In the end I had no choice but to rest again for the day, make camp, build a fire, allow Scratch to rest, and pray that I hadn’t lost the trail.
And as I sit here I wonder, Why haven’t I managed to catch him?
16 JULY 1747
When I woke up this morning it was with a flash of inspiration. Of course. Pointy-Ears was a member of Braddock’s army and Braddock’s army had joined with forces commanded by the Prince of Orange in the Dutch Republic, which was where Pointy-Ears should have been. The reason he was hurrying was because . . .
Because he had absconded and was rushing to get back, presumably before his absence was discovered.
Which meant that his presence in the Black Forest wasn’t officially sanctioned. Which meant that Braddock, as his lieutenant-colonel, didn’t know about it. Or probably didn’t know about it.
Sorry, Scratch. I rode her hard again—it would be her third successive day—and noticed the tiredness in her, the fatigue that slowed her down. Even so, it was only around half an hour before we came upon the remains of Pointy-Ears’ camp and, this time, instead of stopping to test the embers, I urged Scratch on and only let her rest at the next hilltop, where we stopped as I pulled out the spyglass and scanned the area ahead of us, square by square, inch by inch—until I saw him. There he was, a tiny speck riding up the hill opposite, swallowed by a clump of trees as I watched.
Where were we? I didn’t know whether or not we had passed over the border into the Dutch Republic. I hadn’t seen another soul for two days, had heard nothing but the sound of Scratch and my own breathing.
That was soon to change. I spurred Scratch and some twenty minutes later was entering the same band of trees I’d seen my quarry disappear into. The first thing I saw was an abandoned cart. Nearby, with flies crawling over sightless eyes, was the body of a horse, the sight of which made Scratch rear slightly, startled. Like me, she had been used to the solitude: just us, the trees, the birds. Here suddenly was the ugly reminder that in Europe one is never far from conflict, never far from war.
We rode on more slowly now, being careful among the trees and whatever other obstacles we might find. Moving onwards, more and more of the foliage was blackened, broken or trampled down. There’d been some action here, that much was certain: I began to see bodies of men, splayed limbs and staring, dead eyes, dark blood and mud rendering the corpses anonymous apart from flashes of uniform: the white of the French army, the blue of the Dutch. I saw broken muskets, snapped bayonets and swords, anything of use having already been salvaged. When I emerged from the tree line we were in a field, the field of battle, where there were even more bodies. Evidently it had been only a small skirmish by the standards of war but, even so, it felt as though death were everywhere.
How long ago it had been I couldn’t say with certainty: enough time for scavengers to strip the field of battle but not enough for the bodies to be removed; within the last day, I would have thought, judging by the state of the corpses and the blanket of smoke that still hung over the pasture—a shroud of it, like morning fog but with the heavy yet sharp scent of gunpowder smoke.
Here the mud was thicker, churned up by hooves and feet, and as Scratch began to struggle, I reined her to the side, trying to take us around the perimeter of the field. Then just as she stumbled in the mud and almost pitched me forward over her neck I caught sight of Pointy-Ears ahead of us. He was the length of the field away, perhaps half a mile or so, a hazy, almost indistinct figure also struggling in the claggy terrain. His horse must have been as exhausted as mine, because he’d dismounted and was trying to pull it by the reins, his curses carrying faintly across the field.
I pulled out my spyglass to get a better look at him. The last time I’d seen him up close was twelve years ago and he’d been wearing a mask, and I found myself wondering—hoping, even—that my first proper look at him might contain some kind of revelation. Would I recognize him?
No. He was just a man, weathered and grizzled, like his partner had been, filthy and exhausted from his ride. Looking at him now there was no sense of suddenly knowing. Nothing fell into place. He was just a man, a British soldier, same as the one I had killed in the Black Forest.
I saw him crane his neck as he stared through the haze at me. From his coat he produced his own spyglass, and for a moment the two of us studied one another through our telescopes, then I watched as he ran to the muzzle of his horse and with renewed vigour began yanking at the reins, at the same time throwing glances back across the field at me.
He recognized me. Good. Scratch had regained her feet and I pulled her to where the ground was a little harder. At last we were able to make some headway. In front of me, Pointy-Ears was becoming more distinct and I could make out the effort on his face as he pulled out his own horse, then saw the realization dawn on him that he was stuck, and I was gaining on him and would be upon him in a matter of a few short moments.
And then he did the only thing he could do. He dropped the reins and started to run. At the same time the verge around us gave way sharply, and once again Scratch was finding it difficult to keep her feet. With a quick and whispered “thank you” I jumped from her to give chase on foot.
The efforts of the last few days caught up with me in a rush that threatened to engulf me. The mud sucked at my boots, making every step not like running but wading, and the breath was jagged in my lungs, as though I were inhaling grit. Every muscle screamed in protest and pain at me, begging me not to go on. I could only hope that my friend ahead was having it just as hard, even harder perhaps, because the one thing that spurred me on, the one thing that kept my legs pumping and my chest pulling ragged breaths from the air was the knowledge that I was closing the gap.
He glanced behind and I was close enough to see his eyes widen in fear. He had no mask now. Nothing to hide behind. Despite the pain and exhaustion I grinned at him, feeling dry, parched lips pulling back over my teeth.
He pressed on, grunting with the effort. It had begun to rain, a drizzle that gave the day an extra layer of haze, as though we were stuck inside a landscape coloured in charcoal.
Again he risked another look behind and saw that I was even closer now; this time he stopped and drew his sword, held it in two hands with his shoulders slumped, breathing heavily. He looked exhausted. He looked like a man who’d spent day after day riding hard with little sleep. He looked like a man waiting to be beaten.
But I was wrong; he was luring me forward and, like a fool, I fell for it, and in the next instant was stumbling forward, literally falling as the ground gave way and I waded straight into a vast pool of thick, oozing mud that stopped me in my tracks.