by Karl Bogott
“You may kiss your bride.”
Rob lifted the veil that Bet had borrowed from her mother. As he leaned in to kiss her, a low growl sounded from near his feet. Rob smiled shyly at his new wife and spoke quietly. “It's okay, Scout. She's family now.” The dog whined and put his head back on the ground at his master's feet. His upturned eyes followed every movement as Rob kissed the woman; unsure of this intrusion into their pack.
~~ * ~~
Rob Harkness and Scout were both creatures of the 1930s Nebraska prairie. Both were descendants of multiple generations living with the challenges of the grasslands. Rob had lived alone on his farm since he had inherited it, son from father through four generations. The first Harkness had staked his claim under the Homestead Act of 1862.
Scout was a half-shepherd half-coyote mutt, a loner, a dusty dark-gray all over. He showed up on the farm four years after Rob had inherited it. He just stayed until Rob noticed and gave him, at first, water, then food and an old blanket upon which to sleep. They were now a team. He accompanied Rob everywhere. When Rob was working the fields, he lay on a hillside 'on guard'. Rob named him Scout. This partnership was sealed by the long lonely years of drought on the plains.
Elizabeth Clarke was the fifth daughter of a widow living in the nearby community. In 1938, at seventeen, she felt she could find no reason for herself to exist there. The town had no reason to exist any more either, being a fading remnant born from the same Homestead Act. It could support no more librarians or teachers and Elizabeth's older sister held the only secretarial position around, working for the Parson. The oldest three sisters married and fled the county in the dry years. The new rights for women had not yet made the life of an unmarried woman in western Nebraska any better than that of her mother. She clerked at the dry goods after she graduated to help out with the bills. The store owner nicknamed her Bet because, although shy and withdrawn, she was accurate and dependable; a 'sure bet' in his words. The name stuck.
They first met in the store the previous summer. Rob and Scout were Saturday regulars in town. Rob always wore the same faded denims tucked into the same scuffed boots. His shirt might vary from week to week, but he always wore the same faded brown cap. He would always order the same supplies. Then, he would walk to the barber shop for his only shave of the week. Scout would lay at his feet wherever he was. Anyone who tried to pet Scout was either warned away with a low growl or simply ignored.
Bet learned that Rob's order never varied and she always had the bacon, flour, salt and dried beans ready before he walked in. One particularly hot Spring day, she spoke more than a polite greeting. As she handed him the bag she asked, “Rob, don't you get bored eating the same things?” Her voice softened. “I never sell you anything but bacon, flour, salt and dried beans.”
It was the first time that he had ever focused on the plain girl behind the counter. He looked into her green eyes and she captured his gaze. He looked away after a few seconds, shrugged and answered, “Never thought about it, I guess. Daddy wasn't much of a cook and I never learned much else. Too busy to learn more. Besides, it's good enough for me, I suppose.” When he picked up his sack of groceries the next week, he didn't notice the can of peaches she had put in it until he got back to the cabin. A month later, right before the July 4th celebration, she invited him to picnic with her at the town square for the annual concert by the volunteer men's band. He accepted and met her at the steps of the small house she shared with her sister and mother. He was wearing a shirt she had not seen before, but still wore his sweat-stained cap. That picnic was the occasion of his first ever fried chicken and a berry pie that she had learned to bake only a week before. Bet tried to give a beef bone to Scout who only growled and ignored it. After that, Rob's visits at the store on Saturdays grew longer and more picnics happened.
In December of 1939, he asked her to marry him in his own way. “Bet? You want to marry me?”
“If that's what you want, Rob.”
~~ * ~~
Weddings were a rare event in a small town. The assembled townspeople stood and applauded as he led his bride up the aisle. No one, except Bet, noticed that Scout had placed himself between the newlyweds in the procession. At the door of the church, Rob pulled his cap from his back pocket and placed it on his head. The April sun was hot. He wore his cap all through the reception at the Grange Hall.
At the end of the short reception, Rob and Bet stepped from the hall. She removed the veil from her head, folded it and handed it back to her mother. Rob bent over to pick up her two carpetbags, her sole dowry and trusseau, and waited for her to hug her mother and sister. Then, she put a new wide-brimmed straw hat on her head, placed both hands on his arm and he led her down the stairs, turned and the couple walked to their farm; Scout either trotting at Rob's side or ranging ahead 'on guard'. There was no honeymoon. The fields needed to be prepared. May and planting were just around the corner.
