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

Chapter 24.

Then drink my tears, while yet they fall —

Would that my bosom’s blood were balm;

And — well thou knowest — I’d shed it all,

To give thy brow one minute’s calm.

MOORE.

The eyes of Sergeant Dunham had not ceased to follow the form of his beautiful daughter from the moment that the light appeared. He next examined the door of the block, to ascertain its security; for he was left on the ground below, there being no available means of raising him to the upper floor. Then he sought the face of Mabel; for as life wanes fast the affections resume their force, and we begin to value that most which we feel we are about to lose for ever.

“God be praised, my child! you, at least, have escaped their murderous rifles,” he said; for he spoke with strength, and seemingly with no additional pain. “Give me the history of this sad business, Pathfinder.”

“Ah’s me, Sergeant! It has been sad, as you say. That there has been treachery, and the position of the island has been betrayed, is now as sartain, in my judgment, as that we still hold the block. But —”

“Major Duncan was right,” interrupted Dunham, laying a hand on the other’s arm.

“Not in the sense you mean, Sergeant — no, not in that p’int of view; never! At least, not in my opinion. I know that natur’ is weak — human natur’, I mean — and that we should none of us vaunt of our gifts, whether red or white; but I do not think a truer-hearted lad lives on the lines than Jasper Western.”

“Bless you! bless you for that, Pathfinder!” burst forth from Mabel’s very soul, while a flood of tears gave vent to emotions that were so varied while they were so violent. “Oh, bless you, Pathfinder, bless you! The brave should never desert the brave — the honest should sustain the honest.”

The father’s eyes were fastened anxiously on the face of his daughter, until the latter hid her countenance in her apron to conceal her tears; and then they turned with inquiry to the hard features of the guide. The latter merely wore their usual expression of frankness, sincerity, and uprightness; and the Sergeant motioned to him to proceed.

“You know the spot where the Sarpent and I left you, Sergeant,” Pathfinder resumed; “and I need say nothing of all that happened afore. It is now too late to regret what is gone and passed; but I do think if I had stayed with the boats this would not have come to pass. Other men may be as good guides — I make no doubt they are; but then natur’ bestows its gifts, and some must be better than other some. I daresay poor Gilbert, who took my place, has suffered for his mistake.”

“He fell at my elbow,” the Sergeant answered in a low melancholy tone. “We have, indeed, all suffered for our mistakes.”

“No, no, Sergeant, I meant no condemnation on you; for men were never better commanded than yourn, in this very expedition. I never beheld a prettier flanking; and the way in which you carried your own boat up ag’in their howitzer might have teached Lundie himself a lesson.”

The eyes of the Sergeant brightened, and his face even wore an expression of military triumph, though it was of a degree that suited the humble sphere in which he had been an actor.

“’Twas not badly done, my friend,” said he; “and we carried their log breastwork by storm.”

“’Twas nobly done, Sergeant; though, I fear, when all the truth comes to be known, it will be found that these vagabonds have got their howitzer back ag’in. Well, well, put a stout heart upon it, and try to forget all that is disagreeable, and to remember only the pleasant part of the matter. That is your truest philosophy; ay, and truest religion too. If the inimy has got the howitzer ag’in, they’ve only got what belonged to them afore, and what we couldn’t help. They haven’t got the blockhouse yet, nor are they likely to get it, unless they fire it in the dark. Well, Sergeant, the Sarpent and I separated about ten miles down the river; for we thought it wisest not to come upon even a friendly camp without the usual caution. What has become of Chingachgook I cannot say; though Mabel tells me he is not far off, and I make no question the noble-hearted Delaware is doing his duty, although he is not now visible to our eyes. Mark my word, Sergeant, before this matter is over we shall hear of him at some critical time and that in a discreet and creditable manner. Ah, the Sarpent is indeed a wise and virtuous chief! and any white man might covet his gifts, though his rifle is not quite as sure as Killdeer, it must be owned. Well, as I came near the island I missed the smoke, and that put me on my guard; for I knew that the men of the 55th were not cunning enough to conceal that sign, notwithstanding all that has been told them of its danger. This made me more careful, until I came in sight of this mockfisherman, as I’ve just told Mabel; and then the whole of their infernal arts was as plain before me as if I saw it on a map. I need not tell you, Sergeant, that my first thoughts were of Mabel; and that, finding she was in the block, I came here, in order to live or die in her company.”

