Cold Eyes

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Western,

Desc: Coming of Age Story: Alan missed being killed along with his family by minutes. At nine there was nothing he could do about it. He ran. When offered a place to stay on a farm out west he stuck around. He matured and came to love the life. The life he led was shaped by old Gert, the woman that gave him a place to stay.

I was nine when Uncle Jack came calling. I was out in the garage playing with our new dog, Lady. I heard a few loud bangs from the house then saw my Uncle jack quickly get into a car an drive away. I ran into the house to see what happened. I almost stopped breathing when I saw them. My mom was dead with a bloody hole in her chest. My dad was dead with a hole where his right eye was. My sister--My sister was dead too. The bullet went into her forehead and took out half the top of her head. I heard screaming and didn't figure out until later that it was me. Nobody came to see what was wrong. Nobody came to investigate. I sat there all night holding my dead sister in my lap not doing anything, not thinking. I think that I cried my last tears that night.

In the morning I laid out my family on their beds and covered them with sheets, then cleaned myself. Then I packed a little backpack that fit me. I took some underwear and socks. Downstairs I took a knife, fork, can opener, spoon, cup and plastic bowl. I rolled up a grey wool blanket we had and tied it to the bottom of my pack.

I found out that dad didn't trust banks. He had over twelve thousand dollars in two shoe boxes, marked 'college funds' for my sister and myself. I took all the money I could find, the .32 Smith from under his mattress and took the car.

Uncle Karl had a farm up in Wisconsin. He taught me how to drive the tractor while we picked rocks, (I was big enough to drive the tractor, just not big enough to pick up the heavier rocks. He was both, so I got the job of driving.) and later how to drive the hay wagons back to the barn when they were filled. I did all right with the car, as most farm kids would.

I wrote on the wall, "Uncle Jack did this. Why?" He was a quiet talking man with an easy smile and curly hair. The women loved him. Aunt Inga obviously did as she had two boys by him, Terry and Paul. Then I left. I had to sit on a stack of books that I taped together to see where I was going, and I taped blocks to the floor pedals to control the gas and brake. I drove West, staying on back roads. I lived on oat meal and canned peaches. Whenever I filled the gas tank I bought a gallon of water. I used the station bathrooms to do my business and clean up a little. I parked in parking lots where there were other cars around to sleep.

I realized that I should have taken another shirt and pair of pants before I left. I needed something to change into so that I could do my laundry. I spent a few dollars at a Sears store in Hays Kansas for a shirt, pants and a pair of boots. I bought a jacket that looked sturdy and a cap, too. I washed up in a laundry mat bathroom while my new clothes washed, then I washed my dirties. I found a newspaper on a table in the laundry mat. It was a couple days old, but that was okay.

Uh-oh. There I was on the third page. It was last year's school picture. All I could do was to keep on the way I had been. I was suddenly glad to have that baseball cap. The coat made me look bigger, too.

I remembered dad would check the water and oil before going up to Uncle Karl's. This trip had been a lot longer than that so I figured I'd best check them. Yup. The car was down two quarts of oil and the radiator could use a half gallon. The old Buick got me to Grand Junction, Colorado before it got tired. I took off the license plates before leaving it. I got a good night's sleep before I packed up. I found a Roadway bus stop and bought a ticket for San Diego. The people waiting for the bus didn't look any too promising as travel companions. I stopped into a hardware store for a sheath knife and some snacks. They had towels, heavy tape and plastic wrap too. I bundled up most of my money in plastic and wrapped it in a couple of towels The peanuts, a fruit drink and other stuff went on top. I taped that big Buck knife to the left side of my belt so that it didn't hang down. You have to give those Buck people credit, they don't sell dull knives!

That pack didn't leave my side, and when I relaxed to sleep I kept the backpack's strap wound around my arm.

I woke up with a big guy tugging on the strap. He said in a low voice, "Give it up, kid, and you won't get hurt." I wasn't about to give anything up, dammit. I pulled that big Buck knife and stuck it deep in his belly, all the way to the guard. He made a "Whoop" noise and went to punch me. I stabbed him again, higher. He wheezed and folded over. That took all the fight right out of him. I used one foot to shove him over and into the passageway between the seats. I was happy that he crawled away. I used some napkins that I'd taken from a diner to clean up the knife real good, then stuffed them between the seat and the side of the bus. After I put my knife away I went back to sleep.

At the next stop an old lady got on the bus. She sat down next to me. She gave me the eye then started knitting something, rocking back and forth all the while. After a while, she asked, "You goin' to your folks?"

"They got killed." She scowled at me. "You do it?"

"Why would I want to kill my mom and pop? And my little sister?" I turned up my arms. "I held her all night. She was cold. Dead. There wasn't a thing I could do. So I ran." I ran down. I didn't have anything else to say. She patted my shoulder. "You done what you had to." She looked at me for a while, not smiling, not frowning. "Ya kin stay with me if ya want. I got a place north of Las Vegas. It's God's own asshole, called Moapa Nevada. I raise some food for market. You wouldn't have lived on a farm, would ya?" She looked hopeful. I nodded fast. "My uncle has a dairy farm in Wisconsin. I helped pick rocks, bale hay, drive a tractor, scoop cow shit. I'll do whatever for a place to stay." She smiled and leaned back. "Good. If ye can work with yer hands we'll do well together."

It was only April tenth when we got out of that bus, but by damn, it was hot! The air hit me in the face like a towel fresh out of the dryer.

Old Gert had the butt-end of a cattle ranch that she'd inherited from her folks. The ranch house was made of stone and thick timbers so it was both easy to heat and keep cool. She was an only child so nobody else but the government wanted a cut of it. She had an old decrepit central pivot walking irrigator making a big circle. It kicked out jets of water every so often as the wheels crept around in a circle twenty four hours a day, driven by water pressure. "We've got one hell of a deep well here. It was pounded in during the middle thirties, just after the dust bowl. The deep water levels were low. They had to go searchin' for it." The water was cold and sweet.

I sat on a tractor a lot. She had an old Ford with a four-bottom cultivator. It was small enough to go under the walking wheel while I chewed up the weeds. Everything was planted with the same distance between the rows so that the tractor and implements wouldn't crush any of the crops. If I wasn't on the tractor then I was taking care of it.

Gert had one other person on the farm. His name was Sid. He did a lot of repairs and did the cooking. He grinned and slapped my back. He said he was glad I was there because it kept his ass out of that tractor's seat.

I had a nice room to myself but I had to keep it clean. The bathroom too. Gert said, "I'm too old to be cleanin' up after a young' un. You do what you know you should and I'll take care o' the rest." She did, too! She kept me fed and in clothes, which made me worry if she was going to kick me out. But no, She kept me. I even got to ride to school. It wasn't much of a school, but it was local. I didn't have to ride a bus forty miles both ways to get to Las Vegas and back every day. I didn't make any friends. They seemed to take one look at my eyes and gave it up as a bad job. I went to school, listened in class, did my lessons and went home.

The field house was filled with migrant workers and the front yard was filled with pickup trucks, beat up cars and campers for about a month every fall when the crops came in. During the harvest big trucks came every day to haul away flats of vegetables until the fields were bare. Then, like the sun blows away a fog, everyone was gone but Gert, Sid and me. Afterwards I plowed under most of the garden except where the root vegetables lay for our own eating.

After being out in the sun so much, if it weren't for my blonde crew cut I'd have looked just like the migrants, except for my gray eyes.

When I got a little bigger I got a twenty-two rifle for Christmas. Proud? Damn, I was proud of that thing. I did my best to bring in rabbits for dinner, too. Sid wouldn't take 'em unless I skinned and cleaned 'em first, though.

Then the damned gophers moved in. I hammered together some little eight-foot towers just outside the irrigator's path. I was up in those things before daylight before school and all through the summer. Gert looked at me funny when I kept asking for more .22s, but she bought 'em. Slowly but surely our gopher problems went away.

When I was sixteen Gert started paying me a hundred dollars a month. "You've got to learn how to handle money, Al." I didn't spend any of it. I put it away with the rest. I learned how Gert scheduled the plantings so that all the crops wouldn't come in at one time. That way the migrants had a chance to harvest it all before it went bad in the field. They could only do so much a day.

I saw small deer early in the morning. I filled my wallet full of bills and asked Sid to take me to town the next time he went shopping. "Whatcha after, Al?" "Rifle. Saw some deer." "Okay, what kind of rifle?" "Savage bolt action .22 magnum" "That'll do 'er. We'll get you taken care of, then go pick up the groceries."

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Story tagged with:
Western /