by Teague Bohlen
It was fall, and fall meant thrashing. Traveling thrasher-crews had appeared again like spring corn as farmers found themselves without money to purchase their own equipment, or to repair what they already had. So the first thrashers, the tank-like monsters of old technology, were brought out again, repaired, greased, and put on the road and up for hire. They were huge, all gears and belts and teeth, manned by either boys or desperate men, both willing to work long hours for short pay. Reese Moss was the former, Tom Horseman the latter. On the thrasher together, they became friends that autumn, bound by common labor, and near the end of the fall, by common tragedy.
Reese was sixteen years old, and his father still worked the Moss family fields. Reese loved the smell of the place, especially in the autumn, when everything finished its slow but certain arc toward use. Kernel to leaf to stalk to husk to plate—that was the way of things. He liked the idea that the beans he walked became someone's noon soup, or the corn he detassled became someone's supper, roasted and slathered in butter and salt. He understood enough about crops to know that these dinner-table visions were nothing but whimsy—the beans were processed into oil, and the corn was mostly fit for feeding livestock, but the idea of it was what mattered. He was doing something, and the thrasher was the last part, the golden part, with the chaff floating in the air and the yellow blur of field after field after field. It smelled like life. Reese mentioned this once to Tom, who laughed at him. “Life?” he said. “Everything around you is dying.” Tom cleared his throat and spit into the stalks.
Reese paid him no mind. Tom was like that. They’d moved in the same circles those past few months, looking for work and often finding it together, walking beans out near Taylorville, working a hay baler near Bethany, and most recently, manning the thrasher. They’d come to know each other as men who labor together often do—the rhythm of a pitchfork swing, the smell of a sweat-soaked shirt, the grunt of a back heaving.
They worked the thrasher all over Illinois, farm to farm, and the work had led them right back home to Moweaqua. They had both been born there, and knew the town well—the streets, the stores, the ways of people and the people themselves. Tom talked about their return as though it would be a sort of homecoming, a parade for Moweaqua's favorite sons home from the outlying fields, men who had dared to brave the plains, to survive outside the comforts of home. People would give them free coffee with sugar cubes, offer them jobs working their farms. Like men coming home from war.
Reese let him talk as usual, but thought it would be enough just to sit in the shade of the elm near his house, or go down to Stroh's Pool Room on Main just to hear the ivory balls clicking together sharply over the low murmur of the men who gathered there. The Pool Room was the most indecent place in town—even before Prohibition—and every Moweaqua man loved it for that. Stroh’s was one of the few places in town that didn't cotton to the Volstead Act, having a supply of whiskey readily available upstairs where they set up the duck pins. It was almost always full. It was where Reese’s father had brought him on his twelfth birthday, bought him licorice whips and root beer from Ben Hudson's Drugs across the street, and brought him into Stroh’s. Reese sat in the line of chairs against the north wall, the ones raised up on a short step to better see the green felt of the tables and watch how the balls rolled over it like water on greased metal. Reese’s father winked at him while he worked the table, and right before they went back home, taught him how to hold a cue. Reese remembered every second of it, the smell of cherry tobacco, the smooth wood of the chair, the gunshot of a good break, the promise not to tell his mother. Reese saw himself doing the same for his own boy someday. He thought of it whenever he went into Stroh's Pool Room, whenever he racked the perfect ivory balls, whenever he tasted licorice.
Tom had no family. The only son of immigrant parents, his mother had died in childbirth. His father supported them by working odd jobs around town until he finally landed permanent work in the Moweaqua Coal Mine. It was a deep mine with a coal house and tipple atop the shaft, and it employed nearly a hundred and fifty men. But Tom's father was killed there in 1926, crushed under falling slate, when Tom was sixteen. From then on, Tom lived alone in the shack his father had built, surviving by working odd jobs, stealing when he had to. He swore that he would never set foot in the mine. Not ever.
“Bad place, Reese,” Tom told him one night while they were drunk on homemade whiskey. “Bad place.”
“I don’t see why,” Reese said. “Doesn’t seem like such a bad job.”
“Let me tell you something about the mine,” Tom slurred. “My father once told me about this block of almost pure coal that they brought up outta there. Back in ’24. And when they hoisted it out of that hole, they saw something scratched into one side. Four numbers. Six. Six. Six. Six.”
“Wow,” Reese said, because it seemed like the thing to say. “What did that mean?”
“What it meant,” Tom pointed, “was that it was one more six than the number of the beast.”
“Oh,” said Reese. And then, “But what does that mean?”
“Bad place,” Tom shook his head and took another swig. “Bad place.”
Reese was also alone, though his parents still lived. His father was a struggling farmer, working his land on the northeast side of Moweaqua, barely able to feed himself, Reese’s mother, and their livestock. Reese felt an obligation to find his own way, even if he had no idea what that way might be.
