© 2006 Robert M. Leahy
5001 Par Drive #3526
Denton, TX 76208
People call me Three ‘cuz I am the third Andrew Brown in the family. Paw-Paw’s one. Pa’s two. But now he’s gone, so maybe I got his number.
We was goin’ down to see where they buried Pa—Momma, me and George. Jesse was just a baby, so he was stayin’ with Mee-maw. Paw-Paw wanted to go, too. But he had a bad cough. So he said Uncle Jo would go. Paw-Paw said there ought to be a growed man with us. Told me I was brave enough, but not ready to protect me and Momma and George, too. Made me wish I still had my pocketknife.
Momma and Mee-Maw argued some ‘bout the trip. They din’t know I was listenin’. “Three’s got to see,” Momma said. “They’s just youngin’s,” Mee-Maw kept sayin’. “They’ll hear tales.” In the end, Paw-Paw said we ought to go. That was the end of it. Mee-Maw didn’t like it. She held her tongue. But she done cooked the meat a might much that night. And the next.
Momma was right ‘bout one thing: I already heared the tales. Heared ‘em at school. Heared ‘em at church. Growed-ups would start to whisper when we come by. But I held my breath and listened real hard. And I knew what they said ‘bout Pa. I just never told Momma, Paw-Paw, or ‘specially not Mee-Maw what I knowed.
I knowed Pa and Uncle George done kilt a man. Nobody never liked that Tom Herran. But he was the Preacher’s son. So everybody in town was real mad ‘bout the killin’. Everybody said Pa and George was gonna hang for what they did. And they musta did, too, ‘cuz they was both buried in Denton now.
Reverend Herran never said nothin’ to Momma that I knowed ‘bout. But he did stare at us when he preached about God’s just wrath on the Wayward. I din’t know who the Waywards was. They musta lived in Forestburg or somewhere. They was some bad folks, the way the Reverent talked. Maybe that was who Paw-Paw was so worried about. That was why Uncle Jo was to come with us. We had to go through Forestburg to get to Denton.
It took a couple a days to get everything ready to go. George was cryin’. He said he din’t wanna leave Mee-Maw. Mee-Maw said he could stay. But Momma and Paw-Paw said no.
I din’t know if we was ever comin’ back. Momma packed up all my clothes: both pairs of my other britches, and a new shirt I ain’t never even wored.
We was takin the old cow for Uncle Jesse to slaughter. And we had a couple of chickens for Momma’s folks when we got to Sanger. Momma made a pallet for me and George on the bed of the old wagon. The chickens were caged at our feet. Me and George’s clothes was in two gunny sacks to use as pillows. Momma’s clothes were in a real travel bag. Uncle Jo had some stuff in an old flour sack. All that and some food Mee-Maw made was along the other side of the wagon from me and George.
Uncle Jo been told he was to take it slow. Paw-Paw said Nellie was sturdy but gettin' old. And it was four days down to Denton and four days back to Dry Valley. It would be hard on the horse. And us, too.
We left just as the sun peaked over the hills. It was still cool. I could see my breath as I climbed into the back of the wagon.
Paw-Paw said we ought to get to Forestburg ‘fore dark.
Momma told me and George to get some sleep. It was going to be a long day.
The road we took din’t get a lot of travel. They was only a few places where the dirt showed through. Mostly, it was just a path of beaten, yellow grass stretching out of sight to the east. The road would be better once we got to Forestburg. Nellie clopped along, Uncle Jo on the reins. He had his hat pulled so far down, I could only see his chin when he turned around to check on me and George. Momma wored a bonnet. She sat with her eyes closed and her hands folded in her lap. I thought she might be prayin’ like she done a lot these days.
I started worryin’ ‘bout those Waywards up ahead. George, being only four, din’t know what I knowed. He fell asleep to the steady sound of Nellie’s hoofs on the hard earth.
Uncle Jo said when he got back from this trip he was headin’ west to Clovis. He heared he could get land pretty cheap over there. He was ready to be on his own. He wanted to be somewhere he could spread out.
That night we camped outside of Forestburg. Momma and George slept in the wagon. Me and Uncle Jo slept under it.
Next morning we had cold biscuits and jerky. I got George’s jerky ‘cuz he said it were too tough to chew. I liked to tear off a chunk and let it set in my mouth ‘til all the salt was sucked out of it. By then, the meat was soft and I could swaller it without even chewin’. Din’t like the cold biscuits. And I missed Mee-maws apricot jam.
