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Authors: Gary Schanbacher

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BOOK: Crossing Purgatory
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“I have to check those other men,” he said. “Just to make sure they have left us for good. Then I'll see to things. Will you be all right here?”

She did not answer, did not even look at him but kept focused on the ground a foot in front of her.

“I'll only be a short time.”

He took up his rifle and hurried across the stream and directly up the bank. He saw no purpose in stealth, could not afford the time. He would encounter whatever waited over the rise face on, quickly, to whatever end. He had in fact heard a horse when he had gone to the river. It was grazing not far from where the second man lay on the ground. The man was yet alive but unable to move, other than to lift his head at Thompson's approach. The man's right leg was bent at a sharp angle away from him. He did not appear to be bleeding, but his belly was distended and tight-looking as a drum. Something bleeding inside, Thompson thought. The man's pistol lay on the ground away from him, and he looked at it when he saw Thompson, but was unable even to move his arm. His eyes looked glazed and shone brightly.

“A drink,” he demanded of Thompson.

“Go to hell, you son of a bitch,” Thompson answered. He retrieved the pistol and tossed it far into the grass. Then he walked to the horse, took up its bridle and began leading it away.

“Don't leave me like this,” the man said. “Finish it.”

“It is finished. Look, the buzzards already circle.”

“Goddamn them Free-Soilers,” the man said. Pink foam bubbled from his nose and from his mouth when he spoke. His breath came in gurgles. “Goddamn you.”

Thompson turned away and led the horse back toward the stream and murmured to himself, “Yes, I believe He has.” He tried to hurry, but his limbs felt heavy as if wallowing through deep mud. He could not imagine what must be Hanna's burden and he struggled with what he could ever offer in way of succor.

Thompson went to work with the spade once again and took the better part of the midday digging. Afternoon, he stood over their graves. Ned. Obadiah. And beside them, the child, Martha. He tossed a handful of dirt into each hole and picked up his Bible and thumbed through the passages and felt nothing but hopelessness and despair. Job: “I
cry unto thee, and thou dost not hear me”; “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men”; “Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.”
He looked down into the hole that held Obadiah, and he tossed his Bible into the pit and began, shovel by shovel, returning first him and then Ned to dust.

The heat rose up off the prairie and he was drenched in sweat by the time he filled and tamped the graves. As he walked down the hill and drew near the corpse of the first fallen rider, he was startled by a green mist that hovered above the body. He drew near; the mist shimmered in the sun and made a buzzing sound. Blowflies. The flies had found the body and they swarmed by the thousands, a cloud of green. They alighted in the dead man's eyes and crawled into his nostrils and into his open mouth. The dung beetles and ants too had found him and one arm seemed to move with life as the insects tunneled their way into the sleeve of his jacket. Thompson shivered, felt a surging in his throat, suppressed it, and then left the man where he lay and went down to the creek and washed himself in the cold water. Then he returned to the wagon and found Hanna where he'd left her hours ago, unstirred. He asked if she was hungry but she did not answer, did not even look up at him. He dipped water from the pail and tilted her head and tipped the ladle to her lips. Most of the water ran down her chin and onto her dress. He dipped a cloth into the water and went to Joseph and put the cloth to his mouth. After a moment, Joseph's eyes fluttered and his lips puckered at the cloth, although he did not regain consciousness.

“Good,” Thompson encouraged, and squeezed the cloth and Joseph suckled in earnest.

Thompson unhitched the oxen from the wagon that Obadiah had prepared for travel early that morning. He left them yoked to graze and he picketed the milk cow and the horse he'd taken from the raider. He had a vague sense of himself at the chores, but no firm grounding in reality. What was happening? One moment he found himself at the hog trough in Deep Woods, Indiana, the next kneeling beside an unresponsive woman clutching her knees, rocking, gazing into space like an old woman lost in childhood. Night came on. He built a small fire and drank coffee and ate some of the rice and beans he'd cooked, when? He could not entice Hanna with either coffee or beans. He retrieved a blanket and draped it around her shoulders. She had not moved. He rested against the wagon wheel where he could keep an eye on Hanna and hear Joseph should he call out.

What course now? He could not bear the thought of returning them to Cottonwood Creek in this condition. Who would minister to them? He could reunite with Upperdine's party, but what then? He could not form complete thoughts, could not formulate a plan. His legs twitched, he ached to be up and moving. A part of him wanted nothing to do with this responsibility. He'd stayed behind with the Lights to lend a hand, to keep watch. And he'd failed. A part of him wanted to walk out of camp, off into the darkness, and to be done with it. He hated that part of himself.

Night deepened and he fought to stay awake. He feared sleep, but the day had exhausted him, and eventually his eyes closed against his will and his awareness dimmed. Somewhere out beyond, he heard the sound of prairie beasts, snarls and yips, a deep growl, and he hoped they had found the wounded stranger who had caused this pain.

7

I
n his dreams, the skeletons returned, the rattling of bones. From the horde rose up a monotone lamentation.

“Tell us. Tell us.”

“Tell you what?” Thompson demanded.

“You know,” the reply.

“Why do you persist?”

“You know,” the reply.

“Why can't you leave me in peace?”

“You know,” the reply. “Tell us.”

“The children,” Thompson said.

“Yes. The children. Go on.”

“No.”

“Go on, go on.”

“The children. I knew. I knew. I knew.”

T
HOMPSON
'
S EYES SPRANG OPEN
. N
OT
even in his dreams had he confessed before. Not in dream, nor in prayerful confession, nor during waking hours. Yet the truth now opened his memory, laid bare his transgression. Raw, ugly like a rotting carcass.

He'd checked his boys that morning before starting off for his father's estate, first Matthew and then Daniel. Their foreheads burned. Cheeks flushed. Daniel had stirred, had reached for him, but Thompson settled him onto his mat without picking him up. Without an embrace. He'd debated at the threshold, stay or go, a moment only, and then departed. Rachel would look after them. He needed funds. He wanted the land.

What must it have been like for Rachel? To sicken, to witness fever overcome her children, too weak to nurse. Those moments, those slow fading days, did she know? The sinking, the aching and fever and then a moment, perhaps, of clarity? The thin veil between here and there, had she seen through it, passed back and forth until the question finally resolved itself? He recognized something of her travels in her eyes that last day, but the haunted whole of it he could only imagine.

Thompson stood. Dream world or real? Muzzy, he walked to the water pail and splashed his face. The muted light, a dim and mysterious world. A suggestion of form, a hint of substance, but indistinct. He fought to relegate his dark epiphany to the realm of drifting and unreliable imagination. This was real, this new day on the open plains. But truth stood firm, did not retreat. The world took shape, shadows solidified into wagon and firestone, but the truth remained before him, ox-like, stubborn, massive, and accusing.

Thompson took up the dipper and filled it, drank, and looked about. A clear dawn, high sky, and free of clouds. The animals docile in the pasture. The camp orderly. On the ground, her discarded blanket.

“Hanna,” he called, his voice strident, causing the animals to raise their heads as if sniffing for danger. He scanned the riverbank, the pasture, the hill. There. On the hill. Digging. He called to her but she gave no indication of hearing. Running past the wagon, Thompson glanced in and found Joseph sleeping, and he ran on, pleading, “Hanna, no.” He approached her and slowed, sucking for breath. She dug furiously. The girl's coffin was exhumed, the lid worried and splintered in one corner, but Hanna apparently had been unable to pry it open. A mound of dirt rose beside Obadiah's grave as well, his body not yet exposed. He took hold of her shoulders and pulled her from the hole and wrestled the shovel from her and threw it aside. She swung on him and connected with her open palm to the side of his face. Stunned him. With surprising strength she pummeled him, head, neck, pounding, kicking, silent, the huffing of her exertion the only sound resonating in the still morning. Thompson's knees buckled and he almost fell. He sensed that if he stumbled, she would take the shovel to him, and he almost surrendered, let it happen. Why not, really? So easy, just bow to it. But some instinct sparked him to action, would not permit him to go down into the pit with the others. He straightened and struck Hanna on the side of the head, and she fell.

8

T
he two of them rode in the bed of the wagon, Joseph awake on and off, groaning, and Hanna, mute, her hands and legs bound to the sideboards to keep her from climbing down and returning to the graves. Thompson had removed the parlor organ and a three-drawer oak chest to make room for them. He'd tethered the horse he'd taken from the raider to the back of the wagon but he'd left the milk cow lowing on the prairie because he could not afford its pace. Once on the west bank of the creek, Thompson turned and regarded their camp, the three hummocks of fresh earth on the hill, the parlor organ beside the cold fire ring, as if set out the evening prior for a recital, the abandoned cow rubbing its flank against the chest of drawers. The cryptic story of one emigrant family. Thompson prodded the oxen and hollered commands. He needed to put the camp behind him. He walked through the day and into night, eating and drinking on the move, stopping only to take water and food to Joseph and Hanna. Sanitation breaks for Hanna, Thompson the awkward sentinel. Joseph began to recover an appetite, although Thompson had little to offer—stale biscuits, a few strips of jerked venison. The water in the pail running low. Hanna drank, ate little, and did not talk. Her expression remained fixed. Joseph and Hanna were inattentive toward one another and both toward Thompson.

Thompson did not graze the team. They bellowed in protest, kept plodding. The trail showed white under the partial moon and he pushed on. He would not stop, knew he could not sleep even as weariness overcame him. He walked. That first night his legs held out, felt strong with urgency. The second day, the sun tried to suck him dry, drain his resolve. But he came upon a stream and allowed the animals to drink and filled the water pail and then whipped the team onward. Compelled to rejoin Upperdine. Why, he did not know, but a goal, a goal he could focus on. He walked. The wagon creaked along.

The second night, the skeletons appeared and marched beside him. He was unaware when exactly they had arrived, but he did not care, they no longer frightened him. They'd heard his confession. He asked once if they bothered Joseph or Hanna, the rattling and clacking of bone against bone. The drums they carried, beating and beating, low, a vibration in the gut. Hanna did not respond and Joseph said only, “Nothing bothers me anymore.” Sometimes, walking, he dozed. The clamoring of the bones kept him from drifting completely and falling and he welcomed their company. His tormentors, his inquisitors, became his companions on the road. The following day, he no longer noticed the heat. Dust raised up by the wind and by the thousands of shuffling feet covered his clothes and made him look as if he worked in a grinding mill. Fine grit in his nose and between his teeth. He did not care.

Night may have come again, and morning. He wondered if the oxen would fail, decide to kneel in the middle of the road and die, but he continued to prod them and they responded. He pressed on. Overtake the company. Upperdine would know what to do. The day passed, heat, glare, a softening, sunset, deep into deep. The oxen plodded, Thompson walked.

The skeletons began to lag behind. Hallo, boys, he encouraged them to keep up, but slowly they receded. Vague shapes in the distance, like trees in a snowstorm. Thompson needed them. They kept him awake; they held him up. He angered. Leaving the team, he backtracked a few yards to search for them. They were no longer in sight. It may have been nighttime, he did not know.

“Come back,” he screamed. “You god-damned demons, come to me.”

“Easy, boy.” A voice. Confused, startled, he reached for his knife. Something restrained him.

“Easy, now. We'll take it from here.”

9

T
hompson awoke from so deep and un-dreaming a sleep that for a pause he imagined himself back in Deep Woods. He rested in transient drowsiness and ticked through the chores for the day: the mule needed shoeing, the new field cleared of stumps.

“Feeling human?” Upperdine asked, standing at the back of the wagon, peering into the cocoon of the canvas-shrouded wagon bed.

Thompson opened his eyes. He'd been resting on a straw-ticked mattress in the back of Upperdine's wagon. He sat up. “How long have I been out?”

“A day and a night and most of today.” Upperdine handed Thompson a dipper of water, which he drained and handed back to Upperdine. Upperdine pulled a flask from a hook on the sideboard, uncorked it and poured a measure and Thompson drank the brandy as well, felt the burn of it in his throat, and almost immediately warmth in his gut. He couldn't say when last he'd eaten. Much he could not recall clearly. As the sleep left him, images came back in flashes, gunfire, and blood. Digging. Travel like sleepwalking.

BOOK: Crossing Purgatory
11.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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