Dust rose in the wake of the pickup and floated softly behind as Landon followed the track along the shelter-belt. As the truck climbed the last hill the morning became brighter, leaving the shadow of the valley behind. Earlier strange morning thunderheads had blown through and lightly sprinkled the ground. The dust appeared luminous as it clouded up behind him in the early morning sun then darkened as it settled back to earth.
He turned the corner at the end of the rows of trees that composed the shelter-belt and entered the field on the other side. He pulled as close as he could to the Caterpillar tractor and plow that awaited. When he turned off the key only the busy chatter of the birds in the nearby trees broke the calm silence of the morning air. They were still excited at his arrival.
Landon climbed out of the truck and took a deep breath of the morning air. It was a mixture of damp wheat straw and wet earth that teased his nose as he slowly scanned the horizon. This was his favorite field. To the west was a vast expanse of native Kansas grassland. The tops of the hills were covered with buffalo grass; the lower areas were thick with bluestem, at places over two feet in height. Mixed with the grass, in some magical balance, a variety of plants found their niche. Scattered here and there stood purebred Black Angus, quietly eating the damp grass.
On the far western horizon were the low mesas of the Gyp Hills. He could see Flower Pot Mountain, hardly a mountain, but clearly the highest point on the horizon. Nestled at the foot of the hills was Medicine Lodge. In the early morning light the small town was mostly lost in shadows. High over the grassland he spotted a lone hawk slowly gliding in wide circles.
He looked to the south he could see where the perfectly-maintained five-wire fence turned to the east at the end of the field, nearly a half mile away. The pasture extended as far as his eyes could see to the south. From his vantage point, on the top of the highest hill on the farm, he could see their own pasture to the east, with its combination of Hereford, Holstein and mixed-breed cattle. Half a mile to the east he could see the narrow dirt road that divided the farm. Near the road he saw the old abandon house where the former tenant, one Obie Reed, had until recently lived. Near the house was a collapsed barn, a windmill, a water tank and a small feed lot.
His eyes followed the road northward to the house where he lived. It was an L-shaped house with old wood shingles and black and white composition tar siding with a pattern of different sized rectangles. Nearby were a number of buildings, a large garden and a windmill. To the south of the house was a twenty acre field where he could see his father planting maize. The shelter-belt ran westward from the chicken house to where Landon stood.
In the east the sun was growing more brilliant and Landon could feel its warmth on his bare chest. Some found the Kansas summer sun to be a curse, for Landon knowing that the temperature on this July day would go above 100 degrees was a pleasurable anticipation.
Landon stepped down to the running board and climbed into the bed of the truck. One by one he lowered the three five-gallon cans of diesel oil onto the fenders of the tractor, placed the funnel on one of them, grabbed the grease gun and vaulted over the sideboards to the ground. He opened the tool box on the left fender of the tractor, took out a grease rag and shook the dust from it. He climbed onto the tractor and wiped the dark brown dust that had attached itself to the diesel oil that had spilled around the cap of the fuel tank during yesterday's fill up.. He took off the cap, inserted the funnel and quickly poured from the five-gallon cans into the funnel. The smell of diesel oil, which he had first noticed when he wiped off the oil soaked cap, became more intense, no longer pleasant.
After he had finished fueling the tractor and had greased the tractor and the plow he put the grease gun back in the truck, the grease rag back in the tool box. He took from it the starting rope, wrapped the rope around the flywheel, located just forward of the two turning brakes. He pulled out the choke and throttle of the starting engine, turned on the ignition switch and pulled as hard as he could on the starting rope. The morning stillness was broken by the shrill sound of the small starting engine. He quickly pushed the choke half way in and after a few seconds pushed it all the way in. After about a minute he pulled the clutch and gear levers that connected the small gasoline starting engine to the tractors diesel engine. He gave the diesel about two minutes to warm up and then moved the throttle to the maximum position. A dark cloud of smoke exploded from the exhaust and with a deep roar the main engine added its voice to the whine of the smaller engine. He cut the switch on the starting engine and moved the diesel throttle to the half way position. As he put the starting rope back in the tool box he could smell the heavy odor of burnt diesel oil.
