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LaVyrle Spencer Years

LaVyrle Spencer Years

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SHE SOUGHT HIM out that night and found him in the tool shed fashioning a new vane for the
windmill. One of his knees held a wooden slat across a barrel top, and he faced the rear of the
building as she approached.

She stopped outside the high-silled door and watched his shoulders flexing, then glanced

around the interior of the shed.

Here, as in the tack room, neatness reigned. She studied the almost fanatic tidiness, smiling
to herself. Hilda Knutson could take a lesson from Theodore. The shed was cozy. The lantern
created enough heat to warm the tiny, windowless building, which smelled of fresh-cut pine and
linseed oil. A stack of paint cans took up one corner. One the wall hung snowshoes, traps, and a
variety of pelt stretchers. There were two small nail kegs and a neat coil of barbed wire. In a near
corner leaned a worn broom. Linnea's eyes fell to the sawdust drifting onto Theodore's boot, and
she imagined him sweeping it up the moment the chore was finished. His penchant for neatness
no longer irritated her as it had when she'd first arrived. Now she found it admirable.

“Theodore, could I talk to you a minute?”

He swung around so suddenly the board clattered to the floor. His cheeks turned crimson.

“Seems you and I are always startling each other,” she ventured.

“What're you doing out here?” He hadn't meant to sound so displeased. It was just that
he'd been doing his best to avoid her lately. The sight of her made his palm feel slippery on the
saw handle.

“May I come in?”

“Not much room in here,” he replied, retrieving the fallen board and setting back to work.

“Oh, that's all right. I'll stay out of your way.” She entered and perched herself on an

upturned keg.

“Theodore, I have a problem at school and I wondered if I cold talk to you about. I need

some advice.”

The saw stilled and he looked up. Nobody ever asked Theodore for advice, least of all
women. His ma was a dictator and Melinda hadn't bothered letting him know that she was going
to show up at his doorstep expecting to get married. Neither had she informed him she was
running away two years later. But there sat Linnea, rattling Theodore with her mere presence,
posed like a nymph on the nail keg, with her hands clasping her knees. Her big blue eyes were
wide and serious, and she wanted his advice.

Theodore set aside his work and gave her his full attention.

“About what?”

“Allen Severt.”

“Allen Severt.” He frowned. “He giving you trouble?”

“Yes.”

“Why come to me?”

“Because you're my friend.”

“I am?” he asked, surprised.

She couldn't hold back a chuckle. “Well, I thought you were. And Clara said if Allen kept it

up, I should talk to you.”

Theodore had never had a friend before. His only friends were his brothers and sister and
those they'd married. I sounded good, having a friend, though he wasn't sure how well being
Miss Brandonberg's would work. But if Clara thought he should know, he'd listen. He set aside
his saw, straddled the barrel, and crossed his arms.

“So what has Allen been up to?”

“Not much I can prove, but plenty I can't. He's been a troublemaker right from the first day
of school—teasing the younger children, openly defying me, creating disturbances. Just little
irritating things. Hiding lunch pails, taking bites of cookies. But now he's started in on Frances
and I--”

“Frances? You mean our little Frances?” His shoulders squared and his arms came partially
uncrossed. As he bristled defensively everything about him became more masculinely imposing.

So Frances was one of the things he cared about. Linnea found it touching that he'd

referred to the child as ours.

“He called her dimwit all the time. He's very good at picking out the children's weaknesses
and teasing them. But that isn't the worst of it. I suspect he's the one who's been cutting off
Frances's braid, and one day he locked her in the outhouse and stuck a snake through the hole in
the door. Now the girls have found a peek hole drilled in the back of the outhouse wall. I can't
prove any of it, but there's something about Allen that...” She shrugged, then rubbed her arms and
shivered.

Theodore's air of displeasure doubled. Forcing himself to remain seated, he pressed the
heels of both hands to the barrel edge between his thighs.

“Has he done anything to you?”

She glanced up quickly, not having intended to say that much. Her personal misgiving
about Allen were too nebulous to put to voice. And besides, she'd feel utterly foolish telling
Theodore that Allen stared at her breasts. All boys reached an age where they became interested
in the development of girls. With Allen it wasn't the fact that he stared, but how he did so; trying
to put this into words would be difficult.

“Oh, no, he hasn't done anything. And it's not even so much what he does to the others. So
far its' been little things. But they're getting more serious all the time. And what I'm most
concerned about is that I think he enjoys being...well, malicious...making people squirm.”

