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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 38

...After the sawmills closed and there was no other work available it was obvious we would never be able to move back to Weed. On a cold day in December, RG. and Mama made a trip from Artesia to burn the house down for the insurance money...

Bertie Stroup Marah continues her astonishing account of a tough upbringing.

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Later that summer Grandpa and Grandma Counts came to live with us and that suited us just fine because we loved them very much. We had moved out of the house by the cemetery and into another old house while P.G. and Grandpa Counts built a small house of our own. It had no indoor plumbing or running water so we still had to haul our water and chop wood, but it was ours and we were proud of it. P.G. planned to wire it for electricity later. As it turned out we would not live in the house very long before our final move from Weed; but not before P.G. and Willie got into a serious confrontation.

Willie was fifteen, going on sixteen. He had worked hard all his life and developed into a sturdy teenager, growing increasingly tired of our parents drinking that caused so much of our suffering. One day he could stand it no longer.

It was on a Saturday afternoon. The family was sitting in the living room, except for Grandpa, who was in bed with an asthma attack. P.G., who had downed several beers, was a little high. Instead of breaking up a spat between Phyllis and Reita, he encouraged them to fight it out.

Their spat had turned into a struggle and the little girls were in a bear hug rolling around on the floor with dirty faces streaked with tears, snot and red splotches. They were tired and ready to quit when P.G. intervened.

"You two started a fight, now you can just go 'til you finish it."

"I'm tired," Reita cried, "I want to stop."

"Me too," Phyllis whimpered.

"No," P.G. said, "You ain't finished yet."

Willie stood up, an angry grimace on his face, and said, "P.G., that's not right to encourage those little girls to fight like that."

P.G. was surprised and took immediate offense that one of us kids would call him down. "Listen here, Willie, they're my kids and I'll do what I want. If you don't like it, I'll just whip your ass."

"I don't think so," Willie said as he stood face to face with P.G.

About that time Mama stepped between them and said, "Nobody's gonna whip anyone today. And Willie's right about the girls."

Phyllis and Reita had stopped wrestling and were watching their daddy and Willie with frightened eyes.

Willie stormed outside and Mama followed. It wasn't long after that that Willie went to work on the Jernagen's ranch and later moved to Artesia.
The sawmills closed down and there was once again no work for P.G.. When my parents announced we were going to move to Artesia, Jessie and I refused to go with them. I was eleven, going on twelve and Jessie was nearly fourteen. Jessie said, "You go on to Artesia and just leave me and Bertie here. We can take care of ourselves. Besides we have old Sarge here with us."

Mama argued for a while but finally relented. "O.K., you can get groceries on the bill down at Goss's and we'll be back in two or three weeks to see how you're getting along. There's plenty of wood in the woodpile. You'll just have to keep some chopped and be careful not to use too much water from the barrels cause you'll have to wait for us to get back to haul some more."

With just Jessie, me and Sarge, it was lonesome after they left. One night as Jessie and I sat playing cards by the light of a coal oil lamp, we heard a knock on the door. It startled us and Jessie checked to see that his 22 Rifle was in the corner before answering the door. It turned out to be Mama's brother, Uncle Bill who was one of our favorite relatives. He was a cowboy and boot maker who, as a conscientious objector, had spent time in an Arizona prison rather than go into the Army. It was in prison where he learned to make boots. Since his release, Uncle Bill had been working at the Jernagen Ranch, the same ranch on where Willie worked. We loved to hear him play the guitar and sing and were so excited to have company we could hardly stand it.

"Please stay all night," I begged. "We ain't had no company since everybody moved to Artesia."

"Yeah, and we ain't seen you in a long time," Jessie added.

"I'd like to stay, but I've got to get those windmill parts back to the ranch," Uncle Bill said. "Those old cows are gonna get mighty thirsty if that windmill don't get fixed." I believe he came by just to check on us since it was not out of his way to stop by.

With that, he hugged us goodbye at the door and disappeared into the dark. We were so disappointed we threw our cards down, blew out the coal oil lamp, and went to bed.

We chopped wood, used water from the barrels sparingly, cooked, and attended school every day. When my folks returned in three weeks to see how we were doing, I was so lonesome and tired of doing all the cooking that I was ready to give in and move to Artesia with them. Jessie, however, was not yet ready, and figured he and old Sarge would go it alone. Jessie stayed in Weed another month until our beloved, Sarge, was poisoned by a vengeful neighbor who didn't like Jessie because Jessie had argued with him over Jessie shooting his 22 rifle too close to his house. Jessie was completely devastated. "I guess I might as well go with you," he said with tears in his eyes, "there's nothin' left for me here now that Sarge is gone." We mourned the loss of Sarge for many years.

After the sawmills closed and there was no other work available it was obvious we would never be able to move back to Weed. On a cold day in December, RG. and Mama made a trip from Artesia to burn the house down for the insurance money.

Weed was such a small town that their presence would not go unnoticed, so when they arrived in Weed in the afternoon they went to the house, which was relatively empty except for some old metal bedsteads and springs, an iron stove, cupboards, tables, chairs, benches and cardboard boxes full of junk. They started a roaring fire in the stove so the smoke would let folks know that they were there to check on the house. After hanging around an hour or so they went by Cordellia's bar and had a few beers. When they left P.G. told Cordelia, "I guess we'll go down and stay at Mama's and get an early start back to Artesia in the morning."

They did go to Delia's but in the middle of the night P.G. got into his black '46 Ford and took the back way toward Weed. About a mile from the village he pulled over, killed the motor, and walked to the house. It was a full moon so he didn't stumble or attract attention when he crept up the rocky hillside to the house. Inside the house he put more wood in the stove, knocked the stove pipe loose from the wall, and laid pieces of wood close to the stove. He splashed a little kerosene around and walked to the back door. Just before he exited he tossed a match into the kerosene-soaked kindling near the stove, stepped out, and shut the door behind him.

He headed down the hill toward his old Ford the same way came but with much greater speed. Unfortunately, when he looked back over his shoulder to judge the progress of the fire flickering through the kitchen window of the house, he stumbled over a dead branch under a tree and went sprawling down the rocky hillside where he came to rest on his back. This knocked the breath out of him, swelled his left eye shut, and peeled back the skin on his knees and hands from the rocks and sticks when he hit the ground. As soon as he could get his breath he lifted himself from the ground and continued his moonlight dash to the car. Mama was relieved when he got back to Delia's. She took one look at his wounds and said with a mix of sarcasm and humor, "Damn it, P.G. I thought you were goin' to burn a house down, not get into a barroom brawl."

Arson was never suspected. Everyone assumed that the wood stove had malfunctioned and burned the house down.


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