Robbers in my kitchen

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Cono and his sister, Delma

Dad clenched his fist and his jaw at the same time. “Show me a woman with long nails and I’ll show ya a lazy woman.” Mother ignores his comment but finishes up, putting the lid back on.

“Damn that shit stinks,” he says, staring at the polish Bottle. “Ya’ll go on to bed now,” he tells Delma and me.

“But it ain’t…”

“I said git to bed!”

“It’s early Wayne…”

“I’m havin’ company, Elnora. You need to go on too. I’m havin’ a business meetin’.”

Delma and I go to our room and she has no trouble falling asleep. For me it’s just too early and my body and head want more things to do.

After a little while, I hear men’s voices come in through our door. I hear Dad tell them to sit down at the table. I hear the sound of coffee brewing on the stove.

“I don’t want any part of it, Earl,” says Dad.

“But Marshal Dry will be in on it and he’ll make sure we get in and out of there without a hitch, ain’t that right J.D.?”

Then I knew who was sitting at my dinner table, the very table I’d sat under just the night before. It was Mr. J.D. Eckles himself, the outlaw from Ranger and Joe and Earl Adams, the outlaws from Rotan. I peek out of the little hole in my door and get to see pieces of their faces.

J.D. says, “Williams Drug Store is across from the bank. When we’re done with that, I can back up my truck and load up the narcotics.”

Now I know what they’re planning to do. They’re planning to rob our town’s bank, the bank where H. works. I picture H. just doing his job, cleaning and sweeping, when men come in with guns ready to shoot. I don’t like it. Not one iota.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

Daily word prompt: Bottle

Great Grandpa Jim tells a story

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Double Mountain Ranch in background

Jim Dennis, my great-grandfather, bought the ranch in 1904. When he decided to retire to a simpler life other than cowboying, he told Ike he could run the place. Great Grandpa Dennis took Granny Dennis and moved to town.

Jim’s recountings of his younger days were filled with pioneering stories and Indian raids. “After the Civil War, the country was full of unbranded cattle and it was customary for cowmen to brand everythin’ in sight. We sorta Tapered off, though, when the cattle brandin’ law went into force. In the free branding days there was grass enough for all, and plenty of cattle but the cattle had small market value. In 1881, fencing became general, and free pasture was a thing of the past,” he told us great grandkids. “I remember the days when Fort Griffin was a boomtown,” he’d said, “The center of buffalo hide and bone business. Hunters outfitted their parties at Fort Griffin and brought their hides and bones there to be sold. When the buffalo were all killed and the Indians had been put on the reservations, Fort Griffin’s businessmen moved to Albany and the old fort was soon a ghost town.”

Great Grandpa Jim also told us that doctors were few and far between, but not many people got sick. “Couldn’t afford to get down with doctors twenty-five miles away. There weren’t any dentists and teeth seemed to last nearly as long as the folks did. Maybe the pioneer diet of beans, syrup, bread, meat, and coffee wadn’t so bad after all.”

When Jim and Granny Dennis first got married, they moved to Nolan County and spent twenty years on Bitter Creek. Their first ranch home was a dugout, twelve feet square. I didn’t know it back then, but me, Delma, Mother, and Dad would be living in a dugout before too long.

God almighty, they had a total of twelve kids. I can only imagine Granny Dennis raising those kids, taking a break every so often to sit on the front porch to chew her tobacco and spit it back out into her brass spittoon. “Ping!;” like she probably did, when Dad took Delma that time. “Now Wayne, ping, she belongs with her mother, ping. Ye take her back right now, ping.”

Their son, Henry, died in 1898. And Boxley died in 1918 while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in France. That left James, Sid, Maggie, Ike, Bertie, Lawrence, Thurmond, Florine and the twins, Raymond and Rubie. Uncle Sid is ranching in New Mexico, Uncle Thurman is the foreman of the Martin ranch, Uncle Raymond ranches too. While the other kids were off doing other things, thirty-two hundred acres of pure Texas sat in the capable hands of Ike.

The ranch sits at the base of Double Mountain about fifteen miles outside of Rotan just past the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. Mesquite trees, scrub brush, and red dirt were pure and raw Texas. In 1941, the land that spoke to itself and made the people who lived there a little stronger, would be out of our hands and in the hands of the famous football player, Mr. Sammy Baugh. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I’d get to be with Ike and not with Mrs. Berry and, at the time, that was all that mattered.

