One November morning as it was growing light, I could hear Horace Werden’s voice downstairs. “I’m a-trying to break in forty acres of corn I have, and I’m just to damned old and stiff any more to enjoy getting on and off the tractor every two shakes. I could sure use a boy to drive whilst I pick up.” He looked up at me coming down the steps. “Harry with your permission,” he said, “I could sure use the services of a good hired man.”
At last I was going to have a good look at his place. He unwired the passenger door of his car, moved a gunny sack of bean seed, scooted a bucket of rusty nails more to the center of the seat and bid me get in. I tucked a sagging strip of ripped headliner overhead so I could see, and we were off.
Horace had built a huge modern two storey house about a hundred yards back onto his place from his log cabin a couple of years earlier. It never looked from the road as though it belonged there, neatly finished, white and trim, surrounded by sprawling junk and horse weeds. Consequently I felt oddly relieved to find it all smeared with mud by the hogs, as we drove up beside it.
“You get on the tractor, I’ll be out directly,” he said, nodding at his completely rusted machine hitched to a wagon.
I started to unwire my door, but decided to climb over the junk and go out on his side. I eagerly mounted the tractor and fiddled with the controls. I had never driven a John Deere before. From my perch I could see all kinds of enticing curiosities, especially the steam engine, ‘way back next to the woods. “Horace?” I said as he came back outside, “Dad said that you used to have an old Fordson.”
“Yeap. It’s on the other side of that shed, yonder. Maybe you’d like to look at it after we’re done,” he said, checking the controls before me. He walked around the front of the tractor, opening a petcock on each side of the engine. He stepped up to the flywheel and gave it a counter-clockwise heave.
“Fuff,” said the old contraption.
He gave it another throw.
“Fuff. Fuff. Fuff. Fuff…” it replied.
He scurried ’round, closing off the cocks, giving the tractor a change of voice: “Fuff. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang…!” He stood on the drawbar behind me, explaining the controls. I pushed forward on the hand clutch and we were off, forthrightly, wagon clattering after.
Breaking in a field of corn meant shucking the outside two rows by hand, all around the field, so that a pull-type corn picker could enter the field without mashing down un-harvested corn. He already had most of the corn shucked and piled, so all I had to do was drive past each pile and wait whilst he threw the ears into the wagon. I offered to jump off and help pick up each time, but he insisted that I stay on the seat. I appreciated the gesture, but without the exercise, I began to think I would freeze to death.
On the last side of the field, Horace got a good look at me and stepped up to the tractor, killing the engine. “I should ‘a’ been a-watching you more closely. You’re about froze, ain’t ye? You run around the tractor and wagon and stir your blood, whilst I go off here and wet.”
I gratefully clambered down to do as he bid.
“All right, let’s get to the house,” he said. “You’re too damned cold to walk. Here! Let’s trot!”
It was a shock, stepping inside his house, for there was no floor between the first and second storeys, and there was a mountain of the previous year’s corn, starting at the middle of the house, sloping clean to the roof at the far end. The rest of the house’s enormous single room was a veritable sea of junk, piled about chest deep, stringing up onto the foot of the big pile of corn. In the midst of a cleared space, he drew a kerosene can up to the table. “Here,” he said, rattling coal out of a hod into the top of his range. “Have ‘ee a seat whilst I scratch things together.”
I sat at the table, feigning nonchalance, looking at the flotsam which buried the far end of it. He sat in a swiveling office chair, upholstered with frayed paper feed sacks and masking tape, wheeling back and forth on its casters. “Got everything ye need, right here. Here,” he said, banging a filthy gallon glass jar of cloudy tea before me. “Have ‘ee some tea.” He handed me a plastic measuring cup from a sack of calf milk replacer. Then seeing my hesitation, said: “Oh here. You’re cold. let me heat that stuff.” He poured some into an iron sauce pan.
As I sat there wondering what was next, he caught me eyeing three or four old soot blackened guns, leaning against the wall by the door. “This here one’s my favorite,” he said, handing me the longest one with exposed hammers.
“It’s an old Westley Richards twelve gauge. It takes the old short ca’tridge. Hard as the very dickens to get any more.”
“How old is it?” I said, handing it back.
“Oh, sixty-five or seventy years, anyway. Now you don’t tell no one, but I reckon ye won’t, that gun’s worth two cars, but I ain’t sold it because I can hit with it right smart. You know, a shotgun’s got to fit you right to hit with, and that one’s the only one I’ve got that does.”
He slid a greasy skillet over the fire box. “Got everything ye might need right here,” he said, slicing up a huge hunk of Bologna sausage. Each time he turned to flop some slices into the skillet, a rat would peer out from the junk, darting back in as he turned back to the table. The room began to smell of scorched rancid fat. He set out some grocery store white bread as he turned the meat with his pocket knife. Whilst he was busy, the rat grabbed a piece of bread the size of one’s thumb and returned to his hiding place, disregarding me altogether.
“Here ye be,” he said, handing me a sandwich.
I took tiny bites, swallowing them with my tea.
“Want another ‘n’? Got plenty. Don’t be bashful.”
I was relieved to be back in the field. This time, I managed to stay warm. He had not shucked the last through beforehand, and there was enough space between the fence and the corn to drive the tractor. He shucked two rows at once, going just a bit slower than the tractor could crawl, so I’d stop here and there and shuck ahead as he caught up.
“All right Tom, let’s leave the wagon by the house. I’m a-going to run in and count my money and one thing and another, and whilst I’m a-doing that, you hike ‘er over to the steam engine and the old Fordson and look ‘ee all ye want. I’ll be out directly.”
I was standing by the Fordson, drinking in it’s primitive elegance when he found me. “How long has it been a-sitting here?” I said.
“I think since just before you was a baby.”
“Ever think about selling it for iron?” I said, glancing at the money in his hand.
“Mercy no!” he said. “That’s a good old tractor. I could have ‘er running in half a day.” He gave a shove at the drawbar with his boot. “Well half a month, maybe. But ye know what I mean, once a fellow lets go of something it’s gone for good.”
Years later, Horace had a sale. I had heard that he had been in and out of the hospital with uremic poisoning. I rode over on my bicycle in spite of the cold wind out of the northwest.
The crowd swooped in, settling in huddles about the hay wagons, picking at his things. The auctioneer rasped and crackled over his electric horn. They were bidding on the old Westley Richards. They were unaware of its worth, trying to sell it in one lot with some junk, but I couldn’t make myself bid on it. “I don’t see anything I want,” I said.
I found Horace standing off by himself , stooped, looking at the trees. He was wearing a smartly tailored tweed suit and overcoat and gumboots wrapped with tape and twine. His eyes watered from the raw wind, his face red and swollen with uremia. “Well, if it ain’t ol’ Jesus Christ hisse’f!” he said with a snort and a grin as he eyed my beard and shoulder length hair. He grabbed my hand with a shaky eagerness that put a lump in my throat. “Tom, it’s been many a sore long winter.”