The men spoke barely above a whisper, the dying one’s tone the raspier of the two. The house was so flimsy that, even if the head of the young man’s bed had not been so close to the wall, he would be hearing every word as if standing himself beside the deathbed. He suspected from the bated breath of the other young men in the room, one in the bunk above his, the other in a cot against the wall opposite, that they, too, were hanging on every word.
“There is so much left to do.”
The strain of the dying one’s breathing made the young man put a hand to his chest as if he, too, suffered from the fatal disease. He forced himself to breathe deeply and caught a muffled sob coming from one of the others in the room.
“You’ve done everything anyone could do, John.” The sheriff’s voice, normally so commanding, was gentle. “You’ve actually done way more. You’ve paid off all Sarah’s medical bills and set up a college fund for the boys. What more could you have done, given everything that’s happened?”
“It isn’t enough, Tom. They won’t all be able to get a good education.”
“We know which one will stay behind, don’t we, John? Chase wouldn’t fit in anyway.” The young man’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of his name. “He’ll find his own way. He always does.”
“I don’t want him to think I love him less than his brothers.”
“John, everybody, but especially the boys, know you love them all equally. Blood makes neither a son nor a father nor a brother. It takes people like you and Sarah, even though she didn’t live to see the results of her love, and Raff’s parents too, if they could have been here. You shouldered the whole thing for all four of you. Actually, five because Mae, too, would be so grateful for all you’ve done for and made of her son.”
“Thanks for being there for the boys today, Tom. It means a lot. I wish I could have seen them walk across that stage.”
“They made the whole town proud, John. People stood and cheered. I think they were cheering for you as much as for the boys.”
“For the football heroes, no doubt. This town loves its jocks. Another thing that left Chase on the outside looking in.”
“He cheered on the other two more than anyone, John. And,” the sheriff’s voice grew even quieter so that now the young man did have to strain to hear. “I think he got the loudest cheer of all because it’s with him you made the greatest difference. They all know some of what he went through and how you have made him one of your sons. Now he’s a man who stands for something.”
The sheriff cleared his throat and continued. “You’re going to live on in each one of them, John. Gord and Raff will use the money wisely and, with their football scholarships, get their degrees. But don’t you worry about Chase. He’ll be fine. And the three of them together will be unstoppable.”
“They actually cheered for Chase too?”
“They stood up, John. Standing ovation for each of the boys.”
“That must have pissed off The Prof something terrible. After not even mentioning Gordon and Raff making first team all-conference this year but doing the big write up last year about his own kid making honorable mention with pictures and everything. I’m sure he hated to see poor white trash like us, and a Mexican boy, get any recognition at all from the town.”
“John, people in this town know all too well what Prof Inglehoffer and his rag stands for. If they didn’t see through all his blind biases, how could a black man like me keep getting elected sheriff in lily-white Conlin County Oregon?”
“Well, that’s easy, Tom. You’re the best man in this county.”
“No”, replied the sheriff, “only second best, if even that.”
“I think I’d better talk to the boys now, Tom, while I still can.”
For the young men to pretend they hadn’t heard what had been said in the sick room would have been an insult to the sheriff’s intelligence so, when he entered their room, they were all sitting up on the edge of their beds, waiting.
“Gordon,” the sheriff said, “would you mind fixing your father some broth and Raphael, I’d love a cup of coffee. I need to have a chat with Chase for a second.”
After the other two had gone, the sheriff pulled a stool near the young man’s bunk and, leaning in, whispered “You’ve been given a chance here that few ever get. To honor the man dying in the next room, the man who became your father and proved to you what that truly means, you need to accept yourself for who you are. If each of you boys use the gifts you’ve been given to the best of your abilities, there is no limit to what you can accomplish. Use what’s between your ears, Chase. And above all else, keep your mouth shut and forget what happened in that cabin six years ago.
“Now,” he continued, “I’m going to send each of you in one at a time to say your goodbyes. You go first. It’s alright for a man to cry, Chase. In fact, I’ve never met a real man who didn’t shed a tear when the moment called for it and, if ever there was a moment that called for it, this is it.”
With only a nod in reply because of the lump in his throat, eighteen-year-old Chase Madison rose and went, his cheeks glistening with tears, to say goodbye to the man who had made himself his father.
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