She shook her head, instead pulling up her hood. “This is hardly the first time I’ve been among your people,” she said. “I can handle myself.”
I hoped so.
We entered to find groups of Braddock’s men drinking with a ferocity that would have impressed Thomas Hickey, and we moved among them, eavesdropping on their conversations. What we discovered was that Braddock was on the move. The British planned to enlist the Mohawk to march further north and go against the French. Even the men seemed frightened of Braddock, I realized. All talk was of how merciless he could be, and how even his officers were scared of him. One name I overheard was George Washington. He was the only one brave enough to question the general, according to a pair of gossiping redcoats I eavesdropped upon. When I moved through to the back of the tavern, I found the selfsame George Washington sitting with another officer at a secluded table, and loitered close by in order to listen in on their conversation.
“Tell me you’ve good news?” said one.
“General Braddock refused the offer. There will be no truce,” said the other.
“Why, George? What reason did he give?”
The man he called George—whom I took to be George Washington—replied, “He said a diplomatic solution was no solution at all. That allowing the French to retreat would only delay an inevitable conflict—one in which they now have the upper hand.”
“There’s merit in those words, much as I hate to admit it. Still . . . can’t you see this is unwise?”
“It doesn’t sit well with me either. We’re far from home, with forces divided. Worse, I fear private bloodlust makes Braddock careless. It puts the men at risk. I’d rather not be delivering grim news to mothers and widows because the Bulldog wanted to prove a point.”
“Where is the general now?”
“Rallying the troops.”
“And then it’s on to Fort Duquesne, I assume?”
“Eventually. The march north will surely take time.”
“At least this will be ended soon . . .”
“I tried, John.”
“I know, my friend. I know . . .”
“Braddock has left to rally his troops,” I told Ziio outside the tavern. “And they’re marching on Fort Duquesne. It’ll be a while yet until they’re ready, which gives us time to form a plan.”
“No need,” she said. “We’ll ambush him near the river. Go and gather your allies. I will do the same. I’ll send word when it’s time to strike.”
8 JULY 1755
It has been nearly eight months since Ziio told me to wait for her word, but at last it came, and we travelled to the Ohio Country, where the British were about to begin a major campaign against the French forts. Braddock’s expedition was aimed at overthrowing Fort Duquesne.
We had all been busy in that time, and none more than Ziio, I discovered, when we did eventually meet and I saw that she had brought with her many troops, many of them natives.
“All these men are from many different tribes—united in their desire to see Braddock sent away,” she said. “The Abenaki, the Lenape, the Shawnee.”
“And you?” I said to her, when the introductions had been made. “Who do you stand for?”
A thin smile: “Myself.”
“What would you have me do?” I said at last.
“You will help the others to prepare . . .”
She wasn’t joking. I put my men to work and joined them building blockades, filling a cart with gunpowder in order to prepare a trap, until everything was in place and I found myself grinning, saying to Ziio, “I can’t wait to see the look on Braddock’s face when the trap is finally sprung.”
She gave me a distrusting look. “You take pleasure in this?”
“You’re the one who asked me to help you kill a man.”
“It does not please me to do so. He is sacrificed so that the land and the people who live on it might be saved. What motivates you? Some past wrongs? A betrayal? Or is it simply the thrill of the hunt?”
Mollified, I said, “You misread me.”
She indicated through the trees, towards the Monongahela River.
“Braddock’s men will be here soon,” she said. “We should prepare for their arrival.”
9 JULY 1755
A Mohawk scout on horseback quickly spoke some words I didn’t understand but, as he gestured back down the valley towards the Monongahela, I could guess what he was saying: that Braddock’s men had crossed the river and would soon be upon us. He left to inform the rest of the ambush, and Ziio, lying by my side, confirmed what I already knew.
“They come,” she said simply.
I’d been enjoying lying next to her in our hiding place, the proximity of her. So it was with a measure of regret that I looked out from beneath a fringe of undergrowth to see the regiment emerge from the tree line at the bottom of the hill. I heard it at the same time: a distant rumble growing louder which heralded the arrival of not a patrol, not a scouting party, but an entire regiment of Braddock’s men. First came the officers on horseback, then the drummers and bandsmen, then the troops marching, then porters and camp followers guarding the baggage train. The entire column stretched back almost as far as the eye could see.
And, at the head of the regiment, the general himself, who sat, gently rocking with the rhythm of his horse, his freezing breath clouding the air ahead of him, and George Washington by his side.
Behind the officers the drummers kept up a steady beat, for which we were eternally grateful, because in the trees were French and Indian snipers. On the high ground were scores of men who lay on their bellies, the undergrowth pulled over them, waiting for the sign to attack: a hundred or more men waiting to spring the ambush; a hundred men who held their breath as, suddenly, General Braddock held up his hand, an officer on his other side barked an order, the drums stopped and the regiment came to a halt, horses whinnying and sneezing, pawing at the snowy, frozen ground, the column gradually descending into silence.
An eerie calm settled around the men in the column. In the ambush, we held our breath, and I’m sure every man and woman, like me, wondered if we’d been discovered.
George Washington looked at Braddock then behind, where the rest of the column, officers’ soldiers and followers stood waiting expectantly, then back at Braddock.
He cleared his throat.
“Everything all right, sir?” he asked.