Authors: Harold Bakst
Published by M. Evans
An imprint of Rowman & Littlefield
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10 Thornbury Road, Plymouth PL6 7PP, United Kingdom
Distributed by National Book Network
Copyright Â© 1992 by Harold Bakst
First paperback edition 2014
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The hardback edition of this book was previously cataloged by the Library of Congress as follows:
Prairie widow / Harold Bakst.
p. cm. â (An Evans novel of the West)
I. Title. II. Series.
ISBN: 978-1-59077-332-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN: 978-1-59077-333-8 (electronic)
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information SciencesâPermanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.
Printed in the United States of America
Perched next to her husband on the seat of their covered wagon, and with a pot of sickly purple geraniums on her lap, Jennifer Vandermeer at last saw on the treeless horizon a cluster of buildings, all sitting as if in a vice between the tawny-green prairie and the lowering dark sky.
“Ha!” blurted her husband, a big, ruddy-faced man sporting a wide-brimmed hat. “There it is!” He turned to his wife, but her dour profile quickly subdued his enthusiasm. He returned his attention to the distant town and gave the reins a flick.
His four oxen, however, unimpressed, continued in their slow, plodding way, their heads down and bobbing as they went, their yoke chains gently rattling.
It would take a while for the wagon to cross the great intervening distance, and Jennifer found herself once more lulled by the heat of the early summer day, the monotony of the endless, sweeping grasslands, and the creaking of the wagon's axle. When, finally, the town was close enough to see it better, Jennifer sat forward, her curiosity piqued. But she was quickly disappointed: the buildings had false facades, like so many theater sets, fronting what were really weather-worn hovels. Some were made of prairie marbleâbricks of sod. There weren't even any boardwalks, but only loose planks laid down on the dirt along the front of the buildings. Four Corners' foothold on the prairie seemed all too unconvincing. The sea of thigh-high grasses crowded the buildings, coming right up to the sills of the outward facing windows and infiltrating down the two prairie paths that intersected the town's center.
“Peter! Emma! Wake up!” called Jennifer's husband, leaning back and turning his head toward the interior of the covered wagon. In a moment, two sleepy faces appeared. The boy, around eleven years old, had his father's blonde hair and blue eyes; and the girl, a couple of years younger than her brother, had her mother's delicate build and dark hair. “Is this Four Corners?” asked the boy.
“It must be,” answered the father, growing excited again. The wagon approached the first outlying building, which had big open doors, and a furnace and anvil inside. A slender man with thick forearms and a leather apron stepped outside. Jennifer's husband pulled on the reins, and the oxen stopped. “This Four Corners?” he asked.
“You found it,” said the man, his face glistening with sweat. He approached the wagon and stopped by a rear ox, patting its rump.
“My name's Walter Vandermeer,” said Jennifer's husband. “This is my wife, Jenny, and my two children, Peter and Emma.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said the slender man. “Name's Frank Turner. Where you from?”
“Ah. I'm from Indiana myself. Been here five years now.” Frank Turner looked at Jennifer. “Welcome ma'am.”
But Jennifer smiled only faintly and averted her eyes.
“My wife's kind of tired,” explained Walter quickly.
“Sure. It's a God-awful journey. I don't know how the women do it. Anyway, your timing's not bad.” He gestured with his head toward the dark sky.
“Yeah,” agreed Walter, “it looks like it's going to come down hard.”
“Then don't let me keep you. You're probably looking for the land office.”
“That I am.”
Wiping his neck with a handkerchief, Frank Turner pointed toward the center of the cluster of buildings. “That's it, next to the general store. The agent's name is Bill Wilkes.”
Walter craned his neck and squinted in the general direction.
“He's not been too popular around here lately,” continued the blacksmith, tucking his handkerchief into a back pocket. “But that's what happens when you get more than two people togetherâpolitics.”
“I guess so,” said Walter, flicking the reins. “Thanks for your help.”
Frank Turner patted the ox on the rump and backed up. “You'll need that axle greased,” he called.
Walter directed his wagon into the center of town and pulled up in front of a small, sod-brick building with a wooden awning. The sign read:
U.S Government Land Office
Bill Wilkes, agent
There weren't many people on either of the two intersecting streets, but those who were there nodded a greeting and waved. Walter returned a smile, even as he muttered to his wife, “You can at least try to be friendly. They're going to be your new neighbors.”
But the very suggestion made Jennifer stiffen, and she lifted her chin defiantly.
Shaking his head, Walter lowered himself to the ground. He stretched. “Peter, Emma, close up the wagon,” he said as he went up to the front of the oxen and began tying the lead pair to a crooked cottonwood limb that served as a hitching post. “Then come inside. It's going to rain.” He looked to his wife. “Jenny, you're welcome to come in, too.”
Jennifer turned her head away. She found herself looking across the dirt street at a building that also had a wooden awning, whose support post had a sign reading, Pearson's Inn.
“Suit yourself,” said her husband as her children began excitedly drawing in the canvass around the opening at both ends of the wagon.
Walter was in the land office only a moment before he reemerged. “He's not in there. I'll check the general store.” He paused a second and eyed his wife. “Jenny, don't be so stubborn. When the children are done, come in with them.” But, again, Jennifer didn't answer. Grumbling to himself, Walter disappeared into the neighboring building, which had a sign over its door, Franz Hoffmann's General Store. Between the two buildings was narrow alleyway that revealed a slit of the surrounding prairie.
“We're done, Momma. Are you coming in?” asked Peter, standing on the ground near the wagon seat.
“No, you and your sister go ahead,” said Jennifer quietly.
“But it's going to rain,” insisted Emma.
“I'll be fine. You go join your father.”
Her two children walked the few steps along the planking and entered the general store.
The sky, meanwhile, was getting very dark. Other people began making their way to the store. But Jennifer, resting the geranium pot next to her, sat primly in her seat, her hands now folded in her lap.
A moment later, Peter stepped outside and called, “Momma, Poppa said not to be stubborn and to come inside.”
“Tell Poppa I'm quite content to remain here.”
Peter went back in. Jennifer peered up. A pale-bellied bird streaked across the dark sky, just high enough to clear the false facades.
Then Jennifer heard a faint thump on the wagon's canvass. She thought it might have been another bird. Then she heard a clack just in front of the land office, and she saw what appeared to be a smooth, white pebble roll off the plank and into the dirt, where it began to melt. This was followed by a second clack, as another white pebble bounced off the wagon's tongue between the two oxen. Now the clacking and thudding began to grow in rapidity and in volume as ever more white pebbles dropped from the sky, bouncing and rolling across the wooden awnings, wagons, and the two dirt streets. The oxen began to get jittery as an occasional pebble smacked their hides. Pretty soon, Jennifer, shielding her flowers, was herself struck smartly on the shoulder. She hurried off the wagon with her pot, nearly tripping over the hem of her long skirt. The pebbles fell in full fury just as she hurried into the general store.
“Damn, hailstones in July,” said one man over the thudding on the roof. He was standing before the window and gazing out. Across the rump of his pants was a patch stamped with the words, “ava Coffee,” the “J” being missing from “Java.”
“This is going to knock the hell out of the wheat,” commented an older, square-built man with short, white hair. He stood by a makeshift bar, which consisted of two barrels, upon which rested a short length of hickory board. On a shelf behind the bar was a single bottle of schnapps.
“Ach, dis iz zomet'ing, all right,” added a tall man wearing an apron, standing behind the main counter. His slick, dark hair was parted in the middle, and his face was red, as if from too much schnapps. He cleaned a ceramic stein with a rag as he spoke.
Jennifer, remaining near the open door, quickly scanned the rest of the room, which was jam-packed with what seemed to be every conceivable type of merchandise. Several barrels were scattered throughout, one filled with pickles, one with crackers, another with nails. Some hard salamis hung over the counter, which itself held a large, round cheese and a glass jar of white-and-green peppermint sticks. Behind the counter and the red-faced man hung a cuckoo clock, its hands and weights still. Nearby were shelves holding dishes with brightly colored scenes painted in their centers. There were drinking glasses of all heights, tea cups and saucers, beer steins, general bric-a-brac, and, leaning in one comer, several blank headstones.
“I hope Todd had sense enough to take in the laundry,” remarked one woman to another, both of whom were standing by an unlit stove in the middle of the room. The first woman held by her side a little barefoot boy, roughly Peter's age, who was sucking a peppermint stick. The boy and Peter kept eyeing each other from a distance.
“So you decided to join us,” called out Walter to Jennifer His hat off, he was standing by a barrel with another man, who boasted a healthy set of muttonchops and, hanging from his hip, a gun. Emma was there, too, clinging to her Poppa. Jennifer approached. “This is Mr. Wilkes, Jenny,” said Walter, unburdening his wife of her flower pot. “He's the land agent.”
“Ma'am,” said the bewhiskered man
Jennifer nodded coolly.
“Mr. Wilkes will be showing us our land,” said Waltr.
“As soon as the hail stops,” said Wilkes. “It won't last long.” He looked across the crowded room and out the window where the man with the patched pants was standing. The hailstones were already slowing down. The thudding on the roof became less intense.