As the company from Stockbridge surmounted the crest of a hill, about half way to Barrington, they saw a girl in a blue tunic, a brown rush hat, and a short gown, of the usual butternut dye, trudging on in the same direction, some distance ahead. As she looked back, in evident amazement at the column of men marching after her, Perez thought that he recognized the face, and on coming up with her, she proved to be, in fact, no other than Prudence Fennell, the little lass who had called at the house Sunday evening to inquire about her father down at the jail, and whose piteous grief at the report Perez was obliged to give, had determined Abner and him to attempt the rescue of George, as well as Reub, at whatever additional risk.
Far enough were they then from dreaming that two days later would find them leading a battalion of armed men, by broad daylight along the high road, to free the captives by open force. As readily would they then have counted on an earthquake to open the prison doors, as on this sudden uprising of the people in their strength.
As the men came up, Prudence stopped to let them pass by, her fresh, pretty face expressive of considerable dismay. As she shrunk closely up to the rail fence that lined the highway, she looked with timid recognition up at Perez, as if to claim his protection.
"Where are you going?" he asked kindly, stopping his horse.
"I'm going to see father," she said with a tremulous lip.
"Poor little lassie, were you going to walk all the way?"
"It is nothing," she said, "I could not wait, you know. He might die," and her bosom heaved with a sob that would fain break forth.
Perez threw himself from his horse.
"We are all going to the jail," he said. "You shall come with us, and ride upon my horse. Men, she shall lead us."
The men, whose discipline was not as yet very rigid, had halted and crowded around to listen to the dialogue, and received this proposition with a cheer. Prudence would far rather had them go on, and leave her to make her own way, but she was quite too much scared to resist as Perez lifted her upon his saddle. He shortened one of the stirrups, to support her foot, and then the column took up its march under the new captain, Perez walking by her side and leading the horse.
Had he arranged this stroke beforehand, he could not have hit on a more effective device for toning up the morals of the men. Those in whose minds the old misgivings as to their course had succeeded the sudden inspiration of Little Pete's drum, now felt that the child riding ahead lent a new and sacred sanction to their cause. They all knew her story, and to their eyes she seemed, at this moment, an embodiment of the spirit of suffering and outraged humanity, which had nerved them for this day's work. A more fitting emblem, a more inspiring standard, could not have been borne before them. But it must not be supposed that even this prevented, now and then, a conscience-stricken individual from stopping to drink at some brook crossing the road, until the column had passed the next bend in the road, and then slinking home cross-lots, taking an early opportunity after arriving to pass the store, so as to be seen and noted as not among the rioters. But whatever was lost in this way, if the defection of such material can be called a loss, was more than made up by the recruits which swelled the ranks from the farmhouses along the road. And so, by the time they entered Muddy Brook, a settlement just outside of Great Barrington, through which the road from Stockbridge then passed, they numbered full one hundred and fifty.
Muddy Brook was chiefly inhabited by a poor and rather low class of people, who, either from actual misery or mere riotous inclination, might naturally be expected to join in any movement against constituted authority. But instead of gaining any accession of forces here, the Stockbridge party found the place almost deserted. Even the small boys, and the dogs were gone, and apparently a large part of the able-bodied women as well.
"What be all the folks?" called out Abner to a woman who stood with a baby in arms at an open door.
"Over tew Barrington seein the fun. Thar be great dewins," she replied.
This news imparted valor to the most faint-hearted, for it was now apparent that this was not a movement in which Stockbridge was alone engaged, not a mere local revolt, but a general, popular uprising, whose extent would be its justification. And yet, prepared as they thus were, to find a goodly number of sympathizers already on the ground, it was with mingled exultation and astonishment that, on topping the high hill which separates Muddy Brook from Great Barrington, and gaining a view of the latter place, they beheld the streets packed, and the green in front of the court house fairly black with people.
There was a general outburst of surprise and satisfaction.
"By gosh, it looks like gineral trainin, or'n ordination."
"Looks kinder 'z if a good many fellers b'sides us hed business with the jestices this mornin."
"I'd no idee courts wuz so pop'lar."
"They ain't stocks nuff in Berkshire fer all the fellers as is out tidday, that's one sure thing, by gol."
"No, by Jock, nor Saddleback mounting ain't big nuff pillory to hold em, nuther," were some of the ejaculations which at once expressed the delight and astonishment of the men, and at the same time betrayed the nature of their previous misgivings, as to the possible consequences of this day's doings. Estimates of the number of the crowd in Barrington, which were freely offered, ranged all the way from two thousand to ten thousand, but Perez, practiced in such calculations, placed the number at about eight or nine hundred men, half as many women and boys. What gave him the liveliest satisfaction was the absence of any military force, not indeed that he would have hesitated to fight if he could not have otherwise forced access to the jail, but he had contemplated the possibility of such a bloody collision between the people and militia, with much concern.
