Nick, Do Snipes Have Tails? (by Sandi)

Summary: This is an alternative Big Valley story which portrays Heath arriving at the Barkley ranch as a young child.
Category  The Big Valley (AU)
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7300


“Go home, Shrimp!  Ya can’t come with us.”

“I don’t wanna go home, Nick. Wanna go with you!”

“Beat it kid.  You can’t come.  We don’t need no baby taggin’ along.  You git on home now, Shrimp.  Git!”

“I’m not a baby!  I’m six years old.  Please, Nick.  Let me come.  I promise I won’t be any trouble.”

“Hey Barkley, are we goin’ fishin’ or what?”  The oldest boy of Nick’s little circle glared at the little boy standing in Nick’s path who was holding them up from their afternoon of fishing.

“Keep your shirt on, Jesse.  We’re goin’ just as soon as…” Nick’s voice trailed off not knowing quite how to handle this stubborn snip of a boy with the shock of white blond hair.

“Come on, Nick.  You’d better let the kid come or he’ll go tattling to your pa.”  Rusty had been Nick’s best friend since they had both started the first grade.  So named for his copper red hair, Rusty’s demeanor defied the rumor that all redheads were mischievous and wild.  Rather, he was mostly even-tempered and was the one who was usually able to talk his buddies out of any number of fool acts that eleven-year-old boys somehow found themselves a part of.

“I’m not a tattle tale.  Tattling is for babies.  I’m not a baby,” the little boy said with conviction.

Nick was exasperated and it showed on his face.  Ever since this new tow-headed brother had come to live with his family three months prior, he had proved to be, in Nick’s not so humble opinion, a royal pain in the neck.

It wasn’t really the fact that the kid was going to be tagging after them that bothered Nick.  What bothered him — and he felt a pang of guilt just thinking it — was that he didn’t want to feel responsible for the kid.  The child who someone decided to drop at their doorstep one day, claiming the he was his father’s son. Nick set his jaw hard as he remembered that day.  Two women had arrived at the ranch on a Sunday, just as the whole family was getting ready to go to church.  The family wasn’t expecting any visitors or if they were, visitors never arrived before church, only after. The first lady who exited from what looked to be a rented buggy was getting along in years, Nick remembered.  Probably as old as fifty.  She walked slowly, as though her legs were paining her. The other woman was even older and was a woman of color.  Nick had not had the acquaintance of many Negroes and had at first thought that maybe this woman was a friend of Silas’ who served as butler, nursemaid, cook and all around house helper to their own household. Then he saw the kid.  Very slight in stature, wearing raggedy and worn but clean clothes and that shock of blond hair that seemed to fall in his eyes, always being brushed at by his own little hand or one of the adults with him.  And those eyes.  Nick remembered settling his gaze on the kid’s eyes. They were as of sapphire. The deepest, saddest eyes he could remember ever seeing.  Oh, Jarrod’s eyes were blue, but his brother’s eyes were different. Jarrod’s eyes were full of sparkle and brightness.  This little lad’s blues told a story of hurt and disappointment.  They lacked joy and, Nick noticed, as this young one entered their home and their lives, the drop of the boy’s head or the downcast of his gaze often hid them. The boy had been hurt. Hurt badly. Problem was — and Nick’s heart pinched a little as he thought on the little boy standing before him again — he didn’t care how he was hurt. He didn’t care. Nick couldn’t get beyond the fact that this little kid had arrived unexpectedly and the people he was with had made the audacious claim that his father, the great Tom Barkley, was this little imp’s father. That hadn’t sat well with young Nick, not well at all.  And to beat all, his father and his mother had now taken in this child unconditionally. Pa!  How could you? He can’t be yours.  You wouldn’t do such a thing! A wicked thing. Not to mother. Oh Pa!

Nick shook that day from his head. That had been weeks ago and now months. This boy, this boy called Heath, was still here and now here he was wanting for Nick to like him.  The kid went out of his way to please his older brother whom he adored, emulating his ways and, to Nick’s annoyance, followed him everywhere. The kid, for being of such small stature, was no chicken. Nick had to give him that, but still, this kid had sullied the reputation of his father. The reputation of Tom Barkley, the master of the Valley.  He would have to pay for that. The kid would have to pay.

“Well Barkley? What are we gonna do with him?”

“Shut up Jess. I’m thinkin’.”  Nick glared his displeasure at the eager little boy and finally shrugged his shoulders in disgust and said, “Well come on then.  But I don’t want you goin’ off by yourself, ya hear me boy?”

