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The four riders coming over the hills escaped Cormac Lynch’s normally acute awareness of his surroundings. His attention was on his burlap potato sack. He dragged it to the beginning of the next row, straddled it, and then hooked the top of the mouth on his belt. As he walked straddle-legged, the sack flowed between his legs while the mouth was held open by a piece of thin cord tying each side of the bag to his knees, allowing the body of the sack to drag behind him.
The briskness in the air was exhilarating and the morning sun warm as it accepted its task of chasing away the morning shadows and burning the dew from the potato plants and grasses. Bobolinks flying in and out of the lone tree standing near the field were singing and flirting with each other. It was a great day to be alive. There was a long day of work ahead, but that’s what farmers did from first light till the sun went down; he was up to it.
After plowing up the potatoes and spreading them across the ground for easy pickin’, his father had already ridden the mile to the cornfield on the other side of the farm buildings shortly after dawn to begin weeding. Cormac loved working beside his pa, but hated weeding and was glad his mother had wanted him to help finish picking the potatoes. Their main crops were corn, wheat, and flax, but his mother had decided to put in a small field of potatoes to sell in town for what she called pin money.
Cormac checked the progress of his mother and sister, who had started picking while he had removed the saddles and bridles and hobbled the saddle horses to allow them to graze without running off. Most farm horses were plow horses, strong, powerful, and suitable for the hard work that was expected of them: pulling heavy hay racks and wagons piled high, frequently to overflowing, with grain or corn; or pulling a plow to break up hardened soil; or pulling stone boats for relocating boulders and full water barrels for irrigation; or tearing stubborn tree stumps from the earth in which they had grown. Usually ridden bareback when used for transportation purposes while en route to the fields in full harness, but when Cormac’s mother was along, his pa insisted saddles be used. Today was such a day, and the care of the horses fell to Cormac.
Four years older, his sister Becky was nigh on to eighteen and their mother only twice that. Like most western women of the time, she had married young, having Becky one year later. People frequently said they looked more like sisters than mother and daughter, which pleased them both no end. They fairly beamed every time they heard it. Becky loved being compared to her mother, whom she thought was surely the prettiest woman in the world, and her mother loved being told that she looked young enough to be Becky’s sister.
Both experienced pickers, strong from many hours of hard work, they had a good head start on Cormac. He smiled as he noticed his mother glance over her shoulder to check on him and then murmur something to Becky. They had played this game before. His father was a kind but firm taskmaster; his mother, on the other hand, always found ways to turn work into fun. Now, knowing that he did not like being behind them and would want to catch up, she and Becky were going to try to prevent it.
“We’ll see about that,” he said softly. “We’ll just see about that.” He had been studying and preparing for just such an event with frequent, thoughtful practice on how to make his hands move faster and pick more potatoes in less time. He had experimented with various fingering grips on the potatoes, different strokes and alternate flips to get the potatoes into the bag. Each change produced tiny amounts of progress, and each bit of progress took him a little closer to his goal: to be the fastest potato picker in the territory.
While picking in the field, and often at night before falling asleep, he indulged himself in a fantasy. In it, he could see himself in the middle of a long line of boys lined up in contest at one end of a huge potato field, each with their own row. He watched as all bent over into tater-pickin’ position and made ready, and then bang! A gunshot started the race to the other end of the field.
Although his competitors were always bigger, older, more experienced, and somehow always managing to get a head start and make him begin the race with the others well in front, they always proved to be no match for his intense concentration and the great swiftness with which the potatoes flew into his bag. Cormac was always the first to turn around, laughing, at the other end of the field.
Now the time was here. This was the great race of his life. This was the moment he had prepared for. His competitors had joined forces against him and were already well in the lead. “We’ll see about that,” he said again. “We’ll just see about that.” Then Cormac Lynch, the greatest potato picker of all time, bent and began to pick potatoes. He had his mother’s light touch and agility with a natural quickness of movement enhanced by tater pickin’ since the age of three. He hadn’t accomplished much then, mostly got in the way, but his mother had assured him that his help was much appreciated and they would never have gotten done without it.
Choosing a potato with his right hand, he sent it flying between his legs and into the bag with a deft flick of his wrist while his left hand was making the next selection. Left, right, left, right, gaining speed, left-right-left-right-leftrightleftrightleftright, faster and faster, his hands found a rhythm and became but a blur. With a stream of potatoes flying into the bag, he had a strong ability to concentrate, which he now focused on the ground in front of him, blocking out all else. He did not notice his mother’s and sister’s frequent looks to check his progress. Nor did he see their looks of determination as they put on all the speed they possessed, or the smile of resignation they shared while shaking their heads at each other when he first caught up with, and then passed them.
With a smile and a finger on her lips to signal silence to Becky, Cormac’s mother began picking in Becky’s row, a few steps ahead of her. She picked half of the potatoes, leaving the other half for Becky coming up behind. With both women working the same row, Cormac was no longer pulling away from them. Catching up to him, though, was still out of the question.
Laughing, Cormac stood up and turned around when he reached the end of his row, and then threw the last potato into the bag. Only then did he see the four men riding across the potato patch toward them. Caught up in the thrill and excitement of competition, Becky and her mother remained equally unaware of the riders.
“Mother,” Cormac said, nodding his head toward the approaching riders.
The women’s laughter stilled as their eyes followed his nod. The freshly plowed soil had muffled the horses’ hoofs, and the riders were less than fifty feet away. Their lack of concern for the damage being done to the potatoes by their horses was a clear statement of their intent and approaching trouble.
The men were dirty and unshaven, their clothes worn and disheveled, and their bedrolls sloppily tied behind beat-up and uncared-for saddles. Badly in need of rest, their horses showed the results of overuse and neglect. All were scarred with sores kept open by the frequent misuse of spurs.
Mrs. Lynch paled as their situation became evident. Her husband was a mile away, and they were unprotected. Frequently, he had warned her to keep the rifle close to her at all times.
“Hopefully you’ll never need to use it,” he had said. “There aren’t a lot of people in these parts yet, and our farm is far off the beaten path. Even the Indians don’t come around this neck of the woods since Red Cloud signed the Laramie Treaty for the Sioux and the Black Hills now belong to them. It’s very peaceful out here, but the country is far from settled.
