The Prodigal’s Brother
Carson Wyatt’s eyes rolled to the ceiling as his younger brother began his weekly tirade.
“I’m sick of this place, Pa. I’m ready to get out of this dust pit and see the world,” Flynn stated, slamming a scrawny fist into the tabletop.
Carson shoved a forkful of peas into his mouth and rested his elbows on the table. Flynn Wyatt had big dreams to see far away places but refused to work and earn the money to do so. He refused to ride herd, repair the outbuildings, help with branding, or anything else required on the Wyatt Ranch. He wasted his days reading newspapers from New York or Buffalo instead of doing his share of the work. Carson didn’t mind the extra workload until Flynn started complaining about his lack of finances.
Reuben Wyatt sat at the head of the table with his sons on either side of him. “If you want to leave,” he said, “you’re gonna have to do your share of the work and earn the money.”
Flynn sat back in his chair and pouted. “That’s gonna take so long.”
“If you worked like Carson, you would already have the money to go explore the country. But instead you choose to sit here in the house and waste your time pouring over those newspapers.”
Carson pressed his lips into a thin line and avoided his brother’s icy gaze.
“Carson is perfectly content to be the perfect son and take over this hell hole one day, but I ain’t.” The heat coming off Flynn’s words made the hair on the back of Carson’s neck stand up.
“Watch your mouth, Flynn,” Pa reprimanded. “Carson is a good, responsible man who knows how to provide for a family. I pity the girl who gets saddled with you.”
Carson snuck a glance at Flynn, who directed a patronizing smile toward him and crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t aim to be saddled. Not ever. Carson’s more than welcome to have himself a lifelong warden if he wants to. Elizabeth will keep him on a short lead, you can bet on it.”
Flynn’s words were intended to inflict hurt, but Carson couldn’t resist a smile. Elizabeth Murphy was the best, most beautiful woman in Wyoming, and he couldn’t wait until he had his own place so he could marry her and start a family. He had his eye on the Old Homestead, out on the western outskirts of his father’s land. He had been saving for years to buy the place from his father, and in another six months, he should have enough to make a good offer on it. By this time next year, he would be a married man… maybe even have a little one on the way.
“Why don’t you go ahead and give me my share of the ranch?” Flynn’s words brought Carson out of his musings.
Pa directed a confused expression to his youngest son. “What are you asking?”
“Give me my share and I’ll have enough to start a decent life.”
Carson glared at his younger brother. “Flynn, hush.”
Flynn didn’t spare him so much as a glance as he continued to intreat their father. “If I get my share, I can sell it to old Lou and get a hefty sum. It’ll be more than enough to carry me out east.”
Carson tightened his hand into a fist under the table. “Flynn, we’ve been feuding with Lou Simms for a decade over those water rights. If you sell out to him, we’ll have to move the whole herd fifty miles west and pay through the teeth to have a share of Hanson’s water supply.”
Flynn shrugged. “Pop’s got plenty of money. It’ll just go to waste sitting here.”
Carson snapped his head in the direction of their father, gauging his reaction. The man’s face was emotionless. Surely he wasn’t considering this? It would ruin them.
“Well? What do ya say?” Flynn pressed.
Pa’s eyes met Carson’s, and the sorrow that bubbled in their depths caused a knot of dread to form in the oldest son’s stomach. “It’s his share, Carson. To do with as he pleases.”
Carson shook his head. “No. You can’t let him do this.”
Flynn’s smile was triumphant across the table. “You don’t get a say, Carson. Pop’s right. It’s mine to do with as I please.”
Pa stood from the table and walked down the hallway. Carson heard the door to his office open, then lost hope altogether.
“Flynn,” Carson’s tone was severe and menacing. “If you do this, you’ll ruin him. We won’t have enough land to keep up our herd. We’ll have to sell off half of it and the profits won’t be near enough to buy the land we would need to recuperate the numbers.”
