A Daring Night Ride Through the Lonely Woods, with Wolves in Hot Pursuit, When Canada was Little More Than a Wilderness.
Just Escaped and No More
A Daring Night Ride Through the Lonely Woods, with Wolves in Hot Pursuit, When Canada was Little More Than a Wilderness.
“I hear the tread of pioneers. Of nations yet to be. The first low wash of waves where soon Shall roll a human sea." —Whittier.
JOHN WALTERS thrust his head and shoulders through the cabin window: "Hurry up supper, Jane," he exclaim-
ed excitedly, “Dan Burney just went past and told me a new family has moved into .George Parker’s shanty, down the shore. Got here last night. Traveled all the way from Long Island. Horses clean tuckered out when they crossed the ferry. Got a yoke of oxen from some one at the Point and come on. Just got the horses home this afternoon, and I say, don’t you think we’d better go down and see how they’re comin’ on ? Feelin’ a bit lonesome, no doubt, and woman-folks homesick, like as not.” Jane Walters was treading away at her little flax-wheel, making it buzz as she drew the delicate fibers from the distaff, twirled them slightly with her fingers, then let them run through the flyers to the spool, a -fine, evenly-twisted thread ; but as her husband delivered this bit of news, the buzzing suddenly ceased, and the thread snapped short.
“Land sakes!” she cried. “How tired out they must be! Go? Yes, to be sure I will, and—let me see—maybe they haven't much to eat on hand. There’s that deer Nathan shot yesterday, a quarter o’ that might come good, and—yes, I might give ’em something else, too.”
She hastily put aside her work, and was soon busy preparing the evening meal.
A little later John came in, and seating himself beside the fireplace, he filled his pipe and proceeded to indulge in one of the few luxuries his settler’s life afforded. Occasionally he sighed, but it was not often
he gave way to melancholia. He was much too hopeful and stout-hearted for that, but to-night he was thinking of his own journey to the vast Canadian wilderness in which he had made himself a home.
Whilst Jane busied herself with her kettles and pots, swinging out the great iron crane from the yawning mouth of the fireplace, again returning it with its load of pots to its place over the dancing blaze, John sat sending rings of smoke above his head and reviewing his past history.
At the breaking out of the American War for Independence, he had occupied a pleasant, home in Monmouth County,New Jersey. Fired by a spirit of loyalty to the Mother Country, although but a mere boy in years, he enlisted in the service of the British, and at the close of the long, bloody war, found himself, as did many other Loyalists, a homeless, persecuted refugee. After enduring many hardships, and without knowing the fate of his mother and only sister, he reached the wilds of Upper Canada, and, passing by the Loyalists who had already taken up, and were occupying their lands in Adolphustown, he settled in that part of Prince Edward County known for so many years as the Sixth. Town—one of the old, original, ten townships.
On one of the rugged bluffs overlooking that part of the Bay of Quinte known as the Long Reach, he had built his log-cabin home, and had effected a considerable clearance.
A comparatively happy man was John Walters, but a new family moving into the settlement always brought back the oldtime life to him.
“Supper’s ready,” announced Jane, and John, rousing himself from his reverie,
took his place at the well-scrubbed pine table. Jane Walters was a neat housewife and the tallow-dip candles standing in their tin candlesticks at either end of the table gave to the polished pewter drinking cups and plates a sheen like burnished silver. The floor of the cabin was sanded with clean white sand—after the fashion of the Puritans. Strings of dried pumpkin and bunches of dried herbs hung from the ceiling and were carefully and somewhat artistically arranged. The old flint lock musket rested on forked sticks above the door. The spinning-wheel, with its billow of soft rolls ready for Jane’s busy fingers, stood in one corner, and beside it the little flaxwheel. The great fireplace, with its huge blackened back-log and blazing fore-sticks, its iron crane, with a row of iron pothooks, occupied one end of the room. Nearby was a corner cupboard, with its odd old dishes. Then there was a great Dutch clock reaching to the ceiling, and last, but not least, the sturdy, home-spun clad figures about the table. What a picture, and what a pity the photographer’s art was such a minus quantity in those days !
Plain and coarse, you call them ? Well, 'yes, perhaps they were. But then, theirs was the life of the log-cabin—a life of persistent hard work—a constant struggle for the bare necessities of life. There were no shams or pretensions among them. They were true and loyal men and women, and led the wild, free, backwoods life with few regrets or vain wishes. They were contented and happy and healthy, and as goodnature proverbially goes with muscle, they possessed a generous supply of it :
“ Ton thou Ram! homes were plantcrl ; and each one. With axe and Are and mutual help, made war Against the wilderness, and smote it down.
Not drooping like poor fugitives, they came In exodus to our Canadian wilds But full of heart and hope, with heads erect And fearless eyes, victorious in defeat."
This was the life to which the new-comers had journeyed so far to share.
Supper being finished by the Walters family, the horses were brought to the door, and John and Jane mounted to ride away.
“Here, you’d better take the musket with you,” said Nathan to his father, as the latter started.
“Oh, pshaw.” said John, “I don’t think I’ll need it. Besides, it’ll bother me as it is to keep this venison in place.”
