Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Thirteen

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

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.”

“What?”

“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.

“He’s gone.”

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?”

“What happened?”

“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.

The End

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Twelve

Gunpowder Trails

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

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.

“Thank you.”

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?”

Charles nodded.

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!

Crashing.

Bang! Bang! 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.”

Charles shuddered.

“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

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Eleven

Gunpowder Trails

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

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

 

Previous chapters

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten

Gunpowder Trails Chapter Ten

Gunpowder Trails

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

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.

“Nothing.”

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.

“What?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Next chapter

Previous chapters:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Nine

Gunpowder Trails

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Sometime during the third night of the storm, Charles woke up to a strange sound. Or rather, to the lack of one — the rain had stopped pounding on the droopy little hut, and the eternal drips from the roof seemed to be meeting their end after all.

By morning, clouds still covered the sky, but all was quiet except for scattered droplets from the leaves when the dry breeze gusted out of the west.

All around the camp smugglers crawled out of their huts, stretching and grimacing. A number of them stripped off their clothes, wrung them out, and draped them over branches to dry. They would not have done this back home in mixed company, but in the woods, you did what you needed to, without making a fuss about the niceties.

The water in the stream flowed muddy and brisk, but it had already retreated far down the hillside, leaving behind a litter of muddy leaves, piles of sticks and boulders.

“Phew, now that was wet,” Dan said, slapping his hat on a log and then wringing it out. “I could live a long and happy life without ever being in a storm like that again.”

“Well you’re in the wrong business if you don’t want to get rained on,” Henry said. “A little rain never hurt anybody.”

“I’d of hurt somebody if I had to stay in that hut one more day,” Eileen said. “That was horrible. I’m wet right down to the inside of my skin.” She held out her arms and turned to let the breeze catch her from all sides.

“If I laid down in the sun right now,” James said, “I’d steam.”

“The sun!” Dan said. “I remember that. It was really nice. Wouldn’t mind seeing it again someday.”

George was eager to leave right away, but Warren convinced him to let the smugglers start a fire to warm up and dry out.

“Won’t take more than an hour, and you know what they say, ‘Happy smugglers hike farther.’”

“I never heard anybody say that,” George said.

“My old mother used to tell me that when …”

“Oh, shut up,” George said, but he grinned. “Start your damn fire if you want. But we’re not going to sit around here all morning, we’ve been sitting around for days and we’ve got to start making time if we want to get back to Easton before the snow starts.”

Despite his grumpiness about the fire, George stood as close to it as anyone else once they got it going. They all had to gather close, because the wood was soaking wet and James was the only one who could make the fire catch. Even then, it was mostly smoke and sputter.

It was funny, Charles thought. Like the stream, once the fire was back in its proper place it was their ally again and they all loved it. It was when you let it do whatever it wanted that it became an enemy.

Packed up and on the trail again, Charles had time to think, which meant time to worry. What would Warren say when he found out about George offering Charles a job? Being more intelligent than a fish, he would leap to the conclusion that Charles did not plan join the Builders. That would lead him to the unpleasant speculation that Charles no longer needed him, and from there, his suspicious mind might jump to the idea that Charles had told George who the traitor was, or was planning to soon.

Charles had to find Warren as soon as possible to try to explain things. If he did not, Warren might come to see him when Charles’ back was turned, or late at night, and cut the conversation short before it started.

Even if Charles did talk to him before Warren took unpleasant steps like that, it was going to take some fancy persuading to convince him that he had no reason to be suspicious. What made that persuasion more tricky was that Charles hadn’t truthfully decided he was going to turn down George’s offer.

What George proposed would bring security, whereas with Warren’s idea, security might or might not arrive after an unwelcome amount of hair-raising risk — either escaping the band and trying to survive in the wilderness alone, or staying with the band and pretending to be loyal, with the ever present possibility their companions would discover their double-crossing, tie them to a stake and torture them to death.

“Hey!”

Charles jumped. Warren had been sitting by the trail, apparently waiting for a chance to catch him alone. His eyes were wide and they darted up and down the trail, and sweat beaded on his forehead. Charles, who had marveled many times before at Warren’s unshakable calm, took a step back.

“Oh … hello,” he said.

“What’s this I hear?”

Charles willed himself to respond with confident ease. “I d-don’t know, ah, w-what do you hear?”

“You know damn well what,” Warren said, stepping closer. “I should probably be running for the woods right now to, instead of talking to you.” He kept his voice low, but it was a shout nonetheless, and he seemed barely able to keep the words coming out in the right order.

“I had to do it,” Charles said. “George had me cornered. I had to agree to it, but I’m just lying to him.”

“Oh, you are, are you?” Warren kicked a stone, then winced. “You’re just lying to him, of course you are. And why not? Adds to the fun. You know, you’re putting me in an impossible spot. If you weasel out of our deal, I’m a dead man. And if you’re not weaseling out of it, what the hell are you doing?”

“I’m telling you, I had to say that stuff,” Charles said, edging a little further away. Somebody was coming along behind them now, so Charles lowered his voice and started walking again, and Warren stamped along beside him. “What was I going to tell him?” Charles said. “‘No thanks for your generous offer, I’d rather beg in the street for my food?’ He’d really be suspicious then.”

“Fine,” Warren said. “Fine. Then you need to prove it.” He wiped the sweat off his face. “We need to leave right away. You shouldn’t have any problem with that if you’re telling the truth.”

“But … we can’t! It’s not safe!” Charles said, almost stopping and then remembering he had to walk along naturally. “It’s practically suicide to try to make it back to Easton through all that wilderness, just the two of us.” Also, there was that little matter of making up his mind on what to do.

“It’s sure not safe staying here,” Warren said. “They could figure things out any time. Frankly, I’ll take our odds with the wilderness.”

“We’re just as safe here as we were yesterday. Why won’t you trust me?” Charles said. Shame swirled in his stomach.

“I don’t have any reason to trust you, Charles. No, don’t go pretending to be all hurt, you know it’s true. I’ve just heard secondhand that you’re pulling deals behind my back, and you just want me to settle down and be calm. Well, I’m not going to settle down. You can either come with me, and prove you’re not bluffing, or I can leave without you. And you can forget ever being a Builder.”

“Yes, I will forget it, because you’ll be cat food and you’ll never get home,” Charles said.

“My odds are better with the cats than with George. And they’ll be even better if you come along.”

Maybe Warren was planning to just leave, then, not get rid of him. His respect for the man rose again.

“No, our chances are better here, with everyone else,” Charles said. “That’s just what I’m trying to say. And if you don’t trust me, why do you want me going along with you, anyway?” His tone switched to pleading. “Let’s please just stay with the group. I can’t just walk away into the woods, I can’t. Maybe you’re OK with getting chewed to bits, but I’m not.” He stopped, and swallowed. “Anyway, even if we do that, we need to plan a little first.”

There was a pause, filled only by Warren’s fast breathing.

“I was going to tell you about all this,” Charles said. “But when did I have the chance? You tell me that. And while you’re at it, you can tell me what you would’ve done in my shoes.”

Gravel ground under their feet as they splashed across a shallow stream. Up ahead, somebody laughed.

“I’ll think about it,” Warren finally said. “And get back to you. Soon.” He stopped holding himself to Charles’ pace then and sprang forward into a fast walk that bordered on a run. He was soon far ahead.

Well, if he didn’t want to trust Charles, that was his fault. He could just wander off into the woods by himself, see if Charles cared. He remembered then that a few minutes ago he’d been fearing Warren would slit his throat some dark night. He realized any of the other smugglers would have, in the same situation. Even Charles might have. Shame replaced indignation. He really couldn’t blame Warren for being upset.

Still, Warren had Charles in a tight spot, too, with his ultimatum about leaving. If he couldn’t talk Warren out of it, he’d be forced to make a decision he wasn’t ready for. It was like being a steer funneled into a corral, and Charles hated it. Soon the corral might be too tight to turn around in and any decision-making would be done for him.

He was not in the mood to talk to anyone after that, but after the band stopped for lunch, Gary and Marguerite caught up with him. Gary probed him with questions about his time with the Appalachies as if Charles had been on some kind of grand adventure and had brought back souvenirs he could show off.

Charles told them the same curated tale he’d told the leaders, but remembering the damaging conclusions the smugglers had drawn about Roger, Charles steered well around him in the story this time. Now that he thought about it, the question finding the traitor was still eating at everyone, Gary included, and he’d seize on any clues. He’d also revel in the glory of being the one to figure out the mystery. But it was tricky to leave Roger out of the story, since the man had been his translator and guard.

“But how did you know they said that?” Gary interrupted him once. “Did they teach you the language?”

“Uh … oh, no, those were the signs they were making,” Charles said. “I’m just telling you what I guessed.”

“Oh,” Gary said, nodding. “Right, of course.”

When Charles finished his tale, even though he’d made it as short and boring as he could, and left out key parts, Gary said, “That sounds like it was so exciting. What a great chance to prove yourself. You’re lucky. I kind of wish the Appalachies had kidnapped me instead.”

Charles glared at him. “Being kidnapped sounds fun to you, does it? They could’ve killed me.”

“But they didn’t!” Gary said. He stopped to heave himself up over a huge log that blocked the path. On the other side, he brushed bark and moss off his shirt. “Any of us could die, any time. That’s just the risk you take when you’re a smuggler. And besides, it’s the dumb ones who get themselves killed. People like you and me, we’re smart enough to survive. Usually.”

“Bull shit,” Charles said, dropping down from the log to land beside him. “It’s not about being smart or dumb. All it takes is a little bad luck at a bad time. I didn’t choose the smuggler’s life, the smuggler’s life chose me. And as soon as I can get away from it, I will.”

“It’s easy for you to say,” Marguerite said, sliding down from the log. “You’ve got your special deal.”

Gary looked blank. “What deal?”

Charles explained George’s offer to let Charles manage his estate once he was free.

“Ha,” Gary said. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. Boring. Just sitting around at home all the time, counting money and making sure somebody plants the corn and pulls the weeds and washes the windows. I’d die of boredom. This, now,” he said, gesturing in an arc around them, “the woods, the great outdoors, this is the life.”

“For you!” Marguerite said, with vehemence. “Oh, it’s great for you. You’re a man. All you have to do is haul firewood and water. Yes, it’s a great life, isn’t it?”

