B-Sides: He's a Hero

MCMThursday, April 16, 2020

B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.

On sunny days like these, the breeze coming off the water and the trees rustling gently all along the hill, he knew he’d made the right choice. Leaning against the stone post at the eastern end of Sapper’s Bridge, the man in the blue coat took a moment to enjoy the silence. Silence was such a rare treasure, you had to cherish it when it passed by.

“Hello, Mr Trinket,” said a young boy in a too-stiff shirt. “Do you have any soldiers?”

Mr Trinket snapped out of his daze, his kind smile returning like it’d never left. He gave the boy a wink and said: “English or French?”

The boy stuck out his tongue at the idea. “English, of course. With a rifle, please.”

Mr Trinket had his wares set out along the edge of the bridge, two-deep and sorted according to his fancy. He knew exactly where every little carving was, but he still made a show of hunting high and low for the one he was after. Birds and bears, ladies with parasols and burly lumberjacks, elephants and dolphins...every one of them waiting to be found.

He finally settled on one he’d set aside for just such an occasion: a redcoat, kneeling down to get the perfect shot, this rifle aimed into the distance. Mr Trinket picked it up, turned it around as if he wasn’t entirely sure it was right. And then he handed it to the boy with a smile.

“What do you think?” he asked. “Will it do?”

The boy inspected it carefully, as he always did. He seemed very taken with the details on the rifle. It was a tiny figurine, but held hours of secrets if you looked hard enough. “What’s his name?” the boy asked, not taking his eyes off it.

“You know, I forgot to ask,” said Mr Trinket. “What do you think?”

The boy frowned, still studying the piece. “Wolfe. General Wolfe.”

“Hmm,” said Mr Trinket. “Odd thing, a General on the field, no?”

“He’s not on the field,” said the boy. “He’s shooting from afar.”

“Afar? At what?”

“At the French commander,” said the boy, quite certain. “He’s riding into battle on a horse and can’t be stopped.”

“Sounds dangerous. Is the General afraid?”

“No, never. But his men are dying, so he’s taken a rifle from his officer, and he’s going to shoot the Frenchman.”

Mr Trinket smiled. “Brave man, that General Wolfe.”

“Of course. He’s a hero,” said the boy, like the suggestion of anything else was absurd. He lectured Mr Trinket regularly about the might and righteousness of the British army, completely oblivious to the French accent on the other end of the conversation. It might’ve been offensive, but the lad was too genuinely enthralled with his off-kilter imaginary world to be malicious. Though it did make his mother blush in embarrassment.

A thought came to Mr Trinket, and he looked back across the bridge, toward Uppertown. The bridge and road beyond were deserted.

“You’re not alone now, are you?” he asked. “Where’s your mother?”

The boy stopped studying the soldier, reluctantly. “She said we could see you today.”

“But she didn’t come with you?”

“She wasn’t feeling well,” said the boy. “She wouldn’t get up, so I went on my own.”

Mr Trinket frowned. “You’re young to be traveling alone. Did you tell her you were leaving?”

“I did, but she wasn’t listening. She was still asleep.”

A worry was growing in Mr Trinket’s gut. He looked as far west as he could see, down at the distant stone houses where the wealthy English families lived. He’d never actually crossed Sapper’s Bridge itself, let alone ventured that deep into Uppertown. The thought of it made him ill...and yet... “Does she often stay in bed this late in the day?”

“She’s not in bed,” said the boy. “She’s in the cellar, resting on the stairs.”

Mr Trinket’s heart stopped. He slung his pack over his shoulder, trying to hide his worry. “Shall I walk you home?”

The boy seemed genuinely surprised by the idea. “But you live on the bridge...”

“I like to take walks now and then,” he said. “And to pass the time, you could give me your thoughts on a new soldier I’m working on...” He picked an unfinished carving off the ledge and offered it: an unpainted character with his hand to his brow, searching the landscape. “What do you say?”

The boy took the soldier and studied it closely. “Yes. I think so.”

“Good,” said Mr Trinket, and hurried them away, leaving his livelihood in the gentle breeze, unattended.

