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Country editors boy, p.17
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.17

           Hal Borland
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  After I had burned the trash John said, “Come take a look at the shelves,” and he showed me the gaps in the canned goods on the grocery shelves that had to be filled. We walked down the whole line of shelves, all across the back of the store, John barely glancing at them, it seemed to me. Then we went down the back stairs to the basement.

  The basement was a huge room, and it was full of groceries. Canned goods, mostly. Cases of canned goods were piled almost to the ceiling in long rows with aisles between them. Everything you could think of, from tomatoes to peas, from sweet corn to baked beans. And Karo syrup in tin buckets, cases of them. Sardines, some canned in oil, some in mustard. Wooden box after box of soda crackers. Pickles: sweet, sour, dill and mustard. Canned fruit: apricots, peaches, pears, cherries, pineapple, some of it put up in gallon cans for the ranch trade. Dried fruit: prunes, raisins, apricots, wooden box after box of them. All the canned and dried things were put up in wooden cases. It was another ten years or more before corrugated cardboard took the place of wood.

  John led me down one aisle and back another, pointing to the cases. “Vegetables over here, fruits yonder. Easy to remember. You probably have the idea already. Now, what do we need on the shelves?”

  I hadn’t the faintest idea what we needed.

  “You don’t remember which ones needed filling up?”

  “I guess I didn’t really look.”

  John grunted, then sighed. “Maybe you’ll learn.” But he didn’t sound hopeful. “Start with the peas,” he said, “over there. Take up a couple of cases. Then three or four cases of tomatoes. And sliced pineapple. Always sell lots of pineapple on Saturday. I’ll take some baked beans, as long as I’m here.”

  I worked two cases of canned peas off the nearest stack, shouldered them, and went up the stairs and opened them in the back room. John was right behind me with a couple of cases of baked beans. “I’ll put them on the shelves,” he said. “You bring them up and open them. Some more peas. And then tomatoes.”

  We were just well started on filling the shelves when the other clerks arrived at seven-thirty. Mr. Hall didn’t come in till eight on Saturdays, but Henry Weidenheimer, who was second in command, greeted me, asked John how I was doing, and, without waiting for an answer, told Jimmy Wallace to lend a hand.

  Jimmy had been a combination choreboy and delivery boy, but with my coming he was to be a full-time clerk on Saturdays. He was stocky, dark-haired, about nineteen, a farm boy who was the exception in a family that seemed to have a genius for bad luck and improvidence. As a boy, Jimmy’s father lost two fingers off his right hand in a corn sheller. Then he broke a leg and the bones knitted crooked, leaving him with a gimpy walk. Soon after he moved his family from his native Arkansas to a homestead near Flagler he lost an eye and almost had his throat cut when a strand of barbed wire broke when he tightened it too much while building fence. Jimmy’s mother had one crossed eye and a big mole on her nose, and she lost all her front teeth when a cow she was feeding, one fly-pestered day, swung her head to dislodge a particularly painful pest and struck Mrs. Wallace square in the mouth. There were three children when they moved to the homestead, but the second summer they were there a little tornado came whirling across the flats and wrecked their flimsy house. The parents were visiting a sick neighbor. Jimmy, fourteen at the time, was at the well, not fifty feet from the house, getting a pail of water. Jimmy was untouched by the freak storm, but both younger children were killed in the wreckage of the house.

  Jimmy seemed to walk a charmed life through an incredible maze of hazards that constantly beset the Wallaces. He grew up unscarred, even with a quiet sense of humor, and with an unobtrusive streak of ambition.

  That morning when I started to work at the store, Jimmy took one look at the shelves and dashed to the basement. He came back with two cases of canned corn, put them down in the back room, said to me, “You open ’em and I’ll lug ’em,” and was gone again. He made five trips while I was opening three cases, then said, “That should about do it,” and I knew that without looking a second time he had brought up exactly what was needed to fill the shelves. He and I put the cans on the shelves, then he helped me pile the empty cases behind the store where they were available to anyone who wanted the wood for kindling.

