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.
Trying to look on the bright side, Charles considered whether the heat wave was all bad. The smoldering air and sizzling rocks that baked his feet helped distract him from his moaning stomach, after all. He also had to drink constantly, giving his stomach something constructive to do besides chew on the rest of his organs.
Logically, hot and thirsty and hungry were not a major improvement on hungry, but Charles did not let himself dwell on the fine points of the reasoning. In the wilderness, where rain, heat, cold and bugs offered a constant reminder of why houses were invented, learning to ignore basic facts of misery was key to contentment.
All the smugglers relied on their canteens to keep from wilting with the plants around them. When the group didn’t cross a stream for a few hours, the “water run” cries would start up, and George would call a halt and send the slaves downhill in search of water, hauling along bundles of empty canteens.
On the first day the smugglers fled Scranton, dark clouds blew over and Charles was all set to complain about hiking in the rain. But it was a dry heave of a storm, an empty wind that filled the air with dust and left the ground more parched than before. The skies stayed relentlessly clear in the days that followed, and the wilderness, already brown from summer, turned crackling and brittle.
On water runs, the slaves sometimes had to scrape out mud from springs to make a puddle deep enough to dip the canteens into. Sometimes the spring or stream was simply dead. That was bad news for the slaves, because when they brought empty canteens back to cranky and thirsty smugglers, they were treated to a vivid demonstration of the “blame the messenger” phenomenon.
“Dammit, don’t bring me back an empty canteen!” John shouted once. “You didn’t even go down to the stream, did you?”
Charles just nodded, but Marguerite wasn’t taking it.
“Yes we did! It was dry.”
“Then dig a little,” John said. “Or keep looking.”
She glared at him. “There’s some.” She pointed to a small cloud off near the horizon.
John probably would have slapped her, but slapping another man’s slave brought with it more trouble than it was worth. So he walked away.
And so after all the smugglers had gotten their complaining in, everyone simply had to move on for as many miles as it took to find water, or what passed for it.
Despite these miseries, the leaders set a rapid pace for the first few days. George refused to stop and hunt until the band had put more miles between them and Scranton, so the smugglers resentfully nibbled a dwindling pemmican supply, only eating enough to keep off the worst pangs. The hunger was bad enough, Charles thought, but worse was opening an almost empty food pouch, smelling the pemmican inside, and forcing himself to scrape out only a mouthful or two while his stomach, reminded of its emptiness, roared for more.
The band did not follow a worn footpath like the many forest trails optimistically called roads in the kingdom of Easton. No such path existed. Instead, pushing through spiderwebs and thickets, and towering groves of ancient trees, they stuck to certain ridge lines and avoided others, steering clear of swamps, dead ends, and dropoffs.
They would have made much faster time had they been able to follow a preordained route, cleared of branches and brush. But the band had no time to repair trail erosion, clear brush or saw fallen logs. Even if they had, following a sharply defined trail each trip would have been suicide when it was well known that smugglers were using the mountains to transport the most coveted black market commodity.
Even their vague route did not fool the Appalachies, who coveted sulfur as much as anyone, and who recognized trees in the forest like civilized people knew their own furniture. The Appalachies could not have helped but note the entrails from game animals the smugglers killed, the broken ferns, the disturbed leaves and the remains of campfires, not to mention the smoke of the live fires and the loud voices through the trees. The Appalachies, George told Charles once, knew the route about as well as he did.
George had drawn secret maps of the routes. Between trips, the leaders gathered several times in George’s study, correcting the maps and filling in details, tracing out springs and streams, good places for game and bad places for predators, and listing notes on major landmarks. They also fine tuned their plans for the next trip. The authorities from Easton and Scranton would have liked very much to acquire these state secrets of the smugglers.
Another advantage of the uncertain route was that it gave any band members who might be inclined to make trouble incentive to reconsider. While almost all smugglers had enough navigation knowledge to know more or less where they were, and could probably make their way out of the wilderness on their own eventually, a precise knowledge of the route certainly increased the odds of getting out. Only the seasoned, proven veterans knew the trails well, and only George had the maps.
Charles knew the route as well as anyone. But he was not in demand for navigation decisions, and as he hiked along behind the leaders he was free to think less of the route and more of bread with honey dripped all over it, and hot gravy over potatoes, and oyster stew, and pan-seared rockfish. During one painful interlude, he hiked for several hours with vivid images of hot crab cakes he could nearly smell but could not dispel. He tried to get back to thinking about the heat.
