Solomon's story continues in chapters 21 through 24 of With Sacred Honor. Chapters 1 through 20 are also available for download to Amazon's Kindle. In the coming weeks, look for additional chapters on this site and on Amazon. Later in 2011 we expect to publish a print edition of the entire book. Thanks for reading! Please send any feedback to email@example.com
The next afternoon we came to within four miles of Fort Niagara. We spent the remainder of the day dragging the small boats ashore. At dusk I was sent with several Iroquois and light infantrymen to reconnoiter the fort’s defenses. As we drew near, we discovered several French men who were hunting pigeons. The Iroquois and I, somewhat ahead of the regular soldiers, fired upon them – and they surged at us immediately, meaning to repel what they believed to be nothing more than an Indian raiding party. As they pursued us, we fell behind the light infantry, who gave them a proper volley, heralding the start of the siege. The French made a hasty retreat, leaving one dead man behind. An Iroquois warrior went to him and scalped the dead soldier and removed his coat.
That night, the warrior and his brethren danced about in a furious manner and encouraged me to join them. Stripped to little more than breechcloths and leggings, we raised our muskets and tomahawks in victorious rage and brought ourselves to a great lather. The captured French regimental coat was blue with white facings. It seemed to make its own dance as it swirled about its new owner, the tails spinning out and down with each leaping step the frenzied warrior took. To the other officers’ dismay, Sir William Johnson joined us in this dance and showed his true spirit. Like us, he danced with a tomahawk in hand and moved like he had been taught by his Mohawk brothers. As we danced in our circle, our figures lit by a small fire, one warrior would detach himself from the whole and rush a stout pole that had been erected near the fire. In a show of expert fighting skill, he would spin, twirl or duck near the pole, as it represented the enemy. Finally, in the most furious moment of the dance, he would strike with incredible force at the pole, which would emit a thunderous cracking sound. We each took our turn, showing our fellows our abilities. In an image of respect, William Johnson was permitted to go last. His feet fell lightly on the crushed earth surrounding the pole. His eyes rolled in his head and his face snapped from side to side seeking out the foe. The hard thumping of the drum had him dancing with quick steps, and in the final beat he leapt from the ground, bringing his waist to the height of most men’s heads. He swung the tomahawk backwards in a hard, fluid motion and buried the blade of the tomahawk deep into the “head” of the pole. This elicited tremendous screams and howls from we who surrounded him, and we all rushed in to meet together in a mighty knot of brotherhood.
I returned to my company fully exhausted and covered in sweat. I was eyed by the new men with suspicion, they being fully unaware of my peoples’ customs. I learned later that our dance and drum had struck fear into both British and French hearts that night. Timms and Crum came to me with smiles and hopes that the rest of our campaign would be so one-sided as the attack on the hunting party. I crashed to my blankets and stared at the stars above. I hoped that what we were engaged in would be looked upon as just in the eyes of the Lord and that He would grant us victory.
The next morning, the grenadiers, assisted by rangers and light infantry, were sent to attack a schooner that lay near the fort. The short battle was quickly decided by the fort’s great guns. They pounded hard at the whale boats and drove them away from the ship. The cannons’ roar was deafening even from afar, and I could not imagine being next to the things when they were touched off. The cannon balls rained down on the small boats, smashing one to pieces and lifting the boatmen and soldiers high into the air before dropping them all over the water like so many leaves blown in the wind. The schooner’s men shot at the stranded English and, as Crum had predicted, showed no mercy when confronted by their desperate pleas. Later, the same schooner, named Iroquoise, was sent to attack us at the stream where we had come ashore. Its attempts to disrupt our activity were weak, and the boatmen in our company jeered their efforts while the Iroquoise guns pounded at our camp with their small artillery pieces. At one point, the schooner drew so near that the fearless grenadiers rushed to the shoreline and attempted to fire their grenades into the ship. One grenade exploded just as it arched down towards the schooner’s gunwales, knocking three or four men away from the rail. The explosion caused huge splinters to spray in all directions, including toward those standing near the rail. One man gave out a scream – a long, thin shard jutted from his impaled leg. This was deterrence enough, and the cowardly ship commander drew his Iroquoise away from the counterattack. The slow tack of the ship away from our camp brought cheers from our men, and some even sought to chase the fleeing ship with musket balls that splashed the water around it and occasionally thumped into its transom.
We continued to scout the area as the remainder of the soldiers were set hard at constructing camp, unloading boats, and dragging the heavy cannons toward a trench that had been opened the preceding night at the edge of the fort’s clearing. General Prideaux sent one of his officers to seek parlay with the French garrison. The officer carried a white flag as he walked into the clearing. He was stopped outside the fort gate and blindfolded. A few hours later, he returned and stated that, while he was treated well inside the fort by General Pouchot, he was given a statement that the French would not surrender. That night as the trench was continued, Sir William Johnson sent several of his Iroquois to scout very near the fort. Timms sent me with them. I skulked through a cemetery with a clutch of Iroquois. We were viewing the men standing on the wall when we heard a commotion a short distance away. We bent close to ground, passing from stone to stone, and soon saw the makers of the noise. Pouchot had sent out his own scouts, and they had in turn run into our fellows in the graveyard. Each side, being startled by the meeting, began firing blind shots at the other. We fell back and took shelter as we watched one Huron, who had outdistanced his fellows, go running back to join his party. They, being still rattled by the appearance of our party, shot their own man as he returned. We had by now become well acquainted with this sort of mistaken killing, and as we regained friendly territory, we vowed that we would be more careful in our own aim if ever we were presented with a like situation.
