Chapter One: in the Dakota Territory 1880
Fischer blasts out from a fallow strip between the rows of Turkey red wheat, ahead of his riding companion, on Lila’s papa’s farm and into the barnyard, bouncing bareback on his pony, like the prairie king himself on his movable throne.
Cocky son of a gun.
Lila dislikes him at once for not using the road like everyone else. She observes him skeptically from the pitcher’s mound as he passes the squawking windmill that squeals like an insistent piglet, its arms defiant to the gusts and sneezes of prairie winds nudging it. A lone tree, a spindly poplar, nods toward the steep roof, keeping the sad farmhouse company. They are hapless companions, not able to rescue each other from a slow downward-spiraling mood.
He acts like Napoleon, only taller and younger. A conqueror coming to take our farm.
Lila received the highest marks on her eighth-grade final exam, accurately naming all the republics of Europe and reciting each of their capitals. Haughty Napoleon, atop his white steed, glowered down at her regally from her history book. At school she devoured facts as keenly as a crow picking clean the scraps of a coyote carcass. If she had gone on to school, she is sure she would have graduated at the head of her country room high school class. She made 100 percent on her arithmetic, easily calculating how much a load of wheat weighs and its value per bushel after deducting for tare.
“There you go…again…you and that red head of yours,” Mama said when Lila strode into the kitchen plainly announcing her test results that year, as if her hair and good grades were at the top of Mama’s list of ten worst sins. “Don’t crow about it or it’ll go straight to your head. You know what will happen then,” she said, shaking her head at her oldest daughter.
Lila has decided in the brief moment since Fischer emerged from the wheat field that this Napoleonic showoff isn’t so bright. But then he looks down and smiles straight at her from his horse like she is the only person in the yard, as if they are the only two people on the whole planet. If she could admit to it, she is intrigued, but she chooses instead to be irritated that he attracts her in spite of the smug self-satisfied angle at which his ten-gallon hat sits. He practically lounges on the horse’s back as if he has settled into a soothing bathtub. She frowns when he kicks his sweet dappled pony in the hindquarters with swift dusty boots to make it show off. Instinctively, watching his barnyard procession advance to center stage of the family farm, she whiffs a feral scent beneath his smile.
Strands of wavy hair disturb her, and she impulsively pushes them away from her temples, needing to corral their feckless behavior. The air is sticky warm and the natural waves cling to her clammy skin like needy children gathered round when she returns Fischer’s gaze. Her shapeless white shift with its broad navy-shaped collar is dusty and damp. She put it on after Sunday church, before their friends came for the afternoon and they started a game of softball.
Lila has a great right pitching arm. The boys from the neighboring farms bicker over her for their teams. Her sister Iris smirks, “It’s just from punching down bread dough when she’s mad. Which is all the time. Torturing it.”
Iris plays the outfield. She prefers running after fly balls and swinging her hips invitingly when someone hits a grounder and she has to chase after it. She sports a boy’s baseball cap like a saucer tilted and pinned on the back of her head. She chews gum, too, and smacks it whenever there is a pop-up. Every time she throws the ball back to the pitcher’s mound she winds up like a clock, then reverses it until she gets all the boys to watch her. Lila yells, “Stop throwing like a girl, you dope.” The boys titter and wait in hopes that someone will knock the ball out her way again.
“Maybe it’s from milking cows,” Iris continues, referring to Lila’s pitching arm. She goads Lila, trying to get Lila to snap at her for not doing her half of the work around the place. “Morning and night, always milking cows,” Iris badgers.
“Come on, Iris,” someone from near third base yells. “Can we just play ball?” She turns her backside to him, bends over and jiggles it, then giggles. She’s wearing pants. He giggles, too.
The kids set up the playing field between the house and the barn where the ground is hard, flat, and empty. They use dried cow patties for the three bases and gunnysacks stuffed with straw for the pitcher’s mound and home base. Someone brought a softball bat and everyone gets a chance to hit with it. Someone else brought a catcher’s mitt. The only ball, at one time maybe white, matches the dusty earth and has a small tear along its red stitching.
Lila doesn’t want to admit it, but his smile disarms her. A wrestling match is stirring up her guts. He hasn’t yet gotten off his horse. Reluctantly curious, she takes a step or two back and waits for him to dismount. Lila is not one to make first moves. When Iris becomes more high-strung than usual, Lila waits until she does something. The same is true with Papa and Irwin, her older brother—unless Irwin pulls a mean stunt like he did when he sneaked off with the cameo brooch Mama gave her before she died. He went to town and offered it to a girl he’d decided he liked. The girl wasn’t even from their church, but she was fair-minded, thank goodness, and wouldn’t let her head be turned like Iris would if someone offered her such a present. The girl told Irwin it looked like it was somebody’s heirloom and would surely be missed. She told him to return it. Lila found him sliding it back into the battered little box where Mama had stored it. Lila hid the box in the barn after that, in case Irwin decided to woo some other girl who was not so considerate about her brooch.
“Another damn dryland farmer,” Fischer sniffs from his equine perspective toward the western horizon absently taking in the many empty miles of monotonous flatlands. “You couldn’t beg a real tree to grow here,” he grumbles to his companion, pointing at the poplar leaning against the house. The few and widely scattered trees are chicken scratches against a pale, late-afternoon sky.
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