“I tell you to take it,” said Nathan. “Tom Norton told me the wolf tracks in the
woods arc as thick as hair on a dog. This dry weather has sent ’em to the sin ire for water, and it ain’t safe goin’ out unarmed, let alone goin’ out after nightfall.”
John grumbled as he took the musket. “Eve never been chased by wolves yet.”
“Well, there s always a beginn in’ to everything,” said Nathan, “and its best to be on the safe side.”
Away went John and Jane along the blazed trail. The fall months had been unusually dry, and the air was hot and oppressive, so they had not gone far along their rough, winding road, before the horses slowed down to a walk. The gloom of the woods was dense, and the pungent odor of sun-burned leaves and soil almost stifling.
Jane, who was riding ahead, took off her sun-bonnet and fanned her hot, flushed face.
"How dark it is getting,” she said. “I do believe there’s a storm brewing.”
“Well, if it’s only a good, heavy rainstorm, it’ll be most welcome,” said John. “This weather makes me think what it ’ud mean to us if the woods ’ud get a-fire.”
Jane reined in her horse and turned to look John square in the face.
“Good Lord,” she gasped with white lips. “What an awful thing it ’ud be, and yet ast night l dreamt of seeing fire leap from tree to tree, until this whole place was one sea of flame.”
For a time they rode on in silence, thinking of the awful possibility, and all the time the twilight faded, and the gloom deepened into night.
All at once a long, sharp howl sounded from the depth of the woods, lane turned and looked at John, and again her face went white.
For a moment they stopped their horses and listened, but not for very long, for the howl was taken up and repeated again and again. All too well did they know it for
what it really was—the war cry of the wolves.
“Sit tight,” said John between his clenched teeth. “Give Dexter his head, and don’t look back. The pack’s got scent of us.”
The horses needed no urging. Like a flash they sprang forward, and with snorts of terror dashed down the rut-marked way.
The path was sinuous, and uneven, stumps
were to be rounded and sink-holes missed,
but still the horses kept a good distance ahead.
"Were doing well, mother," panted John, “but 1 do wish Xathe was here, for they'll gain on us when we reach the creek.’.’
And gain on them the wolves did, for in order to cross the rude, log bridge the horses had to be brought to a walk. Jane glanced back. "There they come out of the woods." she said. "Oh! drop the venison and that’ll stop ’em for awhile !"
But John was not ready to part with his load just then, although they had to go quite a distance through another dense bit of woods before reaching the Barker cabin.
And now the race began in good earnest. Once, when the yelling pack forged close to the heels of the flying horses, a bullet from John's musket carried death to one of the leaders, and the wolves stopped to devour their dying comrade. The pause seemed but momentary, and fast as the horses flew along, still faster came the fiendish pack behind.
Jane Walters, clinging desperately to the bridle, prayed incoherently. Never afterward was the memory of the awful agony of that ride blotted from her mind. With might and main John tugged at the thongs which bound the haunch of venison to his horse and the ugly fangs of the leader were snapping viciously at his legs, as he finally loosened and dropped it.
This again stopped the pack, and John tried desperately to reload his musket, but before he succeeded the wolves were again galloping close behind.
Now came the test race of the night. John flung away his musket and galloped for his life. Like the wind they tore along. Right past the door of the Parker cabin they went with such momentum that it was useless attempting to stop. But help was unexpectedly found here. A number of settlers had already congregated to welcome the new-comers, and hearing the howling of the wolves, and knowing they were giving chase to something, had started out to intercept them.
As John and Jane swept past, Henry Parker seized a blazing pine knot from the hearth, and, running to the door, hurled it into the midst of the yelling pack. Scarce had the firebrand touched the earth ere the grass, dry as tinder, blazed up. Bullet after bullet soon dispersed the snarling crew, and John and Jane, returning, found a greater foe than wolves to face, for the fire was spreading rapidly.
By hack-firing and hard fighting, they managed to save the house and log barn, but carried by the wind of the on-coming storm, the fire swept over the small clearing to the woods beyond. And now was Jane Walters' dream fulfilled. From tree to tree leaped the blaze, until the heavens were red with the glare. Away in Adolpluistown the progress of that mighty fire was watched, and more than one prayer was uttered for the safety of the settlers of the Long Reach. Fortunately, however, the wind carried the blaze in a slanting direction across the country, away from any human habitation.
The little group of people at the Parker’s watched the conflagration awe-stricken. Scarcely did they heed the flight past them of the wild things from the woods. With fascinated eyes they watched the sparks fly skyward, and the cloud of amber-colored smoke roll towards the land of the Mohawks.
From tree to tree leaped the fire. One of
the grandest and most awful sights imaginable it was. One moment it seemed the great monarchs of the forest stood in regal splendor, the next and they were belching forth a cloud of smoke and charred cinders.
Across the county the blackened path was cut, and before that “most tangible of all visible mysteries,” the people stood and gazed spellbound.
Then the storm broke, and the sheets of drenching rain drove them into the cabin. But to this day is told the story of how Henry Parker in one night cleared his land on the Long Reach.
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