The late June sun baked down on the little Iowa prairie town. In St. Patrick's church the ladies shifted their long skirts hoping for a bit of a breeze and fanned themselves with their prayer books.
Father Morris droned on in Latin as the congregation nodded on the hard benches. Emmet nudged his pa and whispered, "I think it's clouding up."
"But it's getting dark. Look." He pointed to the window.
Dark clouds rolled toward the town, the winds stirring up the dust as they came. Emmet slipped past his pa and ran to the window. "I don't see any funnel," he whispered loudly.
Hiram reached out a long arm and snagged his boy by the shirttail. "Sit and be still," he whispered back. Mrs. Moynihan behind him tsk-tsked and pointed to the priest up front.
Suddenly the rain hit as if a washtub had overturned in the sky. Water fell in gallons, whole waterfalls of rain. Icy balls of hail rattled on the tin roof.
A flash of lightning woke Mr. Duffy and made his wife cross herself a couple of times.
"One elephant, two elephant, three elephant..." mumbled Emmet. His pa nudged him with an elbow. "You're in church, Emmet."
"Four elephant, five elephant..." Boom! A deafening thunderclap rocked the church. "Three miles, Pa. It took six seconds for the sound to..."
Hiram Roche glared down at his son. "Mind your manners, boy. You're in the house of God." Emmet hung his head. Ma would have been interested, he thought. She knew how sound traveled. She would know God doesn't mind a little thing like watching a thunderstorm.
The rain stopped as quickly as it started. As Father Morris gave the blessing, half of the people were already in the aisles heading for the door. Once outside, they found the rain had let up and the farmers started grumbling. "Just a teaser. Won't even wet the soil."
"The corn'll cook in the ground before it grows."
"Yeah. Maybe we'll have to eat the mush from the seeds this year. The first rain in four weeks and then over in a few minutes. It's gonna be another bad year."
"The only thing that's growing is the wild grass. The blamed roots go darn near to China."
"Well, the Chinese can have them. I'm doggone tired of plowing up a field and putting in good seed only to see it wither off before July 4th."
"Look over there, Pa," Emmet exclaimed. "See the big rainbow? Ma always liked rainbows."
Hiram looked out where Emmet pointed. "Hey, that looks like smoke." Sure enough, a column of dark smoke was rising from the damp prairie, getting bigger every second. "Something's burning out there," he shouted at the crowd. "There's a big fire off that way."
Everyone turned and stared where he was pointing. "It must be the school. Grass don't send smoke up straight that way." Father Morris called out to the altar boy, "Tom, ring the bell! There's a fire out toward the log school."
"Fire! It's the country school!" The farmers all shouted at each other to get out there. Bring buckets! Get shovels! The rain was forgotten. Their school was on fire. The school they just built a few years ago so the farmers' children could learn to read and write. People took off at a run, jumping into their wagons and buggies and heading out toward the log schoolhouse three miles away. Some of the kids started to cry in fear. Others chanted, "No more teacher. No more books." Their parents smacked them. A cloud of dust rose behind the crowd as everyone hurried out of town to help save the log school out among the cornfields.
By the time they arrived, it was far too late. The little school was a smoldering ruin. The smell of smoke blended with the odor of wet wood. Horses reared, spooked by the smell of smoke. A few logs were still in place, charred and steaming. Most of the desks were gone, leaving only the topless iron frames. The old potbelly stove stood unaffected in the middle, but the bookshelves were filled with nothing but ashes.
"It will mean another tax levy," the Mayor said, shaking his head. "Won't be popular... not popular at all. Farmers don't have spare cash to fritter away on book learning. They'll vote it down and then we'll have no school at all."
Emmet pulled on his father's sleeve. "I told them to put in a lightning rod. Don't you remember, Pa?"
"Yes, I remember all right. Do you remember what the men on the school board said? They said you're a whippersnapper, and bold, and undisciplined and that I should take a switch to you. I was so embarrassed. A boy of eight shouldn't advise the board. They don't take advice, even when it's true. And your Ma was lying sick in her bed at home waiting to hear about the meeting. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I told her."
Emmet went closer to have a better look. "Look at the bookshelves! Even their encyclopedia is gone! That was the best thing in the whole place! And the big map! What will the kids learn with?" He poked at the ashes and got them all over his knee pants.
"They're just books, boy," a neighbor, Jim Ronan, said. "At least nobody got hurt."
Emmet sniffled. Ma understood about the lightning rod. Now she was gone and the country school was gone too. One stupid thing after another... It still hurt to remember Ma.
Hiram handed him his kerchief. "Wipe your eyes, Emmet and straighten up. What will people think? Your ma would want you to be brave like she was." He hoisted the boy back up on their horse and shook the reins to start.
They rode slowly back toward town. The road was wet and muddy but the dirt in the fields was still firm and dry. Emmet's sniffling tapered off. "Do you think they'll even have a school any more, Pa?"
"Of course. We can't have kids growing up like weeds with no learning. Lucky for you we live close to the nuns' school at St. Patrick's. The kids on the farms need a place to learn, though. But it's gonna be expensive to rebuild."
"The teacher from last year, Miss Murphy, got married and moved out to the Wyoming territory. Remember that rancher? Will Hancock? So there's no teacher either."
"Rancher my tailbone--he just had a lot to say. I think he was all wind. Miss Murphy is probably living in a tent and missing her family. But it's not our affair....."
Hiram rode along a while pondering the teacher problem. "Maybe Mary Kelly will take the job," he said finally. "She just came back from Normal School last week. Her family needs the pay. Her ma has her hands full running the general store and keeping track of all those boys since her husband died."
"Do you think she's mean like her brothers? They call me names, especially that Tom."
"Do you do something to stir 'em up, Emmet? Give 'em little lectures?"
"I just talk, Pa. Talk about stuff I find out. Then they call me professor and point and laugh."
They trotted on as Hiram Roche considered. "Maybe they don't want to hear all that science stuff. It gets pretty deep sometimes. You should just play with them, not try to teach them. Just play catch or something."
"I can't see the ball until it's right at me," Emmet said. "Then when I catch it I drop it. My spectacles go flying off. I'm just not the kind to have friends, I guess." He sniffed and rubbed his nose on his sleeve. "Ma was my friend."
"Can't get her back son. The Almighty saw fit to take her and that's that. Life has to go on."
"Can we stop at the graveyard, Pa? I can pick some flowers."
"They're just weeds, Emmet." Hiram felt Emmet droop. "On second thought, I admit they're pretty weeds. Your ma was partial to anything nature provided." He pulled over and let Emmet slide down from the horse.
At the side of the road where the fields weren't plowed, the wild prairie plants were in bloom. Bunches of delicate pink columbines grew almost up to Emmet's waist and shooting stars poked their little white flowers up in between. Yellow prairie coneflowers were scattered here and there, and the purple leadplants grew in big patches. "I think Ma would like these," Emmet said, breaking off some columbines and leadplant. "She'd like the pink and purple together."
They rode together back to town and stopped in the graveyard behind the church. Emmet put the flowers on a mound covered with young grass, wilted in the heat. The inscription on the stone read: Maud Doherty Roche, Wife and Mother, 1860-1887. Slowly they made their way back to their lonely rooms at the post office.