The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea, by James Fenimore Cooper

Chapter 11.

Compel the hawke to sit that is unmann’d,

Or make the hound, untaught, to draw the deere,

Or bring the free against his will in band,

Or move the sad a pleasant tale to heere,

Your time is lost, and you no whit the neere!

So love ne learnes, of force the heart to knit:

She serves but those that feel sweet fancies’ fit.

Mirror for Magistrates.

It is not often that hope is rewarded by fruition so completely as the wishes of the young men of the garrison were met by the state of the weather on the succeeding day. The heats of summer were little felt at Oswego at the period of which we are writing; for the shade of the forest, added to the refreshing breezes from the lake, so far reduced the influence of the sun as to render the nights always cool and the days seldom oppressive.

It was now September, a month in which the strong gales of the coast often appear to force themselves across the country as far as the great lakes, where the inland sailor sometimes feels that genial influence which characterizes the winds of the ocean invigorating his frame, cheering his spirits, and arousing his moral force. Such a day was that on which the garrison of Oswego assembled to witness what its commander had jocularly called a “passage of arms.” Lundie was a scholar in military matters at least, and it was one of his sources of honest pride to direct the reading and thoughts of the young men under his orders to the more intellectual parts of their profession. For one in his situation, his library was both good and extensive, and its books were freely lent to all who desired to use them. Among other whims that had found their way into the garrison through these means, was a relish for the sort of amusement in which it was now about to indulge; and around which some chronicles of the days of chivalry had induced them to throw a parade and romance not unsuited to the characters and habits of soldiers, or to the insulated and wild post occupied by this particular garrison. While so earnestly bent on pleasure, however, they on whom that duty devolved did not neglect the safety of the garrison. One standing on the ramparts of the fort, and gazing on the waste of glittering water that bounded the view all along the northern horizon, and on the slumbering and seemingly boundless forest which filled the other half of the panorama, would have fancied the spot the very abode of peacefulness and security; but Duncan of Lundie too well knew that the woods might, at any moment, give up their hundreds, bent on the destruction of the fort and all it contained; and that even the treacherous lake offered a highway of easy approach by which his more civilized and scarcely less wily foes, the French, could come upon him at an unguarded moment. Parties were sent out under old and vigilant officers, men who cared little for the sports of the day, to scour the forest; and one entire company held the fort, under arms, with orders to maintain a vigilance as strict as if an enemy of superior force was known to be near. With these precautions, the remainder of the officers and men abandoned themselves, without apprehension, to the business of the morning.

The spot selected for the sports was a sort of esplanade, a little west of the fort, and on the immediate bank of the lake. It had been cleared of its trees and stumps, that it might answer the purpose of a parade-ground, as it possessed the advantages of having its rear protected by the water, and one of its flanks by the works. Men drilling on it could be attacked, consequently, on two sides only; and as the cleared space beyond it, in the direction of the west and south, was large, any assailants would be compelled to quit the cover of the woods before they could make an approach sufficiently near to render them dangerous.

Although the regular arms of the regiment were muskets, some fifty rifles were produced on the present occasion. Every officer had one as a part of his private provision for amusement; many belonged to the scouts and friendly Indians, of whom more or less were always hanging about the fort; and there was a public provision of them for the use of those who followed the game with the express object of obtaining supplies. Among those who carried the weapon were some five or six, who had reputation for knowing how to use it particularly well — so well, indeed, as to have given them a celebrity on the frontier; twice that number who were believed to be much better than common; and many who would have been thought expert in almost any situation but the precise one in which they now happened to be placed.

The distance was a hundred yards, and the weapon was to be used without a rest; the target, a board, with the customary circular lines in white paint, having the bull’s -eye in the centre. The first trials in skill commenced with challenges among the more ignoble of the competitors to display their steadiness and dexterity in idle competition. None but the common men engaged in this strife, which had little to interest the spectators, among whom no officer had yet appeared.

Most of the soldiers were Scotch, the regiment having been raised at Stirling and its vicinity not many years before, though, as in the case of Sergeant Dunham, many Americans had joined it since its arrival in the colonies. As a matter of course, the provincials were generally the most expert marksmen; and after a desultory trial of half an hour it was necessarily conceded that a youth who had been born in the colony of New York, and who coming of Dutch extraction, was the most expert of all who had yet tried their skill. It was just as this opinion prevailed that the oldest captain, accompanied by most of the gentlemen and ladies of the fort, appeared on the parade. A train of some twenty females of humbler condition followed, among whom was seen the well-turned form, intelligent, blooming, animated countenance, and neat, becoming attire of Mabel Dunham.

