Chapter 21 - Precious Cargo
Sis tried as best as he could to look like a slave, as he and Jack approached the chief of the transport. He went shortly behind the human, tucked his tail and ducked his head purposefully, and focused his gaze on the ground in front of him.
He didn't have a good feeling about this, but he would play along with Jack's plan, should he have one. There wasn't much he could do wrong anyway. Slaves weren't supposed to speak, slaves weren't supposed to think. The only thing they were supposed to do, was to follow orders. And as long as Jack had things under control, that was doable.
Eventually, Jack addressed the man, "Hey! How's it going?" The man turned and extended a hand for Jack, most likely he recognized him as a potential customer, with his slave in tow. Jack accepted the handshake, "I heard you're transporting things, yes?"
The man put on his business face, a sly, bearded smile, "Yes. If the price's right, I'm your man. Just tell me what and how much you want transported to which place and I'll do the rest."
Frankly Jack pointed down on Sis. "This one," he said.
Confused, Sis stared up at his friend. Hadn't they agreed that he wouldn't travel with the other slaves? Suddenly finding the man's eyes upon him, and noticing that he wasn't playing his role properly anymore, Sis returned his gaze to the floor. He wouldn't pull anything behind his back, would he?
The man clapped his hands, "That's not a problem. Just put him to the others and make sure to tell Paul over there, which one's yours," he said, pointing towards the cage wagon. "For him alone that would be three silver coins."
Soberly, Jack looked over to the last wagon on the railways. "Actually," he said, "I need a special kind of transportation for the fox."
The man shot Sis another critical look, "And why is it, that you don't just want to stick him to the others?"
"Well," Jack spoke quietly and stepped closer. "That little guy's carrying a very precious cargo, and I place great value on its safe arrival."
Sis wondered what Jack was talking about. What 'precious cargo' was he carrying? He hadn't had anything on him, save for the backpack. Maybe the golden ring he still carried, from their first burglary together? But that didn't make any sense. Strangely enough, the man seemed to understand.
"And what exactly do you have in mind?"
"I just need to get him alive and in one piece through the border post," Jack explained. He pointed his finger at the freight wagon, "I'd like to have him with the cargo, to ensure his safety."
Jack's opponent smiled widely, "That would be possible, of course. But it got its price."
Jack patted his pocket and caused the money inside to jingle, "I'm sure we can find an agreement."
Sis waited for a moment, next to the freight wagon, while Jack settled the payment. He stood right next to the open loading door of the wagon and found its inside already stuffed with crates, chests and bags of various goods. The loading seemed to be complete. Only one man was still running around the place, constantly checking something on a piece of paper. He was probably inspecting the load's completeness. A look to his right confirmed the fox that the slave's wagon was also quite full by now.
Sis was relieved when he finally saw Jack emerge from the front of the train. He came alone, but was in a pleasant mood.
"Okay, we're set," he said, as he came to an halt in front of the fox and flicked the burned-down stub of his cigarette under the wagon's chassis. He looked about, to ensure that they were alone, before he continued, "T' guy says we'll be on the road for the better of the day. We're starting in about twenty minutes." He jerked his head towards the wagon's open door, "You'll be traveling with the cargo. We will get safely through the border post, and even a bit further than that."
Getting the hint, Sis started climbing up into the wagon. The lower edge of the door was just two inches under his eye-level. "I thought you said, they are quite thoroughly. How am I to avoid them, when they look inside the wago-ooo- Hey!" before he could finish his question, Sis felt Jack grab him under his arms and lift him out of his motion and onto the wagon. Having solid ground under his paws again, the fox turned and shot his friend a dark glare, "I was fine all on my own here!"
"Yeah, I know," the human said and ruffled the fox's head fur, as he climbed on the wagon himself. He went past Sis and a few steps into the stuffed freight car. "They ain't going to find you, 'cause we're going to hide you, foxy," he said and squatted down, looking for something on the floor. After a moment he managed to lift some of the wooden boards, "Ah, here we go!"
Staggered, Sis looked over Jack's shoulders and saw a small, dark, rectangular hole in the floor. He had a certain idea what was going to be put inside it. Or rather who. "What the fuck is this?" he asked and wondered what a cavity like this was doing here.
"This guy's a smuggler," Jack explained and helped the fox down into the hollow space.
"How did you know he was a smuggler?" Sis wanted to know. "And what did you mean when you told him, I was carrying something?"
"Did you see his boots?" Jack asked.
The fox thought for a moment. Honestly, the man's footwear was the last thing he had paid attention to. "Uh... they were black?"
"They had red spurs on them," Jack explained. "Remember when I told you that the knife of the slave hunter, we've met back in the forest, was his trademark?" The fox nodded. "Well, the spurs are his. And among certain people, he's known for smuggling things in slaves."
The fox concluded, "So, he thought you wanted to smuggle something inside of me?" Jack approved with a slow nod. "What the hell would one need to smuggle inside of someone?"
"Around this region? Gold or diamonds, most likely. Sometimes weapons or documents," Jack said.
The explanation made the fox's stomach turn, "Sick."
"Yes," Jack seconded. "But he's exactly what we're needing right now." He placed his backpack on the floor and pulled the old blanket out of it. "Here," he said and placed it around Sis' shoulders. "We'll be traveling for a long time and it will be getting cold in there." He looked at the small fox in the hole for a moment, a faint smile on his face. Then he put a hand on Sis' arm, "I hope you're okay with this?"
"Yeah," Sis said and had to think of his earlier back out. "It's not a first class ride, but I'm gonna make it. Just, don't forget me in here," he said with a smirk.
"Never!" Jack promised. "Okay, just stay quiet. If you hear someone outside, don't move. Wait till I come and get you."
Sis nodded, "I got it." He crouched down into the tight space and wrapped the blanket around himself, as Jack slowly put the lid back into place.
Before he closed the hiding place again, Jack said, "I'm gonna make this up to you, foxy." Then the fox saw only black.
A few minutes after Jack had left, and Sis heard the loading door being shut, the train started into motion. He felt a hard jolt as his wagon was pulled by the steam engine, and was shaken in his small hiding place. Then he listened to the wheels underneath him rolling over the rails. A slow grinding at first, but soon it grew into a steady rumbling as the transport left the mining colony. Before long the constant, annoying roar of steal on steal filled his ears, blocking every other sound, except the regular 'click-click, click-click, click-click' that resulted from the tiny gaps between the rails as the wheels were milling over them.
The little, metallic container, Sis cowered in, seemed to be just put under the wagon. He only hoped the base wouldn't fall off during the ride, as he heard the smuggler's hutch rattle on every corner. Thankfully, the construction seemed to support his weight.
Sis was very happy about the blanket, Jack had left with him. Cold winter weather was one thing, but the icy airstream of the ride that crept through every hole, turned the hideout into an icebox. Compassionately the fox wrapped the wool tighter around himself as he thought about the poor creatures that had to take the ride on the open cage wagon.
A good deal of time into the trip, Sis tried to sleep, or at least relax some, but the coldness soon became unbearable. He pulled his legs to his chest and hooded his head with the blanket, coiling himself tightly into the fabric. The fox wriggled slightly out of his trousers to have more of the pant legs to cover his paws. Actually, he thought, it would be better to not sleep, or chances were he wouldn't wake up again.
He didn't know how long he'd shivered in the smuggler's hiding until he felt the train slow down. His hideout was pitch-black, so he hadn't even the sunlight, or the absence of it, to estimate the passed time. All he knew, as the train clearly slowed down to take a stop, was that this had to be the border post. He tightened the blanket around him one more time and pressed his back against the metal wall, before the transport finally came to a halt.
At first everything was quiet, except for the snorting of the engine, but that was only for so long. First there were noises, then he heard the door being opened. The fox could only make out a muffled jumble of sounds through the thick wooden boards atop him and the blanket he'd still cupped over his ears. He could hear a lot of rummaging, but the situation seemed to be calm. Only when one of the persons above him stepped onto the lid of his hideout, making it creak just inches from his head, Sis felt he would be discovered at any second. Though, the rummaging just continued.
The fox barely breathed until he heard the last person leave the wagon again. Soon after, he heard the door being shut again and then there was silence. The train still remained at the place for a few moments before the giant machine turned its wheels again. Casually Sis thought about what Jack was doing right now. He'd probably sit in the small passenger wagon.
He didn't expect him to release him just yet, out of his tiny freezing box. They needed to leave the border post first. Sis was relieved that the plan had worked and they had passed the post, though at the same time he wished he wouldn't have to continue his ride in the hutch. But to be finally free, he'd live in this damn thing for a week, if he had to.
Thankfully, the second part of the trip didn't last as long as the first. It couldn't be much more than an hour, two at the most, before the transport slowed to a halt again. And again the door swung open and the fox heard rummaging, crates and luggage being unloaded and loaded onto the wagon. Patiently Sis waited for Jack, but the human didn't show up.
He pulled his ear free from the blanket and pressed it against the ceiling as the rummaging had stopped. No sign of Jack, and soon the door got shut again. Getting nervous, in his dark corner, Sis wondered why his friend hadn't shown up yet, and whether everything was okay. Jack had said that he should wait here until he came and let him out. So that's what he was doing. He hadn't much of a choice, since the train started moving again, anyways. Maybe Jack hadn't had an opportunity to get into the wagon unseen? The stop had been rather short.
Anyway. He'd be in for a third round of freezing and shaking. Somewhere during the trip, he decided that, shouldn't Jack get him out of this at the very next stop, he would free himself and kick his friend's ass. Like, really hard!
