Roy stood in the doorway of his family’s sod house, watching as heavy sheets of rain fell from dark clouds. He’d planned to gather the eggs for his mother. With a baby due anytime time. It was getting too much for her. Looking at the mud, rain-soaked yard, he paused and thought better of it. She wouldn’t be happy if he tracked in all that muck along with the eggs.
In the distance, he could hear the thunder of hooves. A cowboy dressed in his saddle slicker and hat pulled down over his face to protect him from the drenching downpour. He reined to a stop in front of their corral. His pointed boots slid out of the stirrups as he dismounted. Even in the rain the horse’s coat steamed as though he’d been running a race. The man sloshed through the puddle and dashed to the barn, shouting something Roy couldn’t quite make out.
He recognized the man as someone who worked at a nearby ranch with his brother. But why wasn’t Sammy with him? Just this morning his brother had messed up Roy’s slicked back hair and said, “Hey partner, see you in a few days after I’m back from the cattle roundup. Roy’s heart raced. Had there been an accident?
From the corral his father yelled, “Saddle up the horses, I’ll be right back.”
Trembling, Roy moved from the doorway to let his father pass.
His father strode, paying no mind to the mud he tracked in. He took his wife’s hand “Maggie, there’s been a flash flood on Hackenberry Creek. Sammy – he was last seen trying to swim across the creek. They found his horse drowned. Our boy is missing.”
His mother’s hand trembled as it fell away from the soup she’d been stirring. “Noooo!”
“Just pray he’s all right. The older boys and I are going out to join the search party. I’ll leave Roy here. At 13 he’s old enough to ride for help should you need it.”
Tears glistened in his mother’s eyes. She nodded. “Don’t worry about us, just find Sammy.”
Dazed, Roy watched as his father reached for his “fish” hanging by the door and strode out to the corral where his two older brothers waited. They wasted no time mounting the horses with a crack of the whip, they sprinted out of sight.
He turned and looked inside. His mother had sunk into a heap on the bed. His little brother Richard curled beside her his head resting on her bulging belly.
Her anguished face murmured over and over. “Oh Lord, please, not my Sammy, not another one of my babies. Please, keep him safe.”
Roy knew he ought to console her, but he had no idea how. Not knowing what else to do, he sat next to the window and stared at the rain for the next hour. Two years ago a flash flood had destroyed his uncles’ home and caused his family to lose some of their livestock. This time had the ugly brown flood waters reached up with its hook of death and snared his brother?
He shuddered at the thought and looked around the cluttered room they all lived in. Was it always this dark inside? The dank scent of the earth, coupled with the dripping leaky roof, made it feel as if the house was already grieving.
“Please, God,” he prayed. “Please, let Sammy be safe. Let them find him drying out somewhere along the creek.”
Of his three older brothers, Sammy was his favorite. Joe was closest to him in age but had never been interested in book learning like Roy. Milo, his half-brother, 11 years older, had always seemed more like a grown up. It was Sammy, 7 years older, who taught him how to play games, studied with him, protected, and guided him through the complexities of life.
The shriek of his mother’s tea kettle brought him out from the fog of his thoughts. Why hadn’t he noticed her getting up? He was supposed to be looking after her.
“Mother, come sit. I’ll make your tea.”
“No, I need to keep busy or I’ll go crazy. You boys wash up, while I rustle up some lunch.”
He watched as his mother’s hands trembled as she methodically filled two plates with ham and cold biscuits left over from last night’s supper.
“Come sit down and eat.” Teacup in hand, she took up residence in her rocker by the window.
“How long before they come back?” Richard asked as he gulped down the food on his plate.
“It’s been too long already,” his mother said rocking back and forth in her chair.
Roy felt his stomach lurch into his throat when he tried to take a bite of biscuit. How come Richard could eat but he couldn’t even manage a bite. Didn’t he know their brother might never eat again?
The rain had quit around suppertime when they heard hoofbeats coming again. This time slow, somber ones. Roy took a deep breath as he stood in the doorway with his mother and Richard. First came Milo on his horse with Joe clinging to his back, followed by his father leading Joe’s horse; a body draped over it.
“No,” sobbed his mother, “Not Sammy.”
Despite the heaviness of the child inside her, she tore down the steps to the horses. Roy’s father dismounted his horse and took her into his arms. Roy and Richard rushed down the steps behind her. Joe stood with his head hung low, as if unwilling to look them in the eye.
It was Milo who grabbed them in a big hug. His lips trembled. “We found him amongst some tree roots when the creek receded. Looks like he got tangled up in them and drowned. Never saw Dad cry like he did when we found him. The old man is taking it pretty hard.”