“Well, what do you … how is it …” Gary trailed off. He and Charles glanced at each other.
Marguerite stormed away.

The slaves hiked together again the next day, as they often did, but mostly they kept an awkward silence.

In the late morning, the smugglers came upon neat rows of crumbling foundations among the trees, the bones of a dead city. It was enormous. They crossed street after street, enough house sites to accommodate 10,000 people at least, Charles figured, so it was bigger even than Easton. How had they supported so many people up here in the mountains? Where did they grow their crops?
Plastic and glass shards crackled under their feet as they made their way through the mossy rubble. Here and there, a whole brick wall was still standing, and holes filled with rainwater made unnaturally shaped pools.

Derelict plastic pipes poked through the walls in places. Those were probably for getting water inside the houses, Charles thought. Or taking sewage out.

Mysterious metal wires, some with cracked plastic clinging to them, crisscrossed the ruins. Ghost traps, the smugglers called them, because from time to time they tangled their feet in wires covered by leaves, as if the long-dead residents of the town had hidden them there to catch intruders.
Getting caught up in the wires could cause a nasty sprain, a possible death sentence in the wilderness, so the smugglers stepped gingerly.

Shards of a tar-like substance, with tiny gravel embedded in them, were scattered everywhere in the house sites. Warren had told Charles once that these were remnants of the shingles people had put on their roofs. Thinking about it afterward, Charles had wondered why anybody would want a mess of tar and gravel on their roof. No matter how you imagined it, the gritty black gunk melting in the heat of the sun must have looked horrendous.

He tried to picture the families who would have lived in these houses, and what the buildings must have looked like when they were standing. But the houses his mind built ended up looking pretty much like houses at home, except with gritty tar on top and wires coming out of them at odd places.

High over the smugglers’ heads, a long steel track ran through the trees, held up by towering metal pillars and an orderly crosswork of supporting beams. The smugglers often passed under these kinds of elevated structures in the wilderness. In civilized areas most of them were long gone, torn down and salvaged for the metal, with only the concrete bases marking where they had stood.

Here and there above them, the track seemed to run right through massive trees, whose bark bulged around it. In places, sections of supporting pillar had given way and the track sagged like a lizard with a broken back.

Scholars said people had traveled on these mysterious tracks in carts of some kind, conveniently high over the clogged streets of the towns and the fields of crops. The archeologists had found some of these vehicles, but so far their fierce debate over what made the carts go hadn’t produced any plausible explanation. A few secretive crackpots boasted of solutions, but got cagey when anyone asked for a demonstration.

Under the shadow of the track, the slaves paused at one house foundation to contemplate a collection of statues of short bearded men with pointy caps, grinning in a way Charles wasn’t sure he liked. Some were still standing, one pushing a wheelbarrow, but many were scattered around on the ground and some were in pieces.

“Those things are creepy,” Gary said. “I feel like they’re just waiting for me to turn my back.”

One of the strangest artifacts Charles had ever seen stood near the little grinning men. It was a short pillar, with a steel ball on top. Charles peered at it and a face only a little like his leered back at him, with a gigantic nose and tiny chin and forehead. He knocked on the globe. It seemed to be hollow. But why would anyone own such a thing? Was it an idol? Did it serve some mysterious scientific purpose? Maybe it foretold the weather, if you knew how to read it. All Charles could read from it was that Gary and Marguerite were looking over his shoulder.

He would have liked more time here to dig among these ruins and look for clues about who these people were and how they had lived.

A shard of brittle white plastic on the ground caught his eye, and Charles picked it up and examined it. He broke the piece of plastic between two fingers. It was hard to imagine something so fragile being of any use.

All the glass here seemed to be smashed. Once when he was younger, he’d gone along with his master’s children to one of the Builders’ museums, where ancient glass bottles lined a shelf. Some of them had elaborate designs on them, or some kind of script. Of course, glass blowers could make you a bottle now if you wanted one, but modern glass vessels were much simpler than these, and more functional. Why, for example, Charles had wondered, would you want so many glass bottles that couldn’t hold much liquid, but had tiny openings? How would you fill them again? He’d put this to the guide at the museum, who had seemed irritated by a question she couldn’t answer and had expounded at length about Middle Period china tea sets instead.

Partway through the ruins, the slaves came upon a massive foundation. Next to it, one pillar stood tall, and others lay toppled around. Among these fallen pillars a stone horse and rider stood. The rider wore tall boots, a shirt with two rows of buttons up the front, a pistol on his hip and some kind of decoration on his shoulder. His headless body faced the world defiantly as if such a handicap were only a flesh wound. The rider raised a sword in one hand, daring someone to come for the last standing pillar.

Charles wished he had time to look around in the rubble for the head. The face could tell him a little bit more about what kind of person this was, although perhaps not much. Faces in statues always looked so bland, as if they’d been carved in a moment when the subject was thinking about socks.

“It seems like such a shame,” Charles said. “All these people just wiped out. Although I guess maybe they were terrible people. Maybe it’s a good thing they’re gone.”

“They obviously were a great civilization,” Gary said. “I’d have loved to be alive then.” He wandered over for a closer look at the statue.

“I wonder if we’ll ever be able to get it all back?” Charles said, half to himself.

“Get what back?” Marguerite said.

“Ah, nothing. Just this. All this stuff they could do. So many people. Big cities. Machines to make life better.”
“Why would anybody want to?” Marguerite said.

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Well, obviously what they built didn’t work,” she said. “It was actually a pretty amazing failure. Why should we go to all that trouble to build it up so it can all fall apart again?”

“That’s a depressing way of looking at it,” Charles said. “Why not see if we can do it better this time? We could learn from their mistakes. Come up with new ways of doing things.”

“Could we?” she said.

“Well, sure.”

“Now that’s a rosy way of looking at it,” Marguerite said. “This time around, people will be different. They’re magically not stupid anymore, even though it just seems like they’re stupid most of the time.”

“Well I guess,” Charles said. “But it, well, should things just stay the way they are?”

“Why not?”

“Because things are awful,” he said. “People starve whenever there’s a famine. Nobody has much to look forward to except hard work and being hungry, and then in the end some kind of sickness will get them anyway. But it used to be so much better.”

She shrugged. “So they say. But like I said, look how it worked out for them. What do we have now? You live, and you die. You just get through as well as you can, and then you die.”

“That’s really grim.”

“What’s grim about it? Death’s not so bad,” she said. “No more troubles.”

A short, painful life, then the sweet embrace of death. Somehow Charles did not find this vision inspiring.

“What if the Builders get it all fixed, a wonderful world for everyone, with sky trains and nice little statues of bearded men in everybody’s yard?” Marguerite asked. “Then what? Will you be happy then?”

“Probably. I don’t know,” Charles said. “I guess I’ll be dead by then.”

Marguerite snorted. “A lot of good it will do you then, won’t it?”

“Well, I guess as much good as sitting around not caring,” he said. Marguerite’s cynicism chilled him. He wasn’t an optimistic ray of sunshine, but how did she get herself up in the morning, thinking like that?

“I don’t want to hear it from you,” Marguerite said. “Things are great for you. George is rich and he pays for everything you need. You’ve got it made. And after we get back, you’ll be George’s right hand man —”

“I’m not sure I want to do that.” He wasn’t sure why he’d said that. He was being honest, but it wasn’t the sort of opinion that was healthy to be spreading around. Maybe he was embarrassed by her envy, and wanted to somehow convince her he had his problems too.

She stared at him. “What’s that?”

“I mean, don’t tell anyone this, but, George is being very generous and all, and I said I’d do it of course, but … I’m just not that excited about it.”

She looked at him as if insects were crawling out of his nose. “You’re not that excited about it? An easy life like that?”

Now he really felt like an ass. “It’s not that working for George would be so horrible. But,” he dropped his voice, “he’s just getting rich by selling stuff to people so they can kill each other.”
Since when had he been bothered by the ethics of smuggling? Was this Warren’s fault?

“I guess I just want to do something with myself,” he said. “I mean, I’d like to have some kind of goal in life.”

“A goal?” she repeated. “How about living in a huge, magnificent house that somebody else pays for? How about having every summer with nobody to boss you around? How about having good food to eat every single day? Do you know what your problem is? You’re spoiled!”

He laughed, but without any humor. “I’m a slave.”

“I’d kill to be in your position, you ungrateful little shit,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me.”

“So let me get this straight. You think my life is great.”

“Yes.” Her voice lost its stridence and she looked away.

He’d always thought of his life as a hard and bitter one. But now he seemed to be standing outside as if he were out in the snow peering in through a lighted window, looking in on himself, seeing the good food and the warm bed in the winter and the master with too much to do to bother his slave much. Shame prodded at him.

“Well, I guess it’s not as bad as it could be,” he said.

After an awkward silence, Charles decided to hike by himself that afternoon.

His thoughts jangled around his head and he tried to chase them down and have a good look at them. Something about what Marguerite had said nagged at him. Maybe he was a little ungrateful; there could be worse things than being a rich man’s slave. But there was something else. Her lack of purpose. She was just waiting to die. It was as if she were already dead.

It was a terrifying thought, that there might really be no point to life. He stood on the edge of that reality and looked over, down into a vast blank, a tumbling void with nowhere as up and nowhere as down. Smuggling, in that emptiness, would be as good as it got. Live the high life once in a while, answer to nobody (except George) and die before you got old and poor. Or, if you were especially ambitious, amass power, fight to keep it, and then die. He shrank away from the vision.

The village of Harper’s Ferry, a scattered collection of huts and a few trading posts, was not far away now. The tiny town was the last outpost of civilization. Beyond it to the west were no settlements, only wild mountains that few people explored. Most of them never came back. Those who did come back were usually on the edge of starvation, ribs showing and cheeks hollow, and some were slashed up by cats. And for their troubles, they could only tell of finding more mountains.

That didn’t stop anyone from giving a detailed answer if you asked if they knew what lay beyond the mountains. Unfettered by facts, the answers flourished and grew in vivid color.

Some would tell you the mountains never ended, they just went on and on forever, but they always got taller until they reached into the clouds. Up there was heaven, or the home of the gods, depending on the religion of the person explaining things. Others swore if you went far enough, the people there had wings and could fly. In some tales, the population expanded to include animals that could talk, gremlins, trolls, dwarves or elves. If you went very, very far, some said, there was a land of plenty where the people had never lost the old ways and lived in luxury and prosperity, in great numbers, hundreds of thousands of them.

