“The great hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1900 is the centerpiece of [this] tightly knit novel. The writing is powerful. A fine work, integrating nature with character.” — The Horn Book , starred review “Nelson’s strong sense of place, poetic style and inspired characterization make this far more than just an enthralling adventure.” — Kirkus Reviews
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|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||9 - 12 Years|
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By Theresa Nelson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Theresa Nelson Cooney
All rights reserved.
Walter Carroll wiped the sweat off his freckled forehead and squinted into the setting sun. Lord, but he was sick to death of watermelons. All the hot afternoon he had wrestled with the fat green monsters, hauling them up off the vines and loading them onto the old wagon until his thirteen-year-old back ached mightily, his neck and shoulders throbbed with fatigue.
"You all right, son?" Walter's father, Richard Carroll, straightened up and looked over at the boy from across the wagon. "We've been at it a long time."
Walter managed a grin. "Yes, sir, I'm all right." He was proud to be considered man enough to work side by side with his father. Still, it was good to see the sun finally slanting off to the west in long streaks of purple and gold; Walter had begun to think it had somehow got stuck directly over his head.
Dowling, the old mule, flicked his ears back and snorted impatiently.
"Hold on there, Dowling," Mr. Carroll said soothingly. "Another half hour won't kill you." He smiled at his son. "We got a mighty good haul here, Walter. I'll warrant there's not a one of these melons under twenty pounds — ought to fetch top dollar in Galveston tomorrow."
"Yes, sir." A whisper of a breeze touched the back of Walter's neck and ruffled his hair. He looked behind him to see if the waves were picking up out in the Gulf. No. The water was flat as a pancake and deep, deep blue, without a speck of white showing anywhere, save for the line of gentle breakers at its edge. The beach looked wet — dun-colored at first, creamier where it spread out and was outlined by the black of the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the surf. Then came a swelling of grass-topped sand hills and a stretch of tangled, overgrown green that ended abruptly in a tidy little kitchen garden; between that and the brown-and-green-striped melon fields stood the gray barn and, finally, flanked by Lillie Carroll's hand-planted palm trees, the Carroll house itself, its white paint dazzling in the last strong rays of sunlight.
That white paint had been a bone of everlasting contention between Walter's mother and father. "White's not practical on the seashore," Mr. Carroll had objected. "It'll be dingy and sandblasted in a year's time. What about a pretty pink?" He was partial to pink, and some of the most fashionable houses in Galveston were pink.
"I'll not have a house that's painted like some tawdry woman," Mrs. Carroll declared. "White's a civilized color."
"Not a color atall," her husband mumbled, but he had bought the white paint....
Seagulls soared high overhead. Their cries filled the air like rude laughter.
Go on, laugh. Walter sighed, turning back to the never-ending melons. See if I care.
For as long as he could remember, Walter had lived in the white house on the beach. His father had built it when Walter was a baby — built it with his own hands out of heart pine and Florida cypress, close enough to the water to catch the Gulf breeze, high off the ground on wooden blocks to keep it safe from storm tides. It was a fine, strong house — "shipshape," Richard Carroll called it. He had once been a ship's carpenter, and though he gave up his travels and turned farmer when he married, he had never quite got the salt water out of his veins. The very lumber he used for the house had come from the sea. He had loaded it on a schooner in Pensacola, sailed with it to Bolivar, and unloaded it in the Gulf, where it had washed ashore with the tide. Sometimes, when Walter lay in bed at night, with the sound of the waves and the wind singing in his ears, he could almost believe that the house was a mighty ship, afloat on the sea, and that when he awoke he might be anywhere in the world — anywhere at all. His head was full of odd ideas — dreams and notions that grew as fast and thick as the weeds in his father's melon fields. "Comes of having cat's eyes," his mother would say, shaking her head. Walter's eyes were hazel, flecked with green.
"Lordamercy ..." The war whoop was so bloodcurdling that Walter nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled around and saw his sister Alice, younger than he was by three and a half years, standing just behind the wagon, giggling. She was a blond-headed, bony little thing, all angles and elbows, with bright brown eyes. On her left hip she was balancing a pretty baby, little Emily, the youngest of the Carroll children, who crowed and clapped her hands just as if she knew what the joke was all about.
"Shame on you, daughter! What're you doin' sneaking up on us like that? You want to give your brother heart failure?" Their father's face was stern, but his eyes twinkled. He was that soft when it came to his girls, and everybody knew it.
"Shoot, she didn't scare me," Walter scowled.
"Yes, I did too," Alice laughed exultantly. "You jumped higher'n a frog; I saw you with my own two eyes! Me and Emily's been practicing our Indian walk. Aren't we gettin' good, Papa?"
"Too good if you ask me, Miss Alice Carroll. Young ladies ought not to be spending all their time carrying on so."
Little Emily squirmed in Alice's grip and held out two chubby arms to her father. He laughed, picked her up, and swung her high over his head. "My baby girl's a papoose, is she?" Emily squealed with delight and wanted more, but he handed her back to Alice. "I got no time to play now. You take her on back to the house, daughter."
