Farm house.

Beware the Neighbor

The moving truck left my neighbor's house and rumbled down his driveway, which intersected my property. The old homestead had been empty for a year, ever since the former owner passed away. At the time, I was glad to see it occupied again.

I sat on my deck. Smoke from my barbeque drifted into the air. Steaks sizzled on the grill. I put my feet on an adjacent chair, picked up my book, draped my bookmark over my thigh, and quietly read. It was another peaceful spring evening in Nova Scotia.

Out of the corner of my eye I sensed movement - a large white cat. I watched it approach my flowerbed, sniff at the newly turned soil, and begin to dig. "Hey!" I jumped from my chair, "Get out of there!" I yelled.

The cat was fast - a white blur fleeing through the trees. It headed in the direction of my new neighbor's house.

Every night I sat on my deck. Every night the cat appeared. As before, I chased it away

One evening, I sat on my deck and heard, "Meow!" The white cat stood a few feet from me. He'd come around the house from the other direction. His blue eyes showed no fear. He stood and looked at me. I admired his courage. I put my hand down, "Here, Kitty." The cat rushed to my hand and rubbed its head against it. In a few minutes, he purred softly in my lap.

A few nights later, I saw my neighbor in his yard. I walked up the hill and introduced myself. "Hi, I'm Mike. I'm your neighbor down the hill."

He held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Mike!" he smiled and took my hand in his. "I'm John."

As we talked, the white cat appeared. "John, is that your cat?"

"That's Matey. I got him a few months ago. I notice he goes down the hill to your house almost every evening. I hope he isn't bothering you."

"Not at all, John. In fact, he's become my friend." John and I became friends too.

John kept busy making improvements to the property. It used to be a farm. The old house sat in the middle of what was once the pasture. One side bordered the back end of my property, which had a stand of thirty-to-fifty foot spruce and fur trees. Between the trees and John's house was a field of tall grass. If you looked closely, you could see what was left of the rows of the original garden. Strands of thick wire, obviously old fencing to keep the vegetables safe from roaming cattle, could be seen through the thick grass.

John decided to turn the pasture into a lawn. For weeks, he pushed his mower over the humps. I sat on my deck and winced every time the blade ground against a hidden rock or rattled over the old wire fencing.

I'd sit on my deck, try to read, and attempt to ignore the noise.

The mower came to a stop. The quiet disturbed me. I placed my bookmark between the pages of my book and strolled up the hill to survey the damage. The old meadow looked like the head of a child who'd decided to cut their own hair. Patches of tall grass stood in random order over the field. The blade of John's mower had sliced the tops off the high spots and exposed the brown earth. White scars marked the tops of uncovered rocks.

John fiddled with his mower by the side of the house. "The field looks good, John." I lied.

"Thanks!" He looked up from the mower. "I don't know what's wrong with this thing." He turned it on its side. "Look at that blade."

I knelt down and ran a finger over the jagged cutting edge. It was dull, dented, and basically useless. "It doesn't look too good, John." I said with faked concern.

"That's the third blade I've put on this thing. Shouldn't they last longer than that?"

"They don't make things like they used to, John" I replied, trying not to laugh.


Spring was in the air. It was time to plant my vegetable garden. On my way to the shed for my rake and shovel, I noticed John burning the dry grass around his house. It didn't concern me. A lot of people in the area did that to encourage new growth.

I pushed my shovel into the soft ground, lifted it, and turned the soil over. A big shiny worm wiggled on the surface. Georgia stepped onto the deck. "Mike, there's a fire in the back field."

I looked up. "It's OK, Hun. It's just John. He's burning the grass around his house."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, it's OK." I assured her. She went back into the house.

Twenty minutes later, she appeared on the deck again. "Michael, you better check it out. The field's on fire."

I wanted to finish tilling the garden. "Georgia, it's just John burning the grass." I snapped.

"I think you better check it out." She was determined not to let me finish my work.

"Fine!" I growled and threw my shovel to the ground. "If it makes you feel better, I'll check it out." I stomped off.

Clouds of smoke greeted me as I turned the corner of our house. Flames raced across the dry grass in the meadow between John's house and the tall trees on my property.

I ran to the road that led to John's. The field was burnt black. Orange flames crackled at the base of the tall trees. Their branches, heavy with spring growth, hung low to the ground, inches from the flickering flames. "Oh, my!" I said out loud - I really said something else. I dashed to the shed and grabbed my snow shovel.

At the base of the trees, I beat the shovel on the burning grass. Inch-by-inch, I worked the fire-line until the last of the fire threatening my property was out. Gasping for breath, I wiped a sooty hand - burnt free of hairs - over my sweaty forehead.

To my right, a wisp of smoke caught my eye. Next to my shed, a tangle of dried raspberry bushes and grass burst into flame. I rushed to it. Flames leapt in my face. My eyebrows and whiskers disappeared with a rancid smell - no need to shave that day.

I leaned on my shovel, panting heavily. "Michael!" Georgia yelled from the kitchen window. "Should I call the fire department?"

"No! I think we have it under control."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure! You may need to paint my eyebrows on for a few weeks, but I think we got it."

I paused and looked up the hill. John was working on the remaining flames. "I'm going to help John. He's putting out the fire in the back of the field. I'll let you know if we need help."

I ran through the black field, tripped over a mower-shredded piece of fence wire, fell into the ash, jumped up, and wiped my forehead. A trickle of black, sooty sweat ran down my cheek.

John held a rake in his hand. He pulled at the burning grass - lifting it up - trying to pull the fire from fresh fuel. Each clump of grass he lifted burst into flame. "John!" I screamed. "What are you doing?"

