Goats and Bugs

by Nick Brady

Chapter 1

Copyright © 2017-2018 by Nick Brady, all rights reserved.

Robert Earl McGregor was a farm boy, although everybody called him Bobby. By thirteen, he could drive a tractor, run a combine and take care of the livestock that populated the small farm that was home to Bobby and his father, Ely. It was a lot of responsibility for a boy his age, although he did his chores without complaint. He felt like the modest farm was his as much his as his father's, and he took pride in keeping it going. Bobby was a wiry boy with a wavy shock of orange hair. As he entered puberty, he started to fill out with the muscles built by hard, honest work. He was strong and capable.

His Scottish grandparents Earl and Ilsa McGregor had carved out 120 acres of land from the pine forests of southwestern Arkansas when they immigrated from the old country. They were proud of their farm and of their children Ely and Mary who helped them work the place.

When Earl's health began to fail, he realized that he needed to slow down and eventually retire. He sat down with both of his children and talked about the future of the farm. Ely wanted to keep the place, but Mary said she had plans for a different life and wanted to go to college. There was no money for Mary's college, so reluctantly, Earl sold 20 acres of the farm to allow Mary to go to school and make a life for herself.

Ely stayed with his father and mother on what remained of the farm. It was an awkward, if workable, solution, and there were no hard feelings. Not long after Mary left for school, Ely married his high school sweetheart Ruth, and she joined the family. Ruth was a pretty little red-head whose sunny nature complemented Ely's quiet manner. A few years later Bobby was born, and the small family rejoiced at his arrival. When Earl died, Ely and Ruth stayed on and continued to run the farm. Ely's mother passed soon after.

Ely had always loved that little farm. He liked to work the soil and see things grow. The farm was only marginally able to support them, but they made the best of it. They raised chickens and sold eggs. They had a small herd of milk cows and sold the milk and butter. They rotated corn and soybeans on most of the land and pastured their modest livestock on the rest. Ruth sewed for neighbors and the ladies at church. Ely was a church-going man. His small family attended the Cedar Springs Methodist Church, and Bobby inherited both his father's love of the farm and his respect for the Lord.

Bobby sometimes wished he had a brother, both to help with the farm work and for a companion. Try as they might, Ruth had a series of miscarriages, but no other children. When Bobby was seven, his mother had a very difficult pregnancy from which she did not survive, leaving Ely and Bobby on their own. It was sometimes lonely for a boy on a farm with no other kids near by.

Bobby learned to take care of the chickens and milk cows at an early age. At age seven he assumed primary responsibility for the milking and the chickens, and Ely gave him a portion of the milk and egg money which Bobby saved for the things that boys wanted. He used it to buy a sturdy bicycle and later a laptop computer which was his pride and joy. It wasn't a lot of money, but Bobby was careful with it and stretched it as far as he could.

Bobby was quiet and serious. He conscientiously did his chores and did well in school. He liked the challenge of learning to do the things that were considered man's work and made himself useful. Ely appreciated his hard work. Bobby's days were busy with chores before and after school. In the evening he did his schoolwork and enjoyed playing games on his computer. He was seldom bored, but occasionally lonely.

George Cassidy was rather tall for a boy of thirteen, lean and fair, with straight black hair cut just long enough so he could make it lie down with a part on the right side. George was what might be called a geek. He was a good student, but socially a bit awkward, and sometimes displayed more enthusiasm than good sense.

In many small schools in that area, football was king. The student population was divided into those who were good at sports and those who were not. George was not athletic, but he was a bright and energetic, if somewhat hyperactive. He was interested in many things, primarily if they related to science. Easily bored, George wanted a project. He lived with his mother in a two bedroom apartment in Magnolia. He would like to have had a pet, but living in an apartment meant that was not in the cards for him.

When school started in the fall of their thirteenth year, both Bobby and George entered the eighth grade. The County Agent Jim Sweeney came to their school and gave a talk on the 4-H Club. He told them that there were a lot of interesting things to do in 4-H and invited them to a meeting to learn more. He said that if they could raise an animal, they could show it at the fair. If not, there were other projects they could do even if they had no room for an animal. Among other things, he could learn about how to speak in public, how to dress for success and work on projects to be shown at the state fair. George didn't much care about his wardrobe, but some of the projects looked interesting.

While they both attended the same small school, Bobby and George did not really know each other. They had seen each other in the halls, and sometimes in the cafeteria but had never shared a table. They were even in the same English class where Bobby tended to be somewhat quiet, and George was usually the first to raise his hand. They knew each other's name but had seldom spoken. But at the 4-H meeting, they found themselves sitting next to each other. Hey sat and listened as Mr. Sweeney told them about 4-H and some of the available activities.

Mr. Sweeney asked George about his interests and suggested several things, one of which was an entomology project. Entomology is the study of insects, and the project would involve creating an insect collection, displaying it properly, then entering it into a competition. That caught George's interest. He could make his equipment, including a net, killing jar, and mounting board to allow the specimens to be displayed attractively. Mr. Sweeney gave him some literature and a lot of encouragement. George had a new project. After the meeting, Bobby and George talked while they waited for their rides home.

"You're in my English class," George said.

"Your name is George, right?" Bobby replied. "My name is Bobby."

"I know your name. You're kind of quiet in class. I probably talk too much."

"You generally know the answers. Nothing wrong with that."

"Are you looking for a project?"

"I'm thinking I might want to raise some goats."

"Really? That's cool. Do you have room for that?" George asked. "I live in an apartment, so I can't have any animals."

"I live on a farm," Bobby explained.

"I wish I did. I love animals. Do you have any cows or horses and things where you live?"

"We have chickens and milk cows. No horses."

"I think I might do an Entomology project."

"That's bugs, right?"

"Right. I can make an insect collection and show it at the fair. Is that what you'll do with your goats?"

"That's the idea," Bobby replied.

"Sorry. I guess that was a dumb question."

Bobby just smiled. He felt at ease around this awkward boy. George's enthusiasm filled in the blanks and required him to say very little, which suited him just fine.

"No. Not dumb. Can you find enough insects in town to make a good collection?"

"Oh yeah. Bugs are everywhere," George assured him. Their rides arrived at the same time.

"This is my mother Phyllis," George made introductions. "This is my friend Bobby. We're in the same English class, and now we're both in 4-H."

"Nice to meet you, Bobby. Is that your father over there?" Phyllis replied, pointing to Ely sitting in his truck.

"Yes Ma'am," Bobby said, and with no further comment went over to his father's pickup.

"We better get home," Ely said.

On the way back to the farm, Ely asked Bobby about his first meeting. "How did it go?"

"I think I want to show some goats."

"Goats? We don't have any goats."

"I know. I'll buy some. I got the money," Bobby explained.

"Why goats?" his father asked. "Why not a calf?"

"Goats are cheaper."

Ely nodded. "You don't know much about goats."

"I can learn," Bobby assured him. They rode on home in silence.

Bobby thought of George and smiled. He was like a big puppy, tripping over himself with energy and clumsy enthusiasm. Back home, Bobby tossed his book bag on his bed and changed into his work clothes. He would save the school clothes for the next day. He went about his chores with speed and efficiency. None of this was new to him. An hour later he went into the house to see about supper.

With no woman in the house, Ely and Bobby fended for themselves. Ely was not much of a cook, although he was pretty good at fixing eggs and toast for their breakfast before Bobby caught the bus for school. Sometimes he might fix something simple for supper, but his skills were limited. This afternoon Ely was working on some fencing, and the kitchen was uninhabited. Bobby shrugged and looked in the refrigerator. There was a chicken in there - one of the roosters that had hatched earlier in the year and served as meat for the table when they got big enough.

Bobby pulled the chicken out and expertly cut it up into pieces, put a gob of Crisco into a cast iron skillet and put it on the gas burner. While that was melting, he took a can of mixed vegetables from their pantry and dumped that into a pan to heat. He dredged the chicken in flour and carefully laid the pieces in the hot grease, sprinkling them liberally with salt and pepper. Once the chicken was sizzling, he put a cup of rice into another pot, added two cups of water and put it on to boil. While that was starting, he turned the chicken and covered the skillet. When the rice was steaming nicely, he turned that down to a simmer and put on the lid.

He sat down at the kitchen table and looked at his wristwatch. In twenty minutes, it would all be ready. He looked out the kitchen window to see Ely walking towards the barn. He would be along soon. Bobby peeked into the skillet and wiggled the pieces of chicken around a little to be sure they weren't sticking, and sat back down.

Ely walked in the kitchen door. "It smells good in here. What's cooking?"

"Fried rooster," Bobby told him, "some rice and a can of mixed veggies. Nothing fancy. You want some gravy for the rice?"

"Sure. Let me get cleaned up." Ely took off his boots and walked to the kitchen sink to scrub his hands with a bar of Lava soap. "You're getting to be a pretty good cook."

"You were busy, and I was hungry," Bobby said as he lifted the chicken onto a layer of paper towels, mixed flour and milk into the chicken drippings then stirred it with a fork.

"Can I help?" Ely asked.

"You can set the table while I make us a salad."

Bobby chopped up part of a head of lettuce, sliced a couple of tomatoes and put it in a bowl on the table with some ranch dressing. He glanced at his watch and looked into the cook pots. "It's ready. Help yourself."

As was their custom they served themselves from the stove rather than dirtying up any serving platters. Convenience and as little mess as possible was the primary goal.

Ely looked up from his plate. "Good chicken."

"Thanks. You washing up?"

"Sure," Ely smiled. "You drying?"

They stood side by side at the kitchen sink. Ely washed and passed things to Bobby to be dried and placed back in the cabinet. It didn't take long.

When they finished, Ely asked, "Homework?"

"A little," Bobby replied and hung the dish towel over the back of one of the kitchen chairs.

He went back to his bedroom and sat down on the bed. Not too much tonight - a set of simple equations to solve in pre-algebra, a chapter to read in history, and a section on punctuation in his English class. Thinking of English reminded him of George, and he smiled to himself. George had introduced him to his mother as his friend. Were they really friends? That might be OK. He sighed and opened his books.

George rode home from the 4-H meeting with his mom and chattered away as usual. "I think 4-H will be neat. I have to make all my stuff - net, mounting boards and everything. I have a pamphlet with all the plans."

"Wait, wait. What are you talking about?" Phyllis asked.

"Oh. I didn't tell you. I 'm going to do an Entomology project. That's like, make a big insect collection. I need a butterfly net and some special mounting boards to make them look natural. Lots of stuff, and I can make it all myself."

"That sounds like fun, Georgy."

George slumped down in his seat a little. "It will be fun, but please don't call me that."

"I've always called you Georgy. What's the matter with that?"

"I'm thirteen for Pete's sake. I'm too old for a cutesy baby name!"

"You'll always be my baby,"

"My name is George."

"Don't be mad at me for loving you."

"It's OK to love me, just don't call me Georgy."

"You're all I've got, you know."

"I know Mom. I love you too," George looked out the window.

"What did you think of Bobby?" he asked without looking away.

"He seemed nice. Do you like him?"

"He lives on a farm. He said he's going to raise some goats and show them at the State Fair."

"He certainly has red hair," Phyllis laughed.

"What's wrong with that? I kind of like red hair."

"Nothing's wrong with that. I was just commenting. Bobby is a very nice looking boy."

George looked out the window again and smiled.

Bobby was looking for George in his English class the next day and nodded at him when he walked in. George responded with a smile and sat down next to him.

