"Oft in the full descending flood he tries To lose the scent, and lave his burning sides."--Thomson.
"I knowed it--I knowed it!" cried Natty, when both deer and hounds were in full view; " the buck has gone by them with the wind, and it has been too much for the poor rogues; but I must break them of these tricks, or theyll give me a deal of trouble. He-ere, he-ere--shore. with you, rascals--shore with you--will ye? Oh! off with you, old Hector, or I'll hackle your hide with my ramrod when I get ye."
The dogs knew their masters voice, and after swimming in a circle, as if reluctant to give over the chase, and yet afraid to persevere, they finally obeyed, and returned to the land, where they filled the air with their cries.
In the mean time the deer, urged by his fears, had swum over half the distance between the shore and the boats, before his terror permitted him to see the new danger. But at the sounds of Nattys voice, he turned short in his course and for a few moments seemed about to rush back again, and brave the dogs. His retreat in this direction was, however, effectually cut off, and, turning a second time, he urged his course obliquely for the centre of the lake, with an intention of landing on the western shore. As the buck swam by the fishermen, raising his nose high into the air, curling the water before his slim neck like the beak of a galley, the Leather-Stocking began to sit very uneasy in his canoe.
"Tis a noble creatur!" he exclaimed; "what a pair of horns! a man might hang up all his garments on the branches. Let me see--July is the last month, and the flesh must be getting good." While he was talking, Natty had instinctively employed himself in fastening the inner end of the bark rope, that served him for a cable, to a paddle, and, rising suddenly on his legs, he cast this buoy away. and cried; "Strike out, John! let her go. The creaturs a fool to tempt a man in this way.
Mohegan threw the fastening of the youths boat from the canoe, and with one stroke of his paddle sent the light bark over the water like a meteor.
"Hold!" exclaimed Edwards. " Remember the law, my old friends. You are in plain sight of the village, and I know that Judge Temple is determined to prosecute all, indiscriminately, who kill deer out of season."
The remonstrance came too late; the canoe was already far from the skiff, and the two hunters were too much engaged in the pursuit to listen to his voice.
The buck was now within fifty yards of his pursuers, cutting the water gallantly, and snorting at each breath with terror and his exertions, while the canoe seemed to dance over the waves as it rose and fell with the undulations made by its own motion. Leather-Stocking raised his rifle and freshened the priming, but stood in suspense whether to slay his victim or not.
"Shall I, John or no?" he said. "It seems but a poor advantage to take of the dumb thing, too. I wont; it has taken to the water on its own natur, which is the reason that God has given to a deer, and Ill give it the lake play; so, John, lay out your arm, and mind the turn of the buck; its easy to catch them, but theyll turn like a snake."
The Indian laughed at the conceit of his friend, but continued to send the canoe forward with a velocity that proceeded much more from skill than his strength. Both of the old men now used the language of the Delawares when they spoke.
"Hugh!" exclaimed Mohegan; "the deer turns his head. Hawk-eye, lift your spear."
Natty never moved abroad without taking with him every implement that might, by possibility, be of service in his pursuits. From his rifle he never parted; and although intending to fish with the line, the canoe was invariably furnished with all of its utensils, even to its grate This precaution grew out of the habits of the hunter, who was often led, by his necessities or his sports, far beyond the limits of his original destination. A few years earlier than the date of our tale, the Leather-Stocking had left his hut on the shores of the Otsego, with his rifle and his hounds, for a few days hunting in the hills; but before he returned he had seen the waters of Ontario. One, two, or even three hundred miles had once been nothing to his sinews, which were now a little stiffened by age. The hunter did as Mohegan advised, and prepared to strike a blow with the barbed weapon into the neck of the buck.
"Lay her more to the left, John," he cried, "lay her more to the left; another stroke of the paddle and I have him."
While speaking he raised the spear, and darted it front him like an arrow. At that instant the buck turned, the long pole glanced by him, the iron striking against his horn, and buried itself harmlessly in the lake.
"Back water," cried Natty, as the canoe glided over the place where the spear had fallen; "hold water, John."
The pole soon reappeared, shooting up from the lake, and, as the hunter seized it in his hand, the Indian whirled the light canoe round, and renewed the chase. But this evolution gave the buck a great advantage; and it also allowed time for Edwards to approach the scene of action.
"Hold your hand, Natty!" cried the youth, "hold your hand; remember it is out of season."
This remonstrance was made as the batteau arrived close to the place where the deer was struggling with the water, his back now rising to the surface, now sinking beneath it, as the waves curled from his neck, the animal still sustaining itself nobly against the odds,
"Hurrah!" shouted Edwards, inflamed beyond prudence at the sight; "mind him as he doubles--mind him as he doubles; sheer more to the right, Mohegan, more to the right, and Ill have him by the horns; I'll throw the rope over his antlers."
