High Country Deal, 2018 Third Place Adult Division and Publisher’s Choice

By Wanda Sorensen

The grilled steaks were past perfect due to extended heating; the biscuits, already cool to the touch.  Jack was late again.  No matter, we looked forward to hosting our renter.  After Dan’s heart problems, our nephew Jack farmed our place, and I cooked most suppers for him.

Ten minutes later, his little 4-wheeler slid to a stop near our back steps, sending cinders flying from our lane.  Then Jack and his broad smile appeared in our porch. 

He was a fairly private man.  However, on the best of nights Jack brought a quiet bit of intrigue which kept us wondering–perhaps an offhand, though unexplained, remark or maybe some obvious item of which no mention was made.  That night he bore a handful of curly pastel ribbons tied to a fallen, tinfoil soufflé.

“It’s a balloon, guys.  See?”  He smoothed out the puffs and creases as best he could, so that partial letters peered back at us.  “I bet it used to say, ‘GET WELL, TEACHER,‘ don’t you think?”

My husband adjusted his progressive lenses.  Yes, we thought so.  Jack washed his hands at the porch sink and ran them through his dark hair.

“I was drilling your barley up on the hillside piece, on top of the world.   Just gorgeous!  As I turned at the field’s edge, through the dust (Golly, it’s dry for so early this year!), a bit of shine flickered at me.   Clear up there away from roads and everybody.  I couldn’t imagine.  And there this was.”  He flipped the ribbons a bit, so the thing danced.  “Caught in a fir’s branch right by the biggest bunch of blooming yellow bells you’ll ever see.”

From side salad all the way through raspberry shortcake, we fantasized, laughed, and joked about the balloon’s origin, travels, and crash landing.  Jack left with it lounging above the grease gun’s nozzle in his Honda’s metal basket.  And that was that.

Evening suppers in future weeks were not so festive.  Professionally, we were known as dry farmers.  The growing season was too short to irrigate at our high mountain elevation, and clouds were our only sprinklers.  That year began extra dry.

“I’m starting tomorrow to re-do the first 500 acres I planted on my north section,” Jack explained.  “We had better look at yours.  You might want to replant the last we drilled, because it’s not sprouting–just too dry.  If we get a good rain within a week, it should be okay, I guess.  If it doesn’t rain, it’ll be too late by then to plant again.  If we do replant, the new grain will require rain to come up, but it buys us some time.  It’s a crap shoot.”

Jack replanted a third of ours, and we crossed our fingers.

When all is right with the fields, the grain’s happiness is apparent.   

In the High Country, Mother Nature’s moods determine how right conditions are.    Prepared for just that, young grain comes with daring stamina and a sense of adventure, such that plants are already valiant warriors when their first crisis hits.  That first fight might be immediate.  It might not come until their first-month birthday, when their thirst seems unbearable, or their second, when frost threatens to kill their growth.  Maybe they mature to golden adulthood, when a hail storm shatters their heads to the ground.  But sometimes, ah, sometimes Mother Nature cooperates, and the warriors’ fight is rewarded.  Idaho High Country’s rich soil and cool nights produce particularly luscious, fat kernels.  Thus, dry farming is a gamble of averages, and those who farm the fields must be as tough as the grain they cherish.

Mealtime chatter chronicled our crops’ progress.  We had bet right on the replanting, for the rain did not come, except for a shower later that did help the late grain emerge. Then we were praying for rain again, to ensure a healthy crop and to wash wheat mites off an area. 

Regularly, Jack’s positive attitude and light-hearted fun balanced sober concern.  After meals, I often heard, “Thanks, Boss.”  If I protested my title, Jack, like a school crossing guard, halted me with straight-armed palm.  “Just a term of endearment,” he joshed. 

Neither Mormon nor Republican, Jack was markedly in the minority in this corner of Idaho.  Nobody, especially single ladies, seemed to notice.  Jack was a hit. 

“Here’s an addition for supper,” he occasionally mumbled as he slid a casserole or cake dripper onto the table.  “It showed up on my pickup seat with a note.”

Yet, nobody reported seeing Jack with any elusive chef.  I knew he’d grown up a bit shy around women, exerting far more effort running away from, rather than chasing after, them.

“Oh, it’s that cute dimple in your chin,” I teased.

