Don’t mess with Mamma.
I woke up to the sound of someone knocking on our door, and I thought it might be a ghost. I sure didn't want to see a ghost! I listened to my two brothers snoring in the bed from my pallet on the floor, and then set up by the window to look out. Who could tell what was out there?
I couldn't see anything but the trees against the sky, and they sort of looked like ghosts to me. I covered my head with the blanket just in case it was some spirit knocking, and then heard the knocking resume, only louder and more insistent.
"Can't be no Ghost, knocking that loud," I thought.
"Bill, Bill, wake up, there is someone at the door," I heard my mother whisper softly from the next room, where their bed was. They didn’t know we could hear them.
"Where's my gun?" my Dad asked sleepily. He always had a gun close to the bed, in case he needed it.
"You don't need your gun, just go see who it is." Mom said softly. I heard them even when they tried to be quiet.
I heard Dad slip from his bed and start to the living room. "Bill, open up, it's the sheriff and I need to talk to you," a man said from outside. “This is Bob Jordan, the Harlan County Sheriff.”
My lord, I though to myself, why would the sheriff want to talk to my Dad? I thought perhaps he had killed someone in a fight, or beat some man up in an argument, or something just as bad.
"At least it's not a ghost," I thought to myself with relief. I tried to hear what they were talking about, but they were keeping their voices low like they didn't want to wake us all up.
"What's he done?" my father asked. "Mumble, mumble, shot, mumble" was all I could catch of their conversation. This was very interesting, and now I was wide awake.
"Wait here, and I will get him up for you." Dad said to the lawman. Dad walked into the room quietly, on tiptoe. I lay still and pretended to be asleep as my Dad came into the room where my brothers and I were sleeping.
"Tom, wake up. The law is here, and they have deputies all around the house. Don't try to run or fight them, or they will kill you sure as hell."
"I ain’t gonna run. I shot Luther Moran last night, and I hope he is dead. I didn't wait around to see if he died or not. I don’t care if he did," Tom said as he sat up in bed and reached for his pants
My older brother, Tom, was the one they had come for. He put his shoes on and followed my Dad to the living room and the waiting sheriff. I heard the front door shut softly and then the sound of their cars starting, and driving away down the path.
My Dad came back in the house from where he had walked outside with my brother and the sheriff. He locked the door and went back into his and Mamma's bedroom. I could hear them whispering to each other.
"Go back to sleep, Nancy. There is nothing we can do until tomorrow morning. I will go see Judge Patterson and try to get him out on bail."
My Mamma said; "He's going to be the death of me, Bill. I can't take much more of his Helling around and getting in trouble. All he does is run after that old whore. He ain’t got the sense God gave a goose when it comes to that woman."
I listened to hear more, but Mamma lowered her voice. I couldn't wait to grow up and start "helling around" and "running after some old whores." I wasn't sure what that meant, but it sounded pretty good to me! After all, wasn’t that what men were supposed to do? That’s what I thought, anyway, from listening to mama talking about my brother.
I crawled into the bed by my brother Paul, where Tom had just left, and got as close to him as I dared. Paul was big, and if he rolled on me it would probably kill me, which is why I slept on the floor by myself, while Paul and Tom shared the bed. I was too skinny to sleep with Paul.
"This is sure better than that old floor," I thought to myself as my brain went hazy with sleep. When I woke up my brother Paul was already gone to his job loading coal.
I lay in bed listening to the low sound of my parents talking in the kitchen. My Mamma was cooking fatback and biscuits, and I could smell the coffee brewing in an open pot on the wood stove. The cooking smells filled up the room where I was still in bed and made me hungry for breakfast. Mama was a good cook.
I vaguely recalled the previous night's events, as I realized I was in the bed instead of on my pallet on the floor. I stepped onto the cold wood floor and pulled my bib overhauls on and put on my tennis shoes.
I was still too skinny to wear regular pants, with a belt, but Mamma had promised to buy me a pair in Harlan if she could find some in my size, which was the super skinny size. I hated being little, and ate all I could to grow and get bigger.
The coal mines were working steady, and my Dad was bringing home a regular paycheck, so we all had enough to eat, and money left for some new clothes every now and then. I wanted to wear pants with a belt more than anything else, so I would look grown up, and like the other boys in the blue diamond mining camp.
I was the skinniest boy in our family, and I sure was tired of being skinny. I walked around all day practicing "dynamic tension" like the bodybuilders in the magazines showed you how to do. I would hold my muscles as tightly as I could, and then slowly relax them.
