Dry Spell
by Leo D. Orionis

The day was oiled brass in torchlight, the color of no rain yesterday, no rain today, and no rain tomorrow. The sun gloated over the dead yellow grass beside the heat-cracked roads, and sent a dog wind to blow the parched topsoil away with its smelly hot breath.

Inside the First National Bank it was a little cooler. A couple of big fans worked away at opposite ends of the lobby, one of them stirring the lank yellow hair of John Anders, the bank guard, whenever it swiveled in his direction. John just stood there in his grey and blue uniform in a kind of parade rest, as he did every day, nodding at the regulars when they came in. In a small town in the middle of nowhere, which Uppsala, Minnesota definitely was, all the customers were regulars.

Charley Karkkinen was the only customer in the bank just now. He stood at the table in the middle of the lobby, where the bank displayed the date and kept forms for the customers. Charley had his checkbook open and was doing calculations on the back of a deposit slip, trying to figure out how much he should draw on his account. The drought showed no signs of ending, but a farm gulps money all the time, drought or no.

The bank's front windows faced south on the east-west main drag, named, in a burst of originality typical of the town, Main Street. People driving through Uppsala saw that the Farmer's College was on College Avenue, the Museum of American Agriculture was on Museum Boulevard, and there just wasn't much else. One good smattering of houses, a restaurant and a gas station at each end of town (one serving northbound traffic, the other southbound), a single school for all the grades through high school, a hardware store, that was it. Mostly folks drove through without stopping.

A bit of glare reflecting from a car parked across the street made Charley move to the other side of the table, which made him aware of his surroundings again. "Temperatures in the 90's in the southern part of the state, and not a sign of rain," said the big radio in the tellers' area. "Boy, don't you just wish you could save up weather like this for one of our midwinter blizzards?"

"Turn off the damned radio!" Charley snapped.

"Sorry, Charley," said Tom Hensen, looking up from the paperwork on his desk. "Turn it off, Ben," the bank president said to the youngest of the three tellers behind the counter.

"But, sir!" said the recent high-school graduate. Like most of the town's largely-Scandinavian population, he was big: tall, burly, with heavy bones. Well suited for farming, or seafaring, or fighting, but a little restless for banking. The teller on his right, a Finnish brunette named Pirto Ahtonen, reached over and turned off the offending radio without a word. John Anders' daughter Kirsten, who was the third teller, didn't look up from her figures.

"You know better," said Hensen. "Don't make me sorry I hired you, Mr. Nilsson."

Ben Nilsson's face went white. Good, thought Charley; the last place we want carelessness is the bank. "No, sir," said the teller. "Won't happen again."

"Good, good," said Tom. Silence returned to the bank lobby, broken only by the creak of the fans, the buzzing of flies, and the scratch of pens.

 

The newspaper was dated Wednesday, August 10, 1932. Midwest folks were conservative. If the New York Times wanted to run "The fourth day before the Ides of August, 2685 A.U.C." under the Christian date, fine; but the readers of the Kansas City Star weren't interested. Nor were they willing to pay extra money for some fancy "news magazine" on slick paper. A plain old newspaper on plain old newsprint had been good enough for their fathers, and it was good enough for them.

Dick Kasten ignored the paper, with its headlines: "Russian Royal Family Feared Dead!" and "Chinese Peasants March On Peking" and "Congresswoman Seeks Liquor Ban". He had problems of his own, much closer to home. Right on the other side of his desk, in fact.

"Look, Georgia," he said, "if you're bored, why don't you interview someone whose cattle are being molested, or who hears a ghost train on old tracks? Why come up with this stuff?" He pushed the manila folder to the far edge of his heavy wooden desk, where she could pick it up and go away.

Georgia Corey did neither. "This is real, Dick. Didn't you look at the facts I gathered?"

Kasten leaned back. "It's going to take more than charts to convince me that some farmers in Minnesota can control the weather," he snorted. A sign on the wall behind him said:


Heat Doesn't Bother Me

It may kill me, but it doesn't bother me

True to his word, the red-faced newspaper chief ignored the sweat that made his forehead and bald spot shiny, and darkened his underarms.

