Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Will's War
An excerpt from the new historical novel by Janice Woods Windle

Weinert, Texas.
May 1917

It was hot. The parched earth smelled like burning tar, the sun seared the air with a yellow haze, air so dry it seemed brittle as crystal and was filled with an incessant ringing sound that consumed the mind and made it difficult to think or even pray for rain. A small wind walked from the west through failed fields and dry stubble, pausing now and then to whirl about in the dust, raising dervishes, incongruous dancers on the thirsting prairie. There were no trees to cast shade or bring relief to a flat, featureless horizon and there were no birds nor singing of birds anywhere near.

The house was in the heart of town along a railroad track reaching straight as Godís spine from Weinert to Abilene and then to Fort Worth and then on to the unknowable East. Shifting veils of heat rose from the burning rails. Above the haze and dust devils, above the brown grasses and the bitter, colorless town, the cloudless sky was an intense blue.

On the porch of the house, Virginia King Bergfeld looked for evidence of Heaven in the great lonely dome of the sky, looked for where angels might make rain by weeping for the dying earth, but all she saw were vultures circling, waiting.

As the long day wore on, Virginia could not shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen. The haze, the heat, the vultures were signs, but there was more. There were the strangers. Hard men watching, asking questions of their neighbors who later refused to meet their eyes. It was a feeling of overwhelming anxiety, a tightness in her chest, an unusual awareness of the beating of her heart, an intense and unpleasant sensitivity to touch, as if her nerve ends had crawled too close to the outer layer of her skin. "This is not like me," she said aloud to the fading day. "Itís just this place. The heat. This awful town."

More than one hundred miles away in Fort Worth, the man called Grimes boarded the westbound train. He was tall and lean, his face bronzed and creased, his eyes the color of pewter, dull from looking too long at horizons. He settled into the seat, tipped his wide-brimmed hat over his eyes and thought about what he must do. Tom Grimes listened to the rattle of the rails and wondered if this was the day he would die.

In the Bergfeld home, the evening meal passed in near silence. Virginia looked at Will and tried to see into his mind. Did he feel what she felt? The coming of something sinister? If he did, he would not say. He would hide what he felt in silence, as he did now except to ask for the peas she had coaxed from her garden or the cornbread she had baked at first light before the heat came down. He felt her eyes, looked up and smiled, and as always, when she met the eyes of the man she had married, she was nearly overwhelmed by the miracle of their love.

Will had come into her life like a whirlwind, a darkly handsome adventurer who was as genuine and open as a child, yet deep as an unexplained sonnet. She had touched every fissure and contour of his body, had breathed his breath, whispered intimacies into his lips, was in touch with his every sorrow, his every desire and passion, but there were hidden corners of his soul she could not reach. Not that he held back, but it seemed those corners were lost to himself, as well. It was where his anger dwelled, she knew. An anger that made him sometimes a stranger; that made him say and do things that were totally unexpected and out of characteróthings that seemed the words and deeds of a far less gentle man. The only predictable thing about Will Bergfeld was his love for her and their daughters, a love absolute and eternal. He was a mystery, this man she adored, this wild, daring, unpredictable, loving, often infuriating father of her children. He was a strong man. A good man. A man who merely held the world to an impossibly high standard, a standard no mortal could achieve. And when the world fell short, his anger came and tried to make things right again no matter what. She looked at her children, Little Virginia, her cloud of hair white as a doveís wing and Mary, dark as Will, with those same penetrating eyes that gazed at you a bit too long, a bit too deep, as if trying to see the secrets within your mind. There was love in this house. Love enough to compensate for life in a land as barren as a Biblical wilderness. Surely this good, strong man will allow no harm to come to our little home. What harm could possibly penetrate the shield of love my man has forged around us?

Tom Grimes stared out at the dark sliding by. He knew they crossed the Brazos by the shifting sound of the wheels on the track. Again, the shifting octave of the clattering iron wheels signaled they had crossed the trestle over Big Smokey Creek, at Cisco.

Grimes turned and saw the other men were sleeping, rocking, eyes empty or closed, their bolt-action 1903 Springfield rifles standing between their knees. How ironic, he thought, that the Springfield was an almost exact copy of the German Mauser, so similar that the American government paid royalties to the German Mauserwerke. Now there would be war and the Kaiser would be paid royalties for the rifles that paid death to his soldiers. Killing had become very confusing since the battleship Maine went down and Grimes had sailed for Cuba to fight a foreign enemy.

