Smoke On A Farm

Smoke On A Farm

Written: 2015


The tractor came to a screaming halt. John scowled, looking down at the old John Deere that his family had used to farm valley corn the last few years. Jumping off to land on the soft, crushed cornstalks the young farmboy tromped over to the wheels, examining them for any problems. Sometimes rocks could stop the treads or very rarely a small animal would run in and get caught. Usually they could get them out, but sometimes… there! John grunted, removing a slab of grey stuck between two of the large tractor’s wheels.

“John!” Someone called, behind him. “What’s the holdup? Are you taking too long, farmer boy?” Hannah smiled, as she hugged me from the side and kissed my cheek. She was a friend since childhood, but worked on his family’s farm as well. How had his dad put it again? Oh, right, “She’s the best around son, and that’s who I want working on this farm.” He’d smiled, “You being sweet on her- that’s just a perk.” John had been very embarrassed, but nothing really changed between him and Hannah. Most of the time she was out on the farm, like him, and it was only in between shifts that he really saw her.

John turned, nodding his head at the rock in the tractor. “Looks as if the rock got a bit stuck. You get the other acre already?” He turned, and she followed him up onto the tractor.

“Of course I did, I’m much faster than you.” She smiled, hopping up onto the vehicle. “But that’s alright, rocks slow everyone down. How do you feel about the fires lately?”

John grimaced, slamming the tractor into motion. Fires were a seriously problem, and windstorms lately had threatened their counties. One spark could set it off, and his family had already lost acres of corn to fire, as well as a barn when a nasty one flared up. “We can plan for it, we’ll stop any before they really get going.” John hoped so, fires were dangerous to fight when they got large.

The tractor pulled forward, and Hannah watched as he plowed the remaining corn, his tractor moving steadily through the remaining stalks. John sniffed. Did he smell smoke? “Hannah, do you smell smoke?”

Hannah’s blue eyes widened and she looked back toward his family’s barn. There didn’t seem to be any smoke, but she was already worried. “Let’s get back as soon as we can. Let’s go.” John gunned the tractor forward, moving across already harvested stalks to arrive at the back of the house and the main barn. Everything seemed to be fine, and John relaxed as he hopped off the tractor. Hannah was quick to follow as they walked inside, shouting for John’s parents who should be there.

The front door swung aside as John pushed his way through to the front yard, and the front few acres of their corn. Sure enough, he could see a small stream of billowing black smoke in the distance, and his fathers’ pickup truck screaming down the main road. See the smoke herself, Hannah darted back through the house, presumably to get the tractor.

With a roar, the pickup truck stopped in the driveway, John’s father jumping to the ground almost before the truck parked. He looked over his shoulder at the smoke in the distance, and John could definitely smell it now.

“Hey son,” John’s dad said. “O’Malley’s farm is almost gone. Their barn went up with one of their tractors still inside.” He grimaced, short brown hair framing his exhausted face. “I don’t know if our canals are going to hold it, it’ll probably jump them as soon as it gets there.”

John’s father gestured back to the truck, which John could see was full with flame retardant sandbags. “I’m going to lay these along the first canal line. Hopefully it can buy us time for you and Hannah to bolster the inner canal.” Before he finished his sentence Hannah was rounding the side of the house in their John Deere tractor, forward prongs raised and carrying more bags.

“You two get those on the inner canal and drag off as many of the stalks as you can,” John’s father yelled, as he got into the pickup and swung it back around the way he came. “We don’t have much time!”

John knew that it was up to Hannah and himself to save the farm. No matter what his dad did the first canal wouldn’t hold, and he was taking a huge risk just trying to make it stronger before the fire hit them.

“Maybe the wind will change,” Hannah shouted to him. “I’m sure your dad will be fine.” She smiled reassuringly.

John nodded. Hannah was always his support. “I’m going to get the other tractor and see if I can reroute some of the other canals up to ours. Then I’ll join you at the line.” Hannah nodded and shot off the way his dad had gone. John looked worriedly at the distant screen of black in the sky, now more of a haze than anything else. The sun was just beginning to descend, and the light flashed against the fires’ red and black smoke cloud as it pushed toward John’s farm.

Their second tractor was still in the barn, and John began grabbing the sandbags that remained. They should call the other farmers for help- no one wanted their neighbor’s farms to burn, plus fires could keep going to harm multiple farms in a single day. Unfortunately they didn’t have time, and even if O’Malley had gotten the word out he had done it too late. There were no fire trucks, and the fire was about to cross the main street to John’s farm.

Trying not to think about his dad laboring over the canal directly in the way of the oncoming flames, John finished loading up the tractor and drove it forward to their main irrigation canal. Hopping to the ground John ran over and worked one of the wheels, relaxing pressure on the water toward the back of the farm, and driving more of it to the front. It was risky because it could drown plants, but ash would be even worse if it covered everything.

“It’s getting close to the first canal,” His father’s voice rang out from the walkie on John’s hip as it turned on. “I’m not sure if this will stop it… it’s a damn big fire.” There was some static and John frowned in concern, turning his tractor toward the fire as it rumbled forward. As he got closer to the second canal, one of the main irrigation canals for this side of the farm, John could see that the fire had reached the first block, and that it seemed to be holding for the time being.

“Hey slowpoke, the left side needs more bags,” Hannah said, suddenly appearing at his side. He looked over and was surprised to see Hannah’s tractor parked right next to his. “We need to get the left sandbagged, the fire could easily jump to either side.”

