Man’s best friend by Nicholas MacDonnell


Man’s best friend
by Nicholas MacDonnell

The estate sale followed the funeral. In the days leading up to the auction, the family heirlooms were picked clean. It was the practical items that remained, the unwanted artifacts of a life moved on. Flyers were posted for two weeks leading up to the sale. The children worried that two weeks wasn’t enough time, but when the day of reckoning finally arrived, the vultures descended in droves.

The children had hired an auctioneer from Pueblo to run the sale. Myles objected fiercely at first, citing the travelling fee the auctioneer required for driving all the way out to Branson, but Betty eventually won her brother over. Myles and his sisters knew nothing of the farm equipment. If they ran the sale, they would lose far more than what the auctioneer asked. “It’s a fair trade,” Betty said, a trade that guaranteed their father’s livelihood would go to the highest bidder.

Potential buyers were given two hours to browse before the auction began. The auctioneer proved his worth by bringing a set of banquet tables, laying out the smaller items by category and worth on the flat plastic surfaces. Craftsmen tool sets, spare tractor parts, and branding equipment filled the cavernous space of their father’s garage, catalogued with little blue stickers that listed starting bids.

Betty, Myles, and Diane Pritchett left the garage and headed out towards the yard. There sat parked the most expensive remains of their father; two tractors, a bailer and a swather, several cattle trailers, and two pickup trucks lined in a row. Betty and Diane had washed the trucks the day before while Myles brought round the tractors from out back.

As a boy, Myles’ father Allen had taken him out on early morning rounds, drilling him on the finer points of handling a machine. At one point Myles had been a decent enough hand, but Myles never had the passion required to master farm life. At eighteen he’d left home, and save for the brief trip back where out of guilt he would lend a hand, Myles had done what he could to forget his father’s lessons.

He paid for it while parking, jarring the tractors in and out of gear and taking multiple shots to line up the trailers. Eventually he got it right, although his sisters knew their father would have laughed silly at how long it took.

Between the vehicles and the tools, the children knew they would fetch a pretty penny, but what they earned from the auction paled in comparison to what they’d made from their father’s livestock. While he was still breathing, Allen Pritchett had proudly claimed that he could trace the origins of his cattle as far back as he could the lineage of their family. Texas longhorns, driven north before Colorado was a state, had given the Pritchett clan a stake in this world. Allen’s father and his father’s father before him had purified the bloodlines, nurturing calf to cow like shepherds of old. The herd was Allen Pritchett’s greatest source of pride, and although his children stopped showing steers in 4-H before their teenage years, they understood just how much those cattle meant.

But times had changed. Myles had alimony and a second wife to boot, and both Betty and Diane’s children would be going to college soon. It wasn’t like the Pritchett kids couldn’t handle such financial burdens, but liquidating the herd meant collecting a windfall too lucrative to pass up.

Allen Pritchett’s will wasn’t iron clad, but it had made requests. For the hundredth time he repeated his dream of Myles coming home and taking over the ranch. In case Myles failed to meet his expectations, he requested that the herd would be sold to one of his neighbors. That would keep his cows on the land, proof of what he had done as a man in the world.

But the neighbors couldn’t offer as much as the Feed Lot in Lamar, and although that meant the entire herd would be sent to the slaughterhouse in one fell swoop, one hundred and fifty years of tears and sweat and love gone in less than a month, the bottom line had made the children’s decision for them.

The ranch felt empty without the ever-present cows dotting the landscape, those specks of life in a sea of sagebrush, but as the children wandered aimlessly among the farm equipment, they tried putting aside what had already been done.

Two hours passed quickly, and soon the auctioneer began making calls. Besides the tables and the stickers, the auctioneer had also brought with him a portable podium that folded up in the bed of his Ford. While the siblings had been browsing, the auctioneer had assembled his stand on the front steps of their childhood home.

The Pritchett children planned on hiring a realtor after the estate sale, but stripping one layer of memories after another had proved more tiring than expected. Although they walked away from each divestment richer, Betty, Myles, and Diane felt each loss to the core. The house could wait. As the auctioneer hooped and hollered, the children made their way into the crowd.

While the lesser items of their father’s livelihood went first, the Pritchett kin scanned the gathered horde. Diane saw the Richardson’s and the Jensen’s, neighboring ranchers whom she’d known since she was knee high to a grasshopper. Mrs. Jensen wasn’t paying attention to the auction, but as Diane watched her husband Larry place an offer, Mrs. Jensen looked over at the children and smiled.

Diane nodded back, but as she did she caught something on Mrs. Jensen’s face that didn’t quite sync up. It was bright outside, just past noon on a clear Colorado morning, but even with the glare from the sun, it seemed like Mrs. Jensen had something in her eyes. They were reddened, puffy, and if Diane didn’t know better, it looked like she’d been crying. Mrs. Jensen turned away, but Diane made note to ask her siblings if they had noticed the same thing.

