Caroline Huftalen is finishing up her MFA in writing at SCAD-Atlanta. She writes essays, short stories and is currently working on her first novel. While keeping her background in journalism fresh, but allowing for her own writing aesthetic to shine through, she runs a blog, buskingseams.com.
I was counting fence posts. That’s what I was doing the day that boy, well I guess you could call him a man, came up on your granddaddy’s property. He had a secret, and I had a quiet mouth and a pension for choosing to do the wrong thing. My guess is that he knew all this. I pictured him walking along all the ranches and just looking for a girl like me: all pigtailed and frizzy, in a pair of overalls that were rolled up over my rubber boots. I was twelve. I didn’t care a damn what I looked like, I only wanted to play around in my head and wander that mysterious piece of land.
I’ll tell you what happened to Conrad Ransom, but for it to matter you have to know how he came to be a staying fixture on the ranch. Like I said, I was minding my own business, just being a little girl, when there he was, just standing and watching me as I moved from post to post. My hand stopped on the seventy-ninth one and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He had on no hat, which I thought was strange since all cowboys and ranch hands wore hats. If not for the sake of showing your rank than it was for keeping that hot Texas sun off your face. But he was bare headed except for that shaggy mop of hair that kind of reminded me of my daddy’s. He was dressed all right for a man without a horse. He had on a sand colored shirt and navy britches that required suspenders. I was taking him all in when he waved and began walking towards me. I looked around at first not knowing if there was someone behind me accepting his act of meeting, but it was only me.
“Well, ain’t you just the plum prettiest thing I’ve seen all day,” he said
Of course I blushed. I was twelve, wasn’t I? And my head was filled with ideas of some stranger with a right cause coming to town and sweeping me off my feet at the same time that he killed a bank robber.
“My names Conrad Ransom, and what would yours be?” he asked.
I told him. “Peanut Whitepage,” I said loud and proud like it was an answer to a hard question at school.
“Good God, child, who names their kid peanut?”
I was not amused, as you can imagine. I went into my usual tale about the origins of my nut related name. I told him all about when my daddy, your granddaddy, was on his way to see me for the first time after being born, that his horse bucked him off and his head went a little screwy. He still made it to the hospital though. With a little trickle of blood coming down his cheek and his eyes full of lightning bugs, he proclaimed me Peanut when my momma lay me in his arms the very first time. She was too tired to fight it and it stuck, sadly so did a bit of daddy’s injury.
I went on and on about how weak daddy sometimes got and how momma had to do so much and the ranch hands were a pitiful bunch of sacks. Before I knew it, Conrad had climbed through the barbed wire of the fencing without even catching his threadbare shirt on one of those prongs and was walking along the property with me like we were old buddies. He said all the yea’s and uh huh’s and nodded at me and smiled that toothy smile so wide that I saw he was missing a few there in the back. When we got to the point where the house was in sight, Conrad stopped walking and I stopped talking to see what the hold up was. He asked me if I wanted to play a really important role in a really important plan. I said yes, of course. He hadn’t said a single detail but it was already sounding more exciting than a normal day.
Conrad crouched down real low and told me that he was spying on a bunch of bad men who were coming straight for us. I gasped and felt my eyes get all wide and googly. He said that he was almost ready to nab them, but for the plan to work he needed a good hide out, a secret one. Not even my daddy could know, he said. I perked right up and knew the exact place. It had good views all over the property, he would be able to see trouble coming for miles and catch those hell-devils before we even knew there was any sense of danger. Well, I would know because I was in on it and part of the plan. But that was the best part. I could work on my lying. I was already getting good at it, silly Mr. Smithersby, that old cook of a teacher, believed that I had caught a rattlesnake with two heads and three rattles. His face went ghostly when I said it, so I knew he thought it was true. That’s the thing about being quiet and biding your time and choosing your words. People are more apt to believe you when shit comes out sporadically. I told Conrad that I’d put him in the old water tower. It was all dried up and the only thing that came and went from there was those lizards that changed color all the time to hide from prey.
We turned away from the house and walked over to where the water tower stood. The ladder looked old, but it was sturdy. I, scout’s honor, promised him that he could count on me and he tickled my nose as a gesture of trust. I hollered up to him that I would bring him blankets and dinner later. He waved and I headed home to help momma with the evenings cooking.
