A spy gets close
April 1st, 1812
Cold and damp. Lying in wait, like a big cat watching its prey, Ned was burrowed deep into the rain-soaked leaves of the forest floor. The view offered good sight lines up and down the river and directly across to the Huron Indians camp. The frightening sounds of war drums echoing from deep in the woods filled the air.
A wide brimmed black hat pulled down low to hide his face, felt heavy, soaked from the rains and his own sweat on his brow. Nervous eyes scanning the enemy shore 500 yards away. Adrenalin seemed to rush to his head each time something or someone moved. Over there, what was that? Not sure.
During the last two hours activity had picked up in plain view for him to observe. Four more canoes loaded with Indian warriors had arrived. That made twenty six that he could see. Then a solitary canoe pulled up having travelled the shoreline from the direction of the British fort. Two men jumped ashore, a white man clothed in buckskins from head to toe and an Indian brave wearing a British army issue red coat. What was that all about?
Over there, more canoes. Staring through a collapsible bronzed telescope the American scout tried to keep a count in his head.
Every Indian brave arrived ready for war. Carrying darkened tomahawks on one hip, long hunting knives in brown leather sheaths on the other, they unloaded and dragged their birch bark canoes ashore. Those that did not carry a rifle had a full quiver of newly feathered arrows shouldered on their backs and a taught bow in hand. Most headed towards the sounds of the nearby drums and the council of war. Two stayed close to the shore as sentries.
Who was the April Fool this day Ned thought to himself? They say never be the one to volunteer. Nineteen year old Ned Clawson had a history of learning things the hard way. He hoped this lesson would not cost him his life.
Eager to prove he belonged on the Michigan frontier, Clawson was the only one to raise his hand that morning when the new officer with the Irish accent asked for someone to take on an important mission.
Before he knew it, Ned had been hustled into the commanding officer’s quarters. The door closed with a bang. He stood silently while the officer, Major O’Shea, inspected him up and down. Being taller than most his age, Ned easily fit in with the older men who signed on with the Michigan Militia. His innocent and youthful gaze met that of the officer and never swayed.
The 10 foot by 10 foot space doubled as the major’s home and duty post. What caught Ned’s eye was the polished Kentucky long rifle hanging on the opposite wall. His Pa had owned one of the legendary weapons.
Clawson snapped out of his momentary trance when the major motioned for him to come over to a rectangular light oak table set off to one side of the room. The exchange between them had been brief.
O’Shea rolled out a scroll-like map and told Ned to commit it to memory. He traced a route with the tip of a dry feather quill that had been close at hand, ending at the Isle de Pierre on the southern end of the Detroit River, tapping the quill several times on the final destination.
“This is the closest vantage point to the British and those heathens” said Major O’Shea. “Get yourself there, observe and report back to me.”
Ned’s dark brown eyes grew large as saucers. He remembered focusing on the map, visually soaking up every line, every symbol, every marking etched in ink. This was the first time he had seen one of the area and he was anxious to learn as much as he could. The position of Fort Detroit just to the right of some letters the major told him spelled out Michigan Territory.
Ned never have much schooling. Learning to read had not been that important working on a farm. Now he wished his new friend had had taught him more than just the letters of the alphabet. No matter he would ask her when he got back. He knew he had an eye for observing things and a quick mind at remembering details. Two lakes, one to the north, a larger one to the south called Erie, he knew this one, or part of it where he and his family used to go fishing. One thin line seemed to squiggle like a lazy worm on hot day. The River Road, as the officer named it, stretched from where they were now in Fort Detroit southwards to the Ohio Territory.
Clawson could remember the inbound march just a week after he had joined up. Weaving in and around the many marshes that dotted the land, there were a lot of hiding places for an ambush. His newly formed unit had marched up this same road on the journey north from the muster point in Ohio. Last but not least on the map was the string of long narrow islands that seemed to fill most of the river between the Michigan Territory and Upper Canada. Odd name he thought to himself, the enemy’s land was the farthest south on the map. No matter, that’s where those Indians were camped out.
Growing up on the farm in eastern Pennsylvania before moving to Ohio, there wasn’t much time to learn how to read. Ned had picked up a bit here and there but he could read a map, capture the image in his mind and recall things later with great detail. Quietly he studied the symbols and images on the rolled paper as he got his briefing from the Irish officer.
There was a knock at the door followed by the officer’s command to enter. A burly sergeant came into the room, handed Ned an extra powder horn, a small burlap shoulder sack with some dried meat and two loaves of rye bread, and a pat on the back.
Ned was more than a little excited by it all. First time he had volunteered for a special duty since joining the Michigan Militia three months ago. He remembered his heart pounding as he tried to take it all in. The map, the officer, the mission.
Right, the mission, his orders. Clawson was the scout assigned to spy on the Indian camp near the British fort. Not hard to find they said, just listen for the sound of the drums. They were right about that.
Major O’Shea had thanked him with a generous handshake and a promise of a Kentucky long rifle when he returned.
The Irish officer told him to head to the livery stable where a horse would be waiting for him. Ten minutes later the volunteer was leading a speckled grey by the halter towards the front gate.
Passing the main barracks he recognised a buckskin clad militia officer. His scraggly black beard and bushy moustache that covered his upper lip made him look older than he was. He had been talking to some of the militia soldiers in hushed voices, stopped, turned and stepped towards Ned and his horse. Their eyes met as if fused by a blacksmith’s hammer.
“You keep your scalp long enough so you can hold your prize one day young pup,” he scowled and gave a nod.
“Be seein’ you shortly Uncle George” replied Ned as he nodded to his favourite kin.
With that Clawson mounted up, gave a tug on the horse’s reins. A strong kick to the sides of the grey, Ned headed out the south gate at a gallop.
Sentries in the elevated fort blockhouses watched as horse and rider crossed the open clearing before the trail disappeared into the woods.
The last scout that took the trail leading south had not returned. What kind of trouble would Ned find ahead? The kind of trouble he could not yet imagine.
Hidden from sight just inside the tree line, three Wyandot Indians watched intently as the rider emerged from the fort. They were here to spy on the Americans. Muskingho and two others from his tribe were still lean from the winter hunt. These white man had taken their land, their food, their way of life. Mud covered faces watched as the rider on the grey horse headed south.
With hearts full of malice towards the white man, they had concealed themselves here for two days, waiting for a moment like this. Nervous hands of the younger braves twitched as their fingers slid down the shaft of blood stained tomahawks wedged into leather belts.
Muskingho saw this and placed his firm hand on the wrist of the painted warrior. To the other his widening and expressive eyes gave a silent command to stop. He brought them close to him. Pointing at the rider with his left hand and towards them with his right, the Indian chief silently signalled them to follow the horseman.
With the back of his hand his waved them to go now. This is the one they had waited for. Without a sound the two warriors shifted into crouch positions, backs arched like cats waiting to pounce, nodded to the other and moved off in pursuit. They broke into a run as they headed to the river.
Muskingho stayed in his hiding spot, his eyes turned back to the American fort. He waited for another.