Read Chapter XVIII - Close Quarters of The Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley, free online book, by James Otis, on ReadCentral.com.

The scenes shifted before us as if they had been painted on bubbles which were blown hither and thither by the wind.

Even as we gazed at the leaders of the army while they stood listening to the foolish man as if believing him to be inspired, a mob of Tories and Indians surged toward that portion of the encampment, and in an instant St. Leger, Thayendanega, and Sir John Johnson were blotted out from our view.

Nothing could have happened to give us who crouched amid the stunted bushes a more vivid idea of the change which had come over the besieging army than this one incident, when the commanders, at whose frowns savages as well as white men cringed, were treated with such utter lack of ceremony.

I fully expected to hear one or the other of these three burst into a towering rage, and order the immediate punishment of those who had offended, whereas the men extricated themselves from the tangle of half-drunken soldiers and savages as best they could, immediately resuming the apparently confidential conversation with the idiot.

I saw Sergeant Corney shrug his shoulders, as if to say that he had given over even trying to guess what might have happened, and then he beckoned for us to follow as he crept straight away from the, to us, perplexing scene.

There was little need for us to give much heed to our movements so far as concerned making a noise, for I dare venture to say that a full company of men might have marched boldly past without raising an alarm, so long as they remained hidden from view.

When we were twenty yards or more from where the commanders stood trying to hold their position against the drunken tide of reds and whites, the sergeant halted and looked at us lads inquiringly: 

“Well?” I said, irritably, vexed because of my bewilderment.  “If you can’t explain the situation there is no need to look at us.  It beats anything I ever heard of or dreamed about.  Have they all lost their senses?”

“Somethin’ is goin’ mightily wrong!” Sergeant Corney said, impressively, as if he was imparting valuable information.

“Goin’ wrong!” Jacob repeated.  “I should say it had already gone wrong with a vengeance.  Can’t you make some kind of a guess, sergeant?”

“Not a bit of it, lad.  This ‘ere business lays way over anythin’ I ever saw in all my experience as a soldier.  There’s one thing certain, howsomever, which is that jest now an hundred of our people could walk through the entire encampment without bein’ called upon to spill a drop of blood.”

“Well?” I asked again, as the old man ceased speaking.

“Colonel Gansevoort must know how mixed up is this ’ere army.”

“We can go back an’ tell him,” Jacob replied, promptly.  “I reckon we might walk straight out toward the fort, an’ never a man here would give heed to us.”

“If we knew exactly what had happened it might be as well for all three to go back to the fort; but there’s no knowin’ when matters may take a turn, an’ we must keep a sharp watch lest through us our people are brought into a trap.”

“Why don’t you say what you mean, without talkin’ all around the subject?” I cried, nervously.  “What have you got in your mind?”

“That one of us must go back to the fort, while the others stay here on watch to give the alarm in case this ’ere army suddenly comes to its senses.”

It was not my desire to travel back alone to carry the tidings.  There was no thought in my mind that any danger might threaten while the enemy was in such a state of confusion; and I was most eager to watch these apparently crazy people, in the hope of being able to come at a solution of the riddle, therefore I asked, sharply: 

“Who do you think should go back?”

“Do either of you lads want to tackle the job?” the sergeant asked, and I understood by his tone that he was as loath to leave the place as was I.

Neither of us made reply, and he went on, as if already having had the plan fixed in his mind: 

“Then we’ll draw lots to see who it shall be.  As the matter stands, we know full well that the commandant must be told of what we have seen.  It won’t require two hours’ travelling because there’s no call to make a very wide circuit, an’, in case these fellows pull themselves together before midnight, them as stays on watch can warn our people.”

“Fix the drawin’ of lots to suit yourself, an’ he who gets the worst of it will set out at once,” I said, curtly, and the old man broke off three small twigs, which he held in his closed hand.

“I haven’t taken note of which is the shortest; but, in case you might think I had, make your choice, an’ the one which is left shall be mine.”

