Read Titans Online

Authors: Leila Meacham

Titans

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In loving memory of Sara Lynn Leck Robbins, paleontologist, irreplaceable friend

Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.

—Old saying

F
rom a chair beside her bed, Leon Holloway leaned in close to his wife's wan face. She lay exhausted under clean sheets, eyes tightly closed, her hair brushed and face washed after nine harrowing hours of giving birth.

“Millicent, do you want to see the twins now? They need to be nursed,” Leon said softly, stroking his wife's forehead.

“Only one,” she said without opening her eyes. “Bring me only one. I couldn't abide two. You choose. Let the midwife take the other and give it to that do-gooder doctor of hers. He'll find it a good home.”

“Millicent—” Leon drew back sharply. “You can't mean that.”

“I do, Leon. I can bear the curse of one, but not two. Do what I say, or so help me, I'll drown them both.”

“Millicent, honey… it's too early. You'll change your mind.”

“Do what I say, Leon. I mean it.”

Leon rose heavily. His wife's eyes were still closed, her lips tightly sealed. She had the bitterness in her to do as she threatened, he knew. He left the bedroom to go downstairs to the kitchen where the midwife had cleaned and wrapped the crying twins.

“They need to be fed,” she said, her tone accusatory. “The idea of a new mother wanting to get herself cleaned up before tending to the stomachs of her babies! I never heard of such a thing. I've a mind to put 'em to my own nipples, Mr. Holloway, if you'd take no offense at it. Lord knows I've got plenty of milk to spare.”

“No offense taken, Mrs. Mahoney,” Leon said, “and… I'd be obliged if you
would
wet-nurse one of them. My wife says she can feed only one mouth.”

Mrs. Mahoney's face tightened with contempt. She was of Irish descent and her full, lactating breasts spoke of the recent delivery of her third child. She did not like the haughty, reddish-gold-haired woman upstairs who put such stock in her beauty. She would have liked to express to the missy's husband what she thought of his wife's cold, heartless attitude toward the birth of her newborns, unexpected though the second one was, but the concern of the moment was the feeding of the child. She began to unbutton the bodice of her dress. “I will, Mr. Holloway. Which one?”

Leon squeezed shut his eyes and turned his back to her. He could not bear to look upon the tragedy of choosing which twin to feast at the breast of its mother while allocating the other to the milk of a stranger. “Rearrange their order or leave them the same,” he ordered the midwife. “I'll point to the one you're to take.”

He heard the midwife follow his instructions, then pointed a finger over his shoulder. When he turned around again, he saw that the one taken was the last born, the one for whom he'd hurriedly found a holey sheet to serve as a bed and covering. Quickly, Leon scooped up the infant left. His sister was already suckling hungrily at her first meal. “I'll be back, Mrs. Mahoney. Please don't leave. You and I must talk.”

Barrows homestead near Gainesville, Texas, 1900

O
n the day Nathan Holloway's life changed forever, his morning began like any other. Zak, the German shepherd he'd rescued and raised from a pup, licked a warm tongue over his face. Nathan wiped at the wet wake-up call and pushed him away. “Aw, Zak,” he said, but in a whisper so as not to awaken his younger brother, sleeping in his own bed across the room. Sunrise was still an hour away, and the room was dark and cold. Nathan shivered in his night shift. He had left his underwear, shirt, and trousers on a nearby chair for quiet and easy slipping into as he did every night before climbing into bed. Randolph still had another hour's sleep coming to him, and there would be hell to pay if Nathan disturbed his brother.

Socks and boots in hand and with the dog following, Nathan let himself out into the hall and sat on a bench to pull them on. The smell of bacon and onions frying drifted up from the kitchen. Nothing better for breakfast than bacon and onions on a cold morning with a day of work ahead, Nathan thought. Zak, attentive to his master's every move and thought, wagged his tail in agreement. Nathan chuckled softly and gave the animal's neck a quick, rough rub. There would be potatoes and hot biscuits with butter and jam, too.

His mother was at the stove, turning bacon. She was already dressed, hair in its neat bun, a fresh apron around her trim form. “G' morning, Mother,” Nathan said sleepily, passing by her to hurry outdoors to the privy. Except for his sister, the princess, even in winter, the menfolks were discouraged from using the chamber pot in the morning. They had to head to the outhouse. Afterward, Nathan would wash in the mudroom off the kitchen where it was warm and the water was still hot in the pitcher.