He walked fast enough to stay close to the front, near George and the other leaders. In the past, Charles had preferred to hike on his own, near enough to George that he could technically respond to a summons, but far enough away that George might find it too much effort and leave him alone. But now, when the smugglers passed him on the trail, they wouldn’t look at him, even the ones he had been on friendly terms with in the past. Once or twice, one of them clipped his pack or cut him off on the trail, but did not apologize. He noticed one evening as he carried wood for the fires that people lapsed into silence when he walked by, and started muttering when he was out of earshot.
The next morning, the slaves found a tepid stream to fill the canteens in. Usually, the smugglers gave some kind of brief ‘thank you’ when the canteens were full, but this time, one after another simply snatched the canteen without thanking them.
One evening, after a couple of days of hiking, George summoned Charles away from the fire he was staring into. This was unusual, because after the fires were built Charles was usually free to do what he wanted, which was usually staring into the fire. But now George called him over to the fire where only the leaders sat in the circle, in a voice loud enough for the whole camp to hear. Charles’ face flushed as he got up and the talk died down, the other smugglers turning their heads to watch him go by. One of them laughed.
He took a seat in the circle and looked around at the faces, searching them for clues. John, grim. James solemn, maybe a hint of sympathy. Or was it contempt? Warren, a brief smile. Old Harry, the friendly stare of a wet cat. George, stern.
“I think you know what this is about, Charles,” George said. “You’ve served faithfully for many years, but some in the band have raised questions about you and the other slaves. If you’re innocent, you have nothing to worry about. If you’re not, don’t try to hide anything. If you’re honest, it will go better with you. Much better.”
Charles’ stomach flopped. He could not lose George’s trust. If he made a mistake now and said something stupid, or worse, if he had too many enemies in the circle, he might have had his last good meal. If only he could have had one more piece of juicy venison before the end. It was strange, he thought, what went through your mind when disaster loomed.
“So why don’t you just start by telling us everything you know about what happened the day of the ambush,” George said.
Charles could see band members at the other fires looking over in their direction, whispering. “I don’t know anything,” he said.
George frowned. This did not seem to have been the right answer. “You don’t remember anything you did that day?”
“I got up, filled the canteens, and hiked, just like any other day,” Charles said.
“You didn’t see or hear anything unusual?”
“Did any of the other slaves say anything to you around that time that you didn’t understand, or that sounded strange?”
“You aren’t going to do yourself any favors by refusing to cooperate with us, Charles,” John said. “Give us details.”
“I don’t have any details! If I did I’d give them to you.” Did that sound too defensive? He hoped not.
And so it went on. Was he happy in the band? Had he seen anything unusual before the trip began? Did he suspect anyone else? Had anyone approached him with any offers? The circle of questions drew tighter around the central, unasked one: Are you a traitor? As Charles tried to answer in an unsuspicious way, he wondered if that made him sound suspicious. Did he sound too eager to convince, and thus guilty? How could he sound innocent, but not like he was trying too hard to sound innocent? How could he think straight when he couldn’t even concentrate on what he was saying?
Now Old Harry jumped in. “You’ve been unhappy for quite some time, haven’t you Charles?” he asked.
“No, I mean, no more than …” Charles struggled to find the right response. “No, I feel fine. Just like usual.” That, he thought, was not the right response. Lame. So lame!
“Are you planning to stick with the band when you’re done with your service?” James said, poking the fire with a stick. A cloud of sparks few upward.
“Well, I …”
Old Harry jumped in again. “Would you have been happy if the ambush gave you your freedom?”
“Well, no,” Charles said.
“No?” Old Harry said. “You prefer slavery?”
Charles glanced at George. “I’ve been treated well.”
“Ha,” Old Harry said. “That doesn’t answer the question. You’re not answering many questions, actually. But you’d better answer this one, and answer it straight: Did you help set up that ambush or did you just stay quiet about what you knew?”
“That’s enough,” George said. “Let’s stick with the facts, not with trap questions.”
“I was under the impression,” Old Harry said, “that we were going to question all the slaves the same way, without any favoritism.”
“I have no problem with hard questions,” George said. “None whatsoever. What I have a problem with is you fishing for the answer you want.”
“Fine,” Old Harry said. “Fine. As long as when my slave is questioned we play by the same rules.”
“If you have a problem with the way I’m handling things, you should say so now,” George said.
