The two men drove up the hill toward the blood-red sun. The cotton fields bordering the road were thin and withered, and no breeze stirred in the pines.
“When I am totally sober,” the doctor was saying—“I mean when I am totally sober—I don’t see the same world that you do. I’m like a friend of mine who had one good eye and got glasses made to correct his bad eye; the result was that he kept seeing elliptical suns and falling off tilted curbs, until he had to throw the glasses away. Granted that I am thoroughly anaesthetized the greater part of the day—well, I only undertake work that I know I can do when I am in that condition.”
“Yeah,” agreed his brother Gene uncomfortably. The doctor was a little tight at the moment and Gene could find no opening for what he had to say. Like so many Southerners of the humbler classes, he had a deep-seated courtesy, characteristic of all violent and passionate lands—he could not change the subject until there was a moment’s silence, and Forrest would not shut up.
“I’m very happy,” he continued, “or very miserable. I chuckle or I weep alcoholically and, as I continue to slow up, life accommodatingly goes faster, so that the less there is of myself inside, the more diverting becomes the moving picture without. I have cut myself off from the respect of my fellow man, but I am aware of a compensatory cirrhosis of the emotions. And because my sensitivity, my pity, no longer has direction, but fixes itself on whatever is at hand I have become an exceptionally good fellow—much more so than when I was a good doctor.”
As the road straightened after the next bend and Gene saw his house in the distance, he remembered his wife’s face as she had made him promise, and he could wait no longer: “Forrest, I got a thing—”
But at that moment the doctor brought his car to a sudden stop in front of a small house just beyond a grove of pines. On the front steps a girl of eight was playing with a gray cat.
“This is the sweetest little kid I ever saw,” the doctor said to Gene and then to the child, in a grave voice: “Helen, do you need any pills for kitty?”
The little girl laughed.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said doubtfully. She was playing another game with the cat now and this came as rather an interruption.
“Because kitty telephoned me this morning,” the doctor continued, “and said her mother was neglecting her and couldn’t I get her a trained nurse from Montgomery.”
“She did not.” The little girl grabbed the cat close indignantly; the doctor took a nickel from his pocket and tossed it to the steps.
“I recommend a good dose of milk,” he said as he put the car into gear. “Good night, Helen.”
“Good night, doctor.”
As they drove off, Gene tried again: “Listen; stop,” he said. “Stop here a little way down… Here.”
The doctor stopped the car and the brothers faced each other. They were alike as to robustness of figure and a certain asceticism of feature and they were both in their middle forties; they were unlike in that the doctor’s glasses failed to conceal the veined, weeping eyes of a soak, and that he wore corrugated city wrinkles; Gene’s wrinkles bounded fields, followed the lines of rooftrees, of poles propping up sheds. His eyes were a fine, furry blue. But the sharpest contrast lay in the fact that Gene Janney was a country man while Dr. Forrest Janney was obviously a man of education.
“Well?” the doctor asked.
“You know Pinky’s at home,” Gene said, looking down the road.
“So I hear,” the doctor answered noncommittally.
“He got in a row in Birmingham and somebody shot him in the head.” Gene hesitated. “We got Doc Behrer because we thought you wouldn’t—maybe you wouldn’t—”
“I wouldn’t,” agreed Doctor Janney blandly.
“But look, Forrest; here’s the thing,” Gene insisted. “You know how it is—you often say Doc Behrer doesn’t know nothing. Shucks, I never thought he was much either. He says the bullet’s pressing on the—pressing on the brain, and he ain’t take it out without causin’ a hemmering, and he says he doesn’t know whether we could get him to Birmingham or Montgomery, or not, he’s so low. Doc wasn’t no help. What we want—”
“No,” said his brother, shaking his head. “No.”
“I just want you to look at him and tell us what to do,” Gene begged. “He’s unconscious, Forrest. He wouldn’t know you; you’d hardly know him. Thing is his mother’s about crazy.”
“She’s in the grip of a purely animal instinct.” The doctor took from his hip a flask containing half water and half Alabama corn, and drank. “You and I know that boy ought to been drowned the day he was born.”
Gene flinched. “He’s bad,” he admitted, “but I don’t know—— You see him lying there——”
As the liquor spread over the doctor’s insides he felt an instinct to do something, not to violate his prejudices but simply to make some gesture, to assert his own moribund but still struggling will to power.
