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.
Charles had pictured Washington as a bustling city with thousands of people, since he knew it was the source of most of the metal in the known world. But when he, Marguerite and Warren shoved the canoe off downriver from their morning camp and traveled further into the heart of the ruins, they found the banks of the Potomac mostly empty.
They floated past more tree stumps on the riverbank, along with piles of ash and charcoal, and one empty foundry, its chimneys cold and dead. But they saw only one or two miners, who looked them over but didn’t seem too interested, and a handful of watercraft — three men on a raft with a load of steel, a woman fishing from a canoe, and a large trading vessel tied up at a dock.
Inland, Charles counted three or four different smoke plumes from foundries, nothing like the black fog he had imagined. Washington seemed to be mostly just an immense ruin with a few people here and there extracting all the easy metal they could find and melting it down.
“Does it bother the Builders, people tearing down cities like this when the Builders are trying to bring them back?” Charles asked Warren, mostly to break the tense silence. “Seems like it would help if they didn’t have to rebuild everything.”
“Well, it bothers them to have grubby miners stomping all over their archeology sites,” Warren said. “No telling how many priceless treasures get broken and thrown out in the garbage. But we just don’t have enough archaeologists to go over everything, and even if we did there’s not much we could do to stop the mining without sending an army over here. And that would really mess up the artifacts.
“The cities are really too far gone to do much rebuilding as far as that goes,” he said. “Look at the buildings you see. Mostly just pieces of wall and piles of rubble and dirt. From that standpoint there’s no harm in these guys salvaging the metal and turning it into something useful. These cities would have to be rebuilt anyway.”
“That’s kind of depressing,” Charles said.
“Yeah. And by the time we have enough people to put in the cities, these buildings will be even more broken down. Even if the Builders succeed in all their projects, it’s going to take really a long time. And you think of a city like Easton as big. Well, that’s nothing like the amount of people they had in this city. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people. Maybe millions.”
“Millions? In one city?” Charles said. “There aren’t even a million people in the world, probably.”
“Probably not,” Warren said. “We can’t even really imagine what it must have been like back then. People crammed in every little spot. And that’s why you find ruined houses everywhere you go. Anyway, about rebuilding, it’s just not practical. Any reasonable guess is it would take thousands of years of record population growth to even have enough people to fill a city like this. By then, there will really be nothing left, miners or no miners. So we’ll just salvage as many artifacts as we can.”
“And then what?” It was the first thing Marguerite had said since the unpleasantness of the night before. She’d been paddling up front in the canoe, back stiff, ignoring them all morning. Now she turned around, her paddle hanging in the air and dripping into the river.
“Not sure I follow,” Warren said.
“I mean, what’s going to happen after you bring back the golden days? So you get your big city full of people with wonderful technology, then what?”
“And then people will be reasonably happy and have decent, comfortable lives,” Warren said.
“And then everything will fall apart again.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“You sound like Charles,” she said. “He must have been getting his ideas from you. Well I don’t buy it. The Builders, they’re just trying to make the same old mistakes all over again and see if it goes different. Fools.”
“Wow,” Warren said. “Way to look on the bright side.” He tried to laugh. Marguerite didn’t join him.
“Well what would you do, then, Marguerite?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t do anything,” she said.
They paddled along without talking for a while.
“Well, Marguerite,” Warren finally said, “I guess that’s just not good enough for me. I want people to be happier.”
“People will never be happy,” Marguerite said. “If they’re rich, they want to be richer. If you come up with a great invention, you want to come up with a better one.”
“Well, maybe,” Warren said. “Sure. But I’m happy enough. You may not be very happy, but don’t think everybody’s experience is like yours. And I don’t mean that as some kind of insult. I’m just saying not everyone has had the challenges you have.”
“You don’t know anything about my experiences,” Marguerite said.
“I have read,” Charles said slowly, “in the books in George’s library. There’s some history books, the ones they translated from back then. From what I can tell, there was plenty to be miserable about back before the Fall.”
