I was nearing the end of a long row of cotton, close to the thicket that bordered Siler's Creek, when I heard voices. The stalks were especially tall, and I was lost amid the dense foliage. My sack was half-full, and I was dreaming of the afternoon in town, of a movie at the Dixie with a Coca-Cola and popcorn. The sun was almost overhead; it had to be approaching noon. I planned to make the turn and then head back to the trailer, working hard and finishing the day with a flourish.
When I heard people talking, I dropped to one knee, and then I slowly sat on the ground without making another sound. For a long time I heard nothing at all, and I was beginning to think that maybe I had been wrong, when the voice of a girl barely made it through the stalks to where I was hiding. She was somewhere to my right; I couldn't tell how far away.
I slowly stood and peeked through the cotton but saw nothing. Then I crouched again and began creeping down the row toward the end, my cotton sack abandoned for the moment. Silently, I crawled and stopped, crawled and stopped, until I heard her again. She was several rows over, hiding, I thought, in the cotton. I froze for a few minutes until I heard her laugh, a soft laugh that was muffled by the cotton, and I knew it was Tally.
For a long time I rocked gently on all fours and tried to imagine what she was doing hiding in the fields, as far away from the cotton trailer as possible. Then I heard another voice, that of a man. I decided to move in closer.
I found the widest gap between two stalks and cut through the first row without a sound. There was no wind to rustle the leaves and bolls, so I had to be perfectly still. And patient. Then I made it through the second row and waited for the voices.
They were quiet for a long time, and I began to worry that maybe they'd heard me. Then there was giggling, both voices working at once, and low, hushed conversation that I could barely hear. I stretched out flat on my stomach and surveyed the situation from the ground, down where the stalks were thickest and there were no bolls and leaves. I could almost see something several rows away, maybe the darkness of Tally's hair, maybe not. I decided I was close enough.
There was no one nearby. The others-the Spruills and the Chandlers-were working their way back to the trailer. The Mexicans were far away, nothing visible but their straw hats.
Though shaded, I was sweating profusely. My heart was racing, my mouth dry. Tally was hiding deep in the cotton with a man, doing something bad, or if not, then why was she hiding? I wanted to do something to stop them, but I had no right. I was just a little kid, a spy who was trespassing on their business. I thought about retreating, but the voices held me.
The snake was a water moccasin, a cottonmouth, one of many in our part of Arkansas. They lived around the creeks and rivers and occasionally ventured inland to sun or to feed. Each spring when we planted, it was common to see them ground up behind our disks and plows. They were short, black, thick, aggressive, and filled with venom. Their bites were rarely fatal, but I'd heard many tall tales of horrible deaths.
If you saw one, you simply killed it with a stick or a hoe or anything you could grab. They weren't as quick as rattlers, nor did they have the striking range, but they were mean and nasty.
This one was crawling down the row directly at me, less than five feet away. We were eyeball-to-eyeball. I'd been so occupied with Tally and whatever she was doing that I'd forgotten everything else. I uttered something in horror and bolted upright, then I ran through a row of cotton, then another.
A man said something in a louder voice, but for the moment I was more concerned with the snake. I hit the ground near my cotton sack, strapped it over my shoulder, and began crawling toward the trailer. When I was certain the cottonmouth was far away, I stopped and listened. Nothing. Complete silence. No one was chasing me.
Slowly, I stood and peeked through the cotton. To my right, several rows away and already with her back to me, was Tally, her cotton sack strapped over her shoulder and her straw hat cocked to one side, steadily making her way along as if nothing had happened.
"A Painted House"
And to my left, cutting low through the cotton and escaping like a thief, was Cowboy.
On most Saturday afternoons Pappy could find some reason to delay our trip to town. We'd finish lunch, and I'd suffer the indignity of the bath, then he'd find something to do because he was determined to make us wait. The tractor had some ailment that suddenly needed his attention. He'd crawl around with his old wrenches, making a fuss about how it had to be repaired right then so he could buy the necessary parts in town. Or the truck wasn't running just right, and Saturday after lunch was the perfect time to poke around the engine. Or the water pump needed his attention. Sometimes he sat at the kitchen table and attended to the small amount of paperwork it took to run the farming operation.
Finally, when everyone was good and mad, he'd take a long bath, and then we'd head to town.
My mother was anxious to see the newest member of Craighead County, even though he was a Latcher, so while Pappy piddled in the tool shed, we loaded four boxes of vegetables and headed across the river. My father somehow avoided the trip. The baby's alleged father was his brother, and that, of course, made my father the baby's alleged uncle, and that was something my father simply wasn't ready to accept. And I was sure he had no interest in another encounter with Mr. Latcher.