While Diane scanned the crowd, her sister Betty was busy as well. Betty didn’t monitor the auction like her brother Myles, her mind too preoccupied to track the climbing prices coming from the auctioneer’s microphone. No, Betty’s mind was elsewhere. Betty was the oldest, and although their mother had passed away so many years before, she had known her the best of all her siblings. She was seven when her mother died, but as Betty watched her father’s legacy being sold to the highest bidder, at such a sight she wondered what Abigail Pritchett would have said.

Abigail Pritchett had been a creature of their plains, just like their father, stock from a dying breed. Allen Pritchett never remarried after his wife’s passing, but even fifty years past her death, Betty knew he still mourned. He remembered her as the only woman he ever loved, but Betty’s memories were of a different sort.

What she remembered were the little things. The soft hands and long, brown braid. The denim skirts and topaz earrings. Those images shone clearest in Betty’s mind, flashes from youth captured in the tide of memory. How her mother lived and what she believed in were always a mystery, but if she had loved her father as much as he loved her, Betty could paint a clear enough picture.

Mother would have been proud of their father. Without a woman in the house, he raised them as best he could. Allen Pritchett wasn’t the most caring man, but he always tried, buying his girls Sunday dresses from the Sears catalogue. More often than not he purchased the wrong sizes, but he strived to do right by his girls.

How different life would have been if mother hadn’t died. Would she have endured like their father, as unending as the buttes and the sagebrush? Would she have stood by and let her children, her own flesh and blood, give away the only birthright they had coming? Even though it had been so many years since her passing, Betty felt chills as she imagined what her mother would say.

As his sisters searched the crowd and scoured their souls, Myles Pritchett was busy registering the rewards of the auction. Insurance sales had gone dry as of late, and combined with his monthly alimony, he needed the payoff.

Myles knew he should have been closer to his father Allen, but despite being his dad’s pride and joy, he never could relate to his old man. The world had done moved on, and try as he did convincing his father that it was time to move with it, time and testament did little to budge those ways of old. Myles gave up on his pops years before, but although his father always tried convincing him how much better life on the ranch was, where life was still something you could still measure in heartbeats, Myles had never wanted any bit of Allen Pritchett’s world.

When Myles left home at eighteen, his Levi jeans and cowboy boots made him stand out. He learned fast enough, and within a week had thrown away anything that linked him to the dust. He planned on being his own man, and although it was rougher going than expected, he had grown his own life out of the fabric of the world. Myles didn’t raise cattle, but he did raise something else.

His father had never been able to see that, but as Myles watched the last of the tools being sold to the Co-op out of Folsom, he understood that he was finally free. Good riddance, he thought. He had trashed the rest of it years before.

When the auctioneer finished selling the smaller items, the crowd began making its way over the to farm equipment. John Deere and New Holland tractors stood waiting, workhorses of the industrial generation. Just like the horses and the mules before them, they too required tender care. Through countless hours of tinker and toil, Allen Pritchett had oiled, greased, and rebuilt every machine. He raised his children, but he nurtured his equipment. Perhaps if he’d done things the other way around, life would have turned out different.

The auctioneer started with the tractors. He led the crowd around both machines, calling out the mileage and attributes of each before bidding began. The sale started off at the children’s agreed opening price, and although there were fewer bidders for the big dollar items, desire still drove the prices high. The John Deere sold first, and after some heated bidding, the New Holland tractor went for more than expected. The children watched as the auctioneer moved his way down the line. It was no surprise when the swather and the other ancillary machine parts went to the same buyers as the tractors. It all worked better as a set.

After the last of the farm equipment went, the auctioneer made quick work of the cattle trailers. Mr. Jensen purchased one, but when Diane searched to see if she could again find his wife, Mrs. Jensen was gone. Mr. Jensen went up and signed his paperwork, nodding at Myles before retiring to find his wife.

The final items for sale that day were their father’s two pickup trucks. The first was a 2010 Ford F-150. Myles and Betty had given that truck to their father on his seventieth birthday, but although it should have shown the wear of time, it had taken very little effort to wash it clean. Truth was, even though it irritated his kids to no end, their father Allen had never really taken to the Ford.

As Allen Pritchett saw it, the world had gotten into the business of trying to cheat life out of its due recompense. He never took to the new truck, because in his eyes, it just wouldn’t have been fair. “God didn’t make the land hard to be conquered,” he told Betty on one of their bi-weekly phone calls, “he made it hard so that men and women would rise to the challenge.”

For that reason, Myles knew he would face tough completion if he wanted to buy the vehicle back. It was nearly brand new, and to make it his own, he would have to pay the price.

