Gunpowder Trails Chapter Four

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Chapter Four

The meat was tough, seared outside and almost raw inside, but Charles chomped it as if it might still be thinking of running away. His stomach wavered a little at the rush of rich food, but Charles figured he would worry about the eating and let his stomach worry about its own troubles.

Those who had shot the animals got to pick their cut of meat, and then, by tradition, a couple of the leaders stood over the roasted wild boar and deer carving off chunks and doling them out. The smugglers gnawed the bones clean, and some even ate the liver and other parts of the guts raw. When they had eaten everything else, a few whacked the bones with rocks and licked out the marrow, or scraped fat off the hides.

Then the band heaped the leftover scraps on the bonfires so the smell of blood and meat would not draw bears, panthers or cats. Then they sat around the fire, licking fat and blood from their fingers and joking and laughing as they had not done for many days, although a few looked uneasy as their stomachs gurgled complaints.

“I’m still hungry,” Jake said, picking his teeth with a twig. “Would’ve been nice to have a little left over. Might have if James hadn’t shot a tiny little fawn.” Smugglers grinned.

“Better than the one you shot,” James said. “I didn’t see you bring it in – where are you stashing it?”

“I was waiting for one worth shooting. Hate to waste my time on five bites.”

“Wasn’t any problem for James to haul this one in,” Eileen chipped in. “He just threw it over his shoulder and walked back.”

“At least I didn’t waste a perfectly good arrow like Pete did,” James said. Pete sat roasting a squirrel on a stick. “Who’s still eating?” he said, waving them off.

“You should save that hide and get it tanned when we get home,” Dan told him.

Pete pretended not to listen to the laughter and attempted to look blissful while grinding at the rubbery meat with his teeth.

Charles would have been flustered and defensive if the smugglers mocked him like that. But it would be nice, he thought, if they cared enough to make fun of him. The last time he had gone hunting, he had shot his arrow three feet over the deer’s back. Jake had seen it happen but just shook his head and never said a word about it.

At least now everyone was in a better mood. If they went back to ignoring the slaves it would be better than open hostility. Nobody had complained when the slaves got an equal share of meat, so that was a good sign.

Tomorrow the work would begin, now that they all had food in their stomachs. If there was plenty of game and wild boars didn’t gore anybody and the hunters shot straight, they could replenish their packs in just a few days. If predators were on the prowl, or if the deer were scarce, it might take a couple of weeks to stock up. They might even have to try a new area further south.

They would figure that out later. For now, the smugglers had the afternoon to rest and recharge from the relentless pace they had kept up since Scranton. Deepening their relief was the knowledge that they were far out of range of any pursuing soldiers.

They lounged against packs and trees, napping and chatting. George even let those who had run out of their own tobacco, which was almost everyone, dip into the leftover trade supply for a celebratory smoke.

“There’s plenty of it,” he said. “May as well get rid of it – just more to carry, anyway.”

And you can score some easy points to help them forget the way you’ve been driving them, Charles thought.

Smoke curled upward into the leaves, and the pungent smell of tobacco wafted through camp. Without alcohol to fuel the mood, it stayed mellow.

“A story,” Jake said. “Time for a story. Who’s up?”

“Eliza,” James said, and others picked up the sentiment.

“Aww, I was just getting comfortable,” Eliza said, but she sat up. Most of the time Eliza preferred thinking to talking. She was not shy, but had light brown eyes that looked inside your head, which made people uneasy. But everyone listened when she made up her stories, or told the traditional tales, altering the angles and adding details that made them new. Her art had already done great service many times by distracting the smugglers from their misery after the weary days.

As she began to speak now, people gathered around and dug out fresh tobacco to chew or smoke.

Long ago (she said), in the darkest days of the Calamity, people fled from the cities, leaving behind even the bodies of their friends and family. They found little safety in the countryside, because everyone else fled there too. The farmers tried to protect their land, but in the chaos the crowds burned the farmhouses and stole the grain from the barns.

Hunger stalked them long before spring came. Most of those who made it to spring had no seed for crops, and wouldn’t have known how to plant it anyway. Disease had come with them from the cities, and the pestilence killed many before hunger could get them.

Whenever anybody started to get the hang of primitive life and got a nice village started, along would come more people would come fleeing from the cities who would wreck everything and steal their food, and so the fighting went on until the cities were empty and almost everyone in the countryside was dead too. The land finally grew quiet when only a few were left and their civilization was dead. Then like Noah and his family, they began to learn to hunt and live off the land and grow enough food to make up the difference.

The pestilence never would leave for good, but it came less often, and a few people always lived to carry on. They told stories to each other about the luxuries of the old world, the medicine that could cure any sickness, the markets full of food, and the marvelous machines that did your work for you. Nobody ever went back to the ruins of the cities, though, where death hung like a fog, and ghosts went abroad even in the daytime.

