Chapter 1 Uncles
The thunder rolled across the dusty fields of yellowing and stunted corn, announcing the start of the storm. Tree limbs swayed in the strengthening gust, surrendering their fall leaves without a fight. Then came the first drops of rain, like bullets to the wood shingle roof of the old two-story farmhouse. On a far hill, a jagged bolt of lightning lit up the sky, and then it was gone. The thunder was only seconds behind.
As the first waves of the storm intensified, expended their energy and then died down, a dog started barking wildly, as if his very life was threatened. Grady knew that bark. “Somethin’ ain’t right,” he whispered. “Dooter don’t carry on like that unless some livestock is out or there’s someone lurking about.”
Grady got up from his chair and looked out the window at the old red barn across the driveway. As Dooter continued to bark at the door of the old building, he was sure he saw a faint light at the rain splattered barn window. “What the hell was that?” he whispered to himself.
“You awake Mace?” Grady hollered as he beat on the door to his brother’s bedroom.
“I am now.”
“I think somone’s in the barn. Dooter’s raisin’ a fuss.”
“I heard him. Prob’ly just the storm. Or maybe some critter’s prowlin’ round. I’m gonna try to get back to sleep.”
“Dooter’s got a different bark for critters. ’Sides, I think I saw a light in the barn. I’m getting the shotgun.”Oh alright! Hold on there, brother. I’ll pull my jeans on and go with ya. If we find a hoot owl or possum, I wanna be there ta make fun a ya. Wouldn’t wanna miss a chance like that.”
Stepping out into the damp night, Grady yelled for Dooter to get back under the porch. The dog reluctantly stopped his barking and came back to the house, confident and proud that he had done his job. He had warned of the dangerous intruder. His master could handle it from here.
The storm had quickly passed, leaving little of its much-needed rainfall. The occasional lightning that remained, however, provided enough light for the two to find their way to the barn without lighting the lantern that Mace had grabbed off a nail on the porch wall. When they reached the barn, Mace stopped, took a match from his pocket and swiped it on his boot heel. After lighting the lantern, he held it up as Grady, who was holding the old Winchester shotgun in one hand, slowly opened the creaky barn door. “Anyone in here?” he asked in his most commanding voice. “If you’re hidin’ in here, you better come on out. I got a 12 gauge and she’s loaded with number nine buckshot.”
Mace stepped into the barn and began shining the lantern in every dark and dusty corner and in between. He saw nothing but hay and cobwebs and heard nothing but a few pigeons cooing in the rafters.
“I told ya there weren’t nobody out here,” Mace growled, shaking his head. “That old dog is getting spooky, that’s all. I’m gonna go back to the house and try ta get back ta sleep, unless you got a notion we should go check the tool shed, the corn crib and the cellar for these ghosts.”
“I coulda swore I saw a light when I looked out.” Grady replied.
“Prob’ly jus the damn lighnin’,” Mace muttered as he started to close the door.
“Weren’t no lightning!” Grady shot back.
But before he had swung the door completely shut, they both heard something. It was a muffled sound but unmistakably a human voice, and it was coming from the old horse tack room near the steps that led up to the hay mow. Grady and Mace looked at each other, both waiting for the other one to do something. Grady finally shouldered the shotgun and pointed it in the direction of the tack room. “Who evah ya are in there, you best get yourself out here so’s we can see ya. I got my finger on this here shotgun’s trigger and I’m a real nervous sort. Liable ta just start blasting away at any minute.”ore silence greeted them. Grady and Mace looked at each other again. After a few seconds, Grady looked back towards where the sound had come from and yelled again. “Alright, if that’s how it’s gonna be. I’m sending my brother in with this here shotgun, unless you come outta there right quick like.”
Mace looked questioningly at Grady as he exchanged the lantern for the shotgun. “You know you’re better at this this than I am,” Grady sheepishly admitted. With Grady behind him holding the lantern, Mace slowly crept towards the tack room door. When he was within a couple feet, he stopped and looked for Grady, who was several feet behind him.
“Get up here, dammit!” Mace whispered. Pointing the shotgun at the door and using his most commanding voice, he barked out, “Now come on outta there with your hands up or I’m gonna start shootin!”
“I mean it. I’m starting to get my tail up! Might just turn that dog loose to root you out. He’s a viscious hound!” Mace yelled out.
Grady looked at him incredulously. “Old Deuteronomy? viscious?” he whispered. “That dog got run outta the barn by a runt possum the other day. He’s got a mean bark but he ain’t got a vicious bone in his body.”
“We know that, but that feller in there don’t,” Mace whispered before turning back to the tack room door.
“OK, you asked for it. Open the door, Grady,” Mace shouted.
“Why do I gotta be the one ta open it?” Grady asked in a whisper as he slowly moved forward and grasped the door latch.
“Don’t shoot! I’m coming out,” someone on the other side of the door suddenly shouted. “Now set that shotgun down.”
“I’ll keep this here shotgun in my hands if it’s all the same to you,” Mace replied.
“Then I ain’t coming out till you set it down!”
“Now how do you know I won’t just tell you I set down this here 12 gauge and not really do it?” Mace asked.
“You ain’t very good at this are ya?” Grady whispered to Mace.
“You just gonna hafta trust us,” Mace yelled back to the intruder.
“OK, I’m comin out. But don’t you go shooting me. I ain’t got no gun.”
“You got a knife?” Grady asked.
“Just a pocket-knife. It ain’t very sharp, though. I promise I won’t do nuthin. Trust me.”Come on outta there, then,” Mace ordered as he shouldered the shotgun and aimed it at the door.
“I heard you put that shotgun to your shoulder,” the voice replied.
“Ain’t nobody coulda heard me shoulder this here gun through that door,” Mace shot back. “Now come on outta there!”
