The Model T truck turned down a dirt lane leading to the Gus Hanson acreage, and Tom Olsen could see Jolly’s boy in his mind, could make out the gleaming puffy face in a trick of sunlight on the windshield. Tom had been allowed to join the threshing crew only once before, and he’d felt awkward and inefficient. Like a tagalong kid.
Tom was barely aware of the cold and the deafening rattle of the engine as his father shifted down into first and they climbed over the last water break, the frosty tops of the barn and corn crib appearing through the sunlit fog.
He glanced over his shoulder at the Marlin .22 hanging in the truck’s rear window. Tom had saved all his money for a year, and after he bought the little rifle, he was allowed to keep it under Dad’s big cowboy gun.
Wouldn’t Jolly’s boy, with his scuffed denim jeans and fresh scraped face, be impressed. He would be impressed by Tom, too. The last time, Tom had been a baby. He’d grown at least two inches since then and now weighed a great deal more. He would really measure up, show that he could be trusted, even counted on in their farming community. They pulled in beside Walt Schultz, and his black gelding stepped quickly back, though Walt held the reins tight.
“Heya, Walt,” said Matt Olsen as the motor sputtered to a stop.
Tom ratcheted back the hand brake for his dad, then stepped out into the cold gray dust of the farmyard.
“Anybody else here?”
Schultz shook his head, and they watched the sun climb from behind the trees and shine across the surface of Jolly’s gray threshing machine, crouched on wood spoke wheels, a wonder of technology covered in sprockets and iron aprons. Tom couldn’t help but think of the War and the swift and invincible tanks he’d read and marveled about. Tanks, of course, moved by themselves, but Tom knew the threshing machine was powered by Jolly’s gas and oil tractor and a heavy rolling belt.
He drew circles in the dust with his foot, and his dad finally said, “Jolly ain’t been along yet?”
Shultz cocked his head. “He pulled the machine over here day before yesterday. Told Gus he’d be here this morning.” Everyone disliked Jolly, knew that he drank too much, but he owned the only tractor and threshing rig in the county.
“You ready to work today, Tom?” said Schultz.
The boy nodded.
“Big job.” Schultz wasn’t looking at Tom or his dad when he said it, but was staring out across the tree-rimmed valley into the last remnants of mist. “Yes sir, a big job,” he said again, and Matt Olsen nodded.
Nobody spoke for a while.
Tom stepped toward the black horse and placed a gentle hand on its muzzle. “You give Fritter any apples this morning?” he asked. The horse circled its long head down and around Tom’s touch.
“Ain’t he always the spoiled one?” Walt reached into his thin coat and passed a white apple slice to Tom, who put it within the horse’s greedy reach. While they watched the sliver go down, Gus Hanson stomped over from the house.
“The sonna bitch is still half asleep,” he spat, then tipping back his hat, he apologized. “Sorry, Tom. Didn’t see you there.”
“It’s okay,” said Tom, his eyes flicking up to meet the old man’s gaze.
“Evelyn finally got him on the phone about five minutes ago. Says he’ll be here when he’s damn good and ready. That’s a quote.”
Shultz and Olsen stood with their hands in their pockets and stared at the threshing machine. “What’s he think we’re gonna do ‘til then?” said Schultz. “I didn’t bring a deck of cards. Did you, Tom?”
Tom glanced at his dad, and Matt Olsen smiled back. For just a minute it was like he was grown up and one of them, jawboning over the price of cattle or the latest news from the local Exchange. “I didn’t bring a deck of cards,” he said.
“Jolly told Evelyn he’d send his boy,” said Hanson. “I was hoping this morning he wouldn’t.”
“It’ll be alright,” said Schultz. “We’re all here. Evelyn can feed him some breakfast.”
“I imagine so.”
While they stood waiting, Hanson took a dry twist of tobacco from his pocket. When the old man offered Tom some, his dad nodded and he took a small bite. The juice was heavy and bitter and his eyes watered, but he didn’t immediately spit, didn’t want to show his inexperience. Schultz laughed at him anyway, but it was a good-natured laugh, and his dad clapped him on the shoulder. The tobacco made his head spin, but it was good to be among the men, visiting and chewing and laughing.
He would be right here when Jolly’s boy drove up. In the cedar grove to his right, Tom again imagined the face. The wood showed each scar and every badly healed bone. Tom imagined he could see the black eye from earlier in the spring, and the red cheek inflated to twice its normal size. The boy seemed to be accident prone.
Tom knew there was more to it than that.
They all did.
Finally, the sound of a motor: Jolly’s Avery tractor turning onto the lane.
“Bastard expects too much outta that boy,” said Schultz, and the men nodded. “How old is he, anyway? Tom? You know?”
“I think he’s thirteen,” said Tom, firing a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. “He’s thirteen.” Older than Tom.
“Evelyn found him down at the branch last time we thrashed,” said Hanson. “Jolly busted him up pretty good.”
“As I recall, the kid was lolly-gaggin’ around,” said Tom’s dad.
“Ain’t no reason to beat hell outta him.”
“You’re right, Gus. We all know it.”
“I saw Jolly hit the boy with a wrench once, right across the chest.”
“We all seen it.”
Tom leaned into the horse and let more chew spill from his mouth. He didn’t like to think about his friend getting hit or kicked. That’s how he thought about Jolly’s boy, as his friend, though they’d never traded more than a handful of words over the water bucket. But weren’t they all friends? Weren’t they all gathered this morning to do a job? He stood straight as the belching tractor came down the water break.
Jolly had come after all, mounted on the iron behemoth like a greasy, fat possum, ten times larger than life, a sputtering cheroot bobbing around his unshaven face. His son, smaller than Tom recalled and frail looking, clung with both hands to the rear of the bouncing bucket seat, one foot on the tractor’s lolling hitch, one foot dangling free. Jolly didn’t turn, didn’t even glance at them as he clamored past. The boy dropped off into the dust and quietly limped toward them.
“How are you, Adam Wayne?” asked Walt, using the boy’s full name, but it wasn’t hard to see how the boy was. The black eye was back, but it was on the other side of his face and only a few days old, purple and yellow and green. The side of his neck had several round burns, the size of a nail head. Or a cheroot. Neither did his jaw seem to sit right. Like it had been broken. Then Adam spoke. “Ah’m fine,” he said, the sound almost lost in the roar of the tractor.
The men watched as Jolly drove around the thrasher in circles, like he’d never seen it before and wasn’t sure where to park or how to lace up the belts. Tom couldn’t stop looking at Adam’s face.
When Jolly finally found his position and set the tractor’s brakes, Gus Hanson reached out a hand. Adam winced slightly, not turning toward the touch on his shoulder.
“You should go in now, son. Mrs. Hanson has a bite of breakfast for you.”
For a long time the boy didn’t move, just stood beside Tom in the circle of men, staring at his clumsy, blustering drunk father who heaved and swore at the massive canvas belts he pulled from under the threshing machine.
At last, Adam turned and looked straight at Tom.
Adam smiled back, and Tom felt such a wash of gratitude and respect, it would take him days to describe it, even to himself.
Adam walked to the house.
Once the other boy was inside, Tom didn’t need to look at the three men to know it was time to go to work. He felt it through the cold.
Jolly had stopped worrying the belts and stood watching as Walt Schultz pulled his gun from the black gelding’s saddle boot. Gus Hanson drew a Colt revolver from his coat pocket. Tom’s dad opened the truck, got his cowboy gun, and Tom carefully took down the Marlin.
Was Adam watching from inside the house? Tom knew he was.
He worked the bolt action and, as they advanced, hoped Jolly’s boy would be impressed with his aim.