Every now and then I use a photograph of mine as a writing prompt. To catch this particular image I stood on a stump out on the edge of our wild woods property, craned my neck long, wobbled a great deal, zoomed through the tree branches, and clicked. What stood out first was the… oh, wait a minute, never you mind. Just read the story and you’ll find out what struck my fancy about the picture.
I am posting this story in two parts. Count ’em: one, two. Part one is available for your reading pleasure today. Part two, well, it’s not posted yet. It’s finished, but you’ll have to come back. Oh forget it. Here’s the whole meal deal. You have my permission to read -n-leave and return at your leisure. Just take set yer dirty boots on the porch before you come in and then take ’em with ya when you go. You may rinse and repeat until squeeky clean. Wait, that’s hair care. You may read until you don’t wanna read anymore.
They married young, like everyone did back in the forties. And although theirs was a meager, hard life, it was one they willingly shared, like their folks before them had done.
Because of his bum leg, Samuel Emerson had to stay behind while his three brothers, two older and one younger, were off to war. During that time, folks said that Samuel pulled the weight of two men as he worked beside his dad on the farm.
And although he would never admit to it, Samuel felt like a fool most days, turning the dirt and coaxing a crop to grow, while real men fought a bloody war, and all who died, died heroes, even those who were truly cowards, or sissies, or worse yet, both. Still, he never said anything; he just put his hand to the plow, the shovel, the tractor, and all those blasted weeds. Between him and God, he was out to prove his worth, if not on the battlefield, then he’d do it right there, between the harrowing, planting, and harvesting. He’d do every single thing he could to earn his keep and to keep his old man one step ahead of the drought.
And I would crawl on shattered glass all the way through hell’s fire if it meant I could bring all the Emerson brothers back home to the farm. Back where they’re supposed to be.
With the noontime sun hot and high he made his way in from the field. Next to the garden Samuel stuck his face and hands under the water spigot and washed off one layer of sweaty man grime. Then he plucked the dry laundry off the line for his mama. As he set the basket of clothes on the back porch he saw someone walking up the long dusty driveway. He hoped it wasn’t another man looking for work because he hated the brokenness that he saw in their eyes when his daddy had to turn them away. Those men wore in plain sight, the very thing that he tried so hard to hide. Fear of not measuring up in their loved one’s eyes.
“Mama! Another one is coming up the drive. Where’s daddy?”
Small in stature, but big in heart and love, Samuel’s mother wore a faded apron over a white and yellow gingham dress. She pushed open the screen door with her hip, dried her hands on a dishtowel, and said, “Son, your daddy’s gone off to town – something about parts for the tractor. You’re gonna have to take care of it this time.”
“Is there any ham leftover from breakfast, mama? Maybe you could make a couple of sandwiches in case his family is waiting back out there on the road. I hate to send him off with nothing. And what about a jar of your canned peaches too?”
She nodded at his request but then turned aside and smiled. She knew full well that it wasn’t a hungry man, but rather a love-starved young lady making her way up the drive.
“Why looky there, Samuel, it’s not a man, it’s the Hanson’s daughter, Mona. Go on and see what she needs.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Samuel said as he walked around the side of the house toward the front yard gate.
Mona was the eldest of the Hanson brood. The smartest too. It’s a good thing because between the two of her brothers, they didn’t share the common sense God gave a piece of cornbread; even so, they were obedient, eager to please, and muscular. Because of those latter traits, at least her brothers would always have financial security through farm labor jobs. On the other hand, Mona’s younger sister was enthralled with all things frilled and fancy, despite, or maybe in spite of, her family’s almost pitiful upbringing. That girl lives with her head so far in the clouds that her dainty, dirty bare feet never even touch ground. It just might prove to be all right though – the banker’s son is smitten with young Hanson’s golden curls and pink-lipped smile.
Ever since Mrs. Hanson went to be with the Lord some two years ago, Mr. Hanson has relied on Mona’s business sense and quick wit more than once. Mona’s attributes extend beyond the usage of her head for more than a way to hold her eyebrows off of her neck; she is lanky and tall, but oh so swift and strong. Samuel, along with half the town, had seen that firsthand a couple years ago when old mister Jenkins burst into the schoolhouse hollering something about his missus bleeding mighty fierce-like.
“I need help! Someone get Doc! Someone! Anyone, come help my wife! It ain’t going right! There’s blood all over the dern place.”
Samuel had seen enough calves birthed and overheard enough stories between his mama and grandma to know that for some moms, birthing babies was as natural as growing hair, while for others, like Mrs. Jenkins, it was a tortuous and desperate event that oftentimes ended in tragedy.
“Settle down there, Jenkins,” said Mr. Randall, the high school teacher. Throughout the whole ordeal he kept his voice calm yet firm.
Following the intrusive outburst of the man pleading for help, a ruckus had erupted in the classroom. Distracted by the second disturbance, even more so than the first, teacher Randall slapped his desk and said, “Everyone hush. I can’t hear myself think.”
He pointed to Sara, the local mid-wife’s daughter, and said, “I know your ma’s over in Riverbend county tending to her sister, but I need you to take Mr. Jenkins back to his house and do what you can for his wife until Doc gets there.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Randall,” Sara said as she got up from her desk.
In the meantime, thirteen-year-old Lydia Jenkins had run to her daddy’s side from the classroom across the hallway. “Lydia, you might as well go on home too, you aren’t going to do anybody the least bit of good if you stay here,” said teacher Randall.
He next pointed to Mona and said, “Mona, you run on out to the Tucker’s farm. Doc’s there checking on all those sick youngins. Now, go! Run, like you’ve never run before!”
Teacher Randall knew that the Tuckers didn’t have a telephone and he knew that Mona was a lightning fast runner. He also figured that she could beat any automobile out to the farm because she’d surely make a beeline straight through the fields, cutting off both precious minutes and distance. He’d seen her run plenty of times, through both field and wood, as he drove to and from his own folks’ house to help with the early morning milking chores.
Before he finished talking, Mona had already lit out of the schoolhouse like a girl with her hair on fire. “Godspeed, to you, Mona, girl!” he yelled. His words swirled and then fell flat in her dust.
Mona moved like a wild thing as she cut across the schoolyard and ran through the just-plowed fields. The students watched through the windows as she deer-jumped fences and then disappeared into the dingy horizon. Samuel remembered how her long black hair had thumped between her shoulder blades in a tight braid as she ran.
Of course folks still talk about that day – and most of ‘em do it like they own a bit of the glory themselves. Just last week at the church potluck, he overheard an elder’s wife say to a new parishioner, “Why that injun blood of Mona’s come in right handy when she ran after Doc. It’s a pity one of them twins didn’t make it, but a blessed miracle that the other one and his mama lived. Yes, indeed, it was a blessed miracle the day Mona came to live in our little town.”
Now, here she was, almost to the fence, so Samuel reached out and opened the yard gate. She wore a threadbare blue dress and for the first time that he recalled, her hair was loose; some of it wrapped across her face in the breeze. With her hair down like that, she looked like a young woman, not just the girl down the road who’d been adopted by the Hanson family. About sixteen years ago someone had found her, abandoned on the church steps early one Sunday morning. They said she didn’t cry, but sat there next to the door, still, and eyes wide with fright, while she held a raggedy blanket tight around her two-year old body.
Mona swiped the wayward hair off her face. “Hello Samuel. I need to talk with your ma. She said to come over today after lunch. Is she home?”
“Good day, miss Hanson,” he said, as he nodded his head and touched his hat rim. “Yes, ma’am, my mama’s in the kitchen.” Samuel closed the gate after she passed, his thoughts distracted by Mona.
Her movements were quick and her words to the point. He liked that. He thought it foolish those girls who giggled, dropped hankies, and batted eyelashes. She wasn’t exactly curt, but a good blend of strength and integrity. He’d seen her be submissive to her pa, and her teachers too, but she definitely was not meek like some scared little mouse of a woman either. Mona knew what was going on, did whatever needed doing, both in the house and out in the field, yet she never took credit for anything, not even that now infamous run for Doc. No, especially not that. She told everyone that God gave her speed and strength and that it was for His good pleasure, and His alone.
Even though it was now half past noon and Samuel felt near starved, he dared not interrupt womenfolk having a conversation; he headed to the barn instead. I might as well repair that harness I broke earlier this morning. He stopped at the far end stall and scratched Crockett, his mustang, under the chin. Even though it was this very horse that had caused the rockslide that had shattered his leg many, many years ago, Samuel held no grudges.
How could he?
Three mornings after the accident his oldest brother found the dead mountain lion on top of the rocky ledge and the family was finally able to piece together the accident’s events. Apparently the wild cat had spooked the mustang, Crockett reared, and Samuel was thrown. He lost consciousness when his head hit the ground and has never been able to fully remember the accident.
