Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Eight

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

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

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Jake, you OK?” James asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You lost your arrow,” James said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the water?” Eileen snarled.

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

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

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

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

“Go back out there and find some!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He found no such escape hatch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dammit,” James said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or complain.

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

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

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

“Plenty of worthless bums around,” John said.

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

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

George grunted. “Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Charles?” George said, eying him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There was WHAT?” Old Harry said.

Charles explained what he knew about Roger.

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger,” Charles said.

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

“You don’t have a wife,” John said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” John asked.

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

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

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

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

“I meant the traitor,” John said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anybody we can spare?” Old Harry asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the kind and generous master, Charles thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you’re up for it?” George said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If it ever stops raining,” Charles said.

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

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

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

To be continued

Previous chapters:

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

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Six

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

Chapter Six

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

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

Roger grunted.

“I could get used to it.”

Roger grunted again.

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

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

“But you joined,” Charles protested.

“That was different.”

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Warren’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s probably true,” Roger said.

“Then what do you need gunpowder for?”

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

“Well … shooting people, I guess.”

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

“Appalachies fight in wars?”

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

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

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

“What does that make the rest of us?”

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

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

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

“Two? Maybe three?”

“None. Not one.”

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

“Not yet,” Roger said. “Not yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“From the city,” Charles said.

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

“I was a slave to a rich family.”

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

“My master was a Builder,” Charles said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And they just sold you off?”

“Yes.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles opened his eyes. “No.”

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

“All right,” Charles said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the king bought that,” Roger said.

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

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

He spoke with the chief again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such as?”

“Well, indoor plumbing, for one.”

“And what might that be?”

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

Roger wrinkled his nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Secret labs! Ha,” Roger said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did they go?” Charles asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Three packs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Next chapter

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

Gunpowder Trails Chapter Five

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

The Appalachies strung their hammocks between trees on a rocky slope near the summit of a mountain, on ground Charles would not have considered a campsite at all. To call it a slope was optimistic; it was more of a dive. Had he tried to sleep there in his usual bedroll, instead of a hammock, he would have been in terror all night, afraid rolling over would put him a thousand yards downhill.

The Appalachies napped in their hammocks in the mid-afternoon sun, except for one sentry. The sentry also lounged in his hammock, but kept his bow on his lap and his eyes open.

The Appalachies did not bother to tie Charles up. To get away, he would have had to climb from rock to rock, and had he tried it, they could have cooked supper, eaten it, taken a nap and then shot him down at their leisure.

The camp was simpler than Charles had expected. He hadn’t given much thought to the Appalachies’ living arrangements, but he had pictured huts of some kind, perhaps a pot of something cooking over a fire, tools scattered around, and people doing primitive activities like making arrows or daubing on face paint.

All this camp consisted of was the hammocks and a pile of wood, which the Appalachies had not lit. Each warrior had a small leather pack tied to his hammock.

There were only ten warriors, so Charles concluded they were heading for some kind of main camp somewhere. It was remarkable this handful of savages had been able to make the smugglers’ lives such a nightmare.

It was almost as if the myths were true, that the Appalachies were part spirit, part body, ethereal people of the woods who could melt away when they needed to and reappear elsewhere. These Appalachies looked pretty solid though, and had not tried any melting as far as Charles had noticed. If they were spirits, they were smelly ones. And their hammocks were pretty ordinary. The one they had given him seemed to be woven out of some kind of plant fiber.

It was comfortable, which freed up his mind to worry without any distractions. What reason could they possibly have for kidnapping him? Were there any of these reasons that did not involve disaster for himself? He thought not.

His first thought, when he had turned around and seen the Appalachies standing behind him, had been, Why me?

His next thought, as they prodded him along through the woods, had been, Why am I not dead yet? He could see why the warrior with the gun hadn’t shot him so close to camp, but the other Appalachies had bows, so it wasn’t like they needed to take him somewhere private to shoot him without drawing attention. Why didn’t they just fill him full of arrows like they had done to Pete and get on with their day?

He didn’t know a word of Appalachie, and in fact had never met anyone who did, so he had no way of getting answers to these questions. The Appalachies made no effort to communicate with him, either. They just jabbered to each other in their twangy, nasally, barbaric language. Occasionally he thought he caught a word that sounded familiar, but it could have just been a chance melding of syllables in the torrent of sound.

The three warriors who captured him herded him farther into the woods, where seven others joined them. They stared at Charles and spoke in an excited and congratulatory gibberish. Then they spoke to Charles, firing one short word at him several times. When he failed to react, they repeated it several more times and jabbed him with a gun barrel by way of illustration, until it dawned on him that the proper interpretation was “move it.” He soon concluded that it meant “move very quickly,” because they kept up a trotting pace that left Charles panting. He had thought his long journey on foot had already toughened him up.

Despite the rush, Charles studied them as he got the chance. They were the first Appalachies he had ever gotten a good look at. He was disappointed they were not the ghostly white of the stories. They were more the color of fine bread, lightly burned. The strangest part about them was their eyes. In the kingdom of Easton, if you passed green or blue eyes in the street, you looked again. But most of these men had eyes in some shade of green or blue.

They wore buckskin, and catskin caps like some of the smugglers, with the added style touch of a claw dangling above each ear.

Their sickly light-colored hair was long, down over their shoulders, and straight. Their goat-like beards drooped far down their chests. One of them had painted his head a blazing red, achieving the effect of a walking fire.

By the time the Appalachies decided to make their mountaintop rest stop, Charles estimated they had already put about twenty miles between them and the smugglers. The halt was well timed, because Charles had just decided he was going to lie down soon, even if they shot him. His legs no longer felt like they were on fire, because they had settled into semi-numbness.

Charles had hung onto the hope as they fled that smugglers might come charging through the trees to rescue him any second, but that hope shriveled as the hours passed. No smuggler ever ventured this far from camp. By now, Charles was just another one of those unfortunates who had disappeared in the last few weeks and would never be seen again.

When they woke up from their naps, the Appalachies stayed in their hammocks, chatting. Charles could tell, to his annoyance, that they were often talking about him.

The one closest to Charles was the man with painted red hair. The dying beams of the day’s sunshine made the man’s beard glow, and as Charles looked at it he realized with amazement that the hair wasn’t painted at all. It was simply red. Did any of them have blue hair, or green? Charles didn’t realize he was gawping at the man until the Appalachie imitated him, staring back at him with big frog eyes and mouth agape, and laughed. Charles quickly looked away.

For supper they ate pemmican, and handed a little to Charles. The recipe tasted about like the smugglers’ pemmican, with possibly a little more fat in it and another flavor Charles couldn’t identify, some kind of herb. The seasoning did not do much to disguise the familiar nasty taste.

As twilight deepened, Charles began to wonder if the Appalachies would ever light a fire. He imagined hanging in his hammock in the pitch black, straining his ears for the padding of cat footsteps or claws tearing at the bark of his tree. He wondered if maybe this was why the Appalachies hadn’t killed him. Perhaps they were performing some kind of religious ceremony involving leaving him there in the dark to be eaten, while they went over the mountain and started a nice roaring fire.

To his great relief, when it was almost dark they did light a fire. So that was why the smugglers never saw any smoke from any Appalachie fires. The savages waited to start their fires until the sky was darker than the smoke column would be, and probably got up at dawn to put them out.

Charles did not sleep well. For hours he stared up at the dark leaves, the glowing sliver of crescent moon sometimes peeking through. Crickets rasped, owls hooted, and occasionally a sentry coughed or stirred the fire. Eventually he dozed in and out, dreaming that the Appalachies had set up a village on the edge of Easton, where the huts were made out of giant mushrooms, and he and the other children went to play football even though the adults told them it was dangerous, and George was there, playing goalie, and then Jeff came to warn them that soldiers were coming.

Between dreams like this, he despaired of ever getting any real sleep, and was surprised to wake up a short time later and find that it was getting light, and the Appalachies were putting out the fire.

They soon set off again at what Charles was disappointed to find was their habitual rapid pace. It wasn’t as if they were in a hurry; they just strode along as if it had not occurred to them that anyone might want to walk slower. If they noticed Charles dropping behind, they poked him with their weapons to remind him that this was no time for ambling.

By noon, ferocious barking from camp dogs greeted the travelers, and then sad-eyed hounds with jutting ribs jumped around them, growling at Charles and then yelping as the Appalachies kicked them away.

The camp wasn’t much, only a handful of skin tents ringing a central stone fire pit. Women, children, and a handful more warriors came out to meet them, jabbering their twangy speech.

Charles did some quick counting and figured there were about twenty warriors total, and maybe fifty or sixty people in all with the women and children. The small children, boys and girls, all wore skirts, and they ran around him in circles much like the camp dogs had done, jumping and shouting and pointing. The adolescent boys wore buckskin trousers like the men, though they were all shirtless. The women and girls, Charles was interested to note, wore about as much clothing as women in Easton. The rumor that Appalachies ran around half naked was mostly untrue, then.

Many of the women wore necklaces made of colored glass beads, probably ground out of the bottles and glass shards that could be found everywhere in ancient town sites. Some women wore dangling glass earrings as well.

The adults, unlike the shouting children, looked at Charles with narrowed eyes, giving him the kind of calculating look a murderer might use when evaluating the most effective spot to stick a dagger.

A tall, stocky Appalachie with a giant black beard stepped forward. He settled down on a stone by the fire ring, and another warrior grabbed Charles by the shoulders and pushed him down onto another stone on the opposite side of the fire.

Charles could not understand what he was seeing. The man was as dark-skinned as he was, with eyes so brown they were almost black, and the familiar light-colored palms of normal hands.

“Well now,” the man said in good Easton, with a rural accent not very different from the one spoken around Trappe. “What do we have here?”

After a pause, he said, “Might want to shut that mouth before something flies in.”

“But, but, who — how —?”

The man laughed. “Roger’s my name.” He seemed to be searching for words. “You will have to pardon me if I’m a little rusty with my Easton. I don’t use it very often.”

“But how, why, are you here?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Roger said. “Me, I guess I’m one of those lost woodsmen you hear about. One of those who went out in the woods and never came back. Died a horrible death at the hands of the, uh, what do people call them, the Appalachies. To tell you the truth, I came very close to doing that, but that’s another story for another time.”

Charles glanced around, and lowered his voice. “So … you can’t leave?”

Roger shrugged. “I guess I could. I don’t want to. By the way, you don’t have to worry about them understanding you. They don’t know any Easton besides ‘My name is Roger and I mean no harm.’ But as far as leaving goes, fact is, son, life here is a lot better than scrapping by in those disease-infested villages trying to get enough money to pay taxes and then just when you pay up, you get conscripted into the army. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly why I left.”

“It’s better living with savages?”

Roger frowned. “You oughtn’t to call them that. They are good people. But no, I didn’t come out here to live with them. I came out to live on my own in the wilderness where no king can tell me what to do. Didn’t think too much about the people already living here. But enough about me. What about you? You’re pretty small for a smuggler. How’d you get mixed up in that?”

“I am not a smuggler,” Charles said. “I’m a slave to a smuggler.” This seemed to be an important point to make. Now that he was over his shock at meeting a fellow Easton out in the wilderness, thoughts of what might be in store for him came rushing back, and his pulse started pounding faster. “What are you going to do to me? Why didn’t they … why am I still …” Charles hesitated, unsure whether it was smart to remind his captors that they didn’t usually take prisoners.

