Dale was breathless. He leaned against the tractor tire, using one hand to pull his phone out of his inside jacket pocket. He took a deep breath, then let it out with a sigh. He didn’t want to make this call.
He squinted down at his phone, cursing the way his self-darkening glasses made it hard to see the screen in the bright sun. Finally he found his son’s number.
He heard Jeff’s phone ring. Two, three, four times. Dale did not want to leave a message.
But Jeff took the call before it went to voice mail.
“Everything okay Dad?” he asked.
“No.” Dale said. “I need you to come out here and take over. Hurry. Bring my truck.”
Dale hung up. Back in the yard, Jeff ran to the truck, terrified. This was the call nobody on a farm wants to get, especially during the busy seeding season.
Jeff’s mother saw him running. “Is everything okay?” she called.
“Something’s wrong with Dad.” Donna leapt off the lawn mower and ran to join her son in the truck. Jeff’s wife Elaine heard the truck rev as they drove out of the yard. She phoned Jeff.
“Something’s wrong with Dad,” he told his wife. “Out in the field.”
Elaine switched to emergency mode, running for the first aid kit and shouting at her two curious kids, “Get in the car!” The three of them ran for the SUV. As soon as she got them in the backseat Elaine peeled out of the yard. She didn’t want to use her first aid certification, but she was grateful she had it.
“Did he sound bad?” Donna asked Jeff as they sped forward.
“He said to hurry,” Jeff said. “I hope he didn’t hit a power pole. With that new guidance system…”
“Drive faster,” Donna said.
It was only the second day of seeding and Dale was still getting the hang of the new auto-guidance system on the tractor.
“You’ll love it, Dad,” Jeff had promised back in February when he installed it. “Once you get set up, it even turns corners for you. You don’t even have to lift the openers.”
Jeff’s son, seven-year-old Connor, thought this sounded great. “I can drive it!”
“If you have to put a rock on your lap to make yourself heavy enough to keep it running, you’re too small,” Dale said, secretly pleased with his grandson’s enthusiasm.
Dale’s father was less positive. “Might as well get that weird-looking machine they had at that farm show last summer,” Ed said. “What do you need the cab for if you’re not even turning? You can move to Yuma and farm from your computer screen. Or hook it to the TV and let Connor play it like a videogame,” Ed went on.
“Cool!” Connor said. “Can we?”
Dale had been skeptical, wondering if the GPS could really time the corners right every time without hitting a rock pile. Or worse, a power pole. But he didn’t want to sound like Ed, complaining about change.
“You sure you want me here on the first day?” Dale had asked Jeff the day before. “Don’t you want to get the kinks out yourself?”
“And make you spend the day filling the drill?” Jeff said. He didn’t add, “because you’re getting too old to climb the ladder,” but Dale accepted his fate.
By Day 2, Dale was more comfortable. He could operate the monitor like a pro, and was having no trouble getting the program to avoid obstacles in the field. He’d used his free time in the cab to read the manual and teach himself to mark rocks in the field so someone could pick them later.
They filled the drill after lunch. Donna handed Dale a thermos of hot coffee and an Aero bar when she brought out a truckload of fertilizer.
“Dad might be right,” Dale told her. “This works pretty well. Maybe Connor could run it from his Xbox in the living room.”
After Donna left, Dale sat back in the cab, drinking his coffee and eating his Aero bar. Then he spotted a tiny brown rabbit west of the tractor, crouched in a patch of kochia that the sprayer must have missed last year.
Dale turned at the corner, or, at least, sat in the cab while the tractor turned at the corner, and came back down the field to see the baby rabbit still there. “One more pass and you’d better move,” Dale thought.
When he got closer, Dale noticed a second rabbit, a foot away from the first one. “Brothers?” he wondered. “Get out of the way,” he said. Then he realized he’d spoken out loud, and felt silly.
The rabbits didn’t move. They were still huddled in the kochia when Dale made his next pass. He considered rerouting the guidance system to leave them alone. But how would he explain the missed patch when the crop came up? Everyone would think he’d gotten soft.
So Dale stopped the tractor and got out to relocate the rabbits a few feet to the east, where he’d already seeded. They trembled when he came close, too scared to move. He picked one up and slid it into his jacket pocket. Then he picked up the second rabbit and started walking east, carrying it in his hand.
Later, Dale would blame the incident on the Aero bar. But at the time, the brown substance he saw on his fingers didn’t look like chocolate. “Did that rabbit just…” Dale wondered, looking at his hand. The rabbit looked at that spot too. It sniffed, then bit.
Hard. Dale jumped. The rabbit bit him again, tearing the skin. Dale looked down at his hand and the rabbit fell to the ground.
Dale’s hand was bleeding. But he couldn’t leave the little rabbit in front of the tractor. When he bent down to pick it up, the second rabbit squirmed out of Dale’s jacket pocket and fell to the ground, along with the uneaten half of the Aero bar. The first rabbit apparently really liked Aero. He took another bite out of Dale’s hand.
By the time Dale finally had both of the rabbits gathered and moved off to safety, his pants and jacket were covered with blood, melted chocolate, and something else that looked like melted chocolate but probably wasn’t. Dale wasn’t sure if his priority was going to be stitches or a tetanus shot, but either way he had to go to the hospital.
He made the call, and waited for Jeff.
Of course he didn’t just get Jeff. His whole family roared up in a cloud of dust. Once they were finished being relieved to find the Dale wasn’t seriously hurt, and done warning him never to scare them like that again, there was a lot of laughter and photos. Twitter and Facebook were mentioned.
Elaine brought a cloth from her first aid kit to help Dale clean up before Donna drove him to town. “I don’t think we’ll need an ambulance,” Elaine said, trying not to sound sarcastic.
“Daddy,” Connor said, “I’m always going to save the rabbits when I start doing this job from the living room.”