Old McSimon Had A Farm
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A.J. Simon was seated at the computer terminal in the Simon and Simon office on this morning in late March. The blond man was concentrating on creating a crisp, coherent report regarding a case he and his brother had just completed. This task was not as simple as it should have been, since A.J. had to piece together his work based on the multitude of notes surrounding him, some of which were written on the back of gum wrappers and old credit card receipts.
"Thanks a lot, Rick," A.J. muttered, squinting at a coffee stained napkin that contained a scrawled conversation between Rick and an important informant.
A.J. was holding the napkin up to the ceiling light, trying to make out as many of the words as he could, when the office door opened.
"It's about time you showed up," the squinting man growled. "I need your help here."
"I thought you quit trying to find secret messages hidden in jars of Ovaltine when you were ten."
A.J. dropped his arms. "Very funny. This happens to be one of the notes you gave me regarding the Mulden case. We've got to give this report to the attorney this afternoon." A.J. handed his brother the napkin. "Now what's this say?"
Rick read the creased, stained napkin without any problems. "It says Karen. 672-8663. 694-5571."
A.J.'s fingers were posed over the computer's keyboard. "What's that mean? Who's Karen?"
"Karen's a waitress down at the Koffee Kup. This is her work number, and her home number. I'm glad you found this. I've been wonderin' what I did with it."
A.J. turned in his chair, scowling up at his brother. "Do you mean to tell me I've just spent the past fifteen minutes trying to decipher your juvenile attempts at getting a date?"
"Well...uh...yeah, I guess that pretty well sizes it up."
"Rick! I can't--"
"Now, A.J., don't go gettin' your shorts in a bundle over it. It's not that big of a deal," Rick dismissed, walking away from the computer work center his brother was seated at.
"Not that big of a deal! Rick, I just told you this report has to be to the attorney's office this afternoon. It's already eleven o'clock. You told me yesterday we'd both work on it today and have it, I quote, 'Done in no time.'"
"We will, we will," Rick pacified. "I'm here now, aren't I? We've got plenty of time yet before that attorney's office closes at five."
A.J. shook his head and sighed. After fourteen years in business with his brother, he knew it would be fruitless to lecture Rick once again on the value of completing a report with time to spare.
Rick must have been reading his brother's mind. "Look, I know you hate workin' this way, and I'm sorry. I really am. I had planned to be on time this morning, but I got tied up with a long distance phone call."
Before A.J. could ask any questions, Rick walked over and gave his brother a clap on the back. "How does a little vacation in the country sound to you right about now?"
"It sounds like something we don't have time for," was all A.J. would say regarding the matter. "Besides, our vacation time for this year has already been plotted. I just took a week in February to go skiing with Dianna, you and Carlos are going on your annual fishing trip in June, we're both going camping for a week with Town and Jerry in August, I picked another week in October to get some things done around the house, and you picked a week in December to do the same at your boat. There's no vacation time left."
Rick rolled his eyes. "A.J., what good does it do us to own our own business if we can't take some time off when we want to?"
From where he sat facing the computer terminal, A.J. shot back, "If we took time off every time you wanted to, we wouldn't have a business to own."
"What if I told you this was going to be a working vacation?"
A.J. turned in his seat, looking up at his brother. "What exactly does that mean?"
Rick perched his lanky frame on a corner of the oak computer workstation that was located along the wall where the couch used to be. In place of the sofa, the brothers now had a round oak coffee table in the center of the room, with a grouping of three overstuffed blue upholstered chairs surrounding it.
"Do you remember me mentioning a guy I served in Nam with named Keith Russo?"
"Didn't he and his wife stop to visit you a few years ago when they were on their way to Hawaii?"
"Yeah, that's the guy. Him and Sue, his wife, were on their second honeymoon then, celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary."
"So what does that have to do with us taking a working vacation?"
"Well, you might remember me tellin' you at one time or another that Keith has a farm in Minnesota. Several farms actually. He inherited the farm he grew up on from his parents, and has bought several other farms close by. He runs a large crop operation, over two thousand acres, as well as raises hogs."
Upon hearing this explanation, and also recalling Rick's words from earlier of a ‘working vacation’ caused warning bells to blare in A.J.'s head.
"I don't care what the problem is, Rick, I'm not going.”
"What do you mean you're not going? I haven't even told you where we're going yet! Or what the case involves."
"I don't care what it involves, I'm not going."
Rick changed tactics. "I never thought I'd live to see the day when my brother, A.J. Simon, refused to help someone in need. Refused to help someone who specifically sought out his agency. And, to top it off, someone who is a friend of his older brother. A friend from Vietnam. A friend from a war where a loyal buddy was hard to come by. A--"
A.J. held up his hand. "Okay, okay, spare me the pity party. I'll listen to what you have to say, but I'm not making any promises at this point."
"Fair enough," Rick agreed. "As I was sayin,' Keith owns four other farms besides the farm he and his family live on. He has hogs on all the farms, and farms the acreage on each one as well. Where the problem comes in, is that four of those five farms he owns don't have houses on them anymore. The houses had been torn down on some long before he ever bought the remaining buildings and land, while on two others he had to have the houses torn down because of their age, therefore no one lives on four of the farms. Because of that fact, he's had trailer loads of hogs disappear from the barns on these vacant farms."
"How long has this been going on?"
"For over a year now on and off. The local cops have had no luck in catching anyone at it. Keith's staked the farms out himself, but hasn't had any luck either. He's positive of one thing though."
"That whoever's doing it knows how to handle hogs and follows the hog market. He's been able to stumble upon a pattern that suggests the thieves watch the market. They know when hog prices are high, and that's when they strike."
Rick nodded. "Keith assures me that there has to be more than one man behind this. It would be too difficult for a guy by himself to load a hundred hogs on a trailer."
"I guess I'll take his word for it on that fact," A.J. said. "As much as I hate to ask this next question, why did Keith call you?"
"He wants to hire us."
"I was afraid you were going to say that," A.J. mumbled before pointing out, "Rick, Minnesota's a long distance from California. There's no way this guy can afford us. He'll have to pay our plane fare, our motel bill, our fee--"
"He'll pay our plane fare," Rick assured. "And about our fee, I told him we'd charge him three hundred dollars a day."
Although Simon and Simon was now getting five hundred dollars a day plus expenses, A.J. didn't argue this with Rick. The brothers often took the liberty of giving certain clients, for various reasons, a break when it came to their fee.
"Okay fine, he's paying our plane fare and three hundred dollars a day, but that still leaves the motel and meals--"
"We won't have to worry about a motel. There's two houses on the home farm. One house is occupied by Keith and his family, the other one is used for hired men. We'll stay in that one. As far as meals go, we can either eat with Keith's family, or cook our own in the house we'll be staying at."
"Still, it seems like a lot of money for one Mid-western farmer to spend--"
"Don't worry about it. He's got the money. Keith's folks made some pretty good money off the farm back when farmers could make money. Keith's a shrewd businessman, and has managed pretty well for himself too."
"I'm not worried that he won't pay us. I just think it sounds like a lot of hassles to go through simply to have us solve a case any qualified P.I. can solve. We could probably ask around - get him the names of some good P.I.'s in Minnesota. Did you tell him that?"
"Yeah, I did. But he's not interested. He wants to hire us."
A.J. wrinkled his noise in distaste. "Rick...we've solved a lot of cases over the years, and in solving some of them the circumstances we've found ourselves in haven't always been pleasant...but a pig farm?"
Rick laughed at the distress on his brother's face. "Just think of it like I told you before - a working vacation."
"Exactly what type of work are we talking about here?"
"Gettin' to know the other guys who work for Keith, ask some questions around town...plowing, planting, feeding hogs--"
"Plowing? Planting? Feeding hogs? Rick!"
"Well a'course, A.J. What'd you expect? We're takin' a job on a farm. How else would a guy go undercover on a farm except by doin' those kinds of jobs?"
"Rick, we don't know anything about farming."
"Sure we do."
A.J.'s eyebrows rose. "We do?"
"Sure, we do. We were chaperons for those 4-H kids last year, weren't we?"
that's wasn't anything like being employees of a working farm."
Rick ignored his brother. "And when we were kids we visited Great Grandma Simon's farm every summer."
"Yeah, and collected a few eggs, got chased by the old rooster, and played with the kittens. Those things don't exactly require a lot of knowledge or skill. Aside from the fact that Great Grandma Simon died in 1955, and neither one of us has been on a farm since."
"You know, A.J., you spend too much of your time worryin' about life's little problems. We can do this job for Keith. I know we can."
A.J. thought a moment then asked, "Rick, why is this job so important to you?"
"I already told you why."
"No, you told me Keith's an old friend from Nam, and that he wants to hire us. We've both turned down old friends before. Why do you want to travel two thousand miles to do a job you know as well as I do that we're not qualified for?"
"He's not just a friend. He's a friend from Nam," was Rick's only explanation.
That one sentence made A.J. see he didn't have a chance at changing his brother's mind regarding this case. The blond man sighed in resignation. "Okay, okay, call Keith. Tell him he's just found himself two new hired hands."
"Great! When can we start?"
A.J. turned back to the computer screen, instructing, "Take a look at my calendar. We're booked solid for next week, and probably for several weeks after that as well. See what the first week in May looks like.
The first week in May was free, so while A.J. returned his attention to the report he was typing into the computer, Rick placed a call to Minnesota.
A.J. rolled his eyes and said a little prayer as he listened to his brother's side of the conversation.
"Sure we know how to operate a tractor, Keith. Can't be much different than ridin' a lawn mower.
“And a plow? Well no, I don't think either one of us has ever pulled a plow behind a tractor, but we can learn...can't we?
“Hogs? No, we don't know too much about hogs, but we do know a lot about sheep. They're not too different, are they?
“Oh, they are? Well, don't worry about it, Keith, we'll learn. We used to spend the summers on our great grandmother's farm.
“Yeah, we worked there some. And A.J., well he just loves animals.
“Sure he does.
“You didn't think, based on what I've told you about him, that he's a country boy? Well, he is. He can't wait to get to that farm of yours, can ya' A.J.?"
A.J. gave his brother a wilting look. "I'm delirious with joy."
Rick ignored that comment, continuing to converse with his friend to finalize the arrangements for the Simons' arrival.
