Authors: G. Clifton Wisler
“You think a father's just for blowing up dams and killing the likes of Henry Simpson? No. We need you now more'n ever. Ma especially.”
“People will talk.”
“They talked before. We never paid 'em much mind.”
“I won't have folks think ill of your ma.”
“Just let 'em try. Besides, a ranch needs a man's hand. Ma told me that herself.”
“You and Carter are old enough.”
“And what about us? We need you, too.”
“Once. I'm afraid that time flew by while I was away.”
Zach gripped his father's arms and trembled. Caulie felt tears drop on his chest as they rolled down the boy's cheeks.
“Pa, please,” Zach begged. “Don't leave us again.”
Caulie had no answer, though. He drew Zach close, but Caulfield Blake had no pledge to give, no real comfort to offer. They stood together awhile. Then Zach pulled away, and they began brushing the horses' coats until a shine came.
Caulie passed the remainder of the afternoon with Carter and the twins, tossing flat stones across Carpenter Creek.
“I did this the first time with my own father,” Caulie told them. “That was back in the days when you carried a rifle with you on account of Comanche raiders.”
“We dug arrowheads down the creek once,” little Todd said. “Pa and Zach and us. I still got mine.”
“Pa was a good digger,” Wylie said sadly. “Think he'll come back 'fore long, Carter?”
“Ma told you,” Carter said, his eyes swelling. “He's gone to be with the angels.”
“Won't he even come back for a visit? Like Mr. Blake?” Todd asked.
Carter stared at Caulie with pleading eyes. Caulie drew the twins to his side, then swallowed.
“Boys, you ever met an angel?” he asked. The boys shook their heads, and Caulie went on. “They just take certain folks up there with 'em. Just the best, the really good men they can count on. It's hard goin' up there in the clouds, and not many can make the trip.”
“Our pa can,” Wylie boasted.
“Sure, he can,” Caulie agreed. “But tough as it is to get up there, the angels won't show a man the path back down. They don't want to lose the folks they get to help God, you know.”
“You mean Pa won't be coming back?” Todd asked, trembling.
“We won't see him again?” Wylie added with tearful eyes.
“No, son,” Caulie said, pulling the children closer. “It's just fine if you want to cry about that, too, 'cause you'll miss him. Don't be sad for your pa, though, 'cause he's gone to a better place.”
“Better?” Todd asked.
“It's white as snow up there, and there's fine work to put your hands to. Course he'll be sad for a time. Bound to miss you and your ma and sister. But if you're good and work hard and do right by folks, when your time comes, you'll join him up there. There'll be some fine times waitin' then, I'll bet.”
Caulie sat beside the creek and let a twin nestle under each arm. It seemed just yesterday that Carter and Zach were doing the same thing. They passed half an hour together, with Carter skipping stones and watching. Then Hannah announced dinner, and the twins scampered up the hillside.
“I thank you for that,” Carter said as he walked with Caulie to the house. “I would never've got it said right.”
“There's no right or wrong to it, son.”
“You've had practice, though, haven't you?”
“I've known death, if that's what you mean. It's come often and sometimes early. And never without grief.”
“I hated you a long time.”
“It's easy to hate, especially when you don't understand. I hope someday you'll forgive me leavin' you. It brought you some hard times. I guess my cornin' back's been even harder.”
“No,” Carter said, stopping long enough to face his father. “I know you only did it for us, for Ma and Zach and me. It's just that when I was little, you were always there to lean on. We had such high times. And then you were gone. I loved you so much, Pa. It would've been easier if you'd died even. Knowing you rode off on your own . . . well, it like to kill me.”
“Me, too,” Caulie said, clasping his son's hands. “Never was there a colder winter.”
“Don't leave again.”
“I won't be far. But it's not proper I should . .
“Stay? Pa, it's more'n proper. It's right. When you left, Marsh Merritt gave us a hand up, was a father to Zach and me. Well, he's gone now. You owe it to Sally and Todd and Wylie to return the favor.”
“And to you?”
“Zach and I could chase mustangs up on the Clear Fork if that was all there was to it. It isn't. There's Ma to consider.”
“She needs you more than any of us.”
Caulie was less sure. But after the dinner plates were washed and put away, Hannah led him outside, and they walked along the hillside as they had a hundred, a thousand times. The sky was clear. The storm had passed, and the evening star was sparkling overhead.
“Make a wish,” she said, gripping his hand.
“I wish we could erase seven years,” he whispered. “Start over.”
“Those were hard years, but they were good, too, in their way,” she said. “I wouldn't set aside Sally or the twins. Or Marsh.”
“They were less kind to me.”
“You came back to us, though. I saw the way Carter looked at you across the dinner table. You'd be welcome if you chose to stay.”
“Hannah, you know it's not right. You've only just buried a husband.”
“Would it be better if I buried two? I'll wear black for six months, Caulie. Marsh deserved no less. But those are your sons in that house, and the little ones . . . well, they could be yours, too. Would've been had life turned a different fork in the trail. This is your place.”
“It was once.”
“Always. You've bled for it more than once. You say what you will, but your heart's here. What's more, we need you, and you need us. Stay!”
She drew him closer, and that sense of belonging that rarely visits life settled over Caulfield Blake. He knew he had finally returned. He was home.