He was the first black man that the boy knew. Not that the boy hadn`t seen black men, both in life and in the movies. But he was the first one that he got to meet; the first one with whom he had any conversation; the first with whom he was able to make an acquaintance. Of course, in those days, they weren't called black men, unless someone called them `as black as the ace of spades' or `black-hearted', but they were called `niggers' or `nigras' or if one felt kind-hearted, they were referred to as `coloured'. Once in a while, the boy would see a `nigger' walking along the road, usually a blanket-roll across his shoulders, or he would see a few of them standing on the street corner when he infrequently went into town, or perhaps a gang of them would be working in the fields of his neighbors, but he had never spoken to one nor had one had occasion to speak to him.
The summer had just begun, school was out and there were a lot of chores that needed to be done, morning and night, that the boy dreaded. He would pray for relief, usually in the form of finding a million dollars or being discovered as the long lost heir of a tobacco king, but no relief came. Sitting in his favorite tree, a large mulberry bush that to the boy seemed a hundred feet high, late one afternoon, he saw a small, lone figure stumbling along the dusty roadway that ran in front of his home. As curiosity was one of his better qualities, the boy scrambled down the tree and began to stalk the lone figure, hiding in the tall weeds and grass that grew alongside the roadway, pretending that he was a `Commando on patrol, ready to wipe out a whole Jap patrol, ala Audie Murphy.
At first, he thought it may have been one of his friends, the figure was so small, and he was going to jump out and scare the pants right off him, but closer inspection gave the lie to that proposition. Plodding along the road, his feet shuffling in no apparent order, head downcast, shoulders stooped under the weight of a blanket-roll, was one of the strangest creatures that the boy had ever seen.
It was a man, alright, his wrinkled, stubbled face gave evidence of that. But what a man! Less than five feet tall, clothed in an old black suit that hung from fleshless arms and stooped shoulders. He was as thin as an old maid's lips, no stockings graced his feet where nondescript shoes, soles flapping with each shuffled step, allowed more than one toe to peek through. He never once took his eyes from off the ground and an old floppy hat he continually turned 'round and 'round in his hands. And his face! Truley as black as the ace of spades! All thoughts of heroic efforts in battle were completely forgotten as the boy stared open-mouthed at the sight set before him. "They's gonna get me, sho' `nuff. Sho' `nuff, they's gonna get me. Ah gotta kep on walkin', kep on walkin'. O' Lawdy, feet kep on a-walkin'!"
The boy was startled to hear the black man mumbling to himself, and edged even closer to the poor derelict stumbling down a country road on a hot, dusty, June afternoon. As the old man passed the farmyard, the tall cottonwood trees seemed to invite him in and he stumbled across the weedy ditch and slumped against the thick bole of one of the mighty giants that gave such shade and protection to the front yard. "Gotta res', Gotta res'. Ah'm jest plain tuckered out. Gotta res'."
The old man leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes, while the boy crawled closer. The stench that emanated from the thin, emaciated body was almost overpowering, but not unfamiliar to the boy. His older brother sometimes smelled that way after playing all night at a local dance hall, even stumbling like the old man, and once, even chasing the lights of passing cars as they flashed through the windows of the bunkhouse where the brothers slept.
Slowly, the boy crept closer. The old man's eyes jerked open. His eyes darted wildly about, then seemed to calm as they focused on the boy crawling toward him. "Why, massa, honey. How come yo' sneakin' up'n ol' Shorty that way? Ol' Shorty's 'bout to die and yo' comes sneakin' up'n 'm. Yo' one o' dem? Naw, yo' ain't one o' dem, too small, too small."
The old man slowly sat up and fished in his coat pocket. Not finding anything there, he shrugged the blanket-pack from off his shoulders and rummaged in one end of it for a long while, finally coming up with a large corn-cob pipe and a small box of matches. Sucking desperately on the pipe, he whined in a plaintive voice, "O', ah sho' do wish ah had a sack of 'bacca. A sack of 'bull raht now would do fine. O', honey, yo' know whar a black ol' nigger cou'd git a sack o' 'bacca?
