“You know,” Luke’s father said, “every time I’ve gone to Fort Ann, I’ve seen this tree and thought how glad I was that it never showed up at our sawmill.”
Luke laughed. The tree was, indeed, a mess.
No doubt, when it was just two feet tall, some deer had nibbled the growth bud at the top of its little trunk, so it sent out four more buds on each side of the wound, in hopes one of them would survive. And all four of them did.
Now, some 60 years later, it was a large tree with a short, fat base and four trunks standing in the air like thick fingers on a giant hand, and the branches from each of those trunks had become woven and tangled with each other.
Had it come to the sawmill, they’d have never been able to cut a single straight board from it.
“I’ll notch it,” John Van Gelder said. “You get the saw.”
Luke went back to the wagon for the long, two-man crosscut saw while his father carefully cut a notch in the tree with his ax, to make sure that, when it fell, it would fall right into the middle of the road, blocking the path from Fort Ann to Fort Edward.
For three days, the militia and local farmers had been turning that road into a tangled disaster, not only filling it with trees and brush but destroying the bridges over creeks and chopping up the pieces so the British would have to be built fresh.
They tore up the corduroy roads through swampy areas, they cut beaver dams to flood the road and they did whatever else they could to make it impossible to use the road without a great deal of repair work.
It wasn’t intended to stop General John Burgoyne. Only the Continental Army could do that.
But the American General, Philip Schuyler, was still gathering troops while Burgoyne was bringing 7,000 British and German soldiers south from Quebec. They had already taken Fort Ticonderoga and were headed for the road between Fort Ann and Fort Edward.
That road was really little more than a cart path. Roads were not paved in those days, but well-traveled roads were beaten down into smooth, hard-packed highways.
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Roads out in the countryside were not well-traveled. They even had tree stumps in the middle of them. As long as the stumps were less than a foot tall, they wouldn’t strike the bottoms of the carts, and horses and oxen could simply step over and around them.
So, between the fact that roads weren’t easy to travel over to start with, and the fact that the summer of 1777 had been very rainy, it was already hard for a farmer with a cart to go from Fort Ann to Fort Edward and back.
Now the patriots were making it nearly impossible, especially for an army that was bringing heavy cannons, ammunition and supplies for 7,000 men.
If it was sometimes fun to find new ways to tangle the road, it was no joke: Every day Burgoyne’s men spent hacking their way through tangles and building new bridges was a day Schuyler could spend building up his army.
Every extra day before the two armies met was an extra chance for the Americans to stand up to the British.
Luke and his father sawed away at the wide, single trunk at the base of the tall, tangled, four-trunked tree until, with a crack and a crash, it fell just where John Van Gelder had notched it to fall, nearly end-to-end in the road below.
“Now let’s cover it with more,” John Van Gelder said, picking up his ax and starting on a smaller tree standing just above where the large tree had fallen.
As he spoke, however, a militia officer came up the path and called out to Luke.
“We need your cart,” he said. “There’s an abandoned farm about four miles from here with a barn full of wheat and a flock of chickens.”
Luke glanced at his father, but John Van Gelder nodded. “Let me get my own gear out of it,” he said. “Who’s going with him?”
“We’re sending eight militia,” the lieutenant said. “They’ll keep their guns ready and their eyes open, and they’ll help him load when they get there.”
“All right. Give us a minute,” John Van Gelder said. He buried his ax in the tree he’d been working on, picked up the two-man saw and started back down the cart path to where David and Jonathan were hitched patiently to the wagon.
“Go with them,” he said. “If there’s trouble, remember that you’re a wagoner, not a soldier. Duck under the wagon and let them sort it out. And when you return, come back to our militia.”
“I’m not scared,” Luke assured him.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” his father said, “but remember that you are part of our militia company. Don’t let them take you to cart for anyone else. Soon enough, we’ll join up with others, probably the Albany boys, and the Continentals, when they get here. But you’re part of us, and don’t let anyone steal you or our horses away.”
“I’d never let anything happen to David and Jonathan,” Luke said, and his father reached over to tousle his hair.
“I know you wouldn’t,” he said, with a sad smile.