He moved the throttle to the maximum position, engaged the clutch and pulled on first one steering lever and then the other to get lined up on the side of the field next to the neighboring pasture. He pulled the trip rope which dropped the four ploughshares into the ground. In a few seconds the ploughshares pulled themselves deep into the ground and together with the moboards were creating four continuous spirals of turned earth. The soil was moist and dark brown. It buried the wheat stubble and the weeds and created a clear contrast to the golden yellow of the wheat straw that was being plowed. After he had gone fifty feet or so he hit the clutch jumped off the tractor, quickly adjusted the two levers on the plow to set the depth and level the plow. Very quickly he was again on the move. Landon was only sixteen, but already he could plow more in a day than his dad, his uncle or any of the hired hands that they occasionally had. He carried the water jug on the tractor so he could get a drink without stopping. Not stopping was the key to getting more done.
The first round was always the most exciting, particularly for this field. There was always something new for alert eyes. Within a hundred yards he spotted a mound of fresh dirt and a dark hole a couple of feet from the fence. He imagined it was a badger den; the coyotes would make their dens in more isolated areas. He was not likely to see a badger they were strictly nocturnal; the coyotes were nocturnal, but made frequent daytime appearances.
As he approached the far end of the field he looked ahead to the large tree in the corner of the field. There was about an acre of grass in the corner where the hill dropped off toward the tree and which was to steep to farm. He knew from experience that it was a hollow tree and a home for raccoon. Across the fence from the tree was a shallow pool of water and beyond the pool a marshy area leading to a small stream that ran down through the valley as far as the eye could see. His eye followed the stream northward to a pool that was about 40 feet across and to the small island in the middle of it that he knew was a muskrat den. He scanned the surface of the pool to see if he could spot a swimming muskrat, but with no luck. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the hawk had moved closer and that its slow circles were somewhat nearer to the ground.
At the end of the field he pulled one of the levers and gently touched a turning brake a couple of times to make the turn to the east. Despite his expectancy, nothing of particular interest happen as Landon circled the field. He saw a few rabbits, some field mice and a constant flight of grasshoppers from the approaching tractor. Nothing of real interest. About twenty minutes from his start he made the turn to follow along the side of the shelter-belt that bordered the field on the north. With the point where he started the round but a short distance at the top of the hill.
The shelter-belt had been planted as part of a government project before Landon was born. Nearest the field was a row of cedar that were maybe 15 feet in height and which had grown solid together. Next there was a row of pine that were a bit taller; after that a row of locust, some of which had unusually long thorns; then a row of elm, yet taller than the pines; following was a row of some sort of olive trees, with small gray leaves and which produce no real olives, but pits with a very small bit of flesh and a tough skin; on the far side there was a row of Osage Orange, commonly known as hedge.
Last summer there had been unusual rainfall from mid-June until wheat harvest. The rain had delayed wheat harvest and this was an opportunity for the Russian Thistles to grow thick in the wheat until they were taller than the wheat. When the rain stopped and the wheat became dry enough to harvest the thistles were still green and became a major problem when they harvested the wheat. The threshing cylinder of the combine was not designed to handle the wet thistles and became jammed frequently. It was a difficult chore pulling out the thistles to clear the jams. The sap of the thistles coated the arms with a sticky layer of a reddish purple color, with the appearance of blood. When the arms dried in the air the sap turned to a nearly black color. The grain in the bin of the combine was also coated with the reddish sap which turned nearly black as it dried.
After harvest there was more rain and the thistles continued to grow and they became what is known as tumbleweeds. Normally the late summer winds come from the southwest, but last year there was a strong norther just at the time when the tumbleweed were at the point of their life cycle where they broke loose from the soil. Thousands of tumbleweed were blown into the shelter-belt and became lodged against the solid wall of cedars. When the wind died down there was a mound of tumbleweeds between the cedar and the pines that was at places over ten feet deep.
On this came an early snowstorm that dropped over a foot of wet snow on top of the thistles. Landon and his younger brother, Will, had dug their way under the snow. By carefully removing the lower layers of tumbleweeds they were able to create large rooms under the snow. As the snow had melted it had become solid ice and with the cedars as supports on one side and the pines on the other the icy snow formed a durable and crystal roof for their secret chambers. The snow allowed enough light to provide a shimmering and luminous visibility inside their enchanted cave.
He continued along the trees and made the final turn of the first round. The sun was getting brighter and the air more warm as he settled into the routine. Landon and the tractor were one. It was a 1952 Caterpillar D2, only three years of use since his dad bought it new. Without thinking he gently pulled the left lever or the right lever as necessary to keep the track along the furrow the plow had made the prior round. The clank clank clank of the tracks was a constant. The ride was not a smooth one, each clank of the tracks was a jolt to his body, the diesel engine sent a vibration through the seat of the tractor and through his whole body. When the plow entered one of the several areas of clay he could hear and feel the strain of the tractor, his hand would automatically move to the clutch lever in case it was necessary to shift to a lower gear. He listened to the tractor and for any warning the plow might make if there were a problem.
