True to the Old Flag by G. A. Henty
Chapter X. A Treacherous Planter.
It must not be supposed that the whole of the time was spent in scouting and fighting. Between the armies lay a band of no man's land. Here, as elsewhere, the people of the country were divided in their opinions, but generally made very little display of these, whatever they might be. It is true that, as a rule, non-combatants were but little interfered with; still, a warm and open display of sympathy with one side or the other was likely to be attended by the loss of cattle and damage to crops when the other party got the upper hand. In some other States feeling ran much higher. In the Carolinas the royalists were most cruelly persecuted. Their property was destroyed and they were, in many cases, shot down without mercy; but generally, throughout the colonies, a considerable latitude of opinion was allowed. This was especially so in the zone between the armies in the Jerseys. None could tell what the positions of the armies a week hence might be, and any persecution inflicted by the one party might lead to retaliation upon a shift of positions a few weeks later. A general toleration therefore reigned.
Next to Peter Lambton, Harold's greatest friend in the corps was a young man named Harvey. He was of good family and belonged to New York. Being a strong loyalist, he had, like many other gentlemen, enlisted for service under the old flag. He had, naturally, many acquaintances among the county families, and Harold often accompanied him in his visits to one or other of them.
During the winter, when things were quiet, the duties of the scouts were light, and it was the habit among them that one-third should be on outpost duty at a time, the rest being free to move about as they liked. The scouts had no fixed order of position. They went out alone or in twos or threes, as it pleased them, their duty simply being to watch everything that was going on along the enemy's line of outposts, to bring the earliest news of any intended movements, and to prevent dashing parties of the enemy's horsemen from making raids into or behind the British lines. They were not, of course, expected to check bodies of cavalry starting on a raid, but simply to obtain information of their having left their lines and of the direction taken, and then to hurry back to the British posts, whence a force of cavalry would be sent out to intercept or check the invaders. Many dashing exploits were performed by the cavalry on both sides in the way of getting behind their opponents' quarters, cutting off provision trains, attacking small posts, and carrying off straggling parties.
One of the houses to which Harold used most frequently to accompany his friend Harvey was situated nearly halfway between the rival armies, and was about eight miles from either. The owner--Mr. Jackson--was a man of considerable wealth, and the house was large and well appointed. He had, before the troubles began, a fine business as a lawyer in New York; but, as the outbreak of hostilities put a stop to all business of a legal kind in that city, he had retired to his country house. Although himself born in England, he professed to be entirely neutral, but his family were undisguisedly loyal. It consisted of his wife and two daughters, girls of seventeen and eighteen years old.
When the English army advanced to the neighborhood of his property Mr. Jackson was always ready to offer his hospitality to the officers of the corps which might be stationed near him, and he similarly opened his house to the Americans when they, in turn, advanced as the British turned back. Being, as he always made a point of saying, perfectly neutral in the struggle, he was glad to meet gentlemen, irrespective of the opinions they held. The line taken by Mr. Jackson was the one which was very largely pursued among the inhabitants of the country houses and farms scattered over what was, throughout the war, a debatable land. So frequent were the changes of the position of the armies that none could say who might be in possession in a week's time, and it was, therefore, an absolute necessity for those who wished to live unmolested to abstain from any stronger show of partisanship.
As is always the case in struggles of this kind, the female population were more enthusiastic in their partisanship and more pronounced in their opinions than the men; and although, upon the arrival of a troop of cavalry or a detachment of foot belonging to the other side, the master of the house would impartially offer what hospitality he was capable of, it was not difficult to perceive, by the warmth or coldness of the female welcome, what were the private sentiments of the family.
Harold was not long in discovering, from the frequency with which Harvey proposed an excursion to the Jacksons' and from his conduct there, that Isabelle, the eldest daughter, was the object which mainly attracted him. The families had long been friends, and Harvey, although now serving as a simple scout, was of a position equal to her own. The friends were always cordially received by Mr. Jackson, and Harold was soon as intimate there as his comrade. They usually left their quarters a little before dusk and started back late at night. Often as Mr. Jackson pressed them to stay, they never accepted his invitation.
The scouts, from their activity and ubiquitousness, were the betes-noirs of the Americans, whose most secret plans were constantly detected and foiled by the sagacity and watchfulness of these men, whose unerring rifles made frequent gaps in the ranks of the officers. They therefore spared no pains, whenever there was a chance, of killing or capturing any of these most troublesome foes, and Harvey and Harold knew that a report of their presence at the Jacksons' would suffice to bring a party of horsemen from the American lines. Their visits, therefore, were always made after dark, and at irregular intervals, and, in spite of their inclination to the contrary they made a point of returning at night to their quarters.
