Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 29,000
Leah Thomson stepped outside the back door of the hotel’s kitchen to empty a dishpan of dirty water into the dirt at the side of the stairs. She caught her breath as she moved from the warmth of the kitchen into the cold air of a November night. The noise of loud music and raucous laughter drifted toward her from the back of the saloon next door. The light from the opened door suddenly illuminated the shadows cast in the alleyway by the waning moon, as well as the figure of a man who was stooped over a heap of clothes lying in the narrow passage between the forest and the backs of the buildings.
The light startled the man, who covered his face with his arm and fled down the alley into the darkness. As Leah watched, confused and uncertain, the heap moved, putting out an arm, and groaned for help.
She dropped the dishpan with a loud clatter, and ran toward the man lying in the alley. She stopped within a few feet of him and looked back toward the hotel. She stood, paralyzed by indecision, for several seconds, until the man groaned again. Taking a deep breath, she moved
toward him and knelt down. He was a tall man, over six feet, and muscular, much larger and heavier than the slight young woman kneeling next to him. His light brown hair was caked and matted with dirt and blood.
She put a hand on his cheek. Even in the fringes of the light from the door she could see that he had been badly beaten. His face was covered with bright red splotches that would soon turn black and blue, his lower lip was split and bleeding, and there was blood on his forehead and one cheek.
From the way that he was moaning and the feeble attempts he was making to stand, she suspected that more than just his face and head had been hurt.
“Now, you lie easy, mister,” she said. “I gotta get some help. I cain’t lift you all by myself.” She stood to leave. The man grasped at her skirts in a wordless plea.
“I’ll be back, I promise,” she said fervently. “I jus’ gotta get some help.” She lifted her skirts
above her ankles and ran the few yards back to the hotel and up the stairs into the kitchen. A tall, lean, dark-haired man wearing the clothing of a prosperous businessman had just come through
the door from the dining room.
“For heaven’s sake, Leah!” he exclaimed. “What happened to you?”
She looked down at herself. The front of her dress with streaked with mud and dirt where she had knelt in the alley and her sleeves were stained with blood where they had brushed against the wounded man.
“Matt, Matt,” she sobbed, her grey eyes wide and pleading. “You gotta help me. There’s a man hurt in the alley. Looks like he got beat an’ maybe robbed. He’s hurt real bad, Matt.”
Her brother pursed his lips. “I don’t know, Leah. There’s some pretty tough customers in this town.”
“Oh, Matt,” she begged. “He cain’t harm you none, he’s too hurt for that. We cain’t leave him out there in the alley like that.”
He shook his head. “No, I guess we can’t.” He shrugged and removed his coat. “All right, let’s go get him.”
He followed his sister out into the alley. The man had managed to crawl a few inches toward the hotel, but the effort had exhausted him. Matt and Leah each knelt and lifted one of his arms around their neck, and slid an arm around his waist. They lifted the man, and half-carried, half- dragged him into the kitchen and set him on a chair next to the large worktable in the center. The man slumped down onto the table. Only his rapid and shallow breathing showed that he was still alive.
Leah ran to the pump and filled a basin with water. She grabbed a clean cloth from a rack, and sat on a chair next to the injured man. “Jus’ let me get him cleaned up some, Matt, then we’ll take him up an’ put him to bed in one a them empty rooms. Then I’ll go for the doc.” She gently and carefully dabbed at the mud and blood on the man’s face. He stirred and moaned briefly when she touched his lip and the area around his eyes. “Looks like he’s gonna have a real shiner in a couple a days.”
Matt was busy trying to brush the dirt off of his vest and pants. He looked at the stains on his shirt sleeves and shook his head. He had just picked up his coat when his wife came into the kitchen. “What is going on here?” she demanded, standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips. Martha Simmons would have been a good-looking woman, tall and well-built, with a mass of blonde hair piled high, if it were not for the calculating slant to her eyes and the perpetual scowl of discontent around her mouth.
