The Pioneers/Chapter 39

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The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
Chapter 39

CHAPTER XXXIX.[edit]

(Volume 2, Chapter 20)

Selictar! unsheathe then our chief’s scimetar;
Tambourgi! thy 'larum gives promise of war;
Ye mountains! that see us descend to the shore,
Shall view us as victors, or view us no more." — Byron.

THE heavy showers that prevailed during the remainder of the day completely stopped the progress of the flames; though glimmering fires were observed during the night, on different parts of the hill, wherever there was a collection of fuel to feed the element. The next day the woods for many miles were black and smoking, and were stripped of every vestige of brush and dead wood; but the pines and hemlocks still reared their heads proudly among the hills, and even the smaller trees of the forest retained a feeble appearance of life and vegetation.

    The many tongues of rumor [rumour] were busy in exaggerating the miraculous escape of Elizabeth; and a report was generally credited, that Mohegan had actually perished in the flames. This belief became confirmed, and was indeed rendered probable, when the direful intelligence reached the village that Jotham Riddel, the miner, was found in his hole, nearly dead with suffocation, and burnt to such a degree that no hopes were entertained of his life.

    The public attention became much alive to the events of the last few days, and just at this crisis, the convicted counterfeiters took the hint from Natty, and, on the night succeeding the fire, found means to cut through their log prison also, and to escape unpunished. When this news began to circulate through the village, blended with the fate of Jotham, and the exaggerated and tortured reports of the events on the hill, the popular opinion was freely expressed, as to the propriety of seizing such of the fugitives as remained within reach. Men talked of the cave as a secret receptacle of guilt; and, as the rumor [rumour] of ores and metals found its way into the confused medley of conjectures, counterfeiting, and everything else that was wicked and dangerous to the peace of society, suggested themselves to the busy fancies of the populace.

    While the public mind was in this feverish state, it was hinted that the wood had been set on fire by Edwards and the Leather-Stocking, and that, consequently, they alone were responsible for the damages. This opinion soon gained ground, being most circulated by those who, by their own heedlessness, had caused the evil; and there was one irresistible burst of the common sentiment that an attempt should he made to punish the offenders. Richard was by no means deaf to this appeal, and by noon he set about in earnest to see the laws executed.

    Several stout young men were selected, and taken apart with an appearance of secrecy, where they received some important charge from the sheriff, immediately under the eyes, but far removed from the ears, of all in the village. Possessed of a knowledge of their duty, these youths hurried into the hills, with a bustling manner, as if the fate of the world depended on their diligence, and, at the same time, with an air of mystery as great as if they were engaged on secret matters of the state.

    At twelve precisely a drum beat the "long roll" before the "Bold Dragoon," and Richard appeared, accompanied by Captain Hollister, who was clad in his vestments as commander of the "Templeton Light-Infantry," when the former demanded of the latter the aid of the posse comitatus in enforcing the laws of the country. We have not room to record the speeches of the two gentlemen on this occasion, but they are preserved in the columns of the little blue newspaper, which is yet to be found on the file, and are said to be highly creditable to the legal formula of one of the parties, and to the military precision of the other. Everything had been previously arranged, and, as the red-coated drummer continued to roll out his clattering notes, some five-and-twenty privates appeared in the ranks, and arranged themselves in the order of battle.

    As this corps was composed of volunteers, and was commanded by a man who had passed the first five-and-thirty years of his life in camps and garrisons, it was the non-parallel [nonpareil] of military science in that country, and was confidently pronounced by the judicious part of the Templeton community, to be equal in skill and appearance to any troops in the known world; in physical endowments they were, certainly, much superior! To this assertion there were but three dissenting voices, and one dissenting opinion. The opinion belonged to Marmaduke, who, however, saw no necessity for its promulgation. Of the voices, one, and that a pretty loud one’, came from the spouse of the commander himself, who frequently reproached her husband for condescending to lead such an irregular band of warriors, after he had filled the honorable station of sergeant-major to a dashing corps of Virginia cavalry through much of the recent war.

