Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.
By Andrew Sharp
A few hazy figures jostled around Charles in the fog. Beyond them, the rest of the market day crowd was only the subdued morning conversation, the horses’ hooves, the slap of shoes, and the creak and rattle of wagons on the block stone road.
Had the smugglers been lost and stumbled across the road, they would have known they were near a large city because of the stones. Only leaders of a large and prosperous city would pave outside its walls. Most cities didn’t even bother putting down gravel. A traveler’s options were often choking on dust or struggling through almost impassable mud.
To Charles’ disappointment, as he, George and Old Harry approached Scranton, the morning sun started to burn off the fog. Now he could see the steel-armored crossbowmen fidgeting with their weapons high above on the stone walls, and they could see him. The group of soldiers around the gate, armed with long barreled pistols and swords, was also taking a good look at all the faces moving past. The crowd helped; the smugglers were only a few of the many dressed in the crude wool clothes and sturdy boots of peasant farmers, but Charles had very much appreciated the added cloak of the fog.
They filed through the gate, the part Charles hated most. He wished again that George had brought someone else and left him back in camp. He felt like a naive rat walking voluntarily into a giant cage. Should an enemy pounce on them inside, there would be no escape into the deep woods. And in exchange for all that risk, he would see none of the profits of the venture. If the worst happened, Charles would be just as stretched on the rack as the smugglers. His skull would bleach just as white as theirs on a stake on the wall. But he would get none of the wampum, none of the nights of revelry on the town, no estate, no whores, no fine clothes, none of the political power that money brings. Given his own choice, none of the profits would have enticed him to take the risks. He did not have the heart of a smuggler.
As they walked, Charles thought he could feel the heavy hand of a suspicious guard about to fall on his shoulder, but the soldiers didn’t move as the crowd swept them through the gates and on to the market. The smugglers were in the trap now.
If anyone asked the three men their business in the city, their story was that they were traders from the east, from the allied kingdom of Lancaster, here to pick up a shipment of wheat to supplement the winter’s supply. This explained their accented Scranton speech. They had come without their horse and cart today because they were simply investigating prices and making arrangements. Tomorrow, they would bring the cart from the inn where they were staying to pick up any wheat they bought. Charles reminded himself of his name, Brandon, a more common Lancaster-sounding name. The Lancaster story had only one major flaw, which was that none of them spoke more than ten words of Lancaster.
Less dangerous, but still risky, was that it wasn’t out of the question that they might meet a trader here from Easton who would recognize them. It wasn’t likely, since Scranton shipped many goods to Lancaster where merchants from the Peninsula could pick them up, but it also wasn’t out of the question. A few caravans came all the way to Scranton every year, and the merchants might ask awkward questions about when George had taken up such long-distance trading, and why they had never crossed paths on the journey north.
Charles, always thinking ahead about potential risks, had asked George once what he would do if this happened, and for once George seemed stumped. After a pause, he just shrugged and said, “It’s one of the risks we take. I couldn’t really explain it. I’d just lie like crazy and hope it worked.”
Charles knew George was a talented liar in a pinch, but this did not seem sufficient and he had been working on some lies and escape plans of his own, just in case. Unfortunately, none of them were very good. His best shot would be to play the innocent slave forced into crime, and hope for leniency. Scranton judges were not renowned for their leniency toward those suspected of smuggling.
As they walked, Old Harry eyed the pubs lining the street, but George didn’t allow any heavy drinking before business. Carelessness could be fatal. After their business was ironed out, they could come back, as innocent tradesmen, to enjoy a drink before heading back out on the road. Or rather, George and Old Harry would enjoy it, while Charles attempted to casually scan the room for suspicious faces, ready to dive for an exit.
The market crowd temporarily swelled the population of the city by several thousand. With fifteen thousand permanent residents, Scranton was the largest in the known world. Easton, the city state on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay where most of the smugglers were from, was the premier city of that region, but its walls contained a population only about half that of Scranton’s.
