Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Chapter 3, 5: Cat Got Your Tongue

Denim is trail fashion.

Chapter 3, 5: Cat Got Your Tongue

Forty Mile Station turned out to be a town, scattered around a downtown on one side of the river where the railway station, then jumping over to the mountain side of the river, where a broad road headed upslope in the gorge of a creek. From higher up, Charlotte had seen that road blaze across mountain sides and through valleys towards Long Lake, avoiding the sheer walls of the river canyon. It was kind of like Hope, she thought. They should rename it that, Charlotte thought, so that the people down there could talk about being “beyond Hope,” just like Charlotte and her friends used to do in school. 

Heh. Not even arrived, and already Charlotte wanted to get out of this place. But apparently they were headed for Space-Kelowna, and not Space-uhm, Charlotte guessed that it would be a bit much to call Landing Town ‘Space-Vancouver,’ when it wasn’t even on the sea. ‘Space-Spokane?’ ‘Space-Bakersfield?’ Now Charlotte felt a bit better about heading for Space-Kelowna.

What she did not feel better about was Dr. Cambridge. Before they disembarked the shuttle, in a little meadow outside town, she gave the girls, and Bruce, one more lecture on the vital importance of maintaining their secret identities. Apparently, the locals were peasants who would burn them at the stake if they found out that Dora could fly, or that Bruce could learn, you know, for example, to tie knots or play guitar really quickly. Or that Charlotte could cut the heads off idiot faculty advisors so fast that you couldn’t even see it happening. Oh, well, Charlotte thought, that probably wouldn’t help, anyway.

At Ground level, Forty Mile Station turned out to be a lot more gross than Hope, Canada. The “livery station” only had an outhouse, and the smell of horse manure blew in every time the wind picked up to relieve the suffocating Space-July heat. (Rosa had explained that the local “civil calendar” followed Earth’s, and was off the 367 day astronomical calendar by 12 days, so that this was actually late Space-June, but it felt like that July when they'd gone to Bakersfield. Which was to say, way too hot.)

After a fifteen minute wait, the manager of the station finally brought their buckboard up. Charlotte was just in the middle of hefting her steamer trunk into the buckboard when she heard Dr. Cambridge, behind her. “Charlotte, dear, that is much too heavy for you. Bruce?”

Charlotte hesitated for a moment. Fact was, Bruce was pretty buff for a fifteen year-old, on account of all the training he did, but that didn’t change the fact that Charlotte’s wuxia-powered muscles made her stronger. On the other hand, it was usually easer to argue with Dr. Cambridge once you’d let her run with it for a moment. Charlotte put the trunk down. A puff of powdered-ish grass let her know that she’d somehow managed to hit an old horse patty. She frowned for a second as she lifted her head to look at Dr. Cambridge and Bruce, who had been missing for half an hour, gone to the bank to deposit the gold. 

One look at Bruce’s face told Charlotte that, once again, he had tried to go up against Dr. Cambridge’s grown-up dumb-assness again. He didn’t say a word as he and the ostler lofted Charlotte’s steam trunk, his muscles bunching under the long duster he had chosen for the ride, “because Harry Dresden wears one, and it’s cool.” One person who wasn’t cool right now, Charlotte figured, was Bruce. And he kidded her about wearing uncomfortable shoes!

“You girls are not to speak with Bruce today,” Dr. Cambridge said. “He needs some time to meditate on the errors of his ways.” 

The ostler grunted, as the driver took the weight of the steamer trunk from the deck of the buckboard, above. “I’ll just tuck your umbrella down the ‘well, missie. You won’t be needing it today.”

“Oh, la, sir,” Charlotte said. “The weather can be fickle in the mountains, and I so don’t want to get my clothes messed up. We only have these single trunks each to make it through the whole summer!”

Her watch buzzed, and Charlotte glanced at it. “La? What up, girl? -D” 

Charlotte fingered, quickly, “Like a cowgirl,” and ReplyAllList to Dora, Rose and Bruce. Also Billy Tatum and Cousin May, although they probably wouldn’t get it, on account of being in the wrong solar system.

“More like the stuck-up rich girl from the east, -R.” Rose was always the one for long-winded texts.