Theodore rose in one swift movement. He gave the impression that he wanted to pace but
was unable to in the confined space. His brow beetled , he swung on Linnea. “You talk to his
folks about this when you were at their place for dinner?”

“I tried. But I saw immediately that Allen's mother wasn't going to believe a word I said
about her golden boy. She has him so spoiled and herself so deluded that there's no reaching her.
I thought for awhile I might get some cooperation from Reverend Severt, but...” She shrugged.
“He seems to think that if Allen reads the Bible all his life it'll keep him a saint.” Linnea chuckled
ruefully, looking at the floor.

“Martin's not a bad sort. It's just that his wife of his has led him around by the nose for so
long he don't know how to stand up to her.”

“Doesn't,” she corrected absently.

“Doesn't,” he repeated without a second thought.

Linnea looked up appealingly. “I'm not sure I can handle Allen without their help.”

A warning stirred in Theodore. He pressed his hands more tightly against his armpits.

“You afraid of Allen?”

“Afraid?” Her gaze held his for a moment, then flickered aside. “No.”

He didn't believe her. Not entirely. There was something she wasn't telling him, something
she didn't want him to know. And even if she was telling him everything, there was still little
Frances to consider. She had always been one of Theodore's favorites, the one who never forgot
her Uncle Teddy at Christmas. One year she had given him a pomander ball for his bureau—a
pomander ball, of all things. He'd taken one sniff of the feminine thing and wondered what his
brothers would think when he showed up smelling like orange and cloves in his clean overalls.
But he's slipped it into his bottom drawer until Frances smelled the fruit and spice on him one time
and grinned wide in toothless approval. Then and only then had he removed it from his drawer.

With the recollection fresh in his mind, he made a sudden decision.

“I want you to tell everything you just told me to Kristian, then pick out desk for him 'cause
he'll be in school Monday morning. After that Allen better watch out if he decides to pick on
Frances. But Monday's the soonest I can spare him.”

Linnea's lips dropped open in surprise.

“K...Kristian?” she repeated.

Theodore—stubborn—was a sight to behold! His eyes darkened to the color of wet Zahl
coal, his jaw jutted, and his chest looked invincible as he stood like a Roman gladiator with his
shoulders thrust back, lips narrowed with resolve. “What that little pip-squeak Severt needs is
somebody bigger than he is to take him down a notch every now and then.”

She stared at him while a smile spread slowly upon her face. “Why, Theodore!”

“Why Theodore what?” he grumbled.

“You'll give up your field hand to protect someone you care about?”

He dropped the warrier's pose and gave her a quelling frown. “Don't look so self-satisfied,
teacher. Frances gave me a pomander ball for Christmas one year and--”

“A pomander ball!” Linnea squelched a giggle.

“Wipe that smile off your face. We both know Frances wasn't nearly as bright as the rest of
the kids, but she's got a heart of gold. I'd like to shake that Severt brat myself a time or two for
pestering her. But don't worry. From now on Kristian'll be there to keep an eye on things.”

On Monday not only Kristian showed up at school, but all the other older boys as well. It
appeared they'd been simultaneously released from field works as if by some mystical force.

Their coming brought a distinct change to the schoolroom. It seemed pleasantly full, taking
on a busy air, a new excitement. It was especially apparent in the younger students, who
camaraderie between the oldest boys and the very youngest children. Instead of shunning the
small ones, the big boys indulgently included them, helped them, soothed them if they fell and
hurt themselves, and, in general, tolerated their immature concerns with good-natured
forebearance.

On the playground things were livelier. Gopher-hunting was finished for the season, and it
wasn't uncommon during noon recess for the entire school, including the teacher, to take part in a
ball game.

Linnea loved it. There was a wholly different feeling to a country school than to a town
school. She'd never experienced anything like it before. It was wholesome and rich with sharing,
much the same as in an extended family. Watching a sixteen-year-old boy pick up and dust off a
howling seven-year-old girl who'd hit the dust during the game of red rover was a rewarding

experience. And watching an older girl teach a younger one the intricacies of making French
braids brought a smile to Linnea's lips. One day, looking on, she realized something astounding.

Why, they're learning to be parents!

And as long as they were, they'd better learn right.

Now that all the boys were present, she took up the subject she'd been dying to introduce.

“Shakespeare may have said 'Unquiet meals make ill digestions,' but Shakespeare, I
daresay, never sat down to the table with a lunch of hungry Norwegians. We shall today take up
the topic of table etiquette, including the social amenity of making graceful mealtime
conversation.”

The boys looked at each other and snickered. Steadfastly, she went on, pacing back and
forth in front of the room, hands clasped dramatically at her waist. “But before we get to that, we
will start with the subject of burping.”

