Chapter Seven- Cattle Thieves!
Up until December 22nd the weather couldn't seem to make up its mind, we had a little of everything- rain, sleet and snow, but after the 22nd Winter really set in. I remember the 22nd because the snow was coming down so hard by mid-afternoon that Mr. Adams sent us home early, which was rare. On my way home I met a teamster at the corner of Limekiln and Lonetown; He was trying to find his way from Lonetown over to the third camp near the Danbury line.
"Hello Mister. You look lost. Can I help?" I asked him.
"Why that surely would be kind of ya," he said in a funny drawl. "I need to get to third camp before this storm gets any worse."
"You want to use this road," I said pointing West. "follow it to the Limekilns, you can't miss ‘em, they make billows of smoke. From there you’ll cross four fields and come to a beaver pond. Stay to the south side of the pond until you reach a clearing and then turn North, straight ahead you will see a stonewall, just beyond it is the pathway that leads straight into third camp."
"Why thank you son, much appreciated." He said with a smile before spurring his horses and heading off through the storm.
The snow was up past my ankles and with the winds picking up I knew it wouldn't be long before walking would become difficult, so I decided to cut across the road and into the pines by the swamp. That's where I saw them, there were three of them and they had someone's calf. There were drag marks across the clearing so I figured it was dead, but still it made my heart hurt to see them butchering it; I ran home as fast as I could.
"What's wrong?" asked my Father as I burst through the barn door.
"Soldiers!" I said. "They stole somebody's calf and they're butchering it in the pines!"
My Father slammed the hay rake he was using down to the ground and cursed. "That's the third calf this week!" He grabbed his gun and headed over to the horse stall. "Tell your Mother I'm riding over to Sanford's. And tell her not to worry, we're going to handle this correctly, without any bloodshed."
Mom was worried anyway. Philip and David weren't, they were itching to see what was going to happen to the soldiers.
"What was Dad working on when he left?" Philip asked.
"He was filling the hay feeders." I said.
"We better get on that." said David to Philip with a wink.
I knew what they were up to, they were heading out to the pines to watch.
"Just stay out of harms way..." Mom advised them as they left, she knew too.
From that moment forward it was a long night for the rest of us. We all sat by the fire, not saying much, just waiting for them to return. Baby Will fell asleep on Phineas’ belly while Mom, Abby and me de-shelled acorns, it was methodical work perfect for the occasion.
Outside we could hear the wind howling.
"I sure hope Phil and Dave took the horses," I thought out loud. "the drifts were ankle high on my way home. They must be waist high by now."
"Good point. You’d better get out there and shovel a path for the morning." said Mom.
"Really?" I said, hoping she was kidding.
"Really," she said. "we’ll need a path out to the barn in the morning." Raising an eyebrow to show me she was serious.
"Ugh. Me and my big mouth." I thought over and over again as I shoveled my way out to the barn.
When I got out there I found that they did take the horses. Father took Winfred our quarter horse and Phil and Dave took the work horses, their stalls were empty too.
I told Mom when I got back.
"Good," she said. "let’s get to bed. They may not be back for hours."
She was right, it was well after midnight when they actually got home and we were all fast asleep. We heard all about it at breakfast that morning.
"You should have seen their faces..." David was ecstatic despite his lack of sleep. "They had no idea they were surrounded. They had no idea we were even there, they were so focused on the meat they were cooking that they didn't even see us. While they sat there huddled by the fire, the circle closed slowly around them, tighter and tighter, they never heard us, the winds were too loud, and then, BOOM! we all pounced. It was over in seconds; they were subdued and taken to the guard house at Dearborn's camp."
"What's going to happen to them?" asked Abby.
"That's up to General Putnam," said Father. "But I hope he makes an example of them."
"Will they be put to death?" asked Mother visibly concerned.
"I don't think Putnam will do that," said Father. "but I do expect a public lashing."
"What happens next? asked Philip.
Father’s face twisted, in a thoughtful way. His right hand landed on his right thigh, his left index finger rose to his upper lip, his thumb cupped his chin, his head shook slowly, then he said:
"I really don’t know how this one will play out. The soldiers will be Court-martialed, because that’s how they handle these situations. But, this one will be interesting because it involves more than just the Army. We knew things could get out of hand with the troops in Redding, but the loss of local livestock and looting has been far more prevalent than anyone imagined and this is the perfect opportunity to put an end to it. It’s a wait and see situation, and we will have to do just that.”
He looked up and pondered that thought a moment before clapping his hands together and sending us off to our chores.