Tom and Reese found work at the Stombaugh place to the southwest of town, out where Flatbranch Creek ran. Old Stombaugh's thrasher had quit on him, and hiring the team was cheaper than getting the old one fixed. It was a five-man team: Reese and Tom; a kid Reese's age named Wozniak who everyone called Woes because it seemed to fit his long, troubled face; a dull-headed boy of eighteen named Stupak, with thick arms and tree-trunk legs; and Fiddler, the group elder at thirty-five, whose real name was Fiedler, and didn’t know one end of a fiddle from the other. Tom, Reese, Stupak, and Woes were the muscle of the team, the feeders working the forks, and Fiddler was the spoutman. Two worked the ground, heaving the wheat by the forkfull onto a platform, and the two up top scraped the sheaves in a bunch at a time. Chaff filled the air, and the grain spilled out the other side like a shower of gold into a wagon minded by the spoutman. They worked from dawn till dusk, Sundays off. On their third day, Fiddler fell sick with the flu and couldn't work the wagon. So Old Jules called in another man to take his place. He was a stranger from St. Louis.
Tom wasn't much for strangers. Neither was anyone else on the crew. A new man disrupted the cadence of the job, threw everyone off in his attempts to fit in. Either his swing with the fork was too slow, or his pace was too fast, or he talked too much, or tried to be too friendly. Anything new was a nuisance, possibly a danger. And so the men on the crew disliked strangers despite the fact that they had all themselves been one at one time or another. Almost by custom, they disliked this new man before they even met him, simply because he wasn't Fiddler.
It was sunup when they met, and the fields were quiet, aside from a cold wind coming up from the south. Tom and Reese stood closest to the road, while Woes and Stupak sat on the platform of the thrasher, talking quietly as the machine warmed up beneath them. The stranger walked up, slow and alone, wearing only a yellow rain-slick. The coat was shining, dew-touched. It looked new.
Tom nodded to the stranger, but the man in the yellow coat said nothing, his face pointing toward the earth as though he were counting his every step.
"Morning," Reese said loudly. The stranger was still a few good strides away. It struck Reese that the man's face looked like a bird’s: sharp, thin, perhaps weak. His nose was long and came to a crooked ball at its tip, and the man wore a few days worth of beard. His hair was sparse and dark, his manner the same. The man nodded.
"You in charge here?"
"No." Tom said, and crossed his arms over his chest. “I am.”
"What's the job?"
"Didn't Jules tell you?"
"Just that you needed a man to work for a day or two."
"Reckon I am."
There was a quiet, then, a tension hanging in the air like an icicle waiting to fall. Reese put out his hand. "I'm Reese. Good to have you here while Fiddler is down with flu. It’s tough work with five, let alone four."
"Flu, huh?" the stranger said, taking Reese's outstretched hand weakly and shaking almost imperceptibly before letting loose. "What do you need done?"
"You ever worked a thrasher before?" Tom's arms were still across his broad chest.
"Been years, but yeah."
"Round eight. But it was one just like that one over there, what those two is sitting on."
"Done any farming in the meantime?"
"What you been doing since?"
The stranger paused. He started to speak, but caught himself. When he finally did answer, he spoke softly, scratching his head. "Mr. Jagerston already asked me all this."
"Mr. Jagerston ain’t here right now. Hell, he ain’t never here. We are. We work this thing. You don't know how to work a thrasher, then you got no business being here, I don't care what the hell Jules says.” Tom took a few steps toward the stranger. “So I’m going to ask you once more. What you been doing since?”
The stranger paused again, and licked his front teeth. "I had some trouble with a man."
Tom cocked his head to one side and squinted.
"What kind of trouble?" Reese asked.
The stranger shook his head. "It's over now."
Reese looked at Tom. He was staring slit-eyed at the stranger. "What's your name, fella?" Tom asked one last time.
Tom nodded, as though that were all the information he needed, and turned to walk back to the thrasher without another word. Reese took one more look at Jacobs, and then followed. He could hear the stranger fall in step behind him.
The sun warmed the morning, and the crows combed the fields, diving, snatching, and flying away again. Each man took a fork and they tried to explain the routine, but Jacobs was impatient, and seemed to know his way around. Reese took position up by the feeder. It was the best view that the job offered. Down on the ground where Tom mostly worked, a man could see little but the wheat, a dizzying blur of yellow sheaf and black tine against the gunmetal backdrop of the thrasher. They were supposed to take turns, but Tom never wanted to switch, which meant that Reese could stay up top for most of the day. It was up there that Reese felt the most at home.
Jacobs fell into the team’s rhythm, feeding the wheat into the ever-chewing maw of the thrasher with a steady pace. Since Fiddler was the one who usually talked while they worked, his presence was missed. Instead of the usual talk about Hoover's mistakes, how Roosevelt’s New Deal was going to save the country, the conversation lagged until Stupak got on a roll about game three of the World Series. It had been over a month since the Babe had broken the tie in the fifth by pointing to the flagpole on the right of the scoreboard in center field, and then hit the next pitch into the Wrigley stands.
"The beginning of the end for the Cubs," Stupak lamented. He was a baseball fan like no other, having once made a trip up to Chicago just to see a double-header, sleeping in a city park and hitching a ride back the next day. Spent all the money he had doing it, too, but he said it was worth it. Stupak had seen his team, and it was all he wanted.
Everyone but Jacobs had heard the story before, and none of them wanted to hear it again. But Stupak was on a roll. "But there's always next year, right? I mean, the Cubs, they were good this year, real good. If they can keep that play up, maybe they can put old Ruth down next fall. Right, Jacobs? What do you say, old man?" Stupak, who by this time was taking his turn working up top next to Jacobs, slapped him on the arm as he said it, and Jacobs bridled like someone had just insulted his mother. He said nothing, but glared at Stupak for a long moment before returning to work.
Stupak flipped up the bill of his ball cap. "Oh, that's right, you're from St. Louis, ain't you? Probably a Cardinals fan. Hey you guys," he called down, laughing, “you hear this? We got ourselves a Cardinal fan!”
This time Jacobs fully ignored him, but Tom didn't. "Give it a rest, Stupak, and get back to work. We’re losing sun,” he shouted over the running grumble of the machine.
What happened next happened slowly, like time itself stretched out to allow it room. Or maybe it only seemed that way in retrospect, as they thought of it alone and spoke of it together, this small band of men, whispering over steaming cups of coffee. What happened next was this. Stupak, a strong boy but a boy nonetheless, began working with excessive force, with exaggerated movements. He was angry, and forked a load of wheat and threw it toward Jacobs' feet. Jacobs picked it up with his fork and fed it to the thrasher as Stupak turned to get more. The rhythm was off, the pattern disrupted. When Stupak came around with another forkfull of sheaves, Jacobs was just barely out of his way. Stupak was going too fast, or Jacobs too slow—there would be disagreement on this point later—but whatever the case, when Stupak came around to dump the wheat again, Jacobs' arm was still there.
Stupak reacted too late, tried to shift the pitchfork so as to miss Jacobs, but still put the right tine fully through his forearm. Stupak jerked the fork back quickly, and Jacobs’ blood followed, running down from wrist to hand to wheat. Stupak muttered something, then, maybe an apology, but no one could hear it. It was the last thing the boy would ever utter. Without a word, Jacobs pulled his fork up, some red, wet wheat still clinging at the end, and thrust its tines directly into Stupak's throat. The boy dropped his pitchfork. His hands fell to his sides. He shuddered, his body jerking violently. The stranger let go of the fork, and Stupak crumpled off the side of the platform, falling like a shot duck, heavy and limp.
Reese and Tom looked at each other, stunned, each hoping to find some retraction of what had just happened in the face of the other. They both jumped for the platform at the same time, but Reese was faster. When he got up top, Reese saw Jacobs just standing there in the wheat and the blood, gazing down at Stupak’s body. Jacobs looked up at Reese then, with dull eyes and slumped shoulders, like there was nothing left in him. His mouth was open slightly, his lips moving like he was trying to say some small thing, but no sound came. Reese lunged without knowing exactly what he was doing, throwing a clumsy punch. Jacobs brought his arm up to block the attack, and used his other to push Reese hard. Reese teetered dangerously close to the wide, grinding mouth of the thrasher, but fell to the right and hit the wheel hard on the way down. He heard Tom bellow something guttural from above; from below, something in his knee snapped as Reese’s leg struck the ground at an angle. The pain took the world away.
When Reese looked up again, Tom was silhouetted, tall against the darkening sky like an angry god. Reese held his knee, trying to catch his breath. Woes was nearby, rocking and moaning over Stupak, whose eyes were wide open, looking for all the world like he was following a well-hit ball up in Wrigley. But his neck was all wrong, torn and bloodied, unrecognizable as something that once held voice. Tom paused, and looked at Reese in a way that gave him chills. It was a look of decision—or was it opportunity? Tom charged at the stranger, who made no effort to defend himself, still just standing there in his yellow rain-slick, spattered with blood. Tom picked him up as one would pick up a child, and heaved him directly into the mouth of the feeder. Jacobs fell as though he were dead already. No clamoring for foothold. No flailing for his hands to find purchase. No last grasp for life. He simply fell back into the teeth and the gears and the blades, the way of the wheat.
Reese watched from where he lay in the blood and the broken dirt and the chaff. He looked over at Woes; his friend’s head was buried in his hands. Tom looked down at Reese, sweat dripping from his hair like rainwater. He nodded, and then looked away.
"Shut it off, shut it off!" Woes screamed. The spout choked with human debris: the pink of flesh, the ochre of innard, the white of crushed bone. Brackish blood seeped down into the grain wagon, clumping. Tom moved slowly, but did as Woes asked. The thrasher slowly thrummed to a wet halt.
"It's all right now,” Tom said. “It’s over.”
Reese sat in the shadows of the hulking machine, now awash in wet crimson and dusty gold. The sun was behind the thrasher, which was a dark thing now, nothing but shadow. He could hear the last sputters of the machine powering down, Woes crying, the sound of his own hard breath. He braced himself on the wet soil with one arm, and cradled his knee with the other. It throbbed, and Reese’s hand could do no good for it, but he kept it there anyway. Reese wanted to feel something else, anything else, but there was only the pain. The rest of him was numb and cold. Reese thought, instead, of licorice whips and the sound of ivory balls clicking together, how perfect that was, how wonderful, and how far from here it seemed.
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