On a cold December day in 1793, Judge Temple and his daughter, Elizabeth, are traveling by sleigh through a snow-covered tract of wilderness near the settlement of Templeton. Elizabeth, who has been away from her home attending a female seminary, is now returning to preside over her father’s household in the community in which he had been a pioneer settler after the Revolutionary War. Hearing the baying of hounds, the judge decides that Leatherstocking, an old hunter, has startled game in the hills, and he orders his coachman to stop the sleigh so he can have a shot at the deer if it comes in his direction. A few minutes later, as a great buck leaps onto the road, the judge fires both barrels of his fowling piece at the animal, apparently without effect. Then a third report and a fourth are heard, and the buck drops dead in a snowbank.
At the same time, Natty Bumppo, the old hunter, and a young companion appear from the woodland. The judge insists that he shot the buck, but Leatherstocking, by accounting for all the shots fired, proves that the judge could not have killed the animal. The argument ends when the young stranger reveals that he had been wounded by one of the shots fired by the judge. Elizabeth and her father then insist that he accompany them into the village in their sleigh, so he could have his wound dressed as soon as possible.
The young man gets into the sleigh with obvious reluctance and says little during the drive. In a short time, the party arrives at the Temple mansion, where his wound is treated. In answer to the judge’s questions, he gives his name as Oliver Edwards. His manner remains distant and reserved. After he departs, a servant in the Temple home reports that Edwards had appeared three weeks before in the company of old Leatherstocking and that he lives in a nearby cabin with the hunter and an American Indian known as Indian John.
Judge Temple, wishing to make amends for having accidentally wounded Edwards, offers him a position as his secretary. When Elizabeth adds her own entreaties to those of her father, Edwards finally accepts the judge’s offer, with the understanding that he will be free to terminate his employment at any time. For a while, he attends faithfully and earnestly to his duties in Judge Temple’s mansion during the day, but his nights are spent in Leatherstocking’s cabin. So much secrecy surrounds his comings and goings, and the reserve of Leatherstocking and his Indian friend, that Richard Jones, the sheriff and a kinsman of the judge, gets suspicious. Among other things, he wonders why Natty always keeps his cabin closed and never allows anyone except the Indian and Edwards to enter it. Jones and some others decide that Natty had discovered a mine and is now working it. Jones also suspects that Edwards is part Indian, his father a Delaware chief.
Hiram Doolittle, the local magistrate, prowls around the shack and sets the dogs guarding it free. In the meantime, Elizabeth and Louisa Grant, the minister’s daughter, go for a walk in the woods. There they are attacked by a savage panther and are saved only by the timely arrival of Leatherstocking, who shoots the animal. Natty, however, had also shot a deer, in defiance of Judge Temple’s strict game laws. With the charge that the old hunter had killed a deer out of season as his pretext, Doolittle persuades Judge Temple to sign a warrant so that the magistrate can gain entrance into the cabin and search it. Jones is more convinced than ever that Leatherstocking is secretly smelting ore from a mine.
Doolittle, now at the cabin, is refused entrance by Leatherstocking, who has a rifle in hand. Then the magistrate attempts to force his way over the threshold, but the old hunter seizes him and throws him twenty feet down an embankment. As the result of...