Grace held the phone against her ear while she wearily gazed out the kitchen window. The family farm stretched to the low hilltop that held her husband’s grave. Beyond that the snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains decorated the far horizon. Once so vital and productive, the farm now stood idle, overtaken by weeds and inexorably returning to prairie.
“Donnie, I told you I’m not selling the farm.”
“Ma, if you don’t sell it you are going to lose it. You’ve got a mortgage and taxes. Pa’s insurance money has got to be about gone by now.”
“You let me worry about the finances. If you’re not willing to help me work the farm, what I do with it is none of your business.”
“It is my business. At least it’s Dottie and my business. You lose the farm and you not only squander everything that you and Pa worked so hard for, you lose our inheritance.”
She shook her head in disgust. It was always about the money. “It’s not your inheritance until I’m dead. Your Pa loved this land and he’d have never forgiven me if I sold it. It damn near broke his heart when you two moved out of state and wouldn’t have anything to do with the farm anymore. You wouldn’t bother to call me now if you weren’t trying to talk me into selling.”
“Ma your guilt trip isn’t going to work. Dottie and I are happy living in the city and we’re not coming back. You know you can’t work that farm by yourself. If you don’t sell it you’re going to lose it. And if you think Pa wouldn’t have forgiven you for selling just think how he’d have felt if you lost it to creditors.”
She said nothing because she knew he was right.
Donnie’s voice became more conciliatory. “Ma, I worry about you. You’re not safe out there all alone. If you need help selling the place call me. I hope to hear from you soon.”
She slowly hung up, still looking out the window. She remembered when the barn was brand new and bright with a coat of redwood stain. It looked a hundred years old now with siding cracked and patches of shingles missing. It was faded and worn out, just like her.
She didn’t know what to do. Donnie was right; she couldn’t run the farm herself. But the thought of selling the place and moving frightened her. It seemed like she’d never lived anywhere else. Her life before coming to the farm as a new bride had as much substance as a book she’d once read or a movie she’d seen. The farm was her whole life. It was where she bore her children and raised them to adulthood, where she’d weathered both good times and bad at the side of her husband, and where she’d once hoped to go to her grave.
Grace sat at the kitchen table enjoying her morning coffee and trying her darnedest to avoid thinking about her financial troubles. She gazed around the warm farm kitchen and remembered it as it once had been: the center of family life. There’d been days when she’d hardly left this room, cooking three meals a day, keeping the kids busy at the table doing homework or playing games, and finally relaxing with Bud in the evenings over coffee and pie. She wondered where time had gone and why it had left her here all alone.
Her reveries were interrupted by a knock at the front door. She sat up in alarm, trying to remember if she’d locked up the night before. Who could that be so early in the morning?
She peeked into the front room, but couldn’t see anyone through the window. She tiptoed toward the door, trying to be quiet in case she didn’t want to open it. Peering cautiously around the edge of the window through the curtain sheers she saw a young Hispanic man who had backed all of the way off the front porch after knocking. He was short and slightly built and was neatly dressed in a pearl-snapped western style shirt, dark jeans with a big belt buckle, boots and a straw cowboy hat.
Her first impulse was to pretend that she wasn’t home. But that would be an invitation to break in. She needed to chase him away.
She pulled back the sheers and stood in the window. “What do you want?”
He jumped in surprise, then pulled off his hat and held it with both hands. He made a short bow and looked up at her nervously. “Buenos dias, Senora. I uh … I look for work. I … hard work.”
“I don’t need any help.”
He looked around the deteriorating farm doubtfully. “Please Senora. I work one day. You like. I come more. You no like. I no come. I hard work.” He nervously rotated the brim of his hat through his hands and stared at the steps in front of him.
She was about to tell him to leave, but stopped herself. He looked harmless and he was being respectful. Lord knows the place needed work. She didn’t have much money, but knew that day laborers didn’t cost much. Even if she was going to sell the place, she needed to fix it up a little first. But she’d be all alone out here with him.
Her heart pounded in her chest. “How much?”
He looked up hopefully. “Que?”
She thought through her limited Spanish. “Quanto?”
“Eighty dollar. And uh … lunch.”
That was more than she thought it would be. “I’ll give you sixty.”
He hung his head again. “Oh sixty.” He thought for a moment. “And lunch?”
“Yeah. I’ll give you sixty and lunch.”
His chest rose and fell in a sigh. He nodded. “Si Senora. I work for sixty and lunch.”
“Okay. Go around to the back.”
He looked at her uncertainly until she scribed a half circle in the air and pointed to the rear of the house. He made the same motion, nodded, and started around the house.
Back in the kitchen she made sure the door was locked and the window over the sink was only open a few inches. He came into view a few seconds later.
She leaned toward the crack in the window. “What kind of work do you do?”
He stood in the dirt by the back porch. “Que?”
“What … can … you … do?”
“Oh all.” He mimed hammering, digging and turning a wrench. “I hard work. All work.”
She had her doubts, but she might as well try him on what needed doing the most. She pointed behind him to the right. “See that barn?”
