The flood of migration to the Great Plains in the middle years of the 19th century is a tattered footnote – an age where people looking for the Promised Land nodded and winked to one another and went on through as fast as ants on honey. Northeast Kansas, for the better part of the century, until the railroad came, was a pit stop — a place to regroup before the long trudge across the vast frontier. This is where, for such a short time, the Pony Express came through, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad started, Lincoln campaigned in 1861, Amelia Earhart was born on a bluff here where Gatling, living to the north in 1857, invented the the precursor to mechanical death, the Gatling gun, and people come from all over to visit haunted houses.
John Ball, in his 70s, a farmer, crumpled and dust covered, enjoyed his morning coffee with friends at the local McDonald’s nearly every day where they complained about politicians and hemorrhoids, but not at the same time. Giving himself an hour he was out to the fields by 7:30. On occasion, when times were better, for farmers; married to the weather and grain prices as they were, he would go to Mass. The Church of the Nearly Departed with its interior looking like a wax museum featured brightly colored plaster statues of angels, saints, and altar boys placed strategically on either side of the nave to evoke a feeling of balance and symmetry. The small crowd of faithful filed in, subdued. A woman near the front began to recite the Sorrowful Mysteries. Ball took his place toward the back with his holstered pliers and cell phone hanging from a thick leather belt. When the priest, a large jovial man in his forties entered he sang in a robust baritone, Here I am Lord; Ball; on cue, stood thumbing through the hymnal for the words.
“Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
Ball enjoyed listening, rarely joining in, with the exception of the Ave Maria, which he had memorized by heart as a child.
The Mass ended like a fire drill, leaving the organist and the custodian to tidy up.
For Ball hope and hardship were the same thing and Mass was the pause in between, where his mind cleared and his soul reunited with God, even if for so short a time.
On the eastern edge of the Plains, where the turgid Missouri meandered North and then West for another 2,000 miles, Ball passed his time, made due and tried to forget the past – his wife’s death; his children to the cities years ago. He learned hard. The daily grind of running the farm, dealing with creditors and the extremes of blistering summers in August and the rigid Arctic blast of February, had left him fallow.
There were lazy days But, mostly Ball knew only the work – fixing fence, birthing calves, and the endless hours behind the wheel of his thirty-year-old John Deere. On the days where boredom and putting off paying bills were inescapable, his mind drifted to 1968, the year he spent humping a machine gun and a ruck sack through the jungles of Vietnam. He was a patriot just like the other farm boys from Kansas, but he came home; for better or worse.
Ball pressed an arthritic hand upward against his unshaven and weathered cheek as his rusting Chevy pickup bounced along the crushed gravel round. The 1970 Chevy Longbed, with the broken odometer and bent bumpers, could have been a metaphor for Ball’s life if there were anyone around to take notice. On the floor of the truck Ball had kept a .22 Winchester Rim Fire rifle, a pair of fence pliers as old as Joseph Glidden’s barbed wire, and a six-pack of warm Hamm’s beer.
He reached into his dirty striped overalls and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Steering the truck with one hand he glanced at the notice, tossed it aside, and reached to the floorboard for a beer. The can snapped opened in Ball’s meaty hand.
It had been a brutally hot summer. The corn, stunted and burned, would probably pay out only half of its original value, he thought. The beans faired little better. Ball had seen this all before, countless times before. The boom or bust fate of farmers hardened the soul like callused hands. And then there were the freed slaves who fled north to seek a new life in the West after the Civil War. Ball’s neighbors to the south, on more fertile soil, were Black, they has become part of the land, a resolute and scrappy bunch; their history all but forgotten.
He was born on his great grandfather’s kitchen table in December 1946. It just happened. His mother, alone, waiting for the family to come in for supper. She shook violently at the sink just as the truck pulled up. Then, when instinct kicked in, she sat on the edge of the knotty pine table and pushed. Another baby Ball was born, the fifth of ten: a sacred number, 10, the wheel of fortune, a deck of tarot cards, and bowling pins. Five is also good: five fingers, five toes – all practical things like Ball himself.
His neighbor Joyce called him at two in the morning. Ball was startled. The last time someone had called at that hour was when Marlene died a few years back. The cancer, as he called it then, consumed her slowly.
He hated to be reminded.
“John?” the voice on the other end of the line asked. “It’s Joyce,” coercing a response. “John, someone is driving through your fields. A car.” There was more silence as Ball tried to think of something to say. “Call the Sheriff,” he said . “Would you mind. I’ll take a look.” More silence. “Thanks Joyce,” he winced as his phone etiquette was about on par with his other social graces.
Can’t be local, Ball thought, as he instinctually grabbed the Winchester and and the XL50 Maglite his daughter sent him for Christmas last year. The practical child, Ball took note.
