We gathered in silence at the tractor early Monday morning. I wanted so badly to sneak back into the house and into Ricky's bed and sleep for days. No cotton, no Hank Spruill, nothing to make life unpleasant. "We can rest in the winter," Gran was fond of saying, and it was true. Once the cotton was picked and the fields plowed under, our little farm hibernated through the cold months.
But in the middle of September, cold weather was a distant dream. Pappy and Mr. Spruill and Miguel huddled near the tractor and spoke earnestly while the rest of us tried to listen. The Mexicans were waiting in a group not far away. A plan was devised whereby they would start with the cotton near the barn, so they could simply walk to the fields. We Arkansans would work a little farther away, and the cotton trailer would act as a dividing line between the two groups. Distance was needed between Hank and Cowboy, otherwise there would be another killing.
"I don't want any more trouble," I heard Pappy say. Everyone knew the switchblade would never leave Cowboy's pocket, and we doubted that Hank, dumb as he was, would be stupid enough to attack him again. Over breakfast that morning Pappy had ventured the guess that Cowboy wasn't the only armed Mexican. One reckless move by Hank, and there might be switchblades flying everywhere. This had been shared with Mr. Spruill, who had assured Pappy that there would be no more trouble. But by then no one believed that Mr. Spruill, or anybody else, could control Hank.
It had rained late last night, but there was no trace of it in the fields; the cotton was dry, the soil almost dusty. But the rain had been seen by Pappy and my father as an ominous warning of the inevitable flooding, and there was an anxiousness about the two that was contagious.
Our crops were nearly perfect, and we had just a few more weeks to gather them before the skies opened. When the tractor stopped near the cotton trailer, we quickly grabbed our sacks and disappeared among the stalks. There was no laughing or singing from the Spruills, not a sound from the Mexicans in the distance. And no napping on my part. I picked as fast as I could.
The sun rose quickly and cooked the dew from the bolls of cotton. The thick air clung to my skin and soaked my overalls, and sweat dripped from my chin. One slight advantage in being so small was that most of the stalks were taller than me; I was partially shaded.
Two days of heavy picking, and the cotton trailer was full. Pappy took it to town; always Pappy, never my father. Like my mother and (he garden, it was one of those chores that had been designated long before I came along. I was expected to ride with him, something I always enjoyed because it meant a trip to town, if only to the gin.
After a quick dinner, we took the truck to the field and hitched up the cotton trailer. Then we climbed along its edges and secured the tarp so that no bolls would blow away. It seemed a crime to waste a single ounce of something we'd worked so hard to gather.
"A Painted House"
As we drove back to the house, I saw the Mexicans behind the barn, grouped tightly, slowly eating their tortillas. My father was at the tool shed, patching an inner tube for a front tire on the John Deere. The women were washing dishes. Pappy abruptly stopped the truck. "Stay here," he said to me. "I'll be right back." He'd forgotten something.
When he returned from the house, he was carrying his twelve-gauge shotgun, which he slid under the seat without a word.
"We goin' huntin'?" I asked, knowing full well that I would not get an answer.
The Sisco affair had not been discussed over dinner or on the front porch. I think the adults had agreed to leave the subject alone, at least in my presence. But the shotgun suggested an abundance of possibilities.
I immediately thought of a gunfight, Gene Autry style, at the gin. The good guys, the farmers, of course, on one side, blasting away while ducking behind and between their cotton trailers; the bad guys, the Siscos and their friends, on the other side returning fire. Freshly picked cotton flying through the air as the trailers took one hit after another. Windows crashing. Trucks exploding. By the time we crossed the river, there were casualties all over the gin lot.
"You gonna shoot somebody?" I asked, in an effort to force Pappy to say something.
"Tend to your own business," he said gruffly as he shifted gears.
Perhaps he had a score to settle with some offending soul. This brought to mind one of the favorite Chandler stories. When Pappy was much younger, he, like all farmers, worked the fields with a team of mules. This was long before tractors, and all farming was done by man and animal. A ne'er-do-well neighbor named Woolbright saw Pappy in the fields one day, and evidently Pappy was having a bad day with the mules. According to Woolbright, Pappy was beating the poor beasts about their heads with a large stick. As Woolbright later told the story at the Tea Shoppe, he'd said, "If I'd had a wet burlap sack, I'd've taught Eli Chandler a thing or two." Word filtered back, and Pappy heard what Woolbright said. A few days later, after a long hot day in the fields, Pappy took a burlap sack, put it in a bucket of water, and skipping dinner, walked three miles to Woolbright's house. Or five miles or ten miles, depending on who happened to be telling the story.
