Stewart Falls Cheerleaders # 5
Four O'Clock, Montana Time
14-year-old, Samantha Tiernan-Bradley and her soldier father always thought of each other at four o’clock, Montana Time regardless of where the U.S. Army assigned him. When they sent him to Afghanistan, he came back in a flag-draped coffin.
It’s always been just the two of them. Without him, Samantha feels all alone. Now, it’s four o’clock, Montana Time and she’s thinking about Dad. Is he thinking about her?
Then, she discovers her mother is alive! She’s coming to take Samantha away from her grandparents and a future in the fundamentalist, polygamous community that she and her father considered to be their ‘real’ State-side home. Dad’s plans for her included a Promise Ceremony and an arranged marriage since she’s soon to graduate from eighth grade, but Mom’s arrival changes everything.
Samantha’s had adventures before, but nothing prepares her for Stewart Falls, Washington with her mother, veterinarian, Dr. Cathy Tiernan. Academics for girls, movies, cell phones, computers, clothes, jewelry, cheerleaders, and boys too – just the whole culture….shock! What would Dad think?
How is she going to cope with all this? And what will she do at four o’clock, Montana Time?
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Saturday, February 23rd, 2019 ~ 0400 hours
It was four in the morning, Montana time.
I woke up thinking about my dad, Master Sergeant, Ezekiel Uriah Bradley, even though I knew it was hopeless and I shouldn’t anymore. Clicking on the bedside lamp, I glanced across my room and saw the precisely folded United States flag in its case on my dresser.
Red and white stripes marched across the triangle of fabric. I remembered the soldiers in their dress uniforms, including white gloves. They’d stood precisely in double rows, holding the flag between them, snapping it into perfect folds. The top-ranking officer, a captain, handed the flag to me while I waited, stiff and proud in my new black dress and the kitten heels Grandma let me buy. Dad would have called them sinful, but I wasn’t wearing my lace-up, everyday boots to his funeral.
Would I ever forget the sound of the rifle shots when the soldiers fired the respectful salute? How could my dad be dead? He was always careful. What happened? What did the driver do wrong? Why did their Humvee hit an IED? How could my dad die when the other soldiers on that patrol lived? He loved me.
The last time we talked, he said he’d think about me attending the public high school in the fall, instead of staying home with Grandma and learning to manage a household. He’d said he’d be home for my eighth-grade graduation and my ‘promise ceremony’, even though he’d missed my fourteenth birthday in November and our family Christmas celebration.
I wanted to see him in June like he’d promised. That was when he intended to return home with his army unit, not last Sunday in a closed casket at his funeral. I started to cry again. I didn’t want that flag. It didn’t make up for losing my dad. A million flags couldn’t do that.
If he was here, Dad would sit on the bed beside me. He’d put his hand on my back. He’d tell me he couldn’t make the world perfect. Soldiers died. So did other people. Only he’d fought in wars before I was born, and this was his fourth tour in Afghanistan. How could he be gone this time? And even if all the elders agreed that Dad was in a “better place,” I didn’t care. I wanted him home with me.
I almost heard his deep voice as he scolded me. ‘What am I, Merry Sunshine? A carpenter? A truck driver? Maybe I’m a schoolteacher.’
‘No, sir. You’re a soldier. I know you have to go again, but I don’t have to like it.’ I kept bawling into my pillow, as if I were a little kid, while I remembered.
‘We have a deal, Sunny. You aren’t supposed to make these combat tours hard on me and I’m not supposed to make them a hardship on you.’
“I know,” I sobbed aloud. “But you’re being dead works a real hardship on me.”
Even my imagination wasn’t able to dream up an answer for him this time, so I just cried harder. Dimly, I felt the bed sink and a hand smooth my hair. I didn’t want to lift my face out of the pillow, turn and see one of my grandparents. It wasn’t like I hated either of them. I didn’t. I loved being here on the ranch, loved living with them. Like Dad said, they spoiled me rotten. He claimed he always had to straighten me out when he got home.
Only he hadn’t come home, at least not alive. Instead, he arrived in a coffin. It wasn’t fair, I thought again. I couldn’t keep crying forever. I lifted my head off the pillow, wiped my eyes. I turned slightly, ready to comfort whichever of my grandparents had come into the room. Only they weren’t there!
I sat up in the single bed, completely alone. I looked around the room. Bare ivory walls gleamed slightly. It was still dark outside. Moonlight filtered through the second story windows and their new white net curtains. Dad had called those ‘decadent’ when he heard about them. He wanted me to have old style, roll-down paper shades, but Grandma told him no one could see through these, and I still had privacy, plus it meant I didn’t need to turn on the electric lights during the day and that saved money.
Chills ran down my spine. I was alone. Yet, I just knew someone had been in the room with me. For a few moments, I’d hoped it was Dad. Nobody showed up. I reached out, felt the bed where I’d been sure someone sat. Still nothing. It was getting too spooky for me. I tossed the homemade patchwork quilts aside and rolled to my feet.
I crossed to the dresser, found clean undergarments—a chemise, boot socks, my drawers, which were white and knee-length long underwear, an ankle-length white slip, a corset, and two petticoats. Sometimes, I wished I could wear clothes like the kids I saw in town or on base when Dad was stationed stateside, but he said he was raising a good, God-fearing girl, and I should be grateful I had a grandma and aunties who were willing to sew decent, modest dresses for me.
And I was. I really was.
If I could have my father back, I’d never complain again, not about what I wore or leaving school for good in June even though my promised husband had given permission for me to go to ninth grade, or my puppy not being allowed in the house, or having to give up my camera this summer when I wouldn’t be a child any longer, but a woman promised in marriage who needed to prepare for her new life as a wife and mother.
I knew I should make my bed instead of leaving the covers tossed aside while I went to the barn. Sloth was a sin, but I didn’t feel like being the “good” Sunny who always smiled and never complained, who always sang hymns when she did her chores and always obeyed her grandparents, aunts, uncles, her promised husband, and the church elders, even when she had contrary ideas.
Layers of undergarments in place, I took the light blue flowered dress from its peg on the wall. It would show the dirt faster than any of my others, but it was the oldest I had, and soon Grandma would cut it up to use for patches, strips for rag rugs and a few pieces might even make it into a quilt block. None of the bedrooms had closets because those were an indulgence, and we were supposed to avoid them.
I put on my dress, buttoned up the front, shook out the ankle-length skirt over my petticoats. Once I braided my long, fire-red hair, tying the ends with small bits of blue yarn, I was ready to go. I picked up my boots and left the room, tiptoeing down the stairs so I wouldn’t wake my grandparents.
In the kitchen, I checked the woodstove that heated the downstairs. A bed of coals remained so I slid in a few small pieces of wood and had the flames burning in a few minutes. I closed up the stove, adjusted the dampers, and sat on the nearby bench to draw on my boots.
Some things done in the community confused me like how we used electricity. Having lights was okay, but heating the entire house with gas or electric power was an indulgence. Grandma could use a washing machine for our clothes all year round, but the dryer was only for wintertime.
As soon as it warmed up in the spring, we dried everything on the clothesline in the back yard. Nobody else had a dishwasher, not even the elders. Grandma did because her arthritis made it hard for her to wash the dishes by hand and I wasn’t always with her and Grandpa to do it. Before they shunned my aunt, she had her name read at Sunday services for months because she had one in her restaurant.
I put on the heavy coat Grandpa bought me last fall before it began snowing. Dad wanted to know why I couldn’t use one of my shawls or a waterproof cape instead of “man’s” raiment when one of the elders told him about it, but Grandpa quoted lines from our scriptures too. He said it’d be a bigger sin for me to become ill and create more work for Grandma who’d have to look after me in addition to all her chores around the house, garden, and ranch.
Dad reluctantly agreed but told me not to wear the Carhartt jacket anywhere in town, or to church services since he didn’t want the bishop to read my name from the pulpit and shame my family. The coat would remain behind on the ranch when he came home, and I moved back in with him.
I dug in the pockets for my gloves. It was a good thing the elders didn’t knit or know Grandma stocked up on pairs of these cheap ones at Wal-Mart. I’d hidden them under the boxes of laundry soap and Grandpa left the room when I unpacked the groceries at home, so he didn’t “know” we’d broken another rule, buying inconsequential items better made by the idle hands of good, obedient girls and women.
While I trudged through the light covering of snow to the barn, I remembered the morning a year ago when Dad helped me feed the livestock. We talked the whole time, and he laid out his expectations, because he was going to war. Most of the time, I’d be in eighth grade, one of the older girls at the local middle school, but that didn’t mean I could wear bright colors, or use cosmetics to paint my face, or cast long looks at the boys. I was already promised to Jonah, and he wouldn’t take me if I became known as a harlot or strumpet.
Dad said if Jonah renounced me, it didn’t mean I’d embarrass my family by remaining unwed. He’d find me an older husband and I could go as a third or fourth wife, not as the first one to a college boy who had worked in town on his breaks to save up for his own farm. I’d promised to do what I should as a Truth Keeper and obey the covenants of our church. Besides, hardly anyone around here had more than two wives, except the elders who had at least four or five.
