Summary: Heath discovers understanding, compassion, and friendship where he expected only scorn and rejection.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 33,700
“Boys, before you leave the table, your sister has some very interesting news to share with you.”
Victoria Barkley addressed her three sons from her position at the head of the table.
All three men looked at Audra expectantly.
“Thank you, Mother,” she began. “If you will all remember, Mother and I told you several weeks ago that we were joining the new woman’s club here in Stockton, the Stockton Ladies’ Literary Society.”
“Oh, yeah, that,” muttered Nick to Heath, “a fancy name for a hen party, if you ask me.” Heath just grinned, while Victoria and Jarrod glared at him.
“Continue, Audra, dear. There will be no more interruptions,” Victoria promised.
“Yes, little sister. I, for one, am all ears,” said Jarrod.
“Well, at yesterday’s meeting the chairman read a letter from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs about a new program called a “traveling library”.”
“Well, now I have heard of everything,” interrupted Nick. He was immediately silenced by a look from his mother.
“As I said, a traveling library. It’s a way that small communities, such as farming towns and mining camps, can share books. The books are shipped to each town in turn by the railroad. That way there is a constant supply of new books, but there is no need to buy copies of every book for every town.”
“Well, Audra, that sounds like a splendid idea to me,” remarked Jarrod. “I suppose you’re about to tell us that such libraries are going to be established here, and that you would like us to contribute to the cause.”
“Yes, Mister Smarty Pants. That’s just what I was about to tell you. But I was also going to tell you that I volunteered to be head of the traveling library committee. The first thing to do is to organize a drive to collect used books from the people around Stockton.”
“I told Audra that I was sure that you had some books you could contribute to get the drive started, Jarrod,” added Victoria.
“Well, young lady, I would just like to say that I am very proud of you for taking on this responsibility. It is important for the Barkleys to uphold the American tradition of community service. And I would be proud to be the first to contribute to the cause.”
“Now hold on just a minute,” demanded Nick. “You’re trying to tell us that books are going to be shipped to mining camps? What for? Most of those men can’t read anyway, and those who can aren’t interested. They have other ways of spending their free time. Reading isn’t exactly their favorite form of recreation. You know what the people in those camps are like.”
“Well, Nick, I think that Heath would know more about it than you would,” retorted Audra.
“What do you think, Heath? Would the people living in mining camps have any interest in a traveling library?”
“Well,” responded Heath slowly, “I don’t rightly know, but I reckon it kind of depends on the kind of books that would be sent.”
“Oh, come on Heath!” shouted Nick. “You know what those people are like! The last thing any of them is interested in is reading.”
Nick looked around, puzzled by the sudden silence which had fallen on the table. Heath stared down at his plate as though the few remains of his breakfast had suddenly taken on a cosmic significance. After several moments of strained silence, he addressed his brother without raising his head.
“Uh, yeah, Nick, I reckon I do know what they are like, seein’ as how I was one of those people not so long ago,” answered Heath calmly.
“You! Not you .. well, I didn’t mean … I mean, you were different … you were just a kid,” muttered Nick.
“I don’t reckon I was all that different. The only books we had to read when I was growing up were the Bible and a couple of old books the school threw away. I remember one was about King Arthur and his knights and the other was about Robin Hood. My mother would read me stories from them sometimes, when she wasn’t too tired from work. Then when I got old enough, I’d read them to myself. I even kind of made up stories in my own head, like I was one of those knights or one of Robin Hood’s men. That way, I could pretend that I was someplace besides Strawberry, and somebody besides, … well, …. besides who I was.” There was silence around the table. Heath seemed very interested in the arrangement of food on his plate. Nick reached over and squeezed his arm without saying anything.
Heath looked up. “I reckon books for kids would be the most important. Kind of give them the idea that there’s more to the world than just the camps. Wouldn’t hurt for some of the older people to get the same idea, too.”
“Well, when you put it like that,” Nick put in, “I guess I’d have to agree with you. Books can be pretty important when you’re a kid. In fact, I seem to remember that you, Jarrod, had a fondness for playing King Arthur and his knights, too. And it also seems to me that you always had to play the part of King Arthur.” He glared at Jarrod across the table.
“Hold on just a minute, little brother,” responded Jarrod. “It seems to me that I wasn’t left much choice since you insisted on the role of the Black Knight.”
“Boys, that will be enough,” said Victoria lightly.
“Jarrod interrupted me before I could finish,” exclaimed Audra. “Children’s books will be included in the library, lots of them. But we already know what kinds of books to send for the children, and for the women, too. What we need are recommendations of books for the men.
What kind of books do you think that the men would like to read, Heath?”
“Well, beggin’ your pardon Jarrod, but I don’t think that too many of them fancy books you got in your library would be all that interestin’. Some of the adventure stories, but none of those essays or poetry books. I’ve looked at a couple of them, and, boy howdy, I couldn’t make head nor tail of ’em.”
“So, Heath, you think that adventure stories would be read by the miners?”, asked Victoria.
“What other genres of literature do you imagine would attract their interest?”
Heath stared at her blankly.
“Would you say biographies of famous men, for example? Or some of those new mysteries that Mr. Poe is writing? Or perhaps some of the lighter novels of Mr. Dickens?” suggested Victoria.
“Well, yes, just about anything that has a good story to it,” answered Heath.
“I think I can find a few of those, little brother,” smiled Jarrod. “I suggest that we start in the old nursery.”
“Oh, yes, that’s a fine idea,” agreed Audra. “There are some wonderful books in there. Why, there are some collections of nursery rhymes, and those books of fairy tales.”
“And it seems to me that I recall reading “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Gulliver’s Travels” as I got too old for those books”, added Jarrod.
“Hey, don’t forget Robinson Crusoe,” exclaimed Nick. He turned to Heath, “It’s a great story about a man marooned on a desert island. He gets to fight head hunters. You’ll have to read when you get the chance.”
“Sounds good to me,” replied Heath.
“Don’t forget Robert Louis Stevenson,” added Jarrod, “and Rudyard Kipling. Do you like Kipling, Heath?”
“Well, I don’t rightly know,” drawled Heath, “I’ve never kippled.”
There was silence for a moment, then laughter as the rest of the family saw the corner of his mouth twitch in a sly grin.
“I still say that it’s a waste of time and paper to send books up to those camps for the miners to read, ” insisted Nick, “But you’ve convinced me about the kids’ books.”
“I’ll change you’re mind about the adults, too. ” said Audra. “For now, I’ll settle for your help with the children’s books. When can we bring them down?”
Well, there’s no time like the present,” declared Nick, “What say we head upstairs right now?”
The others agreed and rose from the table.
“Don’t be too long about it,” said Victoria. “We don’t want to be late for church.”
“No, Mother, I just want the boys to help bring the books down here. We can sort them this evening,” replied Audra.
The four of them left the dining room and started up the stairs, Audra leading the way. She spoke over her shoulder.
“Oh, I forgot to mention, I’ll also be needing help with the arrangements for a special bazaar that we’re going to hold to raise money for the library. We’ll need to buy the cases for the books, and probably some more books for the adults.”
“If that doesn’t just beat all!!” said Nick, coming to a halt on the landing. “You know neither Heath nor I can spare the time from the ranch. And I’m not about to give up my free time to waste it on raising money that’s just going to go to be thrown away on people who won’t appreciate it. Don’t think that you can sweet talk me into giving any of the hands the time off to help you either.”
“Now, Nick. Don’t you think you’re being just the slightest bit judgmental?” asked Jarrod. “After all, who’s to say how the miners will react? Think of it as an experiment. It will be interesting to see exactly what does happen.”
Turning to Audra, he added, “While I won’t be able to offer you much in terms of time, you can count on me for any reasonable financial assistance.”
“Thank you, Jarrod,” said Audra gratefully.
“I guess I can spare a few hours on my day off, if you can use me,” murmured Heath, avoiding Nick’s eye.
“Trying to make me look bad, are you?” grumbled Nick to the other two men. “Fine. I still say it’s a waste of time, but I guess the Barkleys have to stick together. Just let me know what you want me to do.” Audra smiled at him. “But that’s it, do you understand?! Don’t even ask me about the ranch hands!”
“Of course not, Nick. I wouldn’t dream of it,” Audra replied, smiling.
They continued on up to the nursery.
The sun was nearing the horizon as Audra stopped the wagon in front of the Barkley house.
There were half a dozen boxes in the back of the buckboard, filled with books and magazines. She jumped down and ran into the house, calling “Is anyone home?”
Male voices responded from the direction of the study, “We’re in here.” She ran through the house to find Nick and Heath playing pool together.
“I need some big, strong men to move some more boxes of books into the barn,” she said coyly.
Nick sighed and put down the pool cue. “I guess that means me,” he said.
“I guess it does, BIG brother,” responded Heath with a sly grin.
They both laughed, and followed Audra out to the wagon. After the books had been safely stored with the others she had collected in the past week, they all went in to get ready for dinner. On the way into the house, Audra began to chatter excitedly, “I can’t wait to tell everyone! The bazaar is going to be such a success. Nearly everyone that I’ve asked has agreed to help. It’s just so wonderful!”
“Why don’t you save it until we’re all together?” asked Nick. “That way you’ll only have to tell it once.”
“You’ll only have to hear it once, you mean,” retorted Audra. “Alright, I will.” She stuck her nose in the air and pretended to be offended. However, her high spirits soon won out and she challenged the two men to a race, springing ahead just before she issued the challenge.
They arrived at the house breathless and laughing. Victoria met them as they entered the house.
“It’s good to see you three in such good spirits,” she remarked, smiling.
“Oh, Mother! Wait until I tell you! The bazaar is going to be the best ever!” exclaimed Audra. “But I’ve promised Nick that I won’t say any more until we are all at the table.”
“In that case, you had better all hurry and get cleaned up. Silas has dinner ready as soon as we sit down. Jarrod is waiting in the study.”
The three of hurried upstairs to wash and change work-stained clothes. They entered the dining room at almost the same time and took their accustomed seats. After the food had been served, Victoria turned to Audra.
“Young lady, it is obvious that you are not going to be able to eat a thing until you tell us your news, so why don’t you do so now?”
“Oh, yes! Thank you, Mother. Well, first I went to talk to Mrs. Simpson, the chairman of the Literary Society. When I told her what I want to do, she said that instead of a bazaar we should hold a kermis.” Audra stopped and waited for someone to ask her to define kermis. Nick looked bored, Heath looked embarrassed, and Jarrod looked smug.
“For those of you who don’t know,” began Jarrod, “a kermis is a fair held for charitable purposes.
If more people in this house read the newspaper, Audra and I wouldn’t be the only two who would know that. And you, of course, Mother.” Victoria inclined her head at the compliment.
“I should have known you would know,” sighed Audra. “Anyway, the kermis is going to be held a week from Saturday, beginning at three o’clock in the afternoon, and will have activities for the whole family. The ladies of the Literary Society have agreed to bake pies and donuts to sell, and they are going to hold a cake walk and sell lemonade. Sally and Susie Johnson are going to organize the games for the children. Mr. McCleod from the general store is going to sell sarsaparilla and cider and promised to donate the profits. And Mr. Martin at the saloon said that he will do the same for beer.”
“You got Martin to agree to donate his profits?” Nick asked in shock. “And just how did you get the old tightwad to do that?”
“Why, it was no trouble at all. I just asked very politely and smiled nicely, the way I always do.” Audra gave Nick the same smile.
“I’ll just bet you did,” he muttered.
“Some of the other girls are going to have booths selling penwipers and slippers and hand-painted china. And Charlie Hansen promised to be in charge of the horseshoe pitching contest.”
“Old Charlie?! Old Charlie Hansen is going to get up off that chair in front of the general store and ride all the way out here?” Nick looked even more astounded. “That must have been some smile!”
Audra ignored him. “The broadsides are ready at the newspaper office. I’m going in tomorrow to post them around town, and I’d appreciate it if one of you could accompany me.”
“I’d be glad to, sis,” responded Heath quickly. “I have some business in town anyway.”
“And feel free to call on me at my office,” added Jarrod. “If I can spare the time, I certainly will.”
“Now, I just need you three to organize one game or contest each, and everything will be set.” Audra smiled beguilingly at each of them.
Nick just stared at her without saying anything. Heath stared at his plate without saying anything. Jarrod leaned back and smiled.
“Well, since neither of my brothers seems inclined to state a preference, little sister,” he said, “I guess I’ll just volunteer right now to be responsible for the horse race. The sport of kings, you know.”
“Oh, you would volunteer for that, wouldn’t you, Pappy,” muttered Nick. “You don’t actually have to do anything except mark off the course and collect the entry fee. Then stand there and watch while the riders do all the work.”
Jarrod bristled, but before he could comment, Victoria interrupted. “Nick, you had the same chance to volunteer. I suggest you stop sulking and begin thinking about a contest that you can organize. Now, let’s eat our dinner.”
They all ate in silence for several minutes. Suddenly, Nick began to smile and nod his head.
“Alright, Audra. I will organize a contest, but I won’t tell you what it is. You’ll all just have to wait and see. But I want both Heath and Jarrod to promise right now that they will participate in anything I design.” He glared at Jarrod.
Jarrod smiled and nodded. “Whatever you say, brother Nick.” Heath just nodded his consent and continued to eat.
“That’s good, big brother, that’s real good,” responded Nick. “Just be sure not to wear your best suit that day.” He refused to explain what he meant by that statement.
After the meal was finished, all but Victoria rose to leave. She held up a hand to stop them.
“Heath, I need to speak to you for a moment. The rest of you go on into the living room and have coffee. Don’t wait for us; we will join you shortly.” Audra and the two men filed out. Heath sat back down in his chair, hunched and anxious.
Victoria stared at her newest and, in so many ways, youngest child. She sighed deeply. “Heath, I am going to speak frankly. I hope that my bluntness won’t hurt or embarrass you. However, I cannot think of any other way to address the issue, and I have learned that you are unlikely to speak openly of these things.” She paused. Heath sat very still and stared straight ahead of him at a small spot of gravy on the tablecloth.’
“Have you ever been to a bazaar or a fair or a kermis?” She asked and then waited for him to respond. After an uncomfortable interval, he shook his head. “I thought not. So, do you have any idea of the kind of contest that Audra wants you to plan?” Again, he shook his head, after a much shorter interval this time. “Well, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you. These are all games of skill or speed or endurance or strength. You heard Jarrod say that he is organizing the horse race; Charlie Hansen is in charge of the horseshoe pitching contest. Heaven alone knows what Nick is planning.” She paused again and sighed. Then she spoke briskly, “I am quite certain that knowing the guidelines you will be able to think of something appropriate. Just remember that many of the men competing will be from the town.” She stopped.
Heath was smiling wryly to himself.
He looked over at her. “A game of skill? And this is to raise money for a good cause, isn’t it?” He smiled much too innocently.
“No, Heath. You may not organize a poker game. Not even for a good cause. The ladies would be scandalized. Besides, I doubt that any Stockton native would agree to play with you, no matter what the reason.” She smiled at him in relief. “Shall we join the others?”
Audra was up at sunrise on the day of the kermis. She rushed her brothers through breakfast and hurried them down to the pasture where the fair was being held. There they met townsfolk and Barkley ranch hands who were there to set up the stalls, booths, contests, and games. They had barely finished their work when the ladies and others arrived to set up their goods in the booths and stalls provided. The young ladies in charge of the children’s games set stacks of potato sacks and hanks of rope along one edge of a large clear grassy space. Jarrod had roped off a long section of the road that ran along the southern end of the pasture for a race track.
Heath rode out to the entrance to the ranch and set up a large placard that read in large red letters “Kermis to Benefit the Library Today Three O’Clock until Six O’Clock; Admission Free. Bring the Family.” In smaller print at the bottom was the announcement, “Dance Tonight from Eight O’Clock until Midnight; Admission One Book or Fifty Cents per Person.” Written around the sides at different angles in bright colors were the various events and items for sale at the kermis.
He also closed and locked the entrance gate to prevent any guests from entering the grounds before the appointed time.
After doing his share to set up the booths, Nick had disappeared toward the southwestern end of the pasture. He had steadfastly refused to answer any questions about his contest, and merely repeated that Jarrod shouldn’t wear any of his good clothes to the kermis. The family had eventually stopped asking him, knowing that once he had made up his mind it would not be changed.
Heath had been even more closed mouthed than Nick. Other than assuring Audra that he had planned and event, he refused to say more. He also disappeared after having done all he could to help with the setting up.
Just about noon, the last booth was erected. Audra called everyone to the center of the field and thanked them for all of their help and hard work over the past ten days. Just as she was finishing, Victoria drove up in the buckboard.
“I want to add my thanks to Audra’s for your all helping to make this event the success I know it will be,” she began. “If it were possible to accommodate all of you, I would invite you up to the house for lunch. Since it is not, I have brought lunch to you.” She indicated the rear of the wagon, which was filled with boxes holding sandwiches, cold fried chicken, fruit, and jugs of ginger beer and lemonade. “Please help yourselves to as much as you want. I’m afraid you’ll have to find seats on the ground, but there are napkins, utensils, and tin cups in the wagon as well.”
The workers crowded around and handed out the food and drink, then moved off in small groups to eat and talk. Victoria turned to Audra and Jarrod.
“Where are Nick and Heath?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Mother. I haven’t seen either of them for some time. I suppose they are both doing whatever they need to for their contests.” Audra smiled brightly at her mother. “Thank you so much for thinking of this. It would have been so ungrateful of me to have sent them away with no reward other than my thanks. I should have thought of it.”
“Now, dear. Don’t be silly. You have done so much in this past week to organize all of this, it would be unreasonable to expect you to remember every detail.” She hugged her daughter. “Shall we take some sandwiches and find a place to eat?”
“Yes, little sister. You have done a wonderful job,” added Jarrod. “All of the success of this event will be due to your planning and hard work.”
Just as the three of them were preparing to sit down, they saw Heath and Nick approaching from opposite sides of the far end of the field. They waved to the men, and waited for them to reach the wagon. Both were grinning widely, and both were slightly damp around the wrists and ankles.
“I’m not even going to ask where you were,” pouted Audra, “I’m just glad you got here in time to eat.” The two men grabbed some food for themselves, and the five of them found a place to sit and eat their lunch in the shade of a large tree.
“Audra,” began Nick, “I’ve been meaning to ask you a favor. I’d like my contest to be the last one held.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Nick. I already promised Heath that his could be last. But, yours could be the next-to-the last, just before his, if that will do.”
Nick glared at Heath, who managed to look both innocent and guilty at the same time. “I guess it’ll have to do. First Jarrod beats me to the horse race, now Heath took the time that I wanted.”
“You’ll just have to learn to stop dragging your feet when it comes to volunteering,” responded Jarrod.
Nick muttered, “Just you want until this afternoon, Pappy, just you wait.”
At ten minutes to three, Heath rode out to open the entrance gate, only to find a large crowd of people already gathered. He opened the gate and they poured through, following the main road down to the pasture. He followed them, leaving the gate open for others who would come later.
