The white SUV came slowly up the lane, stopping in front of the house in a cloud of dust. It had hardly stopped when the rear doors popped open and a couple of teenagers emerged.
Hi Gramps! Whatcha doin’?
Ah, not much, sonny, just sittin’ out here tryin’ t’ keep cool. Too hot in th’ house right now.
Despite the creek nearby and the shade trees around the house, the plains heat was stifling and the air conditioning was struggling to keep up. The rest of the family paraded past, speaking and nodding in turn on their way into the house. They’d come for their traditional semi-annual visit to pay homage to the parents/grandparents. It was no big thing anymore. Seemed to be more of an inconvenience to his son and wife these years. They were just too busy with other things and other people. Different thing with the kids though. They loved the old ranch, with its big rustic porch, the barn and stable, the tallgrass prairie, the hills behind the house, and the creek out behind the barn. As they grew older they couldn’t seem to get enough of it. The boy, Jim, was a tall, lanky lad of 14 and his sister, Jenny, was 11 now and as pretty and as sweet as anything the old man had ever seen, except for grandma that is. Jim was quiet, softspoken, and listened more than he spoke. His parents complained that he was too bookish. read too much, and wanted him to join clubs and be in sports, but he just wanted to be left to his own devices mostly. Jenny had fiery red hair and was a ball of energy, on the run constantly. She was the one who wanted to be in sports and competitions, a bit of a tomboy, much to her parents dismay. She shunned music lessons, dance classes, and everything “little girly” in favor of soccer games, running, and roughhousing. One of her deep loves was coming out to the ranch and riding the ponies. It was quiet in the house for a while but the old man knew that wouldn’t last long, not with Jen around.
The screen door opened and Jim sauntered out onto the porch. Didn’t say anything, just walked over to the porch rail and stared off into the distance into the hills. The old man quietly sat and watched. Sometimes it wasn’t always wise to interrupt when a man’s mind was taking him somewhere else and Jim was far, far away, and far from being a man yet, but he was working on it, in his own way. After a spell the old man sat up, straightened his stetson and coughed.
Got somethin’ on yer mind, young man?
Jim turned quickly to face him, surprised. He had forgotten his Gramp was sitting out there.
Yeah, Gramp. Just doin’ a lot of thinkin’ lately and need someplace quiet to sort things out.
Well, son, if y’all decide you wanna share it, I’ll be sittin’ over here.
Thanks, Gramp, maybe later…, yeah, later. I think I wanna talk with you later. I just want to go for a long walk right now.
OK, son, but it’s been dry. Need to watch out for the rattlesnakes now.
He watched as the boy started across the road and out to the creek. That seemed to be one of his favorite haunts out here, the place where he felt comfortable and at ease. He noted that, as different as both the grandkids were, they both seemed at ease and at home when they were out here on the ranch. It appeared to offer them something they were lacking back home…, something like freedom…, and no pressure to be anything or anyone other than themselves. Well, he’d have them for a week and they’d fill up on that freedom til it was time to go home again. After a short lull, the quiet was broken again, this time, by the vivacious little lady that stole his heart every time he looked at her. She ran across the porch and threw herself into his arms and hugged him with all her might, which was getting to be some might.
Hi Grampa! I’ve missed you so much. I just love you, Gramps!
Her smile was as big as all outdoors and her eyes were as bright as stars in the skies, beautiful, irish green eyes. She favored him with a long look just before she kissed him on both cheeks and sat herself in the chair next to his. She was quiet, but only for a few minutes…
Grampa, would you ride with me for a little while? Could we go up in the hills where we could see far, far away?
Sure, Darlin’. Let’s go saddle up a couple ponies and I’ll let you lead the way. You seem to have someplace in mind, right?
Yeah, she replied wistfully.
Hmmm, wasn’t normal for her to be so quiet. Usually couldn’t get her t’ stop talkin’. Wonder what this could be all about. Jim seemed troubled and now Jen was mysteriously quiet. She took his hand and pulled him up out of his chair and led the way to the stable where she picked out the quiet little pinto mare that was her favorite. The pinto was a gentle little girl and just suited for Jenny. Somehow the two of them looked just right for each other today. His choice, as always, was the big Appaloosa stud. He and that horse had been best friends for years now and knew each other’s habits like they were brothers. When they were saddled up he called Jen over and, as she waited, he reached in the tack box and pulled out a new white stetson. Crowning her with it, he pronounced her Queen of the rancho, at which she giggled and hugged him again.
It’s so beautiful, Gramps! It’s just the most wonderful hat in the whole wide world! I love it…, and I love you, Grandpa.
