After a long week of chores for the Wiseman children, chopping wood, feeding animals, carrying water, pulling weeds and picking garden produce, cleaning house, doing laundry, and helping cook meals, it's time for some recreation.
The three little boys are outside arguing over what to do.
"Let's play tag!" says William, almost nine.
"Nah, too hot" replies Andrew, who has just turned eleven.
"Let's play cowboys and Indians."
"Nah, too hot."
"We could play hide and seek," suggests Loren, their four-year-old brother.
Andrew and William respond in unison, "Ok, you go hide!"
A puzzled look comes over Loren's face.
Pheobe, their mother, listens from inside the main log cabin while doing dishes in a wash basin. To her daughter, "Hannah, it is such a hot day. Why don't you take the three little boys to the river?"
Hannah sighs and responds with an inaudible grumble.
"You know, to the backwaters of Bow Creek for a picnic and a swim?"
Hannah sorts laundry and tosses socks and shirts in their respective pile. She knows the suggestion was presented as a question, but it really was more of an order.
She spots off with, "What about Arthur? Why can't he do it!?"
"Your father and Arthur are out hunting on the ridge. They won't be back until dark, earlier if they are successful."
Hannah mulls over this comment to herself: "I can hunt too, but no. I'm a girl, so I can't go!"
Pheobe slyly adds, "I plan on going over to Mrs. Wuebben's to do a little quilting this afternoon. I guess you all could come with me?"
Hannah immediately agrees. "Ok, I take them to the river."
The thirteen-year-old thinks to herself: "Oh, no that would be a disaster, I prefer the boys to absolute boredom. The boys might be out of their cotton-picking minds. But having to listen to all of those old women yacking and gossiping is not for me."
Pheobe smiles, "I will pack some leftover fried chicken and fix up a fruit basket for you."
"Okay, where did the boys go?"
"I saw them headed out toward the hog pen."
"I guess I will grab their cut-offs," Hanna replies in a defeated tone.
As Hannah rifles through the boy's clothes, she fumes. "Watching my brothers is like torture. Andrew is always being a big brat and now William is beginning to join in. When around Ma and Pa, I am not allowed to respond like I want to. If they try anything today, I'll have the freedom to take care of it myself."
She tosses the clothes aside and sets her mind to an afternoon of babysitting: "I will just have to make the best of it. Then, there's the little one, Loren. He always wants to hang on me. Sometimes it gets so annoying. When will I ever get any time to myself?"
* * *
Wildfire is saddled, a picnic basket packed, and fishing poles are in hand. The procession of Wiseman children head out. With horse and straggly dog right alongside. They make their way west along the Missouri River's edge.
As soon as they see the creek the two older boys rush off leaving everything, of course, for Hannah to do! Peeling off their shirts as they run, William and Andrew go straight into the water and begin splashing each other. Loren looks at his brothers then back to his sister and decides to join his brothers. Boots, their family pooch, finds some shade near Hannah. The backwaters of Bow Creek are a peaceful place if it weren't for these three distractions.
The shallow, calm waters of this quiet stream are a good place to cool off. Plenty of large trees provide shade from the hot summer sun. Today there is a light breeze off the river to be enjoyed. The river's backwater always refreshes, even if it appears to be a nasty, muddy muck. Hannah spreads an older quilted blanket and places their picnic lunch off to the side. She sets the canteens in the shade of a weeping willow tree, filled with plenty of fresh water from their artesian well.
Hannah smiles as she remembers being the boys' age not long ago. She finishes unloading Wildfire, her fire-red companion, then ties her off in the shade under a huge weeping willow tree. Hannah hears more splashing and turns to see Loren wade deeper into the water. He looks like he is headed over near his brothers.
"Loren, stay close to the bank," she calls out.
He responds like always in his best you're-not-my-mother voice, "Okay! Okay!"
Hannah returns to the blanket and sets up a peaceful place to relax. She looks up constantly, checking and occasionally yelling for Loren to be safe. He waves his arm blindly at her.
Under her breath, she murmurs, "You little sh*t!"
