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James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851). The Spy. 1911.

Chapter XVIII

  • A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!
  • O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!

  • THE SKINNERS followed Captain Lawton with alacrity, towards the quarters occupied by the troop of that gentleman. The captain of dragoons had on all occasions manifested so much zeal for the cause in which he was engaged, was so regardless of personal danger when opposed to the enemy, and his stature and stern countenance contributed so much to render him terrific, that these qualities had, in some measure, procured him a reputation distinct from the corps in which he served. His intrepidity was mistaken for ferocity; and his hasty zeal, for the natural love of cruelty. On the other hand, a few acts of clemency, or, more properly speaking, of discriminating justice, had, with one portion of the community, acquired for Dunwoodie the character of undue forbearance. It is seldom that either popular condemnation or popular applause falls, exactly in the quantities earned, where it is merited.

    While in the presence of the major, the leader of the gang had felt himself under that restraint which vice must ever experience in the company of acknowledged virtue; but having left the house, he at once conceived that he was under the protection of a congenial spirit. There was a gravity in the manner of Lawton, that deceived most of those who did not know him intimately; and it was a common saying in his troop, that “when the captain laughed, he was sure to punish.” Drawing near his conductor, therefore, the leader commenced a confidential dialogue.

    “’T is always well for a man to know his friends from his enemies,” said the half-licensed freebooter.

    To this prefatory observation the captain made no other reply than a sound which the other interpreted into assent.

    “I suppose Major Dunwoodie has the good opinion of Washington?” continued the Skinner, in a tone that rather expressed a doubt than asked a question.

    “There are some who think so.”

    “Many of the friends of Congress in this county,” the man proceeded, “wish the horse was led by some other officer; for my part, if I could only be covered by a troop now and then, I could do many an important piece of service to the cause, to which this capture of the pedler would be a trifle.”

    “Indeed! such as what?”

    “For the matter of that, it could be made as profitable to the officer as it would be to us who did it,” said the Skinner, with a look of the most significant meaning.

    “But how?” asked Lawton, a little impatiently, and quickening his step to get out of the hearing of the rest of the party.

    “Why, near the royal lines, even under the very guns of the heights, might be good picking if we had a force to guard us from De Lancey’s men, and to cover our retreat from being cut off by the way of King’s Bridge.”

    “I thought the Refugees took all that game to themselves.”

    “They do a little at it; but they are obliged to be sparing among their own people. I have been down twice, under an agreement with them: the first time they acted with honor; but the second they came upon us and drove us off, and took the plunder to themselves.”

    “That was a very dishonorable act, indeed; I wonder that an honorable man will associate with such rascals.”

    “It is necessary to have an understanding with some of them, or we might be taken; but a man without honor is worse than a brute. Do you think Major Dunwoodie is to be trusted?”

    “You mean on honorable principles?”

    “Certainly; you know Arnold was thought well of until the royal major was taken.”

    “Why, I do not believe Dunwoodie would sell his command as Arnold wished to do; neither do I think him exactly trustworthy in a delicate business like this of yours.”

    “That ’s just my notion,” rejoined the Skinner, with a self-approving manner that showed how much he was satisfied with his own estimate of character.

    By this time they had arrived at a better sort of farmhouse, the very extensive out-buildings of which were in tolerable repair, for the times. The barns were occupied by the men of the troop, while the horses were arranged under the long sheds which protected the yard from the cold north wind. The latter were quietly eating, with saddles on their backs and bridles thrown on their necks, ready to be bitted and mounted at the shortest warning. Lawton excused himself for a moment, and entered his quarters. He soon returned, holding in his hand one of the common, stable-lanterns, and led the way towards a large orchard that surrounded the buildings on three sides. The gang followed the trooper in silence, believing his object to be facility of communicating further on this interesting topic, without the danger of being overheard.

    Approaching the captain, the Skinner renewed the discourse, with a view of establishing further confidence, and of giving his companion a more favorable opinion of his own intellects.

    “Do you think the colonies will finally get the better of the king?” he inquired, with a little of the importance of a politician.

    “Get the better!” echoed the captain with impetuosity—then checking himself, he continued, “no doubt they will. If the French will give us arms and money, we will drive out the royal troops in six months.”

    “Well, so I hope we shall soon; and then we shall have a free government, and we, who fight for it, will get our reward.”

    “Oh!” cried Lawton, “your claims will be indisputable; while all these vile Tories who live at home peaceably, to take care of their farms, will be held in the contempt they merit. You have no farm, I suppose?”

    “Not yet—but it will go hard if I do not find one before the peace is made.”

    “Right; study your own interests, and you study the interests of your country; press the point of your own services, and rail at the Tories, and I ’ll bet my spurs against a rusty nail that you get to be a county clerk at least.”

    “Don’t you think Paulding’s party were fools in not letting the royal adjutant-general escape?” said the man, thrown off his guard by the freedom of the captain’s manner.

    “Fools!” cried Lawton, with a bitter laugh; “aye, fools indeed; King George would have paid them better, for he is richer. He would have made them gentlemen for their lives. But, thank God! there is a pervading spirit in the people that seems miraculous. Men who have nothing, act as if the wealth of the Indies depended on their fidelity; all are not villains like yourself, or we should have been slaves to England years ago.”

