What remained of the afternoon sun balanced on the floor of the horizon and gusts of wind scattered the piles of brittle leaves at the base of the cottonwoods on top of the dirt berm. The leaves swirled in the cooling air above the small boy’s head and then settled on the empty matchboxes he pushed around the small roads he had smoothed in the packed earth of the berm. He pushed the leaves out of the way but when they kept falling on his matchboxes he abandoned his imaginary highways and stood, brushing the dirt from his trousers. He could hear the steady drone of the tractor engine and turned to look over a small stand of salt cedars to the field on the other side. He could see Cecil on the faded red Farm-all pulling a brace of discs that cut long straight lines down the length of the field.
“Josh, come down here and clean up. Supper’s ready,” his mother called from the other side of the berm. There was a pot of stew hanging on a rod and bacon sizzled in the skillet at the edge of the fire.
“Okay, Mama,” but he stood still and waited for Cecil. Cecil brought the tractor up over the turn row to the bottom of the berm and cut the throttle, letting the engine idle. He then pulled a lever and lowered the brace of discs to the ground. Josh watched the cap on the exhaust pipe beat up and down in steady rhythm as Cecil kept the engine at a low idle, then he dropped the matchboxes and ran to the back of the tractor. Cecil climbed down, picked up the boy, holding him over his head, and sat him down on the tractor seat then climbed back up and stood on the axle next to the boy. “Do you remember where the throttle is?”
Josh scooted to the front edge of the seat and reached over to the right side of the steering column and pointed to the small red lever with a black knob.
“Okay, I want you to rev her a bit, but not too much.” Using both hands, Josh pulled the lever toward him and down and laughed as the engine speed increased and the exhaust cap bounced faster and then it stood straight up. Cecil let it run a while longer, listening to the boy laugh and then he reached over, pushed the throttle lever forward and up, turned the key and shut down the engine. It was quiet with the engine stopped and Josh could feel the heat from the exhaust and smell the gasoline and hot oil mixed with dust.
“C’mon, let’s go eat,” Cecil told the boy.
He picked Josh up and they got down off the tractor. Then he put the boy on his shoulders and carried him across the berm to the fire.
“Josh, wash up before you even come near the food!” His mother watched him as he went over to the basin and washed his hands and face. Cecil never washed before meals and Josh couldn’t wait until he was grown up so he wouldn’t have to wash before he ate.
They spooned stew onto their tin plates and sat around the fire and ate in silence. Josh’s mother had been quiet all day and Cecil, sensing a storm, gave her plenty of room.
“Those are good biscuits, Belle.” Cecil smiled at her.
She ignored him and sat close to the fire, smoking a cigarette. The brown cigarette paper was flat in the middle where there was not enough tobacco. Cecil liked to tease her about the way she rolled a smoke because she always spilled the tobacco and the paper always gapped open where she did not seal it properly.
Every payday he would buy a carton of Luckies but it had been weeks since Cecil had been paid and they had been rolling their own.
After a while Cecil said, “I believe that’s the best rabbit stew I had in a while.” He winked at Josh.
“Well hell that’s the deal ain’t it? You kill ‘em and I cook’em.” She threw her cigarette into the fire and went over to the washstand that Cecil had rigged on an old wooden crate. Josh was quiet because Belle was in one of her moods. He looked at Cecil out of the corner of his eye. Cecil smiled at him. Cecil had never gotten angry with Josh and always talked to him in a gentle way, especially when Belle was in one of her moods. He was a big man with an easy-going nature who liked to laugh a lot except when he drank whiskey and even then he just got real quiet. He usually only drank when he talked about someplace called Anzio. Josh thought that it must be a far-off place because it seemed like Cecil tried to find it when he drank and was quiet and the spark would go out of his eyes and he would stare out past the fields.