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Authors: Gary Schanbacher

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BOOK: Crossing Purgatory
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“N
EED DIRECTIONS
?” T
HOMPSON STOOD IN
the middle of the road, Saint Louis, mid-intersection, immobilized by memory. He turned to the voice and recognized two men who had been smoking in the mercantile.

“I'll find my way.”

“Look lost to me. Look lost to you, Neil?”

“Lost, and in a bad box,” replied the second man, who was easing off to Thompson's left as he answered.

“Tell you what,” from the first man, “you go on and show us what you got in that belt and we'll be off.”

Thompson had been cradling his rifle in the crook of his arm, and now gripped it by the barrel and the neck of the buttstock and brought it out in front of his chest in a defensive position. The rifle was unloaded and the barrel visibly plugged for travel, plainly no threat to fire. As he half turned to keep the second man in his line of sight, the first advanced on him and grabbed the rifle mid-barrel to keep Thompson from swinging it on them. The man brought up a knife in his other hand and slashed Thompson twice on the forearm. Thompson held tight to the rifle and kicked up at the man, once, again, the second time connecting foot to groin. The man sucked in his breath, loosed his grip on Thompson's rifle, and doubled over. Thompson brought the butt down onto the man's instep, a crunching sound, and then swung on the second man, who had hesitated entering the fray an instant too long. The barrel of his musket caught the man a glancing blow in the forehead at the scalp line, dazing him and sending a rush of blood down into his eyes. Backing furiously away, he swiped at his face and seeing the back of his hand dripping with his own blood, turned for the alley beside two buildings on the near side of the street. The first man limped after him and together they disappeared into the narrow passage. Thompson did not pursue. He stood looking about, sucking for breath. The streets were still filled with passers-by. Other than two boys who had paused in their game of dice to watch the confrontation, no one gave Thompson so much as a glance. The boys turned back to their game.

The altercation shook Thompson from his torpor, awakened him to his surroundings. He retraced his steps to the mercantile and used a copper to buy a needle and some thread. With some grumbling the shopkeeper gave him an old flour sack which Thompson used to bind his forearm. He returned to the streets, walking quickly, and finally commercial landscape gave way to residential, and then to poorer frame houses of the workers and servants. He followed the Kingshighway to the city's western outskirts, where he took a room above a roadhouse. He carried a measure of whiskey in a tin cup and fresh water in a washbowl from the tavern to his room, drank half of the whiskey sitting on his bed, removed his tunic, and used the remainder of the whiskey and the water to clean the two gashes on his forearm. He took up the needle and thread and sutured the wounds as best he could, washed out the blood on his shirtsleeve, and sewed the ripped material with the same needle and thread. He judged the tunic more neatly stitched than the arm.

He washed himself, considered shaving, decided against it. He reclined on the stinking mattress and attempted to rest the night away but full sleep never came. The tavern dinned, floorboards creaked throughout the ramshackle structure, fights erupted and concluded downstairs, and thin walls offered no privacy at all. In the room to his right, he could not but eavesdrop on the adventures of a whore and her client, the escalatory slap of flesh against flesh so lusty and proximate that they might as well have been sharing his mattress. On his left, a man deep within the folds of drunken oblivion snored and snorted so loudly that the whore two rooms removed interrupted her partner's increasingly strident bed-rattling to pound on Thompson's wall and curse in protest.

Thompson lay there, his arm now throbbing, and wondered at this strange and hideous place, the city, where people seemed at once invisible and so inconsequential that almost no interaction between one person and another transcended the bounds of decency. To rob, to whore, to ignore common civility on the street? He realized he could never be a part of this place. He'd fled his farm, but the city would provide no sanctuary. So, then, where?

He turned on his side and attempted to doze. His arm hot to the touch, he shivered with fever.

C
OMING ONTO HIS FARM IN
Deep Woods, he noticed immediately. The un-tethered horse grazing on dandelions along the irrigation ditch, the empty hog trough. A chimney free of smoke. Thompson jumped from the cart without reining the mule and threw open the door, calling. Dim indoor light, shadows only. A stench. Rancid meat from a cold pot hanging over dead coals. More, more than that.

“Rachel?”

Looking up from her bed, eyes shining, focused but unseeing. Face a mask of red sores, skin split and oozing. She did not answer, but turned back to Matthew, whimpering at her breast. Her finger weakly tickling his cheek, enticing cracked lips to suckle.