    “How!” exclaimed the Skinner, starting back, and dropping his musket to the level of the other’s breast; “am I betrayed, and are you my enemy?”

    “Miscreant!” shouted Lawton, his sabre ringing in its steel scabbard, as he struck the musket of the fellow from his hands, “offer but again to point your gun at me, and I ’ll cleave you to the middle.”

    “And you will not pay us, then, Captain Lawton?” said the Skinner, trembling in every joint, for just then he saw a party of mounted dragoons silently encircling the whole party.

    “Oh! pay you—yes, you shall have the full measure of your reward. There is the money that Colonel Singleton sent down for the captors of the spy,” throwing a bag of guineas with disdain at the other’s feet. “But ground your arms, you rascals, and see that the money is truly told.”

    The intimidated band did as they were ordered; and while they were eagerly employed in this pleasing avocation, a few of Lawton’s men privately knocked the flints out of their muskets.

    “Well,” cried the impatient captain, “is it right?—have you the promised reward?”

    “There is just the money,” said the leader; “and we will now go to our homes, with your permission.”

    “Hold! so much to redeem our promise—now for justice; we pay you for taking a spy, but we punish you for burning, robbing, and murdering. Seize them, my lads, and give each of them the law of Moses—forty save one.”

    This command was given to no unwilling listeners; and in the twinkling of an eye the Skinners were stripped and fastened, by the halters of the party, to as many of the apple-trees as were necessary to furnish one to each of the gang. Swords were quickly drawn, and fifty branches were cut from the trees, like magic: from these were selected a few of the most supple of the twigs, and a willing dragoon was soon found to wield each of the weapons. Captain Lawton gave the word, humanely cautioning his men not to exceed the discipline prescribed by the Mosaic law, and the uproar of Babel commenced in the orchard. The cries of the leader were easily to be distinguished above those of his men; a circumstance which might be accounted for, by Captain Lawton’s reminding his corrector that he had to deal with an officer, and he should remember and pay him unusual honor. The flagellation was executed with great neatness and dispatch, and it was distinguished by no irregularity, excepting that none of the disciplinarians began to count until they had tried their whips by a dozen or more blows, by the way, as they said themselves, of finding out the proper places to strike. As soon as this summary operation was satisfactorily completed, Lawton directed his men to leave the Skinners to replace their own clothes, and to mount their horses; for they were a party who had been detached for the purpose of patrolling lower down in the county.

    “You see, my friend,” said the captain to the leader of the Skinners, after he had prepared himself to depart, “I can cover you to some purpose, when necessary. If we meet often, you will be covered with scars, which, if not very honorable, will at least be merited.”

    The fellow made no reply. He was busy with his musket, and hastening his comrades to march; when, everything being ready, they proceeded sullenly towards some rocks at no great distance, which were overhung by a deep wood. The moon was just rising, and the group of dragoons could easily be distinguished where they had been left. Suddenly turning, the whole gang leveled their pieces and drew the triggers. The action was noticed, and the snapping of the locks was heard by the soldiers, who returned their futile attempt with a laugh of derision, the captain crying aloud,—

    “Ah! rascals, I knew you, and have taken away your flints.”

    “You should have taken away that in my pouch, too,” shouted the leader, firing his gun in the next instant. The bullet grazed the ear of Lawton, who laughed as he shook his head, saying, “A miss was as good as a mile.” One of the dragoons had seen the preparations of the Skinner—who had been left alone by the rest of his gang, as soon as they had made their abortive attempt at revenge—and was in the act of plunging his spurs into his horse as the fellow fired. The distance to the rocks was but small, yet the speed of the horse compelled the leader to abandon both money and musket, to effect his escape. The soldier returned with his prizes, and offered them to the acceptance of his captain; but Lawton rejected them, telling the man to retain them himself, until the rascal appeared in person to claim his property. It would have been a business of no small difficulty for any tribunal then existing in the new States to have enforced a restitution of the money; for it was shortly after most equitably distributed, by the hands of Sergeant Hollister, among a troop of horse. The patrol departed, and the captain slowly returned to his quarters, with an intention of retiring to rest. A figure moving rapidly among the trees, in the direction of the wood whither the Skinners had retired, caught his eye, and, wheeling on his heel, the cautious partisan approached it, and, to his astonishment, saw the washerwoman at that hour of the night, and in such a place.

    “What, Betty! walking in your sleep, or dreaming while awake?” cried the trooper; “are you not afraid of meeting with the ghost of ancient Jenny in this her favorite pasture?”

    “Ah, sure, Captain Jack,” returned the sutler in her native accent, and reeling in a manner that made it difficult for her to raise her head, “it ’s not Jenny, or her ghost, that I ’m saaking, but some yarbs for the wounded. And it ’s the vartue of the rising moon, as it jist touches them, that I want. They grow under yon rocks, and I must hasten, or the charm will lose its power.”

