This story was originally written in 2004 and has been edited for Lambchow. The Tractor Seat, another story in that original series, share the same setting although a different time period. Both stories borrow my memories of a real-life neighbor from my childhood, Johnny Darst. In an era of farm modernization he still did things the old-fashioned way. Not because he had to but because he wanted to. He found joy in working the land, I hope that you find joy in this short story.
“Well, what is it? I can’t tell through the brown paper you know,” she asked.
Ryan put the package down and carefully opened it. Once the brown paper was gone and the excelsior packing had been removed, a bright copper, rooster- topped weather vane emerged. “What do you think?” Ryan asked.
“I think that you should have opened that up outside; I’ll never get all that excelsior cleaned up,” she replied.
“I’ll clean it up; I meant what about the weather vane?”
“It’s ok, but why do you need it? Can’t you tell the wind direction just by looking at the trees,” she said.
“I just want to know exactly which way the wind is blowing. Besides, I thought it would look nice up on the peak of the barn roof. That way I can see it from the front porch,” Ryan replied. A few days later, that is exactly where Ryan mounted the weather vane. Later that evening after he had finished the chores, Ryan sat on the porch and watched the weather vane announce its news.
Ryan and Lisa had only been married a few months. They had bought a small 40-acre farm on the black dirt prairie outside of Smithfield. Ryan worked the farm with a couple of horses. The other farm animals were a few milk cows, a few beef cows, a dozen sheep, half a dozen hogs, and a variety of chickens. A barn and corn crib sat alongside their three-room home. The exterior of their small home was covered with white clapboard, green storm shutters, and cedar shake shingles. A bedroom, a sitting room, and a kitchen made up the interior. Behind the house were the outhouse and a root cellar, which doubled as a storm cellar.
A warm Indian summer breeze was coming from the south when the first bundle of joy arrived at the farm. “Isn’t she cute honey?” asked Ryan.
“She sure is. Well, are you going to congratulate the new mother?”
“Oh, I forgot. Nellie, congratulations on your first calf. She sure is cute,’’ Ryan said. The Holstein looked up at him with its big brown eyes and then resumed nuzzling her new calf. “That calf is just the start of things Lisa; come spring there’s going to be a lot of little critters around here.”
“Yep lots,” Lisa agreed. Ryan gave Nellie an extra helping of hay before they went into the house for supper.
A few days later the wind changed to the North. The temperatures dropped, and the first snow started to fly. It seemed to Ryan that it had been autumn one day and winter the next and that winter was digging in for a long stay. Every morning he’d build the fire in the kitchen stove, and then he’d go out and see the animals. Lisa would collect the eggs and help Ryan with the milking. While Ryan was chopping wood for the day, Lisa prepared their breakfast. Every time Ryan left the house he’d check the weather vane to see which way the wind was blowing. In the evenings, Ryan would peruse the Sears Roebuck catalog, seed catalogs, or various farm publications. Lisa spent her evenings either sewing or knitting. Some evenings, if the snow and cold were not too bad, they would take the wagon out and visit the neighbors. On Saturdays, they would make a trip to town if the weather allowed, and on Sundays, they would travel to the little white church.
The wind shifted to the east for a little while, the sky cleared, and the sun was bright on the snow,
“Merry Christmas dear,” Ryan said, handing Lisa a small box. Lisa opened it and inside was a cameo broach. “Do you like it?” Ryan asked.
“It’s lovely,” she said as she put it on. Then she handed him a small box. Ryan opened the box and pulled out a pair of small stockings.
Puzzled, Ryan said, “These are nice dear but,” holding them up to his feet, “aren’t they just a bit small?” Lisa just smiled. In his mind something glimmered, the glimmer grew to a notion, and then the notion became a thought.
“Does this mean . .. are you trying to . .. are we going to. . .” Ryan sputtered looking at Lisa. She gave a little nod. “YAAA HOOOl!” Ryan jumped up and started dancing around the kitchen, jumping and prancing like a week old calf. “YAAHOOO YIPPEE.” Finally after running out of breath, “When, when do you think?”
“Sometime around June.” That started a whole new round of yahooing and yippeeing, followed by a few hugs, kisses, and tears of joy.
The wind shifted to the north again and winter deepened which made the farm work even tougher. January was so bad that they didn’t travel anywhere or see anyone the whole month. They had trouble with the water pump, which froze up so bad they had to boil water out of snow which Ryan poured down the pump to free it up.
