An Eerie Tale of the Prairie
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
“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
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