The Farm Hand

Written by Rick Beck

Edited by: Gardner Rust

Chapter 2

Farmers & Farms

Grabbing the biggest glass from the cupboard, I pumped the handle, rinsing the glass with cool water before letting it fill to the brim. I spilled a quarter of it before getting it off the porch not bothering with the stairs.

His back and shoulders bulged with each of his movements. He was built for digging postholes. Sven seemed content with the task and far better suited to it than I. Taking his time to notice me with the water, he drove the digger into the ground before turning to take the water.

"That's for me?" he asked, meeting my eyes with his for only an instant.

"Yeah," I said, failing in my effort to find something witty to say. "My Mama's making sandwiches. I'll bring you one before I take lunch to my brothers."

"Much appreciated."

I was still annoyed with the abrupt tone in his voice. I still wanted to know his story, but thinking of a good question wasn't easy. He didn't seem to want to talk. While he drank, I found myself checking out the tears and worn spot in his overalls that Mama had brought to my attention.

He handed the glass back to me and took up digging again. He paid me no mind, leaving no room for even a single question. It was obvious he'd dug postholes before and his body didn't strain from the labor. It was hot, and sweat came easy on August afternoons. His motion was fluid as he manhandled the digger, yielding up twice the dirt I did in a single effort. I wrestled with it while forcing it to do what I wanted it to do.

"Robert, come get that man a sandwich," Mama said from the back porch, as she wiped her hands on her apron.

Upon hearing her voice, Sven turned from his work to face her, leaving the post hole digger in the hole.

"Sven, ma'am," Sven said politely and like he was giving her something of value. "That's mighty kind of you ma'am. I'll be sure I earn the kindness. Don't you be worrying none about that."

"Sven," Mama said, disappearing back into her kitchen before the sound of her voice reached us.

He was a bold one, I thought. Proud enough to want to be called by name. Maybe he thought it might do him some good with Pa if Mama found him agreeable.

"You're Mama's a pretty woman," he said before turning back to the digger. "Women tend to age hard on a farm. Tough job tending to men."

"You best not worry about my Mama," I said, not being sure of how to consider his remark.

"Most women her age are plum wore down from making babies and tending to their families," he said without paying any mind to my insolence.

"She only had us three. Couldn't have no more after losing Richard Lee back a spell."

"Sorry to hear! You said you got brothers. No sisters?" Sven inquired with a smile.

"Two brothers, Ralph and Junior. They're up at the meadows cutting the posts for them holes you been digging."

"And you're Robert," he said as a peace offering of sorts. "What have you done to be left digging fence postholes? Digging holes is a job for hands, not sons. My Pa put us working fence as punishment, when we couldn't mind our manners or some such as that."

"What makes you think I done something?" I argued his logic. "Holes got to be dug to stick the fence posts into."

"I met your Pa. He sent me to relieve you, remember? Just a hunch by how he said what he said. I calculate your Pa not to be a man to be crossed. By your Mama's age you'd figure to be the eldest. Yet here you are doing hired hand work. I put the rest together on my own, figuring your Pa not to be a man to do anything without a reason."

"Pa and I don't see eye to eye is all," I explained, finding his reasoning to be uncomfortably close to the mark.

For such a big man he spoke softly. His eyes seemed to smile with his words. Unloading a pile of dirt next to the old faded fence post, he tilted his head as he grinned with a curiosity of his own. My eyes were still on him as I pondered how to take what he said and how he said it.

"I don't mean to rush you, but that sandwich sure would take the wrinkles out of my belly, boy."

"I'm Robert," I reminded him, picking up the glass to fill when I brought him back the sandwich. "You calculate a lot from one conversation. Most hands don't do much figuring."

"I suppose. Probably best to keep my figuring to myself. I figure you're looking for more, but I'm a bit weak from lack of nourishment right this minute. I'm a better conversationalist when I got something in my belly."

"Pa's a hard man, but he's fair. I'm digging on account he said dig. There isn't a lot of figuring to it."

"As much as I enjoy talking, a sandwich would taste mighty good. I only had an apple and a tiny piece of leftover dried beef this morning. More water would be appreciated as well. Don't worry, I'll earn it, boy. I don't take anything I don't earn."