As we transferred wood from the barn to the back porch, I thought about how many soldiers had descended on Redding. The main encampment housed about 1,200 soldiers. The second camp, by our house, wasn’t as large but it still held a good 800 to 1,000 soldiers. The third camp over in West Redding was smaller, about 400 soldiers, but when you added them all up and took into consideration that Redding’s entire population was less than 1,200 prior to the war, it wasn’t too difficult to understand why these encampments were straining our resources. Military strategy had placed soldiers in Redding with little consideration given to the impact the soldiers would have on the town. Sadly, their presence was impactful and damaging, and thus, the fate of the soldiers in the guard house was of great interest to many.
News of Tom’s efforts to help the starving troops had spread quickly, but nothing in comparison to the court-martialed soldiers; At the local taverns, mills and churches opinions flowed freely with many openly expressing the need to quell the soldier’s poor behavior. The local’s displeasure with the troops was well founded- desertion and spying continued to plague the encampments, and all of General Putnam’s attempts thus far to reestablish order, prevent local looting and livestock theft had failed. With three offending soldiers detained, the time for justice was at hand; then the unimaginable happened… another cattle incident occurred on Redding Ridge and a local soldier was fingered as the thief.
What was shocking (to us) was who it was, Tim’s brother Sam! We found out about it on the way to school from Lazarus Gray.
“Are you sure it’s Sam, Lazarus?” I asked when he told us.
“Yep. I saw him with my own eyes as they marched him into camp.”
“How did it happen? I mean, what did he do?” Stephen inquired.
“He was captured by two other soldiers in the field north of the tavern, the one that runs below Turney’s corn rows. At least that’s what I heard.” answered Lazarus.
I couldn’t believe my ears. “But that’s his own family’s field! Are you telling us that he was brought to the guard house for stealing his own cattle? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Hey, don’t get upset with me.” said Lazarus. “I’m just answering your question.”
“I know, I know.” I said, letting him know I wasn’t mad at him. “It just doesn’t add up. Let’s head over to the encampment after school and see if we can figure out what really happened.”
When we arrived at the schoolhouse Mr. Adams wasn’t himself, he was visibly upset, and no one said a word as we settled into our seats; We didn’t have to.
Mr. Adams’ hands were on his hips and he was slowly pacing back and forth. “Boys…I’m really not sure what happened this weekend but as of yesterday, one of our own, Sam Meeker of Redding Ridge, has been detained and could face court martial trial as early as this Wednesday.”
The majority of us already knew about Sam, but the graveness of his voice really hammered home the severity of the situation.
“Several months ago, I invited Mr. Heron here to discuss the dangers the encampments might bring. The concerns we had back then have been validated but from this point forward, we must focus on the positives and learn from the lessons these encampments have to teach us.”
We all nodded in agreement and Mr. Adams spent the remainder of the day explaining to us what to expect throughout the Court-Martial process.
Chapter Eight- The Trials
Sam was the final soldier to plead his case. James Gibbons, John Smith and Edward Jones of Brigadier General Jedediah Huntington’s Second Connecticut Brigade were the first and all but Gibbons had pled “not guilty”. Gibbons standing silent and shaking with emotion, was asked several times to state his defense but remained despondent. The judge, realizing his condition decided to move forward and redirected his attention to Sam.
“Samuel Eliphalet Meeker of Brigadier General Samuel H. Parsons’ First Connecticut Brigade… how do you plead?”
“Not guilty your Honor.”
“Very well.” said the judge adjusting himself into an upright position in his seat to focus again on Gibbons. “Private Gibbons, step forward.”
Gibbons looked into the crowd nervously before mustering the courage to do so.
“Private Gibbons,” said the judge in a surprisingly compassionate manner. “do you have any witnesses; anyone to speak on your behalf?”
“Will the witness and/or witnesses for Private James Gibbons please step forward.”
The room was staggered to see Anne Sullivan, a local girl of just sixteen years of age, quietly weave her way through the crowd to present herself before the court.
As glares darted, brows furrowed, and shoulders shrugged around the room, Anne Sullivan stood bravely prepared for questioning.
Intrigued by the reaction of the crowd the judge quickly began his interrogation: “Please state your name and your relationship with the prisoner.”
“My name is Anne Sullivan, I met James Gibbons soon after his Brigade arrived here in Redding two months ago and I’ve done work and drawn provisions at his encampment for the past 23 days.”
“And your relationship?” Asked the judge, clasping his hands together and leaning forward until his elbows gently came to a rest on the table.
