FROM "DANCING ON HIS GRAVE"
During my mother’s life with my dad, he gave her many opportunities
to remember what her sister Virginia, or “Din,” told her
when she first started dating him. “You don’t want to get
serious about that guy.”
“Why not? I thought you liked him,” Mom asked.
“I thought I liked him, too, until someone pointed out that
all his horses are head-shy.” Din said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mom demanded.
Din said, “It means he beats them over the head with a fence
post because he can’t do enough damage with a whip.”
“I don’t believe that!” Mom retorted.
“If you don’t believe me, ask a horseman,” Din said.
Mom laughed and told Din she thought that was a funny way
to judge a man. “Anyway, what does that have to do with me?”
The old red gelding lay in the stinking mud of the alkali
creek. After two weeks, he was a rack of bones. Dad had exploded
the horse’s remaining eye with a picket chain, and he staggered
out into the pasture, fell off a high cutbank into the creek
and broke his shoulder. The mud was caked around his head,
where his weeping eye sockets kept the mud wet. He was barely
moving. He hadn’t been able to stand to get water since he
broke his shoulder. Dad had beaten his first eye out several
weeks before. He was a retired work horse that Dad had bought
from a neighbor to help train green broncs. He harnessed
the old horse beside the green one, with the idea that the
experienced horse would help him control the young one. His
idea of control was a “short-tug” cut from scrap harness,
or a chain.
Mom wrote in her journal, “I guess maybe he left him laying
there in the mud because he thought the broken shoulder would
heal up and he could still work him blind.”
Or maybe Dad was getting revenge for disobedience. At least
that’s what my sisters thought, every time they tiptoed past
the poor dying horse. They were learning what happened when
you made “Daddy” mad. Finally, Dad hooked a team to the horse,
pulled him up onto the creek bank and shot him. The carcass
lay there until it was nothing but bleached bones. After
that, Dad had to work two green broncs at a time, because
the other wheel horse he had used was also missing an eye,
for the same reason. He was in a rage almost constantly…
I drift into consciousness, and have no recollection of
where I am, or who I am. It’s morning, isn’t it? I slept
the whole night through without a nightmare. Or did I? What
happened to yesterday? No, it’s afternoon now. Have I had
dinner? Yes, I can remember passing the salt and pepper to
somebody, but who? I’m getting scared now. Paralyzing fear.
Have I lost my mind? I’ve got to ask Frances and Pat what
happened. We were going to brand calves today, but there’s
nobody around. Somehow, I sense I’m supposed to stay in this
bedroom, but why?
Frances comes into the room. I ask her what happened. She
only knows that he sent me up the coulee to get the saddle
horses and I came back in a trance. I went into the bedroom
and have been there for three days, only coming out for meals.
Pat comes in, and she only knows that I got a beating, but
she’s not sure what for.
It seems like much later, now, days even. I’m still having
trouble seeing and remembering. Mom doesn’t know what happened
either, but she doesn’t seem to think it’s anything to worry
about. A few more days pass. I still can’t remember, but
my vision is working and the terrible headache is better.
Then the morning comes when I hear the familiar shout, “Daylight
in the Swamp!” snatching me from sleep, and I know I am expected
to act like nothing happened…
It’s a cold, windy day in spring. Dad and I are trying to
bring in some horses that have been running out all winter.
They are thin, with shaggy, long winter hair. One mare has
a new-born colt. He is in the pickup and I am on Minn, our
old white kid horse. The horses are wild and won’t respond
to my efforts to herd them toward the corrals. The terrain
where we are is too rough for Dad to do much with the pickup,
so about all he is doing is screaming at me from half a mile
away. In that wind, I don’t know for sure what he is screaming
about, or what he wants me to do.
Suddenly the horses start milling around in confusion, and
I am able to ride right up to them. Bewildered, I see that
the mother of the baby colt has her head down. She is bleeding
through the nose, and I can hear gurgling. She nickers softly
to her colt. Then the baby colt falls dead and almost at
the same moment I realize that he is shooting. I don’t know
if he is shooting at me or the horses. I am so scared that
I just blank out. I see the rest of the slaughter as from
a distance, through kind of a tunnel. Two more young horses
hump up as the bullets hit them in the “guts,” and the mare
is now on the ground, breathing her last. I’m paralyzed.
