“Kurt Looks For Work,” a chapter from Part III of my novel, Hardpan

Quiet pervaded the house before the morning crush. Only the hum of the fridge broke the silence. Soon everyone would be fighting for the only bathroom. Kurt scooped coffee grounds from the bright red MJB can into the aluminum percolator. He shoved the top down, turned the electric burner on high, and waited for the coffee to start perking.

He wanted to catch John before he left for work to ask him about seasonal jobs in the Central Valley. John was a chemist at Gallo, the biggest winery in the Valley. He had started with the company after graduating with a degree in enology from Oregon State in 1949.

“I like the security,” John had said. “Growing family and all.”

Back then, John and Kathy had only their first child. Now they had four. But Kurt’s life had taken a different turn. He had barely a year-and-a-half under his belt at Oregon State when he was drafted into the Army in ‘42. He knew that his experience flying lightweight observation planes in the Army field artillery, and work in the rock crushing business with his cousin Nick after he returned from the Philippines, wouldn’t help much now. He didn’t have a civil engineering degree for roadwork, and it would take him years to get certified to fly commercial planes. No question about it. He needed some cold hard cash to get the family back together. He didn’t like being dependent on Jo’s family. And the kids. He really missed them.

John finally popped into the kitchen, dressed for work in his dark gray slacks and white short-sleeved dress shirt. A skinny tie, dark blue, was draped over his right shoulder.

“Morning, Kurt. I smelled that coffee down the hall. You’re up early. Must be the rancher in you.”

“Been getting up early all my life. Here you go. Fresh brew.” He handed John a mug. “I thought I’d get a jump on the unemployment office downtown. Guess you know I haven’t had any luck with locating a farm in this Valley that could use my ranch management know-how. Hard to believe that two weeks have gone by already. Figured I better check out the help-wanted postings for day laborers on the farms around here.”

“That’s a good place to start. August is peak harvest season for the orchards—apricots, peaches, and plums. Not sure what they pay, though.” John looked his brother-in-law up and down. “You’ve got quite a load on your shoulders, with your kids scattered and all.”

Kurt nodded. “Yep. With a little luck, I expect we can get our own place before Christmas.”

“Luck, and a little of your Glover charm will get you there.”

Kurt felt his shoulders tense up. “So you think I’m not trying hard enough?” His steely gray eyes fixed on John. After all, John didn’t know what it was like to lose a ranch; he had the good fortune to have graduated from college and brought home a paycheck every two weeks ever since.

John shrank back, abashed by Kurt’s outburst. “Come on now, buddy. I have faith in you. Can’t forget what you did in flying those grasshoppers in the Pacific, for one. Took guts.”

Kurt gazed at the trellis laden with clusters of vine-ripened grapes outside the kitchen window. “Do you suppose Gallo might have any seasonal work for a guy like me?” It felt good to change the subject.

“It’s a little early for the harvest work at wineries around here. The grapes will be ready in another five to six weeks if the hot weather holds. Then there’ll be plenty of work to do through the fall.”

Kurt patted John on the shoulder. “Good to know. Maybe by then I won’t need it. I found the unemployment office in the Yellow Pages. Can you give me directions downtown?”

John pulled a city map from the drawer, smoothed it flat on the kitchen counter, and pointed to the box-like grid of city streets. Kurt grunted his thanks and shifted gears again. “Are there orchards east of here that might be hiring?”

”Don’t know. Your best bet is to take Yosemite Road east toward Sonora Pass. Plenty of small farms and orchards in that area.” He folded the map again and handed it to Kurt. “Good luck today,” he said, placing his empty mug back on the counter.

They walked out the front door together. Kurt took off in his GMC pickup, still coated with dust from their long trip west, and John left in his green Studebaker sedan.

Kurt strode into the unemployment office when they opened the doors at eight-thirty. He felt the squeeze of bodies as men hungry for work pressed forward to take a number and check out the bulletin boards. Mostly Mexicans with wavy dark brown hair like his own, except they spoke Spanish. Most acted like they’d been there before. Plenty of nervous faces searching for a friendly employment officer.

He studied the bulletin board, jotting down names and addresses of orchards that needed day laborers to pick ripe fruit. Peak season. The Tillie Lewis Cannery on 9th Street was also advertising for help on the food processing lines. Paid a dollar-seventy-five an hour. Better than nothing. He decided to check it out. It was only a few miles east.

Kurt came away from the plant discouraged. It was cavernous and full of workers on long canning lines. He couldn’t see himself confined indoors to a food processing line all day. Fresh air felt damned good, summer and winter. Even in the winter blizzards that blasted their ranch, he would venture outside long enough to check on the livestock everyday.

He hadn’t picked fruit for a living before, but he liked that it was outdoor work. He remembered their apple orchard a quarter mile from the ranch house. Lots of old crab apple trees. Every September, he and Jo would spend the better part of a morning shaking those trees. The kids would scamper around to scoop up the booty, filling buckets for the return home.

Kurt walked toward the tall thin man whose oversized t-shirt was shoved inside dirty painter’s overalls stained with peach juice. Sweat dripped from the man’s forehead onto his beaky nose. He pulled his wrinkled white handkerchief from his pants pocket to catch the drops, swiping a swath across his forehead.

“How much do you pay for pickin’?” Kurt asked.

“A dollar-fifty an hour or by the piece. Ten flats of peaches, quality pick, brings you five dollars. Fifty cents a flat. Depends on how fast you are at picking and packing without bruising the merchandise. And how much you want to make.”

While Kurt studied the situation, Mexican laborers walked around him with their empty buckets, heading for their designated rows to begin the picking. Ladders had been placed on most rows to reach fruit near the treetops. Kurt mumbled to himself.

“Got a question?” the man asked.

“No, sir. This is the first place I’ve stopped. Not sure if this work suits me.”

He walked back to his pickup out front. Goddamned fleecing operation. No better than a job some Mexican could get fresh across the border. He didn’t mind hard work. But it irritated him to think some guy running an apple orchard would offer him less than he made as a hired hand to Mickey Fraker last summer after leaving the ranch—a ranch he’d managed on his own until things fell apart. A ranch twenty times this size with livestock and an apple orchard on the side.

