BY: JACK SPROUSE
Texas dairy farmer, Alton Kemper, has a life changing experience following the death of his son Jim, a soldier in World War II, when he decides he has to live again for his grandson. Alton’s grandson, Jimmy, grows up in the shadow of his bigger-than-life grandfather, learning what is it means to be a man of honor. While in college, Jimmy suffers a broken heart and, as a result, joins the army, becoming a helicopter pilot, and is sent to Vietnam. Though he fears for Jimmy’s safety, Alton understands his grandson’s desire to serve his country. Jimmy promises to come back and run the farm for his grandfather after the war. But Alton dies before Jimmy returns, making Jimmy all the more determined to be the best man that he can be as a tribute to his beloved grandfather. But life presents many challenges, and the Kemper family must endure not only hardship, but loss…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The House Wren by Jack Sprouse, Alton Kemper is a dairy farmer, taking over for his wife’s father when the old man dies. Alton and his wife Mary lose their son Jim in World War II, but his grandson Jimmy inherits the farm when Alton dies. The story follows Jimmy and his family through their trials and tribulations as they struggle to raise their children and be honorable men and women.
Like most of Sprouse’s stories, this one is moving and poignant, both a family saga and a heart-warming romance.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The House Wren by Jack Sprouse is the story of the Kemper family, Texas dairy farmers and entrepreneurs. Alton’s son Jim dies in World War II, but his grandson Jimmy, who is five at the time, gives him something to live for and brings him out of his depression. When Jimmy goes to college, he falls in love, but the girl doesn’t want to be a farmer’s wife, and she breaks up with him. This sends him into a deep depression and he leaves college and goes to war in Vietnam. Alton dies while Jimmy is in Vietnam, and Jimmy is devastated. The story then follows Jimmy and his children through their lives, loves, and losses as they carve a niche for the family in the history of Texas.
Like Sprouse’s other works, The House Wren has multiple plot lines all woven together into a cohesive whole. While it is a saga of an important Texas family, it is also the story of each individual family member seeking love and a meaning to life, trying to outshine or outdo his or her siblings, but most of all, trying to be upstanding and honorable human being so as not to disappoint their father and grandfather—poignant and heartwarming.
Twenty-six-year-old Alton Kemper wiped the sweat from his forehead and cursed at nothing in particular. While many of the young men around Coleman County were joining the army to go to France to fight the Germans, Alton was working on a dairy farm and had not been drafted. His boss, Leonard Bartley, had encouraged him not to enlist because he needed Alton on the farm. He’d promised more pay and bonuses if he’d stay on, but none of that had been forthcoming. Alton grew more and more disgruntled as the days turned into weeks and then into months. He felt he would never get out of this place.
Bartley hired several migrant workers who had wandered onto the farm looking for any work available. He used them for two weeks and then when payday rolled around, the County Constable showed up and arrested them before they got their money. The men were trying to talk to the constable in what broken English they knew. Alton could only assume they were trying to explain that they had not been paid yet, but their efforts fell on deaf ears.
He confronted Bartley about it. “You cheated those men, Leonard, you know you did. You had that set up with the lawman to come and pick those men up so you wouldn’t have to pay them. That’s a sorry way to do a man.”
“It’s none of your concern, Kemper,” Bartley said. “You need to mind your own business and let me handle mine.”
Leonard Bartley was twenty years older than Alton, and a few inches shorter, so Alton had no intention of doing him any harm. But the man was arrogant and seemingly without conscience. He sneered at Alton through a mouthful of gapped and broken teeth. His graying beard and deep set dark eyes were menacing, but not as menacing as the pistol he always carried in his right front coveralls pocket. “You get your ass back to work or I’ll fire you.”
“You won’t have to fire me,” Alton said, “I quit. I’ve had enough of your lies and sorry ways. Just get my pay and I’ll be off your property.”
“You don’t have much coming,” Bartley said. “You’ve got room and board coming out of it.”
“I know exactly how much I got coming, just get it, and I’ll be on my way.”
“I don’t think I owe you anything, mister, you just go on and get out of here before I get mad.” The man patted his right pocket where he kept his gun and again sneered at Alton.
Alton rushed Bartley, suddenly, before the man could react, and he knocked him to the ground. He then took the pistol out of Leonard’s pocket, unloaded it, and threw it into the water tank under the windmill. He was on top of the man beating him on his face and head when the man’s wife came out of the house, screaming and crying. “Don’t kill him, please don’t kill him.”