He wrapped her up in his arms, lifting her up and held her tight to him.
I love you too, little darlin’. Well …, that’s about enough of this smoochy, girly stuff. Let’s mount up now and get on our way…, an’ by the way, that’s a stetson, sweetheart, not a hat !
They headed out at a canter across the flats and slowed to a walk as they started upland into the hills, Jenny in the lead all the way. She took them across a little swale and then started up the highest hill on the ranch. Not a word had been said from the time they left the stable, but she was smiling all the way, and the happy look suited her well. When they reached the top she pulled up and let out a small sigh, then pulled up the canteen and took a drink, surveying all around her. From here, the house looked like a tiny toy in the distance, nestled in the trees along the creek. The old man had sat atop this hill so often that it felt like a second home to him. It was the parapet from which he viewed his kingdom. He saw something move in the distance, down along the creek. It was Jim, waving to them.
Well, darlin’, ya think we oughta go down and join yer brother?
Eh, I d’know, Gramps. He’s been kinda moody lately…, more than usual…, different than usual. Maybe it’s Mom and Dad’s fault. They try to push him to do things he don’t want to do…., just like me. I don’t like all those girly things they want me to do either. …and lately they’ve been fightin’ a lot too. Mom wants to move out East an’ Dad wants to stay around here….
Well, maybe it’ll all settle down in a while, sweetheart. Just don’t let it drag ya down too much, ok?
OK, Gramps. Maybe we should go down and be with Jimmy.
She had a tear on her cheek. He’d never seen her cry, not since she was a baby anyway. Hmmm, sounds like trouble in paradise at home. Have to wonder what’s goin’ on. Sam was always calm and easygoin’. As they rode down the hill he wondered… maybe this “goin’ East” business has got everyone stirred up. Nothin’ he could do. They were adults and they’d have to solve their own problems…, long as they didn’t drag the kids into it which seemed to be happening as evidenced by their behavior.
Hey, what’s up, boy?
They reined up and Jen took the horses to the creek for a drink.
Not much, Gramps. Just been sittin’ out here listenin’ to the water, watchin’ the birds and other critters. Nice and peaceful here. Had a quiet little nap too. There was a bit of a pause…, Gramps, could we talk tonight, after Mom ‘n’ Dad leave. got some stuff on my mind and need to talk to someone…
Sure, Jim. Maybe after supper we can take a walk back out here by the creek and sit a spell…, if that sounds good to you.
I’d sure like that Gramps…, just the two of us.
Well, ok, son, later on then. Let’s go on back to th’ house now ‘fore I get in trouble for takin’ y’all out without permission.
They saddled up, Jim riding behind him, and were soon back at the stable. He went on into the house and the kids unsaddled the horses and fed them. He was greeted on the porch by his love of 50 years, standing there with her hands on her hips and a smile on her face.
They got to ya already, eh? You’re such a soft touch…, and you spoil them…, and they love you for it…, the grandkids, not the big kids. Both of them are in there, in a stew ’cause you “dragged them kids off into the wilds” again…, not so much Sam, but that woman…, honestly, I don’t know whatever got into him to marry one like that…, and the worse of it is she’ll never change. Hah! I swear…, I don’t think she ever left Baltimore…, and she’s determined to get back, one way or another. They’re gettin’ ready t’ leave now, and then I can get supper started for the rest of us.
Ellie had never gotten along with Sam’s wife. There was an unsurmountable culture barrier between them and as hard as she might try, Ellie would never be “good enough” for Sam’s sophisticated bride. It was funny, because the first time the sophisticated lady met the old man, he had been cleaning the stable and smelled of hay, straw, and horse manure, and with that he didn’t have a chance. She had thought initially that he was “hired help” but that changed when he leaned over and kissed the lady of the house. She instantly wrote them both off as “common” and from then was perfunctorily polite, but never warm to either. Sam and Eva had been married for 17 years now and he often wondered how it had lasted that long. They were as different as night and day…, literally!
As he came into the house, Sam crossed the room and gave him the obligatory “goodbye” hug. Eva held out her hand and squeezed his, strategically keeping the old man at arm’s length. Ellie received a perfunctory hug from Eva and a thank-you for taking the kids for a week. Sam kissed his mother and then led Eva out to the car. They waved and were headed out the lane in a cloud of dust. It wasn’t til then that the old man noticed that neither had said goodbye to the kids.
They had an early dinner. Ellie had prepared the grandkids favorite, ranch stew with buiscuts and pineapple pie with ice cream for desert. Seems that was just about everybody’s favorite. The table was layered with conversation as Jim and Jenny regaled their grandparents with the happenings at school and fun with friends. When dinner was finished and the table had been cleared and dishes washed and put away, all retired to the living room. The afternoon was just beginning to fade toward evening and Ellie suggested…
Why don’t you and Jim go do some man things and I’ll saddle up some ponies. Jen and I will ride out in the hills and watch the sunset? I need some personal time with my granddaughter.
Thus it was decided and they paired up and were off on their separate ways.
Jim, why doncha grab about 4 sodas and that bag of marshmallows over there and drop ’em in a bag. I suspect Jen and her gram will be joinin’ us a bit later on down there by the creek. I’ll meet ya outside.
With that he walked over to the stable and in the tack room found what he wanted…, a couple of rolled blankets that he kept there for just such events. Usually he only needed one for when he and Ellie would have a picnic dinner out on the hill watching the sunset. Tonight would require both. Jim met him at the edge of the grass and they began their trek across the field to the creek. It was a pretty quiet walk. Jim hadn’t said a word and the old man wasn’t about to interrupt him. When they reached the water he spread one blanket in an open area and the other by a log near the creekbank.
Jim, let’s gather some wood for a fire now and we’ll build a small one when the ladies joins us later.
While Jim gathered the wood the old man took some stones from the creek bank and bade a circle to contain the wood and any embers. It was dry and he didn’t want to take any chances of starting a grass fire. They’d have to keep the flames low so that there wouldn’t be any sparks or ash flying up into the air. When the stones were set and the wood layed for the fire both meandered to the blanket by the log and settled down. Not one for long prologues, the old man drove right to the heart of things.
Ok, Jim boy, let’s get to the bottom of what’s troublin’ you. Somethin’s been eatin’ at you since you got here, and maybe before. So let’s talk about it.
Gramps, I don’t know…, I just don’t even know where to start…
Well, son, the beginning is usually a pretty good place. I’m just gonna sit here and keep my mouth shut til you’re finished now…., unless you say otherwise.
Gramps, it’s about Mom and Dad, and me and Jen…, the family. Nobody seems to get along anymore. There’s fighting in the house all the time. If it isn’t me an’ Jen, it’s Dad an’ Mom…, mostly them. With Jen ‘n’ me it’s just kid stuff. Mom keeps naggin’ at Dad to move out East all the time anymore. I think Dad even applied for some jobs out there but nothing’s happened so far. It’s so bad I think sometimes they hate each other. It never used to be this way. They think we don’t know everything that’s goin’ on but, come on, Jen an’ me aren’t little kids anymore, we got eyes and ears. It all boils down to that me an’ Jen are scared, Gramps. We don’t know what’s gonna happen next. The other night, they had a row and Dad told her that if she wanted to go East that bad, just go, but don’t plan on ever comin’ back. What’s gonna happen to us, Gramps…, Jen an’ me?
He fell silent then, tears streaming from his eyes. The old man just sat there, tears filling his eyes too. He had suspected something like this was happening but had hopes that his feelings might be wrong. No such luck. He put his arm around his grandson’s shoulders and hugged him and hung his head. After a couple minutes he spoke.
Jim, I don’t have any wise, magic answers for you. I’m just a simple old man who knows about farm, and cattle, and horses. People have mostly always perplexed me. I, some of the time, well, most of the time, don’t understand the way they think, the decisions they make, and the way they treat the people around them. I wish I could do or say something that would change all of what you told me about just now, but I don’t have that kind o’ power. Somethin’ I want you an’ Jenny to know though, your Gram an’ me love both of you more than you could ever know. Ain’t nothin’ we wouldn’t do for you.
He stopped there. Didn’t know what else to say, and though his eyes were dry, his heart was still crying for these two kids. A week wasn’t going to be enough…
I know that, Gramps. Jen and I wish we could just come out here and live with you. We’re always happy here. I know you an’ Gram spoil us when we’re here, but even if you didn’t it wouldn’t make any difference. We both love you. Mom and Dad….
What about Mom an’ Dad, Jim?
I don’t know that I love them so much right now. Maybe I’m just angry and confused by what’s goin’ on at home. Feels like each of them is tryin’ to pull us away from the other one and I’m tired of being on the wrong end of the rope, Jen too.
Jim, I’m not tryin to dodge givin’ you any answers or advise. This is a pretty big situation. Just give me some time to think about it a bit, an’ maybe talk it over with your Gram, ok?
About that time Jen and Ellie rode up and that ended the discussion…, for the moment. It was time for a campfire and some toasted marshmallows.
