CHAPTER XVII. THE FREEMAN'S DEFENCE.
THE afternoon shadows stretched eastward, and the round red sun stood thoughtfully on the horizon, and his beams shone yellow and calm into the little bed-room where George and his wife were sitting.
"When we get to Canada," said Eliza, "I can help you.
I can do dress-making very well; and I understand fine washing and ironing; and between us we can find something to live on."
"Yes, Eliza, so long as we have each other and our boy. O! Eliza,
if these people only knew what a blessing it is for a man to feel that
his wife and child belong to him! I've often wondered to see men that
could call their wives and children their own fretting and worrying
thing else. Why, I feel rich and strong, though we have nothing but our bare hands. I feel as if I could scarcely ask God for any more."
"But yet we are not quite out of danger," said Eliza; "we are not yet in Canada."
"True," said George, "but it seems as if I smelt the free air, and it makes me strong."
At this moment, voices were heard in the outer apartment, in earnest conversation, and very soon a rap was heard on the door. Eliza started and opened it.
Simeon Halliday was there, and with him a Quaker brother, whom he introduced as Phineas Fletcher. Phineas was tall and red-haired, with an expression of great acuteness and shrewdness in his face.
"Our friend Phineas hath discovered something of importance to the interests of thee and thy party, George," said Simeon; "it were well for thee to hear it."
"That I have," said Phineas. "Last night I stopped at a little
lone tavern, back on the road, and, after my supper, I stretched
myself down on a pile of bags in the corner, and pulled a buffalo robe
over me, to wait till my bed was ready; and what does I do, but get
fast asleep. I slept for an hour or two, for I was pretty well tired;
but when I came to myself a little, I found that there were some men
in the room, drinking and talking; and I thought I'd just see what
they were up to. 'So,' says one, 'they are up in the Quaker
settlement, no doubt' Then I listened with both ears, and I found that
they were talking about this very party. So I lay and heard them lay
off all their plans. They've got a right notion of the
track we are going to-night; and they'll be down after us, six or eight strong. So, now, what's to be done?"
"What shall we do, George?" said Eliza, faintly.
"I know what I shall do," said George, as he stepped into the little room, and began examining his pistols.
"Ay, ay," said Phineas, nodding his head to Simeon; "thou seest, Simeon, how it will work."
"I see," said Simeon, sighing; "I pray it come not to that."
"I don't want to involve any one with or for me," said George. "If you will lend me your vehicle and direct me, I will drive alone to the next stand. Jim is a giant in strength, and brave as death and despair, and so am I."
"Ah, well, friend," said Phineas, "but they'll need a driver, for all that."
"Phineas is a wise and skillful man," said Simeon. "Thee does well, George, to abide by his judgment; and," he added, laying his hand kindly on George's shoulder, and pointing to the pistols, "be not over hasty with these."
"I will attack no man," said George. "All I ask of this country is to be let alone, and I will go out peaceably; but, I've had a sister sold in that New Orleans market. I know what they are sold for; and am I going to stand by and see them take my wife and sell her, when God has given me a pair of strong arms to defend her? No; God help me! I'll fight to the last breath, before they shall take my wife and son. Can you blame me?"
"Mortal man cannot blame thee, George. Flesh and blood could not do otherwise," said Simeon.
"Would not even you, sir, do the same, in my place?"
"I pray that I be not tried," said Simeon; "the flesh is weak."
"I think my flesh would be pretty tolerable strong, in such a case," said Phineas, stretching out a pair of arms like the sails of a windmill. "I an't sure, friend George, that I shouldn't hold a fellow for thee, if thee had any accounts to settle with him."
"Friend Phineas will ever have ways of his own," said Rachel Halliday, smiling.
"Well," said George, "isn't it best that we hasten our flight?"
"It isn't safe to start till dark, at any rate; for there are some evil persons in the villages ahead, that might be disposed to meddle with us, if then saw our wagon, and that would delay us more than the waiting; but in two hours I think we may venture. I will go over to Michael Cross, and engage him to come behind on his swift nag, and keep a bright look-out on the road, and warn us if any company of men come on. I am going out now to warn Jim and the old woman to be in readiness, and to see about the horse. We have a pretty fair start, and stand a good chance to get to the stand before they can come up with us. So, have good courage, friend George; this isn't the first ugly scrape that I've been in with thy people," said Phineas, as he closed the door.
