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Autumn of Change
September,1959 Crow Agency,Montana
Johnny dreaded having to explain the jagged tear in his jacket as he trudged home from school.About the only solace he had was that his trek from where the school bus dropped him off was located a half-mile down the road from the Simonson ranch,giving him time to try and come up with something to say. But no matter what he thought of it didn't quite sound convincing enough.
"Stupid..."he muttered to himself,eyes averted as he kicked a stone along the side of the road."Wait...I'll tell Papa that I ripped it tryin' to help break up the fight.Yeah,that's it!...Aw,then he'll ask who was fightin'..."
He continued on,still mumbling and kicking the stone along.He didn't whistle as he walked like he normally did,or pause on his way and check the mailbox at the end of the Gage driveway.Instead he quickly glanced up to scan the yard,but seeing the place where his father parked his truck empty,he let out a noisy sigh of relief.He trotted a little faster toward the weathered little house and dashed around the corner to the back door. Once there he shed the damaged jacket and,after a few seconds of indecision,he stuffed it at the bottom of the laundry hamper. How he was going to explain it to his father? He quickly changed from his school clothes and into an old pair of jeans,T-shirt,and boots.He glanced at the small clock above the stove,noted the time,and grabbing an apple from the bowl on the table and dashed out the door.
Johnny took the footpath that led through the pasture toward the Simonson's home at a fast trot. He devoured the apple in large bites as he hustled,the tall grass brushing against his legs. The low sun caused him to squint in the strong light,coloring everything golden. When he was littler he used to hide in the tall grass when he got into mischief,but now doubted that would be the best solution.Certainly his father would not find such behavior amusing. He tossed his apple core into the weeds and continued on.
He was shortly greeted by Apollo,one of Ed's Belgian shepherds as he reached the yard's perimeter.The large dog's long tail fanned the air as he welcomed Johnny. Betty stood on the back stoop shaking out the doormat and spotted him approach.
"Your father is looking for you,"she called."The chores needed to be done half an hour ago."
"Yes,Ma'am." Johnny headed for the barn,where he found Nolan cleaning the horse stalls in his place. The young man glanced up as Johnny breathlessly entered and grabbed a hay rake to help.
"Where've you been,Johnnycakes?" he asked."Your papa's been lookin' for you.What happened to your face?"
"Is that Johnny?" came his father's voice and Johnny turned a deep shade of red.Roddy peered over the side of the stall and when he saw his son his brow furrowed. "There you are.You're supposed to come straight from school.What kept you,Son?"
Johnny busily raked at the soiled hay in a stall,avoiding his father's gaze."Uh...I got kept after,"he replied shortly."It's nothin',Papa."
Roddy came around the stall to stand before the youngster.It was then that he noticed the scrape on Johnny's elbow and the bruise that had discolored his cheek."Nothing,huh? You're standing there all banged up,late from school,and you tell me it's nothing?" He snared the rake from his son's hands and leaned it against the wall."What happened?"
Johnny's gaze fixed on the ground at his feet. "I got detention after school.I-I got in a fight."
Roddy had folded his arms,his expression serious."A fight,huh? Look at me,Johnny. What was the fight about?"
Johnny shrugged,glancing up briefly. "I-I dunno..."
Roddy reached to lift the boy's chin so that he could see his son's face. His expression was so stern that Johnny felt his heart beat faster. "You don't know? Or you won't tell me?"
Again another shrug."I-it w-wasn't my fault."
"Oh,"Roddy said,his voice tight."I see.If it wasn't your fault,then you wouldn't have gotten detention,am I right?" Roddy continued to gaze steadily at his son. Johnny kicked at the ground helplessly as he lowered his gaze again,too ashamed to even look up at his father's face.He murmured something intelligible and Roddy had to cock one ear closer."What was that?" Again there was no reply and he dropped his arms to his sides."John Roderick Gage,would you please stop mumbling and speak so that I can understand what you're saying?"
"It's no big deal,Papa,"Johnny insisted desperately. "Really."
Roddy folded his arms and stared knowingly."Johnny,who were you fighting with?"
"It was Grant Two Rivers,"Johnny blurted plaintively. "He called me names! He called me a mutt! He said I wasn't a real Indian,an' in-infer..."
"An inferior mongrel."
Roddy sighed."Johnny,you can't let everything other people say get to you.And fighting isn't the answer.You know how I feel about that."
"He always does things! If he isn't callin' me names he does stuff like pinnin' me to the ground or twistin' my arm behind my back...yesterday he grabbed the back of my pants and yanked them up.An' last week he pushed my face into the hole in the outhouse!"
"He's just trying to get a rise out of you."
Johnny made an annoyed sound and threw up his arms in frustration."What am I supposed to do? Let him pick on me all the time?"
Roddy cast him a meaningful look."No,I'm not saying that,and don't raise your voice to me. Try to ignore his taunts."
"Oh,that'll work,"Johnny snapped rudely,and instantly regretted his comment as soon as he saw his father's frown deepen.
Roddy reached for the rake and thrust it back into his hands."Don't snap at me,Johnny,"he scolded,and Johnny wanted to crawl under the door of the stall in shame. "We'll discuss this later. Right now these stalls need to be cleaned,then Jake and I need your help out in the pasture. Is that understood?"
"All right," Roddy said."Don't be too long,Son."
Johnny didn't say anything as he watched his father head back outside.He kicked at a tuft of hay in frustration. Grant wasn't the first bully to call him names. He had been teased several times before,but Grant seemed to take special delight in annoying him. Johnny raked the soiled hay vigorously in exasperation. He pushed the full wheelbarrow out to the pile,emptied it,then headed back inside to spread clean hay into the stalls.He was met once again by Nolan,leading two horses. Johnny paused in his task to stroke one of the horse's nose.A beautiful chestnut mare,the horse was one of his favorites.
"Almost done there,Johnny?"
"Uh huh.This is the last one." He smiled as the mare blew her breath softly against his cheek. "Man,I hate Grant! I wish he'd fall off a cliff."
"Being picked on,huh?"
Johnny sighed,lifting the rake one last time and depositing the remaining hay evenly."Yeah. He likes to tease me all the time."
"Huh,"Nolan said evenly,tending to one of the horses."I was bullied by another kid when I was about your age."
Johnny looked up.Nolan wasn't very old,but even at twenty-one he seemed far more worldly and adult to Johnny. "You were? What'd you do?"
"I became his friend."
Johnny's eyebrows rose."His friend?"
"How can I be Grant's friend when he hates me?" Johnny protested."If I went up to him and asked him that he'd pound me!"
"I never said to go up to him and ask,"Nolan explained patiently and Johnny snorted."Be patient.You'd be surprised at what will happen."
"Yeah,I'll get my butt kicked,"Johnny muttered.Nolan merely smiled and gave him an encouraging pat on the back before departing.
"Just wait and give him a chance.You'll see."
That night after supper Johnny sat and stewed over the punishment that his father doled out. Roddy disapproved of fighting without good cause and was a stickler for chores being done on time,and his sentence was a week without the radio and no trip to the movies the coming Saturday with Gordy Little Hawk.This in spite of the fact that the two boys had spent two months saving their nickels to pay their way into a matinee and to be able to buy popcorn and candy.While not usually disobedient Johnny was stubborn and willful,and having those two privileges revoked was like torture.His math homework was spread open in the table before him,but he sat chewing at the end of his pencil,staring out the window at the deepening twilight.He hadn't noticed his father step into his tiny room in search of dirty laundry until the man spoke.
"Johnny? Come here,please."
