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.
A deer stumbled across the rocky streambed and tore up into the woods on the other side. A small dark animal, a raccoon, Charles thought, also ran across, then four more deer. Upstream and down, animals flowed across away from the fire. A wolf. A weasel. A bear. Two foxes and several squirrels raced each other across, side by side, ignoring each other.
“Look! Look at that!” Eileen said. But they already were. On the other side of the stream, only a few trees weren’t yet on fire, and a pack of cats leaped through the safe space, racing the flames toward the stream, jumping small pockets of burning grass. They reached the stream just ahead of the fire, ears flat against their heads and their tails bushed out. Heavy muscles rippled under their rich coats as they charged through the water without slowing down, spray cascading around them.
The smugglers grabbed for their bows and fumbled with pistols, but the cats ignored the them and smashed by into the forest. They had appeared and disappeared again in only a few seconds.
“This woods is filling up with predators,” Jake said. “And they’re gonna be hungry.”
Dan nodded. “Yeah, that fire might drive us a deer or two, but it’s driving the killers to eat the deer, too. Woods is going to get pretty crowded for a while.”
“At least they’ll have plenty of other meat,” Eileen suggested. “Besides us.”
“Maybe,” Dan said. “Or maybe the fire will drive ‘em crazy.”
They all reflected for a while on the idea of crazy cats. From the looks on their faces, it wasn’t a topic they enjoyed.
Jake looked the worst. He was sweating, his face white, and muttering.
“Hey, Jake, you OK?” James asked.
Jake didn’t respond, just kept up his soft dialogue with himself.
“He’s cracking up,” Eileen said. “Losing it. Doesn’t surprise me either. There’s a limit to what you can make people go through.” She looked at George.
John walked over to Jake and slapped him across the face. Several of the smugglers winced and others frowned. Jake shook his head slowly and stared at John.
“Get yourself together, man,” John said. “This is no place for scared children.”
An angry hum started among the group. But Jake only looked at John, his eyes wounded, but not really understanding. He was still shaking, but like a guilty dog, he turned and slunk away.
“That’s enough, John,” George said. “No need for that. And as for the rest of you, does anybody have something they’d like to complain about?” He rested his hand on his pistol. Nobody said anything. He walked over to the nearest, an unfortunate man named Tim. Putting his face inches away, George said quietly, “How about you Tim? I thought I heard you complaining just now.”
Tim complained all the time, but Charles hadn’t heard him say a word just then. Tim shook his head and shrank away.
“If you do have something against me, we can settle it right now,” George said. “Man to man.”
Tim shook his head again and stared at the ground. A burly man, he looked unusually small.
Eileen appeared to be grinding her teeth, and Charles wondered what would happen if George challenged her the same way. She might take him up on it. But the others looked sufficiently cowed, and George ignored Eileen. He went back to watching the fire.
Birds streamed out of the trees in all directions as the fire advanced. Charles wished he could fly, partly because he’d be safe from the fire even if it managed to jump the stream, and partly because he thought it must be an amazing sight, looking down from above on the flames fanning out into the wilderness.
Also, he reflected, if he could fly he could get home in a day or two.
The wind pushed the fire away from them, but it fought back to the edge of the stream, pawing at the water’s edge, roaring and howling and pacing the banks, looking for a place to jump over.
Bits of flaming brush and burning wildflowers dropped over the side, landing with a hiss in pools of water and smoldering on the dry rocks. Embers worked their way along roots embedded in the dry bank, gnawing the entire bank to ash. Snakes, driven out from the streamside vegetation, came writhing over the rocks.
That would teach the Appalachies to steal sulfur, Charles thought. This fire would burn hundreds of thousands of acres, toast uncountable animals, and kill every Appalachie for miles. If the wind shifted, it would crisp the smugglers too. A vivid lesson.
The south wind surged stronger, and the fire leapt skyward, roaring hundreds of feet overhead, its hot breath driving into the smugglers.
“All right, let’s get out of here,” George ordered. “Make it quick.” It was an unnecessary order. Many of the smugglers had decided to move along when they saw the snakes headed their way, and when the fire seemed ready to jump the stream the rest followed. The only exception was Jake, who stood as if deep in thought until someone grabbed his arm and pulled him along.
