Grandpa got me the job alright. However I didn’t know what to expect. All I really knew was that the money sounded good.
At 14 I was at that in between stage – I had a grand interest in the girls but I was too young to legally drive. So instead of wasted my time mowing lawns and delivering newspapers, Grandpa took me down and introduced me to the cook of a local ranch outfit.
The cook, or Coosie, as he was known was a rough old cob by the name of Pete. “Yeah, I’ll put him to work,” were his words as Grandpa shook his hand and headed for the door of the cookhouse.
“Go fetch me some water,” the Coosie shouted.
Standing in the doorway, I watched as Grandpa’s truck faded away down the dirt road in a bellow of cloudy dust. About that time, I heard the pail come crashing down near me.
“I said get me some water, Hoody,” the gruff old man growled.
Snapping out of my trance-like-state, I grabbed the pail and rushed outside.
“No time to think about it,” I said to myself as I tried to figure out what Grandpa had jus’ done to me.
Standing at the hand pump, I placed the pail under the spout. I lifted the handle and lowered it again and again but nothing came out.
Again I pumped the handle up and down jus’ as I had seen my Aunt and grandmother do so many times. Still nothing happened.
So I pumped even harder. And still the pump refused to yield even a single drop of water.
“Where’s my water!” screamed Pete.
The tone of his voice sent chills down my spine. I didn’t want to have to tell him that the water pump was broken.
Suddenly Pete was by my side. His cheeks were bright red under the snow white growth of beard.
He yanked the bucket out of my hand, “Don’t even know how to fetch water!” he complained.
The cook was angry at me – and I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong.
Pete reached down and picked up the old whiskey bottle resting at the base of the pump. It was filled with water, which he poured down the shaft of the pump and then started moving the handle up and down.
At first I was relieved that nothing happened.
“The pump is broken,” I told myself.
But no sooner had I said the words in my head, than I heard the gurgling noise deep down below the old iron pipe. Then it spit out a gush of water and the pail was filled. The Coosie dipped the bottle into the pail and withdrew it. Next he placed it against the pump and returned to the cook house.
I quickly picked up the now full pail of water and jus’ as quickly fell in behind the cook, who shook his head back and forth as we made our way to the kitchen.
The rest of the day went much better for me. I managed to chop enough wood for that evening and the next morning, which surprised the ornery old cuss as it was the first time he hadn’t yelled at me for something I not done to his liking.
That afternoon I washed and rinsed the cookware and supper plates until they sparkled. I fetched the flour and the sugar and made myself useful by turn the bear tracks, or donuts, as they browned in the hot fat cooker.
I even remembered to set the table properly – exactly as Mom had taught me.
At first I placed all the plates and cups upright, but the Coosie made me turn them upside down as he explained why it was to be done like that, “I don’t want no dust or vermin hair getting mixed up with the grub.”
It made sense to me as I had heard that they used to do that in lumber camps where supper was served. “It’s to keep the sawdust off the plates,” I recalled having been told.
Along about the evening meal, a stranger appeared at the backdoor. I recognized him and knew his name to be Ormande’.
Ormande’ spoke little to no English but was a hard worker. He had been employed as a day-laborer for Grandpa, stringing wire for week.
Grandpa had been impressed by the young man from Portugal as he had completed the task sooner than was expected. Ormande’ seemed to recognize me too.
Pete told him in poor Spanish that there wasn’t any work. He also told Ormande’ to stay and help himself to the evening chuck.
After the meal had been served and I finished washing the dishes, I carried the wash bucket out the back door. I had jus’ dumped the water onto the ground when I felt a presence behind me.
Jus’ as I turned, my world grew dark. Someone had pulled a burlap sack over my head.
I was roughly grabbed up and half-carried and half-dragged to a waiting wagon.
Hard, strong hands held me down even though I struggled against them. They pinned me face down to the wood-bottom of the buck-board.
“Hay-ya,” called out a voice and the wagon jumped to life. I remember fear welling up in me and I felt panic-stricken.
Minutes later the wagon rolled to a stop and I was dragged from it. I was hurriedly pushed forward then abruptly halted.
