Hello dear readers. This is the last chapter of Mule-Cart Blues. It's hard to believe this is the end. But I'm so happy that you all took this ride with me. Thank you so much for reading, and a special thanks to everyone who sent reviews and PMs. I'm amazed and grateful that you guys took the time to tell me your thoughts. I wish I had more to post for you right away after this. But I don't have anything that I consider good enough yet. I will hopefully be participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this year, both in April and the later session. So maybe I'll have something good to show you this summer. Until then, if you haven't read my first story, Stray Kingdom, you can take a peek at that. It's posted right here on Fictionpress. I don't know how to link it here and I'm not sure I'm allowed to. But you can get to it through my profile page if you just click on my name. Now let's get to the end of the story…
Sam had never told anyone that he cried that day, the day the war ended. But he thought of it now as he scrubbed his shirt on a washboard in the sink. He pumped some more water up and used the light from the kitchen window to get a good view of where it flowed over the fabric. He had been wearing that same shirt when he heard that the Arithians were retreating. That had been almost a year ago, but he could still remember where each tear had fallen on the cloth.
He wiped one hand on his pants and reached into his pocket for the watch. The gold gleamed in the light as he brought it up to look at it. The Fury on the cover was beautiful, but it couldn't equal the real thing. He had seen the great airship hovering above Spring Valley on the day he brought his family home. He opened the watch and saw again how dirty the glass was. He would clean it later after the party, he decided as he closed the cover and shoved the watch back in his pocket. It was getting late and he had to hurry. He wanted to get all his chores done before the others arrived. He looked the shirt over one more time. The dirt was gone. That's good enough, he thought.
"Kelsey!" he shouted.
"What?" came the answering shout from the back door. His sister appeared in the doorway of the living room a moment later.
"Take this and hang it outside with the rest," Sam said. He tossed the shirt across the space and Kelsey caught it. She gave him an annoyed look, but took the shirt anyway and disappeared from the doorway.
Now for the cake, Sam thought. It should be just about done. He turned from the sink to the stove across the room. The woven oven mitt he had bought in Blackham last year was still hanging where he'd left it on a nail beside the metal chimney. His mother's old oven mitt had been ruined when Shayna spilled grease from a cheese melt on it during the trip back to the uplands.
They had taken the train as far as Twin River to pick up Jessie and to see the Fury in action. But the stop had been a bust all the way around. Jessie hadn't wanted to come back and the Fury had moved on to Blackham before they arrived. Sam insisted that they walk the rest of the way, even over Kelsey's strenuous objection. Sam just couldn't justify another train journey, especially since Smithy was happier walking. Kelsey had threatened to hunger strike again, but Jessie quickly put an end to that. They had managed to get rid of Eliot though. The boy had run into Mindy's arms as if she were his mother.
Sam put the oven mitt on and opened the stove. The cake wasn't very big, but it smelled wonderful. As he pulled it from the hot coals, Sam was tempted to have a piece right then and there. But it wasn't his birthday, so it wasn't his cake. The guest of honor would be arriving soon, he hoped. He put the cake on the table to cool. He took off the oven mitt and left it on the table next to the cake. He left the kitchen and went out to the back door.
Kelsey was still hanging the last of the laundry on the clothesline she had set up herself using fallen branches from the big oak. Sam let her keep going and crossed the yard to the pasture gate. Smithy had been in the pasture for most of the day, taking it easy while the rest of the family rushed around. Now he came galloping over to the gate. Sam opened the gate and let the mule out. He'd gained back all the weight he'd lost during the journey and he looked better than ever now. Sam had gained some weight himself since they'd been back on the farm. But that only gave him more energy, it seemed and he used that to run to the barn ahead of Smithy and pour a bucket of oats faster than usual. Smithy walked right to his stall as he knew he should and accepted his food gratefully. Sam stood by him and stroked him a little while he ate. He owed the mule his life, he knew.
With Smithy taken care of, Sam went back inside and washed his hands. It was almost time.
