|Photo by Dani Simmonds|
Anyway, this is one of the stories from that collection, my version of "A Partridge in a Pear Tree." Enjoy.
Five families came west to Kansas, searching for a better life than the lives that had been shattered by the war. To begin with there were 16 adults and 14 children, three dogs, six goats, two cows, a small flock of chickens, three pigs and a stray kitten one of the children had picked up when the group passed through St. Louis.
The families arrived in summer and built their sod houses and planted small gardens for the kitchen and plowed their land to make it ready for the coming year.
They’d all been farmers back in Maryland, so they knew how harsh farming life could be.
At least they thought they knew until their first winter on their new land when the temperature reached minus 34 degrees and nearly one hundred inches of snow fell between October and March.
The flock of chickens didn’t survive, and one of the cows died too—even though the family that owned her kept her inside with them to keep her warm.
The farmers were trapped in their soddies, cold and starving, for nearly five months and come spring, two families packed up what was left of their belongings and pointed their wagons east.
The families that stayed fancied themselves sturdier stock, real pioneer folk who would not be scared away by a little bad weather.
At least they thought so until a tornado ripped through their little community, uprooting the fruit and nut trees they’d transported from Maryland in soggy burlap sacks filled with good black soil.
The Winstons gave up then.
The Rameys and the Franklins stayed, though, because they had nothing to go back to. They’d borrowed and beggared themselves to put together the money for the journey to Kansas. They had no choice but to stay.
Five-year-old Patience Franklin died of the whooping cough the next winter. The ground was too frozen to dig a grave, so her father wrapped her little body in blankets and put her in a corner of the smokehouse until the first thaw. Throughout the long winter, he pretended not to notice when his wife made furtive trips out to the building at night and came back to bed with red-rimmed eyes and skin so cold she felt like a corpse herself.
William Ramey died of blood poisoning after stepping on a rusty nail.
His mother, who’d been a rock for the family, took to her bed after that and within weeks, she was gone too, leaving Thomas Ramey alone with his surviving son Ethan.
Thomas was a hard man and not one to express his emotions. As time went on and the silence lengthened between them, Ethan spent more and more time with the Franklin family and less and less time with his father.
Ethan had been sweet on Mary Franklin since they were children, and it was a foregone conclusion that they would marry and one day inherit the land belonging to both their families.
When she was 15, Mary Franklin bloomed like a prairie rose and Thomas Ramey took note of her for the first time.
What he saw pleased him and the pleasure of looking soon grew into an obsession to possess her.
He approached John Franklin to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage and was enraged by his neighbor’s aghast reaction and immediate refusal.
John did not confide in his wife Lizzy about the proposal—she was so close to their daughter that he knew she would spill the secret—nor did he mention it to Ethan, who continued to take meals with the family as if he were already part of it.
For his part, Thomas Ramey pretended he had never broached the subject and in that way, he and John were able to make a pretense of warmth neither of them any longer felt.
All was well through the summer and into the fall also.
But as winter closed in, Thomas Ramey began to brood. And scheme. And plot.
He convinced himself the innocent smiles Mary Franklin sent his way were secret signals of her lust for him, a lust he was not inclined to deny.
One frosty early morning, as Mary made her way to the milking shed, Thomas Ramey waylaid her.
When her confusion gave way to desperate struggles, he stuffed his woolen muffler in her mouth, forced her to the cold, hard ground, and raped her.
She fought him every inch of the way until he finally clubbed her quiet with a fist as hard as elk-horn.
When he was finished with her, his lust drained along with his seed, Thomas was horrified by what he’d done and fled shaking back to his home.
When Mary did not come back from the milking, her father went looking for her. He found her broken and bleeding in the milking shed.
With her last breath she told him what had been done to her and by whom and as she died in his arms, John Franklin vowed he would kill Thomas Ramey.
It was no idle pledge; he had killed men in the war, seen the life fade from their stunned eyes, heard their last prayers and curses.
John Franklin felt the weight of the lives he’d taken every day of his own life but killing Thomas Ramey would be like putting down a rabid dog.
At least, he thought so until he confronted the wretched man in his cabin, and saw what a soul-shattered creature he was.
John Franklin shot him anyway, but prayed for him as he did.
Ethan, who’d been out hunting, saw John Franklin leave his father’s soddie, his rifle on his shoulder.
He found his father’s still-warm body on the floor of their home and misunderstood the situation.
He’d seen men go snow-crazy in the winters and that was the only explanation he could find for the other man’s behavior.
He followed John Franklin back to his cabin, just to find out what had happened.
But John saw the gun in Ethan’s hand and mistook his approach for an attack. He raised his gun to fire. A shocked Ethan fired first.
But instead of hitting John Franklin, he hit Lizzy; who was standing behind him. Lizzy died where she stood without making a sound.
As Ethan stood frozen in horror, John Franklin shot him twice and left him to bleed out, his red blood staining the snow like a painting from hell.
John Franklin put his wife in their bed, then fetched his daughter from the milking shed and tucked her into bed as well.
He set fire to the cabin when he was done, and then laid down in the bed he’d shared with Lizzy for 20 years, sharing it with her for one last time.
He died of smoke inhalation before the fire could reach him.
It was a very cold winter that year. Animals smelled fresh meat and blood in the settlement and emboldened by their hunger, ventured close in search of food.
Ethan and his father were devoured down to the bones before their bodies had time to grow rigid.
In the spring, a pear tree that marked the boundary between the Franklin and Ramey homesteads burst into blossom.
Partridges nested in its branches in summer, feeding on the succulent fruit.
In autumn, an errant lightning bolt set off a prairie fire that consumed what was left of the two sod houses and the outbuildings and all the rest, leaving the ground blackened as though a biblical punishment had been carried out there.
The pear tree was the only living thing that survived the conflagration, the pear tree, and the partridges that nested there.