1. Scourge of the Sky

August 1854

by Sally Wheaton

Sarah eased herself into a standing position.  She felt about a hundred years old, like a haggard old woman, bent over double.  She rubbed at her back as she stretched it out, trying to ease the aches and pains.  Her back wasn’t the only thing that ached, her shoulders and arms felt like leaden weights.  Thankfully, it would shortly be time to take over the domestic duties from Elizabeth while her friend did her stint in the fields and Sarah couldn’t pretend she wasn’t looking forward to the relative ease of the kitchen.

She stared up into the clear, blue sky, stretching for as far as she could see, not a cloud in sight.  It couldn’t have looked more perfect – and yet she knew that any day now that would change.  They’d heard news that the grasshopper plagues had reached the plains to the north and it seemed likely they’d be headed this way.  Resolutely she eased her aching limbs once more back to the task at hand.

It had been every hand on deck since they’d heard that news a few days ago, the women and children helping out in the fields for long, long hours, from dawn till dusk, in a desperate attempt to harvest as much as they possibly could and store it away before the insect swarms arrived.  Luckily they’d already finished harvesting the  wheat last month and while it was still very early to be harvesting the corn, they’d decided it was better to save whatever they could now than to lose everything to the hoppers.  A poor crop would mean a difficult winter, but the more they could gather now, the better things would be.

Alex and Sarah were working closely with the Currys.  Their own corn crop had been planted some weeks before the Currys and so they’d decided that everyone would work on harvesting as much of the more advanced crop as they could and then move on to the Curry crop.  Of course, come the winter months, they’d all share their supplies in any case.  The two oldest Curry boys, Nate and Zach, were working with the men and Elizabeth and Sarah were taking turns at helping in the fields and taking care of the domestic duties of the kitchen and minding the younger children.

Half an hour later, Sarah dragged her weary body into her kitchen.  The heat was intense and the kitchen crowded with the four young children, but nobody paid any mind to that.  Life out here was tough, they were all used to that and moaning didn’t improve anything.  They had all learnt to get on with it as best they could.

“Ah, you look beat,” Elizabeth sympathised, as Sarah sat down for a moment and took the glass of water she offered.

“Mama!” Hannibal jumped up onto her knee with a huge smile.

“Mother,” she corrected automatically, giving him a hug and settling him into place.

“Mother,” he repeated, still smiling up at her.  She smiled back at him, pleased to see him, her aches and pains already receding to the back of her mind.

She took a sip of the water and as she lowered it, he reached out two small hands towards the glass.  She took hold of his hands with hers as she guided the glass to his lips.  His hands struggled in hers, determined to hold the glass for himself.  She would have let him, but he was still a little unsteady and was prone to spilling it and right at this moment, she just couldn’t face traipsing back across the field to collect more water.

“So what have you been doing all morning?” she asked.

“Reading to Jeb and Esther,” he told her proudly.  Sarah stole a quick glance at Elizabeth, trying hard to suppress a smile.

“I see,” she nodded seriously, then added in a whisper, accentuating the D.  “It’s Jed, not Jeb.”

“Reading to Jed and Esther,” he repeated.

“Was not reading to me!” Esther objected, coming up to stand by Sarah and jabbing at Hannibal.  “I can read too,” she told Sarah.

Elizabeth gave Sarah a look which told her she wasn’t convinced of that.

“Can’t,” Hannibal stated.

“I can!” Esther pouted.

Sarah nodded, trying to placate the little girl.  “I’m sure you can Esther, you’re a very clever girl.”

It was Hannibal’s turn to pout, but Sarah saw it coming and added “And you’re a very clever boy, Hannibal.”  Her son seemed happy enough at that and Sarah glanced at Elizabeth, mouthing a silent “Whew!”

She felt a tug on her sleeve and looked down to see one-year-old Jed standing next to her, beaming up at her, a book in his little hands.  She reached out to tickle under his chin, “And you Jed, you’re a very clever little boy too.”  He giggled and let go of her sleeve to hand the book up to her, but wobbled a little and she had to grab at him before he toppled.

