Home  »  The Spy; a Tale of the Neutral Ground  »  Chapter XXXII

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

Chapter XXXII

  • Allow him not a parting word;
  • Short be the shrift, and sure the cord!

  • THE PEDLER and his companion soon reached the valley, and after pausing to listen, and hearing no sounds which announced that pursuers were abroad, they entered the highway. Acquainted with every step that led through the mountains, and possessed of sinews inured to toil, Birch led the way, with the lengthened strides that were peculiar to the man and his profession; his pack alone was wanting to finish the appearance of his ordinary business air. At times, when they approached one of those little posts held by the American troops, with which the Highlands abounded, he would take a circuit to avoid the sentinels, and plunge fearlessly into a thicket, or ascend a rugged hill, that to the eye seemed impassable. But the pedler was familiar with every turn in their difficult route, knew where the ravines might be penetrated, or where the streams were fordable. In one or two instances, Henry thought that their further progress was absolutely at an end, but the ingenuity, or knowledge, of his guide, conquered every difficulty. After walking at a great rate for three hours, they suddenly diverged from the road, which inclined to the east, and held their course directly across the hills, in a due south direction. This movement was made, the pedler informed his companion, in order to avoid the parties who constantly patrolled in the southern entrance of the Highlands, as well as to shorten the distance, by travelling in a straight line. After reaching the summit of a hill, Harvey seated himself by the side of a little run, and opening a wallet, that he had slung where his pack was commonly suspended, he invited his comrade to partake of the coarse fare it contained. Henry had kept pace with the pedler, more by the excitement natural to his situation, than by the equality of his physical powers. The idea of a halt was unpleasant, so long as there existed a possibility of the horse getting below him in time to intercept their retreat through the neutral ground. He therefore stated his apprehensions to his companion, and urged a wish to proceed.

    “Follow my example, Captain Wharton,” said the pedler, commencing his frugal meal; “if the horse have started, it will be more than man can do to head them; and if they have not, work is cut out for them, that will drive all thoughts of you and me from their brains.”

    “You said yourself, that two hours’ detention was all-important to us, and if we loiter here, of what use will be the advantage that we may have already obtained?”

    “The time is past, and Major Dunwoodie thinks little of following two men, when hundreds are waiting for him on the banks of the river.”

    “Listen!” interrupted Henry; “there are horse at this moment passing the foot of the hill. I hear them even laughing and talking to each other. Hist! there is the voice of Dunwoodie himself; he calls to his comrade in a manner that shows but little uneasiness. One would think that the situation of his friend would lower his spirits; surely Frances could not have given him the letter.”

    On hearing the first exclamation of the captain, Birch arose from his seat, and approached cautiously to the brow of the hill, taking care to keep his body in the shadow of the rocks, so as to be unseen at any distance, and earnestly reconnoitered the group of passing horsemen. He continued listening, until their quick footsteps were no longer audible, and then quietly returned to his seat, and with incomparable coolness resumed his meal.

    “You have a long walk, and a tiresome one, before you, Captain Wharton; you had better do as I do—you were eager for food at the hut above Fishkill, but travelling seems to have worn down your appetite.”

    “I thought myself safe, then, but the information of my sister fills me with uneasiness, and I cannot eat.”

    “You have less reason to be troubled now than at any time since the night before you were taken, when you refused my advice, and an offer to see you in, in safety,” returned the pedler. “Major Dunwoodie is not a man to laugh and be gay, when his friend is in difficulty. Come, then, and eat, for no horse will be in our way, if we can hold our legs for four hours longer, and the sun keeps behind the hills as long as common.”

    There was a composure in the pedler’s manner that encouraged his companion; and having once determined to submit to Harvey’s government, he suffered himself to be persuaded into a tolerable supper, if quantity be considered without any reference to the quality. After completing their repast, the pedler resumed his journey.

