The unfamiliarity of the whole business--mellow lamplight, ministering hands, a smell of bacon and ginger cake in the room instead of nauseating odors, the shock of his father's mutilation and death--all these factors must have confused the quivering 13-year-old mind of Dutch DeHoke and tortured him in ways he could not express.
He had been tortured before. I remember how we used to drive past the DeHoke place and shudder. My father would shake his head; we children would stare at the stark, gray house behind its windbreak of broken willows; we would see dark figures moving against the dirty straw near the barn doors. They were grim figures, DeHoke figures, pitiful and frightening by turns.
We heard what old Carl DeHoke had done to his wife and how she had died of it .... But at last the devil came for his own, according to neighborhood prophecy and opinion. The devil came on a day when old DeHoke went out to disk the plowed land behind the windbreak, and perhaps he beat his horses once too often.
Peter, the boy--we called him Dutch--found his father's body. It was not a nice thing to see, after the cleaving weight of the disk had passed over it .... So Mr. and Mrs. Renn took Dutch in.
Mr. and Mrs. Billy Renn were always taking boys in. They lived on a little farm southeast of the DeHoke place--a farm lying along the hills beside Nathan's River. Long ago, Aunt Jennie and Uncle Billy Renn had two boys of their own, and among the tragedies of our early county history was the tale of the prairie fire which burned the Renn house and the two boys in it.
William Renn didn't rebuild among the ashes of his home. Instead he built a little house at the far corner of his land, with the river valley close outside the windows. It was only a tney house, but it was big enough for the Renns and their memories. Within a few years it began to be big enough for the boys they brought there. Sometimes there was only one boy, sometimes there were two or three. Dutch DeHoke was the last to come.
There was something peculiar and distinctive about the grasses growing outside the Renn's yard fence. They were wild prairie grasses; they had always grown there, and by the time I came along there was little of such unturned prairie sod in Fairweather Township. It wouldn't have made good land for cultivation; still, I think it was Aunt Jennie's affection rather than a farmer's wisdom which kept Uncle Billy from putting a plow to the virgin soil.
There, in earliest spring, the windflowers romped and rolled. People will tell you that windflowers have no smell, and yet their smell is in my nostrils now. It has musk and dust in it, like the scent of dandelions when you crush them.
And botanists will tell you a lot about "low perennials with palmately compound leaves," and they will roll out a name like Pulsatilla ludoviciana. But Aunt Jennie was no botanist. She called them "Easter flowers" because sometimes they came at Easter season if the mysteries of the religious calendar permitted. The blossoms ran through every shade of lavender, lilac and purple, back again to pinkish white. Their centers caught the sun and held it; the hairs of stems and petals were silky as hairs on a baby's skin. They came before the first wake-robins lifted white among rotting leaves near the river. . . . Something wonderful happened when windflowers blew upon those hills.
Dutch DeHoke was no silk-feathered flower, blooming in his benefactors' dooryard. The anguish of his previous years had toughened him. He was never the fair-haired little Hollander of wooden-shoe legend. He was dark, almost swarthy. A fight, to Dutch, was not a rowdy encounter to be entered upon carelessly or easily, and to be forgotten with the first distraction. When he did fight, he was ready to fight to the death. He would use rocks, teeth, fists, feet, a broken singletree, a hoe or whatever came handy. Once he and the Callahan boys got in an argument, and when Dutch decided that his right to life and happiness was endangered, he opened his pocket-knife ad slashed Marty Callahan's forearm.
Old man Callahan told Aunt Jennie that unless she could keep her orphan under control, He'd see that Dutch was sent to an institution. He made Uncle Billy take Dutch's knife away from him; poor Uncle Billy had to whip Dutch, out behind the corncrib, and then take him into the house for Aunt Jennie to read the Bible to him.
"Can't I read The Book instead?" he asked repeatedly, and at last she relented.
