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