Copyright © 2004, Herb
& Muncy Chapman
Reviews For WEEDS IN THE WIREGRASS by Herb & Muncy Chapman
This is a very good story of a frontier family who work
everyday to survive. I liked the vivid characters – good and bad,
and the descriptions of the southern cities as they were back in the
Sample Chapter For WEEDS IN THE WIREGRASS by Herb & Muncy Chapman
Treff Ballowe had plenty to occupy his mind this balmy April morning as he sat on the wrap-around porch of the Leon Division headquarters building.
From inside, the smell of bacon and coffee drifted across the air, a sure sign that Hank Tomlinson, longtime cook at this southern division of the Three Springs Ranch, (TSR) would soon be calling him to join his cow hunters for breakfast.
Ordinarily, early morning was Treff’s favorite time of the day. He enjoyed watching deer nibbling brush near the oak hammock east of the house and listening to the birds as they began their daily ritual of song. It allowed him a period of peace and relaxation at the start of each new day.
But today his brow wrinkled with concern
as he looked over the stretch of flatland leading to the piney woods
beyond. He had heard nothing from Paul Billy in several days, and
that could spell trouble. Billy was not only a valued employee of
many years, but a close friend as well.
There was no doubt in his mind that Paul Billy could handle himself as well as any man, and better than most, but Treff would rest easier when his Indian friend returned to report on his most recent activities.
Almost as if in answer to his silent concern, Treff heard the haunting call of a brown owl float from the south woods, and listened to hear a second call before he responded in kind. For years, he and Paul Billy had used this secret signal to communicate with each other. Today especially, the call fell as a welcome sound on Treff’s ears.
“Better set up another place at the table, Hank,” he called through the open doorway. “Paul Billy will be joining us for breakfast.”
Turning his attention to the south, Treff kept an unwavering watch until he saw Paul Billy emerge from the woods and head toward the corral. Bypassing the steps, Treff dropped to the ground and strode across the yard to meet him.
By the time Treff reached the corral, Paul Billy had already unsaddled his horse and was scooping a generous portion of grain into his trough. Catching sight of Treff, the dark Seminole smiled broadly, and his black eyes sparkled as he stretched his hand to greet his employer.
“Good morning.” Paul Billy spoke in a low, easy voice as though he had only been out for a morning ride. “It is good to see you again.”
Treff slapped him across the shoulder with his free hand. “Better than just good! It’s a great relief! You’ve been gone so long, I was really beginning to worry about you. What happened? Where’ve you been? Did you run into some kind of trouble?”
Paul Billy chuckled at the barrage of questions. “Whoa, Treff! One thing at a time. Right now my biggest trouble is my stomach. It’s protesting an extended diet of jerky and water for the past few days. Is that bacon I smell?”
Treff could chuckle now too, knowing that whatever dangers Paul Billy had encountered, he had survived them all and safely returned to tell about them.
“Come on, then. Breakfast is waiting.” The two men matched stride as they walked toward the mess hall.
Over a plate heaped with bacon, grits, and eggs, Paul Billy began to fill Treff in on his week’s activities. “I’ve been tracking a group of horses for the past several days.”
Treff spread a slab of fresh butter over his biscuit, and licked at a drip before it landed on his clean shirt. “Where did they come from, Paul Billy?”
“They drifted in from the west and went out through the southeast corner of the ranch. Then they circled through the palmettos back to the west side.”
“That’s a strange pattern. What do you reckon they wanted?”
“I’m not sure. I could
tell they stopped from time to time. It appeared like they were just
looking at the Alachi pasture, but I can’t see that they’ve
done anything except trespass. No sign of poaching or rustling. Then
yesterday, I finally got sight of the men. There were four of them.”
“One of them was Joel Godwin. I was unable to see the faces of the other three, but I suspect they were all members of the Godwin gang.”
Treff grimaced. “A thieving bunch, those Godwins. We have a nice bunch of four-year-old steers in that pasture. I’d hate to lose any of ‘em. Do you think those riders may be planning on helping themselves to some of ‘em?”
“I think we should prepare for
that possibility, Treff. They were being unusually cautious for the
Godwin gang, but you can be sure they’re up to something.”
“I agree, but how do you plan to do that?”
“Right now, you need to go get some rest. After dinner, you and I can take Stoney Maguire and drift down to watch the herd for a few days. We can keep to the woods on the north end of the pasture where there’ll be less chance for them to spot us.”
Paul Billy pushed his chair back from the table. “I like that idea, Treff. Just let me know when you’re ready to go. I’ll be down at the barn taking care of my pony.”
Treff watched Paul Billy leave before he turned his attention to the rest of his men. He outlined their work for the next few days, explaining that he might be out of touch for a time. Then he left them to finish their breakfast, while he went into his small office to record the cattle numbers given to him by his cow hunters.
His thoughts continued to fall back to the conversation he and Paul Billy had shared. He surely wished he could do something about that gang of squatters Grandma Godwin kept down in Gulf Hammock. It was hard to tell what that shoddy bunch would try next!
* * * *
Before dawn, the call of a whippoorwill had roused the old woman from a fitful night’s sleep. Now as the first pale light of dawn seeped through the leafy canopy above her head, the matriarch of the outlaw band glared morosely around her campsite. She thought surely she deserved much better than these crude lean-tos that comprised her camp. Just two pole huts covered with dried palmetto fronds--huts that a good gust of wind could easily topple--and only a couple of logs to sit on! Life just wasn’t fair!
Grandma Godwin stood and stretched her slight body, using gnarled fingers to scratch her ribs through her dirty dress. Her dingy white hair stood out from her head in stiff spikes. Not fair at all!
Her depression deepened as she thought about her firstborn son Joel, from whom she had not heard in days, ever since the morning he had ridden out to check on things at the TSR Ranch. “What’s takin’ him so long?” she mumbled to herself.
Things had not gone well for Grandma Godwin for the past few months. Since the start of the new war with the Seminoles this past winter, she had been forced to move her camp three times to avoid contact with the Indians. And each move took her farther and farther away from the Three Springs Ranch where her sons had always been able to rustle a few head of cattle from time to time. She was sick to death of squirrel meat, and even that had been scarce of late.
She had lain awake half the night mulling over her problems. If Joel didn’t get back with a steer or two pretty soon, she would have to come up with another plan. How did a woman as smart as she manage to raise such an idiotic bunch of sons? They couldn’t conjure up a thing by themselves. She had to do the thinking for the whole lot of them.
Just one week ago, she had prodded her eldest son with a stick from a fallen oak tree. “Joel, you gonna sleep all day?” When he made no response except to grunt and roll over, she raised her voice a notch. “We ain’t never gonna git ahead in this world iff’n we don’t git to work. We gotta take ten head of steers to that feller near Fort Brooke, and we can’t do it with you snorin’ yore life away.”
When prodding and screaming didn’t work, Grandma tried another tactic. She took a handful of dry coffee grounds from a saddlebag and dropped them into the pot of water boiling over her campfire. “Maybe the smell of coffee will wake up some of them sleeping beauties,” she grumbled to herself.
Scratching her head, she glanced around the camp. Not one soul had stirred! “Joel!” she screeched. “Git yerself up from that ground, and rouse up them others. Don’t make me have to hurt you. I need me a pot of water from the crik, and I need it now!”
At last, Joel squinted through the lids of his narrow pig eyes. “Aw, Ma. Gittin’ water is women’s work. Git Sulie Mae to fetch it. She don’t do nuthin’ all day but lay around under them palmetter fronds an’ eat.” He looked over at his sister sleeping in one of the two small huts, and he continued to grumble. “An’ another thing, Ma, iff’n you don’t quit hollerin’ so loud, you’re gonna have every Injun in the country comin’ to our camp. Just shut up and give us a little peace and quiet fer a change. We ain’t got nothin’ to do today no way.” He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.
But Grandma Godwin did not give up easily. She prodded Joel again with her stick. “Git up, I say. Course we got things to do today. Fer starters, we gotta figure where we’re gonna git ten steers we promised that feller between Fort Brooke and Fort Fraser. An’ I’m gittin’ hongry fer somethin’ besides squirrels and rabbits to eat, myse’f. You know them folks at the TSR has plenty of steers to spare, if you’d jest git up off yore lazy backside an’ go fetch ‘em.”
