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Red River Roamer
By Betty W. Graham
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2003 Betty W. Graham
All rights reserved.
Anders Yoakum stirred his Post Toasties aimlessly, trying to keep the worry out of his mind. "How long will she be gone, Pa?"
He noticed that his pa still had his appetite. Pa picked up the box to fill his cereal bowl again before he answered. "Hard to tell, Andy—your ma don't know herself. She just got sick of all this wind and dust."
Pa shook his head and reached for the jug of milk. "Can't say as I blame her for going to her mother's. As she's been remindin' me lately, your ma was brought up in the piney woods where things are better." Andy caught the sarcasm in his voice. "Even so, if I could sell this godforsaken land of ours, I'd move us to California tomorrow."
"But Pa, I heard Mr. Gorman telling you that we have one of the finest bottomland farms this side of Red River. Can't we just hang on to it until the dust quits?"
Pa frowned—as he always did when Mr. Gorman was mentioned. "Hang on to what? The alfalfa is burned already and its only the first of June ... and the cotton will never see the gin."
He ran his hand through his hair and stared into his bowl. Then he looked at Andy with eyes that pled for understanding. "You know how much work we have put into this farm, you and me—and your ma. It has just about broke your ma and it's up to me to find a way to do better without killing us all."
"I know, Pa. "Andy's thoughts turned to California, and the excitement it stirred in him began to blot out the worries he was having about Ma.
Uncle Wiley, Ma's brother, had written of the country on the Pacific as if it were a paradise on earth with blue skies and fresh clean water ... and a "place where the wind was only gentle breezes," he had said. He had written about their garden full of crisp lettuce and cabbages ... and fruit to pick from the trees—acres and acres of them.
Ma loves gardens so it got to her. She had said before she left to go to East Texas that if Pa didn't take her to California soon she'd throw a saddle on Lucifer and go all by herself. That was the argument they'd had the night before she rode the bus to Granma's.
Pa picked up his sack lunch, reached for his battered hat on the back door nail, and stood for a minute in the open door. "Looks like we're in for another storm, Andy. Get in an extra load of mesquite for the stove and clean all the lamps. We might be inside for a spell. I'm goin' to harrow that cotton—what there is left of it—one more time to keep down as much blowin' as I can."
Then he turned to Andy with a look so sad it went clear to his toes. "I know, son, your school out and all, you'd like to take off and go fishin' ... And we will, son ... one of these days." Then he left, leaving Andy to clean up the kitchen and the milk pails from the milking and to get the milk ready for churning later.
For at least five of his thirteen years, Andy had taken care of their two mules, one horse, and two milk cows. He'd milked the cows, too, and now since Ma had gone, he was doing the churning, feeding of the chickens, and egg gathering as well. Pa was in the fields most of the day ... and Andy was lonely.
"Guess you and me will have to keep each other company," he said to Lucifer as they went down the pasture path looking for likely mesquite wood. "How'd you like it if we got a dog, or even a goat to liven things up around here?" As he thought about it though, he knew what his pa would say. "Can't support another mouth on the land we got, son."
Andy worked hard, cutting and loading the wood on the sled behind Lucifer, and thinking of the way things used to be. Pa had been full of energy then, building up their farm from the sixty acres of mostly cotton to the hundred and twenty it was now.
He was one of the first to put in alfalfa and Andy remembered what a sight it was two years after Pa had planted the seeds. He remembered how he had romped through the fragrant field of lavender blooms, and Ma had hugged Pa and him together as they stood on the edge of it. "A river garden, that's what it is," she'd said.
The sky was now a brassy color and the sled kicked up swirling red dust in its wake as Andy rode back to the house. "Won't be long now, Lucifer. I hope Pa is gettin' done with that cotton."
He unhitched Lucifer from the sled, and led him to the barn where he rubbed him down and gave him just about the last of the alfalfa hay. When he went out to drive the cows in for milking, he noticed the two mules were back in the lot. Pa had beat him in.
After milking, Andy gathered an armload of wood and headed to the house just as the wind picked up, pricking with sand needles at his face and ears. He knew what was coming next. He had to hurry to clean the lamps before the reddish black wall of dirt rolled in from over Red River.
Pa was nowhere to be seen. His door was shut, which meant that Pa was in his room but wanted to be left alone. Andy started a fire in the wood stove and brought out the lamps to clean, wondering if Pa might feel like making supper in a little while.
With Ma gone, the two of them had eaten from cans—mostly, soup and spaghetti—but just before she left, Pa had fried eggs and made pancakes with a strip of bacon each. Just remembering how good that was made Andy's mouth water. Even Ma had said it was good—"too good to go off and leave," she'd said. But she went, anyway.
By this time the wind was shrieking and wailing around the house, rattling windows and sifting dust through the cracks. Andy hurried to finish the lamps because the storm was blotting out the sun fast. The dark brought loneliness as it folded around him, the kind that outdid all efforts to keep it away. When will this ever stop? I wish Pa would wake up.
When the lamps were cleaned and one lit for the kitchen, Andy felt better. I might even make supper myself, he thought ... I'll surprise Pa. He went to the cabinet to search for a can of vegetable soup, and there on the shelf was a bottle of liquor—half full.