"There'll be no fighting to-day, boys," he said, turning to the men, "you'd better let off your muskets, so there may be no accidents. Fire in the air," and thus with a ringing salvo, that echoed and reechoed among the hills and was answered with acclamations from the multitude in the village, the Stockbridge battalion, with the girl riding at its head, entered Great Barrington, and breaking ranks, mingled with the crowd.
"Bully, we be jess in time to see the fun," cried Obadiah delightedly, as the courthouse bell rang out, thereby announcing that the justices had left their lodgings to proceed to the courthouse and open court.
"I declar for't," exclaimed Jabez, "I wonder ef they be gonter try tew hole court 'n spite o' all that crowd. Thar they be sure's rates."
And, indeed, as he spoke, the door of the residence of Justice Dwight opened, and High Sheriff Israel Dickinson, followed by Justice Dwight and the three other justices of the quorum, issued therefrom, and took up their march directly toward the courthouse, seemingly oblivious of the surging mass of a thousand men, which barred their way.
The sheriff advanced with a goose step, carrying his wand of office, and the justices strode in Indian file behind him. They were dressed in fine black suits, with black silk hose, silver buckles on their shoes, fine white ruffled shirts, and ponderous cocked hats upon their heavily powdered wigs. Their chests were well thrown out, their chins were held in air, their lips were judicially pursed, and their eyes were contemplatively fixed on vacancy, as if they had never for a moment admitted the possibility that any impediment might be offered to their progress. It must be admitted that their bearing worthily represented the prestige of ancient authority and moral majesty of law. Nor did the mob fail to render the tribute of an involuntary admiration to this imposing and apparently invincible advance. It had evidently been taken for granted that the mere assemblying and riotous attitude of so great a multitude, bristling with muskets and bludgeons, would suffice to prevent the justices from making any attempt to hold court. It was with a certain awe, and a silence interrupted only by murmurs of astonishment, that the people now awaited their approach. Perhaps had the throng been less dense, it might have justified the serene and haughty confidence of the justices, by opening a path for them. But however disposed the first ranks might have been to give way, they could not by reason of the pressure from behind, and on every side.
Still the sheriff continued to advance, with as much apparent confidence of opening a way as if his wand were the veritable rod wherewith Moses parted the Red Sea, until he almost trod on the toes of the shrinking first rank. But there he was fain to pause. Moral force cannot penetrate a purely physical obstacle.
And when the sheriff stopped, the justices marching behind him also stopped. Not indeed that their honors so far forgot their dignity as to appear to take direct cognizance of the vulgar and irregular impediment before them. It was the sheriff's business to clear the way for them. And although Justice Dwight's face was purple with indignation, he, as well as his associates, continued to look away into vacancy, suffering not their eyes to catch any of the glances of the people before them.
"Make way! Make way for the honorable justices of the Court of Common Pleas of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!" cried the sheriff, in loud, imperative tones.
A dead silence of several moments followed, in which the rattling of a farmer's cart, far down the street, as it brought in a belated load of insurgents from Sheffield, was distinctly audible. Then somebody in the back part of the crowd, impressed with a certain ludicrousness in the situation, tittered. Somebody else tittered, then a number, and presently a hoarse haw haw of derision, growing momentarily louder, and soon after mingled with yells, hoots and catcalls, burst forth from a thousand throats. The prestige of the honorable justices of the Court of Common Pleas, was gone.
A moment still they hesitated. Then the sheriff turned and said something to them in a low voice, and they forthwith faced about and deliberately marched back toward their lodgings. In this retrograde movement the sheriff acted as rear guard, and he had not gone above a dozen steps, before a rotten egg burst on one shoulder of his fine new coat, and as he wheeled around an apple took him in the stomach, and at the same moment the cocked hat of Justice Goodrich of Pittsfield, was knocked off with a stone. His honor did not apparently think it expedient to stop just then to pick it up, and Obadiah Weeks, leaping forward, made it a prey, and instantly elevated it on a pole, amid roars of derisive laughter. The retreat of the justices had indeed so emboldened the more ruffianly and irresponsible element of the crowd, many of whom were drunk, that it was just as well for the bodily safety of their honors that the distance to their lodgings was no greater. As it was, stones were flying fast, and the mob was close on the heels of the sheriff when the house was gained, and as he attempted to shut the door after him, there was a rush of men, bent on entering with him. He knocked down the first, but would have been instantly overpowered and trampled on, had not Perez Hamlin, followed by Abner, Peleg, Abe Konkapot and half a dozen other Stockbridge men, shouldered their way through the crowd, and come to his relief. Where then had Perez been, meantime?
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