    Another of these skeptical sentiments was invariably expressed by Mr. Pump, whenever the company paraded, generally in some such terms as these, which were uttered with that sort of meekness that a native of the island of our forefathers is apt to assume when he condescends to praise the customs or character of her truant progeny:

    "It's mayhap that they knows sum'mat about loading and firing, d'ye see; but as for working ship? why, a corporal’s guard of the Boadishey's marines would back and fill on their quarters in such a manner as to surround and captivate them all in half a glass." As there was no one to deny this assertion, the marines of the Boadicea were held in a corresponding degree of estimation.

    The third unbeliever was Monsieur Le Quoi, who merely whispered to the sheriff, that the corps was one of the finest he had ever seen second only to the Mousquetaires of Le Boa Louis! However, as Mrs. Hollister thought there was something like actual service in the present appearances, and was, in consequence, too busily engaged with certain preparations of her own, to make her comments; as Benjamin was absent, and Monsieur Le Quoi too happy to find fault with anything, the corps escaped criticism and comparison altogether on this momentous day, when they certainly had greater need of self-confidence than on any other previous occasion. Marmaduke was said to be again closeted with Mr. Van der School and no interruption was offered to the movements of the troops. At two o’clock precisely the corps shouldered arms, beginning on the right wing, next to the veteran, and carrying the motion through to the left with great regularity. When each musket was quietly fixed in its proper situation, the order was given to wheel to the left, and march. As this was bringing raw troops, at once, to face their enemy, it is not to be supposed that the manoeuver was executed with their usual accuracy; but as the music struck up the inspiring air of Yankee-doodle, and Richard, accompanied by Mr. Doolittle preceded the troops boldly down the street, Captain Hollister led on, with his head elevated to forty-five degrees, with a little, low cocked hat perched on his crown, carrying a tremendous dragoon sabre at a poise, and trailing at his heels a huge steel scabbard, that had war in its very clattering. There was a good deal of difficulty in getting all the platoons (there were six) to look the same way; but, by the time they reached the defile of the bridge, the troops were in sufficiently compact order. In this manner they marched up the hill to the summit of the mountain, no other alteration taking place in the disposition of the forces, excepting that a mutual complaint was made, by the sheriff and the magistrate, of a failure in wind, which gradually brought these gentlemen to the rear. It will be unnecessary to detail the minute movements that succeeded. We shall briefly say, that the scouts came in and reported, that, so far from retreating, as had been anticipated, the fugitives had evidently gained a knowledge of the attack, and were fortifying for a desperate resistance. This intelligence certainly made a material change, not only in the plans of the leaders, but in the countenances of the soldiery also. The men looked at one another with serious faces, and Hiram and Richard began to consult together, apart.

    At this conjuncture, they were joined by Billy Kirby, who came along the highway, with his axe under his arm, as much in advance of his team as Captain Hollister had been of his troops in the ascent. The wood-chopper was amazed at the military array, but the sheriff eagerly availed himself of this powerful reinforcement, and commanded his assistance in putting the laws in force. Billy held Mr. Jones in too much deference to object; and it was finally arranged that he should be the bearer of a summons to the garrison to surrender before they proceeded to extremities. The troops now divided, one party being led by the captain, over the Vision, and were brought in on the left of the cave, while the remainder advanced upon its right, under the orders of the lieutenant. Mr. Jones and Dr. Todd — for the surgeon was in attendance also — appeared on the platform of rock, immediately over the heads of the garrison, though out of their sight. Hiram thought this approaching too near, and he therefore accompanied Kirby along the side of the hill to within a safe distance of the fortifications, where he took shelter behind a tree. Most of the men discovered great accuracy of eye in bringing some object in range between them and their enemy, and the only two of the besiegers, who were left in plain sight of the besieged, were Captain Hollister on one side, and the wood-chopper on the other. The veteran stood up boldly to the front, supporting his heavy sword in one undeviating position, with his eye fixed firmly on his enemy, while the huge form of Billy was placed in that kind of quiet repose, with either hand thrust into his bosom, bearing his axe under his right arm, which permitted him, like his own oxen, to rest standing. So far, not a word had been exchanged between the belligerents. The besieged had drawn together a pile of black logs and branches of trees, which they had formed into a chevaux-de- frise, making a little circular abatis in front of the entrance to the cave. As the ground was steep and slippery in every direction around the place, and Benjamin appeared behind the works on one side, and Natty on the other, the arrangement was by no means contemptible, especially as the front was sufficiently guarded by the difficulty of the approach. By this time, Kirby had received his orders, and he advanced coolly along the mountain, picking his way with the same indifference as if he were pursuing his ordinary business. When he was within a hundred feet of the works, the long and much-dreaded rifle of the Leather-Stocking was seen issuing from the parapet, and his voice cried aloud:

    "Keep off! Billy Kirby, keep off! I wish ye no harm; but if a man of ye all comes a step nigher, there’ll be blood spilt atwixt us. God forgive the one that draws it first, but so it must be."

