At Journeys End

ajecover522a1thumbnalsmallAt Journeys End.  I cannot believe it has been a year since I self published my first work.  In August I will be releasing the 2nd edition to my first book.  Lots of great feedback from my readers prompted this decision.  AND I have two more books in the wings that follow onto this story; Searching for Hope and Tears in a Jar.  Searching for Hope will release this fall, followed by Tears in a Jar in early December.

But I’m not done yet – I have two more in the works.  The Grave Price and When in Darkness.   All of these stories are located in the small community of Journeys End.  Below is an excerpt from At Journeys End – A New Beginning. (2nd edition to my original book, At Journeys End.  I will release an excerpt from Searching for Hope this June.

Enjoy!

Chapter One

Gini brushed the stubborn blond fringe of bangs that curled unevenly over her deep blue eyes and looked down the track that lay ahead of her with tired determination. Sweat rolled down her back and her body ached. The rails went on forever in either direction. She’d been walking west for hours in sneakers that were too tight and the blister on her left heel screamed for relief. If it weren’t for the sharp rocks that lined the tracks, she would have gone barefoot. Her body begged for rest, but Gini needed to find shelter before she could even think of stopping.

Shading her eyes with her hand, she scanned the horizon ahead as the sun began to descend. Slowly dissolving behind distant trees, the sunset reminded her of a melting orange ice cream treat mixed with swirls of grape soda. The memory of her favorite confections caused her stomach to growl loudly. Ignoring the sunset and her hunger, Gini continued searching for a place to rest for the night.

Ahead were some trees, but they were too far to reach before the coming darkness swallowed everything. To her left, an old dilapidated building stooped like a withered old man.  Guessing from the outline of the building, Gini assumed it once served as a barn. It was the closest thing she could see that might offer shelter. Shrugging her backpack into a more comfortable position, Gini left the safety of the tracks and headed toward the field of weeds and wildflowers between her and the ruin.

Making her way carefully through the knee-high weeds, she ran her fingers over the tops of the grass and flowers. Bachelor buttons, blue bonnets and daisies reminded her of a happier time.  A time when she was a small girl picking flowers with her mother and laughing in the warm sunshine. As Gini drew closer to the building, her eyes were drawn to the horizon, where the sky brightened briefly as the sun began its final descent. Setting down her pack, she reached inside and grabbed a flashlight, praying the batteries were still good. Pressing the switch, Gini tested the lamp and sighed with relief. It worked. She quickly turned it off again and stuck it in her back pocket and continued to plow her way the last several yards to the crumbling building.

Seeking an entrance, Gini walked the perimeter of the building. The barn was old and worn, and she feared a breeze would knock it down, but on one end the walls seemed to be relatively intact. Finding a door, she pushed tentatively against the rough wooden planks. It gave slightly, groaning loudly as the bottom of the door scraped against the uneven and warped floorboards. Pushing harder with both hands, Gini shoved it open just enough to squeeze in. Tossing her bag inside, she inched sideways into the dark void.

Inside, Gini leaned against the door and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior. It wasn’t quite dark enough to warrant using the flashlight yet as the glow from the fading sunset filtered through the voids of the partially collapsed roof. The air was musty and smelled like rotten hay causing her nose to wrinkle in protest. Dust motes drifted in the air in a lazy dance, and the floor was littered with debris. At the far end, where a section of the roof still clung to the rafters, she could see what looked like an old stall. Other than the scurrying sound of what were probably rats, it was silent inside. Forcing the rats from her mind, Gini headed for the stall.

Carefully walking along the walls heading toward the back, she tested every step forward gingerly, not trusting the rotting floorboards. Besides the floor itself, Gini had to maneuver over fallen beams from the collapsed ceiling.  It would be devastating to break her leg in an abandoned barn out in the middle of nowhere – alone. Cringing, as fine tendrils of a spider web touched her face, she scrubbed away the sticky threads and shivered. Gini hated spiders almost as much as she hated rats.  Pausing to gain to control over her fear, she took a few deep breaths and closed her eyes, before continuing her journey across the barn.

Reaching the stall was painstakingly slow given the poor light, and the debris she had to climb over. When Gini was halfway across the room, night claimed the valley and the darkness forced Gini to turn on the flashlight. The narrow beam made travel a bit more of a challenge, forcing her to slow down even more.  Breathing a sigh of relief as she finally reached her goal without mishap, she studied her sleeping quarters for the night. Panning her light around the small area, Gini studied the stall before her. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. At least no one could sneak up on her without making a lot of noise if they tried to cross the room.

