Straws,  an original novel by James R. Muri


I would like to thank the many people who read this work over and over again and hammered me until it achieved its current state.  I know that was painful, and your patience and constructive kicks in my backside have made this story what it is.  Worthy of special thanks are the group from the Federal Way Fictioneers, especially Robin, Marv, Eric, Naida, Jim, Pat and Christine; and the South Hill Brutal Writer's club - thanks Rob and Janelle.


This book is dedicated to all those who have come to understand that every silver lining has a cloud, and to the proposition that within each of us there is a balance that is seldom fully visible to those with whom we interact.


No characters in this book are meant to portray any persons, living or dead, and are inventions of purest fiction.  

James R. Muri


You know me as Carl Wheat.  For more than thirty five years, you've drunk my whiskey, admired my wife and kids, and been my friend.  We've done things together that neither of us brags about, we've carved our share of notches, we've suffered wounds and inflicted a few of our own, we've come through it all.  But you've been curious about some things, so it's time to let my one friend in the world know the answers.  If I can't tell my best friend this story, who can I tell, after all?  Pull up that chair and nurse that Glenfiddich, get comfortable, and listen to my tale.  You'll be the only one who ever hears it, and I can't see passing on without someone knowing.

*   *   *
At first I didn't know that I was the source of all my trials.  But I learned that I'm the Jack of all trades; the instigator, the perpetrator, the victim.  Death follows me.  Destruction, dismay, disaster, debauchery, deliverance and all the other "D" words in Webster's best seller flaked off my scaly hide, dead scales from the dying Dragon as I slashed and burned my way through life more than sixty years ago.  Of course, I thought I was just a farm boy living pretty much like any other farm boy.  The tale begins in 1939, when we started loading the camel's back one straw at a time.
By then I had developed into a boy of substantial stature and evidently pleasant demeanor, despite the pale scar that bisected my left eyebrow and wandered drunkenly up into my hairline.  At six foot and an honest inch, a hundred and eighty-five pounds of blue-eyed, corn and hog-fed muscle and bone, I contributed sturdy and fast-healing help to Dad on our farm about ten miles north of Fern Valley, Kansas.

"Character," my mother told me years earlier when I was six and the stitches came out of my forehead.  "A badge of honor.  That's what that scar will tell people.  You earned it honorably."

That was true, if having the singletree fall on me while I helped harness Samson and Achilles up to the cargo wagon could be deemed honorable.  Even at six I thought that seemed more stupid than honorable.

Fern Valley, the home of my youth and the setting for much of this sorry tale, crouches near the eastern border of Kansas, less than an hour's wagon ride from the Missouri river.  We lived in a simple farm house with a parlor, a kitchen, three bedrooms and a windowless general-purpose room that served as pantry, storage and guest room.  We added that third bedroom and guest room, Dad and I, in the summer of '37, since my eleven-year-old sister Helen, who up until then shared a room with me, seemed to be going on sixteen.
No motors or engines, other than the one in our ancient Buick, assisted us.  We farmed as our forebears had in the previous century.  We hauled rock-hard water from the well about fifty paces out the front of the house.  Our privy, a two-holer, waited the same distance out the back door and south almost to the barn.
We lacked electricity, indoor plumbing and a furnace, but we had a party line telephone, the Buick, water, the Ashley and kitchen stoves, and all the firewood we could cut, so our comfort and hygiene needs were met.  Except for the phone and the Buick, we lived an admittedly 1801 lifestyle by today's standards but never thought of any of it as hardship.

It fell to Helen and me, as honorable and able-bodied farm kids, to take care of the routine get-along chores, including the yard.  Ours extended about seventy-five feet west from the back of the house.  The far western edge of the yard held back the weeds, wild alfalfa, buckbrush and whatever else could find a toehold out there.  We kept a wide path cut through that waist-high jungle to allow for passage to the honey locust and hedge-lined swimming hole Dad and I had created in the creek.

Helen and I pushed our rusty mowers along in the humid midmorning heat of Friday, September fifteenth, 1939, which is probably the best place to start this story.  The grass in the back yard needed mowing to make it suitable for dancing during the birthday party planned for that afternoon, after our classmates got out of school.  Mom had arranged with the school for our absence that day so that we could help prepare, although neither Helen nor I would escape any of the assignments or homework due Monday.

I trailed Helen as we pushed our mowers along, overlapping her cut.  From time to time, at steadily shortening intervals, we would stop and mop our faces and necks of the sweat that ran into eyes and collars from under disreputably frayed and stained straw hats.  Helen's hair hung limply below her shoulders in dripping blonde hanks so dense that not even the steady south breeze could lift them.

"It isn't fair," she huffed once, "It's supposed to be our birthday party, and what are we doing?  Are we at the Metro eating ice cream and cake between dances?  Are we lounging in the shade and sipping iced Nehis?  Are we sitting in a dark theater eating popcorn and watching Errol Flynn?  No, we're here in this God-awful sun, dodging horseflies and getting chopped grass stuck all over us and sweating so much that we'll never get dried off and clean before the party, that's what we're doing!  How am I ever going to get my hair fixed before the party, huh?  Look at it!"  Then she lifted a grass-bespeckled clump of dripping locks in much the same manner as she'd handle a week-dead fish, and cast an unhappy look at me.  

Helen would be turning fourteen and I would reach fifteen.  Twins one year apart, people sometimes joked, without knowing how closely attuned she and I were.  If one of us were stroked, the other would purr.  We often finished each other's sentences, and our treatment of each other in no way differed from how we treated ourselves.   

Helen denied all charges of twindom.  "I'm much prettier," she would scold, correctly, without explaining that we were more like one extended person than twins.  One thing about Helen, she would tell you the way of things.

I agreed that our morning didn't seem real birthday-ish, shook my head and observed that the dancers at our party would like short grass, and if she liked dancing we might as well finish.  I offered to finish it while she cooled off in the shade of a nearby tree, just as she expected me to, and she thanked me and refused just as I knew she would, and off we went until the next break.

We did work well together.

It was after one of these breaks that my sun-baked brain took an idle turn from its usual rudimentary awareness of the universe.  Perhaps it had just run out of simple contemplations, but whatever happened my attention slowly drifted more fully to Helen as she toiled ahead of me.

At five feet four and a hundred and five pounds, I thought she looked graceful and charming despite the authority with which she handled her mower.  I enjoyed watching her work in her so-called summer dungarees, which were actually just old coveralls with the legs lopped off below the hip pockets.  The dungarees successfully bagged her torso, hiding a form that attracted furtive appraisal when she went to church or town in more feminine finery.

Her lightly tanned legs, however, flecked with shattered grass, were on unlimited display.  Shapely, sleek and shiny as a freshly-skinned squirrel from the curve of her backside down to where they disappeared into baggy gray socks and ankle high clay-dusted yard boots, they drew my eye.

Helen, I deduced with a startled splash of endocrine-jolted insight, was going to be real popular real soon.  It wouldn't be long before others noticed what I'd noticed years earlier.

Lost in considering the ramifications of that prospect, I watched her turn left at the corner of the remaining uncut grass, following our cutting pattern.  She glanced at me and must have noticed that my eyes had focused below her waist, because she turned and looked over her shoulder at herself, then back up at me.  Caught, I guiltily shifted my eyes away.

She stopped a moment and looked back down at herself, then bent over and brushed some grass off her legs.  I stopped and leaned patiently on my mower, mopping my face and watching.  I tried to keep my expression neutral and unreadable.

"Is something wrong with my legs?"  She looked at them again, brushed off more grass.

"Nope."  I shook my head just a little.  "Not a thing."  She looked up quizzically at the thin compliment.  My half frown, half smile came back.

"Nothing?  Then what were you looking at?"

I glanced away, eyes wandering over to the barn while I tried to decide how best to answer, then settled on the simple truth.  I looked back at her and smiled.  "Sears Roebuck would put them in the catalog to sell stockings.  I was just noticing."

The smile that broke across her face widened mine, too.  She clearly liked that.

"You've always said I have the prettiest legs in history.  What's different about them today?"

"Well, I just thought about the catalog today."

"So, do you spend a lot of time looking at the catalog?"

The little tease!  And worse, it worked.  I cast my eyes away again, feeling a slight flush creep up my neck.

A hail from the drive changed the subject.  "Hey Helen.  We're here.  Come help."  Nancy Simon and her daughter Carrie had arrived.

Carrie had turned seventeen the day before, so our parents had decided, since Helen and I shared a birthday on the coming Monday, to combine birthday parties again.

The Simons' contribution to the preparations included three birthday cakes with candles, a mile or so of blue and white crepe paper, decorating and preparation labor, extra dishes and serving utensils, and kitchen help.

Grateful for the change of attention their arrival brought, I waved.  No acknowledgment of my greeting came from Carrie, although her mother waved back.  Disappointed, I dropped my hand, pretending I'd been shaking something off of it.

"You go ahead, Helen," I suggested flatly.  "I'll finish out here while you ladies get the food done."

"You sure, Carl?  I'll stay if you want."

"It's okay.  There's not all that much left anyway."