“Our relationship is irrelevant. That’s not why he stands trial today. James Gibbons is innocent of the charges placed against him, James Gibbons is not a thief.”
“What do you have to share that proves to us the Private Gibbons isn’t a thief? We have witnesses, several in fact, that have stated that he is guilty of stealing and butchering Thomas Bartram’s calf on the night of December 22nd.”
Anne Sullivan’s reply was brief: “James did not steal that calf, Jones and Smith did. James’ only fault is for being at the wrong place at the wrong time and I am to blame for that. James is innocent.”
The judge’s eyes narrowed, “Why are you to blame for James’ involvement in this incident?”
She didn’t have to answer, her father was present and came forward in her defense.
“James was at our barn that afternoon, and I too can vouch for his innocence.”
“Thank you Squire Sullivan, but I must ask- why did Private Gibbons visit your barn on the afternoon in question?”
“He came to declare his intention to marry my daughter your honor.”
Loud gasps and frenzied whispers diffused through the crowd until the judge’s gavel came crashing down upon the table. With the room silenced and order restored the judge returned to questioning.
“What I am hearing is that it is plausible that Private Gibbons was not present when Private’s Jones and Smith stole Thomas Bartram’s calf, however, what I am not hearing is how Private Gibbons became a part of that crime. That is important, because he was apprehended with them.”
The judge turned to James- “Why were you there?”
Once again Gibbons stood silent.
“Private Gibbons, your life is on the line here and if you can’t muster up the courage to step forward and plead your case like the young lady you wish to marry and her Father just did for you, you will never see her again. Now please tell me, why were you there?”
The time had come, and Private Gibbons decided to speak.
“I left the Sullivan’s and was making my way back to the encampment when I encountered Private’s Jones and Smith just west of Colonel Read’s near the pines. I didn’t see them, they saw me and ambushed me near the swamp. I tried to get away but the snow was deep, I fell and they overtook me. Both of them are soldiers in my encampment, though I had not seen them for days. They often leave the encampment and go to enemy lines under the guise of seeking provisions. Our commander and General Putnam have knowledge of this. I was told that if I helped them with the calf, they’d let me go. We haven’t had much to eat at the encampments this winter and they had had enough. They were planning on making their way to British lines via Long Island Sound after eating the calf.”
“So, you’re saying that you were there essentially as a prisoner Private Gibbons?”
“Interesting. Brigadier General Jedediah Huntington. Please step forward to answer several questions with regard to this case.”
Brigadier General Huntington was a man of slight build and height and from where we were standing all we could see were people making room to let him pass as he made his way to stand before the judge. Several close to me crudely remarked about his lack of height. However, at his arrival before the judge his intellect not his physical appearance became the focus and it became unmistakably clear why he held the rank that he did.
“Brigadier General Huntington, are you aware of Private’s Jones and Smith? And, if so, have they been reprimanded previously for similar acts of insubordination and/or treason under your command?”
With his chest out, his feet together and his hands clenched quietly behind his back, Huntington calmly delivered a concise synopsis of his knowledge, his feelings and his recommendation for the case.
“Jones and Smith were both court martialed by my Brigade several weeks ago on similar charges. Private Jones was found guilty and sentenced to sixty lashes for stealing and selling a horse; Private Smith was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to one hundred lashes on the naked back. The leniency shown these soldiers at that time obviously did little to curb their behavior and it is my opinion that they will continue with their treasonous ways, as will others, unless this court acts with the resolve to return order and discipline to the army. My recommendation is to sentence them both to death by hanging in the presence of each and every soldier stationed here in Redding.”
The judge seemed to agree. “Very well, I will pass your recommendation on to the General.”
Gasps and frenzied whispers again diffused through the crowd. ‘Had the Brigadier General just sentenced these soldiers to death?!’ Again the judge’s gavel came crashing down upon the table.
“Brigadier General Huntington, how do you feel about the case against Private Gibbons?”
Huntington’s reply was succinct: “There is no case. Let him go immediately.”
“Thank you Brigadier General, you are free to return to your ranks.”
As Huntington made his way out of the building the Judge signalled to have Sam Meeker come again before him.
Sam made his way over to the judge and stood before him for questioning. The Judge’s demeanor had clearly changed, his body language was rigid; his face, cold and detached. It didn’t look good for Sam.
With Sam before him, the Judge looked over his notes and said: “Private Meeker, you have been charged with cattle theft and desertion of duty. You have pled not guilty. These are very serious charges Private, what do you have to share in your defense?”
