The morning dew dampened the hem of her skirts as she walked the garden rows. Looking carefully around one more time, Millie Baker quickly bent and pulled two leaves off a head of lettuce, placing them carefully in her pocket. To her relief, no one seemed to have noticed.
Two years ago, her former life had come to an abrupt end when her mother and father left for dinner on their anniversary. She went to sleep with a babysitter on watch, and woke to a houseful of strangers. She listened bewildered as a policewoman told her of the terrible accident and she slowly realized that she would never see her mother and father again.
The next year was a jumbled haze. She was the only child, and had no relatives except her paternal grandparents, and she was afraid of them, or at least of her Grandpa George Baker. He was gruff and unsmiling, but she had no choice, so she moved to Kansas, and the farm. Her father had been a lawyer, so her financial future was secure, but her childhood life looked bleak indeed. Her grandfather never called her Millie or showed any affection. He always referred to her as ‘Young Lady’.
“Sit up straight, Young Lady.” “Shut the door, Young Lady.” “Have you done your chores, Young Lady?”
Grandma Sally was as gentle as George was stern. She taught Millie how to churn butter, feed the chickens, and gather the eggs from the unhappy hens who pecked her small hands. She showed her how to cook and bake. She taught her to play her precious piano, and Millie adored her. She loved her grandmother almost as much as she feared her grandfather.
Not that he had ever abused her. In fact, she had never seen him truly angry, but he never smiled, and work was all he seemed to know. The worst part was his rule on pets.
Millie already knew better than to make a pet out of farm animals, because their fate was certain. No sense in making a pet out of a potential steak, or a side of bacon, and the rooster she had found humorous in his dawn crowing ended up as Sunday dinner. But her grandfather also forbade her to make a pet out of the dogs and the cats.
“They have jobs, so they aren’t pets. The dogs herd and keep foxes out of the henhouse. The cats keep the rats and mice out of the barn and the corn cribs. They aren’t pets, and I want them left alone.”
Grandma Sally patted her hand “He’s good man, down deep, Millie, and he’d be surprised to hear that he’s just like his father before him, but he is. All he’s ever known is hard work and hard times, so he doesn’t know when to stop. He’s quite a remarkable man you know. He’s a superb mechanic, and fixes his own machinery. He’s also a good carpenter. He designed and built all these buildings. He’s so good with sick animals that veterinarians often ask his opinion. But as I said, he just doesn’t know when to stop. He loves to have an extra cup of coffee and a doughnut in the morning, but he won’t allow himself the pleasure.”
She finished brushing Millie’s hair and tucked her into bed, kissing her brow.
“Your grandfather loves you dearly, Millie. He’s just a gruff old Billy-goat.”
School was good, and she loved riding the bus. The driver was a jolly woman who let the kids make as much noise as they wanted as long as they stayed in their seats. She made lots of good friends and often stayed at their homes overnight. Life was not that bad…except for her sour Grandpa George and the fact that she longed for a pet of her own.
One of Millie’s favorite chores was picking raspberries along the north fence line, where she could hear the sweet, warbling calls of the meadowlarks seated on the telephone lines. That’s what she was doing when she discovered Fuzzball.
Her pail was nearly half full of berries when she came upon the bloody fur scattered about on the ground. The tale was clear; something had killed a cottontail for its dinner. She shrugged her shoulders at nature’s way, and almost missed the small ball of fur hidden away in the rooted raspberry brambles along the fence.
It was no larger than a baseball and she could see neither eyes nor a tail. It was a baby rabbit, and undoubtedly the orphan of the late scattered fur. She picked it up, and it suddenly woke up, startled and frightened, but too weak to resist. She stroked its fur, and it balled up again. She smiled.
“You’re just a little fuzzball! In fact, that’s your name…Fuzzball.”
Making up her mind, Millie put the baby cottontail in her apron pocket, and started for the house, her mind concocting and discarding various plots. At last, she decided to hide the baby rabbit in the hollow of the big oak tree behind the house. To her seven year old mind, it was as safe as she could make it.
She found an eyedropper in the medicine cabinet and mixed up some fresh milk with a drop of honey. She heated it under the hot water faucet, and then quietly made her way to the oak. She tried to get Fuzzball to suck on the eyedropper without success, and was frustrated until she accidentally squirted a little on his lips. He licked the offending liquid and seemed to like it, so she did it again and he licked it again. She had found a way.
For the next two weeks, she fed him milk, and he came out from hiding in the hollow in the base of the oak at the sound of her footsteps, eager and hungry. Then one day, she brought a scrap of lettuce from the table, and after a few tentative nibbles, he ate that too. She gave him a little milk for a few more days and then weaned him.
Last night, there had been no table scraps, so Millie stole the two lettuce leaves from Grandpa George’s garden. She felt guilty, but justified it in her child’s mind, because Fuzzball had to eat.
“I’m going to ride the bus home with Judy Doogan this afternoon and spend the night at her house, so I won’t see you tonight, or in the morning, Fuzzball. But I’ll be back tomorrow night with your supper.”
She placed the second lettuce leaf in the hollow and left.
When the bus dropped her off the next afternoon, Millie raced down the lane and ran to her room. She changed into her work clothes and dropped the three carrots she saved from her lunch into her pocket. The back door slammed as she ran to the oak to feed Fuzzball.
He was gone.
She felt around the hollow, but he was not there. Tears were welling in her eyes when a shadow suddenly darkened the space. Startled, she spun around and was confronted with the tall, stern figure of her grandfather, his hands on his hips.
“Are you looking for that rabbit?” He was scowling.
She nodded, her eyes wide and frightened.
“Come with me.” He abruptly spun on his heel and walked off. Millie followed, her heart in her throat.
Millie had to run to keep up with his long strides. They rounded the barn, and headed toward the chicken house, where her grandfather led her to the far side. There, on the back of the building, was a small structure that she had never seen before. It was a freshly built rabbit hutch, and Fuzzball was contentedly munching lettuce out of the garden.
“You need to be honest, Young lady. It’s no good to be sneaky like that. I knew all along about that rabbit, but where you had him, a fox could have easily gotten him. He’ll be safe here.”
Her mouth dropped open, and she turned to face him.
“You mean I can keep him, Grandpa?”
His voice was gruff. “You can keep him until he’s full grown, but he’s a wild creature so eventually, you’ll have to let him go.”
She wrapped her small arms around his legs, pressing her cheek against him.
“Oh, thank you Grandpa! I love you, Grandpa!”
He patted her small head awkwardly but gently with his rough, gnarled old hand.
“I love you too, Millie”
She looked up, and suddenly realized how ancient and tired he looked. Then his leathery, seamed old face slowly crinkled into a smile, and she knew life was going to be different between her and her grandfather.
“That was very sweet of you to build that hutch for Millie, George.”
George Baker swabbed his breakfast plate with his toast, picking up the last of the eggs. He glanced up at Sally who was fussing with something on the stove. Millie had left for school, and they were alone.
“After chores I’m going over to the Thompson place.”
“What for, George?”
“He has some nice ponies, and I’m thinking of getting one for Millie.”
Sally placed a plate of fresh, hot doughnuts and another cup of coffee in front of her husband.
He stared at her. “I have to get at my chores, Sally,“ he protested.
“You’ll sit there and enjoy your coffee and doughnuts for once, George Baker. The hired hands can do your chores. That’s why you hired them. And I thought you wanted no pets?”
His voice was gruff, but unconvincing. “Well, she’ll need a pony to ride around the farm on her chores. It’ll be a working animal, Sally.”
Sally smiled down at him and patted his shoulder.
“Eat your doughnuts, you old fraud.”