“I’m not going to kill him,” Alton told her. “I just want my pay and I’m leaving.”
“How much does he owe you?”
“He owes me four dollars minus a dollar for room and board, so three dollars.”
She went into the house and came out with a five-dollar bill. “Here Alton, take this, I’m sorry for the trouble my husband caused you.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “You’re too good for that man.”
Alton never forgot the look on those men’s faces when they realized they had worked for two weeks and were not going to be paid for their labor. Seeing the injustice of such an act, Alton Kemper made himself a promise that he would never cheat another human being as long as he lived. White, Black, Brown, or whatever color they might be, he would never again look at the face of a man who’d had his labor, the work of his hands, stolen from him by another man. Food taken from the mouths of his children must surely be a terrible thing to happen to a man. If he had any means of preventing such inhumanity, Alton would do so. Hell, if there be such a place, must have a special place for men who do such things, he believed.
Alton got his bag, with everything he owned in the world in it, walked to the highway, and started trying to thumb a ride. He wanted to get as far away as he could from the Bartley farm, for fear that Bartley might call the law on him. Alton nervously looked both ways down the road, not caring which way a vehicle might be going, as long as it would take him out of Coleman County. He spotted a Model T truck coming toward him.
The truck slowed down as it approached him then pulled over and stopped. The man motioned for Alton to get in, and he did. “Where you headed, pal?” the man asked him.
“Anywhere but here,” Alton replied. “Where are you going?”
“I’m headed over to Comanche, been delivering some stuff for my pa. We live just outside Comanche. My pa owns a hardware and lumber yard in town. I’m Homer Sudbury, what’s your name?”
“I’m Alton Kemper. I grew up around Brady, Texas. No work around there that pays a decent wage. I was working for a man named Leonard Bartley near here. He made a lot of promises he didn’t keep, never meant to keep, I expect. One thing led to another and I ended up beating the hell out of him and drawing my pay. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t beat him up just because I wanted to, I beat him up because he wasn’t going to pay me. His wife paid me so I stopped beating the hell out of him.”
“Sounds to me like the man needed to have the hell beat out of him,” Homer said.
“No man ever needed it more.”
“So, what kind of work do you do, Alton?”
“My ol’ man owned a dairy farm outside of Brady. I worked for him until I was seventeen. He beat up my ma one too many times, so I took a tire iron to him. He spent some time in the hospital, and I helped my ma sell the farm before he got out. I signed his name to the deed for the new owner and gave the money to my ma. She went back to her family in Indiana.”
“Sounds like you’ve had a hard time of it, Alton. Why don’t you come stay a while with us? My pa won’t mind, he’ll be glad to have you. We can give you some work in the lumberyard and give you room and board.”
“That’s mighty generous,” Alton said. “I appreciate it. I’m a hard worker.”
“I figured you for a good hand. I kinda run the store for Pa so I’ll fix a place for you there. There’s a café across the street where you can eat. We have a contract with them to provide two meals a day for our hired hands. The food’s tolerable and there’s plenty of it.”
Alton nodded, thinking he’d finally got a break.
Homer took Alton to a room in the back of the hardware store. There was a single bed, a small chest-of-drawers, a bath tub, and clothes stand but no closet. “It’s not much, Alton,” Homer said. I’ll fix it up a bit. Pa used to sleep here ever so often when he worked really late. Like I said, it’s not much.”
“It’s fine, Homer, I’m obliged to you.”
“The Wander Inn café is just across the street. You can eat breakfast and lunch there on us. You’re on your own for supper. The name is a takeoff on the first owner, Wanda Burton. She died a couple of years ago and the new owners didn’t bother to change the name.”
“Thank you,” Alton said. “And tell your pa I said thanks, too.”
Alton started to work the very next day. The work was not hard, just fast-paced because the store had a lot of business. It was the only hardware, mercantile, and lumberyard for many towns around.
The food was not as good as Misses Bartley’s was, but the company was a lot more congenial. Alton filled nail orders, climbed ladders to retrieve goods or tools from the higher shelves, and helped load lumber onto customer’s trucks. The days were busy and went by quickly but nights were lonely and boring. He turned in early but often could not sleep. He spent a lot of time at night in the café across the street, just drinking coffee, and occasionally eating a piece of pie. Sometimes he’d walk around the town and talk to whoever might be standing around.
Alton soon became fairly well known around town He impressed many folks as being a congenial man who was best not riled up. Homer Sudbury discovered one afternoon the peril of getting on the wrong side of Alton Kemper.
Two brothers, Burt and Billy Crenshaw, came into the store to return a hand cranked drill and bit they had purchased two weeks earlier. The tool had been used and appeared to have been left out in the rain.
They wanted their money back. Homer refused to return their money, claiming they had damaged the drill. The two were not happy and threatened Homer with a beating.
Alton heard and saw what was going on and came over to observe.
“Who the hell are you?” Billy Crenshaw asked him, looking hard at Alton.
“I work for Homer,” Alton said.
“Well, if you want to be able to keep working, you better mind your own business,” he replied.
“This is my business.” Alton said.
The man moved toward Alton and poked his index finger into Alton’s chest. He ended up on the floor, the receiver of a punch from Kemper’s right hand. Before he could get up, Alton pummeled the other brother with a series of punches. Both men got up and ran out the door yelling something about getting even with Alton as they left, leaving the drill lying on the counter.
“Damn, Alton,” Homer said. “I sure am glad I gave you a ride.” They both laughed. “Thanks for helping me out.”
“It was my pleasure, Homer. I hate obnoxious assholes like that.”
“I do too. Those guys are nothing but trouble. They’re always drunk and disorderly. They’re just good for nothings but you better keep an eye out for them. They might come back one night to get even.”
“I will,” Alton said.
“Hey, Alton, why don’t you come out to the house this Sunday for dinner?” I can pick you up in time for church and then we’ll go to the house. Mother is a real good cook.”
“I’d like that,” Alton replied. “I’m not much for church but I guess it won’t hurt me. I don’t have any Sunday clothes, though.”
“It’s a country church, hell, nobody dresses up. Most of the folks who go there don’t have a pot to piss in.”
Alton was ready at eight a.m. when Homer arrived to pick him up.
They drove out the north side of Comanche to a small white wood frame building. Other folks were starting to arrive. There were quite a few, Alton noticed, at least thirty-five people or so. Homer’s folks were standing outside waiting for them.
Homer’s dad was a tall and lanky man, clean shaven with a full head of gray hair. He reached out and shook Alton’s hand. “I am happy to make your acquaintance, Alton. I’ve heard good things about you from my son Homer.”
“I’ve heard good things about you too, Mister Sudbury—from Homer, too”
“Now none of that,” he said, “you call me George. This is my wife, Emma.”
“I’m happy to meet you, ma’am.” Alton said. She reached out her hand and Alton shook it. Her handshake was so soft that he was afraid he’d hurt her.
As they entered the church, Alton noticed a sign by the front door.
MOUNT PLEASANT BAPTIST CHURCH
Organized under a brush arbor, with 21 charter members, Oct. 16, 1892. First pastor, F. M. Herring, and E. M. Moore, Jesse Cunningham and C. C. McCurdy composed the Presbytery. Will Dewitt gave land, Nov. 26, 1892, on which the first building was dedicated, May 1893. Tabernacle was built in 1906 and present church, 1913. The charter members were The Revs. and Mmes. Frank Herring and Jim Fagan, Messrs. and Mmes. Will Dewitt, Jake Hodges, John Cameron, Dave Coker, Alfred Loftis and J. A. Payne, also Mrs. E. B. Farmer, Beckie Leech, Green West, Cordelia McNutt, Z. K. Smith.
Before the preaching began, they sang several songs out of the Baptist Hymnal. Then a young girl went to the front of the church and sang a song called Beulah Land. Alton had never heard such a voice before. The girl was pretty, but not overpoweringly so, and slightly plump and she kept looking at Alton over her shoulder from the front row of pews. There was an older man sitting with her, Alton assumed he was her father.
Alton had not been to church in years, not since his mother used to take him when he was a boy. The sermon was pretty much like he remembered from his childhood. There was a lot of talk about Jesus and hell and loving your neighbor. Neighbors were not always easy to love, Alton knew, but the Sudburys were good people, he could tell that right away.
The Sunday dinner was just about what he expected, fried chicken and mashed potatoes and cream gravy, some vegetables—squash, green beans—biscuits and Iced tea.
“This is the best meal I’ve had in years, Misses Sudbury, maybe the best meal I’ve ever had,” Alton said.
“That’s quite a compliment, Mister Kemper, but you call me Emma.”
“I will, ma’am, if you’ll not call me Mister Kemper, my name is Alton.”
“It’s a deal,” she said.
On the ride back to town, Alton asked Homer about the girl who sang the song.
