Winner of The Bold Media 2002 Book Award!
Chapter Excerpt from A Three-Turtle Summer
1. A Sister in Trouble
Fort Sill, Oklahoma, July, 1949
It was too hot to play cards, especially if someone were keeping score, and Vera was.
"Ay, carumba! You can't stand to go two hours without beating someone at something can you?" Grace Tyler playfully pouted.
Vera ignored her little sister, and began shuffling cards as she gleefully announced, "Senoras, the game is canasta, and were going to play according to Hoyle." She began to deal the cards like a Las Vegas gambler while Pauline laughed and pointed at her mother, a notorious and frequent card-cheater.
Everyone was hot, but in her long-sleeved shirt and long skirt, Grace was sweltering. Sweat beaded up on her forehead and neck and she kept stretching her legs out because the backs of her knees stuck to her skirt.
"Gracie, for God's sake, go put some shorts on," Vera said.
Grace ignored her sister, pulled her shirt away from her perspiring chest and asked, "Anyone want more iced tea before Vera whips the pants off of us?"
Momma and Pauline both nodded and Grace poured tea over fresh ice cubes while Vera got a tablet and pencil out of her purse.
The room was almost silent as each woman arranged her hand. Only Momma barely tapped her foot and softly sang a song from her childhood under her breath:
The fair senorita with the rose in her hair
worked in the cantina but she didnt care
played cards with the men and took all their loot awh-ha!
went to the store and bought brand new boots
"Awh-Haaa!" Grace's five-year-old daughter Glory joined in.
Unconsciously, the other two women started to hum along while they looked at their hand. About the second "Awh-Haaa!" Vera abruptly stopped humming and looked at her sisters with a raised eyebrow. Something was fishy; Momma was much too happy. Barely containing their amusement, they watched as she cheerfully arranged her cards.
Finally, unable to suppress her laughter any longer, Vera jumped up, snatched the cards out of her mothers hands, and fanned them face-up across the table.
"Ay, ay, ay!" She cried out, "Momma, tell me how can you have a meld and eleven cards in your hand when we've just gotten started?"
The fun escalated as Vera rushed around the table and ran her hands all around her mother and the chair she sat on to feel for extra cards.
"Stand up!" Grace and her sisters said as they pulled their mother to her feet. They shook her blue calico dress and screamed with laughter as extra cards fell from every fold.
"Glory," Vera told her young niece, "crawl under the table and get those cards for your Auntie Vera, okay?" Grace moved her feet to the side so that Glory could scramble under the table. Her childish giggles danced around the women's feet as she scrambled for the extra cards that dropped from her grandmother's dress.
"Momma," Vera laughed, you're a born cheater. How did you know we were going to play cards today?" she asked.
"I'm not the only one in this family who's been caught with a few too many cards." Momma said in her defense.
"Yes, but you're the family matriarch. We expect better of you than we do our good-for-nothing brothers." Pauline said.
"Huh! Matriarch, my foot. You girls never listen to a word I say." Momma grumbled.
"Maybe that's because we can't trust you." Vera said.
As another card dropped from Gregoria's dress and slid across the floor, Vera added, "We'll strip you down to your rosary before we ever play cards with you again, Momma."
"Yeah, Pauline, chimed in, the next time you'll play in nothing but your lace step-ins and a bra made from two tortillas."
"Well, at least I'll be the coolest one at the table," Momma chirped.
Vera reached across the table to gather all the cards and reshuffle them. "We're going to start all over, and we'll watch you every minute."
Grace felt a sharp pain in her stomach when she looked up and saw her husband's scowling face through the screen door. Why was he home so early? She didn't have to look at him again to know his normally handsome blond features smoldered with disgust.
Dwayne hated for Grace to have her family over. There would be trouble once her family left, since the room was heavy with the smell of pinto beans and tortillas. When they visited it was bad enough. It irked Dwayne even more when her dark-skinned family stayed for meals.
"Gawd almighty!" Grace had mimicked earlier in Dwayne's high twangy voice to her sisters, "A Texan breakin' bread with tacos! What will folks be thinkin?"
The minute Grace's family saw Dwayne, their laughter died, and they quickly packed up their cards, crochet cotton, and magazines that had filled a hot afternoon with laughter and joy. One by one, they lined up to leave through the back door.
