Day One Hundred Thirty Four
When I brought Flecha around so I could load my gear, she seemed to understand what was going on. She has always loved to travel, and before I was halfway through strapping on packs and bundles, she was tugging at her tether, ready to go, with or without me.
I shared none of her enthusiasm. I worked steadily, but in a dull, automatic way, trying to stay focused on the tasks in front of me. If I let myself think about what I would be doing even ten minutes from now, it would overwhelm me.
So there I was, living each second, as if my sanity depended on having no past and no future, when Charles came out with two more packs.
“Don’t forget your food,” he said, handing me the larger of the two.
I forced a smile. “That’s way too much. You don’t have to give me anything. But since I know you’ll insist, I have room for only half that.”
“Of course you have room. The pack will get smaller each time you eat. And besides, it’ll slow you down a little.” At my suspicious glance, he added, “I don’t want you getting laid up again. So take it easy with this horse. You don’t want her getting re-injured.”
He knew me well. Before Flecha got hurt, I could’ve covered the rest of the way to the Mississippi River in a single day, assuming good weather and decent roads. But I was going to do it in two days, since Flecha and I were both out of the habit of traveling long distances. It would be hard for me to resist the temptation to push on, knowing I was so close. A bulky bag of food wouldn’t add much weight, but would add some inconvenience, acting as a brake on my impulsiveness.
“Okay,” I said. “I don’t know how I’ll balance it against all the others, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
He held out the other bag.
“What’s this?” I took it and looked inside. It was the pink dress and little flat shoes.
“You don’t think I have a use for them, do you?” he asked.
“You could make a scarecrow. What would I do with fancy clothes on the road? It’s just something else to carry around.”
“Wear it to your first dance once you’re settled in Kentucky. And think of me, okay?”
I turned away quickly so he wouldn’t see me cry, and added the bag to the others.
It was an oddly formal leave-taking. I think neither one of us was up for dealing with heavy emotions, so we hugged and kissed in as light and informal a manner as if I were going visiting for the day and would be back by suppertime. It was better to pretend it wasn’t forever.
And as I rode up the path to the main road, fighting back tears and willing myself to not turn around and look back, that’s what I kept telling myself—it wasn’t forever. I could return anytime. I could go as far as the town and come back this afternoon. I could go farther and come back tomorrow. I could go as far as the Mississippi, change my mind, and—
Oh, who was I kidding? I couldn’t come back. Not ever. This place wasn’t my destiny.
I bit my lip, raised my chin and kicked Flecha into a trot. I had to get away fast, or I never would.
Rachel had mapped a route that she promised would keep me on major roads where I would be less likely to run into trouble. So after I went through town, resisting the impulse to stop at the funeral home and tell Susannah that Charles was all hers now, I got onto the main route east.
It didn’t seem very promising at first.
But after awhile, it got better. Even if Charles hadn’t told me about how they had cut themselves off from the feds during the wars, I would’ve figured it out from the way the road improved a few miles out of town. One could still see the concrete blocks, rusted axles, and old logs that had once been used as a barricade. Now the rubble was lying at the side of the road, dragged away so people could have free access.
Still trying to stay focused on anything but the place and people I was leaving behind, I grasped at small things to think about. Had all that debris been hard to move? How long ago had they done it? And would I be able to get coffee where I was going? Surely the port towns on the Mississippi would have coffee and anything else I could imagine. And I could imagine a lot! I spent a good hour letting my mind play with the possibilities.
I took a longer break than I normally would for lunch, and started looking for a place to camp for the night while sunset was still several hours away. I didn’t want to overtax Flecha, and I wasn’t so sure how I would handle a full day on the road either, after two weeks of living like a settled woman.
Since I wasn’t up for encountering other people, I followed an overgrown path leading off the main road, and it eventually led me to a broken-down cabin.
It wasn’t much, but I could make do.
I spent some time getting Flecha settled and making myself a place to sleep. It wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable as the beds at Charles’ house, and I hoped I hadn’t gotten soft. There would be time enough for that, once I had a home of my own.
A home of my own. Yes, that was what I was searching for. For so much of my journey, I haven’t been sure just what I wanted, other than to work with horses, but I think now I know. My goals are these: useful work that I can enjoy, a home of my own where I can be a member of a community, and someday, a man I can love without doubts or complications.
But I can wait for the last of these three. I made a serious mistake with Charles, thinking it could be all fun, with no pain. That’s a mistake I don’t intend to make again. If I have to wait until I’m a hundred years old for the right man to come along, I’ll do it. No more games with people’s feelings, and especially not with my own.
I’m feeling sad tonight, but not in the way I thought I would. I expected to feel heavy, like my body was full of unshed tears. But instead it’s more of a wistful feeling, of things left unsaid and undone, of things forgiven that maybe shouldn't have been.
The familiar rhythms of working my campsite are comforting, though. I gather wood, I feed the fire, I cook, I check Flecha, and I feed the fire some more and heat water for peppermint tea. Flecha stamps a hoof, a cool breeze blows the leaves on the trees, and smoke stings my nose, bringing with it a rush of nostalgia for all the many campfires I’ve tended over my lifetime.
The stars look far away tonight, overlaid from time to time with a patch of passing cloud. I wonder why sometimes the stars are almost close enough to touch, and other times, they’re impossibly remote?
As painful as it is to be on my own again, it feels good, too. Out here on my own, I can hear myself think and be who I am. It’s good to be on my way again.
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