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We were now penetrating that sad and devastated region laid waste so recently by Brant, Butler, and McDonald, from Cobus-Kill on the pleasant river Askalege, to Minnisink on the silvery Delaware-- a vast and mournful territory which had been populous and prosperous a twelvemonth since, and was now the very abomination of desolation.
Cherry Valley lay a sunken mass of blood-wet cinders; Wyoming had gone up in a whirlwind of smoke, and the wretched Connecticut inhabitants were dead or fled; Andrustown was now no more, Springfield, Handsome Brook, Bowmans, Newtown-Martin-- all these pretty English villages were vanished; the forest seedlings already sprouted in the blackened cellars, and the spotted tree-cats squalled from the girdled orchards under the July moon.
Where horses, cows, sheep, men, women, and children had lain dead all over the trampled fields, the tall English grass now waved, yellowing to fragrant hay; horses, barns, sheds-- nay, even fences, wagons, ploughs, and haycocks had been laid in cinders. There remained not one thing that could burn which had not been burned. Only breeze-stirred ashes marked these silent places, with here and there a bit of iron from wagon or plough, rusting in the dew, or a steel button from some dead man's coat, or a bone gone chalky white-- dumb witnesses that the wrath of England had passed wrapped in the lightning of Divine Right.
But Great Britain's flaming glory had swept still farther westward, for German Flatts was gone except for its church and one house, which were too near the forts for the destructives to burn. But they had laid in ashes more than a hundred humble homes, barns, and mills, and driven off more than a thousand cattle, horses, sheep, and oxen, leaving the barnyard creatures dead or dying, and ten thousand skipples of grain afire.
So it was no wonder that the provisioning of our forces at Otsego had been slow, and that we now had five hundred wagons flying steadily between Canajoharie and the lake, to move our stores as they arrived by batteaux from below. And there were some foolish and impatient folk in Congress, so I heard, who cried out at our delay; and one more sinister jackass, who had said that our army would never move until a few generals had been court-martialed and shot. And our Major Parr said that he wished to God we had the Congress with us so that for once they might have their bellyful of stratagem and parched corn.
But it is ever so with those home-loving and unsurpassed butcher-generals, baker-brigadiers, candlestick-colonels, who, yawning in bed, win for us victories while we are merely planning them-- and, rolling over, go to sleep with a consciousness of work well done, the candle snuffed, and the cat locked out for the night.
About eleven o'clock on the first night out, I halted my scout of six and lay so, fireless, until sun-up. We were not far, then, from the head of the lake; and when we marched at dawn next morning we encountered a company of Alden's men mending roads as usual; and later came upon an entire Continental regiment and a company of Irregular Rifles, who were marching down to the lake to try out their guns. Long after we quitted them we heard their heavy firing, and could distinguish between the loud and solid "Bang!" of the muskets and the sharper, whip-lash crack of the long rifles.
The territory that now lay before us was a dense and sunless wilderness, save for the forest openings made by rivers, lakes, and streams. And it was truly the enemy's own country, where he roamed unchecked except for the pickets of General Sullivan's army, which was still slowly concentrating at Tioga Point whither my scout of six was now addressed. And the last of our people that we saw was a detail of Alden's regiment demolishing beaver dams near the lake's outlet which, they informed us, the beavers rebuilt as fast as they were destroyed, to the rage and confusion of our engineers. We saw nothing of the industrious little animals, who are accustomed to labor while human beings sleep, but we saw their felled logs and cunningly devised dams, which a number of our men were attacking with pick and bar, standing in the water to their arm-pits.
Beyond them, at the Burris Farm, we passed our outlying pickets-- Irregular Riflemen from the Scoharie and Sacandaga, tall, lean, wiry men, whose leaf-brown rifle-dress so perfectly blended with the tree-trunks that we were aware of them only when they halted us. And, Lord! To see them scowl at my Indians as they let us through, so that I almost expected a volley in our backs, and was relieved when we were rid o' them.
When, later, we passed Yokam's Place, we were fairly facing that vast solitude of twilight which lay between us and the main army's outposts at the mouth of the Tioga. Except for a very few places on the Ouleout, and the Iroquois towns, the region was uninhabited. But the forest was beautiful after its own somewhat appalling fashion, which was stupendous, majestic, and awe-inspiring to the verge of apprehension.
Under these limitless lanes of enormous trees no sunlight fell, no underbrush grew. All was still and vague and dusky as in pillared aisles. There were no birds, no animals, nothing living except the giant columns which bore a woven canopy of leaves so dense that no glimmer of blue shone through. Centuries had spread the soundless carpet that we trod; eons had laid up the high-sprung arches which vanished far above us where vault and column were dimly merged, losing all form in depthless shadow.
There was an Indian path all the way from the lake, good in places, in others invisible. We did not use it, fearing an ambush.
The Mohican led us; I followed him; the last Oneida marked the trees for a new and better trail, and a straighter one not following every bend in the river. And so, in silence we moved southward over gently sloping ground which our wagons and artillery might easily follow while the batteaux fell down the river and our infantry marched on either bank, using the path where it existed.
Toward ten o'clock we came within sound of the river again, its softly rushing roar filling the woods; and after a while, far through the forest dusk, we saw the thin, golden streak of sunlight marking its lonely course.
The trail that the Mohican now selected swung ever nearer to the river, and at last, we could see low willows gilded by the sun, and a patch of blue above, and a bird flying.
Treading in file, rifles at trail, and knife and hatchet loosened, we moved on swiftly just within that strip of dusk that divides the forest from the river shrub; and I saw the silver water flowing deep and smooth, where batteaux as well as canoes might pass with unvexed keels; and, over my right shoulder, above the trees, a baby peak, azure and amethyst in a cobalt sky; and a high eagle soaring all alone.
The Mohican had halted; an Oneida ran down to the sandy shore and waded out into mid-stream; another Oneida was peeling a square of bark from a towering pine. I rubbed the white square dry with my sleeve, and with a wood-coal from my pouch I wrote on it:
"Ford, three feet at low water."
The Stockbridge Indian who had stepped behind a river boulder and laid his rifle in rest across the top, still stood there watching the young Oneida in midstream who, in turn, was intently examining the river bank opposite.
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The Hidden Children -by- Robert W. Chambers