“Don’t be greedy, Carson,” Flynn shot back. “He has more than he needs and so do you. This is the only way I can get what I want.”
Pa walked back into the room, his face sullen, and gave Flynn a paper, yellowed with age. “After your mother died, I split everything I had between the two of you. There’s your share of the land, and this-” Pa gave Flynn an envelope “-is half of all the money I have to my name. It’s yours, as it’s always been.”
Carson felt physically sick. There was no way the Wyatt Ranch could recover from losing half of their assets. They were doomed.
– – – – –
Flynn took his money and was gone within the week. Carson set out immediately to help the stock keepers move their herd of over 10,000 longhorns out west toward Hanson’s water supply. Pa rode out to make a deal with Hanson the day after Flynn sold out. It was Carson’s job to cull the stock keepers until they had only what they needed. That meant several men were sent packing without so much as a horse, just a dusty saddle slung over their shoulder and a few dollars to their names. Driven to compassion for the sons and fathers sent home practically penniless to their families, Carson dipped into his savings to give them each some money to carry their families over until they found more work. With each forlorn expression that got sent away from the ranch, Carson got a little more bitter toward his selfish sibling. Flynn had ruined them all.
One night two weeks later, the bright navy sky boasting a full moon and legions of stars spread out above Carson. The gentle braying of the cattle in the distance calmed him as he stared into the fire beside his bedroll.
“What’s gonna happen to the place, Carson?” One of the stock keepers asked from the other side of the fire.
Carson didn’t look Gabe Williams in the eye. He couldn’t. “I don’t know,” was his reply, “We’re going to take however many head we decide to sell into Sagebrush in a few weeks. We’ll see how much we get before we decide how we’re gonna move forward.”
Gabe sighed. “I always had an uneasy feeling about that brother of yours. I never met a boy who wanted money so bad but didn’t want to work.”
Carson sat up and crossed his legs. “He’s spoiled. Always has been. I guess it’s my fault for picking up the slack for him all the time. I should have made him pull his own weight.”
“Nothing we can do about this now. Just gotta make sure we keep these cattle fat and happy.” The resigned peace in Gabe’s tone instilled just a little hope in Carson.
Maybe one day they could rebuild the herd and he could start saving to buy the Old Homestead again. That was the one part of the ranch that hadn’t been divided between them as boys. The Old Homestead was a special part of Wyatt history, situated on the corner of his father’s property with plenty of unclaimed around it for a man to build his own spread. Though, Carson never intended to strike out on his own. His father would be needing a foreman who knew the ranch inside and out. It was his every intention to start his own family and work as an equal partner with his father for the best of the Wyatt Ranch. A son should look after his father’s livelihood, especially when he was the only family the old man had left.
As Gabe drifted off to sleep across from him, Carson’s mind wandered to his brother. It had been two weeks since Flynn left, and he was probably already out east by now. Was he thinking of his family? Carson shoved the thought out of his mind. It was far more likely that Flynn was holed up in a fine hotel room surrounded by the best clothes and other useless finery that would serve no purpose out on the range.
Personally, Carson couldn’t see how any of that could compare to the broad expanse of a Wyoming sky. Why would you want to look for anything else when you had everything you could ever want right here? When Carson thought of his dreams, he found them characteristically simple. All he wanted was to marry Elizabeth and sit outside at night, looking at these very stars while holding her in his arms. It had been a month since Carson had seen her, with his new duties at the ranch preventing him from making the trip into Sagebrush. He missed her kind eyes and warm smile. Maybe one of these days he would get to go see her again and her love could fill the parts of his heart that were starting to grow cold.
– – – – –
Months passed, and life on the ranch became harder and harder. Money was tight, preventing Carson from putting aside any savings for the old homestead. He spent his days riding herd, thinking of Elizabeth and sitting atop Amos, one of the older horses at the ranch. The animal didn’t have a lot of hurry up and go left in him anymore, but he was reliable. They had newer, better horses available to ride, but Carson always figured his father would need to either sell those or use them himself. So, he kept old Amos and together they would fetch cattle out of ravines or the briars and bramble they often found themselves caught up in.