Of females who were officially recognized as belonging to the class of ladies, there were but three in the fort, all of whom were officers’ wives; Mabel being strictly, as had been stated by the Quartermaster, the only real candidate for matrimony among her sex.

Some little preparation had been made for the proper reception of the females, who were placed on a low staging of planks near the immediate bank of the lake. In this vicinity the prizes were suspended from a post. Great care was taken to reserve the front seat of the stage for the three ladies and their children; while Mabel and those who belonged to the non-commissioned officers of the regiment, occupied the second. The wives and daughters of the privates were huddled together in the rear, some standing and some sitting, as they could find room. Mabel, who had already been admitted to the society of the officers’ wives, on the footing of a humble companion, was a good deal noticed by the ladies in front, who had a proper appreciation of modest self-respect and gentle refinement, though they were all fully aware of the value of rank, more particularly in a garrison.

As soon as this important portion of the spectators had got into their places, Lundie gave orders for the trial of skill to proceed in the manner that had been prescribed in his previous orders. Some eight or ten of the best marksmen of the garrison now took possession of the stand, and began to fire in succession. Among them were officers and men indiscriminately placed, nor were the casual visitors in the fort excluded from the competition.

As might have been expected of men whose amusements and comfortable subsistence equally depended on skill in the use of their weapons, it was soon found that they were all sufficiently expert to hit the bull’s -eye, or the white spot in the centre of the target. Others who succeeded them, it is true, were less sure, their bullets striking in the different circles that surrounded the centre of the target without touching it.

According to the rules of the day, none could proceed to the second trial who had failed in the first, and the adjutant of the place, who acted as master of the ceremonies, or marshal of the day, called upon the successful adventurers by name to get ready for the next effort, while he gave notice that those who failed to present themselves for the shot at the bull’s -eye would necessarily be excluded from all the higher trials. Just at this moment Lundie, the Quartermaster, and Jasper Eau-douce appeared in the group at the stand, while the Pathfinder walked leisurely on the ground without his beloved rifle, for him a measure so unusual, as to be understood by all present as a proof that he did not consider himself a competitor for the honors of the day. All made way for Major Duncan, who, as he approached the stand in a good-humored way, took his station, levelled his rifle carelessly, and fired. The bullet missed the required mark by several inches.

“Major Duncan is excluded from the other trials!” proclaimed the Adjutant, in a voice so strong and confident that all the elder officers and the sergeants well understood that this failure was preconcerted, while all the younger gentlemen and the privates felt new encouragement to proceed on account of the evident impartiality with which the laws of the sports were administered.

“Now, Master Eau-douce, comes your turn,” said Muir; “and if you do not beat the Major, I shall say that your hand is better skilled with the oar than with the rifle.”

Jasper’s handsome face flushed, he stepped upon the stand, cast a hasty glance at Mabel, whose pretty form he ascertained was bending eagerly forward as if to note the result, dropped the barrel of his rifle with but little apparent care into the palm of his left hand, raised the muzzle for a single instant with exceeding steadiness, and fired. The bullet passed directly through the centre of the bull’s -eye, much the best shot of the morning, since the others had merely touched the paint.

“Well performed, Master Jasper,” said Muir, as soon as the result was declared; “and a shot that might have done credit to an older head and a more experienced eye. I’m thinking, notwithstanding, there was some of a youngster’s luck in it; for ye were no’ partic’lar in the aim ye took. Ye may be quick, Eau-douce, in the movement, but yer not philosophic nor scientific in yer management of the weepon. Now, Sergeant Dunham, I’ll thank you to request the ladies to give a closer attention than common; for I’m about to make that use of the rifle which may be called the intellectual. Jasper would have killed, I allow; but then there would not have been half the satisfaction in receiving such a shot as in receiving one that is discharged scientifically.”

All this time the Quartermaster was preparing himself for the scientific trial; but he delayed his aim until he saw that the eye of Mabel, in common with those of her companions, was fastened on him in curiosity. As the others left him room, out of respect to his rank, no one stood near the competitor but his commanding officer, to whom he now said in his familiar manner —

“Ye see, Lundie, that something is to be gained by exciting a female’s curiosity. It’s an active sentiment is curiosity, and properly improved may lead to gentler innovations in the end.”

