Spring. And school was out on a Friday.
Early on Monday morning, Dad left for Uvalde to buy cotton seed and grain for Spring planting of the fields.
He also intended to hire men to help with the field work, and a housekeeper, so Polly, Laurance and Oscar B. could be home. Dad wanted the family to be together as much as possible, lest we become strangers to each other.
The there little ones had been living with Grandpa and Grandma Saunders during the school term.
Their house was about a mile from ours, but, there was little time during Winter to visit as we had to leave before daylight to have time to drive the four miles to Knippa school, and it was dark when we got home during the short days of Winter.
And there were the daily chores to be done.
Dad returned late that Monday evening, alone, and looking worried. To our questions he answered that we would have a family conference after supper, and would talk then.
He told us then that he was unable to find any men to help with the field work. The Mexican men didn’t know anything about farm work—(that was mostly ranching country). They preferred to work on ranches where their work was mostly riding horses, etc. and thought farm work would be too hard—and too hot.
Dad said he interviewed several middle age women, but they thought it would be too lonesome so far out in the country, and didn’t want to be responsible “for a house full of motherless children” – and some so small.” Dad said he assured them we were well-behaved children, and would cause no problems. He offered them a very good salary, but none were willing to take the job.
Dad said that on the long ride home he had done a lot of thinking and planning.
Polly, Laurance and Oscar B. would have to continue living with Grandpa and Grandma Saunders and Aunt Laura for the summer.
Ralph and Harry could handle the planters and cultivators, as they would be riding. Our farm mules were well trained and docile, so would be easy to handle. The crops must be planted, else there would be no harvest in the Fall. Dad would do the heavy work.
Sometimes they would be working the fields too far from home to come home at noon, so would have to take their lunches and a canvas bag of water for each of them.
They would have to be in the fields by daybreak, so as to take advantage of all the daylight hours. Being so short-handed every hour had to count.
That would leave Dutch and myself all alone at home all day.
Dad said he knew how dangerous it was for two little girls to be alone there all day. In those days there were many “hobos” or “tramps” – they seemed to follow the railroads, and several stopped at our house every week to ask for food and water. The railroads ran in front of our house.
Dad said never to refuse any one food and water, but to say “we” (not I) will be glad to shared we we have.
That a man would be less likely to harm us when we were sharing our food with him, but, if refused food and water, a very hungry and thirsty man might force his way into the house and take food.
Dad had brought some strong harness fastners home with him, and installed them on all the screen doors that night.
He said they wouldn’t prevent someone getting in, but would be more difficult and “maybe buy a little time.”
Dad outlined what we would do.
I would do all the cooking, as Dutch didn’t know how to cook. When a small child, and we were living in North Texas, I had stood in a chair at Grandma Burns’ house and watched old black, white-haired “Aunt Em” cook— “by gosh, and by guess” – and I had learned to cook “Southern style” from her.
I would wash the dishes, Dutch would dry them. I would sweep and mop the floors, Dutch would do the dusting. We would make the beds together. I would carry all the drinking water from the windmill, and keep the water bags filled.
These were square canvas bags with a screw cap on one upper corner, and a strap for hanging. We had half a dozen or more, they hung on nails along the eves of the back porch—in the shade of the overhanging roof. The water soaked through the canvas, the water was kept nice and cold.
Dad coached us on what to do and say when tramps came to the door asking for food and water.
I was always to say “we” to indicate we were not alone. Dutch was to go upstairs and make noise—I was to say “Spring housecleaning” again to indicate we were not alone.
And, the loaded 22 rifle was to be kept leaning against the wall beside the back door—Tramps never came to the front door.
Dad told me to use the gun—if I needed to protect us, that it was lawful to even kill is self-protection or to protect someone else, and, for me to remember I would be responsible for Dutch’s protection as well as my own.
When I protested I couldn’t kill a human, Dad explained that in times of desperation, people discovered they had strengths they never dreamed they had. And if it came to that, I could do what had to be done.
The only things I had ever killed was a rattlesnake that had killed the mother of a nest of rabbits close to our backyard, and a rabid skunk which I killed with a garden hoe.
Dad said that was a dangerous thing to do, as I was lucky the skunk didn’t bite me. In those days rabies was sure and certain a horrible death.
So Dad had taught me how to use a 22 rifle.
I said I couldn’t kill a man—that I would just wound him—to that, Dad answered it would be more merciful to kill outright, than for a man to bleed to death—or die a painful death from gunshot wounds.
He told me if I did have to shoot someone, to remember to call the Sheriff at Uvalde and report it, but, it would take him hours to ride horseback those eight miles.
I didn’t sleep much that night—I kept waking up and thinking “ I can’t kill someone—but, what if I have to!”
Next morning Dad loaded the 22 and stood it against the wall by the back door, loaded his pistol and took it upstairs and left it on the dresser-”In case we were trapped upstairs.”
The next few days were uneventful, no tramps came to the door, and I was feeling more calm.
Then, one morning Dutch and I were upstairs making the beds when we heard a knock at the back door downstairs.
Dad and the boys had already left for the fields.
As calmly as I could, I told Dutch to lock the stairwell door after me, and not to come downstairs no matter what she heard, if I didn’t come back upstairs for her to stay put until Dad came home.
And to make some noise!
I could see through the living room a man standing outside the screen door—and I could also see the screen door was unlatched—after all Dad’s warning to keep the screen doors latched—one of us had left it open.
The loaded gun was leaning against the wall beside the door, but out of sight of the man—to get to it I would have to walk up to that unlocked screen door with the man standing just outside.
Trying to control my shaking knees– and thinking “What if?” I managed to walk up to the door—by that time Dutch was making so much noise upstairs, the man looked startled—I remembered to say “Spring house cleaning” as Dad had told me to.
The man stepped back a step or two and removed his hat and asked if we could spare a little food and water, and said he would be glad to chop stovewood or do other chores to pay for the food—in that instant I knew we had nothing to fear from this man—actions do speak louder than words.
I told him we didn’t need any chores done, and would be glad to share what food we had with him. He thanked me and asked if he could have a drink of water. I gave him a tin cup and told him to help himself to the cold water in the water bags.
There were still live coals in the big cast iron stove, and half a pot of coffee left from Dad’s breakfast—he was the only one that drank coffee. There were also several biscuits left from breakfast.
I scrambled six eggs—the man looked so thin and hungry—took the biscuits, honey and butter and the eggs—and coffee out to the man—he had sat down on the edge of the porch.
After he had finished eating, he thanked me, and seemed really grateful, and went on his way.
There were many more tramps stopping at our house that summer, but, none ever harmed us, or bothered us in any way.
I was about twelve years old, and Dutch was three years younger, and we soon lost our fear of being alone all day. And I stopped having nightmares that I would have to kill a human. I didn’t even have to kill another rabid animal—but, I did kill a few more rattlesnakes!
Dad told us he had seen a Titan Tractor in town—first one in those parts, and had decided to go back and buy it, which he did. In those days, motors had to be start by cranking—that was before the days of push-button starters.
People came for miles around to see the tractor, first they had ever seen.
Later Harry broke his arm trying to crank it.