Fence Work

Donny Holder is peddling his bike in the hard-packed tire tracks along Harris Mill Road. The ride is smoother where the farm trucks and cars have made a path. He hates it when the county comes along and grades the road. The loose gravel and dirt make it hard on a kid. It takes a couple of weeks and a couple of good rains to pack it all down again.

He has a canteen on his belt and a couple of ham biscuits in a paper sack which he holds in his hand over the grip on his handlebars. A pair of leather gloves hang from his left back pocket.

I can’t say that he’s enthusiastic about the day. He’d rather be down by the lake fishing in the shade of the big Poplar. Instead, his dad promised Uncle Roy that he’d send Donny to help him with some fence work.

Truth is, Donny likes working with Uncle Roy. When he works with his dad, there is a hard expectation that always seems to get in the way of him doing his best. Even though his dad doesn’t say much, Donny can tell when he fails to live up to those expectations.

Uncle Roy has a way about him that makes the work pleasurable. He is more patient. Donny is only 12, but Uncle Roy makes him feel like he belongs in his company. His dad gives orders. Uncle Roy accepts his help as a partner.

He rolls into the lane that goes by the house and on down to the barn. He leans his bike against the barn wall in the shade under the tractor shed.

He hollers. “Uncle Roy.”

A loud “Yes sir” rings through the air from somewhere out of sight.

Donny walks around the barn to the tool shed out back. Uncle Roy is loading fence tools into the back of his truck. The tailgate is down, held level by the chains and hooks.

“I sure am glad to have some good help today.”

Donny already feels better. He’s a kid in a man’s world, struggling to grow into his own choosing. Working with his uncle makes him feel like he’s got a fair chance.

Uncle Roy is an average sized man. No outstanding features about him except maybe the pipe he smokes. He always looks the same to Donny. Khaki shirt and bibbed overalls. A ratty Farmall cap that used to be red but now looks faded and smeared with grease. Donny can’t remember a time when his Uncle looked any way other than how he looks right now.

“Do me a favor, son, look on the back wall and get my wire stretcher.”

Donny can see the long iron tool in his mind before he sees it on the wall.

“Grab my sack with the staples and fence pliers while you’re at it.”

The old truck rumbles out from the barn lot. When they get to the first gate, Donny gets out without having to be told. He holds the gate until the truck passes and makes sure the gate hooks back in the latch before getting back in the truck.

“I see you brought something to eat.”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m guessing your mama had a couple of ham biscuits left over from breakfast.”

“Yes sir.”

The banter is Uncle Roy’s way of easing into the day. Donny’s mama, Julia, is Roy’s sister. These pastures once belonged to their daddy and to his daddy before him. The terraces that once set the contours for plowing are still evident, though these fields are now grassed for cattle and have been for as long as anybody can remember.

“Where’re we headed to, Uncle Roy?”

Donny knows this place by heart. Since he was old enough to amble around the fields and woods on his own, he has taken to being outdoors as much as he can. His daddy’s place and Uncle Roy’s place butt up to each other along the fence line that runs North and South. He knows every fence post. He knows every bend in both creeks. He knows every hollow log.

The truck leaves the pasture and dips down though a small opening in the tree line. A make-shift road that meanders through the woods, crosses the creek and rises over the hill into the back pasture.

“Last week, a tree came down across the fence between me and your daddy’s place. I’ve got the cows shut up in the east pasture. I cut the tree up yesterday. We’re gonna put in a couple of fence posts and get the fence back up. You up for it?”

“Yes sir.”

Roy eased the old truck down into the creek. The front tire slid a little to the left. Donny sat forward and gripped the dash. He had crossed that creek a million times on foot, but from inside the cab the strain and lurch of the truck never felt quite right to him.

“Don’t you worry none.” Roy’s voice was calm. “Old Bessie here knows what she’s doing.”

Donny relaxed and sat back in the seat.

“You helped me put these rocks down. You remember that?”

“Yes sir.”

Donny had helped his Uncle load each rock in the loader bucket on the tractor. There was a big pile of them up by the edge of the pasture. He knew by heart the story of how his uncle and his grandpa had picked up all those rocks out of the field. Rocks left over from years of plowing. A pile just waiting for another use on the farm.

“We laid ‘em in the creek right, didn’t we.”

Donny smiled. “It was hotter than a firecracker. The water felt good, too.”

Roy laughed. “You bet it was. A man does his work right and it’ll last. These rocks will be here when you get to be my age.”

What brought this story to mind is that Don is Uncle Roy’s age now. That day fixing fence seems like a lifetime ago in some ways, and in other ways like it was just yesterday.

The family buried Uncle Roy yesterday. Don is over at their house with his mama and Aunt Joan. The driveway has been full of cars the last few days. Folks coming and going. Dishes of food on every counter and in the fridge. Soft spoken voices that tell of kindness and sympathy.

Don walked out to the barn to find a place where he could be alone for a spell.

Everything here reminds him of Uncle Roy. A hammer on the bench next to the vice. A handsaw hanging on a nail. A can of pipe tobacco.

He notices the old truck parked out back. The keys are still dangling from the ignition like his uncle had just driven up and got out this morning. Which is how it is. One day a man is checking on his cows. The next day he’s not. Never to be seen in this world again.

Don walks out across the pasture and down through the woods to the creek. He has to see for himself.

Sure enough, the rocks are still there.

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