Helen pulled her mower out of my way.  "If you're sure, then.  She did call me, after all."

"Yeah, she did.  Go on."  I gestured toward the rain barrel by the house.  "There's still plenty of rain water.  Go wash your hair first.  Maybe it'll dry while you help out in the kitchen."

I knew Helen sensed the unhappy undercurrent within me.  She'd had four years to see first-hand how Carrie ignored me.  Carrie and her mother lived on the next farm south of us, about twenty minutes away on a hurrying horse.  For four years she and Helen had been together almost every day, doing chores and spending the night at one house one day, the other house the next while our mothers worked at the Mercantile in town.  In effect, they were sisters, and each family had more than one daughter.  It worked well, a good solution to family economics for both of our families.

It short-changed me a little, though.  Carrie took my place in bed with Helen when Carrie slept over those first couple years before we built on the addition.  I slept on the divan in the parlor.  After the new rooms had been built, of course, things improved.  Even so, Carrie and I barely acknowledged each other.  We exchanged rare eye contact and even rarer words, even when she brought Dad and me lunch as we worked in the fields.

Nancy Simon's husband and their family Ford had disappeared one afternoon more than three years earlier, never to be replaced.  He'd fallen in with a rough crowd and developed a reputation for drinking, gambling, carousing and shady dealings before he'd gone missing.  Most of the greater Fern Valley residents were certain he'd met with foul play, and that if he and that Ford did show up, they would be at the bottom of the Missouri.  If that was true, he'd widowed a sweet natured, striking woman of some thirty-five years, gently character-lined and barely brunette, built for both long workdays and man-pleasing nights.

Her daughter Carrie showed similar best-of-all-worlds construction, although lighter of hair and bluer of eye, and with perhaps more emphasis on the man-pleasing aspects.

I knew about the pile of broken hearts left at her doorstep as swain after swain failed to achieve exclusive status.  She liked to meet many gentlemen of the older persuasion, liked to dance and go to the movies and ice cream parlor and library.  She was said to be friendly and quite proper, and no "first" had ever been rumored with her.  That pleased me immensely, even in my ignored state.

I've been secretly in love with Carrie as far back as I can remember.  I didn't know then, of course, that our families and neighbors were well aware of my "secret" feelings for her, and thought it both touchingly cute and sad.  But only Carrie and I ever knew about the puddle incident.

When I was five and six and didn't know any better, I'd follow her around at school during recesses and pester her for a kiss.  Two grades ahead of me, she'd always fend me off, exasperated by my amorous demands.

Then one late May day in first grade I managed to find her alone behind the tool shed during recess.  I made my usual request for a kiss, and she almost turned me down again.  That time, though, she stopped in mid-sentence.

"Okay.  I'll kiss you if you'll drink mud from that puddle over there."  She gestured to the candidate puddle, her arm long and straight, her finger pointed unerringly.

I looked over at the puddle.  It didn't look appetizing.  "I'm not thirsty."

"Then I don't feel like kissing you."  Hands fisted on her hips, her third-grade eyebrows arched haughtily over her disdainful blues.  I remember how lovely she looked.

"Well - you promise?"

"Of course.  I always keep my promises."

So I went over there, got down on all fours at the puddle's edge, bent down and stuck my tongue into the yellowish-brown muck.  It tasted like mud, exactly as I expected.  I shuddered.

I looked up at her hopefully.  Had that been enough?  

"No," she proclaimed.  "Lap it like a dog."

I bent over again, then lapped in my best canine style.  Even then, even in my first-grade unsophisticated mind, I thought that seemed like a lot of trouble to go to for a kiss.  I knew guys who got kissed lots easier than that.  Still, I thought, this was Carrie.  No one ever got to kiss Carrie.

Several laps later, my belly full enough of what would be even more unpleasant at the privy for the next couple days, I stood.  "I think I've lapped about all the mud I can, Carrie.  You can kiss me now."

"You think I'd kiss someone who'd lap mud like a stray dog?  You've got to be crazy!"  And she spun away and ran back to the playground.  I sat where I was, confused at the betrayal, too young to understand the scope of what had just happened.  But I understood the finality of her rejection.  Oh, I learned something that day, all right.  After that I kept my hopeless adoration bottled safely inside.  Alongside it, the anger that more years and understanding brought competed for ascendancy in my emotions whenever I thought about her.

That was a long time ago, I told myself as I watched Helen run to greet her.  No one else knows, so stop thinking about it.  She's forgotten all about it.  You should too.

I watched Helen and Carrie go inside.


  Luckily I didn't need to deal with Carrie much as we prepared for the party, except to help hang the crepe paper here and there where she couldn't reach.  We made it a businesslike chore, lacking even routine social interaction.  Neither of us simply chatted with the other.  I felt relief when Dad summoned me to the garden.

"Get out here and help me get this roast pig out of the ground, Carl.  It's almost time for the guests to show up."  I joined Dad and we shoveled dirt off the canvas-wrapped porker that we'd stuffed with hot rocks and buried the previous morning before school.

The first of our party guests showed up as we scooped the remaining dirt off by hand.  Hannah and Jerold Farley turned their horses into our corral, then split up, Jerold heading over to a wheelbarrow of iced drinks near the house while Hannah walked over to us.

"Can I help?"  Hannah asked as she came in the garden gate.  Dad looked over to see Jerold, wrist-deep in the ice digging for a strawberry Nehi.  He looked back at Hannah and gave her a welcoming smile.

"Sure, Hannah.  Carl and I have just about got this pig uncovered.  You can give us a hand haulin' it over to that table yonder."  He gestured to the plank and sawhorse table just outside the garden fence.  He glanced at me, and I could tell he wondered why her big, strong, capable brother needed a cool drink while his sister risked getting dirty and greasy helping us.

Jerold, at seventeen, loomed a couple inches taller and maybe twenty pounds heavier than I.  He played both football and basketball at Fern Valley High.

Recent unsettling rumors about Jerold's behavior with girls had prompted discussion within the family about inviting him to the party.  Even before those rumors started, people thought of him as coarse, ungentlemanly, and shallow.  In a rural, live-and-let-live agri-community like ours, managing to be thought of in that light was actually something of an accomplishment.

Helen settled the issue at supper a couple weeks earlier.

"Well, I like Hannah," she announced with finality in her voice.  "So I'm inviting her.  I don't see how we can invite her and not invite him.  It wouldn't be polite.  And anyway, if those rumors were true he'd be in jail, wouldn't he?  So unless anyone knows how we can do anything different, I'll make out the invitation to them both."  And that was that.

As we struggled with the pig, lifting it carefully out of its pit by the canvas in which we'd buried it, I saw Jerold pick up the church key and flip the cap off the Nehi into the grass at his feet.  He didn't pick it up, apparently unconcerned with the prospects of barefoot dancers finding it later.  Instead, he hoisted the bottle back and with a few chugs emptied the cool, red liquid into his belly.  He smacked his lips with satisfaction, then bent and put the empty into the wood crate by the wheelbarrow.  He reached into the wheelbarrow again, and for a moment I thought he might bring Hannah a drink.  Instead, he drank that one too.  I decided such consideration probably exceeded his brotherly skills.

Dad snorted.  Hannah didn't seem to notice.

We carried the pig over to the plank table and eased it down, oil running out of the canvas at both ends.  Then as Hannah whisk-broomed the baked dirt off the canvas Dad and I unwrapped the hot, succulent treat.  Our mouths watered at the redolent smell of sweet roasted meat.  A grin split his face when we exposed the mahogany-brown hog and the meaty aroma coiled its way upwards into our noses.  Hannah and I glanced at the temptation, then at each other, and he laughed.

"Why not?  Who done all the work anyway?  We dug the hole, we stuffed this hog with the hot rocks, we dug it up today, we carried it over here and set it down.  Who's to say we can't have some yet?  So if you two've a hankerin' for a hot piece, go ahead and get you some."  So, shooting grins at each other, Hannah and I reached down and tore off handfuls of shoulder meat.

Hot, greasy, sweet.  We snickered at the warm runnels of amber oil running down our forearms and dripping off our elbows as we savored the wonderful meat.  Dad watched, wiping his forehead with his bandana, a smile on his face.  I think he liked the picture he saw there in front of him, his son in the company of a pretty, almost-blonde fourteen-year-old girl in sun-bleached Levis and white short-sleeve shirt, her eyes alive with mirth and enjoyment.

Up to then, that sort of thing was just plain unknown in my family.

"I got haulin' to do yet, you two.  The girls've probably finished with the cookin', so I'll get Jerold to help me bring it all outside.  Mrs.  Wheat put fresh soap in the can and clean towels on the post over by the pump, so when you've had your fill be sure and wash that grease off you."

He headed off to the house, corralling Jerold along the way.  Jerold had started to walk toward us, probably looking to join the early pig picking party Hannah and I had going.  He'd waited just a little too long, though.  He scowled over his shoulder at us as Dad led him inside.

A drop of oil hung from Hannah's chin as she sank her teeth into her handful of meat, and I tried not to grin.  She looked at my stifled smile, then wiped the droplet off with the back of her hand.  "Well, you're just as greasy, Mister!"  Her words were admonitory, but there was a smile in her voice and a laugh in her eyes.

