Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
"And so much nearer to Boston!" finished Susanna. "Go to bed now, Miriam. 'Tis almost morning, and think of all the work we have to do."
"I don't want to go to bed," cried Miriam, twirling across the cabin, the blue calico flying out around her. "I'm so excited I can't possibly sleep. Everything is so wonderful all of a sudden. In just one day, how could everything have changed so much?"
But Susanna and James had talked long enough. There was nothing to do but climb the ladder into the loft, where the three children, four-year-old Susanna, two-year-old Polly, and six-year-old Sylvanus, slept soundly. They had stayed up hours past their bedtime, dancing and clapping their hands till they had collapsed on the bench against their mother's shoulder and been carried up the ladder and tucked into bed. Now they did not even stir as Miriam pulled the new dress over her head and hung it on a nail where she could see it the moment she waked. There was no leftover party warmth up here. Even in the August night she shivered. Pulling off the ruffled petticoat and stepping out of the hoops, she crawled in beside little Susanna, and drew up the quilt against the damp chill.
But her thoughts could not be tucked in to sleep. Miraculously, as she had said to Susanna, the whole world had changed in just a few days. So much had happened, when for such an endless time nothing had happened at all.
A dull summer, her sister had said. How could James Johnson, adventuring off down the Connecticut River, have any idea what a summer it had been, that year of 1754, for the women left behind at the fort? After four years of uneasy peace, the Indians were again bent on war, stirred up by the French in Canada; and this struggling little community of Number Four at Charlestown, farthest north of the settlements along the Connecticut, was almost unprotected. The families whose men had gone trading had been forced to abandon their farms and move back into the shelter of the stout walls of the fort.
Day after endless hot day they had been crowded into those stuffy cabins with the whining children. The scanty grass inside the enclosure had shriveled and browned. The boys kicked up great curls of choking dust with their incessant scuffling. Outside the sky had shone a deep perfect blue. The children had peered through the timbers of the wall at fields that shimmered in golden sunshine, and woods that beckoned green and cool. But even at midday the women had seldom dared to venture more than a few feet from the palisade. In the night they had lain rigid in their bunks, holding their breath in the smothering blackness, hearing in the distance the blood-chilling Indian yells. Her sister Susanna had gone about abstracted, lips pressed tight, trying to find work enough to fill her days, always looking for excuses to go to the gate and search the road for a sign of her husband.
At last the men had returned, looking brown and hearty and full of high spirits at their successful trading. James Johnson had brought good news too. As soon as the summer crops were harvested, when the weather began to cool, he would take his family away from Number Four, with its hourly menace from the Indians. Susanna would have her baby in safety, in the cozy settlement of Northfield, Massachusetts. Miriam had not dared to mention her longing that they might take her too.
The day after the return, emboldened by James's musket, the Johnson family had left the protecting palisade and gone out to take possession of their own house again, a hundred rods distant. The children were wild with joy, running free and rolling in the long grass. Little Susanna had filled her arms with goldenrod, running to thrust it into Miriam's hands and darting back for more. Sylvanus had played he was an Indian, sneaking from tree to tree, his sturdy little body plainly visible, popping out at them from behind bushes with shrill whoops. They had found the cabin untouched, musty from being boarded shut, and in the yard, overflowing with lush melon vines, plump grayish balls lay thick as hailstones on the ground. James had slit one open with his knife, and the juicy golden center lay like sunshine between his hands.
"Let's have a party!" Susanna had cried. "There are enough melons for a feast!"
"A party?" James had doubted. "With all the work that has to be done?"
"The work will be done," his wife had promised. "Right now is the time to celebrate your homecoming, and to entertain the visitors too."
One of the visitors was a tall young man, Phineas Whitney from Massachusetts, who had run across Captain Johnson's party and come along with them to visit this farthest outpost. To be honest, was it really leaving the fort, or the party, or even the prospect of Massachusetts that made the world seem so different? Or was it just this boy, with sun-lightened hair and blue eyes? Truly, it had not been the work, or the stifling summer inside the fort, or even the constant fear of Indians that had weighed on Miriam's spirit. It had been the loneliness. Of course she loved Susanna, just ten years older than she, who had been both mother and sister, and she adored the children; but she longed for friends, for just one friend of her own. She had never known a girl her own age. She had never had a beau. Of the few young men and boys at the fort, now that she was too old for racing and climbing trees with them, she felt both shy and critical.
She had had so little experience. She could not have put into words just what sort of person she waited for. Yet from the first moment that Phineas had walked into the enclosure with the men, something within her had unmistakably recognized him. He was different from the men she had known. He was strong and practical as any of them, as he proved by setting to work straightway felling trees and dragging logs to repair the blockhouse. Inside of a half day the settlement had accepted him as though he had been born at Number Four. But there was a gentleness in his speech, and a purpose in his serious young face that set him slightly apart.
It was incredible, even though he had said it in his own words, that he had noticed her in the brown homespun, even before he had seen her in the blue dress. In her own mind the bolt of blue cloth that James had brought in his pack had changed her into a different person. The dress that hung close to her head, waiting for the first rays of the sun to light it into beauty, symbolized the wonder of the past few days.
I'll have to put on the old brown dress in the morning, probably even for supper, she thought ruefully. But I can wear the blue to meeting on Sunday. And perhaps, if I do all the work, Susanna will have another party before Phineas goes. Oh, how can I lie still all the hours till sunup? I can never sleep a wink!
But she was sound asleep when the cabin shook with the tremendous knocking at the door.
startled Miriam wide awake. Pulling herself up to her knees, she knelt and peered down the loft hole. In the pale light she could see her brother-in-law James struggling into his jacket as he lurched, still half asleep, across the cabin floor.