I can’t even climb down from Minn to protect myself. Another
horse goes down squealing in agony.
The rest of the day is forever erased from my memory, except
for the never-ending scene of the dying horses and my conviction
that I will never live to be an adult.
She is six, and she and Kathleen have been told to go bring
in the sheep. She is trotting along behind the band, the
yellow clouds of dust kicked up by their sharp hooves billowing
around her and settling on her freckled arms and sun-bleached
hair. She starts picking up pretty rocks and putting them
in a pouch she fashioned in her shirt-tail. Suddenly, as
she straightens up with a new treasure, there he is, looming
huge right behind her. She hears, “Git them sheep on the
run, you sonovabitch!”
She feels the big boot hit her in the spine. Her rocks go
flying. As she comes back to consciousness, all she can remember
is the terror. She’s on her feet, and they are moving, the
sheep are still in front of her, but he has disappeared.
When she looks back, she’s even more terrified. She is way
down the coulee, a long way from where she was just a split
second before when he kicked her. She realizes she has a
big bruise on the side of her head, and her hands are cut
The awestruck fear stays with her all through the chore
of watering and penning the sheep. She eats her supper in
silence, her head aching, big round eyes watching him from
the end of the table, wondering how he made her forget going
all that way with the sheep. She doesn’t remember him kicking
her down until a long time later.
He is trashing the house again. He has already knocked Mom
across the room, blackening her eye. He tips over the table,
smashing the half finished meal and dishes, and rips down
the soot filled stove pipe. The baby is screaming in her
crib. The older girls are hanging on his arm begging him
to stop. They go flying when he swings his big arm. Pat
runs and climbs up in the old rocking chair and starts rocking
furiously. She slaps herself on the cheeks over and over
with both hands, crying frantically, “You don’t have to beat
me, Daddy. I’ll slap myself! See, Daddy, I’m slapping myself!”
She’s three years old.
She is screaming, dancing and side-stepping around the table;
I can see her back through the window facing the camper trailer
where I slept until the crashes and screams launched me to
my feet, trembling in fear; the light cold and gray like
the terror, landing on her and me through our respective
windows. Please Daddy; Please Daddy; Please Daddy Honey;
the refrain so familiar, repeated daily, weekly since I’ve
been able to understand words. “Please
Daddy, don’t kill anybody else,” her voice is a shriek, keening like the cold
wind racing between the trailer and gray shabby house.
Oh, God, no, please. He didn’t. Oh, God. He’s done it, finally
done it. But they’re not all dead yet. I must help, it’s
my job, he likes me best. I have to hurry – into the nightmare.
He hates Norma, but she’s not dead, dancing behind the window,
so it must be Mom who he hates or Frances who he also hates.
I will hurry maybe I can save Pat or Kathleen or maybe
the other one who is not dead yet. My stomach is cold knotted
but not sick anymore.
Cold stiff fingers try to zip my jeans, feet resist thrusts
at my tattered sneakers; no need to be quiet this time, shaky
legs carry me through the kitchen door. Cautious now, senses
flaring, testing the scene: heating stove on its back, contents
of the pot belly regurgitated, black soot, gray ashes, framing
scuffled footprints on cabbage flower linoleum. Table legs
turned up, smashed dishes, food stuck on walls. No blood;
no prone body. White faces, trembling lips, no tears--too
much terror for tears--Mom’s black eye. Dawning relief. Two
walls and the whistling wind transmuting her words, “Please
Daddy don’t hit anybody else,” into the certainty that this
was the day we have awaited for years, our last on earth.
If he kills one he will kill us all. No, not today. The terror
Breakfast is over; Mom and Dad are sitting at the table
finishing their coffee. Norma, age five, quietly sidles up
to Mom, hoping for a touch or hug, any small show of affection.
