They said you could find anything you wanted on the road west, even God Hisself, and if you couldn’t, then you just hadn’t gone far enough.
She had walked a lot of country by that summer, though, and she hadn’t found God yet--just the devil and everything else besides.
They’d gone through mountains and sweetgrass, through flatlands and fields, and now they were in the desert, wandering like Moses and his people.
That’s where her father died and her brother, too, both taken by fever.
They’d started the journey with seven.
Now, there were only five. A mother and four children to tend, all on her own.
When the man on the horse rode up, they all stared. Not at him but the animal. What a beauty it was. Constance did not know horses very well but she knew enough to see this one was a prize.
“You folks okay?” the man asked.
Perhaps it was the horse. Perhaps it was the question, the inflection of kindness.
But her mother went to him. She reached up, grabbed his hand and said, “No.”
He dismounted and walked them, and his horse, off the road and into the brush. Towards a cave in the side of a dusty brown mountain. It was their desperation that allowed them to follow him so easily. Constance’s younger sisters and brother trailed behind her like featherless ducklings, starved and sunburned.
The man said, “Got a camp here. It’s shady. Got some food, too, you can have.”
“May God bless you for your kindness,” said her mother.
The man chuckled at this. Constance had not yet seen his face, as it was covered by the brim of a dark hat. Covered by shadow. But she could see he was big. Tall and broad shouldered. She wanted to stand in the cool line of shade he cast. “I don’t think God takes too kindly to men like me, ma’am.”
“Oh, that isn’t true. He rewards those who are generous.”
“Some generosity don’t cancel out a lifetime of sin. Least, that’s the way I reckon it works.”
Constance paused now, her youngest brother, Gideon, running into her rear.
They were nearly at the cave. She could see its black and yawning hole in the side of the cliff. And there was that big man, whose face she couldn’t see. Who had no favor with God.
“Mother?” she asked.
Her mother paused, turned to look at her.
“What is it, Constance?”
She hesitated. The man’s face was still shadowed beneath his hat, but he was looking at her. She felt his gaze like sand brushing against her in a breeze. “I don’t believe we should stay very long. Uncle Norman is expecting us soon.”
Her mother frowned, and Constance hoped that she would not give the lie away. Her mother’s mind was weighed heavy with pain and sun-sickness, and Constance did not have high hopes.
But then, like a miracle, her mother nodded. “Yes, we will only stay a moment.”
They went to the cave.
At the mouth, there were logs for a fire. A sleeping pack lay next to it. A lantern, cans of food, a skinned rabbit.
All of their stomachs seemed to roar in unison.
“Help yourself to whatever you see,” said the man.
Her siblings poured from around her like water, descending upon the treasures, but her mother halted them with a sharp bark.
“Don’t be unruly,” she said. She grabbed a can of beans, scooped a spoonful for each of them. “Try this first. You’ll be sick if you eat a lot at once.”
They obeyed, begrudgingly.
Constance’s eyes drifted towards the man. He took his hat off to wipe sweat with the back of his arm. There was enough light coming in to see his hair was light brown, fine and a bit long. Perhaps once it was very fair but time had dulled it to the color of aged wheat.
He looked up and his eyes were so blue that it shocked her into some strange new feeling and she quickly averted her gaze.
“Thank you, again,” her mother said. She was sitting near the children, feeding them careful bites.
“Ain’t nothin’, ma’am.” The sound of his voice seemed to rumble in the cave. Constance wondered how deep it went.
“It is. It is something. You’re the first man who’s shown us any kindness in the past few weeks.” Her mother pushed a few strands of hair out of her face only to be interrupted by Gideon tugging on her arm for more food. “My name is Lorena. This is my boy, Gideon. Grace and Faith are my younger girls here. My eldest is Constance.”
Constance felt the man looking at her again. She felt the creep of blood rushing up her neck, the side of her face, where his eyes had settled.
“It’s a pleasure,” said the man.
“Will you tell us your name?” her mother asked.
