Now, Would A Texan Lie?

Cecil Talley

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CO N T EN T S
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THE DEER HUNTERS Deputy Sheriff The Haunted Cabin Kidding Tom The Mystery Milk The Five-legged Grifter One Man Concert The Ugliest Man In The World Not Available In Stores Vile Bill Hiccup The Strange Adventures of Tom Adler Big Hail Storm The Echo Tree A Smart Mule The Loch Ness Monster The Courtship Of Floyd Jeffers More About Dreams Back To Doodlebug County A Boy Called Thud Debunking A Myth A Solitary Grave Eden Revisited The Terrible Giant The Panel Twisting The Tale Of Mother Goose A New Religion The Mystery of the Raven Feather The Starfish and the Oyster Aunt Matilda Uncle Skeetlepop The Bloodhound The Secret Door The Thirteenth Notch A Hobo Trip 1 3 5 10 12 16 20 22 24 26 29 32 33 34 37 39 44 46 49 52 54 56 58 61 63 67 69 72 75 77 79 81 84 86 89 91 102 133 135 140 148 153 156 166 177 184 190 201 209

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WILD OTIS Meeting Otis Smart Bass

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ASSORTED STORIES The Farmer In The Well The Orphans His Last Joke The Tree Cradle Li’l Adam The Recovered File Paula’s Revenge The Rearing Of Bobby Leek The Dream The Woman In The Park A String Of Beads

iv PREFACE

In the early part of the 20th Century, prior to television or even sophisticated radio programming, most rural Americans amused themselves through a cultural tradition of telling stories and by recounting humorous incidents such as harmless pranks. Some were fictitious stories (tall tales). My father, Cecil Talley, was raised on the Texas plains in this oral tradition and has written tall tales in Part 1 of this book. My most enduring memories of childhood are liberally sprinkled with Dad’s humor. Mom, Dad, my brother Louis and I would frequently laugh after our evening meals until we cried as Dad recounted awkward situations and retold especially successful practical jokes he had heard about or witnessed. Thanks to him, I am convinced that this ability to see humor in everyday life and to laugh at ourselves is a wonderful safeguard of one’s sanity during trying times. The stories in Part 2 and especially Part 3 move the reader from humor to some of life’s deeper issues and explore some of its strange ironies. They reveal Dad’s talent as a writer of mystery stories such as The Farmer In The Well, included in Part 3, which was published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1980, an accomplishment of which our family is very proud. If you are not a Texan or were born after 1940, I suggest you try on a figurative pair of cowboy boots from a bygone era and watch for a slight wink from Cecil Talley as he tells you his stories and asks, "Now, would a Texan lie?" Gene Talley

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T H E D EER H U N T ERS

3

D ep u t y Sh er i f f

Old Tom Adler's dour expression belied his affable nature and his sense of absurd humor. He drew himself a little closer to the ancient wood-burning cook stove and spat an amber stream into a tin can as a sort of prologue to the tall tales session. Tom was the cook for the group of deer hunters. He was too crippled with arthritis to do much hunting, and his cooking was just fair, but he was a likable old cuss, and the other hunters loved his yarns. They had leased hunting rights in Mason County, Texas, and were staying in a ramshackle shack on the ranch. Hunting season was to open the following morning. The weather had turned rather cold, and after sweeping out bird and rat droppings and other debris, they had got a fire going and sat around it to swap lies and friendly insults. Tom led off. "A gang of outlaws had set up camp a few miles out of town," he began. "There was about thirty in the gang, and they was a bunch of mean sum-na-bitches, I tell you! I mean they took over the town. Me and Sheriff Bicflicker was the only lawmen in Doodlebug County, and none of the men in town wanted to be deputized. The outlaws would come in and rob and beat up the men, rape the wimmen, and do all kinds of mischief. Then they would ride their horses back out to their camp, no doubt laughing at the gutless geeks who called themselves men. "All this robbing and raping went on for several weeks. Then when the thugs started cussing in front of the wimmen and spitting on the sidewalks, I sez to the sheriff, 'Enough is enough. I'm gonna go out there and have it out with them bastards once and for all.' "'You better give that idea a second thought,' Bicflicker warned. 'Them boys ain't gonna play no games with you.

4 They are likely as not to shoot you and hang you and even call you a dad-gum-son-of-a-gun.' "'A chance I'll jist have to take,' I sez. 'I've had it with them buzzards. Nobody spits on the sidewalk in this here town and gets away with it.' "So I saddle up Ol' Skunkrump, my mule, and ride out to the outlaw camp. I'll have to admit I was a little uneasy. Fact is, I was more than uneasy. I was nervous as a banty rooster in a strange barnyard, and the closer I got to the camp the uneasier I became. Maybe the sheriff was right. Maybe they would actually call me a dad-gum-son-of-a-gun. But I was stubborn and rode on in. "They seen me coming and lined up, all grinning and looking mean. I never claimed to be no hero, and I was scared. Even my mule was scared. When I got within hollering distance, Snake Fang, their leader, yelled at me, 'All right, Deputy, jist turn that there jackass around and head back to town, and you won't get hurt.' "I ain't very smart, but I know when I'm licked, so I started to do like he said, feeling low as a lizard's belly button. The outlaws all started laughing and jeering, but I kept right on heading back toward town. Then Snake Fang hollered something that stung me and made me so dang mad I forgot to be scared. He yelled, 'And don't come back, you dad-gum-son-of-a-gun!' "That done it! I turned Ol' Skunk Rump around again and rode right in amongst 'em. I dismounted and walked right up to Snake Fang, looking him straight in the eye. 'Shame on you, you bad guys,' I sez. "They all hung their heads and started sniffling and blubbering and shedding tears big as mule turds. Later I heard the gang disbanded and Snake Fang became a Baptist preacher. Then he retired and wrote a book

5

T h e H au n t ed Cab i n "How about throwing some chow together, Tom?" suggested Rex Kimball. "I'm hungry." "I second the motion," said Bill Stasey. "Okay," Tom agreed, "but you're gonna have to give me some room. You boys are crowding around that stove like 'possums around a dead sheep." "Cap," said Rex, "didn't you live in Arkansas when you were a kid? What did you do for kicks? I mean other than hunt 'possums and chase your sisters?" Cap Thomas was a gaunt man in his fifties and had been brought up by foster parents, having known neither his father nor his mother. As a soldier, he had rescued a child from a burning hut in Viet Nam and had sustained severe burns over much of his body. His face was severely scarred, giving him a grotesque appearance but not affecting his sense of humor. "Glad you asked," he said. Following is his yarn: Me and Jasper Carbuncle growed up together back in Peagoober, Arkansas, and when we was kids we spent a lot of time down on the creek or just rambling through the woods. Sometimes we would knock wasp nests out of trees. Jasper had a kind of scientific mind and liked to do a lot of experimenting. Some of our experiments had to do with insects with milder tempers than wasps have. If they did get mad at us they didn't have the equipment to fight back like wasps do. We used a lot of bugs of one kind or another in our little projects. Maybe y'all

6 never heard of a June bug, but it is a big beetle that likes to fly more than crawl. We would catch some and tie strings to their hind legs and let them fly like little balloons while we held the ends of the strings. Then sometimes we would clip their wings a little at a time to see how short the wings had to be before they couldn't fly no more. Other times we would catch big black bugs that lived in holes in the ground and pull off their legs on one side and watch them go around in circles. All this, mind you, was in the interest of science. We wanted to measure their degree of intelligence by seeing if they could figure out a way to get back into their holes in the ground. Years later we talked about this and agreed it was a cruel thing to do. I mean, that's just no way to treat a bug. Heck, if you're gonna pull half the legs off a bug, the least you can do is guide it back in its hole. When Jasper got out of high school he developed a warped mind and went on to college. I never could understand his twisted way of thinking. The way I see it, the more you study, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. And the more you forget, the less you know. Just a dad-gum waste of time. But Jasper was hardheaded and wouldn't listen to my sound advice. Now the pore old guy is stuck with a big fine house in Beverly Hills and three expensive cars. I think he also bought himself a big luxury yacht, and now he can't keep up with all the beautiful women hanging around begging for dates. That would drive me crazy. I think all that education screwed up his mind even more than that. He got so he didn't even believe in ghosts no more. One time when he was in his second or third year of college he came home on vacation, and I happened to mention a haunted house up in the mountains of the north woods. The north woods was about ten miles north of where we lived. They say if you stay in the old deserted cabin at night a ghost will appear and remind you of all your sins before turning you into a termite and setting you down on a petrified log in Arizona. I told that to Jasper, and he actually accused me of being gullible for believing it. He even said I was superstitious. Can you imagine anybody dumb enough to doubt that there is any such thing as a ghost? He even went so far as to declare that education and enlightenment are the direct opposites of superstitious beliefs. Boy, he had

7 really gone off his rocker! Like a know-it-all he started giving me a lecture about people who believe in ghosts. "Ghosts," he said, "exist only in caliginous minds because of fear and the ignorance of the laws of nature." Now that was a real revelation to me. I mean, I just hadn't realized my mind was caliginous. "When one becomes cognizant of the immutable laws that govern the universe," he went on, "he also becomes aware that all phenomena, no matter how seemingly contrary to those laws, actually are explainable in terms in perfect harmony with said laws, although the logical explanation thereof may not be readily apparent. The point is that every occurrence has a perfectly plausible and logical explanation and is the result of natural law in operation. Otherwise it would be totally impossible." He sort of had me going there, and I had to agree. "Yeah, and if it is totally impossible," I said, "it probably won't happen." Which proves that just because he had some education didn't mean he could out logic me. "Exactly," he sez. "I'm gratified that you now realize that ghosts are merely figments of ignorant people's fertile imaginations." "Hold on there," I sez. "Just a dad-gum minute. I don't realize no sich a thing. Who is to say that ghosts ain't one of them there phenomenas that ain't readily apparent?" "Don't be absurd, Cap," Jasper sez. "If there were ghosts, they would be manifestations of the supernatural. Otherwise they would not be ghosts, and as we have seen, the supernatural simply does not exist." "Just the same," I sez, "I wouldn't want to spend a night up there in that cabin." Like I said, Jasper can be kind of hard headed. "I would not be apprehensive in the least. If there is danger there it is most assuredly not due to dead people. It's the live ones that pose a threat." "Okay, O Wise One," I sez. "If you ain't a-skeered suppose you just mosey up there and spend the night." "If I do spend the night there and no misfortune befalls me, will you believe me?" "Sure, unless you are turned into a termite and won't admit it." "Now, Cap," he sez with just a hint of a sneer, "can't you see just how absurd that is? Why don't you marshal your courage and accompany me?"

8 "Well," I sez, "now that you put it that way, I'll do even better than that. I'll go with you." So we put a few supplies together and hiked up to that there shack in the mountains. We got there about an hour before dark and gathered some dry wood for the old fireplace. The cabin had not been lived in since Mother Nature was a virgin, and spider webs hung from the beams and rafters. Now, I know some people call 'em cobwebs, but I ain't never seen a cob spin a web. Anyhow, pack rats had got in there and left their sticks and litter in the corners of the room. We cleaned up the place a little bit and got a fire going so we could brew our tea and keep warm while we et our sandwiches. Then we spread our sleeping bags on the floor and just sat there munching; sipping and talking about ghosts that don't exist. "I hope this little adventure will lay to rest forever your Stone Age notions," Jasper sez. "I think it's high time you discard all those primitive concepts and emerge into the enlightened age of science and civilization." "Yeah--uh--yes, I reckon--uh--suppose you are correct," I sez-uh--responded, showing him that I can also use words of culture and refinement. We went on talking about how there ain't no--I mean how ghosts do not exist except in caliginous minds. We talked so long about it that I was beginning to believe some of it myself. Then the fire died down and it commenced to get dark and cold, so we decided to turn in for the night. We cocooned ourselves in our sleeping bags, and pretty soon we was snoring. I ain't saying we was sleeping, just snoring. Maybe Jasper really was asleep. I don't know. Me, I was putting on a little act. Every time I told my body to relax, some part of it would say, "Hey, you relax. I'm standing guard." Along about what I figured was close to midnight, I began getting drowsy and dang near dozed off in spite of myself. That's when I seen this eerie glow moving around in the room. It was just a green light floating around in the pitch dark. Visions of black bugs with half of their legs pulled off flashed through my caliginous mind. I didn't give it much thought at the time, the time being about a tenth of a second. I mean, how much thought can you give anything in a tenth of a second when running thirty miles an hour up a steep hill and zipped up in a sleeping bag? And as if that wasn't bad enough, I kept bumping into Jasper.

9 A couple of days later I got to thinking we ought to go back up there some bright sunny day and fix them two big holes we had made in the wall when we left in a kind of a hurry. I mentioned it to Jasper, and he mulled it over for a tenth of a second and said no. He made me swear with my hand placed on a stack of ghost stories that I would never open my yap to a soul about the caper, but I didn't say nothing about not telling it to people. Anyhow, I'm just a natural born blabbermouth and never could be trusted to keep a secret.

10

Ki d d i n g Tom

"Soup's on!" yelled Tom. The bunch gathered around a makeshift table to eat. They began with a salad. "Hey, Tom, what the hell is in this salad dressing?" Rex demanded after he had taken a bite. "My secret recipe. Made it myself. Don't you like it?" "Let me guess. Tastes like mesquite beans, tumble weeds, cockleburs and maybe a little horse manure thrown in." "Damn!" swore Tom. "There goes my secret. The horse shit is to lend it tang and zest." "It accomplishes the first part admirably," commented Kent Sheridan, "but I'm not so sure about the second part. Not too bad. However, I think it might be an island or two shy." Bill Stasey buttered a slice of bread and took a bite. "Is this real butter, Tom?" "Yep, shore is," Tom replied. "Pure dee ol' salve straight from the cow." Bill took another bite and puckered his lips as if tasting a fine wine. "I can't believe it's not margarine that tastes like butter." Mack Rogers took a bite of bread and slapped his jaw. "Is this stone ground wheat bread, Tom?" "Yeah," Tom said suspiciously. "Thought so. It must have more stone in it than wheat. I think I just broke a tooth." The old man fixed him with a stare. "You're supposed to spit out the rocks, dummy. Do you chew up the pits when you eat cherries?" Mack appealed to the others. "Now he tells me." Tom was completely bald, and Bill, whose head was adorned with a luxuriant mass of blonde hair, delighted in kidding him about

11 his baldness as well as anything else that came to mind. In fact, the entire group tried to give him a bad time in a good-natured way with their needling. The old man usually came out on top with his retorts, but they kept trying. Tom kept things lively with his absurd yarns and antics. He took a comb from his shirt pocket and pretended to comb hair that had vanished from his head so long ago that he could hardly remember it. He struggled with phantom tangles to the amusement of his fellow hunters. Bill looked at the others and said, "I've read that women go ape over baldheaded men. I wonder if Tom knows how many girlfriends he has. I'll bet they try to beat his door down to get to him." "Yeah, you know it," Tom replied. "They'll take an old baldy over a thick-headed youngster every time. Actually, I keep my hair rubbed off on strange bedposts."

12

T h e M y st er y M i l k "A lot of people don't believe me when I tell this," Ray Savage ventured. "Can't imagine that," Kent Sheridan said, poker faced. "This happened about five years ago," Ray continued, "right after Ruth and I were divorced. I was a dedicated believer in the American principle of life, liberty and the happiness of pursuit, and that philosophy is not exactly conducive to a stable marriage." "Me and Floyd are the same way," Tom declared. "We both still pursue. That ain't saying we catch. The difference between us is that he still remembers what it's all about." "As most of you know," Ray continued, "she got the kids and the house, and I felt kind of lost and didn't know what to do with myself. Some guys take to booze after something like that, but not me. I decided to bury my misery with adventure, the wilder the better. I would sail alone around the world, and I didn't much care what might happen to me. "Let me say at this point that I used to drink lots of milk, but now I can't stand the stuff. You'll know why later. "I drove to California, sold my car, and bought a sixteen foot open sail boat. After stowing supplies and plotting my course, I set sail for Australia. I don't think I would have made it there even had I allowed for continental drift, which I forgot to do. "I set sail from San Pedro bright and early on a clear day in May. I planned to stop off in Hawaii, but I missed because my compass went on the blink the second day out. I ran into a dense fog that blotted out the sun. That's when the compass began going haywire. Sometimes it would point west, then maybe east or south or somewhere in between. I was so disgusted with the thing that I threw it overboard. "The fog lifted and for days on end I sailed, navigating by the stars at night. Let me tell you now that the stars are unreliable as a guide for navigation. Even Polaris, the North Star, would shift

13 around. Then I guess I must have got into the doldrums, the windless condition like in the Ancient Mariner. "I lost all track of time, drifting this way and that, not knowing where I was. My supplies gave out, and I had neither food to eat nor water to drink. I began to hallucinate. Mermaids started getting into the boat with me, but I threw them all out. I was in no mood for lovemaking. I wouldn't have known how to go about it with a mermaid, anyway. "I don't know how long I was unconscious, but the next thing I knew, cool water was being poured on my head. I opened my eyes to look into the fierce faces of two savages. They were talking in a language I couldn't understand, but I guess they could. They seemed to be arguing about something. I hoped it wasn't about which one was going to get my liver. "They were almost naked and all painted up with weird designs all over their bodies. Finally they sat me under a big shade tree and gave me all the milk I could drink. When my wrinkled eyeballs finally smoothed out, I looked around the area. Evidently I was on some tropical island. "The two savages laid me on a crude stretcher, and after blindfolding me, started carrying me up a steep hill or mountain. The grade was so steep that I kept sliding down and had to brace my feet against the lower guy's face. I had no way of keeping track of time, but it seemed like we climbed for hours. "Then at last we leveled off, and soon I could tell that we had entered some kind of building. My escorts removed the blindfold, locked all the doors, and left me alone. I found myself in a large room with a high ceiling. The floor was covered with thick, luxurious carpets, and a strange but expensive looking couch sat in a corner. I sat on it and waited. "After about ten minutes a large arched door opened, and a man in a long brown robe entered. He was a white man. He came over and peered intently into my face. Then he broke into a smile, and to my astonishment, spoke to me in English, calling me by name. "All I could do was gulp and stammer, 'How did you learn my name?' The savages had not taken my wallet. When his amused smile turned into a wide grin, I knew I had seen him somewhere before, but I had no idea where. "Finally, after he had enjoyed my consternation, he said, 'Do you remember a little redheaded kid in grammar school who was always blowing the bejeebers out of a harmonica?'

14 "'Larry Newman! What in tarnation are you doing in this Godforsaken jungle? And what's with the get-up?' "'I'm a priest,' he stated. "'The devil, you say! Forget I said that. I mean, I always knew you were a cousin to a monkey, but I never dreamed you would become a monk.' "'Not a monk. I'm a priest. There are twelve of us on this volcanic island. How and why I got here and became a priest is a long story, and I won't go into details. The others claim to be of one of the lost tribes of Israel, the Tribe of Levi, to be exact. Now, as far as I'm concerned, claiming to be a member of a lost tribe of Israel is like claiming to be a brother of the Unknown Soldier, but I didn't argue the matter with them. We are the only whites on the island. They finally decided to make me a priest when I told them I'm Jewish, which of course I am.' "'Why was I blindfolded?' "'A precaution. This island is virtually unknown to the outside world, and we want to keep it that way for reasons I won't divulge. By the way, are you hungry?' "'Am I hungry? Is there ice at the North Pole? I could eat a horse, but I'm hoping for something different. I'm also thirsty. It will probably take me a week to regain all the water I lost.' "Priest Larry Newman rang a bell, and a shapely young native woman came in and stood at attention. He spoke something to her in a strange, tonal tongue, and she disappeared. Soon she was back with a tray of food and a large pitcher of milk. After placing them on a table she silently left. Her walk was graceful--the curves and bounces in all the right places. "'When I was first ordained,' Larry confided, 'no females were allowed here in the temple. I soon changed that rule, and now the others wouldn't have it any other way.' He winked. 'We do not socialize with the natives--except for a few choice women.' Again he winked. 'Oh, by the way, how do you like the milk? I won't tell you what kind it is, but I will tell you it did not come from cows.' "'No? You don't have cows here?' "'The soil here will not grow enough feed to support cows, so we get our milk from a different source.' "'Why won't you tell me?' "'If you knew what kind it is, you might refuse to drink it, but I assure you it is perfectly wholesome. I have to leave you for a while now. If you want anything else, just ring that bell, and Naomi will take care of all your needs.' With another wink he left.

15 "I kind of worried about the milk, but I had a whale of a thirst, and evidently the water was not fit to drink. So I drank milk. Then I drank milk. I kept drinking milk, all the time wondering what kind of mammal it came from. I had noticed a lot of dogs in the native village before I was blindfolded. The son-of-a-gun wouldn't --"After about ten days, I regained my strength and told Newman I was ready to sail on. When I had been seeing things in the boat, I had about decided sailing around the world in an open boat was a bum idea, but now I felt good and ready to push on. "'Okay, but I'll have to blindfold you again until you get off the mountain. No offense, but we simply cannot take a chance of having this temple known to the outside world. I hope you understand.' "'All right, pal,' I said, 'but do me a favor before I leave. Tell me what kind of milk I've been drinking.' "'I'll do better than that. When we get down, I'll show you through the dairy.' "'Here we are,' he said after the descent. Then he removed the blindfold, and we proceeded toward the dairy barn set back a way in the jungle. We passed several woman on the path, all of whom had ----- large bare breasts." "So that's the kind of milk you had been drinking," Rex said, not as a question but as a statement. "Nope." "No? Then what was in the dairy barn?" "Goats."

16

T h e Fi v e- l eg g ed Gr i f t er

"Let me tell y'all about a dog I owned when I lived on a farm near Brownfield up on the plains," Floyd Jeffers said. Jeffers was almost as old as Tom Adler, but unlike Tom, he was in excellent physical condition. "I was fifteen when my dad found him abandoned. Somebody had left him in our front yard. He must not have been more than a day old. He growed so big that we had to keep him in the barn with the horses." "How much did he weigh--honestly?" Rex asked. "Okay, honestly, including the fleas, I'd say he weighed about ninety pounds." "That isn't so big. Lots of dogs weigh that much." "But this was when he was a day old puppy. After he growed up his shadow weighed more than that." "Yeah, right. What kind of dog was he?" "Don't know for sure, but he looked like a mixture of Great Dane and Chihuahua." The others hooted in derision. "True love can always find a way. Anyhow, when he growed up he was the fastest dog in the whole country, so he might have had a little cheetah in him, too. He was the only dog I ever seen that could cause a sonic boom when he went full out. He used to catch my bullets when I would shoot at something and change my mind about killing it. One day he was chasing a five-legged grifter when he spied a telephone pole and stopped so sudden he lost all his hair." "Wait a minute," Kent Sheridan interrupted. "He was chasing a what?" "A five-legged grifter." "Never heard of it."

17 "Not many people have. It ain't native here. A wealthy rancher had some of 'em transportated here from some place in Asia and turned 'em loose on the plains to breed and prolifigate. It is an animal about the size of a red fox; only it has three eyes and five legs. The fifth leg grows where the tail normally is. The grifter don't carry it pointing back like most animals. He carries it between his other legs and points it forward. It sticks out past his head about ten feet. It has a foot on it like his other legs, and when he is running and comes to a bobwire fence, he uses it like a vaulting pole. "Like I say, I used to chase them with Ol' Hump, my dog. Hump never did catch one, because he never learned to jump over a bobwire fence, and the grifter would always head for one and vault over it. This let the grifter get away while Hump was crawling under the fence." "Look, Floyd," Rex cut in, "if that dog was so big, how could he crawl under a fence?" "Well, hell, we built big fences. Anyway, people would come from miles around, even foreigners from other states, just to get a look at the dog." "What ever happened to him?" "We had to get rid of him. He was just too dang big to feed. We sold him to Ringling Brothers, and he proved too big for them, too. He kept things in an uproar. He fell in love with one of the female elephants, but she wouldn't have nothing to do with him, and he died of stoneache."

18

A Go l d - sm el l i n g Bu r r o "I've heard that up on the plains there are little owls that live in holes in the ground," Rex said. "I never really believed it. Everybody knows owls live in trees and barns. Floyd, you lived up there. What do you say?" "Some call 'em burrowing owls. They live in abandoned prairie dog holes. We called 'em dog owls." "You think that's strange?" said old Tom Adler. "In Montana there is a herd of wild burros that live under ground." Rex snorted. "Sure, and they also have claws for digging the holes." Tom gave him a sour look. "I didn't say they dig the holes. They live in a cave. The cowboys call it the 'Ass Hole'. "And speaking of burros, I once had one that could smell gold. I was prospecting in California and struck it rich. The burro's name was Warlock, and every time he smelled gold he would come to a point like a bird dog. I had to break him of that habit, though. It was okay as long as we was out in the desert, but when we would come into town, it could be embarrassing because the son-of-a-gun would walk up to a lady wearing gold rings or bracelets, give her a sniff, and come to a point. One lady threatened to sue me for invasion of her privacy. I ain't sure what she thought I had the burro trained to detect about her. "I didn't have to do no digging to find the gold. We would go to old abandoned gold mines and go through the tailings. The old prospectors throwed away a lot of rocks that was rich in ore because they couldn't see the gold inside the rocks. All I had to do was hold a rock up to Warlock's nose, and if it contained gold he would wiggle his ears, but if there wasn't no gold he would swish his tail.

19 "One day we found a mine that had a lot of rich rocks, and I loaded him down and started back to town, but we got lost out there in the hot desert and dang near died. I mean it was hot. We would travel at night and rest in the daytime. The moon out there was hotter than the sun is here. The temperature stayed around a hundred and thirty even with the wind chill factor, and there wasn't no wind, and shore as hell, there wasn't no chill. "We ran out of water, and I was about ready to die. Believe me, it ain't no fun when you're dying of thirst, looking at a shimmering landscape and a lake of water that ain't there. Even Ol' Warlock got so weak I had to dump most of the load of gold ore. Every time I would try to lead him one way, he would try to go another. Finally, after plodding up and down dry washes and across stretches of hot sand, I gave up and let him have his way. He led me straight back to town." Rex held up a forefinger. "One question, Tom. How far were you from town?" "About fifty miles." "And you and the burro were already nearly dead from thirst before you decided to let him lead the way?" "That's two questions." "Okay, two or three questions. You were about fifty miles from the nearest water?" "Right." "How in the world did you ever manage to walk that far in such a weakened condition?" "Did I say we walked? We hitched a ride with a kid on a tricycle." "Oh, I see. Well, that clears that up. What became of the burro?" "I don't think I want to tell you that. I'm too ashamed. What I done is despeakable and downright unspicable." "What did you do, let him starve to death?" "No. I lost my ass in a poker game."

20

On e M an Co n c er t "Did you bring your harmonica?" Rex Kimball directed the question to James Batwood, dubbed "Ash" by his buddies. He was a man in his early twenties and still bothered by acne. "I'd sooner leave my rifle home. What would you like to hear?" He withdrew the instrument from his coat pocket. "I didn't say I wanted to hear you play. I was just hoping you had forgot to bring it." Ash looked a little crestfallen and started to put the harmonica back in his pocket. "Now that wasn't very nice," Cap Thomas said. "Play for us, Ash. Rex forgot to bring his manners. "Hey, I was only kidding," Rex said. "Actually, your music sounds better than Tom's snoring, and I just love to hear him snore. Do you know any of Stephen C. Foster's songs? How about the piece about the little girl with the pet rabbit?" Ash seemed a little puzzled. "I don't think I ever heard that one. Are you sure Foster wrote it?" "Sure you do. Everybody knows Jeanie With The Light Brown Hare. Then there's the one about a house rodent that got caught in a coffee grinder. It's called Mouse Is In The Cold, Cold Grounds. "There's got to be one in every crowd," said Cap. "Play whatever you want to, Ash." "Well, if y'all really want me to. I know I'm not very good. I used to think I was, but something happened one time that kinda brought me down to earth." "What was that?" Rex asked in a sort of apology after realizing he might have offended the young man by his kidding. "People used to compliment me on my playing. Now I realize they were just being polite to make me feel good. Friends, at least some of them, will do that, but strangers can be a little more frank. Like the time when I rented a small concert hall. I really thought I was that good.

21 "I sold a bunch of tickets, and about twenty people showed up to hear me play. It was a one-man concert, and after the first number about half the people left. I felt a little let down, hurt in fact, but I kept on playing. "One of the pieces I played was My Old Kentucky Home. An old fellow in the front row began crying. I mean he was sobbing something awful. Well, I thought, somebody appreciates my music. When I finished the piece, I thought it might add something to the show if I talked to him. 'Sir,' I said, 'evidently you have been moved deeply. Tell me, are you from Kentucky?' 'No, I'm a musician,' he growled, and stalked out, and most of the others followed. Only one old couple remained. "That really shook me up, but I figured I was obligated to continue as long as one or two paying patrons stayed. I played about ten or twelve more numbers and paused to get my breath. "I was feeling a little better until the man stood up and said, 'Now, kid, if you're through blowing on that damn thing, we've got this place to clean up.'"

22

T h e U g l i est M an I n T h e W o r l d "You know, Tom," Cap Thomas said during a lull just to get things going again, "you're dang near as ugly as I am. You'd be better looking if you wasn't so ugly." "Can't argue with that kind of logic," Tom replied. "It's in my genes. When I was a kid Grandpa told me there was a gorilla in our ancestry a couple of generations back. One of my uncles had thumbs on his feet and lived in a tree. He wore baseball gloves for shoes. I guess I look a little like he did." "We may be the ugliest men in Texas," Cap said, "but I had a friend by the name of Fimbledoop Lopskink who was even uglier. His looks would sour milk. It was the result of a hunting accident. He was handsome before the armydillers messed him up." "What are armydillers?" Rex asked. "I think he means armadillos," Bill Stasey explained. "Actually, they are harmless creatures." Cap glared at Bill. "Not them we was hunting' up in Alaska." "Now, now, Cap. There are no armadillos in Alaska." "Not now there ain't. Me and Fimbledoop killed 'em all. He was attackted by a whole army of armydillers, and before we could shoot all the critters, they messed up his face so bad even his mama wouldn't have nothin' to do with him no more. In them days mules and wagons did most of the hauling. I lost track of all the runaways his looks caused. He took it real hard, because he had always been a ladies' man, and now they all would detour two blocks out of their way to avoid meeting him on the street. One pregnant woman saw him and lost her baby on the spot. I bet if he lived here now, some abortion clinic would hire him. He was so ugly a moose tried to make love to him.

23 "His mouth was so twisted out of shape that when he would spit, the 'bakker juice would land on his butt. Even the plastered surgeons couldn't help him none. I lost track of him for about ten years. I felt kind of responsible for the pore devil, because the hunt had been my idea, and I kept thinking about how I could help him. "Then one day it hit me. I was sure the plan would work and restore his good looks, so I hired a detective to track him down. He was living with burros in a cave out in the mountains of Montana, and I went to see him. I'm happy to report the man got his good looks back and finally married into English royalty. I think he wrote a book about it. Here Cap paused and lit a cigarette with a splinter from a piece of kindling. "Okay," Rex said, "how did you restore his looks?" "Real simple. I taught him how to tell a lie with a straight face."

24

N o t A v ai l ab l e I n St o r es "Did I ever tell y'all about the time I quit my job as president of National Caster Bean and Okra Growers of America and became an inventor?" Tom looked at each man around the table. "What did you invent?" asked Rex. "Lots of stuff, but my pride and joy was the Adler Flashdark." "Flashdark?" "Yeah. Worked just like a flashlight, only instead of sending out a beam of light, it sent out a beam of dark. It was real handy for aiming at things you don't want to see, like your mother-in-law or a notice from IRS. I was real proud of it, but it never caught on with the public. People kept stubbing their toes on their way to the outhouse. "Then there was another invention that I spent two years developing. It was a remote control for zippers. Another flop, but I wasn't discouraged. I mean inventing is like writing. You keep at it long enough, somebody will buy it. "The next one had a lot of potential, I thought, but folks are hard to please and don't know a good thing when they see it. It was a chemical for spraying in your freezer to keep out ice worms. "The silencer for boom boxes I was sure couldn't miss. Parents liked the idea, but their kids didn't go for it. Besides, you could buy a sledgehammer for less money at any hardware store.” "I guess you were just way ahead of the times," Rex consoled. “I once knew a genius who invented a dream catcher. As y’all know, sounds are vibrations. Edison knew that and reasoned that if one could capture the vibrations by some means, he could reproduce the sounds. Thus the graphophone was invented. My friend wondered if the same principle could be applied to sight. Since the

25 brain operates on electrical currents, he conceived the idea that capturing those currents just might enable one to project on a screen the images that a person was seeing. “So he went to work in his well equipped lab and succeeded in making such a device. By placing the sensors on a person’s head and showing said person a coin, he projected the image of the coin in clear detail on a screen. Whatever the subject was seeing, that’s what would appear on the screen. “He decided to see if it would work with dreams, and so he tested it on his wife one night. What he saw on the screen the next morning so infuriated him that he threatened to divorce her. That in turn enraged his wife, and she smashed the machine to smithereens with a hammer and burned all the diagrams and notations. He didn’t want to bother with making another, and so that was the end of the dream catcher.” "Tom,” Bill said, “You mentioned writing. I understand you did some writing in your younger days. Did you write fiction?" "Yeah, I took a whack at it when I was in high school. I submitted a novel to two different publishers. Both rejected it, but both wrote me a personal letter. One editor complained that my manuscript had stunk up his slush pile. The other one made a suggestion for improving the story, but I had never heard of a shredder. "When I was twelve and living in a shack on the edge of a swamp I wrote a manuscript that was supposed to be nonfiction. I scribbled it on a school tablet. It was a brilliant piece on modern home decorating." "Did you ever get it published?" "I ran into a little problem there, but I'm still trying. I've just sent it to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. My hopes are real high."

26

V i l e Bi l l H i c c u p Cap Thomas was sitting across the table from Tom. He peeled an orange after he had finished his supper, and when he broke it into sections some juice squirted out and hit Tom squarely in his left eye. The acid stung, and tears streamed down his leathery cheek. "What's the matter, Tom?" Cap deadpanned, "did you get something in your eye?" "No," Tom deadpanned right back. "I'm crying because I just thought of a sad story." "How come you're not shedding tears from both eyes?" "The story ain't that sad. I hope your aim with a rifle is better." Rex grinned. "Heck, I thought his aim was perfect." "It breaks me up to see an old man cry," Cap said as he emptied onions from a gunnysack. "Here, Tom, let me dry your tears." "Go wipe your butt with it," Tom retorted. "You stink worse'n a buzzard with a bellyache." "It's your bad cooking'. It would give a buzzard a bellyache." "That wasn't my cooking' you just et. You filled your plate with the rat dropping’s we swept up off the floor, mistaking 'em for my beans." "I had some of the beans, too, but I couldn't tell the difference." "All that bathtub gin you guzzled during Pro'bition messed up your taste buds. Too bad you never seen fit to put that bathtub to its proper use. "Speaking of a bad aim," he continued, "reminds me of a friend I hunted doves with on the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, back in '50." "Was that during the California Gold Rush, Tom?"

27 "Nope. Me and you was in jail together in Santa Fe back then. Remember?" "What was we in jail for? I forget." "For shooting' sheep herders without a license." "Okay, so your dove shoot was in September, NINETEEN fifty-unless you was hunting out of season." "Yeah. Vile Bill Hiccup was a super salesman and a super con man. He could sell a king his own castle. I know for a fact he sold the Taj Mahal twice --- to the same guy. He could have got rich going straight, but he said he enjoyed the challenge of selling folks things they don't need. Actually, he wasn't really vile. His heart was as tender as a dove's funnybone. You could leave your diamond ring on the dining table while you went to a movie, and he wouldn't touch it, but if there was a game of wits involved, he would cheat you out of your false teeth. One time he organized a group of women for the noble purpose of the care and feeding of orphaned alligators, bullfrogs and Loch Ness monsters. "They raised a lot of money, and Bill took off with it. They hired a detective to track him down and bring him back, and then he sweet-talked them into electing him treasurer. Vile Bill was a real snappy dresser and a happy-go-lucky kind of dude, and nobody could stay mad at him long. A lot of times he would get throwed in jail for some of his shenanigans but would be out in less than an hour with the judge calling him 'Son'. He wrote a book about his life titled I Want To Sell You." "What did Vile Bill look like?" Rex asked. "Was he young and handsome?" "Yeah, he looked just like Martin Gainsworth." "Who?" "Martin Gainsworth." "Who's he?" "I don't know. Never heard of him. Anyhow, Hiccup never wanted to see nothin' get hurt. One time when he was at my house and saw a mouse that had been caught in a trap, he cried like the squirrel that discovered he had married a skunk by mistake. "After a year of coaxing I finally talked him into going dove hunting with me. He had never touched a shotgun and couldn't hit the side of a barn from inside with all the doors closed. We was pass shooting, that is, standing in a field and shooting them as they flew over. I got my limit in less than an hour, but Bill shot up six boxes of shells without touching a feather. Then after shooting his

28 last round, he picked up a rock and knocked one out of the air, and it came fluttering to the ground. "I walked over with him to pick it up. We both swore right then and there that we would never shoot another dove if we lived to be as old as you and George Burns. The bird was mortally wounded and with its last gasp said, 'Please notify my mother.'" "What happened to Vile Bill Hiccup? Is he still conning people?" Rex asked. "I reckon so. He conned one too many women, and she done him in with a snub nose thirty-eight. Now he's prob'ly selling hand warmers down in the nether reejins."

29

T h e St r an g e A d v en t u r es o f T o m A d l er "Tom," said Rex, "you've been to a lot of wild places in your time. What are some of the wilder places you've been to?" "Some of the wildest places in the world are right next door, so to speak -- in Mexico." "I understand you even did some spelunking in your younger days. Is that right?" "Yeah, I did. Crawling around in some of them small caves and scraping your belly button on rocks and scorpions can get right interesting. Some of 'em are pretty spooky, too. I mean like cold and twice as quiet as total silence. I could even hear the tequila coursing through my veins." "Were you alone down there?" "No, I had a clean-cut young feller by the name of Sniffletoe Whangstoot with me. I met him when we was both Oxford students. He knowed ever'thang about lots of stuff." "Did you drink the water in Mexico?" "Whang warned me against it, but I didn't pay no mind to him, and shore 'nuff, I caught some kind of awful disease." "What was it?" "The doctors didn't have no name for it, 'cause nobody ever had it before. I had a real high fever." "How high did your temperature go?" "They didn't have no thermometer, but it must have been pretty high, 'cause when I got in the tub it boiled the bath water. The docs prescribed some kind of pills, but for some reason they didn't help none." "Did you take the pills?" Cap Thomas asked. "Hell no."

30 "There. That's your answer." "You old codgers," said Rex, "are so logical it leaves me stunned. Did you take any kind of medication, Tom?" "I reckon you could call it that. Some sheepherder gave me some stuff to drink that he had cooked off, and it done the trick. I was healed before it hit my gut." "Strong stuff, huh?" "I guess so. Whang wouldn't drink none of it, but he got a whiff of the fumes and had a hangover for two days." "Did you ever see a vampire bat?" "Only once. Dracula, when he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates." "I thought Count Dracula was from Transylvania, not Pennsylvania." "He was always getting the two confused and ended up in Pittsburgh. Sandy Koufax struck him out on three fastballs. Actually, wild and strange places always did get my oil to circulating. I ain't talking about places like Hollywood, California. It's got some pretty wild people there, but I'm talking about a different kind of wild, like the rare, giant three-titted women of the Amazon that National Geographic sent me down there to photograph and interview." "Did you find the women?" "Shore did. They rule the roost. They are nine feet tall, but their men are runts. The women capture the men and keep them in harems. I reckon I was the only white man they had ever seen." "Did one of them capture you for her harem?" Tom faked a sheepish grin. "Yeah, I managed to get myself captured. I capture kinda easy where women are concerned. One of 'em nabbed me and throwed me into a big bamboo cage with about twenty native men." "What happened?" "Can't tell you that." "Why not?" "I'm too modest. I'll just say I soon showed her who was boss." "You mean you held a mirror up to her?" "Yeah, and she thought I was some kind of wizard. From then on I was absolute boss. I was gonna bring her back home to Texas with me, but then I got to wondering how the heck I would dress her. I mean, finding a bra for her would be a big problem." "What are some of the more interesting things you've done for a living?"

31 "Mud wrestling with naked women comes to mind. Then there was the time when I was young and even more handsome than I am now that I decided to be a goat breeder but changed my mind after giving it a second thought. I was kinda worried about what my kids would look like." "How many kids do you have?" "None to speak of." Cap Thomas took up the questioning. "How many do you have not to speak of?" "I don't speak of them." "Do you ever speak t o them?" "Yeah, now and then, but all they ever say is, 'B-a-a-a.'" "I spoke to one of the other kind on the street one day last week. He was a ninety-year-old man. I took one look at him and said to myself, 'By George, this guy is a dead ringer for ol' Tom Adler. I'll bet he's Tom's grandson." "No, Cap, that was me you was talking to. I was going incognito." "Like hell. I didn't see no sign of a disguise." "Don't need none. Nobody recognizes me without my say-so. I never told this to nobody before, but I'll let you in on the secret now. You are actually a son of mine." "You mean you know who my mother was and you kidded her?" "Right. She was my favorite nanny." "B-a-a-a!" "Okay, you two old goats," Rex said. "I think you've milked the goat thing to death.

32

Bi g H ai l St o r m "Tom," Rex said, "in all your roaming around throughout the world, did you ever get caught out in a fierce storm?" "I've seen some gosh-awful storms in a lot of countries, but the only one I ever got caught out in was right here in Texas when I was in Tailbone Canyon looking for diamonds." "Diamonds? In Tailbone Canyon? You gotta be kidding." "Did I say I found any? It was last August and it came the darndest hailstorm I ever seen in my life. I mean the hailstones was so big they was breaking the boulders. Luckily, there was a cliff with an overhang, and I managed to save my skin. The canyon was plumb full of quail, and the hail wiped 'em out. They was laying three deep all over the place. There must have been at least ten thousand dead birds after the hail let up." Floyd perked up at the mention of the hailstorm. "I remember that day. It happened on a Saturday. I heard about it and went out to Tailbone Canyon the next day to see what damage it had done. It had stripped all the trees, but I didn't see one dead quail." "What?" Tom said. "You didn't see all them dead quail laying around all over the ground? You sure?" "Positive. Not one dead bird did I see." Tom stroked his chin. "Well, now, that explains something I been wondering about. As I was coming out of the canyon I met about a thousand bobcats going in."

33

T h e Ech o T r ee "Speaking of Tailbone Canyon," Floyd said to Tom, "Did you ever go out to the Echo Tree?" "Shore did, lots of times." "Are you guys serious?" Rex asked. "Is there really an echo tree?" "Tell him about it, Tom," said Floyd. "About a mile before you get to Tailbone Canyon there is a trail leading off to the right of the main trail. A sign with an arrow says 'ECHO TREE 200 YARDS'. It's a big hollow tree with a woodpecker hole up about mouth high to an Irishman. You holler into the hole and you can hear your echo plain as your mother-in-law telling you how ugly you are. "The first time I went out there I seen this goofy-looking guy walk up to the tree and yell into the hole. I listened to him for about fifteen minutes before going back to the main trail. He hollered real loud, 'Hey!', and of course the tree answered back 'Hey!' Then he hollered, 'Who you?' and the tree said, 'Who you?' and the nut said, 'I asked you first', and the tree said, 'I asked you first', and the man said, 'No you didn't. I asked you first.' "Like I said, after listening to that for a while I went on to the canyon. I spent the whole afternoon there, and on my way out I went back to the tree, and that same guy was still arguing with it." "Were you looking for diamonds in Tailbone Canyon that time, too?" Rex asked. "No, not that time. I was looking for the gold rings they fell out of."

34

A Sm ar t M u l e "I've heard a lot of stuff about Arkansas as it was supposed to have been in the old days," said Rex, "but I doubt the people were all that backward, like the fifteen-year-old boy who was seen chasing his mother because she was trying to wean him. What were the people really like back there when you were a kid, Cap?" "Some of the yarns might have been stretched a little, but we did plow with mules. I ain't lying about this. Most folks think mules are stupid, but actually they are smarter than horses. Some old cowboy might shoot me for saying that, but it's a fact. When horses hitched to a wagon get scared and run, they will run right into a barbwire fence, but mules have better sense than to get all cut up that way. They will run up to it and either turn or stop. "I can't swear to this, but I have heard that horses will run into a burning barn, but mules won't. Some farmers really did plow with one mule, but I plowed with a team of two. They knew 'gee' meant turn right, and 'haw' meant turn left. One old mule we had was especially smart. Old Bones could tell the time of day. He even knew the days of the week. Usually we didn't work on Sunday, but I remember one Sunday Pa wanted to finish plowing a piece of land. We was gonna go on a long fishing trip, and that few rows of corn was all that was left to plow. "Bones knew it was Sunday, and when I started to harness him, he began to limp like he had a sore foot. There was nothing wrong with it, and I hitched him to the plow. He knew exactly when it was time to come in for dinner--lunch to city slickers. We just had one more round to go to finish the plowing, and I made him go the extra round. I swear the bastard cussed me out. I don't claim to know a lot of mulese, but I know when I'm getting a cussing out. He cussed me up and down, sideways and cater cornered." "Could you understand what he called you?"

35 "I ain't real sure, but as near as I could tell, he hinted that I came from a long line of ancestors who had the habit of raising their hind legs and leaving their calling cards on trees." Rex grinned. "He must have known you pretty well, Cap." "I reckon so. I've been called a son-of-a-bitch more times than a golf club or a billiard cue ball. "One Sunday I saw him walk up against a barbwire fence to judge its height. Then he backed off fifteen paces, took a running jump, and floated over the fence clean as a soap bubble. There wasn't nothing he wanted on the other side, but he knew I was watching him, and he wanted to show me that a dang fence didn't mean nothing more to him than a clod of dirt. "My folks never would let us kids smoke cigarettes until we was ten. Until that age it was corncob pipes or nothing. Naturally, we would sneak around and roll a cig now and then. "One day I was puffing on one out at the barn and Bones saw me. The bastard snitched to my dad. I say this in all sincerity-- Pa and that mule carried on long conversations. He really knew mulese like no other man on earth. I could only catch snatches of what they was discussing, but I heard a few words that I could understand and translate. I reckon Bones was the only mule that ever became versed in religion and Greek mythology. "I don't know what tanners use for tanning hide, but I can say that a hickory stick does a damn good job. I ain't touched a cigarette since." "Bones must have given you lots of pleasure along with a few problems," Rex allowed. "You shore got that right," Cap agreed. "When I was a teenager on the farm we had a boy about my age working for us and living with us. He had been in the same orphanage where my foster folks found me. He stayed with us about two years. His name was Hector, and we called him Heck. No surprise there. He had a little mischievous streak in him, but my mom liked him and sort of bribed him with little gifts to keep him from getting too far out of line. I was always good for nothing. "We played checkers a lot, and both of us got pretty good at the game. We played pretty much neck and neck, neither of us dominating the other, but when he would win, he would gloat and rub it in. It was all in fun, and I didn't mind. Sometimes I would do a little of it myself. "We made lots of trips to town in a wagon drawn by Bones and Toby, his team mate. Bones was a lot smarter than Toby and

36 was the leader, so we always talked to him. The wagon had a springboard seat for the driver, and me and Heck would sit up there and talk. We had made a thousand trips to town over that same road, and it got kind of boring. I mean, there was nothing new to see along the way. You soon get tired of watching the same two bulls fighting in Kook Johnson's cow pasture, and listening to Kook's wife screaming at him and calling him a dadgum-son-of-agun, but sometimes she would vary it a little and call him a dadgum-peagreen-son-of-a-gun. "So one day Heck comes up with a keen idea. He suggested that, since Ol' Bones didn't need to be driven, because all he needed was to be told where to go, why not go in the covered wagon with a table and two chairs. That way we could sit back there and play checkers while we rode along. "I thought it was a dang good idea, and that's just what we done. Before starting out I would tell Bones all the places we planned to stop at, and he would take us there in the order given to him. If we wanted to take a little side trip on the way to town, Bones knew the way and there was no problem. Sometimes we would turn off the main road and go see Groot, the Dutchman who made the best corn juice in the country. After hitting the jug and flirting with Groot's two daughters and his wife a while, we would go on into town. "One day on the way home me and Heck was back in the covered wagon and playing checkers. Bones knew where we was supposed to go, and we didn't think nothing about it. Fact is, we got so we didn't even include the reins with the harness. I had a neat trap set for Heck to fall into. If he made the move that I thought he would, I could get a three-for-one swap. But it backfired on me. I stepped in his trap, and he jumped four of my men. "This kind of thing didn't happen very often, and Heck nearly weeped with delight. He r'ared back in his chair and roared, 'Hawhaw-haw!' We wound up at Kook Johnson's place."

37

T h e Lo c h N ess M o n st er "I read a magazine article the other day about a group of people with sophisticated equipment who made a thorough search of Lock Ness for the legendary monster. Evidently there are a lot of idiots who actually believe such a creature exists." Rex Kimball was certain the statement would elicit another tall tale. It did. "Whadda ya mean, idiots?" Tom said with faked indignation. "I seen him with my own eyeballs several years ago when I was in Scotland with a group of piscapalians. For you ignert yahoos what ain't got no education, piscapalians is people that make a study of fish. Fact is, I saved the monster's life. "A man walking the shore with his neighbor's wife found it stretched out on the beach. It appeared to be dead, and the guy called us experts to see if we wanted to examine it before some fishermen started hacking it up for fish bait. "It was about thirty feet long, green, and had flaps along its back like the pictures of some dinosaurs you see in kids' picture books. I took one look and seen right away it wasn't dead. But the pore thing was awful sick. Me and the other piscapalians examined it real good and conclusioned it had a bad head cold. Its nose was all stopped up, and it couldn't hardly breathe. "The others wanted to call in all kinds of medical specialists to try and save its life, but none of 'em wanted to pay for the services. That's when I come up with my idea. My plan worked, I'm happy to say, and it didn't cost nobody nothing." At this point Tom extracted a plug of tobacco from his pants pocket. Deliberately he took a knife from the other pocket and began cutting off a hunk. The other men said not a word. In a silent conspiracy they let him chew on the quid for several minutes. Still they remained silent. Tom began to squirm, and color crept to his cheeks. At last, when no one asked him the expected question, Tom arose and allowed as how it was bedtime. "Sit back down, Tom," Rex said amid laughter. "How did you save the monster's life?"

38 Tom pretended further indignation. "Go fall off a cliff!" Cap Thomas knelt on the floor, and the others quickly followed suite. "Please, please! Tell us! Tell us!" begged Floyd Jeffers. Tom turned and stared down at the group. "You bastards! I orta let you wonder the rest of your miserable lives how the Lock Ness Monster was saved from certain death by one simple idea." "Okay, guys," Rex said. Then he turned to the old man. "Come on, Tom. What did you do?" Tom hesitated. "I dunno. Maybe I'll make y'all wait till my book comes out." "You writing a book?" "Of course, I'm writing a book. Ain't ever'body? Well, okay, seeing' as how you fellers are just busting' with curiosity, I'll tell you. "I borrowed some stink bait from a kid and smeared it on its nose. The flies blowed the monster's nose, and its head cleared up. Then we poured ten pounds of aspirin down its throat to cure its cold."

39

T h e Co u r t sh i p Of Fl o y d Jef f er s "How long did you live near Brownfield, Floyd?" asked Rex. "I was born on a farm west of Brownfield and lived there till I was about fifteen. We moved around a lot after that, but when I was in my twenties we moved back and stayed till we moved to Anson a few years ago. My first girlfriend went to school in the Johnson community, where I grew up. Her name was Martina Wentworth, and her family was well to do. Hers was the only family that had a big fine house and modern farm equipment. They always kept the house and barn painted and the fences in good shape. "I was ten, a year older than Martina, and I was shy and bashful around her. She was the prettiest girl in the whole dang country, and of course all the boys throwed themselves at her, but she was kind of aloof. She was an only child and shielded pretty much. Her folks was nice enough, but they didn't really associate with the others in the community. They attended church in town. "I was too dang bashful to tell her how I felt about her, but I reckon she knew. Girls have a way of knowing things like that. My folks was poor and couldn't afford to dress us kids up real nice, and maybe that's why she didn't pay me no mind. But the more she ignored me, the deeper in love with her I fell. "I palled around with a guy named Ted Collins, and he had an older brother named Wesley, who was a kind of role model to me. Wes was a cool dude as they say today. His folks wasn't much better off than mine, but he had a good job with the county road department and could afford a good car and nice duds.

40 "One day when I was gonna spend the night with Ted, we was out at the barn to milk the cows, and I let Wes in on my secret. I asked him what I could do to impress Martina. He told me something I have remembered all my life. He said everybody, girls included, don't want to be impressed, they want to be appreciated. 'Nice clothes help,' he said, 'but the main thing is to always be neat and clean. Keep your shoes shined and your hair combed. And watch your manners. Feel good about yourself and don't act like a moonshiner's kid from way back in the sticks. Don't pretend. Just be yourself.' "That sounded like good advice, and I tried to take it, but I was still a country kid with no idea how to be natural around girls. I tried to act cool like Wes. "One day my folks went to town to do the weekly shopping and was gonna be gone all day. It was Saturday. I pretended I was gonna hunt jackrabbits with Ted, but I had other secret plans. Wesley smoked, and I figgered that was one of his secrets where girls was concerned. Maybe if I could get a pack of Camels or something, Martina would think I was a little more sophisticated or at least not such a geek. I imagined myself in her parlor casually pulling a cig from the pack and lighting up. But there was no place for me to buy the smokes even if I had the money, which I didn't, so I skipped the smoking bit. "After the folks drove off in the Model A, I brought the wash tub in and filled it with warm water that I had to heat on the gasoline-burning cook stove. I had one Sunday suit that I always wore to church, and after taking my bath, I donned it, careful to tie the knot in the necktie just so. I had lots of hair in them days, and tried to comb it with the part in the middle. My hair was always a problem, unruly as all get-out. No matter how much goop I put on it, it just seemed to have a mind of its own. "Then I got a bright idea. My dad kept a five-gallon can of linseed oil that he would mix with red lead to keep his tools from rusting. I massaged some of the raw oil without the lead into my hair, and combed it. I don't recommend it as a substitute for Brylcream, but my hair parted pretty as you please and stayed put. "The Wentworths lived in a big house about a mile east of us. There wasn't no hills in that part of the world, but the house sat on a slight rise in the land. The road to their house wasn't paved, and a rain the night before had left it muddy. Barbwire fences ran along the road on both sides. Drainage ditches separated the road from

41 the fences. All slicked up in my Sunday best, I set out to go courting. "It was impossible to avoid stepping in the mud, and even worse, a low stretch in the road was filled with water. A cow pasture on one side offered firmer ground, and I jumped the bar ditch, or tried to. I didn't quite make it. One shoe filled with muddy water, and the other was already caked with gooey mud. To get to the firmer ground I had to crawl on my belly under the fence. Naturally, I snagged my coat on a barb and made about a four-inch rip. "A kid with any sense would have called it a lost cause and gone back home, but I was determined to win the girl of my dreams. Needless to say, I was nervous as a mouse in a snake pit when I arrived at her front door. I tried to screw up my courage as I climbed the half dozen steps to the big porch and rang the bell. No other house in the entire community had a doorbell. "I had memorized my little speech that I would rattle off when Martina would open the door. I'm sure it was less than a minute before the door opened, but it seemed to take forever. "'Well, Floyd Jeffers!' exclaimed Martina's mother. 'My, but don't you look spiffy.' Then she saw my shoes. 'Good gracious, child! Did you fall in the ditch? "'Yeah, sort of,' I stammered. 'I was just passing by and thought I would stop and say "Hi" to Martina. Is she home?' "'Oh, you just missed her. She is attending a concert with some of her friends in town.' "There followed a kind of awkward silence. I pictured in my mind Martina snuggled up to some rich city dude, and a pang of jealousy seized me. "'Come in, Floyd. We must get you out of those wet shoes and socks. You'll catch your death of cold." "I looked at my feet all embarrassed and tried to think of a reason not to go into the house. 'Aw, shux, Miz Wentworth, it ain't nothin'. I reckon it was a mistake me coming' here and all. I'll be going' now.' "'No, no. Take your shoes off and come in. We will dry them with my hair drier, and I'll find you a pair of my husband's socks. Where were you going all decked out on a Saturday?' "I thought I might as well fess up. 'This might seem a little odd to you old folks,' I said, 'but kids fall in love just like grown-ups. I want Martina to get to know me better and maybe like me. I was coming' to see her.'

42 "'Well isn't that nice! Imagine my little daughter already interested in boys. Do I look like an old woman to you?' "'Heck, Miz Wentworth, I didn't mean old like a grandma or anything. I meant---' "'That's all right. When I was your age, I, too, thought thirty was old. What on earth did you put on your hair? It looks stiff as a board.' "When I told her what I had done, I thought she was gonna pass out laughing. Then she sobered up. 'We will have to get that off before it dries, or you will look like a porcupine.' She almost dragged me into the bathroom and used half of a bottle of shampoo before she was satisfied. Then she sat me down on the sofa and washed and dried my feet. The socks was a perfect fit. I guess her husband had kinda little feet. I was glad he wasn't home. "'Look, Miz Wentworth,' I said as I stood to leave, 'can we kinda keep this thing a little secret between us? I know I made a fool out of myself, and I don't want nobody else to know, specially Martina.' "'Of course. I'm glad you came. Tell your mother to come see me sometime. I'm sure we could become good friends.' "'I don't want Mom to know I was here. You promise you won't tell? I mean I don't want nobody to know. But, I'd still like to talk to Martina even if I am a country hick like they say.' "'Who says you're a country hick?' "'Well, I reckon y'all think we are dumb clod hoppers, and maybe you're right, but I plan on getting a good education. I'll make Martina and all of you proud of me. Maybe I'll be a doctor or a lawyer. I might even write a book.' "'Good for you. But there is nothing wrong with farming the land. Don't let anyone make you feel inferior just because you were not born into wealth.' "'Okay. Are you gonna tell Martina anything about me coming' here to see her?' "'Not unless you want me to. If I mention it at all, I'll just say you were passing by and stopped in to say Hi.' "'Oh, I nearly forgot. I brung Martina a present. It ain't store bought, but it's a lot better anyhow. You reckon she'll like it?' I reached into my coat pocket and withdrew the gift. When she saw the toad her eyes widened and her mouth flew open, but then she quick-like regained her composure.

43 "'I'm sure she would love the present. However, we just don't have a way to take proper care of it. You wouldn't want it to die, now, would you?' "I was disappointed, but I said kinda meek-like, 'No, ma'am.' "'Then why don't you take it down there and release it in Martina's special flower bed? That way it will help protect her flowers against insects, and the frog will benefit also.' "That there sounded like a dang good idea, and I brightened up." When Floyd had finished his story, Rex said, "I propose we expel this guy from our club. His wife's name is Martina, and she was a Wentworth. His story doesn't qualify." Floyd objected. "Sure it does. It ain't all true. I lied about the six steps up to the front porch. There was only five."

44

M o r e A b o u t D r ea m s "Do any of you believe dreams are significant?" Rex threw out the question. "I do," James Batwood said. "In fact I must be dreaming right now. I mean, I've been planning on making this deer hunt for two years, and I can't believe I'm really here." "Do you ever dream, Cap?" Rex asked. "Shore do. All the time. Most of 'em are pretty weird." "That figures," said Tom. "What's the most absurd dream you ever had, Cap?" Rex prompted. "I reckon the most bizarre, absurd, ridiculous and unbelievable dream I ever had in my life was that Tom was intelligent." "That must have been a nightmare for you," Tom shot back. "I mean, any time you dream that a nut like me is smarter than you it has to be pretty nerve wracking." "Getting back to the original question---" Bill Stasey began but was interrupted by Ray Savage. "The original question," Bill stated, "is the one Adam in the Garden asked the Lord after Adam came back from among the bushes with Eve." "What was that?" "Nope, that ain't it." "I meant," said Bill, "what was the question Adam asked?" "The question was 'What is a headache?'" "What were you going to say, Bill?" Rex said in an effort to get the discussion about the significance of dreams going. "I forgot. Old jokes always untrack my train of thought." "Maybe your train of thought never left the station." Bill frowned. "There you go again. Don't you know any new jokes?" "Pay no attention to Ray," said Rex. "You had something you wanted to say." "You asked whether we thought dreams have significance. My answer is an unqualified yes."

45 "Would you care to elaborate?" "I once knew an elderly woman that some said was a witch. She lived all alone in a small hut set back a ways in a wooded area. A lot of people were afraid of her and left her strictly alone. I, on the other hand, deemed such talk mere superstition and went out of my way to be friendly with her. Often she would appear to be completely lost in a dream. "I soon changed my mind about superstition where she was concerned. There was something very strange and paranormal about that woman. After being alone with her a few times and becoming convinced that she, indeed, possessed strange powers, I was a little uneasy, but she seemed harmless, and apparently she liked me. Sometimes she appeared perfectly normal in every way; other times she made my flesh crawl. "I found myself becoming attached to her more and more. Soon the attraction she held for me become so strong that I could not stay away from her. I was working at a bank at the time, and I kept shirking my duties and making false excuses to cut out and leave. The sudden urge to go see her could hit me at any time, and there was nothing I could do but go. Let me hasten to add that there was nothing sexual about the compulsion. I really don't know how to describe it. "I was ashamed to admit that she held some mysterious power over me, and I began sneaking around to see her. The attraction became so strong that at last I was even skipping my meals. I began losing a lot of weight, and my complexion lost all its color. My eyes became sunken and I looked like a living skeleton." "Too bad you didn't retain them features," Cap teased. "But I reckon not everybody can stay pretty like me." Cap's scarred face was so grotesque that no one kidded him about it. In contrast, Bill was rather handsome. He merely grinned and continued his story. "Finally I was spending every waking hour with her in rapt and earnest conversation. The weirdest thing of all was when she began telling me about her dreams." Here Bill paused for dramatic effect. He really had their attention. No one even thought of letting him hang as had been the case with Tom. "What did she dream about?" Rex asked the questions apparently in dead earnest. "Don't know. I went sound asleep.”

46

Bac k T o D o o d l eb u g Co u n t y

"Tom," Rex said, "where is Doodlebug County? I never heard of it. Is that in Texas?" "Wyoming or Pennsylvania or some place like that. I didn't have no maps to go by. The only map I'd ever seen was the ones you scratch in the dirt with a stick, and they are kinda hard to fold up and take with you. Fact is, I still ain't got the knack of folding a paper map proper." "Maybe it was Transylvania," Rex suggested. "Could be. Come to think of it, there was a lot of vampires running around loose, 'though I don't recollect ever seeing the Count there. Anyhow, the West was wild in them days, and so was the Indians." "Did anything else unusual happen while you were deputy sheriff?" "Ever'thing that happened back then was unusual. I don't even like to tell this incident, because it sort of stereotypes Indians, and some of them living now would be insulted. But you gotta keep in mind that this was a long time ago, and they wasn't very civilized then. Hell, for that matter, us whites wasn't either." "Also," Cap cut in, "you gotta keep in mind that it's all a damn lie." Tom shot him a sharp look. "Vas you dar, Sharley?" "One lazy day in June," Tom went on, "me and the town drunk was playing' checkers, and Sheriff Bicflicker was standing' around flicking' his Bic when we got a message from Rotten Tooth, chief of the Mohair tribe, that they was short of buffalo chips, and his squaws wouldn't be able to do no more cooking' if they couldn't get no more fuel. He wanted to know if we could help. "So Sheriff Bicflicker," Tom continued, "bein' a personal friend of Rotten Tooth, sends me out to the tribe's headquarters with a truck load of synthetic buffalo chips. I ain't sure what they

47 was made of, but they smelled pretty authentic. I reckon the squaws preferred 'em to any other kind of fuel, so some enterprising' young man came up with the idea. The buffalo out there was getting' scarcer all the time, and he figgered rightly that it was a matter of time before there wouldn't be enough chips, so he experimented and finally came up with a formula for synthetic buffalo chips and opened a small factory. "Anyways, I loaded up the truck and drove out there to the reservation. When I got there the only Injun I seen was a boy about ten years old. He said the whole dang tribe was holding' a pow-wow under a big open shed about a quarter of a mile farther on. Now you don't go bustin' in on a meetin' like that, so there was nothin' for me to do but wait. "The kid didn't seem inclined to talk, so I just sat there in the cab of the truck all by my lonesome, thinkin' about long legs and short skirts. I was a young buck at that time. I still think about 'em, but I can't remember why. "There was a crude building of some kind about fifty yards off to my right. I decided to walk over and see what was in it. I peeped through a window, and what I seen dang near made me swaller my chaw of tobakker. I mean I thought my eyes was gonna pop clean out of their sockets. "It was a big room with a dirt floor, and I reckon there was thirty or forty babies on the floor, all peaceful and quiet, and not a grown Injun anywhere around. But what skeered the livin' daylights out of me was about a dozen big old rattlesnakes slitherin' around among the babies and rattlin' their dang tails off. "I figgered if jist one of the tots made a move it would get bit and yell out, then all hell would break loose. I mean, it would start a chain reaction, and before I could rescue any of 'em the snakes would strike them all. I thought about it a minute or two and decided there was only one way I could save the tykes." At this point he paused until one of the listeners obliged him by asking how he handled the situation. "Well," he said, "I always toted a couple of forty-five Colts, and if I do say so myself, I was purty darn handy with 'em. I mean I could draw and shoot the eyeballs out of 'skeeters on the wing before you could say 'ouch'. I knew it was risky, but what else could I do? I figgered if I was lucky, I could pop the heads off the rattlers before many of the babies was struck. So that's just what I done. Not a one of the little cherubs got bit.

48 "I figgered the kids' parents would be so grateful, they would make me a honorary member of the tribe, but that ain't what happened. The gunshots brought all the big Injuns running, and by the time they got there I had all the headless serpents laid out side-byside. "I was real pleased with myself, grinning like a 'possum up a 'simmon tree and expecting to get mobbed by a bunch of grateful Injuns. I got mobbed, all right, but the Injuns wasn't grateful. Saying they was unhappy is an understatement. Lucky I got out with my scalp intact. Them savages was madder then a flock of crows chasing a hoot owl out of their rookery. I felt like the hoot owl." Again he paused expectantly. "What were they mad about, Tom?" one of the fellows asked. "They didn't want them snakes bothered. They had 'em charmed and was using 'em for baby rattles."

49

A Bo y Cal l ed T h u d Kent Sheridan was in his early sixties. He had lived in Los Angeles until after the Watts riots. That disturbance together with increasing smog had prompted him to move to Texas, where he had relatives. Like Bill Stasey, he did not speak with a Texas drawl and used relatively proper speech. As a matter of fact, most of the men comprising the group of deer hunters could use better grammar than they actually did, but apparently they thought wild stories and sloppy speech went together. Kent had been a pretty good baseball player in his younger days and had at one time tried out with the Dodgers. He was an expert at trap and skeet and liked all kinds of hunting. On this deer hunt he had spoken little, preferring to sit back and listen to the others as they spun their wild yarns. Rex Kimball asked him if he had something of interest to tell. "All right," he agreed. "I'll tell you about an awkward, gangly kid I knew when we attended school together in Compton, California. "Thadius Keller was the only boy I ever knew who could trip over both his feet at the same time. I had seen him on the high school campus but had never spoken to him. I was aware that all the other kids shunned him, and I felt a little sorry for him, but being involved in my own affairs, had not gone out of my way to make his acquaintance. "Later, after he had saved my life, I made it my business to learn something of his background. He was born in the backwoods of Kentucky and lived there until he was fourteen. When he and his family moved to California he became an immediate misfit. Unlearned in the social graces and dressing in the manner in which he was accustomed, he was every inch the classic hillbilly. Probably the

50 midwife performed the only bath he ever had in his life. Although he was a loner, I believe he actually was hungry for companionship, but for obvious reasons, no one wanted his company. "The demeaning sobriquet Thud was hung on him by his father, who habitually ridiculed him after about age ten. He confided to me about his relationship with his dad after we became friends. He told me his father called him Thud because he was always falling on his face. I gather he meant socially as well as physically. "He lived in his own world and would not have been able to carry on a meaningful conversation with the other students, who knew nothing of 'coon dawgs' such as blueticks and redbones, even if the kids had been inclined to talk to him. "My first conversation with him occurred, oddly enough, one hot day way out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I was hunting jackrabbits alone and foolishly pulled off the dirt road with my Ford sedan. The terrain had appeared solid enough, but it was deceptive. Soon I was hopelessly mired in sand right up to the rear axle. "I had heard or read that letting air out of the rear tires would help give it traction. What it did was ruin one of the tires. I soon drank up all my water, having brought only a little in a Thermos bottle. "I was a long way from any paved road, and there was no building of any kind within walking distance. I could have been stuck there a week without seeing a soul, had I managed to survive that long, which I most assuredly would not have done. "Desperate and frightened, I dug as best I could until I was exhausted and terribly thirsty. I would never have managed to extricate the car and no doubt would have died within hours without Thud's assistance. He had, by fate or coincidence, just happened to be hunting in that same area. He had heard me racing my engine and guessed what had happened. From a rise he had spotted my car and came to my rescue. He had used more common sense than I had about roaming around in the desert. He had the foresight to bring plenty of water and Cokes and a shovel and a tire pump. "After he had spent about an hour digging out the car and getting it back on the road, we discovered that one of my tires was hopelessly ruined. To my undying shame, I must admit I carried no spare. Luckily his spare was the same size as my tires. He absolutely refused to let me pay him for his help or the tire. "I think he was more perceptive and sensitive than most people gave him credit for being. Although we were friendly and occasionally talked a little at school, he did not insist on my constant

51 company, no doubt thinking it might alienate me from the other students. To be quite frank about it, I was glad he saw it that way, not that I disliked the guy, but peer pressure can do strange things. "Awkward or not, that boy could play baseball. He was so good at it that the other players tolerated him, body odor and all. He refused to shower. We both advanced to the semi-pros and eventually both had a chance to make the majors. "After learning about how he had acquired his nickname I always called him Thad instead of Thud. I think he appreciated it, although he never seemed to resent others calling him by the moniker meant to ridicule him. "All the other players constantly mocked him and teased him about 'possum and taters and all manner of things typically rural. I could tell he was hurt, but he bore their insults stoically. He did not even appear to resent their insistence that he sit alone at the far end of the dugout bench. "However, there is a limit to how much any human being can put up with before an explosion occurs. Thad reached that limit one day when one of the more popular but conceited players made some disparaging remark about his mother. I don't remember what the guy said about her, but I think it had something to do with snuff and army shoes. Thad decked him with a straight right to the jaw. "As I said, this player was popular with the team, and he drew up a petition to have Thad kicked off the squad. All the other players signed it. When it was presented to me for my signature, I balked. I was not disliked among the guys, but they did not understand my friendship with 'Thud'. They insisted that I sign the petition or they might put my name next to that of Thadius Keller. "I owed Thad my loyalty. After all, he had been there for me when I desperately needed him. I really had no choice. I wanted to remain on the team of course, but this was his one chance to make it in the world, and I tried to explain all this to the team and why I could not sign the petition. They would not listen. In spite of all that was at stake for me, I made up my mind to go to bat for my friend." Here Kent stared into space and slowly shook his head. "That decision was a grave mistake," he said with a sad expression. "What happened?" Rex asked. "Sandy Koufax struck me out on three fastballs."

52

D eb u n k i n g A M y t h Bill Stasey began removing his shoes, but Rex stopped him. "Don't you dare!" he said. "We didn't bring any decontaminant." "But I have a bad case of Olympicitis," Bill protested. "You've got what?" "Olympicitis--agony of de feet." "Too bad. If you just have to remove your shoes, go outside and walk about thirty yards away, but be sure you are down wind from us." Bill ignored the "order" and finished taking his shoes off. A few minutes later when Rex got up to add wood to the fire, he tripped over Bill's feet and almost took a header. "Damn the Irish and their big feet, anyway," Rex said in pretended annoyance. "Do you know why the Irish have big feet?" Bill asked. "No, why?" "For Scots to trip over." "Nah, that ain't the reason," interjected Floyd. "Darwin proved that all species of animals adapt to their environment. Big feet of the Irish evolved down through the ages to enable them to maintain a more or less upright position during their drunken brawls." "You actually lived in Ireland for a while, didn't you, Bill?" asked Kent Sheridan. "Yes, for a couple of years. I wanted to see what the people of the Old Sod are really like. I had a suspicion that the Irish were being unjustly maligned. We, especially in this country, tend to stereotype everyone. Indians are lazy and uncivilized. Italians are mobsters. Scots are stingy. Irish are drunken brawlers with big feet." "And what did you learn about the Irish over there?" "That they are drunken brawlers with big feet."

53 "You're kidding, of course." "Of course. Oh, they do their share of drinking and fighting, but no more than in a lot of countries. We Irish are not all ignorant, superstitious buffoons. Neither are we all witty. We are just people. Some are brilliant; some are stupid. Some are ditch diggers; some are scientists, educators, artists, poets or philosophers, and some are even sober once in a while. "Really, the Irish have contributed to our American culture probably as much as any other people. The list of accomplished Irish people is long, and I won't bore you with names, but if you think about it, you can readily see that making the Irish the laughing stock of the world is terribly unjustified. I really had intended to spend the rest of my life there, but unexpected things developed that forced my departure." "Are you referring to the political situation over there?" "No, not that. For one thing Bridy Murphy was always pestering me to marry her, and then there were all those damn leprechauns and banshees that kept scaring the hell out of me."