In his mind he sailed the seven seas with John Paul Jones and explored the jungles of Africa with Frank Buck, he rode the old west with Zane Grey and he pulled the steering levers of one of Patton's tanks across Europe.
As the morning passed the wind began to rise. The morning dew burnt off the surface and the soil became a powder. When he was going south this became a problem when the wind and the tractor fan conspired to blow the dust into his face. The track carried sand and dirt forward and the tractor fan added it to the mix. The larger particles were particular problem in his eyes. Already he could see that his body was coated with a layer of light brown dust.
A large swarm of gnats had collected around the exhaust of the tractor. He didn't know why, but it seemed that they liked the smell of diesel exhaust. Occasionally the wind would blow a gnat back into his eye. The gnats hurt his eyes more than the dust and more than all but the larger particles of sand.
Soon he reached the buffalo wallow which still contained water from the recent rain and had to work his way around it so as to avoid getting stuck. He remembered Obie telling him how to distinguish the buffalo wallows from the indentations that were where Indian tepees once stood. Quite simple really, the ones near the spring and pond in the pasture were perfectly round. Obie had explained that when the Indians set up their tepees that had dug a hole which put their living area below the surface of the ground and the soil was mounded around the edge of the tepee to block the winter's cold wind.
From mid-morning until noon the plow was followed by about twenty to thirty seagulls. They followed immediately behind and just above the plow and occasionally one would dart to the ground to grab a grub or a worm. It was strange that one would not see a gull for weeks on end, but within a short time of the first furrow being turned they would appear. Obie had told him that the gulls could smell the turned earth from miles away. It was also strange that they were called seagulls. Kansas was the centermost state in the nation and nearly as far from the sea as it could be.
As the sun reached its peak in the sky and Landon was headed north there was suddenly a bright flash in his eyes. He looked to the house and could see the light flashing from the attic window on the south end of the house. He stood up and waved his arms to signal to his mom that her flash of light from the mirror had been seen and that he knew that it was dinner time. When he got back to the truck he pulled the trip rope and watched as the plow lifted itself from the ground. He stopped the tractor killed the engine and drove the truck to the house.
His first stop was at the barrel by the windmill. A stream of cold water flowed from the windmill into the barrel. From the other side of the barrel overflow ran through a pipe to a stock tank about thirty feet away. He stepped up on the large block of wood next to the barrel, took a deep breath and plunged his body as far as he could into the cold water. He held this position as long as his breath allowed. The water was almost to cold for this purpose and as he emerged from it he could feel the warmth of the sun more intensely as he shook the water from his hair and his arms.
On the porch of the house he washed his hands with some soap and took a towel to his hair and upper body. As he stood on the porch could smell the fried chicken and could hardly wait to get his first bite. His brother Will came running to the house from the barn and started talking a mile a minute about first one thing and then another. Bill followed him as he entered the house, but was promptly sent back to the porch to wash his hands and face.
The meal was delicious; fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans cooked with bacon, fresh lettuce, green onions and sliced tomatoes. All of the vegetables were fresh from the garden and the chickens were home grown. Will tried to eat as much as Landon, but his stomach was four years younger and not up to the task. Landon prided himself in being able to eat as much as anyone he knew. Despite the ample diet he was as thin as a rail; maybe it was because he ran everywhere he went and didn't stop moving from the time he got up until the time he went to bed.
On the way back to the field he stopped next to the two 500 gallon tanks, mounted five feet above the ground on creosote poles He filled up the cans in the back of the trunk from the diesel tank. When he got back to the field he quickly fueled the tractor and serviced the equipment, started the tractor, took a long drink from the freshly refilled jug and started plowing again.
He noticed that the hawk was still on its circle and, a little higher in the sky, on another circle he could see what he knew to be buzzard. The buzzard seemed to spiral without effort even slower than the hawk: more ominously.
To the west all was grassland. To the east there was some grassland, but it was mostly farming. Generally those who lived further west considered themselves cattlemen those to the east farmers. Most of the farmers had some cattle and a horse or two. As he looked to the west he could see the oil derricks in the oil field north of Medicine Lodge. He could barely make out a few of the pumps that brought the oil up from the ground. Like giant teeter-totters slowly moving up and down. In the quiet of the Kansas night they could be heard with a heart-like thump thump thump, occasionally punctuated by the sound of coyotes.
