Drifting Down the Lazy River

This story is a sequel to The One Who Got Away

A frustrated young orphan colt with a talent for painting is determined to run away from his dead-end rural village for the distant cultural haven of Baltimare. All he needs to do is slip aboard a raft and drift down the river Fen until he reaches his destination. It’s a simple plan, and would have worked just fine except for one thing.




2. Fate's Chew Toy

"We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

Sunlight stabbed through the holes in his itchy wool blanket, making Turpentine squint while attempting to shift positions on the unyielding logs of the marooned raft. He could barely manage to roll over onto his side and move his legs until the cramps went away, even though the residual chill of the long damp evening still made the stiff hairs on his coat feel as if they were covered in ice.

As a mattress, logs sucked.

It took several tries for him to get to his hooves and stagger to the edge of the grounded raft with a tremor to his coat that only a long soak against a warm campfire would be able to fix. All he needed to do according to the book was to gather up some more dry driftwood and pile it on the coals of the fire from last night. There was just one problem.

The fire was still merrily burning away, with several fresh pieces of damp wood drying on top of the flames. He slowly looked around the early morning riverbank, but there was not a single pony in sight as far as the eye could see. A few birds calling in the distance and the low slugging whoosh of the waves from the river were the only noises around, leaving him just as alone on the shore as possible.

Still, somepony or something had added wood to the fire. Again.

He cautiously skirted around the merry blaze, checking the damp sand for hoofprints, but finding only his own. A growing tremble which was mainly from his chilly coat but also a little from the eerie situation made him huddle a little closer to the fire and cast suspicious glances in all directions while he warmed up. That long swim to the distant river shore was looking more inviting by the minute, except for the obvious problem of drowning in the process. The additional firewood could have been added by a passing pegasus, except Turpentine could not think of any of the social weatherponies he had known who would not at least stop to chat for a while. That only left… monsters.

Still, he had gone to sleep rather uneasily last night, thinking there had never been any terrifying monsters in any of the books he had read which built a campfire for their victims. Monsters were repelled by campfires, or at least that is what the camping books seemed to imply, even though they never really spelled it out. Then again, he had never actually been camping before.

The gear he had brought was the battered and ancient leftovers from the orphanage, where some donated camping equipment had been shoved into a corner of the storeroom for whenever a volunteer would want to take one of the orphans out into the back yard and pretend to be roughing it for a day or two. The only thing was since his home town of Tidewater was so focused on agriculture and so little on wilderness adventures, the only time Turpentine had really experienced the great outdoors, other than helping a farm pony plant or harvest, was on the walk down the road to or from that activity.

Trying to put the campfire into the category of ‘Wandering Helpful Pegasus,’ Turpentine returned to his day’s schedule. The books in the orphanage library had mentioned something called ‘backy, which he could not find, and coffee, which he could, so Turpentine had packed along the old dusty and dented coffeepot from the storeroom for his trip. If there was some sort of invisible non-track-creating creature out there who helped build campfires for little colts who were out on adventures, the least he could do was make them some coffee. Cowponies always seemed to be drinking it around their campfires and Mother Windrow had guarded her little pot with the zeal of a dragon curled around its hoard, so it must have been good.

He dipped out some river water and tried to duplicate what little of her morning ritual he could remember.

It could have gone better.

After a great deal of shuffling rocks around and wedging a few sticks into the fire at odd angles, he managed to get the coffee pot and what little water remained in it propped up at an angle which would probably not spill across the campfire again when his back was turned. The actual coffee smelled wonderful while he spooned a few scoops into the pot and stuck the lid back on, with only a little sand getting into the pot. It would be nice to have something warm in his belly after being out on the raft for several days with nothing to eat but dry alfalfa biscuits and a few rubbery fruit chews.

By the time everything was all arranged, he was feeling pretty good, even to the point of forgetting all about the strange self-fueling campfire. There was just a little bit of fog still clinging to the river’s surface in the morning light, which illuminated the far bank in shades of dark green and light orange. The Running of the Leaves was right around the corner next month, when the colors of the trees really burst into full display and Turpentine would spend most of his free time wandering around in deep appreciation, and occasionally into a deep hole when he failed to watch his step. The rest of the ponies around his home town were of a far more practical sort. They worked diligently to bring in the harvest without any more than a passing glance at the beautiful sights until the first flakes of snow began and the leaves had all been shaken off the trees.

