The Brothers’ Keepers, a modern literary novel, is a collaborative work written by John H. Paddison and Charles D. Orvik. Based on the book’s tone, theme, and literary intention, which are similar in style to Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio, this work will prove to be a significant contribution to contemporary literature.
As a novel dealing with the saga of one family, the work closely analyzes an ongoing cultural myth of small Midwest American towns and families—that is, the idea and ideal of family values that have come to symbolize that geographic region. Much like Richard Russo recently did in his novel Empire Falls, the story emerges from within a historical framework. The story takes place in the Northeastern part of North Dakota, in the fictional town of Farmington, during and after the Great Depression. The storyline develops around the neglect and then abandonment of five young boys—the Lambson brothers—by their alcoholic mother and their drifter father, and indeed by society in general. Having been exhaustively researched, the novel details in a sensitive yet realistic way the brothers’ development under very adverse physical and social conditions and the five boys’ eventual outcome. Events of the story are structured so as to extract meaning from the youngsters’ trials; the narrative voice is sensitive yet forceful in adding understanding of their tribulations, thus bringing light to two social ills that plague America today—child neglect and child abuse.
Set primarily in the post-depression Midwest, the novel follows five young brothers–Dewey, Duane,Lloyd, Leeland, and Darrell Lambson—from childhood to adulthood. Their parents essentially abandon them in the late 1930s. The narrative focus of the novel is the detailed description of the Lambson boys’ day-to-day struggle to survive physically, emotionally, and socially. After their father leaves them, the boys live on a dilapidated farm on the outskirts of the agricultural community of Farmington, North Dakota with their alcoholic mother. In her own pursuit of escape, she often leaves the children to their own means for extended periods of time. The brothers’ hardships form a strong, familial bond between them—the only definition of family that they can construct from their aberrant circumstances. The broader narrative, though, becomes an attempt to understand how a society that traditionally has always placed so much emphasis on family and family values, at least seemingly, can condone such treatment of the five youngsters. This probing of social responsibility is relevant to today’s society, with children increasingly becoming the victims of abuse and neglect.
Chapter One—The Brothers
Those Lambson brothers have always been very much of a puzzlement to me. The world the five boys existed in always was and continues to be somewhat of a different sort of milieu . . . an enigma . . . a contradiction . . . a difficult set of circumstances to understand. Yet a good deal can be learned from their story . . . about people and society . . . about human responsibility . . . about tenacity. For their existence seemed as inscrutable as the huge cottonwood tree that stood timeless in the barren farmyard in which they played . . . the one with roots like talons that dug deeply into the North Dakota prairie, just a few miles outside the town of Farmington.
Late one listless summer afternoon in June of 1939 a weather-beaten, gray-black front tire, pulled off an old Oliver tractor and discarded in a nearby vacant field, hung down invitingly from one of the middle limbs of that cottonwood tree. Sunlight flickered through the branches as the midday breezes disturbed the dead stillness of the dilapidated buildings and surrounding beaten-down croplands that years earlier had been the prosperous Sheppard farmstead. The warm, light winds moved the homemade tire swing back and forth listlessly, as though it was being put into motion by unknown, mystical powers . . . those same phantom forces that so often stirred up swirling dust devils from nowhere, or that waved gently across vast, brown fields of wheat, or that shimmered the old cottonwood’s gray-green leaves.
Decades earlier ol’ Elvin Sheppard had planted the cottonwood tree precisely in the middle of his and Edna’s homestead, right atop the small hill that rose slightly up and away from the house. He originally built the farm house so that in the spacious front yard, about fifteen yards from the front porch, stood the cottonwood tree. When it matured, he claimed, it would provide shade for the entire residence. Elvin named and claimed the cottonwood as his “grandchild tree”—the one that his future grandchildren could use for their many childhood activities . . . the family tree that would allow them to childishly rejoice in its largeness and sturdiness. But his dream never came to pass. Since then two smaller, lesser poplar trees had grown weakly in the shadow of the cottonwood, back over by the rutted remains of Edna’s small, once fertile vegetable garden. Beyond the vaguely defined yard lay the outhouse and the slightly leaning, almost rust red barn and empty tool shed, and further out from that, the vast, fallow fields that once had been so productive. As the years passed, the timeless, solid tree matured steadily and had now become a joyous gathering place, a playground, if you will, for the young Lambson brothers — the wayward, unkempt sons of Cora and Iver Lambson.
Nearly a year had gone by since Uncle Red purchased the abandoned farmstead and moved the boys and their mother into the house, and several months since their wandering, absentee father had been home for a brief visit. During that time much of the thin, brittle bark of the massive tree had been stripped away by the children, who when they had nothing else to do etched and hacked and whittled on the trunk, using meat cleavers and butcher knives with broken black handles, which they had snuck out of their mother’s kitchen. Myriad rusting spikes had been driven into the tree and numerous boards and wooden steps had been nailed to the trunk and outstretched branches. Sap oozed and dried from the wounds, but the tree lived on . . . surviving and even thriving. The central tree trunk, with its huge canopy of thick limbs and shimmering leaves, and its location atop the small rise, about thirty-five or forty feet from the house, never failed to provide a cool canopy of shade to the entire yard.