Lord, give me the strength to get through another one of my brother's harebrained ideas, A.J. prayed as he hit the print button and waited for his document to appear.
Four weeks later, on the evening before they were to depart for Minnesota, the Simon brothers had dinner at their mother's home.
As the trio ate dessert in the dining room, Rick said, "I don't know for sure how long we'll be gone, Mom. It could be a couple of weeks."
A.J. glanced up from his pie. "It won't be any longer than two weeks. At least not for me."
"What do you mean by that?" Cecilia asked her youngest.
"Awe, A.J.'s just bein' an old poop, Mom," Rick complained. "He's got somethin' against country living."
"I don't have anything against country living," A.J. negated, "as long as it's others who are living there, and not me."
Rick looked at his mother. "Because of that, A.J.'s only givin' me two weeks to solve this case. If it takes any longer he's gonna fly back here, and I'm gonna stay in Minnesota for as long as Keith is willing to pay us."
"That sounds like a fair arrangement to me," Cecilia agreed, trying to defuse the argument that was on the horizon between her children. "I'm sure both of you can't afford to be away from the office for more than two weeks anyway, can you?"
"No, we can't," A.J. confirmed.
Rick smirked in Cecilia's direction. "You always take his side."
Cecilia smiled at Rick's teasing. "I'm not taking anyone's side. I'm just saying this sounds like a good arrangement. You know, Rick, even back when you boys were small, A.J. wasn't particularly crazy about farm life. Do you remember how that old rooster of Great Grandma Simon’s used to chase him? He’s run from it screaming and come hide behind my skirt."
Rick laughed. "Yeah. And I remember one time he was running through the cow pasture and slipped on some shi...manure. Boy, was he a mess!"
"He sure was. And did he smell! Your father and I stripped him and hosed him down outside. The entire time A.J. was crying and carrying on, while yelling, 'I stink! I stink!'"
A red faced A.J. put a halt to the reminiscing. "Okay, okay, you two, that's enough. I've never proclaimed to be a country boy."
Rick reached over, giving his brother an encouraging clap on the back. "Yeah, but once this vacation is over, little brother, I have a feelin' you'll have a change of heart. You know what they say, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy."
"Well, they won't be saying that about me," A.J. replied as he stood to help his mother gather up the dirty dishes.
Cecilia eyed her blond son. He was dressed this evening as he had been earlier in the day at the office in a black and white tweed sport coat, black pleated dress slacks, white shirt, and black, white, and gray silk tie. She stage whispered to her oldest, "I doubt if they'll be saying that about your brother either, Rick."
Rick wasn't about to give in. "Aw, he's gonna love it, Mom. A couple of days in the country, and A.J.'ll be a new man."
"I don't want to be a new man!" was yelled from the kitchen, causing Rick and Cecilia burst into laughter.
Rick's dog Rex was left with Cecilia that night, as was the phone number of the Russo home in Minnesota in case the woman needed to get a hold of her sons for any reason. Cecilia also promised to act as a secretary for the Simon and Simon detective agency for the next two weeks. She assured A.J. she'd pick up the mail daily, and take down any messages that were left on the office answering machine. She was also left in charge of collecting the mail that arrived at each son's home in their absence, and in charge of watering A.J.'s plants.
The brothers left their mother's home early that evening because their flight was to depart at eight the next morning. Cecilia wanted to get to bed early, too, since she was providing her sons with a ride to the airport. Rick and A.J. were still debating the merits of farm life, versus the comforts of suburban living, as they walked to their vehicles.
Cecilia smiled and shook her head as she shut the door on her bickering offspring.
I have a feeling the boys will have some interesting stories to tell by the time this case is over with.
As she climbed the stairs for bed with Rex at her heels, Cecilia’s final thoughts were, Very interesting stories.
The Simons' flight arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at two o'clock central time the next afternoon. By the time they were in a rental car and headed for Keith's farm, which was ninety miles south, it was three o’clock. In consideration of the two hour time difference, and the hours spent traveling, Rick and A.J. agreed that the day seemed to be almost over before it had even begun.
A.J. drove down state highway 52 while Rick navigated from the passenger seat based on a map and written directions Keith had sent.
Once they were south of Rochester, the last major city on their route, things got a little tricky as the brothers had to navigate their way through fifteen miles of small towns and open country land, turning this way and that as Keith's directions dictated. Even the reluctant farmer, A.J., couldn't help but admire the lush green beauty of southeastern Minnesota. The landscape was quite different from what the California private investigators were used to.
A.J. drove through the small town of Grand Prairie. Once the town was behind the brothers, A.J. paid attention to the odometer until it registered they had traveled four miles beyond Grand Prairie. Just as Keith had said, there was a gravel road on the right. A.J. turned, and once again watched the odometer until they’d traveled three miles. They arrived at a long gravel driveway just as Keith had said they would. Sitting back a half of a mile off the road was a large white farmhouse with a wrap around front porch. To the side and behind it, were four bright red barns of various sizes, as well as two large metal buildings used for machinery storage. If the brothers had any doubts as to whether or not they were at the right place, a large red and white sign at the end of the driveway took care of that. The sign was dominated by a painting of a hog. Underneath that was painted, RUSSO FAMILY FARM - PUREBRED HAMPSHIRE HOGS.
"This must be the place," Rick observed.
"No kidding," A.J. rolled his eyes at the obvious as he turned in the driveway.
A.J. parked the Jeep Cherokee rental car next to the house. The brothers got out and were greeted by a barking German shepherd. Rick, who had no fear of dogs, even big ones who were showing their teeth, approached the beautiful animal.
"Hi, fella. How are you?"
The dog's demeanor quickly changed. He wagged his tail, happy to be receiving attention from this lanky stranger.
A man's head peered out from the door of a barn.
Rick called to the familiar figure, "Hey, you'd better get yourself a new watch dog! This one's about as fierce as a kitten!"
Keith, who was thin and lanky like Rick though several inches shorter, walked across the farmyard toward the Simons.
"Leave it to you to figure that out in two seconds flat, Simon!"
The two old Marine buddies met each other half way, exchanging bear hugs and slaps on the back.
A.J. approached, but allowed his brother and Keith all the time they needed to say hello.
When the two men broke apart, Rick introduced, "Keith, this is my kid brother, A.J. A.J., this is Keith."
The forty-four year old A.J. inwardly grimaced at being referred to as Rick's ‘kid brother,’ but he let it pass. For whatever reason, whenever Rick introduced him to an old buddy from Nam he was always, "My kid brother."
A.J.'s hand was grasped and shaken. He could feel thick layers of calluses that were an indication of Keith’s years of physical labor on the farm.
"It's nice to finally meet you, A.J. I've heard a lot about you over the years."
A.J. gave a teasing smile. "All good I'm sure."
Keith's eyes twinkled. "Well...most of it good. Your big brother was prone to brag on you a bit back in our days in Nam, but on the other hand, he could tell quite a bawdy tale when he had mind to."
"Of that I have no doubt," A.J. wholeheartedly agreed.
Keith beat at the feed dust on his jacket and blue jeans. "You fellas want a cup of coffee before we take the grand tour? Maybe a piece of cake, too? Sue was just taking one out of the oven when I was in for lunch."
Not having had anything to eat since the less than desirable meal served by flight attendants at noon, the Simons agreed to the offered snack.
The three men entered the Russo home through an outside door that led down a flight of stairs into the basement laundry room. Keith took a moment to remove his work boots and dusty jacket, then cleaned up at the sink that sat by the washer.
"Sorry to bring you in this way, but Sue gets pretty ticked off if the kids or I walk in the house in our dirty farm clothes."
"Don't worry about it," Rick assured.
The men made their way through the concrete block basement, Rick and A.J. following Keith up another flight of wooden stairs that led into the large kitchen.
Keith closed the basement door behind them, calling, "Sue! Hey, Susie! Rick's here!"
The Simons could hear footsteps from somewhere up above them, and then someone descending a stairway in another part of the house.
A heavyset blond woman appeared from around the corner, greeting Rick with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"Rick, it's so good to see you again. We really appreciate you coming all this way."
Rick wrapped his arms around the ample sized woman in return. "It's good to see you too, darlin.’ You're still too damn sexy for the old lug you married."
The two broke their embrace and Sue laughed. "I don't know how sexy I am anymore, Rick Simon. The closer I get to fifty, the more pounds I put on."
Rick put an arm around his old friend's wife. "That just means there's more of you to love."
Sue laughed at Rick's flattery. "I think you should visit more often. You definitely know how to make a woman feel better about herself."
Sue glanced at A.J., which prompted Rick to introduce, "Sue, this is my brother, A.J."
Sue smiled warmly at the younger Simon and shook his hand. "It's nice to meet you, A.J. Keith and I appreciate you and Rick coming all this way to help us."
"That's not a problem. We’re happy to do it."
Sue urged the men to take a seat at the antique kitchen table. Soon large slices of chocolate cake and warm cups of coffee were put down on the blue cloth place mats. A.J. observed the comfortable country furnishings, taking in all the personal touches like the pig cookie jar on the counter top, the wallpaper with chickens, ducks, and geese on it, as well as other antiques placed around the room. An olden wooden butter churn stood in one corner, and in another corner was a wooden bin labeled, POTATOES AND ONIONS.
"You have a nice home," A.J. complimented the couple.
"Thank you. We've done a lot of work to it over the years," Sue replied. "Keith's father died thirteen years ago. His mother bought a small house in town then and we moved in here. It needed quite a bit of updating, so over the years we've done a room at a time. We just built on the family room, and a master bed and bath for ourselves, last summer."
Sue pointed toward a large family room beyond the kitchen. A.J. could just barely see from where he sat the master bedroom at the end of the family room.
"That's a nice big room," Rick commented of the addition, taking note of the massive stone fireplace that dominated one wall.
"We sure enjoy it," Keith related. "It's also nice not being upstairs with the kids. After all these years we're enjoying our privacy."
Rick's eyebrows waggled at the couple. "I just bet you are."
The couple laughed, then Keith remarked, "You've still only got one thing on your mind, Sergeant Simon,"
Rick's eyes sparkled. "I sure do."
As the foursome sat together making small talk and enjoying their snack, A.J. asked, "Speaking of kids, how many do you have? I don't think Rick's ever told me about your family."