“Don’t fool yourself,” Dan admonished.  “You think they don’t know his farm’s worth a bundle?”

Jack quickly changed the subject to something more comfy.

The subject of tough farm times did not change, however.  The Haglans became the third family in that many months to sell their farm to a powerful, out-of-state investment group.  Excellent land, loved and nurtured for generations, had secretly become no more than a line in strangers’ investment portfolios.  Our area’s rich, dark soil was in hot demand, with outfits selling before For Sale signs had time to post, before locals realized owners considered leaving.

   

The weekly newspaper’s News of Record listed another long-time neighbor in the

Collections Section.  Riding my buckskin, Clancy, in a remote, roadless area of our farm one Sunday, I discovered a trespassing surveyor. We began to feel ripe for the taking, shrouded in a spirit of distrust.

Still, the community’s and Jack’s moods made the best of it.  One evening, I turned back to the table from the sink to see a dusty old beer bottle, with a bit of something liquid in its bottom, guarding my plate.

After saying grace, I, having never taken a drink in my life except for medicinal purposes of course, glared at the grimy intruder.  Jack explained to me, “Found one of your bottles.”  He winked.   “By mistake, you seem to have left a little in it, so I knew you’d appreciate its return.”  We had a good laugh.  Then my end of the table endured a thorough detoxification; our nephew, a gentle thump on the noggin.

Summer temperatures and winds competed to beat old records, causing small patches of our green grain to exhibit a hint of tired blue-grey, first on ridges and southwest slopes.  Increasing in size, those spots became whole fields within days.  Clancy’s and my morning freedom rides through breath-taking beauty became sad passes through hospital wards of once vibrant soldiers grasping to life.

Finally, with the early-planted fields severely compromised and the later fields okay but needing a drink, the forecast was favorable–a 40% chance of a rain shower for us.  Oh, if only we and our neighbors could be under the right cloud!  I awoke in the night, straining to hear the gentle tap of raindrops on the windows.  None came. 

As Jack passed my open kitchen window, he was whistling a tune, one new enough that an old gal like me did not recognize it, but something that clearly announced positive possibilities.  Rolling thunder accompanied our fried chicken.  Darkened skies required we turn on the light over the kitchen table before I passed around seconds.  All at once, thunder cracked seemingly right on top of us, like a house truss snapping under too much strain.  Suddenly God began pouring out the life-saving drops for which every family along our farm road all the way to town had prayed. 

The three of us rushed outside to the thrill of water ribbons tracking down our faces.  Wet denim plastered our skin.  My Dan wrapped his arms around me for a lovely twirl.  Oh, how sweet the smell of clean rain on fields of thirsty grain!  What a treat for our remaining crops and for us!

Our county fair’s arrival meant the summer was nearly gone.  Clancy and I watched Indian paintbrush color the sage, fawns lose their spots, hawks lazily glide over the quakies.  We saw the grain turn golden, its silky beards adding a sheen to the fields, like gloss to a starlet’s lips.  Then, fearing hail, we wished no more storms would come.

“They’ve upped the chance of precipitation tomorrow,“  Dan reported during an especially quiet supper. “Was just 50 per cent; now, 70.”

After Jack left, Dan’s thoughts started talking.  “Jack mentioned today that he and that high school kid he’s got working for him can’t keep up.  He’s been trying to find somebody full-time during farm season, but the wages the mines and plants pay are too much to match.”

“I know he’s cautious since his last try at a full-time hired man netted a thief instead,” I said.  Jack had returned home unexpectedly just in time to see his new employee, ready to leave for the day and sporting Jack’s newest cap, a flashy gift from the local fertilizer dealer.

“Every night, Jack heads back to work after supper,” Dan reminded me.  “He uses new technology so well, yet there’s still way too much to do.”

“And, you know, all work and no play. . .   Remembering his lost, dear love way back in his college days, and knowing Jack as we do, I suppose there’s no sense in wishing he anytime soon will get his happily ever after.”

“The sense is in keeping to your own business.”  Dan patted my bottom as he headed outside.

Tomorrow came with its 70 per cent, as did the clouds and the thunder and the fear.  The merciful clouds, however, gave us nothing.  What a relief!  We escaped hail and prepared for harvest.  From the seat of our combine, I marveled at the handsome grain stalks bowing into the reel and jostling along the draper before being swallowed for keeps by the feeder housing.   Our semi’s trips to our granaries were fewer than normal, but I so appreciated we even had a crop to harvest.  That savior rain, in fact, had made quality especially good, guaranteeing buyer interest.

