Act XI: "You Are A Stubborn Man."
It was growing dark when Illya saw a young man of the tribe run to Favia's campfire, and speak with the leader as he gasped for breath. In the failing light, Illya saw Favia look their direction and lock eyes with him. The old gypsy's eyes shone with the reflected firelight. He didn't need to say anything.
Illya turned quickly and looked for Trudy. She was sitting with some other women, learning how to braid a belt like they wore, while the others prepared dinner. Kuryakin stepped up and took her elbow. She looked up into his eyes and knew it was serious.
"What?" she said softly, getting to her feet.
"It's show time," Illya responded nodding towards the wagon.
"Oh, God!" She said simply as her stomach lurched to her throat and she hurried behind him.
Illya was on his knees removing the floorboards that covered the hiding spot when Trudy got in the wagon. She had been wearing the gypsy clothes, but needed to fill out her disguise with the things they had discussed. Extra padding and some charcoal lines were needed to add age.
"After this adventure I won't need makeup," she mumbled. "I'm aging from fright alone."
Illya was standing in the well of the false bottom. He hesitated, and took a moment to take her arm. "You are doing very well," he said firmly to her. "You'll do fine. Are you all right?"
She took a moment to let out a shaky breath, nod and smile. Her eyes were still full of fear, but he could see she was under control. He squinted at her face. "Here," he said, taking the bit of charcoal. Trudy sat on the floor as he stood in the well and touched up her age lines with a shaky hand. "Now cover up the floor boards with something. Some sacks, or boxes or something after I'm closed in, then go sit around the fire. The bad lighting will only add to the this disguise!"
Trudy nodded nervously, and smiled a weak smile. "Are you going to be all right in there?"
It was his turn to nod. "Yes. Now let's get moving. I hear vehicles." He tucked the device under his arm and lay flat in the meager space. He had to bend his neck and knees slightly sideways to fit. He helped as much as he could to replace the boards, but Trudy finished the job and drug several sacks of onions and a couple of heavy boxes over the loose boards. Just before stepping down from the wagon, she grabbed a couple of onions.
When she saw Asikov at the fire it was all she could do to keep from fleeing. Her nervous shaking actually helped her disguise as an old woman as she shuffled along to the fire and blended in with the rest of the women. They made room and she began chopping the onion along with the other food preparers.
Asikov obviously understood Favia as he spoke, and wasted no time in having his patrol search the wagons as the old man protested. Asikov waved him off to a subordinate, and strolled around the wagons, peeking inside as his troops searched each one. He studied the women at the fire, and came closer.
He was right next to Trudy when Maska stepped next to him and dumped a handful of onions on a very hot iron skillet. The first of the fumes hit him full in the face and his eyes began to water immediately. He swore at the woman as he backed off, rubbing his eyes, and Maska began to apologize profusely. She offered him a towel, which he threw back at her. Then she offered him a small bottle of what Trudy thought was liquor, and he took it with a disgusted snort. He handed the bottle to his subordinate, and walked back to the wagons. Maska turned back to the fire with her head bowed and a small grin, looked at Trudy and winked. Trudy had to duck her head to hide her laugh, and was glad of the darkness.
After almost an hour, the men finished with the wagons. Trudy had held her breath when Illya's wagon was searched, and let it out slowly as the patrol moved on. Asikov lectured Favia sharply, and signaled his men to move on.
As they got in the trucks, Joseph came trotting over to Trudy and spoke in heavily accented English. "The General says that there are two other gypsy tribes in the area he needs to search. We are lucky this route is rather busy this time of year."
"I need to get Illya out." Joseph stopped her as she started towards the wagon.
"Not yet," he said quietly. "Our watchers will let us know when they are gone completely."
The next hour seemed to crawl by Trudy sat with the other women and pretended to eat and clean up after the patrol. All she wanted to do was lunge to the wagon and get him out of the cramped space, but she was able to control herself until word came in from the watchers that the patrols were, indeed, gone. She didn't need to know their language to figure out when it was clear; Maska just beat her to the wagon steps.
The women shoved everything aside and plucked up the boards, then reached down for Illya. He wasn't moving too well. He had to sit for several minutes after he finally got his neck straightened, massaging his arms. His legs seemed shaky as he struggled to his feet. Trudy noticed Maska's eyes looking him over with concern, and she tried to get a look at where the bullet wound was, but the stubborn Russian pushed her off. He snapped something at her that Trudy knew was "I'm fine!" in the gypsy language. She'd heard that tone thrown in her direction many times. Maska simply nodded and moved to clean up the wagon.
"You are a stubborn man," she said lowly.
"So I've been told," he replied darkly
Illya was unresponsive and aloof after the searching incident. Trudy decided to try and sleep after the evening meal was finished, noting that Kuryakin didn't eat much. She wanted to check his temperature, but knew she'd better keep away. Soon they were both asleep in the wagon, a bare minimum of words spoken since the patrol left.