“Ah, well,” Warren said. “Those are historians. They’re such a gloomy bunch. All they write about is the bad stuff. You can’t let that worry you too much.”
“So you think,” Charles said, still chewing on the ideas, “we can make the ideal world.”
“I don’t think it’s good to overthink it,” Warren said. “It’s not about making the perfect world where everybody is happy all the time. It’s just making it as good as we can. I’m sure we can agree there’s room for improvement.”
“That’s not what the Builders tell everyone,” Marguerite said. “They’re building heaven on earth.”
“Oh, ha, well, we might get a little carried away sometimes,” Warren said. “You have to get people fired up, and the rhetoric might get a little over the top sometimes. But overall I think we’re being realistic. We should at least aim for the ideal world, right, even if we never get there?”
“So by realistic,” Marguerite said, “you mean delusional.”
“Oh, come now,” Warren said. “I like the term optimistic better.”
“Delusional,” Marguerite said.
“I don’t believe that,” Warren said. “Good Lord, girl, lighten up. What’s wrong with coming up with some medicine to treat the plague, or enjoying the challenge of inventing something new? I like to think having a goal to work toward is what it’s all about. That’s where you get your sense of fulfillment.”
“You’re not inventing something new,” Marguerite said. “You’re just doing the old thing all over again.”
It was strange, but Warren was sounding a lot like Marguerite, Charles thought. If just having a goal was the point, there was no real purpose in the end. You basically distracted yourself with a hobby so you could forget that. Whereas Marguerite just said the hell with it and gave up.
The God people — the pagans, the Christian sects, the handful of Muslims and Jews — all claimed that the missing ingredient was God (or god, or goddess). But many of them spent all their time trying to amass power or wealth, so apparently God didn’t scratch the itch for them.
Some were different, of course. He recalled the old monk he had known as a child, who pottered around the marketplace in rags, sweeping up the stones in exchange for a little food from the vendors. He always had a smile on his face.
Once Charles had been out on an errand to the market with his master, who had stopped to talk to the monk. They seemed to know each other somehow, and Master had offered to help the monk find a better job and a place to live.
“What makes you think I want anything more?” the old man asked, smiling. “Do I look miserable?”
Charles’ master hemmed and hawed a little, and said no, don’t be silly, just trying to help.
“God’s the only thing I need,” the monk said. “The simple life is best. You already have all you need to be happy, if only you knew it. Has all that science and fancy stuff you work on made you happy yet? God is just waiting for you to notice it hasn’t. He’s what you really need.”
Charles’ master rolled his eyes. “Oh, no, not the old lecture about the corrupting influence of technology,” he’d said, clapping the old man on the back. “Here’s a couple wampum beads. Take a break from the sweeping for a few weeks, OK?”
The monk just shook his head and smiled. “You ought to take a break from the race with no finish line for a few weeks,” he said.
As they walked away, Charles looked back and saw the monk hand all the wampum to a passing beggar, who snatched it and ran as if he were afraid the old man would change his mind.
They’d found the monk frozen solid on a back street one cold winter morning, covered with snow and a smile on his face.
In a way, maybe the old monk had given up on life as much as Marguerite and Warren had. They just all had a different way of dealing with it.
What was that Bible verse? “‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,’ says the preacher,” or something along those lines.
Surely living in abject poverty and freezing to death on a street corner didn’t solve that riddle any more than getting rich did.
They all sat quiet with their thoughts. Marguerite handed Charles the paddle, and he and Warren kept the canoe shooting forward at a steady pace.
They glided by ruins, pillars sticking up out of the water like dead trees in a swamp. They passed one enormous building that had once been capped with a dome, most of it collapsed now. The skeletons of towers many stories tall teetered in different states of collapse.
Charles and Marguerite gaped at these.
“Look how tall they are!” Charles said. “That one’s …” he paused to count. “Eleven stories. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Oh, they get taller than that,” Warren said. “Speaking of which, look there, there’s the Obelisk. Quite the landmark. I saw it once on an archaeology trip we took way back when I was a student.”
They looked where he was pointing and saw a stone needle rising up out of the water of a shallow bay far up into the sky, thin but solid. Charles realized his mouth had fallen open and he shut it with a snap. He’d heard of the Obelisk, and seen a drawing of it once, but that hadn’t prepared him for the sight in real life.
“Why’d they build it in the water?” he asked.
“I imagine,” Warren said, grinning at him, “that the water was lower back then.”
Charles’ face grew hot. Of course. But it still didn’t make sense. What would have made the water level go up so much?
“The miners worship the Obelisk, they say,” Warren said. “It does inspire a certain amount of reverence.”
“How did they do it?” Charles asked. “How could they possibly build that?”
Warren shook his head. “Wouldn’t I like to know. Imagine being able to do that.”
They drifted in the canoe, taking it in. “What a world that was,” Warren said. “What a world.”
The ruins went on for miles. The thought of people living in all of them was staggering. Millions of people. Charles couldn’t come up with a picture of that. It was just too big. And where they would have gotten food for so many people was even harder to imagine.
A small barge passed them. The crew, two men and a woman, stared at the canoe and its oddly dressed occupants.
“Where do you hail from?” one of them asked in the trade language.
“Easton,” Warren said.
“Why, we just came from there,” the woman said. “Are you traders?”
Warren hesitated a beat. “Why, no. Diplomats, on our way back from a journey here to talk about trade.”
“Ah,” the first man said. “Well, that’s always a happy subject. I hope you were successful.”
“Indeed,” Warren said. “Most gratifying.”
“A happy return voyage to you,” the woman said.
The barge drifted past. The crew spoke in low voices to each other, and Charles caught the word “diplomats,” spoken with a skeptical tone.
“Well,” Warren said, once they were well past the barge, “I suppose we are a little ragged looking for diplomats, at that. I’ll have to come up with a better story.”
They reached a junction with another river, and the Potomac sprawled out wider and deeper.
“That’s the Anacostia,” Warren said. “We’ve crossed it sometimes when we take the northern route, remember?”
From time to time they passed the ruins of bridges, rows of concrete islands that had formed the foundations. Below these in the water, piles of stone and steel rose toward the surface, swarms of fish darting along their edges.
Gradually fewer ruins marred the forests along the shore.
Their shadows stretched across the water ahead as the sun dropped into the trees behind them, so they found a spot on the riverbank to spend the night where a small clearing opened in the trees.
“Won’t the light from the fire be too obvious here?” Charles asked.
Warren shrugged. “Well, since the smugglers have to go around the city, they’ll lose a lot of time. We still need to keep pushing ourselves to stay ahead, but I don’t think we have anything to worry about tonight.”
These sounded to Charles a little too much like famous last words. He slept restlessly when he wasn’t on watch, dreaming of being chased, but when morning came they were alone on the river except for a few turtles on a log.
When they got underway again the river began to take them around long, lazy bends. This was another reason it was better to walk, Charles thought, besides avoiding the blisters on your palms. You could save a lot of time going in a straight line, assuming you didn’t hit any briar patches. No, now that he thought about it, he’d take the river.
The paddle flew out of his hands and splintered into pieces, jolting him out of his reverie. A split second later, a tremendous “boom” rolled over the water. All three of them turned to look, and Marguerite screamed. A cloud of smoke hung around a tree on the south riverbank.
“Go! Go! We’ve got to get out of here!” Warren said, his eyes wide, seeming to forget that he was the only one with a workable paddle. He began to paddle as hard as he could, steering for the north shore of the river.
A fusillade of gunfire poured from the woods behind them, smoke puffing out from brush and behind boulders. Bullets zipped past them and ricocheted off the water with a whine. One whacked into the canoe above the waterline, inches from Marguerite’s knee.
Even in the chaos, Charles found a moment to admire the speed Warren was managing, paddling by himself. Water churned and foamed behind the canoe.
The smugglers emerged from their hiding places and stood on the shore, aiming their pistols. George, and Old Harry, and Gary and James, they were all there. But the smugglers didn’t have a boat. If they could just make it to the far shore alive, they could get away.
“Get down!” Warren gasped.
Charles and Marguerite ducked, and again the whine of the bullets came, ricocheting off the water and kicking up spray.
“Stay down!” Warren said. “I’ll paddle, you lay low.”
The firing continued, and Charles waited for a bullet to smack into him. But when the canoe rammed into the bank, he scrambled out, still untouched.
“Let’s take the canoe with us,” Warren said.
A couple of shots echoed across the water, accompanied by puffs of smoke on the far shore, but most of the smugglers appeared to be reloading.
Warren and the slaves heaved the canoe up on their shoulders and staggered off into the trees. The firing continued behind them but then died down.
“They don’t have a boat,” Warren said. “We just have to run along shore for a while. When it’s safe, we’ll get back in the water. They can’t cross the stream.”
“But they can run along the riverbank. And the canoe is going to really slow us down. We won’t be able to get ahead of them,” Charles said. “Why don’t we just go on foot the rest of the way?”
“Because, Charles, we will need the canoe to get across the bay.”
“We could hire a boat.”
“Not very safe,” Warren said. “Lots of pirates.”
“We need to get to the bay first,” Marguerite said. “And we can’t carry the canoe the whole …” Then she pointed at Warren. “You’re bleeding!”
He looked down at his arm. A chunk of flesh hung off his bicep, and blood dripped down his elbow.
“What? They hit me. I didn’t even feel it,” he said.
“We have to tie that up right now,” Marguerite said, “or you’ll bleed out.” She took out her knife and cut the entire sleeve off Warren’s damaged arm, leaving a jagged edge above the wound. She cut several strips off the severed sleeve, then bound Warren’s wound tightly and tied the makeshift bandage with more strips.
Warren winced. “I feel it now. That really stings. Feels like my heart is beating in my shoulder. Wow, that’s really starting to hurt.” He stopped and sat down, leaning against a tree, one hand holding onto his wounded arm.
“Looks like it missed the bone,” Marguerite said. “You’re lucky.”
“We’re all lucky,” Charles said. “We’ve survived two ambushes on one trip. That’s pretty good.”
“So far,” Marguerite said.
“Shhh!” Charles said. “What was that?”
They all froze.
The sound came again. Splashing noises.
“Shit!” Warren said. “I should have known they’d swim after us. We could have shot at them and kept them on the other side.”
“They can’t all even swim,” Charles said. “I’m pretty sure George can’t swim.”
“Well, sounds like some of them can,” Warren said. “We’ve got to run.”
“We have to leave the canoe,” Marguerite said.
Warren wavered. “We won’t leave it. We’ll hide it, then hide in the woods until they give up chasing us. We’ll come back and get it later.”
“They’ll find it,” Marguerite said.
“We have to try.”
They shoved the canoe down the riverbank into a muddy tangle of reeds, where it wouldn’t drift off into the current, then ran into the forest. A crashing sound behind them told them some of their pursuers had reached the shore.
“We can’t split up,” Warren said as they ran. “They know all the bird call signals, so if we try to get back together, like as not we’d meet one of them. We’re safer staying together anyway. If it comes to it, we can try to fight them.”
Half those shots, Charles thought, would be more of an intimidating banging noise than deadly fire, given his talents with a pistol.
About a quarter mile into the woods, Warren began to gasp and double over, blood leaking out of his bandage.
“I’ve got to stop for a second,” he said.
Twenty minutes later, he had to stop again. He moaned. The crashing sound behind them came nearer.
“Go ahead,” Warren said. “I’ll stay behind.”
“Not a chance,” Charles said.
“No,” Marguerite said.
They helped him over to a tangle of branches in the top of a fallen tree. It wasn’t a perfect hiding place, but it would give them a little cover when the time came to make a last stand.
More crashing and shouting came from the trees, and then wild gunfire.
They looked at each other.
“What are they shooting at?” Marguerite whispered. Warren shook his head.
Then they heard screams.
“Are they attacking each other?” Charles whispered.
Warren shrugged, then winced.
They still couldn’t see anything, but sounds of a melee kept coming out of the trees nearby.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Then a snarl.
“Cats!” Warren hissed.
Old Harry now appeared in the trees, moving at a much better clip than Charles could ever remember seeing him move before. Gary sprinted right behind him. Neither of them had weapons now. Two cats sped through the woods behind them, covering ground in that lithe way cats have without seeming to try much.
The lead cat, a tabby, was fifty yards, twenty yards, five yards from Old Harry and Gary, and then it sprang on Old Harry, pinning him flat in its paws. The other cat, black with a white mitten, grabbed Old Harry’s leg in its jaws and tugged. Old Harry screamed. The tabby put its ears back, hissed, and swung a paw at the black cat. Then it snapped Old Harry’s neck in its jaws. The screaming stopped and the tabby dragged the body away.
All this had happened in a few seconds. Gary kept running, and the black cat reached him in a couple of bounds and flattened him.
Charles lifted his pistol, then hesitated. The thought flashed through his mind that there might be more cats behind these. Shooting this cat might be the same as whacking a hornet’s nest with no plan for how to get away. In the split second he thought this over, the cat bit down on Gary, and he went limp.
They sat motionless, unable to look away, although Charles always wished afterward he had.
The cat sat atop Gary’s body, but it didn’t bite him again. What was it doing? It seemed to be growling, a low constant rumble. Charles realized to his horror it was a sound of contentment. It got off Gary’s body and sat, watching it, crouched, yellow slit eyes wide, tail twitching.
Then it pounced again, batting the body around and leaping after it, frisky as a puppy.
“We have to get out of here,” Warren whispered, “before they smell us. Before they smell me.” He nodded at his dangling arm and bloodstained bandage.
They crept out of the branches, the sounds of crunching bone coming from behind them.
Charles stepped on a twig, and it snapped.
They froze, and looked back at the cats, which stared at them. The closest one opened its mouth in a bloody snarl, and hissed. Then they went back to eating, keeping an eye on the three as if they were going to try to steal the meal.
“Walk, do not run,” Warren whispered. And so they walked away, waiting for the sound of running paws. It didn’t come.
They hid by the river until it got dark. They were ready to jump into the canoe and paddle away, braving the gunfire, rather than face death by cat. But no cats came, even though it would have been easy to track their smell to the canoe. The cats were apparently sated for the evening.
When the darkness was complete, except for the starlight shining in the water, they pushed the canoe as quietly as they could out of the muck and shoved off into the water. Marguerite sat in the back, steering with the one good paddle.
The far shore was dark.
“I think the smugglers left,” Warren said quietly. “Must have heard the screaming and shots, and when nobody came back, they would have known what happened.”
“Think they’ll follow us?” Marguerite said. She seemed oddly relaxed after the scene of carnage they had just escaped, even energetic.
Warren shook his head. “I doubt it. George probably assumes the cats got us too. Anyway, he has no way of checking. He’s lost the ones who can swim, and nobody’s going to want to swim across the river to see what the cats are eating anyway.”
“We’ll stick to canoeing at night now, just to be safe,” Warren said. “We’ll sleep in the daytime. We can find some reeds like these along the bank here and just stay in the canoe all day. It won’t be comfy, but it will be reasonably safe.”
Nobody said anything for a long time.
“I know it’s tough,” Warren said. “Nobody should have to see those things. But those cats probably saved our lives. The smugglers came across that river to kill us, you know.”
Charles didn’t regret Old Harry’s demise, but when he thought about Gary’s life ending the way it had, he felt sick.
Warren looked sick. His head drooped forward now, and his breathing was fast and loud. Charles helped him lie back on the bottom of the canoe, where he took up most of the space, his head almost on Marguerite’s feet. It took Charles a long time to stack the packs around Warren to make everything fit and balance.
The only sound now was the dip of Marguerite’s paddle as the canoe moved over the river, gliding for hours into the night.
To be continued