Photo by Richard Bell on Unsplash

“So, what makes us different?” Brenda asked.

“Communication,” Alan said. “God gave us two things he didn’t give to any other animal species — the ability to reason and the ability to communicate with others of our species.” Brenda and her brother, Alan were debating mankind’s place in the universe as they worked on their chores.

“You gonna tell me that Shake and Ivan can’t communicate?” Brenda answered. “You haven’t been paying attention. And you have even said yourself that sometimes you can see the wheels turning when Shake cocks his head and tries to figure something out.”

At the sound of his name, Shakespeare cocked his head and seemed to concentrate on the conversation — as if he were trying to understand what was being said. Ivanhoe, too, seemed to know that this conversation involved him, and his ears went up and his face turned toward Brenda. Brenda continued pulling clothes off of the clothesline.

“Yes, that dog… those dogs are special, all right,” Alan agreed as he gapped one of the new sparkplugs he had just bought for the grain truck. “Shake does seem to ‘reason…’ And Ivan is growing up to be just like him”

Alan turned to look at the two dogs which were now both looking intently at him. The two of them earned their keep by helping out on the farm — herding the sheep, driving the cattle between pastures, standing watch at night, and keeping the pigs in line.

Shakespeare was often able to perform simple tasks on command, like, “Shakespeare, go fetch the rope over by the wagon” or, “Go tell Alan that I need him. Go get Alan.” He was freakishly smart and usually understood exactly what was intended.

And then there were the chickens.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

The chickens, the way that Shakespeare saw it, often needed to be reminded that they were not to be taken seriously — that they were the butt of some cosmic joke. So Shakespeare made it his duty to periodically run at them and bark so that they understood their position in the pecking order. This he did mostly for fun and not from necessity. He took on this “chore” without being asked because it was great fun to hear them squawk and watch them scatter!

He and Ivanhoe were superior farm dogs and they, too, understood their place in the hierarchy as farm hands. But they also satisfied Brenda’s nurturing instinct, even with her father’s insistence that they were not pets.

“Those dogs are work animals, not pets! They have to earn their keep like everyone else on this farm,” Chet had admonished her. “We will not molly-coddle them like a couple of prima donnas!”

Brenda had replied, “Yes, Daddy,” with a slight southern drawl that she used when she was trying to cajole her father. She knew that she was the apple of Chet’s eye and used that knowledge to her advantage whenever she could.

Alan continued with his lecture as he kept changing the sparkplugs in the old GMC.

“No other animal has the ability to do that. If we squander that gift, then we are no different from any other… every other animal. Language… Precise language is damned important! Semantics are important.”

“I’m not sure why you think it is so important,” Brenda teased.

She admired her big brother’s intelligence and loved to have serious debates with him. But she would often get to the point in a discussion where it just became more fun to “push his buttons” than to arrive at a pleasant and meaningful conclusion. She couldn’t help herself.

Not seeing the twinkle in Brenda’s eye, Alan replied, “Because I believe that truth is important. If one can’t deduce truth from the words that one hears, then nothing else matters. How can you have a meaningful conversation with anyone if there are no agreed-upon rules of engagement… no agreed-upon definitions? You might as well be spitting into the wind.”

“Supper time!” Gracie called out the back door. “Brenda, go find your brothers and tell them that I am putting food on the table.”

“Ok, Momma. As soon as I get the last of the wash pulled in.” Then she added, “It sure smells good!”

At the dinner table, the twins, Bobby and Billy, were joking about the pranks they had pulled on the substitute teacher that day.

“Did you see how her face got all scrunched up? Like she had just taken a bite of a lemon?” Billy said, and they both laughed.

“She didn’t have a clue,” said Bobby, and again they laughed.

Just then Roger came through the front door, slightly out of breath.

“Sorry I’m late, Momma. Coach had us running extra laps because he was mad at the way that Jerry Abernathy was goofing off during practice.”

‘I’ll bet Jerry wasn’t too popular this evening, was he?”

“No, Momma. Jack, Boogie and I are going to ‘talk’ to him tomorrow,” Roger agreed, and he started to take his place at the table next to Billy.