“Aw, Ma, it’s an awful long way down there. Why don’t we let that feller in Fort Brooke steal his own steers?”
Whenever Joel’s mother became angry, her eyes seemed to sink deeper into her leathery skin, and the white spikes of her hair almost quivered. She spit out a stream of angry words. “I’ll tell you why! For one reason, I want to drain that TSR herd until it hurts! Them people got everything, and we ain’t got nuthin! It jest ain’t fair! That Treff Ballowe thinks he can do anything he wants, and nobody will bother him. Well, we need to bother him, an’ I won’t rest until we do!”
Joel was sick and tired of listening to his mother’s complaints. “Jest gimme that pot and I’ll go down to the crik an’ git you some water.” He pushed himself up from the ground. “I gotta splash some water on my face to wake up. We kin talk about this after I git back. An’ iff’n you want the rest of them fellers to wake up, you wake ‘em up yoreself. You done a pretty good job of gittin’ me up.”
Joel grabbed the soot-covered pot and headed for the creek. He had no intention of splashing cold water on his face. He didn’t believe in wasting time washing. But he had to have some excuse to get away from his mother’s eternal screeching.
At the creek, he sat down on a log to pull his thoughts together. He had no desire to go anywhere near Fort Brooke so soon after he’d killed that man in a fight, even though the judge had let him off easy that time.
He’d heard that the dead man
had a lot of kin in that neck of the woods who were pretty good with
their shootin’ irons. Joel felt safer hiding in the swamp, but
he knew that Ma would keep on screeching about them damn TSR cattle
until he did what she wanted.
When he reached the clearing, he saw that his mother was standing over the fire pouring herself a cup of coffee. Joel found another cup and poured some for himself. “Is this here corn pone all we got to eat this mornin’?”
“Well, what didja expect—a big, juicy steak? I ain’t had nothin’ to cook fer over a week.”
Joel chewed a hunk of the corn pone without answering her. He saw that his two brothers, along with his son Jimbo and two of Jimbo’s friends, were struggling to wake up. All of them were casting venomous glares at the old lady whose grating voice had penetrated their sleep.
“Ma, I’ll take them two new men and go have a look at that herd of TSR steers you keep bitchin’ about, but I’m tellin’ you now, it might not be easy. We done took a few steers not more’n a month ago, and them TSR people might be onto us by now. I’m gonna have to stake out a watch for several days before we go back onto their ranch.”
“Take yore brother Sammy with you, too. Maybe he can learn somethin’.”
Jimbo sauntered up to the fire with an outstretched cup. “Got any more of that stuff?”
“Jimbo, I’m fixin’ to take Sammy and yer two friends out to look at them TSR steers. You an’ Oscar stick around here an’ see if you kin find somethin’ fer us to eat. It shore would be good to have somethin’ besides corn pone to eat when we git back. An’ stay close by to he’p yore grandma iff’n she has any trouble.”
“Ma, tell Jimbo an’ Oscar to go git me some more palmetter fronds for my roof,” Sulee Mae whined from her bed beneath the lean-to. “I kin plum see daylight through this-un. How do y’all ‘spect a body to git any sleep with the sun in her eyes?”
The sound of his sister’s sniveling complaints irritated Joel in a way that went beyond even his mother’s grating gripes. “Sulee Mae, git up from there and git yer own palmetter fronds. We got work to do.”
Turning his attention to the three men he had chosen to go with him, Joel commanded, “Fill up the water bags and grab a mess of corn pone. We might not git back fer a few days. An’ be sure to carry some extra shells in the saddlebags.”
Before the morning dew was dry on the ground, the four men had ridden away in grim silence.
That was a week ago, and Grandma Godwin had heard nothing from them since. She remembered the eerie feeling that had come over her as she watched the four men ride away. They were doing the very thing that she had asked them to do. Why, then, did she have the unsettling feeling in her bones that trouble loomed in their path?
A sudden chill swept over her body. Where was that Joel? He should have been home days ago.