Andrew begins to wade farther out, defiantly challenging his younger brother William to follow. They can swim very well, in calm water, for their age. Nonetheless, stories have been told of strong adult swimmers that don't come back from the Muddy Mo. Thankfully before she yells at Andrew, he comes back. As he does, William starts to splash him again.
Loren wades ever so slowly farther and farther out. He splashes as if he were part of the older brothers' battle. Witnessing their antics, Hannah is ready for a refreshing dip herself. She starts off in a dead run, effortlessly scoops Loren into her arms, and splashes headlong toward the battling brothers. The two opponents immediately join forces and accept the new challenge. Loren relies on Hannah for support and tries his best to assist in the battle.
Hannah, who is outgunned and holding Loren, who is more of a liability than an asset, decides to give up the fight. She retreats with Loren in tow.
The aggressors, not satisfied, continue after the defeated pair.
Hannah places Loren down in shallow water and without warning takes up the challenge again. Enjoying the moment, Hannah reminisces of the times her older brothers, Ben, John, and Arthur would play with her in much the same way.
All of sudden, the splashing war is interrupted.
From behind her, she hears a faint but audible cry for "Help!"
Loren has drifted into the small stream's current.
She immediately dives in his direction and comes up screaming, "Loren!"
She loses sight of him, then swims in his last general direction. In a panic she pauses. Treading water, she looks for her brother anxiously. She sees one of Loren's arms flailing.
"He is trying to swim but he doesn't know how. I told you to stay in the shallow water."
Hannah gets closer to him, but he is still so far away. Where the Missouri River and the creek meet, a whirlpool takes him under again. Hannah swims toward him, unaware the trees on the bank are passing by swiftly. She plunges forward again. Her heavy full-body swimsuit weighs her down. Frantically, she attempts to tread water refusing to acknowledge she is getting tired. She desperately looks for her youngest brother. She sees an arm. Frantically, she swims in his direction.
Out of the corner of her eye, Hannah sees Andrew and William on shore running along the bank. She's thankfully they are okay because she didn't stop to check. They are yelling something.
Gasping for air, she glances around. She can't see Loren but there is a big splash just to her left. Surprised and now fearful, all at the same time, she wonders: "What was that?"
Another splash. Then another.
She sees a paddle, then two paddles.
They are from a canoe. A rawhide canoe.
It's an Indian canoe.
No time to worry, she continues to look for her youngest brother. Her energy is nearly depleted. Hannah is barely able to tread water; she gasps for each breath. The current picks up. She drifts further and further down the Missouri River.
The canoe passes her swiftly. The two occupants paddle furiously. She tries to yell for help but takes a mouthful of muddy water instead. The long arm of one of the paddlers reaches over the side of the canoe and plucks Loren from the water.
Hannah is scared but hopeful. She is relieved momentarily. Her relief vanishes when she sees Loren's lifeless body come out of the river.
The rescuer hands Loren to his partner, then points in Hannah's direction. A strong but now weary swimmer, she continues to drift in the river's current.
She is so tired.
The current never tires.
She struggles against each whirlpool; that sucks on her body, pulling relentlessly. Each time Hannah attempts to swim toward shore, she is swung back around in another swirling current. Fatigued, she tries to tread water again.
The canoe and its occupants make their way to her.
She sees them begin to wave their arms and paddle frantically. Exhausted and confused, she doesn't understand why.
Suddenly she is in a torrent.
A fallen tree has snagged her swimsuit. The branches act like fingers that grasp her swimsuit tightly. The current relentlessly rolls over her. She can't pull herself free or tread water. In desperation, Hannah grabs for the branches that hold her. Each futile attempt is the same. The water-soaked branches crumble in her hands.
The river's current continues to pull her under.
She holds her breath as long as she can.
Realizing she can't hold her breath any longer she releases her final breath.
* * *
Like waking from one nightmare into another, Hannah endures an indescribable pain. Something has grabbed her hair. The pain is excruciating, she grimaces and swallows the muddy river water.