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Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper

Daily word prompt: Taper

A Baby Girl Sock Without the Baby Girl

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Cono (my father) and his sister, Delma

Mother’s holding Delma in her skinny arms, and Dad walks toward them. He’s clenching his jaw, which makes his brown eyes look black. He looks different, like something bad is about to happen.

“What’re ye doin’, Wayne?” asks Mother. Dad doesn’t answer. He just keeps walking up to the porch.

“Wayne?” says Mother again. Dad snatches Delma right outta her arms, turns back around, and starts walking back to the car he had borrowed. Then all hell breaks loose.

“Wayne, what the hell do ye think you’re doin’?” says Aunt Nolie.

“It ain’t  None of yer concern, Nola,” says Dad just as calmly as if he was taking a sack of groceries to his car instead of my whimpering baby sister.

Mother cries and pleads with him to bring Delma back. She follows on his heels, pulling on his sleeve, but he shakes her off like a horsefly. When Dad puts Delma into the car, Sis starts crying too. I know she must be as confused as we are. She never goes anywhere without Mother, and now she’s watching her Mother cry and try to get to her. She’s watching me, too. I’m helpless. I can’t move. I can’t do nothing.

Dad leaves, and I can hear my baby sister crying for me to come rescue her, but I can’t. I just stand there, holding on to Mother’s skirt. Mother’s holding on to Aunt Nolie’s arm.

“That crazy son of a bitch,” says Aunt Nolie.

“I hate his guts,” sobs Mother.

Right then and there, so do I. I hate him. He has taken my little sister and left my mother’s arms raw from the friction of loneliness.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

Measuring up

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Cono, my father, age 14

You don’t really know much when you’re born, but that’s where it starts, alright, whether you like it or not. When you’re just a little suckling pig on your mamma’s teat, all you really want to know is that the teat will keep filling up so you can start suckling all over again. Once you reckon the food’s always gonna be there, you move on to wondering whether you’re gonna be kept safe from harm and warm when it’s cold. As you get a little older, you find out that maybe there isn’t always going to be enough to eat after all, and you won’t always be warm either. This is especially true if you grew up during the Great Depression in Texas, in the western part, where any stranger is sized up from boot to hat, if, that is, they’re lucky enough to own both.

Texans trust themselves first and foremost, and then maybe one or two of their kinfolk, as long as they’ve found that trust to be right as rain, if the sun can set on their words. I grew up trying to figure out who was in which category, who I could trust and who to never turn my back on. There was a lot of line crossing. I learned what I know from watching those who crossed over and the others who stayed on their own side.

I did both.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

Measure

Dad ain’t pleased and I’m payin’ for it

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photo credit

Dad’s been drinking. He sways his way over to me with a look on his sorry-ass face that says, “Ya best answer this next question the way I wanna here it. Where’s Zexie?” He didn’t ask where Pooch was. He could see him lying in the shade by the house.

“What?” I say, trying to keep my axe swinging in the right direction.

“I said where’s Zexie?” he yells.

Unlike Dad, time is standing still and sober like at the picture show, when the film has snapped and nobody knows what to do with themselves. All I know is, I’d been doing what I was told. I was chopping and sharpening, chopping and sharpening all day, the sharpening part being my idea. I have enough wood stacked up to make it through a blizzard.

I say back to him, “I don’t know, haven’t seen her. Been chopping wood all day.”

“Get the gun,” he says. “We’ll follow the trap line. See if she got caught up.” I run inside and get the single shot .22 off the chester drawers and run to catch up with Dad.

Sure enough, Zexie is lying in the first trap we come to, poor little thing. She’s been gnawing on her own leg to get out of that trap. I know I didn’t have anything to do with it. Dad set that goddamn trap, not me. I was only doing what I was told.

Dad pulls the trap open and picks her up, cradling her in one arm like a baby. Then he walks over and slaps the living hell out of me with the other. I stumble back but this time, I don’t fall. I make myself stand up straight.

Dad sure does like dogs.

He hands me the .22 to carry back and starts walking towards the house. Just as I’m thinking, “Don’t turn around you sorry son of a bitch ’cause I’m gonna shoot you in the back of the head,” he turns back around, grabs the .22 right out of my hand, and take the bullets out.

“Here,” he says, and hands the pistol back to me.

He doesn’t trust me, and I don’t trust him. That’s about the sum of it.

I know exactly how it feels to be caught in a trap, and I’ll be damned if I gotta gnaw off my foot to get out of this one. I also know there’s a way to have supper without feeling poisoned. I just have to figure out where that is and which direction I need to go to get there. I’d follow those railroad tracks anywhere about now.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper

Author note: This is a true story and I need to tell my readers that Zexie recovered.