Rooster, his nearly blind but still breathing retriever waited at the door. “com’n with?” Ball winked at the dog half expecting him to answer. That’s the best thing about dogs, they can’t speak, but you can almost always guess what’s on their minds. Rooster bolted through the screen door long overdue for repair and bounced into the back of the truck with a thump, followed quickly by a yelp. “Settle on down old man,” Ball cracked.
After pumping the gas a few times, the truck sputtered and groaned to life. Ball found the clutch. Where the hell was he going? Joyce never said, but since she saw the headlights he figured he could drive around out to the south 40. The farm had been divided years ago into parcels to accommodate the family trust. Ball got a patchwork of 240 acres and the house, but the land performed well enough to support four generations of Balls.
254th road made a sharp bend toward the river and then cut back north near the edge of Ball’s farm. In the distance Ball could faintly see the radiating flashes of the Taft County Sheriff’s Ford Explorer making its way from the other direction. Then Ball could hear the sirens.
David, “Jonesy” Jones had been with the Sheriff’s office for less than three months and he was eager to prove himself, maybe be sheriff someday.
Ball shook head and grinned. “New kid, Sirens, mad cows, 2 o’clock in the morning. All Makes sense.” Ball stomped on the accelerator, but truck just rattled in resignation. Ball saw the car first. It was stuck in a trench and nearly invisible under a canopy of corn that was within a month of harvesting.
Two teens emerged through the rows to stand on the side of the dirt road. Rooster rushed off the back of the truck to greet them with in a near perfect belly flop.
Deputy Jones rolled up along side with his siren wailing and light flashing. Ball was struck by both the sound and the light at the same time as the radio dispatch whiny staccato blared in the background. “I’ll take it from here.. License and registration… insurance… and what do you think you were doing out here,” the deputy said with bravado. “Take what from here?” Ball replied. a little annoyed already at the officer’s heavy-handed countenance. “I’m handling the case,” Jones said. “Of course you are,” Ball said with a bit of Deja Vu clouding his mind. “But shouldn’t you ask if these folks are okay? “Shouldn’t you find out if there was anyone else in that car out there?” Ball waited a few minutes and returned to the cab of his truck where he sipped on a warm beer. He watched quietly as Jones took driver’s information and shuffled back to his patrol car to inform dispatch.
Jones returned with a citation pad, just as Ball stepped in again. “What you got there officer?” Jones resented Ball’s confidence and calmness. “Looks like reckless driving and criminal trespass for starters.” “How’s Tom doing these days?” Ball asked about Sheriff Tom Willis who has been in and out of the hospital lately. Willis was about Ball’s age and also a Vietnam veteran.
Jones ignored him, but in the silence that followed Ball took control. “I’m not gonna press charges, officer Jones,” he said.
“This is my land and my insurance company will settle up with these two in the morning for the damage they did to my crop… that is after they get that car out of my field.”
Ball reached out to shake Jones’ hand, they both smiled and left it at that. After Deputy Jones retreated to his patrol car, Ball walked the couple over to his truck, where they sat quietly while he and Rooster went out into the field to turn off the car, which was still running. “All good?” Ball said. “Where we headed?”
It was raining when the woman from the insurance company climbed up the wooden steps of his front porch in heals. Ball sized her up as someone from the office who hadn’t been out much, but his persistence and “don’t mess with me” tone of voice on the phone must have paid off. And here she was. Maybe late forties, early fifties, he thought. She had a firm handshake, sandy brown hair, thin, professional looking; everything you’d expect someone to look like if you in town. but out here. No. No raincoat, umbrella, boots – probably not a good day for sizing up the damage from the joyriders.
She handed him her card. Marcia Loveless, Farm and Ranch Insurance, Claims Adjuster.
“Thanks,” Ball said looking past her and into the ribbon of rain coming down off the roof. “I was really hoping the rain would hold off.”
“Me too,” said Marcia. “Maybe you can give an idea of what we are talking about here.”
Ball gestured for her to come into the hallway as he pulled an old pair of his deceased wife’s muck boots and a raincoat out of the closet. Things hadn’t changed much for Ball in the house. Somethings were best left the way they always were.
Dodging puddles, with Rooster in close pursuit, Marcia Loveless, the insurance woman and Ball climbed into his truck and they headed south a mile or two. Ball loved the rain, even if it meant not getting the claim in on time. Ball turned to look at Rooster who had climbed in the jump seat behind them. “You stink,” Ball said. Marcia shot him a look. “Oh, not you, the dog,” Ball recovered. She smiled. Even though she was dress for the desk, she grew up on a farm in Iowa and knew her way around animals and equipment. “Maybe you can just get us close without getting too deep in,” Marcia said. Ball turned on to another, even muddier lane looking for a better view of the fields, when his flip phone chimed. “Hello, this is John Ball,” he said. ” It was Joyce, the neighbor who had called him a week earlier about a car driving across his field. “Hi Joyce, how’s this rain treating you down there?” he said. Ball knew Joyce as someone who loved to share gossip, especially about people in church.
to be continued…….