Many more mistakes occurred in the following days. As the sun’s light revealed the newly constructed yards of British trench to the French defenders, the fort’s guns exploited a fatal miscalculation. The trench had been dug at the wrong angle, allowing the French to fire directly into the ditch and upon the men working. Two were killed before they could extract themselves and throw up some barriers to stop Niagara’s guns from destroying all that had been done. As the English officers conferred about the error, the defenders threw another surprise our way. Pouchot had sent men to gather pickets outside of the fort so that he could construct embrasures, bundles of sticks meant to absorb enemy fire. The small party of soldiers came very near to our trench and saw that it was empty. They, being encouraged by no opposition, attempted to rush into the trench in hopes of reaching us and sweeping away their attackers. Shouts were heard all through our camp as soldiers snatched their muskets from the stacks and rushed to fight those who had gained the trench. The men acted without orders, and ragged fire spread all along the open ground. Both British and French officers were screaming at their men to fall into orderly arrangements. The French, to cover the retreat of their men, began firing their great cannons at the British soldiers standing in the open. The huge balls flew in our direction, splintering and even cutting down the trees in their path. I saw one British soldier standing at the top of the trench plunging his bayonet into several French soldiers who were attempting to gain his height. As he jabbed the final time, he turned to run back toward camp and was struck by a cannon ball that completely removed his head. A fine red mist floated up from his body, which continued to stand for a moment before limply falling backwards into the trench. The sight of this made most of the other soldiers run back to our lines, and the whole affair of the sally was over by the time the sun reached its place high overhead.
At dusk we were preparing to go on our evening scout. The few engineers who had accompanied this campaign came walking along the lines of soldiers. Muffled insults rippled along the lines, as the soldiers had become quite irritated by the apparent incompetence of the engineers, who had enabled the bloody French incursion a few days ago. I stood to watch them pass into the trench while I dug at the ashy crust around the lock on my musket with my knife tip. Most of the French cannons had slowed their fire as night came, and so silence had been gained again. Men went about their various tasks that dealt with both their duties and personal needs. Suddenly, a blast sounded from the fort and a screaming cannon ball rushed across the open ground and into the edge of the sap. When the ringing in our ears had stopped, we could hear shouts erupting from the trench, and several men went running toward the calls for aid. A short while later, Chief Engineer Williams was carried out of the trench on blanket that was held by six men. They rushed by our camp and I saw Williams pressing a large cloth to his face. As they continued on, I saw Williams’ arms slump, limply, off the blanket edge. Porter, who had been in the sap when the cannon ball hit, came running back to us and excitedly reported what had occurred. He stated that Williams was laying out the location for the battery to be constructed for the British cannons when the French fired their own cannon. The ball had plowed through the edge of the trench and hit Williams in the face, knocking him across the trench and nearly burying him in the disrupted earth.
General Prideaux, incensed by the French gall in attacking his trench, sent forward the smallest of his artillery the next day. The small guns were called cohorns. They were used to lob large grenades, about the size of a man’s fist, into the fort. The distant sound of their explosion could be heard in our camp. Much discussion was made as to what effect the cohorns were having on the garrison. The French seemed to answer the bombs with a more furious cannon fire. The British gunners attempted to drop their bombs on the men manning the fort guns but were very inaccurate with their fire and did nothing to disrupt the cannons. This game was kept up through the day and into the early dusk until the two sides could no longer see each other or where they were firing. When full darkness had fallen over all, the trenchers restarted their work, digging at a furious pace. Likewise, we were worked beyond exhaustion as Major Todd set us rangers to the most dangerous of tasks, he having little regard for our safety. It was evident that he was attempting to rid himself of our presence, and he seemed dismayed each early morning when we returned uninjured from our nocturnal missions.
The morning after the daylong artillery exchange, upon questioning a fellow soldier I discovered that the day was the 12th of July. It was the time of the day when men could no longer dig at the sap and just before the cannon fire could be aimed. I enjoyed the moments of quiet to watch birds flitting along the branches and small animals scampering about. The first shots from the fort or trench would always drive them off, but I was amazed to see their return each morning, they perhaps hoping this whole mess had come to an end. Lieutenant Timms, Sergeant Crum, Fehn, and I were heating a small kettle of water to be used for making chocolate. As we did this, we watched the heavy cannons being dragged into the trench. Both British and French had awaited their arrival and their being brought into play. As the huge iron beasts were lowered into the trench, a whistling shot announced the fire from that damned old schooner Iroquoise. Several men were made to jump in to the trench after the cannons. One gun was dropped on a poor fellow, who was speedily relieved by his fellows as they lifted the massive thing off of him. The Iroquoise harassed us with fire for a short while longer and, after having affected us little, continued sailing on and out of sight, eastward across the lake. The cannons were laid out throughout the trench and were closely watched by their gunners, who cursed soldiers who, running along, would inadvertently kick rocks and soil into the barrels. The gunners finally dug into their boxes and found huge round plugs that they jammed into the mouths of the cannons to prevent their corruption.
“Thought for sure the bastard was dead, but then he started moaning and thrashing about, so we started digging him out and those other men came along and carried him up out of there!” Porter said with excited flourish.
We continued to watch as Williams’ successor was sent back into the trench to continue his superior’s work. And then we were sent out, once again, into the darkness. Throughout the night we saw men sneaking from the fort, heading south. As hard as we worked, we were unable to stop all of them, and it was well known that they would be going in search of relief forces. This knowledge weighed heavily on us all, as none knew of the location or strength of the men who might return to assist the fort’s defenders.
Morning’s light brought another disappointment. The battery that had been laid out by Williams and completed in the night hours was facing the wrong direction. This brought more curses upon the engineers. Prideaux had grown exceedingly irritated by these continued mishaps. Lieutenant Timms, returning from a meeting with the officers, stated that it had been estimated we had received about 6,000 shots from the fort’s cannons. That seemed like a huge number, and it did not seem as if the fort could contain much more shot; but each day the French continued their heavy fire. Our spirits began to sink, and murmurs became common as to the possibility that we might fail in our endeavor. More and more men became concerned with what might appear from the south to relieve the fort. To add to the mounting concern, all of our Iroquois allies were called to a meeting inside the fort with General Pouchot. A war captain amongst the Mohawk bid me to accompany the small party of Iroquois emissaries, and asked only that I curtail my sharp tongue as there would be very sensitive matters discussed within the fort. I was told by another of my Mohican brothers that this was a great honor to be asked to this council, so I reluctantly gave over my musket to Sergeant Crum and joined the council as we adorned ourselves in the most ornate clothing and paint as could be gained in this far-removed place.
