Chapter XVI.

7 Apr

With the rising of the daystar, Bato steered more cautiously than ever. The mountains became a backdrop of leatherwood, kingwood, inkwood, and devilwood trees. The chances of being stopped by authorities multiplied. The driver and passengers grew stiff from sitting in the vehicle for so many hours.

“Let’s find a place to stop and rest,” proposed Slyn. “There’s no use trying to go forward again until tonight.”

“We are close to the village of Celestite. There should be an inn of some sort there. Should I go down and see?” asked the driver, Bato Mentin.

“By all means,” said the Founder. “I visited the local miners several years ago. The place got its name from the white and blue strontium ore found there. At the time that I came, these mines were the source of the chemical compounds used as the basis of fireworks all over the Continent. Celestite and strontianite were still major exports then.”

“Another instance of exhaustion and decline?” asked Dey in the front of the car.

“Sadly yes,” replied the leader dourly.

Within minutes, they were at the center of the village where the High Street and the Broad Street crisscrossed each other. The morning light was a brilliant luteous yellow, flooding the dewy air. From behind the window curtains of soapstone cottages darting eyes peeked out, then hid themselves inside.

Unexpectedly, a man in the glaucous yellow-green of a postman approached the loco from the driver’s side. Bato pushed a tab that lowered the window.

“Good morning,” said the slim, tall stranger. “Welcome to Celestite. Can I serve you in any way?” He smiled ingratiatingly, his expression highly saccharine.

“We are on our way southward,” said Bato. “Is it possible for us to stop and eat in your beautiful little village? We have not found an inn anywhere.”

“There is nothing like that left in this dorp of ours.”

“Many people have departed since the mines were shut down, then?”

“Indeed. But if you people are hungry, my wife can provide a tasty breakfast. My humble house is open to you.”

Mentin looked behind him to where the Founder sat.

“Tell him we accept the invitation,” commanded the latter.

The postman explained where his cottage was, on the periphery of the dying settlement.

Following the directions given him, Bato easily located the squat little white cottage where the postman and his family lived.

“I’ll go to the door and talk to the woman,” said the driver, climbing out of the locomobile. He hurried up to the front door of the feldspar building that was covered with thick vines.

The three passengers were unable to hear what he and the housewife said to each other. Only when he returned to the others did they learn that they were welcome to enter the home and rest there. It would take her ten to fifteen minutes to prepare sufficient victuals for the party of four travelers.

“She invites us to use the living room until all is ready for a meal,” reported Bato to the group in the locomobile.

The interior of the small structure was clean, neat, and well-ordered. The living room was inexpensively furnished with locally made chairs and tables in the antique Mineral Mountains style. Families might have lived exactly like this for innumerable generations. Everything was aimed at cozy comfort, nothing more than that.

Beryl and Dey occupied a small couch, while the Founder and Bato took a pair of plainwood chairs across from them.

The woman of the house, a short, rotund figure, came in for a word with her guests.

“So happy to have people like you stop here,” she said warmly. “This is the third time this year that my Gabbro has sent me travelers to take care of. I really enjoy feeding and talking to them.”

Slyn sent her a piercing, inquisitive look. “Who were those other guests of yours, may I ask?” He glanced at Bato Mentin  as if to see whether the miners’ agent had caught the direction of his suddenly aroused curiosity about what the woman had told them.

“Oh, I believe they were also important people, like you are,” she said. With that, the woman turned around and quickly disappeared into the kitchen.

For a few moments, the fugitives pondered what they had heard said by the wife of the postman. What did her statement mean for their future? they wondered. Had she revealed more than she knew or intended?

Bato decided to give voice to their shared concerns.

“Are we taking unnecessary risks in trusting this man called Gabbro?” he asked, staring at the Founder across from him.

Suddenly, the brawny ex-miner rose and stepped to one of the front windows. His eyes swept the empty street in front of the cottage.

Garen Slyn, who had been mulling over private thoughts in silence, concentrated his focus on his assistant, Beryl Sehr, and spoke to her.

“What is your opinion of the members of the postal bureaucracy, my dear? Aren’t there widespread tales about the suspicion that many of the employees make reports on what they see to the Clandestine Service? Are there many informants within their ranks?”

The young woman had a sudden attack of dizziness. All at once, she sprang to her feet and started to speak in a loud, agitated tone. “Post carriers are notorious for their monitoring activities,” her voice crackled. “They are able to function as the ubiquitous eyes and ears of the government. The public trusts their local letter carriers despite what has long been rumored about what they do with all they learn about people. They are often spies for those who rule us.”

At that same moment, Bato caught sight of what he had been expecting.

“A loco is passing down the street,” he announced excitedly. “It appears to be full of men in dark suits. The one in the driver’s seat is starting to climb out at this very moment.”

By now, both the Founder and Dey Skull were also standing.

“What shall we do now?” asked Beryl at large, of all the men there. Her voice held trepidation in it.

Garen Slyn reached a command decision in less than a second. “The back door will be the safest way out for us. You lead the way, Beryl.”

The latter turned to Dey Skull. “I’ll need your help,” she murmured to the journalist with fright. The two of them exchanged silent looks.

Bato, gazing through the front window, saw a disturbing sight.

“Four men in black suits are approaching this cottage,” he warned the group. “We will have to leave here at once, before they find us.”

Beryl, having risen, made a rapid dash out of the living room, through a short corridor, into the little kitchen of the feldspar home. The three men followed her in a file.

The wife of the postman, working at the metal sink, gaped with amazement at what was happening in front of her. Led by the flaxen-haired young woman, her house guests were making an unannounced, unexplained exit the back way. Soon they had left the cottage for the area of garden in the rear of the property. No one said a word to her. They moved quickly, as if she were not there.

Beryl and Dey, then the Founder and Bato, fled into the vegetable beds just as their pursuers reached and knocked on the front door of the cottage.

The foursome ran past rows of cauliflora, broccolo, cibols, and articiocco. There was no time to admire the splendidly cultivated plots of the treacherous postman and his faithful wife.

Had they succeeded in making their escape?

The greatest problem would be fleeing from Celestite without their loco. What were they to use for transportation from this unlucky village? That problem would be a serious one for them.

The men followed Beryl past the postman’s garden, then a second one that belonged to the house on the next street. No one was out or about, which was a good thing for them. With speedy steps, the four of them reached the pavement in front of the second building.

Beryl halted, turning around for instructions from her boss, the Founder.

“It will be better if we separate and go in different directions,” said Slyn.

“I’ll go with Miss Sehr,” volunteered Dey. “Where can we reunite later on?”

The miners’ leader pursed his lips. “Circumstances will decide that, but somewhere along the main street of Celestite seems best to me. But first we must lose our pursuers.”

“The road on which we entered this place?” asked Dey for final confirmation.

Garen Slyn nodded yes, then the two pairs went opposite ways.


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