Agnes May Gleason: WALSENBURG, COLORADO, 1932 (American Diaries)

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Synopsis:

Walsenburg, Colorado -- June 6, 1933

Money! Is that all I ever think about? I will be so glad when these hard times are over.

Now that her older brother Ralph has left home, Agnes has to work harder than ever on her family's struggling dairy farm. But can she do a good enough job to please her demanding father?

When her father's accident leaves Agnes in charge, she has to decide whether to obey her parents and dump a whole day's worth of milk or take a chance that will save them precious money and keep their customers happy. When things go wrong, Agnes does her best, but will her bold plans make her father proud -- or angry?

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Chapter One

Agnes shifted, loose hay prickling at her skin as she switched positions, straightening one leg, tucking the other beneath her. She sighed. It seemed like all she ever thought about was money -- or the lack of it. Mama said there would be no money for school clothes again. That meant more flour-sack dresses for her and Mary, more cut down church-donation shirts and trousers for Charles. And probably no new shoes for anybody.

Agnes inhaled the sweet scent of the stacked hay and put her feet up on the rear wheel of the old flatbed hay wagon. The buggy whip stuck up from its holder at a sharp angle, and she stared at it absently, then looked past it to a flock of mallard ducks flying in a V toward Mrs. Otto's pond.

Agnes could smell the sage blooming on the gentle slope below the alfalfa pasture. She leaned back against the haystack for a moment and closed her eyes, letting the afternoon sun warm her face. Summer was about here. If she wasn't careful, her skin would turn as dark as old tea and Mama would scold and fuss and make her use vinegar and lemon to bleach it out again.

Agnes put the cover on her fountain pen, then lay it and her homemade diary carefully on the clean hay beside her. The rose-print fabric she had used for the cover had been cut from an old dress of Mama's that finally wore out completely. Agnes loved it. Someday, if she ever had a house of her own, she wanted wallpaper just like it.

Peering beneath the wagon, through the spokes of the wheels, she looked across the pasture at the house. This far away, it seemed small, like a square white dollhouse, pretty and perfect, with a twist of dark green and soft pink -- Mama's tea rose -- twining up a trellis beside the porch stairs. The line of pinions looked soft and blurred, like a watercolor painting.

The storybook effect was ruined instantly as she pictured the rusted-out plowshares and the old seeder leaning against the far side of the barn. They were rimmed with weeds, turning into heaps of papery, corroded iron that peeled off like tree bark. And the fence along the front by Elder Street was falling down because Daddy had no time nor the money to hire a hand to help with the work.

The delivery truck was hidden from sight by the house, but Agnes could imagine the painting of a cow framed by viney borders and yellow buttercups that stretched across its doors. Daddy had built a special rack in the back, sized to fit the bed of the truck perfectly, dividing it up into slots the exact dimensions of twelve, one-quart milk bottles. Agnes remembered it clearly. Ralph had helped Daddy build it. She had chased Charles and Mary around the yard, keeping them out of the way. Charles had wound up poking at the dirt with a long stick he'd found. Mary had climbed the smallest pinion so she could watch Ralph were up to. That had been, what? Three years before. It seemed longer. Now Charles was so tall and so serious that even Ralph had stopped treating him like a baby. Agnes flicked a piece of hay from her hem. Ralph.

A lowing off to the east made Agnes look up. In the long, narrow pasture that adjoined their garden plot on the far side, Mrs. Otto's cow was standing still, bawling at nothing. Dilly was swollen through the belly and flank -- she was close to calving. Agnes liked Dilly -- she was friendly and always put her head over the fence to be patted when Agnes worked in the kitchen garden.

Agnes glanced down at her diary. She had said so many awful things about Ralph in it lately. But how could he just leave them? How could he? He knew how much Daddy needed his help -- how much they all depended on him.

Agnes stretched, enjoying her stolen minutes of privacy and silence. Maybe Daddy would teach her to drive soon. She hoped so, but she doubted it. He hadn't taught Ralph until he was almost fifteen -- he said they couldn't afford an accident. He had traded their Model T and two good cows for the panel truck a few years before and he was always working on it to keep it running.

Agnes heard Dilly bawling again and saw her stretching, switching her tail. Agnes wished Mr. Otto was still around. He had been a sweet, smiling man who told good stories. He had made his living in the coal mines as a young man, then had retired to truck farming in his later years when his lungs got bad. People knew his tomatoes by sight. They had a yellow patch on the blossom end that seemed to make them sweeter than anyone else's.

Mrs. Otto still saved seed every year -- and she gave it only to people who would plant the tomatoes apart from any others to keep the strain pure. It was her husband's legacy, she always said. Agnes smiled. Mrs. Otto said a lot of things. She loved to talk. Agnes closed her diary and slipped it into her apron pocket and started to stand up. Then she heard Daddy shout and looked across the pasture toward the old woodpile. He was hopping on one foot and she heard him curse. In his right hand, the hammer dangled loosely. Had he somehow hit himself in the foot while he was knocking the old lumber apart?

Agnes started toward him, but then he turned purposefully and walked in the direction of the house. He was limping badly, using his right leg to carry most of his weight, but he was walking fast. Agnes hesitated. When Daddy was hurt, especially if it was something that made him feel foolish, it was best to leave him alone for a while. And if he had hit his own foot with the hammer...

Agnes watched him go through the pasture gate into the barnyard. Then, instead of turning toward the porch, he walked straight uphill alongside the barn, passing the wide barn doors, heading for the milk house.

Agnes exhaled. He wasn't very hurt, or he'd have gone to the house. He'd probably just banged a toe with the hammer and was more angry than injured. She sat back down, then leaned against the hay, closing her eyes. Daddy was in a dark mood lately, that was sure, what with Ralph disappearing and money so tight. Mary had cried the night before because Daddy had scolded her for milking too slow. Of course, none of them could milk as fast as Ralph had.

Agnes heard the screen door slam, a distant, small sound, but unmistakable. She opened her eyes. Mary was standing in the dusty barnyard, her hands on her hips, her skinny arms akimbo. From here, she looked like a girl made out of toothpicks.

"Agnes? Agnesssssss!"

Mary's voice sounded brittle and thin, too, as the breeze carried it through the pinions at the low edge of the yard. Probably Mama wanted help with something before afternoon milking. Agnes sat very still, tucking her legs up against her chest, making herself small. All she wanted was a little more time to herself. She scrunched down, hoping Mary would turn and go back in -- but she knew it wasn't likely. Mary wasn't giving up with just a quick look around. That meant Mama had some chore she wanted both of them to do -- something Mary didn't want to do alone. Scrubbing more cucumbers for pickles, maybe, and packing the jars.

Agnes frowned. Or maybe it was something worse. Like weeding the lettuce patch or mucking the horses' stall. Whatever it was, Mary wasn't giving up. She was turning one way, then back, her hand up to shade her eyes.

Mary squared her shoulders suddenly and planted her feet, and Agnes knew that she had been spotted. Mary stood still a second longer, then began to run. She was halfway across the pasture, her long skinny legs pumping, when Agnes began to understand her words.

"Agnes, come quick. Mama says to come." Mary's voice was blurred by breathlessness and fear as she ran toward Agnes.

Agnes stood up. She started toward her sister, her heart beating hard even before she started to run. As they met, Mary spun around, grabbing Agnes's hand and pulling at her until they were running hard for the house.

"What?" Agnes demanded as they slowed to pick their way through the chickens that were scratching at the soft soil on the shady side of their coop. The Leghorn rooster stiffened his wings and threatened them, but Mary brushed past him. "Daddy's hurt. He's lying down on the kitchen floor."

Before Agnes could react, Mary had jerked free and was running up the porch steps. The screen door banged open, then closed behind her. Agnes felt her stomach tighten as she followed, opening the door to go inside. She hesitated at the kitchen door, staring. Daddy was lying on the green linoleum. Charles was backed up against the refrigerator, his hands clenched around each other, his face white as the sheets on the line. Mary was beside him, her eyes wild and frightened.

"Agnes," Mama said tersely. "Come here and hold your father's hands."

Copyright © 1998 by Kathleen Duey

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Title: Agnes May Gleason: WALSENBURG, COLORADO, ...



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