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Cooper starts us out with a bang… if by "bang" we mean "historical and geographical setting explained in detail." We're smack dab in the middle of the French and Indian war, and we're kicking around Upstate New York.
Two pretty sisters named Cora and Alice are trying to reach their father Munro, who commands Fort William Henry. A young officer named Duncan Heyward is responsible for escorting them. A Huron Indian named Magua is meant to guide them through the dangerous woods to their destination.
This merry band runs into a frontiersman named Hawkeye, who appears to spend all his time with two Mohican Indians, a father and son duo by the names of Chingachgook and Uncas. Hawkeye and the Mohicans tell the others that they are going in the wrong direction for William Henry. Heyward is surprised. Hawkeye blames Magua.
This turns out to be accurate, because Magua is a big fat traitor who runs off before they can hold him accountable. Hawkeye takes up the responsibility of guiding the group to Fort William Henry. A strange man named David Gamut tags along. He is a religious singer whom Hawkeye mocks for being absolutely useless in the wilderness or in a fight.
The group tries to evade their enemies, the Huron Indians. After a tough fight in which David Gamut is hit, they take refuge in some caverns where they had previously spent the night. The men leave the sisters with David and then head back to the fight. No Huron Indians are seen for a while, but several soon emerge, and we are given our first demonstration of Hawkeye's amazing rifle-shooting skillz, before they run out of ammunition. They are ready to die bravely, but the women urge them to head to Munro for reinforcements. Hawkeye and the Indians leave, but Heyward refuses to follow suit.
Enemy Indians eventually swarm the caverns. They find Hawkeye's rifle, which goes by the French name of "la longue carabine." This is also Hawkeye's nickname among those in the know: dude's nickname is Long Rifle. That's so cool. The Hurons find the group. Magua looks thrilled. He asks after Hawkeye and the Mohicans; he is disappointed to learn they left. The prisoners are taken away.
Heyward tries to bargain for the girls' safety, pointing out that their father is very powerful. It turns out Magua wants something else—he proposes to Cora. This is not exactly romantic. In fact, Magua is motivated by revenge for a punishment inflicted by Munro some years earlier. Cora is disgusted, and Magua promises to free the other prisoners if she agrees to marry him. Alice decides it's better to die. Just as the situation is getting even more tense, bullets fly out of the trees. Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas have returned. They free the prisoners and continue their journey to Fort William Henry.
Fort William Henry is under French siege, but the group manages to break through, and the girls reunite with their dad. Heyward serves as Munro's second-in-command as he negotiates with Montcalm. The situation at the fort is dire, as Montcalm has far more troops, and the hoped-for reinforcements from General Webb are, as it turns out, never going to arrive. War talk is briefly interrupted by a man-to-man conversation between Munro and Heyward. We learn that Heyward wishes to wed Alice, and that Cora is (scandal time) biracial!
We get back to the war talk. Munro has agreed to meet with Montcalm, who proposes extremely favorable terms of surrender. Basically, the English just need to vacate the fort. Oh, nifty. The two men agree to a treaty. Easy as pie, right?
On the day of departure, however, the Native American allies of the French descend upon the retreating soldiers, women, and children with intent to kill. In the middle of this horrific massacre, Magua descends upon Cora and Alice and takes them away. David Gamut, who had promised Heyward he would look after the women, follows them.
Three days afterward, Chingachgook, Uncas, Hawkeye, Heyward, and Munro poke around the ruins of Fort William Henry, looking for any trace of the two sisters. Uncas makes several breakthroughs on their forensic hunt, and the men plan to start their pursuit first thing in the morning.
After some argument, the group goes over water to elude any trackers. They briefly fight another canoe full of Huron Indians, but they prevail and are ready to continue their rescue mission once they hide their canoe. Heyward finds a beaver settlement and mistakes it for an Indian encampment. He believes he spots an enemy Indian as well, but Hawkeye's sharp eyes figure out that it's only the harmless David Gamut, who is free to wander the Huron camp at will.
David tells them that Cora is being held by a neighboring tribe, but that Alice is somewhere here in the Huron settlement. Heyward disguises himself as a French doctor and infiltrates the camp. He is shocked when Uncas is captured, but hides it well. One of the Huron chiefs takes him to a cavern to heal a sick woman. On their way over there, they are followed by a bear. This is frightening, to say the least.
Once the bear, Heyward, and the sick woman (who is near death) are left alone, Hawkeye steps out of the bear costume—surprise! Heyward tracks down Alice. Magua interrupts their celebration but is tricked and bound by Hawkeye in the bear costume. Heyward wraps Alice in blankets and takes her outside, pretending that she is the sick woman and needs some herbs from the forest.
Hawkeye leaves to rescue Uncas with the help of David Gamut. We indulge in some role play here as Uncas puts on the bearskin, Hawkeye puts on David's clothes, and David settles himself in a corner of the hut to pretend to be Uncas. Hawkeye and Uncas are not gone long before the deception is discovered. They head for the neighboring Delaware tribe as the Hurons prepare to launch a pursuit.
Magua walks into the Delaware camp, delivers a nice speech, and demands all the foreigners in the Delaware camp. A wise and ancient man named Tamenund summons a formal assemblage of the whole camp. The prisoners are brought out. Everyone murmurs in awe when they realize that one of the prisoners is the famous "Longue carabine." There's a bit of confusion over whether this name belongs to Hawkeye or Heyward, however, so the two men engage in feats of skill to prove themselves. Hawkeye wins, obviously.
Tamenund is willing to hand them all off to Magua, but Cora runs to him and implores for mercy, pointing out that he has not yet heard from Uncas. Uncas is brought forth, and he shocks and awes the assemblage when they realize he is the last of the great Tortoise clan, a sacred lineage that they believe upholds the earth. No, seriously: his family was supposed to have kept the earth from falling through space.
Uncas tells them that Magua should get nothing, except for Cora. He can develop no plausible explanation as to why Cora should go free. Magua takes Cora and leaves as the Delawares warn him they will chase him down in the morning.
The Delawares start chasing down Magua as soon as morning dawns. They prevail over their Huron foes, but Uncas, Heyward, and Hawkeye are too late to save Cora from getting killed. Bummer. Uncas kills Cora's murderer, Magua kills Uncas, and Hawkeye kills Magua, leaving a charming circle of bodies. The next day, funeral rites are held for both Cora and Uncas, who are assumed to now be married in the afterlife.
Chingachgook is sad because he is now the last of his line. He is the last of the Mohicans, a once powerful tribe.