He mouthed the word ‘barn’ uncertainly as he looked to where she pointed. Then he turned excitedly. “Oh. Si. Barn.”
“Can you replace the bad siding?” she imitated sawing and hammering.
He looked between her and the barn a few times in confusion, then seemed to get it. He trotted over to the barn and pointed at a piece of siding that was split and warped.
Grace yelled, “Si.”
He nodded. “Okay.” He held his hands out. “Uh, tools?”
“Tools and lumber are in the barn.” She pointed emphatically at the barn door.
He walked over and pointed at the doors. She encouraged him with a nod. He disappeared inside for a few minutes and came out with an armful of tools. He looked at her and got another nod, then made a few more trips for more tools and siding that was left over when the barn was built.
She watched as he used a pry bar to carefully lever a long piece of damaged siding off the barn. He cut off the bad end and nailed the rest back in place, then measured and cut a small piece from new wood to fill the gap.
Grace nodded approvingly. Part of that length of siding was still good so he reused it. He
worked efficiently, replacing a bad board in a few minutes. She watched him do a few more, then left him to it and did some cleaning.
She looked in on him again a couple of hours later and saw that he had already finished the side of the barn toward the house and moved around to the back. It looked really good.
It was time to make some lunch. She smiled as she looked in the pantry; it had been a long time since she’d cooked for anyone besides herself. She pulled out a couple of good sized potatoes and a small onion and chopped them for home fries. After heating some oil and butter in a cast iron skillet she added the potatoes and onions, covered them, and turned the heat down to cook them through slowly.
She pulled out a package of thick cut bacon she’d been saving. She thought about putting a few slices aside for dinner, but shrugged and spread the whole half pound in another pan and got it on the heat.
Digging into the deep freeze she found a can of frozen lemonade concentrate. Bud had always loved lemonade with his lunch. She didn’t think she’d had any since he died. She mixed that up in a pitcher while lunch cooked.
The bacon was about done and the potatoes were coming along nicely. She added some garlic salt and pepper to the potatoes and flipped and mixed them, then turned up the heat to start them browning. Luckily she’d baked some bread the day before. She sawed off a few thick slices and started the first two in the toaster. After putting the bacon on a couple of paper towels to drain she broke four eggs into the bacon grease.
She set a place at the small table on the back porch. After flipping the eggs to get the whites cooked through she scooped them onto a plate and added a huge pile of potatoes and most of the bacon. She buttered the last of the toast, put it on a separate plate and took it all outside.
She rang the dinner bell that was mounted outside on the porch, then hurried back in and locked the door. The day laborer came around the side of the barn and looked toward the house. She gestured at the window for him to come over. He stopped at the foot of the steps. She gestured toward the table. “There’s your lunch.”
He stepped up onto the porch and looked at the table incredulously. He pointed at the food then at himself. “For me?”
“Yeah. That’s your lunch.”
He smiled and stared at it like he couldn’t believe it, then jumped off the porch and washed his hands and face from a hose coiled at the rear of the house. Shaking his hands to dry them, he sat down and looked at her once more for assurance.
“Well eat, you dang fool.”
He grinned at her as she peeked through the window. “Gracias Senora. Gracias.” He sat still for a moment looking at the food with his hands in his lap then made the sign of the cross. He poured himself a glass of lemonade, tasted it, and smacked his lips in satisfaction. Holding the knife and fork over the plate, he paused for a moment as if to heighten the anticipation before diving in. His eyes closed as he slowly chewed the first mouthful of potatoes. He eagerly broke the egg yolks, spread the golden liquid evenly over the whites, and lightly salted and peppered. Tearing a slice of toast in half, he dipped one piece into the yolk and bit into it. His eyes closed in pleasure again.
Grace shook her head sadly. “He must be half starved.”
He ate slowly but relentlessly. In ten minutes he was chasing the last of the yolk around the plate with the last corner of toast. After draining his third glass of lemonade he stood up. “Gracias, Senora.” He smiled broadly, rubbed his stomach appreciatively, and went back to work.
She looked to see what else she had in the pantry. Nodding in satisfaction she got to work on the dishes.
At five o’clock sharp she set a plate of fresh baked snickerdoodle cookies on the porch table with a big glass of milk, tucked sixty dollars under the glass, and rang the bell.
He came around to the porch. “Que senora?”
She pointed at the table. “It’s five o’clock.”
He looked at her in confusion.
“Quitting time. You go now.”
He took a quick glance at the sun. “Oh uh … I finish.”
“You can finish up tomorrow. Eat your cookies.” She pointed at the table again.
His eyes lit up as he saw what was on it. “Gracias.” He stopped with one foot on the step and looked at her in surprise. “Tomorrow? I work tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Si. Come back tomorrow.”
His face broke into another big smile. “Gracias Senora. Gracias. I work tomorrow.” He sat down and enjoyed the cookies and milk, tucking the money in his shirt pocket.
When he got up, she barked though the window, “Now get on out of here.”
He nonchalantly shook his head negatively. “I finish.”
