The Anglais had a dispatch case slung across his back. It was what had brought him to this godforsaken country—not the case itself, of course, but the documents rolled inside the case, papers signed and sealed, that would solve this problem of the settlements once and for all.
Or so it was hoped.
God damn those people up here in their settlements, the Anglais thought, who had broken the King's law, after all, to settle there and then whinged that the King was not protecting them from the savages whose land they'd planted their damned settlements upon with their rude huts unfit, a good husbandman would think, to quarter livestock.
It wasn't documents the Anglais wanted to bring up here to enlighten them in the settlements. Better to come with a company from his regiment, use their bayonets to point out to the settlers the ignorant error of their stupid ways. The bayonet, the Anglais thought, was a wonderful device for explaining His Majesty's will to even the dullest of his subjects, God damn them all.
And the Anglais's dark mood was not lightened by the thought of the Indian back there who'd been following him for days, careful to keep out of the Anglais's sight. Or almost out of it. The Anglais would have been a fool to think that the Indian couldn't make himself invisible in these woods, couldn't creep as close as he wanted, unseen, and cut the Anglais's throat had he wanted to.
But the Anglais was no fool. The Indian wanted him to know that he was back there. The only real question for the Anglais, then, was why. He had been in this country long enough, the Anglais had, to know that those the settlers persisted in calling savages, barbarians, worse, comparing them to the forest's predatory beasts, its wolves and bear, were no one's fools, and the Anglais was sure that this fellow who was following him was less a fool than half the white men he had known. Three-quarters. Seven-eighths.
No matter now, though. The Anglais had his duty, as he was sure the Indian had his, and he would die to carry out that duty, assuming the Indian would do the same. Perhaps the Indian had not stood, barely more than a boy, on a garrison's parade ground, King's and regimental colors snapping sharply in a stiff breeze, and sworn his oath to the King, but the Anglais had no doubt that there was some oath the Indian had taken that he took as seriously as the Anglais took his. Don't doubt the other fellow's honor or his courage, an old regimental sergeant had told his boy lieutenant when he had first looked across a field at an opposing line of bayonets: if he's a scoundrel or a coward, he'll show you soon enough, and if he ain't, 'tis best to be prepared.
Prepared for what, though? the Anglais thought. For this, these endless mountains to toil across, this forest so dense that you could travel days in the shade of its trees, no sunlight filtering to the forest floor below through the leaves?
This was not new to him, though, of course. He would never be as adept in these woods as the Indian back there, but the Anglais had travelled country like this before for his King, had visited on the King's business settlements just like the one to which he went now, had dealt with settlers who were, he was sure, no different from those to whom he was going with their stubborn misplaced pride, always prattling on about their imagined rights as Englishmen, but no mention ever of what might be their responsibilities.
The King's law, the Anglais thought, extended only so far as the King's red coats could be seen, so I come here in my red coat, to be seen. And the Indian back there? When he saw the Anglais's red coat did he see the King's law, too, or just a splash of scarlet in the forest's green lke a bloody wound? There were treaties, yes, between tribes' chiefs and the King, stipulating whose lands were whose, chiefs' or King's, but weren't the hills the Anglais was now traversing the chiefs'? What did the Indian back there make of the Anglais being here, trespassing, as it were, on some chief's land?
The rest of the day, a night, and then half another day to the settlement where he was going, the Anglais thought. We'll know soon enough what the Indian thinks.
It was summer here in these mountains, warm enough even on the hills' highest summits for the Anglais to camp with no fire and the rations that he carried required no cooking—some crumbling biscuit, moldy cheese. He'd eaten worse crossing the ocean, gone without before campaigning on the Continent, and now, near the long day's end, the hollows already filling with darkness, the Anglais found a likely spot for his blanket—tangled wind-fallen timber with the roots of one downed tree rearing up like a bastion wall with a little open space before it to sleep.
He had water in his flask, taken from the last stream he had crossed, to wash down his biscuit and cheese. He spread his blanket on the forest floor, folded it, climbed in between the folds, a canvas sailcloth sheet drawn over him to keep off what damp it could. The lock of his musket wasn't primed. The damp of the night would make the powder useless, anyway. And if tonight was to be the night the Indian crept up and slit his throat, well then . . .
And then he slept, the Anglais did, hearing nothing in the forest's night sounds that seemed made by a man and not the wind or animals moving. Well, he must sleep, too, the Anglais thought, thinking of the Indian.
