by Helen Buell
March: The Surprise
Bracing his feet against the bumpiness of riding behind 5 plows, George maintained firm control of the reins with one hand while he used the other to remove his battered old work hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his cuff. A team of six horses pulled the plows back and forth across the Eastern Oregon field, harnesses creaking and singletrees jingling. The heat from the spring sun intensified the familiar smell of horse sweat and manure and the fresh smell of newly turned sod. Back and forth.
Sometimes the horses flushed birds and rabbits from last years straw stalks. Sometimes George saw mice scurrying out of the way of the plow shears. Back and forth. Sometimes, he wondered what Myrtle would cook for lunch or if the baby was done cutting his tooth so they could get some sleep tonight. Sometimes he thought about how his brothers, homesteaders like him, would be over next week to help with some of the work that took more hands than his alone. Stop for a drink out of the canvas covered bottle hid at his feet, out of the sun.
Sometimes he thought about how he'd be gone several days when they needed help and hoped Myrtle would do all right while he was gone. Sometimes he didn't think much at all. Back and forth. Back and forth. The sun rose higher. It was hard to believe it was only late March. George's shirt stuck to his back. A rabbit ran for new cover. White flashed in a clump of straw ahead.
What? White? "Whoa," he told the horses before they overran whatever it was. The horses stopped, flicking their tails to whisk away the gathering flies. George jumped down from his seat, and walked ahead to the pile straw. He saw a small black and white bird hunkering down in its low nest, being every so quiet in the instinctual hope that nothing would see what didn't move. A magpie! He scooped it up and held the shuddering ball of fluff in his hand.
"Well, little one. What are you doing out here?" George knew that magpies usually build their nest up a bit higher off the ground in low brushy shrubs. "Well, I don't know why your parents chose the middle of a field for their nest, but little fellow, I have to plow it if we are going to have wheat later." With that he tucked the bird behind the bib of his overalls where he could feel it still shuddering a bit, but not making any effort to leave.
It was almost lunchtime so George unhooked
the plows and led the horses back to the barn, where watered and shaded, they
could wait while he had lunch. He could feel the small spot of warmth beneath
his bibs. It wasn't shaking anymore but occasionally, there was a tiny flurry
of ruffled feathers. George headed up the path to the two-room shack that he
called home. Only a year old and already, the unpainted boards were looking
gray and weathered. There was green along the path, but that would turn to yellows
as the season turned to summer. He walked around the big wood heating stove
they'd brought outside to make more room in the house now that the weather was
warmer, and stopped to clean up, using the water in the chipped metal basin
kept outside the kitchen door for just that purpose. The water was a dirty brown
before he was done but he didn't throw the water out. Myrtle would use it later
to water the few flowers she was trying to coax into growing on the shadiest
side of the house.
"Daddy, Daddy," Edith came running out the door, as naked as the day she was born. George grinned at her has he wiped his face on the towel.
Myrtle was right behind her, small white panties waving in her hand, "Edith, you come back here and finish up." Myrtle's black hair was escaping in damp, curly tendrils from its bun. Her apron and her nose were both dotted with flour, testifying that they'd probably have biscuits for lunch.
"Done." Edith announced, still running. "Hi, Daddy." Edith's mouth, so like her mother's wreathed in a smile as she reached George. Even at the risk of interfering with Myrtle's discipline, couldn't help but smile back.
"No your aren't. You aren't finished going pottie until you get your panties back on." Turning to George, Myrtle continued, "She'll take every chance she can to leave them off, you know. Now, don't coddle her!"
George bent down and gave her a hug then pushed her back to her mother, "Go now, get dressed. Daddy's all dirty from plowing anyway. And besides, I have a surprise for you and Mama."
Now!" Edith stood in front of her father and jumped up and down. "Want surprise now!"
"That's enough, young lady," Myrtle picked up the child with an arm around her waist and took her back into the house, legs dangling behind her. Looking back at her husband, she threw him a kiss and announced, "Lunch is nearly ready. Just let me get Miss Princess dressed. Oh, and, both of you be quiet, Georgie is asleep."
Now?" George asks. "Does that mean he be awake again tonight?"
"No, I don't think so." Myrtle dropped Edith down onto the floor and helped her into her rescued panties. In the heat and the privacy of their homestead, that small scrap of modesty was all the child needed. "Now you can go to Daddy." Straightening up, Myrtle smiled at George, "I think he is through teething for a while. Maybe we can all sleep tonight!"
"I hope so!" George felt the magpie shift a bit and remembered. "Oh, guess what I found out in the field." He smiled at his wife, thinking how lucky he was to have her. He was still amazed that this vivacious young woman, barely out of childhood herself, had consented to marry him, a staid old dry land homesteader, 15 years her senior.
"Surprise now." Edith interrupted his thoughts even before Myrtle could try to guess what he'd brought home.