"Confound you, Labaree," he muttered. "Do you have to be as early as all this?" He drew back the bolt and swung open the door.
Neighbor Labaree's solid figure filled the doorway, and his hearty voice boomed through the cabin. "Still abed, all of you? Thought you aimed to start on the south field before daybreak."
Without warning it happened. James Johnson's answer was drowned in such dreadful shrieks that Miriam's whole body turned to stone. She had heard them before, but far away, in the depths of the forest. Now they were close, close upon them. Indians! Labaree was jerked backward and the doorway was filled with bodies, pouring into the cabin with horrible yells. The half-light was a confusion of feathers, hideous faces streaked with red and white, tomahawks flashing. James leaped toward his musket, but three Indians were upon him in a flash, binding his arms tight against his body. Other redskins swarmed about the cabin, tearing open cupboards and chests, pawing over food and clothes, stuffing sacks with everything they could lay hands on. One slit open a feather bed, shaking out a choking cloud of feathers, and used the ticking as a bag to hold his plunder. Two of the savages came from the bedroom, dragging a shrinking and almost naked Susanna between them.
Terror suddenly stabbed Miriam's paralyzed mind and body into action. In a moment they would discover the loft stairs! The girl's wits came back to her. Behind her was a window, hardly more than a slit in the wall, but big enough, if she had to, to crawl through and escape. It was not too much of a drop to the ground. If she could get out, make a run for the fort, they might not notice. She could run as fast as any Indian. Once out of the cabin, her chances were good even in the woods. If she could reach the fort she could rouse the men and get help.
On hands and knees she crawled to the window and knocked out the shutter. In the din downstairs the clatter could not be heard. One bare leg was out and over the sill when her eyes caught a sight that stopped and held her. The children! They were wide awake, sitting up in their beds and watching her, without a sound, just looking, their eyes round and glassy like the eyes of little animals in the traps. Even at that moment Sylvanus struggled out of his covers and came scrambling toward her, whimpering like a frightened puppy.
A wave of anger swept over Miriam. "No!" she scolded. "No, Vanus! Go back!" But his small hands reached her and clung. Of a sudden she hated him, hated all three of them with their white faces. But for them she would be halfway to the fort by now. She dragged her leg back over the sill. She could not leave them.
"I'll let you down, Vanus," she whispered. "You run for the fort. Rim as hard as you can! Sue, quick! Move, Sue! You go right after him!"
It was too late. An iron arm hooked round her waist and jerked her back. A brown hand reached round her and dragged Sylvanus away from the window. When she tried to struggle, a cruel twist of her wrist sent a stab of agony up to her shoulder. Half off her feet, she stumbled and fell after her captor, down the ladder, across the cabin floor, into the clearing outside.
The others were all there, even Peter Labaree, bound fast like James. The three children threw themselves sobbing against their mother, and Susanna, her arms held by her two captors, tried to comfort them with her voice. "Hush, chickens," she faltered. "You're all to rights. Don't cry."
The Indians were arguing with each other in rough tones and menacing gestures. A few were bent on killing the prisoners at once, and their threatening tomahawks turned Miriam cold. Then one warrior, apparently the leader, stepped forward and silenced the jabbering with one curt syllable. His eyes swept over the prisoners, scowling disdainfully at the women in their night shifts. He gestured to one of his men and barked a command. The Indian glowered, but he opened a sack stuffed to bursting with goods from the cabin, grudgingly pulled out three dresses, and threw them on the ground in front of Susanna.
A ruffled length of petticoat trailed from the sack. "That too?" Susanna pleaded, pointing. But if the Indian understood, he intended to part with nothing else. Susanna's arms were freed for a moment, and she picked up one of the dresses and drew it clumsily over her head. Miriam was tossed another, a gray homespun, worn and patched. Little Susanna, bundled into the third, was helpless to move, and when the Indian who had parted with it saw that the blouse of her mother's dress reached almost to the child's knees, he slashed at the cloth with his knife, ignoring her screech of terror, yanked the skirt away and stuffed it back into his sack. Sylvanus was allowed a little jacket of his own. In this flimsy clothing they seemed to satisfy the Indians. With a horrid yell, the captors pushed, prodded, and dragged their prisoners into the woods.
Sharp cramps began to shoot up and down Miriam's arm as the iron fingers of her captor never lost their grip. They had turned away from the clearing straight into the thicket where the thorns tore at her legs and stabbed her bare feet. The Indians were in a hurry now, sensing that the fort must have been aroused by the racket, and they forced their prisoners on impatiently. Poor Susanna, heavy with her unborn child, could barely keep pace. When one shoe caught on a root, the Indians jerked her forward without it, so that she limped awkwardly. Miriam, lost in her own misery, did not even notice her sister's plight.
I could have made it. Her thoughts went round and round. I had a chance. I might even have reached the fort but for that stupid Vanus. Actually, she knew that even if she could have saved herself she couldn't have helped the others. The men in the fort would not have dared to follow. Everyone knew that pursuit meant instant death for prisoners. She might have been safe herself, though, this very moment, inside those walls she had hated, which now seemed so precious a shelter. She had only her own softheartedness to thank that instead she was floundering through the brush at the mercy of these savages. Glancing up at their paint-streaked faces, Miriam could see no signs at all of any mercy.
When the sun was directly overhead they came to a halt. The children had made the three miles or so with less difficulty than the grownups. The two little girls, after several tumbles, had been slung across the redskins' shoulders like the sacks of goods. Sylvanus, with his sturdy little legs, had trudged alongside his captor, snuffling and wiping his tears against his jacket sleeve, but seemed none the worse for it. The Indians were fast losing patience with Susanna, who was quite plainly unable to go another step. They stood looking down at her sagging figure with such disgust that for an instant Miriam forgot her own fear in a stab of terror for her sister's life.