Sue Ellen brushed a long auburn brown curl from her heart shaped face as she watched Robert from the kitchen window. He was a tall ugly brute; his appearance was that of a professional wrestler. His bronze face sketched with deep wrinkles proved he had spent the majority of his life laboring in the sun.
Robert worked steadily giving the calf he held gently in his arms medication through an oral calf feeder. He put the calf back in the stall when he finished. The young calf gave a weak moo then immediately crammed its mouth with hay to rid itself of the distasteful medication that still lingered on its tongue.
Robert preceded removing calves from their stalls, he went through the same procedure feeding each one orally, and although not one of their chubby frame bodies showed any indications they were ill.
Mr. Dishner watched flabbergasted, he couldn't understand losing so many calves. He shuffled his feet back and forth, worrying if he would lose the ones Robert was working with.
"I can't imagine why we're losing so many this years," Mr. Dishner said bewildered. "Before Josh retired, we never lost more than one calf and usually we never lost any."
"I'm doing everything I can," Robert said. "I guess everyone has a streak of bad luck after a while."
"spring seems to be coming awful late this year," Mr. Dishner said. "It's warm enough during the day, but it's downright cold at night. Maybe those thirty degree temperatures are more than the calves can handle."
"I doubt it," Robert answered. "The barn isn't that cold, the calves should be plenty warm enough."
Mr. Dishner shook his head, removed his tall silver cowboy hat and ran his fingers through his thick gray hair. He turned and walked slowly toward the house, it didn't make any sense losing calf after calf which seemed perfectly healthy, but Robert declared they were sick. They always died in a short time span, so Robert definitely knew what he was talking about. He had the vet check the cows several times, there wasn't anything wrong genetically. It was a puzzling situation without any answers.
The doorbell rang shortly after Mr. Dishner went into the house. Sue Ellen rinsed the plate covered with soap suds, dried her hands then opened the door.
"Tell Mr. Dishner we lost all the calves," Robert said bluntly. "I'm going to get the tractor and wagon. I better get them buried before it gets too dark to see what I'm doing."
"He's taking a shower right now," Sue Ellen said. "I'll tell him soon as he comes out."
Robert straddled the seat of the new four wheel drive red diesel tractor. He gunned the engine, forcing the tractor to travel at full speed out the road where John Herbert Riley had left his old rusty green cattle truck parked. He drove the cattle truck across the field, went in the back way to the barn well out of sight of the house.
"Get in the truck you stubborn little devils," Robert scrawled, prodding the calves into the truck with a stick. "I ain't got all night. That nosy old bag who cooks for old man Dishner might show up anytime."
With all the calves finally in the truck, Robert drove out the back road filled with pot holes without turning on his lights. The truck bounced back and forth causing the calves to shift against the side of the cattle rack, to immediately be jarred back to the other side. When he reached the highway, he blinked his lights three times, signaling John Herbert he had arrived.
"What took you so long"? John Herbert grumbled. "I just about froze to death waiting for your signal."
"I haven't exactly been sitting by the fire," Robert sneered. "Just give me my money; I don't want to hear anymore lip from you."
John Herbert removed his wallet from his faded bibbed overalls. He pulled out a roll of bills, peeled off several hundreds and practically threw them at Robert.
"You better make doggone sure that old codger doesn't catch you," John Herbert said, shaking his long bony finger in Robert's face. "We'll spend years in prison if we get caught selling off his calves for veal chops."
"Shut your fat mouth," Robert said. "I'm the one taking all the risk. I've haven't gotten caught yet, have I?"
John Herbert's squinted beady black eyes glared at Robert as he climbed into the truck. He swiped at his long thin nose with his bandanna handkerchief, started the engine then sped down the road.
Robert shivered walking to his house; he turned up the collar on his worn denim jacket to cover his neck. He took two steps at a time going to the rickety porch. He jerked open the door and a gush of warm air hit him in the face. It gave him a feeling of contentment as he removed his jacket and threw it on the floor.