  Jimmy was grateful to me because my going to work in the store freed him to learn more about the business. Now he was a clerk. Some day he wanted to be a storekeeper, have his own store. But the day I started he was full of plans for his bean project. Later in the morning, after the townsfolk had been in to do their marketing and before the farm folk arrived, there was a slack period for all of us, and Jimmy told me about his beans.

  Two years earlier a few of the farmers out north had the idea that pinto beans might make a profitable crop. Pintos, often called Mexican beans, are brown and white and about the size of kidney beans, half again as big as the familiar white navy beans. They are the basic bean of Latin-American cooking and were then widely used through the Southwest. They grow on a low, bushy plant, much like the ordinary bush beans grown in the vegetable garden for green beans, snap beans. But the pintos are a variety that can thrive in a moderately dry climate. At that time they were yielding fifteen or twenty bushels of dry beans to the acre in an average year. They were relatively easy to grow. Farmers in that area planted them with a corn planter and cultivated them much like corn. When they had bloomed, set pods, and the pods were almost ripe, they mowed the bushes like hay, raked them into windrows, let them dry, and threshed them. The bean straw made good cow feed, and the shelled beans, of course, went to market.

  The farmers who grew pinto beans in the Flagler area thought they were a more reliable crop than wheat. In a good year the same acreage of wheat made more money, but in a poor year the beans made more. Jimmy talked to half a dozen farmers who had grown beans, learned all he could about them, and the spring before I went to work in the store he bought two hundred pounds of seed beans and parceled them out among four farmers who were short of seed money but were willing to plant and tend the beans for half the crop. Three of them had good harvests. The fourth one got hailed out. Jimmy sold his share of the crop for a little over two hundred dollars.

  “This year,” he told me, “I’m going to put out five hundred pounds of beans on shares. Seed beans cost fifteen cents a pound, so that’s an investment of seventy-five dollars. If I do as good as I did last year I should clear close to five hundred dollars. That’s not bad on a seventy-five-dollar investment, huh?”

  “That,” I said, “is wonderful! I wish I knew somebody who wanted to plant beans on shares.”

  “Maybe your dad knows somebody.”

  “Let’s see. For fifteen dollars I could get a hundred pounds of beans, couldn’t I?”

  “That’s right. Seed beans are fifteen cents a pound. But they’ve got to be planted in the next two or three weeks or they won’t make a crop. Mine are supposed to be here on the eastbound freight either Monday or Tuesday. Mr. Hall probably could get some for you by a week from today.”

  I had half an hour for dinner, as we called the noon meal, following farm practice. I went to the office and walked home with Father, and I told him about Jimmy Wallace and the big profit he made on beans. I said I was going to ask Mr. Hall to get me a hundred pounds of beans and I would find someone to plant them on shares.

  “Well,” Father said, when he could get a word in. “You’ve really got the speculator’s bug, haven’t you?”

  “That isn’t speculation, is it? It’s just—well, just growing beans on shares.”

  “No, I guess it’s no more speculative than growing wheat. But suppose it hails. Suppose there’s a drouth. Suppose the bean beetles go to work on them. Then what?”

  “Then I guess there wouldn’t be much profit. But things like that don’t have to happen, do they?”

  “They do, son. You know what happened to the wheat last year.”

  “Well, I don’t think they’re going to happen this year. I’m going
to ask Mr. Hall to order the beans. And maybe you can help find someone to plant them on shares. Is that all right?”

  “That’s up to you. If I hear of someone reliable who wants to plant beans, I’ll tell him to talk to you.”

  Mother was worried about one of her sisters back in Nebraska, when we got home. She had a letter that morning saying that Garnet was sick and the doctor hadn’t diagnosed what it was but it might be pneumonia. Mother was so worried that Father didn’t mention my beans, and I certainly didn’t, after what he had said. Mother could think up twice as many reasons for a crop failure. But when I went home for supper Father asked if I had bought my beans yet. I told him I asked Mr. Hall to order them. Mother asked, “What’s this about beans?”

  Father said, “Oh, he’s going to take a flier in Mexican beans.”

