Saturday, August 15, 2009

Broken Fences

When John got up before first light as he did every morning, he found the dog wide awake but quiet, sitting at the kitchen door. He knew something wasn’t quite right. Usually the dog would stay in the corner where she slept until after he had made the coffee, had his first cup, and made a move to start the morning chores. Whatever was bugging her, he figured, couldn’t be that bad or she would be making noise, itching to go outside. He gave it no further thought until he had his coffee in hand and stood at the kitchen window to watch for the first streaks of light over the hills to the east. He became aware of several large shapes moving slowly on the lawn. He gulped down his coffee, sputtering at the heat, slipped into his boots and spoke to the dog as he stepped outside.“Easy, Tess. Quiet. Heel, now.” The dog, even though it wanted to run at whatever was out there, stayed close. When John turned the corner of the house he saw what had disturbed the dog, what he hadn’t been able to identify with the bright kitchen light all around him. Three steers and a young heifer were grazing the lawn, slowly headed to Martha’s vegetable garden. He recognized them right away. They were part of his own herd, but should be out in the back pasture with the rest. He couldn’t see immediately how they had gotten here. At least they didn’t belong to a neighbor. Broken fences and loose cattle could strain most relationships to the limit. He was equally glad the animals hadn’t headed down the road and ended up crapping in Mrs. Williamson’s flowerbeds. This he could handle if the beasts didn’t do any damage to the garden. With the dog, he circled and got them moving away from the vegetable patch; he ordered the dog to hold them while he opened the gate that let them into the enclosed barnyard. They’d have to remain there until after breakfast when he had the time to drive them back into the pasture where they belonged. He’d also have to check the fences, find out how they had managed to get to where he found them.

When he returned to the house after morning chores, his women folk were filling the kitchen with chatter and activity. As he dug into his pile of pancakes and sausages, he listened with half an ear to the school adventures the girls were relating to Martha. Eleven and fifteen, they were. And both of them so chipper in the mornings. Bright and noisy as young birds. He smiled to himself. There were many people who began the day sullen and remote until they had made some adjustment. He was lucky to be blessed with these. Before they got ready to catch the bus, he told them how he’d found the young cattle on the lawn this morning. When he admitted that no damage had been done, the girls lost interest immediately. School promised more exciting people and things to deal with. Even Martha seemed to have more important things on her mind.

The dog was waiting for him outside, as if she knew that her assistance was needed. Tess. Susie, no, Suzanne as she insisted now, had for some strange reason named her after Saint Teresa but it had been shortened to Tess. A collie and setter cross, she was as much a working dog as she was a pet. The young cattle were clustered together in the barnyard. Tess held them in place while he opened the gate leading into the unfenced lane beside the cornfield. At his whistle, she moved toward them at an angle, slowly urging them forward. John walked carefully at the edge of the corn, watching for the slightest inclination from one of the animals to break away, but they reached the end without incident. He slipped ahead and opened the gate into the back pasture where they belonged, stood aside while Tess urged them through, and closed the gate behind them. The rest of the herd was not in sight, most likely in the low meadow beside the creek that flowed along the bottom of his acreage. Now to figure out how the animals had gotten to his yard.

The most direct way would be through the fence beside the road where a narrow strip of the pasture met it beside the Williamson’s line. Strange, because this was the newest part of his fencing. The section along Williamson’s field was older but in good repair. The poet who had written that good fences make good neighbors knew what he was talking about. John figured any trouble spot in his pasture fence would be back by the creek, but his animals would then have ended up in the next township. It would be best to check the piece fronting the road first, then the line shared with Williamson, and last of all the back fence beyond the woods.

With the dog at his side, he made his way along the edge of the corn field to the corner where it met the road. A single look down the fence line showed the problem. One of the wooden fence posts was broken and another leaned crazily toward the road. This had to be the place where the cattle had found their way out of the pasture. Had one of them leaned against a rotten post and broken it, recognized the attraction of a lowered and leaning fence with possible access to richer food? The ground here wasn’t so damp that rot could have set so quickly into the treated cedar posts. He’d have to check it more closely, make some sort of assessment to establish what he would need to repair the damage.