Thompson sat at the edge of the bed and put his hand to her forehead and could not believe the heat. At his touch her chin rose to him and her eyes grew wild. “Gabriel?” she asked, and then, inexplicitly, a line from a song, “Oh, my darling Nellie Gray, they have taken you away.” Then she returned to Matthew, “Take,” she said, offering her breast.

“Daniel?” Gently, the question. No reply, she coaxing the baby with incoherent muttering. Thompson looked about. The sleeping mat. He rose and approached. A stiff, bloated thing, the stench. An overstuffed sausage. He dropped to his knees, retched into the hearth, a great heaving expulsion. He could not bear to look at what days before had been his son. Could not bear to touch it. No choice. He dragged the mat on which his son lay from the house to a patch of ground beneath a persimmon tree and there he dug his son's pit, the mat his winding sheet. He packed tight the crumbled earth. Later, stones to shield him from beasts. He went back into the house with a bucket of water and sat with Rachel and Matthew, a cool cloth to one forehead and then the other, squeezing a drop or two onto tongues swollen and coated white with mucus. He sat with them into the night. Toward sunrise, Matthew's breathing grew shallow. Thinner, the breathing, and then nothing at all. The baby paled. Thompson had no prayer to offer up. Rachel woke just as he finished changing Matthew into his white baptismal gown. She sat straight up in bed and the look in her eyes told Thompson that this, she understood. That, for an instant, the veil of fever lifted. She opened her mouth but remained mute, as if there were no sounds for her grief.

Another grave dug, another son lowered into the ground. He kept his eyes shut as he scooped the dirt back into the hole. He returned to Rachel and sat at her side, holding her hand. She could not talk, a gurgling sound only, rapid breaths, and then she opened her eyes and stared at Thompson, stared through him. Eyes glazed. Unseeing in this world. He wondered if she saw into the next. He held a cup to her lips. “Try.” He hummed a lullaby, or some tune that reminded him of something like a lullaby. He smoothed her damp and matted hair. Her beautiful hair.

He sat through the day. Light moved across the room. Against his will, he dozed. At some point during the afternoon he thought he heard voices outside, a horse sniggering. And then silence and then night came on again. He nodded in and out. He dreamed the precise words to console Rachel, the correct prayers to summon his boys from the grave. But when he awoke he could not remember them. Rachel's hand, cold, her stiff fingers intertwined with his.

T
HOMPSON AWOKE IN THE DARK
of early morning, sweating, chest heaving. The memories would not leave him, would not permit rest. Awake and moving, he sometimes could distract himself, temporarily inhabit the present. But in sleep, the past returned, images crept back, burned anew, engraved themselves more deeply into memory, grew more vivid rather than faded with time. He sat up and swung his legs to the floor. The fever had broken. He tested his arm and found it stiff and tender. He tossed stale water from the basin out the window onto the street below and refilled it from the pitcher on the nightstand and changed his bandage. Before full light, he was up and on the road.

Thompson traveled for a week, following the course of the Missouri from its junction with the Mississippi, west by northwest across the state. In places the river bottom stretched for miles from either bank, fertile and, in places, cultivated. Sometimes the yellow bluffs came up close to the banks and from them he sat looking out over the expanse of river country, the hardwoods, the land's gentle rising and rolling, the pale green of crops ripening in distant fields, and felt an unspecified yearning for something lost. From the stillness of the heights, he could look down on the world below and follow the progress of paddle steamers churning upriver, and flatboats gliding down with their loads of firewood or buffalo hides. Men going about their business. Sometimes the bottomland became so swampy with back eddies and side channels that he was forced to leave it altogether for a stretch of miles. But always the river revealed itself in the cut of the land, in contours carved from flowing water, coursing for millennia after millennia, for years uncountable in human reckoning.

Ten days west of Saint Louis, the salt pork ran out. Thompson had gone three days living on weak coffee and a thin mush of cornmeal mixed with water and a pinch of sugar. But he refused to pass through Jefferson City for supplies. His forearm yet throbbed, the wounds outlined in red and draining, a bothersome reminder of city hospitality. West of the town, a day's journey, he located a promising oxbow on the river, spongy banks carpeted in new grass gently sloping into scrub flats cut with game trails. He camped off to the edge of the opening and slept the night without a fire. He primed and loaded his rifle and put it at half cock and slept sitting upright against a cottonwood. First light, a rustling, and three does and two small spike bucks came out of the brush to drink at the river. Thompson shot one of the bucks cleanly through the lungs. It lurched with the shot and kicked for the river but dropped before reaching it.

