A sound of rustling clothing brought Joshua awake. He lay with his eyes open and his mind attentive. The dawn lay faint in the east. A small fire chewed at the last remains of nighttime.
“I damn near thought you for dead,” Old Tom’s voice called across the campsite. Using an arm for leverage, Joshua tilted his upper body toward the voice.
“Tough to sleep with a bull like you crashing around in the bushes.”
“I try my best,” a smile underlined the words. “Coffee’s brewing. I’ll warm some grub before we set out. How you doing?”
“Good enough,” Joshua replied. His hands found the rope Tom attached to limb higher in the tree he slept under. Hand over hand, Joshua pulled himself up and with a bit of strain dragged the wheel chair closer. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll join you.” He said as he rolled away behind a clump of low growing shrubs.
The sun lightened the sky behind the men. The turn in the trail skirted a wall of rock. Joshua waited while Tom rode ahead checking the rock ledge for width and obstacles that hindered the advance of the four-wheeled bike.
“Gets a might skinny for a few hundred yards before widening.” Old Tom said upon his return, “Should be fine though.” The cowhands gnarled fingers busy loosening the lid on his canteen.
“Fair enough. Is there a way down on the other side that you can see?”
“Yeah. Looks possible. The tree line reaches up just ahead. Places ole Red can climb down,” Tom patted the thigh of his horse. “Don’t think your machine will make it, though. But once we’re past, I’ll search further ahead. Either that or we backtrack. The trail looked a lot bike friendlier a few miles back.”
Joshua turned his head in thought, his fingers busy scratching the tangle of unruly hair left from the nights sleep. “Take too much time to turn and find a way down behind. I’d like to get down to that valley and check those cattle we saw herded into that canyon. From this distance, I can’t say fore sure that I recognize them two men on horse back, but pretty balsy for a couple strangers to ride my range and move cattle.”
“Well then I suppose we get this over with. Stick close,” Tom squeezed his horse along side Joshua’s quad, ready to lead back onto the narrow rock shelf.
A blur scattered rock chips loose near Tom’s horse. From the edge of his sight, a loud boom echoed followed the chipping of the rock, causing Joshua to flinch. Then in slow motion, from the side of his sight, he caught Tom’s horse rear in fright startled by the unexpected noise and the spraying rock chips.
Joshua threw his arm up for protection as Tom and the horse swayed into his machine. Joshua’s heart skipped a beat when the weight of horse and rider nudged the Four-wheel quad near the lip of the rock shelf. In a matter of heart beats, he watched in horror as Tom, pinned in the saddle, reigned back on the horse. The old cowhands effort wasted as both the man and horse tumbled past the front of the quad and over the steep incline.
Before the wind returned to Joshua’s lungs, the front tire of the quad slipped past the edge of the stone ledge. The machine quivered, then a second tire skidded past the lip. Blood drained from Joshua’s face. The word “shit” roared from his lips when the centre of balance tipped out of his favour. With arms clenched around the machine’s handlebars he closed his eyes and muttered a prayer as the machine began tumbling downward.
I waited as the dust from my ride drifted down the road. Beating my hat against my uniform I swatted the dust away before turning and looking towards the long driveway. A newer pair of wrought iron gates blocked the way in. I tilted my head upwards. A dusty, faded sign broadcast the land behind the fence belonged to the P/B ranch.
A smile lifted the ends of my lips. Absence made my heart grow fonder. All sorts of wonderful feelings flowed into my body. I had definitely been gone for too long.
The flag on the mail box stood at attention so I walked over and pulled a handful of letters out. Tucking them into my pocket, I climbed the top rail and landed on the family side of the fence. Double rows of trees lined the long gravel drive. Leaves coloured a dull green quaked in a weak breeze. The wind blew from behind my back, the tips of the leaves in the trees pointing the way up the long driveway.
I took one last glance at the iron gates then turned back around. My eyes tracing the gravel path to the edge of the stand of trees. A feeling of reluctance held me briefly in its grasp before a surge of energy moved my feet and started me toward the house and a father I’d been too long in seeing.
Sarah stood at the open door, mouth open. The knock on the door was a surprise all itself, the ranch being secluded and all, but the person on the step, why would someone from the army drive all this way. Sarah tilted her head upward. The man at the door towered above her five and a quarter feet in height.
“H..hi,” she stuttered.
“Mam,” the uniformed young man bowed his head in greeting.
“Can I help you…”
“Sorry to show up all unannounced. My tour ended and I…well, I thought it’d be nice to see my father. Been a lot of years.”
“You’re…” Sarah searched for the memory of Joshua’s boy’s names. Liam was still in California. Joshua talked to him only days ago and what was the older one….
“Sorry again, mam,” the soldier stuck out his hand. “Right rude of me to not introduce myself. I was away in Europe when you married…you are Sarah, right? Married to Joshua Boutõn, aren’t you?”
“Yes, yes I am and you must be William,” Sarah exhaled the breath caught in her chest. The name suddenly seeping into her thoughts.
“Again,” the soldier’s hand remained outstretched, “please to make your acquaintance.”
“So you’ve been issued your release papers. That must be exiting,” Sarah glanced across the table at the younger man. The resemblance to her husband, now that her initial shock passed and she studied the younger man’s face, was undeniable.
The boy’s hair was shorter, but framed the same sturdy facial features, likewise brownish green eyes as her husband’s and an arrow straight nose resting above thin lines of lips outlining the mouth. Unlike his father’s beard, the freshly shaved face ended at a strong square jaw.
As the younger man moved and spoke, she noticed other shared qualities from the tilt of their heads to the way they talked down to simple gestures leaving no doubt the two were related.
Sarah stared a second longer at the younger Boutõn then stood and walked to the counter. The brewing coffee pot gurgled its last drops of water. Her mind raced with questions of karma and bad timing. Why now, would William decide to show up on the doorstep.
Filling the cups, her thoughts raced. Make nice over coffee and then send him on his way.
“You missed your father by a couple days. Cabin fever I believe he complained about. He decided to leave the house and ride into the back country,” she blurted all in one breath. “He’s been feeling out of sorts these past days. Figured a trip into the mountains with old Tom might boost his spirits.”
Sarah let her gaze drop to the table. A dainty finger brushed at a phantom teardrop at the side of her face.
“Times have been hard…on him…on us…” Her head remained bent downward portraying the awful weight set upon her from living with a proud man now bound by a wheelchair. Slowly she stirred her coffee. The silence extended.
“It must be hard,” William sympathized.
“Some days more than others,” she replied. Her face lifted to meet his. Tears dotted the corner of her eyes.
“I understand. Father could be…” William shrugged leaving the words unspoken.
Sarah lifted a hand and swiping the back across her tear stained cheeks, the muscles at the edge of her lips raised in a sad smile. With her other hand she fanned her face shooing away the bad memories. Her voice switched to a cheerier, I’ll be alright tone.
“Anyways. It’s good to finally meet you. Your father has told me so much about your exploits. He was very proud.” Sarah stood, the conversation over. Her footsteps pointing toward the front door in a hinting fashion.
“Where are you staying? Do you have a phone number? I’ll have him call the minute he gets back? He’ll be so happy to see you.”
I looked up at my father’s wife then down at the half empty coffee sitting on the table in front of me.
“I haven’t had a chance to find lodgings yet.” Suddenly I felt short of words. I naturally expected to be welcomed. The staying part a foregone conclusion. Now, my father not home, I hesitated. I had no other plan. I cleared my throat and sipped some coffee looking for the courage to ask this stranger for the chance to stay under this roof. Her roof.
I set the cup down thoughtfully and raised my face. Our eyes met. “I…hoped to stay here while I got my bearings, but I understand. With father gone and all.”
“Oh, yes. Certainly. What was I thinking,” father’s wife walked the few steps back and stood leaning with a hand on the back of the chair.
“Sorry. Where are my manners,” she apologized.
I watched her face. The surprise from minutes earlier disappeared. In its place. I don’t know. Her features narrowed. Was that in humility or…
“Your room hasn’t changed. Will that work for you?”
“Perfectly,” I answered still puzzled by the change in her expression. Was I missing something. Did I arrive at a difficult time? Step into the middle of some family problems?
“I won’t be a burden and I think I can still ride with the best of them. I’m not afraid to work for my stay. Knew this ranch pretty well once upon a time. I am certain I can be of help if you’d like, at least until father comes home.”
“Yes. That will be fine. We’ll find something to keep you occupied.” She smiled an absent smile. Her eyes looked far off like my presence added to her burden.
“I can find hotel room.” I cut into her thoughts. “I don’t want to add to your troubles.”
“No, no. Everything is well. Welcome home,” she looked up at me. Her features softened. “You remember where your room is?” She said pointing down the hall.
“Yes mam,” I replied and picked up my duffle bag.