A Frontier Girl by George Alfred Henty

A TALE OF THE BACKWOOD SETTLEMENTS

A girl of fifteen, slim and lithe in figure—although it would scarcely have suggested itself to a casual observer, so disfigured was it by the thick, homespun garment in which she was clothed—stood looking out from the door of a log cabin over the lake which lay a hundred yards away. Her face would have been almost childish had it not been for a certain alertness of expression and keenness of glance which would never have been seen in the face of a town-bred girl, nor in one brought up in a country where the only danger ever to be encountered was in crossing a meadow in which a bull was grazing. Mary Mitford was the only child of the settler who owned the cabin. He had at one time been a well-to-do farmer, but he had fallen into difficulties and been obliged to give up his farm and travel farther west, where land could be had for the taking up.

The times had been peaceful, and although the spot he had fixed upon was ten miles from the nearest village, that did not deter him from settling there. It was a natural clearing of some twenty acres in extent. The land was fertile, and sloped gradually down to the lake. A clear spring rose close to the spot where he had determined to make his house, and as to Indian troubles he shrugged his shoulders and said: "If the Indians break out I shall only have to shut up my cabin and move into the village; but as there is no house nearer than that, no tracks in the forest leading past my place, and nothing worth stealing, it is hardly likely that the red-skins will come my way. They are more likely to attack the village than they are to visit my shanty."

He had now lived on his little farm for four years, and had had no reason to regret his choice. The cabin originally built had been enlarged. He had a horse to do his ploughing, and some ten acres under tillage; a score of half-wild pigs roamed by day in the forest, picking up their living there, and returning of their own accord to their sties in the evening for their one regular meal. Five or six cows and a score of sheep grazed on the untilled ground; geese and ducks waddled down to the lake at daybreak and returned at nightfall; two or three dozen chickens found plenty of grubs and worms to eat between the rows of corn and vegetables on the tilled ground. Altogether John Mitford was doing well. He went down once a week with ducks, geese, fowls, and vegetables to the village, using a large boat, on which he had built a sort of cabin where he often passed the night on the lake, returning home to breakfast with a goodly store of wild duck he had shot, and sometimes a stag which he had overtaken as it swam across the lake.

So well had he done, indeed, that he had settled to take on three or four hired men to extend the clearing by cutting down and grubbing up the forest. He had been ably assisted by his wife, who not only looked after the house, but assisted on the farm at busy times; while Mary, who was but nine years old when they came there, made herself as useful as she could at light work, fed the animals, cooked when her mother was in the fields, and as she grew older spent a good deal of her time in a small birch-bark canoe her father had bought for her in the village. She added a good deal to the family store by fishing; not only was the house well supplied, but she enabled her father to take a large basketful down when he went to the village, where the people were all too busy to fish for themselves.

She also learned to use her father's rifle with a skill equal to his own, and could hit any duck that came within range of the weapon. From time to time there were rumours of trouble with the Indians; but these either proved to be without foundation, or the troubles took place at distant spots on the border. Sometimes Mary's mother accompanied her father to the village when stores had to be laid in, and materials for garments purchased for which their own homespun cloth was unsuitable. They had started together this morning, and the three men who had been engaged were to return with them. These were to be accommodated in an outhouse until they had built a log cabin for themselves, and a store of groceries, saws and axes, blankets, and other necessaries for their use were also to be purchased and brought up.

They had, when the settler had gone down on the previous week, heard that councils had been held among the village elders as to the rumoured Indian troubles, and as to the best method of defending the place should the enemy threaten an attack. John Mitford had received many warnings, but he paid little attention to them, and while speaking lightly of them to his wife, remarked with a laugh, that with the hired men they would have quite a garrison.

"They will all bring their guns up with them," he said, "and it will scarcely be worth the while of any Indians to attack us when they know that we should be able to make a stout fight, and that even if they took the place there would be nothing to pay them except our scalps for the loss of life they would suffer. The men I hired to-day are all accustomed to border work, and claim to be good shots. I can say as much for myself, and Mary here is a good bit better than I am, and you have learned to make very fair practice, wife."

"I have not had time for much of it, John, but at least I think that I could scarcely miss an Indian at fifty yards; however, as you say, we have been hearing these rumours every three or four months since we settled here, and nothing has ever come of it."

So little did they think of the matter that when they started in the scow an hour before daybreak no allusion was made to it, and Mary was to have supper ready for them on their return.

"Remember that there will be six, Mary, and you will have to provide plentifully for the men. It would never do to give them a bad impression on their arrival. We shall be back before nightfall."

When they had gone, Mary went about her usual work—let the pigs out, and saw them well on their way towards the forest, the ducks started down to the lake and the chickens to the fields, while the geese began to graze in the meadow between the house and the lake, where the horse and other animals joined them as soon as they were let out. Having attended to these matters, she went about the work of the house. From time to time she came to the door to see that all was going on well. It was three o'clock in the afternoon when she heard a sudden squeal of alarm in the forest, and a minute or two later the pigs came galloping out of it. Accustomed as Mary was to all the noises of the place, the sudden outcry startled her.

"What can have frightened the pigs?" she said to herself; "it may be that a mountain lion has sprang down upon one of them, but it may be that there are Indians."

She went back at once into the house, pulled out the moss from the loopholes that had been made when it was built in case they should ever be attacked, and, going from one to another, gazed into the forest. Before doing so, she had looked to the priming of the three rifles and two shot-guns that hung on the walls. She could see nothing, but observed that there was a general feeling of uneasiness among the animals. The horse had stopped feeding, and with ears outstretched seemed to be listening for sounds in the forest; the cows, after staring about, commenced to walk in the direction of their byres; and some geese which were near the edge of the lake, gave warning cries, keeping close together, and also moved towards the house. The girl had heard so many stories of Indian raids on lonely settlements that she felt sure that an attack would not be made until after dark. They could hardly know that she was alone in the house, and would not risk losing lives by an advance against it in broad daylight.

As she moved from loophole to loophole she thought over what was best to be done. Although the Indians might wait till nightfall, if they saw no advantage in attacking before, they would assuredly fall upon her father's party as they landed, as, with the advantage of such a surprise, they might expect to slaughter them without resistance. It was hardly likely that any large party could be in the wood. She had heard her father often say that any body of Indians on the war-path would make straight for the settlements and would not waste their time upon isolated farms, though stragglers from the main body might do so.

"I must do something at once," she said to herself at last; "if the Indians see no one about they may crawl up here, and though I might shoot one or two of them, I could not be on all sides of the house at once. If I were killed, father and mother would be sure to fall into the trap. From the way those geese behaved I believe it must be a party who were travelling down the lake, and, knowing of the clearing, they landed some little distance away and moved along the shore. As canoes often traverse the lake, and the Indians have an eye for every detail, they would know that its occupants possess a scow, and that as it was not there some of the inhabitants were certainly away. They would therefore probably wait until their return before making an attack on the hut, which could be easily captured; while, were they to attack the cabin at once, the firing might be heard, and those on the scow being thus warned might go at once to the village, where their report would give the alarm to the inhabitants, and so put them on their guard against the attack that was to be made upon them by the main body that night."

All these things were thought over by the girl. She had so often listened to the stories of Indian raids told by passing hunters who put up for the night, that she was able to judge the situation as accurately as an older settler might have done. She was pale, but this was the only sign of her consciousness that her life was in extreme danger. She knew that if an attack had not been made at once, the Indians must have good reasons for waiting. From time to time Indian canoes had stopped there, and the occupants had landed in order to exchange skins and other articles for tobacco and powder, and so save themselves the journey down to the settlement, and they would know that her mother, father, and herself were the sole occupants. The absence of the scow showed that her father was away, and that the place could be easily captured, though perhaps not without loss of blood, for women of the frontier were usually able to use a rifle on an emergency. She went out occasionally, took some food for the pigs, and hung up some clothes to dry, in a quiet and unconcerned manner, in order to show that no suspicion was entertained that Indians were in the neighbourhood.

