The tiny town John arrived in was just like all the other tiny towns he had passed through on his journey. It had a market, a post office, a small gas station, a cozy library tucked up one side-street and a handful of restaurants that were mostly family-owned and operated. The streets were quiet and the whole place had that friendly laid-back vibe that most small towns were known for—at least, it was mostly friendly. There was something just slightly off about this town. He couldn't put his finger on what exactly it was but since he didn't feel outright unwelcome, he decided it was a good resting point in his travels.
John stopped at the market and found a sandwich and a bottle of water. The older cashier was friendly and made small talk as he rang up John's few purchases. “Are you here visiting or just passing through?”
“Just passing through,” John replied. “If I can find some work for a few days, I might stay longer.”
“Oh yeah? Got any special skills or just looking for some general labor?” The man counted out John's change and handed it to him as he spoke.
"General labor works; this time of year, folks usually appreciate a helping hand with yard work and such," John explained, shifting his weight to one foot and taking his bagged purchases off the counter.
"Well you're in luck then 'cause today a customer came in looking for some extra help out on his farm. Here, let me draw you a map and you can go talk to him yourself. His name is Douglas and you tell him Scott sent ya, alright?" Working as he spoke, the man quickly sketched out a basic map and wrote down a few lines of directions before handing a scrap of paper to John.
John smiled, “Thank you, I will do that. Have a good day, Scott.”
“You too, man. Good luck with the job search.”
John ate his sandwich as he drove out of town and along a dusty dirt road for a long time, taking a random turn once or twice till finally, a big wooden fence came into view around a bend in the road. A small discreet sign said Douglas Farm in neat letters beside the open gate. As he entered the gravel driveway, John noticed that the gate was solid metal and the fence must have been at least eight feet tall. It vanished out of sight among the trees.
After the long winding drive, John expected the driveway to the farmhouse to be longer but it was surprisingly short. The large rambling house was painted a calming blue with faded white trim. A large classic red barn stood a short way behind it to one side. In the big open yard in front of the farmhouse was a man with white hair and several barking dogs. As soon as John stopped his car, all of the dogs ran over to bark noisily at the tires.
John wasn't afraid of dogs but he wasn't an idiot either. He waited a few moments for the dogs' excitement to diminish a fraction before exiting his vehicle and approaching the man who eyed him apprehensively.
Extending his hand, John said, “Hi, my name is John and Scott said you were looking for some extra help around here.”
Instantly, the man broke out in a relieved expression and gripped John's hand firmly. “Ah yes, yes. Excellent! Scott always pulls through when I need him. My name is Douglas and this is my farm. Do you have any farm experience?”
“Some,” John replied modestly. He pulled out a folded sheet of worn paper and explained, “This is my resume` sir, I'm just looking for some temporary work to cover food and a place to sleep for a few days.”
As Douglas scanned the resume`, he said, “Ah, so you're on the move then?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, from the looks of this, you seem pretty overqualified for simple farm work but you have experience working with your hands and you look pretty strong. You healthy?” Douglas eyed him sideways with his grey eyes.
"Yes, sir." John was six feet two inches tall, broad-shouldered and young enough to think that traveling around the country without a stable job was a good idea but old enough to appreciate a good work opportunity when he saw one.
Douglas must have liked what he saw because he smiled and said, “You'll do just fine here. Let me show you around.”
John put his resumé away and followed Douglas to the barn. Douglas talked through the tour, "This here is the barn where we keep the usual huddle of animals. We got four dairy cows, a few horses, all these darn noisy chickens, that duck over there got stuck here one winter and never left and those are her babies that decided to stay here with her. This is the goat my wife talked me into buying; he's ornery and will head-butt you if you look away. Keep your eye on him at all times."
“Yes, sir,” John said, watching the goat through the stall openings.
“We milk the cows twice a day, muck out all the stalls every morning, feed the chickens twice a day, the goat will eat the chicken feed so he gets shut into his own pen during feedings. We have a garden and some assorted crops that need maintaining as well which I'll show you tomorrow. You will need to wear jeans, solid work boots and gloves. Do you have those?”
“Yes, sir,” John replied, scratching an inquisitive horse behind one ear.
"Excellent. I'll teach you how to drive a tractor if you're here long enough. You are more than welcome to join us for breakfast and lunch before each shift; breakfast is at seven, shifts start at eight in the morning, lunch is at eleven-thirty and you will probably clock out around four in the afternoon. Got it?"
“Yes, sir,” John replied as they passed a tractor and circled back to the barn with the pack of barking dogs jumping around them excitedly.
“Quiet, you mutts!” Douglas told the dogs. They barked at him. “You have to watch out for these guys, most of them are pretty dumb. My wife likes dogs and couldn't resist collecting a full set.”
As they approached John's car, Douglas kept talking. “I figure I'll start you at a pay of fifteen an hour and we will go from there based on your performance and length of stay. You find a place to stay in town yet?”
“No, sir,” John replied, petting one of the bigger dogs.
Douglas eyed him shrewdly. "You been sleeping in your car for a while, haven't ya? Tell ya what, there is a nice motel in town owned by a sweet gal named Susie. I'll give ya an advance on your pay and you can have a good night's rest and a hot meal tonight. You will need it for tomorrow's shift, okay?"
John didn't know quite what to say but his mother had raised him to be polite (and he was tired of sleeping in his car) so he took the cash and said, “Thank you, sir.”
Douglas nodded, mentally checking off Hire Some Extra Help from his long to-do list. “Alright, you take care now. We will see you bright and early tomorrow morning.”
As he drove back into town to look for the motel, John thought about Douglas. While the old man seemed like a straight-up honest fellow, John had never had a prospective employer hand him a cash advance on the first day of the job to get food and a place to stay. There wasn't much guarantee for Douglas that John wouldn't just up and leave with the cash in hand. It was a risk and John was curious as to what kind of man would take such a risk with a complete stranger such as himself.
But a hot shower, a warm meal, and a real bed soon put these concerns out of John's mind. He had forgotten how good some of these creature comforts actually felt. As he drifted off to sleep, he barely remembered to set his alarm so he could be on time for his first day at the farm.
Bright and early for his first shift but late for the breakfast invitation, John arrived at the farm in jeans, boots and an old flannel shirt with gloves in hand. He had expected Douglas to meet him and tell him more precisely what he would be working on that day but instead, John met his new supervisor instead.
River was Douglas' daughter but the resemblance was purely physical. While Douglas had been friendly and talked a mile a minute, the best word to describe River was focused. She did not waste any time.
“You the new guy? Great, I'm River, I'm Douglas' daughter and you are going to milk a cow today. Come on,” she shook his hand briefly and then stomped off toward the barn in mud boots and jeans. “Yes, ma'am,” John said to her back as he hurried to follow.
John was kept very busy all day. He seemed to score some points with River when he demonstrated correctly that he knew how to milk a cow, properly clean the equipment and check the cow over for signs of infection or general health maintenance. He easily mucked out the stalls and fed the assorted poultry but he forgot to watch out for the goat and was out of commission for twenty minutes after being viciously head-butted.
After lunch, River took John on the tractor (she did not let him drive) to see the horses and showed him the large family garden and the fields of corn, wheat, and hay. She didn't have him work there for the afternoon; instead, she put him to work weeding the tomatoes and turning the compost. Left alone to complete his tasks, John finished quickly and moved onto weeding the potatoes and rows of peppers.
By the time he was finished for the day, his back was sore and he was tired. But he knew his body would adjust to the new workload and he was looking forward to that motel bed again. As he rode on the tractor with River back toward the farmhouse, John saw a bald chicken with a tall red crest and claws on the tips of its wings race by behind the tractor. Two skinny boys chased after it, yelling at the bald chicken to stop. The bald chicken squawked in terror and disappeared into the cornfield.
River stiffened slightly and urged the slow tractor to go faster.
John simply rubbed his eyes and checked his hands for blisters. Bald squawking chickens with claws weren't exactly a rare occurrence on a farm (probably) and what those boys were doing with that weird chicken was none of his business.
At the farmhouse, River filled Douglas in on John's first day. “Wonderful, wonderful,” Douglas said, smiling enthusiastically. “It sounds like you will be a good addition to our team here.” “Thank you, sir,” John replied.
“Tomorrow I'm going to have you dig a ditch,” River announced. Then she walked away into the house.
“She's not exactly friendly but she is a better worker than any of the boys,” Douglas explained. John nodded.
Just then, two skinny and dirty boys walked around the house with a dusty blanket in their arms. The blanket gave an indignant squawk.
“Uh, Dad? Could we talk to you for a minute?” One boy asked, shooting nervous glances at John as he did so.
The blanket squawked again.
John waved and drove off, thinking of a nice hot shower and what he would have for dinner.