“Very true, Davy; but ye keep us all waiting while ye make your preparations; and here is Pathfinder drawing near to catch a lesson from your greater experience.”

“Well Pathfinder, and so you have come to get an idea too, concerning the philosophy of shooting? I do not wish to hide my light under a bushel, and yer welcome to all ye’ll learn. Do ye no’ mean to try a shot yersel’, man?”

“Why should I, Quartermaster, why should I? I want none of the prizes; and as for honor, I have had enough of that, if it’s any honor to shoot better than yourself. I’m not a woman to wear a calash.”

“Very true; but ye might find a woman that is precious in your eyes to wear it for ye, as ——”

“Come, Davy,” interrupted the Major, “your shot or a retreat. The Adjutant is getting impatient.”

“The Quartermaster’s department and the Adjutant’s department are seldom compliable, Lundie; but I’m ready. Stand a little aside, Pathfinder, and give the ladies an opportunity.”

Lieutenant Muir now took his attitude with a good deal of studied elegance, raised his rifle slowly, lowered it, raised it again, repeated the manoeuvres, and fired.

“Missed the target altogether!” shouted the man whose duty it was to mark the bullets, and who had little relish for the Quartermaster’s tedious science. “Missed the target!”

“It cannot be!” cried Muir, his face flushing equally with indignation and shame; “it cannot be, Adjutant; for I never did so awkward a thing in my life. I appeal to the ladies for a juster judgment.”

“The ladies shut their eyes when you fired!” exclaimed the regimental wags. “Your preparations alarmed them.”

“I will na believe such calumny of the leddies, nor sic’ a reproach on my own skill,” returned the Quartermaster, growing more and more Scotch as he warmed with his feelings; “it’s a conspiracy to rob a meritorious man of his dues.”

“It’s a dead miss, Muir,” said the laughing Lundie; “and ye’ll jist sit down quietly with the disgrace.”

“No, no, Major,” Pathfinder at length observed; “the Quartermaster is a good shot for a slow one and a measured distance, though nothing extr’ornary for real service. He has covered Jasper’s bullet, as will be seen, if any one will take the trouble to examine the target.”

The respect for Pathfinder’s skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight was so profound and general, that, the instant he made this declaration, the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster’s bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper’s, and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance; which, however, was soon clearly established, by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.

“I told ye, ladies, ye were about to witness the influence of science on gunnery,” said the Quartermaster, advancing towards the staging occupied by the females. “Major Duncan derides the idea of mathematics entering into target-shooting; but I tell him philosophy colors, and enlarges, and improves, and dilates, and explains everything that belongs to human life, whether it be a shooting-match or a sermon. In a word, philosophy is philosophy, and that is saying all that the subject requires.”

“I trust you exclude love from the catalogue,” observed the wife of a captain who knew the history of the Quartermaster’s marriages, and who had a woman’s malice against the monopolizer of her sex; “it seems that philosophy has little in common with love.”

“You wouldn’t say that, madam, if your heart had experienced many trials. It’s the man or the woman that has had many occasions to improve the affections that can best speak of such matters; and, believe me, of all love, philosophical is the most lasting, as it is the most rational.”

“You would then recommend experience as an improvement on the passion?”

“Your quick mind has conceived the idea at a glance. The happiest marriages are those in which youth and beauty and confidence on one side, rely on the sagacity, moderation, and prudence of years — middle age, I mean, madam, for I’ll no’ deny that there is such a thing as a husband’s being too old for a wife. Here is Sergeant Dunham’s charming daughter, now, to approve of such sentiments, I’m certain; her character for discretion being already well established in the garrison, short as has been her residence among us.”

“Sergeant Dunham’s daughter is scarcely a fitting interlocutor in a discourse between you and me, Lieutenant Muir,” rejoined the captain’s lady, with careful respect for her own dignity; “and yonder is the Pathfinder about to take his chance, by way of changing the subject.”

“I protest, Major Duncan, I protest,” cried Muir hurrying back towards the stand, with both arms elevated by way of enforcing his words — “I protest in the strongest terms, gentlemen, against Pathfinder’s being admitted into these sports with Killdeer, which is a piece, to say nothing of long habit that is altogether out of proportion for a trial of skill against Government rifles.”