The father turned a gratified look upon his child; and Mabel felt a sinking of the heart that at such a moment she could not have thought possible, when she wished to believe all her concern centred in the situation of her parent. As the latter held out his hand, she took it in her own and kissed it. Then, kneeling at his side, she wept as if her heart would break.

“Mabel,” said he steadily, “the will of God must be done. It is useless to attempt deceiving either you or myself; my time has come, and it is a consolation to me to die like a soldier. Lundie will do me justice; for our good friend Pathfinder will tell him what has been done, and how all came to pass. You do not forget our last conversation?”

“Nay, father, my time has probably come too,” exclaimed Mabel, who felt just then as if it would be a relief to die. “I cannot hope to escape; and Pathfinder would do well to leave us, and return to the garrison with the sad news while he can.”

“Mabel Dunham,” said Pathfinder reproachfully, though he took her hand with kindness, “I have not desarved this. I know I am wild, and uncouth, and ungainly —”

“Pathfinder!”

“Well, well, we’ll forget it; you did not mean it, you could not think it. It is useless now to talk of escaping, for the Sergeant cannot be moved; and the blockhouse must be defended, cost what it will. Maybe Lundie will get the tidings of our disaster, and send a party to raise the siege.”

“Pathfinder — Mabel!” said the Sergeant, who had been writhing with pain until the cold sweat stood on his forehead; “come both to my side. You understand each other, I hope?”

“Father, say nothing of that; it is all as you wish.”

“Thank God! Give me your hand, Mabel — here, Pathfinder, take it. I can do no more than give you the girl in this way. I know you will make her a kind husband. Do not wait on account of my death; but there will be a chaplain in the fort before the season closes, and let him marry you at once. My brother, if living, will wish to go back to his vessel, and then the child will have no protector. Mabel, your husband will have been my friend, and that will be some consolation to you, I hope.”

“Trust this matter to me, Sergeant,” put in Pathfinder; “leave it all in my hands as your dying request; and, depend on it, all will go as it should.”

“I do, I do put all confidence in you, my trusty friend, and empower you to act as I could act myself in every particular. Mabel, child — hand me the water — you will never repent this night. Bless you, my daughter! God bless, and have you in His holy keeping!”

This tenderness was inexpressibly touching to one of Mabel’s feelings; and she felt at that moment as if her future union with Pathfinder had received a solemnization that no ceremony of the Church could render more holy. Still, a weight, as that of a mountain, lay upon her heart, and she thought it would be happiness to die. Then followed a short pause, when the Sergeant, in broken sentences, briefly related what had passed since he parted with Pathfinder and the Delaware. The wind had come more favorable; and, instead of encamping on an island agreeably to the original intention, he had determined to continue, and reach the station that night. Their approach would have been unseen, and a portion of the calamity avoided, he thought, had they not grounded on the point of a neighboring island, where, no doubt, the noise made by the men in getting off the boat gave notice of their approach, and enabled the enemy to be in readiness to receive them. They had landed without the slightest suspicion of danger, though surprised at not finding a sentinel, and had actually left their arms in the boat, with the intention of first securing their knapsacks and provisions. The fire had been so close, that, notwithstanding the obscurity, it was very deadly. Every man had fallen, though two or three subsequently arose and disappeared. Four or five of the soldiers had been killed, or so nearly so as to survive but a few minutes; though, for some unknown reason, the enemy did not make the usual rush for the scalps. Sergeant Dunham fell with the others; and he had heard the voice of Mabel, as she rushed from the blockhouse. This frantic appeal aroused all his parental feelings, and had enabled him to crawl as far as the door of the building, where he had raised himself against the logs in the manner already mentioned.

After this simple explanation was made, the Sergeant was so weak as to need repose, and his companions, while they ministered to his wants, suffered some time to pass in silence. Pathfinder took the occasion to reconnoitre from the loops and the roof, and he examined the condition of the rifles, of which there were a dozen kept in the building, the soldiers having used their regimental muskets in the expedition. But Mabel never left her father’s side for an instant; and when, by his breathing, she fancied he slept, she bent her knees and prayed.

The half-hour that succeeded was awfully solemn and still. The moccasin of Pathfinder was barely heard overhead, and occasionally the sound of the breech of a rifle fell upon the floor, for he was busied in examining the pieces, with a view to ascertain the state of their charges and their primings. Beyond this, nothing was so loud as the breathing of the wounded man. Mabel’s heart yearned to be in communication with the father she was so soon to lose, and yet she would not disturb his apparent repose. But Dunham slept not; he was in that state when the world suddenly loses its attractions, its illusions, and its power; and the unknown future fills the mind with its conjectures, its revelations, and its immensity. He had been a moral man for one of his mode of life, but he had thought little of this all-important moment. Had the din of battle been ringing in his ears, his martial ardor might have endured to the end; but there, in the silence of that nearly untenanted blockhouse, with no sound to enliven him, no appeal to keep alive factitious sentiment, no hope of victory to impel, things began to appear in their true colors, and this state of being to be estimated at its just value. He would have given treasures for religious consolation, and yet he knew not where to turn to seek it. He thought of Pathfinder, but he distrusted his knowledge. He thought of Mabel, but for the parent to appeal to the child for such succor appeared like reversing the order of nature. Then it was that he felt the full responsibility of the parental character, and had some clear glimpse of the manner in which he himself had discharged the trust towards an orphan child. While thoughts like these were rising in his mind, Mabel, who watched the slightest change in his breathing, heard a guarded knock at the door. Supposing it might be Chingachgook, she rose, undid two of the bars, and held the third in her hand, as she asked who was there. The answer was in her uncle’s voice, and he implored her to give him instant admission. Without an instant of hesitation, she turned the bar, and Cap entered. He had barely passed the opening, when Mabel closed the door again, and secured it as before, for practice had rendered her expert in this portion of her duties.

The sturdy seaman, when he had made sure of the state of his brother-in-law, and that Mabel, as well as himself, was safe, was softened nearly to tears. His own appearance he explained by saying that he had been carelessly guarded, under the impression that he and the Quartermaster were sleeping under the fumes of liquor with which they had been plied with a view to keep them quiet in the expected engagement. Muir had been left asleep, or seeming to sleep; but Cap had run into the bushes on the alarm of the attack, and having found Pathfinder’s canoe, had only succeeded, at that moment, in getting to the blockhouse, whither he had come with the kind intent of escaping with his niece by water. It is scarcely necessary to say that he changed his plan when he ascertained the state of the Sergeant, and the apparent security of his present quarters.

“If the worst comes to the worst, Master Pathfinder,” said he, “we must strike, and that will entitle us to receive quarter. We owe it to our manhood to hold out a reasonable time, and to ourselves to haul down the ensign in season to make saving conditions. I wished Master Muir to do the same thing when we were captured by these chaps you call vagabonds — and rightly are they named, for viler vagabonds do not walk the earth —”

“You’ve found out their characters?” interrupted Pathfinder, who was always as ready to chime in with abuse of the Mingos as with the praises of his friends. “Now, had you fallen into the hands of the Delawares, you would have learned the difference.”

“Well, to me they seem much of a muchness; blackguards fore and aft, always excepting our friend the Serpent, who is a gentleman for an Indian. But, when these savages made the assault on us, killing Corporal M’Nab and his men as if they had been so many rabbits, Lieutenant Muir and myself took refuge in one of the holes of this here island, of which there are so many among the rocks, and there we remained stowed away like two leaguers in a ship’s hold, until we gave out for want of grub. A man may say that grub is the foundation of human nature. I desired the Quartermaster to make terms, for we could have defended ourselves for an hour or two in the place, bad as it was; but he declined, on the ground that the knaves wouldn’t keep faith if any of them were hurt, and so there was no use in asking them to. I consented to strike, on two principles; one, that we might be said to have struck already, for running below is generally thought to be giving up the ship; and the other, that we had an enemy in our stomachs that was more formidable in his attacks than the enemy on deck. Hunger is a d —— ble circumstance, as any man who has lived on it eight-and-forty hours will acknowledge.”