General Pouchot was seated on a beautifully gilded chair that seemed to sparkle. It easily caught our eyes as we walked through the strong Gate of Six Nations that was the entrance to Fort Niagara. The name bestowed on the gate had been given in honor to those upon whose territory this beastly structure had been wrought, and who now helped in its besiegement. It was clear that, before our arrival, the general had gone to great extent to try to clean up the destruction that had been played on his fort. The most healthy and uninjured fellows were drawn into lines to give the impression of strong resolve, but Pouchot had not been able to fully conceal all that had occurred here. My fellow war leaders and I proudly strolled up the cobblestone roadway that led to the main grounds of the fort. Leading us was one extremely tall and regal-looking Seneca sachem who wore upon his head the crown of his people. An ornate headdress of eagle and turkey feathers rose high above his face, with several curly turkey feathers trailing down to his shoulders. The true mark of his significance, though, were the deer antlers that protruded from each side of his head as they had once done on that of their original owner. Several other sachems also wore these headdresses, denoting them as the true leaders of our council. The differences in each adornment denoted their respective tribes. I, having no significance in the overall leadership – simply being honored by fellow warriors as having been exemplary in this particular engagement – had nothing to denote any importance except for a fine matchcoat that had been gifted to me just prior to our departure for the fort. The Mohawk leader who had seen fit to invite me to this council had given me a large swath of red wool that was bordered around its entire edge by a wide, gold silk ribbon. I understood the significance of this, as a matching one had been given, a long time ago, to another Mohican man by a Mohawk leader when they had come to understand a good peace between those two tribes. I proudly draped my new matchcoat over my shoulder and around my waist, tucking it in lightly so as to not obscure too much of the gold ribbon that bordered it; I felt as important as any along on this errand because I was representing Stockbridge and its people.
Mostly we looked straight toward where we were going in the parade grounds, but as they could our eyes darted here and there, noting the damage to this or that structure. Also, not being deaf, I could hear the screams of soldiers who had been the victims of our shelling as were now victims of their own surgeons; the sound was horrifying, and it was only stifled when thick oaken doors were slammed shut before our prying eyes.
General Pouchot rose to meet us and gave us a great bow, casting the tails of his coat far out behind him and rolling his three-cornered hat in a manner well-practiced by men in his realm. With his hand, he motioned for us to sit. We did so, forming a half-circle that was completed by his half-circle of officers. A large pipe was lit by a Mohawk and then began making its way around our circle. The pipe was of the style which had been borrowed from far western tribes; it was made of two pieces – a stone bowl, coupled with a wooden stem that was half the length of my bow. The bowl was made of a dull red stone that many of our people consider to be the remnants of the blood of our elders – they who died in the Great Flood. The stem was ornately decorated with feathers and quillwork. The whole effect of this pipe and the pomp established by the French gave the scene a most lofty air. No words were exchanged as each man kept to the sacredness of this ceremony. Words did not pass, but looks certainly did as each man sought out his opposite across the circle and met his eyes with probing intensity. When the pipe had been passed fully about our circle, General Pouchot rose from his chair and addressed us with utmost respect; indeed, more respect than we had ever received from the English officers with whom we served. The words were in French, and the Mohawk leader who sat to my right translated for me. Gifts were offered, gifts of blankets, kettles, silver, knives, and many of the other trinkets that white men use to persuade Indians at council. These were accepted with thanks, and at Pouchot’s conclusion each among our party arose, one by one, and gave his testimony as to whether or not we should continue this fight between our two sides.
To General Pouchot’s credit, he did not attempt to draw us to his side; he simply sought to convince us to walk away from this squabble which he stated was between white men and which was not our concern. Many took this as an offense, particularly the Seneca, who stated that this was their land and that the fort was constructed beyond the permission they had granted for the establishment of a simple trading post. The general gave this to be true, but explained that he had only allowed it out of the great love that he felt for his Iroquois brothers and due to his sincere hopes to aid in their defense and security. This softened the hearts of the many, and in the end many wampum belts of peace were passed between the opposing councilors. An agreement was made that the Iroquois would draw themselves away from the fight; I was deeply upset by this conclusion. The major sachems had spoken – and, my anger being evident, the Mohawk leader leaned over to rationalize the decision to me. He explained that, because the British trenches had drawn so near the fort, it was to the Iroquois’ benefit to be relieved of their duty. Otherwise, they would only be cannon fodder if left between these two forces that would begin to fight furiously in the next few days. His words eased me, in sorts, but I still found it hard to believe they could not find anything more important to do than abandon the fight. I questioned him; to this he responded by slapping me hard on the shoulder and giving me his broad smile.
“Do not worry, Solomon,” he said. “We’ll not be far off!”
I looked deeply into his face and realized the meaning of his words.
“Is there any other nation who wishes to speak in regard to what has been said?” asked a translator among the French councilors.
I thought on these words for only half a second, and then found myself standing. The Mohawk grabbed at my arm and held me in a stoop.
“Please!” he begged. “Say nothing that will disrupt this treaty.”
“What I have to say is for my people,” was all that I could assure him.
I felt all faces turn my way as I drew myself to my full height amidst a sea of urgent whispers – mostly leaders trying to ascertain my identity. I stood silently for a long moment until the whispering subsided. A final glance toward the Mohawk at my side let me know that he might have been regretting bringing me along.
“I am Solomon of the Stockbridge Indians,” I began.
This cleared up my identity to some and imparted yet others with even more confused looks.