“There may come a time when you’ll need a gun, and if you do, you’ll need it right then and there; you’ll not likely have time to fetch it.” Lulled by the peacefulness that had become their life, try as she might, she just could not take the warning seriously. To appease her husband, she had learned how to use it and could shoot straight if she didn’t have to shoot too far. Although she carried it around with her, it was awkward and heavy and usually left leaning against something in her vicinity: a tree, a rock, a sack of potatoes, or it remained in the rifle scabbard on her saddle. It was there now, under the tree at the far end of the field. If only she had listened to him.
A huge, filthy, fat, and ugly man with a large, jagged scar running down the side of his face from his forehead to his chin rode a few feet in front of the others. He smiled a nasty smile, showing crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. Cormac’s mother knew the breath coming out of that mouth would be vile.
“This is your lucky day, lady,” he snarled at her. Then, turning his head and nodding toward Becky, he told the other riders, “You can have her. This one’s all mine.”
“Run kids!” Amanda Lynch screamed, and broke toward the rifle. It was too far away, but she had to try. Running had always come easily for her. She had won many foot races against her girlfriends in the eastern schools she had attended, but that had not been in the soft dirt of a freshly plowed potato field.
The man’s horse was too small for him and near exhaustion from carrying his weight too far and too fast with too little rest, but it was still faster than Cormac’s mother, and it quickly cut her off. No matter which way she tried to run, the horse was in front of her. It had, at one time, been a good cattle-cutting horse. Like a cat toying with a caught bird, the man was toying with her, knowing he could do anything he wanted, whenever he wanted. Becky screamed behind her. A realist, she accepted the fact that she would not be allowed to get to the gun. She stopped trying to run and faced her tormentor.
“Please,” she begged. “You and your men can do anything you want to me, and I’ll do whatever you want if you’ll leave my daughter alone.”
Her tormentor reined his horse to a stop in front of her and looked down, his eyes slowly ravaging up and down her body.
“Lady,” he growled, “I’m going to do anything I want to you anyway, and you’ll damn well do anything I tell you. And you ain’t goin’ to be so damned prissy-purty when I’m done with ya. Women like you always think you’re so damned special and don’t want anything to do with people like me. Well, today you’re going to have a lot to do with me. ’Sides, ’tain’t likely they’d stop even if I was to tell them to. They seem to be having a little fun of their own. Look at ’em.”
She became aware of Becky’s hysterical crying and the men’s laughter; she turned to look, and her heart broke. One of the men was tearing away Becky’s clothing while the other two held her, groping the bared parts of her body as they became available. Becky was struggling and trying to pull away, kicking at anything that came within reach.
“Now it’s you and me,” the fat man snarled.
Spurring the horse deeply reopened the dried blood on its sides and sent it leaping forward, knocking Cormac’s mother to the ground. Before she could regain her feet, the man was off his horse, clamping her wrist in a steely grip with one hand and tearing at her clothes with the other.
Amanda Lynch was petite, standing but five foot one on her tiptoes, but she was agile and had the strength that comes with years of long, grueling hours in the fields. She aimed a knee between his legs and the fingernails of her free hand at his face. Not the nails of a pampered and manicured city woman, these were nails hardened by the leeching of minerals from the soil caught under them while in the fields and the rays of the strong Dakota sun beating on them hour after hour. They were the nails of a hardworking countrywoman. He was expecting her knee and side-stepped it, but with furious strength she raked her nails down hard, and like knives, they cut deeply into the flesh, sending rivers of blood gushing down his face.
“Damn you,” he swore, and swung his huge fist at her face. The punch smashed in her mouth and nose, sending her near unconsciousness and leaving her hovering there, unable to move, but distantly aware of more smashing blows knocking her head back and forth, her clothes being ripped from her body, atrocious acts being done to her, and Becky’s cries of pain.
Cormac did not know what to do. His was a life that had never known violence. Protected by loving parents and an older sister who thrived on caring for him, he had never known anything but love and kindness. He stood frozen as he watched his mother’s vain attempt to run. But when the men grabbed Becky, he ran to help. One of the men hit him with a hard backhand, sending him reeling into darkness.
When he regained consciousness, he could see a giant of a man doing horrible things to his mother and two other men holding Becky down while a third was on top of her. Both women were naked, and he could hear their whimpering. Rising from the ground, he ran unnoticed to the pile of carefully chosen rocks he had collected yesterday while taking his rest at lunch. All smooth, all nearly round, and all about the size of an egg . . . good throwing stones.
Although his pa had taught him how to use a pistol, a rifle, and a shotgun when he was knee-high to a small Indian, he wasn’t allowed to use them without his pa along, so he used rocks—and sometimes in the winter, a frozen dirt clod—to hunt rabbits and squirrels. He tracked them to their hidey-holes and waited for them to show themselves. Cormac had a good eye and rarely missed. Sometimes his mother had to ask him to please stop for a while because they were getting tired of rabbit and squirrel stew, and his pa would tan his hide if he killed an animal that wasn’t for eating.
Quickly selecting three stones to hold in his right hand and one for his throwing hand, he ran, still unnoticed, to within twenty feet of the men attacking Becky. With no warning, he threw the first rock as hard as he could, hitting exactly where he had aimed, the side of the head of the man on top of Becky. The man collapsed on top of her.
“What the hell?” one of the men lying beside Becky exclaimed, his hand on her bare chest and his back to Cormac. He rolled over to face Cormac and started to his feet, but a rock square between the eyes put him back to the ground. The man lying on the other side of Becky, with his hand also on her chest, came up with a gun and fired as Cormac launched another stone. Cormac fell into a heap.
Sometime later, he heard the sound of a running horse and fought to rouse himself. He succeeded in regaining partial consciousness. Something warm was running across his face and dripping from his nose. He wiped at it, and his hand came away red with blood. With his fingers, Cormac gently traced the flow to its source and found a deep groove in his head running front to back above his left ear.
Rising on one elbow, he was thrilled to see his pa racing toward them. He must have heard the shot and come a-runnin’. Cormac took heart at the sight of the rifle in his pa’s hand. A friend of his pa’s stopping by to visit once had told him that his pa could shoot the eye out of a gnat at fifty paces. He would put a stop to this. But he couldn’t shoot without fear of hitting his wife or Becky. Galloping to within a few feet of Cormac’s mother, John Lynch hauled back on the reins and set the horse sliding to a stop on its haunches.
“Take him boys!” the fat man ordered. “I’m busy.” Before the horse had come to a complete stop, John Lynch was off, his momentum carrying him a few running steps toward where the fat man was assaulting his wife.
