In the seventh year of the drought, the tractor that had been buried in the soil-blowing of 1932 came unexpectedly to light.
Babe and Little Joe found it. They came bursting into the kitchen, their eyes snapping with excitement. Their bare hands were blue with cold, for it was a raw March day and they had no mittens. They had no stockings either. Bare legs and feet showed here and there through rents in overalls and shoes.
In the five years of her life, Babe had never had anything but boy’s clothing – “and damn little of that,” as her father put it.
“Pop!” cried eight-year-old Joe shrilly. “There’s a pipe – a kind of a rusty stovepipe – stickin’ outta the side o’ that sand pile!”
“On Uncle Pete’s place,” explained Babe. “A wusty pipe.”
“I scraped the sand away,” Little Joe continued breathlessly, “an’ it goes down an’ down—the pipe does.”
“It’s a gopher’s chimney, I bet.”
“G’wan! Gophers don’t have chimneys.”
“Or a bogeyman’s,” suggested Babe.
“Or a tractor’s, Baby,” said Big Joe. “A tractor’s exhaust pipe.”
“Whose tractor, Pop?”
Big Joe finished peeling the spuds for dinner and set them on the stove. He emptied the peelings into an old pail for Uncle Pete. He would not let Uncle Pete peel the potatoes, because Uncle Pete made the peelings so thick. He used them in his still.
“Whose tractor, Pop?” Babe persisted.
“Ours, Baby,” said Big Joe, glancing across at Uncle Pete, who sat beside the window, tinkering with a length of copper pipe that had once been the feed pipe of a car.
The swell car Big Joe had brought in 1930. The year he and Emmy and Little Joe had spent the winter in California.
The car still sat where the garage had been, a forlorn reminder of happier days.
Bit by bit, at times when fuel was scarce, Big Joe had dismantled the garage. Uncle Pete had removed from the car any parts that were useful for his still. It was just a wreck now, and the kids used it to play in.
“I never knew we had a tractor,” said Babe.
“We’ve had six tractors, Baby. Brought two in ’26,” Big Joe reminisced pleasantly, “an’ another in ’27. Paid cash for ‘em, too. That’s the way we did them days. In the spring of ’32 we traded ‘em in on three new ones. We never made no payments on them. The machine company took two of ‘em away, but they couldn’t find the third one.”
“You buried it,” piped Little Joe, chuckling at Pop’s cleverness.
“Nope,” Big Joe said. “Wind buried it. An’ now the wind’s uncovering it again, I guess.”
“The Lord taketh away an’ the Lord giveth,” wheezed Uncle Pete facetiously. A faint gleam showed in his bleary eyes. He was recalling the fact that beside the tractor, and buried with it, was a granary with perhaps a hundred bushels of wheat in it.
Big Joe remembered the day the machine-company men came after the tractors that he could not pay for. That was in 1933.
“Where’s the other tractor?” they had demanded.
“Buried,” said Big Joe.
“Buried!” cried the machine agent. “What the hell for?”
“For eternity, brother,” said Big Joe. “’Nless you bring a steam shovel to dig her out.”
The men had gone with him across the road to Uncle Pete’s half section. He showed them the big sand dune that had accumulated in one of the worst blows – and grown since – completely burying tractor and granary.
The men had gone away then, and they never came back. They never expected to see that tractor again.
But if the exhaust stack of the tractor was showing, the dune must be moving on. It would not take much digging to uncover both tractor and granary. And, Big Joe ruminated, the granary contained enough wheat to seed a partial crop – a hundred acres or so. He could use the tractor to sow it – if he could get some tractor fuel and some oil.
The trouble was that no one would advance him seed or fuel anymore. Everybody thought that the country would never come back, that it ought to be abandoned. Most people, indeed, had moved out.
But not Big Joe. He would not abandon the section of land that had brought him more than one ten-thousand-dollar crop of wheat since he left his North Dakota birthplace to settle in Canada. True, during the past six years his farm had often not produced feed enough for one cow and a scrawny team of horses, let alone a crop. But Big Joe stuck.
“It’s gotta rain sometime,” he kept saying.
They had had no milk since they ate the cow to keep her starving to death; no eggs since they ate the hens for the same reason.
Uncle Pete stayed on, too. He used to grumble a lot about a man having nothing to live for if he could no longer buy liquor. But he kept on living. Never amiable or talkative at any time, during the first few years of the drought he grew more and more morose.