“Why didn’t they shoot you full of arrows and leave you for the cats to find? We’ll get to that,” Roger said. “So, you’re working on your big dream of becoming a real smuggler someday, are you?” He said “smuggler” the way other people said “plague sore.”

“No,” Charles said. “No. I am going to …” he stopped. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do if he ever got free from all the smugglers and Appalachies who seemed to be lining up for a chance to hold him captive. But he did know one specific. “I’m not going to be a smuggler, whatever I do. I’m not going to spend one more minute on the gunpowder trails.”

“Right,” Roger said. “And the smugglers will just let you walk away, even though you know so much about them you could get them all killed if you spill the beans on them. I suppose you’ll go to town and set up as a house servant, which will be way better than being a forest servant.”

“Not a servant,” Charles said. “Something else.”

Roger shook his head and looked at him with a half smile. “You poor little slave.”

Charles tightened his fist. That was all he did, though, because Roger was pretty large and had a long knife strapped to his waist.

As he sized up Roger, Charles noticed two familiar looking packs leaning against a tree behind him, one with a tin medallion dangling off it. His stomach fell. He had seen that before. It was old Jumpy’s. When they found him dead a couple years ago, he’d been stripped of his weapons and pack.

So these Appalachies had harassed the smugglers before. This man may even have killed Jumpy himself.

Roger followed his glance, and gave an ugly smile when he saw Charles’ wide eyes. “You’ve seen those packs before, have you?”

Roger was a traitor to his kind, an Easton man who lived with the white savages and killed his own people. Charles had known, theoretically, that he was among people who must have killed smugglers. But seeing the trophies displayed here gave him a strange slurry of emotion: hatred, anger, fear and bewilderment to find himself identifying with the smugglers.

Roger said, “So you’re not one of them. But you sure get upset when they get killed. And you’re telling me you’re just a prisoner, held against his will by the awful smugglers and forced to go on the trail, huh? Or you’re just saying that so we’ll let you go.”

“They’ve treated me well,” Charles said, breathing fast. Yes, he was upset about Jumpy and Pete and the others who had died, people he’d shared life with. That didn’t make him a smuggler. That didn’t mean he was one of them, or that he was content with being a slave.

Roger switched to chatting with the Appalachies, then turned to Charles again.

“Chief is on the way, and we’ll grill you more when he comes. Until then, you can just sit here or wander around the camp. Just don’t try to run away. Chief wants you alive.”

“I’m not going to tell him anything,” Charles said.

Roger grinned. “Oh, I think if he wants you to talk, you’ll talk,” he said, holding his knife blade out over the coals and watching a small blue tongue of flame lick around it. “But we already know about as much as we need to about your bunch. Still, I hope you’ll tell us the truth.”

Charles was again puzzled at his emotions. He was no smuggler, so he should have no shame in telling the Appalachies what they wanted to know. Why should they be his enemies? And yet he felt somehow that he should refuse to talk, that to cooperate with the Appalachies or join their side would be treachery. He put his face in his hands.

Roger now spoke to a small boy, about ten or eleven years old, with almost white blond hair down to his shoulders. The boy’s ribs showed clearly. They didn’t overeat in this camp.

The boy motioned Charles to follow.

“South Wind here will show you around camp,” Roger said. “He’ll show you where you’ll sleep. And don’t try to sneak off. South Wind is pretty good with a knife.”

He spoke to South Wind again, and the boy laughed, pulled a knife out of his belt, flipped it into the air and caught it by the handle again, without seeming to make any effort. Charles was impressed. It took a little of the sting out of being assigned such a puny bodyguard, although not all of it.

The boy strutted through the camp, leading Charles and a procession of chattering camp children. Charles noticed as he looked around that the Appalachies seemed to have been at the campsite for some time. The ground in front of the tents was packed down, and well-worn trails led off into the woods, among a scattering of stumps with chop marks.

The tents were large, with straight walls and sloped roofs made of stitched hides. Each tent roof had another little tent on top, which puzzled Charles until he realized it must be a cover to keep rain out of the smoke holes. Smoke was pouring out from under the covers now, along with the smell of roasting meat. A pang shot through his stomach, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since morning.

Charles noted several other fire spots around the outer edge of the circle of tents, where the savages must stoke fires at night to keep the cats away. The dogs would help keep the cats away too, he guessed. Fierce as the cats were, they would usually run from a pack of dogs.

The boy came to a dingy tent with spider webs over the doorway, and pointed at it. Charles peered into its dark interior and hesitated. Was he supposed to go in there? He looked at the boy, who just stared back.

Charles remembered now how weary his legs were, but he was reluctant to enter the tent, which reeked of old deer fat and wood smoke and had who knew what inside it. So he just sat down with his back against one of the tent poles. He found himself at the center of a ring of grinning children, with South Wind seated in the center, his arms crossed, stern in his sentry duty.

They were a motley group, with long tangled hair and ragged, dirty clothing. They were light brown like the warriors, an unhealthy pale tone that looked as if they had some kind of terrible disease that had leeched the color out of their skin and hair. Where their clothes were torn, even whiter skin shone out. Many of them had yellowish hair, some had very light brown hair and there were a few more of the absurd red-haired ones too. Surely only a disease or malnourishment would do that to hair.

Tired of being the circus bear for these children, he crawled into the privacy of the tent and shut the flap, wondering if this would meet South Wind’s sentry surveillance standards. The children increased their chatter, but nobody followed him in.

It was dim in the tent, with a glow from the smoke hole in the roof, and he listened carefully to make sure he was the only inhabitant. The tent appeared to have been vacant for a while, and anything might have crawled in here — snakes, dogs, mice, spiders. He heard nothing rustling, and gradually as his eyes adjusted, he began to make objects out in the gloom. A couple of sturdy poles supported the beam of the roof, and in the center was a ring of stones for a fireplace. There was plenty of space. He wondered why it was empty. Maybe one of the warriors had died recently and they hadn’t gotten around to taking this tent down yet. Or maybe they kept an extra tent handy for prisoners, a sort of town jail.

He found a bundle of fur, seemingly an heirloom of sorts, holding the musty smell of many nights of dried sweat. Charles shook it out to make sure nothing was living in it, then checked the floor to make sure nothing was living under it. Then he flattened out the fur, stretched out, and closed his eyes.

He woke up to the tent door flying open and sunlight streaming in. He sat up and covered his eyes.

“Wake up, sleepy!” Roger boomed. “Hope you’re all rested. The chief would like to ask you some questions. Well come on, don’t just sit there blinking, get a move on!”

Charles staggered out into the sunlight, where South Wind was still vigilant at his post. Followed by South Wind, Charles followed Roger across the camp toward the fire ring. Charles’ mouth was dry and cracked like an empty stream bed, his stomach screamed at him, and his thoughts struggled to reassemble themselves out of sleep. It was late afternoon, the sunlight golden and drowsy.

A muscular man whom Charles took to be the chief sat by the fire, surrounded by warriors, warming his hands and watching Charles walk toward him. The chief’s face was mostly hidden by long brown hair and a bushy beard with streaks of gray in it. It was hard to read his expression, but his eyes looked sly and calculating, like the rest of the Appalachies. He was dressed about the same as the others, except that he wore a necklace with the white skull of a cat dangling from it.

The Appalachies drew in around Charles as he and Roger arrived at the fire, warriors closest and the women and children on the edges, peering around.

“This,” Roger said, “is chief Running Elk.”

Charles wondered how he was supposed to address the chief. Bow? Wave? Eager not to offend, he eyed Roger to see what he would do, but Roger just stood by Charles’ side. Deciding to play it safe, Charles bowed deeply from the waist.

Laughter broke out around the group, and he straightened up quickly, blushing. The chief, also smiling a little, held his hand up to his forehead and shoved it outward stiffly, a gesture Charles had not seen before. But not knowing what else to do, he repeated it. The crowd made approving sounds, amid more laughter, to Charles’ relief.

A number of warriors had taken seats around the fire, and so Charles began to sit down as well on a nearby stone. But Roger prodded him.

“Don’t get too comfortable, little slave,” he said. “Nobody said you could sit down.”

The chief, no longer smiling, spoke at length to Roger, who listened and nodded.

“All right, little smuggler,” he said then to Charles. “How many men are in your band? Be careful to tell us only the truth.”

“Thirty, or something like that. I can’t remember exactly. They aren’t all men, though.”

Roger conferred with Running Elk, who nodded.

“How much sulfur do you have?”

“Not very much.”

Roger knelt and held his knife in the fire, then pulled it out and examined it, turning it different directions. It was glowing.

“How much?” he said again, looking Charles in the eye.

“We really didn’t have much,” Charles said, his voice shaking. Roger took a step toward him. “About twenty packs’ worth!” He would cooperate. The smugglers could deal with the consequences.

“The trading was bad, it wasn’t much,” he babbled, desperate to make Roger believe him. “Could hardly get any sulfur, and we had so few men left after the ambush —” he stopped. They wouldn’t know what ambush he was talking about. “Other years, we had about fifty packs, but this year, it was bad.”

Twenty packs of sulfur would still be a huge haul for a band of Appalachies, he realized.

Roger talked with the chief again. They seemed satisfied.

“He thinks you’re telling the truth,” Roger said. “I guess we’ll see.”

Charles, who had been watching Roger’s knife, felt a rush of relief.

“Now,” Roger went on, “he wants to know why your band thinks you can just go marching through our land.”

“Your land?” Charles said. He didn’t know what Roger was talking about. “We never came through this village. We’re just passing through these mountains, way over there.” He waved in the direction of the smugglers.

Roger swept his arm out in a wide circle. “All this land belongs to us. Our forest. Our deer and wild boar. You are trespassing.”

“But … but you can’t just claim all the mountains,” Charles said. “It’s ridiculous. This is wilderness. Empty woods. There’s way more than you need. There are only a few of you, and you move around all the time.”

“This whole woods is our home,” Roger said. “We hunt. These trees are our fields. You barge through here and shoot our animals, never asking.” His words were sharp and loud. “Typical darkskins. You think the world is yours, and you can just take whatever you can reach.” It was strange to hear him speak as if he weren’t an Easton himself, and dark as Charles.

“Your people claim a lot of land along the bay there,” Roger went on, “even though they don’t use all of it. And now they come walking through this forest of ours like they own it, like we’re the ones trespassing on their back woodlot. Some kind of arrogance.”

It was ridiculous, Charles thought, this handful of savages claiming more territory than Easton and Scranton combined, but they were holding weapons and he wasn’t, so he dropped the argument.

“Why did you kidnap me?” he asked instead. “Are you just going to kill me now that you’ve asked me some questions?”

Roger laughed. “Oh no, we didn’t kidnap you to ask you questions. We’re happy to have you give us helpful information, though. Tell me, who is your master? Some weak smuggler who can’t carry his pack, and needs your help?”

Charles stood up straight. “My master is the chief of the band.”

Roger smiled. “Ah, very good!” He turned to the chief and spoke, and smiles spread around the group. Some of the women clapped their hands.

