Lost and Found (by Nzie)

Summary:  Bonanza characters appear in this story
Category:  Crossover (The Big Valley/Bonanza)
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  28,000


My first, humble attempt at a BV story (at least written down ) I’ve read many of the stories and love them all. I’ve been inspired by several different stories. Hope nobody minds the elements I’ve incorporated. In this story, Heath is the son of Tom and Victoria.

This is a story of a journey, the pilgrimage of a man and a family. It is often said that the ends justify the means. In fact, the ends and the means can never be separated, for the means defines the end. This story tells of its end through its means. These are defined by the pilgrimage.

 

Prologue

“Son!” cried the man whose years had suddenly ceased to burden him. He stopped short and called out again that happy word. “Son!”

“Yeah, pap–papa?’ The young man stood astonished at the words leaving his mouth. He turned and saw the familiar stranger, and his knees buckled as the oceans of time crashed against him and the memories flooded back like the closing of the Red Sea. Father Time had not yet finished and stood still while they drank in the sight of each other. On unsteady limbs the younger reached his feet again and the older looked into the eyes that stared back from the form of a man.

*****

Part I – Lost and Found

Summer 1854

Leah Thompson rose early that morning as she had so many mornings. After dressing, she went to fetch some eggs from the small coop out back. She jumped back in surprise to discover a small boy asleep on her back porch. She saw the rings under his eyes and slipped quietly past him to make her daily journey to the poultry. When she returned, he had awoken and was stretching. He saw her and backed away a bit.

“Don’t worry,” she said, trying to calm his fears. “How would you like to have breakfast?” He looked hungry, but stubbornly refused. “All right, suit yourself. I was about to make some eggs, but I guessed your not interested. I have more than enough. I was hoping that they wouldn’t go to waste.” Reluctantly, the boy agreed. She decided to question him while cooking.

“What’s your name, son?” she asked softly.

“Heath, ma’am,” he answered quietly.

“Heath what?” she pressed. “Do you have a last name?”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” came the soft reply.

*****

The Ranch

Victoria gazed intensely at the fire place. What if they don’t find them, she asked herself, or what if they’ve killed him? Their third child had been gone for almost two weeks. They’d left the ransom money and trailed the collector when their little blond boy had not been returned. Tom was becoming explosive in his manner and slight disturbances set him off.

Jarrod was, at sixteen, trying so hard to be a man. Nick was terrified that Heath would never come back and wouldn’t let himself be ten as he refused all consolation. Audra wondered why her playmate was gone; the three- and six-year-old were buddies because neither had been of school age until this year.

*****

Tom had been riding posse for two days, and this third was the first that showed any promise. They were nearing mining country, an area he was only vaguely familiar with from his holdings in the area. It was so sparse that he was learning to hate the area that seemed to have swallowed his little son.

“Tom! Come look at this,” came a hushed call. He moved swiftly and silently. It was fresh tracks; they’d hit pay dirt.

“These are new,” he said. “We’re gonna hafta be careful we don’t let them know they’re caught or they might hurt Heath.”

“Sheriff,” began Deputy Fred Madden, “Do you think we oughtta split when we come up on ‘em so we can get the jump?”

“He’s got a point, Tom,” Sheriff Dave Porter stated. “’Sides, it goes along with what you said about protecting your little fella.”

“Yeah,” Tom replied, trying to convey the appreciation he did feel but couldn’t present. “You keep thinking like that and you’ll put old Dave here outta a job,” he added with a gentle smile. Fred beamed.

The group continued riding. Forty-five minutes later they came upon the kidnappers. They waited till after dark before calling into camp that they were surrounded. The criminals put up a fight but were at a disadvantage. One of the posse was grazed on the arm and another took a crease to the calf. The thieves didn’t fare so well. Of the five, two were killed and another not expected to live. The other two had surrendered.

“WHERE IS MY SON?!!” Tom shouted as he grabbed one of the captives and pushed his face forcefully against a wall of rock. “YOU HEARD ME, WHERE IS HE?!!! TELL ME NOW!!!!!”

“Calm down, Tom!” Dave commanded. “Now you hear me boy, and you listen good. You better tell us where that little boy is!”

“I don’t ken––”

“Filthy liar!” Tom started. “Why, I oughtta––”

“Hold it! Now start again. Where is Heath Barkley?” Dave interjected.

“I told y’all, I don’t know.”

“Explain yourself, son.”

“Sheriff, that kid was nothin’ short of trouble. He made it hard for us in every way he could. Finally, Colt lost it and knocked him out hard. He stayed that way for a long time and I got worried. When he woke up, he didn’t give us no more trouble, so’s it seemed like no harm done, right? Anyways, one night he got them ropes off his hands. He disappeared. We ain’t seen ‘im since, even though we tried to find ‘im. He plumb disappeared. Sorry ‘bout your kid, mister. I don’t mean ‘im no harm.” Tom’s face crinkled in disgust and he was about to resort to further violence when he remembered himself and his values.

“Where did you lose him?” he asked through gritted teeth.

“Just a few miles back. There’s lots places he could hide. He’s sure to come out when he hears his pa calling’.”

They tied their captives and buried the three who had died. It seemed unjust to Tom that the men who had taken Heath had been buried while his son could be rotting in a cave. Heavy-heartedly, he continued his search.

What if they never found him? What if he had been seriously hurt? What if he was dead? What if they never knew? It was his fault. He was the boy’s father–his father. He was responsible. He was accountable. He was to blame–he was the reason for Victoria’s tears, for his children’s wails, for his own pain. He was the reason, and nothing would be the same.

*****

In Strawberry

“Rachel, what should I do?” Leah asked. “He doesn’t know where he’s from, or anything besides his first name. He’s bruised, got a small bump on his head, and he’s tired and hungry. I can’t turn him out, but I don’t want his family to think he’s dead. He needs them. You can tell by that sad walk and downtrodden face. What can I do?”

“Calm down, Leah,” replied her patient friend. “We’ll take care of him. Meanwhile, we’ll have to put advertisements in the neighboring towns. He couldn’t be from too far away. We’ll put in a description and his first name. If no one responds, we’ll have to put him in a––”

An orphanage? Never! Too many children, too little food, too much sorrow. No, that could not happen to him as well. Another boy had been in an orphanage and she would not let Heath suffer the same fate.

“I won’t put him in an orphan asylum. Never!”

“Now, I know you had some bad experiences, Leah, but be reasonable. They’ve made great progress in the last few years.”

“Rachel,” Leah began, “I just can’t do that to another child. Hopefully, his family will see the paper and come to get him. And if they don’t, well, I will just have to take him in.”

Rachel sighed. “I guess there’s no changing your mind. Why don’t we go back to your house. I’d like to meet this mysterious little gentleman who’s captured your heart in so short a time.” Leah smiled at her friend and they left.

*****

Tom had searched the area where the kidnapper had said they lost Heath twenty times, and it wasn’t even noon. The posse had looked on at this driven man and felt his sorrow permeating the air, indeed, their very breaths. How can I face Victoria if I don’t find him? he thought. Or Nick. Or Jarrod. Or Audra. How can I?

*****

Back at the ranch…

Victoria rose early, hoping that the day would see her son returned. It was quarter to six and she saw the hand starting their day. She was worried about Tom, too. He would feel responsible. She saw a horse coming town the road to the house. She watched the rider, the sun at his back, and she recognized the horse. She scrambled into clothes and ran down the stairs to meet him. Standing on the front deck, the door behind her wide open, she saw that he was alone. And wept.

*****

It had been a week since Tom had returned empty-handed and heavy-hearted. Victoria was experiencing the same sorrow that Tom was, but felt him pulling away. The family ached inside. She knew she had been luckier than most women to have had only one still-born child. Many of the area families had buried several babies right after birth. But although she had been very sad then, losing little Heath ached more. Every woman knew there was a bad chance of her baby not living long after birth. It may seem cold-hearted, but it was so common that they prepared themselves for the worst with every pregnancy. A heart might not break so much if it were already bent half-way. She was angry with God now. How could He take her sunshine-boy now? How could He let Tom withdraw when she needed him most? Victoria knew that it wasn’t God’s fault all these things were happening, but couldn’t He have stopped it? She knew the answer, but still she cried out loudly, “God, must you be so just?!”

Tom gazed longingly at the bottle. Oh, how he would like to lose himself in it! He had lost Heath, so why shouldn’t someone as worthless as himself get lost, too? He was angry with himself. He knew Victoria was, too. She seemed so broken-hearted every time he looked at her. He blamed himself for that, too. How he wanted to take that pain from her eyes! He noticed her sadness in everything she did, and despised himself for being the cause. Even the way she polished the silver seemed mournful.

Tom decided to apologize and offer her an annulment. He walked to the door of his room just as Victoria cried out to God and wept.

“Free will took my son, and free will won’t bring him back!! Did you have to call my son now?! I can’t even know if he’s dead and buried properly, or alive and well. You lost your son, don’t you remember how it hurts? How that gnawing pain comes in the night to haunt Your dreams, and stays into the day so that every task holds a painful memory? Don’t, dddon’t you remember at all to save a someone else from that? I can’t even feel happy anymore, because I don’t know if my son is able to be happy. And now my husband hates me, oh God. It’s all my fault and he knows it. We’ll never be the same. He can barely live in the same house as me, let alone be in a room with me. He- he––”

“He is so sorry that he has been so cruel,” Tom said quietly. Victoria sat stunned that he had heard her lamentations. “Torie––”

“Tom, I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. I should have––”

“Shh, shh,” he cooed gently, looking deeply into her tear-streaked face. “There, there. It’s not your fault. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I’ve been getting arrogant and too prideful of what we’ve accomplished. This must be God’s way of punishing me.”

“Thomas Barkley, you stop that blasphemy!” Victoria snapped angrily. “I’m mad at God, but I know it isn’t his fault or his justice. But why? Oh, Tom, I don’t blame you. But you blame me, and I know I’m at fault. Tom, I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me? I can’t forgive myself unless you’ll forgive me. Can you, Tom? Can you forgive the woman who let your son be stolen?”

“Can I forsake my wife who could not stop it? Oh Torie, oh my poor, dear Victoria. It’s not you fault that H-H-Heath was taken. Forgive you? There is no need. But I ask you to forgive me for not being there for you. I forgot that I am not the only one who’s hurting. Come on, I know our family has been broken, but I also know we can be fixed. I’m so sorry for deserting you. Let’s try, Sweetheart.”

“Thank you, Tom. We’ve all been hurt. We can put the pieces back together, Tom, I know we can,” was Victoria’s reply as they embraced.

*****

Leah’s House, Strawberry

Leah sighed. Today was the day she had put in her advertisement for a family to claim Heath. Several had come, other children brought along, clothed well in attempts to hide their thinness. One man had come straight out to offer to take the child, but, despite his seemingly good intentions, she couldn’t let him take Heath. She had to admit she had become quite fond of him, and knew he liked her as well. She was worried that his family might be dead and couldn’t come for him, or that he might start to feel unwanted.

From her own experiences in an orphanage, Leah was skeptical that it would be the best place for him. She knew what it had done to her older half-brother, Matt Simmons. Oh, how bitter he is! she thought to herself. Leah had heard about the modern theories and practices that orphan asylums had begun to implement, and she knew that several of the workers had been kind to her. But she had missed deeply the sense of family that disappeared when so many were melded together. She wouldn’t let that happen to Heath. It was one thing to have many kids in the same family; it was another to have a lot of kids from different families, all hurting, with many similar in age, together, especially with the food shortages. She realized she might have shortages, too, but she was willing to work extra hours to try to avoid it.

“Heath,” Leah began, “it looks like we can’t find your family. So, you have a choice. You may go to a home for orphans, or you may stay with me. You may think it over for a while if you’d like.”

“Miss Leah? I think I’d like ta stay with you, ma’am, if that’s all right. I don’t cotten to the oth’r idea ‘bout an orphanage,” Heath replied quietly.

“To be quite honest, Heath, darlin’,” she drawled, “neither do I.”

“Ma’am, do you have ‘nuff money?” he asked. “Sorry for asking, know it’s none uh my bizness. I’m going to cost you something to keep, and I’m not sure if you’d have ‘nuff.”

“Now, now. Y’all just let me worry ‘bout that.”

“Can’t, ma’am, wouldn’t be right. I can get me a job here. I think I saw some boys workin down ‘cross town. I can do it.”

“He right, Miss Leah,” came a voice.

“I know, Hannah,” Leah replied, “But I don’t want ‘im in the mines, least not yet. He’s only bin hear a week.”

“What ‘bout the livery?” asked Rachel, who had come in with Hannah. “Ya like horses, son?”

“Yes, ma’am. I love ‘em.”

“Well, Leah, that solves your problem. Seems like a bright boy, and old Mr. O’Henry’s mentioned he needs some help. We can bring Heath over an’ talk ta him this afternoon.”

Leah realized she’d lost, but knew it was probably what would keep both their bellies full, and so she acquiesced.

Later that Day–At the Livery

“Hello, Miss Rachel, Miss Leah, what can I do fer ya?” asked Connor O’Henry. “And who’s this young fella?”

“This is Heath, Connor,” said Rachel. “Heath, this is Mr. O’Henry.”

“How do you do, Sir?” Heath asked, knowing that his opportunity to work with horses hinged on what this man thought of him. He nervously extended his hand.

“Boy howdy, I’m fine. How’d ya come ‘cross this ‘un, Leah? He th’ one ya found on yer porch?”

“Yes, sir, he is,” answered Leah, glad that O’Henry seemed so open to the boy. “In fact, Heath is the reason we are over hear. So far, we haven’t been able ta find his family, and I have decided ta keep ‘im
with me. However, we find ourselves a bit short on capital, an’ knowin’ how you’ve mentioned needing a bit of help, we thought this might work to both our advantages. He’s a good boy, well-behaved and ready ta follow directions. He says he likes horses.”

