SUMMER OF THE GUNS
My name’s Billie Jane Moran, and if that sounds girlish don’t be misled. I was named after my grandma Billie Jane but no one ever used the “Jane” part, not unless they didn’t know her. She went by “Billie” all her life and so have I.
Grandma Billie died in 1938, a month before my mother passed. Since Papa was in prison, Sara—my six-year-old sister—and I went to live with my mother’s white sisters. They weren’t mean to us, but they really didn’t want us. When Papa came for us, Sara and I were so happy we started screaming. We never thought we’d see him again. He’d been given “life,” our aunties told us, but they released him for “hardship reasons.” Of course that wasn’t exactly true, but they didn’t know it.
Our aunties were so glad to get rid of us that they gave us their old Model T Ford truck and 30 dollars. After Papa got the truck running, we crowded into the bench seat. We were a family again. Papa in overalls, quiet as usual. Sara with her long red-brown curls and the Raggedy Ann doll that Mama had dyed with coffee. And me, dressed like a boy in hand-me-down pants, my curly hair tucked under an oversized baseball cap. Like I said, we were a family again, even if we didn’t look like it. Papa’s skin was like black walnut, he always said, but we children were had lighter skin.
We headed out from the Ozarks and down to Dallas. From there, we passed across the hot, flat plains of Texas and the deserts of New Mexico. We seldom saw another car, not even police. Papa let me drive a little. I was tall for my age of twelve, and I listened carefully as Papa showed me how to shift and apply the brakes. When Papa saw how good I drove, he started calling me his “man-child.” I pretended not to like it, but secretly I did. I could do anything a boy could do, I figured, and most things a lot better.
When we got out of New Mexico, the hills became steep and soon turned into mountains. Papa took over the driving then and told us we were low on gas. The old truck was straining to make the grades as the gas needle pointed towards empty. We were greatly relieved when a town came into view. It was a mining town on the side of a mountain, each house higher than the one below. When we pulled into a one-pump gas station, an old man in a straw hat came walking out slowly to meet us. Just then another car came rolling up from the opposite direction.
Sara seemed frightened and hugged her doll close to her body. Papa put his arm around her and stroked her red-brown curls with his huge hand, his eyes fixated on the approaching car. He spoke softly as usual. “That’s a policeman,” he said, directing his words toward me. “If he says anything to you, just smile. Let me do the talking.”
My sister being deaf, she couldn’t hear him, but I could hear him fine. Only his words left me puzzled. For the first time ever, I sensed fear in his voice. I noticed his hand tremble a little as he pulled it away from Sara’s head.
When the old man reached us, he leaned his arm on Papa’s open window and spoke through a wad of tobacco. “You wanna fill up?” he asked. “You’ll have a long climb over that mountain there.”
He pointed toward a huge mass of rock that jutted up on the west side of town. “That road’s steep as hell,” he went on in a lisp. “Next town’s only forty miles or so but it’ll seem like a hundred.” I saw Papa take two dollars from the pocket of his blue work overalls and hand it to the old man.
“Give us what this’ll buy,” he said. “We’re headin’ to California.”
“That won’t get ya there,” said the attendant as he placed the nozzle of the gas pump into the tank behind the cab of the truck. I looked out the back window and watched the bubbles form in the glass top of the pump as he squeezed the handle. The rising fumes from the gas were strong, but almost pleasant in my nostrils
About then the police car pulled up on the other side of the pump. A fat man wearing a billed cap and a wrinkled brown uniform climbed out and looked us over. “Nice day, ain’t it, Elmer,” he said to the attendant, but his eyes stayed fixed on Papa.
“The days is all the same to me,” answered the man called Elmer. “I’d leave this job if I could make a living at somethin’ else. Jobs is hard to come by, though.”
“Too bad,” said Papa, “I was hoping for handy work hereabouts. I just need a few dollars to finish our trip. I can do most anything—carpenterin’, brick layin’, or even sweepin’ out.” There was strain in his voice like he was talking without hope. Sweat teared from his forehead and dripped down his brown cheeks.
“You’d better keep movin’,” said the policeman. “Ain’t nothin’ around here for ya. See that sign over there?” He pointed a fat finger toward a cardboard poster nailed to a tree trunk. It read “NEGROES NOT WELCOME AFTER DARK.”