His eye again followed the small stream in the neighboring pasture. He knew that it emptied into Elm Creek and that the medicine lodge from which the town Medicine Lodge got its name had been located just this side of the fork where Elm Creek joined the Medicine Lodge River. The Gyp Hills were magical to the plains Indians who inhabited the area and the Medicine Lodge River was sacred. The last major peace treaties with the plains Indians were signed at Medicine Lodge in 1865. The site was chosen by the Indians for the occasion because of its sacredness.
Suddenly Landon saw a small jackrabbit. Instantly he disengaged the clutch, leapt from the tractor and ran as fast as he could toward the bunny. He was within four of five feet before the bunny realized the danger. The small jackrabbit tried to flee, but it was too late. He darted one way and the other, but Landon with both arms spread was able to adjust his path to keep his target within his range and soon had both of his hands around the frightened bunny. At first it struggled to escape, but soon there was no struggle, just a trembling that seemed to follow up Landon's arms and through his whole body.
Carefully Landon moved his hands so that the bunnies head was visible. He could tell that it was a jackrabbit rather than a cottontail because of its long ears and the larger back legs. He held it with one hand while his other hand gently petted the back of its small head as he walked back to the tractor. The bunny continued to tremble. He opened the tool box and rearranged its contents to make more room for the bunny. He was concerned with all of the dust that had filtered into the tool box, at the bottom there was nearly an inch that at places was caked around the less used tools. Being careful not to let the bunny escape he quickly closed the lid with the rabbit inside.
Soon the tractor was on its way around the field again. Landon had lost a lot of time and was now set to make up that loss. As he headed on his way he could help but worry about his captive in the dark and dusty tool box. He wondered what his friend was thinking. He had tried to keep bunnies as pets twice before, but they had soon died, just as Obie had told him they would.
The sun was well past the top of the sky and it was hot. The heat had energized the air and the wind was picking up. Several times he had seen whirlwinds move rapidly across the field, darting here and there as they created a column of dust and now and then briefly picking up a piece of straw. He could understand why some people called them dust devils. With the additional wind there was more dust in the air and when he was headed south with the wind in his face the dust and sand that it carried made it almost impossible to keep his eyes open. He considered putting on the goggles that were in the tool box, but they were so hot to wear that there was little advantage. When he thought of the goggles he thought of the bunny in the tool box and how hot and dusty it must be in there.
He stopped the tractor and carefully opened the tool box and gently removed the bunny. As he walked out into the stubble he gently stroke the rabbit's back and long ears. As much as he wanted to keep it for a pet, he knew that letting it go was the right thing to do. He placed the bunny on the ground, held it for a few seconds and then slowly removed his hands. The rabbit did not move. As he walked back to the tractor he looked back over his shoulder at the small animal. It remained paralyzed.
He got back on the tractor and started to make up for lost time. His mind was still on the baby jack rabbit. Landon's nickname at school was rabbit as he could run faster than any of the other kids. He knew that in a few months he would not be able to catch the bunny and somehow he felt some pride as though he were kin to the bunny and if somehow its achievements would owe something to this kinship.
His eyes moved back to the gyp hills and to Medicine Lodge. It was more clearly visible than it had been in the morning. There was a faint white tint from the gypsum that spewed from the gyp mill and hills in the distance had a slightly blue haze. As his eyes wandered back over the pasture he saw three small objects on the hillside on the other side of the creek. Though he couldn't see them clearly he knew they were coyotes. This was what he had hoped for, to see his favorite animal.
As he turned to the south on the next round he saw that three coyote were about to enter his field. His pulse quickened as he slowly moved in their direction. Now he could see them clearly. When he got to the point where they had entered the field they were only about 40 feet away. They were watching him alertly, but seemed to have no fear. It was hard to say if they were in a hurry or not, their movement was rather a mixture of walk and a lope. He focused on the nearest one which also the largest. Its mouth was open and its tongue was slightly out of its mouth. It looked like it was grinning at him. As he thought about it he decided it was laughing at him.
Nearly every night one could hear the coyotes howling and yapping in this direction from the house. Landon laughed to himself to remember the time, long ago, when his parents had taken groceries and the two younger children into the house while he and his sister Elizabeth had played in the car. Somehow he had knocked the gearshift lose and the car had rolled down the hill. He had managed to steer it around the chicken house, but was unable to make the turn on its far side and the car had slowly plunged into the shelter belt and soon came to rest against a tree. When their parents came frantically to retrieve them they were crying because they were afraid the coyotes would get them.
