Chapter 20 - Escape Plan
Jack was now gone for about two or three hours and Sis was bored. He'd offered to prepare the tent in the meantime, but the human wanted to be able to move on quickly, if they had to. To occupy himself, and to be at least productive in some way, he'd refilled the waterskins. That was about one hour ago, though.
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity of waiting with an empty, growling stomach, Jack emerged from behind a row of trees. Impatient Sis stood up and waited for his friend to arrive.
When Jack finally made his last steps up the small mound, with the snow crunching under his shoes, he didn't look too happy. "I've got some unpleasant news, concerning our further options," he said, missing his usual smile. Though, he didn't look panicked or in haste, so it was likely to be an organizational issue. A much more pressing issue, Sis had already detected with his nose.
"Yeah, yeah, fuck the news. What about the food? What did you bring? I'm starving!" the fox demanded.
The human's mood brightened somewhat, and he found himself smiling again. Eager to satisfy the fox's demands, Jack reached into his shoulder bag and offered him a square paper package.
The fox accepted, curiously and with pointed ears. He unwrapped it and inside were two slices of bread, in between some sort of meat, onions, a kind of cream and some other things Sis didn't care to identify as he bit into it.
The fact that Sis' tail was lashing wasn't missed by Jack. Seeing his fox happy again let him return to his usual lightheartedness. "They sell these sandwiches at the colony, for the workers. Fast and easy food, ya know?"
"It's good," Sis said with his cheeks full. He'd sat himself on one of the many boulders.
Jack took another package from his bag and settled down beside Sis. He could have eaten in the colony, but he enjoyed the fox's company and hadn't minded waiting a bit longer to share his meal with him. And the wait was worth it. Seeing that little orange creature munching his sandwich with his tail swinging happily behind him was the best.
Having downed half of his bread, Sis spoke again, his mouth still full, "Fo, you were faying fomething 'bout bad newf?"
Jack swallowed a bite, "Yeah. We're kind of stuck here."
Jack stuck the remaining half of his meal into his mouth and grabbed the map from his bag. He unfolded it, took another bite from his sandwich and indicated a line with his finger on the paper. "There are railways leaving the place," he explained. "I had hoped we could jump on the train and get a good piece forward, but the next time it's passing through the mining colony, is in five days. We might offset the wait with the train, but I'm not sure if we'd get anywhere at all. At the land border, around here," he said indicating the region on the map, "is a border post, and there is only one bridge over the river, for the train, and it is guarded. If we'd jump off before the post, we might be able to sneak through, or, we'd have to walk for miles around it, and then we'd have taken the risk for nothing and also the time would be saved in vain."
"The second option is," Jack went on, drawing his finger aslant over the map, "we continue as before and walk cross country. At this point," he stopped his finger somewhere along the blue line, "we could cross the river, that would cost us easily a week, though. Rather two, if the weather keeps getting worse. And if we'd get stuck then, we'd be screwed."
Sis thought for a moment, gazing at the map and gulping down his last bite. "So, either we try to survive the wilderness, or we try to survive the train ride?" he said at length.
"Isn't there a way to avoid the control?" Sis asked.
"I've heard, they are really thorough there, searching for slaves that escaped the mines, and such," Jack said and had also finished his meal.
The fox brooded over the two options for a moment, trying to find a good way out of this. Finding none, he sighed and looked to Jack, "Isn't there any other way?"
"Sure," Jack said, pointing over the peak of the mountain. "At the other side is a place with better connections, but I'm not gonna mount that thing."
"So we can play it safe and go the long, hard way, or we're taking the risk and will maybe save a few days," Sis brought the situation down once more. "Great prospects!"
"Well...," Jack spoke beside him, looking in the distance. "There might be a third possibility...."
The fox looked up, "Why didn't you say that before?"
Jack saw down on his friend, "Because you're not gonna like it."
Sis already had a bad feeling in the stomach again, but he asked anyways, "What is this possibility?"
"Tomorrow, a slave transport will travel the rails and stop here," Jack explained. "That way we could make the way even faster and we could pass the border post safely, too, but..." he looked the fox into the eyes, "...you'd have to be put to the other slaves, on an open wagon, and drive through the cold half a day long."
Sis tensed as he considered the option. He would face up with a lot of things to finally reach the north and be free, but, returning to being a slave? "So...," he spoke with heaviness in his voice. "So, we could be gone by tomorrow already, and save even more time, and also avoid the control post?"
"Yes," Jack answered in a serious tone. "We'd need to get a forged contract for you beforehand, though, but I've checked, we can get this done in the place." Both of them were silent for a long moment, until Jack broke the stillness, "Hey, you don't need to do it, if you don't want." He laid his arm around Sis' shoulders and pulled him close. "It was just an idea."
Sis let himself be pressed against the human's side. He anticipated the comfort right now, still he felt uneasy. Jack had done so much for him, had always helped him. It was only natural that, now, it was his turn to be useful and to play his part. Right?
After all, what burden would it be? Freezing a few hours and being pushed into a cage? He'd already suffered worse. And it was for a good thing. The sooner they reached the north, the sooner he would never have to worry about those things again.
"I'll do it," Sis stated determined, though his shoulders had sagged.
Jack felt the fox draw back under his arm. He held him firmly, "Hey, listen, foxy. You don't need to do this. No one is forcing you. We'll find another way."
But he couldn't retreat anymore. Pulling back now would be poor. He had made his decision, and he would live with it. Though, the warm hug and the soft words made his decision much harder, but he could do this. He was sure.
"No, I'll do it," the fox said, sounding absolutely sure this time. Inside of him, though, he felt absolutely insecure about the whole situation.
