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April 15, 2024

Heading Towards the End of the Trail 3

By Lydia Manx

Ben couldn't believe his luck. His ma was actually letting him stay with Nate and his family. Nate's pa was a gambler and a miner, and Nate's grandpa was a minister of some sort. Nate said that his ma was with the angels now. Ben didn't know what he meant but nodded, and let Nate talk about the frog he'd found last week in the creek. Ben hadn't seen any frogs yet but was hopeful that Nate would be able find another one.

As Ben sat by the campfire he was quiet and he watched the family enjoy the food his ma had sent with him. He wasn't sure exactly why that lady and man were being so nice to them. Nobody on the trail ever did much for his ma but complain about pa. His ma always was nice and shared with others, but she never seemed to get anything back for her troubles. His pa would have whooped on her had she accepted help. Pa said that they weren't beggars and it wasn't right to take from those that are more in need.

So when his ma accepted the chickens from the people, Ben knew for sure that his pa wasn't coming home. Not that they rightly had a home but pa wasn't back. Even with all that taking food and chickens Ben knew that something was wrong about the two folks, but he didn't know what. He was just a boy and didn't know how to figure out what was different about those two people. He didn't know why they were still hanging out with his ma. He was just happy his pa hadn't returned.

Nate's grandpa caught his gaze and said, "Son, you alright?"

Ben never knew why he answered. There was something compelling about the bible man and he said, "I don't rightly know, sir."

Nate and his pa were talking about fishing spots and not listening to them so Ben edged closer to the older man. There was something safe about the man and his eyes danced in his face. Ben's pa's eyes had only gleamed when ma was 'getting hers'. Ben shuddered and edged a little bit closer.

Nate's grandpa nodded and said, "Don't call me sir. Grandpa is fine."

He had a heavy accent and Ben had to listen closely to understand him. Grandpa had a heavily lined face, but the lines were from smiles and joy. Listening to Ben his forehead wrinkled in concern, but he didn't dismiss Ben's fears.

"Sir, why would ya want me to call you grandpa?" There was hesitation as he asked but Ben wanted to be sure.

He'd told Ben he was from a land far away and needed as many grandsons as he could find. Ben couldn't recall ever having a grandpa much less ever being told he was a grandson. The man's eyes met Ben's directly. They were sky blue and held no lies. Assured Ben nodded his agreement.

"Well, Grandpa," Ben smiled slightly at the treasured word, "these new folks seem wrong. They just aren't quite right."

Nate's grandpa nodded and said with a thick accent, "Why do you think that?"

Ben thought and said, "They don't have the right -- I don't know -- people feeling? They are not regular like folks are." He wasn't sure how to explain that feeling in his stomach but he knew that it wasn't a good feeling. Kinda like the way his stomach felt after he'd eaten that salt pork after ma had tossed it aside saying it wasn't any good. She'd been right and he'd been sick for a long time.

Grandpa nodded again and agreed with, "I expect you are right. Ben, there are folks out in the world that don't step to the same music. Are you thinking they are just off, or something else?"

"My pa went away after meeting up with both of them. My pa never leaves us. He might not always be -- well -- you know -- but he always is there in the morning." Ben stumbled out with and looked up to see how the older man took his words.

The man nodded and asked, "Do you think these new folks are why your pa left? And do your thoughts feel odd around them?"

Wide-eyed Ben looked at the man and nodded.

Then he whispered, "Like someone's listening."

The old man made a sound deep in his throat. Nate's father looked over and said, "You two okay over there?"

"Fine, son. You keep to your fishing stories. Ben is going to show me the big metal flaked rock he found earlier." With that Nate and his father resumed their talking and ignored them wandering off. Nate had already seen the rock and knew it wasn't gold but that fake gold and time with his father was welcome.

"So, like you've said, there's something interesting about these two, yes?" Nate's grandpa slowed his pace to match Ben's stride. They headed for the creek.

"Sir?" Ben started.

"Ben, my son, call me 'Grandpa Leon,' please. Humor an old man, eh?" He coughed a bit and patted Ben's shoulder. His hand was firm and Ben noticed they were deeply lined and tan. The hairs on his forearms were thick and silvery matching the thick silver hair on his head. Ben wondered how old he was but knew better than asking. That never was a good thing, he'd found out over the years.

"Okay, sir." He blushed and said, "I mean Grandpa Leon."

The smile that split Ben's face warmed Grandpa's heart. He noticed Ben stood up a bit taller and had a slight bounce in his walk. Too bad Ben seemed to have found the darker side of the world so young.

Grandpa Leon wasn't happy to hear about Ben feeling like he was being listened to in his mind. There were few creatures that could do that. He thought he'd left it all behind him once he crossed the ocean. Leon had once been a nobleman far away, but time and politics wore him down. He'd thought he escaped all that once he came to America. It seemed his troubles followed him -- if they hadn't always been here too. He didn't want to voice what they were probably called, but knew in his soul what they were.

"Grandpa Leon, they aren't right." Ben didn't know how else to explain it. He was still amazed at finding an adult listening to him so closely.

"How about your mother? Is she now different?" Leon asked gently.

