Goats and Bugs

by Nick Brady

Chapter 19

Ely took Bobby and George to Magnolia to purchase the materials they needed for the automated egg boxes. The cost was not cheap, but much less than buying them ready-made. The question was whether or not the thing would work as they planned. They had confidence and high hopes, albeit very little experience.

They stacked everything in the barn so they could work out of the weather. Bobby sorted things out while George checked them from his list. "I think that's everything," George said. "The first thing we need to do is lay out everything and mark off where we need to cut the pieces. If we don't do this right, we'll end up wasting stuff."

"Does the information you got from the internet show how to lay it out?"

George shook his head. "No. They just show pictures of what the sections look like. I guess we'll have to figure this out for ourselves."

"Where do we begin?" Bobby asked.

George scratched his head. "I haven't done anything like this before. Maybe we need to think about it before we start cutting. Let's go in the house so I can lay this out on paper."

In the bedroom, they pulled chairs up to the card table, and George used a ruler to draw a series of four by eight-inch rectangles. "OK now. I can draw out the pieces on these and figure out how to get the most out of the plywood," George said. He translated the diagram he had made into panels of plywood and figured out where to place the sections on the rectangle. After several attempts, he was satisfied.

"What do you think?" he asked Bobby. "Are we ready to cut?"

Bobby nodded his head. "Looks good to me."

Back in the barn, Bobby oiled up Ely's Skil saw and put on a new blade while George hoisted a sheet of plywood onto a pair of sawhorses and began to mark off cut lines using his drawings. "This one is ready," he told Bobby. You cut and I'll hold it still for you." They made a good team.

An hour later they had transformed the sheets of plywood into a stack of pieces ready for assembly. "How do we know which piece goes where?" Bobby asked.

"I wrote letters on each piece and we can use the diagram to put them together. See?" George laid out both the diagram and the drawings and pointed out where the pieces fit together. "Look here. See how A fits to A and B fits to B? We can do this." Bobby nodded his head and was quietly impressed.

A power drill and wood screws were used to put together the pieces as shown on George's diagram. It began to take shape and by early afternoon was standing in the center of the barn. They brought Ely out to see the result of their efforts.

Ely looked it over, walked around and asked a few questions. George explained where the hens nested and how the eggs would roll down into the padded tray. "All we have to do is pick them up," George said proudly."

Ely smiled and shook his head. "This is a miracle. You boys are geniuses."

"Yeah? You like it?" George beamed. "Bobby did most of the cutting and assembly. I just laid it out."

Bobby laughed. "You did the hard part. I just cut on the lines you drew on the plywood. You're the genius."

George shrugged. "Dad's right, it was a team effort. Now we have to see if it actually works."

"Take down the old boxes and see if the hens will use this new one," Ely suggested. "That'll tell us. You can move it around. Put it in the same place as the old one and I bet they'll find it."

"Great idea, Dad. You're part of the team too!" George grinned. "I was wondering how to get the hens to use this thing."

The three of them spent the rest of the afternoon taking down the old boxes and moving the new one in their place. Shortly afterward the hens began to gather and look for their usual nests. First one and then the other hopped up and pecked around, then sat down, and rolled an egg down the chute. It worked! One by one, the hens gave up their eggs to the new contraption. Based on this, it was time to expand the flock.

As they sat around the kitchen table after supper, they took stock of their progress. Ely laid his hands out on the table. "Boys, I am just amazed by all you've accomplished. I keep saying that you make a great team but you've outdone yourselves. I going to get two hundred chicks out here as soon as I can. We'll need a temporary pen for them until they are ready to take care of themselves. I reckon we can dress out the little roosters and the hens will produce eggs for us as soon as they are big enough. We've always had White Leghorns because they are good layers. Do we want to get more of them or should we look at another breed?"

Bobby and George looked at each other, then George volunteered, "I was looking on the Internet. There are a lot of different kinds of chickens, but the one that looked most interesting to me is a Barred Rock. They are meaty, good layers, and don't mind cold weather. There is a hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri, that will ship them in lots of one hundred for two dollars a chick. The only thing is, they lay brown eggs. Is that a problem?"