"That's a conclusion," Georgia shot back. "I'm a reporter. That means I investigate, then I report. This," she said, tapping the folder, "needs investigation."

"And what is 'this'?" said Kasten.

"An area that suffers less from drought than anyplace else in the Midwest," Corey answered. "The farmers around Uppsala produce bigger crops, year after year, than anyone else. Drought takes longer to reduce their yields, and it ends sooner there than anywhere else. They even get rain, sometimes, when no one else has a cloud in the sky."

"Maybe they just have an aquifer under the town," the editor said. "Or maybe they're under some freak eddy in the jet stream. Either way, where's the story?"

"I don't know yet. But it's been going on for as long as there are records for the area. It's not just some trick of statistics."

"I just don't smell a story, Georgia," said Dick. "Sorry."

"Well, then, I have some vacation time piled up," Georgia reminded him. "I'd like to use it now, if you can spare me."

"Sure, I can spare you. And, Georgia, if you find something?"

"Yeah?" she said, as she picked up her folder.

"I still won't be interested," the editor said. His laughter followed her as she stalked out of his office.

 

"God, it's hot," whined Louise. Her straight black hair clung to her wet forehead. Her brown eyes, full of misery, were red-rimmed from dust.

"I know, baby," Frankie said patiently. He squinted through the windshield into the glare. Was that the turnoff for Uppsala?

"I wish it would rain," she said.

Frankie ran his right hand through his sweaty dark brown hair. "Too late now," he said. "If it'd rained in the last year my dad's farm wouldn't've folded, nor your pop's, and we wouldn't be on the way to California."

"I'm just so hot, honey." Louise sagged against the passenger-side door. Sweat made the blouse stick to her skinny body.

"Well, roll your window down."

"I did!"

"Back windows too?"

"Yup."

"Then we'll just have to be hot until we get hold of all that money," Frankie said. He shifted his heavy body, trying to find a position that would restore some feeling to his butt.

The green metal sign ahead said   UPPSALA 65 MILES  .

 

Energy from the stars fell upon the molecules in interstellar clouds, and was absorbed. Molecules combined and became more complex over time. Environments formed, where certain classes of molecules could persist; while others were broken down again by the radiation.

Sometimes, when the clouds were on the edges of solar systems, tidal forces would send them hurtling in towards the local sun. And sometimes there would be a small rocky planet near the sun; too small to retain the lighter elements, too hot to keep volatile compounds from boiling away.

Repeated impacts on the early atmosphere brought water, where little or none had existed; built oceans, even, given enough time. The water that steamed up, cooled down, poured over the angry rock and ran back to the seas leached elements from the crust, and enriched the ocean basins with them. But the water in the oceans wasn't pure even before that; the compounds formed on dust grains by starlight were already there.

Thus life began on planets around the universe; meanwhile, deep space saw evolution too. In the shadows of dust grains, in the interior spaces between lightly-packed particles, living beings unlike anything found on planets grew and changed. Some were simple forms; like star grass, they just grew. Mobile forms ate the static ones; star sheep, as it were. And some were predators; for every herd of star sheep, there was a star wolf.

 

"I'm sorry, Charley," Tom Hensen said. "I just can't approve a loan."

"What? But Tom, I need it! And you know I'm good for it." Charley sat in a chair by the bank president's desk and tried to keep his voice down. The First National was a small-town bank; even the boss didn't get a private office. Midwesteners didn't approve of bankers who put on airs.

"Sure, I know your word is good," Tom said. "And I know you're hurting from the drought. The trouble is, so's everyone else, and most of them are a lot worse off than you are."

"Hard to believe."

"Believe it, brother," Tom said. "You might lose part of your crop, and that's bad. But there are folks on my books who couldn't even put in a crop this year. Other folks saw all their soil blow away because they couldn't even keep grass alive to hold it. I have to think of the whole community. Bare is brotherless back," he said in Old Norse.

"Forever is the bond of brothers," Charley replied automatically, also in Old Norse. "But Tom," he continued, "what am I going to do?"

Tom held up a placating hand. "Just hang in there, Charley. Your account's not tapped out yet, and no drought lasts forever."