“For many years we have stood by our English Brothers,” I continued. Now I had gained the intense stare of one French-allied warrior, whom I supposed by his appearance and hateful countenance was an Abenaki. I met his stare and proceeded. “When first they came to this place, we were great and they were small. Now, they have become great and we are small – but we still hold true to our oaths. I say to you, my brothers to the west, that I shall fight my English brothers’ enemy. I will take hold of his heel so that he cannot run so easily as if I were not there. Ever we have considered the English as a great tree, whose shade underneath which we gather for protection. And I tell you this, my brothers and my enemies, that if this great tree shall fall, then we shall fall with it!”
My words brought silence and stillness from all save the Abenaki, who had to be caught by several French soldiers as he made a quick approach toward me. He brought from behind his back a large and ancient wooden war club which he no doubt had produced in the hopes of ending my life. I did not flinch as he came within a pace of striking me down and was then stopped by the soldiers; rather, I stood with a set face and watched as he was harshly dragged away. I, too, was dragged from my feet – dragged back to my blanket by several elders, out of fear that I might jeopardize the peace that had been made. I had not been bent on hatred, but simply upon stating what occupied my mind, knowing as I did that I would not join the Iroquois in some safe place a few miles away – that, rather, I would maintain my place at the sides of my white brothers whom I had come to love as my own kin.
Final, hasty words were exchanged between the two sides, and then our party made a quick departure from the fort.
Word of what had been decided spread like fire among the British troops, and they cast their most horrible curses towards the Iroquois warriors as the Indians gathered together their few things and began a slow progression south. I rejoined my company, and all looked upon me to ascertain my own decision.
“Will you go?” Timms asked as he sat down at my side.
I did not meet his face, but looked instead on the heavy walls of the fort that I supposed I would break myself against in the next few days. With a deep sigh, I answered.
“Not if all hell’s demons were unleashed from over those ramparts,” I gave him.
My fellows encircled me, then, and treated me with the finest words that those hard men could muster. I knew that I had made the proper decision, whatever fate would play.
The siege continued. Nights achieved a taxing sameness as we pressed on in our duties. Our nocturnal scouts became increasingly perilous because the trench had drawn so near the fort that little space was left for us to range. The morning after the Iroquois had left the British camp, those that still remained in the fort abandoned the French; they who had originally supported our enemy now did like their brethren and abandoned their European ties. As they left Niagara, they shot the fort’s remaining livestock and presented it to the British troops to help sooth any feelings of ill will. From our encampment they continued south to join with their fellows at a place called La Belle Famille, nearly a mile south of Fort Niagara. The British dined on the fresh meat and briefly forgot their anger.
The sappers took on a furiously pitched pace, as they supposed that ever foot they gained brought them closer to the fort walls – but, more importantly, closer to home. As our proximity to the fort drew nearer, more creative and hellish means of killing men were employed. Men the likes of Thomas Fehn were placed in our trench and, with their deadly rifles, made short the lives of French soldiers who stood on the walls. Cannon shot began to dwindle, and gunners began excavating spent French cannon balls that they dusted off, quickly inspected, and then sent back to their original owners; British iron was fired on Brits, and French iron upon French. Even when not made to work from the trench, Thomas Fehn and a clutch of his own like dealt a horrible hand to any of the enemy who attempted to peek over the walls. The three would slowly scan the walls, two watching for any other sharpshooters, while the third leveled and fired. This kept on until they either saw no targets or the scarcity of light no longer permitted their hunt.
Fehn returned to our camp one early morning, and I studied him closely as he cleaned his rifle. Age had crept up on him, and he no longer held the soft appearance of a simple squirrel hunter. He paused from his cleaning and let his weapon lay across his knees as he looked sideways into the trench and toward the distant wall. He turned back and caught me viewing him as he sat lost in his thoughts.
“Solomon, does God punish us if we kill men in battle?” he asked. His words seemed like those of a child.
“The Bible says not,” I gave outwardly, nonetheless unsure on the inside, chided by the nagging of a deeper voice.
“Lieutenant Timms said that I was supposed to shoot those men if they looked at the trench, and that’s what we did,” Fehn said. “You know, they were shooting at us, too? They just can’t shoot like we can and we always get them. But we’re supposed to do that, right?”
Fehn’s questions persisted, and I had no answer. I could barely justify my own actions, my own sins – and he was my age, or thereabout. I was not a good friend that day and regret that I had nothing loftier to give him. Given the many years that have passed since then, I suppose now that I could tell him more to ease his mind; but I also suppose my answer might still be just as lacking in true wisdom. Truly, this matter of righteous bloodshed will remain a mystery until we arrive at the day when we can ask the Almighty – or discover His views through His wrath. Alas, my final answer to Fehn on that long-ago day was that he should just do whatever Timms told him to do and try not to get shot; I could think of nothing else, and was truly sorry for it. Thomas returned to his cleaning, and I crept away when the tension of the moment had eased. Questions such as these have haunted me since, and never did I relish their arrival.
On July 17th, the morning was as foggy as an early spring day in Stockbridge. The joy of this was the lack of fire from either side, but in it lay terror, as well. Men’s minds seem to wander at such moments, and we supposed in the confusion of the thick air that we could be surrounded or that the fort’s defenders would devise some other evil plan to carry out in the comfort of this thick shroud. None of these came to fruition, but as soon as the fog lifted, the first solid cannon shot was fired at the fort from the British lines. Across the river from where we had been digging our trench, a secret battery had been placed to host several of our large cannon. To the accompaniment of many cheers from our lines came the echoing sound of a cannon ball crashing into one of the chimneys of the fort’s castle. A large plume of dust shot skyward as the hard ball disintegrated stone and mortar. The cracking sound rolled across our troops and made them cheer ever louder. Some soldiers whirled their fellows in circles with linked arms; this was the moment whose arrival both sides had been awaiting. The significance of this event cannot be overstated. When concerted, solid shot is brought into play against a fortification, no place can stand long. In the passing years, I have seen the devastation that it brings, and the thunder that enthralled me as a youth now dredges up horrible memories.
