The story of the frontier is filled with heroines, from the far days of Hannah Dustin down to the present, and Mary Newton, whom the unknown figure in the dark had just aroused, is one of them. It had seemed to her that God himself had deserted her, but at the last moment he had sent some one. She did not doubt, she could not doubt, because the bonds had been severed, and there she lay with a deadly weapon in either hand. The friendly stranger who had come so silently was gone as he had come, but she was not helpless now. Like many another frontier woman, she was naturally lithe and powerful, and, stirred by a great hope, all her strength had returned for the present.
Nobody who lives in the wilderness can wholly escape superstition, and Mary Newton began to believe that some supernatural creature had intervened in her behalf. She raised herself just a little on one elbow and surveyed the surrounding thicket. She saw only the dead embers of the fire, and the dark forms of the Indians lying upon the bare ground. Had it not been for the knife and pistol in her hand, she could have believed that the voice was only a dream.
There was a slight rustling in the thicket, and a Seneca rose quickly to his knees, grasping his rifle in both hands. The woman's fingers clutched the knife and pistol more tightly, and her whole gaunt figure trembled. The Seneca listened only a moment. Then he gave a sharp cry, and all the other warriors sprang up. But three of them rose only to fall again, as the rifles cracked in the bushes, while two others staggered from wounds.
The triumphant shout of the frontiersmen came from the thicket, and then they rushed upon the camp. Quick as a flash two of the Senecas started toward the woman and children with their tomahawks, but Mary Newton was ready. Her heart had leaped at the shots when the Senecas fell, and she kept her courage. Now she sprang to her full height, and, with the children screaming at her feet, fired one barrel of the pistol directly into the face of the first warrior, and served the second in the same way with the other barrel when he was less than four feet away. Then, tomahawk in hand, she rushed forward. In judging Mary Newton, one must consider time and place.
But happily there was no need for her to use her tomahawk. As the five rushed in, four of them emptied their double-barreled pistols, while Henry swung his clubbed rifle with terrible effect. It was too much for the Senecas. The apparition of the armed woman, whom they had left bound, and the deadly fire from the five figures that sprang upon them, was like a blow from the hand of Aieroski. The unhurt and wounded fled deep into the forest, leaving their dead behind. Mary Newton, her great deed done, collapsed from emotion and weakness. The screams of the children sank in a few moments to frightened whimpers. But the oldest, when they saw the white faces, knew that rescue had come.
Paul brought water from the brook in his cap, and Mary Newton was revived; Jim was reassuring the children, and the other three were in the thickets, watching lest the surviving Senecas return for attack.
"I don't know who you are, but I think the good God himself must have sent you to our rescue," said Mary Newton reverently.
"We don't know," said Paul, "but we are doing the best we can. Do you think you can walk now?"
"Away from the savages? Yes!" she said passionately. She looked down at the dead figures of the Senecas, and she did not feel a single trace of pity for them. Again it is necessary to consider time and place.
"Some of my strength came back while I was lying here," she said, "and much more of it when you drove away the Indians."
"Very well," said Henry, who had returned to the dead camp fire with his comrades, "we must start on the back trail at once. The surviving Senecas, joined by other Iroquois, will certainly pursue, and we need all the start that we can get."
Long Jim picked up one of the two younger children and flung him over his shoulder; Tom Ross did as much for the other, but the older two scorned help. They were full of admiration for the great woodsmen, mighty heroes who had suddenly appeared out of the air, as it were, and who had swept like a tornado over the Seneca band. It did not seem possible now that they, could be retaken.
But Mary Newton, with her strength and courage, had also recovered her forethought.
"Maybe it will not be better to go on the back trail," she said. "One of the Senecas told me to-day that six or seven miles farther on was a river flowing into the Susquehanna, and that they would cross this river on a boat now concealed among bushes on the bank. The crossing was at a sudden drop between high banks. Might not we go on, find the boat, and come back in it down the river and into the Susquehanna?"
"That sounds mighty close to wisdom to me," said Shif'less Sol. "Besides, it's likely to have the advantage o' throwin' the Iroquois off our track. They'll think, o' course, that we've gone straight back, an' we'll pass 'em ez we're going forward."
"It's certainly the best plan," said Henry, "and it's worth our while to try for that hidden boat of the Iroquois. Do you know the general direction?"
