I don’t know how long we cowered there in the corner of the barn. Outside, the wind raged and limbs crashed and cracked. It sounded like the world was coming down around us; I don’t know how that old barn managed to stay up in all the hullaballoo.
At last, it quieted. The waterfall sound of rain coming through the open section of roof slowed to a heavy drizzle, then lifted almost entirely. I crept out from under the blanket, looking at the sky. The black clouds were moving quickly to the south east, lightening as they sailed past.
The storm had thrown straw all over. Anything that hadn’t been nailed down–and a few things that were–now littered the floor. A tree branch wedged itself between two of the boards on one wall, and one of the overhead beams, already weak, hung at an odd angle. Slate shingles from the roof were shattered on the floor.
I squinted at them. Something bothered me about them, but I couldn’t tell what.
“We should get back to the car,” Elizabeth said. She was still shaking a little as she looped her arm into George’s.
I nodded, following them outside. Even with all three of us yanking on the barn door, we couldn’t open it. Instead, we had to squeeze through a gap in the wall, which was tilted to the south.
“I feel like I just landed in Oz. Only there are no munchkins,” Elizabeth breathed, staring wide-eyed at the damage. Downed limbs littered the ground, which was soggy and sucked at our shoes as we retraced our steps to the road.
By some miracle, the old jalopy was still parked by the roadside, two wheels sinking an inch into the mud. I found the tool kit under the front seat and used a screwdriver to clear the drain holes in the floorboards of dirt so the water which had pooled ankle deep in the car could drain away, then helped Elizabeth scoop handfuls of wet leaves and small branches off the seats and floor.
“I’m glad now I didn’t put the top up this morning,” George said, swinging the crank from his shoulder. “It would have been torn to ribbons in that storm, or torn off completely.” When the engine didn’t start right away, he opened the front of the car and began tinkering with the engine.
“Everything copacetic?” I asked.
“It’s fine. Just a little waterlogged, I think.” He pulled a fistful of leaves from the front grill, tossing them on the ground.
Elizabeth planted her hands on her hips, surveying our work with the car’s interior. Her thick braids hung limply now, and she’d lost one of the blue ribbons securing them. “Well, it’s a good thing we’re already wet, because I don’t think it’s going to get much drier.”
I didn’t imagine I looked much better. I already suspected my stockings were beyond repair.
“We just have to make it home, and then there’ll be a hot bath and clean clothes.” I sighed wistfully at the thought.
George closed the hood and took another try with the engine crank.
At first, I thought the loud pops were coming from the old engine, unwilling as it was to start. Then George gave a shout and sparks splash off the hood. I ducked, pulling Elizabeth down with me.
“What is that?” She wailed, covering her head. I peered over the top of the seat and saw movement in the trees. Three people, half hidden by the trees, were making their way toward us.
“Bootleggers! George, hurry!”
He gave the crank one more forceful jerk, and the car leapt to life. Keeping his head below the top of the beezer, he climbed in from the passenger side as the shooters paused to reload. Another loud bang, and a smattering of buckshot brought down a limb just over our heads.
Elizabeth screamed. George threw the car into gear, and with a squeal of protest, it lurched forward, spitting gravel in our wake. We rattled down the lane, lead shot peppering the back of the car and ringing loudly in the quiet of the wood.
The jalopy careened around a corner, sliding in the wet clay and sending up a spray of muddy water. George didn’t slow down until we were back on the paved road back to town.
“That was close!” he sighed, leaning back in his seat.
Elizabeth was still huddled up next to me, crying quietly. “That was terrifying! What do we do?” she asked.
“We should tell your mother,” George said immediately, inclining his head to me. “If there are bootleggers up there, the police need to know about it.”
We all agreed. “And in the meantime, maybe we should pick less secluded picnic spots,” I suggested. I mean it to be a joke, but George and Elizabeth both nodded. She put a hand on his shoulder, and he reached up to give her fingers a squeeze.
I leaned back and let them have their moment, since they probably wouldn’t get another one for a while. I stewed over the events of the morning. The wooded area where we’d taken shelter from the storm hadn’t appeared occupied, but the still had to be close by if the bootleggers were defending it so ruthlessly. I remembered how worn the lane leading to the barn was. If only I’d paid attention, looking for fresh tracks! It hadn’t struck me as odd at the time. But that must be where they’re making it, or at least meeting someone who takes it away, I thought. The barn had been run down and empty, though, so the still must be hidden in the woods.
In no time, we pulled up to the curb between my house and George’s. A branch from the maple tree between our yards lay broken on the grass. Mr. Blake was out with a hand saw, breaking it down into smaller pieces for firewood. He raised a hand in greeting as we climbed out of the car.
“Back so soon? I thought you weren’t coming home until afternoon,” he said, pausing in his work to wipe sweat from his forehead. Now that the rain was past, the air was thick and muggy with summer heat.
“We ran into some problems.” George give Elizabeth a hand down to the curb, and I handed her the basket with our forgotten lunch. All three of us were windblown, our clothes partially damp, disheveled from the wind and coated in mud. I reached up self consciously to smooth out my golden-brown bob, but doubted it did much good.
“George, would you still like to join us for lunch? Our plans may not have worked out, but we could always spread a blanket in the backyard, or eat on the porch,” I suggested, attempting to salvage what I could of our morning.
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“Let’s all take a chance to clean up. When you’re ready, come on over and we can have our lunch.”
George and Elizabeth both agreed to the plan. We went our separate ways to clean up.
“I’ll see what I can salvage from our basket. You go take a bath,” Elizabeth suggested, carrying the basket into the kitchen.