A Voice From the Woods

WILLIAM HUMPHREY was born in Clarksville, Texas, in 1924. His first book THE LAST HUSBAND AND OTHER STORIES, WQS published in 1953; five years later, his novel, HOME FROM THE HILL, which appeared under the Knopf imprint, received wide critical acclaim. Mr. Humphrey is now living in Europe.

SSH! Listen,” says my wife. “You hear? Listen.”

“What?” says my mother.

“Hear what?” say I.

“Ssh! There. Hear it? An owl. Hooting in the daytime.”

Then I do hear: a soft hollow note, like someone blowing across the lip of a jug: hoo-oo, hoo-hoo-hoo; hoo-oo, hoo-hoo-hoo.

A ghostly sound, defying location, seeming in Successive calls to come out of the woods from all points of the compass. Near at hand one moment, far away and faint the next, barely audible, the echo of an echo. It is not an owl. Yet it cannot be what it is. Not here. So far from home. It comes again, this time seeming to sound not outside me but inside myself, like my own name uttered in a once familiar, long-dead voice, and my mother says, “Owl? That’s no owl. Why, it’s a —”

“A mourning dove!” say I.

It is the sound, the solitary sound, save for the occasional buzz, like an unheeded alarm clock, of a locust, of the long hot somnolent summer alternoons of my Texas boyhood, when the cotton fields shimmered white-hot and in the black shade of the pecan trees bordering the fields the Negro pickers lay napping on their sacks and I alone of all the world was astir, out with my air rife hunting doves I never killed, gray elusive ghosts I never could locate. I would mark one down as it settled in a tree (I remember the finicking way they had of alighting, as if afraid of soiling their feet) and would sneak there and stand listening, looking into the branches until I grew dizzy and confused. I would give up and move on‚ and at my back the bird would come crashing out of the branches sounding its other note, a pained squeak, and wobble away in drunken flight and alight in another tree and resume its plaint, They favored cedars, at least in my memory, and cedars in turn favored burial grounds, so that I think of the dove’s whispered dirge as the voice of that funereal tree. It would be one of those breathless afternoons when the sun cooks the resin from the trunks of pines and sweet gums and the air is heavy, almost soporific with the scent. Heat waves throbbed behind the eyes. The fields were empty, desolate. High overhead a buzzard wheeled. The world seemed to have died, and in the silence the dove crooned its ceaseless inconsolable lament: hoo-oo, hoo-hoo-hoo; hoo-oo, hoo-hoohoo.

“A what? Mourning dove?” my wife says. “I never knew we had them here.” Here being among the budding sugar maples and the prim starched white paper birches in the bustle and thaw of a crisp New England spring.

“I never knew you did either,” says my mother. “What is a mourning dove doing way off up here?”

“What are you doing way oil up here?” I say.

For my mother, too, has left Texas, lives out in Indianapolis. Now she has come on her annual visit to us. We sit on the sun porch, rushing the season a bit. As always, we two have fallen to reminiscing of Blossom Prairie and our life there before my father’s death, telling stories by the hour which both of us have heard and told so often now that it is the rhythm which stirs us more than the words, our tongues thickening steadily until the accent is barely intelligible to my Yankee wife, who listens amused, amazed, bewildered, bored, and sometimes appalled.

“Son, do you remember,” my mother says, “the time the bank was held up?”

I am still listening to the dove, and I have to ask her what she said. But now she is listening to the dove and does not hear me.

“The time the bank was held up? No, I don’t remember that. First time I ever heard of it.”

“Hmm? What did you say? First time you ever heard of what?”

“Of the bank being held up. The bank in Blossom Prairie?”

“Really? Oh, you remember such funny things. Old Finus that used to come around to the house every afternoon selling hot tamales. Why anybody should clutter up their memory with him, I don’t know. Lord, I would never have given him another thought this side of the grave. And not remember the great bank robbery! You were old enough. You remember lots of things that happened long before that. I took you with me, and we saw the dead men lying on the sidewalk on the square. You’ve forgotten that?”

“Dead men? Lying on the sidewalk? On the square? What dead men?”

“The bank robbers. All shot dead as they came out of the bank. You don’t remember?”

