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.
For breakfast, Charles gnawed on a species of biscuit. It tasted suspiciously like a pulp of deer fat and acorn flour, heated over the fire until it turned into a dry clump. But it was his first food in a day, and he considered it the best clod of edible material he had eaten in some time. He was disappointed there did not seem to be seconds.
“Very good, thank you,” he told Roger.
“I could get used to it.”
Roger grunted again.
“So, ah.” Charles said. “Suppose the smugglers won’t deal. Of course, they will, but if they don’t, I’m sure I could be useful around here.”
Roger shook his head. “Sorry, boy. That was never the plan. We’re not a home for reformed smugglers. Or their slaves. The smugglers need to know we kept our word if they won’t deal with us, and they’ll find out, believe me. But you don’t really want to join us. You’re just trying to save your own skin. We wouldn’t be able to trust you.”
“But you joined,” Charles protested.
“That was different.”
“Look, I’m sorry for you,” Roger said. “But life is tough out here. We do what we have to do to survive. We need gunpowder, and you got caught up in it. Count your blessings. We could have just shot you up right there, you know. Worst case, you’ve had a couple bonus days. Best case, you walk away with your band and we walk away with our sulfur and everybody’s happy.”
Charles, not comforted, tried a different tack. “Well, why don’t you just trade with them instead of trying to steal the sulfur?”
Roger laughed. “Sure, they’d trade gunpowder ingredients to a bunch of ‘savages.’”
“But they would,” Charles said. “George — that’s the leader, my master — trades it to anybody. Even the enemies of Easton back home. Anybody that has something valuable to trade for it, he’ll take it.”
“Sounds like a real nice man,” Roger said. “A model citizen. But why don’t you look around the camp and tell me what we might trade. See all the wampum coins? No? Well, we don’t have any. See all the food? We just ate most of it for breakfast. Think they’d like some glass beads? I bet not. Besides, what we do have is, we’re good at fighting. We like it. Makes us stronger and smarter. Gives us something to do. And, we don’t like trespassers. So we’ll do what we’re good at and charge our sulfur fee for you to go through our land.”
The idea that the smugglers were somehow trespassing still seemed absurd to Charles. Appalachies were a sort of native species, another predator like wolves or cats. What did they have to say about the land? Where were their farms, their villages? Even if it were theirs, there was plenty of room. Why make a fuss over a few smugglers hiking through?
“So,” Roger said, “you might say we are trying to trade. We’ll trade you back to the smugglers for a few packs of sulfur, plus we agree not to attack them any more. This time.” He grinned. “Sounds like a fair bargain to me.”
He pushed himself to his feet, and joined a group of Appalachies holding a discussion not far away. The women in the camp didn’t take part, as the smuggler women would have. Instead, they did their work, which seemed to be preparing deer hides, probably to make them into tent skins, blankets, or clothing.
Two days went by without much happening except the children running around the tents shouting. Charles wandered around the camp under the watchful eye of South Wind until he was acquainted with all of it. That took about fifteen minutes. He spent most of the rest of the time in his borrowed tent, staring at the ceiling or napping. Even if he had wanted to be social, Roger was gone with the rest of the men during the day, hunting or some such thing, and the women were busy working. There was nothing to do outside the tent except be stared at, and so he withdrew.
Early the third morning, while Charles was finishing his breakfast by the fire, the camp dogs ran out to bark at another party of Appalachie warriors, ten or so, who made their way through the trees. After they all greeted each other, the newcomers filed over to look at the darkskin captive, and squatted down next to Charles, pointing out interesting features to each other. He tried to ignore them, focusing instead on the dying fire, watching the coals turn white and crumble into ash.
The smugglers, he thought, were in more danger than they had realized. Before the ambush, they had the numbers to discourage attacks. But with the fresh forces, the Appalachie warriors now numbered about thirty, roughly equal to the smugglers’ numbers. They had fewer and inferior guns, but plenty of deadly looking enormous bows, as tall as a man, and long arrows with heavy tips.
It seemed the newcomers had not come for social purposes. Soon after they arrived, the men of the village began making what looked like farewells to the women and children, and gathering up their weapons and small packs.
Roger, strapping a quiver of arrows over his shoulder, came over to Charles. “Well, your adventure here at our camp is over,” he said. “We’re about to head out. We’re going to leave you untied, so we can move fast, but don’t try to get away. We’ll just shoot you. And then we’ll have to kidnap somebody else and try again.”
Charles jumped as the men burst into a shout, which they repeated several times, holding their bows and arrows over their heads, rattling them together.
“That would be our signal,” Roger said. “Come on, little slave.”
Running Elk lead the way into the woods at the brutal Appalachie half trot, followed by Roger. Charles fell into line behind them, and the rest of the warriors followed behind him.
Charles put his head down and watched the ground move by steadily, and the moccasins of the men in front of him flash in and out of his view, and tried not to think about the miles ahead.
Running Elk’s revolver bobbed up and down on his hip as he strode, and the intricate design on the revolver butt caught Charles’ attention. It looked almost like writing of some kind. Yes, it was — a letter “W” in ornate curlicue script. Where would the chief get something like that? It reminded him of a gun he’d seen before somewhere.
It was Warren’s.
That was strange. No, it wasn’t strange, it was impossible. Warren hadn’t talked about missing a gun. He usually only wore one, and it looked just like this one. Maybe it was one of a matching set. Yes, he had seen two matching guns before, now that he thought about it.
Running Elk had Warren’s revolver. Yet he had not shot Warren to get it. At least, Warren had been fine the morning Charles was kidnapped. And surely the Appalachies weren’t fast enough to kidnap Charles and waylay the hunting band on the same morning.
Warren must have given it to him. But how? Why? The truth, which had been growing in his mind, now clobbered him like a club. Warren was the traitor.
He caught his toe on a rhododendron root and sprawled forward into the leaves. Easing up onto his knees, he gasped for air.
Roger stood over him. “You all right, little smuggler? Take a breath now.”
Charles felt like he was getting sick. He tried to crawl to his feet, then he definitely was sick. Roger jumped back.
“Oh dear,” Roger said. “Here, have some water. We forgot, you’re weaker than we are and you’re not used to traveling at a normal pace.”
Roger held his canteen above Charles’ mouth, careful not to touch his lips with it, and poured. Charles gulped the sloshing warm water, grateful for the kindness.
“Not too much, or you’ll get sick again,” Roger said. After a few minutes, he said, “Come on, let’s keep moving. You think you can do that? We’ll slow it down a little.” He spoke to the others, who nodded.
The new pace must have felt like a gentle stroll to the Appalachies, but it was still too rapid for comfort for Charles in his state of shock.
As he walked, he tried to take his new knowledge about Warren and bend it and twist it to make it fit what he knew about Warren. Maybe Warren had just lost his revolver, or … there was some other explanation. Which he couldn’t think of.
But no, if Warren had lost such a valuable possession, surely he would have complained about it, or asked people if they had seen it. Yet he had never mentioned it, and that silence was damning. And if Running Elk had mugged him in the woods and made off with the revolver, Warren would surely have thought it was interesting enough to bring up later.
The warriors followed Running Elk in a long detour around an immense rhododendron thicket that blocked their way. Finally the small shrubs gave way to larger rhododendrons that towered overhead, shading out the light with their huge dark green leaves, and the travelers were able to slip through the thick gnarly stems like mice in a meadow.
Charles continued trying to untangle the problem of the gun. It was far from proof of treachery that Warren’s gun had somehow come into Running Elk’s possession. And even if Warren had made some kind of secret deal, Charles had no proof that the Appalachies had been involved in the Scranton soldiers’ ambush. But it didn’t take a suspicious mind to leap to damning conclusions. Warren had been secretly communicating with enemies like the Appalachies. An unexplainable ambush had decimated the band. The chance the two were not related was small. George certainly would not ask for more evidence before drawing his own conclusions.
But it did not fit. On the one hand, he suspected Warren of being responsible for the death of his friend Big John in the ambush, and the many other smugglers who had fallen that day. On the other hand, Warren was the man who had stood up for Charles against the suspicions of the other smugglers. He was the intelligent and thoughtful man who had talked to Charles so many times about science and books. Warren was the opposite of a villain or a schemer. He was a gentle man, a man of strong character, a man who would never tell a lie. Could a man like that live his life as an enormous lie?
The hikers stepped out of the low green light of the rhododendron thicket into an eerie bright sunlight that filled the forest under the empty branches of dead trees. The group clambered out onto piles of boulders on a rocky ridge top, where the scattered trees somehow reached down through the rocks to hidden dirt far below. All the trees’ effort at growing had gone for nothing, though. Gypsy moths had stripped their branches bare of leaves, and all that remained were the white silk bags of the moths.
They all slowed down, careful to avoid twisting their ankles on the shifting rubble terrain.
Charles wondered if Warren had tipped off the Appalachies about where Charles would be so they could kidnap him. If so, he had essentially murdered Charles. It wasn’t often a murder victim could solve his own crime, he thought.
Even setting aside that Warren didn’t seem like a murderer, Charles could not fathom a motive for betraying the band or Charles himself. Warren seemed happy enough, and he was certainly wealthy enough. What could the Appalachies offer him?
Charles grieved over the betrayal, and his anger built. If he ever made it back to the band, he would expose Warren’s charade, clear the slaves of wrongdoing, and help end this disaster of an expedition as soon as possible.
But Warren didn’t have anything to worry about because Charles would never get back.
When Running Elk called a stop for lunch — pemmican again — Charles decided to probe Roger about what the Appalachies were up to and why they were working with Warren.
“You’re already great at using bows and arrows,” he said. “So why are you going to all this fighting and effort to get gunpowder? You can already hunt as well with bows as we can with guns.”
“That’s probably true,” Roger said.
“Then what do you need gunpowder for?”
“Well, curious little captive, what other use is there for gunpowder besides hunting for animals? Take a guess.”
“Well … shooting people, I guess.”
“That’s a crude way of putting it, but you’re right,” Roger said. “We need sulfur for gunpowder because we happen to be at war.”
“Appalachies fight in wars?”
Roger shook his head. “You really need to get all that ‘tree people’ junk out of your head,” he said, taking a bite of pemmican. “Of course we fight in wars.” Bits of food fell out of his mouth as he talked and he picked them off his lap and ate them again. “Did you think we all live as one happy family in the greenwood?”
Well, yes, that had been close to Charles’ idea.
“Just because there aren’t as many of us as there are of you doesn’t mean we aren’t human. By the way, while we’re on the topic, we’re not ‘Appalachies.’ We call ourselves, ‘The People.’”
“What does that make the rest of us?”
Roger grinned. “The almost people, I guess.”
“So why don’t the Appa — the People — just attack the smugglers and take a pile of sulfur, instead of sneaking around trying to grab a pack here and there?”
“Well,” Roger said, “why make a big attack where a bunch of people die when you can get a lot of sulfur without all that? How many warriors do you think we have lost so far, fighting you for this sulfur?
“Two? Maybe three?”
“None. Not one.”
“But you haven’t gotten any sulfur either,” Charles pointed out. “None of those hunters …” he stopped, unable to think of a diplomatic way of saying “None of those hunters you murdered was carrying any sulfur to speak of.”
“Not yet,” Roger said. “Not yet.”
They must have gotten something out of helping set up the ambush, Charles thought. Maybe some of the sulfur the smugglers had been carrying.
He decided to play curious. “So, do you fight the Scranton soldiers too in your wars?”
Roger eyed him. “Not if we can help it.”
Charles wondered if he were being too nosy. Roger might suspect he had found something out about Warren. On the other hand, they really had no way of knowing that the markings on the revolver made a letter “W,” implicating Warren. They couldn’t read.
“So your wars are pretty much just with the other Appa — People then.”
“We fight whoever we have to fight,” Roger said.
It was good he wasn’t a real spy, Charles thought. He couldn’t come up with any questions that would tell him anything of interest and not sound suspicious.
After lunch, the Appalachies pressed on, and instead of stopping in the early afternoon for a rest like they had after kidnapping Charles, they continued until it was nearly dark.
“We don’t want to get too far behind the smugglers,” Roger told Charles. “Your friends might have already taken off for the sunny south. We want to see if we can catch up with them before they do that so we don’t have to chase them for fifteen or twenty miles.”
The dancing yellow tongues of fire felt good in the chilly air. Charles wished he had the old fur blanket from the tent, but the whole group had traveled light. He scooted as close as he could to the flames.
“So, curious little smuggler,” Roger said, “tell me about yourself for once. I haven’t heard any news from Easton in many a year. You have a funny accent. What part of Easton are you from?”
“From the city,” Charles said.
“But I know a few people from the city,” Roger said. “Knew, I mean. They didn’t sound like you.”
“I was a slave to a rich family.”
Roger slapped his knee. “Ah, that’s it, that’s it. You talk like an aristocrat!”
“My master was a Builder,” Charles said.
Roger whistled. “A Builder! You do run in high circles. Builders and smuggling chiefs. You tell good stories, anyway.” He stopped and spoke at length to the other Appalachies, who stared at Charles.
“So you hung out with those loonies,” Roger said. “Big dreams, and lots of high taxes to pay for them. Just a fancy racket to get our money.”
“I wasn’t a Builder,” Charles said. “My master was.”
“So your master took all our money. You ate pretty good too, I bet.”
“It’s not like that,” Charles said, frowning. “Of course they liked to be rich. Anybody would. But you should have heard them argue over the best way to save the world. They really believed in it. A lot of them, anyway.”
He had believed in the Builders’ vision as well. And he had also hoped his master would set him free and then help him get into the Builders’ university, reserved for the most talented students.
“Yeah, all right,” Roger said. “They believe in it. They also believe in power. And they’ve got it. But how did a posh like you end up with a bunch of dirty sulfur peddlers, then? Maybe we should be trading you back to the Builders, eh, instead of the smugglers?”
“My master died,” Charles said. “Boils.”
“And they just sold you off?”
Charles hadn’t spoken of these memories for a long time. He had felt like part of that family, even though he knew his place as a slave. He had loved them. The children were his schoolmates, and he had tutored the younger ones. They were his everyday companions around the estate. He joined in their football and lacrosse games out on the lawn and explored the university buildings with them after hours. He had thought they cared about him.
That had been his real education, when they sold him.
The next morning, the Appalachies — Charles still called them that to himself, not able to stomach “The People” — got up early. After a couple of quick bites for breakfast, they charged off into the woods at top cruising speed again, seemingly unaffected by the previous day’s travel. Charles, not being one of The People, hurt all over and winced at every step for the first half hour.
As they came down off the mountaintop just before lunch and started heading downhill, Charles realized that the mountain in the distance must be the one the smugglers were camped on. The lines of the ridge looked familiar, and it felt like they had traveled long enough. He was almost home.
When they reached the summit of a smaller ridge in the valley, the mountain looming close, the Appalachies stopped and made camp. This time, they tied Charles’ hands and feet. So much for any last minute escape plans. So this is where they would kill him. He looked around. How was this for a place to die? Just another ordinary hilltop. A few wild rose brambles, a stone foundation from an ancient building, and a grove of massive white pines.
Roger and a handful of the other Appalachies set off for the mountain, leaving Charles and the rest at camp. The warriors left behind seemed content with this arrangement, immediately stretching out in their hammocks for a nap, an activity they seemed to indulge in any chance they got. They seemed to have forgotten, or didn’t care, that Charles couldn’t very well put up his hammock, or climb into it, while tied up. So he stayed where they had tied him, with his back to a tree, and stared through the trees at the mountain above.
He was not aware he had fallen asleep until he woke up to the sound of a boisterous herd of elk tramping through the woods straight toward him. When he opened his eyes, he realized it was just Roger and the others returning. The long drought had made the leaves so brittle that anyone moving through the woods without meticulous effort could be heard a long way off. Charles sat up, instantly alert, heart pounding, watching Roger’s face to try to guess what had happened.
The warriors conferred, seemed to be debating, and then began to nod.
Roger leveraged himself up into his hammock and lay back with a sigh. He said something in Appalachie, and the men standing nearby laughed.
Charles refused to beg for information. He lay his head back against the rough bark of the tree and closed his eyes, staring at the inside of the lids.
After a while, Roger ended his conversation, and spoke in Easton. “You asleep, little smuggler? I wish I could sleep through a racket like that.”
Charles opened his eyes. “No.”
“Well, we won’t know till tomorrow what your friends will do. We made our offer. They wanted time to think about it. We shall see.”
“All right,” Charles said.
“We’re going to go meet them tomorrow morning. Just you and me, that’s the deal. If there’s somebody there with the sulfur as agreed, you can go home to your nice camp. If not, well, that will be a shame. I’ve kind of gotten to like you.”
That the smugglers had even agreed to think about it gave Charles more hope than he had before. Or, maybe they had done no such thing, and Roger was just giving him, and them, one last chance anyway. Maybe the smugglers would come to the meeting place, but try to ambush the Appalachies. It seemed very trusting of Roger, he thought, to agree to show up alone like that and count on the smugglers to keep their word. Knowing George as he did, Charles wouldn’t have made that mistake.
And so Charles and the Appalachies sat all afternoon, waiting for morning. Time crept. Charles tried to be grateful for that. If it was his last afternoon, he wanted it to drag on as long as possible. That thought reminded him of all the “lasts” he had now experienced, without realizing it. Last sunset over the Chesapeake Bay. Last oyster dinner. Last book. Which one was it? He couldn’t remember now.
He imagined what would be going on in the smugglers’ camp. George would be furious, of course, but it would only show in his cold eyes. James and John would be demanding a full attack. Warren … what would Warren be doing? Playing his old role, pretending to be the calm one, the voice of caution. Probably trying to convince them that it was too risky to deal with the Appalachies.
The Appalachies, now that they were within an easy hike of the smugglers’ camp, kept a sharp watch, with about half the group at any given time standing sentry. The rest sat and talked and seemed to be telling stories. Charles envied their ability to look forward to another full day of life, and probably many more after that, a privilege they probably weren’t even grateful for.
Sunlight crept up the tree trunks. Yellow and red leaves spiraled down. Sunlight crept higher up the tree trunks. More leaves spiraled down.
When Roger suddenly switched over to speaking in Easton, Charles was glad for a break in the monotony.
“Running Elk wants to know about the Builders,” Roger said. “So do I, although I only half believe you didn’t make it up about being mixed up with them. What are they really up to, if they aren’t just out to make money?”
“Just what they say they’re up to,” Charles said. “Taking the world back to where it was. But doing it better this time. No Calamity.”
“And the king bought that,” Roger said.
“Sure. He knew it would make Easton the most powerful nation in the world, eventually, if it worked. He had a bold vision.”
“Dream big, I guess,” Roger said. “I bet he didn’t realize the Builders would be in charge. Everybody knows they really run the show. Picking all the brightest and best and indoctrinating them in their learning. And the ones that don’t make the cut still get special perks, so they’re good supporters. And on the face of it, as loyal as can be to the king, of course.”
He spoke with the chief again.
“Running Elk wants to know how far along they are with their ‘save the world’ stuff. Just what everybody wants to know, I guess.”
“They don’t make any secret out of it,” Charles said. “Everybody acts like it’s some kind of secret society.” He could still see Professor Tom at one of the many discussions around his master’s dinner table, glasses pushed back on his head, ranting about the conspiracy theorists.
“So, what have they done? What practical things have they come up with?” Roger asked.
“Archaeology is the big thing they’re working on right now. It’s like a big puzzle. People have to be patient until they can put together the pieces. But it’s like everybody’s looking over their shoulders saying ‘Are you done yet?’” He could almost hear Professor Tom saying the words. “But yes, there’s been lots of advances. We’re — they are — learning about physics, biology, math …”
Roger held up his hands. “Whoa, whoa, all right, I get it, lots of big words I can’t understand. But what have they done that does anybody any good, besides make bigger and better weapons so they can kill more people at a time?”
“Those big words,” Charles said, “mean they’re figuring out how the world works. That’s the key. The ancients knew secrets about how to harness the forces of nature.”
“Ah, magic,” Roger said, in the same tone he might have used if Charles had told him a story about a talking pig.
Typical ignorant peasant, Charles thought. Just another one of those who ran down what the Builders were doing, when they didn’t even understand it. They saw it as some kind of dangerous plot.
To Roger, he said, “They’ve made lots of breakthroughs.”
“Well, indoor plumbing, for one.”
“And what might that be?”
“Well, pipe systems in houses. Pipes to take out sewage. And bring in water.”
Roger wrinkled his nose.
“Not the same pipes,” Charles said. “They have pipes for each.”
“Oh. So … they shit right in their houses and then wash it out?”
“Well, kind of,” Charles said. “There’s a special room for it, and … well, trust me. It’s better.”
“Yeah, for the big shots, maybe,” Roger said. “Meanwhile, the peasants still have to shit in the hedgerows and carry water for a mile if they want any.”
“When I left, the Builders were working on a steam engine,” Charles said, thinking it might be good to try a new tack. “You could use it to make wagons go by themselves. They were getting close to making it work.”
Roger laughed long and loudly, slapping his knee, while the Appalachies stopped what they were doing and stared at him. When he could catch his breath, he stopped and explained to them. Some of them laughed a little, without conviction, but the rest looked puzzled and a little worried.
“Unlike my friends here,” Roger said, “I do not believe in magic.”
Running Elk now broke in and spoke at length, Roger listening and nodding. He turned to Charles again. “Chief wants to know about weapons. Which is a good idea to find out about, since that’s about the only practical thing the Builders do make. As they made sure to tell all of us in case we didn’t want to pay our taxes.”
