11: Pathetic Passages of Pioneer Life
<< 10: Romance of the Border || 12: The Heroines of the Southwest >>
A hundred ills brood over the cabin in the wilderness. Some are
ever-present; others lie in wait, and start forth at intervals.
Labor, Solitude, Fear; these are the companions of woman on the border: to
these come other visitants—weariness, and that longing, yearning, pining
of the heart which the Germans so beautifully term sehn-sucht—hunger,
vigils, bodily pain and sickness, the biting cold, the drenching storm, the
fierce heat, with savage eyes of man and beast glaring from the thicket.
Then sorrow takes bodily shape and enters the house; loved ones are borne
away—the child, or the father, or saddest of all, the mother; the long
struggle is over, and the devoted woman of the household lays her wasted
form beneath the grassy sod of the cabin yard.
Bereavement is hard to bear in even the houses where comfort, ease, and
luxury surround the occupants, where friends and kinsfolk crowd to pour out
sympathy and consolation. But what must it be in the rude cabin on the
lonely border? The grave hollowed out in the hard soil of the little
inclosure, the rough shell-coffin hewn with tears from the forest tree, the
sorrowing household ranged in silence beside the form which will gladden
the loneliness of that stricken family no longer, and then the mourners
turn away and go back to their homely toils.
If from the time of the landing we could recall the long procession of the
actors and the events of border-life, and pass them before the eye in one
great moving panorama, how somber would be the colors of that picture! All
along the grand march what scenes of captivity, suffering, bereavement,
sorrow, and in these scenes, woman the most prominent figure, for she was
the constant actress in this great drama of woe!
The carrying away and the return of captives in war has furnished themes by
which poets and artists in all ages have moved the heart of man. The
breaking up of homes, the violent separations of those who are kindred by
blood, and the sundering for ever of family ties were ordinary and every
day incidents in the border-wars of our country: but the frequency of such
occurrences does not detract from the mournful interest with which they are
At the close of the old French and Indian War, Colonel Henry Bouquet
stipulated with the Indian tribes on the Ohio frontier as one of the
conditions of peace that they should restore all the captives which they
had taken. This was agreed to, and on his return march he was met by a
great company of settlers in search of their lost relatives. "Husbands
found their wives and parents their children, from whom they had been
separated for years. Women frantic between hope and fear, were running
hither and thither, looking piercingly into the face of every child, to
find their own, which, perhaps, had died—and then such shrieks of agony!
Some of the little captives shrank from their own forgotten mothers, and
hid in terror in the blankets of the squaws that had adopted them. Some
that had been taken away young, had grown up and married Indian husbands or
Indian wives, and now stood utterly bewildered with conflicting emotions. A
young Virginian had found his wife; but his little boy, not two years old
when captured, had been torn from her, and had been carried off, no one
knew whither. One day a warrior came in, leading a child. No one seemed to
own it. But soon the mother knew her offspring and screaming with joy,
folded her son to her bosom. An old woman had lost her granddaughter in the
French war, nine years before. All her other relatives had died under the
knife. Searching, with trembling eagerness, in each face, she at last
recognized the altered features of her child. But the girl who had
forgotten her native tongue, returned no answer, and made no sign. The old
woman groaned, wept, and complained bitterly, that the daughter she had so
often sung to sleep on her knees, had forgotten her in her old age.
Soldiers and officers were alike overcome. 'Sing,' whispered Bouquet, 'sing
the song you used to sing.' As the low, trembling tones began to ascend,
the wild girl gave one sudden start, then listening for a moment longer,
her frame shaking like an ague, she burst into a passionate flood of tears.
That was sufficient. She was the lost child. All else had been effaced from
her memory, but the music of the nursery-song. During her captivity she had
heard it in her dreams."
Another story of the same character is that of Frances Slocum, the "Lost
child of Wyoming," which though perhaps familiar to some of our readers,
will bear repeating.
In the time of the Revolution the house of Mr. Slocum in the Wyoming
valley, was attacked by a party of Delawares. The inmates of the house, at
the moment of the surprise, were Mrs. Slocum and four young children, the
eldest of whom was a son aged thirteen, the second, a daughter aged nine,
the third, Frances Slocum, aged five, and a little son aged two and a half.
