The harvester

He knew what it was like to lift a bundle of grain, a washtub full of lunch or a laughing girl ... a girl like Maggie

ROBERT KROETSCH September 29 1956

The harvester

He knew what it was like to lift a bundle of grain, a washtub full of lunch or a laughing girl ... a girl like Maggie

ROBERT KROETSCH September 29 1956

The harvester

He knew what it was like to lift a bundle of grain, a washtub full of lunch or a laughing girl ... a girl like Maggie


He came in shortly after six o'clock that morning, in a cattle truck off Highway 13. Maggie was just opening the roadside cafe for the day’s business and was alone, and she came from the kitchen when the door slammed, and she went to the counter as two men sat down.

The trucker pushed his cap back with a greasy hand and (licked the menu from between a ketchup bottle and a napkin holder. "Ham and eggs scrambled—in a hurry.” he said. “Black coffee."

Maggie nodded and turned to the old man. She saw his quiet grey eyes devouring yesterday’s cakes and pies, stale behind the counter. She pretended not to see as he opened his hand on a few coins like a poker player looking at his cards. He closed his hand again, then paused before he said, “Coffee with a little cream . . . and buttered toast.”

Maggie hurried to prepare and serve the orders, and after that she hoisted her heavy body onto the boss’ stool behind the cash register and listened wTile the trucker gulped his food and complained about the road. She watched the old man.

He was a harvester, apparently, and he drank his coffee slowly, not talking, and when the trucker slapped some change on the counter and went to the men's room, Maggie stood up to pick up the change. “You better get a wiggle on, mister." she said, "or you’ll miss your ride.”

"I'm staying,” the harvester said. Maggie started to question him. but she heard the coffee boiling over in the kitchen and she hurried away. She did not return till the trucker yelled so-long. and then she came out to say so-long and went to the front window to watch.

After the truck was gone she stood staring for a moment; she stared across the highway at the flat fields, glinting yellow in the cold morning sun. at the wheat lying swathed and ready for the combine. Then she turned away with a jerk, knowing that work would take the dull sleepy ache out of her bones, and she began to pick up the dirty dishes.

She left the harvester's empty cup sitting in front of him. "Working around here?” she asked.

"Come west to work every year.” the harvester said.

"A combine man?” Maggie asked.

"I'm a field pitcher.”

Maggie stopped with the dishes stacked on her arm. “You mean, you were a field pitcher. You used to be. But you ain’t since they shut down the threshing machines.”

"I'm a field pitcher.” the harvester repeated.

Maggie shrugged and took the dishes into the kitchen and came back with a damp cloth. She was wiping the counter when suddenly the harvester asked, "You a willow woman?”

“Twice married and twice widowed,” Maggie said. "No family either time." Then she noticed the harvester’s quiet steady gaze on her rings, and she felt obliged to explain. “I didn't take up short-order cooking till my second husband died with his heart. He was a body-repair man. My first husband owned the biggest steam-threshing outfit in these parts.”

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The harvester continued from page 23

“You know what the boss’ll do,” the waitress said, “if he catches us feeding somebody free”

The harvester smiled for the first time. “Fun working then.” he said.

“Fun cooking then,” Maggie said. “You cooked meals, not pig feed. And you fed men. But you got to change with the times.”

It was a saying she had. and usually people said, “Yeah, you got to.” But the harvester only dropped two coins on the counter. “Eating and everything,” he said. “It was fun then.”

Maggie stopped dead. Toast and coffee wasn't a pleasure for this man. It was as if someone had switched on a light in a shadowed recess of her memory. She stopped suddenly and forgot the hamburger she’d neglected to take out of the freezer the night before, and she was a young woman again, just come to her brother’s homestead from Ontario. She remembered the young men coming west at harvest time; the trainloads of young men, laughing, shouting, singing, fighting over a pretty girl, pitching bundles all day and dancing half the night. She remembered now: city boys with blistered hands, their jaws set hard beneath their smiles, countrymen from the eastern valleys, staring in disbelief at the broad plains. She remembered sixteen strong men at a plank table, threshers eating like threshers and praising the cook by the way they glanced at a steaming dish: one man eating enough for three and topping it off with a wedge of her famous Dutch apple pie. And she saw, in her mind’s eye, a hundred lean, bronzed, handsome harvesters, licking their pie plates clean and glancing up with sheepish grins and asking for more.

And suddenly, standing there with a dirty dishcloth in her hand, remembering—suddenly she saw this one, bent, lonely, ill-fed survivor, this one old harvester from all that migrant crowd of young men. And she stared at his gnarled brown hands shaped to fit a pitchfork handle; empty hands that once lifted a grain-heavy bundle or a washtub full of lunch or a laughing girl. She saw the old brown suit coat, too big over the new bib overalls and the checkered cotton shirt. She stared and forgot about cold cereals and club sandwiches and cake mix. And she pushed back the nickel and dime and she signaled the old harvester to follow her into the kitchen.

