Note: Here is chapter three of a rough draft of my first children’s story. Check the archives for the first two chapters. It looks like Homestead In The Shadow of Stronghold is going to be about seven chapters. So we’re almost halfway through. Sorry about the inconsistencies and the spelling errors. I’ll get that on the next pass. I’ve had lots of comments and sage advice. Keep them coming.
For a look at Installments One and Two, go to archives, January and February 2007.
THE HOMESTEAD IN THE SHADOW OF STRONGHOLD
Molly and Jack sat across the fire from Grandmother Iron Cloud. They crossed their legs and looked into the embers as the old woman stirred them gently and laid the stick on top. The dry cottonwood burst into a tiny flame that lit the live trees that surrounded them. “The animals know your heart,” she said without looking up. “They are better at such things than men.”
Her words were metered out like a drum beat and drew the children’s eyes up and through the fire. When they saw the shadows move on the wrinkled face, framed by long gray braids, they tried to look away. But their eyes could not move and they listened. “In the days, before the soldiers came to Stronghold Table, we could speak to the animals and they could speak to us.” Only then did Grandmother Iron Cloud actually look up and into their eyes. “I told you once that before the buffalo disappeared, they would come to this river and drink. But I did not tell you that they took turns drinking and did not push the small ones away.” She smiled at her memories and her old teeth shown dark in the campfire light. “They make only one sound,” she said. “A small, loving sound. Umaa,” she whispered and smiled. “Umaa, umaa, that let the other buffalo know where they were and that they were all right. Tiny grunts,” she said. “That let the people know too.”
She produced another cottonwood stick and stirred the fire as if it was a kettle. The fire flared blue, then orange, then back to red. “We did not try to trick the buffalo because they know all the human tricks. We asked them to come, and because they know the human heart, they knew that we needed them. And when we asked them to come – they came.”
Now Jack was thinking of all the times he had tried to trick deer to within range of his rifle. A hundred times he had tried to creep up on them. A hundred times he had found a trail trampled with their tracks and sat silently in shadows. But only once had he killed a deer. Grandmother’s words had penetrated him and made him ashamed that he had not told his father that the only deer he ever killed, had snuck up on him. He’d been sitting alone beside a trail for most of a warm summer’s day, and as the sun began to slip behind the distant butte his jaw had begun to quiver like a baby’s. He had never told his father or mother, or even Molly, that he had begun to cry with frustration at not finding a deer. The words had not passed his lips but he thought them. ‘Please,’ he had thought. ‘Please.’ And when he turned, the buck was standing an easy rifle shot away.
Grandmother Iron Cloud’s eyes were hard on him. “And when they came,” she said. “We thanked them.” Jack tried to hold her eyes but finally had to look away. “Edith knows about tomorrow,” Grandmother said. “You have fed her since she was a calf and she knows you love her. It is her turn to feed you.” Molly looked to her brother with wide eyes but Jack did not feel like talking. He could only stare into the fire, and when Molly looked back at Grandmother, her old gaze had slid back to the fire too.
No one counted the hours that the three of them sat watching the waves of heat roll in the fire. But soon the sun began to lighten the eastern sky and the magic of the burning wood disappeared. They were jarred back to life by the sound of Papa splashing water on his face from the bucket beside the house. “Hey,” he shouted. “You kids are up early.” He was drying his face with an old flour sack. “Come on now, your mom’s got a little breakfast. Then we have work to do.”
The cornmeal biscuits were pushed around the plates and nibbled at, but no one was interested in eating. They finished the meal only because there was not enough food in the house to waste a morsel. Papa and Mama tried very hard to be cheerful. They did not want Jake or Molly to feel bad about Edith, and when the time came, Mama stood behind Molly and rested her hand on her shoulder. When Papa stood up from the table he turned to Jack as if he had something to say, but Jack was already on his way to the door. There was no expression on his face and he picked up the rifle from the corner as he passed.
