coquettish air; "it is an office of both honor and emolument."

"Honor and emolument!" echoed Richard, in painful suspense; "show me the paper, girl. Say, is it an office where there is anything to do?"

"You have hit it, Cousin Dickon; it is the executive office of the county; at least so said my father when he gave me this packet to offer you as a Christmas-box. Surely, if anything will please Dickon, he said, it will be to fill the executive chair of the county."

"Executive chair! what nonsense!" cried the impatient gentleman, snatching the packet from her hand; "there is no such office in the county. Eh! what! it is, I declare, a commission, appointing Richard Jones, Esquire, sheriff of the county. Well, this is kind in Duke, positively. I must say Duke has a warm heart, and never forgets his friends. Sheriff! High Sheriff of --! it sounds well, Bess, but it shall execute better. Duke is a judicious man after all, and knows human nature thoroughly, Im much obliged to him," continued Richard, using the skirt of his coat unconsciously to wipe his eyes; "though I would do as much for him any day, as he shall see, if I have an opportunity to perform any of the duties of my office on him. It shall be done, Cousin Bess----it shall be done, I say. How this cursed south wind makes ones eyes water!"

"Now, Richard," said the laughing maiden, "now I think you will find something to do. I have often heard you complain of old that there was nothing to do in this new country, while to my eyes it seemed as if everything remained to be done."

"Do!" echoed Richard, who blew his nose, raised his little form to its greatest elevation, and looked serious. "Everything depends on system, girl. I shall sit down this afternoon and systematize the county. I must have deputies, you know. I will divide the county into districts, over which I will place my deputies; and I will have one for the village, which I will call my home department. Let me see--ho! Benjamin! yes, Benjamin will make a good deputy; he has been naturalized, and would answer admirably if he could only ride on horseback."

"Yes, Mr. Sheriff," said his companion; "and as he understands ropes so well, he would be very expert, should occasion happen for his services in another way."

"No," interrupted the other; "I flatter myself that no man could hang a man better than--that is--ha!--oh! yes, Benjamin would do extremely well in such an unfortunate dilemma, if he could be persuaded to attempt it. But I should despair of the thing. I never could induce him to hang, or teach him to ride on horseback. I must seek another deputy." "Well, sir, as you have abundant leisure for all these important affairs, I beg that you will forget that you are high sheriff, and devote some little of your time to gallantry. Where are the beauties and improvements which you were to show me?"

"Where? why, everywhere! Here I have laid out some new streets; and when they are opened, and the trees felled, and they are all built up, will they not make a fine town? Well, Duke is a liberal-hearted fellow, with all his stubbornness. Yes, yes; I must have at least four deputies, besides a jailer."

"I see no streets in the direction of our walk," said Elizabeth, "unless you call the short avenues through these pine bushes by that name. Surely you do not contemplate building houses, very soon, in that forest before us, and in those swamps."

We must run our streets by the compass, coz, and disregard trees, hills, ponds, stumps, or, in fact, anything but posterity. Such is the will of your father, and your father, you know----"

"Had you made sheriff, Mr. Jones," interrupted the lady, with a tone that said very plainly to the gentleman that he was touching a forbidden subject.

"I know it, I know it," cried Richard; "and if it were in my power, Id make Duke a king. He is a noble hearted fellow, and would make an excellent king; that is, if he had a good prime minister. But who have we here? voices in the bushes--a combination about mischief, Ill wager my commission. Let us draw near and examine a little into the matter."

During this dialogue, as the parties had kept in motion, Richard and his cousin advanced some distance from the house into the open space in the rear of the village, where, as may be gathered from the conversation, streets were planned and future dwellings contemplated; but where, in truth, the only mark of improvement that was to be seen was a neglected clearing along the skirt of a dark forest of mighty pines, over which the bushes or sprouts of the same tree had sprung up to a height that interspersed the fields of snow with little thickets of evergreen. The rushing of the wind, as it whistled through the tops of these mimic trees, prevented the footsteps of the pair from being heard, while the branches concealed their persons. Thus aided, the listeners drew nigh to a spot where the young hunter, Leather- Stocking, and the Indian chief were collected in an earnest consultation. The former was urgent in his manner, and seemed to think the subject of deep importance, while Natty appeared to listen with more than his usual attention to what the other was saying. Mohegan stood a little on one side, with his head sunken on his chest, his hair falling forward so as to conceal most of his features, and his whole attitude expressive of deep dejection, if not of shame. Let us withdraw," whispered Elizabeth; " we are intruders, and can have no right to listen to the secrets of these men."

