Neither spoke. Though the landscape was familiar, their path was new. Unsure of one another in a way they had never been, the two trudged along close to a mile. The dirt stuck to their shoes as the wind blown mist dampened their faces. Gray clouds scuttled low overhead. Leaves, dark and matted, remnants of the previous fall, began to stick to their heels. Near the grove flanking the home Jess was helpless to reclaim, he slowed; his resolve wavered. At the lane, he stopped.
The weather had dampened Peter’s anger. His ire cooled, he now watched his friend’s struggle, watched Jess fight his inner torment. Touched by that struggle, he knew again his own frustration, felt again the angst he’d known more than a year earlier when Jess had been extracted from his world. It had taken him a long time to accept that reality. Meeting Elizabeth had helped. Yet Jess had no Elizabeth, no home to return to. Peter felt the traitor.
“It was a mistake, Pete. I shouldn’t have come. I don’t belong here anymore.” Jess did not look at him, but Peter saw tears, tears Jess refused to free. “I don’t belong anywhere anymore.”
Peter looked away. “Jess, I hate saying this, but holding on won’t help. You have to let go.”
“Easy for you to say. You still have your roots. You still belong here.” Jess’ anger was replaced with deep sadness. His tone stabbed Peer with renewed guilt, a sense that somehow he’d failed his friend.
Lifting his eyes to the cloud-filled sky, Peter sighed into the wind. “Come on. We have to hurry, or my folks will be home, and we won’t get away.”
Jess turned to Peter; a fresh light of hope filled his eyes. Wrapping his arm around Peter’s shoulder, he tousled his blonde hair. Always shorter, Peter ducked. Jess caught him in a half Nelson.
“You won’t regret this, Pete, ol’ pal. It’ll be great! Just like old times!”
“Enough, Jess! Let go!“
Peter straightened. Before he followed Jess down the road, he cast a quick glance at Elizabeth’s home. It beckoned to him as did the image of a beautiful brown-haired girl whose touch he could still feel against his shirtsleeve. He pictured violet eyes, and his smiled faded. He had to come up with something—but what?
They packed quickly. Into Jess’ canvas grip went two bedrolls, one change of clothes each, and a quick supper—nothing more. Peter, unable to see beyond Jess’ desperate need, searched for direction and found none. In fifteen minutes, they were back on the kitchen porch. Peter stopped on the bottom step.
“I have to leave a note, Jess. I can’t just disappear. My folks will worry.”
“If you tell them where we’re headed, they’ll come after us.”
“I know that. That’s why I have to leave the note. We can head to Cutter’s Field, stay out of sight for the night. Move on in the morning.”
“All right, Peter! Always thinking! That’s why we make a good team. My ideas, your common sense!” Jess grinned from ear to ear.
Peter attempted a smile. “Be right back.” He disappeared into the kitchen. Several minutes later he returned.
“Took you long enough,” Jess commented, more subdued. “Thought maybe you changed your mind.”
“I had to make it sound good. You know my mom worries over nothing, and she won’t think this is nothing. You know that.”
Jess shrugged. He smiled. “Colorado here we come.”
Stepping lightly into the lead, he headed down the lane and failed to read the frustration register on Peter’s face. Jess was right. Peter knew how to make a thing work. It came easily to him—usually. Not this time. This was complicated, and life was not generally complicated for Peter. When he knew something was right, he simply acted, did what was necessary.
This time his direction was anything but clear. The road ahead was as cloudy as the day, and that bothered him. Following Jess down the lane of his home, he held in his heart an image of violet eyes, eyes that had so trustingly agreed to his request. Lurking close behind was the reaction he envisioned his mother having to his note:
“Am with Jess. Will try to stop him from leaving for good. Be back as soon as I can. Don’t worry, Mom. Love, Peter”
The two continued west well past the road that led to Wareham. The mist was becoming a steady, cool drizzle. With each step, Peter felt the weight of his mother’s worry ever more acutely. He was going to be in trouble. That, too, weighed on him. With all his heart, he wished he knew what he could do to prevent Jess from leaving.
