The Devil was beating his wife when the rusty green cattle trailer backed through an assortment of oak, pecan, elm, and hackberry trees surrounding a warped and sun-splintered catch pen. The rough gray corral full of bawling cattle almost disappeared in the shadows despite the rain cloud moving quickly to the east. The loading chute was rickety at best. The odor of wet dust, crushed milkweeds, and cowshit filled the air.
Nervous cattle bawled as two hard-looking men ignored the brief shower falling in the sunshine and herded them with whoops and hollers up the wooden ramp and into the trailer hitched to a two-toned blue and white Ford truck. The mama cows wore brands, but the red white-face calves and more than a few heifers were unmarked.
The current hit “Harper Valley PTA” came through the pick-up’s open windows.
The men were halfway finished loading them when a green 1955 International pickup turned off the highway and crunched to a stop on the red gravel turnout at the gate. A slender, slow-moving farmer in a sweat-stained straw cowboy hat shoved the cranky door open with his shoulder and stepped out to wrestle aside the limp wire gate. He grunted at a sharp pain in his back that was iffy, even on good days.
The long shadows of the surrounding hardwoods almost prevented the landowner from seeing the trailer a hundred yards away. The glittering shower focused most of his attention on the streaked windshield made worse by wiper blades baked hard as a rock by the northeast Texas sun.
The front chrome bumper of the unfamiliar two-toned truck caught his eye through the open window. The farmer frowned at the sight, turned the wheel, and cut through the bitterweeds, throwing debris and tiny grasshoppers into the air and across his unpolished hood.
He killed the International’s engine twenty yards from the catch pen and popped the door open, sitting half-in and half-out to study the scene. The men working the cattle stopped, as if expecting what came next.
Coming to a decision, the farmer de-trucked and stuck both hands into the pockets of his overalls. “Hey, fellers. What are y’all doing?” His voice rose above the bawling cattle and wavered, either in fear or anger.
A man, dark-complected under a cracked and battered straw hat, climbed over the corral. His shaggy, greasy brown hair hung limp over large ears that looked like the open doors of a Buick.
A redhead in a faded, thin plaid cowboy shirt stretched tight across a bulging belly lit a cigarette and rested his forearms over the top sun-dried board to watch. He unconsciously rubbed the edges of untrimmed fingernails crusted with dirt against each other.
Greasy Hair left the trailer’s back gate and met the agitated rancher in the open pasture. The shape of his face and abnormally close-set eyes along with the flapping ears suggested mental issues, something he often played in his favor when people misjudged him. “Howdy.”
“I said what are you doin’? Don’t y’all know you’re on private property?”
The restless cows on the ramp stomped into the green trailer and the others paused, bawling. The crew of sweating men who’d been loading the cattle were silent.
Greasy Hair ran long, slender fingers along the side of his head. “We’re loading cattle.” Balancing on one leg, he used a boot to rub at a smear of brown cowshit on the opposite leg of his jeans. “It’s hot and nasty work, ain’t it?”
“Them cows are mine. Nobody said you could load ’em up in anything.”
“Guy Harris did.”
The farmer shook his head. “I don’t know no Guy Harris.”
Greasy Hair frowned as if deep in thought and couldn’t believe a mistake had been made. “He sold us these cattle. I got a bill of sale in the truck there.”
“If he did, y’all got took. These are mine, and they ain’t for sale. Y’all let ’em out and get gone.”
Greasy Hair hooked both thumbs into the front pockets of his khakis. His shoulders were wet from the rain shower. A smell like sour milk rose from his sweaty skin.
He turned to gaze across the pasture at the milkweed and bitterweeds scorching in the sun. Cicadas cried in an undulating chorus from the surrounding hardwoods, their song rising and swelling in rhythmic unison. He slipped a hand under his untucked shirt and scratched his stomach. “Well, I don’t know. See, Guy said this was his place and he gave us directions directly to this pen. Said we could round up all we wanted, ’cause he was selling out.”
The farmer’s face reddened in anger. “Mister, this is my land and them are my cows. Now you get shed of this place or I’m calling the laws.”