Tossing her backpack down, Gini searched the stall looking for anything she might be able to use to make her stay more comfortable. An old pile of rotting hay rested in one corner like a giant nest. Something metal was poking out from one side, catching her attention. Gini tugged the item free and discovered an old three-legged metal milking stool. Setting it aside, she continued her search, uncovering a rusty pitchfork without a handle, an old busted lantern, a beat-up Ohio license plate from 1929, and worn leather harnesses.

Sitting on the old stool, Gini opened her pack and took stock of her personal inventory. Three chocolate bars, an old apple, a half-empty water bottle, and one moldy slice of cheese were all that remained of her food stores. A plastic bag held the hint of a bar of soap. An old worn sweatshirt, a blanket that had seen better days, a tattered handkerchief with the letter “C” embroidered into the corner, some shoelaces and a tin cup were all the supplies she carried with her.

Gini reverently retrieved a framed picture of a smiling woman and a small child. She studied it wistfully with the light from her flashlight.  The glass was long gone from the frame, and one corner of the photo was bent.  This was Gini’s most prized possession. Kissing the picture, and brushing away her tears, she returned the photo to her backpack. Gini studied the old license plate from the barn and considered sticking it in her bag. It might be worth some money, but she decided against it. Taking things that didn’t belong to her, even if she found them in an abandoned place like this barn, didn’t sit right with her. Setting the license plate on a ledge that ran along the back wall, she promised herself she’d find another way to earn some cash or work for food. She’d done it before, and she would do it again.

Her growling stomach reminded her she hadn’t eaten since dawn. Gini drank some of the water and then bit into the apple. No longer crisp and juicy, the pulp was old and mealy, but in her hunger, it was succulent and sweet. Quickly finishing it, she threw the core out into the center of the barn and heard it smack against an old wooden plank.

That should keep any rats busy for a while,” she thought.

Taking one of the chocolate bars, Gini broke it in half and stored the rest in her bag. Sighing with contentment, she broke off a small square of the chocolate and placed it on her tongue, letting it slowly melt, savoring the feel and taste. Gini licked her fingers searching for stray morsels and for a moment considered having one more bite. “Make it last, Gini,” she whispered as she returned the chocolate to her sack.

Searching her stores again, Gini sought something to clean and bind her blistered heel. Retrieving the tattered handkerchief, she carefully unlaced her shoe. Biting down on her lip, she carefully pulled off her sock. It had stuck to the now broken blister, causing her eyes to tear as the fabric pulled at the tender skin. Pouring a small amount of water over the sore, she dabbed it gingerly with the handkerchief and then left it uncovered, allowing the air to dry it out.

Gini’s body ached with fatigue as she considered her sleeping options. An old hay pile in the corner appeared to be her best choice. Wrinkling her nose at the smell of the rotting hay, she knew that at least it would be warm; something she had learned the first night she had slept on a molding pile of straw. Stowing the remainder of her water and the handkerchief, Gini zipped her bag up and used it as a pillow, covering herself with her blanket. Placing the pitchfork blade within easy reach, Gini tried not to think about the rats and spiders. The woolen blanket was scratchy, and the hay scraped against the sore on her foot, but her exhaustion soon won out and sleep claimed her weary body and mind.

Gini awoke to something repeatedly prodding her in the back. Foggy and not completely awake she rolled over, her eyes adjusting to the morning light flooding into the stall. An old man stood over her, scowling fiercely. He was tall but slightly stooped. Hunched down next to the old man, the biggest dog Gini had ever seen stood next to him. The giant canine growled menacingly – hackles up and teeth bared.

“Who are you? And what are you doing on my property!” the old man asked testily. Dark steely eyes peered out from under a ledge of white bushy brows, above a hawkish nose. He wore denim overalls over a blue flannel shirt. The pants and shirt were patched and showed signs of wear.

Gini swallowed, and sat up slowly, nervously looking at the old man and his dog. Growling loudly at her movement, the beast bared his teeth and barked, filling her with terror.

“Be quite Dawg!” the man said firmly. The beast instantly obeyed but would occasionally whine as if asking his master for permission to take care of the intruder.

