The Farm Hand
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Editor: Gardner Rust
For David Miller
Long Days, Short Nights
It took us some time to get to the house but time wasn't important any longer. Things would get done in their own time and I had no more interest in saying what the right time might be. After that ride to town, the farm became less formidable and I never worried about my back being against the wall. I felt as if I should do all I could do and accept what came of it. I'd still make my decision based on what was best for Mama and Pa.
I can't say the idea of seeing the world never crossed my mind again, but it would never have the power over me it once did. This left me with a view of the world that came from newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts that became more and more depressing. For as long as Sven would stay with me, I didn't need to leave. He'd agreed to stay and running the farm became a labor of love in ways I could never have conceived.
When we finally drove up the driveway, Junior and Kaleb were on the back steps churning ice cream. The tractors sat silent near the gate, and except for the two boys' laughter and chattering, the evening fell silent, save the frogs, crickets singing, and our crazy rooster, who never seemed to know what time it was.
Ralph and Jacob were playing checkers in the kitchen and Jake was back in the apron, fussing over more food. When he turned his head halfway around, I was fearful he might break it off his long frail looking neck.
"You took your time. We's gots done in the field and I'm fixin' cookies for tomorrow. The cobbler's a coolin' and it'll fit right in with the ice cream them boys is a churnin'.
"You boys be a movin' that checker board to the small table or out on the porch. Let the men have some space."
"Aw, Jake, we're just getting going good," Ralph protested, looking up at Sven and me as we stood near the door. "You look like the cat what ate the canary, Robert."
"Maybe, Ralph. You can stay there. Plenty of room for us down the other end of the table."
"What?" Ralph blurted. "You okay? Take that boy's temperature. He's being nice to me. What do you want, Robert. I already done run your tractor half the day."
"You can roll the drum out of the back of the Ford and onto the back of the farm truck if you like."
"Let's go, Jacob," Ralph said, bumping past us as they dashed outside.
The screen door banged as they raced one another to the truck. We sat at the table once the ice cream was delivered. When Jacob came back in, he sat down after gathering up one of Mama's tea towels and a big pot. He sat at the table and picked through the hard candies for his favorites, wrapping them in the tea towel.
When Ralph came back in, he watched the operation, sitting across from where Jacob worked with surgical precision. It was then he took to whacking the cloth full of candy against the bottom of the pot as we all watched dismayed.
"What in the world are you up to?" Ralph asked once the racket stopped. "Boy's lost his mind."
"Watch and learn, Ralphie boy," Jacob said with an air of authority in his voice.
"Jacob!" Jake growled in a voice you didn't challenge.
Jacob carefully unfolded the cloth and dumped the crushed pieces of candy on the top of his vanilla ice cream. Ralph watched in amazement with his eyes growing large.
"You're going to eat that?" Ralph inquired.
"One day, Ralphie boy, everyone will eat their ice cream with candy on it. You can mark my words."
"Yeah, and their teeth is gonna rot plum out a dere heads," Jake lamented softly to the apples he was pealing for tomorrow night's pie.
"That much sugar would drive a good man to drink," Sven said.
Jacob made sure everyone tasted his concoction, except for Jake, who still had a few teeth he wanted to hold on to. It might grow on you if you ate enough of it, but I didn't see a future for candy on top of ice cream.
It stayed quiet until the ice cream was gone and the boys were licking their bowls and spoons. Jake wrestled the bowls away so he could wash them up before he took to his bed.
"Pa is bad hurt," I started, expecting resistance. "He might never be able to tend the farm again," I said, figuring it was best to get the truth out there so my brothers wouldn't get their hopes up.
"What?" Ralph objected. "Tend the farm? Pa'll be back. He got a broke leg is all."
While Ralph was raising his objection to my observations, Junior sprang up like a jack in the box, knocking over his chair and giving me his most fierce look of disapproval.
"Take it back. He'll be fine. It's only a broke leg. You take it back, Robert."
"It's mangled. They might need to take it off. It might already be off. A man with one leg can't farm. It's up to us."
