Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Hell in the Forest

(Source)

Dawn.

Molly Henderson awoke to find herself alone. Looking around she couldn't see any sign of her captor. It struck her as odd that she hoped he would be returning. Not through any affection for the man, but she had no idea where she was and how far from civilization she might be.

She had tried to pay attention to the direction of their travels, she thought they had gone west for quite some time, but then their path had trended north, then east. As they had not re-crossed the Cannitticutt River, they were still to the west of that river. Safety and home were to the east, but how far?

She looked up when she heard the soft tread of a foot nearby, her captor had returned. It amazed her how quietly the Indian moved. As she watched him, she realized that he looked nervous, almost afraid. Which she found alarming, if he was scared, what was he scared of?


Short Bear was indeed nervous, he had traveled too far to the west. When out on his morning scout he had seen signs of a party of men traveling to the east, they had passed not far from where he and the yellow haired girl were camped. From the sign he deduced that they were moving fast, too fast for hunters. A war party perhaps? But whose? Abenaki or Mohican?

He decided then and there to move north for a day, then back to the east. While he wanted to keep the girl, he wasn't sure of how he was going to do that. If he could return to his own village, there was a chance. Otherwise, he resolved to sell her if he had no other choice. She fascinated him, but not to the extent that keeping her might cost him his own life.


Sergeant Major Edward Jacobs was up early. The night had been full of alarums, sentries firing their muskets at vague shapes in the dark, men calling out in fear at strange sounds from the forest. While Jacobs suspected that many of the sounds had been natural, there were some that sounded human made. It was obvious to him that the Indians were trying to unnerve them, keep them from sleeping. It had worked to a certain extent.

"Sergeant Major!"

Jacobs turned to see Captain Samuel Jenkins approaching.

"Sir?"

"Have the men fall in, I want a circle of platoons facing outward."

"Sir!"


Bull Elk waited a large part of the morning for the English to begin moving, but still they stood in their ordered groups, facing towards the forest in a circle. It looked to him like the English were waiting for something, but what?

He was a patient man, they had food, a supply of water, the English had only what they carried. As he sat and waited for whatever the English intended, he heard a commotion on the other side of the English camp.

Bull Elk stood and watched, a party of warriors, young warriors, burst from the woods, screaming their war cries and brandishing their weapons. Bull Elk shook his head, the impatience of youth. He nodded to the men standing nearby, if the attack by the young hotheads succeeded or failed, the rest must go in as well.


Lieutenant Robert Cooke stood next to his platoon, he had no idea what to make of these savages rushing at them from the trees. He also completely forgot his training, fortunately, his corporal did not.

"Poise your firelocks!¹" Corporal Josiah Smythe bellowed.

"Cock your firelocks!"

"Present!"

The Indians were within fifteen paces of the line, Corporal Smythe wondered if perhaps he'd left it too late, but his training governed his every action, he could not deviate from it.

"FIRE!"

Twenty flintlock muskets all barked nearly at once. The leading warriors actually suffered burns from the discharge of the soldiers pieces. But their suffering lasted only a moment.

"Half cock your firelocks!" Smythe continued the drill, he would keep his men firing until there was no threat or an officer commanded him to stop.


Bull Elk watched in shock as the warriors were cut down like so many maize stalks after the harvest. It was as if a woman's harvesting knife swept them all to the ground. He had never seen a volley of musketry before, the amount of smoke was surprising. He watched as the English reloaded, each man moving with assurance and precision through the loading process.

Bull Elk raised his arm, then pointed at the camp. the impatient young warriors had sprung the trap too early, before the English had entered the ravine. But his men still held the advantage, in numbers at least.


A half hour into the fight the position had become a living Hell. Packed close together, nearly back to back, his men were holding their own. Barely.

Jenkins moaned as he saw Lieutenant Cooke hit in the face by an arrow. Cooke dropped to his knees, instinctively trying to pull the arrow out, screaming as he did so. A warrior emerged from the powder smoke and brought his tomahawk down on Cooke's head, cleaving it nearly in half.

That warrior was struck down himself by Corporal Smythe's bayonet. As the Corporal wrenched the bayonet from the Indian's corpse, he continued to bellow out his firing commands.

While the Indian dead and wounded continued to pile up around the camp, his own men were suffering. Out of a strength of ninety-seven men, he could see at least twelve men down near his position.

Jenkins had his pistol out and held his sword ready. To his front he saw a warrior dash from the nearby brush, tomahawk aloft and screaming like a banshee. Sergeant Major Jacobs had his back to the man, adding his own musket fire to that of the platoons, all the while closing the ranks where men had fallen. He had no idea of the danger he was in.

Jenkins fired and saw the warrior stumble and fall forward, from the amount of blood  spraying from the man Jenkins knew that his shot had connected.

Jacobs nearly fell as the dying Indian fell onto the back of his legs. Managing to stay on his feet he turned to see the dying warrior lying at his feet, weakly trying to strike with his tomahawk. With no more thought than what he would give to swatting an insect, he used the butt of his firelock to finish the man. Then he had a party of five men pivot to face in the direction the warrior had come from, he saw Jenkins re-loading his pistol.