As they left, Charles imagined what the Appalachies must be seeing in their camp now. There would be a heavy cloud of gray smoke to the south. Animals would start fleeing past them, and birds would come streaming overhead. They’d shade their eyes, and then they’d realize what it must be. There would be panic in the village, children screaming, mothers and fathers shouting, everyone grabbing essential tools and running. And it wouldn’t be fast enough.
What would it be like to feel those flames storming through the trees behind you, faster than you could run, hot on your back?
Charles hoped he wouldn’t get the chance to find out.
More deer ran by as the band hurried through the gloomy woods. It pained the smugglers to see all that good meat just bounding away, but they didn’t have time to stop for butchering. All living things were in the same predicament, trying to get as far away from the fire as they could. They would worry later about re-establishing the food chain.
Eileen made an exception when a heavy cat came crashing through the underbrush only a few yards away, not seeming to see them. She unslung her bow, drew, and shot in a smooth motion, her arrow arcing into the cat’s ribs, a perfect running shot. The cat coughed, then veered away into the trees.
“You lost your arrow,” James said.
“That was worth losing an arrow,” Eileen said.
For a moment, Charles felt sorry for the cat. It hadn’t been bothering anybody. But he reminded himself that had they crossed paths at another time, it would have happily killed him.
The light faded fast. They walked until the twilight was deep, then they had to stop while they could still see to gather wood.
George insisted that the slaves make a water run, even though it was far too late in the evening to do it safely, especially with the woods crawling with predators. George sent an extra smuggler as a guard, but they would have needed eight or so extra guards to be safe. The hair prickled on Charles’ neck and arms as they trekked among the murky tree trunks. He made sure to rattle his armload of canteens together to make an intimidating racket, and the others followed his example. They moved down the hill with all the subtlety of a soldier in plate armor falling down a ladder.
They found a creek bed, but it was bone dry, and it didn’t get any damper under the slaves’ heated cursing. There was no time to check anywhere else, so they set off back up the hill in a foul mood. They all thought they felt something behind them in the gathering gloom, stalking. Once, a twig snapped nearby, and they all whirled to face it, but couldn’t see anything.
Gary sped up a little bit. Charles increased his pace to keep up, with just possibly a little extra for good measure.
“Come on, wait up,” Marguerite said, without much need, for she was passing Charles.
“For God’s sake, quit running,” the guard said. “It’s too dark for that.” His long strides carried him to the front of the pack.
“By the king’s moustache,” James said when they got back, “I could hear you banging around those canteens the whole time. Sounded like a runaway peddler’s wagon. And why are you breathing so hard?”
“Where’s the water?” Eileen snarled.
“Wasn’t any,” Charles said. He added a few phrases in his mind.
“What are we supposed to drink, you goddam little bastards?” Eileen said. “You weren’t supposed to just go on a walk.”
“Yeah,” others joined in. “What does ‘get water’ mean to you?”
“Thanks for going just out of sight and then running back.”
“Go back out there and find some!”
“Shut up,” James said. “Whining isn’t going to fill those canteens. It’s too dark now.”
The smugglers fell short of shutting up, but reduced their volume level to simulate compliance.
It seemed obscene, somehow, to build another fire, with miles of forest burning nearby. The roar and crackle were too close behind them. Charles had never seen anything like the enormous glow thrown up high into the night sky, dimming the stars.
The little campfire flickered wickedly in front of Charles, a vicious baby eying him hungrily. Domestic fires had always seemed warm and comforting, but now he had seen a wild one, and knew this little devil would kill them all if it could get away.
Smugglers lit other fires around the camp. They sat around them just a little further back than usual, without much talking.
The next morning, gray clouds covered the sky, driven north toward the fire by the gusting wind. The travelers couldn’t hear the noise from the flames anymore, but an enormous column of smoke rose to the north, melding into the low clouds to form a wall that looked like fog. The woods around them was silent except for the wind; no more animals ran past. Even the birds were gone.
The sky got darker throughout the day as they hiked, but no rain fell until it was almost dark. First a few sprinkles misted down in a torrential fog, but as the smugglers made camp big drops began lashing down in sheets. Everyone began to talk and laugh again.
At first the cold rain was a delight to Charles. It had been so long since he’d felt rain, and it was even good to feel chilly again after the long dusty summer. He relaxed as he pictured the fire withering behind him as the rain snuffed the hot coals, water filling the streams again and sogging all the leaves and trees between here and there.
