Watermelon Jim was as dark as midnight with gums that blazed bright red, red as the rinds on a ripe summer melon. Jim had worked with horses all his life and there was no one in the horse community of Monkton, Md., who could turn out a horse like he could. Jim had an energy in his hands that flowed through a rub-rag into the coat of a horse making each muscle shimmer like sunlight reflecting on water. His deep brown eyes could penetrate into the fragile legs of a race horse spotting a problem that no one else could see. Once discovered, he would disappear and make up a remedy that only he knew how to brew and within hours a sore leg was ready to run.

Jim was getting older now, he was in his 80s but his joy for life and good humor never diminished. He had moved to our farm a year ago and helped my mother with the five race horses we had. My father, a career military man, who had been in the service since I was born, wasn’t around much to help with the farm. The spare room off the kitchen suited Jim just fine and he enjoyed being part of our family. I would go into his room at night and sit in the big over stuffed chair and listen while Jim, sipping on a glass of straight bourbon whiskey, would tell me tales of all the famous horses he’d been around.

One night as he looked deep into the glass of liquid amber cradled in his hand, he said, “Mikey, did I ever tell about my cat Jake.”

“Nope, Jim, you never did,” I replied.

“You see I had this big old orange cat named Jake and he was always getting into things. You know how cats is, always poking their noses where they don’t belong. Well one day I opened the freezer door on the icebox to get some ice to put on a horse’s leg and I didn’t know it but that crazy cat done jumped right into the freezer. I wasn’t looking, I just kicked the door shut with my leg and went on down to the barn. About an hour later I come back up to the house and the Lord spoke to me. He just sort of whispered in my ear, ‘Jim, He said, open that freezer door,’ and so I did and there was that old orange cat stiff as a board just sitting there looking dead as Moses.

“Well I pulled him out and laid him on the kitchen table and said, ‘Jake, now you done did it.’

“All I could think to do was call Doc Waters, the vet, and ask what I should do. Old Doc Waters he’d been around for a long time but he said he never had dealt with a frozen cat before. He thought for a second and said, ‘Jim, you get yourself an eye-dropper and fill it full of gasoline and put that right in that cat’s mouth and make sure it gets into his belly.’

“Well I done what the doc tells me to do. And Mikey, within seconds that old cat started shaking and twitching. Then he got up on all fours and started prancing around that kitchen table with his tail held high like the proudest cat there ever was. After about four turns around the table, sassy old Jake looked me straight in the eye and just fell right over on his side.”

“’Wow,” I said. “Was he dead, Jim.”

“No, Mikey, he done run out of gas.”

And with that Jim’s eyes sparkled and his gums lit up like a roman candle on the Fourth of July.

 

 


 

On a cool Saturday in October my mother and three sisters left for the weekend to go the races in New Jersey. My sister, Annie, was riding a horse we used to own in one of the races and they would be spending the night with friends.  Jim, who usually took Sundays off, left with an old buddy for the day so it was up to me to stay at home and care for the horses.

Even though I was only 12 I didn’t mind being alone. I liked making beans and hot dogs and getting to have the TV all to myself. Saturday meant my favorite show, “Navy Log,” would be on. “Navy Log” started at seven. I fed the horses and put them to bed for the night and filled my own belly with beans and franks. I went into the living room and turned on our black and white TV. It took a while for it to warm up and the rabbit ears antenna had to be adjusted just right to get a good picture. “Navy Log” started with dramatic music and scenes of war ships making their way through heavy seas.

Just as it was starting, it sounded like a war ship had entered our house. Jim came stumbling into the living room. I had seen him drunk before but never like this. He started knocking over lamps and other thing that were in his path. I yelled at him to stop, this only made him more aggressive. I stood up and tried to push him out of the living room. He grabbed me by the arms and started shaking me. I broke loose and ran for the stairs that led to my bedroom on the second floor. Jim went the other way toward the kitchen. I knew he wasn’t heading to his room. I tore up the stairs. At the top I stopped, turned and looked back down. Jim was standing there wobbly, a butcher knife in his hand. A year before I had made a bar for my bedroom door, the kind you see in Western movies. The bar was bolted at one end to the door frame and could be lowered into a metal slot at the other securing me against Indians or communists or any enemy the world contained. The bar had never been tested to see if it indeed would keep out an intruder; that was about to change.

Jim had reached a new level of rage, he had made his way up the stairs and began pounding on the bedroom door screaming he was going get in and show a white boy how to use a knife. The bar was beginning to fail. The bolt holding it to the door frame was about to come out leaving me defenseless against a man blinded by alcohol and rage.  I could get out of my room by going through a window that opened onto the roof of a small porch over the entryway to the kitchen. From the porch roof I could slide down one of the supporting posts onto the ground and make my way to the barn. There was one problem. I was in my bare feet and I always left my shoes downstairs in the mudroom. I never like the feel of small stones on my bare feet and our house was surrounded by gravel all the way down to the barn.

The door had one more moment of resistance and I knew Jim would be in. I did what I had to do. I opened the chest where I kept the two guns my father had given me. I pulled out the first one my hand fell on, a Webly 45. My father, in true military fashion, had always told me an empty gun is worthless. I knew there were at least three rounds in the chamber. I grabbed the Webly just as the bar came flying across the room toward me.