"Well done Sir, bravo!" Jacobs cried out.

Jenkins, in the chaos which surrounded him, managed a grin, "Carry on Sergeant Major!"


"Sachem, we are killing the English, but we are losing too many warriors!" one of his sub-chiefs, Lame Crow, called out to him. Bull Elk could see that the man was hurt, blood was coming from a wound on his upper arm.

Bull Elk turned to Sleeping Panther, his oldest son, and said, "Give the signal. We have hurt the English enough for now."


Sergeant Donoghue heard the hideous call of a mountain lion from close by, he had nearly wet himself when he had heard that sound for the first time. He nearly did so again.

Donoghue was in pain from an arrow buried in the muscle of his thigh. He knew better than to pull it out, in the heat of loading and firing, and keeping his platoon alert and firing, he had managed to tolerate the pain. Now he could barely keep his feet.

"Sarn't! I think they're leaving!" Private Robertson had seen movement away from the field when a small breeze caused the powder smoke to clear to his front.

One of the men saw that and cried out, "They're running boys! Huzzah!"


"Stop that noise!" Jenkins was concerned that the cessation of hostilities could be an enemy ruse. Make them relax and then charge them again.

Sergeant Major Jacobs, hat missing and bleeding from a cut over his right ear, joined him.

"I think the lads are right Sir. Looks like they're moving off. Could come right back though, I'll see to the ranks. You there, THAT MAN, back in ranks!!" He bellowed at a man who had stepped forward to retrieve his hat. That's when he realized that his own hat was missing. Ah well, he thought, plenty enough to choose from.


Some of the warriors were angry, they had sensed the English beginning to waver, which might be true, or not. All Bull Elk saw was the lessening of his own numbers. By his reckoning, they had lost far too many men, perhaps as many as forty-five. The English had not blundered into the ravine as he had expected them to, these men were far better warriors than some of the white soldiers that he had seen in the past.

It was time to come up with a better plan. The English were still a long ways from the Great River. There was still time to destroy them.


"What now Sir? Back to Rumford?" Sergeant Major Jacobs had taken the roll, in addition to Lieutenant Cooke, seventeen men were dead or badly wounded. Eight men were hurt, but could continue on their own feet.

The butcher, Private Miles Hartford, had successfully extracted the arrow from Sergeant Donoghue's thigh. Donoghue had vomited when Hartford had pushed the arrow through his leg, rather than try to pull it out.

"Ye're lucky Sarn't, the arrow didn't hit the bone, otherwise it would still be in ye and ye'd be dead in a day or so from infection." Hartford cackled and continued, "Ye still might die of infection, but not today!" He continued to cackle as he finished binding Donoghue's wound. "There ye go Sarn't, right as rain ye'll be."


Captain Jenkins had a difficult decision to make, his company was down to seventy-two relatively healthy men. Some, like the sergeant major, had nasty cuts, but remained quite capable of continuing to perform their duties.

Returning to Rumford would be the easy choice, but that would leave the men under Ensign Mayberry at the mercy of the savages. Not to mention the settlements which relied on those men to protect them.

"Sergeant Major!"

"Sir!"

"Form the men up. Fix bayonets, we're going through this bloody ravine this instant while the savages are withdrawing, they won't expect it."

"Sir, what about the wounded? Many of them will die..."

"Without medical help? Where do you expect to find medical help out here? I know it's a harsh thing Sarn't Major, but we've no choice. We lose some, or we lose all. Sergeant Donoghue!"

Donoghue was nearby and limped over. "Sir?"

"How's the leg?"

"Hurts, but I can get around well enough I suppose. Sir."

"I want you and the other wounded to head back to Rumford. I doubt the savages will harass you, they've suffered grievously." As Jenkins said that he swept his hand around the campsite. Indeed, the Indian dead were numerous, those who weren't quite dead were being bayoneted even as Jenkins watched. No choice really, in truth it might be a mercy to help their own badly wounded along, but he knew the men would mutiny if he ordered that.

Donoghue thought for a long moment, then nodded, "Very good Sir. We'll try to help the badly wounded out, improvise litters or something. When is the company moving out?"

"Right now Sergeant."

Donoghue looked around, saw the healthier men forming up, bayonets fixed. "Very good Sir. You'd best be off then, we'll make do Sir, somehow."


As the tail end of the column disappeared into the ravine, Donoghue turned to the other walking wounded. "Right lads, let's be off."

"Aren't we going to bury the dead Sergeant?"

"If you want to, go right ahead Harrington. The rest of us will be heading that way." Donoghue said, pointing to the east.

"Right Sergeant, understood. I feel bad about that, but you're right."

"Glad you approve Private, now bloody well fall in with the rest. Right lads, about turn, at the quick march and we're off!"


When the column arrived on the western side of the ravine, Jenkins heaved a sigh of relief. He realized that had they gone in there, the whole company would have been butchered. Little did he know how close things had been. The first attack by the Indians had occurred just as he was about to order the men forward.

