Stormy WeatherA Novel
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Paulette Jiles
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780060537326
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. The 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 race-horse.