The next morning began with a bath, for Ma wanted them to look presentable when they reached Hawkeye Crossing.
Hawkeye Crossing was the name of the settlement where Laura’s family would obtain papers permitting them to travel the Great Eighty Road. Tobias Goatherd had marked its location down on Pa’s parchment map, right where the thick dashed line of the Eighty Road met one of the rivers that forked diagonally up through the Yowa. That river was the same one that they had seen yesterday, said Pa, so Laura knew that Hawkeye Crossing must be very close, somewhere just west of where they had camped that night beside the Eighty Road.
Hawkeye Crossing was just a small village and trading post, according to Pa, but it was also the location of an Ortega fort. Inside the fort was the Clan’s regional supervisory office. Tobias Goatherd had given Pa a letter of introduction to the supervisor in charge of the Hawkeye Crossing garrison, a man named Malcolm Syed. If all went well, they would be allowed to continue on, following the Great Eighty Road all the way to Lildaka and to their new home in the Wastes beyond.
Ma did not want them to look like desperate displacees when they petitioned the Hawkeye Crossing supervisor. And so, when Laura woke that morning, Ma was already busy with her thread and needle, stitching tears in Mary’s coat.
Pa was nowhere to be seen, for he was 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. Slung across his broad shoulders were two bulging waterskins.
The night before, Ma had worried about smoke so close to the big road. They had kept their cookfire small and doused it quickly. Now, though, the firepit crackled and glowed. Ma 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 basin that Pa had forged from scrap aluminum. Mary then 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 pine 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. Neither of them would ever have golden hair cascading down their shoulders like the Queen on Mary’s carrysack, but Mary’s hair was a good deal closer than Laura’s.
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.
With that, 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, they seemed much the same as those she’d seen elsewhere. They passed toppled lectric wagons, those great rectangular cars that Pa said were used by Merican traders in Lectric Times to carry their goods from town to town. As huge as they were, those old wagons would have taken up only a small sliver of the Eighty Road’s span. Laura estimated that the road could easily fit five or six 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 abandoned cars and wagons had been dragged off the road. They lay in heaps, one atop the other in the ditches alongside the long flat plateau of the Great Eighty Road. 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.
Laura saw more and more lectric wreckage as the morning wore on. The clusters of 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 shapes ahead that seemed to block the road completely. Several lectric wagons appeared on the horizon. Their enormous rectangular shells reminded Laura of the iron boxes that had spilled from the stranded boat beside the Misisip. The wagons lay end-to-end, all the way across the road and down over its side. From Laura’s vantage, they seemed to form a wall of rust-coated iron, barring their way. 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 pointed horns and flared nostrils and dark, scowling eyebrows.
At the same time, Laura 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.
It was a young woman. A gray cloak hung askew from her neck, as if hastily fastened. Beneath, her rumpled tunic was half-tucked into the waist of baggy trousers. The roof of the hollow iron wagon clanged under 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 come from the north country, up Lake Mishgan way! We mean to take the Eighty Road to Lildaka to settle a homestead out in the Wastes! I was told we could petition for passage with Supervisor Syed!”
The woman straightened out her cloak. 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 be wanting to pay a visit to the eastbank office and see Big Jasmin or whoever’s on duty there this time o’day! Supervisor’s office is ‘tother side of the river, but folks at the east office they’ll help get your papers sorted and ferry you ‘cross to the fort proper! 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 a 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. 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 Jaz,” he said, shaking Pa’s hand and then Ma’s.
“Big… ?” Ma began.
“Jasmin Perez,” said Tyreek. “Assistant Supervisor. 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.
Tyreek had grown up near Davenport, he 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. Up ahead, wisps of smoke were rising from a spot just south of the road. As they passed, she saw that the smoke was coming from a thicket of creetrock ruins that lay at the end of a dirt trail, a little ways off the main road. Eventually, a flat clearing appeared from behind the trees and ruins, and Laura could see tents and people.
“Convoy,” Tyreek said, indicating the camp. “Arrived day before last. 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.”
Just past the campsite, the Eighty Road dipped gradually downward through a meadow speckled with pretty blue wildflowers. At the bottom was the river that Laura’s family had encountered upstream the day before. It seemed even bigger now, as it surged down across the Yowa plains to cut short the Great Eighty Road, just as it had the previous day with the smaller road that had brought them south. Down the road ahead, Laura could see the spot where the river swallowed up the wide creetrock trail that had seemed so indomitable just a moment before.
Rather than follow the Eighty Road down to where it disappeared beneath the water, however, Tyreek turned down a dirt path. The path meandered up and down across the gently sloping meadow. These gentle slopes overlooking the riverbank were studded with old lectric buildings of brick and creetrock, Laura now saw. The more she looked, the more there were. Most sat roofless and abandoned, but several showed signs of recent repair. In 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.
By then, the other side of the river had come into view. There, the signs of habitation were even more apparent. On 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. From these buildings rose more trails of smoke, all mingling together into one great cloud that spilled lazily across the water. Beside the gates of the fort, Laura could just make out the faint gray ribbon of the Eighty Road, reemerging from the river’s western shore.
As they continued to follow Tyreek down the meandering 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. At one point, they passed a man splitting firewood outside an old shed, who called out to them
“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 in front of a stout square house that stood all alone, surrounded by a field of leafy green vegetables. The building was a queer patchwork. Its foundation and most of its outer walls were creetrock, but from within this gray shell grew timber beams. They rose to fill the gaps that time had torn into the upper reaches of the creetrock frame. There, they blossomed into rafters propping 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 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.
As Laura entered, she passed a woman slouched on a stool just inside the doorway, her back leaning against the wall. She had a small knife in one hand and a wooden block in the other, which she seemed to be whittling into some kind of misshapen animal. She had something wadded up inside her mouth, and she chewed it slowly while watching Ma and Baby Grace, then Mary and Laura and finally Pa, step inside the building. Her eyes followed them, but she made no attempt to rise. Tyreek led them right past the woman on the stool, making his way straight towards the far end of the room, where an older woman sat behind a large desk.
The inside of the assistant supervisor’s office was as much a jumble as the outside. The floor was bare creetrock, clean but discolored. A big crack that ran diagonally all the way across the center of the room had been filled with some sort of clay and smoothed down. Two of the walls had been painted white, but the paint stopped halfway through a third wall, as if someone had run out of material or simply gotten tired.
The office was spacious, but it somehow still managed to feel cluttered. A big thick post had been erected right in its middle to hold up the roof. More wooden beams, some painted and some not, crisscrossed between floor and walls and rafters at eccentric angles. Crates were stacked in one corner, barrels lined up against another. Here and there were shelves displaying a haphazard collection of old artifacts and lectric scav.
Colorful artwork hung from the walls. As they followed Tyreek through the office towards the woman at the other side of the room, Laura passed beneath a painting of a beautiful, smiling woman holding up a bottle filled with some dark brown liquid. The portrait, partially hidden behind a row of barrels, stretched nearly from floor to ceiling.
Daylight came in through the open door and through shutters that had been installed within some of the boarded-up windows. But the deeper recesses of the room were streaked in shadow, adding to the sense of clutter.
Tyreek stopped in front of the big desk, Pa beside him.
“This here’s Big Jasmin,” said Tyreek. “She’ll sort you out.”
Like the building in which it sat, Big Jasmin’s desk was cobbled together from mismatched parts. Its base was made of two iron tables. They were clearly old Merican antiques, lectricmade, but they looked remarkably well cared for, with only the faintest stains of age creeping down their sturdy legs. Across their top was laid a long stone slab, its surface perfectly flat and smooth. The stone was glistening white, but faint veins of pink ran through it, giving it a pretty rosy hue. On the wall behind hung another gray flag, decorated with the same red bisox head Laura had seen at the checkpoint.
Big Jasmin was hunched down over the marbled stone desk, making marks in chalk on a writing slate. When she tilted her head to the side, something glinted from her face, and Laura realized that there were a pair of glass circles covering the woman’s eyes, thick and round and held in place by copper wires that twisted round her ears. Her dark hair was salted with strands of white, and it blossomed from her head in short, stiff tendrils.
Beside her writing slate lay a stack of thin sheets and a quill poking out from inside an inkpot. The sheets were not parchment, Laura saw, but rather hemp papers, crinkly and brown. Their edges were ragged, not like the neat squares that filled old lectricmade books. Still, the sight of so many papers stacked together caught Laura’s attention. At the Laketown Market, each one would have fetched a hefty price, for few craftsmen in those days knew the secrets of papermaking.
The woman at the desk did not look up as they approached. Instead, she continued to study the symbols on her writing slate. Finally, she turned to a sheet of paper. Taking up the quill with a tap tap to the mouth of the ink jar, she made a tiny, precise mark. Then she replaced the quill and returned to the writing slate. Pa watched her for a moment then cleared his throat.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. My name is Charles Ingalls. This is my wife Caroline and our three daughters. We’re making our way west, Lildaka bound. I was told we could see you about arranging safe passage on the Eighty Road. I’ve a letter of introduction addressed to Supervisor Syed.”
Pa pulled out Tobias Goatherd’s letter from the pocket of his coat.
“And what is your business in Lildaka, Mr. Ingalls?” the woman asked without looking up.
“We mean to settle out in the Wastes, ma’am,” Pa answered. “Claim a homestead.”
The woman grunted. It sounded derisive, but it might have just been her own curt way of acknowledging what Pa had said.
“The Wastes . . .” said the woman absently, almost to herself.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Pa. “I’m told rains have come again. The soil’s not so used up out west, and they say folks are making a go of working the land. I’m to understand the Clan supervisory in Lildaka will register a man’s claim up to a hundred acres.”
The woman’s chalk scratch-scratched on her slate. Pa frowned, giving Ma a sidelong look
“Cargo?” the woman asked, finally.
“Just our own supplies,” said Pa. “And a few bundles of furs and hides to trade. Our car is outside. We’ve a few coppers set aside for tolls if your Supervisor will not take barter, but our means are modest. I’m just a poor trapper from the northern woods I’m afraid.”
After a few more terse scratches, the chalk in the woman’s hand paused, hovering above the writing slate. She lifted her eyes, tilting her face upwards no further than absolutely necessary to examine them. Her eyes were magnified and distorted by the glass circles strapped to her face, giving her a bug-like appearance. Her humorless expression only made the effect more comical, and Laura felt a sudden urge to giggle.
The big bug eyes snapped from Pa to Ma to Mary and Laura. Finally, the woman set down her chalk. She placed a stone on top of her sheet of hemp paper to keep it in place. Then she stood, removing the glass eyecovers from the bridge of her nose so that they rested atop her forehead.
“My name’s Jasmin Perez, Mr. Ingalls,” she said curtly. “Senior assistant supervisor. I’ll get you started on your forms. Once your cargo’s inventoried, you’ll have to take the ferry over to see Supervisor Syed. I can’t promise he’ll stamp your papers. Every other week, the Clan Council seems to have a new policy on displacees. Not much reason to any of it. But that’s none of my concern.”
Big Jasmin made her way around the stone desk. To Laura’s disappointment, the woman seemed to be of perfectly average height and build. But Laura supposed that, whoever Little Jasmin was, she must be a good deal smaller.
“Send Darryl up on your way back to your post,” Big Jasmin told Tyreek. “Grita, let’s get the inspection started on the Ingalls family’s cargo.”
The young woman on the stool set down her whittling and picked up a rifle that had been leaning on the wall beside her. She shifted whatever she was chewing to the other side of her mouth and gave them a lopsided smile through her stuffed cheek. She gestured towards the open door, inviting them to lead the way outside.
Out by the handcar, they discovered Jack engaged in a tense confrontation with a fat orange cat. The cat was bigger than the poor little one-eyed pigdog, and he had a mean look to him. Jack, normally so indomitable, cowered beneath the car. The two animals stared at one another through the spokes of the big wooden wheel.
The guardsman that Big Jasmin had called Grita shooed the cat away with the butt of her rifle.
“Oi! Marlo! You leave that doggy alone! Scat you! Go on!”
The cat flinched away from Grita’s waggling weapon, but then he turned and sauntered away slowly, as if leaving at his own discretion, giving Jack one last growl before disappearing into the vegetable patch beside Big Jasmin’s office.
Tyreek shook Pa’s hand and wished them safe travels before turning to walk back the way they’d come. Meanwhile, Grita began to circle the handcar, peering inside. Big Jasmin emerged from the building a few moments later, another writing slate tucked under her arm, and soon they were joined by Darryl, the man they’d passed earlier by the side of the path. A light gray cloak was now about his shoulders and a rifle in his hands.
Laura and her family stood there and watched as Grita and Darryl went through every inch of their belongings. Bit by bit, the Ortega guardsmen unloaded everything from the handcar.
“Don’t worry, folks. We’ll put everything back right where we found it,” Darryl assured them, but Laura could see it upset Ma to have her careful organization so disturbed.
Meanwhile, Big Jasmin asked Pa questions, making notes on her slate. Where were they from? What roads had they taken? What had they brought with them? Had any of them been sick of late?
Occasionally, Grita or Darryl would announce some item they’d found in their search, and Big Jasmin would write that down as well. She emptied out Pa’s coinpurse and counted what was inside. She even made Ma and Pa turn out their pockets and had them hand their coats over to Darryl, who patted the garments down and inspected them inside and out.
At one point, Grita slung her rifle across her back and came over to crouch down beside Laura.
“Hi there,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Laura. I’m Margarita. That’s a fine blue carrysack you have there. May I have a look inside?”
Laura looked over to Ma, who nodded. Laura shrugged her batman bag off her shoulders and unfastened it. Grita peered inside.
“My what a pretty doll!” she said, picking up Oprah and handing her to Laura. “And what’s her name?”
“Why, that was my mother’s name! Died during the Second Hyperflu when I was about your age, God rest her. Well, you take good care of your Oprah, sweetheart.”
She buttoned Laura’s bag back up and took a quick look through Mary’s bag.
“Nothing to speak of over here, Big Jaz” she announced.
When all their possessions had been pawed over and tallied and all of Big Jasmin’s questions had been answered, the assistant supervisor slid a cover across the face of her writing slate and buckled it tight. She handed it to Darryl with instructions to ferry Pa across the river to the fort and escort him to Supervisor Syed.
Laura watched them all the way. Pa followed the gray-cloaked guardsman down through the meadow until they were both tiny figures by the riverbank. Laura watched these figures walk out onto a square shape that jutted into the river. Laura had mistaken it for a dock, but then it began to move away from shore, her father aboard.
Gradually, the ferry crept further out across the water. Laura thought she saw Pa standing at the boat’s stern, waving, and she frantically waved back, jumping up and down to make herself seen.
There was nothing to do then but wait. As time passed, Laura began to feel apprehensive. Pa knew how to take care of himself in the woods and out on the old number roads, but this place was something new. There were so many people, so many papers, so many rules. Laura found it all overwhelming. She gazed at the big fort across the river, with its looming walls and trails of chimney smoke. Somewhere inside was Pa.
As Laura and Mary waited with Ma beside the handcar, Grita brought them all a supper of soymeal biscuits smothered in a chunky fish gravy. The gravy was spiced with peppers that made Laura’s tongue tingle and burn. It was too much for Mary, who scraped her biscuits dry before eating them and then discreetly set her plate down for Jack to lick the gravy clean. Once Laura had gotten used to it, though, she decided that the fiery sensation was not completely unpleasant, and she ate every bite.
Big Jasmin had returned to her desk and her papers by then, but Grita kept them company, chatting away with Ma about the latest fashions in Davenport and the best way to gut a fish. The fat orange cat returned, and Mary and Laura lured him close enough to scratch beneath his jowls, much to Jack’s indignation.
Pa was gone a long time. After a while, Laura began to pace, hopping up every few minutes to scan the river for signs of his return. Finally, she saw the dark shape of the ferry stirring itself and moving back in their direction.
Three figures disembarked on the other side. As they made their way up the path towards her, Laura saw that Pa and Darryl had been joined by a woman. She was nearly as tall as Pa, with black hair pulled back into a long tight braid that coiled down around her neck and back over her shoulder like a pet snake. She did not wear a gray uniform like Darryl’s or Grita’s. Instead, she had on a long coat of a lightweight, tan-colored material that flapped about her knees. It was broad-shouldered and covered all over in pockets.
As the woman approached, Laura found herself looking at that coat with longing, thinking of all the things she could carry in all those pockets. Something else was odd about the long coat, but it took Laura a moment to realize what it was. One of the sleeves was empty. It was folded up and pinned against the woman’s chest where her left arm should have been.
“Ho, Priya!” Grita called out to the woman when they were within hailing distance. “Mr. Ingalls! How’d you fare? Good news I trust!”
Laura couldn’t restrain herself any longer. She ran to Pa, who scooped her up and carried her with him the rest of the way back to Ma and the car.
“The supervisor’s stamped our travel papers,” Pa said when he reached the hancar. He brandished a carefully folded sheet of hemp paper. “The toll’s a bit steeper than I might have liked, but fair all things considered. Caroline, this is Priya Syed. She’s captaining the convoy we passed camped by the Big Road yonder. She’s agreed to let us join her company if we’re prepared to leave by first light tomorrow.”
“Oh!” said Ma. She seemed a little flustered by the tall one-armed woman. “Well, that’s wonderful news, Charles. I’m very pleased to meet you, Ms. Syed. Are you and the supervisor . . . ?”
“Malcolm’s my brother,” answered the woman with a laugh. “Half-brother, truthfully. But family counts for quite a bit in Ortega country. We’re of old Deshi stock ourselves, me and Malcolm. You’ll find plenty Syeds out Lildaka way. Got roots there stretching back generations, from back before the Hard Years. But Malcolm, he married into the Clan, Old Lucius Ortega’s very own niece if you want to know, and now he’s got himself a big-shot title and a fort full of graycoats to order about. Me, I don’t have any interest in politics. I’m a trader, like my daddy. But I won’t lie to you, ma’am, if you want to run cargo back and forth along the Eighty Road, it don’t hurt to have a brother high up in the Ortega bureaucracy.”
The woman spoke with a confident, unbroken patter, as if Ma and Pa were old acquaintances and not strangers just arrived from far-off lands. When she began to lead the way, back up the path towards the Eighty Road, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to follow.
They thanked Big Jasmin and said their farewells to Grita and Darryl. Then they hurried to catch up with the tall, one-armed convoy captain. Captain Syed led them all the way back to the convoy’s campsite, amongst the ruins beside the Great Eighty Road. Laura could hear voices as they approached. The smell of campfire was in the air and a hint of something unfamiliar cooking. Laura thought of all the new people she’d encountered already that day and about the prospect of soon meeting many more. A feeling of exhaustion came over her.
Ma took her hand.
“Come, Laura,” she said. “I know it’s been a long day. We’re almost at an end.”
They found the convoy in a clearing ringed with trees and ruins. Skinny gray aspens sprouted here and there between the remains of creetrock walls and pillars.
At one end of the camp sat a large wagon. Its four big wooden wheels made the ones on Pa’s handcar look tiny, and it was roofed over with a great billowing patchwork tarp. A clothesline had been strung between the wagon and a creetrock pillar. Tents were spread out across the rest of the clearing, along with a few smaller, two-wheeled handcars.
Suddenly, a loud snort from just over Laura’s shoulder made her jump. Standing right beside her were two enormous horned shapes.
Bisox. Laura had seen a pair once on her trip to the Laketown Market, but not from so very close. These animals seemed bigger than the ones she remembered. Shaggy hair cascaded down from their mountainous humps. One was a chestnut brown, the other a darker shade, nearly black, with a patch of white across its forehead and mane. The brown one looked at Laura and grunted, sending shivers through threads of mucus that dangled from its gaping nostrils. Laura watched the creatures with wonder, her neck twisting like softmold as she passed.
Faces turned towards Laura and her family as Captain Syed led them through the camp.
“Make yourselves at home, Mr. Ingalls,” the convoy captain said. “There’s some nice flat ground on ‘tother side of that wall there, might offer you a touch of privacy. But you’re welcome to set down stakes wherever you can. When you’re settled, come share our fire, and I’ll introduce you to the rest. Or not, suit yourselves. Just be ready to strike camp at first light. I keep my convoy moving at a steady, sensible pace, but I don’t wait or turn back for stragglers. If you fall behind, you’re on your own.”
Pa thanked her, and he guided the handcar through a gap in the ruins to a clear patch of ground covered with dried leaves and twigs. They began to sweep the area and lay out their bed rolls.
“How much did they take?” Laura heard Ma ask in a quiet voice.
Pa glanced over his shoulder before answering.
“Syed and I agreed on half our coin. Two silver pieces and a handful of coppers. Plus the bullets we picked up from that deserter from the Spear. And I’ve promised a half-bundle of pelts to the sister when we make it safely to Lildaka and a generous commission on the remainder if she can find us a buyer at a good price.”
“Well, not as bad as it might’ve been,” she said.
Laura knew that such talk was not for her. Yet, something bothered her about what Pa had said. Something didn’t add up, and she couldn’t seem to let the thought go. She was just about to speak up when Mary did it for her.
“Pa?” Mary asked, as she rolled aside a chunk of creetrock rubble to make room for her sleeping pad. “You said two silver was half our coin. But we have more silver than that. Don’t we?”
Ma and Pa looked at one another. Pa crept back to the ruins that separated them from the rest of the camp, peeking his head around the other side.
“Mary, may I see your coat for a moment?” he said quietly, after making sure no one was nearby.
Confused, Mary handed Pa her patchwork coat. He turned it inside-out, pinching and prodding at the lining.
“Ah, here we are,” he said, offering the coat back to Mary. “You never fail to amaze me, Caroline. Truly, if I hadn’t known where to look, I’d never have noticed.”
When Mary felt the spot on her coat where Pa indicated, she looked up in surprise. Laura hurried over to feel it too. At first it seemed like just a wrinkle or fold where two different fabrics had been stitched together, but as Laura worked her fingers deeper, she realized there was something round and hard buried deep in the lining.
“Silver?” she whispered.
Pa winked at her.
Meanwhile, Ma had scooped Oprah up from among Laura’s things. She handed Laura the ragdoll, an uncharacteristic look of mischief in her eyes.
“And as for you, Laura,” she said, “that young lady told you to keep good care of Oprah. I know that you will.”
Laura held the doll in her hands, noticing for the first time how much heavier she felt than normal. Prodding the back of Oprah’s head, she felt another lump. She gaped up at Ma and Pa.
“We lied to them?” she whispered. “Big Jasmin and the rest?”
“Pshaw! Lied nothing,” said Pa. “We agreed on a fair price, Malcolm Syed and me, and both of us walked away satisfied with the bargain. A man’s not obligated to disclose everything he owns just because some folks with guns ask him to. Besides, officials like Syed, they expect a bit of honest cheating when it comes to tolls and such. It’s all baked into the system.”
Laura suddenly felt more tired than ever. It had been a very long day.
She lay down on her mat with Oprah in her arms, telling herself she just needed to rest for a moment before they joined the others for supper by the campfire. But, before she knew it, her eyes were closed, and she was lost in dreams.