Early fall, 1899. Micah Albright didn't expect to see much of the next year. And he didn't really care.
He stood on the wide porch that circled the main ranch house on three sides. His eyes wandered over the ancient mountains surrounding the ranch. Those mountains that stood proud in the morning sun. The Ouachita Mountains were some of the oldest in the country. The moon nestled itself in a crease in those mountains to the west, at the same time the sun strode over those in the east.
Color came quickly that year to the elms, hickories, pecans, oaks, and especially the maples covering the peaks. The early light from the sun brought out the reds, yellows, and tans of the changing leaves. Every morning, Micah's first task was to bask in the peace that vista brought to his heart.
A peace that was a long time coming. He breathed in that peace along with the crisp freshness of the mountain air.
To look at Micah as he strode from his porch out to the corral on that October morning, no one would suspect he could be in anything but perfect health. An even six feet tall and 200 pounds, he carried himself like a man twenty years younger. Only the gray in his drooping mustache and in the hair that hung slightly over his ears would suggest he'd seen 62 summers. Life marked his face little, only showing in crow's feet at the corners of his still-piercing blue eyes. Those eyes could still pick out a hovering honeybee at fifty paces, even if they sometimes had a little trouble making out words in the newspaper. The rest of his body bore scars of knife, arrow, and bullet. Considering his past, these didn't amount to much.
His ranch, nestled in an undulating valley in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas, wasn't as large as some he'd traveled across before. Out West, the dry conditions made huge ranches necessary. Several square miles were needed to supply the food required by cattle. But in these old mountains of Arkansas, Micah raised more cattle on fewer acres. So his ranch, small as it was by comparison, still brought him joy and pride.
Leaving it was something he didn't like to contemplate.
At the corral, he took a seat on an up-ended nail keg and looked around at the men seated around him. Some sat on the top rail of the corral, others leaned against the barn, some hunkered down in whatever space they could find. All were there for the show. A deep breath brought with it the aroma of the earth around him, the sweetness of new hay, and the tang of horse hanging in the air.
"C'mon, Grandpa! You can do it!"
Micah's sharp blue eyes flicked momentarily toward his granddaughter, Addie. Eight years old, Adeline Louise Smithson was Micah's only grandchild. So of course his every intention pointed toward pleasing her.
But pleasing Addie wasn't the only thing on his mind just then. Every year in the early fall, when his son-in-law, Albert Smithson, hired the men to help with harvest and branding, one of the young men challenged him. Micah had never lost an arm-wrestling challenge, even though most of his challengers were half his age or less.
As he settled his butt on the nail keg, a thought rounded the corner of the barn and jumped right in the middle of his mind: Why am I doing this? Not something he'd spent much time on before, so Micah considered it now. Why was he doing this? Taking challenges from young men, risking hurting himself, risking others finding out his secret. And for what?
Was he simply trying to show others, or more likely himself, that he really wasn't getting old? Did he not want to face the fact that he was near the end of his string? After all he'd seen, all he'd been through, did he not want to deal with the end of his life?
But what's the alternative? Run out the rest of my days sittin' in a rockin' chair on the porch of one of those Old Folks' Homes Thea's tryin' to git me into? No way am I gonna do that!
Now Micah turned his attention back to the young man sitting across from him. Broad shoulders, huge arms, thick wrists. He barely looked the 30 years of age Micah knew him to be. This one would be tough. But he'd known the kid would challenge him, had known it since the first day he'd come to work for them.
"Go easy on me, Mr. Albright." The young man smiled, a confident grin that spread across his face as he settled himself on the bench.
"Break his arm, Grandpa!" Addie called from the top of the corral where she sat.
With a completely straight face, but a tiny gleam in the depths of his eyes, Micah replied, "Can't do that, Addie. We just barely get any work out of him as it is."
The other men gathered around got a real hee-haw out of that. The young challenger out-worked nearly every hand each year. This was his fifth year to work for the Smithsons.
