Oaks, birches and pines reached for the sun, shading the light so that the woodlands ahead looked dark and forbidding. The straps of Craven’s backpack chaffed his shoulders, his legs ached and his feet were on fire. Sweat streamed down his back, insect bites dotted his forearms where he’d rolled up his sleeves, and his head was still pounding from last night’s celebration. But what really worried him was the knowledge that behind any rock, tree or shrub a Crapaud might be hiding, waiting for the chance to ambush them.
Finbow, on the other hand, skipped ahead, fresh as a spring lamb. For every one step Craven took, Finbow took ten because he kept meandering for no reason that Craven could fathom.
‘How do you do it, Mick?’ wheezed Craven.
Finbow glanced back and grinned. ‘You’re a city boy, so you are.’
Craven clambered over a fallen tree trunk, and on the other side, his boot squelched into a deep puddle of mud. A musty odour of decay made him wrinkle his nose. He wrenched his foot out of the mire and shook it, then waved off another pesky mosquito that seemed determined to feast on him this afternoon. ‘I’m a carpenter; I build houses. There aren’t many in the country.’
‘Where do you think all the wood comes from to build your houses, though?’
‘When all these trees have been turned into the beams and rafters of a tavern, I’ll feel at home.’
‘When that day comes, where will you find the timber to build the next tavern? Where will the oak come from to make casks for your ale? Where will I get beaver furs to sell so I have coin to buy that ale?’
Craven shrugged, though he understood Finbow’s point.
Finbow sighed and paused for him to catch up. When Craven reached his side, he pointed to the trees and bushes ahead. ‘What do you see?’
Finbow barked a laugh. ‘And?’
Craven squinted. ‘More trees. Oh, and mountains behind ‘em.’
Finbow shook his head and smiled. ‘I see more with my one eye than you do with two, so I do.’
One day he must ask Finbow what happened to his other eye. He slumped down on a large, flat-topped boulder and shrugged off his heavy pack. ‘Alright, explain.’
Finbow put his hands on his hips and loomed over him. ‘If Jesus can make a blind man see, maybe I can show an Englishman what’s under his nose. Close your eyes and listen to what I say.’
He stared at the barmy Irishman. ‘Close my eyes?’
‘Just do it.’
Craven frowned, but he did close his eyes.
‘Imagine you’re in a flat, green meadow. Can you see it?’
‘Good. Now, you’re on a path leading to a high fence, and there’s a style to climb over. What do you do?’
‘Climb the style, I suppose.’
‘Now, imagine six feet to the left is a gap in the fence. The path doesn’t go there, but there’s nothing to stop you. Do you still want to climb the fence?’
‘No, I’ll take the easier way.’
‘Now, open your eyes.’
Craven opened his eyes and squinted in the bright sunlight. Ahead he saw a natural path through the trees, but bushes grew thick on the ground, that kind which trips a man, and another fallen tree trunk. Just a few feet to the left, he saw that there was a windy route through the trees, but that the ground there was clear and dry. ‘Bloody Hell, I’m thick!’
Finbow barked a laugh. ‘I’ve met thicker. Plan ahead and watch where you place your feet. Aim for ground that’s firm, and where possible plot a path that keeps your feet on a level so you bob up and down less. It’s climbing over logs and slogging through the mud makes you so tired. Also, if you only tread on firm ground or rock, and avoid bushes, you’ll leave less tracks.’
‘But, don’t you get lost stepping off course?’
Finbow patted a moss-covered birch trunk to his left. ‘Moss always grows thickest facing east. Helps keep your bearings.’
‘Where did you learn all this?’
‘From the Ganung’sisne’ha, or ‘savages’ as you call them. This is their country, and we have much, much more to learn from them if we’re to survive here, so we do.’
Craven took a deep breath and then clambered to his feet. The soles of his boots felt slippery with the mud he’d just slogged through, so he turned back to the boulder and scraped them. After pulling on his backpack, he set off walking, this time choosing the flat, rocky path that meandered through the trees to the left. As Finbow joined him, he asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about the Crapauds? There could be dozens watching us right now, waiting for the right time to shoot.’
Finbow gestured to the trees all around. ‘What can you hear?’
Craven listened for a minute, but couldn’t hear anything special. ‘Nothing?’
‘What about the birds?’
‘Oh, those. Birds always sing in a forest, don’t they?’
Finbow smiled and shook his head. ‘You can hear but you’re deaf, so you are.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The birds don’t sing for fun; there’s a reason.’ He pointed up into a tree as they walked past. ‘Hear that?’
‘Ki-ki-ki-ki!’ cried some bird in an extremely loud voice.
‘That’s a flicker. He’s upset because we’re too close to his home.’
Craven shrugged. ‘So?’
‘Some bird calls are to warn other birds that there are hunters nearby. Other songs say, “I’m lonely” or “Keep out, this is mine” but they only sing them when there’s no danger. Do you see?’
Finbow sighed. ‘Maybe I haven’t met thicker. If you listen, the birds give warning of ambush. Where it’s quiet, there could be several men hidden. When a bird cries an alarm, there might be one man.’
At last, Craven caught on. ‘So, when the birds are chattering away all around like now, then we’re safe?’
‘By God, I think I’m getting somewhere, so I am!’
Craven tried to listen to the noises in the surrounding bushes. There were many different sounds, but he couldn’t tell if these were happy or frightened birdcalls. He supposed the savages taught the Irishman how to understand birds. Craven didn’t think he’d ever be able to read the forest like Finbow could, but men he knew and now his thoughts turned to a certain man. ‘Don’t you think the lieutenant colonel was acting a bit strange this morning?’ he asked Finbow.
‘Aye, he wasn’t himself.’
‘Because he’s worried about the Crapauds?’
Finbow shook his head. ‘It’s more than that. I’ve seen other men act just the same after their first fight. He got shot in the chest and could have died. Now he understands his mortality, so he does.’
Finbow looked him in the eye. ‘Washington is craven.’
Craven glanced at the open clearing ahead and saw a hollow at its heart containing a marsh where a hazy cloud of mosquitoes swarmed. To the right, edging the hollow was a rocky ridge wide enough to walk on though it led them away from the path. He took the ridge and wondered how Washington’s loss of courage might affect his own chances of survival in the near future. Washington might decide to abandon the mission and retreat back to Virginia. However, Colonel Fry was supposed to be in charge of the regiment, and Craven had heard he was on his way to join them at the Great Meadows.
Stepping off the ridge, he re-entered the woods and noticed there were two possible paths, but in the far distance, trees had fallen across the right-hand path, so he took the left. A host of blackbirds chattering overhead fell silent for a brief moment as the two men passed then started up again. The moss on the trunk of a birch told him that they were still heading northwest. Then he realised that they’d walked a good five hundred paces since leaving the boulder behind, and yet he wasn’t out of breath. Finbow’s advice worked. ‘Tell me, Mick. What else did the savages teach you?’