At last she determined upon the best course to be pursued. It was above all things necessary to warn her parents. That the attempt might cost her her life did not weigh in the slightest; she would certainly be killed if she remained there. There was just a possibility that she might succeed in saving their lives as well as her own by action. Once in her canoe she might escape; it was very small and light. Constant exercise had so strengthened her arms that she could make it fly through the water at a speed at which few of the Indians with whom she had sometimes tried a spin could surpass. The canoe or canoes, however, in which the red-skins had arrived were doubtless paddled by three or more men, and these would certainly overtake her. It was the knowledge that this was so that had prevented her from making an earlier start. To give her a chance of getting away she must carry a rifle with her, and once the lurking enemy, who were doubtless watching her every movement, perceived that she was armed they would guess at once that she was conscious of their presence, and would rush out and tomahawk her before she reached the water's edge.

At last she decided upon a plan. Taking off her gown, she fastened the rifle with a cord round her body. The butt was against her shoulder and the barrel came down just below her ankle, projecting but an inch or two below her gown. When she put it on again, even the sharpest Indian eye could scarcely notice this as she walked through the grass. She had passed the rope but once round her body, and had tied the end in a bow so that she could in a moment unloose it on reaching the canoe, for it would be impossible for her to kneel down with the rifle in its present position. She took a powder-horn which she slung over her shoulder by a cord, and put a dozen bullets into her pocket. Then she put some grain into a basket, and was ready to start. Before leaving the house she stood for a few minutes in silent prayer, for she was unable to kneel; then she went out.

It needed a great effort to saunter leisurely along, but the thought of her parents' danger nerved her, and she went from animal to animal, giving each a handful or two of grain, calling them to her, and singing in a voice in which at first there was a little quaver, but which soon rang out loud and fearlessly. Fortunately the horse and one or two of the cows were feeding close down by the lake. As she went her hopes rose. After feeding them she strolled in a leisurely way towards her canoe, and, standing close to it, looked over the water, then she went down to its edge, and gazed down the lake as if looking for the returning scow. After standing thus for a minute or two she returned to the canoe, pulled at the ends of the rope under her loose dress, and let the muzzle of the rifle drop to the ground. She stooped over the canoe as if arranging the paddles, and placed the rifle in it. The action, she thought, could hardly have been seen by the Indians, for the trees were two hundred yards on each side of her. She then lifted the light canoe and carried it down to the water.

This was the critical moment. The Indians might allow her to go unmolested, thinking that she was only going for a short paddle to pass away the time until her parents returned, and in that case they would crawl across and enter the cabin in order to take the party by surprise as they unsuspectingly strolled up from the scow. On the other hand, if they thought that she had had any idea of their presence, and was going to warn her father, they would know the coveted scalps would be lost if they did not succeed in catching her. As she seated herself in the canoe and took up her paddle, her heart beat high with hope, but, glancing towards the trees, she saw six red-skins running at full speed from the edge of the forest. What she hadn't reckoned upon had occurred. Their sharp eyes had caught the flash of the sun upon the barrel of the rifle as she put it in, and they at once guessed that she was aware of their presence, and was endeavouring to escape.

It was well that she had lost not a moment's time after placing the canoe in the water. Her nervousness had now passed away, and with rapid but steady strokes she drove the light craft ahead, and was fifty or sixty yards out on to the lake before the Indians reached the spot she had left. They had been silent hitherto, but their yells rose fiercely as they fired shot after shot; but the powder sold to the Indians was always of a poor quality, and though the balls fell close to her none struck her. The red-skins did not wait to reload, but ran back to the forest, and a minute after they had disappeared among the trees she saw a canoe with three paddlers dash out from some bushes in which it had been concealed. She had but some three hundred yards' start, and although she was rowing her hardest, looking over her shoulder from time to time, she found that they were gaining upon her. When a mile had been passed she was but seventy or eighty yards ahead. With a sweep of her paddle she turned the canoe broadside to her pursuers, laid her paddle in, seized her rifle, took a steady aim, and fired.

The report was followed by a yell, and the Indian in the bow dropped his paddle and fell back. At other times, at so short a distance, she would not have missed her aim at the centre of his chest by a finger's breadth; but though she had held her breath in order to steady her rifle, her arms were quivering from her exertions, and she had only hit him on his right shoulder, the red mark on the brown skin showing where he was struck. A moment later she was again on her way. The fall of the man against the red-skin behind him had nearly upset the Indian canoe, and she had gained several lengths before the pursuit was continued. She looked round, and saw that the wounded man was again kneeling in his place. His paddle had fallen overboard when he was struck, and even had it not been so, he could have rendered but slight assistance to his comrades with but one hand available.

"It is lucky that he was not killed," she said to herself. "If he had been, they would have thrown him overboard."

A minute later she heard a splash. The wounded man had leapt into the water, and was making for the shore.

"It is a fair race now," she thought. "Their canoe is a large one, as it held three sitters besides the rowers. Now I must take it steadily. I am sure they will not gain on me as long as I can keep up—it is just a question of last."

She rowed, however, her hardest for a few minutes, as it was all-important to get beyond the range of the Indians' guns. When a glance round showed her that she was some hundred and twenty yards ahead of her pursuers, she settled down into a long steady stroke. She knew well that she was now practically safe, for even if one of their guns could carry to her, it was difficult even for the best shot to aim from a dancing canoe. For half an hour there was no change in the position. The Indians were rowing their hardest, but the weight of their comparatively heavy canoe was telling upon them as much as the labour of driving her light craft was upon the girl. It was well for her that an out-of-door life and daily practice had hardened her muscles and strengthened her frame. She had once paused for a couple of seconds and pulled off her frock, which at once cumbered her movements and was terribly hot. The speed of the canoe had scarcely slackened when the paddle was at work again, and she felt a sensible relief from the freedom of her limbs.

A few minutes later a little cry of joy broke from her as she saw the scow come out from behind a point some two miles away. The sight gave her renewed hope and strength. They must have left the village earlier than she had expected. On the other hand, a yell from the red-skins told her that they too had seen the scow, and would certainly exert themselves to the utmost to overtake her before she reached it. Although it had seemed that the paddlers were all doing their best before, the added speed of the canoes told that their exertions had been redoubled. When within a mile of the scow, the girl glanced backwards. The Indians had gained some thirty yards upon her; but another five minutes would bring her within rifle-shot of the scow. She could see by the motion of the oars that the rowers were doing their utmost, while the others were standing up watching the chase with their rifles in their hands.

Her strength was failing her fast now, but she struggled on determinedly; at least she had saved her father and mother. Two minutes later she started at the report of a gun behind, and the splash of a ball in the water alongside the canoe. She felt that she was safe now. The red-skins would not have stopped to fire had they not felt that it was their last chance of revenge. A few more strokes and she looked round. The Indians were already on their way towards the shore. Then she let her paddle drop, and collapsed in the bottom of the canoe, hearing but faintly the sound of repeated shots from the scow, which was now but a little more than a quarter of a mile away. Hitherto they had been unable to fire, as the two canoes were in a line. Faintly she heard a shout in her father's voice: "Are you hit, Mary?" But she was incapable of making an effort to reply, and it was not until the scow came alongside and she was lifted on board that she was able to answer. The relief of her father and mother was intense when they found that she was unwounded. They had heard the Indians fire, and at the distance they were away it had seemed to them that the canoes were close to each other. They then saw the red-skins at once make for shore, and she had so quickly afterwards sunk into the canoe that they greatly feared she was wounded. The men with them, however, were unanimous in agreeing that she had not been hit. If she had been, they argued, her pursuers would certainly have paddled up to the canoe and taken her scalp before making for the shore. It was some time before she was able to tell her story, and the frontiersmen were as warm in their expressions of admiration for her coolness as were her parents.

A consultation was now held as to the best plan to be pursued. It was finally agreed that one of the men should take the canoe and return to the village, which was but four miles away, and warn them to prepare for an attack that night. The stockades had already been strengthened, and if prepared, it was probable that the settlers would be able to beat off any attack. The scow was then put in motion again. It was felt that the three Indians on shore would have done nothing until they learned from the men in the canoe that the pursuit had failed, and that the settlers had been warned. They would probably have followed along the shore to see the result, and might either return, burn the cabin, and slaughter the cattle, or might go on and join the Indians who were doubtless gathered close to the village. The frontiersmen were of opinion that they would take the latter course.

"The red-skins are fond of revenge," one of the men said, "but they are fonder of scalps. They will not expect to get much plunder from your house, and will certainly get no scalps; and though they might do a lot of mischief on your clearing, this would offer less satisfaction to them than getting their share of the plunder and scalps from the village."