In the vast market square, ringed with palaces and statues, George, Charles and Old Harry wandered amid the shouts of the vendors and the manufactured indignance of the hagglers, pretending to drift from stall to stall, inspecting a crate of chickens here, a table of horseshoes and farm tools there, and, of course, the piles of wheat they were supposed to be so interested in.
At the edge of the market, they drifted into a side street without glancing around, then strolled two blocks before turning into an alley. They wormed through the intestines of the city, turning and turning again, following crammed cobblestone lanes with sewage running through the gutters. Blank windows and dark archways watched them, and an occasional passerby. Charles could always feel the eyes of the authorities following them, peering down from the windows, soldiers and suspicious bureaucrats lurking just out of sight. His casual walk felt wooden and transparently guilty. George walked along apparently calm and at ease, as if on a stroll down a wooded country lane on a fine spring morning. Old Harry walked along with the abstracted look of a man thinking about pubs.
They halted in front of a back entrance to the tobacco shop. The front of the store opened onto a busy street lined with dry goods shops. It was a respectable establishment, where the servants of Scranton’s businessmen and lords bought the tobacco for their masters’ pipes. The back of the shop was where the restocking went on, respectable and otherwise.
George knocked on the door. On the other side of the building, they heard a cart go past on the street. George knocked again, and this time a curtain in the window drew aside. Then they heard footsteps, the lock clicked and a bar on the other side of the door slid open. A fat man with a short black beard opened the door.
“Oh, ah ha, yes, it’s you,” he said in the Scranton language, then switched over to the East Coast trade tongue. “Come, come on in. Don’t stand out there drawing attention.”
“Hi Jeff,” George said. They entered a stockroom stacked with crates, one of which had piles of papers scattered on it. A cat jumped down and ran through a doorway of hanging beads into another room. A strong scent of tobacco bales hung in the room, and the smoke of a cigar that Jeff now took up from the dirty plate he had set it on.
“Well, and what mischief have you all been up to?” Jeff asked, puffing out a cloud of smoke. “A little late, yes? I expected you last week. Here, let me get you a glass of something.” He shooed some fat flies off a stack of mugs and filled several from a keg, passing them to the smugglers.
“We got a late start from Easton because of bad weather on the Bay,” George said. “And then we ran into trouble not far from town here.”
“Trouble, eh?” Jeff said, interested. “Trouble? We’ve had a lot of that lately. What trouble for you?”
“Ambush,” George said. “Well, maybe. An attack, anyway. Ran into a bunch of soldiers. Got a few of us, too.”
“Oh yes?” Jeff said. “Well, that’s very bad. Sorry to hear that.”
“So many casualties, you won’t be wanting any goods?”
“Not quite that many,” George said. “Almost twenty. But we still want a load.”
“Ah, yes, OK, OK,” Jeff said. “Very good, must struggle on, can’t give up over a little trouble. Smuggler’s life. How many packs’ worth then?”
“Forty-one,” George said. “About nine hundred twenty-five kilos.”
Jeff pursed his lips. “Sorry, not sure I can get you that much. We’ve had a lot of trouble lately. Ah, let’s see, let’s see. I can get you …” he searched the ceiling for a figure, “… ah, about seven hundred kilos.”
George frowned. “What’s all this trouble you keep talking about?”
Jeff explained that the government had suddenly begun checking river traffic much more carefully, and had also stepped up road patrols. The patrols had seized two incoming sulfur shipments in the last month alone.
“Why are they so interested all of a sudden? I can’t say,” Jeff said. “We’re looking into it. My people high up are scared to talk to me. Bad, very bad. I’m watching my own back, I can tell you. Those poor guys they caught …”
The front door bell jangled and they all froze. Jeff held up a finger, and walked out. Smugglers and slave listened as Jeff welcomed a customer, and relaxed when it became obvious it was a simple tobacco sale.
“OK, sorry, sorry,” Jeff said, coming back in. “Anyway, sulfur’s high right now, very high. Got some traders up from Virginia the other month, and they wanted a whole pack of sulfur for each pack of tobacco.” He shook his head at the naivete. “Can’t do it, I told them. Nobody’ll give you that rate.”