“Alrighty then, ladies. I think you look good enough, boy, but I wanta make sure th’ horses like ya. See that mare in the corral? Well, she won’t hurt ya none. Whyn’t ya go in an’ have a chat.”

“Yessir,” replied Heath. He ducked into the corral and walked right up to the horse. He knew that he couldn’t afford to be nervous, aware that horses can sense it in a person. A three feet away from her, he stopped gently and spoke softly to her. Outside, Leah and Rachel nervously waited, wondering if their gamble would prove true. Both women feared the effect of the mine. O’Henry was impressed, though his face remained solidly uncommitted. He noticed that Heath didn’t take his directive as most other boys would, interpreting it to mean to go and make the horse walk with them. Heath had gone and talked to her, and the mare came and nuzzled his shoulder.

“Alright, boy. Ya can come back here now!” Connor called to Heath. To the women he said, “Boy howdy. We only seen a tiny bit of’t now, but ya just wait uh few years ladies, an’ you’ll see how he grows. Well boy, yer hired. Ya can start this afternoon if ya like. What’d ya think?”

“That’d be great! I mean, yes, Sir!”

“Alrighty then, let’s get ta work!” Connor laughed.

*****

At the Ranch

The heat was rising already, even though it was just past dawn. July was living up to its record and then some. Nick thought of last summer, when Father had taken the boys to his secret swimming hole. Nick and Heath had vowed to their father that they would discover where it was, even though Tom had blindfolded them to add to the mystery. His sleeve took a beating as he viciously wiped the tears that flowed unsanctioned down his face as he sat in the loft. He looked down and, seeing his mother,
scooted back till he was out of sight and against the bales of hay.

Victoria had seen Nick; in fact, she’d seen him up there many times the past few weeks. Too many times. Propriety be damned, she thought. Then she pulled the back of her skirt in between her legs and up to her belt, where she tucked it in before ascending the ladder. Nick glared at her as her top half became visible. As her legs emerged, however, he was only able to control himself for a minute before his giggles spilled over and flooded the room.

“I must look quite silly,” laughed Victoria. “I wonder what Mrs. Castlegate would say.”

“I know, Mother! She, she’d say ‘Victoria, I never expected such crude behavior from someone of your social standing.’” At his last thought, another wave of laughter came upon them.

“Yes, she probably would!” she agreed. “Oh, Nicky, it’s so nice to hear that laugh of yours again!” Hearing this remark, Nick suddenly became sullen again. Victoria watched this abrupt transformation with sadness. Somehow, this child had gotten it into his head that he wasn’t supposed to be happy!

“What’s wrong, Nick?”

“Nothin’, Mama.” He only called her Mama when something was bothering him.

“Don’t you ‘Nothin’, Mama’ me. Out with it!” Upon his silence she added, “I suggest you tell me. I’ll wait here all night if I have to. Come on!”

“But Mother, I––I,” he paused we he saw the Yes you can-look on her face, then surrendered. “Mama, we get punished when we do bad stuff, right?” She nodded before he continued. “Well, I figure God’s punishing me ‘cause I got so much and I’m too happy.” There; it was out.

“Oh, Sweetheart! That’s what you’ve been carrying around! Oh, Nicky, its not your fault! God isn’t punishing you! God loves us and wants us to be happy! He doesn’t do things to make us sad; people do! And you know what?”

“What?”

“Your father thought the same thing! Now, why would God want to make us hurt so? He wouldn’t, would he? Don’t worry Nick, we’ll be alright.”

“But Mother,” he began painfully, “it hurts so much. I miss him.” By this time, both their eyes resembled waterfalls.

“I know, Nick, I know.”

“I’d like ta think he’s still here. He loves–– loved the ranch. Do ya hear him, Mama?”

“Yes, Nicky,” she replied softly, “I hear him.”

*****

“Torie,” Tom began. “I’ve been thinkin’”

“I warned you about that,” she teased. “What is it?”

“Well, these past few weeks have been quite hard on us as a family. And, well, I thought perhaps it’d be best if we left home for a while. Just a few weeks, until the boys need to be back in school. I realize it’s short notice, but we could go visit your folks back in Pennsylvania if ya’d like.”

“Slow down! Goodness gracious, I haven’t even said ‘no’ and you’re trying to persuade me to change my mind.”

“What do you think, Torie?” he asked in earnest. “Have you decided?” Victoria hadn’t been too sure about anything recently; now he wanted an answered. She remained silent for a few moments. He seemed like he needed the rest, she knew she herself probably needed it, and their children did, too. Still unsure, she gave her consent. They would wire her parents and leave on the next east-bound train.

*****

Strawberry

Heath worked well for Connor, and the old man taught him everything he knew about life. Eventually, Heath had to work in the mines and Matt Simmon’s hotel. The dying town’s prices had skyrocketed and the income Leah and Heath both brought in was barely enough. But still, every evening after work, Heath and Connor would sit on the latter’s porch steps and talk. Even though they were both quiet by nature, with Heath’s increased due to drowsiness from his jobs and responsibilities, for a good fifteen minutes they would make conversation on life and the town. Connor tried to get the boy to confide in him what happened at the hotel, but he was adamant in his silence. On slow days, they’d spend their time with the elder tutoring his pupil in horsemanship, craftsmanship, riflery, and the skills of a wrangler.

Strawberry was a dusty old mining town. A few settlers had found a bit of gold a few years back, but most of the ore now was silver, if that. Heath listened to the old miners talking and heard them saying it was running dry. They’d exhausted just about every possibility for new veins. Strawberry didn’t have much to offer a boy like Heath, or most other boys, for that matter. In the six years he’d lived there, he’d come to love dearly Leah, Rachel, Hannah, and crotchety Mr. O’Henry. The schools were poor and most boys left around fifth or sixth level to work anyways. Girls didn’t need any education past that age as far as the town was concerned. Limited though it was, Strawberry held one treasure for Heath: the library. A benevolent mine-owner with a ranch to the south had decided to bestow a collection of books upon the little town.

Once every two weeks, on his day off from the mine, Heath would take out books. He was teased for always having a book with him. He’d read whenever he could. At lunch breaks, in the horses’ stalls, walking home. He read anything he could get his hand on. Leah was pleased, but Hannah was overjoyed. As someone who was illiterate, she held a love of the printed word foreign to many who could read. With her encouragement, Heath eventually began to take out books on foreign languages. Latin interested him and he pursued it as much as he could, though he didn’t have much time. Hannah also pushed him to memorize Bible verses, which he recited to her faithfully every Sunday. Sometimes at night, he gazed up at the stars and wondered who else did the same.

*****

Tom thought back to the Strawberry mines. He hadn’t been there since before Heath was taken. He never wanted to see that filthy piece of earth, that rabid dog that had torn his son from him so heartlessly, so cruelly, so unforgettably. He had learned to move on, but he could not go there again, could not bear witness to his own, dreadful burden. He gazed out his window at the night sky. Yes, he would tell Williams to sell his holdings; he had kept them long enough.

*****

Part II- Proud Young Valor

Jarrod had finished college at age twenty. At twenty-two, he was almost ready to begin his apprenticeship at a firm. The end of classes was nearing and the weather was just beginning to warm. Jarrod missed the warmth of the valley in mid-April. Boston’s winter had been milder than usual; but, then again, that didn’t say much. It’s the ides today, he thought. Wonder if it’s an omen. He was worried about the situation at Fort Sumter. There’d been a stand-off for the past few days, and it
seemed as if war was inevitable. He decided to take an afternoon walk across the Charles River into the city. He walked into the early evening, and eventually made his way to Quincy Market. Out of nowhere, a telegraph operator appeared and stood on a crate.

“WE’RE AT WAR!” he shouted. “Ft. SUMPTER’S SURRENDERED. LINCOLN’S CALLED FOR SEVENTY THOUSAND TROOPS!”

“What’s that now?”

“Hear that, Billy?”

“Sure did! You aimin’ to join up?”

“Yep. There’s a rebellion to put down! I’ gonta shoot some seceshes!”

All around him was an energy like a pulse. It seemed to radiate from the hearts of all in the mob. All reflected the different aspects of what was to become one of the bloodiest conflicts the world had ever seen. The men cheered like the marching drums. The little boys joined them as the whistle of fifes. The mothers, wives and daughters put on brave faces as their sorrow played taps. Jarrod was unsure of what he should do. Growing up with an escaped slave had shown him that one man should never own another. Some men at one side broke out singing John Brown’s Body. Quakers began singing “Amazing Grace” on the other.

“Jarrod!” cried a voice belonging to a young man who was trying to reach him and had jumped up. “Jarrod, what do you think of it? Isn’t it somethin’?”

“Calm down. Yeah, it sure is something. What are you doing here? Don’t you have exams tomorrow, Henry?”

“There you go again, always the worrier. I’ve already studied. Besides, you know me. I’m always where the action is. I think I’ll take exams in the morning, and take arms in the afternoon. What ‘bout you? You going to sign up? If they’ll take me, they’ll take you. You helped on your father’s ranch, right? You can get back into work pretty quick, I bet. Of course, my cousin in the army says there’s lots of staff officers, so we might be put there, seeing as we’re educated. Or, rather, you’re educated and I feign it well. So, what do ya think? You in?”

“I’m surprised you haven’t signed my name already,” joke Jarrod. “I’m not sure, though. Volunteers for three months? If it’s going to be over so quickly, why even bother? I don’t think it’ll be over as quick as all that. I wonder if the news has reached Stockton. Henry, I’m just not sure. I’ll have to think on it.”

“Jarrod, Jarrod, Jarrod. Don’t you ever do anything because it’s in your bones?” questioned Henry. “By God, Jarrod! How can you get those abolitionist papers and not be willing to join the war? I know, I know. You’d like to inform me that the war is not about slavery. Mark my word, it isn’t today, but it will be. You watch. Old Abe’ll set them free. Jarrod Barkley, if you don’t enlist you’re turning your back on everything you’ve stood for. You’ll be the only crusader ever to refuse to fight for his cause. You’ll be––”

“I surrender! Goodness gracious, you ought to work for the War Department! Lincoln’d have his seventy thousand in twenty minutes! Are you sure you don’t want to run for Congress? Meet you at City Hall
tomorrow, say three?”

“Sounds fair. ‘M proud of you, Jarrod, m’boy. You’ll be glad of it. You might not think so now, but you’ll be glad. ‘Til then, goodnight.”

*****

Stockton, the Next Day

Stockton had calmed down a bit from the rancor the day before. Tom left Nick loading supplies to check the telegraph office. His mind told him that Jarrod would stay out of the conflict, but his heart knew otherwise. Similarly, his heart knew that Nick was just itching to get into it. Sixteen-year-old fool, he thought.

“Howdy, Tom!”

“Hey, Bill! Got any messages for me?”

“One’s comin’ through right now. Let me get it and I’ll be right with you. Hey, it’s from Boston! Maybe it’s Jarrod.” Bill’s change of expression did not escape unnoticed by Tom. Bill handed him the wire.

STOCKTON, CALIFORNIA
TOM BARKLEY, THE BARKLEY RANCH

DEAR FATHER:
I’VE NO DOUBT THAT STOCKTON IS AWARE OF THE CALL TO ARMS. SIR, I HAVE ANSWERED THAT CALL. I HOLD FIRM BELIEF IN THIS CAUSE, AND YOU WILL BE UNABLE TO ALTER MY DECISION. BY TIME RECEIVED, I WILL HAVE SIGNED PAPERS AND PICKED UP THE MUSKET. I ASK YOUR FORGIVENESS AND MOTHER’S.

YOUR SON,
JARROD BARKLEY

*****

A Few Weeks Later, At the Ranch

Nine year old Audra watched Nick. He sat on the rise overlooking the valley with his knees drawn up to his chest and his chin resting on them. She knew what was bothering him, and she knew that no one had been able to talk to him about it. Not only was Jarrod’s telegram a shock, but the ranch’s duties refused respite and had to be tended to. But today, a breezy, lazy Sunday afternoon in May, she’d followed him. He murmured for her to leave when she dismounted, but his advice was left unheeded. She quietly took her place beside him, remaining silent for several minutes.

“It’s okay, Nick,” she began.

“What’s okay?!” he began angrily. “What do you know of it?”

“More than you think, Nick Barkley!” she retorted, surprising both of them. “I know that you want to run off and fight. And I know you miss Jarrod and, and Heath.” Her last remark cut him to the quick.

“Well, neither of them is here, so Nicolas Jonathan Barkley, I guess this job falls to me. Jarrod is grown up; you are not. Don’t tell me you are. I know you finished school last year and you help run the ranch. You are sixteen years old. Nobody thinks you’re a grown up yet because you don’t act like one. A grown up would think ‘bout how Mother feels. Jarrod just up and joined a war. We don’t even know if he’ll ever come home again.”

By now, tears were streaming down her face. He turned, looking at her kneeling beside him, her golden hair flowing in the breeze. Silently, they embraced. Nick spoke softly, comforting her.

“Shh, shh. There there,” he said. “I know everyone’s upset; I just want to help so bad. I’ll make a deal with ya, okay?”

“What deal?”

“I won’t run off and join up right now. But if the war is still goin’ two years from now, I’ll be eighteen and I can go if I want, but I promise I’ll wait for now. Okay?”

“’Kay,” she answered softly. He picked her up and placed her on her horse. Then he mounted up and they rode home together.

*****

Strawberry, Spring of 1863

The streets were dusty. They hadn’t ever been grand, but they’d looked mostly clean. The walks were dirty, the store windows were sparsely supplied. The only three places people could be found were church on Sundays, the mines and the saloon the rest of the week. Strawberry was dying, but she was working herself up to it. And she wasn’t the only one.

