New Found Land
THERE WERE SEVERAL MINOR FALLS of snow before the big one. It started quietly enough, with a few flecks floating down from a steel-grey sky, dissolving as they touched the ground. This was early afternoon, and the gentle fall continued until dark. They brought in logs for the fire, ate their evening meal by lamplight, and afterwards played a Roman game with dice and counters.
Next morning the snow was still falling, but faster and more thickly, and it was more than a foot deep against the door. They looked at a white world, and when they went outside their voices were strange,
muffled yet echoing. Bos, who had once been a gladiator, turned childish and started a snowball fight, and Curtius, ex–Roman centurion, joined in. Afterwards they cleared a path round the cabin, and out to the spring and the latrine hut. Simon was aware of the glow of physical exertion, and the comfortable warmth when they went back inside.
It was three days before the snow stopped. By that time the minimum depth was four feet, and in places it had drifted to more than twice that.
“Right,” Brad said. “Ideal conditions.”
“Ideal for what?” Simon asked.
“Trying out the snowshoes.”
They had made the snowshoes out of deerskin and birch saplings, copying those they had seen in the nearby Algonquian village. The manufacture had not been easy, and Simon, who was not particularly skilled at that sort of thing, eventually got bored and abandoned his. Bos took them over and finished them.
Simon had some feeling of guilt about it, which made his response to Brad’s proposal less than keen. He pointed out they were due a trading visit from the Indians, and volunteered to stay behind to
receive them. The others, after the long confinement, were eager for the open air. He watched them set out up the slope, making clumsy progress.
During the blizzard the chimney vent had provided the only ventilation; the atmosphere was stuffy and, once one had sampled fresh air, unpleasant. Simon drew the bars which secured the wooden shutters and hauled them open. Crisp air flowed in. The light which accompanied it provided all too clear a picture of the squalor arising from their three days of imprisonment, and he decided something must be done about that.
After an hour’s cleaning and tidying he was regretting his refusal to go with the others. It wasn’t as though they were especially short of food: corn was low, but there was enough for a day or two, and if the Algonquians didn’t come to them, they could always go to the village.
But at least the place looked less like a pigsty. He leaned on his broom and stared out at the snow. A jay was busily digging, its white underside blending with the wider white, but the blue top and cocky crested head conspicuous. It dragged something out and flew off with it.
The bird was not only more colourful but sharper looking than the jays he had been used to in England. Thinking that, he realized it was a long time since he had thought much about home: there seemed little point in it, and plenty here to keep his mind occupied. He wondered again what had been made of his and Brad’s disappearance; presumably there would have been search parties, rivers and ponds being dragged, all the stuff one saw on television. Television now—that was a strange thing to think of, in this world. He had a sudden sharp awareness of what it might have been like for his folks—Brad’s, too—when they failed to come back from that walk. He had always seen his parents as a bit on the cold side—the hugging had come from his granny—but it must have been terrible for them. While as for Granny . . .
There was no point, he told himself once more, in brooding over something one could do nothing about. And it wasn’t as though what had happened had been in any way their fault. One moment there had been this weird thing like a fireball, spinning round on the path in front of them; next moment, wham! He had blacked out, and when he came round
there had been trees around him still, but different trees: a different world.
Gradually he and Brad had pieced things together and come up with an explanation that, however fantastic, fitted the facts of their altered existence. The fireball had been a crossing point between their own world and one which lay on a different probability track—an If world. It was a dizzying thought that there could be an infinite number of such worlds, invisibly side by side.
The one in which they found themselves stemmed from a particular juncture in European history. Here the Roman empire had survived into the late twentieth century, though at a cost of total lack of social or technological progress. The arrival of two people from a highly advanced society had precipitated a revolution, which their special knowledge had helped to succeed. Unfortunately the dictatorship which followed proved much worse than the relatively benevolent tyranny of the empire, threatening them directly.
Brad had been visiting Simon’s family in England; his home was in New England, a still undiscovered territory in this world. In view of the situation they
were in, it had seemed a good idea to discover America themselves, and they had set sail westwards, taking two Roman friends with them. After a stormy crossing, they had made a landfall in territory inhabited by Algonquian Indians.
Brad, who possessed a near encyclopaedic store of general knowledge which occasionally irritated Simon, knew quite a bit about Indians, especially Algonquians. He even had a smattering of their language, which he had considerably improved during the past months; he could actually converse with them while the other three had to rely almost entirely on sign language. It had been his idea to bring a cargo of trinkets from Europe—beads, metal mirrors, and such—and they had established a useful trade with these for food: the Indians were very effective hunters and also grew corn and a variety of vegetables.
It was really not a bad life, once thoughts of home and technological advantages had been put firmly behind one. Simon had adapted to it quite well, as had Bos and Curtius, the two Romans. It was Brad who seemed restless and spoke of moving on. He talked of travelling west, across the continent.
Simon had considerable doubts as to the advantages of that. He saw no reason to think another place would be better than this, and felt there was a strong possibility of its being worse. Being close to the ocean was vaguely reassuring, too.
Simon’s reflections were interrupted by the sight of a deer coming into view at the top of the ridge. It halted there, a beautiful spectacle which also represented food. He made rapid assessment of the possibility of getting within bow shot range before the animal took fright, and decided it was about nil. But there was no harm in trying. He was turning to get his bow when the animal suddenly moved again, but not in flight. It gave a small leap, and dropped. He could see arrow feathers just behind its shoulder: a clean shot.
The Algonquians appeared over the ridge soon after. Two stooped over the deer and the remaining three headed for the hut, the chief, Red Hawk, leading. They too were on snowshoes but there was nothing clumsy or hesitant about their progress. They moved with knees bent, in a shuffling gait that covered the ground almost as fast as a man running.
The usual gestures of greeting were exchanged,
and trading started. One of the braves produced the goods they had brought: three rabbits, a haunch of venison, and two birch bark containers of corn out of their winter store. The established tariff was a string of glass beads per container of corn, the same for a rabbit, and two for a haunch of venison. Simon offered seven strings to the chief, and waited for the food to be handed over. The brave who was holding it just stared at him impassively.
Red Hawk spoke a few words and the brave pushed forward a container of corn. That was all right, then. But now Red Hawk handed back four of the strings of beads. Dropping the others into his leather pouch, he pointed to the container Simon had taken and raised his hand with three fingers extended. The significance of the gesture was plain: three strings of beads were required for each container of corn. The exchange rate had taken a bad turn for the worse.
Simon tried pretending this was a misunderstanding. With the container in one hand, he wagged a single finger of the other. The chief stared at him for a long moment, and he thought he might get away with it. Then Red Hawk took the three strings of
beads out of his pouch and dropped them on the floor of the hut. He put his hand out for the container.
It was plainly a matter of take it or leave it. He wished the others were there, Brad especially, and looked to see if there was any sign of their returning. But nothing moved apart from the two braves expertly skinning the deer. Red Hawk put his hand on the container, and Simon thought of their depleted grain stock. He raised a hand with two fingers; and Red Hawk stolidly showed three. Simon picked up the three strings of beads and gave them to him.
• • •
The others returned a couple of hours later. They untied their snowshoes, and Brad said: “I think I can make it as far as my bed. Just. Funny, my legs are stiff as poles, but the muscles in them have turned to jelly.”
Even Bos and Curtius looked exhausted. Simon asked: “Did you find anything?”
“Yes,” Curtius said. “A flock of turkeys and a herd of deer. But there were some poor hungry wolves as well, and we thought we would leave it all for them.”
Bos pulled off his tunic and wiped sweat from his chest. “It will be better in time. All new things are difficult. We must practise. Today . . .” He shrugged. “We were like tortoises hunting hares.”
Brad lay prone on his bed. “How about you? Any sign of Red Hawk?”
Simon nodded. “Yes, he came. They killed a doe up on the ridge.”
“I saw blood,” Bos said. “They are good hunters.”
“What did you buy?” Brad asked.
“A measure of corn.”
“Was that all they brought?”
“No. They brought a couple of measures—and rabbits and venison.”
Brad sat up. “But we agreed we’d take everything they brought! What’s wrong with you?”
“We agreed to buy everything, yes; but not at three times the normal price.”
They stared at him.