That feeling lasted for a few minutes, but faded as he lay trying to fall asleep, his bedroll sopping up water. After several hours, the rain managed to drum most of the happiness out of him again and he began imagining the friendly heat of a nice warm fire. You’ve done a great job, he told the rain, now get out of here. The clammy bedroll stuck to his skin. He pulled it over his head but the water kept drumming on it, like someone relentlessly poking him awake, and the water dripped out of his hair and over his neck. But very deep down, he was happy to be miserable about a small thing like being wet.
He spent most of the night waiting for morning, as if somehow daylight would make the rain feel better. But when it got light, the rain was just as wet, and its cold fingers followed him wherever he went, touching and touching and touching him.
This was a real storm; it must have been a hurricane on the coast. The wind wasn’t knocking anything over in the mountains, but it whipped the trees and lashed the rain into their faces. The water fell in barrelfuls, tearing the fall leaves off the branches and bouncing off the ground in a mist that tried to rise but was beaten down again by the falling torrent. It seemed there wasn’t much air left in the air.
Behind them, barely visible through the storm, the smoke boiled up in an enormous white cloud, the last protest of the dying fire.
Charles tried to withdraw from the weather, to think about other things, to get lost in thinking about plans for the future. Water rolled down inside his shirt, and down his legs inside his pants. He daydreamed about finding a dry cave, or a partially fallen log with cozy leaves underneath. There would even be just enough dry twigs to start a very small, friendly and domesticated fire.
He found no such escape hatch.
They would have no problem finding water for their canteens tonight. The problem, they soon realized, would be finding enough ground to walk on. When they came to another stream, the muddy water foamed over the banks and washed branches and logs along.
“We could run a rope across,” Old Harry said.
George shook his head. “You go ahead and try it if you want to. I’m staying right here.”
“Spend the night here? We’ve only gotten a couple of miles.”
George shrugged. “Better slow than drowned. We can camp up away from the stream. I don’t like the look of this water at all. Let’s go back up to some higher ground.”
They were still slogging back uphill when Dan pointed upstream. “Look at that! Holy shit, look out!
A stack of water tumbled toward them, and it was in a hurry. The smugglers’ amble became a dash, and it was good they had already hiked a little way from the stream, or they wouldn’t have been fast enough. The water crashed through the valley, ripping up logs and boulders, and anything else that didn’t have deep roots. The new edge of the stream sloshed and foamed only a few feet from where they stood.
“Damn!” Henry said, rolling out the word slowly. Charles had never heard the camp tailor use profanity before. Henry did his illegal smuggling with punctilious uprightness, and he was generous with his disapproval for the careless habits and language of others. Disapproval was, in fact, about the only thing he was generous with.
“We’ll stay here for the night. Except further back, of course, on higher ground,” George said. “We’d better …”
The rest of the band turned their bug-eyed attention from the rushing water to a scream from behind them. Jake was running further up the hill, sobbing and shrieking.
“Jake! Come back here, you fool!” George shouted. Others joined in the shouting. They jogged up the hill after him, but Jake outpaced them, throwing off his pack. He tripped once, but picked himself up again, waving his arms as he ran as if he could pull himself along faster.
They ran after him, but it was halfhearted. Jake was out of sight quickly, and they had no wish to end up scattered and lost in the stormy woods.
They stood wiping rain out of their eyes and looking at each other.
“Dammit,” James said.
At a time like this, Charles always felt like somebody ought to say something, to sum things up and give them some kind of meaning, but all he could think of was the ridiculously obvious. Not wishing to say “That’s a real shame that Jake lost his mind and ran away to die alone in the storm, I really wish he hadn’t done that,” he kept quiet. Eileen and a few others looked like they had more pointed words than that, but they held their tongues.
For three miserable days, the disheartened band sat by the muddy river that had been a creek. The rain came down without slacking and the water tore through the tree trunks below them, piling up in white haystacks around the trunks, pushing small trees over into the current where their branches stretched and waved downstream.
The first night, they did their best to get out of the rain, cutting evergreen branches and lashing them together over frames to make huts. For further roofing, they slung bedrolls over the evergreens, creating dark, damp and leaky little huts. Crammed into these at about five or so to a hut, they sat watching the roofs sift the rain, slowing it down and collecting it in big drops. The water dripped in rhythms maddeningly close to regular, but not quite. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip … drip. The smugglers’ fingers turned pale and wrinkly. It was too wet even for the most skilled of them to start a fire, so all they could do was to sit, as the old children’s story went.
