Old Tam Harker gripped the wheel as the rusty pickup clattered and banged along the rutted gravel road, leaving a trail of billowing dust and blue smoke as it jounced toward Oakville. Beside him on the ripped vinyl seat of the '94 Chevy, his son Zed stared moodily out at the passing scrub oak and salal brush. It was a fine morning on the Oregon coast, with just enough time between rain storms to let the sun shine down from a bright blue sky.
Zed told himself that he should be doing the driving. He could of made the run into town without Pa easy enough. They were just going in to pick up a few sacks of chicken feed, but that was the rule: Harkers didn't go into town by themselves. Nor no place else, neither. Not even forty‑year‑old Harkers. That was just the way it was, the way it always had been; nobody went off by themselves. Harkers lived together, worked together and prayed together. He'd been doing it all his life, but sometimes it was still a pain in the butt.
Harkers taught their own kids what little reading and writing and arithmetic they needed, and they always kept to themselves. They raised chickens and pigs and a few cows for milk, plowed their rocky fields with horses and mules, and only bought what few things they couldn't raise on the Harker ranch.
Not that they could afford to buy all that much anyhow. Citizen's Basic would only stretch to cover just that, basics, but Harkers raised just about all they really needed. Last summer had been extra dry, so now he and Pa were headed in to town. They would pick up a few sacks of feed to tide the chickens and pigs over until harvest time, and then head right back...
Zed's train of thought jarred to a halt as the pickup's front wheel bounced off a boulder that had rolled down off the hillside into the left‑hand rut. He grabbed for the door handle with his right hand, his crippled left hand with its missing fingers braced against the seat as Old Tam wrestled the balky vehicle back into line.
"Hey, take it easy on Old Betsy," he cautioned his father. "You sure you don't want me to drive?"
"You just keep your trap shut, boy!" Tam glared at his son through age‑faded blue eyes, then turned back to squint at the road. "Just 'cause I'm nigh onto eighty years old, it don't mean I cain't drive Old Betsy as well as I ever could."
The unspoken words, " ... and I'm still man enough to whup your ass, and don't you forget it!" hung in the air between them. Zed lurched back against the seat with a grunt as Tam hit another bump. When Pa took the bit in his teeth, there wasn't no arguing with him. Anyhow, Oakville was right up ahead by now as they finally came to where the paving started.
The pickup's hood, loosely anchored with a couple of lengths of baling wire, settled back down into place once they were on blacktop, the rest of the pickup's clatters and clangs covered by the roar from the rusty muffler. Worn brakes squealed as they came to a shuddering stop in front of Fenton's, Oakville's only feed store. Zed hopped out, carefully fastening the pickup's door shut behind him with another twist of the always‑useful baling wire.
"Well, come on," Zed snarled. "What're you waiting for, the Second Coming?"
Zed kept the scowl off his face as he followed Tam into the store, standing back and keeping his mouth shut as the old man argued with Mr. Fenton over the price of chicken feed. Grumbling, Tam pulled out a wad of Basic coupons and carefully counted them out on the rough wooden counter, topping them off with a couple of worn dollar bills.
"There, take your danged gov'ment coupons. You still keep your feed in the same place?"
"Around back, yeah," answered Mr. Fenton, not impressed by the old man's anger. He'd had plenty of years to get used to it, Zed thought as he followed Tam out the door and around to the back of the sagging wooden building. Mr. Fenton must be about as old as Pa, even if he didn't look nowheres near it. By the time they got there, Mr. Fenton had wrestled out a stack of bulging feed sacks for them. He didn't offer to give them a hand, just watched sourly as his customers began packing the bags around to their pickup.
About the third trip around to the back of the store, Zed thought about telling Pa he should've driven the pickup around to where the loading dock was, but he kept his mouth shut and swung another feed sack up to rest on his shoulder. His brother Mervyn could carry two sacks at once, but Zed's hand wouldn't take that much weight.
Anyhow, the last time he'd tried telling Pa something he'd been sent to bed without his supper like he was still a kid, instead of a forty‑year‑old man. He'd be glad in a few more weeks when cousin Ellie was old enough for him to marry, like he'd been promised for the last five years and more. His first wife, Mary Beth had passed on to her reward nigh onto ten years ago. Once he married he'd have his own cabin again, and it was about time. Ellie was about husband‑high, just going on fifteen, and she had the cutest little...
"Pa! What's wrong?" Zed dropped his feed sack, not caring that it split and spewed cracked grain all over the dirt alley alongside the feed store. Old Tam was down on his face, a ruptured feed sack draped across his back. He was about halfway between the store and the pickup, and he wasn't moving! "Mr. Fenton! Something's happened to Pa!"
Zed rolled the feed sack off of Pa's shoulders, turning him over on his back. Tam's eyes fluttered open and he gazed up at his son with a confused expression on his whiskered face.
"Hurts." He gasped for breath, reaching across his body with his right hand to grip his left shoulder. "Hurts like ... Lemme up."
Zed held him down, not that it took much force. Tam was too weak to shake off his son's grip, and he stopped trying as another spasm of pain made him wince.
"Mr. Fenton?" Zed twisted his neck to look over his shoulder.
"I already called the medics. They should be here in about fifteen minutes. Takes about that long for the rescue copter to get here from Currin County Hospital."
"You shouldn't of done that," Zed reproached him. "You know us Harkers don't go to hospitals."
"He'll go, or he'll die," the storekeeper told Zed bluntly. "He's had a heart attack, and it looks like a bad one. Just keep him quiet until the medics get here, and maybe he'll make it yet."
