A/N: Another old work
Something clattered, something else bumped and groaned, and everything stopped. The contents of the carriage tilted, crashed, and settled. The young woman stepped out, flinching for a moment in the sun, to assess the damage.
Apparently, the front wheel was stuck, and the entire wagon was tilting to the right. The two grey donkeys sighed and pawed the dust uselessly, liquid eyes gazing expectantly behind. But their driver was at a loss. Perhaps her Papa would have been able to lift it, with help from the rest… she squashed the thought. It wasn't useful. There was nothing for it but to do it herself.
Lifting from the knees didn't work, nor did lifting from the shoulders, or the back. Pushing barely worked, but the splinters in the wheel were digging into her palms, slipping, greased. She walked around front to get the donkeys to pull, but the wagon was beyond them, damn cheap things. Nothing and no one would help.
And now, it was push and scrape your knees in the dust. Push and wear your fingers to the bone. Push and stop. Push and those looks that would sour milk, like she was worse than refuse for her clothing, her hard hands, her unschooled speech. Push and the talk, the whispers, that made her family out to be vermin. Debtors. Gamblers, lord forbid. Push and stop. Push and the dream, everyone equal, like that nice piece of paper that hangs on the wall. Push and the chance, the promise of land and plenty and space, of moving and starting anew. Push and West! Push and stop. Push and Papa, look at this, look, they'll pay for the land. Push and Mama, he aint coming back, lets go and leave them all behind. Push and stop. Push and the road, open, empty. Push and a cough, just a little thing, like nothing. Like a breath. Push and a breath, oh my lord give them just one more breath…
The girl paused, shaking suddenly, without any reasonable cause. She knew she wasn't sick. It starts deep in the belly, then swells out into the chest, the throat. Why wasn't she sick? Did her youth spare her, or some wind of unasked-for providence? If they'd been even a few days out of town, they might have made it. But nothing made sense anymore, and they were weeks out of town, and it was too late. Prayer was no good, nor yelling, nor crying. Mama and Papa were gone, not even buried. Given to the desert, to the coyotes and buzzards. No. Stop dwelling on it. That is useless now, and there is only one person who could have changed it.
Life in town hadn't been good, either. The whole place was a chicken coop, and it was always her family who was last to the feed. She would hear the rumors and titters in church and at the general store, and whenever she brought anything to the market. Disgraced from debt, from a lack of nice dresses and education, and from brothers left and not come back. She flushed and averted her eyes when she saw her Papa cowed, needing to haggle for tools, beg the neighbors. He must not be honest, they say. He must fritter away his money, to have to stoop so low. A family can do no right when it's poor, can they? So let's just go, Mama, and be the rich ones for once.
She pushed on, her hair plastered to her head like an itching rag, eyes watering in the dust. There was no choice, no other option now, she'd glued herself to it…going back would be the final surrender. Saying that a life was for nothing is the most awful insult she could imagine, only validating the looks, the talk. Still the wagon would not move even a blessed inch. She stared at it for a moment, daring it to defy her, her sacrifices, her dreams. The heat tugged on her sleeve, a reminding hand, incessantly trying to get a young girl to stop, rest a moment, let us catch up. You're always too fast, girl.
That one day, she had looked at her Papa, her Mama, waving the pamphlet, talking quickly. A green pasture adorned the page, with a single caravan making its own trail across virgin lands. This could be us, she was saying, with our own land. No debts… You're so fast, girl. Jumping at the merest sliver of a dream… But this was more than a sliver. It was a big dream, popular. All the good land would be taken if you weren't fast enough. Pack it up, jump ahead, quickly! The caravan is waiting.
"Such dreams are fine," Mama said. "But we can't do it."
"Why? Why not?"
"Oh, debts, the harvest. We're so busy around here. You're still too young to see… a person can't just pack up and go."
"What's here for us? Nothing. Nothing's here for us. You always say it'll get better, but it only ever gets worse."
"It… it'll get better."
"No reason to think so."
"We're settled. We can't leave."
"If you're expecting Sam to come back, he won't. He's probably better off now, anyways."
Mama looked up, her eyes hard. "We don't talk about that."
Papa had listened more carefully, read the pamphlet. "I'll think about it," he'd said. Could she dare hope?
She could, and when the answer came back yes, it was like the sun was filling her chest until it burst. Dropping everything was laughably easy, and the mountains on the horizon enticed. The future was waiting, without vicious-tongued fools, with everything you could ever want within arm's reach. Mama and Papa almost seemed younger, given life by the promise. But they had to make haste, to catch up with everyone else. There was no time to stop and consider something as small as a cough.
She grit her teeth, pressing so hard on her lower lip she tasted salt water, trying to summon the strength to try to push again, from somewhere, somewhere. No friends, no family, not even a proper horse, only one voyager and the panting donkeys. She'd been going for hours, days, weeks, who knows. Maybe something broke inside the wagon or in her hand or heart, but just like that she couldn't stand another instant.
She screamed. She yelled all her rage and grief to the empty desert. Lashed at the wood, kicking it, not caring, hurting, as if she was trying to reduce her dreams to splinters. She hit it again and again until she could barely stand upright. There would be no going west. No going forward. She was mad to think she could do it alone. Mad, worthless, a waste of breath. The wagon certainly wasn't going to move for her. It was indifferent, uncaring. She was helpless, like a crawling babe trying to move a mountain. The fault wasn't in the wagon, it was in her, and her alone. No more spirit left in her soul, she put her head in her hands and it all went dark.