by Mike Voltz
part 1 of 2
The fields should have been green, but they were beginning to turn a parched yellow. Given a few weeks, they would be filled with brittle, yellow-white cornstalks. The sigh of wind that bent the tops of the corn would shortly become a harsh, rattling whisper and the growing season would be over with nothing to show for it.
Mitch Telford stood on his porch, searching the horizon. His eyes, once the dark blue of cornflowers, were faded by years of looking out over the fields. Likewise, the hair on his forearms had been bleached light brown by the sun. It was going on a month without rain and the wells had nearly been drained. Come next week, if there was no rain, Mitch figured they might just die.
Even though it was early in the week, Mitch was dressed in his Sunday best, a single outfit that had seen many years of repeat service. It was too hot to warrant more than an open shirt and jeans, but his wife had seen to it that they were both dressed for the occasion.
The church was the only building in Durham City big enough to accommodate all the townspeople. The name was something of a joke, bestowed at a time when the town fathers thought Durham might become an important stop on the way between Topeka and Wichita. That notion had been a fine dream but one that never came to fruition. The city limits sign boasted “Pop. 850...The Only Thing Growing Faster Is The Corn.” That sign had been erected during what passed for a boom time in Durham’s inglorious and dusty history.
Most families left their youngest members at home. It was too hot to get up to much mischief, anyway. Reverend Boone, known to his flock as the Preacher and to a few working girls in neighboring Kansas towns as William, stood just inside the front door, greeting the faithful. It was oppressively hot in the church and the growing number of bodies did little to move the still air.
In Boone’s accustomed place behind the pulpit stood John Anderton, mayor of a town that was dying of heat exhaustion. Boone thought that if it did rain, the buildings would swell like books left in the gutter and the creaking sound as they did so would be a sound of relief. The plants would grow too, crackling as they shot up toward the suddenly kind sky.
If John Anderton was a man accustomed to speaking in front of large crowds, he did not look it now. Anderton was middle-aged and experiencing a thinning and receding hairline. Under the strands that remained, carefully combed into the ghost of their former style, Anderton’s scalp was red and peeling. Boone wondered at the man’s vanity, that he would continue to drag a comb across that hurt landscape.
The doors of the church were pinned open with rocks, but it did little to stir the air. Anderton looked over the crowd, which had mostly filled the pews. When he spoke, his voice was too soft at first to fill the high arches of the church. Boone figured the mayor was probably more used to sit-down meetings and one-on-one glad-handing, anyway. Anderton cleared his throat and started again.
“Thank you for coming today. I know that you all have business to attend to, so I’ll try to keep this as short as possible.” He paused for a moment. The only sound was made by the paper fans the farmers waved back and forth under their chins. Boone felt sweat trickling under his arms and down his back. Standing by the door, the sun had turned the back of his shirt into a blazing sheet.
Anderton swiped at his forehead and continued. “We’ve been through some hard times before, but I fear this is the worst of them. Ken Bowden tells me that the wells are nearly dry. Another week should do it, for sure.”
“I didn’t come here to hear something I already know! I want to hear what you’re gonna do about it!” shouted one of the farmers. Boone couldn’t remember the man’s name, but his wife was Grace.
The mayor held out one hand, palm down, fingers outstretched, trying to calm the man. “I understand how you feel, but I think...” He got no further. The crowd sensed weakness and was turning; if no solution was offered then, by God, the man in charge was going to pay. Most of the crowd was on its feet and those not angry enough to stand did so anyway, if only to see. Their voices, the voices of the faithful shouting to God in passionate tongues, rose in a single swell like a flock of birds taking flight.
“Sitting in your office—”
“Don’t care about us—”
“Get off the stage before—”
Anderton was holding both hands out now, but it was too late. The crowd had become feral, exploring another side of the ecstasies Boone sometimes whipped them into with a particularly good sermon. It wouldn’t be long before one of the farmers yelled something mildly catchy that would turn into a chant, which was all a crowd needed to turn into a mob.
The crowd was silent for a moment, struck dumb by the sight of their preacher stepping forward, pointing an accusing finger. Here was a man who knew what to do with his hands while he was speaking. Here was a man who did not falter on the first sentence, pitching it too low. Reverend Boone seized the moment and filled the silence with his words.
“It’s so hot at night, I can’t sleep more than two hours at a time. Bathing feels like heaven. It’s so hot Miss Dunnam, whom you all know, nearly died walking to the store. It’s hot and you’re scared for your lives.” Boone walked up the central aisle as he spoke and when he reached the pulpit, the mayor ceded it eagerly.
“I know you’re afraid and you have every right to be. I know you’re scared for your families and your farms and your lives. If I’m wrong, let me know.” Boone waited; there was nothing. “But if I’m right, gimme a PREACH ON!”
“If I’m right, gimme a YES IT IS!”
“YES IT IS!” The crowd roared Boone’s words enthusiastically and he could sense the danger leaving them. Anderton had started to sidle away and Boone grabbed his wrist, heedless of the slippery feel of the man’s hair plastered to his skin by sweat. “If I’m right,” said Boone, speaking more quietly now, “Gimme your attention. I want you to listen to your mayor. We’ll hear what he has to say.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “Amen on that.”
Boone took a step back and folded his arms over his chest. Anderton resumed the podium, but most eyes were still on the preacher. Some of the color was returning to his face now, but his cheeks and forehead were still pale. Boone had never seen it himself, but he had been told many times that when he preached the blood seemed to drain out of his face, leaving it white and fierce. This particular trait, supposedly possessed by Moses and Joseph Smith, made the farmers listen for the moment.
