The Great Pull
by L. Scott Miller of TN
“The Great Pull” is a fictional story based on a true event that happened to my great-grandfather, Sam Derifield, during the years of the Great Depression. However, the story does not include the portion that was my grandpa’s (Robert Derifield) favorite. He delighted in telling it often, always pointing out how smart and intuitive Reck was.
After Sam’s team had been laid off, he sent the non-working horse back home. During the course of Sam’s work tenure, he made arrangements to have his Model-A automobile brought to the work site. This caused a dilemma when he prepared to return home. He sent word for his farm hand to come and ride Reck home while he drove the car. After his farm hand had ridden three miles or so, he stopped and got off Reck. “Sam,” he said, “I just can’t stand to ride this horse all the way home.” Without a saddle, Reck’s bony backbone and pronounced trot made him almost unbearable to ride. Sam apprehensively took the reins and tied them behind the hames. “Reck, you know the way home,” Sam said as he clucked and smacked him on the rump. Reck picked up into a fast trot, but they soon passed him in their car as they headed home.
When Sam reached home he was greeted by his wife and children who all asked where Reck was. “He’ll be home directly,” he answered. My grandpa said that after supper his father paced about, apparently concerned about the welfare of his faithful friend, Reck. In the distance they heard the sound of horse hooves. As they looked down the wide hollow, they could see Reck leaning into the curve as if he were a race horse coming down the final stretch. Sam smiled and reached for his handkerchief and walked to the barn. My grandpa said it was one of the few times he ever saw his father shed a tear. Reck had traveled approximately eighteen miles. On his way home Reck had gone up and down hills, around curves and made at least five turns, both left and right. I can still see my grandpa smile as he would say, “Now ole Reck was a good ‘un!”
“Where do you want it, Jim?” “Take it on out the ridge and park it next to that big beech tree.” Sam moved his team of stout but rawboned horses at Jim’s instruction. Sam said, “Gee,” the voice command given to move his team to the right. As they neared the big beech, his coarse voice spoke, “Gee boys, gee,” and his team of horses moved to the right in obedience to their master’s voice. “Whoop,” he said and his horses came to a stop. Sam jumped off the ground sled carrying a load of long metal pipe. In a soft but firm voice he said, “sh-back, sh-back.” The team backed, and he unhooked the trace chains and buckled them on the breechin’ of their harness.
It was an early fall day and the weather was still warm. Sam reached for his handkerchief to wipe the beads of sweat dripping down from his face. Many of the local farmers had hired on to use their teams of horses and mules to haul pipe and equipment for the gas company. It was the first natural gas line to be run in this area. It seemed like an insurmountable challenge for the crews that forged through these Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio. Sam, as all of the local crew, was happy to have work. It gave him the opportunity to make some cash, which was a difficult thing to be had in these depression years. As one looked around at the brown sun-tanned faces, rippling muscles, and rough hands, it was not hard to know something of the life of hard work these men lived. They were so much part of the land it was almost difficult to tell where the earth stopped and the men started.
Sam picked up his lines and spoke to his team. “Haw, come around.” Instantly, the horses turned to their left and changed directions. “Any more loads today, Jim?” Sam shouted as he walked his team back toward the crew. Jim answered, “No, I think that’ll do us for today but hang around for a couple of minutes because I need to talk to you.” Sam drove his horses past the crew and stopped under the cool shade of a broad oak. He draped his driving lines over the hames and knelt down beside the big tree. He reached inside his overall pocket and brought out his pipe and a small leather bag of burley tobacco. He carefully loaded his pipe, tamped it with his pocket knife and lit it with a wooden match. A puff of smoke rose gently above his head, its figure changing shapes like a cloud as the wind carried it along. As he smoked he talked to his horses. Sam Derifield always had good horses. They were a heavy draft type horse crossed with a standard-bred or other hot-blooded breed. In his way of thinking these crossed horses had more fire and determination as well as were heavy enough to pull a load. When most horses would give up and stop, Sam’s horses would dig in pulling harder to come out with the load. These horses were a vital part of Sam’s life. They plowed and worked the one hundred and fifty acre hillside farm that produced his family’s hay, corn, and produce that was sold in town. When it was time to go to town or church, these same horses, either single or double, were hooked to the express wagon or buggy. Not only were these horses dependable workers, they were fast in a trot. Especially Reck, who was not only fast but stylish. Sam took great pride in him.
After giving instructions to his crew, Jim McMillan walked over to where Sam had stopped. Jim was the foreman of the labor crews and teamsters. He always had a cigar in his mouth, and his face was always red as a beet and more so when he was hot or excited. “How ya doin’, Jim?” Sam asked. Jim replied “Well, I’ve been better. I think this job’s a goin’ to kill me!” “Tell me what you have on your mind,” said Sam. In Jim’s low and gruff voice he said, “I hate to tell you this Sam, but I’m goin’ to hafta’ lay you off. We’ve ‘bout got all our pipe hauled and laid and my bosses told me to start layin’ off teamsters. You’re a darn good worker and a heck of a teamster, so I’ve tried to use you as long as I could. Now we’re out of work so I’m going to have to let you go.”