Charlotte fingered again. “Whatev. We in Western!”

The driver interrupted. “Okay, umbrella on top. Look, we’re ready to go. Ma’am? If we don’t leave in the next half-hour, we’ll miss dinner at Pine Pass.”

Charlotte passed up Ginger in her little bird cage. While Charlotte figured that Ginger could probably find her own way to wherever Charlotte was, Dr. Cambridge had ruled that if the little crow was going to travel with them, it had to be in a cage, like a “real pet,” so as not to give their secret identity away. 

Ginger disagreed, and fixed her glare at Charlotte. As the hook of the cage exchanged hands, for all the world like Granny passing Tweety Bird onto the conductor on the train in the old cartoon, the crow burst out with an enormous caw. 

“That’s some pet you’ve got there,” the ostler said. Charlotte nodded.

Dr. Cambridge answered the driver at last. “Well, I was minded to have lunch and then freshen up before our trip, and we could take a cold collation.” Now Doctor Cambridge was moving in on the old-fashioned talk. Okay, it was officially not cool anymore!

The driver carefully didn’t sigh. “I’m not sure that my horses would appreciate that as much as the young ladies. See, we can make this ferry and reach Pine Pass Ranch, at supper, and stable the horses, or we can take the next ferry and reach Pine Pass after dark. Or, more likely, camp out on the trail. Your choice, Ma’am.” Come on, Charlotte screamed, inside herself. Rule One: Cambridge is always wrong. Rule Two: If you don’t know what to do, ask Doctor Cambridge, and see Rule One. 

“Camp out?” Doctor Cambridge asked.

“You know, sleep on the side of the trail,” the driver said.

“Why couldn’t we just go on?” Doctor Cambridge asked.

“The trail can be treacherous for the horses, after dark.”

“Oh, well, we can pay for replacements,” Dr. Cambridge said. “I should rather not spend more time on this road than we can help it. Summer is a-wasting!”

Charlotte nudged Dr. Cambridge from the side. “You do know what they do to horses that break their legs, right?” She asked. The driver nodded.

“Excuse me?” Doctor Cambridge asked.

This woman has a PhD? Charlotte thought. Rose whispered in Dr. Cambridge’s ears. The counsellor’s eyes went wide. “Ah, yes. Let us catch this ferry, if you please, ---“

“Kieran,” the driver said. 

“Indeed, Kieran.” The girls, and a still-scowling Bruce, hastened to board the open-top wagon, finding seats on the barely-padded bench behind the driver and ostler, who was apparently coming along as a co-pilot, or whatever. Doctor Cambridge, meanwhile, took the proper chair that stood alone behind in the middle of the deck. Whereas the girls, Bruce, and the men settled for cowboy hats to keep off the sun, Dr. Cambridge did set up an umbrella. Or parasol, Charlotte thought, since we’re going all Old West-talk here. She looked like Queen Victoria, or, at least, an actress playing Queen Victoria in some weird movie mash-up where Queen Victoria rode through the wilderness on a buckboard. Once they were seated, the driver slapped the reins, and the four-horse team headed down the road that led to the ferry crossing at the bend of the Central River. 

Beyond the ferry, the road led through another gaggle of stores and two taverns, before leading up through fenced pasture on either side, with cows and horses gathered together under big trees in the middle of each, watching as they were irrigated industrial-sized sprinklers. The heads beat back and forth in the familiar by the familiar chuck-chuck staccato rhythm, spraying water on amazingly green alfalfa pasture. A horse nickered, and one of their team answered. No time for socialising, Charlotte thought. We’re going to summer camp. 

It took them an hour to get well up into the mountains, and the first hint that they were in for a bit of a trip. After going through a section of level road that looked like they had been blasted out of the side of the river gorge last week, they ran into a clearing, where a Jeep was parked, explaining the tire tracks that they had seen on the road up. The Jeep evidently belonged to a survey crew, who were just setting up, complete with laser sights, orange vests, hardhats, and rolls and rolls of that reflective orange tape. 

Apparently, this meant a detour, up a steep path marked out with more orange tape. Everyone had to get out except the driver, and the ostler took a moment to wrap ropes around the rear axles as a brake. Then, with the girls walking behind, and the ostler and Bruce pushing (Charlotte seethed at the silent gesture with which Dr. Cambridge stopped her from helping), the buckboard wagon began lurching up a slope.

