Episode Thirty-one ♦ Another View

From the time they arrived at the campsite, Anita tried to leave, the ferryman’s gaze discomforting. She pulled George to the side. “Let’s go,” she said, but George shook his head. They had agreed on the price – three strands of gold trade beads worth three hundred credits. Hiding behind the handcart, she snipped the strings from her petticoat and handed them to George. The ferryman’s eyes were on her, if she dared look his way.

Night came. When George kept watch, she pretended to sleep. Dawn broke. She tried to hide from that man as she readied for the day, keeping her back to him as she cooked breakfast. The food smelled awful; a couple bites and her stomach rebelled. She swallowed the bile, the fear.

The dream, of a boat and Yama’s messenger, haunted her. She wanted to be invisible. She needed to leave.

The day was cloudless and new. She avoided George. Waiting by the loaded rowboat, she made sure things were well-packed, poking and rearranging. She found her sunglasses and bonnet, putting them on to provide cover in the flat-bottomed rowboat. Something to hide behind.

Too soon it was time to go. “Get in,” the ferryman said before he and George pushed the boat into the river. She tried to help George in, but the horrible man barked at her. “Stay put.”

The men sat. The ferryman pulled the oars and leered at her. His eyes examined her. Her hair. Her face. Her hands. Her arms. Her fully-covered bosom. Feeling exposed, she crossed her arms over her belly, hiding her pregnancy. Her green and ivory dress absorbed water puddling on the shared seat from George’s wet trousers.

The shore rushed by as the current carried them downstream faster than they crossed the dark, muddy river. The ferryman lifted the oars out of the water.

“Why’d you stop?” George asked.

“Long way to go to the landing,” the ferryman said, eyeballing her.

She turned her head and looked at the eastern shore. Nausea gripped her stomach, his stink of sweat and poor hygiene overpowering in the still, warming morning air.

“I want more. Give me more,” he said. “Give me two more strings of beads.”

“We agreed on three,” Anita said, firm, avoiding eye contact.

She felt his breath on her neck. “I want more. Give me more.” She fought her legs, swallowing a gulp of air, contemplating a jump from the boat. She pulled off the sunglasses and gave them to the ferryman. “Here. These are very valuable. Over ten thousand Confederation credits on them. You can have them,” she said, looking to the riverbank.

He took them and she breathed. Relieved.

He put a fat, hairy, sweaty hand on her leg. “You’ve something else I want. You’re so pretty. I like dark women.”

George growled, “Leave my wife alone.”

“Give me what I want or I’ll take it,” he said, pawing at her leg.

“Get off me!” Anita screamed.

BANG!

She knew the sound, tried not to look, her ears ringing. The ferryman slumped forward, his head between them. Together they pushed the heavy body off them and towards the point of the boat. A shared glance. He thumped back, head on the oar handle nearest her, mouth open, eyes unblinking. Blood from the wound in the center of his chest soaked his shirt. She vomited acid over the side as Yama’s messenger cackled. She swallowed bile and looked at George. He still held the gun to his shoulder, the barrel smoking.

“What’d you do?” Her voice a hawk’s scream. George didn’t respond. The gun eased from its position. “We gotta do something. Quick. Put the gun down and grab an oar. We have to get to shore. Hurry George.” He moved drunkenly. She leaned over the dead man and pulled the oars over him, handing one to George.

“Is he okay?” George’s mouth and eyes wide.

“He’s dead. We need to row.”

The bank screamed by as they each used the wood in the water. First they turned a bit towards the left bank, then the right.

“When I say pull, put your oar in the water,” she said. “Pull.”

“This won’t work.” He swung his head back and forth.

“It has to work.” Annoyed, she wanted, needed, to slap him.

George was shaking his head. “No. Sitting wrong. Row backwards. Push.”

She followed his lead. It wasn’t perfect, but when she matched his rhythm, they moved the boat through the water.

He said, “We need to turn the boat right. Towards the western shore. Hold your oar up.”

It didn’t make sense. They both needed to work.

“Don’t row!”

She held her oar out of the water. Yes, when he pushed his oar through the water, the boat pivoted towards the western shore. “Let me help,” she said.

“Okay. Push the oar away from you. Down. Push. Up,” he said.

“Down. Push,” she echoed. “Up.” She followed his command, repeating the strokes with him, until they faced the western shore.

“Now together,” he said. “Down. Push. Up.”

Sweat soaked her bonnet and bodice, but she was an equal partner crossing the river.

As the point of the boat nosed into the bank, they both dropped the oars, her muscles drained of energy, struggling for breath; he stared, unmoving, at the corpse draped over bench and baggage. When breathing came more easily, she asked, “What now?”