“So, slave to the leader of the band,” Roger said, “he must want you back. We were worried we would have to discard you, since you claim not to be a real smuggler, but as the chief man’s slave, you must be worth some sulfur. If your good friends the smugglers don’t see it that way,” he shrugged, “well, we will just have to discard you after all.” He made a gesture with his finger across his throat. “What do you think, slave, will they trade many packs of sulfur for you?”

Charles was aghast. He couldn’t picture George agreeing to giving up sulfur for this kind of extortion, even if the Appalachies had kidnapped several of the band and not just a slave. A payoff would only encourage the Appalachies to repeat the stunt, and the smugglers would end up arming their enemies. He remembered back in Scranton, when George had made that extra trip despite the danger just to add a couple of packs of sulfur to their haul.

Charles knew how the smugglers would think. Charles had been caught alone in the woods, they would reason, which was the same as death. Whether it meant death then or later was up to the Appalachies, but it wasn’t the smugglers’ problem.

“Ah, of course,” he said. “Yes, many packs of sulfur.”

Roger eyed him. “Hmm. I hope you are right.”

Charles’ mouth was dry. “How … how do you plan to get in touch with the smugglers?” he said. “You can’t just walk in there. They’ll shoot you.”

Roger smiled. “Oh, that will be no problem at all.”

Alone that night in his tent, Charles stoked a small fire in the fire ring. He didn’t need it for safety. The Appalachies had already lit the sentry fires, and he could see the light from the flames flickering on the wall of the tent. But he had slept by a fire for months now, and with his eyes closed and the heat and crackle of the fire next to him, it felt almost like he was back at the smugglers’ camp. Strange, that a place he had hated seemed like home.

Charles wondered where the band was by now. He had been gone more than a day. If they had shot any game at the water hole, they must be drying the meat now and soon would be ready to go on the trail again. He wondered if they even missed him much. Gary probably wouldn’t be all that sad. Marguerite? She seemed to hate him as much as anyone. George would resent the insult of somebody killing his slave. Would he feel anything else?

Charles could not let this be his miserable end, alone out here in the wilderness, his throat slit by a bunch of savages because he wasn’t worth enough of the miserable sulfur he hated. He tried to come up with an alternate plan.

He wondered if he could just live with the Appalachies, although that would mean giving up everything he really enjoyed. His thoughts drifted back now to the library at George’s estate in Trappe. He couldn’t imagine never seeing it again, never reading another book.

The best times in Charles’ life, since George had bought him, had been during the winter when the smugglers stayed home, feet up by a fire while sleet beat on the windows. At George’s estate, house servants took care of most of the menial chores. Charles ran errands for George, delivering letters or memorized messages, and making the kind of discreet purchases a smuggler needed, but didn’t want to make himself because of the risk.

George made use of Charles’ mechanical aptitude, letting him tinker with useful items for the estate like lanterns or crab traps or other gadgets. Charles had come up with an efficient water pump he was particularly proud of, and was also experimenting with making clocks like they had in Easton.

He enjoyed that kind of work, but the evenings were the best, went George allowed Charles free time and he went straight to the library.

Charles read anything, but especially books about math and science, like biology, chemistry and physics. Invention fascinated him. One of his favorite books was “Learn From the Past, and Repeat It,” an old volume by a philosopher and archeologist named Phil, which held out the tantalizing promise of a new world.

George didn’t mind Charles using his library, especially if it made him a happier slave, and he also found it useful to have a person of letters around the house who saved him the money and risk of hiring a scribe.

Charles had daydreamed about working as a scribe for George, after he was free. During the summers, when George was away, he could serve as his estate manager, and have plenty of time to study. Charles had not yet had the nerve to ask about such a job, and now it didn’t seem likely he ever would.

He could argue to the Appalachies that he hated the smugglers, that he would make a useful addition to their band or even a good slave. He hated the idea of groveling, and wished he had the nerve to just die like a man. But he wished even more to live. Even living in the endless forest with nothing to do but hunt would be better than dying.

When savages had captured Roger years ago, somehow he had convinced them not to kill him. Maybe Roger, remembering that, would have sympathy for him now. He would ask Roger in a roundabout way how he had survived, and try to enlist his help.

Failing everything else, Charles would watch for a chance to escape. He tossed around a few ideas, but if he was realistic most of them ended with him pursued by a pack of irate Appalachies who knew the woods better than he did. Even if he somehow evaded the savages, he wouldn’t be able to get back to the smugglers’ camp before dark.

But he may as well die running as standing still.

Charles did not sleep well.

To be continued

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

Gunpowder Trails Chapter Four

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

The meat was tough, seared outside and almost raw inside, but Charles chomped it as if it might still be thinking of running away. His stomach wavered a little at the rush of rich food, but Charles figured he would worry about the eating and let his stomach worry about its own troubles.

Those who had shot the animals got to pick their cut of meat, and then, by tradition, a couple of the leaders stood over the roasted wild boar and deer carving off chunks and doling them out. The smugglers gnawed the bones clean, and some even ate the liver and other parts of the guts raw. When they had eaten everything else, a few whacked the bones with rocks and licked out the marrow, or scraped fat off the hides.

Then the band heaped the leftover scraps on the bonfires so the smell of blood and meat would not draw bears, panthers or cats. Then they sat around the fire, licking fat and blood from their fingers and joking and laughing as they had not done for many days, although a few looked uneasy as their stomachs gurgled complaints.

“I’m still hungry,” Jake said, picking his teeth with a twig. “Would’ve been nice to have a little left over. Might have if James hadn’t shot a tiny little fawn.” Smugglers grinned.

“Better than the one you shot,” James said. “I didn’t see you bring it in – where are you stashing it?”

“I was waiting for one worth shooting. Hate to waste my time on five bites.”

“Wasn’t any problem for James to haul this one in,” Eileen chipped in. “He just threw it over his shoulder and walked back.”

“At least I didn’t waste a perfectly good arrow like Pete did,” James said. Pete sat roasting a squirrel on a stick. “Who’s still eating?” he said, waving them off.

“You should save that hide and get it tanned when we get home,” Dan told him.

Pete pretended not to listen to the laughter and attempted to look blissful while grinding at the rubbery meat with his teeth.

Charles would have been flustered and defensive if the smugglers mocked him like that. But it would be nice, he thought, if they cared enough to make fun of him. The last time he had gone hunting, he had shot his arrow three feet over the deer’s back. Jake had seen it happen but just shook his head and never said a word about it.

At least now everyone was in a better mood. If they went back to ignoring the slaves it would be better than open hostility. Nobody had complained when the slaves got an equal share of meat, so that was a good sign.

Tomorrow the work would begin, now that they all had food in their stomachs. If there was plenty of game and wild boars didn’t gore anybody and the hunters shot straight, they could replenish their packs in just a few days. If predators were on the prowl, or if the deer were scarce, it might take a couple of weeks to stock up. They might even have to try a new area further south.

They would figure that out later. For now, the smugglers had the afternoon to rest and recharge from the relentless pace they had kept up since Scranton. Deepening their relief was the knowledge that they were far out of range of any pursuing soldiers.

They lounged against packs and trees, napping and chatting. George even let those who had run out of their own tobacco, which was almost everyone, dip into the leftover trade supply for a celebratory smoke.

“There’s plenty of it,” he said. “May as well get rid of it – just more to carry, anyway.”

And you can score some easy points to help them forget the way you’ve been driving them, Charles thought.

Smoke curled upward into the leaves, and the pungent smell of tobacco wafted through camp. Without alcohol to fuel the mood, it stayed mellow.

“A story,” Jake said. “Time for a story. Who’s up?”

“Eliza,” James said, and others picked up the sentiment.

“Aww, I was just getting comfortable,” Eliza said, but she sat up. Most of the time Eliza preferred thinking to talking. She was not shy, but had light brown eyes that looked inside your head, which made people uneasy. But everyone listened when she made up her stories, or told the traditional tales, altering the angles and adding details that made them new. Her art had already done great service many times by distracting the smugglers from their misery after the weary days.

As she began to speak now, people gathered around and dug out fresh tobacco to chew or smoke.

Long ago (she said), in the darkest days of the Calamity, people fled from the cities, leaving behind even the bodies of their friends and family. They found little safety in the countryside, because everyone else fled there too. The farmers tried to protect their land, but in the chaos the crowds burned the farmhouses and stole the grain from the barns.

Hunger stalked them long before spring came. Most of those who made it to spring had no seed for crops, and wouldn’t have known how to plant it anyway. Disease had come with them from the cities, and the pestilence killed many before hunger could get them.

Whenever anybody started to get the hang of primitive life and got a nice village started, along would come more people would come fleeing from the cities who would wreck everything and steal their food, and so the fighting went on until the cities were empty and almost everyone in the countryside was dead too. The land finally grew quiet when only a few were left and their civilization was dead. Then like Noah and his family, they began to learn to hunt and live off the land and grow enough food to make up the difference.

The pestilence never would leave for good, but it came less often, and a few people always lived to carry on. They told stories to each other about the luxuries of the old world, the medicine that could cure any sickness, the markets full of food, and the marvelous machines that did your work for you. Nobody ever went back to the ruins of the cities, though, where death hung like a fog, and ghosts went abroad even in the daytime.

The people in the little villages scrounged in the dirt and poked through the woods for rusting metal scraps to make into good plows and nails and horseshoes and shovels. They also began to design metal weapons, some based on memory, some on trial and error.

But they soon used up all their metal scraps, and more children lived long enough to grow up, and everyone hoarded metal like jewels.

In one of our villages, some say it was in Easton, there lived a blacksmith named Paul. Easton was just a small village on the edge of the water then, not being any greater than any of the others. Paul’s grandfather had told him stories about the great cities, and the part about whole buildings made out of metal was what interested Paul the most.

Paul knew from his grandfather, and from travelers, that the cities were still populated, the ghosts of the residents drifting among the buildings. The ghosts were irritable, his grandfather said, because there was nothing to do in the cities anymore, and also they were angry at the descendants of the lucky few who still had any. The ghosts with living great-grandchildren were more cheerful, his grandfather said, and if you could find them, they would give you luck and protect you. But like as not they were resting in peace and nowhere to be found.

Paul was a skeptical man and he did not believe these ghost tales, except deep inside, in the small part of him that got worried on dark nights. But he kept thinking about the metal, and the riches and prosperity and ease it would bring him. He imagined how much food the village could grow if everyone had a steel plow. And how easy it would be to defeat their enemies if they fought wooden spears with steel swords, and could deflect arrows with their armor. Or if they had guns. Most of the guns left over from the old days were very rusty now and there was no ammunition for them, but the concept was pretty simple and he knew he could make a simple one that worked, if he could figure out how to make powder for it.

Paul thought about this for a couple of years while he worked at his blacksmith shop, until finally, finding he had almost no metal to work with, he decided to travel to the closest ghost city and see if he could spirit some away.

Nobody else would go with him, so Paul went alone, and arrived at the city as night was falling. Twisted leaning towers loomed up in the twilight. Towers made out of metal.

He camped a respectful distance away to wait until morning, however, because his skepticism about ghosts was waning again.

It did not help that a ghost came to his camp that night. Paul was having a little after-supper whiskey as he sat by his fire, when he heard footsteps coming through the leaves. Before he could jump to his feet or pull out a knife, a figure in a dark cloak stood at the edge of the firelight, its face hidden in the shadows of its hood. Paul sat with his flask of whiskey still halfway to his mouth, staring, and then, pulling himself together, decided he must say something stern. “Whaaa … whois … ahrgh! … he said.