Sam looked down at the ground and took a draw from his pipe. “Law sakes, Jim, don’t you have anything else me and my team can do? I’ve been dependin’ on this money to help get us through these hard times and help pay us out on our farm.” Jim kicked the ground and spit the brown amber of tobacco juice from the cigar that he was nervously chewing on. “Sam, I only have one job I need to fill but it’s not for a team. It’s for a driver and one horse to pull the gas welder. To be honest, the welder sled is very heavy. I’m havin’ a rough time finding a horse that can pull it. They won’t let me hire a team because some of the places are too tight for two horses, and they just don’t want to pay the money for a team. Problem is, we’re goin’ up and down some pretty good hills. Do you think one of your horses can do it?” Sam, didn’t even look up and said, “Yes, sir. Where do you want me to have Reck in the morning?” Jim smiled and said, “Be at the bottom of the hill where they’re finishing up today.” He paused and then asked, “Do you think that horse’ll be able to pull that steep hill?” Sam nodded. He reached out his hand and said, “Thanks for the chance. I appreciate it.”
Sam picked up the lines to his team of horses, spoke to them, and headed back to the work camp where he, his brother Lawrence, and father-in-law Robert were staying. As he unharnessed his horses Lawrence and Robert walked up. “Well,” said Lawrence, “it purt’neer looks like our teams are outta’ work. Did ole Jim lay you off too?” Sam replied. “Naw, he’s keepin’ me and Reck to pull the welder.” “Well I’ll be!” said Lawrence. “Here they’ve laid off ‘bout all of the teamsters on this end of the line and you’re still workin’? My horses will pull as good as anybody’s! Now wonder why he didn’t pass that work my way?” Robert stepped in and in a reserved but stern voice said, “Now Lawrence, you ought a be glad that at least one of us gets to keep our horses in work. Besides, if any horse can take these hills with that load it’d be Reck.” “Well, are ya’ll headed home?” asked Sam. “No,” replied Robert. “They’ve hired Lawrence and me to work on the crew. That’ll give us several more good weeks of work. Hard times! Man needs all he can get right now.”
As it grew dark they finished feeding the horses and ate their dinner of biscuits, country ham and beans. The smell of wood smoke and the glowing embers of cook-fires dotted the camp. As the dew settled in the hollow, the sound of crickets filled the air like a great symphony. A whippoorwill called in the distance. “That’s a lonesome sound. Makes me wish I was back home,” said Lawrence. Robert spoke up as he stroked his broad, bushy white mustache, “Well, it won’t be long and that’s where we’ll be.” Sam didn’t say a word. He took a draw from his pipe and blew a cloud of smoke that took the form of round hoops that lazily floated up and vanished in the fog. As he sat in silence he thought of the job in front of him on the ‘morrow. Many a horse had tried to pull the welder but had not been able. He needed this job, and he sure hoped Reck could do it.
While it was still dark, a sound like the rumble of thunder broke the silence of morning as Sam poured ears of corn into the feed boxes. As the horses stood eating he gathered everything he would need for the day. As he finished he took out the small axe he always carried and skillfully pulled his file across its blade to sharpen its edge. When the horses had finished, he untied each one and led them to the nearby creek where they drank. As Reck stood drinking, Robert walked up and asked, “Did you get any sleep last night?” “Little restless I suppose,” said Sam. “Well, I reckon you might of had a little on your mind,” spoke Robert. “I don’t reckon I’d worry though. You know as well as I do that Reck might have to work at that load, but he’ll pull it. Remember the time that we were moving my corn crib? We had Lawrence’s big team and yours hooked up together but they couldn’t work together to pull it. I knew if he’d get outta’ your way your horses could pull it by themselves. And you know they did when I finally talked him into taking his out of the hitch. Boy, remember how mad he got as your horses dug in and moved that crib up the holler?” Sam nodded and they both laughed as the first light of day broke through the trees.
As Sam harnessed Reck he carefully checked each part of the harness. He took a strip of groundhog leather and patched a weak strap. As he finished putting the bridle on, he rubbed his large, rough hands over Reck’s face and ears. “I need you to come through for me today. Don’t let me down ole buddy.” Reck nodded as though he understood every word Sam had said. Sam hung the lines over the hames, clucked to him and started to the place where the day’s work would begin.
