Nebraska Territory, 1856
The fire crackled and snapped, spewing up red coals as it fought to grow beyond the confines of the rocks that fenced it in. The night held a biting chill and sapped the heat from the two figures huddled around the campfire beneath the blanket of sky and stars that hovered over them like wanton spectators.
Eighteen-year-old Charles sat staring hopelessly into the fire, his chestnut eyes illuminated by the flames. His dark-brown hair hung down to his shoulders, a length much longer he wanted it to be. He scratched his unkempt beard and mustache, another thing that needed a trim, but he suspected he and his brother were nowhere near another town on this ocean of prairie. Charles frowned as he looked down at his shirt, trousers, suspenders, and boots. Dust caked his clothes; rips and tears dotted his attire. He had no spare clothing in his saddle bags, and neither did his brother. He glanced over his shoulder at their horses twenty yards away. The ground-tied paints stood with their heads hung low and their ears flopped to the sides, their backs drenched in sweat from the long day's ride. His brown and white mare blew softly and shook herself; his brother's black and white gelding exhaled greatly and shifted his weight from hoof to hoof, pasterns creaking and popping. With a sigh, Charles turned back to the fire and stared mechanically at the dancing flames. He brought up his legs and rested his elbows on his knees, letting his hands dangle in front of his shins and his head hanging.
On the other side of the fire, Peter sat studying his despondent countenance. His cerulean eyes glanced over the older brother he constantly looked up to, noting that he no longer appeared as robust and strong, and he couldn't blame him for being so: their journey had taxed them physically and emotionally, from the death of their father back in England, to their journey across the ocean to the New World, and especially the passing of their mother shortly after landing, leaving him and his older brother orphaned and with barely any money or supplies. Peter ran a hand through his shaggy, sandy-blonde hair and across his face that refused to grow facial hair. Seeking reassurance, the scrawny sixteen-year-old reached for the worn-out Bible that sat beside him. His hands caressed the tattered spine and haggard front cover as he picked it up and thumbed through the yellowed pages.
The rustling of paper stirred Charles out of his depressed reverie. He glowered as his eyes fell on the book his brother had kept so close to him. "Why do you still carry that thing around?"
"Just because you no longer believe doesn't mean I can't."
"What's there to believe, eh? God doesn't bloody care about us."
Peter frowned as he turned his gaze back to the one thing that still made sense to him. He cradled the Bible in his hands as if it were a child. Minutes ebbed by as he read the scriptures he'd come to know by heart. When the words brought him peace, he closed the book and set it aside.
"You get your fill of tripe for the night?" Charles scoffed.
"Maybe you should read some of that so-called 'tripe'. You might learn a thing or two."
"I've no need for any of that."
"If you say so."
"Indeed, I do."
The fire crackled and spat up embers into the air. The ubiquitous wind whispered as it passed across the prairie like spirits. Like a cloak, silence fell around the brothers. The breeze snatched their words away and carried them across the sea of prairie grass, stealing their conversation as if it had never happened.
"What are we going to do, Charles?"
Charles sighed as he hunched over once more. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, as it had for the past two days. He stared despairingly into the fire. He didn't have an answer, even though he knew he should.
"Like what, Peter?" he asked as he looked up at him. "That it'll be all right? That we'll get on somehow?"
"Well, there must be something we can do. I'm famished."
"So am I, but what do you want me to do about it? We're out of food, Peter—we've been out of food."
"Maybe we should go back to Omaha…"
"That's a two day's ride back the way we came from. We'll starve to death before we make it back."
"We should still go back, Charles. It's the only town we've come across."
Charles' expression hardened. "And then what? Even if we did get back to town, we wouldn't be able to eat. We've been out of money for a month now. How do you expect us to eat with no money?"
Peter threw up his hands in defeat.
Charles fell silent for a long moment. He pursed his lips. "There is one thing we can do…but you're not gonna like it."
His brother's forehead wrinkled. "What do you mean?"
"If we come across another town, we'll grab what we need and move on."
"You mean us to become criminals?"
Charles shrugged. "We're already a couple of tramps. You got any better ideas?"
"It's either that or we starve."
Peter's gaze drooped to the ground. "What would Mum and Dad think?"
"Enough about them, Peter! They've been dead for months now."
He glowered up at Charles. "At least I'm still remembering them. I'm not too keen on becoming someone they wouldn't approve of."
"Look, I don't like it either, but we don't have a choice."
Peter stared long and hard at his sibling. A troubled frown tugged at the corners of his mouth. After a time, he sighed and gave a defeated nod.