A dozen men were talking to Luke and Sylvie’s father in the dooryard as they came out of the woods. Their mother and grandfather were standing at the door; the two younger children looking out around their mother’s skirts.
“They want the horses,” Sylvie warned him quietly, before they were close enough to be heard.
“They can’t have the horses,” Luke replied, putting his hand on David’s smooth, brown cheek as they walked along.
Sylvie smiled over at him. “They’re going to take the horses, little brother. I’m just telling you. They’re taking all the horses and carts, all over. And the oxen.”
As the cart and two horses approached the little house, John Van Gelder looked away from the uniformed men he’d been talking to. “Go ahead and unload the wood,” he called out to Luke.
Sylvie went to stand with their mother; Luke led David and Jonathan around to the back of the house to the woodpile and began to take the firewood from the cart and stack it on the pile.
Four of the men in front of the house were neighbors, with packs on their backs and their hunting rifles in their hands. The others were in uniform, militia from Albany.
Albany militia had come by before to remind the men of Fort Edward to be ready to march away when the time came. Now that time had come, and John Van Gelder would be leaving with the other men in the neighborhood, to join General Schuyler’s army and face Burgoyne.
They had warned the local militia to be ready, but they hadn’t said anything about horses.
When the cart was empty, Luke was tempted to take David and Jonathan to the barn, unhitch them and take off their harness, but he knew better. He led them back around to the front of the house.
And he decided to lie.
“If the horses are going along, I’ll volunteer to go, too, as a wagoner,” he said to the officer of the Albany militia.
The lieutenant looked him up and down for a moment. “Are you sixteen years old, son?” he asked.
It was only a little bit of a lie, only two years. A year and a half, really. And Luke was tall for his age, with strong arms and shoulders from swinging the ax and helping at the sawmill.
“Just turned,” he said, and tried not to look at his father.
Behind him, his mother stepped forward from the doorway and started to speak, but Opa, her father, put a gentle hand on her shoulder, and Luke’s father kept the secret as well.
“We can’t leave until morning,” John Van Gelder said. “The horses have been out working all day and they’ll need a feed, and we’ll have things to gather together for them and for the boy. But I can load the cart with oats for feed, and that will help with them and with the others you’re gathering up.”
“Good,” the lieutenant said. “We can use another wagoner and, if he knows the horses, so much the better.”
“More than that,” he went on, “we can use someone who knows how to use an ax. Our job right now is to block Burgoyne by destroying the road from Skenesborough. Tear up the bridges, drop trees across it, anything to slow his army.”
“That shouldn’t be hard,” John Van Gelder said. “With the rain we’ve had this summer, that road is already a mudhole. I haven’t been up towards Fort Ann, but I’ve heard from some who have, and they didn’t have an easy time.”
“That’s good,” the lieutenant said. “And bring those oats; we can use them for the horses and oxen and we might need them for the men, once we meet up with Schuyler. We’re looking for rations for the troops.”
Luke spoke up. “I just saw the sow,” he said. “Her pigs are big enough to butcher, and not a mile back in the woods.”
“I can find her,” Opa said. “I can have two or three fresh pigs skinned out and ready for you inside a week.”
The lieutenant shook his head. “No, you stay around the cabin,” he said. “Burgoyne’s got Huron scouts spread out all around, and we had parties of woodcutters and hunters killed around Ticonderoga before it fell. Nobody goes out into the woods now without an escort. If you go to get those pigs, you’ll take six men with you.”
Opa looked disappointed; he wanted to help but was too old to go off to war himself.
“I’m not sure I’d be able to sneak up on that old sow with six men following along,” he said, and the men from the local militia laughed.
“We’re more worried about what might sneak up on you,” the lieutenant responded, also laughing. “But it’s good to know they’re around. We need to know what we can count on, because the Congress isn’t being very generous with supplies. I may send those six men back in a few days, if you’ll agree to guide them.”
He looked around the dooryard at the other men. “We’ll be moving on, but we’ll expect to see you two men and the horses tomorrow. Just follow the road; you’ll find us. Bring axes, saws, shovels, pry bars, anything you’ve got. What we can’t tear up, we’re going to cut down.”