"Want to bet?" Charley said.

"If it was just you, I'd make you the loan in a shot," Tom said. "But we have to get everybody through this."

"Good luck with that!" Charley said.

"We'll make it," Tom said. "Meanwhile, if you're worried, do what I do."

"What's that?"

"Pray for bank robbers," the bank president said. Charley started to reply, but just then the front door of the bank opened.

 

In 1932, air travel was limited and expensive. Even if Georgia could have afforded a plane ticket, no airline went anywhere near Uppsala, Minnesota. She'd had a long drive over mile after mile of hot, dusty road. On top of that, she'd had to deal with way too many hick gas-station attendants who thought they could take advantage of her, just because she didn't have a man with her. Well, women'd had the right to vote for 60 years now, and this woman had a gun in her purse, if push came to shove.

It didn't help that the heat stripped her of most of the uniform of the modern woman. But it was too hot for armor, sartorial or otherwise. If she could've gotten by with shorts and t-shirts like most of the men she saw on the road, she'd gladly have done so. Even as it was, light-weight dress, uncovered hair, and legs without nylons did nothing to warn country louts to behave.

When she pulled up in front of the Uppsala newspaper's office, however, she was in full dress, complete with little cloth hat, nylons, and medium heels. If there'd been anyone around to see her climb out of the oven her car had become, she was certain they'd have been impressed.

The hour that followed was maddening. Ole Torvald, the editor of the Gazette that served Uppsala and the area around it, wouldn't cooperate. Gloria had expected surprise; if the Gazette had realized the story it had right under its collective nose, surely it would have published it. Therefore it hadn't put one and one together. But Torvald acted like she was a wild-eyed nut with a crazy idea, like Atlantis being real, or the Republicans winning a presidential election. He wouldn't even admit the clippings she had from his own newspaper were legitimate unless he compared them to the originals in his own files. The way he said that implied the likelihood of him spending time on it was somewhere between zero and zilch.

Somehow she managed to take her leave of him politely; always keep the door open for coming back, she'd learned. Then she stood next to her car (it was too hot to get in) and fumed for a few minutes.

But it was even too hot for fuming. She tried to think. Who else in this little town might know what was going on around here? Light from a glass window across the street stabbed at her. The bank! It had to loan money to the farmers, didn't it?

Georgia crossed the street to the bank, scarcely bothering to look for traffic first. The only thing moving was a beat-up blue clunker with a couple of kids in it, several blocks away.

 

Pointing Fox heard the falling star wailing, so he tracked it to its impact. The medicine man had seen lots of falling stars before, but he'd never heard one crying. He wanted to see what kind of ghost rode a star, so he rode along in the right direction, then ground-hitched his pony and continued the search on foot.

It was 1785 by the reckoning of the Europeans far to the south and east and west of Pointing Fox's people, but he'd never heard of them, and wouldn't have cared about their calendar if he had. The ponies that his people had were descended from horses that had escaped the intruders, but Pointing Fox didn't know that, either.

What he did know was that the black shapeless thing bubbling out around the edge of the fallen star wasn't natural. It was still crying, and he could see why. The bits that poked out boiled and shriveled up, like the flesh of an enemy being tortured with brands from a fire. Though it was night when Pointing Fox found the fallen star, it would seem that even starlight was too bright for the ghost-thing.

He poked at it with a curious finger. Then he screamed. The pain, as the ghost-thing sucked the life from his hand and arm, was beyond description, either in English or his own Athapascan language. Pointing Fox had danced the Sun Dance, where wooden skewers were inserted under the chest muscles, and the dancers, on tip-toes because of the ropes tied to the ends of the skewers and to the top of a great pole set in the ground, shuffled around and around until exhaustion made them fall and ripped the skewers out of their bodies.

This hurt worse than that.

Falling backwards broke the ghost-thing's touch and saved Pointing Fox's life, though he'd never have the use of that hand and arm again. He curled into a ball and sobbed. The ghost-thing, stronger with the life it had stolen from him, wailed also, a little louder than before.

The medicine man's first thought, when he picked himself up, was vengeance. He'd turn over the fallen star and let the ghost thing boil away!