Sam explained to the judge why he left his post and what had transpired after he had. “Your honor, I left my post that night to check on my family, they live next door to Captain Betts, and while I was there we heard commotion outside… loud noises, cows bawling, men shouting. I ran out to the fields to investigate what was going on and because of the moonlight, which was reflecting off the snow, I saw two men, the soldiers that arrested me, butchering one of our cattle in the field north of our home. I approached and accosted them, but they turned on me, bloodied my nose, knocked me down and tied my hands behind my back. From that point forward, I was the cattle thief, not them.”
“Private Meeker, you do understand that the credibility of your testimony is diminished by your family’s religious affiliation and the lack of a witness besides your family, don’t you?”
“Yes sir. But have you asked them what they were doing up on the Ridge that night? If I was with General Parsons, why would they be up there as well?”
“Perhaps they were looking for you. How long were you visiting with your family?”
“About an hour sir.”
“Just an hour?”
“Well, maybe a little more but…”
“Private Meeker, your role as lookout for Brigadier General Parsons was awarded to you because you have intimate knowledge of the Ridge. There are few in our ranks that know the Ridge as well as you do, and yet, on the evening in question you were overtaken by two soldiers in fields hundreds of yards away from your post, within feet of a butchered cow; Very troublesome Private, because, let me repeat, you were hundreds of yards away from your post, within feet of a butchered cow. Do you understand my quandary?”
With tears streaming down his cheeks Sam silently shook his head.
The Judge went on: “I understand your desire to be with your family, we all miss our loved ones, however, deserting your post is a serious charge; especially now, and couple that with sworn testimony from two soldiers that you killed a local’s cow with the intent to butcher and eat it and we have a very serious charge. If we, as an Army, do not address the troubling breakdowns in discipline and morale that we have and still are experiencing, we, as an Army, shall fail. I will not play a role in that failure.”
Very suddenly, the trial had taken a drastic turn for the worse.
Sam was shocked by what the Judge’s words implied, “Sir, please hear me out- General Parsons lets me see my family all the time! My family lives right next door and why? why would I kill my own cow?! It doesn’t make any sense!! They! The two soldiers you mentioned are the cattle thieves, they killed and intended to butcher the cow, not me!! I caught them at it, I swear. We heard them, I ran out into the fields to stop them. I swear. You can ask my brother Timmy, he was there, ask him and my mother, they were both…”
But the Judge had heard enough, his decision was already made.
“SILENCE!” The Judge boomed, rapping his gavel so firmly on the table that its hammer split from its handle: “This court has decided the following sentences- Privates Jones and Smith, deserters, spies and cattle thieves, are sentenced to hang by the neck until dead; Private Sam Meeker, a cattle thief who deserted his post on Redding Ridge, is sentenced to death by firing squad. This court is adjourned until further notice pending Major General Putnam’s approval.”
As the court cleared, Sam stood hunched and weeping. He was clearly dispirited, the case against him was strong and even though he was innocent, he didn’t stand much of a chance given the circumstances. From the rear entrance of the building that served as the court house, a dark figure entered and slowly made its way over to Sam, picking its way through the crowd methodically, careful not to bring attention to itself, intently watching the guards that would soon usher Sam away. Within 5 feet of him, the figure stopped and waited; waited for Sam to notice, he did.
Sam looked up in astonishment, “Reverend Beach, you…”
“Of course I came Sam, I obey God, not men.”
Sam fell into his arms and they stood that way silently for what seemed an eternity.
Reverend Beach broke the silence, “Sam, words cannot describe my sadness; words cannot erase your fear; words cannot take away the pain you shall soon bear for this Army and words cannot right the wrongs that this war has brought to our community. However, that being said, you must remember that what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined is what God has prepared for those who love him. I urge you to trust in the Lord with all your heart and stand strong in this hardship, the Lord will take care of the rest.”
These words resonated with Sam, he lifted his head from the Reverend’s chest with renewed spirit, and despite his teary eyes, smiled and nodded in agreement. The Reverend smiled back.
The room darkened as the sun disappeared behind the hills outside causing Sam to take a step back and turn to see if the guards were anywhere near. They were. Respectfully they had been watching and waiting for Sam and the Reverend to finish their good-byes. The time had come for Sam to be brave, and he was. With both hands bound and tied to his feet, Sam was led to the guardhouse.
Chapter Nine- Clemency Denied
General Putnam quickly approved the sentences and ordered that they be implemented on Saturday, between the hours of ten and twelve, with all troops present.
Reaction to the decision reverberated around town with fervor- some rejoicing; some lamenting.