“Promise Nick.”  Heath nodded solemnly and crossed his little fingers over his heart.

*****

 At eleven years old, Nick Barkley was well familiar with the land that belonged to his family. Since he was a wee tyke of two, Nick had walked these acres, often accompanying his father as Tom worked the fertile soil or traversed through the approaching woods. The woods that would lead to a small lake boasting the best fishing in the Valley.

Little Heath beamed with pleasure that his new big brother was allowing him to be in his elite circle of friends. The three older boys continued their trek, fishing poles in hand, as they reached the dense woods that would see the lake on the other side. Heath’s little legs scurried to keep up.  The woods frightened the boy but he would never let Nick know that.

How many times had his Uncle Matt taken him to the woods near his first home in Strawberry on the premise of showing him the manly arts of hunting and trapping only to leave him alone to entertain himself while the older man in charge of the boy secretly took out a bottle and slowly got drunk?  And as he got drunk, his temper would turn mean and vile. He would tell the boy stories. Stories of animals. Wild animals that feed upon bad little boys. Heath was always a bad little boy, he was told. Sometimes Matt would order Heath to stand for hours at a time.  Stand in the woods, for if he moved, yes if he even flinched, wild hungry animals would come for him and would eat him.  Children are innocent and sweet in nature and believe what they are told. Heath believed his uncle. He would stand petrified, hearing the whooping calls of birds and the growls of forest animals around him. Finally a shove that would sprawl the youngster to the ground would usually end the “game” and Matt would cackle and snort over how scared Heath was. “Ain’t no way you’re gonna be a man, boy. No skart little bastard is ever gonna be a man. You better get on home now to that whore of a woman you call your mama. Get along, boy. Run! Run!”

The child really didn’t know what those words meant that his uncle used when referring to Heath and his mother, but the way they were said, Heath ascertained that they were ugly words. Words that his mama would probably wash his mouth out for saying.

Heath drew in a mouthful of air and held his breath allowing the burning sensation to swim into his lungs and chest.  If he didn’t breathe while in the woods, no wild animals would know he was there. They wouldn’t be able to pick up his scent if he didn’t breathe, his childish mind reasoned. He hurried to keep up, high stepping over branches and twigs. His head was starting to feel light. Have to breathe, he told himself. Have to get air. Letting his lungs release, he quickly but quietly took in another gulp of air. Quietly Heath, he chided himself. Don’t want any wild animals to hear ya.

Suddenly the toe of his boot caught on a root embedded in the uneven rough ground.  Heath’s hands flew out in front of him instinctively to break his fall. Nick and his pals continued clomping through the woods several feet ahead.  The little boy wanted to be brave but the force of the tumble caused him to cry out involuntarily as his soft small hands hit the hard ground.  Rusty stopped and looked back at the fallen boy. Nick and Jesse didn’t appear to hear Heath’s cry and continued on towards the lake. Meanwhile Heath was struggling to stand. Tears of pain and shame were starting to stream down his little face. He wanted to be a big boy.  A big boy like his brother Nick.  Heath held his tender little hands in front of him. They were scraped raw and bleeding.

Rusty felt a pang of compassion for the little boy and called out for Nick and Jesse to wait up. Nick turned and, upon seeing the disconsolate little face, he flashed a scowl of pure annoyance. He knew that the kid would hold them up.  Then he looked again and saw that Heath seemed really hurt. Despite how he was feeling, he couldn’t help himself. Nick, though rough and tumble on the outside, carried within him a large soft heart.  His face softened from anger to curiosity to concern. He stomped back to where the child was standing, pressing his hands against his pants to take the sting away. Nick noticed that Heath’s pants were torn at the knee and that the little boy’s knee was bleeding pretty good from a rather nasty gash.

Whether is was because he was afraid that Nick would be angry with him for falling or because he didn’t want anyone to touch his hurt knee, Heath started to back away when Nick came towards him.

“Hey Shrimp, take it easy.  I’m ain’t gonna hurt ya.”

Heath arched an eyebrow suspiciously as he listened to Nick’s uncharacteristically soft voice and continued to back away from him. His foot landed on a twig wrong that caused him to lose his balance. His little rump met the ground with a soft whomp. In a flash, Heath drew his legs up and his little arms wrapped themselves around them protectively.  He turned his body away from his big brother, who was now squatting down beside him trying to get a look at the injured knee.

