This excerpt comes from Chapter One of Steven L. Parker’s novel, BS, published by Red Dirt Press of Shawnee, Oklahoma, released in June 2015. Parker serves as an Appellate Judge for the Southern Plains Region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and as District Judge for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. A lawyer by trade, he is a graduate of Northeastern Oklahoma State University and The University of Oklahoma College of Law. He resides with his wife, Shirley, in Tecumseh, Oklahoma.
On this first day of July in the year of our Lord, 1975, two young men sat in a battered, honey mustard 1970 Ford Maverick and discussed their immediate future. The unremarkable building in front of them proclaimed the business it housed as Sam’s Bar and Drive-in. Carhops in tight shorts and revealing blouses served beer to customers, soda pop (a rare order at Sam’s unless used as a chaser) and sandwiches, usually hamburgers. A sign on the curve a half-mile away proclaimed, WELCOME TO CROW, FOUR THOUSAND FRIENDLY PEOPLE AND TEN OLD GROUCHES. The local Chamber of Commerce was certain the sign was one of the most innovative and original in the Sooner State.
The young men were drinking beer and planning their future in the farthest corner of the state bordered on the east by Arkansas and on the south by Texas. Oklahoma state loyalty was not a priority in this part of the Sooner state. All television programs seen by the local citizens originated from Texarkana, a city on the Arkansas-Texas line with citizens in both states, or from nearby Shreveport, Louisiana. Locals were much more likely to find their achievements recorded in the Texarkana Gazette, if at all, than in the Daily Oklahoman or the Tulsa World, both located far outside the Texarkana trade area.
Some of the citizens remembered a Daily Oklahoman reporter appearing when the courthouse collapsed in 1962, and for some manhunts of criminal perpetrators in the mountains nearby. Until Weyerhaeuser, the “tree growing company,” moved into this part of the state, the forests were a true wilderness from which a knowledgeable local could remain out of the reach of the authorities until he grew tired of the chase. One such fugitive deserted the military during World War II and was never captured. He turned himself over to the authorities after the Vietnam War ended, creating a public relations dilemma for the U.S. Army who preferred he remain hidden, unknown and unseen. Should the deserter be pardoned, the rationale being the time he spent cowering and hiding in those rugged hills was sufficient time served away from society, or should the full weight of the U.S. government be brought to bear on the McCurtain County opposite of Sergeant York?
Instead of cowering and hiding, the former soldier had been living his life, oblivious to any search allegedly being held concerning his whereabouts. After two or three days, publicity in the state’s two major newspapers fell off. The story died and no one in the area knew (or cared) what happened to the deserter. Now, the tree growing company brought their clear cutting philosophy to the former wilderness, expending its best efforts to change the formerly pristine Ouachita National Forest habitat to a man-made rural slum.
“I don’t want to be Jesse James,” Luther James, one of the two occupants–better known as “Bugger” to the citizenry of Crow–stated to his companion, Joe Burk. “I’m afraid we’re gonna get caught, Brains.”
Burk had told Bugger that his prison nickname was Brains, and it amazed him how Bugger not only believed it, but used the nickname unsparingly. He’d also just told Bugger that he was going to make him the second Jesse James. Burk hesitated, taking a swallow of the Budweiser the carhop brought before answering his companion. Burk had been a stellar performer on Crow’s football, basketball and baseball teams in earlier years, but his luck soured after he left high school. He had just recently been released from the state penitentiary system but was still on parole, which meant the State of Oklahoma was still monitoring his activities. He was reporting regularly to a probation officer, and more irritating to Burk, was having to pay a $40 fee every month, money that could have been used to buy beer, chase girls, or do anything worthwhile-anything but pay it just to see the wimpy bureaucrat who sang the same song every month;
He watched the stocky, chesty carhop swish toward another car on the other side of the large parking lot outside Sam’s Drive-in and Bar, and wondered momentarily if her come-on to him a few minutes before had been a part of the job, or if she was really interested. Having recently departed from the unfriendly confines of the Jess Dunn Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma, he was certainly interested if she was, even if he was currently being serviced well in that area by Bugger’s sister. Prison for the past five years had not afforded many opportunities for copulating with the opposite sex, and, contrary to public opinion, homosexuality did not appeal to many inmates incarcerated by the State of Oklahoma.
