Nearly from the womb, Samuel wished to be moving. Go go go was what he wanted to do, though he was never quite sure where it was he wanted to go. It was the act of change that interested him. It was the opposite of farm life, which was a life of stasis and predictability. He was frequently underfoot and caused a great deal of consternation among his elders. "A boy will never come to any good acting as he does," they would say. "He ought to spend a bit more time in the fields and a little less time wandering about like he does."
"Don't stare, It's rude," his parents would say to him on Sunday afternoons, walking in town after church to see about equipment and fertilizer prices, as well as pick up some groceries.
"Doesn't matter their state in life. They deserve a bit of respect, son."
His parents felt the need to reprimand Samuel because he would look longingly at the vagrants who came through town periodically. They would prop themselves up on the front porch of Murphy's store, their thick, wool shirts caked in the dust of the road, their military grade packs either by their side or under their heads. Samuel's parents imagined their son looking at these men with undue pity, when in fact he envied them. This was the life. These men had it figured out. They did not claim possessions, a plot of land, a home. The road was their home. Samuel noticed how dejected some of them looked, their eyes hollow and their beards dirtied. "Let us switch places," he longed to say to them. "Let me take your place, and you mine. You can milk cows and gather eggs until you know how well you have it now, but I'll be gone by then, lying down in a rail car looking at the farms go by, not a ounce of regret in my body."
The pages of history are rife with boys and girls who wandered too much and didn't pay mind to their elders as they should have because their minds wandered to other, greener places than the stuffy room in which they were being addressed. Most of these boys and girls are tamed by the demands of the world, eventually becoming those same elders, scolding children who were just like them without a hint of irony in their steely voices. Samuel was determined not to be this way. He was NOT going to change. No one was going to make him become a stuffy shopkeeper or traveling salesman. He especially did not want to become a farmer. Despite the farm being dear to his heart for being the first place to truly fill his heart with wonder, the actual work of the farm was anathema to all pleasure.
"Being a farmer is hard work," his father always said. "Hard work that falls mostly on my own back and your mother's. Soon enough it will be on yours."
Samuel would nod and do his best to smile at his father, but in his heart he knew that this could not be true. The world surely had something more exciting in store for him. It was his early rambles among the farms many acres that awakened in Samuel a wish for something greater. The Meller Farm sat on some two hundred acres of prime Ohio heartland. It's business was that of corn and dairy. Samuel grew up hiding and playing among the corn stalks, learning in horror how to milk a cow and how to wring a chicken's neck. Samuel was far from ignorant of the world's harshness, growing up on a farm makes such a worldview impossible, but he longed to spend his days alone, a sack over his shoulder, a good pair of leather shoes on his feet, and the open road ahead of him. He had no delusions of leaving the world's troubles behind, but he saw no point in wasting what precious time he had on earth with industrious farm labor. Someone else could run the farm. Samuel wanted to spend his days in a way that he could be proud of when he was about to draw his last breath. He often snuck out of the farmhouse at night, taking care to slide easily down the tin roof from his bedroom and down on top of the screen porch. From there it was only a quarter mile to the edge of the south wood. The wood was far from wild, being entirely on the Meller property, but any other child likely would have been frightened by the dark wood, the path lit only by the rays of the moon that managed to peek through the branches of the alders. Samuel was not afraid.
He'd been walking in these woods since he was a toddler and could get about with no light at all. He would walk through the woods aimlessly, no purpose in mind, simply taking in the sights of what the darkened forest had to offer. Upon hearing the hoot of an owl he would pause, freeze in place, and attempt to locate the bird who had made the call. Hours would pass, and whole nights could be spent thus occupied, trying to become better acquainted with his atmosphere until at long last, his eyes would come to rest on a singularly normal barn owl, dull brown in color, perched upon a low branch, annoyed at the boy's presence.
By the time Samuel was nine, he felt as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, if not the world, at least the state of Ohio. More and more in those days, his father spoke to him about the future of the farm, and how Samuel ought to be more serious in his duties.
"I'm getting on in age, Samuel. I need you to understand that."
"It doesn't seem that way to me, or your mother."
Samuel's mother looked up from her knitting in the corner, a look of irritation on her face that she had been brought into the quarrel. It was a cold night, unusually so for March, and there was a fire in the grate, though it was mostly embers as bedtime approached for the whole house. Farmhouses hit the hay early, which was always good for Samuel, as he liked the solitude of the house when his parents were asleep.
"I don't understand. I do all of my duties."
"You hate it. You get through your duties so you can go pretend to be pastoral, or whatever it is you do."
"What difference does it make what I do once my duties are done with?"
"Hell of a lot of difference to me. Takes commitment to run a farm. Can't have your head be somewhere else when the hard years strike and it'd be easier to cut and run."
"Why not cut and run then?"
Samuel's mother drew in a sharp breath; her needles ceased clicking. The fire crackled ominously behind Tom Meller's face. It was a face that had been hardened by years of labor under the sun. It did not often smile, and was perfunctory even when it did.
"Do you mean to deliberately shame me, son?"
"Of course not, but if it's easier to sell then why would a smart man not do so?"
Samuel would not understand men like his father for many more years, and he would eventually come to regret this exchange, but his core philosophy remained the same. He could not understand his father's stubborn insistence on being a farmer. There were so many things a man could be, why not try on something new for size?
"Your grandfather died on this land. Your sister died on this land before she was old enough to crawl. Your mother and I have poured our own blood into this soil. This is Meller ground. Do you understand that, boy? Our blood has nourished this ground for generations, and you offer it up to a hawk for nothing more than an easy go of it in some place foreign to our blood? You shame me, and you shame your mother. You may be only fourteen, but you're old enough to know better than this."
Tom Meller turned away just then, and tended to the fire, though it needed no tending. Samuel could not see the tears on his father's face, running down the hardened lines, but his mother's were there in plain sight, easy enough to spot even in the flickering light of the fire.
Samuel mounted the stairs his grandfather had sawn with his own hands with a quietude unusual for a fourteen year old boy. He somberly made his way to his corner bedroom with the window that overlooked the south wood of the farmland. It was in those woods that Samuel first saw a creature die. His father had shot the animal, and his mother had made it into meals for many weeks. His father had not allowed him to look away as he cut the animal's throat. The blood pooled and soaked into the ground while the young boy looked on, horrified and uncertain why such a ritual was necessary to "make him a man." It was only another example of a disconnect between Tom and Samuel Meller that would only grow as the years went on.
Samuel did not leave home that night, but it was the first time that he gave it serious thought. Staring longingly at the homeless and the vagrants had been a child's imaginings. For the first time, Samuel began to think of leaving home as a concrete matter, a possibility that might become a reality. He looked out at those woods that night, those woods he knew so well, and he imagined an escape route. A mile deep was an abandoned set of tracks, they'd not been used since before the Civil War, but his grandfather, when Samuel was just a boy of five, had told him the tracks still lead to a station somewhere.
"That's the thing about tracks," the old man had said. "They always lead somewhere."
The old man had died only a year later, never living long enough to realize just how much he had affected his grandson's life. For much of his young life, Samuel's imagined escapes had always involved following the train tracks all the way past the Meller property line and down to somewhere better, bigger, wilder.
Samuel's ninth year turned out to be a very bad year for most people. The markets crashed and there were more vagrants than ever before coming through town, lounging at store fronts, and congregating wherever it was that they could find space to sleep and be safe from the rain. There were rumors that a whole mess of them had camped out in the south woods on the Meller property.
"Sure about that, Del?" Tom Meller had said while his son stood quietly behind him.
"Just telling you what I hear, Tom."
Young Samuel immediately thought of his view of the woods from his window. He imagined it as it was when the sun was going down behind the trees. At that time of day, any creature that stood at the treeline was seen in a defining silhouette. Samuel imagined masses of men standing at the treeline, looking longingly up at his window, his warm bed, and his free standing home.
"Thanks for the heads up, Del."
There was an argument between Samuel's parents that night.
"He's just a boy, Tom."
"Blynne, he's nearly a man. You want him to still be a boy, but that doesn't mean he is."
"You don't need him to go with you."