    Henry followed in blind submission to his will. For two hours more they struggled with the difficult and dangerous passes of the Highlands, without road, or any other guide than the moon, which was travelling the heavens, now wading through flying clouds, and now shining brightly. At length they arrived at a point where the mountains sank into rough and unequal hillocks, and passed at once from the barren sterility of the precipices, to the imperfect culture of the neutral ground.

    The pedler now became more guarded in the manner in which they proceeded, and took divers precautions to prevent meeting any moving parts of the Americans. With the stationary posts he was too familiar to render it probable he might fall upon any of them unawares. He wound among the hills and vales, now keeping the highways and now avoiding them, with a precision that seemed instinctive. There was nothing elastic in his tread, but he glided over the ground with enormous strides, and a body bent forward, without appearing to use exertion, or know weariness.

    The moon had set, and a faint streak of light was beginning to show itself in the east. Captain Wharton ventured to express a sense of fatigue, and to inquire if they were not yet arrived at a part of the country where it might be safe to apply at some of the farm-houses for admission.

    “See here,” said the pedler, pointing to a hill, at a short distance in the rear; “do you not see a man walking on the point of that rock? Turn, so as to bring the daylight in the range—now, see, he moves, and seems to be looking earnestly at something to the eastward. That is a royal sentinel; two hundred of the rig’lar troops lay on that hill, no doubt, sleeping on their arms.”

    “Then,” cried Henry, “let us join them, and our danger is ended.”

    “Softly, softly, Captain Wharton,” said the pedler, dryly, “you ’ve once been in the midst of three hundred of them, but there was a man who could take you out; see you not yon dark body, on the side of the opposite hill, just above the corn-stalks? There are the—the rebels (since that is the word for us loyal subjects), waiting only for day, to see who will be master of the ground.”

    “Nay, then,” exclaimed the fiery youth, “I will join the troops of my prince, and share their fortune, be it good or be it bad.”

    “You forget that you fight with a halter round your neck; no, no—I have promised one whom I must not disappoint, to carry you safe in; and unless you forget what I have already done, and what I have risked for you, Captain Wharton, you will turn and follow me to Harlaem.”

    To this appeal the youth felt unwillingly obliged to submit; and they continued their course towards the city. It was not long before they gained the banks of the Hudson. After searching for a short time under the shore, the pedler discovered a skiff, that appeared to be an old acquaintance, and entering it with his companion, he landed him on the south side of the Croton. Here Birch declared they were in safety; for the royal troops held the continentals at bay, and the former were out in too great strength, for the light parties of the latter to trust themselves below that river, on the immediate banks of the Hudson.

    Throughout the whole of this arduous flight, the pedler had manifested a coolness and presence of mind that nothing appeared to disturb. All his faculties seemed to be of more than usual perfection, and the infirmities of nature to have no dominion over him. Henry had followed him like a child in leading-strings, and he now reaped his reward, as he felt a bound of pleasure at his heart, on hearing that he was relieved from apprehension, and permitted to banish every doubt of security.