No one is his family smoked, so the boy did not know where he could get a sack of tobacco, but he did know where a weed known locally as `tobacco weed' grew, so he ran off as fast as he could run, where he stripped several stalks of their still green seeds and carried them in his hands back to the old man, who he found still resting under the old cottonwood, both gnarled and wrinkled with age. Thanking the boy, Shorty stuffed the green seeds into his pipe and then wasted a box of matches trying to get them to burn. Finally giving up, he thought that perhaps he ought to let the seeds dry first before he tried to smoke them.
"I's burnin' up, burnin' up. O', ah sho' `nuff need a drink. Ah need a drink. O', massa, honey. Do yo' tink yo' cou'd fetch me a drink? I's in powe'ful need o' a drink." The old man started to rise, then fell back, exhausted, leaning against the tree. He started to retch and green slime was ejected from between his lips and rolled down the front of his stained and torn shirt. The boy was frightened by the spectre he saw in front of him, but morbidly fascinated also. Jumping to his feet, the boy ran toward the house, calling wildly,
"Momma, Momma, there's a man dying under the cottonwood tree. Oh, momma, come quick!", he called as he raced for help. The boy's mother came to the front door and peered calmly through the screen, watching with some pride as her young, wild, unpredictable son bounded toward the house, hollering at the top of his lungs. Wiping her hands upon her apron, she opened the screen door and scooped her son up into her arms.
"Now, Willy. Calm down. Calm down. What's the trouble? Why all this noise? What's the matter, boy?" She gave him a big hug and used the corner of her apron to wipe his eyes and cheeks. He pushed at her impatiently.
"Come quick, momma. There's a nigger out there and he's puking all over and he's gonna die and someone's chasin' him and he's . . . drunk!" These last words were spoken in a whisper, his voice trailing away in awe as he contemplated the enormity of the crime lying in his front yard.
Setting the boy down, the woman stepped through the door and peered anxiously toward the large cottonwood trees that ringed the yard. Seeing the slumped figure, she hurried toward it, the boy running ahead of her and shouting loudly all the time.
"He's dying, momma. He's dying. I'm going to get to see a dead man! Hurry, momma." The first part statement was spoken with a great deal of concern and anxiety over the fate of the man before him, but the second part was spoken with a sense of excitement because he had never seen a dead man before, and although dreading the thought, there was a morbid sense of curiosity aroused in the boy. He had seen an Indian dead-drunk one time, and although that memory remained big in his mind, somehow he felt it just didn't count, not to really seeing a dead man!
His mother reached the suffering man, and knelt beside him, ignoring his filth and stench. Putting her arm around his shoulders, she easily lifted him up to a sitting position. Carefully she began to wipe his face.
"Now, Willy. He's not going to die. He's just ... ah ... sick and now he needs a drink of water. Quick, get a pitcher of water from the well and bring it to me, with a wash cloth and a towel."
The boy was already running toward the house again, glad that the stranger was just sick, but disappointed that he wasn't going to die. He scooped up a clean rag and towel and then a pitcher and rushed out the back door to the well.
Topped with a long-handled pump, the well had been dug at great effort and expense by the boy's father and older brothers and sunk many, many feet deeper than most wells in the neighborhood which depended on surface water. The water from this well was clean and clear and icy cold, but the well had had to be blasted through solid shale and rock. The boy started pumping the handle vigorously and the clear liquid gushed out.
Grasping the pitcher in one hand and trying to pump with the other, the boy was too small to get any water out so he set down the pitcher in the general direction where the water poured and started pumping with both hands. He had to re-adjust the pitcher once, but it was soon filled and he was on his way back to his mother and the stranger.
She had used her apron to wipe away the filth and to clean him up as much as possible. Smiling at her son, she lifted the pitcher up to the old man's lips. He looked at her gratefully and greedily started swallowing the cold water. "Slowly, now. Drink it slowly or it will make you sick."