    "Come, old chap," said Billy, good-naturedly, "don't be crabb'd, but hear what a man has got to say I've no consarn in the business, only to see right 'twixt man and man; and I don't kear the valie of a beetle-ring which gets the better; but there's Squire Doolittle, yonder behind the beech sapling, he has invited me to come in and ask you to give up to the law — that's all."

    "I see the varmint! I see his clothes!" cried the indignant Natty: "and if he'll only show so much flesh as will bury a rifle bullet, thirty to the pound, I’ll make him feel me. Go away, Billy, I bid ye; you know my aim, and I bear you no malice."

    "You over-calculate your aim, Natty," said the other, as he stepped behind a pine that stood near him, "if you think to shoot a man through a tree with a three-foot butt. I can lay this tree right across you in ten minutes by any man's watch, and in less time, too; so be civil — I want no more than what’s right."

    There was a simple seriousness in the countenance of Natty, that showed he was much in earnest; but it was also evident that he was reluctant to shed human blood. He answered the taunt of the wood-chopper, by saying:

    "I know you drop a tree where you will, Billy Kirby; but if you show a hand, or an arm, in doing it, there’ll be bones to be set, and blood to staunch. If it's only to get into the cave that ye want, wait till a two hours' sun, and you may enter it in welcome; but come in now you shall not. There's one dead body already, lying on the cold rocks, and there's another in which the life can hardly be said to stay. If you will come in, there’ll be dead without as well as within."

    The wood-chopper stepped out fearlessly from his cover, and cried:

    "That's fair; and what's fair is right. He wants you to stop till it's two hours to sundown; and I see reason in the thing. A man can give up when he's wrong, if you don't crowd him too hard; but you crowd a man, and he gets to be like a stubborn ox — the more you beat, the worse he kicks."

    The sturdy notions of independence maintained by Billy neither suited the emergency nor the impatience of Mr. Jones, who was burning with a desire to examine the hidden mysteries of the cave. He therefore interrupted this amicable dialogue with his own voice;

    "I command you Nathaniel Bumppo, by my authority, to surrender your person to the law," he cried. "And I command you, gentlemen, to aid me in performing my duty. Benjamin Penguillan I arrest you, and order you to follow me to the jail of the county, by virtue of this warrant."

    "I'd follow ye, Squire Dickens," said Benjamin, removing the pipe from his month (for during the whole scene the ex-major-domo had been very composedly smoking); ay! I'd sail in your wake, to the end of the world, if-so-be that there was such a place, where there isn't, seeing that it's round. Now mayhap, Master Hollister, having lived all your life on shore, you isn’t acquainted that the world, d'ye see"

    "Surrender!" interrupted the veteran, in a voice that startled his hearers, and which actually caused his own forces to recoil several paces; "surrender, Benjamin Pengullan, or expect no quarter."

    "Damn your quarter!" said Benjamin, rising from the log on which he was seated, and taking a squint along the barrel of the swivel, which had been brought on the hill during the night, and now formed the means of defence on his side of the works. "Look you, master or captain, thof I questions if ye know the name of a rope, except the one that’s to hang ye, there’s no need of singing out, as if ye was hailing a deaf man on a topgallant yard. May-hap you think you've got my true name in your sheep skin; but what British sailor finds it worthwhile to sail in these seas, without a sham on his stern, in case of need, d'ye see. If you call me Penguillan, you calls me by the name of the man on whose hand, dye see, I hove into daylight; and he was a gentleman; and that’s more than my worst enemy will say of any of the family of Benjamin Stubbs."

    "Send the warrant round to me, and I’ll put in an alias," cried Hiram, from behind his cover.

