following is an excerpt from
FORKS: A NOVEL OF TEXAS
by Tom Marlin
By late afternoon, they crossed
the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Tall trees became scarce and a great
prairie opened up before Jake's eyes. Henry told him they'd entered
the Island of the Cross Timbers, an expansive prairie surrounded on
three sides by heavy woods. Jake wiped his brow with his bandanna, noticing
how muggy the air had become outside the trees.
Henry pointed to towering
purplish thunderheads to the southwest. “Them clouds don't look none
too friendly,” he said. “I reckon there's a frog-floating gully washer
headed this way.”
“Well, maybe it'll cool things
off,” Jake replied. “I could use a nice cool rainshower about now.”
After a while, Jake noticed
a peculiar, ominous silence. He listened closely and heard only the
familiar squeaking of leather saddles, the monotonous clop, clop of
hooves, and the occasional nickers of impatient horses. Humidity hung
thick on the still air. Although he thought it must be close to four
or five o'clock, an unnatural darkness slowly overtook the afternoon
To the southwest, a long,
crooked bolt of lightning silently flashed from a low-hanging cloud
and struck a copse of small mesquite trees in the distance. A brilliant
explosion of white sparks erupted. A crisp, acrid smell filled Jake's
nostrils. He heard Henry beside him, counting aloud, “One… two… three…”
until a thunderous crack! almost unsaddled Jake from his horse.
“Damn!” both men said simultaneously.
“That was close,” Jake finished.
Their horses bucked slightly and fidgeted.
“About a half-mile off, I
reckon,” Henry said. He explained how he could calculate distance by
counting seconds between the flash and thunder. “I'm danged sure glad
we ain’t amongst them big ol' post oaks no more,” he added. “We could
sure get roasted crisp if that lightning hit while we were underneath
The darkness took on a sinister
green tinge across the landscape. A wall cloud one mile away pushed
lower toward the horizon like an eerie mist. Jake noticed indistinct
shapes slowly forming and reforming within as it grumbled closer. His
stomach swirled in unison. The bottom of the cloud appeared to loom
only a few feet above the horizon. In between, a small strip of pale
yellow sky contrasted with the dark gray cloud.
A flock of blue jays screeched
from the top of a nearby mesquite tree. “That ain’t a good sign,” Henry
said. “I heard jays squawking like that once before in my life. They
know when something bad is coming. I hope that ain’t what I think it
is heading straight for our unlucky asses.”
Rafe unexpectedly galloped
by from his lead position, standing in his stirrups and looking wildly
back and forth across the prairie. Jake watched anxiously, his heart
Rafe jerked his horse to a
halt. He shaded his eyes with one hand as he looked to the south. He
scanned the horizon momentarily, then looked to the southwest.
Jake followed Rafe's eyes and looked
in the same direction. The cloud formation he saw didn't make sense.
Clouds usually floated parallel to the ground. This one produced a thick,
dark, wavering finger that seemed to be trying to decide where to point
on the ground, about one mile away. The finger was fat at the top and
reached toward the ground with a pointed nail. It reminded him of swirling
his finger around in a bowl of his mother's cake batter.
He watched in disbelief as
the finger expanded into a monstrous funnel that looked like a drain
for the wall cloud above. The funnel touched the ground. Large pieces
of debris whipped up in huge swirling circles around the churning whirlwind.
It seemed to be eating the prairie. Flattened land replaced a long row
of trees behind the funnel as it sucked up everything in sight. Its
mindless, ravenous appetite seemed insatiable. The other men murmured
and stared in awe, captivated by the phenomenal sight. Jaws dropped
and eyes widened.
“Twister!” Rafe shouted. “Everybody follow
me, now!” He reined his horse left and galloped south.
The company suddenly burst to life
as spurs kicked hard into horse flesh and dirt flew up behind galloping
hooves. A few men remained momentarily, still hypnotized by the awesome
sight. Jake rode hard behind Rafe, who appeared to be riding into the
storm instead of away from it. Jake kept his eyes right, watching the
twister expand outward as it raged nearer. His mind couldn't comprehend
what happened as a huge tree suddenly shot twenty feet overhead, a massive
root ball hanging from its trunk.
Looking beyond Rafe, Jake saw a
wide creekbed that sunk five feet below the prairie. Thunder boomed
continuously in the sky, growing louder. Jake didn't know what the heck
he was doing. He just rode hard on his terrified horse, following Rafe.
Jake looked to the right a final time. He saw broad tree trunks swirling
wildly around the slowly approaching mass, as if they were twigs tossed
in an autumn wind. Up ahead, he saw Rafe ride into the creekbed and
jump off his horse. Rafe kept the reins in hand as he flattened himself
in the shallow water. Jake leaped off his horse and landed with a splat.
Just as Jake hit the water, an
ear-splitting roar thundered overhead. Grass, twigs and stones thrashed
violently around him, slapping his face and arms. His ears popped and
his throat tightened. Something ripped his hat from his head and he
felt like his clothes were being torn from his body.
In only a few seconds, the noise
diminished to a dull roar and debris came crashing down on his back.
Water splashed around him as terrified horses screamed and stampeded
in every direction. Jake lay still, his eyes squeezed shut. After a
while he opened them and heard a deafening silence. He found he'd covered
his head with his arms.
He peeked over top one arm and
looked around. The first thing he saw was a big toothy smile on Rafe's
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