As she approaches, she rolls her feet to the outside edges,
so her footsteps won’t make noise. Her shoes are run over
from her established style of walking. Trying to stay far
away from Dad, she gently leans on Mom’s shoulder. Mom’s
arm slides around her waist. Dad’s head jerks up from his
newspaper. “Quit hangin’ on yer mother, you sonovabitch!”
Mom starts guiltily and snatches her arm back. Dad swivels
in his chair, and planting his boot in Norma’s small chest,
shoves her with his foot as if she was an obnoxious dog.
She goes flying, scrambles to her feet and scuttles out the
door, still rolling her feet outward for silence.
March 18, 1952
My, I hope no one ever reads this journal but me. They’ll
sure think I’m a chronic complainer if they do. Really
it’s just letting off steam in a place where it won’t hurt
anybody. I have sense enough to know that to go around
all the time with that stuff in your head and to be eternally
choking it off and not letting any of it escape is unhealthy
and liable to lead to many bad things, but I can’t go around
taking it out on the family. My girls don’t deserve such
treatment. How it tickles me to watch them when they are
engrossed in something the way they were with that calf
this morning – and then coming out to wash their hands
and so eager to tell me all about it. I hope they will
always eagerly tell me every little detail of what interests
And Kathleen! I wish I could tell her or let her know
in some way how well I know what she thinks about, and
what bothers her. I‘m sure I could help her to see plainly
– Oh well – Anyway, she knows I’m always here for her to
call on when she needs me, and I’m always for her – and
all my little girls, one hundred percent. That helps some,
I hope. I guess I’m not really a very good and wise mother,
but I do the best I know how, and my love is unlimited.
And they do have a good father. That much I managed to
do. In fact, he is a wonderful father. I hope they will
always remember what he has given them – not money and
things, but love and understanding. It makes a lump in
my throat to see him carefully and patiently explain something
to them, when they come to him for information So many
men are so completely uninterested in their children.
Oh dear! My fountain pen is running dry and I’m afraid
I’ll wake him up if I get up to hunt for ink, and that
would be bad. More later.
EXCERPTS FROM "WALKING WOUNDED"
I struggle upward through layers of heavy sleep. The house
is freezing. There must be something wrong with the furnace.
It’s dark outside the windows, but I sense that it’s morning.
My two babies, Marty, two and a half, and Tammy, seven months
old, are still asleep in their bedroom across the hall. I
stagger out of bed, into the long hall that leads past our
bedrooms, through the laundry room to the back door. The
thermostat reads forty degrees. I open the door to the basement.
The furnace is going full blast. What in heaven’s name is
Fully awake, I become aware of another sound, above the
hum of the furnace. It’s the scream of a hurricane wind.
Turning on lights – thank God they still work – I enter my
small kitchen. The big window at the end of the kitchen is
covered with a layer of frost. I scrape a hole in the frost,
and find only a peculiar shade of dark gray behind the glass.
I can see horizontal movement. I feel strange, sick. I move
to the living room, and another window. It’s the same gray
as the kitchen. With vague detachment, I realize that we’re
having a blizzard. But I’ve never seen anything like this.
It’s still dark because of the huge amount of snow moving
horizontally across every window. I can’t see the neighboring
houses on either side, even though they’re only twenty feet
away. It must be terribly cold, and the furnace can’t keep
up. There’s no way I can open my beauty shop, located at
the front of the house, today. I go back to the kitchen,
open the oven door, and turn on the oven and all the surface
I turn on the radio. A public service announcement repeats,
over and over: thirty-five degrees below zero; forty-five
miles per hour winds, gusting to seventy miles per hour;
twelve to twenty inches of new snow; stockman’s advisory,
stockman’s advisory, stockman’s advisory.
I go back down the hall to the kids’ bedroom. The baby
is awake, and Marty wakes as soon as I pick her up. He’s
cold and wet, and he starts to cry. Holding and comforting
him with one arm, I push the baby’s crib out the door and
into the kitchen. I take off his pajamas, dress him in dry
clothes and put him in his high chair. I’m feeling more sick,
and my joints are weak and painful. What’s wrong with me?
