Big Barrel Justice took a long drag off his “roll your own” and sat back. He loved being what he was; a tough guy, a tough guy who wore it on his sleeve. He reached under his jacket and scratched the back of his bad hand. He always kept his bad hand hidden and his good one, “the damage-maker” out for everyone to see. He looked at the campfire.
Randy sat beside Barrel, staring at the fire like it was staring back at him, admiring his buddy’s knack for making fire. Kemp sat on Barrel’s other side trying to imagine God’s face in a flame. Barrel coughed and wiped tobacco from his lip.
“Should’ve looked for drier wood,” Barrel remarked.
“Fire’ll air ‘em out,” Kemp reassured.
Barrel bashed the end of a log with the heel of his boot sending embers flying every which way. He looked past the flames.
“Well, someone got something to say or did you just decide to throw a wienee roast?”
He picked up a twig and snapped it.
“It was me Barrel,” Kemp whispered.
“Yeah, I was the one who had it.”
“Had what?” Barrel laughed.
“The dream – night b’fore last, after I got back from the pub.”
Barrel scratched his head.
“You sure? You sure you weren’t awake and maybe thought you were dreaming?”
“I’m sure Barrel,” Kemp confirmed, eyes locked on the flames.
“Maybe you were half asleep, you know between sleeping and not sleeping,” Randy offered, “…and you saw a lampshade or something and you just thought it was him? I’ve seen things when I’ve been driving too many hours.”
Kemp shook his head.
Barrel reached into his pocket for a 16 oz. bottle of Jack. He twisted the cap and raised the bottle.
“Well then, a toast to him, the vagabond!”
“This ain’t no celebration,” Randy grumbled.
“Never said it was, did I?” Barrel crowed, “Don’t be thinking things I ain’t saying.”
The vein on Randy’s neck began to twitch. Barrel snuffed out the cigarette in the sand he kept stuffed in the cuff of his pant leg, then painfully got up and stretched his arms.
“Joints could use oil man!”
“I’m a bit of a tin man myself these days,” Randy laughed.
“Let’s just get on with it,” Kemp barked impatiently.
“Your rodeo,” Barrel smirked, “You get to rope the first steer. Throw it brother.”
“Like I said,” Kemp spoke, “He come to me…in a dream, night before last. That’s all. That’s it.”
“I see,” Barrel cleared his throat, “Well then I guess I’ll be invoking Rules of the Road!”
Randy jumped to his feet, as did Kemp. Randy looked hard-eyed at Barrel.
“Rules of the Road don’t apply,” Randy said with finality, “You need doubt. I don’t see any here.”
Barrel swatted, annihilated, a no-see-um then tossed the mangled bug into the fire.
Kemp’s face was like granite.
“I looked him in the eye.”
“And blue, ok?” Kemp replied, “Just like the letters said.”
Randy kicked a rock.
“Didn’t seem like that long ago we sealed it right here.”
“Well, seems like this is it,” Barrel declared, “If you say Rules of the Road don’t apply.”
“Straight,” Randy nodded.
Barrel turned to Kemp.
“You, a new grandfather and everything.”
“I know,” Kemp replied in a painful scowl.
Randy shook his head.
“Ain’t right. It just ain’t right.”
Barrel looked off.
“Ok, suppose it was him…”
“Suppose?” Kemp blasted, “It was!”
“And it ain’t just a ‘him’ either Barrel,” Randy jumped in, “…it’s the vagabond his self.”
“I looked into his eyes,” Kemp testified again.
“Hey, I’m just trying to give us an out here….”
“An out?” Kemp protested, “No outs! I’ve seen the scars on his face. It was just like the letters said…to the ‘t’!”
“Alright,” Barrel threw up his hands, “Alright…”
“He was exactly how the fathers said,” Randy repeated.
Barrel took a breath and coughed into his hand.
“Look guy, ain’t no good way to say this but…your old man, he was an alcoholic, ok, and alcoholics will lie. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Our fathers…,” Randy steamed, “…the letters, the letters are real and you know it. The fathers didn’t lie – not about the war and not about the wandering boy. I can’t believe what you’re trying to do here. I never thought…”
“The truth is they all could have lied!” Barrel interrupted.
“The fathers…,” Kemp fumed. “You never doubted them, not once. Now the boy comes to collect and you doubt. You could have thrown your letter in the garbage years ago, but you didn’t. None of us did.”
Barrel laughed, “Looks like someone’s had their Wheaties.”
Kemp put his hands together and offered them up to the sky. Burning wood popped.
“Show yourself,” Kemp cried out, “…so we can deny you to your face, deny what the fathers said. Deny so we can lose our sons and grandsons too!”
“Listen….” Randy raised his hand.
“No, you listen,” Barrel interrupted, “We should have burned those letters years ago. Burned ‘em just like the towns our fathers burned. Damn straight! I just said that. Damn straight!”
Barrel folded his arms and admired his work.
“Good air, just the right space, fine timber, maybe a little damp but…”
Randy reached down, grabbed the bottle, raised it to his lips, and took a hearty swig.
“Ok! You boys want it, you boys got it,” Barrel announced,swiping the bottle from Kemp’s hand and taking his own swig before sitting again. Randy and Kemp sat as well, their arms around knees.
“How many sons like us, with fathers over there?” Barrel asked, “Hundreds? Thousands? But it’s us? We? We’re the ones? Don’t make sense.”
“World don’t make sense,” Kemp whispered.