Then one autumn when they got their relief potatoes, Uncle Pete conceived the idea of making a still, and life had taken on a new interest for him. From their potato peelings and those he collected from the few remaining neighbours, Uncle Pete distilled a satisfying liquor. He worked steadily, for he had nothing else to do and he had a pessimistic feeling that the drought would last for years. Big Joe was sure Uncle Pete had a lot of liquor cached away.
Very occasionally, when he needed money, he sold a little. He never gave any away. He would not give you a drink, Uncle Pete wouldn’t, not to save your soul.
He might just as well have been a hermit, so utterly solitary was his life. Nobody bothered about him or talked to him much. He seemed less human than the mongrel dog that slunk hungrily around the place – just an old soak, with his mottled, shapeless face and his clothes that had been nondescript in their best days and were now mere rags.
Only Babe, who was too young to know better, rated him as humanly individual, and therefore interesting.
But Big Joe did not drink. He had promised Emmy.
“Don’t get to be an old soak like Uncle Pete,” Emmy used to say, “for the kids’ sake.”
But sometimes in these last years Big Joe caught himself envying Uncle Pete. Life had grown so sour. Whereas, in bad years as in good, Uncle Pete still had his liquor.
Emmy had been lucky, too. She had died before the drought and poverty took all the fun out of life. If a fellow could die young – or else a fellow might get a little fun if he could see his kids having some fun.
Dinner would have been a quiet meal but for the excited chatter of Babe and Little Joe. Big Joe’s mind was on that tractor and the seed wheat. He ate his dry potatoes without really tasting them. They had potatoes for dinner and oatmeal porridge for breakfast and supper.
If he could get fuel and oil for the tractor and get that wheat sown, why, maybe it might rain this year. It just naturally had to rain sometime.
Apparently Uncle Pete was thinking of the wheat, too. Big Joe had to remind him about eating with his knife.
“How the hell can we make Baby a lady if you don’t set her an example?” Big Joe demanded, pointing accusingly with his own knife to the culprit.
Uncle Pete accepted the reprimand meekly. He appeared to realize that Babe had to be brought up right. Sometimes his bleary eyes rested on the Babe with a faint awareness, as though he was thinking: “In an otherwise drab world, ain’t she somethin’!”
After dinner they all went over to Uncle Pete’s place to see the tractor. And there she was – or, at least, there her exhaust stack was – sticking out of the sand as perky as a gopher’s snout on the first warm day of spring.
“Another good blow of wind from the right direction, or a few hours’ work with a shovel, and she’ll be in the clear,” Big Joe figured. The granary, still invisible under the slope of the dune, would not be hard to reach either.
Uncle Pete’s eyes showed a dull wistfulness, and Big Joe knew he was thinking of one hundred bushels of wheat in terms of the store liquor it would buy. But Big Joe was thinking of the crop of wheat it would make if seeded, and if it rained. Food and clothing and school and fun for Babe and Little Joe.
“Now,” he planned busily, “we got some seed and we got a tractor. If somebody will stake us to fuel and oil-“ He was interrupted by a snort of disgust from Uncle Pete, and whirled angrily. “You want that Baby should go on growin’ up like she is? Well, she ain’t gonna – not if I can help it.”
He fancied he could read a shamefaced look on Uncle Pete’s almost unreadable face, and he continued on more kindly:
“You keep on drinkin’ your old spud licker for a while. If we get a crop, Little Joe and Baby and me’ll go places. An’ you can buy plenty of store licker. What d’ya say, kids?”
“Damn tootin’!” said Little Joe.
“Damn tootin’!” echoed Babe.
“Ladies don’t say ‘damn’, Baby.”
“Why don’t they, Pop?”
“Well, just because they’re ladies, see?”
“I don’ wanna be a lady. Whadda I wanna be a lady for?”
"Why, dammit, because I promised your mom, Baby.”
Little Joe was curious. “What’ll she do when she’s a lady, Pop?”
“Oh, ride around in cars and look pretty.”
“Gee!” gasped Little Joe. “Will we have a car?”
“Damn tootin’!” Big Joe promised. “If we get a crop.”
And Uncle Pete wheezed pessimistically: “If we get some tractor fuel. An’ if it rains.”
The next day Big Joe drove to town in his rickety old democrat, whereof the front wheels toed in and the back ones wobbled astonishingly. The tires were held on with hay wire and rattled noisily. His horses were a pathetically bony team of greys that had wintered on Russian thistle, and looked it.
“Couldn’t rightly call them specimens of horseflesh,” Big Joe said. “Bones an’ hide is all they got.”
Big Joe took the kids with him because even a trip to Benson was an even for them – Benson, which had only been a hamlet in the good times and was now nothing but a huddle of weathered shacks, most of them deserted. But the kids had never been places and seen things like Big Joe and Emmy – at least, Babe had not been places, and Little Joe had been too young to notice.
On the road, Big Joe entertained them with stories of the “good times”. It was his favourite topic and the kids loved it. He told how he and Emmy used to get in the car and roll in to Benson - or farther still, to Sanford - and load up with things to wear and things to eat. Oranges, boxes of apples – all they wanted to eat in those days. Babe, of course, did not know about apples and oranges, and Little Joe had only seem them in Hindson’s store. But Big Joe made their eyes glisten as he told them about them.
Having prodded the horses up a long rise, they caught sight of Benson. Big Joe told them of the six huge grain elevators that had once been required to handle the big wheat crops of the district. Only one remained now, and that was closed. Benson was sure dead. It made Big Joe feel bad to see the “So-this-is-Paris” look in the kids’ eyes as their democrat clattered down the one gravelly street – to think that they had seen so little that a dump like Benson gave them a thrill!
Ed Hindson’s was the only store left. Ed had fallen heir to many jobs as people moved out. He was storekeeper, postmaster, undertaker, sold gas and oil, if any; handled express and freight for the one terrain per week that the railroad ran over the branch. In fact, Ed did all the business that was done in Benson. And he had plenty of spare time. Ed was too old to move when the drought came. He said he was going to stay in Benson until he just naturally dried up and blew away like the Russian thistle.
In court, an accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty. In Hindson’s store a person is considered broke until he proves otherwise. You had to tell Ed what you wanted and show him the money to pay for it before he would get up out of his chair by the pot-bellied stove. That’s what six years of drought had done to Ed Hindson. He was glad to see you, thought; there was so few people to talk to.
Big Joe approached the matter of tractor fuel nervously. He hated to ask for favours, he who had always paid cash when he had cash. Also, he did not want to let on about the tractor, at least until he got his crop seeded. The machine agent had moved out, leaving Ed as the company’s representative, but the company would seize the tractor fast enough if they heard about it.
“Look, Ed,” he began. “I can get seed wheat and I can get the use of a tractor to do the seedin’. All I need is fuel and oil for the tractor, and if – I wondered if you’d stake me to that. If I get a crop-“
He began to flounder because he saw that Ed was not registering enthusiasm. Ed was drawing hard on a battered pipe, and the smell of tobacco made Big Joe faint as with hunger. He had not had any tobacco himself since God-knows-when.
Ed was rubbing his bald head with one hand and squinting through the tobacco smoke at Babe, where she stood beside the stove, dimpling shyly and hanging on to Big Joe’s ragged pantleg. Looking down at her, Big Joe realized all at once that she had a poor colour – pasty, almost. Little Joe was the same. Oatmeal and potatoes did not make a balanced diet for growing kids.
Ed Hindson spat on the stove and it sizzled. His slitted eyes glinted angrily.
“Lookit, Joe,” he said at last. “You take them kids outta this country and I’ll help you all I can to get away. But, to put in another crop – My God, you’re dumb, Joe! Won’t you ever realize it’s quit rainin’? It ain’t ever goin’ to rain no more here.”
“It’s gotta rain sometime,” Big Joe insisted.
“Why’s it gotta?”
Eventually, Big Joe abandoned the hopeless argument. But he was bitterly disappointed. It was sure going to be tough if a few dollars’ worth of gas and oil was going to stand between him and a crop.
After a while he remembered an errand he had promised to do for Uncle Pete.
“Listen, Ed, could you spare Uncle Pete an empty five-gallon oil can for his – he wants a five-gallon can. He told me to ask you.”
“I guess maybe,” said Ed. “There’s one right behind you – not that one – the one next to it.”
Big Joe picked up the can and set it down again. He had a sudden desperate idea. He would talk a while and then absent-mindedly pick up the wrong can and walk out with five gallons of tractor oil. That would be a start toward his seeding requirements and Ed might not notice what was happening.
So he sat on the counter and listened to Ed talk about Japan and China. Big Joe could not afford a newspaper, so that, as far as news of the outside world was concerned, he was like a man down a well. He had never heard what was going on outside unless someone like Ed Hindson came to the edge and called down to him.