I move back down the hallway to the bathroom. Passing the
mirror, I catch a glimpse of my face. It’s covered with a
red rash. I unbutton my pajama top. I have rash from head
to toe. It’s Rubella, German measles. Two weeks ago, Marty
broke out. I thought I’d escaped. The day that Marty broke
out, one of my beauty shop customers had said, “I sure hope
you’re not expecting,” and then she proceeded to tell me
all the terrible things that Rubella does to unborn fetuses
of less than three months gestation – mental retardation,
blindness, deafness, missing limbs—she had a whole plateful
for me. She described a retarded princess of the Netherlands
who was the victim of Rubella, and said there is a world
wide epidemic taking place, that is expected to last at least
I assured her that I wasn’t expecting. It was a lie. I’m
two and half months pregnant. I can’t think about that right
I pull the quilts from our beds, find a hammer, and nail
the quilts over the kitchen window and the open doorway.
I make a pallet on the floor for Marty and bring in his toys.
The baby has to stay in her crib. We have soup, we have the
electric stove for heat. Please God, don’t let the wind blow
down a power pole. I can sit in a chair with my feet on another,
a makeshift bed. I’m sick, but I have to take care of my
babies. Ray has been gone for almost two months.
Over the years, Mom kept secrets from her daughters, an
act that in hindsight was reckless and irresponsible, for
both us and her, but totally in keeping with her lifelong
system of denial. One of the secrets she revealed later was
that Dad had carried a concealed weapon for years. At first
it was a little .22 caliber Derringer in a shoulder holster
under his arm. He wore it everywhere except to bed. She said,
“Then after the trouble over Joe shooting the colt, added
to losing all those cattle and his obsession with national
news, he decided that everybody in the world was out to get
him.” He bought another little pistol, a tiny little thing
that looked like a toy, she said. He started carrying it
in his boot, in addition to the derringer in the shoulder
Then he started picking up old rifles at sales and auctions,
anything that would shoot. Through the mail, probably through
ads in his crime magazines, he got a sack of shells for each
rifle. He took the weapons home, oiled and refurbished them
and filled some parts with grease for rust protection. Then
he chose a spot on a side hill around some brush and laid
a barrel on its side with the open end downhill so the moisture
would run away from it. That way the weapon that he placed
inside stayed dry. “He must have hidden ten or twelve of
them like that around the place,” she said. “He said he had
them for an ‘emergency.’”
She told me, “We had that ten by fifty foot mobile home
by then. It had a bedroom in each end. He was sleeping in
the front bedroom and I was sleeping in the back. Of course
the trailer was small and I could hear everything. I’d wake
up in the middle of the night and hear him out in the front
room, in the dark, talking to himself. He was awake, not
talking in his sleep. He’d say, ‘Them God-damn sonzabitches.
They’re not gonna get me!’ It was spooky. It was really scary.”
The situation reached a crisis level during the summer
August 21, 1967
I haven’t written anything in this journal all summer.
There is a very good reason for this. My last entry is
dated June 9, which was just a couple of days before Fiona
came for her vacation; then a few days after that we branded.
The day after branding something happened that made me
think I might die. This is for real. I actually thought
so, and I gathered all my diaries and hid them. So thoroughly
that I’m sure no-one will ever find them if I do die without
telling anybody where they are. It’s funny how your outlook
on life changes when you look death in the face. First,
it made me afraid, terribly so, and then all of a sudden
I didn’t care. I decided I’d just as soon die as live in
fear, and I still feel that way. It’s funny what a feeling
of relief I experienced when I made that decision. I must
admit, though, that it’s hard to overcome the habits of
EXCERPT FROM "CHASING GHOSTS" -
(Work in Progress)
This was Lillie’s water day. She woke up to a cold, miserable
late November day, looking like snow. It might be a tough
winter. She’d been responsible for watering the livestock
for almost eighteen years. As long as she had lived on the
homestead with Gus, they didn’t have a well or spring, their
own source of water. For all those years, she’d been hauling
two fifty-five gallon barrels of water every other day. She’d
developed a system, lifting the barrels into the back of
the wagon, tying the two cows on behind, and with the team
pulling the wagon, trailing the livestock seven miles down
east, past Vida to the spring in the creek bank. There she
dipped the water into the barrels with a bucket while the
team and the cows were drinking. With her barrels and livestock
full, she drove the wagon up to the Vida post office, to
Bud Nefzger’s well. She filled up a ten gallon cream can
for the house for drinking water. Back at home the next day,
she watered all the livestock out of the barrels, and was
able to skip a day of hauling water. The first spring on
the homestead, in 1913, Gus had built a little dam for the
livestock, but it was usually dry. Sometimes in the winter,
she’d let the animals eat snow, but other times when the
snow didn’t come, she had to take an axe along to the spring
and break the ice to get her water. She was a small woman,
about five feet four inches, and since coming to the homestead,
she had become so thin she thought she looked scrawny. She
weighed only a little over 100 pounds, and her hair had turned
completely gray in the last few years. But then, she had
turned forty-five her last birthday, so it was to be expected.