Old Harry held up his hands. “Oh, no. No, just clarifying.”
They glared at each other.
“Hrm,” Warren said. “I think Charles has told us everything he knows. There’s really nothing else to ask, except ‘Are you a traitor?’ And I’ve heard nothing from him that would make me believe that.” He pinched a mosquito that had gotten stuck in his beard.
Charles felt a rush of hope.
“I’ve heard nothing,” Old Harry said, “that would make me think he isn’t a traitor. All the usual stuff they all say. ‘I don’t know anything.’ ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”
That was too much.
“I … am … not … a … traitor.” Charles fired out the words. “I fought back that day. I could have been killed like any of you. A traitor had no reason …” he stopped, a little embarrassed. “No reason to, ah, to run.”
They sat in silence. James threw a branch on the fire.
“We all ran that day,” Warren said softly. “You don’t have any reason to feel ashamed of that, Charles.”
George cleared his throat. “OK, Charles, you’re dismissed.”
That was it. No thanks for his cooperation. No apology.
John went to get Gary for his interrogation. Well that was good at least, Charles thought. At least he hadn’t been singled out alone for humiliation. But he might not be off the hook, either, especially if Gary said something stupid or tried to make up a story to clear himself.
Back at his fire, as Charles cracked branches to feed the blaze, the other smugglers didn’t say anything to him. Or much of anything to each other, when he was within earshot, although a group at a fire out toward the edge of camp was laughing loudly over something. Charles looked over to where Gary stood in the flickering light of the leaders’ fire; James pointing, Gary shaking his head.
Charles wished he had known about the ambush. Then he could have made sure it was a success and those ungrateful bullies had gotten what they deserved. After all his service, to treat him that way. He snapped the branches as if they were necks. With all those bullets flying, how had those idiots missed Old Harry? How had Big John died and those other smug bastards survived?
As he got absorbed in his task and the fire leaped up brightly, burning off the chill, his rage began to die down and smolder. He was going to turn into Marguerite, if he wasn’t careful: silent and resentful and everyone waiting for him to explode one day.
Still, there was another emotion, too, that was tugging at him, poking at him, demanding attention, rising out of the relief, anger and shame. What was it? He was tense, and his breathing was fast. Then he recognized it. Rising terror.
If George turned on him — or needed to sacrifice him to satisfy an insurgency — Charles would have a better chance with the cats. Would George sacrifice him? Charles thought he might. He realized his hands were shaking. Stop it, he told himself. Stop. Here he was with a fire warming his hands, instead of a rope binding them tight against the bark of a tree. Things could be worse.
Warren came by as Charles was setting up his bedroll, and stood beside him, holding his hands out over the fire and shifting from one foot to the other. Now what, Charles wondered.
“Hey,” Warren said. “I wouldn’t worry too much about all the questions.”
Charles was not about to offer up his fear and anger for Warren’s inspection. He shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”
“Everyone is hungry, and tired, and sick to death of all this heat and not having enough water. And they’re scared. Don’t blame them too much, Charles.”
“Thanks,” Charles said, a sheen of sarcasm floating on the word.
Warren sighed. “You have to remember, too, George is getting pressure about you. He has to go through the motions and show that he’s taking this seriously, or the band will turn on him.”
Charles wondered just how much pressure George was under, but didn’t feel it would be a good idea to ask. And he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know the answer.
“Just be careful,” Warren said. “Stick with George. I don’t know of any threats against you but I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
And with that comforting remark, he crunched away through the leaves.
Whatever the leaders had decided about the slaves, they took no immediate action, a result Charles could live with. Action meant hot knives or coals, small bits of flesh sliced off a little at a time, a rope around the neck, or a stake at his back with wood piled high around him. In a smuggling band, a conviction on charges of being a traitor did not come with the possibility of parole.
Mindful of Warren’s advice, Charles was even more careful to stick close to George. He could still feel hostility from the smugglers, but it remained at a stalemate with a grudging cease fire, and everyone settled down into the routine of mountain travel.
Each morning at daybreak the slaves woke up, or if they didn’t, were shaken awake by their masters. The slaves kept any complaints to themselves, rolled out of their bedrolls and wrapped them up, threw more branches on the fire and stood, blinking in the smoke and stretching their aching muscles, as the trees emerged from the darkness and bird songs filled the silence. Then they grabbed the canteens, and staggered downhill to the closest water.
