Word Count: 2100
It was unseasonably hot. The man pushed back his hat and wiped perspiration from his brow with the back of his sleeve before pulling the brim of his hat low over his face once again. Sweat stained beneath his armpits and created a large wet patch down the back which felt stiff against his skin when he leaned back to ease the ache that seemed to totally envelop him. He groped under the wagon seat for the water canteen to quench his thirst, hugged it to his chest as he unscrewed the stopper and then raised it to his lips. There were only a few drops left; he shook it in a futile gesture of hope that it would reveal more, then frowned before replacing it at his feet.
“Adam, get the other canteen from the back of the wagon, will you?”
The boy scrambled over the seat and into the interior of the wagon. It was stiflingly hot inside and he hurried to locate the canteen which was swinging from its customary hook. On the wagon seat, Ben squinted ahead and wondered where to make camp. The horses, like himself and the boy, were exhausted from the heat, which sucked out any energy that they had started with earlier that day. When his son held out the canteen to him, he took it absent-mindedly and raised it to his lips. The water was cool, refreshing, and it quenched his thirst a little. With a sigh, he passed it back to the child, who asked with large dark eyes for permission to drink. When Ben nodded, Adam took several gulps of water, careful not to spill a drop.
“We’ll camp over there…” Ben pointed to a patch of green and thanked God in his heart. That patch of green meant water, and they desperately needed it. Already the horses were renewing the efforts to pull the wagon towards the waterhole, having caught the smell of it upon the heat crushing air.
“It’s early yet, Pa,” Adam stated, knowing that his father had always been a stickler for making camp at regular times of the day. He looked at the man seated by his side and frowned; his Pa sure looked hot.
“We need to rest up, Adam, and the horses need the rest as well,” Ben replied rather curtly, and then he looked at the boy apologetically. “Aren’t you hot and tired?”
“Sure am, Pa.” Adam sighed and hugged the canteen to his chest.
Adam was hot, no denying that for a fact. He turned tired eyes towards the patch of green and ran his tongue over his teeth. Already the few gulps of water he had taken just moments ago had been drained into his ever dehydrating body so that his mouth felt as dry now as it had since they had set out again after their first meal of the day.
The waterhole was emerging, getting closer now, and he could see green shrubbery standing taller than the stubby grass. It was pleasing to the eyes, relaxing even from that distance, and he held the canteen of water closer to his narrow chest and watched for the gleam of water that would promise refreshment and coolness.
Ben’s wrists ached now to hold back the horses; his foot hovered closer to the brake just in case the animals made a dash for it. The smell of the water could send a thirsty animal hurtling crazily to it without thought of the damage that could be done. He could feel the sweat breaking out afresh under his armpits and down his back, and he clenched his teeth together with the effort to restrain them.
When the waterhole eventually emerged, he was surprised to see that it was far shallower than he had expected, the obvious debris littered on the higher ground evidence of how must deeper and larger it had been before the sun had gulped away at it. He allowed the horses to gallop into the water before he himself got down from the wagon seat, splashing into the water as he did so. It was cool, pleasantly so, and its refreshment seemed to trickle up through his body.
Adam was standing by his side now, and together they unharnessed the horses, leaving them free to enjoy the water and freedom from their burden. They drank their fill and then walked to the shelter of the small stunted trees under which they cast themselves down, the shade of the leafy foliage dappling their faces, as the sunlight played tag among the boughs.
“I wonder what the date is,” Ben murmured as he cast his hat aside and folded his arms behind his head to stare up at the sky through the patterns the leaves created, “Must be July, p’raps August even.” He frowned now, and pursed his lips, beside him the boy twiddled his fingers among the small branches to make the leaves dance, “Lost a whole week, I reckon, back along when I had the fever.”
Adam froze; the memory of that week was indelibly imprinted upon his young and impressionable mind. A full four, perhaps five, days when his father was so ill that they had been forced to stay where they were, at the mercy of anyone who came by, or anything. There had been no strengthening comforting arms around him during the nights when the coyotes howled and sounds crowded in upon them from every direction. There had been no sensible reassuring word from this most beloved man when he was himself so frightened during the day. The memory made his throat go tight with fear.
Ben reached out a hand and ruffled the boys curls, realizing now that his words had caused his son to re-live what had been a living nightmare. He himself constantly shuddered at the thought of what could have happened had Adam been a less obedient and intelligent child; he could so easily have wondered off, got lost, been carried away by passing Indians who had a liking for children. Ben drew the boy close into his arms and hugged him,
“It’s alright, son, it won’t happen again,” Ben whispered soothingly, and wished that he could believe the words himself while hoping that the child did.
“You said if we got to a settlement in July, we might see fireworks.” Adam raised his head and looked at his father with a definite question in his eyes.
Ben smiled. “Fireworks, huh? Never seen fireworks have you, son?”
“No, Pa, but when we were in the store back during the winter and those two men were arguing, you said there were going to be fireworks then.”
Ben laughed and his hand gently stroked the boys back in an absent minded manner. “Well, I wasn’t far wrong; those two got to fighting and near flattened the store between them. But they weren’t the fireworks I meant, Adam, I meant rockets and Catherine wheels and…”
“Sure, rockets that went shooting right up into the sky and then – bang – they would explode into thousands of stars, shining right across the horizon before falling down to earth again. And Catherine wheels spinning around and fizzing and whizzing …”
“Fizzing and whizzing, Pa? Why, Pa, why’d they do that?”
“Because they’re full of gunpowder and other things to make them sparkle as they go round and round.” Ben described the motion with his finger, circling it round and round. “I saw them when I was in France once; that was when I was serving in a clipper ship called the Adventurer, long before I met your grandfather.”
“And were they pretty, Pa?”
Ben smiled. Adam was full of questions; everything seemed to be prefixed with a why, when and a how. At four years of age, he wanted to know everything about anything, and anything about everything. For a moment, Ben just lay there with his hand resting on the child’s back and his other arm folded under his head. In the waterhole, the horses had walked belly deep and were engrossed in deep horse conversation, drops of water gleamed like diamonds on their manes and tails as the sunlight shone upon them.
“Real pretty, son.” Ben sighed eventually.
“Why do they have fireworks anyway?”
“If there’s a celebration, something important, or something to make someone happy, then they use fireworks.” He smiled. “If it is July now – well, I was thinking if it were July 4th, then a settlement just might have some fireworks to celebrate Independence Day.”
“Why? What’s independence?”
“Well,” Ben drew the child closer into his arms, so that the boy’s head was resting in the hollow of his collarbone, “on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the first free Americans. There was a lot of fighting, Adam; a lot of people died for the cause over a long time.”
“Were you there, Pa? Did you fight?”
“No, it was a long time ago.”
Ben frowned, pursed his lips, well, no, not really, not so long ago, in fact. Less than sixty years. But what a strange and turbulent progressive sixty years they had been as those few states had grown, pushed back barriers and borders, explored new lands and even now continued to do the same. He hugged the boy close. Were they not doing just that themselves?
“A long time ago Americans, only they weren’t called Americans then of course, decided that they wanted to have this land for their own. They had settled here, built homes here, died from Indian wars, starvation, disease, and some men of vision and courage realized that they had a right to call this land their own. So that was the birth of a nation, and like any birth…” He paused and swallowed hard, remembering another birth just four years ago that had been hard, and death dealing. He put his free hand to his eyes to wipe away the tears that had filled them.
“Why what, son?”
“Why did they fight?”
“Because sometimes that seems to be the only way. That’s the way of it…”
Adam said nothing to that; he nestled in closer to Ben. The warmth of his son’s body making the man feel hotter than ever but even so, the man made no move to push the boy away. Such intimacies were, at times, to be treasured for they did not last long.
He could recall as a boy himself sitting in front of the fire in his parent’s home and listening to his father telling him about the War that brought them Independence. It had been a cruel War, as all wars are, and Ben’s father had a way of recalling the events in such a graphic way that Ben and his brothers were both enthralled and terrified. Sixty years ago, 1776, and Ben’s father had been a youth standing at his own father’s side during some of those blood-stained events that gave birth to a nation.
“I’d like to see fireworks.”
“You will, one day.” Ben cradled the boy closer. “You will, I promise.”
“And a dog?” Adam yawned and closed his eyes. As he drifted off to sleep in his father’s arms, he dreamt of rockets that sped up to the sky and burst into thousands of tiny stars, and of Catherine wheels that spun round and round, scattering color and light with them.
His father held him close and asked himself, for who knew what number of times, what right had he had to have brought such a child on this journey which was more in pursuit of a dream. What right had he had to deny the child safety and security, and the pursuit of childhood with school and a decent education?
He left his son sleeping beneath the shrubs and walked to the water’s edge. Standing there, he felt as though he were standing on a chasm of indecision, and doubt. Life, so tenuous, was slipping through his fingers, and upon this journey, he had thrust his most precious possession, his son.
“Where will it end, Elizabeth…”
It was barely a whisper and there was nothing whispered back to comfort him. He could only raise his eyes to the sky and watch as the sun plunged beneath the horizon and darkness descended.