"Almost due north."
"Then we'll make a curve to the right, in order to avoid any Iroquois who may be returning to this camp, and push for it."
Henry led the way over hilly, rough ground, and the others followed in a silent file, Long Jim and Tom still carrying the two smallest children, who soon fell asleep on their shoulders. Henry did not believe that the returning Iroquois could follow their trail on such a dark night, and the others agreed with him.
After a while they saw the gleam of water. Henry knew that it must be very near, or it would have been wholly invisible on such a dark night.
"I think, Mrs. Newton," he said, "that this is the river of which you spoke, and the cliffs seem to drop down just as you said they would."
The woman smiled.
"Yes," she said, "you've done well with my poor guess, and the boat must be hidden somewhere near here."
Then she sank down with exhaustion, and the two older children, unable to walk farther, sank down beside her. But the two who slept soundly on the shoulders of Long Jim and Tom Ross did not awaken. Henry motioned to Jim and Tom to remain there, and Shif'less Sol bent upon them a quizzical and approving look.
"Didn't think it was in you, Jim Hart, you old horny-handed galoot," he said, "carryin' a baby that tender. Knew Jim could sling a little black bar 'roun' by the tail, but I didn't think you'd take to nussin' so easy."
"I'd luv you to know, Sol Hyde," said Jim Hart in a tone of high condescension, "that Tom Ross an' me are civilized human bein's. In face uv danger we are ez brave ez forty thousand lions, but with the little an' the weak we're as easy an' kind an' soft ez human bein's are ever made to be."
"You're right, old hoss," said Tom Ross.
"Well," said the shiftless one, "I can't argify with you now, ez the general hez called on his colonel, which is me, an' his major, which is Paul, to find him a nice new boat like one o' them barges o' Clepatry that Paul tells about, all solid silver, with red silk sails an' gold oars, an' we're meanin' to do it."
Fortune was with them, and in a quarter of an hour they discovered, deep among bushes growing in the shallow water, a large, well-made boat with two pairs of oars and with small supplies of parched corn and venison hidden in it.
"Good luck an' bad luck come mixed," said the shift-less one, "an' this is shorely one o' our pieces o' good luck. The woman an' the children are clean tuckered out, an' without this boat we could never hev got them back. Now it's jest a question o' rowin' an' fightin'."
"Paul and I will pull her out to the edge of the clear water," said Henry, "while you can go back and tell the others, Sol."
"That just suits a lazy man," said Sol, and he walked away jauntily. Under his apparent frivolity he concealed his joy at the find, which he knew to be of such vast importance. He approached the dusky group, and his really tender heart was stirred with pity for the rescued captives. Long Jim and Silent Tom held the smaller two on their shoulders, but the older ones and the woman, also, had fallen asleep. Sol, in order to conceal his emotion, strode up rather roughly. Mary Newton awoke.
"Did you find anything?" she asked.
"Find anything?" repeated Shif'less Sol. "Well, Long Jim an' Tom here might never hev found anything, but Henry an' Paul an' me, three eddicated men, scholars, I might say, wuz jest natcherally bound to find it whether it wuz thar or not. Yes, we've unearthed what Paul would call an argosy, the grandest craft that ever floated on this here creek, that I never saw before, an' that I don't know the name uv. She's bein' floated out now, an' I, the Gran' Hidalgo an' Majordomo, hev come to tell the princes and princesses, an' the dukes and dukesses, an' all the other gran' an' mighty passengers, that the barge o' the Dog o' Venice is in the stream, an' the Dog, which is Henry Ware, is waitin', settin' on the Pup to welcome ye."
"Sol," said Long Jim, "you do talk a power uv foolishness, with your Dogs an' Pups."
"It ain't foolishness," rejoined the shiftless one. "I heard Paul read it out o' a book oncet, plain ez day. They've been ruled by Dogs at Venice for more than a thousand years, an' on big 'casions the Dog comes down a canal in a golden barge, settin' on the Pup. I'll admit it 'pears strange to me, too, but who are you an' me, Jim Hart, to question the ways of foreign countries, thousands o' miles on the other side o' the sea?"
"They've found the boat," said Tom Ross, "an' that's enough!"
"Is it really true?" asked Mrs. Newton.