As intended, the Wyatt’s sold half their herd just to keep the cattle from overpopulating the land available to them. Food was more scarce, which meant hard tack and beans over an open fire for Carson most nights. He didn’t mind, for he knew that in time, he and his father would build the Wyatt Ranch back up to its former glory. What nights were not spent in the open range were spent in whatever line shack was closest. Carson didn’t mind the drafty structure, for when the chill got to him, he thought of Elizabeth and the Old Homestead… the home that would one day be theirs.
One clear, crisp morning while the wind was whipping at the dried grass on the range, Carson was hooking up the team to the wagon for one last trip into Sagebrush for supplies before the haying season kicked in. His heart beat faster at the thought of seeing Elizabeth again. It had been too long since he saw the familiar warmth of her eyes or felt the gentle brush of her fingertips across his face. He just wanted to be near her, even if it was for but a moment. He wouldn’t have much time to spend in Sagebrush. A day’s ride there and back was the only time he was allotted, so he would have to make the best use of the time given to him.
Sagebrush was not much to look at. It was small, even for a cow town, but the people in it had plenty of personality to pass around. At the end of the month, the settlement was usually brimming with riotous cowboys ready to blow their wages on booze and women. Carson had never cared for such frivolity, but there had been a time when Flynn was living it up with the best of them. The boy couldn’t hold his liquor, let alone his common sense when a decent looking female batted her dark eyelashes at him. The poor boy was probably living high on life up in New York with more women than he knew what to do with.
Carson shook his head. What a waste of life, to squander precious moments in the arms of someone who would leave you in the morning. He would much rather spend even an hour with Elizabeth doing nothing more than talking and cradling her hand in his. Perhaps Flynn had never known the genuine love of a good woman. How was he to know what he was missing when he’d never had it?
It was nearing dusk by the time Carson pulled the wagon into Sagebrush and to a stop in front of the Mercantile. Dust blew across the broad streets as the wind kicked up, covering anything in its path with a layer of the fine, red dirt. Carson hopped down from the wagon seat and made his way into the establishment. He would need to make this quick so he could get to Elizabeth’s home on the edge of town before it got too late. He couldn’t wait to see her face when she saw him.
“Evening, Mr. Wyatt,” greeted the short, portly clerk behind the counter. “Out for supplies?”
Carson nodded. “Yes, sir. Trying to get everything ready for haying season.”
The clerk, Sam Hood, nodded his balding head slowly. “I imagine so. I was sorry to hear about what happened to your pop’s place. The Wyatt Ranch is the pride of Sagebrush, and we hated to hear it fell on hard times.”
“Nothin’ Pa and me can’t fix,” Carson replied with a dry smile as he handed his list of supplies to the clerk. “I’ll be back in the morning for these items. I’ll help you load them into the wagon as soon as the sun gets up.”
Sam nodded and perused the list. “Seems about right. I’ll have all that boxed up and ready to go.”
“Thank you, Sam.” Carson tipped his hat and walked back out onto the street.
Darkness had descended over the landscape in the brief minutes he had been in the mercantile. Shoving his hands deep into his pockets, Carson directed his steps down the street toward Elizabeth’s family home. Surely her parents wouldn’t mind his stealing a few moments of her time at this hour.
The cheerful music of the saloon greeted him as he neared the ill-reputed establishment. Keeping his gaze down and his hands secured in his pockets, Carson sped up his pace to pass the swinging double doors quickly.
“I’ll have you know my pa’s a big man in this town! My credit’s as good as the next man’s!” a man yelled between slurred words and a string of obscenities.
Carson froze. He would know that voice anywhere, even if it was hard to make out. His gaze lifted as he neared the doors of the saloon.
