Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Indians Who Took Her Captive
“Run,” she commands. And as he turns and runs out the door, neither thinks to say good-bye. There isn’t time. Several Indians have already captured Mary Neff. They are distracted by her while Thomas leaps back on his horse and gallops away. The children are only 40 rods from the house. A rod is 16-1/2 feet. Six hundred and 60 feet they have run, the older ones carrying the younger children, who don’t fully understand the urgency. Thomas rides up among them. His plan is to snatch up one child, or two, and ride away with them to save a few. But as he looks among them, their faces blanched, their braids awry, their lips chapped from the long winter, he cannot choose. He decides that he will die if necessary. The Indians are in pursuit. He stops his horse, dismounts, and using the horse as a barrier, threatens the small group of pursuers with a gun. They take cover and fire upon him. Miracle of miracles, neither he nor his horse is hit. He jumps back on the horse and rides up to his children. The Indians reload their guns and renew the pursuit. Again Thomas dismounts and menaces them. Again they fire, and he is not hit. After a time the Indians give up. There are easier spoils back at the group of undefended houses where the attack began.Hannah and Mary, for instance. Why they are not killed outright is not clear. I am inclined to call it luck; they would call it divine providence. History gives an armature of facts, to which we must give weight and substance. And here is a fact. Twenty-seven killed. Thirteen taken. Thirty-three percent were spared. Not odds I’d care to face.
The captives are collected into a group with 20 or so Indians. The victors are carrying items rifled quickly from the now-burning houses, including a large piece of cloth torn from Hannah’s loom. Hannah is huddled beside Mary, hardly aware of her one bare foot. In her haste to dress she left a shoe behind.
Their captors do not head toward the garrisons; they have less chance of taking them. They turn back north to get away with what they have. This is a small raid; there are no French among them.
Mary, carrying the baby, stumbles. The baby begins to cry. Before Mary knows what is happening, an Indian wrests the baby from her. The baby’s name is Martha. She weighs, probably, six pounds. It is not difficult to take her by the feet and swing her in the air. It is not difficult to smash her head against a nearby apple tree. Hannah and Mary stumble on, out of sight, too afraid to protest, too shocked to weep. The Indians, it is said, were annoyed by crying.
Hannah and the others travel 12 miles that first day. And these are not easy miles on a gentle trail. Twelve miles through swamps and calf-deep snow, up hills and over brooks, all the while burdened with heavy packs given to them by their captors. The Indians know the urgency of making time. After a raid, the militia, more often than not, would try to overtake them. Several of the prisoners are not able to keep up the grueling pace. They are taken aside and tomahawked. Their scalps are added to the glistening collection already carried on poles or packs. Hannah may have scanned that array, hoping not to recognize a certain part, color, or curl.
I like to imagine them stopping that first night. Hannah and Mary sink to the ground, holding each other for warmth and comfort. Later they step aside, with frightened gestures at their captors and at their icy skirts, to squat and pee in the snow. Mary checks Hannah’s pad; it is soaked with red blood. The traveling has taken its toll. Hannah’s breasts are bothering her, full of milk. By the next day they will be taut and as lumpy as a bag of marbles. She will be at risk for milk fever. Mary does her best to care for her still. She cannot apply a poultice, but she massages Hannah’s breasts, relieves some pressure. Then she binds them with a band of cloth torn from her own skirts.
And, despite everything, they sleep like the dead. With a piece of rawhide passed over their torsos and tucked under the sleeping braves on either side, cold, frightened, hungry, grief-stricken, they sleep and do not dream of the dead.
Fifteen days they travel north. I can tell you something of that journey. I can tell you that in March the sun is high enough in the sky, during the day, to make the snow melt, to warm the upturned face. That the food they probably ate was food they would have retched on before, such as stewed horse’s hooves, half-cooked bear meat, and acorns.
And I will tell you something of the Indians. You must see them as well, or the story is not complete. They cannot be cardboard cut-outs, frozen in the act of lifting a hatchet.