The campfire was a raucous affair with the four of them laughing, roasting marshmallows, talking, telling jokes, and listening to one of Gramps stories. On the way back, Jenny said that she hadn’t had so much fun since last year…, then she fell silent. Ellie and Jim had taken the horses and gone ahead to the stables.
Somethin’ troublin’ you, little girl?
Yep…, and I’m not a “little girl” anymore, Gramps.
OK, Jen, Sorry I offended your pride…, now what’s the problem? You’re not normally this quiet, or this touchy.
Did you an’ Jim talk while Gram and I were riding? Did he say anything about home, about Dad and Mom?
Yep, we did talk, and a lot of it was about home, and Dad, and Mom, and about “out East”. Anythin’ you want to add to the list?
Well, if y’all talked about those things there’s no sense me repeating it.
Jenny, I think I’d like to hear your side of this story too. Sometimes some people see things different and I’d like to know what’s on your mind…, if you’d care to tell me.
She launched into her description of homelife for the past year and it followed pretty much what Jim had said about the arguments, fighting, “outEast”, but hers brought a new facet to the fore. Seems her mother had, on a couple of occasions made threats about just leaving and going “home”…, and her father’s response had been “if you do, don’t bother to think about coming back”, or something like that. She talked about how she and Jim would stay in their rooms at night, or find excuses to be away from the house with friends til late hours. The old man hung his head and sighed as they came up to the house. He took her hand and they sat on the old sofa on the porch.
Jen, did you tell your Gram about all this stuff?
Yep, and some more that I didn’t tell you. She didn’t have a lot to say…, just cried some.
Darlin’, I’m gonna tell you the same thing I told Jim when we talked. Honey, I’m just a simple old man who knows about farm, and cattle, and horses. People and how they act are mostly a mystery to me. Somethin’ I want you an’ Jim to know though, your Gram an’ me love both of you…, more than you could ever dream. I’ll see what I might be able to do to make things better for you. No promises though, but I’ll try.
He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer as she snuggled against his side, quiet. He knew she was crying. They sat for a while, her at peace in the comfort of her Gramps embrace, him troubled as to how he could do anything to ease the trials she was facing. When he looked down, he saw she’d fallen asleep. Gently he picked her up and went inside, motioning to Ellie, then whispering for her to get Jen undressed and into bed.
As the week passed, there wasn’t much more said about family issues in the house. Ellie and Jen went shopping. Jim and his Gramp went fishing and one fine afternoon he took both of the kids on a long hike to an area of the estancia that they’d never seen. The old man liked the term “estancia”. He thought it lent a classical aire to the place. He gave them some of the history of the area as they walked the hills, side-by-side..
You know, I call the ranch, “the estancia” for a bit of a reason. Back before this became part of the United States, this was part of a very old Spanish land grant. Before that it was part of an area that belonged to a Spanish mission founded by Franciscan padres working with the Apache tribes of the area. Lasted for quite a while, but, like most of the remote missions, was destroyed by an Indian uprising and abandoned. Later on, it was given as a grant to a Spanish nobleman for his services to the crown. Was lost to him when Houston defeated Santa Anna and Texas became part of the Union. Lot o’ people tried a lot of things with the land, orchards, farming…, but it’s really only suited for two things…, grain and cattle…, and maybe a bit o’ both, at least that’s what I found it handles best. When your Gram and I came here the place was quite a mess. The roofs on both the barn and the house leaked. The stable was next thing to fallin’ down, and it hadn’t seen a plow or a cow in years. We were lucky the pump and the windmill worked and the wells hadn’t dried up. Took a few years o’ hard work but we managed to get it back into shape. Had to rebuild most of the house. Couldn’t ask your Gram to live in the shack that was there. Well, now, let’s wander over this little ridge and see what we find. Then I think it’ll be time for some lunch.
As they reached the top of the hill, both Jim and Jenny stopped and stared…, and then looked to their Gramp, who was smiling at their surprise. At the base of the hill, nestled among the trees was the outline of a couple of buildings and a bit of a low wall, the remains of the mission. At Gramps nod, both of the kids were off, running down to explore the ruins.
The day ended with all back at the ranch, tired and hungry, ready for some more of Ellie’s ranch stew and buscuits. She smiled at him and squeezed his shoulder as she passed his chair.
Took them up to the ruins, didn’t you? Thought that was supposed to be a super secret spot.
Yeah, took them up to the old mission. We got an understanding that they can’t even talk about that place to anyone but us, and they’re not to go up there without one of us with them. It was pretty nice, watchin’ ’em wander through the ruins, exploring, chattering with each other, imagining the past. Gave ’em a bit of time away from their own reality.
Ok, everyone…, dinner’s on the table. Let’s eat !