“Come on Heath.  Let me at least look at it.  I won’t touch it, I promise.”

“Hurts Nick.”

“I know it hurts, Shrimp, but I’ve got to look at it so as to know how we can fix it.”

“Promise you’ll only look,” Heath whispered, his bottom lip started to quiver, tears threatening to spill again.

“I promise, Shrimp.  Let me see.”

Heath still looked wary but slowly his arms fell from around his legs. The torn fabric of his pants parted to reveal a jagged cut and roughed bruising developing around it. The bleeding appeared to have stopped but the cut would need to be cleaned and bandaged to keep it from becoming infected.

“Heath, we need to wrap that cut.”  Nick started to remove the bandana from around his neck.

“You promised you’d only look at it.”  Heath started to shrink back away from Nick.

“And I did. I looked at it but now we need to do more. That cut needs tending.”

“It’s gonna hurt.”

“I know it is, Shrimp, but only for a little while, I promise.”

“You promised you wouldn’t touch it,” Heath said sulkily. Deep down he knew his big brother was right. The cut needed tending.

“I’ll try to be gentle,” Nick assured the boy.  “Here. I need you to bend your leg just a little.”  Nick examined the gash again and finally determined how best to treat the wound.

Heath eyes grew large and round when he heard Nick make a sound as if he was clearing his throat only it didn’t sound exactly like true throat clearing. Rather, it soon became apparent that Nick was working on getting a good mouthful of spit. Before Heath could protest, Nick moved his mouth close to the bloodied knee and hacked a wad of saliva onto the wound almost covering it.

“Why’d ya go and do that?”  Heath wiggled and twisted and tried to pull away. Nick held him fast.

“We needed to clean the cut,” Nick explained.  “You don’t see any water here, do ya?

“No, but…”

“But nothing. You wanna grow up to be a real cowboy, don’t ya, Shrimp?”

“Yeah, but…”

“You’re full of ‘buts’ boy. What I’m trying to tell you is that if ya wanna grow up to be a real cowboy, ya gotta learn how to improvise.”

“Impra..impro-what?”

“Improvise.” Nick was rather proud of the large word that had rolled off of his tongue.  That’s what hanging around Jarrod will do for ya, he thought to himself. Always with his nose in a book, Jarrod was full of big fancy words. Most of the time, Nick loved to tease his older brother about his books and fancy ways. “Won’t do ya no good knowin’ all those fancy pants words if you’re herdin’ cows or fixin’ a fence,” he would tell him.  Jarrod went along with the teasing, knowing there was no real spite involved.  Everyone knew from Jarrod’s earliest years that the ranch was not his calling.

“What’s that word ‘improvise’ mean?” Heath asked focusing his eyes on his injury as Nick’s saliva was starting to run down his leg.

“It means you make do with what’s available.” Nick folded his bandana into thirds and was quickly wrapping it around Heath’s knee, up and under and making a knot to secure it. “Now see here, we don’t have any water to clean up your knee but we have water in our mouths in the form of spit. To top that, it’s even better than water. Spit’s got real healin’ powers. I heard Duke tell the men that once.”  Nick used the cuff of his shirt to wipe away the excess fluid and stood up, brushing his hands on his pants.  “There now.  Do you think you can stand up?”

Heath looked doubtfully at his leg and then up at Nick. Gingerly he picked himself up and tested out the leg. He knew already that he had been big trouble to his brother so he quickly put on a brave face.

“S’alright Nick. I can walk plenty good. We better get a move on.”

Jesse and Rusty inspected Nick’s handiwork. “Woowee Nick, that’s a fine job of bandagin’,” declared Jesse.  “Ya sure you don’t wanna turn in your spurs for a doctor’s bag?”

“Nah,” Nick replied with his usual loudness and clarity. “Ya gotta stick yer nose in too many books to learn to be a real doctor. Wouldn’t want my hands to get lily white and soft like that older brother of mine. No sir!  It’s the cowboy’s life for me.”

The clearing in the woods was just before them and a glimpse of one of the most beautiful spots in the Valley. Heath moved into the back recesses of Nick’s mind again as the lake came into close view. “Come on boys!  Let’s do us some serious fishin’.”

*****

Nick could hardly wait to dip his hook into the cool clear water. A new fishing rod isn’t any good lessin’ it was good and broke in. Jesse and Rusty baited their own hooks and soon the three boys sat with their respective fish catchers in the water and started bantering back and forth as to who was going to catch the biggest fish.

