The scent of drenched earth wafted into the cellar like a spell as Jeremiah opened the door. As he stared out at the disheveled yard, his first thoughts went to his horse. He hoped she had been smart enough to run far from the twister. The Thompson’s house was still intact at least.
“Sally,” he called quietly. “It is safe to come out now. I need to escort you to your family.”
She dragged her feet until she reached the opening of the shelter. Her expression mirrored that of someone who had lost something very dear to her.
“The storm is over, ” he said quietly. “It isn’t coming back.”
“It isn’t the only thing that won’t be coming back,” said Sally. “I feel as though everything has changed.”
“You’re in shock.”
He nearly reached out to touch her shoulder, but he restrained himself. He saw her family every Sunday morning at church, but he never took a moment to realize that she was nearly grown up. The time seemed to pass by faster since he started his own farm three years ago.
Sally’s wide green eyes scanned the torn up yard and uprooted trees.
“I was so sure we were going to die,” she whispered.
“You’ll likely see more tornadoes in your day and you will survive every one of them.”
She glared at him and he suddenly really wanted to be back on his farm.
“God only knows where my horse is,” he muttered.
“Oh. I hope she is alright.”
“The main thing is that we are alright. Come along.”
He had to slow down to not walk too far ahead of her and it irritated him. The church was roughly a half hour away in good conditions, but travelling with the little girl on a muddy road was going to take double the time. He gritted his teeth and silently cursed Mother Nature for sending a tornado of all things on the busiest day of the year for him.
He helped her to step over the big puddles on the road. Tears streamed down her delicate cheekbones.
“What ‘s the matter? I am sure that your family is fine. Soon you will be with them.”
“I’m grateful we survived, but it’s what you said about other tornadoes passing through. I’m not sure if I can handle another one.”
“It’s a part of life out here, Sally. Next time won’t seem as bad.”
“Maybe I’m not as brave as you are.”
He rolled his eyes.
“How old are you now? Fourteen?
“I’ll be seventeen in the fall.”
The glare that she flashed him made him shut his mouth as they walked toward the bush. When the church steeple appeared through the thinning trees, he breathed a sigh of relief. Soon he would be free to return home, check on his cattle, and start repairing the damages. Sally’s family had little to lose with the amount of money that they had, but his entire livelihood would vanish if his farm was lost to the twister.
The Thompsons emerged from the church’s entrance. Their pale complexions appeared ghostlike against the darkening sky behind the church. Mr. Thompson strode toward them while his wife watched from the top of the steps with her arms crossed. Sally picked up her skirts and ran to her father. He gathered the slip of a girl in his arms and twirled her around twice. His blue eyes held questions in their depths as he looked over at Jeremiah.
“Daddy, Jeremiah rode by our house just as the tornado was about to suck us both in. We barely escaped before taking refuge in the root cellar.”
He cupped Sally’s face with his hands.
“Glory to God that you are alright.”
“It was Sally who saved me,” said Jeremiah. “She held that door open for me until the very last moment. I would have been a goner if she closed it.”
She flashed him an odd look and quickly stared at the ground.
“Thank you for taking care of my little girl, Jeremy. Would you step inside of the church with us for a moment? I need to have a word with you.”
He did not like the tone of the older man, but he had little choice but to comply with his request. Mr. Thompson was, after all, a deacon of the church. As they stepped inside of the normally warm, familiar building, an eerie energy surrounded them then. A couple of other girls around Sally’s age stared at him. One of them smirked as though she knew a terrible secret.
“Sally, why don’t you go practice piano with your mother?” asked Mr. Thompson.
Sally stopped and gaped at her father.
“Piano? I can barely think after nearly losing my life moments ago!”
“Keep your voice down. Come along with me, dear,” said Mrs. Thompson.
Sally’s father placed his hands in his pockets and cleared his throat.
“You see, Jeremy, this is a matter concerning my Sally. While it was unavoidable for you and Sally to shield yourselves from the storm inside of our root cellar, the fact remains that you were unchaperoned.”
“Yes, Sir. Due to extenuating circumstances.”
“There are now witnesses here that can confirm that you two spent over an hour alone together. To keep Sally’s good name intact, I need to ask you to marry her.”
Jeremiah’s breath caught in his throat as anger formed in the pit of his stomach.
“Marry her?” he asked. “She’s a child.”
“Do not pretend that you suddenly forget the rules of propriety.”
Jeremiah threw his hands up in the air.
“The tornado is what forced us both to hide from it in safety. I did not touch her. The desire to do so could not have been further from my mind at that time.”
Jeremiah shook his head. The man’s gaze turned colder than ice as the silence between them thickened.
“Everyone will understand why we had to be in that root cellar alone.”
“If you do not agree to wed Sally before nightfall, I will see to it that you are banished from this town. Is that understood?”
“You can’t do that.”
“You don’t think so? I own half the town.”
“Of course you do.”
“Be careful. I am not going to ask you again. You have until nightfall to honour my little girl’s reputation. Good day.”
Jeremiah watched the icy-eyed deacon as he left him in the wake of another storm. He met Sally’s childlike gaze from across the room as she stood next to her mother looking through hymn books. She was right. The brutal storm had changed everything.