OLD TIMES & NEW BEGINNINGS
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A Winter Tale
The year was 1936. Maggie Larson, hidden in the shadows of a yet unleafed clump of chokecherry bushes, watched the tall, twelve-year-old boy open his pants then spray the gray, dry track of ground with artful precision. He laughed aloud at his cleverness then looked around nervously as he closed his zipper. Five-year-old Maggie had been waiting beside the fence, hoping the horse and wagon with its young driver would return with another load of barbed-wire bales and posts. Although her wait was rewarded, she remained hidden, too embarrassed now to reveal her presence.
Willie secured the horses then quickly unloaded the fence materials. The sun, no more than an occasional flickering light caught between fluttering leaves and swaying branches of densely treed acreage, was beginning to dim. It was a warm April afternoon, a precursor of the North Dakota summer heat and drought to follow. In the shade of the cottonwood and boxelder trees it was cool. In places, it was so dense that boy or man carried an axe or hatchet when he herded cows or hunted a lost calf.
The fence, in perpetual disrepair, followed the section line. Now Willie Hoberg`s dad had ideas for more tree-clearing and plowing, and didn't want Larson cows or pigs grazing on his prospective corn and potato fields. The communal fence in constant disrepair, but in place for twenty years, wouldn't be good enough for his long range plans.
The road, not much more than a trail of wagon ruts, would remain so for another five years, leaving the wooden cattle guard in place even longer. The wagon tracks led to the Missouri River; where fishermen set their traps for catfish in summer, or crossed the frozen ice during the interminable winters to buy groceries in the town bordering the banks of the river.
Willie lifted a burlap-covered bundle from the wagon, and carried it to the road cattle guard, perhaps two-hundred-feet from where Maggie watched. Then he retrieved an axe and shovel from the wagon. She watched him remove the boards of the cattle guard and dig a hole beneath it. After a time he buried the bundle, restored the boards, and returned to the wagon. Maggie remained in her hiding place several moments after the sight and sounds of horse and wagon disappeared. Maggie had recognized a furtive move. She saw that Willie was secretive the way he watched and looked over his shoulder, and then stranger still, buried something else with the burlap bundle! Willie's back had blocked her vision as he worked at his task.
Maggie's home was a mile from the river. Although warned frequently never to go into the woods or near the river alone, Maggie occasionally disobeyed. The wagon-track road and the paths through the timber had tempted young and old to explore the woods long before Maggie was born.
Now Maggie was in trouble. Mama had the razor-strap in hand before Maggie crossed the entry threshold. The dog tied near the door was barking and frantically scratching on the screen before Maggie felt the first sting of the strap.
Maggie put aside her questions about Willie's strange behavior that day and cried herself to sleep.
The next day, Easter Sunday, Maggie was dressed early for church. She was wearing her new white hat, blue dress, white patent-leather shoes and last year's blue coat with the too short sleeves and too short skirt. Then she paraded about the yard, strutting her stuff, her troubles of the previous day apparently forgotten. The chickens pecked away in the yellow grass, sunning themselves before the onlookers of pigs and red and white steers, peering from the corral, and Maggie. She was perched on the porch swing at the front of the house, next to the road, when a car drove into the yard. It was the county sheriff, dressed in bib overalls on a Sunday, but with a badge pinned to his shirt.
"Hi there, Maggie . . . don't you look purty . . . I bet you're already to go to church."
Maggie ducked her head and started swinging, perhaps confirming she was ready for something!
No one got to church that day, and shortly after the sheriff arrived, two more cars appeared on the scene.
There was a whispered report--then cries of dismay. Soon the phone began ringing. It rang often throughout the day. They were on a party line, but most of the time Mama was too busy to listen in on other calls. Their special ring was two short and one long. Fifty or more men gathered and began searching the woods, every farm and its buildings, and finally the banks along the river. The Johnson's six-year-old boy, Danny, from the neighboring farm, was missing from the previous day.
