An Eerie Tale of the Prairie

                     By Tom Word


Old Art Cave died that winter—froze in a blizzard when his pickup wouldn’t start.  He’d gone out to check on twenty heifers in a pasture a mile from his 1915 Sears and Roebuck house.  His son and partner Brian found him next morning.  Art had started to walk home and perished in the whiteout.  Because he was eighty and thin, he had not lasted long.  His cell phone had failed him, its battery run down because he’d forgotten to charge it, thanks to the dementia that had begun to overtake him.  
Art was the son of a Norwegian homesteader.  He’d been the last of nine children, and the only one not to leave the land of his birth.  When his father died in 1960, he’d bought out his siblings’ interests in two sections of grass and cropland on the northern slope of the continental divide near the medicine line.  His father had cobbled the acres together by buying out discouraged fellow homesteaders or their children, during and after the Dirty Thirties.  The only other homesteader-family still around was that of Bill Leach who owned his grandfather’s quarter section adjoining Art’s land.  Bill was forty, five years younger than Brian.  Bill and Brian were only children and best friends.
Brian had farmed with his father since coming home from the University of North Dakota.  In addition to Art’s land, they rented land around them.  Bill, whose parents were long dead, kept a few cows on his quarter section, rented its hundred acres of cropland to Art and Brian for wheat and sunflowers.  Bill worked as a maintenance man for an oil well servicing outfit, but spent his vacation time and weekends helping Art and Brian with their farming—plowing, planting, haying, harvesting, and working cattle.
I’d met Art Cave ten years before when I’d come from my native Virginia to judge a bird-dog field trial, bringing along my two Missouri Fox Trotters and four bird dogs.  I’d planned to stay over a couple of weeks after the trial to work my dogs and shoot a few pheasants and sharp tails, plus pothole ducks early and late in the day.  The club sponsoring the trial had suggested I call Art about staying at his place—he had a small vacant house that had once housed a farmhand, gone now thanks to bigger tractors and combines.
Art, Brian, and Bill had become my friends that fall, an idyllic three weeks when I’d fallen in love with North Dakota (at least the September-October version).  The bird crop had been spectacular.  I’d had a derby (two-year-old) pointer that turned out precocious.  After that visit, I planned my year to have those same three weeks in North Dakota and away from my law practice.
* * *
When I made it in mid-September, the fall after Art’s death, I sensed something was wrong.  By tradition on the night of my arrival, I took Art, Brian, his wife Millie, Bill, and his wife Annie out to supper.  When I’d settled my horses and dogs and gone to pick up Brian and Millie, they had three glasses and ice out in the kitchen for a presupper drink.  (I always brought the whiskey).  I asked were Bill and Annie joining us or were we picking them up.  My question was met by silence.  Then Brian said, “We don’t see them any more.”  Something told me not to ask why.  Early next morning, I drove over to Bill’s house.  Annie invited me in for coffee—Bill had already left on his maintenance route.
“Annie, what’s going on between Brian and Bill?” I asked as she filled my mug.
“You’ll have to ask Bill about that,” she answered.  Her expression made it clear she didn't want to talk about it.
I drove around the rest of the morning, calling on neighbors whose lands I’d be working dogs on and delivering jars of preserves my wife had put up. I sensed they knew of the Brian-Bill estrangement, but didn’t want to talk to me about it, likely for fear of being thought gossips.  For the same reason, I didn’t bring up the subject.  In the afternoon, as I worked my dogs from horseback, I realized I’d need to find someone to tell me the story.  Maybe that someone would be Mollie Miller, who kept the saloon in Lignite, the closest crossroads to the Cave and Leach holdings.
Mollie was a salty old doll of seventy who could curse with the roughest of the farmers, ranchers, and oil-well workers holding on in that harsh country.  “I haven’t got a clue—they won’t neither one talk about it, and neither will their wives.  All I know is it happened the week they buried old Art.  They ain’t spoke since, and if one of ‘em’s in here, the other won’t come in.”  I knew that was awkward, for Brian and Bill had a long-standing habit of stopping in Mollie’s saloon for a beer and the news at the end of each day.
