Bitter cold, stark whiteness, sunlit beauty and an oppressing gloom comingled across the valley plain. In the distance, a line of spruce fir stood guard on the high ridges and bluffs like sentinels overlooking the sparseness; their blackish green one of only three noticeable colors in the scene. Across the vastness, the frozen river was lost. No one other than a person who grew up here would even know where the Missouri River was at this time of year, much less in what direction it flowed. Over one of the northernmost bluffs and through the forest, just a few miles down the snow lined carriage path lay Andalusia Falls, a fishing town of about 300 hardworking but weary souls. The yellows, greens and violets of last April now lay beneath two feet of snow, patiently awaiting their reappearance in two months or so. The sun shone high in the sky, glistening off the drifts and melting two or three inches before heavy flurries appeared in mid afternoon without fail, making obsolete any headway the sun had created.
Abigail Merriweather was beginning to worry. The sun was pacing slowly behind the rise. It would be dark in an hour, and Sonny was still out there. Abigail had told her son she didn’t cotton to the idea of him going out ice fishing. The dark, tight clouds in the sky looked like they were holding back a blizzard with all their strength. He had kissed his mama and made some joke that she couldn’t remember now, and had run through the snow like it was a field of baby corn stalks. She was now wishing that she had put her foot down.
She braced for the swirling wind and opened the front door. Fluffy wet flakes blew into the house as if they’d been invited. Abigail breathed in, hoping somehow that doing so would bring Sonny trudging through the yard with a good catch dragging through the snow behind. The huge snowflakes fell gracefully, yet relentlessly. The well house and the flower cart were covered. You could just make out their shapes. The snowman that Tess and Beulah had made this afternoon was up to his neck in the new fallen snow. “Sonny!” she called out, her strong voice cutting through the tranquility with just enough alarm to cause the two deer right outside the woods to perk up. A second call from Abigail caused them to bounce out of sight. A chill cut through the small woman suddenly, causing her to realize with a start that she did not have any covering on her arms. A third call, without even an answer from an echo, and she pulled the door closed.
Lost in her own thoughts, Abigail did not realize a smaller crisis was brewing. Beulah’s Dolly was gone, and Beulah was unhappy. Tess gave Beulah a few moments to explain her theory of Dolly’s whereabouts through heaving sobs; then Tess brought a report to her mother who was now sitting at the kitchen table, the pungent aroma of lamb stew filling their small home.
“Ma,” she began while climbing upon Abigail’s lap, “Dolly’s gone, and Beulah says Sonny took her.”
Dolly had joined the family three years ago at Christmas, when Beulah was two. Her father had given the doll to her right before he left for Nebraska to survey land that the US government was planning to give away to Americans for the taking. He had planned to be back in a year, and sent a letter and money at least once a month. But after a year, the posts stopped coming, and Abigail had no way of knowing or finding out what had become of her husband Michael. Michael had an unmarried older brother Gabe who lived here in town, and whom she had wanted to ask many times to go and find her husband. But Gabe was a rabble rouser, a petty thief, an unbridled gambler and a mean drunk. Abigail had decided that she could not trust Gabe to find Michael. Not that Gabe had shown any gumption to take up that task. But here she was with two girls aged five and nine, and a fifteen year old son. Every other day she would get the question from Beulah and Tess about when Daddy was coming home. Sonny on the other hand showed neither sadness nor concern. He didn’t seem angry either. He just continued in his normal, high spirited way. This was unnerving to Abigail. She worried about this lack of emotion on her son’s part. But she couldn’t really call it a lack of emotion. It was more like life as usual for Sonny. He still spoke fondly of his papa, but not in the past tense. For example, “Papa’s really gonna like the doghouse I built for Sooty,” he had told his ma, as if Papa was coming back the next day. Whenever Sonny would catch his mother crying, he would busy himself with other concerns. He would either ignore her, but without an air of disrespect; or would simply leave.
Now, although it had not quite been a day, Abigail had another reason to be afraid. Her boy was out in the freezing cold. Dusk was settling in and the snow was beginning to fall harder. The snow hitting the cabin sounded like several animals pawing at it on every side. The thought of Sonny being lost in the world just like Michael was beginning to form a knot the size of one of her sorghum biscuits in the pit of her stomach. Two tears from her mother’s eyes fell on Tess’ hand. She brushed a third one away from her mother’s cheek.
“Ma? Did you hear me?” Tess asked before beginning to cry herself.
Sooty, the Merriweather’s dog was now poking along the bank of the river, bringing sticks and debris to anyone who would accept and generally getting in the way. She was a mix between a Greyhound and a Labrador with gray black streaks covering her brown body. She looked as if she had been playing in ashes, thus the name Michael had come up with. No one was in the mood to play with her. They were all concentrating on the somber task of finding Sonny.
In the month and a half that he’d been missing, the snow had almost completely melted. Patches of the white stuff could still be found on rocks and high in the trees, and some of it still flowed with the current in the icy river. The temperature was in the high thirties and the breeze was strong enough at times to cause a shudder. Abigail and her daughters stood by a tree while menfolk either knelt at the riverbank searching with their arms and heavy branches, or rode in one of three canoes slowly moving upstream. Others were carefully combing the greenish brown plain, searching in vain for splashes of color on the ground, the blue coat or the brown cap his mother had reported that she had last seen him wearing. Some of the women there greeted Abigail and her girls with kind words, shaking heads, or pitiable stares. No one was holding out much hope of finding Sonny, dead or alive.
