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

Chapter XXXIII

  • Green be the turf above thee,
  • Friend of my better days;
  • None knew thee but to love thee,
  • None named thee but to praise.

  • WHILE the scenes and events that we have recorded were occurring, Captain Lawton led his small party, by slow and wary marches, from the Four Corners to the front of a body of the enemy; where he so successfully manœuvered for a short time, as completely to elude all their efforts to entrap him, and yet so disguised his own force as to excite the constant apprehension of an attack from the Americans. This forbearing policy, on the side of the partisan, was owing to positive orders received from his commander. When Dunwoodie left his detachment, the enemy were known to be slowly advancing, and he directed Lawton to hover around them, until his own return, and the arrival of a body of foot, might enable him to intercept their retreat.

    The trooper discharged his duty to the letter, but with no little of the impatience that made part of his character when restrained from the attack.

    During these movements, Betty Flanagan guided her little cart with indefatigable zeal among the rocks of West-Chester, now discussing with the sergeant the nature of evil spirits, and now combating with the surgeon sundry points of practice that were hourly arising between them. But the moment arrived that was to decide the temporary mastery of the field. A detachment of the eastern militia moved out from their fastnesses, and approached the enemy.

    The junction between Lawton and his auxiliaries was made at midnight, and an immediate consultation was held between him and the leader of the foot-soldiers. After listening to the statements of the partisan, who rather despised the prowess of his enemy, the commandant of the party determined to attack the British, the moment daylight enabled him to reconnoitre their position, without waiting for the aid of Dunwoodie and his horse. So soon as this decision was made, Lawton retired from the building where the consultation was held, and rejoined his own small command.

    The few troopers who were with the captain had fastened their horses in a spot adjacent to a haystack, and laid their own frames under its shelter, to catch a few hours’ sleep. But Dr. Sitgreaves, Sergeant Hollister, and Betty Flanagan were congregated at a short distance by themselves, having spread a few blankets upon the dry surface of a rock. Lawton threw his huge frame by the side of the surgeon, and folding his cloak about him, leaned his head upon one hand, and appeared deeply engaged in contemplating the moon as it waded through the heavens. The sergeant was sitting upright, in respectful deference to the surgeon, and the washerwoman was now raising her head, in order to vindicate some of her favorite maxims, and now composing it on one of her gin-casks, in a vain effort to sleep.

    “So, sergeant,” continued Sitgreaves, following up a previous position, “if you cut upwards, the blow, by losing the additional momentum of your weight, will be less destructive, and at the same time effect the true purpose of war, that of disabling your enemy.”

    “Pooh! pooh! sergeant dear,” said the washerwoman, raising her head from the blanket; “where ’s the harm of taking a life, jist in the way of battle? Is it the rig’lars who ’ll show favor, and they fighting? Ask Captain Jack there, if the country could get the liberty, and the boys no strike their might. I would n’t have them disparage the whisky so much.”

    “It is not to be expected that an ignorant female like yourself, Mrs. Flanagan,” returned the surgeon, with a calmness that only rendered his contempt more stinging to Betty, “can comprehend the distinctions of surgical science; neither are you accomplished in the sword exercise; so that dissertations upon the judicious use of that weapon could avail you nothing, either in theory or in practice.”

    “It ’s but little I care, any way, for such botherment; but fighting is no play, and a body should n’t be partic’lar how they strike, or who they hit, so it ’s the inimy.”

    “Are we likely to have a warm day, Captain Lawton?”

    “’T is more than probable,” replied the trooper; “these militia seldom fail of making a bloody field, either by their cowardice or their ignorance, and the real soldier is made to suffer for their bad conduct.”

    “Are you ill, John?” said the surgeon, passing his hand along the arm of the captain, until it instinctively settled on his pulse; but the steady, even beat announced neither bodily nor mental malady.

    “Sick at heart, Archibald, at the folly of our rulers, in believing that battles are to be fought, and victories won, by fellows who handle a musket as they would a flail; lads who wink when they pull a trigger, and form a line like a hooppole. The dependence we place on these men spills the best blood of the country.”

    The surgeon listened with amazement. It was not the matter, but the manner that surprised him. The trooper had uniformly exhibited, on the eve of battle, an animation, and an eagerness to engage, that was directly at variance with the admirable coolness of his manner at other times. But now there was a despondency in the tones of his voice, and a listlessness in his air, that was entirely different. The operator hesitated a moment, to reflect in what manner he could render this change of service in furthering his favorite system, and then continued,—

    “It would be wise, John, to advise the colonel to keep at long shot; a spent ball will disable”—

    “No!” exclaimed the trooper, impatiently; “let the rascals singe their whiskers at the muzzles of the British muskets, if they can be driven there. But, enough of them. Archibald, do you deem that moon to be a world like this, containing creatures like ourselves?”