It was chilly, and not just because of the rain, Charles calculated. It must be September by now, although he had lost track of the exact date. Summer had lingered longer than usual, but now it was gone. If the smugglers dawdled much longer, the cold would get worse, and it would start to frost in the mornings.
Charles found himself sharing space with George, John, Old Harry, and Marguerite. He had no objection to Marguerite, but the other three were possibly the last he would have selected to share a makeshift shelter with during a downpour. He’d been helping build the huts and by the time he got around to picking one out, Most of them were full. Why couldn’t he have ended up in the same shelter as one of the good storytellers?
Old Harry’s stories were colorful and bawdy, but not good. George didn’t usually tell stories. John’s tales mostly embellished his adventures and accomplishments. Besides tell stories, the only thing other thing to do was watch the rain.
“This whole trip has been a disaster,” John said. “A damn disaster from start to finish.”
“We aren’t finished yet,” Old Harry said. He sneezed. “I think I’m coming down with something. Pneumonia, I’m guessing.”
“It is what it is. We lost a few more people than usual,” George said. “But that’s not all bad. We didn’t get a lot of sulfur, either. So if everybody was still alive, the shares would be pretty small. It’s best we don’t have to split it too many ways. Worst thing for me is, I’m going to have to do a lot more work to get enough people for next year. Usually I just have to find a few worthless bums to replace the worthless bums the cats ate.”
“Plenty of worthless bums around,” John said.
“Yeah, but I hate finding more people. You need a worthless bum who’s worth his pemmican. Preferably one who doesn’t like bragging to people about what he does in the summer. I guess I wasn’t careful enough last time. We picked up some kind of a spy or somebody with a big mouth.”
“Might not be just one bad apple,” Old Harry said. “Might be somebody back home trying to stir up trouble. You’ve got your enemies. We might have to clean out some rats’ nests when we get back.”
George grunted. “Maybe.”
It struck Charles that George now had him in a good spot to quiz him about everything that had happened during the kidnapping, now that they were on the topic of things that were going wrong. George hadn’t had a spare moment to do that since Charles had gotten back to the band.
But George didn’t know Charles had information he’d be interested in. Or did he know? When you tried not to look suspiciously guilty, you could feel guiltiness oozing out of your skin.
“Even with all the people we lost, we’ve got precious little sulfur,” Old Harry said. “I won’t be able to afford much of a vacation when we get back.”
“That’ll be better for you,” John said. “Less of a hangover. And didn’t you pick up a nasty bug in those brothels last year?”
Old Harry humphed. “Just a touch of flu, had to stay in bed for a while.”
“Flu, ha,” John said. “First time I ever saw flu do THAT to a man.”
“I’m going to get flu now if I can’t get a fire started,” Old Harry said. He scooped up some forlorn bits of soggy bark and tried to blow on them to dry them off. Then he got out his fire drill and started spinning it. After a long time a reluctant spark began to burn into the bark. Then a huge water drop landed dead center on it and blotted it out.
“Dammit!” Old Harry said. He threw the fire drill out into the rain.
They all stared outside at the murky woods. Charles felt naked without the protection of a fire. They were tiny and alone among the massive gloomy tree trunks, the only people for many miles. He watched for movement in the trees, and sometimes caught a flicker of something. But after he had stared long enough at it, the movement always turned out to be a swaying branch or a water drop on a leaf. Cats weren’t likely to be out hunting in a storm like this.
“By the way, I never asked you Charles,” George said, “did you find out anything useful when you were with those Appalachies? Anything about what in hell they were up to?”
Charles’ stomach flopped like a fish. He ran over what he should not say, and how he should not say it, and froze up.
“Charles?” George said, eying him.
“Ah, well, nothing much,” Charles said. No, that wasn’t good, that sounded evasive. He remembered there had been more Appalachie warriors than he expected. Yes, that was the tack to take. Lots of details about things that didn’t matter.
“Well, there were more of them than I thought. About thirty, so about as many fighters as we had. I wasn’t expecting that.”
“What were they after?” George asked. “Why all the attacks?”
“I guess they just wanted the sulfur. They said they were having some kind of war with other Appalachies.”
The leaders glanced at each other. “Don’t like the sound of that,” Old Harry said.
“Why not? They can kill each other off, suits me fine,” John said.
“I mean, I didn’t know there were enough of them to have a war,” Old Harry said. “And here we’ve been hiking right though with nary a care.”
“As long as you’ve got more than one person, you can have a war,” John said. “So why’d they pick you to kidnap, Charles?”
“Best I could tell, I was just the one they happened across that day. They were disappointed I was only a slave until they found out … well, that I was George’s slave.”
“So you gave them leverage,” Old Harry grumbled. “Way to go. If you’d kept your mouth shut we could have gotten you back for nothing.”
“They threatened to torture me if I didn’t tell them things,” he said. He was really coming across as a hero here.
George cleared his throat. He didn’t seem to enjoy the reminder of his giving in to the Appalachies’ demands for sulfur. That couldn’t have been a popular choice, Charles realized, to give up money from everyone’s share to buy an unpopular slave back. He tried to change the subject.
“I forgot to tell you,” he said. “There was somebody from Easton with them.”
“There was WHAT?” Old Harry said.
Charles explained what he knew about Roger.
“What did he look like?” Old Harry said.
“He’s a very big man,” Charles said. “Black hair.”
“Yes, that sounds like an Easton,” Old Harry said. “Probably had two eyes and two ears too, huh?”
Charles frowned, and tried to think of a better description. He was terrible at this kind of thing. “He was missing a front tooth … uh … he also had a coiled snake tattooed on his right arm.”
“Aha, now we’re getting somewhere,” Old Harry said. “I remember a guy like that from back home. Disappeared one day after the tax collector paid him a visit. Left his wife and kids and never came back. What was his name? Randy, Robert, something like that.”
“Roger,” Charles said.
“That’s it!” Old Harry said. “What a toad. Yeah, he lived in our village all right. Thought he was big stuff, Mr. Moral, the family man, always ready to tell you what you were doing wrong with your life. I’ve done some mean shit in my life but at least I’ve never run out on my wife.”
“You don’t have a wife,” John said.
“You know what I mean,” Old Harry said. “So he’s run out to the mountains and joined the Appalachies. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. No shame. That’s always the way with these high and mighty types.”
“Still,” George said, “now we’re getting somewhere. If he knew how to speak Easton, he might very well have been making contact with somebody in our group. Do you remember anything he said that might be a giveaway, Charles?”
No, no, no, Charles thought. Bringing up Roger had not been a good idea.
“No,” Charles said. And that was true. Roger hadn’t said anything about Warren, just flagrantly worn a gift from Warren.
George kept pumping him for him for information, so Charles gave him all kinds of useless details about Roger’s mannerisms, what he’d said about his life, the Appalachies’ houses, their weapons, their clothing, how their language sounded, anything to make it sound like he was being helpful.
Yet he had the uncomfortable feeling George knew he was not telling all he knew. And if that were true, he’d keep trying to get the information he wanted, and he would get it, too. The problem with George was that he could read people well, and the problem with Charles was that he was too easy to read.
“Well, the Appalachies won’t be bothering us anymore,” Old Harry said. “We cleaned all the rats out of the woods.”
“If a problem comes up,” George said, “deal with it thoroughly and you don’t have to deal with it again. That’s my motto. And in this case, we might have been solving a couple of problems at once.”
“What do you mean?” John asked.
“I’m not at all convinced those Appalachies didn’t have something to do with the ambush at Scranton,” George said. “If Roger knew how to speak Easton, then maybe somebody in our band was in cahoots with him. And if that’s true, that would explain how Scranton soldiers knew exactly where we were going to be. Somebody goes out hunting a few days before, meets Roger, tells him where we’re going to be, and the Appalachies pass it along to the soldiers.”
Charles groaned inside. There was Roger coming back to haunt him again. He was glad it was so overcast, so they couldn’t see his face very well. But nobody was looking at him anyway. The contempt they had for slaves was coming in handy now.
“Damn,” John said. “That makes a lot of sense. But why? What would their goal be?”
Old Harry snorted. “They’re just plain mean. They don’t need a goal. They’re bloodthirsty savages.”
“I meant the traitor,” John said.
“Seems pretty clear-cut to me,” George said. “The Appalachies get a cut of the sulfur, Scranton stops sulfur smuggling, and the traitor is obviously a plant from somebody trying to take over the market. There’s quite a few people who would like in on this, you know, but I’ve got my ways of discouraging the competition.”
Charles was paralyzed him with fright. The only thing George didn’t have was a name, and three feet away from him was the person who knew that name. If George asked him a question now, he probably wouldn’t even be able to speak. This was the end. They’d know he was hiding something. The nice thing was, it was raining too hard for them to do much torturing, so that was nice. They’d probably just kill him and Warren and throw them in the woods.
“It makes a lot of sense,” John said again. “It’s so simple. Like Old Harry said, those savages wouldn’t have any sophisticated plan.”
“No need to use such big words,” Old Harry said with irritation. “I never said anything like that.”
“I just mean they aren’t smart enough.”
“Oh,” Old Harry said. “Yeah, they’re dumb as rocks. Anyhow, it’s too late to ask them any questions now.” He laughed.
“I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” George said. “And when I do, that traitor will wish he’d been in that fire with the Appalachies.” Charles studied something outside.
“Maybe you should just pick somebody from the band, make an example of them,” Old Harry said, lowering his voice.
“Not a bad idea,” John said, also speaking just loudly enough to be heard. “Make sure nobody else gets any smart ideas.”
“Hmm. That isn’t a bad idea,” George said, rubbing his chin, “but you’d still have the traitor around.”
“You could always kill him later too, if you find out who it is,” Old Harry said. He wrung out a blanket and pulled it up over his head.
“That is an idea,” George said, stroking his beard. “Hmm. If we make an example out of somebody the traitor might even decide to be decent and well behaved. ’Course I’d kill him if I ever found him out, but we at least wouldn’t have any more trouble in the meantime.”
“Anybody we can spare?” Old Harry asked.
John chuckled quietly. “Hardly a smuggler in that bunch worth anything. Bunch of lowlifes, dregs of the poorhouse. All of them would stab us if they thought they could get away with it.”
“There’s Dan,” Old Harry said, “he’s worth something. He’s been with us a while. He thinks he’s smarter than he is, but we’d get pretty hungry sometimes without him along. That man can hunt.”
“Yeah, there’s a couple of them we’d really miss,” George said. “The rest, not really. They’re drunk whenever they can be, and careless, and most of them will be dead in a year or two anyway. No harm in speeding up the process a little.”
“There’s Tim,” Old Harry said. “ He’s no use to anybody, and he eats too much. I saw him limping a little today, too. We could kill two birds with one stone.” He rocked back and forth with suppressed laughter, and slapped his thigh.
“Nobody’d believe Tim would do that, though,” George said. “He’s a harmless old galoot.”
“Eileen’s been giving us some trouble,” John said. “Thinks she can get pushy with her opinion. Wouldn’t surprise me if she was the traitor.”
“Nah,” George said. “She’s no traitor. Yet. But she is dangerous. She’s smart and she’s got ideals. I don’t think she approves of us.”
“Takes a share of the money and judges us at the same time,” John said. “The worst kind.”
“That’s the trouble in this business,” George said. “You don’t want ideals, but you don’t want worthless thieves who will stab you in the back, either.” He gave the virtuous sigh of a man who is resigned to bearing his burden for the good of all.
“Eileen’s got friends,” John said. “There are lots of people who are pretty loyal to her.”
“That’s just the trouble with her,” George said. “She can’t just let the leaders lead. We’ve got to remind everybody who’s in charge.”
John shrugged. “Eileen’s no friend of mine. If you think it’s not too late to weed her out, we should. You’re usually right about these things.”
George drummed his fingers on his knee and stared out at the rain for a while. “Might not be best to do it now,” he said finally. “Last thing we need is a civil war. I’ll wait until we get home.”
“Works for me,” Old Harry said, yawning. He began to grope at Marguerite, who shrank away. He grabbed her shirt, yanked her close, and began fondling her.
“God,” John said with distaste, “Not in here. Go find a quiet place by yourself.”
“C’mon,” Old Harry whined. “What else are we supposed to do in all this rain? I’ll share,” he said with a sly grin, and punched John’s shoulder.
“No,” George said. “Knock it off. This shelter’s too small to have you snorting and knocking around in here. Bad enough to be crammed in here so tight anyway.”
Old Harry sulked, but he let Marguerite go. She moved into the farthest corner of the hut and sat there holding her knees, her face empty. Her hands were in fists, and her knuckles were white. Charles caught her eye and then looked away. That girl would kill someone someday.
He didn’t know where to look, so he just went back to looking outside, where the wind was still blowing sprays of water off the trees. Please, please let it stop raining, he thought. I want to go home.
