The Dam Burglar
Not far from the little town, the landscape began to take on a varied appearance. Fences started cropping up, separating road from grazing pasture lands. Gently rolling hills, dotted with sparse clumps of prickly pear and Spanish dagger pulled my face close to the window of the station wagon. Outside, I watched as occasional stands of mesquite trees began adding light-green colors to prevailing earth tones; all of these breaking the tiresome spell of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains that lays over most of the Texas panhandle scenery.
After a while the hills became more pronounced and much more interesting as different shapes and textures began to appear, and then suddenly, the road ahead of us dropped into a long curve. Then on either side, where engineers from the past cut deep into the ancient bedrock, layer upon layer of tan and red formations of prehistoric sea beds flashed by while we hurled to the bottom of a wide gorge, speeding on to Burson Lake.
There was still a way to go, but the miles of hills and jagged valleys further on seemed to fly by as we drew ever closer to the canyon resort.
Dad slowed down after another hour to make the final turn off the main highway. Even with the scorching heat outside, everyone began rolling up windows for the last ten miles of the trip. I swung around and lay facing the rear to stare out the back. There behind us, a swirl of red dust billowed up, and I began to taste it deep in my throat.
After a while of staring at the cloud, I moved up to the middle seat and plopped down between the two girls. Leaning forward, we all waited to see the final steep hill coming up soon. Dad eventually slowed his speed to a crawl, and then in one breath-catching moment, the drop-off was before us. As the car stopped at the crest, an eddy of airborne dust momentarily enveloped the hood.
By this time, the pervasive powder burned the inside of my nose, coated my lips and covered us all. While dad surveyed the incline for traffic and put the car in low gear, I rubbed my fingertips together, feeling its dry silkiness. I thought about a cool swim. Then, as the nose of the car began to tilt sharply downward, a slice of the lake came into view.
A life-giving blue jewel glistened beyond the banks of the dirt road as Otho stretched out his arm, bracing himself against the dashboard. We in the back seat looked on as mother gave out her usual gasp, and father began inching his way down the grade and around a curve to a parking area below.
A man setting out dip nets waved to us as dad drove across the lot. Dad headed for the small grocery store for our first stop. To our right sat a small aluminum house trailer which the owners called home; to the left, a long row of low-set rental cabins. Typically, only a few vehicles were around.
Inside the tiny market, and seated amid a display of fishing gear, surrounded by shelves of canned goods and picnic supplies, a woman gave us a cheery greeting from behind her jam-packed counter. A tall ice chest in one corner displayed framed photographs of fishermen and their catches on top, and in several spots around the wall, mounted fish hung on oval boards.
A few minutes later, her husband stepped inside. While the adults exchanged handshakes and hugs, we took off for some quick exploring of this place we knew so well.
Taking another dirt road that continued on past the cabins, we followed a curve that led down another slight hill. Cut from the bank of high red cliffs towering to our left, it took us around to a dam that spanned the narrow canyon.
The earthen embankment dropped off sharply to the bottom of the canyon floor on one side, and held back the deep, chilled waters of the lake on the other.
Crossing the dam, and passing by a leveled area where several brush arbor structures set close to the rim of the canyon, we continued on a rough path leading around the lake. Clambering over huge boulders, we headed for a cave of sorts. Carved by weather from sandstone cliffs, the recess offered us a cool, shaded perch to sit and view the lake below. Spread about in the dirt at our feet, scat lay mixed with bones and skulls of small creatures. Then seeing our car making its way across the dam and approaching the arbors, we ran back to the campsite to help.
For the remainder of the day, after a meal of hot dogs and beans, the girls and myself took turns paddling an aluminum boat up into the far reaches of the canyon, and then when that got old, we scaled cliffs for awhile. In the heat of the afternoon, we returned to slip on bathing suits. Then leaping off of a fishing dock, we swam out to a floating platform moored a short distance away, and there the dust washed off at last.
As the evening cooled and turned to dark, we gathered around our campfire, sitting close to ward off chills. Otho came over to sit with us after he made a suspicious visit to his trouser bag. He had suspended it earlier from a lower branch up in the roof of our brush arbor.
Mother clucked her tongue at the sight of the ridiculous thing, and she tried to get him to use a suitcase at the beginning of the trip, but dad just laughed at the sight of the two-legged bag, and he packed it in the car against her protests.
Knotted at the cuffs, and tied secure at the waist with a rope, the pants contained all of his clothes for the weekend, plus, I was sure, a bottle or two of whiskey.
As he went to sit down, he stumbled and fell into place beside me. I held my knees and stared into the flames, trying not to notice.
An occasional voice or a burst of laughter floated across the lake, coming from unseen occupants of the distant cabins, while mother and Otho argued back and forth. He made several more trips back into the shadows as embers snapped and mother fumed. I laid back against my bedroll and enjoyed the multitude of stars overhead as the night wound down.
I woke up when I first heard the yelp, and wondered. Just a wisp of smoke rose from the pile of coals while mother got up and began shining a flashlight around.
“What is it?”
She looked worried.
“I don’t know, but Otho is gone.”
His bedroll lay on the ground, empty.
I heard dad inside the back of the station wagon, demanding to know what was the racket about. The girls stirred but stayed under their blankets.
Mom aimed the light toward the black shape of the arbor. The long legs of Otho’s trousers were gone too.
She walked over to shine the torch over the bank and down into the black canyon when his face suddenly appeared in the spotlight. A trickle of blood ran down from his scalp, and his thick glasses sat cock-eyed as he clambered over the edge and stood up weaving.
“Son of a bitch!”
“Otho! What happened?”
She sat him down at the picnic table. While I held the light, she began wiping his face as he talked. He seemed insulted, having to explain, and talked a little too loud as usual.
“I got up and saw my pants hanging there in the dark, and thought it was a damn burglar so I tackled him.”