The Deer Ambush
from Chapter 1 of The Pioneers

from chapter 1 of an 1893 edition of The Pioneers
Chapter 1 of The Pioneers begins with the sleigh of Judge Marmaduke Temple advancing through the woods owned by the Judge to the Judge's home. The Judge orders his slave, Agamemnon, to stop the sleigh when he hears the hounds of the Leather-stocking's hounds chasing after a deer. The Judge steps out of the sleigh, and when the deer appears, he gets off two shots from his double-barreled fowling piece, which fires a scattering shot of balls. The deer, apparently unhurt, continues across the road until it is struck by two rifle shots originating from beyond the tree line.

Nathaniel Bumppo and his young companion, Oliver Edwards, emerge from the forest, and the Judge halfheartedly apologizes for upsetting the ambush which the pair of hunters had set up. The Judge makes a claim to the game on the grounds that it was one of his shots that felled the deer, but the Leather-stocking shows that the two wounds on the carcass were caused by rifle balls, not the type of ammunition used by the Judge. The Judge remains unconvinced and attempts to buy the venison in order to have bragging rights when he returns home. The Judge only desists in his claim when the young hunter shows how four of the bullets from the Judge's gun were embedded in a nearby tree and the fifth bullet actually was embedded in Oliver's own shoulder.

After admitting guilt, the Judge still persists in attempting to buy the deer from Oliver (and presumably the youth's silence about the mistake). The chapter ends with the youth's refusal to relinquish the deer and with his acceptance of the Judge's offer to return with him to his house for treatment.

In this scene, Cooper reveals particulars of Natty's character by contrasting Natty's attitude towards the hunt with those of the Judge. According to the law, which the Judge obviously represents, Natty and his companion only hunt on the Judge's land at the pleasure of the Judge. Natty invokes a higher right to the deer--the God-given rights of a free man: "'Let who will kill him,' said the hunter rather surlily, 'I suppose the cretur is to be eaten.'" To Natty the "lawful dues in a free country" have nothing to do with an individual's status, and Natty's words suggest that a truly free country is one which recognizes no property rights on wild game.

Natty's honesty about his claim to the deer also contrasts with the Judge's version of honesty. Although he needs the meat for food, Natty happily credits Oliver with the kill, even though his shot hit the deer first. Natty readily admits that although his shot hit the deer in the neck that "for my part, I have known animals travel days with shots in the neck, and I'm none of them who'll rob a man of his rightful dues." The Judge considers "dues" to be equal with due payment and attempts to buy from Oliver the right to claim a lie--that he killed the deer.

The above image is from a version of The Pioneers published in 1893 by Peter Fenelon Collier in the first volume of the works of Cooper. It shows the examination of the deer as described in chapter 1.

American Studies at the University of Virginia