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It was about nine o'clock in the morning when the ship first appeared. At once there was the greatest excitement in the village. It was a British warship. What would she do? Would she tack about in the bay to pick up stray coasters as prizes, or would she land soldiers to burn the town? In either case there would be trouble enough.
Those were sad days, those old war-times in 1812. The sight of a British warship in Boston Bay was not pleasant. We were poor then, and had no monitors to go out and sink the enemy or drive him off. Our navy was small, and, though we afterwards had the victory and sent the troublesome ships away, never to return, at that time they often came near enough, and the good people in the little village of Scituate Harbor were in great distress over the strange ship that had appeared at the mouth of the harbor.
It was a fishing-place in those days, and the harbor was full of smacks and boats of all kinds. The soldiers could easily enter the harbor and burn up, everything, and no one could prevent them. There were men enough to make a good fight, but they were poorly armed, and had nothing but fowling-pieces and shotguns, while the soldiers had muskets and cannon.
The tide was down during the morning, so that there was no danger for a few hours; and all the people went out on the cliffs and beaches to watch the ship and to see what would happen next.
On the end of the low, sandy spit that makes one side of the harbor, stood the little white tower known as Scituate Light. In the house behind the light lived the keeper's family, consisting of himself, wife, and several boys and girls. At the time the ship appeared, the keeper was away, and there was no one at home save Mrs. Bates, the eldest daughter, Rebecca, about fourteen years old, two of the little boys, and a young girl named Sarah Winsor, who was visiting Rebecca.
Rebecca had been the first to discover the ship, while she was up in the light-house tower polishing the reflector. She at once descended the steep stairs and sent off the boys to the village to give the alarm.
For an hour or two, the ship tacked and stood off to sea, then tacked again, and made for the shore. Men, women and children watched her with anxious interest. Then the tide turned and began to flow into the harbor. The boats aground on the flats floated, and those in deep water swung round at their moorings. Now the soldiers would probably land. If the people meant to save anything it was time to be stirring. Boats were hastily put out from the wharf, and such clothing, nets and other valuables as could be handled were brought ashore, loaded into hay carts, and carried away.
It was of no use to resist. The soldiers, of course, were well armed, and if the people made a stand among the houses, that would not prevent the enemy from destroying the shipping.
As the tide spread out over the sandy flats it filled the harbor so that, instead of a small channel, it became a wide and beautiful bay. The day was fine, and there was a gentle breeze rippling the water and making it sparkle in the sun. What a splendid day for fishing or sailing! Not much use to think of either while that warship crossed and recrossed before the harbor mouth.
About two o'clock the tide reached high water mark, and, to the dismay of the people, the ship let go her anchor, swung her yards round, and lay quiet about half-a-mile from the first cliff. They were going to land to burn the town. With their spy-glass the people could see the boats lowered to take the soldiers ashore.
Ah! then there was confusion and uproar. Every horse in the village was put into some kind of team, and the women and children were hurried off to the woods behind the town. The men would stay and offer as brave a resistance as possible. Their guns were light and poor, but they could use the old fish-houses as a fort, and perhaps make a brave fight of it.
If worse came to worse, they could at least retreat and take to the shelter of the woods.
It was a splendid sight. Five large boats, manned by sailors, and filled with soldiers in gay red coats. How their guns glittered in the sun! The oars all moved together in regular order, and the officers in their fine uniforms stood up to direct the expedition. It was a courageous company come with a warship and cannon to fight helpless fishermen.
So Rebecca Bates and Sarah Winsor thought, as they sat up in the light-house tower looking down on the procession of boats as it went past the point and entered the harbor.
"Oh! If I only were a man!" cried Rebecca.
"What could you do? See what a lot of them; and look at their guns!"
"I don't care. I'd fight. I'd use father's old shotgun--anything. Think of uncle's new boat and the sloop!"
"Yes; and all the boats."
"It's too bad; isn't it?"
"Yes; and to think we must sit here and see it all and not lift a finger to help."
"Do you think there will be a fight?"
"I don't know. Uncle and father are in the village, and they will do all they can."
"See how still it is in town. There's not a man to be seen."
"Oh, they are hiding till the soldiers get nearer. Then we'll hear the shots and the drum."
"The drum! How can they? It's here. Father brought it home to mend it last night."
"Did he? Oh! then let's--"
"See, the first boat has reached the sloop. Oh! oh! They are going to burn her."
"Isn't it mean?"
"It's too bad!--too--"
"Where is that drum?"
"It's in the kitchen."
"I've got a great mind to go down and beat it."
"What good would that do?"
