The old man stood gazing out the window, only half listening to the discourse of his eldest son, who sat at the table behind him finishing a sandwich.
“Pa, I really think if we just give the east pasture a rest and let the grass grow back some, then we can move the herd from the upper field. Haulin’ them to the high country every summer is gittin’ too dang costly.
“Well, son, if that’s what ya think ‘d be best….”
“Pa, are you listenin’?”
Hank sighed wearily and stood up from the table. “Pa, quit starin’ out the winda! Yer son is gone and he ain’t never comin’ back. You need to accept that as a fact and git on with yer life! We got work ta do, Pa!” When there was no response, Hank shoved the chair against the table and grabbed his hat. “I’ll be clearin’ out the ditch iffen ya git a mind to help.” Pulling his hat over his head, he was across the kitchen in a few long strides. He let the door slam shut behind him as he left.
Jesse sighed. He knew Hank could be right, but the knowing wouldn’t change anything. He would continue daily spending time watching, hoping and praying. Eventually he turned and found his hat, leaving his own sandwich untouched on a plate. He walked out slowly to find his son and try to be of some help.
He could sense and understand Hank’s frustration, and wished in a way he could stop watching the dusty dirt road leading to the ranch house. His younger son had taken that road, leaving and taking the inheritance given by his father with him, saying he would never come back to work on the ranch again. That had been many long months ago, and there hadn’t even been a phone call from him. “If only I knew he was alright, that he was happy with his choice, then maybe…”
Jesse knew his hopes were unfounded. Rumors circulated and reached the ears of Hank, who seemed almost glad to deliver the bad news. “Yer son’s livin’ it up with prostitutes, Pa, and he ain’t never comin’ back here, so ya’d best git used ta it. He’s spendin’ all yer hard-earned money, so why ya’d want him back is more ‘n I kin figure anyway.” Jesse knew the rumors were likely true, but that didn’t stop his heart from aching for his son. And he did wish Hank wouldn’t say such things, true or not.
He reached the dry ditch and climbed down into it alongside Hank, pulling an old pair of gloves from the back pocket of his dusty coveralls. The work of hauling accumulated debris out of the ditch to clear it for water passage seemed an almost soothing distraction from his heart’s unrest.
Later that day, Hank had gone to pick up a few things from town. As he walked into the kitchen through the backdoor, he was a bit surprised not to see his father gazing out the window. He set a bag of groceries down on the counter, his eyes missing a note now covered by the bag. Sifting through the bag for cold perishables to be refrigerated, he called out, “Pa? Where are ya?” There was no answer, so he left the remainder of the bag on the table and headed to the answering machine on a nearby table. The light blinked, so he pushed the button to hear the message.
Pa sounded excited, a bit confused, and as if Hank should already know where he was calling from. “Hurry, Hank, come join us! This is a wonderful celebration, and we don’t want ya ta miss it!” There was laughter, and then, “Oh, the number here is 448-0293, jist in case ya need ta call.”
Call he did, and was a bit surprised to learn it was the Old Apple Barrel, one of the fanciest restaurants in town. “Yes,” the hostess responded to his query, “Your father is here with quite a few others. They are celebrating something, you know, and there are balloons and all. Would you like me to inquire as to the reason for the celebration?”
“Uh, no, that’s okay. Just set a place fer one more, I’ll be joinin’ ya shortly.”
He got a quick shower and jumped back into his pickup truck. As he made the short drive into town, he pondered on possible reasons for this unexpected celebration. It wasn’t anybody’s birthday that he could think of. Why the fancy restaurant? An unbidden daydream began to form. Perhaps Pa had finally realized he should recognize his oldest son’s faithful service. Somebody sure ought to recognize it! Hank thought back over the years of backbreaking, palm blistering labor on the ranch. Yes, surely that must be it. His father had put together a glitzy celebration in his honor. He was still smiling over his fanciful speculations as he pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant.
“Hank, Hank,” Jesse cried out on seeing his oldest walk into the reserved banquet room. “Yer here, oh, I’m so glad yer here!” He jumped to his feet and ran to hug him. Then he continued happily, “Now we’re all here, tagether agin, one happy, happy family!”
It was only then that Hank saw the reason for the gaiety. Clint, his wayward lowlife of a brother, sat at the head of the table, looking both somewhat ashamed and very apprehensive. Stunned, Hank stared speechlessly as Clint said quietly, “Hey, Hank. How are ya?”
Jesse noted the shocked expression on Hank’s face with a bit of confusion. “Hank, didn’t ya see my note? I left it on the counter for ya.” When Hank didn’t answer, he continued, “I told ya in the note, your long-lost brother has returned to us, and we all 'd be celebratin' at the Old Apple Barrel.”
There was a moment of silence in the room before Hank finally turned to his father. “No, Pa, I didn’t see it. Frankly, I’m not sure why ya think this is a cause fer celebratin’ anyhow.” With that he turned and walked outside.
Jesse was quick to react. Grabbing his newly regained son by the shoulder, he said, “I’m so happy yer back, and nothin’ can change that. I love ya. Now ya sit right here and don’t ya move. I have a little somethin’ ta attend to.” With that, he ran out to find Hank who was pacing the walkway in front of the restaurant.
Seeing his father, Hank spoke roughly, “I’ve worked the ranch harder ‘n any o’ yer hired hands. I did everythin’ ya ever asked me ta do, n’er left anythin’ undone! Yet ya never did anythin’ like this fer me! You hardly seem ta notice a dang thing I do around the place fer ya, and yet that no good son o’ yers has never stopped bein’ a pain to ya since the day he split, spendin’ all yer hard-earned money…”
Jesse interrupted, “Son, you are right, I know all that. But Son, I want ya ta know iffen it’d been you that left… I woulda watched and waited fer you jest as much as I have fer yer brother. Ya woulda broke my heart just the same, cain’t ya see?” He watched closely as Hank’s angry expression began to soften. “Ya see, Son, yer brother lost his way fer awhile, but he’s come home to us. He’s changed his tune, so ta speak So now it’s time ta celebrate. Son, I love ya and we’d be havin’ this celebration jest the same iffen it was you.”
Hank stared hard at his father’s face. He knew the words he spoke were true. Here was his father, a hard-working man that loved both of his sons dearly, and would do anything for them. Stiffening, he looked away from his father’s pleading look. He knew that even now if he himself left, taking his own share of inheritance from his father, the old man’s heart would be inconsolable. Still, he thought briefly about doing exactly that. Staring out over the parking lot and busy street beyond, he felt the aches of constant labor. He was tired. Life on the ranch was never easy. It ought to be his lazy, irresponsible brother’s turn to tackle it all for awhile.
He turned back to face the love and concern in the eyes of his father once again. There was really only one reason to stay. “Okay, Pa,” he said with a resigned sigh, placing an arm around the old man’s frail shoulders, “Let’s go make that wayward son o’ yern feel welcomed home.”