“You bastards!” he screamed as he staggered to a halt, raising his rifle, “I’ll kill y—” Rolling gunfire cut him off and echoed over the hills as three guns cut him to pieces and he collapsed to the ground.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he got out weakly, with tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Rebecca.” John Lorton Lynch, along with all of his plans, hopes, and dreams for his family, died, and fourteen-year-old Cormac Lynch gratefully sunk into the darkness of oblivion.
Silence and stillness blanketed the valley. There was no movement in the air or birds singing in the tree. With no breeze to cool its effects, the gentle, warm morning sun had risen into the sky to become a blistering ball of Dakota fire. Stubborn dew hiding in the ruts of the plowed field and on shaded blades of grass under the tree had been quickly baked away, and the freshly plowed, rich, dark soil was now scorched dry and crumbly. The only movement was the growth of the tall grass covering the valley and the surrounding hills stretching upward in its relentless quest for the sun.
In states with mountains rising to thirteen or fourteen thousand feet, they wouldn’t be called hills . . . more like bumps. In Dakota, there were hills, and then there were the Black Hills. At a little more than 7,000 feet, they were inhabited by the Oglala Sioux Indians who shared hunting privileges with the Cheyenne and, occasionally, the Arikara Indians, whose home was normally at the mouth of the Cheyenne River. The many pine trees created an appearance of darkness from a distance generating the name: the Black Hills, Paha Sapa to the Indians.
The balance of the Dakota Territory remained mostly flat with small rolling hills, sometimes in groups, spasmodically straining upward out of the flatness of the Great Plains to press against the bottom side of the grass like a rock under a rug with occasional trees here and there. It was in just such terrain that John Lynch had chosen to build his farm and raise his family.
In these surroundings, Cormac slowly became aware that his eye was open. One eye was pressed downward against a potato where his head had fallen; the other was open. Open and staring at Becky’s naked, twisted, and bloody body. He tried to close it. He did not want to have to look, but the eye would not do his bidding. Twice the distance away and a little to the side was his mother’s body—a short distance farther, his father’s. With a terrible, sickening sense of loss, Cormac knew they were all dead. Why wasn’t he? He remembered the darkness encircling him and gratefully thinking he was dying. Why had he not?
Dazed and numb, Cormac slowly sat up, dizziness and excruciating pain in his head making him sick to his stomach. He closed his eyes against the waves of nausea and vomited heavily and frequently. Gently, his fingers probed the side of his head and found it covered with dried blood. He found the deep groove from the bullet, and on the ground, a dried pool of more blood. Groaning, he weakly staggered to his feet; only then did he think about the men. Where were they?
Carefully, Cormac looked around the valley, moving his head very slowly, afraid of more pain. The men were gone, only their used-up horses remained; too tired to wander, they were taking advantage of the respite from overuse to rest and graze on the rich grass the best they could while bridled with steel bits in their mouths. Cormac could see that the horses he had hobbled and his father’s horse had all been taken. Strangely, he felt no relief at the men’s absence. Neither had he felt any fear, he realized; neither then, nor now.
He just felt numb, like an observer looking at a photograph in one of his mother’s many books, which she used to educate him. But this was a horrible, grotesque photograph at which he did not want to look; he did not want to see. He wanted to close the book and have to look no longer; but this was not a photograph, this was real, and there on the ground were his mother, his pa, and his sister, petite and pretty seventeen-year-old Rebecca May Lynch: Becky. She had loved the name Rebecca, and Cormac was the only person she tolerated calling her Becky.
How could this have happened? They had been minding their own business, working in the fields and laughing. The sunshine had been warm and friendly on the beginning of a beautiful day. He remembered hearing the birds in the tree. Tomorrow they would have been taking the potato harvest into town and picking up supplies. His mother and Becky were planning to get some material for new dresses while, as always, he looked at the new saddles in the back of the store and dreamed of someday buying his own. His pa would probably have got some store-bought candy for him and Becky. Suddenly, everything had changed. Everything was gone. Four strangers had simply ridden into their lives and taken away everything. How could this possibly have happened? Cormac Lynch did not understand. What right did they have to do that?
He resolved himself to go to Becky. Her resistance to what had been happening to her was evident in the scuffed and gouged soil surrounding her. She had fought ferociously. The more she had resisted, the more she had been beaten, yet she never stopped fighting. There were bruises covering most of her body, front and back; and her face, once so gently pretty and so quick to smile and laugh, had been smashed almost beyond recognition. Her teeth were twisted in her mouth—some were missing, and blood covered most of her upper body.
“Why?” he screamed out. “Why did you do this?”
He avoided looking at her nakedness as he covered her with the largest pieces of her dress that he could find intact. Then, with immense dread, he went to his mother. What had been done to her was even more horrendous. Her face and body were a puffy round mass of torn flesh; there was blood over much of her body. Her eyes had swollen shut; and the sweet, soft lips that had kissed Cormac so many times were mashed into her mouth where her teeth should have been. Her also naked body had been twisted perversely to satisfy the desires of a hideous monster.
Stunned at the violence, Cormac moved mechanically, straightening her body and covering it; he kissed her softly, as he had Becky, and moved to his father. It was almost a pleasure to see that his father, even though he was dead, still looked like his father. Stretching out on the ground beside him, Cormac laid his head on his father’s massive chest. So strong his father had been, so eager to rise and begin work each day, always whistling, always happy to tease his children and their mother whenever the opportunity presented itself. Now he was dead—and cold.
Cormac remained there a long while, remembering the happy times and laughter their family had shared, along with their dreams and plans for the future. He was avoiding, he knew, what had to come next and what he had to do. He had to bury them.
The sun was getting low in the sky and the shadows lengthening when Cormac reluctantly rose. He would bury them under the tree. It would be difficult to move the bodies that far, but it had been a happy spot for them. The only tree in the valley, it had shaded them while they shared lunches, talked, and laughed during field preparation, the planting, weeding, and harvesting; and if there was no lightning, provided them shelter from the rain. His parents had treated the breaks like picnics and made them fun. Under the tree, after eating, they had stretched out for mid-day naps before returning to work, they had made plans, they had laughed and enjoyed each other’s company, and under the tree the three of them would spend the rest of forever.
Cormac worked as the sun went down and a full moon rose in its place, brightly illuminating everything with a pallid softness. What his pa had called the Milky Way made a soft trail across the sky. The horses were all-in and made no effort to elude him. He caught the nearest one to help move the bodies to the burial site.
