The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
On the Mend
There had been a shower in Des Moines and I could smell the rain in the air. The sun was shining at the farm when I left and the only clouds were devoid of rain. My new responsibility had me looking at the skies for news. If we could only get the corn in before the autumn rains mired us down we might be okay. There was already too much to worry about and now the rain was too close for comfort.
I walked the quiet corridors until I was pointed to where my mother was waiting for news. She sat on what looked like a church pew clutching a bible. I spoke before she realized I was there.
"How is he?" I asked.
"The harvest? You should be tending the farm," Mama said, her attention all mine.
"It's fine. We loaded all day yesterday. Sven brought up three hands. The old guy can cook. Makes some good cornbread."
"None, Mama. I didn't hit it until just before I got to town."
"Thank heavens. You know how bad rain is this time of year. It was only a quick shower here but you never know about the weather."
"How is he?" I asked again.
"Robert, I want you to bring me two of my house dresses, the lavender and the green. I'll be staying over at Mrs. Wilkerson's. She's from our church and moved here five years ago, after they were cleared off their place. It's going to be a while. Your father is bad hurt, son."
"He'll be okay, Mama. They'll fix him up. He'll be his old self in a couple of months. You'll see."
"Robert, your father might lose his leg. They're operating again. He has internal bleeding, broken ribs, and one of his lungs was hurt."
"He'll be fine, Mama. Pa's tough. You can't keep him down for long. He's never been down long."
"Your Pa'll live. We can thank the Lord for that. If they take the leg he won't be no good on a farm. If he keeps the leg, he'll be crippled up. It's up to you now, Robert. I'm depending on you. Your Pa is depending on you."
"Don't worry, Mama. I'm getting the job done."
"Your father took the farm from his father, when he couldn't keep up no longer. Ralph's too immature. You know that. Junior's too young. I know this isn't what you wanted. I hoped you could find happiness somehow, son, but we're depending on you now."
"I know, Mama. I won't let you down."
"Maybe Ralph can take over once he quits chasing after the girls. He can't hardly keep his mind on his business sometimes, always running off to Lord knows where. "
"Don't worry about me. Don't worry about the farm. We're doing fine. We've brought in a good chunk of the main field. We're getting a good price. If the rains hold off for another week, we'll have it beat. We'll be okay, Mama. Don't you worry none about us. Both Ralph and Junior are doing their part."
"You shouldn't be here. The corn will only wait for so long."
"I want to see him, Mama. I want to let him know I'm bringing in the harvest for him. I want to let him know it'll be okay. I want him to know I won't let him down."
"Robert, don't mistake his displeasure with you as lack of trust. There is a natural order to your father's world. Your father doesn't take to change or sons who go against his will. It scares him, Robert. He wants things to be the way they were, sons taking their rightful place on the farm where they belong. The oldest always takes the father's place when it's time. It was true of your father and his father before him. It's your time now, Robert. Like it or not."
"We don't need to talk about this right now, Mama."
"I'll tell him you were here. I'll tell him that the corn's being tended. I'll be at the Wilkerson's over on South Maple. There's a sign in front with their name on it. If I'm not here I'll be over there. I'll be taking a job to help pay the hospital bills. Won't be enough after harvest to pay for all this care. We're up against it for sure."
"I can tell you that ain't going to set well with Pa," I mistakenly argued.
"It's not up to your Pa or you. He's got nothing to say about it and you've got a harvest to get done. You bring me my two house dresses, like I asked you, my flat shoes, and my new Sunday go-to-meeting' hat. I can't think of anything else right now but you can't be spending your time here. So, give the boys a hug for me. Tell them… tell them… we'll be fine is what you tell them. You'll be fine, Robert," she said, patting my hand as she spoke. "The Lord does things in his own time and he's made it clear it's your time now."
I had no answer to that. It was like she hadn't heard anything I said. She was reciting something she'd rehearsed in her mind. I wasn't able to reach her in the place where she had gone to deal with my father's accident. I regretted being unable to reassure Pa about my ability to do the job. He had a bigger fight on his hands and my job had taken on new dimensions.
"Don't let Mr. Crosby talk you into hiring his men. He'll want half the crop. These bills! We won't be able to pay the hospital once we catch up on the mortgage. We can't be promising no money to anyone else. Sven will be fine. Keep him on. Pa knows him and he's a good boy. Just don't be making no promises we can't keep, Robert. Sorensons don't be going back on their word."
"Yes, ma'am. You let me take care of it, Mama. I'll get in the corn and it won't cost us no more 'an we can afford. It's going to be okay. You take care of Pa, you hear?"
We hugged and she kissed my cheek. My exit was anything but graceful. After ten minutes with my mother, I couldn't breath. It was difficult to understand what had changed in such a short period of time but it had and it didn't make things any easier on me. I wasn't certain my mother hadn't told me that I was doomed to spend the rest of my days on the farm. That was the thought that stuck with me on the way back home. I was going to get the harvest done and turn it over to Ralph as quick as I could.
Usually the ride to somewhere takes twice as long as the ride back, but not this time. It took forever to get to the road that led to the farm. I worried about everything that could go wrong, while sticking my head out of the window to measure the weather. I could smell the rich Iowa soil and the sweet corn growing out of it and I wished the harvest was already finished. I prayed we could get it done without any major difficulties.
The sky remained bright as the day neared its end. When I got back home, Jacob was hanging fence wire on the posts I'd set with Sven earlier in the week. Kaleb was painting the fence posts at the front of the house, where the wire had already been hung. As I pulled in he waved without smiling and went back to his painting as I drove up the driveway. It was a big improvement, but the corn was waiting and there was eight months to hang fence and paint posts.
