Thursday, February 24, 2011
Son of a Gun: Character Building
basin onto the wide-open range. Spicy sage scented the late afternoon air,
mockingbirds whistled, and woodpeckers tapped, but Ruby didn’t notice her
surroundings. Finally she sighed and dropped her hands to the saddle horn.
The boy pulled up beside her. Without raising her voice, she said
gently, “JJ, I want to tell you about your name. Can we walk?”
A breeze lifted his dark blond bangs, and he resettled his hat, then
dismounted and took his mother’s reins to guide both horses.
“Your father was called Jack, Jack Smith actually.” She started from
the beginning. “I only knew him for one night. He was just passing through
Greenville and I was young and a little wild, like you, with a hankering to get
out and see the world, make a new start. Anyway, this tall, black-haired
cowboy flirted with me.” She paused, remembering. “Oh, he was quite the
sugar mouth, and he seemed so adventurous and bold . . .”
Ruby lifted the chestnut hair from the back of her neck, letting the
cool wind blow on her neck. She unwrapped her black ribbon bracelet and
tied her curls back in a ponytail, then arched the kinks out of her spine,
twisting her shoulders back to her son.
“He had a beautiful red mare, almost the same color as Cowlick is. She
was a hand taller than any other mount I’ve seen, sleek, well muscled, alert,
with a pure white mane and tail. He’d raised her from a foal, and he loved
her; he even talked to her, and he claimed she talked back. It took me two
seconds to fall in love, first with Big Red, and then with Jack Smith.”
JJ’s eyes were wide, tearless and unblinking, but his face was still soft
and mobile with boyhood, and his mouth worked against trembling.
“I thought if he liked me enough he’d take me with him,” Ruby
continued, “so I did what girls do when they want a man to like them. But he
didn’t like me enough. He was gone the next morning.” Her voice trailed off
for a moment before she went on. “So then, after a while, I had you.”
She looked at him to see if he understood what she’d just told him, and
when he wouldn’t meet her gaze she saw that he did.
“Did he ever know about me?” JJ asked. He couldn’t quite hide the
longing in his voice. Pine trees, dusky in the twilight sun, cast a shadow across
the boy’s face; frigid water bubbled in the stream, like the ice-cold answer she
had to give him.
“No, JJ. No, he didn’t.”
He plowed his toe into the damp brush edging the stream. A low bluff
surrounded by limestone boulders overlooked them, and shaded their path in
the early evening chill.
“Can we go home, now?” JJ asked.