The week passed much too fast. Already it was Saturday and Sam would be there to pick up the kids tomorrow. So quickly he’d become accustomed to their presence, their camaraderie, and the love they shared with him, and with Ellie. They hadn’t even left yet and he was missing them already. That night he called them both out on the porch and, with Ellie at his side, told them how much they were loved, and that if ever they wanted or needed to, they could come, or call.
I haven’t forgotten the things we talked about…, about the home situation and all. I want you to give this a little more time. Try to be good to each other and not do things that will hurt each other, no matter what else is going on. I’ll call you and stay in close touch with you. Ok? Your Gram ‘n’ me are sad, knowin’ you’ll be leavin’ in the morning. We’d keep y’all here just forever if we could. Not our choice though.
He gathered them both into his arms, in a big “bear hug”. Ellie joined them, reaching up to brush away a tear from his eye.
Ok. Time for us all to get some sleep now. See y’all in the mornin’.
He locked the door and started up the stairs. The house became quiet, but when he passed Jenny’s room, he could hear her crying. She always did on the night before leaving, but this time it seemed different. He knocked softly, entered, and sat on the bed with her.
I know, Jen… Goin’ back ain’t gonna be easy. Never has been, has it? Probably never will be. I know times seem pretty hard there right now, but try to stay close with your brother and if the two of you stick together, maybe it’ll be easier for both of you. You’re a tough little gal and you come from a pretty strong family. Don’t let any of this stuff get you down, darlin’. None of it’s your fault and you’re not to blame for anyone else’s problems, even your Dad and Mom’s. Go to sleep now, sweet granddaughter o’ mine. I love you.
G’nite, Gramps. I’ll be ok now. I love you.
He pulled up the sheet and sat with her for a few minutes, then kissed her forehead and quietly left her to her dreams. As he passed the bedroom, he whispered to Ellie that he’d be back shortly and then went into his office. It was 3:00 a.m. when he finished and, rather than disturb Ellie, he took a pillow and blanket from the hall closet and stretched out in the den.
The old man thought he’d be the first up in the morning but as he started down the stairs he found Jim sitting by the fireplace, staring grimly out across the field.
Come on out to the kitchen with me, Jim. Let’s start some coffee and have some bacon, eggs, and buscuits before your dad gets here. Gram an’ Jen are awake and will be down shortly.
Gramps…. Thanks for goin’ in and talkin’ to Jen last night. I was eavesdroppin’. I’m sorry. I heard her and was goin’ to go in and talk with her but I heard you there and just listened. I won’t let anything hurt her, Gramps. I’m her big brother.
The old man just looked at the young man standing beside him, shook his head, and pulled the boy into his arms.
I know that, Jim, but who’s gonna protect you. I know you got feelings too. I know you’re strong, more than some people realize, but I worry for you too. Pick the battles you can win…., and if you need help, you know where to find me, alright?
Jim nodded and they continued with preparation for breakfast, Gramps making bacon and eggs, Jim warming the buscuits and making coffee. They were soon joined by Ellie and Jen and the girls set the table. Breakfast was somber and quiet, Jim and Jen realizing that they would soon be leaving…, Ellie and the old man saddened by that, and the knowledge of what the kids would be returning to.
Sam arrived mid-morning and wanted to do nothing more than load the kids in the car and be on his way. Ellie sat him down at the breakfast table for some bacon and eggs…, and some quiet conversation. The old man was finishing something up in the study. Sam finished his breakfast and bruskly ordered the kids to load up and get into the car. The old man came from the study and handed him two envelopes.
Son, one of these is addressed to you and the other to Eva. Be sure you give it to her. In there are some very definitive questions and I, and your mother, would like some answers, from you, and from Eva…, soon!
With that, Sam strode out to the car and with gravel spitting from under spinning tires, he sped down the lane to the road.
There’d been nothing else for a couple of weeks until, out of the blue, Jim called. The old man was almost ,afraid of what he would hear…
Don’t know what you said in the letters you gave Dad when he came to get us, but things have sure settled down a bit around here, at least the fighting. School’s going ok now and no one is nagging me…, or Jen, to do things that we really don’t want. Gramps, I’d like to come out over Spring Break, if that’s ok with you and Gram. Jen could come too. We both miss you and Gram a lot…, a lot more than ever before. I love you, Gramps. G’nite now.
He gave Jim his love, said good night, and hung up the phone. Ellie came from the bedroom.
I was listenin’ in. I sure hope they can come. I miss them a lot…, maybe as much as they miss us ?
He smiled and pulled her into his arms.
Why don’t you call ’em tomorrow and tell ’em we’ll be waitin’ for ’em?