He spent the day driving to other orchards he’d written down on the note card. Same story each place: pay by the piece or by the hour. Late afternoon, he pulled into the front yard of a farm on Leek Road, a half mile south of Yosemite Boulevard. He hailed the first man who looked like he might manage the place.

Kurt introduced himself. “I just moved my family here from Wyoming. I need a job. I can do anything you might need done around here.”

The man shook Kurt’s hand. “Hank Staples. Sounds like you’ve got a story there.”

“Yep. I ran a twelve hundred acre cattle ranch. Turned upside down when livestock prices took a dive. But there’s no time to dwell on losses when you have a family to feed.”

Hank shrugged his shoulders. “Appreciate your predicament. Sorry to say we got nothing suitable right now. My brother moved here not long ago from Nebraska. He had a farm there that failed. Sounds similar to what you’ve gone through. He’s helping me out till he gets his feet on the ground.”

Kurt reached for words. “Got a piece of scrap paper? I’ll give you my number in case you need more help.”

Staples tore a piece from his scruffy notebook and handed him a pencil. Kurt scribbled a note and pressed it into the man’s palm. His long legs felt like lead weights as he plodded back to his truck.

“Hey, good luck,” the man shouted from behind.

“Thanks,” Kurt said, not looking back.

It wasn’t like him to walk this slowly. He could cross the back forty acres on the ranch in a few minutes when he needed to fix an irrigation ditch before a summer downburst, or get to the ranch house for lunch. When he shut the door to his pickup, the whole cab seemed to shudder. It was his last stop for the day. He had to figure out what he would tell the two families waiting for him at John and Kathy’s house.

He slipped quietly into the noisy household. Jo was in the kitchen helping Kathy get dinner. She looked up from peeling carrots and flashed him a hopeful smile.

“How’d it go, honey?” She plunked the paring knife onto the countertop and crossed the center aisle to peck his cheek. He squeezed her tight. He wished he had some good news for her.

“I ended up talking to three orchard managers and a farmer who has a big spread down the road, off Yosemite past Empire. You know, the little town just past the railroad crossing?”

She nodded. “Did you get a bite on a job?”

Kurt’s cheerful smile concealed his shame. He couldn’t bear her hopeful look. Drove him crazy not to have something positive to report. Any job would be better than having to tell her he came up empty-handed. “The farmer was real friendly. Told me he’d take me on, except he has hired his brother who lost his farm in Nebraska this past year.”

But she saw through his smile. Her voice was gritty with determination. “There’s gotta be another farmer in the vicinity who needs a man with your experience.”

He patted her on the back but she pulled away.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” she said. “It’s rough being here all day in such tight quarters, though Kathy is trying her best to be sweet to us.”

Christopher crawling through the kitchen door distracted them. Kurt couldn’t resist the little guy. He swept him into his arms and tickled his round belly.

“Don’t worry, honey,” he said. But his words echoed through the room. Jo wasn’t in hearing range.

John grilled him again later that evening. He kept asking why Kurt hadn’t taken the job at the cannery. “Hey, it’s not so bad. Kathy worked there last summer. She earned enough to afford the down payment for this house.”

Kurt didn’t try to reason with him. “It’s no good, John. Won’t work for me.” Made no sense for him to explain his feelings. How could John relate to a man who felt like newly laid pavement that was blown away by the high winds blasting through Line Creek Canyon? He couldn’t seem to get his feet on the ground before he was suddenly cast adrift again.

John finally moved on. “My colleagues didn’t know about any fieldwork right now. Timing is bad, but if you can wait a few more weeks, I’ll put a good word in for you at the Modesto Cooperative Winery. It’s a growers’ co-op only about two miles from here.”

“Thanks. I appreciate your offer, in case,” Kurt said. His hands sank deep into his pockets.

The next morning, Kurt rose early again to make coffee for him and John. “I’ve thought about the orchard work some more,” he said. “No time to wait for the grapes to ripen. I’m going back to that big peach orchard, the one on Fairland, off Yosemite.”

“I know the place,” John said. He sipped his coffee and nodded absently in the early morning stillness.

The day was already heating up when Kurt turned into the orchard a few minutes before eight. He pulled up next to a ’53 Chevrolet, the same model that his mother drove all over eastern Oregon ranch country. From the looks of the thick film of dust and dirty windows, it had taken a few back roads here in California. By the time he turned off the motor, some more cars and pickups had pulled into the dirt parking lot. He skipped the running board below the driver’s door and planted both boots on the ground, the same pair of lace-up leather boots he’d worn everyday on the ranch. He counted on the thick rubber soles to provide the balance he’d need in climbing tall ladders to reach the tops of fruit trees still laden with unpicked fruit.

He walked up to the small stucco house, painted white with emerald green trim around the two front windows. “This Land Is Your Land” was blaring from a radio inside. The weathered screen door whapped against the wood doorframe as workers walked in and out, flies buzzing around them.

A big poster barely clung to the screen door with a torn strip of masking tape at the top. The sign was handwritten in black ink: “PICKERS SIGN IN HERE” and in smaller letters below, “LOS RECOGEDORES—POR FAVOR FIRMAR AQUI”.

Kurt stared at the sign as men in jeans and dirty t-shirts shuffled through the doorway. He reached in his shirt pocket for the pack of Pall Malls and lit up a cigarette. Okay, this was just temporary. He would find other work in a few days or weeks. John had said the wine co-op would need sugar level testers when the grapes were ready for harvest. That would involve some training. Better pay too.

His mind kept reverting to fruit picking. Should he go with pay by the piece or by the hour? A quick calculation convinced him he’d earn more by the piece because he worked fast. He refused to think about it any longer, and grabbed the screen door as someone was coming out.

The manager was standing inside the entry by the sign-up table. He recognized Kurt. “Good morning. Glover, right? So you decided this work might suit you after all?”

“Yes, sir. You said a man could get paid by the piece.”

