Finding the Simple Life
© 2019 CR Britting
His name was Theodore Roosevelt Carson. Named after a president, he had a lot in common with his namesake, at least in their early years.
Each man was a soldier. One was a lieutenant colonel, and the other was a sergeant. In 1898, the colonel led a charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba. The sergeant went to France in 1918 and returned with a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Celebrated as heroes, their friends urged them to run for public office. The colonel became the 26th President of the United States and the sergeant to the state legislature.
Here their similarities ended. The colonel went on to become one of our best-known presidents. The sergeant, however, served but a single term in the legislature, and then vanished from public life.
Deeply scarred by his experiences in World War I, Sergeant Ted Carson came home a bitter, angry man. At first, the newspapers loved him. The complaints of a decorated war hero, about the stupidity of the generals, made great headlines. He told anyone who would listen how the generals ordered his men to charge, day after day, into the teeth of the German machine guns. They were cut to pieces when they tried to advance and blown apart by the incessant artillery when they stayed in their makeshift trenches. There was no escape from it, and many thousands died.
After a time, however, Carson became old news. People grew weary of his story, and newspaper articles about him moved from the front page to an inside page. Eventually, they ceased altogether. His colleagues in the legislature treated him with respect, but when he could talk of nothing but his experiences in France, they shunted him to useless jobs that kept him out of sight and away from reporters.
Unable to sleep because of his nightmares of death and destruction, Ted gradually came apart. Despite the efforts of a dwindling number of friends, he refused help. He spent most of his days drunk, and often hid behind the hedges in the city park, yelling incoherent orders to his dead comrades. The police department, mindful of his service to his country, would pick him up and let him sleep it off in a jail cell, but did not usually press charges against him.
Such was the situation when Carson appeared a second time in the courtroom of Judge Roger Haycox. Although outwardly a stern disciplinarian, Haycox realized that Carson needed help. He sentenced Ted to 90 days at the county work farm, hoping to dry him out, and prevailed upon a doctor and a social worker to help him.
Carson's confinement made news, this time at the national level. One interested reader was George Bannon, a fellow sergeant who had served with Ted in Europe. Moved with compassion at his friend's plight, George came to visit him.
He discovered Ted was like a tightly coiled spring, but George was patient, and over a period of weeks, the spring began to loosen. Ted was elated to find someone who could understand, and as they spent time together, he was finally able to release much of his inner anguish.
George's father, Will, owned a good-sized cattle ranch in Montana. When Ted finished his sentence, George talked him into traveling west. The peaceful silence and the vast open spaces of the big sky country touched Ted's soul, helping to cleanse the last vestiges of his experience in France. He threw himself into ranch work with gusto, discovering with surprise a new way of life.
His favorite spot was a few miles from the ranch house at the top of a small hill. Sitting under a gnarled old tree, Ted would often brew a pot of coffee, or maybe even fix a pan of flapjacks. It was a beautiful spot, and he could see for miles in every direction.
So complete was Ted's change in lifestyle that he desired nothing more than ranch work. He hardly noticed that he was alone for extended periods. When George married Darlene Thompson, his childhood sweetheart, Ted stood by his side, and later, he bounced their young children on his knee or rode with them around the corral.
Discovering the joy of married life, George did his best to find his friend some female companionship. Ted, however, considered most of the women he met to be useless, especially if they couldn't ride a horse.
In fact, the only female to interest him was twelve-year-old Sarah Jennings, a skinny little kid with brown hair, green eyes, and a smile about a yard wide. She was an excellent rider for someone so young, and she followed Ted everywhere. When they'd ride up to the big tree, Sarah was content to sit beside him for hours, as they talked about anything and everything.
People laughed at her, and they teased Ted endlessly about his 'little sweetheart.' For his part, Ted took it all in good humor.
Then her family moved away, and Ted was affected more than he could have imagined. His usual smile disappeared, and he kept more to himself. On his next day off, he saddled his horse and rode out to the big tree. The sky was a solid blue overhead, and a gentle breeze carried the scent of flowers across his face, but Ted paid no attention to nature's attempt to cheer him up. Instead, he sat staring into the distance, wondering why he missed Sarah Jennings so much.
When evening approached, he poured the remains of the coffeepot into the fire and prepared to return to the bunkhouse. He swung into the saddle and rode to the top of the hill, then pulled his horse to a stop. The sun had set, and as Ted gazed toward the golden sky to the west, he thought again of Sarah and realized he would never see her again.
George noticed the change in his friend right away and got Ted a dog for companionship. Skipper was a scraggly, but lovable mutt, a good-natured animal with boundless energy. As is often the case with animals and lonely people, Ted and Skipper became fast friends, and the dog seemed to want nothing more than to accompany his master everywhere he went. George was glad to see Ted perk up again, and before long, he was back to his usual self.
A decade passed. Ted enjoyed watching George's children grow up, and instead of bouncing them on his knee, he took the youngsters on long trail rides. Sometimes they'd sit under the old tree, Ted smiling as he listened to their youthful chatter about life. Then Skipper died, and Ted was heartbroken. He buried his canine friend at the top of the hill, just north of the tree. Sometimes, when he camped there overnight, he would awaken, thinking he could hear a dog barking.
