“Halt!” was the order to the troops as they came up to the riders, and the officer took the pass that the squire held out to him. “What hour left you Trenton?” he demanded.
“And heard you any firing after leaving?” asked Colonel Mawhood, eagerly.
“Not a sound.”
“I fear none the less that the fighting will be all over ere the Seventeenth can get there, much more the Fortieth and Fifty-fifth,” he grumbled, as he returned the paper. “Attention! Sections, break off! Forward—march!”
The order, narrowing the column, allowed the squire and Janice to ride on and cross the bridge. On the other side of the stream a by-road joined the turnpike, and as Janice glanced along it, she gave a cry of surprise. “Look, dadda,” she prompted, “there are more troops!”
“Ay,” acceded Mr. Meredith, “’t is the rest of the brigade just coming in view.”
“But that leads not from Princeton,” observed Janice. “’T is the roundabout way to Trenton that joins the river road on the other side of Assanpink Creek. And, oh, dadda, look at the uniforms! Is ’t not the hunting shirt of the Continental riflemen?”
“Gadsbodikins, if the lass is not right!” grunted the squire, when he had got on his glasses. “What the deuce do they here?”
An equal curiosity apparently took possession of the British colonel, for when the Seventeenth had breasted the hill to a point where the American advance could be seen, the regiment was hastily halted, and in another moment, reversing direction, returned on its route at double quick, its commander supposing the force in sight a mere detachment which he could capture or cut to pieces, and little recking that Washington’s whole army, save for a guard to keep their camp-fires burning, had stolen away in the night from the superior force of British at Trenton, with the object of attacking the fourth brigade at Princeton.
“By heavens!” snorted the squire, in alarm. “Quicken thy pace, Jan. We are out of the frying-pan and into the fire with a vengeance.” Then as the horses were put to a trot, he howled with the pain the motion caused his swathed foot. “Spur on to Princeton, Jan. The pace is more than I can bear, and I’ll turn off into this orchard for safety,” he moaned, as he indicated a slope to the right of the road.
“I’ll not leave thee, dadda,” protested the girl, as she guided the mare over the let-down bars of the fence, through which her father put Joggles, and in a moment both horses were climbing the declivity under the bare apple-trees.
The squire’s knowledge of warfare was never likely to win him honour, for with vast circumspection he had selected the strongest strategic position of the region; and though his back to the British and the rising land in his front prevented him from realising it, both commanders, with the quick decision of trained officers, put their forces to a run, in the endeavour to occupy the hill. The Continental riflemen, having the advantage of light accoutrements and little baggage, were successful; and just as the two riders reached the crest, it was covered by green and brown shirted men.