This is the first installment of my novel, Leona.
I wrote Leona a few years ago, and have never shared it on my blog before. It was centered in the Dust Bowl era and loosely based on my great-grandmother, Leona, who was born in 1915 and lived through it.
I’d like to post it chapter by chapter, much like I did “Sorrel’s Story.”
What do you think? Would you be willing to take a peek? 🙂
I was only four years old, a barefoot, contented thing. My hair was a dusty brown, with freckles across my nose, and big brown eyes. I went barefoot most everywhere, and wore overalls unless we went to town or had company. Then Mama would have me put on a dress.
Bud was my brother. He was the same age as me. He went barefoot, and wore overalls, too. But Mama didn’t make him wear dresses.
Dad was a cattle rancher. We lived in Clearlake on a farm called “The Burn’s Place.”
I wasn’t afraid of the cattle. They just were. All my four years of living, they had been there. Sometimes I would crawl on hands and knees under a broken section in the barbed wire fence to pat their sides and stroke them. My favorite in the herd was a heifer, whom I affectionately called Silkie.
Silkie calved the next fall. “I hope the calf’s a girl,” I confided to Mama one day. “Why’s that?” Mama asked. “‘Cause I already have a name all picked out,” I answered frankly.
Bud was more interested in the bulls and steers. I guessed that was because he was a boy.
Well, Silkie’s calf did come, and lo and behold, it was a girl! I named her Milky. “It’s ‘cause it rhymes with Silkie,” I explained to Bud.
Milkie preferred to stay close by her mother, and shied away from me for a few days before I convinced her I was nice. Being that cows calve about every year, I decided not to name Silkie’s next calf, Milkie’s first, and so on. It was a good decision. By the time I was nine, Silkie had calved three more, Milkie had calved her second, and Silkie’s and Milkie’s calves were calving.
One day in October, Dad had to go into town to get more nails, and a roll of barbed wire. Fixing the barbed wire fences that stretched around our one-hundred and twenty acres of land was no easy task. “You wanna come, Sis?” Dad asked me. I jumped up. “Yes!” I answered. I went upstairs and pulled on a dress. I combed through my hair in three seconds and was bounding back down the stairs.
Mama was coming up and talking to Dad at the same time. “I need flour, baking soda, and some other goods. I’ll just be a minute.” She glanced at me and nodded her approval. Dad was yelling to Bud. Bud came inside, his hair windblown. “The south-side fence needs patched up,” Bud said importantly. Dad nodded. “Good job. Now go on and get ready. I’m takin’ the whole herd to town.” He meant us. I smiled.
Mama came back downstairs. She had changed out of her housekeeping dress and was smoothing her short brown hair. “I’m ready,” she said. Bud sprinted down the stairs looking somewhat better. “Me, too,” he said.
Dad went out to the automobile. We followed. The automobile was our prized possession. The ranch was prospering, and Dad had bought it proudly. He was so proud of it, he was willing to throw away good money on gasoline, which it guzzled by the gallon.
He started the engine as we all slid in. After pretending to look around nice and hard to make sure we were all there, Dad set the automobile into motion and we set out.
Bud and I sat on the edge of our seats, craning our necks to watch the fields pass by. We began to see houses after a couple of minutes, and the houses quickly became closer together as we entered Beaver. We started to see some storefronts, and people milling about.
Dad parked the automobile on the packed dirt in front of Griggs’s General Store. We all filed out, and Dad went one way, and Mama took me and Bud the other.
I looked wistfully over my shoulder at Dad before dutifully followed Mama inside. After half an hour, Mama led us to the counter to pay. I could see Dad sitting in the automobile, ready to go.
Mama handed the man some bills, collected the brown bagged groceries, and herded us out the door.
She put her bags in the trunk, avoiding the roll of barbed wire and rope, and slipped into her seat by Dad, calm and unruffled.
“I had time to buy everything I needed, take a smoke, and browse around before sittin’ here for a quarter of an hour,” he complained, but I could tell he was just poking fun at Mama.