WHEN the waitress came to work she fluttered in at the kitchen door like an injured bird and pleaded, "Please, Maggie. You know what the boss said.” "Shhh,” Maggie said.

“You know.” the little waitress insisted. "You know what he'll do if he catches us feeding somebody free.”

Maggie raised a stained square finger to her lips. "See?” she said, and with a slight nod she indicated the old harvester bent over the kitchen table.

The little waitress only frowned her disapproval.

Maggie dropped her hands into her apron pockets and pointed again by staring intently at the harvester’s boots, hooked around the legs of the backless chair. "See?” she repeated.

The harvester’s boots were as new and shiny as the neckties in a country store. Their black toe caps were not stubbleworn. The new bib overalls were not frayed at the cuffs.

The waitress saw now, saw the absence of wear and understood, and nodded with pity and reluctance.

"Just keep the boss out of the kitchen till after breakfast,” Maggie said. She handed the waitress an empty tray and turned again to her task.

She would fill an order for ham and eggs or hot cakes, and then she would turn to the old harvester and serve him another helping of riced potatoes and dumplings and gravy and another slice of roast beef. "Just like it used to be. oldtimer,” she would say. “Holler if you want more.”

Usually he nodded and leaned away from his plate to let her dish up more creamed carrots or buttered peas or corn on the cob. But one time he said, “No hurry at dinnertime, ma’am. We got to wait for the horses to eat.”

It was then Maggie realized he wasn't quite all there any more.

He was eating heartily and did not notice when Annie Melnyk, the waitress, complained, and Maggie thought he did not notice later when Annie stuck her head through the windowlike opening that joined the kitchen to the cafe. "Where are those sausages, Maggie? The customer’s in a hurry, and the boss just got here and he’ll be asking about them in a minute.”

"Be ready in a jiffy,” Maggie said. Annie sniffed and looked around and saw the pie sitting on the window ledge to cool; saw the crisscrosses of flaky crust and the rich cinnamon color and the sweet, mouth-watering promise of sliced apples in creamy sauce. “Maggie, we’ll get our walking papers if the boss sees that. He told you never to make Dutch apple pie because pie mix is cheaper, and he'll know you didn’t make it to sell.” "Keep him glued to his cash register,” Maggie said, and she slid a plate of sausages through the window to Annie. "We can’t quit at this stage of the game.” The old harvester raised up and looked around from the table. “Ma’am.” "Maggie Winters,” Maggie said.

"Mrs. Winters,” the harvester said, "I'm afraid I'm causing you a lot of trouble. I'd better leave.”

"There’s no hurry. We'll let you know whenever there’s a ride out of town.” "I'm getting a job here,” he said. "I'll pay you as soon as I get a job.”

"Forget it,” Maggie said. She slapped a slice of pressed ham into a pan. "Don't worry about it.”

The old harvester pulled a cheap pocket watch from the pocket on the front of his bib overalls. “It’s nearly nine,” he said. "The farmers’ll be in any minute now, looking for help. Will that little girl tell them I'm here?”

Maggie flipped the ham over. "She'll tell them. Don’t worry.” She moved over to the sink to wash some of the pans she had used to prepare the big dinner.

The harvester looked around to see that his things were not in the way. When he came into the kitchen he took off his coat and hung it on a nail, and then he carefully lay his faded cap on the floor beneath it, and he placed his new kangaroo tan leather gloves in the cap. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and the sleeves of his woolen underwear, and he turned his shirt collar under, and Maggie was confused for a moment, for she had forgotten. Then she remembered and hurriedly cleared the sink, and the harvester washed, scrubbing his neck and ears as if he had been in dust and chaff, blowing vigorously as he lifted the cold water to his face with both hands and rubbed, and he ran his wet hands back over his heavy grey hair when he finished. And after he dried, using Maggie’s towel, he went to his suit coat for a comb and slicked his hair down meticulously.

BY that time Maggie had the table set and a bowl of noodle soup waiting, and she changed her apron when he wasn't looking, and brushed at her own grey hair. And she remembered how she always put on a clean and freshly starched dress before the threshers came in.

Now the harvester pushed himself back from the table and fished inside the bib of his overalls to a shirt pocket for his papers and tobacco.

"Just a minute,” Maggie said. "Your dessert will be ready in a minute.” She wanted to stall him while the pie cooled, and she asked, “Have you been through this country before?”

"I had a thirty-two-day run here. That’s why I came back.”

“That was quite a few years ago,” Maggie said.