On the scene, he found a couple of signs that the break in the fence wasn’t the result of natural causes. The splintered base of the fence post showed no sign of weakness, no hint of decay. Whatever caused it to break must have been a considerable force. The fence itself had been stretched, some of it broken, and most of it pulled out of the post by the staples. It looked like a hard yank by a tractor or other powerful machine, caused by some person or persons unknown as the cop shows on TV would have it. What bothered John was that he couldn’t think of anyone who would want to deliberately destroy his fence. Granted that not everyone in the world was in love with him, he was sure that he had no enemies. And who would pull a stupid prank, one that was more an irritant than a cause of serious damage? What really bothered him was the fact that it must have happened during the night sometime and he had heard or seen nothing. Not that he patrolled his place or anything like that, but anyone who lives in the country becomes attuned to things that are not as usual. The tearing down of a fence at night is unusual and not exactly noiseless. He couldn’t remember unexplained noise or strange vehicles during the evening or night.

John propped up the post and pulled the fence into some semblance of temporary restoration. He’d have to go to town, pick up a new post at the lumberyard, borrow a fence stretcher. He still had some wire and staples. The ground seemed loose enough to dig the stump and set the new post by hand. It could have been worse. He and Tess walked the road back to the house.

He hollered in the back door to Martha that he had to go to town for some material and did she need anything. She assured him that she was fine and asked no question so he didn’t have to explain about the torn fence. He got the keys for the pick-up, told the dog to stay, and headed to town.

Miller’s Lumber didn’t have the post he needed but said they could order one, be here in two days, Saturday at the latest. He approved the arrangements and went back to his truck. Oh, yes. He should stop by the police station and report. Vandalism was a crime and perhaps it was part of a pattern even if the damage wasn’t much. The constable wasn’t in the office, out in the patrol car somewhere the girl on the desk told him. He left his name and address and the particulars of the incident with her. She assured him the officer would be by at his earliest convenience. On the drive home, John pushed the situation to the back of his mind and concentrated on the more mundane and immediate concerns of his daily life.

Sometime around two-thirty Constable Evans, a tall, young rangy man with a tangle of red hair under his cap showed up at the farm. Martha, at first worried, sent him down to the barn when she found out it had to do with a property damage report John had filed this morning. John and the constable walked up the road to where John had made the temporary repairs to the fence that morning. Evans carefully inspected the area and the fence.

“You heard or saw nothing?” John shook his head. “You doing anything that might impel some one to spy on you? Secret government contracts? Building missiles in your silo? Growing hybrid grains or illegal crops? A still?”

As the questions became more and more absurd and confusion became more and more evident on John’s face, Evans’ smile grew until he began to chuckle out loud. “The evidence, John,” he said, “points to just one thing. Kids in a car. Look at the way the grass is flattened here. That mark there in the loose soil comes from a tire. To prove it, see here. A small spot of oil on this broad leaf.”

“But the fence. Deliberate destruction?”

“I don’t think so. A part of the car, probably a bumper, hooked onto the fence when it was parked too close. Look here. There’s a small bit of paint on the fence post and a staple. Whoever was here has probably got a new scratch on his paint job.”

John inspected the miniscule flecks the constable pointed out.

“Kids, you say.”

“That would be my best guess. How old is your oldest daughter, John? Guess the boys could be sniffing around like dogs any time now. Do you want an investigation, lay charges if we find out who did it? Your choice, but my advice is to let it ride. If I happen to find out who it was for sure I’ll let you know and you can talk to the kids, the parents, whatever you want. I don’t think it was an intentional criminal act.”

John grunted. The two of them walked back to the house in silence. As he got into his cruiser, Evans put a hand on John’s shoulder. “I’ll let you know, but don’t expect much.” John watched him drive away. He decided not to say anything to Martha at this time even though she was probably wondering what the visit had been about but went back to the barn to continue the work that had been interrupted.

The whole thing about the loose cattle and the broken fence, the visit from the police, that the girls were not aware of, didn’t come up in any talk during supper or the rest of the evening. John had pretty well filed the incident way back in his mind. It was when they’d settled into bed before midnight that Martha asked him what the constable had wanted, whether it had anything to do with the cattle being loose this morning.

He sighed as he stretched out on his back. “That Evans is a pretty smart cookie. He persuaded me that it was some kids and most likely accidental, that they busted the fence when they tried to turn their car around down the road apiece. We decided to let it go, for now. No real harm done. More a nuisance than anything.” He said nothing about the suspicion that had been raised, that maybe the house was under surveillance. Martha took his hand in hers.

After a moment or two of comfortable silence the direction of the conversation changed radically.