Pleased

Unraveling the meaning of “an eye for an eye”

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Young Cono Dennis

Mr. Pall thinks he’s tougher than a pair of old leather boots, probably because he used to be some kinda wrestler or something. He isn’t nearly as tough as Dad, who last week had beaten a man unconscious on Main Street just because the man spouted off to him. I walk into his office, where’s he’s sitting behind his desk looking puffed up with importance.

“Cono, were you smoking in the schoolyard?”

“No sir, I wadn’t.”

“Were the Allridge boys smoking?”

I think, Why didn’t ye just call them in here like you’ve done me?, but I don’t say that. Maybe it was Mr. Pall’s brother-in-law, who Dad had beaten up last week.

“I have no idee, sir,” I say. “I reckon you ought’a ask them.”

His right eye stares a hole in my left eyeball. His left one kinda wanders around on its own, like it’s been punched one too many times. Maybe he grunts with Mrs. Berry on occasion.

He opens up his desk drawer and pulls out a rubber hose. He thumps it on the desk a few times and says, “Well, I need to whip you with this hose.”

I stare back into his bad eye with both of my good ones and say, “Go ahead, sir. But I jes’t half to tell ye that my daddy said if you ever laid a hand on me, he’d have to come up here and whup you.” I say it real nice though.

He sits real quiet in his principal’s chair, like he’s picturing himself drawing a crowd on Main Street while my dad beats the tar outta his one good eye. While he’s chewing on that idea like a piece of gum, I’m busy staring at him, thinking that his front teeth stick out so far he could eat an apple through a keyhole. After that picture in my mind, I’m not scared one little bit.

Finally, he says, “Git on outta here, Cono.”

“Yes, sir,” I say, ’cause there’s no sense in not being polite.

At lunchtime I’m eating my sandwich, minding my own business, when Tommy scopes me out and says, “Cono, what’cha got fer lunch?”

Even though he’s five times bigger than me I say, “It don’t make no difference ’cause ye ain’t getting none of it.”

“Cono, you shouldn’t a’ stuck that knife in me that time.”

I look up at him with a face as serious as Dad’s and say, “Tommy, if ye mess with me in any way, shape’r form, I’ll cut yer head plumb off with the same pocketknife I used before.”

And just as I’m picturing his dead body without a head like Wort Reynolds, Tommy Burns walks away.

School’s out for the day, and it was another discouraging one. I grab Delma’s hand and start walking back home, now having a little time to think about what happened.

The Allridge boys had been smoking like a bunch a chimney stacks, but I ain’t one to rat on somebody else when it’s none of my business. And, I like to think that Dad would beat the tar outta Mr. Pall if he laid a hand on me. But Dad never said that. If Dad ever finds out that I lied, I might as well curl up in a ball and prepare myself—or maybe just grab my axe.

Lying isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, we have to lie in order protect ourselves and the people we care about.

An “eye for an eye” is what I did today. Maybe that part of the Bible makes sense after all.

From No Hill for a Stepper, the story of my father growing up in poverty during the Great Depression.

Unravel

Cono meets a “Colored Man”

 

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Cono Dennis and his sister, Delma

1934:  We walk into the barber’s shop and Dad shakes hands with Mr. Kindle. The place looks pretty much the same as Grady’s in Ranger, but instead of a boxing poster, there’s a framed picture of President Roosevelt. Something else different too. There’s a colored man standing in the corner holding a rag. Dad walks up to him, shakes his hand and says, “How ya doin,’ H?”

  “I’m jest fine, Mr. Wayne. How ‘bout yerself?” They shake hands.

   “Any better ’n I’d be dead.”

  “Well, that’s fine then, jus’ fine,” H. laughs.

 “H., this is my boy, Cono.” H. bends down, looks me square in my eyes and says, “We’ll, it’s a real pleasure Little Dennis, a real pleasure.”

 I like how he’s Squatting so he can see my eyes. Like we’re playing on the same team. I don’t have to look up to him and he doesn’t have to look down on me. I stare back into his eyes where I can see right into the middle of him. What I see is safe and comfortable. So I say, “I ain’t never met a real colored man before.” I hear Dad laugh.

   “‘S’at right?”

   “Yeah.”

  “Yes, sir,” corrects Dad.

 “Yes sir,” I say.

“Well, Little Dennis, I’ve never met a young man so strong and smart lookin’ as you.”     Dad gets in the barber’s chair and H. pulls up a stool to start shining Dad’s old black shoes.

I like the way H. looks at me, like I’m worth a jar full of quarters.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper