The Dispatched

Photo: © Olga Breydo. All Rights Reserved.

By midday, Caleb had no idea where his crew was, but he knew they weren’t in Ottie’s watermelon patch. The low vines that crept along the soil in search of water offered no relief from the sun. A man who tried to lie beneath that leathery ground cover would find nothing but sunburn. Caleb didn’t have to check to know that the broad leaves concealed only melons and panting rabbits.

He knelt for a moment by the edge of the plants and felt the coarse under-fur of the leaves between his fingers, prickly and soft at the same time. Above him loomed a series of sprinklers mounted on posts. The patch was kept lush through generous irrigation. Left to the heat of July the vines would vanish, just like his crew, beneath the relentless sun.

His first summer in Hermiston, a drought had devastated the small garden his mother planted behind their trailer. The county didn’t allow watering in their area. Still, she made him kneel on the hard soil with her each morning while she tried to salvage the remains. They vainly tended the shriveled plants, unwilling to give up on the promise of the fresh tomatoes, green beans and corn that surrounded them, and that they could not afford to buy. But without water, the effort was useless.

The early afternoon heat scorched the earth around his feet as Caleb surveyed Ottie’s patch. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief from his pocket and absently scanned the horizon for his missing crew. The ground south of the field blemished with the stubs of last year’s vines looked barren and dead. Clouds of dust wafted up from the land with even the slightest of summer breezes. Nothing stirred out there in the rippling air.

Caleb had been promoted to foreman three seasons ago, when Ottie discovered his two years of high school Spanish. In theory, he could communicate all of the old man’s wishes and jokes to the field hands. His work around the farm was now less strenuous, but Caleb found the managerial position exhausting. He should have asked to drive the delivery truck to Portland instead. Leave early every morning, with Woody Guthrie crackling through the speakers. Watch the sun rise illuminating the city’s skyline. Chat up the suppliers and enjoy the streets teeming with life, not dust. Alone in the cab for hours, he would be responsible only for himself, not worrying about the labor of other men, or the productivity of someone else’s land.

The farm’s stand stood in the distance, a faded pole building stained by the red dust blown against it, situated just off the gravel service road. There were no windows, just screened openings covered by plywood shutters when the wind kicked up in the late afternoon. As trucks passed the junction of I-84 and I-82, they rattled the stand so violently that you’d swear they were coming through the back at any moment.

Cars of families stopped, enticed by Ottie’s big wooden sign shaped like a large watermelon slice. Season after season, Caleb watched as husbands and wives argued in hushed tones, carrying on disagreements that had started miles away. Women eyed the Honey Buckets and tried to decide if they could hold out for the next stop. Their children ran about the stand, kicking rocks and tracking grasshoppers.

Ottie’s daughter Lauren would be in the stand now, sitting on a cooler and fanning herself. He pictured her strawberry blonde hair pulled tightly in a braid, its tip resting at the nape of her neck. Her freckles had faded over the years, or she concealed them with makeup, he wasn’t sure which. Caleb remembered when she was a shy 10-year-old in pigtails. He had been a gangly, 16-year-old kid when he started to work for Ottie. Back then, if she didn’t have her nose stuck in a book, she was holding picnics with her stuffed animals on the dried lawn. She called him Beanpole, mimicking her father.

Periodically, Lauren would cut new, sweet triangles from a sample melon stashed in the cooler, and pile them on a tray near the register. She would talk with the customers and help them select a good melon, making a show of placing her ear on the variegated shell and knocking, before ringing up their purchases. For large stretches of the day her only duty was to sit and listen to the highway. Behind her, the rows of melons picked fresh that morning stretched out on wooden tiers, as if the fruit were sitting in a grandstand watching her perform.

In the fall she would return to college in Eugene. Ottie boasted that his little girl was going to get a business degree, then come back and run the farm with him. But Ottie could have taught her everything she needed to know. Besides, Caleb doubted that Lauren had even a passing interest in presiding over the watermelon patch and roadside stand. He suspected she had more ambition than that.

