Talons loosened their grip on the branch and the hawk fell forward. It dropped into a forest-darkened void, then spread its winds. Flexing its muscles the hawk's wings ballooned against the draft. and its course transitioned from an unguided plummet to a graceful arc that carried it under a branch and towards a break in the tangle of foliage. Moments later, it exploded from the treeline like an angel on a mission from Heaven.
The hawk had an urge to eat. Hunting had not been good for several weeks. It was spring and the critters that fed its appetite had been strangely absent from its accustomed hunting grounds. Something was wrong. It could sense it but not reason its cause.
A dirt road below led the way to a farm where the mice should have been scurrying among freshly planted rows of corn, harvesting discarded cobs from last season's crop. But, they weren't there. They hadn't been there since the last snows of winter had melted. They were living now in the corn cribs, growing fat on the plump cobs that had been set aside for seed. Fat mice that would have been easy targets in the open fields were impossible to prey upon while they lived under the cribs, and there was little need for them to venture out from their shelter.
Today was the day. Hunger finally drove the hawk to try something new. It would venture further afield, farther down the road, maybe to another farm. Down, back, recover. The hawk stroked its way along the road. A movement below caught its attention. Tipping its head it focused on a man walking in the opposite direction, towards the farm the hawk had left behind. The man was of passing interest. It wasn't food and the hawk had a need a man couldn't satisfy.
Jimmy awoke with a start. His eyes were sealed shut with dried tears and it took several moments to wipe them clean. His bed was soiled and stank. Two buckets sat on the floor nearby, one filled with stale water and the other filled with the former contents of his stomach. A Bible, an empty tin plate, and the molten remains of a candle were the sole occupants of the bedside table. His flannel shirt and bib overalls hung from a peg in the wall. His boots stood side-by-side on the rough-hewn plank floor.
Morning sunlight filtered through threadbare linen curtains. Imperfect panes of glass provided a warped image of warped clouds slowly scudding across an incredibly blue sky. The thin air of the plains of Kansas had that effect on the sky. The Rocky Mountains peeking above the horizon to the west were dimly visible in the window at the other end of Jimmy's attic bedroom.
Jimmy called for his mother. “Mom,” sounded like the weak bleat of a distant, distressed calf.
He didn't expect her to respond. She hadn't come for many days. Had it been a week? Maybe.
Half of the ladle spilled on his chest as Jimmy attempted to refresh himself with a drink from the bucket.
Today was the day, Jimmy decided. He rolled to one side and kicked the comforter away from his feet. He used both hands to push himself to a sitting position and let his feet fall to the floor. The water bucket tipped when he pushed it aside, but slid away without spilling.
Jimmy sat on the edge of the bed for the better part of an hour, gathering his strength, his hands gripping the edge of the thin mattress to hold himself from falling back. He had reached this same position on each of the two preceding days.
The cold forced him to dress. He didn't know where he would find the strength, but it was quickly sapping him of the little energy that remained in his body. Shirt. Bib overalls. Thank God, he was already dressed in his long johns.
Barefoot, he padded to the ladder and lowered himself to the ground floor, where he remained hanging onto the lower rungs for several minutes. His head was bowed and his eyes held firmly shut. He was gathering the courage to see the sight that he expected and feared. His parents lying dead in their bed.
Jimmy was the sole family survivor of an epidemic of small pox.
A knock at the door startled him. With great effort, he staggered there, lifted the latch and found a stranger waiting. In one hand he held a seabag over his shoulder and in the other, he held a double barreled fowling gun. He wore a smile that faded to pity when he beheld the scene behind Jimmy.
Without a word, the stranger helped Jimmy to a bench outside the front door and disappeared inside. He came back with a bucket of fresh water and a scrap of cloth that he used to wash Jimmy's face and chest.
Jimmy hadn't buttoned his shirt or long johns, and the stranger examined the scars that the small pox had marked him with. He opened his seabag and took out what appeared to be a doctor's kit. He selected a jar and spread salve on Jimmy's sores. Another jar in his kit yielded a greenish powder that the stranger mixed with water and fed to Jim. It was strangely refreshing and Jimmy felt a warm rush spread from his stomach to every extremity.
Later that night, after the stranger had buried Jimmy's parents, and cleaned and aired the cabin, he sat at the table carving a marker for the grave. A chicken stewed in a pot on the wood burning stove, and Jimmy rested on freshly washed linens in his parent's bed. The stranger hummed quietly to himself while Jimmy watched. They hadn't spoken one word to each other all day.
It was Easter Sunday, 1878.