Conrad was real boring like that for a few days. I brought him food and water and he thanked me and all. He was a very polite fella and asked about my momma’s comings and goings quite a bit. But he didn’t share any more clues with me and I was in the dark when it came to if he had seen the bad guys yet. Conrad may be boring, but I sure as hell didn’t want to be bored, so I began showing him just how thin a girl’s patience can get when tested with a short rope. While momma was cleaning up the kitchen and daddy was in the stables with the ranch hands putting new shoes on the horses, I went and had myself a conversation with Mr. Conrad Ransom.
I didn’t want to climb up and scare the man so I threw rocks up at the old wooden water tower and waited for him to peek his head out. He looked tired and if I didn’t know any better, a little drunk. Well, I wasn’t standing for that, he had our family’s livelihood in his hands and he was nipping on the bottle and taking catnaps. I began hollering and crying. He hated to see all that commotion so he came down, clasped his hand over my mouth and walked me far out to the edge of the property. The fence where he came from was just a few feet away, but instead of jumping out the fence he should have use the gates, since there are some great options as the residential electric gates in Shrewsbury, so anyone can install one on their home. He sat me down on the ground a little hard and let go of my mouth.
“How you expect to be top secret keeper when you are bringing all kinds of attention to my hideout? You want me to let your family die?” he asked. “I can get up and walk out right now on ya’ll.”
I told him that I needed more information about these people who were after my family and that I wasn’t so sure of his work. At that, the hole that Conrad was digging got a little deeper. And my involvement got much too strong.
He said that they were after some money of my daddy’s that he had hidden away somewhere. It was great, he said, that he could see everything from the water tower but there was no way for him to protect my daddy’s money or my daddy if he didn’t know where the safe was and if he didn’t have a gun.
“What kind of officer doesn’t carry his own gun?” I asked him. I carried a gun and I was a girl who until now had no prior rendezvous with trouble. This man should have had a gun ready and loaded.
“I lost it back before I reached the ranch. Some wild Mexicans got ahold of me while I was sleeping and took everything but the clothes on my back,” he said.
I gave him a grimace and crinkled my nose, showing him it wasn’t okay to play fool with Peanut Whitepage. Plus, who the hell would have wanted his raggedy clothes anyways. He held his own and I handed over the small pistol that was stuck in my apron pocket. I only carried it around for fun. I shot at cow poop and butterflies and knew that if we were truly in the fix that Conrad said we were in, he needed it more than me.
“Now how bout we start mapping out where that money is,” he said and took out two pieces of taffy from his pocket and let me choose which flavor I preferred. Lemon, of course. We sat down in the grass and I took a stick and dug a picture of our house in the dry dirt where the sun and lack of rain had eaten away the green. I showed him where momma’s bedroom was, where mine was, the kitchen, the den, and the most important, daddy’s room and office downstairs. Everything that was important was kept in that room: the logbooks for the cattle, the plans for winter, expense sheets and daddy’s safe. He let me have a look inside one time before he locked it up one night and I saw all kinds of gold bars and bags of bills. There were stacks of coins and even a few pieces of jewelry my momma’s momma gave her on her deathbed. I told Conrad all this and how daddy gave me one of them coins and I still had it because it was too shiny to spend.
He listened very well for a man. He asked all the right questions about safety and security and when daddy was in his office and when he wasn’t. He asked if I knew the combination to the safe. I didn’t at that time. That was something that daddy left me in his will and I never knew it till he was already in the ground, and then it was useless. I told him that the safe was heavy and big and locked tight, so not to worry about those robbers taking our money. All Conrad needed to worry about was keeping us from harm and then taking those men off to jail.
I walked back to the water tower with him and he asked me up as if I needed asking on my own property. But I went up without saying anything about it. He had made himself quite the little home there. A pile of blankets pushed up against one wall and there was empty dishes and cups that I hadn’t taken back yet set around in the middle near a deck of cards.
“Wanna play?” He asked and stuck his thumb out towards the cards.
“I only know how to play kid games,” I told him, because that was the honest truth at the time. I hadn’t gone on to become the poker player that I am today. And I guess I have Conrad to thank for that. He sat Indian style on the floor and I sat across from him and he shuffled those cards fast and furious before dealing them out along with an explanation of how the game works.