“Killdeer is taking its rest, Quartermaster,” returned Pathfinder calmly, “and no one here thinks of disturbing it. I did not think, myself, of pulling a trigger to-day; but Sergeant Dunham has been persuading me that I shall not do proper honor to his handsome daughter, who came in under my care, if I am backward on such an occasion. I’m using Jasper’s rifle, Quartermaster, as you may see, and that is no better than your own.”

Lieutenant Muir was now obliged to acquiesce, and every eye turned towards the Pathfinder, as he took the required station. The air and attitude of this celebrated guide and hunter were extremely fine, as he raised his tall form and levelled the piece, showing perfect self-command, and a through knowledge of the power of the human frame as well as of the weapon. Pathfinder was not what is usually termed a handsome man, though his appearance excited so much confidence and commanded respect. Tall, and even muscular, his frame might have been esteemed nearly perfect, were it not for the total absence of everything like flesh. Whipcord was scarcely more rigid than his arms and legs, or, at need, more pliable; but the outlines of his person were rather too angular for the proportion that the eye most approves. Still, his motions, being natural, were graceful, and, being calm and regulated, they gave him an air and dignity that associated well with the idea, which was so prevalent, of his services and peculiar merits. His honest, open features were burnt to a bright red, that comported well with the notion of exposure and hardships, while his sinewy hands denoted force, and a species of use removed from the stiffening and deforming effects of labor. Although no one perceived any of those gentler or more insinuating qualities which are apt to win upon a woman’s affections, as he raised his rifle not a female eye was fastened on him without a silent approbation of the freedom of his movements and the manliness of his air. Thought was scarcely quicker than his aim; and, as the smoke floated above his head, the butt-end of the rifle was seen on the ground, the hand of the Pathfinder was leaning on the barrel, and his honest countenance was illuminated by his usual silent, hearty laugh.

“If one dared to hint at such a thing,” cried Major Duncan, “I should say that the Pathfinder had also missed the target.”

“No, no, Major,” returned the guide confidently; “that would be a risky declaration. I didn’t load the piece, and can’t say what was in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder.”

A shout from the target announced the truth of this assertion.

“That’s not all, that’s not all, boys,” called out the guide, who was now slowly advancing towards the stage occupied by the females; “if you find the target touched at all, I’ll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you’ll find no wood cut by that last messenger.”

“Very true, Pathfinder, very true,” answered Muir, who was lingering near Mabel, though ashamed to address her particularly in the presence of the officers’ wives. “The Quartermaster did cut the wood, and by that means he opened a passage for your bullet, which went through the hole he had made.”

“Well, Quartermaster, there goes the nail and we’ll see who can drive it closer, you or I; for, though I did not think of showing what a rifle can do to-day, now my hand is in, I’ll turn my back to no man that carries King George’s commission. Chingachgook is outlying, or he might force me into some of the niceties of the art; but, as for you, Quartermaster, if the nail don’t stop you, the potato will.”

“You’re over boastful this morning, Pathfinder; but you’ll find you’ve no green boy fresh from the settlements and the towns to deal with, I will assure ye!”

“I know that well, Quartermaster; I know that well, and shall not deny your experience. You’ve lived many years on the frontiers, and I’ve heard of you in the colonies, and among the Indians, too, quite a human life ago.”

“Na, na,” interrupted Muir in his broadest Scotch, “this is injustice, man. I’ve no’ lived so very long, neither.”

“I’ll do you justice, Lieutenant, even if you get the best in the potato trial. I say you’ve passed a good human life, for a soldier, in places where the rifle is daily used, and I know you are a creditable and ingenious marksman; but then you are not a true rifle-shooter. As for boasting, I hope I’m not a vain talker about my own exploits; but a man’s gifts are his gifts, and it’s flying in the face of Providence to deny them. The Sergeant’s daughter, here, shall judge between us, if you have the stomach to submit to so pretty a judge.”