This time he continued facing me as he spoke, maybe thinking that would get me on my way faster. Instead I took advantage of his attention. Even then, I sensed there was a lot more to Sven than what showed. He spoke quite well when he wanted, but he spoke like a farmhand otherwise. I was educated enough to know someone who had some education behind him.

"I'm not worried. Here. String from my Mama's sewing basket. She wants it back," I said, as if he might not recognize it as string. "Where you from anyhow?"

"Over Muscatine way originally. Not far from the river, but not far enough some years."

"That where your farm was?"

He squinted as though he was looking off in the distance and might point to it for me, but instead he aggressively planted the posthole digger back down into the dirt, turning away from me in an unexpected awkward movement.

"Yep, right about there. How about that sandwich, boy?" he said with impatience.

So much for asking him questions. Maybe I started with the wrong one. He kept digging and I returned to the kitchen. One sandwich was on a plate on the table next to the door, ready to be eaten. Mine would be wrapped in newspaper along with a half dozen more for Ralph and Junior. Mama would tell me to eat up there so I was out of my father's way for a spell. I'd eat with them in the shade of the trees before loading the newly cut posts.

Our lunch was in a bag on the draining board next to a bottle of lemonade Mama made after breakfast and cooled in the root cellar. Time was a wasting and my brothers would be getting nervous about lunch by this time.

The white shirt Sven was wearing now dangled from a fence post by the time I got back to the kitchen window. The post leaned to one side allowing the shirt to brush the ground in the slight breeze that ruffled the material. The fence once attached to that particular post had fallen on hard times and the wood was feeble, unable to hold the nails that kept the wire in place. There was a role of new wire in the barn, but we weren't far enough along to get it out yet.

The straps that held up his bib overalls hung down in front of him tied together to keep them off the ground. His undershirt adhered to his tight chest. His arms bulged into thick knots when he dug. I looked at my bicep and made a muscle that was more disappointing than usual.

I could see he was taller than he was wide, although his shoulders made mine look like a boy's. He put me in mind of a statue in a museum I'd seen in one of my textbooks. His upper body tapered abruptly into a small firm waistline not visible before he let the bib hang. His waist looked no larger than my own. I lifted my shirt and watched as I sucked in the shapeless belly and found more disappointment.

It was obvious he'd missed a few meals along the way and he was no stranger to hard work. My father obviously drew the same conclusions, not really needing an extra hand yet, but not wishing to see this one get away.

Harvest was still a few weeks off if the weather cooperated. That's when Sven was going to be a good hand to have. I wondered if the table my mother set would be enough to keep him in one spot until after harvest.

He'd sure take a lot of the endless chores off my back before then, though food might be enough to tempt him to stay without pay. I knew Pa would spell out the terms of his employment at dinner that night. It would be considered during the next day and minds would be made up by suppertime. Mama just might go into her change jar before she risked letting him go. She'd watch his work from the kitchen window, while I was up at the meadows, and she'd tell my father what she saw.

Often you can't tell what kind a worker a hand is. Some times the biggest boys are laziest. A dozen hands came up the drive in the past year, an indication of how tough times were. Pa hired some for a day or a week, when he could. Mama fed them all, whether or not we could.

"There but for the grace of God...," were words often spoken after a hand's departure. Even in hard times, we were luckier than most, sharing what we could because we could, but nothing we did would guarantee us next year.

This was the first year I'd considered those facts in depth. My future was no longer my own and as badly as I wanted off the farm, I wouldn't leave as long as my parents needed me.

A dozen farms we knew of had been taken by the bank and those families had been scattered around the countryside. Farmer's sons sought work with the farmers who were left and there were fewer each year.

I'd never paid much mind to the hands. They came and stayed for a spell, and then they were gone. This made me uneasy. I didn't like to see misery. Now, it was our farm and each year it brought us closer to ruin. Each year there seemed to be more work and each year the price of corn fell further, like the markets were testing to see just how little money we'd work for.

Sven's muscles were glistening in the afternoon sun, bulging under the labor. I finished my second glass of water and my daydreaming, still watching out the window. I'd never had an older brother. The thought of having one instead of being one appealed to me. Sven could have fit the bill.

At that time, I wrote off my keen interest in Sven concerning that idea. I didn't know enough to think anything else. Admiring his body because mine lacked shape came naturally. I often admired the boys with better-built bodies at school and Sven's was far better-built than any of them. We were close to the same age, but I wasn't sure how old he was.

