Portal, an online novel: Chapter 25

Chapter 24: Kevin and Larry are reunited after the battle with the New Portuguese.  Kevin is desperate to get back to Glanbury and find the portal.  They spend the night in the barracks, where Larry can’t stop thinking about the boy he killed.  They get up early, determined to find their way out of the city, and almost immediately they run into Stinky Glover.

*********************

Chapter 25

Stinky came up to us.  “G’morning, Lawrence,” he said.  “What brings you here?”

“Hi, uh, Julian.  This is my friend Kevin.”

“Hello, mate.”  Stinky glanced at Kevin’s cap, but didn’t say anything.

They shook hands.  Kevin didn’t look happy to see him.  In our world, he hated Stinky Glover as much as I did.  Stinky liked to give him purple nurples; Kevin hated purple nurples–who doesn’t?  But this world was different.  With all the things that had been happening, had I told Kevin about Stinky saving me from those kids in Cheapside?

“We’re heading to Glanbury,” I said.

Stinky looked puzzled.  “Now?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“We want to help the Barnes family,” I said.  “Get things ready for when they come home.”

Not a very good answer, but I couldn’t come up with a better one.  “Didn’t you tell me you were related to them?” Stinky asked.

“That’s right.  And I got to know them pretty well in the camp,” I explained.  “Mr. Barnes is in the army, so I figured they might need some help.”

“But why now?” Stinky persisted.  “The Portuguese are still out there north of Glanbury, I expect, even if they’re in full retreat.  And anyway–”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kevin interrupted.  “We’re going.  Come on, Larry.”  He started to walk away.

I hesitated, and then said, “Well, see you, Julian,” and turned to go with Kevin.

“Wait a moment!” Stinky called out.  “I’ll join you!”

Kevin rolled his eyes.  “No way,” he muttered to me.

But we paused, and Stinky came up to us again.  “Do you know where the Barnes farm is located?” he asked.

“Well, no,” I admitted.

“I can show you.  Besides, three’ll be better than two if there are dangers on the road–and I’m sure there will be.”

“Why do you want to help us?” Kevin demanded.

Stinky grimaced.  “I’ve worn out my welcome here, I fear,” he replied.  “I try to make myself useful, but it’s been hard.  Lots of folks just take a dislike to me.  I don’t know why.  Now that the battle’s over, I expect the soldiers’ll throw me out of the camp rather than keep on feeding me.  I’ll have to return to Glanbury sooner or later and see if my master will take me back.  Might as well do it now.”

Made sense to me.  Kevin looked suspicious, but he didn’t say anything.  “All right,” I said.  “Let’s go, then.”

Stinky’s grimace turned into a big smile.  “Let’s go,” he repeated.

We headed back to the main road, which Stinky said was called the Post Road.  When we finally got there, I was surprised to see that nothing had really changed since yesterday: there were still guards posted, and people were arguing with them to be let through, even though it was barely dawn.  “We’ve no food,” one man was saying to a guard.  “We’ve no shelter.  We’ll die if you don’t let us go home.”

“We have our orders,” the soldier explained with a weary shrug, as if he’d explained it a million times already.  “It’s not safe out there.  Besides, the Portuguese fired the bridge over the Neponset.  How are you going to cross the river?”

“We’ll take our chances!” the man shouted.  “Would you rather we drop dead here in front of you?”

We had one big advantage over those people: we were on the other side of the guards.  “The army’ll surely change their minds today,” Stinky noted.  “That fellow is right–better to let people risk the journey home if they have a mind to try it.  There’s nothing left for them here.  But this is still dangerous—we risk having the New Englanders shoot at us as well as the Portuguese.  Why don’t we just wait and see what happens?”

Kevin shook his head.  “You wait if you want to,” he said.  “I’m leaving.”

Stinky looked at me, as if to ask where I’d found this strange kid with the strange hat.  But I wasn’t going to let Kevin leave by himself.  “We really want to get to Glanbury,” I said.

Stinky considered.  “All right, then,” he said reluctantly.  “Let’s keep going.  I think I know a way past the fortifications, although it’s awfully roundabout.  And then we still have to find a way across the river.”

So we kept walking.  The sun rose ahead of us in the east, but it didn’t make us any warmer.  Soldiers were up and about; none of them paid any attention to us.  After a while the camp and the fortifications petered out, with only a couple of observation towers looking out over marshland that stretched towards the ocean.  “They figured the Portuguese weren’t going to attack over the marshes,” Stinky said.  “Too hard to maneuver, too exposed.  So they just put up these towers.  We have to cross the marsh, and then work our way back towards the Post Road.  And find a boat or a raft or something to cross the river.”