"No I don't. But he needs to come with me. He needs to learn what it is to deal with a problem like an adult."
Samuel found himself walking into the south wood with his father the following morning just after sunrise, as if they were going on a hunting trip. In a way, they were. Tom Meller had his shotgun over his shoulder with some extra shells in his bird pockets. They walked in silence at first, only the sound of their boots on the crinkling leaves and needles of the forest floor greeted them. It was too early yet for even the earliest of birds. It was not until they had been walking for an hour or more, miles into the woods, that they heard the first calls.
"Did I ever tell you how this land came into the family, Samuel?"
"It was a long time ago, and things were different."
Your great grandfather was playing cards with his neighbors on the very covered porch on which I nap on Sunday afternoons. At the time, it wasn't Meller land. It was owned by a negro by the name of Lancaster. Your grandfather was having a hell of a down day, nearly losing everything he had, and I don't just mean what he showed up with that day. He had lost just about everything he and his wife had ever owned. The later into the night they played, the worse the situation became for your grandfather. He saw he and his wife living on the street, begging for food or fare on a train that might take them somewhere else. As the evening faded into night, the negro who owned the land suggested that they call it a night, that they all go to bed.
"No, I don't think so," another man said, a friend of your grandfather's. "I think we ought to keep playing. We ain't quite finished yet."
This wasn't a request, son. You understand me? Samuel understood. The men kept playing and your grandfather began to win. He began to win every hand and the negro man began to lose every hand. Soon enough, the tables had turned and it was your grandfather who had everything, and the negro had lost everything, including his farm of more than a hundred acres on which we walk.
"Great grandpa stole this farm?"
"Yes he did."
"Are the...the other man's family still around?"
"He left town pretty quickly. He was liable to get lynched otherwise."
"Shouldn't we give the farm back then?"
"Of course we should, but who'd we give it to? There's no one come to claim it."
"Then why tell me that story?"
"I thought you ought to know, Samuel. That's all. I thought you ought to know."
Father and son walked deep into the south woods on the Meller land, making their way towards where the rumor mill suggested the hard luck vagrants were camping out. Samuel followed his father unquestioningly, although he knew without a doubt a better, faster way to get to where they were going. It was what counted as a valley on the relatively flat Meller land. It was at the bottom of a hill, and had once been a dumping ground for railroad junk. There were rail ties and other bits of twisted iron lying about, rusted to nought by years of exposure, but with no one willing to expend the effort to rid the woods of their presence. At the bottom of this hill among the railroad refuse was a group of ten or so ragged-looking men. A few smoked home-rolled cigarettes, some slept with their hats over their faces, still other rooted around in the dirt with sticks, unable to remain still for too long. Slowly, their tired, worn faces turned up to see Samuel and his father standing in their midst. The shotgun remained on Tom's shoulder, but its presence was felt. Some of the men stood up or pushed themselves up to sitting positions against their tree trunks. One man spit on the ground and chewed on a piece of dead sawgrass. Tom Meller spoke his piece with a dignity that aroused pride in Samuel's heart. Samuel was not often moved to feel anything towards his father, but this was a rare occasion where Tom showed himself to be more than just a hardened farmer, worn thin by years of labor and personal loss.
"Tom Meller's my name, and this is my son Samuel. This is my property you're on here."
A few men made as if to scurry, but Tom put his hand up to stop them.
"I'm not here to ask you to leave or to run you off. I'm here to offer you an opportunity. This land you're on isn't just woods. I've a farm that's doing well at the moment. In a few months time it'll be detasseling season and I'll need as much help as I can get. In the meantime, I can offer you my old barn as a roof over your head. It doesn't house any animals since three years past when I built the new barn, but it still smells like hell. There's holes in the roof and mud puddles tend to form in the middle. But there's lofts and I can provide hay and some blankets. Anyone here who wants to take me up on it will be welcome, provided he doesn't cause any trouble. I reckon you can find your own way. That's about all I've come to say. Come on, Samuel."
Tom lead his son by the hand back up the hill, and towards their home. Samuel was dying to ask more questions about the provenance of their farm, but it was clear that topic was finished for the day. It would be many years before Samuel was able to go down that path again.