In all these years, Andy had never seen his pa drunk. He shut the cabinet door without the soup and went back to sit at the kitchen table to think. Why is Pa starting to drink? For the same reason that Ma went away? What is happening to my family?
"I hate this storm! I hate this country! I wish we were in California—right now!" Andy put his head down on the table and sobbed.
That night as Andy lay in his bed supperless, he heard the wailing of the wild dogs on the river. Their high and drawn out howling above the wind would have sent shivers up his spine once, but now Andy felt a strange kinship with them. They were defying the storm and its misery, as he knew, somehow, he must.
* * *
The next morning dust still hung in the air. The choking dust seeped in around his coat collar and, despite the bandana around his face, he coughed. Ma had coughed too ... a lot. Said she was tired of eating Oklahoma for breakfast, dinner and supper. I can't hold it against her any more than Pa, but I wish she'd stayed just the same. We aren't a family now.
When he finished the milking, Andy let the cows out into the lot and was about to close the bam door when something caught his eye. At the back door where Pa tossed the breakfast scraps for the chickens, was a dog. It resembled a wolf with a coat of gray and brown blending into the black of its tail and muzzle.
Its ears were up, alert, and tail down with legs braced for running if need be, so Andy stayed still—flat against the barn door—watching. The dog sniffed around the door and then picked up a biscuit from yesterday's breakfast in its mouth, turned and ran off toward the river. Andy looked after him, thinking what a fine farm dog he must have been ... once.
When Andy brought the milk in, he saw that Pa had made biscuits for breakfast again. Seemed like he'd wanted to make up for something. He'd rarely done that before unless Ma was sick.
Andy told him he liked the biscuits as he ate them slathered with syrup, and had tried to make conversation. But Pa kept his head down and didn't act like he wanted to hear anything, much less talk ... and then didn't come out of his room the rest of the morning.
Andy got some of his school tablet paper and started a letter to Ma. He had to talk to somebody. He told her about the storm and about the dog ... and about Pa's making biscuits that morning. And finally he wrote that he missed her very much.
Andy was careful not to mention anything about Pa's drinking. As much as he could, Andy blotted it out of his mind—he didn't even go near the bottle in the cabinet.CHAPTER 2
Pa looked a little more cheerful at supper that night. Andy had heated a can of soup and put out crackers and cheese.
"Thanks, young feller," Pa said and began the blessing.
"Pa, we had a visitor this morning at the back door. He took one of your biscuits home with him."
"You mean one of them hoboes?"
"No sir, it was a dog. He was a good lookin' one too. Wonder what he was doing coming here, Pa?"
"One of them wild dogs down by the river, I reckon. The storm probably stirred 'em up a bit, and they roamed."
Andy chose his words carefully. "Pa, what do you reckon it'd take to make one of them tame? We could use a good dog around here, don't you think so?"
Pa shook his head and looked at Andy over his soup. "You don't want none of them strays down by the river, son. That one'd run off every chance he got." Then he laughed.
"Didn't favor my biscuit either, unless he took it to dunk in the river. If he can't eat my cookin', then he'd starve to death on this farm, anyhow."
After finishing his supper, Pa leaned back in his chair and studied Andy's face. "How'd you like to work this summer for Mr. Gorman?"
The question took Andy by surprise. He liked Mr. Gorman, even if Pa was always having words with him about something. Mr. Gorman's farm was getting by in spite of the drought and Depression, too— something Andy would like to find out about.
"Sure, Pa ... but aren't we going to California?"
"Well, I've been thinkin' on it. But we can't count on anything coming of it, even if we go there, son ... and, until we find a real place for us out there, you'd be better off staying here."
"But Pa, I wouldn't have a family no more."
"Now, don't go gettin' upset before plans have even been made. You might board with the Gormans while we're gone. He seems to like you, son."
Pa picked his teeth for a silent moment. "You could work for your keep and learn the things a farmer ought to know. Lord knows, you can't learn 'em from me anymore." Then he leaned forward and put his head between his hands. "With your ma dead set for going to California, I haven't had the heart to put into this place."
Andy tried to swallow his fears, but they were threatening to swallow him. If I just had a dog ... I'll have to get one some how.
"Well, what about it Andy?"
"Y-y-yes, Pa. I guess so. I'll ... I'll stay if you want. Will you see Mr. Gorman tomorrow?"
"Have to think on it. I'd planned to go to the bank tomorrow and see what I can do to get rid of this place.. .don't know what they'll say yet with our owin'. Some folks," he said, as if to himself, "just up and leave without sayin' nothin'. But I'll see Gorman after that ... Now you'd best get those dishes washed and get ready for bed, son. We've got a long day cornin' up."
Before he went to bed that night, Andy laid out cheese and crackers for the wild dog.
* * *
Pa got up earlier than usual and was gone before daylight without breakfast. Andy found a note on the kitchen table:
"Gone to Altus to post note of sale. Took Lucifer—truck out of gas. Be in tonight." Pa.
Andy was puzzled. Thought he was going to the bank today. And he was going to talk to Mr. Gorman. He sighed, thinking how much Pa changed his mind these days. Seemed like all sense of direction had failed him.