The girl, aged nine years old, appears to have had the most presence of
mind, for while the mother ran into a copse of wood near by, and Frances
attempted to secrete herself behind a staircase, the former seized her
little brother, the youngest above mentioned, and ran off in the direction
of the fort. True she could not make rapid progress, for she clung to the
child, and not even the pursuit of the savages could induce her to drop her
charge. The Indians did not pursue her far, and laughed heartily at the
panic of the little girl, while they could not but admire her resolution.
Allowing her to make her escape, they returned to the house, and after
helping themselves to such articles as they chose, prepared to depart.
The mother seems to have been unobserved by them, although, with a yearning
bosom, she had so disposed of herself that while she was screened from
observation she could notice all that occurred. But judge of her feelings
at the moment when they were about to depart, as she saw her little Frances
taken from her hiding place, and preparations made to carry her away into
captivity. The sight was too much for maternal tenderness to endure.
Rushing from her place of concealment, she threw herself upon her knees at
the feet of the captors, and with the most earnest entreaties pleaded for
the restoration of the child. But their bosoms were made of sterner stuff
than to yield even to the most eloquent and affectionate entreaties of a
mother, and with characteristic stoicism they prepared to depart. Deaf
alike to the cries of the mother, and the shrieks of the child, Frances was
slung over the shoulder of a stalwart Indian with as much indifference as
though she were a slaughtered fawn.
The long, lingering look which the mother gave to her child, as her captors
disappeared in the forest, was the last glimpse of her sweet features that
she ever had. But the vision was for many a long year ever present to her
fancy. As the Indian threw the child over his shoulder, her hair fell over
her face, and the mother could never forget how the tears streamed down her
cheeks, when she brushed it away as if to catch a last sad look of the
mother from whom, her little arms outstretched, she implored assistance in
These events cast a shadow over the remaining years of Mrs. Slocum. She
lived to see many bright and sunny days in that beautiful valley—bright
and sunny, alas! to her no longer. She mourned for the lost one, of whom no
tidings, at least during her pilgrimage, could be obtained. After her sons
grew up, the youngest of whom, by the way, was born but a few months
subsequent to the events already narrated, obedient to the charge of their
mother, the most unwearied efforts were made to ascertain what had been the
fate of the lost sister. The forest between the Susquehanna and the Great
Lakes, and even the most distant wilds of Canada, were traversed by the
brothers in vain, nor could any information respecting her be derived from
the Indians. Once, indeed, during an excursion of one of the brothers into
the vast wilds of the West, a white woman, long ago captive, came to him in
the hopes of finding a brother; but after many anxious efforts to discover
evidences of relationship, the failure was as decisive as it was mutually
There was yet another kindred occurrence, still more painful. One of the
many hapless female captives in the Indian country becoming acquainted with
the inquiries prosecuted by the Slocum family, presented herself to Mrs.
Slocum, trusting that in her she might find her long lost mother. Mrs.
Slocum was touched by her appearance, and fain would have claimed her. She
led the stranger about the house and yards to see if there were any
recollections by which she could be identified as her own lost one. But
there was nothing written upon the pages of memory to warrant the desired
conclusion, and the hapless captive returned in bitter disappointment to
her forest home. In process of time these efforts were all relinquished as
hopeless. The lost Frances might have fallen beneath the tomahawk or might
have proved too tender a flower for transplantation into the wilderness.
Conjecture was baffled, and the mother, with a sad heart, sank into the
grave, as did also the father, believing with the Hebrew patriarch that the
"child was not."
Long years passed away and the memory of little Frances was forgotten, save
by two brothers and a sister, who, though advanced in the vale of life,
could not forget the family tradition of the lost one. Indeed it had been
the dying charge of their mother that they must never relinquish their
exertions to discover Frances.
Fifty years and more had passed since the disappearance of little Frances,
when news came to the surviving members of the bereaved family that she was
still alive. She had been adopted into the tribe of the Miami Indians, and
was passing her days as a squaw in the lodges of that people.