As they topped the hill Sam could see the large crew of men getting ready to go to work. The ground was wet with dew and a mist still hung in the hollow as the sun began to rise. As Sam neared the sled that carried the welder he could overhear the conversations between the men. “Don’t think he’ll be able to pull it with that horse,” one man said. “Naw, he’ll be lucky to get it started,” said another. Sam drove Reck in front of the sled and the bay colored horse instinctively backed up. “Whoop,” Sam said as he unhooked the trace chains from the breechin’. As he was hooking up, Lawrence and Robert moved through the crowd toward the sled. Robert caught Sam’s eye and gave a wink while Sam once again walked around Reck and checked his harness.
Jim McMillan walked up from behind and blew a puff of smoke from his freshly lit cigar. Almost without expression he said, “Go on Sam. I need to get these boys to work.” Sam nodded and spoke aloud. “This ones heavy Reck. You’re gonna have to get down to pull it.” As Sam clucked, Reck lunged and the sled began to move. Everybody in the crowd became silent and stopped to watch. Reck leaned forward and his front feet dug into the ground with the thunderous force of giant steam hammers. Reck was moving the welder up the hill with Sam closely behind, and every eye in camp was on both. Suddenly, a little over half way up the hill, Sam called to Reck. “Whoop!” Reck stopped and blew out great blasts of air in an effort to regain his wind.
Among the crew below a great mumble broke out. “Why in the world did he stop?” one man cried. “He’ll never get it started again on that steep hill,” said another. Immediately, Lawrence, an opportunist by nature, went into action. “Alright boys, who wants to bet me that he takes ‘er to the top?” Money and bets began exchanging and the previously quiet crowd became a flurry of activity. Meanwhile, Sam walked up talking to Reck and petted him on the head. As Reck stood blowing from the hard pull, Sam walked around checking the harness. He then took the small axe that he had sharpened that morning and walked into the woods. When he emerged he was carrying six hickory poles that were approximately four feet long and three inches in diameter. Sam appeared to be oblivious to all the activity in the hollow below as he placed the poles in front of the sled. The first pole went under the sled runners and the rest were in twelve-inch intervals at a right angle. When Sam had finished placing the poles, he spoke to Reck. “Are you ready ole boy? I reckon we better get on with it.”
Sam picked up his leather lines and clucked. “Gee, Reck!!” As Reck began to pull he turned to the right at Sam’s “gee” command. When he did, the sled slid across the hickory poles that Sam had placed for the runners and the load picked up momentum. “Haw, Reck!!!” and the horse moved back toward the left straightening out and heading to the top of the hill. As Reck dug in to pull, clods of dirt and a great cloud of dust rose from the well worn path. The world seemed to grind to a stop as it watched this strong-willed farm horse pull. As he neared the top a great cheer came from the crew at the bottom of the hill. Even naturally quiet and reserved men managed a yell or two and everyone clapped, cheering in approval. The whole scene took on the character of an ancient athlete who had just conquered the seemingly unconquerable. Robert laughed and slapped his knee in humor as Lawrence began collecting his winnings. “Lawrence, I told you he could do it! Ne’rry a doubt in my mind.”
At the top of the hill, Sam drove the welder to its destination. “Thanks buddy,” Sam said as he petted Reck’s sweaty neck. Sam unhooked and led him to the shade of a nearby tree. As Jim McMillan walked up he grinned and said, “Well, looks like you’ve got the job. Matter of fact, you also got the respect of all those boys at the bottom of the hill. With all that excitement and cheers you would a thought they had just seen a world champion boxing match.” Sam, who seemed to not even hear the crowd below, walked over to Jim. As he shook his hand he looked him in the eye. “Thanks for the work Jim.” Robert walked up with a twinkle in his eye and a grin that made his white mustache look like it stretched across his whole face. With a laugh he said, “Well, I reckon you and Reck showed ‘em it could be done. I tell you, I’ve enjoyed this more than anything.” As Jim relit his cigar he said, “ I reckon I better get these guys to work. When we need to move the welder, I’ll send word.”
Sam went about his work that day and every day after until the project was complete. Reck never faltered and kept the job that no other horse could do. Sam never spoke a word about the day of “the great pull” but Robert made up for his silence. He made sure everyone in the community knew. He told other teamsters, farmers, porch setters at the local general store, and relatives, which is how I came to know of “the great pull.” Even Lawrence spoke with pleasure of his brother’s success and how much money he had won on bets he took when Sam had stopped to let Reck catch his breath. “They didn’t realize that a man that knows what he’s doin’ has a purpose in all he does. Sam knew Reck well enough to know that he needed to stop. Yes, Sam knows the earth and he knows his horses. A man like that doesn’t need to brag. His work does it for him.”
About the Author: L. Scott Miller grew up in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. He now lives on a small farm in middle Tennessee with his wife, three children, two walking horses and team of Belgians, where they have raised burley tobacco, hay, and produce.