A sneak peek at the first chapter of my next novel about a good-natured farmer boy who escapes to fight in the Civil War after a dreadful accident at home.
Take it in! The crickets insisted. Everything bursting with life! The gold and silver riches of the sun setting on this fine autumnal afternoon! Yes, Waldo Potter thought, if I could keep it in my pocket, it would carry me through the long shadows and silences of winter.
The robins of sweet optimism had departed south a few weeks ago from Potter Hill. Admiring the glittering cobwebs along the hedgerows this past morning had nearly made him late for picking hoary apples on the Pudney farm.
The sun to the west glowed over the rolling pastures of Taylor, New York as cows slowly inched their way closer to the barns dotting the hillside. Waldo lingered a moment longer watching the garnet maple leaves swirl from the sugarbush beside the smoke house. The caw-caw of a crow nearby set him back to gathering the frosted apples. Dusky ground fog would roll into the valley all the way down to Solon Pond in the next hour or so.
Like most sons of New England pioneers the stirring of great feelings felt something akin to passion and sin. Besides, these stirrings within were not something Waldo felt he could adequately describe or understand. Yet when they occurred his fear vanished.
As he tossed the last of the apples into the final basket, a wasp stung his bare foot just above the birthmark that had darkened in the summer sun. He swatted it away and walked toward the farmhouse where Lily Pudney practiced her piano. Waldo had worked on many farms but none with such fine music.
He tipped his straw hat to the back of his head and wiped his brow with an old piece of flannel, glancing around for Mr. Pudney. Today was his last day of employment here. In the distance he heard a cow bell, but up close the place was quiet except for the piano. Waldo did not like to interrupt Lily by knocking on the door, so he stood there. Suddenly the music stopped, and Lily came to the window. She was tall and blond with wispy fringes on her forehead. To Waldo she always looked like a faded bloom. Once there had been talk of her marrying Waldo’s older brother Dan.
“All afternoon I heard you singing in the orchard, Waldo Potter.”
“There’s something about a person who sings and hums – it’s cheering. Like a happy reminder that all is well. You have a sublime gift – a musical soul.”
Lily Pudney was a few years older than Waldo and was known for her romantic notions.
Waldo laughed, embarrassed at not knowing what sublime meant.
“I be looking for ye father,” he said. Sometimes when nervous he still slipped into his mother’s colloquialisms, a brand of Middle English carried on by all the Fosters since wading to the shores of America after a rough sea ride in 1630. His father’s side of the family were mostly future thinking, but the Fosters were stubbornly conservative since the beginning of time.
“Oh, he’s down by the pond where the cows wandered off but wait one minute.” She moved from the window and the soft lace curtains fluttered back to rest. Lily burst from the door and strode up close before him – the Pudney girls were bold – to tuck a faded pink rose in the pocket of his sweaty checked shirt. She patted it for good measure. It was obvious to Waldo that she only had a sisterly interest in him, but he didn’t mind. He enjoyed the unexpected attention.
“I’ve watched you work these last weeks. Me thinks you should be rewarded as the hardest worker I ever saw.” She looked him over. “You’ve sprung up, haven’t you?”
“Oh, only five eight inches …”
“Yes, but one day you may still be tall like your handsome brother Dan. Anyway, the young girls should admire your blue eyes. They match your necktie.”
Waldo had blue eyes like his father but with heavy lids and coffee flecks that hinted at his mother’s darkly exotic looks. Unlike the favored Albertus who so often buoyed the spirits of his parents with his antics, Waldo took his place as the placid workhorse who obediently, with only the slightest hint of resentment at the curves of his mild smile, followed the muddled instructions of his father and the men he was so often bound out to.
Waldo adjusted his hat. “I’m to go back to school, did you know?” Of course, she wouldn’t know.
“Are you happy about it?” she asked but was distracted by the sound of her father and brother driving the cows up into the barnyard. Their whips flew just behind the laggards in the herd who jumped from the sound to avoid the feel. Lily skipped off to open the gate as Mr. Pudney laid eyes upon Waldo. It looked as if he’d forgotten all about him before striding up.
He stared at Waldo until he squirmed.
“I’ve set the hairy apples in the barn, sir.”
Mr. Pudney nodded and walked into the shade of the barn with Waldo following. The farmer scratched the back of his neck and winced a little as he scanned the toppling baskets.