Warmth from the antique warm morning heater engulfed the room; Robert plopped down in the recliner with an overstuffed flowered cushion to keep the springs that emerged from the chair bottom from sticking him. He pulled off his scuffed cowboy boots revealing the holes in both heels of his socks. He propped up his feet and gave a sigh of relief as he counted the wad of bills he took from his pocket.
A loud knock on the door shook Robert from a deep sleep. He scampered around the room, frantically picking up the hundred dollar bills that had fallen to the floor. He shoved the money beneath the chair before answering the door.
"I thought I'd check to see if you got the calves buried," Mr. Dishner said, running his short pudgy fingers across his heavy mustache. "So far, we've lost all that was born this year. There are twenty cows due to calve next month. Maybe we'll have better luck with them."
"I'll do my best to bring them through," Robert said. "They have a problem coping with being weaned for some reason."
"I know you do your best," Mr. Dishner said. "I'll see you in the morning, Robert."
The calves began arriving two and a half weeks later. All twenty were healthy, no problems occurred until the calves were weaned. Robert hurried to the house that evening, he asked Mr. Dishner to get medication from the vet.
Robert should have been an actor; he did the perfect part appearing to be extremely upset when he related all the calves were coming down with something.
"Doesn't it seem a little odd the calves get sick when they're weaned, Mr. Dishner?" Sue Ellen asked. "I went out to the barn yesterday; they all appeared to be perfectly healthy to me."
"They can get sick in a short time," Mr. Dishner said, scratching his head. "This has really got me baffled. I probably could counteract it if I knew what the problem was."
Along about dusk Robert rapped on the door. He informed Mr. Dishner all twenty calves had died. He went through the same routine, he would get the tractor and wagon out, bury them before it was too dark to see how to dig the graves.
Sue Ellen grabbed her coat from the closet and slipped it over her shoulders. She went quietly out the kitchen door while Mr. Dishner was watching the news. She stayed behind the century old oak trees; afraid Robert might be nearby and see her. She looked all around nervously before darting across the driveway to the barn. She climbed the ladder to the dark hayloft then hunkered down in a pile of hay where she could see Robert when he came into the barn.
Robert came into the barn grumbling and growling, because he stumped his toe on the shovel. He turned on the lights, went outside, jumped into the cattle truck and backed into the barn.
Sue Ellen was terrified to move or make a sound. Robert was like an entirely different person. He ranted and raved like a madman, swearing and stalking around as he herded the calves into the truck. She heard the truck door slam, the motor roared, and then it was quite, so she decided it was safe to come down. She ran all the way to the house, her heart was pounding against her chest and she was completely out of breath when she rushed into the house.
"Mr. Dishner!" Sue Ellen yelled. "The calves weren't even sick much less dead. Robert just loaded them into a cattle truck and headed out the back way toward the highway."
Mr. Dishner calmly phoned the sheriff, explained what the situation appeared to be then returned to the den without making any comment at all to Sue Ellen.
An hour later the doorbell rang. Sue Ellen jumped; her nerves were on edge, what if it was Robert? Maybe he found out she was watching him, he could have come back to get revenge. The sheriff may not have found him; he could have decided to do away with her and Mr. Dishner both.
Sue Ellen crept across the room; she slowly pulled back the white ruffled curtain covering the window to see the sheriff and several deputies standing on the porch. She opened the door and the sheriff asked to speak with Mr. Dishner. Sue Ellen went into the den, gently shook Mr. Dishner awake then informed him the sheriff was waiting.
"We put your calves in the barn," the sheriff said. "Robert Bentwood's pulled the same scheme on other farmers around these parts before he came to work for you. Several reported they thought something fishy was going on, but none ever had any proof until now."
"I don't know how to thank you, Sue Ellen," Mr. Dishner said. "That was a brave thing you did spying on Robert."
"It's all in a day’s work," Sue Ellen said. "A little boost in my paycheck would show your appreciation though."
Copyright © 1992 Jo Ann Lovelace. All Rights Reserved.