54

A So l i t ar y Gr av e "The mention of the Irish," Kent Sheridan said, "reminds me of a remarkable experience I had a few years ago when I visited some relatives in the state of New York. Many people who know nothing of New York seem to think the whole state is one big city. As a matter of fact, though, the state encompasses some pretty wild and rugged country. "I spent several weeks with an uncle and aunt who lived on a farm containing streams and large trees. It was a lovely sylvan area, and I greatly enjoyed strolling alone through the woods. One day I happened upon a mound that appeared to be a solitary grave. That night I asked Aunt Martha about it. "'Yes," she told me, 'it is a grave, a very old one. It contains the remains of a young girl in my ancestry. Her name was Margaret Kelley, a vibrant maiden, beautiful and talented. I don't know the complete story, but it is said she committed suicide after she and her dashing young lover broke up. The names and circumstances of the people in her life no doubt have been changed and distorted with time. I have never learned the name of her lover.' "This bit of family history intrigued me very much. I couldn't seem to get this girl off my mind. I kept going back to the grave every day and sitting under a tree trying to imagine what she looked like. Do you fellows remember the big to do several years ago about a girl who claimed to recall under hypnosis a previous life in Ireland? She said her name had been Bridy Murphy in her other life." "Oh, sure," Bill Stasey said, nodding. "The Search For Bridy Murphy did create quite a stir. Are you going to tell us that some girl claimed to be the reincarnation of the girl in the grave?" "Oh no, not at all. My experience during my visit was even stranger. One day when I was taking my daily stroll in the woods I

55 drew near the grave, and suddenly the oddest feeling came over me. The scenery began to change before my eyes. It was in the autumn, and the leaves were turning to gold, but as I approached the gravesite I saw them turn from brown and gold to green. To my utter astonishment I saw that my clothing was completely different. I was clad in garments of the style worn by wealthy young men over a hundred years ago. The grave was gone. The tree under which it had been was smaller but still recognizable. By it stood the loveliest girl I have ever seen. Evidently she was expecting me, and as soon as she saw me she rushed into my arms." "You were her old lover who brought about her early demise?" "Probably," Kent agreed, "but I've just started writing the book, and even I'm not sure how the darn thing will turn out. Do any of you fellows have any good ideas?" "Yeah," Cap said. "Go shoot yourself in the foot."

56

Ed en Rev i si t ed "You know, Kent, we must be pretty much on the same wave length," Ray Savage stated, "because I was about to tell about a realistic dream I had that was a lot like your--whatever the hell you want to call it. This dream came to me in segments over several nights. "In the first dream I retrogressed all the way back to the Garden of Eden. I was Adam and all alone. All I did for a long time was fool around in the garden picking fruit and naming the animals. Life was easy, but I got rather lonesome." "When you named the animals, how did you ever come up with a name like hippopotamus?" "I didn't name the species. I gave them personal names. I called the hippos Bozo and Sophia. In the next dream Eve came along and spent the next few days putting salve and Band-Aids on my side until it healed up. Life was a romp after that. We ran around naked, and she never had even one headache. Everything in the garden was fine. No thorns, no thistles, no smog. The fruit was delicious, and the animals were all friendly. They never tried to eat each other. Just all peace and harmony until that damn snake showed up from somewhere, and then things sort of went to pot. We had to put clothes on. Soon after that we left the place." "I know the story," Kent said. "You were kicked out for disobedience. You should never have listened to your wife. Just look at all the hell you caused. Women have no judgment and will lead you wrong every time. Tell me, Adam, was that forbidden fruit really an apple?" "Look, I'm no horticulturist or theologian. Besides, all Eve left for me was the core."

57 Kent nodded. "Just like a woman." "And we weren't kicked out. Leaving was our own idea." "Oh, really? If you weren't expelled, why did you leave such an ideal place?" "We wanted to go looking for Texas."

58

T h e T er r i b l e Gi an t "Tom," said Rex, "in your time you have been all over the world. You have explored many of the earth's wildest places-swamps, jungles, deserts, and the polar ice caps. You have battled just about everything from giant man-eating monsters to deadly microbes." "Don't forget gollynippers in the Dismal Swamp," reminded Bill Stasey. "-- and Gollynippers in the Dismal Swamp. You have sailed about every body of water large enough for launching a boat. You have weathered storms at sea and tornadoes on land. I suppose there is no kind of peril that you have not encountered at one time or another. Tell me truthfully--have you ever been scared?" "That's like asking a wolf if it's ever been hungry. Hell yes, I've been scared. Anybody who's been through what I have and says

59 he's never been scared is a damn liar, or else he's dead and too stupid to know it." "What is the most frightening experience you ever had?" "The time I was staying with an Indian chief in upstate New York. Me and Chief Shooting Bull shared a wigwam way back around the turn of the century. I forget which century. "Anyhow, one day I was lying on a mat in the wigwam going over in my mind the material for the book I was gonna write when Bull came busting in all out of breath. He was white as a sheep. He was so dang scared he couldn't hardly talk. "Seems something had carried off two of his best horses during the night. There was plenty of tracks and blood and one eyeball on the ground. He thought one or two of his wives had been taken, too, but he wasn't sure. He told me it wasn't no use trying to get any help from his braves in tracking down the monster. All his braves was even scareder than he was, he said. "Nothing like this had ever happened before, and he didn't have no idea what kind of man or beast could be big enough to carry away two horses and a squaw or two. He said there was just one set of tracks. They looked like a man's tracks, only they was too big to have been made by a man. "I got my clothes on and went with him to examine the scene. He was right. No man on earth, not even an Irishman, ever made tracks that big. "Whatever the thing was, it was easy to follow. He was kicking boulders big as small houses out of his way, and he never had to go round a tree. He mashed big oaks flat like they was weeds, or else he just stepped over 'em. He must have kicked one big boulder pretty hard and tore off a toenail. We used it for a shelter during a brief hailstorm. "We almost lost the trail, though, when he stepped across a small lake, but we went around and picked it up again. The terrain was beginning to get pretty rough. I thought we was gonna have to give up and go back home when we came to a sheer cliff. The giant had stepped off with no problem, but if we had tried that the fall would have killed us. We walked back and forth along the edge trying to find a way down but no luck. We should have brought a long rope along, but we hadn't thought of it. "We decided to stop and have some lunch while we figgered out what to do." "What did you have to eat?" Rex asked innocently.

60 "I reckon the monster was covered with fleas and scratched some of 'em off. We caught a couple and roasted 'em. We fed the leftovers to a hungry bear. "I was lying on my back under a big tree after eating and happened to look up into the branches. I reckon the giant had laid down and rested under that same tree and got his hair tangled among the limbs. He lost a strand way high in the tree, and I climbed up and retrieved it. We used it as a rope to let ourselves down over the cliff. "About dusk on the third day I could tell by signs that we was getting hot on the giant's trail." Ash held up a hand. "Got a question," he announced. "Was the giant a sign painter?" Tom glared at him. "Not that kind of signs, dummy. It was mostly odors. He was leaving his breath on the trees and boulders." "How do you know it wasn't body odor?" "I told you the monster had et two horses, and I know the smell of horse shit. It had to be his breath. But no matter. I told Shooting Bull that we better take it easy and be quiet. He agreed. Then the ground started shaking, and I at first thought we was having a little earthquake, but after thinking about it I knew that wasn't it. The shaking was intermittent like a rhythm, and I knew the giant’s walking made it. That was the most scared I've ever been in my life." After a long silence Rex asked him what happened after that. "Did you see the giant?" Tom gave him a sour look. "What's that got to do with it? You asked me what was the most frightening experience I ever had. I answered your question."

61

T h e Pan el "Questions-questions-questions!" mused Ash. "Mankind has always had a lot more questions than answers. I think that is the chief characteristic of humans that separates us from the lower animals." "I think you're right about that," agreed Cap Thomas. "Many years ago when I was on the staff of Scientific American we assembled a panel of the best brains in the world to try to answer some of the questions that have baffled mankind for years. I'll see if I can remember some of the mysteries we tried to solve. 1. Who kicked sand in the face of Charles Atlas when he was just a 97-pound weakling? 2. Were all of the goslings of Mother Goose by the same gander? 3. Why do Irishmen have big feet? 4. Why does every traffic light always turn red just before you reach the intersection when you're in a hurry to get home to go to the bathroom? 5. Did little Virginia get pissed off at that editor after she found out he had lied to her about Santa Claus? 6. What could possibly induce a Texan to lie? 7. Where was the Garden of Eden? These are only a few of the more important ones that come to mind." "Did you ever come up with any of the answers?" Ash wanted to know.

62 "Only the last one. We debated this one four days and finally reached an agreement. After a lot of bickering and heated argument we all agreed that it was in Eden. "Any time you get a bunch of eggheads together there is always a lot of ego that gets in the way. One of the panelists had to be kicked off for abusive conduct, and two others was let go when it was discovered they was writing books before a consensus was reached. I never did get mine published. I tried to sell my book to some publishers, but I soon discovered that they was more interested in selling their books to me."

63

T w i st i n g T h e T al e Of M o t h er Go o se Ray Savage took a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket. "Did anybody bring paper?" "What's the matter, Ray?" Floyd Jeffers asked. "Is Tom's cooking getting to you already?" "No, I mean writing paper." "You getting homesick?" "Yes, but that's not why I want the writing paper. Stasey's yarn about his trained gander and Tom's mention of Mother Goose stirred my poetic soul and inspired a poem. I want to get it down on paper before I forget it." "I don't have any writing paper, but we have plenty of toilet paper. I have an idea it would be just the thing for your poem." "Let's hear it," Cap invited. "You won't need to write it down. I've got a memory like you won't believe. One time a few years ago I even remembered my wife's birthday. She fainted and dang near died. I never forgot it again." "Does she still have birthdays?" Floyd asked. "Only every five years." "Women are funny like that. They won't go to the market to buy food if the breeze is cool enough so they need a coat, but they will walk five miles through a blizzard half naked to get to a beauty shop. One time my wife had a face-lift, dyed her hair, and had a lot of other stuff done to look younger. She looked like she had shed at least twenty years. She seemed real pleased when I wanted us to go to bed early, but the next morning when I asked what her name was, she threatened to divorce me." Cap nodded. "They're all alike. Okay, people, all in favor of hearing Ray's masterpiece, burp."

64 "That's easy enough after eating Tom's cooking," quipped Bill. Maybe the poem will make us throw up and be good for us." "Your enthusiasm overwhelms me," Ray said. "Now, if I can deal with this lump in my throat, I shall honor you with the recital. I don't have a title for it yet, and I don't want to hear any suggestions from any of you, but here goes:

The little goose laid lots of eggs, And I must say this with candor. But she never became Mother Goose Till after she met a gander."
The group, to a man, pretended to gag. "That gives me an idea," Ash said. "Let's each draw a number from a hat. There are nine of us here, and --" "Hey, he can count!" shouted Mack Rogers. "-- and we can take turns reciting Mother Goose rhymes, only we have to give them a twist. We will give ourselves ten minutes to organize our thoughts. Number one will lead off." "Good idea," Tom agreed. "I'm afraid I've let my poetic talent rust a bit since I ghost wrote for Ogden Nash." "I always thought it was Poe you wrote for," Cap said. "Him, too, but Nash was the last one." They managed to find a scrap of blank paper and each took a number. Kent Sheridan drew number one. "Okay, get your crying towels ready," he said. "I give you fair warning -- this is a two-eye tear jerker." He cleared his throat and recited: When Jack and Jill went up the hill To fetch that H 2O Everything went fine until The poor kid stubbed his toe." Ash stood and allowed that his poem would choke them up, because it was even sadder than Kent's. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, And his spring and summer were fair. But the winter was cold, and Humpty was old, And he yearned for much warmer air." Floyd wiped his eyes with his handkerchief and honked his nose loudly into it. Then, swallowing hard, he began:

65

Mary had a little lamb. Janet had roast beef. When Leslie ordered bullfrog legs Penny said 'Good grief!'"
Bill Stasey was next. Jack Spratt could eat no fat, So goes the ancient tale. But some might doubt the truth of that. What says his bathroom scale?" "I don't know how much more of this I can take," Ray remarked, "but I've committed myself." "If I know you," Bill kidded, "that's nothing compared to what you're about to commit." "Have me arrested, but first you gotta listen. Fat Jack seesaws with Marjorie Daw To earn his penny a day. This question pops up, rude and raw: How much does Marjorie weigh? " Then came Mack's turn. "I’ve got the idea, but I need another minute or two." After a slight pause he announced that he was ready. This little piggy went to market. This little piggy stayed home. This little piggy had roast pork. He was a cannibal." "Hey, wait a minute," Bill said. "I'll have to disqualify you. That doesn't rhyme." Mack held up the palm of his hand in a kind of stop sign. "Free verse. "You'll love this one," Rex announced. That foxy old spider that sat down beside her Knew where to find easy prey. Being real wise, he knew swarms of flies Would come where she left curds and whey." "My turn," Cap announced. Prepare yourselves." Rex placed his hands over his ears. "Okay, I'm ready."

66 "Why didn't I think of that? Your rhyme gave me an earache. Now get an earful of this: When Simple Simon met the pie man And sneaked a taste of the pie, He managed to get one bite in his mouth, But the rest ended up in his eye." "Okay, Tom," Ray said, "let's have yours, but try to keep it clean." "Who, me? Shit fire, man, I've never uttered a dirty word in my life. Well, anyhow, not since my mama washed out my mouth with lye water for saying 'poot'." "Don't try to kid me, Tom. I'd bet my varmint rifle you said worse words than that a week before you were born." "That was when she washed out my mouth. Okay, here goes: The sheep are in the meadow, and the cows in the corn Because of Little Boy Blue. His dad came by and caught him asleep And paddled his butt with a shoe." "I propose we vote to determine the best of these high class rhythmical compositions," suggested Bill Stasey. "The winner will be entitled to eat the last of Tom's horse shit salad."

67

A N ew Rel i g i o n "Hey, get a load of this," Rex said to all in general and to no one in particular. He was referring to an article in an old newspaper that he had retrieved from a paper box that served as a wastebasket. "Tom's friend Vile Bill Hiccup must have been reincarnated. Some guy has sold passages to a new planet he says he saw in a vision. He claims he has had a divine revelation that an asteroid will destroy the earth on the seventh day of August, 1991. That was about four years ago. According to this article about five hundred families sold everything they had and turned it over the guy." "Did his vision come true?" asked Mack Rogers with a big grin. "Sure did," said Floyd Jeffers. "We've all been smashed to smithereens." "Old P.T. was right," Bill Stasey observed, "except now I think it's two every minute." "Even that might be a little conservative," Floyd suggested. "A few years ago I came up with a new religion and was really cleaning up, but I got caught in my own web. The inspiration came to me one day when I was shooting billiards." "Shooting billiards and a lot of something else, I'll wager," Bill said. "That came later. When pool balls scatter on the break, I reasoned, they don't do so randomly, as one might think. Each ball goes to an exact place and stops according to the various factors that exert influence on it. Those factors, force, direction, friction, collision and so on, dictate exactly where each ball will come to rest. "That started a train of thought going in my mind, and a new religion was born. The same laws of dynamics apply to every bit of

68 matter in the entire universe. Other atoms that come in contact with it influence each atom of matter. "According to that theory, logic dictates that every snowflake, for example, settles in a definite spot and could not have fallen anywhere else. Pursuing the line of reasoning to its logical end, I came to the startling conclusion that people are subject to the same phenomena. It has been claimed that every birth is an accident of chance and that the odds against anyone being born were tremendous. But according to my grand theory the opposite is true. There was no way it could have been otherwise. "Now we are getting close to the religious part. If every atom of matter since the beginning of creation has been buffeted this way and that by other atoms, the same forces that cause the pool balls and the snowflakes to settle in precise places form even our brains. Therefore, even out thoughts are not controlled by us. That being so, we are not responsible for our sins. "I reasoned that, since most religions are based on some means of our escaping the consequences of out misdeeds, this new idea of mine might be marketable. I was right. "I was always pretty good at selling, and a little polish mixed with pseudo logic can convince a lot of people of just about anything. I was becoming a wealthy man until-"I had an old farm boy as my bookkeeper and business manager. Everything was fine until one day my checks began bouncing. I confronted the guy, and he readily admitted he had blown nearly all the money on gambling, booze, women and every vice there is. "I was ready to beat the livin’ hell out of him and have him arrested, but he stopped me cold. 'Blame it on bouncing atoms,' he said. I had no answer."

69

T h e M y st er y o f t h e Rav en Feat h er "Does any one of you fellers consider yourself a modern Sherlock?" Tom Adler threw the question out and waited for an answer. Floyd asked one in return. "What's the matter, Tom? Did somebody steal your Preparation H?" "Oh, no, nothing like that. I jis' wanna test your powers of deduction to see if you can figger out a mystery I solved one time." "Oh, boy," Bill Stasey piped up, "Here we go. I can already hear the violin interrupted by the sound of hansom wheels crunching on cobblestones. Did Holmes call you in to take over on a case he gave up on?" "For your information, young man, Holmes never had to tackle a case as tough as this one. It involved a bunch of second grade school kids. I was one of 'em." "Interesting. I didn't realize you ever reached that level in your education." "That shows how much you know about me. I went straight from second grade to senior at Yale." "I thought you said you were a professor at Harvard." "That was later. But that ain't got nothing to do with the mystery when I was a second grader at Hog Wallow Grammar School back in Skint Elbow, Alabama, population 46, counting ol' Crazy Eli. "There was seventeen of us kids in the class until Hector Klangpooker got booted out for sneaking spits of bakker juice down his shirt sleeve during calculus study. That left fifteen." "You must have been a whiz at math." "You think I can't subtract? Hector was twice as big as any of the rest of us, so he counted as two. But let us get on with the mystery. "It all started one rainy day when we didn't have no recess and couldn't go outside to play. All we done that day was cutouts on sheets of colored paper and paste them to make stuff like little outhouses, crawdads, tadpoles, the Taj Mahal or anything else the

76 kids could think of. Every now and then one of us would hold up two fingers." "You mean to get permission to go ---" "No, not that. There was always a lot of chewing gum stuck under the desk, and we would hold up the fingers so the teacher could clean the gum off. She would always make us go all the way to the outhouse and spit out the big gob of gum we crammed into our mouths. One time after I got back in the room my tube of paste was gone and a raven feather left in its place. "Nobody seen it when it happened. If you're thinking a raven flew in the window and left the feather, you're wrong. Now can any of you come up with the right answer?" Rex made a guess. "Was it the Invisible Man?" "Nah, that was way before the Invisible Man appeared on the scene. Anybody else got an idea? Remember this calls for logic and deduction." "Can't you give us more clues?" "You've got the only clues you need." "What about the used chewing gum?" "It tasted real good, and it pissed me off to have to go dump it. Anybody else? What about you, Mack?" Mack shook his head. "I'm not much on the detective stuff. My specialty is knitting sweaters for displaced snake charmers." "Could it have been Frankenstein's Monster?" guessed Ray. "Nope. Way off." "How'd you come up with that?" asked Bill. "I thought maybe some of his parts were coming loose and he needed the paste." "But what about the raven feather?" "I hadn't got that far. I was gonna work on that later." Kent had an idea. "Okay, here's my theory. The ghost of Pocahontas haunted the schoolhouse. She had more feathers than she needed to put in her hair to help keep her wigwam, and she traded one of them for the paste, which Captain John Smith needed to keep his toupee in place." "Good guess, but that ain't it. Pocahontas hadn't been born yet." Ash held up a hand. "I think I have the answer," he announced. "Was the teacher left handed? And did she always wear a red dress with white polka dots and a green belt with a silver buckle?"

71 Ray Savage was impressed. "How the hell did you ever deduce that, Ash? Does that really figure in the solution?" "No," he replied, "but I thought she would look kind of cute dressed that way and it would add a little something to the mystery." "How did you come up with the answer, Tom?" Rex said. "Process of elimination. After considering every possibility and eliminating them one by one, I seen that there was only one way it could have been done. It had to be a raven flying in and leaving the feather while everybody was taking a snooze." "What would a raven need paste for?" "Did I say the raven took the paste?" "Didn't you?" "You wasn't listening. I said my tube of paste was gone. I found out later that Hector Klangpooker stole it." "But you said no raven flew in through the window," Rex objected. "It didn't. It flew in through the open door." "Never more," croaked Ash.

72

T h e St ar f i sh an d t h e Oy st er Ray Savage sat staring at the ceiling. Bill nudged him. "What's so fascinating about fly specks?" " I was just thinking. Flies are probably the only creatures on earth whose defecation falls up. No, what I was really thinking about was the time several years ago when I had been married only two years and this beautiful young neighbor woman almost wrecked my marriage." That statement caught the attention of the whole group. They sensed that a spicy story was about to unfold. "Tell us about it," urged Bill. "I read somewhere that a starfish can't pry an oyster open immediately, but it is tenacious, and eventually the oyster tires and can no longer resist. Then it is consumed. I found myself in the position of the oyster." "Yeah, sure," Bill said with a knowing chuckle. "Of course the neighbor lady was the starfish, and she managed to get her clutches on you, but you resisted like hell. I mean, like hell you resisted." "Would you like to finish the story?" Ray asked pointedly. "Just let me guess how long it took her to get you in bed, then I'll shut up. I'll guess about the length of time it took you to get to a motel." "Longer than that. It took us several minutes to register. No, actually I was very happily married. Cheating on my wife wasn't something I wanted to do. Even the thought of it was repugnant to me. We were compatible in every way and very much in love.

73 "I was working graveyard shift at Douglas Aircraft in California at the time, and I would get home about the same time the lady would leave for her office each morning. She and her husband were insurance agents, but they worked different hours and at different offices. "They lived in the same apartment complex as my wife and I did, and we shared an underground parking facility. The first time I spoke to her was the morning they moved in. She came into the garage to leave for work just as I was getting out of my car. We introduced ourselves to each other and chatted only briefly. She was strikingly beautiful, all the curves, and bulges in exactly the right places and in the proper proportions. Her smile was enough to cause a coronary in a lot of men, but I had everything I wanted or needed right there in the house waiting for me. "Some women seem to have been made for just one thing, and she was one of them. The way she would give me a sidelong look and provocative smile after about the third morning spoke volumes. And that perfume! Wow! I mean it was wild, and it drove me even wilder. Our little friendly chats became longer and longer. Then when she would turn her back to walk to her car, I couldn't help staring at her rear. I know she was aware of it, and I think she deliberately made sure I got the full benefit of my ogling. "Soon our conversations began to take on a little subtle teasing. It wasn't so much what we said as what was left unsaid but clearly understood. One morning she jokingly remarked, 'We've got to stop meeting like this.' "'Is your husband the jealous type?' I asked. "'A little, but what he doesn't know won't hurt him.' Then she gave me that come-on glance, and I felt my blood surge and a warm sensation akin to a glow spread over me. My stomach muscles tightened, and I guess I started trembling. The oyster was beginning to yield to the pressure. "'I think you're right,' I said. 'We shouldn't meet like this. There must be a better place.' I felt guilty as hell, but at the same time I wanted her to catch the ball and toss it back. She did. "I made up some excuse to my wife for me to leave the house for a couple of hours. It was the first time I had ever lied to her, and I felt rotten through and through but tremendously excited. The oyster was now wide open. "She and her husband owned a beach house, and we had agreed to meet there that very morning. Actually it was not a house to live in, just a small one-room place to go and relax. I didn't plan

80 on relaxing that morning. We didn't go in the same car, but we arrived at about the same time. "What I didn't know was that someone else was about to arrive also. I had seen her husband but had never spoken to him. She had mentioned that he was six foot-four and had done some professional boxing. That should have been a red flag to me, but when a young dog is hot on the trail he will take the darndest chances and to hell with the consequences. "We had hardly closed the door behind us when it was opened again, and her husband stood framed in the doorway. He was bare from the waist up and built like Rambo. He looked to be ten feet tall at that moment, and I suddenly shrank to midget size." Here Ray paused to let the described scene have its full effect. "And?" Rex said. "No way did I need all that damned insurance they sold me."

75

A u n t M at i l d a "Who taught you how to cook, Tom?" Rex asked. "Let me guess. Was it Dracula?" "Nope, it was my great-aunt Matilda." "Was she the same Matilda the Aussies waltz?" "She never would say, but I think she always liked polkas better. But cooking was her true love. Her favorite expression was, 'If you can't beat 'em, throw 'em out and buy fresh ones'. She was a nice old gal, but she hated my guts." "You were nasty back then, too, huh? I guess some people form their personalities early and stay the same all their lives." "Yeah. I'll never forget the time she bought me a cruiser on my fourth birthday." "What kind of tricycle was it?" "I don't recall, but it was a four-wheel drive model. No, actually it was a ship." "Now, wait a minute, Tom. I thought you said she hated your guts. Why would she buy you anything?" "She hated my guts, but she loved everything else about me. I was six when she bought me the ship." "Didn't you say it was on your fourth birthday?" "Right. I was six feet tall. Aunt Tillie was a pool shark. She won the world championship." "No kidding." "Would I kid you?" "What year did she win it?" "Sometime between 1879 and 1880. I don't remember the exact year. I do remember that she had twenty-two kids at the time." "How old was she when she had all those kids?" "Fourteen years old."

76 "Twenty-two at age fourteen. How many kids did she finally end up with?" "I never counted 'em, but they was pure-bred goats, and I used to have to milk 'em for her. She left 'em all to me in her will, but I hated the damn things and sold 'em all to some phony priest on a jungle island way out in the Pacific."

77

U n c l e Sk eet l ep o p Rex looked at Cap Thomas, who appeared to have something on his mind that he wanted to share. "Cap," he said, "didn't you have a rich foster uncle when you were growing up?" "I was jist thinking' about ol' Uncle Skeetlepop Mugglethump. Yeah, he was rich. Not only that, he was wealthy also. He was my favorite uncle." Rex grinned. "Of course his being rich and wealthy was only coincidental and had nothing to do with his being your favorite uncle." "Not at all. He would have been my favorite if he had been only rich. But what I was gonna tell you about was the time when I was a kid--and I ain't talking' about no damn goat--his business was kinda slow and he was barely making' a thousand dollars a minute, He called me into his private den and asked me if I would like to go with him on a world cruise. "'You mean on a ship?' I sez. "'I ain't talking' about no canoe,' he sez. "'Heck yeah. I mean heck yes sir,' I sez. I always tried to be extry respectful to Uncle Skeet. 'What countries will we visit?' "'All of 'em. Maybe even more than that. We'll sail the seven seas, and if that ain't enough, I'll order some new ones made. We will stop off in Europe first. I'm negoshaitin' a deal to buy France. I'm trying' to get 'em to throw in a couple of Cokes for good measure, so the deal might fall through. They offered one, and we're still dickering'. They're awful shrewd boys to deal with, and I might have to settle with splittin' the other Coke with 'em.' "'Atta boy, Unc.' I sez. 'Hang in there and don't budge a drop.' "He beamed at me when I said that. 'My boy,' he sez, 'you're gonna make a great business man. I think I'll make you my partner. We'll corner the whole dang doodlebug liver market.'

78 "I reckon y'all can imagine how good I felt about that. I could jis' picture myself strutting around and hearing' people say, 'There goes the Doodlebug Liver King.' "Did you ever take the cruise?" asked Rex. "Shore did. We set sail from Boston Harbor and made our way through all that tea floating around. We sailed for two days before discovering we was headed inland instead of out toward the ocean and had to turn around. Uncle Skeetlepop decided to take a shortcut by way of Hawaii. He didn't say why, and I didn't ask. I guess it must have had something to do with grass skirts and hula-hula, 'cause he kept carryin' on about it, whatever that was." "Did you ever reach Europe?" "No, we didn't. We stopped over at some tropical island way out in the Pacific, and Uncle Skeetlepop left me on board while he paid a visit to a priest who lived in a temple up on a mountain. There he met a native girl by the name of Naomi and decided to stay. I had to swim back. Took me most of two days." "Really? That long? How come?" "Stiff head wind. Also I spent some time trying to figure out how to make love to a mermaid." "Did you talk to the mermaid?" "Yeah. We spoke to each other in Hawaiian. I said 'Aloha', and she answered with a low 'Ha'. "By the way, Tom," Cap said to the cook, "I brought along a case of canned doodlebug livers. Maybe you'd like to fix some for tomorrow." "I would, but I planned my meals in advance, and tomorrow we're having barbecued lizard gizzards." Ray Savage had sat through the tale without comment, but now he spoke. "Cap, I would be inclined to believe your story except for one thing. I mean, everything is perfectly reasonable and believable, but your timing is way off. You were only a kid when you set sail. It was years and years later that I was there and met Naomi. When you started out, she hadn't even been born." "It was a slow ship," Cap said without a trace of a smile. "You must have been pretty tired when you reached your home shore," Rex suggested. "Yeah, I did feel a little washed out. My girlfriend was waiting on the beach for me when I waded ashore. We had a big fight." "What about?" "She insisted that I go swimming with her."

79

T h e Bl o o d h o u n d "Floyd," Rex prompted, "didn't you work for a bail bondsman once upon a time?" "Yeah, back when Hoover was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." "Ah, yes, ol' Herbert," Tom interjected. "I knew him personally. Met him when we attended law school. We played mumblepeg under a shade tree and made mud pies together after we graduated." "Wrong Hoover," corrected Floyd . "Herbert was the one that dam thing on the Colorado River was named for. Edgar was director of the Bureau." "So what? Herbie is the Hoover I palled around with. I never met Eddie." "You must have had some interesting experiences," Rex said to Floyd. "What was your job exactly?" "Tracking down criminals who posted bond and skipped. One day I was in the office when a big tough-looking guy came in. He had a horrible cut over his left eye. Evidently he thought he could whup a small army all by himself and had took on about half the F.B.I. force at the time of his arrest." "Really? Federal agents arrested him? What had he done?" "He mailed a letter with a phony stamp, and that made it a federal case. The bondsman was filling out the form and asked him if he had any identifying marks on his body. The guy points to the cut and says, 'Yeah, this'n here.' "The man's name was Gomez, although he didn't appear to be Mexican." "Musta been French," Tom said. "Or maybe Norwegian." "Nope, he wasn't neither one. I found out later he was ScotchIrish from Poland. Anyway, he posted bail and right away took off

86 for Mexico. My job was to find him and bring him back. I picked up his trail and finally caught up with him in Acapulco. "He had paired up with an ex-con who had been sentenced to five years in Huntsville for first degree murder, but he was rich and famous, and the court allowed him credit for the time he spent in jail during the trial. The State had to refund him a couple of years. "They was both unarmed, but I toted a gun and a badge that came with a box of Crackerjack and got 'em cold while they was occupied with playing mumblepeg. But I didn't bring back my man." "What happened?" "Well, when I told him what I was there for, he said, 'No sabe, Señor.' "I said, 'What?' and he said, "That there means I don't speak your damn lingo, Gringo, and I can't understand anything you say.' Floyd spread his hands palms up and shrugged his shoulders. "How you gonna arrest a feller if you can't communicate with him?"

87

The Secret Door The conversation began to lag, and Rex said to Tom. "I've heard that when a man gets along in years he tends to live in the past. Is that true, Tom? Do you ever look back?" Tom considered a moment. "Yeah, I do. When you've survived as many of life's battles as I have, you ain't got no other way to look. You can't do much planning ahead. Hell, I don't even make my bed till I'm ready to crawl in." Rex looked at Jeffers. "How about you, Floyd?" "I like to remember some of the people I knew as a lad. I think they was a lot more polite and considerate of other folks' feelings in them days. I remember one little town in particular. We never even thought of locking our doors. Maybe we would steal a watermelon now and then, but, heck, nobody's perfect. Besides, stealing a watermelon and getting shot in the butt with a load of pinto beans instead of lead shot was common practice, and nobody considered it wrong. The shooter and the shootee would laugh about it and shake hands at church the next day. "I was thirteen before I ever heard the word crime. That was the year a stranger moved into town. He claimed to be some kind of scientist, but nobody knew what kind. He was about forty years of age and had a gorgeous young wife, probably no more than eighteen or twenty. The man kept pretty much to himself, but his wife was a regular gadabout, although she didn't hardly ever talk about her husband. "Naturally there was always back yard rumors floating around, but most didn't take them seriously. Then all of a sudden

82 she wasn't seen no more, but the man wasn't the kind of guy you walk up to and say, 'Hey, I ain't seen your pretty wife lately.' "A week or so after that, another beautiful young girl was living with the man. Then she, too, disappeared. This kind of hankypanky stuff went on until folks lost count of the women that would live there a while and then disappear. Nobody suspected nothing out of the way other than that the guy was just a womanizer who couldn't keep the same woman for long. "Then one day the first woman's picture appeared in the newspaper. Her folks back east had stopped getting letters from her and they wrote to the sheriff, asking him to investigate. He called on the scientist and looked around but saw nothing suspicious. Then the same thing that had happened with the first wife happened with all the other women, and that's when folks began to wonder if maybe something was not quite right, and so the sheriff went back out and looked around in the woods but didn't find nothing there either. But a young reporter from out of town wasn't so sure. He decided to look into the matter on his own. He organized a bunch of men to be deputized and go with the sheriff to make a more thorough search of the place. "They all came back and reported that they was unable to find even one dang thing to arouse suspicion. They said they all figured the girls was tramps who liked money and was willing to put up with the old coot for a while but got tired of the guy and just took off for parts unknown. They had all been pretty young, maybe no more than eighteen. Maybe they wanted younger men. “A kid who looked to be about ten had been listening in. He stepped up to the reporter and said he would speak out on condition of notoriety. The reporter, thinking the kid meant anonymity , hustled him into a private conference room, seated him at a table, and told him to wait a few minutes. Soon he was back with a big ice-cream cone for the lad. Then he goes to his briefcase, pulls out a note pad and pencil and seats himself across the table from the kid and begins his questioning. 'Have you seen or heard something?' he asked with his pencil poised. "'Sure. Lots of things.' "'Tell me about it.' "'Tell you about what?' "The kid had appeared real bright at first, but now the reporter wasn't so sure, and he framed his questions about the scientist and the missing women a little more carefully.

83 "The boy licked his scoop of cherry vanilla and said, 'Oh, I don't know anything about that.' "As I recall, the kid's name was Steve Allen -- or some such. "The explanation the group of men offered didn't satisfy the young reporter. Why would all of the girls suddenly stop writing to their parents? Being new at the business, he was hungry for a sensational story, and so he questioned the sheriff and all the others who had searched the place. 'Are you real sure you looked everywhere in that house?' he asked them. "They all said they was absolutely certain. 'Every square inch,' they swore. 'Well, there was this one room in the basement we didn't go in,' one feller finally admitted. The reporter was flabbergasted. "A whole damn room, and you didn't even look in? What the hell kind of a search you call that? Why didn't you go in?' "They looked at him like they thought he was crazy. 'We couldn't go into that room,' the sheriff said. "'Why? Was the door locked? Hell, you had a search warrant. You could have busted the door down." "'Maybe it was locked, and maybe it wasn't. We didn't ask. But it had a sign on it that said, KEEP OUT.'"

84

T h e T h i r t een t h N o t ch "Ray," Floyd said in his deep baritone voice, "your experience with the insurance gal reminds me of something that happened in the little town where I lived when I was about yea-high to a grasshopper's armpit. "A local feller married a beautiful young blonde from somewhere back east, Hyannis Port, I think. I mean, she was a real head turner anywhere she went. The next day after the wedding the young man thinks to himself, 'Hey this here's too dang good to leave unguarded.' But he couldn't be with her all the time, 'cause he had a job at a synthetic buffalo chip factory. "The young bride was a sweet thing and no doubt would have remained faithful to her husband, but he was the suspicious, jealous type and didn't trust nobody. However, the damn chastity belt he installed on the poor gal turned out to have the opposite of its intended effect. It infuriated her and made her kinda mad, but she wore it all the same. It also became a challenge. "She always done a lot of exercises and kept her good shape in good shape. One day while the husband was at work he started thinking about what was waiting for him and home, and he ups and leaves early. When he got to his barn to unsaddle his horse, he noticed a strange horse in the corral still saddled and bridled, so he sneaks up to the house and peeks into the window just in time to see his bride do a Houdini and slip the chastity belt while a man he knew sat waiting patiently, or more likely, a little impatiently. "Without saying a word the guy turns around and gets back on his horse and goes into town and buys himself a brand new Colt .45 with pearl grips. Pretty soon the guy he seen in the room with his wife ain't seen around town no more. There were no witnesses, and the man wasn't even suspected of doing anything rash. But when a lot more men mysteriously disappeared the local sheriff started

85 wondering about it. But he didn't have a clue and couldn't make no arrest without some kind of evidence. "Then a young handsome detective the sheriff had met at a lawman's convention in Chicago moved into town, and the sheriff deputized him and put him on the case. He couldn't come up with nothing either until one day he noticed that the woman's chastity belt had the same number of notches in it that was in the husband's gun handle. It was also the same number of the twelve men who had disappeared without a trace. "Today that deputy sheriff is just another notch in an old rusty six-gun. I ain't sure about the chastity belt. I never seen it."

86

A Hobo Tr ip "I was once a young boy," Tom began and let it hang. Rex slapped his thigh. "Now that's a real revelation. I never would have suspected. I'm surprised you can remember." "Oh, I remember it as if it was only ninety years ago. We was living' on a farm and times was real tough. We was so poor all the houseflies deserted us. One kid bragged that his family still had some in their house. All we had to eat was red ants, and even they was kinda skinny. My mama had a rich old maid sister living' in St. Joseph, Missouri, but they hadn't seen nor wrote to each other in a long time, and Mama didn't know her address. She was desperate, because she didn't have no snuff money, and when Mama had to go without her dip of snuff for a day or two, she always got a little cranky. She sent me hitch-hiking to St. Jo hoping I could find Aunt Spittlenok Gonzalez, her rich Irish sister, and beg for some snuff money and maybe a little extra to buy something to fatten up the red ants." "Didn't you get stung a lot while you were in a red ant bed having your meals?" "Oh, they tried to sting us, but as soon as they touched our skin they would keel over dead. I made it to St. Joseph in two days by hitching a ride on a wagon load of ---" "Let me guess," Rex interrupted. "Synthetic buffalo chips." "No, this was a wagon load of the real thing. Anyhow, when I got there all the money I had was twenty-two cents I had found that morning while on my hands and knees picking up red ants for breakfast. "St. Joseph was the biggest town I was ever in, and nobody seemed to know Aunt Spittlenok. Everybody I asked kinda snickered and shook their heads. I don't know what they thought was so damn funny about a ragged kid with red ants on his breath asking a simple question.

87 "I wandered around, walking the streets, feeling as out of place as a virgin Sunday school teacher in a whorehouse. Then I fell into a piece of luck. A nice old lady seen me walking around all teary-eyed and hungry looking and asked me my name and where I lived. I told her my sad story and that I was trying to find my Aunt Spittlenok Gonzalez. "The lady's eyes opened wide and then her expression turned sad. 'I knew your aunt,' she said. "'Knew?' "'Yes, poor thing. She passed away just last week.' When I turned away and was gonna start back home, she stopped me. 'Tell you what,' she said, 'I'm on my way to Paris, and my ship is leaving in about half an hour, but I want to help you. I don't carry cash but I have a few hundred dollars in my jewelry box at home. There is no one there, but I left a note for my nephew telling him where he can find my house key. He won't be there to look after things for me until Tuesday.' "Hold on, Tom," Rex said. "An ocean liner was sailing to France from St. Joseph, Missouri?" "Big rain. Anyhow, she took a notebook from her purse and wrote her address on a leaf and gave it to me. 'You are an honest boy, aren't you?' "'Yes ma'am.' "'I knew it. I can tell. Go to my house and read the note I taped to the front door. Get the key and go on in. You will find the jewelry box right on top of the dresser in the bedroom. Take the money but be sure you put the key back where you found it.' "'Then she kissed me and almost puked when she got a whiff of my breath. Then she smiled, patted me on the head, and said goodbye. "Feeling a lot better about things, I went to her house. It was a big white house on a big lot with manicured lawns and flowerbeds. I couldn't hardly believe my good luck. Now I would be able afford catsup to go with the ants, or so I thought until I read the note. It was addressed to Johnny, telling him that the key was in her jewelry box on top of the dresser and to be sure to put it back when he left. "I was gonna write a note on the other side of the one she left, thanking her for her kindness but that I had thought it over and decided I wouldn’t take advantage of her generosity. But I didn't have a pencil. Then I remembered I had passed a blind man selling pencils on the street corner a block away. I took one from him and went back --"

88 "Wait a minute, Tom," Rex said. "You stole a pencil from a blind man?" "Well, heck, the guy had a lot of them and wouldn't miss one measly little old pencil. No, actually I made a down payment on one and arranged to pay off the balance in easy installments." "I'll bet you defaulted on the first payment." Tom bowed his head in shame. "Yeah," he admitted, "I never did finish paying for that pencil, and now my credit is so bad all the merchants demand a cosigner even when I offer to pay cash. "Well, boys," he concluded, "that's the story of bad luck for me and my family and even worse luck for a lot of red ants."

89

PA RT 2

W I LD OT I S

91

M eet i n g Ot i s “Do you know any good bass fishermen?” I asked the bait and tackle store attendant. “What kind of bass—largemouth, small mouth, stripers, or what?” “I had largemouth in mind.” The guy rang up three sales on the cash register before he returned his attention to me. “Yeah,” he said, “I know several. There’s old Wild Otis, Tom Wilson, Jack Beauchamp—“ “Uh, did you say ‘Wild Otis’?” I interrupted. I had never heard the name before, but it sort of jumped out at me and intrigued me. “Yeah, that’s right. Do you know him?” “No, but tell me about him. Does he know his stuff?” “I’d have to say he’s the best bass man in this area—certainly the most colorful and interesting. He is pretty popular around here. Everybody likes Otis. He claims there are no strangers—‘Jist friends I ain’t never met yet,’ he says.” “Sounds like quite a fellow. I’m curious about the ‘Wild’ part of his handle. How did he come by that?” The man grinned. “You will understand once you meet him. About the only thing he is a stranger to is truth.” “You mean he is a liar?” “Only in fun. He has been known to mix a little ‘taurian defecation’ in with the wild stories he likes to tell, but if he tells you something as fact in seriousness, you can put it in the bank.” I was becoming more interested all the time. A dedicated bass fisherman who is colorful, interesting, and spins tall tales might be just the ticket. “What does Wild Otis do for a living?”

92 The man took a card from the counter. “He’s a fishing guide. Here’s his business card. If you want to call him, usually you can catch him home at about six in the evening,” I read the card. “Otis W. Dixon, eh? Does the ‘W.’ stand for ‘Wild’?” “No, I think it’s William. I take it you’re a stranger here in Hardwood.” “Yeah. Drove in about an hour ago. Say, how did this town ever get its name anyway? Shucks, I’ll bet there’s not a hardwood tree within a thousand miles of this place.” “Actually, I think that’s the reason for the name. I know it sounds a little ironic, but the story goes that a wagon train stopped here back during the gold rush days, and the people found wood for campfires so hard to come by they called the place Hardwood. Of course at that time there was neither a town nor lake here—just a barren spot of desert on the banks of the Colorado River.” “I see. When I first drove into town and saw the name, I thought it was like naming a town in Siberia ‘Bananaville’ or some such. By the way, I’m Chips Roper, and I appreciate your information and help. I really want to meet this Wild Otis.” The man extended a hand. “I’m Ted Walker. Are you a fisherman?” “Oh, no. I intend to write articles for outdoor magazines, especially about fresh water bass fishing, and I’d like to talk with someone who knows what he is doing. Hopefully he will take the time to explain his methods and techniques.” “Well old Otis can explain just about all there is to know about fishing, but if you go out with him it’s gonna cost you.” “No problem there. I just hope I don’t have to wait too long to get started.” “Now that might be a problem. He’s nearly always booked pretty far in advance. How long have you been writing?” “Not long.” “Ever been published?” “To be honest, I haven’t even started yet. I decided to take a crack at it last week after I was forced to quit my office job.” “Forced to quit? You mean you got canned?” “No, it wasn’t that. I liked my job until I was forced to retire because of oil and boredom—in that order.” Walker just looked at me and waited for an explanation. “I was satisfied with my job and my lot in life—until they struck oil on some property I own. Then after the big checks

93 started rolling in I began to be bugged by things I had hardly even noticed before. The air conditioner was never set to suit me, the wastebasket was always full, and my secretary had big ankles. Things got so bad I just had to get out.” Walker slapped the counter with his hand. “You got it, man. If I had a couple of oil wells, I don’t think I could take any more of this damned Arizona heat.” After getting directions to the docks, I sauntered down to the lake just to look around. Otis was out with clients, but I had no trouble spotting the covered slip in which he housed his bass boat. Just as Ted Walker had said, there was this beautiful sign done in gold leaf and mounted on the neat boathouse. FORT NOXIOUS, the sign read. It made no sense to me at the time, but the next morning when I saw his boat I understood. The name, also lettered in gold leaf, was FOOL’S GOLD. I chatted with several local fishermen, most of whom knew Wild Otis Dixon. Invariably they grinned when I first mentioned his name. Then I returned to my motel and marked time until seven o’clock. I wanted to give Otis time to clean up and have dinner before giving him a call. He answered on the third ring. I stated my name and explained briefly what I had in mind. “Why shore I’ll talk to you about bass fishin’,” he said in a rather high-pitched voice and a pronounced drawl. “As for fishin’ with me, though, that’s a horse of a different flavor. I have to charge for takin’ folks out, and I’m booked up for about a month. Sometimes I get a cancellation, and I could work you in then, but I never know when that’s gonna happen. You bein’ a writer and all, you prob’ly don’t figger on payin’ nothin’. I jist cain’t afford to take you out for free. I got expenses same as other business men, and I gotta charge—“ “Hey, hold on,” I said. “I don’t expect you to take me fishing free of charge. In fact I’ll be happy to pay you far more than your usual fee if we can work something out.” There was a slight pause before he answered. “We-l-l-l, I ain’t never had nothin’ like that throwed at me before. Golly-bum, I reckon I’ll have to think on that a mite. Tell you what— Come on over and let’s kick it around a little and see what we can work out.” I followed his directions to a small frame house near the lake. It. like the boathouse, was neat and the lawns well kept. I knocked, and a short and slender man of about forty opened the door. He had a thin hooknose and a full head of black hair with a low hairline. Deep smile tracks creased his face, but otherwise I saw few wrinkles.

94 “You are Wild Otis Dixon I presume,” I said and wondered if I had committed a social error. He might not be too fond of the ‘Wild’ epithet.” “Well, I ain’t Wild Lady Godiva,” he replied with a big friendly grin. “Come on in, Roper, before you get a frostbite. (The outside temperature hovered around 100 degrees F.) “Pull up a stump and set yourself down before you faint and fall in it. What would you like to drink?” “A soda or lemonade would be fine. I’m not much for alcoholic beverages.” “Makes two of us. How about a big frosty glass of Coke?” “Sounds good to me.” I sat on the couch and glanced around the room while I waited for him to return from the kitchen. Everything was clean and orderly. I saw no photos of women or children or anything to indicate that a woman lived there. Paintings of outdoor scenes hung on a wall, and outdoor magazines lay on the coffee table. I had the impression, later confirmed, that Wild Otis Dixon lived alone. “So you’re a writer, huh?” he said after handing me my drink and sitting beside me. “Who have you ever writ for? Don’t recollect ever seeing your name in any of my magazines.” “Perhaps I should explain my situation a little further. I’m retired and well off financially; so money is no problem. I haven’t begun to write yet, and being a tyro, I can’t just walk up to the likes of Ricky Green, Tom Mann, Paul Elias, Roland Martin, or any of the famous bass men and say, ‘Hey, I want to go fishing with you.’ Although I’m sure they’re all nice and not snobs, I wouldn’t stand much chance. Heck, everybody and his dog want to fish with them. So before I can hope to hobnob with those boys, I figure I’ll have to pay my dues and establish myself as a writer. That’s why I’m willing to pay well for the chance to associate with someone such as you, someone with a lot of bass savvy.” “Where do you hail from, Mr. Roper?” “Suppose we dispense with the formalities. Call me Chips. I’m from the little town of Anson, west of Ft. Worth and north of Abilene.” “You mean you’ve come all the way out here jist to meet a bass man, when there’s scads of good lakes in your area? How come?” “Okay, fair question. There is some property out here I want to have a look at, and I have been wanting to see the Colorado River lakes anyway.”

95 “So you decided to skin two birds with one stone. O.K., what’s your proposition?” “I want to make a deal to go out with you and your clients. I won’t do any fishing, and I’ll try to stay out of your way. All I want is a story—anything that might be of interest to outdoor people. I’ll pay you double your usual fee if you can arrange it.” “Holy buffalo calf! Man, you’re really serious, ain’t you? Don’t know how that’s gonna set with my customers, but I reckon there ain’t no harm in trying.” “Good. Next question—when do I start?” “Can you be here at daylight in the morning?” “I certainly can. I’ll write you a check right now. Just tell me how much to make it out for.” “No, we better wait. I don’t know if the customers are gonna cotton to the idea. Besides, you might decide there jist ain’t nothin’ worth writing about.” “I’ll find something to write about, all right. You just catch some bass and tell me how you outsmarted them, and leave it up to me.” “Now that you’ve brung it up, let’s get a few things straight about bass. I reckon you have heard all your life that to catch a bass you gotta think like one. Well, that’s a lot o’ hawgwash. Bass don’t think—they react. They ain’t got the gumption to size up a situation and figger out what to do about it. Everything they do, be it eating, courting, migrating, or just taking a siesta, they do it because instinct makes ‘em do it. In other words, they don’t think of a few moves in advance and choose which one they figger will work out better for ‘em. That’s what a good bass angler does. He knows what makes a bass tick. Even before he goes out on the water, he’s observing and thinking and asking himself questions. What is the weather like? Cloudy? Bright sunshine? Is the water clear, or stained? What is the water temperature? Is there a thermo cline? Which way is the wind blowing? By the time he gets to where he wants to fish, he’s got most of the answers. Then he checks the bottom for depth and to determine what is down there in the way of structure, such as weeds, rocks, sand, mud, brush, gravel, moss or trash. He stores all that in his noggin, and THEN he selects the lure most likely to do the job. Remember, a lure is only a tool, and each one is designed to do certain things. If you think there is a magic lure, forget it. There ain’t no sich animal.” “Man!” I said with genuine admiration, “there’s a lot more to fishing than meets the eye, isn’t there?”

96 “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. After we get into this thing and if you are still itching to learn, I’ll explain about migration routes, mapping, interpretation of structure, controls like depth, speed, line size, color, and other stuff. Yeah, there’s a lot to successful fishing, and it can be summed up in word —knowledge. You gotta understand why a bass does what it does, what the conditions are at the time, and get it all together. That comes with study and experience.” “You are whetting my interest more all the time. Maybe I’ll do more than just write about it after all. But that can wait. I don’t want to press my luck. Now about the clients—are you going to contact them first, or should I just show up and hope for the best?” “Show up and leave the rest to me. By the way, Chips, where are you staying?” “I have a motel room across the river.” “You mean you gotta drive all the way up to the bridge? Heck, you don’t have to do that. Way too much driving, and motels are expensive. I got this extry bedroom that ain’t being used. Bring your things with you in the morning and stay with me while you’re here. How long you figgering on being in town?” “I don’t have any set time. My wife and daughter are visiting her mother, and there’s no pressure on me to get back home.” “Then it’s settled. I won’t charge you for the room, and we can talk bassing every night after we come in.”

97

I v o r y an d Fl o r a Otis was up and waiting for me the next morning at daylight, and I had to chuckle at his appearance. His old-fashioned dress pants were tight and a little too short, and his shoes looked as though he had retrieved them from an attic in Dogpatch. From his appearance one might have suspected that he had come from there also. Later I realized the guy was an actor, deliberately exaggerating the hillbilly aspect of his character. “Come on in, Chips,” he said, holding the door open for me. “Looks like we got us a little windstorm this morning. Had your breakfast yet?” “Just a cup of coffee at the motel. I thought we would stop at a coffee shop on the way. I’m buying.” “My customers will be waiting for me at the dock, but I think it’s gonna be too rough to take the boat out right away. If it’s all the same to you, we’ll pick ‘em up and take ‘em to breakfast. I’ll do the buying.” We drove to “Fort Noxious” and parked. Soon a taxi deposited his customers at the slip. There were two of them, one a gorgeous redhead and the other an equally beautiful blonde. The redhead was dressed entirely in yellow, and the blonde in white except for a red patch in the shape of a heart over her left breast. We got out of the car, and the girls stood there in the stiff breeze waiting for us to approach. I could not decide which one looked sexier. “Hi. Are you Otis?” The redhead addressed the question to me. Otis extended his hand. “I’m him. This here’s Chips. Right nice to meet y’all.” He shook their hands vigorously. “I’m Flora, and this is Ivory, “ said the redhead. “She claims to be ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths per cent pure, but don’t you believe it.”

98 “You don’t say! Well now lemme see. ‘Cording to my calc’lations, that leaves a impurity of fifty-six one hunnerds per cent. I want to know about that.” “That you will have to find out for yourself.” “Don’t let the name fool you,” chimed in Ivory. “She’s a lot more fauna than flora.” I stood silently wondering what kind of fishing trip this would turn out to be, or if there would be one at all. I had a feeling that my new friend was playing a joke one me. These “customers” probably were hookers whom he had called after I had left his place, and they had no intention of going fishing. Otis gazed out over the choppy lake. “Golly-bum! It shore looks rough out there. I think we are gonna have to wait ‘til this here dang wind dies down a little bit. My boat isn’t no Queen Mary, and them whitecaps is higher than a tomcat’s back in a pen full of bulldogs. What say we go find ourselves a nice booth in a coffee shop ‘til it lets up a mite?” The girls enthusiastically agreed. Ivory slithered up to me and linked her arm in mine. “That sounds good to me. How about you, Honey?” We got into Otis’s car and drove to the Angleworm Café. Ivory snuggled up to me in the back seat. “This is better than any old fishing trip, anyway. Don’t you think so?” She slipped an arm around me. “Is Chips your real name?” “Nickname,” I replied, trying to quell the hot shivers and cold chills playing tag up and down my spine. “How did you come by it? No, let me guess. You are a Vegas gambler.” “Nothing like that.” “Oh, I know. You were a prize fighter and always down—you know—the chips are down.” “Way off.” “Then I give up,” she cooed and snuggled even closer. “I guess you’re just going to have to tell li’l ol’ Ivory.” “When I was a kid I could chop more wood than all the other boys my age. How’s that for glamour?” “Why, Honey, I think that’s real glamorous.” She began to run her hand over my face and other parts of my anatomy. I thought of my wife and daughter. I’ve got to put a stop to this monkey business, I thought. This could get out of control in a hurry. “You know, Ivory,” I sighed, “you remind me of my wife. Would you like to see a snapshot of her? I carry one of my little daughter also.”

99 She removed her arm and unsnuggled. “Your wife is a lucky woman.” Her voice no longer oozed honey. “Most guys I know wouldn’t let a wedding band even slow them down.”

100

Hot Air There was about a dozen patrons in the coffee shop, one of them a big man in cowboy garb. We could hear his loud voice even before we got inside. As we came in he stared at us and then focused his attention on Otis. Striding over, he looked him up and down, his eyes coming to rest on the “Li’l Abner” shoes. “Well, I’ll be a suck-egg mule!” he said in a voice calculated to draw the attention of everyone in the room. “I do believe we got us a gen-u-wine Okie here. How about it, Okie? Did you remember to wipe your shoes so’s you don’t smell up the place?” He sniffed and made a face. “Naw, you didn’t. I ain’t never yet met a Okie with enough manners to do that. You can always tell a Okie by the smell of pig on him.” All eyes were on Otis. I tensed, not knowing how he would react. “Let me guess,” he said unruffled. “Texas. Right?” “Mighty-come-a-tootin’ I’m a Texan. Tell me, Okie, how come all you Okies are so dadburn ignert? I ain’t never seen one that was smart enough to tell an elephant from a potfer.” Otis grinned. “What’s a potfer?” I was surprised that he would bite at that old joke. “To pee in!” The Texan roared in exultation as though he had just scored a smashing victory. Slapping his leg with his Stetson, he continued to guffaw as he looked around to be sure everyone appreciated his brand of humor.

101 We seated ourselves in a booth, and Tex followed, still laughing. Otis waited for him to settle down. “I ain’t never gonna say nothing derogatorious about no man from Texas,” he said soberly. “It was a Texan what saved my hide one time when I was flying a hot air balloon over the desert in southern Arizona. I got caught in a wind that took me over a hunk of the ruggedest real estate I ever seen. Nothing for miles around but thorn bush, catclaw, and cholla cactus. The dern stuff was so thick that a jackrabbit would o’ had trouble navigating through it. Then my dang burner went out on me, and I couldn’t light it again. Man, I was really sweating, ‘cause if I had o’ landed in that stuff I would o’ been in big trouble.” “Yeah?” Tex had become serious, no doubt wanting to hear about the Texas hero. “What happened?” “I had a Texan in the basket with me, and he started bragging about Texas, and pretty soon he was putting out more hot air than the burner ever did.” The patrons, most of whom knew Otis, had been listening intently, and now they exploded in laughter and applause. Tex whirled to glare at them, and when he turned back to Otis his face was again flushed but this time not with mirth. “And you know,” Otis continued, “we went around the world three times before I could shut him down long enough to land.” The Texan’s jaw muscles tightened, and he stood speechless, glaring down at Otis. I was uneasy, afraid the big guy was going to crush my friend’s jaw with a huge fist. Grinning, Otis calmly stood and proffered a hand. “Hey, man, all in fun, huh?” Tex spurned the friendly gesture, spat on the floor, turned on his boot heel, and stalked out the door. The audience applauded again. I looked at the little man, who was still grinning. “Are you really from Oklahoma?” I asked. “Nope.” “Where did you grow up?” “Near Waco,” he replied, his charming bucolic grin becoming even wider.

102

I n t h e Bo at W i t h t h e Gi r l s We had breakfast and sat listening to Otis entertain the girls and me with more wild yarns until the wind let up, which to everyone’s delight, was about ten o’clock. Flora and Ivory actually wanted to go fishing, but to this day I’m not sure who paid whom. Otis fitted us with life jackets. He always insisted that each passenger don one. Then he passed around a bottle of sunscreen, explaining that he didn’t want us coming back “looking like big ol’ red crawdads.” “And if it starts getting too hot out there,” he added, “we will hightail it back in. I don’t want nobody passing out from heat prostitution.” Otis had insisted that I do some fishing, and I began to assemble my rod and reel that I had bought that morning on the way to his house. He watched with amusement as I fumbled. “I think you better use my equipment, Chips,” he said. I felt a bit hurt. “What’s wrong with mine? This isn’t dime store tackle by any means. I paid darn good money for this stuff.” “Yeah, I can see it ain’t junk, but you don’t put a bait casting reel on a fly rod.” I used his spinning reel and rod. We sped out to a quiet cove and dropped anchor. “Fishing might be a little on the slow side today,” Otis predicted, “what with the cold front last night and the high skies this morning.”

103 “What do you mean, ‘cold front’?” I scoffed. “When the temperature drops down to eighty-five here in June, you call it a cold front, I suppose.” “Well all right, ‘weather front’ if that suits you better. Point is, it usually turns bass off.” He certainly was right. We tried dunking nightcrawlers and minnows for an hour without so much as a nibble. Then we moved to another spot where there was shade and anchored again. The results were the same, but at least we were more comfortable. “Why do they call you ‘Wild Otis’?” Flora wanted to know. “Well,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “you know people. Some folks seem to doubt me at times, especially when I try to explain some of my important scientifical discoveries. Like when I discovered that sunspots, what the educated dudes call solar flares, mess up a fish’s navigatorial system, and they get all bumfuzzled and disornamented and meander around all over the lake. That makes ‘em awful hard to catch and explains why fishing is so dadgum tough sometimes when it ort not to be.” I confess I was just as gullible as were the girls and believed him. I noticed that Ivory had been peering down into the water for some time. “Is the water always this clear?” she asked Otis. “I can see all the way to the bottom.” “Not always. Sometimes a lake will bloom, and the water turns real green.” “What makes it bloom?” “I dunno. I think the water gets full of tiny orgasms.” The girls erupted into hysterical laughter. Otis looked up quickly. I’m sure the puzzled and innocent look on his face was faked. (Later my suspicions were confirmed when I read an article he had written for an outdoor publication. Obviously a welleducated person had written it. Also in our private conversations he dropped the yokel role.) After another hour of futility, Otis rummaged in a tackle box labeled LAST RESORT and pulled out a stethoscope and a can of ground red pepper. “When nothin’ else don’t work,” he announced, “and I ain’t sure if there’s any fish down there, I got this here sure way of telling for certain.” He proceeded to sprinkle pepper into the water and after a moment placed the instrument over his ears and submerged to sensor over the side. After listening intently for about a minute, he shook his head. “What on earth are you doing?” asked Flora.

104 “Listening for sneezes. I don’t hear none, so we’re wasting our time here.” After talking it over we decided to give up and go back in. Returning to the Angleworm, we had lunch and chatted a while. “Would you fellows like to come over to our motel for a few drinks?” Flora suggested. Otis looked at me. I hesitated, wondering how I could refuse gracefully. Now I’m as red-blooded as the next man, but when I had said my wedding vows, I meant every word. Ironically, it was Ivory who came to my rescue. “Let’s go, Flora,” she said. “I don’t think Chips’ wife and daughter would approve.” We parted company, and as far as I was concerned, Ivory remained ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths per cent pure.

105

Cr ab b y W o m an The following morning the clients, a man and his wife in their sixties, were an hour late. When they drove up in a new Cadillac, the man got out and walked around the car to open the door for his wife. A roll of flab spilled over his belt. The woman was thin, wrinkled, and wore too much makeup. Otis, in his “Dogpatch clothes, introduced himself and extended a hand, which the man shook but the woman stiffly declined. After introducing me and explaining my presence, Otis offered to reduce his fee by half if that arrangement would be agreeable with them. “Yes, of course,” the man, Elmo Pierson, agreed. Then he turned to Edith, his wife. “”Is that all right with you, Sweetheart?” Unsmiling, she only half nodded. Frowning, she looked at the bass boat. “Is that what we are going out in? I expected a cabin cruiser. I would think, with the price we’re paying for a silly fishing trip, we would be entitled to more comfort.” Embarrassed, Elmo tried to explain why a bass boat is built the way it is. “Very well,” she said with an exaggerated sigh of resignation. “let’s go and get it over with.” The effects of the cold front (if that is the proper term) carried over, and we encountered the same conditions as we had the previous day. The couple tried live bait without success. After a few minutes Edith put her tackle away and sat glumly with arms folded.

106 “Don’t you want to fish, Sweetheart?” Elmo asked. “Here, let me put on a fresh worm.” “No, I don’t want to fish.” “Maybe a frisky minnow—“ “I said I DON’T WANT TO FISH!” Elmo mopped his perspiring round face. “Do you want to go back in?” “No, you go ahead and have your fun. This was your idea. Enjoy it.” Fat chance, I thought. I had never seen her come close to smiling. Elmo, desperately trying to salvage what he could of the situation, turned to Otis. “Don’t you know where there’s a honey hole where we might have more success?” “Funny you should mention honey hole. Yeah, I used to have a dandy, and that was exactly what it was— a honey hole. A secret spot it was that nobody else knowed about but me. I could always figger on catching a mess o’ bass there even on days like this here when nobody else wasn’t catching nothing. But,” he added with a sigh, “it got all messed up.” “How? What happened to it?” Elmo had taken the bait. “For years I always done real good there. Then some dude put out a bunch of beehives on the shore next to it. Well, sir, the dang bees would get all loaded down with nectar, and a lot of ‘em would fall into the water, and the bass would gobble ‘em up. Well, that went on for a long time, maybe a year or more. That caused the dadburn bass to develop a sweet tooth, and the only way I could get ‘em to bite was by dipping my worms in honey. Worked real good for a while, too. Then an awful thing happened. Real sad.” He paused, and again Elmo bit. “What happened?” “The pore critters all developed sugar di-beet-us and died.” Edith sniffed in disgust, and Elmo cut short his laugh. There followed a moment of awkward silence. I felt sorry for Elmo, but Otis seemed to be enjoying the situation immensely. “Take me back to the dock,” Edith commanded without consulting her husband. Otis looked at Elmo, who merely nodded. “All right, Ma’am, “ he said cheerfully, then added with that mischievous twinkle in his eye, “In fact, we’ll all go beck in.’ She gave him a hard look. “I think you should refund our money.” Elmo squirmed but remained silent. Otis reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a small tin of snuff. Deliberately he removed the lid, tapped a portion under his

107 bottom lip, and spat over the side. “Why shore you can have your money back. I’ve fomalized me a set of ethicals to live by. “Number one: Don’t never beat nobody out of nothing. “Number two: Don’t never tell nothing that ain’t so. “Number three: Don’t never holler and cuss at little kids jist ‘cause you’re bigger, and you figger you won’t get your damned teeth knocked out. “Number four: Don’t never be mean to wimmin. After all, some of them are people too. “Number five: —“ “That’s quite enough!” she cut in. “I don’t give a damn about your ‘ethicals’ or whatever you choose to call them. Take us back this minute.” “Might take a little longer than that, but here we go.” She gave him a hard look that might have reduced a lesser man to a midget, but Otis, still smiling, met her eyes evenly. Back at the dock he let them off and refunded their money, which Elmo accepted without a word. (Later he sent a check for the full fee along with a note of apology.) As we watched them drive away I turned to Otis. “She isn’t exactly a Flora or an Ivory,” I observed. “I’ll wager that without him that old rattlesnake wouldn’t have a pit to hiss in, yet she treats him like the dirt under her feet. I don’t think she liked you very much either.” “She didn’t have anything against me. That was just her way of getting at him.” His “smile tracks deepened. “I wonder how he makes out in bed with her.” “I wonder if he even gets into bed with her. Wouldn’t surprise me to learn that she makes him sleep in the dog’s room.” Otis glanced at the sun and then at his pocket watch. “It’s still early. You want to go back out?” “Not really. A big old strawberry shake is more appealing to me right now.” We made a beeline for the Angleworm.

108

Li z z i e M ae As we entered the air-conditioned café, several people were lounging around throughout the room just sipping cold drinks and talking. The regular patrons used the angleworm as a social watering hole to escape the heat and to while away the time. Otis spotted two women seated in a booth in a far corner of the room. “huh-oh,” he whispered, “there’s Myrna Johnson. For about two years she’s been attempting to get me married to one of her friends or another. Dollars to fish hooks that’s what she’s up to now.” We took another booth across the room and ordered our shakes. Presently the two ladies left their booth and came over to ours. “Otis,” said Myrna Johnson, “I want you to meet a dear friend of mine. This is Lizzie Mae.” Otis jumped to his feet, grabbed the startled woman, and planted a big kiss squarely on her lips with a resounding smack. “Pleased to meetcha, Ma’am,” he said with exaggerated enthusiasm. She promptly gave him a sharp slap in the face. Otis appeared devastated. “Golly-bum!” he whined, “Now what did you go and do that for? Heck, I was only observing an old Texas custom.” “And I was just observing an old Tennessee custom,” Lizzie Mae retorted. He snapped his fingers. “By goobers, that’s right. I remember that old custom from one time when I went to see some kinfolks in Nashville. Still got calluses on my cheeks from it. Well, heck, now that we’re friends, let’s all jist set ourselves down here and have a nice little visit. What would you ladies like to order? This here’s my friend Chips. He’s buying. And by the way, don’t get the idea that I’m a playboy. Thunderation, I ain’t kissed more’n ten wimmen all day.”

109 We sat down, and Lizzie Mae soon began to catch the spirit of the situation. Myrna lost no time in launching her sales pitch. “Lizzie Mae is an old schoolgirl chum of mine. She has never been married. Otis, she is going to make some lucky guy a good wife some day—when she meets the right man.” Lizzie Mae, a fair complexioned woman, turned beet red but apparently was too embarrassed to say anything. Myrna, not the least bit embarrassed, pressed on. “Otis, don’t you think it’s high time you considered getting married and settling down?” “Who? Me? Golly-bum, I don’t know nobody more settled down than I am. But, yeah, I did think about getting myself hitched one time a few years back. I was going steady with a good-looking woman from Los Angeles and was all set to marry her when I found out something about her that changed my mind.” “Really?” Myrna, obviously taking Otis seriously, was intrigued. “It must have been pretty bad. What was it you found out about her?” “She was lazy.” “Lazy?” “Lazy. I mean that gal was LA-A-A-AZY. She was so dang lazy that every time she wrote a letter she would skip every other word. She never got around to mailing any because she was too dad-gum lazy to lick the stamps. And every time she went to bake a cake, she would pour the flour into the sifter and wait for an earthquake. I knowed that there marriage wouldn’t never work out, ‘cause I’m pretty dad-burn lazy myself.” “Oh, come now, Otis. I don’t believe you’re lazy.” “The heck I ain’t! Sometimes I ache all night jist because I’m too lazy to turn over in bed. I don’t even scratch the bedbug bites. I cain’t even think of working without feeling a little sick, and my credit is so bad I have to have a co-signer to pay cash.” “Now really! Seriously, don’t you think you’re missing a lot by not having a family?” Otis leaned back and closed his eyes as though she had twanged a responsive chord. “You got a point there,” he said with a nod. Some day I might get a family started—if I can find myself a pregnant woman.” Lizzie Mae, now fully into the thing, winked at Myrna. “I doubt that even a pregnant woman would want to marry a man who is too lazy to zip up his fly.”

110 Startled, Otis glanced at his lap. The fly was not open, but he went along with the gag. “You think that’s lazy. Heck, most times I’m too lazy to zip down.” Myrna was determined. “Why don’t you want to get married, Otis? Just one good reason, and let’s have a straight answer for a change.” Otis massaged his lips with his teeth. “O.K. if you really want to know, I’ll tell you. As a matter of fact, I was married at one time. I don’t talk about it much, but I really was.” He lowered his voice and spoke with obvious sincerity. “She was a good woman in a lot of ways, but she wanted to run my life. I mean she wanted total control. She always put up a fuss every time I bought a piece of fishing equipment, and when I planned a fishing trip with a buddy, she wouldn’t speak to me for two days before I left and two days after I got back home. “She hated fishing, and she didn’t want me to do it. I put up with that kind of stuff for as long as I could. Then one day she sent me to the store for a gallon of milk, and I sort of forgot my way back home. That was five years ago, and I don’t know if she’s still waiting for that milk or not. I ain’t seen nor heard from her since.” Myrna was stunned. “Otis, you never told me you had a wife.” “I prob’ly ain’t got one now. I figger she has got a divorce. I don’t know, and I cain’t say as I care one way or another.” Myra appeared a little miffed. “Why haven’t you told me this before?” “Don’t rec’lect you ever asking me.” “Aren’t you even curious about your marital status? If you are divorced, you could find a compatible woman and live a more fulfilling life.” “I don’t know about these modern wimmen. ‘Pears to me like they want to wear not only the pants but also the whole damn suit. And the frock. They ain’t satisfied ‘til they’re running things, and they ain’t about to obey their husbands like the Good Book says. Hell, they won’t even take orders from the Lord. Only last Sunday I turned on the TV, and there was this woman minister preaching on The Ten Suggestions. Lizzie Mae changed the subject. “Did you grow up in a rural community, Mr. Dixon?” “Nobody ever accused us of being city slickers, that’s for sure. Fact is I growed up so far back in the sticks you cain’t get there from here.” “What did you do for recreation?”

111 “Oh, we played mumblepeg in the shade of a tree, and sometimes we would knock wasp nests out of trees. Bur I reckon what we liked best was chasing girls. I don’t mean just courting them like they do in other places. A virgin back there when I was a kid was any girl under twelve who could outrun her big brother. After twelve forget it. Shucks, I didn’t know what shoes was ‘til I was nineteen. The skin on the soles of my feet was so thick that one time when I went to the blacksmith shop with my pa, I stepped on a piece of red hot iron and didn’t feel a thing for three minutes.” “Ah, now, Mr. Dixon, aren’t you exaggerating a little?” “Well, one day me and my brother was playing in the back yard, and I got a big mesquite thorn in my foot. It went in so deep I couldn’t pull it out. My brother went in the house and got a pair of pliers. I set myself down on the ground, and he got a-holt of it and drug me around all over the yard. Pa finally had to borrow a tree stump puller to get the dang thing out.” “How did you do with the girls? Did you ever catch any?” “Not at first. The skin on the bottom of my feet was so smooth I couldn’t get no traction. I would jist spin my wheels trying to get going, and that let the girls get too much of a head start on me, and they was long gone. Then one day I got smart and figgered out what to do, and after that I didn’t have no more trouble.” “So what did you do—buy shoes with treads?” “Nope. I jist took my pocket knife and cut treads in the skin.” “Seriously, Mr. Dixon, didn’t they have laws concerning under age girls?” “I reckon they must have, but us boys never knowed nothing about the age of consent and stuff like that. Heck, I never even heard about stationary rape until I moved out here.” “I assume you mean ‘statutory’ rape.” “Maybe so, but if they ain’t trying to get away, they’re stationary, ain’t they? The girls was willing enough once we caught ‘em. They just wanted to make the boys work a little. Thinking back on it, I reckon that was nature’s way of improving the stock by eliminating the weak and insuring the survival of the fittest.” The chitchat continued in this vein for another hour or so until we stood to leave. Suddenly Lizzie Mae grabbed Otis, pulled his head down to her level, and planted a big kiss squarely on his lips with a resounding smack. “Nice meeting you, sir,” she said and went prancing out the door with her companion.

112

Sm ar t Bass The next customers turned out to be a man about Dixon’s age and his two sons, eight and ten respectively. A thunderstorm was moving in slowly from the south, and Otis would have cancelled the outing had not the boys expressed such disappointment that he relented. “O.K., but we’ll have to stay in pretty close,” he warned. “If it starts looking too bad, were gonna hightail it back here pronto. Lightning out on a lake in an open boat is real risky, dangerous as a mad bull in a schoolyard. You get hit out there, and it could fry you to a crisp and pop your eyeballs right out of your head.” We motored out to a brushy cove and anchored. Otis had brought along a carton of mealworms, and the boys and their father had a ball catching bluegill and even a few small bass. I had abandoned the idea of fishing and sat back taking notes. Dixon had become so engrossed in helping and watching the boys that he said little until Ben, the boys’ father, asked whether he had ever entered a fishing tournament. “Yeah, I entered a big one wunst,” he said. Stuffing his lower lip with snuff, he continued. “It was sponsored by the Evergreen Sahara Club to raise funds for the purchase of pantyhose for mermaids. It was one of them days when even the best pros couldn’t seem to catch nothing. I wasn’t doing so hot neither. Soon I started looking for a better spot, and after squeezing through a lot of narrow channels, I came out into a wide lagoon that was separated from the main lake — a real insulated spot where a flock of mallard ducks was feeding. “I looked up and seen something that dang near made me fall out of my boat. A school of big largemouth bass had moved in and was gulping down them ducks, I mean full-grown ones. Quick like, I cranked up and spud back into town to buy me a dozen decoys. I

113 put hooks on ‘em and perceeded to fill my live well with some real eye poppers. But I didn’t win the tournament.” “No?” Ben asked dutifully. “Why not?” “They had this rule you couldn’t kill your catch, and I couldn’t get the decoys out without mutating the bass real bad. They wouldn’t let me weigh ‘em with the deeks in ‘em, so I lost out. A guy from Arkansas won it with a three-ounce tadpole.” Otis paused, squirted a stream of brown liquid over the side, and continued. “There wasn’t nothing to do but release my bass with the decoys sticking part way out of their mouths and hope they would survive. I reckon they did, ‘cause a couple months later I went back to that same lagoon, and you won’t believe what I seen.” “You saw the bass you had released?” “I didn’t actually see the bass, but I knew they had found their way back and that the hooks had rusted out. Them suckers had set out the decoys to bring in more mallards.”

