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The first time BillyRay and me got into Texas it ended up we didn't stay long. We got across the border, and that's a pretty good piece down the road from Ponca City, but that's as far as we got. We was tired, the truck was tired, we figured we'd just pull off the interstate and rest a bit.
It was a good old truck my daddy left me, he took real good care of it and so did I. Every time something needed fixing on it daddy put back the very best thing he could find, so by the time it got to me it was stouter than when it was built. But still, it was built for workin' on the farm not running down the road, was about all it could do to keep up on an interstate. Going south outa Oklahoma into Texas you just about got to get on an interstate to cross the river, so we did, and by the time we got into Texas the truck was tired, you could smell it. By then it was dark, the truck was tired, we was tired, we pulled off the big road and found a place where all three of us could take a good nap.
Well, wouldn't you know, about that time mother nature got right in the big middle of our life. Lookin' back on it I won't swear God didn't have some intentions in that direction as well, but it was mother nature doin' the down and dirty work.
We was sound asleep when them sirens started blaring like hell was a-comin' to town. They didn't go off none to soon, neither. By the time we got our eyes open the lightning split the sky wide open and the clouds was just all wrong and the wind was this roaring howling monster stomping across the land, you could see it coming by the lightning. We didn't know what to do, and we didn't have no time to think about it. About the time we figured out this had to be a tornado the wind hit us and we was down in the floorboards hangin' on for dear life and scared to death and figuring we might not get out of this one alive. Big and heavy and stout as that old truck was there for a while it was buckin' and rockin' and a fightin' to keep all four corners on the ground, and more than once I was pretty sure it didn't have all four tires on the ground. It really didn't take all that long, but right then it felt like forever. I don't really know how close that twister got to us, but it was way to damn close for comfort.
Well, soon as the thing got by I got back up in the seat. It was quiet as the grave outside, that funny kind of quiet, and pitch black. I do mean pitch black, there was no light to be seen nowhere. You could see lights when we parked, but there weren't none then. Well, I turned on the headlights and about crapped my britches: not ten feet in front of the bumper there was a huge oak tree laying across the road, and I looked in the mirror and stepped on the brakes, just to get a little light in that direction, and damn, not twenty feet behind us was another huge tree across the road. We wasn't going nowhere, not in the truck, not for a while.
BillyRay reached across and turned on the radio, and it was horrible static most everywhere, but in a bit he found a station talking about the weather. They said the tornado hit the town pretty hard, that help was on the way so everyone was to stay in their homes if they could being as how it didn't look like there was no more tornadoes coming, and the thunderstorms would be gone by pretty soon as well. Then they gave a list of places you could go, and we thought about it, and then thought no, we don't know where we are, or where they are, or how far we'd be walking being as how the truck wasn't going anywhere. So in the end we decided we'd just sit tight for the night and see what daylight would show.
We took stock of what we had, and we wasn't in bad shape. We had some food, plenty for the night, and the water jug was full, and daddy had rigged the truck so it had two huge batteries instead of one medium sized one, so turning on some light from time to time or listening to the radio was no problem. And on top of all that we had a brand new pint of good whiskey that Jose bought for us when we said goodbye up in Oklahoma. BillyRay, he wanted a fifth, but Jose said no, that was to much whiskey for a couple of boys who didn't drink that much, but he bought us a pint and made us promise not to drink it while we was driving. Well, we looked at that bottle and laughed when we cracked the seal, because we damn sure wasn't going to be driving anywhere real soon. We drank the first snort for Jose, cause he really was a good old man, and he'd been good company and good advice all the time we worked with him. So yea, we split that bottle of whiskey and talked about damn near to everything before it was finished, and somewhere near midnight like enough BillyRay he kicked his feet up on the dash and leaned back in his corner, and me, I leaned back in my corner and put my feet the other way, and we slept till dawn.
Well, it come dawn and we got out of the truck and stretched and shook it off and took a good look around, and I'm telling you, it was not pretty. We didn't know it when we parked there, but we was right in the middle of a whole bunch of houses. You couldn't see 'em at night, for all the trees, and there was a bunch of 'em, but you could that morning being as how damn near to every tree had been torn down and thrown around by that storm. For some strange reason it seemed the storm piled every one right in the road. They tell me tornadoes are bad about doing strange things like that.