She feels a hand grabs her under her left arm and across her chest. The other hand letting go of her hair is forced under her right arm. Fingers lock across her bosom.
The canoe is in danger of capsizing. The rescuer with Loren's limp body, leans over the opposite side of the thin-skinned canoe to balance the weight as his partner pulls steadily and firmly on Hannah's physically-drained tree branch-snared body.
The branches will not release her. Finally, with river water close to rushing over the side of the canoe, Hannah's bathing suit rips. A branch gashes her flesh.
All at once, she sees light and coughs up muddy river water. She desperately gasps for air. Hannah grabs frantically and feebly for the side of the canoe. She finds her rescuer's strong dark-skinned arm and hangs on for dear life.
He explains in broken English, "Hold on! We will take you to the bank first. If we try to bring you in, we might capsize."
Too tired to respond, she nods in agreement and continues expelling the muddy river water out of her lungs.
The canoe turns and uses the current to its advantage. The rescuers maneuver the retreating canoe toward an opening in the tree-lined bank. She sees Loren's lifeless body across the lap of the first rescuer.
Hannah, barely able to speak, sputters, "How is he? Is he all right?"
There is no answer.
Finally, Hannan is able to touch the muddy bottom. She holds onto the canoe; worried and weary, she continues to cough.
The taller rescuer looks down from his seat and asks, "Are you alright?"
He thrusts his paddle into the water, directing them to the bank's edge. He grabs a sturdy tree branch and pulls the canoe to shore safely.
Loren is still motionless, draped face down over the lap of the other rescuer. Suddenly, he begins vomiting water and coughing.
Hannah is relieved and exhausted. She stands in the water waist-deep, and repeats vehemently, "Thank you! Thank you so much!"
She notices her rescuer's eyes are not focused on her face as she speaks. The cool breeze suddenly alerts her to her torn swimming suit. She quickly covers herself.
Embarrassed, the taller of the two rescuers immediately jumps from the canoe, grabs and pulls it to the bank.
Andrew and William, running along the bank, finally catch up. William declares, "Wow! That was cool!"
Hannah glares and then ignores her little brothers. She turns to the second rescuer and repeats, "Thank you so much." He carefully hands Loren to her.
Still shaking, Loren begins to cry. Hannah carries him to a grassy spot on the bank and chides, "I told you to stay in the shallows."
Visibly breathless and tired, the two rescuers speak to each other in their native tongue.
William nonchalantly exclaims, "Nice canoe!" As if the last ten minutes didn't even happen.
The shorter rescuer responds in a little better English, "Thank you, do you want to see?"
Confident Loren is all right, Hannah calls to Andrew, "Can you watch him?"
Hannah returns to the taller rescuer. She holds her torn swimsuit with her left hand. She offers her right hand to him and says, "My name is Hannah. Thank you so much. I don't know what would have happened if you were not here." Overwhelmed with gratitude, Hannah is almost in tears.
The tall one, responds, "My name is Chaska. This is Little Eagle." He points to the back paddler.
Little Eagle replies, "You are welcome. That was very close!"
Chaska adds in broken English, "We are very lucky to have been here when we were!"
Hannah, "Yes, I am so grateful. How can I repay you?"
"Yes, for saving my life. And for saving my brother's life. I owe you, our lives."
Little Eagle insists, "You owe nothing!"
Chaska adds, "He is right. It was scary. We are just glad you both are alright!"
Hannah continues, "Thank you again. At least, come eat with us. You must stay. We have brought food for our picnic. Will you join us?"
The two older Wiseman boys agree. Andrew proudly states, "Yes, join us. Ma made fried chicken. It's the best!"
"This is your mother?" retorts Chaska with a tease.
Little Eagle laughs.
"No, I am not their mother. I am their sister," Hannah replies and laughs. She starts to relax and adds, "This is William and Andrew. The one you pulled from the river is Loren."
"You must learn to swim soon," says Little Eagle to the fully drenched Loren.
"He better learn to listen first," Hannah remarks sternly.
Loren looks up at her shyly.
