Goat Tight and Bull High

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Donnis plans to raid Mr. Elton’s watermelon patch tonight, Harry.”

I looked up at Burnice wondering what I should do with that piece of information.

It was the summer of 1947. As teenagers, our ages sat right in the middle of unpredictability. As the oldest of the group at 17, my opinion carried a little more weight – a fallacy in itself.

We’d had a favorable spring for watermelons in East Texas, and almost every farm had an acre or two interspersed among their fields of cotton and corn.

Watermelons belong to the gourd family, and propitious rains had produced a bumper crop of red- and yellow-meated fruit. Eight to 10 melons clustered on each vine, and some of them weighed as much as 50 or 60 pounds. Picked when ripe, they were sweet out to the rind.

This late Saturday evening I was in our barn milking when Burnice stuck his head in the stall door. He still had a slight headache from watching the Saturday afternoon double feature at the picture show in town. I knew he had dropped by to check on my plans.

“How do you know that, Burnice?” I asked, getting up, walking out to the sweet gum tree and flipping the calf rope loose so the calf could nurse what I’d left for him.

“I saw Donnis in town at the picture show. He’s got a cousin spending the weekend, and he told me they planned to hit Mr. Elton’s patch tonight.”

“What do you want to do – see if we can get invited?”

“I’m kinda burned out on watermelons,” Burnice replied. “Besides, Donnis will tell us scene by scene the Western he saw, and I’ve already seen it. I don’t want to listen to him.”

“Me neither,” I said, handing Burnice a bucket of milk to carry and heading for the house. “What do you want to do tonight?”

“I don’t know. We could go over to Donnis’s after they get back.”

“What’s his cousin’s name?”

“Jason something – I don’t know.”

Both of us rummaged around in our empty heads but failed to come up with anything. It certainly didn’t enter our minds, or prick our consciences, that sneaking into someone’s watermelon patch and stealing two or three watermelons was wrong. In fact, our view came from the opposite position. We considered it a right of passage – something a boy had to do to say goodbye to comic books and hello to shaving.

An idea suddenly visited Burnice. “I tell you what,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “If we’re not going to join them, let’s sabotage them.”

“I’m afraid to ask, but what does that mean?”

As his enthusiasm grew, Burnice said, “Let’s get to Mr. Elton’s patch before they do tonight and scare the bejeebers out of them.”

The more I thought about this idea, the more excited I got. Within seconds I said, “Let’s do it!”

Burnice had a 16-gauge Winchester pump shotgun that held seven shells, and I had a 20-gauge Remington pump that held five. Our plan couldn’t have been simpler – we would be hiding in the watermelon patch when they arrived. We’d fire 12 rounds in the air as fast as we could. They would think Mr. Elton was the one shooting and would begin searching their bodies for blood and pellet holes. They might even try to give up. But who could they surrender to?

Semidarkness had moved in when, carrying fully loaded weapons with the safety on, of course, we arrived at the barbed-wire fence that protected Mr. Elton’s watermelons. The fence was built to last with braced corner posts and holes that went deep into the ground. The posts, spaced 8 feet apart, had been cut and split from oak trees. Several strands of four-point barbed wire were attached, stretched so tight the wire didn’t give at all when pushed against. It could be called a masterpiece of construction – what some would describe as “goat tight and bull high.” When I asked what “goat tight” meant, the answer came back that if you threw a bucket of water against it, it was “goat tight” only if no water went through.

By the time we got across the fence, the night had turned black – no moon or stars. There wasn’t any need to hide, but we concealed ourselves in a patch of persimmon sprouts. Our ears were our sole source of information. We couldn’t see our hands before our faces.

“How they going to get through that fence and find a watermelon in this pitch black?” Burnice whispered.

“Maybe they won’t show,” I whispered back.

We waited.

Suddenly we heard hushed voices and barbed-wire squeaking. The thieves had arrived.

Since Mr. Elton’s fence was goat tight and bull high, we had decided to wait about 30 seconds after they breached the fence to be sure they were well inside the watermelon patch.

One, two, three . . . 28, 29, 30. Burnice fired first – all seven rounds as fast as he could pump. I followed with my five rounds as fast as I could.

We heard feet pounding and a high-pitched yell. “Have mercy!” someone screamed into the night. Grunts and garbled curses followed. Then there was the fence. The taut barbed wires gave off a high-pitched vibrating squeal that must have traveled a mile through the night. Next, as clear as a bell, we heard a plaintive plea issued with the melancholy of a last prayer, “Wait on me, I’m hung … Wait! … Wait!”

Finally, quiet settled over the watermelon patch. In real time probably no more than a minute had passed. The fence had been scaled. The thieves were gone, and not a single watermelon purloined.

Burnice and I rolled around on the ground for several minutes before we could get our laughter under control. We giggled about it all the way home, slapping each other on the back and breaking out in fits of laughter.

We didn’t see Donnis until the next weekend. He had scratches on his face and along his arms. His movements appeared a little slow and stiff.

He didn’t explain, and we didn’t say anything for awhile. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. I said, “What happened?” pointing at the scratches on his arm.

Donnis hesitated and then grinned. “Oh, I got into a fight.”

I could tell he was prepared and ready to give details how he had won, but Burnice fooled him by asking, “Who won, you or the fence?”

Donnis stared at both of us for a long time – but he didn’t ask, and we didn’t tell.

Later, after Burnice and I had time to rehash what we had done, we felt a tinge of guilt. After all, with friends like us, who needs enemies?

Harry Noble is a native Texan, growing up on a 300-acre farm. His first career was in computers, and his second career as a writer and historical researcher is going strong.