“Yep. Print your name and address and social security number on the lined paper, clear enough so we can read it. We pay in cash at the end of every day, but we got to have correct records for the state labor people when they stop by.”

Kurt leaned over the table, picked up the ballpoint pen, and started writing. He used John’s home address. He put the pen down and looked up again. His new boss gave him clear instructions. “You’ll find ladders and cardboard boxes in each orchard row. Grab a ladder and as many boxes as you might need for an hour or two. You have to keep track of your own boxes. Bring your full boxes back to the front parking lot here for inspection check-out.”

Kurt nodded at the man. “Thanks. I’m all set.”

As he shoved the screen door open, the sweltering heat hit him. It was hotter already than a July day in Wyoming. The thermometer hit a hundred and it wasn’t noon yet. He tugged down on his straw cowboy hat to shade his face. That way, too, he didn’t have to look into the eyes of the other workers. They were all here for the same reason.

He scanned the rows of trees to see which ones had the most peaches ready for picking. Many of the peaches were clustered about a third way down from the treetops, out-of-reach for most pickers. At six foot one, Kurt had a height advantage and longer arms than most. He grabbed the nearest wooden ladder and climbed several rungs.

He gradually established a rhythm: spot the ripe peaches; grab one, sometimes two, in each hand; descend a few wobbly steps and plunk the peaches into the box below. He tried to pick fruit that was still firm to the touch. He kept flicking his face to clear away the peach fuzz that accumulated in his nostrils like loose feathers from an old down pillow. No time to use the cotton handkerchief in his shirt pocket. Sweat poured down his face, coming to a point on his nose with the incessant drips. Sometimes he pinched the fleshy pulp too hard, or one would drop like a rock into the box below when his bulky work boot missed a rung of the shaky ladder. At day’s end, those would cost him some of his hard-earned pay.

By the time he turned in his last box packed full of peaches that day, he was wiped out. It was the valley heat. The temperature reached one-hundred-seven that day. No escape even in the shade of the fruit trees. His striped cotton shirt was wringing wet from sweat and his socks were soaked from the moisture trapped inside his boots. He missed the summer afternoon thunderstorms that cooled things down on the high Wyoming plains. But he had grown more proficient at picking and packing the fruit. He could pack more into a box without damaging the fruit. More fruit in more boxes translated to more cash in his pocket.

He could do this job. He could last a few weeks until the co-op job came through. By then, David and Jean could come to live with them in Modesto. Not so sure about Linda. They hadn’t talked to her since he took her to Ava’s. Jo and he were thinking that she might as well stay there for the school year. Anyway, she was living the life of Riley in southern California. She had her own bedroom for the first time ever, and a closet full of Nancy’s clothes. He ground his last cigarette butt into the dirt with the tip of his boot before hopping into his pickup for the drive home. This time he was bringing money home. That brought a smile to his face.

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“The Fence,” a chapter from Part I of my novel, Hardpan

Clark, Wyoming. Summer 1956

“When will you pick us up, Daddy?” Jean asked.

“After mowing.”

“Don’t forget us!” Linda shouted at his back as he leapt across the dry creek bed to his pickup.

He glanced around. “I won’t. Now remember, girls. Keep the sheep away from that hole in the fence.”

“We will, Daddy.” They waved in unison, like cowgirls at a rodeo.

He spun a u-turn back to the ranch. Gravel scattered everywhere. The billowing dust cloud thinned gradually to a single horizontal band wafting over the road.

Linda squeezed Jean’s small hand. It felt clammy. She wondered how they would keep the sheep from crossing the road if the herd came their direction. Their house sat high on the riverbank above the Clarks Fork as it flowed to the Yellowstone. Though two stories high and only two miles away, it looked like a playhouse with the Absarokas towering behind.

Jean wrested her hand free. “What are we going to do now?” She started poking around the dry ditch bed, kicking the chunks of dirt with her faded tennis shoe.

Linda stared at the small pile left behind by her father for their sheep-watching job: an old army blanket, a metal lunch pail filled with roast beef sandwiches and cookies, and a Thermos of lemonade. Her mother had made the sandwiches before breakfast while Linda stuffed a sheaf of paper dolls and a bag of marbles into a homemade cotton bag for her and Jean.

She shoved the blanket into Jean’s arms. “Here. Take this near the fence. I’ll bring the rest.”

Jean sidled up the ditch bank toward the fence post that was dangling from two loose strands of barbed wire. Linda trudged closely behind with the rest of their gear.

“There’s a good place to spread the blanket.” Jean pointed out the clumps of bunch grass near the post. Pale green patches bordered the golden field of wind-swept grasses.

Jean tossed the frayed army blanket over the grass. The girls stomped hard to flatten the blanket over the sticky hillocks. Linda plunked her load down and grabbed some rocks to hold the blanket corners.

“These rocks are too small. One burst of wind and this blanket will be stuck on that barbed wire.”

Jean gazed at the small band of sheep lolling across the field. “That’s funny. Maybe the blanket would scare the sheep away, like a scarecrow.”

“I doubt it. They’re too dumb to notice.”

Linda stepped off the blanket to check out the post dangling mid-air. The sprung wire still pointed to the sky. When she pushed against the post to see how much spring was left, the top row of barbed wire groaned from the strain. She stopped, afraid another strand could pop loose.

 

The morning seemed to stretch forever. The girls ate the two giant oatmeal cookies from the lunch pail before the sun reached its noontime zenith.

“What can we do now?” Jean asked her older sister.

Linda scooped up some pebbles from the edge of the ditch and slipped them into Jean’s hands. “Here you go. Let’s see if we can get the sheep’s attention.” They tossed pebbles in the direction of the grazing sheep across the rocky field, but the sheep were unfazed by the commotion.

“Guess they’re not going to charge the fence,” Linda said.

Linda dug into the cotton bag. “Look. I brought some of my paper dolls.” She handed Jean the Betty Grable doll outfitted in a one-piece bathing suit, and kept the Debbie Reynolds doll for herself. They sat down on the army blanket and started pushing the little white tabs over the dolls’ shoulders. A gust of wind came out of nowhere. The cutouts fluttered out of reach before touching down on nearby sagebrush.

