Miriam stopped dead in her tracks; pulled the wide brimmed straw hat from her head and peered briefly up at the bright sky. She lifted her hand to block the sun from her eyes and squinted wearily against the harsh elements. Dust swirled around her ankles; clung to her skin and fell like ash in her hair.
She could feel her eyes burning; blinked hard and let the stinging sensation bring tears to her eyes, to help wash away the grit. She took her forearm and wiped the sweat from her brow, the tears from her eyes and readjusted the pouch hanging across her shoulder and the bedroll at her back.
Everything that proved who they were lay in this pouch. Their birth certificates; her marriage license; pictures – anything and everything she could think of, she carried here on her person – proof of her and her family’s existence and crossed her fingers that it would be enough to help give them a new start in Vega.
She clutched it tight and thought briefly of home – Clairmont High, where she met and fell in love with her husband James; St. Jobs’ Church, where she was married; Mason Ranch, where she worked cattle side by side with her father and husband – and where her daughter was born in the master bedroom. Her home now was lost to her – run out by hunger; heat and the eight balls.
She closed her eyes and sighed with relief as a slight cool breeze caught and lifted her wet bangs up and away from her forehead. The cotton shirt that once belonged to her husband stuck tackily to her skin and she pulled at the collar so that the air would circulate down around her breasts.
What she would give for a tall glass of cold lemonade with ice and a touch of strawberry. She licked her lips and let the day dream reluctantly slide away. That was the past – behind her with the ranch; and her husband.
Instead of dreaming, she flapped her hat in front of her face – and hoped it would help the breeze along to cool her hot skin. Nevada heat was dry – but dam it – heat was heat. She made a slow turn and let the breeze gently life her skirt above the knees and in doing so, lift her spirits a bit.
All around her – as far as the eye could see – she could only make out trees; dust and the highway. Thank God, they were yet to encounter the eight balls. She knew they had been lucky so far and hoped their luck would continue to hold.
Within their small band of travelers, they had only three weapons between them; and meager ammunition at that. If push came to shove, running and hiding was their main defense – and not just from the eight balls. Marauding humans ran these highways and gave the eight balls a run for their money.
Miriam placed her hat back on her head and pressed it down firmly. On top of everything else, she didn’t need to come down with heat stroke. She retrieved her water skin, hanging at her waist, and took a quick swig – swishing the tepid water around her dry tongue, in order to savor the wetness.
Behind her she could hear her daughter laughing at some comment her dad made and smiled softly. Her girl was her life; and gave her the only joy this lost world had to offer. She had long ago given up on religion – Zoe was who she lived for and who she would die for. This journey was for her. She deserved better than living in fear; and slowly starving to death.
Her daughter’s smile was so open, it was hard to fathom. It seemed only the young could find adventure in this horrific situation they found themselves in.
Miriam waited for the others to catch up to her and frowned as she noticed her daughter’s hat flopping at her back – saved only by the attached string tied around her neck. Her face was red, and her freckles stood out prominently beneath the flush. Her shirt, jeans and boots were covered in a thin layer of dust; reminding her of James; and how he would come home from working with the livestock, patting the dirt from his clothes dirtying up the furniture.
She scowled sadly and let the image drift away. She looked again to her daughter’s sweaty face and knit her brow in consternation.
How many times did she have to remind Zoe that the heat was not her friend? It could kill as easily as any eight ball. That stubborn streak would be the death of her.
Miriam shook her head and threw her heavy pony tail back off her shoulder.
Her dad walked amiably beside the thirteen year old, telling her wild tales of their destination – remembering days gone by of the old Las Vegas and its many gambling establishments; the brightly lit strips and the fancy hotels.
Zoe’s eyes were lit with interest. She loved hearing those old stories and shamelessly encouraged them from her grandfather. He told such great stories; and what made them that much more fascinating – were that they were true.
Her feet were tired; her stomach grumbled with lack of food – but her mind was hungry for what lay ahead of them. Would Vega still have shining lights that lit up the night?