The two surviving brothers and their sister undertook a journey to see, and
if possible, to reclaim, the long lost Frances. Accompanied by an
interpreter whom they had engaged in the Indian country, they reached at
last the designated place and found their sister. But alas! how changed!
Instead of the fair-haired and laughing girl, the picture yet living in
their imagination, they found her an aged and thoroughbred squaw in
everything but complexion. She was sitting when they entered her lodge,
composed of two large log-houses connected by a shed, with her two
daughters, the one about twenty-three years old, and the other about
thirty-three, and three or four pretty grandchildren. The closing hours of
the journey had been made in perfect silence, deep thoughts struggling in
the bosoms of all. On entering the lodge, the first exclamation of one of
the brothers was,—"Oh, God! is that my sister!" A moment afterward, and
the sight of her thumb, disfigured in childhood, left no doubt as to her
identity. The following colloquy, conducted through the interpreter,
"What was your name when a child?"
"I do not recollect."
"What do you remember?"
"My father, my mother, the long river, the staircase under which I hid when
"How came you to lose your thumb-nail?"
"My brother hammered it off a long time ago, when I was a very little girl
at my father's house."
"Do you know how many brothers and sisters you had?"
She then mentioned them, and in the order of their ages.
"Would you know your name if you should hear it repeated?"
"It is a long time since, and perhaps I should not."
"Was it Frances?"
At once a smile played upon her features, and for a moment there seemed to
pass over the face what might be called the shadow of an emotion, as she
Other reminiscences were awakened, and the recognition was complete. But
how different were the emotions of the parties! The brothers paced the
lodge in agitation. The civilized sister was in tears. The other, obedient
to the affected stoicism of her adopted race, was as cold, unmoved, and
passionless as marble.
The brothers and sister returned unable, after urgent and loving
entreaties, to win back their tawny sister from her wilds. Her Indian
husband and children were there; there was the free, open forest, and she
clung to these; and yet the love of her kinsfolk for her, and her's for
them, was not quenched.
Transporting ourselves far from the beautiful valley of Wyoming, where the
grief-stricken mother will wake never more to the consciousness of the loss
of her sweet Frances, we stand on the prairies of Kansas. The time is 1856.
One of the settlers who, with his wife, was seeking to build up a community
in the turmoil, which then made that beautiful region such dangerous
ground, has met his death at the hands of a rival faction. We enter the
widow's desolated home. A shelter rather than a house, with but two
wretched rooms, it stands alone upon the prairie. The darkness of a stormy
winter's evening was gathering over the snow-clad slopes of the wide, bare
prairie, as, in company with a sympathizing friend, we enter that lonely
In the scantily-furnished apartment into which we are shown, two or three
women and as many children are crowding around a stove, for the night is
bitter cold, and even the large wood-fire scarcely heated a space so thinly
walled. Behind a heavy pine table, on which stands a flickering
tallow-candle, and leaning against a half-curtained window on which the
sleet and winter's blast beat drearily, sits a woman of some forty years of
age, clad in a dress of dark, coarse stuff, resting her head on her hand,
and seeming unmindful of all about her.
She was the widow of Thomas W. Barber, one of the victims of the Kansas
war. The attenuated hand supporting the aching head, and half shielding the
tear-dimmed eyes, the silent drops trickling down the wasted cheeks, told
but too well the sad story.
"They have left me," she cried, "a poor, forsaken creature, to mourn all my
days! Oh, my husband, my husband, they have taken from me all that I hold
dear! one that I loved better than I loved my own life!"
Thomas W. Barber was a careful and painstaking farmer, a kind neighbor, and
an inoffensive, amiable man. His "untimely taking off" was indeed a sad
loss to the community at large, but how much more to his wife! She had
loved him with a love that amounted to idolatry. When he was returning from
his daily toil she would go forth to meet him. When absent from home, if
his stay was prolonged, she would pass the whole night in tears; and when
ill, she would hang over his bed like a mother over her child. With a
presentiment of evil, when he left his home for the last time, after
exhausting every argument to prevent him from going, she had said to him,
"Oh, Thomas! if you should be shot, I shall be left all alone, with no
child and nothing in the wide world to fill your place!" This was their
The intelligence of his death was kept in mercy from her, through the
kindness of friends, who hoped to break it to her gently. This thoughtful
and sympathetic purpose was marred by the unthinking act of a young man,
who had been sent with a carriage to convey her to the hotel where her
husband's body lay. As he rode up he shouted, "Thomas Barber is killed!"
