The first thing he registered was the smell. It was just after dawn and the sky was still streaked with pink but the scent of ripe wheat told him at once that he was home. Jim breathed in a lungful of air and looked towards the distant horizon, across the shafts of wheat waving in the breeze. He had stood here in this same spot the last time he saw the farm. Back then his beloved dog Swee'Pea had been beside him and it was still a few short hours until he would discover his fiancée, Alice, in the arms of his brother, Walt.
It felt like a lifetime ago, but it was only five years. No, it was a lifetime ago. The Jim who had stood here then was naive, hopeful, uncertain whether to join up to fight Hitler, torn between his duty to his country and his wish to see his wedding plans through. The Jim who stood here now was battle-worn, tired, old beyond his years. The war had chipped away at him, cutting out the softer parts, sculpting him down to the hard rock that was now at the core of him, turning him into a man whom, he believed, could no longer be shocked by anything.
He wanted to whistle for Swee’Pea but it was pointless. His mother had written to tell him when the dog died. He’d been sad for a moment or two but the feeling had passed. Having looked into the damaged face of his dead brother, and with men dying around him every day, there had been little space left to brood over a dog who had lived a long and happy life and he hadn’t seen in years. But now he would have given anything to have his old friend bound up to him, tail wagging, ready to follow in his footsteps wherever he went.
Jim pulled the grains off an ear of wheat, rubbing them between his fingers. It was a reflex action. A few more days until they’d be ready. He walked slowly along the perimeter of the field, breathing in the sweet, fresh smell of the crop. In front of him the ground dropped in a short, steep slope. Beyond, more fields stretched away, ending at a distant line of trees that marked the boundary of the farm. Jim stopped short, surprised to see that instead of another expanse of wheat the land lay fallow. Why hadn’t Pa planted the bottom acres?
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