Jean dived to salvage their treasures. “Got them!” she squealed. She held a crumpled Betty Grable evening gown in one hand and the Debbie Reynolds doll in the other.

“Look what you’ve done. They’re wrecked.”

“Nuh-uh. I can straighten them out. Just watch.” She tried to flatten the mashed cutouts on her leg. Debbie Reynolds’ neck was broken at an angle, her face flopping against her chest.

“Don’t bother.” Linda stomped away, determined not to speak to her sister the rest of the day.

The heat of the simmering day finally broke the silence. “Why don’t we play a game? Next time we see a car coming, let’s get ready to wave. Maybe they’ll stop, and we can ask what time it is.”

”Okay.”

It seemed like hours before they saw the next dust cloud erupting on the road from Belfry, the nearest town.

“A car‘s coming!” Linda hollered.

The girls ran to the edge of the ditch bank along the road, positioning themselves for action.

When the gray sedan came close, the girls waved and whistled. Jean held out her red kerchief as if to signal a racecar. ”It’s the Kowalski’s!” Linda yelled.

The car slowed to a halt. Linda recognized Mr. Kowalski. His ranch bordered the road across from their sheep field. As he strode toward them, she forgot to ask him the time.

“What are you girls doing out here on this hot summer day?”

“Daddy wants us to guard the sheep so they don’t cross the road and eat your mowed hay. He said green hay can bloat their stomachs,” Jean said.

Linda pointed to the broken fence. “Sissy’s right. The fence is broken and Dad wants us to guard the sheep until he can fix it. The posts are rotten, so he has to buy new ones. Wanna see?”

“Sure.”

The girls led him across the dry ditch to the stretch of fallen fence. They stepped over sagebrush to get a close look.

“Yep. It’s in bad shape. Bet your dad hasn’t been able to tear himself away from haying to fix it.”

“That’s right!” they beamed, grateful that he understood.

Mr. Kowalski bent down to pick up something in the grass.  “Look here. It’s a piece of rusted barbed wire.  Must’ve sprung loose when your father tightened the wire last time. Don’t want you girls stepping on it,” he said, tossing it into the posthole.

“That’s nasty-looking!” Linda said. “Like I said, I’m sure Dad will fix this fence soon.”

”No doubt. Tell your dad I’ll be glad to help him out if he wants. Well, I’ll be going. You girls take care now.” He straddled the ditch to get to his car.

“Sure will,” Linda said. The girls waved as his car dropped out of sight below the river bench.

Something nagged at her. She could hear her father telling their mother weeks ago, “I’ve got to get that damned fence fixed.” But most of the summer was gone and the fence was still down. Her father didn’t want to use his hired men to do the job, and he didn’t like to ask the neighbors for help. He’d wait until the haying season was over and do it himself.

Only a few cars drove by after Tom Kowalski left. Some of them had honked but none had stopped.  The girls could tell it was getting close to noontime by the shortness of their shadows on the ground.  Jean’s growling stomach was a good sign too.

”I’m hungry,” she said.

”Me too. Let’s sit on the blanket and get our lunches out,” Linda said.

They stomped again on the bumpy spots until the blanket was flat enough for them to sit down.  Before long, they were sharing slurps of lemonade from the Thermos bottle and taking bites of their roast beef sandwiches.

Linda saw the dust cloud of the oncoming car first.  “It’s coming from Belfry. We’d better hurry.  I don’t want to miss this car!” Linda shoved leftover sandwich pieces into the pail and stood up to flag down the car.

The car was finally in sight.  They yelled and Jean waved the red kerchief until the car rolled to a stop.  A scrawny man about their father’s height stepped out of the old Studebaker.  He was wearing Levi’s and a long-sleeved plaid shirt with pearl buttons.  He took his time coming around his car to the girls’ side of the road.  He looked their father’s age, in his thirties. But his face was pale and his cheeks caved in, as if he needed a home-cooked meal more than a job.

“Could you tell us the time?” they asked.  They stood together on the other side of the dry ditch in front of the broken fence, several feet away from him.

He stood still, closely inspecting the girls. His cheeks were sunken and lined with deep creases. His thin lips looked stuck together by glue, as if they held some big secrets. Linda began to feel queasy over his long silence.

”The time?  You don’t know it’s past noon already?” he said at last.  He pulled a round watch from his front pocket.  “It’s a quarter-to-one.”

He picked up the conversation, shifting to a voice so soft they could barely hear. “How’re you girls doing today?”

As the man tugged at the giant round silver buckle on his leather belt, Jean sidled up to Linda. He pulled the belt loose, leaving the giant buckle dangling in front, and started to unzip his Levi’s. Linda’s mouth suddenly felt parched, as if the hot summer sun had baked all the moisture out of her.

”Wanna see?” he asked. His lips barely moved as he folded his right hand over his open Levi’s.

Linda shivered. It hit her that he was doing something bad. Beads of sweat fell off the tip of her nose. She gazed away from his hands to his feet.  There were cracks in his worn pair of leather cowboy boots. A big dirt clod stuck to one heel. Maybe he was one of those drifters her mother talked about. She remembered her mother saying drifters were men who didn’t have families and came to Wyoming in search of work on the ranches each summer.

Linda grabbed Jean’s hand.

“Ouch!”

“Hey, no reason for you girls to be afraid.  I can take you home. Where do you live?” he said.

“Go away! We don’t like you. Anyway, Daddy wants us to watch the sheep today so we can’t go to the ranch now,” Jean said.

“Stop it, Jean!” Jean was talking too much, as usual. Linda raced through the possibilities.  They could run to the Badura’s or the Kowalski’s.  The midday heat reflected from the roof of the Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church, on the hill behind the Badura’s ranch compound. But they would have to cross the ditch in front of the man and his car first.

“Why don’t you get in?” the man said, motioning toward his car.

The girls didn’t budge. The intense summer sun stayed suspended overhead.

“I’ll give you a few minutes to think this over,” he warned.  He pulled up his zipper and stepped slowly toward them.