By a quarter after three, the pasture was a hive of activity as townspeople and ranch hands from the Barkley and other ranches in the area greeted each other, haggled over wares, and began to buy food and drink. More than one cowboy bought and ate an entire pie by himself. Two young women were leading the children in three-legged races, sack races, and other games. Parents and siblings were cheering the winners and comforting the losers.
Heath and Nick wandered around the area, watching for any trouble and offering any needed assistance. Heath stopped at the booth where three older teenaged girls were selling hand-painted china.
“I think this is real nice of you girls to help out this way,” he said to them.
They all giggled and blushed in reply. The most daring simpered, “Oh, Mr. Barkley. You do say the nicest things.” She looked up at him demurely.
Heath coughed slightly and looked around. “Oh, uh, I … uh, I hear my brother calling me.” He hurried away across the pasture.
Behind him, the girls giggled once more. The daring one sighed expressively. “He’s so handsome. And so rich.”
One of the others replied, “Yeah. It’s just too bad he’s … well, you know …. My ma says blood will always tell.”
The three nodded and attempted to look worldly-wise and doleful, but only succeeded in looking vapid and foolish. They were so intent on following his progress across the field that their next customer had to speak to them three times.
Heath caught up with Nick just as Jarrod announced the men’s three-legged race. Nick clapped Heath on the back and said, “What say you and I enter that race? Show ’em what the Barkley men can do when they stick together.”
Heath stammered, “Uh, well … I don’t know …”
“What’s the matter, boy? Think I’m not good enough to race with you? Think I’ll hold you back?”
“Uh, no, that’s not it, Nick. Fact is, I’ve never been in one of these whatever races. I can’t recall that I’ve ever even seen one.”
“You’ve never been in a three-legged race! You don’t know what you’ve been missing!” exclaimed Nick loudly. “Consider yourself lucky that you get to learn from a master.”
“Three-legged race, huh?” Heath glanced down swiftly then back up. It couldn’t mean that.
“Allow me to enlighten you.” Nick herded Heath over to the games area where the children had been competing earlier, explaining the concept as they walked. They arrived too late for the first heat, but were in line for the second. Heath watched the first group of racers intently.
“That don’t look too hard,” he said.
“No, it’s not hard,” assured Nick. “Just follow my lead and do what I tell you! Now, remember, there will be five heats, then the winners of each of those compete in the final round for champion team. And that team will be you and me, little brother.”
Heath smiled broadly. How hard could it be?
Jarrod tied Nick’s left leg to Heath’s right, making certain that the rawhide string wasn’t too tight. They lined up with the rest of the teams at the starting line.
“Remember,” muttered Nick. “Follow my lead. Whatever leg I move, you move the opposite one. If you feel me pull with my left leg, you step forward on your right leg. Got that?”
“Yep. I learned to walk some time ago, Nick. And I was always real good at tellin’ my left from my right,” whispered Heath in return. Nick shot him a glance, but was prevent from replying by the starter’s pistol.
A crowd gathered around, clapping and cheering. The other teams had moved several paces from the starting line, but Nick and Heath, although both were rocking forward and back, were standing in the same place.
“I’m moving my left leg, you move your right,” bellowed Nick.
“That is my right,” shouted Heath nearly as loudly.
“Your other right, then,” replied Nick, even more loudly if possible.
They managed to move their middle “leg” forward one pace.
“Now the right leg,” directed Nick, intending for Heath to move the opposite leg. He lifted his right leg and thrust it forward in order to take a step. Unfortunately, Heath also attempted to lift his right leg, pulling Nick off balance. They both flailed their arms wildly about, as they slowly tilted in one direction and then the other, Nick hollering all the while. They managed to regain their balance as they fell forward, but with all four feet finally on the ground. By this time, most of the crowd was paying more attention to the two Barkley men who were stuck at the starting line than they were to the actual race. Male voices shouted encouragement and directions, to the accompaniment of loud laughter.
“Lift your right leg.”
“No, no, your left leg.”
“Stand still! Stop moving about!”
“Shift your weight! That’s it, rock back and forth. That’ll do it.”
They were now standing perfectly still, having advanced one step. Nick shoved his face up to Heath’s, “Alright. Now, here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll call out right or left. You move that leg. I’ll be the one who moves the opposite one. Got it?”
Heath glared back at Nick and nodded tightly.
“Here we go. Right leg.” Heath moved his right leg forward. Unfortunately, so did Nick. They were once again flailing about widely, pulling each other off balance. Heath was shouting, “It ain’t so easy, is it!” This time they were not as lucky. The ground, although relatively smooth, was a pasture, after all. As Nick attempted to place his right leg back on the ground to gain stability, he stepped in a small depression. It was almost overgrown with grass, and so was invisible to the eye, but was deep enough to cause Nick to tip farther in that direction than he had planned. Nick began to fall to the right, pulling Heath along with him. Although it was obvious that a fall was inevitable, the two men fought to remain upright, catching at the air for support. They continued their slow slide to the ground as Nick’s right leg buckled from Heath’s added weight. His boot slipped on the crushed grass, and he went down with Heath on top of him.
Victoria and Audra ran to the two men. Nick could be heard shouting, “Get off of me! Let me up!” and other assorted colorful phrases, while both he and Heath rolled around on the ground, trying to get both feet under them. Since they had two of their legs tied together, this was next to impossible. Each man would get his outside foot firmly against the ground, then try to push up using his hands and just the one foot. The other man would be trying the same thing, but not at the same time. Down they would go again, Heath on top of Nick or Nick on top of Heath.
Victoria and Audra reached them. “Nicholas,” shouted Victoria, demonstrating that Nick had come by his vocal powers honestly. “This is a family gathering. I will not have such language.” There was instant silence. “Audra, we must untie their legs,” instructed Victoria. However, the men were lying face down, so that they could not reach the knot to untie it.
“Does anyone have a knife?” asked Victoria. Several pocket knives were offered. She accepted one at random, and cut through the rawhide. Nick and Heath immediately rolled over on their backs, then sat up, each avoiding looking at the other.
“We’d better get out of here,” said Victoria. “They will be wanting to start the next heat.”
“Why bother?” said a voice from the crowd. “It won’t be anywhere near as entertainin’ as this one was.” The crowd laughed. Nick glared around.
“Who said that?” Naturally there was no reply. “If I find out who said that,” he threatened, “well, whoever you are, you’d just better not work for this ranch. That’s all I can say.” He stood up and looked at Heath, who had remained seated. “Just don’t you forget that you and I have a date later this afternoon. When I hold my contest. It’ll taste mighty sweet to get my revenge on both Jarrod and you.” With that, he stalked away. Victoria stared after him.
Heath stood up and walked off the race course with the two women.
“I wonder what Nick meant by that?” puzzled Audra.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry none,” replied Heath. “Whatever he’s planning, it can’t be too dangerous. And, besides, he’s forgettin’ that my event comes after his.” Heath excused himself, and sauntered over to the stand where the pies and cakes were being sold.
At four-thirty, the contestants lined up for the horse race. None of the Barkleys were racing, having agreed that it would be more sporting not to enter their purebred stock.
Jarrod collected the entry fees, then stood off to one side, holding the end of a rope that was tied to a tree across the road. He had marked off a roughly circular course, so that he could judge the end of the race from the same position. As soon as all of the horses were quiet, he dropped the rope. The horses sprang forward and raced down the course. Crowds on both sides cheered them on. Jarrod calmly lit a cigar, and stood back in the shade of a tree to await the end of the race.
Nick walked over. “I see you didn’t take my advice,” he said, fingering Jarrod’s jacket and indicating his trousers.
“Well, this is hardly the kind of thing I would wear into court, little brother.”
“Maybe not, but before this day is over, you’ll wish you’d dressed more like a cowhand than a big city lawyer at a country picnic.” Jarrod just grinned at him around the cigar.
“If you’ll excuse me, brother Nick, I have a race to judge.” The first horses could be seen turning the final corner. It was going to be a close race to call, and he wanted to be at the finish line in order to judge fairly.
The first two horses flashed by, one only a nose ahead of the other. The others followed in quick succession. All pulled up a few yards ahead. Jarrod declared the winner, a young cowhand from a neighboring farm, and presented him with the winner’s purse, a share of the entry money. The young man thanked Jarrod, but was quickly distracted by the young women who crowded around the hero of the moment.
As soon as the tumult had died down, Nick shouted from the middle of the field, “There are only two events remaining. If you’ll all follow me, we’ll get started on the next event. The event that I planned.” He paused to grin. “We’ll need two teams for this event. I’ll be the captain of one team, my brother Jarrod will be the captain of the other. Now, who wants to be on my team?”
No one volunteered. Finally, someone shouted, “Don’t we get to know what it is we’re volunteering for, Barkley?”
“Well, if you don’t have any confidence in me,” Nick paused. Still no one spoke up. “All right, then. Follow me, and when we get to the contest site, if you still need an explanation, I’ll give you one.” Nick lead the way to the southwestern corner of the pasture.
“Mother, do you have any idea where Nick is taking us?” asked Audra.
“No, dear, I don’t,” answered Victoria, “There’s nothing down there other than the stream and that field that we allowed to lie fallow this year.”
Nick was standing at the bottom of the field, on the bank of the stream that cut through the property. He was rocking back and forth on his heels, his hands in his pockets, and a large, mischievous grin on his face.
The crowd that gathered was smaller than it had been earlier. Most families with small children had stayed only until the end of the horse race, so now it was mostly ranch hands, a dozen or so 10- to 12-year-old boys, and several of Stockton’s leading families. Since the women in these families made up the Stockton Ladies’ Literary Society, they felt duty bound to remain until the end.
As soon as the crowd had quieted, Nick pointed across the stream to the empty field that had recently been plowed under. A few yards from the far bank was a large mud hole. Lying across it was a thick rope about 30 feet long with a large knot tied in the middle.
“Any questions?” asked Nick. Heath and Jarrod looked at each other in consternation.
“Oh, no, Nick. Oh, no,” declared Victoria. “A tug-of-war is one thing, but this is carrying things too far.”
“Now, Mother, Audra just said to plan a contest. She didn’t say it had to be a neat and tidy contest.” Nick protested. “Besides, brother Jarrod snapped up the one contest guaranteed to keep you clean. Now, I’ve spent all morning hauling buckets of water up to that field and I say we put it to the use for which it was created.”
His mother threw up her hands. “Fine. You go ahead and do what you want to. You will anyway.”
“Could I talk you into giving the starting signal?” he asked, sheepishly.
“Oh, all right. Anything to get this filthy mess over with as soon as possible.”
“All right, men” shouted Nick, waving his arms for attention. “You heard me say that there will be two teams, one headed by my two brothers there, and one headed by me. Now, we want to win this contest fair and square,” he paused as cheers erupted, “so choose your teams, but don’t everyone try to choose mine. Those who want to participate, follow me to the other side of the stream. Spectators should stay here, where it’s nice and clean and dry.”
He carefully laid his vest and hat on the grass under a tree. The other men followed suit, removing coats, vests, and hats. Jarrod laid his coat on the pile, and shook his head as he looked down at his trousers. Nick shouted at him, “Told you not to wear anything you’d be afraid to get dirty, big brother. But maybe that’s all you have in your wardrobe.” Jarrod gave him a look that prosecuting attorneys had learned to dread.
Nick led the way across the small footbridge and took up a position on the south side of the mud hole. Jarrod and Heath stood on the opposite side. Men began to line up, forming two teams. The three brothers were equally admired in the community, if for different reasons, so two teams of equal size and strength were quickly formed without undue disturbance.
Nick and Heath took the lead positions on their teams, with Jarrod just behind Heath. Each had placed the largest man on the team at the end to act as anchor and attempted to distribute weight and muscle evenly along the line. As Nick and Heath picked up the rough sisal rope, and the men followed their example, Heath spoke quietly over his shoulder to Jarrod, “Now I know why Nick always wears those gloves.”
“And why is that?” asked Jarrod.
“‘Cause he never knows when he’ll have to join in an emergency tug-of-war.” Heath could not see Jarrod’s grin, but he heard him chuckle.
Nick shouted across at them, “Are you two ready to begin, or do you want to stand there and chat all day?”
“Ready when you are,” replied Heath as he set himself against the rope.
Victoria walked across just to the other side of the bridge. She shouted, “Ready. Set. GO!”
The men began to pull. At first neither side appeared to have an advantage. On both teams, men were straining to the utmost, muscles bulging under their shirts, legs firmly planted against the ground, faces set in fierce concentration. Then Nick’s team moved slowly forward, only an inch or two, but enough.
He shouted to his team, and they increased their efforts. Where they found the strength was not clear, but the forward movement ceased. Nick dug his heels into the soft earth and pulled back with all his weight. Ever so slowly they regained the ground that they had lost, and very gradually began to pull Heath and Jarrod’s team forward. One inch, then two, and Jarrod shouted encouragement to his men. Miraculously, they stopped moving. But they were unable to move backward; they stayed poised on the edge of the mud hole, only inches from defeat.
“Dammit,” muttered Heath.
“What is it?” asked Jarrod.
“My hands are slipping,” he said. “Guess I shouldn’t have made fun of Nick’s gloves.”
“You and me both, brother,” responded Jarrod. “But if we have to go down, let’s at least go down fighting.” He shouted to the men, “Give it all you’ve got.” With a grunt collective grunt, they threw themselves into the contest and heaved on the rope. For all that, they only managed to move back half of the way. And they all knew that they could not repeat that performance.
Nick shouted, “That’s done it, men! Now it’s our turn.” This time the grunt and heave came from the other side of the mud hole. It did not seem to have any effect, until suddenly, the entire team on the other side gave way and fell forward into the mud, burying Heath and Jarrod underneath. Men were rolling, scrambling, slipping in the mud. After several minutes, all of the men had crawled out onto dry ground, cursing and laughing as they did so. Both Heath and Jarrod were completely coated in mud, as though they had been rolled over and over in it, which they probably had been. Nick was laughing so hard that he couldn’t speak. He just kept pointing at Jarrod and shouting, “Country picnic.”
Jarrod made no reply, other than to try to wipe the worst of the mud off of his face. Heath headed down to the stream and fell face forward into the water. Jarrod watched him, then followed his example. After they washed the mud off of their hands, they both noticed that their palms were scrapped and bleeding from the rough rope. The cold water took out some of the sting, but it would be days before the skin grew back.
Jarrod remarked, “No, we shouldn’t have made fun of Nick’s gloves.”
Heath answered, “Oh, well. They’ll heal. They always do.”
Nick walked across the bridge to the other side of the stream, still laughing and holding his sides.
Victoria stood with Audra and a group of Stockton ladies. “Where will this end?” she murmured, as Nick reached her.
People began to head back to the field. Heath said something to Jarrod, who stood up and shouted, “There’s one last contest, friends. My brother, Heath, here, claims that it will be the perfect foil to this debacle.”
Heath blushed and muttered, “I never said any such thing.”
Jarrod replied in the same time, “No, but you should have.” In a louder voice, he said, “Just follow the stream north. You’ll recognize the spot when you get there. We’ll meet you there.”
He, Heath, and most of the other men who had participated in the tug of war followed along the western bank of the stream, paralleling the town folk on the eastern side. The boys ran in front, eager to see what lay ahead. They came to a place where the stream dropped down a small cascade so that the banks were more than five feet above the waterline. A large log had been place securely across the stream, both ends deep in the bank on either side, but the middle of the log sitting above about three feet above the stream.
As the people arrived, they looked puzzled and began asking if anyone knew what this might be. Murmured “No’s”, and “Not me’s”, and “I never’s” could be heard throughout the crowd. Jarrod signaled for silence and said, “Since this is Heath’s idea, I’ll let him explain it.” As he turned aside, he whispered to Heath, “It’s almost all cowhands, Heath. You give them orders every working day.”
“Thanks for nothing,” responded Heath, but what Jarrod had said was true. He focused on the familiar faces in the crowd and began. “Well, I don’t know how many of you have read that book about Robin Hood,” he stopped as scattered cheers broke out. Some of the boys got up a mock sword fight.
A woman standing near Victoria murmured to her daughter, “I’m surprised that he has heard of the book. It’s too much to hope that he has actually read it. Or any other.”
Victoria turned. “All of my sons read, Mrs. Keller.”
Mrs. Keller’s daughter, the daring girl who had tried to flirt with Heath earlier, blushed and looked at the ground. She avoided looking at either Victoria or her mother.
Heath was continuing, “In that book, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck meet on a footbridge sort of like this one,” he indicated the log. The crowed muttered agreement.
“And they had a fight with poles sort of like these,” he picked up two cleaned saplings, each about six feet long and three inches in diameter. There was more agreement from the crowd.
“Well, I always thought it sounded like a lot of fun.” At this, the boys broke into loud cheers and whoops.
“So, well, that’s my contest. The one who falls in the water loses. And if no one minds, I’d kind of like to challenge my brother Nick to the first contest.” He finished in a rush. The crowd clapped and cheered.
Nick strode forward. “Are you sure you want me to beat you twice in one day, little brother?”
Heath just shrugged and tossed a pole to him across the stream. Then he sat down and removed his boots. Nick did the same. They then both approached each other across the log bridge, holding the staffs horizontally across their bodies with two hands.
Mrs. Keller whispered to her daughter, “Of course, someone like him would come up with a cockamamie idea like this.”
Victoria bristled and turned once again. “I agree, Mrs. Keller. Few men are as imaginative and inventive as my son Heath.”
Audra quietly squeezed her mother’s arm and moved a little closer to her. Mrs. Keller’s daughter shifted and tried to put a bit of distance between herself and her mother.
Nick and Heath had met in the middle of the bridge and stood facing each other, swaying slightly, using the poles for balance. Heath appeared perfectly content to remain in the position indefinitely, but Nick was already shifting, looking for an opening.
He feinted to the left, but Heath didn’t respond to the gesture. Then he tried backing up a few paces, hoping that Heath would move forward and he could catch him off-balance. But Heath merely smiled his small, crooked smile, and shook his head at the obvious ploy. Suddenly, Nick lunged forward, sweeping upward with the pole. Heath parried and pushed Nick’s pole down toward the log. Nick followed the pole forward, only just regaining his balance in time to avoid going over. Heath waited, refusing to take advantage of the situation.
“Come on,” demanded Nick. “Are we just going to stand here all day?”
“If that’s what it takes,” Heath answered. “It don’t bother me none. I kind of like the scenery.”
“You kind of like the scenery, do you?”
“Yep. It’s kind of pretty.”
“Well, then why don’t you look over there?” Nick pointed off to the north. “It’s real pretty over there.”
“Oh, but then I might miss something that’s right in front of my face. Like you, big brother.”
“Urrrggghh!” replied Nick, and began to attack. Heath parried his blows and returned a few of his own. Now that the fight had finally started in earnest, the crowd began to cheer and shout encouragement. Men from all ranches shouted for one or both of the brothers. Victoria and Audra alternately encouraged them both.
That crack of wood on wood could be heard throughout the crowd. First one brother would press his advantage, then he would slip or lose his balance, and the other would have the upper hand. At one point, when it seemed that Nick would force Heath off the log any second, Mrs. Keller’s daughter was heard to shot, “Oh, Heath! Be careful.”
“Ophelia! You shameless hussy!” reprimanded her mother. “Have I taught you nothing? He is not our kind.”
