Eighteen: The Ferry

Captain Syed had said the convoy would leave at first light, and so it did. By the time Laura and her family joined the others, the two bisox were already hitched to their wagon. Laura stood there in the clearing beside the cold firepit, her carrysack tight around her shoulders, and watched the big hairy silhouettes shuffle and snort in the pre-dawn darkness.

Hector Chavez, the man who drove the bisox wagon, was perched silently at the reins, a shadow beneath the arch of fabric that sheltered the trade goods stacked up inside. At a whistle from Captain Syed, Mr. Chavez gave the reins a snap. The bisox strained forward, and the wagon wheels began to turn. Everyone fell in behind, and together they began their twilight procession up the trail to the Great Eighty Road and then on towards Hawkeye Crossing and the unknown lands beyond.

Laura’s sense of adventure soared, only to be yanked back to earth a short while later to strain feebly against its tether, for, as it happened, their journey was delayed almost as soon as it was begun. When the convoy arrived at the Yowa River, not a quarter hour after departing its camp, there was no ferry waiting. Instead, they came to the end of the Eighty Road, right to the precipice of its ruined bridge, to find Big Jasmin making her way down towards them from her office on the hill, writing slate tucked beneath her arm. Grita, the guardsman from the day before, trudged sleepily behind her, practically dragging her bayonet along the ground.

Big Jasmin and Captain Syed’s words became heated when the two women came within arguing distance.

“Malcolm said we were cleared to cross,” Laura heard the convoy captain say. “I have the papers right here.”

“That you are,” Big Jasmin replied. “As soon as we complete the medical inspection. Supervisor Syed mentioned it, I’m sure. Davenport’s issued new travel restrictions. New cases of Yellow Madness down Cedar Valley way, as you know. We’ll be lucky if the Clan Council don’t shut the roads down for good come summer. Don’t you fret yourself, Priya. The doctor’s already been roused. We’ll have you on your way soon enough.”

Captain Syed stormed and cursed, but there was nothing to be done. And so they all waited there on the riverbank, beside the creetrock precipice where the Great Eighty Road rose and fell away, the travelers once more setting down the baggage they had so recently taken up.

Mr. Chavez climbed down from his wagon and set about preparing a big iron pot of chia pudding. As dawn’s light began to creep slowly across the timber walls of the fort looming on the other side of the river, the members of the convoy gathered around to share a breakfast.

Laura had never had chia pudding before. She dabbed the speckled substance experimentally with her spoon before lifting a dollop to her lips. The pudding was mixed with soy milk and sweetened with honey, and Laura eagerly dove back in.

As she ate, she studied the other travelers. There were over a dozen of them in the convoy when Laura and her family were included. It was too many for Laura to keep straight that first morning, but, in the days and weeks that followed, she would come to know them well.

There was Captain Syed of course. The tall, one-armed woman spoke rapidly and often and had a laugh louder than Pa’s. Beneath her pocket-crowded coat, she wore a thick leather belt that held a pistol, holstered to her right hip. Her pants were tucked into tall boots that rose nearly to her knees. And she was always chewing on some sort of leaf, which stained her teeth black and caused her to spit frequently, a habit she used to punctuate her many proclamations.

After her confrontation with Big Jasmin, Captain Syed paced the ferry dock for a time, chewing and spitting and muttering to herself. When Mr. Chavez handed her a bowl of pudding, though, she seemed to resign herself to the delay and began to mingle among others, joking and telling stories.

Captain Syed’s manner was a curious mix of warm and cold. She was amiable, over-familiar even, but there was something aloof about her as well. She was quick to engage in conversation or, indeed, to share her observations with no one in particular. Yet, over time, Laura began to notice that she seldom made eye contact when she spoke, frequently glancing over her shoulder or squinting into the distance, as if taking constant stock of her surroundings.

Laura knew better than to ask outright what had happened to the woman’s arm, but it did not take long to learn the story. That very first morning, in between bites of pudding and with no apparent prompting, Captain Syed began telling them about how, when she was just a little girl, there had been an outbreak of the Ague in Lildaka, where she’d grown up. One night, she was attacked by an uncle who had fallen ill. She escaped, but not before the man had sunk his teeth into her arm. Afterward, her family had tried to stop the spread of the infection by severing the limb above the bite.

“Got sick anyway, sorry to say,” she remarked as an afterthought, rising briefly to her feet to scan the river for the ferry before sitting back down to her pudding.