“Aw, I wish you wouldn’t do that. Look, it’s too hot to stand here in the sun like we got good sense. Come on in the shade and let’s work this out. I got some ice water over there.”
“Nope. I’m staying right here.”
Greasy Hair swiveled around to eye the cattle. A horsefly buzzed his head and he waved it away. “Well, I guess the mistake is ours. We watched this place for two weeks and never saw nobody.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We never saw nobody come out here.” Greasy Hair sighed and looked defeated. “Didn’t see nobody feed, nor scatter so much as a bag of nuggets. And now you show up. Dale!” He called toward the truck. “C’mon over here and help us work this out.”
“Nothing to work out.” The farmer’s attention flicked back and forth between Greasy Hair and the redhead coming their way.
Greasy Hair shrugged. “There’s always something to work out.”
“I been down in my back and ain’t had time to come out…” the farmer trailed off, as if realizing he was volunteering information they didn’t need.
The redhead named Dale was built like a fireplug. He took his hat off and joined them, wiping sweat with his left hand. A Newport cigarette bobbed between his lips. “What’s the trouble?”
“Y’all’re loadin’ my cattle, that’s the trouble.” The farmer pointed at the trailer. “What do I have to say for y’all to get gone? How about I’m going to call the laws and they’ll take care of this? Is that plain enough?”
Greasy Hair smiled. “Now, hang on a minute. See, I believe we made an honest mistake here.”
Dale squinted from beneath thin eyebrows. Like most redheads, he couldn’t tolerate the sun and his nose was burned. He drew on the cigarette and exhaled through both nostrils without taking it from his lips. “Owen, did we come to the wrong pasture?”
“Looks like it.” Greasy Hair stuck out his hand. “Hey, I’m sorry. My name’s Owen. What’s yours?”
The farmer refused the offered hand and backed away to put more distance between himself and the strangers. “Name’s Pat Walker and I’ll be back with the constable and then we’ll see what’s what.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do that.” Dale spoke to the retreating farmer’s back.
Pat turned to address the redhead and Owen pulled a German Luger from under his shirt. “This is on you.”
He shot Pat Walker in the back of his head.
The 9mm round punched through the hat’s thin crown. Blood flew in a red mist. His hat went spinning away as the farmer collapsed with a heavy thump. Thick gushes of blood from his nose and the huge exit wound flowed into the barely damp ground.
Dale rubbed at his own blistered nose. “Possum, I told you we didn’t need to do this in broad daylight.”
Owen slipped the Luger back into his waistband and studied the still corpse at his feet as if looking for signs of life. He tilted his head along the line of Walker’s body and raised his gaze. “I’ve told you I don’t like that name. Don’t ever call me that again.”
People from his hometown called him by the nickname until one night outside of a bar when he beat a young man half to death with an axe handle for calling him that.
Fear flashed across Dale’s face when he realized what he’d said. “I meant, it wasn’t a good idea to shoot him right here in broad daylight.”
Owen exaggerated a look around the pasture. “I don’t see no grandstands full of people or nothin’. Like I told this fool, we watched the pasture for two weeks. The least he could have done was to send somebody around to check on his cows and we’d have knowed.” He spun toward the trailer.
Dale paced him. “What now?”
Owen looked surprised at Dale’s question. “Why, we finish loading these cattle and get gone. I got buyers waiting in Austin.” Owen started back toward the catch pen. “When we’re done, you drag him in the corral and pull his truck in, too. We’ll have plenty of time before anyone misses him.”
The rustlers turned toward the west at the throaty roar of an airplane. A crop duster suddenly burst into view over the tree-tops, dangerously low. A widening trail of mist spread over the pasture, covering the men standing in the open.
“What the hell!?” Despite his hat, Owen ducked his head as the cloud settled around them.
Dale used one hand to protect his eyes as a light mist blew under the bill of his cap. “What’s he spraying here for?”
“Must be some kind of weed killer, maybe?”
“Naw, nobody sprays weed killer on a place while there’s cattle on it.”
“They don’t spray people, neither.” Owen wiped his sleeve and sniffed. “It don’t have any smell.” He absently rubbed at his dandruff-covered shoulders.