“No. He’s a much better kind of person than she could ever hope to be,” whispered Audra to her mother.
Suddenly, it became obvious that Heath had been luring Nick into making just such an attack. As Nick pressed forward, his weight shifted forward as well and set him off-balance, so that it only took the tiniest tap of the pole on his thighs to completely upset him and toss him into the river with a loud, mighty splash.
There was shocked silence, then an eruption of cheers from the crowd. Nick himself began to applaud Heath, “Well, done, little brother. Well done! Now, give me a hand out of here.” He half stood up and grabbed the hand that Heath stretched toward him. Not entirely surprisingly, rather than allowing Heath to help him out, he pulled Heath down into the water with him.
Heath rose sputtering. Before he could say anything, he heard raucous laughter from the bank, and recognized Jarrod’s voice. Working with one mind, he and Nick moved swiftly, and suddenly there were three Barkley brothers in the stream.
Mrs. Keller sniffed. “The hooligan! I have always said that blood will tell. And that one bad apple will spoil the whole bunch! Come, Ophelia.” She grabbed her daughter and dragged her away from the stream. Ophelia looked back for as long as she could. It really was too bad about that Heath Barkley, because he really was so handsome.
Meanwhile, several of the boys, reasoning that if grown men were doing it, it must be acceptable, had jumped, been pushed, or were pulled into the water, and had begun having mock battles with small tree branches lying on the ground. Some of the Barkley hands, resenting the fun that other ranch hands were having at their bosses’ expense, had shoved the offending ones into the stream as well. And, of course, the friends of those hand has returned the favor. Soon, everyone except the women and a few of the most distinguished men were down in the water, splashing, laughing, and wrestling. It was almost impossible to distinguish the men from the boys, unless it was that the men were louder.
Audra looked on. “Why do girls have to grow up to be women?” she wondered.
Victoria waited until the noise had died down, then called out, “Don’t forget that you all have to go home to get ready for the dance tonight! We expect to see each of you there. And bring a book for the admission fee.”
The little boys giggled and punched each other.
“Yah, you goin’ to the dance, huh?”
“Nah, not me! I’m no sissy.”
“Wonder if they’d let me give ’em my school books?”
The Barkley men climbed up out of the stream, and were soon followed by the others. The boys ran away home, full of pies and cakes and better memories than they had imagined.
As the Barkleys reached the pasture, they were greeted by a sight at once melancholy and desolate. The field that been filled with people laughing, eating, talking, haggling, playing was empty except for scattered remnants of the day. Piles of potato sacks and rawhide string provided reminders of fateful contests. The area was ringed with booths, bare except for a piece of broken china, smashed bits of cake, and beer and cider stains, giving it the look of a ghost town. Audra stood and stared. It all felt so anticlimactic. Was this what she had spent so many hours working for, and now it was finished, over in such a short time?
Victoria put her arm around her daughter, “Mrs. Simpson told me that the preliminary accounting indicates that we raised more than one hundred and fifty dollars today.”
“Really, Mother? Oh, that’s splendid! It’s almost twice as much as we hoped for! And there’s still the dance tonight,” Audra beamed.
“Would you like me to help you to write thank-you letters to all of the people who contributed?”
“Oh, yes. I know I would forget someone or say the wrong thing without your help.” They hugged each other.
Nick broke in, “It occurs to me, that in all the excitement about getting things set up, everyone forgot that it all has to be taken down.”
“Nick, you’re not going to upset me tonight,” declared Audra. “It won’t be nearly as much work to take it down, and it doesn’t have to be done immediately. Besides, I’ll just bet that you didn’t forget.” She smiled her special smile at him.
He stammered, “Well, yeah. I mean, no, no I didn’t. Some of the hands will be around on Monday morning to clean this up.”
“Oh, thank you, Nick,” Audra hugged him. “I just knew I could count on you.”
“Yeah, well . . . don’t make it a habit,” he grumbled.
On the way back to the house, Heath lagged behind the other four. He pulled Audra back with him.
“Uh, sis. There’s just one thing,” he began.
“It’s about this dance. Now, I think I did my share in settin’ up, . . . “
“More than your share, Heath.”
“And I did what you asked about the contest, . . . “
“And it was just brilliant!”
“So, I reckon I earned the right to beg off this dance.”
“But, why Heath? I know you didn’t like to dance, but you’re a very good dancer now. I know that Mother and I will both be very disappointed if you aren’t there to dance with us.”
“Well . . . if you must know . . . it’s those girls.”
“Girls? What girls, Heath?”
“The ones selling the china.”
“Oh, those girls. But they really are girls, Heath. Ophelia Keller is the oldest one, and she’s barely sixteen. I don’t understand the problem.”
“That’s it? They giggle?”
“They giggle at me. I try to talk to them, and they giggle.”
“But they’re not laughing at you, surely.”
“No, they don’t laugh. I know what to do when people laugh. Either laugh with them or leave. They giggle. Don’t ask me why. They just do. They’ll be at the dance tonight. And they’ll giggle at me.”
Audra wasn’t giggling. She was laughing. Not loudly enough to be heard by the three ahead, but laughing nonetheless. “If that’s all, don’t you worry about a thing! I’ll protect you. If I see any girls giggling at you, I’ll come rescue you.”
“It’s not funny.”
“Oh, but it is! Now, say you’ll come.”
“All right, I’ll come. But if I hear a giggle . . . “
The next two hours passed quickly, as the Barkleys rushed to get ready for that night’s dance. Audra was dressed well before anyone else, and spent the remaining time running in and out of the house, checking on every detail. She asked Silas three times if the punch and cookies had been made. He finally walked her out to the back to the stable yard and showed her the tables with the punch bowl, cups, plates, and cookies set out and ready.
“I’m sorry, Silas,” apologized Audra. “I’m just so anxious for everything to come off well.”
“That’s all right, Miss Audra,” replied Silas. “It’s good to see you so excited about something. You’ve done a great job so far. Everything will be just fine.” He patted her on the shoulder and returned to the kitchen to make a few more cookies, just in case.
Nick came out of the house and joined her in the stable yard. “So, how’s it look, sis?” he asked proudly, “I think the men did a pretty fair job.”
“Oh, it’s wonderful, Nick,” answered Audra. A dance floor made of wooden planks nailed to a frame of two-by-four beams covered nearly the entire clear space between the house and the stables. “That was such a good idea of yours. It will be much nicer to dance on a wooden floor than in the dirt and gravel.”
“Well, I had some of the men test it out by bouncing and running around on it,” Nick told her. “It didn’t move an inch, didn’t crack, didn’t come apart anywhere. Your guests will be perfectly safe dancing on it.”
“I’m not worried a bit,” Audra smiled at him. “And don’t the Chinese lanterns look lovely? I wonder if we should light them now? No, I don’t want the candles to burn out too early. I wonder when would be best to do it? Do you think we have enough punch? Will the hands be angry because we’re not serving liquor? And where are that caller and the fiddler?”
Nick laughed, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another, little sister! Heath and I are going to light the lanterns. There’s plenty of punch. It’s worth a few angry ranch hands to avoid a drunken brawl. Don’t worry about the caller and the fiddler. They’ll be here. Didn’t you tell me they came highly recommended by some of those literary society ladies of yours?”
Audra nodded, but continued to look worried. Nick put his arm around her shoulder and led her back into the house. As they came through into the entry way, there was a knock at the door.
“See, what did I tell you,” said Nick. “That’s probably them now.” He went over and opened the door. Two men were standing there, the smaller of them holding a fiddle. “Gentlemen! Come in!” He waved them toward Audra, then went to get Heath to go out and light the lanterns.
“Miss Barkley?” asked the first man, a large, florid man with a friendly, open manner. “I’m Sam Jones, the caller. This is Tim Lewis. Guess you can tell he’s the fiddler.” His partner, a small, nondescript individual, merely nodded. “Now, just where is this dance being held?”
“Let me show you. It’s right this way,” said Audra. She led them out to the stable yard. “We put these chairs over here, and here’s a little table to hold some punch and cookies. I hope that will be all right?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. More than all right. Most folks don’t hardly think of us needin’ a place to sit or a drink once in a while. We’re much obliged to you, ma’am.” Sam spoke for both of them. “We’ll do ya’ proud tonight, see if we don’t.”
“Well, the punch and cookies are right over here. Help yourselves to all you want. And if there’s anything else you need, let me know.” She smiled at them and returned to the house.
Sam and Tim took cups of punch and a plate full of cookies over to the area set aside for them. Sam took one sip of the punch, made a face, and pulled a small, flat bottle of whiskey from an inside pocket of his coat. He poured a small amount into each cup.
“There, that’s better. I never heard that the Barkleys were teetotalers. Prob’ly just tryin’ to avoid trouble with the cowhands tonight. Well, us havin’ a drop or two ain’t goin’ to upset nothin’.” He and Tim sat and ate cookies and drank the spiked punch. Sam talked and Tim nodded in what seemed to be a familiar and comfortable pattern.
The first guests began arriving soon after. Silas met them at the front of the house and directed them around to the back, after receiving their entry fee of one book per person. Several of the ranch hands were on duty to drive the carriages and buggies out to the pasture, where they tied the horses to the fence. Audra and Victoria welcomed the guests as they arrived at the dance area. They showed the ladies where to leave their wraps, and asked the occasional forgetful cowboy to remove his gun belt and leave it on the same table.
Sally and Susie Johnson, the two girls who had organized the children’s games in the afternoon, volunteered to serve the punch and cookies. They were twins from a large family, and so felt most comfortable when working with children or performing some act of service.
The three Barkley men were mingling with the crowd. Jarrod spent most of his time with the high society of Stockton, complimenting the ladies on their attire and inquiring after the businesses of the gentlemen. Nick was also complimenting ladies, but those of a slightly lower social class, who tried to blush and look coy. His greetings of fellow ranchers consisted of hearty slaps on the back and loud shouts of welcome. Heath had retreated alone to a shadowy corner, but gradually began to talk about horses and the weather to some of the younger ranch hands who also drifted that way. He noticed Mr. and Mrs. Keller arrive with their daughter Ophelia. She looked around as though searching for someone. He stepped further back in the shadow, behind a taller cowboy.
As Audra approached the Kellers, she heard Mrs. Keller admonish Ophelia, “You just remember what I told you this afternoon, young lady.” She gave her a hard shake.
“Why, Ophelia, don’t you look nice tonight?” Audra smiled gently at the young girl. “What a clever idea, pinning those flowers in your hair like that.” The girl had created an intricate hairdo of braids and curls, and had pinned small wild flowers throughout to create a tiara-like effect. “The cornflowers just match the blue of your eyes.” Ophelia smiled gratefully at Audra, then ruined the effect by giggling loudly. Audra managed not to wince.
“Are Jane and Lucy here yet?” Ophelia asked after her companions of the afternoon.
“Why, yes, I saw them arrive with their families,” Audra looked around. “Oh, there they are.” She pointed across the yard to the two girls giggling together.
Ophelia looked at her mother for permission, then ran to join her friends. The giggling increased in both volume and frequency. Audra wondered how serious Heath had been about leaving. She also wondered if she could leave with him.
“All right! Ladies and gentlemen,” bellowed Sam Jones, “choose your partners for a Virginia Reel!” Men and women ran to form two sets of parallel lines, music started, and Sam began calling. Those who were not dancing clapped and beat their feet in time to the music. The dancers whirled and swung through the steps of the dance. Sam only allowed a few minutes for them to recover their breath before he was calling for the next set. Men and women exchanged partners, some sat out a dance or two, others seemed bent on dancing every single dance. Audra finally dragged Heath out for one dance, waiting until the last minute to be certain that none of the giggling girls was on the floor. She insisted that he ask Victoria for the next dance, a polka. Nick and Jarrod were among those dancing every dance, but never with the same woman twice. Both considered it their duty to see that every woman danced at least once.
Finally, Sam called for an intermission. The crowd gratefully headed en masse for the punch and cookies, chattering and laughing the entire time. Heath was waiting in line for another cup of punch when he was jostled from behind. He turned, and found himself gazing into the limpid eyes of Ophelia Keller. Her two friends were giggling behind her.
“Why, Mr. Barkley. I beg your pardon. It’s just so crowded in here. I certainly didn’t mean to bump into you,” she simpered.
He grunted, “No offense” and turned away. He couldn’t help but hear the increased giggling of the three girls. He felt as awkward and uncomfortable as he had when he had been a boy of sixteen. He felt an arm slipped through his, and looked down to see his sister standing next to him.
She smiled conspiratorially, and said, “Oh, Heath. I know I shouldn’t cut ahead in line, but I’m just so thirsty, I’ll die if I don’t get a cup of punch.” In a lower voice, she threatened him gently, “Don’t you dare try to leave this dance now. I’ve promised Susie and Sally both that you would dance with them before the evening is over. They’re nice girls and have done a lot of work today.”
Heath nodded. “All right. I don’t mind them. They’re nice and quiet. And Sally likes horses. Just keep the gigglers away from me.” They reached the head of the line, received cups of punch and joined Victoria on the sidelines. When the dancing began again, Heath asked first Sally, then Susie to dance. As he was leading Susie back to the punch and cookie table, Ophelia once again bumped into him.
“Why, Mr. Barkley. I do declare. It seems I just can’t move without running into you tonight. As many times as we’ve spoken tonight, you have yet to ask me to dance.” She looked at him in what she imagined was a coy and seductive manner.
Heath started to say something, but was stopped by Mrs. Keller as she swooped down on Ophelia. “Mr. Barkley, I would appreciate it if you would stop following my daughter. We have plans for her future which certainly do not include someone like you.” She grabbed Ophelia, “We are leaving this instant, young lady. Get our wraps while I get your father.” As she dragged Ophelia away, wilted flowers fell from her hair.
Victoria called Heath over to her. “I couldn’t help but overhear. Please don’t let the opinion of people such as Mrs. Keller affect you.”
“I don’t much care what she thinks of me,” he said, with a wry smile, “I wouldn’t mind so much if I really was interested in her daughter.” He gave Victoria a quick squeeze.
“Thank goodness that you are not!” exclaimed Victoria. “I simply could not bare to be related to that women, even if only by marriage! And the girl! Heath, I do not know how you tolerate that incessant giggling!” She paused. “Although I do wish that at least one of you boys. . . .” She trailed off.
Jarrod and Nick both convinced Heath to dance with a few more of the less popular women, who seemed more than a little grateful to all of the Barkley men. There was a slight scuffle when a few of the cowboys, who had a little too much of the whiskey that they had brought with them, got into a fight over one of the women. They were too drunk to really hurt each other or anyone else, and offered little resistance to Nick when he ejected them.
Eventually, Sam called, “Last dance.” Every man there did his best to ensure that he danced this dance with the woman who meant the most to him. Heath asked Audra, as Jarrod had already asked Victoria. Nick gallantly requested the honor of dancing with old Mrs. Singer, the widowed dressmaker.
After everyone had left, Audra stood with her family in the moonlight. “Oh, I can’t believe how well everything went. Everyone seemed to have such a good time. I know I danced until I’m exhausted. Mr. Jones sounded rather tired himself. I wonder why? I don’t think that calling takes all that much energy.”
The men looked knowingly at each other over her head, while Nick bent his elbow in imitation of someone drinking. They shook their heads in agreement. It hadn’t led to any trouble, so there was no reason to mention it. They blew out the few remaining candles and walked back into the house as a family.
“Mother, I wonder what Miss Price will say about the money we’ve raised and the books we’ve collected. Do you think it will compare favorably to other towns?” mused Audra.
“I’m sure that she will be extremely proud of all your work, Audra. I know that we all are,” replied Victoria.
“Miss Price? Now, who’s this Miss Price?” queried Nick.
“Oh, Miss Price is the state library organizer,” answered his mother. “She is the state official responsible for the establishment of public libraries, including the traveling libraries.”
“Yes,” continued Audra. “And she’ll be here this week to pick up the books and money that we’ve collected. Then she will travel around the county finding locations for the libraries and training volunteers to run the libraries. And, well, . . . ” she turned to her mother.
“And Audra and I have invited her to stay with us for the time that she will be here. I also told the club members that I am sure that one of you boys will be happy to volunteer to serve as her guide through the mining camps in this area. It should only take about three weeks. ” Victoria smiled regally at them all. Although Nick could be heard to mutter under his breath, it was impossible to understand what he was saying, so Victoria ignored him. Jarrod grinned at the other two, knowing that his law practice would prevent him from being away from Stockton for that length of time. Heath merely looked resigned.
“Boys, would you join us in here?” called Victoria from the living room as Nick and Heath entered the house on the first Monday evening after the kermis. They went into the living room, to find their mother, oldest brother, sister and a stranger. She was a large, rawboned woman with dark hair wiry hair liberally streaked with grey, pulled back in an unbecoming bun. She wore a pair of pince nez on her rather prominent nose, and was dressed in a dark shapeless dress.
“Here are my other two sons,” Victoria addressed the woman. “Nick, Heath, this is Miss Helen Price, the library organizer.” They exchanged greetings.
“Miss Price arrived on the afternoon train. She will be staying only two or three days. She would like to get started as soon as possible,” explained Victoria, “She is meeting with the ladies’ society tomorrow, and would like to leave the next day, if at all possible. Which of you two will be accompanying her on her journey?”
“Well, now, Mother. You know I can’t be away from the ranch at a time like this,” said Nick. He addressed Miss Price, “It’s spring you know, which means calving and planting and a lot of fences to see to. Sometimes there are floods …”
Miss Price stared directly at him. “Yes, Mr. Barkley. I do understand. And I can see that you are extremely disappointed at being prevented by your duties here from aiding in this great cause. However, do not despair. There is work for all to do. I have here some plans for traveling bookcases.” She picked up a sheaf of papers from the coffee table in front of her. “Perhaps I can prevail upon you to make yourself responsible for overseeing their construction.”
Nick grudgingly took the plans. “Look, Miss Price. I might as well be honest with you. I’ve gone this so far mainly to help out my sister, Audra. But I have to tell you, I think it’s a waste of time and money. And I don’t have either to waste.”
“Indeed, Mr Barkley? And why do you say that?”
“Because you know as well as I do, or you should if you’ve been in this part of the country for any length of time, that most of those people who live in those camps are not the least bit interested in reading. They have other forms of … recreation.” He stopped, slightly embarrassed.
“What you say is quite true, Mr. Barkley, ” admitted Miss Price. “However, did not our Savior charge us to leave the ninety and nine and seek for the one sheep that was lost? If these efforts change only one life, Mr. Barkley, then I will consider them a success.”
Nick looked embarrassed and seemed to hunt for the words. Finally, he nodded. “All right. I see your point. I’ll take care of getting these built. And don’t worry about money for the lumber. We have some we can donate, and I’ll get the other ranchers to throw in a few boards.”
“Thank you, Mr. Barkley. I knew that you would see the light.”
Victoria asked, “So I assume this means that Heath accompany Miss Price?”
“Well, I reckon that’s up to Nick,” said Heath. “He’s the boss. Like he says, there’s a lot of work to do, and I’d have to turn my crews over to someone else.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, my boy,” Nick slapped him on the back. “This is important work, after all. I’m sure we can spare you for three weeks. We do have some fine hands who can fill in as foreman for you while you’re gone.”