They all make their way back to the picnic blanket. Hannah notices the boys surprisingly help set up the food.
Andrew asks, "Were you fishing?"
Little Eagle responds, "No, we were hunting and hoping for deer. They always come down to the river to drink and hide in the brush. So, we hunt from the river, hide behind brush or float silently down river until we see something."
Chaska chimes in, "Today we catch little boy and young girl." Then adds, "So, I guess we were fishing today."
This is followed with laughter by all.
After having a piece of fried chicken each and a drink of cool, refreshing water, Chaska and Little Eagle excuse themselves.
Andrew asks, "Can we see your bow and arrows?"
"Yeah, can we?" adds William.
Little Eagle replies, "Sure, come I'll show you."
Andrew, William, and Little Eagle head back to the canoe.
Hannah ignores her little brothers and asks Chaska, "Do you hunt and fish around here often?"
"Yes, we come here often. Game is plentiful here."
"Well maybe I will see you around then," she says and blushes, still holding Loren. "I come down to the river to ride my horse, Wildfire."
"I have seen you. Your horse is very fast. Not as fast as mine, but very fast."
* * *
On the way home, Hannah tells the boys, "You cannot tell Ma or Pa, not even Arthur, about what happened here today."
"Huh?" Andrew queries.
"Why?" William asks.
"If you do, they will never let us swim down here by the river ever again."
Andrew asks, "What about your suit?".
"I'll take care of that!"
Once they reach home, Hannah's mind is elsewhere. Pheobe is well aware of the disconnect. Hannah is washing her brother's muddy cutoff jeans and daily clothes as Pheobe prepares the evening supper.
"How was your picnic?" her mother asks.
"Oh, it was alright."
"Did you have fun?"
"Yeah, it was nothing special; the usual," Hannah says and grimaces slightly as she scrubs the mud from her brothers' clothes.
"Looks like it might have been fun! They got pretty muddy," Pheobe observes.
Hannah emphasizes, "Yes, they did."
Pheobe checks the coals in the cast iron stove. A puff of smoke escapes but there is no sign of flames. She grabs a couple more pieces of kindling.
Hannah realizes she needs to steer the conversation away from her day before her mother asks about her swimsuit. She decides on a familiar subject that always sparks Pheobe's talking.
She asks, "Tell me again how did you and Dad meet?" Hannah loves this story.
"You know the story," her mother replies.
"Tell it again Momma," she begs.
Pheobe blows on the coals; a red ember ignites a flame. She closes the stove door, latches the dropdown plate and begins retelling the tale. "Well, we both grew up in the same township, back in Virginia."
"You've heard this a thousand times."
"I'm sorry. Tell me again."
"Well, we went to the same country school together. We had gone to school there for a few years before your father noticed me. I noticed him before he noticed me. He was always busy hanging out with his guy friends."
"How much older is Pa than you?"
"Oh, he's almost three years older than me."
"How much older is too much older?" Hannah asks.
Pheobe laughs. "Sweetheart, age doesn't matter, unless you are talking about really old."
Hannah smiles at that answer and asks, "How did you two know you liked each other?"
"Well, I liked your father from the start, but he didn't figure it out for some time."
The kettle of stew over the fireplace is warming nicely. Pheobe stirs the vegetables in the cast iron skillet on the stove.
"Here is a detail I don't think I have shared,"
She moves to the table.
"I knew your father was good at math," Pheobe says and sprinkles flour on a smooth wooden slab. She picks up the pie dough, slaps it down, and begins to knead the blob. "So, I would ask him for help with my homework."
Pheobe continues kneading the dough and explains, "He was so patient with me. He would explain it three ways to Sunday."
"But you are good at math, Ma."
"Yes, I am. I have always loved math," Pheobe says and giggles.
"Ma, you tricked him."
"Just a little," she quips.
They both laugh as they continue working.
"Did you go out with anyone else before Pa?"
"No, dear. Your father was and is my one and only."
"When did you know you loved him?"
Pheobe looks at her daughter. "Why all these questions?"