Big Bottom Girls by John Bolton
Goodland County, Oklahoma
Maggie Jinks, Susie Slater and Thelma Trueax were the big bottom girls. Big Bottom School which was officially designated but seldom called Goodland County School #9. It was a wood framed one room school house with nineteen students ranging from first to eighth grade. There were no seventh graders in 33’ and the BB girls, as the only eighth graders, ruled the roost. Miss Potter, their teacher. She considered them a hoot and a handful.
The BB girls were racially diverse before anyone heard that term. Susie was white, Maggie was colored and Thelma was part Indian. The terms ‘black’ and ‘native American’ were not in use. If someone felt a need to be more precise, Thelma was half Choctaw with a white father.
The girls had been friends since first grade. Thelma and Maggie lived on Big Bottom. Thelma’s family had their own forty acre farm. Maggie’s family had a house and five acres and share cropped more land. Susie lived up over the hills in Rabbit Hollow. Her dad had a few hogs, a few farmable acres and lots of timber. He was a known bootlegger and suspected still operator.
Maggie, the colored girl, was already five foot seven. Thelma, the part Indian girl was five four and feisty Susie, the white girl and bootlegger’s daughter was the shorty at five two. All three girls were slim. Maggie was big boned and loose jointed. They all had dark hair. Susie and Thelma wore their hair short and similar to the pilot, Amelia Earhart. Maggie wore hers natural and like Orphan Annie from the funny papers. None of the girls were physically big bottomed, but they joked that Maggie came closest. They were all pretty enough, if you can be pretty wearing overalls to school. They were good country girls.
Big Bottom lays five miles east of Clayton on the eastern bank of Mosquito creek. Little bottom is on the west, or town side. In Oklahoma, creek is pronounced crick and rhymes with stick and Mosquito was generally shortened to ‘Skeeter’.
Big bottom was and still is bottom land and prime cotton land. Unless the creek flooded. Or unless it was the drought years of the early 30s. Later, in the late thirties, FDR’s New Deal CCC crews would come with massive man power to straighten the creek. That successfully reduced flooding while turning mostly clear waters to muddy brown. But in 33’, ‘Skeeter Crick’ was a crooked, meandering water way and large for a creek – as big as some small rivers.
Big bottom ended abruptly and merged into steep, tall hills. The hilltops formed a rugged and timbered ridge. The ridge plummeted again on the far side and formed the steep sided oval known as Rabbit Hollow.
The BB girls were good students with a small exception. Thelma had a terrible time comprehending fractions. In every other way, they were country school scholars with a fine, caring and young teacher in Miss Potter, who was in her third year teaching.
As was customary in one room schools, the older kids helped teach the younger kids. The BB girls thrived in that role. Woe be it to someone picking on the younger kids. The BB girl’s policy was to kick ass first and take names later.
It was their compassion for the younger kids that lead the BB girls to stray from the straight and narrow path.
About a third of the nineteen students came to school carrying sparse lunches of lard spread on cornbread. The rest were not eating much better. Some days kids would claim to have forgotten their lunches.
Miss Potter, the teacher, did what she could. She designated Monday as ‘spud day’. She brought each kid a baked potato and fresh churned butter. It was a special day for a lot of the kids and Monday attendance improved. When it got cold enough to use the coal stove, she baked the potatoes right there at school on the coal stove. Miss Potter would have liked to do more, but the kids and families seemed too proud to accept help.
As it got cold, fur trapping season began. The BB girls rose up early every morning and ran a trap and snare line, mostly along the creek. They brought in muskrats, coons and possums and once a fat weasel and once a skunk.
Susie, who’d had polio at age three, had a left foot that turned left at a forty five degree angle. She still managed a full share of the work.
Fur prices were poor that year, but every critter excepting the skunk was skinned for its fur and meat. Most of the meat went to the home cooking pots, but some was saved for Fridays when the girls took meat to school. Kids brought vegetables to throw in the pot and the whole school bragged on their Big Bottom stew. With spuds on Monday and stew on Friday, BB school had the best attendance in the county.
November was hog butchering time and all three BB girls’ families killed a hog and butchered. The girls knew a bit about live stock, were somewhat skilled in the butchering, smoking and rendering process and were definitely not strangers to hard work.
But not everyone at BB school had hog.
Just north of the Big Bottom lived a man known to the kids as Crabapple Hatcher. Crabapple had a herd of hogs and an orchard too. He was well known for being hard on kids who just wanted to swipe an apple or two. This made him nearly the ideal to man to steal a hog from.
All of Thanksgiving week the three BBs acquired the necessities for processing a hog. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving the girls got permission to stay the night at their club house in the hills of Rabbit Hollow. Cold as it was getting, it would be the last chance of the year to stay there. And it would be a fine night to steal and butcher a hog.
