Old habits die hard. The saying sticks in my gullet as I stare down the fence at the last of the new strands. While I know it’s nice and tight – heck, it sits perfectly parallel to the other two – I also know I won’t be able to resist taking another half pull on the come-along for good measure.
Giving in, I add the tension needed only in my head, and then, feeling better about it, drop to my knee and give the barbed wire a good pluck. While not quite banjo tight, she’ll play a fine tune, so I set the staple and tie off the loose end. As I stand back to admire my repair job, the sun begins to tuck behind the clouds on the far horizon, painting the sky, and most of the cornfield just ahead, in a soft Midwestern crimson and orange.
On most days at this point, I’d be leaning on the fencepost, soaking up such a sight. After all, the farm has been pretty good to Laura and me – not that we’re living high on the hog, mind you, but most years we get by. This year, barring anything too unexpected, we should have enough to make the payments, keep plenty of food on the table, make sure Kellie gets in that last semester of college, and still have a bit extra to get the harvester its annual service I should have taken care of last year.
Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure it was really due the year before.
That’s farming for you.
Yet, today there’s an uneasiness worming through me that doesn’t seem to want to go away, as this is the third time I’ve had to patch the fence over the course of the last two weeks. There’ve been footprints over by the corn – large ones at that — and, more concerning, tire tracks coming off the old dirt road that separates our land from the McCormicks’ just to the other side.
Not what you’re thinking. The fence isn’t here to keep anyone out, rather, all it does is keep our small herd of cattle in. Before I put it up, they’d have a tendency to wander a bit. The McCormicks don’t mind; they’ve got three, could be four, organic apple orchards, and the cows really have no interest in Fujis or Grannys. But the lane winds down to the main road, and that’s where there could be trouble. Well, I guess, more accurately, there has been trouble.
Mrs. Duncan, driving her new Buick, didn’t have much good to say about old Bessie the last time she found her way onto the highway and started meandering toward town.
Not being able to shake the feeling, and with nothing much I can really do about it, I let my gaze drift up the rise. It’s getting a bit late and I’ve not yet seen the Juarez family this evening. The four of them – Diego, his wife, Rosa, and their two kids: Celia and little Manual – are always a happy sight, singing and laughing as they come down the road, headed home at the end of their workday.
The McCormicks, though a bit weird – after all, they voted for Sanders and I’m guessing must be leftover hippies from the 60s – are salt-of-the-Earth, give-you-the-shirt-off-of-their-backs good-hearted people. They’ve got a number of acres, the front mostly trees, some wildflowers, and a three-season creek, but to the back they raise their apples. Along with some locals looking for a little extra cash – most of which don’t last the season, it’s pretty hard work – they hire, at good pay, the Juarez family and a number of others to help with the various harvests spread throughout the late summer and fall.
I met Diego and his family a little over a year back, and it didn’t take us long to start up a sort of informal exchange. I’d pass along some fresh eggs and milk, with Rosa handing over some homemade tamales that were to die for. In the beginning things were a bit awkward – I knew about six words in Spanish, and they maybe knew ten in English – but over time we taught each other enough that some evenings they’d stay and chat for a good hour. Later, Laura began coming along with me, and with that, Rosa would have us all singing. While something we really enjoyed, it usually didn’t last long, as the kids would start a belly laugh that quickly spread to us all. Our Spanish was just that bad.
A couple of hugs and a long adios, and they’d be on their way home.
I never really gathered where that might be, and they never really wanted to say.
But that’s pretty much been our routine ever since, and not seeing them tonight has given me a bit of a worry. I’m starting to think that might even be the reason for the unease digging around in my gut.
I hop the fence and step out to the middle of the lane, squinting hard in hope of seeing their familiar silhouettes against the blood-red sky, though something keeps telling me it’s not going to happen. At least for now.
It’s then I notice that the tire tracks in the dirt are fresh. From today. In fact, there are a couple of sets and they’re deep enough to indicate the vehicles were moving fast and with purpose. If Laura were here to have a look, she’d say those tires were mad at something.
I start to turn back for the fence, but a flurry of movement up the way catches my eye and I stop. Two black SUVs, their windows deeply tinted, roar down the lane from the orchards, a rooster tail of dust kicking up behind. I slide to the side to let them pass, but at the last moment, the first one pulls to a halt, the side door opening as if on automatic.
A solid giant, someone or something that seems to be more a chunk off the Rockies that an actual man, slips out and steps up close, towering over me. He’s dressed in black, right down to the sunglasses, and wears one of those flak jackets that looks as if it could ward off a small atomic bomb. There are a number of gadgets attached, including a wired microphone of some sort, but what most draws my eye is the patch on the left side of his chest.
