To the Bridge
Running. Running. Running in a haze of smoke. Eyes burning. Lungs aching. Sucking foul air. “Beth!”
Screams. Her screams!
The smoke, thicker now, her screams muffled sobs. Choking on smoke and his tears. “Beth! Oh, God, Beth!”
Jerking awake, Peter sat up on the bunk. Sweat streamed down his back, his brow, his face. It soaked his t-shirt. All around him, soldiers lay in various stages of slumber. Off to the side, an argument. Poker. The stakes way too high. Suffocated by the nightmare, Peter lifted his shirt, slipped it on. His feet hit the floor. Quietly, quickly, he left the lower deck.
The nearly full moon ignited the sky, concealing all but the bravest stars. To the northeast, a pale dipper emptied onto a distant shoreline. Taking a cigarette from his pocket, he lit it, exhaled, and watched the smoke drift away on the warm sea air, rising and falling like the waves below. He liked watching the sea. It relaxed him, soothed his soul like the gentle undulation of the prairie back home, back where she was.
Pulling her picture from his pocket, he looked long at her reflection. Even in the moonlight, the gray-tone photograph seemed to have violet eyes. His dream and months of separation weighed heavily o him, anchoring his soul in sadness.
Startled, Peter dropped the cigarette. “Damn,” he swore softly as it rolled from the deck into the sea. Seeing the approaching officer, Peter snapped to attention.
“At ease, soldier.” The man slipped a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, offered Peter one, handed him his lighter. “Seasick, son? You look miserable.”
“No, sir. Hot’s all. Thought I’d get some air.”
“Well, it’s a beautiful night topside.”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
The colonel motioned for Peter’s picture. “May I?”
Reluctantly, Peter handed it to the officer, who examined it with appreciation. “Very pretty.” He smiled benevolently, handed it back. “My wife’s blonde. Haven’t seen her since February 17, 1941. Was stationed overseas when the war broke out. Haven’t been home since.” His smile faded. “It gets hard sometimes.” Their eyes held. “But then, I don’t need to tell you that, do I?”
“It’s going to get even harder tomorrow . . .”
“Much harder, Christiansen.” He placed a kind hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Try to get some rest.” With a pat and the sliver of a smile, he started away.
“Sir?” Peter called after him. The officer turned. “What’s the name? The place we’re headed?”
The colonel glanced at the distant sliver of shore. There was no smile now. “Salerno.”
“ . . . to the bridge”
How long? How long had he lain there? It was hard to guess. Time was as motionless as the willow overhead. Shirtless, Peter reclined against the bank hoping the clay would be cool, damp maybe. It wasn’t. The small creek, rarely more than a few inches deep any time of year, was occasional mud. Unrelenting sun and drought had taken its toll. One hole, deep in shade along the far bank, held brown water. In it, a cork bobber floated. It was 1935, a hot August Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t really the time or the pace of the afternoon that plagued Peter. These were natural to him. It was the heat. No one ever grew accustomed to the heat. Ever.
A fly buzzed his cheek. It landed on the fishing pole propped against the forked stick by his foot. The line dangled motionless. A meadowlark hopped onto a corner post twenty yards away. It sang its solitary song once then disappeared in the shade of a cottonwood. Peter shook his wrist as an ant crawled onto it.
A black lab sprawled in the shade beside him. It opened one eye as Matt said, “Hey, Pete. You got a bite.”
Mud curled around Matt Christiansen’s toes. He looked from the line to his older brother. The coffee jar in his hand swam with brown water and displaced tadpoles. They alone seemed animated, no doubt, by their condition.
Peter peeked from beneath the brim of his cap, stared a few moments at the bobber, then dropped his cap back to block what light invaded the willow. “You’ve been in the sun too long, Matt. Too hot for fish to bite anyway.”
“Well, why the heck are we doin’ it then?”
“You got something better to do?”
Matt looked at the draught brown pasture. He watched the heat shimmer over the nearby hillside. “Dad told me someone’s moving into Blakemore’s.”
Peter lifted the cap again. His eyes moved from his brother to the farmstead a quarter of a mile east. “What else did he say?”
The dog placed her nose on Peter’s leg. He flipped its ear playfully.
“Not much. A family is all he heard.” Reaching into the jar, Matt cupped water and tadpoles into his hands. “If Jess still lived there, we’d be doing something better than fishing mud holes!”
“Shut up, Matt.”
