The Farm Hand

Written by Rick Beck

Edited by: Gardner Rust

Chapter 1

Sven

For the men who live in the Brokeback Nation. One day we shall all be free to love openly without threat or shame.

This is a story about a man's man living in a man's world, the people he touches, and the man he loves.

A year out of high school I wanted to be far from my family's farm. The circumstances of the time denied me my dream of seeing the world and writing about it. The dream wasn't dead, only postponed, but time moved agonizingly slow with farm work being drudgery for which I no longer had a taste. I was working on the new fence Mama had been promised for two years, when Sven walked up the driveway and into our lives.

He was big by any standards, walking in powerful strides, looking like he knew where he was going. He paid me no mind as he passed. I stopped digging and watched him stop at the bottom of the three stairs that led to the back porch and the back door. He paused as if to gather his thoughts before he'd ask for work. It wasn't unusual to see hands walk up our driveway in a search for work. Times were tough.

The latest arrival interested me far more than the dull job Pa had assigned me. By this time everyone was of interest to me. I wondered where he had been and what did he know that I might find interesting. It turned out with Sven there were no simple answers.

It was a bright, clear, too-warm day, as days often are in an Iowa August. A gentle breeze stirred the stale air, which kept it from being stifling. These were the last typical things I can recall the summer Sven Gustoff came looking for work. He might have walked up any one of a dozen driveways in the vicinity, but something brought him to ours. It turned out we were all lucky he came to our house for work.

It was the week we'd stopped hoping for rain. Too much rain at that point would do more harm than good. The corn was high and harvest was near. The powerful sweet smell of ripe corn is as rich in my nose today as it was then. It's August again and my thoughts always traverse back over the years just before harvest. It was a time of change. It was a time I'll never forget.

I calculated the odds were high he'd get hired. Good hands are hard to find and close to harvest big hands are good to find. They don't tire as fast, tending to want to outdo everyone else. My mind was already working on the questions I'd ask him. My curiosity shifted into gear as he went up the steps and stood at the back door.

My brothers, Ralph and Junior, were given a choice job in the meadow's shadiest spot. I was turned out into the driveway to dig fence postholes. I'd fallen from favor with Pa after he found out I intended to leave the farm. My position as eldest son no longer carried any weight. He wasn't an understanding man when it came to how he saw his farm. There was a natural order to things and I wasn't following it.

These were the odds and ends waiting to be done, while we waited on the corn. So, I dug without complaint, waiting for the day I thought would come. I didn't hate the farm or farming. I saw the horizon and wanted to know what went on beyond there. It spoke to me like the land spoke to Pa.

We were finally tending to the fence Mama kept asking us to repair, after a late summer storm took the old one down two summers before. The old fence posts were rotted and broken. Ralph and Junior were cutting the new posts out of the trees in the meadows, while I dug fence postholes. It would end up being a new fence by the time it was done, but it was a lot less intimidating to think of it as fixing the old fence.

I labored with a fence posthole digger with sweat freely rolling in the late morning heat. The stark white shirt Mama laid out for me before breakfast was glued to my skin. Running out of fence posts an hour earlier, I dug holes anyway. My brothers would bring enough posts for all my holes, and if the shade of the trees wasn't enough to keep them comfortable, there was a spring-fed pond set back further in the farm's largest stand of trees.

The idea of it didn't cool me at all. The vision of my brother's splashing around in the pond had entered my head for the second or third time, when the crunching sound of footsteps reached my ears. I don't know how long I considered the sound before discovering it wasn't part of my daydream. It gave me something else to daydream about.

Sven's fine blond hair indicated to me he was one of us. The first time he spoke left no doubt about the purity of his heritage with the "old country" hanging on his words. Most Iowa farm boys in our corner of the state came with light hair and blue eyes. Many families came from the same region of the "old country." Grandfathers who came here often knew other farmers' grandfathers who did not migrate to America. Their love for the "old country" was too great to leave it. The sons who came to the farm now were all second and third generation American. Sven was one of these as were my brothers and I.

Pa always put on an extra hand or two at harvest time, driving into town to the Crosby Feed and Grain, where men knew to gather if they were looking for work. I didn't suspect there would be any such drive this season, but Sven had the initiative to come asking for work, and that was a different kind of hand, who didn't take to waiting somewhere for the work to come to him.

I'd stopped my posthole digging to consider him. He barely noticed my stare as he passed, ignoring the one staring with a dismissive glance, and looking like he expected to find work here. I expected the same thing.

He passed the front door, knowing farmhands didn't apply for work there. A grain sack swung in his left hand. I suspected his world possessions were inside. Now, he stood at the back door speaking to Pa, who spoke through the screen and out of my view.

Sven stood poker stiff at the back door. His circumstances hadn't bent his pride none. This man didn't beg for work; he was presenting himself to join our operation if the price was right. He'd consider a day's work for meals and whatever pay Pa could spare, but, with money being scarce, he'd stay on for a sturdy roof above his head and more meals. That would suit him fine, until he forgot the ache in his belly.

My Pa was a fair man when it came to farmhands, and the best were difficult to come by at harvest time. He'd explain what we had to offer but he was willing to bargain. If the harvest was good, there would be full pay, but if the harvest was poor, the bills came before the hands. In that case he could stay on for the winter to make up the difference.

There was time for a short conversation before Pa stepped out onto the back porch. Right away he cast a glance in my direction to supervise my leaning. I went into motion to get his eyes off me before a curt comment came my way. The conversation was brief and the outcome predictable in my mind. I was leaning again once I heard the backdoor close. Sven stepped down the steps.