Johnny innocently stepped through the doorway and was greeted by the sight of his father holding the torn jacket he'd hidden. As soon as he realized his deceit his face turned crimson.
"What's this?" Roddy demanded quietly.He rarely raised his voice and the soft-spoken question made Johnny's nerves tingle.
"Uh...I-I just...I h-hid it,Papa...'cause it's ripped...s-sorry,I forgot to..."
Roddy sighed as he folded the torn garment in his hands."Son,this is a brand-new jacket. I just bought this for you."
Johnny shrugged helplessly.He seldom received new clothes as it was,and he was really sorry that it got torn.His face turned redder as his father grumbled about the cost of the jacket and the importance of taking care of his things. "I-I'm really sorry,Papa."
Roddy lifted the small collection of laundry items in the basket. "I'm disappointed,Son,"he said with an edge to his voice."Put your homework away.You're going to bed right now."
"Not another word," Roddy declared firmly,holding his index finger up before Johnny's face.His expression was severe enough for Johnny to nearly bite his tongue.
It was only a quarter to seven,but Johnny gathered his schoolbooks,stuffed them into his knapsack,and tiptoed back into his room.He stole a glance at his father sorting through the laundry to take to Betty in the morning and bit his lip hard as the man gruffly flung items in the basket.He really regretted letting Grant rile him and for ruining his good clothes,but there was little that could be done now.Betty was a talented seamstress,but he knew that she couldn't work miracles with the jagged tear. He ducked through the curtain and tugged his clothes off in preparation for bed.
For a long time he lay awake beneath the covers,staring at the shadows in the dimly-lit room and listened to the soft sounds of his father as he tidied the kitchen-the clink of the supper dishes being washed in the dishpan,the soft thud of firewood being tossed into the stove,the floorboards creaking beneath his feet. The squeak of the screen door caused Johnny to twist in bed and part the curtains above his head to peer outside. In the soft light of the full moon he glimpsed his father's shadowy silhouette as he perched on the back step,then the faint amber glow as he lit a cigarette
.He watched his father blow a thin stream of pale smoke into the night air,looking on for a long moment as he slowly smoked. A lump filled his throat as he gazed on,remembering how his parents used to sit together on the stoop in the dark,chatting quietly about the events of their day. Johnny had sat up and listened many times when he should have been tucked in bed.
As he watched his father gazing at the stars Johnny felt a pang of regret.He let the curtain fall back into place and crawled back under the covers. Brownie hopped soundlessly upon the bed and curled next to him with a soft bump.He reached to scratch around the cat's ears for a moment,then let his hand drop back onto the bed before turning onto his side.
Disturbing thoughts of the day's events wandered through his mind as he waited for sleep,leaving him to wonder how he could make amends for the torn jacket and for fighting,and what he could do to get Grant off of his back.Eventually he fell into an uneasy sleep,one arm curled around his old stuffed rabbit.
After cleaning the dishes and tidying the kitchen Roddy stepped outside for a brief break to try and clear his mind.He sat down and withdrew a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket and lit it,savoring the first draw of the fragrant smoke. He cast a glance toward the darkened window to his son's room,thinking about what had transpired that afternoon.Johnny wasn't a bad kid but he possessed a quick temper and a tendency to act on impulse rather than to think things through. He had inherited his stubbornness and spontaneity from his mother and the youngster's impetuous nature and energy made parenting a challenge at times,but as he thought about it Roddy realized that he wouldn't trade being a father for anything in the world.He finished the cigarette and stubbed the butt out in the sand-filled pail on the step before going back inside.
He paused in the kitchen to inspect the torn jacket once more,then set it back in the basket.He padded softly to the doorway leading to Johnny's room and lifted the curtain to peer inside.In the soft light of the lamp he glimpsed Johnny sleeping,clutching the old cloth rabbit that Emma had sewn when he was an infant. He crept silently into the room and bent over to tuck the covers over Johnny's sleeping form,to lay a gentle hand upon his forehead and to kiss the soft skin of his son's cheek. Johnny shifted slightly and a faint sound escaped his lips but he didn't awaken. Roddy gave Brownie a soft stroke then tiptoed from the room.
Betty clucked her tongue and shook her head in dismay upon inspecting Johnny's jacket the next morning.The rip extended down the entire side of the garment.Johnny had brought the jacket to her and now stood looking guilty as she sighed and laid the item down on the kitchen table.
"Well,I can certainly fix it,but it will still show,"she sighed."What on earth happened? Your father just bought you this jacket."
Johnny hunched his shoulders and lowered his eyes to gaze at his feet."I-I was fightin'." Betty grunted in disappointment.
"Johnny,really..." She set the jacket aside to mend later. It was a Saturday,the day he was supposed to go to the movies with Gordy,but now he was stuck staying in the house after chores.That meant he had to do whatever Betty suggested,and based on past experience he knew what it meant,which didn't make it any easier.He took his cue to escape to the barn when the older woman turned back to the filled sink and resumed washing the dishes.
"Uh...I'll go help Papa with the chores,an' be back when I'm done."
"I'll be waiting with plenty to do,"she replied."And the first thing you're going to start on is your homework.Your father told me that he sent you to bed straight after supper last night."
If anything Johnny grew more red-faced. "Yes,Ma'am." He slunk out of the house and trotted quickly down the path to the barn.Ed,his father and Jake were off somewhere in the pastures,but Nolan was filling the chicken feed bin when Johnny entered the shed.As soon as the young man saw him he emptied the last feed sack into the bin.
"You're here,"he noted. "Good.Now I can go off and help the others."
Johnny nodded somberly,picking up the scoop and measuring out a portion into the feed pail. He cast a cautious glance as Nolan snapped on a pair of chaps. "Nolan? I-I wanted to apologize."
Nolan straightened up,chaps in place and stuck a pair of leather gloves into his back pocket. "For what?"
"For bein' late yesterday,"Johnny said quietly."An' for havin' you do my chores.Sorry."
Nolan waved his comment away. "Aw,don't worry about it. Did you get lectured last night?"
Johnny rolled his eyes and drawled,"Yeah! An' grounded,an' I can't go to the movies with Gordy. Grant messed up everythin'!"
Nolan merely smiled knowingly,reaching for his straw cowboy hat and slapping it on his head. "Don't forget that it takes two to fight,Johnny.You've gotta watch that temper of yours." At that he playfully tousled Johnny's dark head.
"I know,I know."
Johnny watched Nolan stroll out the barn door,leading a horse as he went and sighed deeply. Once done in the barn Johnny then fed the chickens.Betty had a larger flock than at home and it took two turns with the feed pail to get them all fed.Once done he set the pail back in its place,brushed himself off,and headed back inside the house.The sweet scent of cooking preserves reached his nostrils and he poked his head hopefully through the doorway that separated the mud room from the kitchen.The large Dutch oven and the hot-water canner were on the gas range. A sea of fresh,ripe garden tomatoes covered the counters indicating that Betty was canning and his hopes lifted.He glimpsed Betty dipping the tomatoes into the boiling pot to loosen the skin,then peeling and slicing the tomatoes and placing them in the large pot. Maybe he'd be able to help with the canning instead of doing his homework.
"Johnny? Is that you?"
"Once you clean up I want you to get started on that homework." Betty continued to slice blanched tomatoes swiftly.
"Okay,"he said,leaving his boots by the door and brushing his jeans off before entering.He paused to wash his hands at the sink,glancing longingly at the canning equipment laid out carefully on the counter.Betty usually let him stir the cooking preserves and to place the lids on the jars once they were filled.There was something comforting and ritualistic about the process that he enjoyed. His mother learned to can from the older woman and when he was littler Johnny got to scrape the remnants of jam and applesauce from the cooking pot once it was cool enough.Betty caught his expression.