"Patience, scamp." George smiled and taking her grubby hand, led her to the table in the center of the kitchen. "Climb up here, so you can see."
Edith scrambled up so that she was kneeling on a chair. "Now?" she asked.
"Is it something to eat?" Myrtle followed the pair to the table.
George grinned and shook his head. "No, I don't think this would make much of a meal!" And he pulled the bird out from its haven behind his bibs and held it down so Edith could see it but couldn't touch it.
At Edith's squeal of delight, George could feel the bird begin to shudder again. "Careful, honey, you'll scare it."
"Ohhh," Edith whispered, reaching, trying to pet the tiny bird. George held it out of her reach. "Just look, don't touch".
Myrtle was as impressed as Edith. She reached out and picked the baby from her husband's hands and held it to her chest. "Oh, poor baby." Looking at George, "Where'd you find it? Did you run over its nest? Did you see its parents? Oh, I'd better find something for a nest!" Still talking, Myrtle dashed off, then turned back and gave the bird back to George, "Here, you take it so I can find a box."
George, used to his wife's chatter, took back the bird and held it back down where Edith could see it. As Myrtle searched the cupboard he told them how about seeing the flash of white and discovering the unusual nest.
"Well, I'm glad you saved it. What are we going to name it? Do you think it is a he or a she? Can you tell? No, I didn't think so" This last in response to George's silent headshake. "How about Maggie?" Edith repeated, "Maggie" and the bird was named.
Myrtle, after digging around in the back room, reappeared with a small box, still talking. George sat with a quiet smile on his face, his usual response to Myrtle's excited chatter. "Oh, dear, what should I feed it? So many wild animals don't live. I do hope we can keep Maggie alive." She spun around and found some soft cleaning rags to put into the box for bedding. "I wonder if I should use a medicine dropper? I know I have one here someplace." She held the box out to George and he gently placed the bird into its new nest. "There you go," Myrtle put the lid on the box so the bird would feel a bit safer. "Maggie should be OK for a while now. Let's us eat and then I'll try to feed her. I'll just put her over here out of the way and get the food on the table." Sure enough there were biscuits.
Seated and eating, the small family continued to discuss Maggie. ""How about trying to feed it spoonfuls of bread soaked in milk?" George suggested.
"I don't know. Do you think she's strong enough for that?"
"Magpies are pretty strong, and a bit bigger to start than some birds. Give it a try anyway."
"I Bill. Oh, I'm so excited!" After the meal, Myrtle brought the box with the bird in it back to the table. She took a spoon and breaking a biscuit in half, she scooped its soft interior into a bowl of milk and stirred it into a mash. "Here, Maggie, food" Myrtle cooed as she tried to spoon the mixture into the birds mouth. It only took a couple of nudges with the spoon to generate the bird's natural reflexes and it opened its mouth wide.
Edith giggled in delight as she watched.
"No, not now." Myrtle hardly took her eyes off the bird as she talked. "Later, when Maggie is more used to us. Then you can feed her." Maggie squawked and held her mouth open in a demand for more food. Soon the dish was empty and the bird appeared ready to settle down for a nap in its new home. Myrtle replaced the lid and moved the box off to a counter at the side of the room. George returned to the field. Edith went down for her nap. Georgie woke up screaming. Everything was back to normal.
April: New Voices
"Here, Maggie," Edith stood on tiptoe to put some grass pulled from the greenest spot near her mother's flowers into Maggie's cage. "Awwk!" Maggie flew to Edith's shoulder, then into the cage to enjoy her "salad. The bird, about a month old now and growing into the size she'd be for the rest of her life hadn't needed Myrtle's biscuit mash for long. Soon she was thriving on table scraps and the grass Edith diligently searched out and pulled grass for her to, as Edith's mama said, "balance her diet".(photo)
Maggie thrived. George wasn't surprised for Maggie was only the latest in a list of pets Myrtle had collected and raised, from the usual sick farm animals to the less common like chipmunks and badgers. Myrtle seemed to have a way with animals. George accused her of collecting pets the way some people collect stamps. Cats, dogs, horses, cows, they all became Myrtle's pets and would do things for her that they'd do for no one else. Why should Maggie be any different? In turn, Maggie captivated the family. Although baby Georgie was too young to be impressed, Edith was excited over this new pet she considered her own. George's brothers came and went and became fans of Maggie's too.
When Maggie outgrew her little box, George
built a large cage for her of lumber scraps and chicken wire and raised it 3
foot off the ground on wooden legs to discourage wild animals from making a
quick meal of the bird. At first, the family kept Maggie in her cage right outside
the front door so she'd learn where home was. Then they let her out for increasing
amounts of time and finally, just left the door open so that Maggie had the
run of the farm. Her black and white wings flashing in the sun, she'd fly along
and light on Myrtle's shoulder or maybe Edith's. Although she was free to roam,
she still spent most of her time near the house, often perched atop her cage.
From here, she could see most of the farmyard, and if Myrtle had left the kitchen
door open, into the house.
"Maggie!" Myrtle's head popped up from her job of weeding the flower patch near the cage. "Edith, was that you?" she asked her daughter who was playing only a few feet away. "No, Maggie." Edith, busy playing, didn't even look up. While Myrtle knew that magpies were able to talk she also knew that most magpies never did. Still, it hadn't sounded like Edith's lisping voice. More like her own, in fact, a grown woman's voice, although there were no other women within miles of here. "Maggie!" There it was again. But this time, Myrtle was looking right at the bird and saw her speak. Jumping up, Myrtle dropped her garden trowel in the dirt and ran to the cage. Maggie, startled, squawked and flew away, only to fly back when Myrtle stopped and waited for her. "Oh, Maggie, how wonderful! Can you talk again?" Myrtle begged. But of course, Maggie, a bird who always did things in her own time, was silent.
Nevertheless, Myrtle, who'd always chattered to Maggie as she did to her children, increased her efforts. And Maggie responded. Soon George was confronted with two voices that sounded like his wife's and only by seeing the speaker, or judging the content, could he tell which was which. Maggie's repertoire of words, like Edith's, increased daily. "Hi, Maggie", "Maggie like some grass" "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty"…the farmyard resounded with Myrtle's ersatz voice. Maggie moved on to other sounds. To Myrtle's disgust, she had Georgie's cry down pat. More than once, Myrtle ran to rescue a baby who wasn't crying at all. Maggie could laugh like the men when they came in from the field or meow like the cat when he was hungry. She even imitated the rooster's morning cock-a-doodle-do and the barnyard animal's various noises.
May: Friends and Foes
Holding 5 month old Georgie, Myrtle stood in the kitchen doorway and watched Edith run down the path in front of the house. One advantage of living here on the edge of a wheat field was that Edith had a large, safe play area. Myrtle could see her anywhere between the house and the farm buildings half a city block away. She could see Edith now, her bib-overhauled legs pumping to run as fast as she could towards the barn.
"Stay close to the house, now." Myrtle called to Edith. Myrtle didn't want her out in the barnyard even if there were no animals around at the moment.
"Stay, Mama" Edith agreed, with a happy
smile, slowing down and circling off to go around to the side of the house instead
of away from it.
Myrtle put Georgie down on a blanket and sat down beside him to enjoy the warm morning sun for a few moments before she had to get busy preparing lunch for a crew of hungry men. Georgie was crawling now but he would stay on the blanket; he didn't like the foreign feel of grass and rocks. Myrtle knew that would pass all too soon and she'd be watching two children race away from her, but for now, it worked. "No, Georgie." Myrtle gently removed the rocks from his mouth and offered him a toy. He took the toy and chewed on it instead. Teething, again, Myrtle thought. Oh, dear. But right now he was happy and content. "Enjoy the moment," Myrtle told herself as she gave her son a hug.
Looking back to see where Edith had gone, she saw that her daughter had collected her usual menagerie. Coming out from behind the house, Edith was being escorted by Rocky, the big Plymouth Rock rooster on one side and by Sam, a tiger striped tomcat nearly as big as the rooster, on the other.
"Mama, Edith walk there?" the child asked, pointing the area on the side of the house away from the barn where the tilled land gave way a gently sloped but rocky gully. Edith liked to walk along the edge of the deep gully and look across the cars that traveled along the road on the other side.
"Yes, but stay where I can see you and don't climb down into the gully," Myrtle said. Then she added, "And come back when you reach the corner post." Even if Myrtle went inside, she could still see Edith if she went no further than that.
"Yippy!!" Edith yelled as she ran off, followed by Sam who raced along with his tail high and by Rocky who momentarily forgot his dignity and flapped his wings to keep up. The small parade was barely to the edge of the field when they were joined by a fourth member of their usual party. Maggie came flying from her perch on her cage, calling "Maggie, Maggie" as she circled the group with the white in her wings flashing before she flew down to settle on Edith's shoulder.
Edith giggled but kept on walking. No surprises here, this happened every day now. Both farm animals moved out a ways from Edith's side but otherwise they too ignored Maggie. But Maggie was not a bird to be ignored. Lifting from Edith, she flew the few feet to Rocky and settled on his back. Although Maggie was now a full grown magpie, no small bird, she'd been doing this since she was a fledgling, so Rocky took his rider with equanimity. Myrtle got the distinct impression that he was doing his best to pretend Maggie just wasn't there! Well, no fun here for Maggie so she lifted off again, flew a big circle around the yard and down again, this time landing on Sam.
Myrtle smiled. She remembered the arguments
the bird and the cat had before he capitulated and let her ride. Now Myrtle
could see that Sam's fur ruffled a bit, but otherwise, he did his best to ignore
the pesky but insistent bird. For a while Edith and her entourage traveled on
with Edith chattering to her friends and stopping now and then to squat and
check out an interesting rock or plant, Rocky stopping occasionally to peck
at an inviting bug, Maggie squawking occasionally, and Sam tolerating his rider,
with only the jerky wags of tail telegraphing his distress.