Gracie stopped him. “Go find your father and tell him we’re eating,”

“He can find his way to the table on his own, Momma,” Roger replied and sat down.

At the other end of the table, Alan and Brenda were discussing a list of chores while they ate. The list was Brenda’s guess at what they needed to do before Chet was no longer with them.

“Where did you get the idea that we could get all of that done anytime soon?” Alan asked Brenda.

“Well, a lot of it was on your list, so I put it on my list. This list is stuff that was on your list as well as things that I had on mine. And besides, there’ll be three of us working on it.”

“More like two-and-a-half,” Alan corrected her then continued assessing the list, “I have two types of items on my list. One is for those things that are nice-to-have and the rest are for the things which we must get done,” Alan said matter-of-factly.

“The must-haves are the things that will have the biggest impact and make the most difference for Poppa before he…” Alan stopped short as he could see Chet entering the dining room out of the corner of his eye.

“Before he what?” Chet asked.

“Nothing, Poppa.”

“Before he dies? Is that what you were starting to say? No need to pussy-foot around it. I’m well aware that I am dying. The doctor told me as much.”

“Sorry, Poppa. I didn’t mean…”

“But it was precise,” Chet interrupted. “I heard you lecturing BB about precise language a while ago.” Then he softened his voice and said, “I do appreciate all that you two are doing.”

Chet never minced words. He believed, like Alan did, that truth was the most important thing in any conversation, even if it was hard to hear (and his failing health was hard to hear and hard to discuss). But he continued as if discussing the weather or the expected wheat yield.

“It’s going to be important that this place doesn’t become a burden for Momma. It’s too bad that your good-for-nothing brother doesn’t step up and help,” he said, half-joking, as he glanced in Roger’s direction. Roger looked up from his plate and shook his head.

“You never give me any credit, Poppa,” Roger complained. “I do a lot of things around here.”

“Oh, he does, Daddy,” Brenda lied. “He does lots of things that you just don’t notice. He’s done a lot to teach Billy and Bobby how to do their chores, like milking, feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, training the dogs, and…”

“Training the dogs?” Chet said in disbelief. “Those dogs don’t need training. What we need is for the dogs to train him!” Chet continued to rant and at first Roger didn’t say anything, but just continued shaking his head. Finally he had heard enough and he just snapped. “I can’t wait for you to be gone, Old Man!” Roger shouted, as he pushed back from the table and stomped out the back door.

Gracie had been listening and pretending to eat, but when she heard Roger’s outburst, she shouted, “Roger! You apologize to your father!” But Roger ignored her and continued out the door.

“When I’m gone,” Chet continued with a note of sarcasm, “I don’t want Momma to be cussing me out about the shape I left this place in. I don’t want her being sorry she married me. Thanks for all you’re doing, BB… Alan. I’m sorry that your brother is such a burden, and I’m sorry that my pain doesn’t allow me to do much anymore.

“And we don’t want her cussing us out, either,” Alan said with a wink and a forced chuckle, trying to break the tension in the room. “It’s like that little plaque you have hanging in the living room. ‘When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!’”

Chet smiled but Brenda just rolled her eyes.

“BB,” Chet asked, “are we still on for you to chauffer me around the homestead tomorrow?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

After helping Gracie with the dishes, Brenda went looking for Roger. She finally found him sitting in a dark corner of the hay barn. The barn was dark, but not so dark that she couldn’t see the tear stains on his cheeks.

“Why does he hate me, Bren?”

“He doesn’t hate you,” Brenda said softly, “He just expects a lot from you, and is disappointed that you’re not like…” She paused.

“Not like Alan? Nobody could be like Alan. He’s dang-near perfect. Sometimes I think he just tries to make me look bad.”

Brenda replied, “No, he’s not comparing you to Alan. It’s just that you remind him of his brother who died in Vietnam. “You were named after him, you know?”

Roger had heard stories about his uncle Roger who died in the war, but never realized that he was a constant reminder to his daddy that his brother never came home from the war.

“I’m sorry that I remind him of his brother,” Roger asserted, “but that’s not my fault!”

“No, it’s not.”

Early the next day, at Chet’s request, Brenda drove him around the farm. He wanted to see what kind of shape everything was in and to let her know what was important for her and her brothers to get done.