Tam's lips were blue, and he didn't seem to be any too aware of what was going on around him. Zed folded up the near‑empty feed sack to put under his head, mopping the sweat from his father's brow with the tail of his own shirt. It seemed like forever before he heard the heavy throbbing of helicopter blades, dust swirling and buffeting him as the craft settled down in the middle of the intersection with Highway 101, half a block away.
Old Tam passed out cold as he was bundled into the waiting helicopter. Out cold, or ... No! Zed didn't want to think about it. His Pa had been the driving force in the Harker community since long before Zed had been born. He started to climb into the helicopter at a medic's invitation, then backed off, shaking his head. It was the first time he'd ever been this close to one of these Devil's contraptions, and he wasn't about to go up in that thing, no way!
"I'll drive my pickup, so I'll have it there when I'm ready to come back." He mumbled the words in answer to their invitation, not sure just how much of his excuse was the truth.
He had plenty of time to think, all by himself in the pickup as he rattled north along the coast highway toward Port Morton, where the county hospital was. He kept his speed down, his thoughts churning in a dozen different directions as he drove. Not that the pickup's Oregon license plate tags weren't up to date, but this was no time to get stopped for speeding. Old Tam always insisted that such‑like rules had to be followed, if only to keep the government off their backs as much as they could. What if Pa did die? Zed was the oldest son, but he'd never been allowed to make any decisions for himself. Now, well just maybe he'd have to. Anyhow, somebody had to and it might as well be him!
But what if Pa didn't die? Well anyhow, he wouldn't live forever, but this just might slow him down a mite and someday Zed would still have to take over. Funny, the more he thought about it the better he liked the taste of ideas he wouldn't even have dared to think about if he hadn't been all by himself.
By the time he got to the hospital, Pa was undressed, gowned, and propped up in a hospital bed. They'd even shaved him! They must have done that while he was still unconscious, he'd never of let them do it to him otherwise. There were tubes in his arms, and another tube of clear plastic from a dingus fastened to his nose. His eyes were half‑closed so that he looked kind of sleepy, but he wasn't too far out of it to miss Zed's entrance.
"About time you got here, boy," he rasped, heaving himself to a sitting position. "Get me outa here, right now! Rustle up my clothes, and..."
"Now, Mr. Harker." The doctor who bustled in from the hall might have only been about Zed's age, but he wasn't about to take any nonsense from his patient. "You're going to be in here for about a week or ten days, depending on how well you respond to our treatments. Your heart had stopped when the helicopter brought you in. I explained it all to you after we revived you, but I don't suppose that you were in much of any shape to listen at the time. Now that your son is here, I'll go over it again for both of you." He turned to Zed. "I'm Dr. Benton, and you must be his son, Zed Harker."
"I heard what you said," Tam growled before Zed could answer. "It just didn't make much sense to me. Some crazy stuff about little machines what you shot into me. Nanny‑whatzits."
"They've got a fancy name," Dr. Benton agreed, "but most of us just call them nanobots. The first ones we injected were the type known as nano‑rooters. Right now they are scavenging through your blood vessels, cleaning out cholesterol deposits and strengthening weak spots in your veins and arteries. When they've done their work, we will inject second stage models which will take over from there, performing general repairs to your heart as well as the rest of your body. As soon as they've done their work, you'll be able to go home."
"But I don't want your nano‑dinguses," Tam protested weakly. "I just want you to lemme out of here!"
"You don't have any choice. You weren't conscious when we signed you in to the hospital, and under Citizen's Basic Medical Rights that gives us the authority to treat you. Now just relax. I'll have the nurse give you another shot if you're still in any pain."
Zed drove back to Oakville in the old pickup, still all by himself, his head still awhirl with new thoughts. He loaded the rest of the chicken feed from Fenton's loading dock, absently thanking the storekeeper for replacing the two bags that had been spilled. Then he drove slowly, still alone, back to Harker Ranch.
"Whatcha mean, Pa ain't coming back?" Mervyn's slack jaw worked slowly, as if he was chewing Zed's words to extract their meaning.
"Not right away. He's in the hospital, over to Port Morton," Zed repeated patiently, raising his voice over the uproar caused by his announcement. His younger brother Mervyn might not be quite as strong as an ox, but then he didn't have nowhere near the brains of one, neither. "He's had him a heart attack, a pretty bad one, and he's going to be in there for a week or more. I'm taking charge while he's gone, but you all know what you should be doing so that shouldn't be no problem."
"But what're we gonna do about the south pasture?" Whiney‑voiced Uncle Charley elbowed his bald head and skinny frame to the front of the milling crowd of Harkers. "Your Pa was gonna decide if we was plowing it up or not."
"It can wait a week, and if he ain't back by then I'll just hafta decide for him." Zed pushed his way past the crowd of gaping, chattering relatives until he stood on the porch of the rickety building that housed the immediate members of the Harker clan. He wasn't about to tell them that Old Tam had actually died on the way to the hospital and been brought back to life. He wasn't sure that even he was ready to digest that one yet. "Mervyn, you unload them sacks of feed and stack them inside the barn. We can talk this over some more after prayer meeting this evening."
There weren't all that many decisions to make, Zed decided after his first week of running the ranch. Get up in the morning, pray, eat breakfast, go to work in the fields, pray, eat lunch, work some more in the fields or doing whatever needed doing around the ranch, pray, eat supper, lounge around and talk a while, pray, and go to bed. The only decision that loomed in front of him right now was what to do about the south pasture.
"Yore Pa still ain't back here," Uncle Charley whined, the early morning sun glinting off his bald pate. "It's dry enough to plow right now, and we ain't gonna have time to plant nothing if we wait too much longer."