    "Put in a jackass, and you’ll put in yourself, Mister Doo-but-little," shouted Benjamin, who kept squinting along his little iron tube, with great steadiness.

    "I give you but one moment to yield," cried Richard. "Benjamin! Benjamin! this is not the gratitude I expected from you."

    "I tell you, Richard Jones," said Natty, who dreaded the sheriff’s influence over his comrade; "though the canister the gal brought be lost, there’s powder enough in the cave to lift the rock you stand on. I’ll take off my roof if you don’t hold your peace."

    "I think it beneath the dignity of my office to parley further with the prisoners," the sheriff observer to his companion, while they both retired with a precipitancy that Captain Hollister mistook for the signal to advance.

    "Charge baggonet!" shouted the veteran; "march!"

    Although this signal was certainly expected, it took the assailed a little by surprise, and the veteran approached the works, crying, "Courage, my brave lads! give them no quarter unless they surrender;" and struck a furious blow upward with his sabre, that would have divided the steward into moieties by subjecting him to the process of decapitation, but for the fortunate interference of the muzzle of the swivel. As it was, the gun was dismounted at the critical moment that Benjamin was applying his pipe to the priming, and in consequence some five or six dozen of rifle bullets were projected into the air, in nearly a perpendicular line. Philosophy teaches us that the atmosphere will not retain lead; and two pounds of the metal, moulded into bullets of thirty to the pound, after describing an ellipsis in their journey, returned to the earth rattling among the branches of the trees directly over the heads of the troops stationed in the rear of their captain. Much of the success of an attack, made by irregular soldiers, depends on the direction in which they are first got in motion. In the present instance it was retrograde, and in less than a minute after the bellowing report of the swivel among the rocks and caverns, the whole weight of the attack from the left rested on the prowess of the single arm of the veteran. Benjamin received a severe contusion from the recoil of his gun, which produced a short stupor, during which period the ex-steward was prostrate on the ground. Captain Hollister availed himself of this circumstance to scramble over the breastwork and obtain a footing in the bastion — for such was the nature of the fortress, as connected with the cave. The moment the veteran found himself within the works of his enemy, he rushed to the edge of the fortification, and, waving his sabre over his head, shouted:

    "Victory! come on, my brave boys, the work's our own!"

    All this was perfectly military, and was such an example as a gallant officer was in some measure bound to exhibit to his men but the outcry was the unlucky cause of turning the tide of success. Natty, who had been keeping a vigalent eye on the wood-chopper, and the enemy immediately before him, wheeled at this alarm, and was appalled at beholding his comrade on the ground, and the veteran standing on his own bulwark, giving forth the cry of victory! The muzzle of the long rifle was turned instantly toward the captain. There was a moment when the life of the old soldier was in great jeopardy but the object to shoot at was both too large and too near for the Leather-Stocking, who, instead of pulling his trigger, applied the gun to the rear of his enemy, and by a powerful shove sent him outside of the works with much greater rapidity than he had entered them. The spot on which Captain Hollister alighted was directly in front, where, as his feet touched the ground, so steep and slippery was the side of the mountain, it seemed to recede from under them. His motion was swift, and so irregular as utterly to confuse the faculties of the old soldier. During its continuance, he supposed himself to be mounted, and charging through the ranks of his enemy. At every tree he made a blow, of course, as at a foot-soldier; and just as he was making the cut "St. George" at a half burnt sapling he landed in the highway, and, to his utter amazement, at the feet of his own spouse. When Mrs. Hollister, who was toiling up the hill, followed by at least twenty curious boys, leaning with one hand on the staff with which she ordinarily walked, and bearing in the other an empty bag, witnessed this exploit of her husband, indignation immediately got the better, not only of her religion, but of her philosophy.

    "Why, sargeant! is it flying ye are?" she cried — "that I should live to see a husband of mine turn his hack to an inimy! and such a one! Here I have been telling the b'ys, as we come along, all about the saige of Yorrektown, and how ye was hurted; and how ye'd be acting the same agin the day; and I mate ye retraiting jist as the first gun is fired. Och! I may trow away the bag! for if there’s plunder, 'twill not be the wife of sich as yerself that will be privileged to be getting the same. They do say, too, there is a power of goold and silver in the place — the Lord forgive me for setting my heart on woorldly things; but what falls in the battle, there’s scriptur' for believing, is the just property of the victor."