Caleb remembered his own attempt to get out. He was on spring break from high school, and out to prove the guidance counselor wrong. Join the army, she advised Caleb, or you’ll never amount to anything more than a field hand. And you’ll never leave Hermiston.

Hitchhiking and hoofing, he’d made it as far west as Memaloose State Park the first night. Still early in the season, the place was deserted except for the ranger waiting to take campsite deposits. He leaned out the window of his booth, watching as Caleb walked around the outer rest stop. Nervous that the ranger might call a highway patrolman, Caleb decided not to linger near the road. Looking back on it now, he wondered why he thought the ranger would care. No one in Hermiston had even noticed he was gone.

Instead of staying in the park, he’d made his way to the railroad tracks that hugged the bank of the Columbia River. He stood near the water and marveled at Memaloose Island. It looked like a body lying on its side, legs bent at the knees. He’d learned in school that the island was an Indian burial site, and he wondered how many spirits were in the air that night, spirits of people who hadn’t tied themselves to one place, who wandered the land freely as they followed each passing season, with no one telling them their limits. He had laughed. Even then, Caleb knew that was all movie Indian bullshit.

Freight trains came by his camp and he considered hopping one. But none ever passed slowly enough to allow him to overcome his fear and leap. They rumbled through without him on their way to Portland. Caleb sat in the brush and watched the flickering body of Memaloose through the gaps in the grain cars. The shadowy images of the river reminded him of those old grainy filmstrips he’d watched in elementary school about the promise of hydroelectric power.

The next morning, cold and hungry, Caleb pennied the tracks as he had when he was six years old. Then he admitted defeat and returned to Hermiston. He didn’t meet with the counselor again, but registered for classes that might help him go on to trade school. He took a part time job at Ottie’s that summer. Then his mother got sick, probably from water contaminated by Hanford nuclear waste, or Umatilla mustard gas. Or the pesticides he worked around every day. Soon his meager savings and plans to escape dried up faster than their first garden.

Caleb walked through the vines toward the stand. He avoided disturbing the melons. Dust kicked up with each step. The crew would need to irrigate this afternoon, before the vines collapsed and the fruit spoiled. He knew that the men would gravitate toward shade. Despite her father’s intolerance for laziness, Lauren wouldn’t run the field hands out of the stand. Caleb figured she enjoyed the attention, and why not? It wasn’t her job to keep them on task.

As Caleb trudged through the melon patch, a jackrabbit leapt from beneath a clump of broad leaves, where he’d probably been resting and munching on new growth all morning. The rabbit population had exploded the last few seasons. Ottie had been on Caleb to keep the pests under control since spring. But the traps couldn’t keep up with their numbers, and the stand and parking lot were too close to the field to use the more practical option of a shotgun. The big jack bounded down the row and glared back at him, as if he were trespassing.

“I’ll deal with you later,” Caleb said without conviction, and continued to the melon stand.

Lauren sat just as Caleb had imagined, except she was munching an egg salad sandwich she washed down with a Coke. A grimy box fan whirred in the doorway, moving the air in the building without cooling it. She didn’t acknowledge Caleb’s approach. He hoped she hadn’t seen him coming, that her lack of interest didn’t reflect her attention to the customers.

“Many cars stop today?” He had to raise his voice to be heard over the hum of the fan and the noise from the nearby highway.

She looked at him with one raised eyebrow, and finished her sandwich before answering. “A few, mostly the ones without air conditioning.”

The Coke can perspired in her hand. Caleb watched the beads slide down the sides, only to be blocked by her fingers. Her right hand, newly freed from clasping the sandwich, began to drum on a book near the register. Her nails were painted a pale pink.

He’d asked her out last Thursday, a couple weeks after she’d come home. He thought they could grab dinner at Hale’s. Then either take a six-pack out to Hat Rock or check out the Farm City Pro Rodeo. They’d hung out in the past, never planned events, just spur of the moment things when they ran into each other in town. She always seemed like she’d had a good time. Caleb didn’t see any reason he shouldn’t ask.

The Friday before she left for college, she rode up to Kennewick with him on an errand. On the way back they drove through the Umatilla refuge, and she asked him to stop by the river, near the slough boat ramp. Once the truck stopped, she unbuckled both their seat belts and pulled him away from the wheel. She’d straddled him in the cab. They kissed, and her hands firmly gripped either side of his face. Then she slid off him, undid his jeans and reached down into his shorts. When she was finished, she wiped her hand on his handkerchief. Neither of them spoke. Caleb fastened his jeans, got back behind the wheel and headed for Hermiston.

But last Thursday she already had plans to spend the weekend in Portland with some school friends. Not a definite no, until he suggested they go out some other time. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” she said. “I mean you’re great and all, but we’re not really an option.” He thought he’d accepted the news well enough, hid his surprise, and played off any indication that the invitation was anything but friendly as a joke. Still, she’d been distant since then, avoiding him around the place and offering short replies when they did speak.

Caleb waved his hand over the sample tray to discourage the flies and yellow jackets from loitering on the sweet juicy flesh. “Have you seen the guys?”

“They said they were going to work on the tiller.”

Caleb thanked her and took one last look at her fingers. Lean and delicate, pianist’s fingers. Fingers that didn’t know work beyond pushing the buttons on a cash register or a keyboard. He doubted those fingers had washed a single dish. Lauren’s mother had been lost during childbirth, and Ottie had always doted on his only child.

Caleb remembered how soft the unspoiled skin of Lauren’s palms felt as he made his way to the barn. He clenched his own hands and listened to the crack of his knuckles. Both fists were covered with dried, cracked skin, worn and callused. Caleb wondered what his hands were worth. Could they still pluck chords from the guitar he tried to take up when he was thirteen? Would any woman care for the stroke of his rough palm?

An old John Deere cultivator rusted outside the barn. His approach scattered a doe and four baby bunnies huddled near its large back wheels. Several voices overlapped in the barn. Words flowed from Spanish tongues, faster than he could possibly hope to comprehend. But the exchange was brought to an abrupt conclusion as he entered.

Sanchez, Ernesto, Carlos, and Javier lounged on some bales of alfalfa stacked against the far wall. Out of the sun, their broad brimmed hats rested on their knees. Gabriel sat on the axle of the working tractor, a cloth in one hand and the oil dipstick dangling from the other. Caleb could just hear Ottie if he walked in on this scene. I’m not running a goddamn social club. How many men does it take to check the oil in one tractor, for Christ’s sake? Although he could understand Ottie’s frustration, he also understood the reality of working watermelons in 100 degree heat. Ottie hadn’t been out in the fields since he was a boy, helping his own father. The men on the alfalfa fidgeted, as if they could avoid his gaze by burrowing themselves into the bales.

Señor Caleb!” Gabriel rose from the axle and replaced the dipstick. He turned and smiled at the foreman. “We came in here to eat lunch and decided to check on the equipment.” Gabriel transitioned between tongues with ease.

The rest of the crew, now partially concealed in the alfalfa, tried to read Caleb’s expression. He attempted to show no signs of amusement or flashes of anger. Keep an even keel, Caleb told himself; they couldn’t have been in here for more than an hour. “What time did you guys start lunch?”

Mediodía.”

Caleb looked at his watch. 1:15. He lingered on the watch, let Gabriel and the rest of the crew squirm for a minute. Only seventeen, Gabriel had already worked these fields for three seasons. He stood still, smiling at the foreman, oily dirt on his pants, dust streaked through his hair. If he was squirming he was doing a hell of a job hiding it. The other men remained tense, chins pressed into their necks. Their dark eyes were focused, unblinking. Gabriel had been here longer than most of them; experienced men usually avoided the stooping and lifting of watermelon season.

“As much as Ottie appreciates well maintained equipment, I think he needs y’all in the fields more,” Caleb said, looking Gabriel in the eye. “Say you guys wrap this up and get back out there in the next five minutes. Pick the melons in the northwest patch and check the rabbit traps before you turn on the sprinklers. Por favor.”

The crew turned from Caleb to Gabriel. Gabriel translated and the barn was soon filled with a chorus of Si señor, gracias.

Caleb nodded to the men and turned for the door. Gabriel caught his arm. “Can I speak with you?”