She and Gus, a tall, good-looking man, had been married
for over twenty six years. Their relationship had always
been stormy. Lillie found out soon after their marriage that
he was a womanizer. She and Gus had split up two years ago
because of his philandering. That terrible day, when she’d
decided she had just had enough, she had been out in the
field trying to get the crop in with a team of four horses.
Gus was supposedly laid up in the house with a bad back.
They had hired a girl to come in and help with the housework,
and when Lillie came in from the field, she found her hired
girl in bed with Gus. In a flat, subdued voice, she told
him, “Gus, I told you if that ever happened again, I’d leave
you.” And she did. She left right then, and went to Ed’s
Then twenty-four years old, he’d rented the place down
the road when he was eighteen. When Lillie had arrived at
his bachelor shack – in 1928 – Ed didn’t hesitate a minute.
She knew he had seethed for years over what he saw as his
father’s shoddy treatment of her – his womanizing, and earlier,
ridiculing her when she’d tried to learn to read when he
and Frank started school. Every time in the past years when
she had commented that he didn’t want work as hard as she
did, he’d say, “Well, you’re the one who wanted to be the
farmer. It was your idea to come up here in the first place.”
That was his excuse for being a “Manana Man,” and putting
all the responsibility on her shoulders.
coming to him for sanctuary after she left Gus was what Ed
had been wanting. She and Gus reached an agreement and split
the homestead, each deeding half to the other. They each
got about 320 acres. Ed let his rented place go, and he and
Lillie moved a one room shack onto her half of the homestead.
Since then, he had been more of a help-mate to her than his
dad ever had. But now that might be getting out of hand.
far as Lillie knew, Ed had never had a girl-friend. When
he came back from that winter in Butte five years ago, in
1925, he was twenty-one. He had started attending all the
local functions, something he hadn’t done much before – except
to look for fistfights – and cultivating an image as a lady’s
man. He carefully practiced proper etiquette in dealing with
the ladies. He had learned to be a really good dancer and
he found lots of partners. He later bragged that he would
go to a dance, find out the number of dances that would be
played the whole evening, and line up a different girl to
dance each dance with him. It was a source of great pride
that he never forgot which girl had been asked for which
dance, even four or five hours later. He was precise and
even grand in his manners and language around females. But
he didn’t seem to be the least bit interested in a long term
association with a woman. He never did any kind of courting
beyond the local dances, and he always seemed to prefer the
company of the young bachelors from the community.
the reasons all this was troubling to Lillie was that Ed
was way too involved in things that went on between her and
his dad, Gus. That didn’t seem fitting. He and his dad had
always had a violent relationship, and when he was a kid
Ed had been on the receiving end of many severe beatings
from his dad. Lillie thought that Gus was way too hard on
Ed. One time when Ed was only about ten, Gus laid his finger
wide open during a whipping with a buggy whip. Lillie had
to soak the finger and then dig dirt out of the cut before
she bandaged it, while the boy squirmed and tried not to
cry. She saw the hatred in his eyes when he looked at his
dad. His beatings were usually for fighting with his brother
Frank. Lillie knew that some people, including Ed, thought
that Frank was a sneaky, mean trouble maker and a damn bum.
