Dirty Faces

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Chapter 29: Hitting the Road

It was all happening too fast. David and Ralph had already helped Paw load the car with the essentials, and now all that was left were the sentimental things that couldn't be replaced. Susan stared into Granny's old hope chest, hoping her grandmother had misplaced something and they would have to turn the house upside down and look for it - anything, really, to stall them.

She was proud of Kent. He hadn't given them any lip about the whole thing; a surprise, seeing as he was ten years old. Evidently, he understood a great deal more than she gave him credit for. He now sat at the foot of Granny and Paw's bed, quietly watching the women stuff as much as possible into the hope chest.

"I think that's about it," said Granny, her wise eyes scanning the bedroom one last time. Susan's stomach dropped. Surely there was more. As if having answered some silent summons, David and Ralph appeared at the bedroom door, picked up the hope chest, and carried it down the stairs.

There was nothing more to pack up here, so Susan, Granny, and Kent headed downstairs as well. After loading the hope chest, David and Ralph joined the rest of them in the front room. Paw glanced at David, then at Susan. "It'll be daylight before we know it," he observed. "You young 'uns best be getting on your way."

Susan didn't understand why he'd rush them off like that; she wanted to stay and see her family off, no matter how hard it would be to watch them drive off into what felt like the unknown. She looked pleadingly to David, praying he'd say they would stay until her family was on the road. But he didn't. Instead, he frowned and said, "He's right. We should go."

She didn't think she had any tears left to cry, but her eyes assured her otherwise. "No, not yet," she said, her voice breaking. "Please, just a little more time."

Susan felt a light hand on her shoulder and turned to find it belonged to Granny. The tiny woman looked up at her with silent tears rolling down her aged cheeks. "It's for the best, sweetheart." The tears came like waterfalls as Susan shook her head. Granny took her face in her wrinkled hands and forced an unconvincing smile. "It won't be long till we all see each other again, don't you worry."

It was a lovely thought, but Susan knew there was no way to be sure when, or even if, she would ever see them again. She wrapped her arms around her little grandmother and pressed her cheek against her soft, white hair as she wept. When David finally had to pry her off Granny, she moved to her tow-headed little brother and kissed him on the head. She feared he would be all grown up the next time she saw him; he was already quite grown up tonight, looking up at her, his face solemn and red as he held back his tears.

She crossed the front room and hugged Paw's neck. His scratchy whiskers brushed against her face and when she refused to let go, he said, "Come on, now. No sense in dragging it out." She eventually released him and sat down on the edge of the couch. Addie slept on, as though there was nothing going on around her. Susan ran her hand over her sister's tangled hair and wept for the pain Addie had endured, for all she had lost, for all their family had lost, and for the cruelty of it all.

Time ceased to exist for her while she sat there, her world crumbling around her. She didn't know how long she'd been sitting there when she felt a warm hand on her shoulder and smelled coal dust. "We gotta get going," David said softly. Susan placed her hand on his and glanced up at him. Her coat was draped over his arm, and the other one held the baby, bundled in a heavy quilt; they were very much ready to go. She leaned down and kissed Addie's porcelain cheek before standing to put on her coat.

David put his free arm around her as they trudged back across the front room; Granny, Paw, and Kent stood in various places around the room, staring at the floor. She heard sobbing from Granny and sniffling from all three. Ralph was leaning on the archway to the dining room; his cap had come off now and he looked truly sorrowful as she and David passed.

When they stepped out the backdoor, a deep chill passed through Susan - not from the cold, but from the realization that she would never step foot in the foreman's house again. David took the reins and helped her up onto the wagon seat. He then handed her the wadded up quilt that contained a baby somewhere within it before climbing up himself.

The frigid wind howled all around them and, shivering, she pulled the collar of her coat tighter around her neck. The old mule snorted and stamped his hoof as Ralph untied him. "Don't you give us no more trouble tonight than we already got, George Washington," he threatened before climbing up onto the wagon seat and taking the reins from David.

"Yah!" Ralph called out, but the mule didn't move. He let out an irritated sigh before snapping the reins and once more calling out, "Yah!" This time, the wagon lurched forward.

As they proceeded down the gravel drive, Susan looked over her shoulder and chanced a peek at the shrouded body in the back of the wagon. She hadn't the slightest clue what plans David and Ralph had for it, and she didn't ask because she really didn't want to know. But morbid curiosity still made her wonder.

They didn't make much progress, as the old mule was slow and frequently stopped of his own accord, and the added weight of another grown man in the wagon didn't help matters, either. When Susan's teeth had started chattering, David had wrapped her in the quilt with Kody, and now held her close. Still, the sharp wind bit at her nose and cheeks, and she knew that daylight would reveal three very wind-burned faces.

Occasionally they would hit a bump and it would startle the baby, but he always went right back to sleep. Susan wished she could be so worry-free. With every bump in the road, the Stranger's head thudded against the wagon, and the sound turned her stomach every time. The apprehension somehow managed to multiply the usual discomfort of being in the presence of both David and Ralph by tenfold.

David always assured her there was never any reason to feel uncomfortable, and though he was right about most things, he was wrong about that. She supposed it was some code between men which she could never wrap her mind around that enabled the two of them to remain friends. She glanced over at Ralph, silently driving the wagon, his eyes once again a mystery beneath the brim of that cap. She'd never meant to hurt him. After all, he had been her first love. But David was her great love, and there was no changing that.

Perhaps if Ralph had only proposed, his best friend wouldn't have swept her off her feet that night at the barn dance; after one dance, she had known there was no going back. And perhaps if he had proposed, the baby in her arms and the life she had with his best friend would be his. She couldn't help but wonder if it was betrayal or regret that figured most prominently in Ralph's mind. Though she knew that she couldn't help the way she felt, it was still guilt that made her dread being in his presence these days.

As if their history weren't enough to make her want to hide her face whenever in his company, she and David were very much in Ralph's debt. Not only did he give David a ride to and from work each day, he rented that house to them for next to nothing. Not having to live in the coal camp was more than a blessing because everybody knew that the less a man owed the company, the better.

Ralph's family owned most of that holler; they had all died off except for him and his sickly mother, and the two of them could have certainly used the money. But he insisted that with the Paserella home place just up the ridge, the little house was situated in just the perfect spot for David and Susan. And she was quite sure that most months, he didn't even accept the meager rent David tried to give him. After this night, she knew, they would owe Ralph even more.

Normally, David would have been whistling or telling a story to pass the time between town and home, but not this night. The silence was an eerie contrast to the pandemonium inside Susan's head. She tried to focus on what sounds there actually were to ease her mind - the whipping wind, the wagon wheels on the dirt road, the clip-clop of George Washington's hooves as he lumbered along at his snail's pace. Then, she noticed the incline of the road was becoming steeper, and she couldn't for the life of her fathom why they were heading up the ridge.

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