Distant thunder, left over from the passing storm, echoed faintly and then there was silence. The brothers stood motionless for a few seconds as the door slowly opened about halfway and a boy of about 17 or 18 peered around it. “See, you did shoulder that shotgun,” the boy cried out. “I told ya! Now put it down like we agreed or I’m going back in.”
Mace looked at the boy and then at Grady. Grady simply shrugged his shoulders. Mace slowly set the gun down against a post and took the lantern from Grady. Shining it in the boy’s face, he ordered him to put his hands up and keep em up. Happy to have the shotgun no longer pointed at him, he quickly complied.
“Git on out here!” Mace ordered. The boy pushed the door open just enough to step through it and quickly used his foot to close it behind him. Mace shined the lantern on him, taking his first good look at the intruder. Appearing to be just a teen-ager, he was wearing only a dirty t-shirt and some well-worn bib overalls, in spite of the cool fall weather. Standing about 5’10” tall, lean and hungry-looking, with steel-gray eyes, his light brownish hair was stuffed under a grease stained ballcap, but still almost reached his shoulders. He was typical of the legions of men who had long ago given up on finding a job, wherever they once called home, and now aimlessly followed the dusty roads and railroad tracks, searching for something unknown even to them. He was in need of both a haircut and a shave, but probably in more dire need of a bath than anything else.
“What are you doing in our barn?” Grady demanded.
“We was just wantin ta get outta the rain. It’s let up now, so I’ll be on my way, if you don’t mind. It was sure nice meeting you two.”
“Not so fast there, young man.” Mace angrily challenged. “You got some esplainin’ ta do. You been stealin’ food from us, ain’t ya?”
Mace thought back to just a couple days ago, when he first noticed the missing food. “Damn your hide, Grady,” he had said. “Why’d you go and eat them apples I set on the porch rail? They was the best apples outta the whole crop. I was savin em to try and make some apple cake outta.”
“Didn’t touch them apples,” Grady had replied. “Sides, you don’t know nuthin bout makin’ apple cake. Prob’ly a blessin they’re gone, the way you cook.”
“If you didn’t eat em, where’d they go? I left em right here on the porch. They were here yesterday.”
“I think someone’s been stealing from us,” Grady said, scratching his cheek. “I swear that cream can I left in the cellar was full when I stuck it in there. Was prob’ly a gallon shy a the top next day. Ain’t no tomcat I ever seed could restle a lid off a one a them cream cans.”
“These is hard times, for sure,” Mace acknowledged. “Wouldn’t surprise me none if some a them hobos from the tracks been coming round when we ain’t watching and stealing our food. I better put a hasp and lock on the cellar door. Damn sure you ain’t gonna do it. I swear you’re getting lazier than a toad at noon. Don’t show up till the work’s all done. Just like a blister.”
“You still got your tail up cause you had to do chores last night all by your lonesome on account of me being late from getting the car fixed?”
“Didn’t know they fixed Hudsons at Betty’s Place. Must be a new service, makin’ up for prohibition going on as long as it has. Course, the dry laws never slowed down that crowd much.”
The intruder’s voice brought Mace’s attention back to the situation at hand. “I steal a little food from lots a folks, not just you,” the young man admitted. “A fella’s gotta eat. ’Sides, you got mor’n you need, and these is hard times. Stole an old hen from your neighbor ’cross the road the other night. Kept three of us fed for a couple days. But I ain’t touched none a your chickens, I swear.”
“Now you didn’t eat that hen without cooking it first, did you?” Grady asked. “I ain’t noticed no fires round here.”
“Been living in a camp back in the woods,” the boy answered. “But, with cold weather coming on, I’m thinkin’ a heading south. I best be getting on my way. You don’t need to see me to the door. I’ll just go ahead and let myself out. Nice meetin’ ya.”
“Just a minute there!” Mace said, handing the lantern back to Grady and picking up the shotgun. “I think I heard you say we was wanting to get outtta the rain. What does we mean?”
“It gen’rly means more than one fella,” Grady added, in an attempt to be helpful.
“You got someone else with you?” Mace asked suspiciously as he motioned for Grady to shine the light back on the tack room door. “Open it and let’s see who else is in there.”
Grady slowly pulled the door open and shined the lantern around the room. The room was decorated with spider webs and bird droppings and smelled of mouse pee, horse sweat and old leather. Its walls were lined with rusty spikes from which all sorts of well-used and well-worn horse furniture hung in disarray. Not finding anything out of the ordinary, Grady started slowly backing out of the room. Suddenly he stopped. Something in the corner of the room under some tattered saddle blankets had caught his attention. “Looks like someone’s hiding in that corner,” Grady whispered. “You’re holding the shotgun, so you go ahead and check it out.”
“Come on outta there!” Mace commanded. “We know you’re in there. We got the other fella that’s with you. You two young twits got a little settlin’ up ta do.”
All was silent for a few brief seconds, then there was some movement under the blankets. A feminine sounding voice gingerly pleaded, “Don’t shoot mister. I ain’t gonna do nuthin.”
Mace and Grady, once again, exchanged puzzled looks. “Well get out from under that blanket and stand up then!” Mace ordered. “Let’s get a look-see at ya,”
Slowly the young woman pushed the blankets aside and stood up. Her bright blue eyes peered out through a wild tangle of hair. They were like those of a cornered animal, defiant and intense but looking for escape at the same time. Her dirty blonde hair was partly covered by a red kerchief. The rest of her attire consisted of a feed-sack dress that had been added to in the front with another piece of feed-sack and attached with some crude stitching. The additional material was necessary to make room for her bulging abdomen. In spite of her haggard dress and lack of grooming, it was obvious she was a beautiful young woman. Probably in her late teens or early twenties, she had a pale, milky innocence about her. Frail looking in spite of her bulging mid-section, she had that look of hidden glamour that very few women were fortunate enough to possess.
