We who live in comfortable country homes, secure from every invader, find it difficult to conceive the trials that beset the hardy pioneers who settled our Western country during the last century.
In those days, and for many a year afterward, hostile Indians swarmed in every direction, wherever the white man had made a clearing, or started a home for himself in the wilderness. Sometimes the pioneer would be unmolested, but oftener his days were full of anxiety and danger. Indeed, history tells of many a time when the settler, after leaving home in the morning in search of game for his happy household would return at night to find his family murdered or carried away and his cabin a mass of smoking ruins. Only in the comparatively crowded settlements, where strength was in numbers, could the white inhabitants hope for security — though bought at the price of constant vigilance and precaution.
In one of these settlements, where a few neatly whitewashed cabins, and rougher log huts, clustered on the banks of a bend in the Ohio River, dwelt a man named Hedden, with his wife and three children. His farm stretched further into the wilderness than his neighbors’, for his had been one of the first cabins built there, and his axe, ringing merrily through the long days, had hewn down an opening in the forest, afterward famous in that locality as “Neighbor Hedden’s Clearing.” Here he had planted and gathered his crops year after year, and in spite of annoyances from the Indians, who robbed his fields, and from bears, who sometimes visited his farm stock, his family had lived in security so long that, as the settlement grew, his wife sang at her work, and his little ones shouted at their play as merrily as though New York or Boston were within a stone’s throw. To be sure, the children were bidden never to stray far from home, especially at nightfall; and the crack of rifles ringing now and then through the forest paled their cheeks for an instant, as the thought of some shaggy bear, furious in his death agony, crossed their minds.
Sometimes, too, the children would whisper together of the fate of poor Annie Green, who, a few years before had been found killed in the forest; or their mother would tell them with pale lips of the night when their father and neighbor Freeman encountered two painted Indians near the cabin. The tomahawk of the Indian who tried to kill their father was still hanging upon the cabin wall.
But all this had happened twelve years earlier — before Bessie, the oldest girl, was born — and seemed to the children’s minds like a bit of ancient history — almost as far off as the exploits of Hannibal or Julius Caesar appear to us. So, as I have said, the girls and boys of the settlement shouted joyously at their play, or ran in merry groups to the rough log hut, called “The School-House,” little dreaming of the cares and anxieties of their elders.
Bessie Hedden was a merry-hearted creature, and so pretty that, had she been an Indian maiden, she would have been known as “Wild Rose,” or “Singing Bird,” or “Water Lily,” or some such name. As it was, many of the villagers called her “Little Sunshine,” for her joyous spirit could light up the darkest corner. She was faithful at school, affectionate and industrious at home, and joyous and honorable among her playmates. What wonder, then, that everybody loved her, or that she was happiest among the happy? Her brother Rudolph was much younger than she, — a rosy-checked, strong-armed little urchin of seven years; and Kitty, the youngest of the Hedden children, was but three years of age at the date at which my story opens.
There was one other individual belonging to the family circle, larger even than Bessie, stronger and saucier even than Rudolph, and but little older than Kitty. He had no hands, yet once did, as all admitted, the best day’s work ever performed by any member of the family. This individual’s name was Bouncer, and he had a way of walking about on all-fours, and barking — probably in consequence of his having been created a dog.
Bouncer loved all the children dearly; but, stout-hearted fellow that he was, he loved the weakest one best; and, therefore, little Kitty was never without a friend and protector. Ever since a certain day in the summer, when she had fallen into the stream, and had been carried home insensible by Bouncer, Kitty had loved the huge mastiff dearly, and nightly added to her simple prayer, “Please, God, bless dear Bouncer, too!”
And Bouncer was blessed beyond most dogs. Gentle as a baby when Kitty’s arm was about his neck, he was fierce as a lion when fierceness was required. His great white teeth were a terror to evil-doers, and his bark in the dead of night would make venturesome bears sneak back into the forest like kittens.
Often would Mrs. Hedden say to her neighbors, that with “husband’s rifle and Bouncer’s teeth, she felt that she lived in a fortress. As for the children,” she would add, laughingly, “I scarcely ever feel any anxiety about them, when I know that Bouncer has joined their little expeditions. He is a regiment in himself.”