Ely shrugged. "Eggs are eggs. Most eggs you see in the store are white, but there are always brown ones too. I think they sell as well. In fact, some folks prefer them," he smiled, then said, "You're always ahead of things, George. You're an absolute wonder."

George blushed at the unfamiliar praise. "I was curious about chickens and was just looking around on the web. I don't know anything about chickens."

"I told you, Dad. George is the smart one," Bobby grinned. "If he doesn't know something he'll figure it out."

"Anybody can use Google," George said modestly. "I just surf around looking for things."

"But you know what to look for," Ely reminded him. "At any rate, you've been a great help. I'm really happy to have you with us, and I hope you will be with us for a very long time."

George sat back and looked a bit misty. "I love it here. I don't ever want to leave. I do the stuff I do because it's fun and because it seems helpful. I feel like I'm part of this place and want to help in any way I can. I love you guys."

Bobby laid his hand on George's shoulder. Ely smiled and said, "We love you too, George. I love both of my boys, and I need to say that more often. Do you realize what's happened since you came here? So many things we have only talked about are happening now. I've struggled to make this little farm profitable for years, and now things are moving in the right direction. It's costing us some money, but that investment will pay off in the future. We're grateful to you, George. You have become a big part of this place. Please don't forget that."

George found himself somewhat overcome. Praise was unfamiliar to him and very welcome. He smiled with tears in his eyes. "Thank you," he said quietly.

Breaking the mood, Bobby punched George on the shoulder. "Let's go down and check on the chickens."

Without a word, George followed Bobby to the barn. "Are you still not sure that Dad loves you?" George asked.

"I don't know what to say. I didn't expect that," George admitted. "This is all fun for me. I'm glad it makes a difference."

"Dad has sweated over this place for a long time. Can you imagine what it means to him that things are looking more positive now? Maybe it's a gamble, but it's going to pay off. Even if we don't all get rich, he appreciates what you're doing," Bobby said sincerely. "I told you, George. You're a good guy. Don't underestimate yourself."

Once inside the barn, Bobby stopped, wrapped his arms around George and looked into his face. "I love you, George. I'm kind of like Dad. I need to tell you that more often. I hope you never leave. It would break my heart if you did." They held each other for a time, then went to see that their new boxes were full of satisfied hens.

A week later, crates of fuzzy black and yellow chicks arrived from Missouri. Pepper was very interested in seeing two hundred baby chicks peeping around in the little pen that was temporarily set up in a far corner of the barn. Water and feed were set out, and the little creatures seemed to thrive. The barn cats were also interested in them, but Pepper stood guard against any predators, cats included. In six or seven months they would be pullets and begin to lay eggs.

"Cute little guys, aren't they?" George chuckled.

"The cats think they look delicious," Bobby observed. "Pepper will look after them. I don't know how she understands that they need protecting, but she figures that's her job."

"Just like with the goats," George agreed. "Pepper's a good hand."

The farm was a busy place for the rest of the summer. The cows and goats had to be milked, and that procedure began to go more smoothly. The chicks had to be fed and watered, and they grew at an amazing rate. There was no shortage of things to do. Once school started in the fall, they would have limited time for such things.

Meanwhile, Bobby and George found the time to enjoy the summer. Trips to the pond and the tree house, long walks through the tall pines, and evenings in the bed they shared provided frequent opportunities for lovemaking. Bobby's reluctance to express himself was fading, and the affection between them grew.

Ely had no reservations about their relationship. He loved them both, and if they loved each other, then that was their business. Ely was a realist who took whatever came and made the best of it. If Bobby was gay, then that was not likely to change. What choice did Ely have but to accept that as a fact, and hope that he and George were happy? He did not doubt that George was gay. He had seen that early on. But Ely felt that if Bobby was to find a special friend, he was relieved that it was a boy like George who was clever and industrious. They were both good boys and made a good team in many ways. Time would tell where their friendship would take them, but they had Ely's blessing no matter what they decided. Ely was content.

The only thing that weighed on George's mind was the possibility that his mother would interfere with his current situation. If that happened, he would be faced with a crisis. To disobey would put Ely in a difficult place. To comply would be like the end of the world for George, not to mention Bobby. To prevent this unhappy event, George decided he needed to reassure his mother that it was in their mutual best interests that he remain on the farm.

