In the twilight, half-lit by the fires in the burning fifty-five gallon oil drums, Tom Jeffers doled out their day’s wages, where only the coin of the realm sufficed. Stars were beginning to twinkle in the east, over the Grand Mesa, while the other horizon, in the matrix of clouds over the Colorado National Monument, possessed all the startling pastels of a boxer’s eye, days hence. A boxer who could not meet the ring of the twelfth round bell. One by one the pickers stumbled in, all with a full burlap sack over their shoulder held by a leather strap, like a courier’s bag. The pickers would dump their bags on makeshift tables constructed more of nylon mesh than of wood, their bounty rolling out, and there the foremen would toss out the peaches that were too battered, too bruised, or too gone to decay to sell. Then they would scrawl on a small notebook piece of paper, how many fruit the bagger picked and how much he was owed for the last run of the day, and hand it to Tom Jeffers. Paid in crisp new one and five dollar bills, the men would slip into the night until tomorrow, ready for another day of harvesting the peaches. They would straggle down the hill to where the bastions of the migrant farmers’ canvas tents stood erect on the high desert valley that sloped gently towards the Colorado River, miles away. There they would drink beer while their women cooked hot dogs, hamburgers, lamb and corn on resurrected fifty-five gallon oil drums that had been converted into quite doable heaters, for as hot as it had been during the day, it was just as chilling at night. The desert air, dry as a bone, held no heat. Then one young boy passed Jeffers, one who looked like a Mestizo, perhaps ten or eleven years old. He tugged on the sleeve of Jeffers’s shirt. He thrust out his arm; in his open palm balanced a perfectly round peach. Jeffers laughed. “You’re supposed to put it with the others, young man.”
“No hablo Angle.”
“No se?” After years of working with the migrant workers, Jeffers had a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, at least working Spanish. He depended on these illegals, and he worried how the new administration would deal with them. He patted the young boy on the head and, trying not to be seen by the other boys, he handed him a virgin dollar bill, picking the peach from the boy’s hand with the deftness of a Major League baseball catcher.
Jeffers’s family had been farming the east end of the Grand Valley, just above Palisade, for four generations. His great-grandfather, drawn to the valley when he was laying track for the railroad, decided that Palisade was as good a place for a man to make his stand as anywhere he’d been. He was not a man of keen imagination. Nor did he possess any real ken for what it took to be a farmer. Before he looked at his spread, he reckoned that it would tell him in some existential way how to go about it. To an extent it did, but it was mainly the labor of his arms and back that told him what was appropriate. He tried growing potatoes; he tried farming corn; he tried raising wheat. At these, all these, he was miserably defeated. Beginning his fifth year in the valley, however, he tried what some of the surrounding farmers were turning to, and planted peach saplings. With pigs and cattle, he scraped by before his trees finally bore fruit so many seasons later. He was just short of forty, when the trees bore fruit, and he picked his plump peaches with his son and his wife, a former prostitute in Riverton who, taken with John, abjured her erstwhile profession. That first year that they harvested the peaches, pneumonia took his second eldest son. Burying him in a far corner of one of the orchards, in a patch of sterile shale on a small rise, that became the family cemetery. By the time Tom Jeffers was the sole proprietor of the farm, the family plot was nearly full, many of the Jeffers meeting their earthly demise in gruesome, miscalculating ways, so familiar to the other farmers and ranchers of the valley. Kevin, his youngest son, had drowned in the irrigation canal just last summer. Since then, he had forbidden his kids from swimming in it.
Jeffers had a number of large orchards, and together they measured over four hundred acres. To the north and east they were hemmed in by cliffs of Mancos shale, to the west, they were bordered by a large irrigation canal that sprung out of the Colorado River; and, to the south they were closed off by the Rawlston orchard. The canal was a large stream bed of water, one larger than most of the watercourses of the Western Slope of the state. Bordered by the riotous growth of Tamarisk trees that spread out like feathery boas above the canal, the migrant workers bathed in its waters.
As Jeffers came down to the canal that morning, he could hear the migrant workers laughing and splashing each other as they dove in and bathed in its waters. The oil drums were lit again as the women folk made breakfast for their men. Many of the men, tired as who’d mules delved into the earth the day before, were just waking, wiping the sleep from their eyes with their fists, unwrapping themselves from their blankets. Jeffers’s children, all five of them, were passing out water bottles to the workers as they came by the large sorting table for their scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. Jeffers remembered how it was when he was younger. They had wetbacks then, too, to pick the peaches, but the high schools would close down and many of the pickers were high school students looking to make a little spending money. This had fallen by the wayside, though, and the high schools no longer closed, though the farmers’ children could be counted to be in abstentia from their classes.
The line of wetbacks passed by Jeffers, each man and woman holding a paper plate in their hands and a styrofoam cup of coffee in the other. Along the banks of the canal, they sat squatting eating their breakfast heartily, for it would be many hours in the orchards before they returned for lunch.
Suddenly, he heard a young boy or girl screaming who was swimming in the canal. And the tenor of the splashing had changed. It was no longer the splashing of happy young swimmers; rather, it was that of some human splashing desperately to stay afloat. Jeffers turned to look, but he could see nothing, there were too many people along the banks of the river. Pushing them aside, he made his way over to where he had heard the screaming. On the canal bank people were gazing with startled looks of panic. Then he was close enough to see. What he saw looked like the belly of shark in the canal. It didn’t look human, it didn’t look human at all. Whatever it was, it tried to rise to the surface, but couldn’t reach it. All at once, he realized he was witnessing some young boy or girl drowning not far from the spot where his Kevin was last seen before he went under the surface forever. He saw one of the young migrant workers starting to take off his shoe. Without pausing he jumped in the water, the body was no more than ten feet out. Despite the crepuscular light shining in the water, he could see the body directly in front of him. He was perhaps three feet under the surface. He was not moving. He dog-paddled on in his heavy, water-logged Levi’s, and cold, wet, silken Khaki shirt. In no more than a moment he reached out with his left hand, and miraculously, felt the boy’s upper arm. Grabbing it tight, he performed a modified breast-stroke towards the bank of the canal, the child under his arm. An elderly worker was working his way down the bank of the canal to take the boy from him and haul him up to solid earth. Exhausted from his effort, the two of them hauled the boy up to edge of the bank. He was not breathing. “Quick, turn him on his side,” he said, realizing that for the most part, none of those he addressed understood him. Once he was on his side, he slapped him on the back. Nothing transpired. He slapped him again. This time, the water in his lungs drooling out his mouth, the boy took a deep breath. It was the boy who handed him the peach the night before.
By Joseph Dylan