My father sat stiffly, a defeated look on his face. His big shoulders slumped. The attendant replaced the nozzle in the pump and spit tobacco juice on the ground, splattering the policeman’s shoe. The cop’s face reddened. “I could run ya in for that, Elmer, but I won’t. I got bigger fish to fry.”
Then he looked at Papa. “You, mister, where’d you get them white children?” He came over to my side of the truck and stuck his face so close I could see the veins in his nose and smell the beer on his breath. His hard eyes raked over my sister and me until he seemed satisfied. “Why hell, they ain’t white at all,” he said. “Just a couple pretty mulattoes. That’s a fine-lookin’ blue dress you got, young lady.” He reached through the window of the truck and patted my sister’s head. She frowned and pulled away, clutching her doll tighter against her body.
“Her mama made the dress,” said Papa. “Wasn’t but a month before she died. We’re just tryin’ to find a new home.” The policeman walked around the truck sizing up the worn tires and the rusted metal of the radiator.
“This thing ain’t safe on the road,” he said. “You’re dangerous to other folks. I’ll bet your brakes is bad, too. You better get out, mister, and show me your driver’s license.”
Just when Papa started to move we heard a screech of brakes. When I looked closer, I saw two cars narrowly avoid an accident. One of them, an old Buick sedan, was driven by a gray-haired woman who sat pale and shaken behind the steering wheel. The other car was a blue Model A Ford roadster. It hastily backed up, then headed away in a cloud of dust. One of the boys inside looked back at us briefly.
“Not in my town, you punks!” the fat cop shouted, hurriedly climbing into his patrol car and sending it hurtling after the escaping Model A.
“That was a close one,” said Elmer, squeezing the two dollars Papa had given him. “He might a given you real trouble if them boys hadn’t come along. Now get outta here while you can.”
Papa stammered his thanks. Then he climbed out to crank the old truck to life while I put the gearshift in neutral. After resuming his place behind the wheel, he guided the truck onto the pavement, heading in the same direction as the cop. No one said a word.
The road narrowed as we drove westward, winding its way through piney mountains. We could see thin clouds drifting across the valley below. “Sulfur,” said Papa, “comin’ from the smelters back there.” I caught a strong whiff of rotten eggs just then, but we were soon clear of it. The sky became turquoise blue as the old truck struggled up the winding hills. About an hour later we pulled into a town called Prescott. Its town square was guarded by a statue of a cowboy on a scared-looking horse. On the east side of the square, I saw a row of saloons where people milled back and forth. Some kind of celebration seemed to be going on, but we didn’t stop to find out what it was. We continued to head west until the grade became steep again. As we began to climb another hill, Papa turned to me and spoke loudly.
“There’s somethin’ I need to tell ya. Somethin’ bad. I told you a lie and I got to make it right.” Just then the truck’s engine coughed a little and cut out, but quickly resumed its steady roar. Papa gripped the wheel tighter as if that would make a difference. “Damn it! We’re running out of gas again.” Then he glanced over at me. “I don’t think you noticed but that old man at the gas station gave me about twice what my two dollars was worth. You don’t see many like him. Not white ones anyway.”
I didn’t like Papa talking that way but I understood what he meant.
“I have to tell you something.” he said, “something hard. I lied to you about my release.” I could hardly hear him over the engine noise. Then he started shouting, almost like he was mad. “They didn’t let me out of that damn prison like I told you. I broke out of it, Billie. And I nearly killed a guard doin’ it. I’m sure they’ve got wanted posters out on me by now.”
I looked at him with my brows furrowed, then stared ahead at the road. I guess I should have been frightened, but somehow I wasn’t. “You shouldn’t have been in jail at all!” I yelled back at him. “Everybody knew that guy robbed us. You had to go after him, Papa. You didn’t have a choice.”
“If he hadn’t hit his head on a rock after I took a swing at him, we wouldn’t be on the run. I surely didn’t mean to do it. But ain’t no jury gonna listen to a colored man.” Then he lapsed back into silence. “I had to break out, Billie,” he started again. “When the news came about you goin’ to live with your aunties, I had to do somethin’. Those two didn’t like me. Wasn’t no way in heck I was gonna leave you two with ‘em.” Then he forced his voice to sound cheerful. “That’s all history. I don’t wanna think about it. We’re goin’ to California, by God, and it’s all gonna be different. Lots of buildin’ goin’ on out there. Plenty of jobs for a man who knows carpentering. I read about it in a magazine. And they don’t push the race laws.”
