Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 5300
He sat in the surrey, driving to what he hoped was a new beginning. So many tries, so many near successes. He had thought at the beginning that the West would be his escape from an ill-wrought legacy, and yet so many times he had been wrong. So many, many times.
The West. That great expanse filled as much with hope and promise as it was wide open space. True, the settlers had come for thirty years and more, but it was not that which could have so soon a death. Still it commanded an awe, a reverence among the common folk. Perhaps it was too wild for the rich, but not for him, one who would never tire of the space. One who wished to become one with the freedom and anonymity the West could offer. He wanted the West to take him in her arms and hold him to her breast, to feed him, to join them together, mother and child. He wanted her to chase the nightmares away and protect him from the fears, the assailants, the evils.
He had wandered for years, motherless child seeking safety and comfort. But the death of a brother, a father, a son, are not easily forgotten. He had known Death. She was constant companion, overstaying guest; unwelcome, unloved, unwanted and yet so cruelly faithful. Too much despair had greeted his eyes; too much death had burned his nose and kissed his lips where he had prayed to turn away, to be released from the bondage of helplessness and witness.
He had done well enough to establish himself in the business, but it was not enough to halt the need for migration. In his youth, he had longed for the adventure of travel, willing himself to a livelihood of drifting. Now he recognized the truth in that forgotten adage: When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. *
Jarrod grabbed Heath’s arm just as the latter walked through the door and pulled him towards the den.
“Come here, Heath. There’s someone I’d like you to meet. This is our new director of logging operations, Mr. Matthew Toddman. Heath? Heath!” Heath had frozen on the steps and all the color drain from his face.
Matt Bentell knew he had lost his job. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last that someone had recognized him. The eyes said it all. Whatever the physical reaction, they eyes were always that way. Blue, green, brown; it didn’t matter. They were all the same, and he knew he had lost the job. Matt looked over to his wife Lucinda and knew that she had caught on as well, although she had begun to avoid the eyes soon after it all started. Oh God, could I only go back and change it. No, it will never be. I let those firebreathin’ politicians and untrustworthy guards have their way and did nothin’ ta change it. What could I do? Whatever it was I didn’t do it. What else could I do? God, I tried so hard, so hard. It wasn’t enough. Never enough. Now I’m fated ta this. Best offer my apologies and be on m’ way. Never enough. Never, ever, ever enough.
He was there again. All the misery, the turmoil, the pain, oh the pain, had come back again, tide rushing against the rock barrier he had built in his heart. It was behind him! Far behind, he had thought, until today. Yes, the dreams still came sometimes. Yes, the memories were more frightening than the experience. How he wished he could place it all behind him forever, but it never quite died. No, it was like that lingering disease that had cleaved to his mother, a cancerous evil that would never cease to torment him. The whip cracked.
“Heath, stop!” Victoria had grabbed her panting son and was shaking him. She saw him flinch; some unseen hurt from an unseen evil. “HEATH! LISTEN TO ME!” She was frantic but after a few moments, he shook his head and stuttered something about needing to check on a horse. He barely made it out the door, stumbling as he went. Nick nodded to his mother and followed Heath. Victoria took a moment to compose herself and allowed Jarrod to take her to the couch. She faced the Bentells.
“Mr. Toddman, is there something you can tell me about my son’s reaction to your presence?” She spoke with as much restraint as possible.
Matt stared at her. How could she not know? He hadn’t expected this at all. Was it a trap? No, she was utterly sincere.
“W-well, ma’am, I’ve not been totally honest with y’all. My name is not Toddman; it’s Bentell.” She did appear to recognize the name.
“Are you saying that our Heath was at Carterson Prison?!”
“Huh?” Matt was incredulous. “Ma’am, don’t ya know? Cain’t ya see it in the eyes? The eyes, always, the eyes. How can you not know? It’s written all over his face an’ in all prob’ly all over his back. Oh, God.” Matt regained control. “I think I’d best leave now, ma’am. Come on, Lucinda.” They started walking hurriedly to the door. As an afterthought, Matt turned quickly,” I’m sorry ‘bout your son, ma’am, I really am.” He started towards the door again.
