Chapter 3, 7: Wayfarers All!
The wheels were supposed to creak, Charlotte thought, but they didn’t. That was because they were made of steel, with weirdly bunched spokes, exactly like on Mr. Piccolo’s bike, the one that he locked up behind his desk at the start of first period homeroom every day. They were modern wheels, was what she was thinking. So it was weird to see them turn so slowly, weird to see the green road apples that the wheels had just cut through puff steam in slow motion into the morning light, still slanting and golden an hour after they’d left the XYZ Ranch.
John the Ostler had turned his seat around so that he sat back to back with the driver, hat pulled down over his eyes, not exactly concealing the fact that he was scanning behind the wagon, while the driver watched ahead. John’s shotgun was cradled, not exactly casually, in his arms.
“Cats,” he’d explained, when Doctor Cambridge asked. Doctor Cambridge had about a million questions after that, and Charlotte thought that John had been amazingly patient with her. If Charlotte were a grownup, she would just tell Dr. Cambridge to shut up! Or something, because that would be rude. Okay, if she were a grown up guy, that’s what she’d do. After a while, though, John’s answers got distant and short, as he scanned the road, while the next wagon behind them slowly dropped back until they couldn’t even hear it any more.
A crow called overhead. Charlotte looked up. It was Ginger, coming in to land. “Your bird came back.”
Ginger dropped to perch on top of the mail parcel marked for Geithner’s Strike, next to her cage, and cocked an eye at Charlotte. Charlotte opened the little latch. “Oh, yes. She just loves her little cage so.” Charlotte put on her ‘sarcasm’ face as she said it.
Ginger was not appeased. She hopped in the cage with a weird bump, then turned around to face the humans, and gave another caw that sounded as though it had merged with a burp. ‘Yeah, exactly,’ she seemed to be saying. Then she poked her head low and then up before finally giving a cross-head shake. Charlotte could guess what that was crow body language for. Crow body language has a whole vocabulary for disgusted sarcasm, Charlotte thought. Or maybe I’m projecting.
“No, she doesn’t,” John said. Clearly he understood crows. “She puts up with a lot for you, doesn’t she?”
Charlotte blushed. “Everybody does. Since my Mom died . . . I’m so lucky.”
“I’ll say,” Rose interrupted. “Some shootist in a bandanna with a pretty smile shows up, and who does he go rescue? Charlotte. Why does that kind of stuff never happen to me?”
“’Cuz you wouldn’t notice if a cute guy stood in front of you, took off his pants, and said, ‘Ravish me, Rose, I’m yours?” Dora asked.
“Pretty sure that’s a stalker, not a Scout,” Rose explained.
“Oh, cut the imaginary pants-taking-off guy some slack,” Bruce said. “You know, if you girls could just figure out what you wanted. . .”
“. . .You’d have a girlfriend?” Dora finished. “No can do, compadre. Guys have to work for it, too.”
“Bruce is just jealous that Scout is so cute.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bruce said, scowling. “How can you even tell if a guy is cute?”
Charlotte rolled her eyes at the whole ‘guy doesn’t know if another guy is good looking’ thing. Bruce was smarter than that.
“Wait,” John said, unexpectedly. “You’re talking about the smile of a guy who was wearing a bandanna?”
“Sure,” Charlotte said. “One of those big masks that comes down over your forehead. A bandanna.”
“Nope,” John said. He pulled his neckerchief up over his nose to cover his mouth and cheeks. “This is a bandanna. It’s what muggers wear up on the roads around here to hide their faces.”
“Oh.” Charlotte felt herself blushing. “I thought I knew what a bandanna was. . .”
“It’s okay, girl,” John said. “It’s not like you forgot that you’d said it halfway through telling your story. Now that would have been dumb.”
Doctor Cambridge cleared her throat. “This really has been quite diverting, but not terribly improving. Girls? How about some botanising? Can anyone tell me what those trees are?”
Charlotte stared at their guardian. What kind of frigging Victorian novel had she just channeled?
“The leafy ones are cottonwoods. The conifers on the slope up there are mountain hemlocks, and the ones down in the draw are junipers,” Rose said, sounding bored. “So, John. What’s a Geithner’s Strike?”