At the top, the new trail met what was probably the old, which led down towards where the surveyors were working.

Then the trail went off a cliff. Literally. 

Looking straight down from the edge of the canyon, Charlotte could see that the trail stepped down onto a narrow plank road supported by beams pounded into the Cliffside.

“Charlotte,” Dr. Cambridge called, “Get back from there. It’s dangerous!”

“I was just looking at the road,” Charlotte said, as she walked back to Dr. Charlotte, who had stopped so far back from the cliff that she couldn’t possibly have any idea what was going on.

“It’s so cool!” Bruce announced, then clamped his mouth shut as he remembered that he was being punished. Dr. Cambridge glared at him, but didn’t say anything.

Instead, she asked, “What road?”

“It follows the cliff,” Charlotte said. “On one of those plank roads built out from the wall that they had on the old Fraser Canyon highway.”

“The what?” Asked Dr. Cambridge, who for some reason hadn’t heard of an obscure old road in Canada that had been demolished before she was even born. “Never mind,” she answered herself. “We’ll go another way.”

“Ma’am,” Kieran said, “There is no other way, at least until the construction crews have finished blasting through the nose of the cliff.” He waved over the cliff and down. On cue, an explosion rang up the canyon. 

“Well, we can wait for them,” Dr. Cambridge said.

“That’s weeks away,” Kieran explained, blatantly not-sighing again. “They might not even be done this construction season.”

All too soon, at least for Doctor Cambridge, they were out on the plank road, suspended six hundred feet above the V-neck floor of the gorge, the stream leaping through rocks that looked like they were exactly just below them. A mountain goat ran by on the cliff opposite, seemingly flying along the vertical face. Rose gasped. 

As for Dr. Cambridge, she was done with gasping by that time. The advisor was sitting in her chair, didn’t look like a queen anymore. Queens don’t perched all hunched up to one side, trying to stay as close to the cliff as possible, while their hands clenched their fingers white, and drips of blood showed that their fingernails were cutting their palms. 

Now it was Charlotte’s turn to not sigh. As dangerous as the cliff might look to Dr. Cambridge, it was just not a problem. The mountain goat wasn’t flying, it was picking out footholds, which were cut into the cliff all over the place. Charlotte could probably run down the cliff, even if she would look like a ninja doing it. Any of them could get down the cliff, except for the normals, and Dora could levitate them to safety. Heck Dora might have the juice to lift the whole wagon, although probably not the horses. If the needfire came when it was called.

Man up, is what she’d say to Dr. Cambridge, if she could. Instead, Charlotte found herself waiting in the wagon at the other end of the plank road as Dr. Cambridge hurried off into the bushes to freshen up, or whatever. 

The moment she disappeared, Dora said,, “What did you pull, Bruce?”

Bruce waited for a second. Perhaps Kieran or the ostler would enforce the grown-up rule, but Kieran didn’t say anything, and the ostler just spat some tobacco chaw on the ground. This was totally a Western, Charlotte thought. Except for the surveyors. And the blasting. And the floatplanes that flew overhead every hour, headed to the big gold mine way out east of Long Lake. 

“I told the bank manager who we were. Dr. Stupid just about hit the wall.”

“What? Why?” Dora said.

“We were depositing gold to cover wire fraud. You could tell the bank manager wasn’t buying it for a second. And if you don’t think we won’t be in better off with the Colonial Bureau of Investigation knowing we’re around, you haven’t been paying attention in socials class.”

“So the CBI –that’s a thing, right?—knows that there’s superheroes from Earth around.”

“Up in Long Lake, yeah. Don’t worry, though. I brought my disguise kit. They don’t know who.”

“What happens next?” Rose asked.

Bruce shrugged. “We fight the local superheroes before realising that we’re after the same enemies, and then team up with them? I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t read the comic book, and they might change it for the movie, anyway.”How should I know?” 

After a second, he continued. “Sorry. Just kidding. Probably nothing. Dr. Cambridge is worried that the people here will all want to be rescued back to Earth, but she’s crazy. These guys know they isn’t going to happen. All the spaceships on Earth could carry maybe a few dozen people back. Heck, that Hzeel boat is huge, and there’s more babies born here in a year than that ship can carry. It’s like the one about how if you lined up all the Chinese in the world and they walked past a checkpoint single-file, they’d never stop filing by?”

Charlotte rolled her eyes. 

“You have a funny way of trying to impress Charlotte, Batboy,” Dora said. “And if you’re thinking, ‘Why is Dora such a wet blanket,” it’s because that’s my job. Because, you know, wetback.”

“I get it,” Bruce said, sounding miserable. “I’m sorry, Charlotte.”

Change the subject, Charlotte thought, so Bruce wouldn’t be stuck with living down the latest stupid thing to come out of his mouth. “Can you imagine fifty thousand babies crammed into the bays of a landing transport?” Charlotte asked.

“Yes,” Dora said, her nose wrinkling. “Or, no, I can’t. I was imagining World War III, instead. If World War III decided to hold a circus.” 

At that point, Doctor Cambridge emerged from the bushes, her face white. The ostler handed her down a bottle of lemon water, and, Dr. Cambridge took a gulp, swirled it around her mouth, and then spat it out in a distinctly unladylike way. 

The road didn’t get that much better from there on, alternating steep switchbacks that set the wagon swaying to more cliff side roads, although fortunately most managed to avoid plank ledges. Dr. Cambridge settled back, eventually. Or maybe the soreness in her butt was distracting her from the heights. It was certainly distracting Charlotte, and Dora began texting every few minutes, demanding to be allowed to call the needfire and fly them the rest of the way to Pine Pass. Yeah, so not going to happen, Charlotte thought. 

One thing was for sure, they were all very glad when they finally reached the XFY Ranch at Pine Pass and pulled into its long driveway. An air horn blew just as they got to the gates of the ranch proper. It was dinner time. Two other wagons had arrived earlier, and two more pulled up while the girls were getting washed up and trying to pull something together for dinner. They were all wearing pretty basic stuff, and the ostler had warned them not to overdress for dinner. The shells wouldn’t come out ‘till they reached the Lake or had to do something hikerish. Instead, the girls had decided on denim jackets. Which, face it, were always in style if you did it right. Too bad that a hot, buggy trail was the wrong place for the current cut-away styles. So they’d settled for straight cuts (it was amazing that Rosa had even bought them), and let their style come out underneath. Charlotte had a spotted blouse that complemented her black-with-red streaked, curly hair, chai-coloured skin, and black eyes. Rose had a bright pink long-sleeve under her jacket, while Dora went with the classic white T-shirt, because it was hard to improve on what blue denim did to her complexion, anyway. A moment to freshen up, and they were ready.

Dinner turned out to be in a big dining hall that connected to ione side of the ranch house by an open veranda. Half the seats, about twenty, were already taken by people, mostly in tees, shorts, and flip-flops, all helping themselves to big slices of watermelon and melon while they waited for the main course. A big, cheerful hostess with gray-blonde hair done up in a bun, wearing a long gingham dress over Wellington boots with clean room slippers pulled over them. Practical, Charlotte thought, and she felt better about not dressing up. There was a limit to what you could do when you had to run a ranch! Oblivious, the hostess bustled around, setting glasses of water and mugs of coffee on the table for those who wanted it, two hours before sunset. 

The moment after they walked in off the driveway, the hostess noticed them. “John!” She yelled, then rushed over to wrap her arms around the ostler. In spite of her mouth being only a few inches from John the ostler’s ears, she went on shouting. “It’s so good to see you! But what are you doing on the milk run?”

After a minute, John the ostler pulled back. “Guy got sick. ‘Sides, you know, stuff. Wow, Marmie, you guys sure have done a lot of work this year!”

The hostess beamed. “Wait ‘till you see it next year! We got that water turbine up from Landing Town last month. Couldn’t put it in the creek year because we didn’t have enough lumber, but we’ll get it done in the quiet months after the snow closes the pass. You see that turnoff?” She asked, gesturing to the other side of the yard.” We’re building a real restaurant down where the surveyors have laid the motor road. If it opens on schedule, we’ll have electric lights, menus, a deep fryer. Hell, I’ll be the hostess in the cocktail dress!”