When the laughter died down, the students suddenly realized Miss Brandonberg was not
laughing with them. She was standing with sternly controlled patience, waiting. When she spoke
again, not a student in the room doubted her earnestness. “I will have it clearly understood that
this schoolroom has heard the last unrestrained belch it will ever hear as long as I'm the teacher
here.”

No more than five seconds of silence had ticked by when, from the direction of Allen Severt,
came a loud, quick rifle shot of a burp that echoed to the rafters.

Laughter followed, louder than before.

Linnea strode down the aisle, stopped calmly beside Allen's desk, and with a movement as
quick as the strike of a rattler smacked his face so hard it nearly knocked him out of his seat.

The laughter stopped as if a guillotine blade had fallen.

In the quietest of voices, the teacher spoke. “The proper words, Mr. Severt, are 'I beg your
pardon.' Would you say them to your classmates, please.”

“I beg your pardon,” he parroted, still too stunned to do otherwise.

It was, indeed, the last burp Linnea ever heard at P.S. 28, but Allen Severt didn't forget the

slap.

October settled in, bringing the first frosts and the first hired hands. Linnea ambled out of
the house one afternoon to find a stranger in conversation with Nissa by the windmill.

“Linnea, come on over! Meet Cope!”

Cope, it turned out, had been coming to work for the Westgaards for twelve years. A
stubby, ruddy Polish farmer from central Minnesota, he took his nickname from the round can of
Copenhagen snuff ever present in his breast pocket. Doffing a flat wool cap, he shook Linnea's
hand, called her something sounding like “a pretty little sitka,” spit out a streak of brown tobacco
juice, and asked where them other bums was.

Cope was followed by Jim, then Stan, and a string of six others. Five of them were
repeaters, three of them new to the Westgaards.

One of the first-timers was a young buck who had drifted through from Montana wearing
scarred cowboy boots, a battered Stetson, and a platter-sized silver belt buckle bearing a Texas
longhorn. His hair was as dark and shiny as polished onyx, his smile as teasing as a Chinook
wind.

As Cope had been, he too was talking with Nissa the first time Linnea saw him. She
returned from school one afternoon with her grade book and papers to find the two of them
outside, near the kitchen door.

“Well, who's this now?” he drawled as she approached.

“This here's Miss Brandonberg, the local schoolteacher. She boards with us.” Nissa nodded
sideways at the man. “This here is Rusty Bonner, just hired on.”

From the moment her eyes met his, Linnea became flustered. In her entire life she'd never

met a man so blatantly sexual.

“Miss Brandonberg,” he drawled, slow as cool honey. “Happy t' meetcha, ma'am.” When
he spoke, one could almost smell sagebrush and whang leather. With one thumb he pushed his
Stetson back, revealing arresting black eyes that hooked downward at the corners as he grinned,
and untamable black locks that teased his forehead. In slow motion he extended one hand, and
even before she touched it, she knew what it would feel like. Wiry and hard and tough.

“Mister Bonner,” she greeted, attempting to keep the handshake brief. But he clasped her
hand a moment longer than was strictly polite, squeezing his rawhide-textured hand against her
much softer one.

“Name's Rusty,” he insisted in that same drawn-out way.

The only rusty thing about him was his skin. Burned by the sun to a rich, deep mahogany,
it framed his dark, lazy smile in a way that must have left a string of broken hearts from the Texas
panhandle to the Canadian border. He was a head taller than Linnea, lean as a drought year, and
put together mostly with sinew.

“Rusty,” she repeated, flashing a nervous smile first at him, then at Nissa.

“Well now, you're a right pretty lady, Miss Brandonberg. Makes me wonder what I missed
when I dropped out o' school to go rodeoin'.”

Flushing, she dropped her gaze to his scarred boots and the bedroll lying on the ground
beside them. He stood in the hip-shot pose of a self-assured ladies' man, one knee bent, grinning
at her lazily with those devilishly handsome eyes that looked as if they were figuring her body
dimensions and her age.

Nissa sensed that Linnea was out of her league and ordered, “You can put your roll in the
barn. You'll bunk with the other boys in the hayloft. Wash water'll be hot one hour before sunrise
and breakfast'll be serve in the kitchen till the cook wagon gets here.”

Inveterate charmer that he was, Rusty Bonner wasn't choosy about whom he showered that
charm on, long as she was female. He swung his laconic gaze on Nissa with no perceptible change
in appreciation, doffed his hat, and drawled, “Why, thank y', ma'am. That's most obligin' of y'.”

Then he swung down lazily to snag his bedroll and sling it over his shoulder by one finger.
Tipping his hat brim low over his eyes, he sauntered off toward the barn, hips swinging like pines
in a slow breeze.

“Whew!” Nissa puffed, shaking her head.

“Whew is right!” Linnea seconded, watching Rusty's back pockets undulate on his tight

blue Levi Strauss britches.

Eyeing Linnea, Nissa declared, “I think I mighta just made a big mistake by hirin' that one
on.” She swung and aimed a finger at Linnea's nose. “You keep away form him, you hear?”

“Me?” Linnea's eyes widened innocently. “I didn't do anything!”

Disgruntled, Nissa turned back toward the house. “With his kind a woman don't have ta.”

It was Sunday, the last lull before the roar of the steam threshers broke over the prairie.
Down along the creek bottom the poplars were already dropping gold coins into the Little Muddy.
The cottontails were fat as Buddahs, and as the muskrats went about filling underwater larders,
their pelts were so thick they stood out like ruffs about their necks.

In the wind it was chilly, but in the shelter of the uncut millet, with the sun pouring into
their own private bowl, Kristian and Ray lazed like a pair of contented coon hounds, their bellies
to the sun. The boys were shaped alike, all length and angles, with too much bone for the amount
of muscle they'd grown. Cradling their heads, elbows up, they studies the puffy white clouds
scudding along the cobalt-blue sky.

“I'm gonna go after mink this year,” Kristian announced.

“Mink?” Ray chuckled knowingly. “Good luck. You're better off goin' fro muskrats.”

“There's plenty of mink left. I'll get 'em.”

“You'll get one for every ten of my muskrats.”

“That's okay. It's gotta be mink.”

Something in Kristian's voice made Ray roll his head to squint at his cousin. “What's gotta

be mink?”

Kristian shut his eyes and mumbled. “Nothin'.”

Ray eyed him a little longer, then settled back again, staring at the sky. From far away came
a faint sound like old nails being pulled from new wood. It amplified into the unmistakable rusty
squawk of Canadian honkers, heading toward the Mississippi flyway. The boys watched them
grow from distant dots to a distinct flock.

“Hey, Ray, you ever think about the war?”

“Yeah...some.”

“They got airplanes over there. Lots of 'em. Wouldn't it be somethin' to fly in one of those

airplanes?”

The wedge of geese came on, necks pointing the way toward Florida, wings moving with a
grace that forced a silent reverence upon the boys. They watched and listened, thrilling to a sound
that stirred their blood. The cacophony became a clatter that field the air over the millet field, then
drifted off, dimmer, dimmer, until the graceful creatures disappeared and the only sound
remaining was the rustle of the wind in the grass and their heartbeats against the backs of their
heads.

“Someday I'm going to see the world from up there,” Kristian mused.

“You mean you'd go to France and fight, just to fly in an airplane?”

“I don't know. Maybe.”

“That's stupid. And besides that, you're not old enough.”

“Well, I will be soon.”

“Aww, it's still stupid.”

Kristian thought about it a while and decided Ray might be right. It probably was stupid.
But he was anxious to grow up and be a man.

“Hey, Ray?”

“Hmm?”

“You ever think about women?”

Ray let out a honk of laughter as raucous as the call of the geese. “Does a wild bear shit in

the forest?”

They laughed together, feeling manly and wonderful sharing the forbidden language with
which they'd only recently begun experimenting.

“You ever think about giving a woman something to make her look different at you?”
Kristian asked, ad if half asleep.

“Like what?”

It was quiet for a long time. Kristian cast a single wary glance at his cousin, returned to
cloud-watching, and suggested, “A mink coat?”

Ray's head came up off the millet. “A mink coat!” Suddenly he clutched his stomach and
bawled with laughter. “You think you're gonna trap enough mink to have a mink coat!”

He howled louder and rolled around like an overturned turtle until Kristian finally boosted
up and punched him in the gut. “Aw, shut up. I knew I shouldn'ta told you. If you say anythin'
to anybody I'll stomp you flatter'n North Dakota!”

Ray was still winding down, breathless. “A...m...mink coat!” Overdramatizing, he flopped
spread-eagled, wrists to the sun. “You might just get enough mink by the time you're as old as
your pa.”

Kristian laced his fingers over his belly and crossed his ankles, scowling straight up. “Well,
that was just a daydream, you jackass. I know I ain't...I mean, I'm not gonna get enough for a mink
coat, but I could get enough to give her mink mittens, maybe.”

Suddenly it dawned on Ray that his cousin was serious. He came up on one elbow, giving
Kristian his wholehearted attention.

“Who?”

Kristian grabbed a blade of dry millet and split it with a thumbnail. “Miss Brandonberg.”

“Miss Brandonberg?” Ray sat up, shifting his weight to one hip and raising one knee. “Are

you crazy? She's our teacher!”

“I know, but she's only two years older than we are.”

Too startled to be amused, Ray gawked at his cousin. “You are crazy.”

Kristian flung the millet away and crossed his hands behind his head. “Well, there's nothin'
wrong with thinkin' about her, is there?”

Ray stared at Kristian as if he'd just sprouted horns. After a long stretch of silence, he flung
himself onto his back and exclaimed, “Sheece!” in a breathy rush of excitement.

They lay flat, unmoving, thoughtful, staring at the sky to give themselves an air of
controlled casualness while underneath their blood was running faster than Little Muddy Creek.

Ray broke the silence at last. “Is that what you meant when you asked if I think about
women? You think about the teacher...like that?”

“Sometimes.”

“You could get in trouble, Kristian,” Ray declared dourly.

“I said, all I do is think.”

Minutes passed. The sun dipped behind a cloud, then came back out to bake their hides

and turn their thoughts hot.

“Hey, Kristian?” came a furtive inquiry.

“Hmm?”

“Anything ever...well, happen when you think about...well, about women?”

Kristian squirmed a little, as if trying to settle his shoulderblades more comfortably. When
he answered, he tried his best to sound offhand. “Well...yeah. Sometimes.”

“What?”

Kristian considered for a long time, formulating answers, disqualifying them before they
were spoken. Looking askance, he saw Ray's head roll his way and felt his eyes boring for the
truth. He met Ray's eyes squarely.

“What happens to you?”

The millet whispered around their heads. The silents clouds rolled on. A slow grin
appeared at one corner of Ray's mouth, and an answering grin came to Kristian. The grins became
smiles.

“It's great, isn't it?” Kristian put in.

Ray made a fist, socked the air, flailed one foot, and gave a banshee yell. “Eeeeeee-yowww-

eeee!”

Together they fell back and laughed and laughed, reveling in being almost sixteen and full

of sap.

After a while Kristian asked, “You ever kissed a girl?”

“Once.”

“Who?”

“Patricia Lommen.”

“ Patricia Lommen! That brain?”

“Aw, she ain't so bad.”

“Yeah? So how was it?”

“Nothin' great, but that was a while ago. I wouldn't mind tryin' it again, except Patricia's
the only one around here who's not my cousin, and I think she'd rather kiss you than me.”

“Me?” Kristian popped up in surprise.

“Open your eyes, Westgaard. Every time you walk into the schoolroom she gawks at you
like you were the eighth wonder of the world.”

“She does?”

“Well, doesn't she?” Ray sounded a little envious.

Kristian shrugged, puffed out his chest like a strutting cock, and flapped his wings. Ray
landed him a mock punch that doubled Kristian over. They shared a round of affectionate
fisticuffs before the talk got serious again.

Kristian inquired curiously, “You ever think about your ma and pa together—you know?”

“Doin' it, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Naw, I think they're too old.”

“Mmm...I don't know. They might not be, cause I think my pa...”

When Kristian drew up short, Ray became all ears. “What? Come on, tell me.”

“Well, I don't know for sure, but I've been thinking about every fall, when Isabella comes.”

“Isabella!” Ray was flabbergasted. “You mean that fat woman who drives the kitchen

wagon.?”

“She's not exactly fat.”

“You mean, you think your pa does it with her? Why, they're not even married!”

“Oh, don't be such an infant, Westgaard. Not everybody's married when they do it.
Remember that girl who used to live over on the other side of Sigurd's place, the one that got
pregnant and nobody knew who got ther that way?”

“Well, yeah, but...but...that was a girl and...well...” His reasoning became muddy as he tried
to puzzle it out. “You really think your pa does it with Isabelle?”

“I don't know, but every year during threshin', while she's got her cook wagon around here,
my pa isn't in the house much at night. I can remember him not comin' in till it was nearly milkin'
time, and when he did, if he wasn't sneakin', you could've fooled me. Now where would he be
spendin' the night besides in Isabelle's wagon?”

They pondered the possibility for a long time, till the sun went under and their lair grew
chilly. They thought of women...those mysterious creatures who suddenly didn't seem like
nuisances any more. They thought of flying in airplanes as high up as they wild geese had flown.

And they wondered how soon they'd be men enough to do it all.

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