The next morning, Joseph wakened them at the crack of dawn with some hard rolls, cheese and tea. "We must go now," he said softly, leading them to a pair of horses. Favia was waiting to say his farewells, as was Maska, who slipped a bundle of food into her arms, along with a small jar of ointment. No words were needed; Trudy knew who the ointment was for. Favia kissed both of them on both cheeks, and Joseph helped Trudy up on the massive draft horse, bareback, behind Illya. Joseph started off briskly towards the foothills.
As they moved away from the caravan Trudy spotted the young men acting as sentries, one by one. Each stood in plain sight to acknowledge their departure.
"You must tell me the story of how you helped these people," she said, her arms around Illya's waist. "They certainly have a long memory."
She could see his smirk in her mind's eye.
"It's a long story, and I don't like to talk that much," he replied.
"No kidding," she answered with a laugh. "I guess you'll just remain the mystery man." She lay her head on his back, and could feel the lump of cloth over the bullet wound and how hot the back of his neck felt. She also felt him shift his shoulders uncomfortably and knew that he realized exactly what she was doing, but could do nothing about it. Gotcha cornered now, Mr. Kuryakin, she thought smugly.
The horses trotted along smoothly up a valley of the foothills. Soon, the long, gradual slope had them huffing and nodding their heads mightily to make the grade. Eventually they came to a section of the foothills where the train tracks took a wide, sweeping turn uphill. Joseph had them stop in a stand of trees, hidden from view.
"The train slows greatly up this hill and is easily hopped. Not many hop the eastbound train here because there is a station just a few miles away. They usually hop it beyond the station, so you should be fairly safe from search until then. Conceal yourselves well, and you can even ride through the station without a problem. It is a passenger train, with a few cars designated for cargo. We will get you in a cargo car." Joseph's explanation was part English, part Russian, but Trudy was able to understand it all.
"Do people do this often? Hop trains like this?" She asked.
Joseph nodded. "Citizens hop on for short rides to the next town quite often. Not usually for the long haul." Illya had to interpret the last part for her, and she nodded. "We are just in time. Feel the shaking?" Trudy lay her hand flat on the ground like Joseph, and could feel the rumbling. Joseph gathered up the reins. "I am happy to know you," he said with a sharp bow and a grin just as the train could be seen slowly laboring into sight. "I will stay to make sure you are safe."
Trudy and Illya thanked him, gathered their bundles of food along with the other things, and crept up as close as they could to the tracks. The train lumbered up the sweeping turn and past them, and they waited until the leading engines were out of sight.
"There!" Joseph yelled. "Here comes a cargo car! Good luck!"
Illya could see the windows of an approaching car blocked by boxes and other cargo. He pulled on Trudy's arm wordlessly, and they ran out to the tracks and alongside the slow moving car. When the doorway pulled next to them, he pushed Trudy on. She grabbed the step rail and climbed on, then turned to help Kuryakin. He had grabbed the rail right behind her with his good hand, but his grip was slipping. She clamped onto his wrist with both hands and fell back up the stairs, dragging him up. He collapsed on top of her, then rolled aside, gritting his teeth with a hiss. Trudy was already sitting up when she noticed her companion was having difficulty pushing himself to a sit. When he finally was seated next to her, she noticed him rubbing his hands wordlessly, his face a mask.
He caught her look and immediately struggled to his feet. "Let's get inside," he said gruffly.
"You're losing strength in your hands, aren't you?" Trudy accused as they wormed their way into the car. "And don't tell me you're fine. You're not. Are you experiencing numbness in your hands and feet?"
"I'm fine," he snapped as he pushed aside some feed sacks.
"Are you?" she said, a bit louder. "I need to know!" She grabbed his upper arm and made him face her. "Well? Are you?"
The personal wall around him could almost be felt. They locked eyes; hers dark and smoldering, his guarded, frigid blue. They stood that way, breathing heavily, for almost a full minute.
"And what difference would it make if that were so," he finally said quietly, "here and now?"
Trudy blinked. "Well. None, I guess. But I'd like to be prepared if you suddenly are a quadriplegic." She couldn't be sure, but she thought she saw a flicker in his eyes when she said that.
"I could be shot and killed in the next minute, too, Mrs. Kidd. There's nothing you can prepare for, and you know it. Our only focus right now is to get to the coast, and I will get us there barring any other unfortunate events." He turned and continued to make a hiding spot for themselves and their bundles. "Until then, my health is not an issue. Subject closed. Let's stop attacking this dead horse." He pushed aside a bundle of blankets, and looked at her again. His eyes this time were carefully neutral.
She felt her anger drain away when she realized how useless this questioning was, and heaved a big sigh. "That's 'beating a dead horse.' Well, then, I'd say it's story time, then." She plopped down in the little cavern he'd made in the cargo, pleased at his pause and guarded look in her direction. "Tell me about the gypsies and you, Mr. Kuryakin. We have plenty of time now!"