Into the Dark Mists
The early morning air should have been thick with the sounds of a new day beginning. But the heavy mist that covered everything muffled them into eerie imitations of their true tone. Bird calls were obscured and distorted, the banter of the men around me became unintelligible, and even our footfalls on the ground sounded like distant drumbeats. The mist also obscured our vision, reducing our visibility to no more than a few yards in front of us.
“Pipe down and buckle up boys, I think we may have found our flock!” This statement, hushed in tone, was just loud enough to carry to the men. There were but eight of us, sent on a special mission to seek, and if necessary, destroy a similar British contingent of irregulars hunting the countryside for rebel prey. We were a contingent of the elite, wearing our smart green uniforms—well, all but me, being but a scout—and well armed with Jäger rifles, French muskets, a few pistols, and keenly honed hangers. These men were hand-picked for their skill in battle, woods-craft, tracking, and tactics. We were the elite of the Continental Army, seeking to make deadly contact with our British counterparts.
We climbed the edge of a steep hill, each man as silent as death, our gear tightly buckled and weapons primed. We were so quiet we didn’t even disturb the doves in the trees, which continued their morning cooing and hooting. As the scout, I crested the ridge first. Through an unexpected gap in the mist I caught a view of a large plantation home, whitewashed but faded, with black shutters, and a small picket fence surrounding acres of untended grass. This was the place. I turned to inform Colonel Ellison, just behind me, who then asked me if I had sight of the enemy. I curtly replied that if I had I would have reported it. He looked at me with his steely blue eyes down his noble nose, his square jaw set sternly with irritation. He simply frowned and shook his head. Though he said nothing, I immediately regretted my impertinence, feeling as if I had been scolded like a recalcitrant child. The colonel peered down the slope at the apparently abandoned house, raising his arm to beckon the men to move forward. We were halfway down the slope when we saw them.
Another queer break in the mist revealed a glimpse of soldiers with red coats with yellow facings; light infantry, stalking along the overgrown pasture with the quiet deliberation of hunters on the trail of a deer. Skirmishers. Our objective. I moved quickly to Colonel Ellison to let him know. Before I reached him, he silently signaled his men to stop and crouch in place. When I reached him and knelt beside him, he whispered, “Yes, I saw them, too.” He started to pull at his belt for his telescope, but I already had mine ready and offered it him. He grunted his thanks as he took it up instead and glanced through the mist into the long expanse of tall emerald grass.
“How many you reckon?” He said to me without taking his eye from the brass telescope.
“Ten, maybe fifteen. No more than that,” I replied.
“Hmmm. They outnumber us. We do, however, have the advantage of moving downhill and the element of surprise.”
He closed the telescope and handed it back to me. He turned to signal Sergeant Donnelly, a particularly skilled ranger. The sergeant approached soundlessly, a green ghost amongst the mists.
“Sergeant, the enemy has been sighted. I want you to ensure the men have theirs weapons primed and ready. We will approach with caution and then fire upon my command. They are to reload as quickly as possible or follow up with pistol shot if the opportunity presents itself. Timing is of the essence, so make sure every man is aware of the situation. Understood?”
The sergeant nodded—this was his forte and he relished it. The men had been chafing for action after all. He crept back up the hillside as silently as before and delivered the orders to each individual man. Once his task was completed he alerted the Colonel with a soft dove call twice repeated. We were ready.
As the Colonel paused in contemplation for a long moment, I took the opportunity to check the priming on my Pennsylvania rifle. The fine powder still lay deeply in the pan so I closed the frizzen, made sure my flint was tight and prepared for battle. My heart hammered against my chest, fear coursing through every part of my body. But I was trained for this, I told myself, and prepared to do my sworn duty. I took a few deep breaths and waited for the order. When it came I was unprepared. I had expected a trumpet call, a shouted command, or something grand. All I heard was one harshly whispered syllable which inexplicably carried to us all: “NOW!”
All together, we charged down the hill, our collective momentum a palpable thing. Through the mists, over the low wooden fence, into the open field beyond we ran. I was the slowest, not being a trained and highly seasoned soldier like the rest, so I brought up the rear. The green uniforms and precise movements of the men in front of me was a magnificent sight to behold. We ran to the south side of the mansion hoping to intercept our enemy from a good vantage point. We had just passed the whitewashed corner of the manse when all hell broke loose.
Our enemy was just in front of us, the mist just barely obscuring their lobster-red uniforms. Caught off guard, the troops were readying their weapons in preparation for assault. There was a popping noise like unseasoned pine in a fireplace, from off to our left, behind our target. Jackson went down groaning, and the white painted bricks of the house were splattered with his blood, black splotches as ugly as spiders in the dim and misty morning light. I whirled around and a break in the cloying mist allowed me a glimpse of a handful of more Redcoats. A second squad, outflanking us!
Without waiting for orders, I took a knee, and though my body was shaking my hands were steady. I aimed my rifle and breathed once, twice, held it…and fired at the first foe I could see. Fire erupted next to my eye and a fierce blue-orange flare and thick smoke obscured my vision. I could hear the distant shouts of the British troops and the closer clamor of my fellow troops. There was a rattle of musketry from up ahead and a responding volley from my fellows. Betwixt the mist and the powder-smoke, I could see almost nothing. It was as if I had been submerged into a cloud of sulfurous fog and treacherous mist.
Frantically, I reloaded my rifle, fearful that at any moment a British musket ball would find me. I heard individual shots, hoping it was our own trained marksmen picking targets. Then a ragged volley from in front of us cut through the noise of my ringing ears. I heard shouts and screams all around me, my fellows being cut down like tall grass by a scythe.
My resolve broke, and I ran like a coward, without knowing where to go. I ran until the noise of battle was behind me, and collapsed behind a small shed nearly slammed into in the thick mist. I turned to look back at the battleground. The smoke and mist were too dense to find a target, so I hid behind the shed, checking and re-checking my rifle with quaking hands, all the while gazing in terror toward the fight I could hear but not see.
After a few minutes that seemed like hours, the staccato tempo of gunfire became less organized, dwindling into scattered bursts of individual shots rather than the regimented volleys of trained soldiers. I peered out from behind my shelter occasionally, looking for a target of opportunity but the combination of mist and gun smoke were still too heavy for even my keen eyes to penetrate. However the battle might be transpiring, I could not tell. It was as if we were all ghosts firing at other ghosts, mere shadows of the forms of men, barely and rarely visible in the miasma of this place.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, a swift breeze blew across the pasture, dissipating the mists. The pasture was a horrific scene of carnage. Despite the poor visibility, marksmen on both sides had taken a terrible toll on each other. Wounded men groaned and screamed, and bodies littered the emerald plain. Colonel Ellison and his British counterpart each held aloft a white flag of parley. Both leaders slowly trudged towards each other, warily watching for any sign of treachery. When they spoke, it was with clear and commanding voices, loud enough for me to hear from my hiding place.
“I am Colonel Ichabod Ellison, commander of the 5th Continental Rangers. What are your demands?”
“I am Major Thomas Smithwaite, commander of His Majesty’s 33rd elite light infantry. My unit has taken extremely heavy casualties. I see yours has as well. If we continue this fight, neither will claim victory this day. I propose that under flag of truce, we collect our dead, tend to our wounded, and then go our separate ways, perhaps to meet again and fight another day.”
Colonel Ellison thought for a moment before replying, looking at the state of his troops, bleeding and exhausted, their numbers greatly diminished. He saw that Major Smithwaite’s men were in the same shape. He nodded and said, “Agreed. This battle is. I agree to the truce.”