We sat there till I heard momma’s supper bell ring. I folded my last hand that held two pair. I knew my bluffing skills were up to par with what Conrad was up to so he would have had me upping the invisible ante till momma and daddy came searching for me in the moonlight. But after all that happened that day, I didn’t want to test my luck with him. I grabbed the dirty dishes and carried them down wrapped in my apron. I snuck in the back way, leaving the dishes for momma’s help to wash right away.
In my memory I like to think that I heard a noise that night, something like talking, two male voices. But I didn’t, just wish I had. I was sleeping so sound that even a bite from a bear wouldn’t have woken me up. The next morning my daddy was screaming and throwing things and yelling at momma. I walked downstairs still in my nightclothes because I knew there was more to this fight than just momma making the pancakes wrong again. I grabbed daddy’s arm and squeezed his hand to help calm him down. He was in his office and the entire thing was ramshackle. It looked like our entire herd of cattle trampled through it. I knew instantly what had happened. Well, I thought I knew anyways. I ran out the door and headed straight for the water tower because I knew I’d find that son of a bitch up there sleeping off whatever prize he gave himself for handing me my behind in poker. I was huffing and puffing up that ladder and my mouth was all poised for delivering a lashing when I looked over the edge and into the empty tower and saw nothing. No blankets. No cards. No Conrad.
Fumbling my way back down the ladder I ran back across the lawn and found momma and daddy again. He was bent low beneath a horse, readying the saddle, and momma was holding her head with one hand and tugging on daddy with the other. They didn’t say a word as I ran upstairs, changed into my clothes and ran back down and out the door. I saddled up my pony and headed out the back way towards where I thought Conrad would be heading. I took off at a gallop and jumped the fence leaving daddy’s property behind. This was the first time that I was off the land without someone accompanying me. I knew it was dangerous with the all things we heard about Indians stealing babies and scalping ranchers before taking over their homes and what not, but I thought Conrad was in for some trouble, trouble that I was going to give him.
Once I noticed a light lather on my pony, I slowed down and eyed the land. For the most part it was flat out there. There were a few hills and what not and trees blocking the view but I could see for a while. It wasn’t until the sun was high in the sky at noontime that I saw something way off in the distance though. I thought it was a shrub or a wayward coyote looking for a daytime meal. I kept towards it and kept my eye on it. It was a man all right unless I was being taken by a mirage.
When I rode closer I saw who it God damn was. And you should have seen the look on that rascals face. Like he was shocked who had come for him.
“Mr. Ransom I have been looking all over for you,” I yelled out to him. “I’m glad to see you have our livelihood but the ranch is back the other way.”
He turned and thought for a moment before snickering about.
“I’m not going back to the ranch, you twit,” he said. I knew he had a mean streak about him but never knew he would go to such depths as to call me such things after I thought we were friends.
He told me how he had stolen the money, how there had never been a gang of men after us, that it was him all along. I couldn’t believe it. But what I didn’t understand most was when he asked where my daddy was. He took hold of my pony’s reins and pulled me off of her back and let me tumble to the ground. My pony couldn’t carry both him and that large lot he stole from us so he tied up the bag of goods and got it settled on my saddle before taking a switch from a bush and whacking her rump with it to make her go.
I sat stunned for just a minute and watched him go with daddy’s money, my pistol and now my pony. My brains took a little bit longer than my body did, but as soon as they caught up, I was already half up towards Conrad, my arm outstretched for the small ivory handle sticking out of his back pocket. I grabbed it. He swung around and faced the barrel. I had no idea whether there were bullets left in it or not. I had not heard him fire it and knew that when I gave it to him there had been three bullets in the chambers. He knew better than I did what would happen if I pulled that trigger. But I was doing my best bluff.
“What you gonna do, Peanut?” he asked me and dared me to put a little pressure on that trigger.
I told him to hand over the reins and to walk away in the other direction. That I would give him a solid arc of the sun to get good and gone before I told anyone which way he headed and what he had done. But he refused.
I thought about shooting him. The look on daddy’s face that morning was in my head and it was testing me to do awful things. I had never shot a man at that point in my life and nor had I shot an animal. I had no idea what would happen once that bullet left the chamber, how bloody it would be, or if I would have to close my eyes.
