Episode Thirty-four ♦ Black Miners

“A night or two more wouldn’t have hurt,” George said as he pulled the cart off the wooden plank bridge onto the dirt road.

“It was too expensive,” Anita said. “We’re running low on gold beads as it is.”

He craned his neck around. “It’s only two weeks. And we’ll be near the river most of the way. The water’s clean. Won’t need to buy much.”

“But we have no idea what we’ll need when we get there.” She pushed the cart from behind.

It helped. They were a team, the cart heavy with new supplies. He looked at the road; it meandered along the edge of the floodplain. “We’re going uphill now.”

“I can tell.”

The plains looked flat, but the road was never level, the grade often not visible. George always fought the weight of the cart as the road rose or fell. He remembered their conversation at a Concordia livery stable. A horse would be doing the hard work now but they would be broke.

“Be nice to get there,” he said. She was right – they were running low on beads – three strands of gold remained. Anita wore a necklace under her shirt made from the glass ones. In total, they had five hundred credits.



“How much farther is it uphill?”

“Not much. Can see the crossroad.”

“We take the first left.”

“Yes.” The agent at Confederated Express in Concordia provided clear directions. Following the river road, Red Cloud was about two weeks away. “It’s going to be hot today.”


He spoke up. “Another hot one.”


Trudging along the road, he wished for rain. Not another big storm. Just a quick shower to cool down the afternoon. He looked at the river on his left and smiled. He liked to swim.

♦ ♦ ♦

She stood. The red disk rode the wide haunches of a black stallion. The crimson sky, Yama’s domain. The steed vomited twice, two black stalkers born of anger and rage. Red veins bulged on famished bodies. Bloody eyes searched for souls to shackle, flesh to feast on.

Long black fingers gripped George’s neck. He choked out words. “Lone. Trav' alone.”

Another black hand overturned the cart. Searching. Screeching. “He lies.” Fingers held the green and ivory dress. Stained by Yama’s messenger. Gleaming in the bloody dawn.

She fought through a green palisade. Spines pierced, thorns gnawed at her skin.

George, smaller than the wheels, looked up at the cart, his wrists in his ears.

Now was her chance.

It floated in the grass, between her feet and fire. She reached for it. Held the stick in her hand. It belched flame. Their lives, bright beads, rolling across the flat land.

Yama’s messenger hissed.

She woke. Sitting on their shared bedroll, she looked at the pale golden glow above the eastern horizon.

“What’s up?” George rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.

“Nothing. A dream.” She shook her head knowing the lie was ineffectual. “Teach me how to use the shotgun. Today. Okay?”

The skin of his forehead rippled. “Sure.” His eyes wide, she looked away. He said, “Something in the dream? What?”

“Not really sure.” She looked at the sky. It was a clear, brightening blue.

♦ ♦ ♦

After washing the pans in the river, Anita returned along the path, through heavy brush growing above the river’s spring flood line. Willows and cottonwood gave way to brambles and berries then a mixture of grasses. Birds, songs now familiar, twittered and chirped on branches.

Strolling, knowing berry season was over, she longed for the day when she would have fresh food again, especially fruit and vegetables. She missed her garden at home. Things she planted in the spring were ripe, ready for picking. At home she would be making salads from the summer squash, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, carrots, and green beans. Canning. Soup. And blueberries.

“Whoa there, little one. Take it easy. That’s my bladder you’re poking.” She smiled, petty discomfort. Her baby was fine. Healthy. Growing.

Then it hit her like the first rain after an extended drought. She understood why she came west. Realization washed over, refreshed her. She was giving this baby a better life.

It was hard to understand, before Concordia, during the early days after they crossed the Missouri, why she was out here. Endless prairie. Drying grass. Relentless heat. Dust and dirt. Yes, she wanted to tell Willem he was a father, but in morning quiet she knew. Here they were free. The air was clean and clear, the land wild and green, and people were not crowded together. Everything seemed possible. Life wasn’t easy in the wilderness, but it had a simplicity. Each day they woke, ate, cleaned, packed, and walked. They took breaks when tired, ate when hungry, rested under the shade of the trees during the hottest part of the day, and slept under the spectacular night sky. They were together: George, the baby, and her.

This was to be her child’s legacy.

As she left the thickest growth in the floodplain, the morning sky blazed red as the sun rose above Midden Mountain. “That’s odd.” Her heart turned to ice, her breathing stopped.

There were voices. She stopped, listened, but couldn’t make out words. High-pitched, frantic voices. She set the pans beside the path, backed into the brush for cover. Every snapping branch a sentinel announcing her presence. Working her way along the edge of the brambles, she stopped when the campfire was between her and the cart.

The voice was strange and coarse. “... said … traveling with?” That was all she heard.

