Momma didn't answer me, but she knew. Daddy had stepped in from outside, whispered to her at the kitchen counter, and then headed straight for the gun cabinet.
"I'll be ready in just a minute," I told him. "Do you have the boat hitched yet or can I come help?" He never answered me, which was unlike Daddy. He just held the rifle low, moved quickly, and disappeared out the door.
"Momma, why did Daddy need his gun?"
Momma stayed silent and turned back to the sink.
"He just needed it," she responded. Her voice sounded broken. "Finish your oatmeal and wait for your Daddy inside, he'll get you when he's ready."
Momma wiped the last plate, placed it on the rack, and then held a lengthy stare out the sink window. I realized that Daddy hadn't looked at me either.
"Caleb, if you're finished, get moving. Brush your teeth, comb your hair, and get your shoes on. Daddy will be back in a bit."
I scurried into the bathroom, finger brushed my teeth and slapped on my Cardinal's hat. I skipped through the den and out to the front porch, the last place I had seen my boots.
Movement beyond the front field caught my eye. I leapt from the porch. Sure enough, the school bus was rounding the curve. I hunkered low so cranky Mrs. Watson, the driver who conversed with the principal too much for my liking, couldn't see me.
No reason to chance being spotted, so I army crawled through dew and dirt for Black Jack's doghouse. Black Jack and I would just have to snuggle, I wasn't getting busted on my birthday. Not that it can really be "skipping school" if your parents knew.
I once thought all kids were given their birthday off, but then I learned it was simply my Daddy's tradition. I had a good Daddy. Besides a gift and a day without worrisome teachers, he also let me pick an adventure. Today we were bound for the lake. Just me, Daddy, and Black Jack. He said the farm could run itself for a while.
Black Jack wasn't in his doghouse, but my boots were. I slipped them on and realized that I had forgotten to chain him up last night. I'd probably get scolded for that one. Not only had he been pestering some of the animals at night, but he had also started getting real brave around the work truck and tractor.
Old Mrs. Watson laid on the horn. BEEP!...BEEEEEP!
The musty, wet-haired smell kept my thoughts on Black Jack. Today was our one-year anniversary so to speak. After pleading with Daddy that I was responsible enough to care for my own dog, I woke up on last year's birthday to a black Lab pup licking my face. I spent a year teaching him to sit, shake, and where not to leave squat drops. We were still working on retrieving. He had the first half figured, but failed miserably in the bring-it-back part.
The bus horn sounded again. Momma appeared briefly at the front door and waved Mrs. Watson onward. Momma didn't notice me, but I saw her clearly. Poor Momma. There was no mistaking the wetness on her cheeks.
As the bus pulled away I squeezed from Black Jack's doorway. My head and one shoulder were in the open when...
A single, quick rifle shot rang out. I first thought old Mrs. Watson had sniped me, but then I remembered Daddy. I struggled getting out of Black Jack's doghouse. Bootlaces and denim caught every possible nail head or plywood snag.
Once free, I rounded the house sprinting, scanning the back acres. Daddy's truck sat awkwardly on the dirt drive leading to the storage barn. Even from a distance I could tell the front end was off the road and nearly a row deep into the corn. As I ran that direction I heard the back screen door creak behind me.
"Caleb! Don't you..."
I wish I had listened to Momma yelling at me to stop and come inside.
I wish I had not run up on Daddy behind the barn shoveling that hole.
I wish I had not glanced into the wheelbarrow when he screamed at me to "get back".
I wish that all lessons could be learned in school.
I wish to God I had chained up Black Jack.
Jason Swiney is a Christian, husband, father and educator who lives and writes in NE Georgia (lettingitflow.com). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org