The houses, well some was a bit beat up, roofs tore up and windows broke, but they was all standing, and there was folks coming out of them to see what was to be seen. We looked around a bit more, and it turned out we was parked directly right in front of one house, not as new as the others, but it was a big old house and pretty, and it didn't look to be hurt at all. But there was this really old lady sitting on the front porch, and she was looking out at the mess, and she was crying.
Now me, I got a soft streak in my heart, it don't run that deep, and BillyRay he got an even softer streak in him, but it runs deeper than mine, takes more to get it to the top. Well, everybody is looking shook up and spooky, go figure, but nothing like that old lady, she was hurting bad. Well, we didn't even say one word between us, we just walked up and sat right down with her, one on one side and one on the other, 'cause that's what Jesus would have wanted us to do, go help them that needed help first and worst. It took a bit to get the story, but soon enough we knew she had good cause to be crying.
Turned out them two trees, the one in front of the truck and the one behind, well, she and her husband had planted them trees near fifty years ago. Abuela, that was the old lady's name, told how her husband had died just a few days ago, and they'd buried him yesterday, and no sooner than they'd got him in the ground than a storm come along and tore down their trees. She was still grieving for her man, but not so very much cause he'd been sick and it was time for him to go home, but she was really grieving for their trees being as how they'd watched them trees grow right along with their family. It was a heart breaking thing now, let me tell you. We sat there with her for a while, doing what a couple of strange boys could do to help her feel better, and damn. A Texas Ranger rode up.
He looked just like you'd see in the movies, big tall guy on a big tall buckskin stallion, the star and the hat and a big six shooter, and the only thing didn't look like it was from a hundred years ago, and it looked kind of funny, was the battery riding one saddle bag and the radio riding the other and this long ass antenna sticking up over the horse's rump. But still, he was an honest to God Texas Ranger and yes sir, he was the real deal out on horseback to check on folks because hey, the roads was all pretty much blocked and his horse could get places nothing else could.
Well, it seemed he knew Abuela, he called her by name. After he'd talked to her for a bit he asked about us, and we told him how we'd come to be there. He turned around in the saddle, looks over the situation around the truck and whistled. He said "boys, they tell me God takes care of fools and children and I think you got in under both rules," and for a moment he's looking at Abuela, and then he said "but maybe he had a reason for you to be here." Then he smiles real big, nods and tips his hat just like in the movies, and rides off to go talk to the next folks down the road.
There were nothing but to get after it. Half an hour after the Ranger was gone everyone is standing in the middle of the road talking, figuring out what to do. Most of the folks was pretty old, retired and all, but there were a couple of fellows who were still pretty stout, and pretty much everyone had a fireplace so there was plenty of axes and chainsaws, and one fellow had been landscaping and had one of them little bobcat tractor things rented, just a baby, but hey, it was stout for its size. As it turned out though the tree trunks was just way to big for it, and our truck was the stoutest thing in reach for just plain pulling, so we had plenty of work right there.
Abuela opened up her garage and all of Donald's tools was still in there, Donald being her husbands name, they hadn't been spread out or sold yet, and right there was a bunch of good chains and two more chain saws and come-along and well, pretty much everything you'd figure a rancher would keep when he'd leased off his land for someone else to work. Abuela points me and BillyRay to the tools, and then she says "you boys gonna be working hard, you'll need to eat," and she goes into the house and starts cooking up a feast, which made sense since the electric was off, and gonna be off, might as well cook it up and eat it as watch it rot.
By the time that Texas Ranger rode back by going the other way there was four saws running hard and the lil bobcat was a-squattin' and a squallin' and we'd just gotten the first of the trunks cut down to where we could drag it sideways and get it out of the road. He rides by so tall in the saddle, and he smiles even bigger than before and tips his hat, and hey… we was proud to be among 'em.