He dragged the buck by the forelegs up the riverbank and positioned it on its back, head uphill so it could bleed out when he cut. He dressed out the carcass and skinned it sufficiently to access the backstrap on each side of the spine. He removed the meat and cut it into thin strips on a flat stone he'd pulled from the river. After washing the blood from his hands and arms, he built a fire and roasted the liver and the heart on skewers. While the fire was burning down, he built a drying rack by suspending willow switches over Y-shaped branches staked on either side of the fire pit. He banked the coals and put on some green wood to raise the smoke and draped the meat strips over the rack. While the meat dried, he ate a chunk of the liver and dozed and then turned the strips, ate part of the heart and slept again. Road-weary and sated for the first time in days, he slept without dreaming and woke midafternoon, grateful and rested. He sacked the jerky, and left the river bottom for firmer ground.

3

G
radually, the land stretched out, the woods thinning and the hills flattening into broad reaches of rolling meadowland. Heat built through the day, little rain fell, and locusts flew up from the road at his passing and buzzed into tall grass. Thompson noticed the change, his mind recording countryside not so much his own any longer. It made it easier somehow to forget, to associate his memories with another land, another time. For a day, sometimes, he could walk without falling into the trance of despair. For a night, sometimes, sleep came without visitation from the army of bones beating their muffled drums.

Although settlement thinned, traffic on the road increased. Thompson encountered growing numbers of emigrants striking for the western territories, small groups driving wagons drawn by oxen and mules. The traces, trails, and highways of the east converged at the bank of the Missouri on the border of Kansas Territory. He went by ferry into Westport the evening of July 2nd, passing through the city only because there existed no convenient detour. He did not stop, did not tarry, but hurried though a town that seemed constructed solely for commerce. Near the landing a tangle of ramshackle plank dwellings provided housing, he imagined, for the dockworkers, a cock-fighting pit and several taverns their entertainment. Above the landing, on either side of Westport Road, mercantile shops offered a dizzying array of goods to outfit the emigrants. Through glass display windows Thompson inventoried bolts of calico and flannel; kits of mackerel and dried codfish; coffee beans in hundredweight sacks; camp kettles of Russian iron; kegs of brandy; hardware, tools, rope and tackle. The household goods reminded him of his own home left behind, his family, his Rachel and Matthew and Daniel, and a wave of grief like a sudden nausea washed over him. He slumped against a hitching post until it passed, and then pushed on.

At town center, he stopped to fill his water skin at the community well. The water—clean-tasting, cool, and free of tang—refreshed him. He watched a merchant bargain with two aboriginals over a stack of pelts. The Indians were unlike any Thompson had encountered in the East. Taller, with long-muscled lines and skin more darkened by the sun. The strange ritual of trade, hands gesturing in pantomime, facial contortions, a few guttural syllables, were unintelligible to him, but obviously conveyed meaning for the participants. He left them haggling and on his way out of town passed a group of four Mexicans wearing wide cloth hats and colorful sashes. They played cards, laughing and talking in a melodic tongue, full of rolling consonants and soft vowels. Their skin was dark as some of the Reverend's field hands, and it occurred to Thompson that he was about to enter a territory populated by natives so attuned to their surroundings that they took on its shading.

Thompson followed the Westport Road past fenced corrals holding mules, oxen, horses, and a few sheep. The day was growing short but he wanted quit of the town before stopping. Toward evening he came across a large assemblage camped on open pasture that held good grass and a clear spring running through it. Livestock grazed, some picketed, some free-ranging. Smoke from scores of cook fires drifted above the pasture in a thin shelf of haze. The wagons appeared themselves almost living things with their long wooden tongues lowered to the ground and with canvas stretched over their arched ribs. Osnaburg-hided animals resting alongside the oxen and mules. The company appeared divided into two groups, a large congregation of sixty or so wagons and, to the near side of the meadow, a much smaller grouping of twelve to fifteen.

BOOK: Crossing Purgatory
6.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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