Myles hadn’t told his sisters his plan to purchase the truck, but when he raised his hand as the auction started, neither seemed surprised. All the money from the sale was going to go into a community pot, so it made little difference to Betty or Diane if their brother wanted a piece of their father’s memory. For his part, Myles didn’t want to remember his father any more than he wanted the family brand on his left ass cheek, but he knew a good deal when he saw one. He ended up paying two thousand dollars more than he would have liked, but with the money he would get back from the pool, Myles was more than satisfied.

After the F-150 sold, the auctioneer turned to the final item of the day. The old Chevy was etched into the children’s memories, each one of them storing it in a different place in their hearts. All three Pritchett children had learned to drive in that sky blue, 1967 gas-guzzler, forcing the rigid stick shift into gear as their father guided their dirt road lessons.

Myles had driven the truck to his senior prom. Splitting a bottled of pilfered Jack Daniels, he had reached third base with Rebecca Wainwright in the high school parking lot. The course, bench seat and steamy windows never left his mind.

Diane had driven the Chevy to her prom as well, but what she remembered best from her time in their father’s truck was the day it brought her home safe from the worst hailstorm she had ever seen. Diane was driving back from basketball practice, and although she should have known better, she’d been caught out on back roads, far from cover. The hail was softball size, cracking the windshield and denting the hood, but as she cried amidst the thumping dings and lightning flashes, the Chevy never faltered. Her father met her in the driveway of their home, but although his truck was forever scarred, he never said a word.

Betty had her own special memory of the Chevy, but it was one she never shared. On the fifth anniversary of her mother’s death, Betty and her father Allen had gone to visit Abigail Pritchett’s grave. They brought with them a bouquet of wildflowers that took all morning to pick, but as they stood together in the windswept, Branson cemetery, Betty had seen her father cry for the first and only time. Allen Pritchett cried and wept and looked up at heaven like he would curse it, but eventually, he just wiped his eyes with his denim sleeves, patting his oldest daughter on her head as he did.

Betty had only been twelve years old, but that memory shone out for her like a beacon in the sky. “You look so much like your mother,” her father had said. After he had his fill of grief, he walked with her, hand in hand, back to the Chevy. They took the long way home, but although it put them on the road for an extra forty-five minutes, Betty didn’t complain.

As the crowd descended upon the old Chevy, the auctioneer led the mass. He had just placed his hand on the rusted bed of the pickup when out of nowhere, a movement flashed across the still of the day. The auctioneer had been looking away, but sensing the stunned faces of the crowd, he was lucky enough to turn and rip his hand back just in time. As quick as he’d been, the blur was fast enough, snapping down and catching sleeve on the auctioneer’s escaping arm.

The Blue Heeler lashed out again and again, discontent at only catching fabric.

Bailey the Blue might not have been as old as the man she called master, but each one of Allen Pritchett’s children liked to joke that their father’s dog had been around as long as him. In truth, Allen had picked Bailey out of the litter ten years after Diane left home, but that had been so long ago that the memory of the dog’s origins had faded into the landscape.

When they had gotten the call from Mr. Jensen that he had found their father, dead in a field besides his tractor, the children had come home as fast as they could. When they arrived, Bailey still occupied her spot on the front porch, guarding the homestead and waiting for her boss.

Two days after their father’s death, the dog hadn’t moved.

Diane tried prying Bailey with a bowl of water and a treat, but Bailey had shown her teeth anytime anyone of the kids or grandkids came too near. Finally, Myles had run her off after she snapped at his youngest. That had been three weeks prior, and although it was as sore of a subject as the cattle, the children had all secretly hoped that Bailey had gone the way of their father.

The crowd had recovered from their surprise, but although Bailey hadn’t drawn blood, the auctioneer was raising hell. Myles tried apologizing, but the auctioneer wanted nothing of the sort. “Why didn’t you tell me there was a god damn dog,” he yelled at Myles, but after both Diane and Betty joined their brother, they were able to convince him that they were just as surprised.

The crowd backed off the old Chevy, almost as if Bailey might strike out like a rattler, her danger reaching far beyond her muzzle. Myles assured everyone the dog was only frightened, but as he made his way up to the truck in slow, measured steps, Bailey didn’t flinch. Hairs rose rigid on the back of her neck while foam dripped down her yellow teeth. The auctioneer asked Betty if the dog was rabid, but Betty could only look on as her brother tried to calm the angry dog.

When Myles got as close as the auctioneer had been, Bailey snapped out again. Myles fell over in a pile as he back peddled away, but Bailey did not advance. Instead, she slunk back into the bed, scanning the crowd for her next challenger.

