They would always think of it as the home place. The boys walked every inch of the land; Pa thought the land would instruct them in how to be competent men. He taught his sons not to cry. If they were to be farmers, as he expected, they needed to be tough, sometimes even without compassion.
The cabin was already there when Pa bought the farm. They gave little thought to who built the cabin; someone before them must have called it home, must have had a family that loved one another. Sometimes the plow turned up arrowheads. They thought they were ancient, but they probably fell there only a generation or two before. It was 1924; since the Great War, there seemed to be nothing but change.
Cliff was a reader. In his eyes, the best thing about school was the library. He loved adventure tales; Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson. He played out imaginary adventures in the woods. He was always the hero.
The school was named Excelsior, from the Longfellow poem. The teacher had explained what the poem meant: follow your dream, whatever people around you may do or say otherwise. Onward and upward, ever higher.
The Indian kids didn’t go to Excelsior. They were sent to boarding schools, to get the Indian out of them, Pa said.
Sometimes Cliff was seduced by his desire for adventure; he didn’t stop and think that there would be consequences. Pa chalked it up to education; he thought education made people weak. The boys came home with newfangled ideas about farming; Pa called them hogwash. He stuck to the old ways.
Pa was a giant. He stood well over six feet, with black hair, dark eyes and tan skin. He said they were black Irish, but sometimes he was mistaken for an Indian. Cliff took after him. Pa said Cliff looked like a pup; his hands and feet had grown big, but the rest of him hadn’t kept up.
Pa leased part of the land when the oil boom hit Oklahoma, and suddenly they were prosperous. A good reason for keeping the girls close to home: there were strangers on the land. Pa bought a truck and tractor and a radio. The service station sold him gasoline by the barrel to keep on hand. They took the radio battery there to be recharged.
A house was moved onto the oil lease for a family named Lawson. Oran was the spoiled baby of the family. By October, the teacher had labeled him as incorrigible. He wasn’t familiar with the word; he thought she meant he was invincible.
Cliff and Oran, being the same age, struck up a friendship. One October afternoon, walking home from school, they lagged behind the other kids.
“I know how we can make us some money,” Oran said. They were at the corner where the section lines met; a new hotel had been built there. The land surrounding it was still pasture.
“How?” In Cliff’s eyes, Oran had a sheen of sophistication; Cliff saw him as his ticket to a wider world.
Oran said. “If we go behind the hotel, we can pick up bottles.”
“For target practice?” Cliff had been given a .22 for his 13th birthday.
Oran saw Cliff as a hayseed, ignorant to the ways of the world. “To sell to moonshiners. They’re always in need of bottles.”
“How come?” Cliff asked.
“How come what?”
“How come the hotel’s dump has so many bottles? Is there a saloon in there?”
“It’s a cathouse. How can you be so dumb?” Oran picked up a rock from the dirt road, weighed it in his hand and threw it to see how far he could make it go.
“How do you know?”
“Come look through the window. I’ll show you. But keep your mouth shut. There’s a big guy with a club. He’ll give us a whupping if he catches us.”
What Cliff saw inside was pretty women, painting their faces, some with their hair wrapped around rags. They were in their underwear; the Indian summer afternoon was a hot one. A young girl wound a gramophone. Music in the afternoon! Everyone at home would be working.
“They’re getting ready for business, after the roughnecks finish working. Nettie is my favorite whore.” Cliff flinched at the ugly word.
“She says I’m the best man she ever had.” Cliff had his doubts about this.
“Some of those girls ain’t nothing but children,” Cliff said. “And that one, she’s just little.”
“Some men like them that way.”
Cliff thought of his sisters, especially of the littlest ones. What kind of man would use them like that? Those girls weren’t women, anymore than he was a man.
“I’ve got to get home. I need to run my traps before sundown.”
“Man traps? You got trespassers on your land?”
“Man traps? How can you be so dumb?” Cliff got a little bit of his own back. “Beaver traps. Rich people back East buy the pelts.
Oran took off his shirt to make a carrier for the bottles. He sold them to the moonshiners for a nickle apiece. He figured he didn’t need to split the proceeds with Cliff.
On Cliff’s 13th birthday, Pa had taken him aside. “You’ve reached the age of responsibility. It’s time you helped the family a little more.” Cliff knew they sometimes lacked money to buy necessities from the store. His idea was to sell pelts to bring home some cash. He had no idea how much work it would be. Setting and running the traps, skinning the animals, stretching and drying the pelts, taking them to town to the fur trader at the hardware store. It was up to the fur trader how much he paid for each pelt; sometimes it was lucrative, but at other times it was hardly worth the work.