Under spread eagle wings – at least I assume the bird to be – is the word, in bold white letters, ICE.
“Afternoon, sir. You live in these parts?”
“Sure. Right over there,” I say, pointing across the fence.
“You been out here long?”
“Not really. Just havin’ to fix my fence. Again.”
“Yeah…seems like something funny’s goin’ on. Something or someone keeps breakin’ off the strands. Though, now that I think about it, I’d almost say they’d been cut.” I let my gaze purposely drift to his Paul Bunyan sized shoes, noting how nicely they might fit in the foot tracks left by my broken wire.
Though I know he catches my drift, he brushes it off, instead jutting his chin toward me. “You have any ID?”
I pull my wallet and hand over my driver’s license, to which he gives a cursory look, really doing nothing more than noting my name. “Well, Mr. Roberts, it seems likely your neighbors have been hiring individuals who may not possess the proper paperwork allowing them to be working in this country legally. We came up here today to pay them a visit…you know…sort of remind them of the laws that are in place to protect our citizens. But their labor force seems to have already left for the day.” He lowers his sunglasses and glares down at me. “You haven’t seen anyone walking along this road over the last hour, now have you?”
“No. Not today. I sometimes see the nice little families drift by when I’m out tending to the corn or cattle. Or, of course, the fence. But you folks are the first ones I’ve seen today.”
He nods, but I’m not sure there’s much belief in the motion. “Well, should you see anyone that you may regard as suspicious, it might be in your best interest to give us a call.”
I nod back, waiting for a card or something, but instead he slides his glasses up his nose and turns for the SUV, slamming the door as he jumps in.
“Ta-tah,” I say as the vehicles rocket down the lane.
Taking a deep sigh and giving the shoulders a good shrug, I climb back over to my side of the fence, sort of chuckling inside that I didn’t even need to clip a couple of strands to get here. With the sun starting to get serious about settling in for the night, I gather up my tools and the reel of wire and toss it all in the back of the truck.
I hop in, start it up, and click on the lights, but find myself frozen in place. The bright beams illuminate four sad-looking figures standing just inside the first row of corn.
With the sound of Diego’s voice, I shut down the truck and step back out. “You guys okay?”
“Si, Señor John. Miss Abby, she tells us to go,” says Rosa.
Though I know the agents are long gone, my head still turns toward the road, a chill shooting down my back. “You guys need a ride home?”
Rosa turns to Diego, speaking in rapid Spanish, but from where I stand, I see more in their eyes than what I hear from any of the words that are spoken. There’s some kind of trouble.
“Es no good,” Rosa finally says.
“It’s no good?” I repeat, though I have no idea what she means.
Rosa looks again to Diego, and together they try to put words in English, but none seem to fit what it is they’re trying to say. As they stand there frustrated, little Celia shakes her head and steps forward.
“Those men are waiting,” she says.
“The men in the black trucks?”
“Si. My uncle called Miss Abby. The trucks are on the street, waiting.”
Celia’s words surprise me – not that I wouldn’t be expecting the authorities to be waiting by their home, they’ve obviously been staking them out, my fence a testament to that – but rather it’s how well she can speak English. But, then again, even that makes sense, kids are sponges.
As I nod in reply, I notice that she’s rubbing her bare arms. With the sun’s setting, not only has it become pitch dark, leaving us to stand in the glare of the truck’s headlights, but more so, evident by her goosebumps, the fall’s evening air is starting to chill. I look down to Celia. “You’re getting cold, little lady. Let’s all get in the truck. We’ll go to my house and figure something out.”
She nods and turns to her parents, rattling off what I’ve said. Rosa puts a hand over her mouth, and in the harsh light, I’m pretty sure I see a tear in the corner of her eye. She slips over to the front of me, much more quickly than I thought possible, and sort of bows her head.
“Gracias, Señor John.” Her words come in spurts, more gasped than spoken.
We squeeze into the truck, which, fortunately has an extended cab and four doors, and I turn back down the rutted path, wondering just what I’m going to tell Laura. I take the longer part of the loop, which runs behind the corn, still a little leery of my earlier visitors.
When we get to the house, Laura is standing on the porch, her eyes widening when my passengers begin to hop out.
“A late night sing-along?” she asks, but I know there’s more hidden in that question.
“The McCormicks had some unwelcome visitors this afternoon. Black cars. Black uniforms. Black sunglasses.”
“ICE.” She shakes her head, then turns a hard glare to me. “Must be symbolic of what’s in their veins,” she says in more of a whisper.
I smile. Laura’s never been one to hold back her opinion. “Well, that aside, Abby and Tom must have gotten word. They shooshed everyone out of there.”
“Okay, Miss Grammar Queen. You know what I mean.” I chuckle as I step up on the porch, giving her a peck on the cheek. “Anyway, looks like we’re having guests for dinner.”
She looks out to the beleaguered little family and smiles. With a good-natured shake of her head, and the smile ever widening, she waves them toward the door. “Come on in, my friends.”
“Gracias, Señora Laura.”
As they march for the porch, I turn for the truck, needing to get the tools and wire back out to the barn. Diego, seeing my intent, races past me and grabs up as much as he can carry, which is pretty much everything in the bed.
I point to the barn. “Allí. Gracias.”
“No, no, gracias to you, Señor John.”
Once in the barn, and after he’s put everything up, Diego makes effort to quickly organize some of my mess – I’m not the best at putting things back where they belong – before we wash up, turn out the lights, and head for the house. As we approach the front door, I catch the aroma of something wonderful being cooked; something so savory, it makes my mouth water.
When we step in, I notice Laura – looking somewhat helpless – standing to the front of the kitchen, and it brings a smile to my face. Rosa and Celia are working feverishly behind her, Rosa flipping tortillas on the grill, while Celia, to the side, is taking bowls and plates to the big dining room table, which has already been set.
“I know how you feel, I just had this happen to me in the barn,” I say with a squeeze of her arm.
We shake our heads in unison, then each take in a deep breath. She and I take turns at the stove, but the house has never smelled this good.
Diego, meanwhile, has moved over to little Manual, who sits on the sofa watching something Disney on TV. “Es good, no?” he asks.
The boy beams a smile, but can’t take his eyes off the screen.
“Es ready, you come now,” Rosa calls out.
Despite the dark cloud of the day’s events, the table comes alive when everyone takes their place. It’s a sort of needed rebirth that sends me – and I can see it in Laura’s eyes as well – back to when Kellie was maybe ten, and there’d be mashed potato fights, chases around the kitchen with cans of whipped cream, and, more than anything else, laughter.
And there’s plenty of that now, mostly as we all make our goofy attempts at trying the other’s native tongue.
The food is even better than it smells. When we’re finished, Laura and I rise to try to pick up our plates, help with the cleanup. But Diego and Rosa will have none of that, and we find ourselves again on the sidelines as the table is cleared, the dishes washed, and the kitchen left spotless.
We set up Kellie’s room for the kids and show Diego and Rosa to the guest room. As we head down the hall to our room, I watch as they check in on Manual and Celia one last time.
“What are they going to do?” asks Laura, slipping into her robe.
“Rosa has some family out in California. A little town called Santa Paula, somewhere near the coast. I guess it’s coming up on orange picking season there, so she’s pretty sure they’ll help them get a job.”
“California? John, it’s not like they can hop a plane. Or even a bus for that matter.”
“I know, I know. I doubt they have much money, if any, and I’m sure the bus stations are under watch.”
“Oh, John…what are we going to do?”
Slipping into the covers, I tap her on the leg and turn off the light. “We’ll figure something out.”
With the farm, getting up early is just a way of life. Even though our coop is small, the cattle few, there are still chickens to feed, eggs to gather, and cows to milk. I never really expect anyone else to be up at that hour, so when I step out into a hall filled with the smell of breakfast cooking, I have to admit, I’m taken aback.
“Good morning, Señor John,” Rosa greets, as I peek around the corner into the kitchen.
“Mornin’. You’re up bright and early.”
“Si. Much to do.”
“I guess that’s so. Speaking of which, I have to run out to the barn, take care of the animals.”
With that, Diego pops his head out from inside the pantry. “Señor John, I will help.”
“Okay. Sure. Why not?” I smile and wave him toward the door.
While I clean the coop, feed the hungry girls, and collect the eggs – 6 this morning – Diego rakes the hay lining the bottom of the stalls, laying some fresh as needed, and fills the bins with feed. He watches intently as I milk Maggie, Bessie’s first and last born, smiling when I show him the half-full pail.
Back at the house the kids are up and Laura is helping Rosa set the table. It almost feels like déjà vu when we sit down to eat, as the morning seems a nice repeat of the night before.
Once the last of the eggs have been eaten and the last laugh laughed, we try to help clean up, but, of course, our efforts are again refuted. After a couple of tries, I finally throw up my hands in defeat, and feeling useless, move into the front room. As I pass by the big front window, a swirl of dust wandering up our long driveway pulls me to a stop. With the sight, my legs go to mush and my gut twists into a trucker’s knot.
“Company,” I say.
Hearing my warning, Laura rushes in and sets a hand on my shoulder. Normally her touch is soft, but there’s a tenseness in her grip, a deep worry as she clings tight.
It’s then the McCormicks’ ancient Beetle emerges from the cloud, both cutting off my words and settling my heart rate back to something a little more normal.
“It’s Abby and Tom,” Laura says with a long exhale.
We step out on the porch just as they pull to a stop at the front gate. They get out at the same time, a look of worry pasted upon both of their faces. Abby’s in a long flowing homemade dress, wool or something for the change of seasons, with a number of necklaces made from various trinkets. Her hair, long, thick, straight, and gray, cascades out from under the wide-brimmed floppy hat she seems to wear everywhere she goes. Tom, meanwhile, is in jeans with a tie-dyed long-sleeved t-shirt. His hair, more white than gray, is tucked back into a thinning ponytail, and he’s pushing up his wire-rimmed glasses, ones he had made to look like John Lennon’s.
Both are as thin as rails, and though as laid back as a lazy summer afternoon, they are, at the moment, bounding with energy, and practically race to the porch.
Before she can finish her sentence, Rosa peeks out the door.
“Miss Abby! Meester Tom!” she calls, her smile as excited as her voice.
As Rosa steps down to give them a hug, Diego pops out behind her.
Laura and I move over by the porch swing, watching as the hugs and greetings are exchanged. We marvel, and maybe even are a tiny bit jealous, of how the McCormicks’ have such a better grasp on their conversational Spanish. Which brings about a thought, and I lean over and whisper to Laura.
“How’d we become Señor and Señora, while the McCormicks rate Miss and Mister?”
She pokes me in the side, but before she can say anything, Abby finally looks over at us.
“When we got word, we told the crew to head out through the Parson’s cornfield, on the south side. But these guys”—she juts her chin at Diego and Rosa—“would have no part of it. They said they would go to Señor John’s and then they ducked into your corn.”
“Yup, that’s where I found them just after the ICE folks left,” I say, smiling.
Tom shakes his head. “I thought those ICE fellows might tear up the place, but they were pretty good about everything. Just did what they had to do. Guess this wasn’t their first rodeo. They knew everyone was long gone.”
I nod. “They asked me a few questions, then moved on.”
“What now?” asks Abby.
“Well, Rosa says she has some folks in California…”
“A brother and his family. Santa Paula, I think,” Abby interrupts.
“Yeah, that’s it. Santa Paula. Laura and I talked it out last night. We realized these folks aren’t going to be able to just hop a bus or catch a train, so we were wondering…would you guys be able to watch the farm for a week or so?”
Abby’s face goes flush, then a big smile beams out, lighting up the porch. “Oh, John! You guys are going to take them, aren’t you! You guys are the best.” She throws an arm around me, giving me a squeeze, then turns and taps Tom on the shoulder, all the while shaking her head. “They’re going to take them to Cali. All the way to Cali.” But then her face lights with a different revelation and she spins back to me. “Wait a minute. Wait just a second. There’s no way no how you all are going to be able to cram into that rotten old truck of yours for a three-day ride. That’d be crazy.”
Laura shrugs. “Sometimes you do what you have to do.”
Abby shifts her gaze over to Tom, who gives her a wink and a nod. She turns back smiling. “Look, why don’t you guys take our Suburban. Plenty of room in that beast. And it’ll make it there, rather than leave you stranded out in the Nevada desert along the way.”
“Are you sure?” Laura gives me a hopeful look.
“Absolutely. You have to take it. In fact, Tom and I will go get it right now.” She spins around to head for the Beetle, but stops, her eyes drifting to the field to our side, her thoughts racing. “Tom and I can tend to your chickens and the cattle, but good lord, how in the world are you two going to be able to afford this? I’m pretty sure they’re gonna need a little cash to tide them over as well, right?”
I smile, looking out at the barn. “I guess that harvester is just going to have to wait one more year for its service…”
After a long career of tinkering in telecommunications, Jim Bartlett switched to tinkering with words, both, of course, requiring a stretch of the imagination. He has since been fortunate to have a number of stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in Fiction on the Web, CrimeSpree Magazine, Short-Story.me, Ontologica, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books and a number of other wonderful publications. Most recently one of his stories was featured in the print anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 – 2017. While mentally he strolls along a warm California beach with his wife and golden retriever (shhh, she doesn’t know she’s a dog), physically they reside on a special little island in the Pacific Northwest.