Nothing was simple anymore. Most of the Rangers on the train he had known for years. But the Federal agents were strangers known only by their reputations, reputations he did not respect. Grimes did not like these men with their secretive ways and strange loyalties. And as they passed the trestle over Hubbard Creek he wished he were somewhere else, someplace where he was better able to tell what was right from what was not.

When the meal was finished, the dishes done, the little girls bathed and dressed for bed, Will opened the chest in the hall. It contained bedding, two Colt revolvers, an unfinished painting of his sister Louise, his paints and brushes, and a violin his mother Elisabethe had brought from Germany. The violin was a Guarneri, had been in the family for three generations, was one of the few objects he treasured, certainly the most valuable thing he owned. As he tuned the instrument, the violin seemed almost miniature, dwarfed by the breadth of his shoulders and his large hands. As the children played on a pallet on the floor, Virginia moved to the old upright piano on which she had learned to play as a child, and Virginia and Will began to play now in the little house in the heart of town.

Rarely did they discuss what they would play, one just started and the other almost immediately followed. Usually the choice was Virginiaís. She would shuffle through the sheet music purchased from Willís fatherís drugstore until she came to a tune she fancied, then she would begin. Will never used sheet music. He held all the music he had ever heard in his mind, a marvelous gift that never failed to astound and mystify his wife. They played Brahms, then the old spiritual Down by the Riverside, a favorite of Willís because of the line, "I ainít gonna study war no more," then a piece by Schubert from the operetta Lilac Time that had been written and performed the year before in Vienna.

The house filled with harmony. The oven of the day cooled. The little girls were suspended half awake, half dreaming. Virginiaís fears fled, carried away by melody. She watched Will as he played, the music seeming to flow through his fingers from some wellspring inside his tall, slightly swaying body. He could have been a concert violinist like his mother, Virginia often thought. But Will did not have the capacity to build a life on just one foundation. He was too curious, too impatient, too filled with the need for action, a verb of a man, her Will. There was too much in the world to see and do and experience. Music was merely one of his loves, no greater or lesser than his love of racing his motorcycle or his love of a good fight or of justice. As she watched the graceful ballet of his fingers, the subtle play of expression that animated his strong, almost noble features, Virginia wondered if music came from the mind or from the heart or from the hands or from some mystical alliance among all three. The house was filled with the gliding gifts of Schubert.

Outside, the moon rose full and yellow, the air now so clear the lunar edge was sharp as a blade. A breeze lifted the lace curtains in the windows and played in Maryís long, dark hair. The wind touched Virginia. Suddenly she was unexplainably cold. She paused in her playing, her fingers resting on the keys. Her nameless anxiety had returned. She shivered and Will lowered his violin and asked what was wrong.

"Listen," she said.

"What?" he asked, his head tilted, his brow furled.

"The prairie dogs. They hear a train." The breeze carried the plural conversation from the prairie dog towns along the tracks. The little animals always heard the train long before the sound reached human ears. If you were meeting someone on the train, their barking was a signal to leave the house and it would be followed exactly four minutes later by the wail of the arriving trainís whistle. But there was no train scheduled for this time of night.

"Somethingís coming," Virginia said.

"Yes," Will said. He looked at her with those eyes that see inside, then he closed them, raised his violin and began to play again. It was not a song Virginia knew, but something different and haunting, fragments of melody summoned from some dark mythic Teutonic forest. The house was filled with music. The house was filled with fear. Outside, there was silence. Virginia knew a train had arrived and that there must be a reason why they had heard no whistle.

Grimes stepped from the train. There were eighteen men in all, heavily armed Texas Rangers, federal marshals and Secret Service men. They formed into groups and spread out into the town, guns at the ready, their steps stirring clouds of dust in the dry roads. They moved quickly, steadily, as if they had planned exactly where they were going. A hound howled. Other dogs barked in response. In soft contralto complaint, cows near death from thirst lowed at the intruding strangers. Grimes thought there was nothing more sorrowful than the sound of a slow-dying cow, a sound too often heard these days when there was no rain and few farmers had access to water. A screen door slammed. Shadows passed lamp-lit doorways. From the Bergfeld house came the lament of Willís motherís violin.