We worked right into dark that day, most of the next day as well. Abuela took us in like we was her own, fed us and give us beds to sleep in, and we was mighty grateful 'cause it had been one whale of day. She said it didn't make no never-mind to her, said we was the same age as her grandsons. I think it done her good anyhow, not having to be alone. We sat up for a bit after supper by lamplight, and after a bit Abuela got kind of misty eyed distracted and started talking about the old days, and hey, they was quite a people had settled that part of the country. Reminded me a lot of the stories Uncle Jeff would tell, about when they was starting out up where we come from. Except of course up there we didn't have to deal with tornadoes.
Next morning Abuela fed us steak and eggs for breakfast and about the time the sun was good and up we was back out and back after. Nobody had said nothing when we knocked off the night before, and everyone was back within thirty minutes of each other. Let me tell you, by then we'd gotten kind of used to working together and hey, we was stacking wood like you never saw. Just a bit before noon we'd almost made it to the end of the road, where the city crews was working, and we come upon a monster of a tree. It was the biggest tree we'd run into, and that storm had wedged it in tight, it weren't just laying there. It was really kind of scary, how much force was in that huge tree, the way it was bowed in there, we was all afraid to do much cutting on it for fear it would explode on us. Trees can do that, you know, if you cut 'em when they're burdened, they can throw chunks go right through a man. While we was studying on the situation another bunch of folks pulled up, they'd started from further down the road than us and had just then broke through to what we'd cleared.
One of them had a big ass four by four, with a big winch. He tied onto the middle of the tree and told us all to get back, he was going to try and pop it out of the hole so we could cut it up safe. Well, he tried, he tried every trick I'd ever seen, but huge as his truck was he couldn't get it to barely rock. After a bit he give up, and we went back to thinking on the problem. We walked it all around, looking even closer than before, and pretty soon hit on the idea of tying our truck on where he had using this fifty foot nylon tow rope, it was a super thick monster of a rope, while he backed his truck up the bank a bit, where the winch could lift up while we took a running start to throw the whole weight of our truck going fifteen, twenty mile an hour against that huge rope.
It was a good plan, it worked. We piled some wood in the bed, just for traction, got everything ready, and when this one fellow dropped his arm the guy put the power to the winch, his truck digging slow in reverse to hold the slope, and I put the hammer down in a racing launch. I hit the end of the rope, that rope stretched maybe twenty feet, good lord them big ropes will stretch a long way, and just as I was coming to a halt that tree popped out of where it was wedged. Then before I could get off the throttle it popped back going the other way like a huge spring and the clutch exploded.
I tell you, it was a hell of a note. My heart was in my boots. Here we'd worked like dogs for a day and half helping to clear that road, just so we could get back on our way, and there we was with a clear road and a truck that couldn't barely crawl screamin' and cryin' in compound. It was a hell of a note. I didn't have no idea what we was going to do. And wouldn't you know it, just about the time the despair was getting about hip deep Abuela drives up and gets out of her little car.
Now if I'd never said so much as hello to Abuela I'd a known right then she was two things: a farmers wife, and a lady. She looks at me, she looks at BillyRay, she looks over the rest of the situation and says "Clutch?"
"Blown to hell and gone," I said.
Abuela stood quiet for a moment, and then she pats my cheek, and when I look there's this twinkle in her eye. "C'mon, it's lunch time," she says, and pats my cheek again. Well, getting my cheek patted made me feel a bit better, but it still didn't do nothing for our predicament. The fellow in the four by four pulls up then, and little short Abuela almost has to go up on tiptoe just to reach the door handle, but she gets the door open and says to him "Pull these boys back down to my house, would ya please," and all he said was "Yes, ma'am."
The rest of the fellows started in on the tree, and now there was twice as many, by the time we was rigged to tow they was just about ready to pull, except they was going to have to wait for the four by four to make it back. Meanwhile Abuela is off talking to a few of the other women folk been working right along with us.
Time we got the truck parked Abuela was back in the house. We went in the house, and it was a pretty quiet lunch. We didn't say nothing, we was worried sick and a little scared to be honest, and Abuela didn't say much, she could see how we was. We got done eating, and as we was clearing our plates Abuela says "boys, don't worry about your truck." Well, I looked out the window, and damnation, not only is the truck broke, it's gone! BillyRay, he sees my face, looks out the window, and he don't say nothing at all, just his mouth falls open.