“Buck, get this scoundrel out of here,” a gruff voice demanded.
As Carson neared the doors, a man burst through them and fell out into the street. With hands still shoved into his pockets, Carson took a tentative step toward the man who was writhing in the dirt.
“Filthy, no good, son of a…”
“Flynn?” Carson took another step toward his brother where he lay in the street.
Flynn rolled over with a look of terror on his inebriated face. “Carson?”
Carson leaned down and extended a hand toward his brother. “I thought you were in New York?”
“What’s in New York that I can’t find here? Michelle and Sarah know how to treat a man better than any of those broads.”
Carson rolled his eyes and cringed at the foul smell emitting from his brother. “What have you done to yourself, man?”
Flynn was shriveled up like an old grape. His arms were weak and bony, his clothes hanging loosely from his frail shoulders. He looked downright awful.
“It’s so good to see you, brother,” Flynn placed an earnest hand on Carson’s arm.
A glimmer of hope rose in Carson’s breast. Perhaps Flynn was ready to come home and make things right with their father. The man just wasn’t the same without Flynn around, knowing his son was out wasting his life. Perhaps their family would come back together again.
“Do you think you could spot me five dollars?” Flynn asked. “I’ll pay you back, I swear it.”
Carson felt his face harden as the hope of moments before evaporated. “Look at you, Flynn. What you need is a good meal and fresh clothes.”
“Nah, these rags is as good as any. I just need a few dollars to get by.”
Carson clenched his fist at his side. “You’re not getting by. You’re barely surviving. You look like you’re on your way to an early grave.”
Flynn smirked and took an unsteady step away from him. “We’re all on our way to a grave. It’s just I’m having more fun getting there than you are.”
Carson rolled his eyes to the sky as stars winked at him from above. “You’re breaking Pa’s heart. You know that, right?”
“What’s he need me for? He’s got you, ‘member?” Flynn turned and staggered away from him, but not before sending one last jab over his shoulder. “Who needs a hellion when you got an angel under your roof?”
Carson watched his brother stagger away from him, pity giving away to anger. No, not anger – righteous indignation. Flynn couldn’t see past the end of his own nose to see how his rebellion was killing their father. What was the point of trying to save someone who didn’t want to be saved?
Carson turned on his heel and walked in the opposite direction of his brother. A single, forlorn glance upward led the way to a prayer from his heart to God’s ear. Not a prayer for Flynn’s salvation, but for his father’s resignation. Perhaps they should all give up on Flynn and focus on things they could fix. Flynn was in God’s hands now.
Carson stood before the Old Homestead with pride swelling his chest. It had been an year of saving, but by this time next month, he would finally have enough to buy the property fair and square. He and Elizabeth could finally marry and have the life of their dreams. Everything was finally starting to come together.
The Wyatt Ranch was just beginning to get back on its feet. After selling some assets and going without for over a year, Pa was finally ready to make an offer to Lou Simms and try to buy their property back. Things were finally looking up, and Flynn was nowhere around to ruin it for them again. Carson and his father had worked tirelessly to restore their heritage to its former glory, and the pride in their work left little else to be desired. It was almost time for supper at the main house, and since the herd was close enough to the outbuildings for him to join his father, Carson mounted his old swayback mare and began making his way slowly back to his childhood home after a long day of work. Of course, slow was the only pace Bessie had left in her.
As he neared the familiar outbuildings of the ranch, Carson’s eyes were drawn to the commotion around the front of the main ranch house. His eyes narrowed when he saw the strange crumpled heap in his father’s arms. It appeared to be a man of some sort, though his thin, emaciated frame made him look more like a boy. Carson pushed Bessie as fast as she could go, which brought him up to the ranch house at a stiff gallop.
When he dismounted, Carson caught a better look at his father. Tears mixed with the remnants of a smile lingered on the man’s aging face… a smile Carson had not seen for years.
