Read Chapter V - Divided Duty of The Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley, free online book, by James Otis, on

I could not find it in my heart to blame Jacob for being eager to learn all he could regarding his father, and it certainly seemed as if we might hear that which would at least tell us who this prisoner was that they were so keen to torture; but surely we were not warranted in lingering for the possible saving of one human life, when by our delay hundreds might be placed in gravest danger.

However, I could not retreat, because Jacob held me firmly in his clutch, from which I would have been unable to release myself save at the cost of betraying our whereabouts.

With the hope that the lad might soon come to realize that we must be attending to General Herkimer’s business, I remained silent and motionless, straining my ears to hear what the painted snakes were saying, and at the same time expecting to receive a silent protest from Sergeant Corney because of remaining inactive when the moments were so precious.

In less than a single minute I knew that the savages were speaking of Peter Site, and the tightening of Jacob’s grip told that he too was aware of the fact.

Because I can understand only a few words here or there of Brant’s native tongue, it would be impossible to set down exactly what the villains said; but I caught enough to understand that the prisoner in whom we were so deeply interested was not far distant, - probably at the main encampment, - and Thayendanega was protecting him at least from the torture.  Why the sachem had taken such an interest in the unfortunate man I could not make out; most likely the savages themselves were ignorant on that point.

It appeared to me, from the conversation, that there was much hard feeling on the part of the Indians because they were not allowed to indulge in an amusement which had been countenanced by more than one officer of the British army, and I fancied that Thayendanega, great sachem though he now was of the Six Nations, would have no little trouble in holding his precious followers in check.

When I had learned as much as has been set down here, I felt a tugging at my shirt, and knew, without seeing him, that Sergeant Corney was not willing to remain at this point any longer.

The savages had begun to speak of St. Leger, and what he might succeed in doing so far as the siege was concerned, therefore it did not seem probable we would hear more regarding Peter Sitz.

This much Jacob must have understood as well as I, for when I forced myself backward, pushing vigorously against him, he gave way, and we thus slowly retreated until having gained such a distance from the feasting murderers that it seemed safe to rise to our feet.

“To what were you listenin’?” Sergeant Corney asked, in a whisper, and with no slight show of anger because I had lingered so long.

In the fewest words possible I told him what we had heard, and when I was come to an end of the brief recital, Jacob asked, as if believing that now all our plans would be changed: 

“What are we to do?”

“That for which we came,” Sergeant Corney replied, decidedly.

“But we know that my father is near at hand, and, if Thayendanega grows careless or indifferent, will be tortured to death.”

“Ay, lad, an’ I could be no more sorry if Peter Sitz was my brother; but we cannot now do anything to aid him, even though the way lay clear before us,” and the old man laid his hand on Jacob’s shoulder as if to give emphasis to the words.  “We are to push on toward the fort, an’ must not heed any other duty.”

“But we stand as much chance of rescuing my father as we do of gettin’ speech with Colonel Gansevoort, an’ surely you will not leave a friend to be tortured to death?” Jacob said, pleadingly, and speaking incautiously loud.

“Lad, we have no choice in the matter.  If General Herkimer was in your father’s place I would turn my back on him until after our work had been done.  Can’t you see that by loiterin’ now we may be sacrificing all those brave fellows who are making ready to march from the Oriskany in the hope of aiding in holdin’ the fort?”

“That is your final word?” Jacob asked, sharply, and Sergeant Corney replied, feelingly: 

“It cannot be otherwise.  We are bound first to obey orders, even though a dozen of our best friends were bein’ led to the stake, an’ - ”

“Then you will obey them without me,” Jacob said, in a tone which I knew full well betokened a purpose from which he would not be turned by words.  “Two will stand a better chance of gainin’ the fort than three, an’ my duty calls me to Thayendanega’s camp.”

“But surely you will not attempt to go there alone!” I cried, in horror.  “Even though you should come face to face with your father, you could not hope to set him free!”

“I would rather die by his side than have him believe I remained idle while he was in such terrible danger.”

“If you cannot be persuaded, we must leave you, an’ that without delay,” the old man said, sadly.  “God knows I would do all a man might to aid Peter Sitz; but if he was here at this minute, knowin’ that the stake was bein’ made ready for him, he would say that we were bound to keep on toward the fort regardless of his fate.”

“I shall go to him,” Jacob replied, quietly, and Sergeant Corney turned aside with a sigh.

But that I knew beyond a peradventure it was useless, I would have said all in my power to keep him with us; but his mind was fixed, and, to tell the truth, I could not well blame him for doing as I would have done, regardless of any duty I might owe to General Herkimer.

“We can say nothing more, lad?” Sergeant Corney said to me, inquiringly, and I shook my head, for so great was the grief in my heart that just then I could make no reply.

I believe Jacob understood how keen was my sorrow at thus parting, when the chances were that we would never meet again in this world, for, as if to put an end to the agony, he turned abruptly, not even stopping to press my hand, and in an instant was lost to view amid the gloom of the forest.

Already had our venture, so it appeared to me, cost the life of one of our small party, and mentally I reproached myself bitterly for having left Cherry Valley to take service with this General Herkimer, who could as well have sent some other in our place, for surely all in his command were not known to Thayendanega’s following.  I, as captain of the Minute Boys stationed at Cherry Valley, could not have been accused of refusing to aid the Cause had I failed to serve under the general, so far from my post of duty.

As it was, however, we had come a long distance from our friends, and already sacrificed a life uselessly, so it seemed to me then in my bitterness of spirit.

“Come, lad,” Sergeant Corney whispered, shaking me roughly by the shoulder as if he would drive from my mind the painful thoughts.  “We cannot do as Jacob would have us, and there is an end of that matter.  Get to work, and it may be that ‘twixt now an’ morning but one of us will remain to carry the message.”

I had never before heard the old man speak in so despondent a tone, and it seemed an evil omen, coming as the words did when we were ready to plunge into the most dangerous portion of the work.

In silence I led the way once more, making such a detour as I thought would carry us safely past that party of savages from which we had gained such painful information, and perhaps half an hour was spent in advancing at a snail’s pace; but in the direction where we supposed the fort stood.

Now it was I realized that some one well acquainted with the locality should have been sent with us, for we were obliged to go on blindly, as it were, trusting that chance, and what we might see of the disposition of the enemy’s forces, would bring us to the point we desired to gain, for neither of us had ever visited Fort Schuyler.

At the end of half an hour I came to a sudden standstill, for we were within a few paces of half a dozen white men, as could be told even in the darkness by the outlines of their clothing.

These last appeared to be stationed at that point, for none of them made any attempt to go away during the two or three minutes I remained motionless, although why so many should have been placed there as sentinels, when one would have served the purpose, I failed to understand, and it perplexed me not a little, for it was necessary that we should know whether we were inside the lines, or simply confronting their outlying pickets.

There was nothing for it, however, but to crawl backward half a dozen yards, and then make another detour, and while this was being done Sergeant Corney had only a single question to ask, which was as to whether I had seen white men or Indians.

“White men,” I replied, “and no less than half a dozen standing in a group, as if stationed there.”

The old man paused an instant, as if quite as much perplexed as I, and then whispered: 

“Go on.  We are like to run across more than one such snag, an’, what is worse, don’t have a clear idea of whether we shall come plump on to the fort, or go a considerable distance to one side of it.”

Again I advanced, making an even wider detour than before, and in ten minutes, perhaps, we were come upon a single sentinel, - a soldier, - who stood leaning against a tree as if half-asleep, and I was less careful in passing him because he did not appear to be particularly on the alert.

Again and again we nearly stumbled upon a squad of men, small parties of Indians, or a single sentinel, until it seemed to me as if all St. Leger’s force must be distributed throughout the thicket, and I began to despair of ever making our way through.

Now we were where it seemed as dangerous to retreat as to advance, and I strove manfully to keep from my mind all thoughts of the perils that surrounded us, lest I grow faint-hearted at the very time when all my courage was needed if we would save our lives.

To do this it was only necessary I think of Jacob and his hazardous venture, which could serve no good purpose even though he succeeded in avoiding the enemy, therefore my mind dwelt on the perils which confronted him, causing me in a measure to forget where I myself stood.

To go on in such a manner was most wearisome, and I was well-nigh at the end of my strength when a faint lightness in the eastern sky gave warning that the day was near at hand.

At the same moment I observed this fact, the sergeant gripped me by the arm, and, understanding he would have speech with me, I halted.

“It is time we went into hidin’, lad, although I did count we would come within sight of the fort before bein’ obliged to call a halt.”

“Where can we hide here?” I asked, bitterly, and, strange as it may seem, I began to realize, for the first time since the general had explained what he would have us do, that we must remain concealed from view during all the hours of daylight, and that while we were literally surrounded by the enemy.

“We must take our chances in the first dense thicket, wherein may be found a stout tree, that we come across,” he replied, “an’ now instead of tryin’ to get a sight of the fortification, turn all your efforts toward findin’ a hidin’-place.”

This promised to be as difficult a task as I had ever undertaken, for how would it be possible in the darkness to say whether one thicket was denser than another, and, without spending precious time in the examination, to learn if there was a stout tree within any certain clump of bushes?

Because the sergeant had said we were to halt where was a tree, I believed he proposed spending the day amid the branches, and any one who has ever been in a forest can readily understand how few there are of such hiding-places.

However, we were there, and within another hour must be screened from view after some fashion, therefore it was useless to grumble, or say this or that movement was impossible; but rather I should do the best I might, and trust to the chapter of accidents that I did not lead my companion into what would prove to be a trap.

All the thicket looked dense in the night, but when I was finally come to a clump of bushes through which it was difficult to force my way, I stopped and whispered to Sergeant Corney.

“This seems to be such a place as you would have; but who can say whether it will answer our purpose?”

“So much the worse for us if it does not,” the old man replied, grimly.  “Make your way in, an’ if there be no tree to give us a roostin’-place, we must take our chances on the ground, for the day is comin’ on apace.”

And indeed he said no more than the truth; already was it possible for me to see surrounding objects, dimly, to be sure, but more clearly than when we first began searching for a place of refuge.

Unless we were concealed from view within half an hour, we might as well march straight to the nearest sentinel and give ourselves up as prisoners.

There was much to be desired in this thicket which we had chosen by chance, as was learned when we were well within it.  Several large trees grew amid the clump of bushes, to be sure; but the foliage was not so dense that one who passed near at hand with reasonable alertness would have failed to discover us lurking there.

“It is better than the open country,” Sergeant Corney said, when I would have found fault with our blind choice.  “We will burrow amid these small bushes until daylight, an’ then, if necessary, go to roost.”

I had in my pocket a small piece of corn bread, and, when I would have divided it with the old man, he showed me about the same quantity, which he had saved in event of just such an emergency, and we munched the dry food with no very keen appetites, but eating at this the first opportunity, in order to keep up our strength for the struggle which must ensue before we gained speech with those in the fort.

My sorrow because Jacob had left us on a venture from which I did not believe he could ever return, was so great that I felt no desire for food, but ate it from a sense of duty, even as I had turned my back on my comrade when he needed aid.

One does not make haste with such a meal, and when I had swallowed the last dry crumbs, which were like to have choked me, the day had fully come.

It can readily be imagined that we crept even nearer the edge of the thicket than was really safe in order to get some idea of our position, and to my great surprise and delight I found that we had come in as direct a course as if we had followed a blazed trail.

There before us, and less than three hundred yards distant, was the fortification over which was floating the flag made from Capt.  Abraham Swartwout’s cloak, and because we were on high ground it was possible to see the Americans moving about within, bent on this task or that duty.

After one hasty glance we crept back into the middle of the thicket, and there, surrounded by hundreds of enemies, we two held a whispered conversation regarding the situation.

It was only natural we should first congratulate each other on our good fortune in having come unwittingly to the very spot we most desired to gain, and then I said, simply giving words to the thoughts which had entered my mind as I gazed upon the fortification: 

“He who crosses the clearing between here and the fort, even though it be in the night, needs to wriggle along like a snake, else will one of Thayendanega’s painted beauties lift his scalp.”

“It is a bit open jest in front of here; but I took note that further to the westward was a little more of green,” Sergeant Corney said, half to himself, and I knew he was picturing in his mind the two of us making the attempt where was not a blade of grass to give shelter, for the “green” of which he spoke was nothing more than the fragment of a bush near the stockade.

“How are we to attract their attention, providin’ we succeed in creepin’ up under the wall?” I asked, after a long pause, and he replied, grimly: 

“I’ll answer that question after you’ve told me how we’re goin’ to stop ‘em shootin’ at us while we’re tryin’ to get across.”

Then it was I understood that even though the enemy did not see us while we were making our way over the plain, the sentinels in the fort were doubtless on the alert against just such an attempt on the part of the Indians, and there was little question but that they would fire at any moving thing which came within their line of vision.

“It seems to me that we’ll be between two fires,” I said, with a feeble attempt to speak in a jovial tone, and Sergeant Corney’s reply was much like a bucket of cold water full in my face.

“That’s exactly the case, lad, an’ I’m countin’ that betwixt ’em we’ll be peppered in fine shape, else there are some mighty poor marksmen hereabouts.”

“Why didn’t you tell the general that we couldn’t carry his message?  Didn’t you think of all this at the time?”

“Ay, lad, it was pictured in my mind much as we see it now; but he said we were to do the job, an’ it wasn’t for me to point out the danger.”

“Why not, if you felt certain we would be shot?” I cried, angrily.

“Because a soldier has good reason when he enlists to expect he’ll stop a bullet, else what would be the need of powder an’ ball?”

Having said this, the old man relapsed into silence, as if he was trying to figure out how the work might be done with less of danger, and I sat staring at him in a rage, for to my mind he had much the same as compassed his own death and mine by not speaking of all the perils in our path.

Now it was that I almost envied Jacob his position.  It is true the odds were strongly against his being able to make his way through the camp without being captured, yet it was possible for him at any time to give over the attempt and retrace his steps, whereas we were absolutely penned up in the thicket, where retreat was even more perilous than advance.