    “Nothing more probable, dear John; we know its size, and, reasoning from analogy, may easily conjecture its use. Whether or not its inhabitants have attained to that perfection in the sciences which we have acquired, must depend greatly on the state of its society, and in some measure upon its physical influences.”

    “I care nothing about their learning, Archibald; but ’t is a wonderful power that can create such worlds, and control them in their wanderings. I know not why, but there is a feeling of melancholy excited within me as I gaze on that body of light, shaded as it is by your fancied sea and land. It seems to be the resting-place of departed spirits!”

    “Take a drop, darling,” said Betty, raising her head once more, and proffering her own bottle; “’t is the night damp that chills the blood—and then the talk with the cursed militia is no good for a fiery temper. Take a drop, darling, and ye ’ll sleep till the morning. I fed Roanoke myself, for I thought ye might need hard riding the morrow.”

    “’T is a glorious heaven to look upon,” continued the trooper, in the same tone, disregarding the offer of Betty, “and ’t is a thousand pities that such worms as men should let their vile passions deface such goodly work.”

    “You speak the truth, dear John; there is room for all to live and enjoy themselves in peace, if each could be satisfied with his own. Still, war has its advantages; it particularly promotes the knowledge of surgery; and”—

    “There is a star,” continued Lawton, still bent on his own ideas, “struggling to glitter through a few driving clouds; perhaps that too is a world, and contains its creatures endowed with reason like ourselves; think you that they know of war and bloodshed?”

    “If I might be so bold,” said Sergeant Hollister, mechanically raising his hand to his cap, “’t is mentioned in the good book, that the Lord made the sun to stand still while Joshua was charging the enemy, in order, sir, as I suppose, that they might have daylight to turn their flank, or perhaps make a feint in the rear, or some such manœuvre. Now, if the Lord would lend them a hand, fighting cannot be sinful. I have often been nonplushed, though, to find that they used them chariots instead of heavy dragoons, who are, in all comparison, better to break a line of infantry, and who, for the matter of that, could turn such wheel-carriages, and, getting into the rear, play the very devil with them, horse and all.”

    “It is because you do not understand the construction of those ancient vehicles, Sergeant Hollister, that you judge of them so erroneously,” said the surgeon. “They were armed with sharp weapons that protruded from their wheels, and which broke up the columns of foot, like dismembered particles of matter. I doubt not, if similar instruments were affixed to the cart of Mrs. Flanagan, that great confusion might be carried into the ranks of the enemy thereby, this very day.”

    “It ’s but little that the mare would go, and the rig’lars firing at her,” grumbled Betty, from under her blanket; “when we got the plunder, the time we drove them through the Jarseys it was, I had to back the baste up to the dead; for the divil the foot would she move, forenent the firing, wid her eyes open. Roanoke and Captain Jack are good enough for the red-coats, letting alone myself and the mare.”

    A long roll of the drums, from the hill occupied by the British, announced that they were on the alert; and a corresponding signal was immediately heard from the Americans. The bugle of the Virginians struck up its martial tones; and in a few moments both the hills, the one held by the royal troops, and the other by their enemies, were alive with armed men. Day had begun to dawn, and preparations were making by both parties, to give and to receive the attack. In numbers the Americans had greatly the advantage; but in discipline and equipments the superiority was entirely with their enemies. The arrangements for the battle were brief, and by the time the sun had risen the militia moved forward.

    The ground did not admit of the movements of horse: and the only duty that could be assigned to the dragoons was to watch the moment of victory, and endeavor to improve the success to the utmost. Lawton soon got his warriors into the saddle; and leaving them to the charge of Hollister, he rode himself along the line of foot, who in varied dresses, and imperfectly armed, were formed in a shape that in some degree resembled a martial array. A scornful smile lowered about the lip of the trooper as he guided Roanoke with a skillful hand through the windings of their ranks; and when the word was given to march, he turned the flank of the regiment, and followed close in the rear. The Americans had to descend into a little hollow, and rise a hill on its opposite side, to approach the enemy.