“Jeb can’t read though, he’s too little,” Hannibal told her.

“Well he is right now,” she agreed.  “But you’ll see, he’ll grow too and one day he’ll be as big as you.”  Then she added in a whisper, again emphasising the last letter, “Jed.”

Hannibal frowned at her.  “Jed will be as big as me?” he asked.  He didn’t like the sound of that, not one bit.  He was bigger than Jed and that was that.

“Of course, by the time he’s as big as you, you’ll be even bigger,” Elizabeth reassured him.

He perked up a little at that.  “Like Nate?”

“Well, almost,” agreed Sarah.

That sounded better.  If he could be as big as Nate then Jeb could be as big as him, he decided.

“And before you know it,” Sarah added smiling, teasing him, “you’ll be as big as your father.”

He looked at her sceptically and shook his head.  Now she was just playing with him.  He’d never be that big, his father was an adult!  Sarah smiled at him and then leaned in and rubbed her nose against his, amused by his reaction.  At nearly three, he already seemed to think of himself as an adult in relation to the other children, yet he seemed most reluctant at the thought of actually becoming an adult for real.    He gave her a big smile back and she couldn’t resist pulling him close for another quick squeeze.

She could have stayed there all day, but there was work to be done, and she set Hannibal on his feet and rose from her seat, ready to take over from Elizabeth.

“Come on, Jeb,” Hannibal took his younger friend’s hand and led him off to play, with Esther in pursuit.  Sarah opened her mouth to correct him, but he had already gone, off to the important task of play.

“Can he really read?” Elizabeth whispered to her.

“Oh no,” she laughed in reply.  “Maybe a few words, but mostly he just remembers it.”

“The whole story?” Elizabeth asked surprised.

“Uh-huh,” Sarah nodded.  “He even remembers which part is on which page of the book, so he does appear to be reading.”

“Well, I’ll be,” smiled Elizabeth, shaking her head in disbelief.

After final instructions to her friend on how not to burn the supper, by which Sarah faithfully promised to abide, Elizabeth stepped outside into the sun’s blazing heat.  She looked up into the sky and paused.

“Sarah,” she called quietly, not wanting to disturb the children.

Sarah came to the door and looked towards where Elizabeth was pointing off into the distance, at a dark cloud, almost shimmering in the sun, high up in the sky.  She nodded.  They were here.  “I only hope we’ve managed to save enough for the winter,” she said.

***

When Alex finally made it home hours later, it had already been dark for some time.  He and Nathanial and the two boys had worked tirelessly to do what they could.  The insects were a regular occurrence in these parts, though some years the destruction was worse than others.  There were numerous theories on how to prevent the damage.  Some set fires hoping that the smoke would keep them away, still others dug trenches around their crops which they filled with water, some even with burning oil.  All manner of wild theories were put forth – and most were tried.  All failed.   Many said that the only thing to do was to harvest what you could before they arrived and then wait until they had gone and replant.  Inactivity, however, felt like giving in, and so Alex and Nathanial had spent the latter part of the day building fires, hoping to create a smokescreen which would divert the insects from their land.

Alex slumped, exhausted, into the chair and leaned forward onto the table, his face in his arms.  Coming up behind him, Sarah massaged his shoulders.

“You’ve done all you can,” she said quietly.  “Now we just have to wait,”

He nodded, knowing she was right, though not liking it one bit.  He didn’t think they had managed to bring in anywhere near enough of the corn to feed his and Nathanial’s family for the winter.  They had the chickens of course and would have to spare a good deal of the corn for them, and they had a pig or two, but there would be nothing left over to sell to make any money to buy anything else.  He sighed. It was going to be a tough winter.

Sarah returned to the stove to dish up some of the stew, which she had for once not burned, but when she turned back towards him only a moment later, he had rested his head on his arms on the table, and was fast asleep.

***

The next morning, Alex, Sarah and Hannibal set out to walk to the Curry farm.  The grasshopper plague was now right on top of them.  It had never got properly light this morning, the sky almost dark with the swarms of millions of insects preventing the sunlight coming through.  The insects were dropping in fast succession, the thud of them hitting the ground almost making it sound like a heavy rainstorm.

Hannibal had been fascinated as soon as he’d come out of the door and had bent down to pick them up and inspect them.  Sarah had hurried him along, but as they walked he held out his hands to try and catch them as they fell.  She shuddered as one fell into his hand and he closed his fist around it and excitedly held it up towards Alex to show him.  She winced as one hit her full in the face, and then a moment later one landed on her hair.  She brushed them away quickly and scrunched up her face, hating every moment.  She took hold of Hannibal’s hand and started to walk faster, so that he had to run to keep up.

The ground underfoot was becoming covered in hoppers and it was difficult to walk without treading on them.  Hannibal started to jump and hop in an attempt to avoid standing on them, giggling, enjoying the new game.

“Hannibal!” she said exasperated, impatiently pulling at him to go faster and stop jumping.  She caught him in mid-jump and he almost toppled forward, saved only by her hand holding his.

“For goodness sake, Hannibal!” she flicked at another insect which had narrowly missed her mouth.  He managed to keep up with her for a while, his little legs trotting along at her side, until, at the top of the next rise, his attention was caught by what had once been a field of corn, but was now barren, nothing visible but bare earth.

“Look!” he said, coming to a halt and pointing.  It was a devastating sight, the entire crop gone, destroyed already by the hoppers.

“Hannibal, come on!” she pulled at him once more to continue, chiding herself for taking her fears out on him. It wasn’t his fault.  The sooner they arrived at the Curry’s, the better she decided, as her foot crunched down onto a small pile of the insects, making her cringe again.

***

“Sure, it won’t be an easy winter,” Nathanial agreed with Alex, who was sitting next to him.  The two families were sitting around the Curry’s table, discussing the year’s crop and the likely damage by the hoppers.  “It’s a blessing they came too late to damage the wheat and we managed to harvest what?  Almost half of the corn?

Alex nodded.  “It should be safe in the storehouses.”

“Some for seed for next year, some for the animals, keep them producing,” continued Nathanial.

Again Alex nodded.  “There won’t be a lot left for food.”

Nathanial rubbed his chin.  It didn’t look good, but he’d also seen far worse.  “There likely won’t be much fruit or berries left for storing either.”

“And there’ll be nothing left to sell to make any money to buy what we need,” added Alex.

“What do you reckon, Lizzie, do we have enough to feed us for the winter?”

“Whether we have enough or not, we’ll make it stretch, you know that Nathanial,” Elizabeth replied, ever stoical.  Nathanial reached across and squeezed her hand.  It had been his lucky day when he’d found her.

Sarah gazed at her, admiring her practical manner and her positive attitude, not to mention her skills in the kitchen.  She did not doubt what Elizabeth said, she had seen the woman work miracles with limited resources before.  She wished she was as confident in her own abilities.

“We have some of the preserves from last year.  If there’s enough to feed the animals?” she paused and looked questioningly at Nathanial and Alex.

“That’ll have to be a priority,” Alex said and Nathanial nodded in agreement.

“Then,” continued Elizabeth “we’ll have eggs and meat as usual.”

Elizabeth glanced across at Sarah.  “We’ll manage, won’t we Sarah?  We always have and we will do this time.”

Sarah gave her a small smile, buoyed by Elizabeth’s confidence in her as well as her words.  She was right, they’d managed before.  Resolutely, she nodded her agreement as Elizabeth gave her a reassuring nod back.

***

On Sunday morning, the community gathered at the small church.   Even though it was only a few months since the creation of the Kansas Territory, local settlements had sprung up extremely quickly with the massive influx of both anti and pro-slavery supporters trying to influence the outcome of the upcoming elections.  The small church had been one of the first community buildings in the area.