“Big Jim,” Barrel proceeded, “His old man was there, right?”
“…and Vinny the Pip,” Randy added, “…his old man.”
“Vinny the Pip’s old man never came back,” Kemp pointed out, “Nobody knows what happened to him. He could’ve paid up front.”
“God love Vinny the Pip,” Barrel chirped, scooping a handful of dirt and throwing it down, “…and his old man, where ever he disappeared to, vagabond or no vagabond.”
“Nobody knows what happened to him,” Randy shrugged.
“Could’ve got mauled by a wolf! Wolves all over that God-forsaken waste land.”
“Whatever became of Vinny the Pip?” Kemp asked.
“Couple of guys at the pub said he ran as far away from this town as he could, started a new life Barrel, brand new life. Nobody knows, nobody’s saying.”
“Wonder if Vinny got a letter? Wonder if that’s why he ran.”
“Vinny was smart growing up.”
Barrel took another swig, swirled the Jack around in his mouth and spit it into the fire causing more fire.
“That’s for you wandering snot! Who else? Anyone else whose fathers were over there with ours?”
“Hard to say,” Randy replied, “People don’t talk.”
“No sir, they don’t!”
Barrel raised his eyes to the starry canvass.
“Maybe we don’t know names…” Kemp said, turning to Barrel, “But that don’t make it not true. We can’t take a chance. I’m not losing my boy or grandson, I’m not!”
Barrel pointed to the sky.
“Hey Man in the Moon, can you help us peons down here? Can we send the wandering boy up there with you? Are you listening Man in the Moon…. or you not talking either?”
Barrel wiped his nose on his sleeve again and growled;
“Insignificant 2-bit rotten piece of scorched Earth. Fighting men! Men who did what they had to. Men who follow orders. Nothing wrong with that! Nothing!”
“I know,” Randy mumbled.
“One boy; a dirty, little vagabond,” Barrel snarled, “Probably wouldn’t have made it to 20.”
Randy stared long at Barrel.
“Disease would have gotten him long before that,” Barrel added, “And who made diseases? Not me, not my old man, not yours.”
“He had the stone,” Kemp said, “I saw it. I saw the etchings.”
“Of course, you did,” Barrel snickered.
Kemp spat, “Just telling it all, brothers.”
“Yeah, brothers,” Barrel muttered, then suddenly wept but stopped himself. He clenched his fist.
“So now you want my friend you miserable son-of-a-bitch!”
“Ain’t right,” Randy muttered again.
They all stood. Randy turned to Kemp.
“Was he beautiful like the letters said?”
“Let’s just say I’ve seen the eyes of a newborn and I ain’t never seen anything like that.”
Randy and Barrel stood quietly.
“I was this close. I could feel the warmth of his soul. He placed that stone right in the palm of my hand. His hand touched mine. It was soft like healing water, like the healing water over at those springs, the ones at Rock Creek. Amazing! God’s love I tell you, pure and simple.”
Barrel made a wall of dirt with his boot.
“I got cancer,” he blurted “…in the throat.”
He kicked the wall and flattened it.
“When I woke up,” Kemp went on as if Barrel hadn’t said anything, “…it was like I’d swum in the fountain of youth.”
“Found out yesterday,” Barrel stated plainly, “Six months. Six months tops.”
“What do they know?”
“When I got home, I took out my letter,” Barrel then confessed, “I was sure he’d be coming for me, the vagabond, but no, he wants the new grandpa.”
Kemp looked to Randy.
“Nobody wants this guy. He couldn’t start a one-man circus.”
“No world for mules, especially old ones!”
Barrel looked at Kemp.
“Just like that?”
“You should see the way the little guy grabs my finger, like a vice, won’t let go of it. I swear it’s the funniest thing. We all…”
Kemp’s voice trailed off.
“Are you ok?” Barrel asked.
“Brothers,” Barrel winked at Randy and Kemp.
“Brothers,” Kemp replied, “… and sons.”
“…always sons,” Randy added.
Barrel crouched down in front of the flames. He put his hand over a flame and held it there until the fire scorched his skin, then pulled his hand away and winced.
“Sins of the fathers.”
He bowed his head.
Together, on their knees, they gathered dirt and threw it on the camp fire. When the fire was reduced to just a few stubborn embers, they sat back. Barrel stood and stomped out the last of it. The cold set in quickly and then there was the sound of rustling leaves. Kemp and Randy stood. They all looked to see what the sound was.
“The vagabond?” Barrel asked, “Come to say it was all a joke?”
They watched as a racoon, followed by a litter of young ones, walked into the open, then ducked back in the woods. The men laughed.
A little while later, they found the highway where their trucks were parked. They walked past the trucks to other side then stiffly, scaled the guard rail. On the other side they found the path; the path they had tramped so many times when they had been Tom Sawyer boys. It was engraved in their souls; the woods that remembered wide-eyed boys, before the wars, before the curse before the letters from the front.
They walked over rock and field until they came to the lake shore. Then they found the spot, the place where the water dropped off harsh and sudden about 6 feet in, the spot where they’d snagged all the fish when they were Tom Sawyer boys, before the township declared the area unsafe, before all the signs were put up.
Randy and Barrel helped Kemp out of his clothes then walked him to the edge of the water. It was all that was left to do, the only card left to play now that the stone had been carved.
Kemp released his friends and stepped in.
Joe Ducato lives in Utica, New York. Publishing credits include Sandy River Review, The Bangalore Review, and the Avalon Literary Review, among others.