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Authors: Victoria McKernan

The Devil's Paintbox

BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
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To my nephews
Peter Michael Thomas, U.S. Army
John Stephen Thomas, U.S. Marine Corps

iden Lynch slid down the steep creek bank, dirt crumbling beneath his bare feet and dust rising in a cloud behind him. He eyed the muddy trickle of water at the bottom and decided not to drink. Strange how a person could be so particular about drinking muddy water when he had come down to the creek to eat dirt, but nothing else made much sense in his life anymore, so why should that?

Heavy rains three years ago had carved the creek bed down so far that standing here, he was on eye level with the surrounding prairie. It was late April, but the land was still black from the autumn fires, and the low clouds of morning fog made it look as if it were smoldering. It was an eerie, hellish vista. The only thing left for miles around was his family's house, isolated now on a little island of unburned ground. But unlike a real island, which at least offered the bounty of the surrounding sea, the blackened earth of central Kansas was barren and sterile as the moon.

Tiny green blades of grass were starting to poke up, but it would be months before anything could really live here again, even a rabbit. Aiden's stomach growled at the thought of a rabbit, all nicely stewed or fried in bacon grease, but since the fire had wiped out every living thing for six miles around, none was likely to come hopping by anytime soon.

Say a rabbit could jump a yard at a time: how many yards
were in six miles, and how many miles would it hop in a single day? Aiden's brain had never been good with math. His mother used to give them problems to solve like that. If you plant 2 bushels of seed on 100 acres and get 600 bushels of wheat, how many bushels do you need to plant 180 acres, and how much wheat will you reap? His sister Maddy would figure it out in no time, but Aiden got distracted by the story behind the numbers. What if the rains came too heavy, like they did that one year, or not at all, like they had done for two, or the grasshoppers came and devoured the whole crop, or a hailstorm smashed everything? How could you ever know how many bushels? And why were you planting 180 acres anyway? That was twice what any family could handle! Was another family unable to work all their land and leasing some out? Did they lose a son to the war? It was 1865, and the Civil War had taken many men by now.

“It's 3.6 bushels of seed, and 1,080 bushels of wheat!” Maddy would declare while Aiden was hopelessly lost in his thoughts. But it didn't matter anymore; there was no more math these days since their mother was dead.

“Maddy?” he called. “Maddy, are you there?”

He knew where she was, but sometimes, when he got to thinking about all this, he felt a little bit crazy and had to hear her voice and know that she was still alive.

“I'm here.” She was downstream and around a bend, where he couldn't see her, but Aiden didn't worry. For one thing, she could swim, and for another, there wasn't enough water in the creek now to drown a mouse. Maddy had gone around the bend because the clay there was soft and smooth. She liked to mash it up on her palm with a little water and lick it. Aiden preferred the harder clay from this part of the
bank. It crumbled in his mouth, almost like a biscuit. He chipped a piece out of the bank with his knife and bit off a corner. It didn't taste bad, really; mostly like nothing, though he did miss having something to chew.

For a month now he and Maddy had been living on corn-meal mush. Every three days Aiden would take a few patties of dried cow dung out of the shrinking pile in the shed and build a tiny fire. They would huddle by the stove, enjoying the rare warmth, waiting for the water to boil, then pour a cup of cornmeal into the pot. When it was cooked, they would each eat two spoonfuls while it was warm, then pour the rest into a pan. It set when it cooled, and they would cut it into squares to eat for the next two days. Maddy called it “corn jelly meat.” It wasn't so bad when they'd still had salt. Although it meant spending the days hungry, they saved the mush for evening. It helped push back the awfulness of the night. But now there was only one square each, the size of a baby's palm, left for tonight. Aiden took another bite of clay. It was taking far longer to starve to death than he had ever expected.

He had thought a lot about other solutions, but there didn't seem to be any. The army wouldn't take him until he was eighteen. He would have lied about his age—he was almost sixteen, and he knew that after four years of war, the army wasn't picky these days—but there was still the problem of what to do with Maddy. There were no relatives to send her to, not even a sympathetic neighbor. There were no neighbors at all now. Every farm and homestead around was abandoned. The nearest town was only about four miles away, but the harsh years had driven almost everyone off even before the fire. There were other small towns, but no
guarantee that anyone would be left there either, except a few desperate survivors like themselves. It was over a hundred miles to the nearest railhead in Independence, Missouri, and traveling was dangerous enough for a lone man. There were outlaws all over the state, and deserters from the war. There were leftover bushwhackers, proslavery guerilla bands who had ridden the countryside terrorizing the population. There were Indians, wolves, tornados, blizzards and lightning, an endless list of danger. Each day, he decided the next day they would leave; then the next day came and he found another reason not to go. And then the cold came for good and they were stuck as the brutal winter starved on.

A sudden buzz caught his attention. A grasshopper! He dropped the piece of clay, climbed back up the creek bank and picked up the net. It was actually a tablecloth his mother had brought from Ireland. Once beautiful clean white lace, now it was dirty and torn. Aiden held the center in one hand and gathered the edges in the other. Maddy had sewn small stones into the hem for weight. He crouched silently, waiting to get a fix on the grasshopper. Sweat beaded on his chest, but he did not move. Finally, the grasshopper gave another chirp. Aiden flung the tablecloth so it spread out and fell neatly over the insect.

“Damn, boy. What the hell you doing?”

Aiden jumped up, his heart pounding. He spun around to see a man on a horse. He had appeared out of nowhere, on the other side of the creek. This was the first other human being he had seen in five months.

“What're you doing here?” Aiden said, his hand going quickly to the knife at his belt.

“Nothing you need to kill me for, boy.” The man laughed.
“Your mama know you're out here messing with her fine tablecloth?”

“Who're you?”

“Jefferson J. Jackson.”

“What's your business?”

“Looking for strays.” The man leaned back in his saddle. He was old, fifty at least, with gray hair roughly cut and a short gray beard. His face was deeply creased, tanned dark as a boot. He was stringy in the arms and legs, long in the back and a little paunchy in the middle, like a man starting to live easy after a long time living hard.

“They said back in town was a pack of men out here. Any more but you?”

“Who said?”

“Shopkeeper rode out with us from Missouri, some Swedish name, ran the dry-goods store in Sweetwater before the hard times. He said might be sodbusters still out here with two or three grown sons.”

“What do you care who lives here?”

“You don't need to be so prickly, boy. Wears you out. Take my word.”

Jackson looked him up and down with a hard, piercing gaze. Aiden felt like the man could see right through him, could hear his pounding heart, might even be reading his mind.

“I'm guiding a wagon train west,” Jackson said. “To Washington Territory, that's all. Looking for men might want to come along. There's a need for loggers up there. Lot of busted farmers out here might be wanting to start a new life.”

“My life is fine, thank you very much,” Aiden said in a
shaky voice. His heart was thudding and he feared his knees might give out.

“Well, that's good, then.” Jackson shifted in his saddle and looked out over the burned prairie. “Most around here have it desperate. You fish with grasshoppers?” he asked, glancing doubtfully at the small trickle of water in the creek.

“Eat ‘em,” Aiden said, defiantly. “You never eat a grasshopper? They're delicacies in many foreign countries.”

“Is that so?” Jackson had spent many years as a fur trapper, living in the mountains, and had eaten his share of insects. He'd eaten worms once—so hungry he didn't even brush all the dirt off, so it crunched in his teeth. He'd eaten parts of a dead deer, raw, that he'd had to chase away vultures to get to. But the idea of a kid doing it made him feel strangely awful. The boy was tall, with the strangled, spindly kind of height that hadn't keep flesh in pace with bones. He looked like a marionette. His dark brown eyes were watery and overbig in his sunken face. His hair was frizzy, brittle and the reddish brown color of bad health. Aiden blushed under the scrutiny.

“You think up that particular capture technique yourself?”

Aiden hesitated. The idea had actually come straight from an illustration in his favorite book,
The Atlas of the World.
The caption said:
Native Polynesian fishing technique.

BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
6.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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