Ronald Mowry sat carefully on the wooden bench at the eastern edge of the playground, gradually relaxing his full weight onto it, and sighing with relief at the absence of back pain. The morning was cold, and crisp with unexpected sunshine. He propped his cane against the bench and took a look around. The playground wasn’t yet full of children, but it would be, and that was why he was there. On particularly lonely mornings he loved to watch the happy chaos of kids playing; they brought him outside himself into the light. He looked across the sawdust pit, over toward the slide, and saw a familiar-looking little boy.
“That looks just like Jack” he said to himself.
The boy was dressed in a white short-sleeve shirt, sweater, jeans held up with a thick belt, and a ball cap covering his blonde hair.
Ron wondered how long it had been since he’d seen Jack. Eight years at least. Eight years and cancer treatments for them both. Ill-health robbed one of the motivation to stay in touch, particularly when trying to talk with someone as reticent as Jack.
Ron and Jack were cousins, sons of two of five Rowell sisters. Their families lived in Portland, but it wasn’t until Ron’s father moved the family to a ranch in Bend, Oregon when Ron was twelve that he and Jack got to know each other well.
Portland was The Big City, where you went to school, obeyed your parents, did your chores, and ate Sunday supper after church with all the aunts and cousins and neighbors who had no family to speak of. It was one hundred and seventy-six miles and a world away from The Ranch.
On The Ranch you were a man, albeit a small one. You rode horses, shocked hay, dressed in thick jeans, cowboy hats, and boots. The older men with the sun-browned faces and serious eyes showed you how to do cowboy things, ranch things, man-things–reparing the barbed wire fence, branding the cattle, catching the chickens to be killed for dinner. On slow days you saddled your horse in the morning after your chores were done and weren’t expected to be home until dinnertime; there was nothing but mountains and high desert and room to ride and a thick blue sky over top of it all.
Ron Mowry chuckled to himself, remembering his cousin’s first visit to the ranch. Ron’s hat and boots went missing, and when he heard the clump-clump-clump of boots on the hardpack dirt he looked out the window and saw his cousin down below, hat falling low over his eyes and boots threatening to leave his feet behind because they were two sizes too big. Behind him Jack dragged a pitchfork; it was needed to pitch hay into the corral, like he’d seen his uncle do.
“Jack never did come alive till he came to the ranch” he said to himself, smiling at the boy by the slide, and the memory of his cousin in the stolen hat and boots.