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It was in 1779, when America was struggling with England for her independence, and a division of the English redcoats were encamped on the banks of the Potomac. So admirably fortified was their position by river and steep woods, that no ordinary text-book of warfare would admit the possibility of surprising it. But Washington and his men did not conduct their campaigns by the book. "If you fight with art," said that general once to his soldiery, "you are sure to be defeated. Acquire discipline enough for retreat and the uniformity of combined attack, and your country will prove the best of engineers."
In fact, it was with a guerilla warfare, and little else, that the British had to contend. The Americans had enrolled whole tribes of Indians in their ranks and made full use of the Indian habits of warfare. The braves would steal like snakes about the pathless forests, and dashing unexpectedly on the outposted redcoats, kill a handful in one fierce charge, and then retreat pell-mell back into their shelter, whither to follow them was to court certain death. The injuries thus inflicted were not overwhelming, but they were teasing for all that. Day by day the waste went on--loss of sentinels, of stragglers, sometimes of whole detachments, and all this was more galling from the impossibility of revenge. In order to limit the depredations it was the custom of the British commanders to throw forward their outposts to a great distance from the main body, to station sentinels far into the woods, and cover the main body with a constant guard.
One regiment was suffering from little less than a panic. Perpetually and day after day sentinels had been missing. Worse than this, they had been surprised, apparently, and carried off without giving any alarm or having time to utter a sound. It would happen that a sentinel went forward to his post with finger upon his trigger, while his comrades searched the woods around and found them empty. When the relief came, the man would just be missing. That was all. There was never a trace left to show the manner in which he had been conveyed away: only, now and then, a few drops of blood splashed on the leaves where he had been standing.
The men grew more and more uneasy. Most suspected treachery. It was unreasonable, they argued, to believe that man after man could be surprised without having time even to fire his musket. Others talked of magic, and grew gloomy with strange suspicions of the Indian medicine men. At any rate, here was a mystery. Time would clear it up, no doubt; but meanwhile the sentry despatched to his post felt like a man marked out for death. It was worse. Many men who would have marched with firm step to death in any familiar shape, would go with pale cheeks and bowed knees to this fate of which nothing was known except that nothing was left of the victim.
Matters at length grew intolerable. One morning, the sentinels having been set as usual overnight, the guard went as soon as dawn began to break to relieve a post that extended far into the woods. The sentinel was gone! They searched about, found his footprints here and there on the trodden leaves, but no blood--no trace of struggle, no marks of surrounding enemies. It was the old story, however, and they had almost given up the problem by this time. They left another man at the post, and went their way back, wishing him better luck.
"No need to be afraid," he called after them, "I will not desert."
They looked back. He was standing with his musket ready to fly up to his shoulder at the slightest sound, his eyes searching the glades before him. There was nothing faint about Tom, they determined, and returned to the guard-house.
The sentinels were replaced every four hours, and at the regular time the guard again marched to relieve the post. The man was gone!
They rubbed their eyes, and searched again. But this one had disappeared as mysteriously as his fellows. Again there was no single trace. But it was all the more necessary that the post should not remain unguarded. They were forced to leave a third man and return, promising him that the colonel should be told of his danger as soon as they got back.
It was panic indeed that filled the regiment when they returned to the guard-house and told the news. The colonel was informed at once. He promised to go in person to the spot when the man was relieved, and search the woods round about. This gave them some confidence, but they went nevertheless with the gloomiest forebodings as to their comrade's fate. As they drew near the spot they advanced at a run. Their fears were justified. The post was vacant--the man gone without a sound.
In the blank astonishment that followed, the colonel hesitated. Should he station a whole company at the post? This would doubtless prevent further loss; but then it was little likely to explain the mystery; for the hands that had carried off three sentinels, would, it was reasonable to believe, make no attempt to spirit away a whole company of men. And for future action as well as to put an end to the superstitious terror of the soldiery, the vital necessity was to clear up the mystery. He had no belief in the theory that these men deserted. He knew them too well. He prided himself that he was thoroughly acquainted with his own regiment, and had well-grounded reasons for pride in his men. For this reason he was the more chary of exposing a fourth brave man where three had already been lost. However, it had to be done. The poor fellow whose turn it was to take the post, though a soldier of proved courage and even recklessness in action, positively shook from head to foot.
"I must do my duty," he said to the colonel. "I know that well enough; but for all that I should like to lose my life with a bit of credit."
There was no higher bravery than facing an indefinite terror such as this, as the colonel was at pains to point out, but he added--
"I will leave no man here against his will."
Immediately a soldier stepped out of the ranks.
"Give me the post," he said quietly.
The colonel looked at the volunteer admiringly, and spoke some words in praise of his courage.
