From an upcoming novel. It takes place in Iowa amid the Depression, amid a crisis in which the government testing cattle for disease had the right to condemn whole herds over a single sick animal, in tests that were highly suspect. That was as good as a death sentence to a poor family. The policy drew unrest and President Hoover deployed troops. There were machine guns deployed on the streets of Clinton Iowa. Here, the tension boils over as police attempt to enforce the order against farmers…

Thirty-six

“Between a rock and a hard place, ain’t that what they call it, C.W.?” Stan Pickett stood alone in the dusty dirt road with the Sheriff near the gate to his farm.

Stan wasn’t a particularly big man, and certainly not a man who found cause to fight casually. He looked older than his years. What little bit of hair he still owned had grayed prematurely, mostly over financial troubles with the farm. He was just holding on, just keeping the creditors at bay. That was evidenced by the baggy brown trousers, which fit Stan a whole lot better the previous Fall. His thumbs were hooked in the suspenders holding them up.

The men were like two pauper chieftains negotiating terms between their respective armies. Except these two armies could find no terms, and instead seemed poised, even eager for battle.

Just down the road, a line of thirty-some State troopers in blue stood ready near where an old Maple rose beside Stan’s big red barn.Bent steeply from the bank of a roadside ditch,the tree’s shade fell across the road, a cluster of vehicles and the troopers.

They were thirty of the biggest, meanest, hardest looking men the governor knew, picking each man personally, predominantly for their penchant for bruising. They faced a bigger number of farmers gathered tensely at the entrance to Stan’s farm, blocking a small gravel drive across the weedy drainage ditch.

Behind them Stan’s wife stood on the wrap-around porch of their white-washed two story home with their three children. A number of the other wives joined her there, some just as eager as their husbands to join the fight.

C.W. and Stan stood at the fulcrum of this moment, talking calm and low, as if they might discuss the rising heat of the day or Wes Ferrell’s no hitter against the St. Louis Browns, Chaplin’s new movie or Hoover’s ineptitude. Neither was fooled by the gravity of all this. They knew only too well that what gentlemanly agreement they might come to in the middle of that road would dissolve in the face of inevitable history and raging emotion.

Opposite the police, forty men stood at the entrance of Stan Pickett’s farm. They stood in the road, running in a ragged line down across the ditch and halfway across Stan’s yard. Forty men had filled their hands with clubs and shovels, some of them. Others rolled up their sleeves, and spit into their hands, prepared to send those troopers back to Des Moines and back to the governor as a lesson. Backed into a corner, there was nothing else they could do as men but stand and fight.

“That what they call it, Stan?” C.W. rubbed the moist back of his neck. “Rock and a hard place?”

“It’s something.” Stan tugged a rag from his pocket and dabbed the sweat from his face. He looked over his shoulder at the men in his yard and back at C.W. Both men regarded the troopers or a long worrisome moment.

“It’s something all right.”

“Like Sittin’ Bull and Custer out here,” Stan smiled weakly.

“Both know how that turned out.”

“Question is, which of us is Custer and…” his words trailed away.Stan pushed the rag back into his pocket.

“Good question. Don’t recall that turned out well for either man in the end.”

Stan looked C.W. squarely in the eye. His expression was suddenly stark and grave.“Know I can’t let them inspectors near my cattle.”

“Something to hide, Stan?”

“Something to protect.”

C.W. groaned. He’d played checkers with Stan Pickett and half the others a thousand times out front of Bert Himmel’s place over the years. He recalled the night his wife had complications delivering their third child, the small boy now hovering at his mom’s apron on the porch. That night he’d raced Stan and his wife to Emmetsburg in the back of his truck. When the boy was born healthy later the next day, he and old Stan celebrated by getting good and lit at a local watering hole.

“And you know I’ve got to uphold the law, Stan.”

Stan scratched the top of his head and shrugged, resigned to the events rolling across his farm like a tornado. “Different ways of looking at the law.”

“Don’t have that luxury.”

C.W. stared coldly at Stan, whose gaze was away across the fields and his struggling crops dotting the yellow green hillside opposite. C.W. tried to imagine himself in Stan’s place, and wondered if he wouldn’t react the same way. The moment evaporated. Stan nodded sharply and pursed his lips.

“Expect I should be getting back.”

C.W. nodded fatally and frowned. “God help us, Stan.”

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