Laura’s eyes went wide when she heard that. She looked the woman up and down, searching for signs of froth trailing from her lips or madness lurking behind her eyes. Could her dark skin be obscuring the Ague’s telltale jaundice?

Captain Syed noticed Laura’s reaction and laughed.

“Didn’t wager you’d be sharing the road with a bona fide fiend, did you, girl? Well, don’t you go burning my corpse just yet. I got better. The Yellow Madness ain’t ever a dinner party, but you’d rather you get it when you’re little if you’re gonna get it. Rare for a grown-up to make a recovery, but in children it ain’t unheard of at all, specially if you get to it early enough to stop the spread. Fact of the matter, they say childhood survivors like me, we’re immune to the sickness, though I’ve got no mind to put that theory to the test.”

Laura listened in fascination as Captain Syed described her struggle with the Ague. The horrifying details were rattled off casually, in the same tone the convoy captain might have used to inventory her cargo. She had spent weeks kept in darkness, she told them, tied down tight to her bed so she couldn’t harm her caregivers. Ever since, she couldn’t stand to be indoors for long. Just the thought of feeling restrained made her sweat with panic. Maybe that was why the life of a trader suited her, she said, out on the open road. Then she spat for emphasis.

No one quite knew what to say to that. There was a lull in conversation, as the others all contemplated their breakfast bowls or else stared pointedly across the river, wondering what was taking the ferry so long. Captain Syed seemed not to notice. She just scraped up the last lingering trails of chia pudding with a scritch scratch of her spoon across her wooden bowl, smacked her lips, stood, and returned to pace the dock once more.

Laura turned back to her own breakfast, continuing her examination of the other members of the group. None were as forward or as talkative as the one-armed convoy captain, and so it would be some days before she learned their stories.

There was Hector Chavez, the bisox driver. He and Captain Syed had worked together for many years, Laura later learned, and they seemed to have developed a wordless, intuitive form of communication, full of nods and subtle hand gestures.

Mr. Chavez was not a handsome man. Beneath a short, patchy beard streaked with gray, his cheeks were pock-marked. Yet, despite the scars, his face was kindly. That first morning, he smiled at Laura when he handed her a bowl of the gummy concoction he’d been stirring.

So reserved was Mr. Chavez, it was only much later that they managed to piece together the particulars of his rather interesting life. He had grown up far away, across the mountains, in the lands that people in those days called the Occupied Territories, though Mr. Chavez told them that he had left there long before the arrival of the invaders from across the sea.

As a young man, he had made his way to Deseret. There, he had been recruited by a convoy company which was organizing an expedition east, through the treacherous mountain passes and all the way across the Wastes.

It was a risky but profitable trade route, and Mr. Chavez made the journey several times. Then, on one expedition, his convoy met with disaster. He alone had survived. Somehow, he made it out of the Wastes by himself, staggering into Lildaka near death. After that, he settled in the Yowa, finding less hazardous work running cargo back and forth along the Great Eighty Road.

Also in Captain Syed’s employ was a man named Abu Malla, though everyone called him Bucky. His head was shaved, covered in short black stubble except around a scar that snaked behind his ear from his temple to the back of his skull. He was a big, thick-necked man with smooth, pudgy cheeks that gave him the look of an overgrown baby. His job was to protect the convoy. He carried a rifle and bayonet, and, along with Captain Syed, he patrolled beside the bisox wagon, keeping watch for bandits and other threats.

The rest were not traders like Captain Syed and Mr. Chavez and Bucky Malla. They were simply travelers, going west like Laura and her family and joining the convoy for safety along the Great Eighty Road.

There was Caleb, a skinny young man with pale blue eyes and an eager disposition. He was a guardsman for Clan Ortega, gray cloak and all. He was garrisoned at a supervisory west of Hawkeye Crossing called Badger Creek, but he had returned to Davenport over the winter to care for his sick mother and was now going back to resume his post.

Then there were Oprah and Janice Khan. They were cousins, though they looked enough alike to be sisters, both stocky and plain-faced, with the same bushy eyebrows. They were returning to their family’s compound on the outskirts of Lildaka and brought with them a small handcar stacked with boxes that hummed and buzzed. When Laura saw tiny black shapes swirling around the boxes, she realized they were full of bees. The cousins had travelled all the way to Davenport to obtain the hives, and they watched over them as if they were chests full of silver.

Also joining the convoy were Mr. and Ms. Aguilar and their son Devonte. The Aguilars had left a settlement south of Davenport to strike out west, and, just like Laura and her family, they too meant to claim a homestead out in the Wastes. They had a handcar as well, slightly smaller than Pa’s, and all three of them took turns pulling it. Devonte Aguilar was only a little older than Mary, but he was already nearly as tall as his father. He had a lean, athletic build. Thick curls of brown hair spilled halfway down his neck and swept across his forehead, threatening to cover his eyes.

Finally, there was the scruffy-looking bachelor named Bill Keo. It was difficult to know where Bill Keo was from or what he was doing on convoy, since so many of his stories turned out to be elaborate jokes or fantastic showtales. At times, he hinted that he was a displacee, forced to flee the Holy Gulf Confederation after having composed a dirty song about the head of the local Virtue Committee. Other times, he insisted that he was an ambassador from one of the Lantic States, on a mission to see the Tang Emperor.

In the story that seemed most likely to Laura, though, he too was bound for Lildaka and meant to file a claim on a homestead out in the Wastes, though he seemed to regard the matter with less sobriety than Pa or the Aguilars.

“Mean to bag me a couple of these wastebirds I hear tell about,” Laura heard Bill Keo tell Pa, “then like as not I’ll be moseying on my way. Spent so much of my life drifting, I don’t think about destination no more. Figure I’ll pick up my land claim from Wolfdog Ortega, shoot me enough wastebirds to make a fine feather headdress, then sell my claim to the next bigger fool. That’s Bill Keo’s plan.”

Bill Keo’s companion was a large dog that he simply called “Dog.” The two of them looked alike. Dog’s hair was the same deep black as Bill Keo’s beard, which hung long and wispy about the man’s throat in the same manner as Dog’s shaggy coat. They had the same dark rings sagging beneath bloodshot eyes, eyes that seemed to regard the world with the same look, placid but watchful.

Bill Keo had no handcar. Instead, he traveled with a great big carrysack strapped over his shoulders and buckled across his chest. Dog had a bag too, two bulging bundles draped over his sides, which the big black animal patiently bore as he trotted beside his companion.

That morning, Bill Keo sat alongside Dog at the furthest edge of the Eighty Road. His legs dangled over the cliff where the creetrock spilled over the riverbank, splintering into crooked slabs before disappearing beneath the mud. With sleepy eyes, he looked out upon the river.

As the sun rose further, gradually sprinkling the gray twilight with streaks of color, Laura followed his gaze. Below them,  creetrock pillars peeped out of the water, the only remnants of the old Merican bridge. Beside these pillars sat the ferry dock. It was little more than a simple wooden platform hanging over the water. A post stood at its far end, anchoring a thick rope that stretched towards the far bank before vanishing into the dawn shadows.

Eventually, Laura saw movement on the surface of the river. It was the ferry. She watched it drift slowly towards them.

The ferry looked like a floating version of the dock, another simple wooden platform, flat and square. As it grew closer, Laura could see two men aboard, both shirtless. One was Darryl, she realized, the Ortega guardsman who had helped inventory their supplies the day before. The two men were hauling the ferry forward, hand over hand, along the rope that ran from the dock and through a pair of timber posts rising from the ferry’s otherwise bare deck.

Only when the ferry was practically below her did Laura see that there was a third person aboard. An older woman was seated on a stool by the ferry’s stern, a black bag in her lap.

“That’ll be the doctor,” Laura heard Bill Keo tell Dog. “Don’t you go telling her about that thing I picked up from that girl in New Hewston, and I won’t mention your worms. Bargain?”

A moment later, the ferry collided with the dock. The two platforms united with a hollow thump. The doctor stood and hopped ashore. When she reached the convoy, she set her stool and her bag down beside Big Jasmin and began to look over her instruments.

One by one, everyone in the convoy had to go see her. After the doctor had examined their tongues and their auras, Big Jasmin would check their names off a list.

Laura had never been examined by a doctor before. When it was her turn, Ma took her hand and led her over to the old woman. The doctor asked Laura many questions. She asked about what kind of foods Laura ate, about whether she often felt hot or cold, about her dreams, about her sweat. Then the doctor asked her to stick her tongue out as far as she could. The doctor looked at Laura’s tongue for a long time, prodding it with a small metal rod, all the while humming softly to herself.

“Hmmm. Fiery disposition, this one,” she said to Ma, finally.

Then she turned to Big Jasmin and said, “Clean. Next.”

While Big Jasmin and the doctor completed the medical inspection, Mr. Chavez drove the bisox wagon down to the ferry. The bisox seemed reluctant to step out onto the water at first. They stamped their hooves on the dock and groaned and shook their manes. But Mr. Chavez had a way with the animals. With the Ortega guardsmen steadying the ferry and Bucky Malla helping to guide the car, they got both the bisox and their cargo aboard.

The ferry was just barely long enough. Its deck sank down under all the added weight but managed to stay just above the surface of the river. When the wagon’s wheels were locked and the bisox quieted, Mr. Chavez and Bucky Malla and the Ortega guardsmen began to haul the ferry back across the river.

Later, just as the doctor was examining the last of the travelers, the ferry returned, empty but for Bucky Malla and the guardsmen.

“Ingalls, you take next crossing,” Captain Syed told Pa.

“Come on, girls,” said Ma. “Our turn.”

Mary called Jack out from under the handcar. The pigdog scampered over to them, and Mary scooped him up in her arms. Pa spat on his hands before lifting the car’s shafts and rolling their belongings down towards the dock.

While Bucky Malla trekked back up to the ruined bridge to speak with Captain Syed, Darryl and the other guardsman helped Pa drive the car onto the ferry. Mary and Laura and Ma followed cautiously behind. For a moment, they stood at the lip of the dock, hesitant to step from the stable platform onto the one that bounced and swayed in the river’s current.

Pa took Ma’s hand and helped her onto the deck. Then he picked up Mary, Jack still wrapped tight in her arms, and set them both down beside the handcar. He turned back for Laura, but she had already hopped over.

“Careful now, Soybean,” Pa told her. “We don’t want you tumbling overboard. Caroline, why don’t you hold on to that post there. Mind the rope. Girls, you hang tight to your mother once we get moving.”

Bucky Malla returned. He was accompanied by Caleb, the guardsman from Badger Creek, and by Bill Keo and his shaggy black dog. All of them boarded the ferry. It was crowded, but Laura was grateful that at least the Khan cousins and their bees weren’t coming with them.

They tied Jack up to the handcar. He scampered back and forth across the deck at first, barking at the water on one side and then running back to bark at the water on the other side. But then Dog arrived. At Bill Keo’s instruction, the big black animal slumped down beside his master’s baggage, as if he had been aboard a ferry his entire life. Dog’s serenity seemed to shame Jack, and the little pigdog stopped his antics, content to stand at the edge of the deck and stare down into the river with his one bulging eye.

Pa and Bill Keo and Bucky Malla and Caleb and the other two guardsmen positioned themselves along the rope. With a “hup hup hup,” they all began to pull, hand over hand, and suddenly the ferry was drifting away from the dock.

Laura held tight to Ma. The deck rocked and jounced as the river rolled beneath them. Laura felt her stomach clench as she imagined the ferry tipping over or sinking. But then she thought back to crossing the great frozen Misisip all those weeks ago. Compared to that, this little boat ride was nothing, she decided. If she plunged beneath the water here, at least she wouldn’t end up trapped beneath ice.

The men at the rope shouted encouragement to one another as the river hissed louder and louder. Swaddled to Ma’s back, Baby Grace began to cry. Laura stretched up on tip toes to brush a reassuring hand across her sister’s cheek.

Finally, the ferry thumped against the dock on the far side of the river. Bill Keo and Caleb hoisted their bags back up onto their shoulders. Pa unlocked the handcar’s wheels, and they all made their way up onto the riverbank.

On the western side of the river, the splintered creetrock rose from the mud and coalesced once more into the flat gray expanse of the Eighty Road. Mr. Chavez and the bisox wagon were waiting. They gathered there, where the road began again, beneath the looming walls of the fort, and waited for the ferry to bring the rest of the convoy.

At last, they were all assembled. Captain Syed exchanged a word or two with Mr. Chavez. Then she lifted thumb and forefinger to her lips and whistled the most piercing whistle Laura had ever heard, before raising her one hand high above her head and twirling her wrist with a commanding flourish.

The reins cracked against the backs of the two bisox. The big wagon wheels began to roll. They were on their way.

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