George’s gaze crept towards her but never quite met her own, shuddering paroxysms gave way to violent sobbing. Anguish seized her companion.

She removed her dress and petticoat, the hem stained crimson. Her shift provided enough coverage as she climbed out of the boat, leaving George to his emotions. She found her bag, used the sweatshirt she had brought from home as a towel and changed into her long-forsaken cotton blouse and denim slacks, but the slacks would no longer close. She rolled up the cuffs and hunted around the boat until she found a length of rope to use as a belt, avoiding the body.

Having cried himself out, George sat in the rowboat, the sun high in the sky but still shy of noon. She trudged back into the water and pulled him onto the shore. “We’ll get through this, George. It’ll be okay.”

“No it won’t.”

She wrapped her arms around George, wishing she had something to ease his pain.

♦ ♦ ♦

“George, we have to talk about it sometime.” She was nagging.

“No. We don’t.” He put his weight into moving the loaded handcart through the grass. Having missed the landing, he found a small trail, maybe used by game to access the river. Sweat poured from every part of his body. He lifted a blood-stained boot and moved it forward, straining against the crossbar of the handcart, drained of spirit.

“It’s no good not talking about it. Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?” Anita walked in front of him. Her job was to look for obstacles in the grass as he slogged towards a hoped for wider trail.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s done.”

“But he’s dead.”

George stopped. “You think I don’t know that? I pushed his body and boat out into the current.”

“I just want to know you’re okay.”

“I’m not okay. We just need to go.”

“You don’t need to yell. I’m worried about you.”

“I’m worried too. What if he had friends? Or maybe someone saw?”

Turning in front of him, she scanned the grassy landscape. “Seems we’re on our own.”

“Maybe we are. I don’t know!” The need to flee was overwhelming. He wanted to run away from the river, from himself, from her, but she could not move the handcart alone. The first step, moving the stopped cart, was the most difficult. The crossbar pressed into his abdomen.

“Just tell me why you did it.”

He stopped again. “He was going to hurt you.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Fine. He wasn’t.” George grunted against the crossbar’s inertia, pressing for a road.

♦ ♦ ♦

They camped in the grass overnight, neither sleeping well; George tormented by nightmares; Anita worried. They each drank small cups of water and ate half a Lembas brand hard tack biscuit as well as a couple handfuls of trail mix. She wanted to understand why he did it, George never impressing her as a violent type. There had been no warning, just a shotgun to the chest. She hadn’t seen the murder in her dreams, only death, but her dreams were coming true. The gun changed him; now it was changing her.

They trudged along with one wheel in the grass and one on the narrow path. She let him stew, alone, in whatever he was feeling as she concentrated on watching for rocks or holes that might catch a wheel or cause her burdened friend to stumble, George insisting that was more important than pushing the handcart. He wouldn’t be able to expend such energy for long, at least not without better food than they had eaten since crossing the Missouri. They needed a clearing for a campfire so she could cook. They’d brought beans and cornmeal, and George labored so hard to move their supplies through the grass.

Midday approached and the small trail entered another trail large enough to accommodate the meter-wide cart. Well-packed, the dirt path meandered across the prairie.

“You sure we’re going the right way?” he asked.

She stopped and listened with her heart. Eyes closed, she took deep breaths, feeling the earth. There was no wind under the clear blue sky, but she sensed a current beckoning her on, understanding it like a compass needle knows north. Without looking she turned until she had the direction. She pointed and said, “The red cloud’s that way.”

Opening her eyes she looked across the grass plains, the trail going to her right and left.

“We have to go through the grass?” he asked.

“No. This path will take us to a road west. We’re fine. Now let me walk behind and push, okay?”

♦ ♦ ♦

“So you really believe a red cloud is calling you to it?” George asked, doubtful, poking at their fire, a dinner of beans, sausage, and cornbread filling his gut.

“It’s not the red cloud. It’s destiny.” She paused. “Do we have anything better to go on?”

“No. No map. No markers.” He shook his head. “This is insane. We’re out here, alone, in the middle of the continent. We’ve got supplies, but that’s about it.”

“It’s hard to explain, but I know where we’re going. I’ve known all along though I didn’t actively listen. The underground was ferrying us along. It wasn’t until after Kent left us that I started to hear it.”

“Hear what?”

“Can’t explain it. It’s a feeling. A knowing. Well, and there are the dreams.” She was quiet for a minute then rested a hand on his leg. “I dreamed someone would die in the boat. I didn’t know how or understand it, let alone believe it. So I’ve been asking you why it happened.”

“I don’t know that.” He saw the ferryman slump forward then fall back, bloody. He should have warned the man off but knew the ferryman would not have listened. It was painful to think about. “Let’s get some sleep.”

♦ ♦ ♦