“Well I’ll be hornswoggled!” Grady muttered as he held the lantern in the woman’s face. “What in the Sam Hill is going on here? You look like you might be fixin’ to have a little one at any moment.”
The woman held up her hands as she looked into the barrel of the shotgun. “It’s just like Peter said,” she gingerly replied. “We just wanted some shelter. We’ll be going now. We won’t bother you no more. Sorry for the trouble.”
“Now hold on there, Young Lady,” Mace growled. “You don’t look like you’re in any shape to go nowhere. Looks like you’re sittin’ on the nest and ready to hatch at any minute. You and your husband better get somewhere better’n this old barn to have your young’un. Come on up to the house and let’s figger this out.”
“Looks like your husban’ done took off while we was talkin.” Grady replied.
He’s not my husband,” the woman quickly shot back. “I been travelin’ with him is all.”
“Well, looks like you two planted your crops before you built your fence, then. He should do the right thing and marry you. And from the looks a yer tummy, he better not wait too long. That baby you’re carryin’ is gonna need a daddy…and a name.”
“It ain’t his baby!” the woman explained. “I just met Peter a few weeks ago. I figgered he’d run off, first chance he got. Young man like Peter don’t want no woman with a baby to slow him down.”
Grady had a confused look on his face. “Well, whose….”
Mace gave him a sharp elbow in the ribs. “Ain’t none a our business, Grady. Now let’s get this woman to the house and get her something ta eat. She looks starved. That baby’s gonna need nourishment. What’s your name, anyhow?”
“Dorothy,” the woman answered as she picked up a tattered old leather satchel and followed Mace and Grady out the barn door.
“Well I’m Mace and this here old goat is my big brother Grady. I’m mighty pleased ta meet ya, Ma’am. Here, let me carry that for you.”
Mace led Dorothy into the kitchen and motioned for her to sit at the table. “I can fix ya some griddle cakes if ya like. Got plenty a maple syrup and molasses to put on em.”
“You oughta know that eatin’ Mace’s griddle cakes is somewhat akin to eatin shoe leather,” Grady warned as he followed them into the kitchen. “He ain’t much of a cook, but they’ll fill ya up if you’re hungry enuff ta eat em.”
They were right about the woman being starved. “When’s the last time you ate?” Mace asked as he slid the spatula under the fourth griddle cake and plopped it onto her plate. “You went after them cakes like you ain’t had nothin’ to eat in a long spell.”
“You’ve been so kind to me,” Dorothy replied without answering Mace’s question. “If you would just let me sleep in the barn tonight, I would sure be grateful. I don’t wanna be any more trouble to you.”
“You ain’t sleepin in no barn in your condition,” Mace shot back. “They’s a bed in Ma’s old room. You can sleep there tonight, and we’ll try ta figger out what ta do in the mornin.”
“I’d be mighty grateful to ya,” Dorothy said. “I ain’t slept in a real bed for quite a spell. I was hopein’ you’d be kind folks.”
“Now what do you mean by that?” Mace asked. Dorothy didn’t answer. She started to pick up her satchel, but Mace grabbed it before she did. I’ll get that,” he said as he took the lantern in his other hand and led her to the first-floor bedroom. “Privy is behind the house. Now you just make yourself ta home here and try and get some sleep. You look like you could use it.”
The town of Adel, Iowa sits nestled along the west bank of the North Raccoon River in Dallas County Iowa. By 1930 it had become home to 1,669 mostly industrious and productive citizens. It is the county seat of Dallas County and its town square is enhanced by one of the most beautiful courthouses in the mid-west. The town was originally named Penouch, an Indian word meaning “far away.” No one seems to know why it was changed to Adel.
Grady and Macen Nolan had lived in the old two-story farmhouse near Adel for over ten years. They first moved in, along with their mother, in 1921. The boys, especially Grady, the elder of the two by almost four years, had worked on the 160 acres of farm ground and pasture, that the house was part of, from the time they were old enough to pick up a pitchfork. It was through lots of hard work, dedication and pure luck that they had come to own the farm.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Marie Nolan found herself alone with a four-year-old and a newborn to raise. Her husband, Oscar Nolan, a farm worker who would make a perfect poster villain for the temperance movement that was popular then, had left her and the two boys. Now,
Oscar wasn’t a bad man when he and Marie first met, he just wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle responsibility. Once the whiskey took control of his life, he turned mean as a mama wasp. He was a drunkard, plain and simple, and his temper, when drunk, was legendary. He cared more for whiskey than even his wife and children. As with most alcoholics, he grew to detest himself and anyone who tried to help him.
Marie had finally had enough and confronted him one night after he had stumbled home red-eyed and rowdy. She got a black eye for her trouble and Oscar got arrested. After spending time in the hoosegow for drunkenness and assault, and with the encouragement of the county sheriff and several others who knew him, Oscar had finally done Marie a big favor and left the county for good.
Before the booze took control of him, Oscar and Marie had both worked for Delbert Thompson, a rather gruff country lawyer who secretly had a heart of gold but did his best to hide it. Delbert, through the combination of hard work and hard conniving, had managed to acquire several farms in the area. Oscar had worked as one of Delbert’s farmhands. Marie was maid, housekeeper and babysitter for Mr. Thompson, a widower with three daughters. The Nolan family lived in a small house on the same large lot that the Thompson house occupied. In more elegant times, the small house had served as a guest house.
Marie had proven to be an able and loyal employee. Thompson had come to depend on her and allowed her and the boys to continue living in the small house, rent free, after Oscar was out of the picture. He didn’t consider the loss of Oscar Nolan to be any problem. In fact, he was happy to be rid of the troublesome farmhand. But he had come to value Marie as his housekeeper and babysitter. Having Marie around allowed him to travel on business without always having to make arrangements for the care of his three daughters.
As the roaring twenties dawned, all three of the daughters had left home and were on their own. The oldest, Rosalea, was married to a local shopkeeper, Sarah was starting her career as a secretary in Des Moines and Joanne was attending school back east. Mr. Thompson no longer needed, or wanted, the large house and decided to sell it. The little cottage, that Marie and the boys lived in, was part of the property and could not be split off easily. Mr. Thompson, however, came up with a plan that was quite generous to Marie and her family. He was appreciative of Grady’s service to the country in WW1 and was well aware of Grady and Mace’s
ambition and ability. He felt confident, knowing the Nolans as he did, that they had what it took to succeed. A combination of circumstances made it possible for Thompson to sell one of his farms to the Nolan family in a way that they could afford and was also advantageous to him, financially. That’s what good conniving is all about.
The Nolan brothers proved Mr. Thompson’s instincts were spot on. They were up to the task, not afraid of hard work and always frugal with their limited resources.
The two brothers had always been close, although their personalities and attitudes were different, having been shaped by different life experiences. 1918 was a defining year for both of them. Grady had answered the call of a recruiting poster that proclaimed, “Uncle Sam Wants You.” It wasn’t just patriotism that caused him to enlist in Uncle Sam’s Army, although that had something to do with it. Grady was 20 years old at the time and had never been more than a half day’s drive in a Model T Ford away from his home. Here was his chance to see what lay beyond those Iowa cornfields.
The first thing Grady saw, after joining up, was Camp Dodge training camp, a few miles north of Des Moines. Upon completion of his infantry training there, he was sent on a troop ship to France. By the time they arrived at the Somme River, he wasn’t so sure he had made the right decision. After a month in the trenches, as he looked out over the muddy field they called “No Man’s Land,” he wasn’t so sure of anything. It was an eerie scene of splintered trees and bomb craters filled with murky black water. The filth and stench was almost unimaginable. Everywhere in front of him were dead soldiers’ bodies, along with dead horses, half buried in the mud, the hot sun quickening the decaying. Rats, almost as big as the barn cats back home, were feeding on the dead bodies and scurrying through the trenches. The rats brought lice, which added one more torment for the weary soldiers. The varmints did, however, remove some of the decay by eating the flesh of the dead horses and soldiers.
In the trenches, death was always right there looking over your shoulder. Raise your head up too far and a sniper would pick you off with one shot. Follow the officer’s command of, “Over the Top!” and Jerry’s machine guns would cut you down in a flash. An enemy pilot might just happen to release his bomb at the precise moment to send its lethal message to where you waited, huddled in fear with your fellow
doughboys. Added to all that was the fear of the deadly Spanish Flu, that would soon kill far more soldiers than all the enemy’s weapons combined.
After surviving the trenches and the war, Grady’s outlook on life was forever changed. He had endured the worst that life had to offer and, from that point on, nothing could be as bad, or so he thought.
Mace’s life was not shaped by war, but by another event just as horrifying and just as deadly. When he was sixteen, while Grady was fighting in the trenches in France, Mace contracted the Spanish Flu. As with most of its victims, it had come on quickly, like a lightning bolt straight out of the depths of hell. One morning he left for school feeling fine. When he came home for lunch, he felt tired, lacked energy and his head was beginning to hurt. Marie put him right to bed and immediately called Doc Fell. The doctor made a quick examination and confirmed what he had suspected when Marie called, Mace had the Spanish Flu.
Mace would never forget that time. The ringing in his ears and the dizziness and nausea in his stomach was almost unbearable and was steadily getting worse. His head hurt so bad he wanted to scream. Intense chills set in and he could not control the shivering. Every inch of his body ached. His eyes itched and watered and he was soaked with sweat. For four days he lay in bed, at times partly conscious and other times delirious, but always near death. On the fifth day, he began a slow recovery.
Mace was one of the lucky ones. It took nearly a year to get his full strength back, but he had survived what so many others had not. It changed him. In a way, the disease had stolen his youth. Life became a serious matter to him.
Grady was the taller of the brothers at around 5’10.” Mace was an inch or two shorter. Both had their father’s blue eyes and light-colored hair. As with most farmers, years of hard work had given them muscular bodies and rugged features. They could both be described as good-looking, ruddy, warm-hearted, hard-working, self-supporting and self-respecting. Grady was always quick to smile and found humor in many things that Mace sometimes took a little more seriously. They both preferred blue jeans and ball caps to bib overalls and straw hats.
The farm was a little over three miles southwest of town on a dirt road. The two-story clapboard-sided farmhouse had stood many years on this spot. Built in the 1890’s, it replaced the original wood slab cottage that once housed the pioneer family that first settled on the land, shortly after Iowa became a state. There were two bedrooms upstairs and one master
bedroom downstairs. The architecture was typical of farmhouses built in that period, two-stories with end gables and a porch. The ground floor consisted of a bedroom, dining room and parlor with a staircase located on the back wall that led to the two upstairs bedrooms, Grady’s on one side of the short hall and Mace’s on the other. A wing on the back of the house provided space for a kitchen, conveniently accessible to the dining room and the parlor. Walls were finished in various patterned wallpaper in shades of brown and yellow. The hardwood floors, laid out in a rectangular pattern, were covered in the center of the rooms with worn but still colorful Turkish style rugs. Painted untextured ceilings of lathe and plaster completed the décor. It was a plain and simple dwelling, with no decorative carved woodwork or fancy glass cabinets, but it had a warm, comfortable homey feel, just like an old farmhouse should have.
Hanging prominently on the kitchen wall, where it was the first thing a visitor would see as they entered the house from the porch, was a wood plaque with a traditional Irish blessing carved neatly into its polished face. It was their mother’s favorite verse: May angels fly with you wherever you roam and guide you back safely to family and home.