"Oh, oh," Myrtle told Georgie when she saw Maggie nip Sam's ear with her sharp beak. "The fat's in the fire now!" Sure enough, hissing, ears back (once Maggie let go!) and claws out, Sam turned on Maggie, rolling as he did to get her off his back. Maggie flew up, squawking indignantly, only to land beside Sam and threaten to nip another ear. For a few moments the two squabbled, but Sam knew from experience that he couldn't win, so finally he dashed off and the fight turned into a game of tag.
This too, was an old game now. Sam could
have hidden right away and ended the game quickly but he never did. Instead,
he led the bird around the yard, round and round the old wood stove, hissing,
fur ruffled and tail bushy. He yowled as he bumped a low leg on his way out
the other side. Maggie also enjoyed the game and followed the cat where he led,
even going under the stove instead of flying over it, squawking and feathers
flapping all the while. Finally, Sam tired of the game and ran off to hide.
Quiet came back to the yard.
Maggie flew back to Edith who'd been jumping up and down, cheering both of her pets on. Landing on her shoulder, she announced in Edith's shrill voice, "Maggie go for a walk." Edith giggled, and started walking again. Rocky, who never paid much attention to the shenanigans between cat and bird, had wandered off and found an inviting patch of bug filled grass. Now he returned and marched along with Edith. They hadn't gone far when Sam came running from wherever he'd hidden to nonchalantly take up his post at Edith's other side.
"Well, show's over. Time to go fix lunch," Myrtle told Georgie.
June: The Prize
|At first, Myrtle had nervously watched baby Georgie for fear Maggie would annoy him. Maggie was uninterested in anything so noisy and she seemed to know that he was not, like Sam, a worthy adversary. Besides, there were many other exciting things to get into or carry away. Myrtle claimed that mischief was Maggie's middle name. Shinny articles drew her like a magnet anything she could carry in her large black beak was fair game. And the family learned that when she wanted to be, Maggie could be as quiet and devious as she was noisy and raucous.|
One day in May, when George's brothers were there to take their turn helping him in the fields and Edith was playing with her dolls in the shade at the side of the house, Myrtle was washing the potatoes for dinner. Her back was to the door when Maggie, walking, pushed it open with her beak and entered the house ever so quietly. The family had learned to carefully close the door but this time, someone hadn't checked to see that it was latched. Maggie walked past Georgie in his homemade playpen without a glance although he crowed and waved his toy in welcome. "Good boy," Myrtle told her son without turning around to look at him, glad he was playing happily. Although Maggie was usually loud and raucous, she could be, as she was now, ever so quiet and unobtrusive. At George's wooden rocker, Maggie easily hopped the few feet to back, a perfect vantage point for watching the whole room and Myrtle's kitchen area in particular. She perched there, watching intently to see what might catch her eye.
Still unaware that she and Georgie were not
alone in the house, Myrtle pumped a bit of water into a pan, thinking how grateful
she was that the men had found water so near the house. They'd had to go very
deep, and the taste was alkaline, not up to Myrtle's Western Washington standards,
but it was water, and that was what counted. She put the pan on the stove and
soon the water was warm. While she waited, she mixed up the potato salad. Then
she used the warm water to rinse off her bowl and mixing spoon. If she kept
things washed up as she went, she'd found it took less water in the long run,
always an issue in this arid place. Placing the spoon on the rack beside the
sink, Myrtle turned back to the stove, moving the hot wash water to the coolest
part of the stove, wiping her brow as she did. When it was as hot as it was
now, Myrtle tried to keep her meals to cold foods as much as possible, but working
men something more hearty than sandwiches. Myrtle found a jar of home canned
beans in a cupboard under the counter George had made her. Using all her strength,
she twisted the ring off the jar. "My, goodness, Georgie," she said
glancing over at her son, "That was a hard one!" Easily popping the
lid off with strong fingernails, she poured the beans into a pan, added some
of the chopped onions she had left over from the salad and drizzled a bit of
bacon grease over the beans for flavor. This with the roast ham in the oven
and the potato salad should fill those men up, Myrtle thought. And a cake of
course. They always had to have desert!
While Myrtle remained intent on her cooking, Maggie's attention was on that shiny wet spoon. First, she just sat on her perch, turning her head from one side to the other so she could look at her chosen prize first with one beady eye and then the other. Then the bird began edging herself closer and closer, slipping from one chair back to another with unbelievable quiet, until she reached the counter where the silver lay. Then, grabbing the spoon in her big black beak and with wildly flapping wings, she made a mad dash out the now open door. "What in tarnation?" Myrtle looked up startled by the sudden noise and movement. "Maggie!" Myrtle knew immediately what had happened. "What did you take this time? Don't you dare run off with anymore of my silverware!" Waving a dishtowel, Myrtle is right out the door behind Maggie, trying to chase her down but knowing she has much chance of catching Maggie and recovering her spoon as Sam has to win a fight with Maggie. Maggie is long gone, and so is Myrtle's spoon. The next spring, when she was digging up her flower patch, she found the spoon wedged down it the dirt near the house.