“What!” says my wife. “You took a child to see a sight like —”

“That’s the kind of thing I remember. Not someone who used to come around crying ‘Hot tamales.’ Why, that was just about the biggest thing that ever happened in Blossom Prairie, I should think.”

I open more cans of beer, and she drinks and sets down the can and wipes her lips and says, “Well, it was back in the bad old days. When lots of men were out of work and some of the young ones, who had all cut their teeth on a gun, took to living by it. The age of the great outlaws, when we had Public Enemy Number One, Two, Three. In our parts Pretty Boy Floyd was carrying on. And Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.”

“Did Clyde and Bonnie stick up the bank in Blossom Prairie?”

“No, no, it wasn’t them. But it was in those days and times. No, the ones that stuck up the bank in Blossom Prairie —”

“Wait. Who was Pretty Boy Floyd?” asks my wife. “Who were Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker?”

“You never heard of them?” asks my mother, wiping away her mustache of suds.

“Now we will never get the story of the Blossom Prairie bank robbery,” say I.

“Never heard of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker? Never even heard of Pretty Boy Floyd?”

“Pretty Boy!” My wife laughs. “Pretty Boy!”

“Clyde Barrow,” I say, “was a notorious outlaw, and Bonnie Parker his gun moll. They came out of West Dallas, the real low-down tough section of the town. They tore around sticking up banks and filling stations and honky-tonks, and between them shot and killed any number of tellers and gas-pump operators and law officers in Texas in the early thirties. We used to follow the exploits of Clyde and Bonnie in the newspapers every day, like keeping up with the baseball scores. We really cannot claim Pretty Boy Floyd. He was an Oklahoma hero.”

“You’re making fun,” says my mother. “Well, no doubt they did a lot of bad things, but let me tell you, hon” — this to her daughter-in-law — “you can go back down there and out in the country and to this day you’ll find a many an old farmer will tell you he was proud to give Pretty Boy Floyd a night’s lodging when the law was hounding him down like a poor hunted animal, and more than likely they found a twenty-dollar bill under his breakfast plate after he had left the next morning. And he never got that nickname for nothing. Oh, he was a good-looking boy!”

“Well, what about the ones that held up the bank in Blossom Prairie?”

“He was a good-looking boy, too. All three of them were.”

“She just never could resist an outlaw,” I say.

THE dove calls again, and my wife says, “What a sad, lonesome sound. I hope she doesn’t come to nest around here. I wouldn’t like to listen to that all day.”

“As a matter of fact,” says my mother, “as a matter of fact, I knew one of them. Travis Winfield, his name was. He was the leader of the gang. You wouldn’t remember the Winfields, I don’t suppose? Lived in that big old yellow frame house beyond the bridge out on the old McCoy road? A wild bunch, all those Winfields, the girls as well as the boys, but good-looking, all of them, and Travis was the best-looking, and the wildest, of the lot. Well, anyway. One day when you were — oh, let’s see, you must have been six or seven, which would make it — How old are you now, hon, thirty-eight?”




“Are you sure?”

“I was. Aren’t you?”

“Oh, you! Well, anyway, it was during the summer that you had your tonsils and adenoids out. Remember? We were living at the time in Mr. Early Ellender’s little cottage out on College Avenue. I had that little old Model A Ford coupé that your daddy had bought me.”

“Was there a college in Blossom Prairie?” my wife asks.


“Well, you were just getting over that operation, and that’s how you happened to be at home at the time and not off somewhere or other out of call. It was around eleven o’clock in the morning. I remember I was fixing dinner when the telephone rang. . . . No, honey, there wasn’t any college in Blossom Prairie. It was just a little bitty old place — though it was the county seat, and we all thought we were really coming up in the world when we left the farm and moved into town. It was so little that his daddy used to come home for his dinner every day. What you call lunch. . . . Well, the telephone rang and it was Phil. ‘Hop in your car and come right down!’ he said. ‘They’ve just shot and killed three men robbing the bank !’ ”

“Then why was it called College Avenue? That doesn’t make much sense.”

“Don’t ask me. I just grew up there.”

“Well, but didn’t it ever occur to you to wonder why they would call it that when there wasn’t any —”

“Now, here is what had happened. These four men — ”

“Three, you just a minute ago said.”