Varnished fingers emerged from rags stained black and grabbed at George’s throat, choking him. A couple coughs and his familiar voice. “Lone. Trav’ alone.” George was kneeling a couple meters from the handcart, arms behind his head. The wiry figure towered over him.

Another figure, slight and hunched over, also in black, caught her eye as it flitted around the cart. Pulling and tossing, their food and belongings flew to the ground. In the sunlight, the remnants of the green and ivory dress drawn from her bag. The remaining skirt might pass for a piece of cloth, but with the bodice attached, it was obvious it was a dress. Her dress.

He reacted. The owner of the strangling hand, aggressive, released and backhanded George. One fluid motion. “Where’s she?” George fell over.

It hurt to see him abused. She used the commotion. Dodged from tree to bush. Hid a couple meters from the campfire. She scanned the grass where George rested the shotgun while they ate. Couldn’t spot it. Had he picked it up again? She shook her head, unable to recall.

The violent one drew a knife from under dusty clothing. “Don’t wanna ’urt’er.” He laughed and looked to the other.

“Nuh-uh.” The other held the dress close, like a dance partner. “Telled Mama we find bride this time.”

“Nuther miner too.”

They danced with the dress. George crawled away from the cart. Looked up. Directly at her. His eyes wide. Nodded once, towards the fire.

“Tell me,” the knife wielder said, “where’s she. She ain’t by fire. She go river?”

“You win. I’ll take you. Can I stand?”

The one with the dress said, “Ewww. Mama’s gunna like this’un. Manners’n’ all.”

The holder of the blade grunted, circled. George planted a foot on the earth. Drew up. “Move.” Another grunt. A foot on George’s back. That cruel, wicked, searing laugh.

George fell forward. Screeched with pain, lay flat, and waved his hands above his head. The visitors took positions on either side of him.

“This’un’s bit soft. Maybe got us two wives.”

“Ain’t picky.”

Anita sprinted out of the brush towards the fire. She stepped on it, jumped back, knelt. Pulling it from the leather scabbard, she backed towards the brush while the strangers passed the dress between them, circling George on the ground. Taunting him. Cackling. An unknown dance. Aiming above their heads, she fired a single shot.

The strangers looked around, moved behind the handcart, leaving George flat in the trampled grass.

Trembling, she aimed at the handcart. Her eyesight shifted from the left to the right. They stayed put, hiding behind the cart. That was her hope. There was enough distance between the handcart and nearby brush. If they moved, she would see.

The morning was still, paralyzed. Birds now silent. No one spoke. She had time to wonder. Where did this pair come from? Her eyes darted around the area. No sign of horses. They were on foot. Did they follow from Concordia? Or come the other direction? Sweat ran down her forehead, into her eyes. She blinked it away, resisting the need to wipe her shirt sleeve across her face. It was too risky.

She felt it in the earth. The pounding of hooves.

“Get outta here,” one of the strangers said, standing and sprinting. “They’s comin’.”

“Where’d he go?”

“Who cares.”

“Mama ain’t gunna be happy.”

The pair ran down the road towards Concordia. Horses’ hooves on the road. Louder.

Thwunk. Thwunk. An unknown sound.

Screams. The running pair stumbled, crashed to the ground.

From behind a small copse they appeard. Five riders galloped along the road. Such good fortune. They circled the strangers crawling in the dirt. Whining. Begging. No longer laughing.

One rider broke away and trotted up to the handcart.

Thwunk. Thwunk. Anita heard the sound but didn’t understand it.

“That’ll finish those two.”

Passing the cart, the rider made for the campfire then looked around the brush. He spotted George first. “It’s okay. You can get up now. We’re not your enemies. We ran them off last night but decided to check the road.”

George struggled to his feet. Trembling. Shaking.

Rounding the campfire, Anita held the shotgun to her shoulder as the first rider dismounted. “Who are you?” she asked.

Removing his hat, blond hair kept short, skin a golden bronze, wearing undyed shirt and trousers, and boots. “Name’s Egor Dagfrid, ma’am. We’re from Friorby. Just down the road.” He had broad shoulders and a confident wide stance.

“And who are they?”

“We call ’em Black Miners. They’re from the north side of Midden Mountain.”

George was beside her. “How can we thank you?” His voice cracked.

“No need. We disagreed about what to do with them last night.” A woman rider, bow in one hand, dismounted next to Egor. Her hair was long, blond. She dressed like Egor, without color. She said, “I told you they were trouble.”

“That you did,” said Egor. “Since you didn’t come our way, I assume you’re heading towards our village. Magnus’s the big one retrieving the arrows. Let’s get you two packed up and he’ll pull your cart into town. You two can ride his horse. Or are there more of you?”

“No, just us two,” said Anita.

“Realizing your business is your own, you’ve picked a mighty hard way to travel the plains. Maybe we can be of assistance.”

Anita smiled at the offer but worried just how much help would cost.

♦ ♦ ♦