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The Chainbearer; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts By James Fenimore Cooper Characters: 32076

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"O, time and death! with certain pace

Though still unequal, hurrying on,

O'erturning, in your awful race,

The cot, the palace, and the throne!

"Not always in the storm of war,

Nor by the pestilence that sweeps

From the plague-smitten realms afar,

Beyond the old and solemn deeps."

-Sands.

* * *

Besides the house with its walls of stone, however, there were numerous out-buildings. The carriage-house, stables, and home-barn were all of stone also; but a brand thrown into a hay-mow would easily produce a conflagration. The barns, hay-ricks, etc., on the flats, and near the dwelling of Miller, were all of wood, according to the custom of the country, and it was not death to set fire to a barn. The "disguised and armed" who should commit this last offence would incur no other risk than that which had already been incurred in carrying out his desperate plans. I thought of these things for a moment, when I opened a passage through the currant bushes, intending to pass by a breach in the decayed fence into the garden, and thus by a private way to the house. To my astonishment, and in a slight degree to my alarm, a man stood before me the instant I emerged from the thicket.

"Who be-where go-what want?" demanded one of the real redskins, significantly; this being a sentinal of the party, whose vigilance even my guarded approach had not eluded.

I told him who I was, and that I came to seek the interpreter, Manytongues. No sooner was I recognized, than my red friend offered me his hand to shake, American fashion, and seemed satisfied. He asked no question, manifested no curiosity at this visit at an hour so unusual, and took it all as one in ordinary life would receive a call in a morning between the permitted hours of twelve and three. Something had brought me there, he must have known; but what that something was, appeared to give him no concern. This man accompanied me to the house, and pointed to the spot where I should find the person I sought, snoring on his well-shaken bundles of straw.

At the first touch of my finger, Manytongues awoke, and stood erect. He recognized me in an instant, dark as was the room, and touching my arm as a signal to follow, led the way into the open air. After moving out of ear-shot, he stopped and proceeded to business himself, like one accustomed to such interruptions.

"Anything stirring to-night?" demanded this frontier-man, with the coolness of one who was ever ready. "Am I to call my redskins, or is it only a notice that is to be given?"

"Of that you shall judge for yourself. You doubtless know the condition of this part of the country, and the troubles that exist on the subject of the rents paid for the use of the farms. What you saw to-day is a specimen of the scenes that are now constantly acted among us."

"Colonel, I can't say I do rightly understand the state of things down hereaway," drawled out the interpreter, after yawning like a hound, and giving me the most favorite title of the frontiers. "It seems to be neither one thing nor t'other; nuther tomahawk nor law. I can understand both of them, but this half-and-half sort of thing bothers me, and puts me out. You ought to have law, or you hadn't ought; but what you have should be stuck to."

"You mean that you do not find this part of the country either civilized or savage. Not submitting to the laws, nor yet permitting the natural appeal to force?"

"Something of that sort. The agent told me, when I came on with this party of redskins, that I was comin' down into a quarter of the country where there was justices of the peace, and that no man, red or pale, could or should right himself. So we've all on us indivor'd to go by that rule; and I can qualify that not a critter has been shot or scalped since we crossed the Mississippi. Some sich law was necessary among us, as we came from different and hostile tribes, and nothing would be easier than to breed a quarrel among ourselves, if a body was so disposed. But, I must say, that I'm not only disapp'inted myself, but most of my chiefs be dreadfully disapp'inted likewise."

"In what particular have you been most disappointed?"

"In many matters. The first thing that set me athinkin' was to hear folks read them newspapers. The way men talk of each other, in them things, is wonderful, and to me it's a surprise any's left, at the end of the year, to begin the same game the next. Why, Colonel Littlepage--"

"I am no colonel-not even an ensign-you must be confounding me with some other of my family."

"You ought to be, sir, and I shall not do you the injustice to call you by any lower title. I've known gentlemen of not one-quarter your pretensions tarmed gin'rals, out west. I've hunted on the prer-ies these twenty-five years, and have now crossed the upper lakes six times, and know what is due to a gentleman as well as any man. And so, as I was sayin', Colonel Littlepage, was men to talk of each other out on the prer-ies as they print of each other down here among the meetin'-'uses, scalps would be so plenty as to fall considerable in valie. I'm not at all spiteful, but my feelin's has been r'iled at only just hearin' 'em things read, for, as for reading myself, that's a thing I never condescended to. This somewhat prepared me for findin' things different as I got deeper into the settlement, and I've not been disapp'inted so far as them expectations went-it's the old idee that's been crossed."

