Word Count: 1750
The several days of anguish and fear had abated quickly, though not entirely, as I gathered my youngest boy up in my arms and held a canteen close to his mouth for him to begin a replenishment of fluids that he so fervently craved.
He drank with a pent-up wrath, till I had to pull the canteen away from him in fear that too much water at first would make him sicker than he was. How it broke my heart to withhold anything from him after fearing that I had lost him. I wanted to give him the world, but I couldn’t knowingly give him something that might harm him. That’s not what a father would do.
I couldn’t believe I had found him. And yet, here he was, weak, sunburned and touched with a bit of fever, but alive and trembling in my arms. He was alive, my own flesh and blood was alive and I was filled with abounding joy. I wanted to somehow transform us both to the safe confines of the Ponderosa, instead of being out in the hot sun of the unforgiving desert. I silently hoped my two other boys were fine and they’d find us quickly.
This boy of mine, my youngest, would never outwardly admit his own fear or even that he was remotely injured or sick, but a father just knows those sorts of things, and I think my own boy, in his heart welcomed my loving affection, after what he’d just been through. I could feel him begin to relax in my own arms, almost at once.
He had to talk. He began to tell me of his tragic adventure, his friendship with the vaquero and the ultimate demise of his new friend and the majestic animal that he and his brothers had hoped to give me as a gift.
His emotion was as raw as the red, sun-touched skin of his face. His voice rose a full octave as he began to weave the story at the sadness he felt over the loss of both his good friend and the special horse nearly broke my own heart. But how could I feel the same loss he felt? I was only beginning to understand the depth of what he had been through. I had him wrapped comfortably in my arms. He was safe, I’d make sure of that now. I had my son back. My happiness began to build from deep within.
I thought back to what I had just witnessed. He was my child, and just the sight of him tied up like some sort of renegade cowboy curdled my blood. My own emotion and hatred escalated as I confronted the man who had done all this to my boy. He had hunted him down through the desert, killing his friend and the beloved horse and now, here he stood beside the life-giving oasis of water, torturing and tormenting my boy with his own life and withholding the drink he desperately needed. It was more than inhuman. It was despicable cruelty.
My own blood boiled over and it wasn’t due to the oppressive heat of the Arizona desert.
I stood straight and created a powerful shadow over Sam Wolfe as he dared to call my son a horse thief. I simply retorted by calling him a liar. I saw Joseph stir and my heart leapt with joy, just knowing he was alive. Wolfe stood to face me and repeated his charge again. It was time for the showdown and a father, any man who takes pride in the word father, does what he has to do, to defend the life of his child.
It had been a long time since I held him so tightly and so close to my heart, as a father would cradle an infant, but I had feared that I had lost him, and appearances were the last thing that mattered to me at the immediate moment. Here he was, secure and safe and I was in no hurry to let go of him, grown man or not. This is what the father of the prodigal son must have been feeling, he was lost, and now he was found, I thought, he was dead, and now he was alive. I would cherish the moment for the rest of my life.
As he spoke to me of his ordeal, he turned his face toward my chest, to cover and hide his obvious pain and emotion, so much like the little boy he had once been, the one that I remember so fondly and lovingly. It was this deep love and affection he carried for those closest to him that defined the kind of man he had become and would always be. It was nothing to hide from or to be ashamed of, yet, in this moment of sadness that engulfed him, I let him do what he needed to do. I wanted to tell him that everything would be alright, but those were just words. I felt it was better to just let him speak. Every word, every sorrow-touched anguish he spoke, broke my own heart. I’d do anything to take away that pain, that agony he was feeling. But it was his to bear, I could only offer my arms and my heart as a source of strength and comfort for him now. I held his hand and watched the grief pour out of his eyes. I could not even begin to comprehend the ordeal he had been through. It would be days later before I heard the entire story and would try to make sense of the whole situation. Even then, after hearing all of it, I was more secure in the fact that some sort of miracle had transcended itself on me and my family.
I remember thinking this was the end. Lying face down in the gritty, hot sand of the desert, trussed up, unable to move, I thought death was inches away from me. I had little strength left in me. I needed to come to some sort of peace. My thoughts turned to my family, my father and my brothers. I was on good terms with all of them, so I had no regret about that, but a melancholy and sadness still washed over me at the thought that I would never see them again and be able to tell them how much I loved them. I hoped that I had shown them that I loved them throughout my short life. Wolfe kicked at me as he passed by me towards the water. I didn’t have the strength left to crawl toward it. I was at his mercy and I already knew he didn’t have any mercy to spare.
And then I heard his voice, at least I thought I heard it. Was that my father? I heard him say, “You’re a liar, he’s my son.” Could I be so sick with delirium that I was hearing his voice out here in the middle of nowhere? I used every bit of strength I had left to try to turn over to see what was going on. I think it was him, but the figure was shrouded by the sunlight that cast a shadow on Sam Wolfe. I called out his name and slipped back into the hot sand, allowing destiny and fate to take its course with me. Whatever was about to happen to me would be decided by someone else.
A shot rang out and I tried to see what had happened. Sam Wolfe had fallen and the shrouded man came rushing toward me. Was it a dream? He stooped down beside me and softly said, “Everything’s alright now son,” and I knew it was Pa. I blinked my eyes over and over trying to get a look at him and confirm that I wasn’t dreaming or just plain crazy. And he was gone. I must have been crazy. I lay back against the ground and I could feel the tears begun to well up in my eyes. I didn’t understand what was happening.
And then he was holding a canteen to my cracked lips. I was going to survive after all. It was Pa.
I wanted to drown in all that water, but Pa quickly pulled it away and gathered me up in his fatherly grasp. I was in no condition to protest, nor did I really have a desire to. It felt good, safe, like just where I wanted to be. I had to talk, I had to tell him what I’d been through, ask him about Emiliano and tell him about the white horse.
As I told him, I was overcome with grief and sadness and remorse, for all of it. The loss of a friend, the tragedy with the horse, the thought that I’d let down my brothers and their trust in me to undertake a task and the need to explain to my father the significance of it all, it hit me as I spoke through hot tears, my voice cracking. I felt like a child of nine or ten, hoping my father could solve all the problems of my world. As safe and secure I felt in his arms, I knew he couldn’t change what had happened, it was something I’d have to come to accept, as hard as that would be. For a few moments, I hid against his comfort and strength, allowing myself to grieve and to hide from the ugliness of the world.
I told him we wanted to give him a gift.
A gift, he said they wanted to give me a gift. I let his hand fall from mine and I reached up to caress his precious head. I held my gift in my hands. No other gift I would ever receive would be as meaningful as the gift of each of my sons was and would always be. I told that to Joseph as I placed a kiss on the top of his head. I had my son back. Off in the distance, Adam and Hoss rode toward us. I knew we’d all be alright. I held the moment for as long as I could. I looked down and his eyes were closed. I didn’t know if he was just resting or if he was injured more than I realized. I just wanted to keep him safe in my arms.