He had set traps near the beaver dam, where the animals were working on taking down trees. It should be cooler in the woods, he thought, but it wasn’t. No breeze was blowing; the woods were hot and dry, leaves hung limp and dusty.
The first trap was empty. The beaver in the second trap was still alive, suffering. He hadn’t brought his .22, so he clubbed the animal on its head to put it out of its misery. The other traps were empty. On his way home, he checked the trot lines he had strung up and down the creek. He removed several good sized catfish; they would be appreciated at home. He hoped Ma would let him go back out after supper; he’d take his .22 and the dog Cocoa to hunt ‘coons. Their pelts were in high demand for making raccoon coats.
The children loved hog killing time. They considered it a holiday; the kill took place in the autumn, when the air had its first crisp chill but the sky was the clear blue of summer. The hog would be hung up in a tree, its throat quickly cut, and left there to bleed out. It would be scalded in boiling water to make skinning easier, then butchered and the meat taken to the smokehouse. Oran decided to skip school; he thought he’d get in on the fun. Once the hog started to bleed out, Oran vomited in the weeds. Sissy, Pa wanted to call him.
“Why don’t you people buy your groceries at the store, like other people do?” Oran said. “Are you poor or something?”
Cliff had never thought of his family as poor. Anything they needed, their labor would provide. They were close-knit and self-reliant, proud of their self-sufficiency; the word love would have embarrassed them, but love is what bound then together. They didn’t want to admit to themselves that they lacked anything. Now that Cliff knew they were poor, he would keep it a closely guarded secret, especially from his family.
Cliff walked Oran home, as Oran still felt poorly. Cliff greeted a roughneck, just to be polite, and the man gave them each a piece of candy. He asked the boys if they had any sisters at home. Oran said no, although he did. But Cliff said yes. “You shouldn’t have told him.”
“Why not? He was just being friendly.”
“He wants to interfere with them. Maybe whore them out. I hope your Pa has warned them to stay close to home.”
Cliff thought that the gift of candy had been a gentlemanly gesture. He didn’t like Oran’s implication that his sisters might become prostitutes, and he was still burning over Oran calling them poor. An idea slipped into his mind as easily as a cat slipping through an open door. Cliff knew that persimmons wouldn’t ripen until the first hard frost; before that, it was possible to eat them, but your stomach would rebel for several days afterward. Cliff guided Oran to a tree not far from the house. “Hey, Oran, how about climbing this tree and picking a few persimmons for us.” Which Oran did. “You go first. Be my guest.” The sour, green persimmon would put Oran in a world of hurt.
It wasn’t long before Oran offered to call it even. He had an idea that would put in a Cliff in a tough spot.
A few days later, Oran said “I’ve got a great idea.”
“What?” Cliff said.
“Let’s take Pa’s car to Cromwell.”
Cliff couldn’t see any harm in a little adventure, even though Pa had told the entire family to stay away from Cromwell. He told them of gunfights in the street. He thought that was enough of a warning; the children were too innocent to hear of the other goings-on.
“How’re you going to get the car?” Cliff asked. “Will he just let you take it?”
“No. I’ll sneak it out after Pa passes out drunk.”
“Won’t your ma stop you?”
“No. All she’ll do is say ‘when your pa wakes up, he’ll take his belt to you.’ But we’ll be back before he comes to, and Ma won’t say a thing. She hates to see me whipped. He’ll never know.”
Cliff thought a gunfight would be exciting, like a duel or a sword fight. His books hadn’t talked about blood and pain and dying.
An oil baron named Cromwell platted the town and named it after himself. Within a few weeks of the town’s establishment, the population was more than 2,000. At first, the business to be in was lumber
to accommodate the building of the boom town. Then the business to be in was vice. Flop houses, bordellos, bootleg liquor, and dope brought up from Mexico. Lawlessness prompted the hiring of legendary lawman Bill Tilghman, now in his seventies. The Seminole county newspaper quoted Tilghman as saying “I’d rather die in a gunfight than in bed someday like a woman.”
Cliff longed to see his hero. “I’m in,” he told Oran. Tilghman had taken down the Dalton gang. Maybe Cliff would get to see him in action.
“I’ll pick you up at the corner just before dark,” Oran said.
Cliff waited at the corner. He was spooked by the cry of a cougar. He hoped it was just going about its business, hunting deer or rabbit, not 13 year old boys.
Oran’s driving was erratic; he hadn’t had much practice. He parked at the edge of town and suggested that they split up. His plan wouldn’t work if Cliff tagged along.
Cliff headed off to try to get a glimpse of Marshall Tilghman. Cromwell was like nothing he’d ever experienced. It seemed like a combination of the county fair and a circus, the only things he had to compare it to. As he passed each establishment, he paused to look through windows for Tilghman, but soon he forgot that he had a purpose. Men playing faro, pretty women, dime-a-dance girls, and music. He’d never heard such a ruckus. Different tunes poured out of every doorway. Gas lights lit up the street like daylight. He dodged drunk men, sober men, angry men, men who were restless, broke, or had money in their pockets, and outlaws looking to take it away from them.
He was passing a cafe when he heard a single gunshot, fired from the middle of the street. Cliff was in awe of the tall, silver-haired man who emerged from the cafe. Tilghman himself! His supper with his deputy had been interrupted by the shot. Cliff recognized the man who had called Tilghman out. He had been by their place looking for moonshiners. Pa said he was corrupt. The revenuer was looking for moonshiners, not to arrest them, but to get his cut.
Tilghman grabbed the prohibition agent’s wrist and pressed his own hand gun into the man’s ribs. The deputy marshall took the revenuer’s gun, and Tilghman let go of him. The shooter grabbed a hideout gun from his pocket and fired. The shot hit Tilghman.
“Good God, man, what have you done?” said a man in the crowd.
“I killed the most famous lawman in Oklahoma.”
As word spread, the pianos gradually fell silent.
The marshall was gut-shot. Death would be some time in coming. He lay on the boardwalk in his own blood.
Cliff let out a single yell. His knees gave way; he squatted on the ground. He couldn’t see Tilghman’s body anymore. The crowd was standing between him and the marshall.
Cliff’s hero lay dying on the boardwalk. Cliff felt like he was caught in a nightmare: too-bright-lights, more gunfire, women screaming, men yelling. He couldn’t remember which end of town Oran had parked the car. He ran north, then south, then north again before he realized that Oran had left him behind.
The kids were allowed to play outside until dark. The chill of October drove them inside.
“Where’s Cliff?” Ma asked.
The kids didn’t know; Cliff had been secretive for the last few days.
“Maybe he went ‘coon hunting,” Clara said.
“His .22 is by the door,” Pa said, “And none of the dogs are gone.”
“I think he went over to Oran’s place,” Wayne said.
“I suspect he’ll be home directly,” Pa said.
“Why don’t you go over there and bring him home,” Ma said.
“Oh, Mother, you worry too much.” Pa always had the last word.
Ma left an oil lamp burning by the window. She lay in bed, watching its glow. She already felt the grief in her body. Her heart felt like a stone, like a bitter rose stone. She knew how it felt to lose a child. The oldest daughter, Annie, had died as a young wife. She knew a cougar could take down a boy as easily as taking a rabbit.
In the morning, Cliff’s little sister Alice woke up with her face swollen with unshed tears. Losing Cliff would be unbearable. “I can’t breathe,” she said to Ma. She was holding everything inside in a hole in her middle. Cliff was her hero.
When daylight came, Pa took the truck out to search for his son. He drove all four section lines, first south, then west, north and east. He went to the oil lease where Lawson tended a well. Lawson opened the door. Pa saw a man who was red-eyed and belligerent. “We haven’t seen your boy. Oran’s still in bed,” Lawson said.
His wife stood a few feet behind him, in his shadow, her hand over her mouth. “Your boy’s always getting Oran in trouble. He’s probably gone off to Cromwell.”
Pa headed towards Cromwell. He met Cliff on the road. His dirty face was covered with tracks from tears. Pa didn’t say anything. It would take something tragic to make Cliff cry; his sons were raised not to cry.
Cliff climbed into the cab of the truck. “They shot the marshall.”
“Did you see it, son?”
“I saw him lying on the boardwalk. I don’t think he was dead yet. Pa, why can’t you put a man out of his misery? You can help an animal like that.”
“A man’s dying has to take its own course.”
It was about a month later that Pa left in the truck. The kids thought it mysterious that Pa would go out after dark. Towards midnight, Cliff awoke and looked out the window. He woke the family up to watch the orange glow reflected by the clouds. Wicked Cromwell was burning.
The town wasn’t rebuilt. The Seminole county oil boom was over. Oil field workers, their families, and equipment left for new oil fields. A team of horses dragged the Lawson house close to the smokehouse. It was more modern than the cabin, which they tore down.
Their prosperity ended with the end of the oil boom. Pa died in 1949. The family were so haunted by memories of happiness that they forgot to make anything of themselves. Self-sufficiency eventually became isolation; subsistence became poverty.
In the early ’50s, electricity came to the neighborhood. When the electric lights were turned on, Ma said she never knew her house was so dirty.