The sky was showing signs of light in the east when he tamped the last dirt onto his father’s grave. All the while avoiding looking at their nakedness, he had buried his mother first, and then Becky, so they would be covered. His father would have understood. He had always told Cormac to take care of the women first.
Crawling onto his mother’s grave feeling hollow and weak, his strength drained, he collapsed with the realization coming to him that he had not cried. He wondered about that. His family had been horribly, viciously murdered, leaving it up to him to bury them, and yet he had not cried. His insides felt dead, filled with a sick and terrible empty numbness. He should have cried, he thought, and the thinking made him feel guilty.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I love you.” Cormac Lynch slept.
After having ridden only a few miles from the Lynch place, the outlaws came upon a meandering, tree-lined creek.
“Hey, Gator.” Raunchy laughed. “Let’s stop and have a drink. Man, oh man, oh man, that was somethin’, weren’t it? Those women were sure somethin’, weren’t they? Right purty little things.”
“For once in your life, you got yourself a good idea,” the fat man responded. “I need to wash out these gouges that bitch gave me anyway. I sure taught her a thing or two. She won’t be clawing anyone else like that.”
Nicknamed for an alligator he had killed with his bare hands while escaping through the swamps from a Florida prison, George Milar had been on the wrong side of the law all of his life. Six inches over six feet tall, he would have tipped the scales at over three hundred pounds had he ever felt the need to get on one. He didn’t care what he weighed. By the time he was ten years old, he had already decided he would do whatever the hell he wanted, and that included eating anything he wanted, as much as he wanted, when he wanted.
Gator didn’t like rules and cared not one whit what other people thought. His three hundred-plus pounds of bulk concealed massive muscles that had always bulled him out of any situation. His weight was also a horse killer; he rode them until they could no longer walk. He kicked them, beat them, spurred them, and cussed at them, and when they could go no farther, he would steal another and with his huge fists, hammer anyone who complained, laughing and enjoying every minute while he did it.
He stepped down from the horse he had recently stolen, backhanding it on the side of the head when it shied away at the sudden transfer of weight from the saddle to the stirrup that twisted the cinch strap painfully around its girth.
“Pete,” he ordered. “You and the Mex rustle up some grub.”
The “Mex” looked at him with hate-filled eyes. The way Gator said “Mex” made it sound vulgar. Gator knew the man did not like the slur on his race and used it to put him down at every opportunity. Someday, the “Mex” was going to introduce Gator to the pointed end of the Mexican knife he wore on his belt. Until then, he would put up with the mistreatment because of the protection it afforded him.
Nobody wanted to tangle with Gator, and that provided the group with both protection and women. Their shared taste for abuse of women was the glue that held their small band together. They all liked to kill and did so for any reason, or for no reason, but their need to abuse women was their mainstay. Sometimes they kept a woman with them while they traveled, sharing her body either as a group or for their individual sadistic pleasure, until they tired of her; or until she became too ugly from the beatings, in which case they killed her and left her to rot. The “Mex” had been hopeful of keeping the last two. He would have relished enough time to enjoy them more slowly, maybe cut them a little and watch them bleed, but Gator’s woman had somehow managed to stuff enough dirt into her mouth to choke herself to death without Gator noticing until it was too late. The other went hysterical when she realized what had happened and attacked them, screaming, biting, kicking, and scratching, and wouldn’t stop until she was finally beaten to death.
Too bad, he thought, shaking his head. What a waste to lose them so soon.
Gator removed a large bottle of whiskey from his saddlebag. “We’ll have us a couple of drinks then go find where those farmers lived. If we give the horses their heads, they’ll find their way home. Most farmers keep some whiskey around for medicine, and we’ll be needin’ some more ’fore long. And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and find another daughter or two, wouldn’t that be a kick?” They ate and drank until they passed out, talking about what they would have done to the women if they hadn’t died.
The sun was again high in the sky when Cormac awoke to the sound of the horse stomping her feet and blowing. Tied to a low-hanging branch, the large, slate-colored grulla mare with a dark head, white-blazed face, and matching white stockings, with which he had moved the bodies had eaten all the grass in the small area within her reach and was stretching as far as the reins would allow. Grazing close by were the outlaw’s other horses, so uncared for that the saddles and bridles, as badly mistreated as the horses, had not been removed.
The Lynch horses and gear had obviously been taken because they were in much better condition. Cormac’s pa knew the benefits of well-bred animals and the importance of taking care of one’s property. Cormac noticed these things on some subconscious level. Consciously, he was numb from the shock and horror and the great loss of the previous day. Slowly he rose and walked to the grulla, untied her reins, and flipped them over her head. Nickering lowly, she extended her nose to nuzzle his chest. A horse lover like his pa, Cormac appreciated the gesture. It was as if she understood he was in pain and was giving support in the only way she knew how, along with her thank-you for being treated kindly.
Cormac automatically reciprocated by holding her large head in his two hands. Leaning his forehead against her face, his nose against her nose, the two of them breathed each other’s air and smelled each other’s breath in the same manner in which Cormac had done so many times before with his pa’s horse, Lop Ear. He was reaching now for the comforting closeness he so desperately needed. The grulla seemed to understand and nickered softly once more.
With their faces together, Cormac hugged her head for a time and then returned to sit on his mother’s grave, wanting to remain as close to her as possible, wanting not to think, not knowing or caring what he should do next. With his father’s grave on one side of him and Becky’s on the other, he was at a total and uncaring loss for a plan of action. Three wonderful, happy, giving people had been horribly and painfully murdered, his happy existence forever changed.
Cormac could not be still. His lips began to tremble and his body began to shake; his emotion would no longer be denied. His mind and heart wracked with pain, his body began to heave, and his muscles convulsed uncontrollably. He curled first into a tight fetal position and began moaning and sobbing hysterically, rocking back and forth. Then, rolling over onto his knees, he began pounding the dirt with all of his strength, making loud, unintelligible moans and groans and yells and whimpers like those of a large animal dying in agony. The horses watched the strange actions of the human curiously until the sounds diminished and finally ceased as Cormac, wounded, heartsick, and emotionally drained, once again passed into unconsciousness, and they returned to grazing.