Now of course, since no one planned on Heath tagging along, he didn’t have a rod of his own. That didn’t bother the little boy though. He was content to play by himself in the sandy soil where the serene waters of the lake gently lapped up onto the shore. Taking a small twig, he drew pictures in the damp earth, all the while listening to the bigger boys talk, argue, joke and laugh amongst themselves. It didn’t bother the child that Nick and his pals weren’t paying him the slightest bit of attention. It was enough for Heath just to be around his big brother. To hear Nick laugh, talk and tell stories.

The noonday sun rose to its highest in the crystal clear sky. Its summertime heat radiating off of the water, slowly turning the boys’ skin to a golden brown, save fair-skinned Rusty, whose skin was turning redder by the hour. All the while, the trio continued to cast out and reel in, each time coming up empty handed. All the time, they kept peppering each other with playful jibes and seemingly competing with one another as to who could be the loudest. Three hours had passed and not a fish had been caught. Heath was tiring of his self-made games and stood up a bit stiff legged from where he had been sitting in the sand. He furrowed his forehead as his knee started to pain him. He hobbled a bit to where the big boys were and perched himself on a nearby boulder. He observed how they were hollering out at each other in playful rivalry. His eyes fell upon the bucket that had been brought along for the sole purpose of placing the catches of the day.  He noticed that the bucket was empty. He continued to study the boys frolicking about in front of him.  They did not notice his intent gaze.  Heath looked again at the empty bucket.

“Nick.”  His voice was soft. Not hearing his call, the boys continued their horseplay.  He cleared his throat and thrust out his chest and tried again, this time projecting his voice a little louder. “Uh, Nick?”

Nick let go a shout and grabbed for Jesse’s collar just as his friend nearly tumbled into the lake.

Heath scuttled off of the boulder he was sitting on and cautiously approached the three rough and tumble older boys. He carefully positioned himself close to his brother.  Reaching his little hand out, he caught a hold of Nick’s shirttail that was hanging freely out from his pants.  “Nick?”  The little boy’s voice was just above a whisper.  Nick drew himself out of the rough play with his friends.  His face darkened as he turned to his little brother.

“Well?”

Nick could be so intimidating when he scowled like that, Heath thought to himself. Still Heath had something to say.  He licked his lips nervously and took a deep breath.  Nick wasn’t gonna like hearing any advice from a pipsqueak kid.  Heath knew this but still he decided to press forward, regardless of the consequences.

“Nick, you’re….you’re scarin’…scarin’ all the fish away,” he stuttered and turned his gaze to the empty bucket.

“Huh?  Whaddya talkin’ about kid?”  Nick looked downright menacing.  Heath didn’t back down.

“The fish, Nick. The fish are gettin’ scared away by all yer hollerin’. They won’t come near your bait iffen yer shoutin’ and carrying on.”  Heath braced himself for the wrath of his volatile big brother. Instead of retribution for being impudent, Nick just stared at his little brother who looked like he was preparing to be slugged. Nick hardened expression was slowly softening as the Shrimp’s reasoning began to work into his thinking. Still, it wasn’t Nick Barkley’s way to allow anyone, ANYONE to tell him what to do, least of all no shrimpy little brother. Somehow, Nick thought to himself, payback was due for daring to tell big brother, the more superior big brother, how to mind his fishing. But the kid might he right, he argued with himself.  Maybe, just maybe if we take what he said and do something with it, we might just still come home with some decent catch. But still, his ego argued, still the kid would have to pay for being uppity with his opinions.  Little brother would pay.

*****

The sky began to display its evening colors as the sun dipped down beneath the western horizon.  The four boys started to gather their gear. The bucket now fairly brimmed over with the many fish caught thanks to one little boy’s sage piece of advice.

That same little boy was also the first that afternoon to land a fine looking trout. No, he didn’t have a fancy fishing pole like Nick and his pals. Only a skinny little twig he had pulled off one of the many oaks that surrounded the tranquil little lake. Nick had felt charitable enough to fashion the stick with some line from his own gear, along with a hook.  Heath had dug for his own bait and had carefully skewered a fat wiggly worm onto the hook. Dipping his line into the water, he couldn’t help but smile. Just like the big boys. I’m just like the big boys, he thought to himself.