When Ryan would come in grumbling about something going wrong, Lisa would remind him to be thankful in all things. And it happened the other way too. When Lisa was blue with cabin fever, he remind her how blessed they were to have a warm house. It went on like that all winter; when one was down, the other would pick them up. And if all else failed, they would pick each other up with the joy of their coming child.
Little by little winter began to release its grip. The wind began to shift around, and the temperatures began to warm. In mid-March, the spring lambs were born. Lisa and Ryan spent hours watching the little lambs prance and bounce around, in early April, Ryan plowed a patch of ground near the house for a vegetable garden. Lisa also had him plow up a small patch near the porch for a flower garden.
In mid-April, Ryan began to prepare the fields for planting while Lisa prepared the garden. One evening Joe Campbell stopped by on his way home from town. Mr. Campbell lived a few miles to the north. He had the distinction of being one of the original settlers in these parts; he had started his farm about 55 years earlier. “I’ve been thinking all winter that I should stop in and check up on you young folks,” Joe said has he entered the kitchen.
“We’re getting along pretty good now; January was rough though, we lost two calves,” Ryan said.
“And you are welcome to stop by anytime Mr. Campbell,” Lisa added.
Mr. Campbell took a seat at the kitchen table. “Would you like some coffee Mr. Campbell?” Lisa asked.
“Sure would, thank you much.”
They talked about a lot of things: the farms, the animals, the garden, the weather, the best time to plant, and about the coming baby. Just before Mr. Campbell left, they got on the topic of their other neighbors.
“Now you young folks mind this. I was over at Mike Patterson’s place the other day, and the whole time I was there all he did nothin’ but complain and grouse about the field work. ‘Yep if all I had to do was harvest I’d be a happy man’ he said to me.” And I told him ‘But without the tilling there’d be no planting, and without the planting there be nothing to harvest. And without the harvest there’d be nothing to plant come next spring. I’ve learnt it’s best to enjoy it all, knowing that each labor has its own reward.’ That’s what I told him. And I’m telling you young folks too. Remember what the Good Book says, ’Rejoice always’ and ‘do all things as if for the Lord.’ that will make your labors lighter,”
“We’ll do that Mr. Campbell, thanks so much,” they both replied. With that, Mr. Campbell grabbed his hat, said his goodbyes, and left for home. “Something to remember,” Ryan said as they both turned into the house.
It was hard work, and it took many a long day to get the fields prepared and planted. Late in the evenings after the animals were all cared for they would have their supper and discuss the day.
Whenever the day brought hardship they would say a prayer of thanksgiving while asking for the Lord’s strength to see them through. When the day brought something to celebrate they would thank the Lord and ask for his wisdom.
On the first Sunday of May, the Patterson’s invited them over for dinner after church. The Patterson home was larger than Lisa and Ryan’s, but with six children from the ages of three to twelve, they needed it. Emma served them a pot roast with carrots and potatoes, and for dessert she served her award-winning apple pie. After dessert, the men retired to the parlor while the women stayed in the kitchen and cleaned up the table. Once the dishes were finished, Emma asked, “How are you doing dear?”
“Not too bad. It’s a little hard getting up and down,” Lisa replied. “How’d you fare through the winter?”
“There were some rough spots, but we made it through ok.”
Meanwhile, Mike Patterson was answering the same question in the parlor. “It was the worst winter I’ve ever seen. The pumps all froze, lost three calves,” he said holding up three fingers. “Emma got so bad with cabin fever I almost decided to sleep in the barn.”
“What about the kids?” Ryan asked.
“At least one of them was sick with something the whole time. Sniffles, sneezes, and fevers. Cost me twenty bucks just for Doc Adams to make all those house calls, not countin’ the medicines and tonics. How about you? How bad was your winter?” Mr. Patterson asked Ryan.
“All in all, pretty good. We had a few problems but nothing to fret over,” Ryan replied.
“But Dick Campbell told me you lost two calves, and you say that it’s ‘not a problem’? That’s a third of your herd. I’d say that that is a big problem.”
“I knew when I started that things would not go perfectly smooth, so I made up my mind to trust in the Lord no matter what. There’s a whole lot more joy in watching God work than me dwelling on my problems.”
Mr. Patterson had heard enough, “How about a game of checkers?”
“Sure,” Ryan replied.
On the day that Ryan finished planting, Lisa harvested the first fruits from the garden. The end of planting did not mean the end of labor however. There were still animals to care for, fences to mend, and as the corn needed to be cultivated to keep the weeds down.
May turned to June. The weather vane was telling of winds from the south. Late one evening the cows saw an amazing sight. When all should have been dark and still, the glow of an oil lamp shown from the house. Ryan came running out of the house towards the barn. His hat was on backward. He had one boot on and the other in his hand. He saddled up one of the horses and promptly fell off when he tried to mount up. In his haste he forgot to cinch the girdle. He also forgot to put on his other boot. Finally, Ryan was up in the saddle. He rode out the barn door and galloped as hard as he could down the road towards town. On his way, he stopped by the Patterson place and woke up Emma. She tried to calm him, but it was no use. Emma got dressed, had her husband hitch up the surrey, and drive her to Ryan and Lisa’s place.
Not long afterward, Doc Adams was awakened by somebody furiously hammering on his front door. Doc got up from the bed and dressed. The hammering continued as he put his boots on, grabbed his coat and opened the door. Standing there, hat on backward, buttons all crossed up, and with only one boot on, was Ryan.
“Doc come quick, it’s time, the baby,” Ryan said hurriedly.
Doc took a good look at him and chuckled, “Ok Ryan, did you get a hold of any of the women folk?”
“I stopped by the Patterson’s on my way here,” Ryan said pulling at Doc’s arm. “Let me get saddled up, and we’ll get going.”
Doc slowly saddled up, attached his medical bag to the horn of the saddle, and mounted Peanut, his horse. Doc took off at a trot and Ryan a gallop. It took a mile for Ryan to realize he’d left Doc behind. He circled back to urge the doctor on.
Doc Adams kept right on trotting. He asked Ryan a few questions about Lisa, timing of the pains, any bleeding, and a few other things. After that he switched subjects, talking about the recent weather, the new neighbors over in Wright’s holler, the growth of the corn, and how fast the lambs were growing. Ryan began to trust Doc to know what was going on. Somewhere just before the Patterson place, he fixed his hat. A bit past the Patterson place he noticed his bootless foot.
When Doc and Ryan arrived at the farm, there was already quite a crowd gathered. After Mr. Patterson had dropped off Emma, he had gone around to the other neighbors informing them of the occasion. The men sat outside, some on the porch rail and some on a piece of wood or an overturned bucket. The women had all gone inside. Ryan tried to go in the house but Doc stopped him at the door. “Better stay out here with the fellows,” he told Ryan.
Ryan did so reluctantly. There were plenty of offers for Ryan to take someone’s seat, but he didn’t take anyone up on the offer. He did go and retrieve his boot from the barn but not before he made everyone promise to run and get him if there was any news from the house. To Ryan, it seemed as if time was playing tricks on him, sometimes moving very rapidly and at other times barely moving at all. Once the sun had peeked over the eastern horizon the men began taking turns to go home and tend to their chores. The Jensen boys did Ryan’s chores for him. Mr. Campbell suggested it to them. “In his state he might try and milk the duck,” he told them.
The weather vane shifted around a little bit. The door opened and every head turned. Doc stood in the doorway rolling down his sleeves. “It’s a boy,” he said quietly.
Ryan whooped, danced, and shook hands. The neighbors all congratulated him. This went on for several minutes, whooping, hollering and celebrating. Doc just continued to stand in the doorway. Then as if he was hit with a 2 x4 Ryan got real quiet and walked up to Doc Adams.
“Is everyone ok?” Ryan asked.
“Yes, everyone’s fine,” Doc replied.
“Can I see them now?”
“Sure you can,” Doc said as he moved out of the doorway and escorted Ryan to the bedroom.
Lisa lay in the bed with a little bundle tucked under her right arm. Ryan went and sat on the bed beside her. He gently pushed back her hair and kissed her. The others, Doc and the women, silently left the room to let the new family get acquainted.
When Ryan emerged from the room, there was a look on his face of deep wonder and joy.
Doc asked, “Have you decided on a name yet? I need it for the birth certificate.” Ryan turned to him and grinned. “Jonathan Adam Darst, after my paternal grandfather and Lisa’s father.”
“All right.” Doc wrote it down and handed Ryan the certificate.
“Born this day June 14th at 10:43 am the year of the Lord one thousand eighteen and ninety-three Jonathan Adam Darst. The mother being Lisa Rose Sauder Darst and the father being Ryan James Darst in Smithfield Township, county of Spring Lake.”
All Ryan could say was “YIPPPEEEE”