“Well, most of those camps are pretty high up in the mountains. I doubt that a buggy would be able to make it up there,” continued Heath.
“I do not intend to take a buggy, Mr. Barkley,” said Miss Price. “I intend to ride on horseback. I am an adequate horsewoman, I can assure you.”
“Well, there you are, brother. All your problems solved,” Nick grinned triumphantly. Heath glared openly at him.
“Mr. Barkley,” Miss Price addressed Heath in her flat, nasal, mid-Western voice, “I am well aware that I am not the traveling companion you would have chosen. I am also aware that this traveling library must rank quite low on your list of priorities. I cannot expect you, who grew up amidst all of this wealth and privilege, to begin to understand how truly deprived the lives of most of these miners and farmers are. If you do not care for the lives of the men and women living in near exile, think of the children who are forced to share that exile, but who were not party to the decision to take up that life. There are children in these camps, teenagers even, whose only book has been the Bible, if they are fortunate enough to have access to that. Their lives are a misery of work and sleep, struggling just to live another day. I do not know if you can possibly imagine what such a childhood would be like … “
As she spoke, a flush slowly climbed up Heath’s face, eventually turning his face a dark red. He stared fixedly at a point on the floor about six feet in front of him.
“Now hold on just a minute,” Nick began to shout.
“Nick, leave it,” said Heath quietly.
“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” said Nick.
“Nick, Heath said to leave it,” snapped Victoria.
“But, Mother, did you hear what she said?” demanded Nick.
“I said to drop it, Nick.”
“Fine. That’s just fine,” Nick turned away, “Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I need a drink.” He headed for the tantalus on the sideboard. “Anyone else? Heath?”
Heath didn’t answer. Jarrod, after a swift glance at his youngest brother, said, “I believe I will have a brandy, Nick.”
“And I will have a small sherry. Miss Price, will you join us?” asked Victoria.
“Thank you, no, ma’am. I do not indulge in strong drink of any sort,” answered Miss Price.
“In that case, I believe I will have a whisky. In fact, make it a double, brother Nick,” said Heath. He walked over to help Nick serve the drinks. Nick murmured sympathetically.
“I think I’ll have a sherry, too, ” said Audra.
“Mrs. Barkley, Mr. Barkley, I apologize for my strong words. I am a guest in your home and I have already insulted all of you, my hosts. I do forget myself when I am speaking of this work. I believe very strongly in its importance, particularly as it can better the lives of the children isolated in these camps. As our Lord said, of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Of course, Miss Price. We are all aware of the importance of the work,” replied Victoria.
Heath had quickly swallowed the double whiskey, and then helped Nick pass around the other drinks. His color had returned to something approaching normal. “Seein’ that you feel that way about it, I reckon I can take a few weeks off, if it’s that important, and might help some kid,” he said.
“Thank you, Mr. Barkley. I know that you will find the work itself as rewarding as I do. When you see the hope in the eyes of the children, you will know true joy. The laborer is worthy of his hire.”
“Well, Miss Price, shall we go into dinner?” Victoria lead them toward the dining room. Nick held Heath back.
“Why didn’t you tell her?” he hissed.
“Why should I?” Heath replied.
“Well, because … because … well, just because! ” Nick said. “I don’t envy you at all, brother. Three weeks with that horse-faced, Bible-thumpin’, teetotaler. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t try to hold prayer meetings as well as establish libraries.”
“I’ve spent time with worse,” responded Heath. “Besides, from the look of her, if I have any trouble with the horses, I can just throw a pack over her.” They both laughed and hurried to the dining room.
The ladies’ society met at the Barkley home the next afternoon. After Victoria introduced Miss Price, Audra gave a report on outcome of the book drive, the kermis, and the dance. Miss Price congratulated her on the success of her efforts, and then spoke to the assembled ladies about the origin and purpose of traveling libraries. When she had finished, Victoria explained that Heath was going to accompany Miss Price on her trip through the Stockton area. Miss Price asked the ladies for any information that they could give her about the camps in the surrounding hills. She produced a rough map, and made notes as various women reviewed it and gave her suggestions.
At the end of the meeting, Silas brought in coffee and cookies. Mrs. Keller sought out Miss Price as she stood near the coffee urn. She had just poured herself a cup of black coffee.
“Did I hear Victoria say that Heath was going on this trip with you?” she asked.
“Yes. It was extremely generous of Victoria to volunteer one of her sons to act as my guide. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard about him. As a Christian woman, I feel that it is my duty to warn you that …” she got no further.
Miss Price drew herself up, carefully placed the coffee cup on the table, and said in a firm, quiet voice, “And I, as a Christian woman, do not trade in idle gossip or malicious slander!” She stalked away to join some of the other women who were congratulating Audra on her successes.
The next day the provisions were readied for the trip. Miss Price produced the roughly sketched map of her route that evening.
“Mr. Barkley, one of the reasons that I desire a local guide is that my experience has taught me that these maps are notoriously unreliable. Camps spring up and disappear almost overnight. I have here a map of the general area which I wish to cover. Although the ladies of the club were of considerable aid, there are still large areas outside of their knowledge. It will be your duty to lead me to the existing camps, regardless of what is shown on the map, to the best of your ability. Is that clear?”
“Excellent. I predict that we shall get along famously on this trip.” And with that Miss Price had gone to bed. Heath sat up for some time, adding new names to the map and crossing out the names of camps which he knew had ceased to exist. He had pondered for sometime over one particular name before carefully adding it to the map.
Heath and Miss Price left early the morning after that, each leading a pack horse. They rode in silence for some time, Heath in the lead. Miss Price stared at the countryside around her, and studied the corrected map. She occasionally asked Heath to identify some landmark, which he did with the fewest possible words. They stopped for a brief meal at noon, eating fresh food which had been packed for that day. The dried foods were for later, when the nothing fresh would be available.
They ate in silence, Miss Price quietly saying a word of grace before she began to eat.
“Mr. Barkley, would it disturb you if I were to sing a hymn?” asked Miss Price as they resumed their journey.
Heath looked startled, “Pardon?”
“A hymn, Mr. Barkley. Would you mind if I sang a hymn?”
“Then I shall.” In a strong, clear contralto, she proceeded to sing a succession of Protestant hymns, including “The Old Oaken Cross,” “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and “Amazing Grace.”
Twilight was darkening the sky when Heath called back to her, “I reckon we can make camp up here a ways. There a good spot next to a stream.”
“As you say, Mr. Barkley. You are the guide.”
Heath turned aside from the road, and led her down to a smooth, grassy meadow on the banks of a small stream. They climbed down from their horses. Miss Prices stretched, then went down to splash water of her face and neck. Heath unsaddled and hobbled his horse, and had just begun to do the same for her horse when Miss Price returned.
“Thank you, Mr. Barkley, but there is no need. I can do my fair share of the work. You go unload that pack horse and I will take care take care of these two.” She suited her actions to her words, and soon all four horses were unloaded and hobbled for the night.
Heath had unpacked the cooking utensils, started a small fire, and put on a pot of coffee. Miss Price walked over.
“I will be more than happy to do the cooking, if you don’t mind, Mr. Barkley. I happen to enjoy it, and think that you will find that I am an excellent cook.”
“Suit yourself,” he answered. He pulled the two bedrolls from the piles of supplies and laid them out. Then he went over and began to curry and brush the horses.
Miss Price quickly and efficiently put together a stew using fresh vegetables and dried meat. She added a few herbs from a small supply that she carried with her. While it was simmering, she stirred up some dumpling dough, which she dropped onto the stew and then covered the Dutch oven with its lid.
“This should be ready in about fifteen minutes, Mr. Barkley,” she called. “If you have another comb or brush, I will be glad to assist you.”
Heath handed her a curry comb without saying a word. They both worked on the horses for in silence. When they had finished, they washed in the stream and then sat down for dinner. Miss Price served the stew and dumplings onto the tin plates and poured coffee into the tin cups.
“I suppose it’s a good thing that we both take our coffee black,” she remarked humorously.
Heath just grunted in reply. She sighed, and the rest of the meal passed in silence. They finished and Miss Price took the dishes down to the stream to wash them. When she returned, Heath was stretched out on his bedroll with his hat over his eyes. She stared at him for some time, then sat again. She took the map from her pocket.
“So, I see that the first town we will come to is someplace called Strawberry?”
“I don’t seem to remember having seen this on the map before, and I’m certain that it was not added during the club meeting. Did you add this town, Mr. Barkley.”
“It is a farming community?
“Is it a new mining camp?”
“Are there many people there?”
“None that I know of.”
“Then pray tell just what is there, Mr. Barkley!”
He lifted his hat, and turned his head to face her. “My mother’s grave.” He turned his face back and replaced the hat on top of it.
Miss Price sat in silence for some time. Finally, she spoke. “Mr. Barkley, it is obvious that I do not understand.”
“Will you do me the courtesy of explaining?”
“Don’t see that it’s any of your business.”
“Ordinarily, I would agree. However, by adding that town to our route and expecting me to accompany you there, you have made it at least partially my business.”
Heath sat up and faced her. “Fine. I guess it was bound to come up sooner or later. Might as well get it over with. Victoria Barkley is not my mother.”
“That I had surmised. But Thomas Barkley was your father.”
“Yep. I grew up with my mother, in Strawberry.”
“And when did you come to know who your father was?”
“A couple of years ago, when my mother died.”
“I see. And how long have you lived … on the Barkley ranch?”
“‘Bout that long.”
“I see.” She was silent for a long time. Heath stared into the fire, remembering and trying not to remember. “Mr. Barkley, I have been wrong. I have done you a great wrong.” He looked up at her in surprise. “I have done you the wrong of judging you on the basis of physical appearance. I know that it is a lot to ask, but I only hope that in time you will find yourself capable of forgiving me.”
Heath shrugged, muttered, “I guess so,” and lay back down to sleep.
Miss Price continued to stare at the fire. Slowly, she began to speak in a very soft voice, “I had an idyllic childhood. My father, God rest his soul, was a minister of a small congregation in Ohio. He and my mother were childhood sweethearts who loved each other the whole of their lives. My birth was the crowning joy of their lives. We were quite poor, of course, but I did not know that. We always had enough to eat, even if meat were a little scarce, and clothes to wear, albeit from the poorbox, but mostly we had love. My father used to call me his beautiful princess.” She laughed shortly. “As soon as I started school, I realized that I am not beautiful. It is a kindness to call me plain. Although I acknowledged the fact years ago, I still struggle for the serenity to accept it. I suppose that at best I have reached an uneasy of truce.”
There was no response from the still form across the fire. Miss Price continued, as though talking to herself. “Books became my best friends. In books I could go to any place or time, be any beautiful woman I wished. I could be a Cinderella or Snow White, winning the handsome prince, or a lady in the court of King Arthur being rescued by a knight in shining armor. I even imagined myself as Maid Marion …. Did you say something, Mr. Barkley?”
There was no reply.
“I learned early in my life that social acceptance depended on my being useful. I was the girl who collected entrance fees, served the punch, helped to set up and then to clear up. I made and distributed flyers and did all of the other little chores so that the beautiful and attractive girls could devote themselves to the young men. I cannot pretend to understand what your life has been, Mr. Barkley, but you must believe that I do know what it means to be an outcast. To suffer from the hands of fools for an accident of birth. To know that all of your good works and upright behavior will never erase the stigma. To search for some identity that will give your life meaning.” She stopped.
From under the hat came the quiet question, “Have you found it?”
“Yes, I believe I have. My parents sacrificed to send me to Oberlin College, one of the few educational opportunities available for females in our country. I was fortunate enough to secure a position in the college library after graduation. It was heavenly, to able to spend my days surrounded by my beloved books. Later, I moved on to other libraries and finally was offered this position as library organizer of California. How proud my parents would be of me!” She paused in reflection. “Marriage and motherhood have been denied to me, Mr. Barkley, because I am too ugly and, frankly, too opinionated and independent. It is not in me to submit to any mortal man. But the good Lord, in his wisdom, has given me a work to accomplish. I meant every word that I said to your family. Books were a refuge and a comfort to me at the worst times. They gave me hope, inspiration, ambition. If I can help but one child … “
She stopped, remembering an earlier conversation. After several moments, she asked calmly, “Tell me, Mr. Barkley, did your mother raise you by herself?”
“Then she must have been an extraordinary woman.”
Heath slowly sat up and looked at her warily. “What do you mean by that?”
“What I said, Mr. Barkley. I was impressed with your good manners and fine breeding when I believed that you had grown up with every privilege and advantage that money and family can provide. I am even more impressed to learn that your mother managed to produce such a fine son under what must have been the most difficult of circumstances.”
“I haven’t been all that polite lately,” he admitted.
“I must confess, Mr. Barkley, that you have been much more tolerant of my unwitting affronts than I would have been. Than I have been, in fact.”
Heath smiled crookedly, “Guess I misjudged you a bit myself.”
“Mr. Barkley, shall we let bygones be bygones and begin afresh?” Miss Price offered her hand.
Heath shook it firmly. “Would you have any objection to telling me something of your life to this point, Mr. Barkley?”
“Guess it’s only fair.” He stared into the coals.
“Don’t feel that you must,” murmured Miss Price.
He looked up at her. “No. I want to. It’s just hard to know where to start. Guess I’ll just start at the beginnin’.”
Miss Price awoke to the smell of coffee brewing. She sat up and groped in the pocket of her jacket for her pince nez. Heath was crouched next to the fire, heating some grease in a frying pan.
“Mornin’,” he greeted her, a little shyly.
“Good morning, Mr. Barkley. You are indeed an early riser! And a quiet one. I see that I have no time to spare this morning in my ablutions.”
“No rush. I’ll fix breakfast while you wash. I, uh, I hope you like trout.” He indicated two freshly cleaned and scaled fish lying on some clean leaves nearby.
“You continue to amaze me. Trout for breakfast is a rare and unexpected treat. I shall make all haste.” She gathered up her toilette articles and a clean blouse and headed down to the stream. While she washed, she sang rousing martial hymns. She paused for several moments to offer up her morning prayers before joining Heath. She returned to the camp to find a perfectly pan-fried trout and hot biscuits waiting for her. She said a quiet word of grace, as always. Heath waited respectfully. When she had finished, they both began to eat.
“Mr. Barkley, I cannot compliment you enough. I blush to think that yesterday I boasted of my culinary abilities.” She stopped talking in order to continue eating. Heath just grinned and nodded in reply.
After they finished the meal, Miss Price insisted on washing up. Heath began reloading the pack animals. She returned from the stream, and together they made short work of the loading and saddling, and were soon on their way.
“When shall we arrive at Strawberry, Mr. Barkley?”
“Well before noon tomorrow, if all goes well.”
“Then we’ll head on over toward Placerville. That’ll take another two, two and a half days’.”
Today they rode side by side, often in a companionable silence. Miss Price continued to hum and to sing snatches of hymns, in particular “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” On occasion she exclaimed in awe at the natural wonders around her and the good Lord who had created them. A few times, Heath related Indian legends or tall tales regarding some of the plants and natural formations. That night they camped again.
The sun was not yet overhead when they arrived at Strawberry the following morning. Miss Price regarded the empty, dusty streets, and the unpainted, boarded up buildings in silence for sometime. Finally, she spoke, “It is the abomination of desolation.”
“It weren’t much different when there were people here.”
“You and your mother have once again risen in my opinion, Mr. Barkley. I had not thought it possible, but after having seen this . . . the Lord moves in mysterious ways indeed.”
Heath turned his horse toward and rode toward his mother’s grave. Miss Price followed at a respectful distance. They arrived at a small fenced area which held two tombstones. Heath dismounted and entered through a small gate. He removed his hat as he stood in front of the grave marked “Leah Thomson.”
“Your mother?” asked Miss Price, dismounting, but remaining just outside the fence.
“Umm-hmm.” After several minutes, he spoke. “This here’s Rachel’s grave. She was one of my mother’s best friends. She and my mother’s other friend, Hannah, raised me almost as much as my mother did. Without them, we wouldn’t have survived.”
They both stood in silence. Miss Price could only guess at the memories Heath was reliving. She spoke very softly,
“Except to heaven, she is nought;
Except for angels, lone;
Except to some side-wandering bee,
A flower superfluous blown;
Except for winds, provincial;
Except by butterflies,
Unnoticed as a single dew
That on the acres lies.
The smallest housewife in the grass,
Yet take her from the lawn,
And somebody has lost the face
That made existence home.”
Heath lifted his face to the sun for several seconds, then shook his head, and replaced his hat. He spoke without looking at her, “I don’t know what all those fancy words mean, but that last part.. . that last part sure is true.” He moved quickly to mount his horse. Miss Price followed his example, and they left Strawberry silently, Heath in the lead.
Heath gradually became aware that Miss Price was softly singing,
“There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar;
For the Father waits over the way
to prepare us a dwelling place there.
In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
Almost imperceptibly, he slowed his horse until they were once again riding side by side. “Tell me about your mother,” asked Miss Price gently.
Heath was silent. Miss Price waited patiently. Eventually, he began to speak, slowly, as though searching for the words. “Well, it’s like that poem said. She was home to me. She always made me feel like I was the best thing in her life. Like she wouldn’t have a life without me in it. No matter how hard she worked, she never once let on that her life was hard because of me. It was just hard because that’s how life is.”
“Rachel, she was a seamstress. Ma worked for her, makin’ buttonholes on men’s shirts and sewin’ on buttons.”
He stopped, remembering. “I can still see her, sittin’ in that rockin’ chair after I was in bed, rockin’ and sewin’ and tellin’ me stories. She’d be sittin’ there when I fell asleep, but she was always up before me, with my breakfast ready. Sometimes, if it was a real nice day, she’d sing me awake.”
“She worked for Hannah, too, doin’ laundry, washin’ the same shirts she’d sewed the buttonholes on. I reckon she must have had some pretty hard times, some times when she just didn’t know how she was goin’ to make it another day. But she never let me see them. She was always warm and sweet and lovin’.”
“It was only when I got old enough that I understood what her life really was. I did odd jobs, to help out. If I brought home fifty cents, she’d go on like it was a fortune. A couple of times I tried to talk to her about how things was, but she’d just tell me that we were fine and I wasn’t to worry about it.”
“I asked her about my pa, too, when I was little. She’d always tell me that she had loved him very much, but that he had to go away and couldn’t come back. After awhile, I quit askin’. As long as she was alive, it didn’t matter much. Me and her, we was all the family we needed. I did start gettin’ mad at whoever the man was when I got old enough to guess what had really happened. For lettin’ her live that way, makin’ her life such a misery. But she never said or did anythin’ to let on that’s how it was.”
“Yep, I’d say that she was home for me. It sure seems strange to hear my own feelin’s in somebody else’s words. Who wrote that poem, Miss Price?”
“It was written by Miss Emily Dickinson, a New England poetess who died a few years ago. Her works were published only after her death. They are deceptively simple verses.”
“Seems like the more I think on her words, the truer they get.”
“A sentiment with which I heartily agree. May I share another of her poems with you? One of my personal favorites.”