I shook my head to keep my mind on my business and pumped his glass full to cool it before pumping it full again, grabbing the plate on my way out the door. He watched my approach with more interest this time.

"Getting hot," he said, pulling off his undershirt to wipe under his arms and then his face. "Thanks."

He took the water and then all but emptied it in one large long gulp. Some of the water ran from the sides of his mouth as he guzzled, leaking generously down on his already damp chest. The rest went on top of his head, plastering the fine blond hair to it. He playfully shook his wet hair, looking at me to make sure some of the water got on me. He smiled as I stepped back to avoid it.

"Sorry," he said.

I spent my time checking out the holes in his overalls again. He'd covered some with the bib but I found others. They were in serious need of attention as I noticed white flesh and blond hairs showing through the worn fabric.

"Thanks," he said again, considering me seriously for the first time, while giving me back the glass. "That for me, or you just airing it out?"

"Oh, sorry, I was just thinking that you're big," I said, looking at his chest and finding myself at a loss for words beyond the obvious.

Handing him the plate, I felt feeble beside such a powerful man.

"Yeah, the ladies often claim that to be true. I'm happy to take their word for it and anything else they want to give me."

He took several large bites out of half the sandwich, unable to disguise his hunger. For a few seconds the sandwich was all that was on his mind. Once the first half was devoured, he paused as I spoke.

"I was referring to your body," I said, trying to explain myself and feeling as if I was failing.

"What did you think I meant?" Sven asked, sounding surprised that I needed to explain the comment.

I had a feeling little surprised this hand. I was once more left unhappy by the tone in his voice. The words he selected irritated me. I was sure he was making fun of me without laughing at me. I still wanted to find out about him, but every thing I said seemed to lead away from where I was heading. So far our conversation left me feeling foolish as well as uninformed.

"Boy that's good," he said after taking a single bite of the remaining half sandwich.

"My name is Robert," I said, turning the tables on his wit.

"I wasn't calling you..., but you know that," he said.

"Yeah," I said. "You knew I was talking about your size..., the size of your muscles."

"I did. I was just enjoying the water and sandwich. Nothing I said meant much."

"You're bold and you're smart and that can be a bad combination."

"In this heat I was feeling a bit weary. You can't pay much attention to anything I say. Thank you for the relief. Thank your Mama for the kindness and don't worry, young Robert, I'll earn it and I'll be happy to do your fence posting."

"No kindness involved. She feeds the hands no matter how long they're here. We don't have much but we share it as best we can. You'd a' got a sandwich even if there wasn't work here. You're big and you're strong and harvest is coming. We don't have a lot of money to pay out, but the food can't be beat anywhere in this end of Iowa."

"Harvest comin'. Strong back. Hard worker. Don't take up too much space in the barn, but I do require a fair amount of feeding. For that I'm willing to work from before sun up to after sunset," he claimed. "Missing a few meals reminds a fellow what's really important."

"Times are hard. We might not be able to keep a hand around while we wait for harvest," I said.

"Your Pa said there'd be work. I told him I'd work for food, until the real work starts. He seemed agreeable, but he didn't take as much time looking me over as his eldest has. Perhaps I don't suit you?"

"It's between you and him. You're fine with me. I'm not use to being made fun of, but you don't need to please me. My stock with my Pa don't run too high."

"Not my intension to be making fun of anyone. If that's your impression I must apologize. I don't take much seriously. You can't. You got what you got, until it's gone. Then, you got nothing. You'll learn to take life less seriously in time, young Robert."

"I suppose."

"Got to get back to work if there's nothing else?"

"How long since your people lost your farm?"

There was no doubt how he felt about the question. His back stiffened as he stopped digging, after planting the digger in a new spot. He gave me a long hard look this time, remembering his place and mine. His look eased some as he considered his interrogator. He took a white handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his face, leaning hard on the digger, almost putting it back to work before relenting.

"It's been a spell. Can't rightly say how long. Seems long. Two harvests and most of a year. The hard rains three Septembers back got us. Washed us plum out. We'd been on the verge for some time. We were waiting to harvest, hoping to get a better price. Then..., the rains came," he said, seeing beyond our farm to one that no longer existed. "You don't lose a farm, boy. The bank comes with the sheriff and takes it from you along with anything they can steal."

"Funny," I said without thinking.

"Funny!" he said, the veins straining in his neck from one word.

"No, I meant funny how things work. Pa made us get the crop in early that year. Said it was just a feeling. We had a good year that year on account of so many farmers waiting for prices to rise."

"Bankers will own it all before it's done with. They got the money. They got the laws set on their side of the scale. All a farmer's got is a strong back and a high tolerance for suffering."

"You ever think of doing anything else?" I asked, as he was about to put the digger back to work.

"Anything else? I'm the son of a farmer's son. No, I've never thought of that. A man's got to dip his hands in the soil from time to time or he withers away and dies like the corn does when there's no rain."

"I suppose," I said, not being able to get where he was.

"What is it that so interests you about my clothes?" he asked.

"Me?" I asked, thrown off by the blunt inquiry.

"You know," he said in firm words, "a boy shouldn't ought to be looking at a man the way you look at me. Someone might be mistaken about your intention. The underwear was a sacrifice I made while leaving a house sooner than I expected, when a farmer came home early. It was a serious loss considering I never got to finish what his wife so boldly began. Leaving them was considerably more acceptable than losing what the husband of the woman might have relieved me of had he caught us in his bed. With the condition of my pants I have nothing to hide from any eyes that wish to pry. Yours have done their share."

"Mine?" I said, not knowing how to answer the accusation.

"You are a most curious lad and you'll find I'm little different than other men once you take a close look."

"You take the wives of men who hire you?" I asked, alarmed by his confession.

"Only those looking to be taken and only after the husband thinks he can take advantage of my labor without the agreed upon pay. One takes compensation when it is due. I give a full measure of work and expect the agreed upon pay."

"As for your britches, Mama mentioned to me that she'd repair them after supper if you like. I was looking to see what she was talking about. I meant no disrespect."

"Oh! Your Mama noticed the condition of my pants. I'll have to apologize for that at an appropriate time. There are few alternatives to letting them wear themselves out, until I have funds to replace them," he said, with a far more sophisticated lilt to his words. "Haven't had much in the way of cash as of late, as you can tell."

"I wouldn't have taken notice if she hadn't mentioned it," I said, trying to explain myself. "Seems like men's pants all wear out about the same. All of us have patches where you got holes."

"I was more concerned about your interest in certain areas of my pants. Far be it from me to tell another man what he likes. My business here is business, however. I don't want to lose a job over a misunderstanding."

"Rest assured, I want you to stay, because you'll take some of the strain off me. I don't usually get to know the hands. I just happened to be here at the right time," I said, running on as I tossed the plate into the air to divert my energy.

"Well, that does make sense. I don't want to be an imposition on your Mama's kindness. She must have plenty of mending to do with three sons. I don't wish to be more trouble than I'm worth, but I have no wish to embarrass her or myself either. I'd appreciate some patches in spots that seem to grow by the hour."

"It's harvest time. You can smell the corn. I don't know if we have the money to keep you, but Pa'll talk to you this evening. Maybe meals and a cut of whatever profit we take. I can't say for sure, but we'll keep you fed and get your britches back in shape."

"I must admit meals have been hard to come by as of late. I should be working not tantalizing lads with tawdry tales of my indecencies."

"Well, I haven't had indecencies of my own to brag about. Listening to you brag about yours offers hope, you see."

He laughed and his posture eased up as he leaned on the digger. I sensed a lighthearted nature under the stern exterior.

"You're young. You'll have more experiences than you'll care to admit by the time you're my age."

"How many have you had?" I foolishly asked. "More than you care to admit sounds like a lot to someone of limited experience."

"About every other farm as of late, I'd say. Not to be worrying, boy, I got the last one. I'll be resting for the next one while I'm here."

"That's not funny."

"I only take wives that aren't being loved proper. Those are the ones who turn to the hired hands."

"They ask you for it right out? Offer it to you, you said? Why?"

"Some women need more than husbands are able to give. Some simply need some affection. A strong young boy comes along. They speak of love to him with their eyes. When you are on the road, they're difficult to deny. Like the farmer sees my back as the answer to his needs, his wife might see my loins as the answer to hers. I'm not sure of why beyond the obvious. Once you find yourself in those circumstances you don't spend a lot of time asking questions about it."