"Mrs. Wilson will make you move to your regular seat," Bobby warned him.

"No, she won't. I'm her favorite student,"

Bobby shrugged. "It's OK by me. You got all your bug stuff made already?"

"Not yet. I just got my plans. I went through and figured out what all I need. I bet I can make it all this weekend. I need an insect identification book too. There are lots of names to learn. I didn't realize how many different kinds of insects there are. This is going to be fun."

"You're pretty cranked up about this, aren't you?"

"I like to learn new things," George grinned. "When are you getting your goats?"

"Pretty soon. My father knows a guy who has goats."

"Will they be baby goats? How old will they be?"

"Probably babies. I have to raise them and get them tame enough to show."

"I bet they'll be cute. I'd like to see them."

"You know we'll end up eating them," Bobby said with a straight face.

"After you raise them and make pets out of them? Would you really do that?" George asked in horror.

Bobby smiled. "I don't know. Maybe not."

"You were teasing me, weren't you? Oh, I'm so gullible. I knew you wouldn't do that."

"I might," Bobby shrugged and grinned.

Mrs. Wilson entered the room to see George and Bobby engaged in conversation. "Are you in your right seat George?"

"Is it OK if I sit here?" George asked with his most hopeful face.

"We can try it if you can hold down on the conversation."

George sat up straight and looked at Mrs. Wilson. "Yes Ma'am."

After English class was lunch, and the two walked to the cafeteria together. As it happened, neither boy had a cadre of bosom friends they usually ate with. In fact, both often sat alone. They went through the line for their food and sat together.

"Tell me about your farm," George requested. "I've never been on a real farm. What's it like?"

Bobby smiled, "A lot of work. I have to take care of the chickens and cows."

Really? How many chickens and cows do you have? What do you do with them?"

Bobby smiled a little. "We have about 30 chickens and six cows. We get eggs and milk from them."

"Like, eggs from the chickens and milk from the cows, right?"

"No. Eggs from the cows and milk from the chickens," Bobby laughed.

"OK. That was dumb. I'm just being stupid," George made a face.

"You're funny."

"Crazy funny or ha-ha funny?"

"Ha-ha funny, I guess," Bobby laughed again. He didn't laugh very often.

They put away their trays and started out of the cafeteria. "What are you doing after school?" George asked.

"Riding the bus home."

"Oh, right. Well, what are you doing this weekend?"

"Helping my father build fence,"

"Oh, OK. Then I guess I'll see you in English class tomorrow."

"OK. See you," Bobby waved and walked away. He noticed that he felt just a little bit excited. It didn't feel bad, just unusual.

Phyllis picked George up from school as usual. "How was school Georgy – er, George?"

George looked at her sideways and said, "It was good. I had lunch with Bobby."

"Oh, did you? The boy with red hair?"

"His name is Bobby, and yes, that's him. We have English class together and then ate lunch in the cafeteria."

"Really? You haven't had a close friend since William moved away."

George thought of his friend William with a twinge of regret. He had been his best friend since they were in the first grade and were very close. They played together and liked many of the same things. Later they discovered that there were things that boys can do together that were fun and very exciting. He really missed William.

When they got home, George took an apple out of a bowl on the dining table then went to his room and turned on his computer. It had been locked with strict parental controls when he was given it last Christmas, but that was no challenge for a bright thirteen-year-old. He quickly brought up one of his favorite websites, sat back in his chair and loosened his trousers. After a few minutes, he sighed and reached for the box of tissues on his desk. His tensions relieved, he started on his homework.

Bobby sat on the big yellow school bus as it took him home. He kept thinking about George and chuckled. He tried to remember having a real friend. There were a couple of guys at church who seemed nice. They might be real friends, but he only saw them at church. There were guys he thought were interesting at school, but his natural shyness kept him from knowing them very well. The thing about George was, he wasn't shy at all. George hadn't waited for Bobby to do anything. He just took off like they were old friends. He chuckled to himself. George was funny.

