Thanks to all who tossed in their advice on the first chapter of the first draft of my first “kid’s story”. Keep the advice coming!
For a look at Installment One, go to archives, January 2007.
THE HOMESTEAD IN THE SHADOW OF STRONGHOLD
There was no rain that spring. The wheat had been planted in the fall and had begun to grow. But by May, when it should have been six inches high and as green as the way Papa Robert remembered Ireland, it was short and yellow. Unless it rained, there would be no crop to sell and so no money to buy the things they could not grow, hunt or make for themselves. There would be no new shoes, no cloth for trousers and dresses and shirts, no salt, and no sugar.
But, if Jack had anything to say about it, there would be enough meat to keep them healthy. The hunting was difficult, even the rabbits were hard to find, and Jack was forced to range out further and further. Sometimes, if Shamrock, their only horse, was not needed by Papa Robert, Jack would ride out in search of antelope. They lived on the great flats above the river bottom and they were very wary. Jack learned early on that they could see a rider or a hunter on foot a mile away. Time and time again he would creep for an hour on hands and knees. He would keep the smallest knoll between himself and the antelope but always, as he rose up to take his shot he would find that the antelope were gone. When he told Molly about how the antelope seemed to know he was there, even when he was sure they could not see or smell him, Grandmother Iron Cloud moved closer to listen. Her eyes narrowed as he told about the herd he had spotted two miles away. How he had ridden down-wind of them and tied Shamrock to a sagebrush. There was a small, rocky butte in the middle of the prairie and he had used it conceal his movement. He was sure that the antelope had not seen him, but as always, when he slowly raised one eye above the rocks of the little butte the antelope had moved. They were well out of range of his rifle. Molly was fascinated by the story but Grandmother Iron Cloud only shook her head.
The Andersons left the valley in June. They had relatives in Oregon where it rained all the time and Mr. Anderson spit in the dust when they stopped by with the wagon piled high to say goodbye. “I can leave you with that much moisture,” he said. All the adults laughed, but the laughs were not because what was said was funny. The two families looked at each other; Mr. Anderson on the ground looked level into the eyes of Papa Robert and his wife and little girl, Jennifer, on the wagon seat looking across to Jack and Molly. Before Mr. Anderson again spoke he looked around the homestead. He saw the withering wheat filed and the failing garden, the small house built with a few timbers and sod. He looked to Grandmother Iron Cloud’s dugout and found her standing silently by the door. “You should get out too,” Mr. Anderson said to Papa Robert. Papa Robert smiled without showing his teeth, but he said nothing.
Then Mamma stepped up to the wagon and put her hand out to Mrs. Anderson. “We wish you luck,” she said. “We hope Oregon is good for you.”
Mrs. Anderson nodded and looked to her husband. “Could we give some of the meat?” she asked.
Mr. Anderson looked embarrassed. “I guess we probably shot the last deer in the valley. We made it all into jerky for the trip but we’d be happy to share it with you. The two men looked at each other for only an instant.
“No,” Papa Robert said. “You’re going to need it. It is a long way to Oregon.” Then the adults began to nod silently and Mr. Anderson climbed back up onto the wagon seat and looked off to the west where they were heading. They pretended to look all the way to Oregon but everyone knew they were looking for rain clouds.
“You Ryans take care,” Mr. Anderson said without taking his eyes of the horizon. Only little Jennifer looked down at them as the wagon began to roll. She clutched her doll in one arm, but she raised her other hand in a tiny wave.
Two weeks later, they knew it was time to kill the cow. She had long since stopped giving milk, and since the grass had not gotten green, she was as fat as she would get. All that morning they sharpened the knives so the butchering would go easily. Papa Robert had a small grinding wheel that he had brought all the way from Ohio. It stood in a cradle and was made to turn with a pedal that Papa Robert worked with one foot as he pressed the knife blades carefully on the spinning wheel. Grandmother Iron Cloud watched him work the machine and shook her head. One of the only things she had brought with her was a knife, and when she saw that they would be butchering the cow the next day, she took the knife from the beaded leather it was wrapped in, and on an ordinary stone she found near the corral, began to draw the blade slowly over the flat, rough surface. Jack saw what she was doing, but was more interested in the grinding wheel that his father operated. Molly moved closer to Grandmother Iron Cloud and watched to see exactly how it was done.
Jack was asked to shoot the cow. He had shot many rabbits and a few deer but he had never shot anything as large as a cow. He had also never shot anything that he loved. The cow’s name was Edith and they all remembered when she was a calf back in Ohio. She had had her own calf the spring before they came to the Cheyenne River, and the sale of that calf had helped to supply the money to buy the wagon that had brought them. Jack and Molly had milked her twice a day for the last year. They had grown strong by drinking her milk and now Jack was being asked to shoot her.
The night before the butchering, Jack could not sleep. Earlier that evening, he had heard his mother and father talking about him. They were sitting on the bench at the side of the cabin enjoying the last rays of sunlight before the family went to bed. Jack and Molly had been at Grandmother Iron Cloud’s dugout and they did not know that Jack had wandered by to the house, and stood just around the corner from where they sat. In a hushed voice, Mama said that she didn’t think he should be made to shoot Edith, but his father had stood firm. “No one is making him,” Papa Robert said. “It is part of his job. Things are tough here and they might get tougher. I’ve got to be able to count on Jack.” There was something in his father’s tone that Jack had never heard before. “A lot might depend on Jack,” he said. They were silent then and Jack knew they were thinking about something that they had never mentioned to him or Molly. He heard a sound like a very gentle applause, and because he had seen it many times before, he knew it was his mother reassuring his father by patting his knee.
“It could still rain. That wheat could come out of it and make a wonderful crop. There might be plenty of cash for what we need to buy.”
“Could be,” his father said. “But if it doesn’t, we will all be depending on Jack. It will be up to him if I have to leave here to find work.” Jack had to reach out and steady himself on the wall of the house. Leave to find work? His father couldn’t leave? How could they get along without Papa Robert?
That was what he had been thinking about all night. Those were the thoughts that kept him from sleeping. He rolled in his bunk and looked out the wavy glass of one of the two windows in the house. Molly slept in the bunk beside him and his mother and father in the bed across the room. His mind was filled with the thoughts of his father leaving and of the task that he would face in the morning. He felt all alone, but when he slid his legs silently from under the blankets and reached for his trousers, he looked up and saw Molly staring from under the blankets of her own bed. They communicated without making a sound, and in a minute they were both outside the house, standing quietly in the moonlight that dusted the river bottom in silvery white.
They moved away from the house far enough so that they could talk without waking their parents. “Couldn’t sleep, huh?” Molly whispered as they walked.
“Cause you have to shoot Edith?”
That was only part of it. He wanted to tell Molly about what he’d heard their parents talking about, but he decided not to. “Yea,” he said, and they fell silent again as they moved past Grandmother Iron Cloud’s dugout and down toward the river.
But Grandmother Iron Cloud was not in her dugout. She was sitting, very still, on the ground beneath the first cottonwood that grew beside the river. He voice come from nowhere. “It will be all right,” she said. Jack and Molly jumped and Molly grabbed at Jack’s arm as it come up, ready to fight. The old lady was bathed in moonlight and they could see the embers of a tiny fire that had been burning in front of her. “Sit,” she said. And when they did, she looked directly at Jack and said, “I have watched you trying to hunt antelope, rabbits, and deer. ” Then she looked at both of them. “Let me tell you about animals and people.”