"He can too. He'll be fine," Junior yelled as the backdoor slammed and everyone else fell silent.
My brothers weren't ever going to let go of the idea that Pa would be okay. It was difficult for me to accept, but I'd seen him and realized that his condition was far more serious than I imagined. Mama's words to me weren't temporary. She'd told me what it meant without talking about Pa's future.
"He will be able to tend the farm. Don't you say that, Robert. Pa'll be fine," Ralph told me, after considering the source of the information.
"You need to know the truth. It's up to us. If we keep the farm it will be up to us. If we lose it, it'll be on us. Pa's out of it. He can't do it for us. We got to grow up now, Junior. You hear me?" I yelled to make sure Junior heard me as he pouted on the porch.
Jake opened the door to let out some heat and I heard Junior plop down on the top step, but he had no further comments. Ralph glared at me and all the fun had gone out of the evening. He seemed to think it was my doing, but no one doubted my words were true. It wasn't something you make up to make conversation. It was my life that was altered most, after Pa's and Mama's.
I watched Ralph lean on his elbows, wiping the tears as they flooded his eyes once he had considered the meaning in my words for a time. Ralph was happy go lucky and didn't have a care in the world, doing mostly what he wanted, when he wanted. His tears were real and I'd caught him crying several times, since Pa's accident.
The harshness I'd been guilty of using on my brother didn't set well with me any longer. His need to confide in Sven about our past took on a new meaning. I suspected Ralph's feelings ran a lot deeper than mine. I wondered if his carefree attitude wasn't a front to protect his real feelings.
Jacob sat silent watching, looking like he wanted to help but didn't know how. Sven leaned his back against the door jam, watching Junior through the screen, but he didn't go out. Jake cleared his throat several times and I maintained control over my emotions. My tears ran on the inside as the words I said finally closed in on me as well. I wanted to comfort Ralph, put my arms around him, but I couldn't.
The air seemed to get thin as everyone cleared their throats and coughed. Jake kept his back to us as he peeled more apples. We were going to have a lot of pie.
At times it seemed like Jake didn't hear what was being said even though he was right next to the conversation. Jacob and Kaleb sat silently, squirming in their chairs, waiting for the mood to change.
It was a different house than the one I grew up in. It was filled with strangers that had in a few weeks or a few days become part of my family. I can't describe the interactions, but it was like we'd known each other a long time. Spending fifteen hours a day working together teaches you what a man is made of and whether or not you can trust him. I felt comfortable with these men and it wasn't often I found anyone I was comfortable being with. Hard times bring people together in ways that cement their loyalty and admiration for one another. If I was going to be in charge of my family's farm these were the men I wanted working for me. I already knew I could depend on them. I wanted them to know they could depend on me.
It didn't take long for the yawning to start and one by one we headed off to get a good night's sleep. It was going to be another endless day tomorrow and we wouldn't have a shorter day until the last truck was full and driving away. Only then would we be able to relax.
I woke up several times during the night to be reassured by how Sven held me close to him. I lay awake long enough to smile and feel the comfort of being close to him. In my wildest dreams I never once figured I could feel as good as I felt while I was with him. These were some good days.
I depended on Sven's advice, rarely making a decision before consulting with him. He viewed me differently, after the Crosby affair and his praise seemed more deserved as we discussed each day's progress.
Harvest was never easy and under awkward circumstances, this one stayed routine. Each day we set out to accomplish a full day's work. At the end of each day, we'd exceeded expectations and were too tired to do anything but smile about a good day's work.
Even the corn cooperated, offering no resistance to our labor, coming in abundance. The weather held, but I couldn't garner any credit for that. Two days after facing the facts about Pa, it clouded up and started raining as Jake scurried from machine to machine, keeping us fed. I watched as he kept a weary eye on the sky as he made his way back toward the house. Jake stopped in the wide open gate; using his apron to protect his head, he looked a bit like a shepherd, save the platter he held in his hand from our snack instead of a staff. As my machine lumbered toward him, my windshield was splattered with rain, but not enough to obscure my vision. Both of Jake's hands shot into the air. He waved them as if to curse the gods who authored the rains.