Curtius asked: “What do you mean?”
He told them.
When he had finished, Brad said: “I wish I’d been here.”
“I wish you had, too. But it wouldn’t have made
any difference. I had a shot at getting him to settle for double instead of triple. He simply reached for the corn.”
There was a pause, before Brad said: “Well, we knew corn was going to run short. I guessed we’d have to do without bread towards the end of the winter—the Indians do themselves. I think you should have bought the rest of the stuff, all the same.”
“You weren’t listening. When I said three times the normal price, that goes for everything.”
Brad stared. “You sure?”
“Yes. I checked.”
There was a silence. Curtius said: “We must accustom ourselves to those snowshoes quickly then.” He sounded gloomy.
Brad said, in an attempt at brightness: “It’s not all that bad. So we’re on winter tariff now: we still have a margin. There are four sacks of beads left, and the mirrors and the rest. And there’s the nanny goat we brought from England, and the hens, to provide milk and eggs. If we’re moderately successful hunting and live frugally, we’ll be all right.”
No one else spoke, and he went on: “We’ll do our
best to manage without meat from them, but I think we ought to get as much corn in as possible. No, I’m not blaming you, Simon. But we’d better get that other container, even at the new rate.” He stretched and yawned. “We’re all too bushed to go to the village right now. We’ll go first thing tomorrow.”
• • •
Next morning Simon stayed behind with Bos. He’d decided the sooner he mastered the technique of snowshoeing the better, and Bos volunteered to lend a hand; as was always the case where physical skills were concerned, Bos was the most advanced of them. For two hours they clawed their way up and down the slopes around the hut, until Simon felt like a rag doll that had had its stuffing replaced with lead pellets. He was extremely relieved when the sight of Brad and Curtius returning provided an excuse to break off.
As they got near, though, he could see that the pouch on Brad’s back, which should have held the container of corn, was empty. He asked: “What happened?”
“Not enough wampum.”
“But you took . . .”
“Three strings: the new rate, as you said.” Brad looked grim. “But it seems it’s gone up again since yesterday. It’s five now.”
• • •
At the outset Simon, remembering a folklore of flaming arrows, tomahawks, torture, and scalpings and general ferocity, had been very apprehensive of the local Indians. Brad had scornfully dismissed all that as white propaganda, and declared that providing they played fair with the Algonquians, the Algonquians would play fair with them: there was nothing to fear. And as weeks and months had gone by, his argument had been borne out by events. The Indians had shown no sort of aggression and had even invited them, on a couple of occasions, to feasts in the village, in which the longing of Bos and Curtius for the wine they had been used to had to some extent been made up for by a discovery of the joys of tobacco.
The shock when the Indians turned the screw on their food supply was all the greater because of this. They realized they must henceforward live under what amounted to siege conditions. They rationed food strictly and spent every available hour in the
search for more. Gradually they accustomed themselves to the snowshoes and got along faster, though they never approached the surefooted speed of the Algonquians.
But game was scarce and grew scarcer. They rarely saw deer, and the section of the forest where turkeys had been abundant didn’t offer so much as a feather. Fish, too, seemed to have moved away to warmer waters, and a visit to the lobster pots they had laid off a nearby point revealed a disaster—the lines loose and empty. Assuming the pots had been torn away in the most recent storm, they laboriously set to work making new. When they came back, three days after resetting the pots, they were missing; and the whole of that time the sea had been calm.
Curtius held up a frayed end of rope. It could have frayed against a sharp edge of rock . . . especially with a pair of hands working on it. He said: “You have told us much about these people, Bradus. You have told us they are not thieves but honest dealers. Yet I think someone has taken our pots.”
That was Bos. He scrambled over the rocks and prised something out of a crevice: a broken lobster pot.
Brad stared at it. “No, they aren’t thieves. They wouldn’t take something that didn’t belong to them. But they just might break it up if they decided it was being used to take things from them.”
“From them?” Curtius was incredulous. “If we steal from anyone, we steal from Neptune!”
Brad said slowly: “They have strange beliefs. I remember something Red Hawk said, at the beginning. He said he had spoken with the gods of land and sea, and we were permitted to enjoy their fruits for the present. The permission to hunt and fish could have been temporary. Maybe he now regards it as withdrawn.”
Bos spoke as a Roman Christian: “There is only one God.”
Ignoring that, Curtius said: “We Romans have been paying our dues to Neptune for thousands of years. I do not think he will pay any heed to savages.”
Brad spoke in English to Simon: “It’s not really gods, but that was the nearest I could get to it in Latin. They believe in a kind of spiritual essence—manitou in Algonquian—a supernatural power that exists not just in people but in things. Things like the sun, moon, thunder, land, and sea. Especially
land and sea. In our world, long after the white men had come, some Indians refused to use iron ploughs, in case they bruised mother earth.”
The others looked restless, and he went back to Latin: “What matters is that they believe in their gods. And if they think the gods don’t want us to get lobsters from the sea, they’re likely to do what they can to prevent it.”
Bos said: “I have seen more Indians than I used to when we have been hunting lately. Maybe they are trying to prevent our getting food from the land, too.”
Simon asked: “How?”
“I suppose they could throw a cordon round us,” Brad said, “to scare off game before we got within striking distance. Like beaters, only in reverse.”
His tone was speculative, but Simon found the thought more chilling than the sub-zero temperature around them. He had already had to get used to the fact that the Algonquians, whom he had envisaged as allies against the North American winter, were taking advantage of it to exploit them. If they were going to be actively hostile, it put a very different complexion on the months ahead.
Curtius said, after a silence: “This is not a good land you have brought us to, Bradus. Things are not as you promised. You spoke of a land of peace and riches, not of cold and hunger and treacherous enemies.”
“The land I spoke of is not this one,” Brad said. “It lies a long way west of here, on the shore of another ocean. And there, I promise you, we will find all the good things I told you of.”
Brad’s description of America as an earthly paradise had sustained the two Romans during their voyage towards what they suspected might be the edge of the world. It was probably, Simon thought, not a bad idea to switch the dream to California as an antidote to the grim reality that surrounded them.
“Once we get there, everything will be all right,” Brad said. “Believe me.”
He was doing it well; he spoke as though he believed it himself. Curtius’s look remained sceptical, but Bos said simply: “When do we go there, Bradus?”
“We must wait till the snows have gone.”
“If we live so long,” Curtius said.
“Things aren’t all that bad,” Brad said. “At least it’s clear they’re not going to attack us. They could have done that at any time. We’ll just have to outwit them.”
“How?” Curtius asked.
“Well, we laid those pots openly. We won’t make that mistake again. We’ll be more cunning; and in hunting, too.”
Simon wondered again how deep his seeming optimism went. For himself he felt cold, and trapped, and more than a bit frightened.
• • •
It was soon apparent that outwitting the Algonquians was not going to be easy. They made new lobster pots and set them in a different place at first light, concealing the lines with stones and seaweed. Next day the lines were broken and empty. They took to hunting early and late, as well, and in areas they had not previously visited, but without success. Bos guessed the hut was being kept under surveillance, and the following day, as though in ironic comment, the surveillance became an open one. A brave took up a position on the ridge and stayed there, motionless. When he did go, another took his place, and so it continued from dawn to dusk. Red Hawk had
decided they should know they were being watched.
Curtius was more maddened by this than any of them. His instinct, as a trained and experienced Roman soldier, was to attack; he wanted to go up and drive the watcher away, killing him if necessary. The fact that this could only mean a full-scale assault from the rest of the Algonquian braves did not seem to bother him, and Brad and Simon had trouble talking him out of the project. It was a relief that another snowstorm started while they were arguing; even if the Indian remained at his post they could not see him. But they could not go out to hunt, either, with landmarks obliterated by the driving snow.
The storm lasted all day and most of the night. Next morning there was another three feet of snow outside the door. Bos set to work shovelling a path round the hut. Brad was standing by the open door, and Simon joined him.
“No sign of our watcher.”
Brad shook his head. “He’ll be back.”
While they were staring up at the ridge, they heard Bos shout with an urgency that got them running. They rounded the corner of the hut to see him standing in front of the animal pen. He turned towards
them, his face showing a mixture of anger and misery.
