Word Count 2,264
The first time Jamie let go of his father’s hand for a moment and ran off to explore, his father was frantic. His father and grandfather had found him, an hour later, curled up in Barranca’s stall sound asleep. He had gone to bed with no supper and a sore behind.
The second time, while his father talked to Frank about breaking the horses, Jamie had wandered off despite strict orders to stay where he was. Papa had searched for him and found him within a few minutes but he had been angry enough to make it quite clear to his little son that he was not to wander off ever again. Jamie had cried and promised, his father had hugged him and all seemed to be fine. For three whole weeks, whenever Jamie was with his father, he was right by Papa’s leg, listening to what his father told him and being rewarded with a ride home on Papa’s shoulders, which made him laugh out loud. That made Papa laugh too, and jog along, until the world sped by and the ground seemed far away. Those were the best times.
Then his father had been forced to spend a few days in the house, recovering from a fall. It was nothing serious, but a sprained ankle and some bad bruising made walking around painful, and Jamie had not really understood why his father couldn’t keep up and kept sighing and holding him back whenever he wanted to run. Jamie had tried to be patient and not tug until Uncle Scott had taken over, and played with him while Papa had sat lazily on a chair set in the shade. Uncle Scott was good at running games and was trying to teach him to catch a ball.
It wasn’t quite the same as being with Papa, though, and it was his father who had rubbed his knee better when he’d fallen.
The third time, he hadn’t meant to wander off. He had been near Papa, who had his eyes closed, and Uncle Scott had told him to stay where he was and had only turned for a moment to get him a glass of lemonade. But something had caught Jamie’s eye and he just had to investigate. He ran off into the bushes and didn’t even hear when Uncle Scott began to shout for him. Raccoons were his favourite critters and he had wanted to follow the animal to see if it did what Papa said raccoons did, which was to wash its food before eating it. Jamie had long wanted to see a raccoon do that.
When Uncle Jelly finally caught up with him, he was just noticing he was a little tired and maybe a long way from anything he recognised. He tried not to cry as Uncle Jelly picked him up and carried him home. He was being told off, he knew that, but he didn’t care so long as he was going to see Papa again.
Papa was leaning on the wall, and he looked mad. Jamie prepared for the worst. But Papa didn’t sound mad. He sounded more, well, kinda sad.
“Jamie! Come here, you little tike! Jelly…”
“He’s fine, Johnny. He jest scared hisself a mite, I reckon.”
Then Uncle Scott started speaking. “Johnny – I’m sorry. I just reached for the lemonade.”
“That’s all right, Scott. I guess I need to find a better way to keep him with me. Now come here, Jamie. What am I goin’ to do with you? You wander off like that, I worry you’ll never come back.”
His father reached out with one hand and Jamie automatically took hold of it. Papa smiled at him, then gently pulled him closer. “Hush.” He didn’t say anything else for a moment, then his voice was stronger again. “Come on, Jamie, let’s go in and see if Aunty Teresa can find you something to eat before you get too skinny.” His father hugged him and tickled him, making him laugh. “You’re outgrowing your clothes so fast, she can’t keep up. I got half the ladies in town bringing me clothes and toys and such. You are going to be spoiled if I don’t watch out.”
When he was put into his own little bed, which stood near his Papa’s just in case he woke in the night, Aunty Teresa tucked him in, told him a story and then blew out the lamp.
“Papa will be up in a few minutes. But don’t you go making him run up and down those stairs to you, young man. He needs to get himself all well again so he can get back to working.”
“Was Papa really mad at me?”
“I think you frightened him. He needs you to stay close, Jamie. It’s not often he can be with you all day long and he missed you when you ran away.”
“I didn’t run away, T’resa. I was just looking at the r’coon.”
“I know, sweetheart. But right now, he can’t keep up with you.”
“He needs to ride his horse. Then he could keep up.”
Teresa laughed. “That’s a very good idea. Now, you go to sleep, and maybe in the morning your Papa will get himself a horse and then you can run round as much as you want. All right?”
So Jamie had fallen asleep happy, unaware that his father was sitting at the kitchen table, working on some leather Jelly had found him, fashioning the answer to his problems.
Next morning, bright and early, Jamie was up and tugging at his father’s arm, ready to go out and see what the new day was doing. His father, who had been lying on his stomach, sprawled across three quarters of the big bed, turned over slowly and yawned.
“You want some breakfast, Jamie?”
“Yes, yes! Eggs. I want eggs.”
“All right. You run down and get some eggs and I’ll get dressed. I have a surprise for you.”
Jamie was half out of the door but stopped, pulled by the magic word “surprise”. He knew better than to ask, though and looked back at his Papa seriously. The little boy did not know how the light from the landing fell behind him, making his golden hair burn with the morning sun. But his father looked at him for a long moment before nodding to him and, saying, “Go on,” released him from the spell.
Aunty Teresa fed him, Maria dressed him and Uncle Scott and Grandpa wished him a good morning. It was the same every morning and he liked it that way. Any breaks in his routine puzzled him and the last few mornings, when Papa had been so slow to get up and had not had breakfast with him, made him feel itchy. When he was even slower than usual and looked somehow unhappy, too, as if he’d not had a good start to the day, Jamie felt even more fidgety. It had been a whole week since the Bad Day, when Papa remembered that it was three whole years since Mama had died, and that was nearly the same time ago as his birthday, and his Papa went away to take her some flowers and was unhappy all day. Next year, Jamie would be going with him, then he could make sure Papa didn’t get so sad.
Then people seemed to be gathering in the kitchen all around him. He wondered what he had done wrong.
Papa had been carrying something behind his back. He spoke to Jamie in his kindest voice. “Come here, Jamie. Come and see your surprise. I stayed up late to finish it for you.”
Jamie walked over to stand by his Papa, leaning against his knee and looking at the strange thing he had in his hand. He was familiar with all the bits of leather they used for the horses and knew some of the names for it, like bridle and rein. But he had never seen anything like the leather pieces his father held out.
“What is it, Papa?”
“Turn round. I’ll put it on for you. Then you’ll see what it is.”
Jamie trusted his father completely. But somehow, that morning, with all the people looking and his routine gone and his Papa still not quite smiling properly, Jamie panicked when his father slipped the leather pieces over his head and started to fasten a buckle behind his back, right where he couldn’t see what was going on. First he wriggled, until his father put his big hand on his shoulder to still him. He started to shout that he didn’t want his surprise, and wriggled again. Then he wasn’t sure what happened except that he was stamping his foot and shouting and wondering why the adults couldn’t see what was wrong.
Somehow, he was sitting on Grandpa’s knee, with his Grandfather looking at him most seriously. He looked round the room. His father wasn’t there any more.
“Grandpa?” He looked hopefully up at his Grandpa, who seemed to be waiting for him somehow.
“He’ll be back in a minute. Now, let’s get your face washed and we can talk about what made you so cross. You mustn’t get so cross with your father, Jamie. He’s sick just now.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“I know, son. Now. Look at this. What do you think that is?”
Jamie looked down at his chest, where the harness he had been resisting was still tight. His Grandpa was pointing to a wide band of leather across his chest and as soon as Jamie stopped wriggling and started looking, he realised there was a picture. It was upside-down but he still knew what it was.
“Horsey!” he shouted in triumph then looked quickly to see if his Grandpa was going to tell him off for being so noisy. “Horse, Grandpa.”
“Do you want to see it properly?”
“Sure. Sit still.” His Grandpa reached behind him, undid something and the harness slipped forward. When he had it sorted out, he looked at the picture of the horse which was running hard. “Who do you think made that picture, Jamie? Eh? Who do you think?”
His Grandpa smiled at him. “No, Jamie. Your father made it for you. He tooled the leather himself. You’re going to be his horsey. He’ll be able to know where you are and you’ll be able to go a bit further from him. Do you understand?”
Jamie didn’t, really, but he nodded. This time, when Grandpa fastened his harness, he waited patiently, looking at the upside-down horse. Grandpa set him on his feet and stood up, towering miles above him.
“Go on, son, off you go.”
Jamie set off then felt something jerk him back. He looked round and found his Grandpa holding some reins in his hand, made just the same way his Papa made leather strings sometimes, all twisted together. The reins came to his back. Jamie twisted himself round to see them.
“Are they mine?” he asked, looking up.
“Yes, they’re all yours. Do you want to go out with your Daddy now, to see the cows and horses?”
“Yes. Please,” he added, after a moment’s thought.
Then Papa came and took the reins from Grandpa. Jamie hadn’t seen his father come back into the room. He hadn’t seen the way Uncle Scott had squeezed his father’s shoulder, and the way Aunty Teresa had pressed a cup of coffee into his hand, or that his father had drunk the coffee down quickly. But he did know his father was smiling at him now, and that, as they set off to the corral, he was allowed to go first. Whenever he looked back, there was Papa, walking stick in one hand, reins in the other, following him, encouraging him and finally, as they reached the high fence, lifting him to stand on a rail and steadying him there, so that Jamie could wave to Uncle Scott.
They shouted as the brave man Papa called a wrangler rode a horse that leapt every which way. They watched as Uncle Jelly pumped some water in a trough for the baby cows. They fed the chickens, which came running and frightened him just a bit, with their sudden movements. Then they went and had some cookies and lemonade.
And as Jamie rested in the heat of the day, sitting on Papa’s knee, with his head against Papa’s shoulder, he watched his father’s fingers as they played with the reins, twisting them and looping them. Jamie grasped the rein and laughed. His father smiled, slowly, then hugged him close.
Somehow, Jamie felt safe when the reins were in Papa’s hands. He could pull at them, and lean on them, and run, and still know his Papa was there. And, when he looked at Papa’s face, he knew the reins were keeping Papa safe too. Safe from what? He didn’t know. It had something to do with the way his face looked now, as if he was thinking hard.
Still, Papa was there, just as he always had been, and always would be. Jamie knew that for certain, just as he knew he did not have to wear the harness if he truly did not want to. As he drifted to sleep, he reached a decision. Papa had made them. He would wear them. Jamie’s reins. He slept, close and secure, holding on tight.
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