It wasn’t more than ten minutes of quiet solitude when Heath felt his twig give a tug and then another. He held on tight to his crude rod and watched as the end began to bend down towards the water. He felt his heart skip a beat. His stomach started to flip flop.  He’d never caught himself a fish before. The older boys were engrossed in their own lines and didn’t see the activity happening a few feet from where they sat.  Heath, meanwhile, was finding it hard to hold onto his stick and pull at the same time. This fish was a strong one and was threatening to pull the whole thing out of the little boy’s hands.

“Nick!  Nick!  Help!” The child’s loud whisper brought an explosive sigh of exasperation from big brother who turned to glare at his sibling.

“Now what?”

“Help Nick! I’ve got a fish! I’ve got a fish, only he’s about to get away.”

“Blast it. You can’t catch a fish with a twig! Everyone knows that.”

“Uh Nick, look at his line,” Rusty gestured at the bobbing end of Heath’s stick.

All three boys abandoned their fancy rods and stood for a moment gaping at Heath’s bobbing twig. Just then a streak of silver shot out of the water and dove under again.

“It can’t be!” Nick astonished for a moment but quickly moved into action to help little brother reel in his catch. “Hold ‘er steady now,” he counseled.  Nick stretched his body out over the water to grab the line that was now threatening to break under the weight of the large trout. “Easy does it. Jesse, help him pull the stick up and back. I’ll work from this end.”  As a team, the boys started to make headway and Heath’s trout finally was brought close to the shore, snatched at, and, after the hook was removed, placed soundly into the bucket.

“I did it! I did it,” Heath proclaimed in a loud whisper. He didn’t want to scare the rest of the fish away for his brother and his buddies. “I caught me a real fish! I did it Nick!”  His elated upturned face quickly crumpled to misery as he could plainly see that Nick was not sharing in his happiness. His big brother’s eyes were narrowed and Heath felt fidgety with the look that was being cast his way.

“Nick?  Did I do good? I caught a fish. Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Yeah fine. Great. You caught a fish. Terrific.”

“Are ya mad at me, Nick?”

Nick let his glare move from his little brother to his own fishing rod. “Nah. I’m not mad atcha kid. Not much, I guess. It’s just that, BLAST IT!  How could you catch anything with just a little stick?  Here I have this brand new rod with all the latest thingamajigs on it and you go and catch the first trout with that, that stick. It just ain’t fair.”

Heath tense body relaxed somewhat, knowing he wasn’t about to get whomped this time for, what would Nick call it again? Impudence! That’s the word. Must be another one of Jarrod’s fancy words he picked up, like that word ‘improvise’, Heath thought. Nick had said he wasn’t mad at him, but Heath couldn’t help but be a little doubtful, as the rest of the afternoon, though all the boys at regular intervals seemed to be pulling in lovely catches and placing them in the bucket, Nick only grumbled at him when Heath tried to show his enthusiasm and comradery as another trout and then another was pulled from the chilly waters of the lake.

Nick was still not exactly in a friendly mood when it came time to pack up their gear and head on home. Heath noticed as he lagged behind the boys that it seemed as though Nick was hatching some kind of plan, for he kept whispering and laughing with his pals and would occasionally laugh a loud laugh that for some reason, made Heath uneasy. You’re just imagining things, Heath, told himself. Hadn’t Nick said he wasn’t mad atcha, the little boy reasoned with himself. Not much mad, he remembered. Maybe it was nothing.  Home would be a good place to get to. Hope Silas has something good for supper. Heath’s stomach began to rumble.

***** 

Whispering shadows loomed large as the four boys made their way back to the ranch, the three older ones taking turns carrying the bucket laden with the day’s catch. Dusk descended, turning day into evening. Heath could swear he felt his heart jumping in his shirt as the little group approached the woods on their way home. No one seemed to notice his wide-eyed look of terror and tentative steps as they drew nearer to the haven of trees and brush that covered the last of light in the sky. Hurry, hurry, he urged his legs.  His knee smarted from his fall earlier in the day. As hurry as he would go, he was still lagging behind the big boys who seemed to almost run as they entered the dark, cool woods.  Maybe they’re afraid too, Heath thought, but the little boy quickly dismissed that notion when he thought of Nick. Nick ain’t afraid of nuthin’. Suddenly there they were in the middle of the dark woods and Nick turned and raised his hand in a ‘halt’ position.  Heath didn’t see the gesture and nearly bumped into Rusty in his endeavor to exit the dark creepiness as soon as possible.

