Martha had been feeding Annie on the cabin’s front porch, rocking gently back and forth in the warm spring air. Aunt Julietta and Susan had brought the table outside to join her – Aunt Julietta was kneading dough for bread, while Susan and Becca were preparing to take the men some water and food. The elder woman was singing away to herself softly. The younger woman seemed upset as she gathered the food into the empty flour sack, as though someone had quarrelled with her earlier and she was still smarting about it, but Martha recalled no quarrels. Perhaps she had simply been short-tempered that week. None of them had ever asked her, and later that day, any quarrel had been forgotten completely.
It seemed to Martha that no sooner had Susan headed up into the woods that she heard blood-curdling screams. Aunt Julietta remembered that she had sung three verses of her song. That was long enough for Susan to reach Jim and Campbell – she had given them their pies and was pouring them water to drink. She froze mid-pour, splashing water over Campbell’s outstretched hands. His own yelp of surprise brought her back to her senses and she pulled the pitcher back, hugging it close to her chest.
“What was that, Captain?” she asked, looking around furtively. “Is it an animal?”
“That was no animal!”
“Perhaps it is an animal got the boys?” Campbell suggested gravely, gulping down the water as quickly as he could.
“We’d have heard it,” the Captain reasoned.
“Here, have some water, sir,” Susan whispered nervously. “Then we can go help them.”
It was silent for a few moments, save for some splashing as Jim drank. The birds were singing and it was ever as tranquil as it had been earlier.
Then more screaming, this time clearly heard from further up the lot.
“Help! Papa! Campbell! Help! Oy, anyone, help!”
“That’s Davey! I know it!” Susan broke into a run, as least as much as she could run in the woods carrying the sack of food and a half-empty pitcher. The older men easily caught up with her.
“Wait, Susan! We will go through the field. It’ll be quicker!” The Captain pulled her along out of the trees. “And let me help you. It’ll do Davey no good if you fall and hurt yourself.”
He had nearly added “too”, but stopped himself.
Wordlessly, he took the pitcher from her arms, freeing her hands to hold her skirts. Campbell went on ahead, leading them through the newly-cleared field toward where Jamie and Davey had been. Cries for help grew louder and more desperate, and Susan was sure that they were choked with sobs.
When they arrived, Davey was kneeling beside a fallen tree, crying and taking little notice of them. His hair and clothes were muddy and there was blood running down his nose, dripping onto his shirt.
“Davey! What happened? Are you all right?” Susan cried, rushing to his side with a handkerchief. “Let me help you up.”
He looked up at her, his eyes wide and tearful.
“She’s here, son,” Jim added, catching his breath.
“Papa! Please, it’s Jamie! You have to help him…I can’t…I…”
His gaze turned back to the tree, where Campbell was already cautiously approaching a lifeless body. Jamie’s body, Susan realised in horror.
She had always tried to be a strong woman, accustomed to hard living, but the sight of Jamie crushed under a tree caused her to faint.
When she awoke, Davey was clinging to her and kissing her head. Despite the blood, she felt safe in his arms. Holding her seemed to make him more confident.
“Davey…I’m sorry…I’m all right, don’t mind me.”
“You two sit tight there, tend to each other,” Jim ordered. He and Campbell were examining how to move the tree. Though a Captain who had seen his fair share of death, the colour had gone from his face and he had no expression in his voice. He had been a father to his men, but none of the dead had been his own son.
Susan grabbed her handkerchief from where it had fallen among her skirts and apron, wiping her face and then holding it to Davey.
“Here, hold this on your nose. How’s your head?”
“Thank you, Susan,” he whispered automatically. Then he howled in fresh pain.
“Oh dear, your nose!” Fresh blood poured down his face.
“The tree…we thought it was going to fall the other way…all the others did, the wind isn’t strong enough…we were laughing…”
Susan’s teeth began to chatter and she held him more tightly. He kept one arm around her as he held the handkerchief to his nose with the other. There was nothing more either of them could say.
At the first screams, Martha had nearly dropped Annie. As soon as the baby had finished nursing, she handed her to Becca and ran up the hill through the field, barely taking the time to tie up her dress again.
“Jim? Davey? Jamie? Susan?” she called out.
Her husband ran to meet her halfway across the field, wrapping his arms around her and pushing her away.
“No, Martha! You don’t want to see.”
“What’s happened? What’s wrong?” She could see Susan and Davey huddled on the ground and Campbell beside a tree.
“A tree fell the wrong way. Got the boys.”
“What? No!” Martha shrieked. Jim squeezed her more tightly.
“Davey’s all right – broken nose is all. Wayward branch. Susan is tending to him.”
“The tree fell square on him. He hadn’t a chance…”
Martha wailed and shoved her husband aside, rushing to where her firstborn son lay still. She could not see much of him, but she grabbed his exposed arm and cradled it in her own.
“Hush, Jamie, Mama is here with you. My precious boy!”
His arm was about the same size as he had been as a baby – bigger, even. She remembered holding him fresh in her arms, always her wee babe even as he had become a man.
“He should not have been here! He should have never been here!” That he could have easily had such a thing happen to him on their farm back home occurred to her, but did nothing to console her. “My poor little boy, all alone!”
“He had his brother with him,” Jim reminded her, glancing over at Davey and Susan. They were both in tears, holding each other and still trying to staunch Davey’s bleeding nose.
“No, no, where will he go? He ought to go beside his granddad…”
“Lord have mercy on us all! Martha, dearest, why don’t you and Susan take Davey back to the house? He needs tending to.”
“You take him! I want to stay here with my son. Let me!”
“Sir, I can take Davey home,” Susan piped up. “We will be careful.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Martha had stayed at the edge of the woods, cradling Jamie’s arm as Jim and Campbell moved the tree aside. No matter how ghastly his body, she had remained. This was her son, and she would be the last to leave him.