The letter brought a picture of night and fire and death to Algot every time he read it. It carried with it the sound of screaming. He finished his coffee, touching a heavy cloth napkin to his lips.
“You’ve got to let this go now,” said Sheriff Bill Cross, fingers wrapped around his own cup for warmth.
Outside, the snowflakes were big and sticky, falling in clumps like icing without a cake.
“You weren’t there,” said Algot, meaning the War.
“No,” agreed Bill. “But I was here. And it’s here that’s got you all worked up.”
Algot poked at the note in his hand, a few flakes of the thin lined paper coming loose, the folds getting soft and weak, before he put it back in his wallet where he’d kept it for so long. His empty cup gleamed in the new electric light.
The letter came to him during the war. He’d sat on his mattress surrounded by sweaty coughing boys eager for the treasures of the mail sack, expecting nothing for himself since his parents were gone and his sister was the only one who ever wrote him.
“Clausen!” someone called. Algot stood and reached for the white envelope.
Anna never wrote much of real interest, but even the daily goings on of school girls was something from home, and home was the fuel that kept all the boys going and alive. Without home to dream and plan for, there wasn’t much to do in the mud and fire except die.
He hadn’t figured to find death in the missive. When he did, he read it again. And again. And again.
“They didn’t know Anna was in the barn when they set it a-fire,” said Bill, his slow voice dragging Algot into the present. “You know that, don’t you?”
“I do,” said Algot.
“You know it was just kids,” said Bill. “It’s water under the bridge.”
Algot smirked at the platitude. Then tensed. Did Bill know what he was planning? His eyes dropped to the tin star on Bill’s shirt, the sidearm at his hip. The shadows of the evening cafe now seemed ominous, threatening.
His breath came sharp, then relaxed.
It had just been a figure of speech.
The note was from Clara, a cousin on his mother’s side. It told how Anna had burned up in a fire set by men wearing red hoods.
Anna had written about them once.
They were first whispered about after the Meadows Ford council passed City Ordinance 33, which disallowed the speaking of German on the streets of town. The men called themselves the Hand of Life.
The barn they set ablaze in the winter of 1918 was the property of John Bruhn, their motive the same as Algot’s at the time, working for the good of America.
Algot attacked the enemy on the front. The Hand of Life burned them out at home and the law turned a blind eye.
But Sheriff Bill hadn’t been the law back then.
“I’m telling you those boys paid more than you can know when they realized what they’d done,” he said. “They were only trying to scare the Bruhns. They never meant to hurt anyone.”
But Anna had been in the barn.
Probably with one of the Bruhn boys, Clara said.
The boy managed to get out in time. Anna didn’t.
“I’ll be going home, now,” said Algot. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“Looks like quite a storm brewin’ out there,” said Bill. “You be careful driving home.”
Algot gave a curt nod, turned and moved to the door.
Bill watched him go, then poured some more coffee.
Algot stepped into the winter night and walked down the main street along a row of brightly lit storefronts, wondering how the town had changed from when he was young. Above him was Nebraska darkness and unseen storm clouds, under his boots three inches of wet snow over a layer of ice. He walked carefully on the sideboard planks, and when he got to the corner street light, he stopped to reflect once more before moving ahead with his plan.
Clara’s note was more than just news. Her cramped, shaky penmanship was an eyewitness account.
She was supposed to meet Anna that night for a church youth gathering. When Algot’s sister didn’t show up, the girls asked around and the Bruhn farm was suggested. Clara went over the fence behind the church and across an adjoining farm. In the quickening dusk, she first smelled the smoke, then saw the fire. From a shadow spot in a cedar grove, she saw two men in red hoods run from the barn. When they got back a ways, they stopped, pulled off their masks, and started to gasp and cough.
Clara said one of the boys was Clem McFarland because Clem had a glass eye and it smoldered red and gold in the socket, reflecting the blaze.