“Uncle,” said Mabel in a mournful voice and with an expostulatory manner, “my poor father is sadly, sadly hurt!”

“True, Magnet, true; I will sit by him, and do my best at consolation. Are the bars well fastened, girl? for on such an occasion the mind should be tranquil and undisturbed.”

“We are safe, I believe, from all but this heavy blow of Providence.”

“Well, then, Magnet, do you go up to the floor above and try to compose yourself, while Pathfinder runs aloft and takes a look-out from the cross-trees. Your father may wish to say something to me in private, and it may be well to leave us alone. These are solemn scenes, and inexperienced people, like myself, do not always wish what they say to be overheard.”

Although the idea of her uncle’s affording religious consolation by the side of a death-bed certainly never obtruded itself on the imagination of Mabel, she thought there might be a propriety in the request with which she was unacquainted, and she complied accordingly. Pathfinder had already ascended to the roof to make his survey, and the brothers-in-law were left alone. Cap took a seat by the side of the Sergeant, and bethought him seriously of the grave duty he had before him. A silence of several minutes succeeded, during which brief space the mariner was digesting the substance of his intended discourse.

“I must say, Sergeant Dunham,” Cap at length commenced in his peculiar manner, “that there has been mismanagement somewhere in this unhappy expedition; and, the present being an occasion when truth ought to be spoken, and nothing but the truth, I feel it my duty to be say as much in plain language. In short, Sergeant, on this point there cannot well be two opinions; for, seaman as I am, and no soldier, I can see several errors myself, that it needs no great education to detect.”

“What would you have, brother Cap?” returned the other in a feeble voice; “what is done is done; and it is now too late to remedy it.”

“Very true, brother Dunham, but not to repent of it; the Good Book tells us it is never too late to repent; and I’ve always heard that this is the precious moment. If you’ve anything on your mind, Sergeant, hoist it out freely; for, you know, you trust it to a friend. You were my own sister’s husband, and poor little Magnet is my own sister’s daughter; and, living or dead, I shall always look upon you as a brother. It’s a thousand pities that you didn’t lie off and on with the boats, and send a canoe ahead to reconnoitre; in which case your command would have been saved, and this disaster would not have befallen us all. Well, Sergeant, we are all mortal; that is some consolation, I make no doubt; and if you go before a little, why, we must follow. Yes, that must give you consolation.”

“I know all this, brother Cap; and hope I’m prepared to meet a soldier’s fate — there is poor Mabel —”

“Ay, ay, that’s a heavy drag, I know; but you wouldn’t take her with you if you could, Sergeant; and so the better way is to make as light of the separation as you can. Mabel is a good girl, and so was her mother before her; she was my sister, and it shall be my care to see that her daughter gets a good husband, if our lives and scalps are spared; for I suppose no one would care about entering into a family that has no scalps.”

“Brother, my child is betrothed; she will become the wife of Pathfinder.”

“Well, brother Dunham, every man has his opinions and his manner of viewing things; and, to my notion, this match will be anything but agreeable to Mabel. I have no objection to the age of the man; I’m not one of them that thinks it necessary to be a boy to make a girl happy, but, on the whole, I prefer a man of about fifty for a husband; still there ought not to be any circumstance between the parties to make them unhappy. Circumstances play the devil with matrimony, and I set it down as one that Pathfinder don’t know as much as my niece. You’ve seen but little of the girl, Sergeant, and have not got the run of her knowledge; but let her pay it out freely, as she will do when she gets to be thoroughly acquainted, and you’ll fall in with but few schoolmasters that can keep their luffs in her company.”

“She’s a good child — a dear, good child,” muttered the Sergeant, his eyes filling with tears; “and it is my misfortune that I have seen so little of her.”

“She is indeed a good girl, and knows altogether too much for poor Pathfinder, who is a reasonable man and an experienced man in his own way; but who has no more idea of the main chance than you have of spherical trigonometry, Sergeant.”