"Four,” Sue answered. “Our oldest, Adam, graduated from college last June with a degree in animal science. He was married in August. He and his wife live in Iowa. He's working for the State Department of Agriculture there."
"Sounds like a good job," Rick stated.
"It is," Keith replied. "Someday he plans to come back here and help me run the farm, but he needs to get his feet wet out in the big wide world first."
"Then there's Sarah,” Sue said. She's a senior at the University of Minnesota. She plans on being a veterinarian."
"That's quite a goal," A.J. said with admiration.
"Quite a goal, and quite a lot of money," Keith quipped. "She's got four years of veterinary school ahead of her yet. I'm going to have to sell a lot of hogs over the next few years to pay for my little girl's dream."
Rick smiled. "The joys of parenthood."
"That's for sure," Sue agreed. "Then we've got our ‘tag along babies,’ as Keith and I refer to them. The two children the stork delivered without any planning on our part, Matthew and Seth. Matt's seventeen. He's a junior in high school. Seth's twelve. He's in seventh grade. You'll meet them later this afternoon. Seth's got baseball practice after school today so he'll be home around six." Sue glanced up at the kitchen clock to see it was ten minutes past five. "Matt should have been home an hour ago or better. Who knows where he is?" she finished with an angry shrug.
Keith attempted to cover his wife's anger. "You know how seventeen-year-old boys are. They think they're adults until they need clean laundry, a hot meal, or a few bucks, then they show up at home real fast."
Rick and A.J. chuckled, nodding their agreement.
"Do the boys know who we are?" A.J. asked.
Keith shook his head as Sue went around the table refilling coffee cups. "No, we decided it was best just to tell them the same thing we're telling everyone else, that the two of you are my cousins from California, here on a working vacation. I hire a lot of extra help in the spring and the fall because of planting and harvest, so no one will question it. I come from a large family - my father had ten brothers and sisters, my mother eight, so I've got cousins spread all across the United States I haven't seen in years. Matt and Seth won't think anything of the fact that I've never mentioned either one of you."
"We just don't want one of the kids to accidentally slip up and mention the reason you're really here to someone," Sue explained.
"That's fine," A.J. agreed. "It sounds like a good plan."
Sue reseated herself at the table with the men. She smiled fondly while informing the Simons, "I must warn you, though, that our Seth is naturally curious and as friendly as a puppy. He'll latch on to one, or both of you, and follow you everywhere with ten thousand questions regarding how you're related to us, why you're here, what you do for a living, things like that."
"That's good to know," Rick said. "A.J. and I have a story worked out for people, but we can fine tune it for Seth's sake."
"What about Matt?" A.J. asked.
"About Matt?" Sue questioned.
"He's seventeen. He might not be quite so easily fooled as Seth. Won't he be curious regarding Rick and I suddenly showing up here? I just want to be prepared in case he starts asking questions too."
"You don't need to worry about Matt," Sue said softly. "He hardly even notices his own family these days, he's not going to care about two men who--"
"Sue," Keith said in a tone that clearly held some type of warning that neither Rick or A.J. could decipher.
Sue heeded to her husband's tone of voice, though not without a dark look thrown in his direction. The Simon brothers exchanged glances as the woman stood and began collecting the empty plates and cups. "I'd better get these few things washed up, and then get supper started. Keith, why don't you take Rick and A.J. outside and show them around, where they're going to be staying, things like that. Supper will be ready at seven."
"That sounds like a good idea," Keith agreed. The sudden tension between Keith and his wife was obvious to the two detectives.
The men rose from the table as one and headed for the basement stairs, the Simons thanking their hostess for the cake and coffee.
Keith put his boots and jacket back on, then led the brothers outside. All he said in regards to what had just occurred in the kitchen was, "Sue and I have our disagreements over Matt."
Figuring the whole situation was none of their business, the brothers didn't do anymore than nod their heads in acknowledgment.
"Teenagers can present their challenges,” Rick said. “I know I gave my mom a few on occasion."
"On occasion?" A.J. laughed. "Now that's the understatement of the year. He presented our mother with challenges on a daily basis, Keith."
"Ah, your memory's not what it used to be, A.J." Rick turned to his old war buddy. "He has a tendency to exaggerate."
These words prompted a verbal battle between the Simons that left Keith laughing. The tension from earlier was soon forgotten as the men made their way around the farmyard.
An hour later Rick and A.J. had been in the two large machine sheds and had observed an array of machinery that was, for the most part, foreign to them. A.J. tried his best to remember everything Keith pointed out to them; tractors, plows, a combine, four gravity boxes, a planter, a disc, a cultamulcher, a hay bind, and a chopper, just to name a few things the blond man knew nothing about, not to mention an assortment of wagons used for hauling a multitude of things from the fields.
The Simons next had a tour of the hog facilities, prompting A.J. to ask Keith, "How many pigs do you have?"
"Here? Just on this farm? Or all together?"
"Both I guess. On this farm, as well as all together."
Looking out over a fenced-in pasture where seventy sows were housed, Keith replied, "Here, about six hundred. All together, probably about twelve or thirteen hundred. It's hard to keep an accurate count as there's several new litters born each week."
"How many piglets in a litter?" Rick asked.
"On an average, ten."
Rick gave a low whistle. "That's a lot of pigs."
"How does all this work?" A.J. asked the farmer. "I mean, we've seen pigs of every size and shape, some in buildings, some outside on the pasture. How do you decide who goes where?"
Keith leaned up against a fence post. "The big hogs out here, the sows, don't need much in the way of shelter, especially this time of year. In the winter, they'll be moved to a lot where they can get in and out of a building, otherwise, from April until November they're pastured outside. See the aluminum roofs I have around the pasture?"
The Simons observed several large pieces of aluminum mounted on top of fence posts throughout the pasture.
"Those are sunshades. When it gets really hot, or if it rains, the sows will go underneath those to seek protection. That's really about all they need until the weather turns bitterly cold.
"In the old diary barn, or farrowing barn, as we call it--"
"Farrowing?" Rick asked for a definition.
"Strictly a term used with hogs, Rick. It means giving birth. In the farrowing barn we have our sows who have just given birth and their piglets, as well as nursery decks for weaned piglets."
"How old are they when they're weaned?" A.J. asked, trying to learn as much as possible in as short a time as possible.
"Four to six weeks. That's also the only barn we have that's heated."
Keith started walking, Rick and A.J. following him to other buildings and pastures. Outside a small red barn the farmer stopped. Pigs were eating out of the feeders, the metal lids banging shut as the pigs snouts let them close.
"These are all gilts on this lot."
"Gilts?" Rick asked.
"Female pigs that haven't had a litter yet. Once they've had a litter they're sows."
"Oh, so these are virgins," Rick said, proud of himself for having figured that out.
Keith laughed. "Well, some of them might be, but most of them should be bred by now. The sows, as well as the gilts, have a boar that lives with them at all times. If the boar is doing his job everyone should be pregnant."
Rick smiled. "Sounds like an interesting job to me."
"I suppose it is if you're a boar. We have to watch them closely. Some of the boars are so active that they get real thin on us. When that happens I take them away from the girls and make them live by themselves for a while over in that building." Keith pointed to a building the men had already been in. The brothers had observed four boars living in there in separate pens.
This prompted a question from A.J. "I meant to ask you before, why are all those boars in separate pens, and for that matter, why only one boar in each pen with the sows and gilts? If you had two or three boars in with them wouldn't you have a better chance of knowing everyone was bred?"
"First of all, the boars would kill each other. Once a boar reaches sexual maturity you can't have him living with another boar. And as far as letting two or three breed a pen of sows, we can't do that because we need to know the breeding makeup of each hog. Because we raise purebreds and sell a number for breeding stock they have papers, just like a purebred dog does. When we file our papers we have to be able to say who the dame is and who the sire is."
"That's very interesting," A.J. nodded. "I wouldn't have imagined there was so much to this."
"Most people don't, A.J. They have a tendency to think of Arnold the pig from the old T.V. show Green Acres, and draw their conclusions from that."
"Yeah," Rick agreed. "I honestly didn't know until we were at the California State Fair last summer that pigs come in other colors besides just white.”
Keith nodded. "Most people think that. There are several breeds of white pigs – the Yorkshire, the Chesterwhite, and the Landrace, to name the most common. There's also a breed of hog that's all red. Those are called Durocs. Several other breeds are black and white, like the spotted Poland Chinas, and then there’s the Hampshire, which is what I raise. They're black with the ‘white belt’ as it's referred to, that goes all the way around their neck. Now a person can mix their breeds. A Duroc boar on a Hamp sow for instance, and that's referred to as a crossbred. They can't be sold for purebred breeding stock then, but are generally used for meat. Guys who raise meat hogs don't care too much as to what mix of breeds they have. The kids at the 4-H shows can show crossbreds if they want to as well.
"On my other four farms I have my market hogs. Those are the ones that are being stolen. They're all purebreds as well, but for some reason or another don't suit me as far as their looks go. If I don't think I can sell a hog for breeding purposes, or use it myself to strengthen my own herd, then it gets shipped to market. Those farms then are where I have all my young barrows and gilts I'm not going to keep."
"Barrows?" A.J. asked at this new unfamiliar term.
"Young boars that have been castrated. You can't sell boars to market, their meat has a strong flavor if they haven't had their nuts cut out."
"Ouch!" was all Rick would say on that subject while A.J. visibly paled.
Keith laughed, then teased, "I have a large pen of little boars that are just waiting to be castrated. I was counting on you two guys to help me with that."
"How's it done?" A.J. asked with trepidation.
"A razor blade."
"A razor blade?" Rick echoed. "You've gotta be kidding me."
Keith shook his head. "No. It's simple. Just two quick slices with a razor blade, a couple of squirts of iodine, and it's all over."
Rick grimaced. "I think I'll pass on that job, but I'm sure A.J. wouldn't want to miss out on the opportunity."
"Oh, no,” A.J. said. “Not me."
Again Keith laughed at the city boys. "We'll worry about that later, guys. Come on, I'll show you where you're going to be staying."
After a side trip to the jeep to get their suitcases, Rick and A.J. were led to a small white frame house that sat on the opposite side of the driveway from the big house.
The back door opened into what Keith explained is commonly called on a farm, the mudroom. A.J. and Rick would have referred to it as the laundry room, since an old washer and dryer were hooked up out here, and there was also a sink with a towel rack mounted above it on the wall.
