Six: A Fine Watchdog

Laura’s eyes were full of tears. They couldn’t leave him, she pleaded. They just couldn’t.

“I’m growing fond of the animal too, Laura,” Pa told her, squatting down to her height and placing his big hands on her shoulders. “But to take him with us would be no kindness. I can’t have him riding atop the car, and he’s not like to keep up. Not on those stubby legs.”

“I could carry him!” protested Laura.

“I know you would try, my little pickled soybean. But we don’t know what lies ahead of us on the long road. I need you taking care of yourself, not of a little pigdog. It would be best to leave him here. Perhaps he will find his way back to his people.”

Laura did not think so. If Jack still had a home and a family that cared for him, why was he living in a crumbling old Merican restrant, eating mice?

When she began to sob, Ma gave her a sharp “that’s enough of that now,” and Laura did her best to be brave. Mary was clearly upset as well, but she knew better than to argue and cause a fuss. And so, in muted grief, the girls hoisted their carrysacks up onto their shoulders and said goodbye to their new friend.

When the car was loaded, Pa took its shafts in hand, and they started off the way they had come, past the stone clock building and through the grove of chimneys, back to the old number road that would lead them towards the Misisip.

Laura trudged through the ruins of the nameless Merican village in the tracks the handcar cut through the new snow. Suddenly, she heard a yip from the trees behind them, and she looked over her shoulder to see Jack scampering after them through the snow drifts. Ma and Pa had seen the dog too, and Laura saw them exchange a look.

By the time they rolled the car back up onto the flat, treeless path that marked the Fifty-Three Road, Jack had caught up with them. Pa wondered if they shouldn’t try to scare him off. They could throw rocks or shout at Jack to drive him off. But Ma said she couldn’t bear the thought of such cruelty.

“Leave the poor creature be, Charles. Please. He’ll tire soon enough and turn back.”

And so they continued down the road, with Jack following after them. Sometimes, he fell back to sniff the snow-covered hull of an old lectric car or to investigate some sound from the woods that flanked the old number road, but he was soon right back at their heels. He didn’t tire. To everyone’s surprise, he kept up with them all day.

“He’s tougher than he looks,” Pa admitted.

Indeed, as the sun began to dip lower in the gray-blue sky and Laura’s shadow began to stretch across the snow like sap candy, it seemed that Jack was the only one who wasn’t exhausted. It had been a very long day of walking, but still they did not stop and make camp. Pa did not want to stop until they found the crossroads marked on Rakesh Halfsilver’s map where the Fifty-Three Road met another old number road.

According to the parchment map, they could follow this second Merican road south to the ruins of a town called Pepin. There, they would try and cross the Mighty Misisip over it was getting late, and into Yowa country. Pa was certain that the place where they would turn south was not far from the little lake beside the restrant.

The day grew late, and still the crossroads did not appear. Pa shook his head and muttered to himself every time he stopped to scan the horizon. Eventually, he announced that they must have passed the second number road without knowing. Laura looked around. Everything was covered in snow, and it was sometimes hard to tell where the road ended and the woods began.

Pa said they had best make camp. In the morning, they would retrace their steps. He pulled the handcar up off the road.

The place where they stopped was rocky and sparsely wooded. Nearby, they found a dry gully, and Ma said that would provide some shelter. The sides of the gully were too steep for the handcar, so Pa found a thicket of short, gnarled shrubs on the ridge above. There, he tucked the car and its cargo in among a nest of branches. Then he went back to cover their tracks while the rest of them carried their bedrolls down into the gully.

There was no singing or storytelling that night. Instead of his two-string, Pa pulled out Rakesh Halfsilver’s map and squinted at it in consternation. Even when the dusk light had faded and he could not possibly make out the ink trails on its face, he sat with the parchment on his lap, running his fingers through his beard.

For supper, there was hard saltmeat and leftover soybread. Then it was straight to bed. Laura curled up beneath her blankets thinking about the fat juicy rabbit they had enjoyed the night before. Even Jack seemed in low spirits. The little dog lay between Laura and Mary, his chin flat against the ground as his big bulgy eye followed Ma around the campfire while she doused the last of its flames. Laura closed her eyes.

She woke to the sound of Jack barking. It seemed to her as if only a moment had passed, but when she looked up she found that the stars had moved. She knew then that she had been asleep for many hours.

Jack was no longer lying beside her. He was somewhere above them, up at the top of the gully. He barked and growled and barked again. Suddenly, Pa was up, rifle in hand.

“Charles . . .” Laura heard Ma whisper.

“Stay here,” Pa whispered. He circled around them, smooth and silent as a passing shadow.

Before Laura knew what was happening, Ma had grabbed her beneath her arms and pulled her behind a dirt embankment where the gully gently curved. Mary huddled down next to her, Baby Grace in her arms, still asleep. Ma crouched in front of them, flat against the gully wall. Both her fists were wrapped around the handle of Pa’s hatchet. Moonlight glinted off the iron head, which waited, tense and ready, at Ma’s shoulder.

Laura held her breath. There was more barking. The clatter of rocks. Then, voices. Pa’s. But also another. Beside her, she heard Mary gasp.

Laura couldn’t hear what Pa was saying, but as the minutes passed she felt she could sense some of the forcefulness fade from his tone. Jack stopped barking.

Finally, footsteps approached. Mary and Laura both sat up straight. Ma adjusted her grip on the hatchet.

Laura peeked around the embankment. Two figures climbed down out of the shadows that blanketed the walls of the ravine. They stepped into the moonlight that illuminated the gully floor. One of them was Pa. The look on his face was calm and measured, but he kept his rifle raised and pointed towards the other figure, a man walking just a few steps ahead of Pa. The man, for his part, held his arms out to the sides, palms open, to show he had nothing in his hands.

As they stepped into the midst of their camp, Laura got a better look at the stranger. His face was smooth, except for two streaks of soft black hair smeared on either side of his upper lip. He was a boy, Laura now realized, perhaps no more than a few years older than Mary. He wore a green jacket and matching green pants. Neither seemed to fit him. Even by the dim light of the moon, Laura could see how dirty he was. His feet were bare. He looked frightened.

In between Pa and the boy trotted Jack. He snuffled at the stranger’s toes, then lifted his head and gave a quizzical yip before bounding over to Ma.

“It’s alright,” called Pa. “It’s nearly dawn anyway, Caroline. Why don’t we get a cookfire going?”

***

The young man’s name was Marco. His manners were polite. He called Pa “sir” and Ma “ma’am” and was always thanking and apologizing. Laura found it hard to dislike him, even if he was a thief.

Marco never denied it. He had seen their smoke the night before and had waited until after dark to approach their camp. He’d been going through their provisions in the car when Jack raised the alarm. Tears welled up in his eyes as he admitted to the crime.

“Like I told your husband, ma’am,” he said to Ma, “I was only lookin’ for sum’t eat, and I sure never meant to put a scare to you or your family. It’s a shameful thing takin’ food from the mouths of children, I know, and hateful in the eyes of the King Above. But hunger drives a man to things he mightn’t otherwise.”

Pa scratched thoughtfully below his neck whiskers.

“Dare say I’ve seen men do worse for hunger,” he said.

The young man nodded towards the ground. He murmured something that sounded like “me too.”

Dawn was turning the sky a pale gray violet. The fire was burning well, sending out tendrils of sweet earthy smoke. The smoke mingled with the morning mist which sat in the gully like soymilk settling into a cup of nettle tea. For the second time, Pa asked Marco if he was alone. Marco said he was. The way he said it, Laura believed him.

Pa and Ma exchanged a look that Laura couldn’t interpret. Finally, Ma said, “Well, it sounds as if we’ll all be better for some breakfast.”

Ma placed her big flat iron skillet over the fire and set about making frycakes. As the soymeal gruel sizzled in its shallow bath of tallow, everyone seemed to relax. Eventually, Pa lowered his rifle.

The first frycake came out warm and steaming in the chilly dawn air. Ma spooned a dollop of wildberry jam on top and handed it to their guest. Marco looked overwhelmed, as if the fluffy brown disc was the finest gift he had ever received.

More frycakes emerged from the pan and flopped down onto tin plates. They were best hot, so nobody waited for everyone to be served. They ate them up just as soon as they were ready. Laura liked to roll hers up like a parchment scroll let the jam squirt out the ends as she would take a bite.

At one point, Pa took over at the skillet so Ma could eat. As he flipped the soymeal cakes and spooned out the jam, he peppered Marco with questions. Where had he come from? Where was he bound?

Laura knew she was not supposed to speak while grown-ups were talking. But she could listen. She listened to everything the man had to say, savoring her frycake in the meanwhile.

Marco had grown up to the south, Laura learned, in the lands folks called the Illinoy. He had been a soldier.

“General Rhee?” asked Pa, depositing another flat frycake on the stranger’s plate.

Laura paused mid-bite. She looked from her father to the boy in the muddy green jacket, a wad of unchewed dough tucked into her cheek like a curious little squirrel. General Rhee was a famous warlord. It was he that had founded the Army of Faith’s Spear Triumphant, the group that had overrun the Illinoy and driven Clan Ortega west.

Laura had heard Pa speak of Faith’s Spear and General Rhee with his friend Jim Cordry. Jim Cordry stayed with them whenever he was bound for the Laketown Market. He traveled far and wide on convoy and was always a great source of news. He and Pa would spend hours on the porch of their house in the Big Woods, smoking pipeleaf and conversing. Laura liked to linger about to listen whenever she could get away with it. Sometimes it was boring, like when Mr. Cordry would argue with Pa about tariffs or silver inflation or the persecution of Lacorian missionaries. But sometimes they talked of far-off lands and great battles that were like something out of the adventures of Wane the Batman.

The names of powerful warlords like General Rhee and Lucius Ortega and Roland the Hatchet, they had a fantastical quality, like something out of a storybook. Hearing them evoked by Pa like this, so immediate and matter-of-fact, was startling.

Marco stared into the campfire. He nodded at Pa’s question at first. Then, considering, he bobbled his head.

“The exalted general was called to Heaven last spring. His brother-in-law, General Albright—Glasseye the men all call him—now commands the Spear. Or some. Some chose to march east with Captain Sung . . . General Sung now, I mean.”

“A great many generals,” said Pa, as he took Ma’s plate from her. Before she could protest, he’d scooped another steaming frycake and a spoonful of jam onto the dish and deposited the dish right into her lap.

In fits and starts, Marco told them his story. He had been Laura’s age when he was taken in by the Army of Faith’s Spear Triumphant. Ever since, he had been a soldier. Laura could not bring herself to imagine it. She was nearly nine years old and could do a great many things, like till soil and trap rabbits and even sew a cross-stitch. But she could not imagine herself as a soldier, carrying a gun and marching into battle.

Faith’s Spear had been like a family to Marco. He would never have thought himself a deserter, he told them, and it seemed to Laura as if it pained him to even say the word. But a few months back, everything had started to go wrong. After General Rhee died, the commander of the fort where Marco had been garrisoned was purged. Laura wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but it sounded bad. The new commander was harsh with Marco, and it made him want to run away.

Then, a little while later, came an outbreak the Yellow Madness. Laura had never heard of Yellow Madness before, but from the way that Ma sucked in her breath and drew away from the stranger, she guessed it was another name for the Ague. A shiver went up Laura’s spine.

Suddenly it seemed that everyone in Marco’s fort was sick. Many soldiers were taken by the Ague, including one of Marco’s childhood friends. He was very scared. That was when he decided to run.

One night, a trio of sick men somehow broke free of their restraints and escaped from the infirmary and into the dark underground hallways below the fort’s armory. While the rest of the garrison was occupied attempting to subdue them, Marco stuffed what supplies he could into his marching bag and slipped over the wall.

He had been on the road nearly two months.

“Why north?” asked Pa. “Have you kin among the Laketowns?”

Marco shook his head and shrugged as Pa took his plate. The soymeal and the jam had been put away. Pa splashed some water from a drinking sac into the iron pan and let the fire bring it to a boil. Though not a morsel of frycake was left on any of the tin plates, Pa plopped them one by one into the hot water anyway.

“Why not go west?” piped up Laura without thinking. “That’s where we’re going!”

Her parents both turned to her, a look of warning written on their faces. Mary too, though she was only two years older and had no right to be giving Laura such bossy looks. Laura’s face reddened. She knew better than to be telling strangers about the family’s comings and goings. She stared at the ground, fiddling with the drawstring on her cloak.

Marco glanced nervously back and forth between Laura and Pa, wiping the back of his hand across his wispy moustache, before breaking the tense moment of silence.

“That’s a smart girl you’ve got there, sir. I asked myself much the same as the snow got deeper and food scarce. It’s wilder country up here than I ever reckoned on, that’s true enough. But you see, Miss, the way I saw it I didn’t have much choice. South and east the Spear’d have caught me for certain and hung me for a deserter. And west, well, that’s Ortega territory . . .”

The young man unbuttoned the collar of his jacket and pulled it aside. A line of dark blue ink ran up the side of his chest all the way to his neck. It ended in a sharp diamond-shaped point, ringed with a thin halo of flames. Laura wasn’t sure what it meant, but she supposed it was something the people who lived in Yowa country wouldn’t like.

Pa nodded as if he understood.

“Well, if you can make it as far as Greensbay, I’ll give you some names. The situation in the Laketowns is complicated just at the moment. But these are good people, and they’ll help you if they can. Tell them Charles Ingalls sends his regards.”

Pa gave Marco the names of some of the Laketown merchants and farmers he knew. He told him about Mr. Abdullah and his soy mill and Mr. and Mrs. Johansen, who farmed the flat land east of Iron River and would need help with their planting come spring. He mentioned the Mwangi sisters who controlled the salt trade, and even Raskesh Halfsilver with his tent full of artifacts. Pa showed Marco the Number Roads to follow to make it through the Big Woods all the way to Great Mishgan Lake.

Eventually, Marco went back to fetch his belongings. He returned with a big burlap carrysack. Then, he and Pa sat down to trade. Laura watched the piles of goods in front of them grow and shrink as the two bargained back and forth. Laura knew that Pa would give Marco a fair deal. He was always an honest trader. Still, she couldn’t help but notice how the stranger looked like a frightened little boy sitting there next to her father.

In the end, they gave Marco a half-pound bag of soymeal, two jars stuffed with pickled kale, a fat bundle of saltmeat wrapped in hide, a spare set of gloves, and an old Merican coat made from lectric fabrics, which Ma had mended and lined with warm wolf fur.  Marco traded them a half-filled pouch of gunpowder, a sack of special bullets for some kind of lectric gun, and three silver coins. The bullets wouldn’t fit in Pa’s rifle, but they were rare scav and might fetch a good price at market once they reached Davenport.

Once the trading was done, they packed up camp. The sun was bright in the sky, and it was time to return to the road. Marco walked with them for a little while, trudging beside the handcar with his big bag over his shoulder, telling Pa more about his life fighting for the Army of Faith’s Spear Triumphant.

Before long, they came to a clearing bounded by short mounds of creetrock rubble. Nearby, the ruins of a big lectric wagon lay on its side, dusted in snow. Pa declared that this must be the crossroad. Laura looked south. Then she looked north. Indeed, the faint outline of a road stretched over the hills and into the distance in both directions. Now that she had seen it, she didn’t understand how they could have missed it the night before

“Well, lad, this is where we part ways,” said Pa.

“Thank you for your kindness, sir,” the young man said. “The King Above protect you and your family on your travels.”

They watched him walk away, up the Fifty-Three Road, bound for the country that they themselves had just abandoned.

“All that food, Charles,” Ma said when he was out of hearing. “Can we spare it?”

“At that price, I dare say we can,” Pa replied. “Three silvers for a week’s provisions and an old coat? Plus the shells may fetch the same again at market. Don’t fret, Caroline. We’re well stocked yet.”

When Laura thought about it, it was an awful lot of silver for the things they had given Marco. But she guessed that a fair price for something depended on how much a person needed it.

“Anyhow, we must count ourselves lucky. Last night could have turned out a deal worse. We’ll need to be more careful in the future when we make camp.”

Squatting at Pa’s feet, Jack gave a little yip, as if he agreed. Pa looked down and smiled.

And so they started down the road south, Jack riding happily on the back of the car.

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