“Is he English?” asked the boy, as they passed the cemetery on the other side of the bridge. “What colour coat does he wear?”

“What colour do you think?” asked Mr Trinket, feeling a shiver deepen the further away he got from Lowertown. These were hostile lands he was in, with no allies around to save him if things went wrong.

“Red, of course,” said the boy. “What is he doing?”

They were approaching the road up Barracks Hill toward the army camp, where actual redcoats were on guard behind the tall wooden fence. A pair of soldiers near the gates had noticed him and the boy. They were discussing the situation between themselves without taking their eyes off him. Their bayonets glinted in the sunlight.

“Watching,” said Mr Trinket. “He’s watching.”

“Watching what?” asked the boy, oblivious to everything around him.

“I’m not sure,” said Mr Trinket. “What do you think?”

The soldiers made it very clear they were on guard for trouble. An older man with a faded blue coat, walking along with a well-off child? That was worthy of suspicion all on its own. Heading into Uppertown, though...that could quickly prompt action.

The boy finished contemplating the question, and said: “He’s watching for danger. He’s keeping his men safe. He’s a scout.”

“Sounds like a tough job. What will he do if he spots danger?”

“He’ll run to tell the others.”

“Is he a fast runner?” asked Mr Trinket, doing his best to look innocent.

“Hmm,” said the boy. “He can’t run that fast.” An idea came to him. “A horse would be better! You had one, back at the bridge! I can—”

He turned to go, but Mr Trinket caught his arm. Not roughly, but any contact was more than enough for the soldiers. They started down the hill.

The boy was shocked by the interruption, so Mr Trinket did his best to calm him. “We’ll get it later,” he said. “As many as you like.” The soldiers were still a long ways off, but there was no way he would escape them like this. He smiled at the boy. “Do you like piggy-back rides?”

The boy got very sombre very suddenly. “I’m not allowed.”

“Your father doesn’t—”

“Father went away,” said the boy, like there was a world of hurt behind the words. He looked away, which probably made the soldiers even more determined.

“I don’t mind giving one, if you don’t mind taking it,” Mr Trinket said, kneeling down.

The child’s uncertain expression changed in a moment. He giggled and flung himself up onto Mr Trinket’s shoulders, grabbing hold of his hair for support and kicking his little feet like he was urging a horse onward. “Let’s go!” he laughed.

Mr Trinket got to his feet, unsteadily, and feigned his best smile before starting off toward Uppertown.

The soliders slowed their pace and stopped, not quite sure what to make of it, but deciding the trip wasn’t worth the effort anymore.

“Has the scout killed any Frenchmen?” asked the boy, a short time later.

“I don’t know,” said Mr Trinket. “Do scouts usually kill?”

The boy thought on that a moment before answering: “Not always. Only if someone catches them watching.”

“Then let’s hope our friend is very good at not being seen.”

“Oh, he is. He’s a hero, too. A brave hero, but one who’s never seen.”

The boy shifted a little, putting pressure in just the right spot, and the strap on Mr Trinket’s pack snapped. It swayed off him at an odd angle, and the boy slid a bit further down his back, grabbing at his hair tighter to keep from falling.

Mr Trinket knelt down again and let the boy off, then removed the pack completely and set it in the reeds at the side of the road. They were closing in on the first houses of Uppertown now—little cottages, spread out in what the English saw as the outskirts of civilization. Now was the time to move decisively. Carefully. Delicately.

He let the boy back up, re-set his smile again, and carried on walking.

“What colour boots should he have?” he asked, cheerful again. “I can’t decide.”

The boy set the scout atop Mr Trinket’s head as he mused. The sharper bits poked his scalp, but he didn’t flinch.

“Brown boots,” said the boy. “Brown like mud.”

“Hmm, interesting. Why mud?”

“So he can walk in mud and no one will be cross with him.”

Mr Trinket laughed. “Good thinking. I bet he’ll be happy with...” He trailed off as he saw, in the first cottage, a woman looking out her window a them. Her faced was twisted into an unmistakable frown, and she was saying something over her shoulder, like she was giving a report. He prayed it wasn’t her husband. He prayed her husband wasn’t armed.

