The last rays of the winter sun are just clearing the skyline as he walks along the dusty road and turns through the gateway towards home. He can see the wisps of smoke rising from the small chimney as he reaches the front porch. As he opens the door he sees a shock of brown hair darting out the back door. The warmth of the fire spreads through him as he carefully removes his coat and hangs it up on a nail on the door frame and goes into the kitchen. I must fix that he thinks to himself as once again that loose board groans under his weight. He can hear the girls in the next room, bickering again. His wife is at the stove, cooking their supper, stew again, but he brought a chicken home yesterday so there should be something to chew on.
“Where’s the boy at Jenny?”
“Last I saw of him he was high tailing it out the back door as you was coming up the path, what’s he gone done this time”
“I know what I been told he did, I just want to hear it from him”
“Fighting again is it William? Who he hurt this time? That boys always gotta fight with someone, if it aint his sisters its them other boys down the street”
He walks over to the open window, he can see the boy, hiding behind the outhouse, sat with his knees pulled up to his chin.
“Hey Billy, you git on in here right now and I may spare you the strap tonight”
“You’re too soft on him, and you still haven’t answered me, who this time?”
“Mr Sanders boy came into the mill today looking for his old man, he was all snivelling and a bit bloodied, saying our Billy beat on him for no good reason. Anyways I just want to hear what Billy says about it”
“Oh William, he’s fighting with the Sanders boy, that’s your boss’ child, don’t he know how that could fall back on you?”
The back door creeps open and the boy makes his way to the kitchen table. The creaky floorboard betrays his presence and his father spins round on the spot.
“What you been doing to bloody up your shirt like that Billy?”
“Nothing Sir, I been bleedin’ from the nose is all Sir” His head is bowed, his eyes fixed on the toes of his dusty boots. His Father takes a single, solitary step towards him and he flinches, taking a backward step.
“Now Billy, you what lying gets you in this house don’t ya? Let’s try again, any ideas why the Sanders boy came to the mill all bloodied and bruised?”
“Yessir, I whipped him, but Pa, he deserved it he just kept saying”
“Excuses is next to lying boy, don’t test me on this, you knows better than that”
“Yessir” the boy mumbles.
“First thing tomorrow, you go around to the Sanders place and make your peace, you say you’re sorry you beat on him, and you tell Mr Sanders you’re sorry your actions took time from his day. Then you can spend the day with me on the wagon, keep you from whippin anyone else. Do you understand me boy?”
“Yessir, first thing in the morning” He feels his father’s hand on his head as his hair gets ruffled, he can’t see it, but he can feel the smile coming onto his daddys face. He lifts his own head in time to just catch a glimpse of it as he turns away.
“Now call your sisters for supper time” then as his father sits himself down at the top of the table he can hear laughter in that voice, “Damn it Billy, that boy’s nearly twice the size of you and you still beat the hell out of him!”
“You’re too soft on him William, he’ll be too big to control soon, then what? He needs know there’s a price for acting up like that”
“Boys fight Jenny, it’s what they do, like wolves I suppose, always wanting to be top dog, or showing the others they are, hell I just to get into all kinds of trouble when I was his age but I turned out ok didn’t I?” He eases back in his chair, once again his wife has set six places at the table. He says nothing, if that’s how she wants it to be, so be it. It had been six months since the accident, six months since he’d buried his first born son. He’d found solace in his work and his faith. She blamed herself but took her grief out on young Billy, his fault was not being John.
The children come into the kitchen and sit around the table, Billy puts himself next to his father while the girls sit either side of their mothers’ chair while she serves the stew before taking her place at the table.
“Say Grace please Billy” she says as the boy is reaching for his fork.
“Ok Mama, sorry Mama. Bless us, oh Lord, and these your gifts which we are about to receive from your bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
“Thank you Billy” says his father, picking up his own fork.
They eat in silence, more due to hunger than anything else. Billy finishes up first and sits there, eyes on his sisters’ bowls, hopeful that their smaller stomachs may lead to some leftovers for him to finish off. His older sister glares back at him with a look that simply says “No Chance”. His father nudges a crust of bread towards him. He looks at his father for approval before snatching up the bread and mopping up the last dregs of gravy with it.
“Thank you Papa” he mumbles with his mouth full of gravy soaked bread.
His mother gets up and starts collecting up the empty bowls, she puts the kettle on the stove for some washing water and moves towards the sink.
“How was the mill today William?” she asks her husband.
“Slow again, don’t seem to be anyone building anything these days, got a load of fencing spurs to take out to the McCarthy place tomorrow but that’s the last one for them. See what comes in Monday I suppose.”
Work at Sanders sawmill had been getting slower and slower over the last few months. Williams’ employer was blaming the crash for a lull in construction orders but with the Sanders name above nearly every store and trade in town, it didn’t seem to be affecting him too much. William’s pay packet was getting smaller and smaller every week and he taken to doing odd jobs for people in return for some extra change or kindness. The chicken they’d just eaten had come from old Mrs Price in exchange for repairing a hole in her roof, but both William and Jenny knew you couldn’t raise a family merely on the kindness of strangers.