Me and Stephen were on the lamenting side of the table, feeling badly for Tim and pondering what we could do to lessen his sorrow when Tom came running up the hillside…
“Jonas! Jonas!! Come. Follow me to my hut; Stephen! Go to Colonel Read’s, get his boiling pot and meet us by the mill pond. He’s waiting for you and has his oxen team ready with the pot loaded.”
“What’s the matter Tom?” I asked.
“Hurry Jonas!!” Tom was already at full stride, waving his arm wildly, urging me to follow him.
He was serious. I got up and ran, ran as fast as I could.
By the time I got to his hut Tom already had three foraging bags ready and waiting to be transported down to the mill pond.
“Take them, take them down to the river Jonas.”
“What is it?”
“Medicine for what?”
“Jonas!!! TAKE THEM!”
I grabbed the bags and ran.
I made it to the mill pond just as Stephen was charring the fire.
“I’m ready for some tinder, can you grab some Jonas?”
“Sure.” I said, going to get some dry grass and pine needles.
While I was gone, Tom arrived and aligned the ox cart in a way that allowed us to easily get the pot over the fire.
I added the tinder and little by little the flames grew stronger. Luckily, there was a lot of birch bark available and we added that next; Oak twigs and branches went on top of that pile, (which lit up quickly) and as soon as there were coals, we added dried logs and the fire seemed ready.
“How hot do we need it Tom?” Stephen asked.
“Hot enough to boil water.” was his answer.
“Okay. We’re there.” Said Stephen.
The pot weighed close to 150 lbs. and the heat from the fire made it difficult to maneuver the pot into place but with the help of a winch hoist we managed to get it positioned over the fire and started filling it with water.
Once the water was boiling Tom emptied the contents of the bags into the pot.
“What are we doing Tom?” I asked.
“We need to steep these pitcher plant leaves into tea.”
“There’s a smallpox outbreak at the middle camp. Nasco, Tepan and Titus, one of the African American soldiers are sick; very sick. This tea will break their fevers and then we can get them out of here.”
“Yes. We… you, me and Stephen.”
“What about my family?”
“Do you think they’d help too?”
His question caught me off guard. “Well, that’s not what I meant, but, yes, I think they would.”
“Good. Go home and ask them. I’m going to take the tea to the soldiers at their encampment and stay there overnight. Meet me here tomorrow morning and we’ll discuss our trip North.”
“Yes. We’re going to Kent.”
“Kent? Why Kent? That’s at least two days from here if we’re walking.”
“I’ll explain everything tomorrow Jonas. Go home, rest, let your family in on what’s going on with the soldiers and if they have interest in helping us have them join you when you return tomorrow morning. Okay?”
Philip and David listened intently as I explained what Tom seemed to be proposing; both nodding in agreement. It matched both their personalities perfectly… Philip was adventurous and David was compassionate.
Philip spoke first, he always does. “So what you’re saying is that Tom is looking to secretly remove these soldiers from their encampment?”
“Yes.” I said, “That’s how I understand it and he wants to take them to Kent, Connecticut.”
“Why?” asked David.
“I think that’s where the soldiers are from, at least that’s what I believe he once told me.” I answered.
“No. I mean, why does he want to remove them from their encampment?” said David clarifying his question.
“Because they are sick with smallpox.” I said.
“Is it contagious?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never even heard of smallpox. We can ask tomorrow.”
“Okay,” said David “but let’s ask Tom that question before we get anywhere near the soldiers.”
I shook my head in agreement, Philip did too.
It was a fitful night’s sleep for me, I tossed and turned enduring a strange mixture of odd dreams and ponderous thoughts about what we may be doing, what we may encounter and what dangers may lay ahead. Kent was a ways away from Redding but not completely foreign in our minds because Tom had told us so many stories about it over the years. I wasn’t worried about Kent, but I was worried about getting to Kent. So worried, that I asked Tom about it as soon as we arrived back at the millpond.
“Tom, how are we going to do this? It’s not like going to Danbury or Ridgefield, that’s easy, but this, this is different, this is a very dangerous trip.”
David didn’t give him a chance to answer.
“Tom, Jonas is right, before we can even consider this trip, we need to know if we are at risk of getting sick too. Are these soldiers contagious?”
Tom answered with complete honesty. “Smallpox can be very contagious David, it killed many of our people long ago, but from what I know and what I have seen, these soldiers are not highly contagious right now. The tea we made for them yesterday broke their fevers, and should prevent mouth sores from forming. That’s important because in most cases, when the mouth sores form, the sick become highly contagious. So far, the sores have not formed, but that does not mean we can be careless, we must carefully prepare ourselves for the worse and take precautions to prevent any chance of transmission along the way.”
