The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Mama couldn't help but notice we'd cleaned up and put on fresh clothes. She checked back over her shoulder before going back to tend to the stove.
"You boys are shined up like a couple a new pennies. There a dance no one bothered to tell me about?"
"No, Mama, we dug some more fencepost holes for your new fence. We were all sweaty and Sven wanted to try on his new overalls."
"Let's see. I measured your old ones and took off a little here and a little there. I figured they'd be a good fit."
"Yes, ma'am, they fit me fine. I could have waited until morning to try them on, but Robert couldn't wait to see how they fit."
"Robert, you been pestering Sven?"
"No, ma'am, we got wet while we was washing up is all."
I sat at the table and Sven went out onto the back porch. When I went back outside Sven had replaced Junior on the churn, while Ralph and Junior played checkers on the apple crate they'd placed in front of the swing.
Pa gazed out into the eastern sky, taking long pulls on his pipe. I sat on the step just above Sven and watched him do Junior's job.
We ate apple pie, ice cream, and drank tall glasses of milk as laughter and happy talk drifted into the night, until we each found our time to retire. It was a rare night that Ralph went to bed without an argument but he excused himself after two slices of pie and two bowls of ice cream. A few minutes later he carried his quilt and pillows through the kitchen. This explained his early retirement.
Ralph set his bedding down next to where I'd put Sven by the window. I fell asleep listening to the sound of my brother's voice as he questioned Sven about a world he couldn't imagine. After each answer came, "Yeah, but?"
They started off talking about Sven's brothers and sisters. He spoke of them with reverence. When the conversation turned to his travels, the farms he'd worked, and the inevitable questions about the women he'd known, his answers were anything but holy.
Unlike when I talked to Sven, there was no harshness or misunderstanding. They talked like friends might talk and I resented it. Where I'd failed, Ralph succeeded. Sven answered his questions willingly and without any questions of his own. How my brother could do what I couldn't was a mystery. He rarely stuck with anything for long. He hardly took the time to become friends with anyone.
I fell asleep being angry and I dreamed about Sven and Ralph frolicking naked through the woods by the pond when they should have been working. I knew by the number of posts I picked up that there wasn't much time for frolicking between the time they were dropped off and when I brought lunch. No amount of reason could temper the dreams and suspicions. Why did I even care if Ralph and Sven became friends?
Right after Pa came out to wake us in the morning, Sven stood in the open window peeing down on the ground below. Ralph, now bare butted, took up a position beside him. I'd slept with my brother for fourteen years and he'd always worn the baggy underwear that Mama kept repaired for him. It was one more thing for me to resent.
I was too tired to pee and Sven immediately pulled on his overalls and was going down the ladder, heading for the house and Ralph peed on.
"You're hopeless," I said, as he pulled on his baggy underwear.
"You're useless," he snapped, gathering his things and scurrying down the ladder to dress without my eyes on him.
Ralph was usually the last one to the table but not so this day. I could already smell the coffee with fresh bread mixed up in the aroma. Even knowing how good the first sip would be, I lingered lazily in my melancholy. I had become lost for a direction to take that might make life more enjoyable.
I dressed after a time, knowing Pa would give me a second call if I didn't move soon. Everything I did was dictated by Pa. My own motivation ceased to exist along the way replaced by confusion about who I was and where I was heading.
Pa stood in the back door realizing he didn't need to remind me to get up once he saw me walking into the light furnished by an active kitchen and the brightly shinning light on the back porch. With my hands shoved deep into my pockets and my collar up around my neck, I brushed past Pa as he held the screen door open for me. The first early morning cooling was upon us. I made a mental note to take extra bedding to the loft for when the temperatures continued slipping.
I waited for the critical comment that didn't come. Ralph sat on the far side of the table beside Sven. They both tilted back in their chair at the exact same angle with cups at the ready for coffee intake. At least Ralph's chatter hadn't awakened yet.
"Morning, Mama," I said, slipping down across from Sven, nodding my salutation.