The two men walked ten yards toward the stand. Across the road, turkey vultures circled a vacant field rotated out of planting. Caleb wondered if they’d found a rabbit, injured by one of the traps. Gabriel looked anxious, his smile forced, his hands shoved into his pockets.

“What’s up?”

“As you know, señor, most of my wages go back to my mother’s family in Chiapas. But I want to go to school and become a lawyer. I enrolled at the community college. They’re offering some help, but not enough. Do you think Mr. Ottie would assist me?”

He watched Gabriel kick at the dirt, showing more nerves than he had in the barn. “You mean like a loan?”

“I promise to pay him back. I’ll work as many summers as I have to. I thought you could ask him for me.”

Caleb ran his tongue along his teeth. He wasn’t surprised by the request, the kid was bright enough, and since his return this season he’d seemed restless. Usually, he spent his breaks reading books, rather than bullshitting with the other hands. “Why not ask him yourself?”

Gabriel laughed. “Señor Ottie hardly knows who I am, and always speaks to me like I don’t understand English.”

“What makes you think I can convince him?” Caleb pointed back at the barn. “Why not ask Ernesto?”

“Because you’ve known him longer. He trusts you.”

“Yeah, he trusts me enough not to give me a raise in nearly ten years.”

“Please señor. I want to get out of the migrant labor camp.”

Caleb thought of his own childhood as a migrant. His father had been a gyppo logger, and he’d spent his first six years in platform tents outside Klamath Falls. When the price of timber fell, they ate grouse or venison, sometimes fish with potatoes, and wild berries when they were in season. He could still taste the berries, small and tart, not like the bland ones shipped up from California in early spring. After a falling limb killed his father, his mother took a job as a short order cook in Hermiston. He’d been here ever since.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Caleb extended his hand to Gabriel.

“Gracias señor.” Gabriel looked surprised by the gesture, but he shook the hand with vigor.

“I’m not making any promises.”

Si, I understand sir.”

“Once you get the guys picking again, what do you say you go relieve Lauren in the stand for the rest of the day?”

Gracias.” A wide grin broke out on Gabriel’s face as he trotted back into the barn to reorganize the crew.

Once the men resumed work, Gabriel cleaned up and settled in next to Lauren behind the counter in the stand. There was always a lull in traffic during the odd hours between lunch and the evening commute. A few customers trickled in, but Gabriel would see little business. Caleb checked on the men in the northwest patch, stooped over them and urged them in broken Spanish to be more careful with the melons. Satisfied that they knew he was keeping track of their work, he withdrew to the south patch.

Carefully, Caleb cleaned and baited the traps. The spring-loaded steel jaws were chained to the ground at intervals in the center and along the periphery of each field. The only sections not booby-trapped were the edges near the parking lot and stand. The traps were simple, and quickly fatal when a rabbit entered headfirst. The more unfortunate rabbits got snared by the haunches and died slowly, or waited for Caleb to deliver the final blow.

Ottie wanted the rabbits gone but was clear he didn’t want their bodies left around. The odor of the carcasses might attract coyotes. Caleb didn’t understand this objection; a small pack could’ve snuffed out the rabbit problem in no time. And once the rabbits were gone, the coyotes would move along.

But Ottie didn’t see it that way, and he wasn’t running a goddamn wildlife preserve. So the old man insisted that the dispatched be dealt with in two ways. Those caught alive or freshly killed by the traps were boiled for the hounds. Caleb hated smashing their skulls or slitting their throats. The ones caught in the perimeter snares, necks broken or feet caught, were usually too spoiled by the time they were discovered. Their bodies were locked away in a trashcan near the shed, where they festered until Caleb could burn them in the evening.

With the traps cleaned and reset, Caleb decided to check in with Ottie. In a gunnysack he carried three fresh carcasses that needed to be boiled. The old farmhouse sat back from the road, in the middle of the quarter section. Caleb walked up the gravel driveway; he had cleared it of snow, or sprayed it for weeds in summer, countless times over the years. Lauren’s blue Beetle convertible was parked outside. The car was a high school graduation present. Ottie didn’t want his little girl to have any excuse not to come home from Eugene. But Caleb figured the car made more trips to Portland than it ever did to Hermiston.