Linda pushed Jean backwards near the dangling fence post and faced the man directly.  “My dad is coming back to get us soon, so you’d better leave.”

He shifted his stance as if he was getting ready to cross the ditch bed. She grabbed some rocks and threw them at him. They bounced off his Levi’s into the dirt but he didn’t flinch.

“Hey missy. Stop throwing those rocks, d’ya hear?”

She bent down again to pick up more rocks. Jean joined her this time.

All of a sudden, the man jerked his head in the direction of a dust cloud erupting near the Frakers’ place.

“A car’s coming,” he muttered. He tucked in his shirt and strode to his car.  The door slammed shut. The car started and he was gone. They watched as the car disappeared below the river bench. He was headed to the bridge a quarter mile below the lane to their ranch, in the direction of Cody.

 

“Why’d you push me so hard?” Jean asked. “You’re just a scaredy-cat!”

Linda was shaking. “You’re wrong! He’s a bad man! You were scared, too. He was going to hurt us.”

When she was sure he was gone, Linda looked around. She could see the poplar-lined lane leading to the Badura’s house a mile away. What if the man returned? Maybe they should run there and ask the Baduras to take them home. But they couldn’t leave the sheep. She’d promised her dad.

“Let’s back away from this road. Duck your head and bend down low!” She shoved her sister below the wild strands of loose barbed wire.

They hurried through grass stubble and cactus inside the field, searching for a low spot where they could hide. The sheep grazing across the field never looked up. She stepped into a swale filled with stalks of tall grass, almost losing her balance.

“Sissy! Over here.” They crouched down together.

“What about the car that was coming from Belfry?” Jean asked.

“We’ll yell and wave if it’s someone we know.”

They waited but the car didn’t come. They decided he might have taken the road to Powell instead.

“Sissy! Look!” Linda pointed the other direction.

A plume of dust rose above the river bench.

Linda shuddered. “He’s coming back!”

They stared at the trail of dust.  As the car approached, she yanked Jean to the ground.

“It’s him. Stay down so he can’t see us,” she ordered.

The car sputtered to a stop, spewing gravel.

 

They huddled together in the bunch grass, feeling the prickly dry stalks of grass poke through their bare arms and legs.

Linda whispered to Jean, “Stay down, sissy. If he comes our way again, we’ll run to the river.”

Only the sound of fluttering grasshoppers and occasional shuffling of sheep broke the shimmering midday quiet.

“Where is he?” Jean whispered.

“I don’t know.”

The girls shivered in the hot sun.

“I’m thirsty,” Jean said.

“Shhh. Hold on. There he is!”

“What’re you doing there?” He hollered down at them.

“Nothing,“ Linda said as she and Jean stood up. She gasped as he moved towards her. He took two or three leaps and grabbed her blouse. She screamed. The sleeve ripped.

“Stop it!” Jean was pounding his back as fiercely as she could.

The man pulled out his pocketknife and waved it at them. Linda stood still but Jean kept pounding him in the back until he reached around and shoved her to the ground.

He ordered Linda, “Lay down there, missy.” He pointed to the old army blanket.

Jean saw the dust cloud before he did. “Look! A car’s coming!” He glanced up. As quick as a rabbit crossing the road, he shoved his knife into his Levi’s and bolted to his car.

The car’s engine sputtered.

“What if he can’t get it started?” Jean asked.

They waited. The motor clunked each time he turned the ignition. Finally it caught on. Loose gravel spit from the car’s back wheels as he pulled away.

“He’s gone!” Linda whispered. She poked her head above the grass stalks to catch a glimpse of the road. A yellow and black pickup rumbled their direction.

“It‘s daddy!”

They waved frantically to get his attention. When he stopped, they ran to the ditch bank, yelling and crying.  Mr. Brown leaped from the truck bed, trailing Kurt across the ditch.

“What’s going on here?” Kurt asked, startled.

“This man stopped his car and unzipped his pants. He wanted to take us to the ranch, but I shouted at him to go away,” Jean said.

“Yes, Daddy.” Linda said. “He left because a car was coming but he came back.”

“Did he hurt you? Did he hurt you, girls?” His deep voice quavered.

“No, Daddy, but please take us home with you. Please!”

“Yes, honey, of course. I was going to Powell to get a part for the combine but not now. So tell me, Linda, why’s your blouse ripped?”

She looked down at the torn sleeve and choked back sobs.

He pulled her close. “It’s okay honey. I’m here now.”

“He grabbed my blouse. I pulled away. It ripped. He pulled out his pocketknife and said to lay down on the blanket.”

“Yep, daddy. I screamed at him and pounded his back but he swung around and pushed me down. Next thing was he bolted to his car when he saw that dust cloud.”

“Girls!” he said, wrapping his arms around them. “When did he leave here?”

“Not very long ago. Right before you got here,” Jean exclaimed.

Kurt grimaced.

“You might have passed him, Daddy,” Linda said.

“Hmm. I waved at a guy in a Studebaker. He passed me by as I was coming up the bench from the bridge. Jesus Christ! I’ll bet it was that guy.”

His whole body shuddered. “You girls get in the pickup. We’re going to go look for him.”

As the girls slid onto the pickup bench, Kurt took Mr. Brown to the top of the ditch, close by the downed fence, “Stay here boy.  I’ll be back.”  Mr. Brown nosed the bunch grass and lay down quietly, not far from where the girls had placed the army blanket.

 

Kurt turned the truck around, heading back to the ranch. “We’re going to look for the man after I get your mother and talk with David.”

He didn’t say more and Linda knew not to ask.

“What does he look like?” He asked at last. His voice was lower than Linda could remember.

”He’s almost as tall you, Daddy,” Linda said. “But he’s skinnier and he has shaggy brown hair.”

“He had on a dingy green shirt with pearl buttons and dirty Levi’s,” Jean volunteered.

They passed by Jo working in the garden and spun to a stop in front of the house.

“Go get your mother,” he ordered Jean, as David drove into the lane on a John Deere tractor.

“Hey, son!”