“Evening, Clem,” said Algot over the tinkling of the doorbell.
“Look who’s here,” said Clem. “What’ll you have, Algot?” The younger man’s face had always seemed too big for his head. His cheek twitched with a nervous tick. Lamp light glinted across the glass eye.
“Beer. Short one.”
“Sure.” Clem got the beer and slid it across the bar.
“Need to relay a message,” said Algot. “In private, if you don’t mind.”
Clem nodded politely at two patrons standing nearby. “You two got a card game to start don’t you?”
The bachelor farmers moved to the far side of the room.
Algot sipped his beer and glanced around. He saw an old man he knew was Clem’s father polish a glass at the end of the bar. “Can your dad watch the place? Just for an hour or two? Got word that Ida’s ill. Might be a stroke.”
Clem took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “It was bound to happen. Who told you?”
“Joe Turner,” said Algot. “I just rode into town from out that way. Joe says he stopped to see if Ida needed anything.” Algot sipped his beer. “With the storm moving in and all.”
“And damned if Doc wasn’t just in here a minute before you,” said Clem.
“I tried to flag him down, but you know Doc.” Algot smiled generously and shrugged.
“Well,” said Clem. “Ida is my aunt. And Pop can’t get around worth anything.” He shrugged. “I suppose I better take a ride out there and see about her.”
Algot drained his glass, resolve flaring into life, a fire that had burned since the night he’d read Clara’s note, since he lost his beloved Anna.
“We can take my car,” said Algot.
• • • • •
Snow came down hard in front of the headlamps as Algot wrestled the two door Ford across frozen washboard ruts. When the back end of the car started to shimmy around, Algot would let off the gas but not enough to kill the rattling engine. Visibility was bad, but he knew where he was going.
A small bulb shined pale light across the instrument panel.
“I figured you to be a rich man, Algot,” said Clem, friendly in the seat next to him, his legs covered with a buffalo blanket. “Figured you for the four door model.”
“My money’s tied up in business,” said Algot. “Imagine it’s the same for you.”
“Not at all,” said Clem, the dead eye picking up the dashboard light. “I’m square.” He sniffed a sound that made Algot clench his teeth. There was no sense in conversation. But Clem persisted.
“Figured a bachelor war hero to be living well. I would be if I was in your place.”
“You’re not me.”
“No sir, I’m not. I would’ve got the four door model.” They rode a mile in silence, Algot working the windshield wiper every few seconds.
“So what was it like over there?” said Clem.
“You know. Over there. I always sorta wished I’d got to go.”
“You’d be wrong wishing that.”
“I don’t know. A man gets mighty tired of the same old scenery.” Clem snorted and kicked at the metal box at his feet. “Coals must’ve died. My feet are freezing.”
Algot spoke before he could think, and then it was too late. “Plenty of things a man can do on the home front.”
“I don’t know what,” said Clem. “There weren’t nothing for any of us to do.”
The car rumbled on and for a while Clem was quiet. Algot worked the wiper continuously as the wind picked up. The turn off would be just ahead.
“I saw this coming,” said Clem, “this thing with Ida. She hasn’t been well for quite a while—” He spun to the right and then back. “I think that was our corner. Hey,” he said, “I think you missed the corner.”
“Did I?” said Algot. “This damned snow.”
“Well turn us the hell around.” Clem leaned forward and peered out the window. “And that ought to be some trick in this slop.”
“I’ll turn at the three-mile corner, head a mile west, then we’ll run back north.” Algot’s voice was steady and reassuring. “We’ll only lose a few minutes.”
“We’ll have to cross that damned bridge,” said Clem.
In memory, Algot held Anna’s hand on the bridge while their legs dangled over the water. The oak planks and old trusses were going bad even then. It had been a wet summer and the creek bed, usually showing white rock and open mussel shells in August, was knee deep and flowing.
“I’ll only be gone while you finish out school,” he told her. “It’ll seem like a blink of the eye. She threw a rock into the water and turned her cheek into his hand.