“The marsh doesn’t look too hard,” Kevin said.

“Unless the soldiers in the watchtowers see us,” I pointed out.  “And decide to shoot.”

That didn’t faze Kevin.  “Let’s go,” he said.

Stinky glanced at me again.  “Coming, Julian?” I asked him.

He didn’t seem too happy about it, but he nodded.  “Keep to the left,” he said.  “If the watchtowers are still manned, the soldiers’ll be looking south.  We can circle around when we’re out of range of their rifles.”

“All right” I said.  “Sounds good.”

Kevin started off without saying a word.  We hurried after him.

There was a bitter wind blowing over the marsh, and my eyes started watering.  The metal of my rifle was so cold it stung.  Frostbite, I thought.  Stay out here too long and we’ll get frostbite.

The long brown marshgrass was harder to walk across than I had expected.  Every step we took, we broke through a crust of frost.  And it looked like we had a ways to go to get beyond the marsh.  Suddenly I felt dizzy from cold and hunger.

And then we heard the shots.  “Run!” Stinky shouted.

I took a quick look back.  There were soldiers in the watchtowers with their rifles aimed at us.

I started running.  Kevin stumbled, and I had to drag him back to his feet.  He was usually way faster than me, but the drikana must have slowed him down; even carrying the rifle I was faster now.  Stinky was the slowest.  He was gasping for breath right away and struggled to keep up with us.  But we couldn’t slow down–I could hear the bullets whistle past us, so I knew we were still in range.  “C’mon, let’s go!” I called out to them.  I sloshed through some water and hurdled a little stream that cut through the marsh.  My lungs were bursting, but I kept going, expecting any second that a bullet would rip into me.

But none did.  Eventually I realized there weren’t any more shots.  I looked back.  Kevin and Stinky were still running, but they had slowed down a lot.  I could make out the soldiers in the watchtowers, but I couldn’t tell what they were doing.  Didn’t matter, as long as they weren’t shooting at us anymore.

“Think we’re . . . out of . . . range,” Stinky gasped when he reached me.  Kevin just flopped down on the grass.

“Will they come after us?” I asked.

“Who knows?  Don’t even know why they bothered shooting at us.”

“Maybe they’re just bored,” Kevin said.

“You all right?” I asked him.  He was still trying to catch his breath.

“I think so.”

I sat down next to him.  My sneakers were soaked.  My feet felt numb.  Frostbite, I thought again.

“Got to keep going,” Stinky said.  “If we stay here, I wager they’ll come out to get us.”

“If we stay here, we’ll be dead before long anyway,” I said.  I got up.  “Can you make it?” I asked Kevin.

He nodded.  “Just needed a breather,” he muttered.  I held out my hand, and he took it.  I pulled him up, and we started off again.

It wasn’t long before we came to the river.  We stopped and stared at it, flowing peacefully out to the ocean.  It wasn’t a very big river, but we sure didn’t have a way to cross it.  I looked at Stinky.  He shrugged.  “Let’s head upriver,” he said.  “We’ll need to go that way eventually.  Maybe we’ll find a boat somewhere.”

Kevin and I didn’t have any better ideas, so that’s what we did.

We started walking inland, with the river on our left.  The path we were on twisted towards the river, then away from it.  We didn’t spot any bridges, or any boats we could borrow to get us across.  It was frustrating, and I could see that Kevin was getting upset.  Well, he’d been warned.

“Look down there,” Stinky said.

We saw smoke coming out of the chimney of a shack by the river.  Beyond the shack was a boat tied up at a little dock.

“Somebody’s home,” Kevin said.  “Let’s ask for a ride.”

“Could be dangerous,” Stinky pointed out.  “If they’ve been living out here all through the siege, they won’t be the sort who like company.”

“Worth a try,” Kevin said, and he started down the path to the shack.  “Hello?” he called out.  “Can you help us?  We need to get across the river.”

There was no response.

“Hello?” he repeated.  Stinky and I came up behind him.  There was all kinds of junk next to the house–broken barrels, wine bottles, a lobster pot–and a ton of firewood neatly stacked by the door.  I could smell fish frying.  I hated fish, but the smell made my stomach growl.

We saw the barrel of a rifle point out from a window.  “Who are ye?” a gruff, cracked voice said.

“We’re New Englanders,” Kevin said.  “Just trying to get home after the battle.”

