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Chapter Fifty-Nine

The desert, north-east of New London, 1880

"Schuldig," said Farfarello softly, beckoning to the mind reader.

"What?" said Schuldig, stopping his occupation of observing Crawford. "Do you think he would like some food?"

"I doubt it," muttered Farfarello, pursing his lips at the sight of Crawford sitting unmoving under their canvas shelter, staring into nothingness as he had done most of the day. "Is he at least thinking?"

"Sometimes," said Schuldig in worry. "I don't know what to do, Farfarello." He blushed to make such an admission, which would in happier days have provided such excellent ammunition for teasing.

"He's not a weakling," said Farfarello in tones that indicated he truly hoped he was speaking accurately. "He'll snap out of it. Schuldig - we need to search Micah's things."

"Yes," said Schuldig. "Let's get it over with."

They brought all of Micah's belongings from the tent where they had been placed into the centre of the campsite and spread them out, investigating each item carefully. Nagi squatted by them, watching with interest as they instructed him in places where vital things might be concealed. Crawford ignored them at first until Farfarello's low whistle of appreciation piqued his interest and he came over, his face severe and withdrawn.

"Look," said Farfarello, spreading out the banknotes he had found sewn into the lining of one of Micah's jackets. "There must be --" he counted quickly, "Three hundred pounds! Even with New London prices, he must have been living well. And papers identifying him as an agent of the Pinkertons."

Beside him, Schuldig ripped the lining from Micah's shaving kit and plucked out what lay beneath it. He looked at the folded papers carefully, handing them silently to Crawford who looked at them a long time before handing them back. "Well," said Schuldig. "Passports are always useful. I am a little surprised to find myself described as a Romanian citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though, I must say."

"Why is there a passport for Schuldig?" asked Nagi, coming to peer at the papers.

"He was going to take him back," said Crawford dully. "Schuldig --"

"Why waste an asset like me?" said Schuldig quietly. "Lots of agents want strong mind readers of their own." He looked up quickly at Crawford's sound of disgust. "I'm a valuable piece of property," he said.

"You are not property," said Crawford. He strode over to the dov harness and went to work on the saddle, seeing the faint marks of mending upon it. From its interior he drew more papers and spread them out for the others to see. "Two return tickets," he said. "Open returns to Earth, for any etherflyer of the Cunard line, in his name."

"Expensive," said Farfarello. "You must feel appreciated, Schuldig."

"Yes," said Schuldig, touching one ticket with the very tip of a finger as if he touched something vile and horrible. "So much effort." He blinked as Crawford walked away then, with a gesture to the others indicating they should wait, hurried after his friend. "Crawford? Crawford!" he said.

"He was never meant to leave me alive --" said Crawford breathlessly, then shook his head. "No. No, they cannot have known of my treachery, surely they only suspected. They gave him more than enough money to buy my ticket back. He never purposed to simply kill me out of hand." He hung his head.

"I think," said Schuldig carefully, "that he was meant to investigate. Surely they would not have sent him all this way simply to kill you. You're a strong oracle, Brad, they wouldn't throw you away without thorough investigation."

"I should have found a better way to convince him," said Crawford. "I know he believed in me, at least at times." He did not look at Schuldig as he continued, "I would never have let him take you away."

"I know," said Schuldig with more loyalty than conviction.

"Something else!" called Farfarello. They went back, both glad of the distraction. "These were between two pieces of leather in his saddle bags," he continued, holding out thin pieces of paper. "They are in his hand, I think, but I cannot read them, they are in a code."

"Give them here," said Crawford, holding out his hand. "Have I not trained in breaking codes?" He went then back to the shelter, taking one of his notebooks and scribbling notes with a stub of pencil.

"He's so angry," said Nagi. "And sad."

"He keeps telling himself he does not hate me," said Schuldig. Before either of the others could respond he said, "I'm going to keep lookout on that tall spur of rock. Don't bother calling me for food. I shall not be hungry." Striding quickly away, he seized up a bottle of water and his rifle as he passed the shelter and was gone from their view in mere moments.

"Farfarello?" said Nagi. "What should we do now?"

"I do not know," muttered Farfarello. "I really want to kill something."

"You always want that," replied Nagi waspishly.

Farfarello regarded him for a moment, then sighed. "Nagi, go and sit in the shade. Keep Crawford company, it may be good for the both of you, who knows? I'll keep searching these things." He pushed Nagi gently away and watched as the boy trailed hesitantly towards the shelter, where he diffidently sat by Crawford's side. Then he turned his attention back to his painstaking work, searching every inch of the dov harness for weak seams and hidden papers. It was both a relief and a profound irritation to him that he found nothing, despite spending his time and effort for so long. It was more of a relief to him to return at last to the shelter and find Nagi curled up, his head upon Crawford's knee, with Crawford seemingly unconsciously stroking the lad's hair as Nagi dozed.

"How is his head?" murmured Farfarello.

"I think he should be all right," said Crawford quietly. "He is not seeing double, and has not been feeling sick. To have a headache is not unexpected. He was brave to do so much when newly injured. I should have expected no less."

Farfarello smiled at such a Crawford-like statement of praise and nodded towards the notes. "Have you had luck in deciphering them?"

"To some extent," said Crawford, meeting Farfarello's gaze determinedly. "There is some mention of Nagi. It seems as if he would have been taken too. Anyone bringing him to the Schloß might expect a reward. Micah was always so much of the opinion that that was where he belonged. Not only that, he reports on the garrison at New London and the officers he spoke to there. It is only that we were judged too costly to hunt that kept him from persuading the soldiers to give him men and aid in seeking us." He looked down at the sleeping boy, his mouth thinning at the thought of Nagi being taken captive.

"There's no point in blaming yourself," said Farfarello, both from consideration of Crawford's feelings and the knowledge that for him to continue in self-blame would make Schuldig more unhappy.

"Among these papers," said Crawford, pausing then. "Among these papers," he continued, "there are two pages with a differing view. These are notes for his report, I have no doubt. In one version he speaks highly of our loyalty and our efficiency, and makes no mention of Nagi at all. Was he hoping he would have persuaded us from our course? Did he think to somehow buy us time to succeed, or to hide? He must truly have put faith in the unreadability of his mind, if he thought to dissemble in front of them." He looked away, murmuring, "I wish I knew at what point he wrote those pages. What happened that he turned towards us, and then from us once more? I should have been more successful, Farfarello. I failed him, and I --" He stopped, wiping at his eyes briefly. "I don't want to fail any more of my friends," he said.

"You won't," said Farfarello. "You are too strong to fall prey to such a thing more than once." He nodded at the sleeping Nagi. "Why don't you leave me to look after him? You could go and find Schuldig -- he's gone off by himself, up on that outcropping over there, and said he did not want any food. He'll do himself harm that way, but you could persuade him of sense."

Crawford looked at him as if he well knew he was being given a task to perform to keep his mind occupied, then nodded decisively. "Is there food I could bring with me?"

"I fried some of the porridge in slices," said Farfarello. "No doubt they are thick enough to withstand being carried."

Crawford grimaced, then very carefully laid Nagi fully upon the ground. He quietly gathered up the food and a bottle of water, then picked up his rifle and stepped past Farfarello, squeezing the young Irishman's shoulder as he did so. Farfarello watched him clamber up the rocks to where Schuldig was sitting far above them and, fetching the spyglass, watched Schuldig refuse the food in seeming irritation. An awkward and argumentative conversation seemed to follow, ending finally with Crawford sitting beside Schuldig and pulling him, resisting, into his arms. Farfarello grinned as Schuldig stopped his sulky struggles and flung his arms tight about Crawford. As Crawford set him back and solemnly held a piece of the fried porridge up to Schuldig's face Farfarello closed the glass and settled back to rest, well pleased at both the better mood his friends were in with each other and the fact that - when he was quite recovered - he could now tease Schuldig about eating out of the palm of Crawford's hand.

