Paul Hanks gripped the handle of his canvas duffel bag with a sweaty hand and listened to his mother repeat the instructions that she had been drilling into him all week.
“Now, your bus will get to Cheyenne in the middle of the night, and you’ll have to change bus stations there. Just go outside the depot, look across the street, and you’ll be able to see the other depot. Go over there and buy your ticket right away, even though you’ll probably have a couple of hours before your bus leaves, and—”
“You’ll get to Grandma and Grandpa’s in the middle of the morning!” Paul’s two little sisters, who had heard the speech as many times as he had, finished their mother’s sentence in shrill unison.
“Maybe you should send them, too, Rose,” Paul’s father said with a chuckle. “It’s just a bus trip. He’ll be fine.”
“Sure, Mom,” Paul reassured her. “I remember how the rest of us did it when Dad couldn’t go a couple years ago. I’ll be OK.” Then, thoughtfully, he added what he’d been thinking ever since he’d found out that he’d be going to Wyoming by himself for the summer. “You know, I wish I was going by covered wagon or pulling a handcart. All the challenges are gone now. I’m going to be doing in a few hours what the pioneers spent most of a summer doing—and some of them died in the effort.”
“No challenges!” his mother exclaimed. “I’m worried to death about turning a twelve-year-old boy over to an impersonal bus company, and you’re looking for challenges! I suppose you want to hunt buffalo too!”
Paul grinned. “Well, it might keep me from getting bored.”
Before he could continue, a big silver bus pulled up to the curb, and a voice over a loudspeaker announced that it was the bus to Cheyenne and that it was ready to board. Paul hurriedly hugged his sisters and father, gave his mother a quick kiss, and, hopping that he looked more confident than he felt, boarded the bus. As it pulled out of the depot, he waved from a window seat, then settled back to watch the prairie whiz by.
Paul was sound asleep when the bus reached Cheyenne, and the driver had to wake him. But Paul managed to retrieve the big suitcase that he had checked, and he struggled across the street with it and his duffel bag. He bought his ticket, checked his suitcase again, then bought some cookies and a can of pop from a vending machine. He was glad to go back to sleep again on the bus when he was finally headed north.
Paul was tired of sleeping, tired of sitting, and tired of reading, when the bus pulled into a small rural town in northern Wyoming at midmorning. He was glad to see Grandma and Grandpa Hanks waiting for him. They loaded Paul’s baggage into the back of a battered pickup and, amid lots of hugs and questions about his trip and the family, had him sit between them on the seat.
“We have one stop to make before we go home,” Grandpa told Paul. “If you’re going to be my best hand for the summer, you need some irrigation boots and a shovel.”
“That’s great,” Paul agreed. “I’d love to have my own shovel, but not those hot, heavy rubber boots. I brought a couple pairs of old sneakers. I’ll just use those.”
“But your feet will be wet and muddy all the time,” Grandma protested.
“Now you sound like Mom.” Paul grinned. “A little mud never hurt anyone.”
It was after lunch before Paul and Grandpa Hanks left the house to irrigate.
“You drive,” Grandpa told him as they neared the pickup.
“Me? Oh boy!” Paul climbed in proudly, then found it wasn’t as easy as it looked to work the clutch on the old pickup and back up smoothly. He killed the engine a time or two and jerked the pickup so much that Grandpa had to hold his hat with one hand and the dashboard with the other. Maybe it’s a good thing that the pioneers had horses, Paul thought.
“By the time your father was your age, he could drive everything on the place,” Grandpa said. “Why, I started him guiding the truck across the field while I fed hay to the cows off the back of it when he was only eight years old. When we got to the end of the field, he just turned off the ignition key and waited for me to turn the truck around and start us back. It was a proud day when he could reach the brake and the clutch pedals without getting off the seat and when he could shift gears without taking his eyes off the road. You turn here.”
Paul turned the pickup at the head of a grassy field and stopped beside the dam in the irrigation ditch.
“Whew!” he gasped. “That was fun. I’m too young to drive at home. I wish I could live in the country all the time.”
“We’ll see how you feel about that in a few weeks,” Grandpa replied. “Now let’s walk down the field and see if the water has run all the way through.”
Paul took his new shovel and followed Grandpa down the field. He helped reset the irrigation dam twenty rows from the last setting and learned to carefully shovel cutouts. They had to be just so—too deep, and the turbulent water would wash away the sides of the ditch; too shallow, and the feeble stream of water wouldn’t reach the end of the field. After only a few minutes of digging, the shovel handle had made blisters on Paul’s hands. He was hot and thirsty, and there were two more fields to irrigate before chore time. By the time they had finished irrigating, Paul could almost drive the pickup without it jerking.
Grandpa proudly pointed out the various crops that they passed: a new variety of field corn that was supposed to produce superior silage, a field of alfalfa for hay, a field of oats, and a small field of winter wheat. “Wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse,” Grandpa said, quoting the Word of Wisdom scripture that was familiar to Paul too.
“It’ll be a good crop,” Grandpa said, “if the irrigation water just holds out. We’ll have to make the most of what we have.” He pointed out one field where the water that ran through it would be used on the field below it. “Every drop counts.”
Besides irrigating, the chores that Paul was to help with included feeding a few pigs and a couple calves (Grandma tended the chickens), calling the saddle horses in from pasture for grain, watering the stock, and milking and feeding the milk cow. But when Grandpa saw Paul’s broken blisters, he decided to wait a few days to see if Paul remembered how to milk.
When Grandpa asked the blessing at suppertime, he said, “Father in Heaven, we thank Thee for this fine young man who has come to brighten our days and ease our way …”
That night as Paul settled onto the fluffy feather pillow and cool, smooth sheets with the moonlit tree-limb pattern on them, he decided that he had had enough challenges for one day.
In the next few days the blisters on his hands turned into calluses as Paul followed Grandpa and helped irrigate and rode horseback to move a dozen heifers to a different pasture. He carried heavy buckets for Grandma and still found plenty of time to watch the baby chicks and play with a litter of kittens.
On Saturday afternoon, when he and Grandpa went to make the second irrigation settings of the day, Paul counted the rows to where he thought he should move the dam.
“Not there,” Grandpa told him. “Go more than twice as far.” When he saw that Paul didn’t understand, he explained. “Tomorrow is Sunday. If we spread the water farther, it can run over twice as long. We can leave it safely until early Monday. We’ve labored our six days. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a day of rest.”
They were on the last field, setting long sets with small, shallow cutouts, when Paul heard a splash, a sickening snap, and a cry of pain. He turned in time to see Grandpa sliding in the mud with one leg in an unnatural position under him. Paul ran quickly to him. “Grandpa, are you all right?”
Grandpa grimaced and gasped in pain. “My leg is broken. You’ll have to go for help. Tell your grandma to call for the county ambulance—and don’t you let her get all upset! Tell her I’m going to be fine. Looks like you’ll have to do chores by yourself. Can you do it?”
“Now go—and be careful.”
Paul put his shovel over his shoulder and ran toward the pickup. At least we can call the paramedics, he thought. What would I have done on the prairie in a handcart company?
(To be continued.)