"Morning," Sven said as Mama poured me coffee.
"Move over, Robert. Why do you take up so much room?" Junior said, banging his chair against mine.
"Hush up, young man," Mama said. "Don't come to my table growling at your brother."
"He takes up way more room than Ralph," Junior complained. "Why don't you move back over where you belong."
"I didn't make the sitting arrangement, Junior."
"You want to go back upstairs and take another stab at getting up on the right side of the bed this time," Pa said from the doorway.
"Then keep shut."
"Yes, sir," Junior said, elbowing my arm as he rearranged himself in his chair.
Once the food started hitting the table all disagreeableness disappeared. Mama managed to sit and eat for a minute or two in between servings us. The first basket of biscuits disappeared in no time and another pan came out of the oven. It was all hands and elbows reaching and retrieving the bounty. Very little food lasted long enough to be passed around the table.
"Bring me the truck back before ten, Robert. You can help your Mama while I'm in town, since you can't dig no more holes," Pa said, glancing at Mama. "Lunch'll be late boys. I doubt any of you is going to starve. You can cut trees or swim for that matter. The rest of that fence will have to wait until we get done with the harvest. If the weather holds it'll give you plenty of time."
Pa and Mr. Crosby were still dickering over the price of trucks. We were a couple of days away from starting the harvest and details like the cost of the trucks were usually settled business. Crosby wanted Pa to take three trucks instead of the usual two and Pa wasn't convinced he'd need three.
When I brought the farm truck back down from the meadows, Pa was dressed in a pressed white shirt and a pair of navy blue slacks. I left the drivers door open as I slid out and Pa slid in behind the wheel and was on his way. I watched him turn onto the lane in front of the house and disappear.
Mama pulled a plate out of the ice box and sat it on the table for me. It was chicken salad she made from the chicken from a couple of days before. I needed no prodding, eating it straight down and following it down with milk.
I took the wash basket out to the line for her and she hung the clothes in the late morning breeze. We talked about the corn and the coming harvest as Mama fixed lunch enough for a small army. Junior was going with me to swim the afternoon away and there were always a couple of extra sandwiches just in case someone needed more.
Once Pa came back into the driveway, I got into motion and went to find Junior. Just before I went back in to get the boy's lunch, I stopped and listened to Pa telling Mama about Mr. Crosby's new happy tone. It seems Pa was not only getting the three trucks but it wasn't costing him any more than the two did last harvest. He laughed about how pleasant it was, when it was usually one of the more distasteful things he had to do.
Since the price of corn usually fell according to how successful the harvest was, Crosby insisted that his percentage for storing and selling the corn was higher if Pa took the three trucks, and being such a generous businessman, Crosby would charge him no more than what it cost for two the year before.
It didn't sound much like the Mr. Crosby I knew, but Pa seemed satisfied there was no ulterior motive. Having three trucks would mean no waiting for one truck to return from Crosby's storage bins, during the day. It did make sense if Crosby was getting the corn to market faster that way.
I didn't let on I'd been listening, when I went in to load lunch and Junior into the farm truck. The sun was high in the sky but the large clouds on the horizon were growing larger and easing closer. Pa was particularly interested in them as he leaned on the fence behind the house, watching them as I drove past the corner of the barn heading toward the meadows.
Pa had replaced the gear in the International and attended to the brakes. Driving it out into the field about the time I left to take the Ralph and Sven up to the meadows, Pa followed the lane he'd cut the morning the transmission broke.
When I returned for lunch and Junior around noon, the tractor was parked in the shade of the barn. It had been jacked up on both sides and the wheels were once again leaning against the barn.
I knew Pa and figured he'd be adjusting on it until we were out in the field cutting corn. If Pa didn't have work he'd make some. It was a familiar pattern to which we'd all become accustomed. When Pa said it was time, we'd all go into motion with few breaks between 4 in the morning and 8 at night.
We could start harvest any time, but it would be a couple more days before the trucks would start rolling. He wouldn't allow the ever more threatening clouds to hurry him into the fields.