My mother drove, and I prayed, and we somehow made it safely over the bridge. We rolled to a stop on the other side of the river. The truck stalled, and the engine died. As she was taking a deep breath, I decided to say, "Mom, there's somethin' I need to tell you."
"Can it wait?" she asked, reaching for the ignition.
We were sitting in a hot truck, just off the bridge, on a one-lane dirt road without a house or another vehicle in sight. It struck me as the perfect place and time for an important conversation.
"What is it?" she said, folding her arms across her chest as if she'd already decided I'd done something terrible.
There were so many secrets. Hank and the Sisco beating. Tally at the creek. The birth of Libby's baby. But those had been tucked away for a while. I'd become adept at keeping them private. The current one, though, had to be shared with my mother.
"I think Tally and Cowboy like each other," I said, and immediately I felt lighter.
"Is that so?" she said with a smile, as if I didn't know much because I was just a kid. Then the smile slowly vanished as she considered this. I wondered if she, too, knew something about the secret romance.
"And what makes you think this?"
"I caught them in the cotton patch this mornin'."
"What were they doing?" she asked, seeming a little frightened that maybe I'd seen something I shouldn't have.
"I don't know, but they were together."
"Did you see them?"
I told her the story, beginning with the voices, then the cotton-mouth, then their escape. I omitted no details, and, amazingly, I did not exaggerate anything. Maybe the size of the snake, but for the most part I clung to the truth.
She absorbed it and seemed genuinely astounded.
"What were they doin', Mom?" I asked.
"I don't know. You didn't see anything, did you?"
"No ma'am. Do you think they were kissin'?"
"Probably," she said quickly.
She reached for the ignition again and said, "Oh well, I'll talk to your father about it."
We drove away in a hurry. After a moment or two I really couldn't tell if I felt any better. She'd told me many times that little boys shouldn't keep secrets from their mothers. But every time I confessed one, she was quick to shrug it off and tell my father what I'd told her. I'm not sure how I benefited from being so candid. But it was all I could do. Now the adults knew about Tally and Cowboy. Let them worry about the problem.
The Latchers were picking near their house, so by the time we rolled to a stop, we had an audience. Mrs. Latcher emerged from the house and managed a smile, then she helped us haul the food to the front porch.
"I guess you wanna see the baby," she said softly to my mother.
I wanted to see it also, but I knew my chances were slim. The women went into the house. I found a spot under a tree near our truck, and I planned to loiter, alone, just minding my own business while I waited for my mother. I didn't want to see any of the Latchers. The fact that we were now probably related by blood made me ill.
Three of them suddenly appeared from around the truck-three boys, with Percy leading the group. The other two were younger and smaller but just as lean and wiry as Percy. They approached me without a word.
"Howdy, Percy," I said, trying to at least be polite.
"What're you doin' here?" he growled. He had a brother on each side, all three of them lined up against me.
"My mother made me come," I said.
"You ain't got no business here." He was practically hissing through his teeth, and I wanted to back up. In fact, I wanted to tuck tail and run.
"A Painted House"
"I'm waitin' for my mother," I said.
"We're gonna whup your ass," Percy said, and all three of them clenched their fists.
"Why?" I managed to say.
" 'Cause you're a Chandler, and your Ricky did that to Libby."
"Wasn't my fault," I said.
"Don't matter." The smallest one looked particularly fierce. He was squinting and twisting his mouth up at the corners, sort of snarling at me, and I figured the first punch would come from him.
"Three on one ain't fair," I said.
"Wasn't fair what happened to Libby," Percy said and then, quick as a cat, he punched me in the stomach. A horse could not have kicked any harder, and I went down with a shriek.
I'd had a few scuffles at school-playground push-and-shoves that were broken up by the teachers before serious blows were landed. Mrs. Emma Enos, the third-grade teacher, gave me three licks for trying to fight Joey Stallcup, and Pappy could not have been prouder. And Ricky used to be rough with me, wrestling and boxing and such. I was no stranger to violence. Pappy loved to fight, and when I hit the ground, I thought of him. Somebody kicked me; I grabbed a foot, and instantly there was a pile of little warriors, all kicking and clawing and cussing in the dirt. I grabbed the hair of the midsized one while the other two pounded my back. I was determined to yank his head off when Percy landed a nasty shot to my nose. I went blind for a second, and they, squealing like wild animals, piled on again.
I heard the women yell from the porch. It's about time! I thought. Mrs. Latcher arrived first and began pulling boys from the heap, scolding them loudly as she flung them around. Since I was on the bottom, I got up last. My mother looked at me in horror. My clean clothes were covered with dirt. My nose was oozing warm blood.
"Luke, are you all right?" she said, grabbing my shoulders.
My eyes were watery, and I was beginning to ache. I nodded my head yes, no problem.
"Cut me a switch!" Mrs. Latcher yelled at Percy. She was growling and still flinging the two smaller ones around. "Whatta you mean beatin' up that little boy like that? He ain't done nothin'."
The blood was really flowing now, dripping off my chin and staining my shirt. My mother made me lie down and tilt my head back to stop the bleeding, and while we were doing this, Percy produced a stick.
"I want you to watch this," Mrs. Latcher said in my direction.
"No, Darla," my mother said. "We're leaving."
"No, I want your boy to see this," she said. "Now bend over, Percy."
"I ain't gonna do it, Ma," Percy said, obviously scared.
"Bend over, or I'll get your father. I'll teach you some manners. Beatin' up that little boy, a visitor to our place."
"No," Percy said, and she hit him in the head with the stick. He screamed, and she whacked him across the ear.
She made him bend over and grab his ankles. "You let go and I'll beat you for a week," she threatened him. He was already crying when she started flogging away. Both my mother and I were stunned by her anger and brutality. After eight or ten very hard licks, Percy started yelping. "Shut up!" she shouted.
Her arms and legs were as thin as the stick, but what she lacked in size she made up for in quickness. Her blows landed like machine-gun fire, fast and crisp, popping like a bullwhip. Ten, twenty, thirty shots, and Percy was bawling, "Please stop it, Ma! I'm sorry!"
The beating went on and on, far past the point of punishment. When her arm was tired, she shoved him to the ground, and Percy curled into a tight ball and wept. By then the other two were already in tears. She grabbed the middle one by the hair. She called him Ray-ford and said, "Bend over." Rayford slowly clutched his ankles and somehow withstood the assault that followed.
"Let's go," my mother whispered to me. "You can lie down in the back."
She helped me up to the bed of the truck, and by then Mrs. Latcher was pulling on the other boy, yanking him by the hair. Percy and Rayford were lying in the dirt, victims of the battle they'd started. My mother turned the truck around, and as we drove off, Mrs. Latcher was battering the youngest one. There were loud voices, and I sat up just enough to see Mr. Latcher running around the house with a trail of children behind him. He yelled at his wife; she ignored him and kept hammering away. When he reached her, he grabbed her. Kids were swarming everywhere; everyone seemed to be either screaming or crying.
The dust boiled behind us, and I lost sight of them. As I lay down again and tried to get comfortable, I prayed that I would never again set foot on their farm. I never wanted to see any of those people for the rest of my life. And I prayed long and hard that no one would ever hear the rumor that the Chandlers and the Latchers were related.
My return home was triumphant. The Spruills were cleaned up and ready for town. They were sitting under a tree, drinking iced tea with Pappy and Gran and my father, when we rolled to a stop less than twenty feet away. As dramatically as I could, I stood in the back of the truck, and with great satisfaction watched them react in shock at the sight of me. There I was-beaten, bloodied, dirty, clothes ripped, but still standing.
"A Painted House"
I climbed down, and everyone gathered around me. My mother stormed forward and very angrily said, "You're not gonna believe what happened! Three of them jumped Luke! Percy and two others caught him when I was in the house. The little criminals! We're takin' food over, and they pull a stunt like this."
Tally was concerned, too, and I think she wanted to reach out and touch me, to make sure I was all right.
"Three of 'em?" Pappy repeated, his eyes dancing.
"Yes, and they were all bigger than Luke," my mother said, and the legend began to grow. The size of my three attackers would increase as the days and months went by.
Gran was in my face, staring at my nose, which had a small cut on it. "Might be broken," she said, and though I was thrilled to hear it, I was not looking forward to her treatment.
"You didn't run, did you?" Pappy asked. He, too, was moving in closer.
"No sir," I said proudly. I'd still be running if given half a chance.
"He did not," my mother said sternly. "He was kickin' and clawin' just as hard as they were."
Pappy beamed, and my father smiled.
"We'll go back tomorrow and finish 'em off," Pappy said.
"You'll do no such thing," my mother said. She was irritated because Pappy loved a brawl. But then, she came from a house full of girls. She did not understand fighting.
"Did you land a good punch?" Pappy asked.
"They were all cryin' when I left," I said.
My mother rolled her eyes.
Hank shoved his way through the group and bent down to inspect the damage. "Say there was three of 'em, huh?" he growled at me.
"Yes sir," I said, nodding.
"Good for you, boy. It'll make you tough."
"Yes sir," I said.
"If you want me to, I'll show you some tricks on how to handle a three-on-one situation," he said with a smile.
"Let's get cleaned up," my mother said.
"I think it's broken," Gran said.
"You okay, Luke?" Tally asked.
"Yep," I said, as tough as I could.
They led me away in a victory march.