“What’s “race laws”?” I asked.
“Somethin’ you shouldn’t worry about,” Papa replied. “When we moved from New York to Arkansas two years ago, we found out about race laws. I curse the day your mama inherited that damn farm. We’d have been better off in Harlem.”
The old truck slowed to a crawl as we started to climb another hill. Sara and I leaned toward the window to peer down the side of the mountain. We could see thin clouds again, drifting over the valley. We stared down a long time as the truck slowly climbed higher. When we finally passed over the highest point of the grade, Papa reached across Sara to shift down, but the engine sputtered and died. Papa wrenched the shifter back and forth but he couldn’t find a gear. He kept trying to force it but it only caused a grinding sound. The truck rolled forward in neutral, gathering speed as we descended. Papa’s knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel and braked. We heard another grinding noise, then we could smell the heat from the metal. “Goddamn mechanical brakes,” Papa cursed. “They won’t stop nothin’. You hang on to Sara now. Protect her with your body if you have to.”
He was silent after that as he guided the careening truck around curves that hugged the mountainside. We barely missed an oncoming car. We passed a rest stop where people were enjoying the view. They turned to look at us as our brakes screeched again, but the old car didn’t slow.
I held on to Sara, who was screaming now. I could see my father’s lips moving, but he wasn’t cursing. I figured he was praying. The road was endless before us, no longer winding around the mountain but stretching straight into the valley. The old truck shook and rattled so loudly I thought it would fly apart. Then we saw a highway patrolman heading the other way. We went by him in a flash as he gaped at us out his open window.
Ahead of us an old car loomed, moving slowly, its driver unaware as we rapidly gained on him. The grade was still downward; our truck wasn’t slowing. I heard Papa screaming out, “oh my God, help us!” Then he yelled for me to help him turn the steering wheel. I let Sara go and pulled on the wheel as hard as I could.
Just as we seemed sure to collide with the other car, Papa and I twisted the wheel enough so we barely missed it. We went completely off the road, crashing through brush and over rocks until we finally slowed to a stop. “Praise the Lord!” Papa blurted. Sara and me sat there shaking. The hot fumes from the brakes were so strong that the truck seemed about to catch fire. After a while, we heard a siren and a squeal of brakes from the road as the patrol car we’d just passed pulled up in a cloud of dust. An officer came running over to our truck, now mired in the brush that had saved our lives.
“You okay, mister?” he yelled as he approached Papa’s side of the truck. Then he looked inside and saw Sara and me. “Good God, you’ve got children in here! Are you crazy? Are you completely out of your head?”
“No,” Papa answered as he stepped from the truck, still shaking a little. “I’m just out of gas. I couldn’t have turned that steering wheel without my girl helping. She saved our lives. She’s my man-child.”
The tall policeman walked around the truck, then looked at me and smiled. “You’re safe now,” he said in a kindly voice. Then he walked over a few yards from the truck and stood looking downward. “You may be out of gas, mister,” he yelled back at Papa, “but you’re damn sure not out of luck. Come take a look at this.”
My father walked over to him with me right behind. The view was frightening. Our truck had come to a stop no more than thirty feet or so from the edge of a canyon. Papa just stood absolutely stock still. Then he looked up and spoke softly. “Thank you, Lord, you heard me.”
The patrolman introduced himself as Captain Sykes of the highway patrol. “I supervise this stretch of highway,” he said as he surveyed the damage to our old truck. “Damn but you really are lucky,” he exclaimed as he stooped to peer under the truck. “You don’t even have a flat tire, and your springs don’t seem to be broken. I guess we can tow you back to the highway.” Then he hesitated, turning back and sizing up Papa with a stern expression. “You still got some answering to do, though. Why were you free-wheeling?” He took off his hat while he was waiting for Papa to answer, revealing a receding line of sweaty brown hair.