Then, as his eyes wandered to the crumpled heap relying purely on his father’s arms to keep him upright, Carson recognized the structure of his brother’s face.
Flynn had come home.
Tears carved trails in the dust caked on his face. He had become nothing more than skin stretched loosely over the sharp skeletal structure of his body. Carson’s heart softened toward him. Never had his brother been broken enough to cry, and definitely not in his father’s arms. As Carson neared the pair, he caught his father’s eye. The light had returned to their brown depths, dancing back and forth between his sons.
“Carson! My son has come home!” He cried.
“I’m so sorry,” Flynn wept. “I… I don’t want nothin’, Pa. I just want to work. I’ll be a stock keeper. I’ll muck the stalls. I don’t care. I just want to be home.”
“Nonsense,” Pa said, clutching Flynn tighter to his chest, “You’re my son. You’ll have everything you had before. As a matter of fact, you’ll have more. You can have your pick of my horses and saddles. The best, the fastest, whatever you want. Here, let’s take you inside for some clean clothes.”
Carson followed his family into the main ranch house, noting how Flynn barely moved his own feet and how Pa drug him into the house and to an overstuffed chair. Once the youngest Wyatt was settled into the chair, Pa left the room to gather him a fresh change of clothes. Carson sat across from Flynn, staring intently at his brother’s face. Flynn shifted uncomfortably, peering at the furnishings of the room that he once regarded with such disdain. He appeared out of place, and judging by the look on his face, he felt it as well.
Finally, Flynn’s faded, tired eyes met Carson’s.
Carson held up a hand. “Don’t. Everything is forgiven. We’re just proud you’re home.”
“I’m sorry, Carson. For what I said…”
Carson shrugged. “Water under the bridge.”
Pa came back into the room then, his arms laden with clothes and a pair of boots. “Here are some new boots. I just bought them a few months ago, and my old ones aren’t too bad. You’re welcome to them.”
Carson bit back a sad smile. He knew full well that his father had only splurged on new boots because his old pair had a hole the size of a dime in each sole.
“And here is my best shirt and a pair of trousers,” Pa continued. “They’ll be a little big until we fatten you back up.”
Flynn accepted the bundle and ran his hands over the soft fabric of the shirt. Tears dripped from the corners of his eyes and ran down his cheeks past trembling lips. “Father, I don’t deserve these.”
“Nonsense. You’re my son and you’ll have decent clothes. Here, I want you to have this, too.” Pa extended his hand to reveal a gold pocket watch dangling from the end of a long chain. “It was your grandfather’s. He gave it to me when I got married, and I think it’s time I pass it along to you. A man needs a good watch.”
Flynn shook his head. “No. That’s too expensive. I’ll not take it. Give it to Carson.”
Carson smiled and shook his head. “No, brother. Take it. Pa wants you to have it.”
Flynn gripped the watch between trembling fingers and cradled it in his hands as if it were the most precious thing in the world. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Pa kneeled down in front of Flynn. “You’ll have more than you ever need here. Name it, and it’s yours.”
Flynn shook his head. “I’ll not take anything more from Carson. This ranch is his. I sold my part. I’ll live in the bunkhouse and take my meals with the stock keepers.”
“You’ll have a future here, I’ll see to that. While this ranch is indeed Carson’s, there’s one part that was not included in either of your inheritances.”
Carson froze at his father’s words. His smile and joy faded as he leaned forward in anticipation of the man’s next words.
“The Old Homestead. It’s not much, but it’s a home and there’s plenty of room around it to expand. It’s yours.”
All breath left Carson’s body as he sat back in his seat. Flynn shook his head.
“No,” the younger brother said. “That’s too much. I’ll live in the outbuildings.”
“Please, son. Take it so I know you’re taken care of,” Pa pressed.
Flynn shook his head more violently. “I abandoned you. I ruined you. You can’t do this for me, not after all I’ve done.”