The people in the little villages scrounged in the dirt and poked through the woods for rusting metal scraps to make into good plows and nails and horseshoes and shovels. They also began to design metal weapons, some based on memory, some on trial and error.

But they soon used up all their metal scraps, and more children lived long enough to grow up, and everyone hoarded metal like jewels.

In one of our villages, some say it was in Easton, there lived a blacksmith named Paul. Easton was just a small village on the edge of the water then, not being any greater than any of the others. Paul’s grandfather had told him stories about the great cities, and the part about whole buildings made out of metal was what interested Paul the most.

Paul knew from his grandfather, and from travelers, that the cities were still populated, the ghosts of the residents drifting among the buildings. The ghosts were irritable, his grandfather said, because there was nothing to do in the cities anymore, and also they were angry at the descendants of the lucky few who still had any. The ghosts with living great-grandchildren were more cheerful, his grandfather said, and if you could find them, they would give you luck and protect you. But like as not they were resting in peace and nowhere to be found.

Paul was a skeptical man and he did not believe these ghost tales, except deep inside, in the small part of him that got worried on dark nights. But he kept thinking about the metal, and the riches and prosperity and ease it would bring him. He imagined how much food the village could grow if everyone had a steel plow. And how easy it would be to defeat their enemies if they fought wooden spears with steel swords, and could deflect arrows with their armor. Or if they had guns. Most of the guns left over from the old days were very rusty now and there was no ammunition for them, but the concept was pretty simple and he knew he could make a simple one that worked, if he could figure out how to make powder for it.

Paul thought about this for a couple of years while he worked at his blacksmith shop, until finally, finding he had almost no metal to work with, he decided to travel to the closest ghost city and see if he could spirit some away.

Nobody else would go with him, so Paul went alone, and arrived at the city as night was falling. Twisted leaning towers loomed up in the twilight. Towers made out of metal.

He camped a respectful distance away to wait until morning, however, because his skepticism about ghosts was waning again.

It did not help that a ghost came to his camp that night. Paul was having a little after-supper whiskey as he sat by his fire, when he heard footsteps coming through the leaves. Before he could jump to his feet or pull out a knife, a figure in a dark cloak stood at the edge of the firelight, its face hidden in the shadows of its hood. Paul sat with his flask of whiskey still halfway to his mouth, staring, and then, pulling himself together, decided he must say something stern. “Whaaa … whois … ahrgh! … he said.

The figure did not reply. Instead, it sat down on the other side of the fire, hands on its knees, and looked around the camp, which troubled Paul deeply, because there was no chair.

The figure’s voice, when it spoke, bothered Paul even more. It was a sort of moan, like the wind in the eaves on a stormy night, except this wind formed words. Paul listened carefully, as he did not want to interrupt and ask the figure to repeat itself.

“Nice fire,” the figure moaned. “I have not seen one of those for a long time. It makes me want to warm my hands.”

“Oh, by all means, certainly,” Paul said. “Here, I’ll add some wood.”

“Fool,” the figure said. “I cannot feel it. All is cold to me now.”

“What,” Paul said, “can I do for you, exactly, then?” although he was more preoccupied with what the ghost might decide to do.

“Nothing,” the figure said. “But you can do something for yourself. Stay out of the city. It is sacred ground. If you enter it, you will die.”

“How bad is dying?” Paul asked.

“Bad. Worse even than being alive.”

By this point, Paul was having trouble maintaining his lack of belief in ghosts. He had not yet drunk enough whiskey to be able to manufacture such a grouchy and cynical apparition as he was talking to now. He took another swig of his whiskey and rolled it around on his tongue experimentally, hoping it tasted different than usual. It did not. He took a couple more gulps anyway.

He eyed the ghost, if that is what it was. It did not seem to be overly hostile, although he reflected that reading body language in a disembodied being might be hit or miss. But he was a practical man, and although the hair was prickling at the back of his neck, he realized he did not know how to fight a ghost if it did decide to be hostile, and if he could keep it talking, maybe he could distract it from whatever ghosts did to you when they decided to get on with their evening. Plus, it occurred to him that, if ghosts could make threats, perhaps they could also be reasoned with.

“Now, thanks for the warning,” he said. “But it doesn’t really seem fair, you all hoarding all that nice metal you can’t even use, with us poor peasants scraping by on scraps.”

“Baloney,” the ghost said. “At least you’re scraping by. Look at us — dead as doornails. Didn’t even make it out of the city. You call that fair? We’re stuck here, so we’ll keep the metal. I’d call that even.”

“But what are you going to do with steel?”

“What are YOU going to do with it?” the ghost asked.

“Make plows and drainage pipes and woodstoves and handy stuff like that.”

“Anything else?”