    A steep and laborious ascent brought them from the level of the tide-waters to the high lands that form, in this part of the river, the eastern banks of the Hudson. Retiring a little from the highway, under the shelter of a thicket of cedars, the pedler threw his form on a flat rock, and announced to his companion that the hour for rest and refreshment was at length arrived. The day was now opened, and objects could be seen in the distance, with distinctness. Beneath them lay the Hudson, stretching to the south in a straight line, as far as the eye could reach. To the north, the broken fragments of the Highlands threw upwards their lofty heads, above masses of fog that hung over the water, and by which the course of the river could be traced into the bosom of hills whose conical summits were grouping together, one behind another, in that disorder which might be supposed to have succeeded their gigantic, but fruitless, efforts to stop the progress of the flood. Emerging from these confused piles, the river, as if rejoicing at its release from the struggle, expanded into a wide bay, which was ornamented by a few fertile and low points that jutted humbly into its broad basin. On the opposite, or western shore, the rocks of Jersey were gathered into an array that has obtained for them the name of the “Palisades,” elevating themselves for many hundred feet, as if to protect the rich country in their rear from the inroads of the conqueror; but, disdaining such an enemy, the river swept proudly by their feet, and held its undeviating way to the ocean. A ray of the rising sun darted upon the slight cloud that hung over the placid river, and at once the whole scene was in motion, changing and assuming new forms, and exhibiting fresh objects in each successive moment. At the daily rising of this great curtain of nature, at the present time, scores of white sails and sluggish vessels are seen thickening on the water, with that air of life which denotes the neighborhood to the metropolis of a great and flourishing empire; but to Henry and the pedler it displayed only the square yards and lofty masts of a vessel of war, riding a few miles below them. Before the fog had begun to move, the tall spars were seen above it, and from one of them a long pennant was feebly borne abroad in the current of night air, that still quivered along the river; but as the smoke arose, the black hull, the crowded and complicated mass of rigging, and the heavy yards and booms, spreading their arms afar, were successively brought into view.

    “There, Captain Wharton,” said the pedler, “there is a safe resting-place for you; America has no arm that can reach you, if you gain the deck of that ship. She is sent up to cover the foragers, and support the troops; the rig’lar officers are fond of the sound of cannon from their shipping.”

    Without condescending to reply to the sarcasm conveyed in this speech, or perhaps not noticing it, Henry joyfully acquiesced in the proposal, and it was accordingly arranged between them, that, as soon as they were refreshed, he should endeavor to get on board the vessel.

    While busily occupied in the very indispensable operation of breaking their fast, our adventurers were startled with the sound of distant fire-arms. At first a few scattering shots were fired, which were succeeded by a long and animated roll of musketry, and then quick and heavy volleys followed each other.

    “Your prophecy is made good,” cried the English officer, springing upon his feet. “Our troops and the rebels are at it! I would give six months’ pay to see the charge.”

    “Umph!” returned his companion, without ceasing his meal; “they do very well to look at from a distance; I can’t say but the company of this bacon, cold as it is, is more to my taste, just now, than a hot fire from the continentals.”

    “The discharges are heavy for so small a force; but the fire seems irregular.”

    “The scattering guns are from the Connecticut militia,” said Harvey, raising his head to listen; “they rattle it off finely, and are no fools at a mark. The volleys are the rig’lars, who, you know, fire by word—as long as they can.”

    “I like not the warmth of what you call a scattering fire,” exclaimed the captain, moving about with uneasiness; “it is more like the roll of a drum than the shooting of skirmishers.”

    “No, no; I said not skrimmagers,” returned the other, raising himself upon a knee, and ceasing to eat; “so long as they stand, they are too good for the best troops in the royal army. Each man does his work as if fighting by the job; and then, they think while they fight, and don’t send bullets to the clouds, that were meant to kill men on earth.”

    “You talk and look, sir, as if you wished them success,” said Henry, sternly.

    “I wish success to the good cause only, Captain Wharton. I thought you knew me too well, to be uncertain which party I favored.”

    “Oh! you are reputed loyal, Mr. Birch. But the volleys have ceased!”

    Both now listened intently for a little while, during which the irregular reports became less brisk, and suddenly heavy and repeated volleys followed.

    “They ’ve been at the bayonet,” said the pedler; “the rig’lars have tried the bayonet, and the rebels are driven.”

    “Aye, Mr. Birch, the bayonet is the thing for the British soldier, after all. They delight in the bayonet!”

    “Well, to my notion,” said the pedler, “there ’s but little delight to be taken in any such fearful weapon. I dare say the militia are of my mind, for half of them don’t carry the ugly things. Lord! Lord! captain, I wish you ’d go with me once into the rebel camp, and hear what lies the men will tell about Bunker Hill and Burg’yne; you ’d think they loved the bayonet as much as they do their dinners.”

