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.
It would have been nice to just sit and be pulled along by the current, after walking for months and hundreds of miles, but with a crowd of angry people paddling behind them it didn’t seem like the best time to rest. And another angry crowd would be on its way shortly when Gary got back to the smugglers’ camp with his tale about the runaways. It was too pretty an afternoon for so many angry crowds.
Warren and Marguerite dug their paddles into the water in quick unison, a wake surging behind the canoe. With Warren steering, the canoe flowed perfectly between the rocks. The Harpers Ferry crowd should have had an advantage, being familiar with about every rock in the river, but Warren seemed to read the water like a printed page.
One canoe behind them, a gray-bearded man in the front, grew closer a little at a time.
“They’re gaining on us,” Charles said.
“Get your gun out,” Warren said.
Charles fumbled for his pistol and tried to pull the hammer back.
“Just wait,” Warren said, breathing hard as he paddled. “If they get too close, or pull out any weapons, let them have it. Otherwise, we’ll race ’em.”
After twenty minutes of hard paddling, the lead canoe was within forty yards.
The man with the gray beard said something to his canoe mate, then put down his paddle and began stringing an arrow on a longbow.
Charles raised his pistol and pointed it over Warren’s shoulder. Warren ducked.
He fired. The shot echoed over the water, and the man with the gray beard flinched and shot his bow at the same moment. His arrow whistled far overhead.
Charles shot again. Neither of their pursuers reacted as if they’d been hit, but the canoe began to drop farther away, as did the rest of the canoes behind it.
“OK, don’t waste shots,” Warren said. “Just keep — discouraging them — if they get too energetic.”
He and Marguerite both gulped air now, and their paddle strokes slowed down.
“I bet they don’t — have any gunpowder,” Warren said. “Or don’t want to — waste it on us.”
Charles and Warren didn’t have much gunpowder either. Charles dug around for the powder horn and started to measure out a new load.
“Not in shape for this,” Warren said. “Been too long. You’ll have to learn Charles. Fast. Take a turn from Marguerite.”
“Hold it like this,” Marguerite said. “There, this hand on top of the handle and your other one here. Now dig in and pull toward yourself. No, not like that, straight down. OK, good, but turn it sideways when you pull it out of the water, or you’ll just throw water all over Warren.”
Charles felt like he was trying to write left-handed, but he yanked hard on the paddle.
“Don’t push it out like that at the end of your stroke, that pushes the canoe sideways,” Warren said. “Just pull it straight out of the water.”
“Dig deeper,” Marguerite said. “If you don’t put your paddle down in you don’t get any bite.”
Charles’ shoulders began aching, but he pulled together all the energy he had left and prepared to burn it up. His arms felt like they were on fire and his back began to knot up.
After a while, Warren gave out in the back, and then Marguerite had to steer from the front, while Charles kept paddling in the middle. They dropped a lot of speed that way, and the canoes started gaining on them again. But the Harpers Ferry crowd was tiring as well, and didn’t have the advantage of being able to pass the paddle when they got tired.
The next time Charles had a turn to rest, he turned around again to see how far ahead they were. Warren stared past him at the river ahead, digging into the water with rapid strokes, whirlpools forming behind his dripping paddle.
Their pursuers had dropped even farther back.
“We’re really starting to gain on them,” Charles said.
Warren nodded. “They’re getting farther — from home. Probably no supplies.”
After what seemed like another hour or maybe twenty, when Charles could hardly feel his hands anymore, the canoes behind them began to drop away. But a few stubborn ones kept on, and even began gaining on them again.
Every time it was his turn to take a break, Charles felt sure he had given every bit of useful energy he had, but somehow when he got the paddle again he always managed to keep his arms moving. Marguerite’s paddle strokes grew tepid as well. But Warren somehow found more energy in reserve and kept his pace up.
Handing away the paddle, Charles checked behind them again. Just one canoe still followed, manned by the man with the gray beard and his companion. Now they stopped paddling, and gray beard picked up his bow again.
“Watch out!” Charles said. He lifted his pistol to shoot, but the man had already loosed the arrow.
Warren and Marguerite paused their paddling and turned around to look as the arrow arced toward them. Marguerite ducked down, and Charles covered his head with his hands. Warren swerved the canoe hard.
The arrow whacked against the side of the canoe and sliced down into the water. It raised a cloud of mud when it hit the bottom, then bobbed back up again.
Charles fired his pistol several times at their pursuers, who swung their canoe around and began paddling upstream. They had a long way home, and it was already afternoon. The man with the gray beard paused his paddling for a moment and raised his hand over his head, one finger sticking up. Then he began working against the current again.
The angry smugglers had slipped to the back of Charles’ mind, but now they rushed back to the front, waving torches and guns.
Warren seemed to have a similar thought.
“Good thing we had those guys behind us all morning; they kept us going at a pretty good pace.”
“Ugh,” Charles said. He rubbed his palms and counted blisters. Three.
“We need to keep it up, though,” Warren said. “Rest while you paddle.”
“Ugh,” Charles said.
And so they kept on, digging and pulling, digging and pulling, and Charles’ hatred of canoes grew with the ache in his arms.
They kept to the middle of the river as much as possible, giving any would-be sharpshooters on shore as tough a mark as possible.
“I don’t think anybody has caught up with us, but I prefer no surprises,” Warren said.
Once or twice they had to navigate closer to shore to get around the piles of roiling water Warren called haystacks, stirred up by stones underneath the surface. Warren tried to teach Charles to read the river, showing him how to see submerged rocks in the water by the v shape they created downstream. He tried to teach Charles to steer, but that resulted in too much zigzagging, so he gave it up.
The afternoon dragged on. On his breaks, Charles cupped his hands to dip water out of the river. He also began to get hunger pangs, and chewed on some stringy pemmican.
For a while, Charles enjoyed watching the riverbank slide by while he rested. Once they passed an elk, its long forked antlers still in velvet, standing in the water weeds. It lifted its head, chin dripping, and watched them go by. Leaving that much fresh meat just standing there seemed like a crime.
Eventually, though, Charles was too tired to pay attention to where they were going, and when he wasn’t paddling he just stared down at the bottom of the canoe and listened to the soft slurp of the paddles.
He wondered what would happen if the canoe capsized. Assuming they made it to shore, they’d have no food or supplies, and the guns would be useless with wet gunpowder. They would die unless they made it to a road and somehow found a farm or a small village. But you could walk for weeks between villages out here. They’d seen no sign of any human since the last canoe behind them had turned around.
The lonely shore made Charles increasingly uneasy. He didn’t much like the idea of just the three of them spending the night there. A fire would keep the animals away but draw the smugglers like moths. He thought of the Appalachies’ hammocks and wondered if there were a way to string one out from some tree branches over the water, where you could sleep safely in the dark.
As the sun at their backs dropped down to the horizon, and the shadows stretched out ahead, the river divided around a large wooded island.
“This would be a good place to spend the night,” Warren said. “Of course, that’s probably just where they would look if they were after us.”
“They won’t chase us at night, will they?” Charles said. “Too dangerous.”
“Won’t they?” Warren said. “You’re assuming that George is sane.”
It was a good point.
They paddled alongside the island for almost a mile.
“Well I’ll be darned. There’s another island up ahead there,” Warren said. “Let’s check it out. It might not be rational, but I’d feel better if we don’t stay on the first island. Let’s at least make them look for us a little.”
They paddled along the second island for a mile or more. Beyond it lay yet another island.
They could see most of the way across the islands, the ground clear and parklike under the huge trees. They kept going until they came to a section where several monster oaks had fallen and a snarl of brush grew up in the opening in the canopy.
“Let’s pull in here,” Warren said.
The tip of their canoe ground against the stones on the bottom as they ran it up onto the bank. Charles eased himself out, pain shooting up his stiff legs. Despite that, it felt wonderful to walk on land again.
They explored around the island before they decided where to set up camp. Aside from a few deer droppings, dry and light-colored with age, there was no sign of any animals except for an occasional squirrel slipping away far overhead in the branches.
“Well, it’s not too likely any cats are going to swim the river to come over here,” Warren said. “Especially since there’s really nothing over here for them to eat.”
After a little more poking around, he said, “I think the best spot will be back by the canoe, where those trees have fallen and it’s all thick. I want to find a spot where there’s a lot of branches, or a dip in the ground, so nobody can see our fire through the trees. Out here in the middle of a river, that’d basically be like a lighthouse guiding the way to us.”
“Even in a low spot you could still see the light on the tree branches,” Marguerite said. “And the sparks flying up.”
“Hmmm,” Warren said. “So you could. That’s a good thought. Well, no fire then.”
“What?” Charles said. “We have to have a fire. Just a small one.”
“No,” Warren said. “No fire.”
Charles looked to Marguerite for help, but she shook her head. “Whatever,” she said. “If the cats don’t get us, the smugglers will. May as well pick one.”
A cold rock settled into Charles’ stomach, and the hair pricked up on his neck.
“I am not sleeping without a fire,” he said.
“Then we’ll find another island to sleep on,” Warren said. “We’ll pick you up in the morning.”
“You always think you know best, don’t you,” Charles said. “You get to call all the shots. Well I’m not a slave anymore. I don’t have to do what you say.” He jutted out his chin and glared at Warren.
“OK,” Warren said. “But somebody needs to take the lead. So you go ahead.”
“Well, no, I mean, that’s not quite what I …” Charles trailed off.
Warren and Marguerite just stood looking at him.
“Fine, fine,” Charles said. “You just do everything the way you want it.”
“Nope,” Warren said. “Everybody gets input. But we’re not going to just build a fire because you throw a tantrum about it.”
It seemed all wrong, without the fire. There was nothing to sit around, nothing to stare at, no friendly warmth. They chewed on crumbly Harpers Ferry pemmican for supper, but it made Charles’ stomach tighten up and he didn’t eat much.
The sunset faded and cold darkness seeped through the trees. Crickets sang, and the Milky Way made a fiery track across the sky. With no moon, the stars seemed almost close enough to reach up and pick one. The trunks of the trees cut black swaths up into the brightness. A whippoorwill began to call, a lilting cadence, up, down and up, over and over. Whip-urr-weel, whip-urr-weel, whip-urr-weel, whip-urr-weel.
Then another sound, across the water. Like a twig snapping. Charles sat rigid, every part of his mind focused on the night sounds. He didn’t hear it again. Then far off, on the other side of the river, a distinct crashing noise. Then silence again, except for the whippoorwill and the crickets.
Warren whispered, “One of us needs to stay awake to keep watch. I’ll take the first turn.”
The fur-lined bedroll Warren had bought in Harpers Ferry felt good in the chilly night, pulling Charles toward sleep, but he resolved to stay awake and alert even when he wasn’t on watch. He wanted to have a head start for the canoe. Then he suddenly realized Marguerite was shaking him awake.
“Your turn,” she whispered.
He sat up, blinking and looking around, and saw that the Milky Way had moved. He rubbed his eyes, yawned, and crawled out of the warm bedroll into the now definitely cold air.
Warren’s breathing was deep and even, and in less than a minute, Marguerite’s breathing took on the same cadence.
Charles spun the cylinder on his pistol. Every chamber had a load.
He found that his eyes were used to the darkness. It was nice to be able to see more than the usual black wall behind the firelight. He could have seen a long way if Warren hadn’t insisted on bedding down in the middle of the thicket like some kind of animal. In here, something could be a few dozen yards away and all he’d see would be a tangle of branches.
Charles stiffened. That was a voice, out there in the darkness a long way off. Or was it the water rippling on a rock in the river? He pulled apart the sounds of the woods thread by thread, searching. There it was again, a noise like only the tips of words sticking out of a river of crickets.
He should wake up the others. But he would feel like an idiot if it turned out he were imagining things. What good was a sentry if he had no idea what to do when something actually happened? He had to do something.
If it was a voice, it only meant one thing. There could only be one person crazy enough to wander around the woods at night, and crazy enough to frighten sane people into going with him. George.
Charles peered into the trees, gripping his pistol, looking for flashes of torchlight and straining to hear any more sounds.
He only heard the whisper of a light breeze stirring the leaves, and the tiny “tick” sound as a few of them came loose then rustled into the forest floor. Beyond those, the gurgle of the river.
He sat peering through gaps in the thicket for a long time. One more sound, and he’d wake up the others.
How long was it until dawn? It couldn’t be more than an hour or so.
If so, the hour lasted several days. Finally, the stars began to dim. So slowly he couldn’t see the change, details of the leaves and branches emerged out of the shadows.
At breakfast, he told Warren and Marguerite about the voice sound. They both stopped chewing and stared at him, but as he explained further, they relaxed a little.
“A tired brain can do that, especially when you’re worried. It can create the sound you’re afraid of,” Warren said. “It’s really not likely anybody was out there. We had to be safe with the fire, but I don’t really believe even George would chase us at night. And if it had been them, you’d have heard crashing around, too, not just voices.”
Charles kept thinking about it, though, as they stretched their cold muscles, loaded their packs into the canoe, and pushed out into the current again. Sometimes he knew the sound had been imaginary, and in other terrifying moments, he knew it had been real. As he listened to his memory, one minute he thought he could almost make out sentences, and the next, all he could hear was the night wind.
Regardless, no smugglers presented themselves along the riverbank, though Warren, Charles and Marguerite often glanced at the shore. Warren again kept the canoe as close to the middle of the stream as he could.
Without the Harpers Ferry posse behind them, they slowed their pace somewhat from the day before, but still kept up a steady rhythm with the paddles.
“Can’t afford to relax,” Warren said. “Those smugglers will be making darn good time on foot.”
When Charles took his turn, his upper back ached and his palms felt like they’d be getting new blisters soon. Paddling seemed awkward at first, but his muscles soon remembered yesterday’s lessons, and being in a canoe started to feel natural.
The river was no longer as rocky, so they had easy going. Charles saw a heron along the banks, and a kingfisher sitting in a dead snag. Fish swam in the clear water far below the canoe. He didn’t enjoy fishing for fun, but he wished now that they had time and fishing line. His mouth watered thinking of fresh fish fillets sizzling in a pan, maybe from a nice fat snakehead. Even bony panfish would be delicious.