The clang of the canteens, the crunching footsteps in the leaves and the splashing water jarred away the last sleep. It took several trips to fill all the canteens, by which time Charles’ muscles warmed up and started to hurt less.
Eileen and her group of slave suspecters had quickly wearied of rising early to send someone to accompany the slaves to get water, as it defeated the purpose of having a slave do their work for them. So Eileen just warned the slaves they were being watched, and that they had better keep that in mind, news the slaves received solemnly until her back was turned.
While the slaves hauled water, the smugglers up at the camp stretched and complained about their sore muscles, analyzed the weather, compared blisters, bug bites and tribulations and talked about how that was always the way, wasn’t it, and how they were going to take up something easy like blacksmithing so they wouldn’t have to ever put themselves through this again, ate small mouthfuls of pemmican, drank from their newly filled canteens, laced up their boots and began eyeing their packs unhappily.
When George gave the command to move out, the band heaved on their packs, with the help of groans when necessary.
The slaves’ last chore was to put dirt on the fires, a job they did with extra care because the drought had parched the woods into kindling. Nobody cared for the idea of trying to outrun their own campfire later in the day.
The band waited for the leaders to move out, and then followed them in tight bunches that gradually trailed back into a thinner and thinner line, with lone hikers or knots of people in conversation. Any who fell too far back, however, hurried to catch up. Getting out of sight or earshot of the others might be mistaken by the Appalachies as an invitation to appropriate a pack of sulfur.
From Scranton, the smugglers had traveled south and east, and were well into the Appalachian mountain chain now. They followed the mountaintops as much as possible. Once they had reached these heights, the ridges often ran mostly level for miles. Sometimes the band threaded over sharp summits only a few feet wide, like the peak of a roof, with sides dropping steeply out of sight, and other times they walked through broad grassy meadows. Although the meadows were treacherous in a thunderstorm when hikers were alone and walking almost among the clouds, Charles would have welcomed the cool rain washing the air clean and resurrecting the streams.
Eventually, the ridges gave way, sometimes hastily, where the rivers had worn away the bank for eons, and the smugglers had to pick their way down the diving slopes, searching out footholds and trees to hang onto as they dropped toward the increasing roar of the water.
Once down, they faced the steep climb back up the other side. Some attacked the hill dead on, scrabbling straight up the face, while others angled back and forth, trading speed for a more gradual climb until the slope grew less severe. As a reward for their climb, they faced the mountaintop still rising ahead of them through the trees, always just up over the next rise, and the next rise, and the next rise, and the next rise, until finally the next rise was the last rise. On good days, another gently undulating stretch of even ridge lay ahead at the top. On worse days, the mountains were relentless, taking them thousands of feet down and back up repeatedly. The miles went slowly on those days, and the hunger bit harder.
These elements repeated daily, but not monotonously. Each mountain dressed in forest, but some donned mostly oak, others hickory, and others pine or hemlock. Each had its own rock formations and new patterns of gullies. Some were benevolent and gentle, others rough and grudging.
Frequently the smugglers passed overlooks, where rock cliffs dropped hundreds of feet down. Sometimes they paused there to rest, swinging their legs out over the emptiness. The mountain range ran in rows, long waves of peaks side by side for miles, fading purple into the distance. Often the travelers saw eagles or hawks below their feet, riding the updrafts along the mountainside.
Despite the vistas, the route was harsh. Rocks waited under every weary step to pummel Charles’ feet and turn his ankles. Only a fool would travel this way, over the roughest, worst possible route, instead of down in the valleys where the terrain was gentler and the water more plentiful. That was what made the mountains the ideal smuggling route, though: They were lonely.
Even the ancients, it seemed, had found these places too tough for habitation. Artifacts were everywhere in the valleys — rusty steel doorknobs, frozen rusty hinges, crumbling plastic, scattered bricks. Up in the mountains, the smugglers rarely found such leavings of a vanished civilization. Only the ghost roads. These flat lines of gravel and black earth ran for miles where the ancients had somehow cut straight through the mountains, leaving behind perfectly sheer, impossible cliffs. They had used these routes to get across the mountains, not to arrive at them.
It was on one of these plateaus that the smugglers dropped down, groaning, when George called a halt after the fifth day out of Scranton. Some slumped forward, heads on knees, and others stared off over the valley ahead, not really looking at it. They began to rummage in their packs for a bite of food.
“Get your rest, everybody,” George said. “Tomorrow” — smugglers watched him without enthusiasm — “we’re going hunting.”
