t was April of 1777 and the Hudson River, swollen with melted snow, was the last reminder of the long cold winter. Signs of new life were everywhere. The long winter’s slumber was finally over. Green-tipped shoots of grass nosed through the remnants of last year’s fallen generation. The daily strengthening rays of sunlight warmed the ground like a cozy bed. Lilies painted the valley in whites, creams and oranges. The trumpets added splashes of pink and red to the picture with their newly forming flowers. The colors sang. The air was filled with the perfume of optimism. Newborn birds and animals peeked from under mothers, from out of the ground or emerged from caves. All seemed well with the world. If you asked Mother Nature, she would say, “What war? There’s a war going on?” But there was.
The men and women of the area knew all too well. The lower Hudson Valley had emerged as a military must-have in the Revolution. British sentries who’d shoot their own mothers if it would help the Crown guarded its bumpy, well-traveled roads. The roads were the main channels of communication and were guarded at all times. Colonial militiamen had trained for battle but were now, in light of the season, tending to the needs of their farms.
The Native Americans also made their presence known. The teepees and longhouses filled pockets in the landscape as far as the horizon and beyond. They belonged to the Nochpeem tribe of the Wappinger Indian Nation who lived in coves along the river. Smoke tickled the sky above their camps, sweetening the air with a hearty blend of sturgeon, beans and squash. The Nochpeem had settled here in the southern part of Dutchess County years before. They were friendly toward settlers despite their bloodstained memories of battles with the Dutch and the British.
In one such Nochpeem settlement Sybil Ludington, a Colonial girl not quite sixteen years of age, was held tightly in the grip of a fierce-looking young man. A strange tattoo ran down his neck just below his left ear, the sign of a Nochpeem warrior. Sybil could feel the tightly knotted braids of her long blonde hair pressed into her back by the weight of the strong brave. Her dirt-stained buckskin pants and shirt showed much evidence of a hard fought struggle. The Native American brave was the full-blooded son of Chief Nimham, ally to General Washington. The Chief commanded great respect among his people.
“You want to die, white girl?” the savage looking brace asked. He held a razor-sharp knife to Sybil’s throat. The vein under his warrior tattoo pulsed strongly, more evidence of an invigorating struggle.
Sybil felt her adversary's breath blow past her ear in short powerful bursts. The situation seemed hopeless, but she knew he was tiring. The young warrior held Sybil in a grasp that left little room to maneuver. She relaxed and pretended to give up the struggle. She felt what she hoped she would; the warrior relaxed his hold, just enough.
With a last desperate effort, Sybil elbowed him in the gut, jerked him aside, and flipped to her feet like a dancer. The young brave tried to recover his balance, but Sybil lashed out with her nimble foot and sent the knife flying into the air. Up, up, up it climbed until it became only a flash of light in the sky. As the blade fell back to earth, the Indian brave tried to scramble into position underneath it. Sybil tripped him with her left foot as she quickly held out her right hand. The young man was still trying to regain his footing when the knife landed in Sybil’s fingers.
Sybil turned back to her foe, who was still lying on the ground, and said, “Not today, David.”
The young warrior nodded his head in admiration to the girl, and Sybil, not missing a beat, turned to her left and hurled the knife toward the Indian camp. The blade bit into a wooden barrel, upon which a Nochpeem elder happened to be sitting. The elder looked down between his legs to see the knife wobbling as it settled into the keg. He looked up slowly, a cob pipe held tightly between his teeth. Sybil hoped he wasn’t angry. Truth be told, she hadn’t seen the old man. Her eyes had been focused on her target only. From the bewildered look on his face, she decided he was bothered mostly by the intrusion into his thoughts.
Sybil bent over the defeated young warrior and held out her hand to assist him. He shook his head and smirked as he regaining his feet. A broad smile revealed that he had no hard feeling over his defeat. “That was pretty smart of you, relaxing like that. I thought you’d given up. I should have known better.”
