The word was, Perry Brooks's bull -- all 2,000 fence-bending pounds of him -- was loose again. And the word, as is sometimes the case in a small farming town, was right.
On that Saturday, Wick Coleman, a farmer and friend, had seen Brooks cruising the edge of the Food Lion parking lot in his old, gold pickup, where the lot bordered Brooks's fields. He had his head out the window, and he looked worried, Coleman said. One of Brooks's beagles was along for the ride, and it peered out the passenger window, as if it were searching, too.
There was nothing new about this. At 74, Brooks was retired from full-time farming. He'd sold most of his cattle, and his remaining herd of 20 didn't seem enough to keep the herd's bull at home. From time to time, the bull, a black-and-white mongrel known as a "hundred-percenter" for its breeding prowess, would throw its front legs up against the pasture fence and slowly rock it to the ground. Free at last, it would lumber off in search of fresh female companionship.
Over the years, Brooks's wandering herd had become a source of entertainment among some of his neighbors around Bowling Green, Va., an hour-and-a-half drive south of Washington.
"Perry would call and say, 'I've lost a cow, would you keep an eye out for it?'" said Frances Hurt, a neighbor. "It was a riot. We'd call each other and say: 'Where's Perry's cow today? Is he in your yard?' 'No, is he in yours?'"
Once the prodigal had been located, Brooks's habit was to fire up his truck and go retrieve it, loading it into the back or just tapping it home on foot with the aid of an old hoe-handle and whoever was around to help. That could be a sight to behold. Brooks was worn and bent as an old tree root by decades of hard labor. In recent years, he'd endured open-heart surgery and two hip replacements and had crushed his right hand in a front-end loader. To keep his hip from popping out of joint, he sometimes wore a complicated plastic brace over his dungarees. In combination with the tattered clothing he favored, it gave him the look of Jed Clampett crossed with the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz."
But this time, on the third weekend in April 2004, Brooks's bull had crossed into the 675-acre purebred cattle operation of Brooks's neighbor and longtime nemesis, John F. Ames.
Ames, 60, a Richmond lawyer and CPA turned part-time cattle breeder, had spent more than a decade developing a large herd of prized, pedigreed Black Angus cattle. In the years since he'd come to Caroline County, Ames had acquired a reputation as an exacting and ambitious cattleman, a demanding, somewhat aloof figure. Most people who knew him in Caroline were keenly aware that he'd filed more than a dozen lawsuits (and threatened more) against neighbors and business associates since taking over Holly Hill Farm. That reputation for litigiousness left many of his fellow townspeople wanting to keep clear of him.
The bad blood between Perry Brooks and John Ames, however, was in a class all its own. The sheriff's department policed it, the newspapers covered it, the local court was openly weary of it, and the families of at least one of the men had learned to tiptoe around it. The feud had even led Ames to apply for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. In his application, Ames told the court that he needed the gun, a Czech-made 9mm semiautomatic pistol, because he carried large amounts of cash for business, but also because he was afraid of his neighbor.
The feud started like this: In 1989, about four years after he'd arrived in Caroline, Ames sent each of his neighbors a registered letter announcing his plans to build a new fence. He informed them that, under an 1887 fence law, they would be required to pay for half of whatever section of it ran along their shared property line. Some neighbors would be on the hook for $6,000, some for $12,000. Perry Brooks's share would be more than $45,000.
The first reaction among the neighbors -- several of them retired schoolteachers and nurses living on Social Security and pensions, who kept no livestock -- was consternation. "What kind of a person moves to a small town and starts suing his neighbors?" said Hurt, whose elderly mother, aunt and cousin all received bills.
Each neighbor wrote to Ames, formally declining to participate. When that didn't end it, the neighbors banded together and hired a lawyer to challenge the fence law. They also asked their state delegate to take the matter up with the General