The road was hard packed from the steady pounding of hooves over the years. Time and the sun had completed the punishment and there were deep ruts in the center where the wheels of the wagons grooved into the trail. The hope and dreams of the travelers were long gone by the time they arrived at the edges of town. A dismally full cemetery was just a bit north of the road pushing at the sanity of the weary men and women. The wooden markers looked like bad teeth in an old man's mouth. Shards of death mocking the living -- sparse and irregular blackened by age and elements.
Over the past fifty miles or so from the last town, the road was littered with various personal treasures dumped along the way. All because time and tempers had been frayed with disappointments, both real and imagined. Truthfully, after that last place, folks had been robbed of any bit of anticipation, even in the most optimistic of souls. What happened was still a blur, but the abandoned houses had an odor of decay and death. There were signs there for everyone to read -- who could read. The painted red or black skull and cross bones starkly illustrated out the problem for those who couldn't. But they lacked any details other than that death had stopped in and stayed a while. There was just a placard with a naked count of men, women and children who had been living in the town until the end, and yet with no explanations of what caused the problem. With just the emptiness and hastily buried bodies to mock the humans trafficking on the road, nobody stopped long, given the surroundings.
A sporadic stream of gray-faced humans unenthusiastically rolled into the shabby town, ready to be rebuffed or killed. There wasn't anywhere else for most of them to go, and for some, hope sprang eternal for a flicker of time despite the horrors they had seen and done while on the journey to find a new home. Nothing would shock them anymore. They just wanted to stop bouncing on their asses painfully on hard buckboards along the ill-tamed road. Death would even be welcome -- more than welcome: necessary.
Necessary because the travelers were at the end of their resources upon hitting the town -- with little to no money left, no emotions, and questionable sanity. The last empty shell of what had once been a blooming prosperous town had hardened and harmed each person in a nearly inexplicable manner. A twitch here, a jerk there -- all signs of breaks. Those were just the visible signs. The internal ones were harder to spot. But they were fracturing each and every person in some way.
"Ma, are we there yet?" Ben whined while pulling on her sleeve. The stiff fabric had softened with all the wear in the past few months since they left the city and his hand found a threadbare section and enjoyed the texture between his fingers. The worn woman sighed deeply and moved a bit further from his touch. She didn't much like being touched, but there wasn't any room for her to get away from her son.
He had been asking that question daily for the past two months. At first he hadn't said anything but after they keep traveling past all the known world, he began to ask her when they were going to arrive at their new home. It was never at the same time of day, but every day he would ask if they were there yet in one way or another. She dreaded the question in all its forms and had finally stopped wincing because it never ended well. She was as tired of the landscape as Ben, but wasn't sure if the town was going to welcome them, much less even exist. The last four occupied towns weren't worth slowing for, much less stopping. There wasn't anything she could put her finger on but this new town was already scaring her and they had yet to meet anyone.
"Son, leave your Ma alone. We will be in town soon. Once I get a lay of the land I will let you know if it will be our home or not." That was more than Johnny had said in the past three weeks to Ben. Ben's mother smiled and patted the man's arm.
"Johnny, you're a good man." She simpered and tried to keep the fears off her face. Her eyes thinned as she tried to see up the road to the town. It was there; she knew by the cemetery and the smells drifting over the plains. The towns always had a sameness to them from a distance she had always thought, but the town ahead was somehow different. Goosebumps trailed over her body and she suppressed a soul-deep shudder. The heat was suffocating and there wasn't a breeze. Nevertheless her skin crawled and a chill ran down her spine.
Ben rarely heard his father speak and never would directly address him. He always filtered his conversations through his ma. Johnny was an angry man and would strike out verbally first and physically second unless he was drinking. Ben's earliest memories were of his ma sobbing while his pa yelled and screamed. The beatings were frequent enough that Ben knew mostly what triggered them. But to be on the safe side he had left Johnny alone as much as possible.
The child eased back away from the front of the wagon into the small cubby they had made for him in back. It was warmer and the breeze never seemed to find him when there was one. But Johnny forgot about him for the most part. That was worth the discomfort. He scratched at some bites and tried to keep from attracting notice. Just being up there long enough to touch his ma he could smell something in the wind and he wanted to beg his pa to turn around and go back home. But home was gone. There was just more and more road to travel. Until they found the magic place Johnny was seeking. This town wasn't it. Ben knew it to his core.
