Derby’s hooves trudge heavy on the soft undergrowth while weaving a path through the quiet woods just north of the homestead. Her head bobs deep, laboring under the weight of us four Oleson siblings. Her rhythmic gait is as gentle as Grandma Thorsen’s rocking chair, quiet and lazy. I have simple math in my head and realize the four of us total forty in age – 13, 11, 9 and 7 – and estimate we’re seven bales in weight. Poor old horse.
An earthy breeze whispers through the weathered pines and tattered birch trees while the afternoon sun casts a cool light between leafless branches and on to our dozing heads. The spring bloom is late. It feels eerie as I imagine Derby stopping to lay down, falling asleep and blending in with last year’s dead foliage, and taking us with her. A glint of sunlight startles me, pulling me from thoughts of toiling in the fields this coming spring and back to my own aspirations of becoming a famous writer or a wealthy banker. I don’t know which.
“Git!” The heels of my boots thump against her sides. She stirs, trotting a few paces. I feel the tug of Sister’s hold from behind on my overalls. She clings to me only because she knows the little ones are clinging to her. I know she’d rather be in my spot. She’s so competitive.
“Hold on, Peanut,” says Earlene with a chuckle made up of both devil and angel. Then she makes her long “Ohhh” bounce with each stride. It’s a game she quickly grows bored of. “Babe, I’m hungry.”
I look back over my shoulder, enough for her to see the aggravation etched on my face and say, sharply, “You can thank yourself for that.”
Before we rode out, Earlene managed to knock Ma’s pot of stew off the stove. I only heard the pot crashing on the floor, but then I heard Sister shout, “Let’s get outta here!” And the next thing I know the lot of us are making a mad dash for the barn. No lunch today.
Both Derby and I feel Earlene’s shoes kicking about in a tantrum. “Ah, that was an accident.”
“You dumb-dumb,” Sister scolds. “It don’t look like an accident when you leave Babe’s baseball bat laying in the mess.”
This is news to me. My prized possession. It was a bat I won in a drawing at a town team baseball game in Fargo last summer. “Thanks a lot, Earlene. I’ll be getting the brunt of the lashes when we get home. Thank you very much.”
I feel Sister shifting behind me as she reaches her voice out to my right ear. “Babe, are you really not going to school this week?”
“Yep. Pa says I’m done with book learning.” Just this morning before breakfast, Pa took me aside to tell me it’s time for me to trade in my slide-rule for a plow.
“What about baseball at recess?”
“You can be captain of my team.”
“Josh won’t go for that.”
“He will if you wrestle him for the spot. You know you can beat’em.”
“I’ll beat’em all alright.”
I smile to myself. “Sister, you shoulda been born a boy.”
She swats the back of my head.
I point to the right. “Off about fifty paces through that clearing, between those two big oaks.” There’s a doe with an alert expression that seems to mark the new season. I wish I had my rifle along. Bringing home a deer would probably go a long way to softening both Ma’s boiling anger and Pa’s wielding strap.
Sister heaves a sigh filled with boredom. “Where’s this old horse taking us anyway?”
“We’re heading toward the creek,” I say. “I thought we’d follow it to Dead End corner.
“What for? Ain’t nothing there but crazy man Trettel’s place. You wanna get shot at or what?”
“It won’t hurt anything to just look around.”
“We gotta get back in time for milking.”
“We got time.” I lead Derby in the direction of the Trettel farm.
“Oh, I bet I know why you wanna go there. And her name is Hanna.” Sister starts to giggle and I raise my elbow to let her know I’ll throw it at her head if she doesn’t shut up.
I look back and Peanut is pointing to the opposite side of the creek. There’s not much meat on that bird. But its size doesn’t mean much without my rifle.
“Hey, Babe,” asks Sister. “Did you understand what Mrs. Hansen was talking about when she was explaining about the president’s depression?”
“I’m not sure. Something about how the banks don’t have money to borrow to poor people, so most have to go without.”
“Don’t seem right he should be sulking in that White House instead of helping the poor folk.”
“I suppose he’s doing the best he can.”
A curling picture of FDR hangs above the blackboard in our little country school house where the furnishings are both rickety and sparse. The older boys are tasked to keep the oil-drum stove going during the winter months, but it’s never enough to keep the frost from filling the cracks in the rotted planks that make up the four walls. The room’s main color is dark gray, so you can imagine how someone as pretty as Hanna Trettel brightens the place. I spend time aplenty staring at her shiny gold hair and store-bought dresses from the Woolworth’s in Thief River.
Hanna is Jelmer Trettel’s daughter, his only child. He keeps an eye on her like she was the Queen of Sheba.
“Where’s your ma,” I asked her once.
“She’s gone to heaven,” she said, and quickly added, “Pa killed her.” She searched my face for a reaction, but I stood there stiff as a broom handle. “Reckon no one will ever believe me.” She walked away, her eyes scanning the tree line of the nearby woods and said, “Pa don’t like me talking to boys.”
“She don’t hardly talk to us girls neither,” Sister said, strolling up behind me, “so don’t feel bad.”
“I don’t feel bad,” I said, shrugging, while furrowing my brow to erase the look of rejection from my face.
Then Sister whispered in my ear, “I think she’s crazy like her pa.”
After awhile of following the flow of the creek, I jump down from Derby and help Peanut off her back while Sister and Earlene slide away, one off each side. We walk like cautious cats up toward the near woods where the Trettel outhouse hides and the farmhouse sits twenty paces beyond.
The big house is rundown, weather-beaten and in need of a paint job, like most places around these parts. Like most places, I figure, all around the country because of the president’s depression.
Sister pulls on my shirtsleeve. The fabric binds up, pinching my wrist. “Someone’s coming.”
I grab Peanut by the back of his suspenders while looking at the nearby trees. They’re all saplings, and not one wide enough to hide a dirty elbow. So I quickly surmise the best spot is behind the width of the double-seat crapper. I pull him close to me as we scamper and scrunch behind it.
“Why’d you lead us all over here?” Sister hisses. I stare at her and shrug. “What if they’re going to the john?”
Sure enough. Whoever it is swings open the door to the outhouse and shuts it with a bang. The four of us stand there like jittery field mice.
There’s a cough from inside.
“It’s Hanna,” says Sister as I quickly slap my hand over her mouth.
Thankfully, a heavy breeze drops in from the north, but with no leaves to rustle, there’s not enough noise to conceal Earlene’s giggling. I look down at her, my face about to crack with anger, and mouth “shut up”.
I start to shuffle the lot of us back into the woods when curse-filled shouts explode from the other side of the farmhouse.
“Get off my property before I blow your goddamn head off.”
The four of us stop cold in our tracks.
“Lower that gun, Trettel. The bank is the rightful owner to this place and these papers give me the authority to demand payment in full.”
“I got a bead on your forehead. Are you gonna move off or do I have to blow your goddamn head off?”
The outhouse door swings open. Hanna runs toward the loud voices and I instinctively run behind her. She stops just around the corner of the house, and so do I, about three paces behind her. We both watch as the tires of an automobile spit up gravel and dust, leaving Hanna’s pa standing mean faced with the gun at his side. While slowly walking through a cloud of dust, he turns his head from the automobile and to our direction.
I can barely hear him speak. “What the…”
Hanna turns to see me standing behind her. Her face chills over as if I was pointing a gun at her. She looks back at her pa walking forcefully in our direction and then takes a quick half-step back just as I decide to bolt toward the woods.
Sister has already scooped up Peanut when I overtake them. Earlene leads the way back to Derby, darting under branches and laughing. I grab her hand as I fly by.
Derby looks at us sideways as we charge from the rear. Thankfully, she doesn’t spook. I throw Peanut up, too strong, behind Derby’s neck. Luckily, he grabs hold of her mane and stops himself from flying over and off. I jump on behind him and reach down for Earlene, pulling her up and plopping her down behind me. Sister grabs hold of my overalls just above my thigh and leaps up behind Earlene. I kick Derby’s sides harder than I ever have before. She starts trotting. I look back and swear I see Jelmer Trettel breaking through branches and underbrush like a wild bear as we bounce away quick, but, I figure, not quick enough. I hand Peanut the reins and reach for Derby’s ears, squeezing tight and pulling back while kicking her sides hard again. She takes off like a thunderbolt.
“Duck!” My voice cracks with fear. Derby runs like a mad bull, cutting through branches with no regard for her cargo of bareback riders. She’s determined to knock us off as we all lay as low to her back as possible. I take a glancing wallop to my forehead from one flexing limb and then another. It seems nothing out here is brittle enough to break except the invisible tether holding us to Derby.
I want to look back but realize the fear of bullets whizzing through the part in my hair has been replaced by the uncertainty of how our hell-on-horseback will finish. No shots fired is a good sign, I think to myself just as we break into a clearing. I take the reins back from Peanut and pull back, but Derby’s intentions are miles away, maybe even all the way down in Kentucky. She bursts into a full gallop and I find myself first elevating and then dropping back hard, over and over, each landing less secure than the last.
Suddenly, one quick break to the side and I find myself airborne, grabbing Peanut by the back of his overalls while Earlene throws her arms around my neck. The three of us stay connected in midair for what seems like an eternity as I have time to ponder the exhilaration of flight before clumsily landing on the ground and rolling through muddy weeds packed down from the weight of the past winter.
I hear Earlene still giggling as I roll over to look for Peanut. My hip aches as I study his face. There’s a glob of mud on the side of his head. His lower lip quivers as he reaches to feel of it.
“It’s just mud,” I say, helping him wipe it off.
Looking back at our broken trail I spot Sister twisting and turning on the ground back about thirty paces. Earlene and I run to her.
“You alright?” I ask as I dive knees first to the ground beside her.
Sister lays there waiting for her breath while the rest of us hover patiently. After what feels like a sermon’s worth of time, she sits up with tear-filled eyes and says, “I think something’s broken. It’s hard to breathe.”
With Derby long gone back to the barn, Earlene and I slowly walk Sister home, holding her under each arm while Peanut dawdles behind.
It’s the middle of milking time when we finally arrive. I ease Sister through the porch door and whisper to Earlene to let Ma know we’re back. Then I run to the barn.
I grab a pale of water and a rag and sidle up next to the next jersey in line as quietly as I can.
Pa doesn’t look at me from across the way as he asks, “Where you kids been? You missed lunch.”
“Derby dumped us a fair ways up the creek. Sister got hurt, so it was slow going coming back.”
“She says it’s hard for her to breathe.”
The next morning, Sister’s running a temperature and sweating buckets. After the early chores, Sister and I ride with Pa to the county hospital in Thief River.
Pa and I sit alone in the shrinking waiting room. I cringe from the disappointment that fills his voice as he tells me how he hopes the county will help cover Sister’s medical bill. As the oldest, I feel shame for allowing the whole situation to happen. It’s my time to become a man, to help with the planting, to make smart decisions. I promise myself to do just that even though I can’t look Pa in the face and say the words.
I wander down the length of the hall and push open the swinging doors leading into a dark room. I want to cry with shame, but in private. A dusty sunbeam peeks through a high window, falling on top of the end of a gurney. I realize I’m not alone as there’s someone on the gurney. I step back to leave but notice there’s a sheet covering whoever it is. Is that a dead body, I wonder? Something stupid takes hold of me. I guess I’m not old enough quite yet to do the right thing and walk back out. A strong force of temptation pulls me toward the unknown. I look back at the door and then quickly lift the sheet from the sunny end of the gurney. Hanna’s empty eyes stare up at me, reminding me of the last time I saw her face. She looks as scared now as she did then. I look back toward the swinging doors, wanting to rush through them for help. But instead I start wishing I could go back in time and pretend I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing. Wishing and pretending that I hadn’t seen her yesterday on her pa’s farm. Wishing and pretending a pot of stew had always been upright on the stove. Wishing and pretending I never won a bat at a drawing during a ball game in Fargo last summer.
Her face is pasty and her lips are chalky gray, but her hair still shines bright as gold in the sunlight. I reach out and feel of it. It’s strong and soft at the same time.
“It grows even when you’re dead and buried.”
I drop the lock of hair from my fingers and spin round, wide eyed, to see whose voice it is.
“What?” I ask the tall nurse in the doorway as I step away from the gurney.
“Hair,” she says. “And fingernails. They go on growing and growing, even after you’re buried.”
I walk back out of the swinging doors, dazed and scared, slinking passed the nurse.
“You’re not supposed to be in there.” Her scolding voice is high above me.
“Let me guess. You need to use the bathroom, right?”
I nod like a guilty child.
The little boy’s room is down that hallway.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I mutter.
Voices bounce off the walls as I come to the corner of the hallway. I spy the town sheriff talking to a doctor. “Of course I’m going to conduct an investigation. That’s why I need to you perform a thorough autopsy. You can’t tell me a wife and a daughter shoot them self by accident cleaning the same goddamn gun.”
“Hard times bring out the worst in people,” says the doctor, mournful.
“I’m not saying he shot either one of’em,” says the sheriff, lowering his voice a notch, “but there was talk about his wife chasing around just before she ‘shot herself’ two years back. And now the daughter?”
“I still say hard times –”
“Any reason is cause, but not every cause is justifiable.” The sheriff’s voice trails off as I turn round and slowly walk back to the waiting room.
Pa slowly stands when he sees me coming.
“There you are. Go sit with your sister while I run to the mercantile.”
“How’s she doing?”
“She’s got a cracked rib that’s paining her breathing. The doctor says she should stay a few days in the hospital. But I don’t know how we’re going to afford it. I’ll be back.”
Sister sees me walking toward her bed. “I dang near died,” she says, quiet, yet loud enough for the four or five other patients in the big room to hear.
I shake my head, confused.
“It was close,” she continues. “The doctor said my broken rib almost punctured my lung. I just gotta keep still now.”
The steel chair next to her bed feels cold against the back of my legs as I stare at the floor.
“What’s wrong?” she asks. I look up at her and she’s half smiling. “Don’t worry; I’ll be okay. Anyway, it’s not your fault. I told you old man Trettel was crazy.”
I force a smile. Then she lays back down, her head melting into the pillow.
“Hate to be his daughter,” Sister says.
It’s mid afternoon when Pa and I return to the farm.
“Time for milking,” he says, pulling a piece of equipment from the back of the pickup.
I look out toward the woods – the north woods – and wonder if that’s where Hanna will forever live in my memories. Those woods scare me now because that’s where I saw her last, when she was still alive.
I look out to the fields stretching to the south while slowly walking to the barn. Soon I’ll be out there working. It’s my time to be a man. But something inside tells me I need to make better choices.
“Pa,” I shout while running back toward the house. He turns and looks at me. As my voice cracks, I say, “I got something I need to tell you.”