The figure did not reply. Instead, it sat down on the other side of the fire, hands on its knees, and looked around the camp, which troubled Paul deeply, because there was no chair.

The figure’s voice, when it spoke, bothered Paul even more. It was a sort of moan, like the wind in the eaves on a stormy night, except this wind formed words. Paul listened carefully, as he did not want to interrupt and ask the figure to repeat itself.

“Nice fire,” the figure moaned. “I have not seen one of those for a long time. It makes me want to warm my hands.”

“Oh, by all means, certainly,” Paul said. “Here, I’ll add some wood.”

“Fool,” the figure said. “I cannot feel it. All is cold to me now.”

“What,” Paul said, “can I do for you, exactly, then?” although he was more preoccupied with what the ghost might decide to do.

“Nothing,” the figure said. “But you can do something for yourself. Stay out of the city. It is sacred ground. If you enter it, you will die.”

“How bad is dying?” Paul asked.

“Bad. Worse even than being alive.”

By this point, Paul was having trouble maintaining his lack of belief in ghosts. He had not yet drunk enough whiskey to be able to manufacture such a grouchy and cynical apparition as he was talking to now. He took another swig of his whiskey and rolled it around on his tongue experimentally, hoping it tasted different than usual. It did not. He took a couple more gulps anyway.

He eyed the ghost, if that is what it was. It did not seem to be overly hostile, although he reflected that reading body language in a disembodied being might be hit or miss. But he was a practical man, and although the hair was prickling at the back of his neck, he realized he did not know how to fight a ghost if it did decide to be hostile, and if he could keep it talking, maybe he could distract it from whatever ghosts did to you when they decided to get on with their evening. Plus, it occurred to him that, if ghosts could make threats, perhaps they could also be reasoned with.

“Now, thanks for the warning,” he said. “But it doesn’t really seem fair, you all hoarding all that nice metal you can’t even use, with us poor peasants scraping by on scraps.”

“Baloney,” the ghost said. “At least you’re scraping by. Look at us — dead as doornails. Didn’t even make it out of the city. You call that fair? We’re stuck here, so we’ll keep the metal. I’d call that even.”

“But what are you going to do with steel?”

“What are YOU going to do with it?” the ghost asked.

“Make plows and drainage pipes and woodstoves and handy stuff like that.”

“Anything else?”

Paul squirmed. “Well …”

“Like swords or arrowheads or guns, maybe?”

“Not me personally,” Paul said. “I’m a peaceful man myself. I mean,” he added, looking away from the ghost’s gaze and sipping on his whiskey, “maybe for hunting or self defense or something.”

“All that apocalypse and you all haven’t learned a darned thing,” the ghost said. “I ought to let you have the metal and let you ruin everything again, I really should. It’s not our job to babysit the living.”

“It will be different this time,” Paul insisted. “We’ve really learned our lesson.”

The ghost had a good laugh at that. “Tell you what,” it said. “I’ll have a talk with the others. Maybe we don’t care as much as we thought we did.”

Paul did not go into the city the next day, thinking it might be best to wait for permission before exploring. He didn’t know if the ghost could make good on its threat to kill him, but he wasn’t sure he cared to experiment. He felt silly though, feeding his fire in the broad daylight, and by the end of the day, he had about convinced himself he had been dreaming the night before. Then at twilight, the ghost came back.

“Bet you thought I was just a bad dream,” the ghost said.

“Oh no, not at all,” Paul said. “Been looking forward to seeing you again.”

“None of your sass,” the ghost said. “Listen, we’ve been talking, and we’ve decided to call your bluff. We don’t have the energy to patrol around here all the time trying to stop you from sneaking in and pilfering metal. We have regrets to stew on. You just take all the metal you want and put it to good, peaceful, harmonious agricultural purposes. Just don’t come in here at night when we’re trying to walk around haunting things, or we won’t answer for the consequences.”

So Paul promised again that he wouldn’t make any weapons, and the ghost left, laughing itself sick. And Paul (scrupulously working only in the daytime) gathered a large load of steel and aluminum, took it back to his shop and started selling metal tools and goods at a great profit.

When everyone else saw the riches he was building from his metal monopoly, they figured out where he was getting the metal. Seeing that he was able to go unhaunted into the cities and work, they rushed to get their own. Paul warned them to stay out of the cities at night, and to not use the metal to make weapons (which he only made for personal use). The warning about nighttime they heeded with care, but they did make weapons (for their own personal use and the use of their closest and richest friends).

“And they say,” Eliza concluded, “That during wartime, you can hear the ghosts laughing in the ruined cities.”

Twilight had fallen while she told her story. A few people got up to get more wood for the fire, while the rest sat staring into the flames.

“Thanks a lot, Eliza,” Dan said. “Such a cheerful story. Just the thing to relax on a fine evening.”

Eliza laughed. “I just have to remind you guys how rotten you are, once in a while.”

“It’s a good reminder,” Henry the tailor said, “especially of the perils of turning to science instead of God. The Calamity was God’s judgment on us for …”

Groans arose around the fire. “More stories!”

So at their insistence, Eliza moved on to lighter tales, starting with the one about the people long ago who flew to the moon, and what they did there.

But Charles rolled up in his bedroll and only half listened to the talking as he fell asleep. Tomorrow would bring a lot of work, and he was weary. He slept without the nightmares about food that never filled him, indeed, without any dreams at all.

 

The slaves and a few smugglers stayed behind from the hunting the next day to guard the sulfur. Most of the band were expert hunters, able to stalk silently through damp leaves and rustle through dry leaves like a harmless squirrel. They could feel twigs under their feet and pull away before the snap that would give them away. They knew the language of the forest sounds, and could hone in on the flicker of a deer’s ear or a hog turning its head. When the time came, they could put their arrow exactly where they wanted it. Even an animal with a running start could not always escape.

The animals that kept the band alive were mostly white-tailed deer and wild hogs, which were large enough to be worth the trouble of pursuing. They were also plentiful, especially the hogs. On rare occasions, the smugglers might get to feast on an elk. They ate black bear and turkey if they could get them.

They shot cats whenever they saw them, but only ate them if starvation was the only other option. They did keep the fur as a prized hunting trophy. John had an elaborate dress hat made of cat fur at home he liked to bring out on social occasions, and many of the band advertised their status as expert woodsmen by wearing catskin caps, with the tails hanging down at the back. Cat fur also made a good bow decoration. Each color had its uses — orange and white were popular for decoration, and tabby made good camouflage.

The slaves usually stayed back at the camp to dry the meat, pulverize it and mix it with fat to make pemmican. Properly made, this mash would last months, and aside from taste and texture, it was the perfect food.

For once, the slaves had the easiest job. The hunters had to wake up in the dark, stoke the fires, and eat a few mouthfuls of pemmican before crunching off into the gray morning woods. The slaves could stay in their warm bedrolls until the sun rose up into the trees.

They did have to get up in time to prepare in the event of a successful hunt. To begin, they chopped saplings with a hatchet, then hacked them into four-foot sections. Sharpening one end of these sections into points, they drove them into the ground and cut notches into the tops. Then they looked for smaller, straight branches to run between the stakes, making a drying rack to hang the meat from. Maple shoots, straight and supple, worked well for this.

The hunters brought in two small pigs by noon. They chopped off the haunch of one of these for their lunch, and turned the rest over to the slaves.

To get started, Charles and Gary roped the back feet of one of the pigs and hauled it up to hang from a tree branch. Then, slicing the skin away from the hocks, they gripped slippery handfuls of it and hauled down on it until it peeled away, making additional cuts as needed to encourage it away from the carcass.

Once the skin was off, they cut the red meat off the bone in large chunks and handed it to Marguerite, who sliced the meat with a steady hand. She was better than anyone else at slicing the neat strips that ensured the meat would dry as evenly as possible. She then hung the strips over the drying racks.

Gary was good at skinning the animals, but his heart wasn’t in it. He always looked disappointed when he wasn’t among the hunters. While Charles chafed at having to skin a hog when he would rather be safe at home tinkering or reading, Gary was irritated to be skinning a hog when he could be out pursuing one, being one of the gang, an expert woodsman and a hardened smuggler.

Charles doubted Gary would ever fulfill his dream of being a hardened smuggler. He was too soft-hearted, though he tried to hide it, and he cared too much what the others thought of him. The veteran smugglers were vain, of course, about their hunting skills and ability to handle the hardships of the trail, but they also didn’t need anyone to pat them on the back. They were good at what they did, and they knew it.

Gary had the powerful build to take care of himself on the trail, but his talent with weapons was marginal, and he didn’t come across as very intelligent. Charles thought this was because he tried too hard to look competent, and so he talked even when he really didn’t know what he was talking about. He also had thick eyebrows that gave him a brutish look and did nothing to dispel the idea that he was less than brilliant, and he had awkward large ears. But from working with him day after day, Charles knew Gary was as intelligent as any of the other smugglers, and could go far if he just quit trying so hard.

As they worked now, Gary broke the silence.

“I’ve been thinking a bunch about that ambush,” he said. “If we can figure it out, maybe we won’t have to worry about our own skins so much.”

“Huh,” Charles said, not really in the mood to talk.

“Now, the first thing you’d think of, of course, is maybe somebody in the band was a spy for the soldiers.”

“Ah.”

“Now, you ask, why would they do that? Money,” Gary said. “These smugglers are outlaws. Most of them are pretty loyal, but the thing they want most is money. That’s why they’re smugglers in the first place. Give them enough money, they’ll do anything.”

Thanks for explaining to me what smugglers are like, Charles thought. I’ve only been around them for seven years.

“How would the soldiers get in touch to offer their bribe?” Charles asked.

“There,” Gary said, “that’s just the thing I’ve been thinking about.” He stopped pulling on the pig skin and lowered his voice. “The traitor could have sold us out last trip. Made a deal — we’ll be at such and so a spot when we come back, wait there.”

Charles stared at him. “The only one who could make that happen would be a leader. I can’t think of any of them who would do that.”

“I can,” Marguerite said, although she had not appeared to be paying any attention.

They looked at her. She didn’t offer any more comment, just kept slicing meat.

“Or,” Gary said, glancing over at the nearest smuggler on guard over the sulfur, and navigating the conversation back to safer ground, “maybe someone from Easton paid a smuggler — anybody in the band — to tip off the soldiers. Could have been either side that did the bribing, if you think about it.”

Charles gritted his teeth. Once Gary got an idea in his head, he wouldn’t let it go. “Listen, you’ve still got the same problem. How would anybody except a leader know where to set the trap? And the other thing — nobody from Easton has any reason to try to stop us. They can’t get enough sulfur, trading on their own. That’s why they talk big about shutting us down but never do it.”

They started skinning the second hog. It slipped in the rope a little, and Charles heaved it back up and pulled the rope tight around its legs again.

“Well, all right, that’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Gary said. “There had to be a mole of some kind. Maybe it wasn’t one of us at all. Maybe that guy in Scranton — Jeff.”

“No way,” Charles said. He’d never do that. Besides, Jeff doesn’t know our plans. He just waits for us to knock.”