“Did you wake your brother?” his mother said without turning around.

“No, ma'am. He's still sleeping.”

“He's got that big test today. You better not have awakened him.”

“No, ma'am. Dad about?”

“He's seeing to more firewood.”

As Nathan quickly buttoned into his jacket, his father came into the back door with an armload of the sawtooth oak they'd cut and stacked high in the fall. “Mornin', son. Sleep all right?”

“Yessir.”

“Good boy. Full day ahead.”

“Yessir.”

It was their usual exchange. All days were full since Nathan had completed his schooling two years ago. A Saturday of chores awaited him every weekday, not that he minded. He liked farm work, being outside, alone most days, just him and the sky and the land and the animals. Nathan took the lit lantern his father handed him and picked up a much-washed flour sack containing a milk bucket and towel. Zak followed him to the outhouse and did his business in the dark perimeter of the woods while Nathan did his, then Nathan and the dog went to the barn to attend to his before-breakfast chores, the light from the lantern leading the way.

Daisy, the cow, mooed an agitated greeting from her stall. “Hey, old girl,” Nathan said. “We'll have you taken care of in a minute.” Before grabbing a stool and opening the stall gate, Nathan shone the light around the barn to make sure no unwanted visitor had taken shelter during the cold March night. It was not unheard of to find a vagrant in the hayloft or, in warmer weather, to discover a snake curled in a corner. Once a hostile, wounded fox had taken refuge in the toolshed.

Satisfied that none had invaded, Nathan hung up the lantern and opened the stall gate. Daisy ambled out and went directly to her feed trough, where she would eat her breakfast while Nathan milked. He first brushed the cow's sides of hair and dirt that might fall into the milk, then removed the bucket from the sack and began to clean her teats with the towel. Finally he stuck the bucket under the cow's bulging udder, Zak sitting expectantly beside him, alert for the first squirt of warm milk to relieve the cow's discomfort.

Daisy allowed only Nathan to milk her. She refused to cooperate with any other member of the family. Nathan would press his hand to her right flank, and the cow would obligingly move her leg back for him to set to his task. With his father and siblings, she'd keep her feet planted, and one of them would have to force her leg back while she bawled and trembled and waggled her head, no matter that her udder was being emptied. “You alone got the touch,” his father would say to him.

That was all right by Nathan and with his brother and sister as well, two and three years behind him respectively. They got to sleep later and did not have to hike to the barn in inclement weather before the sun was up, but Nathan liked this time alone. The scents of hay and the warmth of the animals, especially in winter, set him at ease for the day.

The milk collected, Nathan put the lid on the bucket and set it high out of Zak's reach while he fed and watered the horses and led the cow to the pasture gate to turn her out for grazing. The sun was rising, casting a golden glow over the brown acres of the Barrows homestead that would soon be awash with the first growth of spring wheat. It was still referred to as the Barrows farm, named for the line of men to whom it had been handed down since 1840. Liam Barrows, his mother's father, was the last heir to bear the name. Liam's two sons had died before they could inherit, and the land had gone to his daughter, Millicent Holloway. Nathan was aware that someday the place would belong to him. His younger brother, Randolph, was destined for bigger and better things, he being the smarter, and his sister, Lily, would marry, she being beautiful and already sought after by sons of the well-to-do in Gainesville and Montague and Denton, even from towns across the border in the Indian Territory. “I won't be living out my life in a calico dress and kitchen apron” was a statement the family often heard from his sister, the princess.

That was all fine by Nathan, too. He got along well with his siblings, but he was not one of them. His brother and sister were close, almost like twins. They had the same dreams—to be rich and become somebody—and were focused on the same goal: to get off the farm. At nearly twenty, Nathan had already decided that to be rich was to be happy where you were, doing the things you liked, and wanting for nothing more.

So it was that that morning, when he left the barn with milk bucket in hand, his thoughts were on nothing more than the hot onions and bacon and buttered biscuits that awaited him before he set out to repair the fence in the south pasture after breakfast. His family was already taking their seats at the table when he entered the kitchen. Like always, his siblings took chairs that flanked his mother's place at one end of the table while he seated himself next to his father's at the other. The family arrangement had been such as long as Nathan could remember: Randolph and Lily and his mother in one group; he and his father in another. Like a lot of things, it was something he'd been aware of but never noticed until the stranger appeared in the late afternoon.

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