It was late in the fall of 1961, and I was 14 years old when I had my first hostile encounter with armed intruders on our rural acreage. My brothers and I were drawing water from the well and chopping firewood and kindling to burn in our woodstove. My mother and sisters were inside the old tin and tarpaper shack we called home. Times were hard then, but we were a close-knit family and that made up for a lot of things.
My brothers and I froze instantly at the sound of shots cracking in the frosty air. We crouched when we heard bullets whining over our heads, and we were alarmed to hear the bullets smacking into the walls of our house, sending fragments and splinters of wood flying. We were furious that someone was shooting in our direction. Our mother and sisters were inside. We didn’t know if it was intentional or not, but we knew that someone might get hurt or worse, regardless of intentions. We crept around the corner and into the house where my mother and sisters were crouched behind whatever cover they could find. I wanted to arm myself and find the shooters to stop them, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. She said that my dad would be home at any time, and that he would take care of it.
The thought of Dad coming home was an enormous comfort to all of us. There was not too much at that time in our lives that we could be sure of. But that was one thing that we were all sure of, and that was that dad would take care of it. Bullets continued to strike the house and roof, making “pock” sounds when a round struck.
There was an explosive crack followed by the tinkling of broken glass when a shot broke a window in the kitchen. We were relieved to hear my dad’s old pickup truck rattle as it turned into the driveway. When we heard the squeal of brakes, we ran out to meet him and tell him what was happening. He nodded grimly and marshaled us inside.
We hurried into the house and my dad looked at the three of us boys. Then he fetched the family rifle and loaded it. Then he loaded our single-shot 16 gauge shotgun and handed it to me. After my dad, I was the best shot in the family.
“Don’t cock it until just before you shoot,” he reminded me as he tucked some spare shells into my pocket. Then he stuck another heirloom into his belt, a Colt SAA revolver. I don’t remember the caliber.
I remember seeing my mother’s and sisters’ white faces as we moved outside. I pointed in the direction the shots came from and we moved into the thick brush, weaving from tree to tree for cover. He told me to shoot if anyone pointed a gun at me.
It is difficult to describe the feelings I had as I marched with my dad into the woods to confront armed strangers. But I was proud of the trust my dad placed in me.
The rifle he carried was an 1892 Winchester chambered in .25-20, passed down to him from my grandfather. It once belonged to an ancestor who had owned a trading post in Oklahoma Territory.
It was said that one winter night in 1890, a drunken cowboy had robbed his store at gunpoint on Christmas Eve. The ancestor, who was my grandfather’s uncle, had rushed outside and shot the robber, killing him. The stolen goods were recovered. The loss of the merchandise would have been calamitous for the family. Sometimes in the remote and harsh wilderness, frontier justice was the only justice there was. My brother still has that rifle.
Soon we heard shots and we moved toward them. My dad circled around and motioned at me, but I didn’t understand his intentions, and I stepped into a clearing on a hillside overlooking our house.
There I saw two wretched hobos who grinned at me with broken black teeth. They were obviously drunk, and both were armed with .22 rifles. There were remnants of broken whiskey bottles that had been set on stumps. Shell casings littered the ground, and behind the stumps I could see the roof of our house. I was startled too, that things had happened more quickly than I would have liked. And I wished my dad would make his presence known. Right about now would be good!
I held the shotgun pointed at the ground with my thumb on the hammer. I told them that they were trespassing, and that their rounds were hitting our house. They must have thought something was funny about that, or maybe it was my voice, which was beginning to change.
One of them laughed roughly and asked me if I knew how to dance. He made an exaggerated gesture with the rifle and I went cold and froze, thinking that they were about to shoot. Some hero I was! My heart was pounding when I cocked the hammer. The laughter stopped when he saw me raise the barrel to his chest.
His partner turned around when my dad stepped from the brush and put the Colt’s muzzle against his belly. He had slung the little Winchester over his shoulder in order to make his way quietly behind them and had emerged from the thick brush holding the Colt.
He told them that they had one chance to leave and to never come back. They both looked sick, but one of them asked if they could take their guns with them. They may have been drunk before, but they were cold sober now. They apologized profusely, claiming that they hadn’t noticed our house. We walked them to the road after unloading their rifles, and gave the guns back to them when they left.
My dad asked me if I was all right. The fact is that I was not all right until he showed up. I felt a little sick myself when I thought about what could have happened if I had been alone. For a minute I had stood alone, facing two grown men with rifles.
But it had seemed longer than that.