He dug out his easel and arranged it on the raft before cautiously removing his precious set of oil-based paints and checking them for damage. When he left the orphanage, he had sealed up the watercolors in his portfolio in the most waterproof folder Turpentine had been able to afford, because the humidity and splash would have ruined them beyond any repair, but the oil paints in their locking case seemed relatively undamaged and his tattered collection of brushes still functioned.

At least that part of his planning had worked, even if the rest was temporarily on hold. As soon as he could get off this sandbar, it would only take another week before he would step off the raft at Baltimare with his paintings and worldly possessions on his back. Well, most of them. There was going to be quite a bit of extra gear left on the raft, because it had taken him several trips to load it up for his trip.

In any case, that was a minor detail. At that point in Turpentine’s journey, his planning was somewhat sketchy. Since the docks were so paintable with the schooners and big ships sailing around the harbor, he was positive there was going to be some artistically-inclined individual painting the scene. As a fellow artist, Turpentine would only have to walk up and ask for directions to the school. Maybe the artist would even introduce him to his or her patron, and Turpentine could start working on the same day while attending school. Patrons were supposed to be rich and generous like that, and living in an art studio would be a nice change, with a big bay window and lots of space to hang up his works.

Then the grounded raft shifted slightly under his hooves, and Turpentine was brought back to the cold and somewhat chilly reality. Rather than muse about his future, he took the slender pencil in his mouth and began to consider a sketch of the distant riverbank where it faded into the mist with the faint silhouette of a steam tug chuffing upstream.

When Turpentine was much younger, he had not understood the importance of the faint leaden lines on the canvas, and his paintings had suffered from a bad case of slump and wobble as a consequence. Long, slow strokes of the pencil always drew his attention away from whatever stressful situation he was living through and brought a little bit of peace to his spirit. At the orphanage or with whatever set of adoptive parents was trying to find a Turpentine-sized hole in their family for him, the quiet time of preparing to sketch an outline was always interrupted by some older pony who thought they were doing the right thing by checking on him. They did not understand why a period of contemplation was important to the finished picture, only that he tended to sit unmoving for long periods of time with a pencil in his teeth and a blank piece of canvas in front of him.

He touched the pencil to the stark white canvas and drew in short, gentle touches. Between the few puffy clouds in the sky to the dull browns of the raft, there was not enough of one constant color to warrant making a full toned background before starting, but putting three different wide swaths of brown, aqua and blue across the canvas first would have allowed each section a fuller depth of field. He had decided against it, because on the downside, it would keep him from painting any more on it until a day or two had passed in order to let it dry. Then again, he really did not have that much on his schedule for the day other than sweating and straining against the heavy raft while trying to get it dislodged from his inadvertent anchorage.

Painting was far more preferable, particularly when he could take his time to capture the moment exactly the way it should be.

There were times when Turpentine was just seized by the beauty of the moment for hours and tried his best to soak it all in, which was not much of an excuse when he was found standing in a half-plowed field with a butterfly perched on his nose. He was big enough to do the hard work around a farm, and could do it, except for distractions. It really was not his fault how butterflies seemed to like the colors in his cutie mark, or that he liked to watch them flutter about. Understanding how they flew and getting that sense of flight down on canvas was work, just as difficult as bucking an apple tree or pulling a plow.

A few butterflies would add a little color to the scene, and he doodled a couple of pencil dots where he planned on adding them after the background was complete. The mist curling up out of the relatively warmer river water and hitting the chill morning air would make painting the scene easier, much like painting Princess Celestia in a snowstorm. It was a perfectly peaceful time, where the cries of the birds and the gentle humid breeze off the water merged into an indescribable feeling of completion. He could feel the painting in his mind’s eye far sharper than any crude photograph or simple sketch, with the quiet lapping of the waves against the raft and the faint clink of a coffee pot as somepony poured themselves a hot drink to take away some of the fogbound chill of the early morning.

A startled yipe behind Turpentine sent the pencil in his teeth flying while his peaceful mood shattered. He made a frantic grab for the falling artist’s easel while behind him, the coffee pot clattered to the sand-covered ground and splattered little droplets of hot coffee in all directions. There was just a bare glance of somethingout of the corner of his eye when he whirled around, but the splash from the river made him hold a foreleg over his eyes, and by the time he had blinked away the resulting spray, whoever or whatever it was had vanished. The empty coffee pot was upended on the damp sand with his cup nearby, both seemingly flung away by whatever creature had made its escape back into the shimmering river, which still had a growing circle of large ripples from where it had vanished.