He had a stiff back, sore arms, and a deep pain in his gut. He’d been forced to take to his bed for two weeks. The boy came and worked faithfully, coming afterwards for their customary talk. But the old man knew, and he also knew the boy did. Connor O’Henry had spent many years on earth and was satisfied. But knowing Heath he wished for a few more.

Heath was like a grandson to him, the one his daughter hadn’t live to have. He realized what his death would do to the boy, but his efforts to forestall it had little effect. Then, one evening after work, Heath came and stayed only a few minutes before he covered his friend’s face with the quilt.

Leah watched Heath stare into the ground. She understood the loss he was feeling. At fourteen, he was burying one of his best friends. They walked back to her little cottage and sat on the porch where they’d first met. She sat waiting for him to talk.

“Aunt Leah,” Heath began. She waited. “The mine’s dyin’. Mr. O’Henry is dead. We don’t have enough money.”

“Yes, go on.”

“Mr. Simmons doesn’t need any help because there’s no one to dirty anything. We need money and there’s none to be had here. The way I figure it, the mine’s gonna run out soon or collapse from all the new veins they keep tryin’.” He paused. “Aunt Leah, I’ve decided to join up.” This shocked her.

“You, you can’t,” she began frantically. “They won’t take ya. Yer just a boy. I won’t let you. That’s final.”

“Ma’am, ya don’t have a choice. Nobody has money ta pay us. We got nowhere ta go. I hafta join up. I can get a bounty that’ll tie us over fine till I get m’ pay. They pay pretty decent for good shots, and I
know I kin do it. Ma’am, ya can’t stop me,” he said more gently. “I have ta go.” Leah realized that she was powerless.

She stood and softly kissed his cheek and hugged him. The sharpshooters were glad for such an excellent shot and were quite happy to look the other way when they handed him his supplies.

*****

Stockton, One Week Later

Audra knew he would go. He seemed restless, and she knew he was counting the days until his promise allowed him to go. She only had one more. She thought Mother knew it, too. The state of Nick’s socks seemed to be of utmost concern, and she added layers to them as she repaired them. Early the day of freedom, Audra got up and saw him sitting on the porch steps. She sat down beside him.

“You’re going today, aren’t you?” she asked timidly.

“Yep, I’m goin’,” Nick replied. “Thanks,” he added.

“For what?”

“For caring,” he began. “For respecting that I want to go. For letting me and not hating me for it. For being my little sister.” He was a bit embarrassed that he’d let it out, but not ashamed. She hugged him.

“Don’t die, Nick,” she begged. “Please don’t die.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be alright. Just keep me and Jarrod in your prayers. God, Audra, you’re almost grown up now. You’re eleven. I can’t leave such a pretty little lady without any brother to protect her, now can I? I’d hate to see you unchaperoned.” His eyes twinkled.

“Aw, Nicky,” she giggled. He handed her an envelope.

“Will ya put this at Mother’s place just before breakfast?” he asked. She nodded and he left.

*****

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July Fourth, 1863

The bugler roused Jarrod to see the rolling hills around him be illuminated by the rising sun. The mist floated down between them and blanketed the fields and farms. The men in gray were hastily departing, the dead were beginning to rot, and the hospitals smelled of blood and gun powder. Such a bloody battle had not been seen before, but the effects had been seen many times too often. The cannon’s marks dotted the landscape. The crops were ruined by soldier feet. The bodies lay strewn about as photographers posed them for the public’s view. The smells of the hospital, gunpowder, and death filled the air and intermixed, joining with each other in testimony to the fighting of the last three days, testifying to the cruel loss of such youth and heroism.

Jarrod readied himself for what looked to be a day of gratefulness for being spared what he would see and those he would bury. He ignored the taste of the hardtack, known as sheet iron crackers. Instead, he thought about everything that had happened. He had signed three-year papers after his three-month volunteer contract ran out. He had know what he was getting into then, and had even had the same doubts. He knew that freedom was not cheaply bought, but the cost seemed too high to be right. His head told him it was his duty to stay. His heart told him it was his privilege. But he could not help but wonder what day would be his last. Or Nick’s for that matter.

He’d only gotten the letter a week ago that his brother was with Grant. Would he still think it worth the price if his brother was listed amongst the dead? The thought that he wouldn’t didn’t trouble him as he thought it would. He hoped that he could morn the stunted generation and fight for what he believed in, too.

*****

Part III-The Last Full Measure-1864

Nick’s unit had been transferred to the Army of the Potomac. It was a hot Virginia summer made hotter by the siege in progress. The town of Petersburg was caught between the ever lengthening lines of Generals Lee and Grant. Lines of trenches, those cold earth burrows lending a tangible sign of the beast aspect of war. They were something new to Nick, but not to the soldiers who had fought at Cold Harbor. Jarrod was there, he thought. And he was one of the lucky ones, not one of the seven thousand felled in the first twenty minutes. [i]But then, only the Rebs had real trenches; this time we do, too.[/i] Nick had been pestering for a leave since he found out the were being detached. He desperately wanted to see Jarrod. Well, today he would try again. This time he would bypass the executive officer and go right to the colonel. He was nineteen, he was cocky, and he was determined to see his brother.

“Colonel, there’s a lieutenant here to see you,” said the aide-de-camp.

“Lieutenant who? What does he want?” asked the colonel.

“Lieutenant Barkley, sir. Wants to ask for a leave.”

“Barkley. Alright, send him in.” The aide left and Nick entered a moment later. “You wanted to see me about a leave? Should have spoken to my executive officer.”

“Well, sir, I did speak to him. Been speakin’ to him and I haven’t got it yet. Thought maybe you’d be willin’ to give me it, sir.”

“What do you want it for?”

“Want to see my brother, sir.”

“He in the hospital?”

“No, sir. I haven’t seen him since Christmas of ‘60, sir, and I want
to––”

“To what, son? To make sure he’s real?” Nick nodded. “How old are you, Lieutenant?”

“Nineteen, sir.”

“Sorry you had to be in this thing, son. I’ll see to it you get your leave. You know what unit he’s with?”

“Yes sir, I know. Thank you, sir. And I’m not.”

“You’re not what?”

“Sorry to be in this thing, sir.” the colonel smiled.

“Well, I’m sorry for both of us. Give my regards to your brother, soldier.”

“Yes, sir. I will. Thank you, sir!”

*****

“Nick! My God, Nick! Where’d you come from?” asked an astonished Jarrod. He stood up from the circle he was sitting in and pulled Nick into an embrace.

“Hey Pappy! Didn’t you get my letter? My unit’s been transferred to the Army of the Potomac. I got a leave from the colonel to come see you.”

“Hey Captain, who’s this?” asked a friend sitting close by.

“This is my younger brother. Nick, these are some of my comrades. Here are Joe, Mark, Jeffrey, John, and this is Henry, the firebrand that got me into this mess to begin with. How are you? How’ve you been? Have you had any news from home?”

“Calm down, Jarrod! I’m fine. I’ve been fine. What makes you think the mail is any less messed up gettin’ to Tennessee? Just cus it’s closer doesn’t mean it gets there any faster. Gosh, you surely have let those bars on your shoulder get to your head!” The men laughed.

“Come on down here, boy,” invited Joe, at thirty-five the oldest in the group. “Jarrod, seems to me this boy has you all figured out. Seems a bit hot-tempered. How’d you two end up in the same family?”

“Sheer luck, Joe,” said Jarrod.

“Yeah, all of it bad!” Nick elbowed Jarrod jokingly. “Oh, by the way, Jarrod, seems our sister is getting mighty prophetic. She told me to give you a kiss from her when I saw you. Well, Audra sends you a kiss which you can collect from her at the end of the war. I’m certainly not playing middle-man for that one!” The men laughed again.

“Hey, you never told us about this sister. She a looker?”

“I got this one,” Nick whispered. Louder, he said, “She is quite pretty if I do say so myself. Long, golden hair, good figure, nice small frame, sweet, likes to do embroidery. Of course, she has her down sides, too. A bit whiny at times, a bit feisty, thinks she knows more than she does. I leave anything out, Jarrod? Oh; she’s twelve years old. A little jail bait, anyone?”

“You can all put your tongues back in your mouths now,” Jarrod laughed. “I don’t think Sweet Lady Audra will have callers for a few years yet.”

“Got any cousins?” someone piped up.

“Yes. Sadly, I forgot to introduce you. And we were so close to them, too. They’re all up in Pennsylvania, just outside Carlisle. With all that spare time the first three days of the month! Shameful.”

“I see you two are related,” said Joe. “Got the same sense of humor. You two better be careful ya don’t die laughin’ at each others’ jokes.”

*****

Evening

Jarrod and Nick sat together under a tree having finished their dinner of hardtack. The sun was setting and the air was cooling a little after a long, hot day. Jarrod and Nick both wanted to talk. They’d spent the afternoon joking with the guys, but now was their chance. The men had known and had backed off. All they needed now was to start.

“Jarrod,” Nick began. “Jarrod, how many battles you been in?”

“I don’t know. It’s been four years and I’ve seen a lot of action. Was at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor. Lots of smaller ones in between.”

“You seen how some guys get a feelin’, like they know somethin’s gonna happen?”

“I’ve seen it.”

“You ever get that feelin’?”

“No. Why? Did you get a feeling?” Jarrod asked with concern.

“No. Well, not exactly. I, I just got this sense that somebody’s hurtin’. Ya know what I mean? I figured that if you got a sense of somethin’ it’d be you. Not that that’d be good, but at least you’d know to watch out. It’s just so confusing.”

“I haven’t felt anything. Do you have a friend or someone it could be? Is there someone you’ve come to care for?”

“Nah. ‘Sides, it feels too close to be outside of the family. I hope everyone at home’s alright.” They were both silent for a few moments.

“Nick, are you okay?”

“Course I’m okay. I’m here, aren’t I?”

“I don’t mean physically, though it is a comfort. No; I meant are you okay about the war? You’re practically one of those boy-soldiers, you know. Are you alright with it?”

“I don’t know, Jarrod. Had a real close call last month. We were at the head of the column and I was leading the scouts. We near bumped right into a picket line. They fired a few shots and we ran back to report. One came so close I heard it whiz past my ear. Went into the shoulder of the man in front of me. He died the next day.”

“I’m sorry, Nick. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I know. Can’t help but wonder, though. Been thinkin’ a lot ‘bout Heath lately. He’d be fifteen a couple months ago. Sometimes, I feel like he’s alive. It feels so real and I think about what it woulda been like. Crankin’ ice cream together, teasing Audra, riding, runnin’ the ranch. God, Jarrod, I miss him so much sometimes. Oh, that felt so good to finally say it!”

“I understand, Nick. I miss him, too. Up at Gettysburg we were right in those hills, the same ones that our grandparents’ land is on. They still give me comfort like they did that summer. I know it’s strange, but sometimes I am so sure he’s alive. I don’t know why, but I get a urge to go look for him. And not just a fancy, a really strong desire.”

“I’ve had the same feeling. What if he is alive? No one ever found his body. He could be alive, couldn’t he? Maybe he’s in pain and that’s why I got a feeling. Gosh, Jarrod, what if he’s dying now because we didn’t find him before?”

“Hang on, Nick. He is dead for all we can be sure of. After the war, let’s go look for him. Maybe put some agency on it or something. And if they don’t find anything, we’ll look ourselves. We can’t leave the war, though. Yeah, Nick, you’ve got that look in your eye. I’ve had enough of it, too, but penalty for desertion is the firing squad. Well, what do you say, cowboy? You ready to arrange for a post-war partnership with a lawyer?” Nick smirked.

“I don’t know. You lawyers can get pretty sneaky. No, Jarrod, in all honesty, I think it would be a good idea. Shake on it?” Jarrod clasped Nick’s hand tightly and they shook.

*****

Carterson, Summer of 1864

The lash came down furiously and ripped at his back. Again and again and again it snapped. He’d been at the camp since the end of May, about two weeks after he decided he was fifteen. The crack the whip made gave just enough time to be petrified before it hit, vile thing. Heath had watched the other prisoners and learned how to take his mind away. Today, he was thinking about Hannah and the verses she read to him from the Bible. In particular, he was trying to remember one from the Book of Job. It was about the greatness of God and how he would soothe the wounds of the repentant. The last few verses came to mind: “Yet if there is an angel on his side as mediator, one out of a thousand, to tell a man what is right for him, to be gracious to him and say, ‘Spare him from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for him’–– then his flesh is renewed like a child’s, it is restored as in the days of his youth. He prays to God and finds favor with him, he sees God’s face and shouts for joy; he is restored by God to his righteous state.” (from Job 33). He looked up; Where are you, angel?

*****

January 1865

Heath looked longingly at the fields beyond the fences that held him captive. The night sky was full of stars and he laid on his back with his head out of the tent to gaze at them. They reminded him of Rosie. Twilight had been their time, the child warriors of his brigade. When the army encamped they’d meet at earliest convenience. His friendship with Rose was the deepest he’d ever had, and she was the only person to whom he would reveal his deepest thoughts. When he returned to his buddies he endure some playful banter that lasted only a few minutes. He appreciated it now, that they had understood without questioning, but his mind drifted back to Rosie and everything about her. But most of all, he remembered her laugh. That childish giggle that he loved was now his sustaining peace, staving off the darkness ever-lurking just beyond the limits of sanity. A gift of angels.

*****

The Barkley Mansion

Victoria Barkley sat at her kitchen table, put her face in her hands and wept. She cried for every burden she had carried. She cried for her sons. She cried for the silent holidays and the years without them. She cried for dreading every letter and every wire. She cried for the boys she rolled bandages for at the Ladies Auxiliary Society. She cried for her boys because they weren’t boys any longer. She cried for her daughter, living through such a tremendous war at such a tender age. She cried for every mother and wife of a soldier. She cried for her country and how it bled. She cried when she thought no one would see. She cried when she thought she was alone. But she wasn’t alone, and someone did see.

