It was a beautiful day. Lester, Jonathan, and Harlan were down the lane, halfway to the mailbox. Lester had developed an interest in running, and the three boys were sprinting up and down the road, timing themselves with a second hand on a watch Victor had loaned them. Because they had such different running abilities, they didn’t compete with one another. Each worked against himself, training to improve his own time.
She heard boys in the tree house and others behind the house, probably playing on the swings. August and Audrey were in the garden, for their plan was to dig compost into the asparagus bed. Their quiet voices drifted over the air, but she couldn’t hear their words. She could bet John was asleep on his favorite spot, the floor of the south porch, a small pillow beneath his head.
The peacefulness of the warm, sunny day was so unusual, she couldn’t remember a similar time. Today there was no wind, and they could breathe air without filtering it through a bandana or similar mask. Voices came to her unmuffled, and smiles on the boys’ faces made the expressiveness of their eyes complete. She could kiss their cheeks, her lips touching their soft skin. There were piles of dirt, and the leaves of trees and blades of grass were brittle and gray; yet it was a beautiful day, perfect for a game of hopscotch with little Jimmy and his deep laugh. He was so big now, she wouldn’t have to carry him through the game.
Deborah began to feel chilly, and she looked up. The sky was as clear and brilliantly blue as ever, but the birds were what she noticed. Birds, many birds, were flitting from tree to tree. Some were flying in fast, straight lines from one tree to another, landing, and taking off again to repeat what they had just done. Others flew close to her, almost imitative of barn swallows that thought humans or cats were threatening their babies. But this wasn’t the diving and scolding that she had experienced from parent birds. The season was too early for baby birds.
She was startled to see two mourning doves, silent and motionless, sitting on a branch near the hog pen. In contrast to the doves was the noise of the other birds, a constant chirping that held her attention. It was an anxious sound, taut and high pitched like a too-tight violin string. What was going on?
A strange sight caught her attention. A jack rabbit, frantic and scurrying from side to side, ran onto the driveway, so close she could hear the frightened thump of its rear feet. Marco took out after the rabbit with loud barking, and they disappeared near the grain bins. More rabbits scurried down the driveway and were joined by others that squealed in fear. Some ran across the corral, passing close to Victor and the cow; she didn’t know where the rest went.
“Did you see that?” Victor asked.
“Yes! What on earth—” She stopped. “Victor, look at the birds. Listen to them.” She could also hear the flutter and flurry of hens in their pen combined with the clucking sounds that only stressed hens could make.
Victor climbed the corral fence and joined her. “That cow is restless. I’ll bet she’s due to calve, the way she’s acting.”
Snicker and Dumper came running into the corral to join the horses already there. “What are they up to?” Deborah asked. They noticed a little cloud of dust behind the barn. It moved closer. In lead of the dust, their combined herd of range cattle, with drumming hooves stirring up the blow dirt, ran through the corral gate from the pasture, some running so fast through the opening that they grazed the gate posts.
“Something’s wrong.” Victor whirled, looking in all directions. He ran toward the garden. “August, what’s happening?”
Audrey was wrapping her arms in the skirt of her apron. “Temperature’s dropping fast.”
“A change in the weather,” August said. “Creatures sense things before we do.”
“Hens are going to roost,” Deborah called out.
“Something’s going to happen,” the old man said. “Get ready for a storm of some kind.” He took action. “Get all those boys rounded up fast.”
Victor shouted for the boys who were near the mailbox. Audrey turned toward the backyard. “I’ll get the ones behind the house.”
“Daughter, we need to shut the livestock in the barn. Close that hog barn. Paul, you close the henhouse. I’m going to tie down the windmill.”
Deborah opened the gate to the hog pen. Marco helped her move the sows and little pigs. She ran for the corral, and the dog streaked after her. The cattle and horses willingly went into the barn. She divided them among the pens, putting the cow due to calve into a pen by herself. Marco ran into the tack room and cowered beneath a bench where they repaired harness. She closed the barn doors tight.
John and Audrey had the boys on the porch, and roll was being taken. Audrey sent the boys into the house to close windows. She called to Deborah. “I’m going to tidy up the kitchen.” That meant she was going to be certain all foodstuffs were carefully put away and cabinets were closed tight.
Deborah stood in the driveway, feeling the cold temperature, noticing the hair standing on her arms. Victor joined her and saw what she was looking at. “Hey,” he whispered, “what’s causing that?” The hair on his arms was doing the same thing.
“Static electricity,” August said, looking at the thermometer. “Temperature’s dropped thirty degrees and still going.”
“What’s going on?” Deborah asked. “The sky is clear—” More birds flitted past them, and others flew overhead, going east.
“I expect there’s a dirt storm coming.”
Audrey and John, followed by the boys, joined them in the driveway. “You can be out here with us,” John said, “as long as you stick close until we know what’s going on.”
The southwest was blocked from view by the house and trees and the northwest by the tall well house. “I’m going to look,” Victor said, going west on the driveway. Everyone followed.
What they saw in the northwest caused Deborah to hold her breath. Hanging low to the ground were bank upon bank of clouds, similar to cumulus yet horrifyingly different. Cumulus clouds would have been white, strikingly white, and, depending upon the position of the sun, sometimes with a lining of a rich, silver color. These clouds looked nothing like that. They were black, severely black, and the mounds appeared to reach hundreds and hundreds of feet into the air. The crest of the black clouds, so high in the sky, toppled and rolled forward. Like boiling black oil, the clouds created another crest, which would again roll forward and down, creeping closer and closer to the watchers, blotting out the landscape as though swallowing it up.
There was no sound from the boiling blackness. In the eerie stillness, Deborah became aware of the gasps of the frightened children, the beating of wings as birds flew low overhead, and sometimes the falling thud of a dead or exhausted bird. Audrey was sobbing, burying her face against August’s chest.
Victor broke their paralysis. “Listen! Into the house, fast. All of you. Close the doors, put rugs against the bottoms, dampen your masks and put them on. Go!”