IT was during the French and Indian war, in the month of August, 1758, that Major Israel Putnam and a body of Patriots pursued a straggling party of the enemy, in the hope of capturing some of them. But, as Putnam was discovered by the French scouts, he feared an attack in force, and thought it best to return to headquarters.
The route was a difficult one, and the Patriots were proceeding with caution, when one of the officers foolishly fired his pistol at a mark, thereby betraying their presence to the French and Indians. Molang, the noted French partisan, was the leader of the enemy, who, having located Israel and his party, laid an ambuscade for their capture.
Onward through the woods advanced the Patriots, not suspecting any danger. Hardly had they gone a mile, when yells broke forth from the bushes on both sides, and a shower of arrows was poured into their ranks. Putnam was in the lead, and ordered his men to return the fire; at the same time he sent back word for the others to hasten to the rescue. The fight soon became hand-to-hand. The Indians dashed from tree to tree, the Patriots engaging them whenever possible.
Putnam, himself, was met in fierce struggle by a gigantic Indian. Putting his gun to the breast of the savage, he pulled the trigger, but missed fire. At once the Indian dashed the weapon aside, drew his tomahawk, and, with the aid of other savages, overcame the brave woodsman. Putnam was disarmed and his hands were tied behind him. He was securely bound to a tree, while his antagonist returned to the conflict.
Fiercely the battle raged around the captive. Bullets and arrows flew past him, some of them striking the tree to which he was tied, and some even piercing his clothing. A young Indian hurled a tomahawk at his head, but the keen weapon missed its mark, and buried its edge in the bark. A French officer leveled his musket at his breast, but it failed to fire; whereupon he struck his captive a cruel blow on the jaw. In the end, the savages were driven back, but not before they had time to unbind their prisoner, and take him with them for a death by slow torture.
After marching a short distance, Putnam was deprived of his coat, vest, shoes, and stockings, and his shoulders were loaded down with a heavy pack. His wrists were tied as tightly as the cords could be drawn, and, in this condition, he was made to walk through the woods until the party came to a halt. His hands began to bleed from the bands; his feet were swollen and cut, and he was in a pitiable condition. He begged the Indians, by signs, to knock him on the head, or to end his misery by burning him then and there. A French officer heard his piteous appeal, ordered his cords to be loosed, and the burden removed from his back. Shortly afterwards, the Indian who had captured him saw the way he was treated, and, claiming him a prisoner, gave him moccasins to wear and seemed kindly disposed to him. But this Indian was suddenly obliged to go elsewhere, and Putnam was again left to his fate.
It was the purpose of the savages to burn their captive alive. When they reached their camping-ground, they took him into the forest, removed all his clothing, tied him to a stake, and heaped dry fuel around him. While doing this, they rent the air with the most dreadful yells, describing the torture they intended to inflict upon him. When the pile was ready, it was set on fire, and the flames caught the dry brush quickly.
By a miracle, a heavy downpour of rain put the fire out, and wet the fuel so thoroughly that it would not burn. The Indians yelled with chagrin, and waited until the rain was over. In a short while, the sky cleared, and again the savages returned to their cruel sport. By degrees, another fire was kindled, and, slowly, its scorching breath came nearer and nearer to the agonized prisoner. His last moments indeed seemed to have come.
"For the sake of heaven," cried the unhappy victim, "strike me dead and end this torture." He gave vent to a terrible cry of pain as the fire began to scorch his flesh. The Indians danced and yelled with ever-increasing delight; the agony of a victim always gave them the keenest pleasure.
At this moment, a French officer, who had heard the noise made by time savages, rushed through the bushes, pushed the howling band aside, and began to stamp the fire out. It was Molang, himself, who, though Putnam's bitter foe, would never allow his prisoners to be tortured. It took but a moment to free the almost fainting Putnam from his bonds, and to turn him over to the gigantic Indian who had first captured him and who was far more humane than the others of his tribe.
The savage regarded Putnam with some feeling of consideration. He fed him with soft biscuits, and gave him clothing, at the same time taking care that he should not escape. The long march to Montreal began, for Putnam was but one of several hundred prisoners, mostly Indians, on their way to the French forts in Canada. On reaching Montreal, Putnam was in a frightful condition. His clothing was almost gone; he was dirty; his beard and hair were long and tangled, his body torn by thorns and briers, and his face blood-stained and swollen.
He was such a forlorn object to look at that the Indians thought it hardly worth while to keep him; so, when the time came to exchange prisoners, he was cheerfully released to his friends in New England. We, who read history, know that Putnam recovered his full strength and was afterwards able to give a good account of himself as a daring American soldier.