The two veteran officers shook hands and bowed to each other then returned to their respective commands to deliver the terms to their men. We were going to survive! I grinned from ear to ear, ecstatic that I had survived the hellish firefight, although my joy was quickly tempered by the memory of my cowardice.
I came out from my hiding place, and mixed in with the activity of tending to the wounded and the dead. Exhausted troops on both ends of the pasture dressed wounds and gathered up the dead. The engagement was over and those who survived were grateful for the cessation of hostilities. We would all live another day, thankful for the opportunity and respite from the ear-ringing hammering of heavy flintlocks and the screams of the dying.
And then they were upon us in an instant, none of us seeing nor hearing them until it was too late.
Flooding down the steep slope we had ourselves clambered down earlier came a horde of Indians. Each bore a horizontal streak of black paint that obscured their eyes, armed with clubs, bows, and gleaming tomahawks. The horde moved at an impossible speed and were upon us all in moments, raining death upon us. There were no war whoops or battle cries—and that utter silence was terrifying.
I immediately ran back to the rear of the shed and watched helplessly as the Indians attacked both Continental and British soldier alike. The fatigued soldiers, lulled by the promise of peace were unprepared for further battle. The Indians were ferocious, hacking any man standing, and bringing their clubs down upon the heads of the wounded.
The massacre was brutal and swift. Colonel Ellison drew his saber and prepared to make a stand but a dozen or more arrows dropped him to his knees, and I could not see the atrocity and mutilation the warriors who gathered around him must have inflicted upon him. The British officer and his men received the same barbarous treatment. Those who fought back were quickly subdued, and then just as swiftly killed.
In the aftermath, these strangely silent Indians began to cut scalps and even sever heads from the dead. Some cut our hearts or carved flesh from the vanquished soldiers and gnawed on their raw bloody trophies like starving wolves, gore dripping from their fierce painted faces, wildly grinning at each other as they did so.
My skin crawled with fear and revulsion. I needed to escape, but how? They were everywhere. I slid away from the shed, moving on my belly as stealthily as I could toward the edge of the woods where the pasture ended. Just as I reached the woods, I quietly lifted myself up and prepared to slip deep into the cover of the woods.
If he drew a breath or made a sound, I don’t remember it. I felt his eyes, though, on the back of my head, bringing my rifle up in both of my hands as I instinctively turned.
The warrior was huge, at least a head taller than myself and broad as an oak. His face was smeared with the bloody remnants of his macabre feast, his broad mouth stretched in a cruel grin that revealed yellow teeth filed into points. He licked his thick lips, his huge ball-headed war club studded with a jagged spike of razor-sharp flint already on a downward and deadly arc toward my head. I blocked his stroke with my rifle, but the shock of the blow from the warrior’s impossible strength knocked it out of my hands. Frantically, I backed up and clawed for my own tomahawk and long knife. The warrior swung again, but I was able to dodge the strike and get my weapons in hand, tomahawk in my right, blade gripped downward in my left, Native style.
Grinning ferociously, the warrior lifted his club up with both hands to swing down in a mighty blow upon my head that I would not be able to block. In an instant I had a flash of inspiration to use his own weight and strength against him. I jumped to my right, turning my body sideways as I brought my tomahawk up to deflect the heavy club. The blade caught behind the club’s head of his weapon, and using his own momentum I wrenched his arm to the right and stepped in close, slashing at his throat. Caught off-guard, he threw his body backwards to avoid my slash and lost his balance. I brought my blade down into his chest and felt the sickening sensation of ten inches of sharpened steel driving deep into living flesh. As he fell backwards, he dropped his club and gripped my throat with his right hand, pulling me down with him. When he hit the ground, I fell on top of him, my blade plunging even deeper into his chest. He gurgled as blood erupted from his mouth and nose, his eyes fixed on me in shock and surprise, and then went still. I wrenched the blade from his chest, and rolled off of my opponent, lying beside him, my heart and head pounding. Covered in the warrior’s blood, I was dizzy, scared, and elated all at the same time.