    “Fool, you are fitter for your pallet than for wandering among those rocks: a fall from one of them would break your bones; besides, the Skinners have fled to those heights, and should you fall in with them, they would revenge on you a sound flogging they have just received from me. Better return, old woman, and finish your nap; we march in the morning.”

    Betty disregarded his advice, and continued her devious route to the hill-side. For an instant, as Lawton mentioned the Skinners, she had paused, but immediately resuming her course, she was soon out of sight, among the trees.

    As the captain entered his quarters, the sentinel at the door inquired if he had met Mrs. Flanagan, and added that she had passed there, filling the air with threats against her tormentors at the “Hotel,” and inquiring for the captain in search of redress. Lawton heard the man in astonishment—appeared struck with a new idea—walked several yards towards the orchard, and returned again; for several minutes he paced rapidly to and fro before the door of the house, and then hastily entering it, he threw himself on a bed in his clothes, and was soon in a profound sleep.

    In the mean time, the gang of marauders had successfully gained the summit of the rocks, and, scattering in every direction, they buried themselves in the depths of the wood. Finding, however, there was no pursuit, which indeed would have been impracticable for horse, the leader ventured to call his band together with a whistle, and in a short time he succeeded in collecting his discomfited party, at a point where they had but little to apprehend from any enemy.

    “Well,” said one of the fellows, while a fire was lighting to protect them against the air, which was becoming severely cold, “there is an end to our business in West-Chester. The Virginia horse will make the county too hot to hold us.”

    “I ’ll have his blood,” muttered the leader, “if I die for it the next instant.”

    “Oh, you are very valiant here, in the wood,” cried the other, with a savage laugh; “why did you, who boast so much of your aim, miss your man, at thirty yards?”

    “’T was the horseman that disturbed me, or I would have ended this Captain Lawton on the spot; besides, the cold had set me a-shivering, and I had no longer a steady hand.”

    “Say it was fear, and you will tell no lie,” said his comrade with a sneer. “For my part, I think I shall never be cold again; my back burns as if a thousand gridirons were laid on it.”

    “And you would tamely submit to such usage, and kiss the rod that beat you?”

    “As for kissing the rod, it would be no easy matter. Mine was broken into so small pieces, on my own shoulders, that it would be difficult to find one big enough to kiss; but I would rather submit to lose half my skin, than to lose the whole of it, with my ears in the bargain. And such will be our fates, if we tempt this mad Virginian again. God willing, I would at any time give him enough of my hide to make a pair of jack-boots, to get out of his hands with the remainder. If you had known when you were well off, you would have stuck to Major Dunwoodie, who don’t know half so much of our evil-doings.”

    “Silence, you talking fool!” shouted the enraged leader; “your prating is sufficient to drive a man mad; is it not enough to be robbed and beaten, but we must be tormented with your folly?—help to get out the provisions, if any is left in the wallet, and try and stop your mouth with food.”

    This injunction was obeyed, and the whole party, amidst sundry groans and contortions, excited by the disordered state of their backs, made their arrangements for a scanty meal. A large fire of dry wood was burning in the cleft of a rock, and at length they began to recover from the confusion of their flight, and to collect their scattered senses. Their hunger being appeased, and many of their garments thrown aside for the better opportunity of dressing their wounds, the gang began to plot measures of revenge. An hour was spent in this manner, and various expedients were proposed; but as they all depended on personal prowess for their success, and were attended by great danger, they were of course rejected. There was no possibility of approaching the troops by surprise, their vigilance being ever on the watch; and the hope of meeting Captain Lawton, away from his men, was equally forlorn, for the trooper was constantly engaged in his duty, and his movements were so rapid, that any opportunity of meeting with him, at all, must depend greatly on accident. Besides, it was by no means certain that such an interview would result happily for themselves. The cunning of the trooper was notorious; and rough and broken as was West-Chester, the fearless partisan was known to take desperate leaps, and stone walls were but slight impediments to the charges of the southern horse. Gradually, the conversation took another direction, until the gang determined on a plan which should both revenge themselves, and at the same time offer some additional stimulus to their exertions. The whole business was accurately discussed, the time fixed, and the manner adopted; in short, nothing was wanting to the previous arrangement for this deed of villainy, when they were aroused by a voice calling aloud,—

    “This way, Captain Jack—here are the rascals ’ating by a fire—this way, and murder the t’ieves where they sit—quick, l’ave your horses and shoot your pistols!”

    This terrific summons was enough to disturb all the philosophy of the gang. Springing on their feet, they rushed deeper into the wood, and having already agreed upon a place of rendezvous previously to their intended expedition, they dispersed towards the four quarters of the heavens. Certain sounds and different voices were heard calling on each other, but as the marauders were well trained to speed of foot, they were soon lost in the distance.

    It was not long before Betty Flanagan emerged from the darkness, and very coolly took possession of what the Skinners had left behind them; namely, food and divers articles of dress. The washerwoman deliberately seated herself, and made a meal with great apparent satisfaction. For an hour, she sat with her head upon her hand, in deep musing; then she gathered together such articles of the clothes, as seemed to suit her fancy, and retired into the wood, leaving the fire to throw its glimmering light on the adjacent rocks, until its last brand died away, and the place was abandoned to solitude and darkness.