Runt

CB Bassity ©1994  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

    By ten-thirty the morning cool had already given in to the heat, and the handkerchief that Larry Byers wiped across his forehead came away damp and dirty.  Larry, carrying tools and grease guns around front of the grain elevator, found three wheat trucks lined up idling behind the one stopped on the platform scales to weigh. An inadequate breeze gave lazy form to the dirt and grain dust hovering in the air.
    BobbyJoe, the elevator manager, leaned out the door by the scales--not too far from the air-conditioned interior--"Larry, those noisy bearings on the west auger, you think they'll hold out?"
    "Yeah BobbyJoe, I b'lieve they'll make it another day or two. If it rains Friday we can change 'em out then. They're calling for a pretty good chance by then."
    Larry Byers worked his own farm and cattle operation, and he worked stints at the Co-op elevator when he was caught up and they needed help, as they always did during wheat harvest. And Larry was good help. Unlike most of the hands--who worked for minimum wage doing untrained, grunt labor, and had no better alternatives, Larry worked there by choice, rather than let time go by unpaid for. He was legendary for being capable, industrious, and upbeat. Popular sentiment was: that Larry--he's a crackerjack.
    Larry slapped the hood of Marvin Henderson's truck and swung up onto the running board, "Hey Marv, you keeping Jess in line?"
    "Ain't no keeping that boy in line; I just work to keep up with him."
    "How's he like that new combine?"
    "Larry, he cut eighty acres at Marge's place yesterday after dinner without breaking a sweat. I can remember cutting an eighty in three days. Who woulda ever thought a man could get over the ground like that."
    "Well, he oughta be ready to cut my wheat early next week, I guess."
    "Hell yes--at the rate we're going. Me and Kate keep both these trucks moving as fast as we can roll them."
    Larry cut across the lot to the east elevator leg, the vertical shaft through which ran a continuous belt with its steel cups that carried wheat up to the top of the three hundred foot grain storage tanks. Each morning, while the wheat fields were too damp with dew and the combines sat waiting in the fields, Larry greased the bearings, checked and adjusted the belt tension, and tended to all of a hundred things that needed attention to keep the operation running smoothly once the trucks came groaning in under the weight of ten to twenty tons of wheat per truck.
    Squinting, as he looked up to where the west auger carried grain from the top of the leg across to the great steel cylindrical granaries which stood in a line next to the railroad siding, Larry considered the worn bearings again. It would take several hours to repair the system--time bought dearly during harvest. Better to wait another day or two--if the shaft broke down he'd fix it, and it wouldn't amount to any greater job then than it would now, so why risk unnecessary down time. We'll wait, Larry thought.
    Looking over to the pit where Marv Henderson was dumping his wheat, Larry noticed Runt standing by the river of grain that flowed from the tailboard of Marv's tilted truck bed. Out of habit Larry looked to see what Runt could be doing better or faster or more efficiently some other way.
    Of Larry and Pat's four kids only Runt had fallen short of the Byers standard. The two older boys and even Jennifer had worked hard driving truck, stacking hay, running tractors in the field. And then each had gone on to do well in some other field: Peter as a welder, Danny as a computer programmer and systems analyst, and Jenny teaching school over at Cedar Creek. They were all stand-up people; each was proud to have stuck it out through Larry's Marine-style discipline and teamster work ethic.
    But somewhere early on it was apparent that Runt had inherited nothing of Larry's indomitable spirit. Runt wasn't lazy, but he moved slowly. He was small and not especially bright. Someone in town had remarked that he was the runt of the litter and the name stuck. Probably not over a dozen people in town could call to mind his given name: Randy. And Randy's good nature seemed to preclude that he would be offended that even his daddy called him Runt.
    And he probably wasn't too concerned that his job at the elevator was about as far as he was likely to go in the world. Although he did chafe a little if Bobby-Joe impatiently snatched the tools from him to finish some job that Runt was struggling with.
    So it had become a habit with Larry, like checking his watch, to see the little things that Runt ought to do better. Marv Henderson's truck was almost empty; Larry thought: a good hand would already be scooping the last bushels of wheat from the two rear corners of the truck bed, but there stood Runt, absently visiting with Marv.