Once again, I beat the flames down with my snow shovel. "John!" I panted. "You can't put out a fire like that! You're stirring the grass up and giving it fuel! You need to beat it down with a shovel or hose it with water! What the..." Adrenalin made me say words I shouldn't have.

"I'm sorry, Mike" John hung his head. "The wind picked up and the fire got away from me."

I softened. "It's OK, John. I'm glad we got it out. We could have lost all our homes. It's done."

The words had barely left my mouth, when I heard the crackle of flames. I turned and saw smoke rising from the base of the trees on the other side of John's house. "Oh, ..." I ran toward my house and screamed, "Georgia, call the fire department!"

"I already did!" She yelled out the window.

I rushed to the base of the tall trees. The smoldering grass burst into flame just as I reached it. Over the sound of my shovel beating the flames down, I heard the wail of approaching sirens. Smoke burned my throat. My eyes watered. The flames reached the base of a twenty-foot tree, shot up its side, and forced me to retreat.

In the blink of an eye, one side of the tree burst into flame. The small green needles, full of sap, turned black and then grey, as they were consumed by the flames. Heat lifted the ash into the air. Like a snow storm, the flakes settled on my head and shoulders, turning my head prematurely grey. "It's all over, John!" I screamed. "We're all going to lose our homes." As fast as the flames incinerated the tree, they died off - perhaps because of the rain the day before.

Two fire trucks bounced up our rutted driveway. Men clad in rubber jumped out, unreeled hoses, and rushed up the hill where John and I stood. "Where's the fire?" the captain asked.

"I took care of it." I said and wiped my hand across my forehead. The charred remains of my eyebrows dropped from my head and drifted in the light breeze.

He looked at my sooty face, "You put this out?" He surveyed the field and the tall trees that bordered it. "You did a great job. This whole place could have gone up in flames."

"We should make him an honorary fireman." another said.


The smell of fresh mowed grass filled the air. Below my house, the sound of a chainsaw disturbed the peace. John was cutting the trees, to give him a view of the cove below our house. I pushed my mower toward the shed. As I crossed the road leading to his house, I heard the snap of a tree trunk breaking. From my right, I heard what sounded like the string of a bow being released. The power lines that crossed my property and provided electricity to the rest of the point, whipped through the air and landed in the brush.

Georgia yelled out the window. "Michael, the power just went out."

"I know." I yelled back. "John just broke the wires."

I ran up the road, ducked the fallen lines, and yelled through the trees. "John!" His chainsaw went silent. "John!" I yelled again. "You cut the lines. The power is out."

John came through the brush. Small twigs stuck from his bushy beard. "It's OK!" he said. "They're just guy-wires to hold up the poles." He bent and reached for one.

"No!" I screamed and turned my back to him, afraid to see him electrocuted. "Don't touch them, John." I expected him to turn into a dancing ball of flame.

"Why?" He asked. "They're just guy-wires."

I turned to face him. John stood holding the wires. My heartbeat slowed. "John, look where those wires lead." I pointed to the top of the pole. "They're attached to the insulators at the top of the pole." John looked in the direction I pointed. His face turned white. I continued. "They must have crossed when they fell and blew a fuse down the line. You're a lucky man, John."


My friend and co-worker, Pat Carey, drove us home. We both worked for the same company in a different province. It was the day before Christmas Eve. "Thanks for driving me home, Pat."

"No problem, Mike. I was going home anyway." He glanced in my direction. "How long has it been since you were home?"

"It's been almost two months."

"That's a long time to be away from your family."

"It's been too long, Pat." I fought back tears. "I'm lucky to get home for Christmas. Do you have your Christmas tree yet?"

"Yes, my brother brought one over and helped my wife put it up. You?"

"No, not yet." I sighed. "I'll be climbing through the woods tomorrow." We used to cut our trees in the woods back then. "It's going to be a busy day. I'm not looking forward to it."

Pat pulled his car into my driveway. "Merry Christmas, Mike. Enjoy your family."

I opened the door, stepped out and leaned back in. We shook hands. "Merry Christmas, Pat. Thanks again. I'll see you in a couple of days."

After being away so long, I knocked on my front door. I felt like a guest in my own home. Georgia opened the door and held out her arms. "Merry Christmas, Michael."

I wrapped my arms around her. "Merry Christmas, Hun." We kissed. "I missed you so much."

"Daddy!" Vanessa and Justin ran to me. I released Georgia and dropped to my knees. Tears filled my eyes. I wrapped my arms around them both. "Merry Christmas, guys. I missed you."

Over their heads, I surveyed the room. In the center, where it stood every year, was a perfectly decorated Christmas tree. The sparkling lights reflected in the tears running down my cheek. I slowly stood. "Georgia?" I looked at her. "Georgia ..." I looked at the tree again. Words failed me.

"Do you like it?" She smiled at me.

"Yes, but"

"John cut it for us. He got it in the back of our property." She hugged me. "He wanted to help. It's his Christmas gift."

"It's amazing, a little crooked, but amazing." I pulled her into my arms, smelled her hair - the hair I hadn't smelled in months - and allowed my tears to flow freely. "I'll never be able to thank him enough."

John scared me more than once, but his heart was pure. He always meant to do the right thing, but mostly failed. On Christmas Eve, 1996, John finally got it right. The tears spilling down my cheeks were proof.

~ Michael T. Smith ~

Michael lives in Ohio with his wife Ginny and his stepdaughter's family. You can see a list of Mike's stories here: And you can get his stories emailed to you by signing up here:  Please let Michael know what you think of his story:  Michael T. Smith
[ by: Michael T. Smith Copyright © 2010, ( ) -- {used with permission} ]

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