"Sue cleaned in here the other day - aired everything out, made up the beds, and stocked the refrigerator and cabinets with food. If you need anything, you let her know. Between her part time job and running Seth to his various activities, she goes to town everyday."
"I'm sure we'll be fine," A.J. said.
Hooks mounted on the mudroom's walls held a variety of coats, jackets, and hats.
"Here's some extra coats. You guys go ahead and wear whatever you need. May in Minnesota can fool a person. One day it'll be forty degrees; then next day it'll be eighty. There's gloves in that cabinet over there, next to the laundry soap, and probably some other things we've long forgotten about."
Keith opened the door that led into the kitchen and the rest of the house. A.J. doubted that this home had been updated since 1940. All the rooms were small, but clean.
"Is this house ever occupied year around?" Rick asked.
"Usually it is. I generally have a full time hired man who lives here. But, when my last hired man quit about six months ago, I replaced him with a guy who owns a house in Grand Prairie, so there was no need for John – my new hired guy - and his family to move in here. If John stays around for the long haul, I’ll eventually rent this house out I suppose.”
A thought regarding the case came to A.J. "Have you had pigs stolen since the guy left? The guy who lived in this house last, I mean."
"Yeah, seven weeks ago. That's when I decided called Rick. Why?"
A.J. shrugged. "I just thought maybe we could tie the thefts into the last hired man. If they had stopped when he left, it would be a good theory."
"No, it wasn't him. Cal wasn't that kind of a guy."
The Simons couldn't do much more at this point than take Keith's word on that. They certainly intended to do a little investigating on their own.
The brothers were led past the tiny bathroom, through the furnished living room, and then up the stairs that led to the bedrooms.
They walked by one bare bedroom and came to a halt in the large bedroom at the end of the hallway. The two old twin beds it contained had iron frames. The beds were neatly made with white chenille bedspreads. A wooden dresser stood against one wall, and there was a tiny closet in one corner lacking a door. Its opening was covered by a white bed sheet hung on a curtain rod.
Keith apologized. "Sorry. You two guys are gonna have to bunk together. That other bedroom has been empty for years. We keep meaning to put a full size bed in there, but just never have gotten around to it. I know the accommodations aren't what you're used to back home, but--"
Rick waved a hand in dismissal. "Don't worry about it. We've been on cases where the only place we had to sleep was in A.J.'s Camaro. This is clean, dry, and there's plenty of food in--"
"And the food part is all that matters to Rick," A.J. interjected. "It's fine, Keith. Don't worry about it," the blond man also assured.
The farmer smiled. "Okay, then. I'll let you two get settled." He looked at his watch. "It's six-thirty now. I'll see you guys over at the house for supper in a half hour."
"We'll be there," Rick assured.
The brothers took the next thirty minutes to put their clothes in the empty bureau drawers and closet, then to explore the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator to see if there was anything they were lacking. Both were more than satisfied with what the kitchen held, and decided that what this home lacked in decor and modern amenities was more than made up for by the Keith’s and Sue’s hospitality.
Rick's stomach told him it was time to eat. "We'd better head over for supper."
A male voice raised in anger coming from somewhere behind the garage reached the brothers' ears as they crossed the driveway to the Russo house.
"I told you to come home right after school! I wanted those pigs moved today! For God's sake, Matthew, you're seventeen years old! I shouldn't have to remind you of every little chore that needs to be done around here!"
"Dad, get off my back, will ya'? These stupid pigs aren't the only thing in the world that's important!"
"Don't you talk to me like that, young man! Now I expect you--"
Rick and A.J. exchanged looks, then hurried on toward the house, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping.
Dinner wasn't particularly eventful. The Simons enjoyed a bountiful home cooked meal while visiting with Rick's old friends. Both brothers found Seth to be the outgoing boy his mother had described. Matthew, on the other hand, was sullen and kept to himself, barely acknowledging the men who were introduced as his father's cousins. As soon as dinner was over the tall, muscular teenager retreated to the second story of the house where his bedroom was located. Not long after that Rick and A.J. bid the Russos good night and returned to the small home where they were staying. Jet lag had finally caught up with both brothers and they knew the next day, their first day as farm hands, would start at the crack of dawn.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted up the stairs the next morning, awakening A.J. just as the sun was coming up. The tousled blond man looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand that was between the two beds to see that it was five-thirty.
It took a few minutes for A.J. to rouse himself enough to leave the warm comfort of his bed. He padded barefoot across the cold linoleum floor to the room's two windows and let the shades up. The detective stood for a moment and watched the sun slowly rise. The fields and yard were covered with a light sprinkling of springtime morning dew. Somewhere out in the farmyard a rooster crowed continuously, as if to tell all that it was time to begin a new day.
A.J. turned from the window, yawned and stretched, then picked up his old blue robe and knotted it around his waist. He shoved his feet in his slippers, then shuffled down the stairs toward the kitchen.
"Morning," Rick greeted his sibling from where he sat at the table in the kitchen.
"Morning," A.J. returned. The blond man moved around the room for a few minutes, preparing his breakfast. Rick was already halfway through his second bowl of cereal and third piece of toast.
A.J. joined his brother at the table with his own bowl of cereal and a grapefruit.
"You're up early," the bleary eyed A.J. stated.
Rick was dressed for the day in blue jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt. He smiled across at his less than enthusiastic sibling. "We're supposed to meet Keith outside at six-thirty, so I figured I'd give myself a little time to enjoy this beautiful morning."
"Since when do you find the early morning hours to be a thing of beauty?"
"Since we got here yesterday. I could really get into this farming lifestyle, A.J."
"All you've done so far is visit with Keith and eat. That hardly constitutes the ‘farming lifestyle,’" A.J. cynically pointed out.
Rick ignored that comment. "I like it here. It's nice and quiet. Peaceful. There aren’t the problems we have in the city."
A.J. shrugged. "They've got their share of problems here, too, I'm sure. Maybe not the same ones we have, but problems none-the-less."
was all Rick would say. "So, are
you looking forward to your first day as a pig farmer?"
A.J. sneered at his brother between bites of grapefruit. "Very funny. And I don't appreciate you rigging the coin toss either."
"Rigging the coin toss? Me? You know, you've been accusing me of doing that ever since we were kids, and in all this time you've never been able to explain to me exactly how I rig these coin tosses you keep losing."
"That's because I haven't figured it out yet, but one of these days I will," was all A.J. could threaten before heading to the bathroom.
Rick laughed as he rose to wash the breakfast dishes. Because A.J. had lost the coin toss the evening before, Rick was going to be working in the fields today while his brother learned how to care for the hogs - a job the blond man wasn't looking forward to.
Keith was walking toward the house the Simons were staying in just as Rick and A.J. stepped out the back door.
"You guys have only been here a day and you already look like a couple of farmers," Keith commented as he caught sight of the brothers. Both men were now dressed in old blue jeans, flannel shirts, and lace up work boots that had been used on countless of other cases when they'd had to pose as some type of blue collar laborer or another.
"But here, you each need one of these," Keith told the men as he handed them green baseball style caps that had a yellow tractor on the front and lettering that spelled out John Deere.
Rick opened the back door of the house and tossed his cowboy hat in the laundry room, happily replacing it with the new John Deere cap.
A.J. held his hat in his hands, saying politely, "Thanks. But unlike my brother, I'm not much of a hat wearer."
Keith put a solicitous arm around the blond's shoulders, giving Rick a wink as he did so. "Aw, come on, A.J., all farmers wear caps. Besides, it keeps the pig shit outta your hair."
"Oh, well in that case I will wear it," the blond said, immediately placing the cap on his head.
"You know, A.J., I get the impression that you might not be quite as gung ho about this job as your brother is. I hope he didn't force you into doing anything you'd rather not."
"Now, Keith, don't you go worrin' about ole A.J. He can't wait to start workin' with those hogs today. That was all he could talk about last night."
"Really?" Keith questioned with surprise.
A.J. was too polite to say anything other than, "Well...I wouldn't exactly say it was all I could talk about, but don't worry about it. If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't have come."
Keith clapped the blond detective on the back. "Glad to hear it, because we've got a lot of pig pens to get cleaned out today."
Rick's eyes twinkled and his moustache twitched suspiciously. A.J. gave him a wilting look behind Keith's back.
The men headed toward the metal machine sheds, Keith speaking in a low voice. "You guys couldn't have come at a better time. I've got three men hired on to work in the fields. Today is their first day."
"How long will they be here?" Rick asked.
"Probably about four weeks. Just until we get all the fields planted. Then I'll try to hire them again in the fall to help with the harvest."
Being the good detective that he was, A.J. questioned, "Do these same men work for you every year?"
“Two of them have worked for me for the past five years in the spring and fall, one's brand new."
"What do you know about them?" Rick asked.
"The one I just hired I don't know anything about really. His name is Greg Campbell. He was laid off from his factory job a couple weeks back. He stopped by looking for work the other day, so I told him what I had available for the next few weeks. The other two are guys by the name of Rod Samuels and Perry Anderson. Rod's a guy from this area that makes his living doing odd jobs - fixing lawnmowers, minor household repairs, things like that. Like I said, I've hired him every year for the past five."
"And what about the other one?” A.J. questioned. “Perry?"
"I don't know too much about him, although he's worked for me for the past five years as well. He keeps to himself pretty much. He's a friend of Rod's. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what he does for a living, although I assume he must have some sort of job. Working for me eight weeks out of the year can't be very lucrative."
"He must have some other way of making a living," Rick thought out loud. "But what kind of steady job could he have that would allow him the freedom to work for you in both the spring and the fall?"
Keith shrugged. "I don't know. I've never asked. I'm only too happy to find competent, reliable help. Part of the reason I hired Perry when Rod brought him around was because he had grown up on a farm. Therefore, I didn't have to spend time showing him how to use the equipment and explaining what I needed done."
"I suppose it is hard to find seasonal help," A.J. agreed.
"Yes, it is," Keith confirmed. "The busiest time on a farm here in the Midwest is in the spring and fall. Things are fairly quiet during the summer months, and almost come to a stand still in the winter when the temperature can easily hit fifty below."
A.J.'s Southern Californian blood gave an involuntary shudder. "At least I can be thankful you didn't ask us to come here in January."
"And here I was just thinking about asking you guys to come back next winter," Keith teased.
