Never Alone
Sharon Kay Bottoms

    I don’t see how I can go on, but what else is there to do?  Put one foot in front of the other, then bring the back one forward and take another step.  Walk, walk, walk—it’s all we ever do.  When we first left St. Joe, I would run through the spring grass, picking flowers, chasing my friends, but now . . .
    Now, even though that puny sun shines in a clear sky, it’s like a dark cloud hangs over us, Pa and me, as we drag through the sands along the Humboldt.  It’s not the kind of cloud that cools you off, though maybe that’s the last thing we need on this cold October morning; it’s the gray, gloomy kind that makes your heart heavy, the way mine has been since . . .
    She could always send the clouds away.  She was sunshine, all sunshine and smiles, and she had a laugh that rippled like circles spreading out on the Missouri when I’d toss in a pebble, rippled out and drew us all into a circle of happiness.  Wish I could hear it now . . . wish even more that Pa could.
    I look up into his face, hoping he’ll look down at me.  When it was just the two of us, before, he’d always just know somehow when I was looking at him, and he’d smile down at me.  I never felt alone then, but now . . .
    Now, when I look up at Pa, he never looks back, just stares straight ahead, and I don’t even think he sees what he’s looking at . . . just puts one foot in front of the other.  I guess that’s all there is to do.
    I wish it was different.  I wish the sunshine still walked beside us.  I wish . . . oh, what’s the use in wishing?  She’s gone . . . just like my real mother . . . except she was my real mother, the only one I ever knew.
    I’ll never forget that first time I saw her, there in the store at Petersburg, Illinois.  I didn’t pay her much mind at first.  I was sick, and though Pa had told me to stay at the wagon, I just couldn’t.  I needed him.  Pa could always make me feel better, even when I was tuckered out or when there wasn’t enough to eat.  I knew all I had to do was tell him I felt bad and he’d take care of me, the way he always did.
    Then I felt her cool hand on my forehead and heard her soft voice saying, “My goodness, child, your head feels warm,” and all at once I knew what it must be like for kids that had a mother, the way I never had.  I didn’t dream then that someday she’d really be my mama, but I knew before Pa did—really, I did.
    Pa didn’t like her much at first—well, maybe he did, but he didn’t act like it—fussed at her, even, for letting me listen to my mother’s music box.  I should’ve known better than to ask.  Pa was always funny about my mother’s things, my first mother, I mean.  I used to wish he’d tell me more about her, but he’d go all gray in the face when I asked, like it just hurt too bad to remember.  He looks that way again now, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever get my pa back, the way he was when she was with us, or if he’ll be like he was when we got to Petersburg, all beaten down and worried and growly over little things, like that music box.  Still don’t see why I couldn’t play it, unless . . .
    It’s an old worry, but it’s hard to shut out sometimes.  I was about four when Pa finally told me my first mother had died when I was born—or right after, I think he said.  Every time after that when Pa’d get cross with me, I’d think maybe he was mad ‘cause I killed her.  I asked him once, ‘cause Pa always said I could ask him anything, and he squeezed me so tight it hurt and said it wasn’t so.  Still . . . there’s times it grabs at me, like a cat with sharp claws.