“Well, kids,” he said at last, “guess we better be hittin’ the trail.”
He picked up a full can of oil, trying to handle it as though it was empty.
Babe piped shrilly, “You got the wrong can, Pop!”
Big Joe could almost have slapped her.
“Why, dammit, so I have!” he ejaculated.
He exchanged the cans with the elaborately innocent manner of a man caught stealing five gallons of oil. “Well, so long, Ed,” he growled.
Ed Hindson hobbled behind the counter and filled a large bag with oranges, which he presented to Babe and Little Joe.
“It’s criminal,” he muttered to himself, and he was referring to the obvious effects of malnutrition in the kids’ faces, not to Big Joe’s attempted theft. That was kind of pathetic.
“First time he ever tried to pinch anything in his life,” Ed thought. “An’ after six years of drought he’d steal, if necessary, to get another crop in. Some people never learn.”
He watched them cross the street to the democrat – the gaunt and shabby farmer and the ragged boy and girl. He saw the kids dig into the bag of oranges, saw Big Joe refuse an orange and walk down the street. Big Joe had a fondness for oranges, too, Ed remembered. He himself had often seen Big Joe eat three and four at a time when he could afford to buy them.
Suddenly Ed ambled around the counter, picked up two cans of oil and carried them across the street. He put them into the back of the democrat.
“Tell your pop he can have this much oil, but it’s all I can afford. He’ll have to get gas someplace else.”
“Just encouragin’ him in foolishness, but what the hell!” he growled as he returned to the store.
A big man in a big new car drove in to Big Joe’s place a week later. Big Joe guessed he was a government man. Guessed likely Ed Hindson sent him. Only government men could afford cars nowadays. If it were not for government men, Joe guessed the automobile factories would have to close down. And if everybody got jobs with the government, who the aitch would raise wheat?
This man was an “orderin’” kind of fellow, too, and Big Joe never “ordered” worth a cent. The stranger began by practically ordering Big Joe to let himself and his family be moved to someplace where they could raise feed for a cow at least.
“You owe it to your kids,” he declared. But he brought that point up late in the argument, after Joe’s mind was set.
Uncle Pete and the kids were admiring the car.
“I know them kind of places you’d move to,” said Big Joe. “Places where you can raise enough vegetables an’ such to just live on. One crop of wheat and I’ll make more money than them folks do in a lifetime. How come you got money to move me an’ the family, but you won’t advance me forty-fifty dollars for gas to put a crop in?”
“I’m not allowed to,” said the stranger, “because you can’t get a crop of wheat in this country. It’s got to be abandoned.”
“Come around at the end of July and maybe I’ll talk to you,” was all Big Joe would concede, and the man climbed into his shiny car and drove away.
“Likely he’ll stop at Benson – he better had,” wheezed Uncle Pete at Big Joe’s elbow.
“What do you care where he stops?”
Uncle Pete made asthmatic noises that might have been a chuckle.
“If he don’t stop at Benson, he’ll find himself outta gas, that’s all,” he said. “I siphoned ‘bout eight gallons outta his gas tank.”
Big Joe stared, open-mouthed, at Uncle Pete. Sometimes he wondered if the purple-veined mask that was Uncle Pete’s face could ever have been smooth and clear like Babe’s. But he was not thinking about that now.
“It’s an idea,” he muttered. “If only we had enough people come here in cars-“
It was time to get on the land and Big Joe was growing anxious. He and Uncle Pete had dug the tractor out and tinkered it into shape. And they had shovelled a way into the granary. But he had been to Sanford and canvassed everyone he knew, in a vain effort to get gasoline on credit. He had nothing on the place which was worth selling; not even the team of feeble old horses would bring any money.
With the oil Ed Hindson had provided and the gas Uncle Pete had pilfered, they got the tractor running. They hooked the tractor to a disk with the seed-drill behind that. They had to disk and seed in one operation, for they could not afford to go over the land twice. Anyway, it was light soil, and windblown, so it worked easy.
“You go ahead – as far as eight gallons’ll take you,” Big Joe told Uncle Pete. “I’ll be back tonight with some gas.”
He put an old gasoline drum in the back of the democrat, hitched up the team and drove ten miles to Sanford. There were no cars in Benson. This time he did not take the kids. He did not want them to witness what he was about to do. And, besides, he might be arrested.