“I believe that you will take as much pleasure in it as I do.” She began to recite,
“I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!”
She finished and waited for his reaction. He was silent for a few moments, then, for the first time in her presence, he laughed out loud.
“Boy, howdy, Miss Price! It’s like it was written just for you and me! We are a pair of nobody’s, ain’t we?” He continued to chuckle. “Like a frog if that don’t sound just like Nick! A big, ol’bullfrog croaking out for all to hear.” He shook his head in wonder.
The next day passed in much the same fashion. Their fifth day out was Sunday. Miss Price insisted that they not travel that day, although they were only about ten miles outside of Placerville. She spent the morning reading to herself from the Bible, praying quietly, and singing hymns. Heath took advantage of the time to make needed repairs and modifications to the packs and saddles. After lunch, Miss Price suggested that they go for a walk. When they returned, they both lay down for a short nap before beginning dinner.
After they had eaten and cleaned up, Miss Price pulled a book out of her pack.
“Mr. Barkley,” she began.
“Please, ma’am, would you mind calling me just plain Heath?”
She stopped, startled. “Well, I suppose I could try. I am not accustomed . . . yes, yes, thank you. I will. All right, Heath, then. I have the custom of reading to myself for a half an hour or so before I fall asleep. I wonder if you would enjoy my reading aloud?”
It was Heath’s turn to look startled. “Well, ma’am, I, I guess so. It’s not somethin’ that I ever really thought much about. But, sure, why not?”
“Excellent. I propose that we read one of the plays of William Shakespeare, if that meets with your approval.”
“Did he write that play, “Richard the Third”?” She nodded. “I saw that once when some travelin’ actors came through a place I was workin’. Boy, howdy, he sure does know how to tell a good story.”
“Indeed he does, Mister, er, Heath, indeed he does.”
“There was another time when a man recited some speeches from some other plays, somethin’like Julius Caesar and Macbeth. Yeah, that Shakespeare tells a story a man wants to hear.”
“I am so pleased to hear you say that. I have selected one of my favorites entitled, “‘TheTempest,'” and she began to read.
Heath interrupted at the end of the first scene, “I worked in the Golden Gate crabbin’ one year and got caught in a storm more than once. I know just what those sailors are talkin’ about. It feels like I’m right back on ship.”
Miss Price nodded and read to the end of the first act. She marked her place, closed the book and returned it to her bag.
Heath spoke quietly in the dark, “I reckon I kind of understand how that Miranda must feel. To think that you’re poor and a nobody, and suddenly find out that you’re rich and somebody.” He chuckled, “I’m just glad Jarrod is a better man than that Antonio.”
Miss Price chuckled in agreement before saying her prayers and falling asleep.
They arrived in Placerville at midmorning the next day. They stopped at the top of a ridge and looked down at the camp. It was large for a mining camp, with several large clapboard buildings, including a church and a schoolhouse. One building had an American flag flying on a flagpole in front of it.
“That building with the flag, that will be the post office,” explained Miss Price. “I have been in correspondence with the post mistress here. We should go directly there.”
They urged their horses down the road into town and tied up in front of the post office. They went into the building, and were greeted by a small, bird-like woman from behind a wire screen.
“Can I help you?” she chirped.
“Mrs. Wren?” asked Miss Price. Heath hid a grin at the unbelievable coincidence of the name.
“I am Miss Helen Price. I believe . . . “
Before she could continue, Mrs. Wren had darted out from behind the counter and grabbed Miss Price’s right hand in both of hers.
“I cannot tell you how pleased we are that you are here! Finally, some vestige of culture and learning in this God-forsaken place. We have been eagerly awaiting your arrival. I will just go and tell everyone that you are here. When would you like to hold the meeting? I don’t suppose we can arrange things before tomorrow night? Where will you be staying? Would you like to come to dinner at my home tonight?”
Miss Price broke in, “This is Mr. Heath Barkley. He is my guide and companion on this journey. We have only just arrived in Placerville. Is there a hotel or rooming house where we might find some rooms?”
“Why, yes, of course. There’s the hotel, but a lady like you doesn’t want to stay in the hotel. The Widow Spencer runs a very clean, decent rooming house. Breakfast and lunch are included in the price. Widow Spencer is quite a good cook. Shall I take you there? I’m sure that she has rooms. It’s this way. Where are you from Miss Price? Ohio! Oh, how wonderful. I am from Virginia myself. I came out here with my husband more than twenty years ago. We were going to strike it rich in the gold mines of California and then go home and live out our lives in ease. As you can see, we are still here.”
While she chattered, Mrs. Wren had herded them out of the building and locked the door. She waited while Heath untied the horses, then the three of them set off down the street to the rooming house. On the way, the two women planned the library meeting. It was finally decided that the meeting would be held the next evening. Miss Price and Heath would eat dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Wren at their home that evening as well, and the meeting would be held there afterward.
Mrs. Wren introduced them to the Widow Spencer, who showed them to two small but clean rooms, one on the ground floor and the other on the first floor. Heath took the room upstairs. After removing their personal bags from the horses, he took them to the livery stable.
He and Miss Price unpacked their bags, washed and changed, and then went down to the dining room for lunch. When they had finished, Miss Price returned to her room to work on her speech for the evening. Heath wandered over to the saloon for a few glasses of beer and maybe a couple of hands of poker.
He returned in time to dress for dinner and meet Miss Price to walk over to the Wren’s for dinner. The Wrens lived in a small house with a picket fence that had once been white and a few brave wildflowers imitating a garden in front of the house. Mr. Wren was as small and bird-like as his wife, but after greeting them cordially, he spoke very little. Mrs. Wren proved to be a good cook, although her constant chatter distracted from the excellent food. Both Heath and Miss Price soon stopped even trying to answer her questions and just allowed the sound to flow over them, following the example of their host.
Miss Price spent most of the next day reviewing her speech and cleaning and pressing her clothes for the meeting that evening. She and Heath saw each other at meals, but she did not press him as to how he planned to spend the intervening hours. Heath had discovered that there were always a few miners in the saloon just ready for a friendly game of poker.
Dinner was scarcely over that evening when the others began arriving for the meeting. The dozen or so couples and individuals represented the leading, long-term residents of the area. Included in the group were the mayor and camp council, the school teacher, and the owners of the general store and the saloon. They all greeted Miss Price eagerly and warmly. The mayor announced to her that a room had already been prepared in the city hall and that the school teacher and the postmistress had agreed to share the duties of librarian.
“Well, then my work is more than half finished before I’ve started. Few towns actually follow the instructions that I send to them in advance,” responded Miss Price. “My speech feels a trifle redundant.” The group insisted that they were very interested in what she had to say.
Miss Price presented her speech and answered the few questions asked by the audience. They seemed most interested in asking about the response of other communities to the traveling library. They seemed to take a great deal of pride in learning that they were so much more receptive and better prepared than the average camp. “We aim to put Placerville on the map,” declared the mayor proudly.
Mrs. Wren served cake and coffee, during which Miss Price continued to answer questions and provide information about the traveling library. As she and Heath walked back to the rooming house, she remarked, “That was a pleasant surprise. I only wish that every community were that receptive. I wonder what the situation will be in Auburn?”
“No way to know, but it’s got a pretty rough reputation,” replied Heath.
“Then I shall make my prayers especially fervent tonight and in the morning. However, sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.”
Heath merely repeated, “It’s a pretty rough town. We’d best be prepared.”
When they reached the house, Heath asked diffidently, “Would you mind maybe readin’ in the parlor for a spell before we go up to our rooms?”
“Heath, I would be delighted!”
They fell into a comfortable pattern over the next few days of travel. The first one to awaken would prepare breakfast, after which they would pack and saddle the horses and travel until time for lunch. Miss Price sang, recited poetry, told stories of her childhood, and occasionally coaxed a reminiscence from Heath. At noon they would stop for a meal and a short nap before continuing on until dusk. After dinner, Miss Price would read from “The Tempest.” Heath listened intently, making an occasional observation or asking for clarification. In this way they arrived at the mining town of Auburn late one morning. They followed a dirt road up and around the side of a mountain. They came suddenly upon the town, a single street lined with unpainted wooden buildings, three of which were saloons, tar-paper shacks clinging to the mountain at odd and precarious angles, and piles of mine tailings visible near the dark entrances to the shafts. There was no post office in evidence. Groups of dirty, ragged children of both sexes ran through the streets and in and out of the alleys, shouting, yelling, and throwing rocks at each other. Several mangy dogs followed the children, who occasionally turned to throw rocks at the dogs rather than each other. None of the children looked more than six or seven years old.
They rode into the town and stopped at the first saloon. Heath went in to ask about the location of the post office. He returned in a few moments, followed by a badly made-up young woman with dyed red hair wearing a short, ragged, low-cut gown of a particularly virulent shade of yellow. She was hanging on his arm and coaxing him, “Come on, cowboy. You’re the first new face through here in donkey’s years. And you shore do look like you got the money.”
Heath tried to shake her off gently.
“Ah, please, mister. Tell ya’ what, handsome, for you, it’d be half-price,” she whined.
“No thanks, ma’am. I’m really not interested.” He managed to disentangle himself and mounted his horse. The girl looked at Miss Price and started to laugh raucously.
“What’s wrong with you, man? You don’t expect me to believe that you really prefer THAT to THIS,” she pointed to herself. “You’ve been out in the sun too long. It’s addled your brains. And don’t try tellin’ me she’s your mother. You was never whelped by somethin’ that looks like that.” She returned to the saloon, laughing loudly.
Heath avoided looking at Miss Price. “The post office is on the other side of the mountain. We should see it when we round that bend up there.”
They rode off in silence. As they passed the next saloon, men who were loitering outside began nudging each other and laughing. One of them yelled, “Where’d you pick up that old nag?”
Then another and another. “Don’t ya’ think shootin’ ‘er woulda been kinder?” “How many days do you reckon she was a-lyin’ out there in the sun anyway?”
Heath started to turn his horse toward the men. Miss Price said, quietly but firmly, “Please just ignore them. I have found that that is the only sure course when dealing with hooligans of that stripe.”
“If you say so,” muttered Heath through gritted teeth.
The ribald laughter and shouted abuse followed them down the street. Miss Price sat perfectly erect and hummed to herself. Heath sat stiffly and ground his teeth. As they rounded the bend, they saw the flag flying and soon reached the post office. A tall, elderly gentleman came out to meet them as they were tying up the horses on the hitching post.
“I assume that you must be Miss Price,” he asked in a cultured English voice. “We received your telegram from Placerville. Everything has been arranged as you requested.”
“That is good news indeed,” she replied, “This is Mr. Heath Barkley. He has accompanied me from Stockton.”
“I am Mr. Thorne,” he introduced himself. “I hope that you will do me the honor of joining me for a bite of luncheon?” They gratefully accepted his invitation.
“I will be closing the post office in about half an hour. I suggest that you take the horses to the livery stable in the meantime. I would not care to vouch for their safety even in broad daylight. You must have seen the children in the streets. The livery is just down there,” he pointed. “If you would care to return here after you have seen to the horses, we can walk to my rooms. They are quite nearby.”
“We had hoped to be able to find lodgings for the night,” said Miss Price.
“My landlady, Mrs. McGruder, has several vacant rooms. She has agreed to accommodate you.”
Mr. Thorne returned to the post office. Heath and Miss Price walked the horses down to the livery stable and saw to their disposition, then returned to the post office, carrying their personal luggage.
Mrs. McGruder was extremely pleased at being able to rent two rooms additional rooms, if only for one evening. She gave Heath and Miss Price two rooms across from each other on the second floor. As usual, the rent included breakfast and lunch. She served the three of them in her front parlor, and was constantly in and out of the room on one pretext or another.
Mr. Thorne began to explain to Miss Price, “The community are divided over the issue of a library. The more educated and cultured among us, of whom I flatter myself to think that I am one, greatly desire this traveling library.”
He was interrupted by Mrs. McGruder who was ostensibly clearing away the dishes, “It’s like I was just sayin’ to my friend, Mrs. Taylor. What this town needs is a good dose of culture. Get rid of some of the riff-raff. Bring in the quality.”
Miss Price looked astonished, but did not respond. She and Mr. Thorne exchanged glances.
He continued, “Yes, well, be that as it may. There is also a faction, a rather large faction, which opposes public institutions of any kind if they will mean taxation.”
“But the fees are extremely low,” protested Miss Price. “The railroad has agreed to ship the cases for free, and many of the books have been donated. Why, this gentleman’s sister herself raised a large sum toward the expenses of the traveling library in this area. I will explain all of this when I speak to the community tonight.”
“Ah, yes. Well, I’m afraid that the meeting will be held at four o’clock this afternoon. We must adjourn well before dark. It is not safe for the people who live in the surrounding hills to travel at night. And most of them will want to be home in time for their supper. I am also afraid that the meeting is being held in one of the saloons. It is the only place large enough for a meeting of this size. Even our worship services, such as they are, are held in a saloon.” He sighed deeply.
Miss Price blotted her lips with her napkin and laid it on the table. “Then I must excuse myself, Mr. Thorne. I have much to do to prepare.” She rose, “Thank you for the lovely meal. It is many days since I have had the pleasure of eating a proper meal in proper surroundings. If you will excuse me.” She went up to her room.
Heath stood, “I reckon I’ll be headin’ up to my room, too. We’ve been ridin’ pretty hard these last few days, so I think I’ll just put my feet up. Thanks for lunch. Oh, which saloon is the meetin’ bein’ held in?”
“In the ‘Golden Slipper,’ Mister Barkley. At least we were spared the ‘Bucket of Blood,’ he shuddered. “We can be grateful that the mine owners have agreed to lend us some of their guards to ensure that the meeting is not disrupted by rowdies and hooligan. They are as eager as we to bring order and stability to this community.”
At two-thirty, Heath knocked on Miss Price’s door. They left together to walk down to the saloon. The streets were fairly deserted, but as they neared the saloon they could hear a loud clamor. Men were complaining about the saloon bar being closed for the duration of the meeting, although few of them appeared to have been deprived of alcohol.
A group of men standing in the street was blocking the stairs up to the saloon. Miss Price strode up to them and asked, in a loud, clear voice, “Would you please allow us to pass?”
“Do ya’ here that? The lady wants to pass.”
“Think we should let her?”
“I dunno; seems like her kind don’t rightly belong in no saloon.” The biggest man moved to place himself directly in the stairway.
Miss Price repeated, “Please allow us to pass. I believe that the library meeting is being held here, is it not?”
“Oh, the liberry meetin’. Yeah, sure, lady. The liberry meetin’ is bein’ held here. But, ya’ know, you could ask a feller nice like, don’t ya’ think?” He leered at her. “You ain’t the purtiest thing I ever did see, but, what the hell? You’re a woman, ain’tcha? ‘sides, I like a woman with a little meat on her bones.” He squeezed Miss Price’s upper arm. She shook him off.
Heath spoke up, “That’s enough. Now let the lady through.”
“Thank you, Heath, I appreciate your help, but I can take care of myself. It is not the first time that I have had to deal with ruffians such as these.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know you can. But this time you don’t have to.” Heath put his arm around her, and gently pushed their way through. The men stumbled back, with sidelong glances at the mine guards on either side of the doorway. The saloon had been turned into a meeting hall by moving the tables against one wall and setting up rows of chairs parallel to the front wall. The room was filled to standing room only. Heath leaned up against the wall in the back of the saloon, near the doorway. Miss Price walked to the front of the room where a few chairs had been set up facing the audience. Mr. Thorne introduced her. The audience applauded politely. Just after she had begun to speak, a few of the men who had given trouble earlier slipped in through the door. The large man who had accosted Miss Price slid over next to Heath. After listening to Miss Price for a few moments, he muttered to the man on the other side of him,
“She wants to help us by settin’ up a liberry? If she really wanted to help a feller … ” before he could finish, Heath hissed, “Shut up.”
“Hey, mister, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“Shut up. I want to hear what she has to say.”
The man looked at Heath for the first time, “I remember you. You was with the liberry lady …”
A guard from the door strolled by, dangling his truncheon. The man stopped talking, but he grinned as he looked Heath up and down. The man was at least fifty pounds heavier and several inches taller.
After Miss Price had finished speaking, a few members of the audience asked questions. Their main concern was the cost of the library to the community. Miss Price reiterated that the only cost to the community would be the salary for a librarian and space for the books. Mr. Thorne declared that if the community accepted the library, he would serve as librarian for no additional salary. A representative of the mining company stated that the company would build a room onto the post office to serve as a library room. In response, several citizens rose to encourage the others to vote in favor of the library. Mr. Thorne called for a voice vote, asking each man in turn to declare himself. Not surprisingly, the vote was unanimously in favor of accepting the library. Mr. Thorne and Miss Price congratulated each other on their success, and both thanked the mining company representative. He protested that it was merely “good business.”
The bar was immediately reopened, and the men poured in from the street. Heath and Miss Price quickly left to eat at a dining room that had been recommended by Mr. Thorne. They ate a leisurely meal in silence, Miss Price feeling too exhausted by her recent public appearance to carry the burden of a conversation. It was getting dark when they finally finished with pie and coffee.
They walked back up the street toward the rooming house. Miss Price was humming softly. She looked up at the stars overhead. “There must be something about the air in these mountains. I have never seen the stars so numerous or so brilliant.”
Heath looked up and started to answer, when a man stumbled out of the doors of the saloon on their right. It was the man who had accosted Miss Price earlier. He appeared to have spent the intervening hours making up for the drinks he had missed due to the saloon’s closure.
He saw Miss Price and called, “Hey, liberry lady! I been lookin’ for you. You’re not a nice lady. How come you’re not nice, lady?” He seemed unaware of Heath’s presence. He wrapped his arms around her and slurred, “Come on, lady. Be nice. Cain’tcha give a feller a liddle kiss? Jess one liddle kiss?”
Miss Price struggled to get away, dodging his mouth as he attempted to press his lips to hers. Although she was a large woman, he was an even larger man and she could not break her arms free.
Heath grabbed the man’s collar, “All right, buddy. Let her go. Leave the lady alone.”
The man shook his head, “Not until she’s nice to me. Jess one liddle kiss.” He tried again to kiss Miss Price.
Heath came up behind him and, sliding his own arms underneath the man’s, loosened his grip enough for Miss Price to break free. She stepped back, breathing hard. The man hung loosely for a moment, then with a bellow of rage, turned and swung wildly at Heath. Heath avoided his punches with ease, and pushed the man backwards. He stumbled but did not fall down.
“You don’t want to fight me, mister. You’re drunk and I’m not,” Heath advised.
The man just shook his head and charged at Heath, attempting to encircle him with his arms. Heath stepped back, sighed, and hit the man squarely on the face. The man went down. Heath took Miss Price by the arm and started walking once more toward their rooming house.
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry,” he kept repeating.
“I really am quite all right,” said Miss Price. “And it was not your fault. There was nothing you could do to have prevented it.”
“I should of known. I should of been watchin’. I know what these towns are like. I heard what he was sayin’ earlier. I should of been more careful.”