“That’s Mary McCarthy,” Homer told him, “And her father James McCarthy. James has a farm just east of the church a couple of miles. He’s a good man but he’s had a hard time. His wife died a few years back and now it’s just him and his daughter. Mary is twenty-two and never been kissed, as near as I can tell.”
“I’d like to change that,” Alton said.
“I figured that might be where you were going with that. I can have them come to dinner next week after church and you can meet her. That’s if you want me to.”
“Yes,” Alton replied quickly, “I’d like that very much. You mean you’d do that?”
“My folks are good friends with the McCarthys, we have them over quite often. Count on it next Sunday.”
“I don’t know what to say, Homer, thank you. I’ll do some extra work around the store to make it up to you.”
“No need for that,” Homer said, “you do plenty of work. You’re the best hand we ever had.”
Mary McCarthy was a pleasant girl but, to Alton, she seemed very lonely. She rarely left the farm except to go to town with her father. She smiled at Alton across the Sudburys’ dinner table, and he smiled back. “I really enjoyed your singing, Mary,” he told her. “You sing like an angel.”
“Thank you, Alton,” James McCarthy interjected before his daughter could respond. “I think so too. Mary sings all the time around the house. It’s about the only entertainment I have since my wife died. She was a singer too.”
Mary was embarrassed and started blushing. She kept stealing looks at Alton, a fact that was not lost on either Alton or Mary’s father. She liked him, Alton could tell. He asked James if he could take Mary for a walk around the Sudbury property, and James agreed. Homer Sudbury assured him that he, Alton, had no ill intentions toward James’ daughter. He explained Alton’s circumstances to James and told him that Alton was a good man, a diamond in a coal bin was the way Homer put it.
The woods behind the Sudbury home led down to the creek. Mary said she liked to walk along the creek so they wandered down to the water’s edge and Alton picked up some stones and threw them into the creek. She was nervous, not really knowing this man she was with. He was a very quiet man, although Emma Sudbury had told her how he had fought to save her son from a beating. She knew he was not timid, but he seemed withdrawn to her. “What are you thinking, Alton?” she asked him.
“I’m thinking how lucky I am,” he said. “Two months ago, I was out of a job, broke, and didn’t know where I was going to sleep at night, and now I have a good job, a place to stay, a little money in the bank, and here I am walking along Duncan Creek with you, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”
She almost swooned but managed not to show it. “Oh, come on, you flatterer, surely you’ve seen prettier girls than me.”
“Maybe so,” he said, “but they weren’t pretty on the inside too. Listen, Mary, I like you. I liked you the first time I saw you looking over your shoulder at me in church. And when I heard you sing, well, that was it.” He clutched at his heart, dramatically, and fell to the ground while she giggled at him.
“Well, I see that my mysterious man is also very charming. What do you do for an encore, Mister Kemper?”
He seemed to be deep in thought, putting his hand up to his head to emphasize that he was contemplating her question. She continued her giggling.
Suddenly, a water moccasin came slithering out of the grass headed for the creek. It was not attacking but its path would have taken it right between Mary’s legs.
He yelled, “Watch out,” and grabbed her around the waist. Swinging her around out of the path of the snake, he set her down but kept his arms around her. She saw the snake and was terrified but turned her face back toward his. He kissed her and she did not draw back but returned his passion with her own.
They kissed for what seemed to Alton a very long time. Finally, he stopped and they just looked at each other. “I promised your father this wouldn’t happen,” he said. “I hope you can keep a secret.”
“I don’t believe that just happened,” she said, “so until I’m convinced it, did I’m not going to tell anyone.”
“Oh, it happened, Mary,” he assured her, and pulled her to him again and down to the ground. They were on their knees, locked in each other’s arms. They kissed again, stopping momentarily only to breath and then continued. She was hungry for a man, Alton knew. His need made him lay her down on the ground.
“I can’t go all the way, Alton,” she told him while trying get her breath, “not here, not yet.”
“I know, Mary, I don’t expect that. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to disrespect you. Can I call on you sometime?”
“Yes, Alton, I would love for you to call on me. I’ll be disappointed if you do not.”
“Thank you, Mary,” he said sheepishly, “I promise you this won’t happen again.”
“Well, in that case, don’t bother calling on me,” she said, giggling.
“Okay,” he said, smiling, “I can’t promise you this won’t happen again.”
As they were walking back to the Sudbury house, Alton noticed that Mary had gotten some mud on her dress when he laid her down on the ground. “How are we going to explain the mud on your dress, Mary?” He asked her.