Going to a household that had lots of sister-wives meant moving south to Texas or back to Indiana or somewhere in the Midwest or Alaska. I wanted to stay where I could visit my grandparents and other family, even if it meant marrying someone from Idaho or Wyoming, since they were closer to Montana. Anyway, Jeannine was my best friend and Jonah was her older brother and he kept our secrets.
When I walked into the barn, one of those secrets, Woofer dashed to join me. Six months old now, a tri-colored collie mix, his mother had been a stray I found scavenging for food around town last August. Jeannine and I took her home—well, at least to Jeannine’s house—and we hid her in the garden shed, so her previous owner couldn’t find her. Jonah helped us deliver the puppies when she went into labor and convinced his parents we could sell the pups when they were old enough.
Mr. Vandermiller, Jonah’s father, claimed he didn’t believe anyone would pay money for a puppy, but felt it was sinful to turn out a working dog to starve, so the mother could have a home on their farm. I’d heard him tell his wife he didn’t agree with drowning small critters, or using them to train fighting dogs, regardless of what the elders said about animals not having souls. Instead, he lectured us about hiding things from him and made us promise never to do that again.
We were able to find the dogs good homes with kind members of the church, and Grandpa let me bring home my favorite, the runt of the litter who still had a big bark. My Woofer. I dropped down onto my knees and hugged him tight. He licked my face, not seeming to notice when tears fell on his black, white, and golden fur. Dad had only seen him in the pictures I sent, but he promised he’d find a place where I could keep my collie-mix puppy when he was stateside.
I gave Woofer one last hug, then stood. “Come on. I have to drop hay and you need to watch so you don’t get squished.”
He barked as if he understood and talked back to me, carrying on a conversation in woofs and growls that made me smile a little.
I headed for the ladder in the middle of the barn and climbed up to the loft. One of the cats dashed over to greet me and wound through my legs, meowing as it led, then followed me to the garbage can where we kept the dry food. I filled up the dishes around the loft, petting the rest of the felines.
Grandpa said his cats hunted vermin better because he fed them. I didn’t know if that was true or not, but we didn’t have any mice or rats in our barns.
I made sure Woofer was clear, then rolled a bale of alfalfa-grass hay through the hole in the middle of the floor that Dad called “the drop.” He wasn’t waiting at the bottom to load it in the wheelbarrow or give me a hug. Tears burned again. I heard my horse banging on the stall door and hustled down the ladder before he smashed another board.
Demon pinned his ears back, tried to bite me when I threw two big flakes of hay into the manger. Before he shipped out to Afghanistan almost a year ago, Dad had rescued Demon and brought him here. A coal black Arabian-Quarterhorse gelding with a white blaze and two white socks, he’d had an attitude from the day he arrived.
Demon could have been beautiful to more people than me, but he had scars that healed in white all over his body, so he wasn’t glamorous. Dad said he’d been beaten with whips, chains, and clubs. Nothing broke my horse’s spirit, not even when his previous owner hit him hard enough in the head to damage his left eye. I didn’t blame Demon for turning mean. Neither had Dad.
The first day after Dad gave me the walking skeleton that would become my horse, I’d been doctoring Demon’s head when some of the elders and the bishop arrived to chastise Dad. They didn’t see me and neither did he. Mr. Vandermiller had signaled me to remain quiet and I did, hiding in the dark corner of the stall, while the rest of the visitors took turns scolding my father for fighting another man and hurting him badly enough, he had to be taken to the hospital.
“It wasn’t a fight,” Dad had told them. “I’ve been in enough fights to know when I’m in one. I lambasted him good and proper. If he’d been taught right from wrong when he was a boy, he wouldn’t have tried clubbing his horse in front of outsiders. They already believe we’re a cult.”
“And now they think we’re barbarians,” Bishop Zachariah said. “I had to tell the sheriff again we don’t believe in violence, but he wants to talk to our women and children to be sure we don’t beat them. You brought notice upon us, Brother Ezekiel. There are consequences for our choices, and you chose to intervene on behalf of a soulless creature. That was a rash decision since many of the forward-thinking elders have asked for you to join them on your retirement from the army.”
“It was the right thing to do,” Dad said. “And I still have two more years until I retire from the military to join the community and church full-time. Tell the sheriff to visit that man’s farm and be sure he hasn’t hurt his family, or other animals. That is a bigger sin to my mind.”
