The Pocket Watch
John “Cowboy” Howard looked at the faces gathered around the campfire. Ten six-year-olds and their fathers stared back at him. They had been telling stories and singing campfire songs for the past hour. Cowboy glanced up at the sky and saw that it was now completely dark. The moon was full, and he was just able to make out a murder of crows perched on a telephone line, uncharacteristically silent, patiently awaiting the next story.
John Howard pulled something from his pocket and began.
“Does anyone know what this is?” he asked, holding up the object. None of the children answered, although he noticed several fathers smiling in appreciation.
“It's a pocket watch,” he said. “Come on over here so you can get a good look at it.”
“This belonged to my great great grandfather,” Cowboy continued. “It's a Howard family heirloom that I inherited from my father. Eventually, it will go to Emma,” he said, looking over at his daughter..
“What's that?” a little girl asked.
“That's called a hunter case,” Cowboy replied. “The metal lid closes over the watch dial and protects it from scratching or cracking.”
“What's that chain?” another child asked.
“That's used to secure the watch to your lapel, waistcoat, or belt loop,” Cowboy said. “It's called a fob.”
“It's broken,” a little boy said, staring intently at the dial. “The hands aren't moving.”
Cowboy smiled and said, “You're right, the hour and minute hands don't work anymore, but I always know what time it is when I look at this watch.”
The children and fathers looked at him expectantly.
“My great great grandfather was seventeen years old when he went off to war.”
“Which war?” a child asked.
“The Civil War,” Cowboy replied.
“Which side?” a little boy asked.
A surge of anger flared briefly in Cowboy's eyes and then subsided.
“Twenty Seventh Virginia Infantry, Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia,” he answered.
“Jackson's corps,” a father murmured in awe.
Cowboy nodded. “Jackson, then Ewell, and then Early. And, at the end, Gordon.”
Cowboy drew a deep breath and continued.
“He walked home from Appomattox. Took him four days. No shoes. He ripped out his shirt sleeves and wrapped them around his feet.”
“He had gotten married four years earlier, just before he enlisted. My great great grandmother was in the garden when she looked up and saw him coming down the dirt road.”
Cowboy smiled and said, “I'm sure she broke the record for the one hundred yard dash.”
“Anyway, soon after my great great grandfather joined the army my great great grandmother took some of the money she had received as a wedding gift and bought this pocket watch.”
“Why?” a little girl asked.
“Well, my great great grandmother said it was to remind her that however long the time that her new husband was away, she knew he would be coming home. And, this pocket watch represented all the time they would have together when he returned. It was her gift to him.”
Cowboy held up the watch and said, “this watch is one hundred and forty eight years old, and whenever I look at it I always know what time it is.”
John Howard never imagined that twenty people could be so quiet. Finally, one of the fathers, a high school teacher, spoke up.
“Cowboy, would you consider telling that story to my Freshman American History class?” he asked.
“I'd be happy to if you don't think I'll bore them to death,” he answered.
“Believe me,” the teacher said, “Nobody with a pulse would be bored by that story.”
The afternoon sun streamed through the barn windows casting toasty sunbeams on the floor. Emma's horse, Dixiebelle, channeling her inner cat, basked in one of the rays that had found her stall. John Howard sat at his desk staring at the empty pocket watch holder. It had taken one hundred and forty eight years and five generations, but they had finally found a Howard who was careless and irresponsible enough to lose a family keepsake. It made him queasy to think about it. He had missed it Saturday morning following the camp out. He and Emma had spent most of the morning searching the meadow without success. John Howard sighed. Tonight was the FACILE dinner at Emma's school. The Father And Child Independent Learning Experience had been his idea, and he had convinced ten other fathers of first graders to participate. Outings had included visits to a fire station, a childrens museum, and the local zoo. The program had culminated with last weekend's overnight camp out at Wild Pony Ranch. The school was delighted with the program and was honoring the fathers with a special dinner. John Howard stood and left the barn. It was time to get ready to go.
The school cafeteria was set up with long buffet tables and uniformed chefs at the food stations. A school counselor spoke about the important role of fathers in a child's development. The school principal followed, recognizing and thanking the fathers individually for their participation in the program. As she concluded her talk, she looked at the students and nodded.
Cowboy looked around and saw children presenting what appeared to be gifts to their fathers.
“What's going on now?” he asked.
Emma remained silent, staring down at the table.
Cowboy looked over at his wife.
“Some of the children made little thank you gifts for the fathers,” Sarah Jane Howard said. “Nothing fancy. Just a token, really,” she quickly added.
“Oh,” Cowboy replied.
Sarah Jane was distressed to see an expression of deep hurt flash briefly across her husband's face.
“I'm starving,” Cowboy said with a smile. “Let's get in the buffet line before it gets too long.”
“Goodnight, sweetie,” Cowboy said as he kissed his daughter good night. “I enjoyed the dinner.”
Emma gave her father a worried look, and said, “Daddy, you better check the barn before you go to bed. You know, to make sure Dixiebelle is okay.”
“She's fine,” her father replied. “I fed and watered the horses earlier this afternoon, and I'll check on them first thing in the morning.”
Cowboy turned off her light and closed the door. Sarah Jane was in the den.
“I'm going up to bed,” he said.
“It's not even nine o'clock, John,” Sarah Jane said.
“Are you going down to the barn first?” Sarah Jane asked.
“No,” Cowboy replied. “I told Emma that I took care of the horses this afternoon since I didn't know what time we would get back from the dinner. They'll be fine until morning.”
Cowboy slowly undressed and got ready for bed. Even though he had eaten a large dinner, he had a huge hole in the pit of his stomach, as if he had a slow leak and was deflating. Cowboy stared at the ceiling and let the shame wash over him. He marveled at the fact that in one day he had managed to lose a family treasure and his daughter's respect. He didn't care about the gift itself, but discovering that Emma hadn't taken a few minutes to draw a picture or create some other little present for him told him all he needed to know. She was either mad, disgusted, or ashamed of him. Maybe all three. And who could blame her. The watch that would have one day been hers now belonged to no one, consigned to a lonely death in an overgrown meadow. Cowboy continued to stare at the ceiling. It was a long time before his eyes closed.
The sun was still below the tree line when Cowboy left the house and started down the hill to the barn. He gathered the feed and water buckets, and then sat down at his desk to finish some paper work. Glancing up, he froze in disbelief. The pocket watch was back in the watch holder. Impossible.
Cowboy looked up as the barn door opened.
“She finally found it yesterday afternoon,” Sarah Jane said. “She's been over in the meadow every day looking for it. She even took Choice with her to help look.”
“Choice?” Cowboy laughed.
“She's a Golden Retriever,” Sarah Jane said. “Emma thought she could help hunt for the watch.”
“Anyway, that's why she was anxious for you to check the barn last night after the dinner. She knew your feelings were hurt. This is her gift to you.”
Cowboy struggled to control his emotions.
“She's awake,” Sarah Jane said. “The first thing she asked me was if you had been down to the barn.”
Cowboy left the barn and began walking quickly up the hill to the house. The door to the house slammed shut as Emma came running down the hill.
Sarah Jane watched as her husband and daughter met half way.
Ronald Paxton is retired from a career in financial services and lives with his wife in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of Cowboy, an e-book that is available at www.amazon.com and www.literaryroad.com, and Uncle Frank.