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When the Corn Died: Chapter Seven
A Quick Summary
When we last visited the Harper family, they were frantically trying to burn out a grasshopper infestation before those little buggers ate their entire corn crop. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they received a phone call telling them that their son, Peter Junior, had been robbed and beaten and was in a hospital forty miles away.
And away we go, back to 1933, to Charles City, Iowa.
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I had to stay on the farm and it broke my heart. My son needed me, but if I left the farm unattended, even for a day, there was a very real chance we could lose it all. Knowing that didn’t make my decision any easier, but Evelyn understood and agreed with me.
“You need to stay, Peter, and that’s just the truth of it. Emma and I will go to Union and see after Peter Junior. You stay here with little Timothy and save our farm. It’s a good thing we didn’t sell the car yet, wouldn’t you say? I’ll call you from Union as soon as I know something.”
I held her for the longest time, drawing strength from her, my rock and the love of my life.
“You be careful, Evelyn. There are hard men out there, hungry men, men willing to do just about anything for survival.”
“I’m taking the rifle with us, husband, and I’m a good shot. Now you stop your worrying. Emma and I will be fine.”
Truth of the matter, she is a better shot than me, and she’s a mother bear going after her cub. Heaven help the man who gets in her way.
I kissed her goodbye, hugged Emma, and Timothy and I waved as the women motored out of our yard and down the state road, their headlights cutting a path through the gathering darkness.
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In Union, Iowa
Two hours later, at eleven-thirty-two, Evelyn and Emma were ushered into a hospital room, the antiseptic smells assaulting them, the feeling of sickness and death invading their spirits. There was a lone table lamp illuminating a room of white walls and ceiling, tile flooring and one window looking out into the nighttime. In a bed, his head wrapped, his eyes black and swollen, right arm in a cast, his lip newly-stitched, lay Evelyn’s son, Peter Harper Junior.
The doctor closed the door behind them.
“It looks worse than it is, Mrs. Harper,” he said with a gentle, quiet voice. “He has cracked ribs for sure, a broken right arm, more than a few contusions, but there is no internal bleeding and all the damage done to him will heal with rest and loving care. He’s going to be in some pain for sure, but he should be up and about, almost normal, in a couple weeks. I want him to stay here for a couple days, give those ribs a chance to heal a bit, and he took a nasty blow to the head, so we have to make sure there’s no damage there, but my professional opinion is he’s a strong kid and he’ll be all right in time.”
Evelyn looked down on her only child, asleep, wounded and looking so fragile. What kind of world did they live in? How had things come to this, desperate men doing unthinkable things to each other, all for a couple dollars? She felt Emma’s hand on her arm.
“You heard the doctor, Evelyn. He’s going to be fine. Now you didn’t ask for my opinion, but you’re going to get it nonetheless. I think you should stay here with your son tonight and then go back home. Your husband needs you. I’ll stay here with Peter Junior and make sure he’s treated right. When the doctor says he can go home, I’ll call you and you can come pick us up.”
She’s such a tiny thing, Evelyn thought, so small, so delicate, but there’s strength in this young woman, this young mother and widow, and if she says she’ll take care of Peter Junior then by God she will.
“Thank you, Emma. I accept your offer.”
The two women pulled up chairs and sat down as Peter Junior slept.
Morning and Hell Come to Iowa
The call last night from Evelyn helped my frame of mind a bit. I was actually whistling when I woke young Timothy up and prepared breakfast for the two of us. The roosters crowed but after so much heat, there wasn’t much soul in that crow, a half-hearted attempt at best.
Timothy and I polished off the eggs and bacon, he helped me clear the dishes and then we went off into the morning in search of grasshoppers. The sky was steel gray as the eastern horizon shed off its blanket of dark. It looked like rain but sure didn’t feel like it. I felt no moisture in the air as we walked to the section we burned the day before. My thoughts were on Peter Junior, him lying in a hospital bed, recovering, me wishing I had been there to protect him from the ugliness of this world, but knowing that’s an impossible task for any father.
I heard them before I saw them.
The battle wasn’t over.
We had burned nearly an acre of growing corn, money on stalks, and we hadn’t wiped out those winged bastards.
Their sounds grated on my nerves, broke me for just a second as I dropped to my knees, looked up into that pewter sky and silently asked what the hell He wanted from me.
I felt a small hand on my shoulder.
“It’s okay, Mister Harper. You and me, we’ll make it okay.”
From the mouths of babes.
I wiped my eyes, stood and considered our options. They were few.
A decent wind was blowing out of the south. It would carry a flame nicely and I wouldn’t have to worry about the direction of the burn.
So it came down to this: let the bugs have our crop or burn it myself.
No damn choice at all.
On the Road
Evelyn steered the old Ford down the road, eyes on the dirt path, her mind on her son. He had awakened around two in the morning and tears were shed. They had talked on and off, little conversations bordering stolen naps, through the rest of the night and into the morning. He missed his friend Lucas something awful, and Evelyn suspected he somehow blamed himself for Lucas’ death, as if he could change the economy, end the Depression and make it all better by sheer force of will, and he had failed to do so, costing Lucas his life. Sheer folly, but Evelyn understood.
Emma and Peter Junior had taken a liking to each other immediately. Their age difference, her being four years older, didn’t seem to hinder them at all, and by the time Evelyn left she got the impression she wouldn’t be missed too much. She was also confident that Peter Junior was in good hands.
Five miles outside of Charles City, Evelyn saw a black smudge on the horizon, then the smudge grew and became a dark column rising up into the air and blowing north towards Minnesota and the Canada plains beyond. The closer she got to town the more her apprehension grew, and as she passed the “Welcome to Charles City” sign, she knew her worst thoughts were reality.
And We’ll Return Next Week
The Harpers, and I, thank you for stopping by. I’ll have another installment in the story next week. Until then, hug your loved ones and enjoy the heck out of this gift of life.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)