The Scouts of the Valley

by Joseph A. Altsheler

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XXI. Battle of the Chemung

Paul had been sleeping heavily, and the sharp, pealing notes of a trumpet awoke him at the sunburst of a brilliant morning. Henry was standing beside him, showing no fatigue from the night's excitement, danger, and escape, but his face was flushed and his eyes sparkled.

"Up, Paul! Up!" he cried. "We know the enemy's position, and we will be in battle before another sun sets."

Paul was awake in an instant, and the second instant he was on his feet, rifle in hand, and heart thrilling for the great attack. He, like all the others, had slept on such a night fully dressed. Shif'less Sol, Long Jim, Silent Tom, Heemskerk, and the rest were by the side of him, and all about them rose the sounds of an army going into battle, commands sharp and short, the rolling of cannon wheels, the metallic rattle of bayonets, the clink of bullets poured into the pouches, and the hum of men talking in half-finished sentences.

It was to all the five a vast and stirring scene. It was the first time that they bad ever beheld a large and regular army going into action, and they were a part of it, a part by no means unimportant. It was Henry, with his consummate skill and daring, who had uncovered the position of the enemy, and now, without snatching a moment's sleep, he was ready to lead where the fray might be thickest.

The brief breakfast finished, the trumpet pealed forth again, and the army began to move through the thick forest. A light wind, crisp with the air of early autumn, blew, and the leaves rustled. The sun, swinging upward in the east, poured down a flood of brilliant rays that lighted up everything, the buff and blue uniforms, the cannon, the rifles, the bayonets, and the forest, still heavy with foliage.

"Now! now!" thought every one of the five, "we begin the vengeance for Wyoming!"

The scouts were well in front, searching everywhere among the thickets for the Indian sharpshooters, who could scorch so terribly. As Braxton Wyatt had truly said, these scouts were the best in the world. Nothing could escape the trained eyes of Henry Ware and his comrades, and those of Murphy, Ellerson, and the others, while off on either flank of the army heavy detachments guarded against any surprise or turning movement. They saw no Indian sign in the woods. There was yet a deep silence in front of them, and the sun, rising higher, poured its golden light down upon the army in such an intense, vivid flood that rifle barrels and bayonets gave back a metallic gleam. All around them the deep woods swayed and rustled before the light breeze, and now and then they caught glimpses of the river, its surface now gold, then silver, under the shining sun.

Henry's heart swelled as he advanced. He was not revengeful, but he had seen so much of savage atrocity in the last year that he could not keep down the desire to see punishment. It is only those in sheltered homes who can forgive the tomahawk and the stake. Now he was the very first of the scouts, although his comrades and a dozen others were close behind him.

The scouts went so far forward that the army was hidden from them by the forest, although they could yet hear the clank of arms and the sound of commands.

Henry knew the ground thoroughly. He knew where the embankment ran, and he knew, too, that the Iroquois had dug pits, marked by timber. They were not far ahead, and the scouts now proceeded very slowly, examining every tree and clump of bushes to see whether a lurking enemy was hidden there. The silence endured longer than he had thought. Nothing could be seen in front save the waving forest.

Henry stopped suddenly. He caught a glimpse of a brown shoulder's edge showing from behind a tree, and at his signal all the scouts sank to the ground.

The savage fired, but the bullet, the first of the battle, whistled over their heads. The sharp crack, sounding triply loud at such a time, came back from the forest in many echoes, and a light puff of smoke arose. Quick as a flash, before the brown shoulder and body exposed to take aim could be withdrawn, Tom Ross fired, and the Mohawk fell, uttering his death yell. The Iroquois in the woods took up the cry, pouring forth a war whoop, fierce, long drawn, the most terrible of human sounds, and before it died, their brethren behind the embankment repeated it in tremendous volume from hundreds of throats. It was a shout that had often appalled the bravest, but the little band of scouts were not afraid. When its last echo died they sent forth a fierce, defiant note of their own, and, crawling forward, began to send in their bullets.

The woods in front of them swarmed with the Indian skirmishers, who replied to the scouts, and the fire ran along a long line through the undergrowth. Flashes of flames appeared, puffs of smoke arose and, uniting, hung over the trees. Bullets hissed. Twigs and bark fell, and now and then a man, as they fought from tree to tree. Henry caught one glimpse of a face that was white, that of Braxton Wyatt, and he sought a shot at the renegade leader, but he could not get it. But the scouts pushed on, and the Indian and Tory skirmishers dropped back. Then on the flanks they began to hear the rattle of rifle fire. The wings of the army were in action, but the main body still advanced without firing a shot.