“Honestly, Heath. You must stop this. Ruffians such as he seldom carry through on their threats. In any case, if anyone should have been more aware and more careful, it is I. After all, I am often in towns such as this, and it is seldom that I have a Sir Galahad to come to my rescue.”
“Yeah, well, . . . I didn’t do such a great job tonight. If I had, you wouldn’t have needed rescuin’.”
They went straight up to their rooms, eager to avoid Mrs. McGruder’s inevitable questions about their appearance. Heath insisted on lighting the lamp in Miss Price’s room and seeing that she was safely settled. As he shook out the match, she exclaimed, “Why, Heath. Your knuckles. They are bleeding.”
“Oh, it’s nothin’. Musta’ skinned ’em on his teeth. I’ve been hurt worse.”
“That’s as may be. You will sit down right now and allow me to cleanse and bandage your hand. You do not want an infection to set in.” Heath sat in one of the chairs next to a small table in her room. Miss Price dug a small first aid kit from her bag, placed a basin of water on the table, sat in the other chair, and cleaned and bandaged Heath’s hand.
“There, now, isn’t that better?” she asked.
“I reckon it is, Miss Price. Thank you.” He rose to go.
“There is just one more thing.” He stopped. “If I am to call you Heath, you cannot continue to call me Miss Price. Particularly if you are intent on protecting my life and my virtue. I have been thinking on this for some time. I am not quite old enough to be your mother, but I am much too old to consider myself your sister. It has occurred to me that, well, if I were to have a nephew, I would very much want him to be like you. Do you think that you would be comfortable calling me Aunt Helen?” She looked suddenly and singularly embarrassed.
“Aunt Helen,” he tried out the name. “I called my mother’s friends Aunt Rachel and Aunt Hannah. Seems like I ain’t called nobody that since then. It sounds right nice. Aunt Helen. I’d be mighty proud to call you that.” He stooped and kissed her on the forehead, then went to his room, closing her door softly as he left.
Miss Price was especially long at her prayers of thanksgiving that night.
“Good morning, Heath,” sang out Miss Price as Heath entered the dining room the next morning.
“Mornin’,” Heath mumbled.
“We have the dining room to ourselves this morning. Mr. Thorne has already taken a light breakfast and left for the post office,” she explained. “I have asked Mrs. McGruder to pack us a lunch to eat on the trail. I assume that we will be leaving for Rocklin promptly?”
“Soon as we get ourselves ready. I’ll go for the horses after breakfast,” Heath had served himself a large plate of eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, biscuits, and gravy from the sideboard as he spoke. He sat and poured himself a large cup of coffee.
“Excellent. I shall pack my belongings and settle with Mrs. McGruder while you are away. And how long will it take us to reach Rocklin?”
“Two, two and half days, maybe three.”
He began to eat rapidly. Miss Price looked at him for a moment, then quietly ate her meal. Heath left for the livery stable and Miss Price went up to her room. Before long before they were on the road out of Auburn. The town was relatively deserted at this hour. Most of the men were at work in the mines, the saloons were closed, and the women who worked in them were still sleeping.
Heath was riding slightly ahead of Miss Price, and seemed intent on watching the wildlife and the scenery. She glanced at him several times. Finally, she spoke up.
“Heath, are you feeling quite well?”
“Yep. I’m fine.”
“Your hand is not paining you?”
“Nope. It’s fine.”
“Is there anything that is troubling you?”
“Nope. I’m just fine.”
“I see.” She paused. “Pardon me, but I do not believe you. I have been in your company 24 hours a day for nearly a week. You are often silent, but seldom moody. Today you are moody. I am not going another step forward until you tell me what is troubling you.” She stopped her horse in the middle of the road.
Heath stopped as well. He turned to half face her. “Well, ma’am. It’s somethin’ you said. I don’t rightly know how to take it.”
“Something I said? Whatever was that?”
“Well, last night. You called me Sir Galahad.” He stopped.
“Yes. I recall that incident.”
“Well, I got to thinkin’ about it last night after I went to bed. It’s been a long time since I read those stories, so I didn’t think of it right off. But, it seems to me . . . well, maybe I’m wrong, but, . . . if I remember right . . . wasn’t Galahad . . . wasn’t he the only . . . the only knight of the Round Table who was . . . who was a bastard.” He looked at her suddenly, his face a mask of mingled confusion, pain, and defiance.
“My dear boy. Oh, my dear boy. I am stunned. I do not know whether to be hurt or angry or sympathetic or all at once. How could you even think that I would . . . and what has your life been that you would . . . Oh, dear, dear boy. That aspect of the story was not even in my mind when I spoke.”
Heath merely stared at her. She continued, “He was unique among the knights for several reasons, only one of which was his birth. I suppose it is only natural that you would have been impressed by that detail, but do you not remember the rest of the story of Sir Galahad?”
Heath slowly shook his head.
“He was the child of Sir Lancelot and Lady Elaine, conceived outside of the bonds of marriage, as you say. But also the product of Elaine’s deep and passionate love for Lancelot. Lancelot was in love with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, as you recall. Elaine placed an enchantment on Lancelot causing him to believe that she herself was the Queen. Elaine was with the man she loved above all others and Lancelot believed himself to be with the woman whom he loved. Afterward, Lancelot returned to Camelot, unaware that Elaine carried his son. After Elaine died, pining for Lancelot, Galahad went on his first quest. His quest to find his father and to find his identity. He found both, and he found his destiny. I could not help but see the parallels in your own life.”
“Yeah, I can understand that.”
Heath turned his horse, and they began slowly riding together along the road.
“As I came to know you, I began to see other similarities. According to the traditions of courtly love, a child who was the product of true love was especially humble and pure of heart. It was said of Galahad, ‘His strength was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure.’ It will embarrass you, of course, to hear yourself spoken of in this way.”
Heath mumbled something and blushed.
“I’m sorry. I did not hear what you said.”
He spoke a little louder and turned even redder. “I said I ain’t quite as pure as you think.”
Miss Price glanced at him sharply and replied, “I am speaking of your heart and soul, young man. I may be a spinster, but I am neither stupid nor naive.”
Heath chuckled, “No. You sure ain’t.”
She quoted softly, almost to herself, “But he, Galahad, when he heard of Merlin’s doom,/Cried, ‘If I lose myself, I save myself!'”
“Tell me, Heath, why has the Barkley family accepted you as one of their own?”
“I used to think about that a lot. At first, I figured they just felt guilty and was tryin’ to ease their consciences. And maybe tryin’ to keep up their reputation in the Valley. But after a while, I kinda understood that they didn’t care what the neighbors thought, it was what they thought of themselves. I’m not making’ myself clear.”
“I understand exactly what you mean.”
“Yeah, well, it was only after I lived with ’em for a while and started feelin’ like I was part of the family when I saw that, well, that’s just the way they are. It’s like, once they knew I was family, then it was all settled. I was just part of them, no more questions asked. I guess they’re just about the best family a guy could have.”
“And it never occurred to you that you, yourself, your own personality and your own behavior played any part in their acceptance of you?”
“Me? Well, I sure tried hard to fit in. I mean, if they was willin’ to take me in, the least I could do was try. And I guess I kinda look like Tom Barkley. That’s made it easier. ‘Course, it made it harder at first. Especially for Mother. But, no, no, I didn’t do nothin’ special. They made it real easy for me, and I was just grateful to ’em for the chance.”
He chuckled suddenly. “Well, maybe not Nick. Nothin’s ever easy with Nick. He took a little more convincin’, but once he finally came around. . . .”
“So you just gave up your entire life, the life you had always known, your freedom, your independence, your identity, your very name, and became a Barkley?”
“It’s not like I had much of a life to give up. And as for a name, . . . I never really had one before. Not a proper name. Proudest day of my life when they introduced me as ‘Heath Barkley.'”
She quietly recited:
“‘Nay–but thou errest, Lancelot: never yet
Could all of true and noble in knight and man
Twine round one sin, whatever it might be,
With such a closeness, but apart there grew,
Save that he were the swine thou spakest of,
Some root of knighthood and pure nobleness;
Whereto see thou, that it may bear its flower”
“Oh, Percival is explaining to Lancelot that although he has sinned in coveting another man’s wife, that sin did not destroy all that was good and noble in him. And that this goodness and nobility have been passed on to his son.” She looked at him closely to see if he understood. He appeared to ponder her words for a short time, then said, “Well, that’s sure good to know. Means I can hope that my kids’ll get somethin’ good from me when I have ’em.”
She smiled to herself and shook her head imperceptibly, “Yes, Heath. It is a comfort, isn’t it?”
They rode along together, side by side. Hawks and eagles were often seen far overhead, rabbits and other small creatures ran from their horses as they approached, and rustlings in the trees suggested the presence of deer or other large animals.
“Aunt Helen,” Heath paused.
“Do you reckon you could sing that song, the one about the creatures great and small?”
“A most appropriate choice, Heath,” she replied, and began to sing the song.
The sun was past the zenith when they stopped for lunch. There was little to do except eat the food prepared by Mrs. McGruder that morning, so they took advantage of the extra time to simply relax and rest. They took a walk to work out the kinks and stiffness acquired from sitting in the saddle all morning.
“Heath . . . “
“It occurs to me. Perhaps you would care to learn a few songs, and then we could sing together? My dear father and mother, God rest their souls, and I, sang together every night around the dinner table. And it would help to pass the time on the road.”
“Well, I’m not exactly what you would call much of a singer.”
Miss Price laughed. “As much as I loved my father, even I had to admit that the dear man was almost completely tone deaf. The good Lord does not require that we sing well, Heath, only that we sing. ‘Sing unto the Lord, all the earth,’ the Psalmist wrote. He said nothing about the quality of that singing.”
“Well, if you’re game, I’ll sure give it a try. But don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Miss Price had him repeat the words until he had memorized them. Then she sang a phrase at a time and asked that he repeat it. At first, he sang in a tight, soft voice that had very little music in it. Gradually, in the warmth of Miss Price’s repeated encouragement and praise, he relaxed and began to sing in a louder, more confident and musical, if untrained, voice.
“Ah, Heath. My poor father would have felt blessed indeed to have been able to carry a tune as well as you. Now, let us sing together.” Their voices carried across the fields and mountains as her contralto blended with his baritone as they sang a variety of Miss Price’s favorite songs.
“You mentioned that your mother often sang to you. Do you remember the songs?”
“Well, she sang a lot of hymns, especially with Hannah. The two of them would sing while they washed the clothes. And she’d sing to herself when she was sewin’. There was one song that she sang almost every night, after she’d put me to bed.” He smiled in remembrance.
“Do you remember the words or the tunes?”
“Well, I’d have to think on it. I remember it had ‘all through the night’ in it a lot.”
Miss Price nodded, “Would it be this song?”
“Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.
While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night.
Love, to thee my thoughts are turning
All through the night
All for thee my heart is yearning,
All through the night.
Though sad fate our lives may sever
Parting will not last forever,
There’s a hope that leaves me never,
All through the night.”
“Yeah. That’s it. I kind of forget about that last part. It didn’t really mean much to me then.” They rode in silence, each lost in private thoughts. That evening they added to their established custom. After dinner, Heath taught Miss Price a few cowboy songs, although he was forced to admit that few of them were fit for a lady to hear, let alone to sing. She read another scene from “The Tempest,” and then they settled down for the night. The next day was Sunday. Once again they spent the day in camp. This time Miss Price read aloud from the Bible and Heath joined her on a few of the hymns.
The next morning was their third out from Auburn. They breakfasted and were quickly on their way. They expected to reach Rocklin in time to eat lunch there. “Now, let me see if I remember,” said Miss Price. “As I walked the streets of Laredo . . . no,there is something wrong. Please sing the first verse for me again.”
“As I walked out in the streets of Laredo
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy, all dressed in white linen
all dressed in white linen and cold as the clay”
“Walked out in . . . interesting construction. Nevertheless, As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,” she sang. Heath joined her in the second line and they finished the song together. “And the other one that I liked so much? Shall we sing that now?”
They began together, “From this valley they say you are going . . . ” and continued to sing for the rest of the morning.
By noon, they were still several miles from Rocklin.
“Do you want to stop and eat here, or go on into Rocklin?” Heath asked. “It’ll take another hour or so.”
“I confess that I am somewhat hungry, but the thought of sitting to a hot meal at a table is extremely appealing. I vote that we continue to Rocklin.”
It was somewhat past one o’clock when they reached what had been the mining camp of Rocklin. They were silent as they walked their horses through the deserted streets. They could see through open windows and doors into the houses and stores. The unpainted buildings were empty except for pieces of broken furniture and crockery, scraps of paper and fabric, and piles of rubbish.
“What could have happened?” wondered Miss Price aloud. “The residents could not have left more than a few weeks ago. Look, there are roses growing still in that garden, and pansies along the front of that house.”
“Don’t know. Could of been anythin’. An epidemic, maybe. Or some problem at the mine,” Heath nodded toward the end of the road. “Reckon we oughta head down that way and see.”
When they arrived at the mine workings, Heath nodded.”Yep. Must have caved in. Can’t tell if there was a fire, but there’s a lot of underground gas in these hills. Wonder how many men were lost?”
“However can you deduce all of that?”
“Well, you see how the entrance to the mine is filled in? Usually means that there was a major cave-in. The mine was probably played out anyway, so they just closed it down. You see those flowers and crosses there in front? Those will be for the men who were trapped.”
“I count fifteen crosses,” Miss Price closed her eyes and shuddered, “If you will permit me,Heath, I shall dismount and say a prayer for those lost men and their families.”
Heath nodded, and dismounted with her. He waited by the horses while she walked to the mine entrance to offer her prayers. She returned and mounted in silence.
“Let us leave this area and find some other place to eat. As far as practical from the site of this tragedy.”
They rode on for another hour before stopping to eat. As they prepared the meal, Miss Price spoke, “I apologize for my reaction. Although I have been through ghost towns before, I have never been through one which shows so clearly the signs of recent human habitation. I feel that for the first time, I understand the fundamental reality of their lives.”
She paused, “And I confess that there was a personal component. I take it that you worked in the mines at one time?”
Heath nodded, “Yep. A couple of different places.”
“That is what I thought. It suddenly occurred to me that it was not impossible for you to have been lost in just such an accident. My compassion for those who lost loved ones was greatly magnified by the realization of what such a loss would mean to me.”
Heath put his arm around her and kissed her on the top of her head, “Now, Aunt Helen. Don’t you go borrowin’ trouble. I wasn’t killed then and I’m not goin’ to be now. Sit down and eat this food before it gets cold.”
“Yes, of course. We have only one town left, is that not correct?”
“And how long will it take us to arrive there?”
“Another two, three days.”
“Excellent. I forget the name of the town.”
“Uh, Lonesome. It’s called Lonesome.”
“Indeed. How very bleak.”
After dinner on the second night out from Rocklin, as they were talking by the fire, Heath remarked, “This is a real nice place to camp.”
“Yes, it is quite lovely.”
“I mean, with the river and trees and all. And the blackberry bushes.”
“Yes. I am quite looking forward to fresh blackberries with breakfast in the morning.”
“And there’s some good fishin’ in that river, too.”
“Indeed there is. Dinner was quite delicious.”
“And I’ll just bet you can make a real good blackberry slump, if you’ve a mind.”
“Certainly. However, there is not time to prepare one tonight.”
“Well, you know, we’re kinda ahead of schedule, on account of not stoppin’ at Rocklin.”
Miss Price merely nodded in acknowledgment.
“So, I figured, this bein’ such a nice place and all, we could just sort of camp out here for a day ortwo. Kind of rest ourselves.”
“I would have thought that you would be eager to return to your family and your duties at the ranch as soon as possible.”
“Well, now, ol’ Nick don’t need me near as much as he pretends. He was runnin’ that ranch long before I ever showed up. And . . . well . . . I was thinkin’ that it would be mighty nice to spend a little more time together. You’ll be leavin’ soon after we get back to Stockton, I reckon.”
“I am very touched, Heath. But it simply is not practical. It would be extremely pleasant to spend a few days in your company while not on horseback, but my work in the rest of the state calls me. The sooner I can finish with this area, the sooner I can move on to the next. And, of course, the earlier I return to Stockton, the earlier the first cases of books can be shipped.”
Heath sighed, “You sure are one responsible woman. All right, I guess we’ll just head on into Lonesome tomorrow. Now, how about some more Shakespeare?”
They had finished the Tempest and were in the midst of reading “Julius Caesar.” Miss Price opened the volume and read until it was time for sleep. Miss Price was awakened the next morning by the sound of a strong voice singing:
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord
The Lord told Noah
To build him an arky, arky
The Lord told Noah
To build him an arky, arky
Build it out of gopher barky, barky
Children of the Lord
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord
She threw back the blankets, and shivered. Autumn came early to these mountains. Heath came up from the river with a bucket of water. His hair was wet and he had a towel slung over his shoulder.
“Rise and shine, Aunt Helen,” he called. She smiled and waved at him. When he got to the campsite, he poured some of the water into a pot and set it over the fire to heat. “This’ll be warm in no time.”
“Don’t tell me that you were washing in that icy river water on this cold morning?” she asked.
“I just felt like a good wash. Can’t get really clean in these little pans of water.”
“Yes, well, I shall remedy that situation myself when we reach Lonesome. What was that song you were singing?” She washed her face and hands while they talked.
“Oh, somethin’ that Hannah used to sing to get me up on cold winter mornin’s. She was a great one for singin’, and quotin’ scripture. She couldn’t read, but it almost didn’t matter ’cause she had the whole Bible ’bout memorized.”
“Well, you will have to teach me to sing it on our journey today.”
“There’s lots of verses all about the animals goin’ into the ark and then comin’ back out again. I used to love that when I was a kid. If she tried to skip even one chorus, I’d catch her. She used to sing others, too. You know, I’d pretty much forgot about those songs.”
After they had finished breakfast, as they were loading the horses, he asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want to spend just one day here? It’s a right pretty place. I hate to see you workin’ yourself so hard.”
“Heath, I appreciate your concern for my health and well being, but I assure you that I am perfectly capable of riding the rest of the way into Lonesome.” She mounted her horse, leaving Heath no choice but to mount his as well.
After Miss Price had learned to sing “Rise and Shine,” Heath asked if she would like to learn another song that Hannah would sing in the mornings.
“Two songs, Heath? How often did she have to sing to encourage you to get out of bed in the morning?”
“Well, pretty near every mornin’ in the winter. I just hated gettin’ out of that warm bed. Most mornin’s I’d have to break the ice on the water in the pitcher before I could wash. Summers, now, well, I’d be up and out before my mother was awake sometimes. Anyway, the song goes like this:
My Lord, what a morning My Lord, what a morning
My Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall..
My Lord, what a morning, my Lord, what a morning
My Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall.
You’ll hear the trumpet sound
to wake the nations underground
lookin’ to God’s right hand
when the stars begin to fall
You’ll hear the sinner moan
to wake the nations underground
lookin’ to God’s right hand
when the stars begin to fall
You’ll hear the Christians shout
to wake the nations underground
lookin’ to God’s right hand
when the stars begin to fall.”
“You know how it’s still dark in the mornin in winter? Well, first couple of times she sang it, I jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see if stars really were fallin’.” Heath chuckled in remembrance.