Charles figured there would be no harm in telling the Appalachies what little he knew about weapons, so he gave an outline on projects the Builders had been working on. There were the rifles that fired more consistently and accurately, and the long artillery guns, which could throw destruction a long way, but were too expensive to use much. Roger relayed it all to Running Elk, who watched Charles’ face as if he were trying to guess whether Charles was lying.
“But it’s not just weapons,” Charles said. “It’s better farm tools, better wheels and wagons. And,” he added, wondering if he was supposed to be talking about this, “there are some secret labs where they are working on very powerful forces, the same forces the ancients learned to control. But I don’t know much about those.”
“Secret labs! Ha,” Roger said.
Charles went back to watching the sunlight creep up the trees. From the mountaintop, off to the south, he saw a dark plume of smoke rising. The smugglers’ campfires.
When the last light blazed orange on the tips of the treetops, then faded, the Appalachies lit their own fire. They also had the courtesy to lift Charles into his hammock. But he did not sleep. His body was tense, his nerves were jittery, and he shivered in the chilly fall air. As he fidgeted and tossed, the rope chafed at his wrists and made his feet numb.
It also didn’t help him relax when cats came close in the darkness. He could hear them padding in the leaves. They circled the camp several times, then he heard claws scratching on bark. In one of the treetops, glowing eyes appeared, two sets of them, watching the campfires.
As morning approached, the eyes left, and Charles finally got a little sleep.
At dawn, the Appalachies started getting out of their hammocks, and Charles sat up, but Roger waved him back down.
“You can go ahead and sleep a bit,” he said. “They’re just getting a head start.”
That didn’t make any sense. A head start to do what?
The warriors didn’t do much talking, just some hasty breakfast chewing. Then there was a rattle of arrows as the Appalachies slung quivers over their shoulders, and crashing of their footsteps in the quiet morning, fading into the distance.
Charles was still awake when Roger shook him again. On other mornings, Roger had kidded him about how he had better eat hearty, because he didn’t know how many more chances he would get to eat pemmican, but this morning he said nothing, just handed him a lump of the stuff. They were alone in the camp.
“Where did they go?” Charles asked.
“It’s just me and you going to the rendezvous,” Roger said. “That’s the deal, has to be just us. But in case something happens, we don’t want to be very alone.”
After the sun was well up in the sky, Roger untied the rope around Charles’ feet, but left his hands tied.
“Don’t try anything, little captive,” he said. “I’d hate to have to shoot you.” He put a heavy hand on Charles’ shoulder, not roughly but firmly, and guided him toward the top of the mountain.
“Your friends have to dump the sulfur packs at out meeting spot, and leave them there with just one person to meet us. That’s why the boys had to get such an early start, to make sure everything was quiet before the smugglers got there. When the sun is halfway to noon, which is not very long now, we’ll see if they decided to bring any sulfur. If they didn’t, or if they try any tricks, we’ll kill you on the spot, and they know it.”
“How much sulfur?” Charles asked, his mouth dry.
The disappointment crushed down on him. Three packs of sulfur was worth a heap of wampum coins, and would make a lot of gunpowder. And since the smugglers only had about twenty packs left from their whole trip, giving up three would slash deeply into their profits. There would be no sulfur at the meeting spot.
As they climbed, Charles wondered what it would be like to be dead. Did you go to heaven? Or to the hall of the gods? Would he be one of the ghosts in Eliza’s stories, hanging around here ready to frighten Warren to death next time he camped in the neighborhood? He hoped ghosts could still strangle people even without real fingers. Or would he just stop being altogether, and rot away and become part of the trees and worms? In that sense, the circle of life would go on, but the Charles part of the circle would be so greatly diminished he didn’t find it very comforting.
It was a cool day, and partly cloudy, more cloudy than he had seen in a long time. Maybe the drought was finally about to break.
They reached the crest of the mountain, and Charles remembered having passed through the spot with the smugglers before they arrived at their hunting camp. He remembered how desperate he had been then to stop walking and find food, and the way every quarter mile had taken what seemed like hours.
Just ahead, he remembered, there was a large meadow. He could see light breaking through the trees on its edge now.
“It’s in this meadow,” Roger said quietly. “That’s where they had to leave the sulfur.”
Charles allowed himself to hope for a miracle of generosity from George. If he was disappointed, the disappointment wouldn’t last long.
They came to the edge of the clearing. Roger pulled Charles in front of him as a shield, held a revolver to his head, and they walked out together into the light.