"Phineas is pretty shrewd," said Simeon. "He will do the best that can be done for thee, George. And now, mother," said he, turning, to Rachel, "hurry thy preparations for these friends, for we must not send them away fasting."
As they were sitting down to the supper table, a light tap sounded at the door, and Ruth entered.
"I just ran in," she said, "with these little stockings for the boy,—three pair, nice, warm woolen ones. It will be so cold, thee knows, in Canada. Does thee keep up good courage, Eliza?" she added, tripping round to Eliza's side of the table, and shaking her warmly by the hand, and slipping a seed-cake into Harry's hand. "I brought a little parcel of these for him," she said, tugging at her pocket to get out the package. "Children, thee knows, will always be eating."
"O, thank you; you are too kind," said Eliza.
"Come, Ruth, sit down to supper," said Rachel.
"I couldn't, any way. So, good-by, Eliza; good-by, George; the Lord grant thee a safe journey;" and Ruth left the room.
A little while after supper, a large covered-wagon drew up before the door. Eliza was handed into the carriage by Simeon, and, creeping into the back part with her boy, sat down among the buffalo-skins. The old woman was next handed in and seated, and George and Jim placed on a rough board seat front of them, and Phineas mounted in front.
"Farewell, my friends," said Simeon, from without.
"God bless you"' answered all from within.
The wagon drove off, rattling and jolting over the frozen road, over wide, dreary plains, up hills, and down valleys,—and on, on, on they jogged, hour after hour.
About three o'clock George's ear caught the hasty and decided click of a horse's hoof coming behind them at some distance. Phineas pulled up his horses, and listened.
"That must be Michael," he said; "T think I know the sound of his gallop;" and he rose up and stretched his head anxiously back over the road.
A man riding in hot haste was now dimly descried at the top of a distant hill.
"There he is, I do believe!" said Phineas. George and Jim both sprang out of the wagon, before they knew what they were doing. On he came.
"Yes, that's Michael!" said Phineas; and, raising his voice, "Halloa, there, Michael!"
"Phineas! is that thee."
"Yes; what news—they coming?"
"Right on behind, eight or ten of them, hot with brandy, swearing and foaming like so many wolves."
"In with you,—quick, boys, in!" said Phineas. "If you must fight, wait till I get you a piece ahead." And, with the words, both jumped in, and Phineas lashed the horses to a run, the horseman keeping close beside them. The pursuers gained on them fast; the carriage made a sudden turn, and brought them near a ledge of a steep overhanging rock, that rose in an isolated ridge or clump, which seemed to promise shelter and concealment. It was a place well known to Phineas, and it was to gain this point he had been racing his horses.
"Now for it!" said he, suddenly checking his horses, end springing from his seat to the ground. "Out with you, in a twinkling, every one, and up into these rocks with me. Michael, thee tie thy horse to the wagon, and drive ahead to Amariah's, and get him and his boys to come back and talk to these fellows."
In a twinkling they were all out of the carriage.
"There," said Phineas, catching up Harry, "you, each of you, see to the women; and run, now, if you ever did run!"
"Come ahead," said Phineas, as they saw, in the mingled starlight and dawn, the traces of a rude but plainly marked foot-path leading up among them; "this is one of our old hunting-dens. Come up!"
Phineas went before, springing up the rocks like a goat, with the boy in his arms. Jim came second, bearing his trembling old mother over his shoulder, and George and Eliza brought up the rear. The party of horsemen came up to the fence, and, with mingled shouts and oaths, were dismounting, to prepare to follow them. A few moments' scrambling brought them to the top of the ledge; the path then passed between a narrow defile, where only one could walk at a time, till suddenly they came to a rift or chasm more than a yard in breadth, and beyond which lay a pile of rocks, separate from the rest of the ledge, standing full thirty feet high, with its sides steep and perpendicular as those of a castle. Phineas easily leaped the chasm, and sat down the boy on a smooth, flat platform of crisp white moss, that covered the top of the rock.