“Put down the rifle.”

He was talking to me.  I laid my weapon down on the ground.

The rifle barrel disappeared from the window, and a moment later a gnarled old man wearing a woolen cap appeared, aiming the rifle at us.  “Ye’re children,” he said.  “Where are your parents?”

“We were separated from our parents in the battle,” Stinky lied.  “We’re trying to get home to Glanbury.  Can you help us?”

“Who won the battle?” he demanded.  His accent was different from anyone else I’d heard in this world–not English, exactly, just sort of old-fashioned.  I got the impression that he didn’t talk very much.

“New England did,” Stinky said.  “Have you seen any Portuguese retreating?”

He shook his head.  “Saw ’em before, though, foragin’ along the river.  Nasty brutes.  Killed a couple.”

“How’d you stay away from them?”

“I know more about these parts’n they do.  Take more than the Portuguese to get hold of old Bart Willoughby.”

“So, can you row us across the river?” Kevin asked.

The old man peered at him.  “What can you pay me?” he demanded.

We looked at each other.  “I have, like, six shillings,” I said.  Professor Palmer had given me some money once, but there really hadn’t been anything to spend it on.

The old man shook his head.  “Six shilling’s won’t even buy a loaf of bread in these times,” he said.  Then he peered at Kevin.  “That’s an interesting hat,” he said.  “I’ll take you across the river for that hat.”

Kevin blinked.  He loved his Red Sox cap.  But he took it off and handed it to the man.  “All right,” he muttered.  “Fine.”

The old man grinned.  He only had a couple of teeth.  He took his woolen cap off right away and replaced it with the Red Sox cap.  It made him look crazy.  “All right, lads,” he said.  “Let’s go.”

I picked up my rifle.  The old man led us down to the boat, and we all climbed in.  It was a little rowboat, and our weight made it ride low in the water.  But the old man was strong, and with a few powerful strokes he had us gliding out towards the middle of the river.  “Bad times in the city, I heard,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I replied.  “Too many people, not enough food.”

He shook his head.  “Too many people there in the best of times.  They tried to get me to go to one of them camps, but I wanted no part of it.”

“You weren’t afraid to be here by yourself?”

“Lad, I’ve lived too long to be afraid of anything.”

I thought of the old man in the camp standing by the gate and begging me for help.  And the corpse Kevin and I had seen there yesterday morning, its gray hair blowing in the wind.  Maybe this guy had the right idea.

We pulled up to the opposite shore.  “Thank you, sir,” Stinky said as we got out.

“Call me Bart,” he replied.  Then he pointed to the cap and started to cackle.  “See, lad?  ‘B’ for Bart!  Fare ye well.”  He maneuvered the boat around and started rowing back across the river.

“Let’s go,” Kevin said without even glancing back.

We found a path and headed towards the Post Road.  After a while we came upon a small settlement–a few houses, a horse barn, a church.  Everything looked empty, abandoned.  “Do you think we can stop here?” I asked.  “Maybe start a fire in one of these houses?  I need to warm up.”

“I’m not tired,” Kevin said.  But he was lying, I knew.

“It’s not about being tired,” I replied.  “My feet are freezing.  I’m worried about frostbite.”

“Whatever,” Kevin said with a shrug.  I think he wanted to take a break, but didn’t want to be the one to suggest it.

None of the houses were locked.  We went into the biggest one; even it had just one large room containing a few chairs, a bed with a straw mattress, and a small table.  On the wall was a shelf with an old bible on it and a bad painting of President Coolidge.  We found some tinder and a flint on the fireplace mantel.  Stinky and I gathered some scraps of wood outside, and within a few minutes we had a smoky fire going.

We all took off our shoes and socks to dry them.  Stinky glanced at the Adidas shoes Kevin and I set by the fire but didn’t say anything.  And he hadn’t said anything about Kevin’s cap.  He didn’t seem like a very curious kid.  How different was he from the Stinky we knew in our world?  He didn’t seem mean–just sort of, I don’t know, pitiful.  And he had sure helped me out so far.

We all lay down in front of the fire to rest and warm up.  It wasn’t very comfortable, but I shut my eyes, and I must have fallen asleep right away.  When I opened them, the fire had died out and Kevin was putting his sneakers back on.  Stinky was still asleep.  “Let’s go,” Kevin whispered.  “We can leave him here.”

“C’mon, Kevin.  Stinky can help.  Remember?  He knows where the Barnes farm is.”

“I don’t care about the Barnes farm, Larry.  I care about the portal, and he’s not going to help us find that.”