George tried to get him another dog, but Ted refused, saying no one could take Skipper's place. He wasn't much interested in the Saturday barn dances, either, but George got him to go. On one such occasion, Ted met a woman named Bess, a green-eyed beauty with long brown hair. She professed a love of the outdoors, but Ted never saw her in anything but fancy clothes. They went out a few times, but nothing ever came of it. Unwilling to give up, George continued his search, knowing his friend needed someone to share his life.
One Saturday in September, Ted was in the corral with the other ranch hands. It was their day off. Most of the cowboys would be riding into town to celebrate, but a couple of the younger ones planned to join their families on the other side of the county. They glanced up when a car stopped in front of the ranch house, and they watched as Will and George came out to greet the car's three well-dressed occupants. There was nothing unusual about that; the Bar-B was a big ranch and had frequent visitors.
So, with thoughts of enjoying their day off, the cowboys departed, and Ted made the familiar trip to the top of the hill.
"Howdy, Skipper," he said as he knelt at his friend's grave. "I hope you're doing okay today."
After brushing a few leaves from the small mound of earth, he got to his feet, and wishing Skipper would come bounding over the hill to surprise him.
He returned to the campsite, and he'd just put the coffee on the fire when he heard hoof beats approaching. Curious, he turned in that direction, seeing a horse and rider come over the hill. Silhouetted against the morning sun, Ted lifted a hand to shade his eyes, unable to see who it was.
He recognized the horse first, a chestnut from the ranch's corral, but the rider was unfamiliar. As they drew closer, he was surprised to see it was a woman. Long brown hair hung from under her cowboy hat, and she wore a leather riding skirt and a pretty blouse. Bess? What was she doing out here?
It wasn't Bess, however, who rode up to the campfire, but a stranger.
"Hello," she called, pulling her horse to a stop.
"Howdy, ma'am," he replied, tipping his hat. "Can I help you?"
She laughed. "Theodore Roosevelt Carson! You don't recognize me, do you? The two of us used to spend hours sittin' by that fire."
He stared at her for a few seconds, and then, all at once, the years fell away. "Sarah?" he asked.
She nodded, and the smile on her face reminded him of the little girl he'd known so long ago. "Mind if I have a cup of that java?" she asked, pointing to the coffeepot. "You never used to let me have any when we rode up here before."
Ted stared at her a few seconds longer, still unable to believe this woman was little Sarah Jennings. "Oh, uh, sure," he finally managed to say. "Help yourself."
She swung down with the effortless grace of someone with long experience in the saddle. She crossed to the fire, her fringed leather skirt swishing against her boots, and knelt by the coffeepot. She looked tanned and fit, every bit the woman Ted had imagined she would become.
"It's been a long time, Sarah. We heard you and your folks moved to a place outside Billings."
She nodded as she poured the steaming liquid into the tin cup. "That's right. We just drove up here this morning." Sarah sat down across the fire from him and lifted the cup to her mouth with both hands.
"Ah, that's good," she said, smiling at him over the top of the cup. "George always said your campfire coffee was the best."
"Ha!" he snorted. "George always did like to spin tall tales." He pointed at her, a smile finally creasing his face. "You know, it's a real surprise to see you again. And look at you, girl, you're all grown up."
She took another sip, her eyes on him as she considered her reply. "That's why I rode out here to see you. I got a letter from George a few days ago, and he told me something you said."
"Something I said?" he asked, a puzzled look on his face. "What on earth are you talkin' about?"
She lowered the cup. "You told George if you could find a grown woman like me, you'd marry her. Well, I'm all grown up now, Ted Carson, and when I read his letter, I realized I better get over here and stake my claim. If there's a chance for us, I want to find out now, before you go and marry someone else."
He jumped to his feet, his eyes wide. "You're plumb loco, girl. I can't marry you, even if I wanted to. I'm nearly ten years older than you. Your parents would skin me alive."
Sarah set the tin cup down by the fire. "No, they wouldn't, Ted. Mom and Dad have always loved you. We talked about it, and Daddy says it's long past time for you to be a part of our family. That's why they drove up here with me, to tell you so."
She got to her feet and walked over to join him. "I know my showin' up like this is a surprise. That's okay. Will and his family have invited me to live with them while you and I get reacquainted. It may take you a little time to get used to the idea, but I'm willin' to wait."
He looked down into her face, scarcely believing her words. "But what would a pretty young woman want with a cowboy like me? Surely there must be men your age who'd jump at the chance ..."
Sarah pressed her fingers gently against his lips, silencing further protest. She stepped in close, her green eyes shining. "It's you I want, Ted," she replied softly. "It's always been you, even when I was a little girl."
Then, for the first time, he saw uncertainty in her face. "Give us a chance, Ted. Please?"
They were married a few months later, in a simple ceremony at the top of the hill. On their wedding night, they sat by the fire holding hands and then consummated their love under a star-filled sky. They had a child, a little boy, and after he became a man and left home, there were dogs, lots of them. They grew old together, and they were happy until the day he died.
I remember the last time I saw him by the campfire under that old tree. His face lined with age, he still seemed as young as ever. We buried him next to Skipper, near the top of the hill. He was my father, and Mom says she never loved anyone else.