Pa clamped his hands on either side of Flynn’s face. “You are my son. You never stopped being my son. There is nothing you can do to make me not love you. You were gone, and now you have returned. You are restored.”
Carson didn’t hear a word of the conversation that ensued between his father and brother. Instead, he sat back and watched as the dreams for his future drifted away into thin air. All the money he had saved – twice – now rendered worthless. Years of hard work, wasted. How was he going to tell Elizabeth?
Eventually, Pa convinced Flynn to go rest for a while and sleep off the last year and a half. Carson, however, stood and left the house before his father had the chance to reiterate how proud he was to have his youngest son back home. As happy as Carson was to have his brother home, that joy was overshadowed by the overwhelming feeling that everything he ever wanted had just been yanked out from under him. He walked until he found himself at the corral, watching the horses prance around the ring. Fine, fast, well-trained horses at his brother’s disposal.
He stood there, not keeping track of the time or taking any thought of his surroundings until his father appeared next to him. Carson glanced toward him but didn’t make eye contact. Instead, the two men stood in silence with their arms propped up on the fence railing for a time.
“I never thought I would have my son back,” Pa spoke up finally.
When Carson finally found his voice, his next words came out more vehemently than he planned. “You had a son all along, but I guess you forgot about that.” His father was silent, which led Carson to explaining the meaning behind his words. “For the last year and a half, I did nothing but try to help you build up what Flynn took from you. I worked tirelessly to make sure you got back on your feet. I was beside you every step. The second Flynn comes home, I get shoved out of the way while you give everything I ever wanted to him.”
Pa was motionless, keeping his gaze on the animals prancing about the corral. “Everything you ever wanted?”
“I don’t care that you gave him the finest horse while I’ve been riding around on that swayback, because that was my decision. I don’t care that you gave him the family heirloom. I don’t have a need for it. But I’ve been saving for The Old Homestead most of my life. Twice now, I’ve almost had the money to buy it from you so I could marry Elizabeth and move out there to start our life together. This time next month, I would have the money to buy that place from you and possibly some land around it. And now you’ve given it to him.”
Carson locked his jaw and slammed his mouth shut, willing himself to get control of his tongue.
“I never knew you wanted the old place. You never even said anything to me. I would have given it to you without question if you ever asked for it.” Pa heaved a deep sigh. “Don’t you see that everything I have is yours? This whole ranch and all it’s stock is yours. Flynn has nothing.”
“Because he squandered it on booze and women.”
“He’s still my son. He always has been. And so have you.”
“I just don’t understand how you can trust him after everything he’s done to you,”’ Carson felt a muscle in his jaw flinch.
“I don’t have to trust him to love him. He’s my son, and he will always have a place here. If you never did a thing for me, if you watched the entire ranch fall to waste instead of fighting tooth and nail with me, I would still love you and welcome you. No matter the pain or hurt you could inflict on me, you would still have a seat at my table. It’s not something you have to earn.”
Carson stood in the long moments of silence that followed. Long after his father left him with his thoughts and went back into the house, the man’s final words hung in the air, floating on the breeze and settling themselves into his heart. After all this time and hard work, his Father’s Love was finally beginning to make sense.
All this time he had been working for his father so he could earn what was right under his nose. Carson had complained about saving money when he never had to scrimp and save in the first place. He’d tried so hard to make his Father proud when the man had been proud of him all along. If anything had destroyed Carson’s chances of a future, it was his own sense of righteousness. He had wasted too much time trying to earn what was freely given. Now Flynn came back, broken and spent while expecting nothing, and an abundance was showered on him. All because he was Pa’s son and asked to be forgiven.
Exhaling deeply through his nose, Carson straightened to his full height and turned back toward the house. He didn’t know what he was going to do when he got there, but whatever it was, he didn’t really care. No matter what got taken from under him, he was his Father’s son. And somehow, that made everything alright.