He’d been to Portland when he’d filled in for the truck driver. Gotten lunch from a food cart in the Pearl and seen the type of men Lauren spent her weekends with. Guys in pea coats, tight jeans and thick-rimmed glasses, their hair combed over one eye. Scrawny and pale, they’d sleep until noon and work part time in a café or bike shop.

Ottie sat on the front porch, holding a paper fan decorated with pale cherry blossoms in one hand and a tall glass of lemonade in the other. He invited Caleb to join him on the porch. Caleb took a seat, the dead rabbits on the porch between them like an offering.

He tried to think of a way to raise Gabriel’s request with his boss. Ottie not only paid Caleb; he also owned his apartment in town, deducting the rent directly from his check. He let him use one of the farm trucks to get around and always found ways to keep him on the payroll, even during slow months. Ottie wasn’t cheap, but Caleb doubted he would go for Gabriel’s proposal.

Near the front fence, a juvenile jackrabbit lay with his hind legs splayed out in the shade of a wild rose bush. The old splintered boards of the porch creaked as Ottie leaned forward and shook his fan at the rabbit. “I thought you were taking care of those varmints!”

“I am, but it’ll take time.” Caleb removed his cap and fanned his face with the bill. “Besides we haven’t seen any downturn in the field’s production. They ain’t really hurting anything and their population will crash soon enough.”

“Once they’ve eaten all my melons and collapsed my house with their tunnels, you mean.”

Caleb pictured the upstairs level with the yard. He and Ottie would be sitting on the porch underground, surrounded by cool dirt and the beady glowing eyes of hundreds of rabbits. “You got to admit times have been good, Ottie. The rabbits are a sure sign of that.”

“I can’t deny we’ve been in the Lord’s fat little pocket the last few seasons.” Ottie leaned back in his chair. “Just promise me you won’t let them take over this place.”

Caleb nodded.

“I need to talk to you about Gabriel.”

Ottie gave him a cock-eyed look, as if to say Who? Caleb described Gabriel until he was certain Ottie knew which field hand he meant.

“What about him?” Ottie poured Caleb a glass of lemonade from the pitcher that sat between them.

Caleb took a slow drink. It was sour, with a bare hint of sugar, and caught in his dry throat. “He just enrolled over at Blue Mountain, wants to go to law school.”

“Figures. He’s always trying to talk his way out of something.” Ottie batted a fly from his face and wiped his brow. “What’s his status?”

“I think he was born in Yakima.”

“But you don’t know.”

Caleb shook his head. “He needs some extra cash to cover expenses.” A dust devil kicked up near the edge of the yard and scared the young rabbit back into his burrow.

Ottie sighed. “Look, I’m already paying for my own daughter to go to school. Lord knows I can’t afford two loans.” He rose, picked up the gunnysack of rabbits and turned toward the front door. He patted Caleb on the shoulder as he passed.

As Ottie reached the house, Caleb stood. “He’s a good kid. Works hard, helps communicate with the other men.”

“If he ever got a degree, he’d talk those men into suing me over conditions.”

“He’d pay you back. He’s a sound investment, worth the risk.”

“Like you?” Ottie stood with his hand on the doorknob.

“With a better return.”

Ottie turned and considered Caleb. His face was scrunched as though he were sucking on a lemon wedge. “I’ll think about it,” he said and he walked into the house. Alone on the porch, Caleb wasn’t sure what to make of the old man’s abrupt response. Was Ottie really considering the loan? Or was he just avoiding saying no?

Caleb left the porch and headed for the shed. Sheltered and shaded by a row of poplars, the shed remained cool, even during the heat of the day. He felt lightheaded as he entered the single room and pulled the chain for the overhead lamp. He took a quick inventory of the farm’s supply of pesticide and fertilizer, and checked the container of rabbit corpses. The bin was partially full; he could wait another day or so to burn the bodies. The smell that emitted when he lifted the lid didn’t help his head. As he worked, Caleb wondered if he should tell Gabriel about his conversation with Ottie, or wait for more definite news.

