The pity she could see in their eyes simply doubled her determination. She would make it, all in one piece. She was stronger than they ever thought to be. They were good neighbors. They meant no harm. They could empathize with her, but hopefully never have to experience her grief first hand. The loss of her children.
Jennie Alexander married James G. Isles, to the envy of every other girl in the county. Creating a blacksmith forge in his barn, James continued one of the trades he honed while in the army. James returned from the Great War with his 30-06 he had used as a sniper and enough military pay to put a down payment on 640 acres of bottom land in the Thumb area of Michigan.
One square mile of farmland. One square mile of hard, back breaking work to clear the land. Once square mile of picking up rocks and stones to make way for grains and corn. The land was too good to raise animals for anything other than their personal eating. The land was fertile and just waiting for seed.
James’ startling blue eyes, tall muscular build, red hair, and quick wit were quite a contrast to the wide eyed Jennie. Her dark hair and big brown eyes were as legendary as her pies. They made such a contrasting couple, their friends speculated what their children would look like.
With such a large parcel of land, James quickly acquired eight teams of horses. Eight teams so one could rest every day while the other seven were driven by the hired crews. With so many teams, he often hired his team and crews out to other farmers for plowing, tilling, and harvesting. James was a shrewd business man and a loyal trustworthy friend. The community worked together to become rather prosperous. Jennie couldn't be more proud of him. He was becoming everything she had envisioned he could be.
Across Isles Street, named for the family, lived the McDougall family. Archie McDougall had moved his family into the adjoining square mile soon after James and Jennie. Close friends and competitive adversaries, the two families leaned on one another to make their rural farms come to life. If Archie McDougall needed anything James Isles had, all he need do was mention it and it was quickly loaned and vice versa. The two families were as close as any two families could be.
Winter and mid Spring were the two best seasons, in Jenny’s opinion. Winter was more of an idle time. The harnesses needed to be rubbed with oils and the horses got their personal attention. Jenny and James had time to themselves and time to visit friends and relatives. Life was a bit more quiet. Quiet that is until James and Archie decided it was rat time.
Rat time on the farm seemed to involve an awful lot of shouting. The shouting consisted mostly of “over there” or “got ‘im” or “it’s a big un”! All this joined with the clamor of gun fire. The county paid two cents each for the pelts to keep the vermin down. That money was a fine welcome when Jenny was getting low staples or in need of material for making maternity clothes. It was a welcome diversion for the two grown boys as well.
James was always on the go. Busy with county business, as the Treasurer he needed to make his rounds. As the only blacksmith in the county, he tried to combine as many of his business trips as he could, but it seemed there was always someone in need of his attention. That left Jennie to shoulder much of the work on the farm, watch the hired hands, and take care of the household. It was a busy life, but knowing the hard work was for her own family made it all worthwhile.
The barn just behind and downhill from the house, held the animals toward the front of the barn and the smithy to the back. This way, the men could round the barn and enjoy a smoke or a drink. In the loft of the barn there was naturally hay stored, also any of the hired single men were welcome to bunk up there. Mostly, the men who stayed on the farm ate with the family. Learning to cook for that many people took some time. Balancing “enough” food into eight hard working men was almost more than their wood cook stove could handle. Jenny’s deep dish pies were nearly as tasty as her Sunday morning flap-jacks. Trading smoked hams for honey or maple syrup was the best swap she could think of.
It was a Tuesday, she recalled. It was a Tuesday in March. James had gone to a neighboring farm to check on their plow team’s shoes. It was the time of year when every farm was gearing up for planting. The horses hooves were checked and double checked. The harnesses were oiled and buffed again, making certain there were no leather burrs to harm the animals. The plows were cleaned and any blade repairs double checked. It was nearly planting time, the promise of spring was on the air. The red-winged blackbirds and red-breasted robins were just beginning to flit through the fields and barn yards claiming their portion of the grains.
They were just boys. They were supposed to be checking to see if the ewes had given birth. Knowing the ewes seemed to prefer a good stormy night to an uneventful still night to give birth, the boys were dispatched giving them something useful to do. The smell of smoke and fire were ever present in the air, nothing seemed amiss until she went out to hang laundry.
Basket dropping from her hands, the barn on fire, Jenny screamed for her children as she raced to free the screaming horses. The front gate opened, animals tearing out of the barnyard, Jenny had to dodge huge draft horses and wild eyed cows in an effort to find the children and not be charged over. The goat and the sheep were at the lean-to, the boys were not. Dear God, the boys are not with the sheep.
Running to the back of the barn, to the smith area, Jennie could tell. She knew. Her babies. Her boys. The gas container was too close to the fire. Dear God, the gas container was still in the oldest one’s hands.
Jennie shook her head, looked at her surroundings and realized, she was no longer at the farm. She wasn't that young mother with three young boys, the youngest still in swaddling. She was sitting in the hospital, in her rocker. The eyes looking at her were not those of her neighbors, but those of the other patients. Tears running down her cheeks, she determined she would make it. She was stronger than they ever thought to be. They didn't know anything about fortitude.