“He’s more your friend than mine.” Matt’s eyes moved to his brother’s then towards the road where he’d be herding the milk cows the next day. A jackrabbit appeared in the cool shade of the bridge where their pasture followed the creek under and beyond to the other side of the road. Most farms were square quarter sections of land neatly intersected by roads and barded wire. Not theirs. The road split theirs in half. The south pasture, the one they were in, lay adjacent to what they had always known as the Blakemore place. Matt chuckled. “Remember his cornhusk cigarettes. Boy, did we get it for that!”
Peter’s cap went back down. “We wouldn’t have if you’d kept your mouth shut.”
The dog huffed and shook flies from its ears.
Life had been less than interesting since Jess had moved away. Peter couldn’t argue that. That he missed Jess, someone his own age, someone he’d literally grown up with, was accentuated by a lack of options. None of the farms nearby had boys his age. Not even the girls were his age. Jess had been the only one, so for Peter, the months since March 1st when the Blakemore family (as farm families did in those days) moved had been lonely indeed.
From Peter’s tone, Matt realized he was irritated. Seemed a lot irritated his brother these days. Matt gave the tadpoles a look. “Dad said they’re a family with connections through the bank. From Omaha, somehow. “
“Well, they’ll never be Jess.”
“Pete. What if they find our slingshots? We left them there. Remember? Till Jess comes back.” He waited for his brother’s eyes, “Jess ain’t coming back, Pete.”
“So that’s what’s on your mind.”
“They’re the best slingshots we ever made. We gotta get ‘em.”
Peter was up and loping along the creek bank before Matt realized he’d moved. “Pete?”
“Race you to the bridge!”
The coffee jar gave a dull thud as it landed in the muddy pool, home to the escaping tadpoles. Matt and the dog took off simultaneously. Halfway between the bridge and the clump of willows, just as the creek angled north, Matt hopped up onto the flat pasture and raced as fast as his nine-year-old legs would carry him. Peter paced himself. At nearly fourteen, his was an easy win. As he flew the final yards past his brother, Matt wailed, “One of these days, Peter!” He and the dog slowed to a walk.
At the pool beneath the bridge, Peter turned. Grinning, he said, “One of these days, what?” Matt wasn’t the only person Peter Christiansen could outrun, just the handiest. Peter loved to race. Peter loved to win.
They climbed the creek bank effortlessly then turned east on the road. As long as either of them could remember, Jess Blakemore had lived there. Each fall when school began, they’d walked that quarter of a mile and waited at the end of his lane. Together the three hiked the mile east to their school. Each winter when they’d been allowed, the boys had hunted and trapped along the creek that ran between their farms. Each spring and summer that pasture and stream had been one of their favorite playgrounds, when there was time for that sort of thing.
Peter’s memories of Jess were really more connected to their working side-by-side cutting cockleburs or shocking grain, herding cows or harvesting potatoes, stacking wood or picking corn. Whatever the season demanded, they would do. Having fun, play was always secondary, but then, that was common to farm kids, or at least it seemed so to Peter. Then had come that fateful day the winter before.
“Sons-a-bitches!” Jess had wailed. “Dirty sons-a-bitches! This ain’t their place! My family made this place from nothing! How can they take what’s not theirs, Pete? They didn’t work this land!”
Peter had found Jess in the hayloft that day after they’d heard, after the sheriff was gone. There he’d endured the chill winter wind penetrating its weathered boards as his friend had cursed his fate. Peter had understood the words, had felt his own anger, but the coldness in Jess’ eyes had surprised him. It was a look he would have liked to have forgotten but couldn’t, or hadn’t yet. Peter glanced up the lane as they turned that way and recalled that the Blakemore’s had come to this then treeless plain from Indiana a year before his own grandparent’s arrival from Illinois. “Wonder how he likes Omaha?” he said more to himself than Matt.
Matt did not respond.
When they reached the vacant farm place, they stopped and stared at the weed-filled yards. The naked windows of the house blinked back at them in the bright sunshine. Peter pulled the sagging garden gate shut and latched it before they turned towards the barn and the hayloft where the slingshots lay hidden. Suddenly, another rabbit darted from the weeds. The black dog gave chase.
“Max!” Matt yelled.
Both disappeared behind the pig barn.
Crossing through the center of the yard, they went directly to the middle barn door and in. Once inside, their eyes adjusted slowly to the opaque light of the building. They said nothing as they walked the long alleyway between stanchions and horse stalls. The scent of absent animals remained.
It was the unnatural silence of this once familiar place they noted. A barn is a place of life, of mooing and bawling, of cats meowing and dogs barking, of horses nickering and shaking their heads, their harness. Though the scents remained, gone was the barn’s life, its vitality.