    There was a chuckle, and an air of affected innocency about his companion, that rather annoyed Henry, and he did not deign to reply.

    The firing now became desultory, occasionally intermingled with heavy volleys. Both of the fugitives were standing, listening with much anxiety, when a man, armed with a musket, was seen stealing towards them, under the shelter of the cedar bushes, that partially covered the hill. Henry first observed this suspicious-looking stranger, and instantly pointed him out to his companion. Birch started, and certainly made an indication of sudden flight; but recollecting himself, he stood, in sullen silence, until the stranger was within a few yards of them.

    “’T is friends,” said the fellow, clubbing his gun, but apparently afraid to venture nearer.

    “You had better retire,” said Birch; “here are rig’lars at hand. We are not near Dunwoodie’s horse now, and you will not find me an easy prize to-day.”

    “Damn Major Dunwoodie and his horse!” cried the leader of the Skinners (for it was he); “God bless King George! and a speedy end to the rebellion, say I. If you would show me the safe way in to the refugees, Mr. Birch, I ’ll pay you well, and ever after stand your friend, in the bargain.”

    “The road is as open to you as to me,” said Birch, turning from him in ill-concealed disgust; “if you want to find the refugees, you know well where they lay.”

    “Aye, but I ’m a little doubtful of going in upon them by myself; now, you are well known to them all, and it will be no detriment to you just to let me go in with you.”

    Henry here interfered, and after holding a short dialogue with the fellow, he entered into a compact with him, that on condition of surrendering his arms, he might join the party. The man complied instantly, and Birch received his gun with eagerness; nor did he lay it upon his shoulder to renew their march, before he had carefully examined the priming, and ascertained, to his satisfaction, that it contained a good dry ball-cartridge.

    As soon as this engagement was completed, they commenced their journey anew. By following the bank of the river, Birch led the way free from observation, until they reached the point opposite to the frigate, when, by making a signal, a boat was induced to approach. Some time was spent, and much precaution used, before the seamen would trust themselves ashore; but Henry having finally succeeded in making the officer who commanded the party credit his assertions, he was able to rejoin his companions in arms in safety. Before taking leave of Birch, the captain handed him his purse, which was tolerably well supplied for the times; the pedler received it, and, watching an opportunity, he conveyed it, unnoticed by the Skinner, to a part of his dress that was ingeniously contrived to hold such treasures.

    The boat pulled from the shore, and Birch turned on his heel, drawing his breath, like one relieved, and shot up the hills with the strides for which he was famous. The Skinner followed, and each party pursued the common course, casting frequent and suspicious glances at the other, and both maintaining a most impenetrable silence.

    Wagons were moving along the river road, and occasional parties of horse were seen escorting the fruits of the inroad towards the city. As the pedler had views of his own, he rather avoided falling in with any of these patrols, than sought their protection. But, after travelling a few miles on the immediate banks of the river, during which, notwithstanding the repeated efforts of the Skinner to establish something like sociability, he maintained a most determined silence, keeping a firm hold of the gun, and always maintaining a jealous watchfulness of his associate, the pedler suddenly struck into the highway, with an intention of crossing the hills towards Harlaem. At the moment he gained the path, a body of horse came over a little eminence, and was upon him before he perceived them. It was too late to retreat, and after taking a view of the materials that composed this party, Birch rejoiced in the rencontre as a probable means of relieving him from his unwelcome companion. There were some eighteen or twenty men, mounted and equipped as dragoons, though neither their appearance nor manners denoted much discipline. At their head rode a heavy, middle-aged man, whose features expressed as much of animal courage, and as little of reason, as could be desired for such an occupation. He wore the dress of an officer, but there was none of that neatness in his attire, nor grace in his movements, that was usually found about the gentlemen who bore the royal commission. His limbs were firm, and not pliable, and he sat his horse with strength and confidence, but his bridle-hand would have been ridiculed by the meanest rider amongst the Virginians. As he expected, this leader instantly hailed the pedler, in a voice by no means more conciliating than his appearance.