The scouts could now see through the trees the embankments and rifle pits, and they could also see the last of the Iroquois and Tory skirmishers leaping over the earthworks and taking refuge with their army. Then they turned back and saw the long line of their own army steadily advancing, while the sounds of heavy firing still continued on both flanks. Henry looked proudly at the unbroken array, the front of steel, and the cannon. He felt prouder still when the general turned to him and said:

"You have done well, Mr. Ware; you have shown us exactly where the enemy lies, and that will save us many men. Now bigger voices than those of the rifles shall talk."

The army stopped. The Indian position could be plainly seen. The crest of the earthwork was lined with fierce, dark faces, and here and there among the brown Iroquois were the green uniforms of the Royalists.

Henry saw both Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas, the plumes in their hair waving aloft, and he felt sure that wherever they stood the battle would be thickest.

The Americans were now pushing forward their cannon, six three-pounders and two howitzers, the howitzers, firing five-and-a-half-inch shells, new and terrifying missiles to the Indians. The guns were wheeled into position, and the first howitzer was fired. It sent its great shell in a curving line at and over the embankment, where it burst with a crash, followed by a shout of mingled pain and awe. Then the second howitzer, aimed well like the first, sent a shell almost to the same point, and a like cry came back.

Shif'less Sol, watching the shots, jumped up and down in delight.

"That's the medicine!" he cried. "I wonder how you like that, you Butlers an' Johnsons an' Wyatts an' Mohawks an' all the rest o' your scalp-taking crew! Ah, thar goes another! This ain't any Wyomin'!"

The three-pounders also opened fire, and sent their balls squarely into the rifle pits and the Indian camp. The Iroquois replied with a shower of rifle bullets and a defiant war whoop, but the bullets fell short, and the whoop hurt no one.

The artillery, eight pieces, was served with rapidity and precision, while the riflemen, except on their flanks, where they were more closely engaged, were ordered to hold their fire. The spectacle was to Henry and his comrades panoramic in its effect. They watched the flashes of fire from the mouths of the cannon, the flight of the great shells, and the bank of smoke which soon began to lower like a cloud over the field. They could picture to themselves what was going on beyond the earthwork, the dead falling, the wounded limping away, earth and trees torn by shell and shot. They even fancied that they could hear the voices of the great chiefs, Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas, encouraging their men, and striving to keep them in line against a fire not as deadly as rifle bullets at close quarters, but more terrifying.

Presently a cloud of skirmishers issued once more from the Indian camp, creeping among the trees and bushes, and seeking a chance to shoot down the men at the guns. But sharp eyes were watching them.

"Come, boys," exclaimed Henry. "Here's work for us now."

He led the scouts and the best of the riflemen against the skirmishers, who were soon driven in again. The artillery fire had never ceased for a moment, the shells and balls passing over their heads. Their work done, the sharpshooters fell back again, the gunners worked faster for a while, and then at a command they ceased suddenly. Henry, Paul, and all the others knew instinctively what was going to happen. They felt it in every bone of them. The silence so sudden was full of meaning.

"Now!" Henry found himself exclaiming. Even at that moment the order was given, and the whole army rushed forward, the smoke floating away for the moment and the sun flashing off the bayonets. The five sprang up and rushed on ahead. A sheet of flame burst from the embankment, and the rifle pits sprang into fire. The five beard the bullets whizzing past them, and the sudden cries of the wounded behind them, but they never ceased to rush straight for the embankment.

It seemed to Henry that he ran forward through living fire. There was one continuous flash from the earthwork, and a continuous flash replied. The rifles were at work now, thousands of them, and they kept up an incessant crash, while above them rose the unbroken thunder of the cannon. The volume of smoke deepened, and it was shot through with the sharp, pungent odor of burned gunpowder.

Henry fired his rifle and pistol, almost unconsciously reloaded, and fired again, as he ran, and then noticed that the advance had never ceased. It had not been checked even for a moment, and the bayonets of one of the regiments glittered in the sun a straight line of steel.

Henry kept his gaze fixed upon a point where the earthwork was lowest. He saw there the plumed head of Thayendanegea, and he intended to strike if he could. He saw the Mohawk gesticulating and shouting to his men to stand fast and drive back the charge. He believed even then, and he knew later, that Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas were showing courage superior to that of the Johnsons and Butters or any of their British and Canadian allies. The two great chiefs still held their men in line, and the Iroquois did not cease to send a stream of bullets from the earthwork.