I could hear voices’ surrounding me as the sack was yanked from my head.
There were at least 20 men surrounding me. I sucked in my breath as I noted they were all wearing white-flour sacks over their heads to hide their faces.
The sacks had holes cut into them for their eyes. However each man’s nose and mouth remained covered and a strange panting came for them as they breathed in.
A bon-fire cast an eerie light on the group, throwing shadows in different directions.
“Is this the accused?” a deep voice rumbled from the crowd.
The question caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. I was suddenly aware that I felt queasy to my stomach and my knees were shaking.
“It is,” another voice answered.
“What are the charges?” the deep voice asked.
There was along pause, then came the second voice, “This here boys accused of impersonating a Hoodlum.”
I knew a Hoodlum was the Coosie’s helper – and that was me.
My knees nearly buckled. I wanted to run but I knew my legs wouldn’t carry me far enough to get away from this clandestine group.
Then the man with the deep voice spoke directly to me, “What do you have to say for yourself, boy?”
I couldn’t speak.
The words seemed to simply bounce around in my head but failed to exit through my mouth. All I could manage to get out was, “I – I –I,” in a stutter.
“The accused needs a cat-skinner,” the deep voice announced, “Anyone willing?”
There was no answer. I stood there trembling with fright.
Suddenly a voice rose up from the crowd, “Yeah, I got a lawyer for him.”
Jus’ a suddenly Ormande’ was carried into the circle. He turned the moment he was set on his feet, and tried to escape, but the group of hooded men held him back.
“Okay, we got the kid a lawyer,” came the deep voiced man, “Now whose a-prosecuting him?”
From the crowd stepped a man, and he loudly stated, “I am!”
I could see the whiteness of his chin-hairs as they poked out from beneath the flour-sack. I was certain it was the Coosie.
The deep voiced man nodded at him and the Coosie began, “I’m going to prove this here kid ain’t no help in the kitchen and that he ain’t even fit for mucking stalls.”
A large whoop went up from the gathering. Still I was too frightened to speak.
Once the crowd had settled down, the Coosie continued his opening statement, “I will bring on witness after witness who’ll testify on the bible to this very fact. Heck, he can’t even get water from the derned pump,” he said.
“There’ll be no cussing in this court,” commanded the deep voiced man.
“Sorry you’re Honor,” the prosecutor replied.
The man with the deep voice looked at Ormande’ and asked, “What does the defense have to say?”
The Portuguese man must have thought the end of his world was close at hand. He threw himself on his knees at the feet of the deep voiced man and begged like a man, pleading for his life.
He spoke in rapid-fire Portuguese and sobbed with a passion that move those standing around him. Then, he was done, hanging his head to continue his crying.
There was long silence. Then the deep voiced man spoke, “Kid, I’m pronouncing sentence on you.”
He cleared his throat and continued, “Your cat-skinner here, has pleaded your case so eloquently that I’m going to let you off the hook this time.”
His eyes met mine as he said, “If you’re ever caught playing the Coosie’s help again, you’ll be dragged off this here ranch. You understand?”
I nodded my head and stammered out, “Y –Y – Yes, sir.”
Then the deep voiced man added, “And for failing to fetch water like the Coosie wanted, I’m ordering ten licks from the wagon-tongue.”
Another great cheer went up from the crowd as two or three masked men swept me from my feet and dragged me to the buckboard. They forced me over the end of the wagon as someone commenced to slap me across the butt with a pair of chaps.
The group of hooded men counted as each time the leather chaps stung my britches. Then like that, it was over and another cheer went up.
I looked around for Ormande’, but he was no where to be found in the fire light.
He had worked his way to the outside of the circle of men and disappeared into the darkness. I can’t blame him for making good his escape when he had the opportunity.
When it was all over and done, my head was covered with the burlap sack and I was manhandled into the wagon once again. Minutes later I was rolled unceremoniously from the buckboard, landing on the ground with a thud.
By the time I pulled the sack off my head, the wagon had vanished back into the night time. And I was left to nurse my tender behind and finish the chores.