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acres on Acorn Ridge were as pretty as any in that neck of the woods. There was an abundance of oak trees and some blackberry bramble along the creek. The land seemed to be alive as the seasons changed throughout the years. The cycle of wildlife was a joy to behold, as various birds and critters came and went with the seasons. As winter released her frozen grip, a new birth seemed to reach upward towards the warming sun. In early spring, sentinel male Robins would arrive to stake a claim for a preferred territory, in hopes of luring a beautiful mate. At sunrise, birds of all variety sang the prettiest songs a man could ever hear. The beauty of the land and the attendant wildlife were enough to make the world forget all its worries and heartaches.
Jebediah moved onto the land later that summer and set about building a simple dwelling. It was a basic wood frame house, which he built on short stilts, to make a crawl space underneath. The house itself was small and the interior terse, but Jebediah added the luxury of both a front and a back porch. After all, from the porch you could see the land, and for a man like Jebediah it was the land that mattered. Next spring he would build a barn and repair the old back shed, which was down the hill. The back shed and the still went hand in hand, each one serving the purposes of the other.
Jebediah always said the interior of the house and all that goes with it is for women folk. Funny thing was he never understood all the attention he was getting from the women folk while he was building the house. Seemed like every girl in town was going out of her way to come by and say, “Hello!” Jebediah would stop his work to visit, and he especially liked it when a pretty young thing named Sally Mae would bring him lunch, all unexpected and the like. They would spend a good amount of time enjoying the simple fare under an apple tree, which grew in the open space that would soon be the front yard of the country house. They grew to enjoy each other’s company and the delightful times spent taking long walks along Sorghum Creek. Soon enough, they came to enjoy the immense pleasure of each other’s warm and loving embrace as they rolled together in the soft grass, which grew lush under a tall Cottonwood tree.
By the next spring, Jebediah and Sally Mae were getting hitched. They had become essential to each other’s happiness. They were already spending more time together, than apart. The wedding ceremony was held downtown, at the Pleasanton Christian Church. The preacher man made sure the proper marriage papers were signed and filed at the old County Court House. People from all over Atascosa County were in attendance. Everyone was dressed in their “Sunday go to meeting best,” as the locals called it. There was a brief ceremony where the preacher said the right words from the Good Book. Jebediah kissed his new bride and they were happily married, there and forever after.
Spontaneously, a joyous noise arose from all in attendance, filling the evening air. They all shared the bounty of good food from the abundant Earth, as a great feast of food and drink had been spread upon the table. Country singing and fiddle music played late into the night. It was as if they were all held in the enchanting glow of a beautiful waxing moon. Dancing and revelry filled every country soul as they enjoyed the bacchanal feast. Wanton pleasures were released in abundance and everyone present was smiling and laughing.
As the groom, Jebediah felt nervous and awkward, not knowing what to say to the others in attendance. Making small talk with other people was not his forte. His bride Sally Mae, on the other hand, was a radiant beauty with youthful eyes and a purposeful smile. She was every bit of 16 years old and perfectly comfortable with being the center of attention on this, her special night. As the wedding party went into full swing, jealous women folk whispered with poisoned tongues that Sally Mae was already with child. Unrepentant, the old wags would not be denied the hideous pleasure of their vicious gossip. Not that it mattered if Sally Mae was pregnant, from the moment she was married it was considered legitimate and fully acceptable. In fact, being heavy with child at the time of marriage was the norm rather than the exception, around Texas hill country.
Several generations later, Bill and Maddy Stiles gave birth to their first child, Hank, who would later come to be known by his nickname, Haybaler. The child was born on an autumn night, before winter had breathed the first frost upon the pumpkins. Crickets were signing in the grassy yard, bringing good luck to all who would listen. With the local midwife in attendance, Maddy had labored for many hours, to the point of total body exhaustion. Twilight had long ago faded into night and her labor was still progressing slowly. Maddy was nearing the point of collapsing into despondency and tears, but the midwife could now see the baby’s head crowning. “Push hard now!” and, “Keep pushing!” was the midwife’s stern command! Within moments the country house was filled with the cries of a newborn little boy, and Maddy was filled with overwhelming tears of joy. She was finally holding the child she had been longing to embrace. It seemed like the crickets had never enjoyed their singing as much as during that hour of joy and beholding.
For generations the Stiles’ family had lived in the same wood frame house, which was originally built by old Jebediah Stiles. The land and its attendant structures had been handed down from first born son to first born son, for generations. They enjoyed a simple life, but only through working the land was their prosperity maintained. For these country folk, struggling through life had always been the unquestioned norm. There was never an expectation that life would be easy. Maddy used to say, “Toil and trouble have been my only friends.”
Haybaler’s parents were poor people of poor ways. The convictions of their lifestyle were so ingrained that it was impossible to separate genetic traits from learned behaviors. Day after day, their life was something akin to an old phonograph record spinning around and around, with the needle stuck forever in the same groove. A simple back country life is all they had ever known, and they had no notion of changing to a different style of living. Nothing riled these country folk faster than to imply that they might change their ways, to doing things more like city people. “Nonsense!” they would quickly say to the notion of changing their way of life.
As day followed night, Haybaler grew from a towheaded boy into his teenage years. As a teenager he began to notice that the people in his community never changed much. Haybaler took an interest in getting to know the town folk from Pleasanton and the surrounding countryside. He was forever curious about the way men and women behaved, or misbehaved as the case may be. For instance, Miss Anne had always been a midwife. She had assisted in the delivery of Haybaler, and many other souls in the hill country. Miss Anne had one child of her own, but people said the little girl never had a daddy. Then there was Cousin Jeremy, who had never worked a day in his life, and always lived with his parents. Even after Jeremy’s parents died he continued to live in their old home. He mostly kept to himself and was not a friendly person. He lived on a welfare check and people whispered that he was touched.
Haybaler observed many other individuals as well. He understood that these hill country folk were people with seemingly separate lives, but he was forever curious about how they all interacted to make a whole community. In the midst of Haybaler’s uncertainty and doubt about this community of country souls, he was relieved by the fact that they all looked similar when they smiled. And so, from an early age he became a student of observation. A lifetime of learning and experiences lay before him.
Being the oldest of five children, Haybaler had a tendency to be the caretaker of all of his younger siblings. There were many times when he would prepare a meal for the children, because Bill was nowhere to be found and Maddy was indisposed. You see, Maddy was prone to unpredictable changes of mood. At times she was irritable and stayed up for days on end, talking non-stop. And at other times she would go to her room and stay in bed for a week or more, withdrawn from everything around her and not wanting the world. We cannot leave out those terrible times when Maddy would drink. The children learned to run for cover and hide in the crawl space under the house when mama was in the throes of drunkenness. Typically, mama woul
d drink until she passed out. The children knew this, so when things got quiet in the house, the children understood it was safe to come out from hiding, because the destructive tornado of mama’s drunken wrath had passed. After all, children are not equipped to cope with a mother whose emotions are far flung across the shores of irrational behavior.
All Maddy’s children looked the same, more or less, except for the youngest child, Little Johnny. There was an element of discord in that little one, born late in the marriage of Bill and Maddy Stiles. Surely alcohol had played a part, or was it just the case that the last child was left to fend for himself in so many ways. Bill and Maddy had lost interest in raising children by the time Little Johnny came along. Maddy said Little Johnny would just have to learn from the older kids, but he was always slow to learn. Late to the party, Little Johnny kept up with the other children as best he could.
Old Doc Roberts, Pleasanton’s country doctor, said Little Johnny was born with infantile spasms, which Maddy denies to this day. If a seizure occurred, Maddy would hold him