In the early years it seemed like he just loved to deliberately
do things get people mad at him. At fourteen Frank had started
running off from home. He’d go off somewhere and get thrown
in jail, and then write home to Lillie for money. She’d send
him money or a train ticket, and then he’d come home and
live off of her, until the next time. Ed and Frank fought
bitterly, and Gus had always thought it was funny to stick
up for Frank just to make Ed mad. It had really caused a
lot of trouble in the family.
Things had started to change
for the worse as Ed got older and grew bigger and stronger
than his dad. Lillie remembered a fight a few years ago where
Ed, aged twenty two, had fifty-year-old Gus down on the floor
beating him senseless. Lillie had jumped into the fight and
stopped him. “You just remember! That’s your dad you’ve got
A couple years ago, just after Lillie left Gus
and moved in with Ed, Gus had finally had a well dug on the
original homestead where he still lived. He had decided that
watering the animals the way Lillie had done for years was
too much work. After he dug the well, Lillie had started
hauling her water from there. Now she only traveled half
a mile from the shack where she lived with Ed to Gus’s well.
The chore became so much easier than the fourteen mile round-trip
to Vida had been. It left her plenty of time to sit with
Gus and visit. They were getting along better now than they
had for years.
Things had not gotten better between Ed and
his dad since she and Gus had split, and maybe even worse.
It seemed like Ed thought that now she and Gus were separated,
she shouldn’t have anything to do with Gus. She could tell
he stewed about it when she came back from Gus’s place with
her load of water every other day. Well, she wasn’t going
to answer to Ed or anybody else about how much time she spent
with her own husband, she decided. And she wasn’t going to
divorce Gus, no matter what. She wasn’t going to be like
her mother or the rest of her family. No, the next time Ed
started complaining about her “hanging around Gus,” she intended
to have a talk with him. It was one thing for him to live
there and help her on the homestead, and quite another to
be treating her like his own private property. How could
a guy be jealous of his own dad? She had to straighten him
out on that. It was high time Ed got himself a woman, and
quit worrying about her and Gus. Sometimes she wished that
she had never gotten into this living arrangement with Ed.
Things were sure tense.
She had started the noon meal when
Ed came into the house. A jar of home-canned green beans
were now simmering in a pot on the back of the stove. She
was slicing some beef left over from last night’s roast.
took you so long, Ma?” Ed’s voice was silky. “Sure seemed
to take you awhile to fill them barrels.”
“I was visiting
with your dad.”
“What you got to say to that sonovabitch?”
“Ed, I’ve had
about enough of this.” Lillie said firmly. “It ain’t none
of your business how much time I spend with my husband, and
don’t you forget, he is still my husband.”
She never saw it coming. The last thing
she felt on this earth was her son’s big fist smashing into
her jaw. She flew backward three feet, head first into the
huge, cast iron wood-burning range. She hit the floor like
a discarded rag doll, completely limp. He could see that
she had wet herself. He sank into the kitchen chair, suddenly
robbed of rage and strength, and waited. “Come on, Ma, get
up,” he muttered. There was no response, not even a groan.
Slowly, he got to his feet and bent over her. There was no
movement. He had seen enough dead animals to know that she
He picked up her body and laid her gently on the
bed that they had shared for the past two years. Then he
began building his story, his lie. She must have died the
minute she hit the stove, he mused, so there won’t be much
of a bruise on her head, nor where his fist met her jaw.
“Okay. I’m outside. I come in for dinner. She’s layin’ on
the floor. I put her on the bed. There’s a bruise on her
temple. It’s where she fell and hit the stove when she had
the heart attack. That’s the way it was.”
Ed backed carefully
away from her body and out the door, as if he might disturb
her if he made noise. He saddled his horse and headed toward
the Leuenbergers’. He’d leave it to them to tell the old
man. In his haste to get away from the awful scene, he forgot
about the string beans. By the time he got back with the
neighbors, the beans were burned black in the kettle. The
odor filled the entire house. For the rest of his life, that’s
what he remembered the most about his mother’s death: the
odor of burned beans. He never ate green beans again.