The Long Journey Home

This is a sample of the short story, "The Long Journey Home" by author, William F. Powers.

The News

     It was the ultimate dread in the life of an only child … or of any child. His tall, slender, twenty-two-year-old frame tensed and his hands began to shake as his eye scanned the telegraph message a third time for any suggestion of hope. The first time he read it, he got the message, although he wasn't absorbing very much after the first few words. The second time he read it, he was filling in the gaps his wandering mind had left the first time through. Now as he read it again, his eyes pled with the small piece of paper to give him some reason to believe that things were better than his first readings had hinted. "MOTHER GRAVELY ILL. ASKING FOR YOU. COME QUICKLY. FATHER."
     The cook hadn't read the message; he got it when he went into town for supplies and just put it in his pocket. He remembered it a half-hour before Ben came back and gave it to the foreman, Mike Reed. Mike didn't read it either and just gave it to the young cowhand Ben as he came in from riding fences in the west pasture. The time and date were scribbled at the top; it had come over the wires early this morning.
     Ben ran into the bunkhouse, his mind racing to recall if there were any loose ends he should tie up before he headed out. He hurriedly threw his things into his saddlebag and ran over to tell Mike about his mother and that he would be gone a few days.
     He had gotten the telegraph message just as he arrived back at the bunkhouse so he had not put his horse up yet. Within a few minutes, he was on the road to town. There was an eastbound train that passed through Sanders Valley each evening and with a little luck, he could catch it and be home in Reynoldsburg tonight.

