The Pathfinder by Fenimore Cooper - Chapter 3

Before these fields were shorn and till’d,

Full to the brim our rivers flow’d;

The melody of waters fill’d

The fresh and boundless wood;

And torrents dash’d, and rivulets play’d,

And fountains spouted in the shade.


It is generally known that the waters which flow into the southern side of Ontario are, in general, narrow, sluggish, and deep. There are some exceptions to this rule, for many of the rivers have rapids, or, as they are termed in the language of the region, “rifts,” and some have falls. Among the latter was the particular stream on which our adventurers were now journeying. The Oswego is formed by the junction of the Oneida and the Onondaga, both of which flow from lakes; and it pursues its way, through a gently undulating country, some eight or ten miles, until it reaches the margin of a sort of natural terrace, down which it tumbles some ten or fifteen feet, to another level, across which it glides with the silent, stealthy progress of deep water, until it throws its tribute into the broad receptacle of the Ontario. The canoe in which Cap and his party had travelled from Fort Stanwix, the last military station of the Mohawk, lay by the side of this river, and into it the whole party now entered, with the exception of Pathfinder, who remained on the land, in order to shove the light vessel off.

“Let her starn drift down stream, Jasper,” said the man of the woods to the young mariner of the lake, who had dispossessed Arrowhead of his paddle and taken his own station as steersman; “let it go down with the current. Should any of these infarnals, the Mingos, strike our trail, or follow it to this point they will not fail to look for the signs in the mud; and if they discover that we have left the shore with the nose of the canoe up stream, it is a natural belief to think we went up stream.”

This direction was followed; and, giving a vigorous shove, the Pathfinder, who was in the flower of his strength and activity, made a leap, landing lightly, and without disturbing its equilibrium, in the bow of the canoe. As soon as it had reached the centre of the river or the strength of the current, the boat was turned, and it began to glide noiselessly down the stream.

The vessel in which Cap and his niece had embarked for their long and adventurous journey was one of the canoes of bark which the Indians are in the habit of constructing, and which, by their exceeding lightness and the ease with which they are propelled, are admirably adapted to a navigation in which shoals, flood-wood, and other similar obstructions so often occur. The two men who composed its original crew had several times carried it, when emptied of its luggage, many hundred yards; and it would not have exceeded the strength of a single man to lift its weight. Still it was long, and, for a canoe, wide; a want of steadiness being its principal defect in the eyes of the uninitiated. A few hours practice, however, in a great measure remedied this evil, and both Mabel and her uncle had learned so far to humor its movements, that they now maintained their places with perfect composure; nor did the additional weight of the three guides tax its power in any particular degree, the breath of the rounded bottom allowing the necessary quantity of water to be displaced without bringing the gunwale very sensibly nearer to the surface of the stream. Its workmanship was neat; the timbers were small, and secured by thongs; and the whole fabric, though it was so slight to the eye, was probably capable of conveying double the number of persons which it now contained.

Cap was seated on a low thwart, in the centre of the canoe; the Big Serpent knelt near him. Arrowhead and his wife occupied places forward of both, the former having relinquished his post aft. Mabel was half reclining behind her uncle, while the Pathfinder and Eau-douce stood erect, the one in the bow, and the other in the stern, each using a paddle, with a long, steady, noiseless sweep. The conversation was carried on in low tones, all the party beginning to feel the necessity of prudence, as they drew nearer to the outskirts of the fort, and had no longer the cover of the woods.

The Oswego, just at that place, was a deep dark stream of no great width, its still, gloomy-looking current winding its way among overhanging trees, which, in particular spots, almost shut out the light of the heavens. Here and there some half-fallen giant of the forest lay nearly across its surface, rendering care necessary to avoid the limbs; and most of the distance, the lower branches and leaves of the trees of smaller growth were laved by its waters. The picture so beautifully described by our own admirable poet, and which we have placed at the head of this chapter, was here realized; the earth fattened by the decayed vegetation of centuries, and black with loam, the stream that filled the banks nearly to overflowing, and the “fresh and boundless wood,” being all as visible to the eye as the pen of Bryant has elsewhere vividly presented them to the imagination. In short, the entire scene was one of a rich and benevolent nature, before it had been subjected to the uses and desires of man; luxuriant, wild, full of promise, and not without the charm of the picturesque, even in its rudest state. It will be remembered that this was in the year 175-, or long before even speculation had brought any portion of western New York within the bounds of civilization. At that distant day there were two great channels of military communication between the inhabited portion of the colony of New York and the frontiers which lay adjacent to the Canadas — that by Lakes Champlain and George, and that by means of the Mohawk, Wood Creek, the Oneida, and the rivers we have been describing. Along both these lines of communication military posts had been established, though there existed a blank space of a hundred miles between the last fort at the head of the Mohawk and the outlet of the Oswego, which embraced most of the distance that Cap and Mabel had journeyed under the protection of Arrowhead.

