Curiously nerdy posts.
Just a little short I did on a whim the other day. I had a lot more fun with it than I should have, even though my girlfriend ended up telling me that it reminded her a lot of The Walking Dead (a show I need to see more of, clearly).
Alice Shaw woke up late that morning. Of course, for her, that meant that it wasn’t completely dark out. The morning light was already winking at her through the wax paper window of her one room cabin. Sliding on her plain work dress, she quickly fed herself a basic meal of two biscuits and a slice of bacon. A luxury, but one that she decided she’d take, considering that for now, she was in charge of the entire homestead.
Ma and Pa had taken the wagon full of corn and wheat to town two days before, intent on selling some of the crop that they couldn’t afford to store for themselves before the winter came around. She’d swore to them, up and down, that she could do all the chores herself while they were gone. She would sweep the floors, milk the cow, feed the oxen, and even look after Grandpa, and make sure he didn’t hurt himself again. She promised to do everything Pa told her to do: Feed the animals, keep the house clean, and if anyone walks up that won’t answer you, you take the Winchester and you shoot them, you hear?
With another sister coming within a month, she knew that she’d have to start carrying more of the load. She was old enough to, especially since she’d just gotten out of third grade and mastered her letters. Without Pa to bellow at her to go to bed, she’d stayed up late last night and read every word they kept in the cabin on the first night, by kerosene light and between Grandpa’s snores.
Of course, she was paying for it now. Bonnie was ill tempered that morning, snorting at her. Maybe it was because her fingers were cold, since she was in too much of a hurry to warm them before touching the milk cow’s udders. She barely got a bucket of milk out of her before the old heifer had given enough for one day, and strolled back into the pasture slowly, tail swishing hard back and forth irritably.
She grunted the whole way back carrying the heavy bucket. She’d make butter out of it in the afternoon, another chore her mother typically did. Her muscles burned as she set it back in the house. It felt good, but strange being mostly alone. Grandpa had already been gone when she woke up, but that was no surprise. Almost every morning, he’d take his length of hickory to lean on, and hobble down the road for a walk, no matter how many times Pa warned him about how dangerous it was.
She was just grateful that he hadn’t yelled at her to get up the second the sun cracked the sky, as Pa liked to do. Before noon, he’d be back with his wrinkled smile, probably to tell her about some birds he watched in the trees, or how he met some travelers in wagons that aimed to get even further west into the frontier than they had before Pa had decided enough was enough.
Pa had originally wanted to go to California, but that all ended when Ma’s belly grew again. They’d stopped a few months west of St. Louis, and with a little help from some friendly locals some miles down the road, they’d built a cabin just in time for planting season. It wasn’t easy, but Pa was skilled with the earth and his hands. He’d made it work, while she and her Ma made the house a home, and butchered any meat he brought back from hunting. Grandpa, he just stayed because he had nowhere else to go, and going back to New York alone was too much for an old man, what with the woods being full of bears, mountain lions, and other things Pa wouldn’t talk much about to her.
Noon came and went, and she stopped for dinner. She wolfed down her meal of cornbread and buttermilk hungrily, having worked up an appetite from having to do all the chores instead of just some. She sat across the empty other side of the table, wondering where Grandpa was. It wasn’t like him to be done for so long. But going to look for him wasn’t something she could do. There was still water to be drawn from the well, and the oxen needed feeding. Besides, if Pa met her on the roads, out by herself, he’d beat her as red as an Indian.
He can take care of himself. He’s an adult, she reminded herself as she cleaned up. Still, it didn’t stop her from wondering what happened to him. Despite Pa always talking down to him like he wasn’t anything more than a sack of grain that only had sand in it, she really liked him. He told her stories. He made her smile. He made her feel pretty, which was more than she could hope for when there were no boys within miles.
She found him about an hour later, and she wished she didn’t.
She was walking back up the hill from the well, carrying a heavy bucket of water in each arm, when she heard the oxen bawling. That made her wonder enough. They were tough animals that never complained about anything, so long as they was fed. And she’d done that just before going to the well.
Hurrying back up the hill with an urgency and speed she didn’t know she had, she put the buckets down next to the house and ran down to the pen to see what was wrong with them. It didn’t take her but a second to figure that part out, once she got there.
Grandpa was eating one of them. At least, he was trying to. The ox was too slow to get away, but its skin was too tough to do much other than bleed a little. Still, that wasn’t keeping the old man off it. He looked like he was trying to ride it, and gnaw on it at the same time. She ran down the hill, and climbed up on the side of the fence, so he could see her.