“Ah, brother Cap, had Pathfinder been with us in the boats this sad affair might not have happened!”

“That is quite likely; for his worst enemy will allow that the man is a good guide; but then, Sergeant, if the truth must be spoken, you have managed this expedition in a loose way altogether. You should have hove-to off your haven, and sent in a boat to reconnoitre, as I told you before. That is a matter to be repented of, and I tell it to you, because truth, in such a case, ought to be spoken.”

“My errors are dearly paid for, brother; and poor Mabel, I fear, will be the sufferer. I think, however, that the calamity would not have happened had there not been treason. I fear me, brother, that Jasper Eau-douce has played us false.”

“That is just my notion; for this fresh-water life must sooner or later undermine any man’s morals. Lieutenant Muir and myself talked this matter over while we lay in a bit of a hole out here, on this island; and we both came to the conclusion that nothing short of Jasper’s treachery could have brought us all into this infernal scrape. Well, Sergeant, you had better compose your mind, and think of other matters; for, when a vessel is about to enter a strange port, it is more prudent to think of the anchorage inside than to be under-running all the events that have turned up during the v’y’ge. There’s the log-book expressly to note all these matters in; and what stands there must form the column of figures that’s to be posted up for or against us. How now, Pathfinder! is there anything in the wind, that you come down the ladder like an Indian in the wake of a scalp?”

The guide raised a finger for silence and then beckoned to Cap to ascend the first ladder, and to allow Mabel to take his place at the side of the Sergeant.

“We must be prudent, and we must be bold too,” said he in a low voice. “The riptyles are in earnest in their intention to fire the block; for they know there is now nothing to be gained by letting it stand. I hear the voice of that vagabond Arrowhead among them, and he is urging them to set about their devilry this very night. We must be stirring, Saltwater, and doing too. Luckily there are four or five barrels of water in the block, and these are something towards a siege. My reckoning is wrong, too, or we shall yet reap some advantage from that honest fellow’s, the Sarpent, being at liberty.”

Cap did not wait for a second invitation; but, stealing away, he was soon in the upper room with Pathfinder, while Mabel took his post at the side of her father’s humble bed. Pathfinder had opened a loop, having so far concealed the light that it would not expose him to a treacherous shot; and, expecting a summons, he stood with his face near the hole, ready to answer. The stillness that succeeded was at length broken by the voice of Muir.

“Master Pathfinder,” called out the Scotchman, “a friend summons you to a parley. Come freely to one of the loops; for you’ve nothing to fear so long as you are in converse with an officer of the 55th.”

“What is your will, Quartermaster? what is your will? I know the 55th, and believe it to be a brave regiment; though I rather incline to the 60th as my favorite, and to the Delawares more than to either; but what would you have, Quartermaster? It must be a pressing errand that brings you under the loops of a blockhouse at this hour of the night, with the sartainty of Killdeer being inside of it.”

“Oh, you’ll no’ harm a friend, Pathfinder, I’m certain; and that’s my security. You’re a man of judgment, and have gained too great a name on this frontier for bravery to feel the necessity of foolhardiness to obtain a character. You’ll very well understand, my good friend, there is as much credit to be gained by submitting gracefully, when resistance becomes impossible, as by obstinately holding out contrary to the rules of war. The enemy is too strong for us, my brave comrade, and I come to counsel you to give up the block, on condition of being treated as a prisoner of war.”

“I thank you for this advice, Quartermaster, which is the more acceptable as it costs nothing; but I do not think it belongs to my gifts to yield a place like this while food and water last.”

“Well, I’d be the last, Pathfinder, to recommend anything against so brave a resolution, did I see the means of maintaining it. But ye’ll remember that Master Cap has fallen.”

“Not he, not he!” roared the individual in question through another loop; “and so far from that, Lieutenant, he has risen to the height of this here fortification, and has no mind to put his head of hair into the hands of such barbers again, so long as he can help it. I look upon this blockhouse as a circumstance, and have no mind to throw it away.”

“If that is a living voice,” returned Muir, “I am glad to hear it; for we all thought the man had fallen in the late fearful confusion. But, Master Pathfinder, although ye’re enjoying the society of our friend Cap — and a great pleasure do I know it to be, by the experience of two days and a night passed in a hole in the earth — we’ve lost that of Sergeant Dunham, who has fallen, with all the brave men he led in the late expedition. Lundie would have it so, though it would have been more discreet and becoming to send a commissioned officer in command. Dunham was a brave man, notwithstanding, and shall have justice done his memory. In short, we have all acted for the best, and that is as much as could be said in favor of Prince Eugene, the Duke of Marlborough, or the great Earl of Stair himself.”

“You’re wrong ag’in, Quartermaster, you’re wrong ag’in,” answered Pathfinder, resorting to a ruse to magnify his force. “The Sergeant is safe in the block too, where one might say the whole family is collected.”

“Well I rejoice to hear it, for we had certainly counted the Sergeant among the slain. If pretty Mabel is in the block still, let her not delay an instant, for heaven’s sake, in quitting it, for the enemy is about to put it to the trial by fire. Ye know the potency of that dread element, and will be acting more like the discreet and experienced warrior ye’re universally allowed to be, in yielding a place you canna’ defend, than in drawing down ruin on yourself and companions.”

“I know the potency of fire, as you call it, Quartermaster; and am not to be told, at this late hour, that it can be used for something else besides cooking a dinner. But I make no doubt you’ve heard of the potency of Killdeer, and the man who attempts to lay a pile of brush against these logs will get a taste of his power. As for arrows, it is not in their gift to set this building on fire, for we’ve no shingles on our roof, but good solid logs and green bark, and plenty of water besides. The roof is so flat, too, as you know yourself, Quartermaster, that we can walk on it, and so no danger on that score while water lasts. I’m peaceable enough if let alone; but he who endivors to burn this block over my head will find the fire squinched in his own blood.”

“This is idle and romantic talk, Pathfinder, and ye’ll no maintain it yourself when ye come to meditate on the realities. I hope ye’ll no’ gainsay the loyalty or the courage of the 55th, and I feel convinced that a council of war would decide on the propriety of a surrender forthwith. Na, na, Pathfinder, foolhardiness is na mair like the bravery o’ Wallace or Bruce than Albany on the Hudson is like the old town of Edinbro’.”

“As each of us seems to have made up his mind, Quartermaster, more words are useless. If the riptyles near you are disposed to set about their hellish job, let them begin at once. They can burn wood, and I’ll burn powder. If I were an Indian at the stake, I suppose I could brag as well as the rest of them; but, my gifts and natur’ being both white, my turn is rather for doing than talking. You’ve said quite enough, considering you carry the king’s commission; and should we all be consumed, none of us will bear you any malice.”

“Pathfinder, ye’ll no’ be exposing Mabel, pretty Mabel Dunham, to sic’ a calamity!”

“Mabel Dunham is by the side of her wounded father, and God will care for the safety of a pious child. Not a hair of her head shall fall, while my arm and sight remain true; and though you may trust the Mingos, Master Muir, I put no faith in them. You’ve a knavish Tuscarora in your company there, who has art and malice enough to spoil the character of any tribe with which he consorts, though he found the Mingos ready ruined to his hands, I fear. But enough said; now let each party go to the use of his means and his gifts.”

Throughout this dialogue Pathfinder had kept his body covered, lest a treacherous shot should be aimed at the loop; and he now directed Cap to ascend to the roof in order to be in readiness to meet the first assault. Although the latter used sufficient diligence, he found no less than ten blazing arrows sticking to the bark, while the air was filled with the yells and whoops of the enemy. A rapid discharge of rifles followed, and the bullets came pattering against the logs, in a way to show that the struggle had indeed seriously commenced.

These were sounds, however, that appalled neither Pathfinder nor Cap, while Mabel was too much absorbed in her affliction to feel alarm. She had good sense enough, too, to understand the nature of the defences, and fully to appreciate their importance. As for her father, the familiar noises revived him; and it pained his child, at such a moment, to see that his glassy eye began to kindle, and that the blood returned to a cheek it had deserted, as he listened to the uproar. It was now Mabel first perceived that his reason began slightly to wander.