I didn't say anything.  When we finished we headed over to the pump, and along the way I told her I was pleased that she could come to the party.

There I was, actually talking to a girl.

"We always come, Carl."  Her look at me, sideways from under barely lifted lashes and above her pretty smile, did nice things to my tummy.

"We're even going to have music and dancing this year."  I waved at Mom, who smiled at us from the kitchen window as we walked by.

She turned and looked at me full-on.  "Oh?  Do you like to dance?"  Surprise in her voice, and rightly so.

I hesitated.  "Uh - well, I don't do it much."

She knew perfectly well I wasn't known for dancing.  Carrie had cured me of asking girls for anything remotely resembling romance, which dancing certainly did.  I only danced with Mother up until I turned eight or so at the local dances and festivals.  After that I never asked anyone to dance and declined ladies' choices until the word finally got around that I simply wasn't interested.

What I knew about dancing was that the fellow put his arm around the girl's waist, and she put an arm around his neck, and they held each other close enough so that they could twirl and spin and step together like one person.  Then while that fancy frolicking went on they looked into each other's faces, eye to eye and nose to nose and smile to smile, and carried on clever conversations and pretended not to notice that they were pressed against each other, just a little.  As I considered her offer, a short two-reel movie played itself behind my eyelids.  That dancing business didn't seem all that innocent all of a sudden.

She offered to help.  "I'd be happy to teach you a step or two if you'd like, Carl."

"I'd probably step or two all over your toes," I predicted helpfully in my attempt to spare her the pain and myself the embarrassment.  We rounded the house and, the pump in sight, for some reason we slowed our walk.

She laughed softly.  "Well, if you'll try to keep from doing that, I'll try to keep my feet out from under yours.  Deal?"  She stuck out her greasy hand.

How could I not shake it?  

"Okay.  Deal.  Doc Sarver will be here today, if you should need doctoring after a dance."  She laughed again, and I couldn't help but be simply and undeniably charmed.

We walked unhurriedly and hand in hand the rest of the way to the pump, and I waited until we got there before I pretended to notice that.  Our eyes grazed each other's in unspoken acknowledgment of the friendly contact, then I dropped her hand and pumped so that she could wash up.  She returned the favor a few moments later.

I puzzled over my reactions to her.  This is Hannah, the same girl I see every day at school, I thought, and who wears pretty much the same thing to school she has on now.  Sure, she's pretty.  That's not anything new.  Then why did I notice how nicely her clothes fit?  Why did I notice that the word 'girl' maybe wasn't quite the right word?  Why did I feel so good being with her?  

I didn't have much time to continue with that uncustomary line of thinking.  Charlotte, Mike, Terry, and the McEvoy litter were coming down the drive.


The five McEvoy kids included two sets of twins.

I suppose that someone had observed back when they were popping into the world that Mrs. McEvoy seemed to "litter" once a year, so the unkind collective "McEvoy litter" appellation stuck.  Worse, the first two kids were twins, Frank and Henry.  Everyone immediately called Henry "Hank," of course.  Then came Marlon, who as he grew stayed skinny as a rail.  He became "Plank" in the effort to keep the family nicknames sounding alike.  Then the twins Suzanne and Elma came along, who became "Lanky Shanks" or just "Shanks," and "Tank," both fitting, if not particularly nice nicknames in the final months of their thirteenth years.

Hannah and I met the McEvoys Frank, Hank, Plank, Shanks and Tank as they drove their go-to-school wagon to our post out front of the house.  Charlotte, Terry and Mike continued to the corral and ran their horses in before joining the party.

After we tied their wagon to the post, Hannah walked with Hank and Frank, one smiling galoot on each arm, around the house to the party.

Frank also went by "Fat Frank," unfortunately.  The truly awesome collection of festering adolescent wounds and black stubble on his face didn't help matters.  He fairly oozed oil, probably for the same reason a cheesecloth squeezed around churnings oozes.  But he was clever, quick of mind and tongue, and more than held his own in the battles of wits that often accompanied cruel name-calling contests.  I liked him and thought of him as someone who did pretty well, considering what he looked like.  It struck me as typical of Hannah that she wouldn't be put off by appearances either, and that it wouldn't bother her to be seen with someone as unattractive as Frank.

On Hannah's other arm Hank, Frank's twin, was as ordinary as you could please, just short of handsome, Helen had remarked once.  I took her word for it.

Plank, tall, thin, pale and smelling faintly of decay and foot powder, walked a step behind them, trying to take part in their laughter and silly gabbling.  I felt a little bad for him, because although pleasant enough, in his eternal coveralls and scuffed boots he looked like something out of the Sunday hill billy comics.  I guessed he'd have liked Hannah to have another arm, but he was, if anything, even more backward than I.  I thought of him as a lonely person and therefore a kindred spirit, someone who had it in his power to improve his lot by just deciding to do so.

Elma and Suzanne each had one of my arms.  Except for whiskers, in a lot of ways Elma, or Tank, was like her brother Frank.  She had a sharp wit and an honest view of her own unattractiveness.  That didn't stop her from enjoying herself.  Tank liked to eat and talk.  That was it, and she was good at both.

"We're here now, you can start the party, Carl."

"Yeah, we've been holding it up for you, Elma.  I'll give everyone the go-ahead."  She laughed, pleased with our simple repartee.  I grinned too.  One more happy partyer.

Shanks squeezed my arm as she snaked-hipped along my other side.  "Now that you're fifteen, do you think your momma will let you take someone to the movies, Carl?"

For a second I thought she had tried a snippety tease, but quickly realized that, just too sweet-tempered to do that sort of thing, she had instead dropped a sincere hint.

She and Elma might almost have come from different species.  Tall and contoured sweetly enough that even I noticed, long of leg and pretty in a brown and carefree sort of way, Shanks' widely rumored ecumenical disposition of her virtue kept her at the center of attention among those males of greater Fern Valley who thought a girl's suitability was better measured by the appeal of her contours than by her age.  Everyone, it seemed, knew someone who confessed to having recently taken the full measure of her agreeably compliant hospitality.  True or not, no one ever complained about her sweet nature.  At least, no male did.  There were probably girls who would have cheerfully gutted her like a fish.

Having decided she'd asked a guileless question, I answered in the same way.  "I won't be fifteen until Monday, Suzanne.  But I don't think Mom would object."

"Well," she hinted demurely with a smile, "If you should ever want to, I'm sure plenty of us girls like the movies."

Elma cut in, long-suffering exasperation in her voice.  "Put a sock in it, Shanks.  Carl doesn't cotton to your flirts.  Do you, Carl?"

"Nope.  Not me, Elma.  I don't know a flirt from a flounder."  Both girls laughed at my admission.  Even so, I enjoyed them both.  I knew when I invited them that they would add some fun to the party.

We rounded the corner of the house and found the rest of the partyers, and Terry Kraft stepped up to claim Shanks.  Terry was dark-eyed and jet-maned, about sixteen years old, five foot nine and a hundred and sixty pounds, and female eyes followed his tightly packed, compact frame around as he moved through the partyers.  He excelled at sports, especially baseball, worked hard on his family's dairy, and had become a solid favorite with the female set.  Even usually irreverent Helen smiled goofily and giggled when he stopped to talk with her.  He was a friend in a galoot-to-galoot sort of way, someone I ran across in school regularly.

Mike Barnes had cornered Helen and, from the smile on her face, her attention.  A rangy, loose-jointed seventeen-year-old, at an athletic five ten or thereabouts he measured a bit shorter than I.  He spoke softly through a perennial smile, laughed easily, and had only good words for anyone.  Everyone's favorite friend, he charmed without the slightest inkling that he was doing it.  His family had recently moved into that new Cloud Meadows tract north of town and he'd assimilated himself into the school community without having the obligatory fight with the class bully.  No one seemed to know a lot about his background, and no one seemed interested in expending the energy to find out, since he was so clearly exactly what he seemed to be.

It became clear to me that Helen had caught his eye.  That didn't surprise me any; most of the other fellows spent time refreshing their eyeballs with her image as well.  So I found it hard to worry about him in comparison to some others, even though his eye seemed to wander her way more often than most and he seemed to be in her company a good part of the time.  What was there to worry about?  Of all the fellows there, who would I most trust in her company?  Mike.  No question.  He was a gentleman.

After greeting and shaking hands with everyone I'd missed, I went to get some of the food.  I found myself in line beside Charlotte, marveling at how much food we could choose from.  Sitting at one end of the long serving table, a big clay pot held boiled sweet corn.  Another held baked potatoes.  There were bowls of lettuce and sliced onions and scallions and various types of tomatoes and shredded cabbage and squash and other stuff from the garden, and whole loaves of hot bread.  Next to two bowls of different kinds of potato salad, wedges of home-grown and sun-ripened melons added slashes of bright color to the table.  A cast-iron Dutch oven of hot baked beans and a tray of bright silver eating tools sat at the other end of the serving table.  Finally, at the end of the serving line, the hot pig carcass steamed from the plank table upon which we'd placed it.

As Charlotte and I rummaged among the food, I understood that she might tolerate my company, so after we'd overfilled our plates we carried them and our Nehis over to the corral and sat down against a post to eat.  She had done something different with her hair, I recall, something much nicer than the practical ribboned tie-ups she usually wore to school.  Her deep red tresses hung down in loosely coiled springs which bounced and riffled lightly in the breezes as she walked.  Somewhere, judging from the freshness of its power, she had found time to refresh her scent.  A flowery sort of scent, maybe Lilly of the Valley or something similarly noticeable, it carried something else too.  I found it just a little disturbing in exactly the sort of way a girl would like a fellow to be disturbed.  I wondered why she had done that.

As we ate I thought about her perfume and other changes that had remolded her from the frazzle-headed, frazzle-brained giggling blusher of a girl of earlier times to the mannered, almost serenely elegant young woman who sat next to me.  I noticed that the evidence of too much bacon in her diet had vanished, or maybe, more accurately, had moved to where it would do the most good.

I also noticed that her swiftness to blush hadn't been tamed.  My traveling eyes watched the blush creep up her neck and a forkful of hot beans pause on their way to her mouth, then I almost dropped my plate when I found her eyes.  Liquid green, sharp-edged as a shattered bottle, they carved a hole in me so swiftly I almost gasped.  I looked away, but not before I saw a twitch at the corner of her lips.

It was good to know that, despite the blushing, she hadn't been offended by my survey.

We stumbled into simple conversation, our eyes safely watching the other partyers.  It took some time for my heart to unsqueeze itself, but finishing off the plate of food provided plenty of that.

"That's some powerful perfume, Charlotte.  Watch out for the honeybees."

"Okay, Honeybee."  Snicker.

"Buzz buzz," I buzzed in rejoinder, grinning and going along with the joke.  "Where's that flower I smell?  Wait!  Is that it?  The one with the red moss on top and the -" and I stopped, because I could see that she was waiting to hear how I was going to describe the rest of her.  I didn't know how to go about that without risking raising an eyebrow or two.  "It's nice," I ended lamely.  "Don't pay no attention to my teasing."

She didn't, it seemed.  "Did you enjoy taking today off, Carl?"

"You mean from school?  Tell you the truth, I worked six times harder here today than I would have at school.  Helen too.  You should have heard her.  Boy!"

"I was going to bring your assignments and homework, but our teachers said your mother had already picked them up.  Call me if you're missing anything."

I felt especially good that she'd thought of that and taken the effort to help.  "I will, Charlotte.  Thanks."

"Are you going to swim?"

"Sure.  How about you?"  Glancing carefully over at her to see if it was safe to look up.

"Yes.  Where should I change?"

Another movie ran in fast-forward behind my eyelids.  "You girls can use Helen's room.  We guys will use the barn."  I pointed stupidly at the only building for miles in any direction that resembled a barn.  She flashed pretty teeth at me, not knowing that a piece of pickle peeked out from between her incisors.  My chest constricted anyway.  I looked again at the remaining food on my plate.

A few minutes later she stood and, probably bored with my monosyllabic grunts, carried her empty plate to the house.  I watched her go, wondering if she could feel my eyes.  I didn't blame her for escaping my taciturn and bumbling shyness for the less inhibited company of the others.  I wished I knew how to be like that, to say witty and amusing and intelligent things and keep people's interest.

After the socializing and eating, the girls went inside and changed into swimsuits, and we guys went to the barn to do the same.  Certain predictions and plans concerning the girls were made there among us eagerly boastful hopefuls.  Then the swimming hole suffered the hoots and roustabouting of the collected youth, allowing splashing and dunking and horse fighting, which Jerold eventually won with Helen perched on his shoulders.  Mike and Carrie grappled it out with them at the end, but Mike wasn't as big as Jerold, and Carrie was a little more substantial than Helen, so the outcome didn't surprise anyone.

Those that bit the gritty water early on wound up rooting for the diminishing collection of surviving combatants.  I, of course, watched with others like myself from the safety at the edge of the hole.  Asking a nearly naked girl, as I thought of them, to climb up on my shoulders in that manner was a little more than I could do.  I wondered how Helen and Carrie and Hannah and Charlotte and Shanks could bring themselves to straddle a guy's neck like that and not think about the obvious.

Terry elbowed me, his eyes on Helen as she waded out of the water.  "Your dad keep a loaded shotgun in the house?"  I looked over at him, puzzled by his grin.  Hank and Mike laughed at my look.

"Not usually.  Why?"

He gestured at Helen.  "See if you can keep it that way, will you?  I might need an edge to make a quick escape some night."  General laughter followed at his request.  Helen, seemingly oblivious, ripped off her bathing cap; then, putting both hands in her hair, she shook and fluffed it out.

That silenced the laughter.  Her uncomplicated bathing suit, designed for ordinary young girls,  proved only an entertaining prop for Helen's brief show.  The skirt-like fringe at her hips shimmied back and forth, as, in the opposite direction, did her overstuffed upper reaches.  I couldn't recall ever having seen that particular set of moves before, and, just like the other fellows had, I found them to be impressive.

"Fourteen," Terry breathed.  "Look at her.  Jesus!"  Helen shot him a quick look over a half-hidden smile, then went to dry off and resume hostess duties.

Terry went back into the swimming hole, leaving me with a disturbing prediction.  "If you're the protective sort, Carl, you've got your hands full.  I'm glad she's not my sister."

I'd often had similar thoughts.

The musicians showed up at the height of the swimming.  Soon the sounds of tuning instruments filled the afternoon, then the accordion warbled out its organ-like notes.  Satisfied, the musicians shifted into "Buffalo Gals."  Dad and Mom began the dancing and were quickly joined by Charlotte's parents, then Jerold and Hannah's father and Carrie's mom paired up too.  Doc Sarver had arrived alone, and while he enjoyed the visiting and the food and drink, he never set foot on the dance grass.

Soon some of the kids joined in and dancing became an official feature of the party.  Wet swimsuits remained the outfit du soir, something that even today I marvel at.  That was pretty modern thinking on the part of the adults those days, allowing us to dance in that attire.

When the music calmed down to a more leisurely pace Hannah stepped up to make good on her offer to teach me a step or two.  Trapped, I acceded to the inevitable and did my best to follow her instruction, but found it distracting to have her in my arms like that.  I did learn something, though, that afternoon: it's not a good idea to dance in a wet bathing suit with a pretty girl.  At least, not in public.  Halfway through the first dance number Hannah quickly backed away from me, both of us blushing but not commenting.

Trying to hide my humiliation, I waltzed her over to the edge of the crowd and kept my back to them as long as I could.  Hannah did her best to pretend not to notice as she tried to teach me some dance steps out there on the fringe of the universe, avoiding my eyes and trying to look down only at my feet while making sure to keep plenty of air between us.

As humorous as it might seem, at the time I found it excruciatingly embarrassing.  She and I hardly spoke at all, except for "Now concentrate, Carl.  One, two, three .  .  ."  and so on.  Both of us hid our vast relief when the music stopped and we could escape in different directions.  I immediately went back to the swimming hole and submerged.

After the evidence of my embarrassment subsided I resurfaced and went back to the barn.  No more of that, I thought, gritting my teeth.  I pulled on my Levis and shirt, then rejoined the party, the only fully-clothed partyer.  I wondered how those other guys managed.  I suspected that they and their partners all suffered (or enjoyed, possibly) the exact same situation.  But I was the only one to announce it with my clothing change.  I might as well have hung a sign around my neck.

Terry eventually relieved my unjustified suspicion that I was the center of attention.  With a couple hours yet to go in the party, he dressed and pleaded bellyache, then took to his horse to go home.  As we gathered around him to wave our sympathetic good-byes he reached down and swung Shanks up behind him, then galloped off with her at a breakneck rate, thereby dashing the post-party plans of most of the other gentlemen.

To no avail, her brother Frank ran after them into the drifting cloud of dust, shouting thunderous objections and improper invective while shaking a fisted fork with one hand and balancing a heaped platter of potato salad and steaming hog with the other.  Dad quickly borrowed Mike's horse and galloped off, and sometime later here they came, Dad leading their horse by the reins, abashed looks on their faces.  I'd like to have heard what he had to say when he caught up with them.

So, as things sorted themselves out, I spent more time watching and circulating harmlessly than anything else.  It allowed me to keep an eye on Helen, who seemed able to have a good time even with Jerold.

I joined Tank, who sat and sipped a soda in the company of the adults.  Together we watched the rest of the kids having a high old time dancing and tomfoolering.

"Now that Hannah learnt you to dance, are you going to ask me to dance?"  She asked after a moment.  "Or are you already wore out?"

I sighed, shook my head.  "If you were watching, Elma, you saw Hannah give me up for a lost cause."

"Well, that's good.  Saves me tellin' you no."  She smiled, I saw out of my sideways glance.  "Lucky you."

I was struggling with how to reply like a gentleman to such a self-effacing remark when Mom came and sat down beside me on the bench.  "Tired already, Carl?"