He saw my thought process like any good poker player does, he was watching my calculations and waiting for my moment of weakness to show the chink in my armor.
He found it. Lunged forward took hold of the barrel and swung me to the dirt before I could even scream. All I heard was the shot ring off and I had no idea who shot what or who. It was all dusty around me when I finally realized I still had my hand on the handle and my finger was pressing down the trigger.
Conrad Ransom was lying not to far from me. I couldn’t believe that I killed him. He was lying so still but I saw the blood stain on the dirt around him and knew I must have led him to his destiny. I crawled over and ran my hands over his eyes to make sure they were good and closed to meet Jesus.
“I am not dead, yet, you dumb girl,” he said and opened his eyes back up.
I stumbled back onto my hands and knees and got that pistol ready for round two. I had shot him in the leg. Nothing fatal but he wouldn’t be able to overpower me anymore from his predicament.
I took the bag of money and some of our belongings off of my pony’s back and used the rope to tie Conrad’s hands together before he regained enough strength to get up. I helped him heave himself onto the saddle and I tied him to that as well. The bag would be my burden and my prize to bring back to my daddy. I couldn’t wait to see his proud face as I walked up with quite the catch.
Now I know you think that this is where everything is all settled and done but we have yet to get to the tie between your granddaddy and Conrad and how things got to be the way they are now. I brought Conrad Ransom back to the ranch on that pony, it took the remainder of the afternoon since it was slow going with me tugging the bag along and the poor pony’s awkward load. When we got to the house, I walked that pony and carried that bag right up to the front door. I told the ranch hand who came out of the stables to watch Conrad while I went inside and got daddy. I ran in all proud of myself and ready to take claim of all the praise. Daddy was in the office throwing some papers in a bag. I startled him as I walked in and he quickly closed his bag shut.
“I got him daddy, I got the man and all of our money,” I panted into the office and waited for my hug. But it never came.
Daddy turned a whole new color, grabbed onto the collar of my dress and shook me while he mumbled things I couldn’t understand, but now I can only imagine he was saying things like, how could you, ruined my plan, and other things of that nature.
I couldn’t grasp why I was in trouble for doing the right thing and bringing back all the gold and money. I didn’t understand any of it until I followed daddy outside to where Conrad was tied to the pony. He saw the blood coming down off Conrad’s leg and yelled, “You shot my brother?”
Now that is the first I had ever heard that my daddy had a brother. I thought he was an only child like myself. I was stunned and shocked as he untied Conrad and hefted him onto the step to the porch. Daddy ran inside and got his small medical bag that he kept in case of emergencies out here on the ranch. Wounds were not rare. He cleaned up Conrad’s leg while I watched and pondered what was going on. He didn’t say a word until he had a bandage around the freshly stitched wound.
He told the ranch hand to fetch three horses. The man listened like a silly lackey, couldn’t he see that by following orders, my daddy and his brother were going to make off with every penny our family had, which meant no pay check or even a good meal to make good on his labor. Nope, off he went and gathered up our three strongest horses. Daddy tied up the bag he was packing in the office and the money onto one horse then helped Conrad up onto his. He looked me dead in the eye as he told me to spend that single coin wisely and he too got on his horse. “Oh and by the way,” he added, “untie your momma in the kitchen.”
They rode off and out of our ranch. I kept waiting for him to turn around and tell me what a gullible girl I was to believe such a rouse. But it never happened. And when I went inside to my crying momma, I had to tell her the sad news of being penniless and for lack of a better term that she was voluntarily widowed.
You all know the hard work my momma and me put into this ranch to make it not turn to dust just like your granddaddy’s memory. You can never forget it either. We knew our land was dry but our cattle were strong. We couldn’t grow a damn thing but could sell off the beef and with the combination of bartering and trade we got ourselves some milk cows. That shiny coin stayed in my pocket though. I took to playing poker at night with the ranch hands that stayed on with just the good of their hearts. I picked up better lying skills and found that I could bluff a man out of a full house. And call a bluff better than ever.
I still have that coin here, look, you see? Still shines like the day your granddaddy gave it to me. I’ve bet this coin a thousand or more times and it has given me nothing but fortitude. Your granddaddy may have taken all our gold, but sometimes all you need is a sliver of silver and the freedom of an empty house.