The Walk |Mike L. Nichols |Fiction

That September our plow horse lay down and her gut twisted and she died. So when Caroline, my little angel, took sick there was nothing for it but to walk to Pashto for medicine. Though it was near November there was hardly any snow yet, but Molly knew that there soon would be, and so she agonized over my leaving. Caroline was getting no better after three days, during which Molly had fought against the child’s killing fever. We could do no more for her and there was no doctor near. Not by a jug full could I stand idly by and watch her be taken from us.

We’d come west from Baltimore to Missouri Territory with our mare, Betsy, a few chickens, a goat for the milk she gave, and our wagon loaded with our few possessions. After six years married Molly and me thought we could never have children. So, after less than a year spent here in the territory, Caroline’s coming was quite a surprise and a double joy to us.

Molly fixed me up with bacon, salt pork, boiled eggs, and corn cakes for the walk. I dressed as warmly as I could in my shell jacket and frayed woolen sack coat. I kissed them both good-bye, but my Caroline was delirious with fever and she said, “Papa? It is too hot in here. I want to go outside now to sit and splash in the creek.”

I did not believe she really knew I was there and it made me teary to see her in such a state. So I tramped off for Pashto with a sad yet hopeful heart.

 

I stepped out on the plank walk and the heavy door to the apothecary slammed behind me. The sound of it echoed long and loud in the cold air. I patted the pocket of my sack coat again for the feel of the flat brown bottle of medicine. The memory of the three days spent in the widow Spencer’s corn crib watching the snow fall and waiting for the medicine to arrive were a torment to me. The fear of what those wasted days might mean for my Caroline chattered at my mind.

I had never imagined that I might have to wait for a new shipment of medicine to arrive in Pashto. There had been a lot of sickness already that year. The apothecary said that the contents of the brown bottle would help stop my little Caroline’s coughing fits. He’d also given me packets of powders for her fever and the swelling in her throat which made it hard for her to breath.

I tried to beg the loan of a horse but I was not known in Pashto, and so I was treated as a malingerer and often told to go boil my shirt. I thought to take a horse under cover of night. I would bring it back after Caroline was well again. But, if I were caught, I would have been strung up from the nearest oak and been of no good to her. There was nothing else for it. I would tramp back home as fast as I was able. I looked to the west and the dark clouds bunched there. It would snow again, maybe. I screwed down my slouch hat and pulled up the rough collar of my coat against the chill air and stepped off the plank walk.

I left Pashto behind and was soon tramping through snow which was in some places drifted high as my knees. I walked and the morning wore away. When my left foot pushed uneven through the snow my knee buckled hard. I ignored the pain and forged on. The cold air stung my eyes and seeped through that sack coat. I counseled myself that to keep moving was the key, slow and steady, not so fast that the sweat would break out on my skin. I kept moving and recalled Caroline’s lively conversation by the fire.

I stumbled a bit coming down an uneven slope and a black dog stepped from a stand of poplar to the North. I was startled by how it stood out against the snow, an aberration. It was an average-sized mongrel with a head too large for its body. It stared at me through black eyes and I stopped and stared back. When I began walking again, the black dog stepped out from the dark trees and walked out to me. It fell in behind me and matched my pace. I thought that it must live on a homestead nearby and that it would turn and head back soon. I tried to ignore it. I looked back every so often, always expecting it would be gone, but always it was there two paces behind me. Its front feet and legs were thick, it was black as midnight, and there was no other spot of color on it.

I stopped and I turned to shoo the dog off several times, but it only sat in the snow and cocked its head to stare at me as if I were some form of wonderment. It showed no sign that it meant to leave me. So in the end I told it, “Have it your way, but I got a long slog ahead, and you’ll likely regret it.”

As the afternoon wore on I kept looking back, now almost afraid that the dog would not be there. It would look up to meet my eyes each time I turned, then it would lower its head to stare at my feet. I was glad not to be alone with only thoughts of my little Caroline and of those three days wasted and gone. The brown bottle of amber liquid sloshed in my pocket. I unbuttoned my coat and reached in to touch it, to know that it was safe.