"No right!" returned Richard a little impatiently, in the same tone, and drawing her arm so forcibly through his own as to prevent her retreat; "you forget, cousin, that it is my duty to preserve the peace of the county and see the laws executed, these wanderers frequently commit depredations, though I do not think John would do anything secretly. Poor fellow! he was quite boozy last night, and hardly seems to be over it yet. Let us draw nigher and hear what they say."

Notwithstanding the ladys reluctance, Richard, stimulated doubtless by his sense of duty, prevailed; and they were soon so near as distinctly to hear sounds.

"The bird must he had," said Natty, "by fair means or foul. Heigho! Ive known the time, lad, when the wild turkeys wasnt over-scarce in the country; though you must go into the Virginia gaps if you want them now. to be sure, there is a different taste to a partridge and a well-fatted turkey; though, to my eating, beavers tail and bears ham make the best of food. But then every one has his own appetite. I gave the last farthing, all to that shilling, to the French trader, this very morning, as I came through the town, for powder; so, as you have nothing, we can have but one shot for it. I know that Billy Kirby is out, and means to have a pull of the trigger at that very turkey. John has a true eye for a single fire, and, some how, my hand shakes so whenever I have to do anything extrawnary, that I often lose my aim. Now, when I killed the she-bear this fall, with her cubs, though they were so mighty ravenous, I knocked them over one at a shot, and loaded while I dodged the trees in the bargain; but this is a very different thing, Mr. Oliver."

"This," cried the young man, with an accent that sounded as if he took a bitter pleasure in his poverty, while he held a shilling up before his eyes, "this is all the treasure that I possess--this and my rifle! Now, indeed, I have become a man of the woods, and must place my sole dependence on the chase. Come, Natty, let us stake the last penny for the bird; with your aim, it cannot fail to be successful."

"I would rather it should be John, lad; my heart jumps into my mouth, because you set your mind so much out; and Im sartain that I shall miss the bird. Them Indians can shoot one time as well as another; nothing ever troubles them. I say, John, heres a shilling; take my rifle, and get a shot at the big turkey theyve put up at the stump. Mr. Oliver is over-anxious for the creatur, and Im sure to do nothing when I have over-anxiety about it."

The Indian turned his head gloomily, and after looking keenly for a moment, in profound silence, at his companions, he replied:

"When John was young, eyesight was not straighter than his bullet. The Mingo squaws cried out at the sound of his rifle. The Mingo warriors were made squaws. When did he ever shoot twice? The eagle went above the clouds when he passed the wigwam of Chingachgook; his feathers were plenty with the women. But see," he said, raising his voice from the low, mournful tones in which he had spoken to a pitch of keen excitement, and stretching forth both hands, "they shake like a deer at the wolfs howl. Is John old? When was a Mohican a squaw with seventy winters? No! the white man brings old age with him--rum is his tomahawk!"

"Why, then, do you use it, old man?" exclaimed the young hunter; "why will one, so noble by nature, aid the devices of the devil by making himself a beast?"

"Beast! is John a beast?" replied the Indian slowly; "yes; you say no lie, child of the Fire-eater! John is a beast. The smokes were once few in these hills, The deer would lick the hand of a white man and the birds rest on his head. They were strangers to him. My fathers came from the shores of the salt lake. They fled before rum. They came to their grandfather, and they lived in peace; or, when they did raise the hatchet, it was to strike it into the brain of a Mingo. They gathered around the council fire, and what they said was done. Then John was a man. But warriors and traders with light eyes followed them. One brought the long knife and one brought rum. They were more than the pines on the mountains; and they broke up the councils and took the lands, The evil spirit was in their jugs, and they let him loose. Yes yes--you say no lie, Young Eagle; John is a Christian beast."

"Forgive me, old warrior," cried the youth, grasping his hand; "I should be the last to reproach you. The curses of Heaven light on the cupidity that has destroyed such a race. Remember, John, that I am of your family, and it is now my greatest pride."

The muscles of Mohegan relaxed a little, and he said, more mildly:

"You are a Delaware, my son; your words are not heard--John cannot shoot."

"I thought that lad had Indian blood in him," whispered Richard, "by the awkward way he handled my horses last night. You see, coz, they never use harness. But the poor fellow shall have two shots at the turkey, if he wants it, for Ill give him another shilling myself; though, per haps, I had better offer to shoot for him. They have got up their Christmas sports, I find, in the bushes yonder, where you hear the laughter--though it is a queer taste this chap has for turkey; not but what it is good eating, too,"

"Hold, Cousin Richard," exclaimed Elizabeth, clinging to his arm; "would it be delicate to offer a shilling to that gentleman?"

"Gentleman, again! Do you think a half-breed, like him, will refuse money? No, no, girl, he will take the shilling; ay! and even rum too, notwithstanding he moralizes so much about it, But Ill give the lad a chance for his turkey; for that Billy Kirby is one of the best marksmen in the country; that is, if we except the--the gentleman."

"Then," said Elizabeth, who found her strength unequal to her will, " then, sir, I will speak." She advanced, with an air of determination, in front of her cousin, and entered the little circle of bushes that surrounded the trio of hunters. Her appearance startled the youth, who at first made an unequivocal motion toward retiring, but, recollecting himself, bowed, by lifting his cap, and resumed his attitude of leaning on his rifle. Neither Natty nor Mohegan betrayed any emotion, though the appearance of Elizabeth was so entirely unexpected.

"I find," she said, "that the old Christmas sport of shooting the turkey is yet in use among you. I feel inclined to try my chance for a bird. Which of you will take this money, and, after paying my fee, give me the aid of his rifle?"

"Is this a sport for a lady?" exclaimed the young hunter, with an emphasis that could not well be mistaken, and with a rapidity that showed he spoke without consulting anything but feeling. "Why not, sir? If it be inhuman the sin is not confined to one sex only. But I have my humor as well as others. I ask not your assistance, but"--turning to Natty, and dropping a dollar in his hand--" this old veteran of the forest will not be so ungallant as to refuse one fire for a lady."

Leather-Stocking dropped the money into his pouch, and throwing up the end of his rifle he freshened his priming; and first laughing in his usual manner, he threw the piece over his shoulder, and said:

"If Billy Kirby dont get the bird before me, and the Frenchmans powder dont hang fire this damp morning, youll see as fine a turkey dead, in a few minutes, as ever was eaten in the Judges shanty. I have knowed the Dutch women, on the Mohawk and Schoharie, count greatly on coming to the merry-makings; and so, lad, you shouldnt be short with the lady. Come, let us go forward, for if we wait the finest bird will be gone."

"But I have a right before you, Natty, and shall try on my own luck first. You will excuse me, Miss Temple; I have much reason to wish that bird, and may seem ungallant, but I must claim my privileges."

"Claim anything that is justly your own, sir," returned the lady; "we are both adventurers; and this is my knight. I trust my fortune to his hand and eye. Lead on, Sir Leather-Stocking, and we will follow."

Natty, who seemed pleased with the frank address of the young and beauteous Elizabeth, who had so singularly intrusted him with such a commission, returned the bright smile with which she had addressed him, by his own peculiar mark of mirth, and moved across the snow toward the spot whence the sounds of boisterous mirth proceeded, with the long strides of a hunter. His companions followed in silence, the youth casting frequent and uneasy glances toward Elizabeth, who was detained by a motion from Richard.

"I should think, Miss Temple," he said, so soon as the others were out of hearing, "that if you really wished a turkey, you would not have taken a stranger for the office, and such a one as Leather-Stocking. But I can hardly believe that you are serious, for I have fifty, at this moment, shut up in the coops, in every stage of fat, so that you might choose any quality you pleased. There are six that I am trying an experiment on, by giving them brick-bats with--"

"Enough, Cousin Dickon," interrupted the lady; "I do wish the bird, and it is because I so wish that I commissioned this Mr. Leather- Stocking."

"Did you ever hear of the great shot that I made at the wolf, Cousin Elizabeth, who was carrying off your father's sheep?" said Richard, drawing himself up with an air of displeasure. "He had the sheep on his hack; and, had the head of the wolf been on the other side, I should have killed him dead; as it was--"

"You killed the sheep--I know it all, dear coz. Hut would it have been decorous for the High Sheriff of --to mingle in such sports as these?" "Surely you did not think that I intended actually to fire with my own hands?" said Mr. Jones. "But let us follow, and see the shooting. There is no fear of anything unpleasant occurring to a female in this new country, especially to your fathers daughter, and in my presence."

"My fathers daughter fears nothing, sir, more especially when escorted by the highest executive officer in the county."

She took his arm, and he led her through the mazes of the bushes to the spot where most of the young men of the village were collected for the sports of shooting a Christmas match, and whither Natty and his Companions had already preceded them.

Return to the The Pioneers Summary Return to the James Fenimore Cooper Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.