Apparently we all saw him, looking a bit like a wild man, but at the same instant the clouds started separating and rays of sunlight flooded the field and the rains slowed before stopping. Satisfied, Jake went back into the house.
None of us mentioned Jake's control of the weather, but it was difficult to look at him the same way again. A half an hour later the skies were blue, the clouds benign. The ground continued to remain firm under our machines.
Jacob and Kaleb could be seen waving their arms at the sky from time to time, having long ago accepted Jake's influence concerning things beyond their understanding.
Ignoring aching bones and weary bodies, there was plenty of time for resting, once the harvesting was done. I wondered how Pa made it seem so effortless for all those years. I had conceived of him being there to do it for years to come. We were left with all the work and none of his wisdom.
It never appeared that his back was up against the world, holding off the bank and everyone we owed, while making barely enough to keep his family fed, and he never seemed to be overly worried. He took it all in stride.
He worked fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, and he didn't complain about his work never being done, or that the money wasn't enough. That's where his love of the land paid off. He loved doing what he did. He didn't see it as a job. It was a labor of love.
Being in charge gave me a new appreciation for my Pa's devotion. I started to understand why he was so offended at my refusal to do what he'd done since before he was my age. My comfort and joy came from being with Sven. Passing him in the rows of corn, as we worked, made it easy.
Late at night, when he held me in his arms, it was best. Being that close to him made everything wonderful. Could it have been any different between Pa and Mama. She had always given him the strength he needed to do his endless job as Sven gave me the strength to do mine.
We never saw much money, except in a new pair of shoes every few years, and there were the new coveralls that kept us from going around, "half naked", as Mama called it. The work was vast and the rewards were few, but I felt pride welling up inside me as we fought off all the forces aligned against our success.
We ate well and Mama said we were healthier than God should allow, but then again, we couldn't afford to get ill. Perhaps that was the benefit of the hard work, the clean air, and fresh natural food. We had little time for excess of any kind and as for me, I was way too tired to think about sinning, and that was before all the responsibility fell on my shoulders. Now, I sinned on a nightly basis, but the sin in the form of loving another isn't sin at all according to my heart. It was apparent to me that love was my calling and Sven was the herald of happiness in my life.
I can't imagine what it took for my father to hold on to the farm all those years I watched, until the summer of '37', when it fell on my shoulders. It was far easier to find a new respect for what he'd done by the time we were in the middle of "my" first harvest, when the best I could do was keep going, not yielding to my fatigue knowing there would come recuperative powers while resting in my lover's arms each night. There was a confluence of demands made on me and the love I shared with Sven kept me on the job.
Jake came out to offer his help each afternoon, when he wasn't busy keeping us fed. He'd take over, not missing a step, after working in the kitchen for most of the day. This kept my combine moving as I brought out one of the drums of fuel to fill the tanks for another day.
When I'd look back to see if Jake was okay, he'd be cutting straighter rows than me. I should have known better than to worry about Jake by then, but a bent old man shouldn't be able to show me up in his part-time driving role. He did amaze me and it told me a lot about men I didn't know. It also spoke of the wisdom and ability of men many times my age. It's what I lacked and hoped to acquire through working with men like him.
From Sven I learned that listening to the sound the tank made once he took the top off and thumped it, told you how many gallons it would take. I'd seen my father checking the fuel level the same way but I didn't know why. I may have been in charge, but I knew the men assisting me had far more knowledge than I did.
Pa had told me it would save money and time when he bargained for the newer machine two years before, after the bank took the Profit's farm. He was right as usual. The second machine cut harvest time by at least two day.
Mama had shook her head and warned, after she saw the purchase, "No good comes of buying into another man's misery."
Mama felt the hand of the Lord in everything, but her warning had fallen on deaf ears for two harvests. Now, I wasn't so sure she hadn't been right all along. I certainly wouldn't park such an important part of our production, but the words came back to me as I watched Ralph drive it in his usual frantic way.
I almost didn't dare to trust him with it, but Ralph would be better as an ally than as a constant source of conflict. I'd cultivated his distrust and enmity and now it was time to make things right by trusting him, even though I cringed every time he made a pass on the main field.
The corn wagons kept moving with Ralph and Jacob keeping the corn picked up when Junior and Kaleb weren't doing it. We were getting the work done.
With so many of our corn bins already full it became necessary for the International to drive the corn wagon along side a truck so they could toss in what they'd collected. Driving was easy, but at dark the boys were all but done for the day, while we drove the Farmalls into the night, breaking for food, while Jake and Ralph spelled us long enough to get fed.
While driving the farm truck with the fuel drums on the back the following day, I watched Jacob running behind Ralph, picking up ears of corn, tossing them into neat piles that made it easier to collect on the next pass. Ralph rode the International, cutting down the corn we'd missed. Jacob caught Ralph on his next pass, jumping onto one of the struts of the moving machine.
These two were perfectly matched bundles of energy that seldom took a break before dropping of exhaustion. They filled the corn wagon from the piles of corn Junior and Kaleb collected.
My fears that my brothers would reject my leadership was unfounded. It was never about me. It was about the farm. It was about the corn. It was a lesson they were teaching me.
Pulling a handkerchief from his overalls at one point, Jacob mopped Ralph's face as my brother struggled with the small tractor's steering to keep it from tipping up on the next rut over. He was working the hardest because the newer machines did most of the work for us. It was a constant struggle for Ralph, because the older smaller tractor fit awkwardly into the ruts we made. His better stronger body, honed with an ax that summer, was coming in handy.
Jacob came in handy as he mopped Ralph's brow a second time, being careful to wipe the sides of Ralph's face as the sweat rolled in the heat of the afternoon. Then, Jacob mopped his own brow, and actually stood still, until the next time by the water bucket Jake had brought out with the last food and left to collect on his way back to the house, once I'd filled all the tanks.
Jacob leaped from the tractor and ran ahead, drawing a ladle full of water before leaping onto the tractor strut again. He offered the water to Ralph, going back to the bucket twice, and on the third trip, once Ralph had drunk his fill, Jacob emptied the rest of it on my brother's head. They laughed about it before Jacob ran back to drink his fill, standing fast until Ralph came back on his next pass five minutes later and then he went back into motion again.
I marveled at their ability to work happily together, and when Ralph's arms tired of the struggle that engaged him, it was Jacob's turn to drive the International and Ralph wielded the handkerchief and the ladle in return. There was something heart warming about the way they challenged each other on friendly terms. They were always laughing and kidding around and neither took offense at the other's pranks. That's not to say that it didn't wear on the rest of us, when the days were too long and the work never ending.
I wished that Ralph and I could harmonize as well, but I knew he wasn't the one that hit the sour note that separated us. It was up to me to repair the damage that had been done, no matter what had caused it. I was the eldest son and responsible for my brothers. I wanted to erase our rancor but up until now, I lacked the ability to close the distance between us. After so many years, Ralph no longer tried.
Sven had helped me to see the flaw in my thinking. One day we would be scattered in the wind, and I'd wish I could talk to him. There was a lot about life I didn't understand and hadn't thought through. People outside our family had rarely appealed to me. Even as a boy, I'd enjoyed my time alone, walking to the pond to swim by myself and reading in my room, while everyone else played cards or went into town. The world out there had some allure I lacked the wisdom to explain, even when I had no experience with it, or maybe because I had no experience with it.
Sven stopped his machine next to where I had stopped the truck to think. He jumped down as quickly as he reached me and he put the nozzle in the tank and was pumping it full before I got out of the truck. The second tractor was cutting corn as fast as the truck could load it. It didn't take but a second to flag Jake down. He stopped the tractor with the tank located next to the fuel. He was slower getting down, mopping his brow before climbing onto the truck to do the pumping. First I walked to the water bucket and filled the ladle, walking it back carefully to give it to Jake. He took it from me and drank while I pumped.
He gave me a warm easy smile as he savored the refreshing liquid. I went back a second time and made sure he got his fill. I didn't have the audacity to pour any on his head, but the bucket was running low.