I was getting tired but dared not admit it. Fear crept in and told me that I would not make it back through snow this deep. I pushed such thoughts from my head and concentrated on my footsteps instead. I remembered the loaf of bread and the ham wrapped in cheese cloth in my coat. I tore off pieces of each and chewed them in the cold as I walked. I drank the water from my gourd, the chill of it an unwelcome reminder of the dropping temperature.

The sun was low behind the clouds, and I half-expected the dog to stop or to turn back, but it did not. Always it stayed two paces behind me in the trail I broke in the snow. Its step and breath and body comforted me.

I had taken three days and two nights with brief rest to make my way to Pashto, but there had been much less snow then. Thoughts of the three days waiting in the corncrib crept into my mind again, and a sick feeling wrapped around my guts. I groaned and stumbled and fell to my hands and knees in the snow. I knew that my worrying did no good, yet I was powerless to stop. Worry had wrapped its way all through me. I looked back and the dog sat in the snow watching me. It looked away as if embarrassed to be caught staring. Its pink tongue fell loose over its big jaw and it panted and looked off into the distance.

The sun would soon be gone. An image of Caroline sweating and moaning beneath the patchwork quilt while Molly dabbed at her head with a wet cloth sprang to my mind, and I scrambled to my feet. I felt like a schoolboy caught at doing something bad. I got to feeling crazy, and I started to run to make up for lost time. I came to my senses and chastised myself out loud. I knew I must not tire myself out like that.

I unbuttoned my coat and for a moment my numb fingers could not feel the bottle. I fought down the panic and stuck my hands in the coat under my arms and when they’d warmed a little I could feel the bottle. I cursed myself for a fool.

The sun was gone and with it the clouds. The cold was stinging and brutal. My legs ached but my feet were numb. To regain feeling in them I would stop and stomp them every little while. I recalled times when Caroline would walk beside me as I plowed. She’d talk to me of everything and of nothing. I did not look back to see if the dog was there, but I felt its presence. I began to feel as if it were driving me.

At Broke-Leg Creek I spent a long while chipping a hole in the ice. I filled the gourd and drank. The dog drank, and I filled the gourd again. I fell into a stupor, staring off at nothing until the dog’s whining broke the spell. I pushed up off my knees and patted that brown bottle in my pocket, solid and reassuring, and I started off again.

The moon rose and made its low arch across the dark frozen sky. It would fall below the horizon soon. I wanted to rest, and I damned myself for my weakness. I saw my little Caroline, pale white, brittle dry and shivering in her pallet beneath the patchwork quilt. I cried out and the dog whined and I stumbled and fell. I sobbed then, once. I cursed myself out loud for behaving like a little milksop. I pushed myself up and made my aching legs move.

The dawn came colder than the night. The sun was blinding, but it gave no warmth. I walked. The dog’s presence always behind me, a persistent persuasive force. My legs grew so tired lifting up out of the snow and crunching back down into it. Footfalls without end. Mostly I looked down at the snow just in front of me, only glancing up from time to time, realigning myself westerly.

Hunger dug at my belly, and I ate as I walked while the moon slowly dropped in its arch to the South. I pulled more of the ham and the last of the dry bread from my coat and chewed it slowly. I looked back at the dog and it looked up at me. I tossed it a hard heel of bread, then a hunk of ham, and it bolted them both down.

The clouds returned and with them some warmth but also a fear of snow and what that would mean. The food brought me no strength, and I would drift into a half sleep while I walked. I would wake with a start only to drift off again while my legs moved beneath me, loose, weary and disjointed.

The sun was low behind the clouds again when the dog drove me to Moose-Rib creek. The water was swift so that I did not have to break ice. I unstoppered and filled my gourd, and the dog and I drank. I filled the gourd again and it was time to move but my legs wouldn’t lift me. I felt that I was done.

Then the dog bit me. I lay on my side in the soft snow, sleeping. It bit my hand hard but I could not rouse myself. It barked and whined in my ear. It butted me hard in the face with its wet nose, and the vision of a tiny grave sparked in my mind, of a pure white cairn of rocks and of snow falling and of cold. I rolled and rose and took two steps but fell again. The dog barked and leapt at me. I told it, “I know it.” I got my feet under me again, and after some time my legs found a shambling rhythm.

