On the evenly packed soil of the garden path, I prepared this time for a more graceful landing. Five feet from the shed, I threw my leg out like a ball player sliding into first. The moment my backside struck the dirt, the corner of the shed exploded into splinters above me. I shielded my face as my foot struck the clapboard base and popped me upright behind a structure in which I was rapidly losing confidence to sufficiently slow lead projectiles.
Then the truth struck. The shooter had waited patiently for me to reach my destination, targeting the shed rather than a moving object. He knew his surroundings and had been watching for intruders.
“Dammit, Dad! It’s me,” I swallowed hard. “Junior!”
No response. If I was wrong, I had just given ‘the competition’ both additional leverage and inclination to kill me. I vaguely recalled one of my father’s sermons from my childhood. Something to do with killing the landowner’s son, who was supposed to represent Jesus, in order to lay claim to the land. But Jesus was a quitter, like my old man.
“It’s J.T.! You already know I’m alone and came on horse.” I took a deep breath. “But hear this. If you ain’t my old man, alone or no, I’m sending you to hell at the count of three. One!”
Okay, so telling the enemy exactly what you plan on doing and when may not sound like the best of plans, but in situations like this it’s all about projection and fulfillment. “Two!” Some might call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I call it desperate. But deliver on your promise just once and the payoffs keep coming.
I opened my mouth to shout out the number three, mentally preparing to round the same exploded corner of the shed I had just ducked behind. Hell, I’d been shot over a dozen times. But I was willing to bet whoever held the piece inside my daddy’s house hadn’t been shot once, and didn’t want to be. “Three—”
“Hold your horses, young’un.”
At the sound of a thickly accented woman’s voice, I tumble from behind the shed. In an effort to redirect my aborted charge, I rolled into a furrow and stared up at a sky lit more brightly than my surroundings. “So you know who I am…” I waited for more information.
“I reckon I do! Jer daddy been sick, just a bubblin’ away about dis prodigal son whose comin’ home. I reckon you done be dat son, so git your raggedy ass in here, young man, before I come on out there and drag it in.” Then as an afterthought, “Don’t you think nothing about da gunfire. I done put the guns away da moment you declared all dramatic-like who you was. I swear on a bowl of gumbo, young men and their guns.”
I’d been away, this last time, for sixteen years. A dozen house maids could have come and gone. Her use of the words “prodigal son” rang true enough, and there was no way my father would allow a woman to do his shooting unless he was indeed sick or dead. It made sense. And as a ruse, it was simply too bizarre. Criminals and thugs are generally speaking, stupid.
I got up slowly, dusted myself off and whistled for Chester. He loped in from the north. “It’s alright, boy. We’re home.” He tossed his head while I loosened the girth and slid the saddle to the ground. I stroked my hand over his rump and gave him a good slap, indicating he could take his leave. It was December and cold, but there was still grass to be had. He knew I’d whistle for him if I found some molasses and grain.
As I made for the front porch with saddle in hand, Chester trotted toward a cement tank beneath a windmill. I hoped to find some strong, black coffee for myself.
With the threat to life and limb gone, I felt the anxiety of the moment with sudden force. Now it seemed even sickness had colluded to smother my vindictive gall. For over twenty years I’d envisioned putting my old man in his place, but none of those scenarios involved me riding home, pistols drawn, to help a sick and embattled man protected only by a maid. And where the hell were the hands?
I dropped the saddle on the porch loudly and threw open the door.