He checked the rudimentary map he had been given by the Governor, if the thing was anywhere near accurate, and he doubted that, they still had thirty miles to go. Thirty miles of very rugged country.

Their odyssey was nowhere near over. But his duty to the settlers on the frontier was clear, he must press on.

And so they did.




¹ From the 1764 Manual of Arms.

Link to all of the Chant's fiction.

38 comments:

  1. First round is over and both sides are dazed, now to see how they adjust and how Lady Luck or Fate intervenes.

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    1. The first battle usually leaves both sides a little dazed. Nothing ever goes the way the participants anticipate.

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    2. The Indians have a seeming supply of braves to pull from as the English move deeper into the woods.

      The English are bleeding slowly.

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    3. Not endless, but there are a lot of 'em.

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  2. First blood....and not over by a long shot.

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  3. The misinterpretation of how war works. It was much more personal for the Indians, as it had been for at least a 1000 years and was a once upon a time in Europe.

    One of the Laconic phrases from Sayings of the Spartans: "When Archidamus Son of Agesilaus (King of the Eurypontid Line, 360-338) saw an arrow shot from a catapult when it was first brought from Sicily, he exclaimed 'By Heracles, man's valour is done for.'"

    The young. Always in a hurry...

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    1. Good stuff TB, especially the quote from Archidamus. I wonder how many advances in weapons technology were greeted with the same (or similar) line.

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    2. Too many.

      Yet in these days of guided munitions with knives on them, and planes that go Brrrrrrrt and wholesale death, it has become the War of the Special Forces that seems to get the deed done. One man or one small group against hordes.

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    3. Not really. They're only useful for limited missions with limited objectives. If the big bad Commies (y'all know who I mean) want to come swarming out of the woodwork, the Spec Ops guys will die gloriously, but they will still die.

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  4. Good story!
    And you tell it well while fending off the attack of the dreaded spambots from India! :-)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Rob!

      (The spambots with curry have been quiet for an hour or so, I'll probably release the restrictions on commenting this afternoon.)

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    2. They have curried no favor with you, I see.

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    3. Heh.

      The spambot "human" wave assault seems to have subsided for now.

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  5. Yet another winner, Sarge! Discipline is important. The Indians will learn to duck the volley and rush during the reload at some point.

    BG

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    Replies
    1. And the English will learn to lower their shot to knee level, to both compensate for the tendency to rise while pulling the trigger and to hit the duckers better.

      War is an ever-evolving thing. Those that do not evolve, well, die, eventually.

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    2. Which certainly slows the evolutionary process!

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    3. (Don McCollor)...(from Kipling's 'Fuzzy Wuzzy'). "He rushes at the smoke when we let drive, and 'afoe you know it he's a hackin' at your head"...

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    4. Very true. Kipling knew a thing or two...

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  6. Hey Old AFSarge;

    We have been trying to reach you about your vehicle extended warranty...*Sorry* couldn't resist...well I could have but where is the fun in that. Seriously, the column got lucky, the young got hit with *buck fever* yeah pardon the pun, that is where discipline can make or break a unit. And I do feel your pain about the spambots, been there......it bites....got a 1000 of them one morning.

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    Replies
    1. They are persistent a-holes, I'll give 'em that. (The spambots that is.)

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  7. A disciplined musket square is a wonder to behold. Between multiple ranks (if available) and a bayonet, it's hard to break. Goes back to that heavy/shock infantry thing I keep mentioning. And nobody does a musket square better than the English, as Napoleon found out.

    The Indians should have waited until the English were at least half in to the ravines and restricted from maneuvering. Then attack the tail, chase the head, do the hit-and-run tactics that the natives were most familiar with.

    But, well, stand and deliver wins, or at least survives.

    Good story, your fighting description is rather action packed and really draws me in.

    And one other thing... Thank God Baron Steuben brought a quicker manual of musket to the Colonials than the 1764 manual.

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    1. Squares are easy to break, unless you forget to bring your artillery forward, or your infantry is less than competent.

      Wasn't really a square, more of an all-around defense because they couldn't really know where they would be hit from.

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    2. Yep. You can break them, if you have the gumption. And the proper equipment.

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    3. There's a reason the artillery is known as the King of Battle. Ultima Ratio Regum etc.

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  8. This story is bringing back many memories from my childhood. Thanks Sarge. We played indians vs. whomsoevers a lot on my block. There were five or six vacant lots, with lots of trees. A good way to live as a kid. There were six of us guys mostly the same age. Only tragic memory I have is that my good friend Richard got polio and died. Funny how your story is reminding me of cherished thoughts.

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    1. I remember polio as the scourge it was, my generation didn't follow long after yours, we had a vaccine by then. Before that, polio was a killer. It's still around, though rare.

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  9. I remember standing in a long line of families at Maunawili elementary school in Kailua Hawaii in the early 60s as they came around and put a drop of polio vaccine on a sugar cube and popped it into your mouth.

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    1. Did the same in Vermont in that time frame.

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  10. Since I feel like everyone has to make at least one grammar post:

    "...the English beginning to waiver..."

    I'm not sure the middle of an active battlefield is the best place to start filling out paperwork, but what do I know?

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