A work of fiction
There’s nothing in this world that is as violent as nature. Bison roam these lands we ride through, their arched backs steaming in the rising sun, traipsing the endless sea of grass before us. We’ve made a painstaking pace, our caravan plodding slowly, agonizingly, as the days drift from one to the next.
We’ve been lucky enough to avoid the godforsaken fevers running rampant through the settlers, but I would have rathered to have my body kill itself with an internal flame than to have dealt with the endless road to nowhere. There have been whispers among the women, who heard it in their pillow talk from the men, that we’ve caught the attention of the tribes around here. No one bothered to tell the younger people because, well, when you come face to face with an arrow wielding screamer, riding their screaming horses, thundering their hooves into the dirt, your life has already ended.
Pa told me before we left our village that he wanted to start a sheep farm. I begged and pleaded, told him not to make us head out West, but he just smiled at me and walked away. All of a sudden my family seemed softer; the twinkle returned to Ma’s piercing blue eyes, the twins were as well-behaved as little bare-bottomed cherubs, and the Reverend even embraced Pa before we left. Good riddance to that old fool as well, for he’d looked the other way when our fields fell right into hell. Everyone was looking forward to the next few months, while I chewed my nails ‘til they bled.
Now, all that lay on the horizon was grass, far as the eye can see. Ma always said it was peaceful, but all I could ever think about was the eyes that could be hidden in the blades, waiting to release my blood to the dirt; a crimson shower of sustenance for the crows.
You could say I’m a coward, for wanting the comfort of home behind us, but I would rather you say that I’m cautious. I never pass behind a horse, nor do I go to throw rocks in the pond because I know that there lay creatures in wait to sink their teeth into the meat around my bones.
I think the only one that understands me at all is Pa. He’s quiet, reserved, and when you need him, he’s there swiftly by your side, silent and steadfast. I much prefer his presence to Ma or the twins, who combined could make a cacophony of noise so terrible that it could knock the roof right off a house.
Ma is more interested in marrying me off. She nearly had her way of matching me with the Butcher’s boy, but he went out riding one day and lost his scalp and, well, that was the end of that. His horse returned home riderless. We never did find the rest of his skin.
Other than the swarm of dust that envelopes my lungs when the caravan plods on, the sun ripping my lips apart, and the endless yips and yaps of coyotes at night, you could say I’m adjusting to the journey well. I heard a pair of ladies talking about settlers that discovered a forest full of trees the width of three steam engines. Their branches reach so high that they can convene with God and angels in heaven, if there is such a place. I would continue this journey to see magnificent things like that.
The sway of the wagon lulls me to sleep. If I cannot be dead to be rid of this place, I can at least look the part.
My dreams are harassed with burning wagons, the smell of burning flesh, and echoing screams of triumph and terror, a roaring orchestra of death.
Pa shakes me awake and my heart jolts in fear. The sun has already begun to sink and my hands begin to tremble. Another night to fail at counting the stars, jumping at the slightest sigh of wind or a swishing horse tail.
My heart moves farther up my throat as the wagons begin to shudder to a stop, one by one, bedding down in the lion’s den. Pa goes to convene with the guides and other men, they set up shifts, women warm the meals before they are doled out, and the day dies into the night. I can see my breath and pull the wool around my body closer. It offers me neither comfort or warmth. This is the kind of cold that sinks into your teeth and bones, resting heavily on your soul.
Pa returns from the stag meet, his face grave. When I prompt with question, he widens his gaze and gently shakes his head, gesturing to Ma and the twins. I try to swallow, but can’t, so the air just sits painfully in my throat.
He’s gotten the third watch. The one just before dawn, that helps guide us carefully into the next day. The one most likely to be the recipient of an attack by the thundering hooves and screaming riders. The one most vulnerable. He’s to take his rifle and to sup quickly and get some rest before the draft wakes him.
I can’t even gather the fortitude to ask him not to go.
We jump when a nearby fox barks.
I am drawn to the flames tonight. They invite me closer to the warmth, of comfort and safety, and I almost singe the soles of my boots. Ma glares at me tersely, herding the twins to bed. The fox barks again. I leave the glow of the flames and make myself lie down. The wagon smells earthy and sweet, notes of barley tickling my nose.
Deep into the night, I jerk awake. I blink, letting my eyes adjust to the blackness, my breath clouding the air above my head. Ma and the twins are deep in sleep, their breathing slow and steady, but the air was thick and heavy, expectant and wanting of something sinister to break the silence. I wrap another blanket around my shoulders, shivering. My teeth chatter so loudly I fear that it will somehow alert the screamers and a flock of arrows will rain upon all our heads.
The quiet became so loud that I shuddered and crawled out of bed. The moon, bright and glowing, cascaded in an otherworldly halo on the wagons, shining off the horses’ backs.
I realized I was the only one awake in this camp, aside from the watchers hiding somewhere in the sea of grass around us. It was almost peaceful, standing there, knowing that someone was watching out for us. Let the others rest easy though, and keep quiet, and all just might be well.
In that moment I was profoundly lonely, experiencing such awe-inspiring beauty. It seemed selfish, really.
A dark figure floated across the sky and screeched. I watched as it dove and snatched a squealing rodent from the ground. It soared to the ground several yards from me and I my jaw gaped open as it shredded the poor creature apart. I retched when I heard its bones snap. My disgusted gasp startled the denizen of the night, and it’s pale face and narrowed eyes glared at me, defiant in its gruesome meal, a strand of bloody meat dangling from its beak.
The barn owl screeched again and it flew off with its feast. Blood stained the linen on the hood of the wagon. We’d been marked.
My heart nearly lept out of my body when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turn, and my chest floods with relief. Pa’s eyes twinkle at me and he halfheartedly tells me I need to go back to sleep, even though he knows that I won’t be able to.
I smile at him, guilty, when sadness creeps in. Pa’s aged more in the past two months than he has in the past several years. His eyes are tired, and wary now, with less laughter and joy. There’s a hardness there now that wasn’t there before. It lurks, waiting for moments of solitude to regret the decisions in his life.
I’m trying to memorize his face as it is now, when it still lights up with laughter, before he’s gone. I know I won’t be able to bear it when it does happen.
Movement in the grass behind him catches my eye, and I squint to see into the darkness, but nothing is visible. I step forward a few paces, when father emits a small gasp.
The world slows as my head turns when his knees crumble, an arrow protruding from his chest. The only sound I ever heard was his small ‘oh’ of surprise before the night exploded in thundering hooves and screams.
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