At the rear of the barn, they climbed catlike up the ladder and through the open floorboards of the loft. Swinging around the top of the ladder, they stood for a moment while their eyes adjusted to the now near empty loft, a place that had once been stacked ceiling high with bales of straw and hay, bales they had used to create hay forts and pirate ships from which to attack imaginary enemies. From these bales, they had been able, with the very slingshots they now hoped to reclaim, to pickoff barn swallows swooping through the open doorways. These they whacked in abundance, but they had not hurt the pigeons that still cooed along the iron bar of the hoist that extended through the split doors at the front of the building. Jess’ father had expressly forbid it.
Still not speaking, the two boys crossed back to the front of the barn stepping through beams of dusty sunlight that split the air and spotlighted on the wide wooden boards littered with straw and pigeon droppings. Once Peter had lain on a pile of bales and attempted to count the dust droplets, invisible except in sunlight, that filtered down from the rafters. Unable to do so, he had pondered the immense circle of light one pinhole in the roof created on the floor. Since then, he’d had a special reverence for the half-light world of the haymow.
“I found ‘em, Matt.”
Peter was on his hands and knees by the left door of the loft, the one with the gapping crack that had allowed the boys a perfect view of the farmyard. From here, the boys had always been able to see where Jess’ parents were. From here, Peter had endured the chill wind of his friend’s lament. From here, the three boys had witnessed the finale of the auction the February before in silent contemplation as the auctioneer chanted the litany of their coming separation.
“He took his!”
Matt whistled a low assent then grabbed the smooth forked weapon his brother handed him.
“Shhh.” Peter leaned over to peek through the crack in the door. “I hear somebody.”
A black Chevy sedan pulled into the yard and stopped just short of the gate Peter had closed. Peter recognized John Sturhman, the bank president, as he stepped from the car. He watched him survey the empty house and the sunflower filled yard much as they had. Peter watched him slowly begin to examine the chicken house then the granary, then he moved to the windmill near the center of the yard. John Sturhman gazed westward towards the pasture and the place where the boys had left their fishing pole. Bending to the pump, he tried it. It needed primed.
“Looks like Mr. Sturhman’s checking the place out.” Peter stood and turned back towards the ladder.
“Pete?” What if he tells Dad we’re here?”
“Ah, he won’t care.”
John Sturhman was still standing by the windmill when the boys emerged from the barn. “Well,” he said as they walked towards him, “what are you boys up to?”
“Our dog took off after a rabbit. Haven’t seen her, have you sir?” Peter asked.
“No, can’t say I have.”
As if on cue, the dog barked from behind the barn.
Peter ignored Matt’s look.
John Sturhman wore a benevolent smile. “Sounds like she’s nearby.” Gazing at the buildings, he added, “It’s just a shame how things fall apart on a place when no one lives there. ‘Course they’d already . . .”
He broke off. His cheeks flushed with obvious embarrassment. The man glanced at Peter. John Sturhman was a banker not a priest, yet he was honest and kind enough not to speak ill of a stranger let alone a friend who had suffered loss. And, no one in John Sturhman’s community was a stranger.
“We’ve located some new neighbors for you. They need a place to live, and if it works out, they’ll stay, farm the place next spring. Friend of mine in Omaha called, asked if I had anything. Said his brother-in-law’s been having some hard luck. Like a lot of folks these days. Plan to move in next week.
“How about I give you two a ride home and tell your mom and dad? Knowing Tom and Laura, I’m sure they’d like to lend a hand. These folks could use it.”
“Thanks, but we better keep looking for Max.”
“Max. That’s an odd name for a she dog.”
“Short for Maxine,” Matt said.
The banker’s face colored yet again. “Maxine? Wasn’t that Mrs. McCullough’s . . . your teacher’s name?” His smile became a grin. “Before or after she retired?”
Peter grabbed Matt by the collar. “We better go. Left my fishing pole by the creek.“ Turning, he pulled then pushed his brother down the lane.
John Sturhman saw the slingshot stuffed in Matt’s back pocket. Amused, he chuckled then he remembered, “Oh, Peter. Jennifer asked me to tell you ‘Hi’ if I saw you. She’d be mad if I forgot.”
Matt watched his brother’s cheeks color. “Oooh, Peter. Jennifer says, ‘Hi,’” Matt taunted, knowing he was safe as long as John Sturhman could see them.
When they turned west towards home, he scooted free, beyond Peter’s reach.
Peter let him go then bent and lifted a hand full of gravel from the road, let it sift through his fingers, kept the two largest stones.
Matt watched him reach for the slingshot.
Cocking his head, Peter savored the dismay on his brother’s face. The look was satisfaction enough. A grin crept into Peter’s distinctive blue eyes; it radiated over his handsome young face. He hesitated, handed a stone to Matt, and issued his challenge.
“Race you to the bridge.”