"You all close to bein' done? Mama wants to know can she put her biscuits in yet."
"You tell your mother to give us another, say, ten minutes, and we'll be right along."
"I expect that means twenty," Alice whispered to Walter, who knew it did but paid her no mind. He walked deliberately back to the fattest melon he could find and began twisting it off the vine.
Alice followed. "Need some help?"
"Girls ain't strong enough for this kind of work."
"I'm plenty strong. I bet this baby weighs more than any of these old melons!"
"Well, you ought not to carry her around all the time, then. How's she ever gonna learn to walk, anyway, with you and Papa spoilin' her rotten — that's what I'd like to know."
"Aw, Walter's still mad 'cause we scared him. Poor Walter, we got to cheer him up. Do your Indian noise, Emily — you 'member how I showed you?"
Alice beat the flat of her hand against her rounded lips, and sure enough, little Emily followed suit. "Woo, woo, woo!"
Walter tried to ignore them, but the two of them were so silly-looking standing there hooting like a pair of owls that he couldn't keep his mouth straight.
"Oh, he's grinnin' now — Walter's grinnin'!" Alice cried, dancing Emily around their brother.
"Alice, didn't I tell you to go on back to the house?" Mr. Carroll called from the other side of the wagon.
"Yes, sir, I'm goin'." Alice turned and headed across the field, but before she had gone ten yards, she wheeled about and came running back to Walter.
"I know a secret!" She fairly flung the words at him and was off again like a shot, Emily bouncing on her bony hip.
Walter sighed and shook his head. Sisters! Lord, they were enough to drive a fellow to distraction.
He had had a brother once. A little old curly-head named William ...
A mosquito landed on Walter's arm and went to work. Walter held still for a minute and watched with a kind of fascination as it sucked away, filling its ugly belly with his blood. ...
If William had lived, he'd have been seven years old come November. But he'd been stricken with the summer sickness a year ago, just a month before Emily was born.
The mosquito started to pull away, wobbling drunkenly. Walter smashed it. "Serves you right," he muttered, wiping the red streaks off on his britches.
"All right, son, that just about does it. Let's take 'er in," his father said. "You tend to the milking; I'll see to the mule and the melons."
"Yes, sir," said Walter. His stomach growled. Lord, but he was hungry.
"For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful." Mr. Carroll's voice was low, his head bowed.
"Amen," said the others, except for Emily, who laughed and banged her spoon on the table and dropped a mangled crust of bread on the floor. Crockett, the squat brown dog who was hiding hopefully under the table near the baby's high chair, obligingly cleaned it up.
"Dog!" said Emily, smiling at him. It was her one word.
"Mercy, is that old dog in the house again?" Lillie Carroll scolded. "Walter, you take him outside this minute. We'll have fleas from here to December!"
"Yes'm," Walter said. "C'mon, boy...."
For a while after that no one spoke. The room was full of good smells and homey, comfortable sounds — the scraping and clanking of silverware against china as fried ham, lima beans, sliced tomatoes, and buttered biscuits disappeared in short order; the baby's low gurgling and babbling; the murmur that was the sound of the sea through the open window....
Walter loved that sound best of all — not that he usually noticed it much, any more than most people notice air. For that was what it was like for him — as constant and essential as the air he breathed. Once, when he was eight years old, he had gone with his mother to visit relatives in the town of Devine, just outside of San Antonio. They had stayed for a week, and everything had been very pleasant — "divine Devine," Uncle Jim had joked — but Walter had hardly slept the whole time. He had tossed and turned in the strange bed and not known what on earth was the matter, until he got home and heard that sound — the wind and the waves and the cry of the gulls. And then he had understood what it was he had been missing....
"Well, Lillie, another fine supper," her husband declared, smiling at her and helping himself to a third biscuit.
Mrs. Carroll appeared not to have heard. She was toying with the food on her plate in dainty, ladylike fashion, the fork held delicately in her left hand. She was left-handed, like Walter; otherwise, you could hardly tell they were kin. She was just a little bit of a woman, scarcely five feet from top to toe. Walter, who was threatening to be tall like his father, already had to bend down to kiss her cheek.
Papa cleared his throat. "Yes, ma'am, a mighty good supper —"
This time Mama looked up. "I'm glad you're enjoying it," she murmured, as if she were speaking to a stranger.
There was an uncomfortable silence that lasted a minute or two. Then she spoke again, and Walter jumped; the sound of her voice surprised him, somehow.
"Alice found the remains of a fairly fresh campfire about a mile down the beach today." Mama's tone was even, but her brown eyes looked troubled. "That's strange, isn't it?"
"Most likely just some of the hotel guests from down at Patton Beach," Mr. Carroll said, "horseback riding or hiking...."
"Well, it makes me nervous, that's all," she went on. "I don't like the idea of strangers wandering around, with us out here in the middle of nowhere — you just never know what they might be up to. I told Alice she oughtn't to be taking unsupervised walks so far from home, and I knew you'd want to speak to her about it, too."