When Papa finally spoke, he was hesitant, as if he didn’t expect to be believed. “We’d just passed the crest of the hill and I was in neutral, shifting down. Then the motor quit. I couldn’t get the damn thing back in gear. That’s all there was to it. I’d never free-wheel on purpose, not with my girls in the car and not any other time, neither.”
Captain Sykes kept his sober expression, then smiled suddenly. “Well, as I said, you still got luck on your side. I believe you. Now let’s get this thing out of here.” It took half an hour to attach the chain and pull the old truck back up to the road where Captain Sykes and Papa spent more time looking for damage.
“The way I see it,” the patrolman said, “this truck was in such bad shape it took a miracle to even get you this far.” He studied the Arkansas license plate on the rusted tailgate and paused, scratching his head. “There’s a wanted poster out on an escaped convict from Arkansas. They want him pretty bad back there.” Then he looked over at Papa. “But he sure as hell wouldn’t be traveling with children, now would he?” I could see Papa’s fist double like he was getting ready for a fight.
Sara took Captain Sykes’ hand as he retrieved her doll from the truck. She accepted the doll in her other arm, clutching it to her face and kissing it. Captain Sykes knelt down and put his hand on her shoulder, almost like she was his own child. “I can see you love your daddy,” he said. Then he paused and looked at me. “You’re too pretty to be called ‘man-child,’ he said quietly. Then he cleared his throat and looked back at Papa. “I guess we better get you people on your way.” The tension passed and Papa’s fists relaxed into open hands.
Captain Sykes opened the trunk of his patrol car and pulled out a gas can, which he emptied into our truck. “Five gallons,” he said. “If that old bucket you’ve got gets seven miles to the gallon, you’ll get to the next gas station no problem. It’s twenty miles to the valley down there, mostly downhill.”
Somehow the whole thing seemed odd. Looking back on it now, I suppose Captain Sykes already suspected who Papa was. But for some reason, he was letting us go. Papa was speechless for a while, then mumbled his thanks.
“Keep the can,” said Captain Sykes, handing it over to me. “You may need it again.” Then he paused at his car and pulled something from his pocket. “I don’t carry much money,” he said as he handed a paper dollar to Papa. “That’s only a buck, but it’ll buy you enough gas at the Mary J station to get you to the next road camp. By the way, don’t take the Congress Junction cutoff; that leads to Wickenberg. Head straight on and you’ll see a road camp run by a friend of mine. He charges fifty cents a night to park there and he provides water, but you won’t have to pay.” Then Captain Sykes took a note pad from his shirt pocket and scribbled something on it. “Tell him you’re a friend of Charlie Sykes and give him this note. He’ll put you to work. I’ll bet you’re good with those big hands of yours. I’ll stop by and check on you after I finish my shift.”
Without another word, he climbed into his car and slowly started down the highway. Then he braked to a stop and backed up as though he’d forgotten something. “You be careful now,” he said. “It wouldn’t be good for some other cop to stop you.”
Captain Sykes sat there watching as we cranked the old truck to life and headed down the hill, which soon gentled into a shallow slope. Papa tried the brakes a couple of times to make sure they were working and then continued at a snail’s pace. Ahead of us were mountains all around but the road crossed between them. It took about an hour to reach the gas station Sykes had spoken about. Only when we got there, we found it closed tightly. A sign in the window said, “GONE FISHING. BACK NEXT WEEK.”
“Damn!” exclaimed Papa, “not a fish in a hundred miles and somehow he’s gone fishing.” Then he sat silently for a while before putting the truck in gear again. “We got no choice but to get as far as we can,” he said. “Maybe we can make it to that road camp with what gas we got. Shouldn’t be but twenty miles from what he said, and the road’s flat from here on, maybe even a little downhill.”
We made good time passing the cutoff to Wickenburg. When we reached the rest stop, there was nobody there at all. Papa pulled over to put water in the radiator, which was starting to blow steam. I needed to use the toilet, a one-hole outhouse with paper strewn all over the floor on the men’s side. I took care of my needs quick so that Papa could follow me. It didn’t take Papa long, either, but Sara was slow. As we stood there waiting for her, the same blue Model A roadster we’d seen earlier pulled into the gravel lot. Two young men climbed out and peered over at Papa and me.