Once there, he called on Woolbright to come out and settle things. Woolbright was just finishing dinner, and he may or may not have had a houseful of kids. Anyway, Woolbright walked to the screen door, looked out into his front yard, and decided things were safer inside.
Pappy yelled at him repeatedly to come on out. "Here's your burlap sack, Woolbright!" he yelled. "Now come on out and finish the job."
Woolbright retreated deeper into his house, and when it was evident he wasn't coming out, Pappy threw the wet burlap sack through the screen door. Then he walked three or five or ten miles back home and went to bed, without dinner.
I'd heard the story enough to believe it was true. Even my mother believed it. Eli Chandler had been a hot-tempered brawler in his younger days, and at the age of sixty he still had a short fuse.
But he wouldn't kill anybody, unless it was in self-defense. And he preferred to use his fists or less menacing weapons like burlap sacks. The gun was traveling with us just in case. The Siscos were crazy people.
The gin was roaring when we arrived. A long line of trailers waited ahead of us, and I knew we'd be there for hours. It was dark when Pappy turned off the engine and tapped his fingers on the wheel. The Cardinals were playing, and I was anxious to get home.
Before getting out of the truck, Pappy surveyed the trailers and the trucks and tractors, and he watched the farmhands and gin workers go about their business. He was looking for trouble, and seeing none, he finally said, "I'll go check in. You wait here."
I watched him shuffle across the gravel and stop at a group of men outside the office. He stayed there awhile, talking and listening. Another group was congregated near a trailer in the line ahead of us, young men smoking and talking and waiting. Though the gin was the center of activity, things moved slowly.
I caught a glimpse of a figure as it appeared from somewhere behind our truck. "Howdy, Luke," the voice said, giving me a start. When I jerked around, I saw the friendly face of Jackie Moon, an older boy from north of town.
"Hi, Jackie," I said, very relieved. For a split second I thought one of the Siscos had started the ambush. He leaned on the front fender with his back to the gin, and produced a cigarette, one that he'd already rolled. "Y'all heard from Ricky?" he asked.
I watched the cigarette. "Not lately," I said. "We got a letter a couple of weeks ago."
"How's he doin'?"
"Fine, I guess."
He scraped a match on the side of our truck and lit the cigarette. He was tall and skinny and had been a basketball star at Monette High School for as long as I could remember. He and Ricky had played together, until Ricky got caught smoking behind the school. The coach, a veteran who'd lost a leg in the war, bounced Ricky from the team. Pappy had stomped around the Chandler farm for a week threatening to kill his younger son. Ricky told me privately that he was tired of basketball anyway. He wanted to play football, but Monette couldn't have a team because of cotton picking.
"A Painted House"
"I might be goin' over there," Jackie said.
I wanted to ask why he thought he was needed in Korea. As much as I hated picking cotton, I would much rather do it than get shot at. "What about basketball?" I asked. There was a rumor that Arkansas State was recruiting Jackie.
"I'm quittin' school," he said, and blew a cloud into the air.
"I'm tired of it. Been goin' for twelve years already, on and off.
That's more 'an anybody else in my family. I figure I've learned enough."
Kids quit school all the time in our county. Ricky tried several times, and Pappy had become indifferent. Gran, on the other hand, laid down the law, and he finally graduated.
"Lot of boys gettin' shot over there," he said, staring into the distance.
That was not something I wanted to hear, so I said nothing. He finished his cigarette and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "They're tellin' that you saw that Sisco fight," he said, again without looking at me.
I figured that somehow the fight would get discussed during this trip to town. I remembered my father's stern warning not to discuss the incident with anyone.
But I could trust Jackie. He and Ricky had grown up together.
"Lots of folks saw it," I said.
"Yeah, but ain't nobody talkin'. Hillbillies ain't sayin' a word 'cause it's one of their own. Locals ain't talkin' 'cause Eli's told everybody to shut up. That's what they're tellin', anyway."
I believed him. I didn't doubt for a second that Eli Chandler had used the Baptist brethren to circle the wagons, at least until the cotton was in.
"What about the Siscos?" I asked.
"Ain't nobody seen 'em. They're layin' low. Had the funeral last Friday. Siscos dug the grave themselves; buried him out behind the Bethel church. Stick's watchin' 'em real close."
There was another long gap in the conversation as the gin howled behind us. He rolled another cigarette, lit it, and finally said, "I saw you there, at the fight."
I felt like I'd been caught committing a crime. All I could think to say was, "So."
"I saw you with the little Pinter boy. And when that hillbilly picked up that piece of wood, I looked at the two of you and thought to myself, Those boys don't need to see this. ' And I was right."
"I wish I hadn't seen it."
"I wish I hadn't, either," he said, and discharged a neat circle of smoke.