"Over with you!" he called; "spring, now, once, for your lives!" said he, as one after another sprang across. Several fragments of loose stone formed a kind of breast-work, which sheltered their position from the observation of those below.
"Well, here we all are," said Phineas, "Let 'em get us, if they can. Whoever comes here has to walk single file between those two rocks, in fair range of your pistols, boys, d'ye see?"
"I do see," said George; "and now, as this matter is ours, let us take all the risk, and do all the fighting."
"Thee's quite welcome to do the fighting, George," said Phineas, "but I may have the fun of looking on, I suppose. But see, these fellows are kinder debating down there. Hadn't thee better give 'em a word of advice, before they come up, just to tell 'em they'll be shot if they do?"
The party beneath consisted of our old acquaintances, Tom Loker and Marks, with two constables, and a posse consisting of such rowdies as could be engaged by a little brandy to go and help the fun of trapping a set of niggers.
At this moment, George appeared on the top of a rock above them, and speaking in a calm, clear voice, said, "Gentlemen, who are you, down there, and what do you want?"
"We want a party of runaway niggers," said Tom Loker. "One George Harris, and Eliza Harris, and their son, and Jim Selden, and an old woman. We've got the officers, here, and a warrant to take 'em; and we're going to have 'em, too. D'ye hear? An't you George Harris, that belongs to Mr. Harris, of Shelby county, Kentucky?"
"I am George Harris. A Mr. Harris, of Kentucky, did call me his property. But now I'm a free man, standing on God's free soil; and my wife and my child I claim as mine. Jim and his mother are here. We have arms to defend ourselves, and we mean to do it. You can come up, if you like; but the first one of you that comes within the range of our bullets is a dead man, and the next and the next; and so on till the last."
"O, come! come!" said a short puffy man, stepping forward, and blowing his nose as he did so. "Young man, this an't no kind of talk at all for you. You see, we're officers of justice. We've got the law on our side, so you'd better give up peaceably, you see."
"I know very well that you've got the law on your side, and the power," said George, bitterly. "You mean to take my wife to sell in New Orleans, and put my boy like a calf in a trader's pen, and send Jim's old mother to the brute that whipped and abused her before, because he couldn't abuse her son. You want to send Jim and me back to be whipped and tortured; and ground down under the heels of them that you call masters; and your laws will bear you out in it,—more shame for you and them! But you haven't got us. We don't own your laws; we don't own your country; we stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we'll fight for our liberty till we die."
The attitude, eye, voice, manner, of the speaker, for a moment struck the party below to silence. Marks was the only one who remained wholly untouched. He was deliberately cocking his pistol, and, in the silence that followed George's speech, he fired at him.
"Ye see ye get jist as much for him dead as alive in Kentucky," he said, coolly, as he wiped his pistol on his coat-sleeve.
George sprang backward. Eliza uttered a shriek,—the ball had passed close to his hair, had nearly grazed the cheek of his wife, and struck in the tree above.
"It's nothing, Eliza," said George, quickly.
"Now, Jim," said George, "look that your pistols are
all right, and watch that pass with me. The first man that shows himself I fire at; you take the second, and so on. It won't do, you know, to waste two shots on one."
"But what if you don't hit?"
"I shall hit," said George, coolly.
"Good! now, there's stuff in that fellow," muttered Phineas, between his teeth.
The party below, after Marks had fired, stood, for a moment, rather undecided.
"I think you must have hit some on 'em," said one of the men. "I heard a squeal!"
"I'm going right up for one," said Tom. "I never was afraid of niggers, and I an't going to be now."
One of the most courageous of the party followed Tom, and, the way being thus made, the whole party began pushing up the rock. On they came, and in a moment the burly form of Tom appeared in sight, almost at the verge of the chasm.
George fired, the shot entered his side,—but, though wounded, he would not retreat, but, with a yell like that of a mad bull, he was leaping right across the chasm into the party.
"Friend," said Phineas, suddenly stepping to the front, and meeting him with a push from his long arms, "thee isn't wanted here."
Down he fell into the chasm, crackling down among trees, bushes, logs, loose stones, till he lay, bruised and groaning, thirty feet below. The fall might have killed him, had it not been broken by his clothes catching in the branches of a large tree; but he came down with some force, however,—more than was at all agreeable.