Smiles spread around the group now, and a couple of weak whoops, mixed with some murmuring about it being about time. A few of the smugglers took out their bows and started waxing their strings.
Dan, the hunt organizer, had wandered along the plateau some distance, and after poking around the leaves, he called George over and pointed at the ground. George bent to look closer, and then straightened and put his hands on his hips. Soon they called over the rest of the leaders. A few of the band, Charles among them, wandered over for a look as well.
“What is it?” one of the smugglers asked.
“People have been along here very recently,” Dan said, pointing to the rumpled trail in the even surface of the leaves. He pulled the leaves aside in a couple spots. The ground underneath was powder dry, but still soft enough to show the outlines of moccasined feet.
The smugglers considered the tracks in silence for a while.
“Appalachies,” Dan said, unnecessarily. No civilized trappers or hunters would ever venture this far out.
The news got around the camp quickly and many of the smugglers came over to see for themselves. More of them began to string their bows and check their revolvers.
“All right, pack up,” George said. “We’ve got to get farther downhill, away from that cliff wall. You couldn’t ask for a nicer shooting view from the top of that.”
“So are we still going to stop and hunt here, or keep hiking tomorrow?” Warren asked George.
George pondered this. “I think we have to stop here.”
“We have enough supplies for one more day, at least,” Warren said. “If we send out hunting parties with Appalachies around, odds are good someone won’t come back.”
George shrugged. “Odds are good someone won’t come back if they sign up to go on a smuggling trip. If Appalachies are following us, a day’s journey isn’t going to make any difference. And …” he lowered his voice, “I can’t make them walk much farther. I’ve pushed about as hard as I can.”
“Maybe the men won’t want to stop, if there are Appalachies around,” Warren suggested.
George studied him.
Dan interjected, “They know we’re here anyway. They always know. There’s no way they’re this close to us and don’t know. If they don’t, they will soon. Harper’s Ferry is too far away to try to get there and sneak in there and buy food.”
George nodded. “The longer we wait, the weaker we get. We’re just going to have to risk it.”
“I just hate for anybody to get killed if they don’t have to,” Warren said.
“Better if we can avoid it, but it happens,” George said. “They knew what they were signing up for. I tell them all ahead of time.”
Warren cleared his throat. “Ah. But …”
George set his mouth and began to look off into the distance as he did when he was done with a conversation.
The smugglers moved downhill from the cliff and set up a new campsite, without the flat spots to sleep, but with a clear view through the trees in every direction. Anyone who approached would find the band waiting.
Charles joined a group throwing together a fire toward the middle of the camp. He didn’t like the idea of sleeping on the edge with Appalachies prowling around.
“I wonder how many of those white devils there are out there?” one of the smugglers, Pete, a stocky man with a gray beard, said. Pete was popular. Steady and responsible, he was always ready for a friendly chat or a joke.
Dan, striking a flint to shower sparks on a pile of twigs and wood shavings, said, “Oh, hard to say, but from the sign I’d only say one or two.”
“Yeah, but I mean, how many all over this wilderness? Think if they had the guts to fight and the weapons they’d be a match for us?”
John scoffed. “No way. There’s only a handful in the whole wilderness. You never run across any more than just a trace here or there. If there were any big tribes of them anywhere, you’d find villages. Trading posts. All you ever see is some savage in cat skins, hoofing it away from you as fast as he can go.”
“You can tell they’re afraid,” Dan agreed. “Slinking around the way they do. If they had any numbers they’d show a little more courage. And we’d get to pay them back for their sneaky little murders.” He spat. “Knife and run, that’s all they do. A bullet in the back is the only thing good enough for ‘em. I’ll kill the last one if I can.” He blew on the small flame in the twigs to get it going.
“I’m always a little worried about shooting them,” Pete admitted, fanning smoke out of his face with the battered hat he always wore. “I seen them around a few times when I’m out hunting and I’d of loved to drop them in their treacherous little tracks. But I never knew how many might be just over the hill. I’d get to thinking about how I might look with arrows coming out every which way, and just let the bugger keep walking.”
“I heard they ain’t really people at all,” a smuggler named Jake broke in. Enthusiastic and always ready for a good time, Jake got bored if the adventure didn’t keep coming. He had been bored for some time now, so he was delighted to stop and hunt, and even happier that there were Appalachies around, although he made a concerned face about it. “Yeah,” he went on, “They’re more than human, I always heard. That’s why they survived out here when the rest of the people was dying off in the Bad Times. They don’t need food. And they never got sick like anyone else. That’s because …
“Good God, Jake, enough of that nonsense,” John said. “They’re human all right. At least they shit like any human I’ve ever seen. You’ve never run across one of their piles? They’re just a low-grade version that’s more like an animal sometimes.”