At first, Anderton spoke haltingly but began to pick up speed when no voices of opposition were raised. There were two options, it seemed. One involved tanks of water transported overland into Durham. It would be effective but costly. Of course, with no water the crops would not grow and with no crops they could afford no water. Even the least educated farmer among them could see the hopelessness in that.
The other option, one that Anderton himself was eager to try, was to call upon a rainmaker. He’d heard of one, and the fellow in question was only a few days away. All that remained was to send for him. It wouldn’t cost much and certainly couldn’t hurt. The crowd murmured assent. They took a voice vote, then stood and filed out of the church, into the street. The light had failed considerably but the heat remained, huge and oppressive.
Eventually, they were gone and only the preacher and the mayor remained. In this dry spell, no one dared light so much as a candle, but even in the country darkness, Anderton seemed to be making a point of looking the other way. The only sound was from the church; the boards spoke in the secret, creaking language of old floors, echoing the small movements both men made as they shifted uncomfortably. Boone broke the silence.
“I know, I know.” Anderton’s eyes sought the cracks in the floor. “It isn’t witchcraft. From what I’ve heard, he’s a Christian. He prays for rain, that’s all.”
Boone nodded, but the frown-lines on his forehead were still there. The truth was that he too had prayed, had in fact sent countless prayers up into the blue yonder, to no answer and certainly no avail. “Are you calling the rainmaker to keep everyone calm until the first tanks get here?”
“Well, if he works we won’t need to call for water.” Anderton sounded defensive.
The preacher shook his head. “Call the rainmaker if you want, but call for the water, too.” Now it was Anderton’s turn to shake his head. Boone pressed on, “John, rainmakers are charlatans by trade. I’ve never heard of a rainmaker who didn’t ask for at least half his money up front. A rainmaker is either a cheat or a cheat with some kind of meteorological training.
“When Christopher Columbus arrived, the natives didn’t know what to make of him until he used his charts to predict an eclipse. He could no more cause planets to change course than your rainmaker can call rain out of a clear sky. But when Columbus’s eclipse happened, it didn’t prove his power, it made his power.”
“There is no money.” John Anderton looked on the verge of tears. “If this doesn’t work...” Anderton shook his head and looked away. Eventually he walked out of the church, and Boone said no more to stop him.
Four days later, the day of the rainmaker’s arrival, the sky was still free of clouds. Boone wondered if the mayor planned on substituting the rainmaker’s failure for his own and making a neat exit as things rose to a fever pitch. Boone supposed only time would tell, and shortly at that. Once again, the people of Durham gathered in the church.
The rainmaker was late and Boone thought that his entrance was a particularly nice piece of work. He drove a small wagon, what Boone’s father had always called a “two-hoss shay,” down the main street of a town that waited desperately for him. All eyes in the church watched him through the window, straining to see something. Children were lifted up. Wives reached for their husband’s shoulders as they stood unsteadily on tiptoe, peering out.
The rainmaker took his time. Only his back was visible, clad in a blue shirt and crossed with suspenders. Sweat stains made dark patches on his shirt and Boone did not doubt that when he removed the suspenders, there would be a matching X of sweat. The whole affair was topped off with a broad, flat-brimmed hat that hid his face.
The rainmaker descended from the wagon in one limber motion and, for the second he disappeared from the window until he reappeared in the doorway, there was soft muttering.
“Did you see—”
“Where did he come from—”
“He’s really here—”
The voices fell silent again when he appeared in the door and for a moment, Boone felt like shouting “Praise the Lord! It’s Huck Finn!”
The rainmaker was a boy, fifteen at the most.
The hat hid his eyes and brow, but not his youthful jaw line. Curls of hair, dark with sweat, lay against his neck. Boone supposed he was an average height, if a little on the thin side. He walked casually through the church, with his hands in his pockets.
When he reached the pulpit, he turned and lifted his chin and Boone finally got a look at the boy’s eyes. They were dark and sparkling, rimmed with sweaty skin; under the brim of the hat, they looked like the eyes of an animal in a picture, peering out of a cave. The boy’s skin was milky white under a layer of dirt, and the preacher noted with an unpleasant shock that there was a cold sore blooming at the corner of the rainmaker’s mouth and a cigarette tucked behind one filthy ear.
The rainmaker faced the crowd, pushed back his hat with one finger under the brim, and began to speak. His voice still held the timbre of youth, but none of its uncertainty. There was something compelling about the adolescent voice, full of fire. Boone could only look at the mayor and wonder what they had gotten into.
“My name is Aaron Hands. You all know who I am. You know what I can do and from the looks of things round here, you need it.” He paused dramatically and Boone thought of a girl he’d seen on the revival circuit years before. She was only five but preached something fierce, working the stage with her child’s curls bouncing.
“I got the power,” Aaron continued, “I got the power and I can help you, if you want. I don’t want no money, not till I’m done. Then you can pay me what you think I been worth.”
Applause greeted this and Aaron nodded, as if this was no more than he’d heard in a hundred towns before. And here was John Anderton clapping right along with the rest of them. Empty treasury or no, Anderton knew a good deal when he heard one. Boone raised his own hands and reluctantly joined in.
When the applause died down, the rainmaker stepped back and the mayor enthusiastically took his place. For a moment, Boone though he was going to call for another round of applause. Instead, he said that he hoped everyone would do their best to make young Aaron feel welcome and that he, John, would be honored if Aaron would sleep under his roof tonight.
“If it’s all the same, I’d rather get started. It might could take a while. Your town’s powerful dry,” said Aaron, and Boone was again struck with the impulse to laugh and ask how Tom Sawyer was getting on. Aaron favored the crowd with a slight tip of his hat, then walked down the aisle and out of the church, through the too-bright rectangle of the doorway.
Copyright © 2010 by Mike Voltz