“Yes, Dad?”

Her father’s mouth was taut, his gray-green eyes narrower than usual. He spoke in a monotone.  “A man tried to hurt the girls when they were watching the sheep across the river there.”

David was wide-eyed. “What?”

“It doesn’t bear repeating, son. I want you and Bob to drive over there. I left Mr. Brown there next to the ditch, by the fallen fence. Flag down cars and ask if they’ve seen this guy. I think I passed him before I reached the field. He was heading for Cody. Linda says he’s tall and skinny.“

David’s leaned against the front fender of Kurt’s pickup and looked up at his father.  “What kind of car is he driving, Dad?”

“Could be that Studebaker I passed. If not, it’s hard to say. The girls were too scared to notice.”

David tried to lighten up his father. “Not surprising. They’re not into cars like me!”

Kurt managed a thin smile.

David grew serious again. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll get Bob when he comes in from the field. We can drive his pickup. Where are you going?”

“I’m taking mom and the girls with me to search for this guy. Figure we’ll head for Cody. I’ll look for this guy on the way. When we get to town, we’ll stop by the sheriff’s office and see if they can help.”

They switched to the Ford sedan and drove all afternoon looking for the bad man’s car.  They stopped at every fork in the road and got out to check for fresh tire tracks.  Sometimes it was impossible to tell fresh tracks from worn ones. When they reached Cody, Kurt stopped at the county sheriff’s office and reported what happened.

“No, sir, I’m sorry I can’t help you much,” the sheriff said. “You know how vast this country is.  There are so many roads going into the mountains and remote valleys.  Places like Sunlight Basin.  A guy like this can disappear real quick.”

Kurt pressed him hard. “You mean you aren’t going to put on a search for him?”

“That’s what I’m saying, sir. But we’ll send out an alert on the local radio station and on the two-way radios the officers have in every county of this state. Even though your daughters’ descriptions are pretty sketchy, any law officer in the state can bring this guy in and lock him up if he fits the bill!”

“Thanks, Sheriff. Guess that’s all I can ask.”

It was a long trip home. Linda fell asleep by leaning her head against the backseat door. Jean nestled in her lap.

”Linda! Jean! Wake up now. We’re home,” her mother jostled them awake.

It was almost ten o’clock when the family gathered in the living room to hear David and Bob brag about how many cars they had stopped along the road.

“You should have seen us, Dad.  Bob told me to lie down in the ditch while he stopped the cars.  He gave me his rifle in case this guy stopped and was gonna cause trouble.  I stayed there the whole time waiting for Bob to give me the signal.”

“What were you going to do if you found him, David?” Jo’s voice trembled.

“Shoot him if he tried to get away. Like I said, nothing happened Mom. Right, Bob?”

“Yes, Mrs. Glover. No sign of that guy.”

Jo grilled him. “Come on now! You boys were just supposed to stop him from coming back to the ranch, right?”

Kurt stood up and patted Jo’s shoulder.  “It’s okay, honey.  David was doing what I asked him to do. Thank God nothing bad happened,” he said.

After the family had exhausted themselves talking, Jo motioned them to bed.

“Do we have to, Mom?” Linda asked, her eyes darting to the stairway.

“Can we sleep in your bed tonight?” Jean added.

Jo and Kurt looked at each other. “Yes, if you want,” Jo said.

After Jean had fallen sound asleep, Linda spoke softly to her parents so she wouldn’t wake her sister. “Promise we won’t have to watch the sheep over there ever again?”

“Yes, honey. I promise,” her father said quietly. “Never again.”

 

The next morning, Linda found her father tossing rolls of barbed wire onto the bed of Jimmy.

“Gonna fix the fence today?”

“Yep.”

After he left, she thought about what how he would fix the fence. Sometimes the wood posts rotted at the bottom and had to be replaced.  Other times the barbed wire broke loose from the posts, creating a gap in the fence.  Then he would use a pulley to stretch the barbed wire from post-to-post.  The wire groaned as it was tightened.  If stretched beyond its limit, it might pop explosively, causing the loose wire to bounce up and down aimlessly. That was the big danger. A loose wire could rip his face open. But he knew how to jerk his head aside so that didn’t happen. Linda could hear him cussing as he stretched the wire to the poles.

“Damn it! What the hell!” he would say over and over until he bent the wire into submission and wrapped it in place around the pole.

She smiled that the fence was finally getting fixed. Best of all, she and Jean wouldn’t have to go there ever again.

 

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First Impressions of Provence

September 29, 2012

Bob & I are getting used to driving in France. Despite vague memories of the roundabouts and unique road signage from my trip in 1984 with my mother & sister, when we first drove the rental car yesterday (a VW Polo very similar to our VW Golf except stick shift which Bob hadn’t driven in years), I was freaking out while trying to provide directions to Bob using the Google map on his iPhone. Bob still managed to park in a city garage in Avignon by going down and back up 6 narrow, winding levels–no exaggeration!

After dropping off our luggage at our rental apartment just north of the city, we drove to St. Remy and then over the hills to Les Baux. St. Remy feels like many other old French towns, quaint and picturesque with narrow cobblestone streets, drawing heavily on its famous connections with Van Gogh and a few of his fellow Impressionists of the 19th century. Les Baux offers a totally different experience. A walled city high on an ancient limestone hill, it appears to have successfully achieved a balance between preserving its history while serving as a home to a small but vigorous artistic community.

The countryside in Provence reminds me very much of the northern Willamette Valley, complete with vineyards, orchards, and fields. The big difference is the sprinkling of Roman ruins–bridges, fortified city walls (such as here in Avignon–the wall encircles the old city) and other stone edifices. Actually, there are a few other differences such as the numerous medieval cities tucked here and there, and the relatively uniform residential architecture. The small housing developments typically feature clean, rectangular lines with muted oranges, beiges, and cream-colored stucco walls and orange tile roofs. I felt the presence everywhere of the Mediterranean to the south.

I also felt the influence of Northern Africa as we enjoyed a fantastic Tunisian couscous lunch with two of Bob’s business acquaintances–both from Tunisia. One man, Khalid, lives in Tunis with his wife and two children, but due to the unstable situation in his country, is planning to resettle his family in Dubai, thriving capital of the United Arab Emirates. Both Khalid and his university friend and colleague, Hatem, are PhD plant scientists and research professors focusing on ways to increase the yield of grains and other crops to meet ever-growing global food demand.

We had a fascinating discussion about the economic and political environment of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. We also talked about the presidential election in the U.S. They, like other people we’ve met in France, sincerely admire Obama. They see him as a wonderful role model for others around the world. Of course, we couldn’t agree more with them!

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First Impressions of Paris

Friday, September 21, 2012. After landing an hour early at Charles DeGaulle Airport, we took the RER B to the Chatelet train station where we transferred to the Metro line 1 in the direction of Vincennes (east-west line).

Emerging from the Metro at St. Paul station in Le Marais, I was overcome with joy upon seeing the streets of Paris again. I blinked at the brightness of the day as we transitioned from the darkness of the underground station to the cacophony of sounds and plethora of street signs on the busy Rue de Rivoli. As we were figuring out which direction to take to our apartment, the first French kindness occurred: a middle-aged man stepped up and graciously pointed in the direction of Rue Caron, only two blocks away.

As we rounded the corner to Rue Caron, a lovely young French woman greeted us–Julie Ka–the apartment owner. Julie and her husband Francois & their two young boys (ages 4 & 4 months) live on the third level of an old building just above our one-bedroom apartment. Julie escorted us up the creaky wooden winding staircase to her apartment where we left our luggage for a few hours until the apartment was cleaned. She pointed out the sweet little plaza below her living room windows, where we promptly went for our first petite dejeuner, complete with croissants and sliced baguette with butter and jam, along with the quintessential lattes. French super carbs are delicious!

While waiting for our apartment to be ready, we took our first walk around the Marais, following the walking tour contained in the National Geographic traveler book, “Paris”. I tried to absorb all the sights–the old buildings juxtaposed with small shops chock-a-block with goods of every sort, to the ever-captivating French whose dress seems casual and completely trendy and beautiful at the same time.

As the afternoon wore on, the cirrus clouds above heralded a fall rainstorm, complete with chilly winds and light rain. I quickly realized I had brought the wrong wardrobe–all summer tops and shorts, with only jeans, a light jacket and a sweatshirt. Of course, I landed upon the perfect solution: shopping in Paris! Well then, what greater place in the world to shop? Every street holds its treasure trove of shops, whether designer fashion, less expensive knock-offs, or vintage specials.

As the rain drops fell, we picked up our pace to reach the Paris opera house on the Bastille plaza where I purchased two tickets for Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro (the Marriage of Figaro) this Monday evening, September 24th. What a thrill to attend my first opera in Paris! I can hardly wait.

Sunday, September 23rd

After having a blissful warm and sunny Sunday today when we visited the Pompidou museum, it suddenly started raining a few minutes ago. Perfect timing, now that we’re safely ensconced in our little apartment, too tired to go one step further!

We spent a total of 4 hours in the Pompidou (broken up by having lunch across the plaza) taking in the fantastic Modern Art collection on the 4th & 5th floors. I truly loved it. It is filled with art from the 20th century. So many, many paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Bonnard, Gaicometti, Max Ernst, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro, Duchamps, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Madigliani, Rothko, and even Jackson Pollock (he’s from Cody, Wyoming!).

While waiting for lunch, we struck up a conversation with a lovely blonde woman from Ireland who now lives in Copenhagen. We shared our mutual distaste for the Parisian smokers–mostly young people–who create trails of smoke outside the cafe, driving away people like us. Our new friend proudly pointed out that Ireland had banned smoking in all pubs & public places about 8 years ago. She said nobody expected the ban to last, that the Irish wouldn’t change their behavior but they did. She commented ruefully that this young generation of Frenchmen were clinging to smoking, like the Irish a behavior that would have to change.

This led to my mentioning Michelle Obama and her drive to steer young people to a more healthful lifestyle. She resonated with Michelle’s contributions and revealed her ardor for Michelle & Barack. She had watched all the main speakers at the Democratic Convention, including Michelle, Clinton, Julian Castro (Mayor of San Antonio), and Barack. Her comments on the differences among the speakers were very insightful–saying that Michelle’s speech was perfect–so eloquent and emotional it brought her to tears. “Barack’s wasn’t quite as good, but he was being more cautious about appearing too hopeful this time, not wanting to overstate his case.” And so forth. She was definitely as tuned into American presidential politics as anyone in the States!

 

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“Jo,” a chapter in Part I of my novel, Hardpan

The wind came from Line Creek Canyon without warning, leaving only a pretense of soil in its wake. The locals called it hardpan: soil so hard even sagebrush couldn’t grow in it.

Kurt and Jo leaned together to stay upright. The afternoon winds roared easterly from the canyon past their ranch house on the bank of the Clarks Fork River. The faded white two-story frame house stood in stubborn isolation on the silty riverbank. Persistent winds and unforgiving sun had ravaged the coats of white paint applied over the years.

“What do you think?” He pressed her for an answer. Their moving truck was still full of furniture and boxes.

She tucked her sleeveless white cotton shirt into her dusty blue pedal pushers, struggling to keep her clothes intact as the wind gusted around her. Strands of her reddish blonde hair blew across her face, sticking to her lips. She brushed the hair away and licked back and forth across her lips to make the wetness stick.

Find the complete chapter here: Chapter 2: Jo

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“Meal Ticket to Survival” — a chapter from my novel, Hardpan (WGA #1571253)

Linda peeked at the icy windowpane from under a pile of covers. “Sissy! Let’s go downstairs. It’s freezing up here.”

Jean squirmed on her side of the bed. “Okay. I’ve got to go potty.”

Clad in flannel pajamas and cotton socks, the two girls slid across the smooth pine planks toward the stairwell, skidding to a halt outside David’s room.

Linda cracked his door open. “You awake?”