Miriam looked past her family; and close behind walked the others of their small group from Indian Springs.
There were the Murphy’s and their two grown sons – Ethan and Jacob; Laura Gates and her ten year old son Jasper; and Mr. Howell – whose family had died some years ago when the angels first fell. Rumor had it, that he watched helplessly as light fell from the heavens, invaded his neighbors and tore his wife and children limb from limb.
This small band of ten was the last of humanity back in Indian Springs. They had done their best to survive after the invasion; and over the years had watched as their number slowly dwindled from in the hundreds to just these ten. Hunger – sickness – and the eight balls had decimated them.
Over time their food and food sources had begun to run out – hoarding no longer an option; growing food – near impossible; the livestock – all gone. For now, there was nothing left to hoard; and hunting had become a dangerous endeavor – the eight balls lying in wait to pounce and kill them - for no other reason, except it was in their nature.
Travelers on their way to safer parts had stopped in Indian Springs; and had begun to tell them of Vega – the Promised Land. It seemed Vega had law, order, food and work. It sounded like old times – times before the Extermination Wars; times before – when her husband was alive and their ranch teamed with livestock and food was plentiful.
A few weeks ago they had all gathered together and made the decision to finally face the elements and make the journey themselves. The forty mile trek would be dangerous and hard. The best of them could probably make it in a few days – barring weather and avoiding the eight balls; but they had two children with them – her dad – who was in his sixties; Mr. and Mrs. Murphy – weakened from hunger and Mr. Howell – so old no one knew his age; and he wasn’t telling.
At best it would take them a week to walk highway ninety-five; and if they avoided the straight line of asphalt to hug the trees for protection – would lengthen the walk by at least another week.
So by her calculation – another week it would be.
When Zoe reached her side, the child smiled up at her; her eyes wide with the wonder of the world around her. She had never been outside Indian Springs, and everything here on the road looked different, smelled different; and felt different. When she searched the sky to give names to the clouds – even they were different from the clouds back home.
She looked up at her family and brimmed with excitement. The long walk; heat; rationed food and water – did not dampen her spirits. When they got to Vega everything would be better. They wouldn’t have to worry anymore, where the next meal was coming from. They wouldn’t have to worry about the eight balls sneaking onto the ranch and killing them in their sleep. Life would be easier; and her mom would be happy.
Miriam lifted the hat from her daughter’s back – pushed it down on her head and offered the water skin. “Don’t forget to drink”, she admonished and watched the girl swallow and savor the drink, just as she had.
Miriam placed her hand on Zoe’s shoulder and felt her strength. This journey, this walk, was nothing to her. The child wasn’t even tired – her enthusiasm and determination to get to Vega surpassed her own expectations. This was a huge adventure to Zoe; like in those books she read, left back on the ranch.
She squeezed her daughter’s shoulder, pulled gently on her plat and looked to her father – who met her gaze head on; and seemed to know what she was thinking. She hoped all they had heard of Vega was true. Because in her experience – things that sounded that good – were too good to be true.
But they had no other options. If they stayed in Indian Springs – they would starve. At least this way, they had a chance. Soon winter would be on them again, and this year – they would not survive it.
Miriam studied the group; and though no one complained – saw the exhaustion in the way they dragged their feet; and spoke little to one another.
It was time to rest.
Without preamble, she led them over to a grove of trees and slowly they began to unpack their bed rolls – and what little food they had left – ready to hunker down.
Night would come within a few hours and the weather would change drastically. Once the sun slid down over the horizon, the temperature would drop and they would be breathing out frost. But they would all huddle together and provide each other much needed warmth.
So far they had avoided the eight balls and other dangers by avoiding night fires. They would continue in this vain; and hope no one would freeze or come down with pneumonia.
So far so good, she thought; sat next to her dad and opened their last can of peaches.
Miriam watched with pride as Zoe grabbed a hold of Jasper Gate’s hand; and helped him make camp for the night.