"I am not astonished to hear this, and agree with you entirely in thinking that the nations which can withstand a press of which the general character is as degraded as that of this country, must be composed of beings of a higher order than man. But, to come to business; you must have some notions of these mock savages, and of the people called anti-renters?"

"Sort o', and sort o' not. I can't understand when a man has agreed to pay rent, why he should not pay it. A bargain is a bargain, and the word of a gentleman is as good as his bond."

"These opinions would surprise some among us, a few legislators included. They appear to think that the moral test of every engagement is whether the parties like it or not."

"One word, if you please, colonel. Do they give in as much to complaints of the owners of the sile as to the complaints of them that hire the land in order to work it?"

"Not at all. The complaints of the landlords would not find a single sympathetic chord in the breast of the softest-hearted politician in America, let them be ever so well-founded. Surely, you, who are a rover on the prairies, can have no great respect for land titles?"

"The prer-ie is the prer-ie, colonel, and men live and act by prer-ie law on prer-ie ground. But right is right, too, colonel, as well as prer-ie is prer-ie; and I like to see it prevail. I do not think you will find a redskin among all the chiefs who are asleep under that roof who will not give his voice again flying from the tarms of a solemn bargain. A man must be well steeped in the ways of the law, I should judge, to bring his mind to such an act."

"Do these red-men, then, know anything of the nature of the difficulties that exist here?"

"They have heard on 'em, and have talked a good deal together on the subject. It's opposyte to the very natur' of an Indian, like, to agree to one thing, and to do another. But, here is a Chippewa, who is on the lookout. I will ask him a question, and you shall hear his answer."

Manytongues now spoke to the sentinel, who was sauntering near. After a brief exchange of questions and answers in the tongue of the latter, the interpreter communicated what had passed.

"This Chippewa has heard somewhere," he said, "that there are folks in this part of the world who get into wigwams, by agreeing to pay rent for them, and, when once in possession, they want to fly from their agreements, and make the man they got it from prove his right to it. Is that true, colonel?"

"It is true, out of all question, and not only do the tenants wish to enact this treachery, but they have found others, that call themselves legislators, who are willing to sustain them in the fraud. It is much as if you should borrow, or hire a rifle for a day's sporting, and when the man who let you have it, came to claim it at night, you should tell him to prove he was the right owner."

"What's that to me? I got the rifle of him; have no right but such as he had; and am bound to stand by my bargain. No, no, colonel; not a redskin on the prer-ies but would revolutionize at that! But what may have brought you here, at this time o' night? Them that sleep in beds, don't like to quit them till mornin' comes to tell 'em to rise."

I then gave Manytongues an account of the visit I had received, without mentioning the name of Opportunity, however, and related the nature of the warning I had heard. The interpreter was in nowise disturbed at this prospect of a collision with the Injins, against whom he had a grudge, not only on account of the little affair of the preceding day, but mainly in consequence of their having brought real savages into discredit, by the craven and clumsy manner in which they had carried out their imitation.

"Nothin' better is to be expected from such critturs," he observed, after we had discussed the matter together, at some little length, "though fire is held to be lawful warfare, even on the prer-ies. For my part, I'm not at all sorry there is something to do; nor will my chiefs be melancholy on this account, for it is dull work to be doing nothing, for months and months at a time, but smoking at councils, making speeches to folks who live by talking, and eating and drinking. Activity is the natur' of a prer-ie man, and he's always glad to pick his flint, after a spell of considerable quiet. I'll tell the Chippewa to step in and bring out the redskins, a'ter which you can give your orders."

"I could wish watchfulness rather than violence. The men can lie in watch, near the principal buildings, and it might be well to have some water ready, to extinguish any flames that may be lighted, before they get too far ahead."

"Just as you say, colonel, for you are my captain-general. But I can tell you how I did once, out on the prer-ies, when I caught a rascal of a Sioux blowing a fire he had kindled at one of my own lodges. I just laid him on the flames, and let him put them out himself by bleeding on them."