Leah did not pause in her task. The man’s breathing had slowed and become deeper. He briefly opened one eye, then closed it as the light stabbed at his brain. Matt coughed and cleared his throat. “He, uh, well, it looks like he was beaten and robbed. Leah found him. We, uh, well, we brought him in to, uh, to see . . .” He stopped at the look of fury on his wife’s face. “Well, you can just take him right back out. This is a hotel, not a charity mission. We’ve got a business to run. If she had her way, this place would be full of strays looking for a handout. And we can’t have someone like that in the kitchen. It isn’t sanitary.”
“I was jus’ finishin’ up, so I’m doin’ this on my own time,” Leah said calmly as she began to clean his scraped and bruised knuckles. “An’ he won’t be here long. We’ll be takin’ him upstairs directly.”
Martha laughed contemptuously. “In front of everyone? Over my dead body! What would our guests think? We run a clean house here. It’s everything I can do to keep the riff-raff out as it is. What would happen if word got around that we were taking in every drifter who got himself into a barroom brawl? And, if he was beaten and robbed, as you say, then he won’t have the money to pay for a room, anyway.”
Leah looked at her brother, pleading silently with him. Matt coughed again, and cleared his throat. He looked at the floor, and rubbed his chin with his hand. “Well, Martha, he is hurt pretty bad. We can’t just throw him out.” He looked at her cautiously. “We could put him in the store room, make up a cot in there. Leastways, just for tonight.”
Leah turned and looked at her sister-in-law with the same mute appeal in her eyes. Martha narrowed her eyes and set her jaw. “I said no, and I mean no. You can finish cleaning him up, then I want him out of here.” She turned and stalked out. Matt looked at Leah and shrugged. “Sorry, I tried.”
Leah nodded in sympathy. Before she could speak, Martha could be heard calling, “Matt, come out here. We have customers.” He shrugged again and headed for the door. He stopped in the doorway and asked, “What do you want to do with him?” “Reckon I’ll have to take him home,” Leah answered. “Not much else I cain do with him. I got that spare room on the side.”
Matt nodded. “I’ll help you get him over there after things settle down.” Leah nodded and smiled her thanks. When Matt returned several hours later, the man was sitting slumped in the chair, a cup of water in his hands and a half-empty bowl of clear soup on the table in front of him. He and Leah were talking in low voices. He nodded slightly at Matt, then winced.
“This here’s Mister Tom Barkley,” Leah introduced him. “An’ this is my brother, Matt Simmons. Him an’ his wife, Martha, run this hotel.” “Pleased to meet you,” Tom mumbled through swollen lips. “I hear I have you and your sister to thank. Sorry to be so much trouble. I’ll leave soon. Goin’ to Stockton.” “Now, I done told you!” Leah scolded, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere ‘cept to my house where I cain look after you ’til you’re fit. You shore ain’t in no condition to be travellin’ anywhere, ‘specially not somewhere as far away as Stockton. You’d be daid ‘fore you got there.”
She looked at Matt, “He heard what Martha was sayin’ an’ jus’ keeps insistin’ on leavin’. I keep tellin’ him he wouldn’t make it down the back stairs.” “My sister’s right,” Matt agreed. “I’d let you stay here, only we’re full up. You’re not in any condition to walk far. Just wait here while I go hitch up the buggy and bring it around back.” He stopped and looked around carefully, then slid a small, flat bottle out of his coat pocket and handed it to Leah. “He might want a slug or two of this while you’re waiting.” He continued on out the back door of the kitchen.
Tom’s lips twitched in a brief smile of thanks. Leah poured a shot of the whiskey into a clean glass from the drainboard. Tom took it carefully in both hands and sipped gratefully. When it was empty, he set it on the table.
“Thought your name was Thomson,” he looked at Leah quizzically, “your brother’s name is Simmons. Thomson your married name?”
She looked startled, then shook her head. “Oh, no. No, I’m not married. It’d be more proper to say that Matt’s my half-brother. Same momma, diff’rent daddies. That’s how come he’s so much older’n me.”
Tom nodded in comprehension. Before he could speak, Matt opened the back door, “Buggy’s ready.” He helped Tom out the door and down the stairs. Leah quickly washed out the glass and put it back on the drainboard, then corked the whiskey bottle and slipped it into the pocket of her dress. She followed the men out, and climbed into the back seat of the buggy next to Tom.