"Darling,you should be done by the time these jars need to be filled if you get started,"she explained."It'll take at least thirty minutes to cook.Now go on."
Johnny gave a small smile and went to retrieve his knapsack from the mud room.He sat at the kitchen table and opened his math assignment first.Math was one of his easiest subjects and he got it out of the way quickly.English was another story; while he was a capable reader and enjoyed books enough,Johnny had no use for knowing what a pronoun or adjective was.Who cared whether the sentence he was reading had distinct parts? He figured if he could read and comprehend it the rest didn't matter,but he puzzled over the worksheet of sentences with blanks trying to name each break and growing more frustrated with each second.Finally he let out a breath and scribbled frantically,naming as many as he could remember and guessing on the rest. He also had a chapter of 'The Yearling' to read,but that could be done following supper,Johnny's favorite time to read.He usually got farther than the alloted chapter,engrossed in most of the choices made by his teacher.Unfortunately it also caught the attention of Grant who ended up calling him a 'sissy mutt bookworm'.As soon as he finished the hated worksheet he shoved the paper into his folder and glanced around the kitchen.
"Betty? Did today's newspaper come?"
Betty glanced up from her work."I last spotted it in the parlor,Dear."
Johnny got up and headed into the adjacent room.What his father termed the 'living quarters' at home,the room was where the elderly couple hosted family and friends.There was Ed's antique oak desk,carried all the way from Missouri by his grandfather in 1866,Betty's rocker and the tall console radio with the 'magic eye' tuner that Johnny thought resembled some eerie creature when illuminated.The newspaper lay neatly folded on the ottoman and he picked it up and sank into Ed's recliner.Each Monday his teacher had Current Events,and it was the students' responsibility to have copies of the latest news stories for open discussion.Johnny usually gleaned his information from the newspaper,adding bits heard on the battery-powered radio at home.
He was busy poring over the national and world news section,clipping articles,when there was a flash of lightning,followed by a crash of thunder.Johnny parted the sheer curtains to peer out the window.The light had grown dimmer as dark clouds rolled in.What had started as a bright sunny morning was now dark and ominous. He gathered up his clipped articles and dropped the remains of the newspaper into the wastebasket next to the desk.As soon as he entered the kitchen the back door opened and Roddy entered assisting Ed alongside.
"I'm all right,I tell ya!" Ed was saying,even as Roddy shut the door behind him and gently but purposefully sat him down on the mud room bench."Now let me back out to finish my work,or I'll-"
"You'll what?" Roddy countered."Injure yourself further?"
"What's going on?" Betty inquired,attracted by the commotion.Johnny squeezed next to her in the doorway to look on. Her husband's face twisted into an annoyed scowl.
"Nothing's going on! I just took a tumble off a horse is all!" He winced at his outburst,bracing his ribs with his arm.
Betty planted both hands on her hips and regarded her spouse sternly."Edward James Simonson,you're not a young man anymore.And I can see that you're hurting."
Ed's scowl deepened."It's nothing!" He sighed in defeat as Roddy handed the man's hat to Johnny and proceeded to unbutton is boss's dusty shirt.As soon as he did Betty gave a small gasp.A large ugly bruise decorated the man's left side and Ed sat gritting his teeth even as he panted,clearly in pain.When Roddy gently touched the area he hissed and pulled away."Ooh! It's just a bruise!"
"Uh huh,"Roddy muttered,allowing Ed to button back up."Unless I'm mistaken you've got a couple of cracked ribs."
"And how do you know that?" Ed challenged."You're no doctor!"
"No,I'm not.But remember that collision I took in the rodeo ring a few years back? When I was chasing that bull? I cracked four ribs,if you don't recall. I know what cracked ribs look and feel like."
Ed grumbled to himself at that and Johnny tried not to grin.He remembered how his father had protested staying in bed with his ribs taped up,even after his mother threatened to ignore his needs and fend for himself if he didn't cooperate.Johnny had been six years old,and he recalled that he had climbed into his parents' bed to keep his father company,completely understanding even at his tender age the annoyance of being forced to stay still. But Roddy had been much younger than the elderly rancher was now,and it was clear that Ed was extremely uncomfortable. Outside the storm increased and the rain drummed on the roof.Betty turned back to the pot of preserves on the stove,then handed Johnny the spoon.
"Ed,you're going straight to bed,and Rod is calling Dr.Shipley,"she declared."Go on and take him up,Roddy.I'll be up in a minute."
Roddy eased Ed back to his feet and guided the man through the kitchen.Betty untied her apron and glanced at Johnny carefully stirring the pot.She then tied the apron around his midsection and patted his cheek.
"Keep stirring,Darling,and watch the flame.I'll be right back."
Ed protested during the entire trek up the stairs,insisting that he was alright,but Betty and Roddy refused to budge.As the younger man helped him lay down on the bed Ed let out a pained cry as his wife carefully hoisted his feet up.She reached to smooth a hand over his forehead at his pain. "Dear..."
Ed took her hand away and held it for a moment."I'm just sore,Buttercup,"he said,using his pet name for her to an attempt to ally her concern.Another wave of pain shot through his injured chest and he grunted,his eyes screwed shut.
"That's not just sore,Ed,that's likely what Rod said,"she gently scolded,nodding toward where Roddy had stepped into the hallway and picked up the telephone.
"I've come off a horse before,Betty.And been kicked by them as well."
"And you're not a young man anymore,either,"she reminded him."Now lay there and be still."
"Doc's on his way,Betty,"Roddy told her and she nodded.
"Betty!" Johnny's frantic voice carried up the stairs."The pot's boiling over!"
Betty straightened up and touched Roddy's arm as she stepped for the door."Stay with him,Rod.I'll be back."
Downstairs in the kitchen Johnny had turned off the burner and was frantically trying to mop up the mess left by a pot of tomato preserves allowed to boil over.The sight of the twelve-year-old,swathed in her apron and trying to manage the mess caused her to suddenly laugh.She peered into the pot,then gave him a squeeze.Johnny gazed at her fearfully,afraid that he'd ruined the preserves.
"I-I turned it off,"he said."I d-didn't wanna ruin it,"he stammered."It's okay,right?"
"Apart from boiling over it's just right,"she reassured him."Now,let's get those jars filled before it cools."
Johnny grinned in relief,then stood by with the clean rims as Betty began carefully filling the quart-sized jars with the tomato preserves.The jars were processed and cooling on a towel spread on the counter when there was a knock at the screen door.The rain had been reduced to a drizzle,leaving the air fresh and fragrant.Dr.Shipley stood on the back step,clad in his rain slicker.He smiled when Johnny stepped over to open the door.
"Well,good morning,Johnny!" he said,stepping inside. "Your father just called me.I was expecting to find you sick or hurt,and here you are looking fit."
"I'm okay,"Johnny said."It's Ed that Papa called about."
"Good morning,Doctor,"Betty greeted,setting down the damp dishrag she was using to clean the counter and nodding cordially. She set the cloth aside and undid her apron before leading the way to the stairs. "Rod's upstairs right now with Ed."
"And what is the nature of my call?" the doctor asked,climbing after her. Johnny trotted after them out of curiosity.As the adults talked he was relieved it wasn't him at the receiving end of any ministrations,even if he liked the good doctor.As soon as they reached the second floor Betty and Dr.Shipley entered the bedroom.Johnny peered around the corner of the doorway and glimpsed the scowl that Ed gave the physician,then crept inside to sit in a nearby chair.
"Good morning,Ed,"the doctor greeted."Rod here tells me that you've had a little accident."
"Yes,"the old man admitted in a surly voice."He's making a mountain out of a molehill."
Roddy fought the urge to roll his eyes.Instead he folded his arms over his chest and frowned.
"Well,why don't you let me ascertain that,"Dr.Shipley suggested,pulling up a chair next to the bed."What happened?"
"I took a tumble,is all."
"He came off a horse,"Roddy continued."Out in the pasture while we were bringing the herd in.We saw the storm heading our way and were a little hasty,I admit.He denies it,but I believe he cracked some ribs."
"I can explain it,Rod,"Ed snapped,but Betty gave his leg a tap.
"No need to get nasty,Darling,"she warned gently but firmly.
"Let me take a look and make a proper diagnosis."
"It's just a bruise!" he insisted yet again,even as Dr.Shipley gingerly probed.The elderly rancher flinched and grunted,enduring a thorough examination and numerous questions.
"Does anything else hurt? Your head? Arms? Legs?"
"Did you black out?"
Dr.Shipley probed his chest,and Ed let out a gasp when the doctor touched a particularly sore spot."Dammit!"
Betty hissed in dismay at his language."Ed..."
"They're cracked,Ed,"the doctor sighed."Sorry.I'll tape them up,and then you're staying in bed for the next few days for starters."
Ed glared indignantly at the middle-aged doctor,and the fiery expression caused Johnny to giggle in spite of himself.He clamped a hand over his mouth when his father glanced his way. Roddy motioned him forward and the twelve-year-old guiltily got up from the chair.Roddy bent to whisper firmly in his ear,adding a soft spank to his son's rear as he directed him toward the doorway.
"Go on.Scat! Go back downstairs and finish helping Betty when she returns,"he said,clearly not amused.He watched Johnny scamper away,then turned back to his boss."Don't worry about the ranch,Ed.We'll manage."
Ed snorted."Just the three of you?"
"And Johnny,"Roddy added.
"Darling,things don't grind to a stop because you're bedridden for a few days,"Betty reminded him gently,sitting on the edge of the bed and taking her husband's hand.
"I know,"Ed sighed."I just don't have time to lollygag in bed,is all."
"Think of it as a vacation,"suggested Dr.Shipley,carefully wrapping his patient's bruised torso,and Ed snorted.But he said no more on the subject until he was carefully eased back against the pillows.Ed looked doubtful.
"Vacation,he says." Ed started to push back the blanket but was halted by his wife casting him a stern look of warning.
"And it will be time well spent,"Betty interjected,reaching to tuck the covers back over her husband. Ed sighed and gazed at the others in defeat before his eyes settled back on Betty.
"Fine.And I suppose you're going to be nursemaid besides."
Betty smiled victoriously as she stood once more."And I'll enjoy every minute."
Roddy exchanged knowing smiles with Dr.Shipley before showing the physician out.As they descended the stairs the younger man spoke. "I hope that he'll last there. He's as stubborn as a bull dog."
Dr.Shipley chuckled."With Betty to keep watch I don't think he's going anywhere.I'll be back in the morning around ten,if you can let her know." They reached the physician's car and he climbed behind the wheel. "I've got to get going out to the Hedley place next."
"Nina's due,isn't she?" Roddy asked,referring to the next-closest neighbors to the Simonsons.Dr.Shipley nodded.
"Her fourth pregnancy."
"Tell her good luck,"Roddy said,raising a hand in a departure wave. Johnny sidled up as the car disappeared down the drive in a cloud of dust,having followed his father outside.
"Is Ed okay,Papa?"
"Well,he's got a couple of cracked ribs,"Roddy explained."He's going to be laid up and sore for a couple of days,if that's what you mean.I'm going to need your help until he's back on his feet. And Betty will,too.Ed's going on seventy-six and he's not a young man anymore." Roddy glanced a down at his son. "Can I count on you to do that,Wapike?"
Johnny nodded solemnly."Yes,Papa."
Roddy gave his shoulder a pat,then gazed at the sky; another towering bank of storm clouds was building on the horizon. "Good.I've got to help get those last cattle before that next storm comes in.Go on and help Betty finish up,Johnny."
Johnny was jolted from a sound sleep by a loud thunderclap. He blinked groggily as a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the darkened room like a strobe. Rain drummed loudly on the roof and the air was thick and heavy as he sleepily sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.He sat still for a moment,gazing through the window at the downpour.He had to use the outhouse,but he was not about to race outdoors in the storm. In the intermittent flashes of lightning the sparse lawn looked marshy,the leafy branches of the small maple outside his window sagged from the deluge and rivers of rainwater poured from the slanted shed roof like a waterfall. Johnny knelt on the floor and pulled the chamber pot out from beneath the bed and made use of it as another sharp thunderclap shook the little house.The curtain in the doorway shifted and a small light appeared as he tugged his shorts back into place,and his father poked his head into the room.Seeing his son awake he spoke.
"I was putting out a few pots and wanted to see if you're okay,"he said."Any leaks in here?" He glanced toward the ceiling,aiming the narrow beam of his flashlight upward. The roof on the little house leaked when it rained.Roddy had patched the leaks,but new ones seemed to pop up afterwards.A thin rivulet of water ran down one exterior wall but the ceiling appeared dry.Johnny wanted to crack that the only leak was from his bladder,but a brilliant flash lit the room,followed by an instantaneous crash of thunder. He jumped and involuntarily seized hold of his father's midsection with both arms.A cracking from outside could be heard,telling them that one of the large cottonwoods was likely struck by lightning as a limb fell to the sodden earth.
"P-papa? Uh...can I-I sleep with you?" Another loud thunderclap made Johnny cover his ears.He wasn't usually frightened by storms,but the intensity of this one was unsettling and the nearby strike was too close for comfort.
Roddy's smile in the flashlight's beam was deeply shadowed. "Sure."
Johnny followed his father into the bedroom and scurried beneath the covers of the full-sized bed.Roddy had sat on the edge on his side and just switched off the flashlight when headlights swept the house.Roddy got up to peer through the window and spotted what looked like Jake's pickup sitting just beyond the tiny front porch.A dark figure dashed through the rain and Roddy grabbed for his old bathrobe just as a knock sounded on the door.He quickly opened it,still trying the sash to see Jake standing soaked on the stoop. He quickly ushered his friend inside.
"Jake! Come in,come in! What're you doing out at this hour in this storm?"
"I just came from Ed's,"Jake said,standing there dripping water on the small doormat. Roddy glanced at Johnny peering through the doorway.He hastily struck a match and lit the kerosene lamp that hung on the wall.
"Johnny,get Jake a towel,please."
Johnny did as he was asked,retrieving a bath towel from the tiny hall closet.Jake gratefully accepted the towel and took a moment to scrub his face dry with it.He sank into the rocker as Roddy sat forward in his worn easy chair,face expectant. "Is something wrong? Is Ed worse?"
Jake nodded,folding the towel in his lap."He appeared fine right until bedtime,according to Betty. Around midnight she was awakened by him out of breath and in extreme pain. Of course Betty called Dr.Shipley,and then me.Dr.Shipley called for an ambulance from Hardin."
Jake had a party-line connection to his house,thanks to his home's proximity to the main line. Roddy glanced at the old clock on the shelf above the heat stove; it was a quarter to four in the morning."And?"
