“Would you cut that out!” Malus complained as Petra threw another empty peanut shell at the back of his head. The five New Babbagers had been riding west for about a half hour since sneaking away from the O’Reatus farm rather than deal directly with Gomer Ibbs’s demand they give up Lottie in payment for services rendered.
Emerson reached back and swiped a handful of peanuts before Petra could snatch the bag back out of reach.
“Hey!” shouted Petra. “Bugger off and get your own.”
Emerson chuckled as he cracked a peanut shell between his thumb and finger. “Did I ever tell you about the time the Squire taunted a pair of crazed homicidal elephants up in Bump?” he asked rhetorically. “Teased them with a bag of peanuts and worked them into such a frenzy they broke their chains.” Emerson let the empty shells go over the side of the wagon. “I’ll bet you didn’t know that circuses and traveling road shows cuff their elephants by the ankle rather than cage them.”
Malus turned to Emerson and sneered. “You still owe me a steak and onion dinner.”
“Look, we must be getting close to the Curdles Way,” said Junie, pointing to the southwest. “I see the train.” She drew their attention to the locomotive chugging along about a mile in the distance, hauling a line of at least forty boxcars and coaches. “The wagon trail should be just on the other side of the tracks.”
“The Ibbs family is aware of our escape,” Lottie stated from the back of the wagon.
Emerson was about to ask how she knew when he caught sight of one of the giant black worms cresting the rise about a mile behind them, gliding over the earth like some three dimensional shadow streaking across the rolling green of the far Northern Fells. “Oh, Builder be buggered!”
“They’re after us!” Petra had jumped to her feet and was standing atop the wagon as if daring the worm to do its worst. Emerson pulled out his pocket monocular given to him as a gift from Captain Maynard Quinn. With the aid of the lens he could see the worm was being driven forward by Maude Ibbs. She was flanked by her mother to her right and her father, pitchfork in hand, to her left.
“Em, what are we going to do?” asked Junie, gripping his arm.
Emerson thought about it for a moment. “Squire!” he shouted out suddenly. “You have to get to the crossing ahead of that train.”
Malus redoubled his efforts in driving the asses, skillfully encouraging them to reach for hitherto unknown feats of speed while the wagon’s passengers held on for fear of being jostled from their seats. The worm appeared to move with a silent, supernatural grace as it steadily gained on the fleeing New Babbagers.
It seemed unnatural, the speed with which the worm caught up to the fleeing wagon. It was only a minute until it had closed the distance and was practically upon them. The Gangplankers looked back, horrified as the worm rose up behind them, elevating the Ibbses high into the air. From the wagon it looked as though the worm was about to strike in a very serpentine manner. Its mouth peeled back like a horrid deadly flower, revealing rows upon rows of lethally sharp dagger-like teeth. Its breath was rank, with an acrid odour that brought tears to the eyes.
“Faster, pinhead!” hollered Petra. “It’s goin’ to eat us and then we’ll be trapped inside that bugger for a hundred years!”
“Throw something at it!” Emerson yelled.
Just then the worm, mouth peeled back, crashed down and would have crushed them had the asses not almost stumbled on a rut throwing the wagon suddenly to the side. As it rose up again Petra defiantly threw her bag of peanuts at it.
“We are unlikely to survive a second attempted strike,” said Lottie.
“Lottie, spot me!” Junie shouted, jumping up onto the back of the wagon and squeezing off a couple of shots with her pistol.
“You would do better to aim at the rider rather than the worm,” Lottie called to her, but Junie never got the chance. Another bump knocked her back into the wagon while sending her gun sailing over the side.
“We’re gonna get hit by the train!” Petra shrieked as she pointed.
“We are not!” Malus shouted, but his tone indicated he was not quite sure.
“Oh my god!” Junie shouted from the back, her voice almost drowned out by the whistle from the train. As if with a single voice a scream arose from those in the wagon.
It was by not much more than a hair’s width that the back end of the wagon missed being smashed to pieces by the train. Maude Ibbs, unable to stop the worm’s forward momentum in time, slammed into the side of the train and knocked it from the tracks. The entire Ibbs Family was sent soaring from the back of giant creature to land in a jumble on the mossy tundra beside the tracks.
With cheers of relief as they met up with the Curdles Way, the Gangplankers turned to the north and rode into the Falunian foothills.
“See that sign?” Petra pointed as the asses made their way up the increasingly steep mountain road. “Falun is only another half hour from here.”
“Welcome to Falun – Home of the Pipco Mining Corporation,” read Emerson. “Why don’t you pull over by that welcome sign, Squire,” said Emerson. “I need to relieve myself before we get to town.”
Petra started to laugh. “Sir Sir has to pee.”
“Actually, so do I,” said Junie.
“Me too,” admitted Malus.
“Nuts,” said Petra, “so do I.”
“I will watch the wagon,” said Lottie.
“You know Squire, there is something so invigorating about a road trip,” said Emerson as he stared at the bills posted to the back of the ‘Welcome to Falun’ sign. “It is just so full of possibility. How many trips have we been on now?”
Malus just shrugged his shoulders. He was trying to read a bill advertising sword sharpening services near the Rugbottom hotel.
“What are you guys up too?” asked Petra as she came around from the front of the sign.
“Dammit, Petra,” cursed Malus, turning away. “Beat it, would you?”
“Don’t flatter yerself pinhead, nobody’s peekin’ at yer shame.” Petra glanced at the notices tacked to the back of the sign. She squinted at a few of them then pointed. “Ha! Old Bessie’s still givin’ massages at the Silverfish Hotel,” she said, laughing, as she recognized a few key words above the sketch of a rather voluptuous woman wearing nothing but a shift.
Emerson focused on the business at hand for a moment before glancing back at the dozens of bills posted to the back of the sign. It took a moment for him to register what he was looking at, but one poster, half-covered by others, suddenly caught his eye.
“I can’t do this with her here,” said Malus, readjusting his trousers and heading back to the wagon.
“Last one in the wagon is a rotten egg!” called Petra, running around to the front of the sign.
Emerson, left alone behind the sign, continued to stare at the half-covered bill until he heard the others had climbed back into the wagon. After buttoning his trousers he reached for the poster and tugged it from the sign.
“Petra Flax,” he said to himself. “What did you do to warrant such a large reward?”
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