"Thanks, Mr. Robert. Should I drive the truck back? I gots to be tending to supper if use wants ta eats tonight."
"Okay, Jake. Thanks for spelling me. I'll toss the bucket and ladle in the front seat for you," I said, letting Sven drink as I spoke.
I can't imagine getting all that work done without the dedicated people who came to help. I marveled that we didn't stumble or falter or get on one each other's nerves, although we were all too tired to get anything but to bed as quick as time allowed. On the sixth day we were in the bottom fields and by the end of the next day we'd be in the meadows. That left the slopes, where we'd spend three more days, and then the harvest was all but done, except for the clean up. We were making good time.
It did rain again on the afternoon of the seventh day, but it was a short shower and just enough to soften the dry field and cut down on the dust. The ground hardened under a relentless sun the next few days. We were well on our way to finishing the meadows, when another shower brought us some cool clean air.
We stopped what we were doing to celebrate the cooler air. Knowing how to keep a count meant I knew we'd already surpassed last years harvest in truckloads. Even if we didn't get another ear of corn out of the fields, we were beyond the breakeven point in the harvest.
The last harvest was modest but it paid the bills and that changed our outlook on life. The slopes were tricky and the trucks were hardly able to stay upright as we moved from the bottom up. Jake now drove the food out to us and spent less time in the kitchen.
There was no more rain before we were done and a few hours into the last afternoon I cut the trucks loose and ordered the machines shut down where they stood. I climbed down exhausted. I intended to take a break, after a week and a half of constant motion, except when we went in to eat at the table or when we were sleeping, and even then I felt as though the earth was moving under me.
"What's wrong, Robert?" Ralph asked with concern as he left the International tilted at an awkward angle in one of the ruts. "Why'd you cut old man Crosby's trucks loose? We only got a couple more hours at most. We're near about done."
"Not a thing wrong, Ralph. We'll ride back in the wagon, finish up here in the morning, after we get a full night's sleep. I'm beat. You've all done more than your share," I said, with everyone standing around to hear where I stood. "The rest of this will go to the grain barn; no hurry. It'll be full before we run out of corn. Junior's cows are going to have a fine winter."
"We made it," Junior yelled, leaping with joy. "I didn't think you could do it, Robert, but you did it. Pa'd be proud of you. Hell, I'm proud of you."
"Boy, you ain't in no bar," Jake warned.
"Yes, Pa'll be proud," Ralph said. "You pulled it off, big brother, and you said you weren't a farmer. Go away from here with that talk. You're a damn good farmer."
"Yeah, you is," Jake agreed.
Ralph hugged me, lifting me off my feet, and spinning around with me in his arms.
"We all did it, Ralph. We did it for Pa. It took all of us to get it done; Jacob, Kaleb, and especially Sven. We all made it happen and I need to wash up," I said, once he set me back down. "Everything I put on is full of corn silk. I want to clean up, put on something fresh, have a quiet relaxing supper, and sleep. I want to sleep until the cows come home. We'll finish up tomorrow or the next day. There's no hurry now. Even the rain can't hurt us now"
"Yes," Ralph agreed, and we all loaded up into the wagon, collapsing satisfied on the newly collected corn as Ralph drove back to the house with a well-worn out crew.
It didn't take long for us to get the mile and some back to the house. The first stop was the kitchen, and Jake went about feeding the influx of hungry farmers. He couldn't keep the food coming fast enough. We took our time finishing the ham salad sandwiches and Cole slaw that he had ready to bring out to us.
It was unusually quiet with Ralph and Jacob being the only ones with energy enough for pranks. Luckily Jake already had supper cooking or we might not have gotten a hot meal that night, because we were in his way, until the four youngest decided to go and wash up.
Sven suggested we wait until they got finished and it would still be plenty warm for a good scrub, although the water from the well was always plenty cool, and once the sun got low in the sky, it was downright cold. Jake filled up our cups with fresh steaming coffee and I leaned back to enjoy the moment, because I'd beaten the odds and the three grownups were left smiling in peace and quiet in a wonderful smelling kitchen.
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