Western Short Story
As far as Polly could see, there was nothing but endless prairie stretching towards the horizon. Waves of wild wheat and grasses surrounded the trail, leaving just enough room for the covered wagons in single file. The path was rutted and dry, billowing clouds of dust reaching up from the ground, threatening to choke Polly in the late afternoon sun.
A bonnet was pulled as far forward over her eyes as possible, a scarf looped over nose and mouth. The smell and the dust permeated every fiber of her being, sticky sweat trickling under her dress in rivulets.
Last week, Polly had cut petticoats into strips, winding them around her calloused, bleeding hands. By the end of each day, they seemed frozen in position, aching all night, only to be tortured again by first light.
The mules pulling the wagon were headstrong. They snorted through sullen nostrils as they took stubborn steps, leaving a trail of feces and flies. Polly sat on the buckboard, holding the reins from dawn to dusk. Although progress was slow and tedious, if she let up on the pressure for even a moment, the mules stopped altogether, or veered off into the grasses, helping themselves. She knew it would take at least four men, and whips, to get them moving again, and she wanted to avoid that at all cost.
Polly was one of the lucky ones. When her husband Sam died a month ago, the wagon master moved her wagon up front behind his for safe keeping. She was the only widow on the journey so far, and the dust in the front of the train wasn't as bad as being further back in line.
When she and Sam left Independence, Missouri, it was with reluctance. Sam, the fifth son of a grocery merchant in Carthage, had no fortune or opportunities presenting themselves. He would never inherit the business. Sam heard a lot of talk in the grocery from travelers about land out west and all the possibilities. He decided to cast his fate with the thousands of others heading across the country, maybe open a small store somewhere in the new territories.
Polly was a clerk in his father's grocery, working long hours to support herself when her parents died of the flu. She married Sam after he pursued her for months, although it wasn't what she had dreamed. Tying her future with him, their wagon left Missouri with a caravan, swaying across the prairie like a ship at sea. The mules' hooves rang out on the rocky trail, their haunches rising and falling with each step. The wagon lurched and jarred all day, and the nights were weary.
Sam had grown up in a house in town. He had little experience outdoors, and knew nothing about surviving in the wilderness. Sam lasted a month and a half on the journey before succumbing to an accident, pinned beneath a broken wheel as the mules lunged forward, leaving him in agony for three days before he passed. He was buried on a little knoll that disappeared entirely into the landscape before the wagon train had even gone a mile down the trail.
Polly was then faced with a decision. She could pull out of the caravan at the nearest town, try to sell everything, and hope to purchase fare back to Carthage. Or continue on, traveling with the wagon train through the Great Plains, and on up into the mountains in hopes of starting a new life.
How deeply she regretted, now, her choice to head west. It was too late to turn back. They passed the last town weeks ago.
There were over thirty wagons, a large caravan, gypsies traversing the miles of grassland on their way to higher elevation and a better life. It was slow going once they left civilization and hit the Plains, as nobody could stay behind to fix a broken axle, or tend to a sick child or animal, then catch up later down the trail. If one member had a problem, the entire company stopped and waited until it was fixed. There was safety in numbers now, because they were deep in Indian territory. Sam's accident, and other problems and repairs along the way, slowed them down more than usual, putting them in the dangerous position of reaching the mountains during harsh weather.
Two nights ago, Mr. Parker, the wagon master, stopped by Polly's wagon. His weathered face was weary, old scars raised along his cheek like a map to a hard life, wiry body slumped as he leaned against a wheel.
"Polly, you're alone here on this journey now, a widow woman. We all try to watch out for ya, but you have to understand that if we're under attack, most folks here will be protecting their own families first. The Cheyenne have been tracking us for days now. I've seen scouting parties up along the ridge sometimes at sunset. They might be friendly, probably are, but there's been talk about a few attacks on other settlers and wagons last year on a trail to the south."
His gaze softened as he placed a hand on her small shoulder. "Look, Polly, there's no easy way to say this. If they come - they ain't looking for your mules or the weeviled flour in the barrels. They want our horses, our goods, and our rifles. And sometimes," now his eyes slid to the ground, as he whispered, "the women. You best turn in at night with your clothes on, at the ready, and not leave the wagon after dark. Sleep with your rifle by your side. But Polly, it may not be enough. Do you have a pistol, too?"
She shook her head. Mr. Parker pulled a revolver from his waistband and handed it to her along with some ammunition.
"Save these bullets in case they find you and want to do you harm, or take you with them. Do you understand what I mean?"
Polly did. She felt the autumn breeze along her collar bone like rough fingers, rustling her skirts, lifting them, swirling them about against her will. Far off in the distance, the hills were rent with an unearthly howl, like a wolf finding its prey.
A week later, the wagon train hadn't gone more than fifty miles. In the distance, edging above the horizon, were the blue beginnings of the great Rockies. When Polly stepped out of the wagon that morning, there was frost on the ground, black clouds billowing down from the mountains like an angry fist. Her heart sank. They had been traveling so slow that now they were almost three weeks late, and risked being on the trail if early snows came. The oxen and mules were already belligerent and unwilling to walk, turning their backs to the great North wind, heads low and eyes closed. Grave danger whistled through the grass and slapped at her cheek in cold gusts.
That evening, there was a meeting. The travelers gathered around the fire, icy rain pelting their faces. Mr. Parker was grim.
"We've taken too long traveling up and out of this prairie. Winter's starting early. I don't need to tell you what the risks are if we keep going towards them mountains. We may make it, we may not. About five hours journey from here there's a trail that crosses this one. It drops down south. Then there's another cross trail in a couple of weeks' time. That can take you back east, where you might winter over in the nearest town, start again next spring."
He sighed. "But, there could be hostile tribes down that way, and the trail ain't near as good as this one." Parker dropped his chin and stared at the ground. "Look, I was hired to take this wagon train all the way west, so that's what I'm gonna do. You can follow me, or turn off the trail tomorrow and head back without a wagon master. Either way, it's dangerous. I won't lie to you."
His gaze met the weary travelers. "I'll need to know what you all are wanting to do. Raise your hands if you're turning back."
At least a dozen families decided to head east and winter over, try again next year. Many decided to continue west, and some didn't know what to do.
"I'll need all your answers tomorrow morning when we break camp," Parker said, his thin hands folded in front of him like a corpse. "Either way, it ain't pretty. God bless us all."
That night, Polly found a page from an old, tattered book inside a worn wooden chest. She tore it in two. There was no ink, so she cut open a blister on the tender part of her hand, then squeezed a drop or two of blood on one piece. "Home", she whispered, as the blood spread across the paper. The other scrap was stark white, like a mountain snowstorm. "West," she sighed.
Closing her eyes, she put one piece of paper in each pocket of her filthy dress, then lay on the palette behind the flour barrel, checked the rifle and pistol, and waited for dawn. Through the small opening in the back of the wagon, Polly gazed at the stars, the sound of indecision carried on the wind that fluttered through the groaning boards.
The next morning, the sun streamed in through the canvas, a deceptive warmth flowing through the wagon. Birds sang on the rush of the breeze, the world indifferent to the wagon train, becalmed in a sea of regret.
Polly stepped down from the wagon, looked up towards heaven, then reached her hand into a pocket.