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Volume 13, Issue 5: Pictura

A Rappahannock Battle

Douglas Wilson

twelve pirates, led by an Irish brigand named James O' Conner, is leading two prisoners, Captain Monroe and Thomas Ingle. Thomas is a very young man. The pirates are frantic as they search for signs of a treasure hidden by another pirate band—but they find themselves soon enough distracted.

The band made its way up the southern bank of a wide creek, a bank which sloped gradually down to the water's edge and was covered in the oak leaves and acorns of autumn. The rains had not yet started, and so the leaves reflected golden light in quiet peace. It was mid-afternoon and the sunlight slanted down through the trees, which were spaciously arranged, and not at all clustered together. All along the beams of sunlight, gnats moved silently, unaware of the excitement down below them.
Thomas was in the middle of the pirates, and was far enough behind Captain Monroe that talking was impossible. But even if they had been close enough to speak, their pace would have made speaking very difficult. Thomas wondered what the captain was thinking, and whether it was possible for him to have any plan at all.
The pirates were spread out in two columns, with several of them in the middle watching the prisoners from behind and prodding them occasionally with the butt of a musket. Despite the late day of autumn, O' Conner's face was beaded with sweat. "They had no time to dig," he remarked. "No time. It has to be in some sort of cave." At his command, the men in the column farther down the downward slope would occasionally trot even further in order to peer at gullies for any sign of disturbance in the leaves, or some kind of cave entrance.
"How long do we do this?" someone asked. The pirates were all breathing hard, and the backs of their grimy homespun shirts were damp with sweat.
"Shut it, lads. You'll run to the mountains and back when I tell you. Don't you boys want a little bit of treasure?"
Thomas saw the captain looking occasionally at the sun, and thought he must be calculating the time for daylight left. Thomas tried to do the same thing, but didn't think he could do it as well as any of the experienced sailors there. Still, he thought there must be several hours left—but they were still heading inland up the creek. Finding their way back to the longboat after dark would be an ordeal.
Suddenly O' Conner stopped and raised his left hand. The band behind him staggered to a stop. Thomas craned to look ahead and what he saw changed the nature of all of his worries. About thirty yards ahead of them was a solitary Rappahannock brave. He simply stood there, his bow laid across the crook of his left arm.
The pirates stood, whispering among themselves. O' Conner stood and stared at the warrior, but hissed for one of the pirates to join him. "Carter!" Thomas thought to himself it was probably because Carter was the least stupid of a stupid lot. Carter walked quietly up and stood alongside O' Conner. Carter whispered, "Can you see if he's got paint on?"
O' Conner shook his head, and muttered an oath. "He is standing in shadow. If he has the paint on, then he cain't be alone. But if he is huntin' . . ."
Carter replied, "See here . . . if he is hunting, he wouldn't stand there looking at us. There must be others."
"How many others though?"
"We should try him, see what he might do. Walk straight at him, then stop again."
"No, not yet." O' Conner said. "When we were at that tavern down the coast a fortnight ago, was there any talk of Indian trouble?"
"I don't remember nothin'," says he.
Thomas stared at the back of O' Conner's neck and wondered at the strange fate that put his safety under this man's wisdom. After another moment, O' Conner decided to greet the warrior to try to parley. He stepped out in front of their small band, lowered his musket til it rested on the ground, and raised his right hand. "Hoy!" With that the brave turned quietly around and disappeared into a cluster of bracken.
Visibly shaken, O' Conner gave an order, and the pirates circled, facing out, their backs to one another. O' Conner glared at the prisoners, and gestured them into the middle. Captain Monroe and Thomas stood there for a few moments, hands still tied in front of them. Thomas kept trying to swallow, but his tongue was getting in the way. He hoped that Captain Monroe couldn't see his fear. He thought of his mother, not for the first time since his adventures had started. She still thinks I am on a sloop sailing to Jamaica to sell tobacco.
"O' Conner." It was Captain Monroe.
"What d'ye want?"
"You have two extra hands here. If you can spare two cutlasses, we can help if it comes to a fight."
O' Conner turned his shrewd ferret face around, still glistening with sweat. "D'ye take me for a fool then?"
"Not at all. May I speak freely?"
O' Conner nodded. Captain Monroe said, "Thomas and I would escape from you any chance we get. We want to be free, sure enough. But being free has certain conditions on it, and staying alive is one of them. I give you my word that if we come through a battle with the Indians, we will give our cutlasses back to you without a fight, and look for our freedom another way."
