I was a frightful sight lumbering across the field in milk boots, pajamas, and my husband’s filthy barn coat. My long auburn hair flailed wildly in the brisk April wind, slapping me in the face almost as wickedly as the neighbor’s early morning attack. A low, roaring rumble woke me long before I planned on climbing out of the warm quilts, but with Bernie gone only two months, I still couldn’t find the energy for living. Each day was just a painful, crippling disease running its course.
At first I thought a local farmer was preparing a nearby field for spring planting, but succumbing to curiosity, I forced myself to lift the shade and locate the source of the annoying racket. To my horror, a massive bulldozer viciously ripped away fence, trees, and dirt on the backside of our forty-acre farm.
“Damn that Miller,” I muttered, pulling my collar up to protect my ears from the chill and wishing I’d grabbed the warmth of a shotgun on my way out. “Who does he think he is?” My face flushed and rapid gasps of wheezing air escaping my chest, I finally reached the intruder, trembling with fury.
The unfeeling machine had stripped a thirty-foot wide path along the edge of the property, shoving a giant mound of earth into the corner of our beloved woods. Toppled trees, twisted wire, and broken posts protruded from the heap like the remains of a nuclear war or sci-fi horror movie. Lush blackberry bushes where the kids picked fruit for their mom’s summer cobblers were mere memories. The white oak where Bernie and I watched two baby coons play while picnicking fell victim to modern vanity. I clutched a dirt clod and heaved it toward the lump of worthless flesh responsible for the destruction of our beautiful farm, turned landfill.
Marlin Miller, a man with more cows than there appeared to be stars in the sky and a heart and brain combined that didn’t equal his ego, was surprised by the thud and splatter of broken clay against his seat. However, nothing prepared him for the appearance of an enraged woman in the thralls of grief.
Although he’d never actually spoken to me, Marlin determined by the icy stare and rigid stance I was not the soft-spoken, subservient housewife he assumed. My petite form pounced like a rabid dog before my prey could lower himself to the ground. “What do you think you’re doing destroying my property?” I ranted, almost spitting on the pile of blubber with mere slants for eyes.
“Whoa, slow down little lady. Bernie and I worked this out over a year ago. That fence is twenty-five years old. Hell, I was just a boy when Bernie and his dad put it up. I told him I wanted to replace it, and he said he would take care of the mess. Now that’s fair, isn’t it?” Miller shifted his weight like Jell-O, wiping the sweat from his forehead despite the cold, the cocky smile never leaving his wet lips.
“That’s pretty low, putting words in the mouth of a dead man. Bernie loved this land, and he would never allow someone to ruin it this way!” I was sobbing now and felt faint from the injustice of being a woman and alone.
“I swear to you that Bernie was okay with this, and the sheriff will tell you my word’s as good as gold. Hell, I’m doing you a favor. The fence I’m having put up this afternoon is the best there is,” he concluded, a satisfying smirk contorting his splotchy face. Everything on Miller’s sprawling 300-acre spread was the best there is, except Miller.
“You haven’t heard the last from me. I know you’re lying!” I stomped off, realizing the battle was hopeless but refusing to show it. I could have made more progress trying to stack BB’s during a tornado. The only thing more respected than a man’s word in these parts was his money, and Miller inherited plenty. A poor woman had little weight in the rural Midwest, but I refused to surrender my dignity as well.
The next morning a rusty, Chevy pickup missing a muffler barreled down Marlin Miller’s driveway, arousing him from his deep slumber. His trousers and gate hanging open, he watched as the kids and I loaded two of his best dairy cows and three beef calves into our stock trailer, cutting off their ear tags and throwing them in his driveway.
“Where in the hell are you taking my cows?” Miller yelled, jogging toward us, his gut sloshing up and down in rapid rhythm. I strolled up to the unlikely rancher with an outstretched hand, clothes and hair neatly tucked, and a genial smile that twinkled like sunlight reflecting on pond water.
“I’m sorry about yesterday, and I just want to thank you with all my heart for your neighborly generosity,” I cooed. My voice floated like melted butter.
Miller’s rage turned to bewilderment as I handed him a folded paper. “Bernie kept track of everything and I’ve been finding notes everywhere telling me how to do this and that, since I’m just a simple woman, you know. And lo and behold, when I looked in his farm files there was this letter telling me about your transaction, and how you agreed to give us four cows in trade for tearing up our property. And I must admit it is a beautiful fence. You can’t imagine how much this means to me just when I’d lost faith in humanity.”
I stopped long enough to catch my wind, but not long enough for Miller to find his. “Well, we have to get going. I have to get the kids off to school, and I know they’re starved, but thank you again, Marlin. I am truly blessed to have a neighbor like you.” I patted Miller’s arm, turned, and headed toward the truck, the sun shining softly on my blushing face.
“Hold on a minute,” Miller interrupted, reading the note and mumbling obscenities under his breath while following me to the truck.
Briar with his coy charm and eyes as blue as the spring sky, intercepted him, adding quickly. “Oh, you can take that note down to the bank and verify Dad’s signature if you’d like. A man’s word means a lot around here, Mr. Miller, and I’m certainly proud you kept yours. I know Dad would be too.” With that, we climbed into the rumbling old truck and waved goodbye. The dumbfounded cattleman was still shaking his head, but seemed to understand that an agreeable neighbor was more important than a few cows.
I watched our new stock of milk, meat, and hope graze contently in the pasture outside the kitchen window while I prepared breakfast. My sentinels, protective men disguised as mere boys, hugged me as I filled their plates. “I think we got a pretty good deal,” Josey claimed, clamping down on a biscuit like a snake on a frog.
“Most people come around when they’re no longer leading the rope,” I offered. “He can’t help his upbringin’. But I’d rather have my oak tree and blackberry bushes back.”
“Funny,” Briar chuckled and winked, “but I didn’t think Dad even had a filing cabinet, let alone ever kept notes about anything.” Like me, he didn’t miss much.
“Life is full of surprises,” I smiled, enjoying a moment more glorious than all the stars knowing how proud Bernie would be of us. “It’s an honest trade.”