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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 5

...Our water came from a windmill that pumped into an old wooden tank on a tall platform. Willie, noticing several wooden pegs in the sides of the tank asked, "What made all those holes in the tank, Daddy?"

"They say its where some outlaw horse thieves had a shoot-out with the law," Daddy answered...

Famous artist Bertie Stroup Marah recalls childhood days when she and her family lived for a time in an isolated old ranch house.

For earlier episodes of Bertie's unforgettable life story please click on

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit

To see some of her pictures click on

My parent's marriage was a happy one and from all accounts was passionate as well. They enjoyed going to dances and Bee was proud to be on the arm of a handsome, man whose presence demanded respect and admiration. They made a fine couple; she with her blond hair done up nicely and her pretty face with just a touch of makeup to emphasize her turquoise eyes; he with his black wavy hair, sparkling brown eyes, and cowboy tan set off against the white shirt he always wore to dances.

At one particular dance, Mama's best friend, Thelma Ruth confided that Mama should "keep her eye on that good looking husband." She had no idea Thelma's advice was a thinly veiled threat of her intentions.

I was about a year old when Daddy began trapping coyotes and other livestock predators. Ranchers paid a bounty for these animals, and Daddy sold coyote and bobcat pelts from the animals he trapped. His work forced us to move to southern New Mexico between Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas where there was a demand for his pelts. No housing was available in the area, so for that summer we camped in a tent by the Rio Grande River.

The prairie and desert areas of New Mexico, with their wide-open spaces and mountains appearing timidly in the distance, have always left me feeling lonesome. Mama must have felt the same, but had little time to dwell on such thoughts. She was busy "keeping house" in a tent with three children, ages one, three, and five. Fortunately we only lived in the tent for about four months.

We would sometimes drive several miles over dusty, rutted roads to a little place called Ore Grande to pick up a few supplies. Daddy would retire to the bar for a beer or two while Mama sipped soft drinks with us kids. At that time she didn't drink anything stronger than soda pop.

She was determined to be a good wife and mother and did so without complaint. I believe she enjoyed those times when we all accompanied Hollan to attend his trap lines.

We had no telephone or any other form of communication while living in the trapping camps. It was Daddy's grandpa Allen who traveled from Estancia to bring the news that Hollan had been offered a Government Trapping job. This was good news. We were struggling just to get by. A low paying government job with regular pay checks was preferable to the irregular income from selling hides and collecting bounties.

"I'm glad I got the job, Bee," Daddy said, hugging her. "They'll even give me a government vehicle to run trap lines."

"I'm glad, too, Hollan, I just hope we can find a better place to live."

He did, too. Tent life had been hard on his family, especially his wife.
The government job would require frequent moves. Only a certain number of animals could be removed from one designated area before Daddy would be required to reset his traps in another. His first assignment for the government was trapping on the Malcolm McGregory bombing range where the rancher who owned the property ran cows and sheep and wanted it rid of predators that killed his livestock.

The United States was about to become involved in World War II and this range land was also used for bombing practice. Planes would drop their small bombs filled with sand, and later, the debris would be hauled away in trucks.

It was fall when we moved into an old ranch house that had several rooms, some of which had been boarded up and used as storage. The house sat on the edge of the Malcolm McGregory property miles from any town or neighbors, and although the airplanes could be seen heading for their practice targets, our house was not near the areas where they dropped their bombs. Mama didn't seem to mind the isolation as long as she had her children and a husband who came home every night.

On a rare trip back to Estancia, we stopped by to see Grandma and Grandpa Counts. Mama was especially fond of her younger brother, Murrel. He was Grandma's last child and because she had little breast milk to feed him he was poorly nourished and cranky. He was born two months before Willie and Mama helped care for him. When he cried she would sing to him as she carried him around. After Willie was born Mama had an abundance of milk and breastfed him along with Willie for the next few months. This created a bond between the two boys and at five years old they were still close. Murrel even gave Willie his small dog as a token of his adoration.
Being the baby of the family, Murrel was spoiled. As we started to leave, he started crying, "Mama, let me go home with Willie."

"No," Grandma patiently explained, "you can't go home with them Murrel. It's too far away."

"I'll just kill myself if I can't go," Murrel screamed as tears made tracks down his dirty face. With that hysterical declaration, he started running into bushes and brush and rolling on the ground. He emerged from his tantrum with only minor bruises and abrasions, a snotty nose and red eyes. His fit throwing didn't work and he continued to sob as we drove away without him. We only took his gift to Willie, the little dog named Brownie.

