Negotiating pay is tricky business for young farmer boy Waldo.
His brother’s coughing woke him early. Coffee bubbled below and his father’s slightly burnt corn cakes gave off a sweet, acrid smell. The water in the washbasin was slightly reddened by a clot of his brother’s blood and a wave of yesterday’s worries flooded him as he buttoned the soft blue flannel shirt his mother had made him last year for his birthday. As he stepped down the ladder, his mother came to meet him. He could hear the anxiety in her voice when she asked him if he would work again today.
Her dark eyes twinkled, and Waldo thought she might embrace him. It was enough that she smiled and happily went back to preparing breakfast.
Joel pulled his cakes from the fire and tossed them on his plate before heading to a small table that acted as his medicinal desk. He poured a few drops of a dark liquid into a cup of water and gulped it back. His thick hair was as unruly as ever. “Charles can be a hard man, Fanny. I hope you’ve warned the boy about your brother.”
Fanny’s smile vanished and her entire being tightened. She handed Waldo his coffee, but her attention was on her husband.
Waldo wanted her back for himself. Today, he needed her friendship more than ever. “Uncle says I’m a good and quick worker and says others have said the same. Mother…”
Fanny turned back to him, the smile lines around her eyes just appearing before Joel cut in.
“I’m delighted Charles takes interest in you, Waldo, but be careful he pays you fair. Would you like me to have a word with him?”
Fanny and Waldo were emphatic in the negative.
Joel eyed them suspiciously. “Are you holding something back?”
Waldo glanced at his mother. “I hain’t been paid yet.”
“Be you sayin’ Charles would use Waldo t’ hurt ye?” Fanny asked, her voice shaking.
Waldo grabbed his dinner pail and filled it with two cold buckwheat pancakes and a pickled egg and made for the door.
“Doesn’t your uncle feed you, boy?” Joel threw up his hands. “Fanny, is this how you want your brother to lord it over us — treating Waldo like a common worker?”
“But that’s what I be!” Waldo said with rare animation. “I see no harm in Uncle Charles treating me as such. I prefer it.”
Waldo left the house before his father could respond, but his parents’ squabbling followed him all the way down the path. The daylight came on but dimmed by a heavy fog. The ethereal outlines of a group of deer hopping away at the sound of his footfall surprised him. Not too far off, he heard a gunshot and it saddened him, though he often went deer hunting and liked venison jerky as much as any boy around the pond. He heard cocks crowing and smelled wood burning from the homesteads just off the road. He passed Grandfather Potter’s property taken over now by his uncles after their father’s death.
This morning, he fought the desire to race down to the pond. He knew it would look especially lovely this morning as the fog lifted, but he walked on, burdened with his father’s suspicions about his uncle. Would he be paid fairly? How terrible it would be if Uncle Charles was the person his father always hinted at. All night he had dreaded the morning when he would have to navigate his uncle’s confusing behaviors. He wondered if there might be a graceful way to end this arrangement.
Lucian met him first on the path. He had his gun. “Ho, Waldo! Have you seen the fox?”
Waldo shook his head, brightening at his cousin’s friendliness.
“We missed you last night fishing. Did Bert tell you about the mischief we got up to with the girls coming home from the geography contest?”
“No. I went to bed as soon as I come home.”
Lucian raised his brow teasingly. “Ah, Father did work you too hard.”
Waldo shook his head.
“Father says you’re far better at doing the tedious chores than I be.”
This annoyed Waldo but was probably true.
Lucian noticed Waldo’s pail. “Mother’s made breakfast.”
“Oh, wall, I…”
Charles hailed them now. “Luce, how will ye catch a fox dallying with Waldo?”
Lucian waved his father’s words off, but obediently picked his way through the prickly blackberry brambles and Virginia creeper, head low, into the forest.
Waldo took a deep breath before joining his uncle, who stood regarding him with hands on hips in the jaunty way of a much younger man.
Waldo nodded, still wrestling with ideas.
Charles pointed to the pail. “So ye dastn’t like yer aunt’s hospitality?”