Audra watched her mother, whose beautiful, once dark hair was streaked with gray. She stood gripping the doorpost wondering what to do, frozen at the sight of her mother in tears. “Go to yer mama, Miss Audra,” came a whisper from behind her.

“But- but I don’t know what to say.”

“That don’t matter none. It’ll come to ya. Ya go on, now. Heed Ole Silas. Com’on, Miss Audra. Sometimes quiet is louder’n words. Get on now.”

“But,” Audra began her protest, only to be silenced by a raised finger. “All right, I’ll try. What’ll I say, Silas?”

“That’s a good girl. Don’t worry none, the Lawd’ll help ya what ya need to say. Jus’ ask the Lawd to help ya.”

Audra walked slowly to her mother and put her small arms around Victoria’s shaking shoulders, holding her tight. Victoria relaxed herself into her daughter’s grasp and returned her embrace. They remained for several minutes in silence.

“Are, are you all right, Mother?” Audra asked.

“Yes, sweetheart, I’m all right.” She began wiping away the tears haphazardly.

“ It’s all right to be frightened, Mother.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” She put her hands in her lap, trying not to wring them.

“Are you frightened?”

“Yes, Audra. I’m very frightened.” She wiped her eyes and tear streaked face.

“I am, too. But didn’t Father Reilly tell us to trust in God? He, he said to pray for an end. He said that even though bad things happen, God can help us. Right, Mother? Isn’t that what he told us?”

“Yes, that’s what he told us,” Victoria replied, smiling with pride. “I’m sorry you have to go through this war and comfort your mother. I’m all right now. I know to trust in God but I feel so, so overwhelmed sometimes. I feel like I should do more but it’s such a burden already. I’m sorry to be telling you this, Sweetheart. Sometimes I just feel like I’ll burst if I don’t get some of it out. It’s so much sometimes.”

“It’s all right, Mother. God’ll make sure we don’t lose anyone else. I pray for it every night.”

“I pray for it, too. But God isn’t the one shooting the gun and He won’t give Jarrod and Nick invisible armor. I pray for them to be safe but I pray more that His will be done, like in the Lord’s Prayer. You know what else I pray? I say a prayer of thanksgiving for such a wonderful family. For such a wonderful, courageous daughter.” They embraced.

*****

Appomattox, April 1865

 

Nick sat pondering the situation. A cease fire had been called and it was rumored that Generals Lee and Grant were discussing terms of surrender. The guns were silent, so, as had happened many times before, soldiers crossed lines to talk, swap news and stories, and trade. Most Confederates were bartering for food, as many had gone without it after their last supplies were captured. Northern soldiers were eager to trade for the tobacco that had been available only in limited quantities since the start of the war. No names were learned; all Union soldiers Billy Yank, all Confederates Johnny Reb’.

“Hey there, you. Billy Yank, y’all got some sheet-iron crackers?” a soldier in butternut called to Nick, breaking him from his thoughts.

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sure,” Nick replied, handing him some hardtack. “Say, where’re ya from?”

“’M from Georgia. An’ you?”

“California, not too far from Frisco.”

“That’s a long ways off. I never bin ta California. It as hot theah as it is heah? It’s hotter ‘n hell back home.”

“Yeah, it’s hotter at home but it doesn’t feel as hot ‘cause the air’s wetter here.”

“It can git very wet down heah. Want some tobacco?” Nick nodded and he handed it to him.

“Hey, Billy, this war ever strike ya as funny? I mean the fightin’ and all?”

“When I think ‘bout it it seems real funny. Here I am, sittin’ with ya and talkin’ with ya, but once you go back over that ridge I’ll be shootin’ at ya. Who knows? We mighta been friends. I like ya all right. We might be friends for now. We might hate each other.”

“I know what yur sayin’. But, Yank, we hate you. Y’all probably won’t make no friends next time ya visit our country. Only way that’ll happen is if we win, and even I can’t see that happenin’ now. Hell, I even like ya, but we ain’t gona be friends for a long time. We’ll be a bunch of enemies stuck together, unable to separate, unable to tolerate. You folks might want us back, but we ain’t gonna wanna be back. You folks’ll probably get us back, but we gonna fight it tooth ‘n’ nail. We showed y’all that the last four years and we’ll keep showin’ y’all that a hundred years after its over. An’ there ain’t nothin’ that cain be done ‘bout it.”

The soldier and Nick talked for a while more before returning to his own camp. But for Nick, the conversation didn’t end; for Nick, it lasted all through the night and in his dreams. He wondered if Johnny had been right. Would the animosity never end?

*****

Part IV-The Sons’ Return

Carterson, May 1865

 

The heat was rolling in again, making both weather and tempers hotter. Guards and inmates alike were losing control of their tempers and Heath was on an especially short fuse, his normal continence run down by ten months of hell. He knew he was going to snap back at a guard and would really get it. He just knew he couldn’t avoid it. He was just too tired to try to postpone it any more, even though he knew the price would be terrible. But he didn’t know just how bad it would be, leaving his imagination to fill in the gaps. He came close in how much it would be, but he didn’t go far enough or guess every method.

Heath picked a fight with Grenville, the worst guard in the whole camp. Grenville was in a worse mood than his victim as he assailed him with punches and kicks that seemed to last forever. To culminate this beating, Grenville put his foot on a nearly unconscious Heath’s mid-back and jammed his musket butt hard onto the base of Heath’s spine. Then he dragged him to the whipping post and whipped him harder than he had ever flogged someone before. The feeling had deserted Heath’s legs and he hung limply from the post, unable to support himself. Towards the end, Heath passed out from blood loss. He was left hanging there all day, his body broiling in the sun’s rays. Heath managed to awaken and remained lucid for the last two hours of sunlight, but he refused to utter a sound, not wanting to give Grenville the satisfaction of a moan. As he hung he renewed his commitment to survive. He would not give up. He would not be conquered. And if he was right and he couldn’t walk, he would walk again, no matter how long it would take. At dusk, a more sympathetic guard untied him and carried his thin frame to his tent. The guard was older with a son of about the same age and cleaned Heath’s wounds as gently and as best he could in the little time he had. He said a quick prayer before leaving a fevered Heath.

As he lay, his mind, clouded by pain and fever, began a frantic inquisition. Did Rosie really care for him, or had she been humoring a poor boy who might die the next day in battle? Why had he chosen to take the eighteenth place in the tunnel escape attempt that left the first sixteen death and the seventeenth wounded when the first place was his for the taking as it’s designer and a builder? Was his back broken? Would being killed in the tunnel have been better than living? Would he walk again? Would he ever be free?

*****

A Week Later

Friends had helped Heath march since the beating. He was sure now that his lower back had been fractured and while his legs were numb, his back caused him constant pain. An old hand at ignoring pain, he forced movement and was pulled around camp.

A cloud of dust arose in the distance, accompanied by the sound of hoof beats. As the cloud come closer, it became evident that it was full of men dressed in blue and was identifiable as the U.S. Cavalry. All prisoners were forced to their tents and the guards took defensive positions despite being unable to succeed. A dispatch rider detached from the main force and approached the camp under flag of truce. He spoke quietly to Col. Matthew Bentell. Then he turned to the silent camp and made an announcement.

“The war is over. All Confederate forces have surrendered. All wardens of this camp are hereby called upon to surrender arms peaceable and await parole as agreed upon under the terms of surrender. All prisoners: you are to report to the surgeon for a medical examination. All who are deemed fit will receive transportation to Washington, District of Columbia, and return to your units to wait for honorable discharge. All who are ill will be treated before receiving discharge. Those who can will walk to the hospital after collapsing their tents. All others are to wait in their tents to be found and transported. Once again, the war is over. You are free. The Cavalry’s seen to that, boys. You’re free! Welcome to these United States of America.”

He was propped up in his tent when he heard the announcement. Could it be true? Was he really free? His hopes were realized when a man in blue entered his tent several minutes later. “What have we got here? Didn’t you hear, boy? You’re free! Get up, now. You’ve got legs, don’t ya?” the friendly corporal asked.

“Not really,” came Heath’s answer in an accepting tone. The man looked
puzzled.

“What does that––” he began. “What did they do to ya, son?” he asked as the reality of the POW’s situation dawned on him.

“Butt of a gun. Lower back,” Heath gasped. “Think it’s broke.”

“When?”

“About a week ago.” The man shook his head, mourning the fact that a week could make such a difference.

“Well, then, guess I’ll take you ole the sawbones m’self. If I pick ya up can ya hold on?” Heath nodded. “Alrighty, then. Here we go. Let me know if it hurts– uh, if I’m hurting you. No, wait a minute. How ‘bout if it hurts more than usual? Goodness, I think I’d better shut my trap now before I mess up any more,” he said at Heath’s laughter. With that the large man scooped Heath up and carried him as gently as possible to the makeshift hospital being set up.

The hospital was both crowded and understaffed. Long rows of cots took up most of the space. An attendant frowned when he saw Heath and led them to an empty bed at the far end before hurrying to continue his rounds. His friend wished him well and left to get back to his work as well. Heath waited almost an hour and a half for a doctor before falling asleep for about three hours. The doctor arrived while he was slumbering
and began examining his back as gently as possible as Heath was sleeping stomach-down on the cot.

“Multiple whippings, one or more quite recently. Back appears to be fractured at the base of the spine. Well, hello there, young man,” the kindly doctor greeted. “I’m Dr. Whiting and I’m going to need your help to turn over and get a look at the rest of you. Think you’ll be all right if I lay you on your back?” Heath nodded groggily. “Good. Looks like you’ve had quite a time here. All right, then, easy over. Hmm. Some broken ribs, too. If I were you I’d ask this hotel for a refund. How long have you been here, son?”

“I think ‘bout ten months.”

“Well, then, you’ll have a pretty penny coming your way if they agree to it. Unfortunately, as I understand it the Confederacy is broke so you won’t be refunded after all. Now I’m going to turn you back and clean those welts. It’s going to hurt and I might have to cut away some of the old scar tissue. But I’ll take it slow and try to make it as easy on you as I possibly can. Your part of the bargain is that you must keep still. I don’t want to have to restrain you and I’m sure after your experiences here you don’t want to be restrained. Sound good? Excellent. By the way, son, what’s your name?”

“Private First Class Heath Thompson, 2nd Squad, 3rd U.S. Sharpshooters.”

“Well, Private Thompson, what do you know. I was in the same brigade as you. The 3rd gotten beaten up pretty badly around the time you were captured. Anyone you want to know about?”

“Do you know Rosie?!” Heath questioned, unable to control his excitement immediately. Dr. Whiting saw the look on Heath’s face and had a feeling he knew which Rosie it was the boy wanted. Of course, like many of older generations he decided to have some fun.

“Nurse Rose Flaherty. Average height, thin, dark hair, fair skin, smart, good sense of humor––” Heath stopped as he realized just how much he had said.

“Let me see now. Ah, yes. I do believe I recall a Nurse Flaherty with whom I was acquainted that matches your description. Let me think. Oh, she was the nurse who always went to the field during battles. She got wounded in February. Stray bullet hit her ankle. Not too much damage, just enough to keep her off her feet for a while. She’ll limp for a little while, but it’ll probably be fine otherwise. She kept tending the wounded for two hours after she was hit. Uh, that is, from what I heard. I helped take
care of her. Didn’t want to go home, either. Tough little lady.” Dr. Whiting was having more fun with truth than he ever thought possible.

“Where’s home?”

“I’m from Connecticut. Lovely little town on the coast called Mystic. I love the smell of the sea. It comes early on summer mornings an you can her the seagulls and watch the–– Wait a minute. Do you mean where Nurse Flaherty lives?”

“Yes. Not that I wasn’t going to ask about your home, too, sir.”

“Eh heh. Okay, then. Let me see. She lives out in one of those western territories. Colorado? No. California? Eh-eh. I’ve got it. She’s from Nevada.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. Just had to think it through a bit. Anyone else you want to know about?”

“None, sir. None that are alive.”

“All right, then. Let’s bind those ribs.” The good doctor continued to joke playfully with Heath to lessen the tension. Heath, however, was in his own world of nostalgia and plan-making for a future trip to Nevada. He briefly wondered how Dr. Whiting hadn’t known Rosie right off. He was, however, unaware of the good doctor’s thoughts. So that’s the boy Rose was so worried about, thought Josiah Whiting. Well, I guess I’ll
just have to make sure this boy gets well for her.

*****

Stockton, California, July 1865

The noon train pulled in to an empty station. Most of Stockton’s soldiers had returned during the two weeks previous. Only two passengers got off the train. Their once crisp officers’ uniforms were worn from battle and dusty from the trip. Each carried a haversack, an officers’ sword, and a standard-issue musket, the former most from the days of being in the rank and file. One had been wounded in the arm, shown by the red ribbon tied over it. Most did not recognize them; they were twenty-ish by appearance but seemed older from an intangible battle-built hardness.

“’I’m a bit dry. Wanna get a beer?”

“Sure. I guess I could use a drink, too.” With their agreement they walked to the saloon, unaware of the puzzled stares resulting from the town at large’s inability to place the two men they were sure they knew. They stepped inside and walked right to the bar. The younger was about to ask for two beers when a middle-aged hand reached from behind and placed a coin on the bar.

“I’ll buy the drinks, boys,” said Tom Barkley. “You boys in blue deserve––” he halted abruptly as they turned to him and he saw their faces. Stockton’s citizens might not recognize them but there was no doubt in Tom’s mind as to their identities. “Nick? Jarrod?” The Barkley men were silent for a moment as murmurs filled the room. “Drinks for everyone, on me! Boys, why didn’t you wire us? When’d you get here? Are you all right? Does your mother know you’re home?”

“We weren’t sure when we’d get our discharge or how long it’d take us to get home,” Jarrod began. “We just got off the noon train and thought we’d stop for a beer before going to the livery. You’re the first to know we’re home and we’re fine, Father.”

“Calm down, Father!” Nick added. “We come home from gettin’ bombarded with bullets to get bombarded with questions.”

“All right, Nick. There’s some things a father like to know when his sons return from fighting a war.”

“Sorry, Father,” Nick apologized. “Guess I’m just tired is all.”

“And I’m just tired of Nick being tired,” chuckled Jarrod.

“Cut it, Major!” Nick teased.

“All right; that’s enough. Both my major and my lieutenant are coming home with me now.”

“Yes, sir!” the boys chorused before they left. The ride home took them about forty-five minutes. Tom caught them up about everything that was going on at the ranch. When they reached the house they dismounted and handed their mounts to a hand before Tom walked in and motioned for the boys to stand just inside the house. He walked towards the grand staircase and called out.

“Victoria! We have some guests!”

“I’ll be right down,” she called her voice followed by a swish of skirts. “Who have you brought, Tom?” she asked as she appeared at the top of the stairs. She started walking down at her even pace but recognition cleared the fog and she picked up her skirts and ran. “Jarrod! Nick!”

“Mother!” they cried out in unison as they dropped their bags to the floor.

The tiny woman grabbed her two tall sons and held them in a tight embrace while tears streamed down her face. Audra ran forward from the kitchen calling: “You’re back! You’re back! You kept your promise!” She flew into Nick’s arms and he lifted her twelve year old body easily.

Next she put her arms around Jarrod, who, in turn, hoisted her up with a grunt and swung her around before putting her down as she giggled.

“You didn’t tell us you were coming! I wanted to have something special for dinner the night of your return. It’s already one quarter hour past one. I think I can get something special together but time will be tight. Audra, you can help me. We have to celebrate. Why don’t you two get washed up? Did you have lunch? Then get yourselves down to the kitchen when you’re done and I’ll have sandwiches ready. Then you can take a nap or go for a ride or perhaps stay in the kitchen so I can pinch myself every minute and thank God that you’re both safe at home.”

*****

The Barkley Ranch, September 1865

Jarrod sat on the hearth staring at the waning flames. It felt so good to be home, yet home seemed like such a foreign place now. He had been worried that his father would be angry with him for his unexpected enlistment and re-enlistment. Despite the warm welcome he had received, he was still uncertain. So deep in thought was he failed to notice that Tom had come downstairs until he saw him standing, one arm over the mantle as was his custom when he was concerned. A long silence ensued. Walking to his son and sitting down, Tom spoke softly.

“Ever since I was a boy, whenever I was troubled I came and looked into the fire for answers. When I was a boy, my father would be there, too, and he would listen and have an answer. When I grew up, met your mother, she took his place, and I reckon I did the same for her. When you were born, then Nick, and Heath, and Audra, I dreamed of doing for you what my father had done for me. I suspect that while you were growing up I did succeed a few times. I always tried to help you children the same way he helped me. Your Grandpa would stand or sit nearby, just waiting, never forcing me to say anything except for the rare times when it was getting late and I hadn’t yet told him. Well, son, it’s gettin’ late. A penny for your thoughts?” Jarrod smiled briefly and took a deep breath.

“Well, sir,” he began, taking another deep breath. “Well, are you angry with me?” Tom looked puzzled.

“Why would I be angry with you?” Tom inquired before adding hurriedly, “Have I treated you wrongly? Has my behavior made you think I was angry at you?”

“No, Father. But, aren’t you angry with me for joining up? I didn’t consult you; I gave you no warning. I didn’t even say good-bye before signing my name to an enlistment form. And when the three months were up, I re-enlisted without even visiting home. How can you not be mad at me?” Realization dawned on Tom’s face.

“Truthfully, I was very angry at first. I was upset for several days, snapping at everyone. Thinkin’ back on it, I think I was a mean son of a gun. I was spending another night when your mother came down and talked some sense into me. I was mad at you for everything you mentioned. Your mother, God bless the woman, was so mad at me she was ready to take her spoon to my backside.” Both men chuckled.

“You really must’ve been bad to get her that angry at you,” Jarrod gasped out as he laughed. Both of them calmed a bit before Tom continued.

“Yep, I was. Heh. So, now that I have some sense, I think I’ll tell you the same thing she told me. Son, you are a grown man, just as you were then. You thought like a man and you acted like a man and you took responsibility for your actions like a man. And as much as I would have preferred to throw you back into a cradle you were a man and capable of making decisions for yourself that I have no business making. She also was kind enough to point out something very important: I would have done the same thing. Don’t look at me with that face; you know I would. So, after I listened to what she said, and took a whack on the rear, I wizened up and stopped being the grump I had become. That help any?”

“Yes, sir; that helps a lot,” Jarrod smiled. “Did you know that Nick isn’t in yet? He’s been coming in late almost every night for the past several weeks. I think he’s going to hurt himself sooner or later; can’t fall asleep on the job without big problems.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed it, too. I’ve been looking to talk to him but I don’t want to do it in front of the men or at meals and the rest of the time he disappears. I don’t know what to do with the boy. He just can’t seem to get used to living outside the uniform.”

“I think I know why he’s acting weird. I was talking with the colonel at the beginning of the war. He was a veteran of the war with Mexico. I wondered what it would be like away from all of it, back home when the war ended. He said soldiers returning from war often have a hard time getting back into their old lives. It’s too quiet. He figured it would be worse for the soldiers from this war than for those from the last war.

“It figures. He’s almost been looking for a fight with everyone he meets, even me.” A rap at the door interrupted them. “Who could that be at this hour? It’s almost one o’clock.” Tom and Jarrod went to the door. The former opened it to see Fred Madden, the temporary-sheriff while Dave Porter was away.

“Fred? What are you doing here at this hour?” Tom asked, then paused. “Is this about Nick?”

“I’m afraid so,” Fred replied. “Seems he and a couple other fellas had too much to drink, got in a fight. They’re all back in my cells. He got knocked out but Doc Merar said he’d be fine. One thing’s fer sure, he’s goin’ to have one hell of a headache once tomorrow mornin’. Figured I should come get you tonight. Thought you might wanta get ‘im home soon. If you leave now he’ll probably be awake when you get there. Doesn’t have a concussion.”

“Thanks, Fred, I appreciate it. Dave know he should be on the look out? You can go ahead. I’ll come in a little while.”

“I’ll ride with you, Father,” Jarrod said. “Thanks for coming, Fred.”

“No problem. See you in town.” Fred turned and mounted and rode off. Tom closed the door and said a silent thank you that no one else had been awakened.

“Before we go,” Tom began, “I’d like you to know that I’ve always been proud to call you son.”

“Thank you, Father. We might have different interests, but I’m beginning to realize that we’re much more alike than I thought, and that’s something I’m proud of.” As Tom’s eyes became misty Jarrod extended his hand and Tom shook it wholeheartedly. They left to saddle the horses and ride into town.

They left their horses tied in front of the sheriff’s office. They walked up and into the office. Fred motioned them to his desk.

“The fine’s six dollars and fifty cents, plus you’ll have to settle up with Harry for damages. I figure it’ll come to about fifteen dollars since Nick started it. If you give it to me I’ll talk to Harry in the morning.”

“Thanks, Fred. I’ll give you twenty five just in case it’s not enough. Anything leftover you can keep or give to the church or whatever. I don’t care, just choose something.” He counted out and handed him a wad of bills. Fred put the money in the desk and took out his keys. He went in and retrieved Nick.

“Thanks for bailing me out, Father,” Nick said humbly.

“You’re welcome. Come on, now. Let’s go home. Don’t think you’ll be up to work come morning.”

“Yes sir,” came the meek reply. They left after saying goodbye to Fred and began the ride home. Deciding now was as good as any other time and better than most, Tom decided to try and talk to Nick. With Jarrod there, Nick wouldn’t feel isolated but he would have to listen.

“Nick, you mother and I are concerned about you. You don’t get enough sleep and then put in a full day’s work. I know you think you can handle it, but it’s been going on for months. Sooner or later, you or someone around you is going to get hurt. Those are two things I never want to happen. Tomorrow’s Saturday. You’ll be resting up all day. Then comes Sunday. Sounds like some time to catch up on sleep and get back into the old routine.”

“But Father,” Nick said, “I love working the ranch. I’ll be okay. Just let me be.” Nick’s tone was pleading, but Tom hadn’t compelled himself to speak just so he could back down.

“No, Nick. I can’t let you. And if you insist upon continuing this lifestyle I’ll have to suspend you from working the ranch. I can’t risk you or someone else getting hurt.” Tom’s tone was strict. He softened a little. “I know the adjustment must be hard for you. Especially for you since you’re such a boisterous person to come home from war to the silence of small town life. I’ve tried looking the other way. I thought I should leave you alone to make the adjustment by yourself. But even grown men need help and I’m sorry for abandoning you to deal with it yourself. I see how wrong it was. It breaks your mother’s heart, and mine, too, to see you not thriving here now that you’re home. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes sir; I understand. Sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused. It’s just so different. I want to be home so much but everything’s different now. It’s hard to go back, but it’s what I want. You’re right, Father, as usual. I can’t risk hurting someone because I refuse to use common sense. I’m sorry for all the trouble.”

“That’s all right.”

“It’s not really your fault. Lots of soldiers deal with the same thing returning from war,” Jarrod added. “Believe it or not, I had a hard time the first month, too.”

“Whew! Even lawyers have issues,” Nick joked.

“Wouldn’t be too sure of that, Nick,” Jarrod rejoined. “Remember, I’m not a lawyer yet. Then you’ll be the sole problem in the household.”

“I can cause you some problems. When are you going back?”

“I wrote to Harvard about going for the Spring semester. Then I can pretty much pick up where I left off and be a lawyer by mid-June.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tom said. “Good luck, son.” They arrived at the ranch and went to bed. Tom was glad that Nick had listened to him. A month later he looked with pride as his son accepted the role he’d been groomed for since childhood and ran the ranch in partnership with Tom.

*****

Part V-Recovering

Hospital for Union Soldiers, Sacramento, Christmas Eve

Dr. Whiting was pleased with the progress Heath had made. Two months in traction had been hard on him but he was slowly finding his legs. Even though he had the opportunity to go home or work at a hospital in New England he chose to stay and go west to take care of the long term men from California that had been in his care after the liberation of Carterson. Heath had arrived with the others about six weeks previously to be joined by Leah two weeks afterward. By the time she arrived Dr. Whiting knew Heath’s circumstances and was relieved to find that Leah was as kind and capable as Heath had described and as strong as he needed her to be.

Dr. Whiting was getting older. He was fifty years old and knew as a doctor that living to age seventy was a blessing and older highly uncommon. He had retired at the war’s end to realize that the war wasn’t over for many boys yet and had once again volunteered his services. They were desperately in need of help and Leah saw that. She spent as much time with Heath as she could but also tended to, comforted, and wrote letters for many other soldiers. He came to respect her as he hadn’t respected many women since his wife had died while he was a young doctor. He was even willing to venture that he was starting to care for her as he hadn’t cared for someone since Faith. And he was willing to venture that she cared for him, too. But he wasn’t willing to jeopardize the men for his feelings. He was frightened that any mention would scare her back to Strawberry. He just couldn’t risk losing the woman known to the patients as the Lady of the Wards. The men all loved her, and she was always asked to come by soldiers who died despite medical care. She gave them peace during their final hours and comforted them with hymns. At first distrusting of her due to her Southern roots, soon anyone who said anything against her or didn’t do as she asked was immediately shunned, but such occurrences were rare. Both of them tried to hide their feelings from everyone and especially Heath. They nearly succeeded. But Heath did know. And, unlike they both secretly expected, Heath approved.

Heath had realized after his fever was gone that Doc Whiting knew Rosie very well and had been playing with him. So he decided to return the favor by putting him on the spot while he was alone with him. The opportunity best presented itself that Christmas Eve. Leah was bringing Christmas cheer to everyone with special treats and caroling so when the doctor came to check on him he seized the moment.

“Hey, Doc,” Heath began.

“Yes, Heath?”

“I was wondering if I could talk to you a moment about a problem a friend of mine has.”

“Sure,” Josiah Whiting pulled up a chair and sat down. “What’s your friend’s problem?” Josiah thought perhaps Heath was using his “friend” as a way to get advice he needed.

“Well, my friend wants to court this girl but there’s a problem. He’s got a friend who he knows cares for her but not in the same way. This guy has protected her, taken care of her, and they’re like family to each other. My friend is worried that if he tries to court her he’ll make this friend mad at him, and he wants to stay friends. The girl also feels the same way. He doesn’t know that this friend really wants them to be happy but I can’t tell either because they don’t want anyone to know. What should my friend do?” The doctor, a bit perplexed, sat quietly for a moment.

“Well, I think you shouldn’t betray anyone’s confidence. No, that would definitely be wrong. But perhaps you could encourage your friend to talk to his friend and the girl so that this is settled. If his friend does think they should court, or at least doesn’t mind it, then everything will be out in the open and taken care of. Sound good?”

“Yeah, thanks, Doc. One more thing before you get up?”

“Anything.”

A large smile crept across Heath’s face. “Start talking.”

Josiah grinned after a moment, realizing Heath’s real purpose. “Why, hello, friend,” he said. “May I court your aunt?” Heath nodded.

“Miss Thompson, may I speak with you a moment?” Dr. Whiting asked as all staff and volunteers left the room after the evening meeting.