“I said three were killed. These four men had been camping out down in Red River Bottom and— However, I better start with the woman. There was this woman, see. She had come into town about a month before. A stranger. She took a house, and she gave herself out to be a widow woman interested in maybe settling in the town and opening some kind of business with the money her husband had left her. And she had a husband, all right, but she was no widow, nor even a grass widow. That came out at the trial. In fact, her husband showed up at the trial. When the judge sentenced her to eighteen years in the penitentiary this man stood up in the courtroom and said, ‘Mildred! I’ll still be waiting for you!’ And she said, ‘You’ll wail a lot longer than any eighteen years!’ And as they were taking her away he yelled, ‘Mildred ! Darling! I forgive you!’ Meaning he forgave her for leaving him and running off with Travis. And that she-devil turned and told him I-can’t-tell-you-what that he could do with his such-and-such forgiveness, right there in front of the judge and jury and the whole town and county. And still the poor fool did not give up but went round to the jailhouse and yelled up at the window of her cell until finally she came to the bars. And do you know what she told him was the one thing he could do that might win her back? — and this, you understand, would be after waiting for her to come out of the penitentiary for eighteen years. To get a gun and go shoot the one that had told on them to the law and had got the lover that she had run off with killed. However, it was not him that did it.”

“That did what? Wait. I don’t—”

“She was a cutter! Well, shortly after coming to town she went to the bank one day and opened an account. The very next day she was back and said she had changed her mind and wanted to draw her money out. They asked her why, and she said she had had her money in a bank once that had been held up, and she seemed to imply that that bank had looked a lot stronger than what she saw of ours. This piqued the manager, and he took her on a tour of the place to convince her that her money was safe with them, showing her all the strong-vaults and the time locks and the burglar alarm system and how it worked and whatnot. Besides, he said, there never had been any bank robberies in Blossom Prairie. So he convinced her, and she said she would let her money stay. After that she would come in every so often and make a deposit or a withdrawal, and she got to know the layout of the bank. She was making a map of it at home, and after each trip she would go and fill it in some more and correct any mistakes she had made in it. That way, too, she came to know when the big deposits were made by the business firms and the big-scale farmers and when there was always the most cash on hand in the bank.

“Meanwhile, she wasn’t spending much time in that house in town. She told her neighbors — and of course they told everybody and his dog — that she still hadn’t made up her mind to settle in Blossom Prairie and was looking over other spots around the county before deciding. She was seen on the road a lot, and she was a demon at the wheel. I was a pretty hot driver my own self, but —

“Was! You still are. You scare me half to death.”

“Well, that redheaded woman handled a car like no other woman and few men that I ever saw. In town she would spread her shopping over all the grocery stores so it wouldn’t look like she was buying more food than a lone woman could eat, and she bought a good deal of bootleg liquor too, it came out later, and she would fill up the car and slip off down to Red River Bottom where Travis and his gang were camped out, though of course nobody knew that at the time. Whenever any squirrel hunter would happen to come up on them Travis kept out of sight, as he was the only local boy among them, and the other three made out that they were a hunting party too.

“TRAVIS had been gone from home for some years, and everybody had pretty well forgotten him, except for maybe a couple of dozen girls who would have liked to but couldn’t. Word would get back every now and again of some trouble he had gotten into and gotten himself out of. Now he had rounded up this gang and come back to rob the bank in his old hometown. But though he had grown up there, he had to have that woman, or somebody, to draw him a map of it, for I don’t suppose poor Travis had ever set foot in it in his life.

“All the while that he was holing up down there in the woods laying his plans Travis had living with him in that tent and eating and drinking with him one man who was in constant touch with the sheriff. He had told him all about that woman and about that map she was drawing of the bank and every little detail and switch in their plans. Imagine it? Living with three men for a whole month and letting on to be their friend, listening to them plan how they’ll do this and do that to get the money and make their getaway, and knowing all the while that they were walking into a death trap that he himself had set, for pay, and that they were doomed to die as surely as if he himself had pulled the trigger on them? I’m not saying that what they were meaning to do was right, you understand. But can you just feature a skunk like that?

“I and Phil must have been just about the only people in town that didn’t know the bank was set to be robbed that Monday morning. The sheriff had gone out and hired eight extra deputies, old country boys, good shots, squirrel hunters, and had them waiting, each with a thirty-thirty rifle, on the roofs of the buildings on each corner across the street from the bank, the old Ben Milam Hotel and the other, well, office buildings, stores downstairs on the street and doctors’ and lawyers’ offices upstairs, four stories high. The tellers in the bank had all been told not to put up any resistance but to give them what they asked for, to fill up their sacks for them, they’d have it all right back. The tip-off man was to wear something special. I seem to recall he wore a sailor straw hat, so they would recognize him and not shoot him.

“You remember, the bank in Blossom Prairie sits on the northwest corner of the square. The street that goes out to the north, Depot Street, goes past the cotton compress and over the tracks and past the icehouse and toward the river. That would be the street they would come in on. The one going out to the west went past your daddy’s shop and over the creek and on out of town in the direction of Paris. Down this street that morning, headed toward the square, came a wagon loaded high with baled hay. On the wagon seat, dressed up in overalls and a twenty-five-cent hardwarestore straw hat, sat Sheriff Ross Shirley, and under the seat lay a sawed-off pump shotgun. At twenty minutes to eleven he set his team in motion with a flick of the reins. A moment later a car came round the corner and pulled up alongside the curb, and four men got out and ducked into the bank. As soon as they were inside, the sheriff says ‘Come up’ to his team, and up on the rooftops the rifle barrels poke over the walls and point down, followed by the heads of those eight deputies. The woman was driving, and she stayed in the car, keeping the engine idling. The wagon came down the street toward her, rattling over those old bois d’arc paving bricks, until it got to just a little ways in front of the car. There suddenly the left rear wheel flew off the axle, the load of hay came tumbling down, scattering clear across the street, bales bouncing and breaking apart, the street completely blocked. The woman in the car made a sudden change in plans. She threw into reverse and backed around the corner into Depot Street, thinking that now, instead of going out by the Paris road, they would have to cross the square and go out by the southwest. Then she sees ahead of her a man fixing a flat tire on a big delivery van out in the middle of the street halfway down the block. This meant, she thought, that she would have to cut diagonally across the square, through the traffic and around the plaza and out by the southeast corner. She didn’t know it, but they had her cut off there, too. In another minute or so the men burst out of the bank carrying the sacks.

“The moment they stepped out the door it began to rain bullets on them. Those that were on the square at the time said it sounded like a thunderclap had broken overhead. You couldn’t count the separate shots, they said. The bullets chewed holes in the cement sidewalk. The men must have all died in the first volley, but the deputies poured another round and then another into them as they went down. The fourth man had fallen a step behind, deciding not to trust everything to that sailor straw hat, maybe thinking they would just as soon not pay that reward, and when the noise broke he dived back into the bank. He had cast a quick look up above as he came out, and that woman in the car must have seen it. In any case, when he didn’t come out with the rest a thousand things that she must have noticed at the time and shaken off suddenly added up like a column of figures in her mind. She didn’t even try to run. She jumped out of the car and up onto the curb, swooped down and pried the pistol from the stillclutching hand of one of the bandits, and stepped over the body in the doorway into the bank. By then the sheriff was one step behind her. He grabbed her and took the gun away from her and held her until help came. She was more than he could manage alone. They said it was all four big strong men could do to keep her from getting at that one and clawing his eyes out, and then when they dragged her outside she broke away and threw herself on the body in the doorway, crying, ‘Travis! Travis! Speak to me, Travis!’ They had taken her away and taken away the informer too, and locked him up for his own protection by the time we got there, but the bodies were still lying on the sidewalk where they had fallen.”

“Taking a little six-vear-old child to see a sight like that!” my wife says, shaking her head.

“It was a terrible sight to see. Three strong young men cut off in the very Maytime of life, shot down like mad dogs before they even knew what was happening to them. I was sorry I had come. I wasn’t going to look any closer. I tried to back out of the crowd. Then Phil said, ‘My Lord! Why, ain’t that one there that Winfield boy, Travis?’ Oh‚ what a funny feeling came over me when I heard Phil say that!”

“Why, had you known him pretty well?”

