Leaving an old life on the Kansas prairie for a new one
|Word count: 1953
Walking beside his father as they crested the Kansas prairie hill top, Charlie saw their stone trading post below. It stood on the north side of the Santa Fe Trail. He and his father were returning from the trading post graveyard. “Why do so many of our guests die, Papa?” he asked watching his father out of the corner of his eye. No backhand came swinging up to cuff him. Charlie relaxed. Digging graves for guests was hard work, and Charlie was tired of doing it. If traveling along the trail was so dangerous, why did anyone do it? It seemed teamsters were always falling or getting kicked in the head by mules. Apparently some manner of safety resulted when teamsters traveled together in wagon trains. Why that would be so was a mystery to Charlie. Perhaps the critters were less cantankerous in groups.
Clean clothes flapped in the wind on the clothesline behind their family stone cabin. Whenever a guest died, there was no end to the work it caused. Mama had to sort the clothes they could sell from those they would make into rag rugs. In either case they would need washing. Teamsters were a filthy bunch. Working around their mules every day had smelly results. Maybe that was why they died of head injuries. Maybe their mules kicked them because they stunk so bad.
When his father spoke, Charlie jumped. So much time had passed he’d forgotten he had asked a question.
“A man’s work is hard and often dangerous. Just the way it is,” his father said. “Bad luck for them. Good luck for us. Now give me your shovel and go help your sister unload that wagon.”
Beside the trading post was a fairly level area for travelers to spend the night. Four newly acquired mules stood in the corral by the stable. Parked in front of the trading post sat the guest’s wagon which Carrie stood in. She had five crates open on the ground. Seeing him, she held up something he could not make out. “There are glass panes in here,” she said in amazement. “These will be in high demand. Come help me lift the crate out.”
Charlie helped her lower the leaden crate carefully from the wagon. “That is far too heavy to carry further,” he said. They might both be healthy teenagers, but there was still a limit to their strength.
“I think I can manage a single stack of panes,” Carrie said. “Let’s try it.”
Once inside, he set his stack alongside hers against an interior wall. The glass would be out of the way of careless feet yet still visible.
As his eyes became adjusted to the reduced light, he could see the amazing inventory of merchandise. With pride he’d heard customers say that their outpost was much bigger than any other store they’d encountered. All of it courtesy of the Santa Fe Trail and its unlucky travelers. He thought of his question again. His father’s answer hadn’t satisfied him.
“Carrie,” Charlie paused.
“Yeah,” she said bringing in another stack of glass panes. “You going to help me or just stand there all day?”
“I’m going to, but just hold up a second.”
She waited with her hands on her hips.
“Why do so many of our guests die?”
He saw her stiffen. The color drain from her face. “What do you know?”
“I know we bury about two a month. It just seems like a lot of accidents, right?”
She gave her head a quick nod.
"So what do you know about them?”
A tear ran down her cheek. Then another. This was not like Carrie. When she got upset with him, she hit him. She didn’t cry.
“Carrie, what’s the matter?” he said with alarm.
She shook her head again and again. “I can’t.”
He stepped closer. “You can. You must. Tell me.”
“If I do, you must never, ever tell anyone.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
She wiped her eyes with her palms. “You know the sheet hanging against the kitchen table?”
He nodded. Hanging sheets provided privacy and mini-rooms in their one-room cabin. The sheet she spoke of hung too close to the table. It would lie on your back. They all hated that so no one sat there. They sat on the other three sides.
“When we have only one guest, Mama makes the guests sit so his back is pushing out the sheet. Then while the man eats, she goes behind the sheet and hits them in the head with her clothes iron. Papa drags them out and tells us they had an accident or a mule kicked them.”
Charlie sighed with frustration. “I won’t be distracted by some wild story. I really want to know what is bothering you.”
“Mama says I got to start doing it now.”
“Doing what? Killing a man? Fine. If you don’t want to tell me, then say so” he said with anger. "Stop your ridiculous lying!”
“I’m not.” She grabbed his forearm. “Charlie, you can’t let them know I told you.”
He jerked his arm loose in fury. “What do I know? Only your lies.”
“Please, Charlie. I’m leaving with the next group that passes by. I’ve got a bag packed with supplies. Don’t mess this up for me.”
“You’d leave? Where would you go?” A terrible thought occurred to him. “You’re going to tell the law, aren’t you?”
“No! Never! But Mama says it’s not fair for her to have to do it all, now that I’m grown up. She says it’s safer if we both hit them. Charlie, I can’t do it.”
