The chapter begins with Montcalm walking through the woods between the French encampment and Fort William Henry. Montcalm, in the stillness of the early morning, is taking in the fact that he and the French have finally subdued the English and overpowered their fort. On his walk, Montcalm encounters Magua, who has also walked in the night from his own encampment—that of the Hurons—toward the English fort.
One might have wondered in the preceding chapters why Magua did not make an attempt on the lives of the members of the band through stealth. Here, in this chapter, he tries just that, but is stopped, coincidentally, by Montcalm, who happens to be out walking, surveying the fort he is soon to control.
Magua pulls out his rifle and takes aim at a form he sees on the ramparts of the British fort—a tall frame, which the narrator does not describe, but which Magua assumes to be that of Hawkeye. But just as Magua is about to fire his rifle, Montcalm stops him, saying that there is now a truce between the English and the French, and that, therefore, the Hurons also have a truce with the English. But Magua states that, if an Englishman is an enemy of Magua’s beforehand, he does not cease to be his enemy now. Montcalm asks Magua to walk back to his Huron encampment, and Magua does, but Montcalm is not sure whether the Hurons accept the truce brokered between the English and French.
Here is evidence that Montcalm himself understands, or appears to understand, that Magua will not respect a truce. Yet the narrator judges Montcalm harshly for his unwillingness to recognize that the Hurons will act to gain their own revenge, even after the treaty between the French and English is signed. Perhaps Montcalm believes he is not responsible for the behavior of his allies, or perhaps he simply does not want to know what kind of retribution Magua is planning.
Montcalm returns to the French lines, and the narrator shifts the scene to inside Fort William Henry, where Heyward meets with Cora and Alice, telling them they must prepare for their own “safe conveyance” from the fort, along with the other English soldiers and their families. Heyward sees David, singing psalms to himself as comfort in this frightening time, and Heyward asks David to marshal his courage and guard Alice and Cora as they walk out of the fort with the other English families. David promises Heyward he will do this, and Heyward continues making preparations among the soldiers for the retreat.
David, at this point in the novel, has seen a great deal of bloodshed, and he will see a great deal more. But it is already apparent that he is becoming more sure of his abilities, and of his “non-combatant” status, allowing him to move freely into and out of enemy lines, and to help the band in ways that are not directly military. Hawkeye and Heyward are beginning to recognize David’s bravery in this unconventional role.
Alice, Cora, and David, along with other English families, begin walking out of the fort, and observe the French armies, arranged in orderly fashion outside and allowing the English a peaceful departure. As the English are walking out, however, the Hurons emerge from the woods; one Huron soldier grabs the shawl and then the infant child from a mother, and when the mother protests, begging for the child to be returned, the Hurons “dashes the child’s brain out” on a rock, then kills the mother with a tomahawk to the brain.
A terrifying scene, and one of the most vividly rendered in the novel. Fenimore Cooper wishes to make clear, here, that the Hurons are motivated by a kind of revenge that is antithetical to European mores, and to those of the Delawares as well—Uncas and Chingachgook consider the behavior of the Hurons in this instance to be reprehensible.
At this, the Huron war cry is raised—directed by Magua, who has also emerged from the woods—and Hurons begin massacring the English families as they retreat outside the fort. Soldiers from both the English and French armies attempt to intercede and protect the families, but the Hurons manage to kill a great many unarmed men, women, and children. David, the singer, finds Alice and Cora, who have abandoned all hope and are calling, in vain, for their father. David stands next to them and begins singing hymns, loudly, causing the natives to become confused by his song, and, surprisingly, protecting Alice and Cora from harm.
Once again, Alice and Cora seek to be rescued, only in this case, the field is so enshrouded in gunsmoke, fog, and terror, it is difficult to make out where Alice and Cora might be. Once again the women are portrayed as passive beings requiring a strong man to save them from the violence of another man.
But Magua hears David’s hymns, too, and comes running over to Alice and Cora. Magua repeats his demand that Cora become his wife, and come live with him; when Cora again says no, Magua picks up Alice, who has fainted in the heat of battle, and begins running with her back to the Huron camp. Cora, wanting only to protect her sister, runs after Alice and Magua, and David, remembering his promise to Heyward, also follows. Deep in the woods, Magua places the still-unconscious Alice on the back of a horse (the same horses abandoned by the band earlier, before their arrival at the fort); Cora willingly gets on the horse with Magua and Alice, to protect her sister, and David gets on another horse, following behind.
Although it perhaps seems implausible that, amid all the din of warfare, Magua would again ask Cora for her hand in marriage, what Fenimore Cooper appears to make clear in this scene is that Magua is not asking at all, and that Cora has no choice but to follow Magua or be killed. Cora continues resisting Magua, saying that he will have to injure her or kill her, since she will never willingly capitulate to his offer of marriage.
Magua leads his horse back up to the top of the mountain, south of Lake George, from which the band, under Hawkeye’s leadership, had previously observed Fort William Henry. Magua instead shows Alice (who has now woken up), Cora, and David the terrible destruction wrought by the Hurons on the innocent English, below. Cora and Alice are devastated when they realize the extent of the destruction the Hurons have caused in the massacre.
The aftermath of the massacre is a horrific sight. Fenimore Cooper wishes to render this as vividly as possible without lingering on scenes of gore and bloodshed, especially since this adventure novel was intended for, and indeed was read by, a wide audience from many different age groups.