by David Anthony Durham
The boy had measured their progress across the land through the warped glass of the train's windows. He had seen it all unfurl, from the tidewater up over the broken back of the mountains, out onto rolling hills and into the old frontier, now pacified and peopled and farmed, and further still, through cities and small towns and finally out onto this great expanse, across which they traveled like fleas on a mammoth's back. He had even watched at night, while his younger brother slept against his shoulder and his mother contemplated thoughts of her own. He searched in the land's dark contours for things he dared not name aloud, and he held within himself a rage of voices that to the outside world looked and sounded like silence.
When they stepped off the train that afternoon, the boy couldn't help but stare over the crowd and out to the horizon. Looking to the west, he could just make out the geometric shadows that were Crownsville, that cowtown newly bloomed and thriving, connected to the East by a bloodline of iron and steel. To the north and south and back to the east the land rolled away in undulating nothingness. The grass lay heavy and tired from the beating of the previous evening's rain, and the April sky was not a thing of air and gas. Rather, it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie.
The train station was made up of several sod-brick buildings. They had crooked roofs out of which sprouted an abundance of green shoots. In front of one of these structures a motley array of men lounged, with expressions of indolent curiosity on their faces. The grass had been trodden down and thinned by the traffic. It was pockmarked with puddles and prints of both feet and hooves, and cut by wagon wheels.
"Gabriel, you and Ben help the men unload," the boy's mother said. "Make sure we get all our crates. There's six of them. Count each one and stack them ready to load on Mr. Johns's wagon." The boys didn't move, but she didn't seem to notice. Instead her gaze rose and roamed through the sparse crowd of people. "Go on and help, like I said," she said, moving away a few steps. The trim of her dress dangled down into the wet grass and mud, but she made no attempt to hold it up.
Gabriel nudged Ben on the shoulder, and the two boys walked toward the freight car, carrying what hand luggage they had with them. Gabriel had just turned fifteen, although he looked two or three years older. He had a strong body, tall and lean, with the long legs of his nomadic ancestors. His wool jacket cramped his shoulders and impeded the swing of his arms. His skin was a dark shade of brown stretched taut across his features, as if the components of his face were growing more rapidly than the shell. His nose was thin-bridged, with a distinctive flair to the nostrils that was wholly African in design.
Ben was his younger by two years. They looked much alike in the rudimentary casts of their appearance, although Ben had a small indentation on his forehead, and his eyebrows were drawn in thin, wispy lines. He also moved with a nervous energy very different from his brother's brooding gait. His gaze bounced from object to object, out toward the fields, from person to person, and back to the enormous iron works of the train that had brought them so far.
The two boys saw to the unloading. Gabriel was quiet and respectful, yet only enough so as to avoid trouble. He counted the crates, inquired about a missing one, and soon had them stacked as his mother had instructed. This done, they climbed onto them, sat, and waited.
The younger boy said, "I reckon we're here."
Gabriel was silent for a long minute. "I reckon we're nowhere."
Eliza johns rejoined her sons soon after. She had a gaunt face, in which one could trace the origins of her sons' russet eyes, their full lips, and the deep brown hue of their flesh. Her cheekbones curved upward in smooth diagonal lines, unmarked by scar or blemish. She was still beautiful in the eyes of men, perhaps more so now than ever, although years of quiet worry had carved an angular tension into her features. From her erect posture, her civilized clothes, and the demure manner in which she held her hands clasped before her, one might have gathered that she was unaccustomed to the frontier. But there was something determined about the way she set her jaw and surveyed the crowd unflinchingly which seemed well suited for a place such as this. "You think he's not coming?" Ben asked.
"Don't be silly," Eliza said. "He'll be here." She reached over and straightened Ben's collar with a quick tug, then turned back and faced the crowd. "Don't expect the worst from people until they've shown a history of it."
This answer satisfied the younger boy, but not Gabriel. "He better come. Couldn't pay to go back if we had-"
"There he is now," Eliza said.
Gabriel looked into the crowd. It took him a moment to pick the man out, but he was there, Solomon Johns. He walked toward them with an anxious gait, dodging people and animals and the larger puddles. Gabriel cut his eyes away and studied the ground.
Solomon stood just over six foot three, even with his slightly stooped posture. His size was measured mostly by the width of his shoulders and the weight evenly distributed throughout his torso, a chest as solid as a lifetime of work could make it. His features were a bit irregular, thrown about his face by a casual hand: eyes set far apart, nose wide enough to all but fill the space, and a mouth small by comparison, although what it lacked in size it made up for in enthusiasm: "Eliza! Praise God you made it." He strode toward her as if to lift her off the ground. Only at the last moment did he check himself. Instead of hoisting her into the air, he gripped her by the arms and searched her face, finding her features all and more than he remembered.
Eliza shared his gaze, smiling and nodding. They neither embraced fully nor kissed, but to the two boys watching, the exchange was so intimate as to be embarrassing. They lifted their eyes to meet the man full on only when their mother spoke to them. "Boys, what's the matter with you? Say hello to Mr. Johns."
"Hello, Mr. Johns," Ben intoned.
Gabriel moved his lips.
"Oh, boys! Look at ya!" Solomon reached out and ardently shook each boy's hand. "Lord, you two have grown. And it's only been a year's time? They do grow like weeds, don't they?" He paused and admired them, then turned back to Eliza. "I can hardly believe it. You're all here with me. Y'all came out sooner than I expected, but it sure does me good to see you. Now we can get this thing started for real."