Chapter Eight


The Corn Field


"Into the wagon, boys,” said Alfred, "Come on, let's get going. We don't have all day."

"I thought we did have all day,” said Milton, calmly eating an apple while leaning against the wagon wheel.

"Don't sass me, boy, I'm not your mother,” Alfred said, spinning him around and booting him in the butt.  "Get up in the wagon.  The rest of you too. Come on, we haven't all day."

Virgil and Austin climbed in behind Milton.  Each grabbed a pile of burlap bags and made himself a seat.  "But I thought we had to pick corn all day today," said Virgil.

"That's right," said Alfred.

"Well then, we do have all day," Virgil said.

"How come you're so smart?" asked Alfred.

"Because he takes after me,” said Milton.  Virgil looked at Milton and grinned.  Milton took a piece of apple out of his mouth when Virgil turned away and threw it at him, hitting him in the back of his head.

"Stop it, Milton," he yelled.

"What's going on?” asked Alfred who was busy up front with the horse.

"Milton's spitting his apple at me," Virgil said.

"I am not,” Milton had a way of reciting denials that were devoid of any sincerity.  He didn't care whether he was believed or not.  They were a necessary part of his existence. Sometimes they worked.

Alfred strode to the back of the wagon and cracked him across the head with an open hand.  Milton hardly winced. He was used to it. Virgil stuck his tongue out at him and said, "Good for you." Milton laughed.

"Want the rest of my apple, Austin?” he asked. Austin reached over as Milton held it out.  Then he tossed it over the end of the wagon. "Go get it,” he laughed.  Austin jumped on him and started pummeling him. Milton just laughed all the harder.  Alfred grabbed them by the collar and pulled them apart.

"Can't you two act civilized?” he said, shaking them.  Milton stifled his laughter.  He had had his fun for the moment. He knew how to get his brothers going. Virgil was sensitive, but Austin had no emotion. His responses were instinctive, and pain didn't seem to bother him.

"Let's go," said Alfred, climbing up on the seat.

"No, wait,” said Virgil.  "Here comes Tom. Come on, boy.” Tom Brown hobbled up to the wagon, but collapsed on his haunches when he tried to jump. His old broken body couldn't do it anymore.

"Better help him, Virgie,” said Alfred.  Virgil hopped off, lifted his dog up onto the wagon and got back in. "Ready?” asked Alfred. "Haw!” he commanded, and they headed down the road to the cornfield.

Tom wouldn't have gone near the wagon or the horse if Virgil hadn't coaxed him.  Alfred said it was because Tom remembered how he got crippled.  Seems he was intimidating the horses one day for no good reason when they bolted and ran.  He wasn't quite fast enough to get out of their way and got himself caught under a wheel.  They thought he was finished, so Alfred fetched his gun to put him out of his misery.  When Tom saw the gun he lit out limping full speed and howling for the woods. When he didn't return for a week, the family thought he had died, but lo and behold, two weeks or so later, he came limping home, none the worse for wear.  They figured if he had made it that far, he'd be all right. This all happened before Virgil was born, so he never knew Tom any different. He thought all black and tans hobbled like that.

"He's a good boy, aren't you, Tom?” said Virgil, scratching him behind his ear, as the dog rested his head in his master's lap.

After a short, bumpy ride they reached the cornfield at the edge of the basin, a fertile stretch of arable land just south of the town. Alfred ordered them out while he unhitched the wagon.

"All right, I'll be back tonight to pick you up. Here's some lunch Ma put up for you,” he said, handing them the basket. "When I come back tonight I expect to see the wagon full of corn, all shucked and clean. Understand?” The boys said nothing.  They looked away, kicked the ground and mumbled.  "We all have to earn our keep, boys,” said Alfred, as he mounted the draft horse and rode away.

“There has to be an easier way,” said Milton.

Virgil picked up a handful of burlap bags and walked over to the nearest row of corn where he started the chore.  He had to reach way up to get at the topmost ears, and those he couldn't reach he'd leave for one of his brothers.  The morning air was still a little crisp from the night before and the sun would take a while to warm things up, so the boys hustled about their work, if only to keep themselves warm.

"There has to be an easier way to make a living,” said Milton again as he shucked along.  "What do those people do in New York and Boston to be able to dress up fancy and ride around in big carriages like they do in the pictures in books?"

"I don't know," said Austin.

"I know you don't know.  I don't know either, and if I don't know, you can't know,” Milton said.  Milton was seven years older than Virgil, his youngest brother, and only a year older than Austin, but a lot smarter. Moses said that Milton had the cunning of a fox. "You don't know anything, Austin."

"Leave him alone, Milton," said Virgil.

"I do so know something," said Austin.

"Oh yeah, well how many inches are there in a foot?" Milton asked.

Austin thought as hard as he could. "At least two," he guessed.

"There, see. I told you. You don't know anything."

"He's right," said Virgil. "There's at least two."

"What are you talking about?" said Milton.

"There's at least two!" he yelled.

Milton thought for a moment.  Then it dawned on him.  There were at least two.  He clenched his teeth and threw an ear of corn at Virgil. "Shut up!" he said.

Austin dove at Milton, tackling him around the waist and knocking him to the ground.  The two rolled around in the mud socking each other while Virgil threw corn at Milton. 

"Get him, Tom,” said Virgil as he bounced an ear off Milton's back. Tom attacked. He grabbed Austin by his pants and growled and shook his head like he had a coon by the neck.

"Not me!" yelled Austin.

"That's it, get him, Tom," said Milton.

"Not him, Tom,” said Virgil, "Get Milton.” He threw an ear at Tom, who let go as the two rolled over.  "Get Milton.” Tom went into the fray again, this time grabbing Milton, who was on top, by the arm. "Good boy, Tom, get him,” Virgil continued to yell as the hound growled and shook his prey.

Austin grabbed a handful of mud and pushed it in Milton's face.  As he sat up to wipe the mud from his eyes, Tom pulled him over backwards and Austin rolled on top of him.  "All right, I give up,” he sputtered. Austin rolled off and got to his feet.  Tom let go. Milton spit out some dirt and got up, brushing himself off.  He picked up an ear of corn and threw it at Tom, who put his tail between his legs and ran into the rows of cornstalks.

"Good for you," Virgil said to Milton.

Milton may have been smarter, but Austin was the scrapper.  Milton would use his wits to avoid pain if at all possible, but Austin didn't seem to mind pain.  He was a good man in a fight.

"Let's have some lunch,” said Milton.  "Get the basket, Virg, and let’s eat over by the creek." The fight was over and forgotten.

Virgil ran back for the lunch basket with Tom hobbling behind him. "Come on, Tom, I'll race you,” he said over his shoulder. Milton picked out a spot near the creek under a big oak.  He and Austin sat down. They watched as Virgil ran back. He stopped suddenly and looked down.

"Will you stop fooling around and hurry up with our lunch?” called Milton.

"Hey, come here, you guys,” yelled Virgil, waving his arms. They hurried over to see what Virgil had discovered. "What is it?" he asked.

"It's a bear flop, that's what it is," said Milton, looking around.

"Why is it smoking?" Virgil asked.

"It's not smoking," said Milton. "It's steaming."

"But why?" he asked.

Milton took a long look at the woods and fields around them. "Because our friend the bear just flopped it, that's why.  It's still warm. Fresh from the oven."

Austin kicked it. "Looks like he's been eating our corn," he said.

Tom sniffed at the fermented waste. "Get away, Tom," said Virgil. "Do you think he's still close by?” he asked.

"Are you kidding, I'll bet he's been watching us pick his dinner all morning," said Milton.

"I hope he doesn't mind sharing," said Austin.

"Well if he does, we'd better humor him,” said Milton. "But then, I never heard of a bear with a sense of humor."

"I'm glad we got Tom with us," said Virgil, patting his head.

"What for? He can't even run anymore," said Milton.

There was a sudden thunderous crashing of dense undergrowth on the opposite side of the creek. "Run!" screamed Milton. "He's after us."

Virgil dropped the lunch basket and Tom and the boys lit out for the road on a dead run. "Run, here he comes,” he yelled. Virgil made the mistake of straddling a row of corn and the stalks whipped the bejesus out of his crotch as he mowed them down, screaming all the while he ran, more in fright than in pain.  And the more he screamed, the faster his brothers ran. As they neared the road Milton had the presence of mind to look behind them to check and see if the bear was gaining on them before they all dropped dead from exhaustion. It was nowhere in sight.

"All right boys, it's safe,” he panted.  "I guess we were just too much for him.” He leaned over and put his hands on his knees, took a few deep breaths, straightened up and heaved a sigh of relief.

Virgil was bent over, holding his crotch and crying.

"Stop crying, Virgie," said Austin." We scared him off."

"My pee wee hurts," he cried.

"You'd have something to complain about if that bear had bitten it off," said Milton.

Virgil stopped crying for a minute. "What?"

"Sure, that's how bears catch you, you know,” he said, winking at Austin. “They sneak up behind you and bite it right off.” Virgil's eyes grew bigger at the prospect of being caught by that bear.

"Who's going back for the lunch?" asked Austin.

"Who's hungry?" asked Milton.

"Not me,” said Virgil who knew what Milton was up to.  They looked at Austin.

"Not me,” Austin said.  "Who's going back for the corn?” They looked at each other. No one was volunteering.

"If Alfred wants it, he can come and get it,” said Milton.  They agreed.  Tom sniffed around Milton.  "Get away from me you worthless hound,” he said.  "Some dog you are, hear a noise in the woods and you run.” 

Milton pulled at the seat of his pants.  "Let's head for home, I think I have to change my pants."

"Me too," said Austin.

"Not me,” said Virgil proudly.  But he checked anyway when his brothers weren't looking, just to be sure.

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