Word count 773
I watch as Scott breaks camp, packing the few utensils we’d needed for the trail. I’ve relished the few days I’ve spent with my sons, only a short trip to check on new breeding stock but, I’ve learned maybe not a lot, but some things a father should know about these two boys, sons, men.
Boys, only Johnny, and for too brief a time, was ever my boy. Is it too much to hope that I can have them as my boys for a while?
“Do you know where Johnny is?”
“I think he went down by the river.”
I cringe a bit at the wariness in Scott’s voice. I think he’s worried that I’m annoyed with Johnny. I’m not and I’m happy, a brother looking out for his brother.
I pour the last coffee from the battered pot. “I’ll take him the last of the coffee.”
I see Scott grimace. “Not sure if he’ll appreciate that or not.”
I’ve learned Scott likes his coffee mellow, not the rough brew at the end of the pot.
I come up on the river quietly and watch this dark-haired son, still too much a stranger. Johnny’s picking up the small rocks from the river’s edge, fingering them, feeling them, finding the right one then with a flick of the wrist skipping the small stone across the still water. The motions are quick and assured, with no wasted effort, just like everything I see him do.
I’m sure to make some noise as I come down the path. I know this boy needs warning that someone is approaching. He needs to be ready, whether it’s a friend or not. He turns to watch me. I hold out the cup.
“Thought you might like the last of the coffee.”
Johnny takes the cup with a smile. I study him as he cradles the cup, blowing the heat off the first sip. I can see he savors the taste. Yes, he’d like the coffee dark and strong. So much like himself. He’s quiet as he drinks the coffee, staring into the river or across the water to the shore. I can’t tell.
“A penny for your thoughts.”
Johnny turns to me, a hint of a smile. “Not sure they’re worth that.”
They ‘d be worth a fortune to me, I think. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that.”
I wait for any kind of response. Perhaps I’ve pushed too hard.
He took a last sip from the cup and threw the dregs into the river. I watch the small ripples spread out. His voice was so quiet.
“I was thinking of a revival meeting I came across once. That preacher was sure spreading the gospel of fire and brimstone. Fit me, fire, brimstone, and the gates of hell opening up for me. I was….I hadn’t been using my gun for too long, just come off a range war.”
He stops, I can hear the quick shuddering breathing.
“Johnny, you were too young, you can’t….”
He holds up his hand to stay my words. He turns to me; his eyes are so full of pain. “I was still learning there was more than one way to get someone to do what you want. I did some things I wasn’t too proud of. Anyhow, I was hiding out at the edge of this clearing, the river was to the preacher’s back. He waded out into that water. He was waving his hands and telling the people to come up to the river, to come into the water and wash their sins away.
“Oh, Murdoch, it was a sight, all these folks wailing and walking into the water, kneeling down and shouting they’d been saved. It was quite a show. People’d have paid money to see that.”
“Did you …?”
“No, I figured what I’d just done in that range war,” I saw a ghost of a smile on his face, but my son’s voice was only despair, “there was no washing that away. Not a river big enough.”
“Murdoch, Johnny!” Scott’s voice cuts the quiet. “You two ready to mount up?”
“Sounds like Scott’s ready to get back to Lancer, misses that soft bed.” Johnny starts up the bank past me.
I reach out to take his arm and turn him to me.
“Johnny, no matter how big the river, that isn’t what washes away a man’s sin. It takes a heart, son. And yours is big enough.”
I see the same faint smile as before but now a glimmer of hope in his eyes and he’s gone.
Christine, August 2009
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