The sheriff of Andalusia Falls stood with Abigail, trying his best to calm the woman’s nerves with upbeat predictions on how favorable conditions were, what with the first thaw now here. “If your boy’s anywhere around here he’ll be easy to spot,” he said. His words did nothing to ease her gnawing apprehension, so he eased away and consulted with some of the men who had nothing new to report.
Spring turned into summer, and summer into fall, and life went on for Abigail and her daughters. The community took good care of the Merriweathers, feeding them, clothing them and helping them to cultivate their land. Gabe even straightened up somewhat and checked in on his sister-in-law and his nieces frequently. He always had a nickel for Beulah and Tess, and a piece of jerky for Sooty when he came by. He seemed genuinely heartsick for the loss of his brother and his nephew, and told Abigail he was going to set out for Nebraska and look for Michael. Abigail was quite adamant in telling him not to do that. She could not bear to lose another family member. “We might as well face the fact that he ain’t comin’ back,” she said direly. “Sonny neither. They’re both dead.”
Abigail had been contemplating since last winter admitting that out loud. It was cathartic hearing the words flow unobstructed from her own mouth. The girls were not within earshot, thank goodness. She was not ready to say that to them. Gabe was speechless. Abigail looked at him, searching his eyes for some sort of validation, or even condemnation. But Gabe offered nothing at this moment. He was stoic, though not to the extent that Sonny had been. Gabe just didn’t know how to comfort his brother’s wife. After about an hour, Gabe began looking for excuses to make his way home. “I promise you sister, everything will turn out fine. You’ll see.” With that bit of consolation, he disappeared.
Winter was harsher this year than it had been last year. The temperature and the snowfall remained the same, but the hole in the lives of the Merriweather girls was widening, and deepening. Abigail became withdrawn, Beulah had not said a word in weeks, and all Tess wanted was to bring things back to normal. She tried her best to entertain her sister and her mother with funny stories and silly tricks, but it did not seem to be working. Beulah spent her days playing quietly in her room, and Abigail began staying in bed all day. Tess started handling all the chores, bringing her mother’s meals to her bed, and making sure Beulah was cared for. The wind howled like a hurricane outside, and the snow would not let up. Tess feared that the entire cabin would be covered.
Tess was in the kitchen scrubbing the floor one morning while Beulah sat at the table eating bacon and toast. She picked up her glass of milk. It shattered on the floor when they heard Abigail yell out Beulah’s name from the bedroom. The two girls ran into their mother’s bedroom. “Dolly!” was the first word that Beulah had spoken in almost two months. She ran toward Sooty, who was crouched at the foot of Abigail’s bed with Dolly between her paws. Beulah shrieked joyfully.
“Sooty, where did you find Dolly?” asked Tess, as if the dog would answer. She knelt beside Beulah and rubbed her muzzle with both hands. Sooty barked appreciatively. “Ma, what happened? Where was Dolly all this time?”
“I don’t know,” said Abigail, scooting over to accommodate Beulah’s leap into the bed as Tess eased in on the other side. “Sooty just trotted in here with Dolly between her teeth. Maybe she was hiding her somewhere.”
“She was keeping her safe for you, Beulah,” said Tess. “Are you glad she’s back?”
“Yes I am,” Beulah said, giggling and inspecting Dolly at the same time.
Tess and Beulah were out in the yard picking the daisies, violets and sunflowers that had found their way through the melting snow. Tomorrow they would be selling flowers at the county fair like they did every year at the first thaw. Abigail was repainting the flower cart. The brutal winters always faded the colors. She was adding embellishments to the “B” in “Tess & Beulah’s Pretty Things” when something in the distance caught her attention. There was someone on a horse, pulling a cart behind. Abigail rose from her crouch. As the rider got closer, she could see he was wearing a blue coat. “Sonny?” she whispered. The girls were already running towards their brother.
Sonny made it to the yard with his sisters in tow. “I’m sorry, Ma, but I had to find Papa,” he said as he dismounted. Abigail threw her arms around her son, embracing him mightily. He led her to the cart, where Michael lay under several blankets. He was scraggly, and seemed feverish, but he sat up. Abigail jumped up on the cart and hugged him as well.
“Let’s get you warmed up inside,” she said.
That night as he and his wife lay in bed, Michael explained that he was beaten and robbed and left for dead by a gang of bandits. He didn’t know how many days he had been left there on the side of that road, but he was found by an old prospector riding by. He was taken in by a family and came to realize that he had trouble remembering things. The names Abigail, Sonny, Beulah, Tess, Sooty and Gabe kept going through his mind, but he couldn’t connect the fact that those names were his family. As he was recuperating from the beating, he became a little more disconnected from the already loose memories. He started working and when he had enough money saved he built a house.
“Honey, I ain’t gonna lie, I had a lot of ladies wantin’ to be with me, but I didn’t touch a one of ‘em. Somethin’ in the back of my mind was tellin’ me it was wrong…but I couldn’t figure out why I felt that way. But when Sonny found me, everything made sense. I remembered. He is the greatest son in the world. I missed you all so much, and I’m so sorry for everything we lost.”
“Michael, we didn’t lose anything. What we gained is knowing what life would be like if we lost each other. That’s something I never want to feel again. Rememberin’ what that felt like is bound to keep us together.”
At that, they both began to kiss, and to sob.