“The Davenport Divide” by Ivy Harper…Are you Ready for Some Fiction, my Friends!

August 17, 2012

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The Davenport Divide

By

Ivy Harper

The Fordson tractor turned off the gravel county road and onto the lane that led to the hundred and sixty-acre field. The driver, August McCall, cut off the motor which coughed and sputtered before the pistons stopped pumping and the engine died. August jumped off the seat and hurried back to the Chevrolet Impala that had stopped behind. The car’s blue paint had faded and rust was visible around each of the fender panels.

“Both engines made it this far, Dad,” August said, shaking his head in mock surprise.

Argyle sighed as he forced his body up and out of the driver’s seat and climbed out of the car. A green cap with the logo, “Sunrise Seeds” was pushed back on his head showing hair that was white and wavy. Argyle didn’t respond as he lowered the visor of his cap and looked over the wheat which was golden and rustling in the breeze.

“You always have loved a good field at harvest time.”

“That’s right… but there’s one that’s even better.”

“What’s that, Dad?” August said.

“It’s a baby colt struggling to get to its feet after an early morning birthing. Do you remember back in Colorado when that bay quarter horse of ours, Kitty Wampus, had the foal with the white marker on the forehead and all four white stocking feet.”

The old man slowly shook his head as he spoke. “How could I forget those horses? And how could I forget five years of dust and no rain? Son, horses can’t live on Russian thistles and hog weeds.”

“But look at this wheat, Dad.” August pointed to the field before them. “Isn’t it something!  Probably will go forty bushels to the acre. And then we’ll start with corn.”

Once Argyle McCall was known as the best corn-shucker in Thayer County. The county would hold corn-shucking contests, and men who entered would shuck corn from dawn to dusk. August could shuck 120 bushels of corn a day and by the end of the day, he would have filled 2 and a half wagons full of ear corn. He held the record but the record was soon to be broken, not by another man but by a machine that replaced men. This mechanism saved men from back-breaking farm work, but it also ripped out the souls of some men, like August, who were unwilling to accept the change from the horse to the tractor.

“Yeah, son, but we’ve got to move ahead. We’re in Nebraska now with twenty acres at the edge of town and this forty here.”

“Okay,” said August. “We can leave the tractor here for tonight. And we’ll come back in the morning and get moving. We’ve got to get a custom harvester to cut this for us.”

On the trip back to town, Argyle was silent. August noticed that he would fall asleep more easily now. He seemed content as they drove by the lush fields of green corn and the wheat fields that were ready for harvest. August was silent, too. The father and son drove into the village of Davenport.

“Where do you want to eat? Buckle’s or Smith’s? or maybe there’s a new one, now.” August said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

As they drove up in front of Buckles, four new over-sized pickup trucks were parked in front of the diner. As the father and son walked toward a burgundy booth, they passed by four middle-aged farmers sitting at a formica table with silver legs. Two were eating and two were holding beers in frosty mugs. One held the others’ attention.

“I just bought what the car guys are calling a ‘vehicle for recreation’…it gave the wife and I the smoothest ride coming back from Phoenix.” The youngest of the four was Garrett Loudon, a farmer with extensive holdings and the one who owned the hundred acres next to August and Arygle.

“Hi, August. Hello, Arygle.” Loudon acknowledged the McCalls whom he had not seen for many months.

“Have you guys been working hard?” Loudon gave a pinched smile. “All ready for a big harvest?”

“The wheat looks good,” Argyle said. August did not speak and looked down and away from their table. Loudon smiled again and said, “Hey, August, what’s your take on this. You were a farmer, weren’t you, before you came back from Colorado?…or were you?” His companions suppressed laughs that Argyle and August saw clearly.

August did not answer Loudon. He stood up, motioned to his father and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Argyle followed August to the street and said, “We just can’t ignore them.”

“I can’t stand their sarcasm, Dad. I can’t. Each of them has a thousand acres of land that they inherited…”

Argyle cut in. “…or were able to grab during the war.”

“…and now, they’re lording over us. What’s more,” August continued, “Shrader is the only one that went into the service and he didn’t go until the spring of forty-six when everything was over. And now, he’s the commander of the local Legion bragging all the time about his years in the Pacific.”

The two went over to the general store, bought a bottle of milk, a loaf of bread and some sliced, minced ham and drove to their little house on the twenty acres at Davenport’s edge. Their two bedroom house was austere but Alma had made it livable in the short year and a half that she lived there before she died, two months after August returned from Japan.

Her lace mats, dusty and gray, were still in place on the dressers and end tables. The family pictures she’d collected stood still in the oak and glass bookcase. The men sat at the table and August carefully made them each a sandwich. Nothing was said until they finished when August inquired, “Did you get enough, Dad? I can make you another?”

“That’s plenty.” Argyle looked tired.

August turned on the radio and said, “I’ll try to get you some music, Dad.” After some fiddling, he found a music station that delivered the mournful voice of a woman. Argyle listened a moment and then said, “You know, I believe that’s that Patsy Cline.”

“It could be, Dad, but I leave that to you. I don’t have the ear.”

They listened to the radio and after half an hour, Argyle stood up and walked to the bedroom hall.