"Your word!" O' Conner was still staring at where the solitary brave had disappeared. He spat on the ground.
"Don't take me for a fool," Captain Monroe said. "We are likely surrounded by Indians. Do you think I would take a cutlass and start a fight with you just now?"
O' Connor stood silent another moment, then gave an order, and Carter stepped forward and undid their bands with a dirk he had in his belt. The brown rope had been tightly fastened to their wrists, and when they were free, Thomas and the captain stood quietly rubbing their wrists for a few moments. Carter walked around the pirate band and came back to them with two pistols and two cutlasses. Without ceremony or comment, he handed the weapons over. The captain nodded to Thomas, and they stepped up to join the pirate line. Thomas was facing uphill, away from the creek. He felt better with a cutlass and pistol—just as frightened, but far less helpless.
O' Conner gave another command, and the group began to move slowly and awkwardly back in the direction of the creek mouth. It had taken them an hour and a half to get to this place at full stride. Thomas licked his lips nervously. How long would it take to get back with them trying to keep watch in every direction? Instead of walking straight on, some of them were sidling, a few were walking backwards, and those in front were walking slowly, looking carefully around.
As they walked, their nerves grew more and more frayed. The woods around them were quiet, and the gnats continued to meander all over their straight golden road oblivious to all human concerns. The men continued on this way for the space of a quarter hour, and they began to hope, most of them, that the warrior had simply been hunting deer and had returned to his task.
Just as the spirits of the band had begun to improve, the woods were filled with a single scream, like a hog being butchered. The wail went on and on for a long moment until it trailed off into a hellish sort of howling. Thomas went weak at the knees, and he could feel the color go out of his face. A moment later, the faint echo of the scream came back over from the opposite side of the creek. The captain leaned over to Thomas, "Courage, lad," he whispered. "This may be your time to become a man. Let's watch out for each other." Thomas nodded.
The small group of men had clustered closer together, and they continued on, knowing they were going to be attacked, and looking for a small mound of earth or group of fallen trunks to defend. A heavy bee buzzed by his head, so Thomas shook it violently, and stood baffled a moment later when Carter fell over with an arrow through his throat. The captain grabbed Thomas by the shoulder and pushed him down til he was kneeling behind a tree, looking up the hill. They all crouched this way, waiting for what seemed an hour. But Thomas looked at the sun again and realized it could only have been a few minutes.
"O' Conner." It was the captain again. There was a brief growl, which Captain Monroe took as an invitation to continue. "If we stay here and wait for dark, we have a chance. If we walk in the daylight, they can just start sending your men off to hell like your poor Carter. But if they see us settling in here, they will attack to keep us from getting to sundown when we can try to slip away."
O' Conner started to nod but before he had a chance to fully agree, the war screams began again, this time from multiple places. Some even came from below, down toward the creek. O' Conner looked around at the men. For all his cruelty and avarice, he was brave enough. "I will cry fire twice. Baker, Smith, Hawkins, Cooper, Jonas, you fire the first round. For the rest of you, I will wait til they are hard to miss, you can lay to that."
About ten minutes later, as they stared out into the woods, tense and ready for anything besides more waiting, the attack finally came. Arrows began to whir by them, coming alongside the slope lengthwise—from both directions. The screams were coming from uphill, and a line of about twenty braves appeared running down the slope toward them, tomahawks in hand.
"Fire!" O' Conner roared. A musket fired near Thomas' head, and other puffs of smoke appeared around the small huddled group. About three Indians pitched forward into the leaves, but the rest did not slow their howling attack at all.
Thomas pulled his pistol out of his belt. The captain shouted at him, "Don't use that until they are really close. Use it once, and go to the cutlass." Thomas nodded and prayed he would fight well. He thought briefly that he didn't know how to pray any more than he knew how to fight.
Thoughts were coming into his mind with unusual vividness. I am going to kill a man now, he thought, and raised the pistol. He saw off to the side that Captain Monroe had done the same. They waited until the line of Indians was about ten yards away. "Fire!" O' Conner yelled again. Thomas fired his pistol, and saw the warrior he was aiming at stumble and fall. Then everything disappeared in a cloud of smoke and confusion, and a moment later the Indians were on them out of the smoke, and then the fighting was hand to hand. Thomas scrambled to his feet, as the others had done, cutlass in his right hand. One of the braves was facing away from him and Thomas slashed at his tomahawk hand from behind. He wasn't sure he hit anything, and he realized he didn't know how to fight with a cutlass.
