“Ah, this kid’s going to be useless. Look how scrawny he is.”
“Shut up Billy,” Tim Boyd said. “I’ve seen him playing in the lofts with his brother and Bobby and know he’ll do fine.”
“Making a fort and doing a day baling ain’t the same thing and you know it, Tim,” Billy Boyd said. “Look over at our cousin Chris there. Now there’s a born baler. Real muscle on him. No muscle on that Chad kid.”
“Sure, and Chris has seven years on ‘im. You hired Chad and I think you did OK. Give the kid a chance.”
Chad looked up at the two young men as they stood shirtless on the hay wagon, sweating in the August sun. Billy towered over his older brother Tim and looked chiseled from a block of granite. Chad had rarely seen anything except a dark scowl on his face and those few times Billy smiled were very uncomfortable. The smile seemed a warning that would send a grizzly running to the hills. Truth be told, the 20 year old man intimidated the hell out of all of the kids and Chad always seemed to bear the brunt of his tirades.
“Bobby talked me into it against my better judgement,” Billy said.
“Hey, smart ass, I’m no longer a kid, my name is Rob, OK?” said the 13 year old Rob Boyd. “And yeah, Chad’ll do fine. He might need a rest on occasion, but hell, so did I my first time out balin’.”
“Shut up Bobby, I’ll call you what I want and when I want,” Billy said. “And baling ain’t no place for an eight year old.”
“I’m 10,” Chad said, but felt small.
“Eight or ten, ya better not mess up, hear?” Bobby said.
“Shut up Billy and give the kid a chance,” old man Boyd said. He had just walked over from where he had been working on the baler. “I’m about to git started and don’t want y’all bickering, hear? Margret, ya ready?”
“Shore, wheneva ya give the word.” Margret was Billy’s wife. She had grown up next door to the Boyds and had dated Billy off and on since grade school. They got married just out of high school. Rob told Chad and his brother Steve that it was a shotgun wedding. Chad wasn’t sure what that meant, but Rob sometimes called Emily, who was born four months after the wedding, “the Little Shotgun”.
Old man Boyd was on the ancient John Deere pulling the baler slowly down the row of fresh mowed hay. A bale popped out. Soon another one emerged.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” Rob said. He grabbed the first bale and lugged it to the wagon that Margret had pulled up as close as possible to the new bales. He heaved it up onto the wagon and Tim nabbed it, pushing it to the front of the wagon and the start of the first row.
Chris grabbed the next bale and made a huge show of how light he thought the bale was.
“Hey wimp, stop hanging back and grab the next one,” Billy yelled over to Chad as he took the bale away from Chris.
“Don’t listen to him and wear yourself out too early,” Chad’s 12 year old brother Steve said. “I baled last year and didn’t make it half way through the day. Pace yourself.”
Chad grabbed a bale. It was heavier than he expected. He lugged it over to the wagon and had trouble getting up to the flat. Steve’s bale landed right behind his.
“Now that was just pathetic,” Billy said. “I might as well have Emily out here doing that.”
Chad went back and grabbed another bale and brought it up. It was still heavy, but he was figuring out how to carry it so it didn’t feel as bad and use the momentum from walking to get it onto the wagon.
“Come on kid, you’re holding up your brother behind you,” Billy said. “I want to be finished before sundown, hear?”
After the third bale Chad took his shirt off. He didn’t care that he was thin and scrawny compared to the other kids, it was hot. He also wanted to use his shirt to protect his hands. The twine from the bales bit into his hands every time he lifted one and using his shirt helped.
“Need to protect your piano playing fingers? Ya need to do more real work and build up calluses, kid.”
“Hey Billy,” Tim said as he placed a bail on a row almost at his head height. “Why don’t you tell him about the first time you did some baling back when you were 11? I’m sure he’d love to hear how well you did.”
Margret chuckled from the tractor seat and Billy scowled.
“Shut up, I know what I’m doin’,” Billy said.
On the next round Chris dropped his bale so Chad passed him, putting his bale up on the edge of the wagon just behind Rob. A little later Chad passed Chris again as he was sitting on his bale, wiping the sweat from his brow. A little later he passed him a third time. On his way to grab the next bail Chad didn’t see the older boy, just the abandoned bale that Rob was picking up. Looking up he could see the teen limping across the field, heading home.
There were a few short breaks during the day for water and to fix the old baler and make sure there was enough twine. Chad was about ready to give up when he noticed the tractor had stopped again, but this time there was no more mowed hay to pick up, the field was bare.
Billy took the last bale from Steve and effortlessly placed it on the stack far above his head. The wagon was over full.
Satisfied it was all done, Chad started walking home. In a minute the hay wagon caught up to him. All of the others were sitting on a bench made by a row of bales at the back of the wagon.
“We’re you going kid?” Billy called down.
“Home,” Chad said.
“No ya ain’t. I’m not done with you yet. Give me an arm.” Billy reached down, grabbed one of Chad’s arms and pulled the boy onto the back, almost pulling his arm out of the socket in the process. Chad sat down at the end of the row, next to Billy.
“OK kid, I’ll admit ya done pretty good for an eight year old,” Billy said.
“I’m 10,” Chad said.
“For a 10 year old, hell Billy,” Tim said. “I know plenty of grown men who couldn’t have kept up with this kid. And our worthless cousin you bragged about… Ouch! Why did you hit me?”
“As I said, ya done pretty good,” Billy continued. “I want you to come back to the farm with me. Margret made some fresh lemonade this morning and I’m shore she’ll let ya have some. As we sip lemonade I’ll tell you the story about when I was 11 and baled for the first time….”
“Make sure you tell the real story,” Tim said.
“…and if ya don’t snicker and ya act real sympathetic and all I’ll double your pay,” Billy said. “However, if ya dare to laugh at the 11 year old me…”
Chad looked up at Billy. The man was giving him the grin that made most people afraid for their lives.
“…well, if ya have the balls to laugh at me, I’ll pay ya triple.”
Chad could hear Tim Boyd on the other side of the mountain of a man chuckling.
“After the story I’m sure Margret will tell you why you should stay away from my no good brother, Bobby.”
“Hey, what’s that about? And call me Rob!”
“Shut up Bobby,” Tim said. Billy snorted.
“Yeah, I hate to admit, but ya done OK, kid.” Chad looked up at the big man next to him. Billy was scowling, like usual, but Chad could see the lines of merriment around his eyes.
Chad leaned back against the wall of hay and watched the field of stubble pass behind the wagon. He had never been as hot and tired in his entire life, but he had also never been so satisfied with himself, with life.