Episode Thirty ♦ The Ferryman

Anita couldn’t look at George. She gazed out the window, across the town’s sunny main road. She asked, “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know” said George.

It wasn’t fair. She had answers. Two of them. She just didn’t know what to tell him. It was prophesied before she left the free settlement. And in her dreams. They had to make this journey together. Even if George’s future were tied to Clearie, George had to go to Red Cloud.

She swallowed. “George, maybe you should just stay. I… I…” But the words were lost in unsteady emotions and ever-growing doubt. “You should stay. You two could be happy together.” She regretted saying it. When a seer knew, misleading, no matter the reason, violated her beliefs.

“I just don’t think it’s safe for you to go on your own,” George said. “Why don’t you stay here?”

“Because it’s my destiny. I have to go to Red Cloud. It’s my connection to Willem. I have to tell him he’s going to be a father.”

♦ ♦ ♦

George hated this conversation. He disliked her need to find Willem, knowing Willem would never be there for her, but he could not tell her that. If he did, he would have to explain Willem’s distrust of attachment, of commitment. This distrust was fundamental to his friend’s personality. No, Willem needed freedom.

George accepted his friend’s needs as he understood his own. His need of companionship, ideas, living the right way. With a purpose.

He had promised to take care of her and the baby. He had to go with her.

George said, “I want to go.”

The desire to stay was strong. An ache. The need to understand it. To know Clearie. Torn. He had to go. Torn between the possible and the promise. He wanted them both, knew she would leave. Alone. Beyond the reach of UGO. No stranger could be trusted to travel with her. He had to go.

“Let’s put our heads together. Figure out what we need,” George said.

“You’re sure?” Tears welled in her eyes. “George, how do I say this?” She looked away. “I want you to think long and hard. I will not accept an answer today.”

George grabbed his shotgun and left the room, needing space. He did not want to think about it. He needed to go.

♦ ♦ ♦

Anita sat on the bed and gave into the tears. They ran down her cheeks. She was tired of being strong, of making the decisions, of shouldering the burden. Knowing was too much for her. She remembered her grandmother telling her mother, “At least you aren’t burdened with the sight. I pray your daughters are like you.” Now she understood how painful it was to know and not understand.

There was a firm knock on the door. Turning, ready to tell George to leave her alone, she found Clearie holding a tray. She wiped away the tears.

He asked, “Talk over some tea?”

She smiled. “Yes. I’d love a cup. Join me?”

“Of course.” Clearie smiled at her, set the tray down on a table, and said, “I know if someone comes in the shop. George’ll be gone awhile. Now that the Rubidouxs have taught him to hunt, I’m dreading what he might bring home for dinner.” Clearie poured the tea.

She took the proffered cup. “How do you get this out here?”

“I buy or trade for it when I can. And people know how much I like it. Always get plenty during the winter holidays.” He paused then said, “I understand you’re ready to head west.”

“I am. Don’t get me wrong, I like it here, just don’t want to impose.”

“No imposition.” Clearie leaned over and patted her hand. “Stay as long as you like. You’re always welcome.”

She smiled and glanced at the window. “I’ve enjoyed it.” She remembered the dream: George, Clearie, and a boy, emerging from a well, arms filled with books. “I hate the idea of taking George away.”

“It’s okay. He’ll be back.”

She looked at him, stunned, feeling like she’d been told she’d have triplets. Clearie knew something.

His grin was light, playful. “He’ll have to visit. Can’t resist my library.”

♦ ♦ ♦

George darted from room to room looking for Anita. She was chopping vegetables in the kitchen helping Clearie prepare dinner. “Come look what I got!” He grabbed her hand and pulled her from her work. Clearie followed along behind.

“Isn’t it great!” George said. “Only two gold beads.”

“Who sold you that thing?” Clearie asked.

“Jess Rubidoux.”

Clearie said, “Looks like something his grandfather used when he first came out here.” He shook his head a bit.

George took a step back. True, the wood was gray. “But I checked it over. It’s in good shape. Solid.” George kicked a wooden spoke, to demonstrate.

“But what is it?” Anita asked.

Her question surprised him. “A handcart! For heavier stuff. Pop out these pins to break it down.” He pointed to the axle nearest her before climbing behind the crossbar and lifting it. The handcart’s wheels came to his shoulders allowing the crossbar to rest in his hands. Between the wheels was a shallow box. “You wanna go for a ride?”

Anita shook her head. “We’re getting dinner ready. Or they feed you too?”

He shook his head, disappointed by her lack of enthusiasm, he dropped the crossbar. “All we need is to find some bedrolls, a tent, a sack of beans, flour, a water barrel…”

Anita looked at Clearie and said, “Things packed for our wagon trip here.”