Now that the big guns had been established in their place, the fort could not long hold out. It seemed it would be but a few days until the fort and its defenders were brought to their knees. But before it was to fall, our lines were overcome by news of a horrible discovery: French reinforcements had begun to draw near. Word was received from a courier that a large mass of irregular French troops were drawing close to La Belle Famille. Immediately, we were sent with the grenadiers and Major Todd's light infantry to attempt to intercept these troops. As we were drawing into the woods to prepare for the skirmish, the light infantry split from us and began placing logs to create a makeshift emplacement. The Iroquois, who had abandoned us a few days earlier, stood to our left and appeared to watch on in great interest. Soon the enemy appeared through the trees; they fired en masse at the first opportunity. Firing all the while, they drew nearer and nearer; the fighting became quite hellish, and in the very midst of the very worst fighting were the fearless grenadiers. They rushed from their cover and ran so near the French that they could fire their muskets and lob their grenades with startling accuracy. A few of them were cut down by the ragged volleys that the French attempted, but soon the enemies were breaking rank and running. Behind us, we could hear the futile attempts that Fort Niagara was taking to weaken our position and assist its reinforcements. The French fired several of their cannons, but to no effect because of the great range. The Iroquois, seeing that the tide had turned against the French, began firing into the French troops' flank and successfully aided us in breaking their approach. The Iroquois gave great chase after the fleeing enemy and were covered in gore and scalps by the time that they returned to our camp.
Not long after the first solid shots were fired on Fort Niagara, the Iroquoise reappeared on the horizon. I watched as the French, no doubt hoping for relief, hastily sent a canoe out to receive word from the ship. The men at the battery across the river, which had been named Montreal Point, appreciated this new target and fired a shot at the canoe which was delivered with such accuracy as to take the paddle out of the boatman’s hands. It was a distant sight, but we watched as the little thing was clearly flung from the man’s hands and he was forced to cower, bent over himself, in the tiny craft. British soldiers took this as a good omen, and the incident drove the morale to new heights. But their enthusiasm was not to last long, as soon the sun fell below the edge of the world.
That night, two high men died in their pursuit of victory. The first death was that of Colonel Johnston who, upon the discovery a few days earlier of the engineers’ great deficiency, had taken to overseeing the construction of the trenches, greatly improving their development. His death came at the hands of a musket ball through the lung, delivered as he was surveying the head of the dig. As I have stated, the proximity that had been attained presented men on each side as easy targets to those with well- trained fire. So was the fate of Colonel Johnston, deeply beloved by his fellow soldiers. His service was well remembered. A short hour later, the evening’s tragedy deepened tenfold. General Prideaux, our commanding officer, was attempting to establish order in the trench and continue its progression when he errantly stepped in front of an active mortar. He was struck by a round and died instantly. The effect of his death was nearly disastrous, as officers convened and attempted to ascertain General Prideaux’s rightful replacement. Sir William Johnson was the next in line because of his rank and title, but his attempts at taking command were contested by those who believed that a “proper” regular officer should take the lead. Sir William prevailed, though, and soon explained that he would stay true to the orders previously established by the late General Prideaux.
All were relieved to be finished with the fighting. I saw it on the faces of Iroquois warriors and British and French soldiers alike. The soldiers and officers who had been captured would be sent back east; the soldiers would be jailed, the officers ransomed. The grenadiers, along with many of the regular troops who had been dispatched to siege this fort, would be left to garrison their new prize. Sir William Johnson gathered together his officers to confer with them about a party to be sent to escort of the prisoners. All had hoped on having time to recuperate from the long siege, but our luck did not see to it. Major Todd was named as the primary officer who would escort the prisoners, and we would be sent to assist him. Sir William did not want to waste any time in removing the prisoners, in the case that the French should send fresh troops from the North. He would be busy in refortifying Niagara and did not want to be bothered with the strenuous duty of jailing so many captives. Neither did he want to face the threat of a revolt in the instance that they might see an opportunity to hatch one.
The fort surrendered, having little left in the way of ammunition and supplies – and much in the way of broken spirits – and with no hope of relief. In hopes of not recreating the terrible acts that had been committed against our troops at Fort William Henry, Sir William Johnson used every bit of his persuasion to keep his Indian allies in check. Despite his greatest efforts, he was unable to completely stop them from pillaging those who had surrendered; but, all things considered, he did a much finer job than another might have done.
The second night of our sail brought us ashore near some small hills. I stretched out the fatigue that had built in my arms in legs during the long days on the water. Squatting down near the shoreline, I took a small handful of gravel and let the small pebbles sift between my fingers. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Major Todd exiting his boat; I had to stifle my laughter as he nearly pitched into the water. Giving out a low sigh, I looked back to the pebbles falling between my fingers and then back up to the small hills. In the distance they appeared pleasant and softly rounded. I traced their progression to where we lay and saw that as they reached our shore they took on a sharp and accusatory appearance. I could not help but think of them as fingers pointing at us in a shameful way for the things we had done. The events of the past weeks swept over me, and I rose and began walking toward the pointed ridges to see to their accusations. They were steep and loosely built, and I scrambled to gain my grip as I hauled myself up the slopes. Upon finally reaching the top of the nearest ridge, I turned and watched as below the prisoners were led into a circle. Major Todd entered their center and began delivering a harsh speech of which, from my distance, I could only hear a bit. I shifted my gaze toward the beach and watched Hobbs’ Company drag a boat ashore near our camp. Sergeant Crum came from the edge of the woods with a large stump that he used to prop up the edge of the boat. In this way they had constructed a small shelter that we could sleep under, thus keeping off the next day’s dew or the evening’s rain that seemed ever more imminent. I turned back towards the hills and stretched my arms toward them. Catherine’s scarf peeked out from my sleeve and hung lazily there, fluttering ever so slightly. It was now covered in accumulated grime from the many days of fighting. I noticed that the filth did not stop with the cloth; rather, it crept up my arms, and I realized that I had not bathed in many days. I took note of the smell that clung to me: that of sweat and earth and dried blood. My arms outstretched, I held the setting sun between my hands and I gave out to the Creator a prayer imploring forgiveness. I likewise offered the same prayer to these hills that so hated me for reasons I had yet to understand.