David seemed relieved. “Good. So you’ve thought this through.”
“So what’s the plan?” Philip was completely onboard and eager to move forward.
Tom smiled engagingly back at Philip.
“What takes place this Saturday Philip?”
“The executions. Everyone knows that.”
Tom didn’t say a word, didn’t have to. His sly grin said it all.
“That’s brilliant!” shouted David.
Philip looked confused.
“You don’t get it Philip?” David asked in astonishment.
“No, what do the executions have to do with transporting sick soldiers?”
“Everything.” Tom said laughingly.
David, playing along, dropped a clue, “What were General Putnam’s orders when he approved the sentences?”
“I don’t know…” Philip was having a really hard time connecting the dots.
David shook his head in disgust, “He ordered that they were to be executed together(to make an example), and…”
Philip finally got it, “oooooh, and ALL troops must be present to witness the executions. Wow, Tom. That is a brilliant.”
I wasn’t buying it. “What makes you think the Army will leave the encampment unguarded Tom? There’s plenty of spies in these parts, Tories too. Wouldn’t that open up a pretty good opportunity for an ambush?”
Tom shrugged his shoulders. “I never said there wouldn’t be guards.”
David smiled broadly. “What do you know that we don’t Tom?”
“The Army moved their military hospital from Bedford, New York to Danbury this past Summer. Soldiers have been transported back and forth between Redding and Danbury for treatments and convalescence since the troops arrived here. What we’re doing is in no danger of raising red flags; You three are teamsters and I’m the Indian interpreter.”
“What about Titus?”
“We talked about that last night.” Said Tom. “Titus won’t be going with us to Kent.”
“His situation is different.”
“You don’t think he’d make it?”
“No, it’s more than that. Nasco, Tepan are Native American Indians and Titus isn’t.
“Where will he go?”
“It’s not well known, but, up on Redding Ridge (on the Newtown side of town) there are two freed slaves.”
“Thomas and Venus??”
Yes. Thomas and Venus. How do you know them?”
“My Dad sells them wood when they need it and they’ve had a lot of projects lately.”
Tom smiled. “Do you think your Dad would make a special delivery to the Freeman’s if we asked him?”
“You mean Titus?”
Tom nodded hopefully.
“I think we’d have better luck asking my Uncle Henry, I can ask him for you. Do you want me to?”
“Yes.” said Tom “Tell him we’d like to meet him at the corner of Wolf’s Pit and Sunset Hill on Saturday at 10:30am.”
“What about Nasco and Tepan?” asked David.
“They’ll be with us too. After we deliver Titus to Henry, we’ll head north on Taylor Road toward Shelter Rock and the military hospital.”
“But aren’t we going to Kent?” Interrupted Philip.
“Yes. But we need to do so carefully and convincingly, remember we are teamsters transporting soldiers to the military hospital. If we take an outside route, our story has no credibility.”
“Do we have to go all the way to the military hospital?” David asked.
“Not quite,” said Tom “we’ll be using Limekiln Brook and the Still River to make our way through Danbury, so we’ll only go as far as Shelter Rock by road; then it’s all water travel from there.”
Philip was thrilled. “This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime!”
I wasn’t so sure, it still seemed dangerous to me. I managed a weak smile and tried to look as confident as my brothers, but deep down inside I was nervous and my stomach was in knots.
“Meet me at my hut after dinner tonight,” said Tom “I want to go over the plan several times before Saturday, we all need to know what to expect, what to do and when to do it.”
“David, make sure you ask your Uncle about transporting Titus this afternoon. If he can’t do it, we’ll need to find someone else quickly. Can I count on you to ask him?”
“Of course.” said David nodding affirmatively. “Consider it done.”
“Good. See you all tonight.”
Chapter Ten- The Trip to Weantinoge Begins
Tom’s planning abilities were legendary. For decades he’d led expeditions for both John and Zalmon Read and in that role had honed the skills of a hunter, tracker, survivalist and guide. His knowledge perfectly fit the needs of the trip and in our planning sessions we’d been over each and every scenario possible. As I layed in bed waiting for the sun to rise, I was absent of fear; there was no need for it, I knew exactly where we were going and what to expect.
The encampment was empty when we arrived. General Putnam had warned a zero tolerance policy for attendance at the executions and that warning was heeded. Our presence was announced by the guard at the gate, and we were all checked for weaponry and patted down; formalities we all found amusing given the camp’s vacancy. Passing inspection we made our way to the make-shift infirmary at the very far end of the camp and prepared ourselves and the wagon to extract the soldiers safely.
