Episode Twenty-eight ♦ Failed Test

A single shell exploded into the night sky.

George scanned the darkness for a sign. The night was still, the waxing gibbous moon providing light as George searched for the intruders.

Silence.

George sighted down the shotgun. Forefinger on the second trigger.

Nothing.

“George. It’s us.”

The gun pointed at the words. They could be trying to distract me. He held true.

“How do I know that?”

“Anita likes daisies.”

George exhaled.

“Who’s with you?”

“Eetu. Lower your weapon. Anyone else’ve shot you. You’re outlined in firelight.”

Feeling foolish and confused, George said, “Why are you coming this way?”

“Let us approach. I’ll explain.”

George pointed the barrel at the ground two meters ahead. He remained alert, watching for the wagon, fearing someone was with them. A quick glance at the fire, he started circling to the north, searching for cover in the darkness.

The crunch of metal covered wheel against prairie dirt. A slow advance, increasing distance from the stream. George detected the movement of the wagon, team, and finally, two men. Still searching the night for signs of treachery, he watched the wagonette approach the camp.

The women stood together behind the fire. Kent neared and said something. Anita moved and George stalked towards the group.

Anita watered the horses. Fearing Kent’s reaction, George crept towards the fire, worrying the women had been needlessly upset. Kent broke George’s ice-bath. “You did what I wanted you to do. Good job. One problem. We could see your outline in the firelight. You were an easy target.”

George stuttered. “I… I…”

“You’re learning. This’s a new world. Like I said, you did fine.”

George found no comfort in Kent’s reassurance. He failed his test despite Kent’s words to the contrary. If they had been bandits, he would be dead and the women captives.

Sig held out two plates. “Here. Eat. Hungry men.”

Grunts became thanks as the men devoured the beans, sausage, and cornbread. Sig scraped the Dutch oven and spooned the remaining food onto each man’s plate.

Finishing, Kent said, “Hits the spot. Didn’t eat in town. Not a good reception. Too many strangers passing through lately for their liking. I got what we need – cheese, beans, meat, grain – so we’re okay. But we were followed leaving town. Took the road to the west. Couldn’t turn south until we were sure they’d turned back.”

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Morning came too early. Anita was fine but worried about George. It took too long for him to come to bed, and he tossed and turned the few hours he slept. She hated to wake him; everything but their tent, bedding, and his breakfast was packed and ready. She leaned into the tent. “George. George.”

“I know.” He propped himself up on elbows. Then just one as he wiped the sleep from his eyes. Boots still on, gun in his hand, he rolled over and backed out of the tent. After a stretch George said, “He’s ready to leave.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll go to the creek. Any food left?”

“Of course.”

He walked away from her. She took a couple quick steps after him and stopped. “George, I wanted to say, thank you.” He stopped, turned, and raised the left side of his mouth, lowered his lids in a weak smile. He continued to the stream; a changed man.

Anita rolled up the bedding, Eetu packed the tent, Sig arranged the wagon, Kent checked the horses’ tack as George scarfed down breakfast. Kent carried another piece of leather to George’s horse, Whisper. Still wary, George approached Kent. “Morning sir. About last…”

“Scabbard’s for your shotgun. We’ll have more time after lunch. I’ll show you how to draw from the saddle. Don’t expect you’ll be needing it today.”

George mounted and brought up the rear of the small company.

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Anita got up the nerve to ask, “Why don’t we stick to the road?”

Kent said, “It’s riskier. My way’s better.”

She wasn’t about to challenge him. After all, they’d had no trouble the way he guided them, unless she wanted to complain about beans, cornbread, pancakes, and fruit in horrible, thick syrup. Everyone accepted her no-sausage-in-the-beans thing. No, for traveling in a wagon, the trip had gone quite well.

“You don’t eat meat,” he said.

She looked at him, feeling a bit exposed on the wagon seat.

“Meat’s good for babies.”

“No one in my family eats any flesh. It’s taboo. My sister and I grew up just fine without it.”

“Uh huh. Back in the city. You got other proteins. Here. Only beans. One kind. Beans. That’s why I got cheese.”

She wanted to thank him. She wanted to feel thankful for the advice, but it reignited that worry buried deep inside her. She came west for the baby. Her little one. She left because she knew she had to. For the little one’s sake. For her child’s freedom. But there was always doubt. What if she’d made the wrong choice? Maybe they would never have taken her away. Or she would only have been questioned. Kent’s comments poked at the insecurity and doubt that gnawed at her confidence.

Changing the subject she said, “It’s hard to believe that there are still any hard roads out here. People moved away – well most did – so long ago.”

“No one lives who remembers the old ways. No one remembers anyone who did.”

Kent maneuvered the wagon around another bend, the riders on horseback following. Once the path straightened out again, he continued. “Remember. No Authoriteit out here. No underground either. I’ll leave you soon. You’ll be on your own after that.”

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“This is where we part ways,” Kent said to George as Sig and Anita finished clearing up the lunch dishes. “You keep the shotgun and the shells you have on you. Also your coats. I’ll settle up with Samuel when I get back to Hannibal.”

George said, “Thank you.”

Kent motioned towards the southwest with his right hand. “Circle into town from the south. You’ll be there before sunset. We’ll camp north of town and leave tomorrow. We don’t know each other. Understand?”

“Yes. Thank you for all…”

“Just doing what I got paid to do.”

“Who paid you?”

“None of your business. Good luck on your trip.” Kent extended his right hand, George honored to have it crushed one last time. Three weeks had gone by quickly.

George put on his coat, then the scabbard hanging diagonally over his back, and picked up his bag in the hand he would not use to draw. Anita carried her coat under her arm, her bag over her shoulder. “Why don’t you let me carry your bag for you?” asked George.

“What if you need to shoot someone?”

He was not sure how to take her question. It might have been sarcasm or just a simple statement of fact.

They started walking, turned, waved, and said, “Goodbye!” and “Thank you!”

“No. Southwest.” Kent was motioning minus thirty degrees off their course. “The clump of trees is the town. Enter from the south. You’ll hit a road. Turn right.”

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Anita was tired of walking. Even without the coat, it was hot under mid-July’s afternoon sun. They found the road and approached the village. There was even a bit of traffic on it – walkers and people on horseback, a wagon – something they hadn’t encountered since leaving Hannibal.

“How’re you doing?” George asked her.

“Fine. Tired. What do you think we should do about tonight?”

“I’m hoping there’s room at the inn.” He looked at her, his lips curled up in a soft smile.

“Inn? You really think they have inns out here, do you?”

“With the traffic on this road? Sure! There has to be something. Also, why’d Kent send us into town without bedrolls?”

“Maybe ’cause we couldn’t carry them?”

“Good point.” He stopped a second. “Which would you prefer? A comfortable bed or a hot bath?”

She thought, readied an answer, thought again. “Don’t torment me!” They both laughed.

To the right of the road sat small, roughly-made houses surrounded by vegetable gardens. Other than the settlement, the terrain was flat, bland. The sun hid behind the trees; they walked on the north-south road of a village caught between two times. The street was dirt, the buildings simple wooden construction. Most had flat fronts, a door, and maybe a window. People eyed them from the sides of the street. Some looked out of windows.

A wrinkled old man sat on a wooden porch, watching them. Anita waved at him and said, “Hello.” He just stared.

She grasped George’s arm, feeling the need to associate herself strongly with a man, even a man such as George. She remembered the gunshot, how he’d stood out there alone on the prairie ready to defend her and Sig. No, she didn’t care what anyone thought. He was a good man. A good man.

“We must be in the center of town,” he said.

She looked around. Even by free settlement standards, it was primitive. “Why do you say that?”

George pointed to a building and said, “Bar.”

Yes, that’s what was written. Another read, “Stables.” Another, “FOOD.” Simple words, but words none the less. There were also crudely painted pictures – something that looked like a mug of beer, a horse head, a plate of – she decided it had to be beans and rice. Yes. Beans and rice.

George stopped and turned to her. “I can ask if there’s a place to stay.”

She let go of his arm and did a slow pan around. Eyes watched, but she didn’t sense hostility. No, the feeling wasn’t even dislike. It was, Wonder where they’re from. Then she heard someone say, “Don’t look like they’re from KC.” She pivoted, but no one was in earshot, at least not without yelling.

Then she saw it. A sign. A painted sign that read, “Books.”

She put her arm around George’s wrist again. “Come with me.” He put up his usual fight. None.

They neared the building and there were many letters on the front of the building. Four words caught her attention: “Comfortable Accommodation” and “Satisfying Refreshment.”

George grinned.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Won’t hurt to investigate.”

George opened the door, looked inside, and entered. She followed behind him wondering if he could really use that nasty thing on his back if he needed to.

“Welcome to Clearie’s Letters. My, but you two look like you need a good bath and supper cooked on a real stove.”

George’s mouth hung open as he stared at the shelves crammed with books. Anita was certain a tear ran down George’s dusty cheek. The stranger approached. His dress reminded her of what George had worn in Hannibal – nicer vest, dungarees, a white shirt, and lace up shoes. He had deep green eyes and golden hair with just a hint of red. And maybe a touch of gray.

Anita smiled and pointed her thumb at George. “He’s got a thing for books.”

“And I’ve got books about things. Let him be then. I’m thinking you need a good cup of tea.” The stranger reached for her coat. “I’m Clearie. This is my place. You sit while I go put the kettle on.”

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