Tuesday, 23 March 2021

[Glory Brats 25] Back on the road

 Early one morning, while it was still dark and before the birds began to be heard, Sparrow shook Tekla awake.

"C'mon, Tickles, get up. I've got your clothes here."

Half asleep, Tekla allowed herself to be helped into several layers of clothing. Sparrow grabbed their bags and tiptoed around the sleeping bodies on the floor. She froze as Bee shifted in her sleep. When nothing happened, she beckoned for Tekla to follow her down the stairs and into the dark hallway.

"You wait here, I need to leave the money for Caris on the table." Sparrow said as she shoved Tekla's arms into her backpack.

"Why are we..." Tekla started to ask, but Sparrow put a hand over her mouth. 

"Shh...we need to be quiet."

Sparrow eased the door open and padded across the floor in her socks. She took out the small remaining amount of coins that Jem had given her and left them on the table. It wasn't much, but perhaps it would help Caris get over the fact that she had been left with more hungry mouths to feed. She turned to go back to Tekla, and accidentally knocked over a bottle on the edge of the table.

"S...Sparrow? Is that you?" Zed's voice was sleepy, as if he wasn't fully awake yet.

Sparrow picked up the bottle slowly and laid it back down on the table. "Yeah, I had to use the toilet..."

Zed peered at her in the grey light that was filtering through the gaps around the edge of the shutters. "Are you...dressed already?"

Sparrow walked quickly to the door and opened it. Zed stumbled out of the bed and reached for his jumper, struggling into it as he walked. "You're leaving me behind, aren't you?" He stopped when he saw just Tekla out in the hall and his eyes widened in realisation. "No, you're leaving us ALL behind." 

Grabbing Tekla's hand, Sparrow unlatched the outer door. "Just go back to bed."

"But Sparrow..." he started to say but stopped when he heard the kitchen door opening, and turned around to see Caris wrapped in a shawl and holding a lamp.

"What is going on here?" She raised the lamp and looked over Zed's shoulder at Sparrow and Tekla. Jem appeared at the top of the stairs, surrounded by the others. "Is everything alright? What's going on?"

"Kitchen. Now." Caris ordered, and stalked off to put the kettle on the hob.

Sparrow and Tekla reluctantly shuffled through to the kitchen, standing awkwardly by the door. The others burst in.

"You were going to leave us behind." Dee said reproachfully.

"Never mind that - you were going to dump this lot on me!" Caris exclaimed, slamming the cups down on the table.

"You'll be better off here..." Sparrow explained to Dee, then turned to Caris. "And I left money on the table to help."

"Why do you get to decide what's better for us?" Bee asked, "You never asked us what we wanted to do."

"We want to go with you." Zed said quietly.

"You can't leave in the middle of the night anyway." Jem sat down at the table and patted the bench next to her. "Sit down, girlie, and we'll talk it over." 

"There's nothing to talk about!" Sparrow said. "Tekla and me need to find our dad, but no one else needs to come."

The piercing whistle of the kettle broke the tension in the room. Sparrow sat down as Caris poured the hot water into the teapot. Tekla crawled into Caris's bed and fell asleep, bag still on her back. Rat sat underneath the table.

"Why don't we ask your friends what they want to do?" Jem suggested.

"We want to go with you." Zed repeated, "Don't we, Bee?"

"Well I don't want to be left behind."

"That settles it, then." Caris said. "You can all leave together in the morning, at a sensible time. We'll see if one of the traders can take you where you need to go."

Sparrow stood up and hugged Caris. Caris looked surprised, then pushed Sparrow gently away. "Whatever it takes to get you lot out of my way."

***

 Behind the square where the market had been held was an open space, filled with all kinds of different vehicles, from horse-drawn carts to canvas covered trucks like the one the soldiers had. The drivers and traders stood clustered around a stall that was serving food and hot drinks. Caris told the kids to stay put while she went over to talk with them, and came back with a young man wearing an oil stained blue boiler suit over his clothes.

"This is Mattie. I cured his granda's cough last winter so he's going to take you to just outside your Exchange City, aren't you, Mattie?"

Mattie nodded, "I guess so, Ms Caris. This all of 'em?"

"Yep. Don't lose any now." Caris watched as they all clambered into the back of Mattie's open truck.

***

The road was bumpy and pitted with potholes. Sparrow and the others were jostled around in the back of the truck, sliding from one side to the other. Tekla and Rat thought it was great fun, and the older kids relished not having to walk.

"This would have taken us ages..." Sparrow reflected.

"What's that?" Mattie called over his shoulder from the front.

"Thanks for taking us, Mr Mattie." Sparrow said.

"Just Mattie is fine. No problem, I've got to pick up a shipment from the trading post out there anyway. Might as well have some passengers on the road out."

 "This is better than the horses!" Zed said, looking over the sides of the truck at the scenery whizzing by them.

They drove all through the morning, only stopping briefly to wolf down some food that Caris and Jem had packed for them. Mattie had a sandwich and some water from a battered metal canister. Then it was back on the road. They were driving along winding roads, with high hedges on either side, the bushes almost forming a tunnel above their heads. Occasionally there would be a gap where they could see overgrown fields of long waving grass, dotted with the last of the summer flowers.

They reached a long stretch of road where they could see far ahead. It looked like something was blocking the road in the distance.

"Maybe a fallen tree..." Mattie said,  "That happens along this way sometimes."

When they got closer they saw that the tree was indeed blocking the road. It seemed to have been cut down and left there. "Nothing to do but find a way round it for now."

He reversed back and turned off into a side road on the right. It was a farm track, rutted and full of holes, with the skeletons of tractors and large machinery visible in the fields. As they drove up the road to where the farm buildings turned into a large courtyard, Mattie slowed the truck right down, and turned round to face the kids, his arm over the seat.

"See that canvas tarp in the back? You guys get under that for now and lie low. An' if I tell you to go, you slip down and run back to that old tree as fast as you can. Follow the road and you should reach the trading post by the time it gets dark." He turned back and put both hands on the wheel, muttering, "Might be nothing but better safe than sorry..."

Dee pulled the tarp out and helped Sparrow to spread it over them all. The truck inched towards the courtyard. Suddenly it stopped. They heard the door open, and Mattie getting out, the crunch of his boots on the gravel. Underneath the tarp it was hard to work out what was going on. Sparrow was crouched down, her arms around Tekla, holding her still. Even breathing in and out seemed to make the canvas shift, and she tried holding her breath. Her heart was beating in her ears and if she closed her eyes she could see stars.

"GO. Go now!" Mattie's voice was close, as if he'd come back a few steps. He slapped the side of the truck. "I said go!"

Pushing Tekla out of the way, Sparrow fumbled for the catch that let the back of the truck down. It fell with a bump and a rattle of the chain that held it. She scratched her knees as she slid over the floor, and then out into the open over the end of the truck and fell onto the stony ground. She heard yelling coming from the courtyard as she pulled Tekla and Rat down from the back. Dee and Zed slid out next, and Bee came out slowly, her legs reaching for the security of the ground before she pushed off from the edge.

Dee and Zed each took one of Bee's hands and ran along the road, closely followed by Sparrow half dragging Tekla and Rat. They heard more yelling behind them, and then a single shot filled the air. Sparrow gasped and ran harder than she'd ever run before. Tekla was crying, and Sparrow felt her eyes start to fill with tears too, with sheer desperation. The farm road seemed to stretch before them, as they stumbled along it.

When they reached the fallen tree, they sank down on the far side of it, behind the trunk, hidden in the branches that brushed the road. Sparrow's knee was bleeding and covered in dirt from the back of the truck. She licked her hand and rubbed her kneecap, wincing. Tekla's crying subsided into wide-eyed stares and tearful sniffs. They heard the sound of the truck revving up, more yelling, and then the noise of it driving away and getting fainter in the distance until there was only silence.

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