The taller one had black, piercing eyes and plastered-down brown hair. His long sideburns framed his narrow face. He wore a shirt and pants that looked freshly ironed, but his friend’s clothes were rumpled. He was short and stocky with a baby face and straggly hair. “You standin’ guard there, kid?” he asked abruptly in a reedy voice. “We need to use the john.” I could tell he was trying to act tough.
“I’m waiting for my sister,” I answered as I stepped out of their way. Just then, Sara came out from the women’s side carrying her doll. She looked startled when she saw them.
Just as we started to walk back to the car, we heard the restroom door shut. “You better hurry,” said the ones with sideburns, “or we might miss her.”
“We stay right here and wait for her,” said the other one from inside the bathroom. “We’ll flag her down.” I couldn’t hear the reply but there was cursing back and forth. They were arguing about something. We didn’t wait to hear more. After cranking the truck again, we took off down the highway.
“Now keep your eyes open,” Papa said. “That road camp will be coming soon. Can’t be more’n a few miles from here.” No sooner were the words spoken than the engine died without warning. We knew we were out of gas again. “Oh, hell,” Papa muttered as he guided the truck on to the shoulder. “We’re gonna have a long walk.”
Papa sat there silently after we rolled to a stop on the shoulder. “Maybe that gas can will come in handy,” he finally said. “We can’t be more’n a mile past that rest stop. If I hurry, maybe I can catch those boys. If they’re not there, somebody will be sure to come along sooner or later. Maybe that cop Sykes will come back, like he said he would.”
He started to walk quickly in the direction of the rest stop, carrying the gas can. When he’d gone thirty feet, he stopped and looked back at us. “I’ll be back in an hour,” he said. “Just stay by the truck.”
I felt a scared feeling wash across me as Papa walked away. All around us were mesquite trees and big thorny cactus. I knew if we were stuck there, we’d have to have some water. We sat in the truck for a few minutes, but it was too hot to stay. Finally we opened the door and jumped down, then sat ourselves in the truck’s shadow. We played tic-tac-toe in the gravel as we waited for Papa. I don’t think either one of us were paying much attention to the game.
The afternoon sun got hotter as we sat beside the truck. After we got bored of playing tic-tac-toe, Sara picked up her doll and pretended she was feeding her. I fiddled with my baseball cap, pulling the bill down over my eyes to shut out the desert glare. I didn’t know how much time had passed, but it seemed longer than an hour. I counted three cars, all heading in the direction we’d been traveling. Finally, a pretty white car with its top down came by, moving fast. There was a young woman behind the wheel with her hair blowing in the wind, but she didn’t look at us. A few minutes later, we heard some loud banging sounds from far away. I thought it might be a car backfiring. We sat there another half hour or so, only I was beginning to feel panicky. The sun was getting low. Papa should have been back already.
At last, I heard a car engine. When I twisted my head, I saw the blue Model A approaching from the east. I figured Papa would be inside with the boys, so I jumped up and ran to the side of the highway, waving my arms above my head. As the roadster came closer, I could make out only two figures inside. Papa wasn’t one of them.
Suddenly I panicked. Something was wrong. I retreated toward the truck as they approached, not knowing what to expect. When they went on by, I breathed a sigh of relief. Only then they stopped about a hundred yards away. The short one glanced back at us as they sat there in their car, then they cut the engine. They got out quickly, then started walking toward us. I saw the taller one pull something from his pocket. He tried to hold it behind his leg, like he was hiding it. It looked like a gun but I was too far away to be sure.
I ran back to Sara and grabbed her arm, then pulled her into the brush. My gasping was so loud I was sure they could hear me. When Sara started to cry, I gently placed my hand over her mouth.
Once she quieted, I removed my hand. I was trying to figure out our next move when I heard the crunch of shoes on the desert gravel. “C’mon,” yelled the short one, “we ain’t got time to look for ‘em. This is stupid anyway. They didn’t see nothin’.”
After a short wait, I heard their engine crank up again. I stood up just in time to see them disappear down the road. My heart was beating so fast I thought my chest would explode. I led Sara back to our truck, where she retrieved her doll and stood hugging it. By now I knew something had happened to Papa. I just stood there trying to make up my mind what to do next. But Sara was already taking action. She tugged at my sleeve, grunting and twisting her face into a determined expression. There were no tears now. She pointed mutely in the direction Papa had gone and started walking. I waited for a moment and then followed her. She caught her dress in a mesquite bush and tore it, but she took no notice at all.