“All right, I’ll see him,” he said. “I’ll do nothing myself to help him, because he ought to be dead. And even his death wouldn’t make up for what he did to Mary Decker.”
Gene Janney pursed his lips. “Forrest, you sure about that?”
“Sure about it!” exclaimed the doctor. “Of course I’m sure. She died of starvation; she hadn’t had more than a couple cups of coffee in a week. And if you looked at her shoes, you could see she’d walked for miles.”
“Doc Behrer says—”
“What does he know? I performed the autopsy the day they found her on the Birmingham Highway. There was nothing the matter with her but starvation. That—that”—his voice shook with feeling—“that Pinky got tired of her and turned her out, and she was trying to get home. It suits me fine that he was invalided home himself a couple of weeks later.”
As he talked, the doctor had plunged the car savagely into gear and let the clutch out with a jump; in a moment they drew up before Gene Janney’s home.
It was a square frame house with a brick foundation and a well-kept lawn blocked off from the farm, a house rather superior to the buildings that composed the town of Bending and the surrounding agricultural area, yet not essentially different in type or in its interior economy. The last of the plantation houses in this section of Alabama had long disappeared, the proud pillars yielding to poverty, rot and rain.
Gene’s wife, Rose, got up from her rocking chair on the porch.
“Hello, doc.” She greeted him a little nervously and without meeting his eyes. “You been a stranger here lately.”
The doctor met her eyes for several seconds. “How do you do, Rose,” he said. “Hi, Edith… Hi, Eugene”—this to the little boy and girl who stood beside their mother; and then: “Hi, Butch!” to the stocky youth of nineteen who came around the corner of the house hugging a round stone.
“Goin’ to have a sort of low wall along the front here—kind of neater,” Gene explained.
All of them had a lingering respect for the doctor. They felt reproachful toward him because they could no longer refer to him as their celebrated relative—“one of the bess surgeons up in Montgomery, yes, suh”— but there was his learning and the position he had once occupied in the larger world, before he had committed professional suicide by taking to cynicism and drink. He had come home to Bending and bought a half interest in the local drug store two years ago, keeping up his license, but practising only when sorely needed.
“Rose,” said Gene, “doc says he’ll take a look at Pinky.”
Pinky Janney, his lips curved mean and white under a new beard, lay in bed in a darkened room. When the doctor removed the bandage from his head, his breath blew into a low groan, but his paunchy body did not move. After a few minutes, the doctor replaced the bandage and, with Gene and Rose, returned to the porch.
“Behrer wouldn’t operate?” he asked.
“Why didn’t they operate in Birmingham?”
“I don’t know.”
“H’m.” The doctor put on his hat. “That bullet ought to come out, and soon. It’s pressing against the carotid sheath. That’s the—anyhow, you can’t get him to Montgomery with that pulse.”
“What’ll we do?” Gene’s question carried a little tail of silence as he sucked his breath back.
“Get Behrer to think it over. Or else get somebody in Montgomery. There’s about a 25 per cent chance that the operation would save him; without the operation he hasn’t any chance at all.”
“Who’ll we get in Montgomery?” asked Gene.
“Any good surgeon would do it. Even Behrer could do it if he had any nerve.”
Suddenly Rose Janney came close to him, her eyes straining and burning with an animal maternalism. She seized his coat where it hung open.
“Doc, you do it! You can do it. You know you were as good a surgeon as any of ’em once. Please, doc, you go on do it.”
He stepped back a little so that her hands fell from his coat, and held out his own hands in front of him.
“See how they tremble?” he said with elaborate irony. “Look close and you’ll see. I wouldn’t dare operate.”
“You could do it all right,” said Gene hastily, “with a drink to stiffen you up.”
The doctor shook his head and said, looking at Rose: “No. You see, my decisions are not reliable, and if anything went wrong, it would seem to be my fault.” He was acting a little now—he chose his words carefully. “I hear that when I found that Mary Decker died of starvation, my opinion was questioned on the ground that I was a drunkard.”
“I didn’t say that,” lied Rose breathlessly.
“Certainly not. I just mention it to show how careful I’ve got to be.” He moved down the steps. “Well, my advice is to see Behrer again, or, failing that, get somebody from the city. Good night.”
But before he had reached the gate, Rose came tearing after him, her eyes white with fury.
“I did say you were a drunkard!” she cried. “When you said Mary Decker died of starvation, you made it out as if it was Pinky’s fault—you, swilling yourself full of corn all day! How can anybody tell whether you know what you’re doing or not? Why did you think so much about Mary Decker, anyhow—a girl half your age? Everybody saw how she used to come in your drug store and talk to you—”
Gene, who had followed, seized her arms. “Shut up now, Rose… Drive along, Forrest.”
Forrest drove along, stopping at the next bend to drink from his flask.
Across the fallow cotton fields he could see the house where Mary Decker had lived, and had it been six months before, he might have detoured to ask her why she hadn’t come into the store that day for her free soda, or to delight her with a sample cosmetic left by a salesman that morning. He had not told Mary Decker how he felt about her; never intended to—she was seventeen, he was forty-five, and he no longer dealt in futures—but only after she ran away to Birmingham with Pinky Janney, did he realize how much his love for her had counted in his lonely life.
His thoughts went back to his brother’s house.
“Now, if I were a gentleman,” he thought, “I wouldn’t have done like that. And another person might have been sacrificed to that dirty dog, because if he died afterward Rose would say I killed him.”
Yet he felt pretty bad as he put his car away; not that he could have acted differently, but just that it was all so ugly.
He had been home scarcely ten minutes when a car creaked to rest outside and Butch Janney came in. His mouth was set tight and his eyes were narrowed as though to permit of no escape to the temper that possessed him until it should be unleashed upon its proper objective.
“I want to tell you, Uncle Forrest, you can’t talk to my mother thataway. I’ll kill you, you talk to my mother like that!”
“Now shut up, Butch, and sit down,” said the doctor sharply.
“She’s already ’bout sick on account of Pinky, and you come over and talk to her like that.“
“Your mother did all the insulting that was done, Butch. I just took it.”
“She doesn’t know what she’s saying and you ought to understand that.”
The doctor thought a minute. “Butch, what do you think of Pinky?.”
Butch hesitated uncomfortably. “Well, I can’t say I ever thought so much of him”—his tone changed defiantly—“but after all, he’s my own brother—”
“Wait a minute, Butch. What do you think of the way he treated Mary Decker?”
But Butch had shaken himself free, and now he let go the artillery of his rage:
“That ain’t the point; the point is anybody that doesn’t do right to my mother has me to answer to. It’s only fair when you got all the education—”
“I got my education myself, Butch.”
“I don’t care. We’re going to try again to get Doc Behrer to operate or get us some fellow from the city. But if we can’t, I’m coming and get you, and you’re going to take that bullet out if I have to hold a gun to you while you do it.” He nodded, panting a little; then he turned and went out and drove away.
“Something tells me,” said the doctor to himself, “that there’s no more peace for me in Chilton County.” He called to his colored boy to put supper on the table. Then he rolled himself a cigarette and went out on the back stoop.
The weather had changed. The sky was now overcast and the grass stirred restlessly and there was a sudden flurry of drops without a sequel. A minute ago it had been warm, but now the moisture on his forehead was suddenly cool, and he wiped it away with his handkerchief. There was a buzzing in his ears and he swallowed and shook his head. For a moment he thought he must be sick; then suddenly the buzzing detached itself from him, grew into a swelling sound, louder and ever nearer, that might have been the roar of an approaching train.
Butch Janney was halfway home when he saw it—a huge, black approaching cloud whose lower edge bumped the ground. Even as he stared at it vaguely, it seemed to spread until it included the whole southern sky, and he saw pale electric fire in it and heard an increasing roar. He was in a strong wind now; blown debris, bits of broken branches, splinters, larger objects unidentifiable in the growing darkness, flew by him. Instinctively he got out of his car and, by now hardly able to stand against the wind, ran for a bank, or rather found himself thrown and pinned against a bank. Then for a minute, two minutes, he was in the black center of pandemonium.