Maggie's mama and searchers' wives cooked and prepared meals to feed a hundred or more people. People kept coming and going before dawn and well after dusk for three straight days. The dust from the road barely settled before another car or wagon rumbled past the house or into the yard, keeping Maggie's vigil constant on the porch.
The river was still high and fast and dangerous that spring following the thaw of heavy winter snows. The official search was ended after three days of concerted effort. Maggie heard her parents say Danny had probably fallen in the river and drowned.
There was no regular funeral. After a month went by, the Lutheran preacher and two hundred people crowded into the little white church on the prairie for a special service. The bell tolled six times in honor of Danny's six years of life.
Maggie had never been to a funeral or its like so she didn't know the protocol or understand the behavior of mourners. There was much weeping and wailing. Maggie did know Danny was gone forever, from earth anyway. She wasn't sure where heaven was but it was said to be a "grand" place. After the noon service, everyone gathered in the basement of the church for dinner. There, a long table, covered with multitudinous platters and bowls of food, offered up a meal of banquet proportions. It was much like a Swedish smorgasbord, with enough food for the crowd of mourners and enough leftover food to fill several hampers to accompany the Johnson family home.
The berry harvest brought many neighbors together again. Mrs. Hoberg, Mrs. Johnson, and twelve-year-old Doris Johnson were to go in one wagon with Willie driving the team of horses. There were dozens of baskets, buckets, and boxes gathered for collecting all the berries. Berry-laden bushes sprawled throughout the dense woods with branches reaching across or into their paths; they wore heavy shirts and trousers to protect their limbs from scratches and stickers. They bundled their heads and faces with caps and scarves, partly to protect themselves from the branches and partly to ward off mosquitoes, bees, and wasps.
Maggie refused to get in the wagon. At first Mrs. Larson pleaded with her daughter. "You can't stay home alone, Maggie. Be a good girl and sit beside Willie."
"Get in the wagon . . . right now!"
Maggie reluctantly climbed up on the seat after several more protestations.
Mrs. Larson shook her head. "I don't know what's got 'in the girl . . . usually she's tickled to death to go berry picking."
Doris laughed, "Maybe she's smarter 'n the rest of us."
Willie agreed, "Yah, I've been stung so many times . . . I swell up just thinkin' 'bout it."
They were cool and comfortable in the woods, even wearing the protective coverings. There were several cows with their calves lying near the fence in heavy shade, where grass grew long enough to twist and turn and insidiously find its way between the strands of barbed wire not unlike the craft and artistry of the expert basket weaver. Away from the fence the grass was chewed short. Where the sun had found packed earth, the ground showed cracks not unlike the parched land of the higher levels on the prairie. The cows seemed content, motionless unless tails switched at relentless flies.
As they crossed the road cattle guard, Maggie sneaked a quizzical look at Willie, who was gazing ahead unconcernedly. Soon they found themselves in deep shade, where they ducked their heads to avoid low-hanging branches. If they were silent and motionless they could hear the splashing of catfish and carp in the river perhaps fifty feet away. The thick screen of willows growing next to the river bank completely blocked their view of the river.
The berry harvest of the morning yielded fifty gallons, enough to keep the women canning jellies, jams, fruit compotes, and preserves for several days. There were several such expeditions to follow when the neighbors repeated their joint efforts for sale and profit.
During these economically depressed days, the men were away from the farms much of the time. They worked for the W.P.A., doing hand and horse labor on dam and irrigation projects. This was the era known as the "dirty thirties," the Depression with its "dust bowl." Maggie's daddy worked with a Fresco scraper and four horses, earning eight dollars a day for eight hours work. It bought grain for the horses and feed for the cows. They knew they were more fortunate than other farmers, whose starving cattle were purchased by the government at low prices, then shipped to processing plants to become canned meat or fertilizer.