Fume and fret as I might, it was not possible to mend matters, and I stretched myself out at full length under the bushes, with the idea in mind that it would be better if we were captured at once, for then we would be spared just so much suspense, yet when Sergeant Corney suggested that we were not as well hidden from view as we should be, I was alarmed on the instant.

How that day was passed by us I can hardly say even now, when I look back calmly upon all the incidents which were then so terrifying.

We had eaten the last crumb of our corn bread in the morning, without appeasing the hunger which assailed us, and now could only chew the twigs of the bushes, striving to make ourselves believe we extracted nourishment therefrom.

More than once straggling soldiers or Indians passed near where we were hidden; but no one thought of searching the thicket for those who were friendly to the garrison, because none save idiots like ourselves would thus have ventured into the lion’s mouth.

Screened as we were from the lightest breath of wind, it was cruelly hot in that hiding-place.  Tiny streams of perspiration ran down my face, wetting the leaves beneath my head, and I chewed them in the vain hope that the suspicion of moisture might serve to quench my thirst.

I rejoiced when the sun began to sink in the west, even though it was, as I believed, bringing the hour of my death so much the nearer; but I soon came to understand that Sergeant Corney was not disposed to make the perilous venture without first having taken all possible precautions for our safety.

When the day was within an hour of its close, I suddenly became aware that the old soldier was stripping the fringe from his shirt, and immediately I sat bolt upright, fancying for the moment that he had lost his reason.

“What are you doin’?” I asked, sharply, and he replied, with a faint smile: 

“If the sentinel who stands on the wall of the fort facin’ us is ‘tendin’ to his business as a soldier should, then there’s a chance I can let him know these ’ere bushes shelter decent people.”

While speaking he had been cutting cautiously with his knife one of the longer branches which helped to screen us from view, and when it had been severed he trimmed it with infinite care, as if our welfare depended upon its being smooth and clean.

When this had been done to his satisfaction, and it seemed to give him greatest pleasure to keep me in suspense as to his purpose, he tied to the smaller end of the stick the fringe from his shirt.

“You’re goin’ to creep out an’ wave that!” I cried, in the tone of one who has made a great discovery.

“You can set it down as a fact that I won’t creep very far out,” the old man replied, with a smile.  “It’s only the ghost of a chance that anybody will take heed of it, an’ yet there’s no harm in the tryin’.”

When finally he crept cautiously out toward the edge of the thicket, I watched him as eagerly as if all our troubles would be over in case we succeeded in attracting the attention of those in the fort, whereas, no matter how many of our friends might see the waving fringe, we would still be in the same danger of getting a bullet from the besiegers.

“It ain’t any ways certain that some of these sneakin’ Injuns don’t see my signal before one of the garrison does, in which case we won’t have to puzzle our heads about gettin’ into the fort; but if they should jump on me, you’d best take to your heels.  There’s a bare chance you might give ’em the slip in the squabble, for I shouldn’t knock under while there was any fight left in me.”

Then, peering through the branches, I could see the sentinel on the wall near the sally-port, and it goes without saying that I watched with my heart in my mouth for some gesture which might tell that he understood what was of so much importance to us.

It was fortunate that we had blindly stumbled upon a hiding-place a few yards in advance of the enemy’s line of watchers, otherwise the scheme could never have been successful.  Even as it was, I expected each instant that some painted snake would take it into his wicked head to wander around in front of the thicket, when the game would come to a speedy end.

Sergeant Corney waved the bit of fringe slowly to and fro in such a manner that the dull color of the deerskin might offer a contrast against the green of the foliage, and when five minutes or more had passed without any movement on the part of the sentinel, I said to myself that there was no possibility we could catch the man’s eye.

The old soldier was not one easily discouraged.  During ten minutes more he continued his efforts, now moving the stick to and fro, and again giving to it an up-and-down motion, and then, at the very moment when all hope had fled from my heart, I saw the man straighten himself suddenly, as he shaded his eyes with his hand.

Then there could be no doubt but that Sergeant Corney had succeeded in his purpose, for the soldier waved his hand twice, and bent over as if speaking to some one on the inside.

Now it was that I expected the old man would return to my side and chuckle over our good fortune; but he remained at the edge of the thicket while I might have counted twenty, and then a second member of the garrison had clambered up beside the first.

Another hand was waved in reply, and then, having finished his task in good shape, Sergeant Corney crept back to me as he whispered, gleefully: 

“I reckon we needn’t fear that any of the garrison will shoot at us this night, an’, what’s more to our advantage, we won’t be called on to lay behind the walls very long tryin’ to attract attention.”

“It was a great plan!” I replied, as if all our troubles were at an end, and then again came the thought that it would be necessary for us to creep out from the thicket under the very noses of those who were on guard, and straightway all my fears returned.

It no longer seemed to me as if we had gained any great advantage from the old man’s efforts.