A moment later Cousin Charlie rode up. His father took out his big red handkerchief, dabbed his eyes and blew his nose, “Let’s get him indoors.”
With great care, the four of them lifted Sammy off the horse and laid him on the bed in the house. His mother set to work heating water so she could wash the mud off his body. Before long, the soddie filled with people. His uncle William and aunt Susan, Charlies’ wife and some neighbors had come. The women tended the body and consoled his mother. Roy couldn’t believe his brother was dead, they made him look so peaceful, like he was just asleep.
The men had gone to the barn to do whatever men do at times like this. Roy guessed they might be making a casket. His little brother and cousins were playing out in the yard. Roy didn’t feel comfortable with all the women folk, but he didn’t want to play either. And he certainly didn’t want to help make a casket. He lit off to the orchard to be alone.
It wasn’t much of an orchard. Not that there weren’t enough trees, it was just they were so puny. It was a wonder they were alive. They’d planted them 5 years ago in 1894 when his father had taken up a homestead on this god forsaken land. Of all the places they’d lived, why had he stayed put here?
He found a forgotten apple box and sat on it. Didn’t Sammy always say he reckoned the natives knew what they were doing when they had nick-named this area “No-man’s-land.” Sammy worked hard so he could buy himself some land, only now he never would.
While inside Roy had heard a neighbor lady say, “What a waste of a life, why Sammy was the best and the brightest of the Caple boys.”
Roy agreed. Sammy had been the best and brightest. Everyone knew he was on his way to being well-off, handsome, and kind to boot. Except now he was dead. Dead, just like the his big sister they’d left in the mountains buried all alone in Idaho. Gone like his little brother Bertle buried in Spokane. He’d been so young then; he wouldn’t have remembered him if it weren’t for his picture on the wall.
No matter how many moves they made, his mother always hung their pictures on the wall first thing. “It’s so you don’t forget.”
His half-sister Minnie’s photo hung there too, except she was alive, married with a family of her own. She had moved away when he was a baby. He guessed Sammy’s picture would join them now. The one he’d just took in honor of his 21st birthday.
Roy took a deep breath as the birds twittered and roosted for the night. At last, this horrid day was ending. To the west, the clouds lit from below by the setting sun were bathed in colors of pink and purple. A striking contrast to the heavy, dark clouds that had filled the sky earlier. Hadn’t Sammy said sunsets were the best part of the day – a signal to sit and rest. Was Sammy at rest now? He hoped so. He gave the dusty ground a kick and headed back to the crowded house.
Two days later Roy choked back tears as the folks from near and far stood in a circle around his brother’s grave. With somber faces, his father, older brothers, and his brother’s friends lowered the casket into the gaping hole. Beside him stood his mother, grasping his younger brother’s hand while unchecked tears flowed down her cheeks.
The preacher scooped a spade full of soil into the grave and said, “Weep not for me, father and mother, for I am waiting for thee in heaven.”
He handed the shovel to his Father, his shoulders slumped. He took a scoop of earth and sprinkled it into the hole. Roy noticed deep lines etched his face. Why he looks so old, he thought, even older than his 50 years. The shovel passed to Milo, then Joe, who handed it to him. He had never been included in such grown-up things before. His hands trembled as he took the spade. He choked back tears as he scooped some earth and let it fall into the grave.
His Uncle touched his shoulder and took the shovel from his hands. “Time to join your folks the rest of us will finish up here.”
Numb, he joined his, Mother and father on the walk back to the wagon. His mother’s hands clasped in front of her belly, heavy with child, her eyes red and downcast. Anytime now she was due to give birth and Roy knew that could be dangerous business.
He’d heard the neighbor ladies whispering amongst themselves, “poor thing, what with her grief and at the advanced age of 41, she might not make it.”
Was that really old to have a baby? He knew little about such things, he just knew he couldn’t bear it if something happened to her, too. His father’s powerful arms helped her onto the wagon seat, and he climbed up to join her. He waited while Roy and Richard scrabbled into the back, took up the reins, and with a click they began the somber ride home. Behind, Joe and Milo followed on horseback, two now, where there’d used to be three.
My grandfather described this event as the most life changing moment for him in his childhood. Details of how his brother died came from several articles in Kansas newspapers as well as his obituary.
In addition to the death of Roy’s younger brother Bertle who died of meningitis in Spokane, and Ida who died from a mastoid ear infection on the trail in the mountains of Idaho, his father had also suffered the lost of 2 other children from his first marriage. Sarah Etta died at 19 month olds after drinking an undiluted bottle of lye. The other child’s name and cause of death is unknown but died in infancy. Both are buried in Monroe, Iowa.
Article describing Sammy’s death in a Kansas newspaper