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Authors: Ellen Gray Massey

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BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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   “Tie their legs together,” Marcus yelled over the ruckus.
   Liberty tore some rags into strips. While Marcus caught and held the geese, she grabbed their feet and quickly tied the soft cloth around their legs just above the feet and then laid each one down on the floor.
   “Poor things,” Liberty said, petting Goosie who only squawked back louder, her head and neck protruding from her prone body.
   “They should thank us,” Marcus said. “This wind would've blown them away for sure.”
   Brother and sister crowded by their one window. Outside the world had gone mad. Debris and dirt flew by the window. Rain pounded the front of the soddy seeping in around the door and window. It cascaded off the roof like a hundred waterfalls gone mad. Lightning flashed from the clouds and thunderbolts crashed overhead.
   “Virgil?” Liberty screamed above the racket of the wind, the thunder, the rain, and the geese. “Where's Virge?” She started to the door after him until Marcus held her back.
   “He took the horses over the rise,” he shouted, pointing north behind him. “I couldn't see him.”
   Liberty didn't care about the mess the geese were making. She didn't care that the cow and pigs were running loose. 
   Virgil! He was out there alone and exposed in the path of the cyclone.
   From the window that faced south, they couldn't see behind them where Virgil had gone. They saw dirt sailing by them. They saw the young spring prairie grasses lying flattened and the limbs of the cottonwoods along the river thrashing in the wind. At four o'clock that April afternoon, they saw a strange darkness like the gloom of a eerie moonless night.
   “Virgil?” Liberty cried again. “I don't see him, Marcus. Where is he?” She grabbed his hand.
   Marcus shook his head as if he didn't dare answer.
   “He's out there alone!” Liberty sobbed.
   “He said he'd take care of the horses,” Marcus said, “but I don't see him anywhere.”
   Liberty tightened her hold on him. “There's no place he could find shelter. Where would he go?”
   “Somewhere to outrun the storm.”
   “Could he do that?”
   “If anyone can, Virge can. He'll be all right.” Though his words were optimistic, his face showed his doubts and worry.
   Hanging onto Marcus as if she too would be blown away, though the soddy protected them from the storm, all Liberty could think to say was, “Virge is right. The darkness is not gone.”
   Marcus looked at her as if she'd suddenly lost her mind. “Still harping on that dumb song?” When she looked crushed, he hugged her and said to reassure her, “He'll be all right. I'm sure he's safe somewhere.”
 
 
*     *     *
 
 
   When Marcus had left to take care of the stock, Virgil galloped Lady to the horse paddock. Holding the skittish mare and talking calm words to her, he kicked down the rails that formed the gate. He grabbed the rope halter of the buckskin who was nearest. He quickly and expertly fastened him and Lady to the gate post. Grabbing the extra lead rope that was looped over the opposite post and whose loose ends were gyrating in the wind, he faced the wind to corner the third horse, a bay mare Liberty called Beauty.
   “Whoa there, my pretty,” he crooned to the frightened mare. “Come, my pretty. We'll take you to a safe place.”
   The mare ran in the tight enclosure, rearing up when Virgil got close. He formed a noose with his rope and threw it. The strong wind didn't let the loop clear her head. As it slid off her neck, he pulled it in and threw again allowing for the wind. This time the noose slipped over her head. He pulled it taut. 
   The mare stopped and reared again. Virgil spoke softly as hand over hand, he worked his way up the tight rope to her head. “Easy now, baby. Come my pretty, we'll get you to a safe place.”
   Grabbing her halter, he slipped his rope into it. As soon as he touched the mare, she quieted. He led her to Lady and the buckskin who were excitedly prancing about the post they were tied to. Fastening the three together, he held on to Lady's halter. They then headed toward the house area.
   He saw that Marcus had opened the gate for the pigs and the cow and calf. He saw the cow and calf running behind the soddy away from the storm's path. The pigs ran toward the river. He didn't see Marcus or Liberty. Or the geese. He hoped they were safely in the soddy.
   The rain came with no preliminary sprinkles as if overhead a giant bucket dumped its load on him. The gales of wind swirled around him from all directions. Instead of falling, the water blew parallel to the ground. Shielding his face from the rain so he could see, Virgil grabbed Lady around her neck and swung astride her. Following the flight of the cow and calf, he led the other two horses in a north-westerly direction away from the storm. He and Marcus had been plowing in the river bottom land. The valley ended at a slight rise in the prairie where they had dug into the bank and built their soddy. As he cleared that rise, he looked back quickly. The tip of the funnel cloud touched the ground just west of their plowed ground. As it jumped and hopped across the field it sucked up the loose dirt. The funnel headed straight toward the soddy.
   As Lady loped down the northern side of the rise, the mare and gelding broke loose and galloped north. 
