A NARROW ESCAPE
WHILE the men were away with the boat, the children could not go to the shore to play. They had to amuse themselves on the ship as well as they could.
This was not hard for little Francis Billington to do, but his amusements never seemed to please the older people. If he started to cut his name on the railing of the ship, some one was sure to call, “Don’t do that!”
If he tried to climb the ropes from the mast, somebody always dragged him down. Even when he sat down quietly to hold one of the babies, it was always, “Francis! See how you let his head hang down,” or, “Just look at that baby’s little feet! Francis, you must keep them covered.” Then some one would come and say, “Let me take the baby. I am so afraid you will drop him.”
Poor little Francis! He did not mean to be naughty, but he was a great trial to the Pilgrim mothers and fathers. When he was quiet for a few minutes, they felt sure he must be in some mischief—and they were usually right.
“Francis is not a bad boy,” Elder Brewster used to say. “Just wait until his father begins to build his house, then Francis will be too busy to get into mischief. I believe there will not be a harder-working boy in the village than Francis.”
“Then let us hurry and find a place to build,” said Mistress Billington, “for I am almost worn out.”
While his father and the other men were away digging up corn in the Indian village, mischief-loving Francis was wandering about the boat looking for amusement.
In his hands he held some of the pretty feathers of the wild duck. He thought what fun it would be to fill these quills with gunpowder and make some firecrackers. He called them squibs.
So he went down to the cabin where the powder was stored. There was no one in the room, but he soon found a keg which had been opened, and he began to fill his squibs. It was hard to make the powder go into the little quills; most of it went on the floor instead.
When the squibs were filled, he looked about and saw several old muskets hanging upon the wall. “How those women in the next room would jump if I should fire off one of those muskets!” thought the boy.
Muskets made in those days could not be fired by pulling a trigger. The powder must be lighted by a spark of fire. At that time no one had learned how to make matches, either. But Francis knew where to find a slow-burning fuse made of candlewick, and away he ran to get it.
Soon he returned, carrying the burning fuse right into the powder room.
Oh, Francis! Think of the powder upon floor. And think of that open keg half filled with the deadly powder. If one little spark should reach it, the ship and every one on it would be blown to pieces.
But Francis never stopped to think twice about anything. He climbed upon a box and took down an old musket, then looked to see if it were loaded. Yes, it was all ready to fire, and Francis knew how to do it.
I think the very sun must almost have had a chill when he peeped through the tiny window and saw the terrible danger.
Boom! roared the old musket. Then came a blinding flash, and boom! Bang! Snap! Crack! Bang! Oh, what a deafening din!
When the thick smoke had cleared a little, a very angry sailor found a very frightened boy in a corner of the cabin. Francis did not know how he came to be lying there in a heap. He only knew that his eyes were smarting and his hands were very sore.
Women with white faces and trembling hands tried to comfort their screaming children. Sailors hurried to and fro looking for leaks in the boat.
But, wonder of wonders, no great harm had been done. The squibs were gone; two or three of the loaded muskets had gone off; but the powder on the floor had flashed up and burned out without setting fire to the keg. “If that keg had exploded, we should have found no more of the ‘Mayflower’ than a few chips floating upon the water,” said Miles Standish, when he heard of it. “I wonder that it escaped.”
“It was the mercy of God alone,” said the Pilgrims.
IT grew colder and colder every day, but still the Pilgrims had not found a good place to build their homes.
So Governor Carver, William Bradford, Captain Standish, and others again sailed away in their boat. They carried guns and axes, blankets, and food enough to last them many days.
It was December now, and the bay was full of ice. The driving snow and sleet cut their faces and froze on their clothing. Some of the men nearly died of the cold.
Every day they went ashore to see if there was a good place to settle. There were so many things to be thought of.
They must find a place near the woods so they could get logs for their houses and wood for their fires. Yet the forest must not be too near, for they must have a clear space in which to plant their grain.
There must be a deep, safe harbor, and above all, a stream of clear, fresh water.
They landed again and again, but it was hard to find a place which had all these things. They would search all day and at night make a camp in the forest.
One night after a hard day’s tramp, they built a great fire and cooked their supper. They could get plenty of fresh meat in the forest, and they had brought bread, beans, and dried peas from the ship.
After they had eaten their supper and had prayers, all went to sleep except the two men who were to watch.
The light from the flames fell upon the tired faces of the men as they lay in a circle about the fire. It touched lightly the trunks of the tall trees, and stretched long, dark shadows across the hard frozen ground.
Sometimes they saw shining eyes peering at them from the darkness, but the animals were all afraid of the fire and soon slunk away.
About midnight the watchmen heard a long, loud cry in the distance. It sounded like the yell of Indians.
“To arms! To arms!” they cried.
The Pilgrims sprang to their feet and seized their guns. A long time they waited and listened, but no Indians came. “Perhaps it was only the howl of wolves or foxes,” said the men, as they lay down again.
The Pilgrims were up before the sun, next morning, cooking their breakfast and preparing to sail farther along the shore. While some cooked the meal, others carried blankets and guns down to the boat.
While they were sitting about the fire eating their breakfast, they heard a frightful sound near by.
“Woach! Woach! Ha! Ha! Woach!” came the cry.
The Pilgrims sprang to the boat for their guns. They fired several shots into the forest thinking to frighten the Indians, but on they came.
Nearer and nearer sounded the cry. “Woach! Woach! Ha! Ha! Woach!”
In the faint morning light the Pilgrims saw the forms of many natives slipping from tree to tree. Then whiz! whir! whir! sounded the arrows, as they flew thick and fast. Two of them stuck in John Howland’s coat, and one struck Captain Standish above the heart, but he had his armor on and the arrow did no harm.
The Pilgrims quickly sprang away from the light of the fire. They tried to protect themselves in the dark shadows of the forest.
Whiz-z-z! Whir-r-r-r! The arrows were flying from every direction, but not an Indian was to be seen. They, too, were well hidden behind trees and bushes.
The Pilgrims kept very still. Then the Indians grew bolder. They crept silently toward the camp, their dark forms looking like dim shadows in the forest.
This was just what the Pilgrims were waiting for. Bang! Boom! roared the muskets. One of the bullets struck the Indian chief in the arm. He could not draw his bow again. With an angry yell the natives fled into the forest.
The Pilgrims followed them a short distance, shouting and firing their muskets. When they returned to the camp, they picked up many arrows. Some were pointed with a sharp bit of deerhorn, and some with eagles’ claws. These arrows the Pilgrims sent to England when the “Mayflower” returned.