After a pause, Charles suggested, “What if there was a traitor in the band, who just sneaked out to tip off the soldiers and then hiked back?”

“Hey, there ya go,” Gary said. “Coming up with some ideas for once instead of just poking holes in everything.” He wiped his face with his arm, holding the knife away to keep from smearing blood on his clothes.

“I’ll poke holes in it,” Marguerite said, in a tone of voice suitable for explaining that it doesn’t snow in the summer. “Whoever it was would have had to hike a couple of days ahead and back again, without anyone noticing. Impossible.”

“Well,” Charles said, “maybe they sneaked out at night. Went to a farmhouse or something to pass the message along, then sneaked back before dawn.”

Marguerite sighed. “First, they would have had to sneak out of a camp without making enough noise to wake anybody up. And these are people who wake up easily. Then they’d have to walk far enough away to light a lantern, which by the way I don’t think we have, and walk all by themselves all night without getting eaten by a cat.”

Charles’ ears were burning. “All right, all right, fine, it’s a bad idea.”

“Then,” Marguerite went on, “they would have had to get back before morning after a night’s hike, sneak back in without anyone noticing, and not look horrible in the morning, and get up and hike, full of energy, all day. They’d have to do all that, of course …”

“FINE,” Charles said. “I get it.”

One of the smugglers on guard glanced over at them.

“Keep your voice down,” Gary said.

There was a sullen silence for a while. Done deboning the pork, Gary and Charles switched to helping Marguerite finish up the slicing work.

“Now here’s an idea,” Gary said. “Carrier pigeons. All the guy would have to do is just walk slow that day, signal a pigeon flying overhead, attach a message, and off it would go to the soldiers.”

“Signal a pigeon?” Charles said. “How many pigeons have you seen flying around in the mountains?”

“Well … none, but I’m not looking for them,” Gary said. “Anyway, maybe it would come out from the city and be trained to look for a certain color cloth or a kind of hat. Who wears the brightest hat? Any suspicious outfits?”

“Can pigeons even see color?”

“Why shouldn’t they?” Gary said. “Doesn’t everything see color?”

“No.”

“What are you, the eye expert?”

Charles, having had his ideas demolished, now was enjoying passing the favor along to somebody else. “What if the pigeon flies over at a bad time, and the traitor is sitting there eating supper and a pigeon with a message on its leg comes and sits on his head?”

Marguerite laughed, something Charles couldn’t remember hearing before. He was glad, though, that he had distracted her from remembering how bad his own idea had been.

“Come on, maybe it’s a hand signal or something,” Gary said.

And at this unsatisfactory juncture, they let the discussion drop, because they were done cutting up the meat. They saved the heads and livers for supper, and gathered up the rest of the entrails, hides and bones and burned them.

Not long afterward, the hunters started coming in for the evening. They did not bring any more animals with them, and Charles was grouchy to see them pull off strips of drying meat the slaves had just spent so much time preparing, to supplement their supper of heads and livers. He glanced at Marguerite to see how she was taking the destruction of her handiwork. She just sat eating the last of her pemmican, seeming not to care.

The next day, with no new meat to cure, the slaves gathered acorns instead. Acorns tasted good, kept well, and would keep you alive even if you had nothing else. The smugglers sometimes mixed them with pemmican, or ground them with stones to make a rough flour for biscuits or flat bread.

Acorns were bitter fresh, but repeated soaking in warm water rendered them edible. The slaves cracked the shells, pried out the nuts, then dropped them in small copper pots of water, where the bitterness turned the water dark as it seeped out. Then the slaves soaked them again, and again, until the water stayed clear. After that, they spread the nuts out to dry.

Some years there weren’t many acorns, but this year when they found stands of oak trees, the acorns were thick on the ground. The slaves gathered them into bags and by lunchtime, had a mound of them back at the camp. Picking out the ones with wormholes and throwing them away, they started cracking the rest and warming water in small copper pots.

As they worked, Gary went back to the conspiracy theories, apparently not overly discouraged by the squabble over pigeons.

“I had another idea about that ambush,” he said. “Maybe it was spies.” He paused as if waiting for Charles to break in. Hearing no rebuttal, he went on. “Maybe they were just patrolling around, and then when they saw us coming, they’d run off to report.”

“But they’d have to live out in the woods for weeks by themselves. They’d be cat lunch way before we came along,” Charles said.

“Aw, you’d risk it for enough money,” Gary said. “Anyway, maybe it was a group of them. They’d make a little camp, or patrol together.”

“What if we walked by on the other side of the mountain and they never saw us?” Charles asked.
“Maybe they got lucky.”

That seemed far-fetched to Charles. “Anyhow,” he said, “the whole bunch would have to wait until they saw us coming, then they’d have to not just beat us back but find the soldiers in time to have them be waiting at just the right spot. And we never saw any tracks or anything.”

Gary cracked acorns in silence.

Fine, Charles thought. Gary didn’t have to get all sulky when his ideas turned out to be stupid.

“There’s always that first option, that one neither of you wants to talk about,” Marguerite said. “The only one it could be.”

Charles frowned. “It doesn’t have to be that one.”

Gary peered from one to the other. “This one? That one? What one?”

“None of your other ideas made any sense at all,” Marguerite said to Charles.

“That one doesn’t make sense either,” Charles said.

“WHAT one?” Gary said.

“The one both of you are afraid to say,” Marguerite said. “That it was George. Or Warren. Or John. Or that old bastard …”

“Oh, that idea,” Gary said.

The only sound was the cracking of acorn shells between flat rocks and the plonk as Marguerite threw the nuts into the kettle. Gary and Charles had stopped working and were staring at her. Just thinking that kind of idea was dangerous, and here she had practically shouted it out. They glanced at the smuggler guards. She’d be dead if one of them overheard, but they did not seem to have noticed anything interesting.

“What are you going to do, tell on me? Go right ahead.”

She couldn’t really mean that, Charles thought. But she didn’t seem to be daring them to tell. She was simply letting them know that meeting a grisly end at the hands of the smugglers or cutting up a hog were about the same to her. It was the hopelessness he fought off at his worst moments, but she seemed to be past fighting it.

Aside from that, her treasonous theory didn’t seem plausible. “I know George better than that,” Charles said. Internally, he added, Well, I think I do. Aloud: “He’s no saint but he makes plenty of money. He wouldn’t need a payoff. Neither would the others.”

“All of them,” Gary said, “would take a payoff if it was big enough. But,” he added, “I’m not saying George would do that.”

“Maybe,” Marguerite said, “it’s somebody else who wants to run the band.”

Charles wondered if she were spilling a secret that she actually knew about Old Harry, or just conjecturing about the leaders in general. The idea of Old Harry whispering his dreams in her ear was ludicrous, both because he didn’t care for her emotionally in any way, and because he certainly knew that if he were so foolhardy as to confide in her, she would take the information straight to George and then sit back to enjoy “The Disembowelment of Old Harry” in its first and only performance.

 

The next day the slaves gathered acorns again, and nobody interrupted them by bringing meat. In the evening, the hunters returned with two deer, but they were not celebrating, because they also had one less smuggler and had spent the better part of the afternoon searching for him.

George stamped around camp with a deep scowl. Warren didn’t say anything, but sat and stared into the fire. Old Harry sharpened his knife to a fine point.

The next day, the hunters brought no deer, but had two fewer smugglers. This time, it was getting dark and they hadn’t noticed in time to do any searching.

The camp that evening bristled with angry smugglers, gesturing and denouncing. The usual rumble of tired talk was replaced by an agitated buzz like a rattlesnake den.

Pete sat across the fire from Charles, not joining in the discussion. He looked more numb than angry. Both the missing smugglers had been his close friends. They’d frequently hunted and hiked together, retold each other’s stories and laughed at each other’s jokes. Now he was here and they were out there in the darkness, either dead or in the process of becoming that way.

Pete poked the fire with a stick, his jaw working. This, Charles realized, was as close as he had come to seeing a smuggler cry.

“Hey, uh, I’m sorry about this, Pete,” Charles said. Pete didn’t look up or respond. Charles went on, “If there’s anything I can do …”

Pete looked up then, and his eyes drilled through Charles. He pointed the glowing end of his stick across the fire at him. “If I ever find out you slaves had anything to do with this,” he said, his voice quivering, “I will cut all your throats myself.”

 

The next night, the hunters returned grouchy, with only a small pig and a grouse that Pete had arrowed, but with the same amount of smugglers they had left with.

Pete impaled his grouse on a stick and came over to where Charles was standing to roast it. Pete stood silently for a few minutes, shifting the stick from one hand to the other. Charles ignored him.

“Ah, hey,” Pete said. “I … about what I said yesterday. I was pretty mad, and I didn’t mean it.” He glanced at Charles. “I, well, I know you guys were back here at camp and had nothing to do with anything that happened. I … well, I was a complete asshole. Sorry.”

Charles could not remember the last time a smuggler had apologized to him for anything. His hostility deflated.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

Pete nodded. “Thanks.” He pulled the grouse away from the fire, poked at a couple of spots, and then thrust it back over the flames. “Want some grouse when this is done?”

Charles eyed the singed gangly bird, with its blackened stubble of feather quills. “I think I’ll stick with acorns tonight,” he said.
“Fine with me,” Pete said. “I need my energy because I’m on firewood duty.” He put on a smile but it left quickly.

 

As the evening cooled and the sun sank into the trees, Pete and a few others made a last firewood run, while the talk around Charles’ fire turned to what to do next.

“I really think Warren might be right,” James said. “I think it’s time to get out of here.”

John put down the venison bone he had been gnawing on and stared at him. “What are you talking about? I never ran away from a fight in my life and I’m not going to start now with a bunch of savages.”

“You ran all right from that ambush,” James said.

“A retreat in battle is not running,” John said, jabbing a finger at James. Both the twins had quick tempers, and though James was the more diplomatic of the two, he knew how to needle John when he wanted to.

“You’re an old fool,” he told John. “What’s there to stay and fight about? Ego, is that it?”

John stood up, his face flushing. “Maybe you’re a coward, but I’m not,” he shouted. “I’m not going to die with an arrow in my back!”

“I don’t plan on dying at all,” James said. “Especially over a miserable patch of woods with no deer or hogs in it. It’s not about running. It’s about strategic position.”

“What strategic position? There’s woods here, and woods farther along. You just want to run to Harper’s Ferry and get a room at an inn.”

People began leaving other fires and drifting over to listen. Nobody liked to interfere in the twins’ spats, but they were interesting to watch.

“I’ll tell you why it’s strategic, since you won’t use your own head,” James said. “We’re in the heart of Appalachie territory. There’s a lot less of them closer to the towns. The farther from here we get, the easier the hunting will get and we can quit having people get killed for no reason.”

“No reason? No reason? As soon as we let the Appalachies know we aren’t willing to fight, they’ll harass us every step, every trip,” John said. “We’ll be finished in this business.”

James shrugged. “Maybe we just underestimated them all along. Maybe the only reason we ever got through is they decided to leave us alone.”

Watching John, Charles wondered how far veins could expand without bursting.

“You can go back to tanning leather if you want then! Not me!”

“You can go to hell if you want,” James said.

John picked up a log and threw it down onto the fire, raising a shower of sparks in the gathering twilight. Then he stomped off to a different fire.

James just sat staring into the fire, jaw set.

Charles decided it would be more peaceful in bed, and proceeded to get out his bedroll. But before he finished unrolling it, Dan came over to the fire.

“Do you guys know where Pete is? I can’t find him.”

“He said he was on firewood duty,” Charles said.

Dan frowned. “Should be done by now. It’s getting dark.” He walked around to the other fires, questioning. People shook their heads.

Jake walked over to the edge of the firelight and shouted out into the gloom, “Pete! Hey Pete! Suppertime!”

The woods were silent.

They found him sitting with his back to a poplar tree. Five arrows pinned him to the tree. One of them had caught his hair just above his ear and held his head up, twisted slightly to one side, his empty eyes staring out over a gully at the rising moon. Pete’s battered hat sat on his head as always, and the firewood he had gathered was scattered over his lap. His bow sat beside him, all the arrows still in the quiver.

They pulled him loose from the tree with gentle hands and closed his eyes.

“You old bastard,” Dan said, his voice breaking. “What did you stop and take a break for? Always looking at the view.”

Then he straightened up and faced the direction the arrows had come from.

“Come out now and fight like men!”

“Like men,” his echo mocked back.

“We’ll kill you for this! Do you hear me? Do you hear me?”

Back at camp, James and John had forgotten their fight in their mutual anger at the Appalachies, and James abandoned any talk of leaving.

Warren said, “I still think —”

“No way,” George said. “What kind of coward are you?”

“I’m just —“

“We are not going to go running into Harper’s Ferry to get away from the Appalachies.”

“We ran from the soldiers, why not —”

“We were outgunned two to one!” George shouted. “We are not going to go running into town begging them to save us from a handful of wild mountain men. If we can’t fight them we may as well give it up now and go into politics. Maybe you’d like to.”

Warren stiffened. “You want to take that back?”

“All right, all right, stop,” James said, adopting the peacekeeper’s role with no apparent sense of irony. “No sense doing the Appalachies’ work for them.”

“We’re staying here,” George said. “Anyone who wants to stay and fight, can. Anyone else — he glared at Warren — is free to leave for Harper’s Ferry any time.”

Warren, no matter how much he disagreed, was not going to strike out through the wilderness alone, so they all focused on hunting again, this time for Appalachies. This was made more difficult because they still had to hunt for food. They stalked deer while keeping an eye out for Appalachies, and stalked Appalachies while listening for deer, and caught neither.

George set traps. One group of hunters would set out, and another group would trail them just out of sight. Any Appalachie trying to stalk the lead hunters was liable to be interrupted by an arrow. But none ventured into the trap.

George also sent out snipers to sit at strategic overlooks, but this took inefficiency to greater levels. At least two or three smugglers had to go to each spot, as nobody cared to get into a shootout with an entire band of Appalachies alone. And in a forest that stretched from the ocean in the east to nobody knew where in the west, the odds weren’t especially good that an Appalachie would happen to stroll by the exact place the snipers were sitting.

“How about a decoy?” Dan suggested once. “Not like we’ve been doing, a whole big group. An easy target, somebody hunting alone. We can have two or three people waiting behind them.”

“Who’s going to be the decoy?” James asked.

Nobody raised a hand.

“We could use a slave,” Old Harry said.

“Your slave?” John said.

“We don’t need to go to that extreme yet,” George said.

Not yet, very kind, Charles thought. He just doesn’t want to lose a valuable slave. But then, maybe he was being unfair. Why would George care about preserving him if he were going to set Charles free after the trip? Maybe he had no such plan. Or maybe he actually did care. George would make it easier if he would just behave either like a black-hearted smuggler or a normal human being.

 

Finally, after several days of poor hunting on all fronts, John swaggered back to camp swinging catskin hats and sporting shell jewelry. He and Dan had shot down two Appalachies and left their bodies for the other Appalachies to find. Charles guessed they had not taken care to leave the bodies in a respectful funerary state.

Dan kept no trophies. “That was for Pete,” he said. “Don’t want to even touch anything they’ve touched.”

The hunters clashed with the Appalachies again the next day. A small group of smugglers surprised a handful of the tribesmen as the Appalachies were sneaking through the woods, apparently absorbed in stalking smugglers. The two sides sent arrows at each other and pincushioned a few trees, but the Appalachies slipped away as soon as they could, leaving their arrows behind for the smugglers to pull out of the trees if they wanted them. Neither side left bodies on the battlefield, although one smuggler claimed he had arrowed an Appalachie in the leg.

The smugglers, despite their tough talk, could not afford many more casualties. They had lost a third of their strength in the ambush, and another seven so far during their hunt, including Pete and his steady veteran influence. They were down to only thirty-four total: thirty-one smugglers and three slaves.

Of that total, about ten or fifteen had to stay in camp every day and guard the sulfur, and the slaves of course had food storing duties. George had taken away Charles’ weapons when the band turned hostile toward the slaves, but he returned the weapons now, and John finally agreed to give Gary a gun as well.

“Don’t get used to it,” he warned Gary. “This is only for absolute emergencies.”

Old Harry sensibly declined to arm Marguerite, no matter how dire the situation.

The slaves helped keep an eye on the packs of sulfur, because they had little to do at the camp besides continue to gather acorns. Nobody had shot an animal for several days.

“It’s not just that we have to watch for savages,” Dan told George. “Thing is, they’re hunting the animals too. I figure most of the animals cleared out when they realized they were living in a war zone. But I found a great spot we can hunt tomorrow.”

At the end of that day’s hunt, he explained, the hunters had ranged farther than usual, and Dan had found a watering hole that, from the tracks and heavily worn trails, was drawing wildlife from miles around in the drought.

Dan planned to leave as early as possible in the morning and strike straight for that watering hole, without wasting any time hunting along the way. Once they got there, they could sit for the rest of the day at strategic spots around it to see what turned up. He was sure something would.

Dan’s excitement spread to the rest of the hunters. If they got enough meat, they could leave this death trap with dignity, not retreating but calling the mini-war a draw. They wanted revenge, but they also wanted to make it home alive.

They left only a handful behind to guard the sulfur in the morning, albeit with two loaded six-shooters apiece. Charles was disappointed when George put the slaves back on acorn duty. He could have contentedly gone a long time without seeing another acorn.

“We need as much food as we can get,” George said. “We’ll bring the meat, and you all get as many acorns as you can. Then we’ll have plenty when we leave.”

So the slaves once again began the routine: Fill the bag, haul it back to camp, dump it in a pile, repeat.

This could be the last day we have to do this, Charles told himself. One good hunt, and we can head toward home again. Please, let that happen, he asked someone for whom he did not have a name.

In times of need like this, Charles found himself without anyone to appeal to. He had been raised neither pagan nor Christian. Easton was a mishmash of religions, mostly varieties of Christianity that had become popular when people found they needed help and protection. But Charles’ owners in Easton had been more interested in knowledge and wealth than in faith, and though Charles sometimes wished for a powerful being to call on, he had little confidence that there was such a being and less desire to spend his life parsing religious texts to dictate his existence.

As they worked, neither Gary nor Marguerite showed any inclination to talk, and Charles enjoyed the quiet. Nothing moved in the woods, except a pileated woodpecker that flew over giving its petulant staccato call. The wind sighed high above in the high tops of the oak trees. The weather was cooler now, though still very dry, and the leaves were turning yellow and red. Charles was glad for his blanket at night and glad for the ending of summer’s heat.

He found a rich seam of acorns and followed it, his bag filling quickly. Hearing Gary’s footsteps behind him, he straightened up and turned to remark about how fast they’d be done with this many acorns.

Three Appalachies, their faces painted brown and black, stood only feet away, with their guns pointed at him. Charles opened his mouth to scream, but one of them shook his head and pulled the hammer back on his ancient rusty gun. Charles closed his mouth again.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter 3

Gunpowder Trails

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 2

Chapter 3

Trying to look on the bright side, Charles considered whether the heat wave was all bad. The smoldering air and sizzling rocks that baked his feet helped distract him from his moaning stomach, after all. He also had to drink constantly, giving his stomach something constructive to do besides chew on the rest of his organs.

Logically, hot and thirsty and hungry were not a major improvement on hungry, but Charles did not let himself dwell on the fine points of the reasoning. In the wilderness, where rain, heat, cold and bugs offered a constant reminder of why houses were invented, learning to ignore basic facts of misery was key to contentment.

All the smugglers relied on their canteens to keep from wilting with the plants around them. When the group didn’t cross a stream for a few hours, the “water run” cries would start up, and George would call a halt and send the slaves downhill in search of water, hauling along bundles of empty canteens.

On the first day the smugglers fled Scranton, dark clouds blew over and Charles was all set to complain about hiking in the rain. But it was a dry heave of a storm, an empty wind that filled the air with dust and left the ground more parched than before. The skies stayed relentlessly clear in the days that followed, and the wilderness, already brown from summer, turned crackling and brittle.

On water runs, the slaves sometimes had to scrape out mud from springs to make a puddle deep enough to dip the canteens into. Sometimes the spring or stream was simply dead. That was bad news for the slaves, because when they brought empty canteens back to cranky and thirsty smugglers, they were treated to a vivid demonstration of the “blame the messenger” phenomenon.

“Dammit, don’t bring me back an empty canteen!” John shouted once. “You didn’t even go down to the stream, did you?”

Charles just nodded, but Marguerite wasn’t taking it.

“Yes we did! It was dry.”

“Then dig a little,” John said. “Or keep looking.”

She glared at him. “There’s some.” She pointed to a small cloud off near the horizon.

John probably would have slapped her, but slapping another man’s slave brought with it more trouble than it was worth. So he walked away.

And so after all the smugglers had gotten their complaining in, everyone simply had to move on for as many miles as it took to find water, or what passed for it.

Despite these miseries, the leaders set a rapid pace for the first few days. George refused to stop and hunt until the band had put more miles between them and Scranton, so the smugglers resentfully nibbled a dwindling pemmican supply, only eating enough to keep off the worst pangs. The hunger was bad enough, Charles thought, but worse was opening an almost empty food pouch, smelling the pemmican inside, and forcing himself to scrape out only a mouthful or two while his stomach, reminded of its emptiness, roared for more.

The band did not follow a worn footpath like the many forest trails optimistically called roads in the kingdom of Easton. No such path existed. Instead, pushing through spiderwebs and thickets, and towering groves of ancient trees, they stuck to certain ridge lines and avoided others, steering clear of swamps, dead ends, and dropoffs.

They would have made much faster time had they been able to follow a preordained route, cleared of branches and brush. But the band had no time to repair trail erosion, clear brush or saw fallen logs. Even if they had, following a sharply defined trail each trip would have been suicide when it was well known that smugglers were using the mountains to transport the most coveted black market commodity.

Even their vague route did not fool the Appalachies, who coveted sulfur as much as anyone, and who recognized trees in the forest like civilized people knew their own furniture. The Appalachies could not have helped but note the entrails from game animals the smugglers killed, the broken ferns, the disturbed leaves and the remains of campfires, not to mention the smoke of the live fires and the loud voices through the trees. The Appalachies, George told Charles once, knew the route about as well as he did.

George had drawn secret maps of the routes. Between trips, the leaders gathered several times in George’s study, correcting the maps and filling in details, tracing out springs and streams, good places for game and bad places for predators, and listing notes on major landmarks. They also fine tuned their plans for the next trip. The authorities from Easton and Scranton would have liked very much to acquire these state secrets of the smugglers.

Another advantage of the uncertain route was that it gave any band members who might be inclined to make trouble incentive to reconsider. While almost all smugglers had enough navigation knowledge to know more or less where they were, and could probably make their way out of the wilderness on their own eventually, a precise knowledge of the route certainly increased the odds of getting out. Only the seasoned, proven veterans knew the trails well, and only George had the maps.

Charles knew the route as well as anyone. But he was not in demand for navigation decisions, and as he hiked along behind the leaders he was free to think less of the route and more of bread with honey dripped all over it, and hot gravy over potatoes, and oyster stew, and pan-seared rockfish. During one painful interlude, he hiked for several hours with vivid images of hot crab cakes he could nearly smell but could not dispel. He tried to get back to thinking about the heat.

He walked fast enough to stay close to the front, near George and the other leaders. In the past, Charles had preferred to hike on his own, near enough to George that he could technically respond to a summons, but far enough away that George might find it too much effort and leave him alone. But now, when the smugglers passed him on the trail, they wouldn’t look at him, even the ones he had been on friendly terms with in the past. Once or twice, one of them clipped his pack or cut him off on the trail, but did not apologize. He noticed one evening as he carried wood for the fires that people lapsed into silence when he walked by, and started muttering when he was out of earshot.

The next morning, the slaves found a tepid stream to fill the canteens in. Usually, the smugglers gave some kind of brief ‘thank you’ when the canteens were full, but this time, one after another simply snatched the canteen without thanking them.

One evening, after a couple of days of hiking, George summoned Charles away from the fire he was staring into. This was unusual, because after the fires were built Charles was usually free to do what he wanted, which was usually staring into the fire. But now George called him over to the fire where only the leaders sat in the circle, in a voice loud enough for the whole camp to hear. Charles’ face flushed as he got up and the talk died down, the other smugglers turning their heads to watch him go by. One of them laughed.

He took a seat in the circle and looked around at the faces, searching them for clues. John, grim. James solemn, maybe a hint of sympathy. Or was it contempt? Warren, a brief smile. Old Harry, the friendly stare of a wet cat. George, stern.

“I think you know what this is about, Charles,” George said. “You’ve served faithfully for many years, but some in the band have raised questions about you and the other slaves. If you’re innocent, you have nothing to worry about. If you’re not, don’t try to hide anything. If you’re honest, it will go better with you. Much better.”

Charles’ stomach flopped. He could not lose George’s trust. If he made a mistake now and said something stupid, or worse, if he had too many enemies in the circle, he might have had his last good meal. If only he could have had one more piece of juicy venison before the end. It was strange, he thought, what went through your mind when disaster loomed.

“So why don’t you just start by telling us everything you know about what happened the day of the ambush,” George said.

Charles could see band members at the other fires looking over in their direction, whispering. “I don’t know anything,” he said.

George frowned. This did not seem to have been the right answer. “You don’t remember anything you did that day?”

“I got up, filled the canteens, and hiked, just like any other day,” Charles said.

“You didn’t see or hear anything unusual?”

“No.”

“Did any of the other slaves say anything to you around that time that you didn’t understand, or that sounded strange?”

“No.”

“You aren’t going to do yourself any favors by refusing to cooperate with us, Charles,” John said. “Give us details.”

“I don’t have any details! If I did I’d give them to you.” Did that sound too defensive? He hoped not.

And so it went on. Was he happy in the band? Had he seen anything unusual before the trip began? Did he suspect anyone else? Had anyone approached him with any offers? The circle of questions drew tighter around the central, unasked one: Are you a traitor? As Charles tried to answer in an unsuspicious way, he wondered if that made him sound suspicious. Did he sound too eager to convince, and thus guilty? How could he sound innocent, but not like he was trying too hard to sound innocent? How could he think straight when he couldn’t even concentrate on what he was saying?

Now Old Harry jumped in. “You’ve been unhappy for quite some time, haven’t you Charles?” he asked.

“No, I mean, no more than …” Charles struggled to find the right response. “No, I feel fine. Just like usual.” That, he thought, was not the right response. Lame. So lame!

“Are you planning to stick with the band when you’re done with your service?” James said, poking the fire with a stick. A cloud of sparks few upward.

“Well, I …”

Old Harry jumped in again. “Would you have been happy if the ambush gave you your freedom?”

“Well, no,” Charles said.

“No?” Old Harry said. “You prefer slavery?”

Charles glanced at George. “I’ve been treated well.”

“Ha,” Old Harry said. “That doesn’t answer the question. You’re not answering many questions, actually. But you’d better answer this one, and answer it straight: Did you help set up that ambush or did you just stay quiet about what you knew?”

“That’s enough,” George said. “Let’s stick with the facts, not with trap questions.”

“I was under the impression,” Old Harry said, “that we were going to question all the slaves the same way, without any favoritism.”

“I have no problem with hard questions,” George said. “None whatsoever. What I have a problem with is you fishing for the answer you want.”

“Fine,” Old Harry said. “Fine. As long as when my slave is questioned we play by the same rules.”

“If you have a problem with the way I’m handling things, you should say so now,” George said.

Old Harry held up his hands. “Oh, no. No, just clarifying.”

They glared at each other.

“Hrm,” Warren said. “I think Charles has told us everything he knows. There’s really nothing else to ask, except ‘Are you a traitor?’ And I’ve heard nothing from him that would make me believe that.” He pinched a mosquito that had gotten stuck in his beard.

Charles felt a rush of hope.

“I’ve heard nothing,” Old Harry said, “that would make me think he isn’t a traitor. All the usual stuff they all say. ‘I don’t know anything.’ ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”

That was too much.

“I … am … not … a … traitor.” Charles fired out the words. “I fought back that day. I could have been killed like any of you. A traitor had no reason …” he stopped, a little embarrassed. “No reason to, ah, to run.”

They sat in silence. James threw a branch on the fire.

“We all ran that day,” Warren said softly. “You don’t have any reason to feel ashamed of that, Charles.”

George cleared his throat. “OK, Charles, you’re dismissed.”

That was it. No thanks for his cooperation. No apology.

John went to get Gary for his interrogation. Well that was good at least, Charles thought. At least he hadn’t been singled out alone for humiliation. But he might not be off the hook, either, especially if Gary said something stupid or tried to make up a story to clear himself.

Back at his fire, as Charles cracked branches to feed the blaze, the other smugglers didn’t say anything to him. Or much of anything to each other, when he was within earshot, although a group at a fire out toward the edge of camp was laughing loudly over something. Charles looked over to where Gary stood in the flickering light of the leaders’ fire; James pointing, Gary shaking his head.

Charles wished he had known about the ambush. Then he could have made sure it was a success and those ungrateful bullies had gotten what they deserved. After all his service, to treat him that way. He snapped the branches as if they were necks. With all those bullets flying, how had those idiots missed Old Harry? How had Big John died and those other smug bastards survived?

As he got absorbed in his task and the fire leaped up brightly, burning off the chill, his rage began to die down and smolder. He was going to turn into Marguerite, if he wasn’t careful: silent and resentful and everyone waiting for him to explode one day.

Still, there was another emotion, too, that was tugging at him, poking at him, demanding attention, rising out of the relief, anger and shame. What was it? He was tense, and his breathing was fast. Then he recognized it. Rising terror.

If George turned on him — or needed to sacrifice him to satisfy an insurgency — Charles would have a better chance with the cats. Would George sacrifice him? Charles thought he might. He realized his hands were shaking. Stop it, he told himself. Stop. Here he was with a fire warming his hands, instead of a rope binding them tight against the bark of a tree. Things could be worse.

Warren came by as Charles was setting up his bedroll, and stood beside him, holding his hands out over the fire and shifting from one foot to the other. Now what, Charles wondered.

“Hey,” Warren said. “I wouldn’t worry too much about all the questions.”

Charles was not about to offer up his fear and anger for Warren’s inspection. He shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”

“Everyone is hungry, and tired, and sick to death of all this heat and not having enough water. And they’re scared. Don’t blame them too much, Charles.”

“Thanks,” Charles said, a sheen of sarcasm floating on the word.

Warren sighed. “You have to remember, too, George is getting pressure about you. He has to go through the motions and show that he’s taking this seriously, or the band will turn on him.”

Charles wondered just how much pressure George was under, but didn’t feel it would be a good idea to ask. And he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know the answer.

“Just be careful,” Warren said. “Stick with George. I don’t know of any threats against you but I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

And with that comforting remark, he crunched away through the leaves.

Whatever the leaders had decided about the slaves, they took no immediate action, a result Charles could live with. Action meant hot knives or coals, small bits of flesh sliced off a little at a time, a rope around the neck, or a stake at his back with wood piled high around him. In a smuggling band, a conviction on charges of being a traitor did not come with the possibility of parole.

Mindful of Warren’s advice, Charles was even more careful to stick close to George. He could still feel hostility from the smugglers, but it remained at a stalemate with a grudging cease fire, and everyone settled down into the routine of mountain travel.

Each morning at daybreak the slaves woke up, or if they didn’t, were shaken awake by their masters. The slaves kept any complaints to themselves, rolled out of their bedrolls and wrapped them up, threw more branches on the fire and stood, blinking in the smoke and stretching their aching muscles, as the trees emerged from the darkness and bird songs filled the silence. Then they grabbed the canteens, and staggered downhill to the closest water.

The clang of the canteens, the crunching footsteps in the leaves and the splashing water jarred away the last sleep. It took several trips to fill all the canteens, by which time Charles’ muscles warmed up and started to hurt less.

Eileen and her group of slave suspecters had quickly wearied of rising early to send someone to accompany the slaves to get water, as it defeated the purpose of having a slave do their work for them. So Eileen just warned the slaves they were being watched, and that they had better keep that in mind, news the slaves received solemnly until her back was turned.

While the slaves hauled water, the smugglers up at the camp stretched and complained about their sore muscles, analyzed the weather, compared blisters, bug bites and tribulations and talked about how that was always the way, wasn’t it, and how they were going to take up something easy like blacksmithing so they wouldn’t have to ever put themselves through this again, ate small mouthfuls of pemmican, drank from their newly filled canteens, laced up their boots and began eyeing their packs unhappily.

When George gave the command to move out, the band heaved on their packs, with the help of groans when necessary.

The slaves’ last chore was to put dirt on the fires, a job they did with extra care because the drought had parched the woods into kindling. Nobody cared for the idea of trying to outrun their own campfire later in the day.

The band waited for the leaders to move out, and then followed them in tight bunches that gradually trailed back into a thinner and thinner line, with lone hikers or knots of people in conversation. Any who fell too far back, however, hurried to catch up. Getting out of sight or earshot of the others might be mistaken by the Appalachies as an invitation to appropriate a pack of sulfur.

From Scranton, the smugglers had traveled south and east, and were well into the Appalachian mountain chain now. They followed the mountaintops as much as possible. Once they had reached these heights, the ridges often ran mostly level for miles. Sometimes the band threaded over sharp summits only a few feet wide, like the peak of a roof, with sides dropping steeply out of sight, and other times they walked through broad grassy meadows. Although the meadows were treacherous in a thunderstorm when hikers were alone and walking almost among the clouds, Charles would have welcomed the cool rain washing the air clean and resurrecting the streams.