Carterson? The prisoner of war camp? She had known Heath had secrets, and had guessed them to be painful ones, but she had no idea he had been in the army, let alone a prisoner in what was usually referred to as a hell-hole. That man, walking out of her den, her house, off her ranch, had run that notorious gravesite. She wanted to banish him from her site………but then, he was fleeing, too. There was an evil clawing at him not unlike the talons clutching Heath. She cursed herself for her womanly mercy…..
“Wait!” Victoria called out rising. “Please stay. Running from this won’t help you or Heath. Please wait.” Matt turned to face Victoria and judged her once again to be sincere before leading his wife back. “Would you both have a seat please?” They sat. Jarrod walked over to the hearth and draped his arm over the mantle.
“What can you tell me about Carterson?” Jarrod asked after a moment.
Nick found Heath in the loft of the barn sitting on a haystack with his legs drawn up to his chest and panting. He was flushed and had buried his face in his knees. Nick pulled up an old stool and sat on it facing his brother. He waited, knowing that Heath was aware of his presence. The panting calmed a bit and Heath lifted his head some and stared at some point on the opposite wall.
“W-w-when’s it gonna end, N-N-Nick? When?” He spoke haltingly, slowly and softly.
Nick was unsure how to respond. “What end? Sorry, Heath. I just don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
Heath took a deep breath and silence reigned for a few moments. “That man’s name is Bentell.”
Nick was out of his seat immediately and pacing. “That man is Bentell? Bentell is in my house! The man responsible for the deaths of thousands? The man who killed Jack? My GOD!” Nick stopped his pacing abruptly. It dawned on him. Heath had plenty of problems already. He needed a brother, not a firing squad. “Heath, you were there?” Nick’s angry tone had ceased and was gentle. Heath nodded slightly.
“Eleven months.” His voice was unsteady.
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry, Heath. Too young. Fifteen? My God. I’m so sorry.” Nick was surprised that his brother had even been in the army. They paid a good bounty, though. God, a soldier at fifteen to make enough money to live on. “I’m so sorry.”
Heath was surprised. Nick knew his shame, and he was apologizing? Nick wasn’t pushing him to talk, either. Could he trust him with the secrets? Could he talk about it? Heath hadn’t even told his first mother much about it, one who had helped him recover and seen all the scars. He breathed deeply again and told his story softly, haltingly, hauntingly.
“Was way out ahead o’ the lines that day. We were s’posed ta knock off as many officers as we could ‘fore the boys came up b’hind us. I got captured, though. Reb’s had effected a flankin’ movement, comin’ up on the side without us even knowin’ it. I remember thinkin’ how good they were, e’en though I’d heard about the camps. Funny what ya find yourself thinkin’.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “It was terrible. Anything you ever heard was less than what it was.” He spoke between pants. God, was this hard. “Bentell may’ve had the bars on his shoulders, but any rules he made were broken. He had to do paperwork, entertain important people. We couldn’t ever let a hurt show. Woulda been lettin’ ‘em win. But how much could we’ve hid? God, Nick. We were droppin’ all over the place. Like flies you smack ‘tween your hands. Can’t help but think he could’ve stopped it. I don’t know how anyone could look a’ us. I coul’na look at m’self without gettin’ scared. Nothin’ but bones. Bones and dying flesh. Vultures, Nick. Just a few, but they were there. Don’t think they got a lot, but they ‘er there, so they musta gotten some.” A lone tear began a slow descent as Heath began shaking again. “Oh God! I thought I could leave it behind, but I ‘as wrong again. Dear God, it was awful! What could I do there but rot?” He stopped. “Nick, are you gonna hate me?”
“No, Heath. That was a terrible time, I won’t hate you for anythin’. You’re my brother. I’m not about to forget that an’ don’t you go forgettin’ it, either. You can tell me. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“You don’t unnerstand, but how could ya? Nick, I swear you’re gonna hate me, but I wanted so much to die, Nick. I must’ve prayed to God to die so many times I cain’t remember. And then sometimes I wanted to live ta kill them sons a bitches. I woul’n’t take the easy way; that woulda been wrong an’ lettin’ ‘em win, but there’re times I think I shoulda. I tell ya, livin’ this now makes me wish them prayers had come true!” His pants became erratic and his hands went up to his face, shield to the expected hate from Nick.