“I’m sure there will be plenty to do here,” she told him.
The front wheel of the Ford landed in the open space where an oak board had once been and the back end of the car came around. If Algot hadn’t been anticipating the impact, he would’ve dropped them into the frozen snow covered creek. They sat for some time a jackknife going nowhere, the engine rattling to beat the band. Clem went off like a machine gun, lobbing a string of epithets.
Algot stepped out to examine the damage.
“Front tire’s gone,” he said. The rim was lodged in the hole, the front axle gouged into the deck of the bridge and the entire package quickly covered in fresh snow.
“Really coming down out there,” he said as he climbed back into the car. “Let’s try to give it a push. If that doesn’t work, I’ve got a jack in the back.”
He’d first hit the loose board with his truck six months before. Until then, he wasn’t sure how he would do it. After the war, the Hand of Life faded from view, as did most of the town’s anti-German sentiment. But somebody needed to make things right for Anna.
“Alright,” said Clem, outside, lending his weight to the back of the car, “take it slow.” Behind the wheel Algot let the clutch fly up and the engine popped and was still.
“Dammit!” said Clem, tromping along the side of the car. “What’s the prob—” Algot swung open the door, stepped out and smacked the base of an iron tire pump into Clem’s face. Clem stumbled backward until Algot nudged him off the bridge into the slushy mix of ice and snow below.
He was breathing hard. Below there was only silence.
The car fired off and Algot engaged the first gear. He stepped on the gas, let out the clutch and felt the back end sway as the tires spun across the ice. He goosed the accelerator and the back wheel on his side was pushed part way into empty space. He goosed it again and leapt from the cabin. The back wheel hung out over the creek. It looked good. It had been an accident. No one would ever question him.
“Clem?” Algot called out, but there was no answer. He’d put all his weight behind the tire pump. “Clem? I’m going for help.”
He had planned to walk back to town.
Trudging ahead in the worsening storm, he imagined Anna walking with him, taking his hand in her smooth ivory fingers, grateful for his night’s work, though he could do nothing less. Like everyone, he was a pawn of history’s dead hand. There was nothing else he could do or be. Snow gathered on his wool coat. He realized for the first time he wasn’t wearing a hat, left it on the peg at the cafe.
After the excitement at the bridge, he felt as tired as he ever had since coming home.
Missing the cap made him think of Sheriff Bill Cross.
Bill loved Anna too.
Clara said so. If she had lived, Bill might have married her.
Algot sat down in the snow, wondering if Bill would secretly be grateful for the accident. For the bridge. He removed his wallet from inside the coat. Carefully he unfolded Clara’s note, the thin paper tearing in the wind, and though it was dark he imagined he could read every line. He pretended it was from Anna. She was the only one who ever wrote to him.
• • • • •
From the constable’s office, Bill Cross sipped from his cup and watched the storm blow knee high drifts across his door. Except for the whispering snow, the streets were quiet.
In fact, he hadn’t seen a soul since Algot Clausen and Clem McFarland had ridden out of town two hours before. Wherever they were going, Bill figured they were there by now.
Reflections of the flickering candle on his desk played in the front window.
He didn’t like electric lights, though his office was wired for them. Bill preferred the old ways. Always had. There was something pure about a candle. Bill liked things pure.
It was really too bad about Algot, he thought.
Too bad about Anna.
He remembered her through the foggy lens of youthful infatuation.
Her dark hair. Purposeful eyes. The strength of her conviction.
He could almost feel her soft hand in his, could almost see and watch again as her other hand glowed golden in the light of a long candle as she tipped it toward the straw.
He and Clem wore the hood that night, but too proud, she never would.
She fought alongside her brother, she’d tell them. Him at the front. Her at home.
In memory, the candle tipped closer and closer to the Bruhn barn straw.
Then it all went up too fast, and she was gone.