I looked toward the gin to make sure Pappy wasn't close. He was still inside somewhere, in the small office where the gin owner kept the paperwork. Other trailers had arrived and were parked behind us. "Have you talked to Stick?" I asked.
"Nope. Don't plan to. You?"
"Yeah, he came out to the house."
"Did he talk to the hillbilly?"
"So Stick knows his name?"
"Why didn't he arrest him?"
"I'm not sure. I told him it was three against one."
He grunted and spat into the weeds. "It was three against one all right, but nobody had to get killed. I don't like the Siscos, nobody does, but he didn't have to beat 'em like that."
I didn't say anything. He drew on the cigarette and began talking, the smoke pouring out of his mouth and nose.
"His face was blood-red and his eyes were glowin', and all 'a sudden he stopped and just looked down at 'em, as if a ghost grabbed him and made him quit. Then he backed away and straightened up, and looked at 'em again as if somebody else had done it. Then he walked away, back onto Main Street, and all the other Siscos and their people ran up and got the boys. They borrowed Roe Duncan's pickup and hauled 'em home. Jerry never woke up. Roe his self drove Jerry to the hospital in the middle of the night, but Roe said he was already dead. Fractured skull. Lucky the other two didn't die. He beat 'em just as bad as he beat Jerry. Ain't never seen nothin' like it."
"I'd skip the fights for a while if I was you. You're too young."
"Don't worry." I looked at the gin and saw Pappy. "Here comes Pappy," I said.
He dropped the cigarette and stepped on it. "Don't tell anybody what I said, all right?"
"I don't want to get involved with that hillbilly."
"I won't say a word."
"Tell Ricky I said hello. Tell him to hold 'em off till I get there."
"I will, Jackie." He disappeared as quietly as he had come.
More secrets to keep.
Pappy unhitched the trailer and got behind the wheel. "We ain't waitin' three hours," he mumbled, and started the engine. He drove away from the gin and left town. At some point late in the night, a gin worker would hitch a small tractor to our trailer and pull it forward. The cotton would be sucked into the gin, and an hour later two perfect bales would emerge. They would be weighed, and then samples would be cut from each and set aside for the cotton buyer to evaluate. After breakfast, Pappy would return to the gin to get our trailer.
"A Painted House"
He would examine the bales and the samples, and he would find something else to worry about.
The next day a letter arrived from Ricky. Gran had it lying on the kitchen table when we came through the back door, our feet dragging and our backs aching. I'd picked seventy-eight pounds of cotton that day, an all-time record for a seven-year-old, though records were impossible to monitor because so much lying went on. Especially among kids. Both Pappy and my father were now picking five hundred pounds every day.
Gran was humming and smiling, so we knew the letter had good news. She snatched it up and read it aloud to us. By then she had it memorized.
Dear Mom and Dad and Jesse and Kathleen and Luke:
I hope all is well at home. I never thought I'd miss the cotton picking, but I sure wish I was home right now. I miss everythingthe farm, the fried chicken, the Cardinals. Can you believe the Dodgers will take the pennant? Makes me sick.
Anyway, I'm doing fine over here. Things are quiet. We're not on the front anymore. My unit is about five miles back, and we're catching up on some sleep. We're warm and rested and eating good, and right now nobody is shooting at us and we're not shooting at anybody.
I really think I'll be home soon. It seems like things are slowing down a little. We hear some rumors about peace talks and such, so we've got our fingers crossed.
I got your last batch of letters, and they mean a lot to me. So keep writing. Luke, your letter was a tad short, so write me a longer one.
Gotta run. Love to all, Ricky -
We passed it around and read it again and again, then Gran placed it in a cigar box next to the radio. All of Ricky's letters were there, and it was not uncommon to walk through the kitchen at night and catch Pappy or Gran rereading them.
The new letter made us forget about our stiff muscles and burned skin, and we all ate in a hurry so we could sit around the table and write to Ricky.
Using my Big Chief writing tablet and a pencil, I told him all about Jerry Sisco and Hank Spruill, and I spared no detail. Blood, splintered wood, Stick Powers, everything. I didn't know how to spell a lot (if the words, so I simply guessed. If anyone would forgive me for misspelling, it was Ricky. Since I didn't want them to know that I was spreading gossip all the way to Korea, I covered my tablet as best I could.
Five letters were written at the same time, and I'm sure five versions of the same events were described to Ricky. The adults told funny stories as we wrote. It was a happy moment in the midst of the harvest. Pappy turned on the radio, and we got the Cardinals as our letters grew longer and longer.
Sitting around the kitchen table, laughing and writing and listening to the game, there was not a single doubt that Ricky would soon be home.
He said he would be.