The Pathfinder had named Mabel as the arbiter because he admired her, and because, in his eyes, rank had little or no value; but Lieutenant Muir shrank at such a reference in the presence of the wives of the officers. He would gladly keep himself constantly before the eyes and the imagination of the object of his wishes; but he was still too much under the influence of old prejudices, and perhaps too wary, to appear openly as her suitor, unless he saw something very like a certainty of success. On the discretion of Major Duncan he had a full reliance, and he apprehended no betrayal from that quarter; but he was quite aware, should it ever get abroad that he had been refused by the child of a non-commissioned officer, he would find great difficulty in making his approaches to any other woman of a condition to which he might reasonably aspire. Notwithstanding these doubts and misgivings, Mabel looked so prettily, blushed so charmingly, smiled so sweetly, and altogether presented so winning a picture of youth, spirit, modesty, and beauty, that he found it exceedingly tempting to be kept so prominently before her imagination, and to be able to address her freely.

“You shall have it your own way, Pathfinder,” he answered, as soon as his doubts had settled down into determination; “let the Sergeant’s daughter — his charming daughter, I should have termed her — be the umpire then; and to her we will both dedicate the prize, that one or the other must certainly win. Pathfinder must be humored, ladies, as you perceive, else, no doubt, we should have had the honor to submit ourselves to one of your charming society.”

A call for the competitors now drew the Quartermaster and his adversary away, and in a few moments the second trial of skill commenced. A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head having been first touched with paint, and the marksman was required to hit it, or he lost his chances in the succeeding trials. No one was permitted to enter, on this occasion, who had already failed in the essay against the bull’s -eye.

There might have been half a dozen aspirants for the honors of this trial; one or two, who had barely succeeded in touching the spot of paint in the previous strife, preferring to rest their reputations there, feeling certain that they could not succeed in the greater effort that was now exacted of them. The first three adventurers failed, all coming very near the mark, but neither touching it. The fourth person who presented himself was the Quartermaster, who, after going through his usual attitudes, so far succeeded as to carry away a small portion of the head of the nail, planting his bullet by the side of its point. This was not considered an extraordinary shot, though it brought the adventurer within the category.

“You’ve saved your bacon, Quartermaster, as they say in the settlements of their creaturs,” cried Pathfinder, laughing; “but it would take a long time to build a house with a hammer no better than yours. Jasper, here, will show you how a nail is to be started, or the lad has lost some of his steadiness of hand and sartainty of eye. You would have done better yourself, Lieutenant, had you not been so much bent on soldierizing your figure. Shooting is a natural gift, and is to be exercised in a natural way.”

“We shall see, Pathfinder; I call that a pretty attempt at a nail; and I doubt if the 55th has another hammer, as you call it, that can do just the same thing over again.”

“Jasper is not in the 55th, but there goes his rap.”

As the Pathfinder spoke, the bullet of Eau-douce hit the nail square, and drove it into the target, within an inch of the head.

“Be all ready to clench it, boys!” cried out Pathfinder, stepping into his friend’s tracks the instant they were vacant. “Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I can hit, at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito’s eye. Be ready to clench!”

The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.

“Well, Jasper, lad,” continued Pathfinder, dropping the butt-end of his rifle to the ground, and resuming the discourse, as if he thought nothing of his own exploit, “you improve daily. A few more tramps on land in my company, and the best marksman on the frontiers will have occasion to look keenly when he takes his stand ag’in you. The Quartermaster is respectable, but he will never get any farther; whereas you, Jasper, have the gift, and may one day defy any who pull trigger.”

“Hoot, hoot!” exclaimed Muir; “do you call hitting the head of the nail respectable only, when it’s the perfection of the art? Any one the least refined and elevated in sentiment knows that the delicate touches denote the master; whereas your sledge-hammer blows come from the rude and uninstructed. If ‘a miss is as good as a mile,’ a hit ought to be better, Pathfinder, whether it wound or kill.”

“The surest way of settling this rivalry will be to make another trial,” observed Lundie, “and that will be of the potato. You’re Scotch, Mr. Muir, and might fare better were it a cake or a thistle; but frontier law has declared for the American fruit, and the potato it shall be.”

As Major Duncan manifested some impatience of manner, Muir had too much tact to delay the sports any longer with his discursive remarks, but judiciously prepared himself for the next appeal. To say the truth, the Quartermaster had little or no faith in his own success in the trial of skill that was to follow, nor would he have been so free in presenting himself as a competitor at all had he anticipated it would have been made; but Major Duncan, who was somewhat of a humorist in his own quiet Scotch way, had secretly ordered it to be introduced expressly to mortify him; for, a laird himself, Lundie did not relish the notion that one who might claim to be a gentleman should bring discredit on his caste by forming an unequal alliance. As soon as everything was prepared, Muir was summoned to the stand, and the potato was held in readiness to be thrown. As the sort of feat we are about to offer to the reader, however, may be new to him, a word in explanation will render the matter more clear. A potato of large size was selected, and given to one who stood at the distance of twenty yards from the stand. At the word “heave!” which was given by the marksman, the vegetable was thrown with a gentle toss into the air, and it was the business of the adventurer to cause a ball to pass through it before it reached the ground.