Grace said a quick goodbye to her mother and sisters and moved away from the narrow doorway as the women filed past Dwayne. She held her breath as Pauline and Vera passed the loathsome soldier. She never knew what her sisters might say. All she could count on was that her mother would deliberately say something sweet to him. Always gracious, she wasn't one to pick a fight.
"Poor thing, you look absolutely beat," Gregoria Ramirez said to Dwayne as she winked at Grace. "We're going to get out of here so you can take a nap before dinner."
Her mother's words were mollifying, but Gregoria didn't walk around Dwayne to rush out the door. Instead, she stood her ground and looked him straight in the eyes until she intimidated him into stepping out of her way.
When Grace's mother stepped onto the porch she leisurely adjusted the plastic tortoise shell combs that held her long, dark hair in a bun. Then she fished her clip earrings that matched her outfit out of her dress pocket and put them back on her ears. Grace gasped when she saw her mother nonchalantly slip another extra card that was also in her pocket into her purse before she stepped onto the sidewalk.
Pauline was next in line. "Dwayne, this heat's too much for you, it's over a hundred today, you'd better take it easy," she cautioned. The sound of her high heels click-click-clicked on the shiny kitchen floor and made Dwayne cringe.
From the beginning of her marriage to Dwayne, Grace had been caught in the ferocious sandstorm that swirled around him and her sisters whenever they were together. Raised on a cattle ranch where his father's booze bottles almost outnumbered the cattle, Dwayne didn't know what to think of Pauline's high-heeled shoes and frilly clothes. He just knew he didn't like them.
For her part, Pauline never considered making any changes to accommodate the manipulative soldier her sister had married.
Dwayne clinched his jaw and refused to let himself look down at Pauline's high heels as she passed him, but she knew that he knew that she wore them. Always playful, she did a quickstep on her way to the door.
The ruffles on her colorful full skirt moved to the music her heels made as she walked. Before she passed Dwayne, she adjusted her peasant style blouse with the elastic around the top to make sure her bosom wasnt exposed. It was a subtle movement; only Grace noticed it.
Pauline lingered in the doorway as she said goodbye to Grace, then glided out the door and tossed her long, wavy black hair. The movement jangled her large, golden earrings as she crossed the threshold. "Adios, Muchacho!" she called to Dwayne, as she gave him a backward wave. Grace's eyes flew to Dwayne to see if he noticed that her middle finger stayed up longer than the others. He didn't. He was already looking at Vera.
"You look like hell," Vera said as she passed a sweaty and wrinkled Dwayne, "and you could use a shower. Phew!" she added as she marched out the door. Grace saw her mother give Vera a sharp look when she got to the porch, but her oldest daughter just shrugged her chubby shoulders, as if to say it was the best she could do. This cowboy had used up all of his good graces with her.
Grace wasn't surprised that Dwayne had remained quiet while her family left. She imagined that he had plenty to say; he just didn't dare say it. Not with these women, who weren't as meek as she was. She couldn't tell which woman he feared the most: the mother, quiet but cunning; Vera, outspoken, tough, and fearless; or Pauline, who could cut a man to ribbons with her tongue and flirt with him at the same time.
As Vera reached the sidewalk at the bottom of the porch stairs, Pauline broke into a sprint ahead of her across the yard to Vera's car and jumped into the back seat, still giggling. Pauline had given her first gringo salute when she held up her finger to Dwayne, and she was tickled with herself. Even her mothers look of disapproval couldn't dampen her glee.
When Gregoria opened the car door on the passenger side to get into the front, Pauline buried her face between her legs in her ruffled skirt, to muffle her laughter. Vera opened the door on the driver's side and stopped outside the car to light a Kool and let some of the hot air out of the car before she got in. She waved a final goodbye to Grace just before she slid behind the wheel and started the old blue Cadillac.
Grace's heart ached when she saw Vera's car move out of the parking lot. To avoid raising dust in the neighborhood, Vera drove so slowly that Grace thought about grabbing Glory and making a run for the car. But if she left now, it could make Dwayne mad enough to file custody papers for their daughter. She could leave her marriage anytime. The trick would be leaving with Glory.
She was convinced that the courts often awarded custody of mixed blood children to white fathers because their perception was that the children would be more educated and better off economically in a white environment. It was much like the theory that Indian children would be better off if they were forcefully separated from their Indian culture and raised away from home in white schools.
