The photographer removed the plate from the camera and disappeared into his wagon. Even though we could all move now, I stood still for a moment longer and thought about how this could possibly be our last and only photograph as a family. As if reading my thoughts, Margaret gently rested her hand on my shoulder.
“You know we can’t keep her,” she said.
I put my hand over hers and squeezed. My gaze drifted to my wife’s side, the object of her comment, but Caroline was already gone. An hour in a hot dress under the South Carolina early September sun wouldn’t do for a five-year-old. She’d be out of that dress and into a pair of our son’s old britches, digging in the mud with the stick she’d found earlier that morning before Margaret had a chance to scold me a second time.
“She could be our daughter,” I answered.
“In a perfect world.” She paused for a moment before putting her arm fully across my back and resting her head on my shoulder. “She’s not him.”
I knew that was coming, but it didn’t sting any less. I knew Caroline wasn’t Jacob. She probably wasn’t. But the fact was she had my eyes and my wife’s fire. If I did the math right – and believe me, I had run the dates through my head a thousand times – it wasn’t impossible for a God-fearing man to believe in such a thing. We don’t know the secrets of the universe, and we can’t always know God’s plan for us, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind that Caroline could very well have been conceived within moments of Jacob taking his last breath. What did it mean? Maybe nothing, but she was here with us now beyond all other reason. At least for now.
Six months ago I was headed home following a visit with my sister in Georgia when I happened on a family on the road heading west, the direction from where I had come. I had seen them before a couple of times in town and supposed they might be local. The man had an eternally dour disposition and I had rarely seen him anywhere but on top of that ragged old husk of wood, canvas, and iron that could have been mistaken for a wagon. The woman I’d seen around the more unsavory parts of town and had an inkling as to her profession. She didn’t look much better than the man slouched over the reins next to her this afternoon. She had been crying, and by the looks of her, the man she was with had done an unfortunate job of convincing her to keep her mouth shut about something. There was redness around her cheek that didn’t come from the tears. I nodded quietly, dipped my cap, and continued on. I was only another couple of hours from home and after a few weeks away from Margaret I wasn’t inclined to lend aid for something I might only be imagining. Times were hard on everyone in the South now and I wasn’t interested in hefting more mass onto my own burdens, nor onto theirs.
But a minute later I stopped my horse. For no reason I can recall, I decided then was the time for a water break. If I had kept going, I might have been out of earshot of what happened next.
As I stretched my back and quenched my thirst, a crack and clatter shattered the peace of the quiet country road. It didn’t take but a moment for me to realize the wagon that had passed moments before and now out of sight had lost its load. A spooked horse or lack of attention was the likely culprit. I shook my head and planned to ignore the noise, but a din of voices quickly followed. I could hear the man screaming, and the woman followed suit. Remembering the look on her face before, I couldn’t help but return to my mount and turn in their direction. I was still hesitant, but, while I could scarcely make out what was being said, I instinctively knew the situation was intensifying.
A solid “whump!” and the scream of their horse sent my own into a gallop. As I rounded the turn, I saw the wagon overturned with its contents spilled down the hill. The man was shouting all manner of profanities at both the beast and the woman. The horse reared up and the man brought down another blow across its neck with what looked like a heavy branch. The “whump!” sounded again followed by the scream I had just heard. I dismounted quickly and unholstered my revolver. Before I could say anything and before the man saw me, he raised his rifle and cruelly put the horse down with a shot to the head.
The woman screamed and came after the man with her arms flailing wildly at his face, but he managed to get a fistful of her hair and dragged her to the ground. They both toppled over and landed on the other side of the dead horse where I had no view of the scene. I heard a few hard hits and the woman turned mostly silent. I was still quite a distance away and began sprinting up the hill toward them. It seemed that time had slowed and every step was a struggle. As I ran, the man partially lifted the woman from the ground and dragged her to the edge of the road. He gave her a solid kick to the ribs and sent her down the embankment, over the edge of the mountain pass. The woman didn’t even scream.
I raised my revolver and yelled at the man to hold, but he rounded on me and aimed his rifle in my direction. I had no choice but to pull the trigger. The revolver flashed with a deafening bang, and after the smoke cleared the man was lying motionless on the ground.
Somehow I missed it in all the commotion, but now I could hear the unmistakable whimper of a little girl. For some reason I didn’t rush, but walked quietly around to the back side of the partly overturned wagon. I could see that the right wheel had cracked through and fallen away from the hub. A bad roll over a rock too big on an old, rotted wheel with a rusted rim would do that. It wasn’t the horse’s fault, but the fault of a man too concerned about getting from this side of the world to another. The girl was behind the hub under the shade of the leaning load made more precarious by the dead mare rocked over onto her side, still attached to the shafts. I know the girl heard the shots, and that was probably why she was crying now. But it was a muffled sob, as if she knew anything louder would earn her a punishment like she had seen her mother get before.
She probably had no idea anything else had happened since she had been hidden away during the altercation. The mind of a young child could never piece together by sound alone the picture that lay around her. She was sucking her thumb when she looked up at me. Her face was streaked in dirt, but only a little of it had run down her red cheeks. She hadn’t cried very much. I knelt down close to her and reached out cautiously. She didn’t flinch and I was relieved that she didn’t see me as any kind of threat.
Your papa probably didn’t either, I thought dryly.
I ran my hands over her shoulders and around her neck and face looking for anything on the surface that might cause alarm. She sat perfectly still and then had a perfect calmness about her that sent a shiver down my spine. I felt like I had peered into those eyes a hundred times before, and I felt that she was sensing the same.
What a ridiculous thought, shot through me, but it was only the voice of doubt—not my voice.
She raised her hands and stretched her fingers out and I instinctively picked her straight up and held her close to me. She wrapped her arms around my neck and I felt a warmth that I hadn’t felt in almost six years.
“Are you hurt, sweetie?” I whispered in her ear. She shook her head. “What’s your name?”
“Caroline” she whispered back.
“That’s a pretty name.” She nodded as if she knew it was. I laughed. “Were your mommy and daddy in the wagon with you?”
“Mommy,” she said.
“But not your daddy?” She made no movement at all, but I could feel tremors deep down in her little body from her toes to her fingers clutching behind my neck. My hackles raised at this and I gave her a gentle squeeze.
I sat her in front of me on my horse and headed off toward home. There were only a couple of hours left and I thought it best to get Caroline to a safe and comfortable place as soon as possible. My wife was expecting me today, but that didn’t absolve me of my duty to report what had happened in town. My visit home would be short, but at least I’d get to feel Margaret’s arms around my neck and bury my face in her soft hair. I missed her terribly already, but this task must be done.
Around the final bend in the road was a narrower trail that took me into the back way to our homestead. There was a longer way that went in closer to town and made for an easier ride, especially when the wagon was hitched, but I was traveling light and ready to be home. Caroline by now was sound asleep and I held her steady with one arm as I navigated the slopes and turns toward home. It wasn’t long now and the sun had peaked a few hours ago. Just a few more miles left.
The trail finally opened out into our field and I breathed a sigh of relief. That was the nice thing about those times. The world still moved slow enough that you could be gone for weeks or months – years sometimes – and everything was the same as you left it. I didn’t have to try to remember things; it was like I hadn’t left. From the distance I spied a bit of our cabin behind a grove of trees, and I could see Margaret on the back edge of the house doing a little maintenance. I gave a shrill whistle that startled Caroline, but for only a moment before she was fast asleep again. Margaret looked up a second later. Even from here I could see her face brighten and her smile open up.
I was home.
Check back next week for Part Three of The End of The Path.
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