"Besides," another put in, "they would certainly get into bad odour with their tribe if they were absent from the attack. I take it for certain that they had orders to go straight there, and that it was only the hope that they would bring in some scalps that induced them to land at your clearing. I think that it is plumb sure that they will go straight on."

Rowing vigorously, they reached the farm an hour before sunset. To their great satisfaction they saw the animals grazing as usual, the cabin intact, and no signs of an enemy's presence; nevertheless the frontiersmen advised Mr. Mitford to proceed cautiously, for it was just possible the Indians were hidden in the house. Accordingly he told his wife and daughter to remain in the scow, which, when the men landed, was pushed off into deep water and the grapnel dropped. The men moved up through the trees until abreast of the house.

"I am convinced that they are not there," the settler said. "The animals are all feeding quietly, and the geese are just in front of the door. I am sure that if red-skins were inside, the horse and cattle would all be gathered by the water, and the geese, which are as watchful as dogs, would not be near the house."

The others agreed, and, stooping low, made their way through the standing grain until within some thirty yards of the house. Then with rifles advanced ready to fire, they dashed forward. Still all was quiet.

"They are not here," one of the men said positively. "They certainly would have fired, and not let us get up against the wall. We have only to walk in."

They went round to the door and entered. All was exactly as Mary had left it. The fire had burnt low, but the pot was still simmering over it. The farmer went down to the water and fetched up his wife and Mary.

"If it hadn't been for you, Mary," he said, "everything would have been destroyed here, and we should be lying dead on the shore."

The question was next discussed what they had best do. The frontiersmen were unanimous in their opinion that there was no fear of an attack that night, but were equally certain that one would be made the next night, or at the latest on that following.

"No matter whether they take the village or not, they are sure to attack you. If they have won, the varmint you have baulked to-day will bring a party of their friends here for plunder and scalps. If they are beaten off they will, before they return home, ravage every outlying farm. To make matters sure, I should say it would be safest for your wife and daughter to sleep on board the scow. We can bring her in close to the shore and camp down there ourselves, so that, if needs be, we can get on board and put out into the lake. They have only one canoe, as far as we know; but if they had a dozen they would not dare to attack us. I do not think that there is a chance of any trouble to-night. In the morning, I should say your best plan would be to get the things you most value on board the scow, with enough meat and provisions to last for a week. You must stay with the ladies on board, and we will drive all the animals a couple of miles into the forest. The worst that can happen then is that, when the Indians come, they will burn down the house. I don't see that we can prevent that. If we were to lay off here in the scow, we could keep them from approaching within range of our rifles, but we could not prevent them from coming down from behind the house.

"It does not matter about the cabin," the settler said; "that is easily put up again. And, indeed, I had intended before long to pull it down and rebuild it in better style, and put it close down by the water."

"That would be a good plan, boss. If you were to put it there, and make a strong palisade running from it on each side down to the water, you could fight it out against a big lot of red-skins, and if the worst came to the worst, could make off in your scow. I would put a bag or two of grain in the boat, if I were you, now. When you start in the morning, row along the shore to the east till you see us come out. We will bunch the animals close by there, and if we give them a feed every evening they are safe not to wander very far. It is not likely the red-skins will trouble to hunt for them; they will burn your house and then make off. You might leave half a dozen of your sheep here. If they come, the Indians can make a meal, and they won't be wanting to search the woods for one, and are safe to make off without delay. When they have once got a beating they don't care to hang about; and if they have succeeded at the village, and got scalps and booty, some of them will at once start for home to have a dance after their victory, and the others will be off to strike a blow at some other village before the news of what has occurred reaches the settlers."

And so the matter was carried out. The night passed quietly, but in the morning the frontiersmen, putting their ears down to the surface of the lake, could make out heavy firing in the distance, and knew that the attack on the village had begun. The work was then set about. The whole of the feathered stock were tied by their legs and placed in the scow. The store of provisions, groceries, the linen, and clothes were all placed on board, and then the settler, with his wife and daughter, pushed off, while the three men drove the animals into the forest. Three hours later those on the scow saw them appear at the edge of the lake nearly three miles from the clearing, and the scow was at once rowed ashore. The animals had been driven to a small clearing a quarter of a mile away, and on the party going up they were found to be still there. Mary went round petting them and giving them handfuls of grain, and after remaining there for half an hour they returned to the lake. The scow was hidden under some branches overhanging the water. In the afternoon a small canoe with a solitary paddler was seen coming along, keeping close inshore. As it approached, Mary recognized her canoe, and the men declared that the rower was their comrade who had gone to give the alarm to the village.