“Whoa! Careful there, junior.” Rusty caught Heath around the waist as child began to fall.

“What’s wrong, Nick? Why’d ya stop?” Jesse asked. “My pa will tan my hide if I get home after dark.”

Heath wanted to run. Run as fast as he could out of the darkness of the canopy of trees but the no nonsense look on Nick’s face froze his little feet in their tracks.

“Shrimp!”

 Heath looked around from where he stood. Reluctantly it dawned on him. Nick was talking to him.

“Shrimp!” This time Nick’s voice carried the slight edge of anger and a hurry up, don’t dally inflection. Heath stepped forward, his knees quivering. He just wished they would keep moving so that he could let his breath out. He head was starting to feel light and floaty again.

“Got somethin’ for ya.”  Nick had pulled out of his satchel that carried his tackle and other “roughing it” necessities a cloth bag that had earlier in the day held a scrumptious lunch, enough for a crowd of hungry boys.

Heath automatically thrust out his hand to take the gray cloth bag from his brother but immediately his deep blue eyes looked questioningly to the presenter of the mystery bag.

“Why are you giving this to me, Nick?” Heath could feel his throat constrict. A wild animal could pounce on them at any minute. “Can’t we go home now?” The question came out as a mere hoarse squeak.

“Nope.” The final answer hung like something chilling and vile in the little boy’s mind.

Heath tried his voice again. His attempt wasn’t much more successful than the first. “But why, Nick? Pa ain’t gonna like it if we get home late.”  Heath was hoping that reason would win out over his brother’s confusing games.

“We ain’t gonna get home late.”

“But….”

“There you go again! Full of ‘buts’. You listen to me boy. We’re gonna play a game, ya hear? Now listen closely, ‘cause I ain’t gonna tell ya twice.”

Nick winced a little when Heath dropped his eyes and then bowed his head. Still it wasn’t going to stop him. The kid’s gotta learn, he thought to himself, shoving any sympathetic thoughts he might have to the back of his head.  I’m in charge and what I say, goes.

“Now see here. You’re to hold this bag like this. See?” Nick snatched the bag from Heath’s trembling hands and held it so that there was a wide opening at the top.  “Next you squat down like this and…” Nick sat on his haunches but then he remembered the little boy’s knee. Showing a small amount of compassion, he changed his instructions.  “No, you sit on your fanny and hold the bag between your legs like this.” Nick demonstrated what he wanted his little brother to do. “You now have yourself a snipe trap,” he explained.

“But Nick,” Heath whispered, trying to not let his brother know that he was about to cry.  “I ain’t never seen a snipe. Can’t we just go home?”

“No way! You wanted to come along with us, Shrimp. Now I say we’re gonna have us a snipe hunt and that’s how it’s gonna be. Now your job will be to trap the snipes in this here bag.  Me and the boys will round ‘em up for you. Alls you have to do now is hold the bag and watch ‘em come a flyin’. Ya got that, Shrimp?”

“But what does a snipe look like? How will I know when I see one? Do snipes bite?  I don’t see why we can’t just go home. I’m hungry.”

“You ask too many questions, kid. Just hold the bag the way I showed ya. Snipes love dark places. Once me and the boys start herding them in your direction, they’ll be happy to get into the bag. Now don’t you worry about a thing there, Shrimp.” Nick could see Heath had a panicked look about him. He felt it only fair that he should reassure him that no, snipes don’t bite and yes, this would be a quick game so that they would be home before supper, or Nick thought to himself, before any parent would get anxious and send out a search party for them. Nick didn’t want to hurt the boy, just have a little fun, that’s all.

“Fan out fellas,” Nick hollered his command. “Rusty, you head out that way, I’ll move towards the main road and Jesse, you take care of that clump of trees over there. That’s prime snipe ground. Oughta find a bunch of ‘em in there. Be sure to grab yourselves two good sticks and pound ‘em together. That’ll draw the critters out and move ‘em towards Heath here.” He looked down at his brother sitting on the ground and beamed a big toothy grin. Nick’s two friends moved away to their designated snipe territory. They were all experienced snipe hunters, each at one time being the holder of the bag.

Tears started rolling down the little boy’s face as the older boys one by one left him sitting alone on the hard cold ground in a very scary place. He was thoroughly convinced that a wild animal would devour him at any minute. “Mama,” he whispered.  “Please don’t let me get eaten. I promise I’ll always be a good boy. Oh mama, help me.”

Heath knew that his mama, his real mama, would not come to his rescue, for she had died of a terrible sickness just about six months ago.

That’s why he had come to live with his pa and his wife. Aunt Rachel had somehow contacted the Barkleys and in the gentlest way possible, she had told them about the boy.  They could have denied the child and had him sent to an orphanage, for Rachel and Hannah were unable to mind such a young, energetic child. Tom and Victoria Barkley would not even consider that option. Heath was Tom’s son. And while there were issues and feelings of betrayal that would have to be dealt with, the more important factor was that there was this child. A child who deserved the love of a loving parent. Two loving parents, for it did not take long for Victoria to grow to love this son of her husband’s and that of another woman, now dead.  Heath was a lovely little boy. So polite and sweet. He was also a hurt soul and Victoria’s mother instinct couldn’t help but kick in as she yearned to take the hurt out of this lonely little boy’s heart. She determined early that despite what had happened with her husband, she would raise this child as her own.  He would be forever loved by two parents and cherished as a member of their family.

His mama was dead, but still the thought of her, warm, caring and loving, comforted the boy. He held the thought of his mama in his mind and by and by, he wasn’t so afraid anymore.

*****

Heath was startled when he heard the first choir of crickets begin their nighttime melodies but soon realized that these night creatures were no threat to him. He squirmed to get more comfortable. Sitting Indian style, he continued to grip the cloth bag so that its wide opening was handy for any wandering snipes. He could hear the older boys beating the bushes and clacking their sticks in the not too far distance.

The little boy sat almost motionless for what seemed to him like hours. In reality only fifteen minutes had passed. Time seems to stretch into the realm of forever when you have to be aware of so many things; wild animals being first and foremost. Also the darkness closing in worried him. The possibility of his brother, the brother whom he wanted so badly to like him, leaving him here and never coming back. So many worries running through such a little boy’s head. Still he had the thoughts of his mama to comfort him and after a little while, he softly started singing a song that his mama had taught him, a hymn. His mama was so fond of songs about the Lord and this was one he had heard often not only from his mama but from Hannah as well, as she scrubbed the miner’s clothes in her old wash tub. He began to hum softly so as not to bring attention to himself.

“Amazing Grace!  How sweet the sound…”

At first he thought the scurrying sound he heard was simply his own stomach rumbling.  Surely Silas must be putting all the dinner provisions away by this time, Heath thought sadly.

There it was again. This time, it sounded louder. Heath squeezed his eyes shut. He was sure that if it was a wild animal moving in closer he didn’t want to see it coming at him.  Still with his eyes closed, Heath could hear what sounded like a snuffling sound. A very close snuffling sound.  “Oh mama!” He whispered as he tried to scrunch himself small so that maybe this wild animal wouldn’t see him. He commenced holding his breath so that the beast approaching wouldn’t smell him. Though his eyes were closed tightly, Heath could feel the cloth sack move in his grip. He fastened onto the sack tighter, his knuckles surely turning white. He could hear Nick and the others in the distance.  It sounded as if they were coming this way. Suddenly it dawned on him.

I think I’ve got a snipe! I think I’ve got a snipe! It must be a snipe. I did it! I caught me a snipe! With his new realization, Heath slowly opened his eyes. Nick will be so proud of me, he thought. I caught my very first snipe! Nick will like me now. I just know it!

With great care, Heath allowed his gaze to rest on the bag in front of him. Yep!  I got one, he assured himself with new confidence. I can see its tail. And indeed the black fluffy tail of an animal was hanging half in and half out of the bag. The tail of a real live snipe, he thought with great satisfaction. He kept watching his prize as only the tail was visible and kept flicking back and forth. Heath thought to himself the perhaps snipes were really much like kitties. Like some of the black and white kitties he often played with in the barn at his new family’s ranch. The bag moved again as the prey inside moved further into the dark recesses of its new cozy den.  The fluffy tail flicked once more and disappeared completely into the bag.

The sound of laughter became louder as the three boys began to emerge from their own adventure in the woods. They could see Heath still sitting on the ground.  In the darkness, it pretty much looked like he was still holding the bag the same way, as he had been when they had left. Nick knew the game was over and that they could still get home before total darkness had set in. Nick knew that while it was very dark in the woods, once in the open land, there would still be enough light to get home by.

Nick broke loose from his gang and started to approach Heath to tell him that they all could go home now. To tell him the game was over. He was rather taken aback when Heath told him to Shhhhhhhhh as Nick and the others came in closer.

“Huh?  Whaddya mean, Shrimp? Didn’t you hear me? We can go home now. Game’s over.”

“Shhhhhhhhhh,” Heath little index finger went to his lips.

“What are you tryin’ to tell me, boy?  Don’t you wanna go home? I do. I’m starvin’!”

“Quiet, Nick,” the little boy whispered adamantly as he stole a glance at the bag.

Nick noticed for the first time that the opening of the bag was closed and it looked like it wasn’t exactly empty either.

“Uh, Shrimp,” he said quietly as he and the other boys huddled around the suspicious bag.  “Whatcha got in there, boy?”

Heath’s eyes fairly danced as he reported his news.  “I got me a snipe, Nick!  A real live snipe!”

“What?”  Nick’s eyebrows rose to the top of his forehead.  Each of the boys looked at each other, confusion written all over their faces.

“Uh, Heath. Uh, I gotta tell ya somethin’.”

“Aren’t you proud of me, Nick?  I gotta a snipe. All by myself I did. Was I good?”

“Uh, er, um yeah.” Nick was at an unusual loss for words.

“Ya wanna see my snipe?”  Heath carefully and slowly began to rise, still holding the bag steady.

“Wait a minute, Shrimp. Uh, I need to tell ya somethin’ about, about snipes.”

“Yeah Nick?  Ya wanna tell me that they look like the kitties we have in the barn, right?  Only they aren’t really kitties.”

“Well, not exactly, er…..”

“Do the snipes that you catch, Nick, do they have pretty black and white fluffy tails like my snipe?”

“Black and fluffy tail?” Nick asked haltingly. All three boys got the same worried look upon hearing that detail of Heath’s catch in the bag.

“Do they Nick? Do snipes have tails?”

Just then both Rusty and Jesse let out a yell. “SKUNK!” The boys’ yelling startled Heath, making him lose his grip on the bag. The loud commotion scared the prey in the bag and out scurried a rather annoyed baby skunk, which vented its disdain for being interrupted in mid-nap by raising its tail in the exact direction where Nick Barkley stood.

“AUGHGHGHGGHGHGHGH!!!”

Though it wasn’t a full adult spray, it was enough to make for a most unpleasant odor. While the stink drifted and swirled in the air most of the spray landed on poor Nick himself.

“We gotta get home. Come on, Nick.” Rusty took charge. While pinching his fingers to his nose with one hand, with his other he pushed Nick towards the main road and home.

“Come on, Heath,” hollered Jesse as the boys hurried out to the road, forgetting their bucket of fish, and pounded towards home. Heath’s legs carried him over the road with surprising lightness. He may not have caught a real snipe; hmmm, he’d have to ask Nick later if snipes really were real. But he mused with himself, he had caught himself a wild animal and hadn’t been eaten for his efforts. The little boy smiled to himself as he sailed over fields and plain, spotting the huge mansion he now called home in the short distance. Maybe the woods aren’t such a scary place after all.

Tom Barkley was just coming into the house when he spotted the boys running across the last field before coming into the yard. He wrinkled his nose when a waft of foul odor hit him. Only one critter that smells like that, he thought to himself. Jesse reached the elder Barkley first and his words fairly tumbled from his mouth as he tried to explain what happened.

“Nick! A skunk sprayed him. He didn’t mean to, honest Mr. Barkley.”

Nick, Rusty and then Heath, bringing up the rear stopped in front of the Patriarch.

“Woooweee boy! We done gotta get you cleaned up. Now into the horse trough with you, boy.  You ain’t goin’ into your mother’s house smelling like that.”

“Yes sir.” Nick was rather embarrassed by his plight but he was also humbled as he climbed into the water. He knew that what he had done to Heath was mean. Mean, nasty and uncalled for. But the Shrimp had surprised him. The kid had taken his brotherly licks like a man. And Nick acknowledged this, thinking on his little brother with a new sense of respect. He had a lot of plucky courage, that little Shrimp. Maybe for a little tow-headed kid, he’s not such a bad brother to have around after all.

Nick dunked his head under the water along with his whole body. He shook his head, letting the water fly. Not a bad brother at all, Heath Barkley. He waited with a new warm feeling in his heart for his pa to come back with that special soap he had in the barn, used on the horses and other animals on the ranch when they had chance to encounter the fluffy black and white tailed snipe.

***The End***

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