Mr. Carroll looked seriously at his daughter, who was intent at the moment on stabbing a slippery lima bean with the tip of her knife. "Your mother's right, Alice," he said. "A young lady can't be too careful." Walter rolled his eyes. He couldn't see that the term "lady" had much to do with Alice.
Alice looked up from her bean. "But, Papa," she protested, "a mile's not far!"
"Too far for you by yourself," he replied. "Do you hear me, Alice?" The whole family understood that tone; you might just as well butt your head up against a brick wall as fight back when he used it.
"Yes, sir," Alice answered meekly. Walter knew the small voice was purely for show; Alice was about as meek as old Crockett — they had both been known to bite.
Still, their mother seemed reassured, and Papa steered the conversation into calmer waters — something about how this promised to be the best year ever for the farmers on the peninsula, the possibility of buying a boat sometime in the near future, the baby's newest tooth — boring, comfortable talk that hummed lazily on the outskirts of Walter's mind and left it free to wander.
Tomorrow would be a good day. He and Papa would wake up early, hitch Dowling to the loaded wagon, and ride over to Barrett's Landing on the bay at Rollover. The Barretts owned a "watermelon schooner," one of a dozen or so small boats that sailed to Galveston every day carrying produce — mostly melons — from the Bolivar farms. Once the melons were on the boats and out of the way, Walter's work load would be light. Maybe he'd do some fishing, or maybe he'd swim, or maybe just spend a couple of hours doing nothing at all. Alice would want to tag after him, of course; she always did. Well, maybe he'd let her, if he felt like it, and then again maybe he wouldn't. She was all right, for a girl, but she was just a girl, after all.
Walter's eyes moved involuntarily to the slender black ribbon around his mother's neck. He hated the sight of that ribbon, hated the very threads it was made of — black for mourning, black for William. Walter gritted his teeth and looked away. Through the window he could see the blue glimmer of the Gulf.
For months he had dreamed of doing something so grand and good that Mama would forget to be sad, and everything would be the way it was before. But he hadn't for the life of him been able to think of any way to help. And then, by some perverse stroke of luck, just when he most yearned to be strong and wise and wonderful, he had turned thirteen instead. Overnight, it seemed, his feet and hands grew unconscionably big, all out of proportion to everything else. Alice said it looked like he'd grown a pair of canoes with paddles to match. His neck stretched out to expose a ridiculous-looking Adam's apple, and his voice squeaked and his sweat stank and he cut a whole new set of molars, which he needed about as much as a dog needs an extra tail — "wisdom teeth," his father called them. "Well, I'll declare, I never heard of anybody getting them so early!" But Walter reckoned they weren't anything to be proud of. He was just an honest-to-goodness freak, that was all — Mother Nature's idea of a really good joke.
It made him feel lonesome, somehow, and restless. Some mornings he would wake up and want to smash things. He would run down the beach instead, as far and fast as his legs would carry him, or stand facing the water with his hands cupped around his mouth and holler till he was hoarse, or torment Alice by tickling the soles of her feet. She cussed him for this, but it did his heart unspeakable good.
Other mornings he could scarcely lift his head from the pillow. A great weight of sadness would fall on him from out of the clear, blue sky and hold him prisoner for hours. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone, leaving him to laugh and shout and run again....
Walter felt Alice's eyes on him and looked up. She smiled a maddening, mysterious smile that reminded him she hadn't told him her secret yet. For crying out loud! He'd figured that bit about the campfire was it, and it probably was. Now she'd gone and puzzled out something else to aggravate him with. Well, if she thought he was going to pleasure her by begging to know what this deep, dark secret was, she had another think coming!CHAPTER 2
Daylight lingered well past eight of a summer evening, but Walter was too tired to linger with it. As soon as supper was over, he kissed his mother good night and dragged his weary bones out to the sleeping porch, which served as bedroom for all three children in hot weather. There he tumbled into bed without casting so much as a crumb of curiosity in Alice's direction.
He could have sworn he hadn't been asleep two minutes when the whispering started.
"Walter, you awake?"
He made no answer.
"Aw, come on, Walter, I know you hear me. You got to wake up right now." She was shaking his shoulders, tickling him.
Walter sighed, turned over, and opened his eyes. There was no use in letting her carry on until she woke up the baby; there'd be no end of trouble then. "What's the matter with you, Sister? It's the middle of the night!"
"I know. It's perfect. Look at the moon."
Walter looked. There it was, shining in the window, so close, it seemed, he could have hit it with a rock. "Looks like an old bald-headed man," he muttered. "Now leave me alone. Hell's bells."
"Better not let Mama hear you cussin'," Alice said placidly. "Come on, Walter, we got to go down to the beach."
"Good Lord, Alice, you out of your mind? I'm not goin' anywhere but back to sleep."
"Well, all right, but you won't ever know what I know if you don't come."
Excerpted from Devil Storm by Theresa Nelson. Copyright © 2000 Theresa Nelson Cooney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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