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.
Maybe someone had forgotten to say the right prayers before they set out on this trip, Charles thought, because it was like someone was trying to stop them from getting to Harpers Ferry. Now that the storm had blown through and the floodwater had dropped, murky fog rolled through the valleys, thick as soup and making the stony ground treacherous and slick with beaded water.
The sun was gone, and so were familiar landmarks. Had the smugglers still been up in the higher mountains, where the ridge tops ran reliably southwest, they would have had little problem navigating. But they had crossed the Potomac River and were crossing rolling hills that wandered wherever they wanted to, so the leaders had to rely on their memories. Someone ought to come up with a little hand compass you could carry into the woods, Charles thought.
“We are definitely way off now,” John said, as they halted in front of a thorny wall of wild rose brambles and greenbriars.
“I don’t think so,” George said. “We came straight off the mountains at the place we always do, and crossed the river at about the right spot. We’ve been bearing east since then. I’d say the river is about a mile north of here.”
“I thought we were going more south than that,” John said. “We turned to go around that one ravine and never really angled back.”
“Yes, we did,” George said. “When we crossed that creek. The reason it looks different here is a wildfire came through, must have been last fall, and burned off some of the trees, and now there’s all this new brush growing up. You can see the charcoal here.” He pointed at a massive white pine trunk.
“That could have been ten years ago,” John said. “This has been growing for more than a year, for sure. We’re way south of where we should be. And we’re still heading south.”
They all looked up at the fog. Even the treetops were misty and dim.
“Nah,” George said. “We’re pretty much where we should be, and we’re going east. It’s just the fire has changed the way everything looks. See, there’s more charcoal there, and some more over there.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Old Harry said. “Last time we came through, I remember this place I think. It was a little thick, but a lot easier to get through then. Guess it grew up quite a bit in a year.”
“I don’t know,” Warren said. “I don’t think it had time to grow quite this much. Either way, we have to find a new way. We’ll never get through here. Why don’t we cut north and follow the river for a while?”
“Because that’s way out of our way,” Old Harry said. “The river goes all over the place. Let’s just get to Harpers Ferry. If we go around this mess it will add a half a day. I think if we push through this first little bit the brush will clear up some. Like it was last time.”
“No way,” John said. “I’ve been stuck in way too many of these little hell holes, and I’m not doing it again. We always say, ‘It probably clears up just ahead,’ and we always end up stuck in there for hours, and we have to cut our way through. Let’s go left. I say that’s east, and you say that’s north. Either option would be decent. But if we’re going south, we could end up in God knows what. We’ve never been down that way.”
They argued for some time, until George finally put an end to it. “Listen, Old Harry’s right. I think I can see it starting to get a little clearer up there. Let’s just try to get through here. We can always turn around if it gets too bad.”
Half an hour later brambles wrapped around their legs, pulled at their packs, dug into their sleeves and yanked off their hats as they crawled on hands and knees, grunting and cursing. New openings always turned out to be dead ends, little gaps in rocky spots even the briars didn’t like. Smugglers sawed and hacked at the briars, sucking the drops of blood on their fingers. They punctuated their cursing with slaps, because a big crowd of mosquitoes and gnats was partying around the smugglers’ heads.
“No point turning around now,” George said. “We’ve already come this far.”
“Over this way,” Old Harry said. “I think I see an opening.”
Four hours later, a squirrel rustling around for acorns on the floor of a young oak forest stopped and sat up on its back legs, straining its ears. An ominous crashing came from deep in the briar thicket, a place no large animals ever went. After listening for a minute, the squirrel dropped back down onto all fours and scrambled away up a tree trunk.
The crashing slowly grew louder, until a bearded man with scratches all over his face and a wild look in his eye came into view, slashing the last few brambles in a hurry and then pushing out into the open woods. He took off his hat and wiped his face, looked around at the open woods, and blew out a long breath like a man who had just finished a hard day in the salt factory. He dropped his pack on the ground and flopped down beside it.
One by one, the rest of the band came out at different spots, like sausage through a grinder and collapsed.
“See,” Old Harry said, “look at all the time we saved.”
The bodies littered around emitted an irritable buzz not unlike a grouchy beehive.
“We’ll make camp here and rest for the evening,” George said. “Start a fire and chase away these damn bugs. Then tomorrow, we’ll make a good push and camp near Harpers Ferry. And I’m sure they’ll sell us a keg of beer in town.”
Happier noises came from the scattered bodies, and some of them even raised their fists in the air.
A deep scratch ran across one of Charles’ hands, and he had several new holes in his shirt, but he was still glad they’d gone through the thicket. Amid all the crashing and cursing and general distraction, he’d been able to maneuver next to Warren and say a few quiet words explaining his plan to get away.
Warren had been delighted, at least, as delighted as anyone can be in the middle of an enormous briar patch, and agreed to the plan.
Charles had thought making a final decision to run away would bring a sense of relief. He was glad to not have to drag the burden of that struggle along with him anymore. But relief wasn’t quite the word for it. His stomach still twisted into knots as he kept picturing what might go wrong. He had plenty of vivid scenarios to imagine.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Old Harry said the next morning as dawn lit up the sky in the direction he had been regarding as north. “The sun’s a little out of place today.”
“I will repeat what I said before we went into that briar patch yesterday, and I quote: ‘I think we’re a little off track,’” John said. “Now, if we had gone east like I suggested …”
“Oh, we’re just a little more south than usual,” Old Harry said. “Settle down. We’ll get back on track. A few little scratches isn’t anything to whine so much about.”
“A few little scratches!” James said. “I left most of my skin in there. That was some of my favorite skin, too.”
“I’m tired of all this yakking about a little detour. You want nice easy living and a bath every month, stay home,” George said. “Anyway, all we have to do is go east from here, which I think we can all agree is that way, where the sun is coming up, and we’ll hit the river again where it takes a big turn south. From there, it will be pretty easy going to get to town.”
And he was right. By the middle of the afternoon, they had easy hiking through the gently rolling country, and soon could hear the rush of small streams pouring into the lazy Potomac.
With water nearby again, the smugglers, who had been subdued and irritable, started talking and joking again. Most of them had grown up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, with fathers who fished for snakeheads or striped bass to sell at market. They’d worked the long handles of oyster tongs to fill their skipjack boats, and tended crab traps, and dug for tuckahoe roots in the marshes. Though most of them had also spent a lot of time in the woods hunting, none of them really felt comfortable in the mountains, where shallow little streams were the only water for miles.
They could speak the language of the Potomac, read its marshes and ripples and see at a glance where best to drop a net for fish, knew its water birds and muddy smell. The river was going the same direction they were going, to the Chesapeake Bay, to home.
They still had a long hike ahead. Many of them would have preferred to get boats in Harpers Ferry and ride the river back. It suited them better than walking, and as a bonus, cats didn’t like water. But George wouldn’t do it. He said the river was too exposed, making them easy marks for robbers to ambush them and take their sulfur.
Instead, they always traveled by foot from Harpers Ferry, keeping close to the river until it came to the big ruined city where the metal miners worked. The miners were friendly with the kingdom of Easton and did a lot of trade business with it, so George didn’t trust them.
That was all ahead of them. For now, they were less than a day’s hike from Harpers Ferry.
“We’ll camp here,” George said, “and then we’ll decide whose turn it is to go down for supplies.”
“I don’t mind going,” Warren said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been the one to go into town. And just because I like to be cautious” — he glanced at John — “doesn’t mean I won’t take my share of the risks.”
“Works for me,” George said. “Let’s see, we’ll need two or three people to go with you.” He looked around the group, where everyone was suddenly busy setting up camp and not making eye contact with him.
“It’s really a pretty routine run,” Warren said. “I can just take the slaves this time. I’ll need two of them to help with the supplies, and one of them can carry the beer.”
“Sounds fine to me,” George said.
The busyness around the camp subsided and conversation picked up again. For those left behind, it would be a rare day to sit around camp smoking and playing dice, and swimming in the river.
Charles swallowed. He wiped the sweat off his palms, and had trouble undoing the lacing on his pack.
After breakfast the next morning, Warren and the slaves piled all the food and gear from their packs on the ground to make room for the supplies they would buy.
Charles noticed Warren’s fire drill was missing from his stack. Charles’ pile was short a few items too — a couple of flints, all his extra bullets and gunpowder for his pistol, some of his rope, and a little pemmican. Nobody seemed to be watching, but the piles of goods seemed obviously suspicious, calling attention to themselves as if they were glowing green. All it would take would be for George to notice something amiss and peer inside Charles’ pack, and he’d come to damaging conclusions without much effort.
Gary and Marguerite, while down at the mouth about being drafted for the trip, suffered no such fear. They unloaded everything from their packs except a little food for lunch.
The leaders, meanwhile, discussed how much tobacco the traders in Harpers Ferry would want, how much food they’d need for the rest of the trip, and whether it was wise to waste one of the slaves on a keg of beer.
“My own feeling is,” Old Harry said, “it’d be much more efficient to pick up a keg of whisky, since we’re going to have them carry it all that way anyhow. Same amount of liquid, but more punch, if you see what I mean. One slave can hardly carry enough beer to get everybody a decent drink. Now, with whiskey …”
“Not a chance,” George said. “I’m not crazy enough to let a keg of whiskey loose in this bunch, unless you are looking to start some kind of war with Harpers Ferry.”
“But as far as getting the most out of your money,” Old Harry said, “it’s hard to argue that —”
“Beer,” George said. “And I might change my mind about that.”
George never missed a stop at the pub when he went into a town, so this was a transparently idle threat.
“Well,” Warren said, “you all ready?” He swung his pack up on his shoulders.
Warren set off with a long stride into the woods toward Harpers Ferry, as relaxed as if he were heading down to the river for a little fishing, and the slaves trailed after him.
After a few dozen yards, Charles glanced back. Smoke rose from the breakfast fires and smugglers lounged around, chewing on handfuls of pemmican or dried acorns. It was hard to believe he would never see the camp, and all those familiar faces, again. And yet, he hoped fervently that he would never see them again.
He was no longer a slave. Now, he was a runaway slave, a man with a price on his head. The owner who would put that price on his head was settling down for a nap by the fire only a few feet away.
What they were doing was folly, setting out into the wilderness with so few people and so few weapons for self defense. The predators lurking in the woods would soon be joined in the hunt by a swarm of angry smugglers. For defense, Warren and Charles had two pistols between them, which weren’t all that accurate. They had a little bit of spare gunpowder and shot, but not much, and two unarmed companions who still didn’t know they were running away.
If the trading was poor in town, they might also be in trouble, since man cannot live on trade tobacco alone. They wouldn’t be able to do any hunting, either, because it was extremely probable they would be in a hurry for most of the rest of their trip. They’d also want to be as quiet as possible while they were on the run, which made the signal beacon of echoing gunshots out of the question.
What they needed was bows and a quiver or two full of stout arrows, a weapon that was quiet, deadly and accurate. But they couldn’t walk away for a trading trip to town loaded down with cumbersome weapons without raising questions.
If Warren was bothered by any of these worries, he didn’t show it. He chatted with Gary about the route ahead, and what price they might get for their tobacco in town, and where would be the best place to buy their beer, and whether light or dark would be best. Charles wondered when Warren was going to drop the pretense of the supply trip. It did seem like a good idea to put plenty of distance between them and the smuggler camp before floating any revolutionary ideas to the other slaves.
As they topped the last gentle rise and came to the settlement, the murmur of the current against the rocks near town met them. Ahead were the first farms they’d seen since Scranton, weedy and small, with tumbled down buildings, but human-made. After weeks in the monotony of the forest, fields and houses were a welcome sight for the travelers.
They wound their way along a narrow rutted dirt road, littered with animal dung, through patches of corn and occasional huts with thatched roofs. Goats clambered over piles of asphalt and scrap metal. Small naked children stopped what they were doing, stared at the trio, then ran inside the huts as they approached. Farmers gathering brown cornstalks into shocks straightened up to watch the travelers go by with sober faces. Warren lifted his hand to them, but they didn’t wave back.
These were the Harpers Ferry residents — poor, dirty, and, according to their reputation, greedy cheaters. This rumor gained easy traction among those who had dealt with Harpers Ferry’s fine merchants, who made a good part of their living on trading sub-par supplies at premium prices to travelers who had no other options. The merchants, when confronted with this charge, as they sometimes were, reacted indignantly, framing their trades as more an act of charity, parting with precious supplies to aid weary travelers. Thus all sides acquired a sense of wronged virtue out of the exchange.
As Warren led the way into the town proper, the farm fields grew more erratic, zigzagging around the ruins of the old city. The footpath followed the fields around piles of broken bricks and trees pushing up through walls and roofs. The streets were empty, except for stray dogs that watched them go past, ears pointed up, before scurrying away.
The founders of the new Harpers Ferry had founded their town within and atop the old one, using its bricks and stones and walls in their houses and stores. It was the only settlement Charles had ever been to where this was the case. Most towns had ruins somewhere nearby, buried in the woods or covered over with sea water, but always were built on new ground.
But Harpers Ferry ignored the possible wrath of the dead. This created the effect of refugees living in a pile of rubble, but it gave them a lot of handy building material and put them right at the strategic confluence of the two rivers. The river brought traders from the south and east, and occasionally a bold Appalachie trader from the west, to meet in Harpers Ferry, giving the town a meager living.
If anything, the city’s scoffing at the sacred helped with business, because visitors were jumpy and uneasy among the ruins and quicker to make deals so they could get out of town.
Warren and the slaves finally made it through the rubble to the motley collection houses and stores that made up the village.
Most of the merchant’s shops lined the bank where the Shenandoah River joined the Potomac. They traveled from one to the other, but most of their stops got them only a little moldy cornmeal or dubious pemmican.
“Sorry,” one of them told Warren in the trade language. “It is the best I can offer. There will not be very many people with anything to give for this tobacco until spring. We do not get much trade during the winter. And I must feed my family in the winter too.”
A couple of times, Warren had to pull out wampum beads to add to his offer. This helped even the most reluctant traders loosen their grip on their supplies, and even suddenly find more tucked away that they had forgotten about.
Was all that wampum Warren’s, Charles wondered, or had he lifted some from the band’s supply? Most of the smugglers didn’t have any wampum, but the leaders carried it for situations like this when traders were stingy, or for times they needed to ease misunderstandings with the authorities.
Would a principled person not only run out on his band, but steal them blind on the way out? Some people would also consider it theft for him to take the slaves along, Charles supposed, so stealing a little wampum could maybe be justified.
When Warren bought several fur-lined bedrolls, Gary turned to Charles and Marguerite with a puzzled frown.
“What do we need those for?” he whispered. Marguerite shrugged, but she was more alert than she’d been all day.
Charles looked away.
“What’s the matter with you?” Gary said.
Why hadn’t Warren told them what was going on yet? Maybe he didn’t trust them. But since Warren was going to give them the option of joining him and Charles in risking their lives running away, or else risking their lives hiking back to the smugglers virtually alone and unarmed, it didn’t seem fair to Gary and Marguerite to leave them ignorant like this. He’d be pretty angry if somebody else sprung a decision like that on him at the last minute.
After a few more merchant visits, Warren said, “Well, we’re about set. I just have to run down to the dock for a second about something; I’ll be right back.”
“But we hardly got enough food to make it worth coming to town,” Gary said. “And what about the beer?”
“We won’t need that,” Warren said. “Or all that food.”
“What? But — that’s what we came for.”
“Not exactly,” Warren said.
“What are you talking about?
“Well, the good news for you is, I think you’ll like the change in plans,” Warren said. “We’re not going back to the smugglers.”
Gary and Marguerite both gasped. His mouth hung open, and a smile lit up her eyes.
“What do you mean, we’re not going back to the smugglers? What are you suggesting?” Gary said.
This was a little slow on the uptake, even for Gary, Charles thought.
“Charles and I are running away,” Warren said. “You and Marguerite are most welcome to come with us.”
“Why?” Gary shouted. “You’re a leader. You can’t do this! This is treason!”
“Come on, Gary,” Charles said. “This is our chance to get away.”
“I agree,” Warren said. “I can see why you’d be surprised, but I have to admit I can’t see why you’d have any objection to it.”
“I don’t — I’m not — sure I’m a slave for now, but I’m a smuggler too. Besides, you can’t just walk off and leave everybody and steal food and slaves. Where’s your honor anyway?”
“Fuck honor,” Marguerite said.
Gary took a step toward her, his hands in fists. “Just because you hate Old Harry and everybody else doesn’t mean all the rest of us feel like that. You go ahead and run away. Nobody needs you anyway. I like being a smuggler. I’m not just going to run away because you’ve all decided you’re tired of it.”
He turned to Warren. “And you — what’s in it for you? Are you just going to sell them when you get back? If you get back?”
Marguerite looked at Warren.
“No,” Warren said.
“Oh, sure,” Gary said. “‘I just want to help out the poor slaves, there’s nothing in it for me,’ is that how it is? Bull shit.”
“Sure, there’s something in it for me,” Warren said.
“Can’t tell you, unless you come with us.”
Gary spat. “No way! What kind of fool do you take me for?”
Marguerite composed her expression into a mask again, and scrutinized Warren.
“Listen, Gary,” Warren said. “You thought I’m the kind of person who likes smuggling. Well I’m not. It’s a bad business, young man, and I’m getting out of it. And I’d advise you to do the same.” His voice softened. “Come with us, Gary. I can get you a better life. Smuggling is dangerous. Smuggling is wrong. You’re not one of them.”
Gary stared at him, mouth slightly open. Then his face hardened. He turned, and ran back toward the smugglers’ camp, leaving his pack on the street.
They watched him go. Warren shook his head. “Well, it’s time for us to leave,” he said. “Marguerite, are you coming with us, or going with him?”
“I’ll come with you,” Marguerite said. “I don’t know what your game is, but I don’t really care. You’re going the same way I’m going, so I’ll come along.”
Warren nodded. “Alright,” he said, “good enough. Then we’ll need a boat. Or actually, we need a canoe.”
He turned and strode toward the river, setting a rapid pace but somehow not looking a bit panicked.
Only one person was down at the riverfront docks, a big man with a long graying beard. He looked at them without smiling.
“Hello there!” Warren said in the trade language. “We are looking for a canoe to buy; do you know anyone who has one?”
“No,” the man said.
“Really? I see a number of canoes here, surely there’s somebody around here who has an extra one.”
The man narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“Well, we’re trying to go downriver,” Warren said. “That’ll be easier if we have a canoe, don’t you think?”
The man still didn’t smile. “Not my problem.”
“Are any of these canoes yours?”
“Well, which one?” Warren had lost some of his friendly tone.
The man jerked his thumb at one of the canoes. “Not for sale,” he said.
Warren pulled out a shiny strand of wampum and dangled it in front of him. “Not even for this?”
The man’s eyes widened, and he wavered. Warren dug out another strand, and the man’s eyes bugged out further. Then they narrowed. “Say, now, where did you get all that?”
Warren smiled. “I’m a trader. We come across these things from time to time.”
“If you’re an honest man and a trader, then why are you in such a hurry to get a boat?” the man said. “Why don’t you already have a boat? Like as not, as soon as you’re gone, the real owner of that wampum is going to turn up and I’ll have some awkward questions to answer, won’t I?”
“No, no, of course not,” Warren said, but his eyes flickered to the side just a tiny bit.
The man put his hands on his hips. “We don’t like thieves around here,” he said. He looked up the riverbank, and gestured to another man who was coming down toward the dock. He rattled off a quick sentence in the Harpers Ferry language, and the man hurried toward them.
Charles’ heart sank. He pictured Gary, likely on the other side of town by now, hustling toward the camp with the news that would have them all swarming here practically at a run, guns loaded.
Warren looked at the man hurrying toward them. Then he turned to the man with the gray beard, and punched him between the eyes. The man threw up his arms, flailed them in a circle trying to regain his balance, and then dropped off the dock like a duck tied to a stone.
“Go, go!” Warren said, shoving Charles and Marguerite, who, with the other Harpers Ferry man, were staring at the spot where the man with the gray beard had been standing. Warren threw their packs in the canoe, waited for Charles and Marguerite to climb aboard, then jumped in. He pulled out his knife, slashed the rope holding the canoe, and shoved off.
The man climbed out on the dock, water flowing down his beard into a puddle. He massaged his nose and hacked and coughed like he had swallowed a lizard. Then he pointed to the canoe and shouted to the other man, perhaps under the impression that he wasn’t up to speed on what was going on.
The two ran around the dock, looking for the other boats, which Warren had just cut loose and shoved out into the current. Then they tore off toward town.
Warren shoved a paddle at Charles. “Are you going to let me do all the work, or are you going to help paddle?”
Charles had always hated the water, and had never learned how to paddle a canoe. He dipped the paddle in like someone toying with a wad of cold porridge.
“Put some muscle in it!” Warren bellowed. “We’ve got to move!”
“Not like that!” he shouted a moment later. “You’re getting water all over me!”
“Give me that,” Marguerite said, snatching the paddle. She began knifing it into the water and the canoe surged forward.
“That’s more like it!” Warren said, beaming. “Watch her very carefully, Charles.”
Charles declined. Instead, he looked back toward the dock. The point of the town, where the two rivers ran together, slid slowly away.
The river was wide, but the water rippled around many rocks. Rows of boulders like teeth cut across the Potomac in a couple places, topped with tiny trees and brush. Charles realized they were ruins of some kind, probably the foundation of an old bridge. On the far bank, a rocky cliff rose above the river.
A crowd of people was running toward the dock now. Carrying canoes.
Warren grinned at him. “All we’ve got to do is out-paddle them until it gets dark, Charles. Don’t look so worried.” He actually seemed to be enjoying himself.
The river meandered ahead of them, broad and slow. The low hills along its shore were blanketed with forest just beginning to turn yellow with autumn against the backdrop of a crisp blue sky. A coolness in the air hinted at the end of summer.
Here and there through the trees, Charles could see a road running along the north riverbank.
“What if they ride along that road and catch up with us?” he asked Warren.
Warren considered this as he dug into the water with his paddle and steered around the spots where the water swirled against rocks. His answer came out in short bursts as he grabbed breath between strokes. “Well, they’ll have to — paddle over there and find some — farmer willing to loan — them his plow horse. And — that road is in terrible shape — I wouldn’t worry about it — too much. Worst case, we — can run off into the woods — on the other side.”
If that was the worst case he could think of, Charles didn’t think he had much imagination. He left Warren to paddle, and looked behind them again.
The sun flashed off the paddles of a crowd of pursuers in canoes.