A Contest of Wills: Chapter 9

Bex had a rough couple of days, worrying about the land and the cats, trying to finish up some projects for her clients, and racking her brain to think of ways to make some extra money. Perhaps if she put up a flier at the community college advertising her services writing resumes? As the weekend approached she even began thinking of people she knew who might be able to lend her money.

On Saturday morning she had just taken a break from cleaning out the pens when she heard tires crunching on the gravel drive. With a sinking feeling she headed back toward the house. Sure enough there was the silver Mercedes, and Kyle was stepping out of the driver’s side. To Bex’s surprise, he was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and work boots. He didn’t look like someone trying to dress up country – he looked like the real deal. The clothes were obviously well worn and there was now something about him that seemed familiar. She assumed it was simply because that was the way most of the men looked in the feed and hardware stores she frequented.

“And you would be here for…?” she asked, frowning in return to his smile.

His smile faltered and he cleared this throat. “Actually, I’m here to take a look at the property, and make sure there’s been nothing done that would permanently impact its value.”

Bex opened her mouth to tell him to get off her land when Popeye walked up to Kyle and began weaving in and out of his legs, purring like a motor. Bex’s mouth hung open a moment in surprise, then she snapped it shut and looked at Kyle with clear distrust.

“Fine,” she said grudgingly, “You can look around.”

He squinted and looked off into the distance, and then back down at Bex’s angry face. “Look,” he said, “I think we got off on the wrong foot and I just wanted to come by, check things out, and see if we could call a truce.”

“Well,” she replied, “I guess that just depends. Are you going to stop trying to take my land?”

“It’s not yours yet,” he said, and when she turned to walk away he said, “Wait.” She turned and looked at him without speaking. “I’m sorry,” he said, “it’s my job. I’m doing my job. But there’s no reason we have to be antagonistic. I did come by to make sure nothing permanent had been done, but I also wanted to try to learn a little about what you’re doing here, your relationship with the Szczepanskis, maybe try to understand why they would have left a virtual stranger a valuable piece of land.”

She studied him for a moment, not sure whether or not to trust him. She knew she had nothing to hide, and besides there was a long day of work ahead of her. She could always use the extra hands.

“Fine,” she said. “But if you’re going to stay you’re going to work.” He smiled. “That was the plan,” he said, “I wore my work clothes.”

“So I see,” she said, trying to not show the appreciation she felt for him, and the annoyance she felt at herself. She was actually finding this man attractive! He was the enemy, and she needed to keep reminding herself of that. Of course, Popeye did seem to like him. No, she couldn’t let her guard down. This man was trying to take her land.

She led him toward what appears to be an animal pen, a stack of what looked like wood and wire frames, and a large roll of chicken wire. “O.k.,” she said, “we need to put this chicken wire on top of this pen. The minute I put a feral cat in it, it’s going to shoot straight up the side and go right out the top.”

He eyed her, looked at the pen and then at the chicken wire. “Why didn’t it come with a top?” he asked.

She put her hands on her hips. “Because people don’t build pens for feral cats. This pen held hunting dogs. They don’t climb up the sides.” She paused for a moment before she muttered under her breath, “of course they probably should.”

He looked at her quizzically. “How on earth did you end up with a pen for hunting dogs?”

She handed him a hammer and pointed to the roll of chicken wire. “Work,” she said. “We can talk while we work.” He grinned and took the hammer from her. “O.k.,” he said, “where are the nails?”

Kyle proved to be a hard worker. Bex was sure he wouldn’t be very good at it, but he handled the hammer like an expert. As she helped him spread the roll of wire across the top of the wooden frame of the pen, she talked to him.

“The woman who runs the local cafe, Dot, her husband was a hunter. He built these pens himself, and he kept them on their land. He did a great job; they’re all modular. You can create one pen, two pens, one really big pen – well you can see by the way they’re built.” She gestured to the stack of frames with the hammer.

Kyle looked at the pen he was working on, and then at the pile and nodded with an appreciative look on his face. “So,” he said, “what’s the story?”

Bex reached into her pocket and pulled out a nail. Kyle was impressed with the way she expertly hammered it in – not like some girls he’d seen, holding the hammer too close to the head. She swung it by the far end of the handle, letting the weight of the hammer do the work.