To that end, he decided that telephone conversations were too dangerous. He could control the information his mother received better by a weekly letter. He began to take a lot of photographs with his cell phone and made prints at the Walmart in town. He took pictures of the cows being milked and described the remodeling that made that possible. He sent cute photos of the goats, and of the baby chicks. He told her about the nesting boxes that he and Bobby had built themselves, and how the eggs presented themselves in the trays. He made sure she realized how much he had become a part of the life on the farm and how happy he was to be there. He made a strong case and hoped it would be enough.

At the same time, he asked about his mother's life in Kansas City, and what she and Ron were doing. How was their cruise? How he hoped that they were happy, how fortunate it was that both of them were in such a good situation. He only hoped that he wasn't laying it on too thick.

Phyllis wrote back less frequently than his letters to her but sounded like she was pleased with her situation and less concerned with his. George saw this as a good thing. He was doing what he could not to rock the boat. All in all, he felt fairly secure and hoped for the best. He was counting on her indifference.

Bobby and George timed their morning chores so they could catch the bus for school. Ninth grade was part of the much larger high school, and they were only two faces in the crowd. They sat together on the bus, had three classes and ate lunch together, but their interaction with each other was casual. They gave no indication that they were more than just friends. They presented themselves as brothers and were accepted as such.

Bobby was a quiet fellow and powerfully built. He got along with everybody without being part of a clique. He was not the sort of boy that drew attention to himself. If George had developed the reputation for being a goofball in junior high, this year found him taller, more muscular and considerably quieter. He had grown up, largely as a result of his summer on the farm. The boys behaved themselves, did their work and were prepared when called upon. They were good students and blended in.

By Christmas, the first of the pullets began to lay some eggs. The fuzzy chicks were now covered with alternating bars of black and white feathers. Several of the new goats gave birth, and the herd grew. The volume of milk from both cows and goats had increased to the point that the operation began to show a profit for the first time in many years. Ely found it possible to make payments on his loan and still have money left over. Things were looking up. Over the Christmas holidays, the young roosters were big enough to dress out and they had a freezer full of chickens for the pot. The remainder was sold to the local market, and the profit put in the bank.

Ely called for another family conference at the kitchen table. Ely cleared his throat. "Thanks to you boys, we're doing pretty good. We're showing a profit for the first time I can remember and have money in the bank. I'm keeping back enough to pay our expenses with a little extra for a cushion. The rest is yours. I split it evenly between the two of you, and I'll share this with you every month." Ely smiled and counted out two hundred dollars for each boy. "Merry Christmas, boys. You've earned this."

"Whoa! That's a lot of money," Bobby grinned. "Merry Christmas Dad."

George hesitated. "You let me live here and feed me," he said. "I've never had that much money at one time. It's too much."

Bobby elbowed him in the side. "Don't be silly. We'd never have done any of this without you being here. You earned every penny of that."

"This is really cool. Thanks, Dad." George resisted the urge to give Ely a hug. "I think I'd like to go Christmas shopping."

"Yeah, me too," Bobby said. "Can we go into town?"

"I think we could manage that," Ely smiled. "But don't go buying stuff for me."

They loaded up in the pickup and Ely let them out at a big shopping center in Magnolia. "Have fun, boys."

"I think we should get something for Dad," Bobby suggested. "I know what he needs. Let's get him a new set of Carhartt overalls. His old ones are about wore out."

"He wouldn't object to that, would he?" George asked.

"Wouldn't matter if he does. He'll get them anyway." Bobby grinned. "He needs a new stocking cap too. His old one is full of holes." They made the purchase and split the cost.

That done, George wanted to split up. "I might find something I wouldn't want you to see."

Bobby agreed. "OK. Meet you back at the truck in an hour?"

"Deal. See you then." George bought two things. First, he found a dark green sweater that would look great on Bobby. While he waited for it to be gift wrapped, he went over to a jewelry store and looked at the ladies wrist watches. He found a nice Timex that he could afford. He didn't know if she needed a new watch or not, but he wanted to get her something.

George got back to find the truck empty. It was unlocked, so he got inside and waited for the others. In a few minutes, Bobby joined him with a big shopping bag. "Where's Dad?"