If you asked the Builders what was out beyond Harper’s Ferry they would go into the library and bring out an old map, and show you a drawing of a huge continent with rivers and city sites and mountain ranges, ending in another sea. But the map didn’t show the sorts of things you would want to know before you traveled there. Did the winged humans bite? Were the talking animals short-tempered? And nobody could know for sure if the map the Builders had dug up was a real one, or if it had just been a drawing in a storybook.

The smugglers knew somebody lived out in the west, because much of their sulfur came from that direction. But from Harper’s Ferry, they mostly traveled north, not much to the west, and they were too preoccupied with getting the sulfur and getting out alive to ask a lot of questions about where it came from. They only knew the sulfur had changed hands many times by the time it got to Scranton, and what kind of hands it had gone through, nobody could say. Charles had asked George once, and he had just shrugged. “Somebody with sulfur who wants to trade it.”

From Harper’s Ferry, the smugglers were a few weeks out of the kingdom of Easton at most. They weren’t to safety yet, but the worst was behind them. The mountains shrank down to hills and then to flat land the closer they got to the Chesapeake Bay, so the hiking would only get easier.

The woods were far from safe, but fewer enemies prowled in its shadows. Appalachies stayed further north, up in the mountains. Only a handful of backwoods farmers and backward villagers lived between Harper’s Ferry and the metal mining region next to the bay, but they shot as many cats and other predators as they could to protect the game and their livestock. Unwary travelers could still end up eaten, but their odds were far better.

The vast forest would still have terrified a city dweller from Easton, but to the smugglers it was the beginning of civilization. A muddy road or two cut through the woods, including a road that ran along the Potomac River from Harper’s Ferry into the mining region.

Civilization had its downsides for smugglers. Like most traffickers, this band avoided social interaction when they could help it, and so they usually stayed off the roads.

Nearing Harper’s Ferry and the beginning of the end of their journey, the leaders gathered to plan.
“I’d say it’s about 150 miles from here to Trappe,” John said. “Give or take, following the river. Of course the last few miles are the slowest, going through those swamps down in Dorchester to get around the navy.”

“Now I’ve always said,” Old Harry said, sticking a chaw of tobacco in his cheek, “that you could save days by just going right up the bay to the Choptank River. That navy is nothing, we all know that. A few ships here and there.”

“But they know we’re coming,” George said. “And they know about when we’ll be coming. And they definitely know where we’re going to be.”

“True,” James said, “but our navy friends keep them from looking for us too hard.”

“They try,” George said. “The problem with a system like we’ve got is it only takes one do-good navy captain who’s not in on it, and then all of us are hanging from our necks off the city wall at Easton. And they’re sure as hell not going to let us know ahead of time what they’re thinking. But I’m tired of arguing this out every time.”

“But if we’d just —“ Old Harry started.

“Nope,” George said. “You can try it by yourself if you want. You can even have one of the boats. I’ll pick it up later when it washes ashore.”

“Think we can make it to Trappe on the food we’ve got?” Warren asked.

“Eh, I don’t know,” George said. “Probably, but maybe not, and we’d get pretty hungry. And I really don’t want to take the time to stop and do any serious hunting again.”

“I agree,” Old Harry said around his mouthful of tobacco. He spat a brown splotch on the leaves. “Hunting as you go drags it out forever.” He wiped his mouth on his shirt.

“No problem,” George said. “We can get anything we need in town with our leftover tobacco if you guys quit smoking it. Or chewing it.”

Old Harry grinned, his teeth stained dark.

“I never like it, going into that town,” Warren said. “They’re a rough bunch. No loyalty to anybody. They’ll smile at you and sell you a beer and then stick a knife in your back and sell the beer to somebody else.”

Old Harry hooted. “We’ve still got more able bodied smugglers than they’ve got people in that little dump.”

“They can try something,” James said. “I’d like to see them try.”

“It is a risk,” George said. “Warren’s right, it’s best not to take unnecessary risks, but we can’t really do anything about this one. We have to have food. And they’re just a bunch of roughnecks, not soldiers.”

As Charles listened, he realized how he and Warren could get away from the band. It was simple, and nobody would notice they were gone for at least a day, giving them a valuable head start. He was surprised to realize that he was thinking as if he’d already decided to run away with Warren. Somehow since his talk with Marguerite he’d started to think that way without meaning to.

And yet, the money would be easy, working for George. It would be so peaceful at the estate, so familiar.

Well, as peaceful as it could get when there was the constant threat of the army swooping in, or some rival ambushing you. But George had secured himself as well as he could. He made sure that as many people as possible in the town of Trappe owed him something, and he also helped protect the town from marauders. If Easton tried to send the army into Trappe to get George, it could start a civil war. Easton would win the war, of course, but so far the capital city had refrained from that option.
But at the estate, Charles’ safety would depend on George. He would be safe as long as George thought he was useful.

He had no guarantees with Warren, either, if he wanted to be honest about it. What if the Builders decided you weren’t of use anymore? They sold you off as a slave. Or let you be sold off, anyway.
Charles snapped off a twig and scraped away part of the bark to reveal the light wood underneath. He was tired of waffling. He couldn’t seem to make up his mind, so he’d flip for it. If the twig landed light spot up, he’d take George’s job offer. If it landed spot down, he’d take Warren’s offer and run.
He flipped the twig into the air. It arced out, end over end, bounced on a rock, and landed, barkless spot pointing sideways, halfway between each decision.

But he already knew how he had wanted it to land.

To be continued

Previous chapters:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Eight

Gunpowder Trails

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

A deer stumbled across the rocky streambed and tore up into the woods on the other side. A small dark animal, a raccoon, Charles thought, also ran across, then four more deer. Upstream and down, animals flowed across away from the fire. A wolf. A weasel. A bear. Two foxes and several squirrels raced each other across, side by side, ignoring each other.

“Look! Look at that!” Eileen said. But they already were. On the other side of the stream, only a few trees weren’t yet on fire, and a pack of cats leaped through the safe space, racing the flames toward the stream, jumping small pockets of burning grass. They reached the stream just ahead of the fire, ears flat against their heads and their tails bushed out. Heavy muscles rippled under their rich coats as they charged through the water without slowing down, spray cascading around them.

The smugglers grabbed for their bows and fumbled with pistols, but the cats ignored the them and smashed by into the forest. They had appeared and disappeared again in only a few seconds.

“This woods is filling up with predators,” Jake said. “And they’re gonna be hungry.”

Dan nodded. “Yeah, that fire might drive us a deer or two, but it’s driving the killers to eat the deer, too. Woods is going to get pretty crowded for a while.”

“At least they’ll have plenty of other meat,” Eileen suggested. “Besides us.”

“Maybe,” Dan said. “Or maybe the fire will drive ‘em crazy.”

They all reflected for a while on the idea of crazy cats. From the looks on their faces, it wasn’t a topic they enjoyed.

Jake looked the worst. He was sweating, his face white, and muttering.

“Hey, Jake, you OK?” James asked.

Jake didn’t respond, just kept up his soft dialogue with himself.

“He’s cracking up,” Eileen said. “Losing it. Doesn’t surprise me either. There’s a limit to what you can make people go through.” She looked at George.

John walked over to Jake and slapped him across the face. Several of the smugglers winced and others frowned. Jake shook his head slowly and stared at John.

“Get yourself together, man,” John said. “This is no place for scared children.”

An angry hum started among the group. But Jake only looked at John, his eyes wounded, but not really understanding. He was still shaking, but like a guilty dog, he turned and slunk away.

“That’s enough, John,” George said. “No need for that. And as for the rest of you, does anybody have something they’d like to complain about?” He rested his hand on his pistol. Nobody said anything. He walked over to the nearest, an unfortunate man named Tim. Putting his face inches away, George said quietly, “How about you Tim? I thought I heard you complaining just now.”

Tim complained all the time, but Charles hadn’t heard him say a word just then. Tim shook his head and shrank away.

“If you do have something against me, we can settle it right now,” George said. “Man to man.”

Tim shook his head again and stared at the ground. A burly man, he looked unusually small.

Eileen appeared to be grinding her teeth, and Charles wondered what would happen if George challenged her the same way. She might take him up on it. But the others looked sufficiently cowed, and George ignored Eileen. He went back to watching the fire.

Birds streamed out of the trees in all directions as the fire advanced. Charles wished he could fly, partly because he’d be safe from the fire even if it managed to jump the stream, and partly because he thought it must be an amazing sight, looking down from above on the flames fanning out into the wilderness.

Also, he reflected, if he could fly he could get home in a day or two.

The wind pushed the fire away from them, but it fought back to the edge of the stream, pawing at the water’s edge, roaring and howling and pacing the banks, looking for a place to jump over.
Bits of flaming brush and burning wildflowers dropped over the side, landing with a hiss in pools of water and smoldering on the dry rocks. Embers worked their way along roots embedded in the dry bank, gnawing the entire bank to ash. Snakes, driven out from the streamside vegetation, came writhing over the rocks.

That would teach the Appalachies to steal sulfur, Charles thought. This fire would burn hundreds of thousands of acres, toast uncountable animals, and kill every Appalachie for miles. If the wind shifted, it would crisp the smugglers too. A vivid lesson.

The south wind surged stronger, and the fire leapt skyward, roaring hundreds of feet overhead, its hot breath driving into the smugglers.

“All right, let’s get out of here,” George ordered. “Make it quick.” It was an unnecessary order. Many of the smugglers had decided to move along when they saw the snakes headed their way, and when the fire seemed ready to jump the stream the rest followed. The only exception was Jake, who stood as if deep in thought until someone grabbed his arm and pulled him along.

As they left, Charles imagined what the Appalachies must be seeing in their camp now. There would be a heavy cloud of gray smoke to the south. Animals would start fleeing past them, and birds would come streaming overhead. They’d shade their eyes, and then they’d realize what it must be. There would be panic in the village, children screaming, mothers and fathers shouting, everyone grabbing essential tools and running. And it wouldn’t be fast enough.

What would it be like to feel those flames storming through the trees behind you, faster than you could run, hot on your back?

Charles hoped he wouldn’t get the chance to find out.

More deer ran by as the band hurried through the gloomy woods. It pained the smugglers to see all that good meat just bounding away, but they didn’t have time to stop for butchering. All living things were in the same predicament, trying to get as far away from the fire as they could. They would worry later about re-establishing the food chain.