Abuela kind of chuckles, and she says in this real firm mother kind of voice "I done told you boys not to worry about your truck. I talked to the neighbors and we're going to take care of it, seeing as how you worked like a pair a young mules to help us, and we couldn't have done it without your truck. Now, you just take yourselves back out there and start cutting that wood down to fireplace and stove size, might as well use it there as let it go to waste in the dump."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, just like the guy in the four by four. I really don't know why, except that was the right thing to say right then. And anyhow, it wasn't like we had anything else to do but worry and wonder and hope, and anyhow, at least Abuela was keeping us fed and off the land, without her we'd have been on foot without a roof.
We made firewood the rest of the day, made firewood all the next day, must have had near twenty rick piled up neat along the edge of the road by the next afternoon. Just about the time we was thinking of calling it a day our truck goes driving by followed by a wrecker truck. Well of course we take off double quick for the house, but by the time we get there the guy who had been driving our truck was in the wrecker and gone.
We stayed one more night with Abuela, left out the next morning. It was almost as hard leaving her house as leaving home, I mean, she'd been doing the mother thing for us. I don't know what else to call it, just the mother thing, and she's awful good at it. She give us both a big hug and kiss, and told us to mind our manners and be careful, and she give us a sheet of paper with the names and addresses and telephone numbers for all her seven children, and good lord, her kids lives all over the country. She said if we got close to any of 'em to give them a call if we needed anything. She smiles for us, bright as the sun, and then went in her house and closed the door.
We're tooling down the road, it’s a bright sunny morning, the old truck is running full sweet, feels like they put a tune up on the old beast as well as a new clutch, and both tanks are full. It was a good morning. BillyRay goes to digging in the jockey box, I don't got a clue what he was looking for, and out he comes with a surprised look on his face and this big white envelope with our names on it. "Damn," he says, "what's this?"
"Not a clue," I said, and wheeled into this little country quick-rip store that was coming up. "Let's get some chow and find out."
We got some pop and sandwiches and sat down to see what was in the letter while we ate. The letter was from Abuela, of course, and it was the sweetest letter, I read it out loud to Billy. It told how she was just sure angels had put us in front of her house, and kept us safe, it told how when we'd come up to sit with her she was grieving so deep and hurting so bad she wanted to die, it told how just us being around and how we'd helped her neighbors clear that road helped her decide she wasn't quite ready to go home just yet. It was the sweetest letter, it made us feel good like nothing had in a long time. The next thing out of the envelope was the ticket from the shop fixed the truck, and yes, they'd put in a brand new super duty clutch, and tuned her up, and fixed the back u-joint yoke that damn near broke and filled the tanks. It was big number on the bottom of that ticket, and they done it all in a day, and we was mighty impressed, and humbled, that them folks thought we was worth all that money. The last thing out of that envelope was a folded up piece of paper, and there was a thousand dollars in it. A thousand dollars, ten brand new hundreds. It was just to damn much.
"We got to take this money back to Abuela," I said to Billy. "Hell, this might be her grocery money." About that point the old guy running the register started drifting our way, but I didn't think nothing of it.
"Damn straight we're taking this money back," says Billy. "Abuela was just way to good to us for us to take her money."
It was a done deal, right there at that moment, that money was going back. And then the old guy pulled up beside the table as we were stuffing things back in the envelope.
"Are you boys talking about Abuela Walker?" he asks.
"Suppose we are, " I said. That was the name the Ranger called her.
"Do you know who she is?" he asks, and he's got this look on his face like he'd have trouble believing us if we was to say no.
"Just this sweet old lady we met when the tornado pinned us in right in front of her house," Billy says, and he's getting that look on his face means he's not gonna take very much more.
The guy looks down on us, and he laughs, but its this kind of soft admiring laugh. "Don't worry about taking that thousand," he says. "that ain't nothing to her. Abuela Walker is just about the richest lady living in this end of Texas. I don't think even she knows how many oil wells she has."