His hesitation worried Constance but finally, he said, “Arthur. Arthur Callahan.”
“Well, you are a good man, Mr. Callahan.”
Again, he laughed, but it had no joy. “I ain’t sure ‘bout that.”
Gideon suddenly gagged, a horrid, retching sound, and a spill of beans and water came running from his mouth, into his lap.
This was almost more than Mother could bear. Constance saw the strain, the pain of the last few weeks, months. She saw it all in her mother’s watery eyes, and Constance quickly stepped forward before her mother’s mind could snap, maybe get lost in the break.
“I’ll clean him,” said Constance.
“There’s a river nearby. I can take you,” Mr. Callahan said.
“That’s quite all right. You’ve troubled yourself enough. Just point me in the right direction.” Constance grabbed beneath Gideon’s arms, lifted him. His weight was slight and boneless.
“It’s ‘bout a half mile out. West from here.”
Everything in her life seemed to be west from where she’d been standing.
Constance didn’t like leaving her mother and the girls, but she knew Mother had Father’s gun and that did give her some comfort.
“I’m hot,” said Gideon.
“I know. So am I.”
“Are we almost there?”
“I think so.” Constance shifted him on her hip. She was covered in his filth now, too, but it hardly seemed to matter. She imagined this river. She let herself think the water would be cool, like the mountain springs back home. She let herself imagine she’d dive in and sink to the bottom and settle there and be washed smooth and shiny like a stone with the rush of the current.
In reality, the river was still. A rippleless blue snake curling through dry land, carving a groove for itself. The water was not cool at all, but hot. Just as everything else in this desert was.
Gideon seemed revived by it. He splashed and washed himself clean, until he almost resembled a boy again.
Constance went about her own washing with care and scaredness. She was very gentle with her dress, which was so threadbare it could fall apart at the seams from the slightest scrub.
When they were done, they walked back and let the air dry them. They were not even damp by the time they reached the cave.
Inside, the girls were sleeping and Mother was finally eating. Small careful bites of meat.
Constance looked for the man, but he was not there.
“Where is he?” she asked.
Her mother’s eyes were drooping, her chewing slow. “He said he had to go catch another rabbit. For our dinner.”
“We’re staying for dinner?”
Gideon pulled out of Constance’s hand, ran to their mother. He launched himself in her lap, snuggled down despite the heat.
“I thought we might,” her mother said.
“We don’t know this man.”
“He’s been very kind.”
“And don’t you wonder why that is?”
Her mother shifted Gideon in her lap, blinking fast. “What choice do we have.”
Constance glanced over at the girls. They were still, sleeping soundly, their dark hair tangled together. The shady rock must have felt cool against their skin.
Constance said, “I suppose none.”
The man did not come back with a rabbit but a pronghorn. It was a massive beast, slung over his shoulder and dripping blood from an empty eye-socket. When Arthur dropped it to the ground, Gideon woke, fluttering with excitement. He eventually couldn’t contain himself and shook his younger sisters awake, too, and the three of them sat, dark-headed doorsteps, watching as Mr. Callahan unsheathed a hunting knife.
“We can help you skin it, if you like,” Mother said.
“No need, ma’am. I can manage.” And he made short work of it, slicing away at the pronghorn hide. Aggressive, efficient.
Constance knew Gideon would be impressed, and he was, inching closer and closer, watching on in amazement.
“How’d you catch one of those? They’re fast.”
Mr. Callahan paused in his cutting for a moment, wiped sweat from his brow and left just a little streak of blood behind. “If you stay downwind of ‘em you can usually get close enough to get a shot in. Gotta get ‘em in the eye or the heart or somethin’ real important, though. Otherwise, they’ll spook and you gotta chase ‘em down.”
“Did you kill this one with one shot?”
Mr. Callahan just nodded as he went back to work.
“With a gun?”
“A bow, actually.”
“Wow.” The word was exhaled quietly beneath Gideon’s breath. “My father had a gun. Now my mother has it. But he didn’t have a bow. And I never saw him use the gun much, unless it was to shoot squirrels. But he was not a very good shot at all.”