He stood there for a while, breathing heavily while looking around for a hefty piece of driftwood for a club in case the monster came back out of the river and attacked. The only thing handy was the coffee pot, but it scorched his lips when he bent over to pick it up and he wound up dropping it on a rock out of reflex, adding to its collection of dents.

“Kelpie,” he whispered. “But I thought they only lived in swamps.”

There had been a couple of books in the orphanage’s collection of donated cast-offs which had stories about kelpies, but they had not been very consistent about the way they treated their subject matter, other than to imply that disobedient foals who wandered into the Dark Woods would come to a nasty end.

They never had said anything about kelpies liking coffee.

Suddenly, the expanse of river around Turpentine seemed overwhelming, as if it were just waiting to surge over his little island and swallow him up to be eaten by a horde of pony-eating kelpies with long, sharp teeth and hideous claws. At least he had one defense against being eaten, even if it was really weird. He threw a few more chunks of driftwood onto the fire and found a piece of cloth so he could grab the coffee pot by the handle without being burnt. If there were kelpies in the river, and they liked the taste of coffee more than tender young colt, he could keep brewing them coffee until he could flag down a passing tugboat shoving barges up or down the river.

Of course, there was one big problem with his plan.

Still holding the cloth-wrapped handle of the coffee pot in his teeth, Turpentine crept up closer to the water’s edge. This was always where the hero’s faithful sidekick or unnamed traveling companion would be attacked and dragged screaming under the waves to an unseen end, sometimes with a bloom of red in the water that only sealed their ultimate fate. He darted forward and scooped up a pot full of water, nearly trampling the campfire on his panicked retreat from the river. The worst part was looking down into the coffee pot and seeing just how much sand he had scooped up with the muddy water.

“Oh… buck it.”

He plunked his rear down in the sand and stared out across the shimmering water while looking for the kelpie, then got up in order to remove the sandbur he had just sat on. Settling down a little more cautiously this time, Turpentine resumed his observation over his anything but silent surroundings. It was remarkably calming. His initial terror at the underwater creature’s presence gradually tapered off into a wariness tempered by the realization that it was a small splash, and anything really dangerous would have been able to gobble him up last night. Perhaps the kelpie was very young and inexperienced, and was even now fleeing back to its parents, gibbering in fright at the terrifying pony it had encountered on the Big Dry.

At least it would have somewhere to run.

While his heartbeat slowed and the sun started to warm the surface of his coat, Turpentine could feel the treacherous little tremor in his chest start up again, just as it had when he first pushed the raft away from the shore and watched the little town he had grown up in dwindle away in the distance. He sat there for a long time while the sun slowly climbed up into the sky and the mist burned off the water’s surface. No kelpies or other monsters appeared, although in the distance he could see another tugboat slowly chugging down the river with a set of barges trailing behind it, and as the morning wore on, another tugboat with a set of barges chugging even slower upstream.

The river did not care what happened to him. Nopony cared.

Leaning back on his hind legs, Turpentine threw the sand-filled coffee pot just as far out into the river as he could. It bobbed once before vanishing beneath the sun-glistening ripples, leaving Turpentine feeling oddly naked. He really did not know why he threw the useless thing, just that after so many days and nights out on the raft, his coat itched with a damp chill, his belly seemed as empty as a tomb while his mouth tasted like something had died in it, and he was sick to death of the taste of sand. He just wanted to go home, back to the orphanage and crawl into his bed where everypony thought he was a lazy little colt and eventually some bean farmer with a high tolerance for his behaviour would adopt him and he would spend the rest of his life being miserable in the middle of a big pile of food.

A few grains of the everpresent sand must have gotten into his eyes, because they welled up with tears that only got wetter when he tried to brush them away with his sand-covered hooves. Big colts did not cry, no matter how many times they get brought back to the orphanage with those kind yet cutting words, “He just doesn’t fit in with our family.” At least there was nopony here to see his embarrassment when the tears began to wash down his cheeks.

Or at least so he thought, until he heard a very small voice from the river say, “I’m sorry.”

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