Paul squirmed. “Well …”

“Like swords or arrowheads or guns, maybe?”

“Not me personally,” Paul said. “I’m a peaceful man myself. I mean,” he added, looking away from the ghost’s gaze and sipping on his whiskey, “maybe for hunting or self defense or something.”

“All that apocalypse and you all haven’t learned a darned thing,” the ghost said. “I ought to let you have the metal and let you ruin everything again, I really should. It’s not our job to babysit the living.”

“It will be different this time,” Paul insisted. “We’ve really learned our lesson.”

The ghost had a good laugh at that. “Tell you what,” it said. “I’ll have a talk with the others. Maybe we don’t care as much as we thought we did.”

Paul did not go into the city the next day, thinking it might be best to wait for permission before exploring. He didn’t know if the ghost could make good on its threat to kill him, but he wasn’t sure he cared to experiment. He felt silly though, feeding his fire in the broad daylight, and by the end of the day, he had about convinced himself he had been dreaming the night before. Then at twilight, the ghost came back.

“Bet you thought I was just a bad dream,” the ghost said.

“Oh no, not at all,” Paul said. “Been looking forward to seeing you again.”

“None of your sass,” the ghost said. “Listen, we’ve been talking, and we’ve decided to call your bluff. We don’t have the energy to patrol around here all the time trying to stop you from sneaking in and pilfering metal. We have regrets to stew on. You just take all the metal you want and put it to good, peaceful, harmonious agricultural purposes. Just don’t come in here at night when we’re trying to walk around haunting things, or we won’t answer for the consequences.”

So Paul promised again that he wouldn’t make any weapons, and the ghost left, laughing itself sick. And Paul (scrupulously working only in the daytime) gathered a large load of steel and aluminum, took it back to his shop and started selling metal tools and goods at a great profit.

When everyone else saw the riches he was building from his metal monopoly, they figured out where he was getting the metal. Seeing that he was able to go unhaunted into the cities and work, they rushed to get their own. Paul warned them to stay out of the cities at night, and to not use the metal to make weapons (which he only made for personal use). The warning about nighttime they heeded with care, but they did make weapons (for their own personal use and the use of their closest and richest friends).

“And they say,” Eliza concluded, “That during wartime, you can hear the ghosts laughing in the ruined cities.”

Twilight had fallen while she told her story. A few people got up to get more wood for the fire, while the rest sat staring into the flames.

“Thanks a lot, Eliza,” Dan said. “Such a cheerful story. Just the thing to relax on a fine evening.”

Eliza laughed. “I just have to remind you guys how rotten you are, once in a while.”

“It’s a good reminder,” Henry the tailor said, “especially of the perils of turning to science instead of God. The Calamity was God’s judgment on us for …”

Groans arose around the fire. “More stories!”

So at their insistence, Eliza moved on to lighter tales, starting with the one about the people long ago who flew to the moon, and what they did there.

But Charles rolled up in his bedroll and only half listened to the talking as he fell asleep. Tomorrow would bring a lot of work, and he was weary. He slept without the nightmares about food that never filled him, indeed, without any dreams at all.

 

The slaves and a few smugglers stayed behind from the hunting the next day to guard the sulfur. Most of the band were expert hunters, able to stalk silently through damp leaves and rustle through dry leaves like a harmless squirrel. They could feel twigs under their feet and pull away before the snap that would give them away. They knew the language of the forest sounds, and could hone in on the flicker of a deer’s ear or a hog turning its head. When the time came, they could put their arrow exactly where they wanted it. Even an animal with a running start could not always escape.

The animals that kept the band alive were mostly white-tailed deer and wild hogs, which were large enough to be worth the trouble of pursuing. They were also plentiful, especially the hogs. On rare occasions, the smugglers might get to feast on an elk. They ate black bear and turkey if they could get them.

They shot cats whenever they saw them, but only ate them if starvation was the only other option. They did keep the fur as a prized hunting trophy. John had an elaborate dress hat made of cat fur at home he liked to bring out on social occasions, and many of the band advertised their status as expert woodsmen by wearing catskin caps, with the tails hanging down at the back. Cat fur also made a good bow decoration. Each color had its uses — orange and white were popular for decoration, and tabby made good camouflage.

The slaves usually stayed back at the camp to dry the meat, pulverize it and mix it with fat to make pemmican. Properly made, this mash would last months, and aside from taste and texture, it was the perfect food.

For once, the slaves had the easiest job. The hunters had to wake up in the dark, stoke the fires, and eat a few mouthfuls of pemmican before crunching off into the gray morning woods. The slaves could stay in their warm bedrolls until the sun rose up into the trees.

They did have to get up in time to prepare in the event of a successful hunt. To begin, they chopped saplings with a hatchet, then hacked them into four-foot sections. Sharpening one end of these sections into points, they drove them into the ground and cut notches into the tops. Then they looked for smaller, straight branches to run between the stakes, making a drying rack to hang the meat from. Maple shoots, straight and supple, worked well for this.

The hunters brought in two small pigs by noon. They chopped off the haunch of one of these for their lunch, and turned the rest over to the slaves.

To get started, Charles and Gary roped the back feet of one of the pigs and hauled it up to hang from a tree branch. Then, slicing the skin away from the hocks, they gripped slippery handfuls of it and hauled down on it until it peeled away, making additional cuts as needed to encourage it away from the carcass.

Once the skin was off, they cut the red meat off the bone in large chunks and handed it to Marguerite, who sliced the meat with a steady hand. She was better than anyone else at slicing the neat strips that ensured the meat would dry as evenly as possible. She then hung the strips over the drying racks.

Gary was good at skinning the animals, but his heart wasn’t in it. He always looked disappointed when he wasn’t among the hunters. While Charles chafed at having to skin a hog when he would rather be safe at home tinkering or reading, Gary was irritated to be skinning a hog when he could be out pursuing one, being one of the gang, an expert woodsman and a hardened smuggler.

Charles doubted Gary would ever fulfill his dream of being a hardened smuggler. He was too soft-hearted, though he tried to hide it, and he cared too much what the others thought of him. The veteran smugglers were vain, of course, about their hunting skills and ability to handle the hardships of the trail, but they also didn’t need anyone to pat them on the back. They were good at what they did, and they knew it.

Gary had the powerful build to take care of himself on the trail, but his talent with weapons was marginal, and he didn’t come across as very intelligent. Charles thought this was because he tried too hard to look competent, and so he talked even when he really didn’t know what he was talking about. He also had thick eyebrows that gave him a brutish look and did nothing to dispel the idea that he was less than brilliant, and he had awkward large ears. But from working with him day after day, Charles knew Gary was as intelligent as any of the other smugglers, and could go far if he just quit trying so hard.

As they worked now, Gary broke the silence.

“I’ve been thinking a bunch about that ambush,” he said. “If we can figure it out, maybe we won’t have to worry about our own skins so much.”

“Huh,” Charles said, not really in the mood to talk.

“Now, the first thing you’d think of, of course, is maybe somebody in the band was a spy for the soldiers.”

“Ah.”

“Now, you ask, why would they do that? Money,” Gary said. “These smugglers are outlaws. Most of them are pretty loyal, but the thing they want most is money. That’s why they’re smugglers in the first place. Give them enough money, they’ll do anything.”

Thanks for explaining to me what smugglers are like, Charles thought. I’ve only been around them for seven years.

“How would the soldiers get in touch to offer their bribe?” Charles asked.

“There,” Gary said, “that’s just the thing I’ve been thinking about.” He stopped pulling on the pig skin and lowered his voice. “The traitor could have sold us out last trip. Made a deal — we’ll be at such and so a spot when we come back, wait there.”

Charles stared at him. “The only one who could make that happen would be a leader. I can’t think of any of them who would do that.”

“I can,” Marguerite said, although she had not appeared to be paying any attention.

They looked at her. She didn’t offer any more comment, just kept slicing meat.

“Or,” Gary said, glancing over at the nearest smuggler on guard over the sulfur, and navigating the conversation back to safer ground, “maybe someone from Easton paid a smuggler — anybody in the band — to tip off the soldiers. Could have been either side that did the bribing, if you think about it.”

Charles gritted his teeth. Once Gary got an idea in his head, he wouldn’t let it go. “Listen, you’ve still got the same problem. How would anybody except a leader know where to set the trap? And the other thing — nobody from Easton has any reason to try to stop us. They can’t get enough sulfur, trading on their own. That’s why they talk big about shutting us down but never do it.”

They started skinning the second hog. It slipped in the rope a little, and Charles heaved it back up and pulled the rope tight around its legs again.

“Well, all right, that’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Gary said. “There had to be a mole of some kind. Maybe it wasn’t one of us at all. Maybe that guy in Scranton — Jeff.”

“No way,” Charles said. He’d never do that. Besides, Jeff doesn’t know our plans. He just waits for us to knock.”

After a pause, Charles suggested, “What if there was a traitor in the band, who just sneaked out to tip off the soldiers and then hiked back?”

“Hey, there ya go,” Gary said. “Coming up with some ideas for once instead of just poking holes in everything.” He wiped his face with his arm, holding the knife away to keep from smearing blood on his clothes.

“I’ll poke holes in it,” Marguerite said, in a tone of voice suitable for explaining that it doesn’t snow in the summer. “Whoever it was would have had to hike a couple of days ahead and back again, without anyone noticing. Impossible.”