Seeing his brother in such pain almost made Nick wish Heath’s prayers had come true. That he had such a thought horrified him but there was no denying it or the sufferings of the twenty-four year old next to him. He didn’t know what to do, but he had to do something. And it had to be soon. He reached forward and, after pulling his brother’s hands down, seized Heath’s shoulders. In forceful yet low voice, he tried to calm him. “Heath, hold on now. I don’t hate you. No one hates you. And you may have wanted ta die, an’ I understand that, I prob’bly woulda wanted the same thing, but you didn’t die, an’ whatever you went through there, I don’t regret for one minute that you’re alive and my brother. I couldn’t ask for a better one, ya hear me? I’m damn proud to call three of the best men I’ve ever known my brothers.”
He wrapped his arms around Heath and, in an unused gesture, somewhat awkwardly pulled him tight, rubbing his brother’s back purposefully. He was surprised to feel his brother tense when he touched his back but continued in the motion. Then it clicked. All those hot days, everyone shirtless––everyone but Heath. He’d never asked why, just accepted it as another quirk of the newcomer. All those very private practices, always up first, knowing how to get one shirt on and another off at the same time, always keeping his back hidden under the water or turned away during mass trail baths. He’d never put the pieces together until now.
“Oh, Heath, I wish you’d told me. It’s too heavy for one man to carry. We’re a family, we help each other. I’m sorry I never noticed. So many signs and I paid them no heed. Heath, your back is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing, ya hear me? The only thing I’ll ever think of when I see it is how sorry I am that my little brother went through that, and how proud I am that he came out of it.”
“Ne’er told anyone, Nick, not even Mama. Hurt too much……. Thanks, Nick. I wish it fixed everything. I jus’–– I jus’ don’t know if it can be fixed.”
Gene hadn’t meant to hear what he heard. He thought he’d come home on a surprise visit after classes had been unexpectedly cancelled, giving him a long weekend. He was going to stable the horse he’d ridden in from town in the barn. He’d walked in quietly when he saw that the door was open, prepared to question the foolishness involved when he heard his newest brother speaking to Nick, panicked and telling a horrible tale. Gene couldn’t leave after the first sentences he unintentionally overheard. He wished to God that he could comfort this unfamiliar brother, but he didn’t want Heath to feel threatened, either. He may not have known him long, but if there was one thing Gene knew about Heath was his need for privacy. Quickly and quietly, he unsaddled the horse, curried it and left.
Truth be told, what he had heard unnerved him. How could he be sure of a relationship with Heath? He didn’t necessarily distrust his new brother because of his time in Carterson, but how much can a man take? From his observations and his own self, Gene knew the family’s expectations of Heath were often unrealistic. His new brother had struggled through several rough weeks and was doing fine, but why did there have to be a struggle? Why was he insulted that Heath would not wear the boots of a man who had destined him to a life of heartache, pain and prejudice? Why were he and Nick so blind to the truth of Heath’s heritage that they could not even see the obvious resemblance between him and their father? So much pain could have been eased, so much time saved and savored. He wanted to be there for his brother, but he wasn’t sure how. Although they hadn’t had time to become very close, he did think they loved each other in some sense that made very little sense. Whatever that meant, he was mad at what Heath had been through, mad at Bentell, and, to his own surprise, mad at his father. All of his anger showed on his face. He looked up at the sound of hoof beats.
“Gene!” Audra exclaimed as she hurriedly dismounted. “What are you doing home?” She turned to look at him and caught the expression on his face. “What–what’s wrong? Is everyone alright?”
“No, everyone is not alright.”
“Well?! Stop speaking in riddles and tell me what’s going on.”
“Apparently there’s a man inside who Heath knows from a way back.”
“It’s Matt Bentell.”
“Bentell? Wait, wasn’t he the commander of that camp? How does Heath– you don’t mean? How’s he taking it? Why is that man still here? Where’s Heath? I have to find him and talk to him. Well?”