The plaque had a very special meaning. It was a gift to their mother that the two boys had lovingly created for her. The words on the rectangular piece of native Iowa walnut had been carved by Grady. Mace spent hours sanding and varnishing it to perfection. They presented it to Marie the night before Grady left for Camp Dodge. It was a blessing and a poem that Marie had often recited to the boys, so they knew it well. Through the ordeals of that terrible fall of 1918, when Grady was fighting in the trenches of France and Mace lay near death, stricken with the flu, she had often turned to it for comfort. Many long nights she had sat with her bible in one hand and the plaque with the Irish blessing in the other. After both of her sons survived that terrible time, she never revealed which of the two sacred items she gave the most credit to for that blessed outcome.
Outside the house, a wooden barn, old enough that it predated the house by several years, sat across the graveled drive. Typical of barns built in that period, it had a large hay mow above with an area to shelter livestock and a milking parlor on the ground level. A make-shift wood and tin lean-to, on the south side, provided some protection for farm implements. The old barn was maintained and preserved with an “as needed or every few years” coat of red oxide paint.
A butchering shed, tool shed, brooding house, hen house and corn crib made up the rest of the outbuildings, all in the same color, barn red.
With little money to purchase livestock and machinery when they first started farming, the family had somehow managed to make the farm work. Marie lived long enough to see the addition of a half dozen fine milk cows, four farrowing sows with several litters of piglets and shoats, a flock of 20 or so fryers and an equal number of fine laying hens, as well as a team of draft horses and several farm implements.
After Marie’s death, the day before the stock-market crash of 1929, the brothers continued the farming operation as an informal family partnership. These were not boom years for farmers, but they somehow managed to make the small payments that were stipulated when Mr. Thompson made them the owners of the farm. But, as the country sank deeper into depression, it had become increasingly more difficult to meet that obligation.
The next morning the brothers got up at the usual time and quietly headed out to the barn to chore. Neither one said anything to the other until they had the cows in their stalls, and each had sat down on a one-legged stool to milk. It was Grady that first spoke. “Reckon that girl has got any place ta go?”
“Don’t reckon she does,” Mace replied. “And you chased off her travelin’ companion. She’s kinda on her own now, unless he comes back and gets her.”
“Well, what if he don’t?” Grady asked. “Don’t look like he got any reason to come back and fetch her, seein’ as how he didn’t get her in the condition she’s in.”
“Can’t hurt ta give it a few days. If he don’t come back, we’ll figger out what ta do then.”
“And what if she decides ta have that baby she’s carryin’ in the meantime. You ain’t that good at birthing calves. I’d shudder ta see ya tryin it with a woman.”
I ’spose I’d have to let you do it then.”
“Oh no! I’d faint dead away. You know that.”
“We better talk ta Nelly, just in case,” Mace added as he alternately and rhythmically pulled on two of the cow’s spigots, filling the tin bucket with warm foamy milk.
Nelly and Jess Bohlander lived just across the road from the brothers. They farmed 80 acres and raised hogs and a few head of cattle. Jess also supplemented their meager farming income by hunting racoons and selling their pelts. A small man, standing only about five four with his boots on, silver-haired and usually with several-day’s growth of grey stubble on his cheeks, Jess was seldom in a bad mood. He seemed always jovial, although some might call it “blissfully ignorant.”
Jess smoked cigarettes, a habit he had picked up long ago while working with the threshing crews. Nelly did not allow Jess to smoke in the house, and even made him leave his Lucky Strikes on the porch. But outside, he was seldom seen without a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Nelly made up for Jess’s lack of size. Jess would joke, when Nelly wasn’t around, that she’s warm in winter and shady in summer. Even with her extra pounds, Nelly could outwork Jess, and probably most of the other men in the neighborhood. In spite of her occasional gruff demeanor, Nelly was loved by everyone who knew her. Always first to pitch in when help was needed, she was often called to minister to the sick when Doc Fell, the town doctor, was not available, or even when he was. Nelly’s best talents were as a mid-wife. Her mother had taught her the skills at an early age. She had mid-wived the birth of almost everyone in the neighborhood under 35 years of age, and a great number of townsfolk too. Doc Fell, who never liked attending childbirth, was glad to have Nelly take a big share of this duty. He asked only that Nelly call him at the first sign of anything out of the ordinary and otherwise stay in touch with him to keep updated on new methods and procedures.
“Well, Nelly and Jesse are coming over this morning to get some apples,” Grady replied. “We won’t have to wait long to talk with her.”
Mace had found an old dress that was his Ma’s and given it to Dorothy to wear while she washed her clothes. It was big enough to cover her protruding middle and way too big everywhere else. She was hanging her old dress on the clothesline when Nelly and Jess came walking down the lane. Nelly opened the gate without waiting for Jess. As she entered the front yard, Dorothy came around the corner of the house carrying a clothes basket. “Mercy Sakes,” Nelly exclaimed. “Who might you be and why are you out hanging clothes in your condition. From the looks a ya, you oughta be in bed.”
“I’m Dorothy,” Dorothy softly replied. “I’m just passing through. I reckon you wanna talk to the Nolan Brothers. They’re both in the house.”
“Well I’m Nelly and this here is Jess, my husband. It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Dorothy.”
Mace had already percolated the coffee and set the cups on the kitchen table. Dorothy followed the Bohlanders into the house but went past the table and into the bedroom. Grady, Nelly and Jess sat down as Mace brought the coffee pot over and poured each of them, and himself, a cup. Nelly couldn’t contain her curiosity. “Who is this Dorothy? Where’d she come from? Is she a relative?”
“Hang on their Nelly,” Jess scolded. “It ain’t none a your business.”
“Found her in the barn last night,” Mace began as he sat down at the table and picked up his coffee cup. He carefully brought the steaming cup to his lips and blew on it, then set it back in the saucer before relating the story of how this very pregnant woman happened to be at their house.
