West by Carys Davies by Carys Davies - Read Online

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West - Carys Davies

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From what she could see he had two guns, a hatchet, a knife, his rolled blanket, the big tin chest, various bags and bundles, one of which, she supposed, contained her mother’s things.

How far must you go?

That depends.

On where they are?

Yes.

So how far? A thousand miles? More than a thousand miles?

More than a thousand miles, I think so, Bess, yes.

Bellman’s daughter was twirling a loose thread that hung down from his blanket, which until this morning had lain upon his bed. She looked up at him. And then the same back.

The same back, yes.

She was quiet a moment, and there was a serious, effortful look about her, as if she was trying to imagine a journey of such magnitude. That’s a long way.

Yes, it is.

But worth it if you find them.

I think so, Bess. Yes.

He saw her looking at his bundles and his bags and the big tin chest, and wondered if she was thinking about Elsie’s things. He hadn’t meant her to see him packing them.

She was drawing a circle in the muddy ground with the toe of her boot. So how long will you be gone? A month? More than a month?

Bellman shook his head and took her hand. Oh, Bess, yes, more than a month. A year at least. Maybe two.

Bess nodded. Her eyes smarted. This was much longer than she’d expected, much longer than she’d hoped.

In two years I will be twelve.

Twelve, yes. He lifted her up then and kissed her forehead and told her goodbye, and in another moment he was aloft on his horse in his brown wool coat and his high black hat, and then he was off down the stony track that led away from the house, already heading in a westerly direction.

Look you long and hard, Bess, at the departing figure of your father, said her aunt Julie from the porch in a loud voice like a proclamation.

Regard him, Bess, this person, this fool, my brother, John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one. From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad. Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes. Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.

For a long time Bess stood, ignoring the words of her aunt Julie, watching her father ride away.

In her opinion he did not resemble any kind of fool.

In her opinion he looked grand and purposeful and brave. In her opinion he looked intelligent and romantic and adventurous. He looked like someone with a mission that made him different from other people, and for as long as he was gone she would hold this picture of him in her mind: up there on his horse with his bags and his bundles and his weapons—up there in his long coat and his stovepipe hat, heading off into the west.

She did not ever doubt that she would see him again.

John Cyrus Bellman was a tall, broad, red-haired man of thirty-five with big hands and feet and a thick russet beard who made a living breeding mules.

He was educated, up to a point.

He could write, though he spelled badly. He could read slowly but quite well and had taught Bess to do the same.

He knew a little about the stars, which would help when it came to locating himself in the world at any given moment. And should that knowledge ever prove too scanty or deficient, he had recently purchased a small but, he hoped, reliable compass, which he showed to Bess before he left—a smooth, plum-sized instrument in a polished ebony case, which when the time came, he promised, would point him with its quivering blue needle, home.

A week ago he had ridden out to his sister, Julie’s, and stood on her clean scrubbed floor, shifting his weight from one large foot to the other while she plucked a hen at the table.

Julie, I am going away, he’d said in as bold and clear a voice as he could muster. I would appreciate it if you’d mind Bess a little while.

Julie was silent while Bellman reached inside his coat and took from his shirt pocket the folded newspaper cutting, smoothed it out, and read it aloud, explaining to his sister what it was he intended to do.

Julie stared at him a moment, and then flipped the hen onto its back and resumed her plucking, as if the only sensible thing now was to pretend her big red-haired brother hadn’t spoken.

Bellman said he’d try to be back in a year.

"A year?"

Julie’s voice high and strangulated—as if something had gone down the wrong way and was choking her.

Bellman looked at his boots. Well, possibly a small fraction more than a year—but not more than two. And you and Bess will have the house and the livestock and I will leave the clock and Elsie’s gold ring for if you ever get into any sort of difficulty and need money, and Elmer will lend a hand with any heavy work, I’m sure, if you give him a cup of coffee and a hot dinner from time to time. Bellman took a breath. Oh, Julie, please. Help me out here. It’s a long way and the journey will be slow and difficult.