When the bus let him off at the gate to the farm, he was led down the path by Pepper, the black Labrador Retriever who was Bobby's companion and helper. Bobby walked the dirt road through the pines that led to the house and went inside to change his clothes. He called hello to his father, but there was no answer. He was out working on something as usual. Bobby went to the chicken house, distracted them with chicken feed, gathered the eggs, and went back to the house to put the eggs in the cooler. Later, the eggs would be washed, graded and placed in cartons for sale.

Next, he went to the barn and banged loudly on a bucket. Pepper ran down to the pasture and encouraged the cows to hurry up, while Bobby heated water on a propane stove, put it in a pail with a squirt of disinfectant and got ready to milk. The prospect of warm milk brought out the cats who lived in the barn to attention. If they were a big-time operation, they would have automatic milkers which pumped the warm milk into refrigerated tanks. With only six Holstein cows they couldn't justify such equipment. They had a pair of big stainless steel buckets that were sterilized after each milking and placed in a plastic bag until the next. The cows had to be milked twice a day.

When the cows wandered in, he put some feed in the trough and pulled them in the milking stall one at a time. Sitting on a short stool, he washed each cow's udder with the warm disinfectant and started pulling milk into a steel bucket giving the waiting cats a squirt. His hands and arms were strong. He was slow when he first took over this chore as a young boy, but now at thirteen, the buckets filled quickly.

Working his way through the cows, he carried the buckets to the house. Several jugs of raw milk were pulled off to satisfy those who favored that product. Several more gallons were pulled off to make butter in an old paddle churn. The milk left in the churn was quite low in fat and was what Bobby and his father drank themselves. They kept part of the butter and eggs, and sold the rest to their loyal customers, mostly people from their church. The rest of the fresh milk he emptied into a stainless tank in the big cooler. They sold the majority of the milk to a distributor who came by twice a week with a refrigerated truck and left them a clean stainless container.

His chores done, Bobby stuck his head in the refrigerator to explore the possibilities for supper. There wasn't much there other than some leftover chicken from the night before. Looking in the cupboard, he pulled out a package of Kraft Dinner and set a pot of water on the stove to boil. The chicken he put on paper towels and slipped into the microwave. When the water started to boil, he added a little salt and then the macaroni. While he waited for that to cook, he found a can of green peas in the pantry and opened it to be ready. When the pasta was tender, he drained the water from the pot and added some butter and the powdered cheese. After mixing it thoroughly, he put in the peas, stirred them in and replaced the lid to keep it warm.

Bobby stepped out the kitchen door and sat on the back step chewing on a stick while he waited for Ely to come up from the barn. When the man swung into view, Bobby went back to the kitchen and set the microwave to warm up the chicken.

"Hello, Bobby. Smells good in here," Ely said as he usually did when his son had supper waiting for him. "Just let me wash up." He went to the sink and took the bar of soap waiting for him there.

"I got about half of that new fence pulled," Ely said. I think we can knock out the rest of it on Saturday."

"Do you need anything?" Bobby asked.

"I could use some more staples. Would you have time to run over to Best Hardware to pick some up for me? It would save me a trip to town."

"Sure. It's only a block from school. I can get them at lunch."

"Appreciate that," Ely mumbled with a mouth full of macaroni. "This is good with the peas in it. How was your day?"

"Same as always, I guess." Bobby thought about his lunch with George but didn't feel that was something his father would find interesting. After a minute, they cleared the dishes and took them to the sink. As was their custom, Ely washed, and Bobby dried. It didn't take long. If Ely did the cooking, they reversed the roles, although that didn't happen very often.

Ely took the folder with the journal he kept on the farm, and a stack of bills then sat down at the kitchen table. He would do what he could with them. Bobby excused himself and went to his room to do his school work. Since it was not due until Monday, he might have put it off but didn't like to have school work hanging over his head. Best to get it out of the way. He had an essay to write for history. For this, he used his laptop to spare his teacher from the trauma of his handwriting. The topic was simple, and he knocked it out in short order, read it over and ran the spell checker. He copied it off to a thumb drive to print at school. Done.

After another twenty minutes, he finished. Bobby wasn't sure why some people agonized over homework. If you listened in class and read the assignments, it wasn't a big deal. The problem was that some kids didn't listen and didn't bother to read their assignments. That made it harder.

It was only eight o'clock, but since Bobby and his dad were regularly up by five, he was tired. He usually took a bath and read or played games on his computer until about nine then went to bed. There wasn't much else to do. They had an old TV set with an antenna for the few local channels. Sometimes there was a ball game, but the reception was spotty. An early bedtime was often the best option.

Bobby stripped to his underwear and went into the bathroom carrying a clean pair. He wore gray Hanes boxer briefs. He liked the way they fit. All his underwear was gray including his T-shirts. White stuff turned yellow when you sweat in it all day. Gray stuff stayed mostly gray. He turned on the hot water tap, adjusted the temperature to his satisfaction and let the tub fill about a quarter of the way with water.

While he waited, he brushed his teeth and checked his face for pimples. He only had a few, but he kept track of them and would put Clearasil on them after his bath. He dropped his briefs and eased himself into the warm water. It felt good. He wished they had a shower, but Ely wasn't much interested in doing plumbing. He worked hard all day while Bobby was at school, and liked to soak in hot water to ease his aching muscles. It wasn't worth arguing about, so they both took tub baths.

He stuck his head in the water to get his head wet then took the bar of soap and lathered his hair. Squinting his eyes shut to keep the suds out of his eyes, he soaped up his arms and legs, his crotch and pits, carefully retracting his foreskin to wash himself clean. Then he took the plastic bowl that sat on the end of the tub and used it to rinse off. Wiping his eyes, he looked down at the water. It was milky from the soap but not brown as it would be if he'd been working in the field all day. He would get plenty of that on the days when he was not in school.

He stood and took his towel from the hook next to the tub, dried himself from the knees up, stepped out then wiped his feet. He put on the clean underwear, tossed the soiled ones in the laundry basket that served as their clothes hamper, and walked back to his room.

Ely was still at the kitchen table when Bobby peeked in the kitchen. He respected his father. The old man could be abrupt when something needed doing but generally was patient with his young son. Ely was a quiet man, not given to swings of mood. There was a layer of melancholy that lightly covered him much of the time. Depression would be too strong a word.

Ely had wanted nothing more than to work his farm with his beloved wife and a house full of kids, but found himself here with only his young son. In a way that made him value Bobby even more, but he could not help the occasional feelings of loneliness. A man had needs, and his were unmet. Without Bobby, he would have given up a long time ago. Like his father, or because of him, Bobby was also a quiet person. They didn't talk much, but there was respect and deep affection between them.

Bobby stretched out on his bed and considered playing games on his computer but decided against it. They had no internet, and he was not even aware of the things that interested George. He liked to read, and his English teacher had suggested he read 'Ender's Game.' He read it and thought it was terrific. So much so that he decided to reread it. Since he already knew about the surprises and twists of plot, it was less enjoyable the second time.

Bobby turned out the lamp and slipped under the covers. He thought again about George and decided that George was different somehow. He didn't talk endlessly about sports or about what girls he would like to take out. He was a funny combination of smart and goofy. He pictured George in his mind. George was the taller by six inches, but probably no heavier. He was lean but not skinny. His hair was black, but his eyes were light blue, and they danced around when he talked.

Bobby yawned and Thought about George. Something was interesting about him. Bobby had no enemies but neither did he have many friends. It was hard to make friends for a shy quiet boy who lived out on a farm. He wondered if George might be a real friend. He thought he might like that and drifted off to sleep thinking about the tall goofy boy.

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