“How much can we get for ours?” George asked.
“Hmm, hmm,” Jeff said. “Well, with the sulfur troubles, I tell you, probably not … hmm, not better than two packs of tobacco for one of sulfur. You’ll be traveling light, I think.”
“Dammit,” George said.
They were not haggling. That would be for later. Jeff, as the contact man, could be counted on to give a good assessment on what the sulfur dealers would be willing to pay. This was less because Jeff was a man of ironclad integrity and more because his main stock in trade was trustworthiness, dealing as he did with both sides. It was why he was one of the most important traders on the black market. Had he manipulated one side or the other to skew prices, he would have lost his trade in a hurry, and he knew it, and they knew it. Plus, he stood little to gain from setting up traders for disappointment by promising high prices that were not forthcoming.
Once he knew what they had available, Jeff would talk to the right people and tell them where George and company could be found. These right people would bring sulfur to the secret camp location, and leave the camp with tobacco, much of which would end up in Jeff’s shop.
When the dealers arrived at the camp, that was when the real haggling began, and the smugglers relied on Jeff to give them a market estimate they could negotiate from.
“What’s the quality?” Jeff asked. “Good leaf this year?”
“A little better than average,” George said. “A little too hot for too long, but still, I’d say, a good leaf. Not the finest. Not like that summer three years ago.”
Nostalgia came into Jeff’s eyes. “Aahhhh, yes. Yes, if you brought me that every year, I could finally make this shop worth something.”
The smugglers grinned. Jeff was worth more than a number of the local noblemen, as his waistline testified — he was one of the only fat people Charles had ever met. But he earned it all, doing the risky legwork of knowing all the smugglers and dealers and keeping all their secrets. None of the smugglers would have wanted his job.
They shared a little more gossip about new faces in the business, the ones who had gotten caught and what the government had done to them this time, prices, the outlook for the next summer, and so on. Then the three smugglers left Jeff with his cigar and cat, and made their way back through the alleys. They had a pub to investigate.
It took a couple of days before the sulfur dealers started to arrive at camp, with lookouts from the smugglers watching to make sure they weren’t being tailed by troops. Jeff was right about price, as usual. The smugglers weren’t able to get any better than a two kilo to one exchange rate, and sometimes didn’t even get that. In sulfur, the dealers had a commodity in high demand and low supply, and they knew their advantage. The tobacco piles dwindled quickly, and the pile of sulfur bags grew slowly. After several days of trading, when the last dealer left, the smugglers still had much less sulfur than usual, and a little tobacco left.
“I want to check one more place,” George told his lieutenants. “There’s a farmer I know deals a little sulfur on the side, one of the last independent dealers. I cut a few deals with him way back in the day. He’s down around Back Mountain, one of the only farms down there. Nobody from the army ever goes down that way.”
“All that risk, for what?” Old Harry argued. “A couple kilos?”
“I bet I can get ten,” George said. “He used to do a lot of business.”
“Used to,” James said. “But now?”
“Like I said, he’s way out there,” George said. “If they left anybody alone, it’s him.”
Warren shook his head. “With all the trouble Jeff was talking about, I think we should get out of here before the army gets tipped off, comes rolling into camp here.”
“Nope,” George said. “You guys wanted to be safe, you got into the wrong business. Ten kilos of sulfur is a year’s wages for those poor steel merchants back home. Worth the trip down to the farm, and then some. And then we don’t have to carry any tobacco back.”
And so it was that an unhappy Charles set out the next morning with George and two other smugglers, Dan and Henry. The cats preferred lone travelers, and so the smugglers preferred to travel in groups of at least three or four, especially in remote areas. Also, bandits were less likely to bother a group, especially if that group were able to bring out firearms as a negotiating tool.
Dan was the band’s lead hunter, the best woodsman in a group of many good ones. He was well aware of it, shared his opinions with the confidence of an oracle and had no patience with the mistakes of those of inferior talent. Henry, the camp tailor and jack of all trades, was deliberate and religious. Both having plentiful opinion and scarce patience, Henry and Dan were not the best of friends, especially since Henry wasn’t as adept at woodscraft as some of his fellow smugglers. But George tried to spread the extra duty around, and so Henry had been tapped for this trip.
It was a long morning’s hike to the farm, so they got started at daybreak. They had again turned themselves into peasants in simple clothing, wearing the short sleeves considered low class by the aristocracy. They carried no weapons except pistols tucked into their belts, covered by their shirts. In that disguise, they could use the road, when there was a road going in their direction, and travel more quickly, avoiding the deep woods as much as possible. Should any soldiers pass them on the road, they would be humble farmers visiting a neighbor. Should any neighbors happen by, they would be cousins from out of town visiting their relative at his remote farm.
Around lunchtime, they spotted the first cornfield from the farm, and George slowed down, then stopped.
“There’s no smoke from his fireplace,” George said. He veered off into the woods, followed by the others, and began to carefully approach the bright patch of light through the trees that marked the edge of the field.
Resting his arms on the split rail fence, George surveyed the farm.
“No cattle,” he said.
There had been cattle, not very long ago. Water-filled hoofprints filled the muddy corner near a water trough, which was lying on its side. Nothing moved in the barn, or anywhere on the farm, except for a bird that swooped and dipped across the pasture.
George watched for a long time. Finally, he swung himself over the fence, and the other smugglers did the same, following him at a trot across the cow pen to the edge of the barn. Charles noticed many horse tracks mixed in with those of cows. The smugglers glanced at each other.
The silence hung in the air, filling every corner of the farm. The gate by the barn hung wide open. As they rounded the barn, the farmer’s cabin came into view, or rather, the cabin’s chimney, surrounded by a black pile of charcoal. The ashes looked cold; there was no hint of smoke. Behind the cabin a lonely outhouse still stood.
The smugglers did no more exploring, but set off at a jog for the closest trees across the pasture, splashing through puddles brown with manure. The lush green clover in the back pasture was harder to run through, and once Charles got his feet tangled in it and fell on his knees, but jumped up again as quickly as he could and ran on. When the other men stopped in front of him, he almost ran into them.
Just in front of them, the form of a dead animal flattened out the clover near the edge of the forest, red-feathered arrows sticking up out of it like a patch of wooden lilies. A rotting meat smell hung in the air around it.
They stepped closer. It was no animal. It was the farmer, sprawled on his stomach, face down in the clover. Flies buzzed up into the nose and around the one visible eye. The mouth was open in a wordless yell, as if the corpse were shouting clouds of fat flies.
Charles got to the fence at a run, hurdled it and dashed into the woods, leaping logs and dodging trees, until skidding on some moss, he fell awkwardly. He jumped up again and tried to run, but George grabbed his shoulders and held him back.
“What is wrong with you?” he said. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Dan and Henry made their way up, smirking at him.
Charles stared at them, gulping in breath, his heart hammering. The ground seemed to wobble.
“What is wrong with you?” George repeated. “You’ve seen a man with arrows in him before. There’s no soldiers on that farm; they’re all long gone. We’re in the woods. What are you afraid of?”
Charles had no answer. He was shaking and trying hard not to humiliate himself by losing his breakfast in front of them. He leaned over, hands on knees, and breathed deeply. Slowly the shakiness went away and Charles looked up at the others, his face flushing as he saw them watching his weakness.
George opened his mouth to say something, but apparently thought better of it. Finally he said, “We need to get back. Are you going to be able to travel?”
Charles nodded, looking down.
He was confused. He had been part of the group that found Jumpy a couple of years ago, shot full of holes by the Appalachies and robbed of his pack and weapons, and he hadn’t felt this panic at all. He had mostly been glad it wasn’t him. He had seen a number of bodies since then. Why was he so bothered by the death of this farmer, whom he had never met?
It wasn’t just the body. The scene of destruction on that farm had done something to him. He had felt it creeping over him when he first saw the house, a sick panic, a pressing call to run or curl up into a ball.
He hurried along behind the others, who were now theorizing on what they’d seen.
“There’s no way this is a coincidence,” George said.
“Nope,” Henry agreed. “That ambush the other day made me wonder, but with this too … there’s some kind of scheme going on.”
“But how the hell,” George said, almost plaintively.
“A mole in the band,” Henry said. “We have a traitor somewhere.”
“Hmm,” George said.
“How are you so dead sure?” Dan demanded. “You heard about what Jeff said, all the patrols and sulphur busts. Scranton’s after everybody.”
“No way,” Henry said. “Add it all up. You’d see it, but you don’t want to think one of our lovely bunch of top-notch smugglers would be so treacherous.”
“They’re lowlifes, not traitors,” Dan said. They glared at each other.
“Oh, we’ll get it figured out, no worries,” George said. “We’ll get it figured out, and we’ll deal with it. But, whatever’s going on, I wouldn’t give a wampum bead for Jeff’s job right now. The noose is starting to get tight in this line of work.”
Charles disliked this metaphor very much. It made his neck tingle.
He didn’t know what to believe about Henry’s traitor theory. The smugglers might not be model citizens, but they had a strong bond of loyalty that usually trumped all the inevitable rivalries and bickering. They might shoot each other, but woe to the outsider who tried to attack one of them. On the other hand, there were always new faces each year, and one of them might be a spy. But Dan’s point about the army was a good one. With Scranton cracking down on smuggling, why not assume that the authorities had simply been watching the gang and had finally pounced?
Leaving the debate hanging, they navigated into the forest, abandoning the roads for the trip back. Climbing through unfamiliar ravines and over brush-choked ridges, the going was slow, and the sun moved quickly across the sky. As the smugglers went deeper into the wilderness, conversation stopped and they became alert to any sound. The only sounds were their footsteps, and the occasional scurry or flurry of a small animal fleeing.
Charles kept his hand on his gun. Cats, they said, never made any sound. By the time you heard them, they were already in the air. That was the other advantage of traveling in a group. The ones the cat did not select would not be taken by surprise. Small comfort, perhaps, to the one who had been surprised, but helpful for the rest.
Charles had seen the cats’ leftovers, the leaves torn up and littered with deer or raccoon bones picked clean. Once it had been an Appalachie, the only parts left a cat fur cap, a few rags of clothing, empty moccasins, and an empty gun lying among the strewn bones. A set of long scratch marks ran up the stock of the gun.
When they finally approached the camp, they could already see the night fires blazing through the trees as dusk deepened. Once in camp, George immediately ordered everyone to begin to pack up to leave first thing in the morning. Word of the pincushion farmer spread quickly, and there were no slackers.
The sulfur was already packed into leather pouches, and these the smugglers stuffed tightly into their backpacks so they wouldn’t move around and tip. They packed any leftover open space with dry leaves to further stabilize the load. On top of that went more leaves and then leftover trading tobacco, some of which might eventually have to be thrown away due to sulfur contamination. No matter how carefully packed, sulfur smell and dust could not be stopped from oozing out of the packs and through everything in the camp. On top of the tobacco bags went daily supplies — a hunting knife, a bedroll, pemmican, a long-sleeved wool shirt for when the weather started getting more crisp, personal pipes or cigars, bullets and gunpowder, extra arrowheads, bow wax, and other necessities.
“Not much food,” Old Harry said, topping off his pack. “Anybody out?”
“Almost,” one of the men said.
“Everybody’s almost out,” Old Harry said. “Anybody actually have no food?”
“I have some shoelaces,” another man volunteered, “and also a little pemmican.”
“Save the shoelaces for a special treat,” Old Harry said.
Pemmican lasted virtually forever without spoiling, and so it was used last, after supplies like venison jerky, flour and dried fruit ran out. By the end of the journey to Scranton, many of the men had dipped deeply into this reserve. The band had been sending in a few men to town to buy some basics, like flour and dried fruit, in amounts that would not make anyone think of large groups of hungry smugglers. But they still had not managed to stockpile enough for the long trip back, and before long, the band would have to stop for an extended hunting break to resupply. Each supply stop would slow them down by a week or two.
