Matty finally settled the last complaint from the wrangling teenage boys, and appointed Bobby as his foreman… This day, the crew would be split in two- Matty would take 5 boys on the newer Ford tractor, and head for the northern part of the farm, an area planted with a succulent corn that was called ‘Seneca Chief’, presumedly after some Indian chief from long ago. He had asked Roger, once, last summer, who the chief was. History fascinated the boy…. Roger, a statesman, writer and farmer with a sardonic wit, told the boy that whoever the chief was, he had the right idea- make a better sweet corn, stay out of politics!!
      The other crew was dispatched, with Matty’s friend, Bobby, in command, to the northeastern part of the farm, where the newest tomato patches were finally ready for harvest… After a late, killing frost in the spring, over 1500 plants had been lost and a frantic, last minute planting, was now paying off… Bobby shrugged, and half smiled with his new responsibility; pleased that he was chosen, but, also a little sad, to be separated from his best friend… But, he perked up, when Matty put his arm around his shoulders and said to him, “I know I can count on you… you’re the best man for the job!! I’ll be checking in on you, around 8 or 8:30… we need to stock the stands before 9, so keep the guys moving… no fooling around!!” Bobby laughed at that, and winked slyly at his tow- headed friend… He snickered his whispered response, leaning towards Matty… ” I’ll save THAT for you!!” And, with a little giggle, he arched his eyebrows, and pulled his t-shirt up and over his head, exposing his 14 year old tanned torso… Matty smiled and shook his head as the blonde boy climbed aboard the  oldest tractor on the farm, a 1942 Ford, that had been painted so many times,  noone was sure exactly what the original color was!! Bobby put his t-shirt on the seat and sat down on it…

      Now, the energetic boys bartered for the ‘shotgun’ seats on the tractors- the heavy wheel fenders, atop which a boy could ride, sitting near the driver… kind of a status symbol on the farm; at times it was thought of almost like a junior seat in Congress… the kid on the fender was in good standing, and learning the ropes, ready to ascend, when chosen… The younger or less experienced boys were generally delegated to the rear seats- the trailers that were towed behind each tractor… Each trailer could hold over 80 bags of corn, when stacked carefully, atop which rode the tired, sweat- soaked boys, grabbing at the trailer sides for support, as the tires rolled in and out of deep, water- filled holes in the dirt pathways… It was not uncommon for a young boy, to topple out of a bouncing trailer, to the delight of the older kids, and land in a large, muddy, boy- sized puddle…. christened as every boy should be- after working and sweating and gaining the respect of his new buddies- a boy, but, in his mind, soon a man….

          The tractors roared to life, and the last minute negotiations ended… all were aboard, and the boy- laden caravan headed down the graded dirt road, towards the towering elms, where 3 trails converged, and the tractors went their separate ways, one to the north and one to the east, as the boys yelled their sarcastic good byes and made their playful gestures, some sweet, some, not so sweet…
        Matty steered a course for the area of the farm, known to some of the boys, as  ‘ The Graveyard’…. There was a rumor, started some years before, by someone that lived nearby, that the ghost of a man named Mr. Kendrich, haunted the area, for God knows what reason… Kendrich had been employed at the farm for many years and Matty had known him only as an old, nearly retired  man… very quiet, with an equally quiet, but sweet wife named Helen… One hot September day when Matty was 11 years old, Mr. Eddy asked him and an older boy named Eric, to go and find out why Mr. Kendrich hadn’t shown up for his shift at the dairy. The two boys ran through the harvested fields to the little cottage that the couple lived in, and knocked on the front door… Nobody responded, so after some discussion, and more knocking, the boys decided to try the back door… As they walked by the living room window, they both noticed the old man sitting in a rocking chair, close to the window… Something was terribly wrong, tho, because Mr. Kendrich was slumped over, his head cocked at a strange angle, off to one side… As Matty called out to him, through the partially opened window, both boys noticed the blood, and then the rifle… It was terrifying to realize that the specks of red on the window were the blood of a once alive person…. Matty had grabbed Eric’s hand, and both boys ran and stumbled, back through the corn stubbled fields to the milking barn, at breakneck speed, and breathlessly reported what they had seen…. It was a lot for a boy to understand, and Matty had prayed for a long time after, that the old man would be forgiven, and be let into heaven to be with his deceased daughter…
        Now, some three years later, the blonde haired boy felt a chill run up his back, as he turned the tractor to the right, and into the narrowing road that led to the furthest, and most secluded field on the