There was no time to think. I bolted out the window onto the porch roof, the pistol stuck in the back pocket of my pants. Jim had reached the point of no-return; he was going to get me no matter what. As I was sliding down the porch post Jim staggered down the stairs to intercept me outside. The small gravel stones cut into my feet as I started running toward the barn. Jim, as wasted as he was, was able stumble along after me. I could go no further. My feet were bleeding from the gravel. I was scared but I had the tool to bring this nightmare to an end. I stopped and turned. Jim’s darkness blended with the blackness of the night. The one thing that glistened in the light of a half moon was the blade of the knife. He was getting closer and I could smell the liquor on his breath.

“Damn it, Jim,” I screamed. “Stop!”

I reached behind my back pulling out the Webly. Jim was about to lunge. I remember closing my eyes, cocking the hammer of the pistol backwards and pulling the trigger. The world exploded in a flash of yellow orange fire, my right arm kicked up into the air. When I opened my eyes, Jim was lying on the gravel path, the knife resting close to my battered feet. The smell of gunpowder filled my nose. The air was still, not a sound came from the body lying in front of me. I stood in the silence paralyzed with fear. It was then I heard the sound of a car tearing up our driveway. It was our neighbor, Dale Turner. Dale had just pulled into the driveway of his own home when he heard the blast shatter the quiet night air. The Turners were accustomed to strange sounds coming from our house but not a gunshot. He knew something bad had occurred. He jumped out of his car and came running up to me yelling, “What the hell happened.” The alcohol soaked nerves of Jim began to twitch.

“Jim came home drunk and chased me with a knife.” I was able to blurt out. “I didn’t know what to do, he wouldn’t stop. He chased me down here. I couldn’t go any farther so I shot him.”

Dale stooped down and rolled Jim over on his back. He looked over his whole body. He stood up, taking the smoking 45’ from my shaking hand and said, “Well it looks like the only damage is a rip in his pants and slight graze to his knee. I think he’s passed out from the liquor not the gun shot. Where are your mother and sisters?”

“They went to Far Hill’s to the races.” I said. “They won’t be back till Sunday night.”

“Where are they staying.” Dale asked.

“I’m not sure with friends, I think.”

“Go get a horse blanket to put over him to keep him warm. Do you have a phone in the barn?”

“Yeah, in the tack-room on the back wall.”

Dale was a retired deputy sheriff. He knew his way around the world of the Maryland State Police and could get action quickly. I came back with the heaviest horse blanket I could find and wrapped Jim’s limp body in it. I looked into that dark face which was now serene and peaceful and wondered how someone could transform from a mild, gentle person into one who’s only thought was to do harm. Dale came back and said the ambulance and police would be here shortly. Since Jim wasn’t seriously hurt there wasn’t much to do except to try to keep him warm. I had time to tell Dale the whole story. He shook his head, looked at the bundle on the ground and said, ” Man, life is never dull around this place.”

The ambulance arrived before the state police. They were more  concerned about Jim’s saturation of alcohol than the surface wound. They didn’t want to wait around for the police to get there. They put him in an old style Cadillac ambulance and took him to Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

When the police arrived Dale explained the situation. They were in a dilemma, what to do with a 12-year-old boy who had just shot a man. Because of the absence of my parents, they were going to take me to the Benson Barracks station where I would have to stay until they could locate my mother. I was thrilled. I knew Jackey Mosely, Teddy McDermit and few other jockeys had spent time at the Benson Barracks for disorderly conduct; now I’d be part of the club. The trooper, in an effort to make me feel better, said the Shriner circus was going on next door to the station and if my mother hadn’t returned by tomorrow they would take me to see the show.

I got to spent the night on a bunk in the barracks and was indeed treated to an afternoon at the circus. Watermelon Jim spent a restful night in the hospital and when he woke the next morning had no memory of the activity from the night before. Wondering through an aching head why he had a bandage on his knee.

Sunday evening my mother came through the doors of the station to retrieve me, thanking the police for all the good care they had given.

When you drive into the horse country of Monkton, Md., there’s a historical sign that reads, “My Lady’s Manor, Lord Baltimore’s Gift.” The real gift was not the land but the spirit that flows through the community of horse people. Owners, trainers, jockeys and grooms may compete on the race course but off the course there’s a thread that weaves a fabric so closely knit that tears repair themselves quickly. I loved Jim like a brother. There was never a thought of pressing charges but we knew it was time for him to move on.

I wasn’t there when Jim was driven back to our house to collect his belongings. If I had been we would have looked at each other and grinned. Jim probably would have said, “Mikey did I ever tell you about the time I helped your daddy when he rode the Hunt Cup?”

Jim moved to a home where retired horsemen could spent their twilight years rocking on the porch dreaming of the big horse.

Years later I joined the Marines during a peaceful period in the world and could tell the story to my buddies, who only got to shoot their weapons on the practice range, of the night I actually saw combat.

Michael Ball is a commercial pilot. He flies for Penobscot Island Air and lives in South Thomaston.