“I sometimes wish for peace again,” said the Pathfinder, “when one can range the forest without searching for any other enemy than the beasts and fishes. Ah’s me! many is the day that the Sarpent, there, and I have passed happily among the streams, living on venison, salmon, and trout without thought of a Mingo or a scalp! I sometimes wish that them blessed days might come back, for it is not my real gift to slay my own kind. I’m sartain the Sergeant’s daughter don’t think me a wretch that takes pleasure in preying on human natur’?”

As this remark, a sort of half interrogatory, was made, Pathfinder looked behind him; and, though the most partial friend could scarcely term his sunburnt and hard features handsome, even Mabel thought his smile attractive, by its simple ingenuousness and the uprightness that beamed in every lineament of his honest countenance.

“I do not think my father would have sent one like those you mention to see his daughter through the wilderness,” the young woman answered, returning the smile as frankly as it was given, but much more sweetly.

“That he wouldn’t; the Sergeant is a man of feeling, and many is the march and the fight that we have had — stood shoulder to shoulder in, as he would call it — though I always keep my limbs free when near a Frencher or a Mingo.”

“You are, then, the young friend of whom my father has spoken so often in his letters?”

“His young friend — the Sergeant has the advantage of me by thirty years; yes, he is thirty years my senior, and as many my better.”

“Not in the eyes of the daughter, perhaps, friend Pathfinder;” put in Cap, whose spirits began to revive when he found the water once more flowing around him. “The thirty years that you mention are not often thought to be an advantage in the eyes of girls of nineteen.”

Mabel colored; and, in turning aside her face to avoid the looks of those in the bow of the canoe, she encountered the admiring gaze of the young man in the stern. As a last resource, her spirited but soft blue eyes sought refuge in the water. Just at this moment a dull, heavy sound swept up the avenue formed by the trees, borne along by a light air that hardly produced a ripple on the water.

“That sounds pleasantly,” said Cap, pricking up his ears like a dog that hears a distant baying; “it is the surf on the shores of your lake, I suppose?”

“Not so — not so,” answered the Pathfinder; “it is merely this river tumbling over some rocks half a mile below us.”

“Is there a fall in the stream?” demanded Mabel, a still brighter flush glowing in her face.

“The devil! Master Pathfinder, or you, Mr. Eau-douce” (for so Cap began to style Jasper), “had you not better give the canoe a sheer, and get nearer to the shore? These waterfalls have generally rapids above them, and one might as well get into the Maelstrom at once as to run into their suction.”

“Trust to us, friend Cap,” answered Pathfinder; “we are but fresh-water sailors, it is true, and I cannot boast of being much even of that; but we understand rifts and rapids and cataracts; and in going down these we shall do our endeavors not to disgrace our edication.”

“In going down!” exclaimed Cap. “The devil, man! you do not dream of going down a waterfall in this egg shell of bark!”

“Sartain; the path lies over the falls, and it is much easier to shoot them than to unload the canoe and to carry that and all it contains around a portage of a mile by hand.”

Mabel turned her pallid countenance towards the young man in the stern of the canoe; for, just at that moment, a fresh roar of the fall was borne to her ears by a new current of the air, and it really sounded terrific, now that the cause was understood.

“We thought that, by landing the females and the two Indians,” Jasper quietly observed, “we three white men, all of whom are used to the water, might carry the canoe over in safety, for we often shoot these falls.”

“And we counted on you, friend mariner, as a mainstay,” said Pathfinder, winking to Jasper over his shoulder; “for you are accustomed to see waves tumbling about; and without some one to steady the cargo, all the finery of the Sergeant’s daughter might be washed into the river and be lost.”

Cap was puzzled. The idea of going over a waterfall was, perhaps, more serious in his eyes than it would have been in those of one totally ignorant of all that pertained to boats; for he understood the power of the element, and the total feebleness of man when exposed to its fury. Still his pride revolted at the thought of deserting the boat, while others not only steadily, but coolly, proposed to continue in it. Notwithstanding the latter feeling, and his innate as well as acquired steadiness in danger, he would probably have deserted his post; had not the images of Indians tearing scalps from the human head taken so strong hold of his fancy as to induce him to imagine the canoe a sort of sanctuary.