A section of the pen had been crudely broken, and tracks led away from it across the snow.
Bos said: “I heard sounds in the night, but thought it could have been the wind battering.”
“What have we lost?” Brad asked.
“The nanny goat.”
“Indians?” Simon asked.
Bos shook his head. “There were paw marks and a trail of blood. A bear.”
They stood in silence, taking in this totally unexpected disaster. The nanny, with a kid growing in her belly, had represented a hope for the future. And they had all been fond of her, Bos especially. The big man looked as though he might be going to cry. Possibly in a bid to prevent that, Brad said harshly: “It’s a nasty blow. But we couldn’t have kept them, once we headed west. The same with the hens. I’ve known for some time we had to think of them as meat.”
Bos surveyed him with heavy eyes. “So we might as well kill the billy now, before the bear comes back, and butcher him for our larder?”
“I think I will leave that task to you, Bradus.”
Brad did not answer.
Bos fixed his gaze on him for a long moment, then said: “Don’t worry. I know what is man’s work. I will see to it. You are better skilled at talking. But watch your tongue, boy.”
• • •
The winter dragged slowly on. The billy goat and chickens provided a temporary addition to their food supplies; while they lasted, they did not need to buy meat from the Indians and could conserve the diminishing supply of wampum. There was still a watcher on the ridge, though, and the snares they set stayed empty. Red Hawk had suspended his visits, but uncannily, as though he knew the exact contents of their larder, he returned when they were down to the last chicken and the last haunch of goat meat. His rates had gone up again, and a lot more winter lay ahead. There was a brief period of milder weather, but it was followed by a series of bitter storms which kept them inside the cabin, in unhappy and hungry confinement.
The next clear spell saw Red Hawk back with his braves. They brought two rabbits and some withered roots. He wanted twelve strings of beads for each of the
rabbits. For the roots—he gestured magnanimously—three only.
They were stunned into silence. Red Hawk’s face was expressionless as usual; then, astonishingly, it cracked into a smile. He pointed at Bos, and spoke to Brad. Simon picked up the occasional word: hair . . . knife . . . wampum . . . Brad was asking, offering, finally appealing. The smile went from Red Hawk’s face, and there was no mirth in Brad’s. At the end, he said to the others: “Get them the wampum. Twenty-seven strings.”
“We are on the last sack,” Bos said.
“I know.” Brad shrugged. “We have no choice.”
The weather had cleared to a frozen calm, and they had the shutters open. They watched the Indians travel easily up the slope and over the ridge. Turning away, Brad said: “Well, that’s that.”
Simon said: “Tell us the worst.”
“I was going to.” He paused. “The first bit was joke time, Algonquian style. He said we needn’t pay wampum for the roots. They would take Bos’s beard in exchange.”
To the Indians, who plucked out what little facial hair they had, Bos’s curly and luxuriant beard had been a source of interest from the beginning; they had
grown used to the women and children giggling over it when they visited the village. Bos uttered a Roman curse. Brad said: “I refused the offer politely, and Red Hawk said they would not hurt him by hacking it off with their poor stone knives; they would buy our strange sharp ones and use them. For two knives they would bring us a turkey. I said no, we would not sell the knives, and he said it didn’t matter anyway.”
Brad took a deep breath. “That was when I offered him the cabin.”
They stared at him. Simon said: “You did what?”
“I explained that we would be moving on, as soon as the snows melted. I said that if they would give us food until the spring we would give them the cabin then, and some knives, and an axe, and other valuable things. Things which were our possessions, which belonged to us.”
Simon said: “I suppose . . .”
Brad went on: “He said it was true these objects were ours, but only as long as the Great Spirit continued to breathe life into our mouths. Dead men, he said, had no possessions. Before the winter ended, we would be dead. Then any man might take things which no longer had an owner.”
After a pause, Bos said: “As you told us, they are not thieves. They only starve men to death, then take their goods.”
Curtius said: “I have had enough of this. Let us attack them, while the strength is in us. I would rather die as a soldier than as a famished rat!”
Bos growled approval.
Brad said: “I agree about doing something while we still have the strength. But something better than committing suicide, which is what that would amount to. One possibility would be to abandon the cabin now and head south.”
Simon said: “That gets my vote. This place has become a death trap. And providing we don’t freeze to death, heading south means heading for the sun. It’s the best chance we have.”
“Except for one thing,” Brad said.
“Red Hawk thought we might think of that. He said if we left, he would send braves to follow us. They would keep us in sight as long as we were in Algonquian lands, and when we left those lands, they would return to report our deaths. Because the next lands to the south are inhabited by the Iroquois,
who kill strangers. They do this slowly, but he can be certain that within a week we will be dead. Knowing that, they will feel entitled to take possession of the cabin, and everything in it.”
Bos said: “I will take that chance, sooner than starve here.”
“I, too,” said Curtius. “And I think we will kill a few of the Iroquois before they kill us.”
“I might agree,” Brad said, “if there were no alternative.”
Simon said: “Starving to death, freezing to death, getting killed in an attack on the Algonquians, being tortured to death by Iroquois . . . not just alternatives: we have a multiple choice.”
Brad ignored him. “North and west, Algonquians, for hundreds of miles. South, more Algonquians, followed by Iroquois who seem to be rather worse. There’s still east.”
“Sure,” Simon said, “the ocean. Three thousand miles of it. Quite a swim.”
An early storm had brought seas sweeping high up the beach to batter a hole in the side of the ship which had brought them from England, and later storms had completed her destruction. Curtius in particular had
been depressed by the loss of this solitary link with his homeland, remaining gloomy for days.
Brad said: “You know how cold the water’s been here, even in summer? It’s caused by a strong current from the north that skirts this coast. The Stella’s finished, but we could make a raft out of her timbers. The current will take it south. We might be able to miss Iroquois territory altogether. At least we’ll be heading towards a better climate.”
He looked around at their faces.
“What do you think?”
“I think,” Bos said, “that we will start right away.”
• • •
It wasn’t easy; it was murderously difficult, in fact. They had to break the Stella up to get at the deck timbers. Although it didn’t snow, the wind remained easterly, howling over the grey breakers and peppering them with freezing darts of spray.
When the raft was half-built, the disheartening realization came that it was not only well above the tide mark but would be too heavy to drag down once completed: they were obliged to break it up and begin again at the water’s edge, with bitterly cold waves breaking over their legs. They took turns in
going back to the hut to thaw themselves out. Then they had to drive in heavy stakes to anchor it against being carried away by the incoming tide.
All this time they were under observation by the Algonquians. Since the purpose of their activity was so obvious, Simon wondered whether the Indians might intervene to stop them, but they never approached nearer than a couple of hundred yards. The reason, it eventually occurred to him, was that, in Red Hawk’s view, putting out to sea on a raft was the equivalent of going into Iroquois territory, as far as the outcome was concerned: the moment they did it, they were as good as dead. He straightened up from hammering and looked across the heaving swell. It seemed to stretch into eternity, grey sea merging into grey sky. Red Hawk was probably right, at that.
At last it was finished. They stacked what was worth taking with them, including the meagre store of food, in the centre of the raft. Curtius wanted to set fire to the cabin, but the others said no: it might provoke the Indians to see their prospective spoils going up in smoke. The last thing Bos took was a pouch, which he tied securely to his belt. In it were roots of vines in a protective cocoon of moss. He had brought
them with him from the emperor’s own vineyard in Rome, and his promise to himself was that someday, in some place, they would grow, and flower, and fruit; and he would make wine from the grapes.
It only remained to float the raft. That wasn’t easy, either. They had to struggle, knee-deep in near freezing water, to move it. At last it bobbed clear, and they scrambled on board. It was about fifteen feet across, with a low surrounding gunnel. It would have been a mad idea for four men to entrust their lives to such a craft even on a placid lake in summer. They had erected a small mast and had a sail but could not use it with the wind blowing steadily towards shore. They paddled the raft out through the breakers.
It helped a bit when they could strip off their soaked clothes and put on dry. The ridge beyond the reach was crowded now with figures; Simon thought he recognized Red Hawk in the centre of them. Gradually they dwindled in size and began to fall away astern.
“That’s it!” Brad said. “We’re in the current—heading south.”