Other visitors were often present at the Jacksons', the sons and daughters of neighbors, and there was generally music and singing, and sometimes the young people stood up for a dance.
The scouts wore no regular uniform, although there was a general similarity in their attire, which was that of an ordinary backwoods hunter. When off duty they were allowed to dress as they pleased, and at Mr. Jackson's the two friends were attired in the ordinary dress of colonists of position. At these little gatherings political subjects were never discussed, and a stranger spending an evening there would not have dreamed that the house stood between two hostile armies; that at any moment a party of horsemen belonging to one side or other might dash into the courtyard, and that even those laughing and talking pleasantly together might be of opinions diametrically opposed.
Harvey and Harold were introduced to visitors simply as friends from New York, and, although the suspicions as to their character and position might be strong, no one thought of asking questions.
"I do not like that fellow Chermside," Harvey said one night, as he and his friend were returning to their quarters.
They were mounted; for, although when on duty the scouts worked on foot, many of them, who were men of property, kept horses which they used when not engaged. Harvey had two horses, and one of these was always at Harold's service.
"I am not surprised you don't like him," Harold replied with a laugh, "and I imagine the dislike is mutual. When two gentlemen are paying attentions to one young lady they seldom appreciate each other's merits very cordially."
"I don't think it is entirely that," Harvey laughed. "Isabella and I understand each other, and I have no fear of his rivalry; but I do not like him."
"I do not think I like him myself," Harold said more seriously; "and yet I do not know why I should not. When he has been there alone with us and the family, he has frequently used expressions showing his strong leaning toward the loyalists' side."
"I don't put much faith in that," Harvey said. "He knows how strongly Mr. Jackson and the girls lean toward the Crown, and would say anything that he thought would please Isabelle. I have spoken to her and she thinks that he is sincere; in fact, she has rather a good opinion of him. However, we shall see. It was rather curious that that party of Morgan's cavalry should have ridden up the other night and searched the house two hours after we left. You see, we had agreed to sleep there that night, and only changed our minds after the others had all left, when we remembered that we were both for duty early next morning. It might have been a coincidence, of course, but it had an ugly look. I think Mr. Jackson thought so, too, for he did not ask us to stop to-night; anyhow, I wish Chermside's plantation was not so near this and that he did not drop in so often."
A week later they paid another visit. When dinner was over Harold was chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. Harvey was sitting at the piano, where the eldest girl was playing, and the younger was looking out of window.
"We are going to have another fall of snow," she said. "There is not a star to be seen. Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly.
"What is it, my dear?" Mr. Jackson asked.
"There is a rocket gone up from the woods."
"A rocket!" Mr. Jackson repeated.
"Yes, papa; there are the stars falling now."
"That is a curious thing," Mr. Jackson said, while the others went to the window. They stood watching for some minutes, but nothing was to be seen.
"I do not like that rocket," Mr. Jackson said as they left the window. "It means something. It can only be a signal. People don't let off rockets for amusement nowadays. Did you meet anyone on the road?" "No, sir," Harvey said, "not a soul."
"I do not like it," their host repeated. "It means mischief of some sort or other. I do not wish to seem inhospitable, but my advice to you is, get on your horses at once and ride to your quarters. You are on duty to-morrow, and you told me you would pass near here on your way toward the enemy's lines. You might look in as you go past and hear whether anything came of it. If I mistake not, we shall have another visit from Morgan's horse this evening."
Much against their inclination the young men followed Mr. Jackson's advice.
The next day they, with Peter and Jake, stopped at the house as they passed.
"I was right," their host said, as the two young men entered. "An hour after you left twenty of Morgan's horse rode up here. They would not take my word that we were alone, but searched the house from top to bottom, and were evidently greatly disappointed at finding no one. I have been making inquiries this morning and find that all the servants were in the house at the time my daughter saw the rocket, so I hope that I have no traitor here. Still, it is clear that someone must be keeping watch over your movements."
"Have you asked, sir," Harvey said, after a pause, "whether anyone came after we had arrived?"
"I do not see how anyone could come, but I will ask."
He rang the bell and a negro servant appeared.