The Quartermaster, in a hundred experiments, had once succeeded in accomplishing this difficult feat; but he now essayed to perform it again, with a sort of blind hope that was fated to be disappointed. The potato was thrown in the usual manner, the rifle was discharged, but the flying target was untouched.

“To the right-about, and fall out, Quartermaster,” said Lundie, smiling at the success of the artifice. “The honor of the silken calash will lie between Jasper Eau-douce and Pathfinder.”

“And how is the trial to end, Major?” inquired the latter. “Are we to have the two-potato trial, or is it to be settled by centre and skin?”

“By centre and skin, if there is any perceptible difference; otherwise the double shot must follow.”

“This is an awful moment to me, Pathfinder,” observed Jasper, as he moved towards the stand, his face actually losing its color in intensity of feeling.

Pathfinder gazed earnestly at the young man; and then, begging Major Duncan to have patience for a moment, he led his friend out of the hearing of all near him before he spoke.

“You seem to take this matter to heart, Jasper?” the hunter remarked, keeping his eyes fastened on those of the youth.

“I must own, Pathfinder, that my feelings were never before so much bound up in success.”

“And do you so much crave to outdo me, an old and tried friend? — and that, as it might be, in my own way? Shooting is my gift, boy, and no common hand can equal mine.”

“I know it — I know it, Pathfinder; but yet —”

“But what, Jasper, boy? — speak freely; you talk to a friend.”

The young man compressed his lips, dashed a hand across his eye, and flushed and paled alternately, like a girl confessing her love. Then, squeezing the other’s hand, he said calmly, like one whose manhood has overcome all other sensations, “I would lose an arm, Pathfinder, to be able to make an offering of that calash to Mabel Dunham.”

The hunter dropped his eyes to the ground, and as he walked slowly back towards the stand, he seemed to ponder deeply on what he had just heard.

“You never could succeed in the double trial, Jasper!” he suddenly remarked.

“Of that I am certain, and it troubles me.”

“What a creature is mortal man! He pines for things which are not of his gift and treats the bounties of Providence lightly. No matter, no matter. Take your station, Jasper, for the Major is waiting; and harken, lad — I must touch the skin, for I could not show my face in the garrison with less than that.”

“I suppose I must submit to my fate,” returned Jasper, flushing and losing his color as before; “but I will make the effort, if I die.”

“What a thing is mortal man!” repeated Pathfinder, falling back to allow his friend room to take his arm; “he overlooks his own gifts, and craves those of another!”

The potato was thrown, Jasper fired, and the shout that followed preceded the announcement of the fact that he had driven his bullet through its centre, or so nearly so as to merit that award.

“Here is a competitor worthy of you, Pathfinder,” cried Major Duncan with delight, as the former took his station; “and we may look to some fine shooting in the double trial.”

“What a thing is mortal man!” repeated the hunter, scarcely seeming to notice what was passing around him, so much were his thoughts absorbed in his own reflections. “Toss!”

The potato was tossed, the rifle cracked — it was remarked just as the little black ball seemed stationary in the air, for the marksman evidently took unusual heed to his aim — and then a look of disappointment and wonder succeeded among those who caught the falling target.

“Two holes in one?” called out the Major.

“The skin, the skin!” was the answer; “only the skin!”

“How’s this, Pathfinder? Is Jasper Eau-douce to carry off the honors of the day?”

“The calash is his,” returned the other, shaking his head and walking quietly away from the stand. “What a creature is mortal man! never satisfied with his own gifts, but for ever craving that which Providence denies!”

As Pathfinder had not buried his bullet in the potato, but had cut through the skin, the prize was immediately adjudged to Jasper. The calash was in the hands of the latter when the Quartermaster approached, and with a polite air of cordiality he wished his successful rival joy of his victory.