An itinerant salesman had cajoled Aunt Jennie into paying six dollars for an illustrated volume: The Encyclopedic Atlas of Mankind's Endeavors and Accomplishments, Complete with Maps and Lavish Illustrations. To Dutch, fresh from a home where the only printed matter consisted of catalogues that came free in the mail, The Book held the sum of all to which he might ever hope or attain.
Gradually one section came to be more thumbed and dog-eared than the rest. That section dealt with mankind's accomplishments in the bowels of the earth. It had some queer little pictures of cars running on tracks and laborers with lamps in their caps. It showed the salt mines of Siberia, and Dutch liked the chapter "Down in a Coal Mine" better than the one I always fancied; "Down in a Diving Bell."
Gold was his specialty--perhaps because the lack of it was such a horrid factor in his earliest life and was even of considerable inconvenience to the Renns.
Proceeding in the face of repeated warnings, he carried gold-hunting activities across two farms into the domain of Mr. Ross Nye, a neighbor of stern habits and surly disposition.
Dutch's account of the disaster was necessarily prejudiced and untrustworthy, though I can imagine what actually happened. Mr. Nye had ordered Dutch off his land on other occasions, but the sparkling rocks of glacial drift were especially enticing there.
I can see Mr. Nye coming up, club in hand; I can see the trapped terror with which Dutch faced him.
"Look here, how many times have I told you to stay away from this place?"
"I wasn't hurting anything. I was just looking--?
"Yes, just looking! Look what you done to those rocks! You've been chopping around, doing a lot of damage--"
The big hand closed on Dutch DeHoke's shirt and shoulder. "Now I'm going to give you the tanning of your life."
I don't know how many times the blows fell, though years afterward I learned that in truth they did fall and fall hard. Dutch DeHoke still had his hatchet; in his hatred and anguish, he struck.
An hour afterward a hired man found Ross Nye lying unconscious and lugged him to his house. The first words he uttered were, "Get that crazy Dutch young'un. He blame near murdered me." Then he relapsed into stupidity; for two days his relatives didn't know whether or not he would live. Then he did live for another truculent and hearty ten years could not have been much satisfaction to any of them.
The deputy sheriff and a county supervisor and various interested persons waited with Uncle Billy and red-eyed Aunt Jennie, but Dutch did not reappear at the Renn farm.
Aunt Jennie didn't take in any more boys after that. She and Uncle Billy seemed older and more tired. Windflowers still grew in front of the dooryard, the prairie sod was knitted firmly across the earth beyond the gate, but Dutch DeHoke had gone to walk upon other sod, no one knew where.
In the 1920s I lived six miles distant from Fairweather Township. I sat in a little office with my name on the door and gilt-lettered signs in the window stating that I dealt in farm titles, abstracts, insurance.
Often I sat studying the people who walked our street and wondering about them. Thus I wondered about Dutch DeHoke when he came to move among us once more.
He came along the street on a day in late winter, and he read my name on the sign and picked his way through the slush to my office door. i didn't know who he was. He wore a heavy, tan overcoat with creases of a city tailor's pressing still sharp.
"I'd know you anywhere." He spoke my name. "Remember me? My name's DeHoke, Dutch DeHoke. When we were boys--out at the Renn farm--"
I turned on a desk light and motioned Dutch DeHoke into a leather-bottomed chair.
We smoked for a while, smiling back and forth.
"I guess it isn't true, then." He had an odd accent which clicked against his words when he spoke. "My reception would have been different, if--"
"If I had killed Ross Nye." "Lord, no! He was walking around in four or five days, cross as ever. He was sound and healthy up to the time of his death."
"It may be funny to you," he said, "but I thought I had killed him. Later I decided probably I hadn't but I always thought about it."
"Where have you been, Dutch?" "Bangka, in the Netherlands Indies; an island east of Sumatra."
I looked at the mighty diamond on his finger and at the three fat pearls that hung from his watch chain.
"Have you been there all this time?"
He had bummed his way to California; had stowed away on a small boat. They put the boy to work, and later the chief engineer placed him with acquaintances in Malaysia. Thus he had spent that long generation between childhood and earliest middle age, which seems like the longest generation of all. He had no family; he had money, plenty of money, if one could judge by the few but magnificient jewels he wore.
Finally he asked, "What about Mr. and Mrs. Renn? I suppose they are dead."
"Uncle Billy's been gone for some years now," I said. "Aunt Jennie--she is at the county farm."
"The county farm. It was the poorhouse when we were boys."
DeHoke leaned forward in his chair. "Of all the boys they helped, was there no one who could take care of her, now that she's old?"
"Some were far away," I said.
"You mean me."
"You, of course, and one or two others. But some of them were here, and they did try to help her. Don't feel too bad about her being at the county farm. It's a pleasant place and--well, it's better for her, even though people tried to persuade her otherwise."
He was silent for a while. Then, "There is much you are not telling me."
Uncle Billy, I told Dutch, had tried to extend himself during the war days--the boom days. He lost everything he had, including his life, from which he departed after a siege of illness brought on by worry.
Strange men drove their car along the Renns' wintry lane, and they had papers to serve upon Aunt Jennie. There was one of those ads in the county paper reading, "On February 21st I will offer at public auction the following...."
They took Aunt Jennie to Sioux City; Harmon Lundgren lived there. He was one of the boys. Everyone though that she might be contented at the Lundgrens', and the Lundgrens did their best to make her so. They had a hard row to hoe. Aunt Jennie said that she wanted to go home, and she was decisive about it.
Todd Ninbauer fell heir to Aunt Jennie next. That marked her return to her own county and even to a farm therein, though it was miles away from Fairweather Township.
One spring day she turned up missing; the Ninbauer tribe searched frantically through every outbuilding and invaled all the brush heaps and creek sides in the region. They found Aunt Jennie at last, along toward night, feeling her way down a road which she hoped led toward Nathan's River.
She cried a little and apologized when they caught up with her.
"I'm mighty sorry to cause trouble," she said. "But I got so lonesome for home! I figured I better go there."
They tried to explain once more. All about the house being moved to the Nye farm and being made into a chicken coop; and they gave her additional information about the new primary-road system. A change in highways had doomed the hill where the Renns had once dwelt. Their lane had been widened and graded high. There was nothing left of the Renn farm except a memory, but Aunt Jennie was willing to embrace that memory with delight and hold it to be a fact.
In the long run, it was felt that the county farm, of any place available, came the nearest to filling Aunt Jennie's needs. There she had good food, a warm bed and certain farm sounds about her; there were a few old neighbors with whom she might talk about the early days.
Dutch DeHoke walked up and down my office, with his cigar dead in his mouth. He said once, "Bangka is a long way off." Those were the only words he offered in self-extenuation. "Have you got a motorcar? I would like to go out and see her."
"Very well. We can pick up your things at the hotel on the way back. I want you to stay at my house."
In the car, when we were splashing through the early dusk east of town, Dutch DeHoke said, "I wonder if she'll recognize me when she sees me."
"She won't see you."
I explained, "She's been blind the past five years."
She sat in the long, ugly, golden-oak room which county-farm tradition dignified as a parlor.
"Yes," she said to Dutch, "I remember you. That was a long time ago." She recalled his bad deed, the day he left the Renn place, and she said that Ross Nye wasn't hurt half as much as he'd imagined.
"You were a bad boy," she quavered. "When you were a boy, I mean. But I was always mighty fond of you." Then she asked, her voice shrill, "Did you ever find gold?"
"It was tin," Dutch said. "Yes, Aunt Jennie, I found it. Away off across the Pacific Ocean."
He tried to tell her something about the tin mines of the Netherlands Indies, but she wasn't half listening. "You know pa's gone," she muttered, and she was referring to Uncle Billy.... It came finally as I had expected. She told Dutch in confidence, but spiritedly, "I want to go home."
DeHoke said, "Aunt Jennie Renn, you can go anywhere you want. You can come with me to Muntok. I'll build a house for you."