“John? I think our girls are growing up. Ellie let out that there’s a rumor going around at school that some boy really likes our Susanne. I understand her friends have been teasing her about him because he goes out of his way to walk close to her, say hello to her. Ellie says he even sat next to her at the most recent assembly. Susanne hasn’t said anything to me about it and I don’t want to question either of the girls while things still seem to be in an innocent stage. Right now, I’m not concerned but I think we both should be aware.”

“Teenage girls. The boys go crazy about them.” At first he smiled in the dark, but then his face tightened when he heard the echo of his own word. Crazy. No. Young and foolish, unthinking maybe, but not insane, obsessed. He couldn’t believe that. Then he remembered an escapade from his own youth.

The hot piece of gossip among the girls at high school that spring was that Christine, what was her last name? Cook, that was it, that she had bragged to her girl friends that she slept in the nude. John had overheard it accidentally and his first thought was to find out if it was true. For several days in the late evenings he hung around the place where she lived until he found out which room was hers, but never saw anything. If she stripped to the buff, she did it behind closed curtains and without even a shadow to tease a watcher.

After a short time, he sort of gave up on his quest, as he considered it in his own mind. The impossible dream. Still, every time he passed her place he would slow down and look up at her window. One warm evening in early June he got lucky. Her bedroom light went out just as he was passing and he stopped beside a hedge at a neighbor’s house. In a minute or so the bedroom curtain was pushed to the side, the window was opened to let in the fresh air, and there she was. Christine naked in all her glory, leaning out with her face to the starlit sky, the light from a street lamp reflecting from her breasts. John held his breath, praying that the moment would last, that she wouldn’t see him standing there gawking like a pervert. She couldn’t have been there long before she drew back inside, left the window open an inch or two, and pulled the curtain again. John could still see in his mind’s eye that tableau. Christine’s face turned to the sky, her throat stretched taut, shoulders pushed back, and those wonderful breasts pushed out naked and pale in the light.

He should have kept it to himself. Somehow he had bragged to a friend about what he had seen. His friend, of course, claimed not to believe him but the word had spread and it became a secret mission for a bunch of the guys to see Christine Cook naked. They began to hang around her house in twos or threes hoping for a glimpse until Mr. Cook complained to the police about prowlers. Even that didn’t stop the secretive excursions although a girlfriend warned Christine what was going on. The game wasn’t really over until her father one night took his shotgun and fired a couple of blasts in the back yard. Sure, he had some trouble with the police over that, they were not impressed with his claim of protecting his home, but the boys stopped hanging around in the late evening. Christine Cook, John smiled to himself. I wonder what ever happened to you. If he remembered rightly, the family moved away not long after that.

And now he was the one with the teenage girl and the boys hanging around at night. He looked over toward Martha but she had fallen asleep. He’d have to talk to her in the morning. What goes around comes around. He hoped Martha could impress on Susie how to deal with young lads sneaking around at night. It could be foolish innocence but it could also mean trouble.

On Saturday afternoon the whole family went to town, doing the shopping or, in the case of the girls, hanging out with some of their friends from school. John himself stopped by the lumberyard to pick up the new fence post, then to the feed store for some starter feed. While there he joined the group of men talking politics and other local matters. There was no mention of crime and he didn’t think his fence was important enough to warrant telling others to keep an eye out. When the group began to break up, he began to wander over to the restaurant where they were all to meet for supper before going home.
He noticed Susanne with a mixed group of boys and girls at the A&W drive-in, giggling and carrying on. The only one not seeming to enjoy himself was a young man who could be the owner of the blue Dodge they were gathered around. A few things began to slip into place in John’s mind. He waved to catch Susanne’s eye, and in a minute she broke away from the group to join him.

“That looks like a nice car there. Who owns it?” John kept the tone in his voice casual, unwilling to cause his daughter to become suspicious.

“Jimmy Macalone. Him and his brother fixed it up and got it painted. Boy, is he pissed!” Her hand quickly covered her mouth. “Sorry, Dad. But he is really angry. He found this scratch on the back fender near the bumper.”

“Jimmy Macalone.” He knew the Macalones, they were good people. It lightened his burden somewhat. “Is he the boy who’s got a crush on you?”

“Dad!” Her eyes flashed in a mixture of anger and surprise. “What gives you that idea? He’s just a guy from school, we all hang out together. You know.”

“Sure.” He wanted to gather her in his arms, hold her close and safe, but this was not the time or place. Perhaps that time might never come again. They walked side by side toward the restaurant, each with his own thoughts, in silence.