His widow half-caught the dreadful words, and rushing to the door cried,
"Oh, God! What do I hear?" Seeing the mournful and sympathetic faces of the
bystanders, she knew the truth and filled the house with her shrieks. When
they brought her into the apartment where her husband lay, she threw
herself upon his corpse, and kissing the dead man's face, called down
imprecations on the heads of those who had bereaved her of all she held
The prairies of the great West resemble the ocean in more respects than in
their level vastness, and the travelers who pass over them are like
mariners who guide themselves only by the constellations and the great
luminaries of heaven. The trail of the emigrant, like the track of the
ship, is often uncrossed for days by others who are voyaging over this
mighty expanse. Distance becomes delusive, and after journeying for days
and failing to reach the foot-hills of the mountains, whose peaks have
shone to his eyes in so many morning suns, the tired emigrant is tempted by
the abounding richness of the country to pause. He is one hundred miles
from the nearest settlement. Beside a stream he builds his cabin. He is
like a voyager whose ship has been burned, leaving him in a strange land
which he must conquer or die.
Such was the situation of that household on the prairie of Illinois,
concerning whom is told a story full of mournful pathos. We should note, in
passing on to our story, one of the dangers to which prairie-dwellers are
exposed. They live two or three months every year in a magazine of
combustibles. One of the peculiarities of the climate in those regions is
the dryness of its summers and autumns. A drought often commences in August
which, with the exception of a few showers towards the close of that month,
continues, with little interruption, throughout the full season. The
immense mass of vegetation with which the fertile soil loads itself during
the summer is suddenly withered, and the whole earth is covered with
combustible materials. A single spark of fire falling anywhere upon these
plains at such a time, instantly kindles a blaze that spreads on every
side, and continues its destructive course as long as it finds fuel, these
fires sweeping on with a rapidity which renders it hazardous even to fly
The flames often extend across a wide prairie and advance in a long line;
no sight can be more sublime than to behold at night a stream of fire
several miles in breadth advancing across these plains, leaving behind it a
black cloud of smoke, and throwing before it a vivid glare which lights up
the whole landscape with the brilliancy of noonday. A roaring and crackling
sound is heard like the rushing of the hurricane; the flame, which, in
general, rises to the height of about twenty feet, is seen sinking and
darting upward in spires precisely as the waves dash against each other,
and as the spray flies up into the air; the whole appearance is often that
of a boiling and flaming sea violently agitated. Woe to the farmer whose
ripe corn-field extends into the prairie, and who has carelessly suffered
the tall grass to grow in contact with his fences; the whole labor of a
year is swept away in a few hours.
More than sixty years since, and before the beautiful wild gardens of
Illinois had been tilled by the hand of the white man, an emigrant with his
family came thither from the East in search of a spot whereon to make his
home. One bright spring day his white-topped wagon entered a prairie richer
in its verdure and more brilliant in its flowers, than any that had yet met
his eyes. At night-fall it halted beside a clump of trees not far from a
creek. On this site a log-cabin soon rose and sent its smoke curling
through the overhanging boughs.
The only neighbors of the pioneers were the rambling Indians. Their
habitation was the center of a vast circle not dwelt in, and rarely even
crossed by white settlers; oxen, cows, and a dog were their only domestic
animals. For many months after their cabin was built they depended on wild
game and fruits for subsistence; the rifle of the father, and traps set by
the boys, brought them an abundant supply of meat. The wife and mother
wrought patiently for those she loved. Her busy hands kept a well-ordered
house by day, and at night she plied the needle to repair the wardrobe of
her little household band. It was already growing scanty, and materials to
replace it could only be procured at a distance, and means to procure it
were limited. Patching and darning until their garments were beyond repair,
she then supplied their place with skins stripped from the deer which the
father had shot. Far into the night, by the flickering light of a single
candle, this gentle housewife plied "her busy care," while her husband,
worn out with his day's work, and her children, tired by their rambles,
were slumbering in the single chamber of the cabin.
October came, and a journey to the nearest settlement for winter goods and
stores, must be made. After due preparation the father and his eldest son
started in the emigrant wagon, and expected to be absent many days, during
which the mother and her children, with only the dog for their protection,
looked hourly forth upon the now frost-embrowned prairie, and fondly hoped
for their return.
Day after day passed, and no sign of life was visible upon the plain save
the deer bounding over the sere herbage, or the wolf loping stealthily
against the wind which bore the scent of his prey. A rising haze began to
envelope the landscape, betokening the approach of the Indian summer,
"The melancholy days had come,
The saddest of the year,"
and the desolation of nature found an answering mood in the soul of that
lone woman. One day she was visited by a party of Indian warriors, and from
them she learned that there was a war between the tribes through whose
country the journey of her husband lay. A boding fear for his safety took
possession of her, and after the warriors had partaken of her hospitality
and departed, and night came, she laid her little ones in their bed, and
sat for hours on the threshold of the cabin door, looking out through the
darkness and praying silently for the return of her loved ones. The wind
was rising and driving across the sky black masses of clouds which looked
like misshapen specters of evil. The blast whistled through the leafless
trees and howled round the cabin. Hours passed, and still the sorrowful
wife and mother sat gazing into the gloom as if her eyes would pierce it
and lighten on the wished-for object.
But what is that strange light which far to the north gleams on the
blackened sky? It was not the lightning's flash, for it was a steady
brightening glow. It was not the weird flash of the aurora borealis, but a
redder and more lurid sheen; nor was it the harbinger of the rising sun
which lit that northern sky. From a tinge it brightens to a gleam, and
deepened at last into a broad glare. That lonely heart was overwhelmed with
the dreadful truth. The prairie is on fire! Often had they talked of
prairie fires as a spectacle of grandeur. But never had she dreamed of the
red demon as an enemy to be encountered in that dreadful solitude.
Her heart sank within her as she saw the danger leaping toward her like
some fiery and maddened race-horse. Was there no escape? Her children were
sweetly sleeping, and the faithful dog, her only guardian, was gazing as if
with mute sympathy into her face. Within an hour she calculates the
conflagration would be at her very door. All around her is one dry ocean of
combustibles. She cannot reach the tree-tops, and if she could, to cling
there would be impossible amid those towering flames. The elements seemed
to grow madder as the fire approached; fiercer blew the blast, intermitting
for a moment only to gather fresh potency and mingle its own strength with
that of the flames. She still had a faint hope that a creek a few miles
away would be a barrier over which the blaze could not leap. She saw by the
broad light which made even the distant prairie like noonday, the tops of
the trees that fringed the creek but for a few moments, and then they were
swallowed up in that crimson furnace. Alas! the stream had been crossed by
the resistless flames, and her last hope died away.
Bewildered and half stupefied by the terrors of her situation, she had not
yet wakened her children. But now no time was to be lost. Already in
imagination she felt the hot breath of her relentless foe. It was with much
difficulty that she awoke them and aroused them to a sense of their awful
danger. Hastily dressing them she encircled them in her arms and kissed and
fondled them as if for a last farewell. Now for the first time she missed
the dog, the faithful companion and guardian of her solitude, and on whose
aid she still counted in the hour of supreme peril. She called him loudly,
but in vain. Turning her face northward she saw one unbroken line of flame
as far as the eye could reach, and forcing its way towards her like an
infuriated demon, roaring, crackling, sending up columns of dun-colored
smoke as it tore along over the plain. A few minutes more and her fate
would be decided. Falling on her knees she poured out her heart in prayer,
supplicating for mercy and commending herself and her helpless babes to
Almighty God. As she rose calmed and stayed by that fervent supplication a
low wistful bark fell on her ear; the dog came bounding to her side;
seizing her by the dress as if he would drag her from the spot, he leaped
away from her, barking and whining, looking back towards her as he ran.
Following him a few steps and seeing nothing, she returned and resumed her
seat, awaiting death beside her children.
