The tomahawk missed Ephraim. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an Indian tucking Charley’s bloody scalp into his belt. Charley was sprawled forward, his blank eyes turned in Ephraim’s direction.
Ephraim, surrounded by swirls of smoke, his ears roaring with battle noise, gazed at his dead friend. Charley’s dead. Charley’s dead, his mind repeated factually. We’ve lost the battle, and Charley’s dead.
Ephraim began backing away, feeling his way over dead bodies and fallen branches, still staring into Charley’s blank eyes.
He tumbled backwards over a dead horse. Picking himself up, he turned and sprinted toward the river, dodging grasping hands, jumping over obstacles. His feet seemed to have a mind of their own.
He was still running when he hit the river. Its swift flow swept him off his feet. He surfaced and shook the water out of his eyes, gasping. The river was red! Dead soldiers rolled downstream like so many logs, staining the current with their blood. He struggled to wade across, pushing aside bodies of men and horses.
In the distance he could hear British drums sounding the order to retreat, but from the looks of things, Ephraim judged most of the troops were already dead or fleeing the scene. He was not the only soldier trying to cross the river.
When they reached the other side, he and the survivors ran as fast and as far as they could, back up the trail they had marched so confidently that same morning. They were sure that Indians were chasing them, knives in hand. Many soldiers collapsed and died in the woods. No one paused to help or even acknowledge their fall.
Ephraim ran unaware that Indians were not pursuing them. Instead, they were scalping the dead, torturing prisoners, and taking plunder. There was plenty to plunder. Those Pennsylvania wagons held cannons, boxes of ammunition, and other supplies, including barrels of rum. French soldiers even found General Braddock’s war chest containing great amounts of cash and the master plan for the entire British campaign against the French in North America.
Finally Ephraim could run no further. Heaving, he slumped to the ground on the back side of a bushy red cedar just off the trail. His leg muscles locked. He could hear voices of people coming. He tried hard to breathe through his nose instead of panting so loudly. He peeked through the thick foliage of his cedar.
Two Virginia officers were carrying wounded General Braddock. Ephraim recognized Colonel Washington and two other aides.
“Washington,” General Braddock gasped, “ride to Dunbar’s camp and send wagons for the wounded. Bring medical supplies and other provisions. Meet us at Gist’s plantation. Tell Dunbar to send two companies of Grenadiers with them.”
Washington left at once, as fast as his horse could carry him, leaving the general with Colonel Burton and some sentries.
Ephraim’s mind quieted somewhat. General Braddock, though wounded, was still in charge. Washington would send help. Ephraim waited until the others were just out of sight, and then he crept back onto the trail, following the sound of their voices and moving as slowly as they were.
Other survivors caught up with Ephraim. Together they plodded silently, many of them wounded. Occasionally they heard cries from the woods, pleas for help from soldiers who could not go any further. No one stopped. Dispirited, they put one foot in front of the other and kept moving.
They recrossed the Monongahela at what had been the first fording point that morning. The day was spent, but there was no talk of making camp for the night. Through the growing darkness, the long march continued. Soon the forest trail was black, and Ephraim shuffled his feet along, unsure of the next step. Sometimes he tripped over a rock or tree root. Once or twice he stumbled over a fallen soldier. Still the army marched. They were hungry. No one had eaten all day. They were thirsty. They were weak with fatigue. But fright drove them relentlessly away from Fort Duquesne, hour after hour.
At long last the sky above the canopy of trees began to grow faintly gray. Dawn would break in an hour or so. As they became able to see each other again, men greeted their mates as if they had not been walking side by side all night.
All the next day the army trudged onward. Ephraim’s stomach felt knotted with hunger. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Whenever the troops came to a small stream, everyone flopped down on their bellies and scooped water through parched lips. Cool water refreshed, but it didn’t help the hunger pangs.
Finally, near dusk on July 10, they reached Gist’s plantation. Christopher Gist, Indian trader and scout, had already heard of the defeat and was ready for them. Washington had reached Dunbar’s camp and sent supplies for the retreating survivors. Bright campfires glowed under huge cauldrons of soup. The aroma brought tears to Ephraim’s eyes. Here, with sentries posted, the army felt somewhat secure for the first time since the French and Indians had surprised them.
Dunbar’s camp was only about twelve miles further up the road, so the next morning General Braddock ordered his army to march again. That evening those who were unhurt and some of the wounded reached the camp. Braddock wanted to leave the next day for Fort Cumberland, but so many more wounded men straggled in on the twelfth that he delayed until the thirteenth.
That evening, rumor spread through the ranks that the general had died. It was true. Realizing that he was dying, General Braddock had turned over command to Colonel Dunbar. The army’s sense of defeat deepened.
The next morning Colonel Dunbar ordered all wagons to be emptied of supplies and ammunition. The wagons were needed to carry the wounded. All the equipment and stores they had carried so far with such difficulty were to be destroyed so they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
Ephraim was part of the detail assigned to prepare the general’s grave. They were told to dig right in the middle of the trail.
“Why here?” Ephraim asked his sergeant.
“Colonel Washington wants the whole convoy to march over the grave so the French and Indians can’t find it and desecrate the body,” the sergeant explained.
Ephraim and the others dug. Then they were mustered to stand at attention as the general’s short round body, wrapped in a linen sheet, was lowered into the grave. Ordinarily, for such an important person’s funeral, three rounds of seven pieces of cannon would have been fired as a salute. But the heavy cannons General Braddock had ordered hauled over the Allegheny Mountains had been left behind, and besides, no one wanted to attract the enemy’s attention by gunfire. So the ceremony was simple and quiet.
Ephraim and the other gravediggers shoveled the dirt back into the hole. Ephraim felt sick as his first shovelful of soil struck the shrouded body. Not even a coffin. There should’ve been a box around him, at least, he thought. Then he remembered Charley, whose body probably still lay where he had fallen, unless wolves or wildcats had found it. Ephraim heard again in memory all the cries for help from fallen soldiers along the trail. No burial for them! He shook his head sorrowfully. At least the general got a bit of a funeral.
When Ephraim’s crew had finished filling the grave, all the wagons passed over it. The foot soldiers tramped the earth down as they retreated to Fort Cumberland in silence.