David Nimham dusted himself off and regained his Nochpeem composure. Not to be outdone, he pulled his tomahawk from his belt, turned and sized up the barrel where Sybil had lodged her knife. The old man noticed this and gulped as David brought his arm to a throwing position. He hesitated for just a second and let the hatchet fly.
The tomahawk hissed through the air as it tumbled stone over grip toward its target. With a dull thud, it smashed into the barrel beside Sybil’s knife. Water gushed out in an eager arc from the hole it created in the wooden container.
The Nochpeem elder looked between his legs and back at the two youngsters. His bemused expression reminded Sybil of a horned owl, wide-eyed, with big dark eyebrows arching skyward. The old Indian stepped down from the barrel, tapped the tobacco from his pipe, and wandered away shaking his head.
David turned back to Sybil and smiled mischievously. He placed his hands on his hips and stood proud as a peacock. “I guess two can play that game.”
Sybil shook her head and smiled. Her tightly wound braid of hair brushed her back. She was a slender girl, barely one hundred pounds. Long days running a gristmill can do that to a girl. Tilling the land, helping around the house, and, her favorite pastime of all, tending to the horses also contributed to her small but wiry stature. Oh, how she loved tending the horses! There was a very warm place in Sybil’s heart for her galloping angels.
“I don’t know why I bother teaching you any more,” said David. The two stepped over to a log where David’s bow and quiver lay.
“Because our fathers serve under General Washington… and they make you?” Sybil said.
David slung the quiver across his back in the casual manner of someone who had performed the task many times. "Parents," he responded, as a cloud of dust played at his nostrils.
"Uh-huh," she said playfully. Sybil laughed inwardly as David fought the impulse to sneeze. She was a little disappointed when he won his battle and stifled the impending snort. His sneezes always reminded her of a grunting cow and were usually good for a laugh. Oh, well.
David picked up his trusty bow and removed an arrow from the quiver. He slowly raised the weapon until it was trained on a crudely painted wooden target stuck in the ground one hundred feet away.
Sybil squinted at the small target and laughed.
David’s arrow zipped toward its destination with fierce velocity. The shaft slit the target six inches right of center. David and Sybil leaned forward to inspect.
“David Nimham!” said Sybil. “You’re losing your touch!”
“I don’t think so.
Sybil stepped in, and with a small smile painted on her face, relieved David of his bow. “Best of six.”
Without waiting for a response, Sybil pulled an arrow from the quiver and studied the stabilization feathers that all arrows depend on for accuracy.
“Does everything have to be a contest with you?” David asked.
Sybil blew on the feathers and stroked them gently. David looked on with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s in my blood,” she said, the distant tone of her voice telling of her concentration. Satisfied that the feathers were faultless, Sybil set her arrow into the bow. She slowly drew back the string as she raised the weapon and aligned the arrow on the target.
David laughed. “Like some white girl’s gonna teach me how to...” His words were cut short by the twang of the released string.
Sybil’s arrow zipped through the air toward its goal. With a barely audible thud, it burrowed into the target six inches left of center. They both leaned forward to inspect. Sybil looked at David and smiled at the dazzled look on his face. It always thrilled her to see that look on his face. It always thrilled her to see that look. They both knew her feat was extraordinary. And not just for a woman and not for a 15-year-old, but for anyone. Sybil felt a warm glow of pride. She could see that David was proud of her as well. Sybil wanted to shout the news from a mountaintop.
“Not bad,” David said casually.
Sybil’s balloon deflated. She knew David was proud of her. Why couldn’t he show it? Let’s see how you do, she thought as she handed over the bow to David, who reached into his quiver for another arrow.
“So, how is the Colonel?” he asked.
Sybil gestured for him to smooth the feathers. David gave her a look over his shoulder that Sybil understood was telling her to worry about her own feathers. He checked his feathers. Sybil grinned in satisfaction. Boys, she thought.