  “A what? What kind of a flier?”

  “I’m getting a hundred pounds of Mexican beans and I’m going to get someone to plant them on shares.”

  “Oh. Who thought up that idea? Money’s hard enough to get. I’d certainly think twice about spending it on beans to give away.”

  “Jimmy Wallace,” I said, “made two hundred dollars that way last year.”

  “Jimmy Wallace?” She looked at me aghast. “Don’t you bring home any of that Wallace luck! We’ve got enough trouble of our own.”

  I didn’t answer, and she didn’t say anything more. I hurried through my supper and went back to the store.

  There was the usual Saturday evening crowd, lots of people but not much business. Mostly, the people just stood around and visited among themselves. Mr. Hall laughed and joked with them, and the rest of us began straightening up the goods on the counters, starting to get the store in order again. And finally it was a quarter of nine and most of the people had left the store. Jimmy Wallace and I put the muslin covers over the women’s notions counter, and Henry Weidenheimer began turning out the big gasoline pressure lamps in the front of the store. Mr. Hall went to the cashier’s cage and came back with a handful of small manila envelopes, each with a name written on it. He handed them out. Everyone else tucked his into his pocket unopened, so I did too. Then we saw that the big front doors were locked, we bolted the back doors, and when Henry had turned out the last lamp we all went out the side door. Mr. Hall locked it, said good night, and I headed for home, hurrying because I wanted to see how much was in the pay envelope.

  Father was in the front room, reading the Denver Post, the Record-Stockman on the table at his elbow. Across the table from him, Mother was darning socks. “Well,” she said, looking up as I came in. “The storekeeper is home. How do you like working for somebody else besides your father?”

  “It’s all right,” I said.

  “Did you get paid?”

  I pulled out the envelope.

  “How much?”

  I opened it, emptied it into my hand. Out came one silver dollar and one half dollar. I shook the envelope, looked inside.

  “A dollar and a half,” Mother said. “Is that what he said he would pay you?”

  “He didn’t say.”

  “Didn’t you ask, before you started?”

  “Well…. No.”

  She gave me one look, then went back to her darning. “I just hope you learn before you grow up and have to make your own living…. You look tired. Are you hungry?”

  “No. I’d rather just go to bed.”

  I went to my room and went to bed, but not to sleep. I was tired. I was also angry. Mostly at myself, though also at Mr. Hall. I decided I would go see him some afternoon after school next week and tell him either to pay me two dollars or get another boy. Then I decided that didn’t make sense. Besides, I had already asked him to order those beans. And it really wasn’t very hard work in the store. And I was new at it, didn’t really know my way around…. And by then I was so drowsy I didn’t know what I thought. I went to sleep.

  I didn’t go to Mr. Hall. I went to work as usual the next Saturday morning, and when Mr. Hall came in he told me that my beans had come in with the Friday freight. I paid him for them and kept going out to the back room every chance I got just to look at that fat burlap bag of beans. When I came back from dinner that noon, John said a man had been in, looking for me. I asked who it was and John said, “Ed Paxton.” I didn’t know any Ed Paxton, but John said he was a farmer, “sort of. Lives somewhere out north, toward Thurman.” Ten minutes later Mr. Paxton came in the store and asked for me.

  He was a tall, slim man probably in his late thirties, dark-haired, with a broad smile, a good talker. He had heard I wanted someone to plant Mexican beans on shares. Yes, I said. “Well,” he said, “I’m your man.” I asked if Father had sent him to see me. “No,” he said, “not exactly. I heard someone say it down at the café, said your father asked him to find someone. I’ve got forty acres of good land laying idle, and I’ve got time on my hands to plant it. All I ain’t got is seed or ready cash to buy it.”

  “Do you know how to grow beans?” I asked. “Mexican beans?”

  He laughed. “Look, son. If I had a penny for every Mexican bean I’ve grown I’d be a millionaire.”

  “They’ve got to be planted in the next two weeks to get a crop.”

  “I know, I know. I’m all ready to plant. Got the ground plowed and everything. Where’s your beans?”

  I hesitated. I hadn’t been at all businesslike with Mr. Hall. I had to be with this man. “This is on shares,” I said. “Half and half of what you harvest.”

  “Suits me,” he said.

  I took a piece of wrapping paper and wrote out an agreement: “I, Edward Paxton, hereby make an agreement with H. G. Borland, to plant one hundred pounds of Mexican beans on my land and cultivate and harvest the same, Mr. Borland to provide the beans for seed and to receive half the harvested beans as his share of the crop.” That sounded simple enough and still clear enough. I let him read it, and he said again, “Suits me.” So I dated it and we both signed it, and I folded it and put it in my pocket. Then I took him to the back room and showed him my bag of beans, and he brought his team and wagon around back of the store, put the beans in, waved to me, and drove away.

  I went back inside and tried to put my mind on business, store business. But it was an hour before I could think of anything except Ed Paxton and the beans. The afternoon passed. At supper I told Father and Mother what I had done. Father said, “Ed Paxton,” and frowned, puzzling. “I seem to have heard that name, but I can’t place it.” Mother hadn’t a word to say.

  That evening, when business at the store had slackened off, I had a chance to tell Jimmy what I had done. “Ed Paxton?” he said. “Oh. Well, maybe it will work out.

  “Why? What do you mean by that?”

  “I don’t know much about him. He came here from Oklahoma, I think it was, a couple of years ago. All I know is what I’ve heard. They say he’s a blow-hard. If he worked half as much as he talks, they say, he’d be a millionaire.” Then Jimmy grinned. “But I guess it doesn’t take a quiet fellow to grow beans. It may work out all right.”

  The die was cast. I had bought the beans, signed that “contract,” given the beans to Ed Paxton, who said he would plant and tend and harvest them. Now it was up to the weather. I hoped it was only the weather, anyway.

  May passed with several good rains. Wheat was doing wonderfully, but few people were talking about “million-dollar wheat” this year. People kept quiet and hoped and waited. Father printed several cautious items about the good rains and the fact that the wheat was headed out, but not much more than that.

  The first week in June Father asked me, “How are your beans coming, son?” I had to tell him I didn’t know. “Haven’t you seen that Paxton fellow to ask him?”

  “No. He hasn’t been in the store and I haven’t seen him on the street.”

  “Come to think of it, I haven’t either. Well, maybe he’s busy farming.” And that was all Father said. Mother didn’t even mention the matter.

  Wheat harvest be
gan, a good harvest with virtually no hail. For several days there was a constant string of trucks in from the harvest fields out north to the elevators in town, the dust never settling. And Father at last mentioned “a bumper wheat harvest.” Everybody was happy. The store on Saturdays was jammed with people and the farmers were taking out the biggest orders I ever saw, more groceries than it would have taken to feed us, at our house, for two months.

  The last weekend of harvest Clarence Smith offered to take Father and Mother and me out to see what he called the best piece of wheat in all of eastern Colorado. They were starting to harvest it on Saturday and would still be at it Sunday. It was out northeast of town. So early Sunday afternoon Mr. Smith came past our house and we got into his Model T Ford and started out to see the wheat.

  We saw half a dozen fields of stubble, where the wheat had already been cut, and Mr. Smith told Father who owned each piece and how much wheat had been harvested. And finally we came to this unharvested piece, a full half section, 320 acres, wheat the color of a brand-new penny and standing more than three feet tall. The harvesters were working on it when we got there, and the sight was one of dust, glittering sunlight, sweaty men, and wheat, clean new wheat that came off the combines in a stream like a river of gold. It poured into the waiting trucks, which rumbled off, out of the field, to the dusty road, and away toward town and the elevators.

  We stayed and watched for about half an hour. Then we got back into the car and were about to leave when Mother asked Mr. Smith, “Doesn’t Ed Paxton live out in this district somewhere?”

  “Paxton?” Mr. Smith frowned, then made a wry face. “Oh, yes, Ed Paxton’s land is only a couple of miles from here. Not much of a place, but—well, you know how some people are.”

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