"Come here, little honey," Willie whispered as he held Brownie to his chest, "I'll take you everyplace I go." They fell asleep in the back seat as we traveled home.

Our water came from a windmill that pumped into an old wooden tank on a tall platform. Willie, noticing several wooden pegs in the sides of the tank asked, "What made all those holes in the tank, Daddy?"

"They say its where some outlaw horse thieves had a shoot-out with the law," Daddy answered.

Willie was impressed with the story of the shoot-out and the many bullet holes remaining as testament. His young imagination worked overtime as he excitedly reported to Mama. "One of those outlaws was shot twenty times before he fell off on his head."

Although we lived in a desolate snake-infested area, Willie loved to play outside, examining every bug, sand turtle, or worm he could find in that desert. Jessie and I watched him one day catch a small sand turtle. At first the turtle would retract its feet and head into its shell. But finally it got used to Willie's stroking and walked around, head out. Willie was delighted with this development.

"Look," he said excitedly, "I think I can get him to plow a field for me." He held the front of the turtle up while allowing its little back feet to drag in the sand creating small furrows in the sand. The turtle finally lost patience with Willie and bit his finger. Willie yelped and stuck his finger in his mouth.

"I guess you don't want to make rows after all," he said softly to the turtle as he set him on the ground to return to his home in the desert.

Willie's little dog, Brownie, always led the way on their outside adventures and barked loudly if ever they encountered danger. Brownie was a brave little soul who had a bite as well as a bark. He once killed a big bull snake by shaking and biting it to death. When Daddy was tracking a bobcat with his big hounds, Brownie got loose and ran with the hounds to attack the cat. With his sharp claws, the bobcat grabbed the small dog by the top of the head before flinging him away. Poor little Brownie wound up with a swollen head and eyes completely closed.

Jessie, who adored his older brother, Willie, usually tagged along on these exploratory missions. Fortunately, Jessie was napping the day Willie and Brownie decided to venture into the desert beyond the old ranch house. As they made their way around mesquite bushes and cactus in the hot sand,
Brownie suddenly stopped. His little body trembled but he stood his ground, stiffly blocking Willie from going ahead.

Then Brownie began to bark. "What's the matter, little honey?" Willie asked.

At that moment Willie saw a huge rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike, its rattles deafening in the afternoon heat.

Willie was well aware of the danger. It took him only a few moments before he turned and raced through the bushes back to the house. "Mama," he cried. "Come look at the big snake little honey's barking at!"

The shouting aroused Jessie from his nap, and he in turn, woke me as he slid off the bed. My brother had no intention of missing all the excitement.

"No, Jessie, you stay here with Bertie," Mama said sharply. But by the time she got Jessie and me settled down it was too late for Brownie; Mama found Willie's little dog fallen on the back step, dying from the rattlesnake's venomous bite. Sobbing in anguish, Willie cradled Brownie in his arms. He rocked back and forth, whispering, "little honey, please don't die, please don't die, I love you too much."

Mama cried too, but her tears were mostly because she could not absorb Willie's pain. As Mama dug a grave for Brownie, she could not stop thinking what if Willie had been bitten. She would not have gotten help in time for her oldest child and that thought was unbearable. She felt Brownie had saved Willie's life.

Jessie loved Daddy more than he loved anyone. He always cried to go along when Daddy went to attend to his trap lines. Sometimes, if the trip was short enough, Daddy would take him. More often, Jessie had to stay home.

One day, Jessie was particularly desperate to accompany our father. "You can't go today, Jess," Daddy said. "I'll be gone too long."

Jessie was still crying as Daddy carried his gear to the old panel wagon.

"Let me go with you, Daddy, please let me go with you," Jessie whined. He hovered near the wagon while Daddy said his goodbyes. Mama held me into the car window for one last kiss. As Daddy started to back away from the house, Jessie broke free from Mama's hand and darted behind the wagon.

"Stop, Daddy! Stop!" Willie shrieked. The bumper knocked Jessie to the ground and the back wheel ran over him.

"My God!" Daddy jumped from the wagon and dragged Jessie free. Daddy's tan face drained white as he carried his son into the house.

"Let me have him, he's not breathing," Mama screamed.

But Jessie's ashen face and blue lips were deceiving. Amazingly, he'd only had the breath knocked out of him. After what seemed like forever, he started squalling with increasing intensity. The ground had been softened by a recent rain and Jessie was only bruised. This accident didn't dampen his desire to be with his Daddy—a desire that would later cause him untold grief.


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