“Hold on a minute. Heath’s pretty upset. Actually, he’s very upset. I don’t know exactly what happened but he’s up in the loft with Nick. I thought I’d surprise you all and come home, I went to stable the horse and I overheard them talking. Believe me, older sister, it’s not things you should be hearing. Right now I’m heading up to the house and I just might punch that man.”
Audra was surprised at Gene’s declaration of intent. At first she was insulted that he thought she couldn’t handle the story, but Eugene was not one easily moved to anger and perhaps it was best if she didn’t hear all the horrible details.
Carterson. Her brother had been at Carterson. That meant he was in the war, too. He was only a few years older than she, and she had only been eight when it started. How old was Heath? Twelve? Thirteen? Was he in it from the start? Audra had developed a deep friendship with her newest brother, and he had opened up to her about his childhood the way he had to no one else. She recalled with revisionist clarity how he had dodged a question about his teenage years. He was ashamed and wanted to protect her. But who protects you, Heath? Who protects you?
“What you’re describing is terrible to say the least, Mr. Bentell,” Jarrod remarked, maintaining a calm demeanor though inwardly he was fuming for his brother.
“It wasn’t Matt’s fault!” Lucinda Bentell had been silent for most of the conversation, but she was not willing to hear her husband proclaimed guilty without them knowing his side of the coin.
“I understand that there were limitations, Mrs. Bentell, but hundreds of men died in that camp, thousands, even. My brother has never told anyone that he was there to begin with, let alone what it was like. I know you were cleared of all charges of war crimes, sir, but if we’re going to get anywhere with this issue we need to know everything. Every fact, every detail, every feeling, and every reason behind them.”
“You don’t understand!”
“Madam, make me understand.”
“Mrs. Bentell, we don’t wish to place undue pressure on you, but there are more victims here than you think,” Victoria reasoned. “Heath, and all the prisoners are victims. You and your husband are victims. I, with my whole family, am a victim. We need to understand everything. Carterson Prison has ruined enough people already. I’m not about to let it claim another seven victims. Please, tell us what it was like for you. Please.”
Lucinda nodded her head in agreement.
To her, living near the place was just as bad as living in it. Away from all friends, living in dust and dirt and plain view of that sickly enemy was no way to mourn the loss of your only child. If only little Peter hadn’t been caught in Richmond that winter….. The guards were the lowest of the low. They had no respect for military protocol and she had shuddered many times at the cries of pain they drew from the prisoners.
Things were better at the beginning. The war was to be over in a few months, there was plenty of food, it’d be on Northern soil, and everyone would go home, all fine and dandy. War was not such a gentleman. He dragged his feet among the living, taking many with him; whole men, arms, legs. He killed in the cotton fields and the farmland, he killed in crevices, he killed with disease. Then he found a new way: starvation. Those beautiful, fertile lands grew cannons, divisions, attacks, counterattacks and blood, not food. If the prisoners had not been wholly healthy before, they were mere bones by the end. All of them were scrawny. For her and her husband, it meant empty plates and sorrowful glances at each other and the compound, and difficult decisions on the operation of the camp. For the guards, it meant short tempers and beatings for the Yanks. For everyone, it meant despair. Could these people really understand the anguish, the hurt, the decision-making where every choice was fatal for somebody, the horrible, terrible, ugly, leeching evil of the war?
“That’s the way it was, Mr. Barkley, with God as my witness!”
This was not what Jarrod had expected to hear. He had grilled people in the courtroom and knew when someone was telling the truth or a lie. He didn’t want to admit that she was being truthful; the reports had been too horrible, the facts too glaring, too blatant, too obvious, too hurtful. Whatever the woman was, she was sincere, utterly and completely. Could that hell have been hell for everyone involved?
Yes, the court had cleared Bentell of all charges. Yes, he was innocent. But what did it mean when your brother’s face went ashen, his chest heaved, his form shook? There were too many times when applied abstractions hurt in reality. And there was so much hurt already. So much fear. As long as he had known Heath, he had judged him to be strong, unafraid, willing to sacrifice, and brave, all the qualities he saw throughout his family and had worked to develop in himself.