"What news, Reuben?" they shouted as soon as he was within hearing.

"Bad news," he said. "The village is taken, and every soul but myself murdered! They made a good fight, but the red-skins were too strong. I got hit in the leg pretty early in the fight, and, finding that I was no more use, I got two women to carry me down to the canoe. I knew that I should be as comfortable there as anywhere, and if things went wrong it gave me a chance. Two hours later I heard by the screaming that the red-skins had forced the palisades and were in the village, so I thought that it was time for me to be off. I was able to sit up, though I was badly hit below the knee, and I paddled off and made for the clearing. When I got there I saw at once that all the animals were gone, and made sure that they had been driven into the forest, and that you had taken to the scow. I did not suppose that you had gone very far, so I came on looking for you, and glad enough I was to hear your shout."

"You fear that all in the village have been murdered?" Mr. Mitford said.

"I have not a doubt of it. Those red fiends spare no one, especially as there was a stout resistance, and a good many of them have been wiped out."

He was now helped out of the canoe. His comrades, all of whom had much experience of wounds, examined his leg carefully, and were of opinion that, although the bone was splintered, it was not broken, and that the ball had gone out behind.

"The best thing to do," one of them said, "will be to make a deep cut and pick out all the pieces of bone. It will never heal properly with them in."

"Fire away then!" the wounded man said coolly. "It is best to make a good job of it at once. Now I know that the bone is not really broken I don't mind what you do with it."

"Do you happen to have a new knife, Mr. Mitford?" one of the other frontiersmen said, turning to the settler. "One wants a new knife and a sharp one."

"I cannot give you a new one, but it was only yesterday that I ground my own knife, and it is both sharp and clean."

"That will do first rate."

And, taking the long knife the settler wore in a sheath hanging from his belt, he proceeded to operate. Not a groan or a sigh proceeded from the wounded man. Accustomed to a hard life as these men were, they were almost as insensible to pain as the Indians themselves. After the splinters of bone had been removed, the wound was washed with warm water and then carefully bandaged. A fire had by this time been lit a short distance in the forest in a position where its light could not be observed by any passing canoe. Here the men bivouacked, taking it by turns to keep watch. For four days they remained here; then one of them started as soon as it was dark, in Mary's canoe, to examine the clearing. He returned in little over an hour. The cabin and outbuildings had all been burnt, and the place was absolutely deserted. It was agreed that there was not the slightest chance of the Indians returning there, and the settler and three of the men at once began to fell trees; while the fourth, who could not assist in active work for some time, went down in the canoe to the village, which he found had been entirely destroyed, but that a body of the State militia had arrived there. From them he learned that another village had been destroyed; but in an attack on a third the Indians had been repulsed with great loss, and had not since been heard of, and it was believed that they had retired to their own villages.

Three months later a log-house had been erected by the water-side, with palisades running down into deep water. It was large and comfortable, and being built of square logs and well loopholed, and with the doors and windows on the water-side only, it could resist a formidable attack. A very strong gate in one of the palisades would admit of the animals being driven in there for shelter. All those which had been taken into the forest had been recovered. The house done, the men set to work to enlarge the clearing, and ten years later it was one of the largest and best-cultivated farms on the lake. Mary, whose exploit had gained for her a wide reputation throughout the district for her courage and coolness, had long before married a young Englishman who had come out with some capital, with the intention of farming. Mary would not hear of leaving her father and mother, and accordingly he entered into partnership with Mr. Mitford, and his energy and capital had no small share in developing the farm. A second log-house was built within some twenty yards of the other, and connected with it by a strong palisade. However, the settlers were never again disturbed by the Indians, and so many new-comers had settled beyond them that it could no longer be called an outlying settlement, especially as a town of considerable size had sprung into existence on the site of the village that had been destroyed.