He remembered the stories that Obie had told him about coyotes. Somewhere Obie had learned many Indian tales and the ones about coyotes were Landon's favorites. For the Indians the coyote was a trickster. Not only was the coyote smart and clever, but he also loved a good prank and there was something magical in much of what he did. He wished that his nickname was coyote. Suddenly he remembered the bunny and he was instantly struck with fear for his little friend. He stood up on the tractor, started waving his arms and making wild whoops and strange noises, anything to distract the hunters.
His mind was racing. What could he do? He remembered, the rabbit was also a clever trickster. But could a bunny so small have the power? His mind sorted through the Indian tales that Obie had told him, how the rabbit had tricked coyote into whacking the hornets nest, the time coyote had trapped rabbit by the edge of the pond and rabbit had tricked him into believing that the moons reflection in the pond was a piece of cheese and had talked coyote into getting the cheese while he went to get some bread. Then somehow rabbit had climbed to the moon to permanently escape coyote and of course that was why coyotes howl at the moon.
He remembered what Obie had told him about the Indian's totem. Somehow power could be drawn from animals through the Great Spirit. A communication through dreams, visions or spirit could provide valuable information and power. The medicine man could engage the animal totem of the tribe for the benefit of the tribe. Maybe he could communicate with the rabbit. His nickname was "rabbit" so that must be his totem. It was time to be a medicine man. After a look back over his shoulder to check on the coyotes he looked to the sacred hills in the west, to Medicine Lodge. He remembered the Indian dance that he had attended and tried to remember the chants that went with the dancing. He started his chant as he turned the corner to the east. The coyotes were now on the other side of the hill and could not be seen. He drummed on the top of the toolbox to accompany his chanting. His mind strained to warn the bunny and he tried to project the image of large numbers of rabbits into the pasture on the far side of the field, to trick the coyote on beyond the field. As the tractor climbed to the top of the hill he stood up, waving his arms and swaying his body like he had seen the Indian dancers do, with an occasional hand to one or the other of the steering levers. The volume and pace of his chanting continued to intensify. Finally he could see them. They were looking at him warily as if he was loco. They continued their quick pace across the field. By the time he made the turn to the north they were about to leave the field, their pace soon breaking into a smooth lope. His chanting was now a celebration, his movement a victory dance. It had worked.
When he came to the point where the coyotes had left the field he gave one last victory whoop and sat down in the tractor seat. He bare back touched the black back of the seat and he quickly jerked away. He reached to his right side and got the water jug. He had refilled it at noon so the water was still cold and fresh. After a long drink he poured water on the back of the seat until it was cool enough to lean back. His efforts had tired him. He rested against the seat and drew energy from the sun. He was sure that it was over a hundred degrees and that was just what he liked. The wind was still brisk and he could feel the dust and sand that it carried against his skin. His body was covered with the maximum amount of dust, any more would just blow off. It felt good, except when it got in his eyes. He looked across the field for his rabbit, but it was nowhere to be seen. He hoped that it had gone to the pasture where there was more cover. The stubble had been disked right after wheat harvest and provided rather poor protection.
He turned the corner and headed south. His eyes once again followed the gyp hills along the horizon until they came to Medicine Lodge. The afternoon sun was about half way across it journey from noon to dusk and he had to squint as he looked into its rays. As his eyes moved back to the field and away from the sun he saw it. The hawk was over the center of the field and its high effortless circles had turned into a rapidly descending spiral with a decreasing circumference.
He disengaged the clutch and leapt from the tractor. He ran toward the distant point where the hawk was descending. He yelled and waved his arms. It was no use he knew. He saw the bunny just as it saw the hawk. The small bunny tried to flee, but it was to late. It darted one way and the other, but the hawk had its wings spread wide and was able to adjust its path to keep its target within the striking range of its talons. The rabbit disappeared from Landon's sight, beneath the hawk. The bunnies scream pierced his ears. Then, with the jackrabbit firmly in its grasp, the hawk brought its wings back to its sides. With a couple of hops and flaps of its wings the hawk turned southwest and into the wind. Landon was still running, but knew it was of no use. With a maximum effort the hawk was able to lift off the ground. The weight of the bunny was all the hawk could lift and it was only slowly that it gained altitude. This flight was a total contrast to the effortless circles of earlier in the day.
Landon walked slowly back to the tractor as the hawk, still laboring with its load, flew out over the pasture, slowly turned northward, crossed the small creek and landed on the side of the far hill, directly across from where Landon had seated himself on the tractor. Landon stared across the valley at the small dark spot on the hillside for a few minutes. He wiped the mud from the corners of his eyes and once again opened the throttle and engaged the tractor's clutch.