“Watch me,” she said, and when they got back to the house she told her father. “Daddy, I almost got bit by a water moccasin, but Alton grabbed me and pulled me out of the way. We almost fell in the creek. I think I ruined my dress.”
“You’ll survive the dress,” her father said. “A snake bite could have cost me more than a dress. I’m obliged to you, Alton.”
“Wasn’t that big a deal, Mister McCarthy,” Alton responded. He looked at Mary who was smiling at him.
Mary began picking Alton up for church every Sunday, saving Homer the trouble, and it wasn’t very long before Alton was having dinner at the McCarthy’s place. He offered to do some work for Mary’s father but James wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, Alton helped Mary do the dishes and clean up the house. James finally relented. “Okay, Alton, you win, you can help me slop the pigs and milk the cows. I can’t stand to see a man washing dishes.”
One Sunday, after dinner, James McCarthy asked Alton to take a walk around the farm with him. “I want to talk to you about something.”
“Yes, sir,” Alton said, “what can I do for you?”
“Alton, I’m twice your age, and I’m not in the best of health. I’m not yet blind, although a blind man can see that Mary loves you. You’re all she talks about. I mean she won’t shut up about you. I don’t know how you feel about her, but I do have some idea. In any case, I’d like to offer you a deal.”
“I love her too, Mister McCarthy. I never loved anyone until I met Mary.”
“I’d allowed you might say that, real love is hard to hide. But here’s my deal. I’m going to ask you to come here and work for me. I’ll talk to the Sudburys, if that’s a problem for you. I’ll match the pay, and you can stay in the room across the breezeway.
“Would you be opposed to me asking Mary to marry me?”
“No, Alton, I wouldn’t,” James said “I’d be honored to have you for a son-in-law.”
“What if Mary turns me down?”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take, Alton.” They both laughed out loud at that.
“Now all I have to do is ask her, any suggestions?
“Just ask her,” James said. “Now I recall that you said your dad had a dairy farm and that you liked working with cows. Well, I will turn this farm into a dairy farm, if you want me to. I don’t know much about dairy farming, but you can teach me. I’ll put this place in yours and Mary’s name so that, when I croak, it will belong to you two.
“What’s croak mean, Mister McCarthy?”
“That’s a term for dying that my ol’ man used to use.”
“Croak, okay,” Alton said.
The wedding was held at Mount Pleasant, and James McCarthy loaned them his car to go on their honeymoon. They spent the weekend in Brownwood, and Alton was back at the farm Sunday night to get some sleep before the next work day on Monday.
Mary moved her things to the room across the breezeway.
Homer Sudbury told James that he saw this coming the first time he saw Alton and Mary trying not to look at each other that first day in church.
James bought ten cows and more milking equipment, buckets, and another separator. They still had to do the work by hand. He couldn’t afford milking machines yet. Alton told him that would come in time. Alton was up before dawn every morning and worked as late as the work required. “I’ve never seen a man work so hard, Mary,” James told his daughter. “He is driven to get things done.”
“You gave him a chance, Daddy. You gave him hope and a reason to work.”
“No, you did that, daughter. A good woman can turn a man around. Alton was never a bad man, he just got down on his luck.”
In July of 1922, a baby boy was born to Mary and Alton Kemper. He was fat and healthy. They named him James, after Mary’s father. McCarthy was a good grandfather, and he spoiled the boy terribly, but neither Mary nor Alton complained. They were happy to have a son and each other. Alton began considering the possibilities of the farm he had almost inherited. As long as his strength held out, he knew he could make the place financially viable. James wanted to continue growing watermelons and peanuts, rather than make the farm exclusively a dairy. He wanted another means of making money, just in case.
A year later, Mary discovered she was pregnant again.
“A girl this time,” Alton said, a girl just like you, Mary.”
But it was not to be. Mary miscarried a month later. She cried for days, and Alton tried hard to be strong for her. Both he and James were heartbroken over it, but they went on about their business.
Just before Christmas, 1925, James McCarthy passed away. The loss hit Mary hard, and Alton was hurt more than she would ever know. James had been like a father to him. He’d given Alton both his daughter and his farm. Alton just could not comprehend these kinds of people, so trusting and so giving. He thought, surely, he must have been singled out to have a blessed life. But now it was just him and Mary and the baby James. The work had to go on.
Alton rolled up his sleeves, kissed his wife and son, and went out to work their dairy farm.
© 2013 by Jack Sprouse