114

Sasq u at c h One might naturally expect most of Dixon’s customers to be men, but a surprising number turned out to be couples, women, parent and children, and even a few young girls. I particularly remember the two elderly ladies who looked as if they belonged at a tea party rather than in a bass boat. Gertrude was a widow and Lillian, her sister, a spinster. Lively and giggly as schoolgirls, they were a direct contrast to Edith, and they appeared to be having the time of their lives. Otis completely captivated them with his stories told as usual with his screwed up grammar and malapropisms. A gentle warm breeze barely ruffled the water surface, but it was very dry, and soon Otis noticed that Lillian kept licking her lips. Taking something that looked like lipstick without color from his pocket, he offered it to her. “Here, rub some of this on your lips, and try not to lick them. Licking them just makes ‘em chap worser.” She appeared a little doubtful. “I don’t believe in wearing make-up.” “This ain’t lipstick. I would have given a ten-dollar bill for a tube of this one time a few years ago when I was leading a search party in some of Utah’s wildest back country.” “What were you searching for? Did someone become lost?” “Wasn’t that. Some deer hunters had reported seeing Sasquatch, the critter that some unscientifical dudes call Bigfoot. The Save-the-Unicorn-Society called me in to try and track him down, hoping to prevent some trigger-happy hunter from shooting him. When word got around that I had hunted down and captured the Abdominal Snowman up in the Himulayers the year before, folks accused me of being maybe the best tracker and guide in the world, so the Society figgered I was just the man for the job.

115 “There was about twenty in the party, and I told ‘em to scatter out and stick close together so as not to get lost. Wouldn’t you know it? We hadn’t been in the woods more than two hours ‘til every dang one of them got separated from me. Now I ain’t one to give up easy, so I keeps right on looking for them for three days. I learned later that they all somehow found their way back to camp the first day, but I didn’t know that. “Anyways, about the second day out my lips started chapping, and it got so bad I couldn’t even whistle. They was hurting so bad that for a while there I thought I would have to give up the search. But I found some fresh bear droppings and smeared some on my lips.” Lillian grimaced. “Bear droppings — oooeee. Does that really help?” “Naw, it don’t help the chapping none, but it shore keeps you from licking your lips.” Lillian, who had been hanging on every word, was not content to leave it there. I don’t think she even doubted anything he said. Evidently she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him stumbling around in the wilderness. “How did you get back to camp? Did someone find you?” Otis looked hurt. “Seems to me, Ma’am, that you’re implicating it was me what got lost. Golly-bum! I’ve hunted panthers in the Everglades, battled gollynippers in the Dismal Swamp, tramped around in just about every jungle in the world, and I ain’t never been lost in my life. Oh, I’ve been pretty confused at times but never lost.” We were anchored in the shade of a tree on shore, and Gertrude sat with an amused smile on her face and fishing only half- heartedly. Lillian, however, seemed to have forgotten about fishing altogether. She was taking Otis very seriously. “What would you have done had you met Bigfoot?” “Huh? Oh yeah, Bigfoot. I meant to tell you about that. I did meet him face-to-face on a narrow trail jist as I rounded a big boulder, but I seen right away that he was nothing but a cross between a Gorilla, a polo bear, and jist enough Exkimo in him so’s he could walk on his hind legs and talk.” “A cross between humans and animals? Are you sure? I’ve heard that’s impossible.” “Well now, I don’t know about that. The other day I was talking to a funny looking feller who said his daddy was a sheepherder.

116 I asked him where his daddy herded sheep, and he said, ‘Monta-a-ana’.” Gertrude laughed at the old gag, but I think it was lost on Lillian. Her thoughts were still on Bigfoot. “But how did an animal from the African jungle, one from the Arctic, and an Eskimo manage to get together?” “It’s my understanding that a group of scientifical dudes was fooling around experimenting with artificial instimulation, and that’s what they happened to come up with.” “But why release the poor creature in the wilds of Utah?” “Don’t know unless there was too much gorilla in him to survive in polo reejuns and too much Exkimo and polo bear in him to make it in the jungle.” “Mr. Wild Otis,” Gertrude said, “the next time your lips become chapped, you won’t need bear droppings. Just smear on a little of that crap you’ve been handing us.” That was the only time I ever saw Otis double over in a belly laugh. No one spoke thereafter for several minutes, and I sensed that Lillian still was deep in thought. At last her curiosity prevailed. “Mr. Otis,” she said, “you mentioned that Bigfoot could speak. Did he say anything to you?” Gertrude snorted. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Lillian!” “No, that’s O.K., Gertrude,” Otis said with a wink. “I’m plumb tickled to answer all questions. “Yeah, Lillian, we sat on a stump and shot the breeze for four hours.” Lillian became excited. “Amazing. You actually carried on an intelligent conversation with that creature for four hours? Tell me—what did he say to you?” “Don’t rightly know. He was speaking Russian, and I couldn’t understand a damn word he said.” “Now really!” Gertrude chided, “You should be ashamed of yourself. I think you should attend church with us Sunday. Boy, you really need it.” Otis started to take a dip of snuff, thought better of it, and returned the small tin to his pocket. “Matter of fact,” he said, gazing off into the distance, “I will be in church this Sunday. Glad you reminded me. That’s the day Grandpa is getting married, and I gotta attend the wedding.” “Your grandfather?” asked Lillian. “Did you say your grandfather is getting married?” “Yep. It’s his first.”

117 Apparently Lillian missed the significance of the statement. “Why, I think that’s just wonderful. How old is your grandfather?” “Ninety-six, come October.” “Ninety-six! Why would a ninety-six-year-old man want to get married?” “Did I say he wanted to get married?” Gertrude shook her head. “Honestly, Otis, I don’t know about you. Can’t you be serious for one minute? Really, we would be delighted to have both you and Chips attend church with us.” “Yeah, I know,” he replied with a show of humility. “I’m sorry. I reckon I ort not to joke about things like that. Actually though, I do have something I’ve jist gotta do Sunday. Been putting it off way too long. I do hope you understand.” “Well, I suppose, if it’s that urgent. But what could be so pressing that it can’t wait one more day?” “I gotta go by the store and pick up some sealing wax and wax my ceiling.” Gertrude let her hands drop into her lap and heaved a big sigh. “You are absolutely hopeless.” Then she added with a sunny smile, “But I love you.” After a lull in the conversation a school of bream moved in, and there was a flurry of excitement as everyone began catching fish. It must have been the first time either of the women had ever fished. They screamed and giggled, and in their excitement forgot what they were supposed to do. Otis was having a better time than they were. Catching big bass was old hat to him, but to watch these two old ladies behaving like six-year-olds as they caught the little sunfish was a rare treat that he relished to the full. Abruptly, as if someone had pulled a plug, the biting stopped. “The school was just passing through,” Otis explained. I figger they’re headed over yonder where there is a lot of underwater brush. We can head over there and pick up some more, but we’ll get hung up in the brush a lot. Or we can set here in the shade and wait for a school of bass to move in. What’s your pleasure?” “Why don’t we just ride around in the boat a bit?” Gertrude suggested. “We can always come back here later if we want to.” “Good idea. Glad I thought of it. There are some interesting places around the lake I want to show you, anyhow.”

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H an g i n g T r ee an d Ot h er T al es Since all agreed to do some sight seeing instead of fishing, we began to cruise around the lake. Otis pointed out places with strange names that I suspect he made up on the spot. “See that big cottonwood over yonder where the limb sticks out like an arm and looks like it needs a swing tied to it? It did have a swing on it one time, but it wasn’t for fun. That there’s the Hanging Tree. During the Mexican War a soldier swiped a bottle of booze from General Smiffpook’s tent, and the soldier and about ten of his buddies got drunk. When none of ‘em would tell which one took the whiskey, the general hung the whole dang drunken bunch. They say the place is haunted now. Nobody will camp there. On a moonlight night like it was when the men was hung, you can hear groans and sobbing and cussing and horses stamp their feet and whinny. Personally I have my doubts about the story, but who am I to judge? A used car salesman who also was a Texas fisherman told me the story, so it must be true.” He pointed out a dry wash where water flows into the lake during flash floods. “See that big boulder up on the side of the slope? That’s Blood Rock. Some folks call it the Dream Rock. One time an old prospector fell asleep in the shade of that boulder and dreamed that his brother back in Missouri got gored to death by a mean bull. He didn’t think much about it at the time. In fact, he forgot all about the dream until about a month later, when he got a

119 letter from his folks, telling that what he had dreamed actually had happened. “He told the story around town, and people laughed a him and told him he had screw worms in his brain. For some strange reason he went back to the same rock and fell asleep again in the same spot. This time he dreamed that all the people who had ridiculed him drank horse liniment and died of a fierce bellyache.” Otis started to point out another landmark, but Lillian stopped him. “Wait. Did that dream also come true?” “Nah, that part was wrong. What they died of was from drinking bad whiskey that was being used to rub down horses.” “Take a look at that cliff over there. Notice that down near the water line there is a wide flat ledge.” Gertrude interrupted. “Let me guess. I’ll bet that’s Lovers’ Leap.” “Close, but not quite. It’s called Doctor’s Leap. That’s where old Doc Ticklebritches ended all his troubles.” “You mean he jumped to his death there?” “That’s right. He was a noted surgeon who specialized in heart transplants and other parts of the body. He got greedy and was caught using cheap foreign parts.” “Look closely at that other boulder standing all by itself over there back a ways from the little sandy beach. What does it remind you of?” “Why that looks like a grand piano!” exclaimed Gertrude. “Exactly. And you know something? You can beat on it with an iron bar and it actually makes musical sounds, not piano sounds of course, but more like chimes. A noted musician was murdered there.” “What happened?” “Well, there was this gang of hippies that hired the musician to play for a shindig the gang held there. It was beautiful music, but the hippies killed the maestro.” “Poor man,” said Lillian. “Why did they do that?” “The musician was playing a violin, but the hippies wanted rock music.”

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Bi g W at er m el o n s an d San d St o r m s Wesley, Ernie and Marty were a trio of lively brothers. They spoke with a slight drawl, Which Otis picked up right away when we met them one morning at Fort Noxious. “You boys wouldn’t happen to hail from Texas, would you?” he asked. Ernie chuckled. “You mean it still shows?” “Who else but a Texan says ‘dad-gummit’? How long have you boys been displaced?” “We moved out here about ten years ago.” “Don’t make no difference. Once a Texan, always a Texan. Ain’t no place like it. Biggest state in the union.” “Except for Alaska,” Wesley reminded him. Otis appeared horrified. “Hey, don’t say that word. Might corrode the instruments in my boat..” He picked up a bottle of outboard motor oil, unscrewed the cap, and held it out to Wesley. “Here. Wash out your mouth, boy.” Marty kneed his brother in the rear. “Watch it, Wes. Didn’t Papa tell us never to say dirty words?” “Yes-sir-ree,” Otis continued, “the Lone Star State is yoo-neek. As for that dad-gum icebox up north, it was a sad day when the damn Yankees made it a state. Texas ort to declare it a day of mourning. Let’s all bow our heads in a moment of silent cussing.” Ernie stooped over, picked up a discarded paper cup crawling with ants, lifted it high, and shouted, “I propose a toast to Texas. Otis, have you got any toast in your boat?” The ants began crawling onto his hand. After he brushed them off, he bent over to tap the cup on the ground, dislodging the others. Again he hoisted it and shouted,

121 “Here’s to dear old Texas, Where the soil is deep and rich, And if you don’t like Texas, You’re a lop-eared son-of-a-gun!” “Yea, yea, and hooray for Texas!” the two other brothers yelled. “Well now, if y’all are finished sacrileging, irreverating, and poking fun at Texas,” Otis said in mock sternness, let’s all get in Fool’s Gold here and go catch us some bass.” After donning our life jackets and applying sunscreen we got into the boat and caught us some bass. We worked the end of a long finger of land that jutted out from shore and suddenly dropped off into the channel. The bass had been feeding in the shallows and were just beginning their migration back to their sanctuary in deep water. Otis knew the area well. Nearing the place, he killed the outboard engine and used the electric trolling motor for a quieter approach while explaining his game plan to us. “We will begin by working the shoreline with spinners and top water lures. If we don’t pick some up right away, we will gradually work toward deep water, switching to deep diving plugs, and if we still don’t make contact, we will change to jump baits and plastic worms, all the while going deeper and working them slower until we find the fish. In this clear water and bright sun, I don’t think the migration will last long. We gotta catch ‘em while they’re on the move before them boogers suspend off the point in forty feet of water and snooze until late this evening.” The fishing was good for about an hour. We found them first at mid depth while using deep diving plugs. We caught a few more with plastic worms after going still deeper. It worked out just as Otis had predicted. Also as he had said, the action suddenly stopped. “Why don’t we go back to the weeds where we caught the others?” suggested Wesley. “Ain’t you been listening, boy? They ain’t there no more. They migrated back to their safe haven in deep water, and there they will stay until the next feeding migration begins. We followed their migration route from the weeds back to their sanctuary. They’re done feeding until later this evening, when they will take the same route toward the weeds along the shore. Right now they are in a dormant phase, and they won’t move a fin to take a lure or live bait even if you dangle right in front of their noses. They are turned off here and all over the lake. Our best bet, if we want to continue fishing

122 now, is to find some brush and try for sunfish.” We anchored over a fallen tree in fairly deep water and under a large shade tree. It was a lazy kind of fishing and a perfect setting for more tall tales. “I sure would like to have one of them big cold Texas watermelons about now,” Marty said. Otis nodded. “They do grow ‘em big there, don’t they? I remember one year we growed some extry big ones. Fact is, they was so big you had to have a forklift just to pick up a seed. From a distance they looked like a herd of elephants. We didn’t ship none ‘cause there was no way we could load ‘em to move ‘em.” “Uh-huh,” Ernie agreed. Did you live in a pretty part of the state?” “Every part of Texas is pretty. Ain’t an ugly spot in the entire state unless you’re talking about some of the people. “Funny thing,” observed Ernie. “The people who grow up in Texas can’t wait to get the hell out, but as soon as they move somewhere else they brag that there’s no finer place on earth to live. Hey, if you’re so high on Texas, why don’t you move back?” “Me move back? You think I’m crazy? No way am I gonna move back into them dang sandstorms. Talk about sandstorms, one year when we was living up on the plains southwest of Lubbock, I painted my barn all nice and red, and about the time I finished the job it blowed up a big sandstorm. The next morning it looked like the barn had been stuccoed. I painted it again right over the sand and all, and danged if it didn’t blow up another one even worse than the first. “The same thing happened fourteen times in fourteen days. Sand, grasshoppers, tumblebugs, lizards, and two horned toads was sticking to the west side of that barn. There was so many tumbleweeds stuck on the wall that the prairie chickens built nests in ‘em. The dirt had built up so thick that prairie dogs started digging holes in it. We growed a small ‘tater patch there., and we et small ‘taters for two months.”

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T h e Bi r d W at c h er Doug was a young fellow from Fort Worth. Ebullient, he exhibited a remarkable curiosity about almost everything he saw, especially the birds. He said he had recently taken up the hobby of bird watching and requested that we keep an eye out for kinds that he may never have seen before. We were at the dock and preparing to go aboard the boat. Otis stopped what he was doing. “Would you like to combine bird watching with your fishing?” he asked Doug. “Yeah, that would be great.” “Skinning two cats with one stone, eh? The best place to see birds is up river a few miles to Topock Marsh. Hold on a minute while I make a phone call.” After talking a minute on his cellular phone, he put it away. “An old friend of mine lives there, and he is in Alaska for a few days. His wife will let us use his boat for the day. The marsh is shallow and full of stick-ups, but it is loaded with bass. Let’s get in the car and drive up there.” “Sounds good to me.” “Yeah, we got some pretty strange birds around here,” Otis stated as he drove. “You have too, for that matter. Some people out here don’t believe me when I tell ‘em about the scissortails back in your part of Texas. I hated ‘em when I was a kid. The darn things kept snipping my kite strings. My mom used to make all our clothes, and she had one trained to cut the cloth for her. Worked out good,

124 ‘cept it had the bad habit of cutting things it wasn’t supposed to. That proved to be its undoing. One day my dad caught it cutting up his paper dolls and wrung its neck. “But I reckon you want to hear about the birds we have here along the river. There’s one kind you might be able to hear if you listen real close. It’s called the swamp mileormore. He’s a marsh bird with long legs and a long straight bill. His right side is a bright purple, and his left side is a dark black. The females lay cube shaped eggs.” “Really?” Doug asked innocently. “How big is it?” “Somewhere between the size of a sparrow and an ostrich. They vary.” “Why is it called a mileormore?” “That’s because he pokes his bill in the mud, whistles out of his ass, and you can hear him for a mile or more.” “Ah, come on, you guys,” Doug protested. “I’m serious.” “All right, boy. This is the honest truth. There is a kind of bird in this area that swivels his tail when he flies and guides himself with it. He turns it ninety degrees and uses it like a rudder.” Doug shrugged his shoulders. “I can see I’m not going to get much help from you guys. Guess I’m on my own.” A short time later he saw a boat-tailed grackle do exactly as Otis had described, and he became very excited. Knitting his brow in thought, he fell silent for a moment. Then his face brightened. “About those mileormores —“ The boat was ready to go when we arrived, and we began to see a great variety of birds immediately. Otis pointed out several.. Surprisingly knowledgeable, he delighted Doug with his serious dissertations. I kept waiting for another tall tale. It wasn’t long in coming. “The Navajos have some pretty weird ideas about birds and animals, many claiming to be able to communicate with them on a human level. Of course most of the stuff is superstition, but there is one strange story that many educated whites are convinced contains some truth. It has to do with the Gypsy bird.” “I never heard of Gypsy birds,” Doug said. “Are they for real?” “Not birds—bird. According to the legend, there is only one, and it is very old, maybe hundreds of years old. Of course that’s nonsense, but it’s possible that there really is a very strange bird something like the Indians describe.” Doug was all ears. “In what way is it strange?”

125 ple.” “They say it can predict the future and communicate it to peo-

“You’re kidding.” “Anyway, that’s the claim. Personally I reserve judgment, but I know a college professor who lived with a group of Navajos for several months, and he swore he had seen the bird and witnessed its supernatural powers.” Doug grinned. “Well, it does get hot in these parts, and I suppose the heat can affect even the brains of a college professor.” “Uh huh. I’d think the same thing if I hadn’t seen some of the predictions come true.” “Ah, yes,” Doug interjected, “I think I know the answer. It’s Poe’s raven. You ask it if something is going to happen, and it will croak, ‘Never more.’” “Hey, man,” Otis said with a chuckle, “you’re too sharp for me. Thanks for coming to my rescue. I was painting myself in a corner with this one.

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T h e Ol d Co w b o y Harley Milford and his wife Freida were waiting for us at Fort Noxious early one morning. Both were past middle age but eager as youngsters for the fishing adventure. Freida had never fished from a boat before. She had grown up in New Hampshire, and she told us that this was the first time she had ever been out of the state. When she learned that Otis was from Texas she began plying him with questions, much to his delight. Evidently she assumed that he had been a cowboy. “Tell us about your life out on the range,” she requested. “Did you roll your own cigarettes and croon to the longhorns?” “Yeah, every cowboy had to learn to roll ‘em while riding his pony before he could get a job; otherwise he would waste too much time. And we had to sing to the critters or they would stampede and run over a cliff and break their necks. One day I got caught in a bad sandstorm and got so much sand in my craw that I couldn’t sing for four days. All I could do was crodel a little.” “Crodel?” “That’s like half way between a croak and a yodel. Now longhorn steers, they hate crodeling, and shore ‘nuff that very night it blowed up a bad thunder storm, and the dang critters all got skeered and headed for a high cliff.” Frieda was enchanted. “Oh, my goodness! And you couldn’t calm them down by crooning to them. Did they all go over the cliff?” “Nope. I said they headed for a high cliff, and they had to stop when they got to the wall.” “Oh. Oh, yes of course. Did you always live on a cattle ranch?”

127 “Not always. I farmed some of the time, but I was born in a log cabin on a turkey ranch. That was my Oaken Turkey Home.” “Was your family well-to-do?” “You mean like sort of rich? Heck, no! We was so dang pore that all the houseflies deserted us. One kid at school went around bragging that he had counted nine flies that morning in their kitchen. I didn’t believe him ‘cause I didn’t think he could count that high. All we had to eat there for one stretch was corn meal and boiled tumbleweeds. Then one year things got bad.” “Really? What could possibly be worse than that?” “Well, Mom sent us kids out to see if we could find some locusts or grasshoppers to eat, you know, like John the Baptist, but all we could bring back was a couple of katydids. Ain’t much left to eat after you skin ‘em. It was the hot dry weather, though, that nearly done us in. It got so hot that our family would gather around the fireplace to keep cool. Don’t know how hot it got, but one of the neighbors swore he saw two imps from hell taking notes. It was so dry that our cows started giving powdered milk. Times like that, everything sort of gets out of whack. The ravens don’t rave, the roosters don’t crow, and the crows don’t roost. Things went downhill after that. We decided it was time to move when we would take a chew of tobacco and spit out dry snuff.” “Did you raise chickens on the farm?” “Oh, yeah, we raised a lot of chickens ‘cept for two years when the hens laid infernal eggs that wouldn’t hatch.” “Didn’t you have any cocks?” “You mean roosters? Sure, we had a lot of roosters, but there was this big old red rooster we called Mullah. He ruled the roost—and the roosters—and because of him the hens laid infernal eggs.” “Oh, I see. He kept all the hens for himself, and he was sterile.” “Wasn’t that. You see, ol’ Mullah was a strict moralist. He had his own code of ethicals, and he forced his morals on the whole flock. Every morning he would gather all the chickens around him, hop upon a tree stump, and start preaching. Leastwise I think he was preaching. I listened a few times, but the only thing I could understand was, ‘Cock-a-doodle-DON’T.’”

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T r u an t Of f i c er Harley was an experienced plastics worm fisherman, and Otis took us to a place where he had caught and released many large bass in the past. Harley kept his eyes glued to the line so that he could detect the slightest twitch. Of all the methods of bass fishing, this one demands the most intense attention and concentration. It paid off for Harley. Otis saw the line move also and moved in position to reach down and grasp the bass by the lower jaw. Soon a monster largemouth bass, gills flaring, lay belly up beside the boat. “Yippeee!” Harley shouted, excited as a teenager. He wanted no help from Otis. After boating the fish he said with obvious pride, “This hawg is going on the wall of my den.” Otis examined the trophy carefully. “Darn, Harley. What a shame.” “What are you talking about? What’s wrong?” “Too dang bad, Harley, but I’m afraid you’re gonna have to throw this sucker back.” “Throw it back? Like hell I’ll throw it back. I caught this baby fair and square and you’re telling me I can’t keep it?” “Golly-bum, Harley, I feel worse that you do. This bass may be a lake record, but rules is rules.” “What rules? I read the regulations, and there’s nothing that says I can’t keep a trophy of a lifetime.” “The new rule was passed too late to include with the printed regulations, but it says that certain fish out of a school must be released unharmed.” Obviously angry, Harley stormed, “Why in hell didn’t you tell me this before?”

129 “Never figgered I’d need to. The odds against catching this particular fish are maybe one in ten million. This bass is from a big school, and the badge identifies it as a truant officer, and if you don’t release it, the whole dang school will play hooky, and first thing you know the whole lake will be full of ignorant bass that can’t tell a fake lure from the real prey. If that ever happens the bass will become so easy to catch it won’t be sport anymore.”

130

T h e I n t er v i ew The young man, Fredrick Hollis, arrived promptly at the appointed time. He had made an appointment to interview Otis at his house, and Otis was expecting him. He was studying journalism and needed to practice. After the formalities, Fredrick began his questions. “Mr. Dixon,” he began. “Name’s Otis.” “As you wish. Otis, I hope you will bear with me. This is my very first attempt at an interview, and I’m a bit nervous.” “Hey, man, relax. I ain’t exactly a member of English royalty. Heck, I just barely know the Queen. Say whatever is on your mind. You can always clean it up later.” “Okay, fine. I’ll begin by asking you if you resent being referred to as ‘Wild Otis’.” “Well, I ain’t never beat nobody up for doing that. You’re safe.” “I understand you were born and reared in Texas. Is that correct?” “I’ve been accused of being hatched, but yeah, Texas has the honor of being my home state.” “My information has it that you were raised on a farm. What did you do for amusement?” “Reckon you could say I was sort of impish. My mom tells folks I was forever getting into devilment. She laughs at the stuff now, but it wasn’t funny to her when it happened. Like the time I used up all her pink nail polish. I admit it was mean of me, but the old sow and six of her pigs shore had pretty hooves.

131 “Another time I snuck into a neighbor’s barnyard and caught the dominant rooster. I painted him a different color and watched as he had to earn his place in the pecking order all over again. “We had a lot of red ant hills scattered around on the farm. Sometimes I would carry an ant from one hill and set it down in another. To a person all the red ants look exactly alike, but the ant would be attacked and killed almost as soon as it was placed in a strange colony. I’ve no idea how they know. Most of my pranks was pretty harmless. I never done things like tying the tails of cats and ‘possums together and slinging them over a clothesline. I didn’t consider myself cruel even if my little cousin Susan did that time I smeared sorghum molasses on her throat and submerged the end of her pigtail in shellac.” “What kind of pets did you have?” “Just the usual — rattlesnakes, skunks, tarantulas —stuff like that.” “Did you really make pets of them?” “Sure, but some of the critters was also useful. My dad liked his corn likker, and he always added a few drops of rattlesnake venom to it to give it more kick. He was unhappy with me that day he caught me adding a couple drops of skunk musk.” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “One older sister, Golldernya. Gollie turned out to be an old maid, and I reckon it was my fault. I had this pet skunk, Juicy Fruit, and every time one of her boyfriends came a-calling, I would let Juice run around in the living room where they was spooning on the couch. He never squirted any of them, but I had him trained to aim his rear end like he was going to, and that made them nervous. None ever called on her twice.” “How did you do in school? What was your favorite subject?” “I done pretty good, except my grammar wasn’t nothing to be proud of. I was good a math, though. One day my teacher asked the class how far a light year is, and I was the only one who could figure it out. I done it in my head in seconds. The teacher was astounded.” “That is pretty remarkable. How many miles did you come up with?” “I ain’t talking about miles. I gave the distance in millimeters.”

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PA RT 3
A sso r t ed St o r i es

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T h e Far m er I n T h e W el l Dr. Stephenson, acting coroner for Jones County, pulled the sheet back. “Roy,” he said, “there’s something pretty odd about this case. Take a look at that. Why would anyone want to shoot a man who had just suffered a hundred and eighty-one wasp stings? There’s enough venom in this body to kill a Jersey bull and a Clydsdale stud horse.” The sheriff looked at the corpse. “But I thought he was shot to death.” “Oh it was the bullet that killed him, all right, but not before the wasps got to him. Had he been dead when he was stung, the venom wouldn’t be in the blood. He must have been shot very soon after the insects did their number on him. I doubt any man could survive an hour with all those stings. Do you have any leads?” “No, but I do have a starting point. I think he was shot with an armor-piercing bullet probably fired from an old army rifle. The bullet didn’t expand at all but went clean through the body and kept on zinging out across the real estate. The odd thing is that the guy must have had both arms up, because the bullet entered his left armpit and exited the right without touching either arm.” “Hold up, you reckon?” “That’s what I figured at first, but I don’t know. I couldn’t see any powder burns, and why an army rifle? Robbers don’t ordinarily use rifles in a stickup. Maybe he got in an argument with some hotheaded farmer. The body was hauled in a wagon and dumped..” “Well, Roy, at least I have some information for you. Tom Hardin came in this morning and identified the body. The name is Clem Wessel. He worked for Tom for about a week. Tom said the

136 man showed up at his farm one morning and asked for a job. He never talked about himself. Never said where he was from or where he was going. Just wanted to work a while.” “On the run from the law.” “Maybe, but Tom says the guy was well mannered, polite and a good worker, although his hands showed he was a city dude. He didn’t mind getting dirty, but he always took a bath after work and kept his clothes pressed.” “Did Tom say anything about what the man did at night after work? Did he go out?” “I didn’t question him a lot, but Tom did say he stayed in his room every night. Apparently he didn’t know anybody here. So if you’re thinking he was fooling around with some farmer’s wife or daughter, you can pretty well discard that idea.” “Okay. Then somebody who didn’t like him must have been on his trail and caught up with him. I’ll talk to a few farmers and see if I can come up with something.” Today much of the area known as The Shinnery has been cleared and turned into farm land, but in the ‘twenties it consisted of hundreds of square miles of deep sand and dense small oak trees. Hardly anyone lived in the interior. The few who did usually had good reason. Mostly they were losers, society’s misfits, although some tried to make an honest living there. The land did grow good fruit, which was not much of a money crop in cotton country. Others resorted to bootlegging. Almost all the citizens of the small towns surrounding the area can relate horror tales about people becoming lost and going mad in that dismal place. A few abandoned old houses testify to shattered dreams of people who wanted to get away from it all. It was at such a lonely old house where the body had been found by two lads who were squirrel hunting. Sherifff Roy Telford and his deputy, Jack Sanford, had retrieved it from a dry cistern beside the house. Eli Barber, a farmer living near the edge of the shinnery, was a close friend of the sheriff. His farm was the closest place to the old house, and Roy decided to call on him first. As he pulled into the front yard and parked the Model T, Ol’ Jiggs, the mongrel, bounded out with a friendly bark. Roy petted him and scratched him behind the ears. Eli’s teenage daughter, Rachel, sat on the porch. The girl, somewhat mentally retarded, nevertheless possessed a body that was anything but ill developed, a fact the neighborhood boys had not overlooked. Her mother had died a few months previ-

137 ously, and she and old Eli lived alone. Eli had become a little overprotective of his only child. Ordinarily friendly and outgoing, she now appeared a little nervous and unsmiling at the sight of the sheriff, whom she always called “Uncle Roy.” He opened the gate and walked up to her. “Hi, honey,” he greeted. “Are you well? You look a little pale. What caused the spots on your face? You got the chickenpox?” “No, I was stung by —” “—a bee.” Eli finished her statement. “Hi, Roy. What got you out of bed before ten o’clock in the morning? You on the hot trail of a criminal, like maybe some evil candy thief?” “A little more serous this time, ol’ buddy. Thought maybe you could help me. I don’t have a heck of a lot to go on at this point.” “Well, thunderation, come on in — ‘less’n you’d rather stand out here and relieve Ol’ Jiggs of some of his fleas.” After they were inside and seated, Eli told Rachel to bring coffee. “Now, Roy, what’s this all about?” “You mean you haven’t heard? Heck, I figured just about everybody within a hundred miles of Anson had heard about the body the Wheatley boys discovered out at the old Gorman place.” “That so? And you ain’t got a clue as to who done it?” “Done what? I just said a body was found.” Eli flushed. “Well, shucks —” “Never mind. No, I don’t have anything much. Thought maybe you had seen or heard something out of the ordinary.” “Like what? You ain’t told me how the feller met his end.” “Did I say it was a man?” Eli frowned. “You playing games with me, Roy? Jis’ get on with it.” “Sorry. Yeah, it’s a man’s body, and he was shot.” “So you’re asking me if I heard a gunshot?” “That or the rumble of a wagon, or anything that might have caught your attention.” “Nope. Never heard nothin’ of the kind. Sorry I can’t be more help.” “All right. How did Rachel get the bee stings? Did she stumble over a beehive?” “No. The other day we was on our way back from town, and this dern bee got in the car and popped her four times before I could stop and kill the blame thing.” “Wait a minute here. You’re sure it wasn’t a wasp?” “I said it was a bee, and I reckon I can tell a bee from a wasp.”

138 “Hey, you don’t have to get testy about it. But, Eli, don’t you know a bee can sting only once? When a bee stings, the stinger pulls out, and the bee dies. You didn’t know that?” “Uh, well maybe it was a wasp.” “Uh huh. Eli, do you still have that old army rifle you brought back from Germany?” “Gosh, Roy, I ain’t seen that dern thing in years, but I reckon it’s still around here somewheres. Why do you ask?” “But, Papa,” Rachel interjected, “you cleaned it just yesterday.” Then realizing her boo boo, she clapped her hand over her mouth and ran from the room. Sick at heart, Roy pressed his old friend. “Eli, how long have we known each other?” Obviously glad to get away from any discussion of wasps, his face brightened. “A long time. Ever since we started to school together at Harmony. You remember that time —“ The sheriff cut him short. “Eli, in all that time I’ve never known you to lie before. Tell me about Clem Wessel. Did you know him? Why did you shoot him?? The old farmer’s face turned beet red, then ashen. Tears welled in his eyes, and he pulled a huge red bandanna from his back pocket and honked loudly into it. “Honest, Roy, I was gonna go get you and tell you how it happened, but then I started thinking about Rachel. If I was sent to the pen, what would become of her? Who would take care of her? As you know, we ain’t got no kinfolks, and I couldn’t bear the thought of her living with strangers who might not love her and take proper care of her. Rachel needs me.” “Go on. What happened?” “I didn’t mean to shoot him. Just wanted to scare the tar out of him.” “And?” “It happened this way. The other day I hitched my team of mules to the wagon and went to the field to head maize. I took the rifle along to see if I could get that dern fox that’s been making off with my hens. He always before stayed just out of range of my shotgun. Them suckers seem to know how far a shotgun will shoot, but I was gonna fool him. “It was a hot day, and Rachel brought me some cold lemonade. On her way back to the house as she got to the fence by the cow pasture, this feller stepped out from among the mesquite trees and started for her. I seen him grab her and throw his coat over her

139 head. She broke away and started to run with this man right in after her. Without even thinking, I grabbed the rifle and throwed a shot his way. Then I seen him fall. He was dead when I got to him. I told Rachel to go on home and go to bed and not talk to nobody until I decided what to do. “Like I told you, my first thought was to go get you. Instead, I got a tarp and wrapped the body in it. I hefted it into the wagon with the intention of taking it way into the shinnery and bury it, hoping it would never be found. I was crazy sick with worry and couldn’t think worth a dern. So when I got to the old Gorman house and saw the cistern, I dumped it in and went back home to take care of Rachel. I jist didn’t know what else to do.” “All right, Eli. I understand. But Eli, I’ve got this feeling that you’re not telling me the whole story. Are you holding something back? What about those wasp stings on Rachel’s face?? Eli’s lips began to tremble and his whole body shook with sobs. At last he got control of himself. “I don’t like to tell you this, but I guess you got to know all the details. I didn’t know this until Rachel told me later. “When she left me and got to the lane by the pasture, she seen something shiny like a piece of blue glass and went over to pick it up. She didn’t see the big ol’ wasp nest hanging from a low mesquite limb and bumped right into it. When the wasps started stinging her face, she screamed. That’s when I looked up from about a hundred yards away and seen this feller running toward her. He seen what was happening and took off his coat and throwed it over her head and told her to run. “Of course by that time the wasps was all over him. That’s the whole story, Roy, and now I’ll have to live the rest of my life knowing I killed a good man who was jist trying to save my little girl.”

140

T h e Or p h an s The Sunnyside Orphanage in Waco had a reputation to match its name. It really was a pleasant place, the staff being cheerful, dedicated people, and the children in general were happy. Ronnie quickly won the hearts of all the staff members after being admitted the day he was born. All knew how he came to be there. He had been left on the doorstep of the chief of police only hours after his birth, and after the officer had him checked at the children’s hospital, he had taken him to the orphanage. “Well, now, so ye’re the foundlin’ what was left on me brother’s doorstep, are ye?” cooed Maggie. “Welcome to the world, me darlin’.” Maggie, the buxom matron, loved all the children in her charge as if they were her own flesh and blood and never failed to weep for days after one of them was adopted and taken away. Little did she realize that a very exceptional child was put in her charge that day. She was surprised and immensely pleased when, in less than two weeks, she noticed Ronnie’s bright blue eyes following her movements, and she was overjoyed when he smiled up at her a few days later. It had been a genuine smile, not the gas pain false smile that often fools parents of babies so young. If she was surprised at his first smile, she was astounded when he spoke his firs word. She almost dropped the formula bottle when he spoke her name at the age of three months. Before he was six months old he could complete whole sentences and carry on simple conversations. At age two he was reading children’s books, and be-

141 fore his fifth birthday, he was reading everything he could get his hands on. His favorite books when he was six were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He liked Tom’s style and the way he could dramatize that which to most kids would be just ordinary. Ronnie’s keen intelligence quickly established him as the undisputed leader of the other children in the home, and they always looked to him to settle their disputes. One day when he was ten years old, two children about his own age, a boy and a girl, unrelated, were admitted. Billy was a stocky pug nosed, freckle faced boy and somewhat of a bully. RosaLee was bucktoothed and “ugly” as some of the kids put it. Children can be rather cruel among themselves, and Billy, much to the amusement of the other boys and girls, began teasing her and making fun of her. She began to cry. Ronnie, who had been inside, stepped outside at that point and joined the group. When he saw what was happening he went over to Rosie and gave her his handkerchief to dry her eyes. “Hi,” he said with a smile. “I’m Ronnie. Don’t pay any attention to them. Once they get to know you, they will like you, and you will all be friends. I’ve got some money. Would you like an ice cream cone at the drugstore?” All the other girls vied for his attention, and when Ronnie came to Rosie’s defense and offered to buy her a treat, their attitude toward her changed abruptly. Billy, who had enjoyed the limelight briefly, was not about to be upstaged meekly. Walking up to Ronnie, he rolled up his right sleeve and flexed his bicep. “I can lick you. You wanna fight?” “No, I don’t want to fight,” Ronnie calmly replied. “Let’s you and I go over and have a conference.” “Have a what?” “A talk. I want to tell you something.” “What you wanna talk about?” “Come on over by that tree. I want to talk to you privately. I mean I don’t want the other kids to hear us.” He placed an arm

142 around Billy’s shoulder, and when they were out of earshot of the others, he said, “What would you do if you had a little sister here, and the kids started making fun of her?” Billy thought that over for a few seconds. “I’d beat the snot out of ‘em!” “Okay, Billy, from now on you and I are brothers, and Rosie is our little sister, and nobody is ever going to make her cry again.” The last part of the statement he said emphatically. Billy, sensing Ronnie’s superiority, was glad for the opportunity to transfer his guilt to the other kids. “Yeah, by gosh, if them mean kids ever poke fun at her again, they’re gonna get it!” Shaking hands, they solemly swore by the ears of the great horned owl that they would remain brothers forever. Thereafter they were inseparable companions. They were always partners when playing games with the other children, and often they would go off together to share their chimerical fantasies. Neither knew who his parents were, but they would pretend that they were actually blood brothers and their father a stunt flier. Sometimes it would be Charles Lindberg, other times purely a figment of their imaginations, but always a super pilot who would sneak in with his airplane to take them for a spin among the clouds. There was a wheelbarrow at the orphanage, and one day they took it from the tool shed to give each of the girls a ride. Placing a board across a puddle of muddy water, they pretended it was the London Bridge. Of course the inevitable happened. Billy spilled one of the girls into the puddle. Ronnie hosed her off, and they walked her around until she dried out, but someone snitched, and the boys went to bed that night without supper. The incident remained a joke among the kids and adults alike. Another time just the two of them were walking home from a movie. It was late afternoon, and the street was devoid of traffic. A new Model A Ford roadster pulled up beside them and stopped. The driver, a beautiful young woman who was alone, got out. Ronnie noted her expensive looking clothes and the delicate perfume. Ob-

143 viously she had good taste. Ignoring Billy, she walked up to Ronnie. “Are you Ronald Smith?” “Yes, Ma’am.” Without another word she gently placed her arms around him and with a little sob, kissed him tenderly full on the lips. After a long embrace, her wet cheek against his, she got back into the car and drove away. Momentarily stupified, Ronnie wiped his cheek and stood gaping as the car drove out of sight. “Who the heck was that?” Billy asked. “I don’t know,” Ronnie replied, still gazing down the empty street, “but my guess is that she is my mother. That must have been her way of telling me something that she couldn’t put into words. Some day I will find her. I wish I had noted the license plate number.” “But how come she waited so long? And why didn’t she just come right and say she was your mom?” “I don’t know that, either, but I will find out and learn who I am. The sob and the tears tell me that she was forced to give me up but that she never stopped loving me. “Bill, let’s not tell anyone about this. It will be our secret, just between you and me.” The boys could hardly talk of anything else for weeks thereafter. Their curiosity about their parents became more intense, and they made a pact that each would help the other locate his parents after they became old enough to leave Sunnyside. They left the orphanage much sooner than either had anticipated. A childless couple, a Doctor Pritchard and his wife adopted Ronnie, at age eight. The next day Billy ran off on his own. Evidently he changed his name and was clever enough to avoid being found by the authorities. Ronnie’s name was changed to Pritchard, and the boys lost track of each other. Ronnie, like his foster father, became a doctor and quickly established his own practice. Soon he became financially well off. Although one of the most sought after bachelors in Waco, he was still unwed at the age of thirty.

144 As he entered his office one day, his receptionist said, “Doctor, there is a woman in the waiting room who wants to see you. She declined to give her name, but said the visit was of a personal nature. Do you wish to see her?” “How old a woman, Marcia?” “Fiftyish, I’d say. Possibly a little older.” “She wouldn’t tell you what she wanted to talk about?” “No, only that it was very personal.” “Send her into the conference room. I’ll see her there.” Ronnie recognized the woman immediately as she entered. He stood and extended both hands. “Hello, Mother.” Stunned, the lady finally regained her composure. “How did you know?” After a long emotional embrace he said, “I remember that day you stopped and kissed me. I knew then that you were my mother, and I’ve been trying in vain ever since to find you.” “I was forbidden to contact you. I took a chance of being arrested that day. Do you want to know why I had to give you up?” “I’ll bet I can guess. You were an unwed pregnant girl, and your parents were outraged.” “Not only my parents, but the entire community. The situation became unbearable, and when I was eight months along, I left home to face a hostile and unforgiving world alone. “At the tender age of sixteen I had the misfortune to fall in love with a married man, a scientist I worked for. He was a genius but thoroughly immoral. When I told him I was pregnant, he would have nothing further to do with me and threatened to kill me if I disclosed his infidelity. Of course our affair was secret, and as far as I know, no one ever found out that he was involved with an under age girl. He could have received a stiff sentence and probably would have been divorced.” “What happened after you left home?” “We lived in a small town where everyone knew everything that was going on, and I decided to get myself lost in a city. That’s how I came to be in Waco when the time came for you to be born. A

145 kindly elderly lady who lived alone took me in. She is the one who left you at the doorstep of the chief of police. After you were born I went to Dallas and worked at various jobs, barely making a living. No way could I have supported you even if I could have persuaded the authorities to let you be released to me. Eventually I got a good job, but I was deemed an unfit mother. “After that one time you and I met, I returned to Dallas and more or less became reconciled to the fact that I would never have you as my own. After you were adopted, I stayed away because, well, to be frank, I didn’t want to disgrace you by allowing your foster parents and your friends to know what kind of mother you had. I shall leave now, and no one ever need know who was here.” “You will do no such thing. All my life I’ve dreamed of this day. For the first time I feel complete. By the way, are you married now?” “Not at present. I’ve gone through two marriages and two divorces.” “No other children?” “None. I really ought to leave. I don’t want to complicate your life.” “You are my mother. Oh, by the way, I don’t even know your name, or my own for that matter. Who am I?” “Let’s just leave things as they are for now. Later, when you have had a chance to think this over carefully and you still want me in your life, we can take it from there.” “I don’t have to think it over. I know what I want, and that includes you. I suppose you will have to get all your business taken care of, but then I want you right here in Waco. In the meantime, I have an obligation to an old friend. Do you remember that little boy who was with me that day? His name is Billy, or was then. I don’t know where he is now or anything about him, but we made a solemn pact that we would help each other locate our parents. I think it’s high time I kept my end of the agreement. I intend to turn my practice over to a doctor friend while I take a long sabbatical. When I return we will see about getting you settled here. In the meantime,

146 I want you to meet my wonderful folks. This has been a red letter day for me.” **** Over the years Ronnie had made halfhearted attempts at locating Billy. He had hired a private detective who had given him some leads, but none had been solid enough for him to act on them. However, the last one had seemed promising. The private eye had heard of a man who would be about Billy’s age now. The man, still unidentified, had been an orphan at Sunnyside. It was only a rumor, and no one actually seemed to know the man. Still, it was the best lead so far. Having made arrangements with his doctor friend, Ronnie left in his quest to find Billy. He had small hopes of actually locating Billy’s mother, but it would be nice to see again his childhood pal. He took a bus to Abilene and hired a man to drive him to Anson, the little farm town where Billy might be living. There was still a lot of Tom Sawyer left in Ronnie, and he wanted to dramatize the meeting if and when it ever took place. He did not reveal his identity. Instead he took a job at a “filling station” pumping gasoline and changing tires, keeping his eyes and ears open as he chatted with the customers. After about a week of the dirty work, he began to look the part of a regular laborer. Then one day a man told him about a farmer who just might be Billy. Without revealing his purpose he contacted the man and went to work for him. It turned out to be a false lead. The man had been an orphan but had not lived at Sunnyside. However, he did know about another man in the area who he thought had lived at the orphanage. Ronnie obtained the information in subtle ways without giving any hint of his mission. This had to be Billy. He began to go over in his mind again how he would approach the man and how he would drop hints until Billy caught on. He would pretend to be looking for work, and if he were hired he would take his sweet time about things. First he would establish for certain that the man had actually lived at Sunnyside. That settled,

147 he would say something like, “Have you dumped any little girls in mudpuddles lately?” That should do it. Walking, he neared the farm, and his heart began beating fast in excitement. He would knock on the door and if the lady of the house answered the knock, he would find out where her husband was working. No doubt he would be in a field somewhere. When he found him he would say, “Howdy. Are you Eli Barber? I’m looking for a job. My name is Clem Wessel.”

148

H i s La st Jo k e

To him the fact that dangerous criminals were taken out of circulation by his work meant little. The love of the chase was everything, and once he nailed them he lost all interest. Crime detection, the solving of mysteries, piecing together obscure clues and coming up with the correct answers seemed to be his only excuse for living. His idea of relaxation and amusement when he was not on an actual case was to fabricate a mystery in his own fertile imagination and feed me subtle clues until either I gave up, which usually was the case, or the answer became so obvious that even a reasonably bright moron could have caught it. Therefore I was not surprised that my partner, Pat Brooks, instead of writing the name of his killer in the dirt where he fell, chose to scratch out a clue as his life slowly oozed out the gaping knife wound in his back and only a half inch from his heart. I can just see the devilish smirk on his face as he scrawled the words on the ground. That’s the kind of guy he was. His casual approach to life always did amaze me. I remember one night when we were in a life-or-death situation, and I was scared out of my wits. His quips were as light and nonchalant as if we had been sitting in my boat on Lake Casitas and fishing for bass. There was not a vain molecule in Pat’s body. A lot of people will claw, trample, and climb over their fellow workers to get to the top, but he cared not the least bit for personal recognition. Lieutenant Berk usually got the credit for solving the tough cases, and that was fine with Pat. He appeared to me to be perfectly content with his low profile. “Jerome”, he would say to me, “when a cop starts

149 craving fame, he is on a down hill slide. He will have his priorities all wrong.” Funny, he always called me “Jerome”, never “Jerry”. We were patrolling on Alameda Street in south Los Angeles that foggy night when we thought we say a flash of light among the junk cars in a wrecking yard. It was well past midnight, and the yard long since had closed. I slowed the patrol car, and Pat kept his eyes on the area, but the flash was not repeated. Streetlight illuminated the intersections, but out in the midst of the acres of wrecked cars it was as black as a Halloween tomcat in a coal bin. “Drive on past for about a block and let me out,” he instructed. After I stopped he told me to stay with the car while he went back to investigate. I was to bring the car back around and pick him up when he gave me the sign with his flashlight. “Ten to one it will turn out to be a kid whose old man won’t give him the money to buy a part for his dunebuggy.” Then he disappeared into fog. I expected him to come back to the street before beaming the signal, but it came from well inside the yard, three quick flashes. That meant an emergency. Hurriedly I turned down the side street bordering the yard, shining the spotlight along the chainlink fence as I drove. I stopped when I saw the hole in the fence that someone had cut. Pat’s flashlight was still on, and it served as a beacon as I picked my way around rusted metal corpses. I remembered having seen a pair of headlights come on and a car drive away just as I had turned off Alameda and onto the side street, but it had been much too dark for me to make out anything about the vehicle. Evidently the suspect had eluded Pat. My first thought when I saw him lying face down beside a wrecked late model VW was that probably he had been knocked out by a clout on the head, but then I remembered that he had given a signal with the flashlight, a thing which surely he would not have done before he had his man in cuffs. My next thought was that a second person had sneaked up behind him while he was occupied with the first, but I knew that he was far too experienced to let that happen, and a great fear seized me as I approached. The bloody shirt confirmed my fears. I checked for pulse. He was dead, no doubt ambushed from behind. I was almost certain that the killer had driven away in the car I had seen. Pat had remained conscious long enough to scratch these words in the dirt: METEOR BACKWARD—YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.

150 He must have managed to get a glimpse of the assailant before collapsing, and I felt sure Pat had recognized him and that the words in the dirt were a clue to the murderer’s identity. Yes, that would be just like my partner—playing the game to the very end. Before calling 911 I carefully erased the words, knowing they were meant for me and no one else. Well, at least I would be spared the task of breaking the awful news to a widow or close relatives. The only kin he had ever mentioned was a half brother living somewhere back east, and they never kept in touch. I was so shaken that I took a couple of days off. I tried a little bass fishing, but my heart just wasn’t in it. All I could think of was METEOR BACKWARD. I tried ROETEM, but I knew that would not be the killer’s name. That would have been too easy. Darn him and his little games, anyway! I never did like them, and this one I especially did not relish. A meteor, I knew, is a piece of space debris which has come within the gravitational pull of the earth and burns from friction as it falls through the air. If it doesn’t burn up entirely and hits the ground it becomes a meteorite. But had Pat known the difference? Suppose I spent days racking my brain think about a shooting star, when what he had meant was a piece of charred rock lying somewhere out in the desert? But he was no dummy. I would have to assume that he meant exactly what he had scrawled in the dirt. Did he mean the word spelled backward, or was I to visualize a meteor whizzing through the air in reverse? One could never tell about that guy. One thing, though, I was sure about—I certainly was on my own. We had been partners for three years and had become close friends almost from the start. We were pretty much alike in our basic philosophies, but other than that, all was contrast between us, he tall, olive complexioned, black haired, brown eyed, and handsome enough to be the leading man in a high class moving picture. I’m short, pudgy, light skinned, mousy haired, washed out blue eyed, and I don’t even come close to being good looking. His voice was deep, resonant, well modulated, while mine is rather highpitched, a strident wheezy squeak. He was of the type who makes friends quickly and easily, but it usually takes people a while to make up their minds about me. The chief difference, though, and the one of which I’m so conscious, was his keen analytical mind and quick wit. I know for a fact that Pat could have advanced to the top in the department had he so chosen. I like to flatter myself that he did

151 not want to leave me behind, but deep down I know he merely wanted to avoid the limelight and keep doing what he loved most. He was not a desk and paper man. He was perfectly content with his station in life, and our superiors were more than happy to turn him loose on difficult cases and take all the credit after he solved them. Now there was no one to feed me additional clues, and it waa up to me to think or thwim, as the saying goes. I told no one about the clue which he had left, and while the other homicide detectives were busy with the conventional routine investigation, I set about endeavoring to whip my balky brain into some semblance of composed orderly activity. I reasoned that since Pat evidently had recognized his killer, I must know him also. No doubt it was someone who had had a brush with the law before, but for the life of me, I could not connect any of them with the word METEOR. I pored over the records of recent arrests, beginning with petty thefts. Then it occurred to me that a small time thief would not resort to murder, especially of a policeman. All these punks know they can get out of jail so quickly that the jailor hardly has time to lock the cell door. No, the villian who stabbed my partner surely was playing for much higher stakes than stealing a used part from a junkyard. Norcotics. That had to be it. But it didn’t make much sense to suppose that drug dealers would use a wrecking yard for their place of contact. Almost any other place would have been more convenient and far less risky. There must have been something special about that particular Volkswagen. I decided it was time to pay another visit to that wrecking yard, only this time by day during business hours. “What’s with you cops, anyway?” the owner asked with no attempt to conceal his peevishness. “You guys keep secrets from each other? I wasted a whole hour the other day answering the same questions you’re asking. Why don’t you go talk to Fatso? I told him all I know, and he took notes.” I mumbled a sort of apology and left. “Fatso” was Lieutenant Berk. “Well, hello there, fisherman,” he ribbed me as I walked into his office. “What’s your excuse for getting skunked this time? Did the bass have lockjaw again, or were they out hiding behind an oak tree?” Then seeing that I was in no mood for banter, he grew serious. “We got ‘im, Jerry. Got the bastard dead to rights. That new VW was wrecked down in Baja and towed all the way back up here. Nearly a half million bucks of uncut heroin in the tires, all packaged

152 up nice and neat. We also got a signed murder confession, not that we really needed it. The guy left his prints all over the bug, and we got the murder weapon. I’ll give the jerk a little credit though. He was smart enough to know his best bet was to come clean and hope for leniency from a judge and jury. He can afford the best lawyer in the world. I held my breath as I asked who it was. “Young punk you and Pat arrested one time and had to release for lack of sufficient evidence. Name is Wayne John.” It took a few seconds to sink in. METEOR, a shooting star. Say Wayne John backward, and you have the greatest shooting star of them all.

153

T h e T r ee Cr ad l e "If this tale seems totally unbelievable, let me remind you that we live in an age when many things we take for granted now were never even imagined a few hundred years ago. For example, if someone in the seventeenth century had theorized about DNA, the genetic blueprints of every living thing, he would have been in danger of being burned at the stake. The huge old tree had created its own clearing by poisoning all other growth surrounding it. No one knew what kind of tree it was. Maybe there was none other like it in the entire world. Be that as it may, it was unique in another way, having four branches that spread out from the trunk about ten feet up and forming a kind of basin and cradle large enough for two people to lie in it. Tom Patton and Ellen Gainey had spent many hours doing just that. I met Tom last year when I went to Virginia to visit my grandparents, who owned the farm on which the tree grew. Tom told me this strange love story one day when I saw him at that tree. I was wandering alone in the woods, and we just happened to arrive there about the same time. This is his story as he told it to me. I met Ellen for the first time right here about twenty years ago. I was an avid bird watcher and photographer. She was up in that cradle and singing, unaware of my presence as I walked up. Never was there a bird as beautiful as Ellen, nor could any bird sing the way she did. However, I listened to her lovely voice perhaps an hour before I caught sight of her. I have the unusual ability to mimic the sounds and songs of birds, including canaries and mockingbirds. After listening to her sing a while I began to accompany her with bird songs, harmonizing with her notes. It didn't take her long to realize something odd was going on. Lying in the tree cradle she had to sit up in order to view her surroundings. I hid behind a tree at the edge of the clearing and kept quiet as she looked around. When she lay back down and re-

154 sumed her singing, I resumed my bird songs. Every time she would pause I would do the same. I kept up this little game until she called out, "Who's out there?" I came forward and we began to talk. I knew almost at once that we were meant for each other, and she knew it also. We met secretly at the tree every day for a week after that. We wanted to marry, but there was a hitch. Her parents were members of a religious sect that condemned all other religions and denominations. She told me that if they ever learned that she was seeing an "outsider" they would put a stop to the romance. Although outwardly she obeyed her folks, inwardly she was somewhat a rebel, and we agreed to elope. It took her father less than a week to find us and have the marriage annulled, for she was only seventeen. I was nineteen, and had I been two years older I'm sure I would have been charged with statutory rape and sent to prison. As it was, we were forbidden to see each other. Her parents selected a "suitable" young man for her and arranged a wedding. This I learned from friends. On the eve of the wedding, Ellen disappeared, and the whole community was in an uproar. Naturally, I was suspected, and the sheriff paid me a call. Fortunately, I had witnesses who convinced all concerned that I had nothing to do with her disappearance. Apparently Ellen and I were the only two people who knew about the tree cradle and our trysts there. The search eventually was called off, it being assumed that Ellen had left the area. I had a different idea. When I deemed it safe, I sneaked back to the tree, dreading what I thought I would find. Her clothes were there in the cradle, but her body was not. An odd thing about the clothes was that they were lying as though she had evaporated from them. They were not torn or in disarray. I told no one. The mystery was never solved, and eventually I came back home to California, where during the next twenty years, I went through three marriages and divorces. It was unfair to those women, but my heart was not with any of them. That little love nest in this tree was ever on my mind. At last I had to come back here to it. That’s the story except for the strange ending. As Tom Patton finished his story, suddenly he held up his hand, a signal for silence. “She's singing and calling me!' he exclaimed. 'Don't you hear her?” Naturally, I thought the guy had lost his mind, or that perhaps he had been on dope of some kind. “Please leave now,” he said to me. “I must go up there to her.” Of course I departed, sure he would snap out of it after a while. I was wrong.

155 A few days later, out of curiosity, I went back to take a look. Tom's clothes were lying undisturbed in the cradle, but he was nowhere to be found. I have no way of knowing for certain, but I don't think the bodies of the lovers evaporated. I think somehow they are in that strange tree."

156

Li ’ l A d am

"These burros are wild and are led by an old jack that must have been domesticated at one time. All the others are wary of people, but he comes right up to the car and pokes his head into the open window to be fed a morsel. We gave him an apple; then I got out and petted him." Don Beckman, red bearded and with the physique of a Sumo wrestler, clicked to another slide. "That guy sunning himself on the rock is a chuckwalla, an iguanid lizard of arid parts of the southwestern United States and Mexico. He is a vegetarian and feeds on desert plants." (Click) "I was lucky to get this one. This old coyote—" "Hold it a minute, Don. Let's see that last slide again." Phil Meehan, tall and slender but muscular with jaws that seemed to be designed for biting through stainless steel, was one of a half dozen guests, friends of Don, who were viewing slides of desert wildlife. Don obliged him. "What's that just above and a little to the left of the lizard?" "You see something unusual?" "I'm not sure. It's way out of focus and partially concealed among the rocks by brush, but it sure looks like a human face." "A skull? I don't see it." "Not a skull. Look about fifteen feet beyond the chuckwalla just to the left of the black rock." "I still don't – Oh, yeah, now I do. By damn, it does look like a man with the eyes of a lemur. But it's so tiny—way too small to be human."

157 Loretta, Phil's wife, became excited. "There is a legend among the Navajo of a diminutive people who live underground and are very rarely seen. Of course no one took the Indians seriously. Almost every tribe of the, shall we say, less advanced people of the world has its own legend of shadowy humanoid beings. There is the Abominable Snowman or yeti of the Himalayas and Sasquatch or Bigfoot in our own country. The Irish have their leprechauns, but that probably should be assigned to the fairy category, which no one takes seriously. "Not all people, though, discount as nonsense the other legends. As a matter of fact, Professor Walcott of the University of Idaho has conducted a ten-year study of the legends of primitive people and claims that most of them have a basis in fact. For centuries the civilized world did not believe reports concerning Pygmies in Africa. "The professor and his colleagues have traveled the world and have amassed reams of convincing evidence supporting claims of these strange elusive creatures, although he doubts that any of them have survived to the present time." Don grinned. "Do you believe him?" "I don't know what to believe, but when I read the article I was half convinced. A lot of intelligent folk still believe the remains of Noah's ark lie atop Mount Ararat in Turkey." "Sure, and some people have been taken aboard UFO's." Phil came to the defense of his wife. "I don't claim to be exceptionally smart or to have any inside dope on this stuff, but I do believe there is a hell of a lot of things we still don't know about this old world and its inhabitants. I don't know of any scientist who denies there are strange phenomena no one has been able to explain. Charles A. Lindbergh, who was no superstitious bumpkin, claimed that spirits entered his plane and talked to him during his famous solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927." "True," Don agreed, "but remember, Lindbergh was fighting to stay awake. The mind can play tricks when you're in the first stages of slumber. A truck driver friend told me a patrolman stopped him one day after he had been driving hours on end and asked why he had pulled over into the left lane. When my friend explained that he had gone around a slow rig, the cop told him he had been dreaming, that there was no other truck within miles." "Okay, okay," Loretta said. "What about this picture? Is that a dream? And while we're on the subject, you might consider this: Ivan Sanderson, in his book of Great Jungles, asserts that a scientist

158 trained in Europe may think what native hunters in rain forests describe is utterly impossible, but he often finds that they speak the truth. "Such is the case of the didis or dee-dees in Surinam as reported and described by Sir Walter Raliegh in 1595. According to him they are elusive, hairy men of the deep jungle and feared by the natives. "In 1769 an English botanist, who was a friend of Benjamin Franklin in Paris, also brought back an account of the dide. A British magistrate saw two of them in 1910. "Sanderson goes on to name many other bands of jungle inhabitants, some large, some diminutive, in the various jungles of the world. These generally unknown hairy man-like creatures are described as very elusive and walk upright. They certainly are not apes. The actual existence of some of them has been established only recently." Doris, Don's wife, shrugged. "So what? The American deserts are not exactly steaming jungles in which a whole herd of elephants can hide." "True, but who can say that in all that vast unhabited expanse there are not creatures totally unknown to civilized man?" Don apologized. "Sorry, Loretta. We don't mean to be argumentative. I don't know what to make of this. The picture is fuzzy, but one thing's for sure – those eyes belong to a living creature. And it's no animal I have ever seen, although I thought I'd photographed just about every kind of beastie in North America." "Do you think you could locate that exact spot if you and I should go back out there?" Phil asked. "I think so. The tire tracks of my Bronco will be easy to follow unless it has rained hard there. The area is subject to local flash floods, but, yeah, I'm sure we can find the place." Doris, began to laugh. "Let's all promise not to tell anyone about this. I don't want some clown coming up to me and saying, 'How is the boys’ search for Littlefoot coming along?'" The day, what remained of it, was still hot and the primitive campground deserted. The two instant anthropologists decided to make camp and await the morrow to begin their search. Don had a vague idea of the location and thought it would be better to arrive at the general area where he had taken the picture at about the same time of day, when the shadows would be the same. They pitched the small tent and ate a cold supper. Because lingering heat made the tent too uncomfortable for sleep, they sat

159 on folding chairs outside until almost midnight and looked at the stars, watched for orbiting man-made satellites, and speculated upon what they might discover the following morning. "You know," Don ventured, "I can't help feeling a little silly about this. I'm not so sure that the face was anything other than markings on a rock. Maybe some artist decided to get in a little practice." "Flat paintings don't cast shadows," Phil pointed out. "The thing is alive and might be prowling around out there at this very minute. The large eyes belong to a nocturnal creature." Phil, an experienced hunter, had spent many years observing animals. "You don't believe that Navajo nonsense about furtive little people who dwell under ground?" "Hell no, but it's possible that we might discover a rare animal, maybe one no civilized man has ever seen. That face, though, has me baffled. It's just too darn human. I got the eerie feeling when I studied the picture that intelligence was behind those eyes." "What will we do if we see it? Try to capture it?" "If we see it, you try to get a good picture. I don't want to take a chance of injuring it. If it is a burrowing animal, maybe we'll try to dig it out to get a real good look at it, but I'm not counting on having that kind of luck. We'll be fortunate if we locate tracks and other sign that might tell us something about it." The morning dawned clear and cool. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs and hot coffee, the men broke camp and set out to look for a creature they jokingly dubbed "Li'l Adam". "About sun-up would be a good time to begin our search in earnest," Don said. "The sun had been up about half an hour when I snapped the picture last week. The shadows should be about the same. A place can look different at different times of the day. Also the chance of seeing the creature diminishes as the day advances." The terrain was rough but firm. The four-wheel-drive was not likely to become mired in loose dirt. The tracks made earlier were easy to follow, but there were miles of them, and Don saw no point in following all the twists and turns. He thought it better to cut across and try to pick them up again near the place where the picture had been taken. In a sandy dry wash they saw animal tracks and stopped to examine them. "Bobcat," Phil announced. "These feathers tell me he breakfasted on a quail. This wash is a highway for coyotes, too. Hey, Don! Take a look at this. Holy sox! I don't believe this."

160 Don looked at where Phil pointed. "Human footprints. Or are they? Too small for a kid old enough to mess around out here. No shoes. And no adult prints — unless the thing that made them is an adult." The tracks under scrutiny had been made in the moist sand where a burro had urinated and were sharp in outline. There was no mistaking the shape. The two men stood looking at each other and felt shivers race through their bodies. Maybe they themselves were being observed by eyes too big for a normal human. They followed the tracks up the wash. "The being that made these prints walked on two legs," Phil stated. "I'd guess it is less than three feet tall. As you can see, the tracks are hardly more that a foot apart. I think it was following the bobcat." "Or vice versa." "No, he stepped on the cat's tracks. What's that up ahead? Looks like blood on the sand. It is. This is where the cat thrashed about in its death throes." "How do you know it was the bobcat?" "Simple. Only one set of footprints lead up out of the wash, and they were not made by a cat." Phil raced up the bank of the shallow wash and looked about. "We might as well go back to the car," he said when he returned. "The ground is far too hard and rocky to leave any more prints, and our little man is too shrewd to stay out in the open." "You're ready to concede that this — this thing is human?" "Did you ever know an animal to shoot a bow and arrow?" Phil showed him a tiny broken arrow shaft with the feathers still intact. "That means they are hunters, assuming there are more than one." They drove for another fifteen minutes, cutting back and forth looking for tire tracks. "Over there." Phil pointed to the left. "I think we're getting close," Don said after driving another hundred yards. "The terrain looks right. Yeah, this is it. I stood right here and shot the picture of the chuckwalla sunning itself on that rock." Then he added significantly, "and I don't see any painting of a face on the rock above it or anything else that looks like a face." They walked over to take a look. "Here is where Li'l Adam hid while you took the picture. A broken twig or two, but no other sign. Let's go back home. If we tell this we won't be believed, and it would be better that way. Otherwise some nut with a rifle would hunt him down and shoot him, or else he would end up in a cage."

161 "What if there is a colony of them? Some day they will be discovered. I would like to know if they really live in holes like coyotes. Maybe there are caves around here that no one knows about." "Not likely. Miners and hunters have been combing this area for a hundred years." "Even so, there still could be a cave around here. The enormous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico had only a tiny opening when White discovered them." Phil nodded. "What do we do now?" "I say let's search this place for more sign. The den, or whatever, must be close. That bobcat was a pretty good load for our little hunter, and I'll wager he's within a mile of where we stand." "Okay. Say we find him. Then what?" "Obviously he's human, and people of every known race speak some kind of language. We can let him know by gestures that we mean him no harm. If we can establish a kind of mutual trust or friendship then perhaps we can learn his language." "I don't know, Don. If I understand history and human nature, the most primitive tribes always are dominated and exploited by the more advanced. Since the ancient Navajo knew about them that means there was contact between the two. The little ones probably have very good reason to be secretive and to avoid discovery at all costs." "Perhaps, but on the other hand, suppose they are in desperate need of help. We have no idea how many of them are left. Maybe the race is dying out. That would be tragic. Near starvation or inadequate diet down through the centuries probably accounts for their tiny size. I say we try to find them and help them if there is need." "Okay. What do we look for?" "First we try to discover where they congregate or where there are signs of traffic, like a beaten path. Once we locate that I'd guess we would be close to their dwelling." "What if it turns out to be a cave and the entrance and passageways are too small for us to negotiate?" "Let's take it one stage at a time, okay?" Phil shrugged. "You're the boss." "I'll park the Bronco on top of that knoll over there. It's amazing how easy it is to get lost among boulders and washes. When north seems like east or some other direction, everything seems different and strange, even a familiar street. Then we'll sepa-

162 rate and scout the area in ever widening circles. The first one to find anything will go to the Bronco and blow the horn." "Agreed." Five minutes later Phil called out, "Don, can you hear me?" "Yeah, man." "Come take a gander at this." As it turned out, they were only a few yards apart. Phil was waiting in a sandy dry wash beside a large boulder when Don walked up. "I think I interrupted our man in his task," he said, directing attention to a partially skinned bobcat. "He dropped everything and took off in a run when he heard me coming." "Did you see him?" "No." "Why didn't he skin and draw the cat where he killed it? It would have been lighter for him to carry." "I think he might have heard us and wanted to get the hell out of there, and leaving the hide on would make it more comfortable to carry on his shoulder." "Does that mean we are close to his hideaway?' "Could be. I suggest we finish his job and give it to him if we can find him." "Good idea. Let's follow the tracks." "He won't stay in the wash. Too easy to trail him, and he knows it." Phil was right. Just around a bend the tracks showed where he had climbed the bank. The area was rugged and strewn with boulders of all sizes. Ridges, deep cuts, desert growth and boulders provided good hiding places and made trailing all but impossible. "Keep an eye out for a big hole or a cave entrance. I've a feeling we're getting warm." Don laughed. "I've been getting warm ever since that sun came up. Which reminds me. There's got to be water holes in this damn desert. Burros have to drink." "Oh yes. There are seep springs and natural cisterns that collect rainwater. People have died of thirst within yards of such places, completely unaware of their existence." "You and Loretta lived for a time among the Navajo, didn't you Phil?" "In New Mexico as missionaries. Tough job. Very few converts, but we did learn to speak the difficult tonal language to some extent."

163 "Wouldn't our man and his people be located near one of the watering places?" "Probably, but it may not be known to anyone else. Some large caves actually contain running streams." "I've read about such places. Tiny fish without eyes because of total darkness for countless generations. Darwin would have loved it." "What about Li'l Adam? He's all eyes." "Semi-darkness, big eyes. Total darkness, no eyes. But that's over millions of years of evolution and adaptation." "Moles have small eyes." "That's because they spend most of their time in confined places and don't depend on sight very much." "You suppose these little people have lived on the verge of starvation for millions of years?" "It wouldn't take that long for them to reach their present size, assuming of course, that they are all small. Their breeders deliberately starved lilliputian horses in order to make them tiny. A reasonably strong man can pick up and carry a fully-grown Lilliputian. It didn't take all that many generations of starvation and selective breeding." "Do you think the Indians did to these people what the horse breeders did to their horses?" "It's a thought. That would imply masters and slaves." "Uh huh. It might also account for their furtive nature. They may have escaped by going under ground — literally." Phil looked at the skinned and gutted cat he was holding. "I hope we find him soon. This meat is going to spoil. Imagine people having to live on crap like this. I'll bet this cat is so tough and stringy you couldn't stick a fork in the gravy. The desert is unpredictable. Some years game is plentiful; others, very scarce." "All the more reason to help these people. I just had a thought: What if this guy is an aberration, a hermit, a one-of-a-kind troglodyte freak?" "Let's ask him." "What?" Phil cut his eyes to his left and motioned with his head. Not twenty feet away stood a tiny albino-like man in the shade of a large boulder. Entirely naked and completely hairless, muscular and well proportioned except for the eyes; he stood watching his pursuers. He raised the bow and drew back the arrow when he realized he had been seen.

164 Quickly Phil pointed to the cat and held it at arm's length toward the archer. The man hesitated then lowered the bow. He motioned for Phil to lay it on the ground. Phil complied and waited. In a surprisingly deep and vibrant voice the man said a word in the Navajo tongue. The command was, "Go!" "We want to help you." "Go!" "Are you hungry? We have food. We will not harm you." Li'l Adam appeared undecided. Then with bow and arrow at the ready he began to advance warily. He halted about ten feet away. They stood eyeing each other. "Do you live alone?" There was no immediate answer as if the question was being weighed carefully. At last he lowered the bow and held up five fingers, closed the hand and held up three more fingers. "Your family?" The conversation was difficult and halting. Phil could only guess at most of the words, evidently a much-altered form of Navajo. No doubt the people had lived so long in isolation they had developed their own patois. After much questioning, grunting, hand signs and some intelligible exchange Phil succeeded in piecing together a fragmented history of the little man and his people. As he and Don had suspected, the man and his family were on the very verge of starvation. Otherwise he never would have chanced the encounter to retrieve his kill. Tradition handed down from generation to generation was the reason for the fear and dread of all outsiders, especially the Indians. Only he and his family remained, having survived by virtue of being the strongest and resorting to cannibalism. He steadfastly refused to tell where they lived, not even the nature of the dwelling. Then he picked up the cat, darted around a boulder, and was gone. "Now what?" Don asked. "Do we follow him?" "No. Did you get a picture?" Don grinned foolishly. "I didn't think of it. I even forgot I had a camera." "Some photographer you are! It's just as well you didn't. "They need help. Those people are living like moles." "They've adapted. Likely their salamandrian bodies couldn't make another drastic transition. Too much sunshine would kill them. Let them continue their subterranean existence."

165 "They'll starve. Game is scarce in bad years, and hunters kill it off in good years. Eventually a hunter or a rock hound will make the discovery." "There's really nothing we can do about it." Phil's voice reflected a deep sadness. "They are doomed to extinction, and heartless as it might seem, probably the sooner the better." "We've got to tell our people something, but what?" Phil considered a moment. "The truth. But not with straight faces."

166

T h e Reco v er ed Fi l e This letter from my father has been locked unread in my safe for over five years. My name is Milton Hanford, son of the late Frederick Hanford. I have always known that there was a period of several days in the life of Dad that was completely blank to him. He and I often talked about it because of the strange circumstances that caused the memory loss. It had happened when he was a young man. My curiosity has tempted me in moments of weakness to sneak a look at the letter, but I had given him my solemn word not to read it or allow anyone even to know about it until after his death. I know now why he was so adamant about the matter. There is no statute of limitations for murder. Now that he is gone there is little point in keeping it secret. Possibly the disclosure will leave some kind of stigma on the family name, but again perhaps not. Evidently he wanted the affair known after he was laid to rest. The reader can judge for himself the degree of guilt associated with his unusual experience. As his only heir I was left a tidy sum, but also an obligation along with the money. Soon I'll be on my way to California and the great Mojave Desert. Anson, Texas October 22, 1990 Dear Milton, I don't know much about a computer or the human brain. Many people have likened one to the other, and perhaps they are similar in some ways. I do know a computer file can be retrieved after it has been dragged to the "trash can", and the same can be said of a brain file. I have read of cases of women who were abused when they were little, and the trauma caused the memory of the

167 experience to shut down. Then years later the memory was dredged up by psychiatric means. A file, as you know, has been hidden somewhere in the convolutions of my brain for forty years. I never worried about it much, assuming that the horrible experience of facing death from thirst alone in the vastness of the Mojave Desert caused the amnesia, but there were always a few curious details that puzzled me. How did that relatively new car battery, a different brand than mine, and a shovel wind up in my old Jeep? What caused my right hand to swell? Obviously there was at least one other person involved in the incident, but I had absolutely no recollection of meeting anyone out there. You and I have speculated about this several times, and you know the circumstances of my being out there in the first place, but for others I shall relate the whole thing from the beginning. I had just celebrated my twenty-first birthday in September of 1950. Single, restless, and hungry for adventure, I drove from Anson, Texas, to San Bernadino, California, in my used Jeep with the intention of wandering around in the desert. I wasn't really searching for anything of a material nature. I just wanted to experience the solitude. As some wag had put it, I wanted to go "where the hand of man had never set foot"–to be completely on my own. It was not my intention to put myself at risk. On the contrary, I didn't consider the little adventure risky at all. I was well prepared, or so I thought. I had a small tent, food for several days, and a five-gallon container of water; plenty for the three days and nights I planned to spend out there. I also had extra gasoline. At that time most of the desert was open to off-road vehicles, and I felt wonderfully free as I climbed small hills and crossed drywashes. I photographed jackrabbits, coyotes, ravens and a herd of wild burros. On the second day I encountered a problem and scolded myself for not having told anyone where I was going. Actually, though, I didn't have any definite area in mind when I had set out. I had a compass and a map so that I could find my way back, but other than that I just wanted to wander wherever my fancy dictated. I was in a sandy wash between two steep rocky banks when the wheels began to bury themselves to the axles. The four-wheeldrive had easily negotiated the sand in the washes up until then. I tried rocking back and forth to no avail. I was hopelessly stuck. The engine began to heat as I continued to try extricating the vehicle. The radiator boiled over and sprang a leak.

168 There would be no search party, and even if there was an attempt to find me, I was pretty well hidden in the wash. I had wanted to be on my own. I got my wish, but I didn't particularly like the circumstance of it. I had casually mentioned to a clerk in the store where I bought the camping equipment that I was going out to explore the desert, but I hadn't told him where or for how long. I could abandon all thoughts of rescue. Walking out was out of the question. The store clerk had suggested that I take a shovel along just in case. Now I realized I should have taken the sound advice. I scooped sand with my hands and the lid of my water can. I remained stuck with a dry radiator and a stalled engine, but I had managed to move forward a little. In desperation I used precious water to fill the leaking radiator and hit the starter. The Jeep refused to start. I tried to catch most of the water to pour back into the radiator while I let the engine cool. The old battery could not withstand the constant grinding of the starter. Now I was really stuck. My options were few. The nearest highway was perhaps sixty miles to the west. Even if I managed to reach it on foot in the heat I might not be able to persuade anyone to stop to help me. My only hope was to plug the radiator leak as best I could, start the Jeep, and get the darn thing out of the wash. A quart of water in my canteen was all that I could carry when I gave up and headed west on foot. I would find some kind of shade during the hottest part of the day and do my walking toward the setting sun and on into the night. The odds of my getting out alive were slim and I knew it. A quart of water does not last long in 100-degree heat. Rationing, I had read, doesn't help. An advanced stage of thirst can affect a person's ability to think clearly, and I neared that point soon after I left the Jeep. Self-discipline, I told myself, was an absolute must. Panic would be fatal. Madness was a real possibility. After walking all night I managed to find a shade in a deep wash and decided to rest and try to get some sleep although it was still relatively cool. Sleep would not come, and after an hour of rest I opted to take advantage of the time remaining before the relentless desert sun would make further progress unbearable. With the sun at my back I trudged another hour across several more washes and past low hills. I drank the last drop of my water but saved the empty canteen in case I should happen upon a spring. Perhaps I would get lucky and come across burro tracks to follow. The wild donkeys

169 know the locations of the few scattered water holes and seep springs. My map showed such places in the vicinity, but I had only a very hazy idea of my present location. If I found one it would be mostly luck. I watched for birds and kept my eye peeled for honeybees. Thirst, terrible relentless thirst was driving me crazy in the merciless heat. My determination to live was at low ebb when I saw it–a crude dwelling dug into the side of a small hill. Stones were stacked so as to form a wall with a doorway. Not sure that I was not hallucinating, I began to walk unsteadily toward it. The next thing I remembered was waking up in bed. Until five years ago I did not remember how I got there. I didn't remember registering at the small hotel in Lone Pine. In the shower I tried in vain to force my memory to function. No doubt, I reasoned, someone was living in the dwelling carved in the hill, saw me pass out, and had brought my unconscious body here. I dressed and looked at my watch. Something was wrong. According to my calculations the date should be September 22, but my watch calendar showed a week later. Must have fallen and banged the watch. I dismissed the thought and addressed myself to a more pressing matter. I was hungry. The motel manager was a young woman with stringy brown hair and a Popeye, chin. As I entered the office she removed her glasses and wiped the thick lenses with a pink hanky. "Good morning, sir," she said pleasantly. "Did you sleep well?" "Very well, thank you," I replied. "Can you tell me who checked me in last night?" She looked at me with a kind of quizzical expression. "Are you joking?" "No. Why?" "I thought you looked a little beat, but I didn't think you were drunk. You got a bad hangover?" It was my turn to be puzzled. "I haven't been on a bender, but I think I've been in the arms of Morpheus. I passed out from thirst in the desert. Obviously someone found me and brought me here. Did you see who it was?" She laughed, a kind of mocking snigger. "A likely story. Haven't you learned that an overdose can kill you? You better straighten up and fly right, boy. Next time you might not be so lucky." That ticked me off a little. "Let's get something straight. I am not a dope user. I told you the truth. Can't you answer a simple question? Who brought me in?"

170 Her manner changed abruptly. "You're serious? You really don't remember checking yourself in?" "I couldn't have. I passed out in the desert and woke up a few minutes ago." "I don't know what you've been through, mister, but you were alone yesterday when you drove that steaming Jeep in here and rented a room. I might add that you did look like something the cats drug in and abandoned. Are you feeling okay now?" "Pretty good but hungry as hell. Where can I find a cafe?" "Not very close. Too far to walk. You sure the Jeep will run? You couldn't start it again after you checked in. I had to help you push it out of the driveway. You don't remember that?" "I guess my memory must have slipped a cog. Tell me where the coffee shop is and I'll see about getting there." The damn thing wouldn't start. The battery appeared to be strong, but the engine had taken too much heat. I lifted the hood to check the wiring. The battery had been changed. I went back into the office. "Would you call a cab for me?" "Taxi drivers like to get paid. You were a dollar and thirty cents short last night for the room. You owe me." I just stared at her. "Go back to your room, and I'll bring you some breakfast," she said. "You can pay me later when you get yourself back together. And you better do something about that swollen hand. Is it broken?" I wiggled my fingers. "I don't think so, but my whole arm aches." "I'll bet some guy's whole head aches. Would you like to read the paper while you wait?" "Who'll mind the store while you're doing that?" "That's my problem." Another shock awaited me. The date on the newspaper agreed with my watch. A whole week that I couldn't account for. What had happened during all that time? Where had I been and what had I done? Had I spent days with the person or persons who rescued me? Can amnesia really be that severe? Forty years would elapse before I would know the answer to those questions. Countless times I would go over the events in my mind. Everything had been perfectly clear right up to the time I started walking toward that place. Try as I might, the memory always stopped there. Often after returning to Texas I was tempted to go back and see who lived there. I owed that person my life, but always I would put it off. Maybe I was afraid of what I would find.

171 Maybe I would discover that I was insane and the whole thing had been but an illusion. That thought had entered my mind, but I knew it was not so. The experience had been real enough. Eventually time blurred and dulled the memory of the incident and it became more like a dream than reality. For the past two years, though, for some reason visions of that place have been flashing through my mind at the most unexpected times. For example one evening just last week I was chatting with a friend about his daughter's new baby when my brain seemed to explode, and suddenly I was walking toward the dugout in the hill. The vision was so vivid that I thought I was actually there for a brief moment. This time I saw a young woman emerge from the structure and advance toward me. She was blonde and beautiful in a rustic sort of way. I distinctly saw her long hair bound with a pink ribbon. She wore faded blue jeans and hiking boots. In her hand she carried a large pitcher and a drinking glass. Then the scene vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. I was so shaken that I had to excuse myself. My friend became alarmed, thinking I had suffered a stroke. I have had three more visions since then, each revealing a little more. Last night as I lay in bed the whole thing came to me in clear detail. The lost file was retrieved from the trashcan of my brain. "Take it easy with the water," she said. "Swallow too much at once and you'll lose it. How long since your last drink?" I didn't answer until my thirst was quenched fifteen minutes later. "You were in a bad way." "You could say that. I owe you my life." She led me through the stone doorway and into the excavation. I was surprised at its size and greatly relieved. The place was comfortably cool. The room contained a bunk bed and a cook stove, a table with two chairs and a crude cupboard with dishes. Spikes had been driven into the dirt and rock walls on which hung various pots and pans, a gasoline lantern and clothes evidently for a man. Two pairs of boots stood on the dirt floor. I nodded toward them. "Your husband's?" "My father's. I'm not married." I suppose my face revealed a kind of satisfaction at hearing those words. She smiled and then her expression changed to one of seriousness. "You must leave very soon. He could return at any time." "So?"

172 "If he finds you here he'll kill you. He might track you down and shoot you anyway." "Why, for cat's sake? I have no intention of robbing him or molesting you. Why would he want to kill me?" "Papa is insane. No one knows we are here, and he is determined to keep it that way." "Why are you here and why do you stay?" "I have no choice. I'm held prisoner here in this God-forsaken place." She spoke with an unmistakable flat Texas accent. "Why did you come in the first place? My guess is that you haven't been here very long, and you're not a native Californian." "True. Only for about a month. I live in Dallas, or did. Papa wrote me a letter claiming he had struck it rich. He urged me to come out and see the gold mine and to help him with the legal papers. The letter seemed urgent, begging me to drop everything and come at once or he might lose everything. "I hadn't seen him in more than six years. Papa has always been, well, different–a dreamer, often talking about the vast amount of gold still unmined in the desert hills of California. Then one day he was gone, and I never heard from him again until I received the letter. "My mother died when I was two, and the loss to my father affected his mind. He was never the same after she died. It was just the beginning of insanity, I'm sure now." "Does he mistreat you? I mean—" "Not physically." She indicated a curtain partition. "I have my own room and bed in there." "What about the gold mine." "Pure fiction. When I confronted him about it he said he was on the verge of a big strike. He was sure of it. All signs indicate a mother lode. I've never seen the place, but he leaves every morning in his army Jeep to work on it, usually getting back about sundown. Personally, I think it's all in his head. "I've begged him to give up the idea and take me back home. I want to finish my education, but he refuses. I can't leave. He guards the keys to the Jeep as if they were crown jewels, and I don't know how to hot-wire the thing. If I could manage to get away, I'd send the authorities out here to get him, but he would put up a fight, maybe kill someone. "Let me show you the spring where we get our water, and then I'll show you my private gazebo on top of the hill near by. Then you

173 must leave. Maybe you can carry enough water to last until you reach the highway. I wish I could do better. I'm sorry." I thought that over a moment. "What will you do–stay in this place until you wither and blow away? I won't leave you." "That is not your problem." "Wrong. It is very much my problem, and together we'll think of something. Now let's go see the spring and your gazebo." "After I fix you something to eat. You must be half starved." The spring was situated up a slight rise about a hundred yards behind the dwelling. From the tracks and piles of dung, I guessed that a herd of burros had just left. There were other animal tracks as well, and a covey of quail flushed as we drew near. Stones had surrounded the spring itself so that the animals could not foul the pool of water. They drank from another pool a short distance below the spring. "I come here to bathe every day, and then I go up the hill to my retreat. I spend a lot of time there. I can see for miles in every direction. I was there when I spotted you a mile away staggering along. I knew you would be thirsty." The climb to the gazebo was fairly easy. An arbor constructed of Joshua trees stood at the very top. In the cool shade was a mat and pillow. "My only solace. By the way, my name is Mary." She extended a hand. "A grand old name. I'm Fred." "It's time for you to leave. You'll need a good head start, and if you hear a motor, find a good hiding place." "No way. When I leave, you'll be with me." "Papa always carries a rifle. You wouldn't stand a chance. He might even kill both of us." "Don't under rate me. I'll give it some thought and work out a plan. Do you think you could sneak the rifle out and bring it to me? Don't worry; I won't shoot your dad. I just don't want him to shoot me." She shook her head. "He keeps it under lock and key when he's home." "Then can you furnish me a blanket to sleep on while I figure things out? I'll stay hidden in the hills until he leaves." Mary pointed to a small cluster of Joshua trees about a halfmile west. "They would provide some shelter from the wind. I have a sleeping bag you can use. You would probably be safe there. Papa always goes in the other direction each morning. Just don't get

174 careless. I'll come up here and signal you as soon as he's out of sight." During the next five days I saw her only late at night and then only for about two hours each time. She kept me supplied with food and coffee. I knew she was taking a terrible chance in sneaking out. For some reason the old man didn't leave home. In the meantime I was falling head-over-heels in love, and the look in her big blue eyes told me all I needed to know. I confess I was in no particular hurry for the affair to end. On the fourth night we began to share my sleeping bag. I felt guilty. Even though she was as eager as I, still it seemed to me that I was taking an unfair advantage of the situation. Another concern seized me. Suppose she became pregnant and it turned out I couldn't take her from that place? The thought drove me to desperation. "Do you think he knows or suspects something?" "I can't be sure. He hasn't said anything. He's never failed to go to work before, but he might be having car trouble." "What does he do all day?" "Work on the Jeep." "That's the answer for us." "What do you mean?" "Does he leave the gun in the house while he's working on the car?" "Never. It's always by his side. The man is paranoid." "Okay, here's what we will do. I'll have to catch him while he's asleep. I'm young and strong. I'm sure I can overpower him. I'll tie him up, take the gun and break it just in case. Then we'll load him in the Jeep and drive out of here." "The vehicle isn't running." "Do you think he can fix it? We'll wait another day. If he can't get it going by then, I'll see what I can do with it. It's our only chance." Early the next morning I heard the engine start. Mary signaled me from the hill, and together we went to the dugout. She fixed me a hot meal, and afterward we made love on her bed. We walked and talked and billed and cooed all that day. We made plans to marry as soon as possible. I hid in her room before her demented father returned from his bonanza. Concealed, I waited for him to put the rifle away, but he didn't go near the cabinet as best I could determine from listening.

175 "Guess what I seen today, Emma." Mary had told me that he sometimes called her by his dead wife's name. "What, Papa?" "Tracks. A man's footprints." I could hear a little gasp from the girl. So the cagey old bastard did know. The raspy voice continued. "And somethin' else. Along with them tracks were the footprints of a woman. Looks like some man and a woman have been trompin' around all over the place. Who you reckon they are?" I had heard enough. He probably knew I was behind the curtain. When I emerged the business end of a deer rifle was pointing at my heart. I saw the finger tighten on the trigger. The explosion was deafening in the cave. Mary never knew what hit her. She had lunged at the rifle barrel but had tripped and fallen directly in front of it. She collapsed like a sack of potatoes to the dirt floor without so much as a sigh. I landed a hard right to the chin, and the gun thudded to the floor. Old Ed Crofton, father of Mary Ellen Crofton, was out cold. That was the one and only time in my life when blind rage had me in its grip. I snatched up the rifle, jacked another cartridge into the chamber and blew his brains out. Oddly, I felt no emotion about killing a man until hours later. Trembling, I sat in a chair and tried to clear my mind. Coldblooded murder is a terrible thing. Never mind that my blood was boiling when I pulled the trigger. Maybe I could claim self-defense, but juries are unpredictable. I decided to take no chance. The place was isolated from the inhabited world. No one knew these people were living here. There was no reason that anyone should know they died here. Between Mary's gazebo and my hiding place I had noticed an excavation, a deep hole about six feet in diameter. The old man's Jeep was equipped with a wench mounted on the front bumper. I used it and a shovel to extricate my own, swapped batteries, and drove to the Motel in Lone Pine. Now, son, as you know, I'm not a very religious man, but it seems only right that these people should have a decent, civilized burial in a regular cemetery. Take the map I have marked and a crew of men. Search until you find that excavation. I filled it with dirt and small boulders, but I placed rocks in the shape of a cross to mark the place. I hope they are still there.

176 California cities are springing up in the desert like toadstools in a rotting log. Go before some contractor decides to build a Bank of America on the spot. Whether you make this letter known to others is up to you. Please don't be too harsh in your judgment of me. You know I have always loved you and your mother with all my heart. Frederick R. Hanford

177

Pau l a’ s Rev en ge “Sheriff, come quick! This place is a madhouse. Pandemonium! Women and kids are screaming, and the men are all scared to death. Four guys came bustin' in here and started tossing people all over the place. It's Bedlam. Please hurry!" The voice on the phone was that of Wynona Armstrong, ticket clerk at the Greyhound bus station, and she sounded frantic. "Okay, Winnie. Be right there. Anybody hurt?" "I don't think so, but everybody is scared." "Are the thugs armed?" "I reckon they got good arms, 'cause they used 'em to throw people around." "I mean do they have guns?" "Didn't see none." "All right. Stay calm and don't rile 'em." Henry "Harmonica Hank" Green propped himself against an elm in the city park and played "Goin' Down This Road Feelin’ Bad." "Don't you know nothin' but them dang blues songs, Hank?" Pig Eye Bartlett shifted the cud in his jaw and spat on the ground. "Have you ever tried livin' on the sunny side of the street?" Hank replaced the tiny instrument in his coat pocket. "With my kind of luck I'd get skin cancer." "You're the dangest guy I ever seen, Hank. How come you're always down?" "I was born to lose."

178 "Born too loose?" "Yeah. I believe everybody has a set destiny, and there ain't a dang thang you can do about it. The destiny of guys like us is to be losers." "You gotta be kiddin'." "Look at it this way. What's the most money you ever made in your life?" "Heck, we done pretty good last week. A dollar and a half a hundred ain't too bad." "What's tops you made in one day?" "On a good day I can pull six hundred pounds." Hank sneered. "Nine bucks. You figger on ever bein' able to retire pullin' bolls? Farm work stinks. The only people who ever make money on cotton are the fat cats on Wall Street. The rich got it figgered. They pretty much tell us how much we can make, and the only reason they want us around is so's we can make them richer and to fight their wars. They created this dang depression. It's the pore stiffs like us that suffer. They got all the money hoarded so they can build skyscrapers and do their crooked business in plush offices. Not a one of them guys ever done a day's work in his life. Once our workin' days are over they don't give a damn if we live or die." "Oh, I don't know, Hank." Hoot Ratliff said. "I think Roosevelt is tryin' to help with his New Deal." "Oh, sure. They can't let us starve to death. A farmer has gotta keep his mules healthy." Pete Skaggs left his seat on the bench and sat with the others under the tree. "I reckon Hank says it pretty good. I know a way we can all be well off, and we won't have to do a lick of work." Hoot shook his head. "Count me out. If you mean rob a bank, no thanks. I ain't about to get the F.B.I. on my tail. Them guys got machine guns, and I bleed easy." "Not that. What I got in mind will be a cinch. I figger there's at least a half million bucks in jewelry just waitin' for us to take it.

179 Then we go to Los Angeles and find us a fence. I figger we can come out with a hundred thousand each." Pig Eye Bartlett was skeptical. "How do you know about that, Ratliff?" Hoot withdrew a bag of "Bull Durham" from his shirt pocket and sprinkled some tobacco into a thin rectangle of paper, closed the cloth bag by using his teeth to hold one loop of string, rolled the cigarette, struck a match on the seat of his pants and lit up. After a long drag he inhaled deeply and let the smoke slowly pour from his mouth as he talked. "The place was busted into last night, but the burglar got skeered off and caught before he could take anythang. Now the place is boarded up. I seen 'em loadin' the goods into a car. I figger they took the stuff home for safe keepin' 'til the window is replaced. Orta be a piece o' cake." Pete Skaggs mulled over the idea and shook his head. "Ain't likely. Nobody's crazy enough to keep that kind of merchandise in their house. What do you thank about it, Hank?" "Might be worth a try. Folks in these one-horse country burgs don't worry much about crime. Ain't one in a thousand even locks the house at night. That burglary was a fluke. Sheriffs in these little towns don't do nothin' but play checkers all day. Maybe scold a kid now and then for swipin' a bar of candy. I say let's give it a shot. Even without the swag it might be worth it. Rich people always keep a lot of stuff in their house." Pete held back. "I ain't so sure I want to be in on this." Hank glared at him. "You skeered?" "It ain't that. We don't know these folks is rich. I reckon they ain't poor, but maybe they don't actually own that merchandise. We might be robbin' good people who have worked hard to set themselves in business. You thought about that?" "They won't really lose nothin'. The rich dudes in plush skyscraper offices insure all that jewelry. All we'll be doin' is takin' back some of that money they got by the sweat of our brows. We earned that money, and they are livin' high on the hog with it." Hoot looked at the other two. "You boys game?"

180 "Suits me," Pig Eye agreed. "You know where they live, Hoot?" "Easy to find out. It'll be in the phone book. The name is Margolis. That much I know." "Okay. How do we go about it?" "Here's what we'll do. We get the bus schedule and time the heist so that we can be on it and long gone before anybody knows what's happened. We tie up and gag whoever we find at the house and get to the bus station no more than five minutes before departure time. I figger we can be a hunnerd miles from here by the time the alarm is sounded. "Pig, you cut the phone wire while us others are takin' care of the other details. We don't hurt nobody if we can he'p it. And another thang, boys. We don't hock no stuff 'til we get to California. We can't leave no trail." "Wait a minute," Pete Skaggs objected. "How we gonna eat? We got enough for bus fare, but no more. I'm already hungry." "Yeah, Hoot," Pig Eye said, "We gotta eat. No tellin' how long it will take us to find a fence once we get to L.A. We'll be starved." Hoot laughed. "Well, now, the way I figger it, Missus Margolis will be only too happy to fix us a hot meal if we promise not to take her weddin' ring. It's a cinch they'll have some cash. We can use that for room and board once we get to California." "Sounds like a fair deal to me as long as it don't take her too long to cook us some grub. I don't wanna hang around any longer than necessary." Hoot became serious. "Let's do this thang right, boys. This here will be our one and only crime. So far we all got a clean record, and once we get our hands on some real cash, we don't go crazy and start blowin' it on fancy cars, clothes, and stuff. We don't do nothin' to draw attention to us. We don't make a big deposit in one bank. We spread it out, get ourselves decent jobs, and in a year or so, we buy the chicken farm or whatever is our dream and settle down into respectable solid citizens. Now, me, I wouldn't even wanna pull this caper 'cept I'm tard o' pullin' bolls for a bare livin', and no tellin' how long this dang depression is gonna last. Hoover

181 didn't give a damn, and Roosevelt might not be able to fix thangs any better. "They say there's work in California, and Will Rogers says we're headin' for a war with Germany. That means more jobs than manpower. We get jobs in war plants and maybe we won't be drafted. They'll take the young guys first. Do y'all agree to this? 'Cause if you don't, you can include me out." "You got it, Hoot," Pete said. "I got no hankerin' to spend time looking through orn bars. I've always had a notion I'd like to own a little spread in Montana or Wyoming and marry me a good woman to curl up with durin' them cold winter nights. I'll be glad to shake this West Texas dirt outta my shoes and settle down. No more migrant farm work for me. I'm sick of rollin' into a little town like this, work two or three weeks helpin' to make the fat cats on Wall Street richer and then movin' on without makin' any friends. For once in my life I'd like to feel that I belong, if you know what I mean." "All right," Hoot said. "Lets get our tickets to L.A., find out when the bus arrives, how long we have to wait in case we miss one, and then we saunter out to the park, lie around under a tree 'til dark and listen to Hank play some tear jerker songs." The Margolis house nestled among large mesquite trees out at the edge of town. Thick shrubbery made it easy for the farm hands turned robbers to approach unseen. While Pig Eye cut the phone line leading into the house, Hoot peeked into a window and signaled the other two, who waited back in the bushes. Fortunately, there were no dogs to sound alarm. The back door was unlocked, and the men pulled on their black stocking masks and simply walked in. Harry and Paula Margolis were at the dinner table dining alone. "Evenin', folks," Hoot greeted pleasantly. "Looks like we're just in time for supper." He showed them a .38 revolver. "This here's our meal ticket." Alarmed, Harry stood and closed his hand over the handle of a steak knife.

182 "Don't try to be a hero, feller," Hoot said. "We ain't here to hurt nobody unless we have to. Show us the jewelry and we'll be on our way — after we've had a bite or two. Me and the boys are powerful hungry. Shore hope you've got enough fixed for us." "Jewelry? What jewelry?" Paula shook her head. "It's no use, dear," she said to her husband. "They will find it anyway. I might as well get it for them. "Smart woman." Hoot nodded to the others. "Tie him up boys. Now lady, after you show us the goods, you can set four extry plates. Just to make sure you remain a good hostess I'll keep an eye on you. You will behave like good girl, won't you?" The four pitched in and ate all the lamb chops plus all the fixin's. Several cans and jars of various meats and vegetables had to be opened before the appetites were satisfied. Ready to take their leave, Hoot spotted three pieces of chocolate fudge on a plate and helped himself to one. Pete and Hank ate the other two. Pig Eye set up a howl of protest. "Hey, where's mine? You got any more candy, woman?" "Come on, Pig," Hoot urged. "Forget the candy." "Like hell I will! You got any more, woman?" Paula shook her head. "I'm afraid that's all there is, sonny." "You sure?" "Yes, but if you must have some, I can whip up another batch in about ten minutes." "Dammit, Pig, let's go!" "Wait a minute," Hank said. "That was pretty good stuff. What's our hurry? We got lots of time." Hoot hesitated and looked at Paula "Only ten minutes?" She nodded. "Well, okay, ten minutes but no longer." Exactly nine minutes later Paula brought the huge platter of fudge into the dining room and set it on the table to cool. Greedily the four stuffed themselves. After binding and gagging the woman, they took the large box of jewelry and left. Outside, Hank paused. "That went off a lot

183 smoother and quicker than I figgered. Now we got a problem. What are we gonna do with this stuff? We can't just go luggin' a box of diamonds and gold into the bus station." "We take it to the hotel and put it in our luggage," Hoot said. "That might not be too good an idea," Hank observed. "They got a inspection station at the California line. Sometimes they go through your luggage." "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Hoot said. "We got other thangs to worry about right now. We still got an hour to kill before we board the bus. Maybe we should hang around here to make sure our friends in there don't free themselves too soon and sic the law on us." "Okay, but some of us better stay outside in case some nosy neighbor decides to pay a friendly call. Who knows? Maybe the sheriff will drop by to check on the people. The whole town knows they had a break-in." "Hey, that's right," Pete agreed. "Let's get the hell outta here. We can grab our luggage and hide out somewhere until bus time." A rodeo had come to town, and the bus station was crowded. Things were still in a state of wild confusion when the sheriff arrived with drawn revolver. Little girls clutched their mothers' legs, some women were crying, others were cursing, and a group of men conferred in a corner. "What's going on here, Winnie?" the sheriff asked. "Craziest thang I ever saw, Sheriff. Four guys come bustin' in here all wild eyed, and when they couldn't get into the rest rooms, they started shovin' people out, men, women and little kids. They're still in there. It's like they must have eaten a whole box of Ex Lax each. They've missed their bus."

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T h e Rear i n g Of Bo b b y Leek "Look what I caught, Mama! His name is Fred." "Get that filthy frog out of this house right now, and don't you ever bring anything like that in here again. You're nearly seven now, and you ought to know better. Take it down to the creek and turn it loose. Then you come back and wash your hands. Don't you know toads cause warts?" The happy smile of anticipation faded. Bobby lowered his head and turned slowly to leave. Holding the toad with care, he carried it the hundred yards down the slope to the brook, where he released it and watched as it kicked its way across the little stream to the opposite bank. He liked this place with the pungent odor of cattails and the croaking of frogs. Sometimes wild ducks would arise from the water as he approached. The mud along the stream always contained tracks of birds and wild animals. His half brother Lester had taught him how to identify some of them. Once in a while, usually early in the morning or near sundown, he would see some of the animals that made the tracks. Coyotes, 'coons, 'possums and minks came to drink and to catch the crawdads. In the moist dirt between the water's edge and the banks stood many little stacks of dried mud. Bobby knew that beneath them were holes dug by crayfish and that the "crawdads" were in the holes. He marveled that they were smart enough to know the creek was drying up and that they could reach water by digging. He remembered asking how they had learned to cap the holes with the mud. "Instinct," Lester had said, but that didn't tell him much. He liked Lester.

185 Lester is smart, and he don't get mad when I ask dumb questions. He's a Vrane, and Mama says all Vranes are smart and have class. I wish I was a Vrane instead of a Leek, because all the Leeks are dumb and have bad blood. The sandy path to the creek had been hotter than usual, and his bare feet, though toughened, still hurt. He decided to cool them by wading in the shallow water. How nice it felt! He liked the feel of the mud squishing between his toes. "Bobby," his mother called, "hurry up, and don't you wade in the creek." Oh, oh. Now I’ll get a scolding. I wish Mma was like Miz Oh, oh. Now I'll get a scolding. I wish Mama was like Miz Stogner. Tim is lucky. His mama and daddy love him. Staying all night with Tim is always fun, but I don't like that old gander that chases me. The smokehouse with hams and bacon hanging from the rafters is real neat and smells good. It's the only one left in the whole country, Mr. Stogner says. It must be nice to have a daddy like Mr. Stogner. He tells stories after supper when the family sits in the parlor to talk instead of watch TV.

And Cousin Alf with his white beard and his fiddle - Why does everybody call him "Cousin" Alf? He never got married. Lester says his sweetheart's parents wouldn't let them get married because their religions were different. She was a Baptist and he is a Lutheran. He's got a magic finger that cures ringworm. He wets the finger with his tongue and rubs it around on the ringworm while he mumbles some magic words and the next morning the ringworm is all gone. He sure can play that fiddle. Humor Esk, or something like that. Cousin Alf says it's bouncy. Sometimes he plays sad ones like Nellie Grey, the slave girl who was sold and taken from her lover. This Love Of Mine is kinda sad, too, I guess, 'cause he gets tears in his eyes when he plays it. I don't know the words, though. Maybe Lester will sing it for me sometime. Mama says Lester has a bear-atone voice. Maybe when I'm fourteen like Lester and my voice changes I'll sound like a bear, and Mama will be proud of me, too. Cousin Alf is smart, but he's not a Vrane. In the evening he sits in his rocking chair out on the front porch and smokes his pipe and watches the bullbats dive. He says the birds are catching

186

gnats and stuff when they do that, and when they pull up out of the dive it's the wings that make the booming sound. I wish I could remember my daddy. Why did Mama make him go away? Mama says Lester's daddy is in Heaven but the robber that killed him would go to Hell. Hell is a bad place. Tim's mama and daddy smile a lot and never tease him about girls. I wish I could live with Tim. His mom makes real good popcorn balls. They're sort of sticky to hold, but they're real good and sweet, kind of like Crac"Bobby! What are you doing? I told you to hurry. Why don't you ever mind me?" "All right, Mama. I'm a-comin'." "Oh, no! Look at those muddy feet. You've been wading in the creek, haven't you? You need a good spanking. Go out to the well and wash that mud off before you come in this house. Wait 'til I get you a pan, and be sure you bring it back." The pump handle was hard to work, but he made it. His mother was waiting at the door when he returned. "All right, come on in. Elva called and asked if you could come over and spend the night with Timmy. Do you want to go?" "Oh, boy! Can I ride Tim's pony?" "All right, but be careful." "Mama, where is Africa?" "What?" "When we watched the lions and zebras on TV Mr. Stogner said they was in Africa. He said it was across the ocean. How big is the ocean, Mama?" "Real big. Now stop asking stupid questions and go take your bath. I've already filled the washtub with hot water." "Mama, can I take piano lessons? Tim is learning to play. He plays Red Sails In The Sunset real good." "Piano lessons? You couldn't carry a tune if it had two handles. Besides, we don't have a piano." "Miz Stogner said I could practice on theirs." "Music is for smart kids. You're just like your daddy and all the Leeks. Not one of them was smart enough to learn anything but dirt farming. I don't know why I ever married that man. I could have married a doctor and be living in a nice house in town. I should have divorced him before you were born. If it wasn't for Lester and his job at the dairy we would starve to death. Thank

193 goodness he's a Vrane and not a Leek. The Vranes have brains, but the Leeks are geeks. "Forget piano lessons. You're not a Vrane. The Vranes are canaries, but the Leeks are sparrows. Canaries make music, but sparrows just chirp. You'll always be a sparrow. Now go take your bath before I change my mind about letting you go." "Is the water too hot, Mama? Last week it nearly scalded me." "No, it's not too hot. Don't forget to scrub behind your ears. And don't splash water all over the floor. You always make a mess." "Mama," he called presently, from the kitchen, "where is a towel? I'm through bathing." "It's right on the chair by the tub. Are you blind? If it'd been a snake it woulda bit you." "Why do I have to sleep in pajamas when I stay all night with Tim?" "Because the Stogners are quality folks, and I don't want them thinking we are uncivilized. You mind your manners, y'hear? Stay out of the mud when you cross the creek. Use the bridge." **** "I had a real good time at Tim's, Mama. I rode his pony. It's real gentle, and I didn't fall off. Tim's dog had puppies, and Miz Stogner said I could have one if it was all right with you. Can I have a dog, Mama? I'll take good care of it. " "That's all I need around here - another mouth to feed, but if you'll be a good boy and always mind me, I'll think about it." "Oh, boy! I'll name it Fritz and train it to hunt. Mr. Stogner said that would be a good name for a Weimaraner 'cause it's a German name." "I just said I'd think about it. I haven't decided yet." "Please, Mama." "Maybe. You haven't been a very good boy." "I will be. I promise." "We'll see. Where is your cap? Did you lose it?" "I guess I left it at Tim's. I'll go back and get it." "I'd better call Elva first." Bobby, glad for the excuse to go to the Stogners, stood by the door while his mother talked on back the phone. At last she placed the receiver back in its cradle. "She says the cap is there. Get back here before dark. Panthers

188 prowl around in the woods at night." "Can I bring the puppy back with me?" "No, it's not weaned yet. Well, what are you standing there

Go!" The sand was still hot, and a stretch of the road led through a patch of grass burs, those stickers with barbs on the spines. There were always some in the ruts, and if you get them in your feet, you're in trouble. They are bad enough when they get in your shoestrings and in the cuffs of your overalls. Goat heads he could tolerate, but grassburs were something else. Bobby was glad he was wearing his shoes. Beyond the sticker patch the sand gave way to firmer ground. Wild flowers dotted the open areas between the mesquite trees like dabs of bright color in one of Lester's paintings. On a knoll a short distance off the road to the right grew a cluster of several kinds of flowers, some with red blossoms and others with yellow and purple. Butterflies, many kinds and sizes, fluttered about them. As Bobby approached, a ruby throated hummingbird, iridescent in the sunlight, hovered a moment like a tiny helicopter while it inserted its long beak into a blossom. Then it backed out a couple of inches and zinged away. Bobby followed it with his eyes until it disappeared among the trees. Beyond the mesquites trickled a little rivulet called Walker Branch. Huge pecan and black walnut trees grew along the stream. A flock of crows evidently had a hoot owl cornered there. Their excited cawing rang and reverberated in the hollow, and Bobby, ever curious about such things, decided to investigate. On the way he paused under a large oak. He knew the story about that tree. People said a black man, accused of raping a white woman, had been hanged from one of the branches many years ago. There had been no trial. Later the woman admitted that she had made up the story because the black man had refused to chop some wood for her. What was it like to know you were going to die in a few minutes? Would you be scared? They said the man prayed that God would forgive his murderers and the woman who had accused him. The white people were never arrested. Would God answer the black man's prayer and forgive the whites? This was a question Bobby hadn't thought of before. He would have to ask Lester about that. Lester would know because he is a Vrane and real smart.

for?

189 The crows were real excited now. Would they kill the owl? How do crows know an owl is their enemy? Crows are enemies of little birds. Mockingbirds and scissortails chase them and pick out the feathers on their backs while they are flying. Walking slowly so as not to scare the crows, he reached the edge of the grove and saw the owl, a big horned owl cowering among the branches and leaves. Fascinated by all the commotion, he forgot about time. The sun was nearly down now. Do panthers still prowl in the woods? Lester had told him all the panthers had been killed, but maybe a few were still left. About the time he decided to leave he heard someone calling his name. It was Mr. Stogner. They met back at the road. "You better scoot on home, Bobby. Your mama is worried. Here's your cap. And here's something for your mother." **** "What took you so long? And what are you hiding behind your back?" "Look what I brung you, Mama! Do you like roses? Am I a good boy now?" "Oh no! Elva will be furious. I'll call her and tell her what you did, and then you will take it back in the morning and say you're sorry. You're a bad boy, and you can't have the puppy." "But she - " "Now don't sass me. Go stand in the corner 'til I say you can come out." "But, Mama - " "Be quiet. Go stand in the corner like I told you to. And wipe those tears from your eyes. One thing I can't stand is a sniffling kid." "Mama - " "Hello, Elva. About the rose ---- Oh, you sent it to me? How nice of you! It's beautiful. Thank you. I'll put in a vase with water. --- Yes, Bobby got home okay. I thought he had stolen the rose, and I was going to send him back tomorrow with an apology." Laughing, she added, "We must instill integrity in our children and prepare them to meet life's challenges, you know."

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T h e D r eam It had been a most unusual dream, if indeed, that's what it was. Dreams, Pat Nelson knew, are entirely different from reality. Most people dream in black and white, and in a dream one does not stay in the same place very long. A dreamer often changes locale instantly without being aware of moving, Pat had always been a prolific dreamer, but upon awakening, always knew the dreams were just that and nothing more. Never had he confused them with reality. This one was different. Lying in bed that early October morning, he tried to sort things out in his mind. The colors were still fresh in his memory---the blue of her eyes, the pink ribbon she had worn in her dark hair, and even the shade of the nail polish as they had appeared in the light of the full moon. He remembered the varied colors and the scent of the late blooming flowers interspersed among the oaks. He had been to that same sylvan spot near his house many times, and they appeared in this dream exactly as they were in reality. Even the gnarled old oak with the odd looking burl was the same in every detail. Even so, it had to be only a dream because he could not remember going to the place or coming back home and getting in bed. Only a dream, yes, but what a dream it was! As he was taking the solitary stroll among the shadows, he was thinking about her and craving her. In fact, she was almost always in his mind whether

191 he was awake or sleeping, for he was deeply but secretly in love with her even though he knew he could never have her. She was his wife's younger sister Tanya. She had stepped suddenly from among the trees and had come directly into his arms. There in the light if the autumn moon they had lingered in the embrace, their eager lips pressed together in a prolonged passionate kiss. How could a dream seem so utterly real? As he lay in bed with her kisses fresh in his mind, he instinctively reached for a napkin to check for lipstick. There was not a trace. In real life Tanya had never indicated either in word or gesture that she considered him as anything but a friend who happened to be her brother-in-law, although she must have suspected something more on his part. Not that he had ever done or said anything openly to reveal his feelings, but she was a woman, a sensitive and sensual woman, and that kind always know somehow. Pat and Debbie had been married eight years and now had two children, a boy and a girl, whom they both adored. The marriage, though, had never been all that he had hoped it would be. Debbie was not the kind of woman who gives herself completely to her husband. She was not an enthusiastic lover. However, he conceded to himself, she was a devoted mother to the kids and generally considered a good woman. Maybe her love and devotion to the children was part of the problem. There just was not enough love in her soul to go around. Tanya, conversely, was quite obviously a man's kind of woman. Pat envied Hal, her husband, and often wondered whether Hal fully appreciated just how fortunate he was to be married to her. The two families lived only blocks apart in the small town located in the foothills of the Sierras and often did things together such as going on camping trips. The two families spent a lot of time together. Pat liked Hal. As a matter of fact, they were buddies and hunting and fishing partners. Pat took special care never to give his

192 brother-in-law cause for suspicion. If Hal ever had any inkling of Pat's carefully concealed lust for Tanya, he never gave any hint of it. But Debbie did know or at least suspect something. Maybe she had noticed his frequent furtive and hungry glances toward her sister. Or maybe he even talked in his sleep. Or perhaps it was merely his guilty conscience that made him think she knew. At any rate, she always seemed to arrange things so that he and Tanya were never alone together. There were times when Tanya would tease him just a little but always in the presence of others and never anything that could be construed as anything but a harmless joke. No one else would have given her little pretended come-ons a second thought, but they were enough to drive him wild and send his imagination soaring out of control. At such times his aroused but restrained testosterones would become like raging caged beasts. He was thoroughly miserable. Although half mad with desire, Pat had a conscience. Even if he thought he might have a chance with her, he would never have tried to exploit it. He could well imagine what a divorce or an exposed love affair would do to his children. They were at the age at which they would be affected the most, and he would sooner die than disrupt their innocent lives. To betray their trust was unthinkable. Debbie also would be devastated, and he had no intention of ever doing that to her. Anyway, this kind of thinking had little bearing on the situation. No doubt Tanya would be shocked and perhaps angry were he to allow his emotions to dictate his behavior to the extent that he would lose control and declare to her his love. An intelligent man, Pat realized that this unhappy state of affairs was probably the cause of the vivid dream. Super charged emotions can do strange things to the human mind. Was he slowly losing his? Can insanity be brought on by unrequited love? Is there a point, he wondered, in a person's nervous system at which something snaps under severe stress? Was he about to reach that point? What if his overloaded brain should explode or snap under the

193 strain and he should become a raving maniac? What would happen to his family then? An even more troubling, frightening thought entered his mind.--- the possibility that overwrought emotions had nothing to do with it but that creeping insanity was already at work in his brain and was the cause of the weird dream. He remembered his friend Lance Gainey, who was now hopelessly insane. Lance had begun to delve into the transmundane until he lost all contact with reality. Pat learned from a psychiatrist that the onslaught of mental illness had occurred first. Lance had been an intelligent man and knew he was losing his mind, but his superior intellect was not able to arrest the process. He tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the idea from his mind. Then another thought occurred to him. Was this unusual dream a kind of safety valve like that on the pressure cooker his grandmother used on the farm to cook and can vegetables? Is a person born with some mysterious intelligent guardian whose purpose is to protect against such a catastrophe? He knew that multiple personalities sometimes result when a mere infant is brutalized. No way could a baby figure out for itself such a defense mechanism, so there must be intelligence other than that of the baby involved. In his case he certainly had not knowingly concocted the dream for that purpose. In fact, to him dreams themselves were things of mystery. Why do they occur? Why are they often so different from normal thought? A rather mild and non-violent man himself, he could not understand why some of his dreams in the past had been so outrageous and shocking. How could he, even in a dream, become a cold blooded and heartless killer? In such dreams he had felt absolutely no remorse as if he had not a vestige of conscience. Maybe in dreams people sometimes revert to the primitive creatures they were before mankind developed compassion. Could this explain why in this dream involving Tanya there had been no inhibitions, no guilt whatsoever?

194 Could a psychiatrist help him? Perhaps, but he dared not take the chance of a consultation. For obvious reasons it would have to be done in secret, and secrets have a way of popping out into the open. That would never do. Maybe this crazy love of his would eventually just die a natural death from starvation. He would fight the battle alone and hope to keep his sanity in the meantime. His sanity? The terrifying thought simply would let go. Was he already in the first stages of losing it? The thought of progressive insanity worried him. When a person is unable to distinguish fancy from reality, does that mean a part of the brain is disabled by a disease? They met again the next night in the same wooded area. He had no recollection of having left the house or how he had got there, yet here he was and here she was as real as if they had deliberately planned and kept the tryst. He had heard plainly the rustle of the fallen leaves made by her footsteps as she came running into his arms. There was no sudden unexplained shifting of direction that always seems to occur in normal dreams. All five senses remained fully alert, and he had the presence of mind to watch for any sign that would indicate anything other than reality, for he remembered perfectly the dream of the previous night. There were none. They lay together in the same grassy spot under the oak as before. After their passions were sated they talked. "Are you surprised that I would do this?" she asked. "Surprised is not the word," he replied. "How long have you known?" "About how you feel about me?" "Yes. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of concealing my love for you." "Oh, I have known for a long time. I know bedroom eyes when I see them, and I could feel the vibes." "You believe lovers send out vibes?"

195 "Of course. I answered your vibes with my own, but evidently you are not as sensitive to them as I am. However, I couldn't let you know." "Why not?" "For the same reason you had to keep silent. We can't build our lives on the wreckage of others. That's why we can make love to each other only in my dreams?" "Your dreams?" "That's right. We are really not here. This is just my dream the same as last night." "Now wait a minute. If this is just a dream I am the one doing the dreaming. In fact, I have been puzzling over this very thing." "No no, sweetheart. These are my dreams." "This is absolutely crazy. I mean we can't both be dreaming the exact same dream and certainly not at the same time. Or can we? I know a way to settle that question. Are you dreaming in color?" "I always dream in color. Don't you?" "Not always, and even when I do it is usually only one or two objects I see in color, but now everything is in perfectly natural color. I never dreamed in Technicolor before last night. Let’s try another test." He pointed to a tree. "What do you see there?" "I see a tree with a grapevine clinging to it. The vine is loaded with clusters of grapes, big purple ones. Then to the right of that on a dead limb is an old abandoned bird’s nest." "I can't believe this. It defies all logic. Tanya, I thought you were devoted to Hal. I never dreamed---well, I guess I did dream, but I never thought you really loved me." She sighed. "Hal is a good man, and I do love him in a way, but he is not much at making love. No imagination, and his lovemaking is pretty lackluster. It is never very satisfying to me. I have suspected for years that it is the same way with you and Debbie. She has never been intense in anything she does. I was sure you would be a terrific lover with a woman like me. I certainly was right

196 about that!" She paused a moment then added, "Most men would have ended a marriage like yours. It's the kids, right? "Exactly. Why have you stayed with Hal?" "I can't bring myself to hurt him, and I knew you would never leave Debbie for me, no matter how much you wanted me. You are the only man I might have left him for had you and Debbie split. Anyway, you and I can never make love in real life. It will always have to be in my dreams " He pulled her close to him. "You keep saying your dreams. I still think I am actually home in bed and dreaming this whole thing. That's the only thing that makes any sense whatsoever." "That's where you're wrong, darling. We are both home in bed, and I am having this wonderful dream." "I know this is a crazy thought," he said, "but is it possible that we both are really here? I mean, I can feel your body against mine. I hear your voice. I smell your perfume. I tasted your lipstick as soon as we kissed. I see your beautiful teeth glistening in the moonlight every time you smile. No dream is ever like this. Can it be that by some mysterious, unaccountable, unexplainable process that we are sleepwalking and awaken only after we get here, and then when we part and start home we resume our somnambulence, remembering only the time spent together? I live about a half mile from here and you a little farther. Can people sleepwalk that long without awakening?" He slapped his thigh. "But this whole thing is insane. There is such a thing as coincidence, but this is stretching it to the point of absurdity. And to top it off, how did you know I would be here?" She smiled "That's one advantage of a dream over reality. Dreams don't have to be logical or even make sense. The fact that we don't know how we got here should prove this thing is not real." "Yeah, I know, but darn it, it is real! You are real. I see you, I feel you, I hear you." He presented his bare arm to her. "Here, pinch me. Go ahead---dig your nails in until I bleed. Go on, do it." "Don't be silly. You know I won't do that."

197 "Okay, but I'd still like to know for sure. Let's agree on some sign to use the next time we all get together. While we are sitting around making small talk I will mention that Will Rogers was part Apache. You say, 'No, Cherokee.' That will settle all doubt for both of us." She considered a moment. "I don't know, sweetie. I don't think it would be a good idea for us to know that. Can we trust ourselves? As it stands we are not certain about this, but I am almost sure I will wake up in the morning and say to myself, 'What a fantastically wonderful dream, Maybe you will do the same. That way we can still have our love life without hurting anyone. Since we can't control our dreams we won't even have to feel guilty. No, in real life I won't give you any sign or hint that I know anything about this." "Of course you're right. Too much at stake. But how do we know if our dreams will continue? Now that I've had you in my arms, I'll go stark raving mad if I can't ever make love to you again." At that very moment, it seemed to him, he awakened in his bed. Debbie was asleep by his side, and dawn was peeping through the bedroom window. Now more frightened than mystified, he reached down and picked up one of his shoes to examine it for any sign of dampness or any other indication that he had taken a hike. No moisture, no grass stains, nothing.. When Debbie awakened he asked cautiously, "Do I get out of bed at night?" "You mean you don't know? Yes, you certainly do, and you talk to me." "Really? What do I say?" "You tell me you can't sleep. You put your clothes on and say you are going to the kitchen to drink coffee and read. Sometimes I think you wander around outside. Really, Pat, you've got to see a doctor. If you don't know you do this, you must be sleep walking. Are you worried over something you're not telling me about?"

198 "No," he lied. "I'm just fine. Lots of people sometimes walk in their sleep. It will pass." So he had been outside. But where? Had he really gone to a certain wooded area? This thing was developing into a crisis. To continue without being certain was intolerable. He must know the truth or go stark raving mad. Maybe he was already. He determined to find out and let the chips fall where they may. If he and Tanya had really met, she would know. And if she did know, she could not conceal all signs of the fact. "Okay, partner," Tanya said. Let's show 'em how this game should be played." It was Saturday night and the two couples were about to begin playing a game with dominoes, a game called "Fortytwo". They had just recently learned it from their new neighbors from Texas. Pat and Tanya were paired against Hal and Debbie. Had Tanya put a special emphasis on the word partner? Was she thinking of him as a partner in a different kind of game? He imagined he had caught a slight inflection in her voice, but he could not be certain. He searched her face. Her eyes betrayed nothing. He remembered she had said she would give him no sign. He would have to keep probing. After playing a hand, he casually mentioned that Will Rogers was a good checker player and wondered if he also played Fortytwo. "No doubt," Hal said. "He grew up in Oklahoma, and they all play dominoes back there." "I understand he was part Apache." He looked intently into Tanya's eyes. Not a flicker. If she was suppressing any reaction, Pat thought, she would make one hell of a poker player. "I thought he was Cherokee," Hal said. So much for that. He would just have to find another way. Would they ever meet again in their secret sylvan love nest whether dream or reality? They did. That very night. Pat had ended the game early, saying he was tired and needed some sleep. He remembered going to

199 bed about ten o'clock, and the next thing he knew Tanya was in his arms. "You rat!" she said. "That was pretty sneaky of you. I almost jumped when you mentioned Will Rogers. Darling, we just can't let this thing come out in the open. I though we had agreed ---" "I know, I know, but do you have any idea what I'm going through? It's killing me. I don't know whether I'm sane or completely batty. I can't go on like this. I have to know. I just have to. Give me some sign the next time we meet in the cold light of day." "No." "Don't be cruel, sweetheart. We can still keep it secret." "Ha! The next thing you know, we would be sneaking around, and it wouldn't be in dreams. Then all hell would break loose. Hal might even kill both of us. He is pretty jealous. He doesn't let on, but I think he suspects something." "What has he said specifically" "Nothing you could pin down. It's just a woman's intuition." "Or maybe a woman's guilty conscience?" "I don't feel any guilt. Do you?" "Not here with you, but it gives me hell at home." "Do you want me to stop meeting you here like this?" "That thought torments me." "Then let's not make something out of nothing. It seems to me we have it pretty good considering. My needs are being taken care of beautifully. In fact, Hal must be wondering why I am no longer very enthusiastic in bed. What about you?" "Yeah, now that you mention it. Debbie says I get up at night and maybe wander around outside. Do you?" "I don't think I should tell you that." "You don't have to. I know." "How do you know?" "If you don't roam around you would not hedge. You would just say you don't." "You still think we are really here, don't you?"

200 "I'll tell you what I think. I think if I don't find out for certain I'll end up in a straitjacket." He kissed her repeatedly and wiped his lips with his handkerchief. This time there would be no doubt. As usual he awakened in bed without remembering how he had come back home--- if he had ever left. That question he would settle immediately. Genuine terror seized him, however, when he reached into his pocket to check the handkerchief for lipstick. There was no handkerchief there. Then he remembered that due to an oversight he had not carried one the previous day.

201

T h e W o m an I n T h e Par k For the tenth time in the last ten minutes Rick Castle turned his left wrist toward the full moon above. One minute to midnight. Would she show up? Maybe she had been caught trying to sneak out of the house. Off in the distance a great horned owl, no doubt perched on the limb of a huge oak, uttered the question that such owls always ask. From deep into the towering hardwood trees came the terrified death squeal of a rabbit, probably a meal for some prowling predator. Those sounds and the gentle babbling of a brook were the only things that intruded into the stillness of the mid summer night. Evidently he was the only human being in the park at that time of night. Rick took a deep breath, sucking in the perfume of magnolias, jasmine and growing things. It was an altogether perfect night he thought, or it would be if she kept the midnight tryst. Doubts assailed his anxious mind. Had she been toying with him when she agreed to meet him? How many other guys had she charmed and abandoned? No, no, not this girl, he tried to convince himself. There had been unmistakable sincerity in her voice and in her manner. He was sure of it and refused to speculate otherwise. He had seen her for the first time only that morning at the very spot where he now stood. She had been among a small group of adults occupying a picnic table. He sat alone at another table a few feet away and could hardly take his eyes off her. Her loveliness stirred emotions deep within him. How could a girl attain such perfection? He pictured himself holding her close and feeling the beat of her heart against his chest. What were his chances of meeting her and capturing her interest? Nil, he knew. Evidently she was a rich girl, way above his class, as the expensive automobile parked at the curb attested. Why would she be even remotely interested him, a working boy who

202 could not afford a decent car or a new suit of clothes? Yet he dared to dream and hoped for a miracle. If she noticed him at all she gave no indication. When on the rare occasion her eyes turned in his direction they did not pause. Was she aware that he was drinking in her beauty? If so, no doubt she was only amused — if she thought of him at all. Then it happened. Her lovely eyes looked squarely at him and she actually smiled, sending a sensation throughout his whole body, a feeling that left him dizzy. Abruptly he arose from the table and wandered out to the swings. He must figure out a way to speak to her without making a fool of himself. But how? He couldn't just go barging in on the group. He sat in a swing, slowly rocking back and forth while wracking his mind. The table where she sat was not visible from the swings. In a way he was glad. The sooner he put this girl out of his mind the better. What a jerk he was. Probably he would never see her again. That car had New York license plates. No doubt they were rich Yankee tourists just passing through. With a deep sigh he arose, intending to go home when he gave one last glance in her direction. At that instant she emerged from among the trees, walking slowly toward him. His heart began to pound in his chest as he stared almost in disbelief. He sat back down in the swing and waited. At last she stood before him, flashing that wonderful smile. "Hi. Do you have a name? Mine's Tanya." "Uh, yeah, I'm Rick." He wished he could think of something clever to say, but he could only stare. "This is a lovely park. Do you come here often, Rick?" "Yes, I do. I like to come here early in the morning before people begin to arrive. I love to catch the squirrels at their business of stashing nuts in the ground and the birds at their leaf turning. Is this your first time here?" "No, I live a few blocks north of the park. We moved here from New York two weeks ago." "Hey, that's great! I was afraid you were passing through, and I'd never see you again. Uh, I guess I should apologize for my rudeness at staring at you a while ago. I didn't mean to be rude, but frankly I couldn't take my eyes off you. I reckon you noticed. I hope you were not offended." "Sure, I noticed, but I considered it a compliment. I never had the feeling you were, shall we say, ogling. I think I can recognize a leer when I see it."

203 "I'm glad you see it that way. I don't mean to rush things, Tanya, but do you think we could — like maybe — you know, see a lot of each other?" "You mean date?" "Yeah, date." He held his breath. "I'm afraid not, Rick. No offense, but my parents would never approve." "Okay, I get it. It's a social status thing, right? I must learn to stay in my place." "Now, Rick, don't jump to conclusions about me. I'm not class conscious, if that's what you mean." "Then why can't we date?" "As I said, my parents would never go for it." She made a little face. "I'm being groomed to marry into wealth and high society." "And how do you feel about that?" "I've a mind of my own, and I shall do my own choosing when it's time, but until I'm eighteen I pretty much have to play by their rules. As a matter of fact, they don't know I'm talking to you now. They watch me like a hawk. They think I've gone to that rest room over there." "But if we were to come out in the open, maybe they would begin to like me." "Oh, I'm sure they would like you, Rick, but that would not be a factor. Now if you are the son of, say, a senator and will inherit a few million, that might get you in the door." "Of course you know I'm not. I know I don't have the look of aristocracy. A casual glance would tell you that. So I'm out in the cold, right?" She considered a moment. "We can't date in the usual sense, but that doesn't mean we can't continue to see each other. We'll just have to do it on the sly for a while. Next year when I'm eighteen we can take it from there if we still want to be together." Rick stared open mouthed. "You really mean that?" "Sure. I've never disobeyed my parents by sneaking around, but I'm tired of the restrictions. It isn't fair. This is not medieval England. Don't get me wrong. I love my folks, but I need room. I'll meet you whenever you like, but you must promise never to show up at my door or phone me. That would put a sure end to anything we might have going between us." "A deal! How about tonight right here? Can you get out?" "I think so, but I won't lie to them by pretending to visit another girl. I'll have to wait until they are asleep. That might make it

204 late in getting here, possibly around midnight. I won't be able to stay long. Now I must get back to the picnic table before they start looking for me." Rick could hardly believe his luck as he paced in the moonlight. Yes, she would show up. She had not been play-acting. He felt confident as he checked his watch again. What a beautiful night with the bright moon and deep shadows. The setting seemed almost surreal, almost like a dream. A half hour later Tanya still had not arrived, and he began to worry, unable to sit still. Another twenty minutes and he got up and wandered out to the baseball diamond while he kept an anxious eye on the picnic table. Any minute now, he told himself. Absent-mindedly he picked up a broken bat some kid had discarded. He would take it to the trash bin. The clack-clack of high heels on the sidewalk sent him racing back to the table. Why would she be running? And why would she be wearing high heels if she had to sneak out of the house. But wait. Something is wrong. Tanya had said she lived north of the park, but the sound was coming from the opposite direction. Rick lived south of the park. Tahya would not be coming from that direction. Stepping out from among the deep shadows, he walked out to the sidewalk and listened. Whoever was making the loud clackclacks was getting closer. Then he saw her emerge into the moonlight, a woman dressed in a gossamer gown. Quickly he stepped back into the shadows and waited. As she drew near he could hear her gasp for breath. Why was she running? The answer in the form of a man soon appeared, rapidly overtaking her. This definitely was not Tanya. Was this a rape in the making? Rick clutched the meat end of the bat and sprang into action as the man overtook the woman and wrestled her to the ground. The woman fought furiously, but the man was too strong and had her pinned down when Rick ran to them. Instinctively Rick grabbed a handful of hair with his left hand, yanking the man to a kneeling position. Then he whacked him on the head with the baseball bat. The assailant crumpled to the ground and lay still. The woman got to her feet, and without so much as a "thank you" continued running in the same direction she had been going before being wrestled to the ground, the clack-clack of her high heels fading into the night. Trembling, Rick stared after her, stunned at what he had seen when he had looked into her eyes, the wild, burning eyes of some wild animal. Now he began to worry that

205 he might have killed the man. Blood oozed from both ears. He would have to find a phone and call an ambulance and the police. He never got the chance. The police found him as he stood over the prone figure. The spotlight from the patrol car blinded him. "Police!" a voice shouted. "Stay where you are! Now drop the club and lie face down on the ground." "Now wait a minute, officer," Rick protested. "I ---" "Shut up." Quickly Rick was handcuffed and searched. "Look, man, I can explain this." "Sure you can. You can explain it to a judge." The cop read him his rights, hustled him into the squad car, and took him to the police station. "Rick Castle!" said Kevin Moore, the desk sergeant. Turning to the arresting officer he said, "What the hell is this, Bill?" "I'll tell you what the hell it is. I caught him red-handed holding a baseball bat and standing over a man he had clobbered. He'll be lucky if the man lives." "Rick, what have you got to say about this? It so happened that Rick and Kevin were acquainted, having played tennis together with mutual friends. Rick told his story, beginning with his meeting Tanya that morning, their agreement to meet in the park, and the circumstances leading to his arrest. He finished by adding, "I'm going to marry that girl." "Really? Just like that? What's the girl's name?" "Tanya." "Tanya who?" Rick's face turned red. He had not thought to ask Tanya's last name. "I, um, I don't know. I met her for the first time only hours ago." The arresting officer, who had stood by during the interrogation, burst out laughing and went guffawing down the hall. "Hold it a minute, Bill. Did you see this woman Rick claims he rescued from a rapist?" "There was no woman. I think this will put a halt to the rash of robberies we've had in the park lately." "Kevin," Rick said earnestly, "I'm no robber. I've told you the truth. The guy was gonna rape her. I'm sure of it. Otherwise, why would he throw her to the ground?" "Okay, Rick. As a friend, I'll check out your story and get back to you later tonight. In the meantime we'll have to hold you. The cell bunk is not too bad. Get some sleep." "Can I call my mother?"

206 "I'll take care of that. I'll just tell her that you're here and that you witnessed a crime and will be late in getting home." Rick removed his shoes and lay on the bunk, trying to make sense of the events of the night. Why hadn't Tanya kept the date? Was this a case of a rich and beautiful city girl playing games with a naive country hick? Was she laughing at his gullibility. He couldn't believe that. Probably her folks had company who stayed late. He would find her somehow and learn the truth. Unable to sleep, he lay wide-eyed on his bunk and waited. Two hours later, true to his word, Kevin unlocked the cell door and sat on the bunk beside Rick. "You're free to go, Rick," he said. I talked to the guy you clobbered. He will spend a few days in the hospital and have one hell of a headache, but he will be okay. You're in luck. He confirmed your story and said he would not press charges. He also told me about that woman. She is his sister and has been locked up in an institution for the criminally insane. "Earlier today, or rather yesterday now, she escaped and came by his house, demanding to be given sanctuary. Instead he called the authorities at the facility. The old gal flew into a rage and began babbling about her mistreatment by her mother, blaming her for breaking up her romance twenty years ago. The woman is a homicidal maniac. She considers every woman her rival and has murdered twice. "While her brother was talking on the phone in another room, she took off. Their mother lives north of the park, and this guy you thought was a rapist feared she was on her way to kill her. You know the rest of the story. "Now get your shoes on and come by the desk to pick up your things. I'll drive you home." Relieved but still worrying about Tanya, he headed for the desk, on the way passing the squad room where two officers were talking. The door stood ajar, and Rick paused a few seconds to eavesdrop, for he heard them mention the events in the park. "I wouldn't want to tangle with that old gal," one was saying. "She must be strong as an ox. I understand she kills with her bare hands, choking her victims to death. She got another one tonight in the park, a young girl. What was her name? Oh, yes - Tanya." It was daylight when Sergeant Kevin Moore dropped off Rick at his house. His mother was already up and had coffee made. After relating to her all that happened the previous day and night, he asked her to call his boss at the shoe store where he worked. He

207 was so emotionally drained, he said, that he didn't think he could deal with customers. He would take a day or two off. Rick declined breakfast and lay on his bed fully dressed except for his shoes. Turning on the radio, he listened to the morning news. Maybe the newscaster would give Tanya's address. Also he wanted to know for sure whether she was dead. Perhaps by some miracle she had revived. He had heard of others coming out of it after having been pronounced dead. He heard his own name mentioned but had tuned in too late to catch the first part of the newscast. He had to wait another hour for it to be repeated. Tanya's last name, he learned, was Stephens, but there was no address given. A mad woman in the park had indeed strangled Tanya to death. Unable to rest, he put his shoes on and told his mother that he was going to a small waterfall in a heavily wooded area a few miles out of town, giving her explicit directions on how to get there in case it became necessary to reach him. Parking his car on the side of a dirt road, he hiked the quarter of a mile to the falls. Ordinarily the soft roar of the falls would have been soothing to Rick, but now as he lay on the grass under the big oak, it only intensified the deep ache in his heart. Here in this lovely sylvan edenic setting he had planned to bring Tanya. They would lie there and plan their future. Then they would stroll through the woods, and he would show a Yankee city girl some of the charms of a Dixie paradise in the country. He would lift her up to peek into a bird's nest in which four tiny fuzzy baby birds stretched their scrawny necks; beaks wide open, expecting to be fed. Also there was that meadow with the wild flower covered knoll and a million colorful butterflies. She would be thrilled at the wild perfume and the tiny iridescent hummingbirds. But now those heavenly dreams were never to be. He would never hold her close to his heart and kiss those lovely lips. What did his future hold now? It seemed so empty and bleak, a drab existence in a never, never land. Life, he was sure, would hardly be worth living. He told himself that he would never marry. There would never be another Tanya in his life. Maybe he would join the Merchant Marines and just roam the world. Fate could be so cruel. A slight rustle of the fallen dead leaves behind the tree scarcely drew his attention. No doubt a squirrel or maybe an unwary doe that would bolt upon getting a nostril full of man odor. "Hi," a familiar feminine voice said. "Do you have a name?

208 Mine's Tanya—Tanya Barclay, not Stephens. Oh, by the way, our company stayed until almost an hour past midnight last night. I could have just died—but I didn't."

209

A St r i n g Of Bead s Esther gradually became aware that the car was moving. Intending only to relax in the back seat of the ancient two-door sedan while waiting for her sister Vera to make the house call, she had catnapped instead. Actually it was more than a nap, for the grinding noise of the starter had not awakened her. Using her hands, she shifted alienated legs and sat up straight. Then she froze with horror, for the eyes that peered back at her were not the soft, smiling ones of her sister, but the cold glaring eyes of a man. Past mid life, Esther never married. A car accident years before had left her paralyzed from the waist down. Evidently the thief had not noticed the sleeping figure in the back seat among the piles of boxes. They sat staring at each other for several seconds. The terrified woman had never before seen such a face. It was pock marked and swarthy. The fat nose obviously had been broken. The mouth could only be described as cruel. The thick lips drew back in a sneer that revealed broken yellow teeth. Pulling to the curb, he stopped. "Get out!" he snarled, his fierce eagle eyes blazing. "Sir, I-I'm a paraplegic. I can't walk. Please go away. This old car is not worth stealing." The man appeared to be undecided. Then with a foul curse he floored the accelerator, keeping an eye on her in the rear view mir-

210 ror. "One scream and you're dead," he warned, showing a revolver. "You be a good girl and I won't hurt you. And if we pass a patrol car you laugh like you're having a good time. Don't try to draw any attention. No cop is going to take me alive. One false move and you won't know what hit you. You understand me, lady?" Instinct told her to begin screaming, but common sense prevailed. From the looks of the brute he would probably carry out the threat. Remain calm and think, she told herself. Panic might be fatal. "Sir," she said with forced calmness, "why do you want a car that should have been in the scrap heap years ago? This thing is a wreck. Why, it even has holes in the floor. Surely you could do better." “What’s all that junk in the boxes back there?” “It is household items. My sister sells house-to-house. She lost her job as a waitress and had to sell all her jewelry to buy this old wreck of a car. This is her first call. Now, sir, please take me back and let me out. "Shut up and remember what I said." "I'll cause no trouble, but would you tell me what your plans are?" "I'll let you out in some back alley. You can crawl to some house, but if there's any yelling before I get away, I'll kill you on the spot. If you want to live to see another sunrise, you'll give me an hour's start before the hell raising commences. After I let you out, I'll circle around a few times to make sure you stay put. You won't know when I might show up again, and if you're not still there, I'll find you. Get the picture?" "I understand, sir, but if you'll just take me back, I promise to keep this quiet, and you can go on about your business. You started this car without a key, and I'm sure you could do the same with a much later model." The man gave a short mirthless laugh. "Dames are all alike. You think I'm stupid. Now be quiet and let me think." Far from convinced that this beast would set her free, she determined to keep her wits about her and come up with a plan. An

211 item she had read in a newspaper years ago about a kidnapped woman who used her lipstick to scrawl HELP on the car door gave her an idea. It had worked then. Maybe it would again. The window on her side was already rolled down, and cautiously she fumbled in her purse for the tube of red lipstick. With the tip exposed she let her left arm hang out. The man thrust his right hand back over his shoulder. "Give me the lipstick. I'm watching every move you make, and don't you forget it. You broads are all alike. You think I'm stupid," he repeated. "This is the last warning. My intelligence has been insulted, and that makes me unhappy. Maybe I'll change my mind about letting you go. Don't try my patience." Numb with dread, she mentally commanded her heart to slow down. Gradually anger replaced fear. Ever a fighter, she had not allowed the tragedy of the accident to defeat her, and now she vowed not to submit to this monster meekly. On the floor was an open carton of sharp knives of various kinds. Her hands were not visible in the rear view mirror, and with trembling, groping fingers she located a paring knife. Maybe the situation would not come to a desperate life or death struggle, but if it did she determined to give it her best effort. With that decision her mind became clear, and other options began to present themselves. The man drove carefully, obeying all traffic laws. Soon he left the residential section and entered the industrial area, bumping over a railroad track and weaving through narrow alleys. The area appeared deserted. Labor Day! There would be no one here to help. Her dread intensified. The odor of rotting vegetables together with the stench of general decay plunged her spirits into the lowest depths of despair. Splintered wooden crates crunched under the car's wheels. Obscene graffiti covered every wall. The distant sound of traffic seemed to be in another world. Never before had she felt so alone and helpless. Presently the abductor stopped by a small building with an overhead door that faced into a filthy alley strewn with empty wine

212 bottles, old car parts, broken furniture, and greasy rags that once had been clothes. There was even a dead cat by a rusty, battered garbage can. Flies by the thousands swarmed around both. Like the other structures, the small building was covered with sprayed weird symbols, no doubt the work of gang members who, like the wild predators they imitate, mark their territories. "Okay, sweetheart," the man announced, "this is where I leave you." "Please, sir, does it have to be in this horrible place?" "Horrible place? Lady, you don't know anything about horrible places. This is the Garden of Eden compared to where I've been." Then he got out of the car and peeked into the building through a barred window. Apparently satisfied, he picked the old padlock, slid the bolt back and lifted the door. Instead of leaving her and driving away as she expected, he drove the car inside and closed the overhead door. Apparently this had been a storage building. Now it was empty and about the size of a two-car garage. Esther squeezed the handle of the paring knife. The kidnapper seemed to be in no particular hurry. Returning to the car, he eased his muscular body under the steering wheel, leaving his door open. "So you're a cripple, eh? Tough. Too bad you aren't blind also. That way I wouldn't have to kill you." This statement sent tremors through her upper body but came as no surprise. Keep him talking. Maybe he would relent and let her live, although death might be preferable to being left to starve in the "Garden of Eden". "Do you have a family?" she asked. "Sure. Seven wives and sixteen boys, all doctors. We live in a castle in Beverly Hills. A dozen swimming pools and statues all over the place. We have a butler, chauffeur, gardener, and two maids for each room in the mansion. I'm actually a famous brain surgeon. I kidnap, rape and murder crippled women just for the hell of it." His grin was incredibly evil. "Where were you reared?"

213 "Reared? The only rearing I got as a boy was when Mom's boyfriends would come in drunk and rear me with whatever they could find to hit me with. Most of the time it wasn't in the rear." He pointed to a jagged scar on his left cheek. "See this? It's a little souvenir from a poker when I was eight. Knocked me out for two hours. Mom was either too drunk or too scared to help me." "Do you believe in God? 'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord, 'I will repay.'" "Seems to me the Lord's threatened vengeance will come a little late to accomplish any useful purpose. Sure as hell didn’t help me when I was a helpless little kid and needing protection. Where was God then when I needed Him?“ “People have freedom of choice. We can choose good, or we can choose evil. You saw what the choice of evil causes. Why have you not chosen good over evil?” "Shut up!" Stepping out of the car, the felon mumbled obscenities as he walked around to the passenger side, opened the door and tossed cartons out of his way. Then he pulled the backrest forward so that he could drag her over it. So this is it! Evidently the alternate plan she had put into effect immediately after the man thwarted her lipstick strategy had failed. It had been a plan made in desperation, a very long shot, but it was the best she could do at the time. Ready to lift the knife, she would aim for the eye like a heron defending her nest from a fox. The thrust would have to be accurate and quickly lethal. When Vera came out of the house and saw that her car was gone, wild panic seized her, knowing her sister couldn't drive. She had not pulled up into the long driveway but had parked on the street. A few seconds elapsed before she got herself together. After running back into the customer's house without the formality of ringing the bell, she dashed for the telephone on the shelf that divided the kitchen and the dining room. Ken, her policeman brother, arrived in less than ten minutes.

214 Vera was waiting outside for him when he pulled up in the patrol car with siren screaming and lights flashing. He had been in the station when she called. He was alone now. "Get in," he instructed. "We will cruise around, and if we spot the car, I'll call the desk while we follow from a distance. If Esther has been kidnapped the person might be armed, and dangerous. You can help me look; otherwise, I wouldn't bring you along." "Why would anyone want to steal an old car like that?" "Who knows what thieves will do? Maybe it wasn't the car he wanted." Vera began to cry and immediately he silently cursed himself for the thoughtless remark. "But let's not jump to conclusions. Maybe one of her lady friends came by and they went for a cup of tea." "Oh sure. A friend just happened to walk by —" "Okay, okay. It was a dumb thing to say. But we don't know what happened, so let's not come all unglued. Just keep a sharp eye out." The kidnapper was just about to reach for Esther's arm when a voice shouted from outside the barred window. "POLICE! Lie face down and clasp your hands behind your head. You go for that gun, and I'll blow you to bits." The man looked over his shoulder and saw a shotgun pointing at his spine. Evidently he forgot his vow never to be taken alive. "On the floor. NOW! Any sudden move and it will be your last." Cops surrounded the buiding. One opened the door while another kept the man covered. Quickly he was handcuffed and disarmed. One signaled for Ken and Vera, who were parked a safe distance away, to drive on up. They rushed in to a smiling but tearful Esther. "You saw it," Esther said to her sister, almost disbelieving that her desperate plan had actually worked. Some long shots do pay off. "You spotted my string of beads!" The sullen abductor looked at her and then at Ken. "What is she talking about, pig? How did you find us?"

215 Ken's grin was anything but sullen. "We followed a trail." The brute's face reflected his puzzlement. "What?" "Beads, punk. We followed a string of beads—soap beads."

The third book by Cecil Talley