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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Struggle in the Water

By James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)

[From The Pathfinder. 1840.]

“JASPER,” continued the guide, into whose character there entered no ingredient that belonged to vain display or theatrical effect, “will you undertake to bring in the canoe?”

“I will undertake anything that will serve and protect Mabel, Pathfinder.”

“That is an upright feeling, and I suppose it is natur’. The Sarpent, who is nearly naked already, can help you, and this will be cutting off one of the means of them devils to work their harm.”

This material point being settled, the different members of the party prepared themselves to put the project into execution. The shades of evening fell fast upon the forest, and by the time all was ready for the attempt, it was found impossible to discern objects on the opposite shore. Time now pressed, for Indian cunning could devise so many expedients for passing so narrow a stream, that the Pathfinder was getting impatient to quit the spot. While Jasper and his companion entered the river, armed with nothing but their knives and the Delaware’s tomahawk, observing the greatest caution not to betray their movements, the guide brought Mabel from her place of concealment, and bidding her and Cap proceed along the shore to the foot of the rapids, he got into the canoe that remained in his possession, in order to carry it to the same place.

This was easily effected. The canoe was laid against the bank, and Mabel and her uncle entered it, taking their seats as usual; while the Pathfinder, erect in the stern, held by a bush, in order to prevent the swift stream from sweeping them down its current. Several minutes of intense and breathless expectation followed, while they awaited the result of the bold attempt of their comrades.

It will be understood that the two adventurers were compelled to swim across a deep and rapid channel, ere they could reach a part of the rift that admitted of wading. This portion of the enterprise was soon effected; and Jasper and the Serpent struck the bottom, side by side, at the same instant. Having secured firm footing, they took hold of each other’s hands, and waded slowly and with extreme caution, in the supposed direction of the canoe. But the darkness was already so deep, that they soon ascertained they were to be but little aided by the sense of sight, and that their search must be conducted on that species of instinct which enables the woodsman to find his way, when the sun is hid, no stars appear, and all would seem chaos to one less accustomed to the mazes of the forest. Under these circumstances, Jasper submitted to be guided by the Delaware, whose habits best fitted him to take the lead. Still it was no easy matter to wade amid the roaring element at that hour, and retain a clear recollection of the localities. By the time they believed themselves to be in the centre of the stream, the two shores were discernible merely by masses of obscurity denser than common, the outlines against the clouds being barely distinguishable by the ragged tops of the trees. Once or twice the wanderers altered their course, in consequence of unexpectedly stepping into deep water, for they knew that the boat had lodged on the shallowest part of the rift. In short, with this fact for their compass, Jasper and his companion wandered about in the water for near a quarter of an hour, and at the end of that period, which began to appear interminable to the young man, they found themselves apparently no nearer the object of their search than they had been at its commencement. Just as the Delaware was about to stop, in order to inform his associate that they would do well to return to the land, in order to take a fresh departure, he saw the form of a man, moving about in the water, almost within reach of his arm. Jasper was at his side, and he at once understood that the Iroquois were engaged on the same errand as he was himself.

“Mingo!” he uttered in Jasper’s ear; “the Serpent will show his brother how to be cunning.”

The young sailor caught a glimpse of the figure at that instant, and the startling truth also flashed on his mind. Understanding the necessity of trusting all to the Delaware chief, he kept back, while his friend moved cautiously in the direction in which the strange form had vanished. In another moment it was seen again, evidently moving towards themselves. The waters made such an uproar, that little was to be apprehended from ordinary sounds, and the Indian, turning his head, hastily said,—

“Leave it to the cunning of the Great Serpent.”

“Hugh!” exclaimed the strange savage, adding, in the language of his people, “the canoe is found, but there were none to help me. Come, let us raise it from the rock.”

“Willingly,” answered Chingachgook, who understood the dialect, “lead: we will follow.”

The stranger, unable to distinguish between voices and accents, amid the raging of the rapid, led the way in the necessary direction, and, the two others keeping close at his heels, all three speedily reached the canoe. The Iroquois laid hold of one end, Chingachgook placed himself in the centre, and Jasper went to the opposite extremity, as it was important that the stranger should not detect the presence of a pale-face, a discovery that might be made, by the parts of the dress the young man still wore, as well as by the general appearance of his head.

“Lift,” said the Iroquois, in the sententious manner of his race; and by a trifling effort the canoe was raised from the rock, held a moment in the air to empty it, and then placed carefully on the water, in its proper position. All three held it firmly, lest it should escape from their hands, under the pressure of the violent current; while the Iroquois, who led of course, being at the upper end of the boat, took the direction of the eastern shore, or towards the spot where his friends waited his return.

As the Delaware and Jasper well knew there must be several more of the Iroquois on the rift, from the circumstance that their own appearance had occasioned no surprise in the individual they had met, both felt the necessity of extreme caution. Men less bold and determined would have thought that they were incurring too great a risk, by thus venturing into the midst of their enemies; but these hardy borderers were unacquainted with fear, were accustomed to hazard, and so well understood the necessity of at least preventing their foes from getting the boat, that they would have cheerfully encountered even greater risks to secure their object. So all-important to the safety of Mabel, indeed, did Jasper deem the possession or the destruction of this canoe, that he had drawn his knife, and stood ready to rip up the bark, in order to render the boat temporarily unserviceable, should anything occur to compel the Delaware and himself to abandon their prize.

In the mean time, the Iroquois, who led the way, proceeded slowly through the water in the direction of his own party, still grasping the canoe, and dragging his reluctant followers in his train. Once Chingachgook raised his tomahawk and was about to bury it in the brain of his confiding and unsuspicious neighbor, but the probability that the death-cry or the floating body might give the alarm, induced that wary chief to change his purpose. At the next moment he regretted this indecision, for the three who clung to the canoe suddenly found themselves in the centre of a party of no less than four others who were in quest of it.