“Dot’s husband died several months ago.” Bex was intent on her hammering and didn’t see the cloud that crossed quickly over Kyle’s face. “She called me up one day wanting me to come over and see if I could use some of her old doghouses. I went over and we were walking around talking. I had been thinking of ways I could bring feral cats on to the refuge, and then I noticed the pens.

I asked her what they were for, and she told me her husband Sam had built them for his dogs. I asked her what she was going to do with them. She said she wasn’t sure. Their son had talked about taking them, but he lives four counties over and that’s a long way to transport them. Plus, he wasn’t so keen to come over and take them down.”

Kyle didn’t try to suppress his smile. “Let me guess,” he said, “you offered.”

Bex looked up quickly and returned his smile. “Basically, yes. I told her why I wanted them, and she really got a kick out of it. The idea of these pens, which had been built for hunting dogs, to be used to house wild cats. So I borrowed a trailer, hitched it to my truck and went over there.” She paused to pull the wire over the top of the pen.

“Surely you didn’t do that all by yourself,” Kyle said.

“No, I’m not quite that good,” she answered. “I have a handyman, Ronnie, and a young girl Lindsey who come over occasionally to help me out. They were with me, and between the three of us – well, Dot tried to help some too – we dismantled every last one, piled it on that trailer, and crawled our way back here.”

Kyle looked at the pen in front of him and back at the pile. “How long ago was that?”

“Not quite a month.” She looked up and saw his surprise. “It’s a big job, and I can’t afford to have Ronnie and Lindsey come out that often. When they do, I need more immediate help – like getting the cats wormed or rounded up for the vet. Ronnie’s done a lot of clearing of trees and brush. So far, we’ve only had time to put up this one, and I’ve got to get it finished before we start any more.”

He hammered in a nail and asked, “How many more did you plan on putting up?”

“I don’t know. I need to see how well this works before I put too much time, effort or money into it.”

They worked for another couple of hours, and soon the pen had a sturdy top on it. Kyle then helped Bex nail a tarp over the back half of the pen so there would be shelter during the rain. When they finished putting a couple of old doghouses inside, Kyle was ready for a break.

“I’m not used to working like this,” he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead with his arm. Bex smiled, “It’s good for you. Come on inside and we can grab something to drink.”

Kyle stopped in the front door of the trailer and looked around. His gaze swept the main room and seemed to take in everything, from the old television on the broken down TV tray to the worn rug in front of the yard-sale sofa.

Bex felt warmth spread up her face as she saw her home through his eyes. “Well,” she said forcefully, stepping in and inviting him to follow with a gesture, “it isn’t some fancy New York penthouse, but it’s home for me. I need to save every penny for the cats, and I don’t splurge much on myself.

“So I see,” he murmured. He took off his cap and set it on the sofa, and then walked back toward the bathroom. “Mind if I wash my hands?” he asked as he stepped in the bathroom and turned on the faucet.

Bex’s eyes widened. “No,” she said, “and aren’t you right at home. Like you knew right where that bathroom was.” Kyle dried his hands and walked into the kitchen smiling. “Well,” he said, “it’s not like there’s a lot of choices.”

Bex smiled and handed him a glass of iced tea. He looked at Bex and his eyes grew serious. “How long are you going to have to live like this?” he asked. He thought about Cassandra, and how she would react to having to spend even five minutes in the trailer. Although it was clean and fresh, everything was second hand and looked it. “Don’t you want some nice things for yourself?”

For a brief moment she looked tired. “No,” she said, “and even if I did it wouldn’t matter. The cats need me.” He took a step closer. “And what do you need?” he asked. For a long moment they stood staring at each other. When a sharp knock sounded on the door Bex jumped. Without answering Kyle she walked over to the door and opened it. “Hey Ronnie,” she said, “I’m on my way.” She stood back and held the door open. Kyle reached it in two steps, and headed for his car.

“Hey,” he said to the middle-aged man standing at the foot of the steps. Ronnie just nodded, and if he was surprised to see either Kyle or the Mercedes, he didn’t show it. Kyle turned as Bex came down the steps.

