A novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
“MAMA, THERE’S a man at the gate. He wants to talk to you.” Mariah picked up her rifle from the corner. She kept it loaded. A woman alone couldn’t be too careful out here. Some days, she missed Jacob more than others. Times like this were the hardest. Trying to raise three children alone on this farm wasn’t easy, but there was nowhere else to go.
“Jonathan, you stay in here with your brother and sister. And keep this door closed, you hear?”
“Yes, Mama.” He was a good kid, looked just like his daddy, but old before his time. At 13, young Jonathan had taken on a man’s job running the farm. Her Jacob came in from the fields one day, face white, clutching his chest. Before Jonathan returned with the doctor, he was gone. His last wish was to be buried on the hillside so the Manitoba prairie sun would warm him every day. Little Nellie Lynn was born a month after he died.
“What would you be wanting?” Mariah asked, the gun aimed at the stranger’s chest. The man would die if he so much as moved toward her. Jacob had taught Mariah well; she was a crack shot, and the stranger’d be foolish to argue with the business end of that rifle.
“Just a drink of water ma’am. Been walking a long time. I haven’t seen a creek with water in it for miles. Just a drink, ma’am. And I shore would ‘preciate you aim that gun the other way. I ain’t here to harm you.”
Mariah took in the dusty boots, the tattered clothes. He was about Jacob’s age, same build. He seemed harmless enough. But a woman had to be careful. Stories of trouble and tragedy ruled the prairies.
It was true about the water — they were in the middle of the worst drought in years. She was lucky to have a spring out back. It never went dry. Living near the tree line on the prairie helped.
“There’s a watering trough by the barn. Take what you want. You’ll have to prime the pump. Then be on your way. I mean it, or you’ll be wearing buckshot.”
The man put his hands up. His shirt fell open, exposing a tanned lean belly. Mariah felt her innards stir. It had been so long. The farm was nestled at the base of the hills, far from the nearest town. Jacob liked it that way. The towns were filled with rough characters.
Seldom did anyone stray as far as the hills. It was a good place to raise children, but it could be lonely.
“I told you, I just want a drink. Please don’t point that thing at me. I’m telling you ma’am, I’m just trying to get back to my old home place. Could I bother you for a jug to take some water with me?”
Mariah reckoned that if this man intended to rob her, he would have made a move by now. He was not armed. He was soft spoken, someone down on his luck. Times were tough for many good men. He was likely on the move to find work in the bigger cities.
Jacob was one of the luckier ones. He inherited the farm when his father passed on. It wasn’t much of a farm, but it kept his family fed. A few cows and pigs, chickens, good cropland, a small house, the barn and a spring out back that supplied them with fresh water year round. The location was excellent, since it combined the sheltering aspect of the trees and hills with the flatlands of the prairies, where the fields were much easier to till.
Mariah worked hard to keep the farm going, along with Jonathan and six-year-old Seth. Jonathan worked the fields like his father. Although only 13, he knew everything there was to know about running the farm. Seth did what he could, and minded his baby sister while his mother and Jonathan did the outside work. Nellie Lynn knew her father only by a picture on Mariah’s dresser. At the close of each day, Mariah led her little ones in a prayer for their father, so they would never forget him.
Mariah talked to Jacob’s picture every night and told him how proud he should be of his two boys, how beautiful Nellie Lynn was. There was always something about new calves, and the barley that was not doing well in the back field, and that thankfully, the hay had lasted through the past winter. She told him mostly of how she missed waking up beside him, running her fingers through his black curls.
“Seth, get your mama that tin pail up there, would you?”
The young boy climbed the stairs to the landing and fetched the syrup pail his mother asked for. “What you want this for? I got some fireflies in there. Don’t see any fire though since last week. Guess they don’t like living in the syrup pail.”
Mariah smiled as she rinsed out the pail, and headed for the barn. On her way out the door, she tucked some bread and a chunk of cheese into the pail. The man was likely as hungry as he was thirsty. This time, she carried the rifle under one arm, pointing it down at the ground. As she approached, he reached for his shirt. Water dripped from his hands.
“Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate not having to stare down the sights of that gun.” He grinned, his hair tumbling over his forehead in damp tendrils.
“I brought you some food to eat on your way. I don’t reckon you have any with you. The next town is still a few miles away.”
“I sure thank you, ma’am. My old horse gave out a couple miles back. It just fell down on the side of the road and never moved again. I’ve been walking ever since.”