The August heat was stifling but there was still no sign of the sun.  It had been like this for two days, the swarms of grasshoppers forming a dark cloud cover which the sun could not penetrate.  The devastation to the land was almost complete.  Everything green had been destroyed – the grass, the crops, the vegetable patches, even the leaves on the trees.  The people could do nothing but stand by and watch.  And pray.

Reverend Thomas had focussed his sermon on the plight of the settlement.  He urged everyone to pray for their livelihood, the very survival of their community.  He talked of the importance of faith.  Faith in god, yes, but faith in themselves – and in each other.

Alex had had his hands full for most of the service with an increasingly bored Hannibal.  At not yet three, it was a lot to expect him to sit still for so long.  He had started out sitting next to his father, listening to the sermon, but as he’d got more bored, he had started to fidget.  Alex had hauled him onto his knee and that had helped, but only for a while and he’d become increasingly restless.  Keeping him even reasonably still was now becoming more and more difficult and was turning into something of a wrestling match.  Alex hoped that the sermon wouldn’t last much longer.  Hannibal enjoyed the hymns and would sing along, though Alex had to admit he wasn’t always too sure that he was singing exactly the right words.

He glanced across at Elizabeth Curry, who was sitting calmly listening to the Reverend, her fingers gently stroking through Jed’s hair as he sat quietly on her lap, beautifully behaved.  He felt Hannibal yank once more on his arm as he tried to wriggle onto the floor where he’d spotted a stray grasshopper.  Alex folded his arms even more firmly around him, resolving to ask Elizabeth what her secret was.

Alex was relieved when a few minutes later, they finally came to the hymn and with his son standing next to him, singing unrecognisable words at the top of his voice, his mood was lifted.  He reached his arm around Hannibal and pulled him close, smiling down at him, as a beautiful beam of sunlight shone through the small window and across the church.

At the end of the service, a happy Hannibal bounded out of the church to play with the other children.  The Heyes and Curry adults hung back a little to thank Reverend Thomas and just as they were shaking his hand, they heard something of a commotion outside.

Fearing Hannibal was up to something, Alex quickly made his way outside, with Sarah on his heels.  He looked around, expecting to find Hannibal the centre of attention, and not in a good way.  But everyone seemed to be looking upwards, not downwards.  Alex followed their gaze, squinting into the sunlight.  Then it dawned on him – there was sunlight!  Off in the distance, he could see the cloud of hoppers moving south, away from their town.  They were gone.

He felt Nathanial pat him heartily on the back, and turned to smile at his friend.  Elizabeth and Sarah were hugging and around them it seemed that everyone was in a celebratory mood.  They were gone, and it had only been two days.  Maybe, just maybe, the damage had not been as great as they had feared.

***

Nathanial and Alex wandered across the fields, surveying the damage.  Most of the corn had been eaten, but they had been lucky, some of it remained.  With careful nurturing, some of it would continue to grow and could be harvested in a few weeks, bigger and stronger.  Suddenly winter didn’t look quite so bleak and Nathanial was confident they’d do okay.  Not much else remained however.  In the field where they’d already harvested the wheat, Nathanial knelt to inspect the ground.  Soon they’d be ready to plant the seed for next year.  He ran his fingers across the bare earth, frowning slightly as he did so.

“Alex!” he called.  “Come look here.”

Alex stood, leaning over him.

“What do you make of this?” Nathanial asked, running his finger across a small, dark circle on the ground.

“I don’t know,” replied Alex, scanning the ground around him.  “But they’re everywhere.”

Nathanial scraped away the earth around the small circle and glanced up at Alex, concerned.  He pulled a long, thin pod, about the length of a grasshopper, out of the ground.  He tapped it on the ground to break it open and then emptied it contents onto the dry earth.

“Eggs?” asked Alex.

“I’d say so,” replied Nathanial with a sigh.  The two men looked at each other and then at the ground all around them, covered in the small dark circles.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance they won’t survive the winter cold?”

“Possible,” agreed Nathanial. “Though I’m not sure I’m banking on it.”

Reluctantly, Alex had to agree with him – they might have just about gotten away with it this year, but it looked like next summer was going to be even tougher.

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