“Yes, of course, Dr. Whiting,” Leah replied. She sat in the chair near him that he pointed her to.

“Leah,” he began nervously. “Leah, I would like to request permission to court you. I realize I am much older than you but watching you this past month has reminded me of why I came here to begin with.”

“I-I don’t really know,” she stuttered. “I’ve become fond of you also, but what about Heath?” He laughed.

“Believe me, I thought Heath was going to be an issue, too, but we apparently aren’t very good at disguising our feelings.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, confused.

“Apparently, he thought about our first conversation and realized that I was having a great deal of fun with him about a certain Rosie. Anyway, he doesn’t mind and told me by telling me a story about his friend who likes a certain girl. When I gave him advice, he promptly applied it to me. I asked his permission and he gave it. He got me back good, if I do say so myself. Of course, if you refuse, nothing will be said. I understand refusing someone so much older than you.”

“Nonsense! I’m well past ripe myself. Men your age marry girls of nineteen. I don’t see why courting a woman of thirty-six would be a problem. I gladly accept. I always knew Heath was mischievous, but playing matchmaker takes the cake!” They both laughed and left.

*****

August 1866

 

Heath was ecstatic. After about two months of letting his wounds close and his back repair itself and almost a year of rehabilitation he was being discharged from the hospital. And he was walking out. During the Spring he was informed that he had received honorable discharge. Heath knew Leah would continue to work as a volunteer at the hospital until the last patient went home. He left her a note with most of his back pay in it because he knew she would need it. He left to find work so that he could save up to go to Nevada to find Rosie. He chuckled to himself about his matchmaking skills. He figured they would probably marry by the end of the year.

Heath visited Strawberry first. He spent several days with Rachel and Hannah and took the best horse O’Henry had left him. The others were sold off. He kept a quarter of the profit and divided the rest between his three aunts. He managed to secure work as a hand for the round-up but after it was done there wasn’t room for him, despite his abilities. But Heath had just enough to get to Virginia City. He knew it wasn’t the right season for hiring ranch workers, but there were plenty of mines in operation. As much as he hated mines, he thanked God for the blessing of his experience in them and that they would help him be nearer to Rosie. He had written her letters and she had replied but he wanted to get a foothold in the area before seeing her again. Rosie, he thought, I’ll be seeing you soon. He hoped she hadn’t changed at all. He wanted someone to really talk to again.

Leah and Josiah were married in a small ceremony in November. They visited Heath in Nevada briefly on their trip East. He was overjoyed at her happiness and that Leah was provided for. Hannah and Rachel also agreed to join them in Connecticut the following summer. Although he was offered a place in their home, Heath chose to remain where he was. He was all right and had heard about a large ranch that would be needing hands in the spring. Once he was signed on there, he would tell Rosie. The Ponderosa was said to have fair bosses and some of the best wages anywhere. Heath knew that such a ranch would be looking for good hands, and he knew that he was capable of whatever they might need him to do. To stay sharp, he had spent the little free time he had in the fall catching wild horses. He caught and broke them all single handedly and sold them to add to his savings. All but one. He gave Gal, the horse from Connor O’Henry, to a nearby convent as he didn’t want to spend the money feeding two horses and knew they needed a steady mount. The horse he kept was a beautiful roan stallion, about eighteen hands, that he named Connor.

*****

Virginia City, April 1867

Heath had just picked up his last pay from the mine. He was in a rush to sign on that he accidentally bumped into an older gentleman.

“Oh, I’m very sorry, sir!” Heath said quickly.

“That’s all right, son,” said the man. “Why the hurry?”

“I’m trying to get a job at a ranch.”

“Oh, what ranch?” asked a younger man standing next to the older.

“First choice, the Ponderosa. Haven’t thought of a second choice. Hope I don’t need one.”

“Well, son, you happen to be in luck. I’m Ben Cartwright, and this is my son, Adam. You have any experience?” For a moment Heath had panicked. Bumping into the man you want to hire you wasn’t his idea of hitting it off correctly. But when the man didn’t seem to mind, he calmed himself and answered Ben’s question.

“Yes, sir,” Heath said. “Worked round-up last August. Horses are what I do best, though. Like to catch ‘em and break ‘em.”

“Where did you work round-up?” Adam asked.

“Johnson spread. Not to far from Fresno.” Adam was suspicious as to the reason for the distance between jobs.

“What did you do between then and now?” Adam quizzed him.

“Came here and worked in the mines.” Heath thought the elder Cartwright liked him but had picked up on the younger’s suspicions. “Got somebody I care ‘bout who lives here.” He added before Adam could ask.

“Adam, stop your questions. Don’t worry, young man. Adam tends to get curious about new hands. What’s your name, son?”

“Thompson, sir. Heath Thompson.”

“Well, then, Heath, we just picked up some supplies. You can ride back to the ranch with us. My other two sons should be taking names by the time we get back.”

“Boy, howdy! It must be my lucky day. Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. Do you mind waitin’ a moment? My horse is tied up down the street a bit.”

“Sure,” Ben Cartwright agreed. A few moments later he saw him atop a magnificent horse. “You catch that horse, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“By yourself?” asked an incredulous Adam.

“Yes.” Adam whistled at the thought. This must be the one who was selling those horses top-dollar.

“Well, if you can do that you shouldn’t have any problem at the ranch,” said Ben smiling. Heath nodded his thanks and followed them to the Ponderosa.

There was a line to get to a table up front at which two men were seated. Or rather, one man and one boy. He was nineteen, twenty at the oldest, but looked younger. They must be the other sons, Heath thought to himself. He got in the back of the line.

“Heath! Come up to the front!” Ben called to him. Heath did as instructed and made his way to the table. “Heath Thompson, these are my sons Hoss and Little Joe. Hoss, Joe, this is Heath Thompson. I believe most of his time will be working with horses, Joe. Little Joe spends the most time with the horses.”

“Pleased ta meet you,” Heath said, extending his hand. Little Joe looked like someone he could work with though probably a little cocky. Hoss shook it first.

“Nice ta meet you, too, Heath,” Hoss said. He shook Joe’s next.

“Welcome aboard, Heath. Lookin’ forward to working with you. If you’ll just sign your name.”

Joe handed him the pen, which Heath took and signed his name with. “Why don’t you go to Bunk House 5? It’s the fifth one on the left past the corral. You can put your horse in the barn.”

“Thanks.” With that, Heath left.

“There’s something about him, Pa,” Joe said. “Something good. A man you can trust.”

“I have a feeling you’re right, Joe. Best get back to work,” Ben responded, punctuating it with a pat on the shoulder before leaving.

*****

Virginia City, May

Ben and Joe took Heath with them into town. Ben was to go to the bank while Joe and Heath got supplies and loaded them into a wagon. Heath was loading the last of the supplies and Joe came out after settling the bill. Joe looked up to see a lovely friend of his.

“Hello, Rose!” Joe greeted warmly.

“Hi, Joe. How are you? Picking up supplies?”

“I’m fine. Pa’s over at the bank. Brought a new hand with me. Ah, here’s Pa. Look who I bumped into, Pa!”

“Hello, Rose. How are things at the dress shop?”

“Fine. Thank you for asking.”

“Have you met our new hand? Heath, come on over here for a minute.” Rose put her hand to her mouth at Heath’s name and gasped when he turned around. Heath was startled for a minute ,too, before running to her, picking her up and swirling her around. Ben and Joe looked at each other.

“Heath Thompson, you didn’t tell me you were working at the Ponderosa!”

“I wrote it to you in a letter yesterday. I wanted to get settled here first, Rosie. Boy, howdy! Look at ya!””

“Well, Pa, it would appear they know each other.”

“Yep, it would.”

“Well, Heath, I’d like to say that I’m highly indignant but that can wait till later. How long have you been here?” Rosie asked.

“Worked in the mines from September to April. Sorry. I just had to wait a bit.”

“Sorry to interrupt this touching moment,” Joe began, “But how do you two know each other?” Heath and Rose grinned stupidly.

“We’re old army buddies,” Rose choked out.

“Okay,” Joe said. “Now I’m confused. You were in the war, Heath?”

“Private First Class Heath Thompson, 3rd U.S. Sharpshooters, sir!” He hastily came to attention and saluted. Rose did the same.

“Nurse Flaherty, 5th Brigade volunteer vivandier.” Ben and Joe laughed.

“Guess that explains why you came all the way from Fresno,” Ben said.

“Yep, it does.”

“Sharpshooters, huh? Must be pretty good,” Joe remarked.

“Star of his outfit,” Rose answered while Heath reddened.

“Hey, Rosie, how’s that ankle of yours?” Heath asked.

“Doc Whiting, right?” Rose questioned in an annoyedly resigned tone. Heath nodded.

“You shoulda seen how he teased me with that one. Poor fevered boy that I was!”

“I hear tell that’s not all that was wrong,” Rose hinted. Heath was in the spirit so he quickly teased her into silence.

“Now, none of that. We’re forgetting that we’re not the only ones here,” Heath calmed, then whispered into her ear, “We can talk at a picnic on Sunday. I’ll meet you after Church.” Rose nodded slightly.

“Sorry, Joe, Ben. Got caught up some memories,” Rose apologized.

“That’s quite all right,” said Ben. “Well, I’m sorry to break up this reunion, but we have to get back to the ranch. Boys, why don’t you two take the wagon back to the ranch? I have one little thing left to do.”

“Yes, sir,” Heath answered.

“Okay, Pa.” They got in the buckboard and drove off. Ben stayed standing with Rose.

“Before you tend to your business, Ben, may I ask you a favor?”

“Certainly. What do you need?”

“Keep an eye on him for me. Things have been rough on him and I’d appreciate it very much.”

“Of course,” Ben replied, then paused. “Are you in love with that boy, Rose? He’s a fine young man, especially if things have been rough.”

“Oh, I think so. When we first met we were great friends very quickly. Then, things went further. Today was the first time I’ve seen him since the summer of ‘64. Then, he was gone. I started receiving letters a year afterwards, and we’ve been writing ever since. I was unsure of everything until I saw him again today. I only wish I’d bumped into him sooner.”

“Well, I think he loves you. Maybe you didn’t see it, but there was a spark in his eyes I’ve never seen before that lit up like a lamp that had just been refilled with oil. Do you, do you mind if I ask what you
mean when you say he was gone?”

“Sharpshooters remain in advanced positions to make the battle as costly as they can. Wherever they are placed, it becomes a war of attrition. However, this also makes them targets themselves, and they are easily shot and cut off from the rest of the army. Heath was one of the best at finding his way back. He was smaller, quicker. But he wasn’t invincible, and he was captured. He spent almost a year in captivity. You mustn’t let on that I told you any of this. Heath would be furious. He tries his hardest to forget and doesn’t want to be judged by that time in his life for the rest of his life. This is a new life for him. He hates mines, but working at a ranch is what he loves. I’m so glad he has a job at the Ponderosa. Maybe now he’ll be able to put it behind him. He wrote about his struggle to me. How can anyone forget when they’re in a hospital for over a year afterwards just trying to walk? I think I’ve said too much; I don’t want to burden you. When he knows you better he might talk a bit. Don’t worry if he doesn’t talk at all though; he’s always been quiet. I fear I’ve kept you from your business for too long. I’m sorry.”

“Nonsense, Rose. I didn’t have any,” Ben smiled and walked to his horse. She smiled, too. She was glad to have a mentor like Ben Cartwright to step in after her father died.

*****

The Following Sunday, Lake Tahoe

They sat together underneath a tree looking at the beautiful lake in front of them. The long ride had proven its worth when they looked at the magnificent vista. They had eaten when they arrived near one-thirty and left the rest of their afternoon for conversation. A few moments in silence followed their meal. Rose ended them.

“Heath, are you all right? I mean, really all right?”

“It took a long time. Almost my whole hospital stay. But yes, I’m really all right.” She gave him a look that said, “I’m listening. You can get it off your chest now.” He took a breath and spoke softly.

“I wanted to forget so bad. Livin’ there, ya learn to push your feelin’s back. Bein’ free tricks ya into relaxin’ just enough that it haunts your dreams. I had those dreams for such a long time, Rosie. Without Aunt Leah and Doc Whiting, without you, I think I woulda still been havin’ ‘em. Without you, I don’t think I woulda survived. Don’t tell me that it’s not true, Rosie. You were an angel without even bein’ there, with knowin’ I was there. When they were whippin’ me I prayed. After they were done, I thought about you. And trust me, you’re better than any shot of morphine. More beautiful, too. And smarter, and more fun.” He laughed as he pushed her dark hair behind her ear.

“Oh, Heath,” Rose replied with tears in her eyes, “I’m so glad to hear you say that. You don’t know how happy it makes me to know that you have that peace.”

“Doc told me about your ankle. When I heard, I was so proud of you. My Rosie, runnin’ around gettin’ shot at to help the soldiers she cared about.” Heath squeezed her close with the arm he’d draped over her shoulder. “Did I tell you about Doc and Aunt Leah?”

“Yes. Seems a relative got involved, played matchmaker. Doc Whiting told me all about it. His account was pure comedy. I must show it to you sometime. As I recall, it was payback for some teasing about some common acquaintance.”

“Nothin’ common ‘bout you.” Rosie mustered up her best aristocratic mannerisms.

“Well, Master Thompson is it? I find it highly unsophisticated to place your arm over a gentlelady’s shoulders and claim familiarity on the first picnic.” Heath played along, putting on a thick twang.

“Well, Missy, I weren’t tryin’ none ta be rude. Jus’ tryin’ to be a little neighborly is all. Things’s gone ta far iffen a body cain’t even be hospitable.” They laughed at each other, poised delicately in their
characters.

