When the Corn Died: Chapter Five
A Quick Review
Grasshoppers have arrived on the Harper farm, threatening to wipe out a much-needed bumper crop. Meanwhile, Peter Harper Junior and his best friend have had it with mining in Missouri, no matter how badly they need the money to help out their families. They pack up their belongings, collect their owed pay and catch a northbound train for home.
And here we go!
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Riding the Rails
Three things can happen when you hop a freight to anywhere. One, the yard bulls can find you and beat you senseless with their billy clubs. Two, you can get rousted, beaten or killed by others riding the rails, desperate men willing to do anything for a scrap of food or a couple pennies. Or three, you can somehow beat the odds and make it to your destination in one piece and still breathing.
Those were the thoughts filling Peter Junior’s head as he and his best friend Lucas jumped the train just outside of Purdy, Missouri at six in the morning, the sun rising quickly in the east, each of them carrying their possessions in a bag tied at the end of a hickory branch, each carrying three dollars and some-odd cents, their last pay from mining.
As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light inside the boxcar, Peter Junior could see they had the car to themselves for the time being. He and Lucas dusted each other off then stood in the doorway and watched the lush Missouri farmland pass by as the train rattled north and west.
“What do you figure, Peter?” Lucas asked. “Home in two days? Maybe three?”
“Sounds about right, Lucas. Depends on our luck and timing, I reckon, but maybe two days if all goes well. Four-hundred miles, give or take. It sure will be good to be home. Seems like we’ve been gone longer than a month, don’t it?”
“Sure enough do, Peter. Sure enough do.”
Back on the Farm
“What are we going to do, Peter?” Evelyn asked as she dished eggs and bacon on my plate.
She was asking about the latest problem on the farm, the grasshoppers discovered at the edge of the corn field. She knew, as did I, that a swarm of grasshoppers could eat through our hundred-plus acres of corn in a matter of days if left unchecked, especially with the weather so hot and dry.
I watched her wash her hands at the sink as I took my first bite of bacon. God she was a good-lookin’ woman. The sunlight streaming through the window framed her head and she looked downright angelic. Hard to believe she had chosen me. With her looks she could have had any of the eligible bachelors years back, but she’d chosen me.
“I was talking to Ned at the feed store. He said to burn some gasoline-soaked rags along the edge of the fields. Something about the smoke driving those bastards off? If that doesn’t work I’ll have to set fire to that section of corn and hope I get them all with the flames and smoke.”
Evelyn sat down at the table.
“You know how I feel about swearing in the house, Peter. Kindly choose your words more carefully.”
“For the love of God, woman, we’re facing the loss of our crops and you’re worried about my language?”
“Peter Harper, every man, woman and child on this planet has problems. That isn’t no excuse for cussing. You are too good a man, Peter, and cussing diminishes you, so kindly listen to your wife.”
What’s a man to say to that? I decided to change the subject.
“How’s Emma getting along? I spend a lot of time with her son, Timothy, but don’t see much of you womenfolk during the day. Do you think she likes being here with us?”
“I think she misses her husband something terrible, Peter. There’s a whole lot of pain in that little gal. She’s got a bunch of healing to do, so I’m right happy she’s with us to help her. Don’t you worry about her. Emma is made of tough stock. She’ll get through this, and one day some good man will see her, and fall in love with her, and then nature will do what nature does. We know all about that kind of nature, don’t we, Peter?”
My loins were on fire as I finished my breakfast, kissed Evelyn and made my way to the edge of the cornfield.
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Hungry Little Bastards
Rumor has it one adult grasshopper can eat about an ounce of grain per day. I was thinking about that, multiplying it by hundreds of thousands, as I led young Timothy out into the corn fields. As we approached the area I had seen them in earlier, I could hear them, the rapid flapping of their wings, the scraping of legs against wings, the almost hypnotic shrill as thousands fed upon the lifeblood of our family, the sounds of defeat drifting with the warm breeze. I tried to prepare myself for what I was about to see but really, now, that’s damned near impossible.
In a matter of twenty-four hours the hoppers had leveled a good twenty-square feet of corn. I knew, without a doubt, it was only going to get worse as the sun rose and the temperature did the same.
Timothy and I ran back to the barn. There I gathered up as many rags as I could find, soaked them in gasoline, tossed them all in a crate and carried the load back to the fields with Timothy trailing behind me. He was a good boy, a bit quiet, but respectful and a hard-worker for a boy his age. A look of concern etched his tiny face and I felt bad about that.
“Okay, Timothy, here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll take these rags and spread them out along the edge of this section where the hoppers are feeding. We light up the rags and hopefully the smoke from the fires will drive them away. Let’s get busy, son. We don’t have time to waste.”
Evelyn and Emma joined us a couple hours later. They had brought more rags like I asked them to, and some sandwiches and lemonade. For the rest of the day we lit rags and kept an eye on the fires, making sure we controlled the burn. The smoke drifted through the fields on the breeze, eventually rising in the thermals, turning the sun yellow to red, giving the whole scene an unreal quality to it.
We let the last fire burn out as dusk won nature’s daily battle. All of us stood at the edge of the fields as the daylight faded, looking for movement, listening for the telltale sounds. There was none to be seen, none to be heard.
“What do you think, Peter? Evelyn asked. “Did we get them all?”
“I don’t rightly know, hon. Let’s all of us go to bed. We’ll find out in the morning.”
As we washed up and got ready for bed we could hear a train whistle in the distance and that, of course, reminded me of Peter Junior. Evelyn knew. She always knew.
“He’s fine, Peter. He’s a Harper and he can take care of himself. Don’t you worry now.”
“I miss him, Evelyn. Miss him something fierce. I wish our son was home.”
“I do too, husband. Now hush, please. Come lay beside me and hold me tight. I need you tonight, Peter, and I’m guessing you need me.”
Two-hundred and Fifty Miles to the Southeast
Peter Junior pressed a rag against the side of his head, hoping to stop the bleeding. It could have been worse, he guessed. He and Lucas managed to run away from the yard bull before things got real serious in the rail yard outside of St. Louis. They each took a whack to the head but escaped still breathing, so all things considered it worked out okay.
Lucas started laughing as they walked along the tracks north of the city.
“Sweet Jesus, Peter, I didn’t know you could run that fast.”
“Run faster than you, Lucas. He got me while I was staggering out of sleep. He plain ran you down. Good thing he tripped on the rail or he’d still be thumping your head.”
The two friends laughed together as they walked in the general direction of Charles City, two in the morning and their shuffling feet the only sounds to be heard.
We’ll Catch up with Them Next Week
That’s all you get this week. Everyone is alive and well, or as well as they can hope to be under the circumstances.
Thanks for joining me this week.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)