Deputy Delroy Wright was working the day shift on Monday morning. Web Hatcher came to see the sheriff but had to settle for Del. Hatcher had a forty acre farm and orchard north of Rabbit Hollow. Behind his back, people called him Crabapple Hatcher and he was in fact, an old crab.
Web and Del knew each other a little. When Del was a ninth grader, old Mr. Hatcher saw Del and a friend helping themselves to his apples. The boys ran and got away, but Hatcher recognized one boy as being the sheriff’s kid. Hatcher did not like Sheriff Wright because he thought Wright was too easy on kids he’d caught stealing. He acted like he wanted to prosecute, but what he really wanted and got was a cash payment. Del had been grounded for two weeks over the deal and it took him over a month to pay back what Hatcher took from his dad.
Hatcher reported, “I had a nice hog stole last night or maybe Saturday night. I know people need food, but it ain’t up to me to feed em’.”
Out at the farm, Hatcher showed Del shoe prints and hog prints outside a seldom used gate to the hog lot. It was clear that two or more people took the hog. The prints were small for a man and their first guess was young boys. Del studied them and said, “Looks like one’s got a left foot that turns way out.”
The tracks led out the gate to the dirt road and angled south toward Rabbit Hollow and Big Bottom. Del said, “Ummm. Me track like Injun.”
The dirt road didn’t get much traffic but had enough to hide most tracks. Del walked about two hundred yards. He found a few hog tracks in the right side road ditch and again the shoe print with the outturned foot. He figured two or three boys were driving the hog up the weedy ditch trying to avoid leaving tracks.
The intermittently spotted tracks led up into the hills and down into Rabbit Hollow and onto a foot path into the timber. Not visible from the road was a shed roofed, tar paper shack, maybe eight feet square. Painted in white on the black tar papered door was, ‘Big Bottom Girls’. Hanging from a branch of a cottonwood was a rope and pulley stout enough to lift a hog. Nearby was a fire pit.
Del went back to town and talked with his dad, the sheriff. The sheriff knew right away who might live out there and have a foot like Del described. He didn’t know the girl’s name, but knew there was a Slater out there who’d been rumored to sell bootleg whiskey and that Slater had a daughter with a bit of a gimp foot.
Del drove up to Big Bottom School a little before noon. He got out and leaned against the car door. Pretty soon the kids came out for recess and Del looked for a girl with an outturned foot. It didn’t take long to spot her.
All the kids stared at the sheriff’s car and a lot of the older ones seemed distressed. They broke off into smaller groups, some going to a tire swing and some near the outhouse.
The white girl with the outturned foot and two other girls of about her same age went to the far corner of the schoolyard. One was a colored girl and the other looked Indian. Their body language was rigid and upset. They avoided looking at the sheriff’s car and looked to be arguing.
The teacher come out and Del could see she was assessing the situation. She was pretty and Del realized it was Debbie Potter, who had been two grades behind him in school. He motioned her to him and they got into the car. Debbie immediately got teary eyed, covered her face and started to sob.
Del felt like crying too. He told her, “Gees Debbie, you make a poor accessory to crime. Oh gees. I hope you aren’t in on this. Can you tell me about a stolen hog?”
“I don’t want to. (Sob) I don’t know anything about anything (sob) stolen. (Sob) But every one of the kid’s family’s got a bundle of pork meat given to them yesterday. And (sob) we had pork roast and potatoes for lunch. It was delicious.”
As Debbie was talking, Del glanced back and forth from the three biggest girls. The white girl tried to shove the other two back and then she started toward the car.
Before Miss Potter could say anything more the Big Bottom Girls came up the car. The Slater girl tried to push the other two away, but they were not going to go. Del rolled down his window and the white girl told him. “I done it. Just me. I stole Crabapple’s pig.”
It didn’t work. The other girls admitted their crime too.
It was one of the times Del kind of hated being a deputy. It could have gone better if Web Hatcher would have dropped the charges and let the girls work off their debt. But he insisted on charges and restitution.
Justice was swift and merciful. The county magistrate saw the girls that same day. Miss Potter was there speaking up for them. They were to make restitution and do community service. They were on probation for a year. If there was no further trouble, they could ask the magistrate to have their records cleared.
Del and Miss Potter had a date that Friday night. The following Friday there was a pot luck fund raiser at the school and Del played and sang.
Word got around in Goodland County. Del made sure it did. Poor as times were, lots of folks attended. Enough money was raised to pay Web Hatcher for his hog and there were enough canned goods to make excellent Big Bottom Stews every Friday, all winter long. And glory be, Miss Potter got up and sang ‘Down By The Riverside’ and the Big Bottom Girls, now the Big Bottom trio, sang ‘Frankie & Albert’