"They'd see it was only two girls, and they would laugh and go on burning just the same."
"No. We could hide behind the sand hills and the bushes. Come, let's--"
"Oh, look! look! The sloop's afire!"
"Come, I can't stay and see it any more. The cowardly Britishers to burn the boats! Why don't they go up to the town and fight like--"
"Come, let's get the drum. It'll do no harm; and perhaps--"
"Well, let's. There's the fife, too; we might take that with us."
"Yes; and we'll--"
No time for further talk. Down the steep stairs of the tower rushed these two young patriots, bent on doing what they could for their country. They burst into the kitchen like a whirlwind, with rosy cheeks and flying hair. Mrs. Bates sat sorrowfully gazing out of the window at the scene of destruction going on in the harbor, and praying for her country and that the dreadful war might soon be over. She could not help. Son and husband were shouldering their poor old guns in the town, and there was nothing to do but to watch and wait and pray.
Not so the two girls. They meant to do something, and, in a fever of excitement, they got the drum and took the cracked fife from the bureau drawer. Mrs. Bates, intent on the scene outside, did not heed them, and they slipped out by the back door, unnoticed.
They must be careful, or the soldiers would see them. They went round back of the house to the north and towards the outside beach, and then turned and plowed through the deep sand just above high water mark. They must keep out of sight of the boats, and of the ship, also. Luckily, she was anchored to the south of the light; and as the beach curved to the west, they soon left her out of sight. Then they took to the water side, and, with the drum between them, ran as fast as they could towards the mainland. Presently they reached the low heaps of sand that showed where the spit joined the fields and woods.
Panting and excited, they tightened up the drum and tried the fife softly.
"You take the fife, Sarah, and I'll drum."
"All right; but we mustn't stand still. We must march along the shore towards the light."
"Won't they see us?"
"No; we'll walk next the water on the outside beach."
"Oh, yes; and they'll think it's soldiers going down to the Point to head 'em off."
"Just so. Come, begin! One, two,--one, two!"
Drum! drum!! drum!!!
Squeak! squeak!! squeak!!!
The fife stopped.
"Don't laugh. You'll spoil everything, and I can't pucker my lips."
Drum! drum!! drum!!!
Squeak! squeak!! squeak!!!
The men in the town heard it and were amazed beyond measure. Had the soldiers arrived from Boston? What did it mean? Who were coming?
Louder and louder on the breeze came the roll of a sturdy drum and the sound of a brave fife. The soldiers in the boats heard the noise and paused in their work of destruction. The officers ordered everybody into the boats in the greatest haste. The people were rising! They were coming down the Point with cannons, to head them off! They would all be captured, and perhaps hung by the dreadful Americans!
How the drum rolled! The fife changed its tune. It played "Yankee Doodle,"--that horrid tune! Hark! The men were cheering in the town! there were thousands of them in the woods along the shore!
In grim silence marched the two girls,--plodding over the sharp stones, splashing through the puddles,--Rebecca beating the old drum with might and main; Sarah blowing the fife with shrill determination.
How the Britishers scrambled into their boats! One of the brave officers was nearly left behind on the burning sloop. Another fell overboard and wet his good clothes, in his haste to escape from the American army marching down the beach--a thousand strong! How the sailors pulled! No fancy rowing now, but desperate haste to get out of the place and escape to the ship.
How the people yelled and cheered on the shore! Fifty men or more jumped into the boats to prepare for the chase. Ringing shots began to crack over the water.
Louder and louder rolled the terrible drum. Sharp and clear rang out the cruel fife.
Nearly exhausted, half dead with fatigue, the girls toiled on,--tearful, laughing, ready to drop on the wet sand, and still beating and blowing with fiery courage.
The boats swept swiftly out of the harbor on the outgoing tide. The fishermen came up with the burning boats. Part stopped to put out the fires, and the rest pursued the flying enemy with such shots as they could get at them. In the midst of it all, the sun went down.
The red-coats did not return a shot. They expected every minute to see a thousand men open on them at short range from the beach, and they reserved their powder.
Out of the harbor they went in confusion and dismay. The ship weighed anchor and ran out her big guns, but did not fire a shot. Darkness fell down on the scene as the boats reached the ship. Then she sent a round shot towards the light. It fell short and threw a great fountain of white water into the air.
The girls saw it, and dropping their drum and fife, sat down on the beach and laughed till they cried.
That night the ship sailed away. The great American army of two had arrived, and she thought it wise to retreat in time!
Rebecca lived until old and feeble in body, but ever brave in spirit and strong in patriotism, she told this story herself to the writer, and it is true.