Allan Miller set the lantern on the ground. Glancing back at the house, he saw the light wink on in his parents’ bedroom. Having left two days ago, Allan’s father would be in St. Louis by now. If he was able to buy the bull he wanted, it would greatly improve the herd.
Last night Allan tried unsuccessfully to convince his mother to sleep in. “Mother,” he argued, “I am twenty years old and more than capable of doing the milking. You should get some rest while Dad’s gone.”
“Yes, dear,” Norma Miller said. “I know you can handle the milking. You’ve done it before. But I wake up at the same time every morning, summer, or winter.” Allan knew there was no way he could convince her, so he gave up.
He opened the double doors to the barn. The air inside was warm and still. He held the lantern up to the thermometer. “Already eighty-five,” he said out loud. There was no one to hear him but the chickens pecking around the barnyard. He had a notion to milk the cows outside. That would never do. His father left him in charge, and he would do the work right.
A black shape ran at Allan out of the darkness. He reached down and ruffled the dog’s ears. “Hey, sleepyhead. I’m glad to see you decided to join me this morning.” Allan knew his mother was up. Shep always slept at the foot of his bed. He was still there this morning when Allan left the house. His mother had to have let him out.
“C’mon, boy, let’s round up the cows.” As was the case nearly every morning, rounding them up wasn’t necessary. All but one already stood at the gate, and that last one was close behind. Allan opened the gate. The cattle ambled into the barn, each one heading to its own stall, and started munching the hay Allan piled into the manger the night before.
Between the rhythmic sound of milk squirting into the bucket and his head resting on the cow’s side, Allan almost fell asleep. The Guernsey shifted, making him sit up. In her younger days, the cow was known to be a kicker. These days she had settled down and allowed herself to be milked most of the time without fighting.
Finished with her, Allan emptied the bucket into a 10-gallon milk can. By the time he finished with all 10 cows, two cans were full and a third half-way. The sun was just peeking over the horizon. Allan flexed his fingers. Normally Allan and his father each milked half the herd. Milking all of them himself this morning made Allan’s hands sore.
Shep’s bark told Allan he had finished just in time. In the early morning light, he saw the Jensen brothers’ dairy wagon rumbling up the road. Peter Jensen pulled into the barn lot and stopped beside the cans Allan had just carried from the barn.
“How you doin’, Allan? You’re not gonna do any hayin’ today, are you?”Pete asked as he swung down from the seat. The two men each grasped a can by its handles and heaved it into the wagon bed.
“Yeah, got to. Gets this hot, it’s gonna storm,” Allan said with a grunt as he helped Pete lift the other two.
“I don’t envy you. It’s gonna be hot enough to fry your skin if you’re out in the sun. How’s Sally Ann?”
Allan smiled. “She’s fine. I plan on seeing her tonight lessin’ I’m too tired.”
“You propose to her yet?”
“Not yet. Soon maybe,” Allan answered, blushing slightly.
“If I was you, I wouldn’t wait too long. Somebody else will snatch her up,” Pete warned, grinning broadly. He climbed back onto the wagon seat. “Best decision I ever made was gettin’ married. You take care, hear, and don’t stay out in the sun too long.” He slapped the reins against the wagon horses’ backs.
“Yep, I’ll do that. Good seein’ you, Pete.” He stepped back and waved at the departing wagon.
Aware of the size of her son’s appetite, Norma Miller had three eggs, four sausage patties, biscuits and flour gravy ready when Allan came in. Shep took his position under the table at Allan’s feet. After giving thanks for the food and asking the Lord to keep his father safe, Allan dug in.
“You’re not going to do any haying today, are you?” Norma asked.
“I ‘bout have to, Mother. I promised Dad,” Allan said between bites.
“I know, Allan, but as hot as it’s going to be today your father wouldn’t expect you to work in the sun.”
“There was no dew last night,” Allan said, sneaking Shep a piece of biscuit. “You know what Dad always says, ‘When dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass, when grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night.’”
His mother laughed. “He got that from your grandfather.”
“I’m gonna get as much done as I can before it gets too hot.”
Norma began to clear the table. “All right, well, stop every once in a while, and get yourself a drink.”
“I will,” Allan assured her as he headed out the door.
In the field, Shep sat on the wagon’s seat watching his master pitch sweet smelling clover hay into the bed. The horses, well trained by Allan’s father, lumbered down the field at a steady pace. As soon as the wagon bed was full, Allan drove it to the barn, unloaded and went back for more.