“That takes me back a bit,” John answered. “Before my time, but the Colony got its start, when someone, probably the supervillain Teleios, kidnapped the population of a town of Kenora, Ontario, Canada, and dropped them here on New Earth along with a couple thousand of his clone soldiers.”
“But…” Rose began.
“Oh, yeah, we know that’s not what actually happened. Everyone who came out of that spaceship way back in 1984 was younger and fitter, and, who knows, probably stronger and smarter than they remembered being. They were all clones, too, we realise that now, but that’s not what their memories said.”
John took a swig of lemon water out of his jug, then leaned over the edge of the wagon and spat, because that’s what guys do when they’re giving expository dialogue in Westerns. And also because the dust was settling over the wagon so thick that it was like having someone spraying chalk dust into your mouth every second it was open. No wonder muggers wore bandannas over their mouths. The amazing part was that anyone didn’t.
“So, mixed in with the loggers and the millworkers and the amnesiac SEAL types were these strange cases. Fit, competent, good-looking young men and women from good colleges and rich families. That sort of thing. Wasn’t hard to figure out that that Teleios was doing the supervillain thing, setting up deep cover agents who would go on to further his evil plans from high posts in government and business and whatnot. It was hard to figure out what they were doing here, but I heard a professor at Colonial University say that they were probably ‘experimental controls.’”
John paused, took another sip of lemon water. “Mayor Geithner fit that profile. Clearly a kid on the make. Who knows what the ‘real’ Geithner is doing these days.”
“He’s the Treasury Secretary,” Bruce supplied. Rose looked at him. “Hey, you’re not the only font of useless knowledge around here, you know.”
‘Yeah. Don’t be telling the Mayor that. It’ll drive him crazy. Anyway, here’s this high-flyer-to-be, all trapped in this bird cage of a backwater planet.” John nodded at Ginger. “And he missed his girlfriend, and his Ivy League brain didn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the folk around Landing. So Geithner joined up with a prospecting team. Two years later, he hit the second biggest alluvial gold strike in the colony after Landing Town itself.” John jerked his hand back over his shoulder to indicate the direction that they were driving in. “A hundred thousand ounces of gold they took out of the Golden Bar at the mouth of Forty Mile Creek.”
John stopped and pulled binoculars out from under his coat, putting them to his eyes and aiming them up the mountain slopes for a moment. Charlotte could feel the team draw in its breath. The Hell with being followed by stalking big cats and shadowy muggers. They were superheroes. They kicked ass, they didn’t get kicked. Well, they were junior superheroes. Who would get their asses kicked by a lot of people. But not by sabretooth cats and muggers, Charlotte thought.
Finally, John put his binoculars down. “Funny. Thought I saw something. Where was I? Mayor Geithner. Right. So he was the first gold panner in these parts, and he was a good one. Made a lot of money, and spent it smart. He planted peach trees and built the ferry and the road and the boat chutes at the Narrows and the first mansion in town. Heck, he’s building a college now. It’s a nice little town, now, Geithner’s Strike, and it makes more off fruit and tourists than it ever did off gold.” Now John indicated down the draw before sweeping his hand up to take the bowl of mountains of the New Sierra Nevadas above them. “But that’ll change someday soon. Somewhere, up the creek or its tributaries, someone’s going to find the mother lode that it all washed down from, and end up even richer than Mayor Geithner.”
“Which would be very rich,” Bruce said.
“Very rich,” John said.
“Uncle Scrooge rich,” Bruce said.
“Let’s not go crazy, here,” John replied.
“You’ve heard of Uncle Scrooge?” Dora asked.
“Give me a break, girl. We’re not completely out of touch. There’s even a company down in Landing that does new Uncle Scrooge comics.”
“Wow. They’d better hope Teleios never needs an “experimental control” of a Disney lawyer,” Bruce said.
“Here’s hoping,” John answered.
That afternoon, they had an early supper, pulled out on the road just off the turn-off for Summit Ranch, at a vista where there was a side road that broke through the trees to the crest of the mountain. With horses munching alfalfa hay and oats while the group ate, perched, it seemed, at the edge of the world. Their picnic baskets came from the XYZ Ranch, while Long Lake Valley stretched out below them. There were cold steak sandwiches with an excellent home-made relish on crusty bread, and a hundred miles of brilliant blue lake with islands, and brown-and-green hills beyond, and bustling Geithner’s Landing, on the far side of the lake, directly opposite, buildings along the lake shore, and eye-achingly green, irrigated fields, pastures and orchards climbing up a short slope and then spilling onto a deep, long bench where the mountains on the far side bent out in a deep bowl to contain more flat land than Charlotte had seen since the road left Forty Mile Junction.