“Well, who are you?” he asked again.

Gini stammered, “I’m sorry mister. I meant no harm. I’m just passing through.”

“That your name? ‘Just Passing Through’?”

“No, my name is Virgil,” she lied. Gini had been passing herself off as a boy for the past several weeks and saw no need to change her tactics now.

The old man snorted in disbelief, “Funny name for a girl, don’t you think?”  Before Gini could answer, he went on, “Makes no never mind to me. You are trespassing, and I should call the sheriff, and have you arrested for theft! Damn vagrants,” he muttered.

“I’m not a thief!” Gini replied angrily.

“Let me see what’s in your bag, girl,” the old man demanded. He held out his hand and the dog growled a little louder. “I’ll know soon enough if you are a thief. If I find one thing of mine in that bag…” He didn’t finish the sentence.

Gini hesitated. She didn’t want to hand her possessions to him. It was everything she had.

“Let’s see it,” he insisted.

Handing it over reluctantly, she watched anxiously as he unzipped it and took out her meager contents. Carefully examining her cherished and meager possessions as he pulled out each item, he paused when he discovered the framed photo. The old man studied the picture and then glanced over at the girl for a few long moments. Gini squirmed under his study; she felt like he was peering into her heart and could read her like a book.

Turning over the picture, he returned the photo back into the bag along with the rest of its contents. “Well, it seems you are honest – or you just hadn’t gotten around to stealing anything from me… yet,” he said as he handed her back the bag.

The man looked around the stall as if still searching for proof of her guilt. “I see you found one of my old license plates,” he said nodding at the plate Gini had propped up on the wall along the back rail of the stall. “Looks like you found an old milking stool and a few other of my old things. Bet you planned on taking them with you – but I caught you before you had the chance”, he said as he pointed a bony finger in her direction. The dog growled again causing Gini to draw back nervously. She felt vulnerable sitting on the ground, looking up at the old man.

“Stay, Dawg!” the old man commanded again. The dog whined but obeyed.

“I didn’t come to steal anything, I just needed a place to sleep for the night,” Gini said firmly as she rose and stuffed her blanket and flashlight into the bag. She turned and looked the old man in the eye and didn’t back away. “I am not a thief.” It felt like an eternity as the old man seemed to delve again into her heart.

“Humpf! Well, get your stuff,” he said as he turned around and headed toward a small side door she had not seen the night before.  The dog trailed obediently behind him.

Grabbing her bag and shoe, Gini and limped over to the door.

The old man growled, “Grab that old license plate before you come on out.”

Gini studied him carefully – uncertain whether to obey and be called a thief – or risk his anger by not obeying. Something told her the old man was used to people doing what he said – when he said.

He sighed and pointed again, “You deef? Get the license. I ain’t gonna call you a thief over a stupid piece of metal,” he grumbled.

Gini went back into the stall and grabbed the license plate. Stubbing her toe on the old metal milking stool, she cried out as she hopped about on one foot in pain.

“Grab the old stool, while you are at it,” she heard the old man call out.

Muttering under her breath, Gini grabbed the heavy stool and carefully carried everything outside to the old man. Mid-morning light filled the valley, and she could see an old tractor parked alongside the barn. Gini marveled that she had not heard him drive up. Dawg was sitting next to the tractor, watching her every move with canine intensity.

The old man was seated on the tractor looking down at her. “Hand me that stuff,” he said as he reached down. Gini handed him the license plate and the old stool and watched as he tossed them into an old wood crate he had tied to the side of his tractor seat.

He stared down at her a few long seconds, then looked off to the tree line before looking back at her again. “Well, come on up. If we hurry, Ma might have some lunch for us,” he said.

Gini stared in surprise not believing her ears. He started up the engine and looked down at her again, “Well, come along girl, time’s a-wastin’!” he said testily.

Undecided, Gini wrestled with her fear and longing to be on the road again. Should she get on the tractor, or run for the tracks? Her stomach growled, and the promise of a meal settled it for her. Quickly stuffing her sneaker into her pack, Gini hoisted the bag onto her back and scrambled up onto the tractor. Standing behind the old man, she balanced herself but had to grab onto his shoulder as the tractor jerked and pulled ahead.

“Hang on,” he shouted over the engine noise, “It’s a mite bumpy over these old fields.”

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