“Paw paw! What are you doing!?” she shouted at him, not knowing what to make of him. When he heard her voice, he stopped, and looked up at her. Even from the edge of the pen, she could see how red his eyes were. Just as quick, the ox was forgotten. He fell off it in a heap, like he was dead. Just as she was about to climb over and check on him, he rose slowly back up to his feet, like an old rag doll being made to stand. His clothes were ragged, like he’d been walking through the woods and tree branches had been biting into his shirt. He was also missing a shoe.
With a grunt, he started shuffling at her slowly, his reddened eyes never blinking as he started coming over to her, blood dribbling from his mouth. She noticed two things right away: he was walking without his cane for the first time she’d ever seen him, and did so easily.
That, and he didn’t answer her question.
Still, she couldn’t do anything except watch as he slowly ambled over to her, dragging his bare foot sideways across the dirt.
“Paw paw! Why? Pa’s going to be so mad when he gets home. Why were you hurting Blue?” she found her voice again once he was close enough for her to make out the checkered pattern in his shirt. He always wore his fine clothes, sometimes stubbornly so, even though they was a pain to wash. His eyes were red and blank, and his skin was pale as the stones in the creek. And he stank like a pile of manure.
She dropped back down to the ground just as he reached her, and pawed with ragged fingernails at the wooden post she’d been leaning on just seconds before. With an angry growl, he slowly scaled the fence, and fell down on the other side. Rather than get back up, he just started crawling toward her, clawing through the dirt like a playful dog. Except she’d never seen a dog try to chew on an ox before.
Her breath caught in her throat, she turned and fled back toward the house, Pa’s words ringing in her ears the whole time – anyone walks up who won’t answer you, you take the Winchester and you shoot them, you hear? She thought she could do it to men who might come and try to steal the cows, or Indians who might try to burn their house down. But to Grandpa?
Either way, she’d feel safer with her father’s rifle in her hands.
She burst into the house, and used a chair to climb up and take down the repeater from where it sat above the fireplace. It felt heavy in her hands, but she knew how to use it. Pa had taught her how the day after they left New York in the wagon.
With shaking hands, she came back outside, brandishing it like she might beat on him with it like a stick. He was back on his feet, making his way up the hill slowly. The look on his face had none of the friendly twinkle, the playful mirth that made life in the woods so much easier. He looked hungry, angry even. Maybe he was annoyed she’d taken supper without him.
“I’ll make you some late supper, Paw paw, but you have to answer me! You know Pa’s rule, and you ain’t above it, cause… cause you scaring me!”
He still didn’t answer her, but for grunts and growls.
“If you take one more step without answering me, I’ll shoot! Please, answer!” she finally found the words to threaten him, though they slid off her tongue like spoiled milk. She brought the rifle butt tight to her shoulder, and aimed down the sights at him.
He didn’t answer, and got a hole in his chest for his troubles. But that didn’t stop him from keeping on coming. She cocked it, and the rifle cracked again, making another clean hole in his chest. If he noticed, he didn’t seem to care, even though blood came out, pouring all over his nice shirt and staining it red. The white one, the one he’d told her he wore at her Ma and Pa’s wedding. She felt her hands start to shake. She’d watched Pa bring down a full buck with but one shot before, and yet the old man kept going like she’d done little more than throw a rock at him.
Of course, Pa always aimed for the head and neck, and had taught her to do the same. Tears stung her eyes as her vision got blurry.
“Paw paw, please!” she begged again. She didn’t want to shoot him there; she didn’t want to shoot him like an animal. Yet, the man slobbering and bleeding in front of her seemed little more than one that walked on two legs now.
He shuffled closer, til’ he was within a couple of paces of her. Even shaking and crying as she was, she knew she couldn’t miss at this distance. Pa had taught her too well for that. Her tiny finger pulled the trigger with one last ragged breath.
His face, so wrinkled and kind, exploded in front of her. He fell in a crumpled heap in front of her, still and unmoving. Blood covered her face and dress as she simply stood there, still as a statue, staring out at the horizon. The stink of him filled the air, along with the smell of smoke from the rifle barrel.
It wasn’t until sundown that she thought to put the gun down, and bring the water inside and wash the blood off her. It wasn’t until the next day that she thought to bury him.
Alice Shaw didn’t awaken late the next morning. She never got any sleep that night, nor the next. She didn’t sleep at all, not until her Ma and Pa got home.
And not until they answered her.
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