"Worked hard today," I reminded her.

"I think there might be a young lady or two who would allow you a dance, if you think you're up to it."  Her eyes shifted back and forth between my left one and my right one.  Her smile beamed adoration, shining the glow of her affection upon her favorite son.  She probably thought she'd do the females at the party a favor by prodding me to grace them with my presence.

"I might learn to dance someday," I hedged reluctantly.

"I'll teach you right now, if you want."

Well, you can imagine what I thought of that.  She saw the look on my face and laughed.  Tank snickered past the pork in her mouth.  Mom looked over at Dad, who paused his talking with Mrs.  Simon and Mr.  Farley.  I saw him shake his head just a little, then Mom got up and smoothed her skirt.

"It's your party, Carl, and we want you to enjoy it.  Relax and have a good time, whatever that means to you.  These -" and she tilted her head at the half-naked hooligans on the lawn - "are your friends.  You've known a few of them all your life.  They've come to your party.  Their feelings might be hurt if they thought you didn't have a good time."  Then she stepped over to join Dad and the others.

"Yeah," Tank said helpfully.  "You better have a good time or else we won't come next year.  Unless you have food like this again, of course."

I sat and watched the dancers and thought about ways I could just disappear.

As the party progressed I saw that Helen spent most slow dances with Jerold on the fringe of the crowd, just as Hannah and I had that one time.  But unlike Hannah and myself, no amount of air separated them.  His thick arm around her narrow waist kept them snugly against each other.  Other dances, the ones that weren't slow, she spent with other hopefuls, twirling and heel-and-toeing.  But with Jerold she wrapped her arm around his neck and kept her head against his bare and hairy chest as they swayed together during the slow dances, moving their bare feet and tangling their bare legs just enough to be barely dancing.

The hair on the back of my neck rose.  I didn't like it a bit.

I casually wandered over to the edge of the crowd to watch more closely.  The dancing went on, Helen seemingly content to be pasted snugly against him.  Finally, unable to watch another moment, I tapped him on his shoulder.

"May I cut in?"  I knew enough about dancing to know that was proper form.  I tried to keep from grinding my teeth audibly.

Jerold gave me an unsmiling look.  "You want to dance with your own sister?  What are you, simple?"

Actually, I was.  But that wasn't his business.  "It's our party, so I think we should dance at least once, don't you Helen?"  I looked at her with my best you'd-better-give-the-right-answer look.

Jerold looked down at her, still squished against him.  She looked back up at him.  "If you don't mind, Jerold."  She peeled away from him, revealing that he was in the same state I'd been in with Hannah.  So angry I could hardly speak, I forced myself to calm for a moment as I danced away with her in my newly-taught but unlearned club-footed manner.  Jerold's look followed us, and it didn't even hint at being pleased.

Safely out of earshot at the far edge of the crowd, I gave her what for.  "How can you rub up with him like that, Helen?  He'll think you're fair game for late night visits!"

"None of your business, Mister Peeping Tom.  Quit spying on me!  If we want to rub up and have late night visits, that's up to us!"

"Oh, no it isn't," I frothed back at her.  "First off, since you're only through a thin wall from my room, a visit like that would wake me, and I like my sleep, so that alone makes it my business.  Second, Dad would shoot him after I did.  Thirdly, you're not even officially fourteen yet.  You're not old enough to even begin to think like that!  And lastly, if you don't stop it I'll paddle you right here in front of your friends."

She leaned back and looked at me, and I could tell she gave what I said some thought.  "Really?  You'd paddle me?"

The picture somehow seemed amusing, and I found myself almost laughing.  "Well, maybe I'd bash ole Jerold's face in, instead.  Save your paddling for later."

She shook her head in emphatic denial.  "Fat chance.  He'd pound you into pudding."

"He might have to work pretty hard at that," I bragged unconvincingly.  She made a wry face.

"Pudding," she assured me.  "Blood and bone and gristle pudding.  You're big, but he's a monster.  And older and meaner."

My sister was a perceptive sort and I saw no reason to argue with her assessment just then, especially since I agreed with it.  "Well, if you don't want me pounded into pudding, you've had your last dance with him tonight."

We danced a moment longer without speaking.  "All this," she asked, "for what?  My honor?"

"Do what you want with your honor," I offered in my most sincere free-thinking manner, "when you're old enough to decide such things for yourself.  In the meantime I have to watch out for you."

"And that includes getting pounded into pudding if I flirt with Jerold?"

"I don't think what I just saw was flirting, Helen."

"But you would get pounded into -"

"Yes.  Now, if you want to see that happen, just dance with him again.  It ought to be fun, getting up in the middle of the night to change the bloody bandages on my face.  You'll enjoy that.  I'm sure Mom and Dad would add that to your chore list once they heard the whole story."

We danced another quiet moment or two.  "When did you decide to be this - this watchful, Carl?"

"I never had cause to decide before.  But I've noticed that most of the guys here think you're the prettiest girl in a crowd of pretty girls, so I guess I just now decided."

She grinned happily at that observation.  "It's about time they noticed that," she said modestly.

I scowled, unimpressed with her levity.  "You've made sure they noticed, you little vamp.  They couldn't help it.  Now you listen to what I've told you, and behave."

"Well, I'll have to think about it.  I didn't expect -"

"You should have.  When have I ever not looked out for you?"

"But this is different.  Isn't it?"  Pale blue eyes in the after-sundown gloom, slightly puzzled, slightly surprised, she said later, that I spoke with such firmness.

I nodded.  It was different.  But also, it wasn't.  "I don't think it's much different, Hon."

The dance ended and everyone clapped enthusiastically.  Another started, and Terry asked her to dance.  I watched them twirl off into the crowd, not sure she was any better off with him than with Jerold.  The music was fast, though, and all that legal close and clingy stuff that slow dances allowed couldn't happen.

Jerold never got another dance with her.  I sat out the rest of the dances keeping an eye on him, as handy an excuse as I needed.  He danced with girl after girl, even got his face slapped by - of all people - Shanks.  She stalked off in a contained fury, leaving him holding his cheek in surprise and the nearby dancers laughing.  He didn't dance with Carrie or Charlotte, although I saw him ask them both more than once.  He asked Helen once more, and she shook her pale curls and turned him down.  He argued briefly, she shook her head again and gestured at me, directing his attention at me in the waning evening twilight.

"Carl won't let me," I'm sure she told him.  "Ask him."  It was fine with me if she told him that.  Better than fine, even.

His look should have chilled my bones, but instead I felt myself smile.  I understand you, I thought.  You're harmless from now on, you ungentlemanly bully.

I hoped I'd guessed right.


I tried to put Jerold's existence out of my mind.

He's been taken care of, I reminded myself, now relax.  So, in pursuit of that state, I'd gotten probably my fourth or so Nehi and leaned back against the corral, my elbows draped over the top rail and one leg stuck out in front to brace myself.  Dad joined me there and assumed the same relaxed propped-up pose.  Evening had fallen and folks were getting ready to leave.

"Noticed you had a word or so with Jerold and Helen."

I pushed up my hat brim.  "Yeah.  I thought Helen and I should have a birthday dance."

He reached down and groped around in the dry weeds by the fencepost until he found a straw.  Sticking it in his mouth, he commented.  "Uh-huh."

That meant "Bullshit."  He never said anything like that, being a civilized farmer and a gentleman, but that's what it meant.

I told him what I'd already decided.  "I don't think we'll invite him back next year."

"I think folks will understand why," he reflected.  "But Helen might think different about it.  Looked to me like she didn't care for you buttin' in."

I glanced over at him.  "You want to talk to her?"

"Will."  He spat out a piece of the straw, resumed his chewing.  "'S past time.  Oughta done it years ago.  Ma and me, we think this weekend we'll set her down, speak plain."

I nodded.  He nodded.  We both nodded.

"What about you, Son?  We need to speak plain with you too?"

I gave the same answer any fifteen-year-old boy would give.  "Don't think so.  Things are okay."

Like most dads hearing that answer, he didn't completely buy it.  "If you think things are okay, then all those girls out there must be outa line."  He pointed with the straw still between his lips.  "They think you're ignoring them.  Is that what you mean by okay?"

"I danced," I reported correctly, "twice."

Dad looked at me.  "Dancin's fun," he began almost reflectively.  "Lota folks even pay for it, 'cause it's fun.  You're of an age when you oughta be findin' that out, learnin' social stuff with pretty girls who like your company."  He smiled as though remembering something particularly pleasant and wanting to pass a little of it along to me, then continued.  "I think I see some of those types out there."

He waited, saw me struggling to work up an answer to his unasked question, then stood, tossed the margled remnant of straw to the ground.  "Well, no hurry.  You'll find out there's no need to be afraid of them.  Doesn't mean you don't need to be careful, but you don't need to be so careful you can't have fun.  Fun's important.  Keeps a person's feet under 'em.  There's long stretches between fun out here on the Prairie, and a man'd be a fool to miss what's right in front of him for the havin'."

That was a lengthy speech for him.  I knew he'd been thinking about it most of the afternoon as he watched me avoid the girls and saw what kind of success Mom had with me earlier.  I'd been thinking about the same thing: Why can't you relax, I thought.  Why can't you just go out there and grab the prettiest girl - well, aside from Helen or Carrie - and dance and flirt?  How could it hurt, I wondered, knowing full well that it couldn't.

Such were the thoughts over which I agonized and wrung my hands until finally, unable to stand my self-inflicted aloneness, I screwed up my determination and headed over to find the prettiest suitable girl.  I'd been watching Hannah circulate, which she did with all the boys.  She seemed to be a good dancer, not that I could attest to that, knowing nothing at all about the sport, but she had grace and rhythm and fancy steps to spare, no matter what the music.  I decided that she was probably the prettiest suitable girl there, and anyway we'd sort of broken the ice with each other earlier.  She seemed the most likely candidate to help me break into the backyard social whirl too, although I knew it was late in the party to be starting that.

Hannah and Shanks stood near the main dinner table, talking.  She saw me coming and flashed a smile, then turned and spoke to Shanks, who laughed and glanced at me, mirth and appraisal in her eyes.

I had a sudden suspicion that she and Shanks were sharing a chuckle at my earlier embarrassment.  Luckily Charlotte sat behind them at the table, finishing a small piece of birthday cake.  I walked past the two smiling girls, greeting them politely as I did so, and sat next to Charlotte.

She looked up at me, trying her best not to appear puzzled.  "Hi, Carl."  Simple greeting.

"Hi.  Dance?"

Eyebrows.  "Dance?"  Then her eyes captured mine again.  Arrows, shattered glass even in the ochre glow of the oil lamp on the table.  My guts twisted again.  I silently cursed at myself for looking into her eyes.

"I asked first," I claimed, hoping my voice seemed calm.

She smiled and stood, the last of her cake forsaken.  "Sure."  So off we went into the crowd, trying to keep up with "Fiddlin' Bill."  An energetic piece, it kept us safely apart while the banjo picker and the fiddler fought for dominance of the melody.  I liked the way she smelled, a little soapy and a little flowery and a little girlish in her disturbing way, as I mentioned earlier.  We almost got around to talking when the music stopped, and the musicians packed up and left.

Three whole dances, two of them not even really dances.  It looked like rosebuds were out of season for me that night.  I felt disappointed in not being able to continue the fun, because I had begun to feel like having a good time and doing stupid, party-like things.  Instead, Helen and I got busy picking up the party and thanking folks for coming, the party officially over.

Dad escorted the McEvoy litter to their wagon and made sure all five of them were aboard and left together so he could tell their folks, if they arrived home one McEvoy short, that he'd seen them off properly.  Charlotte, Terry, Mike and the others left on horseback.  Finally only Carrie, Jerold and Hannah remained to keep Helen and me company.  Carrie's mother Nancy and Hannah's father Clyde sat with Mom and Dad at a table, socializing and sipping the last of their beers or, in the case of the ladies, their dandelion wine.

Except for Jerold, we kids worked together to pick things up.  Helen and I hauled dirty dishes out to the pump in front of the house where Mother had thoughtfully placed the dishpan.  On one trip Hannah helped me carry the huge pot that had held the boiled corn.  We set it down by the pump in front of the house.  The night had become dark.  No moon had risen, and the high thin clouds that loafed along lazily veiled even the thin starlight.  For the moment we were alone.

"I'm a little upset with you, Carl."

Surprised for a moment, I quickly deduced why.  "I couldn't help it," I almost whined.

She shook her head.  "Not about that, you - you silly.  I thought you might sit and talk with me for a few minutes.  I thought we were friends.  But you ignored me."

I turned toward her.  To say I looked at her would be misleading, because darkness prevented seeing much except vague outlines against the faint lamp glow from the windows of the house.

"I didn't ignore you, Hannah.  I thought you might be - uh, bothered - by havin' me around.  So I thought I should stay clear.  That's all."

I pushed the pot under the spout and Hannah jacked some water into it.  I picked up a pile of plates and eating utensils and lowered them into the water, then added some soap flakes.  Hannah went inside and quickly re-appeared with a lamp and a pitcher of hot water.  She stood over the pot and emptied the pitcher into it as I knelt on the other side, facing her.  Dipping a finger into the warm water to make sure I wouldn't get scalded, I began washing dishes.  Hannah and I didn't say anything during all that, neither of us sure how to get past the remarks of a few moments earlier.

Hannah finally spoke up.  "You don't need to stay clear, Carl."

I looked up at her, surprised yet again, searching for a simple reply.  Helen came around the side of the house and saw me kneeling in front of Hannah.

"Hey, Carl.  You're too young to be proposing already!  Get up and help with the hauling, all right?  You can propose later, if you want to."  And then giggles by both girls.

I stood and took a fast step toward Helen, who ran shrieking back around the house in mock fright at my threatening move.  I turned back to Hannah, who still had the giggles.

"Well, I guess this'll have to wait until later."  I gestured toward the pot of dishes.

She ignored the gesture and pretended to think I'd alluded to Helen's teasing.  "Yeah.  We're still pretty young.  We probably ought to wait a few weeks."

Hannah had figured out that I could be teased, I guessed.  I wondered briefly if the word had been spreading - first Helen, then Charlotte, now Hannah.

So I teased back.  "You sure?  I'm already fifteen, you know."

She put the lamp on the ground next to the pot and stepped close.  "Well, I'm not," she said.  "I've three and a half months to go.  So be patient."  Then she put her head against my chest and wrapped her arms around my waist and gave me a slow, comfortable hug.  A century or two later, the hug its own thick chapter in the history books, she looked up at me.  "Happy birthday."

I should have kissed her right there.  All my idiotically unsophisticated instincts screamed that a kiss would be perfect right then.  There she was, her smile right there for the bending down and tasting, her form right there in my arms, and only the night and a few bugs to watch romance form its first private blossoms.

She waited a couple seconds as I tried to come up with whether I should actually kiss her; then, probably afraid that I would if she stayed any longer, she whirled away and ran back around the house to help Helen.  I stood there rooted in the Prairie and tried to unbefuddle my thoughts.  I'd never heard of birthday hugs, but convinced myself that they must be common for Hannah to have given me one.  I tingled happily nonetheless.

When I returned to the back yard I saw Hannah with Helen stacking more dishes.  I joined them and picked up more eating tools.

"Thanks," I whispered hoarsely to Hannah when I thought no one else might overhear.  "That was nice of you."

She smiled, but didn't look up from her chore.  I went over to pick up plates and utensils from the yard table supporting the elbows of the remaining adults.

Dad and Clyde Farley, both still in their damp swimsuits, sat across the table from Mom and Nancy Simon, sipping and talking and generally relaxing as they dripped dry.  Mrs.  Simon hadn't changed out of her swimsuit either, one of those modern two-piece jobs that permitted thoughtful review of the female midsection, which in her case was trim and taut, a lovely testament to the benefits of physical labor.  She must have been confident of her eye appeal to risk wearing such a garment, even in the modern age of 1939.  She certainly had reason; men of any age would have appreciated her.  A white shawl over her shoulders fended off the last of the late-flying mosquitoes, a pest the other three adults ignored.

When most of our classmates had gone, Mom stepped inside and replaced her own two-piece top with a white summer weight shirt that, without a brassiere, left to the imagination only the question of her below-the-waist attire, if any.  To at least my own relief, patient observation eventually confirmed that beneath the long tails of the shirt she still wore the bottom to her pale pink swimsuit.  Two buttons did their duty as guardians of her upper modesty.  Her hair, the same shade of blonde as Helen's, flowed in carefully brushed loose waves to a few inches past her shoulders, surrounding her face and playing nice shadow tricks.  She looked like a pretty guest who'd carefully put herself together so that men would look her over repeatedly and smile every time.  It worked.

The jaundiced glow from the oil lantern at the end of the table alternately accentuated, then flattened features as the highlights and shadows shifted in flickertime.  The surreal effect flattered, heightening my suspicion that Mom and Mrs.  Simon were competing for something.  Attention?  Top reading on the Who's Prettiest gauges?  I didn't know, but I wondered.  By my reckoning, whatever contest they were in, they seemed about even.  Mom was probably prettier, but Mrs.  Simon provided a more complete view.  Not much more, but some.

As I picked up Dad's plate and utensils, Mom leaned across the table picturesquely and put a hand on Mr.  Farley's arm, interrupting my reach for Dad's second plate.

"Clyde," she said, careless of the view she'd just provided, "Nancy and I are going to have some fun in Kansas City tonight.  We would like you to escort us.  If you can change his mind, Jack can tag along, if you want, but only if he promises to be a good sport."  I thought her voice sounded a little loose around the edges, then remembered that she and the others had been sipping most of the evening.

"Oh?"  He grunted interestedly, smiling back.  He raised his attention from the vicinity of that picturesque view long enough to skip between her and Mrs.  Simon's eyes.