“No, sir. I mean, that’s not right what you say.” He paused to collect himself. “I would hate to think you asked me to work only because of my parents.”
“Despite yer parents,” Charles replied but with a laugh. “What’s wrong with takin’ care of yer own? It’s what ye do.”
Waldo made no reply.
“When I hear that people around the pond use yer good nature against ye and payin’ ye in rotten apples, I feel it’s my right as yer kin t’ step in.”
“Thank you, sir, but, well, I wouldn’t like for you to overpay me and seeing as I dastn’t really know how much you will be paying me…”
“Or is it that yer father wants to know?”
Waldo started to deny it, but Charles held up his hand. “No, ye have a right to know and so das’t yer father.” Charles paused a moment, as if deep in thought. “How much would ye say yer worth?”
“I dastn’t rightly know.”
Charles eyed him with impatience.
“I think I’m worth mebbe more than apples—like you said, but ‘tis easiest, I think, if you tell me the value of the work.”
“What if I told ye I wasn’t plannin’ on payin’ ye a cent since yer father still owes me for last winter’s buckwheat?”
Waldo’s face burned. “Das’t he? Then I will work twice as hard.”
Charles waved him off with more Foster impatience. “I dastn’t believe in castin’ generational curses. No, I’d rather take the loss than make ye pay for it, Nephew.”
“Then why say it?” Waldo asked in a tone unfamiliar to his uncle. “Haven’t I enough to worry about and now you heap this upon me? I won’t beg you for money.”
Charles looked happily surprised at Waldo’s indignation. “I dastn’t want ye t’ beg, but ye need to know yer value—it should have been taught ye. If ye dastn’t value yer work, no one else will.” He looked as if he were taking the measure of Waldo for the first time. “I will pay ye what I know yer time and effort be worth and then ye will decide if it be fair.”
“Whatever you think best, Uncle Charles.” Did his uncle not understand that to him, anything was better than nothing? “Shall I stack wood?”
“Will ye have breakfus first?”
Waldo pointed to his pail.
“Very well, then. Stack wood and I’ll join ye when I’m done with my coffee.” Charles walked off.
Waldo took a bite of his cold, dry pancake and dropped the rest to the chickens grubbing at his feet. Charles joined him about an hour later, and they worked in silence for another hour. Waldo noted with annoyance his uncle looking at his bare feet and at his patched pant legs.
Just before the sun made its way to the noon hour, Charles called a halt to their work and asked Waldo to sit beside him as he stuffed his pipe with tobacco. “I didn’t hire ye as charity, but because I think ye could be a fine young man with a little more guidance.”
Waldo still said nothing.
“I’d prefer that ye take meals with us like a proper member of my family and t’ work only as hard as I’m willing to work.”
“And how will I know when the day is done?”
Charles patted Waldo’s back. “There ye go. Straight to the point. I like that. Ye will work from eight until three unless there’s hay to get in or butcherin’ running late.”
Waldo thought for a moment as if considering his options, but he was happy. “But hayin’ is done for the year, of course.”
“Yes, I’d like to hire ye out at least until next fall. Lucian still suffers weakness from the fever last winter. I will never pay ye in worms and apples and I will pay ye on Fridays.”
“Thank you. It sets my mind greatly at ease.” He tried to remain businesslike but could not help smiling and laughed just a little in relief as Aunt Lavinia rang the supper bell. The two stood to go.
“And Waldo, I dastn’t think there will be time to work for others. I intend to keep ye quite busy if ye like it—except for when school be in session, of course.”
Waldo’s rare grin made him look as young as he really was. “I was worried I might not be able to manage because apples don’t pay taxes.”
Charles started to say something but stopped himself.
“Mother will be pleased with me,” Waldo said in a hopeful yet sad way.
“As she should be. What had ye in your pail?” Charles asked, recovering his good humor as they walked to the house.
“An egg and your buckwheat,” Waldo said, his blue eyes sparkling in the sun.
Charles stopped him before they went in. “Now dastn’t let me see yer pail again on my farm. I never let my hired help go hollow, so why would I allow it for family?”