"You can ask Rick, but don't bother to include me," A.J. stated firmly.
"What are you gonna have me doin' today, Keith?" Rick inquired.
"You'll be discing. We need to get these fields all plowed up, then disced, then planted. We'll be doing the same things at the other four farms as well."
"And all this will only take three to four weeks?" Rick asked.
"If we don't get a lot of rain over the next few weeks, yes, that's all it'll take."
"Amazing," Rick said as he thought about the two thousand acres of tillable land that needed to be planted.
"Now I don't expect you guys to be full fledged farm hands. I hired you to do a job for me, so you do it in whatever way you see fit."
"This is how we have to start," Rick informed his friend. "The only way we can figure out exactly what's going on around here, is to work alongside the men you employ. We need to gain their confidence, listen to their conversations, that type of thing. Without being aware of it, one of them may lead us straight to your thief."
"Do you really think it could be someone I employ?"
Rick shrugged. "It could be. Or it could be that the thief is someone who knows someone you employ. Maybe Rod, or one of the others, has inadvertently passed along information to someone regarding the fact that your other farms have barns full of pigs but no homes on them. When there's no one around to protect the property it makes it a pretty easy target."
"Yes, I'm aware of that," Keith said bitterly.
The three men stopped their discussion as they came to one of the buildings that housed the machinery. Keith's three hired men were already waiting for them. Keith quickly introduced his 'cousins', explaining they were businessmen from San Diego and were here on a working vacation.
Rod, Perry, and Greg shook hands with the Simon brothers. Rod was friendly and outgoing, while Perry contrasted him by being reserved. Greg was the new guy on the block, so to speak, therefore he was rather quiet on this first day of work.
Keith explained to the men what he expected done that day, then told them all to take a fifteen minute break in the morning and an hour lunch at noon.
"Rod, I'm going to go over some things with Rick, then I'll send him out to the field. I want you and Rick to work the back eighty acres today. You'll have to show him the ropes. My city cousin here doesn't know too much about farming."
"Be glad to," Rod smiled.
"Perry, you and Greg can start plowing and discing the forty acres in front of the house."
"Okay, Keith," Perry acknowledged.
Perry, Greg, and Rod, all climbed aboard tractors, started them, and headed off for the fields Keith had just assigned them.
Keith spent the next few minutes going over the workings of a tractor with both Rick and A.J. He also showed them how to hook up various pieces of equipment to a tractor. It took both brothers a few tries to be able to back the big John Deere up so that its hitch fit exactly into the hitch of a plow, disc, or manure spreader.
When A.J. and Rick indicated to Keith that they were comfortable with what they had just learned, Keith yelled over the roar of the tractor's engine to Rick, "Rod will show you what needs to be done once you get out to the field!"
From his position in the tractor's cab Rick nodded his head. The detective was soon driving out of the machine shed with the disc hooked to the back of the tractor. Rick was grinning from ear to ear as he drove by Keith and A.J. He gave them both a thumb's up sign before turning a corner and heading to the field Rod had left for twenty minutes earlier.
A.J. shook his head fondly at his disappearing big brother. "You've made his day, Keith. He's like a kid with a new toy. A very large new toy."
Keith chuckled. "Yeah, I figured Rick would love this kind of thing. He's only been here a day and already he seems right at home."
A.J. nodded. "I have a feeling he'll be in his glory for the next two weeks."
"I know I said this a little while ago, but now that Rick isn't around you can answer me honestly. This isn't exactly your type of ideal job, is it, A.J.?"
A.J. smiled slightly at the man's perceptiveness. "It's that obvious, huh?"
"Let's just say that every time you come within thirty feet of a pig pen you wrinkle up your nose at the smell."
A.J. chuckled at Keith's remark. "Well, I guess if you're asking me to be honest with you then I'd have to say no, this isn't exactly what I consider to be a dream job."
"I'm sorry Rick twisted your arm into coming along then."
A.J. immediately dismissed the apology. "Like I told you before, Keith, if I didn't want to be here I wouldn't be. You're an old friend of Rick's. What's happening to you is important to him. He wants to help. And in order for him to help you, he needs my help as well. That's really all there is to it."
"You know, A.J., your brother's always had a pretty high opinion of you. I can certainly see why. Sue and I really appreciate both you and Rick going through all this hassle to try to help us."
A.J. waved off what he deemed unnecessary gratitude on Keith's part. "You're Rick's friend, therefore it's not a hassle. And as for my brother having a high opinion of me, his opinion's going to change real fast if you don't put me to work pretty quickly."
Keith opened the door to the old wooden dairy barn. "I guess we'd better get our day started then."
A.J. followed Keith into the barn. The sound of the barn door shutting announced the men's presence to the nursing sows. Immediately the sows began to struggle to their feet within the confines of their farrowing crates. Little pigs ran off to the side of their mothers in order to avoid being hit by one of her hooves. Several loud squeals indicated that not all the piglets had moved fast enough.
Keith opened a metal cabinet to his right that held medication for the hogs on the first two shelves, and various farming supplies on the next three. He pulled out a pair of black rubber over-boots and handed them to A.J.
“Here. Put these on over your work boots.”
“To protect them from the elements.”
A.J. wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that, and assumed the ‘elements’ Keith spoke of was probably pig manure. But, he didn’t want his boots ruined either, nor did he want anything soaking through to his socks, so did as Keith instructed.
When A.J. had the rubber boots on he followed Keith a storage bin. The farmer opened the auger and held three five gallon buckets beneath the opening. As ground corn sifted into the buckets he explained, "These are our nursing mothers so they get fed twice a day, morning and evening. The little pigs that have been weaned within the past twelve weeks, weanlings we call them, also get fed twice a day."
A.J. observed the metal crates that were six feet long by four feet wide. They were lined up one after another and ran the whole length of both sides of the barn's wide aisle. The crates were mounted on metal decks that were suspended three feet off the ground.
"Why are the sows confined in pens like that?" A.J. asked.
"They're called farrowing crates. That's where they give birth and raise their litters. I put them in a crate several days before they're due. They're confined like that so they don't sit on their piglets. Back when I was a kid my dad farrowed his sows in horse and calf stalls, all farmers did. But sows have a terrible tendency to lay on their piglets. A lot of times you'd lose an entire litter that way. Farrowing crates are literally a lifesaver. See how those metal bars confine the sow to just the center of the crate?"
"That keeps her in one place but allows her piglets free run of the crate. The sow has just enough room to stand up, lay down, eat, and drink."
"And it doesn't upset them? To be confined like that for what...?"
"Four to six weeks. No. They get used to it. Especially if they've had several litters. Once in a while I'll get an ornery one who tries to tear the crate apart, but not too often."
"Why are the crates up on decks like that?" A.J. questioned next.
"See how all the crates are positioned over the barn's gutter and the sow's backend is positioned there too?"
A.J. bent down to observe the three foot deep gutter that ran around all the outside walls of the barn. "Yes."
"When they crap it all goes right in the gutter. When I run the barn cleaner it makes it easy to clean the barn. I don't have to do any scooping of manure by hand."
"I see," A.J. nodded as he was handed a bucket of ground corn.
By this time the sows were screaming to be fed. Keith walked up and down the aisle, pouring feed out of a bucket into each individual sow's feed pan. Once his two buckets were empty he turned to A.J.
"Are you ready to give it a try?"
"Sure. How much do I give them?"
"Four cups. Just eye it up. You'll get pretty good at guessing how much that is after you've done this a few times."
Keith walked along with A.J., verbally coaxing him through his first morning of chores. Once the sows were fed the two men walked to the back of the barn where the weanling pigs were squawking, also wanting to be fed. Keith showed A.J. where bags of fifty pound pellets were kept. The two men opened four of the bags. A.J. followed Keith as the farmer walked along from nursery deck to nursery deck, emptying pellets in troughs. The four decks looked similar to four playpens to A.J., only with metal slats placed inches apart to keep the piglets in. These were raised four feet in the air and mounted over the barn’s gutter as well. Keith had A.J. feed the last bag of pellets by himself, again assuring the detective he'd be a pro at this in no time.
"You'll need to come in here and do this again this evening about six o'clock or so. This is the chore I start out with in the morning, and end with in the evening. Seth will help you this evening."
A.J. was relieved to hear that. "Good. I'm not quite sure I'll remember everything."
The two men walked out of the barn that was suddenly quiet. The pigs were content now that they had been fed.
"You said last night at dinner I'd be working with two of your hired hands today?"
Keith nodded. "Yes. Bill and John. I imagine they're here by now. They're probably cleaning pens over in the finishing barn."
"Finishing barn?" A.J. questioned another unfamiliar term.
"That's where we move the weanlings at about the age of twelve weeks. We 'finish' them off in the finishing barn, so to speak. Grow them to mature adulthood, I suppose is a good way to put it."
"And when are they considered adults?"
"A boar starts coming into sexual maturity at six months old. A gilt can have her first litter at about nine months, although I prefer to have mine closer to a year old before they farrow for the first time."
"Wow. That doesn't seem very old."
"Maybe not, but by six months old they already weigh two hundred and forty pounds on an average."
"I never realized there was so much to this. I'm starting to feel rather stupid," A.J. confessed with a grin.
Keith laughed. "Don't worry about it, my city friend. I wouldn't fare any better if I was forced to be a private detective for a few days."
"Speaking of which, tell me a little about the two guys I'll be working with for the next few days."
As the two men walked toward the finishing barn Keith said, "John Hanfeld has worked for me full time for close to six months now. Like I mentioned last night, I hired him when Cal quit. He's got a wife and three kids. For most of his adult life, John was the herdsman on a dairy farm a few miles down the road. He and the farmer who owned the place got into it over something and John quit. He came around here looking for work right after Cal left."
"What did he and his former boss fight over?"
"I have no idea. John never told me, and I never asked. He's a hot head, and so is the guy he worked for. I know they used to argue all the time. I suspect they finally had enough of each other."
"He's been a good worker for you though?"
"Yeah. I haven't had an ounce of trouble from him. He's still learning about hogs, but he's doing okay. I plan to keep him for as long as he wants to stay."
"And Bill?" A.J. asked.
"He's an old friend of my dad's. A retired farmer. Like Rod and Perry, he just helps out during the busy seasons. He does some field work if I need him to, but mostly works with the hogs, thereby allowing me the time I need to be in the fields."