~~ * ~~
Bet worked harder than she had ever worked in her seventeen years. She worked from dawn to dusk, if not by his side then at making him the best home she could. She planted a small garden to provide greens and other vegetables and tended the few chickens she had gotten from her mother. In a small way, the chickens were her only contact with Scout. His vigilance kept coyotes and foxes away from the chickens, but only because he kept the predators off of his master's property. Other than that, Scout completely ignored her; his loyalty belonging to Rob.
Rob ate better than he ever had in his life. Rising corn prices had been enough to pay the taxes on the farm, but that left little cash for anything else. He expected the price to continue upwards as the war in Europe caused demand to increase. So, he spent extra hours planting an additional twenty acres of corn and ten of beans. After breakfast, Bet worked alongside him in the fields, her straw hat firmly on her head. Then, she would leave for the house to make lunch and tend to her own chores. They became a solid team, quietly aware that they shared something special, but never working to define it.
It was Bet who provided variety and color in his life that he had never known. A new shirt would appear on his bed after Friday night bath. A new way to cook chicken or venison or fish might highlight Sunday dinner. Every Saturday, they would walk, hand-in-hand, into town to shop with Scout ranging ahead. He still remained with Rob as the two parted on the street; he to his shave and haircut, she to the dry goods and to visit, briefly with her mother. The order at the store changed slightly, if frugally, and he had his hair cut twice a month. When they returned, he hung his cap on the same peg it always had, but a new peg, for her straw, had been added next to his. Rob looked forward to night now, not so much because he was tired at the end of the day, but because he knew that he would eat well and, more importantly, because Bet would be next to him in bed.
~~ * ~~
The summer of 1941 rolled into autumn and harvest-time, but it remained hot, hazy and humid. The two had labored side by side harvesting the corn; cap and straw bobbing above the golden tassles. The harvest had been as great as Rob had hoped. With corn prices higher than any he remembered, he thought they might have enough, after taxes, to buy an old Ford truck that he knew was for sale. Bet wanted to buy a pig, more chickens and a milk cow, but didn't push the issue. Rob pulled her close in bed that night. “Maybe when we harvest the beans, we'll have enough for both, Bet.”
October broke the back of Summer and the nights turned cool as November began. Bet collected the last root vegetables from her garden as the first frost took the last greens. It was not the only change. Bet was sick in the morning, but kept it from Rob. She wanted to be sure before she made such a monumental change to the farm and to his, no, to their lives. Scout knew though. He was still Rob's dog, but he was more tolerant of her. He would rise with her in the morning and, sometimes, instead of following Rob to the barn for his chores, he lay by the stove as Bet prepared breakfast. Unmoving, his eyes would watch her move about the room.
On the second Saturday of November, Bet was dropping off her order at the store. “Bet, Rob has a letter here from the government.” The owner handed her the envelope. She read both the typed address and the printed return address.
“What's the Army want with Rob?”
“I don't know, but Harry Willard received one of these, too. It was a draft notice.” The words sent a cold chill down her back. She took the envelope and she turned toward the door. “Maybe they don't want him. He's married, you know.”
She placed her hand on her belly. “I know,” she whispered quietly as she closed the door behind her.
~~ * ~~
“I've got to go, Bet. It's not only the law. It's my duty as an American.”
“But, you're married!” Bet was nearly hysterical as she clung to him that night.
“We don't have any children, so it doesn't matter.” He leaned over and took her chin in his hand. “Look, at least Mayor Billis, at the Draft Board, told me that I could join the Navy instead of enlisting in the Army. He thinks that I'd be safer there if there's a war.”
She almost told him, but she was afraid that he wouldn't believe her. “Do you think there will be, a war, I mean?”
“Bet, I'm just a dumb Nebraska corn farmer. What do I know? I hope not, but I still have to go. I know you don't understand, but it's something a man has to do when his country needs him. Everything will be alright. Corn prices are high and you can hire a boy from the school to help. We've got enough money for that. The truck will have to wait. Anyway, you don't know how to drive.” He felt her sobbing silently. “Hey, now you can have your cow.”
~~ * ~~
The terrible news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came to Bet on a cold December Saturday morning the week after the attack. She took her meager shopping list to the store and heard the news. It was all anyone talked about. Her heart was in her throat. “Bet. Your Rob'll be in the thick of it, soon, I'll bet. He'll help us whip those yellow cowards. Sure wish I could go, but they told me I'm too danged old. Oh, he sent you a letter.” The storekeeper stepped to the post boxes behind the counter and withdrew a thin envelope. “Here.”
