Bus and I were surprised, to say the least, when our parents told us we would be staying the weekend at our grandfather’s ranch while they took a short trip. Usually, we had to beg just to ride along with Grandpa and Dad on their trips to the ranch, and never before had we spent the weekend — or even a single night. Our parents seemed to veer between overprotection and unusual latitude where we were concerned; leaving us behind on a cattle ranch fifteen miles outside our small town fell into the unusual category.
There were a couple of horses at the ranch, and this was the main attraction for us, our hope that we could ride them. They were usually out in the pasture, and special arrangements had to be made ahead of time for them to be brought in to the corral just for us. Even then, Dad insisted that we ride old Beauty only inside the corral — pretty tame stuff for kids steeped in Saturday matinees starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy, and who, when we weren’t watching movies about these cowboys, were pretending to be them.
Of course, we would not be alone. A hired couple lived on the ranch, Don and Ada Simpson. Don was a tall, slim cowboy, who wore a black hat and a perpetual grin — at least when my grandfather was around. Ada was short, pleasingly plump, with naturally curly hair and big teeth. I suppose they were in their thirties. They had no children.
We liked Ada. She would make a big glass pitcher of orange Kool-Aid for us and call it “nectar.” Bus and I were fascinated by Don, too. We asked Dad if he was a “real” cowboy; Dad acknowledged that he was, although the idea seemed to amuse him. Any real cowboy was A-okay with us. We had noticed a peculiar habit of Don’s, though. Although he was quiet generally, and soft-spoken when he did speak, when talking to Ada, at least while the men sat around the table having coffee, he would make requests to her in a voice that could only be described as a snarl. Out of the side of his mouth would come a guttural “Coffee!” or “Cream!” Ada promptly obeyed his orders with her usual good nature, but Bus and I couldn’t wait to be alone so we could compare notes. Having been thoroughly schooled in “please” and “thank you” from the beginning of our young lives, we were amazed that Don would act this way. Didn’t he know any better?
The ranch buildings were located in a wide tree-lined coulee, where there was plenty of good water from springs that fed a small creek. There was no indoor plumbing, but there was a small springhouse built a short distance from the house. Inside were two concrete tubs holding water piped in from the spring. Water was dipped from the tubs into buckets for household use. Bus and I were fascinated by some large water bugs swimming around in the tubs. We tried to catch them with our hands, not an easy task. Ada happened to come into the springhouse once during this activity, and she admonished us not to put our hands into the tubs. “We drink that water, you know,” she said. As soon as she left, Bus and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, wondering why she would worry more about our hands touching the drinking water than the fact that there were bugs in it.
The main branch of the creek was about one hundred yards from the house, so Ada had a clear view of us while we played there. This particular weekend I remember we played African Queen, so I must have been about nine, and Bus seven. We found old pieces of wood that we laid in the creek and used for floating or rafting down the “river.” Sometimes we misstepped and got our feet wet, which increased the fun. The surrounding reeds, grasses, and moss, and the great silence, took us a continent away as we traveled through dangerous territory, just like Bogart and Hepburn. I recall that one of the trees on the bank was blackened and without leaves, probably struck by lightning. Because it was a smallish tree, I decided to climb it. When I crawled out onto a lower branch, it broke and I fell hard to the ground. The wind was knocked out of me, and I lay there, startled and trying to catch my breath. I somehow realized what had happened, even though it had never happened before, and hasn’t since.
On Saturday Ada said Don wanted to go to town. I didn’t want to go. The long car ride from town to the ranch and back over gravel roads often made me carsick, and I couldn’t see the point if we were just going to turn around and come back. Ada promised us a visit to the Dairy Queen if we would agree to go. That wasn’t much of an enticement, but of course we ended up doing what the adults had decided.
Bus and I sat in the back seat and tried to play quietly. At least Don wasn’t smoking, so we didn’t have to contend with the thick miasma of cigarette smoke that Grandpa and Dad always foisted on us. We giggled and poked each other until Ada finally suggested we sing some Roy Acuff tunes.
“Your grandpa says you know all the words to ‘Freight Train Blues,’” she said.