It seemed like forever before we reached the rest stop. It was a scene I’ll never forget. The white car driven by the young woman was there, its driver’s side door wide open. The woman lay nearby in a pool of blood. She looked dead. Then I saw my father a few feet away, his shirt soaked with blood from his collar to his chest. He had a gun in his hand. Sara ran to him, dropping her doll as she kneeled beside him. His eyes flickered briefly, then closed again.
Sara started to cry loudly. I was so stunned that I just stood there.
After the shock had passed, I came to my senses enough to act. I knew Papa didn’t shoot that lady, so I decided to hide the gun. I pried it loose from Papa’s hand and threw it as hard as I could into the brush. Then we just waited for someone to come.
Sara had Papa’s blood all over her dress, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her doll lay face down on the ground beside her. It seemed like hours before a car pulled up, though it was probably only a few minutes. I was relieved that it was Captain Sykes who approached us, but strangely he didn’t speak. He went to the woman first, felt her pulse, then took a pillow from his car and placed it under her head. “Jesus, it’s Jessie Atkins,” he blurted. Then he stood silently. “She’s dying,” he said in a sad voice.
Then he came over to my father and picked up his wrist to feel for a pulse. As he did so, he examined the hand and sniffed at it. “Gunpowder!” he said. “Your pa’s been firing a gun. Now where is it?” I didn’t answer as he continued to search for a pulse. “I’m afraid he’s gone,” he muttered.
I started blubbering loudly as he went back to his patrol car. I watched him turn on his radio and make a call to the dispatch. When he returned, his mood softened. He went over to Sara and tried to console her.
“She can’t hear you,” I scolded him. “She’s deaf. And my Papa didn’t kill that lady. Them other guys did it. Them guys in a Model A.”
“What other guys?” he demanded “Did you see this happen?” He asked the question in an angry tone.
“Not exactly,” I stammered, “We were sitting by the truck after we ran out of gas. I seen two guys come by before Sara and me walked back here.”
“Okay,” he said. “Just relax. You can tell me later what you saw.”
When I looked back at Papa I couldn’t see him breathing. I tried to keep from crying but somehow I couldn’t stop myself.
“I’m sorry about your father,” said Captain Sykes. “I can’t bring him back. But I’m gonna see that you’re both taken care of properly. I promise you that.”
Then we heard the scream of sirens as a second patrol car pulled up, followed by an ambulance. They jumped out in a hurry and ran straight over to the woman.
“Good Lord, is this Jessie Atkins?” the ambulance driver asked as he knelt down and examined her. After the second man came with a stretcher, they carefully lifted her on to it.
“I’m afraid it is,” said Captain Sykes. “Is she still alive?”
“Jesus,” called out the driver, “shot by a damn negro. She’s all the governor’s got.”
“Hurry it up,” Sykes prodded him, “or she won’t make it for sure. I think the man’s already dead. I’ve sent for another ambulance to take him in.”
Another ambulance came five minutes later. Two men jumped out and ran over to Papa. They felt his pulse, then one of them turned back to Captain Sykes. “This guy’s still alive but I probably not for much longer. Too much blood loss.” Then they carried Papa off on a stretcher and placed him in the back of the second ambulance.
Sara hung onto Papa until the last minute but they wouldn’t let us go with him. Captain Sykes stood there holding her doll while police scurried all around looking for the gun. Finally, one of them called out from the brush, “I found it, Captain! I found it. It’s a little .22 automatic.”
Captain Sykes took Sara and me over to another patrol car and ushered us into the back seat, then stood there looking at us, holding Sara’s doll.
I reached over and placed my arm around Sara. She was trembling. I tried to console her, but I started to shake, too. Then Captain Sykes looked down at the doll, seeming to be embarrassed. He reached through the open door and patted her shoulder, then handed her the doll. She stopped trembling when she clutched it but I could still hear her sobbing.
“You’ll have to go into the juvenile detention center,” Captain Sykes said apologetically. “But it won’t be for long. I’ll see to it you get placed in a good home. I’ll come and see you as soon as I get a chance. I promise.” Then he closed the door gently.