I heard low voices murmuring to each other, and I immediately leapt up. I was saw four more warriors, all armed and bloody, each as fierce-looking as the one I had just slain. They had apparently stood in the nearby brush, awaiting the fight’s outcome, and were now exchanging commentary, all of them with gazes locked upon me.
My heart leapt in my throat, but I took a deep breath and threw myself at the nearest warrior. I had found my bravery at last. The fight was brief. I was overpowered almost immediately but was able to inflict some wounds upon my foes before they beat me senseless—they seemed to be trying not to kill me. Slapping me awake, I found myself pinned down, and terror gripped me as one of them, grinning evilly, drew a vicious-looking knife and held it to my head. I squirmed and fought against the grip of my captors but they were far too strong.
The warrior gazed into my eyes as he grabbed my head and pulled it back. He drew the knife across my scalp and I could feel the skin tearing away. The pain was indescribable, and I remember only I was left half-deaf by my own screams, which startled a flock of doves that whirled above me as I lay on my back. I felt them hack away my scalp, nearly fainting from the pain before one of the warriors would slap me back into consciousness. Standing over me, the grinning savage held his hairy, bloody trophy over my face, my own blood dripping into my eyes.
Satisfied that I recognized what he had down to me, he knelt down and took that same terrible knife and started to cut at my neck, slowly, enjoying my screams and my thrashing. As I felt the blade cut deeper into the muscle of my neck, I knew then that I was dead, and that my struggles only fed my killer’s pleasure. I ceased fighting an accepted my fate, staring up at the sky at the doves circling overhead, knowing this was would be the last thing I would ever see.
Just then, I heard a grunt of a language I did not know, despite my ability to recognize many of the regional tribal languages. It was the first speech I had heard from any of the Indians. The warriors holding me glanced up and lifted up off of me. The one attempting to sever my head also looked up, looked back down at me, and angrily pulled his knife away from my neck, but not before he quickly slashed it across my face before sheathing it.
The warriors formed around me in a half-circle as I lay bleeding on the ground. An older Indian wearing a headdress of what appeared to be wolf skin with deer antlers affixed to the sides approached me. He looked down at me, and then up at the doves in the sky. He knelt down beside and I could smell the rankness of his breath, the musk of his leather shirt, the metallic tang of the blood of all those he had slain today. He stared at me for what seemed to be hours before barking something to the warriors. They looked disappointed as they trudged away.
He watched them walk away, and then turned back to me. He lay his wrinkled brown hand on my bloody skull and looked me in the eyes. He said one word: “Mandoag.” He nodded his head and motioned to me as if to make positive I had heard him. Weakly, I nodded, and barely whispered, “Mandoag.” Again the old man nodded, this time with apparent satisfaction, and repeated more enthusiastically, “Mandoag!”
He then slapped his hand, slathered with my blood, against his chest creating a gory print in the center of his greasy leather shirt. The old one walked away and I turned to my side watching him gather the warriors, encumbered by a wealth of gear and weapons collected from the dead, into a circle. He began chanting, an eerie sound in the aftermath of all the noise and death of the day, and within moments the mist returned, pouring down the hill and from the forest like a flood.
Completely enshrouded by the damnable mist, I lay there for a long time before I somehow regained the strength to move. I stumbled about and wandered for days in the forest before running into a Continental patrol. It took me several weeks to fully recover, but I will always be forced to wear a hat and scarf across my face so as not to spook the children and young women. Whether blessing or curse, I have forgotten much of the horror and pain of that day—but I can never forget that word: “Mandoag.” The chill that word gives my soul makes the pain of my old wounds seem inconsequential.
They exist somewhere out there and their enemies are all who are not them. I rarely leave my home, and cannot bear to be outside the safety of walls. Because they are out there, and they are always on the hunt, with all men their prey. No one is safe. And one day, I fear they will return for me…