"I say, fellers," said Marks, "you jist go round and pick up Tom, there, while I run and get on to my horse, to go back for help," and, without minding the hooting, and jeer, of his company, Marks galloped away.
"Was ever such a sneaking varmint?" said one of the men; "to come on his business, and he clear out and leave us this yer way!"
"Well, we must pick up that feller," said another.
The men, led by the groans of Tom, scrambled to where he lay groaning.
"Ye keep it agoing pretty loud, Tom," said one. "Ye much hurt?"
"Don't know. Get me up, can't ye? Blast that infernal Quaker! If it hadn't been for him, I'd a pitched some on 'em down here, to see how they liked it."
With much labor he was assisted to rise; and, with one holding him up under each shoulder, they got him as far as the horses.
"If you could only get me a mile back to that ar tavern. Give me a handkerchief or something, to stuff into this place, and stop this infernal bleeding."
George looked over the rocks, and saw them trying to lift the burly form of Tom into the saddle. After two or three ineffectual attempts, he reeled, and fell heavily to the ground.
"O, I hope he isn't killed!" said Eliza.
"On my word, they're leaving him, I do believe," said Phineas.
It was true; for after some consultation, the whole party got on their horses and rode away. When they were quite out of sight, Phineas began to bestir himself.
"Well, we must go down and walk a piece," he said. "I told Michael to go forward and bring, help, and be along, back here with the wagon; but we shall have to walk a piece alone the road, I reckon to meet them. The Lord grant he be along soon!"
As the party neared the fence; they discovered in the distance, along the road, their own wagon coming back, accompanied by some men on horseback.
"Well, now, there's Michael, and Stephen, and Amariah!" exclaimed Phineas, joyfully. "Now we are as safe as if we'd got there."
"Well, do stop, then,'' said Eliza, "and do something for that poor man; he's groaning dreadfully."
"It would be no more than Christiarn," said George; "let's take him. up and carry him on."
"And doctor him up among the Quakers!" said Phineas; "Well, I don't care if we do." And Phineas, who, in the course of his backwoods life, had acquired some rude experience of surgery, kneeled down by the wounded man, and began a careful examination of his condition.
"Marks," said Tom, feebly, "is that you, Marks?"
"No; I reckon 't an't, friend," said Phineas. "Much Marks cares for thee, if his own skin's safe. He's off, long ago."
"I believe I'm done for," said Tom. "The sneaking dog, to leave me to die alone! My poor old mother always told me 't would be so."
"La sakes! jist hear the poor crittur. He's got a mammy, now," said the old negress. "I can't help kinder pityin' on him."
"Softly, softly; don't thee snap and snarl, friend," said
Phineas, as Tom winced and pushed his hand away. "Thee has no chance, unless I stop the bleeding."
"You pushed me down there," said Tom, faintly.
"Well, if I hadn't, thee would have pushed us down, thee sees," said Phineas. "There, let me fix this bandage. We mean well to thee; we bear no malice. Thee shall be taken to a house where they'll nurse thee first rate,—as well as thy own mother could."
The other party now came up. The seats were taken out of the wagon, and four men, with great difficulty, lifted the heavy form of Tom into it. Before he was gotten in, he fainted entirely.
"What do you think of him?" said George, who sat by Phineas in front.
"Well, it's only a pretty deep flesh—wound; but, then, tumbling and scratching down that place didn't help him much; but he'll get over it, and may be learn a thing or two by it."
"What shall you do with him?" said George.
"O, carry him along to Amariah's. There's old Grandmam Stephens there,—Dorcas, they call her,—she's most an amazin' nurse. She takes to nursing real natural, and an't never better suited than when she gets a sick body to tend."
A ride of about an hour more brought the party to a neat farm
house, where the weary travellers found an abundant breakfast. Tom
Loker was soon carefully deposited in a much cleaner and softer bed
than he had ever been in the habit of occupying. His wound was
carefully dressed and bandaged, and he lay languidly opening and
shutting his eyes on the white window curtains and gently gliding figures of his sick room, like a weary child.