“Only twenty-four years. Twenty-four years this fall. Thirty-two days without a breakdown or a stop for the weather. But it was snowing the afternoon we finished. The bundle teams raced in from out in the field with the pitchforks bouncing on the empty racks and the men shouting to each other. And by the time they got unhooked the ground was white. It sort of made you want to sing.”

Maggie nodded.

"The farmer was a man from Bruce County, and he had a keg of beer and some cheese and crackers and dill pickles and homemade sausage waiting, and we went to work and cleaned that all up. And then we went into town.” The harvester rubbed his knuckles. "A crew from the next town was in the beer parlor, and we started mentioning how much wheat we could thresh in a day, and we took a dislike to the way they suggested our figures might not be exact. So we up and threw them out of the place. We had a Swede from up near Camrose who could pick up a man in each hand. He must have been seven feet—”

“That was twenty-five years ago,” Maggie said. "My first husband was still alive.

We got threshed that fall, but our neighbors didn't, and Ben helped them, digging the stooks out of the snow. They threshed one morning when it was twentyseven below.”

"I slept in a straw-pile bottom on a night when it was just about that cold,” the harvester said. "That was my second year west. But it got warm when it started to snow, and in the morning my boots were clean out of sight. We threshed all that day out of a stack and spent half the next night on the open prairie, moving the outfit eighteen miles.”

"1 was cooking for a steam outfit my second year out here,” Maggie said. She wiped her hands on her apron and leaned against an old meat bloek. “Used to take a team and democrat and drive into town for groceries once a week. I remember one time a cowboy followed me on his saddle horse for three hours, trying to make a date for a dance over at the MacFarlanes’ house. He was carrying a real six-shooter.” She smiled. "But if my crew had seen him they’d have skinned him al—”

"Hey, Maggie!”

It was Annie Melnyk’s voice at the little window. “Quick! Where’s that order of fried eggs?”

“Lordie me, 1 forgot!” Maggie said. She heaved her heavy body up off the meat block and with a sigh picked up two eggs in one hand and cracked one on the edge of a frying pan. "Help yourself to the pie,” she told the harvester.

WHILE Maggie waited for the eggs to fry she remembered other harvesters; young men who made a stake and didn't come back, or better still, young men who came and stayed. They homesteaded, waiting for spring, enduring the long winter in tar-paper shacks set on the bald prairie. They watched the nail heads whiten with frost and, watching, remembered with hidden tears the joys of the past. They dreamed with a bursting eagerness the great lonely dream of the future; turned the grey sod black in their dreams, loved beautiful women, built gracious homes. And through the long dark nights they huddled in thin blankets and listened to the wind.

And they were old and prosperous now; men who had jabbed their fork tines into the dry earth and squatted on a stook and passed around a jug of water; weary men who had tugged a package of makings from a sweaty shirt pocket; men who had known the comradely warmth of “Care to roll one?” And they blew lazy clouds of expensive smoke now, and wintered in front of television sets, and paid cold cash for their wives’ fur coats.

But here was one old man, still wandering, still sitting up all night in a day coach, watching the yellow fields appear in the dawn. Still drifting back and forth, stubborn and stupid, Maggie thought. And she, just as stubborn and just as stupid, and too old to boot, was risking her own and the waitress’ job, just to give him one square meal. Just to feed one old harvester who wasn’t quite right in the head anymore. He had caught her at a soft moment and now she regretted it, and she turned on him, roughly. "Just what do you do in the wintertime?”

"The bush,” he said. "I get a job in the bush just north of Lake Superior.”

1 might have guessed it, Maggie thought: the prairie and the forest. One old man living like the sole surviving member of a tribe, wandering onto the prairie in the summer, back into the shelter of the forest in winter. “You got to change with the times,” she told him. "What’s a field pitcher nowadays?”

The old man straightened up and turned with a polite and indestructible pride. "A good field pitcher can make a threshing crew,” he said. “He ain’t just the man who helps the teamsters load the bundle wagons.”

"I didn’t say that,” Maggie said.

"Give me a twenty-eight-inch machine and six greenhorns and six new teams, and by the end of a week they’ll be a threshing outfit.”

"I'm not arguing,” Maggie said. But now she was losing her temper at his blind perseverance. "I’m not arguing about that.”

"Give me six dudes,” the old man said, "and by the end of a week they’ll know how to build a load of bundles that won’t slide out and will still be easy to pitch into the feeder. They’ll know how to lift a fork all day without breaking their backs, and they’ll just wear gloves in the morning while it’s cold, and they’ll have calluses instead of blisters.” “Sure,” Maggie said. Her anger was a lump in her chest now. “That’s just fine. That’s great. But you got to change. My boss doesn’t break his back doing anything and he doesn’t wear gloves except at funerals and he doesn’t get any handouts from anybody—and his calluses are all on his behind.”