Eileen made an exception when a heavy cat came crashing through the underbrush only a few yards away, not seeming to see them. She unslung her bow, drew, and shot in a smooth motion, her arrow arcing into the cat’s ribs, a perfect running shot. The cat coughed, then veered away into the trees.

“You lost your arrow,” James said.

“That was worth losing an arrow,” Eileen said.

For a moment, Charles felt sorry for the cat. It hadn’t been bothering anybody. But he reminded himself that had they crossed paths at another time, it would have happily killed him.

The light faded fast. They walked until the twilight was deep, then they had to stop while they could still see to gather wood.

George insisted that the slaves make a water run, even though it was far too late in the evening to do it safely, especially with the woods crawling with predators. George sent an extra smuggler as a guard, but they would have needed eight or so extra guards to be safe. The hair prickled on Charles’ neck and arms as they trekked among the murky tree trunks. He made sure to rattle his armload of canteens together to make an intimidating racket, and the others followed his example. They moved down the hill with all the subtlety of a soldier in plate armor falling down a ladder.

They found a creek bed, but it was bone dry, and it didn’t get any damper under the slaves’ heated cursing. There was no time to check anywhere else, so they set off back up the hill in a foul mood. They all thought they felt something behind them in the gathering gloom, stalking. Once, a twig snapped nearby, and they all whirled to face it, but couldn’t see anything.

Gary sped up a little bit. Charles increased his pace to keep up, with just possibly a little extra for good measure.

“Come on, wait up,” Marguerite said, without much need, for she was passing Charles.

“For God’s sake, quit running,” the guard said. “It’s too dark for that.” His long strides carried him to the front of the pack.

“By the king’s moustache,” James said when they got back, “I could hear you banging around those canteens the whole time. Sounded like a runaway peddler’s wagon. And why are you breathing so hard?”

“Where’s the water?” Eileen snarled.

“Wasn’t any,” Charles said. He added a few phrases in his mind.

“What are we supposed to drink, you goddam little bastards?” Eileen said. “You weren’t supposed to just go on a walk.”

“Yeah,” others joined in. “What does ‘get water’ mean to you?”

“Thanks for going just out of sight and then running back.”

“Go back out there and find some!”

“Shut up,” James said. “Whining isn’t going to fill those canteens. It’s too dark now.”

The smugglers fell short of shutting up, but reduced their volume level to simulate compliance.

It seemed obscene, somehow, to build another fire, with miles of forest burning nearby. The roar and crackle were too close behind them. Charles had never seen anything like the enormous glow thrown up high into the night sky, dimming the stars.

The little campfire flickered wickedly in front of Charles, a vicious baby eying him hungrily. Domestic fires had always seemed warm and comforting, but now he had seen a wild one, and knew this little devil would kill them all if it could get away.

Smugglers lit other fires around the camp. They sat around them just a little further back than usual, without much talking.

The next morning, gray clouds covered the sky, driven north toward the fire by the gusting wind. The travelers couldn’t hear the noise from the flames anymore, but an enormous column of smoke rose to the north, melding into the low clouds to form a wall that looked like fog. The woods around them was silent except for the wind; no more animals ran past. Even the birds were gone.

The sky got darker throughout the day as they hiked, but no rain fell until it was almost dark. First a few sprinkles misted down in a torrential fog, but as the smugglers made camp big drops began lashing down in sheets. Everyone began to talk and laugh again.

At first the cold rain was a delight to Charles. It had been so long since he’d felt rain, and it was even good to feel chilly again after the long dusty summer. He relaxed as he pictured the fire withering behind him as the rain snuffed the hot coals, water filling the streams again and sogging all the leaves and trees between here and there.

That feeling lasted for a few minutes, but faded as he lay trying to fall asleep, his bedroll sopping up water. After several hours, the rain managed to drum most of the happiness out of him again and he began imagining the friendly heat of a nice warm fire. You’ve done a great job, he told the rain, now get out of here. The clammy bedroll stuck to his skin. He pulled it over his head but the water kept drumming on it, like someone relentlessly poking him awake, and the water dripped out of his hair and over his neck. But very deep down, he was happy to be miserable about a small thing like being wet.

He spent most of the night waiting for morning, as if somehow daylight would make the rain feel better. But when it got light, the rain was just as wet, and its cold fingers followed him wherever he went, touching and touching and touching him.

This was a real storm; it must have been a hurricane on the coast. The wind wasn’t knocking anything over in the mountains, but it whipped the trees and lashed the rain into their faces. The water fell in barrelfuls, tearing the fall leaves off the branches and bouncing off the ground in a mist that tried to rise but was beaten down again by the falling torrent. It seemed there wasn’t much air left in the air.

Behind them, barely visible through the storm, the smoke boiled up in an enormous white cloud, the last protest of the dying fire.

Charles tried to withdraw from the weather, to think about other things, to get lost in thinking about plans for the future. Water rolled down inside his shirt, and down his legs inside his pants. He daydreamed about finding a dry cave, or a partially fallen log with cozy leaves underneath. There would even be just enough dry twigs to start a very small, friendly and domesticated fire.

He found no such escape hatch.

They would have no problem finding water for their canteens tonight. The problem, they soon realized, would be finding enough ground to walk on. When they came to another stream, the muddy water foamed over the banks and washed branches and logs along.

“We could run a rope across,” Old Harry said.

George shook his head. “You go ahead and try it if you want to. I’m staying right here.”

“Spend the night here? We’ve only gotten a couple of miles.”

George shrugged. “Better slow than drowned. We can camp up away from the stream. I don’t like the look of this water at all. Let’s go back up to some higher ground.”

They were still slogging back uphill when Dan pointed upstream. “Look at that! Holy shit, look out!

A stack of water tumbled toward them, and it was in a hurry. The smugglers’ amble became a dash, and it was good they had already hiked a little way from the stream, or they wouldn’t have been fast enough. The water crashed through the valley, ripping up logs and boulders, and anything else that didn’t have deep roots. The new edge of the stream sloshed and foamed only a few feet from where they stood.

“Damn!” Henry said, rolling out the word slowly. Charles had never heard the camp tailor use profanity before. Henry did his illegal smuggling with punctilious uprightness, and he was generous with his disapproval for the careless habits and language of others. Disapproval was, in fact, about the only thing he was generous with.

“We’ll stay here for the night. Except further back, of course, on higher ground,” George said. “We’d better …”

The rest of the band turned their bug-eyed attention from the rushing water to a scream from behind them. Jake was running further up the hill, sobbing and shrieking.

“Jake! Come back here, you fool!” George shouted. Others joined in the shouting. They jogged up the hill after him, but Jake outpaced them, throwing off his pack. He tripped once, but picked himself up again, waving his arms as he ran as if he could pull himself along faster.

They ran after him, but it was halfhearted. Jake was out of sight quickly, and they had no wish to end up scattered and lost in the stormy woods.

They stood wiping rain out of their eyes and looking at each other.

“Dammit,” James said.

At a time like this, Charles always felt like somebody ought to say something, to sum things up and give them some kind of meaning, but all he could think of was the ridiculously obvious. Not wishing to say “That’s a real shame that Jake lost his mind and ran away to die alone in the storm, I really wish he hadn’t done that,” he kept quiet. Eileen and a few others looked like they had more pointed words than that, but they held their tongues.

For three miserable days, the disheartened band sat by the muddy river that had been a creek. The rain came down without slacking and the water tore through the tree trunks below them, piling up in white haystacks around the trunks, pushing small trees over into the current where their branches stretched and waved downstream.

The first night, they did their best to get out of the rain, cutting evergreen branches and lashing them together over frames to make huts. For further roofing, they slung bedrolls over the evergreens, creating dark, damp and leaky little huts. Crammed into these at about five or so to a hut, they sat watching the roofs sift the rain, slowing it down and collecting it in big drops. The water dripped in rhythms maddeningly close to regular, but not quite. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip … drip. The smugglers’ fingers turned pale and wrinkly. It was too wet even for the most skilled of them to start a fire, so all they could do was to sit, as the old children’s story went.

It was chilly, and not just because of the rain, Charles calculated. It must be September by now, although he had lost track of the exact date. Summer had lingered longer than usual, but now it was gone. If the smugglers dawdled much longer, the cold would get worse, and it would start to frost in the mornings.

Charles found himself sharing space with George, John, Old Harry, and Marguerite. He had no objection to Marguerite, but the other three were possibly the last he would have selected to share a makeshift shelter with during a downpour. He’d been helping build the huts and by the time he got around to picking one out, Most of them were full. Why couldn’t he have ended up in the same shelter as one of the good storytellers?

Old Harry’s stories were colorful and bawdy, but not good. George didn’t usually tell stories. John’s tales mostly embellished his adventures and accomplishments. Besides tell stories, the only thing other thing to do was watch the rain.

Or complain.

“This whole trip has been a disaster,” John said. “A damn disaster from start to finish.”

“We aren’t finished yet,” Old Harry said. He sneezed. “I think I’m coming down with something. Pneumonia, I’m guessing.”

“It is what it is. We lost a few more people than usual,” George said. “But that’s not all bad. We didn’t get a lot of sulfur, either. So if everybody was still alive, the shares would be pretty small. It’s best we don’t have to split it too many ways. Worst thing for me is, I’m going to have to do a lot more work to get enough people for next year. Usually I just have to find a few worthless bums to replace the worthless bums the cats ate.”

“Plenty of worthless bums around,” John said.

“Yeah, but I hate finding more people. You need a worthless bum who’s worth his pemmican. Preferably one who doesn’t like bragging to people about what he does in the summer. I guess I wasn’t careful enough last time. We picked up some kind of a spy or somebody with a big mouth.”

“Might not be just one bad apple,” Old Harry said. “Might be somebody back home trying to stir up trouble. You’ve got your enemies. We might have to clean out some rats’ nests when we get back.”

George grunted. “Maybe.”

It struck Charles that George now had him in a good spot to quiz him about everything that had happened during the kidnapping, now that they were on the topic of things that were going wrong. George hadn’t had a spare moment to do that since Charles had gotten back to the band.

But George didn’t know Charles had information he’d be interested in. Or did he know? When you tried not to look suspiciously guilty, you could feel guiltiness oozing out of your skin.

