Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 29

A Snowball Fight

On Wednesday afternoon, Barbara shuttled as many girls to the station as possible, but the local taxis had to be called in to help. After the last round trip, she parked the car and hopped into the waiting taxi with three other girls. Sister Rose was there to see her off, and Barbara felt odd about not telling her that she was going only as far as Bollinger. The other girls also thought it odd when she elected to take the bus instead of the train, and remained in the taxi after they got out. In fact, she had herself dropped at a little restaurant to have a snack. It was only after the other girls were long gone that she came back to the station to wait for Margaret.

The previous night, Barbara had called her mother and explained about Margaret and Thanksgiving. Her mother was upset and disappointed, but it was the kind of thing she would have done herself. When Barbara invited her family down to Bollinger for dinner, her mother replied,

"You know your father won't come, and I doubt that your brother will either. But I'll come if it's the only way I can see you."

Barbara had been pleased, but she was now about to deal with a Margaret intent on returning to St. Monica's. At worst, she might even be wearing a nun's habit.

Barbara was early, but had brought a paper to read. With only one more train expected and one person waiting, the one- man staff showed signs of locking up. Barbara attempted, by her general demeanor, to convince him that it would be cruel to make her wait outside in the cold. He looked at her several times, perhaps trying to convince her that it was cruel to keep him from his family on Thanksgiving Eve, but he didn't say anything.

A little later, Barbara was surprised and pleased to see Mrs. Badgett come in the door. They had talked on the phone, and were to meet, but Barbara hadn't expected to see her so soon. With Mrs. Badgett was her husband, a large man who talked slowly with a Texas accent. After they were seated, Barbara whispered,

"I'm sure that man has been wanting to close the station and throw me out, but I don't think he'll suggest it with both of you here."

As she spoke, the station master resignedly retreated to the ticket cubicle, where he could be heard making a telephone call. Mrs. Badgett said,

"I called Mrs. Winton, and we thought it might be a good idea if you came over to our house first, and then to the Wintons. She said it didn't matter if you arrived fairly late."

"Good idea. Margaret seems to be in a bit of a panic. If anyone can calm her, it's probably you. I'll come too, but I'll stay in the background."

When the arrival of the train was imminent, the station master came over to inform them. Barbara headed out for the platform as the Badgetts went to warm up their car.

It was dark early, but it was a bright night with a clear sky and only a light breeze. The snow had covered up everything ugly near the railway, and had left only a flat expanse with ambiguous bumps. The distinctive feature in the barely visible landscape was the pair of parallel snowbanks thrown up on either side of the tracks. Looking north along them, Barbara could see a light.

When Margaret descended, the only passenger to leave the train at Bollinger, she was, to Barbara's relief, wearing slacks and boots like herself. As they hugged, Barbara could feel, even through their heavy clothes, a very frightened young woman. She immediately announced,

"We're not going to St. Monica's tonight. I've become great friends with Dr. Winton and his wife, and we're staying with them. Have you had supper?"

It turned out that she hadn't, and Barbara explained that Mrs. Badgett was having them over first. All of this seemed to go fairly well. Margaret, while a little surprised and flustered, also acted like someone who had just received a reprieve. She managed a smile for the Badgetts, and, again to Barbara's relief, talked in a normal way.

When they arrived at the Badgett home, not far from the Wintons, they found the two boys, aged fourteen and sixteen, preparing to go out for a snowball fight. When they urged their father to join them, Barbara volunteered as well. They set off running along the cleared street until they reached the prairie. A little further on, there was a frozen creek, with scattered trees along its banks.

Barbara was paired with the older boy, Ed junior, while Tom joined his father. The rules were simple. The attacking team, Barbara's, won if both members crossed the creek and reached the top of the other bank without being hit by a snowball. If one made it, but not the other, it was a tie. If neither made it after fifteen minutes on Ed senior's watch, the defenders won. Anyone hit by a snowball was out of the game, and had to wait for the next one.

Having crossed the creek to begin the game, Barbara's partner spoke to her with great seriousness.

"There's too much light to sneak around much, but if you feint in Tom's sector, he'll probably chase you. He'll figure he can beat a girl. Lead him past that tree that I'll get behind, and I'll pick him off."

"Do I try to cross the creek?"

"Run off to the left and jump down in it if he's not too near. Then get out real fast and keep running towards me. Watch out for Dad. He's got a strong accurate arm. He may not throw hard at you, though."