He tried to get to sleep, but even when he finally did drop off, it wasn’t much of an escape. He slid in and out of uneasy dreams all night, the drips bringing him back to consciousness over and over. His nose started running, and when he woke up in the morning his throat was swollen and sore. That was just what he needed, a cold on top of everything. Maybe this was Old Harry’s pneumonia.
That day the rain eased off, but kept falling steadily. The surrounding mountains gathered up the rain and fed it down through ravines and gullies into the torrent below them, which kept rising.
“Another day of this will kill me,” Old Harry said. “Got to do something.” He looked hard at Marguerite and then stared at George.
“Go back to sleep,” George said. “You can do whatever you want in your dreams.”
“Oh, I do,” Old Harry said, grinning. “And I get far better women than this wench, believe me. But I’ve got to have more than that to tide me over until we get home.”
One corner of Marguerite’s mouth twitched in a spasm, but that was all.
“Speaking of getting home, that reminds me Charles,” George said. Charles froze. “Hey, don’t look so worried,” George said, smiling at him. “I told you I’d let you go free after this trip. I treat my slaves well. I’m not like Old Harry here.”
Old Harry shrugged. “You can be soft if you want.”
“Charles has been a good slave,” George said. “He deserves his freedom.”
Back to the kind and generous master, Charles thought.
“I was wondering,” George said, “where you’re planning to go when you’re free. It’s a harsh world out there. You could end up starving on the street if you’re not careful.”
Charles shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”
He’d been having second thoughts about his agreement with Warren, even while worrying that Warren was doing the same thing. It was one of his dreams to be free to study history and the sciences, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a steady income. But a Builder … did he really care about building anything? What did he owe Easton? What did he owe the world? That question had been nagging at him.
The Builders had sold him off to be a slave, or rather, none of them had stopped it from happening. They could have. And his own hometown, the place he’d been kidnapped from as a boy, had never bothered to send anyone to come look for him. The smugglers just used him. They didn’t care what he did or where he went. Why should he work hard trying to make the world better for scumbags like them, or for power hungry people like the Builders? The world was the world. It was crummy. Lots of new inventions weren’t going to make people any less horrible. The thing for Charles to do was somehow to get rich, and live a comfortable life as long as he could, on his own. That was the tricky part.
George was still talking. “… and I assume you really don’t want to keep smuggling.”
“Not really,” Charles said, trying not to sound too emphatic.
George laughed. “Not really. You mean not at all. Well,” he clapped Charles on the shoulder, “what about being my estate manager? You already do that more or less. Now, I’ll start paying you wages, good wages. You can start putting money away, get your own estate someday. Hell, you can keep helping out with setting up these trips, and I can give you a cut of the sulfur money. Up to you. We’ll get rich together, and more important, I won’t have to worry so much about my estate when I’m gone. I can trust you, Charles.”
Below his surprise, Charles felt a small amount of shame. George really was being very generous.
“Uh, well … that sounds pretty good,” he said. And he meant it. But with rising anxiety, he realized he was trapped. If he agreed to the job, and it got back to Warren, Warren would assume that Charles was going back on their deal, and would probably try to kill him to keep him from squealing.
But if Charles did not agree to George’s plan, George would be suspicious. Why wouldn’t he want such a position? What better offers could he have, and, more damningly, who would have made him such offers?
Or, Charles could pretend to agree to George’s plan, and then run off with Warren at some point.
Part of him wanted to take George’s offer. But another small part of him found appeal in being a Builder, despite his bitterness. It could be satisfying to help with a project like that, a tiny voice told him. And besides, the tiny voice nagged, what was he becoming, if he worked for George? He’d be just another smuggler, living off sulfur money. Living off blood.
“So, you’re up for it?” George said.
Charles needed time to weigh the options, to think, but he didn’t have any time.
“Ah, well, I ah, I don’t know what to say,” he said.
George smiled. “Surprised? You shouldn’t be. You know how much I value your help.”
“Well, I’d love to,” he said. “Thanks. Thank you. I mean I hardly know what to say.”
Now he’d done it. He’d have to come up with a very convincing explanation for Warren.
“No thanks needed,” George said. “Just do a good job. I know you will.”
“If it ever stops raining,” Charles said.
“Look at him,” George said, “ready to charge on out of here. Just settle down, Charles, unless you’re better at swimming than I think you are.”
“Lucky kid,” John said. “George just changed your life.”
Charles happened to catch Marguerite’s eye and was startled by the venom in her glare.
To be continued