“I think I’ll rest.” He lay down in his blue-striped overalls with his shoes on. August sat at the table leafing through a magazine without absorbing the articles or pictures. Finally, he went into the bedroom. He stood over Argyle for several minutes, looking down at the old man. He reached towards his father’s feet, unlaced the shoes, removed them and pulled a lone, white sheet over him. At the door, August saw that Argyle’s large shoulders had slipped beyond the blankets grasp. He tiptoed over and adjusted the cotton.

August shut the door and walked to the lone bookcase. From the bottom shelf, he took out a box of photographs and sat down to look carefully at them. The first one showed August shucking corn in the early 1900’s. Another photograph showed Argyle and Alma on their wedding day. Alma Miller was from one of the few Lutheran families in the predominately Amish community of Sommerset, Pennsylvania. She was the second daughter of Issaih Miller and Rose Harriet Wabel, who settled in Davenport after deciding that Nebraska was far enough west for homesteading. Alma met August at a county fair where he played the fiddle and they courted for one year before they married in the local churh. For a decade, the McCalls farmed and raised a family of three boys and one girl. August was eleven years old in May of 1929 when Argyle finally persuaded Alma to leave Davenport and develop a cattle and horse ranch in Colorado. It was a major move for the McCalls as Nebraska “agreed with them” as Alma liked to say. At first, August didn’t want to go, but Argyle was enthusiastic about opportunity in the West and eventually, August picked up his excitement. After preparing for weeks, one day after early morning services, August and Alma loaded up their children, Verle, Argyle, Clay, Ruth and Rose in their Model-A and headed out to Willard, Colorado. Argyle had already sent his horses and cattle by train, riding part of the way in the box car with them.

It could have been a one day trip but his parents turned it into two so that they could visit the Fairabee family that had left years before and who were now in western Nebraska. August could remember his father and his former neighbor talking and laughing about the time they were catching carp in the Blue River when Cliff grabbed a catfish instead of a carp and walked away with a lacerated hand. Then, it was on to Colorado and the change of the terrain–more cactus, more sage broth and more yucca. They drove about fifteen miles west from Sterling, Colorado on Highway 14 which is on the road to Fort Collins. Then, they went south to the small village of Tamara which was a water stop for the Holdrege to Cheyenne Railroad and a community center with a grade school and high school. Willard had one grocery store and a combination hardware store-depot, run by a man named Pickles. There was also an elevator, post office and a Methodist church. The 240-acre farm that the McCalls were renting was located in fairly level lands and it had all of the basic buildings, but no running water or electricity.  After settling in the northeastern part of Colorado, in Logan County, Argyle and Alma found their place in a Swedish community called the Highlands. It was populated by Swedes who had left Holdrege, Nebraska intending to tame Eastern Colorado as Illinois and Iowa had been tamed.

August thought of the 40 or 50 successful, small farms that he’d driven by in those days. The average size was 160 to 200 acres and the farmers grew mainly wheat and barley and still farmed with horses. He recalled the Sansteads, Andersons, Nichols and Walters, farmers who, by the end of World War II, had totally deserted their land. A handful of wealthy landowners, most connected to banks in Denver, who could afford to stay on, ended up purchasing all the land for dirt cheap prices.

August felt the stirrings of pride that Argyle had managed to stick it out. Through the seven years of drought, the agricultural revolution and the drafting of his sons into the war, he’d held firm to his vision. From 1933 to 1935, the drought hit the hardest. August still could feel the dust in which he sometimes wrote his name on their tiny, wooden, kitchen table. School often had to be closed because the dust was so thick that it covered fences and cows would walk right over them. It was as though even the cattle, aware of the terrible conditions, had decided to seek out a more bearable existence elsewhere. Despite seeing their topsoil completely blown away, Argyle was still able to look on the bright side. He’d tell August, “Now, you can go and find arrowheads everywhere.” August glanced at the bottom shelf and noticed the McCall brothers prized possession, a chock-full box, as he and little brother, Clay, had built up quite a collection.

But just as the arrowheads would gradually disappear so, too, would Argyle’s optimism. Each year the wind blew harder than the last. The top soil that nourished the wheat, barley and sorghum began to blow away. Argyle would plant on the thin cover of soil, but the plants would dry up and die before maturity. As their farmland baked and planting became next to impossible, August and August continued to work and hope.

Then the rains came. There had been only one brief rain all summer and that was less than half an inch. It was late August and clouds were forming in the northeast as all but Alma sat on the uneven McCall front porch and watched the lightning.

“Mother, come out and look…this is what we’ve been waiting for,” August yelled to his mother who was inside folding clothes.

Their six horses stood in the pasture, only forty or so feet away, lined up head to butt. They were all work horses and one of them was pregnant.  She had been bred with a pinto horse in the hopes of getting what farmers in those parts called an Indian pony for August who’d already named it Gus. Argyle loved to breed horses and had been trying to get an Indian pony for years, but he hadn’t been lucky. The family sat staring at the horses when suddenly a blinding flash of lightning struck and they all raised their hands to their eyes for a moment. After the flash, they looked out and saw that two horses in the middle of the lineup, Maggie and Blackie, had fallen. Alma gathered the children and quickly moved them into the house.

“Boys, don’t go out there,” Alma said. “It could hit again.” Soon after her warning, the rain stopped; the whole downpour had not lasted more than ten minutes.

August ran out to the spot and swung his long legs over the wire fence. He saw two horses lying silently side by side. He knelt down and placed a hand on the head of each horse for what seemed like an hour. August remembered how he’d cried for days when he learned that there was a black and white spotted Indian pony inside the mare.

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