But how? He'd have to do it one-handed, and if he stuck the fingers of his good hand under the edges of the rock, the ghost-thing would eat him alive.

Once Pointing Fox sat down to think, other possibilities than revenge began to come to him. If he could put the ghost-thing in a basket or bag, he could feed it dogs and other small animals to keep it alive, and use it against any enemies or challengers. He could be the greatest medicine man who ever lived, if he could tame the ghost-thing. He dumped the contents of his medicine pouch without a qualm. Holding it open with a long stick through one lace, he pushed it up to the meteor. "Come on, ghost-thing… Come on…" he said.

 

My my my, thought Charley Karkkinen, a confirmed bachelor, as the woman crossed the lobby. He'd never seen her before, so she must be from out of town; which the big-city costume of business dress with matching hat, purse, and shoes confirmed. He filled his eyes with her as she strode up to the little wooden barrier around Tom's desk area.

She looked at the two men by the desk with the brass placard that read "Tom Hensen, President" and addressed the one behind the desk. "Mr. Hensen?"

"Yes, Miss, how can I help you?" Tom answered.

"If I'm interrupting you gentlemen, I can wait, but I really would like to talk to you, Mr. Hensen."

"Well, that's my cue to leave, I guess," Charley said reluctantly. "My mother always said never make a lady wait." His reward was a dazzling smile.

The door of the bank slammed open. Two kids, hardly more than teenagers, plunged in from the searing brightness outside. They should have looked silly with their faded jeans and worn shirts, and the handkerchiefs tied over their noses. Instead they looked desperate. The guns they carried in their sweaty right hands looked like cannons.

"Hands up!" the boy shouted, sticking his black revolver right in the face of the bank guard. The girl cried "Hands up!" right behind him, standing in the door with the glare from outside shining around her, covering everyone else.

Everybody put their hands up: bank staff, customers, and the lady from out of town. The boy took John Anders' pistol, shoved it in his belt at the front, and took three quick steps back. Charley winced mentally, and hoped John hadn't taken the safety off before the kid reached him.

"Good," said the boy in a tough-guy voice. "Close the door, doll, before someone 'crost the street wonders why it's open."

"Good," he said again when the door was shut. He came over to the desk and kicked the little gate open. It slammed back against its hinges, and everyone jumped a little. "Which of you's the president?" he grinned.

"I am," said Tom.

"All right, Mr. Hensen," the boy said with a quick glance at the placard. "I'll tell you how it's gonna be. I want all you folks up against that wall over there, away from the front door and the vault, and then you're gonna open the vault for me."

"Whatever you say," Tom answered. Still with their hands up, the three tellers, the guard, and Hack Gunderson, the other customer in the bank, went where the boy had pointed. Charley touched the stranger lady on the shoulder, and led her over to the rest, while the girl with the gun watched them all anxiously.

"Sure you want to do this, son?" Tom asked calmly. Charley winced again. He understood why Hensen felt he had to ask, but he was likely to get his head blown off.

"Sure I'm sure!" the boy said. "Got no choice, do I? My dad's farm dried up and blew away, her dad's farm did the same, what else are we gonna do, starve?"

"Just want to make sure you've thought this through," the bank president said. "So far no one's been hurt and nothing's been stolen. If we were to sit down, you and I, might be the bank could help you. But once that vault's been opened," he said, and shrugged.

"I'd like to believe you, mister," the kid said. "But even this bank must have a lot of hard-up people it's carrying. I can't believe you'd add two more from out of town. No, just open the vault."

"All right, if you're sure," said Tom. "And the girl? She's right with you on this?"

"You bet I am," the girl called. "We're goin' to California and gettin' married!"

"Don't tell them anything!" the boy snapped.

"Don't worry about it, son," Tom said. "California's a big place. If you're set on it, I'd better get that vault open." He took a quick look around the bank lobby.

Charley did the same. Yes, everyone there was a member of the Brotherhood, which despite its name included women as well as men; except for the two would-be bank robbers, and the lady in the dress suit. He shifted his position slightly to place himself between her and the bank vault. The girl's gun swung to cover him. He held his hands a little higher and did his best to look harmless.