But today, when he froze on the steps like that, Jarrod saw fear, pure, unadulterated, evil fear, and it frightened him to think of what could cause that in so strong a man. Bentell had been cleared of all charges, but what about the charges? It was plain that they were correct even if he was not the cause. How do you deal with two victims of the camp when one survived with the atrocities and one survived in spite of them? How many times had he brushed off Heath walking by the corral at nights as just working out some stiffness when it was probably nightmares or pain from that evil place. And now, standing here, watching the Bentells, he had to force himself to see their pain. So much pain, and it was everywhere. His mother was right: Carterson had claimed enough victims. Arachnid’s web must be broken. She must suckle no more from them.
“I believe you,” he replied slowly. He snapped to fuller attention. “Yes, I believe you, Mrs. Bentell. The question now is….. The question now is what are we going to do. This is a vicious cycle and it must end! Right now, right here. This can go on no longer. We need to put these ghosts, these fears, these evils to rest. And it’s going to take everyone. Agreed?”
“Count me in,” called Gene from the foyer.
“And me,” Audra seconded.
“When did you get home? And Gene, why aren’t you at school?”
“They let us out early, Mother. I thought I’d come home for a surprise visit. Nick and Heath are in the barn, up in the loft. I-I accidentally overheard them. And just now I heard you, Mrs. Bentell, so I think I’ve got the fullest story here.”
“Is there anything you can tell us?” Victoria asked. As he shook his head, she added, “About the situation as a whole. I understand your respect for Heath’s privacy.” That was a more acceptable request.
“Only one thing: we can’t force anything on anyone.” Gene saw their puzzled looks. “Right now, everyone’s being forced by Carterson. Heath’s being forced to stop suppressing the hurt and pain and nightmares. The Bentells are being forced to face a past of evil that they suffered from and that they are blamed for. Carterson is forcing us to deal with an unseen enemy, one of pure fear and evil, in a very personal way.”
“Gene’s right,” Audra agreed, squeezing her younger brother’s arm. “It seems to me that everyone who was there was a prisoner in some way or another, and now we’re becoming them, too. It’s time to ‘set the captives free.’”
She knew it was not the time to say so, but Victoria would have to remember to tell her children just how proud of them she was.
“Well, I think I’m going to leave you all to do some planning. I have a troubled son to talk to.”
Making no secret of her presence, she walked into the barn and heard soft whimpers and words of comfort. She eyed the ladder suspiciously for a moment and decided that the fifteen years since she had last climbed it — as she was about to — was far too long. Hiking up her skirts and carefully balancing her shoes on the rungs, she ascended. As she neared the top the sounds desisted. She took a giant, unladylike step over the top rung and into the loft. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have seen a flicker of a smile cross Heath’s face at the spectacle she presented.
“May I?” She nodded towards the milking stool. Heath granted her request with a bob of his head. “Well, I must be perfectly honest with you, Heath: I’m not sure exactly what to do. I know where we are, what we’re working towards. But how to get there has me puzzled and I want to know what you think. Where do you see yourself? Where do you want to be at the end of this mess? What’s the best way to get there? Can you tell me?”
“I’ll try, ma’am, Mother, I’ll try.”
The tremor in his voice was analyzed by Victoria immediately: he’s tired; he’s frightened; he’s afraid to open up. What scares him about talking about himself. Is it that he fears we’ll turn our backs on him once we know his past? Does he think that talking will bring it back or that he’ll never see an end to it? Is it Bentell? Is it that I’m pressing him to let out years of pain, and embarrassment and hurt? Could he be ashamed? He would feel that way. But I should not discount so quickly the other possibilities. No, that would not be wise at all.
“Right now, I think––I think––think I’m at the end of my rope. I-I don’t know what to do an-anymore. I just. I just want an end. I want it to-to be over. Once and for all. Over and done with.”
“Well, that’s a start. Tell me, and take as long as you need, but I need you to tell me what you think of Matt Bentell.”
He almost shivered once at the name. “God, I hated him! When I was there a month I hated him for what he did to me. His g-guards did what they wanted with us. Didn’t take too long to find out heroes don’t last, an’ it wasn’t a easy lesson, n-neither. I used to watch him, you know? Watch ‘im in that house. My mother worked her whole life an’ never moved out of tha’ cottage, an’ there they’d giv’n it to ‘im while he put his stamp on papers with our deads’ names an’ watched while that whip stung. God, I nev’r whipped an animal after that. Never, I swear it.