“In all seriousness,” Rose began, still trying to control her giggles, “I really think we ought to head back. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us with which we can continue our discussion on the finer points of courting.”

“Ahh, Rosie. You’re right again, as usual. Lovely view here, though. It’s a pity to leave it. Makes me fall for ya even more.”

“I don’t think I could fall for you anymore than I already have. I might injure myself.” Heath scooped her up in his arms.

“Well, in that case, I better watch you as close as I can. Real close, kinda like this.” They kissed.

“I’ve been dreamin’ ‘bout kissin’ you for quite a while now. Now my recuperation’s complete.”

“I haven’t been kissed since the night before you were captured. I knew you’d come back. I waited.”

“I hoped you would. I wouldn’ta blamed you if you didn’t, but I knew you would.” They kissed again before he gently placed her in the wagon, climbed in, and began the long drive back.

*****

The Next Afternoon

Heath was breaking the last horse of the day. He and Joe had taken turns and Joe watched, impressed, from outside the corral. The stallion bucked with all his might but Heath stayed on. Finally, the horse gave in and allowed Heath to walk him around. Joe let out a loud whoop and the hands applauded. Heath responded with a tip of his hat before dismounting and making his way to Joe.

“That was a hell of a ride, Heath! Great job.”

“Thanks.” Heath grabbed his canteen and took a long gulp.

“Hey, I been meanin’ to ask you. How was yesterday?” Heath sputtered a bit.

“Yesterday?” he asked. “Yesterday was fine. Shouldn’t it’ve been?”

“Yeah. That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”

“Yeah. S’pose I do.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“You very well know what! Talkin’ to you’s like talking to a wall sometimes. And Pa says I’m exasperating!” Heath laughed.

“All right, Joe. Yesterday was great. I hadn’t talked to her in almost three years.”

“That’s a long time. Ya know, I’m pretty good friends with Rose. I tried to make more of it once, when she got back. Both of us were too young. But that’s not the reason it didn’t work out. It didn’t work out
because we weren’t right and she had already found someone who was right. I couldn’t understand why she never looked at anyone else. I couldn’t understand, until I met the one she was waiting for. And he’s a good reason to wait.” Joe extended his hand, and Heath took it.

“Thanks, Joe. That means a lot. Think you could convince Adam about that fact?” he added by way of a joke.

“Don’t mind him. He has a lot more respect for you than you realize.”

“I just hope he’s not one of those inquisitive souls that’s gonna get a complete history of my life.”

“Sorry. He is an inquisitive soul, as you put it, but I’ll keep him in line.” Both of them laughed, knowing Joe’s position as youngest would preclude any such authority. They mounted up and rode back side by side. When the house was in sight, Heath broached a subject that he’d been thinking about for a time.

“Joe?”

“Yeah, Heath?”

“I think I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”

“That’s great!” Joe replied enthusiastically, slapping him on the shoulder.

“If she says yes, I’d like you to be the best man.” Joe was awed at the prospect.

“Sure you don’t want someone else? Someone you’ve known longer?”

“Naw, Joe. I asked you ‘cause I want it to be you. I haven’t known ya long, but I’m proud to call you friend, and I’d be real glad to have you do it. So, will ya stand there for me if she agrees?”

“Course I will!” Joe beamed. “And who are you kiddin’? Of course she’ll say yes. I saw you two when you met in town the other day. She was head over heels for you, just like you are for her.”

“Thanks, Joe. Don’t tell anyone just yet, though. Wouldn’t want people to know about her wedding before she decides to have it!” They laughed again and raced the rest of the way.

Two Sundays later, Hop Sing, their cook, handed Joe a note at the end of dinner.

“Who’s this from?” Joe questioned.

“Look inside and read,” the cook answered. Joe unfolded the paper. Inside, one line was written. The look of pure exuberance on Joe’s face as he jumped up from the table and let out a whoop prompted his father to seize the note and read it. Hoss and Adam had risen and looked over his shoulder.

“What does it mean, ‘Get your suit’?” asked Hoss.

“That, big brother, is the formal invitation to a wedding at which I am to be the best man!”

“What! Who’s getting married?” Ben was confused.

“Only our brand new horse breaker!”

“Heath and Rose! That’s wonderful,” said Ben.

“Isn’t that a mite quick?” asked Hoss.

“They’ve known each other for a while. Childhood sweethearts, from what I understand,” said Adam.

“Hop Sing!” cried Joe. “Hop Sing, when’d the man give this to you?”

“Man and lady give me bout twenee minutes ago. Say to meet them at creek after supper. Say you know where to go.”

“You bet I do!” Joe began to rush off when he remembered himself and that he had a napkin tucked into his collar. He returned quickly to the table. “May I be excused, Pa?” Ben laughed at his excited son.

“Yes, son.” Joe yanked the napkin and tossed onto the table hastily before running to the creek fifteen minutes from the house.

“I haven’t seen Little Joe this excited since he first kissed a girl,” Hoss remarked. “What do ya reckon’s got inta him, Pa?”

“Well, Hoss, I’d call it a case of happiness, pure and simple.”

*****

Joe seemed to run with lightning speed and made it to the creek panting in about five minutes. He spotted the pair sitting on a rock with their bare feet dangling in the water. Heath spotted him.

“Joe, over here!”

“Come on over, Joe!” Rose added. Joe jogged over and stood near them.

“You know, you guys have my family thinking I’m crazy.”

“No, Joe,” Rose said sweetly. “They knew that already anyway.”

 

July

“Goodbye Aunt Rachel, Hannah!” Heath called out as the stage pulled away.

“Goodbye, Heath, Rose!” called Rachel. Rachel and Hannah left to join Dr. and Mrs. Whiting in Connecticut after spending the week preceding and concluding with the wedding. Heath and Rose got into their carriage and left for the cabin that the Cartwrights had presented as their new living
quarters at the reception.

“Do you still have those dreams you told me about once?” Rose asked once they were outside Virginia City. “The dreams where you were little and had a father and mother and brothers and a sister?”

“Sometimes. Seems the older I get the longer the dreams are. Almost like I’m remembering something.”

“Maybe you are. Maybe it’s your family.”

“I’ve thought about that. Problem is, I don’t remember enough.”

“Could it be what’s going to happen with us?”

“Maybe. I’d have to grow a beard, though.”

“On second thought, it’s a memory. I love you, but I can’t convince myself that kissing you with a beard wouldn’t be very scratchy.” They laughed. The rest of the ride, they talked about their dreams for the future. They had so many that the ride passed quickly. Soon, Heath had lifted Rose from the carriage. He carried her inside and closed the door.

 

Part VI-Homecoming-San Francisco, Mid-October

Leah and Josiah Whiting took a walk every evening. They usually walked in silence, thinking and relishing each other’s company. Leah thought back to their visit with Heath and Rose the month before. She had never met the girl but understood why Heath had married her the first chance they
had to talk. They were returning and were almost at their hotel when a man running from an alley broke Leah’s reverie. She was more startled to see a man stumble out after the first and collapse. The couple ran to him.

“Josiah! Is he alright?”

“Let’s get him to our room and send someone for the police.” They dragged the bloody and bruised man to the hotel to the shock of some guests.

“I’m a doctor. This man was beaten and left in the alley. Send for the police.” A porter assisted Josiah in getting the stranger upstairs and to their room which, luckily, wasn’t far. Leah managed to get hot water and extra towels from the kitchen and hastily carried them upstairs.

“Good, Leah. I think he’ll be fine but we need to stop the bleeding and clean up those cuts. The bruises will have to take care of themselves. He’ll need some stitches at the nape. Hand me my kit, please? Best sit him up so I can do it as quickly as possible. Leah, you tend the cuts on his face. Just clean them up and stop the bleeding.” The porter was amazed at how quickly the old doctor and his wife handled
the situation. In ten minutes the man looked much better and was stitched and bandaged. Leah had even combed his hair from habit of doing it for the boys in blue just a year and a lifetime ago. By the time they had cleaned up the police had arrived.

“Sir, ma’am, would you mind answering a few questions?”

“Not at all,” Josiah replied.

“Please start at the beginning.”

“We, my husband and I, were walking as we usually do when a man came running out of the alley. A moment later, this young man stumbled out and collapsed. We brought him in and took care of him.”

“I’m a doctor and my wife has worked as a nurse. The fellow has a concussion, some cuts and bruises but should be fine. Probably will sleep through till morning.”

“And may I take down your names?”

“Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Whiting.”

“Did he have any sort of identification with him?”

“His pockets are empty but I believe I saw a wallet lying near him,” Leah said. “I was too distracted by the bleeding to pick it up.”

“Sarge, take a lantern and look for the wallet. Is there anything else you can tell me?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Well, then, on behalf of San Francisco, thank you Dr. and Mrs. Whiting.”

“Excuse me, Lieutenant. I found the wallet, sir.” He handed it to the lieutenant, who searched through its contents.

“Well, he was definitely robbed. Whew-ee, lookee here! This fella’s a Barkley. Nick Barkley of the Stockton Barkleys. That ring a bell to either of you?” Josiah shook his head.

“They run a large ranch, don’t they?” Leah inquired.

“Yes, ma’am, they do. One of the largest in the state. As I recall, he has a brother that has a house right here in the city, and I believe he’s in town. Perkins, go and tell his brother the situation. Do you folks mind keeping him here overnight? He still doesn’t look to good.”

“Don’t worry about that, son. I wouldn’t think about moving him just yet.”

Leah and Josiah kept a watchful eye on Nick for the next half hour. Suddenly an older woman and a man came into the room.

“Nick!” Victoria exclaimed. She ran to the bed.

“Don’t worry ma’am, your son’s gonna be fine,” said Josiah.

“He hasn’t awoken yet. We expect him to wake up sometime around morning,” Leah added.

“Thanks for taking care of him, Doctor,” said Jarrod. “What do we owe you?” He took out his wallet.

“Nothing. Can’t leave a fellow in the alley. Wasn’t that much anyhow. A few stitches at the back, cleaning some cuts. Nothing worth paying for.”

“Well,” said Victoria, walking back to them, “at least let us get you another room. It appears Nick will be staying here tonight. Or, better yet, be our guests. There’s another bedroom, Jarrod, isn’t there?”

“Yes, Mother, there’s another bedroom that should suit you both quite comfortably.”

“That’s quite alright. We wouldn’t want to impose,” Leah said.

“It’s no imposition. In fact, I insist,” Victoria replied.

“We surrender,” Josiah agreed. “But we’ll have to stay here until morning. Let us introduce ourselves. I am Doctor Josiah Whiting and this is my wife Leah.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I am Victoria Barkley, Nick’s mother, and this is my son, Jarrod. Are you from around here?”

“I’m originally from southern Virginia but lived most my life in Strawberry, a little mining town up north. Josiah is from Connecticut, where we live now. Why don’t we all sit down?” Everyone heeded her advice.

“Now, we were told that you folks own a ranch near Stockton,” said Josiah. “But I’m willing to bet that you, ma’am, are not from there originally.”

“Good diagnosis, Doctor,” Victoria smiled. “No, I’m from Pennsylvania. My husband and I met there but he’s from Boston. We came West together almost thirty years ago. Are you two visiting here long?”

“We arrived last week after visiting my nephew and his wife in Nevada. We plan to stay a few weeks longer. I went back to Strawberry three days ago. I never really saw much outside of it.”

“Well, then, you’ll have to come to visit us at the ranch,” Victoria said perkily. “Now, before you protest, I’m going to insist that you absolutely come. Jarrod will escort you when he comes home at the end of the month.”

“It won’t be any trouble, son?” Josiah inquired.

“Not at all. In fact, I’ll be glad for company. It will be a pleasure.”

“And we won’t be putting you out, Mrs. Barkley?” Leah asked.

“Not a bit. And please call me Victoria.”

“Only if you’ll agree to call us by our Christian names as well, and you, too, Jarrod.”

“It’s a deal,” Jarrod agreed.

*****

The Next Morning

Nick awoke with a pounding headache. He opened his eyes and moaned as the sun’s rays hit his eyes. The four figures sleeping in nearby chairs quickly aroused themselves and went to the bed. Josiah began checking his pulse and vital signs.

“Looks like you’ll be fine, son. Staying in bed might be a good idea. Well, well, what have we here? Goodness gracious, I do believe I see some eyes. Yes, hazel eyes. I’ve been trying to figure out what color eyes you have judging from your mother and brother. Didn’t figure on hazel, though. Amazing. Learn new things every day, don’t we?”

“I don’t think I learned anything from that experience, Doc.”

“Why, of course you did! A. Don’t walk down alleys with thieves in them. B. If you are going to be beaten and robbed, it helps to be near where a doctor and his lovely wife, who is an experienced nurse, are taking their evening stroll. And I would gather that C. looking at the back of your eye lids isn’t so bad after all. See? I told you you’ve learned something. Trust me; I’m a doctor.” The seriousness of his tone coupled with what he said had Jarrod and Victoria in stitches while an amused Leah looked on.

“You always this helpful towards your patients, Doc?” Nick grunted.

“At least this helpful. You’re one of the lucky ones. You should have seen how I was to my wife’s nephew!”

“I heard all about that, Josiah,” said Leah.” Seems to me he managed to return the favor. Not that you minded.”

“Well, now,” Josiah said. “How about getting down to business? Would you like some breakfast? And, no, I don’t mean your usual steak, eggs and potatoes.” Jarrod smiled at how quickly the doctor had figured out his brother.

“Am kinda hungry.”

“I’ll get you a tray.” Leah left. When she returned, it was agreed that Victoria would stay with Nick while the others went down to breakfast. Jarrod looked at the couple seated opposite him and noted their happiness.

“Have you two been married long?”

“Not that long, actually,” Leah explained.

