Homesick

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At the tail end of World War II, Ranger Will McManis patrols an almost empty Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, V-J day and his mother’s recent death on his mind.

His grandson, five-year-old Chuck is leaving soon, too, off to his
father in faraway Denver, and school, and a brand-new life, leaving a hole hard to fill.

Change comes in so many ways, and Will thinks he knows them all.  But out there among the geysers with Chuck one last time, something happens to dwarf it all, and nothing will ever be the same again.

I

Ranger Will McManis didn’t know what to be, whether happy or sad or anything in between, as he clumped along the deserted trail in Yellowstone National Park’s Upper Geyser Basin making his rounds.  It would have been a crowded sunny August afternoon in a normal year.  But 1945 wasn’t a normal year by any stretch of the imagination.  Not 1945 or the three years before it.

World War II had officially ended four days ago with the capitulation of the Japanese.  Celebrations had broken out all over the country, or so they’d heard on the radio.  The war was over, and now life could get back to normal.  It would take a while, though.  Visiting national parks was still a long way down on anyone’s list of priorities, even if gasoline wasn’t still being rationed so they could get here.

But Will’s mother was gone, and Will’s life would never get back to normal.  She’d passed away on V-J day as if she’d been waiting for the war to end, even though she had no stake in the business herself.  Well, that wasn’t true.  They’d all had a stake in it, as patriotic Americans in general, and in the family members who were even now waiting their turn on the troopships headed for home in specific.  Will’s family had been one of the lucky ones.  Several of his younger relatives had been of the right age to enlist, and they’d fought and survived.  As was not the case for so many other families, everyone they loved was coming home intact and alive.

But Will’s mother would not be waiting for them.  Her only grandson had already done his stint in the first world war.  James was safely in Denver being the family anomaly.  He’d been an anomaly from the day Will and Karin had met him.  He’s a successful businessman, Will reminded himself.  Successful and happy, or he had been until Catherine died five years ago.  No one could blame him for closing himself away after his wife died in childbirth, least of all his adoptive parents.

It had been too much like Karin’s second miscarriage, only worse.  Will and James had almost  lost her right here in the winterkeeper’s quarters at the Old Faithful Inn thirty-odd years ago.  But by the grace of God she’d lived in spite of the winter isolation of the Upper Geyser Basin in the old days.

He hadn’t realized how much the awful experience had affected then fifteen-year-old James, but the boy, odd at the best of times, had never been the same.  Will hadn’t, either.  But her near-death hadn’t changed Will completely the way it had James.  James’s wife’s death had been too much like what had almost happened to James’s beloved mother, only worse.  James had even shut himself away from the only light to come from the tragedy.

That light was bouncing down the trail towards Will this very moment, even as Will was thinking about how much James had missed by cutting himself off from his only child up until now.  James’s five-year-old son, Charles Patrick McManis, familiarly called Chuck, was named after his paternal great-grandfather.  Chuck was an unmitigated joy, if one of the most mischievous children Will had ever had the pleasure to meet.

Will shook himself, trying to throw his morbid mood off like his father’s heavy old coat, and held out his arms as Chuck barreled into him.

“Granddad!  Granddad!”

Will swung his grandson’s little body up onto his shoulders with a grunt.  “You’re getting heavy, boy.  What’s Grandmother been feeding you this morning, rocks?”

The child laughed, the sound bright as a bell.  However, welcome as the boy’s presence was, and Will realized that he did welcome him in spite of the need he’d thought he’d had to be alone this morning, Chuck shouldn’t be out here by himself.  Will tilted his head around to eye Chuck’s deceptively innocent-looking face.  “Where is your grandmother?  Does she know you’re out here?”

Will already knew the answer to that one.  No, she didn’t, because she’d have never allowed the boy out here alone.  If they’d developed one iron-clad rule since Chuck learned to walk, it was “Never, ever, ever, go anywhere by yourself.”  It was simply too dangerous in this place, in too many ways.  The open space in front of their quarters was as far as the boy was allowed to go alone, and even then Karin kept a sharp eye on him.

Chuck scowled.  “She said wait a minute and I’ll take you.  She said it five times.”

Will seriously doubted that.  He should have taken Chuck with him this morning.  He almost always did.  With the park all but closed down for the duration of the war, he was mostly a glorified watchman.  Only a couple of dozen rangers were scattered across the park after the rest of them had either enlisted, been drafted, or were simply let go as a low priority during wartime.  The few left behind were only here because they’d refused to leave.

But he’d been low.  A foolish excuse.  Will was smiling now in spite of himself and he knew it.  He schooled his features into sternness and knew he succeeded when Chuck’s own face fell.  “Granddad.”