“Well you can’t just shove her out on her own, now can you?” Nelly asked. “And I’ll wager you ten to one this fella that was with her ain’t never comin’ back for her. I know the type.”
“So, what should we do, Nelly?” Grady asked. “Seems like we got a pregnant stray dumped on us and we can’t just take her down the road and dump her on someone else, so what are we to do?”
“Let’s have a talk with this child,” Nelly suggested. “Why don’t you ask her to come in here and join us, Mace?”
“I’ll try,” Mace said with a troubled look on his face as he got up from the table. “She ain’t been real sociable yet.”
Mace’s knock on the door was quickly answered. “I ain’t dressed yet. What do you want?”
“Would you like to come out and have a chat with our neighbors? They’d sure like to meet you.”
“Well OK, but I think you should. They might be able ta help.”
Mace waited a few seconds for Dorothy’s reply. He was sure he could hear her sobbing. “Ain’t nobody can help me,” Dorothy finally answered. “I’ll be clearin’ outta here soon as I can. You been awful nice to me but I ain’t your problem.”
Mace wasn’t aware that Nelly was right behind him and had heard the conversation.
“Dorothy, all this crying and feeling sorry for yourself ain’t gonna help you one bit,” Nelly yelled through the door. “Now c’mon out here and let’s figger this thing out. We all want ta help ya, child.”
“Nelly is right, Miss Dorothy,” Mace added. “Ain’t no good to just lock yourself up in that room or threaten to go away when we all know you ain’t got nowhere ta go and ain’t in no shape to go there if ya did have.”
Nelly and Mace looked at each other with resigned expressions. They both decided it was useless to argue and had turned to go back to the kitchen when they heard footsteps on the other side of the door. The door slowly opened, and Dorothy stood there in her borrowed dress with tears streaming down her face. “I might could use a little help,” she admitted in a soft voice. Nelly quickly put her arm around Dorothy’s shoulder and led her to the kitchen.
“First thing we gotta do is find you some clothes,” Nelly said to Dorothy as they all sat at the table. “I think I know where to find some dresses for a woman in your condition. Lord knows I should, long as I been helping women with having babies. And I know where to find lots a other things you’re gonna need, like diapers, bottles, baby clothes, cribs and all that other stuff. I been sorta like a free exchange for baby stuff for the last 30 years.”
“You want some coffee?” Mace asked Dorothy as he reached for the pot on the stove behind him.
“No she don’t,” Nelly quickly injected. “Woman in her condition shouldn’t be drinking anything but milk and water. Now I’ll be over every day to check on you. I want you to get plenty of rest and let these two lugs do all the work, including washing clothes, till the blessed event. Ain’t no shame in taking a little help.”
“You can call it a blessed event but I just wanna get it over with,” Dorothy admitted. “I want my figure back. I look like a damn walrus. Feel like one too.”
“Soon be picking time,” Grady said to Nelly. “Who’s gonna watch over Dorothy when we’re out in the cornfield all day?”
“We’ll figger it out,” Nelly assured him.
The next couple of weeks went by quickly, with the brothers taking care of chores and getting ready for corn-picking. Dorothy followed Nelly’s orders to let the brothers do the work but couldn’t resist helping with the cooking in the evening, mostly with advice and recommendations. Mace was happy to have the help and Grady was even happier to have meat that wasn’t as tough as shoe leather and vegetables that had the benefit of spices to enhance their flavor. They were both
pleased when Dorothy, with Nelly’s help, made an apple pie one afternoon and took it from the oven just as they were ready for supper.
“You sure can bake a pie,” Mace said as he set his empty plate on the counter. “You’d make some fella a good wife.”
“You offerin to be that fella?” Dorothy asked.
“No ma’am, I sure ain’t. I’m just sayin’ you got some good qualities. But I ain’t the marryin’ kind. Got no desire to get hitched up just yet. Maybe someday but not now.”
“I was just teasing ya,” Dorothy replied. “Ain’t no fella in his right mind that would wanna get anywhere near me right now. And it’s just as well. Got no desire to have ta take care of some drunken lazy man along with this here little one that’s kicking to get out. Why I ever thought that no good sonofabitch that I let talk me into bedding down with him would ever marry me, like he promised, is beyond me.”
“He done ya wrong, that’s a fact,” Mace agreed. “You wanna talk about him?”
“That’s fine. Ain’t none a my business, anyhow. Got any idea where you and the little one are gonna go? That is, whenever you’re able to. Don’t get the idea that I’m pushing ya out ’cause you’re welcome ta stay here long as you want. You and that baby, after he’s borned.”
“Guess I do owe you some explaining, seeing as how you been so kind to me,” Dorothy admitted as she pulled back a chair and plopped down at the kitchen table. “Here’s my sad story. Ain’t proud of it but can’t change it now. Always wanted to go out west. I dreamed of going to California and becoming a movie star. I was working in a greasy two-bit restaurant when I met the guy that got me in this condition. Promised he’d take me to California and make me a star if I’d just prove to him how much I loved him. I proved once too often and look what happened. I was so stupid.”
“Now don’t be too hard on yourself. You was young and prob’ly didn’t know any better,” Grady whispered.
“My father kicked me out, soon as he found out I was pregnant, Dorothy continued. “He was looking for a reason to, anyhow, and I gave it to him. I didn’t know what to do. These are hard times and I didn’t know anybody that wasn’t struggling for every bite a food they were able to put on the table. So, one night I dressed up like a man, packed what I could carry in an old satchel and jumped on a freight train headed west. Thought I could be in California long before I started showing. First thing that happened, I got all my money stole. That sure slowed me down. That and
spending time in jail for loitering. So, here I am in Ioway, bout to have a kid nobody wants and ……” Dorothy could no longer hold back the sobbing and self-pity. With tears in her eyes, she got up and headed for her bedroom. Mace started after her, but Grady grabbed his arm and stopped him.
“What she needs right now is a good cry,” Grady said in a low voice. “Let her get it outta her system.”
Mace cleared the table and washed the dishes as Grady gathered-up the table scraps and went out to feed Dooter and look after some things. It was nearing dusk when he returned. Mace was seated in his easy chair with a reading lantern, engrossed in the Des Moines Sunday Register. “How many times you gonna read that paper?” Grady asked as he sat in his rocker and reached in his pocket for his pipe and tobacco.
“Readin’ about the election,” Mace said, without looking up. “I just might vote for that Roosevelt fella. Never voted for a democrat before but I sure ain’t happy with Hoover. This here Roosevelt fella says he’s gonna end prohibition and give us all a new deal.”
“Good thing Ma ain’t around to hear that talk,” Grady replied. “She never held much with them democrats and neither did Grandpa Bates. They was all some purty staunch Republicans in that family. I think I’ll stick with Hoover. Guess there ain’t no need a either of us botherin’ to vote then, seeing as how your vote is gonna cancel mine out.”
Mace went back to reading the paper as Grady filled his pipe from a Prince Albert tin and pushed the tobacco tight into the bowl. After striking a wooden friction match on the side of the matchbox, he held its fiery tip over the bowl and sucked on the pipe clutched in his teeth. As he took his first puffs, and the smell of the rich pungent tobacco smoke filled the room, the bedroom door slowly opened and Dorothy entered the room, doing her best to walk but doing more of a shuffle. She had one of Marie’s old shawls wrapped around her shoulders. Her uncombed hair looked like a pile of hay straw and her eyes were red and puffy from crying.
“Sit down Miss Dorothy,” Mace said, looking up from the paper. “Hope you don’t mind the smell a that damn pipe my brother insists on stinkin’ up the house with. Lord knows he smells bad enough sometimes, without adding that.”
“I’d rather stand. Too much trouble to get back up if I sit. I don’t mind the pipe. My pa smoked a pipe.”
“So’d ours,” Mace replied. “Or, so I’m told. Never knew the man. He left Ma and us soon after I was born. Grady don’t claim ta remember much
’bout him either. Left Ma in an awful fix, but she managed to raise us up, bless her soul.”
“So, how’d you get this farm, being as how your ma had to struggle to raise you up? Farms cost money. Did you two make enough to buy it on your own? You’d hafta get awful lucky to do that or figure out a way to make lots of cabbage. What’d you do? Sell a little Iowa corn hootch to get the money?”
“No, nothun like that,” Mace answered. “’Sides, Grady woulda just drank it all up ’fore we could sell it.”
“So, how’d you do it? I’d like to know, though it ain’t none a my business?”
“Well, that’s another story,” Grady said as he set his pipe in the ashtray next to his chair. “Ma worked for a man in town all the while we was growing up. He had lost his wife to the cancer and had three girls to raise. He lived in one of those big old Viktoreen mansions that had a carriage house and a guest house. Least, it was a guest house back when people could afford such things. He let us live in that little house.”
“It was quite the place, the big house.” Mace added. “Had a covered porch that went all the way round it.”
“We was all like one big family, them three Thompson girls and us,” Grady continued. “Well, them girls all growed up and went away. After that, Mr. Thompson decided he didn’t want to stay in that big house by hisself no more. So, he sold it, along with the little house that we lived in. But old Mr. Thompson had a heart a gold. ‘Stead a leaving Ma and us to our own contrivances, he give us a real fair shake on buyin’ this place. Said Ma had earned it, takin’ such good care a him and his girls. Ain’t but 160 acres but we got an orchard, garden, chickens, hogs and milk cows to help feed ourselves. In these hard times, that’s a real blessing.”
“So, your pa run off when you was little and left your ma?” Dorothy asked. “My pa wasn’t around much when I was growing up either. They were divorced when I was four. I was 13 when my mother died. I had to go live with him or go to an orphanage. He didn’t much want me, but he got some money from my mom’s family to help raise me. That money helped keep him and my step-mother in liquor, mostly.”
“You had a tough go of it, sure enough,” Mace added. “Guess I don’t blame you for takin’ to the road. Just lucky you happened to pick our barn to shelter in. Other folks might not be as understanding as us.”
“Oh, it wasn’t luck,” Dorothy admitted. “I was planning to come here.”
A puzzled look came over Grady’s face. “You didn’t come here by accident? You knowed us ’fore you hid in our barn? I don’t ever remember meeting you before.”
“Oh, we ain’t never met but we sure got something in common,” Dorothy replied. In a way, we’re brothers and sister. You see, we got the same father.”
Mace and Grady sat stunned for a few seconds. Mace finally broke the silence. “You sure ’bout that, Miss Dorothy? Seems you’re so much younger than me. ’Bout 15 years I’d guess.”
“Here, have a look at this,” Dorothy said, handing Mace a tattered old photograph. Mace took the photograph and stared at it for a few seconds before handing it to Grady. Grady held it close to the lantern and stared in disbelief.
“Why that’s Ma and our father. And them two young’uns must be…”
“You and Mace,” Dorothy quickly added as she handed Mace another photograph. “Now, here’s a picture of my mother and father. See? It’s the same man.”
“Well, I’ll be hornswoggled!” Grady declared as he looked at the picture. “We’re family! Always did want a sister. Course, them three Thompson girls was like big sisters, but that ain’t the same as real flesh and blood kin.”
“That’s why I came here,” Dorothy admitted. “I found this picture of you and waited ’till my pa was about half drunk to ask him who it was. Course, he was always at least half drunk. He told me ’bout you but wouldn’t tell me much more. I had to do some digging to find you.”
