He broke through, wiped the water from his eyes and looked for his older brother’s approval. He couldn’t see Frankie at first, but then spotted him climbing above the diving ledge, his stark white bottom out of place against the dark, brown surface.
“Frankie, what’re you doing?”
“Shut up. You’ll see.” Frankie’s voice sounded flat against the embankment. He continued climbing until he reached the uppermost cliff and sat for a moment, breathing deeply, almost three stories above the water. He stood up and grinned down at Jimmy.
“Think that was a jump? Watch.”
Jimmy recognized Frankie’s grin –that indefinable feeling it conveyed—and for a fleeting second he questioned his knowledge of his own brother.
Frankie stepped back from the edge, disappearing from view. Jimmy watched the vacant edge until his brother reappeared, launching himself into the open air above the pool. Frankie hung in space, his legs and arms churning to find equilibrium. He pulled his knees up against his chest a split second before smacking into the water’s surface.
A huge spray hit Jimmy’s face and the water swelled and pushed against him. He looked for his older brother, scanning back and forth as the surface calmed. He counted a long, one…two… three… four…
Frankie broke the surface, laughing and spitting water.
“Now that was a jump,” he laughed.
“That was amazing. Frankie…you were floating in air. It took you forever to hit. Weren’t you scared?”
“Hell, yes. But if you just do it…well, you know. But my ass hit bottom pretty hard.” Frankie laughed again, splashing water at his younger brother.
They looked up at the original ledge which now appeared old and familiar. Its memory would soon pale alongside the danger of the upper rock. At fourteen, Jimmy was barely a year younger than his brother, but doubted he himself would be up to the challenge.
“How long we been here?”
“Don’t know. It’s one, two o’clock. The old man could be home by now.”
They knew the implication of that. They swam to their clothes and boots lying in the sun by the wide pool.
* * *
They ran. With each stride, dust puffed up and they zigzagged through the juniper brush. Their pant legs whisked at each bush and the warm air quickly dried their close-cropped hair. With an awkward leap over a bush, Jimmy passed his older brother. He ran, enjoying the lead, however briefly. He came to the neighbor’s barbed wire fence and angled off, paralleling it. Looking back, he saw Frankie stopped by the fence.
“Hey genius,” Frankie nodded to the fence. “This way’s shorter.”
“Maybe,” Jimmy said, walking back. “But that’s Johnson’s place.”
“So what? It’s not like we’re breaking into his house or something.”
“I don’t know, Frankie…”
“Don’t be a chickenshit.” Frankie lifted the second wire and stepped down on the third, creating a gap for Jimmy.
Jimmy hesitated and then stepped through. He held the wires for Frankie who slipped through and hit Jimmy on the shoulder.
“Let’s move. The old man will be crappin’ nails if we’re not there when he gets home.”
The boys continued at a steady jog.
“Bear off to the left there,” Frankie said.
They moved over a small rise. As they crested the rise, they startled a small herd of cattle, scattering them. The Hereford steers kicked up dust, ran a short distance and stopped to look back. Two bellowed their complaint as others shook their dusty, red coats and shifted further away.
The boys were around the base of the ridge before they saw the house. They came upon it unexpectedly although a good portion of the herd was visible from the building. Frankie stopped and nodded toward a stand of juniper trees to the left of the house.
“Cut over and we’ll circle around.”
But they were too late.
The front door swung inward and a stout, middle-aged woman stepped out onto the porch. She wore a blue dress with a large, white apron encircling her waist. Drying her hands on the apron, she squinted into the bright sun. She lifted her hand, peering out from under it at the boys.
“You boys come on over here.”
Frankie looked at Jimmy, shrugged, and walked closer to the house. As they came closer, the woman pointed to the steers on the hillside.
“You boys don’t be cutting across here. Those steers could end up scared and break down a fence or something. This is private property and you’re trespassing.”
Jimmy looked down at his worn boots, waiting for Frankie to apologize. The moment dragged on. Finally Frankie spoke.
“I’ll make you a deal ma’am,” he looked over his shoulder at Jimmy and grinned –the same grin as at the swimming hole, but now Jimmy understood what it meant. It was a combination of what if and whatever; it’ll be worth it. Frankie turned back to the woman. “You go back inside and I won’t tell you to stick it up your ass.” He looked at Jimmy again, the grin breaking into a wide smile.
For reasons he didn’t understand, Jimmy felt Frankie’s strength, his invitation to jump in. The woman’s eyes widened and her jaw hung slack. She shook her head, her chin wagging. The comical look, combined with Frankie’s implied invitation gave Jimmy an odd feeling, as though this was a movie in which he both acted and observed.
“Yeah, waddle your fat ass back inside.” He heard his own voice, defiant, yet detached – a kid’s voice saying a bad man’s words.
The woman stomped her foot involuntarily and with each stomp the color grew deeper in her face, until it reached a faint purplish hue.