“Well,” Charles said, “maybe they sneaked out at night. Went to a farmhouse or something to pass the message along, then sneaked back before dawn.”

Marguerite sighed. “First, they would have had to sneak out of a camp without making enough noise to wake anybody up. And these are people who wake up easily. Then they’d have to walk far enough away to light a lantern, which by the way I don’t think we have, and walk all by themselves all night without getting eaten by a cat.”

Charles’ ears were burning. “All right, all right, fine, it’s a bad idea.”

“Then,” Marguerite went on, “they would have had to get back before morning after a night’s hike, sneak back in without anyone noticing, and not look horrible in the morning, and get up and hike, full of energy, all day. They’d have to do all that, of course …”

“FINE,” Charles said. “I get it.”

One of the smugglers on guard glanced over at them.

“Keep your voice down,” Gary said.

There was a sullen silence for a while. Done deboning the pork, Gary and Charles switched to helping Marguerite finish up the slicing work.

“Now here’s an idea,” Gary said. “Carrier pigeons. All the guy would have to do is just walk slow that day, signal a pigeon flying overhead, attach a message, and off it would go to the soldiers.”

“Signal a pigeon?” Charles said. “How many pigeons have you seen flying around in the mountains?”

“Well … none, but I’m not looking for them,” Gary said. “Anyway, maybe it would come out from the city and be trained to look for a certain color cloth or a kind of hat. Who wears the brightest hat? Any suspicious outfits?”

“Can pigeons even see color?”

“Why shouldn’t they?” Gary said. “Doesn’t everything see color?”

“No.”

“What are you, the eye expert?”

Charles, having had his ideas demolished, now was enjoying passing the favor along to somebody else. “What if the pigeon flies over at a bad time, and the traitor is sitting there eating supper and a pigeon with a message on its leg comes and sits on his head?”

Marguerite laughed, something Charles couldn’t remember hearing before. He was glad, though, that he had distracted her from remembering how bad his own idea had been.

“Come on, maybe it’s a hand signal or something,” Gary said.

And at this unsatisfactory juncture, they let the discussion drop, because they were done cutting up the meat. They saved the heads and livers for supper, and gathered up the rest of the entrails, hides and bones and burned them.

Not long afterward, the hunters started coming in for the evening. They did not bring any more animals with them, and Charles was grouchy to see them pull off strips of drying meat the slaves had just spent so much time preparing, to supplement their supper of heads and livers. He glanced at Marguerite to see how she was taking the destruction of her handiwork. She just sat eating the last of her pemmican, seeming not to care.

The next day, with no new meat to cure, the slaves gathered acorns instead. Acorns tasted good, kept well, and would keep you alive even if you had nothing else. The smugglers sometimes mixed them with pemmican, or ground them with stones to make a rough flour for biscuits or flat bread.

Acorns were bitter fresh, but repeated soaking in warm water rendered them edible. The slaves cracked the shells, pried out the nuts, then dropped them in small copper pots of water, where the bitterness turned the water dark as it seeped out. Then the slaves soaked them again, and again, until the water stayed clear. After that, they spread the nuts out to dry.

Some years there weren’t many acorns, but this year when they found stands of oak trees, the acorns were thick on the ground. The slaves gathered them into bags and by lunchtime, had a mound of them back at the camp. Picking out the ones with wormholes and throwing them away, they started cracking the rest and warming water in small copper pots.

As they worked, Gary went back to the conspiracy theories, apparently not overly discouraged by the squabble over pigeons.

“I had another idea about that ambush,” he said. “Maybe it was spies.” He paused as if waiting for Charles to break in. Hearing no rebuttal, he went on. “Maybe they were just patrolling around, and then when they saw us coming, they’d run off to report.”

“But they’d have to live out in the woods for weeks by themselves. They’d be cat lunch way before we came along,” Charles said.

“Aw, you’d risk it for enough money,” Gary said. “Anyway, maybe it was a group of them. They’d make a little camp, or patrol together.”

“What if we walked by on the other side of the mountain and they never saw us?” Charles asked.
“Maybe they got lucky.”

That seemed far-fetched to Charles. “Anyhow,” he said, “the whole bunch would have to wait until they saw us coming, then they’d have to not just beat us back but find the soldiers in time to have them be waiting at just the right spot. And we never saw any tracks or anything.”

Gary cracked acorns in silence.

Fine, Charles thought. Gary didn’t have to get all sulky when his ideas turned out to be stupid.

“There’s always that first option, that one neither of you wants to talk about,” Marguerite said. “The only one it could be.”

Charles frowned. “It doesn’t have to be that one.”

Gary peered from one to the other. “This one? That one? What one?”

“None of your other ideas made any sense at all,” Marguerite said to Charles.

“That one doesn’t make sense either,” Charles said.

“WHAT one?” Gary said.

“The one both of you are afraid to say,” Marguerite said. “That it was George. Or Warren. Or John. Or that old bastard …”

“Oh, that idea,” Gary said.

The only sound was the cracking of acorn shells between flat rocks and the plonk as Marguerite threw the nuts into the kettle. Gary and Charles had stopped working and were staring at her. Just thinking that kind of idea was dangerous, and here she had practically shouted it out. They glanced at the smuggler guards. She’d be dead if one of them overheard, but they did not seem to have noticed anything interesting.

“What are you going to do, tell on me? Go right ahead.”

She couldn’t really mean that, Charles thought. But she didn’t seem to be daring them to tell. She was simply letting them know that meeting a grisly end at the hands of the smugglers or cutting up a hog were about the same to her. It was the hopelessness he fought off at his worst moments, but she seemed to be past fighting it.

Aside from that, her treasonous theory didn’t seem plausible. “I know George better than that,” Charles said. Internally, he added, Well, I think I do. Aloud: “He’s no saint but he makes plenty of money. He wouldn’t need a payoff. Neither would the others.”

“All of them,” Gary said, “would take a payoff if it was big enough. But,” he added, “I’m not saying George would do that.”

“Maybe,” Marguerite said, “it’s somebody else who wants to run the band.”

Charles wondered if she were spilling a secret that she actually knew about Old Harry, or just conjecturing about the leaders in general. The idea of Old Harry whispering his dreams in her ear was ludicrous, both because he didn’t care for her emotionally in any way, and because he certainly knew that if he were so foolhardy as to confide in her, she would take the information straight to George and then sit back to enjoy “The Disembowelment of Old Harry” in its first and only performance.

 

The next day the slaves gathered acorns again, and nobody interrupted them by bringing meat. In the evening, the hunters returned with two deer, but they were not celebrating, because they also had one less smuggler and had spent the better part of the afternoon searching for him.

George stamped around camp with a deep scowl. Warren didn’t say anything, but sat and stared into the fire. Old Harry sharpened his knife to a fine point.

The next day, the hunters brought no deer, but had two fewer smugglers. This time, it was getting dark and they hadn’t noticed in time to do any searching.

The camp that evening bristled with angry smugglers, gesturing and denouncing. The usual rumble of tired talk was replaced by an agitated buzz like a rattlesnake den.

Pete sat across the fire from Charles, not joining in the discussion. He looked more numb than angry. Both the missing smugglers had been his close friends. They’d frequently hunted and hiked together, retold each other’s stories and laughed at each other’s jokes. Now he was here and they were out there in the darkness, either dead or in the process of becoming that way.

Pete poked the fire with a stick, his jaw working. This, Charles realized, was as close as he had come to seeing a smuggler cry.

“Hey, uh, I’m sorry about this, Pete,” Charles said. Pete didn’t look up or respond. Charles went on, “If there’s anything I can do …”

Pete looked up then, and his eyes drilled through Charles. He pointed the glowing end of his stick across the fire at him. “If I ever find out you slaves had anything to do with this,” he said, his voice quivering, “I will cut all your throats myself.”

 

The next night, the hunters returned grouchy, with only a small pig and a grouse that Pete had arrowed, but with the same amount of smugglers they had left with.

Pete impaled his grouse on a stick and came over to where Charles was standing to roast it. Pete stood silently for a few minutes, shifting the stick from one hand to the other. Charles ignored him.

“Ah, hey,” Pete said. “I … about what I said yesterday. I was pretty mad, and I didn’t mean it.” He glanced at Charles. “I, well, I know you guys were back here at camp and had nothing to do with anything that happened. I … well, I was a complete asshole. Sorry.”

Charles could not remember the last time a smuggler had apologized to him for anything. His hostility deflated.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

Pete nodded. “Thanks.” He pulled the grouse away from the fire, poked at a couple of spots, and then thrust it back over the flames. “Want some grouse when this is done?”

Charles eyed the singed gangly bird, with its blackened stubble of feather quills. “I think I’ll stick with acorns tonight,” he said.
“Fine with me,” Pete said. “I need my energy because I’m on firewood duty.” He put on a smile but it left quickly.

 

As the evening cooled and the sun sank into the trees, Pete and a few others made a last firewood run, while the talk around Charles’ fire turned to what to do next.

“I really think Warren might be right,” James said. “I think it’s time to get out of here.”

John put down the venison bone he had been gnawing on and stared at him. “What are you talking about? I never ran away from a fight in my life and I’m not going to start now with a bunch of savages.”

“You ran all right from that ambush,” James said.

“A retreat in battle is not running,” John said, jabbing a finger at James. Both the twins had quick tempers, and though James was the more diplomatic of the two, he knew how to needle John when he wanted to.

“You’re an old fool,” he told John. “What’s there to stay and fight about? Ego, is that it?”

John stood up, his face flushing. “Maybe you’re a coward, but I’m not,” he shouted. “I’m not going to die with an arrow in my back!”

“I don’t plan on dying at all,” James said. “Especially over a miserable patch of woods with no deer or hogs in it. It’s not about running. It’s about strategic position.”

“What strategic position? There’s woods here, and woods farther along. You just want to run to Harper’s Ferry and get a room at an inn.”

People began leaving other fires and drifting over to listen. Nobody liked to interfere in the twins’ spats, but they were interesting to watch.

“I’ll tell you why it’s strategic, since you won’t use your own head,” James said. “We’re in the heart of Appalachie territory. There’s a lot less of them closer to the towns. The farther from here we get, the easier the hunting will get and we can quit having people get killed for no reason.”

“No reason? No reason? As soon as we let the Appalachies know we aren’t willing to fight, they’ll harass us every step, every trip,” John said. “We’ll be finished in this business.”

James shrugged. “Maybe we just underestimated them all along. Maybe the only reason we ever got through is they decided to leave us alone.”

Watching John, Charles wondered how far veins could expand without bursting.

“You can go back to tanning leather if you want then! Not me!”

“You can go to hell if you want,” James said.

John picked up a log and threw it down onto the fire, raising a shower of sparks in the gathering twilight. Then he stomped off to a different fire.

James just sat staring into the fire, jaw set.

Charles decided it would be more peaceful in bed, and proceeded to get out his bedroll. But before he finished unrolling it, Dan came over to the fire.

“Do you guys know where Pete is? I can’t find him.”

“He said he was on firewood duty,” Charles said.

Dan frowned. “Should be done by now. It’s getting dark.” He walked around to the other fires, questioning. People shook their heads.

Jake walked over to the edge of the firelight and shouted out into the gloom, “Pete! Hey Pete! Suppertime!”

The woods were silent.

They found him sitting with his back to a poplar tree. Five arrows pinned him to the tree. One of them had caught his hair just above his ear and held his head up, twisted slightly to one side, his empty eyes staring out over a gully at the rising moon. Pete’s battered hat sat on his head as always, and the firewood he had gathered was scattered over his lap. His bow sat beside him, all the arrows still in the quiver.

They pulled him loose from the tree with gentle hands and closed his eyes.

“You old bastard,” Dan said, his voice breaking. “What did you stop and take a break for? Always looking at the view.”

Then he straightened up and faced the direction the arrows had come from.

“Come out now and fight like men!”

“Like men,” his echo mocked back.

“We’ll kill you for this! Do you hear me? Do you hear me?”

Back at camp, James and John had forgotten their fight in their mutual anger at the Appalachies, and James abandoned any talk of leaving.

Warren said, “I still think —”

“No way,” George said. “What kind of coward are you?”

“I’m just —“

“We are not going to go running into Harper’s Ferry to get away from the Appalachies.”

“We ran from the soldiers, why not —”

“We were outgunned two to one!” George shouted. “We are not going to go running into town begging them to save us from a handful of wild mountain men. If we can’t fight them we may as well give it up now and go into politics. Maybe you’d like to.”

Warren stiffened. “You want to take that back?”

“All right, all right, stop,” James said, adopting the peacekeeper’s role with no apparent sense of irony. “No sense doing the Appalachies’ work for them.”

“We’re staying here,” George said. “Anyone who wants to stay and fight, can. Anyone else — he glared at Warren — is free to leave for Harper’s Ferry any time.”

Warren, no matter how much he disagreed, was not going to strike out through the wilderness alone, so they all focused on hunting again, this time for Appalachies. This was made more difficult because they still had to hunt for food. They stalked deer while keeping an eye out for Appalachies, and stalked Appalachies while listening for deer, and caught neither.

George set traps. One group of hunters would set out, and another group would trail them just out of sight. Any Appalachie trying to stalk the lead hunters was liable to be interrupted by an arrow. But none ventured into the trap.

George also sent out snipers to sit at strategic overlooks, but this took inefficiency to greater levels. At least two or three smugglers had to go to each spot, as nobody cared to get into a shootout with an entire band of Appalachies alone. And in a forest that stretched from the ocean in the east to nobody knew where in the west, the odds weren’t especially good that an Appalachie would happen to stroll by the exact place the snipers were sitting.

“How about a decoy?” Dan suggested once. “Not like we’ve been doing, a whole big group. An easy target, somebody hunting alone. We can have two or three people waiting behind them.”

“Who’s going to be the decoy?” James asked.

Nobody raised a hand.

“We could use a slave,” Old Harry said.

“Your slave?” John said.

“We don’t need to go to that extreme yet,” George said.