    I’m not to blame this time; the Indians are.  Mama said not to blame them, though; she said they were just hungry and meant to shoot our cow, not her.  I try to feel like she’d want me to, but it’s hard.  Deep down, I do blame them, the way I think Pa might blame me about my mother.  No, don’t think that.  Pa said it wasn’t so; I gotta cling to that.
    There’s not much else to cling to now but memories, good ones and bad ones all mixed together.  We made some good ones, Pa and Inger and me, all the way from Petersburg to St. Joe, then across the Missouri and along the trail toward California.  Will we ever get there?  Does it even matter anymore?  Pa doesn’t talk about the dream now, doesn’t talk about anything much.  I wish he’d talk to me.  I wish I could crawl up in his lap and tell him how I’m hurting, but I can’t.  It’ll make him hurt worse, so I gotta keep it to myself.  It’s tearing me to pieces, though.  Wish there was someone I could tell.
    A loud squall rips through the still air.  Boy, there’s someone who never gives a thought to keeping it to himself when he’s unhappy!  Pa stops and eases the cradleboard off his back, so he can see what’s making my noisy little brother holler this time.  Probably hungry again.  That Hoss could eat night and day, I’m convinced, and it’s hard to fill him up now with Mama gone.  Our cow gives less and less every day.  Pa says it’s ‘cause she’s not getting enough water.  Well, nothing to do for that but keep putting one foot in front of the other and pray we reach the Carson River before the cow goes dry.
    For once, Hoss isn’t hungry—it’s worse.  His diaper’s in serious need of a change, and I do mean serious!  While Pa puts him in a fresh one, I hold the soaked, smelly thing at arms’ length as I run down to the muddy Humboldt to rinse out the poop.  An awful job, but it’s gotta be done.  Can’t throw anything that stinky in the wagon!  I know Pa needs my help, so I don’t complain.  Don’t see why I always gotta be the one to get the worst chores, though.
    When I come back, there’s Hoss, grinning in Pa’s lap, and Pa smiling at him, bigger than he ever smiles at me these days.  Makes me mad for a minute.  Hoss is where I want to be, but it’s stupid, being jealous of a baby, and here I am carrying on like one.  Still, Pa hasn’t held me but once since it happened, and bad as it hurt to cry so hard, I felt better.  I want to cry now, but I can’t, not without Pa’s arms around me, and they’re full.  Guess they’re likely to stay that way, with Hoss needing him so much, but I wouldn’t take the world for my little brother, even if it meant I could have Pa to myself again.  My best friend Billy, who lost his, says all little brothers are special, but Hoss is even more special to me right now.  He’s part of her, and I can see her sunshine in his eyes.
    There’s a little trading post close by, and the train’s stopping so folks can get supplies they need.  Pa says we don’t need any, so him and Hoss are just gonna rest awhile by the wagon.  I’m going up to the post with the Thomases.  Not to buy, ‘cause I got no money; just need to see something besides my own feet dragging through the sand.  Pa said I could go.  Wish he was coming, too, though.  Ain’t he ever gonna want to do anything again?

