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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter77)

2006-09-08 20:01

  CHAPTER LXXVII The Battle of Plattsburg

  In broad daylight he skimmed away in his one man canoe.

  For five hours he paddled, and at star-peep he reached the dock at Burlington. The howl of a lost dog caught his ear; and when he traced the sound, there, on the outmost plank, with his nose to the skies, was the familiar form of Skookum, wailing and sadly alone.

  What a change he showed when Rolf landed; he barked, leaped, growled, tail-wagged, head-wagged, feet-wagged, body-wagged, wig-wagged and zigzagged for joy; he raced in circles, looking for a sacrificial hen, and finally uttered a long and conversational whine that doubtless was full of information for those who could get it out.

  Rolf delivered his budget at once. It was good news, but not conclusive. Everything depended now on MacDonough. In the morning all available troops should hurry to the defence of Plattsburg; not less than fifteen hundred men were ready to embark at daylight.

  That night Rolf slept with Skookum in the barracks. At daybreak, much to the latter's disgust, he was locked up in a cellar, and the troops embarked for the front.

  It was a brisk north wind they had to face in crossing and passing down the lake. There were many sturdy oarsmen at the sweeps, but they could not hope to reach their goal in less than five hours.

  When they were half way over, they heard the cannon roar; the booming became incessant; without question, a great naval battle was on, for this north wind was what the British had been awaiting. The rowers bent to their task and added to the speed. Their brothers were hard pressed; they knew it, they must make haste. The long boats flew. In an hour they could see the masts, the sails, the smoke of the battle, but nothing gather of the portentous result. Albany and New York, as well as Plattsburg, were in the balance, and the oarsmen rowed and rowed and rowed.

  The cannon roared louder and louder, though less continuously, as another hour passed. Now they could see the vessels only four miles away. The jets of smoke were intermittent from the guns; masts went down. They could see it plainly. The rowers only set their lips and rowed and rowed and rowed.

  Sir George had reckoned on but one obstacle in his march to Albany, an obstruction named MacDonough; but he now found there was another called Macomb.

  It was obviously a waste of men to take Plattsburg by front assault, when he could easily force a passage of the river higher up and take it on the rear; and it was equally clear that when his fleet arrived and crushed the American fleet, it would be a simple matter for the war vessels to blow the town to pieces, without risking a man.

  Already a favouring wind had made it possible for Downie to leave Isle au Noix and sail down the lake with his gallant crew, under gallant canvas clouds.

  Tried men and true in control of every ship, out- numbering MacDonough, outweighing him, outpointing him in everything but seamanship, they came on, sure of success.

  Three chief moves were in MacDonough's strategy. He anchored to the northward of the bay, so that any fleet coming down the lake would have to beat up against the wind to reach him; so close to land that any fleet trying to flank him would come within range of the forts; and left only one apparent gap that a foe might try to use, a gap in front of which was a dangerous sunken reef. This was indeed a baited trap. Finally he put out cables, kedges, anchors, and springs, so that with the capstan he could turn his vessels and bring either side to bear on the foe.

  All was ready, that morning of September the 11th as the British fleet, ably handled, swung around the Cumberland Head.

  The young commander of the Yankee fleet now kneeled bareheaded with his crew and prayed to the God of Battles as only those going into battle pray. The gallant foe came on, and who that knows him doubts that he, too, raised his heart in reverent prayer? The first broadside from the British broke open a chicken coop on the Saratoga from which a game-cock flew, and, perching on a gun, flapped his wings and crowed; so all the seamen cheered at such a happy omen.

  Then followed the fighting, with its bravery and its horrors —— its brutish wickedness broke loose.

  Early in the action, the British sloop, Finch, fell into MacDonough's trap and grounded on the reef.

  The British commander was killed, with many of his officers. Still, the heavy fire of the guns would have given them the victory, but for MacDonough's foresight in providing for swinging his ships. When one broadside was entirely out of action, he used his cables, kedges and springs, and brought the other batteries to bear.

  It was one of the most desperate naval fights the world has ever seen. Of the three hundred men on the British flag- ship not more than five, we are told, escaped uninjured; and at the close there was not left on any one of the eight vessels a mast that could carry sail, or a sail that could render service. In less than two hours and a half the fight was won, and the British fleet destroyed.

  To the God of Battles each had committed his cause: and the God of Battles had spoken.

  Far away to the southward in the boats were the Vermont troops with their general and Rolf in the foremost. Every sign of the fight they had watched as men whose country's fate is being tried.

  It was a quarter after eleven when the thunder died away; and the Vermonters were headed on shore, for a hasty landing, if need be, when down from the peak of the British flag-ship went the Union Jack, and the Stars and Stripes was hauled to take its place.

  "Thank God!" a soft, murmuring sigh ran through all the boats and many a bronzed and bearded cheek was wet with tears. Each man clasped hands with his neighbour; all were deeply moved, and even as an audience melted renders no applause, so none felt any wish to vent his deep emotion in a cheer.

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