“But now you’ve got the calash, lad, it’s of no use to you,” he added; “it will never make a sail, nor even an ensign. I’m thinking, Eau-douce, you’d no’ be sorry to see its value in good siller of the king?”

“Money cannot buy it, Lieutenant,” returned Jasper, whose eye lighted with all the fire of success and joy. “I would rather have won this calash than have obtained fifty new suits of sails for the Scud!

“Hoot, hoot, lad! you are going mad like all the rest of them. I’d even venture to offer half a guinea for the trifle rather than it should lie kicking about in the cabin of your cutter, and in the end become an ornament for the head of a squaw.”

Although Jasper did not know that the wary Quartermaster had not offered half the actual cost of the prize, he heard the proposition with indifference. Shaking his head in the negative, he advanced towards the stage, where his approach excited a little commotion, the officers’ ladies, one and all, having determined to accept the present, should the gallantry of the young sailor induce him to offer it. But Jasper’s diffidence, no less than admiration for another, would have prevented him from aspiring to the honor of complimenting any whom he thought so much his superiors.

“Mabel,” said he, “this prize is for you, unless —”

“Unless what, Jasper?” answered the girl, losing her own bashfulness in the natural and generous wish to relieve his embarrassment, though both reddened in a way to betray strong feeling.

“Unless you may think too indifferently of it, because it is offered by one who may have no right to believe his gift will be accepted.”

“I do accept it, Jasper; and it shall be a sign of the danger I have passed in your company, and of the gratitude I feel for your care of me — your care, and that of the Pathfinder.”

“Never mind me, never mind me!” exclaimed the latter; “this is Jasper’s luck, and Jasper’s gift: give him full credit for both. My turn may come another day; mine and the Quartermaster’s, who seems to grudge the boy the calash; though what he can want of it I cannot understand, for he has no wife.”

“And has Jasper Eau-douce a wife? Or have you a wife yoursel’, Pathfinder? I may want it to help to get a wife, or as a memorial that I have had a wife, or as proof how much I admire the sex, or because it is a female garment, or for some other equally respectable motive. It’s not the unreflecting that are the most prized by the thoughtful, and there is no surer sign that a man made a good husband to his first consort, let me tell you all, than to see him speedily looking round for a competent successor. The affections are good gifts from Providence, and they that have loved one faithfully prove how much of this bounty has been lavished upon them by loving another as soon as possible.”

“It may be so, it may be so. I am no practitioner in such things, and cannot gainsay it. But Mabel here, the Sergeant’s daughter, will give you full credit for the words. Come, Jasper, although our hands are out, let us see what the other lads can do with the rifle.”

Pathfinder and his companions retired, for the sports were about to proceed. The ladies, however, were not so much engrossed with rifle-shooting as to neglect the calash. It passed from hand to hand; the silk was felt, the fashion criticized, and the work examined, and divers opinions were privately ventured concerning the fitness of so handsome a thing passing into the possession of a non-commissioned officer’s child.

“Perhaps you will be disposed to sell that calash, Mabel, when it has been a short time in your possession?” inquired the captain’s lady. “Wear it, I should think, you never can.”

“I may not wear it, madam,” returned our heroine modestly; “but I should not like to part with it either.”

“I daresay Sergeant Dunham keeps you above the necessity of selling your clothes, child; but, at the same time, it is money thrown away to keep an article of dress you can never wear.”

“I should be unwilling to part with the gift of a friend.”

“But the young man himself will think all the better of you for your prudence after the triumph of the day is forgotten. It is a pretty and a becoming calash, and ought not to be thrown away.”

“I’ve no intention to throw it away, ma’am; and, if you please, would rather keep it.”

“As you will, child; girls of your age often overlook the real advantages. Remember, however, if you do determine to dispose of the thing, that it is bespoke, and that I will not take it if you ever even put it on your own head.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Mabel, in the meekest voice imaginable, though her eyes looked like diamonds, and her cheeks reddened to the tints of two roses, as she placed the forbidden garment over her well-turned shoulders, where she kept it a minute, as if to try its fitness, and then quietly removed it again.