    The descent was made with tolerable steadiness, until near the foot of the hill, when the royal troops advanced in a beautiful line, with their flanks protected by the formation of the ground. The appearance of the British drew a fire from the militia, which was given with good effect, and for a moment staggered the regulars. But they were rallied by their officers, and threw in volley after volley with great steadiness. For a short time the fire was warm and destructive, until the English advanced with the bayonet. This assault the militia had not sufficient discipline to withstand. Their line wavered, then paused, and finally broke into companies and fragments of companies, keeping up at the same time a scattering and desultory fire.

    Lawton witnessed these operations in silence, nor did he open his mouth until the field was covered with parties of the flying Americans. Then, indeed, he seemed stung with the disgrace thus heaped upon the arms of his country. Spurring Roanoke along the side of the hill, he called to the fugitives in all the strength of his powerful voice. He pointed to the enemy, and assured his countrymen that they had mistaken the way. There was such a mixture of indifference and irony in his exhortations, that a few paused in surprise—more joined them, until, roused by the example of the trooper, and stimulated by their own spirit, they demanded to be led against their foe once more.

    “Come on, then, my brave friends!” shouted the trooper, turning his horse’s head towards the British line, one flank of which was very near him; “come on, and hold your fire until it will scorch their eyebrows.”

    The men sprang forward, and followed his example, neither giving nor receiving a fire until they had come within a very short distance of the enemy. An English sergeant, who had been concealed by a rock, enraged with the audacity of the officer who thus dared their arms, stepped from behind his cover, and advancing within a few yards of the trooper, leveled his musket.

    “Fire and you die!” cried Lawton, spurring his charger, which leaped forward at the instant. The action and the tone of his voice shook the nerves of the Englishman, who drew his trigger with an uncertain aim. Roanoke sprang with all his feet from the earth, and, plunging, fell headlong and lifeless at the feet of his destroyer. Lawton kept his feet, standing face to face with his enemy. The latter presented his bayonet, and made a desperate thrust at the trooper’s heart. The steel of their weapons emitted sparks of fire, and the bayonet flew fifty feet in the air. At the next moment its owner lay a quivering corpse.

    “Come on!” shouted the trooper, as a body of English appeared on the rock, and threw in a close fire; “come on!” he repeated, and brandished his sabre fiercely. Then his gigantic form fell backward, like a majestic pine yielding to the axe; but still, as he slowly fell, he continued to wield his sabre, and once more the deep tones of his voice were heard uttering, “Come on!”

    The advancing Americans paused aghast, and, turning, they abandoned the field to the royal troops.

    It was neither the intention nor the policy of the English commander to pursue his success, for he well knew that strong parties of the Americans would soon arrive; accordingly, he only tarried to collect his wounded, and forming in a square, he commenced his retreat towards the shipping. Within twenty minutes of the fall of Lawton, the ground was deserted by both English and Americans.

    When the inhabitants of the country were called upon to enter the field, they were necessarily attended by such surgical advisers as were furnished by the low state of the profession in the interior at that day. Dr. Sitgreaves entertained quite as profound a contempt for the medical attendants of the militia as the captain did of the troops themselves. He wandered, therefore, around the field, casting many a glance of disapprobation at the slight operations that came under his eye; but when, among the flying troops, he found that his comrade and friend was nowhere to be seen, he hastened back to the spot at which Hollister was posted, to inquire if the trooper had returned. Of course, the answer was in the negative. Filled with a thousand uneasy conjectures, the surgeon, without regarding, or indeed without at all reflecting upon any dangers that might lie in his way, strode over the ground at an enormous rate, to the point where he knew the final struggle had been. Once before, the surgeon had rescued his friend from death in a similar situation; and he felt a secret joy in his own conscious skill, as he perceived Betty Flanagan seated on the ground, holding in her lap the head of a man whose size and dress he knew could belong only to the trooper. As he approached the spot, the surgeon became alarmed at the aspect of the washerwoman. Her little black bonnet was thrown aside, and her hair, which was already streaked with gray, hung around her face in disorder.

    “John! dear John!” said the doctor, tenderly, as he bent and laid his hand upon the senseless wrist of the trooper, from which it recoiled with an intuitive knowledge of his fate; “John! dear John! where are you hurt?—can I help you?”

    “Ye talk to the senseless clay,” said Betty, rocking her body, and unconsciously playing with the raven ringlets of the trooper’s hair; “it ’s no more will he hear, and it ’s but little will he mind ye’er probes and ye’er med’cines. Och hone, och hone!—and where will be the liberty now? or who will there be to fight the battle, or gain the day?”

