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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter76)

2006-09-08 20:01

  CHAPTER LXXVI The Bloody Saranac

  Sir george Prevost had had no intention of taking Plattsburg, till Plattsburg's navy was captured. But the moral effect of McGlassin's exploit must be offset at once. He decided to carry the city by storm —— a matter probably of three hours' work.

  He apportioned a regiment to each bridge, another to each ford near the town, another to cross the river at Pike's Cantonment, and yet another to cross twenty miles above, where they were to harry the fragments of the American as it fled.

  That morning Plattsburg was wakened by a renewal of the bombardment. The heavy firing killed a few men knocked down a few walls and chimneys, but did little damage to the earthworks.

  It was surprising to all how soon the defenders lost their gun-shyness. The very school-boys and their sisters went calmly about their business, with cannon and musket balls whistling overhead, striking the walls and windows, or, on rare occasions, dropping some rifleman who was over-rash as he worked or walked on the ramparts.

  There were big things doing in the British camp —— regiments marching and taking their places —— storms of rifle and cannon balls raging fiercely. By ten o'clock there was a lull. The Americans, from the grandfathers to the school- boys, were posted, each with his rifle and his pouch full of balls; there were pale faces among the youngsters, and nervous fingers, but there was no giving way. Many a man there was, no doubt, who, under the impulse of patriotism, rushed with his gun to join the ranks, and when the bloody front was reached, he wished in his heart he was safe at home. But they did not go. Something kept them staunch.

  Although the lines were complete all along the ramparts, there were four places where the men were massed. These were on the embankments opposite the bridges and the fords. Here the best shots were placed and among them was Rolf, with others of McGlassin's band.

  The plank of the bridges had been torn up and used with earth to form breastworks; but the stringers of the bridges were there, and a body of red-coats approaching, each of them showed plainly what their plan was.

  The farthest effective range of rifle fire in those days was reckoned at a hundred yards. The Americans were ordered to hold their fire till the enemy reached the oaks, a grove one hundred yards from the main bridge —— on the other bank.

  The British came on in perfect review-day style. Now a hush fell on all. The British officer in command was heard clearly giving his orders. How strange it must have been to the veterans of wars in Spain, France, and the Rhine, to advance against a force with whom they needed no interpreter.

  McGlassin's deep voice now rang along the defences, "Don't fire till I give the order."

  The red-coats came on at a trot, they reached the hundred- yard-mark.

  "Now, aim low and fire!" from McGlassin, and the rattle of the Yankee guns was followed by reeling ranks of red in the oaks.

  "Charge!" shouted the British officer and the red-coats charged to the bridge, but the fire from the embankment was incessant; the trail of the charging men was cluttered with those who fell.

  "Forward!" and the gallant British captain leaped on the central stringer of the bridge and, waving his sword, led on. Instantly three lines of men were formed, one on each stringer.

  They were only fifty yards from the barricade, with five hundred rifles, all concentrated on these stringers. The first to fall was the captain, shot through the heart, and the river bore him away. But on and on came the three ranks into the whistling, withering fire of lead. It was like slaughtering sheep. Yet on and on they marched steadily for half an hour. Not a man held back or turned, though all knew they were marching to their certain death. Not one of them ever reached the centre of the span, and those who dropped, not dead, were swallowed by the swollen stream. How many hundred brave men were sacrificed that day, no one ever knew. He who gave the word to charge was dead with his second and third in command and before another could come to change the order, the river ran red —— the bloody Saranac they call it ever since.

  The regiment was wrecked, and the assault for the time was over.

  Rolf had plied his rifle with the rest, but it sickened him to see the horrible waste of human valour. It was such ghastly work that he was glad indeed when a messenger came to say he was needed at headquarters. And in an hour he was crossing the lake with news and instructions for the officer in command at Burlington.

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