The new hand took the same determined strides back in my direction. He had time to consider me as he walked. His expression gave nothing away. He was ready to go to work and he wasn't going to waste time. If he hadn't been hired my mother would have had him wait on the porch while she fixed him two sandwiches. One would be for his hands and one would be wrapped in newspaper to go into his sack for later.

Now I was certain he'd be staying on for harvest and the cleanup afterward. I knew how Pa's mind worked and Sven was his kind of hand. It remained to be seen if Sven was willing to work for food and a place in our barn or if he needed more to secure his labor for more than a few days. I couldn't tell about the long term arrangements, but I didn't think Pa would let him get away if there was some way to keep him on. While the pay might not be good the food was the best.

Those were my thoughts the first time I saw Sven, but he had no interest in the meandering thoughts inside my head. He crossed the driveway and came right over to me.

"Sven," he said, sticking out his hand. "Your father has chores for you. I'm going to dig the holes. You're to go to the house and see him."

His voice had just enough of the "old country" in it to confirm what I figured from looking at him. We shook hands. His hand swallowed mine and his grip was strong.

"Robert," I said, more than happy to give up the digger. "Have at it."

There was no reply. An economy of words: job asked for, job attained. Get to work if you want to work tomorrow.

He handled the digger like it was a toy, which made me feel a little more useless than usual. He finished the hole I started before his arrival. It was on to the next as his digger took big bites out of the black soil. He'd cut down on the labor I would have done, but he seemed an arrogant sort. It was like I wasn't there, until he went to where he calculated the next hole went.

"Your holes are crooked, boy. Where's your line?" he ordered with his voice, wiping his brow while giving me a long look to see what I was good for.

"It's only a fence. I'm setting the new holes a foot inside the old holes, more or less," I explained.

"It's crooked. Bring me back a piece of string and I'll set her straight for you. No point in putting up a crooked fence."

"It's okay," I assured him, having followed Pa's orders.

"I ain't putting up no crooked fence, whatever your name is."

"Robert is whatever my name is and the fence is fine," I said in my I'm-the-farmer's-son voice.

"Don't you take no pride in your work, Robert? Don't you want the fence to represent your home? It's the first thing people will notice when they drive up."

He sounded like my father, which wasn't good coming from a hired hand. I left it at that, going into the kitchen to avoid further criticism. I wondered about Sven, while pumping fresh water into my glass. Leaning up against the sink to peak out through the crack in the curtains, I watched him dig. There was one more hole dug and a new one he was digging. He was trying to make me look bad.

"What are you up to, Robert?" Mama asked, as she came from the parlor.

"His name is Sven," I said, pushing the calico curtains further apart as my mother moved up to help me watch.

"Don't get familiar with the hands. You know how things are," Mama used her voice of caution.

"But we've got harvest," I reminded her, holding the curtains far enough apart to watch him work. "He's a good worker. I can tell. He wants a piece of string."

"Yeah, and I'd like to keep him, but he's got to be told that there's no money guarantee here," Pa said, buttoning up a clean shirt after his noontime clean up. "I'll give him a cut of whatever's left after we've paid the bank and the feed store. He's a big one," Pa said, leaning over my mother's shoulder to watch Sven's digging prowess.

"He needs some string," I said again, leaning my backside against the sink to drink some of the fresh water I'd pumped up to cool my parched throat.

"String?" Mama asked.

"He says my holes are crooked. Says he ain't diggin' no crooked fence line. He wants string."

"You're setting them a foot in front of the old posts, like I told you?" Pa asked.

"Yes, sir, just like you said," I said.

"I sent them posts myself the year after you was born. Crooked! You mean to tell me he thinks I put in crooked fence?"

"No, I think he meant he wasn't going to follow a crooked line," I said. "And he wants string. The man takes pride in his work. How bad is that?"

My mother handed me a roll of cord that came straight out of her sewing basket.

"I want this back," she said, shaking it under my nose for emphasis. "You tell him I want it back. It's the only sample I got of this color."

"Mama, he ain't gonna steal your string."

"You best get yourself in gear and go pickup the posts your brothers are cutting. We just might get that fence done before harvest starts," Pa said, emptying the last of his coffee before kissing Mama and heading out the back door.

Pa didn't bother to use any of the steps, moving right off the porch and onto the brown grass that was left from our last summer when the rains were late and rare.

"You take him a glass of water. Tell him I'll mend them britches after supper. He can't be takin' no meals at my table lookin' like that. Them boys need a woman to be lookin' after 'em. They all come up here lookin' like strays. You boys don't know how lucky you are."

"He ain't done that much work yet," I mentioned, looking at him moving to the next hole, after checking back down the driveway to pick a spot he liked.

"He had to get here, Robert. It's near about afternoon. You want him to dig them holes for you, don't you? He needs a sandwich and that's all there is to it. Quit sassing me and take him a glass of water. I'll get lunch pulled together for you and your brothers."

"Yes, ma'am," I said softly, realizing this gave me time to question him.

"Your Pa'll get in the corn with or without help. He'll work around the clock if need be. If we can keep this one by a little kindness, we'll all be better off for it," Mama said, standing at the window while watching Sven work. "He is a big one."

"A hard worker, too, Mama," I bragged, turning back to the window to help her watch.

"Robert, go out and take care of that man. Quit wasting time. When you're done with him, come get the sandwiches I'm making for your brothers and take them their lunch."

"You're not making sandwiches for anyone, Mama. You're watching our new hand."

"You quit annoying me now. I got work to do," she said, letting the curtains fall back in place.

"Yes, ma'am," I said, giggling about her curiosity as she raised the corner of the curtain again.

"Mama, you're never going to get those sandwiches finished if you don't quit wasting time."

"You hush and take him out that water and this here string he asked you for."

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