Henry saw the brown faces and the embankment coming closer and closer. He saw the face of Braxton Wyatt appear a moment, and he snapped his empty pistol at it. But it was hidden the next instant behind others, and then they were at the embankment. He saw the glowing faces of his comrades at his side, the singular figure of Heemskerk revolving swiftly, and behind them the line of bayonets closing in with the grimness of fate.

Henry leaped upon the earthwork. An Indian fired at him point blank, and he swung heavily with his clubbed rifle. Then his comrades were by his side, and they leaped down into the Indian camp. After them came the riflemen, and then the line of bayonets. Even then the great Mohawk and the great Wyandot shouted to their men to stand fast, although the Royal Greens and the Rangers had begun to run, and the Johnsons, the Butlers, McDonald, Wyatt, and the other white men were running with them.

Henry, with the memory of Wyoming and all the other dreadful things that had come before his eyes, saw red. He was conscious of a terrible melee, of striking again and again with his clubbed rifle, of fierce brown faces before him, and of Timmendiquas and Thayedanegea rushing here and there, shouting to their warriors, encouraging them, and exclaiming that the battle was not lost. Beyond he saw the vanishing forms of the Royal Greens and the Rangers in full flight. But the Wyandots and the best of the Iroquois still stood fast until the pressure upon them became overwhelming. When the line of bayonets approached their breasts they fell back. Skilled in every detail of ambush, and a wonderful forest fighter, the Indian could never stand the bayonet. Reluctantly Timmendiquas, Thayendanegea and the Mohawks, Senecas, and Wyandots, who were most strenuous in the conflict, gave ground. Yet the battlefield, with its numerous trees, stumps, and inequalities, still favored them. They retreated slowly, firing from every covert, sending a shower of bullets, and now and then tittering the war whoop.

Henry heard a panting breath by his side. He looked around and saw the face of Heemskerk, glowing red with zeal and exertion.

"The victory is won already!" said he. "Now to drive it home!"

"Come on," cried Henry in return, "and we'll lead!"

A single glance showed him that none of his comrades had fallen. Long Jim and Tom Ross had suffered slight wounds that they scarcely noticed, and they and the whole group of scouts were just behind Henry. But they now took breath, reloaded their rifles, and, throwing themselves down in Indian fashion, opened a deadly fire upon their antagonists. Their bullets searched all the thickets, drove out the Iroquois, and compelled them to retreat anew.

The attack was now pressed with fresh vigor. In truth, with so much that the bravest of the Indians at last yielded to panic. Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas were carried away in the rush, and the white leaders of their allies were already out of sight. On all sides the allied red and white force was dissolving. Precipitate flight was saving the fugitives from a greater loss in killed and wounded-it was usually Indian tactics to flee with great speed when the battle began to go against them-but the people of the Long House had suffered the greatest overthrow in their history, and bitterness and despair were in the hearts of the Iroquois chiefs as they fled.

The American army not only carried the center of the Indian camp, but the heavy flanking parties closed in also, and the whole Indian army was driven in at every point. The retreat was becoming a rout. A great, confused conflict was going on. The rapid crackle of rifles mingled with the shouts and war whoops of the combatants. Smoke floated everywhere. The victorious army, animated by the memory of the countless cruelties that had been practiced on the border, pushed harder and harder. The Iroquois were driven back along the Chemung. It seemed that they might be hemmed in against the river, but in their flight they came to a ford. Uttering their cry of despair, "Oonali! Oonali!" a wail for a battle lost, they sprang into the stream, many of them throwing away their rifles, tomahawks, and blankets, and rushed for the other shore. But the Scouts and a body of riflemen were after them.

Braxton Wyatt and his band appeared in the woods on the far shore, and opened fire on the pursuers now in the stream. He alone among the white men had the courage, or the desperation, to throw himself and his men in the path of the pursuit. The riflemen in the water felt the bullets pattering around them, and some were struck, but they did not stop. They kept on for the bank, and their own men behind them opened a covering fire over their heads.

Henry felt a great pulse leap in his throat at the sight of Braxton Wyatt again. Nothing could have turned him back now. Shouting to the riflemen, he led the charge through the water, and the bank's defenders were driven back. Yet Wyatt, with his usual dexterity and prudence, escaped among the thickets.