The meadowlarks were whistling carefully as he drove along. Big Joe liked meadowlarks. He admired them because they could sure take it – whistling cheerful defiance to cold or drought.
Big Joe could take it, too. There was enough of the boy in him to thrill to the challenge of wintry winds, to delight in bird songs. The sweep of dawn across the prairie, the far-flung sunsets, moved him as glorious sound symphonies might move some men. And those were things that even poverty could not deprive him of.
But those things did not buy grub for Babe and Little Joe or put colour in their cheeks. They needed more than potatoes and oatmeal, even if he could stand it. So Big Joe was embarked on a career of crime.
He regretted it, though. He knew that he would not get the same pleasure from the meadowlarks’ songs anymore.
Court was sitting in Sanford and there were many cars parked all around the courthouse block. Big Joe found an empty space and pulled his team to the curb between two parked cars.
He had two empty pails hanging from the reach of the democrat, in each pail a significant length of rubber tubing. He unscrewed the cap on the gas tank of the nearest car, pushed one end of each tube in and then sucked on the other ends until he got a mouthful of gasoline. Then he dropped one of the free ends in each pail and stood by while the stuff siphoned, examining the hub of the democrat wheel with such obvious innocence that anyone observing him would have become suspicious at once.
Also, he wrote down the car’s licence number. When he got a crop he was going to give back to the car owner two pails of gasoline.
When the pails were nearly full, he replaced the cap on the gas tank, backed his team out carefully, so not to set the pails swinging, and drove to a deserted alley. There, unobserved, he poured the contents of the pails into the drum on the democrat. Then he reslung the pails to the reach and cruised around the block, looking for a new parking place.
It was tedious work. More, it was tense and nerve-wracking. Big Joe had never stolen a nickel in his life, and sometimes, when people passed on the sidewalk, the perspiration oozed from him, he was sure, faster than the gasoline flowed into the pails beneath the democrat.
Once two men came out of the side door of the courthouse and approached the car next to the one Big Joe had been working on – just as he was backing out from the curb.
“I smell gas,” he heard one of the men say. “I wonder is that feed-line leaking again.”
As Joe drove away, he noticed the fellow with his head under the hood of his car.
He had been late getting to town, and court was over before he had filled the drum. But he got a few more bucketfuls from cars parked in front of restaurants.
As he drove out of town in the dusk of the spring evening, he noticed cars parked along the street where the movie theatre was. There was still a movie in Sanford. North of town, the drought had not hit so hard. People always got a partial crop there. But the farther you went south, the worst it got. Joe lived ten miles south.
The sight of the cars by the theatre gave Joe an idea. If he kept mooching around in the daylight, somebody was bound to get suspicious .But after dark it ought to be safer.
It was after midnight when he got home, but he was up with the first hint of dawn. When there was work to do, Big Joe never felt fatigue.
“I’ll run the tractor this morning,” he told Uncle Pete. “This afternoon you can spell me off while I go to town for more gas.”
Uncle Pete asked no questions. He did not need to.
Big Joe rode the roaming tractor around all morning, round and round Uncle Pete’s hundred-acre field. He wished they had enough seed for the rest of Uncle Pete’s half section and his own six hundred and forty acres. But with one hundred acres of crop, he would be back in the money again anyway.
The tractor thundered along in a cloud of dust, dragging the disk and the seed-drill behind it. In the very centre of the dust cloud Big Joe sat at the wheel of the tractor, dreaming dreams of food and clothing and fun for Babe and Little Joe – picturing them with the colour of health in their faces while his own face grew black with dirt until he looked like a blackface comedian in a minstrel show.
In the afternoon, Uncle Pete relieved him, so that he could drive into town with another empty drum on the democrat. And the early darkness found him plying his new trade up and down the street where the movie theatre was.
It was easier in the dark. Sometimes he did not even bother to drive away, but emptied the pails into the drum right there on the street. Nobody paid any attention to a nondescript farmer messing about a democrat. His nervousness of the day before decreased until at times he was able to meditate dreamily while the pails filled. How he would bring the kids in to the show sometimes. They had never seen a movie. He pictured them, round-eyed with the wonder of it. There was a lot of fun in the world for kids.
It was late when he pulled in to what he thought would be the final call of the evening. He thought the drum was nearly full. No doubt he had grown careless. He had unscrewed the cap on the gas tank of a car and had just got the siphon tubes working when he was horrified to feel the car lurch on its springs. A door flew open and a man leaped out. He looked big against the glare of lights from the theatre.