"Because I'm a girl?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

They could see the two figures some fifty yards away across the creek. Barbara started to her left, wading in the snow that was half-way up to her knees. As soon as she was clear of the trees, the smaller figure began moving parallel to her. There seemed no reason to hurry yet, so she continued on her course, slowly closing the creek. Tom came closer, too, and threw a snowball which she didn't even have to dodge. He seemed no threat at that range, so she came closer. He threw again, but still without effect. It looked as if he had a scatter arm.

Without warning, Barbara ran right to the creek bank, but stopped and ducked as his next shot went right over her head. He had another snowball ready to throw, and was obviously waiting for her to get down into the creek. Judging that he would chase her even without doing that, Barbara instead ran away as fast as she could. The effort was exhausting, and, after only a short distance, she looked back. Tom was nowhere to be seen, which meant that he was down in the creek bed. Barbara started running again, shaping her course to the left as she heard Tom behind her. There was a pain in her chest, and her boots felt as if they had lead in them, but she pretended that Tom was chasing her with a great curved knife.

When she got abreast of the nearest tree, she caught a glimpse of Ed junior behind it. Then, seemingly a long time afterwards, there was a splat and a cry of surprise from Tom. When she turned, he was slowing dejectedly to a stop, a snowball in each hand. It was the old story of the older brother outmaneuvering the younger one. It seemed to Barbara that this might be precisely the sort of thing that gave rise to hero worship. Suddenly, something whistled past her ear and landed beyond her. Her partner grabbed her and bundled her behind the great trunk of the bare tree.

"You almost got caught napping. Dad's right across the creek."

There was then another brief strategy session.

"I'll drop back a bit and engage him at long range. You can move down the bank a way and cross. If he goes down to oppose you, I'll move up and draw him away. Once you're across, sneak up behind him."

"What do I do then?"

"Can you throw?"

"Not very well."

"Get as close as you have to. Even if he gets you, I may make it across, in which case we win."

"I thought we both had to be across and functioning to win."

"We both have to cross, but not necessarily at the same time. Let's go."

Barbara got a thump on the back, and set out. Retracing her previous route, she arrived at the bank. Ed senior threw at her, but was so far away that she dodged easily. Her partner now moved up, and she realized that she had better get across before he was hit.

The opposite bank was steep at this point, and it took a couple of attempts before Barbara clawed her way up. Father and son were now having a furious battle across the creek, making the snowballs and firing them practically in one motion. She saw that she would have to circle around an impossibly long distance to have any chance of approaching her enemy unseen. She instead took off her gloves for the first time, made two snowballs, and ran directly at Ed senior. Until she got fairly close, she was ignored, but, then, he wheeled and threw hard at her. Barbara threw herself full length in the snow, and remained there until she heard her partner shout for a renewed attack.

Up and moving again, Barbara let fly. She was relieved that her shot wasn't embarrassingly bad, looping over Ed senior's head. In fact, it prompted retaliation. This time, Barbara wasn't quick enough, and a snowball whacked squarely against her shoulder as she dropped to one knee. But, almost at the same moment, a shot from across the creek hit Ed senior in the head. Laughing and wiping the snow away, he came over to help Barbara up as his elder son crossed the creek, shouting triumphantly. Barbara, her hands frozen, was almost as jubilant once she had her gloves back on. Tom then appeared and assured her that his side had lost only because they hadn't taken her seriously.

In the four games that followed, with changing partners, Barbara was on the winning side only once, with a tie in the last game. It was in that game that she managed to pitch a snowball that caught Ed junior on the ear as he was otherwise engaged in eliminating his brother.

When they got back, Margaret looked a good deal better. Almost before anyone else could say anything, Tom, pointing to Barbara, said to his mother,

"She's faster'n you are, Mom."

Barbara had had no idea that Mrs. Badgett also played the family game. On the other hand, it was the sort of family where everyone would be invited to participate in everything. It was also, Barbara realized, the best possible place to have taken Margaret. The lesson was clear: This, too, can be yours if you stay out of the convent and marry a nice man.

The quantity of food which Mrs. Badgett produced was a little daunting, but Barbara ate as much as she had in any two previous meals that year. When, later, they declined the offer of a ride to the Wintons' house, Ed junior was sent with them to make sure they didn't get lost. Barbara sensed his interest, and, after all, he was only a year younger. As high school football players went, he seemed quite nice. That is, he could talk, he paid attention to Margaret as well as herself, and he showed no signs of grabbing. She might have liked to go out with him, but she sensed complications and mentioned Howie. Margaret asked who he was, and Barbara explained. Ed burst out,

"You mean you're only seventeen, and you're going out with the prosecutor?"

