There lived in those days in Syracuse two young men called Damon and Pythias. They were very good friends, and loved each other so dearly that they were hardly ever seen apart. Now, it happened that Pythias in some way roused the anger of the tyrant, who put him in prison, and condemned him to die in a few days. When Damon heard of it, he was in despair, and vainly tried to obtain his friend’s pardon and release.
The mother of Pythias was very old, and lived far away from Syracuse with her daughter. When the young man heard that he was to die, he was tormented by the thought of leaving the women alone. In an interview with his friend Damon, Pythias regretfully said that he would die easier had he only been able to bid his mother goodby and find a protector for his sister.
Damon, anxious to gratify his friend’s last wish, went into the presence of the tyrant, and proposed to take the place of Pythias in prison, and even on the cross, if need be, provided the latter were allowed to visit his relatives once more. Dionysius had heard of the young men’s touching friendship, and hated them both merely because they were good; yet he allowed them to change places, warning them both, however, that, if Pythias were not back in time, Damon would have to die in his stead.
At first Pythias refused to allow his friend to take his place in prison, but finally he consented, promising to be back in a few days to release him. So Pythias hastened home, found a husband for his sister, and saw her safely married. Then, after providing for his mother and bidding her farewell, he set out to return to Syracuse.
The young man was traveling alone and on foot. He soon fell into the hands of thieves, who bound him fast to a tree; and it was only after hours of desperate struggling that he managed to wrench himself free once more, and sped along his way. He was running as hard as he could to make up for lost time, when he came to the edge of a stream. He had crossed it easily a few days before; but a sudden spring freshet had changed it into a raging torrent, which no one else would have ventured to enter.
In spite of the danger, Pythias plunged into the water, and, nerved by the fear that his friend would die in his stead, he fought the waves so successfully that he reached the other side safe but almost exhausted. Regardless of his pains, Pythias pressed anxiously onward, although his road now lay across a plain, where the hot rays of the sun and the burning sands greatly increased his fatigue and faintness, and almost made him die of thirst. Still he sped onward as fast as his trembling limbs could carry him; for the sun was sinking fast, and he knew that his friend would die if he were not in Syracuse by sunset.