The summer blaze charred up the ravine ending at the meadow ringed by blackened trees. The meadow grass remained singed on the corner closest to the burnt saplings and their trunks were starting to fall down. The fire burned the meadow months ago and as the grass struggled to grow back a small truck bounced over rocks next to the burn. An old man, Jay Don, with whiskers from missing two days of shaving pushed up the bill of his hat. The truck stopped in the middle of the meadow on the new grass. Jay Don eyed the boy, Scotty, barely seven years old, who sat with his hands between his knees rocking his legs above the floorboard. The old man reached over and stopped the rocking by placing his hand on the boy’s knee.
“I’ll cut,” Jay Don said, “You load and stack.”
Scotty looked up expectantly and nodded. The old man reached behind his seat and tossed a pair of gloves at the kid.
“Put those on,” he said.
The old man slammed the truck door and walked to the side of the truck. He swept back his cowboy hat and ran a gnarled hand through his hair. A bead of sweet covered his forehead and the water was pushed back through his few strings of hair. He sat the hat back on his bald head. From the back of the bed, he lifted a chainsaw. It was dirty and the red paint on the gas tank was peeling. He fiddled with the clutch, primed the bulb, and ripped on the starter. The chainsaw spurted. He pulled again. This time it started in a cloud of oil smoke. Jay Don walked over to a fallen log and let the saw dig into the wood.
The boy watched from the back of the truck as the old man sliced the log. He had barely started cutting and already three rounds lined up at the end of the fallen tree. The boy swirled the dirt with his toe. A cloud of powdered dust floated around his boot. A breeze brought to him the smell of pitch and sage. He looked up at the mountain and the sun overhead.
His newfound gloves were too big and he dropped them in the dirt. He picked one up on end and it flapped peculiarly in a timid wave. He put a hand inside and his fingers stopped too soon inside leaving the extra material to bend at odd angles. The other glove went on the same. He stood with both hands clasped together like the mismatched hands of a scarecrow.
He knew this was punishment and so he procrastinated. He thought about his crime.
It started in the produce aisle with a single slice of orange-gelled candy wrapped in cellophane. It lay on the floor beneath the display of assorted hard candies, chocolate bridge mix, and jelly beans. He eyed the orange candy. Then he bent over and put the candy in his pocket. No one saw him except sister Charlene, who immediately turned and pulled on her mother’s sweater. He reconsidered slipping the candy away.
In October, he found similar orange slices in his Jack O’ Lantern. He liked the texture and the taste so he saved them to enjoy last. The sweet and sour of the candy made his lips pucker and they lasted a long time in his mouth. He thought about Halloween as he fingered the candy in his pocket. The cellophane made a crinkling noise and he was sure everyone heard it. Picking up something that didn’t belong to him was wrong. But he still wanted the candy. His mother listened to Charlene’s report.
“Put it back,” she said to him. “You know better.” His mother and sisters waited for him to move. He slowly pulled the orange slice out of his pocket and laid it on the others. He lingered for a moment. He looked up at his mother hoping she would let him buy the candy. She turned instead toward the cucumbers. He followed behind her as his sisters toddled around their mother.
On the phone he overheard her say, “I don’t know what to do with him.” The next weekend his was working with his grandfather.
Jay Don let the chainsaw sputter out. He picked up an armful to small limbs and walked toward the boy.
“This is your job,” he said. The old man lifted the wood over the side dropping it at the back of the cab. He lined up the logs into a row. Scotty stood behind him.
“It’s important to stack them straight,” the old man said. “You need to fill up the whole bed.”
The boy pushed up on his toes and looked over the side. Only a few logs filled the bed. It was going to take a while to fill it up. He lowered himself and dug his toes in the dirt.
“You can climb up the tailgate,” Jay Don said. He placed a hand on the boy’s back. “I need your help.”
The old man pulled a wedge out of the bed and returned to the rounds. Scotty slapped the gloves together making a flapping sound and tried to pull his fingers deeper into the finger holes. Jay Don swung the wedge up and let it fall. The round split in half. He swung up again splitting the half. He stepped back to take a breath. He waved the boy to come closer. Scotty stumbled forward and grabbed the end of a log. A glove bunched up and he dropped the log on the ground. The smell of sawdust and sap filled his nose.
“Take that up to the truck,” Jay Don said struggling for breath. “Stack them like I showed you.”
Scotty dragged the split wood to the truck bouncing it on the ground and rolling it over the rocks. His gloves stuck to the sap bleeding out of the wood. He rested at the tailgate before picking up one end with both hands in a struggle to lift the wood to the truck. He managed to push it up to the tailgate. He rested again before walking to the left of the truck looking for a place to climb up. He put is hands on the side of the truck and attempted to pull his legs up to the top of the tire. It was too high and he couldn’t pull himself up. He crossed over to the other side looking for a different way up.
The old man watched him from the wood pile. He reached down picking up the split logs and balanced an armful of freshly cut wood as he walked back to the truck.
Scotty stopped and kicked the dirt. He braced for a harsh response.
Jay Don man dropped the cut wood down on the tailgate before he reached to lift up the boy into the bed.
“Why don’t you stay in the bed and I’ll bring you the wood,” he said. The boy rose up from the ground and lightly stepped down into the truck bed. “Grab those and stack them at the back.”
The boy lifted up each piece of wood and stacked it in the bed. The old man cut and split the logs bringing over a new armful for the boy to stack. The routine continued until the bed was nearly full.
The sun touched the top of a granite peak sending long shadows across the meadow. A cold breeze floated down from the mountain top and crossed over the fallen trees. Jay Don looked up at the setting sun. After a few minutes he picked up the the chainsaw and the wedge and carried them over to the truck. He set each in the back of the bed and sat down on the tailgate. Scotty reached into a foam cooler, fished out a bottle of water, and handed it to his grandfather.
The old man twisted open the water and took a long drink. The boy sat down next to him. Together they watched the last of the sunlight turn the meadow orange and then a cool brown as it dipped behind the mountains. Stars began to show above the ridge line as the meadow settled into twilight.
“Your grandmother will wonder if we’re coming home,” Jay Don said. He stood up before lifting the boy to the ground.
The old man slammed shut the tailgate. Scotty struggled to pull himself up into the cab.
The old man sat behind the wheel and watched as the boy settled into his seat.
“There’s a bag in the glove box,” he said. “Why don’t you pull it out.”
Scotty wiggled forward to the glove box and opened it up. The bag rolled forward and the boy grabbed it before it dropped to the floor board.
“Go on,” Jay Don said. “Open it up.”
Scotty unrolled the paper and reached into the bag. He watched his grandfather’s face who looked back with an expectant grin. His small hand pulled out an orange slice. He froze and looked at the cellophane and then back at the old man.
“I knew you liked those.” the old man said. “Thanks for helping me today.”
Jay Don started the truck and started back across the meadow toward the road. Scotty unwrapped the candy and placed the whole slice in his mouth. He sucked on it and looked out the window at the headlights bouncing off the sage. The boy leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. The old man began to whistle as the dark and the pine trees swallowed the truck as it rounded away from the meadow and down the mountain.