At the river the wagon train slowed as each party proceeded across on its own. The bridge was old and hadn’t received any kind of maintenance since before the collapse. The splintering boards creaked and groaned as the wagons made their way over the water. On the other side was a field of poppies, bright and lurid in the sun. Mitchell walked alongside the horse team, humming for his own pleasure. The wildflowers impressed him with their natural radiance, and yet he was confident that he could do better.
This is more like it, he said. You don’t see colors like this in L.A. Not unless they’re spray-painted on the side of a building.
Deirdre sat in the driver’s perch darning a pair of socks. Her stomach bulged under the loose fabric of a cotton dress. I just wish we could’ve waited a while longer before leaving the city, she said. Till after the baby comes.
Mitchell stared ahead. The sunlight lent the much traveled dirt road an almost crimson hue—one long blood stain stretching all the way to the burn-dark hills in the distance. The city’s dying, he said. It’s no place to raise a child.
I just wish we could have waited.
Mitchell kept walking. Once he had been a PhD candidate in history, when such things were still possible, but these days he fancied himself a farmer. Like much of his generation, he had been caught unprepared by the raw realities of life. At the time of the collapse he had been unable to ride a horse or sew a button or make fire without a match or lighter. Now he was determined to prove himself useful.
I’m the man of this family, he once said. I get things done. Because if I didn’t, who would?
He wanted land. He wanted security. He wanted walls so high none would set foot on his property without his consent. In dreams he gazed out from under a wooden archway onto a lush and fertile Eden. A massive dark wolf lowered its head to drink from a pond emblazoned with lily pads. Sometimes he imagined being the wolf. Other times he wished he had a high-powered rifle, and an auger for digging fence post holes.
You realize the Central Valley isn’t some uncharted frontier, Deirdre said as the wagon train weaved between the hills. Even if we do find the perfect plot to settle on, what makes you think it’ll be up for grabs?
Mitchell kept a tight rein on the horses, careful to maintain at least ten feet from the wagon in front of them. A red bandana covered the lower half of his face, muffling his voice whenever he spoke.
We’re living through a period of reversion, he said. After several centuries of unchecked progress, we’re finally getting back to the way things used to be. The way it was for most of human history.
Oh, joy, Deirdre said. Maybe we can find a nice dry cave for me to give birth in. And a manger to use as a crib.
Mitchell looked off into the orange dusk light and scowled. When they first met they had both been modern people with modern sensibilities. But then one day the lights went off and the modern world as they knew it ceased to exist. That they had survived these early years he attributed solely to his hard work and willingness to adapt to the new ethos. In time she would either find a way to adjust, or he would have to correct her outlook for her.
I doubt it’ll hold, Mr. Lambie said. I doubt it very much.
Mitchell eyed the older man sullenly, then turned his face and coughed. Above the reservoir the red sun stood a perfect orb shining in pieces on the water below. The wheel’s fine, he said. I mended it myself.
I can see that. But the axle’s another problem. One rough jolt and she could tear loose.
It’s fine. I know how to handle it.
Mr. Lambie removed his hat and wiped his scalp with a pocket handkerchief. There’s a stopover not far from here, he said. Best you and the missus stay put and catch the next train coming through. You don’t wanna break down in the hills and risk falling behind. A straggler’s easy pickins for thieves, and God knows what else.
Mitchell looked Deirdre in the face. That same fear that showed when they first left L.A., that same lack of faith in his abilities. He coughed again.
If you’re sick you’ll have to quarantine anyway, Mr. Lambie said. Might as well get your wagon fixed up while you wait.
The wagon’s fine, Mitchell said. And so am I. I know what a contagious cough sounds like. My uncle was a paramedic.
Even so, I can’t have you around the other wagon crews.
I’ll bring up the rear the next couple days. Till my cough clears up.
What about your missus?
Mitchell glanced at the feckless creature. She can ride in front with you, he said. If you’ll have her.
Absolutely. If nothing else, I could use the peace and quiet.
Mr. Lambie looked at the stubborn young man and the pregnant woman and back down at the wagon wheel. He shook his head. I doubt it’ll hold, he said. I doubt it very much.
Mitchell lay supine on the canyon floor with a horse carcass on either side and debris from the wagon scattered all around him. Glass shards and baling wire, books with pages torn and spines broken, pieces of fruit flattened to near mush. His accordion legs resting useless across the ground. He tied the bandana around his bleeding forehead and mustered a weak cough. He gazed up at the face of the cliff.
Someone’s coming for me. They know where I am.
In this assurance he would have felt more secure had there been another wagon in the vicinity when he made that final turn. As it happened, he had fallen back from the train in the last quarter-mile or so. Not enough to worry him at the time. Now he wasn’t so sure.
It went like this—while steering the team along a narrow curve dug into the side of the hill, he had slacked off on the reins so that the wagon veered too close to the edge. Must’ve hit a rock. Whatever the case, the entire rear section collapsed and sent the weight of the load rushing to one side. The wagon went over, dragging the horses along with it. He remembered trying to regain his footing on the perch, as though in free fall he could somehow maintain his command and pilot the team safely to the bottom. The horses were dead when he awoke.
Putting doubt and memory aside, Mitchell worked to keep his spirits up. He took a dusty apple off the ground and wiped it with his shirt. The first bite tasted desiccated, like the fruit was already on its way to becoming leather.
Someone’s coming for me. Won’t be long now.
He continued chewing as the shadow of the hill spread over the canyon.
As night fell he descended once more into dreams. Fevered, volatile, unfixed. Remembrances of things that had really happened, or hadn’t, or which his mind deceived him into believing. Across a plain he saw the ghosts of the two horses galloping away, the light behind them bleeding through their hides. At times he dreamed of Deirdre, promises made when they were both different people, before any chasm had opened up between them. Every few minutes another coughing fit shook him awake. The sound echoed through the canyon and into the hills.
He didn’t see the figures approaching. One minute they were simply there—torchbearer in camouflage fatigues, and beside him a big gray dog, and beside that a boy perhaps twelve years old. Help me, Mitchell said. Help me, please.
The man handed the boy his walking stick. Load of squirrels slung over the youth’s shoulder. In the torchlight Mitchell studied the man closely. He saw no rifle or bow.
That’s a nasty cough, the hunter said. My camp’s not far, but I don’t know if I wanna take a chance on catching whatever you got.
Please. I got a whole wagon full of stuff I can give you in return.
We already been through it. Most everything of value got destroyed in the tumble.
Mitchell looked at the boy. This your son?
No, said the hunter. He’s my boy.
I don’t understand.
My boy. Mine. Watch.
The hunter took his stick back and struck the boy across the legs. Because he could. The boy winced and staggered, then straightened up again. He kept his head lowered.
Are you going to leave me here to die?
The hunter thought about it. Well. That all depends.
The hunter smiled. On whether or not you’ll be my man.
What all can you do? the hunter asked.
Mitchell’s head gave a jolt, as if he’d been awoken suddenly. I don’t know what you’re asking me, he said.
In the weak light the hunter’s face flashed an impatient rictus. I’m trying to decide what use you might be. Ain’t gonna waste my time on a loafer.
I can farm. Once my legs are healed, I can plant you a garden. Trees, vegetables, whatever you like.
The hunter dropped the torch on the blood-stained ground and snuffed its flame under his boot. Above the canyon the Milky Way shone a pale scar across the night sky. Expensive hobby, gardening, he said. Water’s scarce in these parts.
I’ll do anything. Just please don’t leave me here.
I ain’t fixing to either way.
What do you mean?
You already seen us. You seen my boy. Can’t have you blabbing to others about what’s none of their concern.
Please. Take me to your camp. I’m real handy, you’ll see. I can be a help to you.
The hunter laughed. I doubt it, he said. Whole wagon full of supplies and you couldn’t even help yourself to stay on that cliff.
Please. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Of course it was. Because it did.
Mitchell turned to the outline of the beast silhouetted before him. Its panting had grown heavier. He could smell its hot breath through the darkness. What breed of dog is that? he asked.
One that ain’t been seen in these parts for quite some time, the hunter said. Now returned to California, as so much else has returned to the world.
The hunter snapped his fingers and the boy looked away. As the weight of the creature settled over him, Mitchell at last had run out of opinions.
From out of the hills the wagon train came upon level ground. The pioneers broke from their teams and rushed toward the yellow grass in a frenzy of celebration, waving their hands above their heads like congregants testifying to a shared vision. The Central Valley. At long last. As dry and ugly a sight as any they had seen, and yet not a one wasn’t grateful to have borne witness.
At first light the next day Mr. Lambie went to speak with the widow. He took off his hat and stood in the dust beneath the perch.
I wanna tell you again how sorry I am, he said. For putting you in this position.
Deirdre looked down at him sympathetically. The child mewed and pawed at her naked breast. You have no reason to blame yourself, she said.
Mr. Lambie lowered his eyes. I tried talking him out of it. I told him to stay back and wait until he recovered. He just wouldn’t listen.
I know. I was there. And honestly, you did everything you could. Mitchell was a hard-working man with a lot of determination, but at times he was like a child himself. Always had to have his way.
Ma’am, Mr. Lambie said, I don’t mean to be forward, but I’ve got relatives near Bakersfield who are well-situated. They have a spare house on their property. I had meant to retire there at the end of this journey. I know it’s quite soon to be discussing these things, but should you consider me worthy…
Deirdre turned her face and smiled. It was true, these days a lone woman with a baby couldn’t afford to be picky. And after all she’d been through, relying on a man who was both kind and competent would be a welcome change.
Francis River is an artist and ceramicist based in Los Angeles. His work explores the freedom and versatility of painting and working with clay. He aims for his work to radiate joy, not only in the piece itself but also in the joy of making. He tries to imbue each piece with a natural richness, using bright colors, and aims to make work that reflects our time.
Andrew Valencia was born in Fresno, California and holds degrees from Stanford and the University of South Carolina MFA program. His debut novel Lord of California (Ig Publishing, 2018) received praise from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and The Believer, and was named one of the “10 Best Books About the Bay Area and California” in a KHSU authors’ poll. He currently teaches writing and literature on the island of Taiwan.