Bus and I looked at each other, suddenly shy. Neither of us was much of a singer, but we did put a lot of gusto into our rendition.
“I got the fray-ayt-train bloooooooes! Lawdy, lawdy, lawdy. Got ‘em in the bottom of mah ramblin’ shooooooo-ooo-oooo-es!” We shouted. Ada laughed. So far there hadn’t been a peep out of Don.
I think I came up with “Twenty Questions,” a game Bus and I played occasionally with our parents, and which took up time without being noisy. Ada gamely entered into it. She didn’t ask Don to participate.
Eventually, we made it to town. Don drove straight to the Dairy Queen on Main Street, and Ada offered us Brown Derby cones, which we politely accepted. It seems to me that Ada joined us in a cone, but I don’t think Don did.
When the cones were gone, Don started up the car and headed further on down Main Street. He parked in the middle of a block, snarled “phone call” at Ada, and left the car. He walked into a storefront with the word “OASIS” lettered on its window.
“Where’s Don going?” Bus asked.
The smile was gone from Ada’s face. “He said he had to make a phone call,” she said.
“Does O-A-S-I-S spell ‘telephone’?” Bus asked.
“No, you dope,” I said.
“What does it spell then?”
“Oasis,” Ada said. It means a waterhole in the desert, I think.”
“The desert! There’s a desert in there?”
“No, no. Just things to drink.”
I poked Bus because I thought it best that he shut up. He gave me a mean look, but stopped talking.
It seemed like Don was gone forever. We grew more and more restless, of course.
“Ada, you know what would be funny? “ I said. “You could drive the car around the corner and park it, so when Don comes out he thinks the car’s been stolen!”
“Yeah!” Bus agreed.
Ada was now sitting with her arms crossed, staring straight ahead.
“That’s not a good idea,” she said. “Anyway, I don’t know how to drive.”
“You don’t? My mom can drive. She even has her own car!” I said, anticipating her surprised delight.
But all she said was “Mmm.”
It was hard to sit still inside the car with nothing happening.
“Can we get out of the car?” I asked Ada.
“No, you better not. We’ll be going soon.”
“When is ‘soon’?” Bus asked.
“As soon as Don gets back.”
“Ooooh, that’ll be never!” Bus said. He stretched his slim body backward in an agony of impatience.
But just then, Don did come back. At least he appeared in the doorway of the Oasis. Through the opened door we could hear loud music and laughter, and there was a woman standing beside Don, wearing his black cowboy hat. He looked funny without it. His hair was pretty thin on top.
“Who’s that lady with Don?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Ada replied, quietly emphasizing each word.
Don grabbed his hat from the woman’s head and smiling broadly, a bulging paper sack tucked under his arm, strode back to the car and slid in behind the wheel.
Bus and I didn’t dare ask him anything, though we were both tense with curiosity. Ada didn’t say anything, either.
Don started the car, then honked the horn at the woman who still stood in the doorway. She gave him a dismissive wave, and we roared off down the street.
Our town had one stoplight. It happened to be red as we approached, but Don roared on through it.
“You went through a red light!” Ada sounded scared.
“Well, whaddya know?” Don said. He kept going. When he got to the end of Main Street, he turned and drove through the underpass, then made a sharp right and headed out onto a dirt road. The car swerved, powdery dust rising all around us.
“Where are you going?” Ada shouted. Bus and I held onto our armrests for dear life.
“You’ll find out,” Don said. Although he was acting crazy, he seemed to be in a good mood. After ten minutes or so, he pulled into a lane with a mailbox, and headed toward a small white house with a blue roof. There were three or four cars parked in front of it. Next to the house was a green and white mobile home, with every window lit up. Don slammed on the brakes, turned the car off, grabbed the paper bag, and headed for the house.
“Don!” Ada shouted. She sounded furious. “We have the kids with us. You’re going to get fired! Get back here right now!”
He turned and grinned at her, then continued toward the little house. I was getting pretty worried about the way things were going.
“Ada!” I said, pulling on her shoulder. “I have to go to the bathroom!”
“Oh, Lord,” she said. She looked out the car window and scanned the terrain. “Well, I don’t know where you could go. Are you afraid to go in the bushes?”
“I dunno,” I said.
“I’ll come with you!” Bus encouraged me.
“Well, okay. But you got to get your own bush.”
We jumped out of the car like little bugs, full of pent-up energy. I grabbed Bus’s jacket sleeve and dragged him along with me. It was still fairly light out, which helped in finding a good bush, but was bad if we wanted to keep our activity a secret. We saw some dense shrubbery at the back of the house, and went to investigate. At least there were no people around back there.
“I get dibs on that big tree over there,” Bus said.
“Okay, I’ll duck down under this window.”
“I hope nobody sees you!” Bus taunted me.
“They won’t,” I said. The window was low enough that I could see over the sill if I jumped up. So, of course, I did. I could hear loud music and laughter, and I caught a glimpse of Don! I was pretty sure he didn’t see me. Scared, I pushed my way into the shrubbery and quickly did my business. The relief revived me. Bus was coming out from behind his tree, so told him I saw Don through the window.
“What was he doing?”
“I just saw him for a sec. I couldn’t tell. There’s lots of music and laughing.”
“Let’s go spy on him,” Bus suggested.
I wanted to, but what if we got caught?
“Hey, look here,” Bus said, pointing to a small log on the ground. We rolled it over beneath the window, and I hopped onto it, careful to keep my head down. Slowly I rose up and peered through the bottom of the window. I could see Don. He had his arm around a woman with long frizzy hair; she was wearing a peasant blouse pulled down over one shoulder. She was pretty ugly. I got down and whispered this information to Bus, who, of course, wanted to see, too.
“Ada’s prettier than her,” Bus opined.
“Ada has better hair, anyway,” I agreed.
We heard a loud noise — a door closing? I grabbed Bus and we ran like crazy back to the car.
“Is everything okay?” Ada asked us, when we’d rejoined her in the car.
Bus and I weren’t sure what she meant by “okay,” so we just looked at each other.
“Well?” she said.
“I went in the bushes,” I said. “Bus went behind a tree.”
“So it wasn’t so bad after all?” We were silent.
“Well, was it?” Ada insisted.
The question was, should we tell Ada what we’d seen through the window.
“It was okay,” I said finally. The pressure of withholding the information was unbearable. Then, “We tried to see in the window.”
“Yeah, first I jumped up, then I stood on a log.”
Bus hit me on the leg and gave me a horrified look.
“So? Was there anything to see?”
“Oh, not much,” I said, trying to sound bored or nonchalant or something.
“Not much, but — what? Could you see Don anywhere?”
“Well? What was he doing?”
“ He had his arm around this lady.” I closed my eyes and buried my head in my hands, embarrassed.
“Well, that does it!” Ada jerked open the car door and started out across the yard toward the house, pumping her arms angrily. Bus and I looked at each other.
“You shouldn’t have told her,” Bus said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. I supposed whatever happened now would be all my fault. We waited in the car, staring out toward the front door of the house.
Ada stomped up the front steps, grabbed the door to the house and flung it open. Loud music flowed out, and within seconds we saw Ada pulling Don by his jacket and him staggering off the stoop.
Don yelled something we couldn’t make out, and the frizzy-haired woman appeared behind him, trying to pull him back inside. Don shrugged both women off, then started yelling at Ada.
“You stupid —!” We couldn’t make out much, but we could tell he was really mad. Ada continued pulling on him, and finally he fell off the steps and onto the ground. He rolled up, grabbed Ada by her hair, and smacked her hard across the mouth. Bus and I gasped, as Ada fell, her face bloody.
By now a small crowd was gathering — all of the patrons from inside, I suppose — and they were all shouting and threatening both Don and Ada, as well as each other.
“What are we gonna do?” Bus whispered. He was shaking, and hanging onto my arm so hard it hurt.
I had no idea what we were going to do.
“I don’t know, but we’ve got to get out of here somehow.” I thought for a minute. “Listen, I’m going to try to sneak inside the house and see if I can find a telephone to call Grandpa.”
“Annie, you’re gonna leave me here alone? What if Don comes back to the car and drives me away?’”
“Come with me, then. You go hide in those bushes over there while I sneak inside. And stay there!”
“Okay,” Bus said, his voice quavering.
We got out of the car and tried to stay in the shadows as we ran toward the bushes beside the house. The mob didn’t seem to notice us. I made sure Bus was well hidden, then I sneaked up the steps and into the house. I could see just one person inside — a man sleeping in an easy chair with a newspaper over his face. I tiptoed around him and scanned the area for a telephone. There was one on a desk along one wall. I grabbed the receiver and dialed our grandfather’s number, praying he would not have to come all the way downstairs to answer the phone, as time was of the essence.
“Grandpa?” I said in a tiny voice I didn’t recognize. “It’s Annie. Can you come get us?”
“What? Come and get you? At the ranch?” He sounded puzzled and gruff.
“No, we’re in town.”
“In town? How’d you get to town?” Grandpa was having trouble grasping the situation, understandably.
“With Don and Ada. But they got into a big fight and Don socked Ada in the mouth, really hard, and she’s all bloody.”
“My God. Where are you? Where is all this happening?”
“I don’t know for sure.” I was starting to cry. “It’s a house with a blue roof next to a trailer house. We drove down Main Street, through the underpass, then turned right onto a gravel road. It’s not too far out, I don’t think. It didn’t take very long to get here.”
“Okay, Annie. I think I know the place. Now, listen to me, I want you to take Bus and the two of you hide in the bushes or wherever you can and don’t come out until you see my car. Can you do that?”
“Yes. Please hurry, Grandpa.”
“I’m on my way,” he said. Before he hung up I heard him mutter, “Jesus!”
Quickly I hung up the receiver and looked around me. The man in the chair was awake now, but he just looked at me with no expression. I ran outside.
Outside the scene was pretty much the same. Nine or ten people were gathered at one end of the yard, circled around Don and Ada, everybody hollering and cursing. I ducked my head and sprinted off the stoop and around the side of the house. Bus saw me and put his hand out. I grabbed it and we sank to the ground, both of us panting and crying while trying not to make any noise.
“Grandpa’s coming,” I whispered. “He said to stay hidden until we see his car.”
“Oh, I can’t wait to see Grandpa!” Bus said.
Our grandfather got there quickly — I think we were only about a mile and a half outside of town. Never had I been so glad to see the grill on that big green Buick as when it pulled into the yard in front of that little house.
A hush came over the little group of rioters as Grandpa pulled to a stop and slowly rolled down his window. He didn’t say anything, just looked around until he saw me and Bus scurrying toward him. Then he leaned over and pushed open the passenger side door and we fell inside the car. He didn’t say a word to his employees or the others there that day. After making sure Bus and I were physically okay, if rattled, he drove into town and straight to the Sheriff’s Office. We stayed in the car (with the doors locked) while he went inside.
“The Sheriff’s going to handle it,” he assured us when he returned.
“Is he going to put Don in jail?” I asked.
“Oh, probably not,” he said. He sounded calm, but he looked grim.
“But will Ada be okay?”
“I think the Sheriff will see that she is.”
“But will he send her back to the ranch with Don?”
Grandpa didn’t say anything at first. Then he sighed.
“I guess he will,” he said.
Bus and I didn’t move much farther away from Grandpa than the swing on his front porch for the rest of the weekend. Needless to say, we had quite a tale to tell our parents when they returned home, and they were gratifyingly horrified. They made a fuss over us, kept telling us how sorry they were that this had happened, and praised me for having the sense to get myself and my brother out of harm’s way. Of course there was no more playing African Queen, or anything else for that matter, at the ranch that summer. Bus and I didn’t mention the horses even once.
Grandpa let Don and Ada stay on through the winter, but sent them down the road in the spring. The fact that Don turned the farm truck over on his way back from town one Saturday night probably didn’t help his case. Grandpa hired a new couple, ones he felt he knew pretty well, and again we got to enjoy the ranch in the summertime — but always with a family member close by.
And Ada? Her fate has stayed a hard question in my chest to this day.