* * * * *

Kinda wish I hadn’t gone.  Wasn’t much to see and I heard more than I cared to.  Grownups got a way of forgetting kids are around and saying things they never would if they knew we was listening.  Mrs. Thomas was whispering to her husband, but I was right behind them, and I heard every word.  “It’s like he’s lost all will to live,” she said, and I knew she was talking about Pa.
    Did she mean Pa might up and die on me, too?  He can’t; he just can’t!  I’ll die for sure if he does.  When we were through at the post, I hurried back to camp and gave Pa a good look-over.  He was sad, real sad.  That was easy to see, but he gave me a little smile and asked if I’d had a good time.
    I said it was okay, but they didn’t have much.  I wanted to ask him if he’d quit wanting to live, like Mrs. Thomas said, but I just couldn’t.  Stuff like that, that comes from way down deep, is just hard to say, somehow, so I only told him I wished he had come, and he said, “Maybe next time.”  Next time . . . that means he’s gonna live, don’t it?  He’s gotta live for there to be a next time.  I’m taking it as a promise, and Pa never breaks a promise.

* * * * *

    Bones and bodies all around us, far as the eye can see.  Not that I can see far, with it being the middle of the night, but when the pale moonlight hits those bones, they look . . . what’s that word I saw in my reader the other day . . . eerie, that’s it.  The word itself makes you shiver, and so does everything I see tonight—and smell.  The smell is worse than any diaper I ever rinsed for that little mess-maker sleeping in the wagon.  It’s the smell of death; we’re walking through a desert full of death.  Oxen, mules, even horses—hundreds of them lying out there . . . bloated, giving off an odor so strong I want to puke.  But I can’t.  I’ve got to be strong this time.  I let Pa down once before, when we made the dry drive across Sublette’s Cutoff—whined like a baby ‘cause I got so tired, but there’s a real baby to think about this time.
    The Humboldt’s petered down to nothing, and we’ve got to get to water soon or it’ll be our bones in the moonlight, our rotting bodies turning folks’ stomachs, our innards those vultures I hear flapping above us will be picking at.  Shuddering, I huddle close to Pa’s leg and feel his hand come to rest on my shoulder.  “It’s all right, son,” he says, and there’s comfort in his voice.  “They’re just dead animals; they can’t hurt you.”
    I know that, and I’m not scared—well, not much—not for myself, anyway.  Pa and me can probably make it across this Twenty-Six Mile Desert between us and the Carson River.  It’s Hoss I’m worried about, and Pa is, too, I can tell.  We gotta keep that cow giving milk or my little brother will die, and I can’t take anybody else dying on me.  There’s just plain too much death behind me already, and the death around me only makes me think of all I’ve lost.
I’m not losing any more!  So I’ll walk all night through this stinking desert of death, and I won’t whine once about how tired I am.  I’ll do it for Hoss, and I’ll do it for Pa—and, yes, for Mama, too, because she’s in Hoss, and losing him would be like losing another part of her.  I can worry about me later.  For now, I’m just glad of Pa’s hand on my shoulder.  I don’t feel quite so alone, quite so scared of what’s ahead, when I feel him touch me.  He’s doing that more tonight than he has since . . . no, don’t think about death . . . especially not hers.  It’s too soon; it hurts too much.  Think about life, life for Hoss, especially, but for Pa and me, too.  Think about California; think about the dream; think . . . and take another step.

* * * * *

    I plunge beneath the rushing waters of the Carson River and come up, shivering and slicking my hair back out of my eyes.  It’s really too cold for a swim, but the water feels good, anyway.  I’m so coated with dust that it’s a pure pleasure to get clean, even if it does mean splashing around in icy water, and while squishing my toes in the mud sends goose bumps up my legs, it relaxes my tired feet from all that walking.  I can’t stay in long, though—just too cold for that.
    We made it here to Ragtown about ten o’clock this morning after walking all night through the desert, and I’ve never seen a prettier sight than those cottonwoods along the bank.  I could see them a mile or more before we got here, just about the time our livestock caught scent of the water and ran for it.  One of our oxen gorged himself too fast on the cold water and died, but Pa doesn’t seem too upset.  Me and Pa think alike on this:  we could spare the ox, but not the cow, not if we’re to keep Hoss alive.  She made it through, and she’s still giving milk; that’s all that matters.
    It’s been a long, rough haul down the Humboldt Valley, but we finally made it.  This is a nice spot.  I wish we could stay here longer, but we’re moving on again tomorrow.  Just this one day to rest up and wash our dirty duds, though they really are little better than the rags this place is named after.  That’s what me and Pa came down to the river to do, him to wash the clothes and me to watch that butterball brother of mine.  A kind lady from the wagon train offered to scrub the clothes, though, so Pa said I could swim and he’d watch Hoss.  They’re just down the riverbank from me, and Pa looks more at ease than he has since . . .
    Pa just waved at me!  After almost three weeks of feeling like he scarcely knew I was here, he’s actually looking at me—and he’s smiling.  He looks real peaceful and dreamy, too.  If Pa’s dreaming again, everything’s bound to be all right, after all.  It won’t be the same as if Mama was here, but we’ll still build that big house with tall trees all around, just like she wanted.  I know it now.  I should’ve never doubted.  Pa promised it to her, and Pa never breaks a promise.
    Bad as I hate to get out, I can’t stand the cold much longer.  I take one last dive under the water.  As I come up, I see the water spreading out in ripples, like it did on the Missouri, only this time I’m the pebble.  The sunlight plays with the ripples making circles around me, and I hear her laughter inside me again.  More than just inside, though; it’s like she’s all around me, and I’m standing right in the center of the happiness she brought into our lives.  She’s still with me, in a way, and I guess she always will be, even if I can’t see or touch her anymore. I come running out of the river, shaking water droplets from my hair, and race toward Pa.  His arms open wide, and suddenly I know:  with her inside me and Pa here to hold me, I’ll never really be alone.  You just can’t be alone when there’s so much love around you.

The End
June, 2000