It was beautiful and so was the sandwich, which was properly more steak than sandwich. There was a funny potato salad with bacon, vinegary, but nice, and a sweet coleslaw that was a bit much for Charlotte, and, while they ate, the driver got a fire going underneath a coffee pot, cherry red on top and burnt black on the bottom from many fires. By the time they were done the onion pickle at the end, the coffee was ready to eat with great pieces of apple pie served with chunks of yellow cheese, just the way her Mom used to eat it.
At the beginning of the meal, the driver reached under his seat for an amber bottle of beer, but one look from John, and he put it down. From here on, John told them, they would be switch-backing down into Long Lake Valley. Everyone, he said, had to be ready, with blood sugar at maximum. The road could be dangerous, he said. Only Charlotte noticed that he was still watching behind them.
Sure enough, when they were almost done, the wagon that had been following them out of the XYZ finally caught up. The people on it looked upset, and they went by fast, the driver lashing the horses, without much more than a “hello.” John jumped off the wagon and jogged over to talk to their driver. He didn’t even slow down as John ran alongside, just spat words over the side, far too low and far away for a normal person to hear them.
“What’s up, Bill?” John asked.
“Robbed. Three hours ago. Five guys on horseback.”
“What’d they look like?”
“Tough guys. Honestly? I was paying more attention to the guns.”
“Looked like submachine guns. Not the homemade kind, either. Shiny new guns.”
“But you weren’t paying attention to the make. Just the holes on the end.”
“We need to interview you and the passengers, you know.”
“Now? I don’t want to miss the ferry, not after trail trouble. People’ll complain.”
“No, in town, tonight. It’s not ideal, but we all have to make the ferry. What’d they take?”
“The mail. Very cool and collected about it, too. Professional, you ask me.”
Charlotte looked over at the mail parcel that Ginger’s cage was sitting on and wondered if the muggers got what they were looking for.
John let his pace slacken as the wagon came up on a curve where it bent out from behind the trees. That was where the road probably hit the kind of view they had right here in the lookout. It struck Charlotte that it was probably a lot more scary to be staring out at this kind of sweeping vista from the top of a wagon road than while you were finishing off some nice apple pie and hot coffee. As John jumped on board the wagon, and it sagged with his weight, Charlotte caught a motion on the slope below. The following wagon had just come around the first switchback. It was going very slowly, presumably because the driver had wrapped rope brakes around the wheels and was pulling for all his might. With the top of the wagon as a reference, Charlotte could see just how steep the road actually was, and the answer was, very steep. That gave her an idea.
John explained that there had been trouble with the last wagon, and that he was worried that the muggers might be back. Charlotte said, “Say, if the outlaws are following us, why don’t us kids walk down ahead. It’ll take a load off the brakes, and we can enjoy the view.” And change into uniform and come back to fight outlaws without cluing the driver in, Charlotte thought.
John smiled. “Why don’t you do that?”
Dr. Cambridge chipped in. “Excellent idea, and much safer than being up on this wagon. But I want you girls to change before you head down. It’ll be cooler down in the shadow of the mountain.”
“Wee!” Dora said. “We get to wear our shells!”
Charlotte was almost frantic as she tore at her bags and pulled out her athletic shell. There were no words to describe the colour. Not because they hadn’t been invented yet, but because it was such an awesome bright, almost neon yellow that all the words that would do had run off to a convent at the edge of the world, too intimidated to say anything. And as brilliant as Charlotte’s yellow shell was (she’d gone Australian there just to have a new adjective for it), Rose’s, which was pinkish, and Dora’s, which was orange, were almost as nice.
Bruce threw on a denim jacket and practically ran down to the slope below the scenic cutout. “What are you waiting for? Last person down buys dinner!”
