Wind blows cold across the barn lot as neighbor men herd cattle toward the stock trailer.
Charles Bradley, 94, owner of the farm north of Weston, climbs on a fence to make sure only the right calves jump inside.
“What do you say you want kept back, Charles?” one of the men yells.
“Three red ones, two black ones — heifers,” Charles yells back, his scuffed boots on the third board.
He’s glad to be up there. Glad to be out in the cold on a clear November day. Glad to still be messing with cattle on the 460-acre Platte County farm that’s been in his family since 1883.
He knows what some people think: He and Mary ought to move to town.
They got married in 1941. Mary is 93 now and suffers early dementia. He goes out every day, tending cattle or whatever, and she waits back in the warm kitchen for him to return and hang his hat where he washes up.
On a recent day, Mary chuckled at the notion of ever leaving.
“Lord, no,” she said at the kitchen table. “I’m a farmer’s wife.”
They met when they were just kids. She grew up on a farm a few hills over. She’s his girl.
“This is a very difficult time for my dad,” daughter Jo Norris said. “I think he misses talks with her. This is new to him — he’s finally learning to take help.”
Charles doesn’t think Mary would last in town — and he doesn’t want to quit farming. He’d rather watch clouds than TV. So he’s trying to keep them put as long as he can. He’s thankful, especially now, for the friends who help that happen.
“They do the things I can’t do anymore,” Charles said. “They make it so we can stay here.”
Like Mike Head, a retired neighbor who does a lot of odd jobs around the place. One night he came late to help Charles get Mary up after she’d fallen.
“Charles has never said he can’t handle her,” Head said. “But he needs a hand now and then.”
Tammy Prisner, a home health nurse, spends every day, Monday through Friday, at the Bradley farm.
“Other than Mary’s dementia, they’re good to go,” said Prisner, an Army wife whose husband works at Fort Leavenworth. “Their health’s good. Mary can mostly take care of herself. Every morning he goes out to deal with cattle or hay or whatever and she waits for him to come back in for lunch.
“Mary is always saying they’ve had a wonderful life.”
Others drop in too. A woman from the church calls regularly. And there are those men who help with the cattle.
“Oh, we do what we can,” Greg Jamison said. “But Charles is still a worker. Look at him out there. Most people his age can’t get a rocking chair started and he’s up on that fence making sure we do this right.”
Charles acknowledges, though, that he started slowing down some when he hit 90.
“But I can still climb up on a tractor, so I’m OK,” he said.
Not long ago a young woman showed up at the Bradley farm.
She was from Toronto and wanted to take some photographs.
Charles thought that odd. Why in the world would this stranger from another country want to take pictures of him and Mary?
Turns out he’s old. Some people think he may be the oldest farmer still working around Platte County.
The woman was taking part in the Missouri Photo Workshop held this year in Platte City, and somebody had told her about the Bradleys.
Charles doesn’t know if he’s the oldest farmer around. He just knows that as long as he can pull on his boots, he ought to get out and do some work. He hires his planting and harvesting done now, but he still works with hay and cattle.
“Farming’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said last week.
His great-grandfather bought the farm in 1883, and his parents moved there in 1907.
“I was born in this house on April 15, 1920 — that’s tax day if it’ll help you to remember,” he said. “It’s also the day I like to start planting corn.”
He shucked corn by hand as a boy and remembers square dances in the tobacco barn. He did his first plowing behind a horse. The family got a tractor in 1927 but still used a team after that.
When he was fairly young, his father bought a buck sheep from a place down the road. Charles rode along in the box wagon to pick it up.
That’s the day he first saw Mary.
He was smitten. They had never met because they went to different schools. They married and had two daughters, including one who lives in a house on the far side of the farm.
Over the years they raised cattle. They also had a milk cow, chickens and hogs. These days they grow corn and soybeans, but they had a long stretch of tobacco.
“I never used it,” Charles said. “That’s probably why I’m still here.”
The workshop photographer who came to visit? Her pictures from the Bradley farm appeared in The Washington Post.
Charles reaches for the cellphone racket coming from his overalls.
His greeting: “Hold on and I’ll pull over!”
Gravel cracks as the Chevy pickup rolls to a stop on the side of the country road in northern Platte County.
“Who’s this?” he asks loudly to whoever is on the other end.
He’d be the first to tell you there’s a perfectly good phone hanging on the wall back at the house and the only reason he carries the fancy one clipped to his overalls is Mary.
She or Prisner, the nurse, back at the house may need him. So he doesn’t get too far from home.
But then he never was much for killing time. Norris said her father never understood farmers going to town to drink coffee.
“He gets what he needs and goes back home,” she said. “He’s always got something to do.”
He’s tired at night. He comes in, cleans up, eats his supper and reads everything from Farm Journal to Dear Abby.
“He’s not much for TV unless maybe if Lawrence Welk is on,” Norris said.
Charles and Mary go to church most Sundays. They have a little schnauzer named Molly.
On this recent day, Charles left the main road and drove a dirt one cross-country toward his daughter’s house. The truck went through gates, splashed into a creek and passed cows grazing on a pond bank.
“I’ve never seen as much grass this green this time of year,” he said. “The cattle got more size than I’m used to because of all the good grass this summer.”
Now he’s hoping for a mild winter. But he’ll take whatever comes. The thing about farming is that no matter what kind of year you’ve had, there’s another spring coming.
Charles doesn’t know how long he and Mary can continue on the hill.
In a way, life is kind of like that old farm.
And as Norris said, “My dad knows where all the stumps are.”