Big sin? Little sin?
Ed Bullen stared morosely at the telephone he had returned to its cradle. It was his long-departed dear mother who had taught him that catechism. “There’s big sins and little sins,” she’d say. She was a person who spoke plainly, and little—would never have used a learned phrase like “justifiable sin.” But that is what she meant.
“Sometimes you might need to do a little sin, Eddie, to do something good. Some murderer’s looking for his victim, you wouldn’t tell the truth where he was hiding, huh?”
“But you have to be real careful,” she warned sternly. “You got to be sure you ain’t just foolin’ yourself. The little sin really has to do some good, can’t be done any other way. And if the good it’s doing is just for you—why, most likely you’re looking at a big sin in a sneaky ol’ disguise!”
Big sin? Little sin?
It had been like tearing his own heart out, the decision to sell out after the third straight year when, once everything was settled out, he hadn’t made a dime. Now there simply wasn’t any more money—for diesel, for parts, for the thousand niggling expenses that eat a man alive, like those sharp-tooth little fish down in those jungle rivers. And the only way to get any operating cash was a mortgage. Ed couldn’t breathe when he thought about a twenty-year mortgage. A mortgage might be something a young man could do—if he were sensible and real clear-eyed and unbelievably hard-working, a good woman to help him. But at his age, and all alone, a mortgage would be just another way of giving away the farm. He couldn’t bear the thought—he had sweat blood for his place! And what expectation could he have he’d be able to pay off a mortgage? Milk prices just kept going down. Oh, there’d be a little perk upward now and again—but they were like the little leaps water makes, as it tumbles down the rapids.
Of course, the alternative was selling out. There wasn’t the third alternative: Jane and Mark and Susy were wonderful kids—all an old father could ask—but they had chosen other paths for their lives—and weren’t ever going to take over the working of the farm. Not selling out meant having no legacy to leave his kids. He couldn’t bear the thought.
So he had decided to quit the hopeless fight, lay down the load that had broken his back. He had signed. It was all over but a few legal nails in the coffin.
The hardest thing had been letting go of “his girls”—the twelve finest Jersey cows, he was convinced, in the state. George Gaston had agreed to buy them. George’s operation was larger than his; but still an operation where a cow is a respected, feeling animal. George said he was glad to get Ed’s cows—real good breeding, would be great to work them into his lines. He would retire some of his older girls early, expand his herd a bit. The one bright spot in the whole dismal collapse had been that the cows would go off to a decent operation and not to some cursed milk factory.
Then fifteen minutes earlier he’d gotten that phone call from Hill and Dale Farms, known to the old-timers like Ed as “Hell and Dale.” A mere rump to a distant corporate giant somewhere, they had muscled in ten years ago and started gobbling up every small dairy operation in the state. They undercut everybody on price, something they could afford to do because they were a tax write-off for the parent organization. As it had been explained to Ed, it was actually in the big corporation’s interest to be losing money on this subsidiary operation. And under those ground rules, the competition with the local dairymen had been pretty much like plain murder.
“The truck left an hour ago,” he had been told by a curt impersonal secretary. “It should arrive soon to pick up those twelve cows.” He had sputtered his confusion, but the connection had clicked off before he could get any clarification. He had called Gaston’s place. The call was taken by George’s son Sandy, sounding sheepish and strained.
“Look, Ed, I been trying to get time to call you all morning—things’re going crazy here. The long and short of it is, the ol’ man’s calculator runs the same math yours does. I think your problems just set him off, he’s been poring over the books since early yesterday. We can’t expect to stay in, any better than you can, Ed. Fact is, we’re probably in even deeper shit than you are. You know the story—it’s like being run down by some goddamn awful machine!” Sandy wasn’t usually strong-spoken. His voice was shaking. “So we’re going down. Lawyers and accountants all over the place right now. Our cows are going to Hell and Dale—who else is there to sell to?—and since we’d already taken possession, yours are being transferred too. Don’t worry, you’ll get your money—I just don’t know right now whose name will be on the check—”
“It ain’t the money!” Ed had interrupted. “Good God, man—the way they treat cows over there! Going lame on those concrete floors, locked full-time in them bitty little stanchions—mastitis in every third cow! They treat ’em like some kinda goddamn machines!” His voice too had begun to shake; his language too much stronger than normal. He hoped he wasn’t betraying the tears he could feel starting in his eyes.
“Ed!” Sandy’s single sharp word was a stop sign held up to his outburst. “Look, I know all that! There just ain’t any damn thing else we can do! Look, man, I’m sorry as I can be. Hey, I really got to go—the shit’s hitting the fan here!”
Ed stared at the floor a long time, clenching his fists and grinding his teeth in helpless frustration.
Big sin? Little sin?
He went into the study, took out the heavy .45 semi-automatic from his Army days. Though he hadn’t had it in his hands for years, he broke it down, cleaned it, and reassembled it with practiced efficiency. He loaded the magazine and shoved it in place, snicked a round into the chamber. Then he laid it down and pounded his fists on the desk in anguished frustration.
The big cattle truck with the Hill and Dale logo pulled into the barnyard with a diesel growl. Two men jumped out—one nervous, impatient, and quick-moving, the other a pimple-faced kid. They approached Ed Bullen, sitting tight-lipped on an overturned bucket.
“Mr. Bullen, here to get them cows,” said the man in charge, not breaking his stride. Bullen stared sullenly at the ground between his feet as if he hadn’t heard, elbows jammed on knees, shoulders slumped.
“Mr. Bullen!” Louder. Still no response.
“Come on,” the agent said impatiently to the pimple-faced assistant, and led the way to the barn. He shoved open the big door on squeaking hinges—and gasped. The twelve cows had been locked in their milking stanchions. Each one had taken a large-caliber slug, squarely between the eyes. The agent stormed back to the sitting man.
“Bullen!” he snapped angrily. Ed Bullen gave no sign of having heard. “Look, Bullen, those cows were the legal property of Hill and Dale Farms. You will hear from our lawyer!” Then he stomped off, followed by the slack-jawed youth looking confused and frightened.
Ed Bullen continued to sit as the growl of the diesel faded. He thought of the .45 on the shelf in the feed room—a single round still in the chamber.
Big sin? Little sin?