He remembered coming to the house after his mother’s first trip to the clinic. It was a cool fall evening but still they sat on the porch. Lauren had commandeered the kitchen table and covered it with vocabulary flashcards and study guides for the PSAT. Caleb didn’t outright ask Ottie for a loan, but he assumed the request was clear when he mentioned scrapping his plans for trade school. Ottie smiled and patted him on the knee, told him not to worry about money. Then he offered Caleb a full-time job on the place. It had seemed unlikely that Ottie would actually come through with a loan for Gabriel.

Caleb walked up the service road and approached the stand, still unsure whether to tell Gabriel anything. He stopped as he cleared the parking arrows, where the stand could be clearly viewed from across the yard. He watched Lauren and Gabriel, still snug behind the counter together, despite the stand’s size and the day’s heat. He saw their short laughs, controlled smiles and diverted glances. He wondered what Ottie would say if he saw them. Lauren placed a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder and let the unspoiled skin of her palm linger there. Caleb’s shoulders tightened.

“Lauren,” he called out, “you mind letting Gabriel get back to work?” He was surprised by the rough edge to his voice. She rolled her eyes and rubbed Gabriel’s shoulder before rising from the cooler. Gabriel blushed and greeted a customer. Lauren didn’t look at Caleb. She passed him, headed for the house.

Caleb remained in the stand’s doorway studying Gabriel. He knocked on a melon, then balanced it in his hands, before assuring the customer that it was ripe and sweet. Gabriel smiled, counted out change. Once the customer departed, he turned toward Caleb, but kept the smile fixed in place.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Lauren didn’t want me to get bored out here in the stand. She offered to keep me company.” He blushed again and looked out toward the parking lot for a moment. “It’s all my fault and it won’t happen again.”

“I doubt I have to tell you what’d happen if Ottie were to see.”

Gabriel diverted his glance to the counter. Caleb felt an unfamiliar pleasure in the fear he sensed in the kid.

“Did you talk to Señor Ottie?”

Caleb had anticipated Ottie’s questions about Gabriel’s status, the frugal sentiments. He would say no loan and that would be the end of it. But instead the old man was up there in the house, considering giving this kid the chance to get out. “No,” he said. “I haven’t talked to him about it yet.”

Gabriel smiled and nodded. Another customer walked up to the wooden tiers. Caleb left the stand and went to check on the rest of the crew. They’d made it halfway across the northwest patch. He threw a set of keys to Ernesto and told them to spend the rest of day boxing melons for the morning truck in the shade of the barn. Then Caleb checked the pressure gauge and started watering the patch. The irrigation towers came to life, spreading a cool mist over the vines and dry soil. He shook his head at the wasteful method. Most of the water evaporated before it ever touched the ground.

Caleb walked back up the gravel driveway and knocked on the warped farmhouse door. Lauren greeted him with the same indifferent stare. She’d been infatuated with him as a girl, had constantly tried to catch his eye, once she got over her shyness. But girlish infatuations weren’t meant for tired field hands. He wondered if she reserved those looks for Gabriel now or spread them out liberally. “I need to talk to your dad.”

Lauren opened the screen and gestured with her head toward the living room, where Ottie sat in a floral overstuffed chair. He was flipping through the paper. A fan oscillated in the corner, near where the water cooler stood. Ottie wouldn’t expose his little girl to the area’s toxic tap water.

“What is it now, Beanpole?” He settled on the sports page as Caleb entered the room.

Lauren plopped down in another overstuffed chair. Her tan legs dangled over the armrest as she leafed through a book.

“I need to talk to you about Gabriel.” Caleb watched Lauren, checking to see if she perked up at his name. She didn’t seem to react.

“I told you I’d think about it.”

Caleb turned his full attention to Ottie. “I know, but there’s a new development.” He took a deep breath. “Something you need to know before you make your decision.”

Caleb gestured for Ottie to return to the porch, where they could speak in private. Lauren watched as they walked away, then turned back to her book. But Caleb was sure she was listening to every word they said through the window screens.