Vera headed the old Cadillac for the highway and blew her cigarette smoke out the window as Gregoria halfheartedly said, "Vera, you must show respect to the men in the family, the way we did to Poppa."
"When he acts like Poppa did, I'll show respect, Vera answered. Did you see how mad he was? He just can't stand to see us have a good time. I'd like to see our baby sister dump that pain-in-the-ass sourpuss. He'll never treat her right."
"Look where they're living, on the far edge of the post, in old converted Army barracks. It's worse than Dogpatch out there," Pauline joined in.
"Yeah, it breaks my heart to see Grace married to that awful slouch. Momma, how did Poppa ever allow that?" Vera asked her mother.
"Ayyy, Vera, by the time Gracie met Dwayne, Poppa was already sick. He couldn't stop Dwayne, and you girls were off with your new husbands," Momma groaned. Dwayne made your Poppa so miserable. Juan worked so hard to fit in here, and Dwayne did everything he could to make him feel like he didn't belong. He always refused to believe your father had a college degree in engineering from the University of Mexico. He treated him like he was nothing but a cotton-picker. Your poppa only picked cotton when it was the Depression, and he needed to put food on the table." Momma dabbed at her eyes.
The women nodded their heads in agreement, as if they'd never heard the stories before.
"Yeah, I remember that gun he used to carry for rattlesnakes in the fields, Pauline jumped in. Poppa was a perfect shot. BAM! Those snakes were dead as sticks."
"Pauline, you don't really believe that?" Vera laughed as she looked at her sister in the rearview mirror. Poppa couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with that old gun. It was loaded with snake shot. He couldn't miss because the pellets sprayed everywhere. That's why he always told us to stand way back."
"Really?" Pauline asked. I thought it was so we wouldn't get snake blood all over us."
Just before they dropped Pauline off at her tiny garage apartment, Vera asked, "Sis, do you and Boyd want to come over and listen to my new records tonight? Ive got all the new ones, even Nat King Cole."
"Naw, Boyd is off somewhere, he may not even get home for dinner." Her eyes avoided Veras staring suspiciously at her in the rear view mirror.
"Come without him. Benny is going to show us how to samba. You can come as you are, no one else will be there. I want to learn a new dance before Rudolf takes me to the officer's club Saturday night." Pauline was obviously uneasy, but with Momma in the car, Vera could't dig any deeper. Besides, if her sister were having trouble with Boyd, she'd handle it. Pauline was tough.
Grace was the sister Vera was worried about. Her little sister was in over her head and too stubborn to admit it. Momma's favorite, Grace had been kept so close to home that she'd never had any experience with men when she was growing up. At the time, Dwayne must have looked good to her naive sister. Anyone else with more savvy would have thrown him head first into a creek and never looked back.
"Maybe. Will Grace come?" Pauline pouted, as she sank further into the back seat, her mind still on Grace's cranky husband.
"I asked her and she said she'd ask Dwayne," Vera answered. But you know Dwayne doesn't like us or our music, and he has never been a dancer. He doesn't even two-step to that country music he loves to torture us with.
Her mother and sisters gone, Grace braced herself for the latest tirade from Dwayne as she started dinner. She didn't have to wait long. Dwayne stood behind Grace and ranted at her as she breaded perch with a combination of flour and cornmeal. When she moved back and forth from the countertop by the sink to the stove, he followed her so she wouldn't miss a word.
"The fish you caught look good, Dwayne," Grace chatted as she tried to soften his anger. It was an honest compliment. Dwayne had a lot of faults, but he was one heck of a fisherman. The day before, he'd gone fishing on the way home from work and had caught a whole stringer full of perch before it started to get dark. They didn't eat them that night because Grace already had dinner on the table when he got home. Dwayne was only briefly pleased at the compliment. Soon he was back to running down Grace's family as she peeled potatoes to fry in one of her big wrought iron skillets.
"Why the hell cant' you keep your family out of here?" Dwayne yelled as he jerked his fatigue hat off his head and threw it across the room. "What if I'd brought one of the officers from the battalion home? Do you think one of them would want to see a bunch of women sittin around playin' cards and gibberin' in Spanish the minute he walked through the door?"
"I'm sorry, Dwayne, I never thought you'd be home so early." Grace's lower lip quivered, and her words tumbled out on top of each other like potatoes that rolled out of an overturned sack. "But we weren't speaking Spanish, Dwayne, we werent!" Grace hustled around the kitchen to get Dwayne a goblet of iced tea.
She desperately wanted to go to Vera's. Not only would it be fun but it would also keep Dwayne away from her for the evening. She knew she didn't dare ask to go until he was in a better mood.
Grace held her breath as he looked around the kitchen and gave the air an arrogant sniff before he sipped his tea.
"It's a good thing you pepper-bellies just eat beans. Otherwise, Id be in the poor house, he sneered as he lit a Camel."
It wasn't just the food. Dwayne even resented her mother and sisters when they brought the food with them. He never hid the fact that he felt her family wasn't worth his time. Only Rudolf, Vera's husband who was an Army colonel, ever got more than a few grunts from him.
"I'm sorry, Dwayne. It's just that they were here all day, and we got so hungry, and Glory had to eat something. I just warmed up some leftover beans and Momma made a few tortillas. It was nothing fancy."
"It's a dog-eat-dog world, Grace." Dwayne lit another cigarette from what was left of the last one. "And we're not rich. We've got to spend our time and money on the people who can do us some good." Dwayne finished his iced tea and left the glass on the table, where a puddle of condensation formed at its base and crept like a bleeding wound across the old table with the red, marbleized plastic top. The pattern of the moisture disturbed Grace and she hurried to wipe it up.
"Okay. Vera invited us over tonight. Everybody will be there. Benny's going to be there to show Vera how to samba, and I haven't seen him for awhile. But, if you don't want to go, I'll call and say were staying home."
"We were invited to Vera's? Is Rudolf going to be there?" When Grace nodded yes, she noticed his interest perked up. "Call them, he urged, tell them well be over as soon as we eat. In this man's Army, it could come in real handy to be on good terms with a colonel."
On his way down the hall to change out of his uniform, he said loudly over his shoulder so Grace could hear, "And I've got a business idea to talk over with your mother." Grace, who was at the stove serving the fish and fried potatoes on plates, rolled her eyes. Just what made him think her mother would be interested in one of his screwy business plans?
"Call her," Dwayne shouted again from the bathroom.
Grace went to the bathroom and stood outside the door. "There's no need to call her. She said to come if we could," Grace explained. "I think she's just serving drinks and that cocktail cereal-mix she makes up in the oven. It'll be an early night since everyone has to work tomorrow."
As soon as they ate, Grace ran to get herself and Glory ready to go before something happened to change Dwayne's mind.
9. Down On the Ranch
chapter excerpt from A Three-Turtle Summer
by Janelle Meraz Hooper
Grace's husband has lost his temper and hit her again. He has fled to his ranch in Texas to cool off ...
Dwayne hadn't told anyone he was coming to Texas, and no one was around.
He drove down the dusty road that ran along his property and got angrier at each passed fence post. The fence was still in the same sorry shape it was when he was there last. Posts leaned every which way, and barbed wire lay on the ground in a lot of places. Before he ever got to the ranch, he had to stop his car and shoo five of his own cows off the road. "Where the hell is that foreman of mine?" he cursed. He only had a few days to help him get things in order before he had to go back to the post.
Back in his car, he raced up the road to Cord's shack, ready to read him the riot act, only to find he wasn't there, either. "I'll just have to get a rope and pull the damn cows back over the fence myself," he muttered. Dwayne tried the doorknob on the tool shed and let out a yell. "The son-of-a-bitchin' door is locked!" he kicked the shed until the boards cracked. "Cows roamin' all over the place, lucky they weren't run over, and the son-of-a-bitchin' shed that holds a two-dollar rope is locked up tight." Dwayne all but frothed at the mouth. He hollered and swore in every direction, "God damn it to hell."
As he yelled, the cows moved in on him, mooing with every step. It was certain Cord hadn't gotten around to feeding them yet, and they were looking for dinner. "Damn cows would've starved to death," Dwayne shouted into the sky, "if I hadn't showed up." Dwayne stood and beat his fists on the hood of his car out of pure frustration and anger. The cows seemed to take his pounding as some kind of dinner bell; they moved closer and closer until their wet, slimy noses pushed against him.
