When the rains didn’t come in the spring of 1955, the old men who sat on the church pew outside the feed and seed store on Main Street began to talk about a drought.
In the spring of 1955, I was eight. My mother and I lived with an octogenarian uncle in his little red house just west of my grandparents’ farmhouse. I looked forward to Saturday afternoons when I could leave the farm and go to town with my grandfather, Uncle Bo and Aunt Marie. While my uncle and aunt delivered eggs and butter to some of the people who lived in the small southwest Arkansas town, Grandpa and I would join the group of old men who sat on the church pew, whittling, spitting tobacco juice and remembering how good it used to be when they were young.
But that spring, the rains didn’t come, and the old men remembered the bad times, when drought played havoc with their crops and threatened to bankrupt them. At eight, I wasn’t certain what a drought was, but because of the way the old-timers fretted, I knew it must be something bad.
Even Uncle Bo, my mother’s younger brother who normally was cheerful and optimistic, seemed worried about a drought, as did my mother who fretted that the garden she planted just north of the barn wouldn’t produce enough vegetables for her to can.
As spring turned into summer, the rain still did not come; the sun beat down intensely, baking the ground and causing it to crack open. My mother, Grandpa and Uncle Bo weren’t too worried about our wells, which were fed by deep, underground springs, but they did worry that the stock ponds could run dry. Nearly every day, Uncle Bo would start his Farmall tractor, put a folded burlap bag beside him for me to sit on, and drive to every pond to check the water level. It was mid-July, which in southwest Arkansas is usually the hottest and driest month, when we saw the main stock pond, just over the hill about a mile north of my grandparents’ house, had lost about a third of its water. Uncle Bo stopped the tractor and we got off. While we walked around the pond, I saw a piece of rusty metal sticking up out of the mud near the edge of the water. I ran over to see what it was. I pulled it as hard as I could and nearly fell on my backside when it suddenly came loose from the mud.
I looked closely to see what I had found and was stunned to find a revolver. It was caked in rust, but I still could see it was a Colt .45 Peacemaker, just like the one that Johnny Mack Brown, John Wayne and all of the other movie cowboys carried in the Westerns I watched at the Elberta Theater.
“Uncle Bo,” I shouted as I ran toward him. “Look what I found. It’s pistol.”
He took it from me and turned it over in his hand.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said. “That was Daddy’s pistol.”
“What’s it doing in the pond?”
Uncle Bo rubbed his chin
“Let’s go over there,” he said, gesturing toward a towering oak tree.
I followed him to the tree, and we sat down, bracing our backs against the trunk.
“When I was growing up, we used mules on the farm. We didn’t have a tractor, so we used mules for plowing, for mowing, for everything like that. Daddy liked mules better than horses because he swore the mule’s smarter than a horse. If a load’s too heavy, a mule won’t try to pull it, but a horse will kill himself trying to,” Uncle Bo said. “Sometime about the time I was born, Daddy bought a young mule, a big, black one-eyed one that he named Amos. I don’t know why, but Daddy and that mule hit it off. I swear they were more than master and mule, they were friends …”
“What do you mean, they were friends?” I interrupted.
“Well, ol’ Amos was pretty foul-tempered. He’d nip at people leaning on the fence at the stable. During planting and harvesting time, Daddy’d hire a couple of men to help with the work, and Amos would kick at them when they tried to hook him up to a plow or wagon, and absolutely no one except Daddy could put a saddle on him. That old mule must have loved Daddy because he’d never kick at him, and he’d even let Daddy saddle him up and ride around the place.
“Whenever we went to town, Daddy’d always get some sugar candy or something special for Amos. We’d get back from town, and Amos would be waiting by the fence for Daddy to bring him a treat. I remember when Daddy would go round up the cows, Amos would walk along beside him, just like a dog.”
He fell silent and looked up through the leaves, some already withered from the heat and lack of rain, at the sky, squinting to see if there might be any rain clouds.
“What happened to Amos?”
“Don’t get impatient, I’ll be getting to it,” he said with a grin. He pulled a long blade of Johnson grass and chewed on it. “In 1941, we bought a tractor. That one over there,” he said, and pointed at the dusty red Farmall. “It’s kind faded now, but you should have seen her back in ‘41. When we got the tractor, Daddy decided to retire and let me take over running the farm. I’d already started building up a dairy herd, so we wouldn’t be planting cotton and most of the vegetables would be for us to put up. Since we had the tractor, we didn’t need the mules, so we sold all of them – except for Amos. Daddy just put his foot down and said there was no way that he’d let Amos be sold to anyone. So, Amos retired, too.”
“What’d he do?”
“He just wandered around the place. Daddy would go to the barn every morning and open the gate to the stable, and Amos would just go wherever he wanted. Sometimes he’d stay there and let Daddy scratch his head, or he’d walk along when Daddy went to slop the hogs. Funniest thing I ever saw watching those two walking down the lane toward the dairy barn. I’d be milking and I’d look out and there they’d be coming down the lane just like two friends. I swear they even were talking.”
He laughed at the memory before resuming.
“I got drafted in ‘42, so Daddy had to take over running the place again. I remember when I came home on leave just before shipping overseas, I hitched a ride from the bus station and when I got here, Daddy was plowing the field just east of the house. There he was on that tractor, with old Amos walking along beside him. Mama said that mule went everywhere Daddy went, except to town and he probably would have done that except for Daddy bringing him candy.
“The war ended in ‘45, but your daddy beat me home. He was stationed in England, so when Germany surrendered, he got to come on home. I was in the Pacific, so I didn’t get to come home until Japan quit fighting, and they didn’t give up for another three or four months. Anyway, while he was waiting to get his discharge, your daddy helped out on the farm. One day old Amos had gone on the back side of the property, and somehow he jabbed out his good eye. I don’t know how he did it, but your mama said Amos walked all the way back to the barn. She said he must have fallen down a couple of times because he had some cuts and scrapes all over him. I can’t imagine how that poor old blind mule found his way home, but he did.”
“What happened to him?”
“Well, it broke Daddy’s heart, but he knew he’d have to put Amos down. He went and got his pistol – an old Colt .45 that my grandfather had bought sometime in the late 1880s, I understand – to shoot Amos. But Daddy couldn’t do it. Your mama said that every time Daddy would aim that pistol at Amos, his hand would start shaking and he’d have to step back. Finally, he just gave up and handed the pistol to your daddy and said, ‘D.W., you’re going to have to do it.’ Well, your daddy shot Amos right between the eyes and put him out of his misery. He gave the pistol to Daddy and hitched Amos’s body to the tractor and pulled it way back over in the woods.
“When he got back, Daddy was gone. He’d walked over the hill toward the pond, and when he got back he didn’t have the pistol anymore. I guess he threw it in the pond.”
I sat there a few moments, holding the old pistol. I stood up and walked over to the pond and threw it as far as I could and watched as it splashed in the water and sank out of sight.
“I thought I ought to put it back where Grandpa put it,” I said.
Uncle Bo didn’t say anything, but somehow I felt like he agreed.