But the real story of the Lambson children probably best begins with the creation of that tree swing. Dewey, at eight, symbolized constancy, and more importantly authority to his younger brothers, especially Duane, aged seven. And he wielded that authority mercilessly. Earlier on that summer day, Dewey bet Duane that he, Duane, could not climb the tree and attach the rope from which to suspend the moldering old tractor tire that they had found and labored to roll back to the yard. Actually, Dewey goaded Duane into trying the feat, telling him that if he didn’t, he would hold him down and put diapers on him. To reinforce the challenge, he pushed his younger brother’s shoulder sharply several times. “You’re a little shit if ya don’t!” Dewey said for emphasis. To both Duane and Dewey’s surprise, Duane skillfully accomplished the task; he scurried up between the branches, climbing as though he had been born in that tree. In the process of testing the knot that was cinched up around the high limb, Duane looked down scornfully at his older brother. However, while shinnying back to earth from the dizzying height, Duane had slipped and fallen, crashing down through the twigs and leaves. One of the lower tree limbs broke his fall, but the youngster still landed on his shoulder and forearm with a thud in the soft dirt.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” he wailed after he hit the earth and rolled over, clutching his injured arm. A few moments passed and then he sat up and moaned softly.
“Jesus Christ, that was neat!” Dewey, the mentor and tormentor, exclaimed in praise as he ran up excitedly to assess the damage.
The two smaller brothers, Lloyd and Leeland, stood their distance, waiting to see what was happening, carefully measuring their reactions, wary, ready to flee if necessary. Watching and calculating, half excited and half frightened. Tears began to streak down and mix with the dirt on Duane’s face, but he forced his teeth together and vowed not to cry in front of his brother. Duane’s cheek and upper lip had knocked against one of the rigid branches on the way down and his nose began to bleed as well; soon a steady stream of thick red drops fell on his narrow chest and onto the bib of his overalls. But because the boy’s trousers had not been washed for several weeks, the drops became invisible when they blended in with the embedded dirt. He just brushed away at them with his shaking hand and pinched his nose tightly.
“Shoot almighty, did ya bust your nose too?” Dewey hunched over him, arms on knees, acting more in curiosity than in help and consolation. “Ma’s gonna wring our necks for sure when she gets home! Whadya have to be climbin’ the durn tree for, anyway?”
After the bleeding had subsided somewhat, Duane gradually pulled his small frame together and stood up to assess the damage. He swayed slightly and then slowly swiped the back of his hand across his face, leaving a thin trace line of blood laced with snot trailing from his first knuckle to just above his thin wrist. The action made the blood flow again a bit more steadily and the several drops that dribbled from his nostril landed insignificantly on the ground, mixing darkly with the dirt. He held his head back for a few minutes and when the blood stopped completely and his arm quit hurting so badly, he finally spoke to his older brother, who was years ahead of him in worldly experience and knowledge. His voice was edged with a tone of accomplishment and satisfaction: “Okay, rope’s up! Where’s that dang tire?”
While the two older boys rigged the harness for the tire swing, Lloyd and Leeland still watched in fascination from the periphery, not daring to get too close. They seemed born to follow rather than lead. Though few years separated all of the youngsters, the two youngest were far apart from their older siblings in terms of experience and were thus never quick to pick up on, and then participate in, what was going on around them. Lloyd was the next youngest at five years and some months, and then came Leeland at three. All of the brothers had deep-brown eyes and shocks of brown hair and skinny frames; all of them were dressed the same, too: shoeless, with one size of bibbed overall that seemed to universally fit them all. Leeland was the only one whose pants legs were rolled up in thick knots to keep them from dragging beneath his feet. What set him apart from the others boys that day was the pronounced limp he had acquired when he stepped down on a shard of glass the previous day. Dewey, who had applied first aid following the accident, said his brother walked like a peg-legged pirate and this had somewhat consoled the wailing child. Now a bulky dressing of gray and brown-blood-spotted gauze bound Leeland’s dirty right foot and as he followed his brothers the unraveling cord of bandage trailed behind him in the dirt.
When the Oliver Tractor tire was secured, Dewey and Duane began pushing and spinning each other around. Only after becoming reasonably assured that all was right with the world did Lloyd and Leeland join in the fun. The four brothers played together, enjoying greatly their new swing until well into the warm semi-darkness of dusk, when they retired happily and without a care into the dark house. That was one of the all-too-frequent occasions when their mother Cora had not bothered to purchase lamp oil before she took off, so in the waning half-light they made themselves mustard sandwiches, using the last few scraps of bread and scraping out every bit of yellow from the empty jar; their hunger somewhat satisfied, they went tiredly upstairs to bed where they slept deeply the sleep of the innocent.
The next morning came gradually, with sunlight seeping up over the eastern horizon, out beyond the hill and the centering tree. The dampness and the slight chill of the evening were slowly pushed away by the growing warmth of the new dawning; along with the maturing morning came the growing promise that the day would be just as hot and rainless as those of the past month. The early morning breeze caused by the rising heat of daybreak again began to move the tire swing slightly, swaying it gently back and forth, as though some wandering, forlorn spirit of a past, or a present, or a future child lingered there.
Upstairs in the weathered, grayish-white house, the wind blew in gently through the broken window that looked out onto the yard and the cottonwood. The breeze traced across Dewey’s young body; he only shivered slightly and then pulled the cover up around his chin as he turned away from his brothers and assumed a fetal position. A bit later, though, the sun shone in through the window and hit him warmly, brightly in the face, and he awoke and stretched fully, lazily…peaceful and secure for just the briefest of moments. Beside him, on the bare mattress, his three brothers slept soundlessly, front to back, burrowed and huddled together, molded into each other, beneath the flowered, dingy, urine-smelling patchwork quilt. Immediately he knew that Leeland had wet the bed again, thus jerking him back into the reality of the morning. Dewey’s brief moment of peacefulness quickly dissipated and he checked his own underwear to see if it was damp as well; it was, so he knew that Lloyd had probably peed himself also. But as he slipped his overalls on, the hunger in his young belly quickly began to take his attention away from his brothers and from the anxiety and loneliness welling up within him.
Silently, slowly, he descended the steep staircase, which only creaked lightly under his slight weight. He stopped at the door to his mother’s room and put his ear to the cool wooden surface. After standing breathless for several moments, he furtively turned the worn, white doorknob and pushed the door open slightly, not wanting to make any noise in case his mother Cora had come home in the middle of the night and was not alone. Cautiously he stuck his head into the mother’s lilac-scented room, which was also laced with her essence. He longed desperately to see her there. But her bed, still unmade from her presence the day before yesterday, lay empty. He entered the still, semi-dark chamber carefully, almost reverently, for he and his brothers were seldom allowed in there. A lingering sense of her pervaded the room and he breathed her in deeply. Slowly he ran his hand across the softness of the faded comforter that still carried the light impression of her slender body. Picking up her rumpled night dress, tossed haphazardly across the covers, he rubbed the silky softness along his cheek and mouth for a moment or two. Holding the gown up to his nose, he smelled the funky, melancholy odor that evoked his mother love. After several moments he replaced the gown, arranging the piece of clothing so that it looked undisturbed. Her bedroom was nearly as barren as his and his brothers’, except for the pretty mahogany vanity and dresser pushed tightly up against the outer wall. Several scrape marks had been etched into the faded, light-blue, flowered wallpaper, caused when Cora and one of her various visitors, on more than one occasion, had wrestled the heavy dresser in front of the door to bar the curious children from the room. Dewey had once sorely hurt his skinny shoulder when he persistently pushed against door and the immoveable piece of furniture, straining to get to the strange noises and his mother’s woeful voice coming from behind the door. Now rubbing the remembered soreness of the injury, he again moved on through the quiet.
On top of the dresser, sitting by itself in a large gilded frame, sat his parents’ wedding picture. His mother’s visage smiled down only slightly at him; his father’s likeness, which glared down sternly at him, pictured a man he barely recognized or remembered. In the cool silence Dewey walked over to the large oval mirror mounted on the vanity. On the narrow shelf below the mirror sat several perfume bottles and a lavender scented powder puff resting in a red bath powder container. He lifted the fluffy applicator up and sniffed at the lavender smell before carefully replacing it. Looking up, he did not even recognize his own strange image in the looking glass; he put his thin hand up to the reflection and left several prints in the fine dusting of face powder that lightly covered the mirror’s surface.
Several competing emotions swirled through Dewey’s young mind and he struggled to understand them. He was not really disappointed that she was not there. She had, after all, told him curtly before leaving, “I’m goin’ out with a friend,” which he instinctively knew meant a man friend. But still he would have been relieved, maybe happy to see her beautiful form filling the bed, even if there was someone else lying next to her. Oftentimes Cora would bring uncles home for her sons to meet and these fellows would stay around for a day or two. Sometimes there would be soldiers, who would tell the boys “army stories,” or skinny salesmen, with sour smelling breath, who would lean forward to tell the boys about pirates and far off lands. The week before, one of the uncles had taken all four boys to the Dakota Theater to see The Sea Hawk, where they had marveled at Errol Flynn at his sword-fighting best. He had even bought them Mr. Deelish Popcorn and Burch’s Sarsaparillas. Dewey decided that probably he was the one that she’d gone to be with . . . . She’d said she loved him because he had such a “way with her children” and would “make a good father.”
The silent emptiness of the tomblike bedroom mirrored Dewey’s own silent emptiness. A quick shudder of fear raced down his narrow spine; he felt as though some unseen presence was closely watching him, so he crept out and quietly shut the door. The child left his mother’s room, emerging as vulnerable and forsaken as the day he had dropped from the depths of her womb.
But Dewey, who was gradually acquiring a protective shrewdness, knew all too well the significance of her non-presence, on a more practical, pragmatic level. The morning was only Saturday and his mother would probably not be home until late Sunday evening or Monday, if then. Although loneliness and responsibility lay heavily upon him, the almost overwhelming hunger he began to feel drew him sharply back to reality. The burden of his brothers’ well-being fell upon him. In the kitchen, from the warm icebox, he took the last of the milk in the glass bottle; it only had just begun to spoil, so he was able to still drink it. Because the warm liquid tasted like buttermilk, he was able to keep it down and it did somewhat relieve the rumbling in his belly. Carefully he put the empty bottle back on the wire grating shelf in the bare icebox, and only felt a little guilty that he had saved none of the milk for his younger brothers.
With his young, slender body bent a bit under the lingering burden of guilt and aloneness and hunger, he walked out onto the front porch and into the yard. His stomach began to really hurt as he remembered his mother’s parting words. “You’re in charge, Dewey!” She had grabbed his skinny arm tightly as she jerked him away from the others; her sharp nails pinched into his skin as he tried to pull away in fear. “You better be sure that nothin’ happens while I’m gone, ya hear? If there’re any problems, I’ll lay inta ya good.” She gave his arm one final, sharp shake and then vanished quickly.
Close to the front door stoop, numerous pieces of jagged window glass littered the ground and he poked at the shards with his bare toe. The upstairs bedroom window had been broken out two days earlier during a game of “pirates’ raid,” just shortly after Cora left. About an hour after their mother’s stern warning about being good and staying out of trouble, the four brothers had retreated to the upstairs, rejoicing in their freedom. The mattress on the floor had been the ship and Duane had been an enemy pirate trying to board. Dewey had torn out a two-foot section of wallboard and thrown it at Duane to repel the boarding, but Duane had ducked and the piece of plaster went skidding across the bare floor. In both frustration and excitement, Duane hurled a partially full chamber pot cannonball at his older brother. Dewey had ducked quickly and the ceramic container crashed through the window, knocking out most of the pane of glass. Though the glass was carried outward into the front yard, a good many of the shards landed in the front entryway, beyond the porch, creating a hazardous pathway. To make sure that the other children didn’t cut their feet, Dewey and Duane went down later and laid bricks and boards over the glass. The dangerous threshold even tied in nicely with the “pirate” motif of their play and games and later became the “plank.” The plank worked out quite well until stupid Leeland’s foot slipped off one of the boards and a sliver of glass sliced his heel open. Leeland began simultaneously bleeding and screaming until Dewey finally found an old roll of gauze and wrapped his brother’s foot tightly. Dewey still remembered his brother whimpering for hours; he was tired of taking care of his troublesome brothers.
After carefully negotiating the pirates’ plank covering the glass, he stuck his hands in his deep pockets, walked to the outhouse, and relieved himself. The building smelled even worse than the upstairs bedroom and he was glad to get back out into the fresh air of the yard. The dew-wet tufts of prairie grass that grew on the periphery of the yard, all the way back past the collapsing barn and the broken down split rail fence, felt nice on his bare toes and heels as he walked back toward the house. The heavy shade from the tree prevented anything from growing beneath it and the gray dirt for ten yards around the thick trunk had been ground down by small bare feet into a soft powder. The tree had continually been a daytime gathering place for the brothers and several ruts had been worn around the base, ruts filled with the fine dirt. Dewey went to the hanging tire and sat in the swing, moving back and forth idly, dragging his large toe in the cool earth and listlessly making lazy swirl marks on the loose ground. His thoughts fell to food for the day. The leftovers his mother had gathered together for the boys were already gone and now nothing remained for the four rapidly growing youngsters, with raging appetites, to eat. Bread would be the easiest thing to make, he decided.
A bit later in the morning, when his brothers had all risen and drifted hungrily down to the kitchen, Dewey revealed his plan to Duane, whose eyes were still sleepily half closed. Partially to get his attention and partially out of anger or meanness, Dewey slugged yawning Duane hard on the ball of his injured shoulder, driving his knuckles into the boney part.
“Ouch! What the heck ya do that for?”
“Listen ta me, ya nitwit!” Dewey’s fist hurt from the punch, but the psychological relief from delivering the sharp blow to his brother had been immediate and so he slugged him again even harder for emphasis. “We gotta get somethin’ ta eat ‘cause the ol’ lady probably won’t be home until tomorrow night. I seen her make bread once, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Either because of the false confidence in Dewey’s voice, or because in their early morning hunger they would agree to just about anything, all three boys nodded enthusiastic agreement to their brother’s plan. Dewey and Duane jointly began the baking project, working together as true brothers, while Lloyd and Leeland looked on hungrily, sitting back out of the way on the dirty linoleum floor in the kitchen. Based upon his recollection of how his mother had done it, Dewey led the experiment. He could find no lard or salt or baking powder in the barren cabinets, so he decided that these items were not really necessary. With Duane’s help he took a large mixing pan from beneath the sink and put in some water from the kitchen pump and several cakes of yeast from the nearly empty top cupboards. When the water and yeast were ready, they merely added flour by the handful until the mixture became a sticky blob. Then they carefully lit the fire in the stove and began kneading the dough; in unison the brothers set upon the white mass and when the four sets of dirty hands were done, the dough had become quite gray. All of the boys began laughing and poking at the puffing up and lowering of the sticky blob, delighting in their newfound game. Dewey made the final decision that the dough was right for baking, so he and Duane loaded the loaf into a large baking pan, shoved the heavy pan gently onto the grate in the kitchen oven, and closed the doors. After getting the kindling well lit, Dewey put a heavy load of wood into the stove and then placed a stick through the oven door handles to keep any heat from escaping. With the preparations complete, the four went off to play out in the yard, joyful in the prospect that they would soon have fresh bread in their empty stomachs.
Some minutes later a loud blast from the kitchen quite suddenly interrupted the youngsters’ play. A few moments of uncertainty passed before Dewey yelled out excitedly “She’s ready!” The brothers ran back inside the house, Dewey first, and they stopped abruptly at the door leading into the kitchen. “Gol dang!” said Duane in amazement and joy.
The expanding bread had blown the door of the oven open and gooey blobs, the remnants of the doughy concoction, hung suspended from the cabinets and the sink and various places around the kitchen, dangling like brownish icicles. The boys reveled at the sight only for a few moments and began immediately to eat without question. When at long last their hunger had been satisfied, they just looked at each other and then gravitated back outside to resume their play. The force of the bread explosion had been so strong that the oven door hung off of one of its hinges. But the four brothers would have plenty to eat for the remainder of their mother’s absence; now whenever they were hungry all they had to do was go in the kitchen, merely peal a piece of bread off of the wall or one of the cabinets or off the floor, and they would have food. Life again turned good for them, primarily because of Dewey’s innovative, fearless spirit.
With their basic needs taken care of, the boys could continue their pursuit of exploring the world around them. The game of pirates continued. The cottonwood became the sweeping, fully sailed ship. Dewey and Duane created more and more details to embellish the pretend atmosphere and then decided to venture off to the junkyard that lay a few miles down the road, on the other side of the Indian’s place. Leeland and Lloyd wanted to come along and even cried violently in fear of being left alone when Dewey and Duane emphatically said “No!” and walked off toward the highway. The two youngsters carefully tagged along behind anyway, trailing their older brothers at a safe distance, until Dewey and Duane turned around and began throwing stones at them. But the two did not move, except to dodge a rock or two, and stood there silently in the middle of the dirt roadway. Becoming angrier at their disobedience, Dewey decided to lock the two young brothers in the upstairs closet to keep them from following; their tiny, hysterical cries were no longer audible when Dewey and Duane reached Highway 2 and turned toward the junkyard.
On the way they checked out the bums’ camp in the grove of box elder and ash and elm trees beside the Soo Line railroad tracks that paralleled the road, but the camp contained no food to be scavenged. Continuing their odyssey in the warm sun, sometimes walking with their arms on each other’s shoulders, kicking at small stones, they headed due north to Art Jenkins’ Truck, Tractor, and Auto Junkyard. Once there, they ambled slowly through the several rows of vehicles rotting in the afternoon sun, excitedly looking for plunder. They were able to salvage a small, dead automobile battery and then a trumpet horn from the wrecked hulk of a ’36 Packard Town Car and a large, shiny hubcap from a ’33 Cord 810 with which to steer their pirate ship. With a good deal of difficulty, the boys hauled the booty home. They piled the battery and horn onto the hubcap, struggling greatly to carry the goods between them along the road. Arriving back at the farmyard, they set the treasure at the foot of the cottonwood.
Dewey took command and immediately began shouting orders. “Duane! Go get them damned prisoners! We’ll make ‘em walk the plank!” Using a palm-sized rock, he roughly nailed the shiny Cord hubcap to the tree and was soon carefully steering the imaginary cottonwood pirate ship, skillfully guiding it through troubled waters.
Duane obediently went upstairs to release the captives, but when he got up there the two brothers had cried themselves to sleep. He roughly pushed at their shoulders with his dirty bare foot until they woke up and then he ordered them downstairs. When the two younger brothers finally emerged from the house, bleary-eyed, blinking at the bright afternoon sun, Dewey immediately commanded that they again be taken captive. Duane obediently tied them to the cottonwood tree, using a section of rotting cotton rope from the sagging clothesline in the rear of the house.
As captain of the ship, Dewey kept barking out orders through the trumpet horn. Meanwhile, because he was such a good climber, Duane had secured the battery to the last remaining length of clothesline rope and began climbing the tree. When he had reached a branch half way up, he looped the cord over the limb and let the end fall to the ground. Together he and Dewey hoisted the battery up to about seven feet off the ground and secured the line. “This is the anchor for the ship!” he yelled out proudly to Dewey, who had returned to the helm. “Good work, Duane!” Dewey hollered back.
Dewey converted the trumpet horn to a telescope and began surveying the far off horizons. The late afternoon wind began to pick up, once more rustling the leaves in the tree, making them appear to be the billowing sails of the ship. “Throw me the telescope! I think I see something!” shouted Duane, but Dewey just ignored his brother and kept steering the ship off towards the horizon. An argument quickly erupted between the Dewey and Duane and when Dewey climbed up into the tree to confront his brother, a heated swordfight soon ensued between the two. Using butcher knives that had earlier been brought out from the kitchen, the two hacked away at each other, the sharp metal making clashing sounds as steel blade struck against steel blade, leaving heavy nicks on the sharp edges. In all of the excitement, Lloyd and Leeland had worked themselves free from their bonds and gleefully danced around beneath their swashbuckling brothers fighting in the branches above. The brothers’ flailing swords cut swaths in the branches and scraps of leaves and twigs fell to the ground. All of the movement in the tree, though, began to gradually loosen the rotted rope they had wrapped around the battery anchor; when the binding finally let go, the suspended battery fell and, before hitting the ground, landed a glancing blow to the forehead of Leeland’s uplifted face, splitting open the surface skin.
Little Leeland didn’t let out a cry or make a sound—just fell backwards flat on the ground. His small knees didn’t even buckle and so his head made a muffled thud when it landed in the soft dirt beneath the tree. His eyelids were opened slightly, but his eyes were somewhat rolled back in their sockets. Dewey could only helplessly watch the accident, mouth agape, paralyzed for several seconds before his instincts and past experiences forced his actions. He scampered down out of the tree and skidded up on his knees to where his brother lay semiconscious.
“Shit, oh shit! Please don’t be dead, Lee! Please don’t be dead!” Dewey cradled Leeland’s head in his hands, rocking back and forth, moaning and beginning to cry. “God, don’t make him be dead!”
Duane was still up in the tree, looking down, transfixed by the sight of his brother’s bleeding head. “Get sumpthin’ to stop the bleeding!” Dewey yelled up at him. Duane climbed down out of the tree, ran into the house, and grabbed the towel lying on the front room floor. Red splotches of Leeland’s dried foot blood already covered most of the cloth, but there was still enough clean space to hold over his new wound.
After several minutes Leeland regained consciousness and smiled up listlessly at his brothers’ concerned faces. Though the bleeding had mostly subsided, the skin on both sides of the gash lay flayed open. Dewey, in his young wisdom, instantly made the decision to take his younger brother to town for medical attention. “Come on!” he commanded Duane. The two older boys lifted up and cradled Leeland between them and began walking unsteadily out toward Highway 2, with frightened Lloyd trailing behind at a distance. When they reached the roadway, it was not too long until Orville “Buck” Lund came by, stopped, and with only a few questions loaded the four up on the back of his flatbed pickup. Lund put the accelerator to the floor and sped into Farmington, where he pulled the truck up with a slight skid in front of Doctor Christianson’s office/house. Before the truck had come to a full stop in the driveway, Lund bounced from the cab, scooped up Leeland in his big, farmer-tanned arms and carried the youngster towards the doctor’s office, with the three other brothers following behind closely. “Doc! Doc! You in there?” Orville yelled out excitedly as he took the front porch steps two at a time.
Doc Christianson knew the boys quite well, at least their fractures and contusions, so he reassured Orville that the children would be all right, commended him several times for his act of caring kindness, and sent him on his way. After stitching up Leeland’s oozing wound and making sure that he only had a mild concussion, and then cleaning out and dressing the two-day-old gash on the child’s foot as well, the doctor got all of the boys a few pieces of hard peppermint candy and commenced to phone the sheriff.
“Ben, I got them Lambson boys in here again. Yeah. Yeah. All of ‘em. I stitched up little Leeland . . . the youngest one. . . . Yeah. Busted head, but I think that he’ll be all right. Okay, but you need ta come over here. I don’t know where their mother is and I don’t know what ta do with ‘em.”
About twenty minutes passed before Sheriff Bennett Wilt came over to the doctor’s office and almost immediately began to interrogate the brothers. Dewey, being the eldest, was the unofficial spokesperson.
“Where’s your ma?
“When’d she leave?”
“Dunno. Coupla days ago . . . . Thursday, I think. Maybe Friday. Dunno.”
“I think she’s workin’,” volunteered Duane and Dewey just gave him a deadly Dewey stare.
“I checked down at the Ideal Bar on the way over and she ain’t there. No one’s seen her. Red wasn’t there neither, so maybe they’re off somewhere together,” Sheriff Wilt said to no one in particular. The sheriff looked again at the boys, stern and intent, as though he was trying to sort out and categorize all of the incoming facts and information so that he could make the correct decision. Then he stood directly in front of Duane, hands on his thick hips, and looked severely down at the boy. “When’s she gonna be home?”
“Dunno,” said Duane softly and he looked at the clean, brown-and-green-specked white linoleum beneath his dirty, bare feet.
Sheriff Wilt backed off and turned to the doctor. “Ain’t she pregnant? Seems like every time Iver comes home, she gets knocked up. Then he runs off again. Never sends her any money, from what I hear.” He spoke directly to the doctor, as though the children were invisible. “But she always takes him back. Every dang time.”
“Yeah, I saw her a while back. She came in for a checkup . . . said she thought she might be in a motherly way. Wanted somethin’ for the sickness. She must be six months along by now.”
“You’d think she’d be a bit more careful. Some folks say it’s Red’s.”
“I don’t know. Could be.” The doctor surveyed the four children reflectively. “Could be anybody’s, far as that goes.
“What’s the boy’s condition?” Sheriff Wilt asked, pointing his sagging, dimpled chin towards Leeland.
“He’s okay, I think. Just addled his brains a bit. I sewed him up and bandaged his foot, but like I said, I think he should stay here overnight. I’ll keep him here and the wife’ll give him a bath and get him cleaned up. Maybe find him some clean clothes. She’s got some left over from Edward. But you’ll need to find someplace for the others.” Then the doctor turned to the sheriff, a deep seriousness in his voice. “And, Ben, you really gotta do something this time before one of ‘em gets killed. This is the third time this year I’ve sewn one or the other of ‘em up. Ya’ know I don’t mind . . . it’s my job. But I don’t get any money for it either.”
“Yeah, these Lambson kids are some pretty rough monkeys. I’ll keep the other three with me and pick this ‘ere one up in the mornin’. Tomorrow I’ll drive out after church and sees if the mother is ta home. Maybe talk some sense inta her. I’ve gotten several complaints from other folks as well.”
Sheriff Wilt sighed heavily under the pressures and responsibility of his job, then turned and took Dewey, Duane, and Lloyd home with him. “Come on, you kids,” he said as he took Duane and Lloyd by the hand; Dewey followed sullenly behind.
There was no place else to take them, except to the jailhouse, and Sara, his wife, would certainly not have that. When they arrived at the sheriff’s home, the three brothers ran excitedly around the house and only settled down when Sara fed them dinner. Both she and Ben looked on, slack-jawed, at the amount of food the boys ate and ate and ate. Dinner was followed by thick slices of apple pie with cheese on top; afterwards, the children helped clean up and then pestered Sara and Ben long into the night with questions about the sheriff’s badge and gun and why the two had no children. The couple tried to clean up the boys to make them presentable at church the next day: Sara washed their filthy clothes and Sheriff Wilt stood guard while the three youngsters washed themselves almost raw and reveled and frolicked in the murky, tepid bathwater. Sara rubbed the soft towels across their scrubbed-red bodies and tussled lovingly the damp tufts of clean hair on their heads, telling them all the while that they were handsome little men.