Once the rain started everything changed. We'd be forced into action no matter the time of night or day, but Pa knew the weather as well as he knew the corn. He didn't seem worried even with the darker clouds floating directly overhead.
The next few days were spent without appointed duties, although Sven insisted on carving out fence posts and Ralph willingly cut the trees with Sven indicating the ones he wanted for the best posts.
"Pa say what was wrong with it now?" Junior asked.
"Nah, you know Pa. He'll be working on it until he hooks it up to the corn wagon the day we start cutting corn.
Junior looked back over his shoulder at the suspended International as we turned onto the road that led us along the fence line on that side of the farm.
It didn't take any time for us to be eating and laughing about this and that. Everyone seemed to be happy for the food and there were no complaints. Ralph was bragging about how fast he could fell a tree. Sven advised him that speed was not the mark of a woodsman.
"I don't know. The faster you cut the more you get cut," Ralph calculated carefully over Mama's heavenly egg salad sandwiches.
"Speed can't carry you in all situations," Junior agreed. "Doing a good job can."
"Sure it can," Ralph argued. "The faster the better if you ask me."
"Goes a ways in explaining why them girls you bed don't hang around long."
"Long enough to get what I'm after, Junior. Plenty long enough for that. How many you got anyhow?"
"I'm not so good at math," Junior mused. "But when I do got me one, I'll take my time to enjoy the experience."
"I enjoy plenty. The faster I go the more time I got to get more," Ralph bragged.
"Boys are like girls," Sven said. "Each has a pace of their own. Trick is to get your pace lined up with her pace."
"I get my timing down fine," Ralph bragged some more. "Just never get to practice often enough."
"Too often you ask me," Junior blurted.
"Shut up," Ralph answered as if no one else was around.
I stayed mute on the subject, but was surprised by the image Junior's comment left me with. There didn't seem to be anything to add to the subject.
It became a race to the pond for the rest of them, while I cleaned things up. Once the swimming was done, we'd head back to the house.
Even when I had permission to relax, staying away for two long left me feeling guilty. Supper would be early and there would be daylight left afterward. We measure the time before harvest in hours instead of weeks and months. The waiting game we were playing was up to Pa. One evening he'd let us know at supper, It's time and a call to Crosby would start the trucks the following morning at first light.
I still didn't know what tipped Pa off it was time. This year we waited for the corn to peak. The year Sven's family lost their farm, Pa had gotten us started exceptionally early, hiring an extra hand to boot. We beat the rain by a day, while other farmers were washed away. Whatever it took to make decisions like that was a sense I didn't possess.
I lay beside Junior on the raft watching Ralph and Sven fighting to dunk each other. I listened to their taunts. They fought to get up the ladder first, wrestling once they were on the raft, stepping over us and around us as we tried to enjoy a lazy afternoon.
They were constantly tied in combat of one sort or another. Sven maintained an easy calm control as Ralph frantically did all within his power to gain any advantage he could claim.
Standing on the far end, Ralph took to using his tight firm hip on Sven's larger more developed version. First it was a standing effort, bump, bump, bump. Then, Ralph took to taking a small run at Sven, usually ending with Ralph bouncing off. After a short time, Sven moved sideways an inch, another inch, an inch more as Ralph could measure his progress as Sven came ever closer to the edge and the prospect of being forced into the water below.
This would seem to be the logical outcome as Ralph moved Sven closer and closer to the edge. Sven spent his time mostly ignoring Ralph's assault, but once Ralph had Sven on the very edge of the raft, he took an exceptionally long run at him to finish him off. Sven had other ideas and moved back a half step as Ralph charged toward him. Unable to stop his momentum, he ran out into mid-air screaming insults back at Sven until he sank.
When Ralph came back up the ladder, Sven had moved back toward the center of the raft. Ralph ran up behind him as he was looking across the fence at the old Carter place. At which time Ralph tried to lift him off his feet without success.
"You don't play fair," Ralph complained, doing everything within his power to lift the bigger man.