“But I don’t know anymore. I watched ‘im. Ya know, important people used to visit still, ‘fore things got too bad. I saw how little leftovers there were an’ saw they di’n’t have a whole lot more’n us. An’ today, when I saw ‘im, an’ he saw me, he wa’n’t there hating me. I think he felt guilty. F-funny how diff’rent he seems.” Heath stopped talking for a few moments and the others absorbed his words.
“Nick, who’s Jack?”
“Yeah, ya know the friend you said was..there?”
“Oh, right. Jack was Jack Perkins. He, he was the battalion C.O. He kinda kept an eye out for me, showed me the ropes. Had all sorts of sayin’s. I remember he said once, ‘I bin through a lotta battles, but I hope I fall once I forget how I got through ‘em.’ He was captured in ‘64; up at the front givin’ some water to a fella. Saw him get taken but there wasn’t anything I could do. Heard after the war he’d died at..at Carterson.” He took a deep breath.
“I knew him. He’s the one who told me to change my prayer from, ‘Lord, get me the hell outta here,” to, ‘Lord, please get me the heck outta here.’”
“Yep, that’s Jack alright,” Nick chuckled
“Ya know, he took another man’s beatin’. That’s how he died.”
“What happened to the man?” Victoria asked.
“He starved to death ‘bout a month ‘fore the cavalry came. At the time, I figured ‘what a waste’. I didn’t know any better, just that I missed a good friend. And a good man.”
“He surely was. He most surely was,” said Nick.
“Did he ever speak to you about after the war, Heath?” Victoria asked.
Heath was silent, obviously thinking back into troubled memories.
“Yes, I think he did.”
“What did he say?” she prodded further.
“I think he said… What was it he said? Oh, yeah. He said…he said, ‘Ev’ry man has to make peace with himself and his own evils before the war’ll be over.’ I hadn’t thought of that in years, Mother. Ya think it’s true?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“B-but how? I don’t know where to start.”
“Well, I think I have an idea but I don’t know what you’ll think. Meet Bentell. Near the corral, a lot of open space. You don’t have to say anything. You said yourself he was a victim, too. He won’t do anything to you, we’ll be nearby if you need us, and you can leave when you want to. Will you do it?”
Heath sat silently for several prolonged moments. He looked up at Nick who nodded. “I’ll, I’ll do it.”
“Mr. Bentell, I think you should do it. Let both of you see each other for who you really are, not what war made you appear to be. Will you do it?”
Bentell looked at his wife who inclined her head slightly. “Yes, Mrs. Barkley, I will.”
The rest of the family and Lucinda stood on the front porch of the mansion and gazed towards the corral. Heath was already there, standing and staring at a stallion they’d brought in a few days before. He hadn’t been worked on yet and was antsy, pawing the ground and rearing up on his hind legs every so often. Bentell approached quietly and stopped once fencepost down from where Heath was. They both stared silently.
The boy beside him had suffered in that camp, that sinful, evil place. Had he caused all that pain? He had tried so hard to guarantee fair treatment. He had tried to stop what he could but it was harder to control the guards than it was the prisoners. He could not have done other than he did. A burden lifted and hovered––would the boy, the former prisoner, the man, see the truth? Was that evil lurking near again, baying, trying to snatch the last chance he, both of them, had for peace? I won’t fear any longer. I must act now to stop this…………
”Magnificent animal. You folks catch a lotta horses ‘round here?”
“Yep. Got some mares who’ll be right happy to see this fella once he’s broke.”
The silence returned. Bentell held out his hand. Heath turned and studied Bentell.
There he stood before him; no tattered gray for clothes, no insignia on his shoulders with those golden tassels. No sword, not even a gun. No superior bearing. He stooped some with weariness and age, and Heath realized he was familiar with this posture and not the ramrod straight figure that plagued him with nightmares. That was a different thing, a fearsome evil, and this was a man. A man. A man. We’re both just men. Just men who were stuck in that hell-hole, that pit, that evil. “And I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…….” (from Psalm 23).
He reached out and grasped the hand strongly.
Thank you for reading.