Witchy Winter – Snippet 16

“Brother Onas, do you hear me?”

Chapter Eleven

Kinta Jane rode a mule.

She’d worked for it — improbably, not as a prostitute, but as a seamstress, in the Ohio German hamlet whose name she never learned, where the Stolze Marie had come to dock, the morning after paying a negotiated bribe to the Imperial Ohio Company revenue enforcers somewhat lower than the thirty percent stated tariff, but high enough to send the Company men away in song.

Johannes had laboriously made it clear that the Stolze Marie, of which his uncle was one-fourth owner, was turning around and immediately going back downstream, hoping to get at least one more trip in before the winter made it impracticable. As it happened, there were no boats scheduled to head upstream for a couple of weeks.

Kinta Jane could station herself on the single rickety dock jutting out into the river and wave at passing boats, hoping one would pick her up, or she could find another way.

The Meekses at the General Store & Dried Goods hadn’t exactly taken her in, but when Mrs. Meeks learned, through reciprocal pantomiming that Kinta Jane knew how to use a needle — it taking Mrs. Meeks several days to understand that Kinta Jane could hear perfectly, and was only unable to speak — she put the Choctaw to work making dresses to a pattern, giving her two meals a day and an old blanket on the floor beside the Franklin Stove. That device’s presence, more than anything else, told Kinta Jane she was getting closer to Philadelphia.

The Meekses bathed every night in well-water heated on the Franklin Stove. Kinta Jane washed herself every morning in a torrent behind the store. Initially she thought Mr. Meeks had some grudge against the stream, until she overheard him giving directions to a traveling customer and realized that the body of water was in fact named the Goddamn River.

Kinta Jane considered the presence of the Franklin Stove a cheerful omen. It almost made up for the fact that she was awoken each morning by Mr. Meeks, unlocking the shop door and announcing his presence to his neighbors by shouting “Meeks shall inherit the earth!” at the top of his lungs.

The squirrel-faced shopmistress had also promised three pennies a day, payable at the end of a week, by which time Kinta Jane would have stitched enough dresses for herself and her four gangly daughters for a year. Kinta Jane accepted, planning to pay her eventual fare upstream with cash.

The town had a small subscription Bibliothek, a board-built building over stone foundations, in the style the locals referred to as Klappholz. Kinta Jane thought if she earned enough pennies, she might even spend one to borrow a little reading material, maybe a little poetry by that mad English godi, Blake.

Kinta Jane chose the Meekses’ store because she understood spoken English, and because Mr. Meeks hadn’t been aboard the Stolze Marie. The German keelboatmen generally didn’t buy from the Meekses, but from German-speaking merchants in town.

Kinta Jane had felt immense pride when Mrs. Meeks had taken the first dress she’d sewn and hung it on her wall. She’d taken Kinta Jane by the hand and led her into the Meeks family’s rectangular living space behind the store, a single large room under a loft. There, Kinta Jane had seen Mrs. Meeks’s finest dresses, what she kept referring to as “Sunday best,” as well as the Sunday best of her daughters, hanging on the wall as decoration. And telling Kinta Jane how pleased she was with her craft, Mrs. Meeks had taken down her old Sunday dress from where it hung pinned to the wall over the dining table, and carefully pinned into its place a new striped blue gingham frock.

The week was not yet up when one of the keelboatmen, Karl, had come into the store. Karl was broad-shouldered and also broad-bellied, a widower and a heavy drinker, and he’d had more than a beer or two before coming into the Meekses’. After purchasing several yards of cloth and a sack of dried beans, he’d seen Kinta Jane, sitting beside the Franklin Stove and stitching away. Karl had done as he would have aboard the Stolze Marie, pantomiming the services he would like from Kinta Jane.

Kinta Jane looked away as if she didn’t know the German, but Mrs. Meeks and two of her daughters saw it all. When Mr. Meeks came roaring out of the back room demanding satisfaction from his ill-mannered customer, his rage quickly metamorphosed into a short conversation in German with Karl, after which Kinta Jane’s time with the Meekses came to an abrupt end.

“We’re New Light,” Mrs. Meeks had said, pantomiming something wiggling over her head that might have been intended to be the sun. “New Light, you understand? We greet our brothers and sisters with the holy kiss. And besides, you know how it is . . . we got to maintain appearances. Be respectable, as the community sees us.”

Kinta Jane shrugged and held out her hand, palm up, asking for payment.

Mrs. Meeks shook her head. “I don’t understand, dear.”

Kinta Jane showed three fingers and slapped them into her palm six times. Three pennies times six days.

“We couldn’t possibly,” Mrs. Meeks said. “For starters, I’m mighty concerned as to how the money would git used. Once a woman has fallen, you know, she takes to liquor and wild dance and worse. I couldn’t in good conscience give you that money, dear. It might could make your life worse!”

“Meeks shall inherit the earth!” Mr. Meeks shouted by way of ratification.

So Kinta Jane had stolen the mule, along with a ham, the basket of sewing supplies she’d been using, and a short carbine Mr. Meeks had kept after his militia service as a young man. Whether it was shock at her brazen theft, lack of imagination to see that she’d been the perpetrator, or guilt at the knowledge they’d cheated her, the Meekses didn’t follow, and sent no one in pursuit.

Maybe they just didn’t care. The mule was old, and the gun older.

The ham was the most valuable thing she’d stolen. It would last her a week, if she was careful. There was more flesh on the ham than on the mule.

Kinta Jane rode north, asking for directions to Free Imperial Youngstown. Though Youngstown lay more east than north, she kept north, and kept asking directions. She wanted to get away from German Ohio, which lay along the river, and away from Appalachee, which lay beyond it to the south. She feared getting caught, but more than that she enjoyed the feel of land she’d never seen before, unencumbered by the distasteful memories of life with the Meekses.

She soon crossed into one of the Moundbuilder kingdoms. No wall or even sign that Kinta Jane noticed marked the change — under the Compact, travel among the various powers of the Empire was supposed to be free, so other than those put up by the Imperials, there were generally no toll-gates or walls. But in the course of a single day’s ride, the buildings moved from the high-peaked half-timber buildings the Germans favored, second and third stories cantilevered out to add floor space, giving the largest houses the appearance of being upside-down, to the simpler, older style the Ophidians built. Thatched and plastered stables and public houses. Wooden palisades on raised banks surrounded by ditches. Low mounds with doors and windows indicating that they were buildings, sometimes with more ordinary-looking buildings on top.

The people she passed changed, too. Each day she saw fewer Appalachee and Germans, and more Eldritch. The Firstborn wore long tunics and generally had long dark hair bound behind their heads. Spears and longswords replaced the long knives and sabers of the southern Empire, and the coins she saw veered sharply away from silver toward other metals, including iron as well as gold.

Kinta Jane made money as she could along the track, generally as she had done in New Orleans, and with a similarly grubby mob of clients. She made a great deal more copper than gold, but also a few coins of bronze and iron. She avoided plying her trade in public houses, where it would have been easiest to attract men, and instead eyed travelers on the road to assess them. A man who looked tired, travel-weary, rich, and not-too-dangerous, got an invitation from Kinta Jane Embry in the form of an outthrust hip slapped with her own hand.