Tom Hensen pulled the vault door open, and blackness spilled out like a floodtide of ink, pouring over him and the kid. The boy screamed in fear and horror and pain.

"Frankie!" cried the girl, and ran to her boyfriend. The blackness engulfed her, and she screamed too. A shot rang out. There was no ugly whang! of ricochet, and the darkness ate the muzzle flash whole.

And then the blackness was on Charley, until it saw the Brotherhood brand on his chest, even through his shirt, and sheered off. The lady who'd come in just before the bank robbers was completely at its mercy; but Charley stood in front of her, with John Anders on his right and Ben Nilsson on his left. With a hungry sort of noise, that Charley heard only in his head, the blackness flowed back, recoiled from the sun coming through the window shades, and rushed back into the vault.

Tom Hensen slammed the vault door shut behind it, spun the dial, and looked down sadly at the shriveled grey stick figures that had been two living human beings. Then he called, "Everyone OK?"

The city lady was on the floor. For an icy moment Charley thought she'd been hit by the gunshot he'd heard, but Kirsten Anders was breaking a wakeup capsule under her nose. Pirto Ahtonen wrinkled her own nose at the smelling salts, looked up and said, "She'll be fine, Charley, stop worrying."

John went over to get his pistol back, a bit sheepishly. He knew it wasn't his job to stop bank robbers if they went after the vault, but the difference between his real function, and the one outsiders supposed, was sometimes an uneasy fit. He and Tom picked up the almost-weightless corpses and put them in the vault until after closing. Since Tom didn't say the release words as he opened the vault, nothing came rushing out or was visible this time.

The city lady sat up between Kirsten and Pirto. "What happened?" she said muzzily; then her face went white as she remembered.

"Don't faint again!" Charley said. He held out his hand. When she took it, he pulled her effortlessly to her feet, showing off a little. He was a working farmer, with the muscles to show for it.

She looked around. John was back at his post, the three tellers were returning to their desks, and Tom was opening the door for Hack Gunderson to leave. There was no sign that the bank robbers had ever existed. "What happened?" she said again. Her memories already seemed too fantastic to believe.

"Tell you over lunch?" Charley suggested.

"Why, yes," she said. She put a hand over her stomach and closed her eyes for a second. "Suddenly I'm starving! How did you know?"

Charley just held out his arm for her to take. At the door, Tom said politely, "Come again, Miss." She looked at him as if she couldn't decide whether he were crazy, or she was.

"Don't forget the car, Tom," Charley reminded him. Tom just smiled and said, "Have a nice lunch."

Outside the bank the lady stopped in surprise. "Why, it seems cooler," she said.

Charley looked up. The heat haze was gone, and the sky was blue again. White clouds were assembling, and a light breeze had started. He sniffed, then inhaled deeply. "Smells like rain's coming," he said with satisfaction.

"Rain?" said the lady. "Why, there's been no sign of rain for weeks and weeks!"

"More like months and months," Charley said, and led her down the street to Bekka Gunderson's diner. Inside, the decor was wooden tables covered with checkerboard white-and-red tablecloths, wooden chairs, and a wooden door that led to the kitchen. Bekka was placing a plate of meatloaf and potatoes and a big glass of milk in front of her brother as they entered. As Hack dug in, she patted him on one big shoulder, then came to meet them with a smile as they chose a table. Charley held a chair for his guest while Bekka put a menu in front her her, and another at the place across the table.

"Well? Give!" said the city lady, after Bekka left with their orders. "What's going on? What was that thing? And how come," she shuddered, "you and I are still alive?"

"OK, look—What's your name, anyway?"

"Oh—Georgia. Georgia Corey. I'm a reporter with the Kansas City Star."

Charley nodded. "Figured it was something like that. Pleased to meet you, Georgia. I'm Charley Karkkinen. I have a farm down the road a ways."

"Pleased to meet you, too, Charley. Now what's going on?"

"Well," said Charley.