July: The Razor
The older Maggie grew, the better she got at being able to filch things and the more diligent the family had to be to outwit her. In the shop, small hardware like screws, nuts, washers or bolts were fair game and disappeared continually, turning up in odd places at unexpected times as one or another of the family uncovered one of Maggie's hiding places. In the house, Myrtle was forced to watch her silverware zealously and loose hairpins went the way of the nuts and washers.
One of Maggie's most memorable snitches happened
on a Sunday. Two of George's brothers, Bill and Alson, had been helping out
and had stayed overnight. Sunday was the day the men cleaned up and scraped
a weeks worth of whiskers off their face. The family was planning to take the
1918 Dodge the 7 miles to church that Sunday.
"What you doing up so early?" Alson asked his big brother who was already up and walking around the bunkhouse.
"Aww, Myrtle wants us all to go to church today, so I thought I'd get my shaving done and over with before breakfast."
"Well, have at it." Alson turned
over and pulled the covers over his head.
Bill got his straight razor out of his bag, and stropped it a few times across the wide razor strap hanging from the door handle. Laying his razor on the shelf by his bed, he put his razor strap back into his bag, he pulled out his lather mug and brush. "Oh, hell! I forgot to go get water!" I'll have to go up to the house. Sure do hope they are up already." If they weren't Bill knew he could scoop some up from the basin Myrtle always left outside but it would be cold. Bill stumped out, limping a bit as he always did from the logging accident that had left his leg gimpy and brought him and his wife, Clyde, together.
At the house, the family was up and Georgie was in full voice, hungry and wanting to be fed. Bill got his water quickly and escaped. He wasn't much used to younguns that cried all the time. His only son was already school age. Clyde was no great shakes as a housewife, still, chaos didn't reign in her home the way it seemed to on a regular basis at Myrtle's, what with her more emotional nature, the two children and who knows what pets and all.
|Returning to the bunkhouse, Bill poured a bit of water into his lather mug before he put the container down on the floor. "I'll use the rest of that to wash off some of this field grime" he told himself. Picking up the mug, he used the bushy brush to mix the soap and water together into a nice lather and applied it to his face. Putting down his brush, he reached almost blindly to where he knew he'd laid his razor out, open and ready to use. "What the hell?" It wasn't there. Bill reached into his bag and pulled out a towel and wiped around his eyes so he could see better.|
No, it definitely wasn't there. Maybe it
fell on the floor. Bill got down and looked under the bed and all around. "Alson!
Are you up to your old shenanigans? Did you steal my razor?"
"Mmmfh?" Alson fought his way out of the covers and looked over at his brother with puzzled, sleep fogged eyes. "Your razor? Why would I want your razor? I've been trying to sleep here." And he laid back down and covered his head, only to pop it back out of the covers long enough to say with a grin, "But I did hear wings flapping just before you came back into the bunkhouse."
"Damn!" Bill sat on his bed, his face still covered with lather and wondered what to do next. He had no idea of where to look and he had to find that razor. It had been a gift from Clyde and he didn't want to loose it. Finally, he wiped the lather off his face and headed back up to the house. Maggie greeted him with an innocent squawk when he went past her open cage. "Yeah, sure, you were there all the time! I know you better than that, you thief. If you were my bird, you'd be soup by now," Bill threatened.
Myrtle, bustling around in the house, preparing breakfast for all of them, heard her brother-in-law talking to Maggie. "What did Maggie do now," she asked as Bill came in the door. "That bird stole my razor." He'd have used stronger words with George but their mother had taught them well that you didn't cuss around the women.
"Oh, no." Myrtle knew how special that razor was. Clyde had shown it to her before she gave it to Bill. "Well, maybe we can find it." She set the food off the stove. "Let's go." Looking over at Edith, she said, "Edith, come on, honey, let's go look for Uncle Bill's razor." Edith was playing with her doll. "Not now, Mama."
"Now!" Myrtle's firm voice moved Edith to lay down her doll and run to the door. "George!" Myrtle's voice raised to reach George in the back room, "We're going to look for Bill's razor. He thinks Maggie took it. Come help us as soon as you can, OK?"
"That blasted bird!" George's voice
came back. "Yes, I'll be out in a few minutes."
Leaving Georgie, who'd been fed and was satisfied
to loll in his playpen for the moment, Myrtle and Edith followed Bill outdoors.
"Where did you put the razor, Maggie?" Myrtle asked uselessly. Maggie
never told where she hid her prizes. "Well, let's fan out and take different
areas." Myrtle pointed towards the outbuildings. "Bill, you go look
that way. "Edith, where do you think Maggie would hide Uncle Bill's razor?"
Edith was often the best at finding Maggie's hiding places.
"Don't know, Mama." Edith looked at Maggie, than out around the yard. "I go look." And she trotted off to the other side of the house. Myrtle began looking around, looking for a flash of shiny razor blade. The razor had been open and as new as it was, it should shine. Hopefully, Maggie hadn't taken the time to cover it up when she hid it. Well, it wasn't hidden in front of the house Myrtle decided as Maggie watched her hunt. "You pesky bird," Myrtle berated her. Maggie squawked and flew over to sit on a fence post and watch the activity.
George came out of the house, pulling on his suspenders. "I'll go over to the fence line." He said. I thought I saw her flying out that way when I looked out the window about the time Bill was here getting water." And he ambled off in that direction, across the road and past the yard where the machinery was kept. He looked carefully around as he went and when he reached the fence line, he went to each fence post and checked carefully around it.
Like most birds, Maggie liked to sit as she was now, on a fence post surveying the area. George thought it was likely that she would fly to a fence post and rest while she decided where to hide her prize. And if Bill had burst out of the bunkhouse while she was there, maybe she would just drop the razor and fly off. As he was walking to his third post, he noticed a shiny patch of something sticking out of the dry dirt. "Maybe, just maybe," George thought. Then, closer, he could see the blade, bent almost closed now and mostly covered with dust. "I found it." He grabbed the razor, shook the dust off it and closed it carefully before he turned to run back to the house.
"Good for you!" Bill returned from
the barnyard. Myrtle and Edith came from where they'd been looking near the
house. "No thanks to you, though." This to Maggie.
"Here, let me wash it off." Myrtle
took the razor and washed it in the house front washbasin. "See,"
she told the waiting Bill, "Good as new!" "Thanks," Bill
said as he took the razor and left for the bunkhouse. "Don't forget to
latch the door!" Myrtle called after him. George laughed, but Bill only
With the family fed and in the car on the
way to church, only a few minutes late, Myrtle said, "Well, we've had quite
a day already, haven't we?"
August: Harvest Time
|The sun was a fireball in the sky, beating down with harsh rays on the dry, ready to harvest wheat. The heat seemed to intensify everything. That and the fact that this was such a big operation. When George plowed, he worked alone and his team consisted of 8 horses at the most. Now he and his brothers were operating their shared combine, pulled by 32 horses. So the animal smells were smellier and the harness sounds were louder. The combine added its own oily smells, creaks, rattles and thunks as its wheels turned, its gears ground, and its racks rotated to separate chaff and straw from the heads of wheat that were into a holding bin at the back. The aroma of fresh cut and crushed wheat surrounded it all.|
George was covered with dust and itching
from the wheat chaff that flew all around him. A grasshopper had just managed
to get inside his pants and set him to jiggling until he could find the varmint
and squash it. It was his turn to work as leveler inside the combine, making
sure the wheat was spread out on the racks evenly as it went into the thresher.
Alson was taking his turn on the teamster's perch high over the top of the team
of 32 horses that pulled the huge combine around the wheat field. Bill was down
on the ground, bagging the grain as he let it pour out of the small storage
bin at the back of the combine.
Maggie was flying escort with the combine and snapping up grasshoppers that swarmed from the cut wheat. It wasn't a bad year for grasshoppers but around the combine they were always heavy, making a regular feast for Maggie.
Bill judged the sack was full and closed the grain spout. He quickly sewed the bag shut and let it drop to the ground where it would wait for transport to a storage shed. He stepped back a moment, waiting to be sure there would be a whole bag of grain in the bin before he opened the spout again. "Hey, George. Does something sound different?" Bill yelled.
"What?" George heard Bill yell but couldn't understand him even though only the sidewall of the combine separating them. Bill repeated, yelling louder, "Listen to the combine. I think it isn't sounding right."
This time George heard him and Alson, further
away but out in the open did too. Alson answered, "Yeah, it has a new chunk.
Whoa, Whoa now." Alson pulled the team to a stop so he could get down and
check out the machinery. The combine was too expensive a machine to ignore anything
that could become a problem. Alson, the youngest of the brothers, was also the
most mechanically minded so he was the one who started climbing over the big
Cap, Bill's 7 year old son and this year's
water boy had been waiting at one side of the field so the men could have a
drink as they went by. When he saw the combine stop, he rode his pony over with
his canvas bag of air cooled water. George climbed gratefully out of the innards
of the combine. "Thanks, Captain", George rubbed Cap's shaved head
affectionately as he took a welcome swig of the cool water. Cap was the oldest
one of the growing crew of cousins, and the family had taken to calling him
"Captain", or Cap for short, because of his bossiness with the younger
children. But, George thought, Cap is a good little worker, for all of his know
it all attitude.
George, who made no bones about being much
more interested in horses than he was in machines, dropped down on the ground
to rest and wait for Alson to find out what was wrong. "I knew we shouldn't
a bought that contraption," he said to Bill. "The old stuff didn't
break down nearly as much as this one does. Now we're sitting ducks if a one
of those summer storm comes up.
"Yeah, we are." Bill agreed. Although
he wasn't mechanical either Cap was pulling him in that direction. "But
usually Alson can find the problem and fix it damn easy." Bill spat a long
brown stream of saliva and moved his wad of tobacca to the other side of his
cheek. "And we sure do get a lot more wheat threshed in a shorter time."
He moved around to get more of his body into the shade and leaned against the
"Yeah, when it works." George looked
up and saw Maggie flying in a clear blue sky. "Looks like the weather will
hold until we get this field in though." George glanced at Alson, who was
just climbing out of the combine. "If we can get this thing fixed, that
Alson ambled over and leaned against the
combine next to Bill. "Hey, where's the water, kid?" Cap came running
with his bag. Alson took the bag and chug-a-lugged a drink. "Ahhh, that
tasted good!" He grinned and rubbed Cap's shaved head although Cap tried
to avoid his hand. Cap hated this, but since his mother had shaved his head
for the summer, all the men had taken to doing it. "Thanks, kid."
"Well, what's the verdict?" George
"Looks like we should be able to fix
it in a couple of hours." Alson went on to explain what was wrong, but
both George and Bill didn't follow well.
"We'll take your word for it, bro"
Bill said with a grin. "If its only that long, guess we don't need to unhitch
the horses and move them to the barn."
George frowned, then nodded. He took good
care of his horses but he knew they were used to the sun and could tolerate
standing in it for that short time. "You tell us what to do and we'll do
it," he said. 'We gotta get this grain in." Turning to Cap, he continued,
"Cap, you go get some more water for the horses."
"Good idea," Bill said, nodding
to Cap. Then he turned back to Alson, "I got a field that needs processing
and so do you, Alson. If we don't get with it, we'll have wheat laying on the
ground where it won't do us a bit of good." When
the wheat ripened and the heads got too heavy, they pulled the stalks to the
ground where the combine couldn't get to them. This
and the threat of storms kept the men working long hours during harvesting season.
|Alson pulled his repair kit from its storage place on the combine. He handed George a screwdriver and Bill a wrench. "OK, you guys crawl under here," he pointed to a place at the rear of the combine, "and start taking out these bolts. We got to get this apart before I can fix it." Alson moved to the other side of the machine. "I'll start over here and do this side." He started around to the other side of the machine then turned back. "And lay all the fittin's out so we can find them easily when we want to put them back. Don't want to be scrabblin' in the stubble for those things."|
"Yes, boss," his older brothers chorused as they turned to their task.
Cap headed back to the house for the water and Maggie circled overhead. The horses stood patiently, their harneses creaking as they shifted from foot to foot. Cap would bring a wagon when he came back and have enough water to give each horse a sip. Maggie flew lower and landed on the front of the combine. George was holding the bolts with the wrench while Bill removed the nuts. Then Bill took them and laid them on a bandana he'd placed by him on the ground.
From her perch, Maggie could see the pile
of nuts and bolts that was growing in the bandana. The threads of the dull,
brown fittings were shiny from recent use and pulled Maggie's attention like
a magnet. Maggie eyed them with her head turned her usual one way and then the
other. Then, in her quiet stealthy mode, she floated down when Bill's attention
was on the bolt he was removing, picked up a nut and flew away.
The men worked away, hurrying to the best
of their ability and intent on their job. None of them noticed Maggie as she
returned time and time again to pick up a bolt or a nut and fly away with them.
"There," George grunted. "That's the last one here." He
crawled out from under the combine. Bill followed, wadding up his bandana and
pushing it to one side where they'd find it easily when time came to put the
part back. He never noticed that the bandana was awfully empty.
Cap came back and George helped him water
the horses. Bill laid in the shade and napped. Alson worked and swore and finally
said, "Well, I think I have it jerry-rigged so it will hold up now until
we can get a new part here." It seemed longer to the men who were feeling
the pressure of time, but it had really only been a half hour since they'd crawled
out from under the combine and Alson had taken their place so he could reach
up into the innards of the machine. Maggie was nowhere in sight.
George and Bill prepared to replace the part
they'd removed earlier. Bill crawled under the combine and grabbed his bandana.
"Hmmm, sure feels light," he muttered. He opened it up and sure enough,
there were only a few nuts and bolts there. "Wonder if they got spilled
out." Bill started looking around near the bandana, but he could see no
metal on the ground.
"What's the matter?" George was waiting to crawl under too but Bill was in the way.
"Somehow most of the hardware's is gone."
Bill told him. "I looked around here on the ground but they ain't here.