But she shook her cropped head. "It's too far away, and I don't want to go on the ocean on account of shipwreck." She got up out of her chair and felt for him. "I want to go home. I'll be happy there."
Most of the other people present were wiping their eyes, but Dutch DeHoke didn't wipe his. When he had said good-bye to Aunt Jennie and was in the car with me, he seemed angry rather than touched with sadness. "They should have explained to her!" he insisted over and over. "They should have told her that the house was gone and the hill shoveled away."
"They tried. You see how it is. She--Don't think she's crazy, Dutch. She just wants to go home, and you can't blame her for that."
The only time he broke silence before we reached the hotel was to ask me if the old East Road still ran to the Nye farm. He said later that he should like to borrow my car early the next morning.
He borrowed it, all right, and went out to the Thompson R. Nye place and asked Tom Nye how much he would take for his chicken house. Thompson R. Nye thought that Dutch DeHoke was loony, at first; and so did other people. But within a few hours we were treated to a miracle such as few of us had observed before. It was the miracle of money--of wealth readily expended to attain a given object.
For instance, there was a hill just above the outskirts of town, and assuredly that hill was on the north bank of Nathan's River just as the Renn farm had been, though many miles away from the site of the Renn house. Judge Langhorne owned that hill; folks said that he didn't want to sell, and he didn't--not at any reasonable price. When Dutch DeHoke offered him an unreasonable price, that was something else.
DeHoke bristled his way to the bank, to the long-distance telephone, to the telegraph office, to the bank again. It was the day when Dutch DeHoke made himself known in our county again; he performed a hundred marvels.
Oh, she must have been very kind to him, kinder than any of us knew at the time or know now. He must have dreamed of her often. His childhood had been full of starvation, blows, tortures; evil had bayed and bitten him, and put strange sores within his spirit. Then Aunt Jennie came along, and she made marks of a different kind upon him.
She would have said, if questioned and if able to reply articulately, that she was only performing a selfish act--because she dreamed that, in holding these other boys close, she was holding her two vanished children who had died in the blaze.
Before nightfall of that first day, men were fencing the old Langhorne property. They had built huge fires, widespread and roaring, to fetch the frost out of the ground.
Half that day and all that night and into the next morning, the old Renn house came grinding its way up the East Road as fast as men and animals and machines could move it.
There was a half-page ad in the Banner-Republican which appeared the next afternoon. Dutch DeHoke wanted to buy every piece of furniture, every dish and shabby little knickknack and rag of carpeting that had ever been used within the Renn house. The generous premium he offered sent farm wives scurrying into garrets and woodsheds and set half the county to dusting off its memory in a search for trivial scraps which might be labeled with the magic name "Renn."
Todd Ninbauer came to help him, and others who had been close to the Rens. They croweded in my office each evening to argue over the authenticity of bedsprings, lamps, kitchen chairs.
Aunt Jennie knew nothing of these goings-on. No whisper of this resurrection reached Aunt Jennie's ears to puzzle and confuse her.
The little house on the north hill was fumigated, scoured, painted, papered.
Occasionally I felt that it was magic of a ghastly and uncertain kind; it seemed a little like taking the dead from their repose. But in the first week of April I bowed before Dutch's wisdom. It was a golden magic, after all. Aunt Jennie could now come home, we believed.
He had the house ready for her on the day before Easter. We drove out tothe county farm, Dutch and Todd Ninbauer and myself, and a few other old neighbors and friends--five cars of us. We parked and went inside.
Dutch got down on one knee beside Aunt Jennie's chair and put his hand on her arm.
"Come with me now, Aunt Jennie. They've got your things all packed, and you can come now."
"Where are we going?"
"I'll take you home."
She sighed, and said, "Well, it's been a long time! Ihve surely been wanting to go."
So we took her to the Langhorne hill. The warm spring breeze swept against our ears, and the damp pastures breathed out their first sunny smell of green. Dutch DeHoke steered Aunt Jennie in through the kitchen door. Her hands went straying around and then she withdrew from his support and she walked along, while feeling for the things to touch.
