“Do you think today will be the day, Pa?” Ephraim Holliday asked his father as the both stared west.
“Eph, I been praying it would be so,” said Ephraim’s father Eleazar. He reached down and gouged out a handful of the dry crust that covered what was supposed to be his cornfield like a scab. He crushed it in his hand and watched as the wind carried it eastward, as if saying, “You should go, too.”
“So you think those clouds gathering out by the mountains might be real rain clouds that’ll come our way?” Ephraim asked, since his father was the most learned man he knew out there on the Colorado prairie.
“I can’t really say just yet, Eph. A farmer’s just at the mercy of nature anywhere he lives. Out here on the shortgrass prairie, where water’s gotten scarce and we have to rely on nature’s own irrigation from the sky, mercy looks like it’s hard to come by,” Eleazar said. “Sometimes a farmer isn’t much more than a gambler, ‘cept the stakes are a whole lot higher than a few Gold Eagles.”
“Heard a man in Sterling say Hell would freeze over before we saw any rain that’d make a damn…oh, sorry…a difference for any dirt farmers out here,” Ephraim said.
“Go,” Eleazar said as placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and turned him back toward the house and barn. Ephraim knew that was his cue to do his morning chores, though they had become less laborious as his father was forced to sell off a few more head of his cattle and a mule just last week to the fellow running the mercantile in Sterling.
“Ephraim, could you fetch me a pail of water, please?” he heard his mother, Cora, call from their house, an unpainted cabin of sod and dry pine his father built with help from the Daley family. They had come west from Illinois with the Hollidays not two years before. They had made a life on the Illinois prairie for generations, according to Mr. Daley.
“Figured to make a go of it somewhere the land was open, free and wasn’t so crowded with lawyers, liars and politicians,” Daley had told his father the day they laid the first lumber.
But the Daley’s hadn’t counted on some Pawnee children who would ride onto their farm from time to time. Fewer of them a week after little Leah Daley got the measles and died. They hadn’t counted on some of the Pawnee boys telling their fathers about the sick little white girl who went to the Creator with the spotted sickness. They hadn’t counted on the Pawnee all catching measles and begin dying and deciding to nip the source of their curse in the bud by burning down the Daley’s place with the Daley’s inside. And then all but a handful of that band of Pawnee just disappeared like they had been caught inside the Daley’s blazing end, which Ephraim’s father said they might as well have.
Eleazar took possession of the seven scattered beeves and two mules the Pawnee hadn’t stolen or killed. Except now they were gone in trade to folks between his place and Sterling.
“Fire’s a terrible thing,” Ephraim said as he hauled a bucket up from the well his father had sunk near a small spring in a copse of trees nearby. The only trees for thirty miles in any direction, Ephraim reckoned. And from the way their shadows had begun to wake up from their western leisure, he also reckoned it was going on nine o’clock or so.
“Pour some of that into the big pot there, Ephraim,” his mother said. “Have you had anything to drink out there?”
“Not yet, Mother. Gotta see to the stock first.”
“If it doesn’t rain soon, you’ll be able to do that with a thimble, I’m afraid,” she said as she hefted the pot onto the hearth.
As Cora brushed back a strand of hair from her face, Ephraim stopped and realized how much his mother had changed in the past two years out here on the edge of the world. The hair she’d pulled back was gray and her eyes had taken on cracks like the ones along the lines of furrows out back.
“I’m going back to work, Mother,” Ephraim said. and the gave her a hug.
“Oh, my. You caught me by surprise, Eph. Almost dropped a plate. What brought that on?”
“Just ‘cause, Mother.”
“Well thank you, Eph. You’ve made my day. Now you better scoot before it gets too hot out there.”
Ephraim left the house and joined his father, who had begun digging a trench to somehow connect one end of his cornfield with the spring.
“Shovel’s right there, Ephraim. Let’s see if we can get another eighty or ninety feet today before your mother shoos you back in the shade,” his father said.
“Clouds are building, Pa. Look at that.”
Eleazar picked his head up from his digging and peered through the shimmering air at the far mountains, where the clouds were indeed rising like heavenly mountains themselves. Only they were beginning to crawl east.
“Hmmph, maybe the mountain’s gonna come to Muhammad today.”
“Oh, just something from old saying, Eph. ‘If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.’ Means if one’s will doesn’t prevail, one must submit to an alternative. Like if it won’t rain on our field, then we have to bring rain to the field. Now pick up that shovel, boy and let’s move a mountain,” Eleazar said.
Ephraim grabbed for his shovel, but once more looked at the rising peaks of white and gray and made another little prayer for any rain the Lord saw fit to give the Hollidays.
“Even a thimbleful,” he whispered.
“Yessir, Pa.” And the sound of two deep scraping shovelsful, punctuated by a shallower one, began a chain that lasted through noontime, lunch and until the clouds and sun met somewhere between Ephraim’s labors and the mountains, and when a cool wind brought a chill to the sodden backs of the Holliday men.
While they had labored, the sun had fired morning into a cumulonimbus alloy of power and potential crouching above the eastern Rockies. They looked up at the cloud tops and saw summer had forged an anvil upon which it might clang out sparks and pound down thunderclaps upon the prairies.
“Clouds are getting sorta dark aren’t they, Pa?” Ephraim said.
“Yeah, they actually are. Say you prayers, Eph. This could be the one, just like you asked for this morning,“ Eleazar said.
Out in the distance a jagged rip of white tore down from the sooty bottom of the cloud mass moving swiftly eastward.
“Shhh… Count, Eph. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi… When they finally heard the rumble of thunder, Eleazar said, “I’ll be damned. Twenty miles.”
“How’d you know…?”
“Tell you later. Gather what stock you can into the barn and tell your mother I went to fetch what I can of the cattle. I’ll be back before anything happens. If anything IS gonna happen.”
They both scrambled from the ditch and carried their shovels toward the house, where Eleazar peeled off and saddled and mounted his bay and rode northwest to herd what beeves he could find and drive them nearer the house.
“Mother, did you see? Did you see the lightning? Hear the thunder?” Ephraim said as he rushed through the door.
“Only heard the rumble, Ephraim. Where’s your father?”
“He just went to gather some of the cattle. Said he’d be back directly. I gotta tie down the goats and milk cow and get the horses inside the barn. I’ll be back.”
As he headed outside, Ephraim saw the clouds had become a slate ceiling across the sky and he whispered again another prayer that his family’s farm would no longer thirst for relief from this drought. He jumped when he saw another flash of lightning and counted Mississippis until he heard the thunder, though he didn’t know how his father figured out the distance. Ephraim wondered if the thunder was God’s way of telling him salvation was on its way or only another empty test of faith, a weaving of wind and water with want.
His father was closing the corral just as he finished tethering the stock in the barn. Both Eleazar and his bay mount were panting and slicked with sweat.
“I’ll take care of Red here. You go in and help your mother with the other children,” Eleazar said as he uncinched his saddle and removed the bit from his horse’s mouth. “Scoot, I’ll be right behind you.”
Behind him, Ephraim could hear the wind blowing louder now and a flash of light burst through every gap in the boards of the barn walls. Then before he could get to “One Mississip…” a sound like the Apocalypse exploded all around.
“Is this it, Pa? This must be what we’re waiting for,” he shouted over his shoulder as he ran toward the house. Inside, his baby sister Lucy was wailing in his mother’s embrace and his two-year-old brother Edwin sat on the floor clutching Cora’s leg.
“Is your father back?” she said, fear widening those wear and sun crinkled eyes.
“Yes, Mother. He’s coming right behind…”
“Shut the door, Ephraim,” Cora said. The wind was blowing dust from what remained of a dream all through the front room.
And then came the hammering on the roof.
“Rain, Mother,” Ephraim shouted, which startled the baby even more. The clattering above was so loud, he didn’t hear his father enter, only felt the chill air that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. As he turned, he saw his father standing in the doorway. He was shaking small white balls off his shoulders and hat brim.
“Hail, Cora. Very little rain yet. And that wind’s blowing up something fierce,” Eleazar said, his own eyes projecting something Ephraim had never seen in them before. He’d seen his father angry enough to level a man twice his size. He’d seen him weep over the grave of little sister Susan back in Missouri. He’d seen their joy at Lucy’s birth. But he’d never even thought of the wide and confused look he saw at that moment in his father’s eyes.
“Ephraim, come here,” Eleazar shouted above the din on the roof and the roar of the wind, which, if anything, had grown louder. Eleazar knelt next to Cora and held his boys in front of him, as close to Cora as they could get without usurping little Lucy’s place in her arms.
“Let’s pray now. Let’s pray that we are saved from whatever has beset us out here on the edge of the world. Let’s pray, boys, as the Lord has ordained. “Our Father, which art in Heaven…” And the voices of Cora and her sons carried on with the Lord’s Prayer as Eleazar listened to how the wind had changed. It now reminded him of the trains that ran from Chicago to St. Louis. And he knew Hell had frozen over and his world had just turned upside down.
Outside, something looking like Satan’s tail dropped from the heavens, it’s tip a whirling skein of Colorado dirt, dust and short grass. And as the boys, their eyes tightly closed in prayer, recited “…now and at the hour of our death. For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power…” Satan scooped up their bone-dry souls, when the only sin they had committed was to pray for rain in this little portion of the frontier between his kingdom and the Creator’s.
First story of any length in a long time. A Western, I guess. It was prompted last week by Story A Day’s Julie Duffy, who asked for a solstice story. Then so much hard life fell down on me. So today, I just started writing a summer story. Can’t say if tornadoes his the Colorado prairie in late June or not. For once, I didn’t burn too much time researching as much as I normally do. Didn’t know what might come along to stop my writing and I wasn’t waiting to find out. So here’s a first draft, rough, dust-laden and jumbled as the Hollidays’ farm the day after this Summer Solstice sometime in the 1860s. And, yes, I know most early farmers on Colorado’s Eastern Plains lived in soddies, but I needed something that’d burn and made a racket when rain and hail hit the roof. 😉