By the time Molly, Mama, and Papa got out the door, Jack was halfway to where Edith stood grazing the stunted grass. Grandmother Iron Cloud watched from her dugout and no one moved as Edith raised her head, stared at the advancing boy, and then moved two steps toward him.
At the crack of the rifle, Molly noticed her mother reach out and take her father’s hand. It was something she had seldom seen. From the ripple of her father’s ropy forearm, she could tell that he was squeezing her mother’s hand. “He’ll be all right,” Papa Robert said. “It’s going to be all right.” Her mother nodded and disappeared back into the house. “Come on,” Papa Robert said to Molly. He started for where Jack stood over Edith’s body and Molly ran to catch up.
By the time they got to where Edith lay, Jack was kneeling with his hand on her head. There was a small hole seeping blood from behind her ear. The rifle leaned against her side with the breach open and safe. They slowed their pace as they came up behind Jack. His head was bowed, but when he heard them, he straightened up and stood. Molly held back, but Papa Robert walked up beside his son and clapped him on the shoulder. Molly watched them and felt invisible. For the first time, she noticed that her brother was nearly as tall as her father. She liked the feeling of being invisible, but it did not last. From behind her came the sound of Mama and Grandmother Iron Cloud. When she turned, the women were advancing and sharp knives glistened in their hands.
By early afternoon the beef hung in long strips from a wooden rack built just for that purpose. It would take days for it to dry into jerky and it would have to be guarded from coyotes every night. The knives were washed in the bucket beside the house and Papa Robert hitched his horse to the gut pile and dragged a quarter mile from the house. It made Grandmother Iron Cloud smile to hear Papa Robert laugh and say the coyotes could have that part.
For the first time in months they ate their fill of beefsteak. There were a few potatoes ready from the garden, but they were small and it was disappointing to think that the rest would be just as small. But they tried not to let that bother them as they ate. It was a time to celebrate, and Jack and Molly were both surprised that meat tasted so good. Only Grandmother Iron Cloud wrinkled her nose at the beef. She chewed on a small piece but would not take a second helping. “This is not tatanka," is all she would say.
When Papa Robert stood up to speak, Grandmother Iron Cloud started to leave, but Papa stopped her. “You might as well hear this too,” he said. The way he said that made Molly know that the celebration was over and that what he had to say was going to be sad.
“The Wittakers left the valley yesterday. I saw their wagon from the top of the ridge. Everyone has dried out except us.” He looked at Mama and frowned. “Your mother and I have talked it over, but we want to let you kids…” he paused. “…and you too, Grandmother, have a say in our decision.” He paced the floor of the tiny house and finally went to the door and opened it as if he was too hot. When he did that, they all looked out as the setting sun spread its soft light over their homestead. “It is a drought like no one has ever heard of before,'” Papa Robert said. ”But, the winter will likely be bad and there won’t be any wheat to sell.” He stood looking out the door with his hand on the door jam, and could not go on.
“What your father means,” said Mama from her place at the table, “is that we either have to move with the rest, or your father has to go find work. It would mean that he would be gone for the winter. The snow could easily block his return until spring.”
Molly felt a flutter of panic. She looked from her mother’s face to her father slumped against the door. “But Papa,” she said. “It might rain.” Her words fell hollow to the kitchen floor.
There was no need to say the obvious, but Jack filled the silence. “It’s too late for rain. The wheat is ruined.” At the doorway, with the sunset deepening in the distance, Papa Robert’s head began to nod. But Jack was not finished speaking. “We should stay,” he said. “You should go to Deadwood and work and we’ll hold on here.”
Now Molly was confused. “Deadwood?”
“The mines,” Mama said. “You father was thinking he could work in the mines.” Molly sat back in her chair. Everyone had known except her. She looked down at the table and felt her face go red with anger and a kind of humiliation. Everyone had known, she thought. But when she raised her face to protest, her eyes met Grandmother Iron Cloud’s and the old, dark eyes told her not to speak. "Calm yourself," said the ancient eyes. “Such things are difficult for everyone.”