"I don't know," George said. "He's shopping I guess."

"Here he comes, and he's got packages," Bobby observed.

"Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus," George sang under his breath.

"You ready, boys?" Ely got in the truck. "How about the Corner Café?"

They made a night of it.

George packed the wrist watch for his mother and got it mailed in time for Christmas. He wrote a letter and put it inside. Two days before Christmas he received a package from his mother, making him glad he had sent something to her. He did not unwrap it but kept it for Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, Bobby and George went out to the woods and cut down a small spruce tree. They set it up in the living room, as was their custom. After supper, they went to the little country church that had become quite familiar to George. The people there greeted him along with the other members of his family. He was a part of that community now, and it felt good to him.

When they got home, Ely made as if to go to bed and left them alone. When they figured he was asleep, they slipped some packages under the tree and went to bed. They were about to turn fifteen, but that did not diminish the anticipation of Christmas morning. They talked for awhile then cuddled together and finally fell asleep.

They woke up in the morning and ran out to do the daily chores. Pepper was excited. "Do you think she knows it's Christmas?" George asked.

"We always get her a nice ham bone. Maybe she smells it," Bobby laughed.

When they got back to the house, Ely was frying bacon. "You want breakfast first or would you like to check under the tree?" The tree won out. There were two more presents under the tree.

Bobby handed a present to Ely. "This is for you, Dad. It's from both of us."

"Oh now. You shouldn't have done that," Ely said with a broad smile as he tore off the paper and held up the new overalls. "Well, I guess I needed these. Looks like they'll fit. Thank you, boys." He put the stocking cap on his head and wore it proudly.

Bobby had two presents under the tree. George had three, counting the package from his mother, still in its brown wrapper.

They each had a gift from Ely, and each had a gift from the other. "What did you get me?" Bobby tore the wrapping from the gift box. "A cool sweater! Thanks, George! Now open mine."

George hesitated a moment before carefully unwrapping the package from Bobby. He wanted this to last. Inside was a leather-bound journal. "I thought you might like to keep a diary," Bobby said.

"This is nice," George flipped through the pages. "Thanks. I wrote a diary for a long time, but Mom kept getting into it, so I quit. This is really cool. I'll use it."

"Let's see what Dad got us," Bobby began opening his other present. "Open yours!" he told George.

Inside the packages were fleece lined hoodies. Bobby's was green, and George's was red. "Those will keep you boys warm," Ely smiled. "I know they aren't anything fancy, but I thought you could use them on these cold mornings."

"I can use these. Thanks, Dad," Bobby said and laughed. "Red heads always get green stuff."

"Thank you very much," George smiled and put on his new hoodie. "Fits just right."

"You got one more present," Bobby reminded George.

George picked up the present from his mother. He recalled that he had been forgotten by her last Christmas, and hesitated before he tore it open. Inside the box was a smaller box carefully packed in bubble wrap. Opening the small box, he found a one hundred dollar bill stuck inside a Christmas card and a very nice wristwatch. On the card was written, "Sorry I forgot you last year. I hope this makes up for it. Love, Mom."

She got me a watch," he laughed. "That's what I sent to her."

"Great minds think alike," Bobby chuckled. "Let me see that. It's a nice one."

"Yeah, it is," George smiled. "I'm glad I sent her something. It's funny that we both did watches."

"Do you have a wristwatch?" Bobby asked.

"No. I used to have one, but I lost it. Maybe she remembered that." George put it on and held up his arm for the others to admire. "That's nice."

"Hey. Merry Christmas, you guys. This is my best ever," George said sincerely. "I love you both."

"We love you too," Ely said. "Merry Christmas. Now, are you boys ready for breakfast?"

When the Christmas break was over it was time for school again. George and Bobby engaged in friendly competition in the classes they shared. Since they both pulled down A's, there was no clear winner. They made all A's in their other classes too, and Ely was very pleased. George made a copy of his grade card and sent it to his mother along with a thank you note for his wristwatch. He wanted her to know that all was well.

By the middle of spring, the Barred Rocks were producing over one hundred large brown eggs a day. The roosters were meatier than the Leghorns and made for good eating. Ely took it upon himself to wash the eggs and put them in cartons. The local market paid him well for them and sold them at a markup. They were making a profit which Ely shared with the boys each month with the insistence that they both start a bank account and deposit the bulk of it. "You boys are going to college one day," he told them. "That costs money, you know." There was nothing to spend it on there on the farm, so it was no hardship to comply.

"I want to try and make some goat cheese. How do we do that?" Bobby asked George.

"Give me a minute," George replied and pulled out his laptop. After a few clicks, he studied what he found and said, "We need some cheesecloth. The soft cheese looks pretty easy. Making hard cheese is more involved. Want to try it?" Bobby was game.

Since goat milk comes out already homogenized, all they had to do was to ass some salt, put it in fine cheese cloth and hang it over a bucket. The liquid slowly drained out, leaving a soft cheese. They changed to fresh cloth and let it drain some more. After several days they had a big container of soft goat cheese. Bobby sliced up some apples and they sat down to sample the product.

"This is kind of different, but it's pretty good," George said. "It's too soft to eat like regular cheese, but I bet it would be good spread on a cracker." They tried it that way and thought it was fine. "Do you think we could sell this stuff?" he asked.

"Let's ask the market guy and see what he says," Bobby replied. The answer was disappointing. It seemed that the FDA had rules for cheese that required strict sanitation and some special equipment that made cheese making on their small scale too expensive.

"It's still good stuff," George said. "We can make it for ourselves." There was always a steady supply in the refrigerator for snacking, and to add to salads and fancy dishes. It was all good.

George continued to write his mother every week, sending photos and news of the farm. Her replies grew farther apart. "Maybe she's forgotten about you," Bobby suggested, half joking.

"Maybe so," George smiled.

Spring turned into summer, and the school year ended. Their grades again were straight A's, and they enrolled as high school sophomores. When George sent a copy of his grade card to Phyllis, he got a prompt reply, congratulating him. She and Ron had been very busy, she explained, and wondered if he would like to visit over the summer. George, in turn, replied that he was very sorry, but life on the farm was so busy that he couldn't get away. He heard no more about it.

By now the goats had multiplied again, and they sent the little bucks off to the packing house to be dressed out and ready for the market. They kept as many as they could, cut up and wrapped in white butcher paper until the freezer was nearly full. It was good meat. Not like beef or pork, but with a good flavor. Several of the bucks were left to play daddy. Clyde, of course, was spared. He had seniority. Bonnie became a pet.

"Whatever happened to our 4-H projects?" George asked one day.

Bobby laughed and looked out over the herd of goats. I guess we could pull a couple out and spruce them up if you like, but we've gone beyond that now. How's your bug collection coming along?"

"I see what you mean," George agreed. "To tell the truth, the main reason I got interested in insects was so I could get to know you better. I guess I accomplished that."

"Yeah. We have more important things to do now," Bobby smiled. "Want to go down to the pond for a swim?" End of discussion.

"The sun felt good on their bare skin as they stretched out on the flat rock. It would be a good summer.

By the time school started again, both Bobby and George had to shave at least once a week.

One night as they were getting ready for bed, George felt the stubble on Bobby's chin. You could grow a little red goatee," he said.

Bobby looked in the bathroom mirror. "You think so?"

"Yeah. That would be cool."

Bobby trimmed around his chin and left it for several weeks then shaved it off. "It got itchy," he explained. "You could grow a real beard," he told George.

"Nah. It'd be too hot. Besides, it's kind of bare in spots."

"Maybe later when we get older. Hey. Look at that." he rubbed George's chest with his finger. "You're getting some hair on your chest."

"Really?" George leaned closer to the mirror and examined his chest. "Yeah, a couple or three. I hope I don't get all hairy. That's gross."

"I don't know. That might be kind of sexy. Like snuggling up to a teddy bear," Bobby teased.

"I guess," George laughed. "As long as I don't get hair on my back."

"I'd call you Bigfoot."

They turned off the bathroom light and went to bed. They cuddled together and began to fondle each other in a familiar way. They had become so comfortable with each other that much of what they did was an instinctive response to the needs of the other. Over the past two years, their personalities seemed to have merged. Bobby was more outgoing and light-hearted. George had become more relaxed and confident. They were good for each other, and they were very happy together.

They thought it would last forever.

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