Clear Creek County . . . northwest of Pilot Hill, Texas. 1968.
He stood in a thick stand of blackjack oaks, motionless and unnoticed, peering through the trees, camouflaged by their shade. Waiting.
He’d watched the house before, almost a year earlier. It was set back from the seldom-used gravel road, isolated. The woman was in the backyard— one hand propped on her hip, the other holding a garden hose—filling a small plastic wading pool. She was in her early thirties, casually dressed—flip-flops, cut-offs, and a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off—and every man who had ever seen her would testify she was attractive. To him, she was no more than a barrier. He continued to wait.
The pool was almost full when a three-year-old version of the woman— complete with oversize sunglasses and ponytail—flip-flopped through the back door of the house carrying an armload of pool toys. She arranged the toys on the ground by the pool then stood by, chatting and supervising, while her mother finished filling the pool. The child had worn her brand-new pink bikini— complete with frilly skirt—day and night since the previous Saturday. On this day, when the afternoon’s temperature moved into the nineties, she managed to talk her mother into letting her put her new swimming attire to the test.
The woman finished with the water hose and pulled it out of the way while the little girl placed her toys, one at a time, in the water. The child was stepping over the side of the pool and the woman was settling into a nearby lounge chair when the phone in the kitchen rang.
The woman jumped out of her chair, yelling something he didn’t understand at the child, and the watcher’s eyes tracked her as she jogged toward the house. When the screen door banged shut, he drew in a deep breath of anticipation and let it out in a long, audible sigh—the barrier was down. In the next moment, he was away from the cover of the trees and moving deliberately through the knee-high grass.
The woman would later recall she was in the house less than two minutes.
A short mile south of the wading pool, in a small house hidden behind a gentle swell in the grassland, an old man was waking from his afternoon nap.
“Hmm,” he mumbled to himself. “That boy should’ve been home by now.”
The Redbone hound by the sofa yawned his agreement and sat up to get his oversized ears closer to the man. The man raised his head enough to look at the kitchen clock while he rubbed the dog’s ears. The hand that massaged the dog was black, and the eyes that checked the clock had seen their share of a hard life.
The little girl was sitting waist deep in the water with her back to him, herding her toys.
With the woman inside the house, the only thing between the watcher and the colorful little wading pool was a five-strand barbed-wire fence—an inconsequential hindrance.
The air-conditioning unit by the house was humming loudly, masking the sounds of his approach, but the child somehow sensed his presence. He was over the fence and only two short steps from the pool when she whirled around, let out a startled screech, and scrambled to her feet.
“Mommy says you’re don’t supposed to be in my yard.” She shook a stubby finger at him, more indignant than afraid. “Mommy says you don’t behave nice!”
Her words were wasted. He moved closer, looming over her.
His size alone was enough to intimidate the girl, and she took an involuntary step away from him. When she moved back, he stepped into the water.
The child gave ground again and tripped when she backed against the side of the pool. She let out a short scream and tumbled backward over the edge; the sunglasses flew off when she hit the grass. He kept coming.
Inside the house, the woman placed the phone back on its cradle and glanced out the window in time to watch her daughter sprawl by the pool. Her first thought was, Leaving that backyard was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Her following thought was, I’ll kill him.
He was centered in the small pool when the back door flew open and the woman bolted into the yard—a nine-foot bullwhip was coiled in her right hand.
On the other side of the barbed-wire fence a pickup truck was bumping its way across the pasture, raising a thick cloud of dust. The driver saw the woman closing on her adversary and pressed harder on the accelerator—punishing himself and the truck, rushing to get to the drama unfurling by the pool.
“I told you I’d take your hide off if you came back over here.” The woman gave her wrist a practiced roll and played out the bullwhip. “Well, big boy, I meant it.”
The interloper fixed deep brown eyes on her as she approached. If her threat generated any fear, his expression didn’t show it.
Before she could get close enough to use the whip, the pickup skidded to a stop on the far side of the fence. Morris Erwin jumped out of the truck into the follow-on dust cloud, already yelling, “Just hang on, Millie, I’ll take care of this!” The cowboy was leaning into the truck, reaching for the gun rack.
The woman heard the words but chose to ignore them. She was fed up.
When the dog got up and nosed the screen door open, the man gathered up his Bible and newspaper and followed him onto the front porch. The dog paused on his way to the steps and stretched thoroughly.
The tilt of the sun said it was midafternoon; the hound’s sense of timing said the boy should be at the house in just a minute or two. In the southwest corner of the sky, a line of thunderstorms was using the day’s warm temperature— expanding rapidly, gathering height, building energy.
The instrument of intervention Erwin was grappling for was trapped between the truck’s gun rack and the man’s haste, held captive by its leather strap. Adrenaline laced the man’s system, and panic colored his anticipation of what might happen if he was too late.
The Redbone hound was getting gray around his eyes and muzzle, but his ears still worked. The dog was shambling toward the porch steps when the sharp report, weak but clear, came to him. He changed direction and moved to the north end of the porch, sniffing at the air coming from across the pasture. He cocked his head, trying to classify the faint explosion that didn’t belong in the warm afternoon.
When the woman’s whip cracked, the unexpected explosion lifted the adrenaline-charged cowboy off the ground and caused him to smack his head on the pickup’s door frame. The blow dazed him and knocked his straw hat to the dust at his feet. He was a tangled knot of frustration, sweat, and profanity when he heard the whistle-swish that told him the whip was moving again.
The black man, whose ears were older than the dog’s, studied the area where the dog’s nose was pointed and saw nothing but trees, grass, chickens, and guinea hens. “What’re you smellin’ at, boy?”
The dog moaned in response to the question and squared himself to the north, leaning forward slightly. While the man watched, the hound cast his nose back and forth across the warm breeze and looked perplexed; the dozens of easily categorized smells the dog picked up did little to explain the harsh sound he’d heard.
When the answer to the dog’s quest continued to elude him, he decided he had more important things to attend to. Instead of shrugging, he snorted to clear the uninteresting information from his nostrils and padded down the steps—he wanted to be standing by the car when the boy stepped out. The man lingered long enough to give the land on the other side of the trees a final inspection, then took a seat in one of the rocking chairs.
The whip cracked again before Erwin could get backed out of the truck.
“Dadgummit, Millie,” the cowboy yelled over his shoulder, “I told you I’d handle him! If you cut ’im, he can’t work.”
Erwin won the tug-of-war with the gun rack and freed the looped end of a long hickory cane in time to turn and watch one of the best bucking bulls in the world sag to his knees in the wading pool. Stretching out wasn’t as easy, and the animal’s attempt was not unlike trying to load a ton of hamburger into a shopping cart. Before the bull could get fully reclined, the pool’s perimeter collapsed under him and water cascaded over the sagging sides.
A minute later, the cowboy and his cane were across the fence. Erwin was busy dusting off his hat while the young mother threatened to barbecue the bull and his owner on the same spit. The bikini-clad girl had picked up a lime-green bucket with pink and white flowers for a handle; she was shaking it within six inches of the bull’s nose and lecturing him on the finer points of pool ownership.
Millie Roberts was red in the face and waving her whip at the cowboy. “Dadgummit, Morris, he tore up a double handful of these pools last year.”
The emergency was over and the bull was safe; Erwin’s anxiety was flowing away faster than the water in the pool. The easy-going cowboy freed the whip from his young neighbor and coiled it as he spoke. “He didn’t tear up but two, Millie, an’ I went to town both times an’ got y’all a new one.”
“I don’t want a new swimming pool every month. I want this good-for-nothing, pot-licking lapdog to stay out of my yard. When he’s not tearing up the wading pools, he’s stripping the fruit trees and eating my zinnias.”
The bull ignored them all and groaned contentedly while reclining across the pool, apparently in an attempt to soak up as much of the escaping coolness as he could.
“Well, I can’t afford a fence high enough to hold him, Millie, but I’ll put Tony in with him when he’s in this pasture. That should keep him on the ground.” Tony was Erwin’s favorite quarter horse—a chestnut paint. Tony and the bull had “grown up” together on the ranch, and they enjoyed each other’s company; the bull would most likely stay where Tony was.
Millie said, “Well, if Tony can’t keep him over there, you’re gonna have to build him his own swimming hole.”
“Inside being exasperating.”
“You reckon her an’ Tony could kind of work together to keep him on my side of the fence?” Sweet Thing liked being with Tony, and Tony and AnnMarie liked being together.
“You’ll have to ask her yourself; right now she’s not speaking to me.”
“What’d you do to her?” Erwin and AnnMarie often got along better than Millie and AnnMarie.
“Set her up for adolescence when I gave birth to her twelve years ago.”
“Mm-hmm. Well, I’ll call her this evenin’. Maybe her an’ me can work out a deal.”
“Your funeral,” snorted Millie.
Erwin nodded absently as he prodded the bull gently with the cane. “Okay, Sweet, git outta the dadgum pool.”
Sweet Thing didn’t pretend to understand English—and didn’t move. The most famous bucking bull in the Erwin rodeo string was three years older than the little girl. Docile as a drowsy kitten when he wasn’t “working,” his fame found its source in his ability to do his job when the bucking chute opened. The Brahma cross was mostly light gray that shaded to black around his neck and weighed just short of two thousand pounds. He’d been ridden twice.
The reluctant hostess of the pool party stepped closer to the animal and smacked one of his horns with her plastic bucket. “You know better than to be in my yard, you dumb bull! An’ you’re not sweet neither; you’re greedy!”
The water in the pool was gone, and Sweet couldn’t pretend he didn’t understand the girl. He sighed again and rolled over to get his feet under him.
Excerpted from AND IF I DIE: The Black or White Chronicles, Book Three © Copyright 2011 by John Aubrey Anderson. Reprinted with permission by FaithWords. All rights reserved.