Again the dog returned, pawing, whining, howling, and trying in every way
to attract her attention. What could he mean? Then for the first time
flashed upon her the thought which had already occurred to the sagacious
instinct of the dumb brute! The ploughed field! Yes, there alone was hope
of safety! Clasping the two youngest children with one arm she almost
dragged the eldest boy as she fled along the trodden path, the dog going
before them showing every token of delight. The fire was at their heels,
and its hot breath almost scorched their clothes as they ran. They gained
the herbless ploughed field and took their station in its center just as
the flames darted round on each side of them.
The exhausted mother, faint with the sudden deliverance, dropped on the
ground among her helpless babes. Father of mercies! what an escape!
In a few moments the flames attacked the haystack, which was but a morsel
to its fury, and then seizing the house devoured it more slowly, while the
great volume of the fire swept around over the plain. Long did the light of
the burning home blight the eye of the lone woman after the flames had done
their worst on the prairie around her and gone on bearing ruin and
devastation to the southern plains and groves.
The vigils and the terrors of that fearful night wrought their work on the
lonely woman, and she sank into a trance-like slumber upon the naked earth,
with her babes nestling in her lap and the dog, her noble guardian,
crouching at her feet. She awoke with the first light of morning to the
terrible realities from which for a few brief hours she had had a blessed
oblivion. She arose as from a dream and cast a dazed look southward over a
charred and blackened expanse stretching to the horizon, over which the
smoke was hanging like a pall. Turning away, stunned by the fearful
recollection, her eyes fell upon the smouldering ruins of her once happy
home. She tottered with her chilled and hungry children towards the heap of
smoking rafters and still glowing embers of the cabin, with which the
morning breezes were toying as in merry pastime, and sat down upon a mound
which stood before what had once been the door. Here, at least, was warmth,
but whither should she go for shelter and food. There was no house within
forty miles and the cruel flames had spared neither grain nor meat. There
was no shelter but the canopy of heaven and no food but roots and
Wandering hither and thither under the charred and leafless trees, she
picked up with her numb and nerveless fingers the relics of the autumn nuts
or feebly dug in the frost-stiffened ground for roots. But these were rare;
here and there she found a nut shielded by a decayed log, and the edible
roots were almost hidden by the ashes of the grass. She returned to the
fire, around which her innocent children had begun to frolic with childlike
thoughtlessness. The coarse morsels which she gave them seemed for the
moment to quiet their cravings, and the strange sight of their home in
ruins diverted their minds. The mother saw with joy that they were amusing
themselves with merry games and had no part in her bitter sorrows and
fears. Long and earnestly did she bend her eyes on the wide, black plains
to see if she could discern the white-topped wagon moving over that dark
expanse. Noon came and passed but brought not the sight for which she
yearned: only the brown deer gamboling and the prairie hen wheeling her
flight over the scorched waste!
Night came with its cold, its darkness, its hunger, its dreadful solitude!
The chilled and shelterless woman sat with the heads of her sleeping
children pillowed in her lap, and listened to the howling of the starved
wolves, the dog her only guardian. She had discovered a few ground-nuts,
which she had divided among the children, reserving none for herself; she
had stripped off nearly all her clothing in order to wrap them up warmly
against the frosty air, and with pleasant words, while her head was
bursting, she had soothed them to sleep beside the burning pile; and there,
through the watches of the long night, she gazed fondly at them and prayed
to the Father of mercies that they, at least, might be spared.
The night was dark: beyond the circle of the burning embers nothing could
be discerned. At intervals, her blood was curdled by the long, mournful
howl of the gaunt gray wolf calling his companions to their prey. The cold
wind whistled around her thinly clad frame and chilled it to the core. As
the night grew stiller a drowsiness against which she contended in vain,
overcame her, her eyelids drooped, her shivering body swayed to and fro,
until by the tumbling down of the embers she was again aroused, and would
brace herself for another hour's vigil. At last the darkness became
profoundly silent and even the wind ceased to whisper, the nocturnal
marauders stole away, and night held her undisputed reign. Then came a
heavy dreamless sleep and overpowered the frame of the watcher, chilled as
it was, and faint with hunger, and worn with fatigue and vigils: she curled
her shivering limbs around her loved ones and became oblivious to all.