“If,” John the ostler said. 

“Well, chances are it’ll be a year late. But you wait. We’re going to leave a ski resort to our grandkids.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” John said, and Charlotte felt a chill. John’s eyes were sweeping the nearby mountains as though there was something not nearly so bright and cheery up there.

Dinner turned out to be …well, Charlotte hoped that Marmie hired a cook. It wasn’t bad, but who could possibly take delicious slabs of marbled beef, onions and celery, canned tomatoes and rice and say to themselves, “You know what this calls for? Pan-fried steak, creamed vegetables and Spanish Rice!” Grandpa, Charlotte thought, would have just walked right into the kitchen and taken over, if he saw this. And probably punch whoever creamed the vegetables in the face. The rest of the travellers enjoyed it, and once they were stuffing their faces, at least they stopped complaining about the road, with its cliff faces and bear droppings that left the horses white-eyed and shying.

Another thing that this place needed, and which it turned out that Marmie and her husband were building down by the highway blaze, was a proper motel. Instead, there were two long bunk houses, and a cabin that was for special visitors, only. By some unspoken agreement, John the Ostler got the cabin, and the girls slept in the women’s bunkhouse along with Dr. Cambridge, who furiously shushed Dora when she tried to whisper something about the trip. Long after they were tucked under their quilts and soft flannel sheets, Charlotte’s sensitive hearing could pick out men laughing in their bunkhouse, across the yard. Kieran laughing. Bruce laughing. Charlotte tried to let her jealousy go so that she could sleep.

Just like that, it was morning. Well, not morning like most people would understand it, but Wongs tended to be morning people. Getting up before everyone else just went naturally with the family’s “Try too hard” issues. In this case, though, everyone was “trying too hard.” If you hustled, you could be over the mountains and across the ferry to Geithner’s Strike by dinner time, and no-one wanted to waste time on the roads. Kieran and John were already up, feeding and tending their horses and getting ready to harness them. Charlotte wandered out to join them, carrying Ginger's cage in one hand so that she could load it onto the buckboard. Ginger would get offended when the horses were fed before her, and then no-one would be able to sleep.

So was something else, though. Something that thought that it was a lot more stealthy than it was. Charlotte tapped her watch, this time to send an alert to her friends, and jumped up on the deck of the buckboard. There was a parcel about the size of a big book, tied up in string, with a “Colonial Mail” stamp, in the place where her umbrella had been tied in yesterday. Charlotte shifted it, and took the familiar handle in her hand, but not to strap it in. 

Casually, Charlotte felt the sword, sensing the power in it, and scanned, out of the corner of her eyes, the forest where it pushed in on the ranch yard from the creek side. Casual, Charlotte reminded herself, like you’re scoping out some hot guy that was maybe looking at you. Which didn't work at all, because every time Charlotte tried to do that, she just ended up blushing like a fireplace. No blushing here, though, because this wasn't a hot boy that was looking at her. This was something entirely more dangerous.

She needed to signal this to someone beside her friends. She shifted her apparent focus on John the Ostler, without taking her actual attention off the woods, and gestured with her eyes towards where the faint noises were coming from.

 John noticed. His own eyes widened. He reached out, and casually touched Kieran, then put his hand lightly on the walnut stock of the shotgun that was holstered beside the front bench of the buckboard, where the driver sat.

A tawny streak launched itself into the yard. The horses reared, and the harness fell off the back left animal, a chestnut with a white nose blaze and socks on one its back hooves. The shotgun barked, and the animal, huge cat with great fangs, that Charlotte recognised, with a start, as a sabretooth tiger, started, reversing direction so fast it was almost funny. Unfortunately, the chestnut bolted in the other direction. “Damn!” Kieran shouted. “Those things hunt in packs!”

The horse! Charlotte thought. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” she yelled, pulling her umbrella out of the straps and discretely throwing the latch on Ginger's cage, before jumping down to the ground. It took all of her restraint not to run out of the yard at full speed, but as soon as the protective screen of the woods was between her and the men, she accelerated. Behind her, she could hear John yell, “Are you crazy, girl?”

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