After he left she went out to check his work. The barn walls looked great. Every bad piece of siding had been replaced. And the best part was that he had rehung the big double doors so that they swung open and closed easily instead of having to be dragged through the dirt. “All right. This could work.”
The next morning he knocked at the door before seven AM. She told him to go around to the back. She’d left the truck parked next to the barn with the bed full of work materials. There were shingles, tar paper, roofing nails, and two five-gallon drums of stain. She watched him check it all out before he came to the window.
“You know how to roof?”
He waved his hand flat over his head. “Roof?”
“Yeah. You know how to roof?
He nodded, backing up far enough to see the condition of the barn roof. “Si. I work barn roof.”
She got busy doing some cleaning, but peeked out the window an hour later. He already had the tarpaper replaced in the bad spots on the side she could see and was working on shingles. She watched him work a new shingle under the old and nail it in place. He obviously knew what he was doing.
She made her scratch Sloppy Joes for lunch. Bud had always loved them. She laid two store bought hamburger buns open faced on the plate and covered them with the steaming fragrant mess. It took up the whole plate so she got a bowl for the creamed corn she’d made to go with it. She put the plates outside with a pitcher of sweet tea and looked toward the barn. The near side was done. There was a little color variation between the new shingles and the old, but it looked watertight. She rang the bell and went inside.
There was a look of anticipation on his face as he came to the back porch. He peered toward the table to see what was on it, but headed over to the hose to wash up. When he saw the towel she’d hung over the hose knob he looked back with a shy smile and waved.
He sat down and admired the food on the table, sat quietly for a moment, then crossed himself. “Gracias, Senora.” He poured himself some tea and dug in.
She heard a deep ‘mmm’ as he took his first bite. Apparently she hadn’t lost her touch with the Joe. In ten minutes he was done.
“What’s your name?”
“Your … llamo.”
“Oh, Me llamo Jose Obrero. Pepi.”
“Pepi’s your nickname?”
He hesitated a moment. “Si. Pepi.” He tapped himself on the chest and smiled self-consciously.
“Hello Pepi. I’m Gracie. Grace Ackermann.”
He stood, and taking off his hat he held it over his chest and bowed. “Gracias, Senora Grace.” He headed back to the barn.
By mid afternoon Pepi had finished the roof repairs and was staining the front of the barn. Gracie, craning her head to see him through the window, shook her head in admiration. “That is one hard working young man.” She headed back to the counter where the ingredients for her scratch brownies stood ready.
At five o’clock she put a plate of four generously cut brownies and a big glass of cold milk on the table and rang the bell.
Pepi showed up immediately. He saw the plate and glass on the table and grinned enthusiastically as he wiped splatters of red stain off his hands with a rag. After washing he sat at the table. “Gracias Senora Grace.”
“You need to learn some English. It’s thank you.”
He wiped his lips with the napkin and swallowed conspicuously to clear his mouth before speaking. “Thank you, Senora Grace.” He picked up the glass for a drink.
“It’s just Grace, or Gracie.”
He had the money she’d tucked under the glass in his hands. He held three twenties in one hand and held a fourth out toward her. “Senora Grace?”
She nodded. “That’s right, Pepi. You earned eighty.”
He tucked the money in his pocket with satisfaction. “Gra … thank you, Senora Grace.” He stopped with the second brownie half way to his mouth. “Uh … I work tomorrow?”
Grace hesitated because she had just taken a bite of one herself.
A look of fear crossed his face. “I hard work.”
She swallowed quickly. “Yeah. You work tomorrow.”
He took a deep breath of relief and nodded. “Thank you.”
A pang of concern washed through her. Just how desperate was he? His clothes were sturdy, but neat and clean; although she was pretty sure they were the same he’d worn the previous day. She shook her head sympathetically. Luckily she had plenty of work to do around the farm and enough left of Bud’s insurance money to pay his wage for a time.
“And it isn’t ‘I hard work’. It’s ‘I work hard’, or ‘I will work hard’.”
He repeated the sentence carefully.
She named all of the utensils and glassware while he polished off the brownies. He stood up.
“Thank you, Senora Gracie. Muy bueno.”
“You’re welcome. And muy bueno is ‘very good’ in English.”
He nodded. “Very good.” He pointed to each object of the table in turn. “Glass. Plate. Knife. Fork. Napkin. I will finish stain the barn.”
She laughed. “Never mind. Go home. You finish staining the barn tomorrow.”
“I finish stain barn uh…” He pointed to the front of the barn that was almost finished and waved vaguely in the air.
“Yeah I get it. Finish staining that side of the barn, then go home.”
“Si. I finish.” He headed back to the barn.
She chuckled again. “Dang fool.”
The next day he went right to the back porch and called her instead of ringing the doorbell.
“Senora Grace. Buenos dias.”
She went to the kitchen window. “Good morning, Pepi.”
“Good morning. I work now.”
She waved and he headed to the barn. She told herself that she was finally going to finish that dang tax return. It was due in a few weeks.
At lunchtime, she put a big bowl of chili with beans, a plate of cornbread, and a pitcher of lemonade out for him. Despite the fact that she was sure he was used to a different style of chili, he tucked in and seemed to enjoy it.
She continued the English lesson as best she could. She was impressed that he had retained all of what she’d taught him the day before. After a few minutes, she ran out of things to point at and name and decided that the best way to learn a language was to converse. She asked him about himself. Despite having to resort to Spanish and hand motions multiple times they were able to have a conversation of sorts.
Pepi had a fiancée named Fidelia in Mexico; but he’d refused to marry her until he’d earned enough money for them to live on their own. After months of looking in vain for work in Mexico he’d reluctantly left Fidelia and crossed the border. He sent half of what he earned, less expenses, to his mother and half to his fiancée to save for them.
Grace was still speaking to him through the window, although she hadn’t bothered to lock the door.
“Do you want some more?”
He looked at her while he mouthed the words, trying to understand.
“Oh uh si. Yes please.”
Grace came out with the pot and ladled some more in his bowl.
She sat down opposite him. “Where do you live?”
He chewed a bite carefully and swallowed before answering. “I live with uh … workers.”
His face reddened. “Yes.”
“Town … uh.” He pointed at the house.
“A house in town?”
He nodded and wiped his mouth on a napkin. “Yes. A house in town.”
“How many men live there?”
“Uh ten.” He waved his hand uncertainly.
“Ten in one house?”
“How much does it cost you?”
He hesitated for a moment, briefly made eye contact, and then rapidly averted his eyes.
She didn’t see why he was so reluctant to tell her. “Twenty? That’s not bad for a week.”
He’d stopped eating. “No twenty a day.”
She was so surprised she nearly yelled. “Twenty dollars a day?”
He flinched but still stared at the table.
“That’s ridiculous. You could rent your own place for that.”
He looked at her, eyes wide in fear. “No. I no rent.”
She shook her head. “No. No. Of course not.” It galled her that someone was getting twenty out of what she paid him for him to sleep five or six to a room.
“Whose house is it?” At his look of incomprehension she added. “Who do you pay?”
“Oh. A man. He legal.”
“Well he’s ripping you off. You should live somewhere else.”
Pepi’s eyebrows rose in alarm. “No. I no can go. He call immigration.”
“He’d turn you in?”
“Yes. He say.” His bowl was half full, but he’d obviously lost his appetite. He pointed at the barn. “I finish.”
She nodded absently, still lost in thought. “Yeah. Go ahead. You finish.”
That afternoon she put out the last of the brownies and went to see how the barn looked. Her breath caught in her throat. It hadn’t looked that good since it was built. Pepi had finished the staining, even doing the cupola on the roof. He’d found some white paint somewhere and painted the trim around the doors and windows. He’d even painted the big diagonal doublers that stiffened the doors. It was beautiful.
Pepi came out of the barn wiping his hands on an old rag.
“Pepi the barn looks wonderful.”
His face lit up with a smile. “You like?”
“Like? I love it. You did a wonderful job.”
“Thank you. I work tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow? It’s Saturday. Do you really want to?”
“Yes. I work tomorrow?”
“Okay. You work tomorrow.”
He flashed another big smile. “Okay.”
Pepi was forty-five minutes late the next morning. Grace was behind the house turning over the vegetable patch when he arrived. He was looking over his shoulder as he trotted around the corner. Then he stood behind the house and watched the road. He ducked back, and she saw an old truck slowly cruise down the road in front of a rolling cloud of dust.
“What on God’s green earth,” she muttered under her breath. Then louder she shouted. “Hey, what are you doing?”
Pepi jumped guiltily. “Good morning, Senora Grace.”
“I said what are you doing?”
He shoulders dropped and he hung his head in humiliation. He pointed down the road. “Man I rent. He want come here with men.”
“He wants to bring more men to work here?”
“Yes. He ask who I work. I no tell.”
“So he followed you.”
“Yes. He follow. But I go in field.”
She laughed. “You hid in a field?”
He laughed too, relieved that she wasn’t mad. He crouched down and acted like he was spreading plants aside with his hands. “Yes. I hid in a field.”
“Well you tell him I don’t want more men. I just want you.”
He shook his head. “I tell, but he no … uh hear.”
She wanted to make a biting remark, but there was no point. It wasn’t Pepi’s fault. “Okay, get to work.”
He nodded. “Okay. What I work?”
Grace walked over to the truck, the bed of which was filled with fence posts. She’d planned on having him repair fences, but couldn’t have him out by the road if his landlord was looking for him.
He must have come to the same conclusion because he was looking from her to the posts with alarm.
The cow shed was in a bad state. She’d need to get that cleaned up before she could think about selling the place. “We’ll put off the fencing until you straighten out your problem with your landlord.” She pointed to the cow shed. She’d sold off the herd once Bud got sick and she couldn’t care for them properly. Since then she’d filled it with junk. “Empty the fence posts out of the truck and clean out that shed. We’ll take the garbage to the dump, and anything still usable to the church to give away.”
She went back to turning the garden while he dragged things out of the shed for her to inspect. He kept looking at her, and finally came over. “Why you no use tractor?” Bud’s old John Deere stood behind the barn in a patch of weeds.
He turned and looked it over. “What broke?”
“I don’t know. It won’t start.”
He pointed at the tractor. “I look?”
“You think you can fix it?”
He held out his hands palms up, and shook his head. “I look.”
She mulled it over. It would be worth a lot more running. “Okay. You take a look.”
He went to the tractor while she went for the keys. When she got back he already had some tools and was removing the corroded terminal clamps from the battery. “It’s not the battery. It turns over just fine, but won’t catch.”
He said “Okay.” But he still took the battery to the barn to put it on the charger. Then he started going over the old tractor like he knew what he was doing.
She shrugged and went back to look at the paltry progress she’d made on the garden. “Hope he gets that dang tractor running.”
After another hour of digging she headed back to the house to start on lunch.
A little later she was pounding out some round steak for chicken fried steak when she heard him on the porch. “Senora Grace?”
She went to the door. Pepi stood on the porch with a greasy part in his hand. “Senora Grace. It uh … the petrol … uh,” he tapped his chest, “corazon.”
“The fuel pump?”
“Yes.” He pointed to a tube sticking out one side of the greasy mess then to another pointing out the opposite side. “Fuel … no fuel.”
He nodded and held out the pump. “Broke.”
“Okay. Thank you. Leave it there on the step and I’ll take it into town after lunch. You can get back to work on the shed.”
After lunch, she took the fuel pump to the farm implements store and had them check it over. The guy behind the counter played with it for a moment then pronounced, “yep, that’s shot.”
She brought the replacement out to Pepi. He took it out of the box and looked it over carefully. He nodded. “Okay, Senora Grace.”
Gracie went back in the house to clean up the lunch dishes. In less than fifteen minutes she heard the tractor motor cranking over. It went on for a long time without starting, then coughed and rumbled a little before stalling. It cranked again and started. “Well I’ll be. He’s a mechanic too.”
She looked out the window to see Pepi plowing her half acre kitchen garden. That started her thinking. It was three years since the fields were planted. One hundred and twenty acres was a lot to ask, but if with Pepi’s help she could get just half of that planted in something that generated income, she might be able to put off selling for another year.
After early church service the next day she stopped at a neighbor’s farm to see what crops they planned to plant. Then she hurried home to run some numbers.
After running through the calculations a couple of times she sat back and sighed in relief. It looked like she had enough money to plant sixty acres and pay the bills until harvest. It was risky, but with a decent crop she could make it through next year; maybe even bring in a few head of cattle. She was still feeling nervous until she hiked up to the family plot on the little hill to talk to Bud. She came down confident. This was why she’d put off selling the farm; she was hoping for one last chance to keep it running.
Pepi showed up early Monday morning, but she could tell something was wrong. When she stepped out on the porch she saw that he had a black eye and a split lip. Based on the way he held one arm across his stomach, she guessed he had some cracked ribs as well.
He glanced up when she came out, but quickly hung his head in a silly attempt to hide his injuries.
“Did your landlord beat you up?”
He nodded, still without looking up at her.
“Is he coming here?”
He shook his head. “No. I no tell. I run. I hid.”
“Where’d you sleep?”
He waved vaguely down the road toward town. “In field.”
She shook her head sadly. At least that helped her make a decision she’d been mulling over.
“Can you drive the tractor?”
“Yes, Senora Grace.”
“Good. I want you to plow the top east field.”
He looked up and smiled painfully. “You plant fields?”
“If you think you can do it?”
“Si. Yes. We plant fields.”
“Okay. You get the tractor. I’ll drive up there and get you started.”
She drove the truck up and made sure he knew what he was doing. Then she hurried back to put her other plan into place.
Grace drove up to get Pepi at lunchtime. She pulled the truck up next to the barn and they got out. Pepi headed toward the house. “Pepi wait a minute. There’s something I want to show you.”
He stopped. “Que?”
She gestured for him to follow and went into the barn. She opened the door to the tack room and flipped on the light. He looked in and his eyes widened in shock. She’d emptied the room and moved in bedroom furniture. There was a neatly made bed with a bedside table and lamp, a dresser with a pitcher and ewer on top, even a comfortable reclining chair.
He just looked at her, afraid to ask if it was for him. “Senora Grace?”
She nodded. “I want to hire you full time. Four hundred a week plus room and board.” She stuck out her hand. “Do we have a deal?”
“Senora Grace. I … I ….” His eyes teared up, and his chest swelled in a ragged breath. He went from being speechless to jabbering in a rush. He pulled off his hat and held it over his chest.
“Thank you. I hard work Senora Grace. I hard work for you.” He gestured at the room. “You … you do for me. I hard work for you.”
She laughed delightedly and patted his shoulder. “I know you will, Pepi.”
Pepi was true his word and hard worked for her.
They got the sixty acres planted. It was a struggle, but they did it. Things had degraded pretty badly in the couple of years that the farm had sat idle. They lost some seed to the birds because they put it down before they checked out the irrigation system. The mechanisms that opened the irrigation gates had rusted solid and needed to be replaced. Then the watering was spotty because the ditches were fouled with debris that had blown in. She and Pepi worked until midnight one night clearing them.
Once the crops were planted they got the cow shed cleaned up and ready for occupancy. She’d always loved caring for cattle and couldn’t wait to get started again.
They had a good summer. There were plenty of sunny days that stimulated growth, and no storms to take any of the crops. She took it as a sign that Bud and maybe even a higher authority approved of what she was doing.
Once Pepi moved in she had him eat in the kitchen. Their evenings became a pleasant routine. They had dinner and then did the dishes side by side. They watched a little television, strictly so that Pepi could learn English of course, but they had favorite shows that they looked forward to all week.
Pepi doted on her and refused to let her perform any significant manual labor in his presence. Although she had always prided herself on her ability to work hard and blustered when Pepi took a tool out her hand, she found that she enjoyed having someone looking out for her.
Pepi wrote to his mother and fiancée at least once a week and usually sent his entire salary home. She mailed his letters in town for him. He couldn’t go himself because he was still afraid of his old landlord. She was a little afraid of him too. She saw him drive by occasionally and he looked like a mean old buzzard. He could have been on his own business, but it always looked to her like he was searching for something.
Come fall they got the crops in. Grace sighed in relief when she saw how much money they’d brought in. Barring a crisis she should be good for another year and even be able to restart the herd. If they could get eighty acres in paying crops and forty in grass next spring the farm would be back in full operation.
It was Sunday afternoon and Grace had made Pepi join her for a glass of sweet tea on the porch. As usual after morning service he’d found some things that needed doing and kept working until she’d forced him to quit.
They sat quietly and enjoyed a view that never got old for Grace. There hadn’t been a freeze yet, so the fields were still green where they’d left them alone and gold where they’d planted and harvested. The mountains mirrored similar hues in aspens turned autumn gold mixed with pines of dusky green, and capped with early snow.
Pepi broke the silence first. “It is so beautiful. You are blessed to have this farm.”
“Is that what you want, to be a farm owner?”
He shook his head sadly. “Yes, but that will not happen.”
He looked surprised that she could be so naïve. “Senora Grace in my whole life I will earn enough money to buy a farm. I am just a worker.”
All beauty seemed to have been washed from the view. The conversation had forced them both to confront unpleasant truths. With unspoken agreement they rose and went about their business.
Of course things can only run smoothly for so long. Grace had asked Pepi to paint the house. He was working on the front and not paying attention. He heard a vehicle stop and it was his old landlord.
He came in the house at a dead run. “Senora Gracie, I saw the man, my landlord. He saw me. He will call immigration.”
“Calm down, Pepi. What happened?”
He told her the story. “I will get deported. And, you will get in trouble too. I have to leave before they come for me.” He ran to the front room and peered out the window.
“Pepi you don’t know that.”
“Yes. He is a bad man. He does bad things so that the men will be afraid and do what he says. He will call immigration and they will come for me.”
She was worried too, but she couldn’t just let him leave. “Pepi get your things and leave, but stay near. Come back after a few days. If nothing happens we’ll know he was bluffing. But don’t let him intimidate you into making a bad decision.”
He nodded. “Okay, Senora Grace. I hide and watch.” He ran to the barn to pack his meager possessions.
He already had his things wrapped up in a sleeping bag when she came out with a bag of food and a warm jacket of Bud’s. He donned the jacket gratefully and added the food to his bag.
“Thank you, Senora Grace. I go now.”
“Okay Pepi. You come back, you hear.”
He looked doubtful. “I try, Senora Grace.” He set his stuff down so that he could take her hands in his. “Senora Gracie you are so good to me. Thank you from my heart.”
She squeezed his hands. She could feel tears running down her cheeks. “Thank you, Pepi. You don’t know how good you’ve been for me.”
He smiled tenderly. “I come back when it’s safe. “
He picked up his pack and headed through the fields away from the road. He was headed right for the little hill.
“Watch out for him, Bud.”
She fried herself an egg for dinner that night. She’d gotten used to more elaborate dinners again, but it wasn’t worth cooking for herself. She flipped on the television, but didn’t enjoy it. Eventually she drifted to the window and looked out into the dark. She was scared to death something would happen to Pepi. But if he left, she’d miss him something terrible.
Three days later Grace heard vehicles pull up outside. Her heart thudded painfully as she went to the window. It was the sheriff’s car and a white van with a seal on the door that she couldn’t make out. But she had no trouble making out the metal screen that separated the back from the two seats up front; it was a van used to transport prisoners.
She stepped onto the porch just as the sheriff and two other men walked up. She tried to act nonchalant, but doubted if she was successful.
“Howdy, Bill.” She ignored the two hard-looking men in green uniforms. “What’s going on?”
The sheriff took off his cowboy hat. The other two wore baseball caps that matched their uniforms, but didn’t bother to remove them. “Good morning, Gracie.” He looked around curiously. “The farm is looking really good. You get yourself some help?”
She nodded and tried to smile, but gave up on it when she felt her teeth chatter. “I hire out jobs now and then. I’ve been thinking of selling the place. Can’t do it with it looking all run down.”
One of the other guys casually drifted away to where he could keep an eye on the barn.
The sheriff nodded. “I heard you got some crops in this summer. You hire that out too?”
“Yeah I did.”
“Who’d you hire to help you?”
“No one you know. What going on here, Bill?”
He sighed. “Gracie, we got a report that you have an illegal alien working here, maybe even living here. Is that true?”
She trusted that her deception would be for the greater good. “There’s no one living here but me.”
He smiled ingratiatingly. “You mind if we take a look around?”
“Yeah I mind. I don’t like strangers snooping around my place. Now I got things to do, Bill. Why don’t you and your friends leave?”
He didn’t move. “Grace, they’ve got a warrant. I’d really rather not serve it. Things get more official if I do. How about you let us just take a look around?”
She shook her head in disappointment. “Forcing your way in like this isn’t right, Bill.”
He at least had the decency to flush. “Gracie, I got my job to do. Can we look around?”
She headed back into the house. “Go ahead.”
They knocked on the back door a few minutes later and she let the sheriff and one of the immigration officers into the kitchen. Bill looked at her reproachfully. “It looks like someone’s been living out in the barn, Grace.” The immigration officer sidled around her to look in the living room then tiptoed down the hall to the bedrooms.
“I got it set up as a guest room.”
“You don’t keep guests in the house?”
“How I keep my guests is my business.”
Bill was going to answer, but the immigration officer re-entered the room and interrupted. “Mrs. Ackermann, we believe you’ve been harboring an illegal alien in your barn. That is a serious offense punishable by law. We’re usually pretty lenient for first time offenders. But I’m giving you fair warning. If we find aliens here in the future I will push for prosecution.”
She gave him her coldest scowl. “I don’t appreciate being threatened in my own home. You need to get out now.”
He nodded and they all walked to the front door.
Bill whispered, “He’s not kidding Grace. There won’t be much I can do to protect you if they catch somebody here. I’m sorry. I’m happy to see that you’ve got things turned around, but I suggest you get this place up for sale quick. You can’t keep it running by hiring illegals.”
“Thanks for the social call, Bill. See you around.” She closed the door in their faces then fell into the sofa and let herself shake.
After dark a couple of days later Grace heard a light knock at the back door. It was a disheveled Pepi. She sat him down at the table with a cup of hot coffee while she scrambled eggs and told him about the sheriff’s visit.
He’d been within sight of the house, but ran when he saw them arrive.
He shook his head sadly over his eggs. “I go to another town.”
“No, Pepi. I’m sure this will blow over. They got all sorts of illegals around here. They don’t have time to keep after you.”
“But Senora Grace, if they catch me I go home. And you maybe go to jail.”
“They’re not going to send an old lady to jail.”
Pepi stared at the remains of the eggs on his plate for a moment then pushed them away.
She pursed her lips sympathetically. “You keep hiding out, but come back now and then to check in and get supplies. If they don’t show up again in a couple of weeks it should be safe for you to come back.”
“But Senora Grace, all the work…”
“It’ll be fine for a few weeks. There not that much that needs doing over the winter.”
He thought about it for a few minutes. “Okay. We try.”
There were no visits from immigration over the following two weeks, and Pepi nervously moved back into the tack room. Grace was relieved; she’d missed him.
Life went back to normal. After a few weeks they’d both stopped worrying and fallen back into their comfortable routine.
But their peace was shattered in the middle of the night with the shriek of sirens and glare of spotlights. Grace scrambled out of bed with a scream, disoriented and terrified. She finally made her way to the window and was horrified to see half a dozen vehicles outside and men all around the house.
She stumbled about the room in the dark trying to find her slippers and robe. She got to the porch just in time to see them lead a handcuffed and unresisting Pepi out of the barn. His head hung dejectedly as they led him toward a van.
She was down the steps in an instant, jerking the arm of one of the officers. “Let him go. You don’t have to take him off like this.”
He just shrugged her off. Strong hands clamped on her arms from behind. “Stop it, Grace. Don’t make this any worse than it already is.” It was the sheriff.
Tears ran down the wrinkles in Grace’s face. “You can’t let them take him, Bill. It wasn’t his fault. I talked him into staying.”
He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. “Grace there’s nothing I can do. They have a warrant. Just be glad that they’re not going to press charges against you.”
She stayed in his arms blubbering. “Oh Bill. He’s not much more than a boy. He must be terrified. There’s got to be something I can do.” She leaned back to look him in the eyes. “What can I do?”
“There’s nothing, Grace. I’m sorry. But don’t worry. They won’t hurt him. They’ll just send him home.”
Grace squeezed her eyes shut, unable to watch anymore. There had to be something she could do, some way to stop this. She thought of faithful Fidelia patiently waiting and a desperate plan formed. She twisted away from Bill and shouted. “You can’t take him away. He’s my fiancé. We’re getting married.”
Everyone, including Pepi, stopped and stared at her.
Bill grabbed her. “Grace Ackermann, you stop it. You’re making a fool of yourself.”
She twisted away again. “No, I’m not. Hey, where’re you taking him?”
Bill moved quickly to get between her and the others as they helped Pepi into the van. “They’ll take him to my cell for the night then transfer him to a county holding facility sometime tomorrow. Grace, you need to calm down and quit talking nonsense. What would Bud think if he could hear you?”
“You mind your own dang business. That’s between Bud and me.”
She took a few deep breaths and moderated her tone. “Can I come see him in the morning?”
He looked at her sternly for a moment like he was going to refuse. “Okay, but just to say goodbye. Now go back inside. This is over with for tonight.”
Grace stood on the front porch forlornly watching the procession of vehicles disappear. “What would Bud think?”
After dressing in warm clothes, she headed to the little hill that held the family graves. She knelt at Bud’s headstone and thought about all the sacrifices that they’d made to keep the family farm. In the early years they probably would have lost it if they hadn’t been able to grow or raise most of their own food. Beyond Bud’s grave were those of his parents and grandparents. She had no doubt that they had their struggles as well, but always did what was best for the farm. Now she faced a new crisis. There was no way to keep the farm in the family; her kids didn’t want it and there wasn’t anyone else. If she put it up for sale it would just go to some heartless corporation that would probably plow right over these graves. She knew what she wanted to do; her only doubts were about what others would think. After a time with Bud her heart showed her the right path.
It was almost dawn when she got back. She put a pot of coffee on to brew and went into her bedroom. After pulling a chair into the closet she climbed up and dug through the accumulation of decades on the top shelf until she found the box she was looking for. Then she sat in the kitchen sipping coffee until it was late enough to go to town.
When it was time she washed her face and brushed her hair. She pressed her best dress, the one she got when she and Bud celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. After getting dressed she took her purse and the box, and headed out to the truck to drive into town.
Despite the late night raid, Bill was at his desk. “Now Grace I know you’re upset and feel responsible for Mr. Obrero, but there’s nothing you or I can do about this.”
“Can I see him Bill? I need to talk to him.”
He looked at her disapprovingly. “You’re not going to make a fuss are you?”
“No. I just need to talk to him.”
He sat her in a small office and brought a very dejected Pepi in a few minutes later. His wrists and ankles were locked in a complicated one piece chain shackle.
He sat down and waited until the sheriff left. “Senora Grace, you should not be in this place.”
It about broke her heart to see him like this. “Pepi, there’s only one way I can see to get you out of this.”
He didn’t say a word, just looked at her apprehensively.
“You have to marry an American citizen.”
His expression turned to something between sympathy and horror.
“I’m not looking for a husband, you dang fool. I’m saying that we get a Justice of the Peace wedding to make it legal for you to stay. Then I promise that we’ll find some way to get your Fidelia here.”
“But Senora Grace, if I marry you I cannot marry Fidelia. I will not bring her here to live with me unmarried.”
“And I wouldn’t ask you to. What I’m thinking is that once you’re legal, you go back to Mexico and marry Fidelia in your local church. Then we get her across the border and the two of you live here.”
“It is not legal to marry two women.”
“Pepi, I know that what I’m suggesting isn’t legal, but I worry more about doing right by the almighty than the government, and I know that what I’m doing is right. You and I won’t consider the ceremony between you and me a real wedding. I will just create a piece of paper that makes it legal for you to live in this country and to do something else that I’ve been thinking about. The real wedding, the one that matters to the almighty, is the one that takes place in your church.”
It took a while, but she finally convinced him. It was even harder to convince Bill, who was the Justice of the Peace as well as the sheriff.
After a long argument in front of Pepi, Bill took her out to the hallway. “Grace, I think you’re crazy, but if you can truthfully tell me that you love him, and he loves you I won’t stand in your way.”
Grace sorted through her memories: the early days with Pepi eating his lunch on the porch and learning English, the days and nights they labored together in the fields, and relaxing on those warm summer evening and really getting to know each other. Then she thought about how kindly he treated her, always making sure she didn’t work too hard, and being the friend she needed to ease the crushing loneliness left by Bud’s passing. “Yeah Bill. I love him.” She didn’t say like a son, and Bill didn’t ask, but probably knew. “And I’m sure he loves me too.”
Bill stared into her eyes as if to discern the truth. She looked back without wavering.
Apparently it was enough because he finally sighed and shook his head. “Okay, Grace. If Mr. Obrero agrees we’ll do it.”
Grace went out to the truck. She reverently opened the box she’d brought and shook out the wrinkled and yellowed bridal veil that she’d worn when she married Bud. She secured it to her hair with a few pins and went back in to a second wedding that would secure the future of the farm.
Although Bill knew that there would be hell to pay with immigration, he released Pepi. He stood at the door and waved as Grace and Pepi headed home.
Tom Pawlowski asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work