Craven spat once again as he stepped carefully around a patch of mud, automatically plotting firm footholds ahead. He squinted in the bright morning sunlight. At least he wasn’t hung-over today, but would he ever get that bitter taste out of his mouth? He glared at Ona’tah, who gave him a sweet smile in response. He was sure she was laughing at him inside her head. ‘What was that stuff she made me drink?’ he asked.
‘I told you,’ replied Finbow. ‘Niganega’a—a remedy made from willow bark that will ease your pain and stop that nasty, deep cut turning bad.’
Craven didn’t think the pain was easing, and if it wasn’t for Ona’tah, there would be none. How could dried bits of plants cure ailments as well as modern medicine from England? These Savages had strange ideas about health. This very morning, their departure was delayed because Ona’tah wanted to bathe in the stream. A bath! Who ever heard of such a thing? ‘You never mentioned you had a daughter.’
‘Didn’t think I had one.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Craven turned to Finbow, and the look on the old Irishman’s face touched his heartstrings.
‘I thought she’d died.’ A single tear ran down Finbow’s cheek, and he glanced at Ona’tah beside him. ‘Five years ago, New France banned Indians living within its area of influence from trading with the British, but my clan ignored their threats. Two months ago, we paid the price for our defiance when the Eagle Clan village was attacked by French militia. When I returned from a journey a week later, I found the village burned to the ground and Ona’tah gone—’
The light dawned in Craven’s mind. ‘So, that’s why you wanted to fight the Crapauds.’
‘So, now you know Ona’tah is alive, will you abandon this fight and go home?’
‘Ona’tah’s grandmother and some of my oldest friends died in that attack. I shall never forgive the French.’
Craven reached up to scratch the cut. Ona’tah frowned and shook her head. He pulled his hand away and grit his teeth. ‘It stings.’
‘You’re lucky, so you are,’ said Finbow. ‘Ona’tah is the best medicine woman in the whole Six Nations. Once she cuts those stitches out, you’ll be as handsome as ever and with a pretty scar to boot.’
Glancing down the slope, Craven chose an indirect route of descent that would even out the gradient and give firm footing all the way. ‘What’s this Six Nations thing? I’ve heard Waggener and Washington mention it, but nobody’s ever told me what it means.’
Finbow strolled along beside Craven, but Ona’tah loped ahead taking the path he’d chosen. Ona’tah’s fawn-coloured buckskin leggings clung tight to her muscled legs, though her buttocks and hips stretched the skin at the top where her swaying motions threatened to burst a seam. He glanced away. He really shouldn’t look at Finbow’s daughter so; she was only a kid.
‘Well, you see,’ said Finbow. ‘The Ganung’sisne’ha are not just one tribe, there are six.’
Craven scratched his beard and then winced as he caught one of Ona’tah’s stitches. There’d be trouble if he’d damaged it. ‘So, the Mingos are one of those tribes?’
‘It’s more complicated than that, so it is. The Mingos are one small part of one tribe, but Tanah’grisson is influential in the Grand Council of the Six Nations. Also, each tribe is divided into clans—’ Finbow abruptly fell silent and glanced ahead.
Ona’tah had halted and was making a signal with her right arm, as if she was tugging on a church bell rope. Finbow placed a finger over his lips and gestured for Craven to crouch down behind a leaning maple tree. She sprinted back up the slope and joined them.
She leaned close and whispered, ‘There are French soldiers ahead, so there are. Camped beside Redstone Creek.’ Her breath smelled of fresh blackberries. Craven wondered if his own breath smelled so good. Probably not.
‘Bloody Hell,’ said Finbow. ‘They’ll be blocking our path. How many?’
‘At least ten, Father. Five each?’
Somehow Craven knew she wasn’t proposing to share the soldiers with him.
Finbow smirked. ‘That’s the spirit, Girl, but I think we’ll scout the camp first.’
Craven followed Finbow and Ona’tah down the slope, noticing how they moved with absolute silence, even slowing down their breathing. He imitated them, though he knew his efforts feeble in comparison. Soon the breeze carried the scent of wood smoke, and then the camp itself came into sight. Four tents were sprawled around a fire and a collection of sad looking lads moped around wearing the off-white uniform of the French militia. They looked dishevelled compared to the militiamen he’d seen before, though two stood watching the forest with muskets at the ready demonstrating more alertness than the French he’d seen before. Behind them was a broad stream, though it looked to become shallow at this point where it crossed over a sand bar.
‘That’s strange,’ whispered Finbow. ‘No officers, not even a sergeant.’
‘Strange?’ asked Craven.
‘You’d expect at least a sergeant with a squad, and more likely an ensign.’
‘Why do you think they’re here?’ asked Craven.
Finbow removed his cap and scratched his bald patch. ‘They could be watching the ford, waiting for the Virginia Regiment to come north. There could be an officer sleeping in one of those tents. Otherwise, they might be deserters.’
‘They’re militia. They didn’t expect to fight and now things are getting too serious.’
Craven sympathised with the Frenchmen, but thought they were running the wrong direction. If he’d been them, he would be heading for home, not towards the British colonies.
‘So, do we fight our way through?’ asked Ona’tah, with a dangerous glint in her hazel eyes.
Finbow smiled with a proud expression on his wrinkled face but shook his head. ‘The odds are too high. You’ve only just returned from the dead; I wouldn’t want to lose you again.’
An idea came to Craven. ‘Somebody should warn Washington about these soldiers. Perhaps I should return to the fort while you two go on ahead.’
‘Ten militiamen won’t cause Washington much harm,’ said Finbow. ‘Especially if they are deserters.’
‘So what now?’ asked Craven, trying hard to keep disappointment from his voice.
Finbow gestured east. ‘We walk upstream ‘til we reach another crossing. Hopefully the next ford won’t be so well guarded.’