A.J. added the things Keith had told him about John and Bill to his mental index file. Keith led him into a barn full of various sized young pigs. Just as Keith had predicted, Bill and John were already busy cleaning the manure out of the pigpens.
"Would you guys stop what you're doing for a minute," Keith requested. "I've got someone here I'd like you to meet."
Bill set aside his pitchfork. John did the same with his shovel.
"This is my cousin, A.J. Simon. He and his brother, Rick, are visiting for a few weeks from California on a working vacation. Rick's out with Rod discing, so I thought I'd put A.J. to work with you guys."
A.J. got a pleasant reception from both men. The elderly Bill shook the detective's hand, telling him it was nice to meet him. The heavyset John did the same. A.J. guessed Bill to be between sixty-eight and seventy years old, and John to be around thirty-five.
Keith walked to the end of the barn aisle, retrieving a second shovel and bringing it back to A.J.
"John will tell you what needs to be done today. Just follow his lead. For now you can start scooping shit with this shovel like they're doing."
A.J. valiantly kept the distaste off his face at the prospect of climbing into a pen of soupy manure. Now he knew what the rubber boots were for he was wearing. He gave a weak smile, took the shovel from Keith, and joined the other men.
"There's not much too this job, A.J.," John informed the blond. "Just scoop with the shovel and throw it in the manure spreader."
A.J. guessed correctly that the wagon that was hooked to the back of the tractor parked in the wide aisle was the manure spreader. He watched John and Bill go about their work for a few seconds, then started shoveling as well.
Keith gave the blond a wink. "Rick said you'd be perfect for this job."
Already the stench of excrement and urine were overpowering the blond. He grimaced, informing Keith, "I'll just bet he did. Believe me, before we go home Rick's going to have an opportunity at this job too."
Keith chuckled. "I'll make sure of that, A.J. John, I'm heading out to do some plowing myself. If you guys need anything come get me. Otherwise, I want all these pens in here cleaned today, as well as the barn cleaner run in the farrowing barn. You can show A.J. how to do that. You can wean the three sows we discussed yesterday, and then bring Foxy and Nellie in and put them in a crate. They've really dropped, and they both have a lot of milk. I'd guess they'll farrow by tonight or tomorrow morning. You can sort and move weanlings today too."
"Will do, Keith,” John promised. “We'll get it all done."
Within a minute after Keith left the barn A.J. heard another tractor engine roar to life. He caught a glimpse of Keith passing by the barn on an old Ford tractor with a plow hooked up to the back.
A.J. labored alongside John and Bill for two hours that morning, the three men working together to clean out all ten pens. A.J. quickly discovered the task was made harder by the fact that he had to work around the pigs that occupied the pens. Some were so scared of humans that the minute the blond got near them they'd run to a far corner and stay there. The annoying ones were braver, coming up and rubbing their bodies on A.J.'s pant legs and chewing on the rubber of his boots. By observing John and Bill A.J. quickly learned how to kick a pig aside without hurting it.
John had A.J. ride along when he spread the first load of manure on one of the fields none of the men had worked yet. By the time the manure spreader was filled for a second time A.J. was sent to spread it by himself.
From his position in the cab of the big John Deere on the field to the south of where A.J. was spreading manure, Rick chuckled to himself at the sight before him.
"Man, I wish I had a camera. Nobody's gonna believe this back home,"
A.J. was half turned in the seat of the tractor he was driving, watching the manure unload off the back as he ran the tractor and spreader up and down the field like John had taught him. The manure spreader had a system of chains in it that pushed the manure out the back of it. Those chains slowly moved along when the power take-off lever was engaged on the tractor. The manure came out the back with enough force that it flew up in the air, landing on the field. Quite often it landed on the person driving the tractor as well; which was what Rick was getting such amusement over since A.J.'s face and shirt were dotted with fresh hog manure.
Rick gave his brother a big smile and wave as he turned his tractor around at the end of the row and headed in the opposite direction.
Rick laughed again as A.J. simply waved his fist in the air at him.
"I've got a feelin' I'm gonna pay for this," Rick laughed.
It was exactly noon when A.J., Bill, and John broke for lunch. A.J. washed up at the sink in the farrowing barn with the other two men, then headed for the house he and Rick were staying in to make his lunch. The blond man was surprised to discover how hungry he was. He made himself two sandwiches from some of the lunchmeat Sue had stocked the refrigerator with, grabbed a banana, some cookies, and two Pepsis, then headed out the door. He joined Bill and John at the Russos’ picnic table. Keith had told the Simons that the hired men usually brought their lunch from home, and if the weather was nice ate outside on the patio.
Rick and A.J. had decided they'd do the same thing, again hoping that by being with these men as much as possible they'd get some leads to follow up on.
For the first few minutes the hungry men were more interested with eating than with talking. After the first hunger pains were satisfied though, Bill and John began making polite conversation with A.J.
"So, A.J., where in California are you and your brother from?" Bill asked.
"Nice place," Bill nodded. "I was stationed at the naval base out there for a while long before your time I'm sure. 1941."
A.J. smiled. "Yeah, that was a few years before my time."
"What do you guys do for a living?" John asked.
"I'm a lawyer. My brother owns a charter boat business," A.J. replied with the story he and Rick had settled on if anyone asked.
"A lawyer, huh?" Bill commented. "I guess this is a lot different from the kind of work you usually do then."
"Yes, it certainly is. Very different."
"So how did Keithy twist your arm to come out here and work for a couple of weeks?" the old man inquired.
A.J. smiled at the nickname that evidently dated back to childhood. It gave him a better idea as to how close Bill had been to Keith's father.
"Keith didn't really twist my arm. My brother twisted my arm. Rick's been wanting to come out here and visit for a long time, so when Keith called and said he could really use some extra hands this time of year Rick jumped at the chance to come. He more or less dragged me along with him."
"I thought so," Bill nodded. "You don't really look like the farming type."
"It's been okay so far. It's just going to take me a while to get used to it. On the other hand, it is nice being in the country. Just sitting here eating I notice how quiet everything is. You don't hear any traffic noise, or airplanes going overhead, or any of the other sounds that abound in a big city."
John agreed. "It's a nice area to raise kids in."
"Yeah, but it's changing," Bill said. "More and more people are moving out to this area. We're getting too many suburbanites for my liking. When more people come, so does more crime. Look at what's happening to Keith."
"You mean about the pigs that have been stolen?" A.J. asked.
"Yeah. You never used to hear of this type of thing happening out here."
was thrilled at the turn the conversation was taking. He used the opportunity to subtly question, "Who do you
think could be doing it?"
"I couldn't even begin to guess. Keith and Sue don't have an enemy in the world that I can think of. They're well respected members of the community. Sue's on the school board, they're both 4-H leaders, both members of the Farm Bureau and Pork Producers. They've been involved with the Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts, Keith coaches Seth's Little League team, and is a deacon at their church. I don't know who would do this to them."
"I sure don't know either," John contributed. "If anyone needs anything, Keith and Sue are always the first ones there offering help. Did you notice the farm down the road that's for sale?"
The blond detective nodded, having noticed the big for sale sign the day he and Rick arrived.
"The woman that lives there lost her husband late last summer. He had a heart attack out in the barn one morning and was dead before the ambulance could get there. When it came time for the fall harvest Keith made sure the widow had all the help she needed. He sent over Rod and Perry to work on her place and paid them to do it. That's just the kind of guy he is. I can't figure out why anyone would want to steal from him."
"All I can say is, that whoever it is knows a lot about pigs," Bill said, echoing what Keith had told Rick on the phone several weeks earlier. "There's no way anyone without at least some experience with hogs could load up an entire barn full and haul them to market. Impossible."
A.J. had to mentally agree. In just the few hours he had worked with the hogs that morning he had already learned from Bill effective ways to move them where you wanted them to go, and discovered ineffective ways that only made them more difficult to handle.
The conversation about the Russos' troubles ended there. For the remainder of the lunch period A.J. artfully questioned the two men about their personal lives. In a short period of time the detective knew all he needed to in order to come to several conclusions.
Lunch drew to a swift close. John led A.J. and Bill to the farrowing barn, explaining how they were going to be moving weanling pigs into the building they had just cleaned out. A.J. only half listened to John's instructions. He was curious as to where Rick and the other men were. He had expected to meet up with his brother at the picnic table at noon.
A.J. glanced to his right and saw the tractors still moving in the fields.
Guess they're taking a later lunch. I hope Rick has as good of luck questioning his crew as I did mine, was A.J.'s last thought before entering the barn.
It was one thirty before the men working in the fields stopped and ate their lunch that day. Like A.J., Rick ate his sandwiches at the picnic table with the other men. Keith left the farm, telling Rod he had some parts to pick up in town for one of the plows and that he'd grab something to eat at McDonald’s. Much like A.J., Rick spent his lunch break learning things about the other three men while revealing very little about himself.
Later that afternoon Rick was working a new field by himself. Rod had shown him how to plow, so the detective took over that job. Keith had told him Matt would be joining him around three-fifteen and would be doing the discing.
Rick didn't pay any attention to the time. He grinned as he traveled over row after row, plowing up the rich black dirt. The disc would later smooth the clumps out, making the soil easier to plant with corn. Rick looked off to his left, seeing Matt and Keith in the distance by the machine shed. From the stance of the father and son Rick guessed they were having another argument. The sound of the tractor engine prevented Rick from hearing their words.
It didn't prevent A.J. from hearing them, however. He was standing outside the farrowing barn running the automatic barn cleaner that was pushing the manure out of the gutter and into the manure spreader.
"It's four o'clock in the afternoon, Matthew! I told you to come right home after school! Where have you been?"
"I'm here now! That's all that matters!"
"No, that's not all that matters! Rick's been working that field by himself since two! If you'd been here by three-fifteen like I told you to the discing would be started. Now it will get dark on us and we'll have to deal with wet soil in the morning! You know that doesn't work as well."
"Seth's not home yet!" Matt used as his defense.
"That's because Seth does something productive with his spare time. He plays on the school baseball team. I told you years ago the chores around here would never prevent you from participating in school activities, but all you want to do is hang out with your friends and get in trouble! I've told you before I won't have it! If you're not busy at an after-school activity, then you might as well be busy here."
"Maybe I don't want to be busy here!"
