Chapter Eleven: Graydon Wins a Fight
Spring merged into early summer; it was June and Graydon found himself working, harvesting hay for a rancher from whom his step-father had borrowed money. Graydon was working off the debt. He was able to handle the bales, weighing 70 to 80 pounds each, while walking beside a tractor-drawn wagon. He grabbed each bale by its wire bindings to swing it up to a stacker who waited with hay hooks. The stacker would shove the bale into place on the growing load. Even for June it was damned hot and sweaty work. Hay stems and leaves stuck to his body inside his shirt, down to his waist. The cut stem sides of the bales abraded away his blue jeans despite his short-legged leather bale apron. He gave each bale a "knee boost" to lift it upward in a swinging arc to reach the waiting hay hook above him. His legs above the knees were scratched red and raw. By day's end he suffered deep, bleeding scratches and his blue jeans would be ruined. He was earning a dollar an hour. When his step-father's debt was paid, Graydon would have nothing left for his own.
Blessed noon arrived, and Graydon and the others rested in the shade outside the hay shed to eat their sack lunches. He really didn't mind the work. He was building muscle on his lean, lanky frame. Summer hikes with a backpack, and winter ski-treks across the slopes of Thompson and Virginian ridges had given him unusual stamina and endurance. He was not and never would be a heavy-weight brawler like his step-father. He was more like an antelope, not easily winded.
Leaning back against a fence post beside a watering tank where lush thick grass grew, Graydon was lost in his thoughts. He heard loud voices and stomping coming from around the corner of the hay shed. He'd heard the sound of rocks hitting the wood beams and metal roof moments earlier.
Stuffing his sandwich wrappings into the empty paper sack, and folding that into his back pocket, Graydon walked around the corner in time to see one of the high school crew jump forward to stomp his boot down on a fledgling swallow. Other struggling half-feathered hatchlings lay sprawled in the hay litter and dust, fluttering weakly with feeble cries. Other boys leaped forward to stomp these in turn. Another boy was flinging rocks at the mud swallow nests, breaking them loose from under the eaves and scattering the helpless birds.
Graydon flung himself into the first boy he could reach; his momentum carried them both toward the open hay shed. In their struggle they fell onto the first layer of bales that had been stair-stepped toward the back wall. The older boy tried to punch Graydon, but Graydon held tight and he could only pummel his fists against Graydon's back. Being lighter, Graydon needed some advantage and he quickly found it. His knees pried open the gap on either side of a hay bale and he was able to wedge himself in place, locking the larger boy down with his strong legs. Now the challenge was to hold the larger boy's arms down to keep him from punching his fists into Graydon's face.
"That's a rotten thing to do! They're swallows, and they're babies. They're helpless! Where the hell is the sport in that?" Graydon screamed at the boy who was squirming and thrashing and trying to break free. The harder he struggled, the deeper Graydon's legs were able to sink between the bales. He was nearly impossible to dislodge now.
"Dammit, the swallows are needed around here. They eat all the mosquitoes and flies and insects. What's wrong with you guys, anyway?"
He could see that the others had stopped knocking down nests and were standing, shocked at what they were seeing. Nobody moved to interfere.
"Give, damn you, give up and I'll let you up!" Graydon yelled. He refused to hit or punch the face gasping below him; that was uncalled for and he didn't want to do it. Instead, he strained to keep the bigger boy pinned, to convince him that he would hold him down until the sun set, if need be.
"Alright, okay, I give!" the boy muttered, his face nearly purple from the strain of trying to push Graydon loose.
"Fight's over? You'll walk away?" Graydon asked.
"Yes, you win. It's over."
Graydon eased back and climbed down off the bales. Keeping a wary eye on the larger boy, he looked around at the carnage and saw that nothing living was left to tend. He walked about, picking up nearly a dozen crushed fledgling swallows and deposited them in the burn barrel over by the corral fence. Looking up, he could see that a number of swallow nests still remained, unharmed, while other very distressed adult swallows circled about, frantically seeking their destroyed nests and brood.
"Damn it all to hell," Graydon muttered to himself. He felt totally sick to his stomach at the senseless killing. But, slowly, as he watched the group of older boys walk away, muttering among themselves, he felt a warming pride in himself. He had finally won a fight, and he hadn't struck a single blow.
What he didn't see was the old rancher who had stopped in his walk to the hay shed when he'd seen Graydon go slamming into the larger boy, and their struggle on the hay bales. Standing back, unnoticed, the rancher watched and when it was all over he turned and walked back to his house, shaking his head and mumbling to himself, "Well, I'll be damned!"
The story of the boy who fought for birds would make the rounds around the valley, but this had a different cast to it. Folks made sure that word of it never got back to "Whiskey Johns."