In June, already there were nights when they slept out of doors because of the sweltering heat. By July, the thermometer climbed into the 100s, once registering 121 degrees at Steele on July 6.
The hot, dry weather continued through the summer. Most of the young wheat and corn stems in the fields above the woods withered and died before reaching maturity. The water in the well got so low they dared not use it on the garden for fear there wouldn`t be enough for the animals. Even the small dammed area in the coulee below the barn dried up, leaving the water tank next to the windmill the sole source of water for the livestock.
Willie Hoberg came by with a team of horses pulling a wagon to leave off two barrels of water from the river, and a bag of potatoes.
Maggie hid in the barn.
Mama called, "Maggie . . . where are you? Willie's here with some spuds . . .don't you want to be neighborly?"
Even in the heat of the summer day, there was a pot of coffee steaming on the wood-burning range. Willie poured himself a cup and sat at the kitchen table. He was a good-looking lad with lots of blonde curls.
"I think she's got a crush on you, boy."
"Nah . . . I reckon she's just bashful."
"Maggie, bashful? Not her! Why I don't think she's 'fraid of anything or anybody. Besides--I know for a fact she's sweet on you . . . I caught her following you a couple a times . . . once I near skinned her alive after she sneaked back from pokin' 'round in the woods, most likely after following you again!"
Mrs. Larson's work was never done. She made soap by rendering chunks of pig fat, then blending and cooking it with lye, and finally pouring it into flat rectangular tins. After it cooled, she cut it into bars to be stored until time for use.
On wash day, Mrs. Larson heated water in a copper boiler on the stove. If no one was around to help lift the boiler, she dipped the steaming water out with a bucket and carried it to the tub in the yard, weather permitting.There she scrubbed the dirty clothes on a scrub board, the lye soap and hot water irritating her flesh, perpetually leaving hands reddened and roughened. Often, she was unable to hang the wash outdoors because of dust storms, when the air became thick and gray with choking dirt and debris flying about the country. The Russian thistles would roll and tumble across the fields and farm yard, sometimes landing in the wash tubs or milk pails.
While Mrs. Larson toiled at the scrub board, Maggie entertained herself with picture books. She'd sit on the porch swing with books in her lap and pretend to be reading. Whether she was indoors or out the invasive boxelder bugs, perversive as the North Dakota dust, found their way into her clothing, hair, and books.The picture books became blotched and discolored inside by the accidentally smashed bugs, finger painting the pages as adroitly as her jelly-covered appendages did on occasion.
There was a small grove of boxelder trees near the house, which considerably added to the pest problem. Maggie was constantly brushing aside the boxelder bugs when she wasn't swatting at the flies that buzzed about. Next to sitting on the porch swing, playing under those trees with the collection of toy tractors, road-graders, and wagons carrying an ever-changing collection of furry caterpillars, remained Maggie's favorite form of entertainment.
"Do you catch butterflies too?"
Startled, Maggie knocked over a small pile of twigs meant to approximate an Indian Tepee. She looked up into Willie's smiling gaze.
"Well, do you?"
"Do I what?"
"You know . . .catch butterflies."
"Well, you know caterpillars turn into butterflies anyway."
"I don't believe you."
"It's true . . . really." Willie rebuilt the twig tepee then gently placed several caterpillars within its recesses. "You'll learn about science and stuff after you start school next year." Willie stood up. "I gotta be going."
It was a meager harvest that fall. They plucked even the short stubby ears of corn. Mrs. Larson shelled the corn in the house where she carefully collected every kernel of corn even those that landed on the floor. Later, they gathered up the corn stalks for kindling or ground up the cobs for cow or chicken feed.
The winter was a gray merciless time, wracking the country with more wind storms, leaving mounds of dust piled against the fences and buildings like snow drifts. Once Mr. Larson became lost in a dust storm while crossing the pasture in January. The visibility was as negligible as that for a farmer caught in a blinding snow blizzard. A week later he brought home several blue crocuses.