“Ma never had anything to do with him after he left, that much I recollect,” Grady added. “Only thing we was told was that he left us, and he was a no good, low down drunk. Sometimes she’d even use stronger words than that to describe the man.”
“Your ma was right about that,” Dorothy replied. “He wasn’t much of a ….Dorothy stopped in mid-sentence, her face turning red. “Oh shit! I don’t feel so good,” she moaned. “Baby’s kickin’ and….” Suddenly Dorothy’s eyes rolled back, her legs began to crumple under her, and she started to fall to the floor. Mace jumped up and caught her just in time as Grady scooped her up in his arms.
“Let’s get her to bed,” Mace cried. “Then we better call Nelly! I think she’s about to have a baby!”
It seemed like hours to Mace and Grady before Nelly and Jess finally arrived, although it was less than 30 minutes. Nelly, carrying a large cotton cloth bag of items, went right to the bedroom and closed the door behind her. Jess turned to Mace and Grady and, using words he had used many times before in similar situations, explained to them, “Now just be calm. Nelly has got it all under control. She’s done this more times than you can count. Ain’t much we can do but get her whatever she needs and wait. Might as well sit down for now. Don’t worry. Dorothy’s a strong gal. She’ll do just fine.”
Nelly asked for a few things, like warm water and an extra pillow, as she went about preparing Dorothy for childbirth. After that, there was nothing but silence. It was almost two hours before she finally opened the door and stepped into the living room. Jess was asleep in the upholstered chair, the one that was always reserved for company. Grady and Mace were both wide-awake, waiting anxiously for any news from Nelly.
“She’s resting now,” Nelly said. It was just low blood pressure that caused her to faint. It’s pretty common with pregnant women. Especially their first. I’ve got her prepared, best I can. Shaved her and slipped the Kelly pad under her. It’s up to her now. Probably won’t be anything more happening tonight. Just the same, better fix me a cot in her room. Jess, you can go on home so’s you can do your chores in the morning, and you fellas can go to bed.”
The men did as Nelly asked them to do. Jess left for home and Grady and Mace moved the couch into the bedroom and got some blankets for Nelly before retiring to their rooms. Sometime later, they were both awakened by a scream coming from downstairs. Mace was only a couple seconds ahead of Grady as they bounded down the steps. “What is it, Nelly?” Mace yelled through the door. “Is Dorothy alright?”
“She’ll be fine,” Nelly assured them through the closed door. “Although it’d be hard to convince her a that right now. She’s going into labor. Get me some more warm water and I’m going to need one of you to help me here purty soon. So, you decide which one a ya is gonna do it, but I can’t have no sissy who’ll faint at the sight a blood.”
“Guess that means me,” Mace said, turning to Grady. “We both know you ain’t got the pluck to do it.”
“Ain’t been able to stand the sight a blood, ever since the war,” Grady admitted.
Mace put some corn cobs in the kitchen stove and lit them with a wooden match and a rolled-up newspaper. After pumping water at the kitchen sink into a black and white speckled pan and setting it on the stove, he went back to check on Dorothy and Nelly. Gingerly entering the room, he quietly asked, “Anything else I can do for you?”
Nelly was standing over Dorothy, dabbing at the moisture on her forehead and cheeks and trying to soothe her as best she could. “Hand me that Big Ben over there,” Nelly said, pointing at the pocket watch on the dresser.
“Here you are, Nelly. I’ll go get the water and be right back.”
When he returned, carefully carrying the pan of hot water, Nelly had her right hand on Dorothy’s forehead and was looking at the watch in her left hand. Dorothy was now alternately relaxing and screaming bloody murder. “Contractions is only about four minutes apart,” Nelly whispered to herself. Turning to Mace she ordered, “Set that water on the table and get me those rubber gloves and that bottle of Lysol.”
“What now?” Mace asked as he carefully set the pan down and passed the gloves and Lysol to Nelly.
“Got to get her washed and disinfected,” Nelly said. “Don’t want her getting no childbed fever. You just stand up by her pillow, hold her hand and try to stay out of my way till I get this done.”
When Nelly finished, she stood up and whispered to Mace: “Well, she’s scrubbed and sprayed down with Lysol. She’s done pretty good, so far, but I reckon she’s in for some real discomfort ’fore this is over.”
“Should I get her a shot a whiskey? We keep some around, just for medical purposes.”
“How’s it going in there?” Grady asked through the closed door. “I’m going out to do the chores. You need anything fore I go?”
“Going fine, so far. Put some more water on the stove,” Nelly replied.
The autumn moon was still high in the western sky as Grady and Dooter headed to the barn, a good two hours earlier than the usual milking time. Some of the cows protested the early intrusion on their sleep by emptying both bowel and bladder as they were being milked in the barn.
When he finally finished the milking, and cleaned the barn of the cow’s mess, Grady picked up the two milk buckets filled with the cow’s morning contribution and carried them into the porch. He poured one of the buckets into the large round stainless-steel bowl atop the purple
DeLavel cream separator and started the machine in motion with the hand crank. 30 minutes later he finished the separating, poured the cream into the cream can and pushed the lid on. After tossing some potato peelings and other kitchen scraps into the bucket of leftover skim milk, he picked it up and headed for the wooden hog trough in the hog lot. Several pigs were waiting, squealing and fighting for better position.
The sun was still below the horizon and the air felt cool as Grady returned to the warm porch. It was a beautiful fall morning. The first golden rays of the day were just waking from their sleepy depths and the sky was already more bluish than charcoal. The outline of some fluffy white clouds gave promise of a glorious sunrise. The Good Lord could not have provided a better morning for a new day, and a new life, to begin.
The sound Grady heard, as he opened the screen door to the porch, was unmistakable. He dropped the bucket and ran into the house crying out, “Am I an Uncle?”