As he helped pack up and gather extra wood to feed the bonfires for the night, Charles noticed that some of the men gave him dirty looks when he went past, and murmured words he couldn’t hear. He was used to being treated as a sort of intelligent pack animal, but this unfriendliness was new and he worried about it.
The next morning, Charles, Marguerite and Gary set off downhill toward the nearest stream to fill up the band’s canteens, as the slaves always did before the day’s hike. A voice interrupted them.
“Hey! Where do you all think you’re going by yourselves?”
It was Eileen, a stocky woman with sharp eyes who stood for no nonsense. She detested Marguerite, but she usually ignored the other slaves.
Marguerite glared at her, and Gary looked to Charles.
“Going to get water,” Charles said. He paused. “We need water for the trip,” he explained.
“Not by yourselves, you’re not,” Eileen said. She marched over to them and grabbed some of the canteens. “What are you staring at? Come on, let’s go! You don’t have any objection to somebody else coming along, do you?”
That dirty old witch, Charles thought. She thinks we helped set up that ambush.
It was a quiet water trip, with Eileen conspicuously vigilant and the slaves sullen and simmering. That Eileen helped with the water did not mollify them.
As he checked his pack later, Charles wondered if any of the other slaves might have been behind the ambush after all. What did the slaves care if the band were obliterated, especially if it meant they could have their freedom? There was Marguerite. Weren’t the quiet ones dangerous? But that wouldn’t be like her to go calling for help from the army. She’d stick a dagger into Old Harry if she thought she could get away with it, but she wouldn’t give a random band of soldiers the satisfaction of doing it for her. And Gary? He was awed by his master John, imitating his style and his way of talking. His biggest dream was to be a real smuggler someday, one of the gang. He didn’t even want to leave. It was ridiculous to think of him betraying his heroes.
Charles certainly didn’t care much if the band met with disaster. Even before they suspected him of treachery, most of the band wouldn’t have been particularly bothered if he dropped dead right on the trail. They would have just been annoyed they had to stop what they were doing and help gather rocks to cover his grave. And he felt the same way about them. He wasn’t a volunteer, and he had never been included in the strong bonds of shared danger and shared experience that smugglers form.
He didn’t hate all of them. He resented George. He hated the way George used trivial privileges to try to make him feel that he owed George in some way, ignoring as if it were incidental the fact that Charles worked full time for him without pay. He also hated the way George put him in extra danger all the time, dragging him along on adventures like that debacle at the farm. But no, he didn’t hate George.
Warren wasn’t so bad either. Warren talked to him without condescension, discussing books and history and mathematical theory and science. Charles was glad for the small amount of camaraderie. In fact, Warren was too kind to be a really good smuggler. He wasn’t a killer deep down. Yet, anyway. Give him time and practice.
It was true, Charles had occasionally let the idea of betrayal float around in his mind. But even if he had been hateful enough to do it, it had major drawbacks. He had nowhere to go, no friends to take him in. And if he were caught in the effort, future plans be unnecessary and his last day of life would make everything that went before seem like paradise.
There simply were too many reasons arguing against the slaves being involved in any treachery, and that should have been obvious to the band, he thought. For starters, Charles had no reason to get involved in such a scheme on his last trip. Furthermore, the ambush would have been a stupid bid for freedom, since the Scranton troops would have just sold them to new owners. Plus, the slaves would have put themselves directly in the line of fire. Surely Eileen and the others knew they were smarter than that.
But what alternative did they have? It was blame each other, or the outsiders in the group. So they were blaming the outsiders.
But somehow the soldiers had found out where they would be. How? He wondered how well he really knew the other slaves. The genius of traitors was they always seemed to manage to be the person you didn’t expect. Or maybe it had been one of the new smugglers, Ronnie, for instance …
He caught himself. He was being as stupid as the others.
He pulled the leather laces tight on his pack and tied them, then knelt, set the pack on his knee and slid it around onto his back.
This would be a hell of a trip. If the band didn’t starve, they might kill each other first.