  

Fall has always been my favorite time, and that Idaho autumn was just right.  The skies were big; the colors, electric.  Chokecherries turned to black, begging to be picked.  Even the wind reinvented itself to become friendly breezes.  As fall field work wound down, Clancy and I scheduled as many rides as possible before hunters arrived.

That is when Jack started missing suppers occasionally.  Hearing comments in town, Dan and I became curious, then nervous.  One of my bridge ladies saw Jack exiting a Pocatello lawyer’s office.  Was he making a deal to sell? 

“Could be,” agreed Dan.  “I imagine he’s questioned more than once why he’s working harder than anybody should be, making next to nothing by the time it’s all said and done.  Grain prices are in the basement.  He could trade his land to those big-time boys for a fortune.  Sure wouldn’t blame him.”

“But what about our place and us then?”  Dan scared me.  We were the third generation to work our land–land that never was just acres of soil but, rather, a part of us.  Grandpa immigrated to this country, alone as a young man.  Dad broke out a quarter section of sage with horses and plow when he was just twelve years old.  I grew up picking rocks on foot, driving tractor, and loving every bit of that place.  Our crops were forever our pride; the farm, our pleasure.    

“Well, if he sells,” said Dan, “we probably should sell, too, don’t you think?  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.  Jack will tell us if and when it’s time.  Don’t worry.”

But I did.

Suppers in early Winter were fun, often capped with a little cribbage or a t.v. ballgame.  Moving snow and ice, caring for the animals, and maintaining equipment filled the days but at a relatively relaxed pace with trips for supplies, meetings, social events.  We sold and hauled the grain to market January through March.  Fuel and fertilizer prices soared.  Grain prices went the other way.  Winter snows, essential, were average.  Two more family farms became out-of-staters’ unseen investments.  Jack remained on the job, working hard as usual, happy as usual, but still frequently absent from supper.

By definition, farmers are infused in Spring by new hope, new eagerness for the good year to come.  So it was for us in our High Country.

One Spring supper, Jack announced he would bring a surprise the next evening.   I steeled myself for the dreaded news he might deliver. 

Right on time he arrived, not on his Honda, but in his classic 1957 Chevrolet something–and with a petite, attractive woman holding his hand!  He was all smiles, so handsome in the happiness of presenting his guest, never mind of genuinely shocking Dan and me.  My heart rocked from relief that Jack had brought a date, an actual date, rather than a decision to sell.

“Please meet Hannah,” he beamed.  Dan shook his head in disbelief.  Especially relaxed and pleasant, Hannah laughed easily as we talked. 

To begin our meal, Jack placed a fancy white card by my plate, stealing the beer bottle’s spot from months previously. 

I reached for the card.  “Dan, it’s, it’s a wedding invitation!  ‘Jack and Hannah warmly invite you to join us. .‘“  I could not read farther, excusing myself briefly to sort out my emotion. 

Silently, Jack turned the invitation to its back.  There, expertly pressed and handsomely mounted, lay a single, dainty, yellow flower.

“Oh, the yellow bells!” I exclaimed.  Memory snatched me back to Jack’s tinfoil surprise.  I dared not say more, should my awakening be a mistake.

“Remember the wrecked balloon, snagged by one of your fir trees?” Jack asked. 

“In the yellow bell patch,” I blurted.

“Well, Hannah is, was, the ailing teacher.”

“Jack’s quite the investigator,” explained Hannah.  “I’m amazed he was able to find me.”

“From the start, I wondered about the teacher who needed to get well.”  Sincerity overcame Jack’s brown eyes and square jaw.  “It seemed I was meant to make a contribution or something.  I mean, when a message arrives from above and alights right in front of you, in such an unlikely place, hadn’t a guy better pay attention?”

He paused, then winked and was himself again.  “The wind sure did me a favor the day it chased that balloon straight to me.  I’ll never again whine about our wind.”   

He grinned at his fiancé with genuine admiration.

“And, get this. Hannah’s son just asked to talk about helping on the farm when he can.  He’d be good.  Next, well, who knows?”

Then Jack leaned close to me and whispered, “So, how did I do, Boss?”