"No," said the man; "I have an idea, that is all. What I promise you is that I will not be taken alive. I shall give you a deal of trouble; because you will hear of me on the least alarm. If I am given this post, I propose to fire my piece if I hear the slightest noise. If a bird chatters or a leaf falls, my musket shall go off. Of course you may be alarmed when nothing is the matter; but that's my condition, and you must take the chance."
"Take the chance!" said the colonel. "It's the very wisest thing you can do, You're a fellow of courage, and what's more, you're a fellow with a head."
He shook hands with him, as did the rest of the soldiers, with faces full of foreboding. "Come," said the man, "don't look so glum; cheer up, and I shall have a story to tell you when we meet again."
They left him and went back to the guard-room again. An hour passed away in suspense. It seemed as though every ear in the regiment were on the rack for the discharge of that musket. Hardly a man spoke, but as the minutes dragged along the conviction gained ground that already the brave man had followed the fate of the other three. The colonel paced up and down in the guard-room, as anxious as any of the men. He looked at his watch for the twentieth time. An hour and twenty minutes had gone.
Suddenly, down in the woods, the report of a musket rang out.
Colonel, officers, and men poured out of the guard-room, almost without a word, and advanced at a double through the woods. The mystery was going to be solved at last. Until quite close to the spot, they were forced, by the thickness of the forest, to remain in ignorance of what had happened, and whether their comrade was dead or alive. But they shouted, and an answering "Hello!" at last came back. As they turned into the glade where the sentinel had been posted, they beheld him advancing towards them and dragging another man along the ground by the hair of the head.
He flung the body down. It was an Indian, stone-dead, with a musket-wound in his side.
"How did it happen?" panted the colonel, beside himself with joy.
"Well," said the soldier, saluting, "I gave your honor notice that I should fire if I heard the least noise. That's what I did, and it saved my life; and it just happened in this way.
"I hadn't been long standing here, peering round till my eyes ached, when I heard a rustling about fifty yards away. I looked and saw an American hog, of the sort that are common enough in these parts, coming down the glade opposite, crawling along the ground and sniffing to right and left--just as if he'd no business in life but to sniff about for nuts under the fallen leaves and all about the roots of the trees. Boars are common enough, so I gave him a glance and didn't take much notice for some minutes.
"But after a while, thinks I to myself--'No doubt the others kept their eyes about them sharp enough, and was only took in by neglecting something that seemed of no account;' so being on the alarm and having no idea what was to be feared and what was not, I woke up after some minutes and determined to keep my eyes on it and watch how it passed in and out among the trees. For I thought, if it comes on an Indian skulking about yonder, I may be able to learn something from its movements. Indians are thick enough here and to spare: but they're not so thick as nuts, for all that.
"So I kept glancing at the hog, and then looking round and glancing again. Not another creature was in sight; not a leaf rustling. And then, all of a sudden--I can't tell why--it struck me as queer that the animal was snuffling around among the trees and making off to the right, seemingly for the thick coppice just behind my post. I didn't want anything behind me, you may be sure, not even a hog, and as it was now only a few yards from my coppice I kept my eye more constantly on it, and cast up in my mind whether I should fire or not.
"It seemed foolish enough to rouse you all up by shooting a pig! I fingered my trigger, and couldn't for the life of me make up my mind what to do. I looked and looked, and the more I looked the bigger fool I thought myself for being alarmed at it. It would be a rare jest against me that I mistook a pig for an Indian; and this was a hog sure enough. You've all seen scores of them, and know how they move. Well, this one was for all the world like any other, and I was almost saying to myself that 'twas more like the average hog than any hog I'd ever seen, when just as it got close to the thicket I fancied it gave an unusual spring.
"At any rate, fancy or no, I didn't hesitate. I took cool aim, and directly I did so, felt sure I was right. The beast stopped in a hesitating sort of way, and by that I knew it saw what I was about, though up to the moment it had never seemed to be noticing me. 'An Indian's trick, for a sovereign,' thought I, and pulled the trigger.
"It dropped over like a stone; and then, as I stood there, still doubting if it were a trap that I should fall into by running to look, I heard a groan--and the groan of a man, too. I loaded my musket and ran up to it. I had shot an Indian, sure enough, and that groan was his last.
"He had wrapped himself in the hog's skin so completely, and his hands and feet were so neatly hid, and he imitated the animal's walk and noise so cleverly, that I swear, if you saw the trick played again, here before you, your honor would doubt your honor's eyes. And seeing him at a distance, in the shadow of the trees, no man who had not lost three comrades before him, as I had, would ever have guessed. Here's the knife and tomahawk the villain had about him. You see, once in the coppice he had only to watch his moment for throwing off the skin and jumping on me from behind; a dig in the back before a man had time to fire his piece was easy work enough. After that it's easier still to drag the body off and hide it under a heap of leaves. The rebels pay these devils by the scalp, and no doubt if your honor looks about, you'll find the collection our friend here has already made to-day."
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