By Andrew Sharp
Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015.
As the night blackness eased into gray and orange tinged the sky in the east, they steered the canoe into a patch of reeds along the shore. Once they had thoroughly tested the hypothesis that three people could stretch out in a canoe and sleep if they arranged themselves just so, and found it false, they eventually found curled up positions that respected the laws of physics, if not the demands of comfort.
As the sun rose it chased away the chilly morning air. The warmth energized a cloud of gnats in the reeds. Finding the canoe-load of travelers, the gnats decided that here was a worthy morning’s work.
Ordinarily Charles might have had trouble sleeping, awkwardly curled up with gnats tickling his face, but he was so exhausted that he drifted off almost as soon as he shut his eyes.
He woke up thirsty around mid-morning. The sun was bright and hot, and the gnats were gone. He drank a little from his canteen and drifted off again.
The day dragged on like this. Restless sleep, waking up, shifting around to another uncomfortable position as the canoe rocked and scraped against the reeds. The others waking up, shifting, and drifting off again.
Finally the sun began to sink. They ate, then opened Warren’s bandages to check on his wound. It was swelling and the skin around the wound was turning red and puffy.
“I don’t like the look of it,” Warren said. “I don’t like the feel of it either. I’m afraid that’s the blood poison starting.”
They all knew that if the blood poison started, Charles and Marguerite would likely arrive at Easton alone.
Warren had them soak some of the leftover trade tobacco in water, then smash it into a poultice and pack it into the wound.
“My grandmother always swore by tobacco for wounds,” he said. “Also, it’s the only thing we have, so it’s worth a shot.”
He winced as they patted the nasty dark green mash into the torn muscle.
It seemed to help. Warren was able to stay sitting up as they traveled.
“We’ll freshen up the poultice in the morning,” he said. “And by then, I hope we’ll be at the bay. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think the worst may be over on this trip.”
The bay! Charles felt a rush of excitement. It was the last barrier. Getting to the bay meant it was only a two days’ journey to Easton, barring storms, ambushes or other disasters, which seemed reckless to bar considering how things had been going.
“We’ll have to canoe across the bay at night, and sleep in the day,” Warren said. “George will probably get to his boats before we get to the bay. He’ll probably be waiting for us at the mouth of the river, actually.” He thought for a minute. “What we’ll do, is we’ll have to risk going as far as we can by water. We’ll keep sticking as close as we can to this north bank, and with the darkness that should be safe enough. And then we’ll take to the woods right before we get to the bay. We’ll go north, and carry the canoe. We can come out at a random spot on the shore, far enough from the mouth of the river to be safe, then wait till dark to launch. By the time the sun comes up, with any luck, we’ll be far enough away from whatever smugglers are left to beat them up the bay. Or at least we’d better hope so, because there’s no place to hide out on the water, and we’re in no shape to out-paddle anyone.”
They were hardly in shape to paddle at all. They started out with Marguerite doing all the paddling again, but the pace was too slow.
“We’ll be a week getting to the bay at this rate,” Warren said. “No offense, Marguerite.”
“I could try carving a new paddle,” Charles said.
“You could do that?” Warren said.
“Well, maybe. I like to carve. I’ve never tried a paddle before.”
They pulled onto the shore and stumbled among the dark trees looking for a branch to carve. Charles wished they had a torch.
Most of the branches already on the ground were too small, or too rotten. They had no hatchet to chop off any decent sized branches from the trees. Finally they found a snapped section of oak limb that was almost wide enough, and had to settle for it.
They made a small fire for the light, and Charles spent several hours carving. Finally, he ended up with a shape that resembled a paddle.
They got underway again in the wee hours of the morning. Since Charles was the worst paddler, he got stuck with the worst paddle. The canoe didn’t cruise along at anything like the pace they had made out of Harpers Ferry, but it was faster than Marguerite by herself, and she said it was easier for her too.
When it started to get light, they couldn’t find a patch of reeds, so they settled for a weeping willow hanging over the water, tying up their canoe as deep in its shade as they could get.
Charles found it easier to sleep in the shade, and it didn’t seem like much time before he was awakened near dark by Warren’s moaning. Warren’s face was hot. They opened his bandage, and saw his wound was turning purple and draining fluid. Red lines spread out from it down his arm.
Warren breathed hard through his teeth as they packed another tobacco poultice on it.
As they began the night’s journey, Marguerite caught Charles’ eye. She looked at Warren, lying on the bottom of the canoe with his eyes closed, and shook her head.
Charles frowned. No! You couldn’t just expect someone to feel great after a wound like that. It would take time to heal.
If Warren didn’t make it, Charles wouldn’t just lose a friend. He would also lose his introduction into the Builders, and Marguerite would have nobody to help her get honorable work. Their escape would have failed after all. They’d end up as beggars on the streets of Easton, and worse, they’d have no protection from George’s revenge. And George would find them.
The river now sprawled out a long way between them and the south bank. It would take a very lucky shot in the dark for anyone to hit them from there with a pistol.
Charles began to wonder if it was time to abandon the river as Warren had recommended and begin their trek on foot. If they got too close to the mouth of the river, they might run into the smugglers in the dark. But he didn’t know landmarks that would let him know he was getting close.
Warren’s voice rasped from behind him, “We’re almost to the bay. This river here, on the left, that’s the St. Mary’s River coming down. We’ll go up that river.” He had dragged himself upright enough to see over the edge of the canoe, and now he sank back down.
They swung the canoe northward. As they did, the paddling got harder, because they were now pushing against the current flowing down into the Potomac.
Warren seemed delirious. He’d pulled a necklace out of his pack and was restringing the beads. He obsessed with them, holding them up close to his face, rearranging and moving them around over and over. Charles looked back at Marguerite. He couldn’t see her face well, but she was shaking her head again.
Warren kept fiddling with the beads for hours, but finally his fingers stopped working and he sank back and closed his eyes. When Charles glanced back now and then to see how he was doing, he seemed to be asleep.
Some while later, Warren propped himself up again. “Now this should be far enough,” he said in a weak voice. “It won’t be long until sunrise. Pull in here along the bank, along these ruins. Go straight east through the woods. You can make it to the bay by dawn.”
“You’re too weak to walk,” Marguerite said.
“Yes,” Warren said. “You go ahead. I’m staying here.”
“No!” Charles said. “No, you are not.”
“I insist,” Warren said. “Better that somebody get home than none of us.”
“No,” Marguerite said. “We’re in this together. We’ll carry you.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Warren said.
“Watch us,” Marguerite said. She and Charles steered to shore, got out and put on their packs. She nodded to him, and they heaved the canoe up with Warren and his pack in it.
“Hold on, set it down,” Marguerite said. “We’ll leave his pack. We can make it to Easton with just two.”
“Wait!” Warren said. “I want something out of it.” He rummaged around, fumbling at one item and then another. Charles felt the precious minutes burning away like fog. Finally, Warren pulled out the bead necklace he’d been toying with all night. “This is special to me.”
Charles sighed. All that for a necklace.
“We should be able to carry that,” Marguerite said.
The mile or so through the forest was the longest walk of Charles’ life. It felt more like twenty miles as they staggered around trees and through tangles of honeysuckle and muddy bogs. Charles’ lower back ached, and started adding a new sharp stab from time to time. He switched arms often, but before long both arms felt like they were being pulled out of his shoulder. Once he started to complain about his arm pain, but he cut himself short when he realized how that would sound to a man who’d had a chunk of his upper arm shot off and might be losing his whole arm soon.
Finally, the blackness of the trees gave way to emptiness ahead, and they staggered out onto a thin stony beach. A breeze tickled their faces, and light ripples splashed on the shore. A hint of lighter gray smudged the dark sky in the east.
“We could get out on the bay before it’s too light,” Charles said.
“Not a good idea,” Marguerite said. “We’re too tired to go all day after going all night. And besides, we’d get out there and find ourselves stuck in plain sight, and too tired to get away if anybody saw us.”
This decisive, sensible person was a different Marguerite. She’d always been so quiet, so subdued. Apparently this other Marguerite had been hiding in that slave the whole time, far more useful to the band than she’d seemed, but entirely overlooked.
She was right now about the folly of trying to travel any farther, so they looked around for a place to sleep during the coming day. The shoreline was too open, so they camped inside the edge of the woods.
To call it a camp was overstating things a little. They couldn’t risk lighting a fire now, with the smugglers possibly nearby, and they were too tired to start one anyway. So they just piled their canoe and packs on the forest floor and lay down to sleep on the leaves. Nobody kept watch.
When they woke up in the evening, nothing had eaten them and no enemy had stumbled across them.
They forced themselves to eat a little food. They tried to give Warren some too, but he refused it.
“You have to eat something,” Marguerite said. “You can’t get better if you don’t eat. And we won’t have time to feed you for the rest of the night.”
But Warren only mumbled and kept his teeth tight together when she shoved the pemmican against his mouth.
Charles ached all over and struggled to pull his mind and body into the harsh waking world. He didn’t really wake up until they hauled the canoe down the beach with Warren in it. Charles backed too far with the canoe and stepped into the water, and the cold wetness rushing into his shoes washed away the last of his cobwebs.
They shoved off, and at long last were on the Chesapeake Bay. Home lay across the water, albeit a considerably long way northeast.
The new moon rising cut a sliver of light across the waves. When the shore was barely visible behind them, the wind picked up, and real waves began to smack at the canoe. It bobbed and dipped, and Charles thought how frustrating it would be to drown after making it this far.
“You just have to balance,” Marguerite said, when he asked her about the rough water. “Don’t overcorrect, and keep the nose into the waves. Don’t worry, I’ve been out on the bay in a canoe before. It would be better to have something bigger, but we’ll make it. As far as steering, we’ll keep the moon ahead of us. We want to get close to the other side and then follow that shore north.”
And that was what they did, paddling straight into the slice of watery moon.
Eventually they saw a smudge ahead, the distant edge of the great peninsula that was divided into three kingdoms with several small vassal tribes. One of those tribes, subject to the kingdom of Salisbury, claimed the shore they could see ahead of them now, but in reality it was abandoned wilderness, home to only a few pirates and woodsmen who neglected their taxes and had an aversion to loyalty oaths.
When morning came, Marguerite and Charles steered to shore. Marguerite’s hair was matted, her muddy face sagged, and her eyes showed deep black circles underneath. Going by the way he felt, Charles figured he must look worse.
Warren had spent much of the night moaning on the bottom of the canoe. When they pulled off his bandage to dress his wound again, Charles gagged and almost vomited at the dead smell. He gritted his teeth together and helped Marguerite wash it out and pack it with more poultice. It was the last poultice, unless they could find some herb growing somewhere. They were out of tobacco.
“Where are we?” Warren asked, his eyes closed.
“We’re across the bay,” Marguerite said. “I’m not sure where exactly. Not to the Choptank River yet. The bay’s still pretty narrow here.
“Almost home,” Warren said. “My mind isn’t working very well right now, so I want to say something to you something before I can’t.” He struggled to sit up.
“You settle down,” Marguerite said. “You’re fine. Just get some sleep.”
“No,” Warren said. “First I need to tell you something. This necklace here. You have to give it to the Builders.”
“You give it to them,” Marguerite said.
“I’ll try,” Warren said. “But if I don’t, you have to. Please. Promise.”
“Of course,” Charles said. He hadn’t wanted to admit it, but Warren was obviously slipping. What a thing to worry about at a time like this, a trade necklace. Warren’s request raised a troubling point, though. “Uh, if you … if you don’t …”
Warren’s lips twitched upward. “If I die, will the Builders take you in? Is that what you want to know? That’s what the necklace is for.”
“Our code,” Warren said. He was silent for a long time. “What was I talking about?” he said finally. “It was important.”
“Something about a code,” Charles said.
“He’s getting delirious,” Marguerite whispered.
“Not so delirious I can’t hear,” Warren said. “You show a little respect, young lady. Code, code. Oh yes, the code. It’s the beads, you know.”
“Shhhh,” Marguerite said. “That’s enough talking.”
“You shhh,” Warren said. “And just listen, will you? I’m too tired for this. We send messages with beads. The combinations. The colors. You give them that necklace. I put a message in those beads. I asked them to send you to school to become a Builder, Charles, because of the service you’ve given me and because of your potential too. Marguerite, I asked the same for you.”
She gasped. “Me? But I haven’t had any schooling. I could never …”
“It will take time,” Warren said. “But you are very smart and I think …” he trailed off again, and then began to ramble. Then he seemed to snap back. “You can learn. You have to at least try. You promise me that. And then if you don’t make it, they’ll find some way for you to serve. A way that fits your abilities.”
Marguerite was silent. She kept folding and unfolding her hands.
“I’m sorry,” Warren said, “that I said that about getting you a job as a servant.”
“No,” Marguerite said. “You don’t have to apologize.”
“I was wrong,” Warren said. “I realize that now. I’ve instructed them to find what you’re good at.”
“That’s a lot to put in a necklace message,” Charles said, beginning to wonder if Warren’s mind had given him a final, comforting delusion.
“Why do you think I took so much time with it?” Warren said. “But you’d be surprised … lots you can say in those things. And it just looks like a bunch of beads. You can hand it to an enemy as a gift and he never knows he’s passing your message along. We’ve done that.”
“Well, it’s nice you’re giving us the necklace as a backup, in case something happens,” Marguerite said. “But it’s only a backup, unless you keep talking and talking and use up all your energy. You can give it to us as a keepsake when we get home. Now you get some rest.”
Warren tried to obey, but kept waking up saying he was thirsty. When they tipped the canteen into his mouth, though, he had a hard time swallowing and Charles wasn’t sure he was getting much. Sweat dampened Warren’s buckskin clothes and soaked his face.
Charles and Marguerite dragged the canoe, with Warren in it, up out of the water, through the mud flats along the shore and up onto higher ground, where a stubby pine tree in the sand offered slight shade.
The flies and late-season mosquitoes that hummed out of the marsh made a long day far longer. The flies swarmed over Warren’s wound, and Marguerite and Charles took turns shooing them away. But the flies returned, and returned, and returned, only one goal in their tiny minds: Find the source of that smell. Once, Charles went into a frenzy, clapping and smacking and running after them. He missed every fly, and they came back as if nothing had happened. He slumped against the tree.
“I’ll take a turn,” Marguerite said.
The air cooled as the sun began to set, and Warren became more alert. He finally managed to swallow some water.
“We’re almost home,” he said, seeming to forget they’d already discussed this. “Do you know how far we have?”
“We already passed that big shallow bay, the one we go past before we get to the Dorchesters’ territory,” Charles said.
“Ah, Blackwater Bay,” Warren said.
“Now we’re on a little island on the edge of another bay a little north of that one.”
“Little Choptank Bay,” Warren said. “It won’t be long before we get to the Choptank River. We’ll have to be careful, that’s where most of the Dorchesters live. It’s good we’re traveling at night, because we won’t have to have a fire. There won’t be any fishing boats out at night either.”
“The Dorchesters pay tribute to Easton,” Charles said. “They wouldn’t attack us, would they?”
“I never trust a Dorchester,” Warren said. “They don’t even listen to their own chief. If they knew they could get away with it, they’d shoot us full of arrows and sink our canoe without giving it another thought. Besides, we’re not really what you would call honored subjects of the king of Easton.”
“They don’t know that,” Charles said.
“They won’t have to be a genius to guess,” Warren said. “Anyway, we’ll be pretty safe at night.”
“How long do you think we have?” Marguerite asked.
“I bet we can make it home tonight. It will be about twenty miles to Easton now, give or take. If you make good time paddling, we can do it.”
Charles liked Warren’s increasing use of “we” instead of “you.” His voice sounded stronger too. If they could just get him to a doctor, they might be able to clean up his wound before he got poison blood. And even if he had a touch of it, people had survived poison blood before. The doctor could take out some of the bad blood and set him straight.
“Are you excited Charles?” Warren said.
Charles snapped back to the conversation. “About what?”
“About your new start. About getting away from the smugglers.”
“I don’t know,” Charles said. “I mean yes, some. But I’m just hoping I’ll be able to make it. I’m worried about the Builders’ school. I know it’s really tough.”
“What do you have to be worried about?” Warren said. “If you can survive what you have this trip, university will be no problem.”
Charles wasn’t sure it was that simple, but it was still a comforting thought.
“There’s also George,” he said.
“What about him?”
“He’ll be out to get me. He’ll know where I am.”
“I think,” Warren said, “now that the Builders’ little plot to sabotage the band has failed — or actually, the person they sent to carry out their plot has failed — George may have more to worry about than taking revenge on an escaped slave.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Builders will be out to get him now more than ever, and they might be more direct about it this time.”
“Still, unless they catch him, I’ll always have that fear in the back of my mind,” Charles said. “I’m not sure I want to live like that. I just want to be left alone and live my life, but nobody will ever let me do that. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“Charles,” Warren said, “nobody is left alone. That’s life. Not the king or the nobles or anybody else gets a fair shake, and none of them is their own master either. Everybody goes through life afraid of what’s waiting around the corner, and if we’re not, we haven’t been paying attention. You’ll make the best of it, I’m sure.” He lay back and closed his eyes.
The sky blazed red and orange in the west, then faded to pink, then gray. Warren woke up when they pushed the canoe through the black sucking mud of the marsh, then fell asleep again as they shoved off.
It’s our last night. Our last night. Our last night, Charles repeated to himself as he paddled.
They pushed hard all night, too eager to finally reach the end of their journey to pace themselves. Occasionally they had to stop and rest their paddles across their laps and simply drift along until they could get energy to go on.
They crossed the mouth of the mighty Choptank without seeing anyone. When the sun rose, it shone on the water of the wide Tred Avon River. Along the banks of the Tred Avon, only a few miles away, was Easton.
“Too close to stop now,” Marguerite said.
Charles nodded. He had almost no energy left, but was too excited to stop and rest.
Sea gulls flapped along the shore, screaming at each other over shellfish and minnows. A dark osprey glided overhead, then plunged down into the water and splashed back up with a fish. An eagle watched them pass from the branches of a dead tree. A fisherman coming down to his dock looked them over, and when they said good morning in the Easton language, he smiled and waved.
“Warren’s slept so peacefully tonight,” Marguerite said. “I think he’s turned the corner.”
Charles looked back at him. Warren was fast asleep, his face more relaxed than it had been for many days. The sweat was gone from his face. Then Charles looked again.
“Marguerite,” he said.
She froze, and her eyes opened wide. “Oh no.”
Charles reached back and held his hand in front of Warren’s nose. There was no breath.
Charles’ throat tightened, and he turned around and gouged the water with his paddle for a while. The river grew blurry. Behind him, Marguerite was as silent as Warren.
After a while, Charles regained his composure and looked back. Marguerite paddled a steady beat, staring straight ahead past him. Her expression was familiar, the old Marguerite, deadpan and empty.
The docks in Easton got their share of strange travelers: traders from distant shores, long-haired miners, tribesmen from the back woods. But two emaciated people in backwoodsmen’s clothes, with a corpse in their canoe, drew a crowd of watermen and traders when they pulled in.
Out of the babble, Charles realized he was hearing words in Easton. After months abroad, he had stopped expecting crowds of people he met to speak his native tongue.
“Where are they from?”
“Did the Dorchesters attack you?”
“Do they speak Easton?”
People in the back of the crowd tried to elbow their way in to see.
It had been years since Charles had been to Easton, and though some of the faces looked familiar he didn’t remember any names. He had only been a boy when he left, so none of them would remember him.
Charles gently pried the bead necklace out of Warren’s fingers, then looked up at the people gathered around.
“This man was a Builder,” he said, wishing he could come up with something more profound and solemn for the moment, the kind of eulogy that Warren deserved. But he was no public speaker.
Fear came into many of the faces, and the crowd began to chatter. A dead Builder meant trouble.
“I have a message for the Builders,” Charles said. “Can someone take me to them?”
The crowd backed away as he and Marguerite climbed out of the canoe onto the dock, stretching their stiff backs. It seemed all wrong that only two of them were getting out of the canoe, that Warren’s journey had already ended with no fanfare sometime in the night.
Now Marguerite and Charles were just two young runaway slaves in a big city, with no protector and nobody to vouch for them.
The crowd began to part, and a stern man with a close-cropped beard, wearing a plain woolen suit, stepped up to Charles and Marguerite. “What message do you have for the Builders?”
Charles held up the necklace, and the man’s face changed as he reached out and took it. His lips moved slightly as he counted, bead by bead. Then he scrambled to the edge of the dock and peered down into the canoe.
He knelt there for a long time, staring down at Warren’s body. Then he looked up at Charles and Marguerite. His eyes were moist, and he spoke gently.
“You are welcome here,” he said. “Come with me.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” Warren had said in their last conversation. Charles wasn’t so sure about that, but it was beginning to seem that he might finally have made it home.
He and Marguerite looked at each other, then followed their guide into the city.