[Illustration: “I’m the prisoner!”]
“Fellows’ and Parsons’ brigades, Brereton.”
“If they are as good at fighting as at thieving, they’ll distinguish themselves.”
“Ay,” laughed Muffin. “If the red coats were but chickens or cattle, the New England militia would have had them all captured ere now.”
“They’ll be hearn from to-day,” said a third officer. “They’ve earthworks to git behind, and they’ll give the British anuther Bunker Hill.”
“Then you ought to be quick, General Putnam,” said Brereton, “for that ’s the fighting you like.”
The road lay in the hollow of the land, and not till the party reached a slight rise were they able once more to get a glimpse of the shores of the bay. Then it was to find the flotilla well in toward its intended landing-place, and the American troops retreating in great disorder from their breastworks.
Exclamations of surprise and dismay sprang from the lips of the riders, and their leader, turning his horse, jumped the fence and galloped across the fields to intercept the fugitives. Five minutes brought them up to the runaways, who, out of breath with the sharpness of their pace, had come to a halt, and were being formed by their officers into a little less disorder.
“General Fellows, what was the reason for this shameful retreat?” demanded the general, when within speaking distance.
“The men were seized with a panic on the approach of the boats, your Excellency, and could not be held in the lines.”
Washington faced the regiments, his face blazing with scorn. “You ran before a shot had been fired! Before you lost a man, you deserted works that have taken weeks to build, and which could be held against any such force.” He paused for a moment, and then, drawing his sword, he called with spirit: “Who’s for recovering them?”
A faint cheer passed down the lines; but almost as it sounded, the red coats of fifty or sixty light infantry came into view on the road, a skirmishing party thrown forward from the landing to reconnoitre. Had they been Howe’s whole army, however, they could not have proved more effective, for instantly the two brigades broke and dissolved once more into squads of flying men.
At such cowardice, Washington lost all control of himself, and, dashing in among the fugitives, he passionately struck right and left with the flat of his sword, thundering curses at them; while Putnam and Muffin, as well as the aides, followed his example. It was hopeless, however, to stay the rush; the men took the blows and the curses unheeding, while throwing away their guns and scattering in every direction.
Made frantic by such conduct, Washington wheeled his horse. “Charge!” he cried, and rode toward the enemy, waving his sword.
If the commander-in-chief had hoped to put some of his own courage into the troops by his example, he failed. Not a man of the runaways ceased fleeing. None the less, as if regardless of consequences in his desperation, Washington rode on, until one of the aides dashed his spurs into his horse and came up beside his general at a mad gallop.