   They were soon swallowed in the murky air. Virgil tried to pull Lady to a stop in a small depression behind the rise. The mare pranced around. Virgil couldn't hold her back as she raced north. She ignored his teachings as instinct took over. In minutes she was out of the storm. The wind wasn't blowing, but behind them Virgil could hear the thunder and see the dark clouds spiraling close to the ground. Then the roar diminished as the storm sped northeasterly away from them.
   Lady slowed down. Virgil managed to pull her to a stop and turn her around. “Easy, girl. Easy now. We're fine,” he crooned to the trembling mare. He patted her neck. He leaned over to reach her head and petted it. “Easy, my pretty. It's all over.”
   From his position he couldn't see the soddy. Now that he and Lady were safe, he didn't know if Marcus reached it in time. Did Liberty stay safely inside or run screaming out into the storm? He vowed he'd never object to Marcus's bossiness again if he saved Liberty.
   And the horses? Would he ever be able to find Beauty and Buck? From their speed when they broke loose, they could be in the next township by now. He reasoned that their fast gallop in escaping would take them safely out of the storm's path. He'd just have to find them. They'd be fine.
   Reassured about the horses, thoughts of the newly plowed land being blown away entered his mind. He shut them out. I won't think of that now. I just have to keep Lady and myself safe until this twister passes.
   He tightened his hold on the mare's head, though she had quieted down some. Maybe, he reasoned, she realizes she is safer here, more protected from the force of the storm in this depression than running loose on the open prairie.
   In just a few minutes, though it seemed much longer, the storm passed, its roar disappearing into the northeast. Man and horse looked over the rise in the land which had protected them to see what was beyond. No fences. No horses, cow or calf. Not one pig, not a goose was in sight. But the soddy stood as usual, blending into the plains as if it belonged there. Only the closed, wooden door and the pipe that was the chimney announced that people lived there.
   As Virgil watched, the door burst open and five screeching geese raced out. Their outspread wings flopping and half raised lifted them off the ground in their dash to get outside.
   Virgil knew exactly how they felt. When Marcus and Liberty walked out, obviously unhurt, he shrieked out into the now quiet late afternoon, “Liberty! Marcus! I'm here. I'm all right.”
Chapter Three
 
   Liberty and Marcus raced toward Virgil. He slid off Lady's back and hugged each of them. 
   “You're safe,” Liberty said, hugging him back and patting him as if to make sure he was not hurt.
   “Yes. A little wind won't blow away a Lander,” he said, brushing the dirt from his trousers and straightening his hat.
   “Or even blow away your old hat,” Marcus laughed.
   “No, not even my hat.”
   “Virge, I made you a pillow,” Liberty said. Like the child she was, she wanted him to know what she had done.
   Virgil smiled at her and hugged her again. “Thanks, Lib. You're the best.”
   “What about the other horses,” Marcus asked, rubbing Lady's neck and looking over her for any damage.
   Virgil's smile faded. “They got loose.” 
   Marcus looked at the blown-down fence of the stock enclosure. All business now that everyone was safe, he said, “We better round up the stock while there's still enough light. You take Lady and see if you can find any of them. I will see what I can do about fixing the fences good enough to hold them at least temporarily. Liberty, the soddy is a mess–-”
   “I know. I'll clean it up and see about the geese.”
   “They won't leave,” Marcus said. “You can fix their pen later. I doubt the coyotes will bother them after this storm. They've probably quit the country.”
   Even before Marcus finished delegating jobs, Virgil was mounted on Lady ready to ride toward the river where the pigs were headed the last he saw them.
   “Tomorrow after the ground dries out enough,” Marcus said, “Virgil and I will get back to the cornfield. Lucky we hadn't planted the corn or it would've been blown away along with the loose top soil. Then later we . . .” He stopped talking when he realized he had no audience. Virgil and Lady were loping toward the river. Liberty was inside cleaning out the goose manure and straightening up the furniture the geese had upset. A few small white feathers floated in the air. Two were caught in her black hair. She put pans under the leaks as the rain water began to seep through the sod roof. Though Liberty made some headway in the house, Virgil did not find the horses or other stock in his brief ride around the place.
   Early the next morning, rising early as usual, Marcus stepped outside, happy to see that sometime during the night, the cow and calf had returned. He milked out what the calf left, not forgetting to squirt a stream or two to the cat, Nicky, who waited patiently. The two horses and the sow and her pigs did not return.
   “We've gotta find them,” Virgil said at breakfast.
Marcus and Liberty agreed. Without the horses they had only Lady for transportation or power to work the land. Without the sow and her pigs, they would have to depend wholly on wild game Virgil could get. But more importantly, when the shoats reached 200 pounds, they counted on trading them for necessary supplies.
   Even though they had left the soddy door open all night, the stench of goose manure spoiled their breakfast. Virgil swallowed his coffee, liberally fortified with the cow's rich milk. The strong smell of coffee barely blotted out the nauseous odor. Marcus was quiet during breakfast. Virgil knew from his unusual silence that he was planning what to do. Before Virgil said that he'd take Lady to look for the horses, he glanced at Liberty. She shook her head and rolled her eyes toward Marcus who was staring at the biscuit in his hand. His face was serious, his brow lowered in thought.
   Virgil kept silent. In a few minutes Marcus's head rose until his eyes met his brother's. “We must find the animals and we must get the corn in the ground as soon as possible. Both are equally important. Virge, you go look for the horses and pigs, but leave Lady here. With her to pull the harrow, Lib and I can plant the corn.” He walked to the door. After looking at the sky and sniffing the wind, he continued, “This wind is dry. It won't take long for it to dry out the top soil. The rain yesterday was so fast and hard that most of it ran off. Maybe we can work the ground by this afternoon.”
   Liberty glanced at Virgil and shook her head slightly to warn him not to interrupt Marcus.
   “I already checked the field this morning,” Marcus continued. 
   “Most of the loose soil on top that we disked up yesterday was blown away, but that was a thin layer. 
   “What's left where we turned it over with the plow can be harrowed again. With Lady pulling the harrow, I can do that in small sections. Then while I'm working on another section, Liberty can plant the seed.” 
   Virgil had to admit that was a good plan. The only plan he thought through was that he and Lady would comb the area for the missing animals. Though it galled him to admit it, Marcus did see the whole picture better and was good at organizing. He swallowed a sip of his coffee, looked first at his sister, then his brother. They seemed to be holding their breaths as he paused before responding. 
   Virgil nodded. “Fix me some food, Lib. I may not be back until night.” He thrust his arms into his jacket sleeves, grabbed his rifle, ammunition bag, and back pack. He jammed his battered felt hat on his head. “I'll get some rope and extra halters. Marcus, can we spare a few grains of corn to entice the hogs when I find them?”
   Liberty sent Marcus a grateful smile for his understanding as she wrapped up some food. Marcus handed Virgil a bundle of corn kernels. “You'll find them, Virge,” he said. “If anyone can find them, you can. Go. I'll see to things here.”
   Virgil nodded. “The hogs still may come home, but I'll get them if they don't. I'll look for the horses first.” He hurried out the soddy. Just before leaving, he stuck his head back in again. “Loved the pillow, Lib,” he said. Liberty smiled.
   Equipped with his supplies, he hurried to the spot north of the soddy where Beauty and Buck bolted free. 
   Their tracks where they bucked and swung about were clearly marked in the wet soil. They headed north. He hadn't traveled a half mile until the ground was no longer wet. 
   Not having any prior experience with cyclones, he was surprised at how narrow its path was. Could the horses have known that and run out of it quickly? No, they couldn't be that smart, though they might have experienced twisters before. Maybe they did know. Anyway, he spotted evidences that they had come this way and were no longer running. In fact, in places he saw where they had stopped to graze briefly. He followed their tracks.
   “Hey, there, Lander,” a voice startled him. “You're on my land. I've told you before that you can't hunt here.”
   His neighbor Gene Martin blocked his path, his face in a scowl. Beside him was Bruce Wallace, one of the men in town the storekeeper sometimes hired. Virgil had been looking at the ground so intently for horse signs that he didn't realize he was in front of Martin's soddy.
   “Oh,” he exclaimed in surprise. “I didn't realize where I was. A twister hit us last evening and two of my horses got away.”
   “I seen the funnel cloud over your way and heard the storm. It never touched me,” Martin said. “And we didn't have no rain to speak of. How about you?”
   “It rained hard at our place.”
   “Did it wash out your ford?” the man next to Martin asked. He gave Virgil a hostile look.
“No, Bruce, the river didn't rise at all.” Virgil wondered why he was concerned about his river ford. 
   Neither man asked if anyone was hurt or if his house was damaged. Bruce's animosity was strange in this new community where everyone helped each other. 
   Ever since Bruce arrived last fall, he'd been antagonistic, always asking when Virgil was giving up and going back to Kentucky. 
   The brothers had discussed it. Marcus figured that Bruce wanted their river farm, and his hostility was his way of trying to get them to leave so he could claim it. 
   That didn't make sense to Virgil. There were other river claims. Why his? The main road that everyone used missed his place. No one but the Landers ever used their out-of-the-way ford. It was shallow and had easy access on the north side, but a steep, narrow grade to pull up on the opposite side. It wasn't nearly as good as the main ford. Why was Bruce concerned about the river washing out the ford?
   Bruce walked around Virgil, glaring at his rifle and backpack. “Well, your hosses ain't here,” he said in a threatening tone.