“What’s goin’ on here?” a gruff voice demanded.
Big Joe was too dumfounded even to pull the tubes away, and when the beam of a flashlight fell on him, he stood there gaping with the cap of the gas tank plain to be seen in his hand and the smell of gasoline all about him.
“Well, blow me down!” cried the car owner. “Caught in the act, huh?” He grabbed Big Joe at the arm. “You picked the wrong car this time, fellow. I’m the town constable.”
Big Joe could have broken away, perhaps, but he could never have got his team backed out. And anyway, he was still too surprised to move. Suddenly he felt metal on his writs and found himself hand-cuffed. The constable played his flashlight on the tubing, the pails hanging from the reach, the drum on the democrat.
“Well, blow me down!” he growled again. Then he took the tubes out of his gas tank, dropped each in its pail and replaced the cap on his gas tank.
“Get in the rig,” he ordered curtly. “And drive me round to the jail.”
Two cells in the basement of the courthouse constituted the town jail. Long after he was locked up in one of the cells, Big Joe could hear the booming voice of the constable telling somebody the tale.
“The missus went to the show, see, and ‘long about the time for her to come out, I drove down to bring her home. I was just settin’ there, kind of dozin’ in the car with the lights out when I seen this baby drive in beside me. Didn’t pay much attention at first. But then I heard somethin’ clink at the back of the car. Then I climbs out, an’ there he is! Got nearly a drumful of gas, too.”
The voice trailed on and on until finally Big Joe stopped listening. He began to think of Babe and Little Joe and the wheat that would not get seeded now. He went to sleep thinking, and dreamed wretchedly of pails and rubber tubing and the smell of gasoline, the taste of gasoline.
On the following morning Big Joe came up before a magistrate – a sour-faced, emaciated old man seemingly in an advanced stage of influenza. He looked as though he had wintered on Russian thistle, Big Joe thought.
The constable told his story with frequent interruptions while the magistrate sneezed or performed noisy operations with handkerchiefs. Each sneeze was a tremendous eruption which ended with an exasperated “Dammit!”
“You – ah-h-choo! Dammit! – got anything to say?” he demanded, glaring at Big Joe in a way that could only mean ten years at hard labour.
But Big Joe told his story – a plain, unvarnished story, for it was not in him to plead. He told about the granary and tractor that the wind had uncovered after five years’ burial, and about his failure to get tractor fuel on credit. He told about Babe and Little Joe. He mentioned the few merchants in Sanford who knew him.
The constable, at least, seemed impressed, and whispered to the magistrates that a little investigation might be advisable. The magistrate consenting, Joe was led back to his cell with those terrific sneezes ringing in his ears.
He was not surprised when told on the following day that the magistrate had taken to his bed.
But the constable was a good egg. He spent some time consulting the merchants Big Joe had mentioned. They all gave Joe a good character. They had all refused him credit – solely on the ground that they thought it was folly to seed a crop in that south country.
One of them knew Uncle Pete.
“That old coot’s a moonshiner,” he said. “You can’t really blame him for that. For him to do without liquor is like keepin’ milk from a baby. The old so-and-so came in here last winter with a tale about their relief potatoes bein’ all froze. Big Joe told me weeks later that that was a lie. But Uncle Pete got more potatoes anyway – and none of them reached home. He must have quite a cache of alcohol someplace, and I hear it’s mighty good stuff, too. I’ve been told that Tom Dunke will buy all he can get of it.”
Tom Dunke was the local bootlegger, whose business flourished as people became too poor to buy store liquor.
Late on the afternoon of the fourth day, Big Joe was hauled once more before the magistrate, who seemed more emaciated than ever, and much less amiable. But, on the earnest recommendation of the constable, he finally agreed to a suspension of sentence. But he insisted obstinately on confiscation of the drum of gas for which Big Joe had risked so much.
“The man’s crazy anyway,” growled the magistrate. “Anybody’s crazy that wants to put in another crop in that country.”
“I’d like to have saved that gas for you, Joe,” said the constable afterward. “I’d buy you a coupla drums myself if I had the money. Anyway, what d’ye want to stay down there for? Government experts say that country’s gotta be abandoned.”
“Experts, hell!” growled Joe. “I’ll have maybe forty acres seeded anyway – without no more tractor fuel. If it’s a good year I’ll have seed for next year and somethin’ to help me through the winter. I sure wish I hadn’t picked on your car the other night, though.”