“We better stay in the alley ’til we get to the end of the street,” Matt said. Leah nodded. Even Tom understood that it was so Martha would not see the buggy from the front of the hotel. They drove silently down the alley, between the dark forest and the backs of locked shops, through squares of light cast from the windows of hotel rooms, crossed by the shadows of men and women, past saloons whose flimsy walls showed chinks of light and did little to contain the uproar inside.
After a time, they left the clamor and confusion of the mining town and entered a dark, quiet area of houses and cottages with patches of grass in the front and small vegetable gardens in the back.
Matt continued on, and finally pulled up at a small two-story, green frame house on the edge of town. Leah jumped out of the buggy and opened the door. She quickly found a lamp and lit it. Matt helped Tom into the house, and followed Leah through the main room of the house into a bedroom on the side.
She set the lamp on a table. “Matt, you help Mister Barkley get undressed. I’ll see if I cain find somethin’ clean for him to wear.” She left, closing the door behind her.
A voice spoke from the stairs leading to the second floor, “Miss Leah? That you, Miss Leah?”
“Yes, Hannah. It’s me. Wait a minute while I get a light.” She lit another lamp and looked at the black woman standing on the stairs, holding her wrapper close around her.
“A man got beat up behind the hotel tonight.” Hannah raised her hand to her mouth. “Matt helped me bring him home. He’s puttin’ him to bed right now. He’s gonna stay here ’til he gets well,
Hannah. He’s got nowhere else to go.”
Hannah nodded. “Yes, ma’am, Miss Leah. If you says so. You doesn’t reckon he’s a bad man, does you?”
“No, Hannah. He’s not a bad man. Now, help me find somethin’ clean for him to wear. One a those old nightshirts. You know the ones I mean. One a Mister Sawyer’s.”
Hannah nodded again and walked down the rest of the stairs. She held the lamp while Leah rummaged through a large trunk against the wall. She pulled out a large white nightshirt and held it up. “This’ll have to do.”
She knocked on the door to the bedroom and handed Matt the folded nightshirt when he answered. “It’s prob’ly too short, but it’ll go around him, an’ what it don’t cover, the blankets will.”
Matt nodded, and closed the door. When he came out again, he was carrying Tom’s clothes, which he handed to Leah. He nodded to Hannah in a silent greeting.
“He’s in bed now. Might want to give him another slug a that whiskey, help him to sleep.” He grinned conspiratorially at her. “That is, if you have any whiskey.”
She nodded in comprehension and grinned back at him.
“I better get back before Martha misses me.” He looked at the closed door. “He don’t seem like a bad sort, and he’s too busted up right now to do you any harm, but I’m glad you got Hannah here.” He looked at Hannah. “Hannah, you come get me if he tries anything, you hear me?”
Hannah nodded. “Yes, sir, Mister Simmons. I takes good care a Miss Leah, you knows that.”
“Yes, I do, Hannah. Now, I gotta get or Martha will skin me good.” Matt hurried out of the house.
Leah went over to the cupboard for a glass and poured a couple of inches of whiskey into it, then motioned to the other woman. “Come on, Hannah,” she said, and went to the bedroom. Hannah followed, still holding the lamp.
Tom raised himself on one arm as they entered the room. He tried to form his swollen lips into a smile of greeting. Leah sat on the bed and slipped an arm under his shoulders to support him. He took the glass in both hands and sipped at the whiskey.
“Now, you drink this, an’ then try to get some sleep.” She looked at Hannah, “Oh, an’ this here’s Hannah James. She lives with me, an’ she’ll be helpin’ me take care a you. Hannah, this is Mister Tom Barkley.”
Tom nodded, “How do, Miss James?” He took another sip of the whiskey.
“Oh, Mister Barkley, you jus’ calls me Hannah. Ain’t nobody calls me Miss James. An’ now, you do like Miss Leah says an’ lay right down an’ go to sleep. Her an’ me, we’re jus’ upstairs. If you need anything, you jus’ holler an’ we’ll hear you.”
Tom finished the whiskey and did as Hannah commanded. The two women left the room and
closed the door. They headed up the stairs to their bedrooms.
“He a nice man, Miss Leah. Real polite.”
“Yes, he’s a nice man, Hannah.”