“What’s he doing in the stand?” Ottie asked, as soon as the door was closed behind them. “It’s not good for business. The customers won’t trust him.”

Caleb could hear some soccer mom from Bend lecturing Gabriel about properly selecting and handling quality fruit, even though the kid spent his days picking that produce. He would like to take these people out to the fields. Show them the hands that handled their food beneath the blistering sun. But Caleb knew Gabriel would say nothing.

“Gabriel in the stand is bad for business, but not because of the customers.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just watched him make a sale. He was great with the customer, but pocketed the cash.” Caleb was surprised how easily the lie slipped from his mouth. And wondered if he it had been his intention all along.

Ottie shook his head. “You take care of the rabbits and the men. I’ll take care of the problem.” He reentered the house and closed the door behind him.

Caleb walked back down the driveway and positioned himself near the edge of the patch. He watched as Lauren walked to the stand, her eyes on the path before her. Gabriel would be next, headed for the house. Would he know what was coming? Would Lauren warn him? He turned and stared across the field.

Caleb avoided the stand and his crew for the rest of the day. He worked on equipment that wasn’t in need of repair and checked the outer irrigation system for leaks. Like a rabbit when the tiller roars by, Caleb stayed on the edge of the fields and waited.

The stand was open, deserted, when he finally walked up the service road that evening. He turned off the fan but left the plywood shutters open. As he locked the door, crickets began to sing their night songs outside, clicking with the steady hum of the cars on the highway. Caleb wished he were in one of those cars, heading to Portland. He could leave these dusty patches behind and never look back. Make Ottie deal with day-to-day operations. See how Lauren liked the undivided attention of the field hands with no one to keep them on task. Forget the whole damn thing.

As he walked back toward his truck, scuffing his boots along the gravel path, a rabbit scurried out of the patch on his right. Caleb paused to examine the plant where the rabbit had emerged. The plant was void of interior leaves and blooms. Most of the vines had been broken off, their immature fruit spoiled. A melon, no bigger than his fist, rolled out onto the path, large bites gnawed into its rind. He picked up the ruined melon and looked out into the patch. The rabbit hadn’t gone far. Sitting patiently, he was waiting for Caleb to leave.

Caleb tossed the half-gnawed melon toward the rabbit. The rabbit took one good hop, and then rose up on his haunches to examine Caleb. Now the rabbit was mocking him. Caleb charged toward the trespasser. The rabbit stood his ground for a moment before bolting for the edge of the patch. He zigged and zagged through the rows in an attempt to lose his pursuer. Caleb picked his way more cautiously through the vines, avoiding the melons. But he was determined to run the rabbit off. The jack reached the fence that was meant to keep rabbits out of the patch, and hit the wire with a loud thwack.

Caleb approached the fence, expecting to see the rabbit still running into the distance. The sun had begun to set, but the heat from the day remained, barely dissipated over the exposed field. His skin was sticky with sweat that plastered his clothes and hair to him. Caleb leaned into the fence and panted. Then he noticed the jack, trapped under the wire. The front legs were through the gap, but the haunches had been too wide to slip through the opening. The rabbit thrashed at the base of the fence, staring at Caleb, eyes bright with panic.

Back toward Ottie’s house, Caleb heard the back door screech open. Roscoe and Buckeye, the family’s old hounds, yelped and howled, released to patrol the property. Caleb knew the rabbit wouldn’t back out of the wire as long as he stood there; the jack’s instinct told him to push forward.

Caleb rubbed the back of his neck and wished he knew someone with soft hands he could ask for a massage. Deep in his stomach Caleb felt a knot rise and twist. He knelt down near the rabbit as it trembled and kicked against the wire. For a moment, he considered pulling the wire apart, helping the jack to wriggle free. But he felt he’d done enough. Caleb rose, turned his back and walked to his truck.

 

by B. R. Lewis

 

B. R. Lewis graduated from Western Washington University and earned his MFA from Eastern Washington University. He served as an editor for both Willow Springs and Sundog Lit. He currently lives in Roseburg, OR, where he teaches at Umpqua Community College.

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