Excerpted from The Beet Fields by Gary PaulsenCopyright © 2002 by Gary Paulsen. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The North Dakota sun came up late.
They were already in the beet fields and had taken up their hoes with the handles cut off so they could not be leaned upon to rest; had already eaten cold beans and slices of week-old bread from the metal pie pans nailed to the table to be hosed off between shifts of eaters; had already filled themselves on rusty water from the two-handled milk cans on the wagon at the end of the field; had already peed and taken a dump and scratched and spit and splashed cold water in their faces to drip down their necks.
Had done all of these after sleeping the short night on feed sacks in sleeping sheds near the barn; after they had come in to a new day, then the sun came up.
The Mexicans always outworked him.
They spread out at the south end of the sugar-beet fields and began to work, and the Mexicans always outworked him. At first he tried to understand how that could be. It was all so simple. They were to walk down the rows of beets and remove every other beet. The farmers--he always thought of them as the farmers--planted more seeds than they needed, to ensure proper germination, and the seeds all came up and had to be thinned to allow the beets to grow properly.
So they worked down the rows, cutting left and right, taking a beet, leaving a beet, and it did not seem possible that one person could do it that much faster than another, but always the Mexican men and women, and even children, outworked him. Even when he worked hard, hacked back and forth without looking, worked in a frenzy until his hands bled on the handle, he could not keep up. Their white shirts always drifted ahead of him, farther and farther out like white birds flying low, until they were so far ahead they were spots and then nothing.
Rows of beets a mile long. Left and right for a mile and then turn and start back, halfway up to meet the Mexicans coming back.
Eleven dollars an acre. Four rows to the acre, a half acre a day, all day the hoes cutting, left and right, the rows never ending, and even trying to catch up with the Mexicans was not enough to stop the boredom, nothing to stop the awful boredom of the beets.
The sun was hot when it came up late. There was no early-morning coolness, no relief. An early heat came with the first edge of the sun and by the time the sun was full up, he was cooking and looking for some relief. He tried hoeing with his left hand low, then his right hand, then leaning forward more, then less, but nothing helped. It was hot, getting hotter, and he straightened and spit and resettled the straw hat he had bought in Grafton. It had a piece of green plastic in the brim that looked cool but wasn't. He had bought the hat because all the Mexicans had them and he wanted to look like them, blend in with them in the field even though they were a rich dark color and he looked like white paper burned around the edges. But the hat did not seem to fit right and he kept readjusting it to get the sweatband broken in. It was the same with his hands. They did not break in. He had been working three days now, but blisters had rebroken and left pink skin that opened and bled. He bought leather gloves from the farmer who sold them the hoes. The farmer sold them hoes for three dollars and gloves for another two dollars and they had to pay a dollar a day for a sandwich and he had worked three days and had only hoed an acre. Not counting the hat, which he'd bought with money he'd found in his pockets when he ran, he had now earned eleven dollars, with three taken out for the hoe and three for sandwiches and two for the gloves and four and a half for three dinners, and fifty cents a night for three nights. After three days' work, he owed the farmer three dollars.
He did the math while he worked.
"I pay eleven dollars an acre," the farmer had told him. "You can hoe an acre a day easy--eleven dollars a day."
When he'd started hoeing he dreamt of wealth, did the math constantly until the numbers filled his mind. Eleven dollars an acre, an acre a day; after ten days a hundred and ten dollars, twenty days the almost-unheard-of sum of two hundred and twenty dollars. More than a man made per month working in a factory for a dollar an hour--and he was only sixteen. Rich. He would be rich.
But after the first day when his back would not straighten and his hands would not uncurl from the hoe handle and his blisters were bleeding, after all that and two-fifty for food, and three for the hoe, and fifty cents for the lodging, not to mention the hat and gloves, only a third of an acre had been thinned that first day, and he knew he would not get rich, would never be rich. By the second day he was no longer even sad about not being rich and laughed with the Mexicans who would also never be rich but who smiled and laughed all the time while they worked. Now, on the fourth day, gloved, he just hoed.
He worked hard, his head down, the hoe snaking left and right. An hour could have passed, a minute, a day, a year. He did not look up, kept working until it seemed it should be time for a break, and he stood and looked across the field to the north where the Mexicans were small white dots, moving farther ahead as he watched.
From the Paperback edition.