The boys slept well and Lloyd didn’t even wet his bed. In the morning Sara dug out several sets of shirts, trousers, socks and shoes she had packed far back in the closet after the death of her own two young children from influenza. When the three were all dressed, with their hair slicked back on their heads, she sat them down at the kitchen table. Joyfully she prepared a large breakfast of blueberry pancakes, pork sausage, and eggs, all the time humming softly and fussing pleasantly over the youngsters. The Lambson brothers again ate like they had not seen food for days; in fact, Sara and Sheriff Wilt could hardly get the boys away from the table in time for them all to make it to the 10 a.m. service at the Zion Lutheran Community Church. The group purposely sat in the rear of the church to avoid attention; however, more than one member of the congregation craned his or her head to catch a glimpse of the brothers. Most of the parishioners had heard about the unruly, ill-behaved Lambson youngsters, so a good deal of curious gawking took place amidst the congregation before the start of the service.
At the beginning of the worship time, fascinated by the seriousness of the ceremony and the solemn singing of the first hymn, the boys behaved fairly well, considering they had no history of being around other people for extended periods of time. Their socialization processes had been limited. Cora had registered Dewey and Duane in Farmington Public School #2, but they hadn’t attended any of the classes for well over six months. Though Dewey and Duane were a year apart, they were placed in the same classroom, two grades below where they should have been. Dewey was quickly labeled a “bully” because on the first day of school Edith Welty said he stunk and Dewey punched the young girl hard in the stomach, out by the sandbox, knocking the wind right out of her. From that point on his teacher, Miss Jane Ellen Marmen, considered him to be a disciplinary problem and thus frequently isolated him from the class by placing him for long periods of time in the hall outside of the classroom. “You two Lambson kids are dumber than a couple of rocks!” she once said, her severely pursed lips barely moving, as she grabbed Dewey’s narrow shoulders and slammed him into a wooden chair in the hallway. Miss Marmen, who also taught Sunday school at the Methodist Church, disliked the two boys intensely and smiled smugly whenever a choir of children would surround them in the schoolyard, chanting a delightful chorus of “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, all good children go to heaven. When they get there they will say, ‘Lambsons, Lambsons, where are they!’” Then one day when the two brothers were walking the long dirt road home from the schoolhouse, several older students caught up with Duane, who had fallen behind, and began to taunt him. When Dewey ran back to defend Duane, both of the brothers were pretty well beaten up; at that point they decided NEVER to return to the school.
As the service progressed, the three became infatuated with the lighting of the candles. They stared intently as the symbolic altar candles were lit one after the other, and the flickering flames reflected in the intense stare of their sparkling, curious eyes. The three held their mouths open in unison for several moments until Lloyd mumbled to his brothers, “Is there gonna be a fire?”
And before too long, as a result of their lack of formal training and because of the excitement generated by their participation in an actual religious activity, their curiosity overwhelmed them and their inquisitiveness continued unabated throughout the remainder of the service. Sitting between Ben and Sara, the boys knelt and then stood up in the pews to get a better view, squirming restlessly as they watched the drama being played out before them.
“Why’s that guy hangin’ on them pieces ‘a wooden fence posts?”
“Lookee, he’s bleedin’ from his guts!”
“Is he dead? Who kilt ‘em? How come?”
“Why’s he almost nekkid?”
“How come that window got different colored glass?”
“Who’s the guy in that piture on the wall? Why’re all the kids and sheeps around ‘im?”
“How come he’s kneelin’ by ’em?”
“What’s that big hook he’s holdin’? Is he gonna hit ’em?”
“How come he’s kneelin”?”
Despite being hushed and double hushed, their questions and childish observations did not cease for the next thirty-seven minutes. Sara and Ben’s faces became bright red as more and more of the congregation turned and looked at them with condescending glances.
“What’s in the plates that them guys is passin’ around?”
“I hope it’s sumthin’ ta eat!”
“Wow! It’s money.”
“Can I take some when it comes ta me?”
“Whatta we doin’ now? Prayin’? What’s prayin’?”
“Do we gotta bow our heads, too?”
“Who we prayin’ to?”
“Can I talk if I jus’ whisper?”
“Gimme that Bible book! You can’t read!”
“Can so! Gimme it back!”
“Now see what ya done! Ya tore the pages!”
Sometimes the volume of their questions and insights about the Christian epoch almost overcame the words of the liturgist, as well as the profound sermon of the minister. But the good Reverend Halstad prevailed by delivering his words on Christian responsibility more forcefully and certainly with much more eloquence and rigor. The message, after all, needed to be heard. In his heart, however, Reverend Halstad gave silent thanks during the closing hymn that the services that day did not include communion worship.
After church, Sara guided the children home and fed them a lunch of thick shepherd’s pie while Sheriff Wilt stayed behind to talk to the minister. Reverend Halstad backed away a bit when he saw the sheriff approaching; however, with a bit of cajoling, the minister reluctantly agreed to accompany Sheriff Wilt to return the boys home. The two public servants earnestly discussed the possibility of talking at length to Cora, perhaps making her own up to her own Christian and civic responsibilities and take better care of her children.
Immediately following lunch, and after handing them each a paper sack containing their freshly washed trousers and food enough to last them for a few days, Sara embraced the boys warmly and gently, then tenderly stroked their faces. She also had packed some clothes and provisions for Leeland, which she entrusted to Duane. As they were walking away, a smiling Duane turned and waved and called out “Bye, mom!” Then Lloyd and Dewey began the chant and they all repeated the chorus of “Bye, Mom! Bye, Mom! Bye, Mom” until Sara began weeping quietly in happiness.
The sheriff, the reverend, and the three brothers packed themselves into the sheriff’s car and traveled the short distance over to pick up Leeland, who sported a large gauze bandage down the center of his forehead and two huge black eyes. Dewey, Duane, and Lloyd excitedly welcomed him by pounding him on his back and exploring his darkened eyes and swollen scalp and heavily wrapped heel. The six drove on out to the Lambson house in the early afternoon; the boys, filled with food and energy, bounced excitedly on the backseat, yelling and shouting joyfully, asking rapid, unceasing questions of the reverend and the sheriff. When they pulled up into the yard, the boys jumped from the car and disappeared into the barn, plundering the supplies Sara Wilt had provided for them. The sheriff and the reverend inspected the house, shook their heads sadly in unison at the smell and at the sparse conditions, and then went back outside to wait. While the two authority figures from the town sat relaxed in the police car, sometimes talking about civic affairs and sometimes dozing lightly, with their legs stretched out through the open doors of the vehicle, the Lambson children scampered around the front yard and through the house. Later in the afternoon, with the reddening sun dipping down towards dusk, the reverend and the sheriff called the boys together. Well fed and happy . . . safe and secure for the moment . . . the youngsters returned to the two authority figures with no hesitation.
“The Reverend and me are going to have to go back to town, so you boys stay right here until your momma comes home,” the sheriff told them sternly, looking at each with a firm gaze. “When she gets here, you tell her what you done. You tell her, too, that the reverend here and me will be back out here tomorrow mornin’ to talk to her. Got that?! Let’s go, Reverend.”
Before the two officials left, Reverend Halstad gathered the boys around him, under the long shadow of the cottonwood tree, and ordered them to bow their heads. He placed his hands on Dewey and Duane’s shoulders and gathered them close. He lowered his own head as well and spoke slowly, deliberately, in a deep and resonant tone: “Heavenly Father, I ask that You look down upon Your flock and bless us all. I ask, dear Father, that through Your divine will You intercede and change the ways of these misguided lambs . . . return them to Your fold, oh Lord. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Excited that the reverend would pray with and for them, the brothers crowded around him, clutching onto his pants legs as he made his way back to the car. Brushing away their small, clinging hands, he sat down in the front seat, pushed the children back, and slammed the heavy door. The brothers waved and waved as the sheriff’s car left the farmyard, then they ran after it until it became enveloped in a swirling ball of dust, chasing it along the dry dirt road until it turned onto Highway 2 towards town and disappeared.
Later that night, after the boys had gone to bed, Cora came home and went immediately to bed without even going up to look in on her children. The next day the brothers excitedly related to their mother the full details of their adventure, but she said nothing . . . did not scold them or beat them or anything. She merely shook her aching head heavily, wished that she had never been born, and left again that same evening to see a friend.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Wilt became involved in another investigation and Reverend Halstad was called away to pray for a dying parishioner, one who had tithed regularly. So the two Farmington public servants never did come out to see Cora that day, or the next, or the next, for that matter. Nobody from the town, it seems, chose to take responsibility for the plight of the Lambson children.
About the Author
John H. Paddison is Emeritus Professor of English at Central Arizona College, where he is still employed on a part-time basis as the Director of International Studies. Prior to his service at Central Arizona College, he had teaching assignments at Northern Arizona University, Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, and McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. Paddison received his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of California at San Bernardino, his Master of Arts Degree from Northern Arizona University, and his Doctoral Degree from the University of Arizona, in the field of Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English. Currently he continues to work on extended teacher/student exchange programs with various foreign schools, the most prominent of which is Northeastern University, in Shenyang, China.
Paddison’s writing career started with numerous non-fiction publications in the education field and has since branched out to the fiction genre. Upcoming publications include a novella entitled The Neighborhood, a number of short stories, and a photo narrative about his experiences in China, entitled An American Academic in Li Bai’s Court: China Photos and Reflections,
Charles D. Orvik is a retired attorney at law, after having practiced law in Rugby, North Dakota for forty years. Orvik received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from the University of North Dakota, and LLB from the University of North Dakota, and a JD in Law from the University of North Dakota. In his law practice he served as elected State Attorney for over twenty years, while still maintaining a general practice of law, along with accounting and tax law.
Orvik was admitted to and qualified as an Attorney and Counselor of the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Federal Court, and the Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota. In addition, he served on the Board of Directors of the following organizations: the State Bar Association of North Dakota, the North Central District Bar Association (president), the North Dakota State Attorneys Association (president). As a crusader against child abuse and neglect, he has worked closely with the Minot Office of the North Dakota Mental Health Board, the Minot Office of the Dakota Human Services Center Board, the North Dakota Lutheran Social Services Board, and various North Dakota Human Service Centers.