"She sleeps too much. And she's trying to hide that she's happy pa's gone. But that's okay. I'm happy about it too." Ben kicked at a stone and waited to see what Leon would say. He couldn't believe he'd told a grown up that he was glad his pa was gone. But it was true. The sincerity of his words rang out along the field.

Leon looked around and pulled out his cross. He hadn't displayed his gold cross in years. Out on the trail it could get a man killed. Even a man of God could lose his life over a piece of gold, but given what he feared was out in the night he wanted all the protection he could get. Once his cross rested out on his chest again, he was pleased at how much stronger he felt. There was no feeling of being watched much less listened to and Leon relaxed a bit. Had a monster sprung out of the bushes he'd be in trouble but at least he'd feel closer to God. His mind began to automatically murmur prayers. "So your mother ... she's still making you breakfast and dinner?" Leon didn't want to frighten the boy but needed to find how far she'd been compromised.

Ben giggled. The child's sound broke Leon's heart. If the monsters were what he thought, such joy would be hard to find soon. It was hard for families to survive these attacks.

"Ma still cooks and cleans and all. She just is sleeping after dawn. She used to get up I think before the sun."

It sounded like Ben was quoting someone. Up before the sun was more like something his father had thrown at the mother when she was fetching and carrying. The trail wasn't easy on women. From what Leon had figured, they probably had been on the road for a long time. Months at the very least given the wear and tear on their wagon and their faces, Leon thought while keeping his face calm.

"That's good, Ben. Very good. So when did these new people come along?" Leon was carefully wording his questions so as to not give Ben answers but let Ben answer the questions. Too many times bad mistakes had been made by giving people the answers you wanted to hear. Those mistakes ended up with bodies and souls torn to bits and Leon didn't want that here. There had been enough blood spilt over the states fighting and the natives being pushed along trails with guns at their backs and harsh landscapes in their future. Monsters already had taken their bites and scattered bodies without anything supernatural involved.

"Oh, just two nights ago when we first got here." Ben shuffled his feet and scrunched up his face while thinking. "We'd found that spot in the clearing to set up camp. I think my pa gave some money to a man before he went into town and came back mad."

"You said your father left. When was this?" Leon asked softly, he was curious but didn't want to scare the child.

Ben kicked at another bit of dirt and said, "The other night."

"Who was there when your father disappeared?"

Ben ducked his head and blushed, "I don't know exactly. I ran off."

Leon nodded and let that be. All the while Ben showed Leon the rock they had found, and Leon agreed that it was an impressive stone but most likely not gold. Leon tried to keep Ben from worrying too much, as he knew Ben was happy that his father was gone but warring with himself over that whole set of emotions. He also suspected what had found Ben and his mother. They were definitely in trouble.

"I was sorry I ran off." Ben said when they began to wander back towards the campsite.

"Yes, I imagine you were." Leon's words weren't complicated, just more adult than most folks used when talking to Ben. Ben figured out quickly that Grandpa Leon wasn't being mean to him but just agreeing.

Chancing a peek up at the man Ben ventured, "What am I supposed to do?" His voice quivered a bit and he was glad he didn't have to go back to sleep near his ma tonight or see those two strangers.

"Ben, you aren't going to do anything. Just enjoy playing with Nate." With that Ben was slowly led back to Nate and his father.

"Daniel, we need to talk." Leon let Nate and Ben run off to examine some bug or animal on the edge of the camping area. They were within sight and Leon needed to get his tools.

Leon went to the back of the wagon and began looking for the bag. It was hidden beneath some others. Once his hand found the handle it was like a pulse of energy ran through him. Daniel came quickly.

"You don't need that here! Why did you dig it out?" Daniel bit out while looking at the bag as if it offended him. Daniel's beard was starting to gray and Leon felt bad to bring the past back so suddenly.

"Son, you know why." Leon felt a flicker of flame dance in his soul. He wasn't too old, just tired. He couldn't escape his calling any more than he could stop breathing. It was what his family did. Obviously he'd grown too complacent and accepting of the newness of the Americas. He'd forgotten his real work. So like God to remind him just when he figured he was out of it all.

On the edge of the water the boys were laughing at something and throwing bits of grass and rough housing. It brought joy to Leon's soul. He hated knowing what was to happen would taint them all in a horrific way. But it had to be done. He hoped he could keep the boys away from it but would need Daniel's help. It never paid to go in unprepared. He had buried too many of his friends for that mistake. He hoped Daniel was up to it. Losing Leah to fever had taken something out of Daniel two winters ago. Nate, for the most part, had brought him back to life but every now and then Leon watched his son's mourning chase across his face when he thought nobody was watching. That worried Leon more than the possible monsters.

"Are you sure?" Daniel's face was ashen. His lips tightened and his fists were clenched. He knew the family code and ancient oaths that bound them.

"Daniel, we have been blessed by our path. Why do you resist so?" Leon chastised his son. He knew he was asking more than Daniel even knew. His son had never been on a hunt nor slain a monster, yet Leon had trained him for the eventuality. He'd told him the family secrets and made him learn all the rituals. Daniel never mocked his father, but Leon nevertheless knew his son thought it was silly superstition from the Old World.

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-10-08
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