Burk glanced at Bugger, gauging the anxiety in his statement. He examined the neon lights in Sam’s sign on the well-worn roof of the block building badly in need of paint, and thought nostalgically of the days he spent as a youth at this drive-in. He began buying beer at this hangout at the age of sixteen while still in high school, which was soundly condemned on Sunday mornings by regular churchgoers in Crow, even by the worshipers who had been drinking beer at Sam’s the evening before. Burk personally believed that Crow had more than its share of churches, covering the gamut from Catholic to Baptist to Church of Christ, and every Holy Roller segment in existence.
Sam Stone, the proprietor of Sam’s was a dark-haired, stocky, muscular man who appeared to treat all of his patrons with equal disdain. Burk had seen him pull a pistol from behind the bar, and fire several shots at Moses Wills, a Choctaw Indian, and a good friend of Burk’s, who had elected to challenge Sam’s authority to eject him from the night’s activities at the bar. None of the shots hit Moses, either due to Moses’s great speed or Sam’s intentions. Sam refused to discuss his intentions, and Moses, after recovering from his initial resentment at being asked to leave, and being the target of gunshots, made the most of the event by comparing the zigzagging run to his open field runs on the gridiron while representing Crow High School some ten years before.
The Choctaw tribe was well represented in the area, having been forced into this part of Oklahoma by President Andrew Jackson via the Trail of Tears in the nineteenth century. The Choctaws had been a peaceful tribe of farmers living primarily in what is now the state of Mississippi. The black race was also well represented in this comer of the state, and Burk wondered fleetingly how many of the current Afro Americans were descendants of the slaves who worked on the Choctaw cotton farms before the American Civil War. Given the plight of most of the Choctaw Indians in this comer of the state, he could not visualize “plantations” being owned by Choctaws, but he had read about Choctaws owning slaves and fighting for the Confederacy during the conflict more than one hundred years before. Stand Watie, a Confederate general who also happened to be a Cherokee Indian, was the last Confederate general to surrender. Burk read or had been told, he couldn’t remember which, that a Choctaw Indian named Jones was the largest slave owner west of the Mississippi River before the Civil War. The tribe had certainly paid for picking the wrong side, Burk mused.
If you can maintain your perspective though, it all evens out, Burk reflected, thinking of Mose and the shooting incident. Despite the attempt to put a good face on it, this event crystallized for the patrons at Sam’s that Mose meant business when he asked you to leave. Burk never had any trouble with Sam and considered him a friend. He did not know how soon this perception would be tested. Burk knew he was one of the few patrons of the bar who was aware that Sam had an invalid wife that he had cared for more than thirty years.
During his senior year in high school, Burk worked as an usher and bouncer for the local movie theater for two reasons. It allowed him to attend all the movies shown free, and it gave him a sense of power to be able to oust unruly patrons. He developed a habit of going to the Sunday night movie because most people in the churchgoing town of Crow attended Sunday night services, including the youth, and he did not want to attend those services, not even to meet girls. Burk did not want to think of himself as a hypocrite. He also knew the best movies were usually shown on Sunday in Crow, and he could savor the movie without relating to any of his peers if he went alone. His peers went to the Sunday matinee, and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the local Dairy Freeze, or cruising.
He had noted Sam Stone also was among the few Sunday night moviegoers in the small town, and that he was always alone. On one occasion when he and Sam exited the movie together, the bar owner acknowledged their acquaintance, offering the teenager a cigarette. When Burk declined, Sam grinned and said, “Staying in trainin’?
“Naw, not really. I just don’t want one now,” Burk said, looking directly at the muscular bar owner. For reasons he did not understand, Burk felt comfortable talking to this man.
“I’ve noticed you here before on Sunday evenings. Is there a reason you don’t go in the afternoon with the rest of the kids?” Stone asked.