I did that for about a year, and I was beginning to see some muscles, but nobody else could see them yet. I didn’t care if they didn’t see them, since I knew they were bigger than last year. My sisters and brothers just couldn’t see too well.
"David, go outside and get some more wood for the fire, so your Mother can finish cooking," my Dad said to me. He sat at the table, drinking coffee.
"Here, son, you can have this piece of bacon to eat until breakfast is ready," Mamma said, as she handed me a slice of fatback bacon. I sure loved bacon for breakfast.
I headed out the door before my Dad could think of some more chores for me. I picked up a load of wood and took it in the house to the kitchen, and then went back out for some coal for the stove.
It was dangerous to stay around Dad when he was home, because he always had chores for you to do. He thought doing chores was good for boys, probably a lot better than playing cowboys and Indians or something.
I wandered around to the front yard to see if anything was going on, even though it was too early for most people to be up. None of my friends were outside playing. I saw the man who rented our house next door, Charlie, outside working on his car.
He had his head stuck down under the hood doing stuff to the motor of the car. I walked over to him and said "what are you doing, Charlie?" I could see he was working on his car, but asked anyway.
Charlie raised his head and gave me a mean look. Charlie didn't like kids, me especially! He didn’t have any kids at home. He may have killed all he had, I thought.
"I am milking a cow, boy, what does it look like?"
"You aint milking no cow, I know better than that. You are trying to fix that old car," I answered. Did he think I was dumb or something?
"You don’t know nothing boy, you are just a dumb little kid that is always bothering people," Charlie said in a nasty voice. "Get away from me and go back in the house." He went back to working under the hood of the old beat up car.
"I do know stuff, I know more than you know about some stuff," I said. Old Charlie was a mean old bastard, I thought to myself. I really hated old Charlie.
"You are ignorant, boy. You don’t know anything that I don’t know, about anything," Charlie said in his meanest voice. He peered at me with his eyes all squinted up.
Now I was getting mad. I wondered what I could know that old Charlie didn't? "I know the law came and got my brother Tom last night," I said triumphantly.
Charlie rose up and looked at me with his mean little eyes again, and said "you are crazy, boy. No law came here last night, I would have heard them if they had. Who told you that lie, boy? Tom is right there in the house, because I see his car."
Tom's car was parked where it always was. I knew Tom was gone to jail, though, and Charlie didn’t.
"Now get out of here and let me work," he said as he turned back to his car's engine. I went to the coal pile and filled up the coalscuttle, and went back in the house and into the kitchen.
I was thinking of how to fix Charlie! I would tell Mamma what had happened.
My mother was kneading dough for the biscuits at the stove, and my Dad was reading the bible at the table and drinking coffee. Mama always made two pans of biscuits, because she had so many children to feed.
"What took you so long, boy, don't you know your mother needs that coal for cooking?” Dad said to me.
Mamma took the coal and put some into the stove, and then went back to making her next pan of breakfast biscuits.
"Charlie said you are a liar, Mamma," I said to her. She turned and looked at me in amazement, and said "what?"
"Charlie said you were a liar," I repeated. I was watching to see what she would do. Mamma had a terrible temper, you see.
What she did was stop kneading dough and just stand there for a minute, like she had been hit with a big stick in the head. That amazed look held promise for Old Charlie! I could hardly wait.
She looked at me questioningly, her hands now stopped and still in the dough. She looked like a thunder cloud ready to burst open. I couldn't wait to tell her more.
"What did you say?" she asked me. She had a questioning look on her face. That look meant she didn’t believe what she had heard.
"Charlie said you were lying about Tom getting arrested, Mommy." Mamma went rigid went indignation and anger, and her face turned bright red.
"That long headed son of a bitch had the nerve to call me a liar? Goddamn his eyes, I'll show him who to call a liar!"
The biscuit bowl and dough dropped to the floor as Mamma snatched off her apron and headed for the kitchen door, still muttering threats against Charlie.
My Dad had sat still as a mouse, like Mamma’s anger, and the bowl of bread dough dropping, and the apron shedding, had hypnotized him. Now he shook his head like he was waking up from a dream.
"Now, Nancy, don't go off half-cocked on what a little boy says. I'll talk to Charlie and find out what he said. Just wait a minute...."
It was too late, because Mamma was out the door and in the back yard, heading toward the front yard. I followed at a safe distance, or what I thought was a safe distance.
You could never tell with Mamma when she was mad. She was in one of her real "mad spells" now. I knew there would be fireworks soon.
There might not be any safe place if she ever turned her attention to you. By this time she was dancing up and down with rage, and it was scary. But I wanted to hear what she would say to that old Charlie, so I followed her as closely as I dared.
"Don't get too close to her, she might kill me, too" I thought.
She might even scalp old Charlie, after all she was part Indian, and kin to Jesse James, and who knew what a wild Indian would do to someone who called her a liar?
"I wish she had a gun, now. Then she could shoot Charlie dead."
I wished my sisters were out of bed, too, so they could see what was going to take place, but it was Saturday and they were sleeping in. Too bad for them!
Oh, well, I would get to tell them the whole story when it was over, and maybe be the center of attention.
"Mamma, do you want me to get the shotgun for you?" I asked eagerly. Dad had a shotgun in the closet, which I would be happy to bring to her if she wanted me to.
"I don't need no shotgun for that skinny, longheaded son of a bitch." She was looking around the yard for a weapon of some kind, and her eyes found the old toy wagon axle that was lying on the ground.
Oh, Wow, Lord YES! That ought to kill him, I thought to myself, as she looked at the axle.
She picked it up and hefted it a couple times and then held it behind her back as she walked toward Charlie, who was still bent down under his car hood.
I fell behind her another step, since I didn't want to get hit with that wagon axle by accident. I had seen Mamma do some weird things when she was mad, and it was best to give her lots of room.
I could hear my Dad coming through the yard behind us to try to stop Mamma, but she was already up to Charlie. She approached him from the side, without slowing down at all. Man, was she moving!
"Turn around, you bastard, and I'll show you who to call a liar."
Charlie turned at the sound of Mamma's voice, and started to straighten up from the car motor. He had a silly grin on his face, which I believe he thought would placate Mamma. He should have known better than that.
"Now, Nancy, I didn't call you no liar exactly. I just said you..."WHAM" The wagon axle landed smack on top of Charlie's head as Mamma delivered a beautiful overhand blow like she was chopping wood. "That's my Mamma," I thought.
Charlie straightened up to his full height and half way raised his hands as if to ward off the blow. His eyes rolled up in his head until only the whites showed and he fell like a ton of bricks. Charlie lay flat on his back in the dirt. He looked dead to me!
"Old Charlie is dead for sure," I screamed. Suddenly my Dad had hold of Mamma's arm and was taking the axle from her. She gave it to him without argument.
"Nancy, you damn fool, what if you have killed him over something a little boy said?" Mamma looked down at Charlie and quickly tried to give him a kick in the head, before Daddy could pull her away. Daddy picked her up and carried her away from him and set her down about five feet away before she could connect. Daddy was no fun at all.
Darn it all to heck, I wanted her to give him a couple of extra hard kicks to make sure he was good and dead.
"Get me some cold water and a towel," Dad said to my sister Mabel, who had come out to see what the commotion was about, as he examined the large gash on the still "knocked out" Charlie's head.
"Let the fool die," Mamma said, as cool as an Indian cucumber, as she turned and headed back to the kitchen to finish cooking breakfast.
My sister Mabel ran to get a rag and some water for Daddy to fix Charlie's head.
When she got back Charlie was sitting up and looking around, like he was in a daze. He was bleeding really badly, and I thought he might still die, if I was lucky.
I could tell everyone I had seen a man die, and that my own Mamma had killed him. I would be the only boy in those parts of Kentucky to see his Mamma kill a man!
Charlie was now talking to my Dad, and it looked like he would live. “Damn a Bear to Hell, Old Charlie is alive,” I thought. That blow should have killed him!
Old Charlie never to tried to get revenge on Mamma for hitting him with that old wagon axle, and I guess he figured he was pretty lucky to be alive.
He probably also knew that if he tried to pay Mamma back Daddy would really kill him, if she didn't, to finish the axle hitting business. If Mamma had swung a little harder, Charlie would be dead and there would be nothing to worry about. But old Charlie lived.
Charlie moved from the mining camp shortly after that, and I heard my Daddy telling Mamma that Charlie had gotten saved, became a Preacher, and was now preaching in the Pentecostal Church.
"If that skinny, long headed bastard is a preacher, I am a Holy Saint," Mamma said.
I never quite knew what she meant by that, but I wasn't about to question her, either. Mama didn’t have much patience with questions from little boys.
Mamma always stayed the same, mean as a snake if you crossed her, but good to a fault with her kids. Everyone in the hollow knew you better not call Nancy Rains a liar, if you valued your life. Nobody ever did, either, at least, to my knowledge. I know I never did!