They came like something in a dream. Slowly, but suddenly there, filling the house with the scraping of their boots and the smell of sweat and iron. Grimes crashed through the front door, others battered down the back. They followed the barrels of their guns into the room. Virginia screamed, then rushed for the girls, scooping them up as they, too, began shrieking in terror. Virginiaís greatest fear was that Will would fight the intruders. She could see the vein in his neck rise blue and knotted with outrage. Please God, she prayed, let Will go easy. Will set the violin carefully down, then stood tall and turned to face the man called Grimes. There was violence in his eyes.

"Donít, Will!" Virginia screamed, half to God and half to her husband. Grimes took Will by the shoulder and spun him around and manacled his arms behind his back.

"Well, boys," Will said, his voice on the edge of control, "if you donít have enough guns, Iíve got two Iíll let you borrow."

One of the federal marshals grasped Virginia and pushed her against the wall. "Canít you shut them brats up?" he growled.

"Leave them be," Grimes called to the man. "We only want the man."

"What for?" Bergfeld asked.

"You know damn well what for," Grimes said.

Will knew.

As Grimes led him out the front door, Will looked back at Virginia. "Telephone your father," he said, and then he was gone and Virginia was left alone in the house with the night, her children and her dread.

So this is the bad time. The day one prays never comes or that comes only to others, leaving a legacy of both guilt and thanksgiving. It is that dark time, the prophesied season of suffering we must all endure. It is the trial God sends us to give life meaning, like he sent Job. The family has been assaulted, our home violated, my husband taken away in chains by strangers. But it is not death. It is not facing the lions or the gallows or that moment when you realize your last breath has been taken and there is no more.

How fortunate I have been in my life to have experienced nothing truly terrible. It is a blessing that left me unprepared for what I must do. I am an actor without a rehearsal. I donít know my lines. My inclination is to leave it at Godís door. He knows best and all will come out fine in the end. But that is the myth of life. In my heart, I am absolutely certain that Will has done no wrong and is innocent of whatever he is charged with doing. But Will often gives the impression of wrongdoing. My father warned me. He called Will a loose cannon, a man who would one day bring me grief. But he has brought me more happiness than I ever dreamed would come my way. Now he is gone and the prophesied trouble has come and I am unprepared for the task ahead.

©2002 Janice Woods Windle
Writer Janice Woods Windle has deep roots in Texas, and from her frontier legacy of family lore she has created three fact-based and fascinating historical novels. She grew up in the small town of Seguin in the historic heart of Texas, between San Antonio and Gonzales. Her family lived in the house that had been the home of her great-grandmother, Bettie Moss King. Windle attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she met and married Wayne Windle. Then, like her pioneer forebears, she moved west to El Paso, on the western border of the Lone Star State. While her husband was becoming a prominent trial lawyer, Windle raised three children, and was county co-chair of President Lyndon B. Johnsonís 1964 re-election campaign. Meanwhile she earned her degree in political science from UT at El Paso. Windle began working on a cookbook in 1985, collecting recipes from women in her family. That project grew through monthly visits over 10 years as she worked out of the family home in Seguin. Together with her mother, Windle did historical research, and interviewed family members and friends until the cookbook developed into a novel, True Women. It was based on the lives of three of her remarkable ancestors Ė Euphemia Texas Ashby King, Georgia Lawshe Woods, and Bettie Moss King. True Women was Windleís first novel, and became a bestseller shortly after G.P. Putnam & Sons published it in 1994. It has since been printed in eight languages and has sold more than 500,000 copies. It also became the basis of a CBS miniseries filmed on location in Central Texas, starring Dana Delany, Angelina Jolie, and Annabeth Gish. Windleís second novel, Hill Country, is based on the life of her grandmother, Laura Hoge Woods, who was friends with the parents of Lyndon B. Johnson, and Windleís father was a lifelong friend of LBJ. Again relying on oral history and extensive research, Windle used a collection of notes and journals left by her grandmother as the basis for Hill Country. An accomplished speaker, Windle has addressed hundreds of groups all over the country, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Associated Press Editors of Texas, Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Texas Congressional Delegation in Washington, D.C., and Daughters of the American Revolution. The Junior League of El Paso honored Windle as Volunteer of the Year twice.