The branches of the prairie scrub oak scratched and banged together in a sharp wind that howled about the tableland. Above the rustling tangles, the buttes rose bleak and silent beneath the gnarled sky.
Jon-Bob, his collar lifted against the weather, walked aimlessly. He was so deep in thought that he hardly heard the thunder that roared overhead like a stampede in heaven. He paused by an ancient deadfall, the woody carcass barely visible above a large clump of tall, waving grass. He sat heavily on a log, the weight of gray uncertainty pressing down on him like the leaden sky upon the land.
Jon-Bob’s five-year-old sister, Charity, lay close to death in the family’s small dugout built in the face of a low red hill a few hundred yards behind him. Doc Sorenson had done all he could to hold together Charity’s broken body. All that was left for him to do was to offer quiet solace to the girl’s mother, pat her hand, and head back across the huge flatness in his coal-box buggy.
Jon-Bob’s mother had assisted the doctor during the long night. His father, with the help of Brother Jobias Thatcher, whom Jon-Bob had ridden six miles across the flats to fetch, had administered to the unconscious girl.
Jon-Bob picked at the log with his finger and sighed despairingly. A sudden fit of wind rolled across the red earth like a dark memory, and it was yesterday again. He saw his sister sitting barefoot in the yard, playing with her raggedy doll. Suddenly jagged bolts of lightning burned down, and thunder boomed like a hundred cannons. The corral gate was torn asunder as a half-dozen fear-prodded steers burst crazily into the yard behind Charity. Jon-Bob, seated on the porch, had only enough time to scream before the longhorns trampled the small girl underfoot.
Back in the present, Jon-Bob heard someone crying. He stood and looked back toward the dugout. His mother was stumbling blindly out onto the little buckled porch. After a moment his father appeared and put his arm around Jon-Bob’s mother and held her close.
“No!” Jon-Bob gasped in a stunned whisper. “Charity’s not dead. She can’t be!”
Jon-Bob’s sister was buried next to her grandfather in a small circle of cottonwoods a few hundred yards from the house.
A few days later Jon-Bob stepped out into the broad red silence again, this time to try to walk out some of his pain.
An elderly Indian woman by the name of Two Moons Dancing watched him cross below the cottonwoods as she carried a side of smoke-house meat toward the dugout. She studied him for a moment, then set the meat inside and followed after him.
Two Moons Dancing had been taken in by Jon-Bob’s parents some years before, when her own family died in a raging prairie fire. She had been seriously burned herself, but the boy’s father and mother had nursed her back to health. Shortly thereafter she had discovered an additional bond with this pioneer family: They, too, were Mormons. Her father, Standing Bear, had been taught by two young missionaries, and his testimony had inspired her to enter the waters of baptism.
Jon-Bob stooped to lay some yellow wildflowers at the foot of his sister’s tombstone, below an epitaph that read:
HERE LIES A CHILD OF GOD. MAY SHE REST WITH QUEENS.
A sunbaked, weathered hand rested softly on Jon-Bob’s shoulder. He quickly brushed aside some tears and looked up at the kindly face behind him. “Will you share your thoughts with this old woman?”
Jon-Bob silently probed the dark eyes bright with understanding and concern, then nodded. He and Two Moons Dancing wandered slowly through the sunlit sage. “Why did Charity have to die?” Jon-Bob finally got out. “Why not someone who was mean or bad, or someone older?”
“Who gets chosen and when, Jon-Bob, is a mystery. Only the Great One knows for sure.” Two Moons Dancing thought quietly on the matter, then continued, “It would have been fairer if it had been me.”
“No, Two Moons Dancing!” Jon-Bob blurted out with ardent sincerity.
The Indian woman nodded. “I am seventy-one years old, and I have had a full, happy life. I have learned and seen much—too much, maybe, for just one life.”
“You’re not going to die,” Jon-Bob said.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” returned Two Moons Dancing. “And in time so are you—and everyone else you love and care about. And it’s going to hurt each time someone does.”
Jon-Bob’s eyes welled up. “It hurts so bad, Two Moons Dancing!”
The old woman took the eleven-year-old boy’s arm and turned him around; then she rested her hands on his small shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. “Of course it does, Jon-Bob. And that is not wrong or bad. It is good. It is oftentimes an ache that keeps love alive, just as a cold rain gives life to the desert flower. Think about it, small one.”
They started to walk again. “Life. Death. Life beyond death. It is all one grand eternal round, all a part of the Great Spirit’s glorious plan. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and we must gather our memories in between, as the flowers of the field, and remember with warmth the life that was. And is. And always will be, for things eternal never die.”
Jon-Bob felt some relief, but he still wrestled with doubts. “You’re talking about time, aren’t you?”
“In a way, perhaps.”
“Well, I’m not too happy about time. It takes things away.”
“Can it not also bring them back together again?” the old woman suggested.
Jon-Bob scratched his head. “I guess maybe you’re right.”
“The time will come when you and your little sister will be together again, touching souls.” She wrapped her arm around Jon-Bob as they walked on together through the bright morning.