Written by A. LaFaye
Illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
A Breakfast Serials Story
The Story So Far: Hiding in a tree, Iah and Vinny figure they are doomed for sure when one of Rattler Cole’s men looks up and calls out, “Found them!”
“That’s a darn beehive, you idiot. Now get tracking.” And off they went.
Whew. They hadn’t found us.
God had been watching over us. He let that storm run us right into a snag that set off the panic that gave us enough cover to go overboard. The rain that followed mucked up our tracks, so they couldn’t hunt us. Maybe all those folks praying had brought us good blessings.
But come dawn, we needed a new plan.
Before the sun peeked over the horizon, I had one ready. Vinny and I would hide in the cargo they’d salvage and send to Fort Union. From there I could send word to her father.
Setting our plan into motion, we sneaked right to the edge of the woods. That put us within spitting distance of the folks gathered on the shore. Smelling the musty wet wool of their clothes, I could hear murmuring about mantel clocks, deeds, and all the other things they’d tried to keep safe on the voyage.
Mr. Carroll paced like a caged cat, shouting orders to his crew members as they dragged cargo off the lifeboats. I spotted Mr. Bertrand’s crate right off, just a pitched ball away from us. Bertrand spotted it too. He went busting over there.
“I must inspect it!” he shouted to Mike.
“No, sir. You can’t.”
“All cargo must be inspected by the clerk before it’s released to passengers, Mr. Bertrand,” said Mr. Davis, coming ashore.
“I see.” Mr. Bertrand nodded. Too exhausted to protest, he wandered off in a daze.
“Good riddance.” Mr. Mike shook his head.
“Forget Bertrand, Michael. Find Iah!”
“That boy is nothing but a floater by now, Davis.”
“Shut up and look!” Mr. Davis shouted as he set to inspecting the cargo.
We had to find a way into a crate without being seen. I made a run for the next one and tore my sleeve on a nail.
“Darn blame it.”
“It’s just a shirt.”
“My mama sewed this.” To wear it made me feel closer to her.
“Then she can sew you another one. Now, get a move on.”
Vinny told the truth, but Betrand returned before we could move. I couldn’t keep my thoughts together with him hollering, “Mr. Davis, how am I to get my china to Fort Union from here?”
“Fort Union is only . . .” Mr. Davis started to answer, but Vinny pulled me away, asking, “Did he just say Fort Union?”
“That’s where we’re headed?” she said with a smile big enough to bridge a river. “My daddy’s near about kin to the fella who took over that fort. Get me there and you might as well deliver me to my bed, because he’ll see that I’m home before the week is out. Cole or no Cole.”
Click-clack. She put my thoughts back on track.
“Wait here.” I slipped away, checked to be sure Mr. Davis had Mr. Bertrand nice and distracted, then snagged a crowbar.
Keeping our eyes on the men moving among the trees, we headed for Betrand’s china. That crate was big enough to hold a bull, and they’d be sure to keep it safe for the trip to Fort Union.
Working as quick and quiet as I could, I used that crowbar to chip a few holes in the side. I would have given a month of Sunday brunches at Maxine’s for a hurdy-gurdy drill right then.
“They’re getting closer!” Vinny gave me a push.
“You want to breathe, don’t you?” I said, but when I heard those men crunching through the underbrush, I gave up on the airholes and set to prying the crate open. As soon as we had enough room, we snaked into it.
“Dig like there’s gold in China,” I told Vinny, and we pushed through the straw along the edge of the crate, cracking plates and wondering when we’d get our next breath of air.
Groping along the side, I finally found a hole. With my head grazing the lid of the crate and my knees still bent, I got my mouth up to that hole, spit out straw, and pulled in fresh air. Turning back, I said to Vinny, “Over here, over here!” while fishing with my hands for another hole.
Vinny popped out of that straw and drew in a good swallow of air.
Pulling ourselves to the bottom, we yanked the straw over us so no one could see where we hid. Vinny kept struggling in the hay like she expected to find a trapdoor down there.
“Cut it out,” I said. “They’re going to be inspecting this crate soon.”
But Vinny kept moving about until I felt her hand go over mine, then she finally stayed still. Poor kid. She was just scared. Me too. I held her hand, waiting.
The pop of crate lids told me that Mr. Davis moved down the line, checking the cargo. He opened a crate, riffled around, then shouted, “Looks fine on the Michelin crate.”
I counted the opening crates like minutes as he moved closer. By this odd clock, it took him near to an hour to get to us.
And to think Vinny had been all tied up in that crate for days. The idea of it made me itch inside and out. No food. No water. And living in a world of straw. What had I been thinking? I guess I’d been thinking that if those men found us, I’d be dead and Vinny would be a prisoner again. And from the voices I heard, I knew Cole’s men were close, real close. Our enemies had us in a vice, what with Mr. Davis checking the crate next to us and those gun-packing goons just a shout away. We could be discovered at any time now. Any time.
(To be continued.)
Text copyright © 2006 A. LaFaye
Illustrations copyright © 2006 Peter Catalanotto
Reprinted by permission of Breakfast Serials Inc.