Fiction: Prairie Wind

James Bates

Traveling from the East he came upon a tiny graveyard. It'd been nearly six hundred miles driving and, as he coasted to a stop outside the gate and turned off the engine, silence enveloped the car like a warm blanket. That and the billowing clouds of dust driven by the relentless prairie wind.

            The old graveyard was situated on a low hill and located a mile outside the small town of Adair. He took a moment to collect himself, having driven straight through from Minnesota, following an uncontrollable desire to learn more about his great-grandparents. And his roots. He lit a cigarette and smoked, trying to imagine what they'd gone through, traveling as they had, first from New York state all the way to Iowa and then across the great plains out here to the middle of nowhere. Nebraska. Their courage astounded him, Wyatt Plank, a guy who had yet to find himself let alone set off on the type of perilous journey his great grandparents had undertaken in the 1850s.

            He snubbed out his smoke, got out to the car, and let himself in through the gate of the worn and rusted chain link fence that surrounded the desolate, half-acre plot. Once inside he wandered aimlessly, studying the worn markers, marveling at how old they were and thinking, doesn’t anyone get buried here anymore? Then he had a thought: Maybe there's no one around to die and get buried. For some reason, the idea saddened him.

            He continued searching until he found his great-grandmother, a causality of a wagon train heading to California, her stone battered by over a century of wind-driven sand and debris. He knelt on the compacted ground and put his hand on her battered marker feeling at once a mysterious connection with her. He read the faint inscription: "Katherine Marie Plank. Beloved wife and mother. Born 1824 and Died 1856." After Katherine's death his great grandfather had buried her on this spot and returned to Iowa with his three children, never to return. Years later after the town was settled his great-grandmother's lonely grave became the home of Adair's cemetery. How Wyatt's life might have been different if his great-grandfather had buried his wife and then continued west.

            Overwhelmed by the breadth of his family's pioneering spirit and that of his great-grandmother in particular, Wyatt got to his feet and looked to the horizon. All around was the tamed land of corn and wheat fields, framed by an endless sky so blue it hurt his eyes. He pulled the visor of his baseball cap down low and, though he wasn't religious by any means, stood in respectful silence and said a quiet prayer for the courage of his ancestors.

            When he was finished his thoughts were unsettled. He'd completed his quest, seen his great-grandmother, and paid homage to her courage and spirit, but now what? What should he do next? He didn't know. He was divorced. He didn't have any children. He had a job that he didn't particularly care for. In short, he had nothing.

            The wind whipped up a sudden gust and blew his cap off. He cracked a ghost of a smile, thinking that at least he had something to do. He chased it down, capturing it up against the western fence line where he put it on and pull it tight. He was walking back to his great-grandmother's grave to say one final goodbye when the wind shifted again ever so subtly, causing him to lose his balance. He caught himself as he stumbled and wondered what was going on. A storm brewing maybe? But no, one look to the blue sky. and the answer was clear: no storms, not even a cloud in sight.

            The wind suddenly gusted again and blew a little harder, seeming to nudge him like a guiding hand, pushing him gently, as if it wanted to show him the way, the next steps to take. He looked to the west and watched dust devils dancing down a lonely country road. Beyond that, the far horizon seemed to call to him, drawing him in, like weather-beaten fingers tugging at his soul, just like they had for his ancestors.

            It took him only a moment to decide. Why not? I've got nothing to lose.

            He got into his car, started it up, and left the windswept cemetery. He turned on the first road heading west. He'd made his decision and his path was clear. It was time to complete the journey his ancestors had begun so many years ago.

            He pushed the accelerator down, kicking up a plume of dust along the gravel road, the wind at his back speeding him along. He glanced in the rearview mirror and caught his reflection. He tipped his hat and grinned. He hadn't felt this happy in years.

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