The rage kept him at least somewhat warm, until he reached the next stop of the transport. The routine was the same as before: door open, load in, load out, door shut. And still no Jack. The fox was just considering his next steps, as the wagon's door got opened again. Just a crack, he supposed, as he heard the cold metal slowly screaming.
When the lid of his hiding place got lifted up, his eyes, adjusted to the darkness, hurt as they were blended by a flickering lantern. He tried to cover the offending light with one paw and to get a look at the person who brought it.
"Hey, you okay, foxy?" Sis heard a familiar voice ask.
"Yeah, don't mind me. I was jus' kickin' back and relaxin' some."
"So it's not critical," Jack said while he reached down for the fox and lifted him onto his weak legs. "Gods, foxy! You're ice cold!"
Getting his head into a natural position again felt good. That though, was about it. His fingers and toes were numb and his legs stiff from the cold. When Jack lifted him onto his feet, he felt his sore knees aching. A sharp pain struck him as he stretched his back out. "You don't say!"
Carefully Jack took both of Sis' paws into one of his giant hands to warm them up, while the other moved over the fox's back, stroking his tensed muscles. "Sorry that you had to go through this, foxy," the human spoke softly into his cold ears.
"Yeah, just let's get out of here now," Sis said, parting from the warm embrace. He didn't mind the comfort. He just didn't want to experience it here.
Jack was kind enough to carry all of their baggage and spare the fox the torture of dragging his backpack around. Outside the wagon, the transport's owner, the guy Jack had spoken earlier with at the mining colony, seemed to await them.
"Ah! As I see, your cargo has arrived as you wished: alive and in one piece," the man said approaching the two. It was almost dark outside, but under the glimmering light of the lantern, Jack was holding, Sis could see the red spurs at the back of the man's black boots.
"Oh, yes. Just as I wanted," Jack said, falling back into his role. It was impressive how well he could play a character, if he needed to. He passed the lantern over to the man, "Thank you very much for your services. We're on our way then."
"While we are at my services," the man said grinning widely. "I'd like to offer you to have your 'goods' removed from your little companion there. For a little markup, of course."
The offer seemed to surprise even Jack. "Erm, thanks, but I don't think that will be necessary," he answered, waving off.
The man persisted, "I assure you, I've got specialists for this. We're not gonna let him bite the grass, if you need him for further 'transports'."
"No, thank you very much," Jack said, giving his former denial more pressure. "I've got things covered."
"Well, then...." That was all the man had to say at the vanished opportunity of another deal. He just turned and was on his way.
"Sick bastard!" Sis snorted, once out of earshot.
Jack agreed with him. "I managed to get a little refund for your inconveniences, if that makes you feel better," he said and waggled a small pouch in front of Sis' nose.
The fox heard the coins jingle inside of the purse he was shown, "You stole your payment from him?"
"Yeah," Jack said, smiling. "That and some extra. Just because I'm using these horrible methods, doesn't mean that I support them financially. And also, we gotta live from something too, right?"
"Right," Sis said. The fact that that bastard wouldn't get any money for the shit he had to go through, was indeed satisfying.
Jack lit up a cigarette, "You fit enough to leave this place right now, or shall I find us a nice room to stay, foxy?"
Frankly Sis wasn't feeling like walking through the night and building up a tent, right now. "You've whetted my taste, human. I wouldn't mind a warm bed right now, even with your ass in it."
The fox knew the drill by now. Jack would acquire a room, and he would slip in through the back. This time, Jack had picked a small hotel. The 'little refund for inconveniences', they currently obtained, allowed it. It was a nice, small room with a fireplace and a fresh, clean bed. After almost two weeks of sleeping in the tent, they both didn't waste any time in making themselves home.
"ya' comin', or what?" Jack asked, already under the covers.
The fox didn't need to be invited twice. Eagerly he tucked his sore, sore legs under the warm covers and rested his still aching back on the soft mattress. Jack, though, had other plans. He reached around the fox's body and pulled him close. Sis returned the embrace. Happily he pressed his face against Jack's chest and brought his arms and legs up to rest pressed against his warm body. The chin that rested on his head and the hand which drew warm circles over his back, made him feel safe and protected. "That your way of making up for the long ride, Jack?" Sis asked with his closed eyes pressed to the man's skin.
"Hm?" he hummed between his ears. "Oh, no. No, no. That is just for my pleasure." He nuzzled the orange fur on the fox's head, inhaling his light scent. "I've got something better planned to make this up to you, foxy."
"Hmm, like what?" he wanted to know and pressed himself tighter against Jack.
Kindly, the human continued to caress Sis' back between his shoulders and at the base of his tail. "You'll see 'n a few days."
Sis had to smile, "Oh, a surprise? For me?"
"Hm-hm, jus' for you 'n' me, foxy," he promised.
Unwitting, Sis placed one of his paws on Jack's stomach. He didn't even notice the soft touch of the skin under his pads. "Well," he murmured, half buried under the human. "This makes for a good start."
"Glad you like it too, foxy."