     "Thanks, Mr. McConnell. I should be back sometime next week. Can I settle-up with you then?"
     "Aye, laddie." The old gentleman spoke in a strong brogue. "I will take good care of your steed, and we will see to the business when you return."
     "Thanks, Mr. McConnell. Thanks a lot," he replied and then turned, grabbed his saddlebags and walked briskly up the street toward the ticket office.
     "Hi, Ben," he heard as he hastened. It was Rachael. She wore the pretty, blue-checked gingham dress she made from the cloth he had given her as a Christmas gift last year.
     "Oh, hi, Pretty Lady. I am glad I ran into you." Their plan for the social was the only loose end he had thought of earlier. "I have to go out of town, and I don't think I will make it back for Saturday night."
     "What's wrong?" she asked, sensing his urgency.
     "It's my ma. She's sick. I just got a telegraph message and I am heading east to see her, but I have to get to the ticket office and catch the train."
     "I'll walk with you. I didn't hear the train arrive yet, so I don't think you're late."
     "Oh, good," he breathed out in relief.
     "Young Mr. Owens and the lovely Miss Parsons," came the greeting from Clarence Borden, the ticket master, as the couple walked into Barker's General Store and over to the ticket window. "And how may I help you folks today?" The platform at the edge of town was only for access to the train; all the business was conducted in the corner of the general store until they could put up a station building.
     "One ticket to Reynoldsburg, Mr. Borden," he said. "And what time does it leave?"
     "Oh, yeah, I should have known; I received the telegraph about your mother this morning. I hope she gets well real soon."
     "Thanks, Mr. Borden."
     "Well now, to answer your question … if it was running on time, you would have just missed it, but we got a telegraph message about thirty minutes ago that they had trouble with a coupling and were just leaving Homerville. Then they have to stop in Redden, so I think it will be here in about an hour and leave at," he glanced at the clock on the wall behind him, "oh, say, seven-o'clock."
     "Great! I left the ranch without getting chow; I'll get some dinner while I wait."
     "Good thinkin', young fella." He had been preparing the ticket as they spoke and pushed it across the ledge of the ticket window. Ben handed him the money and put the ticket in his saddlebag.
     The telegraph clacked its preliminary code indicating an awaiting message. "Excuse me, Ben. This might be an update on the train." He stepped to the telegraph table, sat down and sent the corresponding code that signified that he was ready to receive the message.
     "Do you want to join me at Doris Jean's for dinner?" Ben asked. Rachael accepted with a smile.
     Ben and Rachael exited the store and walked across the dusty street, stopping once for a spirited horse that evidently had more energy than his rider knew how to control. When they reached the other side, Ben helped her step up onto the boardwalk and then opened the restaurant door. They were greeted by the sounds of a small crowd mingled with the aroma of home cooking. Ben had been preoccupied with thoughts of his mother and the trip and had not realized just how hungry he was. He had made several repairs to the fence that afternoon; the work, followed by the ride into town, had left him famished.
     They found a table and sat facing the menu board. The fare for the day read, "Beef Stew with Corn Bread. Roast Pork with Potatoes. Milk. Water." Doris Jean Clayton was not judgmental of others, but she didn't feel it proper to serve beer or spirits in her establishment. She thought of it more as a family place. Besides, there was another eating place that did serve drinks for those who were so inclined, namely the Stone Creek Restaurant, a larger place situated down the street next to the hotel. And, of course, there were the two bars in town.
     Doris Jean was a pretty, slightly plump lady in her mid-fifties whose friendly, gregarious way had won her a place in the heart of Sander's Valley when she moved there eight years ago to buy the eating establishment she now ran. At the time, the place was only identified by the words Good Food painted on the window. The previous owners, an older married couple, started having trouble keeping the business going after Stone Creek opened up. They sold it to Doris Jean and moved somewhere back East.
     "Benjamin, Rachael, how good to see ya'll," Doris Jean said as she walked over to their table. "I'm 'spectin' ya'll to be at the sociable come Saturday?" she prodded.
     "Well, I can't, Miss Clayton; my ma's sick, and I am going to see her. But Rachael can go."
     Rachael was not sure she wanted to go without Ben. The couple was about as engaged as two people could be without actually being engaged. Everyone in town knew they were courting, and she just didn't cotton to the idea of going if he wasn't going to be there.
     "I don't know …"
     "Oh, come on, missy," Miss Clayton urged. "It'll be fun. Besides, the thought of you at a dance with a bunch of handsome young fellas may be just what Ben here needs to make him hurry back. Ain't that so, Ben?"
     "Yes, Ma'am," he said, chuckling at all the fuss the restaurateur was making.
     "Well, I'll ponder on it," Rachael said.
     "That's my girl," came the reply. "Now, what'll you young people have?"
     They each placed their order, and Doris Jean walked toward the kitchen, checking on other customers as she went.
     Ben was quiet … more so than usual. Rachael broke the silence. "Ya worried 'bout your momma, Ben?"
     A sigh accompanied the "Yeah" that passed his lips, but it all came out in a way that told the perceptive Rachel Parsons that there was more. As she wondered how to broach the subject, he spoke again.
     "Rachel …" He paused. "There's something I never told you." He paused again, clearly searching for words. "I …" He let out another sigh. "I had a fight with my dad just before I moved out here… We haven't spoken since." His sentences were far enough apart that a team of horses could be driven between them. "I wrote Ma every week, and she wrote me back. In her last several letters, she asked me to work things out with him, but I never thought I could."
     Rachael was taken aback. As a sixteen-year-old young lady, she had been eating at Doris Jean's with her parents, Doctor and Janice Parsons, the day Ben arrived in town. She met him briefly when he came in for his supper, so she had known him since the day he arrived in Sander's Valley. In all that time, she never heard a cross word come out of his mouth. He could not be the same man who was estranged from his father all this time!
     Presently, Miss Clayton brought the food, and as they ate, Benjamin poured out a burden that he had carried for five years. Over all, they were good years, years during which he had learned the ranching skills he hoped to employ on his own ranch someday. The last several of those years were good also, since he and young Miss Parsons had maintained a proper and strengthening courtship. But there was an edge to the years also, not on the surface, but in the dark of night when he lay in his bunk, the angry exchange with his father haunted him. It shamed him; it angered him at himself … But too much time had passed. Too much time.
     "There is always time, Ben. Maybe your mom can help you and your father patch things up while you are there."
     "I don't know, Rachael … it's been so long."
     They talked for a while after finishing their meal. Then, when they heard the whistle of the approaching train, Ben placed money on the table, and they headed out for the train platform.

The Journey

     A couple of minutes after they arrived, the conductor shouted "All aboooooard!" dragging out the last word to assure being heard above the din.
     They said their goodbyes and hugged. Ben boarded the train, saddlebags in tow. Rachael watched him as he walked through the entryway and then reappeared where she could see him through the windows. She continued watching as he found a seat next to the window through which they could wave to each other. He opened it and spoke as they awaited the departure.
     A few minutes later, Rachael stepped back when the whistle issued a shrill announcement; hisses emanated from the engine, the cars all clanked against their couplings, and the procession slowly began its eastward journey.
     They waved and looked until they were well past the point that either could see the other. Once the train had become a small black line on the graying horizon, Rachael turned to leave and saw a man at the far end of the platform, doubled over, breathing hard. His hands rested on his knees, and in one hand, he held a piece of paper. She looked closer. It was Clarence Borden from the ticket office. He had run all the way from the General Store. With all the noise of the train and the other people, she had not heard him coming.
     "What's the matter, Mr. Borden?"
     "Did … Benjamin … get on … the train?" he asked between breaths.
     "Yes, sir," she replied.
     He continued his labored breathing, obviously disappointed.
     "What's wrong?" Rachael inquired again.
     "It's a … a personal … message … but I guess … he would … want you … want you to know." He handed her the paper.

{End of Sample}

Thank you for your interest in "The Long Journey Home". The complete story is available for Kindle, Nook, and in other formats. .



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