The cold came when the sun went. I shivered endlessly. I slapped my arms and chest and stamped my feet until I was too tired to do it any longer. The dog seemed to know when my energy flagged for at those moments it barked, sharp and piercing, and nudged the back of my leg with its blunt nose. I cursed myself for a weakling, and I prayed to God for strength though I thought it unlikely that He cared aught for the troubles of a pitiful creature such as me. I thought of my small darling girl and asked only for strength to get back to her.

I tore the last of the ham in two and handed the dog its share and thus our second night of walking passed with me stumbling, sleeping, and falling, and the dog biting, barking and nudging.

Another frozen dawn came. My exposed face stung but my feet felt warm, and I knew I might lose some toes. I did not care how far I had yet to go, only that I must keep going. I saw Boney Mountain off in the west and knew that I had strayed off course and that with another day’s walking, I still would not be home. I grasped the brown bottle through my coat and I looked back at the dog. It stared at me, by its existence it goaded me on.

We walked away the morning and my mind would not work right. Thoughts drifted up and out without meaning. I suffered through dreams and mirages of warmth. Roaring fires spat glowing embers inside tight chinked cabins. Buckets of steaming scalding water poured in a tin wash tub. Sunny green hillocks roiled with heat waves.

I awoke in annoyance with my face pressed into the snow and Caroline’s laughter in my ears. The black dog chewed and pulled on my leg. It tore through my pants and bruised my flesh, but I could not rouse myself to stop it. It gripped a finger through my glove and bit until the cartilage popped, and I cried out and rolled onto my back.

The dog sat in the snow watching me. It washed my face with its warm tongue and I remembered. Tears welled in my eyes. I spoke, “You must stand and move though you are a pitiable weakling.” Then I stood.

The pain in my hips and knees was a horror, and the dog barked shrilly and leapt and twisted in front of me. I took a step and thought that I would fall. The dog jumped at my face and nipped me under the eye, like a blow from a fist. I rushed to give it a kick but instead I fell into a stumbling drunken pace, and the dog took its place behind me. It would, from time to time, run in front of me twisting to glare at me and bark. It was an awful piercing noise. It carried the same effect as a slap for me.

The sun was gone. The cold was a misery. I held tight to the bottle through my coat as we walked, and I thought of my little Caroline, soon to be hale and hardy with this good medicine inside her. Surely we could walk a few more hours now after all we’d done already. A few more hours and I would hold my little angel tight and kiss her lovely face.

I’d fallen again, and the dog was barking. I got to my knees, and I wavered. I saw the ridge on my right where Dan Collin’s burnt out place had been. I could make it home now. I was that close. The night was warming. I could smell the snow in the air and then it came, huge wet flakes, but I was on the last leg now, coming up Copper Ridge. Sometimes I stumbled and fell, and sometimes I crawled. Then I would curse myself, and the dog would lick my face as if to strip away skin, and I’d stand and stumble on.

I could see the dark shape of the home place ahead. Oh, my joy! I cackled like a madman and said to the dog, “We have made it!”

I fell through the door and staggered to Caroline’s empty pallet. Well, I thought, she must be fine now, I’d worried for nothing. Ha! The joke was on me. She hadn’t needed any apothecary’s potions to get her through. She’d beat it all on her own.

Well then, I’d thought, she must be hiding, the little imp. I turned, and I saw Molly’s stunned and stricken face and knew I had it wrong. My Caroline, my only one, was washed and dressed and wrapped in clean linen in the cooling shed where she’d lain those last three nights. Where she’d wait ‘til spring when the ground would thaw enough to open for her small grave, her cairn of white stones.

I stumbled outside into the white world of falling snow to look for the black dog, but it was gone. I had no name for it so I could only cry out, “Black dog!” over and again until I dropped to my knees, exhausted, and wept. I wept for my little angel now gone to heaven, for the dog lost in the falling snow.

I never found the dog. I wanted to repay it somehow. Since then I’ve sometimes wondered, as I go about my work in the warm spring air and recall the bygone melody of Caroline’s sweet voice in her rambling conversations, if the dog had been at all.

 

Photo by Angel Sinigersky on Unsplash

BIO

Mike L. Nichols is a graduate of Idaho State University and a recipient of the Ford Swetnam Poetry Prize. He lives and writes in Eastern Idaho. Look for his work in Underground Voices, Black Rock & Sage, The Literary Nest, The Blue Nib and elsewhere. Find more at deadgirldancing.net

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