Burk looked at him, shoved his hands in his pockets, and thought briefly of telling him to mind his own business. He had done it before with other adults who he didn’t like, particularly when they wanted to pump him about his mother. Instead, he surprised himself by responding with uncharacteristic candor.
“Sunday night is my night to be alone. I like it,” Burk said. He took his hands out of his pockets, entwined his fingers and pulled his arms tight.
Stone examined the boy carefully, then said, “It’s my night to be alone too, but not totally by choice. My wife is an invalid who requires constant care, and this is the night her parents come to visit her.” The duo stared at each other in silence, a silence which, however was not uncomfortable to either.
“What’s the matter with he? How long has she been an invalid?” the boy asked.
It was Stone’s turn to tell him it was none of his business, but he also responded uncharacteristically. “She got hurt in a car accident about seventeen years ago, probably about the time you were born. Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you around.”
Burk understood the exchange was over. Without Sam telling him so, Burk divined that the parents wanted to visit their daughter, preferring her husband not be present. Burk wondered if Sam had caused the accident which made his wife an invalid, but did not ask him. Burk never heard Sam mention his wife at the bar, finding few people knew about her. Sam sold beer and hamburgers, was always willing to be a listener, but talked very little, and never about himself.
When Burk first appeared at the drive-in/bar after the State of Oklahoma saw fit to release him, Sam treated him like he treated the traveling pipeline construction workers, or others from Crow who had to leave to make a living. Crow was primarily an agricultural and logging community, and did not afford many opportunities for sons and daughters of families who were not large landowners, nor holders of farms or timber interests.
Burk knew Sam was aware of his recent stay in the penal system, but also knew Sam would not dwell on his ‘misfortune’ if he didn’t. Burk had no remorse about being sent to prison for grand larceny. He felt that he suffered a stroke of bad luck when he was caught collecting the proceeds from a sale of Don Wells’ calves that he and Steve Jones hauled to Ada to sell. Who would have thought that Wells kept such a close eye on the hundreds of cattle he owned and would have alerted sale barns one hundred and miles away.
My God, the man had to be crazy, Burk reasoned. After all, Wells owned a local loan company, was elder of the Church of Christ, some kind of officer with the local Chamber of Commerce, and raised registered quarter horses. Who would have believed he arose at five a.m. every morning and drove to his various holdings, counting every cow and horse? It never occurred to Burk that the drive which Wells utilized to acquire his holdings also kept him awake day and night to keep the same holdings.
Burk was not lazy, but there had never been anyone to drive him, nor to even care much whether he existed or not. The energy level and drive of a man like Wells was difficult for Burk to understand. Wells’ venom, however, regarding the thievery was something Burk could understand, even though he was the brunt of it. Burk, not being an acquirer of material things in his short life, nevertheless hated people who stole from him. He remembered the utter contempt he felt for another youngster who came from the same desperate straits as he who stole a shirt of his, and been dumb enough to wear it to school. Burk retrieved the shirt, and the thief received a valuable lesson.
After being caught with the hot cattle, Burk allowed himself to be persuaded to present his case to a jury of his peers by a young lawyer who thought he could make his reputation by winning an acquittal for the former star athlete. Burk realized too late that yesterday’s exploits counted for very little when the facts and the law were against you. The young lawyer gained some trial experience, moved to Oklahoma City, and Burk got a prison sentence.
True to the region ‘s reputation, he received a harsher sentence for cattle thievery than a killer on the same docket. He was sentenced to ten years with five years of the sentence suspended, while a killer who beat a motorist to death on the highway was fined $1,000, and given a thirty day county jail sentence; the sentences were from the same jury panel. The killer did have to surrender the pool cue he used to kill the victim.
All of the locals claimed a man would get more time from a local jury for conviction of stealing a saddle or a cow than a killer would. Lynching was preferred for horse thieves, one wag proclaimed. Burk never saw or even heard of a lynching during his short life, but was aware that a prize horse or dog were more treasured by many of the local cattlemen than their wives or sweethearts or both–or so it seemed. He was also aware of a blacktop road with a long hill leading to Little River called “Nigger Hill” because a black man was allegedly lynched there in the nineteen twenties and his body buried in the hill. Burk thought of the many times he bicycled or walked over the body in the middle of Nigger Hill, and paused a moment. Times had changed for most of the rest of the world, but not for Southeastern Oklahoma, Burk mused.