“Well, I care about both,” I said.  “And what about food?  I’m starving already, and we still have a lot of miles to cover.  We’re going to have to either beg for food, if there’s anyone around to beg it from, or go hunting.  I’ve got this rifle, but I don’t really know how to load it or anything.  And neither do you.”

Kevin shrugged.  “I just don’t trust him.  If you’re a jerk in one world, you’re probably a jerk in every other world.”

Stinky stirred then.  I reached for my sneakers and started to put them on.  “That’s better,” he said, sitting up and stretching.  “Probably been here a couple of hours,” he added, gesturing at the ashes of the fire.

“Think we can make it to Glanbury today?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  It’s a bit of a trek,” he said.  “Wouldn’t want to be traveling after dark.”

“Well, let’s see how far we get,” Kevin said.  “We can always break into another house and stay the night.”

“True enough.”  Stinky gave Kevin another what’s-your-hurry look, but he didn’t say anything more.  We finished putting our shoes and socks back on and headed outside.  The sun was bright, and the wind had died down now that we were off the marsh, so we weren’t as cold as we’d been before.  We pressed on towards the Post Road, feeling a little better.

We had only a vague idea how far away the road was.  We followed a rutted, curvy path that was headed inland.  There was no one else around, and that started to feel kind of spooky, after being stuck in the crowded city for so long.  It reminded me of being in Cambridge with Professor Palmer, and thinking of him made me sad.  He wouldn’t have any idea where we were, if we were dead or alive.  I sure wished I’d had a chance to say goodbye to him.

Stinky tried to make conversation as we trudged along.  He had enough curiosity to want a better explanation of why we were headed to Glanbury.  Did we have parents?  Did they know what we were doing?

“We’re orphans,” Kevin said.  “Just like you.”  Why did he say that?  I tried to remember if I’d told Stinky the lie about Professor Palmer being my father.

“Then how’ve you been living?” Stinky asked.  “Where?”

“In an orphanage,” Kevin said.  “Where else?”

“But you’re my age, looks like.  Wouldn’t you be ‘prenticed by now?”

“Well, we’re not.”

After a while Stinky sort of gave up.  And a while after that we reached the Post Road, smooth and wide compared to the path we’d been on, but just as empty.  Behind us was the wreckage of the bridge over the river.

“Look,” Kevin said, pointing to the other side of the road.  A wagon with a broken wheel lay on its side in a ditch.  We went over to examine it.  It was empty except for a few pots.  “Portuguese,” Stinky said, studying the lettering on the back.  “Says something about cooking.  The wagon’s pointing south.  They probably abandoned it during the retreat.”

We started heading south on the Post Road.  Everywhere there was stuff that the Portuguese had dropped or left behind–clothing and utensils and empty bottles, even a cannon.  And then we saw a blue-jacketed corpse, face-down by the side of the road.  Stinky went over to it.  He came back with the dead man’s pistol.  “Looks like a mighty disorganized retreat,” he said, “if they didn’t even stop to bury their dead.”

In the distance we heard some shots.  People hunting?  Fighting?  “Julian, could you show me how to load this rifle?” I said.  “I’ve got plenty of bullets.”

He gave me another look, as if to ask: who wouldn’t know how to load a rifle?  But he shrugged and demonstrated how to load the cartridges and cock it.  “Simple enough,” he said.  “And we’ll be needing this rifle before long, if we’re to eat anything today.”

We walked along.  The shooting stopped.  After the roar of the battle yesterday, things seemed awfully quiet–there was no noise except the crunching of our feet on the road.  Some of the houses and shops and inns we passed looked like they hadn’t been touched; others had been burned to the ground.  None of the fires looked recent, though.  The Portuguese were probably in too much of a hurry to do any more damage.

And then we saw people up ahead.  “Not soldiers,” Stinky said.  “One of them’s a woman, I’d say, from the shape of that bonnet.”  We quickened our pace to catch up with them.  There was a woman, a child, and a mule, weighed down with baggage.  “Good day to you!” Stinky called out when we were close enough.

The woman whirled around and aimed a rifle at us.  “Come no closer,” she shouted back, “or I’ll shoot you all.”

The woman was middle-aged, and had an upper-crust, almost-English accent.  Stinky raised his hands.  “We’re New Englanders.  We mean you no harm.”

The child was about six, and she clung sobbing to the woman, who lowered her rifle but still stared at us suspiciously.  “We’ve been set upon already,” she said.  “There are evil people about, both New Englander and Portuguese.  One of them has a bullet in his chest for his troubles.”