"Do you think our brother can make a cow out of Sven?"
"What? What kind of talk is that?"
"Get over yourself, Robert. You know what I'm talking about."
"I'm sure I don't. Why would you say such a thing?"
"Why would you be so offended. You never pay any mind to anything I say."
My reaction was as much a surprise to me as it was to Junior. I was totally uncomfortable and ready to stand and dive into the cool refreshing water, but I couldn't move away from the truth fast enough.
"Our brother's a bull and he's constantly looking for cows of any variety."
"Shut up Junior. You don't know what you're talking about."
"You really think I didn't know what you two was up to 'cause I slept on the cot? You two were always fussing. Not so hard, Ralph. Can't help it, Robert. It feels good. I didn't sleep as sound as you two thought."
"Junior!" I protested without wanting to look at him.
"You didn't think about what would happen once you moved to the loft? You knew he wasn't going to stop. That's why you moved out."
"What are you talking about?" I argued, thinking he'd quit.
"Ralph? Your younger brother? My older brother?"
"We always fuss," I reminded him.
"I've heard tell of bulls making cows out of other bulls, when the need rises."
"Shut up," I said, sounding more like Ralph than me.
There were some things best left unsaid for my peace of mind. Junior may as well have slapped me in the face that afternoon. I never thought about anything except me getting away from all things discomforting, even when I was sixteen. Even when I saw Junior's cot leaning against the far wall in Mama's pantry. I failed to figure that Junior had taken my place in the double bed with Ralph.
Ralph was suddenly standing over us shaking his hair and pushing the water off his body onto Junior and me, causing me to do a slow burn at his insolence.
"Thanks," Junior said convincingly. "Now, I don't have to get up from here to cool off."
Ralph left us alone immediately, once he thought he wasn't being as big a pest as he intended. He went back over to Sven, who still stood where Ralph had left him.
"What do you look at?" Ralph said, his hand grasping Sven's thick shoulder as he tried to see what it was Sven saw.
"The past, the future, the people who once tended that farm over there."
"Carters? They been gone three harvests counting now. There was a passel of Carters. All gone now."
"Where'd they get off to?"
"Where'd they get off to, Robert?" Ralph asked, looking back over his shoulder.
"Some near to Davenport. I heard tell Richard was over Council Bluffs way. Nothing certain."
"That your friend?" Sven asked.
"Yeah, we palled around."
"Aaron was my friend. We was thick as thieves," Ralph boasted.
"Aaron was my friend," Junior argued. "And he weren't nothing like you."
"Mine too. Mine first. He was between Junior and me by age. They was all nice folks. I miss the nice ones," Ralph explained.
"There were not so nice Carters over there?" Sven inquired.
"No, not at the Carters. There were folks not as agreeable as they was. So many folks we know are gone. I mean we knew them all our lives. Saw them at church…, in town, at picnics, gatherings…, on their places or they come over to ours. One day they ain't there no more. Gone who knows where? Robert might know."
"Yeah, I know how that must be," Sven said sounding sad. "Sun's near about behind the trees already."
"Yeah, we best be pulling things together and head back. Pa had that little tractor pulled apart again. He might need some parts or some help."
"It was all back together last night," Ralph said.
"Yeah, I know. It's older than me. It breaks down."
"You know Pa well as I do. He's got his way of doing what he does. Lord knows no one else knows why he does."
"Watch your mouth, Robert. That's my Pa your talking about," Junior said, jumping up like he was ready to go.
Everyone was having his own conversation as we went back to the table and gathered things together. Sven and Ralph loaded posts, while Junior and I made sure everything was in the truck. We piled in with Ralph on Sven's lap and Junior under my right armpit, shifting gears for me so I didn't need to reach around him to do it.
We lumbered along without bouncing as much because of the weight in the back, once we'd turned out of the stand of trees. It was Ralph that alerted me to what was wrong and it caused my blood to run cold when he did.
I knew something was powerfully wrong. I didn't want to know what.
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