More water from his flask to rinse his mouth as dawn was barely breaking. The ritual of shaking the detritus from the forest floor from his blanket, rolling the blanket in the sailcloth sheet, slinging bedroll and musket and dispatch case over his shoulders, across his back.
No need to dress. He had slept in his clothes, his boots since first setting out. I must be a sight, he thought, seeing himself through the settlers' eyes—red coat wrinkled, buff trousers stained, stinking linen, shirt and stock stiff with dried sweat and grime. Some picture of a King's officer, he thought. A hot bath would be better, he thought, in a canvas tub outside a proper tent, and an orderly to clean and mend and press his things, black his boots, polish his brass and his sword. He wore no sword now, of course. Climbing up and down these hills, wading these streams, was hard enough without a sword banging at his side, tangling in his legs, getting in his way.
He climbed down from the ridge where he had slept, waded thigh-deep across the icy stream in the valley below, and had begun to labor up the next steep-sided ridge, wondering al the while where the Indian was, the Indian who should have been back there behind him, following his trail like a wolf stalking an elk or deer. For all these days he had been aware of the Indian's presence back there, that presence he had always assumed the Indian wanted him to sense. A presence he no longer felt. An absence, then, which was unsettling, for if the Indian had meant for the Anglais to sense his presence, he must have wanted his absence noted, too. But why?
The question followed the Anglais to the top of one ridge and as he crossed another ridge and another until he had only the flat summit of this last ridge to cross and then he would climb down and be at the settlement. He could almost smell, the Anglais thought, the smoke of the settlers' fires.
"Will they go?" the Indian said, standing suddenly before the Anglais in a clearing on the ridge top where the Anglais might have blundered into him if he hadn't spoken—in English, the Anglais thought—so easily he blended into the trees that lined the clearing.
The Anglais's musket was slung over his shoulder, its lock not primed as, he assumed, the Indian's musket's was as he stood there, musket's stock resting on the forest floor between his moccasined feet, barrel held lightly in his hands before his chest.
"I have dispatches . . . " the Anglais said.
"Indeed," the Indian said. "But will they go?"
No, the Anglais thought. They wouldn't go, as stubborn as they were stupid. They would stay as if their wretched shacks, much the worse for two winters' wear, were castles their kin had claimed since Norman times.
"The King . . . " the Anglais said.
"Yes, the King, of course," the Indian said. "He wants them gone as much as the tribes here do, and he's sent you here to scold them back where they belong. But they won't go, and the tribes will come and kill them all, and then the King will send His redcoats in their hundreds here, make war."
"Well . . . " the Anglais said, knowing what the Indian said was surely true.
"You are not so eloquent that you can make them see the sense in leaving, and the tribes are not so many they can kill all the redcoats when they come."
"No, not so eloquent," the Anglais said.
"And will you stay and die with them now, or will you come back with the redcoats and help with the killing?"
"Either way there's dying," the Anglais said. And honor, he thought. And duty. The settlers had no honor, recognized no duty, but he, who'd sworn the King's oath had both—an honor to uphold, a duty to be done.
"Yes, either way," the Indian said. "But in the end . . . "
"In the end?"
"Those people down there," the Indian said, "in their settlement. They think there are so many of us, but we are no so many. I have seen your country, your cities. I have walked through your streets, seen your ships in harbor and at sea. It is you who are many, not we."
"But you will still . . . " the Anglais said.
"We will still fall upon those people down there and others like them we that find, and we will kill as many of your redcoats as we can, but we will never kill enough, and in the end all of us will die, except for a few, perhaps, spared as slaves, kept as pets or trophies to entertain the curious."
He regarded the Indian before him, the Anglais did, but try as he might could read nothing in his face. English he might speak, the Anglais thought, but his eyes speak a foreign language.
"Oh, well," the Indian said. "Go on down there with your papers."
"Very well," the Anglais said, and nodded, and the Indian took one step to the side, clearing, as it were, a path for him.
So the Anglais went, thinking as he left the clearing, the Indian there, and began his descent to the settlement below that neither the settlers there nor he nor any who came after them would know what this country had been like before they came, its beauty and its bounty. The Indian knew, though, the Anglais thought, and when he was gone what he had known would be gone with him, could never be reclaimed, no matter how desirable that might be.