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#88

Prairie Vagrants




                Norman Catticker landed his helicopter on a flat patch of wild grass next to a dark stream. The landing was not smooth. After the rotors slowed to a stop, he turned to Ward and Hunter Biltings and said, “Let’s get out and walk around a little, huh?”

                “Sounds good,” said Ward. “Maybe we can chat a little.” He gave Norman a sly look. In the back seat, Ward’s bulky, nineteen-year-old son Hunter sighed through his nose. Ward hadn’t done the best job of keeping in touch with Norman over the years, but when he’d called Norman and told him that he and Hunter had driven out West for a funeral and that they’d be passing through Norman’s neck of the woods on the drive back to Multioak, Norman had been thrilled to offer them a place to stay for the night. Not having a son of his own, he’d also been thrilled at Ward’s request that he offer Hunter a little sage advice if the opportunity arose.

The men exited the helicopter and stretched their legs, taking deep breaths of the prairie air as birds hidden in the reeds along the stream sang out their strange calls. The helicopter was the only unnatural thing in sight. Everything else was rolling hills, clusters of trees, and untamed brush hiding all kinds of secretive wildlife.

                “Can you believe it, Hunter?” asked Ward, clapping his son on his broad back. “After all that flying around, we’re still on Mr. Catticker’s land. Impressive, huh?”

                “Well, we circled back,” said Norman. “We weren’t over my land the whole time.” He pushed his stylish glasses up higher on the bridge of his blunt nose.

                “Still,” said Ward. “How many acres do you have, Norman?”

                “A few hundred,” said Norman. “I like to have some room to stretch out.”

                “Hear that, Hunter?” asked Ward. “A few hundred acres.”

                Hunter nodded. “Mm-hmm. I heard. That means nothing to me. I don’t know how big an acre is.”

                Ward looked at Norman for help, but Norman didn’t take the hint and simply smiled the smile of a man who knows how much land he owns and knows it to be substantial.

                “An acre’s a good-sized chunk,” said Ward. “I don’t know the exact dimensions.”

                Before Hunter could make the cutting remark that Ward saw forming inside of him, Norman said, “So Hunter, how’s life? One year of college under your belt. You got big plans for the summer?”

                “Nope,” said Hunter.

                “What’re you going to do with the time off?”

                “Sit around,” said Hunter.

                Norman laughed.

                “He isn’t kidding,” said Ward with a pained expression. “He really is planning on doing nothing all summer long.”

                “Maybe longer,” said Hunter.

                Norman laughed again, but with more discomfort this time. “You’re not going to help out your dad with his roofing business? You can’t just do nothing. Right?”

                “Why not?” asked Hunter.

                “See?” said Ward. “Just like I told you, Norman.”

                “Hunter, listen,” said Norman. “I’ve been successful. I’ve got all this land, I’ve got this helicopter, and I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I can afford to spend a good deal of time sitting around if I want. But I never would have gotten to this point if I’d just sat around when I was in my twenties. “

                Hunter said nothing. He watched the stream with distant eyes, his mouth hanging slightly open. Ward could tell he was tuning Norman out. Ward had hoped that Norman’s wealth would impress Hunter enough to make him listen to Norman’s advice, but Hunter appeared as unaffected by the helicopter ride and discussions about land ownership as he was with the sensible vehicles, modest home, and payments for his college tuition that Ward’s hard work had produced.

                “You probably own some pretty cool cars,” said Ward. “Right, Norman?”

                “Well, I could if I wanted to,” said Norman. “It’s not like they’re out of my price range. That’s what’s great about success, though. When you’re successful, you can buy a helicopter and land if that’s what you want. Or you can buy, well, what are you into, Hunter?”

                Hunter blinked and looked back at Norman and his father. “Helicopters and land, of course. What else is there?”

                Ward gave Norman an apologetic look and said, “Maybe we should head back to the house.”

                Ward climbed into the back seat of the helicopter, thinking that maybe letting Hunter sit in the front seat next to Norman would somehow get through to him in a way that sitting in the back clearly hadn’t. Ward looked out the window at the peaceful landscape. He didn’t care for it. If he were to ever own this much land, which he wouldn’t unless maybe a storm destroyed every roof in Multioak, he would do something productive with it. Just letting nature run the show so you could occasionally drop by in your helicopter and look at it for a while seemed silly.

                “Oh no,” said Norman from the pilot’s seat. “Nothing’s working.”

                “What?”

                “Nothing’s working,” said Norman, flipping switches up and down. “There’s no power. None at all.”

                “What do you mean?” asked Ward. “No power?”