It was the cry of her babes that waked her from slumber. The fire was
slowly dying; the sun was looking down coldly from the leaden sky; slowly
his beams were obscured by dark, sullen masses of vapor, which at last
curtained the whole heavens. Rain! When she sat watching in the darkness, a
few hours before, she thought nothing could make her condition worse. But
an impending rain-storm which, thirty-six hours before, would have been
hailed as merciful and saving, would now only aggravate their situation.
Darker and darker grew the sky. She must hasten for food ere the clouds
should burst. Her limbs were stiff with cold, her sight was dim, and her
brain reeled as she rose to her feet and tottered to the grove to search
for sustenance to keep her wailing babes alive. Her own desire for food was
gone, but all exhausted as she was she could not resist the pleadings of
the loved ones who hung upon her garments and begged for food.
Gleaning a few more coarse morsels on the ground so often searched, she
tottered back to the spot which still seemed home though naught of home was
there. Strange, racking pains wrung her wasted body, and sinking down
beside her children she felt as if her last hour had come. Yes! she would
perish there beside those consecrated ashes with her little ones around
her. A drizzling rain was falling faster and faster. The fire was dying and
she pushed the brands together, and gathered her trembling babes about her
knees, and between the periods of her agony told them not to forget their
mamma nor how they had lost her; she gave the eldest boy many tender
messages to carry to her husband and to her first born. With wondering and
tearful face he promised to do as she desired, but begged her to tell him
where she would be when his father came and whether his little brother
would go with her and leave him all alone.
The rain poured down mercilessly and chilly blew the blast. The embers
hissed and blackened and shed no more warmth on the suffering group. Keener
and heavier grew the mother's pangs, and there beside the smoking ruins of
her home, prone on the drenched soil, with the pitiless sky bending above
her, her helpless children wailing around her writhing form, the hapless
woman gave birth to a little babe, whose eyes were never opened to the
desolation of its natal home.
Unconscious alike to the cries of the terror stricken children and of the
moaning caresses of her dumb friend, that poor mother's eyes were only
opened on the dreadful scene when day was far advanced. Through the cold
rain, still pouring steadily down, the twilight seemed to her faint eyes to
be creeping over the earth. Sweet sounds were ringing in her ears. These
were but dreams that deluded her weakened mind and senses. She strove to
rise, but fell back and again relapsed into insensibility. Once again her
eyes opened. This time it was no illusion. The eldest of the little
watchers was shouting, in her ear, "Mother, I see father's wagon!" There it
was close at hand. All day it had been slowly moving across the blackened
prairie. The turf had been softened by the rain and the last few miles had
been inconceivably tedious. The charred surface of the plain had filled the
heart of both father and son with terror, which increased as they advanced.
When they were within a mile of the spot where the cabin stood and could
see no house, they both abandoned the wagon, and leaving the animals to
follow as they chose, they flew shouting loudly as they sped on till they
stood over the perishing group. They could not for the moment comprehend
the dreadful calamity, but stared at the wasted faces of the children, the
infant corpse, the dying wife, the desolate home.
Cursing the day that he had been lured by the festal beauty of those
prairies, the father lifted the dying woman in his arms, gazed with an
agonized face upon her glassy eyes, and felt the faint fluttering in her
breast that foretold the last and worst that could befall him. Slowly, word
by word, with weak sepulchral voice, she told the dreadful story.
He slipped off his outer garments and wrapped them around her, and wiping
off the rain-drops from her face drew her to his heart. But storm or
shelter was all the same to her now, and the death-damp on her brow was
colder than the pelting shower. He accused himself of her cruel murder and
wildly prayed her forgiveness. From these accusations she vindicated him,
besought him not to grieve for her, and with many prayers for her dear
children and their father, she resigned her breath with the parting light
of that sad autumnal day.
After two days and nights of weeping and watching, he laid her remains deep
down below the prairie sod, beside the home which she had loved and made
bright by her presence.
<< 10: Romance of the Border || 12: The Heroines of the Southwest >>