Alan was quite capable and Chet trusted him completely. But running the farm was not a job that could be handled by one person. Chet knew he could trust Alan to rise to any occasion, and he also knew that Brenda was smart and loved to prove that she was just as capable (in her words) “as any man.”

Roger was smart, but he had developed a reputation for cutting corners. Roger saw it as “working smarter,” but Chet saw it as being lazy, holding back, not giving 100%. That reputation had stuck with him. Even when he was working hard and doing a good job, everyone just assumed that he was gold-bricking.

Alan and Brenda were pretty much running the farm now, though Chet was orchestrating everything in the background. The two of them, with sporadic help from Roger, handled the farm chores and Gracie took care of the household.

Chet knew that the farm was running just fine now without him, but he didn’t trust his problematic son to carry his share of the load. As he and Brenda started the tour, Chet muttered to himself, “If Roger can’t, or won’t do his fair share, Gracie will have a heck-of-a-time keeping the homestead.” Brenda reassured him, “Don’t worry, Poppa. When the three of us are working together, it’s like a well-oiled machine.”

As Brenda drove Chet around the homestead, he would comment about things he noticed and make a note in the Big Chief tablet that he kept in the truck.

By the time they had gotten to the north pasture of 120 acres, he hadn’t made any comments that Brenda and Alan hadn’t already considered on their list of chores.

When they drove past the eastern field, Chet said, “Be sure to remind Alan that this field is studded with prairie dogs. Schultz lets them run wild on his place and that makes it hard for us to keep them under control. They don’t know that they are supposed to stay on Schultz’s side of the fence,” he chuckled.

“Anyway, we don’t want the cattle grazing there. Too much of a chance that one of them will step in a hole and break a leg.”

“Right, Daddy.”

”Roger’s actually done a fair job keeping those critters under control,” Chet continued, “but it’s only because it’s fun to plink the little shits. He doesn’t have a problem with the fun chores. But give him something hard or unpleasant and he…” Chet stopped mid-sentence. He decided that he didn’t need to complain to Brenda. She already knew.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

When they drove up to where the disc tiller was stranded, he asked Brenda to get out of the truck and go and inspect it up close to make sure that Roger had hooked it to the tractor like he had been told.

“Brenda-Brynne, go check and see if Roger hooked the disc up right,” he said, while sketching the correct configuration on the Big Chief pad. “It needs to look like this.” He tore the drawing off of the pad and handed it to her.

Brenda got out of the truck and strode over to the disc. As she waded through the knee-high foxtail and Johnson grasses, a covey of quail broke in front of her. It startled her and she paused for a second to regain her composure. Looking over her shoulder she could see Chet laughing. His laughter quickly degenerated into spasmodic coughing. It took him a couple of minutes to get it under control.

Continuing toward the disc, Brenda knew she wouldn’t be able to tell if it were hitched correctly or not. Chet’s sketch was no help at all. To her it looked like chicken scratchings since Chet no longer had a steady hand.

But she was not going to let Daddy go to his grave worrying about whether Roger was capable of working the farm properly; worrying whether the two older boys could maintain his legacy — whether they would value what he had valued, and properly care for everything he had worked so hard to accomplish on the 800 acres — everything that he was proud of — the fences they had built; the wells they had dug; the ponds and the windmills; the water troughs; the jerry-rigged irrigation; the wind-breaks he made from old cars…

When Brenda got close to the tractor and tiller, she acted like she was inspecting it. Because she knew that Chet was watching her, she walked all the way around the disc tiller and back again. Then after she had gone full-circle, she bent at the waist and appeared to be studying something. She looked at the tiller, then at the diagram. Then she looked at the tiller again.

The tiller was caked with dried mud, and Brenda couldn’t even see the apparatus she was suppose to inspect. But after an appropriate pause, she straightened up, turned toward Chet, and with a big smile on her face she gave him the “thumbs up.”

When Chet saw Brenda’s signal he nodded, smiled, and returned the gesture. He could rest easy now.

Retired technologist — eschewing cubicles; observer extraordinaire; perpetual student; philosopher; poet; essayist; advocate for nature and wilderness.

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