After he came off the horse, the mountain lion must have been on the ledge, maybe ready to attack the injured boy, and as far as anyone could reckon, Crockett walked up the backside of the overhang and came down repeatedly with his sharp front hooves on that blasted cougar until the wildcat breathed its last. Indeed it was dead, but the beast had gone out in a fierce battle, as evidenced by the mustang’s withers that had been scratched to bloody ribbons. Some big hunks of shale came loose during the ruckus and the resulting rockslide busted Samuel’s leg in three places.
When the brothers found Samuel, he was still unconscious, his body was mostly buried beneath rubble, and Crockett stood nearby, heaving her flanks hard with each breath. Until that morning when his brother found the cougar, everyone had erroneously thought that the mountain lion had gotten away. They also thought that Crockett was mostly to blame for the accident. As it turned out, everyone was wrong.
“There ya go, fella. It was a good ride this morning. Riding is the only time this ole bum leg doesn’t get the better of me,” Samuel said as he poured oats into Crockett’s feeder. Samuel was thankful for the horse’s soft whinny before the animal went to gobbling the feed.
Next, Samuel did his best to ignore his hunger pains while he repaired the harness. He did the barn chores early and only went inside for lunch after his daddy returned and when his mama clanked the bell for their late lunch. As he walked toward the house, he watched Mona run across the pasture. She barely broke stride as she hurdled the fence, en route to her own house, her hair flew wild and her skirt whipped around her knees.
Two months later, Samuel, his mama, his daddy, and two of his brothers stood together, grim and sad, under the huge oak tree and listened as the preacher man laid the youngest Emerson boy to his eternal rest. Mama found solace in that her Tommy had died instantly and didn’t suffer when he had thrown himself over his buddy in that foxhole. Young Tommy died in the bloody dark of a bullet-riddled night, but another soldier, who had just found out about the birth of his baby daughter, had lived. Mama was grateful for both her son’s eternal life with Christ and that a baby would know life with his earthly father.
Samuel’s daddy kept his youngest son’s dog tag in his breast pocket and his mama wore Tommy’s silver cross, on a chain with her own, right next to her heart.
After the service, folks brought casseroles, pies, sandwiches, and someone even brought a baked ham, back to the house. People ate and talked and children were herded outside or ordered to be mannerly while inside the house. Some ladies stood with mama in the kitchen; they hugged and cried while they dished up lemon meringue and apple pie. Samuel walked in for a glass of water and watched her wipe tears with her apron – he then kissed her cheek, left his pie on the table, and snuck out the back door and into the barn.
Mona found him there an hour later.
She pushed open the half door and sat beside him in the corner of the mustang’s stall. Neither spoke. After a few moments Mona grabbed his strong hand, squeezed tight, and told him she wasn’t ever going to let go. When Samuel looked into her dark eyes, his heart melted. He lowered his head to her lap and cried for the man his little brother would never become, for the baby’s father whose life had been saved, and for his own mistake of thinking he was never good enough. Mona thought that the barn timbers would buckle under the weight of Samuel’s released sorrow, but they didn’t. The building, much like Samuel, was built on a solid foundation with strong corner posts.
She stroked his hair with her free hand as his tears soaked through her dress. Her own tears dripped down her cheeks, across her lips, and melted into Samuel’s hair. He sobbed until he had spent himself of all his sorrow and when he finished, he found that he wasn’t alone. He realized that what Mona had said was true, he’d never be alone again.
They got married a couple of months later on a hot day in September and after the ceremony, the rains came, blending all of their sad and happy tears. And although it was much too late for that year’s crop, the wretched drought was finally broke. Grandma Josephine gave Samuel her little farmhouse and moved into his and Tommy’s old bedroom. She said that a young man and his bride need a fresh start and that she was getting too old to be all the way out in the country on her own. All in all, she said it was a fair trade. He didn’t agree, but he also knew better than to argue with Grandma Josephine.
Samuel leased the neighbor’s fields for a good price and set to making repairs on Grandma’s old place. He built his bride a small front porch and added on a metal roof that he painted barn red with some old paint that he had found at his folks’ farm.
Samuel said he did it because it was the only paint he could find.
Mona said he did it because all love is steeped in blood red.
Either way, it served as a good reminder that their love is way bigger, and better, together, than it could’ve ever been on its own.
They married young, like everyone did back in then. And although theirs was a meager, hard life, it was one they willingly shared, like their folks before them had done.
Other photo writing prompt stories can be found here: