“All is not perfect with agriculture but all is well. If it were perfect, it would be too well.” John L. McCarty, Editor, The Dalhart Texan
Seventeen-year-old Willy Gil Kellogg paced the back porch of his grandparents’ home on the edge of Dalhart, Texas. He spotted a rusty table knife beside a step and grabbed it. Needing to keep his hands busy while he waited to see Gramps, Willy sat, yanked off his work boots, and began scraping mud between a heel and instep.
Since the rasping movements of the knife required no attention, Willy let his gaze wander to the horizon where newly empty wheat fields stood under a sun hanging low in the sky. A sense of pride pushed back the sadness in his chest as he stared at the bare land. Miraculous fields, Gramps called them. Willy smiled at the memory—one of many. There would be time to revisit them all later.
Finally, he heard Grandma’s sensible, black, lace-up shoes on the kitchen floor. The screen door creaked open, then shut with a click. Willy didn’t want to see her face, so he looked down at his boots until she stopped next to him. When he no longer had a choice, he raised his eyes and saw the silent tears she dabbed with the corner of a red-checkered apron.
“He wants to see you, Willy Gil. Don’t be too long. He needs his rest.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Willy placed the knife inside one of the boots, unfolded his legs, and rose to his full six feet three inches. He bent down and kissed the top of her gray head before walking into the kitchen.
“Get him to take some soup,” Grandma called after him “He might listen to you. There’s a bowl on the bedside table.”
Willy nodded and continued to the staircase where he stood a minute or so worrying a hole in his pants pocket. Then he grabbed the oak banister, worn down by the whole family doing the same thing for years, and propelled himself up the stairs.
The door to the bedroom was closed. William Gilbert Paige had never been sick. Never complained, at least not in the presence of his grandson. Grandma knew something was wrong though. She nagged Gramps to eat good, begged him to see a doctor. Finally, he couldn’t get out of bed, and Doc Jenson came to him. Told them this had been coming on a long time, this cancer in his stomach, gnawing on his insides. That was just after they’d begun the wheat harvest.
“You know how to bring in the crop. Just do it” were all the instructions his grandfather had given. Turned out he was right.
Willy knocked softly before going in.
Gramps lay on his side, back to the door, facing the open windows. An evening breeze was making an unsuccessful effort to clear out the odor of medicinal alcohol and vomit. The sick-room odor of hovering death. The western sky glowed with oranges and pinks—the day’s last attempt to keep the night at bay. A kaleidoscope of light and shadow wove patterns across Gramps’s bed. Although the weather was mild, someone, probably Grandma, had pulled a wool blanket up over his shoulders and neck.
“Will, come ’round over here.” Gramps’s voice sounded small and empty, not the commanding, full resonance Willy Gil had heard his whole life.
He checked an inclination to bolt and rounded the bed.
“Pull that chair up. Got something to say to you.”
“Yes, sir.” Willy picked up the cane-bottomed chair, carried it to the edge of the bed, and flipped the seat between his legs. He propped his elbows on the back and looked for the first time at Gramps’s face. Willy’s heart ramped up, trying to pump enough life for both of them. The old man’s skin, faded from its usual dark luster, still contrasted with the bleached-white sheets. His hollow face made brown eyes that no longer reflected life’s joy appear too big for his head. White stubble covered the normally clean-shaven chin and cheeks.
“You comfortable, Gramps?”
“Oh, sure.” The old man sucked in a shallow breath of air. “’Bout as comfortable as a snake in mud.”
Willy tried not to grin—but he did anyway. “Grandma says eat some soup.” He reached toward the bowl.
“Well, tell her I ate it. Make her happy.” Gramps shifted under the blanket. “But toss it out the window. I’d just throw it up. It’s cold now anyway. Soup oughta be hot.” A wheeze whistled in his chest. “Just be sure Grandma don’t see you.”
Willy took Gramps’s hand, feeling the calluses and swollen joints—badges of honor earned from many years of farming. “Okay, our secret. Been a long time since we conspired to keep a secret from her. That one probably involved food too.”
“And I’m sure we didn’t fool her.” Gramps took his hand back and pulled the blanket away from his neck. “Scratchy. Anyway, didn’t call you in here to talk about soup.” He gulped air, this time more forcefully than before, like he needed it to last the whole of whatever followed. “You know it’s time for me to pass on.”
Willy opened his mouth to protest.