“An’ he got nice eyes, don’t he, Miss Leah?”
“Yes, Hannah, he got nice eyes. What I cain see of ’em.”
“They be blue, don’t they?”
“Yes, Hannah, they be blue.”
“An’ I bet he got a right nice smile, too, when he cain smile.”
Leah laughed at the door of her room. “I bet he does, too, Hannah, but only time will tell. Now, we better get some sleep ourselves if we’re gonna get up an’ take care a him in the mornin’.”
“Yes, ma’am, Miss Leah,” Hannah said. She stood in the hallway a few moments after Leah had closed her door. “Yessir, he a real nice man, with real nice eyes.”
“He’s in here, doctor,” Leah held open the door to the bedroom. “But he’s still sleepin’.”
The doctor followed her into the room. “That’s quite all right, Miss Thomson. I’m sure he’ll awaken once I start to examine him. He’s just lucky it’s a Sunday, or I’d probably be busy with some accident victim up at the mines.”
He adjusted his glasses, and set his bag on the table next to the bed. “Would you open those curtains, please? I need some light.” Leah opened the curtains covering the window at the foot of the bed. The sunlight glinted off of her flaxen hair, and gave a golden glow to her clear skin. The doctor had taken out his watch and was holding Tom’s wrist in his fingers. After a minute, he closed the watch and put it in his pocket. “Well, his pulse is weak and rather fast, but it could be worse.” He examined Tom’s face and felt his head. Tom moaned slightly, but did not waken.”Got quite a bump back there. Hannah tells me he was beaten and robbed behind the hotel?”
“Umm-hmm. Well, I’d say he was hit on the head with something hard and heavy at some point. Uh, you might want to turn your back, Miss Thomson.” He pulled the blankets down and lifted the nightshirt to examine the rest of Tom’s injuries. Tom moaned and muttered in his sleep. The doctor hummed and murmured to himself for several minutes, then said, “You can turn around again.” He had tucked the blankets up under Tom’s arms and was looking down at him, nodding.
“Not all of this was done with fists, Miss Thomson. It looks as though he was kicked in the ribs and in the back. Nothing broken, but they could be cracked. There is extensive bruising to the kidney area, but it’s too soon to tell if there was any internal injury.”
Leah shook her head. “I don’t understan’. Why would someone beat him so bad? Wouldn’t jus’ hittin’ him over the haid be enough?”
The doctor raised one of Tom’s bruised and swollen hands, “My guess would be, it’s because he fought back. Made whoever it was mad and out for revenge.” He dropped his hand. “What I can’t figure is why he doesn’t wake up.”
Leah blushed. “Mebbe I gave him a little too much whiskey last night. To help him sleep.”
The doctor chuckled. “So on top of everything else, he’ll have a hangover.” He shook his head.
“In that case, I’ll just bandage these cuts on his head and his hands while he’s out. It’ll be easier on both of us.” He chuckled and began to smooth some salve onto Tom’s face. “Would you mind making a pot of tea, Miss Thomson? I could sure use a cup, and he’ll be wanting some when he comes around.”
When Leah returned with a cup of tea for the doctor, Tom was awake and glaring up at him from his one open eye. The other eye was swollen shut, and had turned black and blue, as had the other bruises on his face. A white bandage circled his head, and his hands were swathed in more bandages.
The doctor took the cup from Leah and thanked her. “I was just telling this young man here that he’ll have to stay in bed three or four days, at least, until we’re sure there are no internal injuries. And he’s to be on a diet of clear liquids. Plenty of water, weak tea, beef and chicken broth, bland. Nothing solid, and no more whiskey. A little wine, maybe, in a day or two, but nothing stronger.”
Tom growled in his throat and mumbled, “No food for a man.”
The doctor sipped his tea and chuckled. “It is for a man in your condition. And you’re in no condition to argue about it. I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you.” He finished the tea, and motioned for Leah to follow him out. He closed the door.
“You heard what I said? Liquids only, and a lot of them. No sugar in that tea, no matter what he says. And he’s not to get out of bed. He’ll find that difficult for a couple of days, anyway. Now, if he starts to vomit, or to cough up blood or to . . .” he paused, searching for the right words. “Or to pass blood in any way, send for me immediately. But the first twenty-four hours are the most critical. If he makes it through to tomorrow morning, it’ll just be a matter of time before he’s well again.”