First there was the sound, and he was part of the sound, so engulfed in it and possessed by it that he had no existence apart from it. It was not a collection of sounds, it was just Sound itself; a great screeching bow drawn across the chords of the universe. The sound and force were inseparable. The sound as well as the force held him to what he felt was the bank like a man crucified. Somewhere in this first moment his face, pinned sideways, saw his automobile make a little jump, spin halfway around and then go bobbing off over a field in a series of great helpless leaps. Then began the bombardment, the sound dividing its sustained cannon note into the cracks of a gigantic machine gun. He was only half-conscious as he felt himself become part of one of those cracks, felt himself lifted away from the bank to tear through space, through a blinding, lacerating mass of twigs and branches, and then, for an incalculable time, he knew nothing at all.
His body hurt him. He was lying between two branches in the top of a tree; the air was full of dust and rain, and he could hear nothing; it was a long time before he realized that the tree he was in had been blown down and that his involuntary perch among the pine needles was only five feet from the ground.
“Say, man!” he cried, aloud, outraged. “Say, man! Say, what a wind! Say, man!”
Made acute by pain and fear, he guessed that he had been standing on the tree’s root and had been catapulted by the terrific wrench as the big pine was torn from the earth. Feeling over himself, he found that his left ear was caked full of dirt, as if someone had wanted to take an impression of the inside. His clothes were in rags, his coat had torn on the back seam, and he could feel where, as some stray gust tried to undress him, it had cut into him under the arms.
Reaching the ground, he set off in the direction of his father’s house, but it was a new and unfamiliar landscape he traversed. The Thing—he did not know it was a tornado—had cut a path a quarter of a mile wide, and he was confused, as the dust slowly settled, by vistas had never seen before. It was unreal that Bending church tower should be visible from here; there had been groves of trees between.
But where was here? For he should be close to the Baldwin house; only as he tripped over great piles of boards, like a carelessly kept lumberyard, did Butch realize that there was no more Baldwin house, and then, looking around wildly, that there was no Necrawney house on the hill, no Peltzer house below it. There was not a light, not a sound, save the rain falling on the fallen trees.
He broke into a run. When he saw the bulk of his father’s house in the distance, he gave a “Hey!” of relief, but coming closer, he realized that something was missing. There were no outhouses and the built-on wing that held Pinky’s room had been sheared completely away.
“Mother!” he called. “Dad!” There was no answer; a dog bounded out of the yard and licked his hand…
…It was full dark twenty minutes later when Doc Janney stopped his car in front of his own drug store in Bending. The electric lights had gone out, but there were men with lanterns in the street, and in a minute a small crowd had collected around him. He unlocked the door hurriedly.
“Somebody break open the old Wiggins Hospital.” He pointed across the street. “I’ve got six badly injured in my car. I want some fellows to carry em in. Is Doc Behrer here?”
“Here he is,” offered eager voices out of the darkness as the doctor, case in hand, came through the crowd. The two men stood face to face by lantern light, forgetting that they disliked each other.
“God knows how many more there’s going to be,” said Doc Janney. “I’m getting dressing and disinfectant. There’ll be a lot of fractures—” He raised his voice, “Somebody bring me a barrel!”
“I’ll get started over there,” said Doc Behrer. “There’s about half a dozen more crawled in.”
“What’s been done?” demanded Doc Janney of the men who followed him into the drug store. “Have they called Birmingham and Montgomery?”
“The telephone wires are down, but the telegraph got through.”
“Well, somebody get Doctor Cohen from Wettala, and tell any people who have automobiles to go up the Willard Pike and cut across toward Corsica and all through those roads there. There’s not a house left at the crossroads by the nigger store. I passed a lot of folks walking in, all of them hurt, but I didn’t have room—or anybody else.” As he talked he was throwing bandages, disinfectant and drugs into a blanket. “I thought I had a lot more stuff than this in stock! And wait!” he called. “Somebody drive out and look down in that hollow where the Wooleys live. Drive right across the fields—the road’s blocked… Now, you with the cap—Ed Jenks, ain’t it?”
“You see what I got here? You collect everything in the store that looks like this and bring it across the way, understand?”
As the doctor went out into the street, the victims were streaming into town—a woman on foot with a badly injured child, a buck-board full of groaning Negroes, frantic men gasping terrible stories. Everywhere confusion and hysteria mounted in the dimly illumined darkness. A mud-covered reporter from Birmingham drove up in a sidecar, the wheels crossing the fallen wires and brushwood that clogged the street, and there was the siren of a police car from Cooper, thirty miles away.
Already a crowd pressed around the doors of the hospital, closed these three months for lack of patients. The doctor squeezed past the melee of white faces and established himself in the nearest ward, grateful for the waiting row of old iron beds. Doctor Behrer was already at work across the hall.
“Get me half a dozen lanterns,” he ordered.
“Doctor Behrer wants iodine and adhesive.”
“All right, there it is… Here, you, Shinkey, stand by the door and keep everybody out except cases that can’t walk. Somebody run over and see if there ain’t some candles in the grocery store.”
The street outside was full of sound now—the cries of women, the contrary directions of volunteer gangs trying to clear the highway, the tense staccato of people rising to an emergency. A little before midnight arrived the first unit of the Red Cross. But the three doctors, presently joined by two others from near-by villages, had lost track of time long before that. The dead began to be brought in by ten o’clock; there were twenty, twenty-five, thirty, forty—the list grew. Having no more needs, these waited, as became simple husbandmen, in a garage behind, while the stream of injured—hundreds of them—flowed through the old hospital built to house only a dreads of them—flowed through the old hospital built to house only a score. The storm had dealt out fractures of the leg, collar bone, ribs and hip, lacerations of the back, elbows, ears, eyelids, nose; there were wounds from flying planks, and odd splinters in odd places, and a scalped man, who would recover to grow a new head of hair. Living or dead, Doc Janney knew every face, almost every name.
“Don’t you fret now. Billy’s all right. Hold still and let me tie this. People are drifting in every minute, but it’s so consarned dark they can’t find ’em—All right, Mrs. Oakey. That’s nothing. Ev’ here’ll touch it with iodine… Now let’s see this man.”
Two o’clock. The old doctor from Wettala gave out, but now there were fresh men from Montgomery to take his place. Upon the air of the room, heavy with disinfectant, floated the ceaseless babble of human speech reaching the doctor dimly through the layer after layer of increasing fatigue:
“… Over and over—just rolled me over and over. Got hold of a bush and the bush came along too.”
“Jeff! Where’s Jeff?”
“…I bet that pig sailed a hundred yards—”
“—just stopped the train in time. All the passengers got out and helped pull the poles—”
“He says, ‘Let’s get down cellar,’ and I says, ‘We ain’t got no cellar’—”
“—If there’s no more stretchers, find some light doors.”
“…Five seconds? Say, it was more like five minutes!”
At some time he heard that Gene and Rose had been seen with their two youngest children. He had passed their house on the way in and, seeing it standing, hurried on. The Janney family had been lucky; the doctor’s own house was outside the sweep of the storm.
Only as he saw the electric lights go on suddenly in the streets and glimpsed the crowd waiting for hot coffee in front of the Red Cross did the doctor realize how tired he was.
“You better go rest,” a young man was saying. “I’ll take this side of the room. I’ve got two nurses with me.”
“All right—all right. I’ll finish this row.”
The injured were being evacuated to the cities by train as fast as their wounds were dressed, and their places taken by others. He had only two beds to go—in the first one he found Pinky Janney.
He put his stethoscope to the heart. It was beating feebly. That he, so weak, so nearly gone, had survived this storm at all was remarkable. How he had got there, who had found him and carried him, was a mystery in itself. The doctor went over the body; there were small contusions and lacerations, two broken fingers, the dirt-filled cars that marked every case—nothing else. For a moment the doctor hesitated, but even when he closed his eyes, the image of Mary Decker seemed to have receded, eluding him. Something purely professional that had nothing to do with human sensibilities had been set in motion inside him, and he was powerless to head it off. He held out his hands before him; they were trembling slightly.
“Hell’s bells!” he muttered.
He went out of the room and around the corner of the hall, where he drew from his pocket the flask containing the last of the corn and water he had had in the afternoon. He emptied it. Returning to the ward, he disinfected two instruments and applied a local anaesthetic to a square section at the base of Pinky’s skull where the wound had healed over the bullet. He called a nurse to his side and then, scalpel in hand, knelt on one knee beside his nephew’s bed.
Two days later the doctor drove slowly around the mournful countryside. He had withdrawn from the emergency work after the first desperate night, feeling that his status as a pharmacist might embarrass his collaborators. But there was much to be done in bringing the damage to outlying sections under the aegis of the Red Cross, and he devoted himself to that.
The path of the demon was easy to follow. It had pursued an irregular course on its seven-league boots, cutting cross country, through woods, or even urbanely keeping to roads until they curved, when it went off on its own again. Sometimes the trail could be traced by cotton fields, apparently in full bloom, but this cotton came from the insides of hundreds of quilts and mattresses redistributed in the fields by the storm.
At a lumber pile that had lately been a Negro cabin, he stopped a moment to listen to a dialogue between two reporters and two shy pickaninnies. The old grandmother, her head bandaged, sat among the ruins, gnawing some vague meat and moving her rocker ceaselessly.
“But where is the river you were blown across?” one of the reporters demanded.
The pickaninnies looked to their grandmother for aid.
“Right there behind you-all,” spoke up the old woman.
The newspapermen looked disgustedly at a muddy stream four yards wide.
“That’s no river.”
“That’s a Menada River, we always calls it ever since I was a gull. Yes, suh, that’s a Menada River. An’ them two boys was blowed right across it an’ set down on the othah side just as pretty, ’thout any hurt at all. Chimney fell on me,” she concluded, feeling her head.
“Do you mean to say that’s all it was?” demanded the younger reporter indignantly. “That’s the river they were blown across! And one hundred and twenty million people have been led to believe—”
“That’s all right, boys,” interrupted Doc Janney. “That’s a right good river for these parts. And it’ll get bigger as those little fellahs get older.”
He tossed a quarter to the old woman and drove on.
Passing a country church, he stopped and counted the new brown mounds that marred the graveyard. He was nearing the centre of the holocaust now. There was the Howden house where three had been killed; there remained a gaunt chimney, a rubbish heap and a scarecrow surviving ironically in the kitchen garden. In the ruins of the house across the way a rooster strutted on top of a piano, reigning vociferously over an estate of trunks, boots, cans, books, calendars, rugs, chairs and window frames, a twisted radio and a legless sewing machine. Everywhere there was bedding—blankets, mattresses, bent springs, shredded padding—he had not realized how much of people’s lives was spent in bed. Here and there, cows and horses, often stained with disinfectant, were grazing again in the fields. At intervals there were Red Cross tents, and sitting by one of these, with the gray cat in her arms, the doctor came upon little Helen Kilrain. The usual lumber pile, like a child’s building game knocked down in a fit of temper, told the story.
“Hello, dear,” he greeted her, his heart sinking. “How did kitty like the tornado?”
“What did she do?”
“She wanted to get away, but I hanged on to her and she scratched me—see?”
He glanced at the Red Cross tent.
“Who’s taking care of you?”
“The lady from the Red Cross and Mrs. Wells,” she answered. “My father got hurt. He stood over me so it wouldn’t fall on me, and I stood over kitty. He’s in the hospital in Birmingham. When he comes back, I guess he’ll build our house again.”
The doctor winced. He knew that her father would build no more houses; he had died that morning. She was alone, and she did not know she was alone. Around her stretched the dark universe, impersonal, inconscient. Her lovely little face looked up at him confidently as he asked: “You got any kin anywhere, Helen?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve got kitty, anyhow, haven’t you?”
“It’s just a cat,” she admitted calmly, but anguished by her own betrayal of her love, she hugged it closer.
“Taking care of a cat must be pretty hard.”
“Oh, no,” she said hurriedly. “It isn’t any trouble at all. It doesn’t eat hardly anything.”
He put his hand in his pocket, and then changed his mind suddenly.
“Dear, I’m coming back and see you later—later today. You take good care of kitty now, won’t you?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered lightly.
The doctor drove on. He stopped next at a house that had escaped damage. Walt Cupps, the owner, was cleaning a shotgun on his front porch.
“What’s that, Walt? Going to shoot up the next tornado?”
“Ain’t going to be a next tornado.”
“You can’t tell. Just take a look at that sky now. It’s getting mighty dark.”
Walt laughed and slapped his gun. “Not for a hundred years, anyhow. This here is for looters. There’s a lot of ’em around, and not all black either. Wish when you go to town that you’d tell ’em to scatter some militia out here.”