The sun inched across the sky until the graves were no longer shaded. The sun was hot, and Cormac Lynch reluctantly became aware of his surroundings. He sat up to get the sun out of his face and remained there for a time in an unthinking sickly stupor, staring without seeing. Presently it occurred to him that he had not taken care of the horses’ needs, and he was also becoming aware of a cold and terrible rage building in his gut, replacing the trembling sickness and sense of loss.
Cormac arose with a purpose. He was fourteen years old and had much of his height; already eight or ten inches taller than Becky and his mother had been, he was beginning to fill out like his wide-shouldered and well-muscled pa. He had been carrying the daily workload of a man for more than a year—digging, wood chopping, barn cleaning, and shoveling manure—making him far stronger than an average fourteen-year-old. His pa had taught him about guns: how to use them, how to hit what he aimed at, when and when not to use them. This was the time to use them.
You bastards! I’ll kill you! The last words he heard from his pa echoed in his mind. He would keep his pa’s promise. Cormac would find the bastards . . . and he would kill them.
Cormac Lynch was of the Celtic heritage of his father, a people known for their horsemanship, and Cormac’s pa had taught him well about recognizing and caring for good horseflesh. He took down the pail of water from where it had been hung in the tree to shade and protect it. He rinsed his mouth, spit, and drank a few swallows, saving the rest for the horses.
They knew what a bucket was and came easily to him. He gave each their share, talking to them and rubbing the knot between their ears while they drank. Each had been mistreated by humans and, at first, shied from his hand, but the smell of water won out. They drank eagerly and hesitantly allowed his touch.
Watching and evaluating their movements, Cormac easily selected the best of the four abandoned horses: the large and well-muscled grulla mare with which he had already made friends. He had not previously noticed her powerful hindquarters and smooth lines indicating speed and endurance, or her high-arched neck and high-held tail.
Cormac grimaced and shook his head when he examined the spur damage on their flanks. What kind of human being could treat animals like that? That was a question the answer to which he already knew all too well. He had to return to the farm for weapons and food for traveling; once there he would treat the wounds of the horses as well as his own. The sick feeling in his stomach was beginning to remind him that he had not eaten in a day and a half.
Cormac Lynch removed the bridles and unsaddled the horses, giving them time to roll in the grass while he chose the most padded saddle blanket and a saddle that appeared to be large enough to fit the grulla. Though still in poor condition, the day’s rest and grazing had done all the horses good. He mounted and started the mare toward the farm; his now, he realized dully. He was not looking forward to arriving there without his family. Accustomed to traveling together, the other horses followed.
A few miles to the southeast, Lainey Nayle topped a hill, riding the horse of her adopted father. He had been sick for three days and was lying in the back of their covered wagon, now being driven by her mother, a couple of miles behind, while Lainey scouted ahead for the best route for the wagon. Her father had indicated the direction he wanted them to travel. They were looking for a piece of good farmland, well off by itself for safety.
He had warned her not to skyline herself when going over hilltops to reduce the risk of being seen, but she wasn’t worried. Her father was very protective of her; this was simply overprotection. She was perfectly capable of making intelligent decisions on her own. After all, she was fourteen years old and looking and thinking more like a woman every day. This was beautiful, rolling green countryside with no other people around for miles.
What was the need to be so worried all the time? At the bottom of the hill was a deeply cut arroyo made years before by a fast-moving stream searching for a route to the ocean. When the source of the water had been cut off, it had simply dried up, leaving an ugly gouge in an otherwise pristine landscape. From the hilltop, Lainey could see an easy wagon passage about a quarter mile to the north, but there was no need for her to ride that far; she could cross right where she was.
She guided the horse carefully down into the arroyo, around a fallen tree, and up the other side. As she crested the top, she found herself in the center of a half circle formed by four men on horses, one of the men the largest and ugliest man she had ever seen. He took her breath away.
“Well, well, well,” he snarled. “Look what we found. Don’t be afraid, little missy. We are going to take right good care of you. There’s no sense in you being out here all by yourself, you can travel with us. A female around the camp for a while would be a nice change. I’m tired of eating our own cookin’, and we can teach you a few things you’ll need to know to become a woman.”
To one of the others, who had ridden up close to her side unnoticed while she had been staring speechlessly at the big man, he said, “Take her reins for her, Raunchy. I’d feel terrible if her horse should get scared and run away. This nice-looking young lady might get hurt. We’ll just take her along with us to the farm. We can rest up there a few days, and it’ll give us all time to get acquainted with her.”
Cormac let the horses drink at the water tank and then rode into the barn; the other horses followed. They knew what a barn was: barns meant food and barns meant rest. The six stalls normally used by the farm’s saddle horses and the two plow horses now grazing in the pasture were empty, and he let the horses select their own.
After cleaning their wounds and putting on a generous coating of healing salve, he gave each a healthy helping of grain mixed with a little corn and climbed into the loft to kick down some hay. The richness of the alfalfa would speed the horses’ recuperation. His pa had planned the loft with a trapdoor over each stall’s feeder to make feeding easy.
Cormac stood for a moment. He always enjoyed being in the barn with its smell of grain and hay, horses and liniments, and of well-oiled tack hanging on the hooks, but not this day.
All alone, now, he thought. No more Becky to laugh with and torment, no mother to kiss him in the morning and teach him book learnin’, no pa to work beside and teach him man stuff . . . just alone. And they weren’t coming back. Never. His insides were filled with despair and a sick feeling of emptiness and hate. Cormac would find the men who did this, and they would die.
He was stalling, he realized. He did not want to go into the house alone. One of the upper barn doors was open and swinging in the breeze, and he walked over to close it. Dakota rainstorms frequently came quickly, and if the hay became wet it would mold. Looking out over the farmyard, he froze in disbelief. In the distance, he could see five riders approaching. He recognized four of the horses that were coming home and their riders; on the fifth horse was a smaller and unfamiliar figure.
It was unbelievable that the outlaws would show up here. He felt no fear, only a cold, terrible hatred like he could have never imagined. He hesitated only a moment. In the darkness of the loft, Cormac felt secure that he had not been seen. He backed away quickly from the door and slid down the ladder. His pa had laid out the barn in such a way as to make it possible to move from it to the house without being seen by someone approaching from the front. “You never know when it might come in handy,” he had told Cormac one day.
Running into the house, he took down the shotgun and loaded both barrels with #3 shot for a tight pattern and powerful discharge. It was a ten-gauge; his pa had wanted the most powerful shotgun available for longer range, one capable of reaching out for birds flying away. Cormac also checked the loads in the rifle and stuffed a six-gun in his belt and extra shells in his pockets.