* * *

Two days outside New London, 1880

The final days of their journey had been quiet and uneventful, the young men resting in the hottest part of each day and camping as comfortably as they could each night. Crawford had found it easier by the day to become more silent, more withdrawn, for he felt he had been both a fool and a failure. Although his friends were gentle with him, he felt the sting of their supposed criticisms keenly, and vowed he should be more careful with them in future, spending his days thinking hard about their course from this point on. All his previous plans, it seemed to him, were in need of review and so he spent each day from waking to sleeping going over the smallest minutiae of which he could conceive, forgoing all the pleasant intercourse of friendship in the interests of securing the future safety of those same friends. The concerned enquiries of his friends he turned aside brusquely, assuring them he was quite well, and needed only peace in which to make his plans, which brusqueness had at last the effect that he was left mostly in peace, a situation he found queerly disquieting as he himself had sought it.

The ground beneath them changed, by slow and imperceptible degrees to a deeper red, with small native plants making a more frequent appearance, and the thorn bushes, which even in the uncharted wilds of the high desert were by no means uncommon, grew to a height and width that was, by Martian standards, positively extravagant. At last a distant glimmer of flat, shining green revealed itself as the great canal that ran through New London, fields of yellowing native grain stretching on either side of it on the strips of fertile land.

"The sea! The sea!" laughed Schuldig gaily.

"But it's the canal," said Nagi in confusion, as Crawford looked at his friend in some surprise.

"I did not think they had you studying the classics in the Schloß," he said, thinking that since he had known Schuldig the mind reader had cared little about any reading material that was not sentimental and sensational in nature.

"They did not," said Schuldig, a dizzy look crossing his face, one which he dispelled, as it seemed, by sheer will alone.

Crawford looked away, ashamed that he had made his friend feel unsettled, even for an instant. Schuldig sighed wearily beside him, and Crawford felt more ashamed yet. Tiny snippets of Schuldig's former life had, it seemed, been shaken loose, though as none of them were useful in the slightest in their current state Crawford felt it better to simply ignore them, feeling they served only to unsettle his friend; any attempts Schuldig made to refer to such insignificant revelations met no response from Crawford.

Reaching the canal at last, the little party of friends wearily dismounted and stood, staring in dumb wonder at the sight of so much water. Their dov pulled at their reins, nigh overbalancing as they stood daintily upon the very edge of the canal, reaching down to drink their fill.

"We've done it," said Schuldig in the flat tones of one who wished to move not an inch from where he stood. "We've made it back."

"Yes," said Crawford. "Make camp. We need proper rest."

"It feels so cool," said Nagi in wonder, holding his hands out to the breeze that came from the water.

"We could go swimming," said Farfarello, lying down and trailing his hands in the water.

"I can wash my hair," said Schuldig, his eyes suddenly bright.

Crawford nodded. "We can all wash," he said. "We cannot go into the city looking as we do. There is no hurry, however. We should stay here for the next day and a half. A barge will pass by then. We'll take it and enter the city quietly."

"A day and a half?" said Schuldig. "Why, that's good, Crawford! That is the furthest you've seen yet!"

"Yes," said Crawford with a small smile, glad that his foresight had indeed slowly been returning. "Let's draw off some water, and heat it. I am tired of being so very filthy." This suggestion had no sooner been made than fulfilled, and the first of several large pots of water was quickly set upon a quickly assembled fire. "One thing," said Crawford, watching Schuldig eagerly lay out the necessary items for his toilette. "Don't shave. We mustn't make it too easy for the soldiers to recognise us." Schuldig's shoulders sagged. "I know," said Crawford, "it is very annoying, but we shall all suffer together."

"Except Nagi," muttered Schuldig, casting envious eyes on Nagi's smooth cheeks. "Oh well," he went on, "at least I shall be clean!"

The water being hot at last, Schuldig eagerly claimed the first pot and washed with an enthusiasm that would have done justice to even the most diligent of cats, finishing his ablutions by flinging himself into the canal and triumphantly watching the dirty soap suds float downstream. "I am not coming out," he said, floating peaceably upon his back. "I shall enter the city like this."

"Which shall excite no attention whatsoever," sniggered Farfarello, throwing little stones at him. Schuldig made him no answer other than an uncouth gesture, and continued his occupation of floating and staring quietly at the sky. One by one, as they too scrubbed the dirt of the weeks of travel from their bodies, his friends joined him in the water, watched with interest by the dov, who forbore to join in their riders' fun. At last the young men climbed back onto dry land and sprawled, clean and bare, under their quickly erected shelter.

"We should unpack the clean clothes," said Crawford, "they may well smell musty and should be aired." He looked appraisingly at Nagi, continuing, "Let us hope the ones for you still fit, you are taller than you were, I think." He looked about him at his friends, vowing again that he should do everything in his power to keep them safe. "I have been thinking on what we need to do," he said. "First, what we need in order to leave Mars, and then what we should do about our enemies. The easiest step shall be entering the city - the barge will give us and the bare minimum of our luggage passage. We'll purchase this and the bargemen's discretion with the cart, our camping equipment, anything of our own that we can bear to lose, and the dov." He put a consoling hand upon Nagi's shoulder as the lad turned an unhappy and hurt gaze on him. "We need to enter the city as quietly as possible," he said. "What would we do with them if we rode them back? We cannot take them to their stable and say, 'Here we are, back again.' They will be well cared for, Nagi." The lad turned his gaze down upon the ground, silent and uncomplaining. "Good boy," said Crawford quietly. "Now, as to how we present ourselves in the city - we'll split into two groups of two --"

"It's all right," said Nagi, quite clearly trying to atone for his boyish disappointment over losing the dov with his matter of fact tone, "I know I should pretend to be a servant."

"No," said Crawford. "They are looking for Schuldig and I, and our supposed servants. Let them look, for we will be quite otherwise. Schuldig and Farfarello - you will be together. I think, Farfarello, that you must be a blind gentleman, and Schuldig your companion. Your beard will hide at least some of your scars."

"I'll get spectacles with dark glass when we are in New London," said Schuldig. "They'd be less memorable than your eyepatch."

Farfarello nodded. "I'll come up with some tale of hunting for anyone rude enough to press me," he said. "What's more," he said switching to German, "they are looking for an Irishman. Let me stop being one for the time being."

"Finally you are civilised," said Schuldig in the same tongue.

"What's that, my lad?" said Farfarello in a confused voice. "I can't make head nor tail of your queer Romanian accent!"

"I suppose I must be a Romanian," laughed Schuldig. "At least I have a very nice passport to go along with that!"

"And you'll be with me," said Crawford to Nagi. "I have dark hair and eyes, your hair and eyes are lighter than is usual for boys of your race. I think we shall have little difficulty in persuading people that you are but half-Japanese. Do you think you can remember to call me 'Father'?" He smiled at the lad's surprise, continuing, "I'll make my beard neater, but will leave as much as I might. It will add some years to my appearance. You - well, you are taller as I said, but I think you should still be seen as a boy somewhat younger than you are. Don't attract too much attention, and we'll be ignored. If you are pressed with questions, tell them I am a missionary who was previously in Japan, and has come to Mars to bring the Good News to the natives. Your pardon, Farfarello!"

Farfarello laughed shortly. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll be able to remember that you are no missionary in truth!"

"Hmm," said Schuldig, regarding both Crawford and Nagi critically. "I think it will still be the general opinion that you married scandalously young, Crawford!"

"Well, we should not be in the city for long enough to attract such scandalised attention," said Crawford. He paused a moment, then went on, "Micah Crawford is not a wanted man. I'll use his passport and his tickets - no one would find it surprising that a child's name is not on an etherflyer ticket booked by his father. Let Micah do us some good," he said, looking aside.

After a considerate silence, Schuldig said, "His passport does make mention of him being a Negro, Crawford."

"What of it?" said Crawford. "It says his complexion is not dark. I can leave it as it is, or alter it, if you feel it too risky."

Schuldig looked long into his face, scrutinising its details carefully. "Alter it," he said at last. "I do not think people would accept it as truth."

"Very well," said Crawford calmly. "And I'll change the details on Nagi's and Farfarello's. What names do you want?"

"They called me 'Peter' in the orphanage," said Nagi, who in all this time had not taken his eyes from Crawford's face.

"Very well, Peter Crawford you shall be. Remember to come when I call you by that name! And you, Farfarello?"

Farfarello lay back, an expression of wicked humour crossing his face. "Heinrich Dorfmann," he said.

Schuldig choked upon the mouthful of water he was at that moment drinking. "If you think I shall call you 'Herr Dorfmann' all the way back to Earth!" he cried.

"Why not?" said Farfarello. "It's just a name. You should not let it have power over you any longer, Schuldig. We're free, aren't we? Be damned to him, let his name be the one that gets us home."

Schuldig stared at him, then shook in what Crawford saw was laughter. "Be damned to him," Schuldig repeated. "Let him learn I am not afraid of him any more. Very good. I have no objections to your choice."

"You're sure?" said Crawford.

Schuldig nodded contemptuously. "Ja," he said with finality. "I am sure."

"Good," said Crawford. "As for what we do when we reach Earth once more, I am not yet decided. That we are at least suspected, there is no doubt. It would be madness to put ourselves within their reach. We will not go to the Schloß, and must find another way to make them leave us be. We shall have plenty of time on the etherflyer to plan, do not fear. I will not let us be taken by them, and we will succeed. Now - let's tidy ourselves up a little, make ourselves look less like the men we were. Schuldig, if you come here, I'll make your beard less annoying to you."

"Yes, please!" said Schuldig, willingly and trustingly putting his head back to allow Crawford's razor access. Crawford carefully lathered his face and went to work, leaving him, when the soap was washed away with a neat and closely cut moustache and small tight beard that accentuated the fox-like appearance of his face. "That feels a little better," said Schuldig, peering at himself in the small mirror. "I cannot wait for it to be fully gone, however!"

Farfarello was next, his beard being clipped into neatness, but left to obscure as much of the scars as it might. Crawford then took his scissors and cut Farfarello's hair until it lay smooth and respectable, totally unlike the spiky appearance it had previously had. When it came to Nagi's turn the boy sat quiet and pleased in front of Crawford, having his hair turned from a shaggy mop to neat shortness such as any schoolboy might sport.

"Perhaps you could cut mine?" said Crawford to Schuldig. The young German had not spoken for some time, his eyes fixed upon the scissors in Crawford's hand. Now he silently took them and the comb from Crawford and neatly and quickly went to work, leaving Crawford feeling that his head was queerly light. Leaning in close, Schuldig made quick work of tidying Crawford's beard.

"You do look older," he said quietly. He rose from his knees and stretched, running a hand down the length of his hair, then turned about and quietly held the scissors out to Crawford once more.

"Nagi," said Farfarello. "Help me pack up the gold securely. That's all we should take with us." He drew Nagi away with him, handing the lad's clothes at him as they went, and laughing at Nagi's insistence that he should be called 'Peter', to accustom himself to the name.

"Schuldig," said Crawford, taking the scissors. "I have not been good to you of late."

"You've been unhappy," said Schuldig evenly.

"So have you," said Crawford, "and some of it lies at my door. I'm sorry."

"Let's not start that," said Schuldig. "I am better, truly, and will be as gay as ever once I know that you are really all right. Go ahead, Brad. It has to be done."

Crawford sighed, combing Schuldig's hair straight and smoothing it down with his hand. "I'm never going to do this again," he said, very quietly. "Even if you grow it down to your ankles, I'll never cut it again. We'll go to Paris, like you wanted, and we'll do everything you've ever so much as considered in your most idle whims, and no one will match you." He lifted a swathe of Schuldig's hair and, placing the blades of the scissors near his friend's head, cut it across. Schuldig shuddered, but kept silent and still. Crawford put down the scissors and very carefully coiled the bright copper-coloured hair tightly, searching out his wallet and stowing it within, as if it were a very great treasure. Turning about he saw that Schuldig's eyes were bright, and that much of the miserable tension in the way his friend sat was no longer evident.

"Brad --" said Schuldig, stopping then and clearing his throat. He smiled at Crawford, sharp and fierce. "Go on," he said. "It's only hair. It will grow again."

Crawford pressed his lips to his brow, and went to work, cutting neatly and quickly before his courage failed him. When he was done he knew the chance of Schuldig being recognised was very small, though he felt very sad to see his friend touch what was left of his hair with hesitant dismay. "It's still beautiful," he said quietly, and put an arm about Schuldig's shoulder, and they sat silently together, watching the breeze whirl the long copper strands away to land on the green waters of the canal.
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