"Yes," she said now and then. "Yes." In a kind of matter-of-fact way, as if suddenly she had learned the answer to a puzzle which had occupied her for years.
She touched her big, green rocker; then she progressed slowly into the little sitting room, saying that it did seem good to be home. She stopped and listened to the clock, and God made it strike four; Aunt Jennie nodded her head with each beat of the old brass hammer.
When Dutch came close again, she felt for him and squeezed his wrist so hard that the marks of her fingers stayed there. Her voice crackled a little. "You're mighty good to me," she said. "It was so nice of you to let me come home again!"
Then, when we were able to see, she was on her way down the front steps and saying what a nice day it was. She went through the gate and out onto the fresh-seeded earth beyond the fence. And there Aunt Jennie stopped and seemed perplexed.
Dutch spoke under his breath. He started toward her.
By that time Aunt Jennie was down on her knees, and her hands were straying aimlessly around her. "Where are they?" she asked. She was a little frightened. "I can't find the grass. I can't find any of 'em. Where are they?"
None of us was quite sure what she wanted. We knew only that she needed something desperately and it seemed we couldn't give it to her.
She said--she was not complaining too bitterly, but only stating a fact--that she missed them, and something was wrong, and maybe this wasn't home after all. "Wind-flowers," she said. "You know, them little wild crocuses. Easter flowers, I always call 'em. I don't know what's come with 'em. The sod's gone too."
Dutch managed to talk to her. He was thinking wildly, helplessly, of the prairie sod which was torn forever from that farm site and from the Renn farm as well. He croaked something about its not being the proper season for wind-flowers.
"How you talk," said Aunt Jennie sadly. "They've always been here every springtime; you know that. Pa always said I wasted a lot of time with 'em. I'd come out here in the grass--you know, the sod was never turned--and I'd look at 'em and feel 'em, all fuzzy and soft. But something's wrong; they ain't here any more. I guess I better go back to that other place."
"But this is home, Aunt Jennie!" cried Dutch.
"Not home," she said. "You know, at home I always had the little Easter flowers. The little ones. They was whitish and purple, too, and they didn't have much smell. Just a kind of honey smell, I guess, but I liked it. They always grew in the old prairie grass outside the fence every spring. They grew there when I was home."
Dutch stood clenching his fists, but Aunt Jennie had made up her mind. The women who had planned to be her housekeeper and practical nurse signaled the rest of us. She brought Aunt Jennie's bags and put them into the car, and we drove back to the county farm.
I didn't see Dutch until about eight o'clock that night. When he came into my house his feet were muddy. He must have walked for a long time.
"I've got an idea," he told me. "Where's the nearest prairie sod? Sod that a plow has never been through?"
"Over in Eagle County, 20 miles west. There's plenty there. But don't start fretting about it. You can't transplant windflowers. They'll only grow on the prairie."
Dutch cried, "Yes, yes. But I must know. It's prairie sod, hilltop sod in Eagle County?"
"On the Charles McCoffin farm; plenty of native sod. I saw the flowers there last year."
Then Dutch DeHoke drank a cup of coffee and put on his hat again. "I guess I can't take her to the prairie," he said, "but I can bring the prairie to her. You say the windflowers woun't grow except on prairie sod, but I will make them keep growing."
He rented trucks and hired the men to go with them. They drove to the Charles McCoffin farm, and they got Charley out of bed. Dutch bought his prairie sod and the men took it up--great, thick, fuzzy, flat mattresses of it.
All night long the men worked in the soft, black wet, the trucks rumbled across the prairie. The men drove to Aunt Jennie's house and planted the sod beyond her gate.
With Easter morning the unturned grass was blowing, and furry little flowers trembled as the bright air found them. Aunt Jennie found them, too, when Dutch DeHoke brought her there once more that day. She sat in the grass, squeezing stems and petals in her frail hands. She said that now there was no mistake, that surely she had come home again as she longed to do.
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1984|
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