All of them began quoting scriptures at each other until the elders left the barn to do what Dad suggested. Only Mr. Vandermiller stayed to talk. He and Dad went off to the porch to visit and drink apple cider with Grandpa. When Mr. Vandermiller had left and it was just family at supper, they had explained that Jobe Vandermiller wanted me as a bride for his twenty-year-old son, Jonah and Grandpa would arrange for the elders and the bishop to agree to the match. Dad said he couldn’t say so formally because he was being censured, but he approved, too.
Grandma had asked me what I thought of Jonah, and I admitted I liked him. If he was around when I visited Jeannine, he carried in the vegetables or eggs or bread I’d brought to his mother. Of course, he didn’t stay in the house with us, but went to help his father and brothers in the fields.
“He’s nice,” I’d said. “When we were at the feed-store last week, he helped Grandpa load sacks of grain in the truck, even though Jonah doesn’t work there.”
I heaved a sigh while I fed the rest of the horses, remembering Dad. When he complained at dinner one night about the animals I always wanted to save, Grandpa had said, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
If my father didn’t want me to have a kind heart, he shouldn’t teach me it was my duty. I’d laughed, but if I’d known it was one of the last times, I’d see Dad alive, I’d have given up Demon and Woofer.
I’d give up everything if I could just have my father back.
Once all the horses had hay and grain, I headed for the pigpen. Woofer joined me. He ran ahead, pouncing in the bushes like he was a great hunter. When I poured soaked grain into the troughs, what Grandpa called “slopping the hogs,” Woofer raced around the sty barking up a storm. It reminded me of the first day he lived here.
He’d followed me from the barn, falling over his huge puppy paws and crying whenever I got too far in front of him. He was only eight weeks old, a black, white, and gold puff-ball of puppy fur and energy. At the pigpen, he’d yapped at the old sow from the top of the loading chute and toppled off the edge into the enclosure. I’d hustled in the gate and saved Woofer, but not until he snapped at the giant momma pig, trying to drive her away.
Dad laughed and laughed when he’d heard that story. I nearly started bawling again, but I managed to control myself on the walk to the field to bring in the cows for milking. I tried to recall when Dad and I made the deal to always remember each other at four o’clock, Montana time. It hadn’t been this tour, or the last one. It must have been when I was almost six and he’d taken me to stay in Montana with my grandparents. He and his unit would soon be deploying to Afghanistan for his second tour there. He’d wanted me to stop crying and be a “good” girl for my grandparents.
He told me no matter where he was at sixteen hundred hours, or four o’clock in the afternoon, he’d stop and think about me. I promised to do the same thing, to think of him. When I got older, we added four a.m. Of course, we also talked at least once a week, depending on his schedule, and I wrote him daily letters. Since he was at war, our church would have allowed emails, and I could have used the computers at school, but Dad was super traditional, and he refused to break the rules for what he’d said was his vanity.
By the time I finished the milking and cleaned up afterward, I saw lights in the house. I stopped on the way there to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. Woofer escorted me to the porch and went to the corner where he had his daytime bed. He knew the schedule as well as I did. Once we had breakfast, he got our leftovers on his oatmeal since Grandma always made enough for him to have a cooked meal to start the day, too.
Grandpa met me at the back door and took the bucket of milk I’d brought for Grandma to use. I carried the eggs over and washed them at the sink before I dried them and put the fresh ones in the refrigerator. It wasn’t fancy like the ones I’d seen on army bases with Dad. Those had big freezers and icemakers. Ours was older than me and barely had room for the ice-cube trays and a container of storebought ice-cream, another indulgence the bishop would call a sin if he learned about it.
Grandma poured a third cup of coffee, doctoring it with cream and honey before she passed it to me.
My stomach felt as if it was tied in knots. “I did the chores,” I said, my voice cracking. “Why do you want to talk to me? What else is wrong besides Dad being—”
“Sit down, Sunny.” Grandma pointed to my chair at the old kitchen table. “We need to talk about your future.”
I looked at her. She wore a long black dress covered with a white apron because she was cooking. She’d braided her once dark hair, now almost all silver, and pinned it in neat coils on top of her head to keep it out of her way. Her eyes were red, and I knew she was like me, missing Dad and crying a lot.
“What about me?” I sat down, glancing at the pale brown coffee for a moment, before I turned my gaze on Grandpa in his plaid flannel shirt and overalls. “We’ll go to church tomorrow and I’ll go back to school on Monday. I’ll have a lot to catch up on after being gone for a week. I’ll graduate in June and then there’s the ‘promise ceremony’ the first week of July when Jonah and I exchange the first of our vows in front of the congregation. I need to finish making my new dress for it.”
“That’s not all.” Grandpa turned from the sink where he strained the fresh milk through cheesecloth into pitchers. “Your mother will undoubtedly arrive soon for a visit. We need to listen to her plans for you.”