“Don’t set any rocks rolling,” John cautioned. “There’s traffic below!” But it was futile. With a series of low hops, Bruce was down on the road, waiting for the leading wagon to pass. Charlotte let herself pout for a second. Her family were the sidehill gougers around here! She ran to catch up with Bruce.
Behind her, she heard the driver shout, “Hey, what do you need the umbrella for? And your bird’s got loose.”
“She’s mad at me,” Charlotte shouted over her shoulders. “I’m taking precautions!”
“Ha!” Bruce said from below. “Bird poop jokes never get old.”
“You know what gets old?” Charlotte asked, as she took the sudden level of the road with a flex of the knees before letting her momentum take her right over the far side of the narrow cut and down the scree-and-bunchgrass slope beyond, “You being tail-end Charlie.”
“Not a chance!” Bruce said. “I’m still faster than Dora!”
“Until I start flying,” Dora shouted from behind. And it was true. She was tail-end Charlie by the time they hit the bottom of the road, an hour later.
“That must be, like, a 1500 foot drop,” Bruce said, as they paused beside a stream to drink in a woody stretch of the road that now led, straight and only gently sloping, down towards what Charlotte guessed was the ferry landing. Charlotte gently took Ginger off her shoulder so that she could put her shell back on. Halfway down, they had stopped to take them off. Running down the slope had been hot work, but underneath the trees, it was as cool as Doctor Cambridge had told them it would be. Funny, Charlotte thought now, that Doctor Cambridge hadn’t walked down with them.
Shells back on, and also hair combed and generally freshened up, the girls set out down the road, soon reaching the cross-roads with the lake-hugging road that linked the farms on the west side of the lake with the inn at the ferry landing. Ahead, they could see the last bend before the landing. Officially, they would be back in civilisation the moment they turned it, and the girls were determined to be fashion forward when they did it.
And speaking of civilisation, what was that familiar, yet somehow completely alien sound? Charlotte looked down the crossing road. A low-slung, candy-apple sports car was coming up it, much too quickly. “Is that a Porsche?” Bruce asked, wonder in his voice.
It was. And it was too quick for the road. The kids scattered as it came roaring into the crossroads, brakes piled on, much too late, and drifted, just a little out-of-control, into a ditch with a metallic shriek that suggested German-engineered finishes running along the jagged edges of dynamite-shattered rock.
The moment that the Porsche came to a halt, the driver’s side door popped open. A man emerged, wearing a long blue, open shirt over an equally long black T, with puffy red pants that came down to tight black cuffs well above black loafers that looked totally inadequate to the sharp-edged gravel they were standing on, supporting a tall, thin man who finished off his look, of course, with a grey porkpie hat and sunglasses over an elaborately groomed mustache-sideburns combination.
But if his feet were hurting him, he showed no sign of it as he opened his arms and smiled widely. “Oh My God. Who’s going to be Peach Festival Queen? You’re going to be Peach Festival Queen. No. Wait. Back up. There’s three of you. How could this happen to me? Someone get me a time machine. I don’t think I’m going to be able to take the suspense.”
Wordless, Charlotte looked at Rose, who looked at Dora, who looked at Charlotte. Grownups just kept getting weirder.
“No, seriously. You’re fab. Awesome. Awefab. Did I just coin a . . . coinage? I think I did. You are awfab to the lab! No, wait. That doesn’t make sense, because labs aren’t glamorous. Who cares about science? You can call me Mr. Diavolo, by the way. It means “Devil.” Am I the Devil, in human guise, come to tempt you with your darkest desires? Yes. Yes, I am. Or maybe I’m like Charlie, only instead of being a speakerphone voice that recruits beautiful lady detectives, I’m an actual person who recruits beautiful ladies. Like you. Anyway, the point is, your shells are, what’s that word again? The one I just made up?”
Bruce made a sound like his voice was grimacing. “Awefab.” Then he continued, “Uhm, without in any way wanting to recommend decaff in the future, can I just say that maybe we should get your car out of the ditch before we handicap the beauty pageants, Mr. Diavolo?”
“Oh, you’re so practically practical, young man. I shall banish you from my posse of pleasure for that, you know. Just the moment you be a dear and get my car out of the ditch.”
Yeah, definitely getting weirder, Charlotte thought. Also, he was asking Bruce to do the lifting. She scowled.