A Forest Trail
To Daniel the days of his stay in Plymouth passed quickly. He hoed corn with his cousin William and pulled weeds in the garden with Joseph and Mercy, and in the short hours allowed them for play there was always the sea. They ran races on the sand when the tide was out and were never tired of searching for the curious things washed ashore by the waves. One day they gathered driftwood and made a fire on the shore, hung a kettle over it and cooked their own dinner of lobsters fresh from the water. Another day William and Daniel went together in a rowboat nearly to Duxbury, and caught a splendid codfish that weighed ten pounds. On another wonderful day John Howland took the two boys hunting with him. It was the first time Daniel had ever been allowed to carry a gun quite like a man, and he was the proudest lad in all Plymouth that night when the three hunters returned bringing with them two fine wild turkeys, and a hare which Daniel had shot. He loved the grave, wise, kindly Governor and his brave wife, and grew to know, by sight at least, most of the other people of the town.
More than ten days passed in this way, and they were beginning to wonder why the Goodman did not return. The Captain had come back from Provincetown and had been obliged to go on to Boston without waiting for him, and there was no knowing when the Lucy Ann would appear again in Plymouth Harbor. Then one day, as Dan and William were working in the corn-field, they saw a tired horse with two people on his back come out of the woods. Daniel took a long look at the riders, then, throwing down his hoe and shouting, "It's Father!" tore off at top speed to meet him. William picked up his hoe and followed at a slower pace. When he reached the group, Dan was up behind his father on the pillion with his arms about him, and standing before them on the ground was a black boy about William's own size and age. He had only a little ragged clothing on, and what he had seemed to make him uneasy, perhaps because he had been used to none at all in his native home far across the sea. His eyes were rolling wildly from one face to another, and it was plain that he was in a great state of fear.
"He is but a savage as yet," said Goodman Pepperell. "He was doubtless roughly handled on the voyage and hath naught but fear and hatred in his heart. It will take some time to make a Christian of him! Thou must help in the task, Daniel, for thou art near his age and can better reach his darkened mind. As yet he understands but one thing. He can eat like a Christian, or rather like two of them! We must tame him with food and kindness."
"What is his name?" asked Daniel, still gazing at the boy with popping eyes, for never before had he seen a skin so dark.
"Call him Zeb," said his father.
"Come, Zeb," said William, taking the boy gently by the arm, and looking compassionately into the black face. "Food!" He shouted the word at him as if he were deaf, but poor Zeb, completely bewildered by these strange, meaningless sounds, only shrank away from him and looked about as if seeking a way of escape.
Daniel immediately sprang from the pillion and seized Zeb's other arm. "Yes, Zeb, food—good," he howled, pointing down his own throat and rubbing his stomach with an ecstatic expression. It is probable that poor Zeb understood from this pantomime that he was about to be eaten alive, for he made a furious effort to get away. The boys held firmly to his arms, smiling and nodding at him in a manner meant to be reassuring, but which only convinced the poor black that they were pleased with the tenderness of his flesh and were enjoying the prospect of a cannibal feast. With the slave boy between them, "hanging back and digging in his claws like a cat being pulled by the tail," as Dan told his mother afterward, they made slow progress toward the village.
News of the return spread quickly, and a curious crowd of children gathered to gaze at Zeb, for many of them had never seen a negro before in their lives. Goodman Pepperell went at once to the Governor's house, and when he learned that the Captain had come and gone, he decided to push on to Boston at once by land. "'Tis an easier journey than the one I have just taken," he said. "There are settlements along the way, and time passes. I have been gone now longer than I thought. The farm work waits, and Susanna will fear for our safety. I must start home as soon as I can return this horse to the owner and secure another. I would even buy a good mare, for I stand in need of one on my farm."
"At least thou must refresh thyself before starting," said the Governor's wife cordially, and she set about getting dinner at once.
While his father went with the Governor to make arrangements for the journey, Daniel and his cousins took charge of Zeb. With Mistress Bradford's permission they built a fire on the shore and cooked dinner there for themselves and the black boy, who was more of a show to them than a whole circus with six clowns would be to us. As he watched the boys lay the sticks and start the blaze, Zeb's eyes rolled more wildly than ever. No doubt he thought that he himself was to be roasted over the coals, and when at last he saw William lay a big fish on the fire instead, his relief was so great that for the first time he showed a row of gleaming teeth in a hopeful grin. Daniel brought him a huge piece of it when the fish was cooked, and from that moment Zeb regarded him as his friend.
It was early afternoon before all the preparations were completed and the little caravan was ready to start on its perilous journey. There were two horses, and John Howland, who knew the trail well and was wise in woodcraft, was to go with them as far as Marshfield, where he knew of a horse that was for sale. Half the town gathered to see them off. John Howland mounted first, and Daniel was placed on the pillion behind him. Then Zeb was made to get up behind the Goodman, and off they started, followed by a volley of farewells and messages from the group of Plymouth friends left behind.
For a little distance they followed the shore-line, then, plunging into the woods, they were soon lost to view. The road was a mere blazed trail through dense forests, and it was necessary to keep a sharp lookout lest they lose their way and also because no traveler was for a moment safe from possible attack by Indians. Hour after hour they plodded patiently along, sometimes dismounting and walking for a mile or so to stretch their legs and rest the horses. There was little chance for talk, because the path was too narrow for them to go side by side. The day was warm, and if it had not been for slapping the mosquitoes which buzzed about them in swarms, Daniel would have fallen asleep sitting in the saddle. In the late afternoon, as they came out upon an open moor, Daniel was roused by hearing a suppressed exclamation from John Howland and felt him reach for the pistol which hung from his belt. His horse pricked up his ears and whinnied, and the horse on which the Goodman and Zeb were riding answered with a loud neigh. Daniel peered over John Howland's broad shoulder just in time to see a large deer disappearing into a thicket of young birches some distance ahead of them.
"Oh!" cried Daniel, pounding on John Howland's ribs in his excitement, "let's get him!"
"Not so fast, not so fast," said John in a low voice, pinning with his elbow the hand that was battering his side. "Let be! Thou hast seen but half. There was an Indian on the track of that deer. Should we step in and take his quarry, he might be minded to empty his gun into us instead! I saw him standing nigh the spot where the trail enters the wood again yonder, and when he saw us he slipped like a shadow into the underbrush."
He stopped his horse, the Goodman came alongside, and the two men talked together in a low tone. "Shall we go on as if we had not seen him?" asked the Goodman. John Howland considered.
"If we turn back, the savage will be persuaded we have seen him and are afraid," he said. "We must e'en take our chance. It may be he hath no evil intent, though the road be lonely and travelers few. Whatever his purpose, it is safer to go on than to stand still," and, tightening his rein, he boldly urged his horse across the open space.
Daniel's heart thumped so loudly against his ribs that it sounded to his ears like a drum-beat as they crossed the clearing and entered the forest on the other side. They had gone but a short distance into the woods when they were startled by the report of a gun, and poor Zeb fell off his horse and lay like one dead in the road. For a moment they thought he had been shot, and the two men were about to spring to his rescue, when Zeb scrambled to his feet and began to run like one possessed.
"He is but scared to death. Haply he hath never heard a gun go off before," said John Howland, and, sticking his spurs into his horse, he gave chase.
Fleet of foot though he was, Zeb was no match for a horse and was soon overtaken.
"'Twas but the Indian shooting the deer," said John Howland, laughing in spite of himself at poor Zeb's wild-eyed terror. "'Tis a promise of safety for the present at least. Nevertheless I like not the look of it. The red-skin saw us; make no doubt of that; for when I first beheld him he was peering at us as though to fix our faces in his mind."
"I, too, marked how he stared," answered the Goodman, as he seized the cowering Zeb and swung him again to his seat on the pillion.
"I have it," he said, stopping short as he was about to mount. "The savage is without doubt of the Narragansett tribe. He caught a glimpse of the dark skin of this boy and mistook him for an Indian lad—one of the hated Pequots, who they thought were either all dead or sold out of the country. 'Tis likely they have no knowledge of other dark-skinned people than themselves."
"It may be so," said John Howland, doubtfully, "but 'tis as likely they mistook him for a devil. It once befell that some Indians, finding a negro astray in the forest, were minded to destroy him by conjuring, thinking him a demon. To be sure 'tis but a year since the Narragansetts helped the English destroy the Pequot stronghold, and the few Pequots who were neither killed nor sold they still hold in subjection. Whatever their idea, it bodes no good either to Zeb or to us, for their enmity never sleeps."
Zeb, meantime, sat clutching the pillion and looking from one grave face to the other as if he knew they were talking of him, and the Goodman patted his shoulder reassuringly as he mounted again. They were now nearing a small settlement, and the path widened so the two horses could walk abreast.
"Thou'lt have a special care in the stretch from well beyond Mount Dagon," said John Howland, "for thou knowest of the notorious Morton, who founded there the settlement called Merry Mount. It was the worshipful Endicott who wiped it out. Much trouble hath Morton to answer for. He hath corrupted the savages, adding his vices to theirs. He hath also sold them guns and taught them to use them, for which cause the Indians of this region are more to be feared than any along the coast. They are drunken, armed, and filled with hate for any whom they esteem their enemies."
Daniel's hair fairly stood on end. He had felt prepared for pirates, but Indians lurking in dark forests were quite another matter! He wished with all his heart that John Howland were going with them all the way to Cambridge, but he well knew that could not be. His spirits rose somewhat as they came in sight of the settlement, and a hearty supper at the house of Goodman Richards put such life and courage into his heart that before it was over the Indians were no more to him than pirates! Then, while his father and John Howland arranged with Goodman Richards for the purchase of a horse to take them the rest of their journey, Goodwife Richards stowed Dan away in an attic bed, while Zeb, worn out with fear and fatigue, slept soundly on the hearth.
Courage is always highest in the morning, and Daniel felt bold as a lion the next day, as he and his father bade John Howland and the Richards family good-bye and, with Zeb, again entered the forest trail. The two boys walked on ahead, while the Goodman became acquainted with the new horse, whose name, Goodman Richards had told him, was Penitence, but which they shortened to Penny. Later, when he had assured himself that the animal was trustworthy, Goodman Pepperell put the two boys in the saddle and walked beside them, leading Penny by the bridle. Taking turns in this way, they went on for some miles without incident, until Dan almost forgot his fears, and even Zeb—watching his face and echoing its expression on his own—grew less and less timid.
They had passed the place which Howland had called Mount Dagon and which is now known as Wollaston, and had crossed the Neponset River by a horse bridge and were walking along quite cheerfully, the two boys at some distance ahead of Penny, when they saw a little way ahead of them an Indian standing motionless beside the trail. Dan immediately drew Zeb behind a bush, and when an instant later his father came up, the Indian disappeared as suddenly as he had come.
The Goodman looked troubled. "It is the same one we saw yesterday, I feel sure!" he said. "I like not his following us in this way, Daniel. I must trust thee even as though thou wert a man. Do thou get upon the horse's back with Zeb behind thee. I will walk ahead with my gun ready. Should the savage attack us, do thou speed thy horse like the wind to the next village, and bring back help. Remember it is thy part to obey. Three lives may hang on it."
With his heart pounding like a trip-hammer Dan mounted Penny. Zeb was placed on the pillion behind him with both arms clutching his waist, and the Goodman strode ahead, his keen eyes watching in every direction for any sign of danger. There was not a sound in the forest except the soft thud of the horse's feet, the cawing of a crow circling out of sight over the tree-tops, and the shrill cry of a blue jay.
"Confound thee, thou marplot, thou busy-body of the wood," muttered the Goodman to himself as he listened. "Wert thou but a human gossip, I'd set thee in the stocks till thou hadst learned to hold thine evil tongue!"
But the blue jay only kept up his squawking, passing the news on to his brethren until the forest rang with word of their approach.
It did not need the blue jays to tell of their progress, however, for though no other sound had betrayed their advance, two Indians were creeping stealthily through the underbrush, keeping pace with the travelers, and when they had reached a favorable spot in a small clearing, they suddenly sprang from their hiding-place. With a blood-curdling cry they leaped forward, and, seizing one of Zeb's legs, tried to drag him from the horse's back.
The yells of the Indians were as nothing to those that Zeb then let loose! The air was fairly split by blood-curdling shrieks, and the horse, terrified in turn, leaped forward, tearing Zeb from the grasp of the Indian and almost unseating Dan by the jerk. But Dan dug his knees into the horse's sides, flung his arms about her neck, and, holding on for dear life, tore away up the trail with Zeb clinging like a limpet to his waist.
Never was a ride like that. Even John Gilpin's was a mild performance beside it, for Zeb shrieked every minute of the way as they sped along, with the horse's tail streaming out behind like the tail of a comet, and the daylight showing between the bouncing boys and Penny's back at every wild leap. Even if Daniel had not been minded to obey his father's command, he could not have helped himself, for Penny took matters into her own four hoofs, and never paused in her wild career until, covered with foam, she dashed madly into a little hamlet where the village of Neponset now stands.