                “I don’t know what’s wrong,” said Norman. “But this helicopter isn’t going anywhere.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Great. Do either of you have reception? I never get any out here.”

                Neither Ward nor Hunter had any reception.

                “We’re gonna have to walk,” said Norman. “Which way do you guys think my house is?”

                “You don’t know?” asked Ward.

                “I usually just fly straight up and then I can see it from the air,” said Norman. “But, um, I’m pretty sure we can figure it out.”

                “How long until it gets dark?” asked Ward.

                “What time is it?” asked Norman.

                Ward looked at his watch. “It’s 4:45.”

                “Then I don’t know,” said Norman. “But we should get moving.”

                “Too bad you can afford a helicopter and all this land, Norman,” said Hunter. “It’s a real shame.”

 

                The evening was still and calm. Norman had chosen a direction, and it had seemed arbitrary at the time, but Ward figured that if they just kept walking in one direction, eventually they’d have to find something. The rolling hills made it hard to see very far in any direction. Ward hoped they’d encounter something manmade over every rise, something that would indicate they were on the right track, something that Norman would recognize, but they didn’t and Norman just kept saying, “Hmm, well, this still feels right, doesn’t it?”

                Neither Ward nor Hunter bothered to answer him.

The sun seemed to be setting faster than usual. It was senseless. What possible reason could there be for the sun to set so quickly? Ward’s irritation at tramping aimlessly through nature while dumb creatures all around felt right at home began to turn to worry. He wished he’d taken a more active role in navigating the way back to Norman’s house. Hunter hadn’t said anything for a long time but Ward couldn’t imagine that this experience was having a positive impact on his motivation to succeed. It was probably just making him sullen. When Ward looked over his shoulder, Hunter indeed looked sullen.

Leading the way, Norman mounted another small rise and stood next to a stunted tree with his hands on his hips, his shoulders rising and falling as he panted. “Civilization!” he called back to Ward and Hunter with a grin.

“Really?” asked Ward, his thighs burning as he climbed up next to Norman.

“Yes,” said Norman. “It’s a fence!”

Ward wasn’t impressed. The barbed-wire fence ran off in both directions, disappearing among the hills. It was not in good repair. “Is this your fence?”

“In a way,” said Norman. “I didn’t build it, but it divides my land from one of my neighbors’ land, apparently.”

                “Which neighbor?” asked Ward.

                “That depends where we are,” said Norman.

                Ward heard Hunter’s heavy footsteps as he came up behind him. He wasn’t breathing as hard as the older men were. His naturally robust physique seemed to be serving him well. So much untapped potential. For roofing, sure, but for many other kinds of labor as well.

                “So obviously we should just follow the fence row,” said Ward.

                “We could,” said Norman. “Or we could cross under the fence and see what’s beyond that hill over there. Maybe we’ll spot my neighbor’s house and we’ll be able to get a ride back to my place.”

                “All right,” said Ward, expecting nothing. He wanted to make a sarcastic comment about Norman’s leadership but he didn’t want to set a bad example for Hunter.

                After taking turns crawling under the fence, the men trudged to the top of the next rise. There, down in a valley a little less than a hundred yards away, was a pale blue barn. There were no other buildings around it, nor even a road leading up to it.

                “See?” said Norman. “I knew it!”

                “A barn,” said Hunter in a flat voice. “Hurrah, we’re saved.”

 

As the men approached the front of the barn, they heard a whinny and a snort from around the side. They walked around the corner and saw a yellow, swaybacked horse eating thistles. The horse was saddled but hitched to nothing, apparently uninterested in wandering away. It looked at the three men impassively.

“Someone must be inside,” said Ward.

There was a big double-door on the front of the barn that was probably designed to admit heavy farm machinery. Norman pounded on it with his fist. “Hello!” he shouted. “Neighbor? It’s Norman Catticker!” It sounded as if a generator was running around the back side of the barn.

                “Maybe we should try this door,” said Ward, pointing to a smaller door next the big one.

                Without waiting for a response from Norman, Hunter walked over to the smaller door, turned the knob, and stepped inside. Ward and Norman followed him. The interior of the barn was lit by electric bulbs hanging down on long cords from the high ceiling. The walls were lined with old stalls for livestock, but one of them had been converted into a crude jail cell which contained a bearded man in shabby clothes. And standing in the middle of the barn floor was a glowering old man in brown coveralls zipped up under his white-stubble-covered chin despite the warmth of the evening. He had a giant revolver in each hand. “Oh great,” he said. “More vagrants.”

                “Hold on there,” said Norman, smiling as if the man wasn’t pointing guns at him. “We aren’t vagrants. I’m your neighbor. My helicopter stopped working and we’re trying to get back to my house.”

