SJM ( / )


The skimpy morning dew had long since evaporated.
The Texas sun bore down with an intensity
that meant that it was mid-June
and no rain was in sight.

No clouds, no wind, and yet
dust-devils danced across the bare spots
in the field where the crop
had failed to take hold.
Even the grasshoppers seemed to be lethargic,
just barely avoiding the oncoming team of horses
as they slowly pulled the middle-buster
down the rows of knee high corn.
Looking across the field,
a shimmer of heat waves bent the light
and distorted the long rows.
By afternoon, the corn leaves would begin to curl
in a desperate attempt to conserve
what little moisture remained.
It had not rained since the middle of May.

The team had been in the field since about five thirty and
there was to be no break until this field was laid by.
By local standards, this six acre plot
was hardly worthy of the time or the expense
to see it done in a proper manner.
But it was pride that drove the old man
to make the most of it.

This was the last row.
As he clucked to the team,
Maude continued to push against the collar carrying the load,
but John having set his pace accordingly,
walked easily in his traces.
The only sound was the occasional jangle
of the single tree as it banged against John's shanks.
John as if indifferent to the task,
occasional reached forward
and down to take a nip of green.
Sometimes, the old man would scold him,
but mostly they continued in their agreed to pattern.

The middle buster running shallow
but throwing a wave of sandy loam
toward the corn stalks,
cut easily through the dry dirt.
No moisture was evident in the track of the plow
and the twelve inch plane
made easy walking for the old man.
The plow's bottom and wings were polished
bright by the scouring action,
and would remain shinny until the next rain,
which might not come before the first of August.

Now they were nearing the half way point in this final row
and the old man rested the lines on the plows handles
and made an easy loop around the left handle,
not to control the horses but to prevent the lines
from falling into the furrow.
The plow was so well balanced
that it continued in the furrow
without the slightest touch,
much like a sailboat that has the jib and mast properly set
so that no pressure is required
on the tiller to maintain the set course.

With his right hand he drew his pouch of tobacco
from the bib of his overalls,
and with the left fingered open the Bull Durham sack,
then pulled a single sheet of paper from the sheath.
As he walked, he formed a trough
for the tobacco with the fingers of his left hand,
using the middle finger to form the depression.
He held the paper lightly.
Then, the bag in his right hand
was tilted over the paper,
and with almost a caress,
he caused the rough cut tobacco
to slowly dropp into the paper.
Now the pile was judged adequate
and raising the bag to his mouth,
caught the dangling string between his teeth
and pulling away with his right hand,
drew the purse string tight.
The bag now went back into the bib pocket,
its role having been completed.

Still in the left hand,
the open paper with its charge of tobacco
was held steady.
In what appeared to be a single movement,
the tobacco was spread the length of the paper
with his right forefinger
and the paper was transferred to his right hand.
Raising the paper to his lips,
a swipe of the tongue moistened the near paper's edge,
and with a smooth motion,
the paper was reformed into a cylinder
around the load of tobacco.
Some are able to do this with a single hand
but the old man used the fingers of his left hand
to press the paper's edges together.
He once again raised the now cylindrical form
to his lips and moistened the now joined edges.
Some twist the ends to achieve a 'smoke' but he did not.
While his cigarette was not perfect,
it closely resembled a store bought cigarette.
All this while he continued to walk the corn rows.

He placed the unlit cigarette in his lips
in anticipation of ending the laying by.
Both hands now returned to the plows handles,
the left hand also holding the lines against the worn wood.

As the team reached the end of the rows
and as the plow just passed the last standing stalks,
the old man pushed down on the handles
and in response, the plow point emerged from the soil
and the plow now skidded along on the plow's bottom.
For the first time he spoke to the team.
With a clicking sound, they were made aware
that he expected some sort of action.
The wagon was parked along the fence
and with a gentle 'haw' the team knew to turn to the right.
It being only a matter of twenty yards or so,
the old man skidded the plow on its bottom
until it was just behind and along side the wagon.
Now, 'whoa'. And the team stopped.