Leah nodded. “Me an’ Hannah’ll watch.”
“I’m pretty sure his kidneys are bruised, not ruptured, but it’s best to be certain. Even at that, it’ll take a week or two for him to heal completely. Can you keep him here that long?”
“Good. I’ll be back tomorrow, then. I’ll send a boy around with some powders I want you to give him. Give him one every day in a glass of water. And a tonic. Give him two tablespoons of that every six hours.”
The doctor shook his head. “He really should have some leeches applied to the area of his kidneys, but they are almost impossible to obtain this far from civilization.”
He smiled at her. “Now, don’t you worry. He’s in good health otherwise, and a young man in his early thirties should be strong enough to recover without them.”
After the doctor left, she fixed a cup of tea and took it into Tom. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, the nightshirt coming barely to his knees.
“Coulda knocked,” he complained between clenched teeth. “Put it there.” Leah put the cup of tea on the table. “It’s under the bed?”
She nodded and waited.
“Well?” he asked.
“I jus’ thought you might need some help.”
“No,” he said firmly.
She left and went outside to talk to Hannah, who was scrubbing clothes in a large tub. She gave her the doctor’s report, then went back in to check on Tom. He was lying back in bed, his eyes closed, the empty tea cup on the table. He opened his eyes as she picked up the cup.
She smiled at him. “Want some more?”
“More sugar this time,” he grumbled.
She laughed. “Doc said you’d say that, an’ that I wasn’t to pay no mind. Now, I’ll jus’ go make you another cup a tea, an’ later on you cain have some chicken broth.”
She left and returned quickly with the tea, which she set on the table. Tom touched her on the arm. She looked at him.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Appreciate it. Don’t mean to complain.”
She laughed again. “Now, I know that, Mister Barkley. Man all beat up like you is, got to be in
some kind a pain. An’ that jus’ makes a man grumble an’ snarl. Don’t mean nothin’, I know that. Now, you try to get some more sleep. I gotta go buy a chicken to make that broth, and Hannah’s jus’ outside doin’ the warsh, if you need anything.”
Tom nodded and closed his eyes. Leah watched for a few minutes until his breathing slowed,
showing that he had fallen asleep. She closed the door quietly and took down her shawl and market basket. On her way out, she stopped and told Hannah to check on Tom every few minutes. Hannah nodded and continued to hang up the clothes she had just washed.
“I done tried my best, Miss Leah,” she explained, holding up a man’s blue shirt, “But I jus’ cain’t get all them blood stains outta this shirt.”
Leah smiled. “‘Course you did, Hannah. An’ if you cain’t get them out, they cain’t be got out.
Cain’t hardly see ’em no more anyway. Now, I’ll be back jus’ as soon as I cain.”
When Leah returned, Hannah reported that Tom was sleeping quietly. She had cleaned the room, and emptied the chamber pot, and seen no sign of blood. The boy had come from the doctor with the medicine he had promised to send. Hannah had left it on the counter in the kitchen.
Leah thanked her, and, after checking on Tom herself, spent the rest of the morning in the kitchen cooking. She first boiled a chicken for the broth and reserved some for Tom. She then made a soup from the rest by adding onion, carrots, and parsnips along with the chicken meat, and dropping spoonfuls of dumpling batter on top.
Tom was awake when she came into the room with a bowl full of the broth. She helped him to sit up and placed several pillows behind his back, then sat on the side of the bed and carefully spooned the broth into his mouth. Inevitably, drops of liquid dribbled from between his swollen lips and onto his chin. She gently dabbed at these with a napkin and apologized for being so clumsy.
Tom muttered, “My fault. Just like a baby.”
She smiled, “You’re doin’ jus’ fine. In a couple a days, you’ll be feedin’ yourself an’ eatin’ real food.”
Tom swallowed and nodded. “It’s good.”
“Thank you, Mister Barkley. It’s nice to be cookin’ for somebody besides jus’ me an’ Hannah.
An’ men always appreciate good food better than women.”
