When her father was young, he was known to be a hand with horses. They said he could get any wage he asked for, that he could take on any job of freighting even in the fall when the rains were heavy and the oil field pipe had to be hauled over unpaved roads, when the mud was the color of solder and cased the wheel spokes. The reins were telegraph lines through which he spoke to his horses in a silent code, and it seemed to Jeanine that her father's battered hands held great powers in charge. He could drive through clouds or floods. During the early oil strikes in Central Texas he was once paid $1,250 to drive a sixteen-mule team hauling a massive oil field boiler from McAllister, Oklahoma, to Cisco, Texas. He got it across the Red River Bridge and through the bogged roads of North Texas without losing a mule or a spoke or a bolt.
Jeanine sat beside him on the wagon seat and watched the horses plunge along. They were buoyant, as if they were filled with helium. This particular morning his hands shook when he rolled a cigarette because the night before he had been drinking the brutal intoxicating mixtures that were sold because the Volstead Act was still in effect that year, 1924. After an hour they came to the oil field and her father told her to stay in the crisscross shadow of the derrick until he got his deal done because he and the foreman were probably going to sit around and talk and cuss for a while. You can't step past those shadows, there. Don't go playing around the horses' feet. Here, read this comic book.
She sat and read from panel to panel as Texas Slim shot his way through the saloon doors on his horse Loco. She couldn't keep her mind on it and so she walked the shadows of the derrick and pretended they were dark roads leading her away to distant countries like Mars and Boston and Oklahoma.
Her father talked with the driller about pipe to be hauled and how much a load and how many loads. The driller needed casing pipe, and casing pipe weighed more than drill stem so her father was trying to get paid by weight as well as by the load. After they had agreed and shook hands, he stood up carefully to balance his enormous beating head on his shoulders and called out, "Jeanine, come on, we've got to go."
Jeanine came to stand against her father's knees. All the machinery was still. The oil had been found and was being held below their feet, dark and explosive, until the crew would let it up through the casing pipe.
She said, "Let me drive the horses." Jeanine had a low voice and it made her sound like an immature blond dwarf.
Her father patted her heavily on top of her head. "You're too little to drive."
"But I want to play Ben-Hur."
He smiled. "You can't be Ben-Hur, honey, you're a girl."
The week before they had gone to see the movie star Raymond Navarro playing Ben-Hur in a toga, in screenland black and white, ripping around the arena at a suicidal speed, lashing a whip.
"Yeah, but he was wearing a dress, and I'm the one that's got the pants on."
Her father laughed and held his head. Jeanine was so relieved that her own laughter had a frantic sound and tears came to her eyes. Th e driller thought it was funny as well and he repeated it to the crew several times over and even after a week the driller could be heard to say Don't mess with me, boys, I'm the one that's got the pants on.
They started home. They lived in half of a rent house in Ranger, where they had moved as soon as there was word of an oil strike. Before that they seemed to have lived on the old Tolliver farm, but Jeanine was too young to remember it. Her father's strong hands were scarred, they had been knocked around by everything, by engine cranks and coffin hoists and the wagon jack. His cloth cap barely shaded his bloodshot eyes. All round them the horizon shifted from one red stone layer to another and down these slopes spilled live oak and Spanish oak and mesquite, wild grape and persimmon. Alongside the road were things people threw out of cars and wagons. A baby doll head lay under a dense blackbrush and seemed to watch as the hooves of the team went past. There were tin cans and mottled rags and lard pails and tiny squares of broken safety glass.
He reached under the seat and took out his bottle.
"If I have a drink now she'll never know by the time we get home." He took a quick drink and then handed the bottle to her. "Hide that for me."
Jeanine kneeled down and found the feed bags under the seat and stuffed the bottle in one of them and sat back on the seat again. She leaned against him. During the tormented shouting of the night before, Jeanine and her sister knew these were noises of pain. Their parents needed comfort.
"I love you," she said.
"You'll be mad at me too someday, Jenny," he said. "Before the world is done with me."
"But how come you threw the album out the front door?"
"Because the sewing machine was too heavy."
The photographs of herself and her sister Mayme tumbled down the steps like playing cards, like the doll head, discarded. Her mother and father's wedding portrait spun into the dirt. Jeanine and her sister Mayme picked them all up and carefully pasted them back into the album. Before long her mother and father would kiss each other. After that her father would be paid and they would buy a case of Lithiated Lemon soda and a radio and a racehorse.
"We're going to have a racehorse one of these days," said Jeanine. "He'll look like Big Man."
"Oh baby baby baby. These here are draft horses. We want something little and fast and wound up like an eight-day clock."
Jeanine stood up in the seat. "I want to ride on Big Man." She had made him laugh, all was well, she would now ride in triumph into the wagon yard.
"No. You'll fall off. When those big hooves get done stepping on you you'll look like that doll's head back there."
"I don't care."
"All right, all right. This is so you don't tell."
"I never seen any whiskey."
He threw her up on the near leader named Big Man and she held on to the collar knobs. She waved at cars passing by in the sovereign confidence that she was beautiful and special and her father's darling. The child of a unique destiny. She had a new pair of homemade overalls and a new short haircut. Her hair was an icy blond that would soon darken but for now all the arguing and the torment was over and the day was full of light. The high dray wheels of good fortune sang on, revolving behind her, and her father slapped the Y-lines on the horses' backs and said she was a pistol.
In 1918, the year Jeanine was born, the oil strikes in north-central Texas, at Ranger and Tarrant and Cisco, were places of astonishing chaos. The towns became hives of workers and freighters with four-horse teams and drugstores and ranked lines of Model As at the curbs, and gamblers and prostitutes and the wretched of the earth and lease-hounds with dubious paper. Homemade alcoholic drinks were sold at the back doors of the drugstores.
Crude oil sprang up out of the earth in fields that had been recently abandoned to the drought and the boll weevil, and town populations jumped from 400 to 15,000 in a matter of months. A young man named Conrad Hilton borrowed money to buy a hotel in Cisco and packed in cots so tightly you could step from one to another. He said the place was a cross between a flophouse and a gold mine.
Jeanine and her father and mother and sisters moved again, this time to Tarrant, and things started going seriously downhill. Jeanine's mother, Elizabeth, had seen the world change so rapidly she was in a state of anxiety. Women's clothing had changed in ten years from floor-length dresses and big hats to little narrow skirts that stopped above the knee, and the women who wore them drank whiskey and smoked. Her husband had taken her away from farm life to the oil fields, and she had become a mother three times over. Like so many others who followed the oil strikes, they left behind not only the place where they had been born but the Tolliver farm and their kin and the local doctor. They left behind a community where their family names were known and the graveyard under the cedars, whose stones were carved with those same names.
When they lived in Tarrant, Jeanine's father was gone every weekend to the brush-track races. When he came back, sometimes he had money and sometimes he didn't. Often he had too much to drink and then for a while he was as much fun as people on the radio. He was tall, dark, and handsome and Jeanine believed everything he said. He let her light his cigarettes, her small fingers cautiously lifted the flaming kitchen match in the dark of the front porch, in the heat of a summer night.
He said someday when he made his money in the oil fields they'd have horses, they would have something fast enough to beat Harmon Baker, faster than Ace of Hearts. He sang to her the old race song about Molly and Tenbrooks. She was too young to know he was drunk and had gambled away the last of the McAllister boiler money. Molly went to California, she done as she pleased, come back to old Kentucky and got beat with all ease...
When they moved to the next oil strike at Mexia, in 1927, her mother packed up the photograph album and the quilts and the five Tolliver silver spoons and dishes and the buckets and her framed print of a little girl sitting alone in the woods. The little girl was listening to a bird that sang some unheard melody from the branch of a white tree and it seemed to Jeanine that the girl was dangerously alone in an alien, watery forest.
He took her with him to the brush-track races around Mexia. She held her father's bet money and watched as the horses were led up to the score line. She was only nine and the men thought she was charming, she waved her straw hat and cheered as the horses and jockeys roared down the quarter-mile straightaway track with the jockeys up in the irons, their caps turned backward, suspended over the horses' necks. They flashed past the prickly-pear flats when the cactus fruit was ripe and stood up in bloodred crowns. The jockeys fought against one another in an avalanche of red dust and radiant hides, the horses hurling up clods and rocks behind them, their nostrils big as boreholes, always running on the edge of disaster, for the Texas brush tracks were poorly graded and the footing was treacherous. Betting was illegal in Texas but the money that changed hands sometimes amounted to a man's monthly wage or half the cotton crop, and often enough the bills were stained with crude oil. At that time incomparable horses ran on the Texas brush tracks: Old Joe Hancock, Red Buck, Flying Dutchman, Hot Shot, Oklahoma Star, My Texas Dandy, Rainy Day, and the beautiful earless Red Man.
Text from STORMY WEATHER, copyright © 2007 by Paulette Jiles, reprinted/posted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved.