Episode Twenty-nine ♦ Saint Jo

A malevolent voice demanded, “I want more. Give me more!” A fat hand at the end of a thick, hairy arm grabbed at her. George held the shotgun and said, “Leave her alone.”

Red.

Yama’s messenger stalked them on the trail, through the grass, into town.

Anita woke, desperate to free herself from the bed sheet. She rolled over, comfortable on the straw mattress, took a deep breath, and drifted back into the dream.

Below a single, red cloud she pirouetted three times and an elephant with many arms appeared. Marigolds rained from the heavens as a tiny Willem sprang from the ground where she had danced.

She floated above the scene.

The messenger – his eyes black holes, his ears flaming pointed crescents – cackled and her sense of self diminished. The flourish of his red cape.

George, Clearie, and a young boy – eyes of pale blue and wheaten hair – emerged from a well, their arms filled with books.

The wind blew her away.

A couple night’s sleep in a bed and Clearie’s cooking didn’t take the edge off Anita’s dreams. Doubt gnawed at her confidence in the decision to come west. Life was quiet and peaceful if nothing like what she had left behind east of the Mississippi.

“Walk with me to the river,” George said. Here, between the town and water, prairie grassland gave way to a mix of scrub, cottonwood, and willow near the banks of the wide, murky river. They returned towards town. George spoke. “This isn’t a bad place. We could live here.”

Anita mulled his statement for a few paces. “So, you’ve also been thinking about what we should do next?”

“Yes.”

“Me too. You’re right, Saint Jo isn’t a bad place.” She considered her next statement. “I think you’d be happy here.”

George was silent for many slow steps. He stopped and asked, “You don’t want to stay?”

“It’s not that, George.” She stopped walking, looked into the distance, her will unclear. “Don’t we still have a clue to solve?”

“Yes. ‘My pioneers. West. Find me under a red cloud.’ I’ve no idea what it means.”

She chewed her lower lip and started walking again. He kept pace. She said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of ‘under a red cloud.’ I haven’t mentioned it before, but I’ve had dreams about a red cloud. Even before leaving Hartfield.”

George’s eyebrows pulled together. “You’ve dreamed about it?”

She nodded. “Yes, before we left. I felt hopeful, about the baby. Later, it scared me. Thought, maybe it’s not a good omen after all. Then we got that last clue with the gold beads.”

George nodded. “So?”

“Well, when we got here I started to feel things. Hear things. I told you my grandparents were fortune tellers. That’s what my real surname means. My mother’s mother had the sight. I’ve had dreams, feelings, but something has awoken in me I’ve never felt before. Messages. I think the red cloud is important. Do you have any idea what it means? So many of the other clues came from books.”

“Nothing has come to mind.”

“Let’s ask Clearie. I have a good feeling about him,” she said.

He remained quiet for a number of steps. “But there are no daisies at Clearie’s.”

“I know. Kent told me that De Authoriteit’s not out here. No UGO either. We’re on our own now. And Clearie’s been the first to ask for payment.”

“His price is fair, don’t you think?” George looked at her.

She nodded. “Very. Two gold beads a day for room and board is a steal.”

“I’ll think about it.” George nodded. “After dinner. I’ll ask if he can think of any literary references to ‘red cloud’.”

They walked in silence.

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George asked, “You really made this pasta yourself?”

 “Uh huh.” Clearie nodded.

Anita said, “Your green bean, zucchini, and tomato sauce is wonderful. Thank you, Clearie. It’s great you grow everything out here.”

Clearie smiled. “I don’t grow the wheat or raise chickens but it’s easy to find someone who does and trade. Having a connection to Confederated Express and being literate means people need something I have. It all works out in the end.”

George smiled, finished his chicken, and asked, “How did you end up out here?”

“My parents left Ireland when I was young. They were both over-educated and wanted to see life in the wilderness. We moved around observing before I finished my education back east. I just didn’t feel I belonged there.”

“So you came to Saint Jo?” George asked.

Clearie nodded. “And since I have an Informateur, I can return any time I like. I usually make a trip to Quincy or Saint Louis once or twice a year. Been to Twin City, but the journey’s harder.”

“Do you go alone?” asked Anita.

“Never. While there isn’t a lot of trouble with bandits out here – they don’t live long, honestly – it’s still better to travel with a group. Also you need to know which towns are safer and which ones aren’t.”

Anita yawned and stretched before saying, “I’ll clean up since you cooked.”

“No,” Clearie protested. “You’re my guests.”

“I insist. You’ve taken such good care of us. I’m happy to do it. Plus you two are enjoying your conversation.”

“Only since you insist but I’ll make breakfast tomorrow.” Clearie smiled.

“Deal.” Anita stacked the plates then poured what was left of the tea into their cups.

George took a sip and said, “I was really surprised by your book collection. Books are so rare back east.”

“I remember. Started collecting them as a kid. My first was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It wasn’t in great shape.”

“I’ve heard of it but never read it,” said George.

“Traded it to a guy interested in slavery. He talked about people in the deserts to the south and west who still had slaves.”

With a finger on the handle, George rotated his cup. “It’s been so long since slavery ended that no one thinks about it in the Confederation.”

“But humans are still human. It’s the strength of De Authoriteit’s control that keeps such from happening now, well, where they’re in control.”

“So where did your library come from?”

“Sometimes when traveling I come across an abandoned farmhouse or hamlet. You can still find things. I’ve found a few books, and others find them and bring them to trade. But I decided to settle here,” Clearie stopped, his emerald eyes tearing up, and looked away. He choked against the words. “Most were his. Lived with him for a couple of years before he didn’t return from KC.”

“What’s KC?”

“South of here. We call it Kan-sin City. It’s a rough town. Anything goes. Lots of trade. Things you can’t find anywhere else. It’s not a good place. Not a safe place.”

“So why’d he go?” George asked.

Clearie bent forward. Teardrops fell on the table.

Feeling the red glow in his cheeks, George said, “I’m sorry. Shouldn’t’ve asked.”

“No, it’s okay. We loved each other but he needed more than I could give. Don’t get me wrong, we were together in every possible sense of the word. He just didn’t believe in monogamy.”

“Do you know what happened? Did he go somewhere else?”

Clearie shook his head and wiped away tears. George reached out a hand. Clearie took it, starting to cry. George tugged his chair closer and put his arm around Clearie. Anita looked in and mouthed, “Is he okay?” George waved her off.

When the sobbing eased Clearie said, “Not sure, but got word he was robbed and fought back so they stabbed him. That’s what happens in KC. Promise me you’re not going there.”

“Never crossed my mind.” George repressed the urge to stroke Clearie’s hair and backed away to give him some space.

Clearie said, “I’m sorry. I don’t like to… You know. But it’s not often that I feel so comfortable with someone. You’re special. You both are. But everyone leaves.” Clearie stretched and took a drink from his teacup. “So, you are into Romantic Era literature and music. What’s going on in the arts now?”

George thought for a minute and shrugged. “Well, a good friend would be able to answer that. He’s into everything modern. All seems pretty crazy to me.”

“You only like the classics?”

“Pretty much. Let me ask you this. Have you ever run across the words ‘red cloud’?”

“How do you mean?” Clearie cocked his head, his hair amber in the lamplight.

“I don’t know. A name. A place? A symbol?”

“Too bad the Informateur doesn’t work out here.” Clearie leaned forward, his chin resting on his fist, elbow on his thigh. “Red Cloud was the name of an Indian leader who fought EuroAmerican invasion.” He tapped his forefinger across his lips. “I also remember a woman author – famous American who wrote during the early twentieth century. She grew up in a small town west of here, wrote about it in some of her books. Let’s see if I can find one.” He stood.

George followed him into the front room, between the bookshelves. He ran his finger over worn spines and barely legible embossed text. “It should be in this area. North American. Eighteenth century. Nineteenth century. Twentieth. I don’t see…wait, this might be her.”

Clearie pulled a book off the shelf and handed it to George who flipped to the title page and read, “Willa Cather. Death Comes for the Archbishop.” George scratched his head.

“What’s up?”

“The name’s familiar but I’ve never read this book. Give me a second.” George handed Clearie the book, grabbed a candle, ran upstairs to the room he shared with Anita, tapped on the door, but got no response. He cracked the door, making sure she was not sleeping, entered, and pulled his books out of his bag. He nodded and took one downstairs.

The teacups were gone and Clearie poured ale into two mugs. “What do you have there?”

“Going away present. Cather. Prairie Trilogy.”

“That’s it. I mean, the same author. What are the book titles?”

O Pioneers. Song of the Lark. And My Ántonia.” A shiver ran down George’s spine, out to his digits, bounced back, causing his hair to prickle.

“Where are they set?”

George read from the first page of O Pioneers! “…the little town of Hanover.” He paged to the next book. “…staying overnight in Moonstone.” More pages flipped. “North America. Nebraska. Blue Ridge.” He scanned the text.

“Nebraska was a place to the west of here. Not far.” Clearie said, encouraging.

“Chicago. ‘We go Black Hawk, Nebraska’.”

“That’s it!”

“What?”

“That’s what I was trying to remember. Cather wrote about Black Hawk, but it’s the fictionalization of the town she lived in. See if there’s an ‘about the author’.”

George paged through the book. At the end he found it. “Born near Winchester, Virginia, Willa’s parents joined relatives in Red Cloud, Nebraska in eighteen eighty-four. The town was named for an Oglala Sioux leader and inspired settings for each book in her Prairie Trilogy.”

“I think you found your answer,” Clearie said.

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