The remainder of the sports offered nothing of interest. The shooting was reasonably good; but the trials were all of a scale lower than those related, and the competitors were soon left to themselves. The ladies and most of the officers withdrew, and the remainder of the females soon followed their example. Mabel was returning along the low flat rocks that line the shore of the lake, dangling her pretty calash from a prettier finger, when Pathfinder met her. He carried the rifle which he had used that day; but his manner had less of the frank ease of the hunter about it than usual, while his eye seemed roving and uneasy. After a few unmeaning words concerning the noble sheet of water before them, he turned towards his companion with strong interest in his countenance, and said —

“Jasper earned that calash for you, Mabel, without much trial of his gifts.”

“It was fairly done, Pathfinder.”

“No doubt, no doubt. The bullet passed neatly through the potato, and no man could have done more; though others might have done as much.”

“But no one did as much!” exclaimed Mabel, with an animation that she instantly regretted; for she saw by the pained look of the guide that he was mortified equally by the remark and by the feeling with which it was uttered.

“It is true, it is true, Mabel, no one did as much then; but — yet there is no reason I should deny my gifts which come from Providence — yes, yes; no one did as much there, but you shall know what can be done here. Do you observe the gulls that are flying over our heads?”

“Certainly, Pathfinder; there are too many to escape notice.”

“Here, where they cross each other in sailing about,” he added, cocking and raising his rifle; “the two — the two. Now look!”

The piece was presented quick as thought, as two of the birds came in a line, though distant from each other many yards; the report followed, and the bullet passed through the bodies of both victims. No sooner had the gulls fallen into the lake, than Pathfinder dropped the butt-end of the rifle, and laughed in his own peculiar manner, every shade of dissatisfaction and mortified pride having left his honest face.

“That is something, Mabel, that is something; although I have no calash to give you! But ask Jasper himself; I’ll leave it all to Jasper, for a truer tongue and heart are not in America.”

“Then it was not Jasper’s fault that he gained the prize?”

“Not it. He did his best, and he did well. For one that has water gifts, rather than land gifts, Jasper is uncommonly expert, and a better backer no one need wish, ashore or afloat. But it was my fault, Mabel, that he got the calash; though it makes no difference — it makes no difference, for the thing has gone to the right person.”

“I believe I understand you, Pathfinder,” said Mabel, blushing in spite of herself, “and I look upon the calash as the joint gift of yourself and Jasper.”

“That would not be doing justice to the lad, neither. He won the garment, and had a right to give it away. The most you may think, Mabel, is to believe that, had I won it, it would have gone to the same person.”

“I will remember that, Pathfinder, and take care that others know your skill, as it has been proved upon the poor gulls in my presence.”

“Lord bless you, Mabel! there is no more need of your talking in favor of my shooting on this frontier, than of your talking about the water in the lake or the sun in the heavens. Everybody knows what I can do in that way, and your words would be thrown away, as much as French would be thrown away on an American bear.”

“Then you think that Jasper knew you were giving him this advantage, of which he had so unhandsomely availed himself?” said Mabel, the color which had imparted so much lustre to her eyes gradually leaving her face, which became grave and thoughtful.

“I do not say that, but very far from it. We all forget things that we have known, when eager after our wishes. Jasper is satisfied that I can pass one bullet through two potatoes, as I sent my bullet through the gulls; and he knows no other man on the frontier can do the same thing. But with the calash before his eyes, and the hope of giving it to you, the lad was inclined to think better of himself, just at that moment, perhaps, than he ought. No, no, there’s nothing mean or distrustful about Jasper Eau-douce, though it is a gift natural to all young men to wish to appear well in the eyes of handsome young women.”

“I’ll try to forget all, but the kindness you’ve both shown to a poor motherless girl,” said Mabel, struggling to keep down emotions she scarcely knew how to account for herself. “Believe me, Pathfinder, I can never forget all you have already done for me — you and Jasper; and this new proof of your regard is not thrown away. Here, here is a brooch that is of silver, and I offer it as a token that I owe you life or liberty.”

“What shall I do with this, Mabel?” asked the bewildered hunter, holding the simple trinket in his hand. “I have neither buckle nor button about me, for I wear nothing but leathern strings, and them of good deer-skins. It’s pretty to the eye, but it is prettier far on the spot it came from than it can be about me.”

“Nay, put it in your hunting-shirt; it will become it well. Remember, Pathfinder, that it is a token of friendship between us, and a sign that I can never forget you or your services.”

Mabel then smiled an adieu; and, bounding up the bank, she was soon lost to view behind the mound of the fort.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cooper/james_fenimore/pathfinder/chapter11.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:40