“Where is your house, exactly?” he asked.

“The yellow door,” said the boy, pointing forward to the thicker cluster of houses a little beyond the rise. “We have a yellow door.”

“Alright,” said Mr Trinket. “Alright.”

The roads in Uppertown were smoother than Lowertown’s. The gravel was packed better, the ruts from wagons were lighter, and along the sides, the wildgrass looked tamed. The houses, all made of brick themselves, had carefully-laid stone paths up to their porches, where flowers grew in little raised garden beds, all perfectly tended.

There were two churches he could see already, and a smattering of little stores that all looked better-kept and better-stocked than anything they had in Lowertown. The women wore proper dresses of the latest fashion; men had suits that weren’t sun-bleached or frayed.

They all watched the wiry outsider and his little companion with great interest.

“Mr Trinket,” said the boy. “I’m hungry.”

“Just a little longer. We’ll be there soon.” He hoped. He had no idea how far it really was.

One of the Uppertown men peered out of a barber shop, then said something over his shoulder, which prompted an older man in a red coat to step outside, his face half-shaved, and watch Mr Trinket go by. He tossed a towel inside and started to follow.

“There it is,” said the boy, pointing a few doors down, on the left. “That’s my home.”

Sure enough, there was a yellow door there, at the base of a stately two-storey building with a steep-angled roof and a beautiful garden behind a short iron fence. The goal in sight, Mr Trinket quickened his pace, holding tight to the lad’s legs to make sure he didn’t fall off.

“You there!” shouted the soldier from behind. “Stop!”

They were ten seconds from the gate. Ten short seconds. Mr Trinket didn’t stop.

“I said stop!” shouted the soldier. “Stop this instant, or—”

Mr Trinket fumbled with the gate, trying to undo the latch, but it made no sense, and he couldn’t make it work, and...

He turned and saw the soldier bearing down on him. He took the boy off his shoulders and quickly set him inside his yard, and turned with his hands up to try to—

The soldier punched him, hard, in the face. He flipped backwards, over the gate, landing with a crunch on the stone walkway. His vision swam, and his body cried out with pain, but all he could think to do was raise his hands to show he meant no harm.

The soldier didn’t care. He threw Mr Trinket’s feet from the top of the gate and climbed over, grabbing him by the collar and jerking him up.

“By God, if you’ve hurt the lad, I’ll—”

“His mother...” slurred Mr Trinket. “His m—”

“His mother what?” snarled the soldier.

The boy was squeezing his two toy soldiers so tightly, eyes wide with fear. Mr Trinket saw the expression, and when he turned back to the man about to kill him, he spoke as softly as he could: “I think she fell. I think she’s hurt. You have to save her, please.”

The soldier’s scowl twitched and roiled...and then faded as the words took root. He, too, saw the lad standing there, terrified, and his demeanour changed in an instant. He let Mr Trinket back down to the ground, then nodded to the boy.

“You stay here with this gentleman,” he said.

“Mr Trinket,” said the boy. “His name’s Mr Trinket.”

The soldier smiled at that. “So it is. You stay here with Mr Trinket. I’ll go check on your mother.”

The soldier went in, then quickly out again. Other men rushed past, and then the doctor, and then another doctor, and then a whole host of ladies who tread so carefully around Mr Trinket and the boy it was like they were infected with something horrible. No one told them anything. No one even thought to try.

As the sun started to set, they called the boy in. Mr Trinket stayed put, waiting for someone to tell him what had happened. No one gave even the slightest clue.

Then, just as it was getting too dark to see, the door opened and the boy came out. His eyes were red from crying, but he wasn’t crying anymore.

“Mr Trinket,” he said, stopping short of where the toyman was sitting, “my mother told me to say thank you.”

Mr Trinket nearly wept, too, at the words.

“For the piggy-back ride,” said the boy.

“Of course,” laughed Mr Trinket.

The boy held out the scout. “Will you paint this for me?” he asked.

Mr Trinket wondered if his pack was still in the reeds. “I will,” he said. “Brown boots, red coat, yes?”

“No,” said the boy. “He’s a hero, so he needs a blue coat, like yours.”

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