The little boy was alone, playing Cowboys-and-Indians outside, when the deputies came. He was six years old. He was pretending to be a cowboy, an outlaw, taking life and land from the Indians, from the innocent.
The white jeep came down the driveway. Gravel crunched under the tires. The boy lived in the arid, rural California countryside, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He considered himself to be a Man of The West. Rural. Tough. Rugged. Lawless.
He didn’t understand that he lived in a homeowners association. One that was developed in the middle of cattle rangelands and old mining claims. The houses were spaced far apart by city standards, and packed together by country standards; it was suburbia with an acreage. A place to get away from the cities and their people.
The streets were named after a mix of Native American Tribes and the white men that killed them: Wintun Way, Fremont Drive, Ahwahnechees Court, Burney Loop.
There was a nine-hole golf course with a restaurant on site. A gas station. A clubhouse with a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a bar & grill. HOA dues were paid to live in the community. It was a sheltered place to grow up, a lawful place — mostly.
The deputies parked their jeep and got out. In the back of the jeep was a German Shepard. It was barking. Saliva flew from its mouth. Gobs of slobber spotted the reinforced glass window.
The uniformed men, with guns hanging from their hips, greeted the boy and asked where his father was; there was pity in their eyes.
The boy gestured toward his home. He pointed the way with one hand while he sucked on the fingers of the other.
The men departed toward the home. The boy was left alone. He stared at the white jeep, inside the dog was barking.
The word Sheriff was painted in green letters on the side of the vehicle. He didn’t understand the word. The dog continued to bark.
The two deputies came out of the house; the boy’s father was between them, hands at his sides. His mother was behind the three men. She was crying. The father said something to the deputies. They nodded solemnly.
The father came over to the boy and kneeled down. He told him that he loved him and that he’d be back, but for now he had to go away. The boy was going to be the Man of The House for a while. He would need to cowboy-up.
Okay, he replied, but he didn’t understand.
The father took his Stetson hat off and placed it on the boy’s head.
The deputies loaded him into the jeep. The barking grew unbearably loud as the door opened. It returned to its muffled volume when the door slammed closed on his father.
The deputies looked at the boy and his mother. They nodded. One of them was stiff-jawed and holding back moisture in his eyes. The other was somber. They left.
The jeep backed up the driveway. The gravel crunched and groaned under the weight of the tires. The jeep, and all inside, drove away. The barking faded.
The boy looked to his mother. He asked her where they were taking his father.
She told him they were taking him away, so that he could take care of his own father, who was very sick.
He didn’t understand that she was lying.
Okay, he replied.
He saw his father three more times after his mother obtained custody of him and his brother. He started thinking of his father as someone else, some lawless villain, some stranger. Two of the visits were in a small booth; he could see the man through the clear, reinforced glass and he could speak to him through a phone receiver.
The third visit was in an open-air courtyard. They sat at a grey concrete table surrounded by tall, grey, concrete walls. There were other families at other concrete tables. There were uniformed men, with guns hanging from their hips, standing solemnly, their hands folded in front, their backs against the tall, grey walls. They watched the families, or what used to be families.
The boy later found out why the man was taken away, that the man had committed crimes against children.
The man would write to the boy every birthday, but the boy never wrote back.
He couldn’t communicate with the man. The man who may have hurt him. He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t remember if anything happened — mostly.
But, he could remember the day that the deputies came, the day the man was taken away. It was the last day he pretended to be an outlaw.
Jonathan J. Wahl is classically trained in applied science but prefers reading and writing. He lives in California.