“Thanks again,” she said, holding out her hand, “you were a huge help.” As he took her hand to shake it she turned to the other man. “Ronnie, you’re never going to believe all we’ve gotten done!” The other man just nodded slowly. Kyle got into his car and left.

A Contents of Wills: Chapter 8

On her way home, Bex stopped at the feed store to pick up some cat food and some of the environmentally friendly disinfectant she used to clean the cats pens and the sickroom. As she walked in, she was greeted by a man in his 30s who had unkempt hair and was sweeping the floor.

“Hi Bex!” he waved enthusiastically and headed in her direction. Bex stopped and smiled.

“HI Johnny, how are you today?’ The large man came over and wrapped his arms very lightly around her to give her a gentle hug.

“Wow, that’s really good Johnny, what a great hug!” Bex backed up a step and smiled up into his innocent blue eyes. He beamed at her. “Yeah, mom and I have been practicing. She tells me that I don’t know my own strength, and it’s hard to learn my own strength, but I’m doing it!”

“You sure are. But it’s good to be strong. Look how much help you give everyone.”

“Can I help you?

“You sure can. I’ve got to pick up a couple of big bags of cat food, and I think I’m going to get some bird seed too.”

“Bird seed?” An incredulous voice was followed by a small woman in her 50s with gray hair. “You got a place full of cats and you want to invite the birds to come visit? What are you, anti-bird?”

“Hey Dot,” Bex smiled at the older woman. Dot was a no nonsense type of gal, and had been running the feed store and raising her son alone for the last 15 years since her husband had died.

“Mom, Ms. Bex said I hugged her just right!” Johnny smiled as he told his mother.

“Oh honey, good job!” Dot’s demeanor changed completely with her son. Her pride showed as she reached out and touched his arm. “But remember, you can only hug the people you know who have already told you it’s o.k.”

“I know,” he turned to go back to his sweeping. “And I can’t ask people I don’t know if it’s o.k.”

“That’s right,” Dot said, and saw Bex’s raised eyebrows and her smile.

Dot shook her head. “Oh, some fancy city woman came in here the other day looking for something. Of course as soon as he saw her, Johnny asked if he could help her find something. She just looks him up and down like he smells bad and tells him ‘no thank you.’ So then he asks if he can give her a hug. I guess he just assumed she’d say yes so he started walking toward her with his arms out. Well, her scream like to have brought in the entire town. I had to explain to Johnny that some people just don’t understand wanting to be hugged.”

Bex shook her head. “Oh no, Dot, I’m really sorry that happened. I’m sure that must have upset Johnny.” Bex couldn’t help but smile at the thought. “Sure sounds like she needed something, though.”

Dot smiled back at her. “Amen to that! And Johnny is just fine. It really didn’t upset him. He just didn’t understand why she shouldn’t want a hug.”

Bex finished up with her purchases, and Johnny carried everything out to the old pickup. As she left Bex gave him another hug and told him, “I love your hugs Johnny, don’t give away too many because I always want you to have one for me, o.k.?” Johnny nodded and waved as Bex drove away.

After a quick stop at the grocery store, Bex headed home. Ronnie and Lindsey were already gone, and it was turning into a nice evening. Bex poured herself a glass of the cheap red wine she’d gotten at the store, and headed outside to enjoy the stillness and the quiet.

She took her glass down to an old picnic bench that was off to one side of the cat pens, sat down and took a sip of wine while she looked around at the landscape. Before long, she could see several of the cats heading her way to enjoy a little socializing.

The first to arrive was Popeye. He jumped into her lap, and reached up his head to rub under her chin. He began purring almost immediately, and while he was rubbing she could feel the skin underneath her chin starting to get wet from his drool. She laughed and pulled him up under his front legs so she could look at him. His sweet face looked back at her, his one eye permanently closed where he’d lost it, the other yellow/green eye looking back at her.

“Hey mister,” she said, bringing him against her for a hug. “I hope your day has gone better than mine.” As she was talking, a black cat with a white chest and paws jumped up on the table and came over to her. She reached out a hand to pet him.

“Well hello there, Fred,” she said. “Looks like I’m going to have a full house tonight.” Several of the other cats were heading their way, lured by the sound of her voice in the evening air. She sat, slowly sipping her wine as the day slipped away into night. Just before it got really dark, she gave the cats a few final pets, stood and stretched, and headed back to her trailer.