By nightfall, we was to be in Era at Uncle Jesse’s. Uncle Jesse run the dry goods store there that belonged to Aunt Mollie’s folks, who was real old. Aunt Mollie’s pa couldn’t hardly see. And her momma had a bad heart. Everybody said Jesse married Mollie in the nick of time to save the store.
Momma told me and George no matter how much Mollie’s momma insisted, we was to say we wanted to sleep with Uncle Jo out in the barn. I weren’t gonna disobey. Mollie’s pa snored something awful durin’ the day just sittin’ in a chair. I din’t wanna be trapped in the house with him all night.
Uncle Jesse was to butcher the old cow we brung. We was to pick up some of the meat when we came back. Jesse slaughtered all the pigs and cows for Paw-paw. Mee-maw kilt the chickens when they din’t lay good no more. I don’t think Paw-paw ever kilt nothing.
Aunt Mollie and her maw done cooked a grand meal. We had fried chicken and taters and beans and corn and white bread and butter and cobbler. We only been gone from Paw-paw’s two days, but I felt like I ain’t never saw food before. I ate till my tummy stretched out. Uncle Jo felt of it and said there weren’t no more room for nothin’, not even water. Him sayin’ that made me thirsty. But I could drink no more ‘n a sip ‘fore my tummy went to hurtin’.
After dinner, Uncle Jesse brought us men out to the barn. He was joinin’ us, so Mollie and Momma could share the bed. He helped us spread a bale a new hay crost the back of the barn. I liked the smell of the hay. And it made a right fine bed. I was asleep almost right away.
“Your up early,” Jesse said, as I came out of the barn in the mornin’..
George and Uncle Jo was still sleepin’.
I nodded and walked over to where Jesse was standin’ long the fence of the pen where we stuck the old cow.
Jesse was chewin’ on a piece of hay and he was feedin’ a small handful to the cow. “Not much of a meal for it, is it?”
“You think it knowed you’re gonna kill it?” I asked, looking between the fence rails at the old, white faced critter.
“Don’t ‘spect cows think much a nothin’,” he said. “Cows ain’t too bright. Pig might think somethin’, though. Pigs are pretty smart.”
“How you knowed pigs ‘r smarter ‘n cows?” I asked him.
He laughed. I liked the sound of it as it seemed to roll round in his mouth and tumble out. “You got to get to know the pigs and cows pretty good to know which is smart and which ain’t,” he said. “After yer a little older, and you worked some with pigs and cows, then you ask me ‘bout it if you still don’t know.”
We was quiet for a minute. A rooster crowed from its pen back by the house. The lights were on in the kitchen. I heared the rattle of pots and pans. I smelt bacon and coffee and something sweet with cinnamon. It made my mouth water. I felt my tummy to make sure it weren’t still full from last night.
“Can I ask you somethin’?” I kept my eyes on the cow so Uncle Jesse wouldn’t think I had somethin’ too important to ask him.
“Is it okay to hate my Pa for what he did?”
Jesse din’t answer right away.
“Everybody says he deserved to die. But Momma says I should only think ‘bout how he was with me and George and Jesse.”
“Yer kinda young for this discussion, too,” Jesse told me. “But seein’ how yer in the middle of this mess, ain’t much we can do.” He looked down at me for a minute, then he stared out at the cow.
“You know how when you do something bad and you get caught and punished?” he asked.
I remembered Momma tannin’ my backside when she heared I traded Jimmie Simpson for his pocketknife. I din’t know if she was mad ‘cuz I got the knife or ‘cuz I took some of Paw-paw’s tobacco to get it with.
After you get punished for whatever you done, do you want people to remember that bad thing? Do you want them to hate you for it?”
“No,” I said. And I really meant it.
“Sometimes, the bad stuff we do is really bad,” Jesse said. “Sometimes, the bad stuff we do is hard for people to forget.”
I watched while he chewed on another piece of hay.
“Sometimes we have to pray to God to help us forget the bad that folks do. Sometimes, it helps if we just try to remember the good stuff ‘bout the person.”
Jesse spit the hay out of his mouth and turned to look at me. “What was one of the things you liked to do with your pa?”
I din’t even have to think. “He was teachin’ me to whittle.”
“Think about that,” Jesse said. “How can you hate someone that’s teachin’ you to whittle?”
Aunt Mollie stuck her head out of the door. “Come and get it, fellas.”
Jesse told me to go roust out Uncle Jo and George, and he headed into the house.
After a hot breakast of baked apples and bacon and biscuits, we clambered back into the wagon and headed on our way. I only had one helpin’ of everythin’, so my tummy wasn’t hardly even tight.
The hot meal made everybody feel better. Momma laughed at something Uncle Jo said. I missed Momma’s laugh. It was a happy sound. It made me smile.