It was close to dark when Peter and Jess arrived at the corncrib that now sat alone in a freshly plowed field on what was locally known as Cutter’s Field. Abe Cutter had been one of the first settlers in the country, but having died childless years before, he left no legacy but a nearly barren field with a well-constructed corncrib. The Cutters had never built a wooden home. The sod one they lived in was a story both boys heard many times over from one grandparent or another. A mound of earth a hundred yards from the crib was a solemn testament to the truth of the tale. The only other wooden structure, a barn, had been torn down long ago. The boards were now part of the Kaiser’s cattle yard. The crib had survived to store each year’s harvest. Peter’s father had helped the Kaisers shell the corn from the crib only weeks before.
Wet through their outer layer of clothes, the two runaways crawled inside the crib and created a rough shelter with boards left scattered inside after the shelled corn had been hauled away. Finished with that, they sat back in their corner, grateful for Mr. Cutter’s good construction, and shared the lard sandwiches and apples they had brought along. Having hiked nearly six miles, neither felt nourished, but neither complained. At least they were dry.
“The way I figure it,” Jess finally said, “if we get started by first light, we can catch the highway west, then hitch south to Columbus. From there . . . piece of cake.”
Peter did not respond. Chilled by the brisk wind still coming from the northwest and wet from the mist, he was miserable. He tossed the apple core out the opening at the side of the crib as Jess prattled about freight trains and watching the bums hop them in Omaha. He’d learned their technique, said they’d explained in detail what to do, what to watch out for.
Absentmindedly nodding from time to time, Peter wished some plan would come, that he could see clearly what tomorrow would bring. Pulling his blanket from Jess’ bag, he wrapped it around his shoulders then stretched himself out on his stomach to rest.
Jess chattered on. “We should build a fire. It’s getting chilly.”
“A fire will draw attention.”
“Yeah. Wood’s dry enough. A small one maybe, down in the vent.”
“One spark could burn it down, Jess. Go to sleep.”
“Yeah. If we plan to start early, you’re right. About the fire, too.”
Peter did not respond. Too miserable to speak, he turned his face away as Jess stretched out beside him, close enough they could keep one another warm. Through a narrow crack in the makeshift wall, Peter could see the final rays of the April sunset. A small breach in the low hanging clouds allowed just enough sun to break through that he could see golden bellies on the distant gray bank. It reminded him of the breast of a mourning dove he and Jess had once shot. The rich color of the bird had somehow added to his regret for killing it as it hung limp in his hand, its head lolling from side to side as he examined its beauty. The same sense of meanness filled him now as he burrowed deeper into the blanket’s folds. Watching the light fade into pewter, then sable, the thought struck him that perhaps the miserable night could be his ally. If it did not help Jess to see how rotten life on the road would be, then Peter reasoned, he had little hope.
For a long time, Peter lay awake listening. When he heard the sound of Jess’ steady breathing, he turned flat on his back and pulled the blanket hood-like over his wet hair. Staring up into the darkness, he wondered how his parents were handling his absence, wished more than ever he hadn’t come, and resolved that, somehow, he would see this through.
Fading into sleep, he began to dream. Two people, Jess and Elizabeth, were on a merry-go-round, turning fast. Jess was laughing, taunting him. Each time Peter moved towards them, the merry-go-round turned faster, away from him. He sensed something, a deep unhappiness in Elizabeth. Desperate to reassure her, he could not stop the whirling carousel. Neither could he rouse himself. Each time he tried, he fell away, was carried off by helplessness.
The sound of rain slapping the crib woke him. Something moved outside. Stiff from too long in one position, he rolled slowly to his side. A board stuck between the wooden slats of the crib clattered to the floor. The sound halted. He more felt than heard the animal move stealthily into the darkness. A deer looking for corn, he thought, rubbing his shoulder. Jess raised up on an elbow as Peter searched for comfort.
“What was that?”
“Deer probably. Go back to sleep.” Peter pulled the damp blanket over his aching shoulder.
“What time do you think it is?”