“Do you think he saw this dead sonofabitch?”
“Probably not. It’s hard to see directly below you in one of those things, and he came over the trees so fast I doubt he even knew we were down here. That’s why he hit us with that crap. It don’t make no nevermind. Let’s finish up here and go.”
Dale took a deep drag down to the filter and dropped it on the ground. A deep, wet cough rattled his lungs and he shook another cigarette from the pack. “This next one’ll help my cough.”
A buzzard floated high above as they laughed and ignored Pat Walker’s cooling body.
A cow bawled in the pasture beside our little frame farmhouse, the sound hoarse and mournful. A mockingbird sang in the sycamore near the southwest corner, doing his best to brighten the already warm and sticky November day. A covey of quail caught my eye, working in single file down the bobwire fencerow separating what Miss Becky called the side yard from the woods beyond.
Fully dressed in jeans and a plaid button shirt, I was on my bed, reading in a soft breeze blowing through the rusty screen, when she called from the kitchen. “What’s it gonna take to get you two up and out of this house?”
Mark Lightfoot was drawing on a sheet of lined paper. His jeans and button shirt were fairly new, because my grandmother, Miss Becky, threw out all of his old clothes when he came to live full time with us several months earlier.
He’d been drawing on what he called some house plans. He’d been at it for a couple of days, and when I peeked, it was our farmhouse with a wraparound porch and an extra room that we didn’t have.
He’s not blood kin and his last name is different from us Parkers’. Miss Becky and Grandpa Ned had Judge O.C. Rains draw up some papers last year so Mark could live with us full time since his people couldn’t take care of him anymore. They were poor Choctaws from across the river in Oklahoma, and barely had enough money for coal oil.
“We will in a little bit.” I had to raise my voice so she could hear me over the rattling pans. I think she made noise in the kitchen to run us out. “Then we’ll gather the eggs and feed the cows.”
“Five, four…” Mark pulled a strand of his long black hair out of his eyes spoke around the yellow pencil in his teeth, “… three…”
I marked my place in the book with a finger. “What are you doing?”
Miss Becky appeared in the door, studying us with that same eye she used when she was trying to decide on making us go with her to Wednesday night services at the Holiness Church across the pasture. “I believe I’m fixin’ to get a come-along out of the smokehouse to drag you two out on the floor.”
“We’re just feeling lazy.”
“It’s comin’ on to nine o’clock already.” She studied at us for a while. “Good Lord, deliver me from teenage boys. Y’all figuring on stayin’ in bed all day? Your Grandpa Ned’ll get y’all’s goat when he comes home.”
My Grandpa Ned had been the local constable for Center Springs since the beginning of World War II. “We’ll get going in a minute.”
“You’ll get up right now. Y’all can’t laze a whole Saturday away.”
“We have plans. We’re gonna camp out tonight.”
Mark raised an eyebrow, knowing we hadn’t discussed it. The idea’d popped into my head that second, because some kids in my book by Fred Gipson were coon-hunting and sitting around a campfire. I was burying myself more and more in books, on account of I was having trouble with one of the kids at school and it was the best way to escape to somewhere else.
It wasn’t the first time. Cale Westlake gave me holy hell the year before, picking on me every day and beating me down with threats, pushing me around, and wartin’ me to no end. It started the first week of school and didn’t let up until him and my girl cousin Pepper ran off together to California.
He was the Baptist preacher’s boy and learned a lesson while he was out there. After they got back he kind of faded into the background. But like Ms. Rosalie Russell always said in science class, nature despises a vacuum. When Cale straightened up, one of his former toadies, Harlan Ketchum, moved in and took over, and he was mean as a snake.
“I swanny.” Miss Becky worked the dishtowel around her hands. She flipped it over one shoulder and absently wiped them on the sides of her blue and white house dress that reached midway to her knotty old calves. “Where do y’all figure to camp out?”
I propped my head on one hand and watched a white-face cow slap her tail at a swarm of pestering flies beyond the smokehouse. I knew how she felt. Me and Judge O.C. Rains hated flies with a passion.