In stark contrast to the relatively dignified way in which the white prisoners were handled, the Indian prisoners were handed over to the Iroquois for them to do with as they saw fit. Sir William had little recourse, given that he did not have the means or men to hold them. As we lined up the French soldiers for their long march, the Iroquois were loading their prisoners with mounds of plunder, as much as could be carried. They led them away while giving out great whoops of victory and spewing abusive language upon their enemies. We walked our prisoners to the whale boats and secured them in such a way that they could do the greatest share of the rowing while we would stand guard. The wind blew hard against us, not being impeded by any strong land feature in the midst of the flat terrain. With great effort, we pushed from the shore and began the long journey home. Reaching open water, the boatmen deployed small sails, as the winds were now in our favor. It relieved the prisoners to know that at least they would not have to pull themselves for the entire voyage across the waters to their own prisons.
“Ambush!” I screamed as I ran down the hillside.
The snapping of a twig brought me from my reverence, and I peered down the hillside to see a doe that moments before had been slowly picking her way through a ravine, but that was now frozen in her stance as she looked, with terror, over her shoulder. I followed her stare up the ravine and could see nothing that should have her in such a state of alarm. Just the same, I knelt and drew my firelock from where it hung at my side. Then they emerged. I now felt the doe’s terror as I watched the members of a massive war party slipping stealthily from tree to tree. I tried to count their number, but it appeared that men were coming from behind every tree. The doe bolted, and the leader of the war party held up his hand to stop his men. Amazingly, she ran straight down the ravine toward our encampment. When she burst from the cover and out onto the beach, I saw her startle a soldier who was foraging for firewood.
“What the bloody hell?” he said as he stumbled backwards.
His fellows, seeing him start at a deer, began laughing at him, and some of them began shooting at the deer in the prospect of having fresh meat. I was about to alert them to the war party when I heard the crunch of leaves just a few paces behind me. I held still, not wanting to alert whoever might be behind me. Slowly the warrior crept into the edge of my vision. He had not seen me, but my throat was closed as if a tight hand had been clasped to it. As looked away from me, scanning the woods, I gently brought my musket up to aim at the side of his head. I knew that when I brought the cock of my musket back that he would hear it, as he was only a pace away and I was only concealed by a single small shrub. But something had to be done. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see that the edge of the war party was moving again. Looking back to the warrior nearest me, I pushed the butt of the musket hard into my arm. In a fluid movement, I snapped back the cock; the warrior’s head swung to face me. His eyes were as wide as can be imagined, and his jaw went slack as he looked down the barrel of my gun. In a brave but desperate move, he began to give a yell to alert his fellows, but I cut short his words when I pulled the trigger and sent a heavy ball crashing into his open mouth. I didn’t wait to see him fall, as the war party acted immediately to my musket’s report. Suddenly I was surrounded by balls snapping past my head from every direction. An arrow sang by my face and plunged deep into the tree at my side. I jumped to my feet and began running back down the slope.
The British soldiers looked on me in surprise and confusion as I kept up my screams of alert. The warriors were streaming over the hilltops as I reached Hobbs’ Company and their boat. All around, soldiers were falling in mid-stride, cut down as they ran to their arms.
“Sweet mother of Jesus,” Lieutenant Timms uttered as we watched the war party massacring the soldiers.
Sergeant Crum kicked aside the stump holding up the boat, and we rushed behind it as it provided the only cover available to us. We were caught between the water and the hellish attack. Lead was smacking the thin wood, and many balls were whistling through the places where the planks came together. The early night air was filled with the screams of warriors and dying men as we attempted to contrive a plan. We gave covering fire to our rangers who were not in camp at the time of the opening shots of the ambush.
“Crum, we have to get these men off this beach or we’ll all be killed,” Timms yelled. “Take Wheeler and Lockridge and move up to that point over there.”
He pointed at a small hill that did not seem to be inundated with enemy warriors.
“We will give cover as you make your way there,” Timms said. “Find a good place and then we’ll come after. Go!”
I had just reloaded my musket and was looking over the keel of the overturned boat when I saw a mass of painted warriors rushing toward us.
“Timms! There!” I screamed.
We poured fire into them, and the remaining of their number broke off their rush and began circling toward the relative safety of some of the other boats. Fehn was on his hands and knees digging furiously under our own boat. Having made a small hole, he plunged his hand into it and dragged out a long box that he smashed open with the butt of his rifle. Inside, packed loosely in sawdust, were about a dozen grenades.
Lieutenant Timms smiled.
“Good work, boy,” he said. “But we haven’t one of those damn matches to light the bloody things.”
“I have an idea. Solomon, get ready to fire,” ordered Fehn.