"Maybe you don't have a choice! Now get on that tractor and get out there with Rick!"
A.J. watched as the irate Keith stomped off. For just a second he wondered if Matt was going to do as his father ordered. The teen stood there, looking up at the tractor as if he hated what it represented. Finally, the youth grabbed onto the steering wheel and jerked himself up onto the seat. He started the engine, driving recklessly to the field Rick was working in.
It was five-thirty when Rick stopped his tractor at the end of one of the rows. He climbed out of the cab, walked around for a minute stretching his legs, then sat down on the grass that bordered the field.
Matt got to the end of the row he was discing he followed Rick's lead. The teen approached the detective carrying
paper cups and a large thermos jug of lemonade.
"My mom sent this out here with me for us. You want some?"
"Yeah, please," the thirsty Rick nodded, accepting the cup of ice cold liquid.
Rick quickly polished off two cups of the treat Sue had sent with her son.
"Your mom thinks of everything, doesn't she?" Rick commented appreciatively.
"Yeah, usually," Matt agreed.
Once the two had drank their fill Matt asked, "So, how is that and you and A.J. are related to my dad?"
Rick tried to decipher any suspicion in the teen's tone. When he couldn't, he answered with the story he and A.J. had fine-tuned. "Our father and your grandfather were cousins. So that makes me and A.J. your dad's third cousins, or his cousins three times removed, or something like that. I can never keep it straight."
"And you and A.J. grew up in San Diego?"
"It must be neat...living in a big city like that."
"There's both good and bad about it I suppose."
"At least you guys didn't have to work on your father's farm when you were kids."
"Well, no...our dad wasn't a farmer. We grew up in an area of San Diego called Mission Bay."
"So what'd you guys do when you were teenagers?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know, for jobs. Did you have after-school jobs, or jobs during summer vacation?"
Rick was slightly confused by the course this conversation was taking. "Uh...well, from the time I was ten to when I was fifteen I was paperboy. A.J. took over my route when I gave it up. When I was fifteen I started working for a guy that owned the corner gas station in our neighborhood. I started out pumpin' gas, and then eventually started doin' some mechanic work on cars and trucks."
"What about A.J.?"
"Ummm...let me think here a minute. If I remember right he gave up the paper route when he was fourteen and spent a couple of summers workin' for one of our neighbors who was a house painter. Then when he was sixteen or seventeen, I don't remember which, he got a job at the local swimming pool as a lifeguard."
Rick smiled. "Why all the interest in what A.J. and I did for extra spending money thirty years ago?"
Matt shrugged. "I don't know. I guess because this is all I've ever known. This farm. And it's all my dad's ever known too. I was just wondering what it would be like to do something else."
"So why don't you get a job doing something else in the summer time? You guys don't live that far from town. I saw a grocery story, several gas stations, a McDonald’s--"
"Forget it. My dad wouldn't let me."
"Because according to him my responsibility is to this farm and this family. He just doesn't understand. I don't care about farming. I'm not like Adam and Sarah and Seth."
"My father didn't always understand either," Rick sympathized with the teen.
"I'm not a carbon copy of the other kids, so my dad doesn't have much use for me," Matt finished bitterly.
"Oh now, Matt, I don't think that's true."
"It is," the teen vehemently disagreed. "Everyone has always called Adam ‘little Keith’ 'cause he's just like Dad, and Sarah's everyone's favorite 'cause she's the only girl, and Seth...well Seth's the baby and the kid everyone fawns over. I swear Seth and I can do the exact same thing, and I'll get in trouble for it and Seth won't. Everyone makes a big deal over him 'cause he's so good in sports and in school. He hardly has to crack a book and brings home straight A's. Me, I could study all night and be lucky to get a B. I'm just Matt, the kid in the middle."
Rick didn't try to minimize the young man's feelings by telling him that part of those feelings came from being seventeen, and that in a few short years he'd begin to see some things differently. Instead he told the youth, "I understand where you're comin' from. Because I was the oldest, my dad had a lot of expectations of me that I couldn't live up to. To be honest with you, Matt, I didn't want to live up to most of his expectations because they just weren't for me. And no matter how hard I tried to stay out of trouble, I always seemed to get into it. Like Seth, A.J. was the kid who could do no wrong. He was smart, brought home straight A's, was popular in school, and never seemed to get yelled at half as much as I did. It wasn't until I was an adult that I was able to admit that the reason he didn't get yelled at wasn't because he was Mom and Dad's favorite, but because he just didn't get into the trouble I did."
Matt couldn't help but smile. "Yeah, I guess that's true about Seth, too. It's not that he's a goody-two-shoes or anything, it's just that...well without even tryin' he's able to please Dad. I just can't."
just a different person, Matt. There's
nothing wrong with that. Your dad will
come to realize that as time goes by."
Matt shook his head. "I don't think so. Dad's already got big plans for the day that Adam, me, and Seth all work here as his partners. Russo and Sons, he calls it. He doesn't seem to care that I want no part of it."
"Maybe that's because he doesn't know that."
"He knows. I've told him often enough."
"Yeah, but have you ever told him without yelling about it? Have you ever just sat down and tried to calmly discuss it with him?"
Matt looked at the ground and mumbled, "We don't talk too much."
"Maybe you should start," was Rick's advice. "You know, Matt, it sounds like the problems you and your dad are having are very similar to the problems me and my dad had. Like you and your dad, my dad wanted things for me that I knew weren't right for me."
"College for one. Then a job in some kind of business field - law, accounting, insurance, something like that. He was real hung up on the issue of college. He wanted both me and A.J. to go because he never had the opportunity. His family couldn't afford to send him."
"So did you go?"
"No. A.J. did, but I didn't."
"How did you resolve that with your dad?"
"I never got the chance to. He died when I was fifteen."
The two fell quiet for a moment, Rick's words hanging heavy in the teen's mind.
"If I can give you one piece of advice, Matt, it's don't wait until it's too late to make peace with your dad. It took me a long time to get over the fact that I never had the opportunity to make peace with mine."
"I'll think about it," was all Matt would commit to before he rose to get back to work. "I suppose I'd better get movin' again. Dad was already narked off 'cause I was late gettin’ home from school."
Rick rose as well and climbed back up into the cab of the big tractor. As he finished the plowing he thought about all that he and Matt had discussed. He wondered if he had the right to intervene and try to make things better for the boy. By the time he was done plowing, Rick still hadn't come to a decision regarding the matter.
It was eight o’clock that evening before Rick was able to call it quits. Keith came out to the field and waved both the detective and Matt in. Rick returned his tractor and plow to the machine shed, Matt following suit with his equipment. Rick guessed that Rod, Perry, and Greg had already been sent home since the machinery they had been using was in the building as well.
"Your brother and A.J. are feeding the farrowing barn,” Keith told his son. “Help them finish please."
Matt didn't answer his father, but walked over to the barn like he'd been told.
"That boy's gonna be the death of me yet," Keith said.
"He seems like an okay kid to me," was all Rick said in return.
"He can be when he wants to be. Unfortunately, that's not often enough to please me." Keith commented before changing the subject. "So, anything come to light today?"
"It's really too early to say. But there were no major breakthroughs as far as I know. I haven't talked to A.J. all day, so until I do I can't say for sure. But the good thing is, we both got a chance to mingle with your hired guys. It's a start if nothing else. What did the hog market look like today?"
"The prices are continuing to climb. They're giving forty seven cents a pound at the stock yards. They're predicting they'll keep climbing all week. I've always gotten hit when they're paying good money on hogs."
"Which follows your theory that whoever's behind this knows hogs."
"Yes," Keith agreed. "When will you and A.J. stake out the farm on Trinity road?"
"Whenever you give the word."
"We'll give it a couple more days then. If the market prices keep climbing, it will be a good time."
"You took care of the other barns like I told you, right?" Rick questioned. Rick had explained to Keith that if he had four barns full of hogs ready to go to market it would obviously be impossible for the Simon brothers to know which farm the thieves might strike on. Therefore, he had advised Keith to have just one barn full of market hogs.
"Yes, I emptied out one barn last week and took all the pigs to market. The two barns at the other farms only have small pigs in them. They're too little to go to market."
"Do you guys want to come over for supper again tonight?" Sue made plenty."
"No, I think we'd better pass, but tell her thanks anyway. Since A.J. and I haven't seen each other all day we'll have some things about your case we'll want to discuss. Plus...I'm beat."
Keith laughed at his old friend, and his red eyes. Eyes that were tired and irritated from all the dust that had blown in them that day.
"Come on, Sarge, there was a time when you could party for two days straight without any sleep. What's happened to you?"
"I've gotten old," Rick said with a laugh of his own. "And I'm not used to this kind of work, or bein' outside all day."
"I hope I didn't work you guys too hard," Keith apologized.
"Nope. I can't speak for A.J., but I'm enjoyin' myself. It's a good kind of tired. I liked being out in the fresh air."
The two men walked together toward the houses. They said good night as Keith came to his home, and Rick turned to walk to the one he and A.J. were staying in.
When A.J. walked in the back door thirty minutes later Rick was showered, dressed in clean clothes, and sitting at the kitchen table reading the evening paper.
Rick immediately caught a strong whiff of his brother.
"Pee U. You stink."
"Ha, ha," was all A.J. would say in return while bending to untie his boots.
The blond man walked through the kitchen, heading up the stairs to get clean clothes for himself.
Rick held back any smart comments he might be tempted to make in regards to the manure caked on A.J.'s pant legs, or the ungodly strong odor that wafted off his younger brother.
The tired blond man walked through the kitchen again on his way to the bathroom.
"I hope that's supper I smell cooking on that little grill outside, because if your expecting me to cook tonight you're going to end up with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
"It's supper," Rick confirmed. "I threw some potatoes on when I walked in, and just added some pork chops a few minutes ago."
"That sounds great," the hungry blond stated before shutting the bathroom door.
Rick took care of all the supper preparations that night. When A.J. got out of the shower the table was set and hot food was being carried in from the grill. A.J. found a Jell-O salad that Sue had left in the refrigerator for them, so added that to their meal of grilled potatoes and pork chops.
Not a word was uttered from either hungry man as they made their way through the meal.
A.J. complimented, "That was good," when they each had eaten all they could hold.