Julie started on another hen.

A blizzard of bronze and white feathers rose in a whirling cloud between them. Bellman sneezed a number of times and Julie did not say, God bless you, Cy.

Please, Julie. I am begging you.

No.

It was a lunatic adventure, she said.

He should do something sensible with his time, like going to church, or finding himself a new wife.

Bellman said thank you but he had no interest in either of those suggestions.

The night before his departure, Bellman sat at the square pine table in his small, self-built house drinking coffee with his neighbor and sometime yard hand, Elmer Jackson.

At ten o’clock Julie arrived with her Bible and her umbrella and the small black traveling bag that had once accompanied her and Bellman and Bellman’s wife, Elsie, across the Atlantic Ocean all the way from England.

Bellman was not yet entirely packed, but he was already dressed and ready to go in his brown wool coat and a leather satchel across his front on a long buckled strap. A new black stovepipe hat sat ready on the table next to his big clasped hands.

Thank you for coming, Julie, he said. I am very grateful.

Julie sniffed. I see you still intend to go.

I do, yes.

And where is your poor soon-to-be-orphaned little girl?

Bess, said Bellman, was asleep in her bed over there in the corner behind the curtain.

He asked Julie if she would like coffee and Julie said she supposed she could drink a cup.

I was just telling Elmer here, Julie, about the route I plan to take.

Julie said she wasn’t interested in his route. Julie said why did men always think it was interesting to discuss directions and the best way to get from A to B? She leaned her umbrella against the wall, laid her Bible on the table, and sat down in front of her coffee, took a stocking out of her black traveling bag and began to darn it.

Bellman leaned in a little closer towards his neighbor.

You see, Elmer, I’ve been looking at some maps. There aren’t many, but there are one or two. At the subscription library over in Lewistown they have an old one by a person called Nicholas King and a not so old one by a Mr. David Thompson of the British North West Company, but they are both full of gaps and empty spaces and question marks. So on balance I think I’m better off relying on the journals of the old President’s expedition, the one undertaken by the two famous captains—they’re full of sketches and little dotted trails that show the best way through the tangle of rivers in the west and also the path over the Stony Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, should I need to continue that far.

Elmer Jackson belched softly. He looked up from his coffee with watery, bloodshot eyes. What expedition? What famous captains?

Oh, Elmer, come now. Captain Lewis and Captain Clark. With their big team of scouts and hunters. They journeyed all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back at the old President’s bidding. You don’t recall?

Elmer Jackson shrugged and said maybe he did, he wasn’t sure.

Well they did, Elmer. Seven thousand miles, two and a half years, there and back, and I’m thinking my best bet is to follow the path they took, more or less, and then diverge from it here and there, to explore where they didn’t, in the hope that I can find my way to what I’m looking for.

Diverge?

Julie made an irritated, tsking sound with her tongue, and Jackson belched softly a second time. Bellman rubbed his big hands together. His face was pink with enthusiasm and excitement. He reached for a pickle jar from the shelf above Jackson’s head.

Imagine, Elmer, that this pickle jar is this house, here in Pennsylvania.

He set the jar in front of Jackson, at the far right-hand edge of the table. And over here—if I might commandeer your coffee cup, Elmer, for a moment—is the town of St. Louis.

He set down Jackson’s coffee cup a little to the left of the pickle jar.

From where we are now—he tapped the pickle jar—to St. Louis—he tapped the coffee cup—is about eight hundred miles.

Elmer Jackson nodded.

And way over here—Jackson’s watery, bloodshot eyes followed Bellman’s hands as they lifted his tall new hat into a position over on the far left edge of the table—"are the Stony Mountains, also known as the Rocky ones.

So. All that’s needed is for me to travel first to St. Louis, where I will cross the Mississippi River and from there—he began walking his fingers in a long arc that started at the coffee cup and curved up and across the