“I believe it, but I assure you we aren’t evil,” Stinky said.

“How did you get past the fortifications?” I asked.  “Are they open yet?”

“No, but this morning they removed most of the guards to go fight the Canadians.  If you’ve a mind to get out and have a few pounds to spare for bribes, you can leave.”

“How’d you get across the river?”

“Some men have rafts down there now,” she replied.  “Making quite a good day’s wages, too.”

“We’re headed home to Glanbury.  Where are you going?”

“Braintree, God willing, and no more brigands attack us.”

Braintree was maybe halfway to Glanbury.  “Why don’t we travel together?” I suggested.  “Safety in numbers.”

The woman continued to eye us suspiciously, but after thinking about it she said, “Very well.  You’re likely-looking lads.”

So we joined them.  The woman’s name was Mrs. Gradger; her daughter was named Cecilia.  Their story was familiar: They’d been stuck in the Fens camp during the siege.  Mrs. Gradger’s husband and two older sons were in the army, and she didn’t know if they were dead or alive.  Mr. Gradger was a lawyer, and the family had been well-off before the war, so for a while she’d been able to buy extra provisions in the camp.  But then food became scarce and money became pretty much worthless, and now the family was just like everyone else.

Mrs. Gradger, though, was a tough woman.  She had already killed one man today, and she sure seemed ready to shoot anyone else who tried to mess with her or her daughter.

Cecilia was another story, however.  She was so tired she was barely able to walk, and she kept complaining about how hungry she was.  She wiped her tears on her sleeve as she tried to keep up.  Mrs. Gradger didn’t seem especially sympathetic.  “Barney can’t carry any more weight,” she kept repeating, as if the amount of stuff on the mule settled matters.

“C’mon, Cecilia,” I said finally.  “I’ll carry you for a while.”  I handed the rifle to Kevin and squatted down so Cecilia could climb onto my shoulders.  She was pretty light.  “Thank you, sir,” she said, wiping her face clean yet again.

“Cecilia, don’t dirty your sleeve,” Mrs. Gradger said.  But she didn’t object to my carrying her daughter.

We walked like that for a long time.  It was good to have company, even if Mrs. Gradger reminded me a lot of Ms. Pouch, my sixth-grade math teacher, who everyone called Ms. Grouch.  She spent most of the time complaining about the how badly the camp had been run and how completely President Gardner had screwed up the war and how uncivilized the Portuguese were.  I think she was happy to finally get a chance to kill someone.

We didn’t run into anyone else, although off and on we heard more shots, which always scared Cecilia.  “No more bad men,” she said.  “I don’t want any more bad men.”  Once we spotted a skinny dog, who stared at us for a long time before slinking off down a side street.  And that somehow reminded Cecilia of how hungry she was.  “Please, Mother,” she said from my shoulders, “please can’t we eat?”

I looked at Mrs. Gradger.  Her face was hard, but there were tears in her eyes.  “We’ll be home soon,” she said.  “Now don’t talk about food.  It just makes things worse.”

Stinky came over to me.  “Have to do some hunting, mate,” he murmured.  “Before we lose the daylight.”

The sun was low in the sky.  It was starting to get colder.  Miles to go before I sleep.  I remembered that line from a poem we studied in English class.  And then we were at a crossroads.  Mrs. Gradger stopped and closed her eyes in relief for a moment.  Then she snapped back into character.  “Our house is along this road to the right,” she said.  “Cecilia, please get down.  Thank you, lads, for the company.”

I stooped to let Cecilia off.  My shoulders were stiff, but it had been sort of fun carrying her.  Then we all stood there.  I looked at Kevin.  I could tell he was all for pushing on to Glanbury.  Not me.  It was Stinky who made the suggestion.  “Ma’am, might you consider letting us spend the night?  In return we’ll go out and shoot you some supper.”

Mrs. Gradger said, “Oh no, we’ll be fine, no need.”  And Cecilia started wailing.

“It’d be a favor to us, ma’am,” Stinky pointed out.  “We could use the shelter.”

That was pretty clever of Stinky, I thought.  Mrs. Gradger would rather grant a favor than have anyone think she needed one.  “Very well,” she agreed.  “That’s a reasonable suggestion.  Come along.”

Kevin looked disgusted.  I shrugged.  “Just one more day,” I muttered to him.  “It won’t kill us.”

“How do you know?”

But he didn’t argue, and we all followed Mrs. Gradger down the road to Braintree.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s