Burk–never a quitter–intended to reacquaint himself with Wells again through Wells’ loan company. Not that Burk intended to borrow money from Payday Loan Company, Wells’ operation. He intended to rob it. Burk did not harbor malice toward Wells, but an added benefit to his planned heist would be to harm Wells. The old hypocrite had been vindictive at Burk’s cattle theft trial, calling him and his accomplice “worthless scum”. Wells had been particularly vindictive toward Steve Jones, because Jones worked for him. The wealthiest man in the area believed that a less than minimum wage job should keep people grateful to him for a lifetime.
Wells should have admired my efforts at becoming an entrepreneur, Burk thought. Wells had told Steve Jones, his theft companion, on an occasion when the youngster was working for him, that to acquire money, you could inherit it, borrow it, or steal it. Burk knew that Wells inherited his wealth. Given that neither Burk nor his accomplice would ever be likely to inherit anything of value, and that no one with a grain of sense would loan either of the cattle thieves any money of consequence, Burk thought it only fitting they follow Wells’ advice, and steal.
Jones also considered their theft justified because he believed in Wells, and thought his advice sound. Jones should have known more about Wells’ habits, Burk thought. Burk remembered that Jones actually believed that, if caught, Wells would request no charges be filed against him. He remembered Wells’ tirade on the witness stand about how he’d given Jones a chance in life by hiring him, and then having his generosity rewarded by Jones stealing from him. Jones remembered the generosity otherwise; he left Wells employment because Wells deducted the cost of a shovel from his wages after the shovel handle broke when Jones was cleaning out a horse stall. Jones knew the shovel had endured many hours of use before it broke, and having to replace it with a new shovel appeared unfair to him. Nevertheless, he thought Wells would describe him, as he had in the hayfield, “the best doggone hay hand I ever had.”
Wells learned at an early age that he could pay the locals almost nothing as long as he heaped praise on their efforts. “Doggone” was as close as he got to profanity, being a Church of Christ deacon and a God-fearing man. Burk had little time for sympathy for Jones, as Wells was equally efficient at heaping scorn on him during the trial.
“Mr. Wells, you are aware that Joe Burk, one of the defendants here, represented Crow High School on the gridiron, the basketball court, and the baseball field; that his lawyer believes the jury should consider those contributions in deciding his guilt, or in imposing sentence, are you not?” the prosecutor asked Wells when he was testifying.
“Objection!” the young lawyer cried.
“Irrelevant and immaterial,” the judge said. “Overruled. You may answer,”
Wells looked at Burk slowly and then at the jury and said, “I don’t how many different kinds of balls he can play, but a thief is a thief. Christ forgave a thief on the cross, but it was after he repented. Neither of these low-lifes have repented, and my opinion is they should be hung.”
“Objection, Objection!” shouted the young lawyer.
“Sustained. The jury will disregard this witness’s last statement,” the judge declared.
“How in the hell do they do that?” Burk wondered to himself. Besides, he would have been glad to repent, even to sackcloth and ashes. He wasn’t given the chance, and both cattle thieves were treated equally, and received the same sentence.
Burk remembered his first meeting with the young lawyer who would attempt to keep him out of jail. His mother set up the meeting. Burk wasn’t sure what his mother’s relationship with John Henry James, Crow’s newest lawyer was, but Burk recalled the lawyer was more interested in his mother’s reaction to what he was telling his client than to Burk’s recounting of his recent thefts. When she hugged him enthusiastically after he agreed to defend Burk and his companion, Burk wasn’t certain he made the right decision. John Henry never discussed his fees with Burk, and his mother told him to not worry about it. Steve Jones complained bitterly about what he had to pay, before and after.
“Ah, well, maybe she got something out of it,” Burk reflected to himself while on the way to prison.
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