One of the favorite holiday resorts of Bessie and Rudolph was a lovely spot in the forest, not a quarter of a mile from the house. Shaded by giant oaks, whose gnarled roots lay like serpents, half hidden in the moss, ran a streamlet, covered with sunny speckles, where parted leaves admitted the sunshine. Flowers grew along its banks in wild profusion, and it held its wayward course with many a rippling fall and fantastic turn, until it was lost in the shades of the forest.
“Where does it go to, I wonder?” the children often would say to each other, longing for permission to follow its windings farther than the limits prescribed by their parents would allow.
“To the ocean, of course,” Rudolph would answer, triumphantly; while Bessie, looking at its golden ripple, and listening to its musical song, half believed that it carried its wealth of sparkling jewels to Fairyland itself.
Sometimes, when Bouncer was with them, they lingered so long by the mysterious streamlet, sending chip boats adrift upon its surface, or trying to adjust troublesome little water-wheels under some of its tiny cascades, that Mrs. Hedden would blow the big horn as a signal for their return; and as they ran home, playing with Bouncer by the way, or scolding him for shaking his wet sides under their very faces, they would inwardly resolve to coax father to take them up the stream on the very first pleasant Saturday.
Accordingly, on one bright Friday in June, as Bessie and Rudolph were returning from school together, they ran toward their father, who was working in the clearing.
“Father! father!” they shouted, “will you take us down the stream to-morrow? — we want to see where it goes to.”
“Goes to?” laughed back the father. “Why, it goes to the moon; didn’t Kitty say so last night?”
“Now, father,” returned Bessie, pouting just a little, “you know we don’t believe that. We want you so much to take us in the boat; it doesn’t leak at all now — oh! do.” And both children fairly capered in their excitement.
Mr. Hedden smiled; but; after wiping his forehead with a red and yellow handkerchief, went on thoughtfully with his work without returning any answer.
The children, looking wistfully at him a moment, turned toward the house, wondering among themselves, “what father meant to do about it.”
That evening, at the supper-table (where they didn’t have napkin rings or silver salt-cellars, I can assure you), Mr. Hedden asked his wife whether Tom Hennessy was back from “up river” yet?
“I think he came home yesterday,” returned his wife. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I thought, as to-morrow’ll be a holiday, I’d get him to take the youngsters down the stream in the scow.”
“Oh! husband,” rejoined Mrs. Hedden, looking up anxiously, “do you think it’s safe?”
“Why not, Betsey? — the scow doesn’t leak; and even if it did, the water isn’t above Tom’s waist anywhere.”
“I don’t mean anything of that kind,” pursued the wife, smiling in spite of herself at the joyful faces of the young folks. “I — I mean the Indians.”
“Oh, never fear about them; I’ll give Tom every necessary caution,” was the answer. “The boat won’t be gone more than two hours altogether; and, to my mind, there wouldn’t be the slightest danger in letting even little Kitty join the party.”
“Oh! tanky, Poppy, tanky!” shouted Kitty, clapping her chubby hands in great glee. Every one at the table laughed heartily at her unexpected response.
Bright and early the next morning, the children stood in the door-way, eagerly looking out for Tom. Big Tom, the village boys called him; and well they might, for he was a staunch, burly fellow, who looked as if he could crush an Indian in each hand — not that he had ever had an opportunity to perform that remarkable feat, for Tom Hennessy had but recently arrived from a large town in the East; but he looked as if he could do it; and, therefore, had credit for any amount of prowess and strength.
After sundry directions given by Mr. Hedden to Tom, and a command from their mother for the little folks to be home at dinner-time, they set forth amid shouts of laughter and merriment. Kitty was there in all her glory, for, after what “Poppy” had said, she had insisted upon joining the party. Even Bouncer, in spite of many a “Go back, sir!” “Call him, mother!” had quietly insinuated himself into the group, and neither threats nor coaxing could force him away.
It was a glorious day; and, as they neared the stream, it seemed to sparkle into joyous welcome at their approach.
Soon, comfortably seated in the scow, they were pushed and rowed laboriously along by the good-natured Tom, while Bouncer panted along the bank, or dashed into the water, splashing the boat in fine style. In passing the accustomed “limits,” the delight of the children knew no bounds.
“Now for it!” cried Bessie, clapping her hands. “Now we shall find out where the stream goes to!”
