Authors: Glendon Swarthout
Otto Petzke and Thor Svendsen came in together.
They gaped at her, then nodded recognition, said “Miss Cuddy,” retired to a bench far from her and from young Sours, whom they ignored, and began to wonder together what in tarnation a woman was doing there.
To pass the time she rose and examined the books stacked along the desk. There were Clark's grammars, Webster's spellers, Ray's
, McNally's geographies, and McGuffey's and Hilliard's readers, but not really enough of any one title. There were also a few hymnbooks.
In walked Alfred Dowd.
He, too, stared at her, spoke to the three men, then strode directly to her. He kept his voice low. “What are you doing here?”
“Vester couldn't come.”
“Wouldn't, you mean.”
“I'll draw for him.”
He frowned. He took off his hat and laid it on the pulpit. “I don't like this,” he said to her. “It isn't right.”
“It can't be helped.”
He addressed the others. “Otto, Thor, Garn, come here to me, please.” They came forward, clumsy in heavy coats and boots, and seated themselves on the bench behind Mary Bee's. The minister was still frowning. “Miss Cuddy is here today in Vester Belknap's place. He was unable to be with us, I don't know why, but I don't see that it will make any difference.”
He opened his mouth to speak again, then stopped. This he repeated. Then he began to unwind his muffler, being very slow about it. Mary Bee understood that her friend simply did not know what to say. The gravity of the moment undid him. She looked at the two older men and the one young. How they did not want to be here. How they did not want to do what one of them must. She perceived in their faces a queer mix of resignation and apprehension. The latterâdread on the part of each that he might be the one chosen by chanceâshe could almost smell, along with a congregation of other odors cooped up in the small room: of chalk and animals, urine and smoke, paper and manhood. Suddenly a wind came up outside, a minor wind. It made a sound like that of a woman crying, or a man whining.
By the time Alfred Dowd had removed his muffler and hung it on the pulpit, he had found his words. “Well,” he said. “Well. This is a painful occasion. I am your pastor, and I grieve for you. Four fine women. Wives and mothers. Asked to give beyond their power to give. I hope you understand that dementia is not uncommon out here, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. I assure you the Lord God is with you in your sorrow. And will be henceforth, when you must be both father and mother to your children. All four families have been strickenâI include Vester's.” He stopped. He was going round and round the barn and knew it. He cleared his throat. “I've spoken to all of you about the system. We draw lots. One of you will escort the women east, to Iowa. The other three must provide the conveyance, the team, and the supplies. It's a method that succeeded last year, and I have no doubt will this. Now.” He dug in a pocket, picked up his hat, and dropped something in it. “I've put four kernels of corn in here. Three are yellow, one is black. Whoever draws the black goes east. Now I'll shake them up.” He held the hat by its brim, revolved it, then held it out high. “Shall we defer to the lady? Miss Cuddy, will you draw first?”
“No, thank you,” she said. “Vester isn't here. I think he should draw last. I'll defer to Mr. Sours.”
“Oh,” said Dowd. “All right. Garn, will you draw?
The youth rose, stepped over the first bench, almost tripping himself, reached high into the hat, and sat down with a groan, holding up a yellow kernel for all to see.
“Otto?” Dowd invited, moving toward him.
Otto Petzke hesitated. He had an Old Country habit of resting his right hand against his neck under his brown beard. He took it out now, stood, reached, and fumbled in the hat, then opened his hand. “
,” he murmured, thrust a yellow kernel at the others, and sat down again, heavily.
“Thor?” said the minister.
Thor Svendsen looked at Mary Bee, then loomed to his feet, shoved a big hand into the hat, and withdrew it, closed. He brought the hand to his chest before opening it, then rumbled with relief, extending the hand like a platter, palm up, to show the yellow kernel.
All looked at Mary Bee.
“He won't go,” she said.
“He will,” said Dowd.
“He told me he won't.”
“If he loves God he will.”
“He's got to!” cried Garn Sours.
Mary Bee stood. “I told him you'd make him. He said if you try, he has a long rifle.”
“He must,” repeated Dowd. “Or the whole system breaks down.”
Otto Petzke jumped up and raised a fist. “He will so do it! I will thrash him!”
“We also have rifles,” threatened Thor Svendsen. “Three of them! We make him all right!”
“Oh, my, my,” Dowd despaired. “We can't have bloodshed. I never expectedâ”
“I'll go,” said Mary Bee.
Had it not been for the wind outside, the silence would have been absolute.
“You can't,” said the minister.
“Yes, I can,” she said. “It makes sense. Vester can see to my stock.”
“A woman,” muttered Thor Svendsen.
“I can ride as well as you. And handle a team. And shoot,” she said to them. “And I can cook. And I can care for the women better than you.”
They looked at each other. Alfred Dowd stepped behind the pulpit and leaned forearms on it. He seemed more shocked and bewildered than they. “We simply cannot allow this,” he said.
“Would you trust him with them?” she asked.
“Vester is just as responsible forâ”
“Would you really?”
This was inarguable. He looked away.
“She's right!” cried Garn Sours. “Miss Cuddy, this is just mighty white of you!”
Her legs were sapped of their strength then, and she sat down on her bench.
“When would you go?” asked the minister.
“As soon as I can. We'll have better weather now. A week, ten days. So I can be back in time to get in a crop.”
“Miss Cuddy, you are a fine lady,” said Otto Petzke, almost bowing to her.
“That is right,” agreed Thor Svendsen. “You tell us what you need, we will get it.” Still nodding agreement he stooped to her, suddenly, cupped a hand to her ear, and whispered, “But you watch out for my Gro! Do not put your back to her! She will kill you!”
Trying to absorb that, she heard herself insisting on a well-built rig of some kind, covered, and a good team, maybe a pair of geldings, which wouldn't give out on her, plenty of provisions, and a grub box with utensils. She heard their assurances. Dowd read aloud to her a name and address on a piece of paper, which he gave to her: “Altha Carter, wife of Reverend Jonas Carter, Ladies Aid Society, Methodist Church, Hebron, Iowa.” She put it in a pocket. He said he would send off a letter to Altha Carter right away, saying she was coming with four passengers. She listened while he instructed the three husbands to prepare papers for their wives, the names and addresses of close relatives to whom the women might be entrusted back east. Mary Bee, he said, would carry them with her for Altha Carter. He advised them to dress their wives warmly and simply for the trip, nothing fancy, and she heard herself adding that they should send blankets and pack in a sack a few toilet articles such as comb and brush and soap, also a handtowel or two and a change of underclothing. Dowd snapped fingers. What was to be done about Vester Belknap? Mary Bee said she'd let him know what had been decided. Very well, then, he said to the men. He hoped they had heeded because he might not see them again before Miss Cuddy came by to pick up their wives. He asked her again how long, and she replied she'd prefer to start in a week. One last thing, the minister said. The less said about the journey and this whole tragic episode the betterâfor their own sakes and that of the other women in the neighborhood.
Otto Petzke and Thor Svendsen and Garn Sours thanked Miss Cuddy, and told her everything would be ready for her in a week, she could count on it, and they and their families would be grateful to her always, and clumped to the door with Dowd. She heard the door close, and looked to see Alfred Dowd returning. He sat down on the bench beside her. The day was darkening fast, and hence the room. He took her big hands in his.
“My dear lady,” he said. “This is incredible, and splendid. Why, why did you do it?”
“I thought I had to.”
“Vester won't. Sours is a boy. I saw how the others didn't want to. I'm free.”
He reflected. “Remember what I said about the four wives? Asked to give beyond their power to give? Have you asked too much of yourself? Are you truly up to something as difficult as this? As dangerous?”
“I believe you. But if you have second thoughts, let me know. We can draw again. Or I will go in your place if I have to.”
She was silent.
“Very well.” He released her hands. “What's done is done. It's so like you.”
He leaned forward and rested elbows on knees, thinking. His boots were muddy, the first spring mud she had seen. She noticed how hollow was his stubbled cheek, and how apparent was the bald spot at the back of his head. He was getting on, yet never slacked his pace. There must be men, too, she thought, on the ragged edge. She had heard of a middling young bachelor named Winbegger, up near Loup, who hung himself.
He spoke. “If you leave in a week, I may not see you before. So while I can, I'd better tell you about the women. What drove each of them over the brink. Mrs. Belknap's case you know. But the other three.”
“I think so. If you're to tend them, to understand them, shouldn't you know as much as you can?”
He told her about Arabella Sours.
He told her about Hedda Petzke.
He told her about Gro Svendsen.
“And there they are. Your charges,” he concluded. “Now you know the worst.” He waited for her reaction. There was none.
He went to the pulpit, put on his hat, and rewound his muffler. “Aren't you going now?” he asked. “If you are, I'll ride partway with you.”
“No,” she said. “I'll stay. To think.”
“Of course.” He moved to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Goodbye, my dear. Thank you for all of us. If anything should go amiss, get word to me. Or if you should reconsider.”
He stepped lively to the door, and then, before opening it, turned back to her a second time. “Let us pray,” he said. She bowed her head. He placed a gentle hand upon it. “Heavenly Father,” he prayed, “look down upon Thy daughter. Bless her in this undertaking. Grant her Thy strength. Guide her with Thy grace. Let her bring them home. I beg Thee in the name of Thy Son, who gave his all for others. Amen.”
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At last she was alone.
As day faded from the windows she sat still on the bench, hands folded in her lap, a wide-shouldered woman wearing a rabbit hat and a black melton coat and a man's hickory shirt and ducking trousers and good four-dollar boots. The hat, close-fitted, with earflaps she could hook on top when it was mild, was her pride. She had shot the rabbits, scraped and dried the skins, cut them to her own pattern, and sewn them with #8 waxed linen thread. The wind outside warned her not to think about what she had offered to do. Instead, she forced herself to consider summer and fall. She would have sixty acres into wheat, which she calculated would bring forty to fifty cents a bushel. Hogs, she guessed, would go for three dollars a hundredweight come fall, so she intended to buy shoats this spring and fatten them on corn she had saved from last year's crop. She planned also to put in some pumpkins. Two or three loads would fetch a fair sum in town, and what she couldn't sell she would feed to her cattle. Cattle took to pumpkins the way horses took to apples.
There was an early line in Genesis: “And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” She took the word “deep” to mean the void, which was dark. What had happened to her lately she thought of as going void. She was suddenly empty inside, absolutely void. In her was a great, dark deep. Then one of two things occurred in the void. A match was struck, a light flared, and soon she was full of flame. That was fury, as she had been furious at Vester Belknap. Or, like a seed, a crystal of ice formed and grew, and soon her deep was solid ice. That was fear, as she had feared the snake. Going void was fear more often than fury, she had found, especially on long winter nights in her house when wolves howled and she was alone as now, sitting on the bench, emptying inside, and feeling the first crystal form. She shivered. She stood up and went to the door. Once outside, in near dark, she decided to relieve herself before starting, so walked around Kettle School to the outhouse at the rear. She entered, closed the door, opened her coat, pulled down her britches and the drawers made of Queen Bee Flour sacking, and seated herself over the hole. The second she did so, she thought of Theoline Belknap. She cried out in horror. She sprang up, pulled herself together, buttoned her coat, and burst from the outhouse, running. Now she was solid ice inside, solid fear. She untied Dorothy from the hitch rail, mounted, wheeled the mare and gave her a bootheel in the flank, then another out of the trot into a slow gallop.
It was not only what Theoline had done.
It was what Mary Bee Cuddy had done.
For she knew she could not. Alone, by herself, she couldn't possibly handle a team and wagon and feed and nurse and protect and comfort four such cases all the way to the Missouri River, not alone, not by herself. She knew in her soul she couldn't possibly. What woman in Christendom could?
She must have help.
Andy Giffen would have gone with her, gladly, but Andy Giffen was back east after a wife.