Johnny pointed to a sign and read it aloud, "See Ma, right there it says, 'Visitors welcome'! This very well might be it!"
His wife, who could actually read, didn't correct him. The sign said something entirely different. Johnny pretended he could read and was canny enough that most folks never figured out he hadn't a clue what the letters and symbols meant. Every now and then she would redirect him carefully so as to keep from being beat later when Johnny lost a job or had a deal fall through due to his ignorance. Johnny didn't even know she could read and she never saw fit to correct that impression.
Maybe the chills were due to an illness, she hope, as her skin was still crawling and shuddering. Not that she could afford to be sick but the nerves and her fears were causing her some worries that she didn't know how to handle. Being sick she knew how to fix. Shaking her head, she caught sight of something odd out of the corner of her eye.
As they continued down the middle of the road she saw a woman in an alley off in the shadows. On a quick second glance she wasn't much more than a starving child. There was large man, whose drawers were unbuttoned, leaning against the wall of a store with his eyes shut while the child was doing his bidding. His large hands guided her head and he moaned. His eyes opened just in time to catch her watching. There was no embarrassment on his face at being caught in such an indelicate position. Instead there was the satisfaction of having his wicked needs met, and challenge. The challenge look was what scared her. The man was someone of obvious means by his clothing and style. They hadn't even decided if they were staying in this place and already it seemed that she had made an enemy.
"Jenny," Johnny spoke softly to his wife. He nearly never called her by her given name. She pulled her eyes away from the atrocities in the alley as their wagon rumbled slowly down the busy thoroughfare.
"Yes, Johnny?" she whispered back not knowing what she had missed while gawking at the man and child.
"There's something about this town that calls me home. I think we will do good here." He smiled. His eyes were alive with something she hadn't seen in a good ten years. Johnny was happy and hopeful. Resisting the urge to look back to see if that man was still watching them, she bravely smiled back at her husband.
She wasn't so sure about this town.
They couldn't afford to buy a room at the local saloon; Johnny wouldn't waste money on something so frivolous when they had a perfectly good wagon. Soon Jenny found they were heading for a local field folks set up for new camp arrivals. She was pretty sure Johnny paid the man something to allow them to have a space near the river but wasn't going to ask how he spent the money. She learned that lesson the hard way. Her back tooth had to be pulled after that night. He also found someone with a bottle and was gone once he led them to their spot. It was fine with Jenny. She was just happy to not be riding any further.
Ben bounced up and down once Johnny disappeared.
"Is this our new home?" He didn't seem at all upset to be staying in a dry field. Since there was a stream nearby she knew what he wanted to do.
"For now. You want to go see if there are any fish in that stream?" She indicated with her head to the tree and sapling lined tepid waterways. She didn't know much about the rivers and streams this far west to even know if there was anything worthy of dipping a pole into but figured a ten-year-old boy needed to be away from his mother sometimes.
Eyes bright, her tow-headed boy grinned. It was the first real smile she had seen from him in weeks. "May I please, Ma?" His smile was full of teeth and personality.
"Of course. You don't stay out too long and leave folks alone ok?" She still was uneasy. Night fell quickly out west, she had found out. The missing city lights were offset by a sky of stars more than she could count. Jenny smiled softly as her son raced off to see what the creek had to offer. His fishing set up wasn't elaborate, but it worked with patience and time. She quickly put up the campsite. Then the dark crawled in and surrounded her. Johnny didn't come back once true dark fell and Ben hadn't come back either.
The fire wasn't large but it burned hot. She had fed Johnny and Ben earlier in the day. Johnny didn't much care for food once he drank a bit, and Ben was good at begging. It broke her heart. She stoked the fire and added a few more bits of greenish wood. Not her choice but she hadn't wanted to go far from the wagon. There was rustling around her with other folks in the same field. She had learned on the trail how to pretend she was deaf. And mostly her neighbors thankfully had done the same.
It still shamed her when they were asked to leave the wagon train. It was months ago but it still stung. After Johnny had drunk more than was wise he had begun to beat on her a bit much. It was her fault for mentioning that her Pa's money had paid for everything. But she had been sad and missing her parents.
"Hello," a voice called just out of the glow from the fire.
"Yes," Jenny's voice cut out and was scratchy. She was embarrassed how weak she sounded. A small woman walked into the light.