By the time she had finished feeding him, he was slumped back against the pillows. She tucked him back into bed, gave him the medicine according to the doctor’s instructions, and left him to sleep for the afternoon. In the evening, Hannah came to feed him more of the broth and give him his medicine.
“Where is she?” Tom asked.
“Miss Leah? She at work at the hotel. She work in the dinin’ room there at supper time, takin’ orders an’ bringin’ food, an’ she warsh the dishes. She work real hard.” Hannah managed to feed Tom and tell him the story of Leah’s life all at the same time. “I stays here an’ warshes the clothes for the folks at the hotel. So many stay at that hotel. An’ I takes care a Miss Leah. I been takin’care a Miss Leah since she a little girl. She just six years ol’ when I come to take care a her, when her momma die, and that been most fifteen year ago. I was only sixteen myself, but I’s old enough to take care a her. ‘Course, she ain’t never been no trouble, no trouble ‘tall.”
“We come out here together ’bout three years ago, from Kentucky, with Mister Simmons an’ that wife a his. Miss Leah, she buy this house with some o’ the money her daddy leave her. An’ now, it all she got since that Mister Sawyer done run off with her money an’ got hisself drowned.”
Hannah suddenly stopped talking and looked frightened. “I shouldn’t a’ said nothin’ ’bout Mister Sawyer.”
“Who?” Tom asked between spoons of soup.
“Nobody, never you mind. He daid now anyway.” Hannah finished feeding Tom in silence. Hannah was unusually silent when Leah came home from work that night. She first checked on Tom, and after assuring herself that he was sleeping peacefully, asked Hannah how the evening had gone. Hannah told her that he had eaten well and slept, with no signs of blood or nausea.
Leah told Hannah amusing stories about some of the diners at the hotel while they ate their supper, then they both went to bed, tired from the long hours and additional care demanded of them.
Leah was careful to knock on the door the next morning before she went in. Tom was already awake and sitting up in bed.
“Good mornin’, Mister Barkley,” she smiled as she handed him his tea. She went to the window and opened the curtains. “It’s a fine mornin’.”
“Mornin’,” he replied, sipping carefully.
“You look like you feel a mite better today.”
“Umm-humm. Now it only hurts when I move.” Some of the swelling had gone down in his face, and the bruises were turning just a bit green around the edges.
She laughed. “Well, then, don’t move so much. But I reckon that’s a good sign, means nothin’ was hurt too bad. The doc’ll be here soon.”
Hannah showed the doctor in at that moment. He examined Tom carefully and asked him several questions. He appeared satisfied with the answers, and told them that with a couple of weeks of bed rest, Tom should be fit and able to travel. He instructed them to continue giving him the medications, and suggested that a warm bath everyday would be beneficial, if it could be managed.
After he left, Tom asked to speak to Leah alone. He asked her to close the door.
She stood at the foot of the bed and waited for him to speak. He shifted uncomfortably in the bed, and stared at the his toes sticking up under the blankets.
“Really appreciate this,” he muttered, “Doc must be costing you something. I’ll . . . I’ll pay you back soon as I can cash a bank draft. For the doc, and somethin’ extra for your trouble. Got money at a bank in Stockton.”
Leah looked surprised. “Why, Mister Barkley, what put that idea into your haid? I don’t ‘spect you to pay me nothin’. I ain’t helpin’ you so’s you cain pay me.”
Tom looked even more embarrassed. “Shouldn’t say, but Hannah told me about Mister Sawyer running off with your money.”
Leah sighed. “Yes, well, that was nigh on to two years ago now. I ain’t been able to save much, but I been gettin’ by with what I make at the hotel and what Hannah brings in doin’ the warsh. We’re doin’ jus’ fine, so don’t you worry none ’bout us.”
“How’d it happen?”
Leah stared at her hands and sighed again. “Reckon I might’s well tell ya’. It ain’t no secret, an’ I got nothin’ to be ashamed of. Charlie Sawyer was my husband. He weren’t much to look at, but he shore could make a girl laugh, he was that amusin’. An’ I was real young an’ missin’ my friends and family back home. I don’t think he was a bad man, not really, jus’ kind of weak when it come to likker an’ money. Anyway, we was married ’bout three, maybe four months when he jus’ up an’ disappeared one night, takin’ all the cash money I had. We heard he was drunk an’ got drowned tryin’ to cross the river up north a ways.”
She smiled sadly at Tom. “Anyway, since we was only married such a short time an’ didn’t have no children, I jus’ went back to bein’ Leah Thomson. Didn’t feel like I’d been married, not really.”
“Been anyone else since?”
“You mean, other beaus?” Tom nodded. Leah laughed. “Not in this here town, no sir! Pickin’s’re pretty slim, if a girl wants a decent, steady sort a fella. Plenty that’re jus’ out for a good time and what they cain get, but not too many want to do the honorable thing and settle down. I reckon I done learned my lesson there.”
She straightened up and smiled brightly.
“Now, I don’t want to hear no more talk ’bout payin’ me back. You jus’ worry ’bout gettin’ yourself better. I’ll go get your medicine and another cup a tea.” She picked up the cup and headed for the door.
“One more thing,” Tom stopped her. She looked at him questioningly. “Could you see to my horse at the livery? And bring the saddlebags and rifle?”
“Shore thing, Mister Barkley. I’ll take care of that myself when I go to work today. I’ll bring them things back with me tonight.”
The next week passed quickly, as they slipped into a routine. Leah would awaken Tom every morning with a cup of tea and his medicine. She would often entertain him with a story of some
humorous event at the hotel the evening before. He always laughed at her stories and often asked about some detail of her past. He would sometimes tell her some equally amusing anecdote about people he had known.
She never asked him questions about his personal life, and he never volunteered any new information. He did explain that he had just arrived in Strawberry on the day of the evening that he was robbed. He had won a large pot in a poker game at one of the saloons, and was on his way to get a room at the hotel when he was attacked, most likely by someone who had followed him from the saloon.
On the fourth day of his convalescence, he allowed Hannah to help him into a wash tub of warm water during the evening while Leah was at work. Hannah made it possible for him to preserve his modesty by draping a large towel across the top of the tub. By the end of the week, he was able to get out of bed and move around the house and bathe himself without assistance. One of the first things he did was to shave. On the doctor’s advice, Leah had been gradually adding solid foods to Tom’s diet.
That Sunday morning, when she came to wake him up, Tom noticed that she was wearing a dress he had not seen and had tied her hair back with a blue ribbon.
“You’re looking mighty pretty today, Miss Thomson,” he complimented her. “Is that a new dress?”
She touched her hair, smiled shyly, and smoothed the dress along her thigh. “Oh, no. This is my Sunday go-to-meetin’ dress. You bein’ so much better an’ all, Hannah and me figures we can go off to meetin’ an’ leave you here on your own. You ain’t well enough to be goin’ out, but you don’t need us hoverin’ around all the time. If that’s all right with you, a course.”
Tom looked surprised. “Is it Sunday already? I hadn’t realized. Of course, you two go off to church. I’ll be just fine here on my own. In fact, if you’d be so kind as to bring my clothes in, I think I’d like to get dressed and spend the day out of bed for a change. If that’s all right with you, of course.”
He smiled a crooked little smile at Leah. His blue eyes twinkled mischievously. The swelling had completely subsided, and even with the fading marks of bruises still visible on his face, he was a very handsome man, with strong, regular features.
She beamed at him. “‘Course it is. An’ mebbe we cain celebrate with a little somethin’ special for supper.” She paused and looked embarrassed. “I hope you like sweet potato pie. I made it last night, just in case. I grows ’em special jus’ so’s I cain make them pies for birthdays an’ such.” She smiled shyly again as she slipped out the door, leaving it open.
“Why, Miss Thomson, it’s one of my favorites,” Tom called after her. She was back in a moment with his clothes, and he continued, “And if you made it, it’s sure to be the best sweet potato pie I’ve ever had.”
She blushed and smiled as she laid his clothes and saddlebags at the foot of the bed. “Well, I’ll jus leave this here. You didn’t have no hat on when we found you. Reckon it’s lost now.” She stood uncertainly for a moment. “We’ll be off then. Guess we’ll be back in an hour or so, an’ we cain eat ’bout an hour after that.”