We had already broken the wagon into thirds, one third per soldier, and lined each with canvas and bed sheets to prevent them from touching or rolling into one another along the way. None of the soldiers had yet to show any signs of sores or rashes but we needed to remain diligent, smallpox was highly contagious and we had to be mindful of the danger.
My sister Abby had helped Tom create three canvas stretchers with extended handles that allowed us to carry each soldier individually to the wagon without touching them or the sheets they were wrapped in.
Titus was loaded on first, followed by Nasco and Tepan. Tom said if Uncle Henry positioned his wagon the way we had requested him to later, it would be a fast, easy exchange from one wagon to another, and our risk of discovery would be lessened considerably.
The final detail was the canvas tarp cover we placed over the wagon, it had enough space to circulate air for the soldiers and it protected us from breathing in anything that might go airbourne as we traveled.
We left the camp and turned left towards Bethel at approximately 10:15am. The road was empty, the sky was clear and there wasn’t any wind at all. There was only the sound of clip-clopping hooves and squeaking wheels. It was entrancing, I stared ahead and thought of nothing, the sounds enveloped me; it was a calm, surreal feeling. I think we all felt it, no one said a word, we all just looked ahead and listened.
At the west end of town, Sam, having just witnessed the executions of Jones and Smith and knowing his turn was next, fainted. Reverend Evans, General Poor's Brigade Chaplain, made his way over to him to help him up.
While Evans got Sam back to his feet, the Rev. Nathaniel Bartlett, a pastor in Redding, approached General Putnam in a last minute attempt to save his life.
“General Putnam, Sir, may I have a word with you?”
The General nodded agreeably.
“Sir, I plead for your leniency with regard to Private Meeker’s sentence. Commander, he’s only a youth, not more than 17 years of age. Surely a reprieve could be granted with good cause. Perhaps because he is a youth, General Washington could be consulted for his opinion of this case?”
The General shook his head no.
“General, please… He’s a good boy, a local boy, an Anglican church member who joined your Army to fight for this country’s freedom…”
Emotionless, General Putnam stared blankly at the Reverend and said: “There will be no reprieval today.”
Defeated, the Reverend turned and crossed the field to the gallows where Sam was waiting. Sam was visibly weak, relying completely on Reverend Evans to remain upright. Reverend Bartlett he took a deep breath, forced a weak smile and said: “Let your heart not be troubled Sam, you believe in God.” Sam’s eyes dropped downward, this was a new experience for him, his situation was dismal but the Reverend’s kindness strengthened his spirit.
As Sam wrestled with his feelings, the Reverend Bartlett slowly made the sign of the cross and proclaimed: “By this sign you are anointed with the grace of the atonement of Jesus Christ and are absolved of all past error and freed to take your place in the World he has prepared for you.”
Sam stood squarely for the first time all morning and then, together, all three marched arm in arm from the gallows to the place where Sam was to be shot.
After positioning Sam in front of a wall of trees, Reverend’s Bartlett and Evans exited and Putnam raised his sword, signalling the firing squad to release their safeties.
The hemlocks Sam had been placed against magnified his silhouette dramatically.
His executioners aligned just 40 yards uphill from him had clear shots and when the General dropped his sword, not one of them missed.
The shots echoed through the valley, like rolling thunder. We were halfway through the path to Wolf Pit’s when they crashed into the granite cliffs above us.
“Whoooooa!!” Tom pulled the team’s reins back hard when he heard it bringing us to a screeching halt just before the final shot was fired.
We sat a few minutes listening to it reverberate.
“Poor Sam.” said David. “The last time we talked, I asked him why he was still fighting and if he was worried about getting killed. He said: ‘Nobody wants to get killed, but you should be willing to die for your principles.’ I wonder if he ever imagined that it would be his own troops that would kill him.”
“I doubt it.” said Philip. “Look at how his Dad died.”
“War is never fair.” said Tom. “Sam died fighting in a War he didn’t understand; His Father died ignoring a War he understood completely.”
We all nodded silently, there was nothing more to say.
Uncle Henry met us as planned at the corner of Wolf’s Pit and Sunset Hill and we quickly transferred Titus into his wagon. There wasn’t a soul around to witness it.
“Good luck boys!” said Uncle Henry gleefully as he spurred his horse team onward.
