Day One Hundred Thirty Five
I started a fire and began rummaging in my pack for something to eat. I hadn’t dug very deeply the day before, but now as I felt around inside the leather bag, my fingers encountered an unfamiliar object. It was hard and lumpy, wrapped in a knotted cloth. I pulled it out.
It was the money and jewelry I had given Rachel.
Suddenly I remembered the boy who had come to the house with a basket the night before I left. The basket had contained a note and something else I hadn’t been able to see clearly. At the time, I thought it was just some neighborly transaction, but now I understood. Rachel had sent my money back and asked Charles to give it to me. Maybe in her note she had even asked him to forgive me.
Just as I had yesterday and the day before, I questioned my sanity for leaving such good people. But then I willed myself not to think about it. I could always return if things didn’t work out in Kentucky. And now, hopefully, I would be able to afford the price of a safe boat trip down the river. I had been worried about how I would pay for it, trusting that things would work out somehow.
I set out in an optimistic mood, soon falling in with others who were heading east.
“So what’s the town like?” I asked a man.
“Very nice. Boats full of goods stop every day.”
“What does it cost to go on a boat? A big one, I mean. I want to go south, to Kentucky.”
He scrunched up his face in thought. “Well, it depends on a lot of things, but generally you can do it for about five thousand dollars.”
I nearly fell off my horse in shock, until I remembered that he was probably talking about new dollars. “I don’t have dollars,” I said. “Do they take anything else?”
“Depends on the captain.” He eyed me from under the brim of his hat. “What’ve you got, exactly?”
Something about his attitude made me nervous. “Nothing,” I lied. “I was thinking maybe they’d let me work.”
He laughed. “On the river? Not a chance, unless you’ve got credentials. But I’m sure you can find something to do in town. The market is busy all the time, and it’s easy to pick up work there.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said. “Thanks.” I kicked Flecha and moved away.
A little later I fell in with a couple who seemed to have all their worldly goods in a wagon drawn by two heavy draft horses. They told me they were moving to town.
“Three years in a row our crop has failed,” the woman said. “We were going to try again this year, but when we went to plant our spring seed, half of it had rotted.”
“And then our sheep took sick, and the well water started coming up a funny color,” her husband added.
“It tasted wrong, too,” the woman said.
“We’re not really country folk anyway,” the man went on. “When the war ended, I decided to take free land instead of severance pay, and give farming a go. We thought we could be self-sufficient out there, but it’s been one disaster after another.”
“At least in town, we know how to make a living,” the woman said.
I stayed with this couple for a little while, but their wagon moved too slowly for my taste, so I went on.
I got to the town in late afternoon and was pleasantly surprised. It was busy, clean, and prosperous-looking.
I asked where the markets were, and was directed to the eastern side of town, where sidewalks were set up with long tables of goods. Shoppers made their way from vendor to vendor, poring over herbs, sugar, medicine, woven rugs, and fresh fish and vegetables. It didn’t take me long to find some coffee, which the seller swore was “just up from Gran Columbia, taken straight off the boat and roasted this very morning!”
It sounded like an exaggeration to me, but the coffee smelled heavenly. I paid the man’s price.
“So where’s the river?” I asked. “And how do I get a ticket for a boat?”
“River’s just two blocks away, on the other side of those buildings” he said, pointing. “Can’t miss it. And as for a boat, what kind are you talking about?”
Of course not all boats were the same. How stupid of me. “I need to cross the river and get to Kentucky.”
The man explained that I could do that any number of ways. “You’d be most comfortable on a paddleboat. Some are coal-fired, some run on diesel, but either one would get you where you’re going. If you want to do it on the cheap, though, there’s always people on the waterfront who’ll sell you passage on their raft or whatever other kind of boat they’ve got.”
“That sounds like a lot to figure out,” I said. “I don’t suppose there’s a bridge?” I asked.
He laughed. “You want a bridge?” He took a scrap of paper and a pencil out of a pocket and drew a crude map. “Here you go. You’ll see your bridge.”
I wondered what he meant by that, but couldn’t ask because now other people were crowding the booth, wanting to buy. So I followed his instructions down to the waterfront, where I was truly awed and impressed at what I saw. The river was huge, bigger than any river I had ever seen. If flowed down its banks like a snake pouring itself into its hole, deceptively smooth, but with a sense that danger lurked just beneath the rippled surface.
I could’ve stared for hours, but it was growing dark, and there was no time to lose. I followed a different road north around a small bend in the river, and sure enough, there was my bridge, or what was left of it. No wonder the man at the market had smirked!
I wandered around for a little after that, not sure what to do next. There were a lot of docks extending out into the water. They seemed to be for small boats that surely weren’t the kind Rachel had told me about. But I looked in vain for anything larger and finally settled for watching the activity of the fishing boats. It looks like there’s a lot to know about working on the water.
As the sky grew darker, I realized I had to make a decision about where I would sleep for the night. I still hadn’t found out what a boat trip would cost, and I couldn’t stay where I was now. Although the water was beautiful and endlessly fascinating, it seemed like a rough area, shabby, and with almost as many bars as there were people.
So I went back toward the center of town. But I had a dilemma here, too. Any lodging I might find was likely to be expensive. Why hadn’t I tried to make friends with someone at the market before they closed for the evening? How stupid of me!
I hated to backtrack, but going into the countryside and camping seemed like my best option. So I found the road I had come in on and started retracing my steps. I was on the edge of town, scanning the tree line and wondering how far I would have to go to find a safe place, when I came upon the couple from earlier in the day, with their heavy wagon and plodding draft horses.
I trotted up to them, and after an initial flurry of greetings, they explained that they knew of an affordable place to stay, and said to follow them. And so I’ve ended up safe for the night in a run-down suburban hotel. The owner is a pretty brown-skinned widow named Sumitra. She says she’s of Indian heritage, but she doesn’t look like any Indian I’ve ever seen.
After I got settled in my room, which was musty, but better than the cabin from last night, I went to find Sumitra and ask about the boats. She explained everything to me, and even gave me a map of the waterfront. I was in the wrong place this evening, or I would’ve seen the riverboats, she assured me.
She went on to explain that different boats have different fares, and you can haggle with almost all of them. “So ask around and stick to your price,” she said. “You’ll find someone to carry you.”
I thanked her for the information, then looked around the threadbare lobby. “So how long does the electricity stay on?”
“Out here? Until about eight. Closer to the water, sometimes until ten.”
I glanced out the window. “And what about food? Is there anyplace nearby. . .”
Sumitra gave a laugh that sounded like the jingling of little bells. “Only if you want to go back downtown or to the waterfront.”
I was tired and not particularly happy with this answer. I wanted Flecha to rest, and I didn’t feel much like walking alone at night in a strange town.
Soemthing of my feelings must’ve shown on my face, because Sumitra said, “You can eat with me, if you like. As a friend, no charge.”
I hesitated, but only for a moment. Her big dark eyes were kind, her smile broad and welcoming. “Come back in an hour. You like spicy food?”
My eyes must have lit up like one of the light bulbs in the lobby ceiling, because she laughed that silvery laugh again.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” I promised.
So I came back to my room, washed the road dust off myself, and put on my pink dress for the occasion. And now, standing in front of the dim, water-stained mirror, I have to admit I feel pretty festive. I can’t wait to see what kind of food she’s making. I’m definitely enjoying being back on the road again.
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