“What happened? The fields have never looked like this, not even the year of the epidemic,” I whispered horrified at the way things looked.
Harry said darkly, “I told you I had a bad feeling about those people.”
“You said you had a bad feeling about how they would fit into the community, not that they were plumb crazy and would break the harvest contract.”
Dino broke in, “Let’s run up to the house just on the off chance something bad has happened and they need help.”
We drove on. The potato field was ready for harvest … past ready. It was the only field that lay outside the life estate – not including the kitchen garden that was too small to count – and the only one where the entire harvest that came out of it belonged to the farmer instead of the government. Nearer the house there was so much dropped fruit under the peach and nectarine trees you couldn’t have walked near it without squishing a bushel full. Some of the greens that I had helped to plant as well as the broccoli were starting to bolt and needed harvesting but there didn’t seem to be anyone about. No watering or hoeing had been done since we’d left, at least not as far as I could tell.
“Stay in the wagon,” Dino ordered. I didn’t like the way he said it but I didn’t have any problem with obeying him. There was something just creepy about leaving a thriving farm only to come back two weeks later to have it look like the place had been abandoned two months or better. Steven and Chris waited with me.
While Harry and Dino were in the house and barn the creek of a saddle behind me was the introductory hello from Mr. Cherry. “I missed talking to Pappas before he took off.”
I sent the boys to get Dino and Harry who had gone in opposite directions. I didn’t know what to say. Mr. Cherry had been one of my grandfather’s good friends. Instead it was him talking to me when he said, “I heard what happened.”
Trying to maintain my politeness and composure I nodded and said, “Yes sir.”
That’s all that was said but the way he nodded and then patted my hands where they lay in my lap let me know that somehow, for some folks, my position had changed from a Salome to a maiden wronged. I was cynically thinking wasn’t that rich when Dino and Harry came up.
“Mr. Cherry where did the people go?” Harry asked still looking around like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“It’s a mess that the local inspector is keeping quiet seeing as how he handpicked the family himself and were some kind of relation to him. From what I overheard they were saying the oldest kid had some kind of drug problem and went crazy and killed the rest of his family before running off. None of us knew it until day before yesterday when yore uncle sent them men out to collect your mother’s things and the bodies were discovered.”
I winced thinking all my things were probably gone and then could have slapped myself. Here I had just heard that a whole family had been murdered and all I could think of was my stupid belongings. My discomfort must have shown on my face though they mistook what it was for. “Don’t go in the house Riss,” Dino said by way of another order. “They didn’t do a very good job of cleaning anything up. There are flies everywhere.”
I climbed down from the wagon while the menfolk continued their discussion of recent events. I walked over to the barn and peeked inside and then didn’t know whether to groan or clap in glee. My things appeared to be there but they were dumped all over the place on the dirt floor and in the loose hay. I didn’t know if it had been done out of meanness or just what but I decided not to care. Harry found me trying to shake things clean and sort them back into the boxes and bags it had come out of.
“There was no need for this,” he muttered in anger.
“It could have been worse,” I said determined to see the bright side.
He snorted and then started to help. “Just look at this,” he said pointing to a broken plate. “I helped pack this stuff the first time around and now we’re doing double work. You still want me to pack this even though it’s broke?”
“Yes. I might be able to glue it back together and use it for decoration on something if I ever get a place of my own.”
Harry shook his head at my stubbornness but then went back to grumbling. I still wouldn’t be brought down, “Lucky they didn’t consider anything valuable enough to be worth taking. And luckier still they didn’t bust up the chests; they could have without a doubt.”
He wouldn’t be mollified but continued to help me put the boxes and bags back into the three large cedar chests that I had packed everything down in. Dino came in to see what we were doing and asked, “Is it all there?”
“We’ll see in just a minute. Harry, give me a hand?” We pulled out the last of the canvas tarps and found a few other things but my heart finally fell. “At least they left the dress form and quilt frames,” I muttered.
Dino must have asked Harry what I was talking about because I heard him say, “The treadle sewing machine is gone. We found the box of parts for it but the machine itself isn’t here.”
Mr. Cherry asked, “Did they get your granddaddy’s things?”
“No sir, that they didn’t get. I had that packed up and took it with me; it is at Mr. Pappas’s … ouch, not so hard,” I said finally slapping what that had irritated me more than once.
Dino turned loose the hand that he had just a moment before been using to help me up out of the hay where I’d been digging one last time. He’d gotten irritated and squeezed a little too hard for my liking. “I thought we agreed that you’d call me Dino.”
I told him calmly, “And I have been calling you that … but we are currently out in public and as you are my employer …”
“I am not your employer I am …” he stopped at a loss for words.
“You’re what?” I asked daring him to find a better word for it.
