A mosquito sat with four bent legs on the back of Wesley’s hand. It sunk a long nose under his skin. Its abdomen had a quiet blue shine. He watched it fly off between the bars and out of sight around the cask. Little mosquito bites lined the veins bulging down his forearms. He was flat on his back, hair stuck wet against his forehead, with both feet planted against the cask. He thrust his legs forward, straining all the tension his body could give against the surface. The cask leaned just a finger off the ground and then slammed back against the bars with a loud “Hah.”
He stood. The parts of the ramp he could see were black with mounds of powder. The cask had only lifted a bit, but it lifted nonetheless, for the first time in hours. He’d tried to slide it but it was caught against the back cusp of the alcove. It couldn’t be moved; it had to be toppled.
The girl’s rucksack was just outside his cage. He unzipped it. Queer looking Sheriff clothes sat at the top of the pile—it was that stupid man’s outfit she’d been wearing when she caught him in Hastings. He rifled through the bag’s contents, tossing shirts and items out in search of something he could use for leverage. There was nothing. He took another deep breath. The sound of a poorly played harmonica scratched up from the shack. Down in the valley, drunkards dragged a fallen pine tree out of the swamp and leaned it over the fire with a soupy hiss. A dank smelling fog rose into the air, and within minutes they stood around a spike of red and purple swirls.
He turned back into the cabin. The stench of a lard wax candle sweating down the wick filled the caravan. A yellow spit danced in an amber pool of dead mosquitos. The Vesper map was pinned against the broadside tarp above it. A black streak of ink marked the progress of their journey, smudging more than midway across continent.
“How bad do you want your freedom?” he said through closed teeth, rolling onto his back and digging heels into the barrel. He thrust with all the force in his skeleton. The barrel tilted up off the ground and pushed his spine into the metal floor. He locked his knees. Veins squeezed at his neck. Breaths came in short flashes beneath his ribs. His shins and femur bones felt like bent arrow shafts. Tension pooled in his face and spine, and it felt like his skull filled with blood. A steady trickle of gunpowder fell from the barrel. And continued falling. His legs shook uncontrollably. There was one crack in his lower back and then another. The stream of gunpowder gushed out of the barrel in black waterfalls down the ramp. Blood drummed full in his temples. His shoulder blades pressed into the bars behind him, but he held. He bit into his bottom lip until he tasted blood, and held. Each moment the cask became lighter, more bearable on his frame. He held it, held it and held it, and then he held it.
The cask creaked forward over the alcove, then fell all at once. The whole caravan groaned in relief on its rear axle as the barrel somersaulted down the ramp. The cage gate swung open. Wesley remained on his back, gasping for air. A few minutes went by. The lightheadedness faded. He sucked in a chest full of air and slowly let it out of his nose, then lifted his chin onto his chest and looked out over the swamp. His legs wobbled as he pulled himself up the cage bars, then gave out. He fell forward out of the cage, face splatting in gunpowder on the ramp. For a moment, he almost slept there. But he lifted his face out of the black mound of powder and opened red eyes. Wesley crawled down the ramp, blinking tears from his vision, and rested his forehead in sweaty hands, face down in gunpowder.
“Hah,” he said.
He pushed onto his knees and tried dusting the powder off his shirt, but it left a grey smear all down the chest—at least it covered the piss stain. His hands, forearms, everything, was sweat-stuck black with the powder; he could even taste the metallic sting on his lips. He was going to try and stand, again, when he noticed a noise growing from the darkness. He wasn’t sure which side of the darkness, but it echoed down the Vesper trail. The noise got closer, faster. Galloping. Wesley pushed himself back up the ramp by his palms, drawing the curtains closed on the back hatch and blowing out the candle. He closed the door to his own cage and hugged his knees inside the iron bars.
The mules cowered backwards in their ties, shaking the lantern off the bench with a smash. Luckily he’d blown it out. He looked out the front of the caravan. Two giant bears slowed to a stop. Metal reign hooks dug deep into the corners of their mouths. Black claws the size of daggers gripped into the dirt where they stood. Atop their heads were massive racks of antlers, like glowing blue hands floating in the darkness.
A long shadow bled through the curtains in the bonfire’s glow, it put its hands on its hips and looked at the revelers in the valley.
“Hah,” the figure said.
The shadow turned slim on its side, then returned to its exact shape—Wesley wasn’t sure if he was looking at the back or front of the figure.
“To whom… does this caravan belong?” The words sent heat down Wesley’s spine. It was the airy annunciation of Jimmy Gallows; a hoarse whisper that carried with such projection that it sounded like he spoke in a marble church.
Wesley didn’t move. He only breathed enough to not suffocate. The crickets had gone silent, which made the quiet footsteps louder.
A bald head with firelight gleaning up the back of its scalp pushed through the curtains. It was a man in a dark robe. This was not Gallows. The bald man’s eyes shifted around the caravan. He held Wesley’s glare in mutual, desperate terror.
“Nobody’s inside,” the bald man said, winking cautiously at Wesley. “Just your moonshine shipment and some spiders.”
“Eck,” Gallows said beside the tarp. “Spiders terrify me.”
And then everything went ear-stabbing loud for a cluttered and confused moment. The force shook dead pine needles loose from the trees above, and the pressure sent the curtains of his alcove slapping inward like windsocks. Wesley looked out to the flash. The valley snapped into brightness. A wing of orange flame plumed up from the ridge in a mushroom of heat. The fireball burst against the treetops above, scattering small tails of flame on vines and fungus on the forest ceiling. The ropes of a few hanging bodies burned, dropping bodies hard onto the peninsula. The explosion echoed not once, or twice, but three times down both arms of the Vesper trail. The whole damned forest heard it, he was damned sure. With ringing ears he drew the curtains shut, but not before seeing the black trail of gunpowder slithering down the entire ridge.
A red ash wafted through the slit in the curtains, fluttering in crippled spins before landing at his feet. A charred Maple tree sapling spun to a stop, like a wrecked propeller.