He placed the flowers in a bowl and nudged his wife."Would you rather have snow drifts, or these?" He asked.
She answered, "I think I like a real winter better where I don't have to breathe this gad awful dust and dirt all the time!"
"Guess you forgot the cold we had this winter, huh?" Then, the temperature had plummeted to an all-time low of sixty-degrees-below-zero at Parshall on February 15, 1936.
The colorless, depressing days seemed to affect all of them. One night Maggie awoke screaming, shaking in terror from a bad dream.
"Go away . . . don't touch me!" She screamed. "No, no, you're a bad boy!"
Fully awake, Maggie continued to be terrified. "Make Willie stay away," she pleaded. "He's a bad boy."
The nightmare didn't readily fade from Maggie's memory. A week later she refused to go near the Hoberg farm, saying she was afraid of Willie. It was then Mr. and Mrs. Larson made the decision to have Maggie examined by a doctor.
Dr. Anderson questioned Maggie carefully, trying not to alarm her or suggest anything overt. He asked, "Did any boy hurt you down here?" He gestured to her genitals. Maggie shook her head, no. "Did Willie touch you there?" Again she shook her head.
The doctor's report was inconclusive. He said, "I can't be sure she hasn't been abused at some time. Children sometimes injure themselves with sticks or such.
In spite of the doctor's discussion, the Larsons were now more convinced than ever that Maggie had been abused by Willie in some way.
Doctor Anderson warned them, "Be careful what you say to anyone. There's no proof one way or the other!"
Gossip had a way of building little things to gigantesque proportions. First, it was suspicion, then, it became fact in the eyes of neighbors all around Elm Point. They were convinced that Willie Hoberg was a child molester.
The spring thaws brought a swarm of activity with neighbors banding together for communal kindnesses, such as the plowing for farmer Johnson who had broken his leg. However, the Elm Point social conscience was fickle and merciless. It did not include foregiveness, or the possibility that Willie Hoberg might be a victim, himself.Willie became a loner out of necessity. Always resourceful and industrious, he taught himself how to build a raft out of rotted logs and green willows. He determined to run away to Montana where no one would know him and whisper cruel untruths.
During the activities of the ice harvest and Easter basket social, Willie had been taunted and shunned unmercifully by children and adults alike. But the final and most traumatic episode was the beating he endured at the hands of three sixteen-year-old youths in the church yard on Mothers Day in May.
“Willie has run away!” Mr. Larson put down the pail of milk and reached for a pitcher.
Mrs. Larson looked hesitantly at Maggie then asked her husband,“How do you know?”
“He left a note and then took off . . . guess he crossed the river and hopped a freight train.”
“I can’t say I’m sorry.”
There was little discussion about Willie’s departure in the weeks to come. But Maggie began having nightmares again and crying out in her sleep.
“Mama . . . don’t let Willie put me in a hole like he did Danny!”
Mrs. Larson comforted Maggie with soothing sounds and stroked her daughter’s head. “There now . . . you’re safe . . . no one’s gonna hurt you.”
But this time Maggie’s words had triggered an onslaught of concerns and suspicions. Mrs. Larson was not about to drop the subject.
Gently, but with persistence, the Larsons questioned Maggie about her fears. When she told them about the bundle that Willie had buried under the cattle guard, they became frightened and horrified. Later, Mrs. Larson voiced her thoughts to her husband. “Could Willie have killed that poor boy?”
There were several neighbors in attendance when the sheriff began digging. The Johnsons were there. No one was going to keep them away, not if their boy was in that hole!
It wasn’t a deep hole. It was shallow by anyone’s standards. It took only a few spadefuls of soil and the blade touched burlap. Then, the sheriff peeled back the damp, rotted material and exposed Willie’s secret. It was a muddy and rotted cigar box with the skeletal remains of three birds. That was Willie’s terrible crime, the burial of a robin family that had fallen from their nest! In one of the mounds of dirt were remnants of the nest.