~~ * ~~
… You're going to be a father. I hope to give you a son to help on the farm in July …
The rest of her letter was forgotten as Rob lay on his bunk deep within the ship. 'A baby. Why did she wait to tell me? It would have made no difference', he thought to himself. He still had to serve.
Basic training is over and I'll be on my way in a few days. I'm sorry I won't be able to come home, but I've been assigned to the USS Yorktown and we're needed there quickly. I'm not allowed to tell you where she is, but ask Alice at the library. She'll be able to find out. Don't be scared for me, little mother. I'm taking my lucky picture with me, the one of us the day we got married. And I have my cap. I put it on every night and think about you and the farm. I wish you had told me about the baby before I left instead of in your last letter, but maybe it was for the best. Now, I have even more to fight for.
Your husband and our baby's daddy,
Holding the letter tightly against the slight bulge beneath her apron, she looked at the empty peg next to her straw hat. A tear formed at the corner of her eye, but she brushed it away. She stood and picked up the bowl of food for Scout. She opened the door and stepped out. She shivered in the cold air and saw him laying at the corner of the porch watching the road and waiting for Rob. If he wasn't ranging the farm, she knew he would be there, or sitting at the gate. Since Rob had left, Scout had not entered the house. He lay there waiting for his master to return. She set the bowl next to his water and shook the water to keep it from freezing. Scout took no notice of her.
~~ * ~~
“No, ma. I'm not moving back here just because I'm going to have a baby. I have our farm to run so that Rob has a place to return to when the war is over.” It was a standing Saturday tradition now, this conversation, along with picking up groceries and posting a letter to Rob. “I will come back when I think it's time. It's only April and I'm not due until July.”
“You can't walk five miles when you're having a baby.”
“Ma, half the women who settled hereabouts walked here. To hear the stories, they were almost all pregnant all the time.” She leaned over the rocking chair and kissed her mother's cheek. She smiled at her sister. “I have to get back. I've got a few more hours of plowing to do. I wrote Rob I was planning to add another ten acres of corn and let the beans go. Prices are too good to pass up. Thanks for the jam and biscuits, Annie. I don't have much time to bake anymore. Besides, it's only me and Scout.” She grinned. “And, he don't eat biscuits.” She plopped her straw on her head and hooked her arm through the wicker basket. “See you next week.”
~~ * ~~
Dear little mother,
This will be the last letter for awhile. We're leaving our home port for several weeks. They haven't told us where we're headed, but it's important. My division has been fixing, storing, painting and training for weeks. You wouldn't recognize me. I've got muscles. It's been hot here, for April, but they say it'll be hotter where we are going.
I guess that I wouldn't recognize you either, with our little one growing inside you. But, I'll never forget what you look like in your old dress and straw hat, next to me in the fields. I've started a diary about all of this and I'm going to keep it safe. Some day, I'm going to read it to you both. I've got to send this, but I need to say one more thing. It's something I've seldom said. I guess, you know that it's just not my way. I love you Bet. I'll come home to you and our little one.
You loving husband and our baby's daddy,
~~ * ~~
Four Saturdays later, Bet walked into the store. “How's the baby, Bet?”
She smiled at the storekeeper. “We're both fine, thank you.”
“I've got your order ready for you. It's right here. The missus included a couple of extra cans of fruit, some of her canned piccalilli, some tomatoes and a bag of penny candy. She imagines that you'll likely be wanting extra goodies soon.”
Bet smiled and shook her head. “Gracious. You'd think your wife was having this baby. Thank her for me, though. I'll bake a pie and bring you a slice.”
The door all but burst open. The librarian ran in. She was out of breath. “Good. I'm glad you're here, Bet.” She thrust the Lincoln Star into her hands. “There's been a battle and Rob's ship was in it.”
Bet took the paper as a cold chill settled over her. The headline talked of a giant sea battle somewhere in the Pacific Ocean; a place called Coral Sea. It said that the USS Yorktown had been in the thick of it, was severely damaged but steaming back to her home port. “The battle was two weeks ago. I'm sure you'd have heard if he was hurt, dear. I knew you would want to know the news.”
~~ * ~~
The next three days were among the longest of Bet's life. They were also unseasonably hot. The sun burned mercilessly in the clear sky and beat on her sweat-soaked straw. She walked, unseeing along the plowed rows as she used a seeding stake to plant the corn. She hadn't seen more than a hint of Scout since Saturday, except that his food dish emptied during the night. He seemed to know, as well, and was ranging the farm searching for Rob.
On Wednesday morning, she stood at the barn filling her seed bag when heard the sound of an auto horn. She turned and saw the librarian's car bouncing along the rutted road toward the house. The plume of dust caught up with the car as it stopped at the house. The librarian threw open the door. “Bet? Bet? Where are you?”
Bet placed the bag on the ground and yelled, “I'm, here, Alice ... at the barn.”
“It's a telegram!” Then, she, quickly, realized what she had done. “No! No! It's from Rob. I made Tom give it to me.” She all but ran toward Bet, waving the telegram in the air.
Bet grabbed the envelope and tore it open. It was from Rob. Her heart soared in a short ten words.
little mom. I'm fine stop Had to let you know stop love stop
And then, she felt the baby for the first time. It, too, seemed to be dancing at the news. She stopped and her face turned radiant. She hugged the librarian; tears flowing down her face. “He's okay, Alice. Thank God, he's okay.”
~~ * ~~
The last field was planted by May 31st and she had begun culling the first fields planted. Scout was, once again, 'on guard' at the top of the rise; although he still would not enter the house. The work was slow. She was six weeks from her 'best guess' due date. The doctor in town was old enough to be her grandfather. He told her, “You're both healthy as horses, Missus. But, you'd best move into town by mid-June, just to be safe.” Bet planned to move in, temporarily she swore, with her mother and sister, in two weeks. That would be after the fields were culled and in God's hands until the harvest. She wanted to spend the final weeks searching for a high school student or two to help with the harvest. Any other men hardy enough to help were gone. She thought to herself that maybe some of the women might be willing to work.
~~ * ~~
She had packed her bags; the same two bags that Rob had carried when they walked there almost two years ago. She hoped that Scout would follow, but she knew that he could fend for himself if need be. She looked around the house.
Then she heard the sound of a car on the road. She wondered if her mother had cajoled Alice into coming to get her, despite her protests that it wasn't necessary given gas rationing. She stepped out onto the porch. Something bothered her about the car. It bothered Scout, too. He whined and sat up. His guard hairs were erect. Then, he bolted for the hill behind the barn where he spent most days 'on guard'.
The car stopped and the dust cloud settled. It wasn't the librarian's car. It belonged to the Sheriff. From the hill she heard the yip of a coyote and turned. It wasn't a coyote. It was Scout, head back, howling.
“Missus Harkness?” She turned and saw the Parson standing at the passenger door and the Sheriff at the driver's door. “We have a telegram for you from the War Department, I'm afraid.” She sagged to the porch. Her baby felt like a frigid lump in her belly.
The secretary of the navy regrets to inform you that your husband, SN Robert Allan Harkness, was killed in the service of his country on June 7, 1942.
She could not read the rest. The telegram fluttered to the ground and she stared at the Parson; her eyes pleading. “He was fine. He sent me a telegram.”
The Sheriff put his arm on the Parson's. “Bet. His ship was torpedoed, again, in a new battle at the beginning of June. Hundreds died when the ship went down. I know it doesn't matter right now, but it was an important battle and we won it.”
“She's not listening, Sheriff.”
“I know. Dammit. I hate doing this. I just know how Janice would take it if I were out there.”
Bet adamantly refused to go into town with them. She insisted that she wouldn't leave Rob's farm alone. Finally, they had helped her into the house before they left. She sat in the rocking chair and watched them drive away. They said they would ask her sister to come out. She didn't notice that Scout had returned and lay at the open door watching her. It was the closest he had come to entering in the house since Rob had left in November.
~~ * ~~
It was late the next afternoon when the librarian brought Annie to the house. Bet was still rocking in the kitchen. She had not slept or moved. As Annie approached the porch, Scout loosed a low growl, but didn't move from the porch as she entered the house. “Sis, I cannot begin to imagine your pain, but you are going to have a baby and you cannot sit here, by yourself waiting for the end of the world. This is NOT the end of the world. Rob is alive in your belly and you need to take care of his baby as well as his memory. Now, like it or not, you are coming with us.”
Bet offered no resistance as she was led to the car. Alice picked up the bags and closed the door. Scout did not move from the porch, but his eyes watched the sedan drive away. Then, his eyes turned, again, to the hill over which he waited for his master to return.
~~ * ~~
June passed, but Bet didn't notice the passage of days. After two days, her mother threatened to have her put in the hospital to be fed if she didn't eat; for the sake of the baby, if not her own. She ate, but did not taste. She sat in the house at night or on the porch during the daylight hours. She said nothing and did not respond to anything other than the food placed before her.
On July 4th, the town put on its annual parade which always passed in front of her mother's home where, this year Bet, Annie, her mother and Alice, the librarian, sat watching. But, the parade was different this year. This year fathers, husbands and sons, home on leave, formed a special cadre that marched immediately behind the color guard and the volunteer band. The crowd cheered its hometown heroes as they marched by. Most were merely home on leave for a few days before returning to their duties. A few, however, were sailors and Marines recovering from wounds suffered at Pearl Harbor and the Coral Sea. Some were on crutches. One was pushed in a wheel chair; his legs left in the hull of the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. As the parade passed the porch where Bet sat, it made a surprise stop. The band stopped. The marching stopped and the crowd grew absolutely silent.
The cadre of uniformed servicemen came to attention and executed a nearly flawless left face at the command of an Army Captain who had been teacher of English and Elocution in the high school. One sailor, the empty left sleeve of whose uniform pinned across his chest, marched smartly forward, mounted the porch and came to attention before Bet. The librarian stood and picked up a scroll that she had placed on the table earlier. She handed it to the sailor.
“Missus Harkness. Ma'am, I would give my other arm not be giving this to you. I knew Rob. Your husband gave his life in defense of our country. There is no equal payment we can give in return for that sacrifice, save this. You, and all of the mothers and wives who have given their men selflessly, stand among the most honored in our community.” He unrolled a white silken banner with a blue border and a gold star in the center. “On behalf of our nation and all those who serve that stand before you. Thank you.” He returned to attention.
The voice of the Army Captain shouted a single command. “Present Arms.” The color guard dipped the colors and the cadre of servicemen saluted Bet. “Order Arms.” The sailor executed an about face, returned to his position in the cadre. “Right Face.” The band struck up 'Anchors Aweigh' and the parade continued. Bet sat staring at the banner in her lap long after the parade had ended.
Later that afternoon, the Parson approached the porch. He had a small parcel under his arm. “Bet. I have a box for you. A friend of mine, from seminary, serves as a Navy Chaplain at Pearl Harbor. He sent this to me along with a letter. I'd like to read it to you, if you don't mind.
Bet looked up from the banner in her lap and slowly nodded her head.
A young Navy seaman from your town stopped in to see me a few weeks ago. He was serving in the Yorktown and had a few hours of liberty while she was being repaired after the Battle of the Coral Sea. He gave me a key to a locker at a sailor's locker club in Pearl City. He told me that he was going to telegram his wife that he was alright. But, he also knew that his ship was sailing in harm's way again and asked me to send the contents of his locker to his wife, should his ship not return. Sadly, the Yorktown did not return. There wasn't much in the locker. Please return this to Elizabeth Harkness. They have a farm outside of town. I expect that, given the size of the village you describe in your letters, you know where it is. With God's love for our servicemen always at the forefront, I pray that I wont have to perform tasks like this very often.
The Parson folded the letter and returned it to his pocket. He handed the box to Bet. “I'm truly sorry, Bet.” He turned and left.
Bet opened the box. There were only three items in it, the picture of their wedding, his diary and his stained brown cap. The box, diary and picture fell away as she clasped the cap to her breast. After a moment, she spoke softly. “Annie. I need to go to the farm. Will you take me?”
~~ * ~~
Bet walked into the field of corn, now knee high and promising to be a bumper crop. The sun beat down on her head and, without even thinking, she placed his grimy cap on her head. “Rob, I'm going to be okay. The farm is going to be okay. I promise.” She felt the first twinge of labor deep within her and took a sharp breath. She sat down in the shade of the row and closed her eyes until it passed. After a moment, she felt a gentle pressure in her lap and opened her eyes. Scout was lying beside her, his head in her lap and his eyes looking up at her.
She reached down and scratched his ears as she had seen Rob do many times. “He's not coming back, Scout. I'm sorry. But, we're going to be alright.” She felt another pain and knew it was time to return to Annie and the car. “We're all going to be alright.”
She stood and walked toward the car where her sister waited. Scout walked at her side 'on guard'.