The Journeyman: In the Great North Woods
“It’s a long and dusty road,
It’s a hot and a heavy load.
– Tom Paxton
A bird in the hand
The Harborside of New Cuffy was already in full morning bustle when Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand strode down the hill from his night job. Fishermen newly docked from their labors hawked their wares on the breakwater while gulls overhead shrieked their portion. Ships’ bells clanged the watch in harbor. Shutters slammed back on windows and night-soil plummeted onto unwary passers-by. A ship just in from Old Cuffy threw off lines for the longshoremen.
Greenies, both overseamen and greeows, shoved past the pale-faced native coastalmen their grandsires had conquered. Spiced among them like raisins in porridge stalked tall, tan forestmen with noses like the blades of their throwing-axes, dusky, yellow-haired swampmen in vests of stiff gator hide and necklaces of small animal skulls, and golden ironmen from those Houses that had bent the knee. Teo had even glimpsed a fellow plainsman, wearing the feathered bonnet of a Ptarmigan and gawping at houses piled three stories high.
They had lost their tribes all of them, or like the greenies, had never had them. No one stood between them and their rulers. Hence, their only safety lay in obscurity, and no place offered more of that useful commodity than the jumble of alleys, taverns, joy houses, chandleries, and pawn-shops called the Harborside Mews.
Bodyguarding by its nature was oft an overnight occupation, leaving Teo homebound when the victuals were freshest. At the poulterer’s stall, he emptied his poke to acquire the plucked carcass of a pheasant, which he dangled on a quarterstaff over his shoulder. The pheasant would feed himself and his three partners. Hired muscle paid well enough, but was not exactly the beaten trail to unending wealth.
At the boardwalk he paused to watch the gangplank roll off the ship. “One piece say big hat arriving,” he said to a bystander in halting xhavla. After several months in New Cuffy, he had mastered the rudiments of the greenie tongue.
“Nah,” the greeow replied. “Was that so, the governor woulda sent an escort.”
True, the ships sometimes brought convicts, or men down on their luck and looking to escape – from the law, from their wives, from the south end of a northbound plow-mule. Some even came looking for adventure; though if they were lucky, they didn’t find it. But Teo, who only bet on sure things, had spotted a big hat on deck from the hilltop while on his way down to the Mews.
The longshoremen made the gangplank fast to the pier and a short fellow dressed in a knee-length red-and-gold jacket and wearing an oversized, broad-brimmed hat with feather plume stepped daintily upon it. He carried a gold-headed walking stick. Several younger men as finely dressed clustered about him, and another with the ink-stained fingers of a secretary followed a few paces behind.
The newcomer doffed his hat and shook his head to unfurl his neck-frill to the morning sun. “Hails, New Cuffy,” he said, as was the custom for arrivals. New Cuffy, as embodied in the usual dockside rag-tag, made indifferent response, of which “up yours” was the most audible.
“Smell his feet,” said Teo’s neighbor, who was no fonder of Big Hats than were other greeows. But he paid off his bet.
“Makes big smoke,” Teo agreed, puzzling the man with a prairie idiom.
Among the dockside rabble stood Seven Quail cutpurse, a displaced forestman who made his living among large but inattentive crowds. He fingered a knife hilt hidden behind his coat-tail while watching the Big Hat. Nearby, a coastalman named Pushaluq mugger slapped a cosh repeatedly into his palm.“That can’t be good,” Teodorq muttered.
(c)2015 Michael F. Flynn