    A little before three in the afternoon fourteen trucks were lined up waiting to unload their grain. Larry was working the scales: weigh the truck full, send it to the pit to unload, weigh the empty truck, stamp the weight ticket.
    Only one pit was operating at the moment; BobbyJoe was waiting to hear from Runt who'd climbed up to check on the lateral auger on top of the west pit. Larry was impatient. "BobbyJoe, you s'pose I oughtta go check on Runt--trucks are lined up back close to the highway.
    "Yeah, Larry, maybe you'd better."
    The heat assaulted Larry as he crossed the elevator lot. And the silence of the leg confirmed that its belt was still shut down, no grain was traveling up the three hundred foot shaft to the auger above. What could be taking Runt so long?
    Halfway up the long steel ladder, Larry felt a riffle of breeze unstick his shirt collar from his neck. This air was mostly unavailable among the buildings and granaries below. Climbing further the busy noise of the elevator fell away, replaced by the murmur of the breeze. Only Larry's breathing and his boots ringing dully on the ladder rungs made any other sound. He was vaguely aware of being alone.
    But thoughts of aloneness gave way to practical matters as Larry neared the top of the tank: what would it take to get the lateral auger up and running, and why was Runt so slow in doing anything about it?
    Runt, an image came to mind of that spilled load of hay, busted bales everywhere and Runt standing alongside with that damnable stupid grin saying, "the front wheel dropped off in that badger hole, Dad, and everything just went." And Runt--just standing there, leaning against the truck like it would re-load itself, as if an hour or two of downtime didn't mean a thing. Larry had hoped that, if he couldn't get any serious work out of Runt, maybe BobbyJoe could, maybe working at the elevator would shape him up. Well, here was Runt's style of work, all right, trucks lined up . . .
    Larry's first glance was toward the leg, as he topped the ladder--no Runt. He scrambled onto the steel roof of the tank and looked west but couldn't locate him. Then he heard a moan that made his stomach curl--not since 'Nam had he heard a sound like that.
    Randy lay next to the auger, his right foot mangled. A pile of wheat around it was muddy looking and red.
    "Oh shit, Runt, what'd you do?"
    Runt turned his face toward Larry, slowly. "Dad, I slipped."
    Larry dropped quickly to examine Runt's foot. His boot was gone and his sock. At the end of Runt's leg was an unrecognizable mass of oozing flesh. Larry pulled off his white teeshirt, ripped it lengthwise, and, sliding his foot under Runt's leg to lift it, he wrapped the foot as best he could. Runt screamed. Larry unlaced his workboot, and tied the bootlace around the shirt. Runt bellowed again.
    Larry always thought Viet Nam had inured him to blood, but his stomach churned--this was Runt for God's sake.
    "Son, you've got to get up. You've got to get down from here."
    Runt fixed glassy eyes on Larry.  "Dad, I can't."
    Larry got up and looked down to the elevator office and the line of trucks. The whole scene, shimmering in the heat, looked like an image from a movie, in another place, unreachable from here.  No one below was looking this way.
    Larry turned back to Runt who had surrender in his eyes. It was a look that Larry had seen before, and it unnerved him. The white teeshirt was soaked red already. Unlacing his other boot, he tied the lace around Runt's ankle for a tourniquet.
        He unbuckled his belt. Then he unfastened Runt's belt, and pulled it quickly loose from his front two belt loops. He lay down on his stomach next to Runt.
    "Listen son, climb on my back."
    Runt pulled himself onto Larry's back. Raising himself to his hands and knees, Larry supported himself and Runt with his left hand while he fished around behind to find the ends of Runt's belt. Larry slipped his own belt off, running it around his stomach, and buckled it end to end with Runt's.
    With his son strapped to his back, Larry crawled to the edge of the grain bin for the long climb down the steel ladder. Runt laid his head on Larry's shoulders and wrapped his arms loosely around his father's neck.
    Larry was having to move slowly and carefully with the extra weight of his son pulling at him. The ladder seemed much longer than it had coming up. Larry was aware of each rhythmic movement, and it seemed like each rung might be an increment of the rest of Runt's life.
    A little way down Larry noticed Runt's arms going slack.
    "C'mon Runt, don't give out, boy." Larry lived in a world of physical endeavor, where every obstacle became nothing more than another challenge, and here he was doing everything he could for his son physically--and it wasn't enough.
    With Runt's dead weight, Larry found every rung down to be a herculean effort. It took all his concentration to locate his foot on each rung, so unbalanced was he with Runt's weight. About midway down Larry's thigh muscles were trembling from the exertion. He had to stop, and he hugged the ladder tight, pressing his and Runt's weight into the painted steel and off his legs.
    "Runt, Son, Boy you gotta stay with me." There was no reply. He pounded the side of the grain tank, but the dull thud of steel, muffled as it was by hundreds of tons of inert grain piled inside, hardly mocked him in return. Larry felt the warm stickiness of Runt's life seeping through his pants leg.
    A picture came to mind.  It was a day when Larry had sent Runt out after dinner to disk the twelve acres above the barn.  Larry had been tied up with phone calls, but when he headed back to the field, a while later, there was Runt sitting on a tree limb smoking a cigarette.  It had infuriated him.  "You can smoke on the tractor!" he'd told the boy.  The tractor sitting idle, and Runt unable to fathom what that meant--it rankled him, and he let Runt know it, too.  But now, now the deal looked different than it had.   Now, he'd give Runt fifteen minutes for a smoke--or an hour.
    He moved down the rungs again.  Near the lower end of the climb Runt's head lolled to one side. Larry's eyes were watering.  "Oh shit. . . Randy. . . Stay with me, Randy!"
    One and then the other of Randy's arms came to life, barely, and gripped Larry's neck.
    "I'm here, Dad," he said.  Larry heard a car slide to a stop in the gravel below, and BobbyJoe stepped out.
    Randy, it's Okay.  BobbyJoe . . . these were the words Larry tried to say, but they were swimming in his throat. He was crying.

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