“Can’t say. Towards morning I’d guess.”
Jess sat up, crossed his legs and looked around. “What say we get going? We can put a lot of miles behind us before light. Rest during the day if we need to. Be less obvious that way.”
“It’s raining, Jess. You want to take off in that?”
“I don’t plan to sit here all day.”
Peter couldn’t see Jess’ face; he didn’t need to. Antagonism that had melted into melancholy the day before had resurfaced. Not ready to counter it, he threw the blanket off and stood up. As he reached to tuck in his shirt, rain dripped down the back of his neck.
“Damn!” Peter swore.
“I hate getting dripped on!” Recognizing his chance, Peter reached into the darkness, grabbed Jess’ arm.
“You really think this is a good idea, Jess? To just take off? Maybe we should talk about it. Looks to me like we could be in for more than a few nights like this; looks like this could be about all we have to look forward to.”
Peter felt Jess’ eyes; his silence cracked like thunder. Rain dripped. Again. Jess bent and crawled through the opening at the end of the crib. Alone in the darkness, Peter cursed once more, softly this time, scooped up his blanket, and followed Jess into the rain.
When he emerged, Jess, barely visible in the false light of predawn, stood a few feet away, waiting. Peter blinked against the rain. Jess turned, started up the hill. Stuffing the blanket beneath his jacket to keep it some semblance of dry, Peter resolutely followed up the now unplowed ground.
Rain fell. They passed a tractor and disk standing ready to begin cultivation. Walking became extremely difficult. Brittle, wet leaves on dead stalks, whipped by the wind, lashed them as each followed a row up the long hill. Grass, wet with the night’s storm, caught their ankles, tripping them. The rain-soaked ground grew increasingly slick; the clay sucked at their shoes. It caked their soles. Each step grew heavier, harder than the last. The wind chilled them anew as they climbed the hill, away from the crib. Their jackets, shirts, even their pant legs grew sodden. Each drop of rain dampened Peter’s spirit further. Despair dogged his steps.
Near the crest of the hill, he made up his mind. The charade was over. He wanted nothing but to be home in his dry warm bed, to smell his mother’s breakfast from the kitchen below his bedroom. To hear the home sounds he new so well. Struggling towards open ground, he prayed. He prayed, prayed he wouldn’t have to walk the entire distance home, prayed his parents weren’t too worried, that his punishment wouldn’t be too severe. He prayed Elizabeth would forgive him for having misused her trust. Of all the people he knew, he felt his grandmother would be the one person who would understand, and then he realized how worried she, too, would be and his guilt increased. And he prayed Jess would come to his senses.
Lost in his misery, Peter trudged past where Jess had planted himself. When he realized, Peter turned, followed his muddy footprints back until they were face to face. One dead cornstalk divided them.
“You can’t possibly understand how I feel!” Jess seethed. “You still have everything you’ve always had. You haven’t been yanked from everyone and everything you love! Probably never will be. Why would you leave?”
Peter looked east to where the sun barely colored the horizon. “I didn’t come along to leave. “
“But why? Why are you here?” Jess waited for Peter’s eyes. Honesty had replaced desperation. “I wouldn’t have come for you.”
“I came to talk you out of this. Let’s go home, Jess. This,” he felt the rain and wind wash over him in its full intensity, “this is not the answer.”
Jess’ eyes ignited. “What is the answer, Peter? Workin’ day and night for years until the banker comes and tells you you can’t work your own land anymore? What’s your answer, Pete? High school? Where’s my home now? Can you tell me that?”
Rain washing his cheeks, Peter met his friend’s anguished eyes then calmly said, “I don’t know. Come home with me, Jess. We’ll work something out. Maybe you can stay, go to school with me come fall. My folks might agree to . . . “
“Oh, sure. Send me back, more like. School!” Jess slammed his soaked canvas grip to the ground. Once more, hurt filled his voice, blended with the ever-present anger and resentment. “High school, Pete? Why?”
His eyes flashed unspoken accusations in the half-light of quickening dawn.