"It is," replied Shif'less Sol, "an' Henry an' Paul are in it, waitin' fur us. We're thinkin', Mrs. Newton, that the roughest part of your trip is over."
In another five minutes all were in the boat, which was a really fine one, and they were delighted. Mary Newton for the first time broke down and wept, and no one disturbed her. The five spread the blankets on the bottom of the boat, where the children soon went to sleep once more, and Tom Ross and Shif'less Sol took the oars.
"Back in a boat ag'in," said the shiftless one exultantly. "Makes me feel like old times. My fav'rite mode o' travelin' when Jim Hart, 'stead o' me, is at the oars."
"Which is most o' the time," said Long Jim.
It was indeed a wonderful change to these people worn by the wilderness. They lay at ease now, while two pairs of powerful arms, with scarcely an effort, propelled the boat along the stream. The woman herself lay down on the blankets and fell asleep with the children. Henry at the prow, Tom Ross at the stern, and Paul amidships watched in silence, but with their rifles across their knees. They knew that the danger was far from over. Other Indians were likely to use this stream, unknown to them, as a highway, and those who survived of their original captors could pick up their trail by daylight. And the Senecas, being mad for revenge, would surely get help and follow. Henry believed that the theory of returning toward the Wyoming Valley was sound. That region had been so thoroughly ravaged now that all the Indians would be going northward. If they could float down a day or so without molestation, they would probably be safe. The creek, or, rather, little river, broadened, flowing with a smooth, fairly swift current. The forest on either side was dense with oak, hickory, maple, and other splendid trees, often with a growth of underbrush. The three riflemen never ceased to watch intently. Henry always looked ahead. It would have been difficult for any ambushed marksman to have escaped his notice. But nothing occurred to disturb them. Once a deer came down to drink, and fled away at sight of the phantom boat gliding almost without noise on the still waters. Once the far scream of a panther came from the woods, but Mary Newton and her children, sleeping soundly, did not hear it. The five themselves knew the nature of the sound, and paid no attention. The boat went steadily on, the three riflemen never changing their position, and soon the day began to come. Little arrows of golden light pierced through the foliage of the trees, and sparkled on the surface of the water. In the cast the red sun was coming from his nightly trip. Henry looked down at the sleepers. They were overpowered by exhaustion, and would not awake of their own accord for a long time.
Shif'less Sol caught his look.
"Why not let 'em sleep on?" he said.
Then he and Jim Hart took the oars, and the shiftless one and Tom Ross resumed their rifles. The day was coming fast, and the whole forest was soon transfused with light.
No one of the five had slept during the night. They did not feel the need of sleep, and they were upborne, too, by a great exaltation. They had saved the prisoners thus far from a horrible fate, and they were firmly resolved to reach, with them, some strong settlement and safety. They felt, too, a sense of exultation over Brant, Sangerachte, Hiokatoo, the Butlers, the Johnsons, Wyatt, and all the crew that had committed such terrible devastation in the Wyoming Valley and elsewhere.
The full day clothed the earth in a light that turned from silver to gold, and the woman and the children still slept. The five chewed some strips of venison, and looked rather lugubriously at the pieces they were saving for Mary Newton and the children.
"We ought to hev more'n that," said Shif'less Sol. Ef the worst comes to the worst, we've got to land somewhar an' shoot a deer."
"But not yet," said Henry in a whisper, lest he wake the sleepers. "I think we'll come into the Susquehanna pretty soon, and its width will be a good thing for us. I wish we were there now. I don't like this narrow stream. Its narrowness affords too good an ambush."
"Anyway, the creek is broadenin' out fast," said the shiftless one, "an' that is a good sign., What's that you see ahead, Henry-ain't it a river?"
"It surely is," replied Henry, who caught sight of a broad expanse of water, "and it's the Susquehanna. Pull hard, Sol! In five more minutes we'll be in the river."
It was less than five when they turned into the current of the Susquehanna, and less than five more when they heard a shout behind them, and saw at least a dozen canoes following. The canoes were filled with Indians and Tories, and they had spied the fugitives.
"Keep the women and the children down, Paul," cried Henry.
All knew that Henry and Shif'less Sol were the best shots, and, without a word, Long Jim and Tom, both powerful and skilled watermen, swung heavily on the oars, while Henry and Shif'less Sol sat in the rear with their rifles ready. Mary Newton awoke with a cry at the sound of the shots, and started to rise, but Paul pushed her down.
"We're on the Susquehanna now, Mrs. Newton," he said, " and we are pursued. The Indians and Tories have just seen us, but don't be afraid. The two who are watching there are the best shots in the world."
He looked significantly at Henry and Shif'less Sol, crouching in the stern of the boat like great warriors from some mighty past, kings of the forest whom no one could overcome, and her courage came back. The children, too, had awakened with frightened cries, but she and Paul quickly soothed them, and, obedient to commands, the four, and Mary Newton with them, lay flat upon the bottom of the boat, which was now being sent forward rapidly by Jim Hart and Tom. Paul took up his rifle and sat in a waiting attitude, either to relieve one of the men at the oars or to shoot if necessary.
The clear sun made forest and river vivid in its light. The Indians, after their first cry, made no sound, but so powerful were Long Jim and Tom that they were gaining but little, although some of the boats contained six or eight rowers.
As the light grew more intense Henry made out the two white faces in the first boat. One was that of Braxton Wyatt, and the other, he was quite sure, belonged to the infamous Walter Butler. Hot anger swept through all his veins, and the little pulses in his temples began to beat like trip hammers. Now the picture of Wyoming, the battle, the massacre, the torture, and Queen Esther wielding her great tomahawk on the bound captives, grew astonishingly vivid, and it was printed blood red on his brain. The spirit of anger and defiance, of a desire to taunt those who had done such things, leaped up in his heart.
"Are you there, Braxton Wyatt?" he called clearly across the intervening water. "Yes, I see that it is you, murderer of women and children, champion of the fire and stake, as savage as any of the savages. And it is you, too, Walter Butler, wickeder son of a wicked father. Come a little closer, won't you? We've messengers here for both of you!"
He tapped lightly the barrel of his own rifle and that of Shif'less Sol, and repeated his request that they come a little closer.
They understood his words, and they understood, also, the significant gesture when he patted the barrel of the rifles. The hearts of both Butler and Wyatt were for the moment afraid, and their boat dropped back to third place. Henry laughed aloud when he saw. The Viking rage was still upon him. This was the primeval wilderness, and these were no common foes.
"I see that you don't want to receive our little messengers," he cried. "Why have you dropped back to third place in the line, Braxton Wyatt and Walter Butler, when you were first only a moment ago? Are you cowards as well as murderers of women and children?"
"That's pow'ful good talk," said Shif'less Sol admiringly. "Henry, you're a real orator. Give it to 'em, an' mebbe I'll get a chance at one o' them renegades."
It seemed that Henry's words had an effect, because the boat of the renegades pulled up somewhat, although it did not regain first place. Thus the chase proceeded down the Susquehanna.
The Indian fleet was gaining a little, and Shif'less Sol called Henry's attention to it.
"Don't you think I'd better take a shot at one o' them rowers in the first boat?" he said to Henry. "Wyatt an' Butler are a leetle too fur away."
"I think it would give them a good hint, Sol!" said Henry. "Take that fellow on the right who is pulling so hard."
The shiftless one raised his rifle, lingered but a little over his aim, and pulled the trigger. The rower whom Henry had pointed out fell back in the boat, his hands slipping from the handles of his oars. The boat was thrown into confusion, and dropped back in the race. Scattering shots were fired in return, but all fell short, the water spurting up in little jets where they struck.
Henry, who had caught something of the Indian nature in his long stay among them in the northwest, laughed in loud irony.
"That was one of our little messengers, and it found a listener!" he shouted. "And I see that you are afraid, Braxton Wyatt and Walter Butler, murderers of women and children! Why don't you keep your proper places in the front?"
"That's the way to talk to 'em," whispered Shif'less Sol, as he reloaded. "Keep it up, an' mebbe we kin git a chance at Braxton Wyatt hisself. Since Wyoming I'd never think o' missin' sech a chance."
"Nor I, either," said Henry, and he resumed in his powerful tones: "The place of a leader is in front, isn't it? Then why don't you come up?"
Braxton Wyatt and Walter Butler did not come up. They were not lacking in courage, but Wyatt knew what deadly marksmen the fugitive boat contained, and he had also told Butler. So they still hung back, although they raged at Henry Ware's taunts, and permitted the Mohawks and Senecas to take the lead in the chase.
"They're not going to give us a chance," said Henry. "I'm satisfied of that. They'll let redskins receive our bullets, though just now I'd rather it were the two white ones. What do you think, Sol, of that leading boat? Shouldn't we give another hint?"
"I agree with you, Henry," said the shiftless one. They're comin' much too close fur people that ain't properly interduced to us. This promiskus way o' meetin' up with strangers an' lettin' 'em talk to you jest ez ef they'd knowed you all their lives hez got to be stopped. It's your time, Henry, to give 'em a polite hint, an' I jest suggest that you take the big fellow in the front o' the boat who looks like a Mohawk."
Henry raised his rifle, fired, and the Mohawk would row no more. Again confusion prevailed in the pursuing fleet, and there was a decline of enthusiasm. Braxton Wyatt and Walter Butler raged and swore, but, as they showed no great zeal for the lead themselves, the Iroquois did not gain on the fugitive boat. They, too, were fast learning that the two who crouched there with their rifles ready were among the deadliest marksmen in existence. They fired a dozen shots, perhaps, but their rifles did not have the long range of the Kentucky weapons, and again the bullets fell short, causing little jets of water to spring up.
"They won't come any nearer, at least not for the present," said Henry, "but will hang back just out of rifle range, waiting for some chance to help them."
Shif'less Sol looked the other way, down the Susquehanna, and announced that he could see no danger. There was probably no Indian fleet farther down the river than the one now pursuing them, and the danger was behind them, not before.
Throughout the firing, Silent Tom Ross and Long Jim Hart had not said a word, but they rowed with a steadiness and power that would have carried oarsmen of our day to many a victory. Moreover, they had the inducement not merely of a prize, but of life itself, to row and to row hard. They had rolled up their sleeves, and the mighty muscles on those arms of woven steel rose and fell as they sent the boat swiftly with the silver current of the Susquehanna.
Mary Newton still lay on the bottom of the boat. The children had cried out in fright once or twice at the sound of the firing, but she and Paul bad soothed them and kept them down. Somehow Mary Newton had become possessed of a great faith. She noticed the skill, speed, and success with which the five always worked, and, so long given up to despair, she now went to the other extreme. With such friends as these coming suddenly out of the void, everything must succeed. She had no doubt of it, but lay peacefully on the bottom of the boat, not at all disturbed by the sound of the shots.
Paul and Sol after a while relieved Long Jim and Tom at the oars. The Iroquois thought it a chance to creep up again, but they were driven back by a third bullet, and once more kept their distance. Shif'less Sol, while he pulled as powerfully as Tom Ross, whose place he had taken, nevertheless was not silent.
"I'd like to know the feelin's o' Braxton Wyatt an' that feller Butler," he said. " Must be powerful tantalizin' to them to see us here, almost where they could stretch out their hands an' put 'em on us. Like reachn' fur ripe, rich fruit, an' failin' to git it by half a finger's length."
"They are certainly not pleased," said Henry," but this must end some way or other, you know."
"I say so, too, now that I'm a-rowin'," rejoined the shiftless one, "but when my turn at the oars is finished I wouldn't care. Ez I've said more'n once before, floatin' down a river with somebody else pullin' at the oars is the life jest suited to me."
Henry looked up. "A summer thunderstorm is coming," he said, " and from the look of things it's going to be pretty black. Then's when we must dodge 'em."
He was a good weather prophet. In a half hour the sky began to darken rapidly. There was a great deal of thunder and lightning, but when the rain came the air was almost as dark as night. Mary Newton and her children were covered as much as possible with the blankets, and then they swung the boat rapidly toward the eastern shore. They had already lost sight of their pursuers in the darkness, and as they coasted along the shore they found a large creek flowing into the river from the east.
They ran up the creek, and were a full mile from its mouth when the rain ceased. Then the sun came out bright and warm, quickly drying everything.
They pulled about ten miles farther, until the creek grew too shallow for them, when they hid the boat among bushes and took to the land. Two days later they arrived at a strong fort and settlement, where Mary Newton and her four children, safe and well, were welcomed by relatives who had mourned them as dead.