The battle now became only a series of detached combats. Little groups seeking to make a stand here and there were soon swept away. Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas raged and sought to gather together enough men for an ambush, for anything that would sting the victors, but they were pushed too hard and fast. A rally was always destroyed in the beginning, and the chiefs themselves at last ran for their lives. The pursuit was continued for a long time, not only by the vanguard, but the army itself moved forward over the battlefield and deep into the forest on the trail of the flying Iroquois.

The scouts continued the pursuit the longest, keeping a close watch, nevertheless, against an ambush. Now and then they exchanged shots with a band, but the Indians always fled quickly, and at last they stopped because they could no longer find any resistance. They had been in action or pursuit for many hours, and they were black with smoke, dust, and sweat, but they were not yet conscious of any weariness. Heemskerk drew a great red silk handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his glowing face, which was as red as the handkerchief.

"It's the best job that's been done in these parts for many a year," he said. "The Iroquois have always thought they were invincible, and now the spell's been broke. If we only follow it up."

"That's sure to be done," said Henry. "I heard General Sullivan himself say that his orders were to root up the whole Iroquois power."

They returned slowly toward the main force, retracing their steps over the path of battle. It was easy enough to follow it. They beheld a dead warrior at every step, and at intervals were rifles, tomahawks, scalping knives, blankets, and an occasional shot pouch or powder horn. Presently they reached the main army, which was going into camp for the night. Many camp fires were built, and the soldiers, happy in their victory, were getting ready for supper. But there was no disorder. They had been told already that they were to march again in the morning.

Henry, Paul, Tom, Jim, and Shif'less Sol went back over the field of battle, where many of the dead still lay. Twilight was now coming, and it was a somber sight. The earthwork, the thickets, and the trees were torn by cannon balls. Some tents raised by the Tories lay in ruins, and the earth was stained with many dark splotches. But the army had passed on, and it was silent and desolate where so many men had fought. The twilight drew swiftly on to night, and out of the forest came grewsome sounds. The wolves, thick now in a region which the Iroquois had done so much to turn into a wilderness, were learning welcome news, and they were telling it to one another. By and by, as the night deepened, the five saw fiery eyes in the thickets, and the long howls came again.

"It sounds like the dirge of the people of the Long House," said Paul, upon whose sensitive mind the scene made a deep impression.

The others nodded. At that moment they did not feel the flush of victory in its full force. It was not in their nature to rejoice over a fallen foe. Yet they knew the full value of the victory, and none of them could wish any part of it undone. They returned slowly to the camp, and once more they heard behind them the howl of the wolves as they invaded the battlefield.

They were glad when they saw the cheerful lights of the camp fires twinkling through the forest, and heard the voices of many men talking. Heemskerk welcomed them there.

"Come, lads," he said. "You must eat-you won't find out until you begin, how hungry you are-and then you must sleep, because we march early to-morrow, and we march fast."

The Dutchman's words were true. They had not tasted food since morning; they had never thought of it, but now, with the relaxation from battle, they found themselves voraciously hungry.

"It's mighty good," said Shif'less Sol, as they sat by a fire and ate bread and meat and drank coffee, "but I'll say this for you, you old ornery, long-legged Jim Hart, it ain't any better than the venison an' bulffaler steaks that you've cooked fur us many a time."

"An' that I'm likely to cook fur you many a time more," said Long Jim complacently.

"But it will be months before you have any chance at buffalo again, Jim," said Henry. "We are going on a long campaign through the Iroquois country."

"An' it's shore to be a dangerous one," said Shif'less Sol. "Men like warriors o' the Iroquois ain't goin' to give up with one fight. They'll be hangin' on our flanks like wasps."

"That's true," said Henry, "but in my opinion the Iroquois are overthrown forever. One defeat means more to them than a half dozen to us."

They said little more, but by and by lay down to sleep before the fires. They had toiled so long and so faithfully that the work of watching and scouting that night could be intrusted to others. Yet Henry could not sleep for a long time. The noises of the night interested him. He watched the men going about, and the sentinels pacing back and forth around the camp. The sounds died gradually as the men lay down and sank to sleep. The fires which had formed a great core of light also sank, and the shadows crept toward the camp. The figures of the pacing sentinels, rifle on shoulder, gradually grew dusky. Henry's nerves, attuned so long to great effort, slowly relaxed. Deep peace came over him, and his eyelids drooped, the sounds in the camp sank to the lowest murmur, but just as he was falling asleep there came from the battlefield behind then the far, faint howl of a wolf, the dirge of the Iroquois.


Return to the The Scouts of the Valley Summary Return to the Joseph A. Altsheler Library

© 2022