She spoke slowly and distinctly, moving the pitcher away from his grasping hands. Pouring some water over the wash cloth, she began to wash his face, being careful not to scrub too hard. The boy noticed that she didn't scrub the stranger's face nearly as vigorously as she scrubbed his face and neck, even when they did'nt need to be scrubbed. "I'll give you some more a little later. Just lie quietly here for a few minutes and you'll feel better."
The old negro looked up gratefully at her and his eyes grew wide in astonishment. The sun filtering through the trees lit up her flowing, long blonde hair like a halo and her smile seemed like the smile of an angel. "O', Lawdy, Lawdy. I's died and gone to heaven. Sho' `nuff, I's in the Promis' Lan', in de arms of de angels. O', bles' duh Lawd!"
"That's not an angel. That's my momma," the boy cried. As the boy grew older, he wasn't quite so sure that perhaps his mother wasn't an angel and now that she is `with the angels', the boy has discovered that he had lived with an angel for many years, but did not know it.
"Willy, go put some water on to boil and bring out the wash tub. We've got to get this man cleaned up." "But, momma, it isn't even Saturday night, yet!"
"And put some more wood in the fire and then bring in some more wood, would you please?" "Aw, momma, he's just an old nigger. He can wash up in the ditch."
"Willy, come here a second."
His mother looked pained, and the boy was immediately sorry that he had spoken so hastily. He hated it when he hurt his mother, because she never said anything, just looked so hurt and pained, that it almost broke his heart to have hurt her.
"Aw, momma, I'm sorry I . . . ."
"That's all right, son, but I want you to remember this. We are all children of our Father in Heaven, and this poor black man is also one of God's children, our brother. Don't you think that Father in Heaven would want us to care for one of his children? Don't you think that you should care for your own brother? Well, this man is our brother and we'll take care of him, won't we?"
The boy's father was always bringing some derelict home that needed a meal and a job. Although he wanted to help others out, the father did not believe in welfare, so he always expected that wood be cut, or water carried, or the garden weeded by those he brought home. He was seldom disappointed and most would volunteer to do some of the work around the place for a meal and a bed for the night. The bed usually consisted of blankets and straw in the barn, but the meals were always delicious and satisfied even the hungriest of the men. The boy knew that they were `tramps' or `bums' but the words did not have the connotation that they have now. It meant `down on their luck' and they'd be up and working anytime now.
To the boy, Shorty was different. For one thing, they were about the same size, and the boy had never known anyone that old who was the same size. He always looked upon Shorty as an equal, not as an older person. And Shorty had enough of the child in him that he accepted the boy as his equal and they spent many enjoyable hours in each other's company.
For another thing, Shorty was the boy's discovery. His father could bring someone home and the family would make a fuss over him for a day or two and then he would be on his way. But Shorty was the boy's discovery and the boy felt that he could do something that his father could do, and he grew big in his own mind. And for another, Shorty took on a lot of the boy's chores and the boy enjoyed bossing him around and trying to get him to do everything that the boy was supposed to do.
The boy stuffed the big, black kitchen stove full of wood and poked around the fire with the long, heavy black poker until the fire was fairly roaring. Then he began to carry water to the house in a large bucket. He put the copper tub on the stove and began to fill it with water and he moved the teakettle over closer to the center of the stove. He knew that it would take 11 bucketsfull to fill the copper tub, because he could carry the bucket only about half full and he began to count the trips. After filling the copper tub on the stove, he went out to the back porch and wrestled the large, round bottomed tub from the wall and rolled it into the kitchen, placing it in the center of the room. He then began to carry water from the well and pour it into the big tub. This would take about 22 buckets to fill the tub about halfway and he didn't look forward to all that work.