"Did anyone come to the house yesterday, Caesar, after these gentleman came--any beggar or peddler, or anyone of that sort?"
"No, sir; no one came except Massa Chermside. He get off his horse and ask if you, hab any visitors. I said that Massa Harvey and Massa Wilson were here. He say he call again another night when the family alone, and rode off."
"Just what I expected, sir," Harvey said, when the servant left the room. "I have always doubted that fellow's honesty."
"Oh, nonsense!" Mr. Jackson replied. "You must be mad, Harvey. Chermside's father was an old friend of mine, and I have known the young fellow since he was a child. I should as soon suspect one of my own daughters of being capable of such an act of gross treachery as laying a plot to bring the American cavalry down upon guests of mine. The idea is preposterous. Bless me, how amused the girls will be at your suspecting their old playfellow!"
"I hope I may be mistaken, sir," Harvey said, "but Harold's opinion of him agrees with mine; and, in talking it over last night, we both put our finger on him as the man who fired the rocket. Well, now, we must be pushing on. We are bound for the ford where Morgan's horse must have come over, and shall hear from our fellows there whether they rode straight here after crossing, as, if so, there can be no doubt whatever that the rocket was a signal."
Upon arriving at the ford they found that Morgan's horse had only crossed an hour before the time at which they arrived at Mr. Jackson's. One of the scouts had instantly taken word to the nearest cavalry outpost, but the enemy had recrossed the river before these had arrived on the spot.
After three days on duty at the front, the party returned to their lines, and the next time that the young men rode out to their friends they took with them Jake and Peter, to whom they related the circumstances.
The scouts proceeded on foot and separated from the others a mile before reaching the house, having arranged that Peter should scout round it, while Jake should proceed to the plantation of Mr. Chermside and keep a sharp lookout there.
They had arranged with Mr. Jackson that no mention of the rocket should be made to anyone, however intimate with the family.
"I am glad to see you again," the host said, as they entered the room where the family were assembled, "although I own that these two raids of Morgan's horse have made me uneasy. The girls have been immensely amused at your suspicions of young Chermside."
"How could you think such a thing?" Isabelle said. "He was here on the following evening, and was as indignant as we were at the thought of treachery being at work. He quite agreed with us that the coming of the Yankees could hardly have been accidental."
"You said nothing about the rocket, I hope?" Harvey asked.
"No, we kept quite silent about that, as you made such a point of it; but it seemed ridiculous with him. But I shall be in a fright, now, every time you come."
"We have brought two of our men with us," Harvey said, "and they are scouting round, so we shall hear if another rocket goes up; and, even if the person who let it up suspects that the last was seen,--as he might do from our having left so suddenly,--and tries some other plan to warn the enemy, we can trust our men to fire a shot and so give us warning in time. We have told the groom not to take the saddles off the horses, as we may stop but a short time."
At eight o'clock a disturbance was heard outside, and Jake entered the room, dragging with him by main force the young planter.
"What is the meaning of this?" Mr. Jackson asked, as they rose from their seats in surprise.
"Me tell you, sar," Jake answered. "Me had orders from Massa Harold to watch outside ob de house ob dis feller and see what going on dere. About half an hour after me got dere a nigger come along running from dis direction. Dat no business of Jake's, so he stood in de trees and let him pass. He go into de house; five minutes afterward dis feller he come out and he walk away. Jake follow him bery quiet to see what him after. He walk more dan a mile, den he get on to de oder side of dat big hill; den me see him stop, and Jake tink it time to interfere, so he ran up and catch him. He had put dis ting against a stump of a tree, and had him pistol in him hand, and was on de point of firing it close to dis ting, so as to light him."
As Jake spoke he held out a rocket. Several times while Jake had been speaking the planter had tried to interrupt him, but each time Jake, who had not released his hold of him, gave him so violent a shake that he was fain to be silent.
"This is a scandalous indignity," he exclaimed furiously when Jake finished. "What do you mean, sir," he demanded of Harvey, "by setting this nigger to watch my abode? I will have satisfaction for this treatment."
"It seems, sir," Mr. Jackson said, signing to Harvey to be silent, "that you have been detected in a gross act of treachery. My friends have suspected you of it, but I indignantly denied it. Could we believe, I and my family, that you, whom we have known as a child, would betray our guests to the Americans? Loyalists and republicans are alike welcome here. I do not ask my friends their opinions. My house is neutral ground, and I did not think that anyone who used it would have had the treachery to turn it into a trap; still less did I imagine you would do so. These gentlemen would be perfectly within their right did they take you out and hang you from the nearest tree; but, for my sake, I trust that they will not do so; but should the American cavalry ever again visit this house under circumstances which may lead it to be supposed that they have been brought here to capture my guests, I shall let them punish you as you deserve. No word of mine will be raised in your favor. Now, sir, go, and never again enter this house, where the loathing and contempt that I feel for you will, I know, be shared by the ladies of my family."
At a nod from Harold Jake released his hold of the captive, who, without a word, turned and left the room.
Not a word was spoken for a minute or two after he had left. The youngest girl was the first to speak.
"The wretch!" she exclaimed. "To think that Herbert Chermside should turn out such a mean traitor! Papa, I would have let them hang him at once. It would have served him right. Now he may do us all harm."
"I do not know that you are not right, Ada," Mr. Jackson replied gravely. "I am far from saying that I acted wisely. Young Chermside has many friends among the Americans, and it is possible that he may work us harm. However, my position as a neutral is well established. Officers on both sides have at times been welcomed here, and his report, therefore, that our friends here are often with us can do us no harm. Henceforth he must be regarded as an enemy, and there will always be danger in these visits. So long as the American outposts are within an hour's ride he can have the road watched; and, although he is not likely to venture upon signaling with rockets, he may send or take word on horseback. A bonfire, too, might be lit at the other side of the hill to call them over. Altogether you will never be safe from home except when you have a strong body of your own troops between this and the river."
"I am glad to say," Harvey said, "that in consequence of the news of Morgan's raids on this side a body of 200 infantry and a troop of cavalry are to move to-morrow and take up their position by the ford, so we shall be safe from any surprise from that direction."
"I am very glad to hear it," Mr. Jackson said. "It will relieve me of a great anxiety. But pray be watchful when you are in this neighborhood. You have made a bitter enemy, and, after what he has proved himself capable of, we cannot doubt that he would hesitate at nothing. I understand," he went on with a smile toward his eldest daughter, "what is at the bottom of his conduct, and, as I have long suspected his hopes in that quarter, I am not surprised that he is somewhat hostile to you. Still, I never for a moment deemed him capable of this."
The next day Mr. Jackson learned that his neighbor had left his plantation, and had told his servants that he was not likely to return for some time.
Shortly after this a series of bad luck attended the doings of the British scouts. Several parties were killed or captured by the enemy, and they were constantly baffled by false reports, while the Americans appeared to forestall all their movements. It was only when enterprises were set on foot and carried out by small bodies that they were ever successful, anything like combined action by the orders of the officers constantly turning out ill.
"There must be a traitor somewhere," Peter said upon the return of a party from an attempt which, although it promised well, had been frustrated, to carry off a number of cattle from one of the American depots. "It aint possible that this can be all sheer bad luck. It aint no one in our company, I'll be bound. We aint had any new recruits lately, and there aint a man among us whom I could not answer for. There must be a black sheep in Gregory's or Vincent's corps. The enemy seem up to every move, and, between us, we have lost more than thirty men in the last few weeks. There aint no doubt about it--there's a traitor somewhere and he must be a clever one, and he must have pals with him, or he couldn't send news of what we are doing so quickly. It beats me altogether, and the men are all furious."
"I've been talking with some of our men," Peter said a few days afterward, "and we agree that we are bound to get to the bottom of this matter. We're sartin sure that the traitor don't belong to us. What we propose is this, that the hull of us shall go up together, without saying a word to a soul, and scatter ourselves along the river at all the points where a chap going with a message to the enemy would be likely to cross. The night we go out we'll get the three captains all to give orders to their men for an expedition, so that whoever it is that sends messages from here would be sure to send over word to the Yankees; and it'll be hard if we don't ketch him. What do you say?"
"I think the plan is a very good one," Harold answered. "If you like, I will go with my father and ask Gregory and Vincent to send their men."
Captain Wilson at once went to these officers. They were as much irritated and puzzled as were their men by the failures which had taken place, and agreed that, next evening, an order should be issued for the men of the three corps to act in combination, and to allow it to leak out that they intended to surprise an American post situated near the river, twenty-one miles distant. Captain Wilson's scouts, instead of going with the others, were to act on their own account.
On the day arranged, as soon as it became dark, the forty scouts quietly left their quarters in small parties and made their way toward the river, striking it at the point where a messenger would be likely to cross upon his way to give warning to the American post of the attack intended to be made upon it. They took post along the river, at a distance of fifty or sixty yards apart, and silently awaited the result. Several hours passed and no sound broke the stillness of the woods. An hour before dawn Peter Lambton heard a slight crack, as that of a breaking twig. It was some distance back in the woods, but it seemed to him, by the direction, that the man who caused it would strike the river between himself and Jake, who was stationed next to him. He noiselessly stole along toward the point. Another slight sound afforded him a sure indication of the direction in which the man, whoever he might be, was approaching. He hastened his steps, and a minute later a negro issued from the wood close to him. He stood for an instant on the river bank and was about to plunge in, when Peter threw his arms around him.
Although taken by surprise, the negro struggled desperately and would have freed himself from the grip of the old scout had not Jake run up instantly to his comrade's assistance. In a minute the negro was bound and two shots were then fired, the concerted signal by which it would be known along the line that a capture had been effected. In a few minutes the whole body was assembled. The negro, who refused to answer any questions, was carried far back into the woods and a fire was lighted.
"Now, nigger," Peter said, taking, as captor, the lead in the matter, "jest tell us right away where you was going and who sent you."
The negro was silent.
"Now, look ye here, darky, you're in the hands of men who are no jokers. Ef you tell us at once who put ye on to this trick no harm will happen to you; but ef ye don't we'll jest burn the skin off your body, bit by bit."
Still the negro was silent.
"Half a dozen of yez," Peter said, "as have got iron ramrods shove them into the fire. We'll soon find this nigger's tongue."
Not a word was spoken until the ramrods were heated red-hot.
"Now," Peter said, "two of yez clap your ramrods against this darky's flanks."
The negro struggled as the men approached him, and gave a terrific yell as the hot iron was applied to his sides.
"I will tell you, sars--oh! have mercy upon me and I will tell you eberything!"
"I thought," Peter said grimly, "that you'd find a tongue soon enough. Now, then, who sent you?"
"My massa," the negro answered.
"And who is your master?"
The negro was again silent, but as, at a nod from Peter, the men again raised the ramrods, he blurted out:
The name was known to many of the scouts, and a cry of anger broke from them.
"I thought as much," Harvey said. "I suspected that scoundrel was at the bottom of it all along. Where is he?" he asked the negro.
"Me not know, sar."
"You mean you won't say," Peter said. "Try the vartue of them ramrods again."
"No, no!" the negro screamed. "Me swear me do not know where him be. You may burn me to death if you will, but I could not tell you."
"I think he is speaking the truth," Harvey said. "Wait a minute. Have you done this before?" he asked the negro.
"Yes, sar. Eight or ten times me swim de river at night."
"With messages to the Americans?"
"Yes, sar; messages to American officers."
"Have you any written message--any letter?"
"No, sar, me never take no letter. Me only carry dis." And he took out from his hair a tiny ball of paper smaller than a pea.
It was smoothed out, and upon it, were the words, "General Washington."
"Where I go, sar, I show dem dis, and dey know den dat de message can be believed."
"But how do you get the message? How do you see your master?"
"Master's orders were dat me and two oders were to meet him ebery night, after it got dark, at a tree a mile from de place where de soldiers are. Sometimes he no come. When he come he gibs each of us a piece of money and tell us to carry a message across the river. We start by different ways, swim across de water in different places, take de message, and come back to de plantation."
"A pretty business!" Peter said. "Now you must come back with us to the post and tell your story to the commanding officer. Then we must see if we can't lay hands on this rascally master of yours."
Upon the news being told, the general in command sent a party out, who, after searching the house and out-buildings of the plantation in vain, set fire to them and burned them to the ground. The negroes were all carried away and employed to labor for the army. The town and all the surrounding villages were searched, but no trace could be obtained of the missing man. One of the men of Gregory's corps of scouts disappeared. He had recently joined, but his appearance, as a man with beard and whiskers, in no way agreed with that of the planter. He might, however, have been disguised, and his disappearance was in itself no proof against him, for the scouts were under no great discipline, and when tired of the service often left without giving notice of their intention of doing so. It was, moreover, possible that he might have fallen by an enemy's bullet.
The strongest proof in favor of the deserter being Chermside was that, henceforth, the scouts were again as successful as before, often surprising the enemy successfully.
Now that the ford nearest Mr. Jackson's was strongly guarded, the young men had no apprehension of any surprise, although such an event was just possible, as the cavalry on both sides often made great circuits in their raids upon each other's country. That Chermside was somewhere in the neighborhood they believed; having, indeed, strong reason for doing so, as a rifle was one evening fired at them from the wood as they rode over, the ball passing between their heads. Pursuit, at the time, was impossible. But the next day a number of scouts searched the woods without success. Soon after they heard that Chermside had joined the Americans and obtained a commission in a body of their irregular horse.
Harvey was now formally engaged to Isabelle Jackson, and it was settled that the wedding should take place in the early spring at New York. When not on duty he naturally spent a good deal of his time there, and Harold was frequently with him. Since he had been fired at in the woods Isabelle had been in the highest state of nervous anxiety lest her lover's enemy should again try to assassinate him, and she begged Harold always to come over with him, if possible, as the thought of his riding alone through the wood filled her with anxiety.
Although he had no order to do so, Jake, whenever he saw Harold and his friend canter off toward the Jacksons, shouldered his rifle and went out after them to the house, where, so long as they stayed, he scouted round and round with the utmost vigilance. Very often Harold was ignorant of his presence there; but when, after his return, he found, by questioning him, how he had been employed, he remonstrated with him on such excessive precaution.
"Can't be too cautious, massa," Jake said. "You see dat fellow come one of dese days."
Jake's presentiment turned out correct. One evening when, with several friends, the young men were at Mr. Jackson's the sound of the report of a rifle was heard at a short distance.
"That must be Jake's rifle!" Harold exclaimed.
"Quick, Harvey, to your horse!"
It was too late. As they reached the door a strong party of American cavalry dashed up to it.
"Surround the house!" an officer shouted. "Do not let a soul escape!"
The young men ran upstairs again.
"We are caught," Harvey said. "Escape is cut off. The Yankee cavalry are all round the house. Good-by, Isabelle. We shall meet one of these days again, dear." The girl threw herself into his arms.
"Be calm, love!" he said. "Do not let this scoundrel have the satisfaction of triumphing over you."
A moment later Chermside, accompanied by several soldiers, entered the room.
"I am sorry to disturb so pleasant a party," he said in a sneering voice, "but if Americans choose to entertain the enemies of their country they must expect these little disagreeables."
Mr. Jackson abruptly turned his back upon him, and no one else spoke, although he was personally well known to all.
"These are the two men," he said to the soldiers--"two of the most notorious scouts and spies on the frontier. We will take them to headquarters, where a short shrift and two strong ropes will be their lot."
"The less the word spy is in the mouth of such a pitiful traitor as yourself the better, I should say," Harvey said quietly; and, walking forward with Harold, he placed himself in the hands of the soldiers.
No one else spoke. Isabelle had fainted when she heard the threat of execution against her lover. Ada stood before her with a look of such anger and contempt on her young face that Chermside fairly winced under it.
"To horse!" he said sullenly, and, turning, followed his men and prisoners downstairs.
The troop, Harold saw, numbered some 200 sabers. They had with them a number of riderless horses, whose accouterments showed that they belonged to an English regiment; most of the men, too, had sacks of plunder upon their horses. They had evidently made a successful raid, and had probably attacked a post and surprised and driven off the horses of a squadron of cavalry, and were now on their return toward their lines.
"This is an awkward business, Harold," Harvey said as, in the midst of their captors, they galloped off from the Jacksons'. "Of course it's all nonsense about our being hung. Still, I have no wish to see the inside of a prison, where we may pass years before we are exchanged. Once handed over to the authorities we shall be safe; but I shall not feel that we are out of danger so long as we are in this scoundrel's hands. Fortunately there are officers of superior rank to himself with the squadron, otherwise I have no doubt at all that he would hang us at once."
Such was indeed the case, and Chermside was, at that moment, fuming intensely at the chance which had thrown his rival in his hands at a time when he was powerless to carry out his vengeance. He had, indeed, ventured to suggest that it would be less trouble to hang the prisoners at once, but the major in command had so strongly rebuked him for the suggestion that he had at once been silenced.
"I blush that I should have heard such words from the mouth of an American officer. It is by such deeds, sir, that our cause is too often disgraced. We are soldiers fighting for the independence of our country--not lawless marauders. Had these men been taken in their civilian dress over on our side of the river they would have been tried and hung as spies; but they were on neutral ground, and, in fact, in the rear of their own posts. There is no shadow of defense for such an accusation. Should I ever hear a similar suggestion I shall at once report your conduct to General Washington, who will know how to deal with you."
"I wonder what has become of Jake," Harold said to his comrade. "I trust he was not shot down."
"Not he," Harvey said. "He made off after firing his rifle, you may be sure, when he saw that there was nothing to be done. The fellow can run like a hare, and I have no doubt that, by this time, he has either got back to the village and given the alarm there or has made for the ford. There are 100 cavalry there now as well as the infantry. Jake will be there in an hour from the time he started. The dragoons will be in the saddle five minutes later, and it is just possible they may cut off our retreat before we have crossed the river. Peter is on duty there, and, if he happens to be at the post when Jake arrives, he will hurry up with all the scouts he can collect."
Jake had taken flight as Harvey supposed. He had, after firing his rifle, taken to the wood, and had remained near the house long enough to see which way the cavalry rode when they started. Then he made for the post at the ford at the top of his speed. It was less than an hour from starting when he arrived there, and three minutes later the cavalry trumpets were blowing "To horse!" After giving his message to the officer in command Jake went into the village, where the sounds of the trumpet brought all the soldiers into the street.
"Hullo, Jake! is that you?" a familiar voice asked. "What the tarnal is up now?"
Jake hastily related what had taken place.
"Tarnation!" Peter exclaimed. "This is a bad job. They're making, no doubt, for Finchley's Ford, fifteen mile down the river. With an hour's start they're sure to be there before us."
"What are you going to do, Peter? Are you thinking of running wid de cavalry?"
"Thinking of running to the moon!" the scout said contemptuously. "You can run well, I don't deny, Jake, but you couldn't run fifteen mile with the dragoons; and, if you could, you'd get there too late. Yer bellows are going pretty fast already. Now don't stand staring there, but hurry through the camp and get all our boys together. Tell them to meet by the water side. Get Gregory and Vincent's men as well as our own. There's twenty or thirty altogether in the place."
Without asking a question Jake ran off to carry out the orders, and, in a few minutes, twenty-four men were collected together on the bank.
"Now, you fellows," Peter said, "we've got to rescue these two chaps out of the hands of the Yankees. Them who don't want to jine--and mind you the venture is a risky one--had better say so at once and stop behind."
No one moved.
"What I propose is this: we'll take the ferryboat, which aint no good to no one, seeing as how the Yankees are on one side of the river and we the other, and we'll drop down the stream about ten mile. Then we'll land on their side of the river and strike inland, hiding the boat under the bushes somewhere. They'll halt for the night when they're safe across the river. There's five or six hundred of their infantry camped on the ford. There's two hundred on our side, but the Yankees'll ride through in the dark and get across before the redcoats are awake. Now, I propose that, after we've landed, we make a sweep round until we get near the Yanks' camp. Then the rest'll wait and two or three of us'll go in and see if we can't get the young fellows out of wherever they've put 'em. Then we'll jine you and make a running fight of it back to the boat."
The others assented. The boat was amply large enough for all, and, pulling her out into the stream, they dropped down, keeping under shelter of the trees on the British side. Half an hour after they had started they heard the faint sound of distant musketry.
"There," Peter said, "the Yanks are riding through the British camp, close to the ford."
A few more shots were heard, and then all was silent. The stream was swift, for it was swollen by recent rains, and at three in the morning the boat touched the bank about a mile above the ford. The party disembarked noiselessly and, fastening the boat to a tree, moved along toward the camp.
When they were within four or five hundred yards of the village Peter chose Jake and two others of his band, and, telling the rest to remain where they were, ready for action, he struck inland. He made a detour and came in at the back of the camp.
Here there were no sentries, as the only danger to be apprehended was upon the side of the river. Peter therefore entered boldly. In front of the principal house a sentry was walking up and down, and he, in the free-and-easy manner usual in the American army, gladly entered into conversation with the newcomers.
"All pretty quiet about here?" Peter asked. "We're from the West, and have jest come down to do a little fighting with the Britishers. I reckon they aint far off now?"
"They are just across the river," the sentry said. "Have you come far?"
"We've made something like two hundred mile this week, and mean to have a day or two's rest before we begin. We've done some Injun fighting, my mates and me, in our time, and we says to ourselves it was about time we burned a little powder against the redcoats. Things seem quiet enough about here. Nothing doing, eh?"
"Not much," the sentry said; "just skirmishes. Some of our cavalry came across through the redcoats late to-night. I hear they have got a quantity of plunder and some fine horses, and they have brought in a couple of the British scouts."