“Do you know what we need to do?”

Chuck shook his blond head so hard Will could feel the breeze.

“I think you do.”  Will headed back down the trail towards their quarters in the little cluster of cabins used by the permanent rangers.  Theirs was only one of three occupied these last three years.  “I think we need to go find Grandmother so you can apologize to her for running off.  I’m sure she’s very worried about you.”

And indeed, he could see the relief in Karin’s eyes after they rounded the last corner and found her, having followed the sound of her voice calling Chuck’s name.

“Oh, skatten min, you scared me,” she told Chuck, the endearment a relic of her Norwegian-American childhood.

Will gave the boy a firm nod and swung him down.  Chuck ran to her, wrapping his little arms around her thighs.  “I’m sorry, Grandmother.”

“You won’t do it again, will you?”

Karin glanced over the boy’s head at Will, her expression wry, even as Chuck said, “I won’t,” as solemnly as he was capable of, given that his face was buried in the apron she wore over her jeans.  She’d acquired a taste for wearing men’s clothing during the Klondike gold rush, and indulged in it on their isolated duty here.  He raised his head.  “You won’t say ‘in a minute’ anymore?”

Both adults laughed in spite of themselves.  Karin crouched down to his level, hugged him, then put a finger under his chin, lifting his gaze to meet her own.  “Skatten min, sometimes we don’t always get what we want when we want it.  Sometimes you have to wait.”

Chuck started to stamp his foot, then caught Will’s eye.  Will shook his head.

It was hard to deny the boy anything, especially when they knew they were counting days till his father would finally be taking him home to Denver to start school.  They’d had Chuck since he was a newborn, ever since a grief-stricken James had asked them to take him in, “just for a while.”  Neither Will nor Karin could have said no to him then, for the baby’s sake as much as for their son’s, but a month had stretched into two, into six, into a year, and here they all still were, five years later.

James had never visited as much as he could, but it was hard to condemn him for it given his inexplicable dislike of the park.  Not completely unaccountable, Will supposed, no matter how irrational.  James had loved Yellowstone as much as the rest of them before Karin’s miscarriage.  But Karin in particular hadn’t been able to condemn him for it.  She and young Jem, as he’d been known then, had formed an instant bond the moment they met, upon their return from the Klondike.  James had been five years old, too, in the company of Will’s own parents.  They’d never been able to explain the child’s presence, at least not to Will’s satisfaction, the only story they’d told them one he’d never been able to believe.

But Karin had fallen in love that day, for the second time in mere months.  The first, Will thought with satisfaction even after all these years, had been with him.  And that, he’d discovered soon after, was that.  Will found himself taken in by the darkhaired young scoundrel, and party to Karin’s adoption of him as their own almost before he knew what happened.

And now here was another five year old miscreant who had them wrapped around his little fingers.  At least Will’s father had never claimed the namesake he’d predicted Catherine would bear was a time traveler.

*  *  *

“- I really can’t keep an eye on him this morning,” Karin was saying after she rose back to her feet.  “Can’t you take him with you?”

“Reward him for running off?” Will asked, raising an eyebrow at her.  And it was a reward.  They both knew there was nothing little Chuck liked better than going with his grandfather on his rounds.

“Please, Granddad?  Please?”

The boy would simply try to pester Karin into bringing him out.  And while she was perfectly capable of withstanding him, it would make them both unhappy.  Besides, what had Will been doing when the boy’d come chasing after him?  Moping, that was what.  Which was no use whatsoever, to him or anyone else, as his mother would have said. Will sighed and capitulated.  “I guess.”

“Yay!”  Chuck bounced on his heels.

“But only if you promise, next time, when you’re supposed to stay home with Grandmother, you stay with Grandmother.”

“I promise.”  And he meant it, as much as a child his age could. They were working on it.  All three of them.  Will wondered, not for the first time, if James had any idea what he was going to be getting himself into when he came to pick the boy up next week.

“Come in and have something to eat first, before you go back out.”

“Grandmother’s making lefse,” Chuck said confidingly.

“Is she?”  Will smiled at his wife.  “What were you going to do with them if we didn’t show up?  Eat them all up on your own?”

“I was going to come get you myself.”  She reached down and tweaked Chuck’s ear.  He jumped back and grinned up at her.  “And bring Chuck with me.  If he’d just waited one minute longer.”

But the boy’s attention was now elsewhere, on one of the ubiquitous crickets bounding along the ground this time of year.  One of his favorite pastimes this summer was to see how close he could creep up on one before it leaped.

