Acres of Love
Retirement was going well for Ruth and Russell Peterson. They were thoroughly enjoying it. Gardening was a hobby they shared and the grounds around their property showed the results of their devotion and hard work. Since retirement, Russell Peterson had developed the habit of making a substantial breakfast each morning for Ruthie, his wife of forty-plus years. He looked forward to this morning ritual. Ruth, who would have been happy with a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, ate her breakfast appreciatively, recognizing it as the loving gesture it was.
They figured they were as lucky as two people had a right to be. However, they did miss their beloved dog, Mr. Sam. They’d had him since he was a tiny puppy, and he'd been with them for sixteen years. Before Russell's retirement, Mr. Sam had accompanied him to work almost every day. The dog had adjusted to retirement as quickly as Russell did. The last few months of his happy life, the old dog had spent most days dozing on the front or back porch.
The Petersons also had two cats, Missy and Banter. On the day Russell buried Mr. Sam, Missy took up guard on the plot of ground where the dog had been laid to rest. She stayed there for two days, hissing at anyone who came close, and then wandered off. No one has seen her since.
On this particular morning, while Ruth was eating her oatmeal, which Russell had liberally sprinkled with chopped walnuts, raisins and brown sugar, she was reading the newspaper. "Russ, look here, right here, this Pet of the Week article. They say he has to be put to sleep in two more days." Russell gazed at the picture, looked at his wife, they both glanced at the clock, and without a word, headed for the garage.
Maggie Sullivan had volunteered at the animal shelter for ten years. The office didn't open until eight, but Maggie could be found at her desk by seven each morning. She liked to come in early to see the animals before she had to go on duty up front. Few of them were lucky enough to be reunited with their owners, or to find new homes. Each morning she gave them all some loving attention.
After this morning’s visit to the kennels, she was back in her office, standing at the window, sipping a cup of coffee, when she saw a station wagon pull in. She watched as an older couple jumped out. She said a silent prayer that they weren't bringing another unwanted or stray animal. The shelter was, as usual, filled to capacity. This afternoon several would be put down. This necessary ritual always broke Maggie’s heart, but she had already adopted as many as the local ordinance would allow her to have. She watched the couple as they approached, then relaxed when she saw the man was holding a collar and leash. Apparently they were looking for a lost pet or were looking for a dog to adopt. "Please, let it be so," Maggie thought to herself.
"Good morning. How can I help you? I'm Maggie Sullivan."
"We're right pleased to meet you, ma'am," Russell replied. "We're the Petersons. I'm Russell and this here lady is my wife, Ruth. We we’re wondering, about that dog we saw in the paper, name's Champ. He, uhh, is he still here, ma’am?"
"Yes," Maggie replied. "Is he your dog?"
"No, but we think me and the wife here would like him to be. Can we see him?"
Maggie smiled and asked them to have a seat. She explained to the anxious couple that she had a few questions she needed to ask first. Russell took his wife's hand and led her to the waiting chairs. Ruth hesitated "But Russ, can't we see him now?"
"All in good time, Sweetheart, all in good time. The lady is just doing her job." Russell reassured his wife while clutching the dog collar and leash.
Ruth was very impatient, but she sat down, holding tightly to her purse with both hands. To the observer, it would appear as though Ruth thought it contained their passport out of the depressing place. Feelings of sadness and anticipation battled within her.
Maggie was going through the normal screening routine. Finally Russell, growing more impatient, interrupted, and said, "Excuse me, ma'am, with all due respect, my wife and I have had pets all our married lives. We have a nice spread of land, five acres it is, all fenced, plenty of room for a dog to roam around and play. A mighty fine house too. Its got two large porches, one in the front and one out back. "Me and our two sons built the place ourselves. Yep, we surely did. The porches make for nice places for a dog to nap or just watch what's goin' on. We've got lots of love to give that dog. You see, our dog, Mr. Sam, passed on awhile back, and were feeling the loss something awful. I don't expect you're gonna find better people to care for Champ. We feel a need for him, and since no one has come to claim him, it appears as though he damn sure needs us."
"Russ, don't cuss!" scolded Ruth.
Maggie didn't need to do any more screening. It was obvious to her that these were very nice people who loved animals and would provide a good home for Champ. She stood up, smiled at the obviously anxious couple and said, "Come with me. There's someone you need to meet."
As they walked through the door leading into the kennel, Ruth glanced at all the cages, came to a quick halt, and whispered, "Oh Russ, how sad." There were numerous puppies, dogs, cats and kittens of every breed imaginable, plus rabbits, and even some chickens.
Maggie walked over to the second cage from the door where three dogs sat. "Champ is the one up front looking at you, the big one," she told the mesmerized couple.
"Yep, he's big all right," Russ mumbled under his breath. Then he just stared, a smile teasing the corners of his mouth. Ruth knelt down in front of the dog and put her fingers through the grill. The dog took one quick sniff, started waging his tail in joy, and lathered her fingers with kisses. Then he wagged his tail at Russ and looked at him as if to say, "What took you so long?"
"Russell, we're taking the other two dogs as well, and I don't want any argument about it!"
Russ knew that when she called him Russell she had her mind made up. Ruth then turned her head, and spotted a mother calico cat, lying on her side to accommodate her six nursing kittens. "And them too Russell."
"All of them?" Russ asked.
"Yes Russel. All of them!"
Russ thought about all the upcoming expenses involved but wisely kept his thoughts to himself and replied, "Okay, Ruthie."
By this time Ruth had wandered over to where the chickens and rabbits were caged. His wife didn't need to say a word. Russ looked at Maggie, nodded, and said "Yep, them too, ma’am."
With a bounce in her step, Maggie headed back to the office. As she was leaving the kennel, she heard Mr. Peterson say to his beaming wife, "The chicks and rabbits will have to be boarded at Doc Mallorey's until I can build a chicken coop and hutches for them there rabbits."
"That shouldn't take you any time at all, Russell. In fact, you can get started this afternoon."
"Right," Russ replied, thinking to himself, "I damn well better get them home as quick as possible if not sooner." He smiled at his wife, draped his arm around her shoulder, pulled her toward him in a gentle hug, and they then followed Maggie to the office.
While finishing up the paperwork, Maggie noted that the Petersons lived just down the road and around the corner from her own place. She asked if she could stop by and visit sometime. "Not to check up on you, I hope you don’t think that. It appears that we’re neighbors, and I think it would be nice if we got better acquainted. May I stop by sometime?"
The Petersons smiled at Maggie and assured her she would be welcomed anytime. "No need to call, just drop by, whenever you’re of a mind to. You’ll be welcome."
A little while later, when the Peterson's were starting to pull out of the parking area, Russ stuck his head out the window and said, "Excuse me Maggie, I don't suppose you have any fish in need of a home? Hell, I could always dig me a pond and have it set up in a couple of days. We’ve got a creek that runs right through the place." He thought about the abundant catfish in the lake just down the road and his stomach rumbled reminding him he hadn't had breakfast.
Maggie just looked at him dumbfounded, and then she saw Mrs. Peterson affectionately slap at his arm and heard her say, "Russ, stop your teasing. We need to get going. These babies need to get home."
A few weeks later, on a Sunday after church, Maggie took the Petersons up on their offer and dropped by for a visit. She found them in the backyard, setting up lunch. They invited her to join them. Russ was barbecuing some catfish he'd caught that morning. Maggie told him how good it smelled, and Russ replied, "We use to have chicken on Sunday but since that day at the shelter, Ruthie won't hear of it. Shame too," Russ added, "Ruthie use to make the best fried chicken this side of Dixie. No more fried rabbit either. Nope. It’s a lucky thing there were no fish in need of a home that day we were at the shelter. If there had been, we'd probably be dining on scrambled eggs today. Lord knows, we never run out of eggs anymore."
Ruth smiled with affection at her husband and didn’t say a word.
Thoroughly enjoying her lunch, Maggie looked around the beautiful backyard. She recognized the mother calico cat dozing peacefully under the shade of a tree, while her kittens scampered playfully close by their mother. Two of the dogs were stretched out under another tree by the newly built chicken coop and rabbit hutches. Banter, one of the Peterson's original two cats, was stretched out under the picnic table sound asleep. Maggie remarked that she didn't see Champ anywhere. Russ assured her he was probably out on the front porch. She hadn't seen him because she had come in on the back road. Russ had added that Champ usually barked at anyone coming near the property. But he was a smart dog, and he figured that anyone who knew about the back road lived nearby and everything was okay.
Finished with their lunch, they all walked around to the front of the house. Sure enough there was Champ lying with his head resting on his front paws, surveying the front yard of his new found kingdom. A cat Maggie didn't recognize was laying next to the dog. When she asked about the cat, Mr. Peterson beamed a big smile, "That there's Missy. She was here waiting when we brought all the new critters home. I guess she just went off to do her grieving, finished with it, and came home. Champ and Missy took to each other right off, and now you hardly ever see one without the other."
Maggie, looking around at the large front yard spotted a goose and a peacock. Before she could say a word, Russ smiled and said, "Got a bad temper, that goose has. Get hold of the seat of your pants any chance he gets, don’t you know. Well anyway, he followed Missy home, and the peacock followed the goose. Go figure. What’s a man gonna do?"
"You’re going to keep them?" Maggie asked in disbelief.
Russ took off the baseball cap he was wearing, wiped his brow, and put the hat back on backwards. "I figured it all out, Maggie. We got us over five acres here, and we might as well put it to good use. Too many unwanted animals in the world today. Setting us up a petting zoo for children, we are. Yep, that’s what we’re gonna do. So, you keep your eyes open from now on. There must be a zebra loose somewhere around here."
Maggie stared at him for a moment, and then threw back her head and laughed. At that exact moment, probably brought to attention by Maggie’s uproarious laughter, the goose flapped its wings and lunged at Russell from the back. "You ungrateful bunch of pillow feathers!" Russell yelled at the triumph goose.
Maggie, careful to not overstay her welcome, was on her way home. The back seat of her car was overflowing with a basket of the biggest eggs she'd ever seen, and a large variety of delicious looking vegetables. The Peterson's gardens were plentiful this year. A beautiful bouquet of flowers from their flower garden lay on the front seat beside her. She thought about the day, and all the love that was sheltered on that piece of property the Petersons called home. She picked a rose from the bouquet, sniffed its fragrance, and knew in her heart it was days like this that made her aware, despite all the heartbreak that came with it, that she loved her volunteer job.
Just before she came to the curve in the road, she glanced into the rear view mirror. There were the Petersons, still waving, Russ with his arm lovingly draped across Ruthie’s shoulder. Champ was leaning against Russ’s leg, his tail wagging a mile a minute, and Missy was rubbing up alongside her new found friend. The goose was nibbling on something it found on the ground, while the peacock spread its beautiful tail, and preened in all its magnificence. If peacocks could smile, that one would, she thought. She swore that the cat and dog were also smiling.
Maggie loved the feeling that came with knowing that sometimes things turned out just right.
Copright Marcia Miller-Twiford