The boy was nine when his parents parted company. As the oldest of four children, and the only boy, he naturally assumed he would take his father’s place as man of the house, but a little over a year later his mother remarried. He gradually realized he was just one of the kids.
He stubbornly refused to call his step-father “Dad,” reserving that title for his biological father, even though he rarely saw him.
The mother was 29 when she married the farmer. First married at 18, just out of high school, quickly and often with child, she had never known any real stability before moving to the farm. Now, even when the money was tight, she never doubted where the next meal would come from, or whether there would be a roof over their heads.
The new husband was 52 when he took on the responsibility of a young wife and four children. He had lived a bachelor all his life on the farm where he was born. His father, a Swiss immigrant, had homesteaded these 80 acres long before the turn of the century, and he had never known any other life.
He had told her, “You know, if your children hadn’t been so well-behaved, I wouldn’t have considered marrying you,” and she had smiled demurely, with secret pride in her offspring. But as the boy grew into adolescence, she sometimes wondered whether the good behavior would last.
Not that the boy ever did anything deliberately bad, but he occasionally didn’t pay attention to what he was doing, and paying attention is vital on a farm. A gate left open, an important piece of equipment left out in the weather, livestock not fed and watered and bedded down properly—these can lead to disaster, especially if they become habitual.
And then there was the boy’s tendency to break things, not wilfully, but inevitably: axe handles, hammer handles, saw handles, barn doors. Once he had innocently (she hoped) climbed onto the parked tractor and fiddled with the gears, leaving the brake off and the transmission in neutral without realizing the enormity of his oversight.
During the night, the tractor had rolled backwards downhill and turned into the milkhouse, smashing the mower bar and requiring over fifty dollars to repair—the entire profit from the sheep shearing that season.
In all these escapades, the boy was always repentant and sorrowful, and the farmer was more than patient, never threatening or punishing, but always requiring that the boy make up the loss as well as he could with extra chores, or—when possible—repairing the damage himself.
They had agreed early on that the mother would handle the discipline of the children, and that suited the farmer just fine. Always gentle with the animals on the farm, he wasn’t eager to begin punishing children after 50 years of bachelorhood, but there came a day when she told him, “You’re going to have to handle this one, Dear. The boy is too big for me to do it right.” And the farmer reluctantly agreed.
He had helped the boy make a slingshot from the sturdy fork of a hazel tree that grew in the back forty, and they had both enjoyed target practice with trees, stumps, cowpies, and frogs in the pond. But one morning a window pane high up in one end of the enormous barn where they stored 100 tons of hay each year was broken.
The next morning, all four panes were broken. It didn’t take a federal investigation to determine how the damage was done. “Why would you deliberately break a window?” he asked the boy.
The boy hung his head and gave the stock answer children the world over have used since time began: “I don’t know,” with a standard upward whine at the end of the phrase, as if asking a question.
The parents agreed the boy needed a licking, and the farmer would have to administer it. The last time he had given anyone a licking was Big Buck Edmonds, in a sawmill high above Estacada, for bullying some of the new employees. He had hoped he’d never have to do it again.
She waited anxiously in the kitchen as they walked together out to the woodshed, hoping her husband wouldn’t be too rough. She had never allowed anyone else to discipline her children.
The farmer set the axe away from the chopping block, and leaned down to pick up a piece of kindling. Turning to the boy, he said calmly, “Now, Danny, I’m going to pound on this block, and you yell like hell. And don’t ever tell your mother what happened—or what didn’t happen here.”
It took some time to realize what the man meant, but seconds later solid “thwacks” could be heard all the way into the kitchen, accompanied by loud howls. Mother was beside herself. “My Lord, what have I done? I should have handled it myself. He’ll kill the boy.”
When her husband returned to the kitchen, she ran to him. “Did you have to hit him so hard? It sounded like you were killing him!”
“Now, Dear,” he said gently, “we agreed that I’d handle it. Either you trust me or you don’t. Now I’m going out to water the tomatoes.”
She turned to face the boy, coming in the side door, his head down and his face turned away. “Danny, did it hurt a lot?”
“Oh, no, Mom. I only got what I deserved. And you can be sure I won’t break any more windows.” He ran out the back door toward the garden. “Hey, wait a minute, Dad. I’ll come help you with the tomatoes!”