   Virgil looked to Martin. “No, they ain't here,” Martin agreed.
Virgil pointed to a pile of fresh horse manure. “Unless you've ridden yours this morning, they were here.”
   “Well, they ain't now.” Martin raised his voice. “And if you want to find them, you better get going.”
   Bruce stepped closer. He raised his hand in what Virgil first thought was a threatening gesture. Then Bruce laid his hand against his shirt collar that was buttoned up concealing his neck. 
   Two women stepped out of the soddy, an older one and a young woman in her upper teens. The girl's face showed relief when she recognized Virgil. Instead of speaking to him, she turned to her father. “What's going on, Papa?” she asked.
   Martin, still staring at Virgil, repeated, “I said you better get going.”
   Bruce pushed him toward his horse. Ignoring both men, Virgil greeted the women, “Hi, Mrs. Martin. Hi, Bethel. A twister set down on us last night and two of our horses and our hogs got away.”
   “Marcus okay?” Bethel asked, her face showing alarm. When Virgil nodded, she asked, “And Liberty?”
   “They were in the soddy. They're fine.”
   “Any damage to your soddy?” Mrs. Martin asked, worry on her face.
   “None we can't fix easily. The cyclone scared the horses and the hogs. They ran away. I'm looking for them.”
   “Papa wouldn't let me go see about you after the storm passed,” Bethel said. She walked up to Virgil, her face all smiles. “The horses were here earlier this morning, but they went off that-a-way.” She pointed southeasterly back toward the Lander farm and the river. “Papa tried to catch them.”
   “I thought you said you hadn't seen them,” Virgil accused Martin.
   “I said they ain't here now. Now, you listen here, young man. You better go look for them.”
   “Oh, Papa!” Bethel cried. 
   Her mother frowned at her husband for his inhospitality. “Why don't you help him find them?” Mrs. Martin asked her husband.
   “I got planting to do,” Martin mumbled as he turned his back to them and stomped back to a crude shed. “C'mon, Bruce, I'll show you what I want you to do. It won't take long. You'll be back at the store afore Fletcher needs you.”
   Bruce scowled at Virgil as the two men walked behind the soddy out of sight.
   “I don't know why he's this a-way,” Mrs. Martin said when the men were out of earshot. 
Before she followed her husband, she glanced at Bethel then back to Virgil. She smiled at each of them and nodded her head. 
   “I'll help you look for your horses,” Bethel said. “Papa is all noise but he won't do nothing. He's mad at you because of me. It's not just you. He's that way with all the fellows. He don't want me to see anyone. He thinks I'm still his little girl. He don't know I've grown up.”
   “I sorta figured that.”
   “All the other babies died, one after another. There's just me left.” She stared at him, begging him to understand her father's behavior.”
   “I know,” Virgil said.
   “He's afraid I'll leave him.”
   Virgil nodded his understanding.
   “But I won't,” Bethel said, “never.”
   Neither one moved as they each devoured the other with their eyes. 
   “You sure are pretty,” Virgil said.
   Bethel giggled. She smoothed out her dress and straightened her sunbonnet. Its brim directed Virgil's gaze to her sparkling eyes. “You don't hurt my eyes none looking at you neither.”
   Both laughed.
   Unwillingly, Virgil took his eyes off of her and looked over the plains. “I gotta go.”
“I know.”
   “I have to find the horses.”
   Bethel nodded. “We saw them early this morning grazing out here in front. Then when Papa came after them, they ran down that draw over there and disappeared over the rise. They were headed south.”
   “Good. I'll go that way after them.”
   “I'll go with you.”
   “No, you better not. No use making your pa any madder at me.”
   Virgil glanced back to Martin's soddy to see if anyone was looking. Seeing no one, he kissed Bethel quickly and grinning, jogged off in the direction she had indicated.
   He understood Martin's unfriendliness. When the Martins first moved here last fall, he was very neighborly. The Landers helped the newcomers as all neighbors did. Just as they were helped themselves when they arrived over a year ago. It was like they were all an extended family. He shook his head. Well, he guessed it would be hard on a man to realize his only child was grown up enough to be sweet on someone and leave home.
   But Bruce's hatred was unexplainable. He was a young man just a few years older than Virgil. Bruce should be a friend. But even when Bruce arrived last fall, he seemed to hate the Lander brothers. He called them names, tried to pick fights with them, or otherwise harassed them.
   Shaking his head, he returned to the narrow strip in the prairie where the storm had passed. The sun and wind were already drying the soil. Marcus was right again. The soil at their cornfield would be ready for him and Liberty to plant the field this afternoon. He reasoned that was good for him. What they got done, he wouldn't have to do, and he'd have all day to scout around, even if he couldn't do it on Lady.
BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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