    “Hey! my gentlemen, which way so fast?” he cried. “Has Washington sent you down as spies?”

    “I am an innocent pedler,” returned Harvey meekly, “and am going below, to lay in a fresh stock of goods.”

    “And how do you expect to get below, my innocent pedler? Do you think we hold the forts at King’s Bridge to cover such peddling rascals as you, in your goings in, and comings out?”

    “I believe I hold a pass that will carry me through,” said the pedler, handing him a paper, with an air of indifference.

    The officer, for such he was, read it, and cast a look of surprise and curiosity at Harvey, when he had done.

    Then turning to one or two of his men, who had officiously stopped the way, he cried,—

    “Why do you detain the man? give way, and let him pass in peace: but whom have we here? your name is not mentioned in the pass!”

    “No, sir,” said the Skinner, lifting his hat with humility; “I have been a poor deluded man, who has been serving in the rebel army; but, thank God, I ’ve lived to see the error of my ways, and am now come to make reparation, by enlisting under the Lord’s anointed.”

    “Umph! a deserter—a Skinner, I ’ll swear, wanting to turn Cow-Boy! In the last brush I had with the scoundrels, I could hardly tell my own men from the enemy. We are not over well supplied with coats, and as for countenances, the rascals change sides so often, that you may as well count their faces for nothing; but trudge on, we will contrive to make use of you, sooner or later.”

    Ungracious as was this reception, if you could judge of the Skinner’s feelings from his manner, it nevertheless delighted him. He moved with alacrity towards the city, and really was so happy to escape the brutal looks and frightful manner of his interrogator, as to lose sight of all other considerations. But the man who performed the functions of orderly in the irregular troop, rode up to the side of his commander, and commenced a close and apparently a confidential discourse with his principal. They spoke in whispers, and cast frequent and searching glances at the Skinner, until the fellow began to think himself an object of more than common attention. His satisfaction at this distinction was somewhat heightened, at observing a smile on the face of the captain, which, although it might be thought grim, certainly denoted satisfaction. This pantomime occupied the time they were passing a hollow, and concluded as they rose another hill. Here the captain and his sergeant both dismounted, and ordered the party to halt. The two partisans each took a pistol from his holster, a movement that excited no suspicion or alarm, as it was a precaution always observed, and beckoned to the pedler and the Skinner to follow. A short walk brought them to a spot where the hill overhung the river, the ground falling nearly perpendicularly to the shore. On the brow of the eminence stood a deserted and dilapidated barn. Many boards of its covering were torn from their places, and its wide doors were lying, the one in front of the building, and the other halfway down the precipice, whither the wind had cast it. Entering this desolate spot, the refugee officer very coolly took from his pocket a short pipe, which, from long use, had acquired not only the hue but the gloss of ebony, a tobacco-box, and a small roll of leather, that contained steel, flint, and tinder. With this apparatus, he soon furnished his mouth with a companion that habit had long rendered necessary to reflection. So soon as a large column of smoke arose from this arrangement, the captain significantly held forth a hand towards his assistant. A small cord was produced from the pocket of the sergeant, and handed to the other. The refugee threw out vast puffs of smoke, until nearly all of his head was obscured, and looked around the building with an inquisitive eye. At length he removed the pipe, and inhaling a draught of pure air, returned it to its domicile, and proceeded at once to business. A heavy piece of timber lay across the girths of the barn, but a little way from the southern door, which opened directly upon a full view of the river, as it stretched far away towards the bay of New York. Over this beam the refugee threw one end of the rope, and, regaining it, joined the two parts in his hand. A small and weak barrel, that wanted a head, the staves of which were loose, and at one end standing apart, was left on the floor, probably as useless. The sergeant, in obedience to a look from his officer, placed it beneath the beam. All of these arrangements were made with composure, and they now seemed completed to the officer’s perfect satisfaction.

    “Come,” he said coolly to the Skinner, who, admiring the preparations, had stood a silent spectator of their progress. He obeyed; and it was not until he found his neckcloth removed, and hat thrown aside, that he took the alarm. But he had so often resorted to a similar expedient to extort information, or plunder, that he by no means felt the terror an unpracticed man would have suffered, at these ominous movements. The rope was adjusted to his neck with the same coolness that formed the characteristic of the whole movement, and a fragment of board being laid upon the barrel, he was ordered to mount.

    “But it may fall,” said the Skinner, for the first time beginning to tremble. “I will tell you anything—even how to surprise our party at the Pond, without all this trouble, and it is commanded by my own brother.”

    “I want no information,” returned his executioner (for such he now seemed really to be), throwing the rope repeatedly over the beam, first drawing it tight so as to annoy the Skinner a little, and then casting the end from him, beyond the reach of any one.

    “This is joking too far,” cried the Skinner, in a tone of remonstrance, and raising himself on his toes, with the vain hope of releasing himself from the cord, by slipping his head through the noose. But the caution and experience of the refugee officer had guarded against this escape.

    “What have you done with the horse you stole from me, rascal?” muttered the officer of the Cow-Boys, throwing out columns of smoke while he waited for a reply.

    “He broke down in the chase,” replied the Skinner, quickly; “but I can tell you where one is to be found that is worth him and his sire.”

    “Liar! I will help myself when I am in need; you had better call upon God for aid, as your hour is short.” On concluding this consoling advice, he struck the barrel a violent blow with his heavy foot, and the slender staves flew in every direction, leaving the Skinner whirling in the air. As his hands were unconfined, he threw them upwards, and held himself suspended by main strength.

    “Come, captain,” he said, coaxingly, a little huskiness creeping into his voice, and his knees beginning to shake with tremor, “end the joke; ’t is enough to make a laugh, and my arms begin to tire—I can’t hold on much longer.”

    “Harkee, Mr. Pedler,” said the refugee, in a voice that would not be denied, “I want not your company. Through that door lies your road—march! offer to touch that dog, and you ’ll swing in his place, though twenty Sir Henrys wanted your services.” So saying, he retired to the road with the sergeant, as the pedler precipitately retreated down the bank.

    Birch went no farther than a bush that opportunely offered itself as a screen to his person, while he yielded to an unconquerable desire to witness the termination of this extraordinary scene.

    Left alone, the Skinner began to throw fearful glances around, to espy the hiding-places of his tormentors. For the first time the horrid idea seemed to shoot through his brain that something serious was intended by the Cow-Boy. He called entreatingly to be released, and made rapid and incoherent promises of important information, mingled with affected pleasantry at their conceit, which he would hardly admit to himself could mean anything so dreadful as it seemed. But as he heard the tread of the horses moving on their course, and in vain looked around for human aid, violent trembling seized his limbs, and his eyes began to start from his head with terror. He made a desperate effort to reach the beam; but, too much exhausted with his previous exertions, he caught the rope in his teeth, in a vain effort to sever the cord, and fell to the whole length of his arms. Here his cries were turned into shrieks.

    “Help! cut the rope! captain!—Birch! good pedler! Down with the Congress!—sergeant!—for God’s sake, help! Hurrah for the king!—O God! O God!—mercy, mercy—mercy!”

    As his voice became suppressed, one of his hands endeavored to make its way between the rope and his neck, and partially succeeded; but the other fell quivering by his side. A convulsive shuddering passed over his whole frame, and he hung a hideous corpse.

    Birch continued gazing on this scene with a kind of infatuation. At its close he placed his hands to his ears, and rushed towards the highway. Still the cries for mercy rang through his brain, and it was many weeks before his memory ceased to dwell on the horrid event. The Cow-Boys rode steadily on their route, as if nothing had occurred; and the body was left swinging in the wind, until chance directed the wandering footsteps of some straggler to the place.