"You are full of yourself, aren't you?" I observed. "I bet about half of what you say is true."

"I'll be the first to admit I have little strength when it comes to pleasure. I can tell you it's a long lonely road, Robert, and my back is strong, but I'm not strong enough to resist temptation. I doubt I'm little different from most men in my situation."

"You never been caught at it?" I wondered aloud.

"We can talk about this after your Pa tells me he's keeping me on. You should know better than to distract me by getting me telling you tales of my past weaknesses. Besides, my experiences are likely tame in comparison to a handsome young lad such as yourself in spite of your denial," he said. "We can talk of my dalliances later on if that's your interest. Right now I need to get to digging."

"He's gone. I'm in charge," I said with unusual authority in my voice. "Like you said, I'm curious and rarely hear from someone with so much to say. You might not be here later."

"In that case the answer is no, I never got caught. I did lose that underwear. That's the risk you take, when you take that risk. At times it's more adventure than I need. She was young and fair of face. My mind was on her when it should have been on work."

"The husbands don't suspect you?"

"No, I'm careful enough to be sure he's far enough away to allow for a proper bedding. While staying longer would be a luxury, it's one I don't allow myself."

"I thought marriage was about faithfulness. Why betray that?"

"You need to ask the wives. Spending a lot of time figuring out the why can ruin the experience or prevent it."

"What about farmers' daughters. I've heard stories at school about them. Most boys claim to have been with more than one farmer's daughter."

"You do persist. Well, you are the boss. It's not smart to talk about the yearnings of young ladies who have larger appetites than the law allows. Of all the temptation that's out there they are the most dangerous. Unrestrained desire is a certain recipe for disaster."

"I'll keep that in mind the next time some young girl throws herself at me. They've managed to restrain themselves so far."

"Many a day was spent recovering from a night spent in the hay with the farmer's daughter. They stay longer than discretion allows, come more often than is wise, and won't take no for the answer."

"You said of all the temptation there is out there. We've got wives and daughters so far. Do tell. What else is there?"

"Let's see, what's left? Wives? Daughters? Ah, and farmer's sons are the biggest bother. They are unrestrained on a farm and endlessly curious. They speak with their eyes before asking lurid questions, seeking answers that stimulate their fertile imaginations," he spoke in a flourish of words. "Once stimulated a farmer's son will mount almost anything. You give them details with stories of lustful pursuits and some can't keep their enthusiasm contained in their trousers, but I'm sure you know plenty about farm boys. You are one, after all, and I'm telling you nothing you don't already know. Now, can I get back to work?"

"You are full of yourself," I said, feeling my face flush as I realized he was patronizing me.

"You asked and I should not lie to my boss. Farm boys have something other than love on their minds, when they ask about my love life, but unlike women, they aren't particular and don't need to exercise caution with the hired hands, who'll be gone in a day or two."

"It's not funny," I declared. "I've never heard such as that. You're making it up to get a rise out of me. I'm on to you."

"Ah, you've found me out. Being a good hand, I try to give what's expected. You seem to expect stories. How can I resist entertaining you with mine? You'll have to decide for yourself what's true."

"Well, I suppose that about covers it all?" I said with disdain.

"In personal experience, yes. Farm animals were never my style, but I can tell you what a few of the bolder farm boys told me about such experiences if you like?"

"Very funny. I've got business to tend to," I said. "You've got fencing. I think I've heard enough for the time being."

"Yes sir, boss. I'll save those stories for after supper. There's one about a lamb I think you'd like. I'm still not certain if that one is true or not. Farm boys do like to stretch the truth."

"I stand by my previous observation. You're full of yourself and too bold for your own good," I said.

"I'll be needing to wash up before supper, Robert," Sven reminded me. "A towel and some soap would be helpful."

"There's a pump behind the barn where we wash up out of sight of the house on account Mama don't want to see a bunch a bare butts and all."

"As it should be, a lady shouldn't be exposed to the likes of us. You'll come show me when the time comes? I don't wish to miss a meal or a chance to rinse off some dirt."

"Sure, I'll take care of it when I bring my brothers down from the meadow," I said, as he put his back into his work and I put my curiosity to rest for the time being.

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