Authors: Gary Schanbacher
NEW YORK LONDON
For Sherri and Will, always
CONTINENTAL UNITED STATES 1858
CONFLUENCE OF THE PURGATOIRE AND ARKANSAS RIVERS
NEAR BENT'S OLD FORT, COLORADO
LEAVING DEEP WOODS,
hompson Grey quit his farm in Deep Woods, Indiana on the 20th of May in 1858. At first light after a sleepless night, he set out across his recently sown field, the tilled soil yielding beneath his weight. Dirt clung to his boots. Rich dirt, black and wet from rain. Holding him to his land. He felt its pull but resisted, pushed on. Once beyond the field and onto the road, he looked back the one time only. There, a trail of flattened corn shoots, slender and green and no larger than a baby's finger.
He arrived at the small township early morning and stood in front of Edwin Fletcher's door again to see if the constable might come out and confront him, but he would not. After a time, Thompson spat on the step and turned his back to Deep Woods, the drygoods store, blacksmith shed, livery, community storage barn, two churches, and twelve houses. At this hour, an ordinary day would bring the sights and sounds of awakening commerce: the report of hammer on anvil, the creak of a wagon, a scattering of people from the surrounding farms trickling into the mercantile. Not on this day. Shades were drawn, shop doors latched. The villagers had anticipated his passing. When he'd been gone half an hour, the shutter on Edwin Fletcher's front window inched open, and after another few minutes he stepped tentatively from his front stoop and squinted into the distance. He remained close by his entrance, as might a groundhog hug tight to its burrow until certain the fox had passed. And then, the bellows from the livery sent up a black column, the sound of two boys hollering broke the spell of silence, and the town of Deep Woods carried on with the business as usual.
Thompson Grey left the washboard road after six miles, cutting across country to the west. He had no destination in mind other than general direction. Westward, away from civilization. He carried a Kentucky rifle, a pouch of balls and caps, his powder, a water skin, and a rucksack containing a blanket, a small traveling Bible, cooking pot, and a tin cup. Around his waist a money belt cinched his wool jacket and protected two twenty-dollar gold eagles, three silver coins, and a few coppers. Tied to the belt were a gutting knife and a sack holding dried venison, a few stale biscuits, and a flint firestone. On his head, a felt slouch hat.
He walked through open farmland and the wooded hills of southern Indiana, walked with urgency, without rest, as if by exertion alone he might outpace his grief. He avoided marked roads where he could, having no wish for human contact and no need for trail mark or signpost. At dusk, he sat beside a black walnut tree, a windbreak, and ate a biscuit and a strip of venison, gnawing at the meat. He noticed the dirt lodged beneath his fingernails, embedded in his cuticles and in the creases of his knuckles. His dirt. From the last of the digging. Yesterday morning? Two days past? Three? Weariness bore down. His head slumped to his chest and, resting against the tree, he slept.
HE DREAM THAT HAD PLAGUED
him these past days returned. Thompson stands at the brow of a hill overlooking a vast field of corn, endless row upon row stretching beyond the reach of vision, filling the entire valley. His valley. His corn. The stalks, broad-leafed and fully tasseled, grow tall during the day but at night they lie down with the animals, only to rise again with the sun. Thompson walks to his hill each day to survey his dominion and one morning discovers not corn but bones lying in the field. Dry bones, picked clean. Upon his arrival, they begin joining together, bone to bone, forming an army of skeletons that turn and march on him, a cacophony of rattling, the ground quaking beneath his feet. They beat drums, a thrumming pulse. He flees, but they pursue, calling to him in a language he does not understand but in a tone that clearly accuses, and in his heart Thompson knows they will never relent. Although for the moment he eludes them, he is certain the skeletons advance, he can hear the yowl of the wind through their ribs as they march.
E WOKE UNSURE OF HIS
whereabouts, dazed by fatigue and sorrow, the psalmist's lament in his ears.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin
. Daybreak brought a low, gunmetal sky, a chill breeze, and intermittent drizzle. Thompson again walked hard, pushed his endurance, the arcing of a blurred sun his timepiece. He ate the last of his jerked meat, kept moving. He came to a road leading west and he followed it, all that day and the next, occasionally chancing upon a cabin or small homestead. Once he passed close by a man and three children, a boy and two girls, working the field. The man looked up and mopped his face with a rag and followed Thompson's progress until apparently convinced he would not stop and then he turned back to his hoe. Near sunset, he sighted smoke in the distance, several individual columns rising from the horizon and dissipating in the breeze, and he left the road for the cover of nearby woods to skirt the settlement. From a hillside, hidden in the shadow of trees, he paused above the tidy row of cabins. Several appeared newly constructed, a loose pile of scrap timber, a pitch pot smoldering. Nearing dusk, the glow from cooking fires blushed windows and seeped from beneath doors. People began making their way from the fields, here a man with six children following in step like ducklings, there two men leading mules by their harnesses. A pair of mongrels barked and nipped at one another and worried a rawhide strip between them.
Day faded early in the woods and, in unfamiliar land, Thompson sensed the ghost of memory stalking him, a chill presence descending like a mist that drove him from the hill overlook on into the gloaming. Past dark he rolled himself in his blanket and slept fitfully on the ground at the edge of a meadow. Once during the night he woke to the sound of a wolf far in the distance. A howl, a response? He thought he was done with sleep for the night, but fatigue overcame his churning mind and he drifted back into uneasy somnolence, floating, dim noises, a light breeze through new spring leaves, the screeching cry of a fox, or a baby, unable to distinguish dream world from real.
Thompson rose, stiff and weary, to a light rain. Tired, wet, but marching as if he were fleeing the advancing enemy. His stomach protested, empty save for a stale biscuit from his sack and fresh water from a clear running stream he'd waded. He sensed an unnamed adversary coming from the east so he continued his westward course at military pace long into the day. He passed one other township but encountered no one on the road. By late afternoon he entered unknown territory, country he'd not traveled before: limestone bluffs breaking the rolling hills, the land opening a bit, the woods patchy. As the sun neared the western horizon, he descended into the gully of a creek bed where a small stand of hickory grew up dark against the paling sky. He drank from the creek and refilled his water bag. The water tasted of leaves and bog. After surveying the gully, he stood in the lengthening shadow of a tree and pulled the hammer of his rifle to half-cock and placed the butt between his feet with the muzzle at his shoulder. He poured the charge, fit the ball and compressed the paper wadding behind it with his ramrod. He shouldered the rifle and set the hammer to full cock. He waited. Motionless, alert. A quarter of an hour passed, and then the muffled sound of movement through the damp leaves, a squirrel darting along the ground and up the hickory where Thompson had spotted the nest. It paused on a branch and Thompson sighted his musket, but the squirrel sensed something, pending danger, the slight movement of the muzzle, and scurried to the far side of the tree where it scolded him with a repetitive, sharp chatter. Thompson picked a hickory nut from the ground and tossed it behind the tree and readied himself. The squirrel jumped from the sound back to Thompson's side of the tree, where the musket ball waited. Thompson's shot struck bark a fraction of an inch beneath the squirrel, killing by concussion without mutilating the meat.