Seventeen: The Great Eighty Road

The next morning began with a bath, for Ma wanted them to look presentable. They would soon begin following the Great Eighty Road westward, and Pa predicted that by that very afternoon they would reach Hawkeye Crossing.

According to Tobias Goatherd, Hawkeye Crossing was the name of a trading post and settlement that lay right along the Great Eighty Road, and he had helped Pa mark down its location on Rakesh Halfsilver’s map. Hawkeye Crossing was also where Clan Ortega had put its supervisory for that part of the Yowa. Tobias Goatherd had assured Pa that there they could obtain papers permitting them to travel the Great Eighty Road. He had even given them a letter of introduction to the supervisor in charge, a man named Malcolm Syed. If all went well, Pa hoped to continue on from Hawkeye Crossing, traveling the Eighty Road all the way to Lildaka. If not, he said, they might have to turn back towards Davenport and apply for their travel papers there.

Ma did not want them to look like desperate displacees when they approached the supervisory. And so, when Laura woke that morning, Ma was already busy, stitching tears in Mary’s coat.

Pa was gone, hiking back towards the river to fetch water. When he returned, he carried a jug in one hand and a sloshing bucket in the other, with two bulging waterskins slung across his broad shoulders.

Their cookfire the night before had been kept small and quickly doused. Ma worried about smoke so close to the big road. Now, though, she instructed Mary to boil a big pot of water so that they could all have a good thorough wash.

When the pot began to bubble, Mary removed it from the fire and carefully poured the steaming water into the thin-walled alumnum basin that Pa had hammered into shape at his forge. Then she mixed in cold water from the waterskins until the temperature was just right.

Laura bathed first, lathering up a washcloth with one of Ma’s lavender soaps and scrubbing her skin all over until it glowed a happy pink. She even washed her hair. Undoing her braids, she worked soapy water through the matted clumps and tangles until her fingers massaged her scalp. It was bracing, standing there with damp hair and skin in the cold morning air. Laura hopped from one foot to the other to fight off the shivers. Still, goosebumps and all, it was marvelous to feel so clean.

Meanwhile, Mary set out the jar of tooth powder. As Laura bathed, Mary mixed a spoonful of the fragrant powder with water and some ashes from the campfire to make a sticky paste. She spread the paste across her teeth with her finger. Then she took the bone-handled toothbrush that Ma had made for them and dutifully scrubbed the inside of her mouth with its soft hemp bristles. When it was Laura’s turn, Mary handed her the toothbrush and the bowl of paste. Laura hated the burnt taste of the gray ointment, but Ma always said that they must clean their teeth with paste at least once a week if they wanted to keep them. She forced herself to brush up and down, front and back, until the foul mixture frothed over her lips. Then she spit into the bushes with a theatrical “blech!” before rinsing the taste from her mouth.

When they were both brushed and bathed and dressed, Mary and Laura sat together to comb out one another’s hair. They used Ma’s comb. It was an antique from Lectric Times, with dozens upon dozens of stiff iron prongs that never seemed to rust or stain. Laura bit her lip, wincing as Mary coaxed wet brown knots of hair through the comb’s narrow teeth.

Not for the first time, Laura wished her hair would flow like Mary’s and not coil into such tight kinks. Mary had teased her about it when they were younger. Of course, Ma’s hair was the same way, and no one could deny that Ma was beautiful. Still, Laura couldn’t help feeling a pang of jealousy when she looked at her older sister’s sandy curls. It was not quite the mesmerizing golden hair that cascaded down the shoulders of the Queen on Mary’s carrysack, but it was a good deal closer than Laura’s would ever be.

Meanwhile, Ma continued her mending. When Mary’s coat was patched, she turned to Laura’s and then to Pa’s. She even asked to see Oprah and declared that the ragdoll could fresh thread and stuffing.

The handcar got a cleaning too. Pa wiped down the sides of its oak frame and scraped dried mud from its hubs and spokes. One of its wheels had begun to squeak, and so he applied a fresh coat of tallow to the axles.

Later, while Pa combed out his beard and Ma pinned her hair, holding Mary’s handscreen up to inspect herself in its smooth black surface, Mary tried to give Jack a wash with the leftover bathwater. The brindled pigdog wanted nothing to do with the damp washcloth, and Laura laughed and laughed watching her sister wrestle with the squirming, kicking loaf of fur. When Ma admonished Mary that she was getting the dog no cleaner and herself a good deal dirtier, Mary finally gave up and let Jack be.

All this activity kept them at camp until mid-morning. Eventually, Ma looked them all over and announced that they were as respectable as they likely to get under the circumstances.

“Might even pass for decent folk in a bad light,” joked Pa.

And so they started on their way down the Great Eighty Road.

***

It made Laura feel tiny, walking down the center of that wide creetrock road. The cars that used to travel this way back in Lectric Times must have been gigantic, she imagined.

Yet, when they began to come across the remains of lectric cars, most seemed no bigger than those she’d seen elsewhere. Even the monstrous box-like wagons, the ones that Pa said were used by Merican traders in Lectric Times to carry their goods from town to town, would have taken up only a small sliver of the road’s span. Laura figured the Eighty Road could easily fit six or eight of the biggest lectric wagons side-by-side, with plenty of room left for travelers on foot to pass safely in between.

Most of the cars had been dragged off the road. They lay in heaps, one atop the other in the ditches alongside the long flat plateau that the Merican builders had shaped in olden times. As often as not, the lectric cars had come to rest on their sides or flipped completely on their backs, their wheels straining uselessly skyward, stray threads of distended softmold clinging to their stunted metal rims.

They saw more and more lectric wreckage as the morning wore on. The clusters of abandoned cars grew thicker and more frequent. Sometimes, there were too many for the roadside ditches to hold.  Then they spilled out over its edges like a swarm of insects, crawling over one another as they invaded the creetrock road.

They had been walking for several hours when Laura saw wreckage ahead that seemed to block the road completely. On the horizon, there appeared the enormous rectangular shapes of several lectric wagons. They lay end-to-end, all the way across the road and down over its side. From Laura’s vantage, they seemed to form a tall unbroken barricade of rust-coated iron.  She looked up at Pa. He smiled back at her, but Laura saw that he had begun to drum his fingers restlessly against the grips of the handcar.

As they drew closer, Laura noticed something on top of the iron wall. It looked to be a little hut. It was a simple thing, no more than a canopy suspended by four posts over open air, with low lumpy walls made of what seemed to be piles of heavy sacks. Beside the hut, a silvery gray flag hung limply from the top of a pole, stirring itself occasionally when a breeze kicked up. Another flag hung below the hut, draped down across the front of the iron box. A red shape was sewn onto its silver field. It was the face of some sort of red bisox, Laura eventually realized, with thick horns and flared nostrils and dark, scowling eyebrows.

On closer look, she realized that the lectric wagons were not arranged into a single wall as she had first thought. Instead, the iron barricade ended halfway across the Eighty Road. Behind it, a second row of wagons obstructed the other half of the road. Anyone who wished to pass through would have to snake around one wall and then the other. Pa would not have any trouble navigating the maze with the handcar, but a bigger bisox-drawn car might find the turn awfully tight.

They were almost to the first wall when suddenly a head popped up inside the hut from behind the pile of sacks. The face looked startled to see them, as if jolted from a slumber by the rattle of the handcar or the crunch of its wheels over the creetrock gravel.

Pa stopped, and Ma took Laura’s hand, guiding her and Mary back behind the handcar. Perched atop their belongings, Jack yipped, but Ma gave him a harsh shush, and he immediately ducked back down, head between his paws in embarrassment.

There was a frantic commotion inside the hut and a sharp exchange of hushed voices. Something bumped and clattered, and someone shouted a very impolite word. Ma and Pa looked at one another. Pa raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

Finally, a figure scrambled from the hut, fumbling with a bayoneted rifle, and called down to them.

“Ho there!”

It was a young woman. A long gray vest hung unbuttoned over her dirty white tunic, extending down past the waist of her baggy trousers. The roof of the hollow iron wagon clanged beneath her boots as she stomped to the edge to peer down at them. She held her rifle high, at the ready, but she did not point it at them.

“Ho!” Pa shouted back. “My name is Charles Ingalls and this is my wife Caroline! We’ve come down from the north country, up Lake Mishgan way, along with our daughters here! We aim to take the Eighty Road out past Lildaka and settle in the Wastes! I was told we could petition for passage with Supervisor Syed!”

The woman smoothed down her vest. Some of her composure seemed to return. Looking them over, she allowed her rifle to fall back across her shoulder.

“You’re in the right place, Mr. Ingalls!” she called down to them. “You’ll need to stop by the eastbank office and see Big Jasmin or whoever’s on duty there this time o’day! The fort proper’s on ‘tother side of the river, but folks at the east office they’ll help get your papers sorted and ferry you ‘cross to see the Supervisor! It’s just a short jaunt downroad yonder! Tyreek’ll take you there! Tyreek!”

At the sound of his name, a second figure stood up inside the hut from behind the lumpy sack wall, struggling with buttons on an identical gray vest. Hastily grabbing his rifle, he stumbled out onto the roof of the old lectric wagon to stand beside the woman. He waved down at Laura and her family before turning around and climbing down an unseen ladder on the other side of the iron box. A moment later, he appeared again, rounding the corner of the roadblock’s winding alley.

“Good afternoon to you, sir,” he said as he approached. “Ladies. Welcome to Hawkeye Crossing.”

The guardsman looked to be of an age with the young woman standing atop the barricade, both of them no more than a few years older than Mabel perhaps. He was clean-shaven and had a wide, bashful grin. He was bare-chested underneath his gray vest, and series of crude tattoos, barely visible against his dark skin, paraded from his shoulders down his skinny arms.

“If you follow me, I’ll get you over to see Big Jasmin,” he said, shaking Pa’s hand and then Ma’s.

“Big Jasmin?” asked Ma.

“Assistant Supervisor,” said Tyreek. “She’ll start getting you processed. Maybe get you a hot meal in the bargain. How’s that sound?”

Pa said that it sounded fine indeed and stooped to hoist up the poles of the handcar. Together, they followed the young man through the checkpoint, weaving between the immobilized lectric wagons, all under the watchful eye of his companion up above, who waved them off before returning to the shade of her little watchpost.

As they walked down the Eighty Road toward Hawkeye Crossing, Tyreek asked them about their travels and what life was like in the big northern woods.

For himself, he’d grown up near Davenport, Tyreek told them. He’d entered service with Clan Ortega years ago but only just been assigned to Hawkeye Crossing the previous summer. He liked it here, he said. Life was more peaceful out in the hinterlands, and Supervisor Syed always made sure the garrison was well fed and the barracks heated in winter.

Pa asked if the outpost had seen many travelers of late. Tyreek told them traffic along the Eighty Road had picked up a good deal since the spring thaw. Most came through by way of Davenport, attaching themselves to trading convoys. A single family showing up at their doorstep out of the blue was a might unusual, he confessed.

Laura smelled cookfires. Before long, she began to see wisps of smoke sneaking out from among a thicket of creetrock ruins that lay just south of the road, a little ways down a dirt trail. As they passed, a flat clearing came into view, hiding behind the trees and ruins, and Laura could see tents and people.

“Convoy arrived day before last,” Tyreek said, indicating the camp. “Heading west. If the supervisor gets your papers approved quick enough, you folks may be able to attach yourselves. Road’s a good deal safer traveling with a decent sized party.”

Past the campsite, the Eighty Road dipped gently downward through a meadow speckled with pretty blue wildflowers. In the distance was a big river, the same one they had seen upstream the day before, Laura supposed. Just as it did to the smaller number road in their previous encounter, the river cut the Great Eighty Road off as soon as the creetrock trail met its banks.

As they approached the river, Tyreek turned down a dirt path that meandered across the meadow. Up ahead, clusters of old lectric buildings of brick and creetrock studded the slope overlooking the river. The more Laura looked, the more she saw. Some had been big, with two or three levels or more. Most sat roofless and abandoned, but several showed signs of repair. In some places in between the ruins, land had been cleared and the soil furrowed into neat rows for crops. Here and there, chimneys breathed their faint gray breath.

She could see the other side of the river now. There, the signs of habitation were even more apparent. Tracing the curve of the river’s west bank was some kind of fort, surrounded by a long fence of spiked wooden posts. Within that fence, a tall stone tower could be seen and the tips of a dozen or more thatched rooves. More trails of smoke rose from the fort, mingling together into one great cloud that spilled lazily across the water. Beside its gates, Laura could just make out the faint gray ribbon of the Eighty Road, reemerging from the far banks of the river.

As they continued to follow Tyreek down the winding dirt trail, Laura noticed people walking amongst the fields and ruins ahead, some carrying buckets of water sloshing from yokes across their shoulders, some pulling small handcars. When they approached a man splitting firewood outside an old shed, he called out to them

“Ho, Tyreek!”

“Ho, Darryl!” Tyreek called back. “New arrivals heading west! Big Jaz in the east office?”

“Last I saw!” the man replied. He gave Laura and her family a wave.

Eventually, they stopped before a stout square house that stood all alone beside a field of leafy green vegetables. Like the other repurposed ruins spread out across this side of the river, the building was a queer patchwork. Its foundation and most of its outer walls were creetrock, but from within this hard gray shell grew timber beams. They rose to fill the gaps that time had torn into the tops of the creetrock slabs, blossoming into rafters that propped up a slapdash roof cobbled together with wooden boards and sheets of old lectric iron. It was almost as if the house had another smaller house sprouting inside of it.

The wide windows of the original structure had been plugged, and, like the reptilsoo of Happy Valley, its big creetrock entryway had been narrowed and fitted with a wooden gate. The gate hung open. Tyreek climbed up the uneven stone steps that led to the house and peeked his head inside.

“Ho, Big Jaz!” they heard him say. “Got a new intake for you. Just arrived through the east checkpoint.”

Tyreek turned back and beckoned them inside. Pa set the handcar down by the side of the path, and he and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Grace all followed Tyreek up the crooked steps and through the open door.

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