I sat facing the field and I watched as the two tractors lumbered toward me at differing speeds. Everyone was working and Jacob and Kaleb weren't essential at this point in the day. There were times that every hand was needed in the field, but not now. I gave up worrying about who put Jacob and Kaleb to work on the fence.
Two trucks came back at the same time and a third truck returned and waited at the gate, not wanting to get in the way. Ralph drove the International as Junior followed on foot, tossing corn into the bin. Sven and Jake kept the other two tractors moving. The farm was a buzz with activity.
I checked the sky for the hundredth time since leaving the hospital. It was benign and showing no signs of betraying me. I climbed the back porch steps, thinking they could use a coat of paint, and I stepped into the kitchen, hoping for something quick so I could get back to work.
After a cup of hot coffee I was ready to go and I sent Jake back to the kitchen to rustle up supper. The truck driver gave us a long hard look once the machine was stopped and the old black man came out of the cab. I wrote it off to his desire to keep moving because he was paid by the load, but his hard stare had nothing to do with loading his truck. The driver's eyes followed Jake as he walked toward the house.
The trucks left as dark set in and Kaleb and Jacob went back to picking up the loose ears of corn. We didn't wait for Jake to come fetch us; we went in for supper once the International became useless in the night, leaving the corn on the ground until first light.
Sven and I went straight to the pump to wash our hands and face before going in for dinner. Once I got to the kitchen, I found Jake bent over the sink wearing one of Mama's colorful aprons. He was finishing his cleanup, after preparing the evening meal.
"Bean soup on the stove there. Used up that there ham bone. Bowls are on the table. A passel of ham sandwiches in the icebox waiting for you. I'll pull something out of the smokehouse come morning. Not much time for cookin' with spending the afternoon in the field."
"You're a magician, Jake," I said, lifting the lid on the bubbling bean soup.
"Smells good, Jake," Sven said. "You certainly look special in that apron."
"I'm going to get me my whipping spoon. It ain't only good for taters, you know."
"Only kidding, Jake," Sven corrected.
"Hope your mama don't mind me wearin' this here apron. Don't cooks nothin' I don't wear. These old eyes ain't what they once was."
"You certainly do wonders without much to work with, Jake," I said. "I'm starved and that soup smells like just the thing."
"Yes, sir. Thinking your mama ought not to come back to that barren driveway. She'll like it that we got it fenced and slapped a bit a paint on them posts. Boys weren't doing nothin' important and I put 'em on it, while the trucks was running. Hope your Papa's a healin' up okay."
"Doesn't sound good, Jake," I said. "It's going to take time."
"You gots good help. Trust in the Lord and he'll deliver you."
"And the corn, I hope," I said.
"That's why we're here, boss, but I wouldn't turn down a little help from the Lord," Sven said.
"The Lord he shall provide, Mr. Robert. Don't you worry none about that."
"...And Jacob's doing a better job on the fence than I was doing. I'm glad for the help there. My mind is in the corn."
"He done his share a fencin'. Them boys done a passel a work in their short lives. Good boys. Kaleb's a bit head strong," Jake spoke as he worked without regard for his audience.
The table was lively with conversation and you couldn't tell we'd only known each other for a few days. I suppose work does that. No quicker way to learn something about someone than to work with them night and day.
"Jacob's going to sleep up top with us tonight," Ralph announced.
"What about Sven?" I asked.
"Robert, there's plenty of room up there. He can move down where you are."
"That's fine," Sven said. "I'm quite big enough to find a spot of my own."
"You can say that again," Ralph said. "You're big enough to sleep any damn place you like."
"Ralph!" I said.
"What? All I said is he's big," Ralph said.
"You best be stayin' where yous belong, Jacob. Won't do to be a gettin' too familiar with you boss."
"Jake," I said in an authoritative voice. "We got this here comfortable couch in our parlor. It's not as comfortable as a bed, but we've slept visitors on it before. I've been thinking you'd be closer to the kitchen if you slept inside."
"What would your mama say about the likes of me being put up in her parlor? Mr. Robert, you going to get us both in trouble."
"She'd say wasting a good couch isn't wise. Besides, the next week or so we'll be getting started early every morning. You'll be able to get things pulled together that much faster if you're already in the house," I explained.
"Makes sense," Jake said, playing along with me. "Might be some warmer inside."
"Pa's fixed himself a rig in the bathroom where he can wash without getting in the tub. It'll provide some privacy for you, Jake. Us boys do fine washing up behind the barn."
"You be spoilin' all your help, Mr. Robert?" Jake asked.
"No, sir, just the help that keeps me fed, Jake." I said.
"The rest of this crew can sleep in the barn," Sven said. "It's right fine as barns go," Sven said.
"I don't care where you sleep at night as long as you put in a full days work," I said.
"I'll probably crowd you a little tonight. Those boys for sure will want to run their mouths. It'll be quieter down where you sleep," Sven said.
"Suit yourself. It's a big barn. I think I can make room for you," I said, as Sven smiled.
"My boys are used to getting to work straight away," Jake said.
"Maybe they'll help get my brothers up. Both of them hate to get up in the morning," I said.
"Says you," Ralph said.
"Says me," Sven said. "You don't pop right up in the morning, I'll hold you upside down out that window you sleep next to. I don't aim to waste a lot of time telling you to roll out."
"I'll be up. Jacobi get me up. Won't you, Jacob" Ralph said.
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