“Even with all the people we lost, we’ve got precious little sulfur,” Old Harry said. “I won’t be able to afford much of a vacation when we get back.”

“That’ll be better for you,” John said. “Less of a hangover. And didn’t you pick up a nasty bug in those brothels last year?”

Old Harry humphed. “Just a touch of flu, had to stay in bed for a while.”

“Flu, ha,” John said. “First time I ever saw flu do THAT to a man.”

“I’m going to get flu now if I can’t get a fire started,” Old Harry said. He scooped up some forlorn bits of soggy bark and tried to blow on them to dry them off. Then he got out his fire drill and started spinning it. After a long time a reluctant spark began to burn into the bark. Then a huge water drop landed dead center on it and blotted it out.

“Dammit!” Old Harry said. He threw the fire drill out into the rain.

They all stared outside at the murky woods. Charles felt naked without the protection of a fire. They were tiny and alone among the massive gloomy tree trunks, the only people for many miles. He watched for movement in the trees, and sometimes caught a flicker of something. But after he had stared long enough at it, the movement always turned out to be a swaying branch or a water drop on a leaf. Cats weren’t likely to be out hunting in a storm like this.

“By the way, I never asked you Charles,” George said, “did you find out anything useful when you were with those Appalachies? Anything about what in hell they were up to?”

Charles’ stomach flopped like a fish. He ran over what he should not say, and how he should not say it, and froze up.

“Charles?” George said, eying him.

“Ah, well, nothing much,” Charles said. No, that wasn’t good, that sounded evasive. He remembered there had been more Appalachie warriors than he expected. Yes, that was the tack to take. Lots of details about things that didn’t matter.

“Well, there were more of them than I thought. About thirty, so about as many fighters as we had. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“What were they after?” George asked. “Why all the attacks?”

“I guess they just wanted the sulfur. They said they were having some kind of war with other Appalachies.”

The leaders glanced at each other. “Don’t like the sound of that,” Old Harry said.

“Why not? They can kill each other off, suits me fine,” John said.

“I mean, I didn’t know there were enough of them to have a war,” Old Harry said. “And here we’ve been hiking right though with nary a care.”

“As long as you’ve got more than one person, you can have a war,” John said. “So why’d they pick you to kidnap, Charles?”

“Best I could tell, I was just the one they happened across that day. They were disappointed I was only a slave until they found out … well, that I was George’s slave.”

“So you gave them leverage,” Old Harry grumbled. “Way to go. If you’d kept your mouth shut we could have gotten you back for nothing.”

“They threatened to torture me if I didn’t tell them things,” he said. He was really coming across as a hero here.

George cleared his throat. He didn’t seem to enjoy the reminder of his giving in to the Appalachies’ demands for sulfur. That couldn’t have been a popular choice, Charles realized, to give up money from everyone’s share to buy an unpopular slave back. He tried to change the subject.

“I forgot to tell you,” he said. “There was somebody from Easton with them.”

“There was WHAT?” Old Harry said.

Charles explained what he knew about Roger.

“What did he look like?” Old Harry said.

“He’s a very big man,” Charles said. “Black hair.”

“Yes, that sounds like an Easton,” Old Harry said. “Probably had two eyes and two ears too, huh?”

Charles frowned, and tried to think of a better description. He was terrible at this kind of thing. “He was missing a front tooth … uh … he also had a coiled snake tattooed on his right arm.”

“Aha, now we’re getting somewhere,” Old Harry said. “I remember a guy like that from back home. Disappeared one day after the tax collector paid him a visit. Left his wife and kids and never came back. What was his name? Randy, Robert, something like that.”

“Roger,” Charles said.

“That’s it!” Old Harry said. “What a toad. Yeah, he lived in our village all right. Thought he was big stuff, Mr. Moral, the family man, always ready to tell you what you were doing wrong with your life. I’ve done some mean shit in my life but at least I’ve never run out on my wife.”

“You don’t have a wife,” John said.

“You know what I mean,” Old Harry said. “So he’s run out to the mountains and joined the Appalachies. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. No shame. That’s always the way with these high and mighty types.”

“Still,” George said, “now we’re getting somewhere. If he knew how to speak Easton, he might very well have been making contact with somebody in our group. Do you remember anything he said that might be a giveaway, Charles?”
No, no, no, Charles thought. Bringing up Roger had not been a good idea.

“No,” Charles said. And that was true. Roger hadn’t said anything about Warren, just flagrantly worn a gift from Warren.

George kept pumping him for him for information, so Charles gave him all kinds of useless details about Roger’s mannerisms, what he’d said about his life, the Appalachies’ houses, their weapons, their clothing, how their language sounded, anything to make it sound like he was being helpful.

Yet he had the uncomfortable feeling George knew he was not telling all he knew. And if that were true, he’d keep trying to get the information he wanted, and he would get it, too. The problem with George was that he could read people well, and the problem with Charles was that he was too easy to read.

“Well, the Appalachies won’t be bothering us anymore,” Old Harry said. “We cleaned all the rats out of the woods.”

“If a problem comes up,” George said, “deal with it thoroughly and you don’t have to deal with it again. That’s my motto. And in this case, we might have been solving a couple of problems at once.”

“What do you mean?” John asked.

“I’m not at all convinced those Appalachies didn’t have something to do with the ambush at Scranton,” George said. “If Roger knew how to speak Easton, then maybe somebody in our band was in cahoots with him. And if that’s true, that would explain how Scranton soldiers knew exactly where we were going to be. Somebody goes out hunting a few days before, meets Roger, tells him where we’re going to be, and the Appalachies pass it along to the soldiers.”

Charles groaned inside. There was Roger coming back to haunt him again. He was glad it was so overcast, so they couldn’t see his face very well. But nobody was looking at him anyway. The contempt they had for slaves was coming in handy now.

“Damn,” John said. “That makes a lot of sense. But why? What would their goal be?”

Old Harry snorted. “They’re just plain mean. They don’t need a goal. They’re bloodthirsty savages.”

“I meant the traitor,” John said.

“Seems pretty clear-cut to me,” George said. “The Appalachies get a cut of the sulfur, Scranton stops sulfur smuggling, and the traitor is obviously a plant from somebody trying to take over the market. There’s quite a few people who would like in on this, you know, but I’ve got my ways of discouraging the competition.”

Charles was paralyzed him with fright. The only thing George didn’t have was a name, and three feet away from him was the person who knew that name. If George asked him a question now, he probably wouldn’t even be able to speak. This was the end. They’d know he was hiding something. The nice thing was, it was raining too hard for them to do much torturing, so that was nice. They’d probably just kill him and Warren and throw them in the woods.

“It makes a lot of sense,” John said again. “It’s so simple. Like Old Harry said, those savages wouldn’t have any sophisticated plan.”

“No need to use such big words,” Old Harry said with irritation. “I never said anything like that.”

“I just mean they aren’t smart enough.”

“Oh,” Old Harry said. “Yeah, they’re dumb as rocks. Anyhow, it’s too late to ask them any questions now.” He laughed.

“I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” George said. “And when I do, that traitor will wish he’d been in that fire with the Appalachies.” Charles studied something outside.

“Maybe you should just pick somebody from the band, make an example of them,” Old Harry said, lowering his voice.

“Not a bad idea,” John said, also speaking just loudly enough to be heard. “Make sure nobody else gets any smart ideas.”

“Hmm. That isn’t a bad idea,” George said, rubbing his chin, “but you’d still have the traitor around.”

“You could always kill him later too, if you find out who it is,” Old Harry said. He wrung out a blanket and pulled it up over his head.

“That is an idea,” George said, stroking his beard. “Hmm. If we make an example out of somebody the traitor might even decide to be decent and well behaved. ’Course I’d kill him if I ever found him out, but we at least wouldn’t have any more trouble in the meantime.”

“Anybody we can spare?” Old Harry asked.

John chuckled quietly. “Hardly a smuggler in that bunch worth anything. Bunch of lowlifes, dregs of the poorhouse. All of them would stab us if they thought they could get away with it.”

“There’s Dan,” Old Harry said, “he’s worth something. He’s been with us a while. He thinks he’s smarter than he is, but we’d get pretty hungry sometimes without him along. That man can hunt.”

“Yeah, there’s a couple of them we’d really miss,” George said. “The rest, not really. They’re drunk whenever they can be, and careless, and most of them will be dead in a year or two anyway. No harm in speeding up the process a little.”

“There’s Tim,” Old Harry said. “ He’s no use to anybody, and he eats too much. I saw him limping a little today, too. We could kill two birds with one stone.” He rocked back and forth with suppressed laughter, and slapped his thigh.

“Nobody’d believe Tim would do that, though,” George said. “He’s a harmless old galoot.”

“Eileen’s been giving us some trouble,” John said. “Thinks she can get pushy with her opinion. Wouldn’t surprise me if she was the traitor.”

“Nah,” George said. “She’s no traitor. Yet. But she is dangerous. She’s smart and she’s got ideals. I don’t think she approves of us.”

“Takes a share of the money and judges us at the same time,” John said. “The worst kind.”

“That’s the trouble in this business,” George said. “You don’t want ideals, but you don’t want worthless thieves who will stab you in the back, either.” He gave the virtuous sigh of a man who is resigned to bearing his burden for the good of all.

“Eileen’s got friends,” John said. “There are lots of people who are pretty loyal to her.”

“That’s just the trouble with her,” George said. “She can’t just let the leaders lead. We’ve got to remind everybody who’s in charge.”

John shrugged. “Eileen’s no friend of mine. If you think it’s not too late to weed her out, we should. You’re usually right about these things.”

George drummed his fingers on his knee and stared out at the rain for a while. “Might not be best to do it now,” he said finally. “Last thing we need is a civil war. I’ll wait until we get home.”

“Works for me,” Old Harry said, yawning. He began to grope at Marguerite, who shrank away. He grabbed her shirt, yanked her close, and began fondling her.

“God,” John said with distaste, “Not in here. Go find a quiet place by yourself.”

“C’mon,” Old Harry whined. “What else are we supposed to do in all this rain? I’ll share,” he said with a sly grin, and punched John’s shoulder.

“No,” George said. “Knock it off. This shelter’s too small to have you snorting and knocking around in here. Bad enough to be crammed in here so tight anyway.”

Old Harry sulked, but he let Marguerite go. She moved into the farthest corner of the hut and sat there holding her knees, her face empty. Her hands were in fists, and her knuckles were white. Charles caught her eye and then looked away. That girl would kill someone someday.

He didn’t know where to look, so he just went back to looking outside, where the wind was still blowing sprays of water off the trees. Please, please let it stop raining, he thought. I want to go home.

He tried to get to sleep, but even when he finally did drop off, it wasn’t much of an escape. He slid in and out of uneasy dreams all night, the drips bringing him back to consciousness over and over. His nose started running, and when he woke up in the morning his throat was swollen and sore. That was just what he needed, a cold on top of everything. Maybe this was Old Harry’s pneumonia.

That day the rain eased off, but kept falling steadily. The surrounding mountains gathered up the rain and fed it down through ravines and gullies into the torrent below them, which kept rising.

“Another day of this will kill me,” Old Harry said. “Got to do something.” He looked hard at Marguerite and then stared at George.

“Go back to sleep,” George said. “You can do whatever you want in your dreams.”

“Oh, I do,” Old Harry said, grinning. “And I get far better women than this wench, believe me. But I’ve got to have more than that to tide me over until we get home.”

One corner of Marguerite’s mouth twitched in a spasm, but that was all.

“Speaking of getting home, that reminds me Charles,” George said. Charles froze. “Hey, don’t look so worried,” George said, smiling at him. “I told you I’d let you go free after this trip. I treat my slaves well. I’m not like Old Harry here.”

Old Harry shrugged. “You can be soft if you want.”

“Charles has been a good slave,” George said. “He deserves his freedom.”

Back to the kind and generous master, Charles thought.

“I was wondering,” George said, “where you’re planning to go when you’re free. It’s a harsh world out there. You could end up starving on the street if you’re not careful.”

Charles shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”

He’d been having second thoughts about his agreement with Warren, even while worrying that Warren was doing the same thing. It was one of his dreams to be free to study history and the sciences, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a steady income. But a Builder … did he really care about building anything? What did he owe Easton? What did he owe the world? That question had been nagging at him.

The Builders had sold him off to be a slave, or rather, none of them had stopped it from happening. They could have. And his own hometown, the place he’d been kidnapped from as a boy, had never bothered to send anyone to come look for him. The smugglers just used him. They didn’t care what he did or where he went. Why should he work hard trying to make the world better for scumbags like them, or for power hungry people like the Builders? The world was the world. It was crummy. Lots of new inventions weren’t going to make people any less horrible. The thing for Charles to do was somehow to get rich, and live a comfortable life as long as he could, on his own. That was the tricky part.

George was still talking. “… and I assume you really don’t want to keep smuggling.”

“Not really,” Charles said, trying not to sound too emphatic.

George laughed. “Not really. You mean not at all. Well,” he clapped Charles on the shoulder, “what about being my estate manager? You already do that more or less. Now, I’ll start paying you wages, good wages. You can start putting money away, get your own estate someday. Hell, you can keep helping out with setting up these trips, and I can give you a cut of the sulfur money. Up to you. We’ll get rich together, and more important, I won’t have to worry so much about my estate when I’m gone. I can trust you, Charles.”

Below his surprise, Charles felt a small amount of shame. George really was being very generous.

“Uh, well … that sounds pretty good,” he said. And he meant it. But with rising anxiety, he realized he was trapped. If he agreed to the job, and it got back to Warren, Warren would assume that Charles was going back on their deal, and would probably try to kill him to keep him from squealing.

But if Charles did not agree to George’s plan, George would be suspicious. Why wouldn’t he want such a position? What better offers could he have, and, more damningly, who would have made him such offers?

Or, Charles could pretend to agree to George’s plan, and then run off with Warren at some point.

Part of him wanted to take George’s offer. But another small part of him found appeal in being a Builder, despite his bitterness. It could be satisfying to help with a project like that, a tiny voice told him. And besides, the tiny voice nagged, what was he becoming, if he worked for George? He’d be just another smuggler, living off sulfur money. Living off blood.

“So, you’re up for it?” George said.

Charles needed time to weigh the options, to think, but he didn’t have any time.

“Ah, well, I ah, I don’t know what to say,” he said.

George smiled. “Surprised? You shouldn’t be. You know how much I value your help.”

“Well, I’d love to,” he said. “Thanks. Thank you. I mean I hardly know what to say.”

Now he’d done it. He’d have to come up with a very convincing explanation for Warren.

“No thanks needed,” George said. “Just do a good job. I know you will.”

“If it ever stops raining,” Charles said.

“Look at him,” George said, “ready to charge on out of here. Just settle down, Charles, unless you’re better at swimming than I think you are.”

“Lucky kid,” John said. “George just changed your life.”

Charles happened to catch Marguerite’s eye and was startled by the venom in her glare.

To be continued

Previous chapters:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Six

Gunpowder Trails

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

Chapter Six

For breakfast, Charles gnawed on a species of biscuit. It tasted suspiciously like a pulp of deer fat and acorn flour, heated over the fire until it turned into a dry clump. But it was his first food in a day, and he considered it the best clod of edible material he had eaten in some time. He was disappointed there did not seem to be seconds.

“Very good, thank you,” he told Roger.

Roger grunted.

“I could get used to it.”

Roger grunted again.

“So, ah.” Charles said. “Suppose the smugglers won’t deal. Of course, they will, but if they don’t, I’m sure I could be useful around here.”

Roger shook his head. “Sorry, boy. That was never the plan. We’re not a home for reformed smugglers. Or their slaves. The smugglers need to know we kept our word if they won’t deal with us, and they’ll find out, believe me. But you don’t really want to join us. You’re just trying to save your own skin. We wouldn’t be able to trust you.”

“But you joined,” Charles protested.

“That was different.”

“How?”

“Look, I’m sorry for you,” Roger said. “But life is tough out here. We do what we have to do to survive. We need gunpowder, and you got caught up in it. Count your blessings. We could have just shot you up right there, you know. Worst case, you’ve had a couple bonus days. Best case, you walk away with your band and we walk away with our sulfur and everybody’s happy.”

Charles, not comforted, tried a different tack. “Well, why don’t you just trade with them instead of trying to steal the sulfur?”

Roger laughed. “Sure, they’d trade gunpowder ingredients to a bunch of ‘savages.’”

“But they would,” Charles said. “George — that’s the leader, my master — trades it to anybody. Even the enemies of Easton back home. Anybody that has something valuable to trade for it, he’ll take it.”

“Sounds like a real nice man,” Roger said. “A model citizen. But why don’t you look around the camp and tell me what we might trade. See all the wampum coins? No? Well, we don’t have any. See all the food? We just ate most of it for breakfast. Think they’d like some glass beads? I bet not. Besides, what we do have is, we’re good at fighting. We like it. Makes us stronger and smarter. Gives us something to do. And, we don’t like trespassers. So we’ll do what we’re good at and charge our sulfur fee for you to go through our land.”

The idea that the smugglers were somehow trespassing still seemed absurd to Charles. Appalachies were a sort of native species, another predator like wolves or cats. What did they have to say about the land? Where were their farms, their villages? Even if it were theirs, there was plenty of room. Why make a fuss over a few smugglers hiking through?

“So,” Roger said, “you might say we are trying to trade. We’ll trade you back to the smugglers for a few packs of sulfur, plus we agree not to attack them any more. This time.” He grinned. “Sounds like a fair bargain to me.”

He pushed himself to his feet, and joined a group of Appalachies holding a discussion not far away. The women in the camp didn’t take part, as the smuggler women would have. Instead, they did their work, which seemed to be preparing deer hides, probably to make them into tent skins, blankets, or clothing.

 

Two days went by without much happening except the children running around the tents shouting. Charles wandered around the camp under the watchful eye of South Wind until he was acquainted with all of it. That took about fifteen minutes. He spent most of the rest of the time in his borrowed tent, staring at the ceiling or napping. Even if he had wanted to be social, Roger was gone with the rest of the men during the day, hunting or some such thing, and the women were busy working. There was nothing to do outside the tent except be stared at, and so he withdrew.

Early the third morning, while Charles was finishing his breakfast by the fire, the camp dogs ran out to bark at another party of Appalachie warriors, ten or so, who made their way through the trees. After they all greeted each other, the newcomers filed over to look at the darkskin captive, and squatted down next to Charles, pointing out interesting features to each other. He tried to ignore them, focusing instead on the dying fire, watching the coals turn white and crumble into ash.

The smugglers, he thought, were in more danger than they had realized. Before the ambush, they had the numbers to discourage attacks. But with the fresh forces, the Appalachie warriors now numbered about thirty, roughly equal to the smugglers’ numbers. They had fewer and inferior guns, but plenty of deadly looking enormous bows, as tall as a man, and long arrows with heavy tips.

It seemed the newcomers had not come for social purposes. Soon after they arrived, the men of the village began making what looked like farewells to the women and children, and gathering up their weapons and small packs.

Roger, strapping a quiver of arrows over his shoulder, came over to Charles. “Well, your adventure here at our camp is over,” he said. “We’re about to head out. We’re going to leave you untied, so we can move fast, but don’t try to get away. We’ll just shoot you. And then we’ll have to kidnap somebody else and try again.”

Charles jumped as the men burst into a shout, which they repeated several times, holding their bows and arrows over their heads, rattling them together.

“That would be our signal,” Roger said. “Come on, little slave.”

Running Elk lead the way into the woods at the brutal Appalachie half trot, followed by Roger. Charles fell into line behind them, and the rest of the warriors followed behind him.

Charles put his head down and watched the ground move by steadily, and the moccasins of the men in front of him flash in and out of his view, and tried not to think about the miles ahead.

Running Elk’s revolver bobbed up and down on his hip as he strode,  and the intricate design on the revolver butt caught Charles’ attention. It looked almost like writing of some kind. Yes, it was — a letter “W” in ornate curlicue script. Where would the chief get something like that? It reminded him of a gun he’d seen before somewhere.

It was Warren’s.

That was strange. No, it wasn’t strange, it was impossible. Warren hadn’t talked about missing a gun. He usually only wore one, and it looked just like this one. Maybe it was one of a matching set. Yes, he had seen two matching guns before, now that he thought about it.

Running Elk had Warren’s revolver. Yet he had not shot Warren to get it. At least, Warren had been fine the morning Charles was kidnapped. And surely the Appalachies weren’t fast enough to kidnap Charles and waylay the hunting band on the same morning.

Warren must have given it to him. But how? Why? The truth, which had been growing in his mind, now clobbered him like a club. Warren was the traitor.

He caught his toe on a rhododendron root and sprawled forward into the leaves. Easing up onto his knees, he gasped for air.

Roger stood over him. “You all right, little smuggler? Take a breath now.”

Charles felt like he was getting sick. He tried to crawl to his feet, then he definitely was sick. Roger jumped back.

“Oh dear,” Roger said. “Here, have some water. We forgot, you’re weaker than we are and you’re not used to traveling at a normal pace.”

Roger held his canteen above Charles’ mouth, careful not to touch his lips with it, and poured. Charles gulped the sloshing warm water, grateful for the kindness.

“Not too much, or you’ll get sick again,” Roger said. After a few minutes, he said, “Come on, let’s keep moving. You think you can do that? We’ll slow it down a little.” He spoke to the others, who nodded.

The new pace must have felt like a gentle stroll to the Appalachies, but it was still too rapid for comfort for Charles in his state of shock.

As he walked, he tried to take his new knowledge about Warren and bend it and twist it to make it fit what he knew about Warren. Maybe Warren had just lost his revolver, or … there was some other explanation. Which he couldn’t think of.

But no, if Warren had lost such a valuable possession, surely he would have complained about it, or asked people if they had seen it. Yet he had never mentioned it, and that silence was damning. And if Running Elk had mugged him in the woods and made off with the revolver, Warren would surely have thought it was interesting enough to bring up later.

The warriors followed Running Elk in a long detour around an immense rhododendron thicket that blocked their way. Finally the small shrubs gave way to larger rhododendrons that towered overhead, shading out the light with their huge dark green leaves, and the travelers were able to slip through the thick gnarly stems like mice in a meadow.

Charles continued trying to untangle the problem of the gun. It was far from proof of treachery that Warren’s gun had somehow come into Running Elk’s possession. And even if Warren had made some kind of secret deal, Charles had no proof that the Appalachies had been involved in the Scranton soldiers’ ambush. But it didn’t take a suspicious mind to leap to damning conclusions. Warren had been secretly communicating with enemies like the Appalachies. An unexplainable ambush had decimated the band. The chance the two were not related was small. George certainly would not ask for more evidence before drawing his own conclusions.

But it did not fit. On the one hand, he suspected Warren of being responsible for the death of his friend Big John in the ambush, and the many other smugglers who had fallen that day. On the other hand, Warren was the man who had stood up for Charles against the suspicions of the other smugglers. He was the intelligent and thoughtful man who had talked to Charles so many times about science and books. Warren was the opposite of a villain or a schemer. He was a gentle man, a man of strong character, a man who would never tell a lie. Could a man like that live his life as an enormous lie?

The hikers stepped out of the low green light of the rhododendron thicket into an eerie bright sunlight that filled the forest under the empty branches of dead trees. The group clambered out onto piles of boulders on a rocky ridge top, where the scattered trees somehow reached down through the rocks to hidden dirt far below. All the trees’ effort at growing had gone for nothing, though. Gypsy moths had stripped their branches bare of leaves, and all that remained were the white silk bags of the moths.

They all slowed down, careful to avoid twisting their ankles on the shifting rubble terrain.

Charles wondered if Warren had tipped off the Appalachies about where Charles would be so they could kidnap him. If so, he had essentially murdered Charles. It wasn’t often a murder victim could solve his own crime, he thought.

Even setting aside that Warren didn’t seem like a murderer, Charles could not fathom a motive for betraying the band or Charles himself. Warren seemed happy enough, and he was certainly wealthy enough. What could the Appalachies offer him?

Charles grieved over the betrayal, and his anger built. If he ever made it back to the band, he would expose Warren’s charade, clear the slaves of wrongdoing, and help end this disaster of an expedition as soon as possible.

But Warren didn’t have anything to worry about because Charles would never get back.

When Running Elk called a stop for lunch — pemmican again — Charles decided to probe Roger about what the Appalachies were up to and why they were working with Warren.

“You’re already great at using bows and arrows,” he said. “So why are you going to all this fighting and effort to get gunpowder? You can already hunt as well with bows as we can with guns.”

“That’s probably true,” Roger said.

“Then what do you need gunpowder for?”

“Well, curious little captive, what other use is there for gunpowder besides hunting for animals? Take a guess.”

“Well … shooting people, I guess.”

“That’s a crude way of putting it, but you’re right,” Roger said. “We need sulfur for gunpowder because we happen to be at war.”

“Appalachies fight in wars?”

Roger shook his head. “You really need to get all that ‘tree people’ junk out of your head,” he said, taking a bite of pemmican. “Of course we fight in wars.” Bits of food fell out of his mouth as he talked and he picked them off his lap and ate them again. “Did you think we all live as one happy family in the greenwood?”

Well, yes, that had been close to Charles’ idea.

“Just because there aren’t as many of us as there are of you doesn’t mean we aren’t human. By the way, while we’re on the topic, we’re not ‘Appalachies.’ We call ourselves, ‘The People.’”

“What does that make the rest of us?”

Roger grinned. “The almost people, I guess.”

“So why don’t the Appa — the People — just attack the smugglers and take a pile of sulfur, instead of sneaking around trying to grab a pack here and there?”

“Well,” Roger said, “why make a big attack where a bunch of people die when you can get a lot of sulfur without all that? How many warriors do you think we have lost so far, fighting you for this sulfur?

“Two? Maybe three?”

“None. Not one.”

“But you haven’t gotten any sulfur either,” Charles pointed out. “None of those hunters …” he stopped, unable to think of a diplomatic way of saying “None of those hunters you murdered was carrying any sulfur to speak of.”

“Not yet,” Roger said. “Not yet.”

They must have gotten something out of helping set up the ambush, Charles thought. Maybe some of the sulfur the smugglers had been carrying.

He decided to play curious. “So, do you fight the Scranton soldiers too in your wars?”

Roger eyed him. “Not if we can help it.”

Charles wondered if he were being too nosy. Roger might suspect he had found something out about Warren. On the other hand, they really had no way of knowing that the markings on the revolver made a letter “W,” implicating Warren. They couldn’t read.

“So your wars are pretty much just with the other Appa — People then.”

“We fight whoever we have to fight,” Roger said.

It was good he wasn’t a real spy, Charles thought. He couldn’t come up with any questions that would tell him anything of interest and not sound suspicious.

 

After lunch, the Appalachies pressed on, and instead of stopping in the early afternoon for a rest like they had after kidnapping Charles, they continued until it was nearly dark.

“We don’t want to get too far behind the smugglers,” Roger told Charles. “Your friends might have already taken off for the sunny south. We want to see if we can catch up with them before they do that so we don’t have to chase them for fifteen or twenty miles.”

The dancing yellow tongues of fire felt good in the chilly air. Charles wished he had the old fur blanket from the tent, but the whole group had traveled light. He scooted as close as he could to the flames.

“So, curious little smuggler,” Roger said, “tell me about yourself for once. I haven’t heard any news from Easton in many a year. You have a funny accent. What part of Easton are you from?”

“From the city,” Charles said.

“But I know a few people from the city,” Roger said. “Knew, I mean. They didn’t sound like you.”

“I was a slave to a rich family.”

Roger slapped his knee. “Ah, that’s it, that’s it. You talk like an aristocrat!”

“My master was a Builder,” Charles said.

Roger whistled. “A Builder! You do run in high circles. Builders and smuggling chiefs. You tell good stories, anyway.” He stopped and spoke at length to the other Appalachies, who stared at Charles.

“So you hung out with those loonies,” Roger said. “Big dreams, and lots of high taxes to pay for them. Just a fancy racket to get our money.”

“I wasn’t a Builder,” Charles said. “My master was.”

“So your master took all our money. You ate pretty good too, I bet.”

“It’s not like that,” Charles said, frowning. “Of course they liked to be rich. Anybody would. But you should have heard them argue over the best way to save the world. They really believed in it. A lot of them, anyway.”

He had believed in the Builders’ vision as well. And he had also hoped his master would set him free and then help him get into the Builders’ university, reserved for the most talented students.

“Yeah, all right,” Roger said. “They believe in it. They also believe in power. And they’ve got it. But how did a posh like you end up with a bunch of dirty sulfur peddlers, then? Maybe we should be trading you back to the Builders, eh, instead of the smugglers?”

“My master died,” Charles said. “Boils.”

“And they just sold you off?”

“Yes.”

Charles hadn’t spoken of these memories for a long time. He had felt like part of that family, even though he knew his place as a slave. He had loved them. The children were his schoolmates, and he had tutored the younger ones. They were his everyday companions around the estate. He joined in their football and lacrosse games out on the lawn and explored the university buildings with them after hours. He had thought they cared about him.

That had been his real education, when they sold him.

 

The next morning, the  Appalachies — Charles still called them that to himself, not able to stomach “The People” — got up early. After a couple of quick bites for breakfast, they charged off into the woods at top cruising speed again, seemingly unaffected by the previous day’s travel. Charles, not being one of The People, hurt all over and winced at every step for the first half hour.

As they came down off the mountaintop just before lunch and started heading downhill, Charles realized that the mountain in the distance must be the one the smugglers were camped on. The lines of the ridge looked familiar, and it felt like they had traveled long enough. He was almost home.

When they reached the summit of a smaller ridge in the valley, the mountain looming close, the Appalachies stopped and made camp. This time, they tied Charles’ hands and feet. So much for any last minute escape plans. So this is where they would kill him. He looked around. How was this for a place to die? Just another ordinary hilltop. A few wild rose brambles, a stone foundation from an ancient building, and a grove of massive white pines.

Roger and a handful of the other Appalachies set off for the mountain, leaving Charles and the rest at camp. The warriors left behind seemed content with this arrangement, immediately stretching out in their hammocks for a nap, an activity they seemed to indulge in any chance they got. They seemed to have forgotten, or didn’t care, that Charles couldn’t very well put up his hammock, or climb into it, while tied up. So he stayed where they had tied him, with his back to a tree, and stared through the trees at the mountain above.

He was not aware he had fallen asleep until he woke up to the sound of a boisterous herd of elk tramping through the woods straight toward him. When he opened his eyes, he realized it was just Roger and the others returning. The long drought had made the leaves so brittle that anyone moving through the woods without meticulous effort could be heard a long way off. Charles sat up, instantly alert, heart pounding, watching Roger’s face to try to guess what had happened.