“What happened to him--your pa?”
“He died,” said Gideon.
“On the trail,” Mother added, her voice very quiet.
Constance looked to Faith and Grace, but they were sitting further out now, away from the gore of the pronghorn, talking amongst themselves. In their own world, connected and enclosed. They had a kind of magic, the twins, a real magic--speaking to each other with only their eyes and hands, reaching out to feel the other’s pain when separated.
It was not the same magic Constance had. The same magic her father said she had.
She envious of the twins and their silent, understanding ways.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Mr. Callahan. Constance looked back to him, found his eyes dipping away from hers. “If you don’t mind me askin’, why you folks out on the trails? I mean, where are you headed?”
“My husband was a minister,” said Mother. “He was called to preach in a settlement in Arizona. We couldn’t afford train passage for us and all our children, so we decided to go by wagon. A bit old fashioned, now, I suppose. But… it seemed an adventure, at the time.”
Outside, the sky was turning gold and pink. The heat was edging away, as was the sun, and the night sounds began.
Inside the cave, there was only the saw of Mr. Callahan’s knife and the crackle of fire. The rustling sound of many breaths being taken at different times.
“That’s bad business,” said Mr. Callahan. “I’m real sorry.”
“It isn’t your fault. You’ve been a true blessing. We got… lost a few days after my husband passed. Someone stole our wagon, our things. We are… well, we are in a sorry state. But we would be much worse off, had it not been for you.”
Mr. Callahan brushed past the compliments as if they were cobwebs. He settled back on his heels, in a crouch by the half-chopped pronghorn. “You got family near, right? That uncle? Where’s he at? I can point you in the right direction.”
Mother’s eyes flickered over to Constance then back to Mr. Callahan. “I’m… well, that won’t be necessary. If you can just point us to the direction of the closest town… perhaps there we can drum up the money needed for train passage to my uncle.”
“He can’t send for you?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well.” Mr. Callahan scratched at his jaw, forgetting the state of his hands. He left a smear of blood in the beginnings of his beard. “Tumbleweed’s the closest town to here but I wouldn’t recommend it. Ain’t nothin’ hardly there since the railroad passed ‘em by. Armadillo is the closest town after that. But it ain’t much, neither. Been hit by lots of sickness. Just got over a bout of scarlet fever that nearly killed everyone there.”
“That’s horrible.” Mother’s hand went to the cross around her neck, a reflex she wasn’t aware of. “Is there… well, is there anyone left?”
“Oh, yeah. Bunch of drunkards and fools. Maybe a few good people. I ain’t sure there’s a lot of work ‘round there, though. Least… least not the type a good woman like you’d want, if you get my meanin’.”
Mother turned pink, as if she’d been held too close to the fire. “Oh. I see.”
“Could be somethin’ though. At least they got the rail station. I’d be happy to take you folks to it. It’s a few days out.”
“We don’t want to impose any more than--”
“I was plannin’ on headin’ into Armadillo soon, anyway.”
“Is that where you reside?”
Mr. Callahan went back to his cutting. “Don’t really reside anywhere, ma’am.”
With their bellies full for the first time in weeks, they fell asleep, one-by-one, all huddled around the fire to fight off the desert chill.
In her dreams, she saw strange things. Things she would not be able to recall when she woke but would haunt her into the day. Things that would keep an uneasy feeling hovering in the back of her mind.
She did wake once, in the night, quite suddenly.
Her eyes opened to the sight of him.
He was sitting on the other side of the fire, awake. Writing in a book. His hat was off, and the flames made his face golden and sharp in places, soft in others.
He glanced up when he felt her stare.
Was she still dreaming? Perhaps that is why she didn’t look away, shy and caught. She shifted her head on her arm as Gideon snuggled closer to her in his sleep, and all the while, she kept looking at Mr. Callahan.
And he kept looking back.
When she fell back to sleep, she dreamed of pronghorn and open plains. This she remembered.