“Just listen.” Gramps raised a hand, making a slight wave meant to silence any comment. “I worked hard for this land. This life. Lived in a dugout.” For an instant, his eyes seemed to be looking at something which wasn’t in the room, then returned to the present. “But you know all that stuff. Here’s the point. Land’s the only thing that don’t diminish. It’s the starting point for everything else I have.” He coughed, then took several measured breaths. “Only thing continues to produce. Bring wealth year after year. Businesses come and go. Want any proof? Look at those bread lines back east. None o’ that going on here.” He paused, his breathing labored, and looked into his grandson’s eyes for the first time.
Willy wanted to comment to let Gramps know he understood but was afraid to say the wrong thing. So he just pressed his fingers together.
“Had some tough years after the war. Depressed prices and all. Nothing like in the beginning though. Trying to get her built up.” Gramps stopped like his mind jumped to another subject—or no subject at all. His gaze dropped. Then he sighed and continued. “Your dad worked hard too. Made his spread profitable. Floyd was a good man.
“Now, E.L.’s my son. But you, William Gilbert, carry my name. You’re my legacy to the Texas Panhandle. Evidence I did something worth continuing.” He looked up. “Too much to ask?”
“No, sir, course not.” Willy thought he answered correctly, although he suspected the burden of the question hadn’t really digested good yet.
Gramps shut his eyes and stayed very still. Willy gripped the chair back while he waited for the old man to continue.
“My land would have gone fifty-fifty to E.L. and your mother. Her half will go to you, as well as your third of the land that was hers and your dad’s.”
Willy didn’t move, his mind trying to absorb what he’d just heard. Land. The greatest gift. But a gift that came frayed around the edges by grief—and the burden of the secret he hadn’t even admitted to himself for the first two years. He pushed the remorse to the unreachable part of his conscience, where it belonged.
The old man paused, only this time his eyes stayed alert and found Willy’s again. “You have to promise to cultivate it, to keep it in the family. You willing to do that?”
“Of course, Gramps. You know I want to farm, but I thought E.L. . . .”
“Good. Knew you would. You have to finish school though. That teacher understands farm folks. She’ll be flexible with planting and harvesting.”
“I will, Gramps. I’ve only got one more year.”
“Your mother, she’ll hunt me down, wherever I end up, and deliver one of her tongue lashings if you don’t.” Gramps sank into his pillow like the long sentence—or the thought—had tired him out.
Willy smiled, savoring what remained of the healthy man he would remember. “We couldn’t have that.”
Gramps harrumphed and motioned for one of Grandma’s cleansing tissues, which Willy handed him. He spit into it, wadded it up, and handed it back. “Toss that, will you? And hand me another. I’ll need it.”
Willy grabbed another, and Gramps stuck it under his pillow.
“That land was black as chocolate when we settled back in ’90. So rich you could almost eat it for dessert. Land’s about all taken now. Take care of it. Don’t let those city folks encroach on good farm land.” His voice trailed off, and his eyes stared out the window at the darkening sky. He wheezed a couple of times and yanked on the edge of the blanket. “Still scratches.”
Willy stood, leaning over the chair back, and pulled the cover off the old man’s neck, tucking it under so it wouldn’t creep back up.
“Thanks. Anyway, you’re the kind of good pioneer stock Dalhart, Texas, needs. See that it stays strong.” He took as deep a breath as seemed possible.
“I will, Gramps.”
“And take care of your sisters’ share of Floyd’s land until they come of age.”
The old man gave Willy a hard stare. “I expect that.”
“I won’t let you down.”
“E. L. should help you if times get tough. Told him that bank he’s hell bent on running someday . . .” Gramps coughed, fished the clean tissue from under his pillow and spit.
Willy exchanged the dirty one for a handful of clean ones this time.
“Needs to keep supporting the farmer. ’Specially the young ones. During hard times as well as good. Agriculture’s the backbone of this county. Without it, won’t be no bank.” Gramps’s body twitched. His breathing was strained, his face contorted. Then determination replaced the scowl, and he continued, his eyes narrowed. “He’ll be mad about the land. He wants my entire spread for himself. But I had two children. Besides, he’s not even a real farmer. Or cattleman for that matter. Just keeps that herd as an investment. Nuts. That’s hard-earned wheat land. I intend for half of it to stay that way.”
Willy had heard the two of them argue about the subject many times and always took Gramps’s side, but he kept his mouth shut.
“You’re the one I’m counting on.” Gramps’s face relaxed, his whole body seeming to slump under the weight of the conversation, and his eyes closed.
Willy Gil sat still, watching the weathered face he knew would stay in his memory forever, until soft snoring signaled that sleep had eased his grandfather’s pain. He rose, returned the chair to its corner, tossed the soup out the open window, then bent and kissed the whiskered cheek.