"Sam!" came the shout from the front yard. It was Shayna. Sam had installed her on the porch to keep watch. Were they here already?
Sam ran for the front door. He opened it on one of the sweetest sights he'd ever seen. It was a fine summer afternoon with clear skies as far as the eye could see. The front yard was as open and empty as ever. There was wheat growing tall on the right side in the front field and barley on the left in the smaller field. The rains had finally come last year. He'd heard that they started on the day that Calvert and Sequoyah blew up the train tracks. And so it had been drizzling the day he and Kelsey and Shayna returned to the farm. Some of the fences had needed repair, but that was all the damage they found.
Shayna was standing on the porch steps and pointing at the road on the western side.
"They're coming," she said.
Sam could see the trail of smoke and steam coming from an engine as it ran along the road behind the barley. Finally the car turned the corner through the gate where the new little peach tree stood. The tree had sprouted from the pit that Sam had thrown away on the day they left the farm last year. Now it was tied to the gatepost with a thin stretch of rope so the wind wouldn't blow it over.
The car came barreling up the drive and stopped in the yard. Shayna was getting more excited and when the driver's side door opened, she jumped off the steps and ran to Jessie as she got out of the car.
"Jessie!" the little one cried as she threw herself into her sister's arms. Jessie was wearing her uniform. It had been tailored especially for her since she was the first woman ever to be allowed into the Herethenan military.
"Shayna!" Jessie laughed as she picked her up and spun her around. She put Shayna down quickly and let her follow as she went around to the passenger side door. The door opened and Calvert struggled to get out.
"I don't need help," he said good-naturedly, waving Jessie's hand away. After a few moments of trying, he managed to get both feet on the ground, the real one and the wooden one. He used the car door to hoist himself up and then he reached back and pulled out his cane. Leaning on the dark sturdy wood, he walked over to the porch, Jessie walking close behind in case he changed his mind about needing help. Sam walked over to meet him halfway.
"It's good to see you," Sam said.
"It's better to see you," Calvert replied with a smile. Calvert offered his hand and Sam shook it happily. Then he got out of the way quickly.
"Go right in," Sam said. "I just took the cake out."
"You shouldn't leave me alone with a fresh baked cake," Calvert said as he hobbled towards the porch steps.
"A general should have enough self-control not to endanger someone else's birthday cake," Sam said.
"You haven't met many generals," Calvert laughed over his shoulder as he climbed the steps.
Sam turned his attention to Jessie, who was being hampered by Shayna clinging to her leg. With Sam's help, Jessie pulled Shayna off and sent her up the stairs into the house. Sam and Jessie wrapped their arms around each other and Sam patted her on the back before he pulled away.
"Happy birthday," he said.
"Thanks," Jessie said. Sam had seen her pretty often in the past year, as she made a point of visiting every couple of weeks. But he still wasn't used to the look of that scar on her cheek. It had faded some over time, but it was still plainly visible. Sam suspected it would be there forever. He could still remember the wound from when she'd showed it to him under the bandage at Twin River. It had reminded him of that time she hurt her leg when she was little.
The sound of another engine pulled Sam attention away from Jessie. This one was smaller than the car and was coming from the opposite direction.
Jessie groaned. "Did you have to invite him?" she asked.
"Yes, I did," Sam replied. "Mindy wouldn't come without him."
The motorcycle turned the corner onto the drive and stopped very close to the car. Sequoyah and Mindy got off. Mindy ran to give Jessie a hug and she nodded to Sam as she passed by. Sequoyah followed her. He gave no hugs, but he gave Jessie a respectful nod.
"Captain," he said.
"Captain," she replied.
"I'm not a captain anymore," he returned.
"Come, the cake's ready," Sam said.
"Music to my ears," Mindy said.
They all trooped up the steps and into the kitchen to find Calvert, Kelsey, and Shayna already sitting at the table. They all pulled up chairs and sat, except for Sam who went to get a knife to cut the cake with.
"I still can't believe they let you keep that bike," Calvert said to Sequoyah.