After a sleepless night in the tent, just outside the place, Sis found himself toddling behind Jack in the mining colony now. They had waived the rope for the fox, this time. Since every short one in this place certainly was a slave, Sis wouldn't stand out, if he kept close to Jack. And that was just what he did.
Up close, the colony looked just like a regular mining facility, run by humans. Short ones were rarely seen. Of course that was only due to the fact that they all worked underground right now. Sis had never worked in a mine himself, though he'd heard stories. Sometimes they kept the slaves inside of the mine shaft for days, locking them down there and leaving them to sleep in the tunnel, only to save time so they wouldn't need to escort them in and out at every shift. Water and food? If anything at all, there was the garbage left by the supervisors. Suffice to say that many didn't see daylight ever again.
Sis tried to think about something else, focusing on the task. Right now they were headed for the trade post, where they could get a false contract for the fox. A contract was essentially a document that attested who the current owner of what slave is. It is needed to legally sell slaves, to prevent stolen slaves to be sold over and over again, as well as to transport slaves over land borders, to identify their origin. Contract was indeed a nicer word for certificate of ownership. No?
Apparently, Jack had managed to seize the information that one of the workers at the trade post was bribable, so he made to find him. The fox wasn't really aware of what happened around him. Some money changed its owner, some papers were signed, false information and lies exchanged and then the deal was done. Only on the street, surrounded by busy noises again, did Sis realize where he was again. He thought the whole time about the trip he'd undertake, the feeling of being in a cage again, and how Jack just let everything happen. Though, he didn't, did he? Sis himself had insisted on doing this. Jack had offered him another option, to find another way, but Sis had insisted.
Anyway, paperwork was done now. There was no way back anymore, only the way ahead. And he would go it. Yes, he spoke to himself, I can do this. And with a newly set mind the fox followed Jack to the small train station of the place.
Though as soon as the building with its tall but narrow clock tower came into view, the fox felt his brain doubting his decision. His stomach turning upside down in a flood of emotions and his legs refusing to go on. He drove his paws hard into the muddy, snowy ground to get rid of the shaky feeling in his knees.
Being in front of the train station, where the person responsible for incoming and outgoing charges sat, Sis' legs finally stopped obeying him and made their last step. He waited a moment for Jack to notice and saw the human turn around, before he averted his eyes and stared onto the ground.
He felt his ears flush and fold down in embarrassment, as he was about to admit his back down. He felt ashamed for not keeping up with his decision, but he couldn't go back into this life. Not even for a few hours.
The frightened fox tucked his tail between his legs in the anticipating disappointment of his friend. Jack sure was to be mad at him, he'd already paid for the forged documents, he might even laugh at him for being a coward, but he just couldn't do this.
Still not looking up to Jack, but feeling his gaze upon him, Sis spoke defeated, "...I don't want to do this."
The fox closed his eyes, waiting for the human's jokes and mockery, or anger, but nothing came. The fox still didn't dare to look up, feeling incredibly small right now. That, though, was when Jack spoke up.
"Okay," he merely said and turned directions.
Feeling relieved to have this burden lifted from his chest, and depressed to have let his friend down at once, Sis trotted behind him, towards the railroad tracks that lay behind the building. When they had a short moment away from prying eyes, hidden by some cargo, the fox spoke up.
"Are you mad, because I backed out?"
In the process of lighting a cigarette, Jack turned. "No. That's okay," he said in an even tone and leaned back against a big crate, puffing out some smoke. "But we need to think of a way to get out of here soon. You were seen, foxy. And sticking around here for five days is too dangerous."
Being reminded of the immediate consequences of his back out sent a new pang of guilt through the fox. He was thankful, though, that Jack refrained from trying to convince him to change his mind.
"We might be able to bribe the driver of the transport, but if he betrays us, it's definitely over," Jack thought aloud. "Might as well threat him to take us along. That's quite risky, though..."
"If it's that much of a risk, we should take the long way," Sis interjected. "Better safe than sorry."
"Hmmm, yeah..." Jack murmured, scratching his chin. "First we'll see what kind of guy that is. Maybe there's still some way we can take that ride. If not, we'll resupply and leave today."
The transport was easy to find. Seeing as there was only one railway through the place, it had to be the only vehicle standing on them. They approached the train from the front, seeing first the traction engine being loaded with water. The 'locomotive' had not much resemblance with an actual steam train, but looked more like an old, stripped down steam engine on wheels. The black paint was flaking off, the whole machine was covered with a sticky mixture of oil and dust, and some parts had started to rust.
Coupled directly behind the engine was a small coal tender, and after that a short passenger wagon with only four windows in its side. Behind that, Sis could make out the form of a long, wood made freight wagon, and at the end was the wagon for the slaves, likewise as long as the freight wagon, since this was the train's main purpose. It was barely more than a cage on wheels. Inside of it, some 'passengers' were already seated, cowering in the cold.
Slowly and cautiously, they approached the man who seemed to be giving orders to some workers. The man wore black, pointed boots and thick, black, leather pants. A light, buttoned west was showing under his hip-long, dark brown coat, and a red handkerchief protected his neck from the freezing winds. His face was partly hidden behind a brown beard.
For a moment Jack stopped and so did Sis. The fox saw Jack scrutinizing the man for a second, before he lightened up. "Looks like luck has turned for our side again," he said with a smile. "Guess we're up on that ride after all."
Sis gazed the man over, but he couldn't make out anything that might help them. "Why?" he asked up to Jack. "You know that guy?"
"No. Not personally," Jack answered. But it was easy to identify someone, when you know for what you had to look. "But I've got an idea. Just play along."
Without further instructions, Jack headed for the chief of the transport. Quickly, Sis followed suit, though he wasn't sure about what Jack had planned. But he trusted that he had a plan. At least SOME kind of plan.
Next chapter will be posted on the 29th of April.