As they rode into Lonesome, Miss Price exclaimed, “This surely cannot be a mining camp! Why, look at those houses. They are all painted and in good repair. And, listen, is that not a school bell I hear?”
Heath nodded, “This is a mining camp, all right. In fact, there’s the superintendent’s office up there. That’s the post office over there.”
“I should introduce myself to the post master as soon as possible,” remarked Miss Price. “He will not be expecting us today as we could not send a telegram from Rocklin.”
“I’ll take the horses to the livery while you’re doin’ that. Save time,” said Heath.
Miss Price looked at him inquiringly, but did not ask any questions. “Where shall we meet?”
“Oh, I’ll come meet you at the post office, if that’s all right with you.”
Miss Price agreed, and they went their separate ways. The postmaster, Mr. Landers, seemed almost annoyed when Miss Price introduced herself.
“We were not expecting you to arrive today. In your earlier correspondence you specifically stated that you would wire from Rocklin with the exact date of your arrival. Of course, no arrangements have been made for lodgings or for holding the meeting you requested.” He spoke very quickly in a whiny, high-pitched voice. At first glance, he appeared to be an elderly man, but on closer inspection, it was obvious that he was not past middle-age. His posture and mannerisms, however, were those of a cantankerous old man.
“I do apologize, Mr. Landers, but when we arrived at Rocklin, we found the town deserted, apparently as the result of a disaster at the mine. And there is no telegraph station between Rocklin and here.”
“Well, I suppose that’s as good an excuse as any. It just means more work for me, of course. I can hardly keep up with my duties as it is.”
“Far be it from me to create more work for you, Mr. Landers. If you will suggest a place where we may find rooms, I will make inquiries myself when my traveling companion, Mr. Barkley, returns from the livery stable where he is boarding our horses. And I am certain that I can manage the arrangements for the meeting with his help. He is apparently somewhat familiar with this camp.”
“Mr. Barkley is with you? I was unaware that one of the Barkleys had accompanied you. Of course, of course, it will be no trouble, no trouble at all. Just allow me to tidy up here” He rushed around the post office, opening and closing drawers, moving papers from one spot to another, straightening chairs, and expending a great deal of energy with very little result.
“When did you say Mr. Barkley would be arriving?”
“I really could not say, Mr. Landers. He agreed to return here when he had finished stabling the horses.”
After several awkward moments, during which Mr. Landers again shifted papers and moved furniture, Heath arrived at the post office.
“Howdy, Mr. Landers,” he greeted the postmaster.
“Mr. Barkley, it is a pleasure to see you, I am sure. I had no idea that you would be accompanying this lady . . . she made no mention of it in her letters to me.” He looked at Miss Price accusingly.
Before she could reply, Heath answered, “I reckon that’s ’cause she didn’t know, Mr. Landers. It was a last minute decision.”
“Indeed, indeed. I meant no criticism, Mr. Barkley. Well, now, if you will allow me, I’ll show you to Mrs. O’Brien’s boarding house,” he started toward the door.
“Oh, that won’t be necessary, Mr. Landers. I know the way. And I know how busy you are. We wouldn’t want to keep you from your important work here. Besides, I stopped in at Mrs. O’Brien’s on my way here. She’s expecting us,” Heath opened the door and ushered Miss Price out, closing it before Mr. Landers could accompany them.
“What a singularly unpleasant little man!” exclaimed Miss Price. “It is a wonder that he is kept on is such a responsible public position.”
“Well, he’s harmless enough,” replied Heath, “and for all his fussin’ and complainin’, he does the job. Besides, the man’s got to eat and where else is he gonna go?”
“When you put it that way, Heath, I am forced to agree. Look, Mr. Barkley. A sidewalk! An actual sidewalk. How pleasant it will be not to walk in the dirt of the street.”
They walked along the sidewalk, passing the shops and other commercial buildings. As they came near the saloon, a stooped, elderly man sitting against the wall looked up as though to beg a few pennies.
“Ah, fine sir,” he began in a heavy Irish brogue. Suddenly, he stopped and struggled to his feet. “Heath Barkley, is it yourself then?” He clung to Heath’s arm, peering into his face.
Heath stopped, confused. “I’m Heath Barkley.”
“And you’re not knowin’ me, are ya’, Mister Heath Barkley? Not knowin’ your old friend, Tim Hanrahan.”
“Mr. Hanrahan?” Heath stared. “It’s been a long time, sir.
“That it has, lad, that it has. And how’s your fine mother, and your fine brothers, and that lovely sister of yours? All well?”
“Yes, sir. They’re just fine. How’s Bridie?”
“So ya remember my Bridie, do ya? And it’s well ya’ should.” He straightened up and pointed in the distance, “For she’s where ya’ put her, ya’ scoundrel! She’s there, in the graveyard, where ya’ put her, ya’ murderer!!” He began to shake and sob and pound Heath’s chest weakly, repeating, “Murderer, murderer.”
“What? Mr. Hanrahan, what do you mean? I don’t understand. Bridie’s dead? I thought she was going to San Francisco, to get a new start.”
But Mr. Hanrahan has exhausted himself and slumped, sobbing against the wall. Heath could get no sense out of him. Miss Price finally convinced him to stop trying to talk to the man. Heath asked the crowd that had gathered where Mr. Hanrahan lived. He and Miss Price half carried, half dragged him to the small boarding house where he had a room.
They were met by the landlady, Mrs. Murphy, who did not appear at all surprised to see her tenant in such a condition, and brought home by strangers. She led them to his room, where they made him as comfortable as they could and then left him crying on the bed.
In the small parlor of the house, Heath asked Mrs. Murphy if she had known Bridie Hanrahan.
“That I did, sir. And a terrible sad tale it is, too.” She sighed heavily. “Poor Bridie. If only she had stayed here, where she belonged, with her family and her friends about her.”
“But what happened to her?”
“Well, sir, it’s like this, sir. She got to thinkin’ above her station, as it were. Took off for San Francisco, goin’ to make dresses for the fine ladies there, and maybe become a fine lady herself some day. Thought some rich, important man might make her his wife. Well, wouldn’t you know it, sir, but of course, the quality don’t want no women of our sort makin’ their fine dresses for ’em, touchin’ that fine fabric with our dirty, rough hands. So, she went back to her old profession, if ya’ know what I mean, sir.” Here she paused and waited for Heath to acknowledge that he understood. “And, of course, there in the big city, well, it’s not like it is here, now is it? Where she knew all of her customers, in a manner of speakin’ sir. And there’s a lot more competition, if you take my meanin’, for the better streets, as it were. So, poor Bridie, she ends up down by the docks, plyin’ her trade. Not that anyone here knew that. In her letters to her Da, when she’d send him money every month, she’d always be goin’ on about how well she was doin’ and what a grand life she was livin’. And then one mornin’ they find her there, in an alley between two buildin’s, all beat up and bloody so’s a body could hardly know her, stone cold dead. It broke her poor Da’s heart, it did. He had to go identify the body. He took to the drink worse than ever after that.” Mrs. O’Brien sighed, “If she hadn’t had a letter on her from her Da, they might never have known who she was or where to send the wire. Ah, she should’ve stayed here, with her friends. None of our boys would have done that to her, no sir. They might get a little rough, but only in fun.”
Heath asked, “How long ago was this?”
“Oh, it would be onto a year ago, more or less, sir. It was about six months after she left here that she was murdered, poor thing.”
“And she’s buried down there? In the town cemetery?”
“Right next to her mother, poor woman, and her baby brother, him that only lived a few weeks. And soon we’ll be laying him that’s upstairs along side the three of them.” She sighed again.
Heath thanked the woman for the information, then he and Miss Price left. They walked in silence to the rooming house where they were to stay. Heath introduced Miss Price to Mrs. O’Brien, who showed them to their rooms. Heath had left the luggage in the rooms earlier.
After Mrs. O’Brien left them, informing them that lunch would be served in an hour, Heath told Miss Price, “I have some business to take care of. I’ll be back in time for lunch,” and left quickly. Miss Price shook her head sadly and went into her room to unpack.
When Miss Price went down to the dining room, she was not surprised to find that Heath was not there. She started to eat without him, expecting that he would return before the meal was complete. He still had not returned when she was finished with her coffee, so she asked Mrs. O’Brien to direct her to the cemetery.
She could see Heath crouched on the ground against a tree, facing away from the cemetery and what it contained. She walked up to him, and said quietly, “I missed you at lunch.”
He only nodded and continued to stare at nothing.
“Would you like to tell me about her?” Miss Price carefully lowered herself to the ground.
“Not much to tell. I was here about a year and a half ago on some business. I met Bridie then. She was young, pretty, lively. Had a lot of spunk in her. I remember she had auburn hair that she wore loose and long, with a funny kind of bun right up here on the top of her head. She was workin’ to support herself and her father at one of the few trades open to a woman in a town like this. I convinced her to leave and go to San Francisco to make a new start. Her father’s right. Mrs. Murphy’s right. If it hadn’t been for me, she would still be alive.”
“Now, Heath. You cannot know that. She might easily have died from accident or disease. You cannot blame yourself for the ills of the world. You know that there is evil in this world, Heath, and that it preys on the weak, the helpless, the lost, the confused. Bridie deserved a better life than what she had, and a better death than she met at the hands of that evil man. And despite the opinion of the good Mrs. Murphy, men such as he are not found only in San Francisco. You at least were trying to help her.”
“Oh, but that’s just it, I wasn’t tryin’ to help her. Not really. I was bein’ Mister Heath Barkley, of the Stockton Barkley’s.” Heath picked up a stone and threw it. “I was feelin’ so proud and so high and mighty. The way she looked at me, like I was somebody. Somebody better than she was. Nobody ever looked at me that way before. And I was gonna change her life, just like that, just by reachin’ down off my high horse and pattin’ her on the head, throwin’ her a few crumbs. But I didn’t do it for her. No, it wasn’t for her. It was for me, to make me feel big and important. Like some kind of hero.” He laughed bitterly. “And I never once asked after her. I’ve been in San Francisco dozens of times since then, and I never even thought to ask where she was livin’. Never stopped to see how she was doin’. She wanted to make dresses. Audra buys lots of dresses in San Francisco. If I asked her to, she would of got Bridie a job workin’ with for one of them society dressmakers. But I never once even thought about her after I left that day. And I know what it’s like, tryin’ to pull yourself up and bein’ pushed down and held there, never given an even break. And it’s even harder for a woman. A lot harder. But I never thought about her, never thought about her again until today.”
He sat silently. “Guess I’m more like my father than I thought. He just rode through life, takin’ what he wanted and never thinkin’ about the consequences, ’cause he was a Barkley. And now I’m doin’ the same thing for the same reason. Maybe I should of stayed a Thomson.” He leaned back against the trunk of the tree.
“Do you really believe that?”
“No, not really. I’m just feelin’ guilty for not doin’ what I should of.” He threw several more stones down the hillside. “And kind of humbled, I guess. Tumbled down off that high horse. I let bein’ a Barkley now make me forget who I am, where I came from. Makes it worse, don’t you see? I should of done more because her and me, we came from the same place. I just should of known.”
Miss Price reached over and held Heath’s hand in silence. He sighed and relaxed against the tree.
“I keep rememberin’ a song Hannah used to sing when she was doin’ the wash. And I keep thinkin’ that it ain’t exactly true, but it ain’t a lie neither.”
He began to sing softly,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
“What do you mean that it isn’t exactly true but that it isn’t a lie either?” Miss Price asked quietly when he had finished.
“It ain’t exactly true, ’cause people livin’ in the same place, in the same way, they got a lot of the same kind of troubles. But it ain’t a lie, ’cause nobody’s exactly the same and nobody’s got exactly the same troubles. Guess I just feel like I should of known the troubles that me and Bridie both had, even if I couldn’t know all of hers.”
He stood and helped Miss Price to her feet. “Reckon we should get back to town. Thanks for listenin’ to me.”
“You will find that time itself is a great healer,” she said softly. Then in a brisker voice, she continued, “I should be making the arrangements for the library meeting tomorrow. Since it is obvious that Mr. Landers will be of no assistance, whom would you suggest I talk with about this?”
Heath sighed. “Well, Lonesome’s a company town, so it don’t have a mayor. I reckon the camp superintendent, Mr. Murdoch, is about the closest thing to a mayor. Course, you could always wait until tomorrow. There’s no rush. We’re still ahead of schedule.”
“My, but you do go on about that schedule. I say that there is no time like the present. Where can I find this Mr. Murdoch?”
“Well, if you insist on goin’ today, I might as well take you,” Heath said almost grudgingly. Miss Price looked at him curiously but did not say anything.
They walked up the hill to the mine office. A large sign over the door proclaimed, “Barkley Sierra Mining Company.” Miss Price stopped.
“This mine is owned by the Barkley family?”
“Well, that certainly explains much. The houses, the schools,” she paused and looked compassionately at Heath, “and other things.”
He looked down at the ground. “Like why Bridie put so much stock in my advice.”
“And why you feel so responsible for her fate.”
“Yeah, well . . . ” Heath held the door open for Miss Price, then followed her into the office.
Mr. Murdoch looked up from the desk. “Yes? Can I . . . Oh, Mr. Barkley.” He seemed confused.
“I didn’t expect . . . I thought . . . ” He stood up suddenly. “I didn’t realize that you were in town, Mr. Barkley.” He held out his hand.
Heath shook his hand, then introduced Miss Price.
“Ah, yes. Miss Price. We received your letter. We didn’t know when to expect you . . . but, of course, you couldn’t send a telegram from Rocklin,” he stopped suddenly, as though he had said something inappropriate. “I mean, I had heard that the mine there closed, and that the remaining citizens had left. So, there wouldn’t be a telegraph office . . . ” he trailed off.
“Indeed, Mr. Murdoch. Be that as it may, I am here now, and I would very much like to discuss the arrangements for the library meeting as soon as you can spare me the time.”
“Well, yes, the library meeting . . . uh . . . I’m afraid we can’t hold the meeting . . . well, it will have to wait until Monday,” he looked at Heath in confusion. “Yes, that’s right, Monday. You see, there’s a . . . a . . . “
Heath spoke up, “There’s a shipment of ore due out Monday. The mine is behind schedule, so the men are workin’ double shifts until then.”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Mr. Murdoch in relief. “Double shifts. The men are working double shifts from now until Monday.”
“But, you must be mistaken, Mr. Murdoch,” Miss Price declared. “Surely they are not working over the Sabbath.”
Mr. Murdoch stood speechless. He stared at Heath as though imploring him to answer.
“Yep, ‘fraid so. The mines don’t stop, not even for Sunday, if there’s work to be done,” Heath answered nonchalantly.
Miss Price stared at him. She opened her mouth as though to speak, then closed it with a snap. “I see. Well, then, I suppose that there is nothing more to say.” She turned and stalked out of the office, closing the door firmly behind her.
“Mr. Barkley, I am sorry. I tried, but she is a formidable woman.”
“She sure is,” grinned Heath.
“I honestly tried, but I could no more lie to her than I could to my grandmother. I am certain that she suspects something.”
“Now, don’t you worry, Murdoch. She suspects, but she don’t know. I’ll just keep her out of the way until Sunday. It’ll be all right. You just go on with the work.”
“Of course, Mr. Barkley. I’ll double the number of men. Everything will be finished as quickly as possible.”
Heath shook Mr. Murdoch’s hand, then left to find Miss Price. She was standing a few feet in front of the mine office, back straight and stiff. She did not look at him when he approached her.
“Well, Miss Price, I reckon we might as well head back to Mrs. O’Brien’s. Ain’t much you can do here until Monday.”
“Indeed there is, Mr. Barkley. First, I shall inquire of Mr. Landers whether he is willing to assume the post of librarian. If not, then I shall make inquiries of other suitable persons in the community. Please do not feel that you must accompany me. I shall be quite safe. And I am certain that you can find other diversions which will be more agreeable.” She still had not looked directly at him.
“Whatever you say,” Heath replied.
They walked back into town together. Heath left her when they reached the saloon. Miss Price continued to the post office.
Mr. Landers was behind the counter, busily sorting mail into slots. He did not turn around until she addressed him.
“Mr. Landers, may I have a word?”
“Just a moment. Just a moment. Can’t you see that I am in the middle of sorting the mail? How am I expected to get all of this work done if I am continually interrupted?” He had stopped sorting in order to address her.
“Certainly, Mr. Landers. Far be it from me to interrupt your duties.”
Mr. Landers placed a few more letters in slots, then pulled them back out. “Oh, oh, I can’t work under these conditions! Knowing that you are there, watching and waiting, makes me much too nervous to concentrate. You might as well tell me what you want, and get it over with, so I can get back to my work.”
“I merely wished to inquire whether you would be willing to assume the post of librarian for the traveling library.”
“What? How can you ask such a thing? Haven’t you paid attention to anything that I have been saying? I am already doing the work of two men, how can I take on the duties of a third?” Mr. Landers peered at her closely through the bars, “And don’t think that you can intimidate me, just because you have the Barkleys on your side. They cannot threaten me. I am an employee of the United States government. They may run this town, but the U.S. government runs this post office.”
Miss Price stood speechless for the second time that afternoon. Finally, she replied, “As you wish, Mr. Landers. It was not my intent to add to your duties nor to attempt to intimidate you in any way. Good day, sir.” She quickly left the post office.
She stood outside, taking deep, calming breaths, then she turned and headed in the direction of the schoolhouse.
“Any luck?” asked Heath.
“Oh my, Heath, you startled me,” she exclaimed.
“I was just leavin’ the saloon and I saw you headin’ this way, so I reckoned I’d join you. How was your talk with Landers?”
“I have seldom met such an unpleasant, cantankerous, obstreperous, self-pitying individual,” she took another deep breath. In the aftermath of her conversation with Landers, she appeared to have forgotten her pique at Heath. “He reminds me very much of Shakespeare’s swan in his epic poem, the Rape of Lucrece:
And now this pale swan in her wat’ry nest
Begins the sad dirge of her certain ending:
‘Few words,’ quoth she, ‘Shall fit the trespass best,
Where no excuse can give the fault amending:
In me moe woes than words are now depending;
And my laments would be drawn out too long,
To tell them all with one poor tired tongue.”
“Or, indeed for me to listen to with one poor tired brain,” laughed Miss Price. “And now, I must speak with the school teacher.”
“Miss Swenson? Why do you want to talk to her?” asked Heath.
“Because she is the most likely candidate for the position, since Mr. Landers is obviously unsuited,” she smiled, “due to the press of his duties as postmaster, of course.”
“Well, right now she’s probably teachin’ school. And you wouldn’t want to interrupt her teachin’school, now would you?” Heath spoke rapidly.
“I had not thought of that. Of course, I must wait until school has ended for the day,” Miss Price thought for a moment. “In the meanwhile, I shall return to the boarding house and take advantage of the free time by washing out some of my clothing and finishing some correspondence which is long overdue.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll just walk you home.”
Heath left Miss Price at the door to the boarding house. He walked back in the direction of the saloon, but as soon as he was out of sight he turned down an alley and went back up toward the schoolhouse along the back road. He slipped around to the front of the building and through the door into the schoolhouse. After several moments, he slipped back out again.