After the usual brief, characteristic exclamations of satisfaction, the savages eagerly laid hold of the canoe, for all seemed impressed with the necessity of securing this important boat, the one side in order to assail their foes, and the other to secure their retreat. The addition to the party, however, was so unlooked for, and so completely gave the enemy the superiority, that, for a few moments, the ingenuity and address of even the Delaware were at fault. The five Iroquois, who seemed perfectly to understand their errand, pressed forward towards their own shore, without pausing to converse; their object being in truth to obtain the paddles, which they had previously secured, and to embark three or four warriors, with all their rifles and powder-horns, the want of which had alone prevented their crossing the river by swimming as soon as it was dark.

In this manner the body of friends and foes united reached the margin of the eastern channel, where, as in the case of the western, the river was too deep to be waded. Here a short pause succeeded, it being necessary to determine the manner in which the canoe was to be carried across. One of the four who had just reached the boat, was a chief, and the habitual deference which the American Indian pays to merit, experience, and station, kept the others silent until this individual had spoken.

The halt greatly added to the danger of discovering the presence of Jasper, in particular, who, however, had the precaution to throw the cap he wore into the bottom of the canoe. Being without his jacket and shirt, the outline of his figure, in the obscurity, would now be less likely to attract observation. His position, too, at the stern of the canoe, a little favored his concealment, the Iroquois naturally keeping their looks directed the other way. Not so with Chingachgook. This warrior was literally in the midst of his most deadly foes, and he could scarcely stir without touching one of them. Yet he was apparently unmoved, though he kept all his senses on the alert, in readiness to escape, or to strike a blow at the proper moment. By carefully abstaining from looking towards those behind him, he lessened the chances of discovery, and waited with the indomitable patience of an Indian for the instant when he should be required to act.

“Let all my young men, but two, one at each end of the canoe, cross and get their arms,” said the Iroquois chief. “Let the two push over the boat.”

The Indians quietly obeyed, leaving Jasper at the stern, and the Iroquois who had found the canoe at the bow of the light craft, Chingachgook burying himself so deep in the river, as to be passed by the others without detection. The splashing in the water, the tossing arms and the calls of one to another, soon announced that the four who had last joined the party were already swimming. As soon as this fact was certain, the Delaware rose, resumed his former station, and began to think the moment for action was come.

One less habitually under self-restraint than this warrior would probably have now aimed his meditated blow; but Chingachgook knew there were more Iroquois behind him on the rift, and he was a warrior much too trained and experienced to risk anything unnecessarily. He suffered the Indian at the bow of the canoe to push off into the deep water, and then all three were swimming in the direction of the eastern shore. Instead, however, of helping the canoe across the swift current, no sooner did the Delaware and Jasper find themselves within the influence of its greatest force, than both began to swim in a way to check their further progress across the stream. Nor was this done suddenly, or in the incautious manner in which a civilized man would have been apt to attempt the artifice, but warily, and so gradually that the Iroquois at the bow fancied at first he was merely struggling against the strength of the current. Of course, while acted on by these opposing efforts, the canoe drifted down the stream, and in about a minute it was floating in still deeper water at the foot of the rift. Here, however, the Iroquois was not slow in finding that something unusual retarded their advance, and looking back, he first learned that he was resisted by the efforts of his companions.

That second nature, which grows up through habit, instantly told the young Iroquois that he was alone with enemies. Dashing the water aside, he sprang at the throat of Chingachgook, and the two Indians, relinquishing their hold of the canoe, seized each other like tigers. In the midst of the darkness of that gloomy night, and floating in an element so dangerous to man, when engaged in deadly strife, they appeared to forget everything but their fell animosity, and their mutual desire to conquer.

Jasper had now complete command of the canoe, which flew off like a feather impelled by the breath, under the violent reaction of the struggles of the two combatants. The first impulse of the youth was to swim to the aid of the Delaware, but the importance of securing the boat presented itself with tenfold force, while he listened to the heavy breathings of the warriors as they throttled each other, and he proceeded as fast as possible towards the western shore. This he soon reached, and after a short search, he succeeded in discovering the remainder of the party, and in procuring his clothes. A few words sufficed to explain the situation in which he had left the Delaware, and the manner in which the canoe had been obtained.

When those who had been left behind had heard the explanations of Jasper, a profound stillness reigned among them, each listening intently in the vain hope of catching some clew to the result of the fearful struggle that had just taken place, if it were not still going on in the water. Nothing was audible beyond the steady roar of the rushing river; it being a part of the policy of their enemies on the opposite shore to observe the most death-like stillness.

“Take this paddle, Jasper,” said Pathfinder, calmly, though the listeners thought his voice sounded more melancholy than usual, “and follow with your own canoe. It is unsafe for us to remain here longer.”

“But the Serpent?”

“The Great Sarpent is in the hands of his own Deity, and will live or die according to the intentions of Providence. We can do him no good, and may risk too much by remaining here in idleness, like women talking over their distresses. This darkness is very precious”—

A loud, long, piercing yell came from the shore, and cut short the words of the guide.

“What is the meaning of that uproar, Master Pathfinder?” demanded Cap. “It sounds more like the outcries of devils than anything that can come from the throats of Christians and men.”

“Christians they are not, and do not pretend to be, and do not wish to be; and in calling them devils you have scarcely misnamed them. That yell is one of rejoicing, and it is as conquerors they have given it. The body of the Sarpent, no doubt, dead or alive, is in their power!”