The sky was fairly clear of dust when Andy went out to the barn to milk. At least it seemed so by lamplight, and he could breathe easier than yesterday. He checked the crackers and cheese he had left by the back door, and they were still there.
Well, maybe Pa was right. The dog was used to catching rabbits, prairie dogs and things for himself. I'd just confuse him by tryin' to turn him into a farm dog. All through the milking though, Andy wished he could make the dog his own. He daydreamed about having a romp with him along the river, scouting out crawdads and rabbits and throwing sticks for him to catch.
When he had finished the chores, Andy took the cows out of their stalls to get water at the windmill tank and left the mules to eat their hay. As he passed through the gate with the milk pails, Andy thought he saw a figure slipping past in the dim light. Could it be the dog again? Andy's heart quickened, but when he came back to check it out, whatever it was had disappeared ... But so had the crackers and cheese!
Hot diggety! Maybe he isn't all wild yet. He 's eaten some of the food I left for him. If I can just tame that dog to stay with me. He must have come here for some reason ... maybe just because I need him.
The churning and egg gathering had to be done after he ate his Post Toasties, and it was almost noon when he thought about the job with Mr. Gorman. Pa won't be back till night and chances are that Mr. Gorman will want someone to help him with his garden right away—even to chop cotton. His is so far ahead of ours.
I think I'm old enough to do my own asking. Maybe I'll do it right now. Pa would be proud if I could work even half a day.
Mrs. Gorman met him at the back door and invited him in. "Won't you have a bite with us, Andy?"
He stepped into a kitchen full of the aroma of fried chicken and wished he could sit down with them. But he said, "No thanks, Mrs. Gorman. I just wanted to ask Mr. Gorman somethin.' Their radio was on at the noontime news. "Today Governor Bill Murray of Oklahoma ordered out the militia to guard the free bridge across Red River. His action was taken as the Supreme Court meets ..."
Andy blushed at the thought of interrupting their dinner when Mr. Gorman came in with his napkin already tucked under his rippling chin.
"I ... I just wanted to ask you, Mr. Gorman, if you could use me on your farm this summer."
"Well, young Andy, your pa tells me you are a good worker. Why don't we start you on chopping cotton for a few days and then I might have something else in mind for you later. How'd that be?"
Without hesitation, Andy said, "Yessir, that'd be fine. When do you want me to start?"
"Let me check with your pa about 'when', Andy, and we can arrange for you to come in when you aren't needed at your place. I'm sure you have things to do there, too."
"Uh—yessir. Pa went to Altus to post a sale sign for the farm and will be back tonight, he said." Andy backed down the steps. "Goodbye, Mr. Gorman."
"Hold on there, Andy. You say your pa is putting your farm up for sale? Why in the world is he doing that? Well, never mind, I'll talk to him later. Goodbye, Andy."
Andy was already in bed when he heard Pa come in, and he started to get up and fix something hot for him. But Pa was making loud noises and banging into the furniture ... something Andy had not witnessed before ... something that made him pull his covers over his head and pretend to be asleep when Pa opened his door.
The noises stopped after Pa went to his room and closed the door. Andy stayed awake until he heard him snoring, hoping everything would be all right in the morning. Then he remembered. I must get an early start tomorrow ... my chores to do first and then, if Pa says so, Mr. Gorman's cotton. Andy turned over and went to sleep.CHAPTER 3
Rain was falling when Andy went out in the dark to do his morning chores. Clouds covered the east where he usually saw the sun come up. If he had not been half-asleep, the rain would have made him turn cartwheels in the bam.
Rain! The very thing they had been hoping for since early March. Maybe this will turn Pa around to planning for this farm again, Andy thought, giving the milk cow a pat to share his happiness. Maybe Ma will come home again, and things will be better.
Pa didn't wake up at his usual time. Andy heated water for coffee and made a little toast to go with it for Pa, but didn't take time to make much breakfast. Mr. Gorman would surely be wanting him to come after the rain stopped. He wanted to be ready.
Soon Andy heard a truck pull up outside ... Mr. Gorman's truck. And Pa isn't up yet. What'll I do? I'll just have to wake him, that's all.
He rapped on Pa's door, gently at first, but when he got no answer, hit it harder with his fist. Andy heard through the door, "What'dya want?"
"It's Mr. Gorman, Pa."
"Tell that old owlhoot to go to blazes!" Andy knew Pa was not himself and thought about making some excuse to Mr. Gorman when he came to the door.
"No, wait, I'll talk to 'im in a minute. Tell 'im to come on in."
Andy heard the bed springs squeaking as Pa got up and the splashing of water in his wash bowl ... and then Mr. Gorman's knock on the door.
Andy invited Mr. Gorman in as Pa went to the stove and put coffee in the pot. "Will you have a cup of coffee, Gorman?" he asked.
Mr. Gorman sat at the table and wiped the rain off his face before answering. "Thanks, I'll have one with you ... Elliot, I've come to ask a favor."
Excerpted from Red River Roamer by Betty W. Graham. Copyright © 2003 Betty W. Graham. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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