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As All My Fathers Were
Two elderly brothers and their sister stand to inherit a large ranch on the Platte River in Nebraska if they can complete the dictates of their mother's will.
Ranchers, Richard and Seth Barrett, are devoted to running the family ranch on Nebraska’s Platte River. It is their intent to keep doing so the rest of their lives; however, the terms of their mother’s will requires them to travel up and down the Platte River by horse and canoe, to understand why their maternal grandfather homesteaded the ranch three generations earlier. If they don’t complete it within 61 days, they don’t inherit the ranch. From the grave, she commands them to observe industrial farming’s harm to the land, air, and water.
A 90-old bachelor farmer, with a game plan of his own, butts in threatening to disrupt and delay the will’s mandatory expedition. Using a gullible hometown sheriff and a corrupt local politician, a conniving, wealthy neighbor, seeks to seize the property, and thwart their struggle to keep the ranch and meet the terms of the will.
The Platte River, “A mile wide and an inch deep,” becomes its own character in this turbulent novel and lives up to its legend as being “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”
FILOH THREW THE MATCH on the gasoline soaked dirt and ran as fast as he could. His footsteps sounded hollow, and the boots slipped on the plowed ground. He twisted his left ankle. He threw his arms out to balance as his body racked this way and that with each step. He’d made it fifty yards before the explosion ripped across the ground sprawling him face down and pelting him with dirt clods. He pushed up on his elbows and watched the dust cloud rise.
“Need a longer fuse,” he said out loud. He stood up, his left ankle sore. He limped toward the end of the field. There was a dust trail rising off the county road. Every so often he glanced at the ris- ing plume of dust but, head down arms swinging, he maintained a constant pace toward the gate where his rented pickup was parked between the fence line and the county road.
At the gate he struggled with the wire loop that held the gate- post, got it unhooked, stepped outside and re-hooked the gate. He could hear a vehicle approaching after turning the section corner, the engine whine telling him it was going all out. He got inside his pickup and put the key in the ignition as the vehicle—a white pickup with Dixon Agriworks painted on the driver door—skidded to a halt just inches from his front bumper. A lean young man wearing a belt knife left the driver door open, settled his hat on his head and sauntered up to the Filoh’s window. The stern look on his face was offset by the fact that he was chewing gum and his jaw revolved around it, sometimes open and sometimes closed.
“You’re trespassing,” he said. “Roll down your window.”
Filoh looked around for the window crank.
“It’s electric. Turn the ignition to the second position.”
Filoh couldn’t figure it out and the young man pulled the door
open. “Come on out here.”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼James a. misko 37
“I’m not moving. You got something to say—say it.”
“What the hell were you doing in our field?” “Experimenting.”
“Experimenting with what? I heard a blast. Saw a dust cloud.” “Soil testing.”
“You say you were soil testing?”
“Stay here. I’m gonna call the office.”
The young man pulled a cell phone from a belt holster. His hard
eyes stared at Filoh until he heard the phone picked up at the other end. “This is Cort out on the river section. Found a guy just coming off our land after some sort of explosion. Says he is soil testing. You know anything about it?” He lowered his head and kicked at a ping-pong sized rock with his boot toe. “I don’t either. Whaddaya think? Ok. Sure.” He closed the phone. “They want to know your name and if
you’re from around here.”
“Filoh Smith. Been here since before you were born. This used to
be my place,” he said pointing toward Fourmile Creek.
“Well—my orders are to tell you to get off and stay off. Anything
you don’t understand about that?” “No, sir.”
Cort nodded. “Ok—then git!”
A Dodge Ramcharger pulled up beside the two rigs facing each other on the county road. “What’s goin’ on?” Seth Barrett asked.
Cort gestured toward Filoh. “This old bugger settin’ off fireworks. Can you get him out of here?”
“If he’ll come, I can.” He looked at Filoh like he was a juvenile delinquent. “You comin’ peacefully or do I have to hog tie you?”
Filoh shook his head. “My gawd, what’s this world come to? Two out of three people in this group is nuts.”
“Will you follow me, or do you want to lead?” Seth said. “Go ahead—I’ll follow.”
“JUDAS PRIEST, FILOH. You can’t go blowing people’s stuff up. Especially if it belongs to Dixon. He’ll have you drawn and quartered
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼38 AS ALL MY FATHERS WERE
and God help you if he buries you on his land. He’s got about 7,000 acres and we wouldn’t find you until hell freezes over.” Seth paced the kitchen of the Barrett house, his stocking feet sliding over the polished walnut flooring. He looked at the rented pickup in the driveway, the driver’s door still open and shook his head. “You want more coffee?”
Filoh raised the cup and Seth got the coffee pot and topped it off. Filoh sat erect in the cane bottom chair, his body supported by elbows on the table. The coffee in the saucer rippled as he blew over it.
“Richard and Ginny will be here shortly.” Seth walked to the win- dow, hands slanted into the rear pockets of his Levis. “Hell—I saw the dust cloud from clear over here. Had to find out what it was.”
“Didn’t work right,” Filoh said.
“That’s good that it didn’t. You got spare money you don’t mind paying Dixon for replacing his irrigation equipment? One of those ten tower pivots will cost about eighty thousand dollars. You got eighty thousand dollars you want to throw around; you might hire a lobbyist and talk to the legislature. That’s the only way you’re gonna get things changed around here. We’re all farming the way we learned in school. We’re using pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides all over the place. Cass County Agri-spray hits us about every month during the season. Richard says we’d have lost most of the crop to corn bor- ers if we hadn’t sprayed last year.”
“I never used all that stuff and I never lost a full crop.” Filoh sipped the coffee. “Some short ones—that’s true, but always had enough.”
“But Filoh—what you need to see is that modern farming and ranching isn’t built on enough. It’s built on having some of the good stuff in life. A few luxuries—you know? This is the industrial age and farming has come along with it. Bigger farms. No backbreaking work; air-conditioned cabs with computers, stereo, and TV. It’s a far cry from when you were farming in the 60s.”
He could hear Filoh sucking the coffee from the saucer. He didn’t want to turn around and see it. Actually he didn’t want to see Filoh anymore. The old man had haunted him since his youth. Always intense, severe, full of thoughts and ideas that he was pursuing. He was not an adult for kids to be around.
Filoh ran the back of his sleeve across his mouth. “I’ll wait until Richard and Ginny get here but I will say one thing here and now.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼James a. misko 39
What you and Richard are doing is killing the land. And the air and the water. And mark my words, it’s gonna take you down with it.”
Seth wanted to scoff but he didn’t. He held it back. Not bad for a guy who not so long ago would have said exactly what he thought when he thought it. That appears to be one of the benefits of being on the wagon but it was damn hard to hold in. It was like his tongue was going to force his mouth open and say it without any help.
A car door slammed and muted voices drifted in through the open kitchen window. Filoh looked up, saucer poised. Seth stood with his back to the stovetop, his hands jammed into his back pockets. Richard and Ginny came in the front door and made their way to the breakfast room.
“What’s the story?” Richard said, looking at Seth.
Seth nodded toward Filoh. “It’s his game. Let him tell you.” Filoh set the saucer down, tugged his sleeves to cover his wrists
and, with his eyes just thin slits in his browned face, he looked hard at Richard. “First place I don’t need to go through this scrutiny. I’ve got some things to do and I’m gonna do ’em until there is some recogni- tion of the facts around here.”
“Facts about what?” Ginny said.
“The death sentence you Barretts have put on this land and river. Those are facts.”
Richard’s head tilted down until his chin almost touched his chest. He took a deep breath and thought of all the changes he and Ginny had discussed coming over that would have to be made to run the kind of operation Filoh envisioned.
Ginny interrupted his thoughts. “We can’t change it by ourselves. There must be hundreds of farmers along the Platte all doing the same thing.”
Filoh shook his head. “That’s true. But there’s at least two dozen that are doing right by the land.”
“Everyone around here is doing it the same way.”
“Might be. But that don’t make it right.”
“Look,” Ginny said. “Our mother just died. My brothers are set
to complete the request of her will. I’ve got to run this place while they’re gone and there is no way we can do anything about this at this time.”
“You can start by stopping,” Filoh said.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼40 AS ALL MY FATHERS WERE
“You damn right. Stop it now. Stop killing the land—don’t you
Ginny exhaled, crossed her arms and leaned back against the
Richard looked up. “What would you say if we agreed to look into
it after we get back from the trip? Would you stop this destructive activity you seem bent on?”
“Tell you what. You take me with you. I’ll show you what’s hap- pening to the land and the river and the aquifer and you decide. You weren’t born dummies. I’ll rest my case with your judgment.”
Seth smiled. “You can’t make it.”
“I’ve made many a mile in my day.”
“I’m talking about 600 miles up and back.”
Filoh nodded. “Tell me when and I’ll be there.”
“This is crazy. Hauling a ninety year old along. We’ll have to put
a coffin on the pack horse.”
“You can get a coffin along the way but it will more’n likely be for
one of you.”
Richard smiled. “Let’s see if we can make it work, Seth. At least
for the first fifty miles or so. If what Filoh’s saying has any validity, we should know in that distance, I’d think.” He turned his gaze to Filoh. “How’s that set with you, Filoh?”
“Just dandy. Give me a couple days notice so I can cook up some corn doggers.”
“I’m dead set against it. No way we’re taking him with us. ” “Ginny?”
“I don’t care. It doesn’t change anything for me. The thing that
bothers me is the logistics of making changes while you’re gone.” Richard turned toward Filoh. “Looks like one for, one against,
and one neutral.”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼James a. misko 41
Seth dropped his arms and pushed away from the stovetop. “Richard, I’m not letting him traipse along with us. I don’t see any- thing that requires us to nursemaid him...”
“Nurse-maid? I’ve been doin’ alright without your input for ninety years...”
“Damn right, nurse-maid. It’s gonna take you longer to get ready, longer to do anything. No deal. You’re not goin’.”
Filoh looked to Richard. “Why don’t ya vote on it?”
Seth sissored his arms in from of him. “No voting. The will says Richard and I go up the river. Not that we take a half-dead old man with us. We’ve got a schedule to keep and we can’t keep it with you slowin’ us down at every turn.”
“Why I’ve...” Filoh began.
“Hold it.” Richard held up his hands. “If Seth feels that strongly about it we can’t do it. We can’t have that kind of discord on the trip. There are too many unknowns in it as it is. No sense us making it harder than it needs to be.”
“That’s better,” Seth said and crossed over to the sink.
“And what about me?” Ginny said.
“Don’t make any changes. We’ll keep an eye out for what Filoh’s talk-
ing about and the three of us will confer on it when we get back. Ok?” Ginny nodded. “Yeah—I’m ok with that.”
Filoh snorted and crossed his fingers behind his back. The good
thing about being ninety was you didn’t give a damn what other peo- ple thought. He hadn’t come back to stay behind.
Between Fremont and Plattsmouth, the Platte River took on few con- tributors. It worked at keeping the spring water within the banks but fresh rains had sent it over into the low-lying fields. Carp had slid over the banks and into the drainage ditches alongside the road and now struggled to stay alive as the waters receded. The River had plenty of carp and like the farmers toiling on the banks, it could lose some stock and still maintain a balance.