“We were married last November. I get a chuckle over the fact that I was married only nine months before my nephew. Now, enough of us. What’s your profession? Somehow, I don’t think you’re a rancher like your brother upstairs.”

“You’d be correct. I live at the ranch most of the time but have law offices in San Francisco and Stockton.”

“So, you’re a lawyer, are you?” Josiah asked. “Should I be on the lookout?”

“Probably,” Jarrod replied, laughing.

*****

Stockton, End of October

Nick had picked Jarrod and the Whitings at the station and now they were approaching the house. Jarrod noticed that the couple, especially Leah, was impressed with the majestic, white-columned mansion. They pulled up to the front and Nick began to unload the trunks from the back of the surrey. Victoria threw the front door and ran to greet her guests, embracing Leah.

“It’s so good to see the both of you. Let me introduce you to my daughter. Audra, these are Josiah and Leah Whiting. They’ll be staying as long as I can convince them to.”

“Sir, ma’am. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Audra curtsied.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, too, dearie,” said Leah. “Victoria, the photograph doesn’t do her justice. I can tell that you’re going to be a beautiful grown-up lady before you know it. All the boys will be asking to take you to dances in another year or
two.” Audra smiled and decided that she liked their guests.

“Boys, take their things to the larger guestroom. I’m sorry that my husband isn’t here yet. He’ll be home for dinner. That should give you both time to rest and refresh yourselves. Is there anything I can offer you?”

“No, thank you,” Josiah answered. Victoria led them up to their room. They unpacked, freshened up, and took a nap until they were awakened for dinner by a kind, older black man. Leah and Josiah joined Victoria, Audra, Jarrod, and Nick in the den.

“Tom should be along shortly. He just went up to change his clothes and wash up a bit. I hope you are rested?”

“Yes, indeed,” Josiah responded. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Are these family photographs, Victoria?” Leah inquired of the frames resting on the mantle.

“Yes. We try to get new ones taken every year.”

“Josiah, come and look at these. Your children are so lovely.”

“Thank-you.” Leah froze as she sighted a family photograph. Josiah saw one of a very young Tom and Victoria at their wedding.

“Leah, do you see what I see?”

“Yes.”

“What?” Victoria asked, confused. At that moment, a whistling Tom Barkley walked into the room. Everyone turned towards him. Leah finally put the pieces together.

“Hello, everyone,” Tom said. A chorus of Hello Father’s went out. “These must be our guests. I’m quite happy to meet you at last. Tom Barkley.” He extended his hand to Josiah who took it.

“Is everything alright?”

“I was just wondering about this photograph. Who is this little boy?” Leah asked. Tom took a deep breath.

“That’s our son,” Tom answered slowly. “Heath disappeared the summer after he turned six. He was kidnapped and we believe he died.” A silence permeated the room.

“Josiah, would you go get the frame from our trunk?” He nodded and left. “I have a story to tell you all before we set down to eat. It might take a few minutes, so I suggest that you all sit down.

“One day about twelve years ago I went outto gather eggs as usual and found a child asleep on my back porch. Thank you, Josiah. I put out information looking for the boy’s family in some local newspapers but he couldn’t remember anything of his life previously or his last name. The only things he could recall were in dreams. But the dreams never provided any sort of tangible information that would help us find his family. So he stayed with me. My two best friends helped me raise him. We became very close, him calling us aunts and we considering him our nephew. Circumstances forced him into a job at too young an age. He left and joined up when he was about fourteen and had been with me eight years. After the war he spent a year recovering before moving to Nevada, where he contacted a girl he’d met in the Service. He got a job at a ranch and they were married last July. Here is a picture of him not long after I found him. He told me his name was Heath. Here’s a print of his wedding picture.

“When I saw the picture of your family, I realized that my nephew was your son.”

“I saw your wedding picture and was shocked at how closely Heath and Tom resemble each other,” Josiah added.

By now Victoria and Audra were crying. Jarrod was staring in disbelief at the photos, unable to deny the resemblance yet unwilling to believe the brother who had died was really alive. Nick was pacing agitatedly and Tom was staring at the fire. Victoria knelt in front of Leah and embraced her.

“Thank you for loving my son,” she choked out. “I’m glad he had someone like you taking care of him.”

“That explains the newspaper clipping from Pinkerton’s and why we couldn’t find anything!” Jarrod immediately accepted that the boy was indeed his brother. He saw his father standing at the mantle and was reminded of an evening not so many years ago. He approached his father and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Bring him home, Father,” Jarrod said softly.

“What if he doesn’t remember us or doesn’t want to be with us?”

“That’s not the Heath I remember. Leah said he’s had dreams about us. He’ll remember, Father. Don’t forget; he’s a Barkley, after all.”

Tom turned his head and smiled at his son; he, too, remembered that night Tom sent a telegram that evening and got a reply the next morning. That afternoon he got on the stage headed for Virginia City.

*****

Virginia City, Nevada, a Few Days Later

 

Ben Cartwright anxiously awaited the stage from California. As usual, it was late. He was about to ask the stagemaster for the fourth time when it was coming in when he saw it approaching. He had been skeptical about Tom Barkley’s claim, though he was reassure that Leah Whiting had told them and seemed convinced that this was Heath’s father. All his doubts were erased when he saw Tom get off the stagecoach.

“Mr. Barkley?” Tom turned from getting his bag. “I’m Ben Cartwright.” He extended his hand and they shook. “Can I take your bag?”

“No, thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I can manage it. And call me Tom.”

“Tom it is. And I’m Ben. The buckboard’s right this way.’ They climbed in and began the ride to the Ponderosa.

“What do you remember about Heath?” Ben asked.

“He’s bright. Smart as a tack. Liked to read. Loved ranching, though. Loved horses. Always thought he’d take over that part of the operations one day. Had a way about him, even at a young age, that made horses love him, too. Couldn’t wait to see him break his first. He was loyal, obedient. Loved to play with his brothers. Loved getting Nick mad. Always protective of his younger sister. Do you think you have my Heath?”

“I wasn’t sure after your telegrams. But I knew when I saw you step off that stage. Plus, the boy you just described is Heath beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

“I’m so glad. I just hope he’ll remember.”

“I have a feeling he will. He’s quite a young man, you know.”

“He got married a few months ago, right? What’s she like?”

“He married Rose last July. Ah, she’s a wonderful girl. Full of spirit. Whenever I see them they’re laughing.”

“That’s good. He always was a bit of a brooder. Needs someone to keep him in high spirits. And he has such a wonderful laugh.” The two men continued to discuss Heath. They reached the house.

“We can get you settled. The boys should be coming in soon. No sense in riding out.’

“No. I guess not.”

“I’ll take your things inside. You can come in for a moment or wait out here if you like.”

“Thank you. I think I’ll wait here.” Ben patted him on the back and went inside. Tom waited a few minutes before seeing two riders.

“Who’s that?” Joe asked.

“’M not sure,” Heath replied. “Somethin’ familiar ‘bout him, though.” They reached the barn and dismounted.

“I’ll put them up, Heath.” Heath nodded his thanks and handed over the reins. While instinct told him to go to his cabin, Heath approached the stranger. Tom saw Heath and knew his son stood before him.

“Son!” cried the man whose years had suddenly ceased to burden him. He stopped short and called out again that happy word. “Son!”

“Yeah, pap–papa?’ The young man stood astonished at the words leaving his mouth. He turned and saw the familiar stranger, and his knees buckled as the oceans of time crashed against him and the memories flooded back like the closing of the Red Sea. Father Time had not yet finished and stood still while they drank in the sight of each other. On unsteady limbs the younger reached his feet again and the older looked into the eyes that stared back from the form of a man.

“How’d you find me, Papa?”

“A kind couple helped Nick a few weeks ago. I think you know them. A certain Dr. and Mrs. Whiting?”

“Papa, so much has happened! How’s everyone? Mother? Jarrod? Nick? Audra? Silas?”

“They’re all fine and can’t wait to see you again. They want to meet Rose, too.”

“Goodness, I have to introduce you. You’ll love her. She’s smart, pretty, kind, fun. Oh, you have to meet her. She’s perfect.”

“Sounds like the woman I married.”

“Oh, she’s a lot like Mother.” They reached the cabin. Rose came out.

“Heath, I have something to tell you.”

“So do I. Rosie, this is my father, Tom Barkley. Aunt Leah met my family and figured everything out. Those dreams weren’t false. They were real.” Rose ran down the front steps to Heath who picked her up and twirled her around.

“I’m so glad you found your family,” Rose said. “Mr. Barkley, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“It’s my pleasure, Rose,” Tom answered.

“Heath, if you don’t mind––,” Rose began.

“Can it hold a minute? Today calls for a celebration!”

“This can be celebrated, too––”

“I know. I’m so glad Rosie. I’m so glad you’re here to share it with me.” Rose let her frustration out.

“Heath Thompson Barkley or whatever your name is! You haven’t let me get a word in!” Heath was surprised.

“What’s the matter, Rose?” Heath asked.

“What’s the matter is that there’s nothing the matter and you won’t even let me tell you about it!” she cried out, exasperated.

“Tell me now.” He was truly puzzled.

“Well, I just wanted to tell you that you didn’t just find your father; you found your child’s grandfather.” Heath let out a howl and spun her around. Tom looked on amused at them and thought of the poor girl trying to give her husband the news. Heath put Rose down as his first-time-father gear kicked in.

“Are you alright? You shouldn’t be out here in the cold. Are you feeling okay? You’re sure?”

“Would you like to check my research? Of course I’m alright. All those old ladies at quilting are always talking about young fathers. I never thought any of it would apply to you. You’d better not pass out, Heath Barkley!” Tom laughed heartily.

“Well, son, I think she passes inspection. Don’t worry, Rose; I’ll make sure he stays standing. Welcome to the family.”

“Thank you. It’s cold out here and I have dinner ready. Why don’t you two come in before I have to thaw you out over the fire?”

*****

Tom Barkley sent a wire home a few days later, the day they were leaving. It was brief but meant so very much to the family:

STOCKTON, CALIFORNIA
VICTORIA BARKLEY, THE BARKLEY RANCH

VICTORIA AND FAMILY:
WE’RE COMING HOME. MEET THE
STAGE ON SATURDAY. HAVE GOOD
NEWS TO SHARE.

LOVE ALWAYS,
TOM

 

Tom handed the bags to the stage driver while Heath and Rose said goodbye. Heath extended his hand to Ben.

“Thank you, sir. Never worked under better men. Feel kinda bad runnin’ out on ya.” Ben shook his hand.

“Nonsense. You’re not running out. You’re going home.”

“Adam,” Heath said. Adam shook his hand.

“Good luck, Heath,” Adam said.

“Thanks. Hoss.” They shook

“You take real good care of that wife of yours, ya hear?”

“I hear.”

“You better tell me what’s going on,” said Joe. “I want to know everything.”

“Yes, boss!” Joe pulled Heath into an embrace.

“I’m gonna miss you, Heath.”

“I’ll miss you, too. All of you.”

“We expect to see all of you at the christening,” Rose said.

“We’ll be there,” Ben replied.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Joe added.

“Everyone aboard!’ called the driver. Heath and Rose got on.

“Ben,” Tom called. “Thank you for being so good to my son. I hope someday I will be able to repay you.” Tom and Ben shook hands and Tom boarded the stage before it pulled away.

 

Stockton, Saturday Afternoon

The town was busy as usual on a Saturday afternoon. The gossips of the town were speculating why the entire Barkley family was waiting at the stage depot. Nick was pacing again, Audra fidgeting while sitting on the bench with Jarrod, who was trying his best to look totally calm. Victoria tried to busy herself with some needlepoint but constantly found herself going too far and ripping out her threads.

“Mother! It’s coming!” Nick shouted. Everyone jumped up. Victoria hastily stuffed her stitching in her handbag and stood at the curb. Her children formed a line behind her in age order. The stage pulled up and the door opened. A middle aged woman appeared as the door opened. An older gentleman stepped forward to assist her.

“Matilda!” he called.

“Jeffrey!” she answered.

The Barkleys stood anxiously. Tom stepped out and embraced Victoria. They held their breaths as Heath climbed out.

“Heath!” Victoria was in tears. Nearby townspeople looked on amazed as they hugged.

“Mother, everyone, I want you to meet someone very special. This is Rose.” Heath took her hand as she stepped down. Jarrod and Nick were impressed with her beauty.

“Nice work, little brother,” Nick complemented.

“Sorry; there’s a hands off policy,” Rose said, showing her ring. “Besides, I should think you’ll hands will be full enough in a few years warding off suitors for this young lady.” Victoria came around in front of Rose.

“Rose, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Heath’s mother, Victoria.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“Boys, get their bags,” Victoria called. She hooked her arms in Heath’s and Rose’s. “Now, what’s this news you have to share?”

*****

That Night

 

Rose looked up from the bed to see Heath standing at the window looking up at the stars. She quietly rose and joined him there. He put his arm over her shoulders and she put hers at his waist.

“I remember being little and looking up at these stars. I liked to try and pick out constellations or see pictures in them. Did the same thing in Strawberry, at Carterson, at the Ponderosa, and now here. I thank God for them every time I look up. Nick liked to do it, too. Maybe we looked up at the same time one night, saw the same stars.”

“God grants many such blessings. My father was always talking about going somewhere special. Taking a pilgrimage to Rome, or the Holy Land, or Ireland, land of his birth. I knew he’d never get there, at least not while he lived. I didn’t realize, and I don’t think he did either, until after his death that he’d been on a pilgrimage his whole life long. A pilgrimage takes you far from home and gives you experiences you would never have had otherwise. But all pilgrimages end, and all pilgrims go home. You completed one part of yours, but you’re not home yet. We’re not home yet. Our pilgrimage is still young.”

***The End***

Thanks for reading.

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