I had spoken to him two days before, when I interrupted him in the process of dressing the worst of his wounds, certainly the most painful-looking: a flap of skin that Cutter had removed.
“So, a question for you,” I said, still feeling I hadn’t quite got the measure of the man: “Why medicine?”
He smiled grimly. “I’m supposed to tell you I care for my fellow man, right? That I chose this path because it allows me to accomplish a greater good?”
“Are these things not true?”
“Perhaps. But that’s not what guided me. No . . . for me it was a less abstract thing: I like money.”
“There are other paths to fortune,” I said.
“Aye. But what better ware to peddle than life? Nothing else is as precious—nor so desperately craved. And no price is too great for the man or woman who fears an abrupt and permanent end.”
I winced. “Your words are cruel, Benjamin.”
“But true as well.”
Confused, I asked, “You took an oath to help people, did you not?”
“I abide the oath, which makes no mention of price. I merely require compensation—fair compensation—for my services.”
“And if they lack the required funds?”
“Then there are others who will serve them. Does a baker grant free bread to a beggar? Does the tailor offer a dress to the woman who cannot afford to pay? No. Why should I?”
“You said it yourself,” I said. “Nothing is more precious than life.”
“Indeed. All the more reason one should ensure one has the means to preserve it.”
I looked at him askance. He was a young man—younger than I. I wondered, had I been like him once?
Later, my thoughts returned to matters most pressing. Silas would want revenge for what had happened at the warehouse, we all knew that; and it was just a matter of time before he struck at us. We were in the Green Dragon, perhaps the most visible spot in the city, so he knew where we were when he wanted to launch his strike. In the meantime, I had enough experienced swordsmen to give him pause for thought and I wasn’t minded to run or go into hiding.
William had told Benjamin what we were planning—to curry favour with the Mohawk by going up against the slaver—and Benjamin leaned forward now. “Johnson has told me what you intend,” he said. “As it happens, the man who held me is the same one you seek. His name is Silas Thatcher.”
Inwardly, I cursed myself for not having made the connection. Of course. Beside me, the penny had dropped with Charles, too.
“That fancy lad is a slaver?” he said disbelievingly.
“Don’t let his velvet tongue deceive you,” said Benjamin, nodding. “A crueller and more vicious creature I’ve never known.”
“What can you tell me of his operation?” I asked.
“He hosts at least a hundred men, more than half of whom are redcoats.”
“All of this for some slaves?”
At this Benjamin laughed. “Hardly. The man is a commander in the King’s Troop, in charge of the Southgate Fort.”
Perplexed, I said, “But if Britain stands any chance of pushing back the French, she must ally with the natives—not enslave them.”
“Silas is loyal only to his purse,” said William from his lectern perch. “That his actions harm the Crown is irrelevant. So long as there are buyers for his product, he’ll continue to procure it.”
“All the more reason to stop him, then,” I said grimly.
“My days are spent in congress with the locals—attempting to convince them that we’re the ones they should trust,” added William, “that the French are merely using them as tools, to be abandoned once they’ve won.”
“Your words must lose their strength when held against the reality of Silas’s actions.” I sighed.
“I’ve tried to explain that he does not represent us,” he said with a rueful look. “But he wears the red coat. He commands a fort. I must appear to them either a liar or a fool . . . likely both.”
“Take heart, brother,” I assured him. “When we deliver them his head, they will know your words were true. Firstly, we need to find a way inside the fort. Let me think on it. In the meantime, I’ll attend to our final recruit.”
At this, Charles perked up. “John Pitcairn’s our man. I’ll take you to him.”
We found ourselves at a military encampment outside the city, where redcoats diligently checked those entering and leaving. These were Braddock’s men, and I wondered if I’d recognize any from my campaigns all those years ago.
I doubted it; his regime was too brutal, his men mercenaries, ex-convicts, men on the run who never stayed in one place for long. One stepped forward now, looking unshaven and shabby despite his redcoat uniform.
“State your business,” he said, as his eyes ranged over us, not much liking what he saw.
I was about to answer when Charles stepped forward, indicated me, and said to the guard, “New recruit.”
The sentry stood to one side. “More kindling for the pyre, eh?” he smirked. “Go on then.”
We moved through the gates into the camp.
“How did you manage that?” I said to Charles.
“Did you forget, sir? My commission is with General Braddock—when I’m not attending to you, of course.”
A cart on its way out of the camp trundled past, led by a man in a wide-brimmed hat, and we stepped aside for a group of washerwomen who crossed our path. Tents were dotted around the site, over which hung a low blanket of smoke from fires around the campsite, tended to by men and children, camp followers whose job it was to brew coffee and make food for their imperial masters. Washing hung on lines stretched from canopies at the front of the tents; civilians loaded crates of supplies on to wooden carts, watched over by officers on horseback. We saw a knot of troops struggling with a cannon stuck in the mud and more men stacking crates, while in the main square was a troop of twenty or thirty redcoats being put through its paces by an officer screaming barely intelligible words.
Looking around, it struck me that the camp was unmistakably the work of the Braddock I knew: busy and ordered, a hive of industry, a crucible of discipline. Any visitor would have thought it a credit to the British Army and to its commander, but if you looked harder, or if you knew Braddock of old, as I did, you could sense the resentment that pervaded the place: the men gave off a begrudging air about their activities. They worked not out of a sense of pride in their uniform but under the yoke of brutality.