 farm… The stories had taken their toll on the young boy…. Once, two weeks back, Matty had come here alone, to survey the field- to assess it’s yield for Mr. Eddy… a job reserved for a skilled farmhand; A real honor, but also, one that Matty would have preferred to avoid, at least at this field… It was the end of a long July day, and, the sun was starting to brush the tops of the surrounding trees, as Matty nervously entered the lush field… Nothing stirred, and the air was still; almost too still, as the boy walked down the long rows, glancing right and left, feeling the ears of corn for fullness, gauging the firmness and assessing the likely size of the harvest, for the first picking… About three quarters of the way down the field, at the most remote end, Matty was suddenly overcome with a terrible sense of foreboding. He stopped walking, his heart started to beat faster and he almost stopped breathing…. He felt like someone was watching him!! He spun around, and looked back the way that he had come, but saw nothing… As he spun around again, he noticed the head of a hatted man, some 25 yards away, in the shadows at the very edge of the field… He froze, and tried to see the man’s face, but, just as the head started to lift, a cold breeze cut through the field, stirring the tasseled tops of the corn stalks and obscuring the face in the shadows… The boy stepped back and almost fell as his foot caught a half buried root, and, by the time he regained his balance and strained to find the shadowy figure, the man was gone, or had ducked out of sight… His heart pounding, the startled boy ran, full tilt, back towards the safety of the sun drenched areas, and the dirt packed road that had led him there… He never said anything to Mr. Eddy… it almost seemed like a dream, but, in the dark corners of his mind, he wondered if the stories were true….

      

          This morning, the task was at hand, however, and the 13 year old boy, felt more at ease, in the company of 5 other boys, all around his age… Many of these kids were guys from school that had begged Matty for the highly sought after summer job, and were hand chosen for their honesty and interest… Matty did the hiring of the summer crews, and, so far, his choices had been upheld at the highest level, so, he was pleased and felt proud of his status… The boys jumped from the tractor and trailer as the blue machine sputtered to a halt… Matty pressed the brake pedal down, and locked it into place, even tho the terrain was level where it stood… The boys donned their picking gear, tucking extra burlap bags under their belts, wrestling each other for the dry ones, and laughing with delight at the slow reacting boy that ended up with the soggy, musty bags…
        And off they went, each boy grabbing the most productive looking row, and gleefully staking out his territory, like a little boy licking an ice cream cone when his sister wants a bite!! The race was on!! A strange competition, that Matty had inspired… Anyone that could pick their alloted quota faster than Matty, would get the opportunity to drive the big Ford tractor!! Of course, only under the strictest supervision…. So far, noone but Matty had driven that tractor. He NEVER neglected his duty !! He led, as Mr. Eddy had directed… Today tho, his mind was on other things…
      

        The sound of frantic picking filled the air, as Matty entered the last row of the field and started to snap the ears of corn off the stalks, his hands a blur, his wrists strengthened after 7 years of brutal farm work, as strong as iron; his big hands sometimes grabbing and snapping two ears of corn off at once- tricks learned after years of experience…. The other boys didn’t stand a chance… But, now, his mind drifted, to a moment, two weeks ago…. His eyes started to tear, as he picked and picked, and then, he just stopped and the sadness overwhelmed him… He crouched down in the field, out of sight of the other boys, and started to cry….the birthday wish… the special gift…. the awful letter…. the lost soldier… his big brother…  It was all too much, and he sat with his hands over his face, on top of a corn-filled bag, the grief pulling the wrenching sobs and tears from deep within his heart…. Mike…. Dear God… Why Mike…          
                        
        There  are things that young Matty knew in his heart… He reached for those, now, and slowly raised his tear streaked face, and with the back of his trembling hand, rubbed his eyes, and tried to regain his composure… The sounds of the crew faded to his left, as the other boys raced to fill the large, burlap bags…. The youngster stood up, and listened for a moment, then used his cotton shirttail to wipe his face, as he took a deep breath. He shook his head, and looked to the Eastern sky. The sun was burning its way through the last of the morning mist, and the new day was alive with the eerie, buzzing crescendo of the
cicadas, hidden in the trees and shadows to his left.  Matty picked up the corn filled bag and heaved it roughly to the side of the cornfield, where a grassy path was slowly filling with the harvested corn, as the boys worked the dark green field. As he leaned the heavy bag against the others, the sputtering sound of a tractor grew louder at the far end of the field… Puzzled, Matty  turned and made his way down the winding grass path and soon, the heavy grille of the old blue Ford, emerged near a leaning barbed wire fence… It was Bobby, his best friend, sitting high in the seat, his tanned torso glowing in the morning sun and now offset by the big,white toothed grin as he spotted Matty… “Hey, dufus!!” the boy taunted as the tractor slowed to a halt.  Bobby turned the shut off switch and the motor quieted and shuddered its last breath, and finally stopped. Bobby swung his denim covered leg over the steering wheel, and jumped to the ground, in front of Matty. He looked at his friend and the grin faded, and a puzzled look overtook the boy’s face… “You been cryin’, koles??” Matty frowned and looked down… he didn’t like it much, when Bobby tried to use the Polish words, even if he thought it was funny.
         And, now, he was embarrassed a bit, to be caught, red eyed by his best friend… “Naw, what are you talking about, you idiot?” Matty responded.  Bobby was having none of it tho, and he grabbed Matty’s arm as he turned away, and spun him back around, till the two boys were facing each other and their faces were inches apart… Matty pushed at Bobby, half heartedly, but Bobby held on tight, and pulled him even closer, and then, shaking his head, wrapped his arms around his 13 year old buddy and hugged him. Matty tried to escape the bearhug but he felt his arms grow weak, as the emotions resurfaced… He put his head on his friends shoulder and the tears started to fall again… Bobby whispered in his ear  as the blond boy shook uncontrollably, “It’s Mike, isn’t it?”  Matty nodded his head and choked out his response- “I miss him so much, I just can’t stand it… I never even got to say goodbye…” Bobby softly massaged Matty’s back and then his neck and nodded … ” I know…” The two boys held each other until the tears  subsided and Matty stopped shaking.  Bobby put his hands on his friend’s shoulders and said, ” Listen,  ‘M’, I talked to the guys, and we decided what to do …. ”  “What?  said, Matty… What did you tell them?? Are you crazy?? I hope you didn’t….”  Bobby interrupted the boy and said, ” No, no, no…. don’t worry, I just told them that one of your friends was a soldier and he died a few months ago… I told them that you just found out last week and that you’re having a hard time because you didn’t get to go to his funeral, or anything….”  Matty was stunned. He nervously asked, ” What did they say? Did you tell them anything else? Oh my God, Bobby, tell me that you didn’t…”  “Well, no, I didn’t tell THEM anything else…” Bobby responded. “Well, maybe one other thing… you know, about your birthday wish…”

          Matty stood facing his friend, his mouth open in disbelief…. Bobby looked down and said , “Look, ‘M’, you probably want to kill me about now, but, I’m just doing what a friend should do, so, don’t be mad at me….” His voice trailed off and he quietly added, ” I want you to be happy again… I can’t stand to see you like this anymore…”
         The two stood there, in the shade of the sycamore, as Matty tried to come to terms with the way things had happened… He didn’t know what to say, or what to expect. The last two weeks had been like a bad rollercoaster ride… He turned to Bobby and said, ” We’ll talk about this later…. I can’t think about it now… What’s going on, anyways? Why did you come up here?”
         “Yeah, that… Bobby replied… I need to know if you’re staying in the cabin tonight… I mean, Mr. Eddy said that you could stay in the house…. It would be SO cool… we could have a little party and clean up after… he’d never know anything!! I mean, he’s not coming back for at least 5 days…”  Matty interrupted, ” Are you crazy?  Wait, yeah, you MUST be!! I promised Mr. Eddy that I’d take care of things… I don’t think he’d be very happy if he found out that I turned his house into my own resort!! Besides, I’m not staying in the house… it kind of freaks me out!! All I can think of when I’m in there is what might break, and I don’t want to worry about that… I decided to stay in the cabin… I’ll eat at the house, and sleep in the cabin… “
        Bobby timidly asked, “Well, OK, but, did you think about the other thing?? You know, can I stay with you, tonight? ” He quickly added, “I already told my mom that I was…. ” His voice trailed off and he looked at Matty plaintively.  Matty looked at the blue eyes of his best friend and felt a smile start to overtake his face… He quickly covered his mouth, and pretended to stifle a yawn, and then muttered,  half heartedly, ” Yeah, I guess so…”
       Bobby was ecstatic! He pumped his fist. “YES!  We’re going to have a GREAT time, I promise!! ” With that, he quickly hugged Matty and climbed back on the old tractor. Matty said, “Is that all you wanted, you maniac?? No questions?? That’s IT??”
      Bobby grinned, started the tractor, and shouted, “You won’t be sorry, birthday boy!!”

               ( continued in part 3…)

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