“He who gets the shortest goes back, eh?” Jacob asked, and I replied: 

“That is understood.  Take the first choice, an’ let us settle this business as soon as we can, for I am wild to get over yonder where I can see the king’s army playin’ the fool, if it so be that I’m not forced to turn back.”

Jacob drew one of the twigs without stopping to make a selection, I took the second, and Sergeant Corney opened his hand to show the third.

They were all so nearly of a length that we were forced to measure each in order to learn who was the unfortunate, and then it was found that Jacob had been selected to play the part of messenger.

Disappointed though the lad must have been, he did not make any delay, but asked as he rose to his feet: 

“What shall I say to the commandant?”

“Tell him what you have seen,” the sergeant replied, “an’ say that with two hundred men at the most he can capture the whole blessed army.  If there should be any change within the next two hours, one or both of us will hurry back, goin’ around by way of the hill opposite the batteries, - the same course we came, - therefore, if he sends out a detachment, let it approach by that route.”

Immediately the old man ceased speaking Jacob wheeled about, and in a twinkling was lost to our view in the gloom.

By this time night had fully come, and I knew the lad would be in no danger if he made a direct line for the fort, therefore I ceased to think of him as I urged my companion to return with me to where we could overlook the scene of confusion.

We went back at once without giving especial heed to moving noiselessly, and soon were gazing upon the wildest, oddest scene that ever a military encampment presented.

During the short time we were absent the men had built small fires here, there, and everywhere around, and now that which had at first looked like a panic began to present the appearance of an orgy.

We saw directly in front of General St. Leger’s camp a dozen or more Indians broaching a cask of rum, and hardly more than twenty feet away were a lot of Tories, drinking from bottles which had evidently been plundered from the commander’s private store.

Had the camp been in the possession of an enemy there could not have been greater evidences of lawlessness, and again and again I asked myself what could have happened to bring about such a condition of affairs.

It would be well-nigh impossible to set down all the wild pictures we saw during the hour which followed.  Instead of recovering from their panic, insubordination, or whatever it may have been, the men were momentarily growing more disorderly, and that the officers made no effort to preserve even the semblance of order, we knew from seeing them from time to time moving about the encampment with no heed to what was being done.

The three commanders, however, remained beyond our line of vision, and, because no one save the rioting soldiery and the savages entered or came out of the headquarters tent, I began to suspect that the leaders had run away.

As can be supposed, in a comparatively short time the Indians were thoroughly under the influence of the enormous amount of strong drink which had been consumed, and ripe for mischief of any kind.

One of the Tories, a fellow who had been hob-nobbing with the savages, himself drinking until he could stand only with difficulty, was set upon by two of the feathered wolves, murdered and scalped before our eyes, without an alarm being raised.

Then the Indians began a war-dance, waving the bloody scalp in the air with frenzied gestures as they circled around and around the lifeless body, and many of the drunken white men applauded heartily, although it must be set down in extenuation that they were so drunk as not really to understand what had taken place.

“It’s a nice kind of a tea-party,” Sergeant Corney whispered to me, while the orgy was at its height.  “If the rum holds out these villains will settle matters among themselves, so that Colonel Gansevoort won’t find any to stand against him when he arrives.”

To this I could make no reply.  I was literally sickened by the horrible scene, and began to wish most fervently that I had been the one to draw the shortest twig, for it was by no means agreeable to remain there idle while murder was being done, even though it was a bitter enemy who had thus been cowardly done to death.

The savages soon brought their dance to an end as they stumbled into this tent and that, searching for more spirits although the cask was not yet empty, and I was on the point of suggesting to Sergeant Corney that it would be wise to move back among the bushes lest some of the drunkards come upon us by mistake, when a heavy body suddenly fell, or was thrown, directly upon my back, pinning me to the earth.

My first thought was that the rioters had flung some heavy piece of camp equipage into the bushes at random, and then the blood grew cold in my veins as I felt two hands clutching at my throat.

Like a flash of light came the knowledge that one of the drunkards, an Indian as I believed, had stumbled upon me accidentally.  I expected each second to hear an alarm raised which would bring the murderous crew to the spot without delay, when there could be no question as to the result, for the sergeant and I could not hold out many moments against such a mob, even though every one of them was intoxicated to a greater or less degree.

That which rendered my situation critical was the fact of my being virtually unarmed.  It will be remembered that the rifle was strapped to my back, and even though I had been unhampered, it would have required no slight time in which to unsling it.  My knife was quite as useless, because, borne to the earth as I had been, it could not be removed from my belt.

To set all this down in words makes it appear as if I had ample time in which to think over the situation, whereas no more than five seconds could have elapsed before the sinewy fingers were closed so tightly about my throat that I could not breathe.

At almost the same instant that the pressure began to be painful, before a single cry had been uttered by my assailant, a second shock was felt by me, while the weight which pressed me down to the earth was increased, and dimly I understood that the sergeant had leaped upon the back of him who was strangling me.

Why the Indian made no cry for help I cannot understand, except that he was too drunk to realize he had within his grasp an enemy instead of one of his own company.

Certain it is, however, that no alarm was raised even when the sergeant came to my relief, and in silence, save for the rustling of the foliage as we swayed to this side or that, the battle was continued until I felt the cruel fingers about my throat suddenly relax, while a warm liquid of a peculiar, salty odor poured down over my neck and head.

When he who had been striving to kill me rolled from my back, I lay motionless, unable to raise a hand and gasping for breath, until Sergeant Corney lifted me up as he whispered in my ear: 

“Are you hurt, lad?”

“Only choked well-nigh to death,” I contrived to say, and then tried to struggle to my feet, but found myself yet pinned to the earth by the lifeless body which lay across my legs.

“Let us get out of here,” I said, after releasing myself from the sinister weight.  “This is worse than such an ambush as we fell into on the Oriskany.”

“Ay, lad, I reckon you’re right as to that; but it strikes me we’re bound by the word I sent the commandant to stay here till we make certain these reptiles don’t come to their senses.”

While he spoke the sergeant was helping me retreat yet farther among the bushes, for my knees bent beneath me, owing to the horror of it all, as well as the rough handling I had received.

The old man was not willing to move so far away that it would not be possible to have a fairly good view of what might be going on; but we did walk to what I believed was a comparatively safe distance, and then sat down upon the ground on the alert for anything more of the same kind which had come so near to putting me out of the world.

“It was a close shave, lad, an’ ought’er be a lesson to sich fools as we’ve shown ourselves, never to carry good weapons where they can’t be got hold of for use at a moment’s notice.”

“A fellow isn’t supposed to be on his guard against drunkards,” I replied, curtly, caressing my throat, which was exceeding sore.

“True for you, lad; but I’m free to say that, while we’ve had considerable experience in the business of fightin’, I never run up agin quite sich a mess as this.  It actually gives me a pain because I can’t make head or tail of it.”

I was already weary with trying to solve the problem, for indeed it was puzzling to even make a guess at why an army of near to seventeen hundred men had been thrown into such a state of panic and lawlessness.  Then, again, why were the commanders not present with their officers to check these proceedings?  Why had they allowed the men to take part in such an orgy, for to my knowledge St. Leger was near at hand when the first cask of rum was broached?

“It is no use to speculate as to how this thing came about,” I said; “but it strikes me that you ought to post yourself so far as to be able to tell Colonel Gansevoort, or whoever he sends in command of the detachment, exactly where the blow may best be struck, for just now all we know is regardin’ the row close hereabout.”

“You never spoke a truer word in your life, lad,” the old man said, excitedly, as he rose to his feet.  “I got so mixed up with this ’ere hubbub, tryin’ to make out how it came about, as to have clean lost sight of all that a soldier ought to do.  Jacob hasn’t been gone over an hour, an’ we have as much more time to find out how things are in the rest of the encampment, so let’s set about it without delay.”