The harvester looked away and his voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Give me a new teamster and a team just in off the range, which is all you can find nowadays, and where will you find a man to train them? I’ve taught grown men how to tie the reins to the rack and how to turn by touching a pitchfork to the reins. These new men don’t know what gee and haw mean, let alone do the horses know. And when I get finished, a team won’t always be trying to eat a stook, and it won’t run away if some partridges tly up. and it won’t he scared of the tractor.”

Maggie slid the fried eggs and an order of toast out to Annie. "I understand,” she said. She was ashamed of herself, but her anger was still a tight dry knot. "A good team is just dandy. Except they got combines now—self-propelled. They do the work. They work day and night when the weather's tine. And when it rains you don't have men and horses standing around idle.”

The harvester looked up at the ceiling and paused before he answered. "I imagine it don’t rain too often in here.” “Eat your pic,” Maggie said.

“Those rainy days were good ones,” the harvester said, "even if they didn't make much money. We'd lay in the bunk shack all day and listen to the rain on the roof and listen to it hissing where it ran down the stovepipe. And I'd play Prairie Redwing or something on the mouth organ and you'd hear feet keeping time or somebody humming maybe, and after everybody was slept out there’d be a game of rummy and maybe some sock mending to do. and there’d be good talk about other places and riding the rails and the good times we’d had.”

“And you'd cat too much and sleep some more,” Maggie said.

“If we had a good cook. And sometimes we'd hit a poor one, and we’d work like the devil to get off the place, and one hour before suppertime some evening a good cook would get word that she was getting the threshers.”

"T hat happened to me more than once,” Maggie said. But this time she was only soft for a moment. "Now I could give them a short-order hamburger.” “Maggie!”

It was the waitress.

“What now?”

“That hamburger. Did you forget it?” “Hold your horses. It was half-frozen." "It's for the boss.”

"I.ordie me,” Maggie said. She pressed down on the grease-spitting hamburger with a spatula. "We’re done for."

“There's a trucker outside,” Annie said. "In a yellow oil truck. He's going up the line a-ways.”

“Quick,” Magige said, turning to the harvester. She picked up his cap and gloves and took his coat off the nail. "Go out the back door and around to the front, and a man in a yellow oil truck is waiting for you.”

"Is there threshing up the way he’s going?”

“There'll be something or other. Quick.” The harvester stood up and started putting on his coat. “Excuse me, ma'am. but could 1 take a piece of that pie with aie?”

“Sure, anything,” Maggie said. She pulled the waxed paper off a loaf of bread and turned to cut the pie. The harvester had eaten half.

"Hurry,” Annie said. "The boss is coming.”

The harvester slid the wedge of pie unto his suit-coat pocket and went to the back door. But in the doorway he stopped.

Maggie raised her hand as if to shoo Slim along, but he would not be interrupted, and he thanked her quietly and politely. Maggie stopped pushing as he talked, and he only stepped away as the boss elbowed Annie aside and stuck his head in at the serving window.

"Where the hell's that hamburger?”

Maggie turned from the open door and *aw the pinched sallow face in the little window, like a portrait come to life in its frame, and she did not say a word. She went to the stove and flipped the half-done patty of meat out of the pan. onto an open bun. She slapped it onto a plate and dumped raw onions and relish and mustard onto and around it. She lilted a ketchup bottle upside down and hit the bottom with the palm of her hand, and ketchup spattered the hamburger and the boss’s hand.

"Watch out, that stuff costs money. Don’t waste—”

Maggie spun the plate across the counter toward the window.

The boss caught it in self-defense and started to shout. But his eyes grew puzzled and he picked up the hamburger and pushed it woodenly into his gaping mouth, and he retreated from the little window.

Annie Melnyk, frightened and astounded, burst in at the kitchen door. "What’s the matter?” she whispered. "What's—”

Maggie's face was as radiant as a child's. Her set mouth was smiling softly and her eyes were bright and two tears clung to the cheeks of her tired, careworn, sweaty, red face. "He remembered.” Maggie said. She caught her rough stained hands together in front of her apron like a woman recalling a lover. "After twenty-five years, he still remembered. He called me Mrs. Rinehart.”

"You're Mrs. Winters,” Annie said. “Don’t you feel—”

"Rinehart,” Maggie said. "My first husband's name. After twenty-five years he still remembered Mrs. Rinehart. He remembered my Dutch apple pie!”

Annie shrugged and noticed the pan sizzling empty on the stove and moved it. and outside a truck roared and was gone.

And then, in the quiet morning air, there was only the distant drone of the combines. ★