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.