Agnes thought about their neighbors—wondered if her home had been the hardest hit or if they had gotten off easy compared to others. She interrupted Ben’s report to give him the ugly news about the well and tell him they needed to stop by the creek first. Ben’s expression turned grim. Agnes noted that at last, some bit of today’s events had affected that steady calm. In the moments since the earthquake, she had both appreciated Ben’s rock-steadiness and been slightly resentful that he was all about planning and action, when she just wanted to curl up like a baby and process what had happened.
In short order, they rounded the last corner to the creek. Nothing but large, still puddles remained. Agnes slid off her horse in disbelief. She blinked her eyes. The creek looked like it did in late summer, when it was drying up. At this time of year, the creek was always running—running heavy enough to warn kids about playing in it—to have a realistic chance of a little fishing. Ben headed down the bank and immediately sank up to his knees in mud. He flopped backward to the dry bank and somehow managed to extricate both legs with boots still attached. He looked up to Agnes who stood on the bank intermittently rubbing her eyes in perplexity. Where had the water gone? A whole creek suddenly disappeared. Of course, that much water couldn’t actually disappear; it couldn’t evaporate into thin air that quickly. It had to have flown somewhere. How could an entire creek disappear into a long series of puddles, mud bogs, and maybe even quicksand? Perhaps the shaking had been much worse wherever the creek flowed from.
Maybe the creek had changed its course. If its new route didn’t skirt the homestead like this one had, then Ben and Agnes knew they were in for a sorry time of it. Ben trudged up the small ravine toward Agnes and dropped to the ground. He pulled off his boots and let the mud slurp its way out. His whole body slumped. It was disconcerting to see Ben defeated. Agnes awkwardly reached down to touch his shoulder, her turn to comfort him.
“We’ll find a way,” she reassured him. But she wondered how.
Ben shoved his feet back into his boots with sudden determination and the couple climbed back on the horses. Ben led the way up hill and they soon emerged from their property onto the main route that ran past their neighbors’ homes all the way into town. Years of being harnessed together meant that Barney and Mabel soon settled into a comfortable side by side rhythm.
Agnes reflected that if there current situation weren’t so terrible, riding together would actually be nice. Agnes liked that they had a shared purpose: looking for the horses, checking on the neighbors, speeding ahead in companionable silence. So much of their time was spent apart. In the long summer hours since they had been married, Ben was either in the fields or the barn. Agnes busy in the house. It almost felt like they were on an adventure. Agnes found that just being in Ben’s company was calming. She wondered how it would have been if she had still been living alone when the earthquake struck.
The two topped a small ridge and peered down on the Weatherby homestead situated halfway down a small rise and surrounded by cottonwoods. Everything seemed to be in one piece. Smoke even puffed lazily from the chimney. Ben spurred his horse on and Agnes matched his pace. Hans Weatherby saw them coming and waved as they cantered into the yard.
“I bet you’re looking for those two colts of yours. Practically broke their way into the corral trying to herd up with our horses. I thought they were going to do worse damage than the quake itself.”
Ben quickly dismounted and Hans slapped him on the shoulder like they had known each other all their lives. Ben came to assist Agnes off her horse and Hans gave her a polite nod. It struck Agnes as funny that it was she and Hans who had known each other all their lives and yet he always treated her so formally. A lot of people did. She hadn’t noticed it so much when her parents were alive--maybe because everyone treated them that way too. But since she had started spending time in Ben’s company whenever there was a social event, it stood out how she didn’t quite fit in. She wondered what it was about Ben that put people at ease right away. And what it was about her that made her so standoffish.
“Ernestine is in the house,” Hans directed her as he motioned for Ben to follow him. Agnes watched the men retreat, deep in conversation, and then made her way toward the clapboard home. From the porch, Ernestine saw her coming.
“We were hoping you would be along soon.” Ernestine looked harried. She tried to descend the stairs toward Agnes, but two small children had attached themselves to her legs like lichen on a log. The two and four year olds cried inconsolably. And in Ernestine’s arms was her youngest son, born just a few weeks before.
In contrast, the Weatherby family’s two oldest children were practically giddy with excitement and ran toward Agnes, nearly knocking her over. “Did you get to go rocking at your place too, Miss Agnes?” Dean the eight year old asked with a gleeful grin. The two boys grabbed Agnes’s hands and escorted her up the porch steps. In spite of herself, Agnes found herself responding to Dean’s enthusiasm. Perhaps the earthquake wasn’t as bad as she remembered. For a moment she shut her eyes and relived the terror of trying to leave the bucking house and sobered up. No, it really had been awful.
Ernestine threw her hands up in exasperation and turned on Dean. “I wish you would take this more seriously. And, you know you should call her Mrs. Spencer now.” Ernestine reached out with her free hand to pinch Dean’s ear, but her range was hampered by the children clutching her skirts. Agnes was happy to see Dean was able to dance out of range of his mother’s fingers. Normally Ernestine’s discipline was a lot of bluster, but Agnes could tell that she was on her last nerve.
Agnes advised Dean and his excited brother to see if they could help their father. Simultaneously, she reached down and picked up one of the bawling youngsters. Little Sally buried her face in Agnes’s shoulder leaving a wide swath of mucus over Agnes’s bodice. Agnes wasn’t all that used to small children and tried her best to ignore the smear across her chest. With the large tear across her knees, the dress was done for anyway. She felt relieved and a bit proud of herself when Sally’s choking sobs began to subside. Ernestine picked up the other leg-hugger and sank into a wicker chair on the porch, her lap full to capacity with both the infant and her toddler. She motioned for Agnes to take a seat. Agnes was grateful; she still felt a bit unsteady after the quake and didn’t want to drop Sally.
Agnes had always liked Ernestine and counted her as a friend. Probably her best friend if truth be told. She wasn’t sure Ernestine would say the same about her. Ernestine was only slightly older than Agnes, but couldn’t help being a bit matronly toward her. Ernestine had just had her fifth child. In some ways, Agnes felt like she didn’t know anything compared to her.
Steadily rocking back and forth in their chairs, the two exchanged their tremor stories and comforted the children.
Ben startled Agnes when he started talking. She whirled to face him and caught a smile on his face. Was it the sight of her comforting the little girl? But Ben’s face quickly became somber again. He rested his arms on the porch railing. “Hans said their well smells fine. We’re going to go check on the Rutherfords and swing by the creek on the way. Hopefully it’s running here.”
Hans joined the three. “Don’t give up hope yet. It could be the creek got dammed up and just needs to build enough force to break free. Comes off the river near Allentown. Could be they got hit harder than we did.”
It was hard not knowing what was going on--to not know how others were faring. It was hard not knowing if that earthquake was only the herald of worse to come. Agnes didn’t know how she would survive another one. How would she ever sleep worrying that another could strike at any time? Internally, Agnes still felt like her world was shaking. Even Ben’s calm demeanor might not be enough to make her trembling subside.
Check back tomorrow for more!