“Order up the light companies,” he muttered, “and let the grenadiers charge! Do they dare to attack us in our fort? Why does not the artillery open on them?”

At that instant the heavy report of a gun burst on the night; and the crashing of rending wood was heard, as a heavy shot tore the logs in the room above, and the whole block shook with the force of a shell that lodged in the work. The Pathfinder narrowly escaped the passage of this formidable missile as it entered; but when it exploded, Mabel could not suppress a shriek, for she supposed all over her head, whether animate or inanimate, destroyed. To increase her horror, her father shouted in a frantic voice to “charge!”

“Mabel,” said Pathfinder, with his head at the trap, “this is true Mingo work — more noise than injury. The vagabonds have got the howitzer we took from the French, and have discharged it ag’in the block; but fortunately they have fired off the only shell we had, and there is an ind of its use for the present. There is some confusion among the stores up in this loft, but no one is hurt. Your uncle is still on the roof; and, as for myself, I’ve run the gauntlet of too many rifles to be skeary about such a thing as a howitzer, and that in Indian hands.”

Mabel murmured her thanks, and tried to give all her attention to her father, whose efforts to rise were only counteracted by his debility. During the fearful minutes that succeeded, she was so much occupied with the care of the invalid that she scarcely heeded the clamor that reigned around her. Indeed, the uproar was so great, that, had not her thoughts been otherwise employed, confusion of faculties rather than alarm would probably have been the consequence.

Cap preserved his coolness admirably. He had a profound and increasing respect for the power of the savages, and even for the majesty of fresh water, it is true; but his apprehensions of the former proceeded more from his dread of being scalped and tortured than from any unmanly fear of death; and, as he was now on the deck of a house, if not on the deck of a ship, and knew that there was little danger of boarders, he moved about with a fearlessness and a rash exposure of his person that Pathfinder, had he been aware of the fact, would have been the first to condemn. Instead of keeping his body covered, agreeably to the usages of Indian warfare, he was seen on every part of the roof, dashing the water right and left, with the apparent steadiness and unconcern he would have manifested had he been a sail trimmer exercising his art in a battle afloat. His appearance was one of the causes of the extraordinary clamor among the assailants; who, unused to see their enemies so reckless, opened upon him with their tongues, like a pack that has the fox in view. Still he appeared to possess a charmed life; for, though the bullets whistled around him on every side, and his clothes were several times torn, nothing cut his skin. When the shell passed through the logs below, the old sailor dropped his bucket, waved his hat, and gave three cheers; in which heroic act he was employed as the dangerous missile exploded. This characteristic feat probably saved his life; for from that instant the Indians ceased to fire at him, and even to shoot their flaming arrows at the block, having taken up the notion simultaneously, and by common consent, that the “Saltwater” was mad; and it was a singular effect of their magnanimity never to lift a hand against those whom they imagined devoid of reason.

The conduct of Pathfinder was very different. Everything he did was regulated by the most exact calculation, the result of long experience and habitual thoughtfulness. His person was kept carefully out of a line with the loops, and the spot that he selected for his look-out was one quite removed from danger. This celebrated guide had often been known to lead forlorn hopes: he had once stood at the stake, suffering under the cruelties and taunts of savage ingenuity and savage ferocity without quailing; and legends of his exploits, coolness, and daring were to be heard all along that extensive frontier, or wherever men dwelt and men contended. But on this occasion, one who did not know his history and character might have thought his exceeding care and studied attention to self-preservation proceeded from an unworthy motive. But such a judge would not have understood his subject; the Pathfinder bethought him of Mabel, and of what might possibly be the consequences to that poor girl should any casualty befall himself. But the recollection rather quickened his intellect than changed his customary prudence. He was, in fact, one of those who was so unaccustomed to fear, that he never bethought him of the constructions others might put upon his conduct. But while in moments of danger he acted with the wisdom of the serpent, it was also with the simplicity of a child.

For the first ten minutes of the assault, Pathfinder never raised the breech of his rifle from the floor, except when he changed his own position, for he well knew that the bullets of the enemy were thrown away upon the massive logs of the work; and as he had been at the capture of the howitzer he felt certain that the savages had no other shell than the one found in it when the piece was taken. There existed no reason, therefore, to dread the fire of the assailants, except as a casual bullet might find a passage through a loophole. One or two of these accidents did occur, but the balls entered at an angle that deprived them of all chance of doing any injury so long as the Indians kept near the block; and if discharged from a distance, there was scarcely the possibility of one in a hundred’s striking the apertures. But when Pathfinder heard the sound of mocassined feet and the rustling of brush at the foot of the building, he knew that the attempt to build a fire against the logs was about to be renewed. He now summoned Cap from the roof, where, indeed, all the danger had ceased, and directed him to stand in readiness with his water at a hole immediately over the spot assailed.

One less trained than our hero would have been in a hurry to repel this dangerous attempt also, and might have resorted to his means prematurely; not so with Pathfinder. His aim was not only to extinguish the fire, about which he felt little apprehension, but to give the enemy a lesson that would render him wary during the remainder of the night. In order to effect the latter purpose, it became necessary to wait until the light of the intended conflagration should direct his aim, when he well knew that a very slight effort of his skill would suffice. The Iroquois were permitted to collect their heap of dried brush, to pile it against the block, to light it, and to return to their covers without molestation. All that Pathfinder would suffer Cap to do, was to roll a barrel filled with water to the hole immediately over the spot, in readiness to be used at the proper instant. That moment, however, did not arrive, in his judgment, until the blaze illuminated the surrounding bushes, and there had been time for his quick and practised eye to detect the forms of three or four lurking savages, who were watching the progress of the flames, with the cool indifference of men accustomed to look on human misery with apathy. Then, indeed, he spoke.

“Are you ready, friend Cap?” he asked. “The heat begins to strike through the crevices; and although these green logs are not of the fiery natur’ of an ill-tempered man, they may be kindled into a blaze if one provokes them too much. Are you ready with the barrel? See that it has the right cut, and that none of the water is wasted.”

“All ready!” answered Cap, in the manner in which a seaman replies to such a demand.

“Then wait for the word. Never be over-impatient in a critical time, nor fool-risky in a battle. Wait for the word.”

While the Pathfinder was giving these directions, he was also making his own preparations; for he saw it was time to act. Killdeer was deliberately raised, pointed, and discharged. The whole process occupied about half a minute, and as the rifle was drawn in the eye of the marksman was applied to the hole.

“There is one riptyle the less,” Pathfinder muttered to himself; “I’ve seen that vagabond afore, and know him to be a marciless devil. Well, well! the man acted according to his gifts, and he has been rewarded according to his gifts. One more of the knaves, and that will sarve the turn for to-night. When daylight appears, we may have hotter work.”

All this time another rifle was being got ready; and as Pathfinder ceased, a second savage fell. This indeed sufficed; for, indisposed to wait for a third visitation from the same hand, the whole band, which had been crouching in the bushes around the block, ignorant of who was and who was not exposed to view, leaped from their covers and fled to different places for safety.

“Now, pour away, Master Cap,” said Pathfinder; “I’ve made my mark on the blackguards; and we shall have no more fires lighted to-night.”

“Scaldings!” cried Cap, upsetting the barrel, with a care that at once and completely extinguished the flames.

This ended the singular conflict; and the remainder of the night passed in peace. Pathfinder and Cap watched alternately, though neither can be said to have slept. Sleep indeed scarcely seemed necessary to them, for both were accustomed to protracted watchings; and there were seasons and times when the former appeared to be literally insensible to the demands of hunger and thirst and callous to the effects of fatigue.

Mabel watched by her father’s pallet, and began to feel how much our happiness in this world depends even on things that are imaginary. Hitherto she had virtually lived without a father, the connection with her remaining parent being ideal rather than positive; but now that she was about to lose him, she thought for the moment that the world would be a void after his death, and that she could never be acquainted with happiness again.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cooper/james_fenimore/pathfinder/chapter24.html

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