“Go away. I need more sleep.” He moaned from beneath the mountain of army blankets. “Dad and I were up half the night watching the ewes.”

“Did they drop any lambs?”

“No. Not one! Dad says they’re ready, but nothing happened.”

A shaft of sunlight from the frosty north window crossed his bed.

“Oh my gosh, David. You’ve got snow on your bed,” Linda said. “It looks like powdered sugar!”

He poked his head above the covers and swept his finger across the thin layer of snow, licking it like a lollipop. “Wind must of blasted the snow through the cracks in the window frame. Those ewes and lambs are better off than I am!”

The girls giggled. Jean scooted to his bedside and tugged at his arm. “Come downstairs with us. You’re awake now.”

“Alright. You two get going. I’ll follow.”

They trailed each other down the narrow staircase to the kitchen. A wave of warm air welcomed them as they burst into the room. Their father had stoked the big coal furnace in the living room with extra coal before going to bed. He had expected outside temperatures could drop to twenty degrees below zero with the wind chill. Once in a while, they lucked out when a Chinook wind blew in and raised the outside temperatures by fifty degrees within a few hours.

Linda opened the door to their parents’ bedroom. “Dad! Mom! Are you awake?”

“Now we are,” Kurt said. “Good morning, Seagulls.”

David pushed in front of his two sisters. “’Morning, Dad.”

Kurt blinked. “Thought you’d sleep in, son.”

David shrugged. “I don’t need much sleep. Besides, it’s too cold up there.”

“Yeah. It’s freezing upstairs, Daddy. David’s bed is covered with snow!” Jean said.

“Well, that’s not too surprising. David and I could barely stand upright when we walked back from the lambing shed last night. The snow was blasting us sideways.”

“Yeah. It pummeled my face.”

“Did you know your dad found twin lambs after you went to bed?” Jo winked at Kurt. “Right, honey?”

“Really, Dad? After all that time we watched them?” David’s low tone gave away his disappointment.

“Yep! You kids should go check on those lambs. Make sure their mother’s tending them.”

“Bundle up! It’s below zero out there,” Jo warned.

When the children were out of the house, Jo hugged Kurt.

“Thanks for going along with me on that, honey. We could use a little more sleep.”

He chuckled. “You never know. They may find a lamb or two.”

*      *      *

Jo and Kurt could hear the children return from the lambing shed. They were breathless from running across the frozen ground outside.

”We found the twins,” Linda squealed. “But one looks dead. It’s stiff as a board. The mother didn’t finish licking it.”

“Yep. Only one alive, Dad,” David said.

Jo shoved the covers back. “Kurt!”

Kurt reached for his Levis. “Lambing season has started kids! You’d better go with me, son. Sounds like the stoves may be low on coal.”

The stoves at either end of the lambing shed kept the newborn lambs from freezing to death during winter storms. Even in their dugout below the river bluff, it took only minutes for a newborn lamb’s slimy skin to freeze in the frigid air before the ewe could lick him off.

All day long, ewes were dropping their lambs faster than Kurt and David could move them from the holding pen above ground to the lambing shed below the bluff. The shed, a low-lying structure dug into the riverbank with weathered plank walls along the sides and a slanted sheet metal roof, provided protection from winter blizzards during lambing season that stretched from early February into March.

The ewes were bred to deliver late winter so the lambs could go to early market in the fall. Like other ranchers in the Clark Valley, Kurt had to weigh the risks of lambing during the bitter cold winter months versus the advantages of being able to hit the market early for better prices.

When Kurt returned to the house in the late afternoon, traces of snow lined his thick eyebrows. His nose and cheeks were reddened from the cold. A baby lamb draped over his right arm, its spindly legs dangling mid-air. He placed it in the cardboard box set up next to the wood stove in the kitchen. Linda had layered the box with newspapers and some straw from the barn.

“Here you go, Jo. A bummer. He’s weak; needs some warm milk. We lost the ewe in the outside pen before we could get her to the shed. She fell from her own weight, big belly and all, shaking from the wind chill. We got her lamb out but couldn’t save her. It’s damned cold out there.”

Jo sighed. She had heard stories from the neighbors about how bummer lambs were either rejected by their mother because she was too weak, or orphaned when the ewe died during delivery. They had to take quick action to save the bummer.

“David and I cut the cord and wrapped him in that big terry cloth towel of yours and took him straight to the shed.”

“Poor thing! I’ll get a bottle ready.” She filled a glass bottle with milk from the fridge and put it in a saucepan of hot water on the wood stove.

Jo motioned to Linda as she stuck her spoon into her bowl of hot oatmeal at the kitchen table. “Get ready. I’m going to need your help. You can hold him still for me while I give him a shot. Vet’s orders.”

Linda squirmed. “Do I have to?” She hadn’t bargained on helping with the shot.

“Silly, girl. ‘Course you do.”

Linda held the lamb’s front legs while her mother injected his skinny rump. He bawled so loud Linda jerked, making the needle rip through the lamb’s skin. Linda shuddered and looked away.

“You’ve got to hold him still,” her mother ordered.

“I hate this!”

Jo plunged the needle in again, finishing the job.

“Okay. You can let go now.”

“But he’s shivering.”

“He’s just hungry. Here you go.” Jo handed her the tall slender glass bottle with the elongated black nipple. “Hold him under his belly so he can stand up while you feed him. Hold on tight or he’ll pull the nipple off.”

The lamb wobbled on his spindly legs, latched onto the nipple, and started sucking as Linda steadied herself. She held tight as the lamb rooted for milk, his little tail whirling as fast as he drank. He tugged at the nipple so hard it nearly came off the bottle.

“There isn’t a drop left!” Linda said. She patted the lamb on its head. “Good for you little fella. You were hungry!”

They kept the lamb indoors for another day of feedings, until he was strong enough to go back to the shed. Her father or David would have to drape the bummer with the skin from a lamb that had died during delivery so the ewe would recognize the scent of her dead lamb and accept the bummer as her own.

At times that winter there were three or four bummer lambs in cardboard boxes in the kitchen. It was their refuge from the winter storm blasts and their meal ticket to survival.

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