“’Tis, my last day, you remember,” Waldo said, running his sticky fingers up and down the front of his suspenders.
“Yes, yes,” Mr. Pudney said irritably. “Of course, I remember. How many times do I have to tell you they be hoary not hairy? You certain you got them all? Seems like a fair bit less than last year when the Hess boys picked ‘em.”
Waldo hesitated. “Wall, I dastn’t know about last year, but this here is all there be – ‘cept for the bad ones you told me to leave.”
Mr. Pudney’s eyes narrowed. “Looks like you may have left too many to be wasted.”
“Hmm,” Mr. Pudney folded his strong, sun-baked arms as he surveyed the baskets again. “Then you ate a fair bit when I only said one or two a day.”
“I hain’t eaten a one.”
“Oh, don’t give me that. All day in my trees and you didn’t take a one? I don’t much like liars.”
“I hain’t,” Waldo said.
“Wall, wall. That hain’t no tone to use with me. No one wants to hire a boy with a sour mouth.”
Waldo stood a moment, his blood up. Hadn’t he come and dug potatoes, washed potatoes, turned under the summer garden, carried heavy pumpkins and picked apples from dawn until candle lighting for weeks? His fingers were still raw from shucking corn and shelling dried beans. He’d moved lumber from the sawmill near the pond to a pile stacked neatly beside Mr. Pudney’s shed and stood for hours in the hot sun scraping pig hides. He was not a thief nor a liar.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Pudney.”
Mr. Pudney walked around the bushels of apples (a harvest any pond person would have been proud of) with his hand tugging his beard. His eyes narrowed again as he turned back to Waldo. “I expected more from you … but … I’m a fair man. Maybe you done your best. Go home now and tell your Pa I’ll send up pay on Tuesday. I’ll let you explain why I’m only paying you partial.”
“Partial? No. That won’t do, Mr. Pudney. Mother depends on …”
“Wall, you should have thought of that when you were eating all them apples.” He saw the fright in Waldo’s eyes and relented. “Because I like your brother Bertie, I’ll send you home with a sack of potatoes.”
“We hain’t in need of potatoes.”
Mr. Pudney put up his hand magnanimously. “Wait there now. I wasn’t finished.” But he had been, and Waldo knew it. “I’ll give you one last chance. Go back to them trees and find the apples you missed.”
Waldo didn’t move. There were no more good apples.
Waldo ran back into the orchard breathlessly. There weren’t any apples! What was he to do? He set the ladder against one tree and then another. Here and there he found one or two tiny or blighted apples and put them into the basket where the wasps and bees hovered. Bruised and wormy ones he found on the ground he tossed in the same basket. After another half hour Waldo emerged from the orchard into the pink early evening light. Mr. Pudney and his wife sat having coffee on their little porch.
“Wall?” shouted Mr. Pudney.
Waldo came to the porch and set the rotting basket of fruit before his employer.
Mr. Pudney shooed his wife. She re-tied her apron and went inside without so much as a nod of goodbye after having Waldo weed her gardens for much of the summer.
“Them’s all there was, Mr. Pudney,” Waldo said, swallowing hard. “Suppose this spring that late frost on them blossoms might a’ made less to harvest. Mr. Loop says so. I heard him say it back when I was planting his corn.” All the last minutes he’d practiced this speech in his head. It was true, but he hated being forced to say so much. He swallowed again.
“No, I hain’t gonna let you make excuses. Now I’m not so sure I could recommend you to other farmers here round the pond.”
Waldo shook and his ears burned. His insides were tight.
Mr. Pudney got up from his seat. “Tell your pa I’ll send him the money you’ve earned, and you be happy to take them potatoes and this basket of apples.” He grabbed an empty sack and tumbled the rotten apples into it. “There you go now. Your mother will be happy to have any apples this year by the looks of her blighted orchard. Now be off with you.”
Waldo had worked for the last three years – since he was eleven – for farmers and even at the mill and cheese factory and sometimes had worked for people who did not even bother to hide their contempt for him, but all had paid him what had been promised. Every last one had said goodbye and thanked him. A few had even given him going off treats and had praised him for his work. He had grown to expect fair treatment and good manners so this new development confounded reason. And what if Mr. Pudney was serious about warning others off hiring him?
Image: Public Domain Winslow Homer