Mama smiled and said, “Guess I’m just naturally more thorough.”
I giggled, and Dad silently backed the automobile into the road. He was hiding a smile.
“Dad, look!” I said, pointing at a small brick house. “They don’t got any yard!”
It wasn’t quite true – they did, but what they had equaled less than a quarter acre.
“You’re right,” Dad said, “I prefer the country, myself. Less people crowdin’ around and more air to breathe.”
Bud and I nodded in agreement, but Mama just stared out the window.
When we got home, Mama busied herself with putting everything in it’s place and getting supper fixed.
I helped a little, but got tired of her pensive mood and went to find Bud.
We hightailed it out to the creek, a cool, sandy little place to play. It was our castle, really. We loved it.
When we went in to supper, our good clothes were splotched and soggy. Mama scolded us, and we stood there and took it.
We listened meekly before hurrying upstairs to change.
After supper, Mama sent Bud and me to get ready for bed. We tore upstairs, put on nightclothes, and came back down, hopeful to snatch a few more minutes of wakefulness. But Mama told us it was “time to get some sleep,” and sent us back up.
I was sitting cross-legged in the garden, pulling weeds. I had a big straw hat on and one of Bud’s pairs of overalls. I saw someone walk up from the corner of my eye and looked up. A girl my size was watching me. She looked friendly.
“Howdy. Who’re you?” I asked.
She grinned crookedly, and I knew from that point on we were gonna be friends.
“I’m Rachel. What’s your name?” she said.
“My name’s Leona, but everybody calls me Sis.”
Rachel nodded, still smilin’, and sat down next to me.
“Want help?” she asked.
I nodded and she bent over, concentrated on pulling the stubborn things. After a minute, she looked up. It was hot out, and beads of sweat were already finding ways down her forehead.
She wiped them away absentmindedly and asked, “How old are you?”
I looked up, appreciating her dark braids and blue eyes.
“I’m ten. How ‘bout you?”
She nodded her approval. “Almost eleven.”
We sat a minute more in a friendly silence. Then Rachel said, “I live down the road a ways. Moved in last week. We could be friends if you want.”
I nodded eagerly. “Yes, please.”
When we were finished with the weeds, or, more accurately, the weeds were finished with us, I hopped up.
“I’ll be right back,” I called over my shoulder. I ran inside, calling, “Mama, there’s a neighbor girl my age and we’re friends now. I pulled some weeds. Can I go play with her?”
Mama came down the steps, smoothing her dress. “That’ll be fine. Which neighbor?”
I told her they were down the road a ways behind us. “I didn’t know there was anyone there. I’ll have to visit them soon.” I nodded hastily and darted out the door.
Rachel was standing there expectantly, so I ran up beside her and led her to the creek to play.
I guess I showed her everything kinda proudly, but she didn’t mind, and both of us had a good time.
I showed Rachel my cattle family.
She was duly impressed with Silky and Milky, and offered to help me name the next generation of calves when they came.
Rachel ran into the yard one October day. Her hair was windblown, and she looked excited. “Our cow’s gonna calve, and Dad said I can have her calf!”
The wind was blowing lightly past us. Bud walked out of the barn, leading our chestnut horse, Jack.
“Wanna ride?” he asked us. We nodded and he boosted me up. “You want Clay or Thunder?” he asked Rachel.
“Clay, thanks.” She followed him into the barn and saddled up.
Clay was a terra-cotta color, and a good horse. Thunder lived up to his name, being large, black, and energetic.
We started at a trot, and worked up to a gallop. Rachel’s dark hair blew wildly in the wind, and my hair whipped around my face. We were jostled as our horses galloped. I loved it.
A steady rhythm of hooves beat out on the packed earth. Too soon, the sky clouded over. Angry storm clouds flooded in.
The horses were acting fidgety, so we turned around. The wind grew colder. We trotted the horses to the barn and rubbed them down. When we stepped outside a few minutes later, thunder growled.
“Maybe you’d better eat supper with us,” I said, as lightning lit up the sky. She nodded, and answered, “If it’s alright with your mother. Don’t think I can get home in time.”
We ran inside as the sky opened up. As we entered, the thunder let out a theatrical roar. Mama looked up from her place at the table.
“Bad weather?” she asked. I nodded.
“Rachel can’t make it back in time. Could she stay here for supper?”
“Of course,” Mama answered. “Go ‘head and wash up.”
We went over to sink. Bud went upstairs. I pumped the water while Rachel splashed it on her face and hands. Then she pumped it for me.
“I hope Mom isn’t worried,” she said, pumping up and down. “She won’t be,” I told her, the cold water running down my face. Rachel handed me a towel and I rubbed myself dry.
I heard the screen door squeak, and the storm door opened. Dad walked in, drenched. The screen door banged. “The storm decided to open up while I was fixin’ the fence on the south side.” He was breathing heavily.
“That’s a long ways off,” I commented.
“Yup.” Dad went upstairs to change. Bud passed him on his way down.
Mama laughed. “He needed a bath anyway,” she chuckled. “Rose!” Dad yelled down, in pretend exasperation. Rachel and I giggled. Bud smiled.
“Hope you like biscuits ’n’ gravy,” Mama told Rachel. “Yes m’m. I like anything,” she said. I giggled.
“Even stewed pig brains?” I asked. It was the nastiest thing I could I think up. “Maybe not pig brains,” she answered slowly.
“I’d eat pig brains,” Bud said. I wrinkled my nose.
Mama ladled out the thick gravy on her homemade biscuits and handed me a plate. “You girls can set the table,” she said. We bustled around, getting plates and cups.
Dad strode down the stairs and over to Mama. “Am I better now?” he asked, pretending to be hurt.
“Oh, yes. Much better,” Mama said sweetly.
We sat down to eat. Throughout the meal, thunder growled. The wind moaned. Every once and awhile, lightning lit up the sky, making strange silhouettes on the walls.
“Some storm,” Dad grunted. We all nodded in agreement.
“I hope Mom knows I’m okay,” Rachel said nervously. She was cleaning her plate hurriedly.
The storm started to die down. Dad pushed his chair back and stood up, stretching and heading off to check on the cattle for the night.
Rachel stood up, her chair squeaking against the floorboards. “Thank you, Mrs. Burns, for supper.”
“You’re welcome, Rachel. Come any time,” Mama told her.
Rachel looked doubtfully out at the storm-washed yard.
“Here, Rachel. You can take my jacket home with you.”
She looked at me gratefully and threw it over her head. With a brave wave goodbye, she stuck out her chin and bolted out the door.
We finished with our supper and took care of the dishes, just Mama and me. Bud had gone off to who-knows-where, like he always did when there were dishes to do.
Then Mama turned the kerosene lamp up, and sat down at the table, brooding.
I went upstairs, pulled a cream nightgown on, and washed my face. When I came back down, Mama was looking through a Sears and Roebuck catalog. I sat down and watched her silently.
Occasionally, Mama’s pen would make little scratching noises on the stiff newspaper she was using for a notepad. I blinked sleepily. The lamp on the table flickered, making warm shadows on the walls. The wind blew against the house. The house creaked and groaned cozily. I sighed and drifted off to sleep.
I half heard the screen door banging and heard Dad and Mama talking softly. I felt Dad lift me up and carry me up the stairs. He set me gently in my bed. My eyelids fluttered open. Mama bent over me and tucked the cool sheets around me. “‘Night, Dad and Mama,” I murmured. “‘Night Sis,” Mama answered. She went out quietly.
My room was dark. Suddenly my window lit up with lightning like fire. Thunder had a disagreement with the wind.
I rolled over and listened to the storm as it lulled me back to sleep.
What do you think? Do you like it so far?