The ranch-house was filling with cowhands preparing to make their annual fall trip to the highlands for the cattle round up.
Kenny sprang out of bed and ran downstairs. It was his ninth birthday and Pappa had promised him he could go, too. "Yipeeee!" Kenny cried, when he saw his father.
Nathaniel Bishop knelt down and gripped Kenny's shoulders. “Calm down, now. It won't be easy, son. September cold that gnaws at your insides. Riding for hours until your bones get pounded to dust. Tiredness that makes a grown man want to cry. We can't be stopping for you because you're tired or hungry or gotta go to the privy”
“I can do it, Pappa.”
Sarah Bishop stood by the sink, looking at her 9 year old son...holding her breath--hoping and praying...Lord, Kenny's so young...but Nathaniel is firm in his decision and it's not my place to change his mind. Please. Watch over them.
Sarah walked to the door to hug Kenny goodbye. He stiffened slightly. She could read the signs.
Please Mamma, no kissin' and fussin' in front of the men.
She stopped in front of Kenny, wiped her palms on her apron and gave him a pack sack of clothes. She held out her hand and said, “You mind your Pappa and do a good job rounding up those cows, son.” Kenny took her hand, and shook firmly.
“Yes, Mamma,” he said absently, one eye looking out the door at the line of ready horses.
Sarah bit her lip. O Lord. Sarah pleaded. Don't let me cry... don't let me cry.
Nathaniel saw her struggle and walked 3 full strides across the room, swooping Sarah backwards into his arms to kiss her. “I'll never be too old to kiss,” he teased.
Kenny got a peculiar, happy ache as he watched them. The way they looked at each other.
“We're off!” shouted Nathan, and pointing to Kenny, “You ride by me, son.”
All the horses were pawing and snorting--anxious to go. The party rode hard for several hours, covering many miles before the horses slowed to a steadier pace. Kenny's seat was starting to hurt and his legs throbbed...but he pushed on, remembering his dad's words.
As they crested another hilltop, Nathaniel dismounted. He called to the foreman. "Get your men organized, and let's get some heat into our bones. Fire us up some coffee and grub.”
Kenny ate with the men and like the men. Baked beans with thick slabs of meat washed down with hot, bitter coffee.
“Go easy on that, son.” Nathan warned. “Your mother would skin me if she saw you drinking that slop.”
The coffee sat unsettled in Kenny's stomach--bubbling and frothing--and before he knew it, he was heaving up his lunch. Nathaniel pressed a hand on his shoulder as Kenny leaned against a tree. He turned his face so his father wouldn't see him cry and when he turned, he saw it--a large mountain cat ready to spring at one of the horses.
Kenny charged towards the campfire, grabbed the coffee pot and threw it at the lion. There was the crack of a rifle. The lion staggered and fell.
“Shucks, kid.” It was Martin, one of the young cowhands. “Fast thinking. You gave that cat some distraction and me time enough to drop him. Nice work. She's a beaut, too.”
“Hold your tongue, Martin.” demanded Nathan.
Kenny stood staring--his balled fists pressed against his open mouth. He was gaping at the mountain lion. Dead.
Nathaniel came over quickly. “Son, there ain't no shame in crying. You did a brave thing, but there is no shame in crying over a beautiful animal. He was just following his instinct. It's a manly thing to care about all of God's creatures”
There was a long pause.
“You okay, son?”
“Pappa. Is it okay for me to be just a kid a while longer? Maybe grow a few more years before I come out here again?”
“I think that's wise, son.”
Nathan smiled. It had been many years since Kenny had used that endearment.
He held his son close. “Yes, son?”
“I want Mamma!”
Nathan let out a bellow of laughter. “Me too, son. Me too!”
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