The scene immediately before us was so revolting that I had no desire to gaze at it longer, and there was a certain sense of relief in my mind when the sergeant, prompted by me, had thus decided upon a definite course of action.

With so much of confusion and drunkenness everywhere around, it was a simple matter for us to go and come as we pleased, save by chance we might stumble upon those who yet remained sober, for all the men I had thus far seen, except the leaders themselves, were in such a maudlin condition as to be unable to distinguish friend from foe.

We had already learned that the batteries fronting Fort Schuyler on the northeast had been abandoned, and it was only necessary to get a view of the remainder of the British encampment.  There was little need to visit the Tory quarters, for, as it seemed to me, all those renegades were present, taking part in the orgy.

With no care as to advancing noiselessly, but keeping a sharp lookout lest we come upon sober men, the sergeant and I moved about at will, finding everywhere the same condition of affairs, and when half an hour had passed it was positive our people might come into the enemy’s lines and gather up prisoners by the hundreds without being molested in any way, for I question if their presence would have been suspected.

During all this time of inspection we saw nothing of St. Leger, Sir John, or Thayendanega, and I was of the opinion that they had run away; but Sergeant Corney held to it that most like they were in the Indian encampment, proposing that we cross the river in order to hunt them up, but to this I would not listen.

According to my mind, such of the Indians as remained sober, if there were any, would be in their own lodges, and because we had had such singular success in our scout thus far was no reason why we might not suddenly find ourselves face to face with the gravest danger, if we acted the fools by poking our noses among the camps of the savages.

“Why not go to the fort?” I asked.  “There is nothin’ more to be learned here.  We know to a certainty that the greater portion of all the Tories an’ Indians are hereabout, and every one of them so drunk that the army will be harmless, save as to each other, until daybreak.  Let us go back by way of the batteries, an’ we can reach the fort almost as soon as will Jacob, if perchance he went to the northward of the hill.”

The sergeant was not inclined to leave the encampment immediately, although he agreed that we could learn nothing further of importance; it was as if the scene of confusion had a certain fascination for him.  He finally agreed, however unwillingly, to my proposition, and we set out leisurely on the return, being forced to pass once more in the rear of all the British camps because of having continued our investigations to the easternmost line of tents.

We began the return without thought of haste or of danger, and were come midway between headquarters and the most southerly battery, when without warning we arrived face to face with a party of six Tories, who, with their arms around each other’s necks, were reeling to and fro in the most convivial fashion on what was probably intended to be a pleasant stroll in the night air.

Just for an instant I was startled, fearing lest we might be discovered and find ourselves in trouble when we believed we were safest; but then, realizing that we had already met many who mistook us for comrades, I would have gone on but that Sergeant Corney halted suddenly, unslung the rifle from his back, and, presenting it full at the drunken renegades, said in a low, stern tone: 

“We are prepared to shoot one or all at a moment’s notice if you make the slightest resistance.  The orders are to gather in every mother’s son in this encampment who has been makin’ a fool of himself, an’ I reckon you come in that class.  About face, an’ the first who so much as yips gets a bullet through the head.”

The fellows must have believed that we were acting under orders from their general, for, with many a laugh and good-natured quip, they obeyed the sergeant’s order as promptly as a party of small boys would have done, and, still supporting each other, moved toward the fort, we two following directly in the rear.

I could have laughed aloud at the comical situation.  Here were two scouts who had gone out to spy upon an encampment of seventeen hundred men, marching boldly through the entire place, and taking as prisoners six soldiers who made no effort whatsoever to defend themselves.

I question if in the annals of warfare there be found anything that can match such a situation!

“Are you goin’ to take them into the fort, sergeant?” I asked, in a whisper, and he replied, speaking with difficulty because of his mirth: 

“Why not, lad?  It will be a rare lark, an’ somethin’ to tell about in the days to come, that we took out from almost directly in front of St. Leger’s headquarters six men, marchin’ ’em into a fort which was supposed to be closely invested.”