And so they sailed along, following its graceful windings — sometimes touching bottom, and sometimes skimming smoothly over deep water, where Kitty could no longer clutch for the tall, bright grass that here and there had reared itself above the surface. Often Big Tom would sing out, “Lie low!” as some great bough, hanging over the stream, seemed stretching out its arms to catch them; and often they were nearly checked in their course by a fallen trunk, or the shallowness of the water. At last, upon reaching a very troublesome spot, Tom cried good-naturedly —
“Now, youngsters, you must all get out while I turn the scow over this ‘ere log, and then you can jump in again on t’other side.”
With merry shouts they leaped out, one after the other, Tom holding Kitty in his arms, as he stood knee-deep in the water.
“What is the matter with Bouncer?” cried Bessie.
There was no time for a reply. Looking up, the frightened party saw three hideous faces peering at them over the bushes!
“The Indians! the Indians!” screamed Bessie.
Springing to the shore, and catching Rudolph with one arm, while he held Kitty tightly in the other, Tom Hennessy dashed into the forest, calling upon Bessie to follow. Poor Bessie! What could she do? With a thrill of horror she saw two fierce savages bounding after them with fearful yells, while a third, with upraised club, and tomahawk and scalping-knife in his belt, was rushing toward her.
Uttering one long piercing scream, the poor girl knelt to await her doom. A prolonged roar of fury caused her to raise her head. Bouncer, brave, noble Bouncer, and the Indian had fallen together in a deadly struggle! Now was her time! With new energy and hope, she sprang to her feet, and darted through the forest, rending the air with cries for help, and unconscious of whither she was flying.
“Rudolph! Kitty!” she cried, frantically. “God in heaven help us! Oh! help us!”
It was nearly dinner-time in the Hedden cottage. Farmer Hedden sat in the doorway, equipped in his hunting dress — for he usually spent Saturday afternoons in the forest; and it was only at his wife’s solicitation that he had consented to wait and “take a bite of dinner” before starting, Every now and then he raised his head from the almanac, over which he was bending, to listen to the whirr of his wife’s spinning-wheel, and her merry song issuing from the cottage, or to cast an impatient glance in the direction of the streamlet.
Within, all was neatness and cheerfulness; the clean deal table was arranged with its row of yellow platters and shining pewter-mugs — even the stools were standing round it, ready for the hungry household that usually assembled at noon, eager for dinner.
“Father’s” and “mother’s” places were at either end of the table; Rudolph’s and Kitty’s at one side (Kitty had a high chair made by “father” out of young oak branches); Bessie’s opposite; and, beside hers, the prettiest plate; and the brightest mug for Big Tom — for, of course, he must be asked to stay.
Everything was ready. Far back in the open fireplace the fagots were blazing and snapping. Hanging above them, the great iron pot threw forth a circle of noisy steam around the loosely fitted lid, while the potatoes within were in a high state of commotion — little ones tumbling pell-mell over big ones, and big ones rocking dolefully backward and forward in the boiling water as though they felt sure their end was approaching.
“Blow the horn again, John,” called out Mrs. Hedden, as she cut another slice from the big brown loaf that had rapidly been growing less under her shining knife. “Ha! ha! they can’t help hearing that,” she laughed, as her husband blew a blast even louder than usual.
After waiting a moment, Mr. Hedden came in, throwing the almanac on a low wooden settee as he entered.
“No use waiting any longer, wifey — let’s sit by. I don’t see a sign of the youngsters; though it did seem to me I heard some of ‘em screaming and laughing in the distance a bit ago. ‘Twon’t do, though,” he continued, shaking his head; “we must make the crazy little cubs mind the horn closer. Play’s play, and all well enough in its way, but you must teach children regularity from the very outset, or they’ll never be good for much.”
“That’s true enough, John,” answered his wife, as she “dished” some of the steaming potatoes — leaving a goodly number in the pot for the little folk — “that’s true enough; but you know this is a day of extra frolic for the children. They’re having such fun, likely, they’ve no notion how the time is passing. As for the horn, who could expect mortal ears to hear that — with Bessie and Big Tom laughing and singing, and Rudolph screaming with fun — as I know he is; and little Kit, bless her! just frantic with delight; I think I can see them now, the merry madcaps!”