Dad turned and looked at Mr.  Farley, a long-suffering grimace on his face.  "Nancy mentioned it to me earlier, Clyde.  Told her I didn't think I particularly wanted to go all that way when we could have fun right here.  But she said they wanted lights and cocktails and dancin'."  He paused, a man-to-man look in his eye.  "Jeanne ain't been out for a time, so you might have to teach her public manners.  Maybe Nancy, too.  You'll be busy."  A one-sided grin curled at his lips.

I recognized the mischief in the "just between us" smile Mom shot Dad before she turned her full attention back to Mr.  Farley.

"See?  Old stick-in-the-mud says it's fine with him.  I don't know why he won't come; maybe he's afraid we'll keep him up all night, or something.  You aren't afraid of that, are you?"

He glanced at Dad, and I saw his Adam's apple bob up and down.  "Um - well, no, but -"

"Good.  And you won't have to drive back home in the wee hours, either.  We've arranged for a couple of rooms at the Aladdin."  Their eyes tangled briefly with each other.  Mom smiled and sweetened the offer.  "You can have whichever you prefer."

Mr.  Farley looked away as he contemplated what to make of the night's possibilities.  The light didn't let me see if he had a flush to him, but he should have.  My own ears felt hot.

Mr.  Farley was a widower of almost fifteen years' stubborn standing and most eligible, if a woman wasn't bothered by his tough reputation.  However, he was said to be immune to subtle suggestion and flirtation.  Hard-bitten and quick-fisted, he lived the life of a hard case with a fiercely held sense of fair play.  Men rarely crossed him, as the stories went, for it meant hammering it out if they did.  The stories also said he usually did most of the hammering.

He looked back at her, his eyes dropping repeatedly into her display.  "Well, the kids -" His voice tentative, his hesitation artificial, he almost begged that they talk him out of his dutiful reluctance.  I went to the other side of the table, slowing down my chore a little so as to hear more and see a little less.

Mrs.  Simon didn't seem a bit put off by those stories of Mr.  Farley's rough ways.  My favorite neighbor lady eschewed subtlety to circumvent his feeble objection: "It's going on four years since I've enjoyed a night of, uh, revelry, Clyde."

Dad protested with good-natured gallantry.  "That's not fair, Nancy!  How's a man supposed to turn you down fair and square after that?  It ain't possible!  And you, Jeanne, teasin' Clyde with all that sly talk - "

She interrupted Dad.  "I've never been a tease, Jack, as you know very well."  She swirled the clear dandelion in her jar, then glanced up and illuminated Mr.  Farley with a quick smile.  "And I'm not about to start tonight."

She tipped her glass back and sipped sloppily, splashing most of its contents down her shirtfront as she did.  She coughed and laughed with embarrassment, then wiped her lips and chin with the back of one hand and pressed her shirt against her skin to soak up the wine with the other.  The light fabric surrendered its halfhearted opacity to the drenching and clung to her breasts, showing off her proud and pointy landscape to us all.

The interplay between the adults both fascinated and embarrassed me.  I felt like a voyeur, and tore my eyes away quickly to look at the men.  For a moment they struggled with themselves over whether they should smile and offer compliments, or look away.

Mom settled that for them.  "Excuse me," she giggled as she stood, keeping everyone's attention and making matters even more entertaining.  "I think I should change this shirt."  Plucking at it to demonstrate reasons why.  "I'll be right back."  She walked toward the house, just the tiniest bit wobbly.  The silence stretched.

Dad broke it, his advice carrying loudly in the night.  "And get yourself a cuppa coffee while you're in there, Jeanne.  You gotta be awake to dance properly."

He shook his head for the benefit of Mr.  Farley and Mrs.  Simon.  "I ain't seen Jeanne so fulla tomfoolery for ages.  Must be havin' two kids in their teens what done it."  He looked at me.  "Say there, Carl, you didn't put no locoweed nor hemp in the dandelion, did you?"  Everyone laughed while I scurried away with the dishes, feeling guilty for not averting my eyes quickly enough.

I think more beer and dandelion had passed under their bridges than I'd first guessed.  Mr.  Farley, probably not believing his good fortune, sat there with a bemused grin on his face and lightning in his veins.  Two uncommonly attractive women were clearly in the mood for fun, and he had been invited along as pivot man.  Of course he wouldn't have admitted he aspired to that, just like Dad wouldn't have admitted he wondered about that.

I carried the dishes around the house to the pot by the pump and got to work on them, picking up the chore Helen had interrupted earlier.  Hannah and Helen brought me more dishes.  I wondered where Jerold had disappeared to.

"He's in the corral getting our horses," Hannah told me.  "It's about time for us to go home too."

I told her that it looked like her Dad might be going dancing in Kansas City that night.  Hannah's look of horror probably lasted less than a tenth of a second before being replaced by a relaxed smile.

"He doesn't get out much," is all she said.  Nothing else.

Helen had more questions, though.  "Everyone's going?  Mom, Dad, Mrs.  Simon too?"

"Not sure about Dad.  He didn't want to, but maybe he'll change his mind since Mom is going for sure."  I dumped more soap flakes into the greasy dishwater.  "They've got a couple rooms at the Aladdin Hotel, so I expect they'll be back late tomorrow."

"Wow," Helen said, a smile in her voice.  "That'll be neat for them.  They haven't done that before!"  Then she lowered her load into the pot and Hannah pumped a little more water.  I got busy with the rag.

Jerold came around the house leading Hannah's horse, followed by Dad and Mr.  Farley.

"Hey Jerold," Dad called out.  "You and Hannah able to get along without your dad tonight?"

Jerold's response was enthusiastic.  "Sure, Mr.  Wheat."

But Hannah didn't share that enthusiasm.  "Daddy," Hannah said with deep apology in her voice, "Could you give me a ride home?  I have a wagon load of homework, and I don't understand a lot of it.  I was hoping I could get a quick start on it, but if I have to ride an hour before I get started, well .  .  ."

"But tomorrow's Saturday, Pumpkin.  It'll wait."

She pouted just a little.  "You know how I hate doing homework on weekends, Daddy.  And you have to go home anyway, don't you?  Won't you need clothes, or something?"

He looked thoughtful, then nodded his head.  "Yep.  That's right, all right."  He turned toward Jerold.  "Jerold?  You bring her horse with you when you come home, you hear?"

"Okay, Pa."

He turned to Dad.  "After I drop Hannah off I'll grab a toothbrush and some clean underwear and meet you in Kansas City, Jack.  Where do the girls want to go dancing?"

"Don't know, Clyde.  There's lots of places, so I'm sure we'll get worked to death tonight.  We'll stop by and pick you up; Jeanne and Nancy have to pack a few things too.  You're on the way anyway.  There's no need for you to drive yourself unless you want to."  So, Dad had relented and was going too.  That made sense to me; it takes two men to dance with two women, doesn't it?  

Hannah went over to her horse and lifted off her saddle bag, then stood and waited for her father as he completed his goodbyes.  She waved from their car as they finally drove off and Jerold headed out cross-country leading Hannah's gray.  He hadn't seemed all that pleased at the way things worked out.  I attributed it to having to lead a horse for an hour or more.

Carrie and Mrs.  Simon left shortly afterward, driving their wagon.  Dad and Mom would pick Mrs.  Simon up at her house after they'd packed a few things and cleaned up for the night out.  Within fifteen minutes Helen and I were alone.

After she changed back into her summer dungarees and brought the lantern out into the middle of the back yard, Helen and I got busy cleaning up the evidence.  We had plenty to do, and the amount of work still ahead of us was discouraging, but we got at it.

Packing and pickling the leftover pig took some time, as did moving all the furniture back into the house and washing all the pots and pans and dishes, then putting them away.  We took down all the paper streamers and carried them to the trash pit.  We accomplished all that before midnight, according to the chimes coming from the Grandfather clock in the parlor.

The night had hushed somewhat, a few bug sounds here and there mixing with the occasional coyote cry and a distant screech owl conversation to give the blackness an almost musical aura.  I didn't mind working late like that because I loved the Prairie nights.  They seemed to me to be as close as a person could get to early times, before Man came along with his noise and organizing things.  I liked the simplicity of the natural order, whatever it was, and that included the sounds.  They seemed part of me.

Two shorts and a long.  Two shorts and a long.  Our ten-party line rang loudly, which at that time of night had to mean trouble.  Folks didn't disturb ten families late at night for no reason.

I sprinted inside and jerked the earpiece off its cradle.  Jerold spoke.

"Is Hannah there?"  His voice less concerned than accusatory.

"No.  She went home with your dad."  He knew that.  He'd seen her leave.

"You'd better not be lying to me, Carl.  If I find out she's there you'll wish you'd told the truth."

Suddenly worried, I ignored his threat.  "Are you sure you've checked everywhere?  Her room, maybe?"  That seemed pretty obvious, and I immediately felt stupid for even asking.

But Jerold ignored it.  "She's gone.  So's dad's horse.  She left a note saying she was going to spend the night out, and not to expect her back until tomorrow sometime.  I figure she had somewhere in mind, and I'm checking her friends.  She likes you and Helen.  Do you know anyone else she might go see?"  He'd calmed down a little, going a whole paragraph already without threatening me.

"Well - everyone I know likes her.  I guess she could go almost anywhere."  A question presented itself.  "Does she have a boyfriend?"

"Boyfriend?  Hannah?  You think she might -" He paused, considering, then came to his senses again.  "She'd better not be there with you, Carl."  Click.

"Who called?"  Helen asked from fifty feet away as I walked back to her and the trash pit.

"Jerold.  He can't find Hannah.  She left a note saying she was going out, but didn't say where."

Helen stopped piling the burn waste and stood up.  "Out?  This time of night?  I thought she wanted to do her homework, or something."  She stepped around the pit, inspecting her handiwork.

"Yeah.  That's what she said, all right.  Something sounds fishy."  I didn't like the worry that crept into my voice.  All sorts of explanations presented themselves to my imagination, none of them pleasant.

"So what's Jerold going to do?"  She bent down to the pit again and made a final adjustment to the pile of waste, making sure it would light easily.

"He didn't say, Helen.  Just charmed me with his usual promises."  I grinned.  She looked up askance, saw that I was being sarcastic.

"He offered to beat you up, didn't he?"

"Yeah.  His solution to every situation.  Sometimes I wonder how Hannah could even be related to him."  I gave her a look.  "Or how any girl could be attracted to him."

She ignored my gibe.  "Are you planning to do anything?  Go looking for her?"

I didn't like the answer I had to give.  "I would, but I don't know where to start, Helen.  Can't see much because there's no moon and almost no stars.  Probably ought not go pounding on people's doors this time of night.  And it's probably up to Jerold to call the sheriff if he's worried.  There's a lot of Prairie out there, and a girl on a horse isn't going to take up much of it.  Chances of tripping over her, if she's gone for a ride and doesn't want to be found, say, are pretty slim."

"You think she doesn't want to be found?"

"I don't know.  Her note didn't say where she was going.  Maybe she doesn't."

"Why would she just - go away like that?"  Her voice puzzled.

I'd been thinking about that.  "She doesn't want to be home with just him.  Maybe they don't get along; they're almost perfect opposites, after all.  Other than that, I don't know.  But whatever her reasons for going out, Jerold's peace of mind isn't much of a consideration, or she wouldn't have left him a note like that."

She was silent a moment as she thought that over.  "If I left you a note like that, what would you do?"

"I'd call the sheriff, I'd call Mom and Dad, and I'd call a few friends to help me go looking for you."

"Even if I asked you not to do that?  Would you still come looking for me?"  She groped into her pocket for a match.

"Yep.  Even then."

She pressed it even further.  "What if it was dark, like tonight?  And it was snowing and 'leventy-seven degrees below zero and the wind was eighty miles an hour?  What would you do then?"

I laughed.  "Well, then I'd put a coat on first.  Then I'd do all of that, if Henry would let me."  Henry was my horse.  And, being smarter than me, he probably wouldn't have let me.

She grinned up at me.  "Well, you can relax.  I wouldn't do that to you."  She scratched the match on a rusty can in the trash pit, then lit the trash we'd placed there.  I leaned on my shovel, a tool Dad required we use every time we burned the trash, and watched.  Helen stood on the opposite side of the pit and did the same.  Her eyes lost focus, the fire drained her thoughts.  For the first time since that morning I thought she looked hot and tired.

She voiced the same conclusion I had already reached.  "I guess there's nothing more we can do about her tonight, then.  Maybe she'll tell us about it tomorrow."

"Maybe."  The fire was hypnotic, crackling and dancing and destroying our night vision.  We were close to being done with our cleanup; the fire burn had only to burn itself down before we could go to bed.  "Why don't you go to bed, Hon.  I'll finish up."

She spoke softly, her gaze unmoving, as though the words came of themselves without conscious thought.  "There are times when I think we are the only real people in the entire universe, Carl."

I'd felt like that myself, especially at night.  I agreed with her.  "Maybe everyone has their own universe."

"Or maybe some people can share a universe, because - because they want to."

I walked around the pit and stood beside her, put an arm over her shoulder.  She slid one around my waist and rested her head against my chest.  We watched the flames dwindle to become coals as our imaginations probed unhurriedly at the idea of universes and who we might invite to share them.

The chimes from inside struck midnight.

"Time for bed," I announced along with the chimes.  "We can sleep in some.  No school tomorrow."

"Today."  She corrected, straightening up and jamming her shovel into the dirt.  "No school today."

I shoveled dirt onto the largest remaining collection of coals, then followed her into the house.  I washed up, brushed my teeth, and pulled on my pajama bottoms despite the warm breeze trickling through my open window.

She came in before I turned the lamp out.  Her white ankle-length robe covered her with garish, oversized orange and pink blossoms painted on dingy cotton.  She'd brushed her pale hair out into a wavy cloud as she always did at bedtime, and also as always, she looked squeaky clean and wholesome.

"Go ahead," she said.  "Get in bed."  So I did.

After I'd gotten comfy she sat on the edge of the bed and patted the vacancy next to me.  "This was my place for almost twelve years."

"Whenever I wake up expecting to find you there," I reported, "You're not."

She arched her eyebrows over her smiling eyes.  "You still do that?"

"Sometimes," I admitted.

"Sometimes that happens to me, too.  I've missed you."

I reached over and took her hand and squeezed.  She looked at our double-fisted tangle, then spliced her fingers through mine, the conversation in a short pause.

She looked back at me and went on.  "Toward the end I'd wake up and wonder what you felt about us having to sleep apart.  About each of us having our own rooms.  Our own beds."

"I knew I would miss you.  Couldn't you tell?"

Her smile cracked into a grin as she remembered.  "You did make it pretty obvious.  And I felt like that too.  I hated moving out.  In a way it seemed like we were being punished for something.  But what?  Being old enough to know how nice it is that we're boy and girl?"

"I think so, Hon.  I think that's why Mom and Dad wanted that addition."

She said it plain.  "Were they afraid we'd incest each other?"

I tried to handle it without blinking.  "I don't think that was exactly it.  But something like that.  Brothers and sisters don't usually sleep together after a certain age, not even when they get along like we do.  At least that's what I've noticed.  What about you?"

"I haven't exactly asked around," she stated without even pausing to reflect.  "But I don't know any who get along like we do, and believe me I've looked, too.  You're lucky."  Her grin showed she understood the lack of humility in her statement, but I knew she meant exactly what she said.

"You are, too.  I've heard tales about some brothers that would curl your hair.  But it's late.  Why don't we go to bed?"

"Okay."  Then she pulled back the sheet and slid in next to me, curling up with her head on my left shoulder like she used to.  I was startled initially, then touched.  I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and petted her hair, something she'd always liked.

"Staying the night, are you?"  I asked, making sure.

"Yes.  We're alone," she sighed as she wriggled herself into my hollows.  "We don't have to miss each other tonight."  Then she kissed my neck right on the pulse, a slow and easy lip-placing that left a damp spot cooling there.  Her breast rested softly against my chest, and her leg carelessly slid between mine.  The Dragon awoke and twitched beneath her upper thigh.

"Was I really the prettiest girl in a crowd of pretty girls tonight, Carl?"  she shifted her thigh slightly, a sure sign that she enjoyed being the reason for the Dragon's throbbings.

I turned to face her, breaking that particular contact.  "Every boy here tonight is putting you on their Christmas list, Prettiest Girl," I answered, hoping that the continued conversation would deflect the unspoken thoughts we both had.

"Most of you are on my list, too."

"Who didn't make the cut?"  I asked, smiling.

"Well," she started thoughtfully, ticking off names.  "There's Daddy, of course.  Doc Sarver and Charlotte's father, and the sheriff.  I guess that's all the men off the list.  Plank and Frank aren't on my list, either."

That left a bunch.  "You're going to be busy, come you're old enough to date.  You really stopped the show this afternoon when you shook out your hair like you did."

"Really?"  She fished, shamelessly.

I almost laughed.  "Yeah.  And you need a bigger swim suit.  Were you showing off on purpose?"  I knew full well that she had been.

She grinned, but didn't confess.  "I heard what Terry said.  About making sure the shotgun is unloaded."

"I saw you flash that look at him when he said that.  Did you hear him tell me he's glad you're not his sister, too?"

"Yes.  I'm glad too.  I'd much rather be yours."

I touched her cheek.  "I've had mixed ideas about that," I admitted.  "Things would be easier if you weren't."

"You're just worried about the laws, Big Brother.  You don't need to be.  I sure won't tell."

Me either, I thought.  "You're going to drive me nuts, you know.  All your flirty ways."

"They're just for show, Carl, like always.  You don't need to worry about other boys."

"Thanks.  Now I feel much better," I assured her wryly.  She poked me in the arm, then sighed, and I felt her melt into a flesh and bone puddle against me.

"Good night, Mr. Too Careful.  I love you."

"Good night, Worry Bait.  I love you too."

We fell asleep that way, victims of a hard twenty hours.  A moment of quiet at first while a warm breeze pushed its soothing way past the open curtains of my gaping window, then my favorite person in the world, who I'd never been able to stay angry at for more than three minutes, snored softly on my shoulder.

I felt like I was stealing something that I'd already been given.