She was my elderly Sunday school teacher. She said the story, about a young boy growing up with a father who believed in peace, was true, and I believed her. It had happened in northern Saskatchewan in the difficult 1930s.
“I’ll kill that man.”
I nearly fell off the high seat of the Bennett wagon where I was perched holding the horses’ reins. What had Dad said?
“I need land, Heinrichs, need it awful bad, or else I’ll have to go as a farmhand again. I’ll handle that man.”
I tried to see Dad’s face, but he was turned from me, and I couldn’t tell whether he was joking or not. My dad kill someone? Something was wrong. A ball of lead formed in my throat and settled heavily in my stomach. I wished we were home.
The afternoon had been discouraging. Only last week the notice had come in the mail that the farm we were sharecropping had been sold over our heads. We would have to move off. But where to? There was not another farm available for miles. AIl afternoon I had listened to Dad talking land to everyone he met. I had watched the worry lines growing deeper on his face as one man after another shook his head. Tiredness crept into his voice and walk as we turned toward the wagon to go home.
Old Mr. Heinrichs met us there. He pushed his limp felt hat back on his head to scratch his thinning hair in response to Dad’s oft-repeated question. “Can’t say that I know of anything …. Well, now, come to think of it, the farm across from Jud Brewster will likely be empty this spring. The renters on it now are leaving o one stays on that farm long. It’s rundown, and it’s next to impossible to live with Jud Brewster across the road. He drives everyone off.”
“He wouldn’t drive me off,” Dad replied quietly. His voice sounded just a bit cheerier.
“You don’t know him . . .. An angel couldn’t live next to him, he’s that mean.”
Dad mumbled something, and I caught only the last phrase, “ … I’ll kill that man.”
My brother Jimmie rushed to meet me one day the next week with the exciting words, “We’re moving, we’re moving!” And the next week we moved.
Darkness had settled heavily over the unfamiliar surroundings of the new farmyard when the last coop of chickens was brought over. As we emptied them into the henhouse, a few birds escaped that hatch and fluttered noisily to the low branches of the nearby poplars.
The folks were tired. Uncle Henry, who was helping us, had already gone home. My bones ached, and Jimmie was already stretched out on the mattress Mom had placed on the kitchen floor. I dropped heavily beside him and was drifting off when I dimly heard Dad and Mom praying together by the kitchen table for Jud Brewster. You don’t pray for men you intend to kill. I must have misunderstood Dad the other day.
It seemed as if I had been sleeping only minutes when a heavy-handed knock shattered the stillness. But morning light was seeping through the cracked green window shades. Dad jumped into his pants and was at the door before I could throw off my covers.
In the doorway stood our new neighbour – a big man in an ugly mood. Lying on my mattress looking up at him, I could think of only one thing – the picture of the giant Goliath in our Bible storybook as he scowled at young David. David had been sure of winning. I felt as helpless as a baby chick.
“Those chickens of yours in the trees next to the road have been bothering me all morning,” he snarled. “You better make sure they don’t bother me again, or I’ll make sure they don’t.” He tapped the barrel of his rifle ominously. I shivered.
With those words, he stalked off, giving Dad no opportunity to apologize or explain. “Up, all of you, and get those chickens into the henhouse before you go to school,” he shouted.
For a long time, we heard nothing more from our neighbour. We began to think the ugly rumours were only telephone gossip. Even timid Mrs. Brewster seemed almost pleased when Mom brought her a jar of the new raspberry jelly she had made and invited her over for afternoon tea.
She never came, for the next day trouble descended on us. Our cows got into Brewster’s oats. Dad saw them almost right away and rushed Mom and us boys over co drive them out, but Mr. Brewster was there before us. He swore and raved at us, waving his old pitchfork wildly. Dad shooed us boys away but even from behind the poplar clump we could hear him calling Dad down. We edged around the bushes, and when I saw Dad paying old Jud some money, one bill after another, I knew I would be walking to school again that fall. My new bicycle was walking off in his dirty pocket. I hated Jud Brewster.
Lots of little things after that brought Jud Brewster storming to our place, carrying his gun – like our dog chasing his chickens, or us boys pulling down his haystack when we wouldn’t even go near his place.
One warm afternoon, Dad was in the barn sharpening his axe at the emery wheel, and we boys were fooling around behind the barn. Suddenly I heard Jud bark out, “Janzen, your pigs have been in my garden. I’ve warned you…”
Jimmie and I crept around the barn to hear better.
“You’ve made too many promises, Janzen,” he roared, “and now I’ve brought you your pigs back-they’ll never get into my garden again.”
Dad followed him out of the barn and turned to the wagon a short distance away. It was loaded with our complete herd of young pigs-all dead, shot by his rifle. The silence became heavy. Time stopped. Blood plopped silently into the soft dust of the driveway through the cracks of the wagon. A bird chirping in the tree-cop sounded like a voice from another world.
The axe Dad had been grinding slipped from his hands to the ground, and time moved ahead again. Dad’s face glistened with perspiration as he said quietly, “Come on, boys, let’s get rid of the pigs.” He never spoke co our neighbour.
A few weeks later, just before chore time, little Jimmie rushed in, shrieking, “Daddy, go get a gun quick. Jud Brewster’s pigs are in our garden.”
“We can get a gun from Thompsons, “ I piped up, tearing to the door. The taste of revenge was already sweet in my mouth.
“Hold on, boys. We won’t need a gun.” Dad put a restraining hand on my shoulder. “You harness the wagon, and we’ll return those pigs before we do chores.”
It took a lot of chasing and hard work before that miserable herd of pigs climbed up the ramp. It would have been easier co load them dead, but Dad explained this was the Bible way. With Dad guiding the reins of the horses, we marched down the road co our neighbour’s house. Dad and we boys stepped up to the back door while Heinz drove around co the pigpen.
“Good evening, Mr. Brewster. Your pigs were in my garden. I’ve brought them back.”
Brewster staggered back, his face white with fear. “My pigs,” he croaked, “my pigs .. in your garden?” He reeled against the door frame for support.
“Yes, we’ve brought them back. Where shall we put them?”
Brewster didn’t turn to look. His face became more ashen. His body sagged against the door. “Just dump them over behind the barn.”
“But then they’ll just get out again.”
“You mean you didn’t kill them?” He clutched Dad’s hands like a dying man.
That ended the excitement for us. Dad and Mr. Brewster talked for such a long time that we had to go home and do chores alone. When Dad finally came home, he brought half of Brewster’s pigs with him. The next Sunday, the Brewsters came co church and stayed for dinner. He wasn’t such a bad guy after all, when he got changed a bit inside.
It wasn’t until next spring, when I was pumping up the tire of my new bicycle, that I remembered to ask Dad what he had said co Mr. Heinrichs about killing his neighbour.
“Not with a gun, son. I planned to do it another way – by heaping coals of fire on his head. But it took a long time to get those coals hot enough. That old neighbour is as dead as a door nail-just like I said he’d be.”
—Katie Funk Wiebe, a well-known author and speaker, is a member of First MB Church, Wichita, Kan. This article was previously published in The Christian Leader.