“I’ll tell ’em now. You come out all right?”
“I did, thank God. With six of us in the house. It took off one hen and probably it’s still carrying it around somewhere.”
The doctor drove on toward town, overcome by a feeling of uneasiness he could not define.
“It’s the weather,” he thought. “It’s the same kind of feel in the air there was last Saturday.”
For a month the doctor had felt an urge to go away permanently. Once this countryside had seemed to promise peace. When the impetus that had lifted him temporarily out of tired old stock was exhausted, he had come back here to rest, to watch the earth put forth, and live on simple, pleasant terms with his neighbors. Peace! He knew that the present family quarrel would never heal, nothing would ever be the same; it would all be bitter forever. And he had seen the placid countryside turned into a land of mourning. There was no peace here. Move on!
On the road he overtook Butch Janney walking to town.
“I was coming to see you,” said Butch, frowning. “You operated on Pinky after all, didn’t you?”
“Jump in… Yes, I did. How did you know?”
“Doc Behrer told us.” He shot a quick look at the doctor, who did not miss the quality of suspicion in it. “They don’t think he’ll last out the day.”
“I’m sorry for your mother.”
Butch laughed unpleasantly. “Yes, you are.”
“I said I’m sorry for your mother,” said the doctor sharply.
“I heard you.”
They drove for a moment in silence.
“Did you find your automobile?”
“Did I?” Butch laughed ruefully. “I found something—I don’t know whether you’d call it a car any more. And, you know, I could of had tornado insurance for twenty-five cents.” His voice trembled indignantly: “Twenty-five cents—but who would ever of thought of getting tornado insurance?”
It was growing darker; there was a thin crackle of thunder far to the southward.
“Well, all I hope,” said Butch with narrowed glance, “is that you hadn’t been drinking anything when you operated on Pinky.”
“You know, Butch,” the doctor said slowly, “that was a pretty dirty trick of mine to bring that tornado here.”
He had not expected the sarcasm to hit home, but he expected a retort—when suddenly he caught sight of Butch’s face. It was fish-white, the mouth was open, the eyes fixed and staring, and from the throat came a mewling sound. Limply he raised one hand before him, and then the doctor saw.
Less than a mile away, an enormous, top-shaped black cloud filled the sky and bore toward them, dipping and swirling, and in front of it sailed already a heavy, singing wind.
“It’s come back!” the doctor yelled.
Fifty yards ahead of them was the old iron bridge spanning Bilby Creek. He stepped hard on the accelerator and drove for it. The fields were full of running figures headed in the same direction. Reaching the bridge, he jumped out and yanked Butch’s arm.
“Get out, you fool! Get out!”
A nerveless mass stumbled from the car; in a moment they were in a group of half a dozen, huddled in the triangular space that the bridge made with the shore.
“Is it coming here?”
“No, it’s turning!”
“We had to leave grandpa!”
“Oh, save me, save me! Jesus save me! Help me!”
“Jesus save my soul!”
There was a quick rush of wind outside, sending little tentacles under the bridge with a curious tension in them that made the doctor’s skin crawl. Then immediately there was a vacuum, with no more wind, but a sudden thresh of rain. The doctor crawled to the edge of the bridge and put his head up cautiously.
“It’s passed,” he said. “We only felt the edge; the center went way to the right of us.”
He could see it plainly; for a second he could even distinguish objects in it—shrubbery and small trees, planks and loose earth. Crawling farther out, he produced his watch and tried to time it, but the thick curtain of rain blotted it from sight.
Soaked to the skin, he crawled back underneath. Butch lay shivering in the farthest corner, and the doctor shook him.
“It went in the direction of your house!” the doctor cried. “Pull yourself together! Who’s there?”
“No one,” Butch groaned. “They’re all down with Pinky.”
The rain had changed to hail now; first small pellets, then larger ones, and larger, until the sound of the fall upon the iron bridge was an ear-splitting tattoo.
The spared wretches under the bridge were slowly recovering and in the relief there were titters of hysterical laughter. After a certain point of strain, the nervous system makes its transitions without dignity or reason. Even the doctor felt the contagion.
“This is worse than a calamity,” he said dryly. “It’s getting to be a nuisance.”
There were to be no more tornadoes in Alabama that spring. The second one—it was popularly thought to be the first one come back; for to the people of Chilton County it had become a personified force, definite as a pagan god—took a dozen houses, Gene Janney’s among them, and injured about thirty people. But this time—perhaps because everyone had developed some scheme of self-protection—there were no fatalities. It made its last dramatic bow by sailing down the main street of Bending, prostrating the telephone poles and crushing in the fronts of three shops, including Doc Janney’s drug store.
At the end of a week, houses were going up again, made of the old boards; and before the end of the long, lush Alabama summer the grass would be green again on all the graves. But it will be years before the people of the country cease to reckon events as happening “before the tornado” or “after the tornado,”— and for many families things will never be the same.
Doctor Janney decided that this was as good a time to leave as any. He sold the remains of his drug store, gutted alike by charity and catastrophe, and turned over his house to his brother until Gene could rebuild his own. He was going up to the city by train, for his car had been rammed against a tree and couldn’t be counted on for much more than the trip to the station.
Several times on the way in he stopped by the roadside to say good-by—once it was to Walter Cupps.
“So it hit you, after all,” he said, looking at the melancholy back house which alone marked the site.
“It’s pretty bad,” Walter answered. “But just think; they was six of us in or about the house and not one was injured. I’m content to give thanks to God for that.”
“You were lucky there, Walt,” the doctor agreed. “Do you happen to have heard whether the Red Cross took little Helen Kilrain to Montgomery or to Birmingham?”
“To Montgomery. Say, I was there when she came into town with that cat, tryin’ to get somebody to bandage up its paw. She must of walked miles through that rain and hail, but all that mattered to her was her kitty. Bad as I felt, I couldn’t help laughin’ at how spunky she was.”
The doctor was silent for a moment. “Do you happen to recollect if she has any people left?”
“I don’t, suh,” Walter replied, “but I think as not.”
At his brother’s place, the doctor made his last stop. They were all there, even the youngest, working among the ruins; already Butch had a shed erected to house the salvage of their goods. Save for this the most orderly thing surviving was the pattern of round white stone which was to have inclosed the garden.
The doctor took a hundred dollars in bills from his pocket and handed it to Gene.
“You can pay it back sometime, but don’t strain yourself,” he said. “It’s money I got from the store.” He cut off Gene’s thanks: “Pack up my books carefully when I send for ’em.”
“You reckon to practice medicine up there, Forrest?”
“I’ll maybe try it.”
The brothers held on to each other’s hands for a moment; the two youngest children came up to say good-by. Rose stood in the back-ground in an old blue dress—she had no money to wear black for her eldest son.
“Good-by, Rose,” said the doctor.
“Good-by,” she responded, and then added in a dead voice, “Good luck to you, Forrest.”
For a moment he was tempted to say something conciliatory, but he saw it was no use. He was up against the maternal instinct, the same force that had sent little Helen through the storm with her injured cat.
At the station he bought a one-way ticket to Montgomery. The village was drab under the sky of a retarded spring, and as the train pulled out, it was odd to think that six months ago it had seemed to him as good a place as any other.
He was alone in the white section of the day coach; presently he felt for a bottle on his hip and drew it forth. “After all, a man of forty-five is entitled to more artificial courage when he starts over again.” He began thinking of Helen. “She hasn’t got any kin. I guess she’s my little girl now.”
He patted the bottle, then looked down at it as if in surprise.
“Well, we’ll have to put you aside for a while, old friend. Any cat that’s worth all that trouble and care is going to need a lot of grade-B milk.”
He settled down in his seat, looking out the window. In his memory of the terrible week the winds still sailed about him, came in as draughts through the corridor of the car—winds of the world—cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes—gray and black, expected or unforeseen, some from the sky, some from the caves of hell.
But he would not let them touch Helen again—if he could help it.
He dozed momentarily, but a haunting dream woke him:“Daddy stood over me and I stood over kitty.”
“All right, Helen,” he said aloud, for he often talked to himself, “I guess the old brig can keep afloat a little longer—in any wind.”
Published in The Saturday Evening Post magazine (4 June 1932).
Illustrations by Ralph Pallen Coleman.