                “You didn’t crash no helicopter,” said the man. “You’d be dead! Vagrants are the worst liars! The very worst!”

                “No,” said Norman. “No, we-“

                “Get in here,” said the man, taking the padlock off of the door to the cell. He swung the door open and prodded the cell’s occupant back from the entrance with jabs from one of his pistols.

                “But we’re-“

                “Get in the cell, vagrants!” The man clanked the barrels of his pistols together over his head. When he shouted, Ward saw that most of his teeth were silver.

                “Let’s get in the cell, Norman,” said Ward. “We don’t want to get him too wound up and start shooting us.”

                “No more talking!” shouted the man.

                Ward looked at Hunter to see how he was handling the situation. Hunter had the satisfied expression on his face that always appeared when Ward was proven wrong on any subject, though Ward didn’t see how any of this could be construed as his fault.

                Norman, Ward, and Hunter crossed the dirty barn floor and filed into the cell while the old man shouted “Get!” and waved his pistols. Then the old man slammed the door behind them, clicking the padlock back into place.

                “There,” said Norman. “We’re safely in the cell. Can I tell you who I am now?”

                “No!” shouted the old man. “Get a job!”

                “I’ve got my resume on a flash drive in my pocket,” said Hunter. “Do inmates have access to a printer in this facility?”

                “Shut up, vagrant!” The old man fired one of his pistols at a bale of hay against the back wall of the barn. He missed high and shot a hole through the wall. Then he stormed out of the barn, slamming the door behind him.

                “Why do you say things like that?” asked Ward.

                “He’s not gonna shoot anybody,” said Hunter, leaning against the bars.

                 “He might,” said the other man in the cell, speaking for the first time. “I just do whatever he says.” He was short and wiry and up close, Ward saw that his beard emitted puffs of dust every time he exhaled.

                “Who are you?” asked Norman

                “I’m Hult,” said the man. “I’m the original vagrant.”

                “What do you mean?” asked Ward.

                “Lincoln, the crazy old man who just left, found me sleeping on his land one day about six months ago and took me captive at gunpoint. He kept me locked in his basement for a while, but after about a month he transferred me to this cell, which I gather he spent that first month making.”

                “You’ve been his prisoner for five months?” asked Ward.

                “Indeed I have,” said Hult. “And his hatred for vagrants grows every time he looks at me.”

                Hunter started snickering.

                Ward turned to face him. “Why are you laughing? We could be in real danger!”

                “I know,” said Hunter, still chuckling. “Here we are, all in the same boat. Norman’s a super-successful retired businessman, you’ve been gainfully employed for over 20 consecutive years, I just want to lay around all summer, and this guy’s a real, self-proclaimed vagrant. And none of it matters. Norman’s neighbor doesn’t even know him. We’re all in the same tiny, homemade cell in the middle of nowhere waiting for a complete nutjob to decide if he should shoot us or not.”

                “That’s all fine,” said Ward. “But these are not typical circumstances and you know it. 99 percent of the time having a job makes your life better. It’s like when someone dies in a car wreck because they’re wearing a seatbelt. It’s ridiculous to use that one example to justify never wearing a seatbelt.”

                “I never wear a seatbelt,” said Hunter.

                “Me neither,” said Hult. “Although I haven’t been in a car in fourteen years.”

                Norman stared out at the empty barn through the bars and shook his head slowly.

                “It’s not your fault, Norman,” said Ward, only half-meaning it.

                “You were right to ignore my advice, Hunter,” said Norman, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against the bars. “You’re right to disrespect me. I never worked hard. I didn’t earn anything. My business partner did everything and I just reaped the rewards. I never should have let your dad talk me into giving you advice.”

                “Don’t worry about it,” said Hunter, resting his hand on Norman’s back. “I wouldn’t have listened to you even if you were the hardest worker who ever lived.”

                “Hunter,” said Ward. “When we get home, you’re getting a job. I don’t care if you roof with me or do something else, but if you don’t get a job, you’re paying for college on your own.”

                The shock on Hunter’s face was gratifying even if Ward didn’t mean what he said, which he probably didn’t. Unless Hunter kept pushing him.

                “I can’t pay for my own college,” said Hunter.

                “You can take out loans,” said Ward. “Or get a job.”

                “But I’m your son,” said Hunter, visibly shaken.

                “Then toughen up and get a job!” shouted Ward.

                “You sound like Lincoln, pal,” said Hult, struggling to scratch a spot in the middle of his back. “He’s always screaming at me about getting a job.”

                The smaller barn door banged open on cue and Lincoln strode in with his pistols hanging in holsters on his belt and a gray metal folding chair in his hand. “All right, vagrants!” he shouted, setting up the chair so it faced the cell from ten feet away. “You’d better listen good!” He plopped down in his chair, seething with righteous anger at the mere sight of what he assumed to be four jobless men.

                “This is the evening motivational tirade,” said Hult under his breath. “We get two per day. One to wake us up, one before lights out.”

                “A man that won’t work is good for one thing,” shouted Lincoln, crossing his legs in a feminine way that Ward found startling. “You know what that thing is? Nothing!”

                “We’re not vagrants,” said Norman. “We’re productive members of society.”

                “Prove it!” shouted Lincoln.

                “Look at how I’m dressed,” said Norman, a hysterical note in his voice. “I have money!”

                “Any vagrant can sneak into a working man’s home and steal clothes and money,” said Lincoln. “That’s one of a vagrant’s favorite things to do.”

                “Sir,” said Ward, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out his wallet. “I’m not a vagrant. I own a roofing company. Here’s my business card.” He flipped it through the bars and it fluttered to the floor near Lincoln’s feet. “See, that’s my name on the card. Here, check it against my driver’s license.” He held his license through the bars and Lincoln took it, holding it up next to the business card. “And that’s me in the picture on the license, you can tell.”

                Lincoln looked from the business card to the driver’s license to Ward’s face and back again. “Well,” he finally said. “Seems I owe you an apology, sir. Roofing, that’s hard work. And I don’t envy a man who owns his own business. That man’s work is never done.” He handed Ward’s business card and license back to him and took a key out of his pocket. “Can you vouch for your friends?”

                “They’re vagrants,” said Ward. “But I’ll work on them.”

                “Lock them up if need be,” said Lincoln as he opened the cell door. “I’ve found that to be a satisfying approach.”

                Hult tried to follow Ward, Hunter, and Norman out of the cell, but Lincoln put a hand on his chest and said, “Hold on there. The roofer didn’t vouch for you, vagrant.”

                “Actually,” said Ward. “I hired him while you were gone. He’s got a job now.”

                Hult made a face. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, buddy, but I’m not working for you or anybody. Jobs are for suckers.”

                Lincoln slammed the cell door in Hult’s face. “In that case, you’re staying put!”

                “I tried,” said Ward, and he, Norman, Hunter, and Lincoln walked out of the barn and into a windy prairie night. Lincoln shut the lights off on the way out.

                “I can’t give you no ride,” said Lincoln. “But I can tell you your house is a couple miles straight that way.” He pointed out over the hills and brush with one of his revolvers, the barrel gleaming in the moonlight.

                After the men had hiked for a while and Lincoln and his barn were well out of sight, Hunter said, “We’re going to call the police, aren’t we dad? To rescue Hult?”

                “You’ve got bigger concerns,” said Ward. “Like what job you’re going to get so you don’t have to pay for your college education by yourself.”

                Hunter’s face fell, his shoulders sagging. “I was hoping you forgot.”

                “Listen guys,” said Norman. “I feel bad. I brought all this on us by not keeping up on my helicopter maintenance, not knowing my own land, not knowing my neighbors. Ward, I want to finance Hunter’s college education whether he gets a job this summer or not. Post-graduate studies too.”

                Hunter heaved a sigh of relief but Ward said, “Not a chance, Norman. No offense, but there’s no price I wouldn’t pay to keep Hunter from turning into you.” A quail burst out of a bush as Ward walked past, beating its wings and diving out of sight behind a low hill.

                Surrounded by a dark, wild prairie it was impossible to tell who was a worker and who was not, but Ward knew that the distinction mattered. It always mattered and he would make Hunter understand that whether helped or hindered by successful men.               




Discussion Questions

  • In your mind, is there any difference between not having a job and being a vagrant? What is or isn’t the difference?



  • Should sons who are in college be forced to seek summer jobs? If they don’t seek summer jobs, should said sons be forced to pay for their tuition? Should vagrants be locked in homemade cells until they find gainful employment? Defend your answers.



  • Does part of you kind of wonder if Lincoln has a job? Me too.



  • Of the five characters in this story, who do you think least understands the value of a buck? Why?



  • Do you admire Hult for sticking to his anti-work principles even though it was just a bluff to spring him from Lincoln’s cell? What’s something or someone that you consider even more admirable than that?



  • Do you think Ward called the authorities to inform them of Hult’s captivity? Why or why not?



  • Who is a worker? Who is not?



  • Which of the following uses for wealth is better than helicopters and/or undeveloped prairie land? a. None of the below. b. Collectibles. c. Producing unimportant films that strive for importance. d. Promoting awareness to the point of overkill. e. None of the above.