Those smugglers kept coming back into his head. Their woodcraft and crack marksmanship had always kept him safe, but now meant danger.
The smugglers didn’t have any current pulling them along, but they could travel in a fast, straight line. The fugitives’ canoe could only follow the maddening meander of the Potomac.
Rounding a bend, they saw the first people since Harpers Ferry. A handful of men, waist deep in the water, looked up from their fishing nets with startled expressions. One of them spoke sharply to a group of children playing in the water along the shore, and they ran away up the bank to where a few huts stood.
Warren raised his hand in greeting, but the men scrambled out of the water. Some of them left and came back with spears, and they stared after the canoe until a bend in the river hid them from view.
“Too bad they weren’t friendlier,” Warren said. “I’d have liked to trade for some of that fresh fish, but I was afraid they’d shoot us if we got any closer. I guess maybe they aren’t on very good terms with their neighbors in these parts.”
As evening came, they passed another collection of shacks along the river, and signs of more habitation — beaten paths along the riverbank and smoke from fires further inland. Not far ahead, bigger clouds of smoke hung in the air.
“That will be Washington,” Warren said. “That smoke is from the foundries.”
The settlement of Washington was famous for its metal trade. Miners melted down metal from the huge ruins of Old Washington into bars, and traders boated them down the Potomac to sell along the Chesapeake Bay.
“They’re used to strangers here,” Warren said. “Those miners are a rough bunch, but they’re usually friendly enough. And George won’t try to follow us in here. He knows they’d be very happy to lift contraband sulfur off a smuggler. I think we can camp somewhere along the bank here without any issues and sleep easier tonight.”
Their campsite was not nearly as pristine as the island setting of the night before. They picked a spot on the bank away from any docks, where nobody was likely to bother them. Thick brush grew there among stumps of trees that had been sawed off to provide fuel for the kilns or firewood for the miners. Rubble from the old city littered the ground — chunks of tar rock from the old roadways, shards of glass, and bits of plastic shards.
When Charles stopped paddling, it was as if every bit of energy in his arms flowed back into whatever reserve supply he had borrowed it from. He dropped to the ground, and could have lain there all night without moving. But when Warren and Marguerite started gathering wood for a fire, he dragged himself up and managed to find a few branches as well before they had finished.
As they sat chewing on the pemmican, Charles was reflecting on how much he hated the stuff, when Marguerite said, “So what’s your game, anyway, Warren?”
“My game?” Warren said.
“Now that we finally have a little time, I want to know what’s going on. Why are you in such a hurry to get away from George? It doesn’t make any sense at all. If you’re tired of working for him, why not wait until we get home, get your cut and then quit? You must have done something really bad.”
Warren didn’t say anything. Marguerite sat watching him, and then her eyes began to get wider and her mouth opened into a small “o.”
“Ahhhh,” she said. “No. Not you.” For a moment, her shell slipped away and she looked hurt.
Warren sighed. “Are you interested in my side of the story?”
“Sure,” she said, the hard look coming back into her eyes. “Tell me a good story. I like stories.”
And so Warren again went over the story he’d told Charles, how the Builders had sent him to one of the most important sulfur smuggling bands to secretly try to throw it into chaos or even take it over and use it as a reliable sulfur pipeline for the Builders.
“It didn’t work very well,” Warren said. “As you may have noticed.”
“Huh,” she said. “Interesting rationale.”
Warren frowned. “Now listen —”
She waved a hand at him. “You have your game, and I have mine. I’ll go back to Easton with you guys. But I’m warning you, that’s all. Anything else you’re planning to use me for, forget it.”
“I just want to help,” Warren said. “I’m not getting anything out of you guys.”
She snorted. “Uh-huh.”
“So my question for you,” Warren said, “is what I can do for you when we get back. You can’t just wander around on the streets of Easton. Do you have any family?”
“No,” Marguerite said.
“Well,” Warren said, “I can probably get you some nannying work for a nice family, or maybe on the cleaning staff for the Builders even.”
“The cleaning staff?” she said, as if he’d suggested she might like to roll around in a pigsty.
“What? It’s not a bad gig,” Warren said. “It would give you a nice steady income.”
“Now you listen here,” Marguerite said. “Thanks for your concern, but when I want a favor, I’ll ask for it.”
“But what are you going to do?” Warren asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe something else that wouldn’t demand too much skill or smarts. Besides cleaning.”
“Now wait, I wasn’t trying to say —”
“No, you weren’t trying to,” Marguerite said. “You just accidentally said what you thought.”
“I’m sorry,” Warren said. “I’ll help you any way you want.”
“And what,” Marguerite asked, “gave you the idea I needed your help?”
They spent the rest of the evening sitting around the fire in silence.
To be continued