WHAPP! The head of a sunflower toppled to the ground. “All’s well now, my lady. The Duke of Mogar’s cruelty to others is at an end.”
Jason and his older sister Emily were playing knights and ladies, a pastime of great imagination they both enjoyed whenever the weather and chores allowed.
“Gruuuk! Gruuuk!” crowed Marcus, seeming to approve of the good knight’s brave deed. Then with a single jump and flutter of wings, the rooster alighted on Emily’s shoulder.
“What do you think, Marcus?” Emily asked as she smoothed the bird’s feathers. “Didn’t my knight slay the duke handily?”
Jason beamed under his sister’s praise, and tucked the nicked and battered boomerang he used for a sword into his belt.
“Let’s have our lunch now, Jason,” Emily suggested, and she stopped under the shade of a large sycamore tree to spread the contents of a bundle she had been carrying. There were wedges of cheese the color of the Montana summer sun, hefty slices of oatmeal bread, some molasses cookies, and two McIntosh apples. While they ate their lunch, Marcus scratched up some grubs and other delicacies he fancied. Then when he left off scratching, he strutted about in his imperial manner, convinced of his elegance.
Emily tossed Marcus a piece of bread that was quickly eaten. She remembered when the rooster was still a feisty Rhode Island Red chick. Even then there was something extraordinary about his appearance and behavior. He was larger by half than any of the others of the same hatch and more assertive. And there was a certain nobility in his bearing that reminded Emily of the character of Marcus in a book about Roman gladiators she had once read. So Marcus he became and the name suited him perfectly!
Marcus followed Emily around from the start, accepting tidbits whenever she offered any. Mama and Papa were amused at first by the bird’s attachment, but when his loyalty persisted it was obvious that he was Emily’s protector as much as any watchdog could have been and just as faithful. And whenever the children played knights and ladies, Marcus included himself in the adventure.
On the way back to the house to do their chores that afternoon, the children heard old Bully snorting before they saw Papa, guiding his team up over a rise. They were heading for the barn, and Jason wanted Emily to race with him, to see if they could beat Papa home. But Emily had started coughing again. “We’ll race him tomorrow,” he said good-naturedly.
After supper that night Emily went to bed early. The next morning she was burning up with fever. When Papa called the doctor, Jason knew his sister was very sick.
“It’s pneumonia,” Dr. Delaney announced with a furrowed brow after his examination. “As bad a case as I’ve ever seen.”
For several days afterward an unnatural quiet settled over the house as Mama and Papa took turns caring for Emily. They spoke in soft whispers. Doors were eased shut lest the noise disturb the little patient. Marcus, too, sensed the change. He missed his mistress and hovered about the back steps, pecking and scratching disinterestedly in the gravel.
Although Jason might have had trouble expressing his feelings for his sister, he loved Emily and missed her dearly. Then one morning after Jason had been outside rolling a barrel hoop with a stick, he came running into the kitchen. “Mama! Mama! Come quick!” he shouted. “Something’s the matter with Marcus. He’s stretched out under the steps—funny-like. And he’s not moving.”
Papa came, too, when he heard the alarm, only half shaved and with his suspenders dangling. As soon as he stooped down and pulled Emily’s pet out into the light he knew what had happened. “A weasel,” he said through tight lips. The marks under the ruffled neck feathers clearly showed where the rooster’s lifeblood had been drawn off.
“Ever since Emily’s been down,” Mama said, “Marcus has hardly left the back steps. I guess he relaxed his vigil last night and the weasel took him.”
“How will we tell Emily,” Jason agonized, “feeling poorly like she is? I’d just like to lay hold of that old varmint!”
“No you wouldn’t, son,” said Papa firmly. “They’re quick as lightning and about as vicious as an animal can be. It was just an unequal contest, that’s all.”
The three of them sat on the steps with their own thoughts for a while. Finally, Papa sighed and said, “I’ll get a shovel.” Jason went with him and then they went around to the shady side of the barn.
After the soft earth had been smoothed over, Jason asked, “Can we say some words, Papa?”
“All right, son.”
Upstairs, Mama hesitated a moment before going into the bedroom. “Emily,” she asked, “are you awake?”
“Come in, Mama,” a husky voice answered.
“How do you feel, dear?”
“Better, thanks, Mama.”
“Want me to plump up your pillows and raise the shade a little?” Emily nodded.
Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Mama wondered how to begin. She fussed with a thread on the coverlet a moment, then she started. “Emily, you remember last fall when your papa’s saddle horse Jake turned up missing?”
“Yes, Mama, and I remember how bad Papa felt when he found him dead and the mountain lion tracks all around where they had struggled. It was awful.”
“That’s right, honey, it was awful and we all felt bad, knowing how much your papa loved that old horse. But somehow we get over those hurts. Memories are softened in time, and we can more clearly see why things happen the way they do. Our hatred for the big cat gradually changed to an understanding that he was only acting out of instinct and that he must have been very hungry to attack an animal as large as a horse.
“Emily, I’m telling you this to help you bear some more hurt. And I’m sorry to have to tell you when you’ve been so sick, but there’s never a good time to hear some things.”
After Mama had explained about Marcus and the weasel, Emily sobbed out her unhappiness while Mama held her close.
When Jason came to see his sister later that afternoon, any mention of Marcus was avoided. He tried to cheer her up and talked of a new place he had found by the creek for their play. “It would make a perfect place for a castle moat!” he said excitedly. Emily managed a wan smile, but Jason knew where her thoughts were. When he couldn’t bear to feel Emily’s sadness anymore Jason fidgeted, then hugged his sister tightly and left the room.
After doing his and Emily’s chores, Jason wandered into the barn where he could hear Papa hammering on the anvil. He liked to watch the sparks scatter when Papa’s powerful arm brought his hammer down with a ringing blow to shape a horseshoe.
Nero, one of their Percheron draft (work) horses waited patiently while Papa fitted him with new shoes. A gust of wind fluttered the horse’s wispy leg feathers as it turned his head to watch Papa. Nero and his harness mate Bully together weighed well over four thousand pounds. Bully was seventeen hands tall, half a hand taller than Nero. But in the pulling contests at the fair they were both champions. There wasn’t a team in either Gallatin or Jefferson County that could outpull them. Maybe even in all of Montana, Jason speculated.
When Papa plunged the red-hot shoe he held with tongs, sizzling into the water tub, an idea came to Jason as he watched the last of the water bubbles burst. “Papa, when you’re through with old Nero, can I talk to you about something—something to make Emily happy again?”
“Sure, son, just give me a few minutes,” Papa replied.
Jason was always amazed at how expertly Papa maneuvered the big horses into position with the slightest urging. They seemed to know by his touch and the sound of his voice how fond he was of them. And they returned their master’s good feelings. It didn’t take Papa long to finish, and then Jason told him his plan.
For several days Mama was curious about all the hammering that came from Papa’s forge behind closed doors. But whenever she asked Jason or Papa about the racket, they always managed to skirt around a direct answer. When she took Emily’s lunch to the upstairs bedroom and her daughter asked, “What’s Papa making?” Mama answered, “I honestly don’t know, dear. And I don’t know how much longer I can school my curiosity.”
At the supper table that evening, Mama noticed Papa wink at Jason as he excused himself and said expansively, “Nobody ever made dumplings like that before, Mama.” Then he lifted her lightly and together they twirled twice around. “Now, Jason and I have to finish something,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “And never you mind what it is. You’ll know soon enough.”
Out in the twilight gloom of the barn, Papa said in a loud whisper, “Fetch a couple of feed sacks, Jason. We’ll put the parts in one and the tools in the other. I’ll get a length of rope and a lantern.”
When they had climbed up the ladder pole to the loft, they lugged their gear down to the door at the end of the barn where they could barely see the hay hoist silhouetted against the starry sky. Papa went up first. Next, he pulled up Jason and the sacks. Then the two forms hunkered down on top of the barn ridge and, by the soft lantern light, opened the sacks.
There was an air of expectancy in the kitchen the next morning. And in spite of the fact that Mama served Jason’s favorite meal—flapjacks and chokecherry jelly—he didn’t seem to be giving it his full attention. Papa wasn’t doing justice to his breakfast either. When Mama said she was going to take Emily’s tray up to her, they both offered their help, so they all trooped up the stairs together.
Emily was much improved, but she still felt sad and listless. Next to the family, she had loved the old rooster best of all.
Before Emily could get to her tray, Papa suggested they move her bed closer to the window, and Jason was already tugging at the blind. “Let’s let in more light,” he said. When the bed was shifted, Jason let the blind go with a FLAP, FLAP, FLAP.
Mama stopped talking in mid-sentence, and when she had caught her breath all she could say was, “Well, I declare!”
There high on the peak of the barn and facing into the first rays of the morning sun was a near-perfect likeness of Marcus, only it was fashioned out of scrap iron and brass. “It’s a weather vane, Emily,” Papa explained, “and pretty near indestructible unless a tornado snatches it away.”
“Do you like it, Em?” Jason asked excitedly. “See how he cocks his head just like Marcus always did.”
Emily thought at first she was going to cry, but then a smile made in heaven settled on her face and bathed them all with its warmth.
When she could find her voice again, Emily threw her arms around her father’s neck and cried, “Oh, Papa! Papa!” And then with wet cheeks she turned to Jason and said, “Thank you, my good knight. Well done! Now, whenever I look up outside I can see my faithful sky watcher riding on the wind.”