Tom Marlin

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The following is an excerpt from
by Tom Marlin

y 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 rain shower 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 shadows.
     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 trees.”
      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 pounding.
     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 creek bed 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 creek bed 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 face.


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