“Getting mad,” he said rather than rise to the bait. “Now look, I agreed to this to give you time to think but I’ll be durned if … if …”
I just shook my head at him and decided to ignore his attitude. In my observation men weren’t really all that different from little boys except in that their toys tended to be louder and their messes bigger. Of course what did I really know? Look at the mess I’d gotten my own self into with what I thought I knew. I did however say under my breath, “Peach tart.”
I looked at him out of the corner my eye and his mouth was twitching, fighting to hold on to his bad temper. He shook his head finally giving up and snorted before saying, “We’ll leave this for another time. The sun is moving across the sky and it is too darn hot in this barn to discuss this. Let’s get these things loaded.”
I was summarily told that my help was not needed with Mr. Cherry adding, “Don’t be a hard head girl. You’re working on a baby not a ten-pound hammer.”
Well I decided to let them huff and puff and I took a couple of bushel baskets hanging on the barn wall and went to the orchard. The trees were about done for as they had been planted even before my mother was born and that was long lived for peaches and nectarines but they could have had maybe another year or two – enough time to replace them anyway – had anyone continued to take care of them properly. Used to be the trees would give a good three bushels a piece but this year between age and weather it looked like I would be lucky to get a bushel a piece.
“What are you doing? I thought I told you no lifting?”
I looked at Dino and thought long and hard about how bad I wanted a peach tart and whether I was willing to overlook his bossiness to have one. “I … am not … doing … any … lifting. I am just picking peaches.” Looking around only made me grumpier. “I hate for all this food to go to waste. Speaking of which … Mr. Cherry?!”
“Uh?” he grunted in response like old men will.
“If I send Steve and Chris for Davis do you think he’d like to split some of these potatoes?”
“Honey,” he said. “They’re part of the gov’mint contract.”
“Not this field they’re not,” I told him with a wink. “Their surveyor kinda missed it on the plat book.”
A slow, wicked grin spread across his face. “Is that a fact? And just how much did this blind surveyor miss?”
“Between here and the rise behind the barn.”
“Well, don’t that just beat all. Guess that fancy degree had a few holes in it.” We all got a laugh. I know it is probably wrong but the way some of those government people from the city act you’d think we walked around with manure coming out of our pockets. Getting something over on them made us folks in the country feel good … and proved we weren’t quite as dumb as they thought us.
Mr. Cherry turned to Harry and Dino and told them, “You move them chests around a bit and leavve the middle of the wagon free and will pop some of them taters in there too.”
In no time we had several families from that corner of the district over and helping. That meant it got split into smaller shares but the work went quicker too and you can never have too many pitch forks and children to pick up the fresh dug taters. By the time things were done it looked like locusts had been at anything that wasn’t contracted by the “guv’mint.”
Harry enjoyed the joke despite the hot, thirsty work. He enjoyed it even more thinking how, had his uncle realized it, he’d be “chewing horseshoes and spitting nails” at the missed opportunity of taking the fruit, potatoes, and greens into the city and making a healthy profit on them.
I found a surprise waiting on me when I got back from the garden and cutting snips and digging sprouts from my great grandmother’s beds of annuals. There was a canvas covered lump tied firmly right behind the wagon seat. I thought at first it was one of the cedar chests stood on end until I saw all three lined up the way Mr. Cherry had directed. I lifted up the canvas and then jerked it down again and stepped back in shock.
“Close your mouth girl before the bugs get in,” said a tart old woman coming around the end of the wagon. It was Mr. Cherry’s sister Mrs. Heflin.
“Ma’am … I … I didn’t … I mean …”
“Stop yore stuttering child and come here and let me give you a hug.” Mrs. Heflin had been awful hard on me when it came out but had eased back up when she found out Sol and I were going to get married. Now she gave me a squeeze and a kiss and said, “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. None of us can.” I was not ready to talk about it and apparently I didn’t need to. My face must have said enough. “Don’t let it sour you child. It’s almost like the lottery, you have to play to win. There’s bad ‘uns and there’s good ‘uns; you gots to believe next time you’ll pull a good ‘un.”
Pointing to what was in the wagon I said, “But … somebody’s gonna get in awful trouble for that.”
“How? You gonna tell ‘em? Ain’t like them guv’mint men care about some ol’ antique that they don’t think works. And I know fer a fact that were in this house many, many a year and if anything qualifies for antique that there thing does. Just ‘cause you gotta leave yore house doesn’t mean you have to leave all yore memories. Now not another word. And mind Mr. Pappas, he intends to look after you.”
As she walked away I muttered in my head, “Now mind Mr. Pappas … oh I’ll mind Mr. Pappas all right … I’ll mind him into an early grave if he don’t stop trying to arrange my life like he owns it already.”
But saying it in my head was some different than letting it come out of my mouth. Yes I was irritated that I was being managed … usually I was the one managing other people … but at the same time a good part of me was as grateful as he didn’t want me to be. Then I grinned and thought that maybe I’d just irritate him with my gratitude, or at least enough to make him leave off deserving it all the time.