“But where do they come from then? They ain’t nothing like us,” Jake protested. “White as sheets. And skinny and sickly looking.”
“What I heard,” Charles began, but Jake cut him off.
“Shut up. Nobody asked you for an opinion.”
Charles imagined what it would be like to beat Jake over the head with a limb. He guessed it would be fulfilling.
“My old Pop,” Pete said, “used to say they were the original people in this part of the world. Legend had it new settlers came from lands over the sea and drove them out, ran them out of their villages and killed them off so they had to run up into the mountains to survive. Guess they had the last laugh when the Bad Times came ‘cause they missed the whole thing.”
“I’ve heard that story,” Jake said dubiously. “But I don’t know as I give much credit to it. Nobody’s ever found these lands over the sea, no matter how far out they go.”
“Now, I don’t know about that,” Warren weighed in. “There are maps and artifacts that indicate pretty strongly there really were — are, I guess — countries over the sea. Now the Appalachies being the original people, you may be right about that being just an old tale. Myself, I believe the theory that the Appalachies were just like anybody else. When everything fell apart, they were the ones living on the edges. They fled into the woods and got away from it all. Most people came back, eventually. I guess they just stayed.”
“But why are they so white, then?” Jake persisted, unwilling to relegate the Appalachies to mere boring mortals.
Warren considered this. “Well, nobody really knows that. Maybe there just were so few of them they just inbred too much and it made them weak and sickly. Or maybe something else. A lot of strange things came out of those times that we can’t really explain. Take the cats.”
“If I was stuck up in the mountains skulking around living on cat meat,” Jake said, “I’d beat my way to the nearest village and find a nice local girl to settle down with.”
“Ha,” Pete said. “You’d get yourself shot. If some wild Appalachie came down out of the woods and courted my daughter, he’d settle down alright. Permanent, like.”
“Pete’s right, though,” Warren said. “Culture is a strong thing. Who would accept them in now? They’re outcasts.” He sounded almost sympathetic, a sentiment Charles never remembered hearing in a conversation about Appalachies.
Charles wondered again about Warren and where he had come from. He talked differently. He knew a lot about a lot of different subjects, and spoke with authority. If someone challenged him, he’d start citing books most of them had never heard of, at which point his challenger would concede the field, but go on disbelieving him.
Charles remembered hearing many stories about the Appalachies around the fireplace in Easton, stories often not much more sophisticated than these homespun rural tales Charlie and Pete were bringing up. In some stories, Appalachies were true humans, just with uncanny woodcraft and an insatiable hatred of civilized people. In others, they rose to the level of mythical beings, elf-like forest people with ghostly white skin who could travel without a sound and who painted their faces to blend perfectly into the brush. Sometimes they had magical powers of invisibility or seduction. Sometimes they were the only really good people left in the world, a simpler and nobler people. Some people considered it bad luck to talk about them at all.
Parents warned their children to behave or the Appalachies would get them, a threat that children in Easton began to doubt once they became more fully aware of the flat mountainless terrain around Easton. Maybe the threats worked better in Scranton, Charles thought. For his part, he’d been terrified of them when he’d been small, afraid of even being out on the street when shadows started to get deeper.
Whatever their nature and origin, the Appalachies probably made the smuggling route more safe than otherwise. There were so many tales about travelers and capable hunters who went out too far into the wilderness and disappeared. Many of the stories detailed the unpleasant events in the lives of the incautious adventurers just before those lives came to an end, although sources were hazy. People heard from someone who knew someone who found the body or who saw it all but escaped.
As Charles sat now in the gathering twilight, watching the full moon moving upward through the tree branches, he wondered what the Appalachies were really like. His time in the wilderness had taught him little about them. He had seen their handiwork in person: the arrow-riddled corpse of poor old Jumpy, after he had lagged behind the group one day, and the bodies of the small group of smugglers who, about six years ago, went downhill for a water refill and never came back. That’s when the water job had been delegated to the slaves.
He had never actually seen an Appalachie up close, only glimpses of forms running through the woods at a distance, or flickering shadows that he couldn’t be sure weren’t actually shadows.
That was about to change.