John shifted his weight to his right hind leg
in apparent anticipation of a prolonged rest.
He was right.

The old man now leaned against the plow for support,
took a box of penny matches from his pocket,
and with economy of effort,
removed a single match from the box,
struck it against his thumb nail,
noted the fiery flash and the acrid brimstone smell,
raised it to the cigarette and with a deep draw,
caused the tobacco to ignite.
A flick of the wrist, the match was out
and it was dropped to the ground.
As a precaution, he ground it into the dirt.
Back into the pocket went the matches,
and for the first time, since the cigarette had been formed,
raised his hand and removed it from his mouth.
For what seemed an interminable time,
he was motionless. Nor did he exhale.
Finally, a puff of smoke from his mouth
and you could be sure he was alive. T
his simple pleasure continued as he prolonged the smoke,
just drawing on the cigarette to encourage it to smolder
and not too strong, otherwise it would burn too quickly.
The cigarette was now less than a single finger width
away from his lips as he took a puff.
As he removed the cigarette from his mouth,
he pinched the paper's side between his thumb
and forefinger to get a secure grip on it
and then he hastened to take a final draw.
The now completely exhausted weed
was dropped and he ground it
alongside the match into the dirt.

He exhaled deeply and seemingly for the first time, he looked around.

Walking forward of the plow,
he released the traces from the single trees
and hooked them on the haimes.
This took a little time as the inside traces had to be dropped
and then recovered by pulling them forward
from between the waiting team.
Neither horse showed the slightest interest
and with the exception of John
who now shifted his weight to his left hind leg,
there was no movement.

Back to the plow the old man walked,
unwound the lines from the plow handle
and with a cluck to the horses moved them forward.
Now along side and in front of the wagon,
and with the lines pulled firmly
so they rested against the horse's left hindquarters,
he directed them back and to his right.
This was a well rehearsed maneuver
and John stepped easily over the wagon's tongue
and aligned himself with the tongue in front of the wagon.
Maude followed in close synchrony.
The only word spoken was the single command; 'back'.
When pressure on the lines was released,
the horses stopped in perfect position.

The old man took the lines,
raised them to the wagon front
where a worn oak stick of wood
that had too many times
been used for the purpose
was engaged with a single wrap of the lines
about the post.
He stepped around Maude,
and raised the wagons tongue
and hitched it between the two horses.
Now he took the traces
and hooked them to the wagon's tree
and the team was ready for home.

Loading the middle buster
became the old man's next project.
As it was alongside
but slightly to the rear of the wagon,
it would be an easy task
to pivot it on its bottom
and position it for lifting into the bed.
But first he had to pull the clevis pin
and dropp the double tree and single trees.
These he lifted over the side of the wagon
and let them fall with a bang. T
his was probably the most noise
that came from the field that day.

Once the plow was pivoted
and positioned behind the wagon,
the old man lifted the metal shank
which caused the handles to touch the ground.
With a tug, the front of the plow was made to rest
on the very end of the wagon's bed.
Slowly, he walked to the handle end
and with a single lift raised the handles.
Now the plow was suspended between the wagon
and the old man's outstretched arms.
He stepped to his right,
and raised the handles well over his head,
and pushed the plow forward into the wagon bed.
The well polished plow sole
rested on the bed and slid easily
over the worn oak boards.
With a twist, the plow was made to lean
against the wagon's side boards
in such a manner that the handles
were protected against stress.

The exertion seemed too much for the old man
and he paused for a moment.
He walked to the left front wheel.
Placed his right foot on the hub
and with a grunt, pulled himself into the wagon.
For what may have been the last time,
he looked back over his corn patch.
The rows were straight,
the field was weed free and with God's blessings,
there would be more than a few nubbins
to be saved come October.

The corn was 'laid by'.

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