After a few minutes I started getting nervous about Daddy, and I shut off the tractor's engine and stood up from the seat. We'd been tilling the west field, me steering and Daddy working the pedals because I wasn't tall enough to do it by myself, when we heard a bright clang from behind the tiller and Daddy had gone back to see what we'd snagged. He could have done the tilling on his own, but I wanted to help and he said there wasn't much I was big enough to do besides steer. I was worried. It shouldn't have taken that long to pull a rock out of the tiller. I leaned out over the side of the dusty cab, left hand hooked on the rubber grip of the steering wheel and the other hanging down over the faded steps toward the hard earth of the west field. “Daddy?” I called. I tried to listen over the whine of the front-loader, acres away, where my brothers were picking the last of the rocks. Their big growly voices carried over the engine and the thin cry of wind through the trees that lined our property, but I couldn't understand what they were saying. I could see Daddy's big head sticking up over the box of the tiller, but he didn't answer me.
We were late getting the crop in on this field—it hadn't rained in weeks, and Daddy and Michael had spent that entire time trying to fix the front-loader. The east field was finished, which was good, but I'd heard Michael mutter something about the farm going under if we didn't get our asses in gear. That day the radio forecast had said it would rain, and I could see clouds bubbling up like thick gray smoke on the horizon. It was a god-send, Daddy said, but if we didn't till the soil before it came, most of the rain would run off and make a little slough at the southern end, and then who knew how much longer it would be before it rained again.
I propped one hand back on the cracked vinyl seat of the tractor and swung my legs out over the side. I hung there for a moment, balancing my weight on the seat and the steering wheel, and then dropped to the ground and stomped a couple of times to settle my feet in Gregory's old boots. Almost all of my clothing was handed down from my brothers, some of it eight years old. I didn't mind so much—new boots feel a lot worse than old ones, even when the old ones are a full size too large. I spat into the dust and walked back, past the towering black tire and around the dented corner of the tiller, and stopped short when I saw my father.
He was bent over in his faded blue work shirt and coveralls, wheezing through his teeth like he'd been punched in the gut. His arms were held out in front of him, his elbows tucked into his sides, and he clutched his left hand tightly in his right. Dark red blood pumped out between his fingers, ran down to his knuckles, formed large drops, and fell in a steady rhythm to the freshly-tilled ground behind the blades. His work boots were splashed with dark spots.
My breath escaped in a short hard burst and my legs felt loose and weak. I was terrified, but I couldn't look away. Daddy tossed his head back suddenly, and I half expected him to snort like a branded steer. He looked at me with squinched-up eyes—through me, for a moment, and I felt a hard mass appear in the back of my throat and my stomach twisted sharply and I gagged.
“Go get Michael and Stephen,” Daddy said. His voice was strained, his jaw muscles standing out like marbles in his cheeks. He was the strongest man I'd ever seen. He'd grown up on a farm just like ours, and he knew how to wrestle cattle and throw hay bales without breaking them, and he could pick up one of the tractor tires all by himself. Now he was broken, his shoulders slumped. His sun-bleached hair hung down like a dirty mop over his forehead; under it, his face grew pale. I stepped toward him, dazed, but he stomped one wide foot on the ground. “Go!”
I turned then, and ran across the field. I'd gone over the ground with a wheelbarrow a week before, picking the smaller rocks, but I must have missed one. He was bleeding. It was probably just a scratch from the blade. He would be fine. My eyes blurred from the wind and my nose stung like a sneeze and I tripped, catching myself with my hands and scraping them badly against the ground. The pain jolted me, and I heaved up to my feet and ran on, brushing my dirty palms on my coveralls.
By the time I reached my brothers, Gregory had already shut off the front-loader and was climbing down, his earplugs in his hand. Stephen hoisted a small boulder into the bucket, where it split with a clang. I stared at the white crystals in each shattered half, and then my oldest brother, Michael, put a gloved hand on my shoulder.
“Breathe,” he said. “What is it?” Michael looked a lot like Daddy. He had a broad forehead and square face, a thick, muscular neck, and shoulders nearly as big as his head. Michael was almost as strong as our father. He sounded like Daddy, too, calm and sure, with that big voice rumbling out of his chest like the low pipes of a church organ.
I slowed my lungs and loosened my arms, relaxing, and I tried to match his tone. “We caught a rock, and then Daddy stopped to get it and now he's bleeding and he wanted you and Stephen to come quick.” I was breathing fast again. I could still see Daddy's blood in my mind, dropping on the ground, faster than a little cut. I was scared. For a moment I thought I would cry. Michael and Stephen looked at each other for just a second and then Stephen started back across the field at a lope. I wanted to tell him to go faster, but my throat had closed up again.
Michael spoke in a rush. “Greg, move as many of the rocks as you can and then start tilling. Just go around the ones you can't move. We have to finish this before it rains.” He scanned the sky as he spoke, and his face was grim.
Gregory stared off across the field, his heavy brow lowered over deep blue eyes. He was fifteen, only four years older than I was, but already a foot taller and going broad at the shoulders. Right then he looked even older. He didn't say anything, but I saw his jaw set and he gave a short nod. Then he turned and bent to the next rock. I started to breathe again.
Michael turned to go. “Roger, help Gregory.”
“No.” I started back toward the tractor. “I'm coming too.” I could see Stephen halfway across the field, still jogging, and Daddy beyond him, a little toy man in a blue shirt and coveralls, bent over behind the tiller.
Michael looked down at me like he was going to say something else, and then he nodded and picked me up and swung me to his back. I clung to him as he sprinted across the field, my arms locked around his shoulders and my legs wrapped around his waist. Even with me on his back, he could run faster than I could run alone. The wind seemed cooler than it had before, and I smelled moisture in the air. It was definitely going to rain.
As Michael closed the distance to the tractor I saw Daddy's knees bend. Then his hips shifted backward, his upper body still curved over his clenched hands, and he tipped back over his heels. I closed my eyes so I didn't have to watch him fall.
When we got there Daddy was on the ground, his legs splayed out in front of him, long furrows scraped into the dirt where his boots had slipped. He was slouched over and breathing raggedly, but he was sitting up on his own and for some reason I was calmed. I jumped down from Michael's back and stepped closer to the tiller.
Stephen was crouched down, peering between the blades. “It's his thumb,” he said.
“He cut it?” Michael asked. “How bad?” We both looked at Daddy. His chin was tucked down to his chest and there was blood in his lap and all over the front of his coveralls. His face was bloodless, like wrinkled old paper hung on a human frame.
Stephen half-chuckled, but there was no humor in his voice. “Pretty bad,” he said, and pointed through the blades. “Look.”
Michael and I looked. There was a rock, about the size of two fists, just big enough to stick in the blades. And there, in the dirt next to it, was Daddy's thumb. It was already turning gray, grayish-pink, and chunks of soil dotted and clumped on the raggedly-severed end. I sucked in a quick gasp of air and I could smell the blood, tangy and metallic and thin over the deep earthy scent of last year's manure and the dust and the chemical exhaust of the motor and the bitter-sour scent of work-sweat. I stared. I could see the bone, a little splinter of white, peeking through the meat.
I made a little noise and immediately felt ashamed, but Michael and Stephen ignored me.
“Take it to the house and put it on ice, and call the doctor,” Michael said.
Stephen nodded. He picked up the thumb, almost gingerly. “It's white,” he said. He looked scared, his eyebrows lowered in concern.
“Take it to the house,” Michael said again. This time Stephen ran, one hand curled into a loose cage around the thumb, the other arm pumping madly at his side. His boots kicked up sprays of dirt. For a moment I pretended that Stephen was Daddy, healthy and running back to the house for a drink of water, or to answer the phone, and then Michael prodded my arm.
“Help me get him up,” Michael said, and bent his knees to hoist our father to his feet. “He's in shock.”
I tucked my shoulder into Daddy's armpit and strained. He felt hot through the cotton of his sweat-dampened shirt. His one shoulder dwarfed my entire upper body. I felt that it was hopeless, that there was no way we could lift him, and then I saw him lean forward and shift his weight and felt him push, using me as a crutch, and then he was up. I staggered to one side under the greater weight of his body, but then caught myself, my hands steadied against his ribs.
“Keep his arms above his heart,” Michael said, his own arms locked around Daddy's chest. “It'll slow the blood.”
“Okay.” I hooked my hands beneath Daddy's elbows and pushed. His arms were heavy, but once I pushed them up it seemed like he could hold them there. His face hung down, his chin almost touching his chest, and he breathed heavily through his mouth. He looked bewildered and pale. I could feel myself start to shake.
“Now march,” Michael said, more to Daddy than to me. We stuttered toward the house. Daddy swung his feet in uneven arcs, as though his boots were filled with water. Michael walked on one side, his chest bulled up against Daddy and his arms locked around Daddy's ribcage. I couldn't tell how much Michael was carrying and how much Daddy was moving on his own. On my side, I just pushed up on Daddy's arms and made sure I stayed out of the way of his legs. If he fell, I didn't know if we could get him up again. The wind was blowing stronger now, cool on my skin, but it couldn't push away the scent of Daddy's sweat. He gripped his injured hand up in the air like he was signaling to something, and the blood pumped out through his fingers. It ran in fat streams over his brown skin, down his arms, and then onto mine. I thought the blood was slowing, but I could feel his arms grow heavier in my hands.
We reached the edge of the field and I heard Gregory start the front-loader again. I glanced back over my shoulder. The clouds hung closer. The front-loader bumped across the field to the next cluster of rocks. I pushed Daddy's arms higher. I thought we could beat the rain.