"And what have they done with 'em?" Peter asked. "Strung 'em up, I suppose."
"No, no; we aint fighting Indians now; we don't hang our prisoners. No, they are safe under guard over there in the cavalry camp, and will be taken to headquarters to-morrow."
"Waal," Peter said, stretching himself, "I feel mighty tired and shall jest look for a soft place for an hour's sleep before morning."
So saying he sauntered away, and the sentry resumed his walk.
Peter and his three companions now moved off toward the spot where, as the sentry had indicated, the cavalry were encamped. They were not in tents, but were sleeping wrapped up in their blankets. Two tents had been erected, lent probably by the infantry on the spot. One was much larger than the other, and sentries were placed before each. They had some difficulty in making their way, for the night was dark, and the cavalry had picketed their horses without order or regularity. In their search they had to use great caution to avoid stumbling over the sleeping men, but at last they saw the tents faintly against the sky. They crawled cautiously up. There were two sentries on the smaller tent.
"Now, Jake," Peter whispered, "you're the blackest and so had better do the trick. Don't cut a hole in the tent, for they'd be safe to hear the canvas tear. Crawl under. It's, been put up in haste and aint likely to be pinned down very tight. They're safe to be bound, and when you've cut the cords and given them time to get the use of their feet, then crawl along and jine us."
Jake did as he was instructed. One of the sentries was pacing up and down before the entrance, the other making a circuit round the tent. The circle was a somewhat large one to avoid stumbling over the tent ropes. Jake, watching his opportunity, had no difficulty in crawling up and squeezing himself under the canvas before the sentry returned.
"Hush!" he whispered, as he let the canvas fall behind him. "It's Jake."
Both the captives were fast asleep. Jake, feeling about in the darkness, found them, one after the other, and, putting his hands on their mouths to prevent them making an exclamation, he woke them, and soon cut the cords with which they were bound hand and foot. Then in whispers he told them what had happened. They chafed their limbs to produce circulation, for they had been tightly tied, and then, one by one, they crawled out of the tent.
Harvey went first and was safely across before the sentry returned. Harold followed; but, as he went, in his hurry he struck a tent rope.
"What's that?" the sentry in front asked sharply. "Bill, was that you?"
"No," his comrade replied. "Something's up. Look into the tent."
And, so saying, he ran round behind, while the sentry in front rushed into the tent and, kicking about with his feet, soon found that it was empty.
Jake, on hearing the exclamation, at once crawled from the tent; but, as he did so, the sentry, running round, saw him and leveled his rifle. Before he could fire a shot was heard and the man fell dead.
Jake started to his feet and joined his friends. The other sentry also discharged his rifle, and the whole camp awoke and sprang to their feet. The horses, alarmed at the sudden tumult, plunged and kicked; men shouted and swore, everyone asking what was the matter. Then loud cries were heard that the sentry was shot and the prisoners had escaped.
Running closely together and knocking down all who stood in their way, the fugitives hurried in the darkness until at the edge of the camp, and then started at full speed.
The trumpets were now sounding to horse, and several shots were fired after them. Many of the horses had not been unsaddled, and mounted men at once dashed off. Several had seen the little party rush away, and the horsemen were speedily on their track. The six men ran at the top of their speed and were soon close to their hidden friends.
"This way! this way! I see them!" shouted a voice, which Harold and Harvey recognized as that of their enemy, who, a minute later, galloped up with half a dozen troopers. It was not until he was within a few yards that his figure was clearly discernible; then Peter Lambton's rifle flashed out, and the planter fell from his horse with a bullet in his brain.
Jake and the other two men also fired, and the horsemen, astonished at their number, reined in their horses to await the coming up of more of their comrades.
In another minute the fugitives were with their friends, and, at a rapid trot, the whole ran up the river bank toward the spot where they had hidden their boat.
The country was covered with brushwood and forest and, as the cavalry, now swollen to a considerable force, advanced, they were greeted by so heavy a fire that, astonished at this strong force of foes upon their side of the river, and not knowing how numerous they might be, they halted and waited for the infantry to come up. Long before the enemy were prepared to advance against the unknown foe the scouts reached their boat and crossed safely to the other side.
Shortly after this adventure Mr. Jackson and his family moved for the winter to New York, where, soon after their arrival, the wedding between Harvey and Isabella took place, the former retiring from the corps of scouts.