    “John!” repeated the surgeon, still unwilling to believe the evidence of his unerring senses, “dear John, speak to me; say what you will, that you do but speak. Oh, God! he is dead; would that I had died with him!”

    “There is but little use in living and fighting now,” said Betty; “both him and the baste! see, there is the poor cratur, and here is the master! I fed the horse with my own hands, the day; and the last male that he ate was of my own cooking. Och hone! och hone!—that Captain Jack should live to be killed by the rig’lars!”

    “John! my dear John!” said the surgeon, with convulsive sobs, “thy hour has come, and many a more prudent man survives thee; but none better, nor braver. Oh! John, thou wert to me a kind friend, and very dear: it is unphilosophical to grieve; but for thee, John, I must weep, even in bitterness of heart.”

    The doctor buried his face in his hands, and for several minutes sat yielding to an ungovernable burst of sorrow; while the washerwoman gave vent to her grief in words, moving her body in a kind of writhing, and playing with different parts of her favorite’s dress with her fingers.

    “And who ’ll there be to incourage the boys now?” she said. “Oh! Captain Jack! Captain Jack! ye was the sowl of the troop, and it was but little we knowed of the danger, and ye fighting. Och! he was no maly mouthed, that quarreled wid a widowed woman for the matter of a burn in the mate, or the want of a breakfast. Taste a drop, darling, and it may be, ’t will revive ye. Och! and he ’ll niver taste ag’in; here ’s the doctor, honey, him ye used to blarney wid, wapeing as if the poor sowl would die for ye. Och! he ’s gone, he ’s gone; and the liberty is gone wid him.”

    A thundering sound of horses’ feet came rolling along the road which led near the place where Lawton lay, and directly the whole body of Virginians appeared with Dunwoodie at their head. The news of the captain’s fate had reached him; for the instant that he saw the body he halted the squadron, and, dismounting, approached the spot. The countenance of Lawton was not in the least distorted, but the angry frown which had lowered over his brow during the battle was fixed even in death. His frame was composed, and stretched as in sleep. Dunwoodie took hold of his hand, and gazed a moment in silence; his own dark eye kindled, and the paleness which had overspread his features was succeeded by a spot of deep red in either cheek.

    “With his own sword will I avenge him!” he cried, endeavoring to take the weapon from the hand of Lawton; but the grasp resisted his utmost strength. “It shall be buried with him. Sitgreaves, take care of our friend, while I revenge his death.”

    The major hastened back to his charger, and led the way in pursuit of the enemy.

    While Dunwoodie had been thus engaged, the body of Lawton lay in open view of the whole squadron. He was a universal favorite, and the sight inflamed the men to the utmost: neither officers nor soldiers possessed that coolness which is necessary to ensure success in military operations; but they spurred ardently after their enemies, burning with a wish for vengeance.

    The English were formed in a hollow square, which contained their wounded, who were far from numerous, and were marching steadily across a very uneven country as the dragoons approached. The horse charged in column, and were led by Dunwoodie, who, burning with revenge, thought to ride through their ranks, and scatter them at a blow. But the enemy knew their own strength too well, and, standing firm, they received the charge on the points of their bayonets. The horses of the Virginians recoiled, and the rear rank of the foot throwing in a close fire, the major, with a few men, fell. The English continued their retreat the moment they were extricated from their assailants; and Dunwoodie, who was severely, but not dangerously wounded, recalled his men from further attempts, which, in that stony country, must necessarily be fruitless.

    A sad duty remained to be fulfilled. The dragoons retired slowly through the hills, conveying their wounded commander, and the body of Lawton. The latter they interred under the ramparts of one of the Highland forts, and the former they consigned to the tender care of his afflicted bride.

    Many weeks were gone before the major was restored to sufficient strength to be removed. During those weeks, how often did he bless the moment that gave him a right to the services of his beautiful nurse! She hung around his couch with fond attention; administered with her own hands every prescription of the indefatigable Sitgreaves, and grew each hour in the affections and esteem of her husband. An order from Washington soon sent the troops into winter quarters, and permission was given to Dunwoodie to repair to his own plantation, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, in order to complete the restoration of his health. Captain Singleton made one of the party; and the whole family retired from the active scenes of the war, to the ease and plenty of the major’s own estate. Before leaving Fishkill, however, letters were conveyed to them, through an unknown hand, acquainting them with Henry’s safety and good health; and also that Colonel Wellmere had left the continent for his native island, lowered in the estimation of every honest man in the royal army.

    It was a happy winter for Dunwoodie, and smiles once more began to play around the lovely mouth of Frances.