John agreed, and he started offloading from the tractor, covering the areas nearest to them. He could see that the canal was as full as they could hope for- about two feet of water between very flammable cornstalks, both alive and dead. Fires could easily jump that far, so Hannah had flattened all of the stalks near the canal to provide less surface area for a spark. Then, the bags filled with flame retardant were placed on the safer side of the canal, to stop any smaller fires that made the jump before they could catch.

A surge of heat from the side warned John, causing him to jerk toward the oncoming fire. He saw that a hole a tractor wide had been burned into their crops between the inner and outer canal, and was getting larger as he watched it. The smoke was too thick for him to see his dad, but he might have run to their right to avoid the flames cutting him off.

“He’ll be fine John,” Hannah said, yelling over from where she was adjusting a few of the bags. “Your pa has been handling fires since before we were born!” She nodded, a determined look on her face. “Now we have to handle it, so let’s get this canal as wet as possible.”

They worked for about fifteen more minutes, making sure all of the bags were correctly placed. Meanwhile the fire had jumped the first canal in many areas, and some of those areas were shooting right for Hannah and John. The two farm hands looked up worriedly at a line of flame almost directly in front of them, less than sixty feet away. They paused until John detected red at the corner of his vision, and he turned to the left to see a line of flame almost too far out for the canal to cover.

“The left side needs the stalks flattened or that fire is going to go right around our canal.” John jumped up onto his tractor, turning it to the left as fast as he could.

Hannah looked at him with concern, a frown creasing her eyebrows. “Don’t stay there too long, if it’s going to get through, then it will likely get through no matter what you do to that corn.”

Nodding to agree with Hannah’s statement, John hit the gas pedal on the tractor and shot forward across the already collapsed stalks near the canal. He may not be able to do much, but he would try. This was his family’s farm, it was John’s responsibility to keep it alive for them.

The line of fire had slowed by the time he neared it, and as he crashed into the still standing stalks in its’ path he let out a yell. The tractor flattened and then crushed the stalks, leaving only dirt and leaves on the ground behind John. The fire was close enough for him to feel a constant warm glow to his right as he plowed the nearby corn out of the fire’s way. Hopefully that would keep the fire from too easily jumping the canal.

“John,” his father’s voice yelled out from the walkie. “You have to get back to the main canal.” There was a series of static, and then his father’s voice pushed through again. “The fire is about to hit Hannah, she’s still there.” John’s arms jerked the tractor around back to where he had come. He was a bit numb, and he could see that the fire was pushing up against the main canal where he and Hannah had been just minutes before.

As the tractor closed on where he had last seen Hannah, John almost got knocked off by surger of heat and air from his side. Not stopping the tractor, he looked over to see the fire had jumped the canal behind him, cutting off the way to the rest of the canal. John gritted his teeth and turned back, trying not to notice how uncomfortably hot the tractor wheel and seat had become.

Hannah’s tractor came into view moments later, but she was nowhere in sight. Pulling his walkie up John tried to reach either of them, his dad or her. There was nothing but static, and John was beginning to cough from the fumes. He had to get out of there, but he didn’t know if Hannah was safe. John stumbled as a force as solid as a linebacker hit him on the side, and he moved so that their tractor was between him and the oncoming flames, eyes scanning the mixture of crushed and upright cornstalks for Hannah’s golden hair to peak through.

Thinking he saw something John ran toward a concentrated bundle of cornstalks, sighing in relief as some of the heat lessened when he did so. He didn’t see two gouts of flame light the brush behind him, nor the few others to the right of the tractors. Heedless of these new flames, John burst through corn into a clearing. Sure enough, Hannah was there, seemingly unconscious. John was immediately at her side, trying to shake her awake. The flames reached his tractor and set off the engine.

The explosion knocked the air out of John and sent him flying along with Hannah herself. As John tried to recover and blink the stars out of his eyes he saw that the explosion had started new burns all around this side of the canal. There was no way they could contain them at this point as the main fire burst forward.

Hannah groaned, and John turned as he brought himself up to a crouch, wincing at how much it hurt to do even that. His friend’s eyes flickered open blearily, and her voice came out weakly as Hannah murmured something unintelligible. John leaned in closer.

“What you doing farmboy, get us away from the fire.” Her eyes went a little unfocused, and John realized she must have fainted again. She must have gotten heatstroke from all of the fire. John leaned down and heaved the girl up onto his shoulders, squaring himself to run. The heat was almost unbearable now, and the smoke made it hard to see where anything was. Still, all John had to do was run away from the fire, and that was exactly what he did, plunging into the sea of maize with the fire at his back. All he could think about was getting out, getting Hannah and himself away from the fire.

Just as he began to make headway, the second tractor exploded. This time they were farther from it, but John was exhausted from a long day already, and Hannah was not the smallest girl, she had too much muscle for that. So, he tripped, sending John sprawling and dumping Hannah back onto the earth. John’s world shifted as his head hit the ground, worldview suddenly going sideways, eyes already streaming tears from the intensity of the smoke. He realized that he didn’t know which way “up” was, and the grounded farm hand could only stare as a wall of flame neared him.

Until he was heaved off the ground, and onto Hannah’s shoulder. Shaking his head and trying to get it clear, all John could see were Hannah’s blue eyes facing forward with resolution. “I told you I was faster,” she coughed, the smoke had affected her as much as him. “Well,” she said, as she took off running, John slung over one shoulder as deadweight, a grin started forming on her dirt strewn face. “It’s about time I prove it.”