Miss Price was watching from her window for the first children to run down the street after having been released from school. She headed down the stairs toward the front door. Heath came out of the parlor as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
“I wonder if you would help me here,” he asked. “I’m tryin’ to write a letter home, but I’m havin’some trouble with the spellin’ of certain words.”
“I’m sorry, Heath. I am on my way to speak to the schoolmistress. I want to catch her before she leaves the school.”
“Well, I was hopin’ to finish this letter in time for the evenin’ post.”
Miss Price sighed. “I don’t know, this is quite an inopportune moment . . . “
Just then, the door flew open and Mrs. O’Brien’s ten-year-old son, Peter, burst into the house.
Heath smiled. “There’s the answer. Pete, how would you like to do the lady a favor?”
“What?” asked Peter, suspiciously.
“Just run back up to the school and ask Miss Swenson to stop in here on her way home. Tell her that Miss Price wants to see her.”
“What’ll ya’ give me if I do?” asked Peter again.
Heath pulled a quarter out of his pocket and held it up. “Oh, I reckon this job is worth about two bits.”
“Sure!” Peter turned and started out the door.
“Stop, young man!” shouted Miss Price. “Wait just a moment. I shall send a handwritten message, if you don’t mind.”
She went into the parlor, and returned in a few moments with a folded piece of paper. “Here you are. Now, see that you deliver this to Miss Swenson herself.”
“Yeah, sure,” Peter grabbed the paper and went running out of the house.
“Now, Heath, let us retire to the parlor and work on that letter until Miss Swenson arrives.”
Peter returned about ten minutes later. “She says she’ll be here in about half an hour,” he shouted into the parlor on his way back to the kitchen.
Miss Price answered the door herself when Miss Swenson knocked.
“Miss Swenson?” Miss Price asked, “I am Miss Price, the state library organizer. Do come in.”
She led her into the parlor. “Heath, you must hurry if you want to make the evening post,” she reminded him.
“Oh, yeah. Excuse me, Miss Swenson,” Heath picked up the letter and left.
“Mr. Murdoch told us that you would be coming, Miss Price. Now, what can I do for you?”
“It appears that for various reasons related to ore production, the library meeting will not be held for several days, until Monday in fact.”
Miss Swenson smiled and nodded. “Yes?”
“In the meanwhile, I am attempting to elicit a commitment from a responsible member of the community to serve as librarian of the traveling library. As the most visible public servant and as an employee of the United States government, the postmaster generally serves as librarian. However, Mr. Landers has declined the honor.”
“I’m sure he has,” murmured Miss Swenson with a smile.
“Indeed,” Miss Price returned her smile. “As schoolmistress, you are also in a highly visible and highly responsible position . . . “
Before she could finish, Miss Swenson interrupted her, “I believe that I can anticipate your question, Miss Price. The position of librarian is indeed a responsible and influential one. I will need some time to think about your suggestion. May I have until Monday to decide? I will let you know before the meeting is held.”
“Certainly, Miss Swenson. I am grateful that you are willing to consider accepting the position. Please feel free to call on me if you desire further information.”
“Thank you, Miss Price, I certainly shall.” Miss Price walked her to the door.
After dinner that night, as Heath and Miss Price were sitting in the parlor, he suggested, “What say we go on a picnic tomorrow?”
“Oh, Heath. Haven’t you had enough of traveling and of eating on the road? I, for one, am more than content to remain here in town and eat a hot meal off of china dishes on a set table while sitting in a comfortable chair.”
“Well, I thought it might be nice to rent a buggy and see some of the countryside. It’s real pretty. There’s some real nice spots. And there’s not much to do in town except sit in the saloon, drinkin’ and playin’ poker,” he looked at her guilelessly.
“I see.” She paused to consider. “A buggy ride would certainly be more enjoyable than riding horseback, and Mrs. O’Brien would pack us a better meal than we have been able to prepare for ourselves while on the road. All right, then, I agree.” After a reading their accustomed chapter, they both went to their rooms for the night. Sometime during the night, Miss Price awoke suddenly. She lay in her bed, trying to discover what it was that had awakened her. She slowly became aware that someone was singing outside of the house. She got up quietly and looked out her window, which overlooked the garden at the back of the house. Beyond the garden was the back road of Lonesome and beyond that only the rocks and scrub of the mountain.
The moon was full and very bright. She saw a man standing in the moonlight, looking up at the sky. The moonlight glinted off of his hair, turning the gold to silver. He was singing softly to himself, but she could not make out the words. Quickly, she put on her wrapper and her slippers and headed quietly out the back door.
Heath turned when he heard the door open. He stood quietly as she approached.
“Heath, I heard you singing.” She reached out a hand to him. He folded her in an embrace.
“I couldn’t sleep, Aunt Helen. I couldn’t stop thinkin’ about . . . “
“About her, and about my mother, about Aunt Rachel. So many women I have loved are gone. I miss them, Aunt Helen. I really miss them.”
“I know, Heath. I know.”
She became aware that he had started singing again.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home
A long ways from home
True believer, a long ways from home
A long ways from home”
“Did Hannah teach you that song?” she asked quietly.
“Yep. I never really understood it when I was a kid, but after my mother died, it just kept comin’ back.” He smiled sadly at her.
“I wonder, do you know this one?”
“Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home.”
“Sure do. I even know all of the verses.”
“Well, then, please sing them and I shall join you in the chorus.”
They sang together:
“Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home.”
Heath carried on,
“I looked over Jordan and what did I see
coming for to carry me home?
A band of Angels coming after me
coming for to carry me home.”
Miss Price joined him,
“Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home.”
When Heath sang the next two verses, Miss Price joined him on the second and fourth lines, and on the chorus as usual.
“If you get there before I do
coming for to carry me home
tell all my friends I’m coming too
coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home.
I’m sometimes up and sometimes down
coming for to carry me home
but still my soul feels heavenly bound
coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home.”
They smiled at each other and returned to the house arm in arm.
The next morning they left in a rented buggy, carrying the picnic lunch which Mrs. O’Brien had prepared for them. They returned just as the sun was setting, somewhat later than they had planned. As they drove into town, Miss Price caught a glimpse of a tall, dark-haired man wearing a dark brown hat and vest walking quickly into the saloon.
“Heath. Look there. Is that not your brother, Nicholas, going into the saloon?” She pointed.
“I don’t see anyone.”
“He was just there.”
“I didn’t see anyone. Besides, it couldn’t be Nick. What would he be doin’ up here? He couldn’t leave the ranch at a time like this. Musta’ been someone who looked kinda like him.”
“Yes, that must be it. He looked very like him, though.”
Heath dropped Miss Price at the boarding house, then returned the buggy to the livery stable. As soon as he was finished there, he hurried to the saloon and headed for a table in a back corner where two men were sitting.
“Well, Nick, you almost ruined everything. Miss Price saw you duck in here.”
“Sorry, Heath, but I was looking for you. You’re late.”
“Yeah, well . . . first she didn’t want to go, then she didn’t want to come back. She was already suspicious enough, if I’d tried to hurry her back . . . Are Mother and Audra here?”
“They’re at the hotel,” answered Jarrod.
“Is everything set for tomorrow?” Heath asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t mind telling you, little brother, you’ve really put us in a bind. You weren’t even supposed to be here until Monday,” answered Nick. “And I don’t like being away from the ranch at this time of year.
“Now, Nick, it’s not his fault. No one knew about Rocklin being deserted.”
“What I want to know is what is this all about anyway? Why all the fuss? What’s that prune-faced, Bible-quotin’, old maid done to you, anyway?”
Heath leaned back in his chair and smiled, “Oh, brother Nick, let me tell you… “
“Good morning, Heath,” said Miss Price on entering the dining room the next morning for breakfast. She was dressed with more care than usual. “Do you know if services are being held this morning at the church?”
“Mornin’,” he replied. “They sure are. Lonesome may not have much, but it has a regular preacher who lives right here in town. He’s a Congregationalist, but he does double duty sometimes, standin’ in for the Catholic priest in an emergency. We kind of insisted on that when we offered him the job.”
“Splendid! I shall enjoy attending a regular church service again after all these weeks.”
Heath chuckled, “It might not be exactly what you’re used to. It’s kind of a combination of bits and pieces of lots of different churches.”
“But it is still a Christian service?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s that. But it sure ain’t the same as the service in Stockton.”
The church bells were ringing when she and Heath left the boarding house. The minister was standing in the door of the church, greeting each member of the congregation.
“Reverend Eliot, this is Miss Price,” Heath introduced them.
“Ah, yes. The library organizer. I am most pleased to meet you, and most pleased that Lonesome will be one of the communities blessed to be part of the traveling library system.”
“Indeed, Reverend Eliot. I hope that your sentiments are shared by the rest of the community.”
He appeared confused, and looked to Heath for an explanation.
“I think Miss Price means she hopes the people will vote for the library in the meeting tomorrow night,” explained Heath carefully.
“Ah, yes, the meeting tomorrow night. Of course, how stupid of me.” He turned to Miss Price, “Yes, I am extremely optimistic that the community will accept the library. I have heard nothing but positive sentiments in that regard.”
They moved on into the church and found seats. Reverend Eliot soon greeted the congregation and invited them to rise and sing the opening hymn. Miss Price sang with her accustomed enthusiasm and energy. Heath sang tentatively at first, all too aware of the amused glances of some members of the congregation. Gradually, he began to sing louder in response to her forceful voice. By the end of the song, her enthusiasm had infected the entire congregation.
“Come, let us join with one accord
In hymns around the throne:
This is the day our rising Lord
Has made and called His own.
This is the day that God has blest,
The brightest of the sev’n,
Type of that everlasting rest
The saints enjoy in heav’n.
Then let us in His Name sing on,
And hasten to that day
When our Redeemer shall come down,
And shadows pass away.
Not one, but all our days below
Let us in hymns employ;
And in our Lord rejoicing,
Go to His eternal joy.”
The congregation sat. Reverend Eliot remarked that he had seldom heard them sing with such vigor and conviction. He asked Miss Price to stand and introduced her to the congregation. After he read the Biblical lesson for the day, he asked the congregation to rise and sing the psalm, rather than reading it to them
“The Lord is my Shepherd, no want shall I know;
I feed in green pastures, safe folded I rest;
He leadeth my soul where the still waters flow,
Restores me when wand’ring, redeems when oppressed.
Through valley and shadow of death though I stray,
Since Thou art my Guardian, no evil I fear;
Thy rod shall defend me, Thy staff be my stay;
No harm can befall, with my Comforter near.
In midst of affliction my table is spread;
With blessings unmeasured my cup runneth o’er;
With perfume and oil Thou anointest my head;
O what shall I ask of Thy providence more
Let goodness and mercy, my bountiful God,
Still follow my steps till I meet Thee above;
I seek, by the path which my forefathers trod,
Through land of their sojourn, Thy Kingdom of love.”
While they were singing, Miss Price reached down and squeezed Heath’s hand quickly and firmly.
He returned the gesture.
Reverend Eliot began his sermon, explaining that he was deviating from the text for the day in order to speak on a topic of current importance. He took for his text Isaiah chapter 2 verse 3:
“And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
He spoke at length on the importance of a library to a community as a center for culture and learning, and of the social and moral benefits which would accompany it. He stressed the need for an alternative to the saloon as a recreational center for the young men and women of the community. When he had finished speaking, he asked the congregation to congregation rise and sing a song of thanksgiving for the coming blessing of the traveling library. Miss Price sang even more loudly than before, if possible, and the congregation joined her wholeheartedly.
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
There followed items of business and announcements of upcoming events, including the library meeting on Monday and a special evening service to be held that day. The congregation sang selected verses of the closing hymn, according to their custom.
God be with you till we meet again;
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you;
God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you till we meet again;
When life’s perils thick confound you;
Put His arms unfailing round you;
God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you till we meet again;
Sicknesses and sorrows taking,
Never leaving or forsaking;
God be with you till we meet again.
God be with you till we meet again;
Keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
Strike death’s threatening wave before you;
God be with you till we meet again.
Reverend Eliot once again stood at the door to bid farewell to each congregant. Miss Price congratulated him on his sermon. “I almost feel that the meeting tomorrow night will be an unnecessary redundancy,” she told him. “You have spoken much more eloquently than I, and on the very topic.”
He thanked her, and then asked, “Would you and Mr. Barkley care to join my wife and me for Sunday luncheon? We would be most honored. Miss Swenson will also be joining us. Perhaps you could return with us for the service this evening.”
“Thank you very much, Reverend Eliot. I cannot speak for Mr. Barkley, but for myself, I am pleased to accept your invitation.”
Heath replied as well, “Thanks, Reverend. I’d be honored to eat with you, but I’ll have to leave right after. I have to see Mr. Murdoch on some mining business.”
Miss Price stiffened and muttered under her breath, “Even on the Sabbath, even on the Sabbath.”
Heath pretended not to hear.
Reverend Eliot’s wife and Miss Swenson joined them, and the five of them walked to the Eliots’home for lunch. As he had said, Heath left almost as soon as the meal was ended. The others sat around the table, talking of religious, literary, and educational issues. Before they knew it, the sun was low in the sky and it was time to leave. They began walking toward the church.
Miss Swenson shivered. “Oh, my. There is quite a chill on tonight,” she exclaimed. “And I seem to have left my shawl at the schoolhouse. You go on ahead, I’ll just run over and pick it up.”
The Eliots and Miss Price insisted on accompanying her, stating that it was not safe for a woman to walk alone after dark.
When they reached the schoolhouse, Miss Swenson ran up the steps and unlocked the door with her key. She entered, and in a few moments they saw the light of a lamp in the window. They waited for several minutes, but she did not return.
“I wonder what is keeping her?” mused Mrs. Eliot. “I do hope that nothing untoward has occurred.”
“Perhaps we should go see?” asked the Reverend. The three of them walked up to the door. Mrs. Eliot hung back while her husband opened the door and gently, but firmly ushered Miss Price inside.
She stopped in astonishment. The room was filled with townspeople. At the front of the room were all of the members of the Barkley family. Everyone began applauding as she entered the room. Heath walked down, took her arm, and walked her to the front of the room. The Eliots followed after.
Jarrod held up a hand for silence. “Thank you all for coming here tonight. I would like to welcome our guest of honor, Miss Helen Price.” Further applause followed this announcement. Miss Price continued to look around in confusion. Heath held her arm and grinned widely. The other Barkleys were grouped together to one side, the Eliots and Miss Swenson standing with them.
“You all know of Miss Price’s diligent work in establishing traveling libraries in this state,” he turned to Miss Price. “A necessary but often difficult and thankless task. Tonight, Miss Price, the town of Lonesome would like to thank you and make your job easier. Heath, would you do the honors?”
Heath led Miss Price to a door in the wall behind the teacher’s desk. He opened it to reveal a modestly sized room lined with bookshelves. Jarrod continued, “Now, this is just the beginning of what we hope will be a library that will grow with our town. And with your permission, we would very much like to name it the Helen Price Reading Room.”
Tears ran down Miss Price’s face. She stood, nodding and smiling. “I am so . . . so honored. But, how? When?”
“We’ll talk about that later,” Heath whispered.
“Miss Price, would you like to say a few words?” invited Jarrod.
She nodded and turned to face the crowd. “I really do not know what to say, and, as Mr. Barkley can tell you, this is a most unusual occurrence. Thank you so much. Nothing could have meant more to me. Thank you again.”
The audience applauded even louder.
Jarrod again held up his hand for silence, “There is just one more announcement to make, then the Reverend Eliot will lead us in prayer and a closing hymn, after which the ladies of the church will serve the refreshments.” He motioned for Miss Swenson to step forward, “Miss Inga Swenson has graciously agreed to serve as the first librarian of the Helen Price Reading Room.”
Reverend Eliot offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving, then asked Miss Price if she had any preference as to the hymn. She nodded, and began to sing. The assembly joined her after the first few measures.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
While the others were clustered around the refreshment table, the Barkleys gathered around and congratulated Miss Price. The Eliots, Miss Swenson, and other members of the community crowded around.
Nick stood back, shaking his head. Heath stepped back and asked, “What’s the problem?”
“I just don’t get it, that’s all. I just don’t get it. I mean, not three weeks ago . . . I just don’t get it.”
Heath just grinned, shook his head, and slapped him on the back. “Don’t try to understand it, brother, just believe it.”
After the meeting had broken up, the Barkleys invited Miss Price to the hotel for a late supper. As they were sitting around the table, she asked again, “How did this all come about? When were the arrangements made? And how was the work accomplished, when there was so much work to do at the mine?”
She blushed at the amusement which greeted this statement. “I see. So the extra work at the mines was merely a ruse?”
Jarrod responded, “Well, Heath here should really be answering these questions, since it was his idea,” he paused. Heath smiled and looked down at his plate. “But knowing my little brother, I’d better tell the story.” He explained to Miss Price that Heath had telegraphed the instructions from Placerville, materials had been sent from the ranch, and the work done by local citizens in their spare time. “Until, that is, you arrived three days ahead of schedule.” Everyone sitting at the table smiled and nodded in remembrance. “So, Heath wired us, we came up with a few extra hands from the ranch, and, working all day yesterday, while Heath kept you out of the way, we finished the room just in time.”
Heath smiled wryly, “And, boy howdy, I had some kind of time keepin’ you away from that schoolhouse and gettin’ you out of town.”
Miss Price leaned over and kissed him on the check. Heath blushed, Nick choked on his wine, and the others smiled in amusement.
Several days later, the Barkleys were bidding Miss Price good-bye at the Stockton railroad station.
“Mrs. Barkley, I cannot thank you enough for the loan of your son. I have never had such a pleasant journey.”
“It was my pleasure, Miss Price. I am only glad that we could have been of assistance in your work.”
“And, Audra, you have done so much. Continue to use your talents and abilities with people for the benefit of others.”
“I will, Miss Price, I will. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of this work.”
“Jarrod, Nicholas, thank you both. I especially thank you, Nicholas, for the loan of the men to finish the reading room. I know that this is a particularly busy time for you.”
“Our pleasure, Miss Price.”
“Uh, yeah, it was a pleasure.”
She turned to Heath and smiled lovingly. He smiled back at her. “There is nothing I can say that you do not know. However, I too am capable of using a telegraph office.” She handed him a small, flat, rectangular package. “I sent to a bookdealer in San Francisco for this volume. It arrived while we were on the road. When you read it, you will understand.” She kissed him on the cheek one last time. They embraced, then she climbed on the train.
They stood and watched the train depart. Only when it was nearly out of sight did Heath turn his attention to the package in his hand.
“So, aren’t you going to open it? Don’t you want to know what’s in it?” asked Nick.
“I reckon it’s a book, big brother,” answered Heath.
“Well, I can see that! Don’t you want to know what book it is?”
“One of these days you gotta learn a little patience, Nick.”
“Oh, come on! Open it!”
Heath grinned and slowly removed the paper from the book. He opened the front cover, and read the title page.
“So, what book is it?” Nick demanded again.
“I never heard of it. It’s by some guy named Charles Dickens. It’s called, ‘Oliver Twist’.” Heath smiled, “I wonder what it’s about.”