Fred Pickles just loved living in Sunflower Valley.
He loved the rolling hills, the wildflowers, and the diverse small wildlife that populated the place. He loved his farm, which was just the right size; not too big and not too small. And he loved the people he came into contact with, his friends, his acquaintances, the occasional visitor. Most everyone in their small community was friendly, he appreciated that. He loved working with machines that could think and speak for themselves; he admitted it, he couldn’t go back to actually driving a tractor now, not after working with Travis. And he loved the fact that when anything went wrong, he could get it fixed perfectly and practically without delay with just one call to Bob, the engineer/contractor/handyman the machines referred to as Bob the Builder.
Fred had taken a liking to Bob almost from the first moment he’d met him. The younger man was reliable, loved his work and had an easygoing, friendly manner – he was one of those people who, as Fred’s grandmother would have put it, ‘whistled his way through life.’ And since Fred needed Bob’s help so often around the farm, those were all qualities he really appreciated.
Bob had been a little bemused by that at first. It had been hard for him to wrap his mind around the idea that a farmer could plant crops and raise livestock but not fix a fence or build a pigpen. Fred Pickles, though, was no ordinary farmer; he was a retired agricultural scientist from upstate New York. He’d been running a test farm for a major university ag program when he’d been approached by Project Sunflower – by Charlie himself, in fact – about running his own farm in Sunflower Valley . They would send him interesting things to test, and fund all the little projects he’d been itching to try on his own as well. All he had to do was be willing to work with a talking tractor. Fred had immediately asked if he could get to know the tractor first, and he’d been part of the Project from that day forward.
He hadn’t regretted it yet. His little farm was doing great, he’d made a lot of headway with his various experiments – and with the experiments belonging to other people that the Project had so far sent him – and he’d made friends who were good enough to grow old with. He counted Bob as one of them, although Fred was going to get old long before the young builder did.
Bob seemed to enjoy his company too, so Fred had been surprised when he’d invited Bob to join he and a few of his other friends for their weekly poker night and the younger man had hesitated. “I…I don’t know, Farmer Pickles. Even though you’re just playing for fun, I might mess up your game...”
Fred had jumped to the most obvious conclusion. “Not really one for cards, Bob?”
To his surprise, Bob had laughed. “No, I play – I like to play poker. But, well…” He’d shaken his head, apparently not quite sure how to put what he wanted to say into words. “Tell you what, I’ll come this Friday night. But if you don’t want me to come back after that, I’ll understand and that’ll be the end of it, no hard feelings. Deal?”
Fred hadn’t understood it, but he’d agreed. “All right, deal. Oh, and snacks are potluck, bring whatever you want.”
“Can do! I’ll see you Friday – unless something needs to be fixed before then.” And then with a wink and a wave Bob had been gone, off to fix something for someone else, leaving the older man smiling and shaking his head in his wake. Whistling his way through life, that was Bob.
It had been a good week for things not needing to be fixed, and so it wasn’t until Friday evening that Fred had seen Bob again. The younger man had changed out of his ever-present work coverall into khakis and a brightly patterned casual shirt, although he was still wearing his battered steel-toed boots – he’d ridden out to the farm on Scoop, his backhoe, so that was understandable. His contribution to the evening’s snacks consisted of a recycled parts box lined with waxed paper and filled with cookies still warm from the oven, and he’d also brought along a sack of candy bits. “For betting,” he said when asked what they were for. “I didn’t know what you usually used, but I thought…well, if we don’t need them, we can just eat them.”
Fred decided not to push for more of an explanation; he’d find out what was worrying his young friend soon enough. Todd Johnson, the town doctor, and John Dixon, the postmaster, were already there and ready to play, so after going over their particular set of rules he passed out four piles of the jellybeans they used for betting and dealt out the first hand. Which Bob won, with a resigned look on his face.
Todd dealt the second hand. Bob won that one too.
He looked embarrassed when he won the hand dealt by John, and apologetic when he won the hand he dealt himself. By then, though, Fred had caught on. “You’re counting cards!” he exclaimed. “You little devil!”
Bob laughed, obviously glad his friend wasn’t angry, but he still looked embarrassed and apologetic. “I don’t do it on purpose,” he explained. “It’s just…it just happens. I’d hoped that maybe it wouldn’t happen this time, because it’s been so long since I last played, but things didn’t work out that way.” He shrugged. “Like I told you before, if you don’t want…”
“Can we take him to Vegas?” John interrupted. “I know this place…”
“They’d pick us off in a heartbeat, we’d be banned from every casino on the Strip,” Todd told him. He helped himself to another cookie. “But the guys down at the dock might not catch on right away, if we can teach Bob not to look so guilty every time he wins…”
“Sharks,” Fred accused good-humoredly. “And quit hogging the cookies, Todd – you’re a doctor, the least you could do is try to act like one.”
“I’m a doctor, not a dietician,” the other man told him, taking one more cookie before passing the box over to his host. “And I eat my own reward lollipops too, so there.”
“He’s not a dentist either,” John said confidingly to Bob. “But seriously, you can still play – we’d just need to add another deck or two when you’re here, that way you won’t be able to count the cards. We can use a card shuffler. Problem solved.”
The other two men seconded that idea, and they finally got Bob to agree to come play with them one Friday a month. And to bring more cookies, which wasn’t nearly as hard to get him to agree to – Bob by his own admission liked to bake, so it was an arrangement that made everyone happy.
And on the Fridays when Bob wasn’t there, the three older men played with one deck of cards and tried to figure out who to marry him off to. Until Wendy appeared on the scene, at which point they started trying to figure out how to marry Bob off to her. Not that they thought their young friend was averse to the idea, just the opposite in fact, but he was a bit of a slow mover in the romance department and the stringent restrictions of the decency clause didn’t help things at all. But if they could give him a little nudge here and there…well, then they could help their young friend get settled maybe a little sooner than he might have on his own, which would be good for everyone all the way around. Not in the least because Wendy liked to bake too, and just so happened to be just as good at it as Bob was.
Which was just one more reason for Fred to love living in Sunflower Valley.