 

The discouraged band of settlers roaming southern Minnesota in 1840 were mostly Swedes and Norwegians, with a few Danes and Finns thrown in. They'd been looking for lands a little less crowded than the thriving Scandinavian settlements further north. Minnesota and Scandinavia are a good match. Both have ferocious winters, both have numerous lakes carved by advancing and receding glaciers. And both had lots of game, at least in 1840. (2593 if you were Latin, but none of these farmers were, though the Latin movement was already 50 years old.)

But Teutonic Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and ethnically-alien Finland and Estonia to their east, are surrounded by seas and the ocean, and never experience the kind of heat that southern Minnesota does, deep in the heart of a big continent. Swooning in the sun, they'd all but given up living in those parts, when a sharp-eyed Finn named Karkkinen spied a bit of greenery.

Pointing Fox's grandson was all alone. Settlers kept coming where his people were, for reasons the hunters didn't understand. This led to clashes between the bison-chasing nomads and the farmers. The ghost-thing was great for killing rivals and enemies within the tribe, but for open warfare in the bright daylight it was useless. Inevitably the Indians would have to move on. The fact that the land dried up and the farms failed after they left might have been some consolation to them, if they'd known.

Because they were nomads and hunters, the Athapascans had never realized that the ghost-thing breathed life and fertility into the land. As dung enriches the soil, or as a plant pours out oxygen, the star creature ate the sacrifices it was fed and made the climate and the soil better for farmers.

Limited by his culture, abandoned by his people, Pointing Fox's elderly grandson traded away the ghost-thing for whiskey, blankets, and a horse. Feeling like he'd been freed of a curse, he showed the settlers how to feed it, giving them the Athapascan words to set it free and bind it again, and the symbol which his grandfather had devised to mark things and people who must not be touched. As a dog can be trained by beating, the ghost-thing had been trained by Pointing Fox with fire and light. Thus he had a little revenge for his useless hand and arm.

 

"But that's horrible!" Georgia Corey said.

Charley Karkkinen sighed. "What is?" he said patiently.

Georgia looked at the big handsome man on the other side of the table and wondered what was wrong with him, that he could ask that. Before she could answer, Bekka came to their table.

"Hack says two died today?" she asked Charley.

"We saw it ourselves," Charley said.

Bekka bowed her head and said something Georgia didn't understand, then collected their empty plates. "Let me know when you're ready for pie," she smiled, and left.

"What did she say?" Georgia asked.

"May Father Odin receive them," Charley translated. "Likely he will; they went out fighting."

"Oh my God," Georgia said, more appalled than ever. "You're not even Christians?"

Charley looked at her a second, and decided to skip right over the blind assumptions in her "even." "Our ancestors were," he said, "but that was just to keep the King and his bishops from cutting their throats. Then, after they 'converted,' all the ones who didn't run away or sneak away in time were killed anyway. When the Reformation came and most of Scandinavia went Lutheran, we did too; we'd learned our lesson."

Georgia was clearly all at sea. Charley snorted. "You don't even know why we named this town Uppsala, do you?"

Georgia said, "It's a town in Sweden, isn't it?"

"It's a city in Sweden," Charley corrected her, "one of the oldest, home of one of the greatest universities of the North, and one of the greatest cathedrals, too."

"But before a few jarls got ambitious and decided they were kings, and used their armies to make everyone accept their rule and their Christ, Uppsala was the home of Frey."

"Frey," said Georgia. "One of the Norse gods?"

"The regent of the gods, the ruler of mankind," Charley said. "Not Odin, who was the grave god and the giver of runes; not Thor, though Thor was the defender of man; not even Baldur, whose death was winter and whose rebirth was spring; but Frey."

"I thought Frey was the fertility god," Georgia said, frowning as she tried to remember her college courses.

"He was," said Charley, nodding. "But gods, like people, can be many things. At Uppsala was Frey's Tree, a huge tree unlike any other, that was always green whatever the season. And in the branches of the Tree hung sacrifices to all the gods, but mostly to Frey."

"Sacrifices?"

"Great sacrifices," Charley said. "Cattle, and horses, and men."

Georgia's eyes were round with shock.

"Some were men condemned to death after being tried for murder, for rape followed by murder, for cowardice in battle. Those were the lesser sacrifices, worth little more than a cow or horse sacrificed by a rich man who could easily afford the loss. The greatest sacrifices were good men, of good reputation, in the prime of life, who offered themselves for the sake of their communities."

"They went willingly?"

"Some did; others were condemned criminals, as I said. But the foreign priests didn't ask; they just burned the Tree and the Temple to the ground, and built their own cathedral on the ashes. And the King's men handed them the torches to do it. The gods love free men, and the worshippers of the gods were potential rebels."

Georgia shook her head as if to clear it. "So you came to America," she said.

"Our ancestors did," Charley said, "bought the ghost-thing from the Indian, and founded Uppsala."

"And sacrifice people to that thing," Georgia said.

"No, we don't," said Charley.

"I was there, Charley," Georgia said.

It was the first time she'd used his name. Charley said, "Then you heard Tom Hensen trying to get the boy to give up the robbery, didn't you? He wasn't lying, you know. If they'd left the vault alone, we'd have taken them in and helped them out, though we can barely afford it."

"Instead you killed them," Georgia said.

"All we did was not get eaten," Charley said. "To that I plead guilty. And we kept you from getting eaten, too, Georgia."

"Thanks for that, anyway."

"Look," said Charley, "the problem is you're thinking the thing in the vault is evil. It's not. It's just a predator. When a dog casually kills a cat, is it evil? For that matter, do you have any idea how many small animals and birds a domestic cat kills? Take it from me, city girl, it's a lot."

"But a cat doesn't kill people."

"A big cat does, if you meet one in the wild. So will a bear, or any other predator who's large enough."

"But no one keeps a bear in a cage, and lets him loose to kill people."

"Plenty of people keep guard dogs," Charley said. "If a burglar breaks into your house, and the dog kills him, who's to blame? The dog, for being a dog? You, for keeping a dog? Or the burglar, who came to your house to steal from you, maybe with a gun?"

She had no quick answer. Charley sighed again. "Look," he said, "I'm guessing you came here because our crops grow so well, or because we get through dry spells so well."

Georgia said, "Why, yes. How did you know?"

"It's happened before," Charley said. "It's a kind of feedback, like the governors that keep steam engines from blowing themselves up."

"Feedback?" said Georgia, frowning.

"Sure," said Charley, ticking off points on his fingers as he spoke. "One, the thing in the vault makes the soil fertile and the weather good. In good years no one notices, but two, then a drought happens and the area dries up. Three, because of the thing in the vault, we weather the drought better than anyone else. So, four, someone gets desperate and comes here to rob the bank, and five, he gets eaten, which feeds the thing and renews the soil and the weather."

"And you folks don't suffer a bit!" Georgia said.

"Sure we do," Charley said, "we just don't suffer as much from a drought, because of our thing. But we still have to make a living, just like everybody else. In between bank robbers, we pool our money to buy livestock to feed the ghost-thing. And every time it feeds, it takes a little bit from us as well as the victim, which is why you and I and Hack were so hungry. Tom and John and the tellers are just as hungry, but they have to wait for their lunch breaks."

"So the drought makes this place stand out, because you aren't hurting as much as everyone else," Georgia said, wanting to make sure she had it right. "Then bank robbers come because your bank probably has more money in it than anybody else's. Then the thing in the vault eats them, which starts the whole cycle all over again."

"You got it," Charley said.

Georgia stood up, eyes blazing. "And how do you think you're going to stop me from telling this story and blowing your arrangement wide open?" she said, clutching her purse with the gun inside.

"What story?" Charley said, leaning back and looking up at her. Damn, she looked fine all lit up with righteous anger!

"What story?!!" Georgia said.

"The thing in the bank can't even be seen unless Tom Hensen says exactly the right words in an Indian language that probably isn't spoken anymore, and was probably never recorded. The bones of the bank robbers will be throughly destroyed, and the ashes safely disposed of, long before anyone can get here to look for them. Their car will be found, if it's found, somewhere between here and California, broken down or out of gas."

"Witnesses," said Georgia tautly.

Charley spread his hands. "Only you," he said. "No one in town saw anything. Nothing happened. Did those kids drive through here on their way west? Maybe so. We didn't see 'em, though."

"And I suppose it's just luck that your bank's never been robbed," Georgia said.