Through the crack in the shutters, he could see the riders passing through the front gate. Riding four abreast, one was holding the reins of the fifth rider: a girl his own age. Straight and tall for her age, she was riding alertly on a small horse and looking all around, as if for a plan of escape. Gutsy, Cormac thought.
He had no more than had the thought when she bolted. As they passed through the gate, a slender board with which Cormac had been hitting rocks and laid down on the upper board of the gate a couple days before came within reach. While going through the gate, the outlaw leading her horse was saying something to the others and not paying attention to her when, with one quick motion, she leaned over, grabbed the board, and swung it with both hands. Connecting with his shoulder, she knocked her captor out of his saddle, grabbed up her reins, and spun her horse around into an immediate run. She was out the gate and running flat out before her captors realized what had happened.
“Well, get up and go get her, damnit, Raunchy,” Gator laughed. “Don’t just lay there. You lost her, now go get her.”
Cormac watched as the outlaw clambered back into his saddle while holding his shoulder in pain and launched into a chase of the girl on the little horse while the other outlaws, welcoming the entertainment, laughed and hollered encouragement. Riding his pa’s horse, Lop Ear, it was no contest for the outlaw; he caught up to the girl easily. Her horse was little, but it was quick, and she could ride. Every time the man called Raunchy caught up with her, she spun her horse in a different direction. The other riders laughed and shouted derisive remarks until the man threw his lasso around her horse’s neck and led her back after first slapping her off her horse and then making her remount.
Cormac was tempted to knock him out of the saddle again, only using a rifle bullet instead of a board, but he wanted them all. Guns in hand, Cormac slipped quietly out the back door. Confident there was nobody to stop them; the outlaws were relaxed and conversing with no signs of fear or worry. Their line of travel to the barn would have them pass around the corner of the house.
When Cormac’s father had been teaching him how to fight, he had taught him to fight fair, give the other person a fair chance, don’t kick him when he’s down. In this case, Cormac felt neither the need nor desire to fight fair. Outnumbered and outsized, the thought of mercy never entered his mind. They were going to die . . . today . . . now.
Carefully leaning the guns within reach against the wall, Cormac placed the lid on the rain barrel in which his mother and Becky had caught rainwater to wash and make their hair soft, and climbed up to stand on it. Already tall for his age, by standing on the barrel, he would be at an elevation equal to the riders. He picked up the double-barreled shotgun and cocked both barrels, pulled it to his shoulder, and waited, surprised at his own calmness.
The outlaws would be following a curve as they came around the corner of the house. His pa had taught Cormac to hunt doves by flushing them, whenever possible, toward a group of trees. As the doves flew away, they would have to turn to avoid the trees, and in so doing, two or three would come into alignment and could be felled with one shot. His pa had not been one to waste ammunition.
The horses’ heads would come into Cormac’s view no more than fifteen feet away. Standing on the rain barrel put the barrels of the shotgun in near-perfect alignment with where the outlaw’s heads would appear as they came around the corner. If he held high, the buckshot spread would not hit the horses. The girl was far enough behind to be out of danger.
Around the corner they came, and Cormac waited. Their attention focused on the barn door, looking neither right nor left, they were coming neatly into line just as his pa had said. Looking down the valley between the barrels, Cormac set the sights between the centermost riders. The buckshot pattern would spread in both directions to encompass all four. He could almost hear his pa’s voice: “Wait . . . wait. . . . Hold it . . . wait.”
The doves were making the turn and coming into formation. “Just a little longer . . . wait . . . let them get into the pocket . . . wait.” The far doves came around into perfect alignment, heads all in one neat row. As their distance to the house increased, each was just a little in front of the one next to him, as if having a photograph taken, each wanting to make sure his face could be seen perfectly.
Cormac wanted them to know who and why. “Hey!” he said quietly. Their faces turned in unison, seeing him, and, in the same instant, the red rose of fire mushrooming from both barrels of the shotgun as Cormac pulled both triggers simultaneously. The gun roared, the horses bolted, and the girl—her fear and emotion so tightly held bursting loose—screamed hysterically. Cormac Lynch grabbed the corner of the house to keep from being knocked off the rain barrel as the heads of four vile human beings bounced mangled and bloody into the dirt. Vengeance was far swifter than befitted the likes of them, was far better than they deserved.
Cormac Lynch pulled rein on the hill when they spotted her wagon. She suggested he come along and introduce himself, but she didn’t really mean it, and he didn’t believe that him being Cormac Lynch was going to particularly impress anybody. She obviously didn’t like him anyway. Finding the wagon as it bounced its way slowly across the prairie had been no problem. Getting her calmed down had been a different story.
No matter that she had not been showing it, anyone in her situation would have been frightened, and the sudden and unexpected blast of the shotgun and spurts of blood had pushed her over the edge. As her horse bolted, she half-fell and half-scrambled off and ran away, screaming and shaking and falling and crawling and trying to stay away from the terrible person who had just blown the heads off four people.
When he caught her, she began swinging her arms and fists like a wild woman, still screaming at the top of her lungs. A few times, she connected—it hurt. She was taller than Becky had been and stronger than she looked. Once her hysteria had worn itself out, she regained her self-control and was no longer afraid.
She allowed herself to be led into the house, her eyes all the while burning holes through him and looking at him with hatred, anger, and disgust like he was some sort of monster. He had just blown the heads off four people. Eventually she told him who she was and what had happened to her.
Suddenly Cormac’s stomach started sounding like a bear fresh out of hibernation, and he realized it was his second day without food. He was hungry enough to eat saddle leather if he could soak it in a little gravy for a while first. He had promised that if she let him fix her something to eat, he would see her back to her wagon.
They ate in near silence. He tried to talk her up a couple times, telling her how brave he thought she had been. Without going into detail, he explained that his family had been killed and what had just taken place was a result of that, but it made no never mind; she was having none of it. Staring at him with bitterness, she ate little. He had just saved her from horrors she could not possibly imagine, yet Cormac Lynch was a bad guy. Fine.
Theirs was a Conestoga wagon. His pa had explained to him that most folks simply used a farmer’s wagon with a tarp over it to protect the goods and passengers. A Conestoga wagon was more costly but could carry a heavier load, and although it leaked a little, would float long enough to get across most streams and rivers. Usually pulled by a team of four or six oxen, with its white top flopping gently in the breeze, it was a sight. His pa had said some folks called the wagons land sailors because they resembled a ship with sails; he sure couldn’t see it.
“Good luck,” Cormac told her, shifting in the saddle and gesturing toward her approaching wagon; he watched her leave. He had learned in a short period of time, as she was going to learn, that life does not always come in a sweet and pretty package all tied up with a nice ribbon. He had also learned that womenfolk looked at things differently than menfolk. He had no desire to listen to her folks being told what had happened, what a terrible person he was, and being stared at like he was Lucifer himself.
“Boy! You blow the heads off four people and right away you’re a bad guy,” he said to himself. Apparently, the recent events had hardened him. He could almost hear his pa. “Very funny,” he would have said, just before cuffing Cormac on the back of the head. “You just killed four people, and you’re trying to be funny.”
Cormac didn’t agree. They weren’t people; they were animals and deserved to be treated as such. No, that wasn’t true. Animals deserved better treatment. Watching until she reached her wagon, he started home; he had more graves to dig. He was becoming a regular mortician.
It was near dark when they rolled through Cormac’s front gate. He said it aloud just to see how it sounded. “My front gate.” He didn’t care for it much. He liked “our front gate” much better, but offhand he could think of nobody who particularly cared what Cormac Lynch did, or did not, think. The hole was mostly dug when he first heard their wagon. Recent rains had kept the ground from packing down, but the rich Dakota soil, normally a joy to work, this time was not. It was a downright shame to contaminate it with the rot that he was putting into it. If the one hadn’t been so all-fired big, the grave would have already been done.
Well, Cormac thought, it was to be expected. He had hoped they would just keep on going and leave him be, but apparently that was too much to ask, what with a woman’s natural instinct toward mothering and all. After all, there he was, a poor child recently orphaned, miles from other people, lost, and not knowing what to do next. Poor thing. How could she possibly leave that be? At least that’s how he figured she must have figured. Cormac had no such inclinations his own self.
He had worked through much of his mourning period digging the graves for his mother, pa, and Becky. Cormac’s pa had taught him how to work, and he had always found it to be a good salve for his mind, a good time for thinking. Whilst his hands were busy, his mind could work out whatever was bothering it. This was going to take a lot of working out.
He had talked to his family a lot while he was burying them and asked them what he should do now. They hadn’t had much to say. Cormac’s pa was the most help. It had been a comfort talking to him. When the hole was mostly dug and Cormac was standing in the bottom looking out—he had dug them all plenty deep, there weren’t no animals gonna get them—he felt a calmness come over him. His pa would have told him to get on with it. “You can’t do anything about what’s done,” he had said on several occasions. “Just brush the dirt off your britches and keep a goin’.”
A time or two, Cormac had just curled up into a ball in the bottom of a grave in misery, and as he packed the last dirt on each grave, he told them how much he had loved them and how much he was going to miss them.
When the chore had been completed, he had fallen asleep; but when he came out of it and had his crying binge, he had accepted the situation as much as such a situation could be accepted. He was still mighty sad and would be for a long time to come whenever he thought about them, but being sad wasn’t gonna get the corn picked or the cows milked or the pigs and chickens fed. He had a farm needin’ care, crops that would soon need harvestin’, and the job was his for the doin’.
Digging this grave, now, was a horse of a different color. His family had been avenged and done for as much as could be. Now he had to finish getting rid of the lowlifers, as his pa would have called them, but they weren’t about to get their own graves. If they liked being together so all-fired much, they could just stay together and rot into a single pile of filth, worse even than manure.
They were all goin’ into the same hole. If they hadn’t been lying in his front yard, he would have just left them for the critters. “His front yard” was also going to take some getting used to.
Cormac still had an unrealistic hope that if he just kept digging and ignored the newcomers in the wagon they would leave him be, but that was simply not going to happen.
“My name is Gertrude Schwartz,” said the soft voice above him, heavy with an unfamiliar accent. “I’m Lainey’s mother.” She pronounced it Schwartz. He had ignored the rustle of her dress as she approached, in a weak hope that she would turn back and leave. Not going to happen, he realized dismally.
The voice did not fit the strong face looking down at him: dark and piercing eyes over a hawk-like nose and high cheekbones with a small mouth formed with leathery skin. It would take a strong woman to wear a face like that and she pulled it off. Her body was stout and solid with no sign of soft flab, and she appeared to be comfortable inside of it. Soft eyes looked out from a craggy face. The sympathetic smile she wore was trying hard to make her face handsome and very nearly succeeded. In spite of what Cormac knew she was about to say, he found himself drawn to her.
“I’m Cormac Lynch,” he answered finally
“We wanted to come and thank you for rescuing Lainey,” she said, “and to apologize for her attitude. From what she told us, I am sure she treated you right poorly. She can be downright obnoxious when she puts her mind to it. She felt the way you dealt with the situation was very extreme.
“My husband and I both told her that for one boy to rescue her from four fully grown men was nothing short of amazing and would have taken extreme measures. I think she understands.” She went on, “How did you do it? Lainey said you got them all with one really loud shot. We saw the bodies still lying there. What kind of gun does that much damage in one shot . . . or was she hysterical and remembering it wrong?”
“No, ma’am. She didn’t remember it wrong. It was one shot, ma’am, but from both barrels of a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun at the same time.” He paused for a moment and then decided to give her both barrels, too. If she wanted to know about it, he was just the one to tell her and see how she handled it.
“I wanted them dead and didn’t want no discussion about it,” he said.
Her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth rose only slightly.
“Well then, you sure went at it the right way. Lainey said you told her they had killed your parents. What happened?”
Cormac wasn’t sure he could talk about it. He knew he didn’t want to think about it, but figured when you kill somebody, or somebodies, some explainin’ was in order.
“They tore the clothes off my mother and sister and treated them real bad. And when Pa came to help, they killed them all. They thought I was dead, too, but they was real wrong about that, and I made right sure they knew it.”
She nodded. “I see.” Her face took on an expression Cormac couldn’t read. “I believe that hole is plenty deep for the likes of them. Climb on out of there, and I’ll help you drag them over here and dump them into the hole. Poppa is feelin’ poorly, or he would help, too.”
Cormac got a horse and towrope from the barn, and Lainey showed up and began unbuckling their gun belts. “No sense in burying perfectly good guns. You may need them sometime. You want to see if they have any money?”