“Oh,” said Clearie. “How about putting it in the shed for the night? We can talk about supplies for the journey over dinner, okay?”

♦ ♦ ♦

After a couple days of trading, Anita was relieved George thought before piling too much on the handcart. Clearie’s help proved invaluable; he knew who to talk to about what and how many beads to pay. Now that they were packed – Clearie trading a weatherproof rucksack for George’s valise – it was time to say goodbye. She wanted to give them some space, but George strained against the crossbar.

Clearie moved towards him, George offered his right hand, nodding at the handcart’s crossbar in his left, miming against its weight. Everything about Clearie drooped. “Write and tell me what you thought of Brideshead Revisted.”

“Will do. Thanks.” George moved forward into the road.

Clearie turned to Anita. “You sure you’ve got everything?”

“I hope so! Thank you for everything.” She gave Clearie a hug and whispered in his ear, “Don’t take it personally. He doesn’t want to leave, he just wants to go.”

Clearie squeezed her tight and said, “Remember, don’t trust ferrymen and things only get more expensive the farther you go.”

George turned and waved. “Goodbye! Thanks!”

Heading north, Anita walked next to George as he pulled the handcart along a path near the river. The sun was high in a cloud-free sky when they came to the first hut, but no one was around. Continuing along the path they found a man camped on the bank a few feet above waterline. His empty flat-bottomed boat was large and in good repair.

“Hello,” said George.

The ferryman replied, “Mornin’.”

“We’d like to cross. How much you charge?”

The man looked them over, then the handcart. “You can break that down?”

“I can,” answered George.

“What’cha got to trade?”

George pulled a gold bead out of his trouser pocket.

The ferryman smiled.

♦ ♦ ♦

Packing the rowboat took the rest of the day. George and Anita camped in the grass twenty paces away from the ferryman, sleeping under the stars, one keeping a surreptitious watch while the other slept.

Just after dawn George and the ferryman broke down the camp and stored it in the boat, while Anita cooked sausages and flapjacks for breakfast. The ferryman ate more than his share before disappearing into the brush. George used the opportunity to check the shotgun. It was loaded. He slung it in the scabbard across his back.

Waiting by the boat, Anita fidgeted with items sticking out here and there. George watched her fish her sunglasses out of her bag and put them on. He was relieved she did not want to talk. Anxiety unsettled his breakfast leaving him nauseous. The four meter boat, crowded with provisions, seemed small against the wide expanse of brown water, but the ferryman had insisted they would be fine.

Ambling down the bank, the ferryman adjusted the front of his pants. He took Anita’s hand and pulled her along the boat and pointed. “Sit there.”

George dug his fingernails into his palms, questioning his decision, and turned away.

“You gunna help?” The ferryman leaned into the prow. George grabbed the side, and together they forced it off the muddy gravel. The ferryman moved down the side, pushing George backwards waist-deep into the river. “Get in,” the ferryman barked.

Anita leaned towards him offering her hand.

“Stay put.”

Grabbing the seat with one hand, the gunnel with the other, George flexed his knees, propelled himself upwards pulling his legs over the wale and into the boat. Dripping and shivering in the cool morning air, he sat next to Anita, water streaming down his stomach and legs. He tried not to get her dress wet.

The ferryman sat across from them, oars in hand, grunting as he brought the craft around and into the current. He was strong; the boat, stable; his shirt, sweat-soaked as he fought across the current. The banks ripped by, George wondering if they had passed Saint Jo yet, the western landing south of the town.

The ferryman lifted the oars and set them inside the boat.

“Why did you stop?” asked George.

“Landing’s still downstream. There’s sandbars along here.”

George bit his lip, distrusting, digging fingernails into palms, certain they’d made a mistake in trusting this man.

The ferryman looked from one to the other. “Hard work. Stuff’s heavy. Should’ve charged more. How ’bout two more strings of gold beads?”

“We agreed on three,” Anita said, voice firm.

The man leaned towards her. “I want more. Give me more.”

“Here. Take these.” Anita handed him her sunglasses. “There’s over ten thousand Confederation credits on the chip inside.”

He batted them away. They hit the resting oar and fell into the river. “Credits are useless out here.” He put a fat, hairy, sweaty hand on her leg. “Or there’s something else.” His mouth half open, the fat tongue rested on teeth and lower lip.

“Leave her alone,” George said, his right hand reaching.

“You’re almost pretty for a darkie.”

The ferryman scooted towards her.

“Get off me!” Anita screamed.

George drew the shotgun. The butt shouldered. His finger on the trigger. The muzzle aimed at the heaving chest. “I said leave my wife alone!” George’s chest seized.

The ferryman’s eyes narrowed. He grabbed the oar near George and swung the blade.

George pulled the trigger.

♦ ♦ ♦