Micah settled himself on the wooden keg, leaning on his left arm and right elbow. The young man did the same. They clasped left hands, then worked their right hands around until both felt satisfied with their grips.
When they settled on the grasp, Micah marveled at the sense of strength he felt through the other man's hand. It felt like nothing less than a hand carved from solid granite. He summoned his old ability to focus totally on one point in space and time, funneling his entire strength into his right hand and arm. This ability he learned from an old Comanche medicine man during a long winter on the plains. Concentrating as he did, Micah shut out even the shouts of encouragement coming from those around him.
His son-in-law (Micah considered him a son) grasped their solidly-gripped right hands with both of his. "Ready?" Getting a short nod from both, he shouted, "Go to it!" and quickly removed his hands.
Micah immediately pushed with all his strength, trying to overpower the young man in the first seconds. Often, this kind of sudden application of tremendous power settled the contest. But this wasn't one of those times.
He could just as well be pushing against one of the huge old oaks up in the mountains. No give in the young man's arm, either.
In fact, he felt his own arm forced backward. An inch at first, then two more.
Enough of this.
Focusing more, he concentrated his strength on one square inch of the young man's hand. His eyes nailed to that one square inch, Micah centered the power of his entire 62 years on moving that part of the young man's hand back through the perpendicular and on to the table top.
Seconds passed, Micah's arm moved another inch downward. Then it stopped.
So slowly it seemed not to move at first, his arm began creeping back upwards mere millimeters. Then, as if gathering steam, it moved a half inch, then an inch.
Sweat popped out on Micah's forehead, streamed down his temples. Re-doubling his effort, tendons and joints strained, muscles in his forearms swelled, power flooded into his shoulder, his arm, his wrist.
The young man's hand moved backward, gaining speed.
Micah's breath came rapidly. Nearly at the end of his strength, he somehow summoned literally everything he had left, bringing it to bear on that one square inch of the younger man's hand. In seconds that felt like hours, he slammed the young man's hand onto the tabletop.
Three more very long seconds passed with Micah just staring at their hands still locked together on the table. Then he lifted his head to meet the gaze of the younger man. Both looked as if they couldn't believe what had just happened.
As a huge grin broke the solemn expression on the young man's face, Micah began hearing the shouts around him again.
"Did you see that?"
"I never thought Micah would win again!"
"Way to go, Micah!"
"I shore don't wanta go up agin' him. Neither one of 'em."
The men around him pounded Micah on his shoulders and back, continuing to mutter as they went off to work. The young challenger held out his hand, and Micah somehow found the strength to grip it as they shook.
"Yore shore some kinda man, Mr. Albright." The young man grinned again, then turned and walked away, rubbing his right arm.
"Hooray, Grandpa!" Addie yelled as he came and gave him a hug. "I knew you could beat that man."
"Oh, you did, did you?" Micah gave her a squeeze. "There was a time or two there when I wasn't so sure."
"Oh, Grandpa! You'll always win."
"I don't know about that. I'm gettin' pretty old, an' these boys who want to take me on keep gettin' younger. I may have to retire here pretty soon."
"You know you can't retire, Grandpa. You said so yourself."
Micah gave her another squeeze. "Well, I may have said that, but it may not be true, Addie. Now you better run along. Yonder comes your momma, and I'll bet she's gonna scold me again. She's got that look in her eye."
Addie kissed him on the cheek. "All right, Grandpa."
He watched her run off around the corral, love a strong warm feeling in his chest. Then he turned just in time to face his daughter.
Thea Smithson, his only living relative, was his daughter from Micah's second marriage. A headstrong, take-charge woman. Micah had to admit she took after him in that regard. Addie was her only child.
"Well, I assume you won again." Her expression, a tight-lipped one of disapproval, reminded Micah of the same kind of expression he often saw on her mother's face.
"Of course I did. Thanks for asking." Just a hint of a smile wound through his words.
This brought the expected frown to Thea's face. Just as he did with her mother, Micah delighted in teasing his daughter.
"I don't know why you insist on proving yourself all the time. Why can't you admit you're getting old and just enjoy the time you have left?" Her words snapped out at him.
"I'm pretty much enjoying myself like this." He smiled sweetly.
A heavy sigh drove Thea on. "Did you read that material from the Home I gave you?"
"You mean that Old Folks' Home?" Micah sneered. "Yeah, I read it. Sounded just like the other three you had me read." He gripped her arm a little harder than he intended. "Thea, if I went to any of those homes, I wouldn't last two weeks. If you want whatever I've got to leave anybody, it's yours. Yours and Addie's. All I want is to live out my days here on the ranch. Is that too much to ask?"
"I'm just concerned about you, Daddy. Somebody has to be. You're getting on up in age. Why, if I wasn't on you so much, you would've gone off to fight in that war down in Cuba." Thea patted his hand that gripped her arm. "I want you to have a place to live where you can be cared for. Surely you can understand that." She stood. "Now you look those four homes over and see which one you like the most."
For a moment there, tears glistened at the edges of her eyes and a slight catch entered her voice. It all vanished when she stood. In that way, she was also like her mother. Always pushing away uncomfortable emotions.
Not trusting herself to say any more right then, Thea patted her daddy's broad, solid shoulder and walked back to the house. When she thought she was out of his sight, she reached up an impatient hand and brushed away the tear that tried to betray her.
Why couldn't he see how much she cared about him? He was her Daddy, after all. And she was his only living relative. At least the only one he knew about. There might be some half-Indian relatives out there somewhere. She turned her head involuntarily to the west as if she could see across the miles and make connection with those half-siblings that might be out there. Thea knew Micah had married an Indian woman once, but not much more than that. He refused to talk about those years.
Climbing the steps up to the porch, she entered the house and went on to the kitchen to help prepare lunch for the crew. No matter that there might be others of his children out there, Thea was the only one right here, right now. That made him her responsibility. And she never took responsibility lightly. In that way, she was just like Micah.
So that meant she had to take care of him in his declining years. Why couldn't he accept that?
Watching Thea walk away, Micah muttered, "I don't need to be cared for. I do pretty good on my own. And I'll go to Cuba if I want."
"Senor Micah?" One of the Mexican workers who lived on the ranch and who had become a friend as well as a hand approached, a brown envelope in his hand. "Senor Hansen at the Post Office in Mena had this for you."
Micah took the envelope, saw it was a telegram. "Doesn't Hansen have one of those horseless carriages, Pablo?"
Pablo's huge grin told his thoughts about the vehicle. "Si. It is very loud and it stinks." He held up one finger. "And he has something new. He called it a telephone. With it, he claims to be able to talk all the way to Ft. Smith."
"All the way from Mena to Ft. Smith?" Micah gave a low whistle. "Now that's something that could be practical some day. 'Course, I don't know many people I'd want to talk to in Ft. Smith."
They both enjoyed a laugh at that.
Micah turned the brown envelope over and over in his big hands. The two friends remained quiet several seconds as only friends can.
"How's that daughter of yours, Pablo?" Micah raised his gaze from the envelope. "She and Addie sure do get along good."
"Si. Lucinda thinks of your Addie as a little sister. They do very well together."
Micah clapped the other man on the shoulder. "I'm glad they do, Pablo. I think her friendship with Addie helped Lucinda handle her mother's death a little better."
Pablo hung his head at the mention of his beloved wife. When he raised his head again, a tiny tear glistened in the corner of one of them. "Si. Addie is a good friend to my daughter, as you are to me."
No words were needed to respond to that. The two friends just nodded and went on their ways.
Micah walked to the far side of the corral and tore open the telegram. Holding it at arms' length, he read:
MR. ALBRIGHT --
NEED TO SEE YOU RIGHT AWAY.
Right away, huh? Wonder what it's all about?
Before he could wonder more, a wave of nausea flowed through him. He stood, wavered slightly, then swallowed the pain that always followed the nausea. After a bit, he walked off to pack a bag.