“No!” Cormac Lynch was emphatic.
She pitched right in then, and with three of them working, the burial went quickly. Lainey Nayle was obviously no stranger to hard work or a shovel. It occurred to him that maybe she wasn’t such a brat after all, and he realized for the first time that she sure was right pretty and had an awful lot of shiny red hair.
He helped them get Mr. Schwartz into the house and into his mother and pa’s bed. Cormac’s pa had never let him get away with calling his mother Ma. He said it wasn’t showing her the respect she deserved. By then, it was hungry time again, and Cormac started to rustle up some dinner, but Mrs. Schwartz wouldn’t hear of it. “We’ll take care of this. You go light someplace,” she said, and then stopped to stare at the back door. She had never seen a cabin with a back door.
A thinking man with an uncommon amount of common sense, John Lynch had designed the twenty by twenty cabin in an unusual manner. During his meticulous search for a home site on which they were going to spend a lot of years, he had made an unusual discovery. A short distance from a slow-moving creek, out of a small hill beside a large stand of cottonwood trees ran the main reason he had chosen this particular location for their home: an artesian well from which bubbled a year-round continual supply of clear, fresh, cool water from some mysterious source deep underground, pumped out of the ground by a bunch of little people called Artesians, also deep in the ground, according to his pa’s story. Even as a little boy Cormac didn’t believe that one. After first building a wooden trough to direct the water into a tank from which an overflow would then irrigate an area for Amanda’s vegetable garden, John Lynch designed a unique cabin that was to become the envy of every woman who had the opportunity to see it.
There was a back door just five steps from the water tank, a door that would provide easy access to all the water they would need for drinking, cooking, or bathing, and when both of the doors were left open in the summer, a cooling draft of air flowed through the cabin. With the Indian wars in mind, he built into each of the four walls two one-by-one holes from which to shoot, each covered with strong, tightly fitting shutters, and then he did something very unusual—he put in a wooden floor.
In the side of the hill close to the well, he found a small cave slanting downward into the hill which he made into a root cellar by building shelves along the walls for the cool-storage of canned goods and such; finishing it by adding a secure door, enabling the cave to double as a storm cellar and refuge from the occasional tornado searching for a place to cause trouble. All told, the total home plan elicited much praise and made Amanda Lynch the envy of every woman who ever heard of it.
Mrs. Schwartz and Lainey were a well-matched team. With few words and no wasted movements, they took over the kitchen. It was amazing how they seemed to know where everything was; maybe it was a woman thing. Was it instinctive? Did all women put things in the same places? He watched briefly. He had to admit that them being there was a comfort; he had not been looking forward to being alone.
“Okay. Thank you,” he answered. “While you do that, I’ll empty the slop bucket. It’s starting to get rank.”
Taking up the bucket from its place by the counter, Cormac walked out into the night. The bucket was for collecting all of the kitchen scraps and could get to smelling real bad, but the pigs loved it and would be all grouped up in the pigpen, bumping and pushing and oinking and squealing as soon as they saw him coming cross the yard with it.
The evening was awkward and uncomfortable: the food was tasty, but unfamiliar, and the conversation was forced by Mrs. Schwartz and nonexistent with the girl. Later, sleep was evasive. It was strange to think of strangers sleeping in the bed his pa had built to please his mother, and a sullen teenaged girl sleeping in Becky’s bed on the other side of the blanket, which divided the room, with her head on the pillow cover his mother had made especially for Becky. Cormac wasn’t liking that much.
He missed the even breathing sounds of his pa mixed with the softer and higher pitched breaths of his mother and accented by Becky’s cute little snore about which he had always teased her as being deep and obnoxious. In the darkness, he lay rigid and unseeing, staring at the ceiling, fighting back the tears and the sobbing that were struggling for release. Somewhere in the night, exhaustion overwhelmed him, his taut muscles relaxed, his tear-filled eyes closed, and his horror-saturated mind found escape. Cormac Lynch slept.
In spite of his wishes, morning came again. The rooster announced the event as the sun was rising, the chickens began scratching around the yard for food, the cows bawled to be milked, the pigs squealed to be fed, the birds sang their morning songs, and the weeds in the fields continued to grow.
“Oh, pipe down,” he called at the birds, and sailed a rock at them while on the way to the barn with the milk pails. He didn’t really want to hit one; he just wanted them to shut up. He was in no mood for their racket.
As hard as he knew it was going to be to return to the potato field, there were potatoes that would rot in the sun if he didn’t get them picked. He had no time to lie around and feel sorry for himself. After a breakfast he ate little of, he called in the team and hitched up the wagon; the potato bags Becky, his mother, and himself had already filled were waiting to be brought in, and the remaining spuds, as his pa had called them, needed to be picked.
Within the hour, he was joined in the field by Mrs. Schwartz and the redheaded girl. They didn’t say a word. They just began picking. When Cormac reached the end of a row and turned to start down the next, there they were: inexperienced and fumbling, but putting their backs into it. Cormac, his mother, and Becky had had the field mostly done, and now, with the help of Mrs. Schwartz and Lainey Nayle, all of the potatoes were in by suppertime with enough time left to do the evening chores: milk the cows, and feed the pigs and chickens. The corn and flax would be needin’ to be harvested in another week or so. There was a lot of work needin’ to be done . . . soon. Cormac gladly accepted when they offered to stay and help him get in the crops.
“I been doing some thinkin’,” Cormac told the Schwartzes and Lainey a couple of weeks later. “Ole man winter’s fixin’ to come blowin’ in here ’fore long, and when he sets his mind to it, he can get right ornery. Now, the way I see it, Mr. Schwartz needs a place to be still for a while, and you folks got no place to live. This is a good, paying farm, but I can’t work it by myself if I work thirty hours a day. Pa did a right good job of layin’ it out, and the buildings are strong and built to last. Why don’t you just stay on here? If it doesn’t work out, you can pack up and move on. If I decide to move on, I’ll sell it to you.
The farm had been laid out in an efficient and well-ordered manner with attention also having been given to its appearance. It was a good-looking farm. The buildings were indeed built to last and the crops located for easy rotation to leave one section to go to grass every year. When it was plowed under in the fall, it would rot and the soil would be rich and rested for spring planting. His pa always plowed all of the fields deep every fall to let more of the melting snow and spring rains soak down into the subsoil. It was an excellent piece of land and an excellent offer for the Schwartzes.