“You…you…wait until my husband gets home. You little bastards. That’s no way to talk to a lady.”
“Hell, if he had to settle for a cow like you,” Frankie laughed. “He can’t be too damn much.”
The woman stared. Her shock hadn’t diminished, but her fight was gone. “Just get off our property” she said and moved into the house, slowly closing the door. Frankie grinned at Jimmy.
“Time to make tracks, boy.”
They broke into their steady jog, not bothering to skirt around the house. Jimmy forced a laugh, but wondered at what he’d done. While in the moment, the daring sense of power was intoxicating. In those brief seconds, Frankie admired him. But the reality of what he’d done and its probable consequences slowly seeped in.
“Jesus, Frankie. What we just did…”
“Don’t worry. Old man Johnson won’t do anything and dad may not even be home.”
Frankie seemed confident, but in his gut Jimmy held his newly realized fear in a tight, acidic wad.
* * *
They came from the south side of the milking shed, moving furtively now. The small house stood beyond the ramshackle building and as the boys peered around the corner they saw their father’s old Model T truck in the gravel yard. The afternoon heat pulsed off the gravel.
“Shit. He’s home,” Frankie said. They eased back, concealing themselves behind the shed.
“Shut up. Let me think,” Frankie took a deep breath. “Okay, he’ll ask where we’ve been, so we tell him we were at the spring on the south flat, checking the calves and digging out the mud.”
Jimmy looked skeptical.
“It’ll work,” Frankie insisted. “I think he might have told us to do that last week before he left. Just don’t start looking guilty.”
Jimmy nodded and together they stepped around the corner and walked toward the house.
They were through the yard’s gate when the front door opened and their father pushed past the screen door. He stood on the porch as the screen door slammed shut. He wore work jeans and a heavy, cuffed shirt: A road-worker’s shirt. His hair was cut short –shorter around his ears— and the white of his forehead contrasted with his sun-scorched face. He spat into the yard, watching the boys approach. He leaned his head to one side, looking down on them with a furrowed brow.
“Where you boys been?”
“Hey dad,” Frankie said. “We just come back from the spring. The calves are good. We dug the mud out, like you said, so the water could stand deeper. How was work this week?”
The man stood silent, looking from Frankie to Jimmy.
“Hi dad,” Jimmy smiled briefly before lowering his eyes from the stare. The man turned his gaze back to Frankie.
“So where are your shovels?”
“Just hung ‘em up,” Frankie said, jerking a thumb toward the shed. “Made sure to rinse them off at the spring. Take good care of your tools, just like you said.”
Jimmy’s heart pounded. Frankie was smart in his lies regarding the tools.
The man’s eyes moved back to Jimmy who continued staring at the ground.
“I told you boys before I left that I wanted that hen house mucked out and the roof fixed on the hog’s shed. Why ain’t it done?”
“Sorry dad. It took longer than we figured to clean up the milking shed and make the rock cradle for the corner post of the fence. And then there was the spring to clean out.”
The man’s eyes narrowed further. Frankie met the glare, his face blank, almost pleasant.
“Well, supper’s not for awhile, so there’s time to start on the coop. I want the floor raked out and clean straw put down. Get the shit scraped off the perches, and get some clean straw in the roosts.”
“Yes, sir.” Frankie said.
“Yes, sir.” Jimmy echoed.
“I’m not happy about these jobs not getting done,” the man said. “But your mother says you’ve kept up your regular chores and have stayed out of mischief. Leastways you ain’t been caught anyway. That’s all that’s keeping you from trouble. Understand?”
“Look me in the eye,” his gaze shifted from one boy to the other. “Now, do you understand what I mean by ‘trouble’?”
“Good. Now get going on that coop. I want it spotless.”
The man turned and walked back into the house. The screen door slammed as he disappeared inside. The brothers went back through the gate and walked to the shed.
“Good job, Frankie,” Jimmy said. “He was wondering though. I couldn’t look him in the eye. But you did it. You pulled it off.”
“Did I?” Frankie’s smile flickered. “Just shut up, Jimmy.”
* * *
They ate supper around the worn table that sat in an alcove just off the kitchen. The evening summer sun was bright through the window of the alcove, which overlooked the gravel yard and its long gravel drive snaking down to the main road. An occasional puff of wind came through the window, stirring the heat. The man talked, gesturing with his fork between bites.
“The problem’s with the workers we’re sent. Hell, the WPA won’t let you fire ‘em, so they lean on a shovel and get paid for the privilege.”
The boys sat on either side of the table, the man on one end, their mother on the other. Now and then the brothers’ eyes met, but quickly moved away in conspiratorial guilt.
“Jimmy, take your elbows off the table,” his mother smiled, watching as the boy slid his elbows off the table, leaving his forearms to rest on the edge.
“How much longer on this job, hon?” she said.