In the meantime, his mother had helped the stranger to his feet and had brought him into the kitchen where she was feeding him some thick potatoe soup, he greedily wanting more, but she being very careful to give it to him slowly. The boy kept hurrying back into the kitchen so he could hear the old man answer the many questions that his mother kept asking. Having filled the tub, the boy then carried several armloads of wood and dumped them into the large wood box by the side of the stove. This task completed, the boy threw himself down on the big rag rug by the table and listened intently, but he soon discovered that his mother was unable to get much information from the black man, as his mind wandered from subject to subject and he couldn't seem to get enough to eat and drink. But his mother patiently kept feeding him slowly and continued talking to him and asking questions about him, but the old man didn't make much sense. His mother helped the old man take off his shoes and coat and unbuttoned his shirt, then she poured the hot water from the copper tub into the big tub on the floor then she left the room while the boy helped the old man undress and get into the tub. The water was hot but the old man didn't seem to mind and he smiled contentedly as he slowly splashed the water around on him.
"Why, you're black all over!" the boy exclaimed as he closely examined the skinny black body, "But some parts are almost white!"
The mystery was almost too much for the boy but the old man just smiled and reveled in the tub, splashing mightily. The boy's mother then came in and began to vigorously wash the man's hair with the large cake of Ivory soap that was kept on the window shelf. The stranger made protestations at that but finally calmed down and she washed his shoulders and neck and face. She then gave him the soap and rag and admonished him to scrub hard and get clean all over. She then went out to the clothes line and brought in a clean pair of shorts, blue overalls and a blue shirt. She instructed the boy to take the man's dirty clothes out of the kitchen and `burn them', including the dilapidated shoes, but to first `take everything out of the pockets'.
But for all the years that Shorty stayed there, he always swore that he had gone to heaven for a short time and was in the arms of angels, but was sent back to earth to atone for his sins. He always held the boy's mother in the highest regard and would do anything for her, even volunteering to help lighten her burden of work, even though he had plenty to do.
Well, the boy and his mother got Shorty cleaned up, fed and then the boy showed Shorty his bed for the night, some blankets in the barn, with fresh straw thrown down from the stack. Shorty went to sleep in the late afternoon and slept through the evening, even when the father came in to look at him, and snort derisively, and exclaim, "That's the smallest and blackest nigger I ever saw. He won't be worth a tinker's damn!". Shorty slept until about six o'clock the next morning, when he got up, carried water and wood and fed chickens and cows and pigs and horses and cats and dogs like one possessed.
By the time the boy awoke, most of his work was done, the eggs were gathered, and Shorty was eating pancakes, and eggs, and oatmeal cereal, and toast, and bacon, and a slab of ham, silently wishing that he had a cup of coffee but too polite to complain, but not understanding why a farm family would not have coffee for every meal. He was soon at work weeding the garden.
About a year before the boy ‘found’ Shorty, one of the boy’s older brothers, who was in the U. S. Navy, while visiting home, told the boy that he had a surprise for him. Excitedly, the boy crowded around his sailor brother, asking what was the surprise. “Let me see the surprise!” the boy demanded, but his brother kept teasing him and kept him at arm’s length. Then the boy saw a bulge in one of the brother’s jacket pocket. That must be the surprise! The boy quieted down and crept closer.
Carefully reaching up, he slowly reached for the pocket, but his brother slapped his hand away. The boy backed up for a minute and carefully studied that small bulge in his jacket pocket. Suddenly, to the boy’s great surprise, the bulge seemed to move! The boy’s eyes widened, his mouth dropped open and he couldn’t take his off that bulge. Yes! It had moved. There, it was wiggling again. What in the world could it be?
His brother slyly glanced at the younger boy and when he saw his attention was riveted on his jacket, he carefully put his hand into his pocket and slowly drew it out. First appeared a shiny black nose and then two wide dark eyes and then two pert little ears, then a dark shiny coat with lighter splotches on it.
“It’s a puppy! It’s a puppy!” the boy shouted, darting forward and extending his two hands. The sailor pulled the puppy all the way out of his pocket and balanced him in one hand, showing him to the boy. “Yes, I thought you might like a new little puppy.” The boy wonderingly put up his hands to receive the small animal.
It had such short legs that the boy immediately named it “Shorty” and soon the puppy was following him all around the farm and they became inseparable companions, as the boy showed him everything that he knew about the 40 acre ‘truck farm’. He showed him where the drainage ditch was and where he played ‘cars and trucks’ along its steep bank, and where he dug into the side of the bank and made his own caves and ‘hideouts’.
That beautiful dog followed the boy wherever he went and they became bosum friends. Shorty would forage through the tall weeds and grasses and flush out sparrows, quail and pheasants wherever they went. The whirrr of wings became commonplace as they trudged over the fields of the farm and neighboring farms.
So that dog with the short legs eventually met our diminutive black friend, also named 'Shorty' and the two became fast friends. When Dora had some scraps for the dog, she would open the screen door and call out "Here, Shorty, Here, Shorty", and that dog would come scampering around the corner of the house, as fast as its short legs could carry him. And around the other corner, also running as fast as his short legs could carry him, would come the other 'Shorty', calling out as he ran, "I's comin', Missus, Here I is!"
And it never failed to happen. Call for one and they both came running. Call for the other and they both responded as fast as they could. We never failed to be amused at their antics and thoroughly enjoyed calling for them, even when we didn't need to. Nor did they seem to tire of it, both running up, with grins on their faces, and expectations in their eyes.>
The boy would frequently go bare-back riding on "Lady", the big bay mare with the most gentle ride one could experience. When she trotted, it wasn't a jarring up and down motion, but more a gentle swaying from side to side, and when she paced, the only movement seemed to be from the wind in one's face. It was a riding experience never felt before nor after. And Shorty (the dog) would run along side of them, keeping up, running and leaping in the joy of the chase. It was a super fine moment, boy, horse and dog, each exhulting in life and companionship. Never lasting long enough and not nearly as appreciated at the time, as it is sixty years later.
Both Shortys came with the boy when he moved to the ranch in the Kittitas Valley, about twelve miles east of Ellensburg, on the edge of what was called the "Denmark District", because of the number of early settlers of Danish descent. The boy and his brothers attended Denmark Grade School, while their older sister attended Kittitas High School. They were far enough out in the country that they had to ride a bus to get to their respective schools and the bus ride was an extremely long one, as it wound east and south to the very edge of the valley, through the rich farm lands of the Danish farmers, as compared to the stony, shallow soil of the boy's Kittitas ranch.
Shorty, the dog, became a valuable asset as he learned to herd sheep and could work from hand signals and was especially helpful in helping to train new dogs to work with the sheep. And he was a good hunting dog, nosing out the quail and pheasants in the thick weeds and grasses of the ditch banks and drainage ditches. There came a time when Shorty grew old and tired, his bones ached and he had trouble walking and seemed to be in constant pain. Finally, it was decided that Shorty would have to be 'put down'. The boy's father offered to do that, but the boy insisted that as it was his dog, he would have to do that. It turned out to be one of the hardest things that the boy had ever done and he kept putting it off, until Shorty was hardly able to walk. The boy had seen a favorite horse, who got tangled up in the chains and ropes of the old "Mormon" derick, broken his leg in his struggles, and had to be 'put down', and then they called the big black 'Morgue truck', with its tall, black metal sides, with a derick to haul the big animals in, had been called to haul him off and he determined that he would take care of all the final arrangements himself. Finally, the boy called his faithful dog to him, and picking up the 22 rifle and a shovel, they headed out to a secluded area behind the corrals. He dug a deep grave and then dug it even deeper, until he could go no further in the hard caleche. Sitting down he took the dog in his arms and they sat there, without speaking, for the longest time. Tears were streaming down the boy's face as he took a long, last look at this faithful friend and companion. Finally he stood up, squared his shoulders, and walked a short distance away and aimed the rifle and 'put him down'. The boy thought that there must be dogs in Heaven because if anyone deserved Heaven, it was that constant companion, Shorty, who was wrapped in a gunny sack and then carefully laid to rest. Later a crude marker marked the spot for several years.
Tony was the name of a puppy that became one of the best sheep dogs and workers that the boy ever knew. He was a border collie, and looked and acted the part.
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