Episode Thirty-two ♦ The Fork

Midday, George stood, crossbar pulling his shoulders towards the sun-parched earth, sweat streaming down his torso. He looked at the fork in the road. After twelve days grinding west, they had a choice. “Which way?” he said, waiting, beyond caring, incapable of deciding.

“I don’t know,” she said.

He dropped the crossbar to the ground and sat right where he was, in the middle of the road. He could move if someone came but that seemed unlikely. The road, though well-packed, had little traffic. George looked at the two paths then at the great, black mound looming before them. He found a single distinction between the options: one road would take them to the north of the hill, the other to the south. Besides this lone hill, the land extended out to the horizon, appearing flat, covered in tall grass dried by the summer sun.

“Let’s have lunch,” she said.

He shrugged and used the cart to pull himself back onto his feet. She opened the bag of trail mix then broke a piece of hard tack in half, offering him a piece. Holding it in his mouth, he put the tin cup under the spout of the wooden water barrel. Full, he offered the cup to her.

“No. You first,” she said.

He drank half before passing it to her then sat against a wheel to choke down the dry, calorie-dense biscuit.

“I wish you’d talk to me,” she said, joining him on the ground.

Taking his time chewing, he swallowed and said, “What’s to say.”

“You’ve been brooding since we crossed the Missouri. You need to let it go.”

He snorted. Yeah. Right. Easy for her to say.

“It’s behind us. If someone was following, well…” She went quiet. “You did what you felt you had to do.”

She kept talking but he stopped listening. It was the same every time they rested. Her need to talk about it kept him dragging the load down the road. Or feigning sleep. She was quiet when he slept.

He finished the biscuit, refilled the tin cup, and washed down the paste of chewed hard tack with water before taking a handful of trail mix, long since caring about the road dust that seeped between the fibers of cloth bags.

Staring off into the distant sky he saw a dark line above the horizon. Not caring if he interrupted her, he said, “Look there.”

“Where?”

“The southwest.”

“What about it?”

“It’s dark.”

She did not respond. He wondered if it was some sort of a sign, if it would influence her choice of which fork to take. He chewed.

“It’s not like you can change it,” she said. “I wish it didn’t happen, but I’ve accepted it. You did it to protect…” She stopped, picking up the tin cup. Time passed. She said, “To protect the baby – and me. I’ve accepted it and moved on. Wish you could too.”

“Why don’t you accept that Willem won’t be there for you?” He continued to munch on small handfuls of trail mix, enjoying the sound of peanuts crunching between his teeth. The band of darkness thickened.

“I don’t understand.”

“You nag about the ferryman. I keep saying let it go. Don’t want to discuss it. You keep saying I need to accept it, talk about it. On and on and on.” His voice, like his emotional state, was in need of life support – flat line monotone. “So why do you need to find Willem? It’s not like he’s going to take care of you and be a father to his child.”

“How do you know that?” Her voice shot up an octave. It reminded him of bad opera. “How can you presume to know what he’ll do?” Then a long silence.

At least that shut her up for a while. He took another drink of water and closed his eyes, enjoying the quiet.

“Tell me!”

“What?”

“Why you said that?”

“What?”

“About Willem.”

“It’s the truth.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Okay.” George thought for some time, picking some dried berries and slices of apple and apricot out of the bag to chew on. “What was he like starting a new play?”

“How do you mean?”

“Was he nice to be around?”

She took her time before saying, “No. Not really.”

“Why do you think that was?”

“Dunno. Nerves? Concentrating on learning lines?”

“Nope. He felt tied down. Panicked. Like he’d never be free again. He’d go on and on. About leaving. Coming out here.”

“I dunno. That what he told you?”

“I just think he will run. Not the minute you tell him. But after thinking. It will get to him. The nerves. Taking care of you two for decades. Commitment.”

“I don’t want to get married or anything! I don’t need him or anyone.”

“What does that have to do with commitment?”

“I just want him to know that he’s going to have a child. It’s his right to know. It’s important.”

George let the conversation drop. Sitting against the wheel, he drifted off to sleep.

♦ ♦ ♦

Anita stewed in her emotions as she put the trail mix away. George napped against the wheel and she let him be. Besides, the choice of road lay before her. She swallowed her annoyance with him, once again, leaving the decision to her. She sat down against the other wheel, pulled her bonnet forward, listened, but heard nothing. The day was windless; the sun, high in the sky; the prairie, quiet.

She replayed George’s comments in her mind and wondered what he was getting at. His tone had been flat, lacking emotion, but the words stung her as if spoken in rage, wanting to inflict pain. Yes, in a way, she knew he spoke truth. She delved for reasons why she must tell Willem about the baby but came up empty. All she had was the concept that it was his right to know and her responsibility to tell him. She expected nothing from him.

The doubts, about her pregnancy, resurfaced. They had plagued her for weeks. Maybe she should suggest turning back for someplace near civilization. It couldn’t hurt. No. He’d never shown any interest in going any direction but west. Even when she suggested he stay in Saint Jo.

She stood, dusted off the seat of her pants, and looked at the two choices. He was right. Darkness grew above the left fork, darkness that heralded a mid-summer storm. Walking a short way down that fork she cleared her mind and listened to what the road said to her, how it felt. It was silent.

Returning to the cart, she stood a couple meters from George but was confident he was still sleeping. Or that he wanted her to think he was asleep.

Walking towards the right-hand fork she felt an invisible hand wrap around her heart and squeeze. She struggled for breath as she inched along the road, each step a battle between her will to go forward and something pushing against her. Eyes closed, she backed away, feeling the pressure in her chest ease, her breathing returning to normal.

George jogged towards her. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“You screamed.”

“Did I?” She couldn’t remember screaming.

“Like you swallowed a scream.”

She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. We need to take the left fork.”

“You sure? Storm brewing that way.”

“I’m sure.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Since taking to the road that night in Hannibal, this was the first storm they had encountered. George stood, looking at the barren path, grass to the left and right, clouds the color of the coach gun’s barrel. He flashed back to the print that hung above his bed in UGO’s bunker, life imitating art. Electric root systems probed downward from the sky, seeking the earth. George pulled Anita under the handcart telling her not to touch it. Thunder defeated his words. He repeated the warning. A gust of wind blew dust and bits of grass across the landscape, the handcart offering no protection from the wind. Flashes then more thunder. She pulled his shirt over his face and covered her own with her bonnet to fight off the dust, grass seed, and other detritus. The earth shook. Rain came. Thick, viscous rain. Drops of cooking oil falling from skillet-colored clouds onto sun-baked earth. Puddling. Then oozing across the ground.

They passed a long, wet, sleepless night.

With the first rays of sunlight, they struggled to their feet, trudging ever onwards.

Water pooled in the prairie’s slightest depression. The heavy rain, unable to penetrate the earth, sought out the nearest creek. Their road was packed earth, worn down by years of people, animals, and wagons coming and going. It became a creek bed, the water drifting towards terrain only a millimeter lower in elevation.

♦ ♦ ♦

“Hey, there’s a small house or something near those trees,” George said, pulling in the same direction, unable to remember if it had been three or four days since the last settlement. They had refilled the water barrel and were promised another oasis within three days’ walk. With deprivation, and thirst, they could stretch the barrel’s contents to five days.

The day was humid after the rain and his wet clothing made him sweat more. Why had he not thought to open the barrel while the sky vomited buckets? Because he feared the lightning, unprotected as they were, on the plains. Everything – clothing, bags, beans, cornmeal, the handcart, his books – was soaked with water. He would bet a string of gold beads the cart weighed ten kilos more today.

It took the rest of the afternoon to near the insignificant settlement and a woman, her dress stained brown, approached them as they clomped down the road.

“Hello!” Anita said and waved. “It’s nice to see someone out here.”

“What’cha want?” The woman held a shotgun against her leg.

“Can we camp overnight?” asked Anita.

“It’s free country.”

“And water,” George said.

The woman snorted. “Only got well. Water’s precious. How much you want and what’cha got for trade?”

George set down the crossbar and slapped the water barrel. It was about the size of his torso.

Anita said, “Will gold beads work?”

“Small ones?”

“Yeah,” she answered.

“Two of’m. Follow me. Gotta unlock it.”

Anita mouthed at George as he picked up the crossbar. “Forty credits for water?”

“Streamwater’s not safe downstream uh that.” The woman thumbed at the black mound. Her dress was stained from sitting in the dirt.

“What is it?” asked George.

She shrugged. “Called Mid’n Mount’n. Nothin’ lives up there. Plenty dies downstream uh it.”

The woman drew a long string up from her waist, the key at the end. She unlocked the well and held out her palm. George fished two gold beads out of his pocket and dropped them in her hand.

He pulled up the bucket and poured the water into the barrel. After two turns, his arms burning, he took a break. Anita picked up the bucket and continued the work.

Once full, George closed the barrel, and the woman locked her well. George caught Anita’s gaze and glanced towards the road. She nodded. He lifted the crossbar.

Before nightfall they approached the first stream. Above the gully was a carved sign with three wavy blue lines at the bottom. Through these was a red X. Above it was the outline of a skull painted red.

♦ ♦ ♦