I inched up to the side of the boat and prepared to shoot. I could feel Fehn pushing hard against my back as he leaned over me. He had scooped up three of the grenades, and as I fired at one of the warriors hiding behind a nearby boat, he held the wick against the lock of my musket. Instantly, I could hear the sizzling of the fuse. He held the other two grenades near the first, and soon they were all lit. In furious succession, he lobbed them at the boat nearest to us, which was concealing several men. The grenades bounced off the wooden hull and rolled over the edge just as they detonated. The explosions sent a spray of sand, rock, blood, and bone into the air and then showering down all around and on us. The boat had been obliterated, and we took this moment of shock on the enemy’s part to start running toward the hill that Crum now held. As we rushed to the slope, we saw Lockridge lying face down in the sand. His musket was buried, muzzle down, and a huge dark spot was spreading over his back where a massive hole had been ripped through his shirt. As we passed by, Timms reached down and grabbed his musket. Crum and Wheeler were doing their best to fend off our pursuers, and we could feel the enemies’ heat hard upon our backs. As we reached the base of the hill we looked up as fifteen warriors swarmed over Crum and Wheeler. One threw a musket over Crum’s head and pulled it back in a chokehold, trying to drag him backwards. We watched, in absolute horror, as he was yanked to the balls of his feet. He fought back furiously and finally managed to break the man’s hold when he plunged his knife into the choker’s belly. We were running as fast as we could to reach him and Wheeler, but it felt as if our feet were not moving beyond a walk; it was as though we were moving sluggishly through a drowsy dream. Time slowed even further as I saw a heavy tomahawk swing and cut away nearly half of Wheeler’s face. Still, he fought on, his giant body swinging his broken musket in blind hatred at those attempting to capture him. Finally, a warrior painted entirely black stepped forward, dodged one of Wheeler’s swings, and smashed in his skull with a war club. Crum was not faring much better. We stopped and attempted to fire on his attackers, but they were all so near that we feared striking him. Fehn crouched at my side and sighted on the warrior nearest to Crum and brought him down with his deadly rifle. The five remaining warriors circled Crum and one gave him a sharp blow to the back of his head with war club. Crum’s knees buckled, and he slumped forward into the grasp of several warriors. Quickly he was dragged over the hill and away from our view, and we continued to try to rush to him. But twenty warriors appeared above us, from behind the ridge over which Crum had disappeared, and presented their muskets in our direction. They began firing, and we jumped behind any cover that we could find; some could only press themselves to the face of the slope, clawing into it to keep from sliding backwards.
“Hobbs’ Company! You bastards – to me!” we heard being shouted from somewhere behind us.
Glancing back toward the beach, we saw Major Todd taking charge of the remaining light infantry. They had been drawn up into an orderly line and were giving volley after volley into the woods. They had repelled the majority of the war party and had gained a tight defensive position. The ground between us and them was clear, but I urgently longed for us to continue up the slope in pursuit of Crum. But I could see in Lieutenant Timms’eyes what was to be done instead. I pleaded with, him but he was unshaken.
“Solomon, Pat is gone,” Timms explained with great consternation. “We have to return to the troops if we’re to reestablish some order. I don’t want to leave him any more than you do, but there’s nothing we can do for him if we get ourselves killed now. As evil as those sons of whores are, he’s likely already dead …”
Timms paused and wrenched himself into a semblance of composure.
“Hobbs’ Company!” he barked. “Back to the formation.”
His words trailed off in a breath of defeat, and the hellish fog of dismay enshrouded me as I joined the men in a slow, reluctant trot back to the encampment.
“Solomon, damn it! Keep your musket up and watch those woods. We’re not out of this thing yet!” Timms yelled at me.
I met his gaze with anger. I could not believe that we had left our brother behind. Yet I knew Timms was acting for the best of all; it was a horrible reality, disgusting to swallow. I scanned the woods, and then back where we had last seen Crum. Nothing. When we were safely behind the ranks of regular soldiers, I emptied my stomach. One of Todd’s men was watching me. As I bent over, wiping off my mouth, I heard him make soft, cackling laughter at my expense. I drew myself to my full height and walked over to him as he was looking away. As I came close, I could hear him jabbering something about my lack of strength to his closest fellow. They turned as I approached, and the one who had insulted me had his mouth fixed in a stupid grin.
“Hey lad, got caught trying to hide did ya?” the soldier said through his mocking smile.
The last noises that I heard were his nose crunching as I slammed the butt of my musket into his face – and the meaty slap of his fellow’s musket as he struck me in the side of the head.
It was morning when I began to wake. My vision was filled with the branches of a tree and a single robin; I could hear her singing her lilting song, though it seemed piercing and distorted. I tried to lift my head, but piercing pain ran through the edges of my face and down my back.
“Easy, Solomon,” Fehn said as he pressed a wet rag to my face. “Bastard Todd wanted to hang you while you were still out; he still might. Damn, you scattered the face of that other fellow.”
I looked up at him as he smiled and recounted what had happened after I was knocked on the head. He said a full-blown fight had nearly erupted between the rangers and the infantry, and Todd was most enraged that he had nearly lost control of his men while still trying to guard against the war party’s return. Fehn had an egg-shaped lump on the front of his head that nearly matched the one I imagined was on the back of mine.
“Sounds like we’ll all be brought up on charges, but when the boys saw you get hit, they all jumped in to help. If those warriors were still watching us, they probably thought we were all mad,” Thomas said through his laughter, which made him grimace and pull the cold rag from my face and press it to his own affliction. “Timms is off with Todd right now. He’s trying to work out what we’re going to do from here. The war party made off with all of our prisoners, and Todd said he isn’t leaving until we regain them. Then there’s the matter with Crum …”
At this, I did sit up – and felt my vision blur as the pain surged over me and the edges of my vision rushed inward. I fought off nearly passing out and stared at Fehn.
“Solomon,” he continued, “we didn’t find Pat or his body up there – and I looked. Hard, damn it. I could see where someone or something was dragged away, probably Crum. I found one of his moccasins and his knife, but nothing else. I followed their trail for about a half mile but didn’t find any other sign of him except that drag mark. And it kept going further still … ”
“Well – we have to go find him,” I sputtered.
I started to stand but felt a warm, dark veil float down, enveloping me. I awoke a while later; my head pounded out a steady throb that matched my heartbeat. I couldn’t move my head without overwhelming pain piercing into me, so when I heard someone approaching, I could only roll my eyes to see who it was. The next time I did so, Lieutenant Timms stood over me; I was looking at the shin of a dirty brown legging. I rolled my eyes back up and saw him standing there with a hint of a smile upon his face.
“Solomon, you bastard. I think I just cut a deal with the Devil to keep Todd from stretching your neck,” Timms said. “I know that the right thing to do in this case is for us to return to Niagara to get fresh troops, but I agreed to not go against Major Todd’s pride if he agreed to drop his charges against us. Seems he has some idea that we’re going to catch up to that war party, about which, incidentally, we have no idea – of their numbers, if they have reinforcements, or if they have some strong place nearby. But, damn Todd, he knows that if he crawls back to Sir William Johnson no that he’d be lucky to at best only lose his commission. So, we brave idiots will be, in short order, tromping through the woods toward God knows what – and against what the Devil may deal.”
“And Crum?” I asked, in utter disbelief that Timms had not mentioned him. I knew at once that I had judged – and spoken – too soon. The look that John returned me let me know that he, too, had been thinking of Pat, and his lighthearted countenance took on a vision of somber reflection. With his thumb and his first finger, he pinched his lips and slightly rocked his head to and fro. I continued to stare up at him as he stared beyond me.
The remnants of Hobbs’ Company were by then all standing near. Porter came up and kicked me lightly in the ribs and thanked me for the cracked teeth and broken nose. He was nearly as tall as Captain Hobbs had been, and as I looked up at his mangled face, I realized that he bore a close resemblance. Looking at him brought back a thousand mired memories. I closed my eyes and sifted through them all, beginning at the start of this journey and drifting through all that had occurred in this short while. It was simply unimaginable how much had transpired and what gigantic changes had taken place in a span that before would only have resulted in the planting, growth, and reaping of a few crops. I opened my eyes again; Timms was still hovering over me. He was still pinching his lip but had now also arched his back and seemed to be seeking in the clouds an answer that all were now awaiting. Finally, he spoke.
“Brothers. Major Todd plans on chasing these painted devils through their own land. The Bible tells us that ‘pride cometh before the fall.’ That is what is about to occur here,” Timms said. “He will gladly send us to the slaughter to satisfy his whims and needs and he will think nothing of it when he has returned to his fancy garrison in Boston with his lovely wife.”
Timms stated this last while sweeping a glance over me.
“Boys,” he continued, “we are to be murdered in this endeavor. I know it and see its approach in the mad look in Todd’s eyes; he is without reason and shouts down any word of advice from his subordinate officers. But I have given my word that I would trade our pardon for his insane endeavor. The camp will be quiet tonight, and glaring holes will be evident in our security. It would be possible for men to slip through the lines if they were careful.”
He cautiously spoke this last line, making eye contact with each of the men as he said it; all knew the meaning.
“I cannot ask you to throw your lives away on my words,” he said. “For those of you who will stay, I need time to decide what the best course of action will be. So for now, get some rest.”
With that, Lieutenant Timms turned and walked away. Each man looked at his fellows and tried to decide what the others were thinking.
Night soon began to fall, and the comforting sounds of the creatures in the woods let us know that no one was lurking. Before the sun set, Porter and Fehn extinguished our fire; throughout the camp, others did likewise. Whelan sat on the stump that Crum had yesterday dragged from the woods and used his knife to whittle at a scrap of boat plank he had found on the beach. The stump was next to where I lay on my blankets, still recovering from my injuries. Most of the pain had passed, its subsidence aided by some rum that Whelan had miraculously procured.
“We’ve buried all of the dead. I didn’t even know Wheeler – did he have a family?” asked Whelan.
It struck me that we had endured that entire siege but had been so constantly involved in our duties from the time we left Fort William Henry that some of us had barely known each other – and yet we had placed our lives in each other’s hands.
“Lockridge had a daughter. I know that, but I never really talked to Wheeler in the past few months,” Whelan continued falteringly. “They’ve had us so scattered about that we didn’t really meet.”
“I … I don’t know, Whelan,” I gasped.
I was now able to sit up, albeit with great difficulty. I rubbed the knot on the back of my head and gave a wince to the pain it produced, but it nonetheless felt much better than it had before. I got to my feet for the first time since I had been knocked from them and stared around me as the soldiers prepared for watch or bed. Standing rekindled the pounding in my head, but I was able to tolerate it and I knew that I needed to get myself prepared for the coming days.
I found Timms standing at the far eastern end of our camp. He was leaning on his musket, and he turned when he heard me walking up behind him.
“Solomon, you shouldn’t be up yet,” he scolded. “You took a hell of shot to the head.”
I waved him off and took up a position at his side. He gazed back out over the water and then to the hill where Crum had been captured. I stepped in front of him and turned to meet his gaze.
“Crum is still alive, John,” I declared flatly.
“I know,” he said softly. “We failed him.”
Despite his attempts to hide them, I could see by the budding starlight that tears were filling his eyes. I placed a hand on his shoulder and could feel him gently shaking.
“Not yet, Lieutenant,” I assured him.
John turned and saw that I had wrapped my old gray matchcoat around my shoulders and had my haversack hanging at my side.
“If I leave, Todd will think nothing of it and will probably be happy to be rid of the final Indian amongst his ranks. I’m going for Crum,” I explained.
Timms began to protest, but I continued.
“You know as well as I do that if they know we are coming they’ll kill him quick so that they can move fast,” I said. “They’ll never know that I’m coming.”
Timms knew this to be true, but inside he battled between the possibility of losing another man and the likelihood of my capability to do what I thought I could.
“I’ll track them,” I offered. “Try to get Todd to follow the same path, and we will meet up somewhere in between.”
Lieutenant Timms began again to shake his head in dissent, but I finished our debate.
“I’m going,” I said. “I have a greater chance than anybody because there is nothing but Indians between us and where we need to go. The Creator will look after me. Maya-we-helan – everything is as it should be.”
Timms’ face took on that solid resolve that I had seen so many months ago on our first meeting. He repeated my words to me and then felt under my arm for my horn. He pulled the stop out and did the same to his own. He slowly tipped his horn and topped mine off, then recapped both horns. Next, he dug into his pouch and gave me a dozen extra balls and two new flints. Finally, he instructed me to remain a minute and then walked to camp. He returned with my bow and quiver of arrows. He helped sling them over my shoulder and then drew me near.
“God’s speed, Solomon,” he uttered urgently. “Get Crum.”
With that I turned and, seeing no sentry, slipped into the woods at the base of Crum’s hill. Climbing to the top, I looked around and quickly made out the drag marks and the war party’s trail. Guided by starlight and by instinct, I fell into a slow run that took me – so I swore and hoped and prayed – with very step closer to Crum’s release.
To be continued …