"Oh, no." George knew immediately
what had happened. He looked around for the culprit, but she wasn't long gone.
Not that it would have done any good to find her now, they knew.
Alson looked at the fittings that were left. "Won't do no good to try to put that part back with no more to hold it on than that. It'll just shake off." He looked up in disgust at the sky where Maggie'd been a good share of the day. "You got any more in the shed, George."
"Not enough." George was certain.
"Well, then, I'll have to go to town
and get more. I'll get that new part we need at the same time." Alson was
putting up his tools. "I guess we're done for today." He took out
his pocket watch. "Three o'clock. We can make it to the store in town but
we'd better not mess around."
"Take my car," George said. "I'll
stay here and put the horses up."
"I'll help George," Bill said.
"You don't need help getting the stuff do you?"
"Naw." Alson headed for the house
and George's car.
George and Bill unhitched the horses and
walked them to the barn. By the time they had them cooled off and fed, it was
time for an early dinner. If Alson got back in time, they would be out in the
field fixing the combine that evening.
But Alson didn't back before dark. "They didn't have just the right part," he explained. "But I think this one will do just fine, now that I had them adjust it some."
It took a good part of the next day to replace
the damaged part and put everything back.
That night George complained to his wife, "That dadgum Maggie cost us a day's work and then some. I wish I'd never brought her home to you!" Then he grinned. "It's a good thing she's as agile as she is. Bill tried to catch her and wring her neck. I'd have helped him if I'd thought we coulda done it, I was so mad right then."Myrtle laughed with her husband at the thought of anyone catching Maggie when she didn't want to be caught.
|The cabin was located near a canyon and directly across the canyon, many miles away by by foot or horse, but a much shorter distance away as the crow flies, ran a road. As the cars and horse pulled buggies went by, Myrtle could see them from her kitchen window and see clearly who was driving. She'd wave to her neighbors as they passed.|
One day in September, Myrtle put her two children out in front of the cabin to play in the sand and the meager grass. Edith was almost 3 and Georgie was crawling well. From her kitchen window, Myrtle could see their heads bobbing up and down as she washed her dishes but she really wasn't paying much attention to what they were doing until she noticed that several cars had slowed down as they drove past her house. "That's odd,"she thought.
Putting her dishcloth down, she wiped her hands on her apron and walked over and peered out the kitchen door. "Ah, ha!" she exclaimed. No wonder the cars were slowing down. Edith had removed all of her clothes and all of the baby’s clothes and had managed to coax him into the big tin washtub that the family used for bathing every Saturday. She was pouring hands full of sand into the tub and pretending it was water. As her mother watched, she climbed into the tub herself. Myrtle ran out to the tub. She scooped up her son and shooed her naked daughter into the house and ended the sideshow for the neighbors driving by.
Maggie flew along beside them, squawking, "No, no, Edith. No, no", her usual litany when Edith got into trouble.
Maggie was a large bird now, even for a magpie. She was well fed, what with all the table scraps she was given and those she cadged or stole as well.
Maggie liked watching the cars on the road across the canyon and she'd squawk a greeting to them as they went by. But even more, she liked to hitch a ride on the roof of the family car when someone drove it to town.
One day in late September, Myrtle was taking the Dodge into town for groceries. "Come along Edith," Myrtle placed 9 month Georgie in the seat beside her where she could watch him and held the back door open for Edith. "Come ON," she said again. Edith gave one last pat to the cat and waved to Maggie who was perched on her cage and watching all the bustle with her usual interest. Finally, everyone was stowed in the car and ready to go.
Myrtle loved driving the car as much as George
hated it. They probably wouldn't have a car at all, Myrtle thought as she drove
along the rutty road, if he had his way. Too much like his father, I guess.
His father had worked with horses all his life, as a teamster, a horse rancher
and even as a logger, and he never had much use for mechanical 'contraptions'.
As the family sped down the canyon road they didn't know they had a hitchhiker. Usually Myrtle made sure Maggie wasn't riding along when she planned to be going far. But today, she'd been in such a rush that she'd forgotten to check. Miles down the road, they turned off towards town.
The road was better now and Myrtle speeded up. She loved the feel of the speed and George was always getting after her for going too fast. As the car sped up, faster and faster, it became more and more difficult for Maggie to hang on. This wasn't unusual--it was the way Maggie often left the car, pulled away by the wind when she could no longer fight the current. Then she'd spiral away, up and back to the ranch. But this time was different. She never returned.
The family never saw Maggie again. Did she hit something? Did she just fly off to more adventures somewhere else? No one ever knew, and she left a big void in the family's lives. Edith missed her constant companion; Myrtle missed the raucous commentaries Maggie made as she watched the family and George who was sure he'd never miss the pesky bird if she ever left, please God!,was surprised to find that he missed the spice her mischief gave to his life. In the years that followed,Myrtle and George had many a chuckle remembering that summer.