“How about right down there by the old hog pen?”
She glanced out the window toward what was left of the empty pen by the bobwire fence. “Fine then, but y’all don’t chop up nothing but them rotten planks off the pen to make your fire. Leave the good ’uns. Your granddaddy might want them for something.”
Mark crossed his eyes to be funny. “It’ll be hotter’n blue blazes out there today. Why’re you wantin’ to go camping?”
I didn’t tell him about the book. “I’m bored. It’ll give us something to do.”
“That’s all you Parkers have is adventure.” He swung his legs over the side of the cotton mattress.
Half an hour later we finished putting up a smelly old canvas tent. “I don’t know why we need this. It’s too hot to breathe and there’s no way we’re gonna sleep in there tonight.” Mark pulled his headband loose, pulled his hair back, and settled it back around his head.
My dog Hootie who’d been watching from the shade of a big bodark tree caught a scent and took off past the barn. The humid air was thick enough to cut with a knife and the only thing that broke up the blue bowl of sky was a couple of skinny little clouds off to the southwest.
“What are you two up to?”
I looked up to see Pepper standing back at the gate in her Sunday clothes. We hadn’t heard the car come up the red gravel drive. Her mama, Aunt Ida Belle, was talking to Miss Becky beside the porch. Hootie ran ahead to greet Pepper, wagging his tail and barking to beat the band.
Mark and I left our camp and met her at the fence fifty yards away. I seldom saw her in a dress. “Ain’t you purty standing there in the weeds. Where you going?”
My near-twin cousin rolled her eyes. “Kiss my lily white ass. We’re going to town. Mama’s aunt is visiting from California and I have to go sit and look at that old lady for a couple of hours.”
Standing there in a bright jersey pullover shift, she didn’t look like herself, softer and not as hard-edged.
“She won’t let you stay here?” Mark patted her head like she was a puppy.
She grinned and slapped at his hand. If it’d been me, she’d-a got mad, but they’d been making goo-goo eyes at one another since Mark showed back up. “No, dummy. Don’t you think I asked? I’m not interested in going to Aunt Earline’s house to sit on her plastic-covered couch and try not to get her white carpet dirty. I swear, I can’t stand that old woman.”
Miss Becky and Aunt Ida Belle went inside at the same time Curtis Gaines popped up over the big red oak tree in the pasture. His Stearman crop duster was lower than I’d ever seen.
Afraid of the low-flying plane, Hootie made a bee-line for the house and slipped under the porch. Mr. Curtis was so low I could see him twisting around, busy with something behind him.
Mark whistled. “Man, he’s low!”
“He’s going down!”
The plane’s engine roared and started to climb, like Mr. Curtis does when he gets to the end of a field. He was spraying something right then, but it wasn’t the crop-dusting cloud I was used to seeing. Two thin streams of white vapor widened out overhead.
A white mist settled on us. Mark and I ducked and squinched our eyes shut.
Pepper covered her hair with both hands. “Well, shit!”
The mist fine as a cloud collected on my arms, but disappeared as quick as our breath in the winter. I rubbed my hair. “What was that?”
“Well, it wasn’t cotton poison.” Mark looked toward the bottoms where Mr. Curtis’ plane disappeared. “I know what that smells like, and this ain’t it.”
I sniffed at my hand and arm. There was no odor at all. “I wonder what he’s doing.”
“Probably running water through his tanks to clean ’em out and wanted to aggravate some kids.” Pepper ran her hands over her clothes and hair. “And he damn-sure did it.”
The women came back outside before we could answer. Miss Becky looked up at the sky, probably to see the airplane, but it was long gone. There wasn’t anything up there but a couple of turkey buzzards spiraling high overhead, looking for something dead or dying.
Aunt Ida Belle waved her arm. “Let’s go, hon.”
Pepper looked like she was going to the electric chair and I could tell Aunt Ida Belle was getting frustrated with her daughter’s slow speed, walking like she had dead lice falling off of her. When she got in their old yellow Bel Air and slammed the door, Aunt Ida Belle started giving her the what-for as they backed up and drove away.