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.
As they stepped into the clearing, Charles shut his eyes. If Roger was going to shoot him in the head, he’d rather not know it was coming.
“Well, well,” Roger said. “Your smuggler friends came through for you.” He sounded relieved. “As long as it’s not some kind of trick.”
The blazing mid-morning sun in the meadow made Charles blink. Two packs leaned against each other in the middle of the meadow. Warren stood next to them.
“Hey now, don’t fall down on me,” Roger told Charles. “I still need you for a shield.”
Tears Charles had been holding back began to spill over. He fought them back. There must be a trick. Maybe the smugglers had filled the packs with leaves or rocks. Maybe they were hiding nearby waiting to shoot any Appalachies who showed their faces.
Warren’s lips were tight and he looked at Roger with a gaze that seemed calculated to knock him down.
“Here’s your sulfur,” Warren said, clearly detesting Roger for stooping low enough to want such a thing.
“And a good day to you,” Roger said. He kept the gun pressed against Charles’ head. “Well smuggler, I don’t see anybody hiding behind the trees. Yet. So far so good. Now take a stick and poke it down into that sulfur. I want to make sure there’s no garbage in there.”
“We don’t cheat,” Warren said.
“As much as I’m impressed by the honesty of smugglers, I’m still going to have to see for myself,” Roger said.
Warren didn’t move. Roger pulled the hammer back on the revolver.
After walking all those miles, Charles thought, he was going to get his head blown off anyway. Why hadn’t he made them carry him if they wanted him here so badly?
“I don’t have a stick,” Warren said.
“All right, just take off your gun belt then, and I’ll check it myself,” Roger said.
Warren hesitated, then took off the gun belt, put it down, and stepped away.
Roger walked over to the packs, keeping his gun pointed halfway between Charles and Warren, wavering from one to the other a little. Without looking away from the, Roger stuck his arm all the way to the bottom of each pack. After he pulled his arm out, he brushed every bit of sulfur he could back into the bags.
“Good,” he said. “All sulfur. And looks like good stuff, too.”
Roger untied Charles’ hands. “Looks like you’re free to go.”
Charles looked down at his wrists, the white marks from the rope slowly turning red.
“Oh, wait, just a second,” Roger said. He fished a handgun out of his waistband and held it out to Charles, butt first.
Charles stared at it. “What’s this?”
“This is your gun we took off you when we, ah, escorted you to our camp.” Roger bowed, and Charles took it. “A little gesture to make up for all you went through to help us out. Maybe it will help you remember savages aren’t all bad. Happy trails to you, little slave.”
Then he said, “You two outgun me now, but I’d recommend you don’t try anything. You kill me, you’ll be dead before I hit the ground.”
Warren scowled. “Our deal was for you to come alone.”
“And I am alone,” Roger said. “But I have a lot of friends a short way off. Like I said, we don’t trust smugglers. But maybe instead of arguing about fine points, you can just leave the sulfur here and head on back to your camp.”
Warren and Charles looked at each other, then walked together across the clearing. Charles’ legs trembled, and he tried to think what he should do now.
Warren might kill him if he got an inkling Charles knew anything about that personalized revolver. Charles found it ominous that Warren happened to be the one at the hostage swap. The traitor must be worried about what Charles might have found out among the Appalachies. Maybe Warren would shoot him to be on the safe side, and just claim the Appalachies did it.
At the end of the meadow, Charles turned and looked back. Roger and the sulfur were gone.
He decided he had two options. He could pretend he was still ignorant of Warren’s treachery, hope Warren bought it, and then turn him in as soon as they got back to the band. Or, he could confront Warren now, before Warren had a chance to shoot him. Both options were dangerous.
It would be his word against Warren’s, if Charles tried to turn him in. George would believe one of them, and the other would die. And Warren seemed to be a much more accomplished liar than Charles had realized.
And if Warren did suspect Charles had found clues about Warren’s collaboration with the Appalachies, Warren would have to kill him. Given that Warren had probably helped set up the ambush that had seen a third of them shot dead on the spot, it seemed he wasn’t opposed to smugglers dying.
And Charles didn’t see how Warren could help being suspicious that he knew something. Guilty people saw a noose when others just saw rope. Warren would have no trouble at all seeing the noose dangling in front of him.
“Are you all right Charles? We’ve been worried about you,” Warren said.
So that’s how he was going to play it. Concerned, caring Warren, until Charles turned his back.
Charles pulled out his revolver and pointed it at Warren.
“D-drop your gun,” he said.
“Your gun is shaking,” Warren said. Charles did not feel he was showing the proper concern.
“And it might go off,” he said, raising his voice. “Drop your gun right now. Slowly. Or I’ll shoot you.”
“I wonder if you would,” Warren said.
“This is the l-last time I’m telling you,” Charles said.
Warren slowly took off his gun belt and let it down on the ground.
“I’m getting tired of everybody telling me to take this off,” he said. “Are you going to explain what all this is about? You’d better have a really good reason for this. Pulling a gun on one of the leaders is a death sentence, you know.”
“You know what it’s about,” Charles said.
“Nope,” Warren said. “Suppose you clarify.”
Charles had somehow expected Warren to break down and confess, or turn white and try to lie his way out of it. But Warren’s calmness had him rattled. What if he had made a terrible mistake? What if Warren didn’t confess?
“I know you’re the traitor,” Charles said.
“You do, eh?” Warren said.
“The Appalachies told me.” Where had that come from? It wasn’t a bad idea, anyway.
Warren stroked his chin. “Those bastards,” he said.
Charles realized he did not have a plan for what to do now. If Warren wasn’t going to attack him, Charles didn’t think he had what it took to just murder him. But if he didn’t kill Warren, Charles would then have to march him into camp at gunpoint, where Warren could coolly deny the whole conversation.
“Why? Why did you do it?” Charles asked.
Warren didn’t say anything for a long time. Charles was about to demand a response when Warren finally said, “Well, Charles, I guess I may as well try to explain. Maybe honesty will have its reward.”
A little late for you to try honesty, Charles thought. “Go ahead,” he said.
“Charles, we’re on the wrong side, smuggling sulfur. You know that as well as I do. We sell it to everyone, even to Easton’s enemies. Now who’s the real traitor, me or this whole band?”
“Easton isn’t my problem,” Charles said. “I don’t owe Easton anything. Neither do any of the others.”
“You do owe your neighbors something,” Warren said. “Such as not selling highway robbers the ingredients for gunpowder. George knows that. But he wouldn’t care if they robbed his mother, as long as he was making a profit, Charles.”
“He’s not so bad. He gave the Appalachies that sulfur ransom so they wouldn’t kill me,” Charles said.
“Yes, and I was surprised about that,” Warren admitted. “But believe me, we had to do some convincing to get him to do it.”
Sure you did, Charles thought.
“I was worried about what you might have found out, Charles, but I helped convince him. Give me a little credit here.” For the first time his calm voice wavered almost imperceptibly toward pleading.
“Give you credit? You’ve been lying to all of us for months. Or is it years?”
Warren ignored the last question. “Well, you can believe me or not. But you know I’m right about George,” he said. “I know lots of smugglers have plenty of reason to complain about the way the king’s men have treated them. Fine. But that’s no excuse for making money by supporting violence and death like we do.”
“So you thought you’d make things better by getting a bunch of us killed. You could have gotten me killed.” Charles’ gun was shaking again.
“Well … I can’t justify that, not really, Charles. Except to say that sometimes to overthrow violence, you have to use violence. Those Scranton soldiers were enforcing the law. That might not make you feel any better, but I don’t see it as murder, enforcing the law like that. Still, it hurts, when you know the people who are breaking the law and you see them get punished.
“I didn’t want you dead,” Warren said. “You’re not here because you want to be, I know that. I didn’t want Big John dead. He was my friend. I’ve thought about it every day since it happened, and it still hurts. I am a loyal person; you have to believe that, Charles. I’m just not loyal to George.”
“So you’re working for Scranton,” Charles said. “But you’re from Easton. How’s that help out your neighbors back in Easton?”
“I’m working for Easton,” Warren said. “I’m a Builder, Charles.”
Charles’ mouth went slack and he let his gun down.
“No, you didn’t know all the Builders,” Warren said. “I remember seeing you around, though. Some of us are academics; some of us deal more with security. I didn’t quite make the cut for the university.”
Warren was one of the Builders’ secret enforcers now. This story was getting wilder, Charles thought.
“You killed your friends,” he said. “You killed Big John, your friend and one of the best leaders we had. It’s partly your fault, everyone the Appalachies have killed since the ambush, and you got me kidnapped. So forget the big moral argument. You’re my enemy.” Charles brought his gun back up.
Warren sighed. “I don’t seem to be explaining myself very well. Why don’t we sit down, and let me give you a little more of my side of this.” He glanced at the sun. “I think we have a little time before they’ll be expecting us back. If you don’t like what I have to say, you can shoot me. Fair?”
“Well … all right. You sit down first,” Charles said. Warren smiled, and stepped farther away from his gun, then sat with his back against a massive white pine tree. Charles settled down a few feet away.
“I’m never at my best with a gun pointed at me, but I’ll give this a shot,” Warren said. “For starters, the deal with the Appalachies was never about them trying to kill us and stealing sulfur. They were just the messengers to Scranton. That was the only deal I made with them. After that, I guess they got greedy.”
If Warren was pretending to be angry, he was a good actor. His face was flushed and he spoke rapidly. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with them and ask them what the hell they think they’re doing, but I never could. Then one day Roger shows up saying he’s got you, but he’ll give you back for sulfur. They’re the ones who double crossed me.”
“And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of the people who died in that ambush. But that’s part of war. And the Builders have declared war on the smugglers.”
“But why?” Charles asked. “Easton needs the smugglers to get them more sulfur. That’s why they’ve let George get away with it for so long. They won’t get enough sulfur just from their own trading. Scranton is stingy with it.”
“But George won’t stick to dealing just with us,” Warren said. “We tried to bring him around, believe me, and he won’t listen. If he’s going to arm the whole peninsula, he’s hurting us, not helping. If we had an all out war with plenty of gunpowder on both sides, we could wipe out almost all the people on the peninsula. And we need people.”
“So instead, you want the Builders to have all the gunpowder and all the power.”
“I believe in them, Charles. I believe in what they’re doing. You have to pick a side in life. They aren’t perfect, but you have to pick a side. The smugglers who died were criminals. They were my friends, and that made it the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I ever make it back to Easton, I’m done with this job. It’s not for me. I’m out. I’ll work security detail at the garbage dump if they want me to.
“Charles, this will be tough for you to hear, but the world would be better off without George in it. The goal of the ambush was to get him out of leadership — either get him killed, or get him kicked out and get somebody else in who would work with us.”
“Somebody like you,” Charles said.
Warren shrugged. “Would I be such a bad leader, Charles?”
You still betrayed us. I’m on a side, too. I’m on the smugglers’ side.”
“I want to make a proposal,” Warren said. “I don’t really think you do like the smugglers all that much. And you’re smart. You’ve studied. I’ve seen what you can do. I think I could get you into the university, if you had time to get some tutoring to get you ready of course. If you can help me get back to Easton alive, I’ll do my best to get you in at the university, with special consideration for your service to the Builders. What you do from there would be up to you.”
Very shrewd, Charles thought. Warren knew his weak spots.
“You’re asking me to be a traitor,” he said.
“No. I’m asking you to leave a life you never chose in the first place, so you can work to make the world better, all while doing something that would be a dream for you. Isn’t that true?”
“A Builder sold me into slavery,” Charles said.
“A Builder’s family, if I’m not mistaken,” Warren corrected him. “I’d be lying to you if I said the Builders were all upright and moral. There are good ones and bad ones, like anywhere else. My question to you is, can you get on board with helping the good ones? Some of us are really trying to make the world like it was before. The whole world’s stuck in a pit of ignorance, and we’re trying to get them out. Now there’s a cause you can live for, not just trying to survive after you’re free, or God forbid, staying a smuggler for the rest of your life.”
Or, Charles thought, the option Warren hadn’t mentioned was that Charles could accept the deal and Warren could shoot him in the back whenever he let his guard down.
They sat in silence for a minute or two.
“Charles, all I can say is, I’m being honest with you. I’m making the best case I can. I’m doing what I’m doing for what I believe are the right reasons. George is doing what he’s doing to make himself rich, and damn everyone else.”
After a pause, Warren added, “If I can’t convince you, the least you can do is shoot me now instead of taking me back to George.”
What Warren was proposing would give Charles a purpose, a dream to live for. The chance to join the Builders was a chance of a lifetime. Yes, it was an opportunity to do good, but it was also a chance to make it, to be rich and powerful. Warren couldn’t promise he’d get into the university, of course, that wasn’t his decision, but Charles was sure he could make it in and sure he could thrive once he did.
Warren was too idealistic. But he also had some good points about the smugglers. The smugglers told their own self-justifying story, about how the state drove them to their life of crime through persecution and injustice. What they really wanted, though, was easy money.
At the same time, although he’d always told himself he wasn’t a smuggler, the idea of turning against them now felt like a betrayal. While they were on the trail, whether they liked each other or not, they were a team. They all protected each other.
There was too much to think about, all at once, and not enough time to make a decision this huge.
If he accepted the deal and George found out, Charles was a dead slave. Or would be dead, once the band could no longer keep him alive for their amusement.
There was also the chance Warren would simply shoot him in the back while they were walking back to camp. The man had lied before. Charles really didn’t think he would shoot him, though. Warren seemed sincere. He found he still believed in Warren’s morality, as foolhardy as that might be. The morals of a traitor.
A wind swept along the ridge from the south, bringing the smell of wood smoke from the smugglers’ camp and plucking more autumn leaves from the trees.
How did he end up in these wretched situations all the time? Either he had to kill Warren or join him in his double life. What he really wanted to do was just carry his pack and get in nobody’s way and get home safely.
“It’s risky,” he said finally.
“Yes, it is,” Warren said. “Usually if you’re going to do anything great, the price is risk.”
From where they were sitting, Charles could see through a gap in the trees out over the mountain range, stretching off in the distance toward home. He wished somebody else could tell him what to do. A religious saying his old master’s wife used to quote came to him: “I will lift my eyes to the hills; where does my help come from?” He couldn’t remember the end. She would have said her help came from God, not the hills, he guessed. He could use advice from above now.
All he could hear, though, was the wind.
“All right,” Charles said. He lowered the gun.
“All right what?”
“All right, I promise not to turn you in to George. But you have to swear to do your best to get me into the university.”
“I swear it,” Warren said.
“While you’re at it, swear you won’t shoot me as soon as my back is turned.”
Warren laughed. “That’s an easy one. I swear that too.”
“All right.” Charles stood up, and stuck his gun in his holster. He helped Warren up, and they shook hands. But Charles made sure his gun was loose in the holster, and watched Warren carefully as he put on his gun belt.
“I’m almost glad you found out,” Warren said. “It’s more risky this way, but it was terrible to be alone like that. It was good to be able to defend myself to somebody. And to get an ally.”
Charles nodded, though he wasn’t sure about all this friends and soul mates stuff. The man was certainly not who Charles had thought he was, sincere as he sounded now. He would need some time to get to know the new Warren.
But a deal was a deal.
“Well if it isn’t the runaway slave,” the first sentry said. This less-than-heartwarming greeting was as enthusiastic a welcome as he got from most of the smugglers. Charles supposed it was understandable. They had all lost money on him, giving up their share of the profits from the two packs of sulfur, for a slave they didn’t really like.
George and the other leaders failed to show a great deal of joy, either, but they were more polite than the rest of the band. Warren told everyone how brave Charles had been, and John and James shook hands and told him, “Welcome back, good to have you,” with small smiles.
“Glad you are back,” Old Harry said, with the abstract melancholy of a man who has just misplaced a large sum of money and wants to get back to thinking about it.
George shook his hand and said, “Glad we didn’t lose you,” but his unsmiling face could have fooled Charles.
So sorry to lose you your sulfur, Charles thought.
He nodded hello to Marguerite, who was standing nearby. If she felt any interest in his adventures, she hid it well. “Hi,” she said.
Gary was more enthusiastic. “What was it like? Were the Appalachies like real people, or more like ghosts? Did you —”
Warren glanced in their direction.
“Later,” Charles said. “I can’t talk about it right now.” He needed to go over his story and make sure there were no hints of Warren in it.
“Oh, sure, sure, sorry,” Gary said. “I know you need some time to recover from something like that.” He seemed a little awed.
Why couldn’t Gary have been kidnapped? Charles wondered. Gary certainly would have enjoyed it more than he had.
Keeping Warren’s secret made Charles feel like a small boy hiding a broken vase, but worse, because, unlike the small boy, he didn’t just have vague notions of doom; his notions of doom were precise and detailed. The rest of the trip stretched far out in front of him.
“I want to go lie down for a while,” he said.
“No time for that,” George said. “We’re heading out now. Let’s move it.”
“I don’t really think we have anything to worry about now from the Appalachies,” Warren said.
“Nah. I don’t trust those damn savages, but I’m not worried about them,” George said. “It’s them who should be worried about me. Now pack up!”
The smugglers, finally grasping that he meant pack up, sprang to it.
When Charles first got to camp he had noticed the strips of meat drying on racks, nicely cured and ready to be turned into pemmican. He’d assumed that would be his next chore, but the slaves now hurried to gather up the meat and stuff it in packs. They would have to make the pemmican later.
“Looks like Dan’s idea about finding animals at that water hole worked out, then,” Charles said to Gary.
“Yeah, enough to get us by,” Gary said. “They did get some deer, the day you disappeared. Actually, we were just waiting for the meat to dry before we headed out, because we thought you, we —” he stopped, embarrassed.
“Yeah, I figured,” Charles said.
“Yes … so anyway, then Warren comes into camp saying he’s just been held at gunpoint by an Appalachie, and they have you and …”
“Let’s go, let’s go!” George shouted. His own pack was loaded and on his back, bedroll neatly tied on top, and he started walking away through the trees.
There wasn’t much to gather up, but over their days at the campsite, they had spread their belongings all around, and the smugglers scrambled to gather them up and shove them into their packs. In only a few minutes, the campsite was empty except for the blackened rings of stones and the meat drying racks standing empty and useless; and the band was trailing after George, still tugging at straps and shifting packs around to get them balanced.
“What’s the hurry?” Gary muttered. “There’s hardly time left today to do any walking. We may as well just have stayed here overnight.”
Charles overheard hushed grumbling among the others too. George was running now after all his talk of staying and fighting … gets his favorite slave back … I’d have left a long time ago …
Charles was happy to see the camp go. It had been the last campsite for too many people. But his body was furious about setting out again without a rest, after his long days of hurried hiking. All he really wanted to do now was lie down and sleep, or maybe cry. His thoughts were scattered like marbles and he wanted time to try to track them down and gather them up.
They soon reached the end of the mountaintop they had camped on and the ground sloped downward ever steeper, finally easing into a broad valley. By the time evening had definitely replaced afternoon, the mountain was in the distance behind them and they stood on the edge of a wide stream.
Or it had been a wide stream, when they crossed it earlier in the year on their way to Scranton. It was now several tepid trickles of water, crisscrossing over a broad band of loose stones and solid bedrock. Water bugs swarmed over warm pools standing alone as islands from the rest of the stream.
On the way to Scranton, the band had been forced to string a long rope over the rushing current, so it wouldn’t sweep them off their feet and spoil their trade tobacco. Now their biggest risk was slipping on green algae-slicked rocks.
In twos and threes, the smugglers scrambled up the far bank of the stream.
“All right, now somebody start a fire, would you?” George said.
“Say what?” John said.
“A fire. You take a hand drill …”
“I know how to start a fire,” John said. “What do you want a fire for? We’ve hardly gone anywhere yet. I thought you were in a hurry.”
“You’ll see,” George said. “Gary, you get one started while we bring firewood.”
The thought struck Charles that fires could be used for purposes of encouraging confession, and he edged toward the outer part of the group, so as to be in good position to run if the need arose. He’d rather face the mercy of the cats in the deep shadow than the mercy of the smugglers.
Gary soon had a fire going, and once they had stacked wood on it and it had burned for a while, George said, “Charles.”
He jumped. “Yes?”
“You and Gary get those copper pots and get a nice scoop of coals.”
Gary and Charles looked at each other. Gary shrugged.
When they had done it, George said, “Now each of you go a ways along the stream, about a thousand steps will be about right I’d say. Go over to the other side, and dump the coals out in some nice dry brush or something.”
There was gasping and murmuring. John pumped his fist. “Yeah! That’ll fix those Appalachies!”
“Chief, you can’t be serious,” Warren said, looking ashen. “The fire will jump the stream. It’s suicide!”
“He’s right,” Old Harry said. “This is way too risky.”
“It won’t jump the stream,” George said. “It’s plenty wide enough. Even where there’s no water, it’s not going to burn the rocks. And haven’t you been watching the weather? Wind’s been out of the south all day, southeast. My money is there’s a storm behind it. Should be here by morning. Wind won’t change before that rain hits. But by the time the rain gets here …”
Talk broke out among the smugglers. Charles stood still, overwhelmed by horror. All the women and children in that village. Roger. Running Elk. They were enemies, yes, but not the kind of enemies he wanted to roast to death. And George was going to make him do it.
“Charles and Gary, are you going to get those coals?”
He should not do this thing. He hated George for delegating his murder to other people, to Charles. But surely, this wasn’t his sin. He couldn’t disobey a direct order. And if he did disobey, somebody else would do it.
He and Gary put sticks through the pot handles so they could carry them without the heat from the red coals singeing their knuckles. At the stream, Gary went left, and Charles went right. I’m just obeying orders, he told himself. This is on George’s head, not mine. One thousand steps.
He walked up the other side of the stream bank, crunched a little way into the dusty dry leaves and twigs. What he was doing did not seem real. It was momentous, but small. All he did was set the pot down, tip it over, and watched the coals spill over into the leaves. No longer red from the fire, they looked almost harmless.
For a moment, they just lay there, a bright glow crawling along the dark edges of the charred wood. You could step on it now, he told himself. Throw some dirt on it.
A black spot spread on one leaf, then the spot burst into a tongue of yellow flame.
Charles turned and sprinted for the stream, but stopped at the edge. The pot. He had left it behind.
He ran back and grabbed it. The fire was already the size of a campfire, shooting through the leaves and licking up a dead branch. One edge crackled into some brown grass, and gray smoke rolled out.
“Charles! Get away from there!” somebody shouted at him from the distance.
By the time he got back to the smugglers, Gary was already back too, and everyone was watching the fires. Two plumes of dark gray smoke rose from the forest on the other side of the stream.
“Now grab another bucket load and dump it right across the stream here,” George ordered. Gary and Charles did it.
Other smugglers grabbed partially burning branches and ran across the stream, hurling them into the trees, shouting and whooping.
Nobody could stop the fires now. Tinder dry leaves and grass puffed into yellow flame as the fire advanced, crackling and whooshing as it found new fuel. The fire, it seemed to Charles, was in as much of a hurry as George had been. The wind was blowing from the south, just as George had pointed out. It might be bringing rain, but it had no moisture yet. It leaped through the fire and showered sparks further into the woods, fanning the crackle into a roar.
The flames climbed the trees and blackened branches, which glowed and then fell in flaming chunks. The several fires raced toward each other to join into one.
“There’s no point running anywhere,” Warren said. “If it jumps that stream we’ll never outrun it.”
The whooping died down and the smugglers watched the fire in silence.
It flowed toward them, through the streamside grass, sizzled, and went out as it met the stones.
George stood, arms crossed, a smile on his face, and watched his creation rage.