|It was late when the rugged old ranch hand made camp under the branches of a large oak tree. The pitch black of the moonless night echoed his melancholy thoughts and wrapped its dark arms around him. After tending his horse for the night, he tossed his saddle against the old, twisted roots of the tree and tried to find a comfortable spot on the hard ground. The leafless forest of late winter created a cold and desolate camp that rivaled the chill in his heart. His only warmth came from the small campfire he’d built to chase away the shadowy darkness of the night.
It’s over, Jake thought the next morning, and I’m a damn fool. The first light of day had pulled him from an uneasy and restless sleep. Phantom dreams had tormented him during the night with illusive visions of his wife and son. He poured himself a cup of coffee, hot and strong just the way he liked it, but today he garnered no pleasure from it. As he sat down on the rocky ground, he felt his body complain for the first time. The aches and pains were new to him and had started this morning with the rocks feeling sharper than ever before. Reflecting on his life and all he had done made him realize his choices hadn’t always been the wisest. He’d fought Indians, cattle rustlers, stampedes and horse thieves. He’d waltzed and two-stepped with dance hall girls in every saloon in the West. He’d had the best whiskey money could buy and he’d had rotgut. And even though he’d been alone most of his life, he’d never been lonely. Until now.
As he looked into the eddying smoke of the campfire, the events of the night before swirled in his mind.
The sun had set and the day was fading from dusk to night as he rode into town. Trail dust covered every inch of his tall frame and his throat was parched. He could almost feel the fiery burn of the whisky sliding down his dry throat and see the pretty girl that worked the saloon. He hadn’t been down this way in a few years but he could still remember her name. Kate. Kate with the flaming red hair. The hair he couldn’t forget.
The bar was crowded with cowboys from the Circle C Ranch, a large spread just outside of town. A cattle drive was looming and this would be their last time in town for months. Their spirits were high as they sampled their fill of whisky, music and girls. Sawdust covered the floor and cigar smoke filled every crevice of the dingy room. The smell of unwashed bodies, lamp oil and cheap perfume filled the air. Raucous, knee-slapping music spewed from the old piano in the corner, its keys tickled by a long fingered dandy dressed in striped trousers, a white shirt with red arm bands, and a cap set askew on his head. An inch long ash on the cigar clamped tightly in his teeth attested to the length of this round of merriment. On stage, Kate and her girls danced in bawdy abandonment. Pandemonium reigned with cheers, whistles and catcalls encouraging them to raise their ruffled skirts higher and higher.
He edged his way to the mahogany bar and rested his worn boot on the foot rail. “Whisky,” he said to the bartender, shouting to be heard over the din. Whisky and gin bottles were lined up along the wide shelf under the mirror at the back of the bar advertising the proprietor’s ample supply of spirits. All were within easy reach of the barkeep.
“Here ya go, fella,” said the bartender. He slid the shot glass down the bar, all the while keeping his eyes glued to Kate. “She’s quite the gal,” he said. “Smartest thing I ever did was hire her.”
Jake picked up his drink and savored its first sharp bite on his tongue. As he turned to watch the entertainment on stage, a scuffle broke out next to him and a flying elbow sent his drink cascading down the front of him.
“Watch where you’re spittin’, Sam,” said the cowboy who started the fracas. “Hit the damn spittoon, will you? Don’t be spittin’ on my boots. I’m not gonna tell you again.”
“Hey, watch it, Cowboy,” said Jake. “I barely got to wet my whistle before you dumped my drink on me.”
“I’ll get you another, old man. Don’t be gettin’ your petticoats in an uproar. Bartender, get the old timer another shot. I’m payin’ for it.”
The cowboy turned back to the bar and laughed. He nudged Sam, “Now see what you done? You got the old guy all upset.”
Jake slammed the empty glass on the bar. “Old guy? Who’re you callin’ an old guy?”
“OK, Gramps, you’re not old. I bought you another drink, didn’t I? What’s your problem?”
“Wait just a damn minute. Turn around and look at me when I’m talkin’ to you.”
The cowboy tipped his hat to the back of his head as he looked at Jake. “Listen, old man…”
“Yeah. How’d you know my…? Pa?”
“Well, I’ll be damned. Look at you.” Jake put his hands on Bart’s shoulders and squeezed them. He almost had to look up to keep their eyes level with each other.
Bart reached up and slapped his hands way. "Yeah, look at me." Anger flashed in Bart’s eyes and made his words harsh. "And don’t put your hands on me again," he muttered to himself.
“You’re all grown. Why, you must've sprouted six inches since I last saw you.”
"Yeah. I must have," he said, looking at the man in front of him. The old bastard had aged. Good. He hoped he got everything he deserved.
“How’s your Ma? I’m heading to the farm now." He picked up his drink, took a swig and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Figured it was time to pay my yearly visit and make sure you and your Ma were doing OK. Finally got some money saved up. Figured you could use it.”