Barbara laughed.

"I guess it does sound funny, but he's awfully young. In some ways, he's probably younger than you are."

"About girls?"

"I imagine so."

"Well, out here in the country, there's not a lot to do outside football season except fool around with girls. You can always take them out into the fields if you don't have any money. So we learn a few things."

Margaret said,

"Ed's the youngest here, and he knows the most. I'm the oldest and I know the least."

Ed replied,

"You were a nun weren't you? You gotta make allowances."

"I did have a boy friend, but, whenever he started to do anything, I got scared and pushed him away. Finally, he got mad and went off."

Ed patted her on the shoulder and said,

"It sounds like he didn't make allowances. Come out with me, and I'll be nice to you."

"Are you serious?"

"Sure. I go out with a lot of girls, and some are older. No problem."

Barbara was amused at the look on Margaret's face and said,

"Go ahead, Margaret. I'm sure he's a nice guy."

Margaret replied,

"I'd like to, but I was thinking of rejoining the convent tomorrow. Your mother gave me pause, but I might still."

This was greeted by a roar of derision from the others. Ed said,

"Just wait another day and go out with me tomorrow night."

The reply, an affirmative one, came quietly but quickly.

They had now reached the Wintons' house, and Barbara addressed Ed, fully in Margaret's hearing,

"Ok, Ed junior, I'm glad you're trying to save Margaret from the convent, but you've got to be careful. She's been taught for the last umpteen years that one little kiss means a few million years in Purgatory."

Ed put his hand gently under Margaret's chin, tilted it upwards, and kissed her lightly on the lips. They all laughed, and Margaret looked after Ed as he made his way down the street.

Howie's car was in the shovelled-out drive, and he was at the door with Amanda and Chuck even before they rang the bell. They had hardly gotten their coats off when, hearing about the snowball fight at the Badgetts, Chuck and Howie insisted on having one too.

The Winton snowball fight lacked the organization of the Badgett one, and amounted to a free-for-all with few hits. Barbara did rather well, probably because of her earlier training. Several times, she tricked one of the men into chasing her, and, when he missed, she turned and threw with good effect. After a while, with Chuck, Howie and Margaret all in her field of vision, she heard someone running toward her from the back. Knowing what was going to happen, she let herself go limp. A minute later, she was pushed flat on her face, with Amanda throwing snow on her head. Barbara rolled over, yelling and kicking dramatically, before making her escape. She had never seen Amanda so happy and excited.

After some twenty minutes, their hands all cold, the group moved into the house. Although there was a good fire going in the large fireplace, their pants were all soaked. Before changing, Amanda appeared with a heavy blanket, and said to the other two women,

"You can cover yourselves with this while I dry your pants. Neither of you could get into anything of mine. We can fix Howie up with Chuck's old pants. He's already familiar with them."

Afterwards, the conviviality was what one would expect of people crowded around a fire with hot cocoa. Barbara, feeling bare under the blanket, could sometimes feel Margaret's leg against her own, but Margaret didn't seem to mind. When Howie made as if to lift a corner of it, they both squealed provocatively.

The discussion eventually turned to Margaret's date for the next evening. Barbara was asked for her opinion.

"He's a nice boy who prefers football, but, when that's unavailable, he amuses himself with girls. I don't think he'd be pushy, though."

Amanda asked,

"Is that because he's already proven himself with women, or because he doesn't think there's any honor in seducing them?"

"Probably a bit of both. I think he's rather a smart boy in an unpretentious way. He might not have all the usual misconceptions."

Amanda looked as if she, herself, might find such a boy useful, but she asked,

"How many of the misconceptions of your peers do you have, Howie?"

"Well, I don't think you have to be pie-eyed to prosecute or otherwise practise law. I can't think of anything else shared by the majority of my colleagues."

Amanda, sitting on the arm of a chair above the others, then smiled happily and said,

"We homemakers believe that we have to be meek. Did you all see the way I knocked Barbara flat?"

Everyone had seen, and there was some comment. Chuck, pretending to be Amanda's size, re-enacted the event by charging into the coat stand loaded with coats and knocking it over. As the others twisted and turned to watch, the blanket became disarranged, exposing Margaret in white cotton underpants. She didn't seem as bothered as might have been expected, but Barbara covered her. It was agreed by everyone that she should purchase improved lingerie before her date with Ed Badgett junior.

When the cocoa gave out, it was midnight. Amanda produced pillows and more blankets. Margaret, Barbara, and Howie went to sleep on the rug in front of the dying fire.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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