The brothers made quick work of the cleanup tasks. Rick cleared the table, while A.J. washed the dishes. By nine-thirty everything was put away and the little house was in spotless order once again.
"Wanna compare notes about today?” Rick asked. “Or are you too tired?"
"I'm tired, but we might as well sit and discuss what we've come up with while it's still fresh in our minds."
A.J. went upstairs quickly, returning to the table with a notebook and pen.
"So, how'd your day go?" Rick started.
"You mean other than the fact that I spent most of it standing in pig manure thanks to a rigged coin toss?"
"Are you gonna start that again?"
"No, actually I'm not, because I'm too tired to debate it right at the moment. So anyway, back to your question. My day actually went pretty well. I learned a lot. There's more to farming than I ever imagined."
"Tell me about it," Rick agreed wholeheartedly. "What about the guys you're workin' with. John and...uh..."
"Bill," A.J. supplied. "They're okay. I got a chance to talk to both of them quite a bit at lunch. Bill's an old friend of Keith's dad. He's very knowledgeable about the trouble Keith's been having."
"Knowledgeable enough that he could be the one stealing the pigs?"
"Yes, he knows a lot about pigs, if that's what you mean. He's a retired hog farmer, so he should. But no, I don't think he's stealing from Keith. He's an old friend of the family. That'd be like accusing Bud Krelman of stealing from Mom."
Rick played devil's advocate. "Yeah, but sometimes the people you suspect the least are the ones you should be suspecting the most."
"That's true. But I don't think it applies in this case."
"Okay," Rick accepted his brother's assumption. "What about this John guy?"
"John I'm not too sure about. I don't have a good feel for him one way or another. He's a nice enough guy, but that's about all I can say at this point. Keith did mention something about him worth remembering."
"What was that?"
"He said John's a real hot head. John used to work for a farmer down the road from here. Keith said the two of them were always going at each other. I guess they finally got into it one too many times and John quit."
"Has Keith had any trouble with the guy? Have they gotten into it over anything at all?"
A.J. shook his head. "Not that Keith's mentioned. He seems to like John, and thinks he's a good worker. Like Keith mentioned last night, John’s been working for him about six months now."
"Six months, huh? And Keith's been havin' problems with hogs being stolen for about a year. It doesn't tie in time wise then."
"That's what I thought too," A.J. agreed. "And like Bill, John spoke highly of Keith at lunch today. Again, that doesn't necessarily mean anything, but like I said, I don't have any strong indications that he could be involved in any way. How about you? Did you have any luck with your crew?"
"I'm not really sure," Rick said pensively. "Greg's quiet to the point of being shy, so I didn’t get to know him very well. But I think he's too new to be involved. Besides, up until two weeks ago he had a full time job at a factory. Keith didn't know him until the guy came around here looking for work last week. Plus, Greg did tell me he had worked the night-shift. I think all those factors kinda eliminate him."
"What about Rod and Perry?" A.J. probed. "Rod seems like a nice guy. He was friendly when we met him this morning."
"Maybe a little too friendly," Rick said doubtfully.
"What do you mean by that?"
"I think he claims to have a great friendship and like for Keith that isn't on the up and up. I walked into the machine shed this afternoon to get a screwdriver, and he and Perry were in there takin' a break. Their backs were to me when I walked in the building. Evidently they didn't hear me enter, because they were both goin' on about how everything Keith has he's inherited from his parents in terms of this farm, the equipment, the animals, and stuff like that, and how he's never done an honest day's work in his life. Rod seemed very bitter."
"What'd they do when they saw you?"
"Shut up real fast and made nicey nice. Plus ground out the pot they were smokin' on the concrete."
"Pot? Are you sure?"
"A.J., I know pot when I smell it."
"I know you do, it's just...well Keith's known Rod for a long time. Do you think Keith knows the guy smokes dope?"
"No," Rick stated emphatically. "Keith was never into that scene in Nam. He was a level headed realist. I doubt that he's ever put anything into his body stronger than an aspirin. He'd have a fit if he knew what Rod was doin', especially with Matt and Seth here."
"So are you going to tell him?"
"No, not right now I'm not. I don't like this Rod guy a bit, and I like Perry even less. There's somethin' about him that doesn't sit right with me. He's sneaky and secretive. Perry was quiet at lunch today, too, but it was a different kind of quiet than the kind I got from Greg. You could tell right away that Greg's shy, but Perry...I don't know. He's more sly than shy. I don't want Keith firing those two, which is what I'm sure he'll do if I tell him what I saw. I have a feeling they might be the thieves we're lookin' for."
"Don't jump to conclusions based on the fact that you caught the guys smoking a little grass," A.J. warned. "If we do that, we'll have to suspect nearly every friend you had in Nam, and nearly every friend I had in college."
Rick wasn't about to be detoured. "I don't think I'm jumpin' to conclusions. My instincts tell me those two are bad news. If nothin’ else, we need to watch ‘em closely."
"I'll agree with that," A.J. concluded their discussion. "Did Keith say when he wants us to stakeout the farm where he's got the feeder pigs?"
"Feeder pigs. It means the hogs that are going to market."
"My, my, my, but aren't you becoming quite the knowledgeable pig farmer."
"Only for the duration of this job," A.J. shot back. "Anyway, when does he want us to start the stakeout?"
"The prices are just startin' to rise, so he said maybe sometime in the next couple of days."
"Good. I'm glad it's not tonight, because I'm too tired to care whether or not someone is stealing pigs."
"I know what you mean," the weary Rick agreed.
The brothers talked a few minutes more, exchanging information about their day. When A.J. couldn't think of anything else to put in the notebook regarding this case, he shut it and leaned back in his chair.
"That Seth of Keith's is a hard little worker. He seems like a real nice kid. He sure is a talker like Sue said. I don't think he was quiet for even a minute from the time he walked in the barn this afternoon until the time we quit this evening. He wanted to know all about us, what we do for a living, things like that. He's the one who will break our cover if anyone will," A.J. finished with a chuckle.
"Yeah...I had quite a conversation with Matt this afternoon as well."
"Oh really?" A.J. questioned with surprise. "He was in the barn this evening for a little while with Seth and me. He didn't have anything to say then. He was pretty sullen, like he was last night at dinner."
"I think Matt’s got his share of problems. He's not a bad kid actually. He's just unhappy."
"He hates farming, for one thing. He doesn't see himself as fitting in with the rest of the family."
"That's not that unusual for a seventeen year old."
"No...but I think it's more than just bein' seventeen. I think there's expectations of the kid that he has no desire to live up to. He seems to feel everyone wants him to be somebody he's not. I feel sorry for him."
A.J. didn't take Matt's problem to heart nearly as much as Rick did. "He'll deal with it. Everybody does at that age."
"I suppose," Rick reluctantly agreed. "He and Keith seem to get into it a lot."
"Yeah, they were sure going at it this afternoon."
"Evidently Matt was supposed to be home from school around three-fifteen and get right out in the field and help you. He didn't show up until four."
"Maybe I should talk to Keith. Maybe I could...help Matt's cause a bit."
"I'd stay out of it if I were you, Rick," A.J. advised. "I know Keith's your friend and all, but you've only seen the guy what...three times in the last twenty years? Based on that, I don't think I'd go stepping in between him and his kid. They'll work it out. We all live through being seventeen."
Yeah, but some of us not as successfully as others, little brother.
The conversation was dropped there. A.J. looked at the clock to see that it was a few minutes past ten. "I'm beat. I'm going up to bed."
The brothers moved into the living room, A.J. heading for the stairway, Rick for the comfortable old sofa.
"I think I'll stay down here and watch T.V. for a while," Rick said. "Night."
"Good night," A.J. called as he climbed the stairs.
It was after midnight when Rick awoke on the sofa. The living room lights were on, as was the T.V. The detective looked at his watch, realizing he must have fallen asleep within five minutes of turning the T.V. on. He couldn't even recall what show he had started watching.
Rick rose, turning off the television and the lights. Once the sound of the T.V. ceased Rick could hear voices filtering in through the open living room window.
"Where have you been? You know you're supposed to be home by ten on a school night! It's twelve-thirty, Matthew..."
Any further conversation between Matt and his dad was evidently carried on in the house, as Rick heard no more.
Rick shook his head in sympathy for both the son and father, and the rocky road they were traveling.
Rick climbed the stairs to bed. He was surprised to see light filtering out underneath the closed bedroom door. He gave a small smile at the sight that greeted him when he entered the room. Rather than an awake A.J., he found a soundly sleeping A.J., an open book on his bare chest. Rick gently removed the book, laid it on the nightstand, shut the light off, and stripped down to his boxer shorts. Five minutes after his head hit the pillow, Rick was sound asleep as well.
The smell of bacon frying awoke Rick at five-thirty the next morning. He lay in bed for twenty minutes before getting dressed and going downstairs to investigate what was being prepared in the kitchen.
A.J. was standing by the stove already dressed for the work day.
Rick poured himself a cup of coffee while straining to see into the frying pan. "Hope there's enough of that for me."
"There is," A.J. confirmed, serving up eggs, bacon and toast on two plates.
In between bites of eggs the brothers discussed their upcoming day.
"I'm gonna have to pack myself a lunch to take along today," Rick said. "Rod, Perry, and I are gonna be workin' the land on the farm on Trinity Road."
"Trinity Road, huh? Very interesting," A.J. commented in reference to the fact that the market hogs were on that farm.
"Yeah, I asked Keith to set it up this way. It'll be interesting to see what happens today, if anything."
The brothers finished their breakfast. While A.J. cleaned up the dishes Rick packed a lunch to take along for the day. The older man also nosed around in the freezer, finally pulling out a beef roast Sue had left them.
"Why don't we let this thaw out this morning. When you come in at lunchtime you could throw it in the oven. That way neither one of us has to mess with supper tonight. I’m guessin’ it’ll be another long day."
A.J. readily agreed to that. He had no desire to make a meal at the end of another fourteen hour work day.
"I'll peel some potatoes and carrots and throw them in with it,” the blond said. “ That way everything will be ready when we walk in tonight."
By six-thirty the brothers were outside, their working day already underway. A.J. fed the sows and young pigs in the farrowing barn by himself, while Keith gave instructions to his field hands, Rick, Greg, Perry, and Rod. At seven a.m. a caravan of farm equipment pulled out of Keith's driveway and headed toward the farm Keith owned on Trinity Road.