“Yes. In fact — well, in fact, I had gone with Travis Winfield for a time, before I married your daddy.”

“You had!”

“In fact, Travis Winfield had once asked me to marry him‚ He was not a bad boy then. Wild, yes, but not mean, not any gangster. I — I thought about it a while before I turned him down. That stung him. and he didn’t ask me a second time. I was just as glad. Oh, he was a goodlooking boy. I don’t know what I might have said a second time. Well, he had quickly forgotten me and I had gone out with other boys and in time had met and married Phil, your daddy, and wasn’t ever sorry that I had. But I want you to know I felt mighty queer standing there looking down at poor Travis — he was still handsome, even there in the dirt and all bloodied — lying on the common sidewalk with people staring at him and thinking of that wild woman who had loved him so and had shared his wild life and now being dragged off to prison, and I was glad to have you there to hold on to. It was a comfort to me then to have my own child to hold on to his hand.”

SILENCE falls, and in it the dove utters again its dolorous refrain.

“My daddy and my brothers disapproved of Travis Winfield. I think — apart from the fact that I was infatuated with his reputation for wildness, and his good looks — I think I probably went with him mainly just to devil my brothers a bit, let them all worry over me a little maybe, at least give them some reason for all that concern over my reputation. I don’t believe I was ever really serious about him, and I never thought he was serious about me, partly because there were already lots of stories of other girls he hadn’t been serious over. So I was taken by surprise when he asked me that day to marry him. I told him I would give him my answer next week. I knew then what it would be, but I suppose I wanted a week of thinking of accepting what I knew I was going to turn down.

“You remember, honey, out back of my old home that little family graveyard where all my folks are buried? It was there that Travis Winfield proposed to me. I said to meet me there again next Sunday and I would give him my answer I remember waiting for him to come. You know how still it can be on a farm on a Sunday afternoon. The only sound for miles around as I sat waiting for him was the cooing of a dove. I sat there thinking, I’m going to turn him down, of course, but what if I was not to? What if I was to say yes? What would my life be like?

“There are people just born for trouble, you know; Travis Winfield was one of them. It was written all over him in letters like headlines. Wild. Stubborn. Headstrong. Full of resentment against those who had all the things he didn’t have. Proud. Vain. Believing the world owed him a living for the sake of his pretty face. No one woman could ever hope to hold him for long. After a time she wouldn’t even want to keep on trying, unless she was an utter fool. But certainly life with Travis wouldn’t be dull. It would be different from life on the farm, or in Blossom Prairie in a bungalow that had to be swept out and dusted every day.

“But I knew what I was going to say, and I said it. And maybe Travis wasn’t sorry to hear it. Maybe during the week he had begun to wish he hadn’t asked me. Most likely it was just his pride. He wasn’t used to having a girl say no to anything he wanted. In any case, he didn’t ask me again, and I was glad he didn’t. He just gave me a hot look and turned and left. After he was gone I sat there a long time listening to the mourning dove. I never saw him again until that day on the square. It’s years now since I even thought of Travis Winfield. It was hearing that mourning dove that brought it all back to my mind.”

We sit listening for some time to its call. Then something alarms it, and though we do not see it we hear the thrashing of its wings among the branches and its departing cry.

“Who did shoot the one who told?” I ask.

“Oh, yes, him. The trustees of the bank voted him a big reward, but he never got to spend it. They found him a week later floating in the river, though it was a wonder, with all the lead he had in him. It was generally known to be the work of that Winfield tribe, but they could never prove it. Never tried any too hard, I don’t suppose.”

I make a move to rise, but seeing her face I sit down again. Brushing back a strand of her cottonwhite hair, my mother says, “Aren’t people funny? There in his blood lay Travis, whom I had forgotten, dead, and deservedly so, I suppose, if any man deserves it. There was I, happy, with a good, loving husband and a decent home and a smooth, even life ahead of me and my own child’s hand in mine. And yet, thinking of that redheaded woman — even then, on her way to prison — I felt, well, I don’t know what else to call it if not jealousy. Isn’t that crazy? What did she have? Nothing, less than nothing, and I had everything. It only lasted a moment, you understand, yet it comes back to rue even now, and if it wasn’t jealousy, then I don’t know what else to call it.”