“Look, Granddad!” he shouted as the inch-long bug sprang away on its long legs.  He held out his hands about a foot apart.  “I got this close!”

“I see, Chuck,” Will said.  “Come on in.”

Their quarters were dim and cool after the bright sunshine outside, but the kitchen smelled of blackberry jam, and, once Karin heated the cast-iron skillet and poured the first round of lefse batter, of warm potato pancake.

The first one went to Chuck, who promptly dripped blackberry jam down his front.  It didn’t decrease his enjoyment of the treat one bit, however, nor Will’s as he watched his grandson devour it.

He bit into the second one himself, and, reminded, was glad he was where he was and not in the bitter Yukon winter where he’d eaten his first one.  “Somehow these just don’t taste the same when I’m not freezing my tuckus off,” he told Karin, not for the first time.

“I certainly hope not,” was her standard response, then “Chuck, mind your fingers,” as the boy tried to grab his second lefse while it was still too hot to handle.

“What are your plans for the day?” Will asked her.

She looked down at Chuck, who was now preoccupied with a spider crawling up the kitchen wall next to his chair, and grimaced but didn’t object just then.  It wasn’t, Will saw gratefully, following her gaze, a recluse this time, but just a plain house spider.  Ridding their quarters of spiders was an ongoing battle.  “I need to go shopping.  For his S-C-H-O-O-L clothes.”

Will saw the boy stiffen at the spelled word which was, at his age, more wishful thinking on Karin’s part than anything else, but only for a second.  The spider was just too much of a temptation for him, as was, so far as Will could tell, every other living thing he ran across.  And he ran across a great many of them here.  Will himself was a bit more particular about his faunal interests, but he had been the one to encourage the boy in his, so he couldn’t complain.

“James will do that, I’m sure.”  He had the money to do so, too.  One of their biggest bones of contention over the last five years was their son’s insistence on giving them money for the boy’s “upkeep,” as he called it.  They took it – a ranger’s salary was not anywhere near as large as that of a successful accountant – but it stuck in Will’s craw.  It did not in Karin’s.

“James has no idea what Chuck needs,” Karin said tartly.  “The least we can do is get him started.  Besides,” she hesitated.  “He asked me to.  And sent a check to pay for it.  I thought I’d go to Bozeman.”

“All the way to Bozeman?  Can’t you get what you need in West?”  The small tourist town of West Yellowstone was less than an hour’s drive away.  Bozeman, college town and their nearest city of any size, was a good two hours or more.

“You know full well they don’t have what he needs in West.”

“I guess.  But isn’t it too late to go that far?”  He didn’t want her driving back after dark.  God knew what she’d run into.  His vision ran to elk, bear, maybe even a buffalo.  And a buffalo would total their old truck.

“It’s only nine now, and it still doesn’t get dark until eight these days.”  She read his mind, as she was wont to do, with the ease of long familiarity and knowledge of what he worried most about.  “I’ll be back before then.  Can you fend for yourselves in the meantime?  There’s cold cuts in the refrigerator, and bread in the breadbox.”

“Is there enough gas in the truck?  Are there any ration coupons left?”  They received a slightly higher gas ration because of where they were and what they were doing, but not that much more.

“I think so.  There’s still one unused sticker on the coupon, too.”

Reluctantly, Will capitulated again.  “We can fend for ourselves.”

“What’s fend?”  The spider was gone, and Chuck was back at the table, grabbing for another potato pancake.

“Fend means take care of yourselves while I go to Bozeman today.  Did you touch that spider, young man?” Karin demanded, batting his hands away from the plate.

“No.  Whatcha gonna do?”

“I am going shopping.”

Will knew as well as Karin did what Chuck thought of shopping.  He grinned as the boy responded predictably.  “Ick.”

“Are you sure you didn’t touch it?  Maybe you’d better go wash your hands, anyway.”

Will and Chuck had both washed their hands after they’d first walked in the door.  Chuck pouted.  “I didn’t!”

Will put in, “He didn’t, Karin.  I watched.”

“All right.”  After Chuck had grabbed his lefse she got up to clear the table, ruffling his hair in the process.  It was an unruly mop.  Will supposed she’d cut it before James arrived, too.  Poor kid.  Chuck had no idea how his life was going to change in a few days, and no amount of explanation was going to prepare him.

A story in the Time in Yellowstone series.
Includes chapters from Repeating History, True Gold, and Finding Home.

In paperback and for the Kindle from Amazon
In paperback from CreateSpace
As an ebook in many formats from Smashwords
In print from Barnes and Noble
For the Nook from Barnes and Noble
From Kobo
From iTunes
In paperback from Powells