“Good night, babies,” she called. “Be sure to get into your shelters and stay warm.”

The next morning she woke up feeling discouraged. Her visit to the library the previous day hadn’t been much help. Trying to read through the legal language and understand what the laws meant had made her brain dizzy. She was going to need help, but who would help her? The phone ringing interrupted her thoughts. Assuming it was one of her clients she answered on the second ring.

“Good afternoon, Miller Productions,” Bex answered crisply, in a professional voice that her steady clients jokingly referred to as her “phone voice.”

“Ms. Miller?” she didn’t recognize the voice right away.

“Yes, speaking.”

“This is Kyle Stephens.” Bex’s first thought was to hang up the phone, but she knew it was inevitable that she would have to talk with him, and alienating him probably wasn’t the best idea.

“How can I help you Mr. Stephens?”

“Oh, I’m fine. I just wanted to let you know that was a very expensive pair of shoes your cat ruined.”

“Popeye didn’t ruin your shoe. In fact, Popeye showed extremely good manners by using the litter box. If you stuck your foot in someone’s toilet, you would hardly blame them for ruining your shoes, would you?”

“Perhaps not, but then again it’s rather distressing to have a $400 pair of shoes ruined.”

“Four hundred dollars!” Bex gasped. “You spent $400 on a pair of shoes? That’s absolutely obscene!”

There was a slight pause at the other end of the phone. “Yes, I suppose it is. Actually they were a gift. And if I’m being perfectly honest, not one of my favorites.”

“So it sounds like Popeye did you a favor,” Bex couldn’t resist taunting.

“I thought Popeye had nothing to do with it?”

“Of course. Mr. Stephens, did you call to try and get me to buy you a new pair of shoes?”

“No, Ms. Miller, I was hoping we could discuss an offer of settlement in more neutral surroundings.”

“I’ve already told you Mr. Stephens, I have no intention of settling. I need this land and I won’t displace my cats.”

Bex heard a small sigh on the other end of the line. “Ms. Miller, I really do admire your dedication, believe me, but this is simply a battle you can’t win. If I read the situation correctly, and believe me Ms. Miller I make a great deal of money by correctly reading situations, you’re barely getting by as it is. You simply can’t afford the time to try and do your own research, nor do you have the resources to hire someone to help you.”

Bex felt a moment of panic. “Perhaps not, Mr. Stephens, but I have friends who are willing to help me.”

“Ms. Miller,” he sounded so calm, so sure of himself, “trust me when I tell you that in a county as small as yours, no attorney wants to gain a reputation for being a troublemaker. In addition, Ms. Szczepanski is quite a wealthy woman in her own right and I’m sure most people do not want to get on her bad side.”

Bex was silent. Of course he was right. She couldn’t afford the time to do her own research, plus it was obvious that he was a very good attorney. Despite the fact that she knew almost everyone in town, the Szczepanskis had been well respected and it was likely their daughter would be too, despite the general gossip that she was a spoiled, lazy young woman.

“Well, I’m just not sure.” She was trying to buy time so she could think about what to do.

“Ms. Miller, let me give you a little free advice – and trust me, the 15 minutes we’ve just spent on the phone are worth well over $200 to me – and tell you to take the money. I don’t like losing Ms. Miller, and against an unskilled, uneducated, emotional adversary such as yourself, well, quite frankly you have no hope of success.”

“Uneducated!” Bex was furious, furious with herself for being near tears, stunned at the amount of money he could command, and furious he felt he had to throw that in her face. “Listen to me you pompous, arrogant, morally bankrupt jerk, I don’t care how much money your time is worth, or your shoes or your stupid car, this is my land, and I will not just give it up!” and she slammed down the phone.

Breathing heavily she sank down in a chair and blinked back tears. What was she going to do? Well, there was one thing for sure. She wasn’t about to just give up. She’d figure out something. She went into the kitchen and started brewing some coffee. “Just one cup,” she promised herself, since she had to go out, as she did every day, and take care of the cats. She sipped slowly at her coffee, and when she finished she sat in her chair awhile, thinking. After checking on Dinah, she got ready for her day. Maybe some hard work would give her subconscious time to solve the problem.