“Papa is… Papa,” she said.
David glanced at Sybil’s horse, which was saddled with a sack of flour, her musket, and her powder horn. He returned his dark, penetrating eyes to the target, focused intently and loosed his arrow. Thwack! It landed just left of his first arrow, which responded to the impact by vibrating in harmony with the newly arrived missile. He proudly offered the bow to Sybil. “You brought the flour for my father,” he said.
Sybil looked over David’s shoulder and saw a young Nochpeem boy filling his mug from the arc of water still spilling from the hole caused by the tomahawk. The boy returned Sybil’s glance and held the mug in the air as a mock salute. Behind the boy, she saw other members of the Wappinger Nation staring at her and David. To the right of the boy, an old woman was putting vegetables into a pot for a stew.
As Sybil reached into David’s quiver for another arrow, she watched the woman from the corner of her eye. The woman looked over at the target and shook her head, then continued putting vegetables into the pot. A small group of Nochpeem children stood beside the woman. Some of them pointed to the target and giggled.
Sybil turned her attention back to David while checking the arrow’s feathers. Satisfied, she began setting it into the bow as she asked, “And how is the Chief?”
“Father is... the Chief. What can I say?”
“Uh-huh,” Sybil said. Their fathers were remarkably alike, and she knew it. With arrow firmly affixed to string, Sybil pulled it back as she raised, aimed and prepared to loose the arrow on its flight. Sybil released the arrow. It slammed into the target, just to the right of her first arrow, but still not in the bull’s eye.
Sybil and David stared at the target. The four arrows formed a row; Sybil’s two arrows had landed just to the left of center and David’s two arrows were an equal distance to the right of center. The eye of the bull was conspicuously empty of arrows. About as much of a draw as you could get.
Sybil sighed inwardly, knowing this was about as much of a compliment as she was likely to get. Boys, she thought. She looked at the old woman who had now filled her pot with vegetables. Sybil could tell the woman was getting a good chuckle over the impromptu bow-and-arrow contest. The old woman bent over and struck a flint against a stone to start a fire. She was unsuccessful; no flame emerged from the sparks.
Sybil handed the bow to David. “So... where is your father?”
“Off with General Washington... fighting the British. He left me here... to ‘take care’ of things.”
From the look on David’s face Sybil understood what he meant. The Chief may have told David he was in charge during his father’s absence, but everyone knew that was only a gesture. She was the oldest child in her family and had also been told on occasion to ‘take care’ of things during the Colonel’s absence on matters of war. Sybil had always taken the job seriously, but nothing important had ever happened. What was the point of being in charge if you never got the chance to prove yourself? In so many ways her fate was similar to David’s. “I can relate,” she said in sympathy. “You got the tobacco.” A statement, not a question.
David pulled another arrow from his quiver and affixed it to the string. He nodded his answer as he spoke it. “Yep.”
David released the arrow. Sybil watched as the feathered missile traveled straight and true for its target. She heard the soft thump as it landed right into the center of the target. A perfect shot. Five arrows now formed a neat row across the center of the target. With a look of supreme satisfaction plastered across his face, David handed the bow to Sybil. “White folks. Paying good flour for some weeds to burn in a pipe. You’ll buy anything.”
Sybil sniffed in mock criticism as she stared at David’s last arrow. She was impressed, but was not about to let him know that. “That the best you can do?”
David rolled his eyes as Sybil took the bow from him. She looked over at the woman with her stew pot again. She was still trying to strike a fire from her flint, but with no success. She looked up at Sybil and smiled a big toothless grin at Sybil, then returned to her efforts.
Sybil grabbed one last arrow from David’s quiver. “You wanna take the flour now?”
David nodded and stepped over to Sybil’s horse. The words ‘Ludington Mill’ were stenciled crudely on the sack. David loosened the sack and dropped it to the ground next to the old woman. He picked up a bundle of dried tobacco and placed it across the horse’s back.