"We must have no violence, unless it become indispensable to save the buildings. The law will not justify us in using our arms, except in the least extremity. Prisoners I wish you to take; for they may serve as hostages, besides furnishing examples to intimidate other offenders. I rely on you to give due warning to our red friends on this subject."

The interpreter gave a sort of grunt, but he said nothing. The conversation went no farther, however, just then; for, by this time, the Indians came stealing out of the house, every man of them armed, looking dusky, prepared and full of wariness. Manytongues did not keep them long, but soon told his story. After this, his authority appeared, in a great measure, to cease. Flintyheart was now the most prominent of the party, though Prairiefire, and another warrior, were also connected with the orders given to the rest. I observed that Eaglesflight had no part in these arrangements, which were peculiarly military, though he appeared armed and ready, and went forth on the sudden call, like the rest. In five minutes, the Indians were all off, principally in pairs, leaving the interpreter and myself still standing together, in front of the deserted house.

It was, by this time, past one o'clock, and I thought it probable my enemies would soon appear, if they came that night. Accompanied by the interpreter, I took the way toward the Nest House, it occurring to me that arms might be wanted, in the course of the morning. On quitting my room, the rifle and pistol provided by John had been left there, and I thought of stealing into the house again, obtaining those weapons, extinguish my light, and rejoin my present companion, without giving alarm to any of the sleepers.

This plan was successfully executed, so far as ascending to my room and descending to the door were concerned, but there it met with an interruption. While in the very act of closing the little postern, as we used to call it, by way of pleasantry, I felt a small soft hand laid on the one of my own which was drawing-to the door after me. In an instant I had turned, and was at the side of Mary Warren. I expressed my surprise at finding her still up, and concern lest she might suffer in health, in consequence of so much unusual watchfulness.

"I could not sleep after what has passed to-night," she answered, "without knowing the meaning of all these movements. I have been looking from my window, and saw you assist Opportunity to get on her horse, and afterward walk toward the old farm-house, where the Indians are lodged. Tell me, frankly, Mr. Littlepage, is there any danger to be apprehended?"

"I shall be frank with you, Mary"-how easy and pleasant it was to me to use this gentle familiarity, which might now be assumed without appearing to be presumptuous, under all the circumstances of our intercourse; "I shall be frank with you, Mary; for I know that your prudence and self-command will prevent any unnecessary alarm, while your watchfulness may be of use. There is some reason to fear the brand."

"The brand!"

"So Opportunity has given me reason to suppose; and I do not think she would have ridden the distance she did at such an hour, unless her business were serious. The brand is the proper instrument of the anti-renter, and renders his disguise convenient. I have got all the red-men on the lookout, however; and I do not think that mischief can be done to-night, without its being detected. To-morrow, we can appeal to the authorities for protection."

"I will not sleep this night!" exclaimed Mary, drawing the light shawl she wore, as a protection against the air of that summer-night, more closely around her person, as a sterner being might be supposed to gird on his armor in a moment of peril. "I care not for rest. They ought not, they shall not, Mr. Littlepage, do you this wrong. Have you apprehensions for this house?"

"One never knows. This house is not easily set fire to from without, and I scarcely think there can be any enemy within. The domestics are old and tried, and I do not believe that either of them could be bought. I feel little apprehension, therefore, from any within, while I confess to a good deal from those without. Fire is such a dreadful foe, and one is usually so helpless against its ravages in the country! I will not ask you to retire, for I know you will not-nay, cannot sleep; but, by passing from window to window, for the next hour, or until I rejoin you, your mind will be occupied, and possibly some injury might be prevented. An unseen observer from a window might detect an attempt that would escape those on the watch without."

"I will do so," said Mary, eagerly; "and should I discover anything, I will open a leaf of the shutter of my own room. You can then see the light of the candle within, and by coming at once to this door, you will find me here, ready to let you know my discovery."

With this understanding they parted, but not until I had shaken hands affectionately with this gentle-looking, but really resolute and clear-headed girl. I rejoined Manytongues, who stood in the shadows of the piazza, where there was no possibility of his being seen, except by one quite near his person. After a brief explanation, we parted, one taking the north side of the buildings, and the other the south, in order to make certain no incendiary was at work on either of the wings.

The Nest House was much less exposed to attempts like those we apprehended, than most American dwellings. The structure being of stone, left but little

inflammable material accessible; and the doors, on the exterior, were only two-those already mentioned. There was a great gate, it is true; one large enough to admit a cart into the inner court, on the southern face of the wing, beneath the arch of which an incendiary might, indeed, make his attempt, though a practised rogue would at once see the difficulties. Little wood was even there, beyond that of the massive gate itself, which, once burnt, would leave no further fuel for flames. I examined the place, notwithstanding; and finding all safe on my side of the building, I went to rejoin the interpreter, who was to meet me at the foot of a fine beech, which spread its broad arms over the lawn, at the distance of about a hundred yards from the house, and so nearly in its front, as to afford us, in all respects, the most eligible position for sentinels on duty like ours, far or near.

At the foot of that beech I found Manytongues, and the deep obscurity in which his form was embedded, was, of itself, a high recommendation of the position. I did not see him until almost near enough to touch him. He was seated on a bench, and seemed entirely at his ease, like one accustomed to ambushes, vigilance, and midnight assaults. We exchanged reports, ascertained all was well, and then I took my seat at the interpreter's side, willing to beguile the time by such discourse as occurred to my mind.

"That was a most interesting scene, last evening," I remarked; "the interview between Old Trackless and your red companions! I own a lively curiosity to know what particular claim our aged friend has on those distant tribes, that chiefs of note have come so far to see him?"

"They have not come all the way from the prer-ies, to this spot, on any such ar'n'd, though I do not question their readiness to do so. In the first place, old age, when accompanied by wisdom, and sobriety, and a good character, goes a great way with savages, in gin'ral. But there is something partic'lar about the acts of Susquesus that I do not know, which raises him higher than common in redskin eyes. I intend to l'arn what it is before we quit this country."

A pause succeeded; then I spoke of the "prer-ies," as almost all western men pronounce the word. I drew such an outline of the life as I supposed my companion passed there, thinking it might be agreeable to hear his own habits and enjoyments extolled.

"I'll tell you how it is, colonel," returned the interpreter, with a little show of feeling; much more than he had previously manifested on any occasion during our short acquaintance; "yes, I'll jist tell you how it is. Prer-ie life is delightsome to them that loves freedom and justice."

"Freedom I can understand," said I, interrupting him, in my surprise-"but as for justice, I should think that laws are absolutely necessary."

"Ay, that's a settlement idee, I know, but it's not as true as some supposes. There is no court and jury like this, colonel," slapping the breech of his rifle with energy, "and eastern powder conspired with Galena lead makes the best of attorneys. I've tried both, and speak on sartainty. Law druv' me out on the prer-ies, and love for them keeps me there. Down this-a-way, you're neither one thing nor tuther-law nor rifle; for, if you had law, as law ought to be, you and I wouldn't be sitting here, at this time of night, to prevent your mock Injins from setting fire to your houses and barns."

There was only too much truth in this last position of the straightforward interpreter to be gainsaid. After making some proper allowances for the difficulties of the case, and the unexpected circumstances, no impartial man could deny that the laws had been trifled with, or things never would have reached the pass they had: as Manytongues affirmed, we had neither the protection of the law, nor the use of the rifle. It ought to be written in letters of brass in all the highways and places of resort in the country, that A STATE OF SOCIETY WHICH PRETENDS TO THE PROTECTION THAT BELONGS TO CIVILIZATION, AND FAILS TO GIVE IT, ONLY MAKES THE CONDITION OF THE HONEST PORTION OF THE COMMUNITY SO MUCH THE WORSE, BY DEPRIVING IT OF THE PROTECTION CONFERRED BY NATURE, WITHOUT SUPPLYING THE SUBSTITUTE. I dare say the interpreter and I sat an hour under that tree, conversing in low voices, on such matters and things as came uppermost in our minds. There was a good deal of true prer-ie philosophy in the opinions of my companion, which is much as if one should say his notions were a mixture of clear natural justice and strong local prejudices. The last sentiment he uttered was so very characteristic as to merit particular notice.

"I'll tell you how it is, colonel," he said, "right is right, and nonsense is nonsense. If so be, we should happen to catch one of these mocking rascals firing your house or barn, it would be a smart chance at justice to settle things on the spot. If I had my way, I should just tie the fellow, hands and feet, and toss him into the flames to help him along with his own work. A rascal makes the best of kindling wood!"

Just at that instant I saw an upper leaf of the inside shutter of Mary Warren's room open, for my eye was resting on the window at that very moment. The light had been brought so near the opening as plainly to show the change, leaving no doubt that my fair sentinel within had made some important discovery. At such a summons I could not hesitate; but, telling Manytongues to continue his watchfulness, I went across the lawn with the steps of youth and haste. In two minutes my hand was on the latch of the little door; and in two seconds more it was open, and I found myself standing in front of Mary Warren. A gesture from her hand induced me to be cautious, and closing the door silently, I asked an explanation.

"Speak not too loud," whispered the anxious girl, preserving a wonderful self-command, nevertheless, for the extraordinary circumstances in which she was placed. "I have discovered them; they are here!"

"Here!-not in the house, surely?"

"In the house itself!-in the kitchen, where they are kindling a fire on the floor at this instant. Come quickly-there is not a moment to lose."

It may be well to explain here the arrangement of the kitchen and offices, in order to render what is to follow the more intelligible. The gateway mentioned cut the southern wing of the house into two equal parts, the chambers, however, extending the whole length, and of course passing over it. On the western side of this gateway were certain offices connected with the eating-rooms, and those eating-rooms themselves. On the eastern side were the kitchen, servants' hall, scullery, etc., and a flight of narrow stairs that led to the chambers occupied by the domestics. The outside door to this latter portion of the building was beneath the arch of the gateway, one corresponding to it opening on its opposite side, and by means of which the service was ordinarily made. There was a court, environed on three of its sides by the main edifice, and by two long, low wings that have been so often mentioned, while it was open on the fourth to the cliff. This cliff was low land, while it was nearly perpendicular, it was possible for an active man to ascend, or even to descend it, by clinging to the rocks, which were sufficiently ragged to admit of such an adventure. When a boy I had done both fifty times, and it was a somewhat common experiment among the male domestics and hirelings of the household. It occurred to me at once that the incendiaries had most probably entered the house by ascending the cliff, the kitchen of itself furnishing all the materials to light a conflagration.

The reader will be assured that, after receiving the startling communication of Mary Warren, I did not stop to discuss all these matters with her. My first impulse was to desire her to run to the beech, and bid Manytongues join me, but she refused to quit my side.

"No-no-no. You must not go to the kitchen alone," she said, hurriedly. "There are two of them, and desperate looking wretches are they, with their faces blackened, and they have muskets. No-no-no. Come, I will accompany you."

I hesitated no longer, but moved forward, Mary keeping close at my side. Fortunately, I had brought the rifle with me, and the revolving pistol was in my pocket. We went by the eating-rooms and offices, the course taken by Mary herself on her watch; and who, in looking through a small window of one of the last, that opened beneath the gateway, had discovered what was going on, by means of a similar window in the kitchen. As we went, the noble girl told me that she had kept moving through the lower rooms of the whole house during the time I had been on watch out of doors, and attracted by the light that gleamed through these windows, she had distinctly seen two men, with blackened faces, kindling a fire in a corner of the kitchen, where the flames must soon communicate with the stairs, by means of which they would speedily reach the attics and the wood-work of the roof. Fortunately, the floors of all that part of the house were made of bricks; that of the servants' hall excepted, which was a room beyond the narrow passage that contained the stairs. As soon as apprised of the danger, Mary Warren had flown to the window of her own room to make the signal to me, and then to the door to meet me. But three or four minutes had elapsed between the time when she became apprised of the danger and that when we were walking hurriedly to the window beneath the gateway.

A bright light, which shone through the opposite window, announced the progress made by the incendiaries. Requesting Mary to remain where she was, I passed through the door, and descended to the pavement of the gateway. The little window beneath the arch was too high for my purposes, when on that level, but there was a row of low windows that opened on the court. To one of these I moved swiftly, and got a clear view of all that was passing within.

"There they are!" exclaimed Mary, who, neglectful of my request, still kept close at my side. "Two men with blackened faces, and the wood of which they have made their fire is blazing brightly."

