War Heroes

by Lindsay Michaelson

 

Dust quietly raised from the well-worn leather boot as I pulled one past my ankle.  I stood to adjust my Wrangler’s over my boots when I heard a scraping noise and I looked up and out the kitchen window to the porch outside.  Our lanky shepherd rose from her resting-place on the wooden patio, and heads out toward the clear Wyoming sky.  She broke into a trot and the tall virgin grass spread as she gently moved through.  Still resting on the porch lay our old lab Casey.  His black fur dully shined in the bright rays of the sun until the moving clouds that cover the pristine sky blocked the bright sun and he fell partially in shadow.   

            Casey has been with us for twelve years. It was when he was ten and his muzzle was flecked with gray that we acquired Madison, a young and energetic Australian shepherd puppy.  I felt almost guilty the day I brought Madison to the ranch.  It was in the last several times of moving the cattle that I had noticed Casey’s big lab paws dragging and his long pink tongue hanging so far out of his mouth long before the run was over.  I knew it was time to teach another dog to work the ranch. The day I brought Madison home I introduced her to Casey on the patio.  Madison was ever happy to meet a new friend and she jumped all over Casey, playfully licking and nipping at his furry neck for attention.  He was the perfect gentleman and sat still.

 Madison quickly learned the ways of the ranch thanks to Casey.  He taught Madison that she shouldn’t bark around the horses being saddled in the barn and she learned not to chase the cats by watching Casey allow them to rub up on his legs.  He showed her to always keep a watch out for the young calves that often strayed behind as we drove the group, and which steers not to run too close behind.  In return, Madison took years off of Casey.  We began to play fetch with him again and he would go for wild romps around the meadows with my son Matthew.  Madison’s sprightly step and endless energy gave new motivation for Casey to join her.  However, as the weeks and then years trickled by his age began to be more apparent.  His hearing was failing him, and I feared he can no longer here my words of affection but understand them only in facial expressions and gestures.

I picked up a water bottle from the counter and head outside for the fresh Wyoming air.  Still lying at his post on the porch is Casey, his back to the house, watching guard over our green ranch.  I opened the front door to head toward the barn.  Casey could not hear the door open or close but he felt the vibrations of my footsteps on the wooden porch and his tail slowly moved back and forth across the wooden planks. 

I reached down to scratch between his shoulders, then continued on to the barn to saddle up my horse.  Casey followed along side me as always.  My husband and my son Matthew were already done grooming and had already begun tacking up the horses.  Madison sat at the entrance of the barn, her bright eyes shined with excitement for the run.  She whined as Casey entered the barn and trotted over to greet him and the pair dutifully waited as we finished getting the horses ready. 

On the roundup I gazed at the gorgeous Wyoming scene in front of me, the lush green rolling hills and the thick white clouds blanketing a pool blue sky.  The purity here has never ceased to move me. My tranquility was suddenly broken as I heard Matthew shout, “Casey, Casey!”  I turned around in the saddle to find Matthew dismounting his horse and running to a furry black mass lying in the grass.  I reined my horse over to turn around and trotted over to where Casey lay.  I dismounted and joined Matthew alongside my dog. My husband, in lead of the cattle realized something was wrong and loped over aboard his mount with Madison at his side.  Casey was unconscious and his breath was so slight.  Long minutes of calling his name and gently stoking his face passed by as we all sat in the velvet grass around him.  Madison, sensing something was wrong with her friend, kept making this low, terrible whining noise.  My husband yelled at her to shut up.  The milling cattle began to graze.  Tears began to wet Matthew’s face and I felt them too forming in my own eyes.  I blinked them away.  Finally Casey’s eyes slowly opened and his breath heaved.  Relief rushed over me as he struggled to rise, but my wounded soldier could not.  My husband silently walked over to our two ranch hands that waited alongside the cattle and instructed them to continue to the eastern pasture.  He returned to us and said softly, “Matthew, you and your mother go with Gus and Jerry to finish here with the cattle.”  With those words he silently lifted Casey and began the long walk home.

Matthew and I saw the cattle safely to the eastern pasture and in record time untacked and tended to our mounts.  We rushed along the well-worn path from the barn to the house to find my husband out back unloading bales of hay from the feed truck.  Breathlessly we inquired about Casey.

“He is inside, in the sitting room.  He is a strong dog.”

Matthew and I entered the room and found Casey resting on the rug in the middle of the room.  His tail weakly moved back and forth as we moved forward to greet him.

 He spent the rest of the day and through the next morning on the Navajo rug resting with labored breathing.  Madison, ever loyal to her companion spent the night alongside him.  But when morning came as Jim and Matthew sat down for the buttermilk pancakes I had prepared, Casey entered the kitchen in a tired walk, head hung low but eyes still bright, and routinely took his place underneath the kitchen table.   As we cleared the table after breakfast, Jim said, “You know Annie, he can’t come on the trails with us anymore.  His body will give out on him.  It is just going to have to be Madison from here on out.”  I agreed, but with a heavy heart.  Those runs and round ups have been Casey’s job, passion, and his life for twelve years.  For so long he has proudly worked the cattle alongside us.   I felt as though we were asking for his resignation.

A week later my husband decided to move the cattle from eastern pasture out the pastures just below the foothills.  Before we left for the barn to get the horses ready I locked Casey in the Ford.  “ Sorry old boy” I said to him as I cracked the windows and shut the passenger side door.  “ I can’t let you do this any longer.  We will be back soon and you can come with us to the river afterwards.”  My reassurances were useless because of his failed hearing.  He made no noise but sat is silence and his gentle brown eyes looked at me with disbelief.  Looking at my own reflection in his desperate eyes made me turn from him and I started toward the barn.  He was hurt beyond belief. 

           After the cattle drive I went straight to the Ford to retrieve Casey, who was still waiting, staring out the passenger window out into the distant sky.  I was about to meet Matt and Jim to go to the river when one of the hands told me I had an urgent call.  With Casey at my heals I made my way and picked up the phone. A professional voice answered me.

            “Mrs. McLaughlin, this is Dr. Devartanian from Jacksonhole Memorial Hospital.  I have your father here who has sustained some injuries.   He has taken quite a fall.  Apparently his neighbor found him on the back porch.  Anyway he is doing better now, and he has named you as next of kin I thought you should be aware of his condition so you can take the next steps in assisting him...”

When I hung up with the doctor a feeling of shock ran through me.  I tried to shake it off, and kept telling myself that he is an old man. Something like this is bound to happen, it is what happens with age.  It’s natural.  But this was my father.

Within and hour I had packed a bag, made arrangements with my family and left in the truck for the five hour drive to Jacksonhole.  As I left my husband kissed my cheek and suggested I bring my father to stay with us.  I told him that to do that I would have to hog-tie him.

I began the long trek to my father’s town.  I spent the drive deep in thought, and the scenery around me became a blur as I thought of what was to become of my father.  My mother died five years ago this autumn.  Since her death my father has insisted in remaining in the house she and he had built their life in, even though it was hours from my ranch and states across from my younger brother. This has been his choice, to carry on his life in the house of my childhood, even if it is without my mom.  

When I arrived to the hospital I talked to the doctor in his cold, white, mechanical office and his words instilled my greatest fear, not for me but for my father. “He just cannot be alone any longer.  Its time for him to live with a caregiver, someone he can depend on.” My heart sunk, this would kill my father who has for so long basked in his own independence and freedom.

I entered my father’s hospital room in attempted composure but when I saw how small he looked in the starched white sheets I slightly broke down.

“Oh, Dad.” I said and I sat down on his bed and held his hands in mine.  We sat there for long minutes before he started up.

“I’m fine Annie darling. I just need to get out of this place and everything will be all right.  I just need to get back to my regular life, back to the house an all.  No sense in me having to stay here.”

“Dad, please why don’t you come and live with Jim, Matthew and I on the ranch.  Then I’ll be able to see that you get everything you need and nothing like this will happen again.”

“ No Annie I’m not doing that.  You don’t need your father around under your feet all the time, you have a life of your own now, a family to look after.”

“But Dad,” I said to him, “ You are my family and now you need to be taken care of.  This incident is telling us that its time for you to have someone to care for you.”

He rose with anger and told me, “Damn it Anne, I told you, the only person I ever had to take care of me was your mother.  And she is gone now; she was it for me.  All I want is to go home, please do this for me and get me out of here.”

I checked my father out with Dr Devartainian’s permission that afternoon.  And I promised the doctor that I would take my father home with me, no matter how it broke him.  And no matter how it broke me.  When we arrived at his house he was exhausted from the trip so he went to bed early.  I sat up late in the evening, sitting within the walls of the house of my childhood, recalling the memories of my past, and how all those memories my father must have too, and much more.  He had so much to let go.

The next day, in the early hours of dawn, I awoke to a thump.  I frantically got out of bed and was not surprised to find my fathers room vacated.  His walker was gone as well.  I found him in the kitchen.  For a second I stood in the threshold of the kitchen, and the scene flashed before my eyes.

My father, leaning on the kitchen sink, peeling sweet oranges for me with his pocketknife, trying to get the peel off all in one piece.  His big hat with the brim pulled down low, a big white smile underneath.  My father, so little now, sitting outstretched leaning back against the sliding kitchen door, like a wounded soldier, his hand grappling for the knob.  His walker was left abandoned by the kitchen table.

I ran over to him, and my feet crunched on sunflower seeds.  I kneeled by him, and he covered his faces with his shrunken white hands and moaned, not in pain but in desperation,  “Annie, have to feed your mother’s birds, I can’t feed her birds.”

I left him for a moment to retrieve the wheel chair from the hall he had so objected to but that the doctor insisted on and I supported his weight and with much effort helped lower him into the wheel chair.  I gently opened the back door, and wheeled him across the patio where he taught me to ride a bike, and I stopped in the grass, among the trees.  He sat there limp in the wheelchair as I put a handful of seed in his hand, and he slowly let the seeds run between his fingers, pouring onto the baby grass among my mother’s flowers.  Little sparrows and mockingbirds landed from their flight and surrounded us, feeding on the seeds that lay in the grass and their happy chirping rang in my ears.

The next day as I made breakfast for my father I told him that I was going to pack his stuff so we could be on the road by late morning and we can reach the ranch before the evening.  When he heard the news he paused with shiny eggs on his fork, stared straight ahead into the yard, then brought the fork to his lips.

I packed my fathers things and some remembrances from the house, and left a spare key and a bag of birdseed with the neighbor next door who promised she and her children would take care of my father’s birds.  After I loaded the truck my father was reluctant to my offer for assistance into the truck, but he could not get in the high truck on his own and he was forced to accept my assistance.  The entire ride back to the ranch he looked straight ahead, with clear defeated eyes.  As the scenery of the great mountains and the green grass of Wyoming flashed before us, I felt as though he and I were traveling through time, with each mile driven we were leaving behind a point in our lives and beginning another.  All of those miles and miles began to blend and mold together, like the dotted line of the lane of the highway we were traveling on, we were going fast enough to make the broken line of the highway be perceived as solid.

The yard was motionless when we pulled off the dirt road to the ranch; everyone must have been working in the pastures.  It was better that way, for there to be no big production of my father arriving here, to give him this quiet dignity.  I moved to the passenger side of the dusty Ford and slowly assisted my dad from the seat.  He did not object to my assistance.  The wooden planks slowly creaked as his walker’s four legs and my two helped him across the porch and we passed the unattended post.  I turned to Dad, whose eyes were gentle and glassy.

There is someone I want you to meet.”

The End