That little Dorothy Gale was the sorriest child I ever saw. She wore her hair in two braids that—however tight in the morning her aunt had made them—they seemed to crawl out of their tidy fittings by noon. She had the goshdarnedest big gap between her upper front teeth and a snub nose that seemed too small for her face. And she was always squinting as if she had trouble seeing things clearly, or as if she was trying hard not to cry.
Well, I suppose she had a lot to cry about, though didn’t we all in those days. Both her parents had got themselves killed in a train crash coming home from a weekend in Kansas City. Not unexpected. They’d tried balloon ascension the year before and it went down into the Kansas River which—luckily—wasn’t flooding.
They weren’t exactly on the train; it was their car got stuck—one of the first in our part of Kansas—and it had run out of gas, because Martin Gale had been too tightfisted to buy a full tank in Manhattan. And of course his luck being what it was, they ran out just as they were at a crossing where the streamliner, the Southern Belle, usually passed around noon.
They were the only ones who died, because it wasn’t the Belle at all, thank the Lord, just a freight hauler. But the two of them were dead before an ambulance could even get to them.
That meant little Dorothy, not quite eight, was sent to her aunt and uncle’s farm to live out here in Middle of Nowhere, Kansas. It was a small holding with some pigs, horses, a few cows. And the chickens. Always the chickens, who were in Em’s special care.
The house itself was quite small, just one room really, there having always been just the two of them—Henry and Em—so in Henry’s mind there’d never been a need to build bigger. No kids, though Em had wanted them of course, but by that time she was long past bearing and worn down to a crabbed, stooped, gray, middle-aged woman.
Henry was Dorothy’s blood uncle, being her father’s only brother, though ten years his senior. He might as well have been fifty years older, if you judged by his looks. He was just as tightfisted, and not particularly welcoming to the little girl either, since now the one room seemed crowded, what with Henry and Em’s bed at one end and little Dorothy’s at the other, over by the stove.
At least Em, long-suffering as she was, tried to give the child a bit of her heart, which—after all those years of living with Henry on that old gray farm in the middle of the gray prairie—was as dried up as an old pea. She tried, but she wasn’t much good at it. It was a bit like trying to water a budding flower in the middle of a dry Kansas summer with a watering can poked through with holes.
’Course the Gale brothers weren’t the only misers in those years. I could name a whole bunch more right in our little town and need six extra hands to count them on, especially my mother-in-law, that old witch, who didn’t even have the decency to die till she was well into her eighties, having burned through a good portion of the money that should have come to my wife and me. That money would have changed our story, I’ll tell you that.
I’d trained as a carpenter once, loved working with wood, but things being so difficult those days, I never got to make much, and I sold less. Instead I spent my best years hiring out to one tightfisted farmer after another. About the time Dorothy Gale came to stay with Henry and Em, I was working there, bad luck to me.
Henry had enough money saved at that time to hire three farmhands. Though he paid a pittance, it was better than nothing. And a pitiful lot we were: me, Stan, who was a big joking presence even when there was nothing to joke about, and Rand, Stan’s younger brother, who was as scared of life as he was of death, having been in a near-drowning as a boy and never gotten over it. Imagine finding somewhere in dry Kansas to drown that wasn’t the Kansas River!
None of us had kids, and we felt so awful for little Dorothy, we did what we could to cheer her up.
Rand found her a puppy, the runt of an unwanted litter, that Old Man Baum, who owns the farm down the road was about to drown. Rand had an immediate fellow-feeling for that dog, as you would guess. Old Man Baum had already sold the other pups in the litter, but no one wanted this stunted rat of a dog—black, with long hair, berry-black eyes, a real yapper. Even so, young Dorothy took to it the moment she laid eyes on it.
“You done a goodly deed this day,” Stan said, after Rand handed her the dog. “Even a Godly one.” Stan had recently been saved in a tent meeting and couldn’t stop talking about it. Joking about it, too. Called it his Tentative change of life. And that he had a Tentdency toward God. We just learned to ignore him.
Stan gave Dorothy a cracked bowl he’d found thrown out on the road, only about good enough to use for a dog’s dinner. Just as well, as she couldn’t actually feed the ratty thing from one of Em’s best china now, could she? Not that Em fed anybody with that china. It was saved for some special event that never came.
I gave Dorothy a leather rope I’d braided myself, plus a collar cut down from a bridle I’d found in my mother-in-law’s barn. And no, I didn’t ask permission. She’d have said no anyway.
Dorothy’s eyes got big. “For me? Really? For me?” It was about the longest speech I’d heard from her up to that time.
We were afraid she was going to try and kiss us or something right then and there, and so we shuffled out the door to get back to our chores. But when I turned around to see how she was making out, she had her little pug nose on the dog’s nose, as if they’d been stuck together by glue.
After that there wasn’t a moment those two weren’t in one another’s pockets. She named the dog Toto, though where she came up with that, we were never to know. I thought for sure it would be something like Silky or Blackie or Fido. But Dorothy, she was always a queer kind of kid, as you will see.