by Marie Martin
A couple of years ago Claudette Young gave a talk to Montana Women Writers about putting light on your writing. “Let your words shine,” she said. I try to remember that with each story I write. The following is the beginning of a new one placed in Montana on a farm in a valley.
Tuesday May 20, 1952
Out across the pasture, a line of western spruce and black cottonwood followed the banks of Trumbull Creek like putting an edge to her land. Stop here, go no farther. Stay on your side and don’t venture onto the grouchy neighbor’s place. Brenda Kay Farley never understood his unfriendliness, but wasn’t overly concerned about it. Folks she liked could come for a spur of the moment visit. Unexpected stopovers by a bad-tempered old man left her frazzled.
Someone walked around the thick trunk of a Ponderosa pine, bushed past ground willows and marched into her field of potatoes. He’d better not flatten any of the young shoots with his big old boots. By now she could tell from the set of the hunched shoulders and arthritic limp, the cranky neighbor headed her way to bitch about something. Wouldn’t do the old geezer any good. Her kids stayed away from his place because she threatened them with dire punishment if she had one more complaint about them playing on his land, chasing his pigs or trying to ride one of his calves.
Before Mr. Ladenburg got as far as the gate on the pasture, two of the farm dogs ran forward barking as if Lucifer himself was crossing their ground. Brenda frowned. Charlie usually led the pack of three black and brown dogs, who guarded the place better than humans could, but he hadn’t come charging with his growl that made most people stop and stand still.
Just before Mr. Ladenburg reached the first step, Brenda brushed her overlong bangs out of her eyes and stepped out on the front porch, prepared to defend whichever child he came to complaint about.
His strong jaw held a week’s worth of spiky white whiskers, and his watery eyes held a tired look, like he had overslept. “Mrs. Farley, the body of a boy was just pulled from the creek. He was stuck in the culvert on Hodgson Road. His dog was dead too. The boy was still holding onto the leash.”
Brenda just stared at him. Couldn’t have said a word if she wanted to.
“I just thought you should know.” He turned to leave, then turned back. “They’re still cleaning out the culvert. It’s plum full of branches, but they figure something else is plugging it. Creek’s spilling all over its banks and spreading across your pasture.”
Brenda shook her head. “I’m sorry to hear about the boy. Sorry about his dog, too.” Her eyes filled with sudden tears and she blinked them away.
He turned from her emotion. After a few long strides, he turned back. “Something agitating those two dogs.”
You are, she wanted to yell, but held the words inside.
He nodded once as if answering her unspoken thought and walked away.
She shaded her eyes with her right palm, watching him until he disappeared into the foliage along the creek separating their properties. She reached down and rubbed the black ruff behind the brown ears of the dog pushing against her thigh. “What do want, Nancy?”
The farm dog pushed her weight against Brenda again. “What? Where’s Charlie?”