Our route was a lot easier than his was, but he didn’t care. Sunset Hill was home to his girl Harriet and he was happy to help us while simultaneously making himself look good in the process.
For us, driving through Wolf Pit’s was the perfect plan. It was swampy, cold and uninhabited, especially this time of year; pretty much everyone avoided it.
From Wolf Pit’s, we bounced our way down to Taylor’s Road and followed it to the corner of Shelter Rock. We arrived well before Noon and pulled off near a small landing above the brook.
Tom tied up the horses and grabbed his knapsack. “Stay here and if anyone stops to ask questions, tell them that you’re awaiting clearance from the Hospital.”
We sat tight and awaited Tom’s return.
He didn’t take long. Within 10 minutes he was back whispering to us through the tangle of vines that hung by the wagon.
“David. Philip. Use the wagon as cover and come down to the brook to help me.”
That left me all alone with the soldiers and I can’t say that I was all that confident in that role. Traffic was heavy on Shelter Rock Road and I worried that someone would stop and start asking me questions.
Luckily, that wasn’t an issue. Tom, Philip and David were back within minutes to transfer the soldiers to their sled.
They moved slowly and carefully, carrying them individually to prevent any chance of transmitting their disease.
Down at the brook, Nasco and Tepan were loaded and packed heavily with blankets in preparation for their long trek above the ice.
Overhead, clouds colored charcoal grey had overtaken clear, light blue skies; a change of
scenery that was either ominous or providing us cover we needed to complete our escape.
“It looks frozen.” said Tom grabbing a rope and jumping across the brook. “But don’t let that fool you. Underneath is moving water, make sure you keep close to shore.”
I jumped across to help Tom while Philip and David took hold of the rope on the western shore.
“To Weantinoge.” whispered Nasco.
“To Weantinoge.” echoed Tepan.
“Weantinoge?” I said, turning to Tom. “I thought you said we were going to Kent?”
Tom chuckled at my confusion. “Weantinoge” means “The Homeland” and that is what Kent is to them.”
“Ohhhh. Okay. That makes sense” Then I chuckled too.
We could hear the Falls long before we got near them. Along the way, Tom had told us how important they were to the Indians in this region. Located 40 miles north of Long Island Sound, the Great Falls, blocked large fish, eels, and lamprey who were attempting to travel up the Housatonic River during spawning season. Tom said that for thousands of years it was a very popular spot where Native Americans came to hunt, fish, convene and share the stories of their people.
Above the Falls, a Chief named Waramaug once had a large rectangular house that was lined with a paper-like bark on the interior so that his visitors could draw pictures of the animals and fish they had seen during their time here. It was said that colorful hand drawn pictures adorned each guest room from floor to ceiling. I found that intriguing and asked if we could see it. Sadly, Tom said, the house no longer existed, it had burned to the ground during a lightning storm many years ago but he promised to show us the Falls on our way back home to Redding.
I agreed to his alternative. At that moment, I was agreeable to anything. We had been dragging the soldier’s sled all afternoon, walking along the shores of a brook that was never meant to be traveled in the way we were traveling it. The tangled mess of trees, briers and brush that lined it had taken a heavy toll on our clothing and I was beginning to worry about what would happen if all the ripping and tearing we’d endured today continued.
“Tom, can we stop? I’m tired and cold.”
David and Philip quickly backed me, which made me feel less guilty.
“We’re almost there.” said Tom. “Do you hear how loud the Falls sound?”
We all said “Yes.” The thunderous roar was indubitable.
“That means we’re close.” said Tom. “The Falls are just to our right and in about a half mile we’ll have reached the Housatonic River. That’s where we are going to rest tonight and I have a surprise planned when we get there.”
We all smiled, our strength renewed by hope and excitement.
The water narrowed about 100 yards up stream and Tom had us all cross over to the west side.
“Why are we crossing here, Tom?” Philip asked.
“This is the safest place to cross,” he said. “Crossing here keeps us out of danger and gets us all to the western side before we reach the Housatonic. That’s important, you’ll see.”
It didn’t take long to see what Tom was saying. The waterway we had been following was for the most part narrow and serpentine, but after we got beyond the Falls it widened considerably. There was a lot of ice and a lot of room for something to go wrong and we were thankful to have avoided it.
We had been walking a good eight (8) hours, we were tired, we were hungry, we were mentally spent and our clothes were tattered. But all that changed when we reached the bend and saw that welcoming glow. Tom had staged it all perfectly- a bonfire glowing over the Housatonic in a light snowstorm surrounded by a large group of smiling faces, it was the ideal ending to a very eventful day.
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