Totally frustrated, he broke down the door, grabbed a bag of feed and a rope, and went to work. As he pulled each loose cow back over the downed fence, each one broke into a trot and headed for the feed bin. "Damn almighty!" he yelled after them. "You can walk over a broken fence to get out, but you need help to get back in over the same damn broken fence?" he couldn't decide if they were ornery or just plain stupid. Maybe a lot of both.
And where was that useless foreman he'd hired? Dwayne looked around at the tractors and bulldozers he'd borrowed from Aunt Bett so that Cord could dig a pond for the cows. Far as Dwayne could tell, they'd never even been moved since he brought them over. Well, Cord would have to explain to Aunt Bett why the machinery was starting to rust. Damn. She was gonna be mad, and he couldn't blame her. Not one bit.
With the cows fed, Dwayne began work on the fence, but it was really a two-man job, and it was hot, so Dwayne decided to wait for Cord in his shack. Another burst of anger erupted from Dwayne when he tried to turn the doorknob. It, too, was locked. He peeked in the window and swore again when he saw the floor, littered with empty beer bottles, crumpled cigarette packages, and other assorted garbage.
Just then, he saw a green pickup pulling a trail of lazy dust behind it, headed his way. He watched it as it leisurely made its way down the road, like a cow walking away when the feed bin was empty. He was more than annoyed that Cord didn't even speed up when he saw Dwayne's car parked in front of his place.
Dwayne crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the fender of his Ford and waited impatiently for his foreman to drive up. His narrowed eyes seethed with disgust as he smoked his Camel and stared bullets through Cord's windshield.
He expected that Cord would be ashamed of himself, like a little boy who got caught when he skipped school. He wanted to see fear in Cord's apologetic eyes. But to Dwayne's surprise, Cord jumped out of his truck and verbally attacked Dwayne.
"Why didn't you call and tell me you were coming?" He knew he was caught with his pants down and didn't like it one bit.
Surprised, Dwayne fell back against his car. When he recovered he threw his cigarette to the ground, clenched his fists by his sides and shot back, "What do you mean, 'let you know I was coming,' you son-of-a-bitch? This is my ranch and I can come any damn time I want to, by God."
Dwayne was angry, but he didn't want to actually fight Cord, and he was relieved when he saw his Aunt Bett as she drove her John Deere tractor toward them down the road. What was that thing that hung over her head? At closer look, Dwayne saw that she had duct-taped a big pink umbrella to her tractor.
No one bothered to try to talk until she parked the big machine and shut off the engine that roared like the mechanical king of the fields that it was. Dwayne lifted her tiny body down from the high seat.
"Aunt Bett, what are you doing out in this heat in an open tractor?" Dwayne said as he lifted her down and hugged her at the same time.
"Have to drive the tractor. They took away my driver's license after they tricked me into taking that eye test." She followed his gaze to the umbrella and explained, "The umbrella helps a little. Besides, got to keep my face from wrinklin."
Dwayne looked at the weathered and leathered face that was so old people had lost track of its years. Was she eighty-nine? Ninety-two?
"Your face looks fine to me, Aunt Bett. You should stay in out of this heat, though."
"Would've, 'ceptin I saw you drive by. Whyn't ya stop? Could've cooled ya off with something cold to drink."
Before Dwayne could answer, Cord stuck his hand in front of Dwayne's face and said, "That's a good idea. Give me a coupla bucks, Dwayne, and I'll go get us some cold beers."
Dwayne didn't bother to answer, he just turned and stared at Cord. A long, hateful stare hung in the hot air until Aunt Bett broke the silence, "No matter, y'all come over ta my house. I'll cool you both off with some iced tea and black boy cake."
"You still bakin, Aunt Bett?" Dwayne asked as he headed to his car. Midstep he turned around and added, "You ride with me; we'll fetch your tractor when it cools off some."
When Aunt Bett pulled the car door shut, she turned to Dwayne and laughed, "No, I don't bake no more. Haven't for years. Not since I put a batch of strawberry jam on the stove to can, and took a nap. Boy," she laughed, "I had myself a mess then. There's still jam on the kitchen ceiling; don't have any way to get it off. But gettin' back to the cake, those bratty girls of your brothers bring me something right regular nowadays, always tryin to sweeten me up so I'll give them a piece or two of my antique furniture. I never do, of course. The minute I start giving away stuff, they'll never go home and I won't never get no peace."
"Better watch those spoiled nieces of mine, Aunt. They're used to gettin' their way. Don't know for sure if anyone's ever told them no. And I ain't never heard of them liftin' a finger around any of my brothers' ranches, have you?"
"No. Can't say as I have. Don't know as how they'd work in them fancy clothes they got, anyway. I don't even think they really cook all that stuff they bring me, either. I'm bettin' their moms are abakin' it for them.
"I just can't figure out why they built those big new houses, now they want to go fill em up with old furniture. No offense."
"None taken. I told them that all that stuff was so old it came over in a covered-wagon."
Dwayne parked the car next to Aunt Bett's kitchen door.
"What'd they say?"
"Asked me if I still had the wagon." They both laughed, and Aunt Bett waved away Dwayne's help to get her out of the car.
Before they went into the house, Cord slowed his car down and yelled out his window, "I'm gonna grab some beers. Be back soon." Off he went in a cloud of thirsty dust.
Dwayne went into the kitchen and sat in one of Aunt Betts two kitchen chairs. After she poured the iced tea and put a bowl of fresh strawberries on the table, she moved the extra chair next to the wall and brought out an old wooden pear crate to sit on. Aunt Bett never sat on any regular seat that wasn't painted John Deere green; she'd had back trouble for years. When Dwayne looked at the empty chair his aunt had moved out of the way Aunt Bett cautiously said, "Most likely, Cord won't be back tonight. He's got lots of friends at the tavern."
Dwayne gulped his iced tea. It had a distinct flavor of East Texas well water, like a combination of rust and oil. He tried to make Aunt Bett think he didn't care where Cord was by announcing, "Long as he's there at sun-up tomorrow, ready to work."
Aunt Bett got real quiet and looked down at the sugar crystals that were spilled on the table when Dwayne had sugared his iced tea. She moved them around with the tip of her finger from one spot to another, carefully avoiding Dwayne's eyes. Dwayne got the idea that the chances that Cord would be up bright and early tomorrow and ready to work weren't very good, either.
"So how's the family?"
"Fine. They're getting ready to move back to town when I leave." Dwayne knew Aunt Bett wasn't really interested in Grace and Gloria, so he didn't say any more. He wanted to tell her he was leaving Grace, but he just didn't know how. Besides, he really wasn't ready to get into an I- told-you-so conversation.
"How was the trip?"
"Hot. Long. There was one thing different--a cougar ran up along the side of my car for awhile."
"You should have run over him. All those mangy cats do is chew the legs off of cows."
"Have any around here?"
"Naw, run the cougars and wolves off long ago. Texas is changing. You can be in Dallas now in under two spits of a cricket."
Aunt Bett and Dwayne talked half the night and Dwayne finally bunked on Aunt Bett's couch that was about two feet shorter than Dwayne. Before he went to sleep, he looked over the furniture that his nieces wanted so bad. Just looked like old junk to him. That old pie safe, for instance. With its pine construction and punched tin doors, it was about as useful as a light bulb on a bale of hay. To his way of thinkin', anyway. And that ugly old oak china cabinet must be over a hundred years old. Who in their right mind would want that? Now, that bed of Aunt Betts was special and probably worth quite a bit. Its headboard almost touched the ceiling, and it was heavily carved out of solid black walnut.
Dwayne had always wondered about that bed. Must have come through Aunt Bett's side of the family. No Tyler that Dwayne ever heard of had furniture like that. Aunt Bett was originally from New Orleans. 'Course that was years ago. Maybe that bed had come out of a southern mansion somewhere.
Before the sun was up the next morning, Aunt Bett banged around the kitchen and boiled coffee in an old tin pot while she fried eggs in her favorite wrought iron skillet. The smell of the fresh eggs mingled with the spicy aroma of the home-cured, thick-sliced bacon and slowed Dwayne down for over an hour. After he ate, he helped his aunt clean up the kitchen and wiped up some of the jam on the ceiling, left from her last canning adventure. The ceiling was, after all, just inches above his head. It was easy for him to wipe a soapy rag over the dried jam.
As he cleaned the ceiling, he asked, "Aunt Bett, you've got a mess of black walnuts out there on the ground. What are you planning to do with them?"
"I never can use them all. I just beg everyone who comes to my door to take a bagful home with 'em. There's paper sacks by the door if you want some."