Eventually, the ridges gave way, sometimes hastily, where the rivers had worn away the bank for eons, and the smugglers had to pick their way down the diving slopes, searching out footholds and trees to hang onto as they dropped toward the increasing roar of the water.

Once down, they faced the steep climb back up the other side. Some attacked the hill dead on, scrabbling straight up the face, while others angled back and forth, trading speed for a more gradual climb until the slope grew less severe. As a reward for their climb, they faced the mountaintop still rising ahead of them through the trees, always just up over the next rise, and the next rise, and the next rise, and the next rise, until finally the next rise was the last rise. On good days, another gently undulating stretch of even ridge lay ahead at the top. On worse days, the mountains were relentless, taking them thousands of feet down and back up repeatedly. The miles went slowly on those days, and the hunger bit harder.

These elements repeated daily, but not monotonously. Each mountain dressed in forest, but some donned mostly oak, others hickory, and others pine or hemlock. Each had its own rock formations and new patterns of gullies. Some were benevolent and gentle, others rough and grudging.

Frequently the smugglers passed overlooks, where rock cliffs dropped hundreds of feet down. Sometimes they paused there to rest, swinging their legs out over the emptiness. The mountain range ran in rows, long waves of peaks side by side for miles, fading purple into the distance. Often the travelers saw eagles or hawks below their feet, riding the updrafts along the mountainside.

Despite the vistas, the route was harsh. Rocks waited under every weary step to pummel Charles’ feet and turn his ankles. Only a fool would travel this way, over the roughest, worst possible route, instead of down in the valleys where the terrain was gentler and the water more plentiful. That was what made the mountains the ideal smuggling route, though: They were lonely.

Even the ancients, it seemed, had found these places too tough for habitation. Artifacts were everywhere in the valleys — rusty steel doorknobs, frozen rusty hinges, crumbling plastic, scattered bricks. Up in the mountains, the smugglers rarely found such leavings of a vanished civilization. Only the ghost roads. These flat lines of gravel and black earth ran for miles where the ancients had somehow cut straight through the mountains, leaving behind perfectly sheer, impossible cliffs. They had used these routes to get across the mountains, not to arrive at them.

It was on one of these plateaus that the smugglers dropped down, groaning, when George called a halt after the fifth day out of Scranton. Some slumped forward, heads on knees, and others stared off over the valley ahead, not really looking at it. They began to rummage in their packs for a bite of food.

“Get your rest, everybody,” George said. “Tomorrow” — smugglers watched him without enthusiasm — “we’re going hunting.”

Smiles spread around the group now, and a couple of weak whoops, mixed with some murmuring about it being about time. A few of the smugglers took out their bows and started waxing their strings.

Dan, the hunt organizer, had wandered along the plateau some distance, and after poking around the leaves, he called George over and pointed at the ground. George bent to look closer, and then straightened and put his hands on his hips. Soon they called over the rest of the leaders. A few of the band, Charles among them, wandered over for a look as well.

“What is it?” one of the smugglers asked.

“People have been along here very recently,” Dan said, pointing to the rumpled trail in the even surface of the leaves. He pulled the leaves aside in a couple spots. The ground underneath was powder dry, but still soft enough to show the outlines of moccasined feet.

The smugglers considered the tracks in silence for a while.

“Appalachies,” Dan said, unnecessarily. No civilized trappers or hunters would ever venture this far out.

The news got around the camp quickly and many of the smugglers came over to see for themselves. More of them began to string their bows and check their revolvers.

“All right, pack up,” George said. “We’ve got to get farther downhill, away from that cliff wall. You couldn’t ask for a nicer shooting view from the top of that.”

“So are we still going to stop and hunt here, or keep hiking tomorrow?” Warren asked George.

George pondered this. “I think we have to stop here.”

“We have enough supplies for one more day, at least,” Warren said. “If we send out hunting parties with Appalachies around, odds are good someone won’t come back.”

George shrugged. “Odds are good someone won’t come back if they sign up to go on a smuggling trip. If Appalachies are following us, a day’s journey isn’t going to make any difference. And …” he lowered his voice, “I can’t make them walk much farther. I’ve pushed about as hard as I can.”

“Maybe the men won’t want to stop, if there are Appalachies around,” Warren suggested.

George studied him.

Dan interjected, “They know we’re here anyway. They always know. There’s no way they’re this close to us and don’t know. If they don’t, they will soon. Harper’s Ferry is too far away to try to get there and sneak in there and buy food.”

George nodded. “The longer we wait, the weaker we get. We’re just going to have to risk it.”

“I just hate for anybody to get killed if they don’t have to,” Warren said.

“Better if we can avoid it, but it happens,” George said. “They knew what they were signing up for. I tell them all ahead of time.”

Warren cleared his throat. “Ah. But …”

George set his mouth and began to look off into the distance as he did when he was done with a conversation.

The smugglers moved downhill from the cliff and set up a new campsite, without the flat spots to sleep, but with a clear view through the trees in every direction. Anyone who approached would find the band waiting.

Charles joined a group throwing together a fire toward the middle of the camp. He didn’t like the idea of sleeping on the edge with Appalachies prowling around.

“I wonder how many of those white devils there are out there?” one of the smugglers, Pete, a stocky man with a gray beard, said. Pete was popular. Steady and responsible, he was always ready for a friendly chat or a joke.

Dan, striking a flint to shower sparks on a pile of twigs and wood shavings, said, “Oh, hard to say, but from the sign I’d only say one or two.”

“Yeah, but I mean, how many all over this wilderness? Think if they had the guts to fight and the weapons they’d be a match for us?”

John scoffed. “No way. There’s only a handful in the whole wilderness. You never run across any more than just a trace here or there. If there were any big tribes of them anywhere, you’d find villages. Trading posts. All you ever see is some savage in cat skins, hoofing it away from you as fast as he can go.”

“You can tell they’re afraid,” Dan agreed. “Slinking around the way they do. If they had any numbers they’d show a little more courage. And we’d get to pay them back for their sneaky little murders.” He spat. “Knife and run, that’s all they do. A bullet in the back is the only thing good enough for ‘em. I’ll kill the last one if I can.” He blew on the small flame in the twigs to get it going.

“I’m always a little worried about shooting them,” Pete admitted, fanning smoke out of his face with the battered hat he always wore. “I seen them around a few times when I’m out hunting and I’d of loved to drop them in their treacherous little tracks. But I never knew how many might be just over the hill. I’d get to thinking about how I might look with arrows coming out every which way, and just let the bugger keep walking.”

“I heard they ain’t really people at all,” a smuggler named Jake broke in. Enthusiastic and always ready for a good time, Jake got bored if the adventure didn’t keep coming. He had been bored for some time now, so he was delighted to stop and hunt, and even happier that there were Appalachies around, although he made a concerned face about it. “Yeah,” he went on, “They’re more than human, I always heard. That’s why they survived out here when the rest of the people was dying off in the Bad Times. They don’t need food. And they never got sick like anyone else. That’s because …

“Good God, Jake, enough of that nonsense,” John said. “They’re human all right. At least they shit like any human I’ve ever seen. You’ve never run across one of their piles? They’re just a low-grade version that’s more like an animal sometimes.”

“But where do they come from then? They ain’t nothing like us,” Jake protested. “White as sheets. And skinny and sickly looking.”

“What I heard,” Charles began, but Jake cut him off.

“Shut up. Nobody asked you for an opinion.”

Charles imagined what it would be like to beat Jake over the head with a limb. He guessed it would be fulfilling.

“My old Pop,” Pete said, “used to say they were the original people in this part of the world. Legend had it new settlers came from lands over the sea and drove them out, ran them out of their villages and killed them off so they had to run up into the mountains to survive. Guess they had the last laugh when the Bad Times came ‘cause they missed the whole thing.”

“I’ve heard that story,” Jake said dubiously. “But I don’t know as I give much credit to it. Nobody’s ever found these lands over the sea, no matter how far out they go.”

“Now, I don’t know about that,” Warren weighed in. “There are maps and artifacts that indicate pretty strongly there really were — are, I guess — countries over the sea. Now the Appalachies being the original people, you may be right about that being just an old tale. Myself, I believe the theory that the Appalachies were just like anybody else. When everything fell apart, they were the ones living on the edges. They fled into the woods and got away from it all. Most people came back, eventually. I guess they just stayed.”

“But why are they so white, then?” Jake persisted, unwilling to relegate the Appalachies to mere boring mortals.

Warren considered this. “Well, nobody really knows that. Maybe there just were so few of them they just inbred too much and it made them weak and sickly. Or maybe something else. A lot of strange things came out of those times that we can’t really explain. Take the cats.”

“If I was stuck up in the mountains skulking around living on cat meat,” Jake said, “I’d beat my way to the nearest village and find a nice local girl to settle down with.”

“Ha,” Pete said. “You’d get yourself shot. If some wild Appalachie came down out of the woods and courted my daughter, he’d settle down alright. Permanent, like.”

They laughed.

“Pete’s right, though,” Warren said. “Culture is a strong thing. Who would accept them in now? They’re outcasts.” He sounded almost sympathetic, a sentiment Charles never remembered hearing in a conversation about Appalachies.

Charles wondered again about Warren and where he had come from. He talked differently. He knew a lot about a lot of different subjects, and spoke with authority. If someone challenged him, he’d start citing books most of them had never heard of, at which point his challenger would concede the field, but go on disbelieving him.

Charles remembered hearing many stories about the Appalachies around the fireplace in Easton, stories often not much more sophisticated than these homespun rural tales Charlie and Pete were bringing up. In some stories, Appalachies were true humans, just with uncanny woodcraft and an insatiable hatred of civilized people. In others, they rose to the level of mythical beings, elf-like forest people with ghostly white skin who could travel without a sound and who painted their faces to blend perfectly into the brush. Sometimes they had magical powers of invisibility or seduction. Sometimes they were the only really good people left in the world, a simpler and nobler people. Some people considered it bad luck to talk about them at all.

Parents warned their children to behave or the Appalachies would get them, a threat that children in Easton began to doubt once they became more fully aware of the flat mountainless terrain around Easton. Maybe the threats worked better in Scranton, Charles thought. For his part, he’d been terrified of them when he’d been small, afraid of even being out on the street when shadows started to get deeper.

Whatever their nature and origin, the Appalachies probably made the smuggling route more safe than otherwise. There were so many tales about travelers and capable hunters who went out too far into the wilderness and disappeared. Many of the stories detailed the unpleasant events in the lives of the incautious adventurers just before those lives came to an end, although sources were hazy. People heard from someone who knew someone who found the body or who saw it all but escaped.

As Charles sat now in the gathering twilight, watching the full moon moving upward through the tree branches, he wondered what the Appalachies were really like. His time in the wilderness had taught him little about them. He had seen their handiwork in person: the arrow-riddled corpse of poor old Jumpy, after he had lagged behind the group one day, and the bodies of the small group of smugglers who, about six years ago, went downhill for a water refill and never came back. That’s when the water job had been delegated to the slaves.

He had never actually seen an Appalachie up close, only glimpses of forms running through the woods at a distance, or flickering shadows that he couldn’t be sure weren’t actually shadows.

That was about to change.