There could be little danger attending such a performance, save perchance we might come upon some of those who were sober, and that risk I was more than willing to take for the sake, as the sergeant had said, of being able to tell the story in the future.

We marched our prisoners out past the batteries, they giving no heed to the direction we were going, evidently fancying we were taking them to the guard-tent, until arriving midway between the fort and the redoubts.

Then somewhat of the truth seemed to dawn upon them, and this was so startling as to restore a portion of their befuddled senses.  The entire party halted as if with one accord, and would have turned to look at us, but that the sergeant said, sharply, emphasizing the words by the click of his rifle-lock as he cocked the weapon: 

“Keep a-movin’ unless you’re achin’ to have a bullet put through the back of every blessed one in the gang!”

“But, look here, this is too much of a joke,” one of them cried, with a drunken laugh.  “We can’t go very far on this course without bein’ seen by the rebels.”

“You’ve been seen by ’em already, an’ that’s why we’ve got you in charge.  We count on movin’ the whole of St. Leger’s force over to the fort in squads, an’ you’re the first that has been started on the road.”

By this time the renegades had a fairly good idea of the situation, and I fully expected they would turn upon us, but each of them was a coward.  If they wheeled about suddenly, taking the chances that one might be killed in the squabble, it would have been possible to overpower us, even though they were without firearms; but it was the probability of our doing some considerable execution before knocking under that prevented them from escaping at the favorable moment.

I walked with my rifle cocked and pointed at the man directly in front of me, prodding him with the muzzle now and then that he might know I was ready for action, and Sergeant Corney kept the whole party moving at a good smart pace, for we had no assurance that there were not sober men enough in the enemy’s camp to play the mischief with our bold plan.

Before we were hailed by the sentinels I came to believe that every member of the besieging army was more or less incapacitated for duty through having drank too much rum, for we heard nothing whatsoever from any one in the enemy’s camp, although we were in fairly good view of them for no less than half an hour.

When the sentinel hailed we were yet half a musket-shot distant, and my companion answered it by shouting: 

“Report to the officer of the day that Captain Campbell, of the Minute Boys, an’ Sergeant Braun, unattached, are come with a few prisoners as sample of what may be had for the takin’.”

This reply caused some mystification among the sentinels, as we could understand by the hum of conversation which followed; but the old man did not call a halt, and we continued straight on toward the sally-port, I feeling more than a bit nervous lest the sergeant’s loud words might have been heard by such of the enemy as were able to come in pursuit.

When we had come near the gate, the Tories now well sobered by fright, Colonel Gansevoort himself hailed, and again the sergeant replied, but this time in a respectful tone, after which we heard the command to open the port.

A throng of curious, laughing men crowded around as we marched in, and not until the uniforms of our prisoners could be seen did they believe we had really made a capture.

It was a squad of Johnson Greens which we had run across so fortunately and accidentally, and none of St. Leger’s force could have been more welcome to our lads than they, for that organization was made up wholly of renegades from the Mohawk Valley, who needed such a lesson as we were now in position to give them.

With such proof as we had with us, Colonel Gansevoort could no longer doubt the report which had already been brought in by Jacob.  He had not thought it possible the entire force of the enemy could be in a helpless condition, and it is hardly to be wondered at that he was incredulous.

The prisoners were speedily cared for in such a fashion that there could be no possibility of their escaping, and then the commandant summoned all three of us who had visited the British encampment, to his headquarters, that we might tell the story to himself and the officers.

No one could even make a guess as to what had happened within the enemy’s lines; but there was not a man present who did not believe that now had come our time to raise the siege in such a manner that the fort would not be invested again for many days to come.

“When your messenger came in with his report, he admitted that you had seen but a small portion of the encampment, therefore I hesitated to accept it as a fact regarding the entire army; but now, after you have made a tour of the works, it would be worse than folly to delay,” the commandant said to the sergeant.  “If you who have so lately returned want to join in the sortie, it will be necessary to make your preparations quickly.”

And the old man replied, grimly: 

“The advance can’t be made any too soon to please us, sir.”