Not yet, very kind, Charles thought. He just doesn’t want to lose a valuable slave. But then, maybe he was being unfair. Why would George care about preserving him if he were going to set Charles free after the trip? Maybe he had no such plan. Or maybe he actually did care. George would make it easier if he would just behave either like a black-hearted smuggler or a normal human being.

 

Finally, after several days of poor hunting on all fronts, John swaggered back to camp swinging catskin hats and sporting shell jewelry. He and Dan had shot down two Appalachies and left their bodies for the other Appalachies to find. Charles guessed they had not taken care to leave the bodies in a respectful funerary state.

Dan kept no trophies. “That was for Pete,” he said. “Don’t want to even touch anything they’ve touched.”

The hunters clashed with the Appalachies again the next day. A small group of smugglers surprised a handful of the tribesmen as the Appalachies were sneaking through the woods, apparently absorbed in stalking smugglers. The two sides sent arrows at each other and pincushioned a few trees, but the Appalachies slipped away as soon as they could, leaving their arrows behind for the smugglers to pull out of the trees if they wanted them. Neither side left bodies on the battlefield, although one smuggler claimed he had arrowed an Appalachie in the leg.

The smugglers, despite their tough talk, could not afford many more casualties. They had lost a third of their strength in the ambush, and another seven so far during their hunt, including Pete and his steady veteran influence. They were down to only thirty-four total: thirty-one smugglers and three slaves.

Of that total, about ten or fifteen had to stay in camp every day and guard the sulfur, and the slaves of course had food storing duties. George had taken away Charles’ weapons when the band turned hostile toward the slaves, but he returned the weapons now, and John finally agreed to give Gary a gun as well.

“Don’t get used to it,” he warned Gary. “This is only for absolute emergencies.”

Old Harry sensibly declined to arm Marguerite, no matter how dire the situation.

The slaves helped keep an eye on the packs of sulfur, because they had little to do at the camp besides continue to gather acorns. Nobody had shot an animal for several days.

“It’s not just that we have to watch for savages,” Dan told George. “Thing is, they’re hunting the animals too. I figure most of the animals cleared out when they realized they were living in a war zone. But I found a great spot we can hunt tomorrow.”

At the end of that day’s hunt, he explained, the hunters had ranged farther than usual, and Dan had found a watering hole that, from the tracks and heavily worn trails, was drawing wildlife from miles around in the drought.

Dan planned to leave as early as possible in the morning and strike straight for that watering hole, without wasting any time hunting along the way. Once they got there, they could sit for the rest of the day at strategic spots around it to see what turned up. He was sure something would.

Dan’s excitement spread to the rest of the hunters. If they got enough meat, they could leave this death trap with dignity, not retreating but calling the mini-war a draw. They wanted revenge, but they also wanted to make it home alive.

They left only a handful behind to guard the sulfur in the morning, albeit with two loaded six-shooters apiece. Charles was disappointed when George put the slaves back on acorn duty. He could have contentedly gone a long time without seeing another acorn.

“We need as much food as we can get,” George said. “We’ll bring the meat, and you all get as many acorns as you can. Then we’ll have plenty when we leave.”

So the slaves once again began the routine: Fill the bag, haul it back to camp, dump it in a pile, repeat.

This could be the last day we have to do this, Charles told himself. One good hunt, and we can head toward home again. Please, let that happen, he asked someone for whom he did not have a name.

In times of need like this, Charles found himself without anyone to appeal to. He had been raised neither pagan nor Christian. Easton was a mishmash of religions, mostly varieties of Christianity that had become popular when people found they needed help and protection. But Charles’ owners in Easton had been more interested in knowledge and wealth than in faith, and though Charles sometimes wished for a powerful being to call on, he had little confidence that there was such a being and less desire to spend his life parsing religious texts to dictate his existence.

As they worked, neither Gary nor Marguerite showed any inclination to talk, and Charles enjoyed the quiet. Nothing moved in the woods, except a pileated woodpecker that flew over giving its petulant staccato call. The wind sighed high above in the high tops of the oak trees. The weather was cooler now, though still very dry, and the leaves were turning yellow and red. Charles was glad for his blanket at night and glad for the ending of summer’s heat.

He found a rich seam of acorns and followed it, his bag filling quickly. Hearing Gary’s footsteps behind him, he straightened up and turned to remark about how fast they’d be done with this many acorns.

Three Appalachies, their faces painted brown and black, stood only feet away, with their guns pointed at him. Charles opened his mouth to scream, but one of them shook his head and pulled the hammer back on his ancient rusty gun. Charles closed his mouth again.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

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5 thoughts on “Gunpowder Trails Chapter Four

  1. Pingback: Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Nine |

  2. Pingback: Gunpowder Trails Chapter Ten |

  3. Pingback: Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Eleven |

  4. Pingback: Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Twelve |

  5. Pingback: Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Thirteen |

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