George was kinda snorin’ and I had my eyes closed ‘cuz the sun was high in the sky as we headed to Momma’s folks’ place. Momma and Uncle Jo musta thought I was asleep.
At first, Momma and Uncle Jo just talked ‘bout getting’ to Sanger. Momma said me and George had been so good on the trip. It kinda made me smile. Course, there ain’t much chance to get in trouble when I was stuck in the back of the wagon all day and too tired and sore when we stopped for the night to do much more than eat and go to bed.
I mighta dozed off. But I heared them talkin’ somethin’ serious a little later on.
“You knew what George had planned,” Momma said in that low, stern voice of hers.
“I knew. We all did. Was Daddy’s idea that Andrew go along. He was supposed to make sure George didn’t get kilt.”
“I didn’t know your father knew anything,” Momma sighed. She was quiet for a long time after that. “You think he could have taken the farm?”
“Weren’t George’s farm. But George weren’t too bright about money. Didn’t help that he clouded his mind with drink. And he did owe Tom Herran a lot of money he didn’t have and never would. And Daddy weren’t about to give him no whiskey or card money. You know how my daddy was ‘bout that.”
It got hard to hear what they was sayin.’ Too hard, even holdin’ my breath and strainin’ with both ears. It wored me out.
Momma’s folks had a big, white house on the south edge of Sanger. Her pa run the bank and everybody called him Sir—even Momma. We called Momma’s ma Granny. Sir had a white beard. None of the other men in my family had beards or moustaches. Course, Paw-paw usually had whiskers on his face cuz he didn’t like to shave every day.
Granny saw the chickens Uncle Jo took off the wagon. “Oh, my,” she said. “Look at those beautiful birds. I know just what I’ll do with them. We’ll have chicken and dumplings for dinner after you get back from Denton.”
Granny’s face darkened the moment Denton was out of her mouth. That was the last time anyone said anything about Denton while we was at Momma’s folks.
Granny always had licorice candies. She told me and George we could have one while she got everyone settled. Me and George let the licorice sit in our mouths as long as we could. At least ‘til George had licorice juice dibblin’ down his chin. Then Momma made us swaller and go outside.
“My tongue black?” asked George, opening his mouth wide.
It was, and I told him so. He even had black on the bottom of his chin. I tried to stick my tongue out to see if it was black, too. But I couldn’t see nothin’. “Mine black?” I asked George.
“Nope,” he said. But then he laughed, so I knowed he was lyin’. George weren’t no good at lyin.
When I come into the kitchen the next morning, Granny said something ‘bout somethin’ “being for the best.”
Momma pouted and turned away.
“I just mean you can stay here. You don’t ever need to go back to Dry Valley,”
Momma walked away. I think she was ‘bout to cry. She din’t want for me and George to see that. It made me sad, too.
When Granny saw me, she set me up at the table with a bowl of oatmeal. Sir had eggs with some of the ham we ate for dinner. Uncle Jo ate the oatmeal, but he kept his eyes on Sir’s eggs and ham. I din’t know why Uncle Jo cared. The ham was saltier than the jerky we had in the wagon and nearly as tough.
About halfway between Sanger and Denton, the road crost under a thick cover of trees. Even though it was early mornin’ and the sun was shinin’, it was kinda dark under those trees. I weren’t scared, ‘xactly. But I sat up and looked out ahead between Momma and Uncle Jo. There was bright sunshine up ahead. It made me feel a little better.
“Are you all right, Three?” Momma asked me.
“He ain’t used to so many trees like this, are you,” Uncle Jo said. “He’s used to those little apricot trees his Mee-maw sneaks the water to when Daddy’s not looking.’ Uncle Jo laughed. Momma joined in. I just stared at all those big branches overhead and hoped none of ‘em crashed down.
“Why don’t you lie down, Three?” Momma said. “We’ll be there soon enough and you can get out and stretch your legs.”
I closed my eyes. I tried to sleep. But I wasn’t that kind of tired.
After a while, I heared Uncle Jo and Momma talkin’ again.
“Remember I told you I was going to Clovis?” Jo said.
“I was thinking’ you might like to come, too.”
Momma din’t say nothing.
“You could start over.”
“A woman with youngin’ shouldn’t be on her own. That’s what Daddy says.” Uncle Jo said kinda loud.
“Shhh!” Momma hushed him. I pretended to be asleep. But I knowed she turned to see if me and George was listening.
“I could take care of you,” Uncle Jo told her. “If you’ll have me.”
Momma said something I din’t hear.
“And I’d treat them boys like they was my own.”
“I need time, Jo,” Momma told him. “I need time.”
* * * * *
It was cool under the large oak trees, still heavy with leaves, even though it was already December.
Pa and George’s markers looked the same. They was thick, brown sandstone, low to the ground. Beaten lookin’. Most of the other markers were white, thin slabs ‘bout three foot tall. They was carved with birds and hands pointing up and flowers and such. I could read ‘em pretty good. But not Pa and George’s. I had to get down and look close to see the names and the date: “Nov. 21, 1879.” Below, “EXECUTED.”
Made me sad to have Momma see that on the stone. Made me mad to think that everybody who ever comes by them markers would see that word and think how bad Pa and George musta been. I wished I coulda scratched that off. But Paw-Paw done took away the pocket knife I traded Jimmie Simpson for.
“Three,” Momma called to me. Her and Uncle Jo was stannin’ back from the markers.
I left George sittin’ there tracing the letters with his fingers.
“I don’t want you thinkin’ bad of your pa. Remember what I told you.
But it was hard not to think bad of him when there was executed on that stone. What did I heared Mrs. Wilkirson tell the Reverend. “Righteous justice prevailed. Your son’s killers got what they deserved. Lord have mercy on their souls.”
The preacher thanked her for her kind words.
But they hurt me. I knowed she meant my Pa deserved to die.
“You remember how your pa was with you,” Momma said in that voice she used when she meant I was to listen and not sass back. “Both you boys,” she said, getting George’s attention, “you remember how good your pa was to you.”
I heared the catch in her voice and saw the water washin crost her eyes. She leaned her head on Uncle Jo’s shoulder.
He put his arm round her, gave her a soft look, then looked at me ‘fore his eyes went up to the tree limbs spreading out over us and Pa and George’s markers.
Nobody said nothin’ for a while. It was too quiet. I had a chill run through me. I din’t know what to do. I took a step toward Momma. Then stopped. Then I crost to her and hugged her.
I could feel her eyes on me. She patted my cheek.
“Time to say good-bye,” she said in a whisper.
That night when we was back in Sanger and we was ‘bout to go to bed, Momma come and checked on me and George. George was already under the covers and yawnin’. Momma bent over and kissed him and asked if he done said his prayers.
“Three an’ me said ‘em,” he assured her. “We prayed for everybody. ‘Specially for the wayward souls.”
Momma gave him a look.
“Three said Preacher Harran told us it was our duty to pray for the wayward souls so’s God will have mercy on them in their wretchedness.” George paused for a moment, and then whispered, “Was Pa wayward, Momma?”
That made Momma cry. I felt bad ‘bout that ‘cuz I done told George ‘bout the waywards and their wretchedness. I told him we had to pray special hard so God wouldn’t think Pa and Uncle George was wayward no more.
Momma hugged George tight. “I don’t want you to think that way ‘bout your pa,” she told him, but I knowed she was really talkin’ to me. “He shouldn’t a kilt Tom Harren. That was a bad thing. But your pa was a good man. And he only did what he had to do. That’s what you have to remember. Do you understand?”
A course, George answered, “Yes’um.” But I din’t think he knowed what she meant. I only kinda knowed. And I was older and smarter than George.
* * * * *
I slept more on the way back to Dry Valley. I don’t remember much from the trip home.
There was one time I heared Momma tell Uncle Jo we might could go to Clovis. But she said she weren’t for sure. She said she would know by the time he got back from buyin’ some land.
We camped at Forestburg again. That’s where I told Momma I din’t want to be called Three no more.
“’Cuz there ain’t three of us no more.”
Momma nodded. “What should I call you, then?”
“Andrew,” I told her.
“Do you want me to tell Paw-paw and Mee-maw?”
“Not just yet, Momma.”
She kissed me on the forehead.
When we got back to Dry Valley and Paw-Paw’s, Uncle Jo hardly stayed a minute. We got in long after dark. And Uncle Jo was gone by sun up and goin’ to Clovis to buy land.
When he gets back, I ‘spect Momma will marry him, and he’ll be my new pa. Then me and Momma, and George and Jesse will pack up and go to Clovis.
We’ll get a new start where nobody knowed about us. And that’s probably a good thing. I don’t like people lookin’ at Momma or me or George like we was the Wayward.
Note: On 21 NOV 1879, Andrew J. and George W. Brown were hanged for a murder committed in Montague County, TX. The trial was held in Denton, Denton County, TX, where they were found guilty and the sentence was carried out. They are buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Denton, Denton County, TX. Their markers read: Executed, and can still be found there today.
While the names of family members have been retained, all other aspects of this story are fictional.