I always took Brian and Bill and their ladies to dinner on Saturday nights.  This year I decided to invite the Caves out Saturdays and the Leaches out Sundays.  On my last day in Dakota, I took Bill to fish on Lake Sacagawea, an annual outing that in Art’s time the four of us males had enjoyed together.  After two hours without a bite, I asked, “Bill, what’s happened between you and Brian?”
We sat in the rented boat, feeling the fleeting warmth of the late fall sun on our backs.  It was a rare day, sunny without wind.
“I haven’t told no body except Annie.  Can you keep it just between us if I tell you?”
Of course I said yes, that as a lawyer I kept many folk’s secrets.  Then Bill unburdened himself.
“The week before Art died, he came to see me.  Said he knew he was losing his memory and that he had something to tell me before he forgot.
“What Art told me was that he was my father.  Said he and my mother had loved one another many years, but only succumbed to it once, and I was the result.  Said he was going to change his will and leave me half of his place.
“I was dumbfounded, but I knew it was true.  I’d always noticed Art and I had ears alike.”
(That was true—both had slightly over-large and hairy ears that stuck out from their heads a bit like Howdy Doody.  I tried not to smile, but I couldn’t help smiling, and thankfully Bill didn’t mind.)
“The day after Art was buried, I went over to talk to Brian about what Art had told me.  I figured Art had told him too and changed his will like he said he was going to.  Turned out Art hadn’t done either.  Brian thought I was working a scam to get half his land.
“Then I checked with Art’s lawyer, and he said yes, he’d drafted a new will for Art that would leave half the land to me.  Art had an appointment to come in and sign it, but apparently he forgot.  The lawyer was going to call Art to remind him the day after he froze—least that’s what he told me.  I asked him to call Brian and tell him, but he said he couldn’t do that—would be revealing a client confidence against the rules of lawyer ethics.  I asked him how come he’d told me about the new will, and he said he’d hesitated to do it, but thought maybe I had a lawsuit and needed to know.”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could think to say.
* * *
All the way home to Virginia, I thought about this strange story.  Then I put it out of my mind until the following summer when I began to plan my fall trip to North Dakota.  When I called Brian the first of July, Millie answered.  She seemed very cheerful, said she and Brian were looking forward to my visit.  I hesitated, then asked, “How are things between Brian and Bill?”
She laughed.  “You won’t believe this, but Bill now owns half of Art’s land, and Brian and Bill are best friends again.”
“How did that happen?” I asked.
“It’s a long, strange story.”  Millie began.  “Bill had come to Brian the day after Art’s funeral and said Art had told him he was Bill’s father and was going to change his will and give Bill half his land.  Brian thought Bill was pulling a scam, but Art’s lawyer finally confirmed to Brian that Art had, in fact, asked for a new will acknowledging Bill as his son and leaving him half the land.  Brian’s conscience got to him, and he decided that if DNA proved Bill was Art’s son, he’d give Bill half the land.  Well, the DNA test confirmed it, but Brian had his own DNA tested too, and it proved Bill’s mother’s husband was Brian’s father.  So Brian and Bill are not brothers, but they’re friends again, and that matters more.  
“How are they farming the land?” I asked.
“As partners.  Bill had always wanted to quit his job with the oil-well service company.”
 “What’s going to happen to the land in the next generation?” I asked, knowing it was none of my business.
“It’s going to go to Robert, of course,” Millie said.  Bill and Annie were childless, and Robert, Brian and Millie’s son and a student at UND, was the apple of both couple’s eyes.
“How come Brian got his DNA tested?” I had to ask.
“Because he realized he didn’t have ears like Art,” Millie answered with a laugh in her voice.
When, at the end of August, I lit out for North Dakota in my pickup, pulling a trailer with two horses and a half dozen bird dogs, I knew it was going to be my best Dakota trip ever.
(Dear readers, please forgive me the pun in the title of this tall tale).