Samuel Kittredge was just starting for the forest with his axe on his shoulder, when his ears were smitten by the frantic shrieks of Zeb, and, thinking it must be a wildcat on the edge of the clearing, he started back to the house for his gun. Before he reached it, Penitence, with the two boys on her back, came thundering toward him at full gallop, and stopped at his side.
"What in tarnation is the matter with ye?" he exclaimed, gazing in amazement at the strange apparition. "I declare for it, that nigger is all but scared plumb white! What ails ye?"
"Indians!" gasped Dan, pointing toward the trail. "My father—quick!" No more words were needed. Samuel Kittredge dashed into his house, snatched his gun from the chimney, and, dashing out again, fired it into the air. Poor Zeb! He slid off over the horse's tail on to the ground and lay there in a heap, while a knot of men, responding to the signal of Sam Kittredge's gun, gathered hurriedly before his house and started at once down the trail.
"You stay here," said Sam to Dan as he started away. "We'll be back soon with your father if the pesky red-skins have n't got him."
"Or if they have," added another man grimly, and off they went.
Goodwife Kittredge now took charge of Dan and Zeb, while her son, a boy of eleven, tied Penny to a tree beside their cabin. Zeb recovered at once when she offered him a generous slice of brown-bread, but Dan was too anxious about his father to eat. He stood beside Penny, rubbing her neck and soothing her, with his eyes constantly on the trail and his ears eagerly listening for the sound of shots. It seemed an age, but really was not more than half an hour, before he saw the men come out of the woods, and, oh joy! his father was with them!
Leaving Penny nibbling grass, he ran to meet them and threw his arms about his father's neck, crying, "Oh, dear father, art thou hurt?"
"Nay; the Lord was merciful," answered the Goodman. "I fired but one shot, and hit one of the red-skins, I am sure, for they both dived back into the woods at once. I hid myself in the thick underbrush on the other side of the trail and waited, thinking perhaps I could creep along beside it out of sight, but Zeb's roaring must have frighted the Indians. Doubtless they knew it would rouse the countryside. At any rate I saw no more of them, and when these Good Samaritans came along I knew I was safe."
"The lungs of that blackamoor are worth more to thee than many guns," laughed Sam Kittredge. "'Tis a pity thou couldst not bottle up a few of his screeches to take with thee when thou goest abroad. They are of a sort to make a wildcat sick with envy." The men laughed heartily, and, leaving the Goodman and Daniel with Sam, returned to their interrupted tasks.
Goodwife Kittredge insisted on their resting there for the night before resuming their journey. "You must be proper tired," said she, with motherly concern, "and if you go on now 'tis more than likely those rascally knaves will follow you like your shadow. You'll stand a sight better chance of safety if you make an early start in the morning."
"Your horse needs rest, too," added Sam. "I'll rub her down and give her a measure of corn when she's cooled off. Get to bed with the chickens, and start with the sun, and to-morrow night will find you safe in your own home again."
To this plan the travelers gladly agreed. Early next morning, after a hearty breakfast in the Kittredges' cheerful kitchen they set forth once more. The roosters in the farmyard were still crowing, and the air was sweet with the music of robins, orioles, and blackbirds when they again plunged into the forest trail. All day they plodded steadily along, delayed by bad roads, and it was not until late that evening that they at last came in sight of the little house, where Nancy and her mother slept, little dreaming how near they were to a happy awakening. When, at last they reached the cabin, the Goodman, fearing to alarm his wife, stopped on the door-stone and gently called her name. He had called but once when a shutter was thrown open and the Goodwife's head was thrust through it.
"Husband, son!" she cried joyfully. "Nancy!—awake child!—it is thy father and brother!" and in another moment the door flew open, and Nancy and her mother flung their arms about the necks of the wanderers. When the horse had been cared for, they went into the cabin. Nancy raked the coals from the ashes, the fire blazed up, and the Goodwife gave them each a drink of hot milk. Zeb blinked sleepily at the reunited and happy family, as Dan and his father told their adventures, and when at last they had gone to their beds in the loft he sank down on a husk mattress which the Goodwife had spread for him on the floor, and in two minutes was sound asleep.