"The doctor in Hardin sent him on to a hospital in Billings,"Jake said grimly,his face serious."They think Ed suffered a heart attack."
Roddy's eyes went wide.He glanced at Johnny standing beside the rocker with a bewildered look.He promptly got up and headed into the bedroom,snatching his pants off of the back of the chair next to the bed.As he tugged them on Jake followed. "Bad?"
Jake's expression said it all."Last I heard he was unconscious but still alive."
Roddy thrust his arms into his shirt and rapidly buttoned up.He tilted his head at Johnny and the youngster slipped off to his own room without protest.Roddy Proceeded to shove his feet back into his boots."I'll go with you,if it's no trouble."
"That's fine,"Jake replied quickly."Daisy is with the kids.We can drop off Johnny with her."
Johnny had reappeared on the doorway,clutching his own clothes."Papa? I wanna come."
"That's probably not a good idea,Son,"Roddy said and Johnny started to protest.Roddy raised a hand to quiet him. "Johnny,Betty's going to be very upset.It would be better if she has little distraction.I know you're concerned,but we're dropping you off with Daisy until we know more."
Johnny nodded somberly,clearly disappointed,but obedient.
Another crash of thunder rattled the windows,but the two men hurried out the door and down the porch steps,dashing through the pounding rain.Johnny scooted quickly across the seat of Jake's pickup,making room for his father.The rain ran down the windshield and thundered on the truck's cab,bellying the early dawn.Jake started the truck and headed back down the drive toward the road.The road was slick and dark so he kept a modest speed,and the ride toward the Little Hawk place was silent.Johnny wiped his face on the sleeve of his father's long riding coat,tossed over him by Roddy as they left the house. He wasn't sure exactly what a heart attack was but he knew it wasn't good.
In no time they reached the Little Hawk place,the little house sitting far from the road in the midst of the downpour like an island.A yellow glow emanated from the windows and as Jake pulled the truck up to the door one of the curtains lifted. Daisy opened the door as the trio exited the vehicle and dashed for the house,shielding their heads with their drawn-up coat collars.The place was no bigger than the Gage residence,but the small family had the luxury of not only the telephone but a single lightbulb suspended on a cord from the center of the kitchen's ceiling.The small light starkly lit the room and Johnny spotted Gordy seated at the kitchen table writing something on a school tablet and went over to slide into a seat cross from him; evidently the older boy had been awakened early as well,although his two-year-old sister was asleep.Gordy looked up somberly,raised his hand in greeting,then continued writing.Daisy drew her robe closer at the wet chill that the storm brought inside.
"Bad storm," She said."I still don't think it's a good idea heading all the way to Billings in it.Betty called ten minutes ago.Her son arrived." The Simonson's youngest son,Mike,was a college student in Montana's largest city.
Jake nodded."Good,but we're still going."
Roddy bent over where Johnny sat,one hand braced on the chair back."I'll call when we hear anything,Son.Now you mind Daisy until I return."
"Yes,Sir." Johnny looked worried and Roddy patted his shoulder reassuringly.He suddenly had an idea. "Give Betty a hug for me,please,Papa?"
Roddy smiled gently."I will,Wapike."
Johnny watched as his father dashed back out along with Jake,then as the pickup disappeared into the storm.Although it was almost five in the morning Daisy gently touched her son's shoulder as well as Johnny's. "All right,you two.Back to bed."
"It's almost five,Mama,"Gordy's brow furrowed."An' Johnny's dressed."
"Don't forget that the telephone ringing woke us all at three,"she reminded him,and Gordy sighed as he closed the notebook.
Gordy led Johnny to the small bedroom he shared with Tasha,his little sister.The bed was crowded enough with two children,but Daisy carefully lifted the sleeping toddler into her arms to take to the big bed in the living room,where she and Jake slept.Gordy dove beneath the covers,then watched as Johnny slipped out of his still-damp clothes and climbed in next to him. Outside the rain continued,although the thunder and lightning had lessened. The light was just starting change as dawn approached.In the dimness Johnny was cast in silhouette.
"You think Ed's gonna be okay?" he asked quietly.
"I dunno.I hope so.Mama's Aunt May died from a bad heart."
Johnny's heart skipped. He'd already experienced three deaths; his mother's,his grandfather Forrest's (although he'd only met the man twice in his short lifetime),and his grandmother Esther,who people said was so traumatized by her daughter's death that she was never the same in her remaining six months. He felt a chill and tugged the covers up under his chin.
"I-I don't wanna talk 'bout it."
"Why? Mama says it's good to talk things out."
The cracked open door opened a bit further as Daisy poked her head inside the darkened room."Gordon Deroy Little Hawk,are you two talking?"
Daisy shifted closer to the bed and leaned to kiss his forehead."Go to sleep." She then bent over Johnny and softly kissed his forehead as well."Don't you worry.Everything will be alright."
Johnny gazed at Gordy in the semi-darkness as the woman left the room but didn't say anything.Somehow,despite wanting everything to be all right he didn't think it would from now on.He fell back into an uneasy sleep.
It was past nine when Johnny and Gordy awoke. Daisy had already given Tasha breakfast and tried to keep the inquisitive toddler from disturbing the boys,but the little girl still managed to slip into the bedroom while her mother worked in the kitchen,climbing up onto the bed and squeezing between her brother and his friend.Johnny opened one eye to see the two-year-old smiling at him.Tasha babbled and leaned forward to plant a sloppy kiss on the youngster's lips.
Johnny shifted and lifted a hand to pat her head as she rested next to him.He promptly sat up,surreptitiously swiping a hand over his mouth. Sunlight filtered through a gap in the closed shade,the storm apparently over. Tasha then moved to her brother,patting his head firmly like she did with Jake's ever-patient dog.Gordy jerked awake,then shoved his pillow at his sister.Tasha simply laughed and crawled onto his back.
"Aw,she just loves you,Gordy." Johnny jumped into his trousers. He snatched his shirt from the nearby chair.He sometimes didn't understand his friend's attitude regarding having a younger sister.HIs parents tried several times to have another baby,but each attempt failed. He shoved his feet into his boots,then hustled into the kitchen and out the back door. Gordy shuffled rapidly after him. The outhouse on the Little Hawk property was larger than the one at home-a two-seater-and both he and Gordy slipped inside.Johnny couldn't help but think about Ed as he settled next to his friend,but as chatty as he could be at times he found himself clamming up.
"Do you think Ed is okay?" Gordy asked.
Johnny looked up from where he was tearing pages from an old catalog for toilet paper; he handed him a handful of pages and shrugged."I dunno.Papa seemed awful worried."
Gordy took the proffered pages and shook his head.He stared at them and sighed."Yeah.My papa,too.An' Mama..."
He didn't finish but Johnny understood what he meant. Gordy's family was large,with plenty of aunts,uncles and cousins on both sides,plus his grandparents.All his friend had was his father,a few acquaintances and the Simonsons. Johnny's white grandparents wanted nothing to do with them,and the only family his father had left was his imprisoned brother.There was Johnny's aunt and uncle,but they lived far away in some place called Torrance in California.
Once finished Johnny pushed through the narrow door and trudged back to the house.Gordy walked alongside quietly.When they reached the kitchen once more they could see that Daisy had held breakfast back for them.Two plates kept warm on top of the plate warmer,covered in a clean cloth.Tasha sat in her tall chair at the table,busily stringing empty thread spools onto a string.Daisy paused to kiss her son's cheek as he passed,then set the plates on the table.She gave Johnny's shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"Your papa called,Johnny,"she said."He'll be by in about an hour to take you boys over to the ranch.They could use your help today."