By 10 o’clock, Allan had four loads in, three to go. Pulling the team to a stop under the trees, he took a long pull on the water jug. Noticing Shep panting, Allan reached beneath the seat and brought out a pan, filled it and set it on the ground. Lowering his muzzle, Shep lapped at the warm water. Reaching down to pet the dog, Allan said, “After a while we’ll stop by the creek.”
Looking at the sky, Allan thought of waiting until evening when it was cooler to finish the haying. It was clear, no clouds, no sign of rain. But he knew days like this could quickly give rise to out of the west.
Struggling in the stifling air, Allan worked another two loads, then drove the wagon under the trees by the creek. While the horses dipped their snouts into the water, Allan stripped off his clothes. He and Shep dived in. The dog paddled around, grinning. Allan sunburned back felt as if steam was coming off it. Though far from cool, the water nevertheless was comforting. Climbing out of the water, he dressed, his pants and shirt becoming damp in the process.
One more load and this field would be done. The west field wasn’t cut, so it wouldn’t hurt to leave it. Glancing at the shadows, Allan estimated the time to be around 11. He had time to load the wagon, pull it up to the barn loft window and unhitch the team before dinner. Afterward, he would unload the hay afterward.
Norma checked the clothes on the line. Dry already. Shading her eyes, she searched the south field. She could see Allan just beyond the woods pitching hay into the wagon. She knew he was right. The hay needed to be brought in before it rained.
Allan had always been a good son, but strong willed. When he set his mind to do something, it was as good as done. When he was 12, two incidents changed his life. He accepted Christ as his savior, and he decided to be a farmer. He had always been obedient, but after he was saved he went out of his way to make sure he did his chores right. Norma glanced at the sky. It was clear; there was no wind. Still, there was something in the air.
After a light dinner, Allan unloaded the wagon, then stretched out under the trees in the front yard for a nap. As he lay on the cool grass, Pete’s words came back to him. As members of the same church, he had known Sally Ann Gibson since childhood. Her father farmed the land just down the road. Allan and Sally Ann attended the one-room schoolhouse just beyond Gibson’s spread. Even as children, the two spoke about the day they would marry.
At the age of 14, Allan used the savings doing chores earned him to buy his first cow. Over the last six years, he accumulated 20 more. With the buying and selling of livestock, his bank account grew. He had his eye on a piece of property five miles from his parents’ farm. With what Allan had in the bank, he could make a nice down payment.
He made a decision. Tonight he would ask Sally Ann to marry him. They could set the date for the summer of next year. That would give him time to secure a proper home for her. His mind made up, he pushed himself up and went to tell his mother he’d be digging out the spring. With the weather so dry, the water level had dropped.
For the next hour, Allan dug out mud from the mouth of the spring. As he worked, his heart soared, dropped and soared again. What if Sally Ann turned him down? If she said yes, how many children would they have? He smiled as he thought about a son who he could teach about God and nature and farming. In his mind’s eye, Allan saw the boy sitting on a log watching his daddy dig out the spring. Leaning on the shovel, he visualized Sally Ann walking down the aisle of their church on her father’s arm. He saw her brown eyes shining, her auburn hair caressing her shoulders, her trim figure enrobed in the white wedding gown her mother wore as a bride. Allan smiled. Yes, tonight was the night.
Several years ago one of the cows became bogged down in the mud at the spring. Allan, his parents and several neighbors worked into the night to free her. They finally got her out, but she died the next day. Soon after, they built a fence around the spring. It protected the cattle but made it difficult to work on the spring.
Allan dug a channel under the fence, clearing the way for the water to run into a small pool. Hearing shuffling, he straightened up. The cows were watching him. Several of them were drinking from the trickle of water. Allan walked to where Shep was resting on his haunches and sat down beside him. “Go on, get you a drink,” he told the cattle. As if they understood, the rest of the cows gathered around the waterhole.
His work finished, Allan headed back to the house. His sweaty clothes clung to him. Good thing his mother did the wash this morning. He’d have to bathe and put on fresh clothes before visiting Sally Ann.
His mother was in the kitchen patching a pair of his father’s work pants. She looked up at Allan as he entered. “You look wrung out,” she said, laying the pants aside.
“Yeah, I’m pretty well worn out,” Allan said, plunking down in the chair opposite her. “I still got the milking to do, too.”
Norma filled a glass with water from the kitchen pump and handed it to him. Thinking he looked as though he had something on his mind, she asked, “What is it, son?”
“Mother, I’ve made a decision. I’m going to ask Sally Ann to marry me,” Allan said, a smile playing across his lips.
Sitting down next to him, Norma took both his hands in hers. “She’s a lovely girl, Allan. I’m sure you’ll both be very happy.” Norma was silent for a moment, then suddenly she jumped up, startling Allan. “All right! We have a wedding to plan! It’ll be in the church, of course. I’ll make myself a new dress for the occasion. When is the date?”
Allan chuckled. “Slow down, Mother. I haven’t even asked her yet. She might say no.”
His mother stared at him as though he had lost his head.” What do you mean? Of course she’ll say yes! Why wouldn’t she? You two have known each other all your lives.”
“Well, sure, we’ve always been friends. But you know being husband and wife is different, isn’t it?”
Norma went on speaking as if she hadn’t heard. “I remember the first time Martha and Herb brought Sally Ann to church. I think she was barely two months old. And you were only a few months. She was the cutest little thing. Later that week Martha came for a visit and we gave you both a bath in the same tub.”
“Mother, please,” Allan said, his face reddening.
“Oh, posh, you were just little babies.” Norma smiled at the memory. “Have you thought about a date?”
“If she agrees to it next June.” Allan said, standing to his feet. “Oh, and I’m thinking about buying the Henson place.”
“Well, it’s good land, but the house and barn aren’t worth much,” Norma said.
“If I start on it this year, I can have it ready for us by then.”
“Us. I hope that means you and Sally Ann and my grandchildren.”
“I hope so too.” Allan glanced out at the lengthening shadows. “Think I’ll do the milking now and put the cans in the spring house. Come on, Shep, let’s go get the cows.” Norma watched him walk to the barn with the dog leaping along beside him. Memories played in her mind: Allan as a baby, then a child playing with his toys, now a young man setting out to establish a home of his own. The house would seem empty without him. But she smiled. Grandchildren! What a blessing from the Lord!
After the milking was done, Allan brought the big galvanized tub out to the back yard, placed it under the clothesline, hung a sheet for privacy and filled the tub. After scrubbing the sweat and grime from his body, he dried off and dressed in clean clothes he’d brought from the house. Then he dumped out the tub, hung it back in the shed and said goodnight to his mother.
Walking down the road, Allan thought about how blessed he was. His parents raised him to believe in God. He would do the same with his children. A worm of worry gnawed at his mind, though. What if Sally Ann said no? What would he do then? He couldn’t imagine her being someone else’s wife and having to see her at church every Sunday with children not his own. “No,” he said out loud. Surely, she would not turn him down.
Coming within sight of the Gibson farm, Allan spotted Herbert Gibson bringing in the cows for milking. Allan hurried to catch up with him. “You want me to help you with the milking, Mr. Gibson?” Allan offered, stepping through the barn lot carefully.
At the sound of Allan’s voice, Herbert turned and smiled. “Well, now, look at you all spiffied up. You get that hay up today?”
“Yes sir, it’s all in the barn. Well, what’s cut anyway.” Allan shifted nervously from one foot to the other. “I have a question to ask you, sir.” He started to sweat, and it had nothing to do with the heat.
Herbert Gibson raised his hand, palm up. “Tell you what,” he said, “you stay here while I stanchion these cows in their stalls and I’ll be right back.” Swallowing the lump in his throat, Allan nodded. While Herbert was gone, he looked around. It was easy to see that Gibson took pride in his farm. The barn, sturdy and substantial, was painted earlier that summer. The two-storehouse gleamed white in the evening sun. White board fence surrounded the barn lot.
Gibson emerged from the barn. “Now, my boy, what did you want to speak to me about?”
Allan suddenly became tongue-tied. He had known Herbert and Martha Gibson all his life, yet he was at a loss as to how to ask this man to accept him as his son-in-law. Herbert stood waiting, his mind returning to the day he was in the same predicament.
“I want to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage,” Allan blurted, his face flushing.
Herbert Gibson beamed. “Son, you have my blessing. I can’t think of a finer young man to marry my daughter.” He held out his hand. Allan grasped it and shook it vigorously.
“I’ve got to go home and tell Mother,” Allan said, turning in the direction of his home.
“Allan, aren’t you forgetting something?” Gibson said, smiling.
“What’s that, sir?”
Herbert chuckled. “Don’t you think it would be wise to propose to Sally Ann first?”
“Oh, of course. Sure, sure. Sorry.” Allan sputtered. Spinning on his heel, he saw his intended exit the house. He took a step toward her and stepped right in the middle of a pile of cow manure. Hobbling on the side of his boot while attempting to look dignified, Allan made his way out of the barn lot. Sally Ann put a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter. Allan wiped his boot on the grass. That would have to do until he could wash it. If he was invited, in, he’d shuck his boots and enter in his stocking feet.
Stepping gingerly to where Sally Ann stood by the fence, Allan asked her, “You think that’s funny, Miss Giggle Box?”
She put on her pouty face. “You laughed at me when I fell in the mud, remember?”
Allan reached for her hand. “I was fourteen and trying to teach you how to fish.”
“Did you come for supper?”
“Sally Ann, I want to talk to you. Can we go for a walk down by the pond?”
“Yes. Let me tell Mother.” Sally Ann hurried back to the kitchen where her mother was preparing the evening meal. Wiping her hands on a dish towel, Martha smiled at her daughter, this near woman who to Martha would always be a little girl. She had been watching through the kitchen window as Allan spoke to her husband and then to Sally Ann.
“Mother, Allan asked me to go for a walk. I’m so excited. I think he’s going to ask me to marry him.”
“Oh, how wonderful. I’m so happy for you, sweetheart. Allan is a fine young man,” Martha said, enfolding her daughter in her arms.
Allan was waiting at the gate, still wiping his boot across the grass. Embarrassment was evident on his face. Amused, Sally Ann giggled as she approached. “Allan, how many times have you stepped in a cow pile?”
“This is one time I really wish I hadn’t.”
“So it’s happened before.”
“It has. But when a fella’s about to ask his sweetheart to marry him, he wants everything to be…” Allan stopped and looked apprehensively at her.
“What? What do you mean, you accept?” Allan said, totally flustered.
“I will marry you.”
“Of course! I’ve been waiting for a whole year for you to ask me.”
“Remember last year at the church picnic when you gave me that little box with this in it?” she asked as she fingered the gold locket hanging from a delicate chain around her neck.
“Sure. I remember how excited you were until you opened it. I thought you didn’t like… Wait, you were thinking it was a ring, weren’t you?”
“It’s a beautiful necklace. But, yes, I was hoping for a ring,” Sally Ann answered with a whimsical smile.
“Let me do this proper, then.” Taking a ring from his pocket, he took Sally Ann’s left hand in his right and kneeled in the cow manure he had just wiped off his boot. Watching from the barn, Herbert couldn’t hold it in any longer; he roared with laughter. Realizing what he had done, Allan decided not to let his humiliation ruin the moment. “Sally Ann Gibson, you are my life. I love you. I want to spend every waking minute with you. Having you sleep beside me every night will be the sweetest thing I’ve ever known. Will you marry me?”
“Yes! Oh yes. I love you, too, Allan.” Allan stood to his feet and took his bride-to-bein his arms.
“Son, that was the best proposal under the worst circumstance,” Herbert yelled from the barn lot.
Sally Ann blushed. Allan smiled. Nothing could dampen his happiness. At the pump, he washed off his boot and the spot on his pants. Sally Ann hurried to the house to tell her mother the exciting news.
Martha Gibson met her future son-in-law at the door. Hugging him enthusiastically, she said, “Welcome to the family, Allan. We’d love you to stay for supper.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Gibson. Does Mr. Gibson need help with the milking? I’d be glad to do it.”
“Oh, no, tonight you’re all mine. Besides, I think it’s best that you stay out of the barn lot for the rest of the evening. Allan grinned sheepishly. “You young people go on,” Martha said.“I’ll call you when supper’s ready.”
For the next half hour, Allan and Sally Ann sat on the front porch swing discussing their wedding and future. Their elation turned to shock and terror when a sudden, explosive BOOM shook the house and scattered the spooked livestock in all directions. Allan and Sally Ann jumped to their feet.
Herbert came running from the barn lot. “We got a bad storm coming,” he shouted over the wind as he pointed at the sky. Dark green clouds roiled in the west, spewing lightning that split a tree in the woods down the middle. The wind picked up, whipping the clothes on the line. Martha ran out the back door and started pulling them down.
“Sure came up sudden-like,” Herbert said. “I’ve got to get those cows in.”
“Sally Ann, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get home. Mother is there alone,” Allan said. He kissed her and started for the road.
“Please be careful,” Sally Ann called after him. “I don’t want to become a widow before I’m even married.”
“Allan, take my riding horse. He’s fast,” Herbert said, hurrying toward the barn with Allan right behind him. “Just turn him loose when you get there. He’ll find his way home.” Running to the stall, Allan grabbed a bridle and quickly fitted it over the horse’s head. Jumping on, Allan rode bareback out of the barn lot.
“God speed, son. Be careful, “Herbert yelled over the roar of the wind. “We’ll be praying for you.”
“Thank you, sir!” Allan shouted. Kicking the horse in the sides, he brought him up to a gallop. Hunching over the animal’s neck, he turned his head to look up at the swirling clouds. A small funnel was beginning to form. “Oh Lord, please let Mom be in the cellar.” A mile down and one to go. Allan felt the horse quivering under him. “Come on, boy, you can make it.” He looked up again. The funnel cloud was growing bigger. It whipped and whirled like a snake in its death throes. Allan came within sight of his parents’ property. He thought of the farm just west of them. The Russell’s were an elderly couple who let out their land for sharecropping. Their farm adjoined the Millers’ land on the west. Allan asked the Lord to watch over them.
The tornado hit the ground with a roar. It bounced once, twice, then barreled along the turf like a freight train. There was an ear-splitting crash; a brown cloud of debris rose in the air. Allan watched in horror as the Russell’s house lifted off its foundation. Their barn exploded. Suddenly the air around was filled with chunks of wood, roofing, and dust and dirt. The funnel cloud rushed at him, picking up more debris and flinging it like shrapnel.
Allan thundered into his parent’s yard. The horse was snorting and foaming at the mouth. Tying the reins over its neck, Allan jumped off and slapped it on the rump. Its eyes wide with fright, the horse took off at a gallop in the direction of the Gibson’s’ farm.
Allan raced to the house, shouting for his mother. No answer. Though fearful, Allan felt certain that at the first sign of the storm she would have taken the dog and gone to the storm cellar. He would not endanger her by opening the cellar door. Running to the deep, narrow ditch at the side of the road, Allan jumped in, lay flat and covered his head with his hands. He dared not look up. Hunks of wood and roofing rained down on him; a sliver of wood pierced his shoulder. Hail pounded him. He lay still and thought of Sally Ann. She would be a widow before she was a wife. A two by four cracked him in the head, knocking him out.
Allan must be dreaming. Sally Ann’s face floated above him. Was she crying? He wanted to comfort her. He lifted his arm to touch her cheek. So tired. His arm fell to his side. So tired. He would close his eyes for just a few seconds.
Allan opened his eyes. Light flooded his bedroom. His smiling father stood over him. “Welcome back, son. I’m glad to see you’re awake.” Allan’s mother dabbed his forehead with a cool, damp cloth.
Allan felt something wet on his fingers. He looked down to see Shep with his forelegs on the bed, trying to lick his face. Lifting his hand, Allan stroked the dog’s head. His vision blurred, he struggled to focus on his father. “Dad? I thought you were in St. Louis. Mom, are you all right? The Russells?”
Allan tried to sit up. His father gently pushed him back down. “Don’t try to get up, son. The doc says bed rest, so you gotta stay put. The Russells are fine. Their house and all the outbuildings are gone, but they were in the cellar. Your mother and I are okay. We’ve got some damage to the house and barn roofs, but nothing that can’t be fixed in a few hours. What’s important right now is you.”
“What about Mr. Gibson’s horse?”
His father laughed. “A little cut on his flank and scared to death, but he’ll be all right.”
That afternoon Allan’s sight began to clear. He persuaded his parents to let him rest under the trees in the front yard. He wanted to help with the storm damage repairs, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. He laid back on the chaise and listened to the St. Louis bull bellowing in the corral. At three, Sally Ann came to spend time with him. They held hands, thanked the Lord for His protection through the storm, and picked up their discussion about their wedding and future together.
Five Years Later
All morning Norma scurried around cleaning, getting a whole day’s work done in a few hours. After the storm, the Russells sold the farm to Allan. With the help of his father and Herbert Gibson, he rebuilt the house and barn on their original foundations. Once the construction was finished, Allan and Sally Ann were married. Today they were coming to visit with their new baby, Lacey, just one month old.
Hearing the creak of the wagon, Allan’s parents rushed out to the porch. Perched on the wagon seat with the baby in her lap, Sally Ann raised a hand in greeting. Kneeling in the wagon bed, Allan Jr. waved to his grandparents. Reining the horses to a stop beside the porch, a beaming Allan climbed down to help his wife and son step down. Tears came to Norma’s eyes as looked lovingly at the young family. In her heart she knew that no matter what came their way, Allan, and Sally Ann could weather the storms of life.
Darrell Case: From the first word to the last, Darrell’s books keep you riveted to you seat. On each page his characters come to life and lure you into the action. The Secret of Killer’s Knob is Darrell’s eleventh book. Darrell and his wife Connie live in central Indiana.