“What is to be done with Magnet?” he demanded, affection for his niece raising another qualm in his conscience. “We cannot allow Magnet to land if there are enemy’s Indians near?”

“Nay, no Mingo will be near the portage, for that is a spot too public for their devilries,” answered the Pathfinder confidently. “Natur’ is natur’, and it is an Indian’s natur’ to be found where he is least expected. No fear of him on a beaten path; for he wishes to come upon you when unprepared to meet him, and the fiery villains make it a point to deceive you, one way or another. Sheer in, Eau-douce, and we will land the Sergeant’s daughter on the end of that log, where she can reach the shore with a dry foot.”

The injunction was obeyed, and in a few minutes the whole party had left the canoe, with the exception of Pathfinder and the two sailors. Notwithstanding his professional pride, Cap would have gladly followed; but he did not like to exhibit so unequivocal a weakness in the presence of a fresh-water sailor.

“I call all hands to witness,” said he, as those who had landed moved away, “that I do not look on this affair as anything more than canoeing in the woods. There is no seamanship in tumbling over a waterfall, which is a feat the greatest lubber can perform as well as the oldest mariner.”

“Nay, nay, you needn’t despise the Oswego Falls, neither,” put in Pathfinder; “for, though they may not be Niagara, nor the Genessee, nor the Cahoos, nor Glenn’s, nor those on the Canada, they are narvous enough for a new beginner. Let the Sergeant’s daughter stand on yonder rock, and she will see the manner in which we ignorant backwoodsmen get over a difficulty that we can’t get under. Now, Eau-douce, a steady hand and a true eye, for all rests on you, seeing that we can count Master Cap for no more than a passenger.”

The canoe was leaving the shore as he concluded, while Mabel went hurriedly and trembling to the rock that had been pointed out, talking to her companion of the danger her uncle so unnecessarily ran, while her eyes were riveted on the agile and vigorous form of Eau-douce, as he stood erect in the stern of the light boat, governing its movements. As soon, however, as she reached a point where she got a view of the fall, she gave an involuntary but suppressed scream, and covered her eyes. At the next instant, the latter were again free, and the entranced girl stood immovable as a statue, a scarcely breathing observer of all that passed. The two Indians seated themselves passively on a log, hardly looking towards the stream, while the wife of Arrowhead came near Mabel, and appeared to watch the motions of the canoe with some such interest as a child regards the leaps of a tumbler.

As soon as the boat was in the stream, Pathfinder sank on his knees, continuing to use the paddle, though it was slowly, and in a manner not to interfere with the efforts of his companion. The latter still stood erect; and, as he kept his eye on some object beyond the fall, it was evident that he was carefully looking for the spot proper for their passage.

“Farther west, boy; farther west,” muttered Pathfinder; “there where you see the water foam. Bring the top of the dead oak in a line with the stem of the blasted hemlock.”

Eau-douce made no answer; for the canoe was in the centre of the stream, with its head pointed towards the fall, and it had already begun to quicken its motion by the increased force of the current. At that moment Cap would cheerfully have renounced every claim to glory that could possibly be acquired by the feat, to have been safe again on shore. He heard the roar of the water, thundering, as it might be, behind a screen, but becoming more and more distinct, louder and louder, and before him he saw its line cutting the forest below, along which the green and angry element seemed stretched and shining, as if the particles were about to lose their principle of cohesion.

“Down with your helm, down with your helm, man!” he exclaimed, unable any longer to suppress his anxiety, as the canoe glided towards the edge of the fall.

“Ay, ay, down it is sure enough,” answered Pathfinder, looking behind him for a single instant, with his silent, joyous laugh — “down we go, of a sartinty! Heave her starn up, boy; farther up with her starn!”

The rest was like the passage of the viewless wind. Eau-douce gave the required sweep with his paddle, the canoe glanced into the channel, and for a few seconds it seemed to Cap that he was tossing in a caldron. He felt the bow of the canoe tip, saw the raging, foaming water careering madly by his side, was sensible that the light fabric in which he floated was tossed about like an egg-shell, and then, not less to his great joy than to his surprise, he discovered that it was gliding across the basin of still water below the fall, under the steady impulse of Jasper’s paddle.

The Pathfinder continued to laugh; but he arose from his knees, and, searching for a tin pot and a horn spoon, he began deliberately to measure the water that had been taken in the passage.

“Fourteen spoonfuls, Eau-douce; fourteen fairly measured spoonfuls. I have, you must acknowledge, known you to go down with only ten.”

“Master Cap leaned so hard up stream,” returned Jasper seriously, “that I had difficulty in trimming the canoe.”

“It may be so; no doubt it was so, since you say it; but I have known you go over with only ten.”

Cap now gave a tremendous hem, felt for his queue as if to ascertain its safety, and then looked back in order to examine the danger he had gone through. His safety is easily explained. Most of the river fell perpendicularly ten or twelve feet; but near its centre the force of the current had so far worn away the rock as to permit the water to shoot through a narrow passage, at an angle of about forty or forty five degrees. Down this ticklish descent the canoe had glanced, amid fragments of broken rock, whirlpools, foam, and furious tossings of the element, which an uninstructed eye would believe menaced inevitable destruction to an object so fragile. But the very lightness of the canoe had favored its descent; for, borne on the crest of the waves, and directed by a steady eye and an arm full of muscle, it had passed like a feather from one pile of foam to another, scarcely permitting its glossy side to be wetted. There were a few rocks to be avoided, the proper direction was to be rigidly observed, and the fierce current did the rest. (1)

(1) Lest the reader suppose we are dealing purely in

fiction, the writer will add that he has known a long

thirty-two pounder carried over these same falls in perfect


To say that Cap was astonished would not be expressing half his feelings; he felt awed: for the profound dread of rocks which most seamen entertain came in aid of his admiration of the boldness of the exploit. Still he was indisposed to express all he felt, lest it might be conceding too much in favor of fresh water and inland navigation; and no sooner had he cleared his throat with the afore-said hem, than he loosened his tongue in the usual strain of superiority.

“I do not gainsay your knowledge of the channel, Master Eau-douce, and, after all, to know the channel in such a place is the main point. I have had cockswains with me who could come down that shoot too, if they only knew the channel.”

“It isn’t enough to know the channel,” said Pathfinder; “it needs narves and skill to keep the canoe straight, and to keep her clear of the rocks too. There isn’t another boatman in all this region that can shoot the Oswego, but Eau-douce there, with any sartainty; though, now and then, one has blundered through. I can’t do it myself unless by means of Providence, and it needs Jasper’s hand and eye to make sure of a dry passage. Fourteen spoonfuls, after all, are no great matter, though I wish it had been but ten, seeing that the Sergeant’s daughter was a looker-on.”

“And yet you conned the canoe; you told him how to head and how to sheer.”

“Human frailty, master mariner; that was a little of white-skin natur’. Now, had the Sarpent, yonder, been in the boat, not a word would he have spoken, or thought would he have given to the public. An Indian knows how to hold his tongue; but we white folk fancy we are always wiser than our fellows. I’m curing myself fast of the weakness, but it needs time to root up the tree that has been growing more than thirty years.”

“I think little of this affair, sir; nothing at all to speak my mind freely. It’s a mere wash of spray to shooting London Bridge which is done every day by hundreds of persons, and often by the most delicate ladies in the land. The king’s majesty has shot the bridge in his royal person.”

“Well, I want no delicate ladies or king’s majesties (God bless ’em!) in the canoe, in going over these falls; for a boat’s breadth, either way, may make a drowning matter of it. Eau-douce, we shall have to carry the Sergeant’s brother over Niagara yet, to show him what may be done in a frontier.”

“The devil! Master Pathfinder, you must be joking now! Surely it is not possible for a bark canoe to go over that mighty cataract?”

“You never were more mistaken, Master Cap, in your life. Nothing is easier and many is the canoe I have seen go over it with my own eyes; and if we both live I hope to satisfy you that the feat can be done. For my part, I think the largest ship that ever sailed on the ocean might be carried over, could she once get into the rapids.”

Cap did not perceive the wink which Pathfinder exchanged with Eau-douce, and he remained silent for some time; for, sooth to say, he had never suspected the possibility of going down Niagara, feasible as the thing must appear to every one on a second thought, the real difficulty existing in going up it.

By this time the party had reached the place where Jasper had left his own canoe, concealed in the bushes, and they all re-embarked; Cap, Jasper, and his niece in one boat and Pathfinder, Arrowhead, and the wife of the latter in the other. The Mohican had already passed down the banks of the river by land, looking cautiously and with the skill of his people for the signs of an enemy.

The cheek of Mabel did not recover all its bloom until the canoe was again in the current, down which it floated swiftly, occasionally impelled by the paddle of Jasper. She witnessed the descent of the falls with a degree of terror which had rendered her mute; but her fright had not been so great as to prevent admiration of the steadiness of the youth who directed the movement from blending with the passing terror. In truth, one much less sensitive might have had her feelings awakened by the cool and gallant air with which Eau-douce had accomplished this clever exploit. He had stood firmly erect, notwithstanding the plunge; and to those on the shore it was evident that, by a timely application of his skill and strength, the canoe had received a sheer which alone carried it clear of a rock over which the boiling water was leaping in jets d’eau — now leaving the brown stone visible, and now covering it with a limpid sheet, as if machinery controlled the play of the element. The tongue cannot always express what the eyes view; but Mabel saw enough, even in that moment of fear, to blend for ever in her mind the pictures presented by the plunging canoe and the unmoved steersman. She admitted that insidious feeling which binds woman so strongly to man, by feeling additional security in finding herself under his care; and, for the first time since leaving Fort Stanwix, she was entirely at her ease in the frail bark in which she travelled. As the other canoe kept quite near her own, however, and the Pathfinder, by floating at her side, was most in view, the conversation was principally maintained with that person; Jasper seldom speaking unless addressed, and constantly exhibiting a wariness in the management of his own boat, which might have been remarked by one accustomed to his ordinarily confident, careless manner.

“We know too well a woman’s gifts to think of carrying the Sergeant’s daughter over the falls,” said Pathfinder, looking at Mabel, while he addressed her uncle; “though I’ve been acquainted with some of her sex that would think but little of doing the thing.”

“Mabel is faint-hearted, like her mother,” returned Cap; “and you did well, friend, to humor her weakness. You will remember the child has never been at sea.”

“No, no, it was easy to discover that; by your own fearlessness, any one might have seen how little you cared about the matter. I went over once with a raw hand, and he jumped out of the canoe just as it tipped, and you many judge what a time he had of it.”

“What became of the poor fellow?” asked Cap, scarcely knowing how to take the other’s manner, which was so dry, while it was so simple, that a less obtuse subject than the old sailor might well have suspected its sincerity. “One who has passed the place knows how to feel for him.”

“He was a poor fellow, as you say; and a poor frontierman too, though he came out to show his skill among us ignoranters. What became of him? Why, he went down the falls topsy-turvey like, as would have happened to a court-house or a fort.”

“If it should jump out of at canoe,” interrupted Jasper, smiling, though he was evidently more disposed than his friend to let the passage of the falls be forgotten.

“The boy is right,” rejoined Pathfinder, laughing in Mabel’s face, the canoes being now so near that they almost touched; “he is sartainly right. But you have not told us what you think of the leap we took?”

“It was perilous and bold,” said Mabel; “while looking at it, I could have wished that it had not been attempted, though, now it is over, I can admire its boldness and the steadiness with which it was made.”

“Now, do not think that we did this thing to set ourselves off in female eyes. It may be pleasant to the young to win each other’s good opinions by doing things which may seem praiseworthy and bold; but neither Eau-douce nor myself is of that race. My natur’ has few turns in it, and is a straight natur’; nor would it be likely to lead me into a vanity of this sort while out on duty. As for Jasper, he would sooner go over the Oswego Falls, without a looker-on, than do it before a hundred pair of eyes. I know the lad well from much consorting, and I am sure he is not boastful or vainglorious.”

Mabel rewarded the scout with a smile, which served to keep the canoes together for some time longer; for the sight of youth and beauty was so rare on that remote frontier, that even the rebuked and self-mortified feelings of this wanderer of the forest were sensibly touched by the blooming loveliness of the girl.

“We did it for the best,” Pathfinder continued; “’twas all for the best. Had we waited to carry the canoe across the portage, time would have been lost, and nothing is so precious as time when you are mistrustful of Mingos.”

“But we have little to fear now. The canoes move swiftly, and two hours, you have said, will carry us down to the fort.”

“It shall be a cunning Iroquois who hurts a hair of your head, pretty one; for all here are bound to the Sergeant, and most, I think, to yourself, to see you safe from harm. Ha, Eau-douce! what is that in the river, at the lower turn, yonder, beneath the bushes — I mean standing on the rock?”

“’Tis the Big Serpent, Pathfinder; he is making signs to us in a way I don’t understand.”

“’Tis the Sarpent, as sure as I’m a white man, and he wishes us to drop in nearer to his shore. Mischief is brewing, or one of his deliberation and steadiness would never take this trouble. Courage, all! We are men, and must meet devilry as becomes our color and our callings. Ah, I never knew good come of boasting! And here, just as I was vaunting of our safety, comes danger to give me the lie.”