"Did he say anythin' 'bout Ed?" Johnny asked anxiously.
Daisy looked sympathetic."No,honey.He didn't." At Johnny's crestfallen expression she added,"He might not know yet." She nodded at his plate,indicating that he should eat,touching his head briefly with her hand before resuming her household tasks.She kept an eye on the three children,though,her heart aching at the somber look she caught in Johnny's eyes.He'd already suffered losses most children didn't. It was no wonder he was concerned.
Johnny ate his breakfast slowly,his stomach too keyed up to eat,although he tired to consume enough to please Daisy.The last thing he wanted was to be stuck inside again simply for not eating.Although possessing a hearty appetite Johnny was still slender with thin limbs,and both Betty and Daisy were forever trying to fatten him up.Finally,though,Johnny was full and he gazed expectantly at Daisy,waiting for permission to be excused.She glanced at the remnants on his plate and nodded with a small sigh; there was still half a slice of toast left,but she also knew that he was worried.
"Go on,"she decided,as the two boys scrambled from the table and raced for the door."And stay close to the house! Rod will be here any minute!"
Gordy gave a wave as he chugged after Johnny.He was heavier than his slender friend and not so swift as he followed Johnny to a nearby tree.But instead of climbing up to perch on a branch like he usually did,Johnny plopped down on the ground beneath it and leaned against the trunk.Gordy sank to the ground next to him,glancing at his friend's pensive expression.
"You thinkin''bout Ed?" he asked,and Johnny nodded mutely."You think he'll be alright?" Johnny shrugged,plucking a few stems of grass at his feet and shredding the strands with his fingers."He's pretty old..."
"I don't wanna talk 'bout it anymore,Gordy!" Johnny snapped,just as the pickup driven by Jake pulled up.The two boys jumped to their feet and ran over,scrambling over the tailgate in order to ride in the open truck bed the short distance to the ranch.Johnny paused to twist and lean forward over the edge,as his father poked his head through the open passenger window. "Papa? How's Ed,an' Betty?"
Roddy only shook his head,pressing his finger against his closed lips,indicating that he'd tell him later,likely as soon as they arrived at the ranch.Johnny sat back down in disappointment.Jake drove down the drive and continued on down the road.The night's rain had washed the land clean,and the air was fresh and fragrant.Johnny loved the smell,but the morning's beauty was wasted by worry as they rolled down the dirt road.Bits of gravel clattered off the undercarriage and the dampness kept the dust to a minimum,but the unpaved surface caused the truck to jitter and shake and the vibrations rattled throughout their bodies.Johnny stiffened his jaw to keep his teeth from crashing together as the truck passed over a rough spot evidentially created the previous night by erosion; when he glanced at the ravine next to the road he saw that the tiny puddle that usually filled the gully had grown into a sizable pond from the rain.In no time they reached the ranch and the boys scrambled from the truck bed once the vehicle came to a stop.Johnny approached his father expectantly,hoping to finally hear some news.
"Come here,Son,"Roddy said,leading Johnny to a bench that sat outside the barn and sitting down.Johnny likewise sat.It was weird being there when neither Ed or Betty were there and something in his father's expression caused what little breakfast in Johnny's stomach to sit heavily."I know you're worried,Wapike,"he began gently."So I'll tell you.Ed suffered a second heart attack this morning."
Johnny's brown eyes widened."Bad?"
Roddy's hand took his own and Johnny was startled to see the pain in his father's face."Very bad.He's in a coma now,Johnny...and the doctors said that he won't make it."
Johnny swallowed heavily,struggling to comprehend.Just yesterday Ed was himself,even after taking the fall and cracking his ribs.Did the fall have something to do with it? "Papa? I-I don't...I don't even k-know what a-a heart attack is." He shrugged helplessly,blinking fast as his eyes filled."I-I don't want Ed to die!" At that he started to weep,thoroughly confused and heartbroken.Roddy drew him close and wrapped his arms around him.
"I know that you don't,Son,"he said thickly from his own emotion."And I know it's really difficult.Easy,Wapike." Johnny struggled to stop crying but it was too hard.Ed was like his own grandfather and Johnny had known him his entire life; it seemed unfathomable that the stubborn,tough old rancher would even die.
"Papa,w-why?" Johnny swiped a hand over his eyes,his breaths hitched." H-he w-was okay y-yesterday..."
Roddy shook his head."I don't know,Johnny.Nobody knows that they're having one sometimes until it's too late." He proceeded to explain what he knew about heart attacks,but try as he might Johnny couldn't understand everything his father told him.It sounded like something sinister,some unseen monster that ripped life from people. Roddy continued to hold his son close,waiting patiently as the boy's sobs eased."Once we're done with the chores I'll take you to Billings,"he said after a time. He gave the youngster an encouraging squeeze. "C'mon,Wapike.Let's get those chores done."
Johnny wiped his face on his shirt sleeve and took a shuddering breath as he stood.He felt thoroughly wretched,knowing that he was about to lose someone he cared deeply about. The thought caused a fresh wave of tears to come to his eyes,but he made no effort to stop them as he trudged behind his father into the barn.Roddy glanced at him sympathetically,knowing that he'd have to work it out his own way. Instead of chastising his son for crying Roddy simply gave Johnny's shoulder a gentle squeeze as they got to work helping Jake and Gordy. The tasks of cleaning stalls,feeding livestock and tending to equipment took Johnny's mind off the situation for a while. He was busy cleaning the currycombs when the office telephone rang. He froze,dreading what the call might bring.Roddy went to answer it and Johnny paused,standing in the doorway expectantly.Jake and Gordy stood by as well,awaiting any news.When his father quietly set the receiver back into its cradle and turned,his face was grim.
"He's gone,"Roddy said softly and Johnny felt as if someone had punched him square in the chest.Behind him Gordy let out a small gasp and from the corner of his eye he glimpsed Jake firmly grasp his son's shoulder.Johnny stared in disbelief at his father's face,then his own crumpled from grief. Roddy reached to take Johnny by the hand,tugging him into a tight embrace. As his son started to cry he squeezed his own eyes shut,although tears leaked through the closed lids.Ed,along with Betty,had been there when everyone else had turned him and Emma away,hiring the young man and offering the expectant newlyweds a place of their own. For that measure of friendship and faith he was forever grateful.Jake reached to place a hand on his friend's shoulder and the two men embraced,drawing their boys into the fold.
Ed's funeral took place four days later,the service held at the Methodist church in town. Johnny had been astonished by the entire event from the start.His previous experience at a funeral had been marked by animosity and thinly-veiled contempt,the Lutheran church where his mother's service had been held had been heavy with unspoken hostility from his estranged grandparents as well as the all-white congregation.But here,not only were he and his father welcomed with open arms,they were treated like family.
The mourners now crowded into the church's basement,clustered at the tables set up while the women minded the kitchen and kept everyone fed.Johnny sat in a folding chair with Gordy and Ed and Betty's five grandchildren,a paper plate of food in his lap,watching people as they quietly conversed over their cups of coffee and pot luck lunches.A short distance away his father stood chatting with a small knot of men,although he kept an eye on his son from time to time.Johnny had kept the hated bow-tie in place,although he'd rolled the long sleeves of his white shirt up past his elbows in the warm room.A pair of tall oscillating fans kept the stuffy air moving,and several ladies cooled themselves with hand-held paper fans. The service itself had been somber,though far from dramatic like his mother's had been,and Johnny was relieved it was over.He poked at the cold cuts,lime Jell-O,and potato salad on his plate and sighed; he wasn't very hungry.