“So do I, Joe. So do I.”
He was a good egg, that constable. He paid the livery bill for Big Joe’s team and sent the farmer harm with a heartening slap on the back.
It was dark dusk when Joe arrived home – dusk of a cold, raw day with lowering, low-hanging clouds. It was not a cheerful homecoming. The thought of telling the kids that he had been in jail for stealing made Big Joe squirm. The kids thought he was a hero, kind of.
Why, once the year before, he had heard them talking behind the house.
“What’s God like?” Babe asked her brother.
And Little Joe had answered without hesitation: “He’s a great big guy with a black moustache, and he smokes a pipe.”
He felt an overwhelming sense of defeat. Likely it would be a wet year. If he could have got that hundred acres sown, it would have given him a new start. But a lousy forty acres-
As he neared home he heard the barking of the tractor’s exhaust. Something must have delayed Uncle Pete, so that after four days he had not finished the drum of gas yet. Tractor broke down, likely.
It was too dark to see. He judged by the sound that the tractor was a few rods beyond the fence on Uncle Pete’s place.
All at once exhaust ceased. He heard voices – Little Joe’s and Uncle Pete’s.
Big Joe dropped the reins and jumped from the democrat while the tired team pricked up their ears and ambled down the road toward the gate. Big Joe crawled through the barbed wire fence.
Soon he could see the shadowy outline of the tractor. Little Joe was on the seat and Uncle Pete, in deeper shadow, was messing around in the neighbourhood of the carburetor.
“What’s the matter?”
“Not a drop left,” wheezed Uncle Pete hoarsely.
“Hello, Pop!” shrieked Little Joe with delight. “We got the wheat seeded.”
“All we got has to seed this year,” agreed Big Joe despondently. “I got pinched,” he added in a low voice to Uncle Pete.
“Thought so, when you didn’t come home. Next day Tom Dunke came along. He’d heard about you. Heard we needed gas.”
“Yeah?” Joe supposed, wearily, that everybody would hear about him, even the kids.
“He brought two drums of gas with him,” Uncle Pete’s voice seemed unreasonably bitter.
“Two drums of gas! What for?”
“For my – dammit - my potato licker!” gargled Uncle Pete angrily. “Wouldn’t leave me a spoonful. Knew we had to have gas, see?”
“Cripes!” gasped Big Joe. “An’ you got all the wheat in?”
“Ain’t enough left in the drill for hen feed,” Uncle Pete admitted sourly. “We just run outta gas this minute.”
Big Joe was utterly overcome at the thought of Uncle Pete’s self-sacrifice. He could have not been more surprised if the horses had turned from their mangers and said: “Look, Joe: You take this Russian thistle and sell it. We’ll starve.”
“Where’s Baby?” Big Joe inquired harshly.
“She’s asleep, over by the granary,” Little Joe said.
“Wake her up an’ bring her home.”
It was almost like Uncle Pete turning his own heart’s blood into the tractor’s feed line. Big Joe found inadequate words.
“God bless you, Pete,” he growled.
Uncle Pete’s reply was not gracious, nor yet sufficiently intelligible to call profane.
A sudden clamour arose from the direction of the granary – angry shrieks from Babe, shrill answers from Little Joe.
“What’s the matter?” cried Big Joe, racing towards the cries.
He seized Babe in his arms. She was wrapped in Uncle Pete’s ragged sheepskin, the sleeves of which hung to her feet. Her grimy little face was white in the gloom.
“What’sa matter, Baby?”
“He spit on me!” she cried petulantly. “Little Joe did. My face is wet.”
“I didn’t neither,” Little Joe protested.
“Now, now, Baby!”
Suddenly, Big Joe held out a hand wonderingly. Then he swept off his battered head and turned his face up to the skies.
“It ain’t spit, Baby,” he said. “It’s rain!”
As if they had waited for that dramatic moment, the scattered preliminary drops increased on the instant to a downpour, thudding into the soft earth, pattering on the exposed part of the newly resurrected granary. They stood in it, breathless, faces upturned. Big Joe took it as an omen.
The drought was over!
When Uncle Pete slouched up out of the gloom, it was getting wetter by the minute. But for Uncle Pete there was still a dry spell in prospect.
Monday, September 17, 2012
It's gotta rain sometime
R. Ross Annett