Some weeks passed, and the Americans’ Northern Army grew as the Congress let General Washington send more troops. The patriots were now camped where the Mohawk and Hudson rivers met.
There were small fights here and there when British and patriot groups ran into each other, but the only real battle had come some weeks ago in Bennington. That had been an unexpected defeat for Burgoyne’s army.
A large group of Germans had been sent there for horses and grain but ran into New England militia instead and were soundly thrashed. It was not only a shock to the British, but cost Burgoyne a large number of his Hessian soldiers, as well as their leader, killed in the fight.
It also made him think that he should cross from the east bank of the Hudson to the west as he led his army towards Albany. As long as he stayed on the east bank, the New England militias repeatedly attacked his men.
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But the west bank was not much more friendly, and, as the Northern Army grew, the best change for Luke and Sylvie was the arrival of Colonel Daniel Morgan and his riflemen.
These Virginia backwoodsmen were tough, experienced soldiers and their long rifles were deadly accurate.
Sylvie was pleased when Luke and the horses, David and Jonathan, went out with a half-dozen of Morgan’s men to watch over them, and Luke admitted it made him feel safer, too.
There were still moments, however.
When a rifle cracked in the brush nearby one day, Luke moved cautiously to the other side of the horses, who were hauling a load of wheat from an abandoned farm back to the American camp.
Moments later, however, one of Morgan’s men came out of the bushes holding up a fat rabbit by the hind legs. “Got some stew for your sister,” Seth Baker said. “Did Jonathan jump?”
“No, but I did,” Luke said. “You scared me half to death!”
Seth laughed and hung the dead rabbit from a corner of the loaded wagon. Then he patted Jonathan on the shoulder. “You’re getting to be as bold as your partner here,” he said.
“He’s used to us hunting,” Luke explained. “One or two shots won’t spook him. It’s that rattle of muskets when a bunch are going after each other that bothers him.”
Seth gave Jonathan another pat and reached up to scratch his ear. “Well, we can’t all be war horses, there, Jonny boy …” he started, then paused. “Hold on now.”
Luke froze as Seth sighted his long rifle up the hill to the left of the road. He cocked his hammer, held his breath and slowly squeezed the trigger.
“Got him!” he said, and Luke saw the other five riflemen come out of the bush at the sound of the shot.
“Got another rabbit!” Seth called out. “Y’all come over to Sylvie’s for dinner. We got enough stew for everybody now!”
The men laughed, waved and disappeared back into the woods. Seth reloaded his rifle, then started up the hill to retrieve the second rabbit.
“We’re only half a mile from camp,” Luke called after him. “We’re going to find them all up and armed, thanks to you!”
“Well, it’s good practice for them,” Seth shouted back.
Sure enough, at sunset, the other men from the patrol gathered at the Van Gelder camp for dinner.
It was not uncommon for them to drop by: Several of Morgan’s men found excuses to stop at the camp, and Sylvie did extra laundry and mending for them, in return for the wild game they brought for her popular stew pot.
Morgan’s Riflemen were rough frontier types, but, while some called her “Miss” and some of them called her “Ma’am,” they all treated her with respect. If Sylvie felt safer about Luke when the riflemen went out in the field with him, Luke felt safer about Sylvie, too, knowing that these tough, gentle woodsmen stopped by the fire so often.
That evening, the New York militia came in from two days patrolling and John Van Gelder joined the circle at dinner.
“Looks like we’ll be moving again, and maybe for the last time,” he said. The riflemen and his children all paused to hear what he would say next.
“Gates is setting up on a hillside over the Hudson,” John Van Gelder continued. “It’s steep enough to be hard to attack, and he can plant cannons there to sweep the river and the road, too. He’ll have Burgoyne blocked, land or water.”
“About time,” Seth Baker said. “I know y’all Dutchmen liked your General Schuyler, but Granny Gates wants to fight and so do I. Enough of this pickin’ at each other.”
John Van Gelder shrugged. “Congress wouldn’t give Schuyler any troops. It’s better now with their favorite, Gates, in command. Besides, Burgoyne’s getting worn down. If he had any sense, he’d go back to Ticonderoga, send for reinforcements and wait for next spring.”
Baker nodded. “From what his deserters tell us, they’re running out of food and running out of men. They’re still a good, tough army, but there’s fewer of them now than when they started out.”
Sure enough, four days later, Luke found himself driving David and Jonathan up the hills at Bemis Heights with material for the coming battle, then loading their cart with grain and vegetables from the abandoned farm to take back to the American camp.