It started with the cows. Jacob saw them straight-lining it out of Hobson’s farm as if they sensed there could be trouble coming. The sky might have been painted blue that day but there sure as hell was a crazy storm brewing – and if anything bad was blowing in, it was sure to pitch up at night.
Over in town outside ‘Big Lots’, the Salvation Army band tootled away: coats dark as the souls they hoped to save, faces heavy like thunder. Jacob thought they got the brass to say Heaven’s for righteous and Hell’s for the sinner, but the tricky thing these days is telling the saints – knowing who’s marching in. It’s not as if folks got horns or 666 scrawled across their foreheads: evil can grow at home, unnoticed, like a weed spreading across the backyard.
Since the night he’d thrown Bear out ten crooked years ago, Jacob was certain one day he’d crawl back. Perhaps it wasn’t how most fathers would wait to greet a long-lost son, but whenever he wasn’t busy ranch-handing, Jacob would keep watch from the sun-blistered porch, knuckles bone-white from clutching an axe. And as the first-year ground slowly by, Jacob’s beard turned too: from clay to the colour of dirty snow.
If Bear were to tell the next part of the story, how he left the country and came to seek the bright city lights, he’d chuckle that he’d never meant to audition as axe-thrower for the travelling circus. He’d swagger how he’d thought it’d be Cupid’s arrow piercing his heart on Valentine’s Day – not a bullet from his Poppa’s twelve bore. He’d boast how he’d always known he’d leave that chickenshit-cowhole. He’d stale the bar-air with those tired one-liners whenever he found a man who’d listen.
But Bear never told the whole sorry story. Those barstool cowboys didn’t ever get to hear why the gun was pointing at Bear that night, or what ugly words were shouted when he hurled the axe past his father’s head, leaving the shack door hanging like a warning. Them barflies didn’t learn how Bear’s Pops got a darned sight more than morning wood when he stumbled across his son and cousin Thor, bollock-naked in the woodshed. There were no Cupid arrows for Jacob that day – just an eyeful: his son lying with another man, the son that had always been his.
But even if those folk didn’t hear all of Bear’s tale, maybe they would remember the storm that night. Perhaps they did wake blinded by lightning, shocked when the heavens sent down a months’ worth, hard and heavy enough to wash the sin clean out of Utah. Or maybe they felt the jiggers, when that dirt track of a family sudden-ended with a crash.
The Dirt Track to Redemption?
Bear sometimes pondered on how it might be to leave after closing time, drive up West. He’d find the creek — just where the road snakes, take that familiar track up through the woods. He wondered if reconciliation would feel like a hug from his father’s wiry arms, if it would taste like coffee bubbling on Jacob’s stove.
Then he’d remember how sharply cows jumped when they felt the prod — the jolt from fences keeping cattle in and strangers out. He’d recall how suddenly those storms blew in – how violent and frightening those downpours were, lightening fire-working the sky. He’d taste the bitterness in that coffee.
Kate Axeford (she/ hers) social works by day and plays with words by night. Lives in Brighton, loves the sea. Words here and there including Free Flash Fiction, @nffd The Write-in, @paragrahplanet, @pigeonreview, Reflex Fiction Winter longlist. She tweets at @kateaxeford.