Thomas turned quickly the other way, and fell over backward as one of the braves threw himself on top of him and raised his tomahawk. Thomas desperately grabbed at his arm with his left hand, but the warrior's skin was oiled and his hand slipped off. He couldn't move his right arm with the cutlass. Suddenly, mercifully, the Indian fell sideways off him, headless. Captain Monroe pulled Thomas to his feet. "Here—stand back to back!"
As they did, they could see immediately how the battle was going. The arrows had stopped once the close fighting was joined, and the gunfire had brought the number of the contending bands about even. About seven Indians lay motionless on the ground, and about three of the pirates, not counting Carter. For a moment the fight drifted away from the two.
O' Conner was still fighting, and the remainder of his men were near him, about twenty feet from Thomas and Captain Monroe. The way was clear for the two prisoners to run off, and take their risks with the archers, however many of them there were. Captain Monroe and Thomas looked at each other, without having to say anything.
"I gave my word," Captain Monroe said, and threw himself back into the fight. "To a pirate," thought Thomas, and followed him.
Pirates are evil men, but it is important to acknowledge they are good at some things. They are very capable fighters. The Indians had been on the warpath, but they had been looking for settlers—men who farmed for a living, and who fought occasionally in self-defense. In this band of pirates, they encountered men who fought for their livelihood, and their manner of fighting was not too civilized either.
The battle lasted for another five minutes, and ended when one tall brave, most probably the leader, fell to the ground and was quickly killed by O' Conner. One of the other pirates had slashed his legs from behind at the knees, and when he fell, and even before O' Conner finished him, the other warriors ran off.
The remaining men stood without a word, breathing heavily. "Murdering heathen," said someone finally, probably Hawkins. "Said the pirate," thought Thomas. There were six of the pirates left, and Thomas, and Captain Monroe. "Shall we go?" said the captain, and O' Conner nodded. "I'll be hanged if we stay here."
There were more Indians they had not yet seen, the ones who had been shooting the arrows, plus the braves who had retreated, but in the aftermath of the immediate battle, there was no sign of any of them. There couldn't have been many all together. Maybe with their leader killed, they decided they had to alter their course. Whatever the reason, the Indians had all disappeared.
As they walked along, the excitement of Thomas' first battle quickly faded. He felt a tremor in his arms, and he looked down at his left hand. His right arm was steadied by the weight of the cutlass, but his left hand was shaking in a way he did not believe was possible.
The sun was lowering, and the shadows of the trees stretched a long way ahead of them. After the heat and sweat of battle, the early evening brought a quick chill. The distant sky was visible through the trees, and Thomas could see a thin line of clouds above the setting sun. After the bright autumn sunlight earlier, the sunset was understated, and the clouds looked like the inside of a faded oyster shell.
Although they walked briskly, the sun was soon down, and the twilight was long advancing when they came near the mouth of the creek where they had left the boat.
"O' Conner," the captain said, and O' Conner, who had been at the head of the column, turned around.
"I gave you my word," the captain said, and he took his cutlass and offered it to the pirate leader, hilt first. Thomas followed him a step behind, and did the same. O' Conner looked at the two of them, and shook his head. "Well, if that ain't faith enow."
"I'll put one to that," said one of the other pirates. "They both fought like they was your lads."
O' Conner just stood there a time. Then he said, "Tain't natural for a pirate to take a man's sword that way. You can come with us in the longboat now, or you can take your chances here."
Captain Monroe bent his head gratefully. "As much as we enjoy your company, O' Conner, I believe we want to stay here."
O' Conner bowed, a mock attempt at an inscrutable gallantry that some pirates cultivated, and turned to his remaining men. "I didn't want to see the color of their insides anyhow. All hands down to the boat."
"Ay, cap'n," one of them said, and with that, the pirates scuttered down the hill, kicking leaves as they slid down toward the water.
Captain Monroe and Thomas stood on a rock at the top of the hill, and they quietly watched the dark water below through the trees. After a short time, they heard splashing and the creak of oars echoing off the water. Finally, the captain pointed silently, and they both could see the shadow of a boat pulling out to the mouth of the creek. Then he turned to his young companion. "Always keep your word, Thomas."
"Ay, ay," Thomas murmured.

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