The warriors conferred, seemed to be debating, and then began to nod.

Roger leveraged himself up into his hammock and lay back with a sigh. He said something in Appalachie, and the men standing nearby laughed.

Charles refused to beg for information. He lay his head back against the rough bark of the tree and closed his eyes, staring at the inside of the lids.

After a while, Roger ended his conversation, and spoke in Easton. “You asleep, little smuggler? I wish I could sleep through a racket like that.”

Charles opened his eyes. “No.”

“Well, we won’t know till tomorrow what your friends will do. We made our offer. They wanted time to think about it. We shall see.”

“All right,” Charles said.

“We’re going to go meet them tomorrow morning. Just you and me, that’s the deal. If there’s somebody there with the sulfur as agreed, you can go home to your nice camp. If not, well, that will be a shame. I’ve kind of gotten to like you.”

That the smugglers had even agreed to think about it gave Charles more hope than he had before. Or, maybe they had done no such thing, and Roger was just giving him, and them, one last chance anyway. Maybe the smugglers would come to the meeting place, but try to ambush the Appalachies. It seemed very trusting of Roger, he thought, to agree to show up alone like that and count on the smugglers to keep their word. Knowing George as he did, Charles wouldn’t have made that mistake.

And so Charles and the Appalachies sat all afternoon, waiting for morning. Time crept. Charles tried to be grateful for that. If it was his last afternoon, he wanted it to drag on as long as possible. That thought reminded him of all the “lasts” he had now experienced, without realizing it. Last sunset over the Chesapeake Bay. Last  oyster dinner. Last book. Which one was it? He couldn’t remember now.

He imagined what would be going on in the smugglers’ camp. George would be furious, of course, but it would only show in his cold eyes. James and John would be demanding a full attack. Warren … what would Warren be doing? Playing his old role, pretending to be the calm one, the voice of caution. Probably trying to convince them that it was too risky to deal with the Appalachies.

The Appalachies, now that they were within an easy hike of the smugglers’ camp, kept a sharp watch, with about half the group at any given time standing sentry. The rest sat and talked and seemed to be telling stories. Charles envied their ability to look forward to another full day of life, and probably many more after that, a privilege they probably weren’t even grateful for.

Sunlight crept up the tree trunks. Yellow and red leaves spiraled down. Sunlight crept higher up the tree trunks. More leaves spiraled down.

When Roger suddenly switched over to speaking in Easton, Charles was glad for a break in the monotony.

“Running Elk wants to know about the Builders,” Roger said. “So do I, although I only half believe you didn’t make it up about being mixed up with them. What are they really up to, if they aren’t just out to make money?”

“Just what they say they’re up to,” Charles said. “Taking the world back to where it was. But doing it better this time. No Calamity.”

“And the king bought that,” Roger said.

“Sure. He knew it would make Easton the most powerful nation in the world, eventually, if it worked. He had a bold vision.”

“Dream big, I guess,” Roger said. “I bet he didn’t realize the Builders would be in charge. Everybody knows they really run the show. Picking all the brightest and best and indoctrinating them in their learning. And the ones that don’t make the cut still get special perks, so they’re good supporters. And on the face of it, as loyal as can be to the king, of course.”

He spoke with the chief again.

“Running Elk wants to know how far along they are with their ‘save the world’ stuff. Just what everybody wants to know, I guess.”

“They don’t make any secret out of it,” Charles said. “Everybody acts like it’s some kind of secret society.” He could still see Professor Tom at one of the many discussions around his master’s dinner table, glasses pushed back on his head, ranting about the conspiracy theorists.

“So, what have they done? What practical things have they come up with?” Roger asked.

“Archaeology is the big thing they’re working on right now. It’s like a big puzzle. People have to be patient until they can put together the pieces. But it’s like everybody’s looking over their shoulders saying ‘Are you done yet?’” He could almost hear Professor Tom saying the words. “But yes, there’s been lots of advances. We’re — they are — learning about physics, biology, math …”

Roger held up his hands. “Whoa, whoa, all right, I get it, lots of big words I can’t understand. But what have they done that does anybody any good, besides make bigger and better weapons so they can kill more people at a time?”

“Those big words,” Charles said, “mean they’re figuring out how the world works. That’s the key. The ancients knew secrets about how to harness the forces of nature.”

“Ah, magic,” Roger said, in the same tone he might have used if Charles had told him a story about a talking pig.

Typical ignorant peasant, Charles thought. Just another one of those who ran down what the Builders were doing, when they didn’t even understand it. They saw it as some kind of dangerous plot.

To Roger, he said, “They’ve made lots of breakthroughs.”

“Such as?”

“Well, indoor plumbing, for one.”

“And what might that be?”

“Well, pipe systems in houses. Pipes to take out sewage. And bring in water.”

Roger wrinkled his nose.

“Not the same pipes,” Charles said. “They have pipes for each.”

“Oh. So … they shit right in their houses and then wash it out?”

“Well, kind of,” Charles said. “There’s a special room for it, and … well, trust me. It’s better.”

“Yeah, for the big shots, maybe,” Roger said. “Meanwhile, the peasants still have to shit in the hedgerows and carry water for a mile if they want any.”

“When I left, the Builders were working on a steam engine,” Charles said, thinking it might be good to try a new tack. “You could use it to make wagons go by themselves. They were getting close to making it work.”

Roger laughed long and loudly, slapping his knee, while the Appalachies stopped what they were doing and stared at him. When he could catch his breath, he stopped and explained to them. Some of them laughed a little, without conviction, but the rest looked puzzled and a little worried.

“Unlike my friends here,” Roger said, “I do not believe in magic.”

Running Elk now broke in and spoke at length, Roger listening and nodding. He turned to Charles again. “Chief wants to know about weapons. Which is a good idea to find out about, since that’s about the only practical thing the Builders do make. As they made sure to tell all of us in case we didn’t want to pay our taxes.”

Charles figured there would be no harm in telling the Appalachies what little he knew about weapons, so he gave an outline on projects the Builders had been working on. There were the rifles that fired more consistently and accurately, and the long artillery guns, which could throw destruction a long way, but were too expensive to use much. Roger relayed it all to Running Elk, who watched Charles’ face as if he were trying to guess whether Charles was lying.

“But it’s not just weapons,” Charles said. “It’s better farm tools, better wheels and wagons. And,” he added, wondering if he was supposed to be talking about this, “there are some secret labs where they are working on very powerful forces, the same forces the ancients learned to control. But I don’t know much about those.”

“Secret labs! Ha,” Roger said.

Charles went back to watching the sunlight creep up the trees. From the mountaintop, off to the south, he saw a dark plume of smoke rising. The smugglers’ campfires.

When the last light blazed orange on the tips of the treetops, then faded, the Appalachies lit their own fire. They also had the courtesy to lift Charles into his hammock. But he did not sleep. His body was tense, his nerves were jittery, and he shivered in the chilly fall air. As he fidgeted and tossed, the rope chafed at his wrists and made his feet numb.

It also didn’t help him relax when cats came close in the darkness. He could hear them padding in the leaves. They circled the camp several times, then he heard claws scratching on bark. In one of the treetops, glowing eyes appeared, two sets of them, watching the campfires.

As morning approached, the eyes left, and Charles finally got a little sleep.

At dawn, the Appalachies started getting out of their hammocks, and Charles sat up, but Roger waved him back down.

“You can go ahead and sleep a bit,” he said. “They’re just getting a head start.”

That didn’t make any sense. A head start to do what?

The warriors didn’t do much talking, just some hasty breakfast chewing. Then there was a rattle of arrows as the Appalachies slung quivers over their shoulders, and crashing of their footsteps in the quiet morning, fading into the distance.

Charles was still awake when Roger shook him again. On other mornings, Roger had kidded him about how he had better eat hearty, because he didn’t know how many more chances he would get to eat pemmican, but this morning he said nothing, just handed him a lump of the stuff. They were alone in the camp.

“Where did they go?” Charles asked.

“It’s just me and you going to the rendezvous,” Roger said. “That’s the deal, has to be just us. But in case something happens, we don’t want to be very alone.”

After the sun was well up in the sky, Roger untied the rope around Charles’ feet, but left his hands tied.

“Don’t try anything, little captive,” he said. “I’d hate to have to shoot you.” He put a heavy hand on Charles’ shoulder, not roughly but firmly, and guided him toward the top of the mountain.

“Your friends have to dump the sulfur packs at out meeting spot, and leave them there with just one person to meet us. That’s why the boys had to get such an early start, to make sure everything was quiet before the smugglers got there. When the sun is halfway to noon, which is not very long now, we’ll see if they decided to bring any sulfur. If they didn’t, or if they try any tricks, we’ll kill you on the spot, and they know it.”

“How much sulfur?” Charles asked, his mouth dry.

“Three packs.”

The disappointment crushed down on him. Three packs of sulfur was worth a heap of wampum coins, and would make a lot of gunpowder. And since the smugglers only had about twenty packs left from their whole trip, giving up three would slash deeply into their profits. There would be no sulfur at the meeting spot.

As they climbed, Charles wondered what it would be like to be dead. Did you go to heaven? Or to the hall of the gods? Would he be one of the ghosts in Eliza’s stories, hanging around here ready to frighten Warren to death next time he camped in the neighborhood? He hoped ghosts could still strangle people even without real fingers. Or would he just stop being altogether, and rot away and become part of the trees and worms? In that sense, the circle of life would go on, but the Charles part of the circle would be so greatly diminished he didn’t find it very comforting.

It was a cool day, and partly cloudy, more cloudy than he had seen in a long time. Maybe the drought was finally about to break.

They reached the crest of the mountain, and Charles remembered having passed through the spot with the smugglers before they arrived at their hunting camp. He remembered how desperate he had been then to stop walking and find food, and the way every quarter mile had taken what seemed like hours.

Just ahead, he remembered, there was a large meadow. He could see light breaking through the trees on its edge now.

“It’s in this meadow,” Roger said quietly. “That’s where they had to leave the sulfur.”

Charles allowed himself to hope for a miracle of generosity from George. If he was disappointed, the disappointment wouldn’t last long.

They came to the edge of the clearing. Roger pulled Charles in front of him as a shield, held a revolver to his head, and they walked out together into the light.

 

Next chapter

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five