    "Retreating!" exclaimed the amazed veteran; "where’s my horse? he has been shot under me — I ——"

    "Is the man mad?" interrupted his wife — "devil the horse do ye own, sargeant, and ye’re nothing but a shabby captain of malaishy. Oh! if the ra'al captain was here, tis the other way ye’d be riding, dear, or you would not follow your laider!"

    While this worthy couple were thus discussing events, the battle began to rage more violently than ever above them. When Leather-Stocking saw his enemy fairly under headway, as Benjamin would express it, he gave his attention to the right wing of the assailants. It would have been easy for Kirby, with his powerful frame, to have seized the moment to scale the bastion, and, with his great strength, to have sent both of its defenders in pursuit of the veteran; but hostility appeared to he the passion that the wood-chopper indulged the least in at that moment, for, in a voice that was heard by the retreating left wing, he shouted:

    "Hurrah well done, captain! keep it up! how he handles his bush-hook! he makes nothing of a sapling!" and such other encouraging exclamations to the flying veteran, until, overcome by mirth, the good-natured fellow seated himself on the ground, kicking the earth with delight, and giving vent to peal after peal of laughter.

    Natty stood all this time in a menacing attitude, with his rifle pointed over the breastwork, watching with a quick and cautions eye the least movement of the assailants. The outcry unfortunately tempted the ungovernable curiosity of Hiram to take a peep from behind his cover at the state of the battle. Though this evolution was performed with great caution, in protecting his front, he left, like many a better commander, his rear exposed to the attacks of his enemy. Mr. Doolittle belonged physically to a class of his countrymen, to whom Nature has denied, in their formation, the use of curved lines. Every thing about him was either straight or angular. But his tailor was a woman who worked, like a regimental contractor, by a set of rules that gave the same configuration to the whole human species. Consequently, when Mr. Doolittle leaned forward in the manner described, a loose drapery appeared behind the tree, at which the rifle of Natty was pointed with the quickness of lightning. A less experienced man would have aimed at the flowing robe, which hung like a festoon half-way to the earth; but the Leather-Stocking knew both the man and his female tailor better; and when the smart report of the rifle was heard, Kirby, who watched the whole manoeuvre in breath less expectation. saw the bark fly from the beech and the cloth, at some distance above the loose folds, wave at the same instant. No battery was ever unmasked with more promptitiude than Hiram advanced from behind the tree at this summons.

    He made two or three steps, with great precision, to the front and, placing one hand on the afflicted part, stretched forth the other with a menacing air toward Natty, and cried aloud:

    "Gawl darn ye: this shan’t he settled so easy; I'll follow it up from the 'common pleas' to the 'court of errors.'"

    Such a shocking imprecation, from the mouth of so orderly a man as Squire Doolittle, with the fearless manner in which he exposed himself, together with, perhaps, the knowledge that Natty’s rifle was unloaded, encouraged the troops in the rear, who gave a loud shout, and fired a volley into the tree-tops, after the contents of the swivel. Animated by their own noise, the men now rushed on in earnest; and Billy Kirby, who thought the joke, good as it was, had gone far enough, was in the act of scaling the works, when Judge Temple appeared on the opposite side, exclaiming:

    "Silence and peace! why do I see murder and bloodshed attempted? Is not the law sufficient to protect itself, that armed bands must be gathered, as in rebellion and war, to see justice performed?"

    "'Tis the posse comitatus," shouted the sheriff, from a distant rock, "who —"

    "Say rather a posse of demons. I command the peace."

    "Hold shied not blood!" cried a voice from the top of the Vision. " Hold, for the sake of Heaven, fire no more! all shall be yielded! you shall enter the cave!"

    Amazement produced the desired effect. Natty, who had reloaded his piece, quietly seated himself on the logs, and rested his head on his hands, while the "Light Infantry" ceased their military movements, and waited the issue in suspense.

    In less than a minute Edwards came rushing down the hill, followed by Major Hartman, with a velocity that was surprising for his years. They reached the terrace in an instant, from which the youth led the way, by the hollow in the rock, to the mouth of the cave, into which they both entered, leaving all without silent, and gazing after them with astonishment.


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