“It makes sense, that’s all. I promised my folks I’d try it. Times are changing, Jess. If this Depression doesn’t end, we need to know more than farming. I need to be better prepared than . . .”
Peter caught himself.
“Than my old man, is that it?”
“Jess, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything. It just slipped out.” Eyes firmly planted on Jess, Peter offered a calmness he struggled to maintain.
Jess sneered. “You’ll have to forgive me, Pete. I thought it had more to do with that pretty skirt. Tell me, what’s it like when you two are alone. She taste as sweet as she looks?” Jess scooped his bag from the clay and headed up the hill.
Stunned, Peter watched him. Each step Jess took compounded the injury. After the past night, he was not about to let Jess just walk away. The verbal lash stung, echoed through his tired brain. His stomach churned with an instinctive need to defend Elizabeth. Running, working hard against the sticky clay, he caught up with Jess, grabbed his arm, and jerked him around.
“You’ve no right to talk about her like that, just like you had no right to be so rude yesterday, to her, to her father. It’s not their fault your father drank away his farm.”
“You can take her and her whole family and shove it, Christiansen. Let go of my arm and run home to your Momma and your pretty little piece of . . . “
The mud felt cool against their faces as they rolled over broken stalks of downed corn. Muddy fists found cheek and bone. Bruised lips plowed deep into cool, wet clay. They tasted earth.
Cursing one another, they held to the thick ground, each refusing to let the other stand. Eventually, Jess struggled free, crawled away, but was pulled back by a determined Peter.
“Take it back you son-of-a-bitch!” Peter commanded. “Take it back!”
Finally, face-to-face on their knees, they paused. Cut from fists and cornstalks, wet with rain, and heavy with mud, they stared breathlessly at one another. Peter wore a crimson gash across his forehead, stark against the black earth. Jess wiped his sleeve over his upper lip, his nose. There was a huge knot over his right eye.
“Why?” Peter whispered.
Touching his swollen lip, Jess shrank down, unable to speak. In the rain-soaked grass, with the wind raking over him, he fought the deep aching sobs struggling to free themselves, fought them with clenched teeth and fists. Once, he rose up, lifted his angry eyes to the heavens, and screamed, “It’s not fair! It’s just not fair!”
Peter reached over, placed his hand on Jess’ shoulder, and whispered hoarsely, “I’m sorry, Jess. I’m so sorry,” as the rain mixed with his tears.
Without warning, Jess straightened, pulled away. Peter lost his balance, fell face first in the mud.
Standing, Jess screamed at Peter, lying at his feet, “You! You’re just like everyone else! ‘Just accept this,’ my mother preaches. Well, look what it’s gotten her! More work than she’s strength for, and a drunken, no account husband! Well, I won’t accept it! I’ll make my own luck! You stay and rot for all I care!”
Picking up his bag, Jess turned; he ran, arms and legs pumping hard against the slick stubble marring his path. Blinded by tears and off balance, Jess slipped twice, fell once, regained his feet, and continued until he crested the hill then headed for the pasture below.
“Jess! Come back! Don’t go!”
Peter’s voice sailed away on the wind flew away over the vacant prairie. Heartbroken, he watched Jess disappear beyond the draw below.
“Jess!” Wind whipped cornstalks against him; it sucked his words away until the final whisper, “Jess,” was gone, lost like his friend.
Alone, Peter studied his mud-covered knuckles. Blood muted as it mixed with earth in the falling rain. Alone, he felt the stinging gash on his forehead almost as acutely as he felt the tearing of his heart. He held little hope of ever seeing Jess again. He ached for Jess, for his hurt, his despair. Alone, the guilt he’d experienced the night before resurfaced. He’d known such peace, even happiness, while Jess had suffered so? How could he?
Righting himself, Peter stared at the cold ground and heard again Jess’ plaintive, “It’s not fair!” shouted into the wind in all its mortal agony. Peter knew that, at least in part, he had to agree. Beyond that, he could not see. Standing, he turned, bent into the wind driven rain, wind and rain that would blur his vision as much as would the bitter tears he’d shed on his way home.