Halfway down South Mountain, in a sharp left turn, Jasper felt the wagon’s traction give way. The iron-rimmed wheels slid on snow and ice and the wagon began to drift sideways toward the edge of the cliff. Jasper risked a quick look and snapped his eyes back to the road in horror. He damned himself for driving too fast in his haste to get away from Hawley’s body. Had he traded a slow, almost certain death in prison for a swift demise not a mile from his liberation?
Jasper yelled, “Yah” and the horses jumped in surprise. He pulled on the wheel brake as he loosened the reins to make the wagon drag against the increased pull of the horses. The wheel moaned as Jasper put all of his weight against the braking lever. Smoke rose from the brake. Just another few seconds.
Jasper steered the horses to the side of the road as they raced onward. The rear wheels spun dangerously close to the edge, spewing up a white curtain as the outside wheels plowed through a foot of virgin snow that no other traveler would have been foolhardy enough to drive through. The added drag of the deeper snow began to work. The wagon stabilized. The horses pulled the wagon out of its skid.
As the road straightened, Jasper reined in the horses and pulled hard on the wheel brake. He sat puffing in the still air and watched steam rise in lazy tendrils off the backs of the geldings. “Damn, Jasper, this is no way to end it,” he mumbled to himself.
The bright day had gotten warmer. No longer in a hurry, Jasper pulled down the collar of the greatcoat Ethan had given him, clucked at the horses, and released the brake.
Once off the hill, he covered the remaining four miles to in short order. He did not stop. Someone might recognize the Anspach’s wagon and horses. Jasper pushed on to the much larger settlement of Fredericktowne where he could lose himself in the crowds.
It was not even when Jasper trotted the horses through the center of Fredericktowne. To be safe, he continued to the eastern edge of the city, believing that the Anspachs probably did their business on the western side that was closest to . Jasper found a livery stable and commenced to a leisurely haggle that resulted in him riding away on a serviceable used saddle strapped to one of the geldings.
Jasper stopped at a general store and half an hour later tied several brown-paper bundles behind his saddle. They contained wool pants, shirts, and socks and a new pair of black boots. He’d bought a gunbelt which now held a heavily used .44 for which Jasper had gladly parted with one of the Mormon gold pieces. The Colt Ethan had given him now nestled in his saddlebag.
As Jasper finished securing his parcels, a gruff voice addressed him from behind. “Hey, theah, mistuh.” Jasper turned. Before him shuffled an old man whose pale, pious face sported a ridiculously bulbous nose that glowed cherry red in the cold. The red of his nose matched the bloodshot eyes that peered out from under a crumpled gray stovepipe hat. This walking scarecrow wore a gray suit so wrinkled that the sleeves and legs rode up several inches from the man’s paper-white wrists and ankles. The man’s left hand held a bottle in which a few inches of amber fluid sloshed as he gestured with both skinny arms.
Jasper cackled at the sight. “Hey, old-timer, looks like somebody sat on you.”
“You a liah, a cheatahr ’n you doan kno God.”
Jasper laughed and replied, “Guess I’m in the right town.” Before he could get sucked into a conversation, Jasper swung up onto his horse and trotted it away, leaving the gesticulating drunk standing in the middle of the muddy street.
He stopped at a tonsorial parlor. After taking two bits in silver from Jasper, an old Chinese woman with skin like wrinkled parchment led him into a low shed of wood slats at the back of the property. Jasper stooped to enter a small room dominated by a huge iron pot that sat in the center of the dirt floor. Two feet away stood a blazing wood stove. On top of the stove sat a massive copper kettle with a spigot attached to a length of iron pipe that extended into the cauldron. The old woman turned the spigot and a stream of boiling water flowed into the big pot. She hobbled out the door and screeched a string of incomprehensible gibberish. Two boys scrambled in toting buckets of water almost as big as they were. They couldn’t have been more than six or seven, but they hustled in and out and, with the help of a stepladder, dumped their loads into the makeshift bathtub until they had it half filled with water.
When they finished, the old woman returned and felt the water. She turned off the spigot and flicked her thin hands at Jasper. “You bath now.” She handed Jasper a small tin pot that contained something that looked like curdled milk.
“Soapee-soap. Me makee.”
Jasper dubiously set the pot on a wall shelf and dropped a parcel of new clothes onto a little bench next to the bath. He began unbuttoning his clothes as the old woman closed the door. When his battle grays lay in a heap on the floor, Jasper stared at them for a long moment. Was he really doing this? Was he out of the war? Just like that? All he had to do was shed his skin like a snake and the past fell behind him?
Using his shirt like a pot-holder, Jasper yanked open the stove’s heavy iron door. A blast of reddish light bathed his naked skin with heat. He threw his pants and shirt and longjohns into the gaping stove mouth and watched them turn black, then burst into dancing yellow flames. The stove devoured his past as Jasper fingered the last brass button on his uniform jacket, now tarnished to a dull brown. He yanked it free of the fabric, then threw the jacket into the fire and kicked the door shut. He set the button on the bench that held his clothes bundle.
The water felt hot, but not too hot as Jasper lowered his thin body into the bath pot. He couldn’t stretch out, but the cauldron was deep enough that he could float with only his face above the surface. He could not remember feeling anything so luxurious for a long time. The heat leeched the stiffness from his bones and for a little while Jasper didn’t think about anything.
An hour later, Jasper emerged from the bath shack in his new clothes and boots. In the white-tiled shop that faced the street, Jasper reclined in a barber’s chair as the old Chinese woman first cut Jasper’s hair to a respectable length, then attacked his jumble of beard. His face had not known a straight-razor for a long time. When he peeked into the wall mirror, he almost fainted. He had not just shed his skin, he had been reborn. He winked at the stranger whose face now looked ten years younger.
While in the bath, Jasper had thought long and hard about his next course of action. The prospect of holing up in had seemed less appealing. From the talk he heard in the general store, Jasper learned that federal troops permanently bivouacked in the city to quell the riots and general orneriness of the population there. Though Jasper looked prosperous now and nothing like his former self, he faced prison if he got caught. Going to would simply be hiding. Jasper didn’t like the idea of hiding. He had spent too much time hiding under that barn and had almost gotten his neck stretched for it.
With an hour of daylight left, Jasper rode west out of Fredericktowne and in checked into a small inn. Early Friday morning, he would set off for . He had made a decision.