Their daddy wasn’t an evil man. No, his affliction was much worse.
He was weak.
All their lives they’d been surrounded by weakness. At least that’s what Ham said and if there was one person Gertie could count on, it was her brother.
Their mama’s body was weak and it gave out. Ham said that their daddy’s weakness was of the spirit. Gertie wasn’t sure what that meant, but apparently it had something to do with taking them up into the Wichita Mountains and leaving them there.
Gertie looked up at Ham as their daddy disappeared around the mountain’s bend under the guise of finding brush for a fire. “He did it again.”
Ham dropped a hand to her shoulder. “We knew he would.”
It wasn’t the first time their daddy tried to lose them. Just a month earlier, they’d gone through the same thing.
Their daddy and stepmama didn’t realize that empty bellies kept the children awake. So, they heard their stepmama say there wasn’t enough food for her with them around and they would have to go. Gertie didn’t understand this. No one had enough food anymore. What made their stepmama so special that she should?
Sure, their daddy hemmed and hawed, but they knew he’d say yes. And he did. He forgot something, though. No one was a better tracker than Ham. Gertie’s brother left little clues along the trail and they’d easily made it down the mountain the next day.
Their stepmama yelled at them for getting lost and worrying her. For their misbehaving, she sent them to bed without supper.
Now, they were alone in the mountains again.
Ham took Gertie’s hand. “Come on. We can sleep under that ledge. Head back down in the morning.”
He’d left all the necessary signs to ensure them of the path back to the dried out farm. Their stepmama might be trying to kill them, but it was the only home they had.
Gertie curled up next to Ham, keeping a tight hold on his hand. With this assurance, she fell quickly asleep under the darkening sky.
She woke the next morning to a harrowing wail. Looking up, she screamed.
A black blizzard.
Ham was already moving, gathering her in close. He tied bandanas around their mouths before covering them fully with the blanket. The blowing dust raged, trying to rip their meager shelter away, but Ham held strong.
The storm lasted for what felt like forever and then it was gone. They quickly realized that with it went all of Ham’s clues. When they reached the bottom of the mountain, nothing looked the same.
So, they walked. And walked.
Finally, across the plains, they saw something. A grand riot of colors raised up from the ground. As they slowly drew closer, they realized it was a circus tent. Between them and the canvas was a wooden trailer with a small horse. Faded paint proclaimed, “The Amazing Cornelia Will Reveal Your Future.”
On the ledge of the trailer, Gertie saw two small pies. Without hesitation, the starving children set to eating them. When they were about halfway through, they heard a noise.
Standing to the side of the trailer was a surprisingly plump old woman, the whole of her eyes milky white. “Is someone eating my pies?”
Ham spoke quickly. “We’re awful sorry, ma’am. My sister and I have been walking a long while and we were hungry.”
“Children?” The old woman opened the door to the trailer. “You'd best get inside. It isn’t safe around here. Circus children keep disappearing. Sleep here tonight and I’ll help you get away in the morning.”
Ham took Gertie’s hand and thanked the woman. Inside the trailer were many boxes covered in blankets. Ham and Gertie climbed atop one and fell quickly asleep.
Gertie knew something wasn’t right the second she woke up. She reached for Ham’s hand and hit bars. Sitting up, she found herself inside a covered cage. Scattered around her were bones. Bunches and bunches of bones.
The blanket was pulled back suddenly. The old woman’s hand reached in and grabbed the girl’s arm. Gertie screamed and heard Ham yelling for her.
The old woman frowned. “Why you’re thinner than a rose petal, honey. But I’ll make due. Won’t be like the rest of them. Moving from place to place. Slowly starving to death.”
She dropped the blanket back down. Ham’s muffled yells were silenced with a thump. Gertie found the sharpest bone she could. Like her brother, she had a skill. She was blessed with a talent for locks. How else would she and Ham have ever gotten into their stepmama’s food cabinet?
Quietly, her small hands worked. With a soft pop, the lock gave. Very delicately, she lifted up the corner of the blanket. She crawled over to a small window. The old lady was outside, building a fire.
Gertie quickly found Ham. His temple was bloodied, but his lungs rose and fell. Still, he was in no condition to help.
Gertie’s legs shook as she made her way to the trailer door. She wanted to vomit, but ignored the weakness. She wouldn’t let Ham down.
She pushed the door open just enough to squeeze through and climbed up into the small seat where the horse’s reins rested. As soon as the leather touched her hands, Gertie slapped the animal into action.
The old woman’s head snapped up at the sound of hooves. Gertie watched as she staggered away from the noise. The old lady’s foot caught and she went pitching straight into the fire she’d been preparing for the children. Her bellows filled the air, but Gertie didn’t look back, riding hard to the colorful tent in the distance.
What with all the bones, it didn’t take much convincing for the circus folk to believe Gertie’s tale. They welcomed the children in and left the old woman’s body to the coyotes.