"Let my daughter keep her two-tailed hog, to eat when venison is scarce," he drily answered, "and the little gun, which has two muzzles. The Hurons will kill deer when they are hungry, and they have long rifles to fight with. This hunter cannot quit my young men now; they wish to know if he is as stouthearted as he boasts himself to be."
"That I deny, Huron — " interrupted Deerslayer, with warmth — "Yes, that I downright deny, as ag'in truth and reason. No man has heard me boast, and no man shall, though ye flay me alive, and then roast the quivering flesh, with your own infarnal devices and cruelties! I may be humble, and misfortunate, and your prisoner; but I'm no boaster, by my very gifts."
"My young pale-face boasts he is no boaster," returned the crafty chief: "he must be right. I hear a strange bird singing. It has very rich feathers. No Huron ever before saw such feathers! They will be ashamed to go back to their village, and tell their people that they let their prisoner go on account of the song of this strange bird and not be able to give the name of the bird. They do not know how to say whether it is a wren, or a cat bird. This would be a great disgrace; my young men would not be allowed to travel in the woods without taking their mothers with them, to tell them the names of the birds!"
"You can ask my name of your prisoner," returned the girl. "It is Judith; and there is a great deal of the history of Judith in the pale-face's best book, the Bible. If I am a bird of fine feathers, I have also my name."
"No," answered the wily Huron, betraying the artifice he had so long practised, by speaking in English with tolerable accuracy, "I not ask prisoner. He tired; he want rest. I ask my daughter, with feeble mind. She speak truth. Come here, daughter; you answer. Your name, Hetty?"
"Yes, that's what they call me," returned the girl, "though it's written Esther in the Bible."
"He write him in bible, too! All write in bible. No matter — what her name?"
"That's Judith, and it's so written in the Bible, though father sometimes called her Jude. That's my sister Judith. Thomas Hutter's daughter — Thomas Hutter, whom you called the Muskrat; though he was no muskrat, but a man like yourselves — he lived in a house on the water, and that was enough for you."
A smile of triumph gleamed on the hard wrinkled countenance of the chief, when he found how completely his appeal to the truth-loving Hetty had succeeded. As for Judith, herself, the moment her sister was questioned, she saw that all was lost; for no sign, or even intreaty could have induced the right feeling girl to utter a falsehood. To attempt to impose a daughter of the Muskrat on the savages as a princess, or a great lady, she knew would be idle, and she saw her bold and ingenious expedient for liberating the captive fail, through one of the simplest and most natural causes that could be imagined. She turned her eye on Deerslayer, therefore, as if imploring him to interfere to save them both.
"It will not do, Judith," said the young man, in answer to this appeal, which he understood, though he saw its uselessness; "it will not do. 'Twas a bold idea, and fit for a general's lady, but yonder Mingo" Rivenoak had withdrawn to a little distance, and was out of earshot — "but yonder Mingo is an oncommon man, and not to be deceived by any unnat'ral sarcumvention. Things must come afore him in their right order, to draw a cloud afore his eyes! Twas too much to attempt making him fancy that a queen, or a great lady, lived in these mountains, and no doubt he thinks the fine clothes you wear is some of the plunder of your own father — or, at least, of him who once passed for your father; as quite likely it was, if all they say is true."
"At all events, Deerslayer, my presence here will save you for a time. They will hardly attempt torturing you before my face!"
"Why not, Judith? Do you think they will treat a woman of the pale faces more tenderly than they treat their own? It's true that your sex will most likely save you from the torments, but it will not save your liberty, and may not save your scalp. I wish you had not come, my good Judith; it can do no good to me, while it may do great harm to yourself."
"I can share your fate," the girl answered with generous enthusiasm. "They shall not injure you while I stand by, if in my power to prevent it — besides — "
"Besides, what, Judith? What means have you to stop Injin cruelties, or to avart Injin deviltries?"
"None, perhaps, Deerslayer," answered the girl, with firmness, "but I can suffer with my friends — die with them if necessary."
"Ah! Judith — suffer you may; but die you will not, until the Lord's time shall come. It's little likely that one of your sex and beauty will meet with a harder fate than to become the wife of a chief, if, indeed your white inclinations can stoop to match with an Injin. 'Twould have been better had you staid in the Ark, or the castle, but what has been done, is done. You was about to say something, when you stopped at 'besides'?"
"It might not be safe to mention it here, Deerslayer," the girl hurriedly answered, moving past him carelessly, that she might speak in a lower tone; "half an hour is all in all to us. None of your friends are idle."
The hunter replied merely by a grateful look. Then he turned towards his enemies, as if ready again to face their torments. A short consultation had passed among the elders of the band, and by this time they also were prepared with their decision. The merciful purpose of Rivenoak had been much weakened by the artifice of Judith, which, failing of its real object, was likely to produce results the very opposite of those she had anticipated. This was natural; the feeling being aided by the resentment of an Indian who found how near he had been to becoming the dupe of an inexperienced girl. By this time, Judith's real character was fully understood, the wide spread reputation of her beauty contributing to the exposure. As for the unusual attire, it was confounded with the profound mystery of the animals with two tails, and for the moment lost its influence.
When Rivenoak, therefore, faced the captive again, it was with an altered countenance. He had abandoned the wish of saving him, and was no longer disposed to retard the more serious part of the torture. This change of sentiment was, in effect, communicated to the young men, who were already eagerly engaged in making their preparations for the contemplated scene. Fragments of dried wood were rapidly collected near the sapling, the splinters which it was intended to thrust into the flesh of the victim, previously to lighting, were all collected, and the thongs were already produced that were again to bind him to the tree. All this was done in profound silence, Judith watching every movement with breathless expectation, while Deerslayer himself stood seemingly as unmoved as one of the pines of the hills. When the warriors advanced to bind him, however, the young man glanced at Judith, as if to enquire whether resistance or submission were most advisable. By a significant gesture she counselled the last, and, in a minute, he was once more fastened to the tree, a helpless object of any insult, or wrong, that might be offered. So eagerly did every one now act, that nothing was said. The fire was immediately lighted in the pile, and the end of all was anxiously expected.
It was not the intention of the Hurons absolutely to destroy the life of their victim by means of fire. They designed merely to put his physical fortitude to the severest proofs it could endure, short of that extremity. In the end, they fully intended to carry his scalp with them into their village, but it was their wish first to break down his resolution, and to reduce him to the level of a complaining sufferer. With this view, the pile of brush and branches had been placed at a proper distance, or, one at which it was thought the heat would soon become intolerable, though it might not be immediately dangerous. As often happened, however, on these occasions, this distance had been miscalculated, and the flames began to wave their forked tongues in a proximity to the face of the victim, that would have proved fatal, in another instant, had not Hetty rushed through the crowd, armed with a stick, and scattered the blazing pile in a dozen directions. More than one hand was raised to strike this presumptuous intruder to the earth, but the chiefs prevented the blows, by reminding their irritated followers of the state of her mind. Hetty, herself, was insensible to the risk she ran, but, as soon as she had performed this bold act, she stood looking about her, in frowning resentment, as if to rebuke the crowd of attentive savages for their cruelty.
"God bless you, dearest sister, for that brave and ready act!" murmured Judith, herself unnerved so much as to be incapable of exertion — "Heaven, itself, has sent you on its holy errand."
"'Twas well meant, Judith — " rejoined the victim — "'twas excellently meant, and 'twas timely; though it may prove ontimely in the ind! What is to come to pass, must come to pass soon, or 'twill quickly be too late. Had I drawn in one mouthful of that flame in breathing, the power of man could not save my life, and you see that, this time, they've so bound my forehead, as not to leave my head the smallest chance. 'Twas well meant, but it might have been more marciful to let the flames act their part."