"It was the least they could do. My information saved Goldrun City," Sequoyah said.
"The bike is noisy," Shayna said.
"Yeah, but it saved my life during the war," Calvert told her.
"Of course, it was just the bike. I had nothing to do with it," Sequoyah joked.
Calvert was about to say something but thought better of it.
"So have you heard from Eliot lately," Kelsey asked Mindy.
"I have," Mindy replied. "I got a letter from him the other day. He's getting along with his aunt better, but her cat still hates his guts."
Kelsey laughed at that.
"So where's Waterford? I thought he was coming today," Sam said as he took out plates for the cake.
"He had to go down to Dimpair," Calvert replied. "His dad is sick and the family needed help."
"I thought he wasn't going to go," Jessie said. "He and his dad don't exactly get along."
"They've gotten better with each other since the whole thing happened," Calvert said.
Jessie nodded, but Sam was in the dark. "What whole thing?" he asked.
"I didn't tell you before?" Jessie asked.
Sam shook his head as he sliced the cake.
"Well, you remember that he was lost behind enemy lines for a while," Jessie began. "No one knew what happened to him until Spring Valley was liberated. He managed to hide out in Mr. Callaway's root cellar for three days until the Fury chased the Arithians away."
"I know that part," Sam said as he finished slicing and started loading the plates.
"So before he was found, the brass contacted his family and told them he was dead," Jessie said.
"What?" Sam was astonished. "How could they make a mistake like that?"
"It happens more than you think," Calvert said, taking a piece of cake.
"When he finally got back in touch with his family, they were so happy to hear that he was alive that they started going to church again. His dad sent him a long letter begging forgiveness for everything he did years ago," Jessie finished. And she took a piece of cake too.
"I guess sometimes dying makes your life better," Sequoyah said.
"You should know about that yourself," Mindy said. She took a slice for herself and one for Sequoyah.
"I suppose I would," he said, taking his cake.
"The Arithian government still thinks you're dead?" Sam asked as he passed cake to Kelsey and Shayna.
"Killed in action," Sequoyah confirmed. "That's what Watts reported."
"He delivered some more money last night," Mindy said.
Sequoyah looked surprised. "Did he really? Without me noticing?"
"He's turning into a sneaky little fox," Mindy said with a smile. "Going back and forth across the border like that."
"Well, he had a good teacher," Sequoyah said with some pride.
"He's also motivated," Mindy said. "He doesn't want to keep that money."
"He's a fool. He should be keeping it," Sequoyah said. "The slave market all but collapsed and it's taken the rest of the economy with it. Why does he think I gave him the money anyway?"
"I'm sure he knows why," Mindy replied. "But he's too honest, and maybe too foolish to accept it entirely."
"Speaking of foolish," Calvert said. "They finally found old Callaway."
"Oh? Where was he?" Mindy asked.
"Hiding out in Saint Thomas Delta," Calvert replied. "They were lucky to get him. He was about to board a ship out of the country. They arrested him right there on the dock. They're going to bring him to Blackham for trial."
"It's about time," Sam said.
"I heard the president wants to decommission the Fury again," Sequoyah said.
Calvert and Jessie both scoffed. "Where'd you hear that?" Jessie asked.
"In Spring Valley last week," Sequoyah replied. "Apparently, it did its job chasing the invaders away and now it aught to be mothballed again."
"That'll never happen," Calvert said. "Even if the president wanted to do that, no one else will agree. And he'll be voted out of office before he gathers any kind of support."
"I heard they were bringing back some more of the newer airships," Jessie said.
Calvert nodded. "The Diamond and the Longbow. They should be operational again within the year."
"So the country will be well protected again," Sam said.
"Long may it stand," Jessie said with false solemnity.
Everybody laughed and dug into their cake. Sam thought that he must be the happiest of all today. It felt so good to be here with his whole family again. It was July, almost a full year since the war had started. So much had changed and yet nothing had changed at all. After all, Smithy was still there and the fire in the stove still went out all the time.