"Oh, it's been robbed a few times, by people who made a quick grab at the tellers' counter. Some of them even got away with it; not many, John stops most of them. But we have a very good vault. It's never been broken into, not even once."

Georgia began to make a bitter comment, then stopped. She turned around. The pattering noise was rain hitting the plate-glass window in the front of the restaurant. There was a rumble of thunder in the distance.

"And I suppose you can explain that, too," she said.

"Do I have to?" Charley said. "After all, no one can make it rain."

Georgia had stomped all the way to the door and had flung it open when Charley said, "The last reporter who came here looking for a story was Ole Torvald. You're lots prettier than he is."

"Torvald, the Gazette editor?" Georgia said, her hand still on the door knob. "I thought he was one of you."

"He is," Charley said. "But not when he first came here. And I hear he's looking for someone to take over the paper when he retires in a few years."

The cold wind, smelling of rain, blew Georgia's hair around her face. It was no colder than the disdain in her voice. "It'll be a cold day in Hell," she said.

Charley nodded. "It's always cold in the Norse Hel," he said.

The door slammed. Charley sighed, and said, "Let me have a slice of your apple pie, Bekka. Then I'd better get out to the farm and get back to work."

About This Story

"Dry Spell" was inspired by a story that someone else submitted to the writers' group that I attended, for a while, in Eugene, Oregon. One of the attendees brought in what I call a "so-what" story. A "so-what" story is one that you read, and you don't like it, you don't hate it, you just say "So what?" We weren't supposed to say "so what?", we were supposed to give constructive criticism.

The story submitted to the group started with a bunch of people standing in a bank in the Midwest on a hot day, then in comes the bank president's son, who proceeds to hold up the place. Eventually they open the vault, and a monster in the vault eats the bank robber.

And that's it.

Now, that would have been fine for a 5-page story in a horror comic; Uncle Creepy makes some stupid pun and go on to the next story. But for an actual story, I was left wondering:

Why is the bank president's son robbing the bank?

Why didn't the bank president's son know about the monster?

Where did the monster come from, and how do they do business with it in the vault?

Who are these people, anyway, and why are they keeping a monster?

In my critique, I pointed out these weaknesses, then suggested how the story might be improved. Make the bank robber necessary for the prosperity of the town, I said. The monster gives the land fertility in return for sacrifices, which makes the town more prosperous than the rest of the state, which draws bank robbers when times are hard, who provide the sacrifice. Positive feedback. Then the monster's in the vault for a reason, which is more interesting than "Ooh, there's a Thing in the bank vault." Instead of coincidence, we have cause and effect!

Of course, we have to explain all this, so we'll need an outsider to explain it to. And what better outsider than a reporter who's investigating why they do better than anyone else during droughts? That way the reporter's also there for a reason, not just by coincidence.

Needless to say, the guy who submitted the idea wasn't interested in my suggestions, though I was honestly trying to help him make his story better. I guess he was too attached to his little story to see how shallow it was. No one else in the group liked my ideas either. Eventually I stopped attending their meetings. When I created my web site, in San Diego, California, I wrote "Feedback", which had nothing in common with the other guy's story except the notion that There's A Thing In The Bank Vault. I wrote it in longhand on 3/20/2003, and made changes on 4/8/2005, 5/5/23005, and 7/19 through 7/24/2005. I put it on the web site with the name "Dry Spell", because I decided "Feedback" was too big a clue to what was going on.

There's still the coincidence that the reporter and the robbers are there at the same time, but that's necessary for a short story. If I were writing a romance novel with a science-fiction twist, the reporter would show up to find out what's going on, start interviewing people and seeing how much they're hurting from the drought (even if everyone else in the state is hurting worse), get interested in Charley, and then, in the middle of her umpteenth visit, the bank robbers would show up. No big coincidence, with her there all the time. Then she learns about the monster, gets the explanation from Charley, and has to go away to decide if she really loves him after all, and whether she's still interested in the editor's job that Ole Torvald has been pushing at her. See, a whole novel.

Maybe someday. Meanwhile, this version has some small improvements, including some typos corrected, on today, 1/24/2018.

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