“Papa’s off to gather supplies for the Army,” Sybil said.
“Cannon balls?” David queried as he returned from his task.
Sybil nodded. “Among other things.”
Sybil began preparing her last arrow for the contest-deciding flight. How was she going to win this contest? She’d just have to suck it up and do better than David. But how do you beat a bull’s eye?
“Please see that the cannon balls are delivered with my compliments... to the British Army.”
Sybil looked at him straight in the eyes. It was hard to put into words. She hoped the look on her face was enough to tell him how much she sympathized with him.
“They decimated our tribe,” he said. He walked to the wooden keg and removed the tomahawk and knife. As he returned to Sybil, he threw the knife with enough force to bury the blade in dirt.
“They stole our land.” He thumped the tomahawk in his hand.
“They put a price on Papa’s head.” He buried the head of the tomahawk into the ground beside the knife.
“And they call us savages.” He stared intently at the two instruments of death. For what seemed like a full minute he did not move. Finally he looked up at Sybil and gave her a weak smile.
Sybil wished with all her might that she could relieve David of the great burden of sadness that he was forced to carry. But she knew that was impossible. The best she could do would be to distract him from his suddenly gloomy mood. She looked off toward the target. Something caught her eye. This could be just the ticket. Without moving her eyes, Sybil asked, “Got any meat for supper?”
“Nothing fresh. Just smoked,” David answered.
“Lazy bones.” She smiled as she let the arrow fly. The feathered dart flew to the left and completely missed the target. The five arrows in a row remained undisturbed, one shy of a half dozen.
David stared at the five arrows as the young boy who had been drinking water from the barrel ran off toward the target. “You missed.”
Sybil smiled sweetly, handing the bow to David. “Did I?”
Sybil stepped over to her horse and pulled the musket from the saddle sheath. She placed the powder horn around her neck. She saw David give her a curious look as she walked over to the old woman still trying to light a fire. Sybil smiled inwardly when she saw him look downfield at the target. The laugh escaped when she saw David’s jaw drop at the sight he was witnessing.
The young boy had reached into the tall grass of the meadow and was now holding up a dead rabbit. Sybil’s arrow was still piercing its body.
David put his jaw back where it belonged and just shook his head. Sybil hoped he was amazed at her prowess with a bow.
Sybil approached the old woman and gently waved her away from the pile of firewood. She took the powder horn from her neck and poured some powder into the lock. Sybil knelt down and patted some dry leaves sitting under a small pile of twigs. Above the leave and twigs were four medium sized branches. She placed the flintlock mechanism near the leaves. She was careful to point the weapon away from the old woman, even though there was no ball in the breech. Sybil looked up at David. She smiled sweetly at him, just like the girl next door.
David looked at her quizzically. Sybil kept right on smiling. She just loved it when she could pull a fast one on her buddy David, son of Chief Nimham. Sybil’s sweet smile transformed into a face chiseled with determination. She turned her head down and pulled the trigger. With a flash of smoke, the wood pile caught fire. Sybil stepped back quickly from the rapidly expanding flames. The old woman clapped her hands and performed a little dance of joy.
David rolled his eyes. Sybil shrugged her shoulders, pulled the cleaning rod from the musket and started cleaning the barrel.
“Little trick my papa taught me,” she said as her eyes gleamed in satisfaction.
“I bet he taught you a few others, too,” David said.
Sybil smiled. A woman’s secret. She reset the cleaning rod, walked back over to her horse and placed her musket back into its saddle sheath. With a quick yet fluid movement, she mounted the horse side-saddle. Even in buckskin pants she sat upon her horse like a prim young lady. “I gotta get back to the mill.”
She looked down at her friend. “You watch your back, David.
“I will... and yours, too.”
“Thanks! I’m counting on it.” She brought her riding crop down onto the horse’s flank. As horse and rider sped away, Sybil turned to see her best friend waving goodbye. Best friend, yes, but was he more than that?
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