It was too much. He ran from the trading post. It surprised him to realize he’d come to the graveyard. There were no markers. His family had been burying guests here at the rate of one to two per month since he could remember. How many graves were here? He realized with a shock it was the only way they stocked the shelves of the trading post. It was how they got mules and horses to sell. It was how they could have wagons, wagon parts, and tools in their inventory. Travelers could purchase anything needed for the Santa Fe Trail right here at the best stocked trading post on the road.
He heard Carrie's labored breathing and turned to face her. “Leave me alone!” he shouted.
She looked frightened. “Please, don’t say anything until after I’ve gone.”
Charlie surprised himself when he impulsively said, “Take me with you.”
“What?” the surprise of his words stopped her cold. She paused then said, “No, I’ll have a better chance if it is only me.”
Her rejection ignited a rage in him. Without another thought, he made a straight line for his mother working in the garden. Carrie tugged his arm, and begged him to stop, but his fury was unstoppable.
Their mother must have heard them coming. Rising from her knees, she waited. At the garden’s edge, Charlie blurted out, “Carrie says you kill people.”
His mother frowned and stared at Carrie. “You coward.” Turning to Charlie she asked, “Do you believe her?”
He looked at the ground and said nothing.
Their mother sighed. “I knew after your sister’s reaction some adjustments might have to be made. I’d hope she would come around. You realize we only kill vermin."
He began to weep. It was true.
His mother held out her arms wide. “Oh, my poor, Charlie come here. It will be all right.”
Charlie went to her and was comforted by her embrace.
“That’s a good boy,” she said and gave him a big squeeze before letting him go. “You don’t worry none. You won’t ever have to do the killing.”
Carrie had a look of horror. “Charlie, no. You can’t be okay with this. I’m sorry I said no. I will take you with me.”
“No one is going anywhere until we talk with your father. Charlie, dear,” his mother said calmly, “you ride over to the woods and chop us down a tree for firewood and haul it back here while Carrie, Papa, and I have a talk.”
Charlie did as his mama told him. Once the cottonwood tree was dropped off at the chopping block, he went looking for his sister. The hours of hard labor had worked off his rage. They also had given him time to think things through. Now he just wanted to find his sister and apologize. No matter how her battle with their parents had turned out, he would help her escape if she still wanted to leave.
Before going down the hill, he checked around the stable. In its hayloft, he found her stash of supplies, but no Carrie. Maybe she was still unloading the wagon. He headed for the trading post.
Passing by their cabin on his way down to it, father approached him from the house. “There’s been an accident,” said his father. “You need to come to the house.”
His sister's body lay on the kitchen table. She was dressed in a white wedding dress. It had been on the store shelves for years. Carrie loved to hold it up and whirl around. “Someday this will be my wedding dress.” Now it was her burial shroud. His mama sobbed while washing the body.
“What happened?” Charlie asked.
“She fell out of the wagon she was unloading and hit her head on a rock,” his father said. “Come I’ll show you.”
The wagon and open crates were just as they had left them earlier that morning. But now there was a kettle sized stone among them.
“I found her lying just there by that rock,” father said.
That afternoon, he and papa dug another grave. Mama sewed Carrie into a sheet. “My poor sweet baby,” she said over and over while she stitched. Tears streamed down his papa’s face as he carried her in his arms up to the grave. As Charlie shoveled dirt into the grave alongside of his father, he made a decision.
Tomorrow his life would change. He didn’t know where he was going but he’d do okay. His parents had taught him well. Charlie was good with horses and mules. He could run a store and keep its accounts. Yes, his parents had taught him well. For that reason, he owed them. He would not be telling the law about them. After all, they were only killing vermin. Coyotes and hawks did it too. But his parents had also killed Carrie. He knew that. He whispered a prayer for her, and dropped another shovel full of dirt onto her body below.
At sunset, Charlie did his evening chores as usual. He took his time. It needed to be dark when he left. Finally it was time. Saddling his favorite horse, he strapped Carrie’s bag to it, and rode out. It was a starry but moonless night. Stopping at the hill crest he looked back. Light from the cabin window lit a patch of prairie grass on the ground outside. Inside he could see his parents. His father was updating the trading post’s books while his mother worked a loom making rag rugs.
On the Santa Fe Trail, a fifteen-year-old boy would stand out. Charlie couldn’t risk his father riding after him. So he’d go cross-country straight north for a while, then maybe northeast. Travelers told many stories. There was a trail to the Oregon Territory up there somewhere. To the east magical places called St. Louis, and New Orleans could be reached by floating in magnificent ships with giant paddles on a river called Mississippi. He started the horse toward the North Star. His new tomorrow waited.