Chapter 10: The southside (of south ridge).

As he drew closer to the flame, he could tell that it was a fire burning in a metal barrel. It was deserted, but in the glimmering distance, he could see small reflections in what looked like windows. He walked closer, softer, cautiously listening. All he could hear was the air rushing across the top of the barrel. Standing at the barrel, he could see that the reflections were in the darkened windows of trailers ahead of him. He looked around, to either side, there were other barrels burning in the distance, but no one attending them. He could barely make out the scattered outlines of dilapidated trailers in the darkness. No one seemed to be around.

Without a purpose or a place to go, he warmed his hands over the fire, and pulled a small piece of meat from inside his pack. Something he knew hadn’t fallen across the trash. He pulled off his pack, the weight of his bottles moving to the ground giving great relief. Standing warm and unburdened, alone, he felt himself recovering, and he began to breathe deeply. He closed his eyes and listened. Nothing but the fire. He took two steps back and held his breath. Nothing. Not even the wind. He looked around again, looked at the trailers he could see in the light of the fire.

And in the distance behind him, he heard a clink.

He sprang to action, grabbed his pack and hoisted it back on him and stood with his back to the fire. He walked towards the next barrel, listening intently. He heard more, and pulled to the side of the flame, next to a darkened trailer and edged forward. He edged around the side and ducked to the side, running squarely into the southern wall. He unloaded his bag again and scanned around the back side of the trailer. A rolled, withered canopy rested against a rusted bar overlooking the edge of the plateau. He had traded all of his new felt earlier for liquor, but he could still he see a felt based solution with a non felt material. He hoisted himself carefully up on the wall, dragged himself to the canopy, dislodged it from the bar, and scurried back to his bag. He stepped briefly out of the shadows, unrolled the canopy, cut the edge support out of the fabric with his felt knife, and rerolled it handily. He headed back towards the wall and looped one end around the metal support beam, and fell backwards. The beam held his weight, it could hold his bag.

He looped one end through the shoulder straps and split both ends of the canopies four ways. He double knotted each end of the canopy and and pinned the knot tightly into the crevice between the wall and the trailer. Gently, he lowered the bag, kicking the knot further into the crevice until the rope was held tightly in two places and his bag rested, swaying gently unseen over the wall.

At least temporarily free, he stepped back out into the firelight and headed towards the noise he had heard earlier. He passed another burning barrel, and then another, and the noise gradually grew louder. He kept looking for any distinguishing remarks of the camp, but it was just burning barrels and scattered trailers. Unlike the ones overlooking the ridge, these looked broken down and old. There had been little maintenance, and the weather, blocked from the wind but exposed to all the elements had taken their toll.

In the distance, he could finally make out some figures, a few sat casually around the barrel, and he could make out a few pairs of legs dangling away from the wall. He remained cautious, but relaxed a bit. If they were anything like the workers on the north side, they might just ignore him, unless they approached him. At worse he could be seen as a threat. Most likely, though, he would just look like a broken down old bum, which he certainly was tonight.

When he finally reached the group, he found that it was some kind of party, it was the last barrel against the south east wall, and there were a few dozen people, scattered around, some in small groups in the darkness along with the ones he had noticed earlier.

He entered a stranger, but there was little reaction to him stepping in. A few sideways glances, which then returned to their previous conversation. He walked towards the barrel into the light. The crew around the barrel were older than the rest, and seemed unconcerned that he had walked up. Unconcerned, but not completely ignorant. Sartoris sat down, they did not have the sense of entrapment and fear that the servants before had.

“I know you, son? Whats your name?”, one in the middle said as he approached their circle.

“Sartoris…my name is Sartoris.” he said with a mix of stupidity and confusion.

“God, son, thats a terrible name. Well, I’ve heard worse reasons to drink!”

The crowd around him collectively muttered in approval and the old man pulled a large jug that he had been ressting on out in front of him, summoned a grimy mug from a nearby pile, and poured something into the cup. He poured his jug in his own and passed it along to the rest of the group. He punched the cup out towards Sartoris, and Sartoris accepted it.

“This is?” he looked in the mug, tilting it toward the fire.

“Drink, you drink it, and watc-”

The vapors concentrated in the mug jumped to the fire, Sartoris found himself holding a mug of fire that burned his eyebrows off and cut his bangs to a straight edge of smoldering froth continuing straight past his forehead.

“AH! Damn it!” yelled Sartoris.

The old men broke out in a laugh, and pulled out another mug, and filled it.

“Better watch that,” the liquor man said, “Practically kersoine, that.”

Sartoris sat down, at the edge, and tried to smell the liquor. The nose hairs that had miraculously survived the flame holocaust were no more. He gagged. The old men roared again with laughter. At last, Sartonis held his breath, and poured the liquor on the back of his tongue. It burned. He swallowed it quickly and gasped for air. The aftertaste was burning and foul, and the only thing abrasive enough to burn the flavor was more liquor. It was ascerbic and oily, inconsistent and peppered with grime, but he was locked in the cycle of killing the burning. He pulled in little sips, but before he realized, he was holding an empty glass with a headrush from breathing so heavily.

“Careful there, no shortage here.” the man pulled the mug from his shaking hand, refilled it and put it back into place. Sartoris found himself dazed and drunk again. He pulled closer to the fire and managed to calm his breathing. Having a break from the drink had given him a chance to shake off the horrible combination of terrible flavor and worse aftertaste. After a short while, the old men eased up and resumed their conversation. Sartoris could not follow, the new round of booze was tampering whatever hope of a second wind he had, and the burning barrel seemed nothing but inviting. The night wore on and he listened to the old men talk, soaking in the endless diversions. His relaxed presence and newness had altered their conversation, they argued over old stories with endless asides, explaining the rumor of the development of the south ridge, what the landmarks used to be, and an endless parade of their own stories of how they ended up there. None of them seemed much to care about Sartoris, they would ask him a tangential question, and then immediately argue over who got to interrupt whom and what it reminded them of. In their own excitement to play hillbilly griot, they drowned out anything they might have learned of him.

Sartoris rested, though, and listened. He began to drink from the liquor slowly, and tried to piece together what they were telling him.