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One gunshot's long echo

By MICHAEL TAYLOR

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


Thunk. The post-hole diggers bit into the sandy soil. As the sound vibrated up the handles, beads of sweat trickled across a grimy, 11-year-old cheek. For three weeks in the June sun, the boys had put in a half-mile of posts for the barbed wire fence, which would soon divide the clover field in two.

"We have five more posts to set and we're finished," the 12-year-old brother said. "Let's get these in and go to the barn where there's some shade."

The boys stopped at the water trough to splash their faces.

"What do you think we'll have to do now that the posts are in?"

"Back to hoeing thistles, I bet."

The cool recesses of the barn beckoned. The odors of sweet feed and dry oats mingled with the scents of leather, gun oil and fertilizer. Bits of hay floated in and out of the shadows and shafts of light, backed by the drone of the cicadas in the distant oaks.

The boys disappeared down stall lines in a game of cowboys and Indians. Three artistic streaks of mud added to already grimy cheeks identified the younger brother as a Sioux chief. The older grabbed a pine splinter from a gnawed stall plank to serve as his six-shooter.

He crawled under a stall gate and up against the shoulder of Jughead, the oldest and slowest horse on the ranch. A quick duck under his belly and a step up on the stall's second plank hid the cowboy from even the sharpest Indian scout's eyes.

The Indian knew the enemy's tricks. He scampered into the hay loft and moved from bale to bale, peering through the cracks in the floor into the stalls below. The space between a support beam and the loft's floor allowed enough room for an 11-year-old hand clutching a warm, newly-laid chicken egg. The angle was slight, the flick quick. Warm yellow yolk running down the back of the cowboy's neck signaled the Indian's ambush was successful.

"Yuck!" The cowboy brushed egg shell from his crew cut hair, plunged his head into Jughead's water bucket and washed egg slime from his neck. "You win. One less egg I have to collect this evening. Let's go to Vic's office."

Beyond the saddle room, the ranch foreman's office enticed the boys. The scarred mahogany desk reflected hazy afternoon sunlight pouring through an unwashed window. On the far left side of the desk hung a page-a-day calendar, with "2" in solid black, and a green John Deere tractor pulling a red "July 1962" across the top of the page.

The boys had been told over and over that they were to stay out of the office, with its oak rack cradling six gleaming rifles on the wall. But they were drawn in by a new intrigue on the desk, a worn leather belt with a holster, holding a walnut grip .38-caliber pistol.

The older hovered over the tooled leather holster, fascinated by the weapon. The younger brother, after a brief look, sidled toward the doorway.

"We'd better get out of here. He'll be coming in on the tractor soon, and you know if we're caught in here, we'll get a whippin'!"

"We finished early; we have lots of time. I've never seen this before." The heavy handgun slid out of the oiled holster. Polished metal dwarfed the 12-year-old's left hand. The right spun the cylinder.

"Don't! Put it back! Let's get out of here!"

The only responses were a mischievous laugh, the barrel pointed at the stomach, and an audible click as the hammer fell on an empty shell.

The 11-year-old wanted to scream, "Stop!" Instead, all he could manage was a whispered, "Can we go?"

His brother raised the six-shooter to eye level and thumbed back the hammer.

"Put it down. . . . You'll get in trouble. . . . You'd better stop. . . . I'm leaving! . . . You're going to get hurt!"

"God wouldn't let me die."

The concussion from the pistol's discharge reverberated from the tin roof and shook dust from the office window. The 11-year-old ran from the slump of the body falling against the desk and the thud of impact against the cement floor.

Sobs racked the stumbling child. Eyes searching for a tractor's telltale dust trail found only a pair of ruts disappearing into clover. Past the barn, past the four empty ranch houses, over the tiny creek's bridge, out to a desolate State Road 62, running until tired legs gave out. No cars gleamed in the distance, east or west.

Back up the dirt road, the boy cleared the creek's tree line just in time to spy the tractor's smokestack disappear behind the barn.

By the time the boy reached the barn, his father was scooping oats and sweet feed from bins to satisfy hungry horses. A soundless mouth opened; a shaky hand stabbed in the direction of the office; wild eyes screamed the horror.

"What?"

"Shot!"

Work boots pounded across the saddle room floor. The front door of the office exploded. Heavy legs raced up the dirt road and returned powering a Ford Ranchero. Blacksmith arms lifted the limp 12-year-old and gently lowered the body to the bed of the truck. Without a word, the barely breathing older brother, the father and the Ranchero disappeared down dusty ruts.

The 11-year-old stood with tears trickling down mud-streaked cheeks. As the vehicle vanished into the tree line, the silence was broken by the return of the cicada buzz.

I'd better get those post-hole diggers back to the barn, was the first clear thought that penetrated the stunned boy's mind. Mechanical legs marched past each post. He could carry only one post-hole digger at a time, but managed two shovels on the third trip.

The rumble of a green and white Manatee County sheriff's car crossing the cattle guard interrupted the homeward trek. The boy ducked into a tuft of tall grass along the rutted road and lay flat. The dusk and dust hid him from the searching eyes of the two deputies.

As the uniforms entered the barn, the boy ran across the road, past the house and into the woods. Making his way along the familiar creek bank, he found a pair of oaks through which he could watch the barn, the house and the hole in the tree line where the road vanished.

After long minutes, the officers drove to the house, knocked on the door, yelled for the boy or anyone. The boy, silent, slid from one tree trunk to the next for a better view, until finally the patrol car rattled across the cattle guard and disappeared. Only then did the younger brother dare head toward the dark, empty house.

He sat on the picnic bench outside the barbed-wire enclosed yard, waiting for another set of headlights to emerge from the tree line. The Ranchero's familiar grill arrested the boy's thoughts of returning to the woods. A mother's sobs and clutching hands tried to comfort the silent 11-year-old while the father brushed past the two and into the house.

The mother's attempts to elicit a response from the child gently slowed. The father, seated in his upholstered living room chair, stared into the night. A single lamp next to the chair cast shadows about the room. He turned, fastened his dark eyes on the boy and hit one fist against an open palm.

"Did you shoot him? Were you playing with the gun?"

"No."

"Leave him alone. He has been through enough."

Silent eyes pleaded and glanced at the bedroom.

Alone, the boy looked at his brother's empty bunk, turned in the darkness and wiped a muddy tear-streaked cheek on the pillow.

* * *

Michael Taylor teaches language arts at Meadowlawn Middle School in St. Petersburg. William Taylor was pronounced dead at Manatee Memorial Hospital, late in the afternoon of July 2, 1962. He had a single bullet wound between his eyes.

Do you have a story to tell?

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