“About a week, but hell, with the shovel-leaners it could take longer. It’s just…” his voice trailed off as he looked out the window. “Now what the hell is this?”
A Model A truck had turned off the main road and was barreling up the drive. A plume of dust boiled up from its wheels as it came. Jimmy looked across the table at Frankie, who stared back, as though mentally willing his younger brother to remain quiet. Then Frankie gave him a flicker of a grin. The man glanced from one boy to the other, his confused face relaxing into cold realization.
“Okay boys, what the hell is this?”
The car was nearer now, the dust rising in a huge cloud above it. “Well, whoever it is, the son of a bitch needs to slow down.”
The car’s brakes locked as it slid to a stop in the gravel yard. The dust cloud rolled over it, drifting into the house through the open window. The boys’ mother coughed, waving her hand in front of her face.
“Well, now the son of a bitch’s dusted our damn dinner,” the man stood. “Looks like Johnson.”
The car’s horn blared for a count of three and stopped.
“He’s honkin’ his horn? Are you kidding me?”
The horn blared again.
“You mean the son of a bitch can’t even walk up to the door? He’s calling me out there like a trained dog?” he glared at each boy in turn. “Alright. Now we’ll find out what’s going on.” He walked out the front door, his boots heavy on the porch.
Jimmy watched from the window as his father crossed the gravel yard. Dust still settled as his father reached the car, rested his arm on the top and leaned down to talk to Johnson through the car door’s window. Frankie moved to the front door of the house. His mother continued watching from the window. Jimmy eased to the front door and he and Frankie slipped out and down into the yard.
The boys stood together hearing the men’s voices, but were unable to make out the words. Jimmy walked over to the fence by the side of the house and eased forward. Frankie, however, walked straight toward the car, but stopped in the middle of the yard. As Jimmy moved closer, he heard the rage in Johnson’s voice. With a few more steps, he could make out the words.
“…talk to my wife that way is bullshit.”
“I understand,” his father’s voice was even, his eyes steady on Johnson. “The boys will be punished.”
Jimmy knew full well what that meant. He looked at Frankie, but his older brother simply stood as if in a trance.
“On my property,” Johnson shook a finger. “That’s trespassing. The law will back me on that.”
“I understand. They will be punished.”
“That kind of language… They should both get a good whipping.” Johnson’s voice grew louder.
“You’re right. There’s no excuse. They will be punished.”
With each reassurance, Johnson seemed to swell in his anger.
“You’d better see to it.”
“Rest assured. They will be punished.”
And then Jimmy watched as Johnson pushed too far.
“If you don’t take care of it, goddamn it, you and I’ll have to step outside.”
His father’s back stiffened. Then, in a blur, Jimmy watched him reach into the car and grab a handful of Johnson’s shirt.
“No need, you chickenshit bastard. Right now works for me.” His father took a half step back and jerked on Johnson’s shirt. Johnson snapped forward, his head slamming into the corner post of the car’s door. Jimmy’s father pushed Johnson back, still clinching his shirt and jerked him into the post again. Johnson’s eyes widened, his head making a dull, thumping sound against the post. He fumbled for the car’s gearshift as his head slammed forward again and again. He somehow managed to grind the car into reverse and stomp on the gas. The boy’s father lost his grip on Johnson’s shirt as the car shot backward and spun, enveloping the yard in dust. The car’s tires threw gravel and propelled the car back down the drive.
In the haze, Jimmy saw Frankie still standing in the middle of the yard. His father emerged from the cloud of dust as though sifting in from a dream. He walked steadily, his fists at his sides. Then, as he came alongside Frankie, his fist arced up against the boy’s head. Jimmy heard the knock of knuckle against skull as Frankie’s head bounced away. In the same motion, his father pivoted, following the strike with a backhand to the boy’s face. Frankie spun from the blow and fell to the ground. He pushed to his knees and moved his cupped hand up as if to catch the blood that ran in a steady stream from his nose.
The man stood over his son, his breath as rhythmic as a bellows.
“You’re goddamn lucky that sonofabitch had a big mouth. And I’m goddamn lucky it’s his word against mine.” The man’s teeth clinched harder. “If I ever hear of you disrespecting an adult like that again, I will beat the ever-lasting shit out of you. There ain’t no hole deep enough for you to crawl into but I will find you and then you’ll know what hurt really means.”
Frankie kept his head down, staring at the blood cupped in his hand. The man started again for the house and then stopped and turned on Jimmy. “The same goes for you. Never again.”
Jimmy cast his eyes down, away from the glare. The sound of boots crunching on gravel resumed, and then faded.
Jimmy waited until he heard the front door slam shut before raising his eyes. Frankie was still on his knees in the gravel, the dust still settling around him, the blood running down over his upper lip and chin. Jimmy took a step forward as Frankie turned his head toward him.
And then, with bloodstained teeth, Frankie grinned.