Myles retreated and dusted himself off, but he was as mad as hell. He didn’t carry a gun, but knew that with so many farm people around that one had to be near at hand. “You got a pistol?” Myles asked the auctioneer, but after he shook his head no, Myles turned to probe the crowd. Before he got the chance, Betty was on him as fast as Bailey. “Just what do you plan on doing if you get a gun? Are you going to shoot Bailey right here in front of the crowd? Have you lost your damn mind?”

Myles was admonished, slinking back behind his sisters and the auctioneer, each one of them staring at the truck and the unrelenting guard dog within. Many of the gathered shoppers began dropping off, but although the siblings knew they needed to act, no idea presented itself. Dust from exiting vehicles drifted across the yard. As Diane looked out over the crowd, she saw the Jensen’s truck pulling out of the driveway. She had finally found Mrs. Jensen, but although the old woman wasn’t looking her way, Diane saw her grinning ear to ear.

After fifteen minutes without action, only a handful of bidders remained. Betty wondered if they waited for the auction to resume, or rather, if they were merely interested in what happened with the dog. Myles told the auctioneer he could continue when ready, but although their brother hadn’t given up the fight, his sisters stepped in to intercede.

“We’ll just wait to sell the Chevy,” Betty told the auctioneer. It was one of the smaller dollar items, and considering what had happened, no one seemed keen to pry the truck from Bailey. Myles was upset that business wouldn’t be concluded, but as Bailey stared him down one final time, he accepted that there were just some things they could not shake free.

The auctioneer called out to the remaining bidders, thanking them for their attendance. The crowd departed with their winnings. When the last of the farm trucks pulled out of the driveway, only the children, the auctioneer, and Bailey remained.

Alone at last, the auctioneer led the children back over to his truck. As they walked across the yard, further and further from the old Chevy, no one turned back to look. It was time to focus on the success of the sale. What was behind them was a memory unwilling to let go. In front of them was a new path, a new direction, and a new life cut clean at last from the world of their father.

The auctioneer pulled out his clipboard, went over the receipts, and gave each one of the children an invoice of what they had made. The payment was enough to make them forget Bailey, and relief filled Betty, Myles, and Diane. After shaking hands with the auctioneer, they stood back as he pulled out of the driveway.

In the quiet prairie breeze, the Pritchett children stood without speaking. Eventually, Myles announced his plans. “I don’t plan on staying one more night if I don’t have to,” he said to the wind. “Besides, I needed to head back home and grab Cheryl. We’ll have to drive back tomorrow to pick up dad’s truck.”

As for Betty and Diane, both sisters searched the other for any desire to stay. Nothing bound them to leave, but after what happened, both Betty and Diane had to go. What they had been, where they had come from, was gone. They did not walk away from it as easily as their brother, but still they walked away. Betty and Diane told Myles they would leave as well, so as a group, the children packed their things.

It didn’t take long to gather what remained, and soon enough, Betty, Diane, and Myles stood besides their vehicles. Before they got in, each child turned and looked around, searching for something they could not identify. All they found was an unending sea of buffalo grass.

Myles said goodbye first, and after he had gotten in his car and driven away, Betty and Diane understood that it was time for them to go as well. The sisters embraced each other longer than they had their brother. Neither of them spoke, but as they let go of each other, something between them broke. Family only counts for so much. If it doesn’t stand for everything, it stands for nothing. Diane felt a tear run down her face as she got in her car, but although it hurt her greatly, she didn’t slow down as she crossed the cattle guard at the end of road.

Betty was the last to leave. She lingered after her sister’s departure, fulfilling the role of the oldest child. Nothing was out in the yard, the front door to house was locked, and other than the Chevy, all remnants of the sale were gone.

Betty couldn’t see Bailey in the bed of the Chevy, but she was certain the old dog was still there. Bailey had drawn her line in the sand, and whether it was old age, or rather, some kind of misplaced loyalty, she had held her ground. Betty didn’t know if her father would have been proud, but as she got in her car and began pulling down the driveway, she realized that it was probably better that she didn’t.

Late that night, after the final cricket ceased chirping and the dew grew thick on the grass, movement stirred in the yard of the old farmstead. Although no one was there to see it, an old Blue Heeler, arthritic and half blind, leapt from the bed of the Chevy and made her way to her spot on the porch. What she searched for in the darkness, what she waited for till morning, no one would ever know.

Still she waited.

Some people walk away from where they come from. Some children deny what they once were. Eventually, the Chevy was sold to a scrap yard. The house went to the bank, and after a buyer couldn’t be found, insurance claims made up for the loss. Field mice found their way into the declining structure, and weather and time wore at the landmark of humanity on the world.

The plains continued on, the buttes and the sagebrush as unending as time itself, but the proof of a family, of a man and his work and his life, those things faded away. Man’s best friend made her stand, but against such odds, what could she do.

* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Nicholas MacDonnell 2016

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