|Back||1 2 3 4 5||Next|
Now, no sooner had we broken camp, covered our fire, packed, saddled, and mounted, than all around us, as we advanced, the wilderness began to wear an aspect very different to that brooding solitude which hitherto had been familiar to us-- our shelter and our menace also.
For we had proceeded on our deeply-trodden war trail no more than a mile or two before we encountered the raw evidences of an army's occupation. Everywhere spotted leads, game trails, and runways had been hacked, trimmed, and widened into more open wood-walks; foot-paths enlarged to permit the passage of mounted men; cattle-roads cleared, levelled, made smoother for wagons and artillery; log bridges built across the rapid streams that darkled westward, swamps and swales paved with logs, and windfalls hewn in twain and the huge abattis dragged wide apart or burnt to ashes where it lay. Yet, still the high debris bristling from some fallen forest giant sprawling athwart the highway often delayed us. Our details had not yet cleared out the road entirely.
We were, however, within a wolf-hound's easy run to Cherry Valley, Fort Hunter, and the Mohawk-- the outer edges of my own country. Northeast of us lay Schenectady behind its fort; north of us lay my former home, Guy Park, and near it old Fort Johnson and Johnson Hall. Farther still to the northward stretched the Vlaie and silvery Sacandaga with its pretty Fish House settlement now in ashes; and Summer House Point and Fonda's Bush were but heaps of cinders, too, the brave Broadalbin yeomen prisoners, their women and children fled to Johnstown, save old man Stoner and his boys, and that Tory villain Charlie Cady who went off with Sir John.
Truly I should know something of these hills and brooks and forests that we now traversed, and of the silent, solitary roads that crept into the wilderness, penetrating to distant, lonely farms or grist mills where some hardy fellow had cleared the bush and built his cabin on the very borders of that dark and fearsome empire which we were gathering to enter and destroy.
Here it lay, close on our left flank-- so close that its strange gigantic shadow fell upon us, like a vast hand, stealthy and chill.
And it was odd, but on the edges of these trackless shades, here, even with fresh evidences on every side that our own people lately passed this way-- yes, even when we began to meet or overtake men of our own color-- the stupendous desolation yielded nothing of its brooding mystery and dumb magnificence.
Westward, the green monotony of trees stretched boundless as an ocean, and as trackless and uncharted-- gigantic forests in the depths of which twilight had brooded since first the world was made.
Here, save for the puny, man-made trail-- save for the tiny scars left by his pygmy hacking at some high forest monument, all this magic shadow-land still bore the imprint of our Lord's own fingers.
The stillness and the infinite majesty, the haunting fragrance clinging to the craftsmanship of hands miraculous; all the sweet odour and untainted beauty which enveloped it in the making, and which had remained after creation's handiwork was done, seemed still to linger in this dim solitude. And it was as though the twilight through the wooded aisles was faintly tinctured still, where the sweet-scented garments of the Lord had passed.
There was no underbrush, no clinging sprays or fairy brambles intertwined under the solemn arches of the trees; only the immemorial strata of dead leaves spread one above another in endless coverlets of crumbling gold; only a green and knee-deep robe of moss clothing the vast bases of the living columns.
And into this enchanted green and golden dusk no sunlight penetrated, save along the thread-like roads, or where stark-naked rocks towered skyward, or where, in profound and velvet depths, crystalline streams and rivers widened between their Indian willow bottoms. And these were always set with wild flowers, every bud and blossom gilded by the sun.
As we journeyed on, the first wayfarer we encountered after passing our outer line of pickets was an express rider from General Sullivan's staff, one James Cook, who told us that the right division of the army, General James Clinton's New York brigade, which was ours, was still slowly concentrating in the vicinity of Otsego Lake; that innumerable and endless difficulties in obtaining forage and provisions had delayed everything; that the main division, Sullivan's, was now arriving at Easton and Wyoming; and that, furthermore, the enemy had become vastly agitated over these ominous preparations of ours, but still believed, from their very magnitude, that we were preparing for an advance into Canada.
"Ha-ha!" said Boyd merrily. "So much the better, for if they continue to believe that, they will keep their cursed scalping parties snug at home."
"No, sir," said the express soberly. "Brant and his Mohawks are out somewhere or other, and so is Walter Butler and his painted crew."
"In this same district?"
"No doubt of it, sir. Indians fired on our pickets last week. It will go hard with the outlying farms and settlements. Small doubt, too, that they will strike heavily and strive to draw this army from whatever plan it meditated."
"Then," said Boyd with a careless laugh, "it is for us to strike more heavily still and draw them with the very wind of our advance into a common vortex of destruction with the Iroquois."
The express rode on, and Boyd, in excellent humour, continued talking to me, saying that he knew our Commander-in-Chief, and that he was an officer not to be lightly swayed or turned from the main purpose, but would hew to the line, no matter what destruction raged and flamed about him.
"No, Loskiel, they may murder and burn to right and left of us, and it may wring his heart and ours to hear the agonized appeals for aid; but if I judge our General, he will not be halted or drawn aside until the monstrous, loathesome body of this foul empire lies chopped to bits, writhing and dying in the flames of Catharines-town."
"He must truly be a man of iron," said I, "if we win through."
"We will win through, Loskiel," he said gaily, "-- to Catharines-town or paradise-- to hell or heaven. And what a tale to tell our children-- we who survive!"
An odd expression came into his handsome face, and he said in a low and dreamy voice:
"I think that almost every man will live to tell that story-- yet, I can never hear myself telling the tale in years to come."
On paths and new-made highways we began to encounter people and cattle-- now a long line of oxen laden with military stores or with canoes and flatboats, and conducted by batt-men in smock and frock, now a sweating company of military surveyors from headquarters, burdened with compass, chain, and Jacob-staff, already running their lines into the wilderness. Here trudged the frightened family of some settler, making toward the forts; there a company of troops came gaily marching out on some detail, or perhaps, with fixed bayonets, herded sheep and cattle down some rutted road.
It seemed scarce possible that we were already within scouting range of that never-to-be-forgotten region of Wyoming, where just one year ago old John Butler with his Rangers, his hell-born Senecas, and Johnson's Greens, had done their bloody business; where, in "The Shades of Death," a hundred frightened women and little children had perished in that ghastly darkness. Also, we were but a few miles from that scene of terror where, through the wintry dawn at Cherry Valley, young Walter Butler damned his soul for all eternity while men, women, and children, old and young, died horribly amid the dripping knives and bayonets of his painted fiends, or fell under the butchering hatchets of his Senecas.
|Back||1 2 3 4 5||Next|
The Hidden Children -by- Robert W. Chambers