The fire, now I saw it, did not confirm the dread I felt when I had it before me only in imagination. The stairway had an open place beneath it, and on the brick floor below had the incendiaries built their pile. It was constructed at the bottom of some of the common wood that was found there, in readiness for the wants of the cook in the morning, lighted by coals taken from the fireplace. A considerable pile had been made with the wood, which was now burning pretty freely, and the two rascals were busy piling on the chairs when I first saw them. They had made a good beginning, and in ten or fifteen minutes longer there is no doubt that all that portion of the house would have been in flames.

"You said they had muskets," I whispered to Mary. "Do you see them now?"

"No: when I saw them, each held his musket in one hand, and worked with the other."

I could have shot the villains without difficulty or risk to myself, but felt deeply averse to taking human life. Still, there was the prospect of a serious struggle before me, and I saw the necessity of obtaining assistance.

"Will you go to my uncle's room, Mary, and tell him to rise immediately. Then to the front door of the house, and call out 'Manytongues, come here as fast as possible.' It will take but two minutes to do both, and I will watch these rascals in the meantime."

"I dread leaving you here alone with the wretches, Mr. Littlepage," whispered Mary, gently.

An earnest entreaty on my part, however, induced her to comply; and, no sooner did the dear girl set about the accomplishment of the task, then she flew rather than ran. It did not seem to me a minute ere I heard her call to the interpreter. The night was so still, that, sweet as were those tones, and busy as were the incendiaries, they heard them too; or fancied they heard something which alarmed them. They spoke to each other, looked intently at their infernal work for a single instant, sought their arms, which were standing in the corner of the kitchen, and were evidently preparing to depart.

The crisis was near. There was not time to receive assistance before the two fellows would be out, and I must either meet them in conflict, or suffer them to escape. My first impression was to shoot down the leading man, and grapple with the other ere he had time to prepare his arms. But a timely thought prevented this hazardous step. The incendiaries were retiring, and I had a doubt of the legality of killing a retreating felon. I believed that my chances before a jury would be far less than those of an ordinary pickpocket, or highway robber, and had heard and read enough to be certain there were thousands around me who would fancy it a sufficient moral provocation for all which had passed, that I held the fee of farms that other men desired to possess.

A majority of my countrymen will scout this idea as forced and improbable. But, majorities are far from being infallible in their judgments. Let any discreet and observant man take a near view of that which is daily going on around him. If he do not find in men this disposition to distort principles, to pervert justice, and to attain their ends regardless of the means, then will I admit I do not understand human nature, as human nature exhibits its deformity in this blessed republic of ours.

There was no time to lose, however; and the course I actually decided to take will be soonest told by relating things as they occurred. I heard the door open, and was ready for action. Whether the incendiaries intended to retreat by the cliff, or to open the gate, which was barred within, I could not tell; but I was ready for either alternative.

No sooner did I hear a step on the pavement of the gateway than I discharged my rifle in the air. This was done as an alarm-signal. Clubbing the piece, I sprang forward, and felled the foremost of the two with a sharp blow on his hat. The fellow came down on the pavement like an ox under the axe of the slaughter-house. Dropping the rifle, I bounded over his body, and grappled with his companion. All this was done so rapidly as to take the rascals completely by surprise. So sudden, indeed, was my assault on the fellow who stood erect, that he was under the necessity of dropping his rifle, and at it we went, clinched like bears in the death-hug. I was young and active, but my antagonist was the stronger man of the two. He had also the advantage of being practised in wrestling, and I soon went down, my enemy falling on top of me. Luckily, I fell on the body of the other incendiary, who was just beginning to discover signs of consciousness after the crushing blow he had received. My chance would now have been small but for assistance. The incendiary had caught my neck-handkerchief, and was twisting it to choke me, when I felt a sudden relief. The light of the fire shone through the kitchen doors, rendering everything distinct beneath the arch. Mary came flying back just in time to rescue me. With a resolution that did her honor, she caught up the rifle I had dropped, and passed its small end between the bent arms of my antagonist and his own back, raising it at the same time like a lever. In the brief interval of breathing this ready expedient gave me, I rallied my force, caught my enemy by the throat, made a desperate effort, threw him off, and over on his side, and was on my feet in an instant. Drawing the pistol, I ordered the rascal to yield, or to take the consequences. The sight of this weapon secured the victory, the black-faced villain shrinking back into a corner, begging piteously not to be shot. At the next moment, the interpreter appeared under the arch, followed by a stream of redskins, which had been turned in this direction by the alarm given by my rifle.

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