Bile welled up in Bart’s throat at the casual way he mentioned his ‘yearly visits’. He was the man they never saw. Did he really think his money had taken care of the farm all these years? He and his mother had barely eked out a living. There was no love in his heart for his father. It had died years ago.
“Ma’s dead. Has been for three years now. Not that you’d care.”
“What? What do you mean she’s dead?” She couldn’t be, he thought. She was strong and healthy the last time he saw her.
“I just told you. It was three years ago last spring. She’d just about survived the winter and when the warm weather came, she just gave in. She had no more fight left in her.” Loneliness washed over him again. He missed her. "Doc said it was her heart. She worked herself to death to keep a roof over our heads. She hung on for as long as she could so I’d be old enough to fend for myself.”
Jake was in shock. “Why didn’t you let me know?” The part of him that loved her was saddened. It had brought him comfort all these years to know she and his son were waiting for him each time he came home. He thought the arrangement worked for both of them.
“How could I? We never knew where you were, nor did we care after a while. Your damn yearly visits were five years apart most times."
“She should have told me things were bad." Anger was replacing his shock. "Every time I left she let me think all was fine. You were growing like a weed and you always had plenty of food.” He remembered the meals she cooked for him, filled with vegetables and meat. She never once said times were bad.
“You only saw what you wanted to see, old man. If you’d seen more you wouldn’t have been able to walk away from us with a clear conscience.”
Jake downed the rest of his drink, reluctant to acknowledge the truth in what Bart said. “I would have stayed if I had to."
“That's the last thing she wanted you to do. She hated you, pure and simple. She didn’t want you around. When I was young you used to tell her that each leaving was going to be the last and she believed you. But you never kept your promises and you broke her heart; and that broke mine. After a while she realized we were just two people you came to visit. We became a place that gave you hot food and a soft bed for a week, free of charge.”
“That ain’t true, Son. I came by because I loved you. I brought money to keep you in food. You always had plenty.”
“Oh, no, we didn't," he said, as vivid memories replayed those years in his head. "The years you showed up were lean for us. Ma made sure you thought all was well so you’d get the hell out of there and leave us alone. Those were the hardest winters of all because we ate most of our food while you were there. But, you know what? It was worth it to get rid of you.” He spit in the spittoon, emphasizing his words with the contemptuous action.
Jake felt like he’d been shot in the gut. None of what Bart said was true. It couldn’t be. He’d done his best for them, hadn’t he? He wasn’t a farmer. How else was he to get money if he didn’t drive cattle?
“Don’t call me that. You’re not my father. A father doesn’t abandon his family.”
Bart lifted his drink and swallowed it in one gulp. He knew there was no way he could make this man understand the hardships they went through; no way he could explain his mother’s loneliness and her desire to have her family together; and no way to explain her hatred of him in the later years.
“It’s all yours now, old man,” he said. “The farm is still there. You’re welcome to it. I never want to see it or you again.” As he started for the door, he tossed some coins on the bar and hollered to the barkeep, “Get my 'father' another whisky. For old times sake.”
Jake’s eyes followed him through the swinging doors. He downed the shot and ordered another and then another as his mind desperately tried to sort out his good memories from Bart's bad ones. One by one the sounds of his surroundings seeped back into his consciousness. Things would never be the same for him again. The piano no longer played music. Its notes had turned to noise. Kate was singing and she was still beautiful but she now looked like a pretty child instead of the woman he had once desired. The cowpokes at the bar were no longer as old as he once thought. They were boys, barely men, even though their talk was all man talk. His mind was aging. By the time he looked in the mirror over the bar the age in his mind had caught up to his reflection. He saw an old man standing where he once thought a man in his prime had stood. Bart was right. He was an old man.
The smoke from the campfire stretched its fingers higher and higher in the early morning air and as the acrid smoke found his nostrils, he choked and his thoughts came crashing back to the present.
“I am old,” he said to himself. He remembered the man in the mirror from last night. When did his face start looking like the cracked bottom of a dried up riverbed? He’d never noticed it, not even when he shaved. He put his coffee cup down and looked at his hands. They were as old and gnarled as the roots of the tree behind him. In his sorrow he realized his hands had never been used for tenderness. They had never held his son and had rarely held his wife. Tears came unbidden to his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Tears for himself, for his wife and for Bart. Tears for the choices he had made in life that left him with such emptiness. And tears because he realized it was too late to change anything. His soul was as barren as his surroundings.
He wiped his eyes and knew that regret wasn’t going to change a thing. He should have been smart enough to look at the seeds he was sowing, for in hindsight, this was truly the only reward he could reap. He poured himself another cup of coffee and looked off into the distance. His heart was as empty as the rotted tree trunk he leaned against. He had to play it out, this life he had given himself. He knew that. And for the very first time, he felt alone.