The dark eye of the old warrior was dancing in his head with a wild animation, and the sluggish repose in which his aged frame had been resting in the canoe was now changed to all the rapid inflections of practiced agility. The canoe whirled with each cunning evolution of the chase, like a bubble floating in a whirlpool; and when the direction of the pursuit admitted of a straight course the little bark skimmed the lake with a velocity that urged the deer to seek its safety in some new turn.
It was the frequency of these circuitous movements that, by confining the action to so small a compass, enabled the youth to keep near his companions. More than twenty times both the pursued and the pursuer glided by him, just without the reach of his oars, until he thought the best way to view the sport was to remain stationary, and, by watching a favorable opportunity, assist as much as he could in taking the victim.
He was not required to wait long, for no sooner had he adopted this resolution, and risen in the boat, than he saw the deer coming bravely toward him, with an apparent intention of pushing for a point of land at some distance from the hounds, who were still barking and howling on the shore. Edwards caught the painter of his skiff, and, making a noose, cast it from him with all his force, and luckily succeeded in drawing its knot close around one of the antlers of the buck.
For one instant the skiff was drawn through the water, but in the next the canoe glided before it, and Natty, bending low, passed his knife across the throat of the animal, whose blood followed the wound, dyeing the waters. The short time that was passed in the last struggles of the animal was spent by the hunters in bringing their boats together and securing them in that position, when Leather- Stocking drew the deer from the water and laid its lifeless form in the bottom of the canoe. He placed his hands on the ribs, and on different parts of the body of his prize, and then, raising his head, he laughed in his peculiar manner.
"So much for Marmaduke Temple's law!" he said, "This warms a bodys blood, old John: I havent killed a buck in the lake afore this, sin many a year. I call that good venison, lad: and I know them that will relish the creaturs steaks for all the betterments in the land."
The Indian had long been drooping with his years, and perhaps under the calamities of his race, but this invigorating and exciting sport caused a gleam of sunshine to cross his swarthy face that had long been absent from his features. it was evident the old man enjoyed the chase more as a memorial of his youthful sports and deeds than with any expectation of profiting by the success. He felt the deer, however, lightly, his hand already trembling with the reaction of his unusual exertions, and smiled with a nod of approbation, as he said, in the emphatic and sententious manner of his people:
"I am afraid, Natty," said Edwards, when the heat of the moment had passed, and his blood began to cool, "that we have all been equally transgressors of the law. But keep your own counsel, and there are none here to betray us. Yet how came those dogs at large? I left them securely fastened, I know, for I felt the thongs and examined the knots when I was at the hunt."
"It has been too much for the poor things," said Natty, "to have such a buck take the wind of them. See, lad, the pieces of the buckskin are hanging from their necks yet. Let us paddle up, John, and I will call them in and look a little into the matter."
When the old hunter landed and examined the thongs that were yet fast to the hounds, his countenance sensibly changed, and he shook his head doubtingly.
"Here has been a knife at work," he said; "this skin was never torn, nor is this the mark of a hounds tooth. No, no--Hector is not in fault, as I feared."
"Has the leather been cut?" cried Edwards.
"No, no--I didnt say it had been cut, lad; but this is a mark that was never made by a jump or a bite."
"Could that rascally carpenter have dared!"
"Ay! he durst do anything when there is no danger," said Natty; "he is a curious body, and loves to be helping other people on with their consarns. But he had best not harbor so much near the wigwam!"
In the mean time, Mohegan had been examining, with an Indians sagacity, the place where the leather thong had been separated. After scrutinizing it closely, he said, in Delaware:
"It was cut with a knife--a sharp blade and a long handle--the man was afraid of the dogs."
"How is this, Mohegan?" exclaimed Edwards; "you saw it not! how can you know these facts?"
"Listen, son," said the warrior. "The knife was sharp, for the cut was smooth; the handle was long, for a mans arm would not reach from this gash to the cut that did not go through the skin; he was a coward, or he would have cut the thongs around the necks of the hounds." On my life," cried Natty, "John is on the scent! It was the carpenter; and he has got on the rock back of the kennel and let the dogs loose by fastening his knife to a stick. It would be an easy matter to do it where a man is so minded."
"And why should he do so?" asked Edwards; "who has done him wrong, that he should trouble two old men like you?"
"Its a hard matter, lad, to know mens ways, I find, since the settlers have brought in their new fashions, But is there nothing to be found out in the place? and maybe he is troubled with his longings after other peoples business, as he often is"
"Your suspicions are just. Give me the canoe; I am young and strong. and will get down there yet, perhaps, in time to interrupt his plans. Heaven forbid that we should be at the mercy of such a man!"
His proposal was accepted, the deer being placed in the skiff in order to lighten the canoe, and in less than five minutes the little vessel of bark was gilding over the glassy lake, and was soon hid by the points of land as it shot close along the shore.
Mohegan followed slowly with the skiff, while Natty called his hounds to him, bade them keep close, and, shouldering his rifle, he ascended the mountain, with an intention of going to the hut by land.