"Might take some to Glory. Not much else to take her from around here."
"Help yourself. They taste real good in cookies, but they're such a pain to crack. Ya gotta really want 'em. Some fella stopped by the other day and offered to buy the tree from me. The whole tree. Said it wasn't worth much, but he thought maybe he could sell it for a few bucks to the lumber companies."
"What'd you tell him?"
"I run him off, like I did that joker who wanted to buy my land for hardly no money just so he could build a lot of cheap stick houses on it. Imagine: land I've spent my whole life buildin' up the topsoil on and he wants to cover it up with asphalt. Thought I'd have to get the shotgun after him just to get him off my property. Then he said he understood I needed time to think it over, and he'd be back. The nerve."
Alarmed, Dwayne asked, "Why don't you call Cord or one of the other men around here to take care of those city-slickers?"
"There's never any time. They hit the door so quick, and then theyre gone quicker than water in a well. I never even have time to load my shotgun. I'd get me a mean ole dog, but he'd probably crap on my strawberries and I'd get so darned mad I'd end up shootin' him."
"Well, a dog probably isn't a good idea. He might knock you down and make you break a hip or something. You don't need that." Dwayne gave his aunt a quick hug before he went out the door.
"Better go start that fence. First, I have to go into town and buy some more posts and wire. Good thing I cashed a check before I left. I can't find my savings book anywhere. Must have left it at a truck stop on the highway."
"Come back for supper tonight. I figure I can git a meal cooked as long as I stay awake and in the kitchen. I'll bring you men some sandwiches and lemonade at noon."
"Thanks, Aunt Bett." As Dwayne left the kitchen, his aunt was beginning to knock the fat off a piece of smoked ham with an old butcher knife before she put it in a pot with some fresh black-eyed peas. He knew she'd make some corn bread later to go with them. Always did.
The heat built up right fast, and when Dwayne stepped off the porch, he decided he'd just leave that tractor of Aunt Betts where it was. He and Cord would just drive over to her house for lunch. No use in her getting out and maybe getting heatstroke.
He felt a pain in his chest every time he thought that something might happen to his aunt. After he'd lost his parents, one to an accident and the other to the mental hospital, he and his brothers and sisters had been homeless. The girls found a home right away with his mother's sisters. Aunt Bett had taken in the boys when no one else wanted them. She'd been good to them, too. But one night, in a fit of anger because Aunt Bett yelled at him for not feeding the pigs when he was supposed to, he'd run away to Fort Worth to join the Army. He was only fourteen, but he was big and strong for his age. At six feet tall, no one ever questioned him when he said he was eighteen.
He always did regret that he'd left Aunt Bett. Soon after that, her husband died, and the rest of the boys left to join the Army too. Guess they were all anxious to be on their own. Dwayne would have never left if he'd known his brothers were going to leave and she was going to be left all alone.
The fact that, as good as she was to Dwayne, she'd never accepted his Mexican wife and child hadn't changed his feelings toward her none. Folks were just like that around here. "If only I'd never left," Dwayne said softly to himself over and over. "I'd have my ranch right down the road from Aunt Bett, a normal family, and everything would be okay."
Thinking about his aunt made the short car ride to Cord's shack even shorter. Before he knew it, he was in front of the out-building he let Cord live in. He'd been so deep in thought about his childhood that he didn't notice until he was out of the car that Cord's truck wasn't there. "Damn. That good-for-nothing bastard knows we have to start work so I can get back to Fort Sill. Where the hell can he be?"
Dwayne didn't know where Cord was, but he had a pretty good idea what he'd been doing. Cord was always popular with the local girls. Anger mixed with jealousy. Dwayne was about ready to go into town alone and get the fence supplies when he saw Cord's pickup as it sped down the road, dust flying everywhere.
"Damn, you're gonna scare the cows to death," Dwayne said to Cord when he drove up.
"Naw, they're used to me," Cord grinned. "Ready to go? Let's take my pickup."
Dwayne climbed onto the high seat of the pickup and slid his feet around so the empty beer bottles wouldn't be underfoot. The empties rolled back and nestled around his feet like eggs around a hen. "Damn almighty, did you drink all this beer yourself?"
"Naw, I had help," Cord grinned. "A lot of help. He grinned some more." ...