Mariah toyed with the idea of asking him to stay to supper, but decided against it. She felt a reasonable judge of character, and this man posed no threat. But he was a passing stranger, nothing more, nothing less.
“Mama, who was that man?” Jonathan asked.
“Just a weary traveller, Jonathan. Just a weary traveller.” The boy settled with that, and started readying the milk pails. It was chore time. He turned to his little brother.
“Seth, you get out there and get the cows. Don’t leave the gate open like yesterday. Mama didn’t like having to go up the hillside to get the young stock. Make sure that mulie cow is tied right. She’ll slip out of her chain and take off soon as we try to milk her. She better start acting like a milk cow or we’ll be eating her.” Beauty was Seth’s favourite, but she was ‘mulie’, stubborn and hard to handle.”
“I’m tellin’ Mama. You’re not eating Beauty. She’s a good cow!” Seth was indignant.
“Then make sure you tie her right, or she’s going to the stewpot. You left it loose last night. She’s smart that way, you know. She’ll take off!”
Mariah’s heart swelled with pride as Jonathan took charge. She set the supper pots on the back of the stove, and took little Nellie by the hand.
“Come, pretty baby, we’ll get the eggs. Here’s your basket. Where’s that silly puppy? He can chase that big old rooster away from us. Here, Willie Tup! Here, boy!”
The pup had been born with a crooked leg; Jonathan named him ‘Willie Tup, the Crippled Pup.’ The name stuck. The puppy’s old momma hadn’t made it through the harsh prairie winter. She died giving birth to her last lone puppy.
“Willy Tup, the crippled pup. When he fallth down, he alwayth geth up!” Nellie Lynn sang and skipped to the chicken coop with the lopsided puppy, his long coon-hound ears flopping as he tried to keep up with her. The evening chores done, Mariah and her little family sat down to supper. Nellie Lynn already knew how to lead the family in saying grace. The boys hated this part of the meal, and gladly let Nellie Lynn give the blessing every night.
“God ith great, God ith good, let uth thank him for thith food.”
With her chubby little hands folded, eyes squeezed shut, her white hair shining in the late afternoon sun, Mariah thought of angels. She called her angel girl most of the time.
Jacob had built a swing on the front porch. It was well-used; the rusty hinges squeaked as Mariah read to her children after supper. This was the next best thing to the schooling she knew they should have. Since Jacob’s death, she had been doing her best to teach them at home; a new school was being built near the farm, and they would go in the fall. Jonathan was not too happy about going back to school, but Mariah hoped that would change.
When the children were tucked in, Mariah returned to the porch swing. She never tired of the beauty of a prairie sunset. She gazed at the sky long after twilight, remembering the nights out here with her Jacob. Something caught her eye as she stood to go in, a lightness in the night sky to the north. It was in the wrong area for the lights of Minnedosa. Too early in the year for northern lights. It was puzzling. Even Willie Tup was restless. He whined at the window as Mariah set her hairbrush down and bid Jacob’s picture goodnight.
“All right, outside you go. Whatever you hear out there, go chase it away. Your momma would be out there chewing it to bits by now. Here, boy. Out.”
The dog bounded out and disappeared down the road, yapping as he ran in that strange three-legged gallop. Mariah settled in, thinking about the morrow, that they would be starting to cut the south field of hay. Jonathan had already sharpened the mower blades, and checked the harnesses.
She knew they would soon need a new work team or a tractor; old Dan and Pearl were ready for pasture. She had loved those horses since the day she arrived here, ‘gentle giants’ she called them. But they would have to hold out a bit longer. Money was scarce, times were hard. She shuddered to think of how she would raise her children in town. At least here, they never went hungry, and always had a roof over their heads. A frantic banging on the front door interrupted her reverie.
“Ma’am, Ma’am! You gotta get outa here. There’s an awful fire. It’s headed right this way. You gotta get your kids outa here. Ma’am, open up your door!”
Mariah flew from her bedroom to the front room. She glanced onto the porch and saw the stranger from earlier in the day, the man at the water trough. His head turned from side to side. She opened the door. The weary traveller flew into the front room, his eyes panicky. He grabbed her arms.
“Ma’am, get your children, get them out of here right now. I am going down to get a wagon hitched up. I need a lantern. Your horses — they out in the field?”
“No, no. They’re in the paddock. We’re haying tomorrow. The harnesses are in the granary. You can see the wagon in the back part of the barn. Where is this fire?”
The man opened the front door wide. The answer to Mariah’s question crackled in the night sky. That ‘bit of light’ Mariah had seen to the north covered the entire horizon, now an orange glow. The faint smell of grass and wood smoke grew stronger, as the hot night wind gusted. Prairie fire. There hadn’t been one in years, especially in this protected area. In a flash, the stranger raced toward the barn.
“I’m opening the gates to the pens. It’s the only way you can save your animals. Get the kids ready — I’ll be right up!” he hollered as he ran into the paddock.
“Jonathan! Seth! Nellie Lynn! Quickly, come to Mama. We have to leave. There’s a big fire. Hurry, don’t bother getting dressed — just come down right now!”
Mariah threw water and food into a basket, and grabbed some blankets. Despite the summer season, it cooled off at night on the prairie. The cattle bawled as the stranger shooed them out into the night. Soon, she heard the jingle of harness and the snorts of her team as the wagon came into view. In the few minutes it took to gather the children, the sky had lightened, and flames licked at the trees across the field.
“Mama, I’m scared!” The stranger scooped little Nellie Lynn into his arms as Mariah helped the boys into the wagon. Suddenly, Jonathan jumped down from the wagon, and streaked toward the barn.
“Jonathan, come back, we have to get out of here!” The acrid smell of burning trees choked Mariah. “Jonathan, come here right now! What are you looking for?” Mariah was ready to run after him, when the stranger handed her the reins.
“I’ll get him. You hold the team. Don’t worry. We’ll be back in a minute.”
Sure enough, the two returned to the wagon a few minutes later, carrying Willie Tup. The dog had been locked in the granary after the harnesses were taken from there, and Jonathan heard him howling amidst the chaos.
Dan and Pearl were wild-eyed as they galloped down the lane. Horses were deathly afraid of fire. Foamy sweat rolled from their hides as the stranger urged them on. Huge clouds of orange-tinged smoke billowed into the sky behind them. If they could get over the long bridge this side of Minnedosa, they would be safe. Mariah reckoned they had about a half hour ahead of them. Nellie Lynn clutched at Mariah’s breast, the boys at her back. Willy Tup whimpered and searched for a face to lick.
At last, the bridge. The horses clattered over the planks, slowing down at the far end. The stranger pulled the wagon over to the riverbank and hauled on the reins. “Whoa, now. Whoa.”
As he relaxed his hold, he turned to Mariah, still in shock from the wild ride across the prairie road. The fire had followed them relentlessly right to the opposite riverbank. There, with nothing but the expanse of water before it, the fire would fizzle and die. Plumes of steam shot skyward, as dawn broke.
“My name is Jonas. I believe we’ve met before.”
He smiled, his dark eyes twinkling. Mariah was far from relaxed enough to respond in kind. They could all be dead now. She also realized that without the help of this stranger, this stranger who now had a name, her family most certainly would never have survived. She owed him at least the courtesy of introducing him to the people he had just saved.
“Thank you so much. I am Mariah Johnson and these are my children: Jonathan, Seth and Nellie Lynn. Children, meet Mr. Jonas.” Jonathan pushed his little brother toward the man, and offered his hand. Seth did the same. Little Nellie Lynn looked up at Jonas.
“Are you my daddy?” she asked, with the innocence of a four-year-old. “You look like the man we thay prayerth for. You have the thame hair.”
Mariah’s face flamed. The stranger took her hand.
“Don’t worry, Mariah. I take that as a compliment. And what’s the little puppy’s name, son?”
“He’s Willie Tup, Mr. Jonas. He’s the best coon hound in the world. He’s got a bum leg, but he sure can run. He can tree a coon almost as fast as his momma used to, but he’ll get better.”
Jonas scratched at Willie Tup’s shaggy head. “I bet he will, son. I just bet he will.”
By now, townspeople gathered around the wagon, numbed by the devastation across the river. Blackened stumps smoldered in the aftermath of the fire. For the next hour, Mariah got to know this weary traveller better. Little Nellie slept on her lap, and the boys played in the grass with Willie Tup. Surprisingly, he was very easy to talk to. She felt she’d known him for years.
Soon it would be time to return to the farm, or what was left of it. But for the moment, Mariah basked in the glow of an attentive man, a man she hoped she would come to know better in the months to come. Mariah was a woman of faith. She knew God had sent Jonas to save her children. She owed this weary traveller her life, and she would make it up to him.
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