"You gonna eat that ham?" Gordy asked,glancing at his friend's plate,and Johnny looked on in astonishment as the other boy plucked up the uneaten slices and crammed them into his mouth. His mouth hung open as his chubbier friend continue eating unabated.
"How can you chow down like that at a time like this?" he asked incredulously.
Johnny shook his head and set the plate down on the nearest table.He couldn't stand Jell-O anyway and only accepted what his father had handed him without complaint.But the idea of remaining in this stuffy room eating unappetizing food was becoming unbearable.He needed a breath of fresh air fast.He headed over to where his father stood,waiting politely for his turn to speak.Roddy was chatting with someone he didn't know,and Johnny sized up the stranger with interest.The man was tall and solid,wearing a Western-cut suit and holding his dress Stetson in his hands.His face was weathered,his wavy brow hair neatly combed,and he spoke with a definite twang.When he saw Johnny nudge himself under Roddy's arm he nodded his head in his direction.
"That your boy?"
Roddy glanced down at his son's face and gave him an affectionate squeeze. "This is Johnny."
"Clyde Williams. Nice to meet you,Johnny." The twangy man firmly shook Johnny's hand."How old are you,Son?"
Clyde narrowed his eyes."This is the young roper that you've been talkin' about,Rod?" What he said next made Johnny cringe self-consciously."He sure don't look twelve!"
"The one and the same,"Roddy said pridefully,patting Johnny's back. "Johnny's a natural rider and a hard worker.Ed himself said he'd never seen a boy learn so fast so young."
"I've been ridin' since I was three,"Johnny said,a bit defensively.
Clyde raised a placating hand."All right.I believe you,Sonny,"he insisted."I just thought you were younger,is all.I'll be needing all the extra hands herding the cattle."
Johnny frowned in confusion,looking to his father for confirmation.
"Clyde is buying the cattle and shipping them to Texas,"Roddy explained."He,Robert,and I just finalized the sale,and we're heading back shortly to show them to his business partner."
Johnny's eyes went wide.Robert was Ed and Betty's oldest son,and he'd taken over his father's affairs regarding the ranch and everything on it.This was the first Johnny was hearing about any sale."We're selli'n the cattle?"
"That's right.And the horses."
Johnny found himself swallowing thickly."All of 'em?"
"That's right,Son,"Roddy steered Johnny aside,adding quietly,"I'll explain everything later.Not here. Do you need something? Have you eaten?"
"I had a little,"Johnny admitted."I'm not very hungry.Can I go out for a while?"
Roddy rested his hand against his son's cheek for a moment.Johnny had been uncharacteristically subdued the last few days,and he'd barely sat down longer than fifteen or twenty minutes to eat. But with everything that happened it was not unexpected.
"Go on,"he relented."But stick close to the church.We'll be going in about a half hour."
Johnny climbed the stairs and stepped outside into bright sunshine.After the stifling basement it was nice to be outside and breathe fresh air.He balanced on the top rung of the low rail that bordered the sidewalk and watched the leaves of the maples that shaded the churchyard.There was a small garden with late-season annuals providing a splash of color framing a stone cross.A couple of benches sat facing the garden,one of which was occupied by an elderly woman and a young man about Nolan's age. The young man appeared to be comforting the woman,and from his tender gestures Johnny guessed that he was the distraught woman's grandson.Ed had many siblings,and there had been a whole pew occupied by several men and women in their seventies and eighties; ten,to be exact.Johnny sat and wondered what having so many brothers and sisters was like. He scanned the adjacent parking lot,lost in thought,glancing at the different vehicles parked there.He saw plenty of pickups and sedans,typical of the ranching and farming area. It was then that he spied the large truck parked on the street beyond the church lot.He craned his neck to get a better look,sliding down from the rail,and a small smile played on his lips.He headed over,forgetting his promise to his father not to leave the church grounds.
He'd seen the town's volunteer fire department pumper before,but that was when the truck was parked in the firehouse.Out on the street it seemed immense as he slowly approached it.The truck was idled,parked at the curb,the crew nowhere in sight.Johnny slowly circled the vehicle,admiring the bright red paint job,dazzled by the shiny chrome,intrigued by the various profusion of dials on the control panel and the array of tools and equipment stored in various nooks and crannies.He shaded his eyes from the bright midday sun as he glanced up at the cab,imagining what driving such an impressive rig was like.He was unaware that he was being observed by the five-man crew,watching him from across the street at the nearby cafe.Had he known he would have been embarrassed by their knowing looks of amusement,accustomed to the town children and their fascination with fire apparatus.
Inside the cafe the firefighters' casual conversation dwindled as each man caught sight of the young boy slowly circling the engine.A couple of them chuckled at the sight knowingly,wondering if another impromptu tour was in order.Firefighting in such a small town tended to be low-key,with actual emergencies few and far between.
"Hey,Cap,"one of the men said,gesturing his superior over to peer through the cafe's plate-glass window."Looks like we have another admirer."
"Bet you two dollars the kid asks to see the cab,"another of the firemen said to his crew-mate.
The captain set down his now-empty coffee cup."What are you betting again for,Thompson? You still owe Stewy three dollars and me five!"
The others snickered at that as Thompson turned a deeper shade of red than the engine. The flustered young lineman turned his attention back to the scene outside,where he glimpsed the youngster shade his eyes and glance up at the ladder extension.Cap finished his cup and dropped a couple of dollars for a tip onto the tabletop.
After paying their lunch tab the crew exited the cafe and headed back for their engine.Johnny continued to gaze dreamily at the truck,not noticing the crew as they approached.He reached to touch a tentative hand to the gleaming red paint on the truck's polished side.
"She's a beauty,isn't she?"
At the male voice behind him Johnny jumped and snatched his hand back.He gazed nervously at the men as they reached the truck,wondering if he was in trouble.
"I-I'm sorry.I-I was j-just lookin'...."
The man who spoke extended both hands in a placating gesture."It's okay,kid,really." Johnny still looked uncertain,clasping both hands behind his back,so the man tried a different tactic."Plenty of kids like the engine.Do you want to see the rest of her?" Johnny nodded and he smiled."Well,come on."
Johnny scrambled up into the cab,sliding behind the wheel with a growing smile.The fireman who'd spoken offered his hand."Engineer Joe Stuart.What's your name,Son?"
"Johnny Gage,"Johnny quickly replied."An' I'm gonna be a firefighter when I'm grown up."
"Really? I'm impressed,Johnny.Meet the guys," Joe nodded,then pointed out the others."Pete Thompson,Ed Wallace,Nick Peterson,and our captain,Harry Schaefer."
Johnny gazed at the others as the introductions were made,but he was fascinated by the controls of the large vehicle.The steering wheel was wider than the one in his father's pickup,and apart from the standard operational controls of any truck there were more levers and switches.He spotted a button in the floor and scooted forward to stretch his foot down and depress it."What's this for?" Instantly the loud air horn blared and he jumped in spite of himself.The men chuckled at the look of surprise.
"Well,you tell me what that's for,Johnny?" Joe challenged.
Johnny looked askance."It's the horn."
Joe smiled."That's right.Can you find the siren control?"
Johnny took a moment to scan the dash and quickly spotted the siren pedal. With a grin he pushed it and the siren came on,blaring it's descending call for all to hear.He found the control that activated the flashing flights and switched that on.Then he sat with a huge grin,grasping the steering wheel like a pro.Wait until he told Gordy about this! As he explored the truck he described everything he knew about firefighting and fire safety.
The siren had attracted the attention of a few people,including a small group from the church.As they stood there watching Johnny imagined driving the engine for real en route to a fire and felt a surge of excitement he'd never felt before.He'd said that he wanted to be a firefighter since he was four years old,but now he really wanted it.Just seeing the crowd's reaction to the truck was intoxicating.The noise also attracted his father,and Johnny glimpsed as Roddy edged his way through the group and approached.Johnny poked his head out the window.
"I was wondering where you were,"Roddy said."I thought I told you to stay close by." He glanced at the other firefighters."My son wasn't bothering you,was he?"
"Not at all,"Joe replied."Johnny's been regaling us with his knowledge about fires,and he told us that he plans on being a firefighter someday."
"He's pretty knowledgeable,"Captain Schaefer praised,as Johnny grinned."You must be proud."
"Yes I am.He's eager to learn and a hard worker." He glanced up at Johnny still seated behind the wheel."I'm sure he thanks you for your hospitality as well,but we have to get going."
Captain Schaefer nodded as Johnny took his father's cue and climbed down from the engine.In light of the sobering events of the last few days,seeing the engine was just the balm that the youngster had needed. Roddy noticed the look on his son's face and placed a hand on his shoulder.Johnny raised a hand in departure,his face shining.
"Thank you for lettin' me see the engine,"he said,and the men smiled and nodded.
"Our pleasure,Johnny,"Captain Schaefer said."Good luck."
Johnny cast one longing look back as he headed back to the church lot with his father.As they climbed into their pickup he thought about his ambition to join the fire services.It had been his fascination since he was small,after witnessing the store fire all those years ago in town.And he was pleased and encouraged by his father's words of praise. Roddy steered the truck toward home,and he promptly headed for the house once there.
"Get yourself changed quickly,Wapike,"he said."Clyde will be at the ranch in a few minutes."
So Johnny slipped into his bedroom to change out of his suit as his father went to do the same,happy to be out of the stiff starched shirt and tie and scratchy trousers.He quickly tugged on a work shirt and old dungarees,then slipped his feet into his well-worn,softened roping boots,grateful to be relieved of the tight leather shoes.He grabbed his straw cowboy hat,reached to scratch Brownie around the ears,then hustled back out to the truck with his father.
Three vehicles were parked at the SImonson's when they arrived a few minutes later. Johnny recognized Robert's pickup off to one side,but the two others were unfamiliar.Ed's son met them at the barn door. Clyde stood speaking with another white man,and Johnny eyed him curiously; the second man was shorter and rounder,with a jowly face beneath his dress cowboy hat.When he glanced over at the Gages Johnny could swear that he saw the man's eyes narrow suspiciously.The look remained as they approached Robert and Clyde; it made Johnny uneasy and he stood quietly beside his father,his own expression wary.
"This is my partner,Norman Potter,"Clyde introduced,and the fat man reluctantly took Roddy's hand in a quick handshake.His gray eyes never lost their suspicious squint.When Clyde went on to explain that Roddy was the lead roper and had been Ed's foreman Norman's lips tightened and he folded his arms over his broad chest.
"I wasn't aware that an Indian was in charge,"he said with thinly veiled contempt."Can he be trusted?"
Johnny's eyes went round as he stared at Potter,then they shot to his father.To his credit Roddy didn't even flinch,although the way his jaw muscles flexed Johnny could tell he was angered by the comment.But he was thoroughly professional as a ranch foreman and would do nothing to tarnish his boss's reputation,even from the grave.Instead of offering an angry retort he simply folded his own arms and gazed proudly at Potter as Robert spoke.
"Roderick has been employed by my father for twelve years,"he explained."And he's been a dedicated,honest horseman in all that time.I trust him to know my father's business."
Potter exchanged looks with Clyde but said nothing more,although he watched cautiously as Roddy and Johnny quickly saddled a pair of horses,then entered the pen.In the end the man was impressed by not only Roddy's knowledge of the stock. He was also impressed with the cattle,and he and Clyde discussed the amount they wanted to pay.Ulitimately they agreed on a price,and both Robert and Roddy were pleased; the money would help pay off the last of the mortgage on the ranch.Once it was sold,the money would provide a tidy nest egg for Betty.The horses were next to be sold,but the prospective buyers wouldn't be arriving for a couple of days.As Clyde and Norman Potter drove away Johnny watched their shiny pickup recede in a cloud of dust.He led the horse back into the barn and moved into the stall to tend to the animal,moving more deliberately in to stay longer.He was just picking up a currycomb when Roddy entered the barn and approached the stall.
"Johnny,can I talk with you,Son?"
"Sure,Papa." Johnny set down the comb,then took a seat on the bench his father indicated,gazing on expectantly as the man settled next to him."What do you wanna talk 'bout?"
"Well,it's about us...and the ranch,"Roddy carefully began."During the last few days I've been speaking with Betty and Robert. You're probably wondering why the stock is being sold,right?"
Johnny nodded slowly,expression increasingly wary. He had an idea why and his heart started beating faster."We're leavin',aren't we?"
"Yes,"Roddy said gently."We're leaving,Son.Likely in a few weeks." When Johnny didn't reply he went on in a soft voice,watching his son's face."Betty and Robert have decided to sell the ranch."
Johnny was stunned. "Why?" He realized he knew the answer,but it was still a shock.He'd lived on the land that Ed had leased from the reservation for as long as he could remember.The ranch was what he knew and the idea of leaving unfathomable. "Is it 'cause Ed....'cause he's gone?"
"Partially,"Roddy explained."But Betty's been discussing this with her husband for over a year before he passed.She's seventy-four,Son.She can't manage a ranch alone at her age.She's going to live with her son and his family."
Johnny's face registered dismay."Where will we go? What 'bout your job?"
"Well,I have to look for a new job,"Roddy admitted."I called your aunt last night. Betty insisted that I do so."
"Aunt Marie? She lives in California!" Johnny's eyes went wide.His mother's older sister,Marie,lived with her husband in Los Angeles and has for the last fifteen years. Suddenly Johnny realized where this was going."Papa,are we leavin' Montana?"
"It looks that way.Your aunt and uncle have invited us to stay with them so that I can look for a job,"Roddy explained.At his son's astonished look he added,"There aren't a lot of opportunities here,Son.You know that."
Roddy didn't say it but the poverty,high unemployment,crime and substance abuse that plagued many of the residents of the reservation concerned him.He grew up with these conditions and had worked hard to overcome them,and he didn't want to see his only child succumb like his father and brother did. Teddy was now in prison for twenty-five years for killing a man outside a bar.He put an arm around his son's shoulders.
"We have to go,Wapike.There's nothing for us here,"he explained.
Johnny thought about that.He didn't want to leave the only home he'd known,but if things were better in California...well,he'd have to make that sacrifice.He really wanted to be firefighter someday,and he'd witnessed some of the conditions his father spoke of and it made him uneasy.He didn't want to end up like Teddy,either.He'd miss Gordy and their other friends,the rolling prairie,and most of all he'd miss Betty,but maybe his father was right.
Johnny sighed nmiserably. "Papa,I-I don't wanna leave." His eyes brimmed with tears and Roddy gave his hand a squeeze."What if things don't work out?"
His father drew him into his arms."Sometimes you need to take that chance,Son. Everything will be alright.You'll see."
Johnny pressed his face into his father's shoulder and tried not to cry.He was determined to stay calm and mature and not act like a baby,but the realization of their impending departure was too much.He felt his father's hand on his head as he let the tears fall.
----------------- The End of Part III -----------------
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