The Pioneers

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter XVII

I guess, by all this quaint array, The burghers hold their sports to-day."--Scott.

The ancient amusement of shooting the Christmas turkey is one of the few sports that the settlers of a new country seldom or never neglect to observe. It was connected with the daily practices of a people who often laid aside the axe or the scythe to seize the rifle, as the deer glided through the forests they were felling, or the bear entered their rough meadows to scent the air of a clearing, and to scan, with a look of sagacity, the progress of the invader.

On the present occasion, the usual amusement of the day had been a little hastned, in order to allow a fair opportunity to Mr. Grant, whose exhibition was not less a treat to the young sportsmen than the one which engaged their present attention. The owner of the birds was a free black, who had prepared for the occasion a collection of game that was admirably qualified to inflame the appetite of an epicure, and was well adapted to the means and skill of the different competitors, who were of all ages. He had offered to the younger and more humble marks men divers birds of an inferior quality, and some shooting had already taken place, much to the pecuniary advantage of the sable owner of the game. The order of the sports was extremely simple, and well understood. The bird was fastened by a string to the stump of a large pine, the side of which, toward the point where the marksmen were placed, had been flattened with an axe, in order that it might serve the purpose of a target, by which the merit of each individual might be ascertained. The distance between the stump and shooting-stand was one hundred measured yards; a foot more or a foot less being thought an invasion of the right of one of the parties. The negro affixed his own price to every bird, and the terms of the chance; but, when these were once established, he was obliged, by the strict principles of public justice that prevailed in the country, to admit any adventurer who might offer.

The throng consisted of some twenty or thirty young men, most of whom had rifles, and a collection of all the boys in the village. The little urchins, clad in coarse but warm garments, stood gathered around the more distinguished marksmen, with their hands stuck under their waistbands, listening eagerly to the boastful stories of skill that had been exhibited on former occasions, and were already emulating in their hearts these wonderful deeds in gunnery.

The chief speaker was the man who had been mentioned by Natty as Billy Kirby. This fellow, whose occupation, when he did labor, was that of clearing lands, or chopping jobs, was of great stature, and carried in his very air the index of his character. He was a noisy, boisterous, reckless lad, whose good-natured eye contradicted the bluntness and bullying tenor of his speech. For weeks he would lounge around the taverns of the county, in a state of perfect idleness, or doing small jobs for his liquor and his meals, and cavilling with applicants about the prices of his labor; frequently preferring idleness to an abatement of a little of his independence, or a cent in his wages. But, when these embarrassing points were satisfactorily arranged, he would shoulder his axe and his rifle, slip his arms through the straps of his pack, and enter the woods with the tread of a Hercules. His first object was to learn his limits, round which he would pace, occasionally freshening, with a blow of his axe, the marks on the boundary trees; and then he would proceed, with an air of great deliberation, to the centre of his premises, and, throwing aside his superfluous garments, measure, with a knowing eye, one or two of the nearest trees that were towering apparently into the very clouds as he gazed upward. Commonly selecting one of the most noble for the first trial of his power, he would approach it with a listless air, whistling a low tune; and wielding his axe with a certain flourish, not unlike the salutes of a fencing-master, he would strike a light blow into the bark, and measure his distance. The pause that followed was ominous of the fall of the forest which had flourished there for centuries. The heavy and brisk blows that he struck were soon succeeded by the thundering report of the tree, as it came, first cracking and threatening with the separation of its own last ligaments, then threshing and tearing with its branches the tops of its surrounding brethren, and finally meeting the ground with a shock but little inferior to an earthquake. From that moment the sounds of the axe were ceaseless, while the failing of the trees was like a distant cannonading; and the daylight broke into the depths of the woods with the suddenness of a winter morning.

For days, weeks, nay months, Billy Kirby would toil with an ardor that evinced his native spirit, and with an effect that seemed magical, until, his chopping being ended, his stentorian lungs could be heard emitting sounds, as he called to his patient oxen, which rang through the hills like the cries of an alarm. He had been often heard, on a mild summer evening, a long mile across the vale of Templeton; when the echoes from the mountains would take up his cries, until they died away in the feeble sounds from the distant rocks that overhung the lake. His piles, or, to use the language of the country, his logging ended, with a dispatch that could only accompany his dexterity and herculean strength, the jobber would collect together his implements of labor, light the heaps of timber, and march away under the blaze of the prostrate forest, like the conqueror of some city who, having first prevailed over his adversary, applies the torch as the finishing blow to his conquest. For a long time Billy Kirby would then be seen sauntering around the taverns, the rider of scrub races, the bully of cock-fights, and not infrequently the hero of such sports as the one in hand.

Between him and the Leather-Stocking there had long existed a jealous rivalry on the point of skill with the rifle. Notwithstanding the long practice of Natty, it was commonly supposed that the steady nerves and the quick eye of the wood-chopper rendered him his equal. The competition had, however, been confined hitherto to boasting, and comparisons made from their success in various hunting excursions; but this was the first time they had ever come in open collision. A good deal of higgling about the price of the choicest bird had taken place between Billy Kirby and its owner before Natty and his companions rejoined the sportsmen It had, however, been settled at one shilling * a shot, which was the highest sum ever exacted, the black taking care to protect himself from losses, as much as possible, by the conditions of the sport.

* Before the Revolution, each province had its own money of account though neither coined any but copper pieces. In New York the Spanish dollar was divided into eight shillings, each of the value of a fraction more than sixpence sterling. At present the Union has provided a decimal system, with coins to represent it.

The turkey was already fastened at the "mark," hut its body was entirely hid by the surrounding snow, nothing being visible but its red swelling head and its long neck. If the bird was injured by any bullet that struck below the snow, it was to continue the property of its present owner; but if a feather was touched in a visible part, the animal became the prize of the successful adventurer.

These terms were loudly proclaimed by the negro, who was seated in the snow, in a somewhat hazardous vicinity to his favorite bird, when Elizabeth and her cousin approached the noisy sportsmen. The sounds of mirth and contention sensibly lowered at this unexpected visit; but, after a moments pause, the curious interest exhibited in the face of the young lady, together with her smiling air, restored the freedom of the morning; though it was somewhat chastened, both in language and vehemence, by the presence of such a spectator.

"Stand out of the way there, boys!" cried the wood-chopper, who was placing himself at the shooting-point-- stand out of the way, you little rascals, or I will shoot through you. Now, Brom, take leave of your turkey." Stop!" cried the young hunter; "I am a candidate for a chance. Here is my shilling, Brom; I wish a shot too." You may wish it in welcome," cried Kirby, "but if I ruffle the gobblers feathers, how are you to get it? Is money so plenty in your deer-skin pocket, that you pay for a chance that you may never have?"

"How know you, sir, how plenty money is in my pocket?" said the youth fiercely. "Here is my shilling, Brom, and I claim a right to shoot."

"Don't be crabbed, my boy," said the other, who was very coolly fixing his flint. "They say you have a hole in your left shoulder yourself, so I think Brom may give you a fire for half-price. It will take a keen one to hit that bird, I can tell you, my lad, even if I give you a chance, which is what I have no mind to do."

"Dont be boasting, Billy Kirby," said Natty, throwing the breech of his rifle into the snow, and leaning on its barrel; "youll get but one shot at the creatur, for if the lad misses his aim, which wouldnt be a wonder if he did, with his arm so stiff and sore, youll find a good piece and an old eye coming ater you. Maybe its true that I cant shoot as I used to could, but a hundred yards is a short distance for a long rifle."

"What, old Leather-Stocking, are you out this morning?" cried his reckless opponent. "Well, fair plays a jewel. Ive the lead of you, old fellow; so here goes for a dry throat or a good dinner."

The countenance of the negro evinced not only all the interest which his pecuniary adventure might occasion, but also the keen excitement that the sport produced in the others, though with a very different wish as to the result. While the wood-chopper was slowly and steadily raising his rifle, he bawled;

"Fair play, Billy Kirby--stand back--make em stand back, boys--gib a nigger fair play--poss-up, - gobbler; shake a head, fool; dont you see em taking aim?"

These cries, which were intended as much to distract the attention of the marksman as for anything else, were fruitless.

The nerves of the wood-chopper were not so easily shaken, and he took his aim with the utmost deliberation. Stillness prevailed for a moment, and he fired. The head of the turkey was seen to dash on one side, and its wings were spread in momentary fluttering; but it settled itself down calmly into its bed of snow, and glanced its eyes uneasily around. For a time long enough to draw a deep breath, not a sound was heard. The silence was then broken by the noise of the negro, who laughed, and shook his body with all kinds of antics, rolling over in the snow in the excess of delight.

"Well done, a gobbler," be cried, jumping up and affecting to embrace his bird; "I tell em to poss-up, and you see em dodge. Gib anoder shillin, Billy, and halb anoder shot."

"No--the shot is mine," said the young hunter; "you have my money already. Leave the mark, and let me try my luck."

"Ah! its but money thrown away, lad," said Leather-Stocking. "A turkeys head and neck is but a small mark for a new hand and a lame shoulder. Youd best let me take the fire, and maybe we can make some settlement with the lady about the bird." The chance is mine," said the young hunter. "Clear the ground, that I may take it."

The discussions and disputes concerning the last shot were now abating, it having been determined that if the turkeys head had been anywhere but just where it was at that moment, the bird must certainly have been killed. There was not much excitement produced by the preparations of the youth, who proceeded in a hurried manner to take his aim, and was in the act of pulling the trigger, when he was stopped by Natty.

"Your hand shakes, lad," he said, "and you seem over eager. Bullet- wounds are apt to weaken flesh, and to my judgment youll not shoot so well as in common. If you will fire, you should shoot quick, before there is time to shake off the aim."

"Fair play," again shouted the negro; "fair play--gib a nigger fair play. What right a Nat Bumppo advise a young man? Let em shoot--clear a ground."

The youth fired with great rapidity, but no motion was made by the turkey; and, when the examiners for the ball returned from the "mark," they declared that he had missed the stump.

Elizabeth observed the change in his countenance, and could not help feeling surprise that one so evidently superior to his companions should feel a trifling loss so sensibly. But her own champion was now preparing to enter the lists.

The mirth of Brom, which had been again excited, though in a much smaller degree than before, by the failure of the second adventurer, vanished the instant Natty took his stand. His skin became mottled with large brown spots, that fearfully sullied the lustre of his native ebony, while his enormous lips gradually compressed around two rows of ivory that had hitherto been shining in his visage like pearls set in jet. His nostrils, at all times the most conspicuous feature of his face, dilated until they covered the greater part of the diameter of his countenance; while his brown and bony hands unconsciously grasped the snow-crust near him, the excitement of the moment completely overcoming his native dread of cold.

While these indications of apprehension were exhibited in the sable owner of the turkey, the man who gave rise to this extraordinary emotion was as calm and collected as if there was not to be a single spectator of his skill.

"I was down in the Dutch settlements on the Schoharie," said Natty, carefully removing the leather guard from the lock of his rifle, "just before the breaking out of the last war, and there was a shooting- match among the boys; so I took a hand. I think I opened a good many Dutch eyes that day; for I won the powder-horn, three bars of lead, and a pound of as good powder as ever flashed in pan. Lord! how they did swear in Jarman! They did tell me of one drunken Dutchman who said hed have the life of me before I got back to the lake agin. But if he had put his rifle to his shoulder with evil intent God would have punished him for it; and even if the Lord didnt, and he had missed his aim, I know one that would have given him as good as he sent, and better too, if good shooting could come into the count." By this time the old hunter was ready for his business, and throwing his right leg far behind him, and stretching his left arm along the barrel of his piece, he raised it toward the bird, Every eye glanced rapidly from the marks man to the mark; but at the moment when each ear was expecting the report of the rifle, they were disappointed by the ticking sound of the flint.

"A snap, a snap!" shouted the negro, springing from his crouching posture like a madman, before his bird. A snap good as fire--Natty Bumppo gun he snap--Natty Bumppo miss a turkey!"

Natty Bumppo hit a nigger," said the indignant old hunter, "if you dont get out of the way, Brom. Its contrary to the reason of the thing, boy, that a snap should count for a fire, when one is nothing more than a fire-stone striking a steel pan, and the other is sudden death; so get out of my way, boy, and let me show Billy Kirby how to shoot a Christmas turkey."

"Gib a nigger fair play!" cried the black, who continued resolutely to maintain his post, and making that appeal to the justice of his auditors which the degraded condition of his caste so naturally suggested. "Eberybody know dat snap as good as fire. Leab it to Massa Jone--leab it to lady."

"Sartain," said the wood-chopper; "its the law of the game in this part of the country, Leather-Stocking. If you fire agin you must pay up the other shilling. I blieve Ill try luck once more myself; so, Brom, heres my money, and I take the next fire."

"Its likely you know the laws of the woods better than I do, Billy Kirby," returned Natty. "You come in with the settlers, with an ox- goad in your hand, and I come in with moccasins on my feet, and with a good rifle on my shoulders, so long back as afore the old war. Which is likely to know the best? I say no man need tell me that snapping is as good as firing when I pull the trigger."

"Leab it to Massa Jone," said the alarmed negro; "he know eberyting." This appeal to the knowledge of Richard was too flattering to be unheeded. He therefore advanced a little from the spot whither the delicacy of Elizabeth had induced her to withdraw, and gave the following opinion, with the gravity that the subject and his own rank demanded:

"There seems to be a difference in opinion," he said, "on the subject of Nathaniel Bumppos right to shoot at Abraham Freeborns turkey without the said Nathaniel paying one shilling for the privilege." The fact was too evident to be denied, and after pausing a moment, that the audience might digest his premises, Richard proceeded: "It seems proper that I should decide this question, as I am bound to preserve the peace of the county; and men with deadly weapons in their hands should not be heedlessly left to contention and their own malignant passions. It appears that there was no agreement, either in writing or in words, on the disputed point; therefore we must reason from analogy, which is, as it were, comparing one thing with another. Now, in duels, where both parties shoot, it is generally the rule that a snap is a fire; and if such is the rule where the party has a right to fire back again, it seems to me unreasonable to say that a man may stand snapping at a defenceless turkey all day. I therefore am of the opinion that Nathaniel Bumppo has lost his chance, and must pay another shilling before he renews his right."

As this opinion came from so high a quarter, and was delivered with effect, it silenced all murmurs--for the whole of the spectators had begun to take sides with great warmth--except from the Leather- Stocking himself.

"I think Miss Elizabeths thoughts should be taken," said Natty. "Ive known the squaws give very good counsel when the Indians had been dumfounded. If she says that I ought to lose, I agree to give it up."

"Then I adjudge you to be a loser for this time," said Miss Temple; "but pay your money and renew your chance; unless Brom will sell me the bird for a dollar. I will give him the money, and save the life of the poor victim."

This proposition was evidently but little relished by any of the listeners, even the negro feeling the evil excitement of the chances. In the mean while, as Billy Kirby was preparing himself for another shot, Natty left the stand, with an extremely dissatisfied manner, muttering:

"There hasnt been such a thing as a good flint sold at the foot of the lake since the Indian traders used to come into the country; and, if a body should go into the flats along the streams in the hills to hunt for such a thing, its ten to one but they will be all covered up with the plough. Heigho! it seems to me that just as the game grows scarce, and a body wants the best ammunition to get a livelihood, everything thats bad falls on him like a judgment. But Ill change the stone, for Billy Kirby hasnt the eye for such a mark, I know."

The wood-chopper seemed now entirely sensible that his reputation depended on his care; nor did he neglect any means to insure success. He drew up his rifle, and renewed his aim again and again, still appearing reluctant to fire, No sound was heard from even Brom, during these portentous movements, until Kirby discharged his piece, with the same want of success as before. Then, indeed, the shouts of the negro rang through the bushes and sounded among the trees of the neighboring forest like the outcries of a tribe of Indians. He laughed, rolling his head first on one side, then on the other, until nature seemed exhausted with mirth. He danced until his legs were wearied with motion in the snow; and, in short, he exhibited all that violence of joy that characterizes the mirth of a thoughtless negro.

The wood-chopper had exerted all his art, and felt a proportionate degree of disappointment at the failure. He first examined the bird with the utmost attention, and more than once suggested that he had touched its feathers; but the voice of the multitude was against him, for it felt disposed to listen to the often-repeated cries of the black to "gib a nigger fair play."

Finding it impossible to make out a title to the bird, Kirby turned fiercely to the black and said:

"Shut your oven, you crow! Where is the man that can hit a turkeys head at a hundred yards? I was a fool for trying. You neednt make an uproar like a falling pine-tree about it. Show me the man who can do it."

"Look this a-way, Billy Kirby," said Leather-Stocking, and let them clear the mark, and Ill show you a man whos made better shots afore now, and that when hes been hard pressed by the savages and wild beasts,"

"Perhaps there is one whose rights come before ours, Leather- Stocking," said Miss Temple. "If so, we will waive our privilege."

"If it be me that you have reference to," said the young hunter, "I shall decline another chance. My shoulder is yet weak, I find."

Elizabeth regarded his manner, and thought that she could discern a tinge on his cheek that spoke the shame of conscious poverty. She said no more, but suffered her own champion to make a trial. Although Natty Bumppo had certainly made hundreds of more momentous shots at his enemies or his game, yet he never exerted himself more to excel. He raised his piece three several times: once to get his range; once to calculate his distance; and once because the bird, alarmed by the death-like stillness, turned its head quickly to examine its foes. But the fourth time he fired. The smoke, the report, and the momentary shock prevented most of the spectators from instantly knowing the result; but Elizabeth, when she saw her champion drop the end of his rifle in the snow and open his mouth in one of its silent laughs, and then proceed very coolly to recharge his piece, knew that he had been successful. The boys rushed to the mark, and lifted the turkey on high, lifeless, and with nothing but the remnant of a head. "Bring in the creatur," said Leather-Stocking, "and put it at the feet of the lady. I was her deputy in the matter, and the bird is her property."

"And a good deputy you have proved yourself," returned Elizabeth--" so good, Cousin Richard, that I would advise you to remember his qualities." She paused, and the gayety that beamed on her face gave place to a more serious earnestness. She even blushed a little as she turned to the young hunter, and with the charm of a womans manner added: "But it was only to see an exhibition of the far-famed skill of Leather-Stocking, that I tried my fortunes. Will you, sir, accept the bird as a small peace offering for the hurt that prevented your own success?"

The expression with which the youth received this present was indescribable, He appeared to yield to the blandishment of her air, in opposition to a strong inward impulse to the contrary. He bowed, and raised the victim silently from her feet, but continued silent.

Elizabeth handed the black a piece of silver as a remuneration for his loss, which had some effect in again unbending his muscles, and then expressed to her companion her readiness to return homeward.

"Wait a minute, Cousin Bess," cried Richard; "there is an uncertainty about the rules of this sport that it is proper I should remove. If you will appoint a committee, gentlemen, to wait on me this morning, I will draw up in writing a set of regulations-- He stopped, with some indignation, for at that instant a hand was laid familiarly on the shoulder of the High Sheriff of --.

"A merry Christmas to you, Cousin Dickon," said Judge Temple, who had approached the party unperceived: "I must have a vigilant eye to my daughter, sir, if you are to be seized daily with these gallant fits. I admire the taste which would introduce a lady to such scenes!"

"It is her own perversity, Duke," cried the disappointed sheriff, who felt the loss of the first salutation as grievously as many a man would a much greater misfortune; "and I must say that she comes honestly by it. I led her out to show her the improvements, but away she scampered, through the snow, at the first sound of fire-arms, the same as if she had been brought up in a camp, instead of a first-rate boarding-school. I do think, Judge Temple, that such dangerous amusements should be suppressed, by statute; nay, I doubt whether they are not already indict able at common law."

"Well, sir, as you are sheriff of the county, it becomes your duty to examine into the matter," returned the smiling Marmaduke, "I perceive that Bess has executed her commission, and I hope it met with a favorable reception." Richard glanced his eye at the packet which he held in his hand, and the slight anger produced by disappointment vanished instantly.

"Ah! Duke, my dear cousin," he said, "step a little on one side; I have something I would say to you."

Marmaduke complied, and the sheriff led him to a little distance in the bushes, and continued: "First, Duke, let me thank you for your friendly interest with the Council and the Governor, without which I am confident that the greatest merit would avail but little. But we are sisters children--we are sisters children, and you may use me like one of your horses; ride me or drive me, Duke, I am wholly yours. But in my humble opinion, this young companion of Leather- Stocking requires looking after. He has a very dangerous propensity for turkey."

"Leave him to my management, Dickon," said the Judge, "and I will cure his appetite by indulgence. It is with him that I would speak. Let us rejoin the sportsmen."

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