When they got back from church, Tom was dressed and sitting in a chair at the table drinking a cup of coffee. Leah hung up her shawl and busied herself with preparations for dinner. She had left a large pot of white bean and ham hock soup simmering on the back of the stove. She mixed together the ingredients for corn bread and slid the pan into the oven. Hannah moved quietly around the room, setting the dishes on the table and putting out pickles and bottled fruit.
Tom asked about the meeting and the sermon, and seemed very impressed with Hannah’s ability to quote scripture from memory. She and Leah also sang several of their favorite hymns for him as they waited for the cornbread to finish baking, Hannah’s strong alto overpowering Leah’s high, sweet soprano.
As soon as the bread was baked, Leah served the soup and they all sat down to eat. She advised Tom to eat slowly and to be careful not to eat too much. He nodded and smiled, and said that he would make a point of leaving room for the sweet potato pie. Finally, he put down his fork and leaned back from the table.
“Miss Thomson, I can honestly say that I have not enjoyed a meal so much in a very long time. And if I may say so, as good as the food is, the company is even better. So pleasant and charming.” He smiled at the two ladies. Leah blushed. Hannah smiled and looked pleased. She stood up and started to clear the table.
“Miss Leah, why don’t you and Mister Barkley go set on the porch a spell? I cain finish up here, an’ it’s too fine a day to waste.”
“Miss James I mean, Hannah, that’s an excellent idea. Shall we, Miss Thomson?” Tom stood and offered his arm to Leah. She took his arm with a smile. Hannah watched them walk out, a dreamy look on her face.
“A very nice man,” she murmured to herself.
Tom sat carefully in the large rocking chair on the porch. Leah pulled up a straight back chair and sat next to him. He leaned back and closed his eyes.
“Miss Thomson, would you mind singing to me? I can’t think of anything that I’d rather do than sit here on this porch and listen to you sing. I don’t remember the last time I felt quite this comfortable and this peaceful, and I would truly like to just sit here and enjoy the feeling.”
“What should I sing?” Leah asked.
“Anything you like. Whatever it is will be just fine.” Tom rocked slowly.
Leah thought for a moment, then began to sing softly:
How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood
When fond recollection presents them to view
The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood,
And ev’ry loved spot which my infancy knew
The wide spreading pond, and the mill that stood by it,
The bridge and the rock where the cataract fell;
The cot of my father, the dairy house nigh it,
And e’en the rude bucket that hung in the well.
The old oaken bucket, the iron bound bucket,
The moss covered bucket that hung in the well.
The moss covered bucket I hailed as a treasure,
For often at noon, when returned from the field.
I found it the source of an exquisite pleasure,
The purest and sweetest that nature can yield.
How ardent I seized it, with hands that were glowing,
And quick to the white pebbled bottom it fell
Then soon, with the emblem of truth overflowing,
And dripping with coolness, it rose from the well.
The old oaken bucket, the iron bound bucket,
The moss covered bucket that hung in the well.
Tom began to hum softly in the middle of the second verse, and joined in the last chorus. He smiled a fond, crooked smile at Leah and reached out and took her hand in his without a word. She smiled back. He closed his eyes and, continuing to hum the song, soon dozed off. Leah sat and watched him sleep, her hand nestled in his.
During the next week, Tom Barkley’s physical condition visibly improved daily. On Monday, when Leah went downstairs to make coffee before calling him, he was already up and dressed and had started the fire in the stove. This became his practice every day after that. He would have the fire going, and a pot of coffee on to boil when she came down the stairs. After breakfast, he and Leah would often sit on the porch and talk, or he would ask her to sing for him. On the days that Hannah was doing laundry, the two woman would sing hymns and ballads together. As the week progressed, Tom and Leah would go for short walks through the woods at the outside of town. He often commented on how quiet and peaceful it was living there, and on how calm and relaxed he felt. He slept through much of the afternoon while she was at work.
Hannah would have supper waiting every night when Leah got home from work, and after eating, Tom would insist on helping Leah wash and put away the dishes. On Thursday, he walked with her into town, and left her at the hotel. He went to the bank where he cashed a draft, then to the livery stable, where he paid the bill that was owing and arranged for his horse to be kept at least until the end of the month. He stopped at the general store and bought a new hat to replace the one that had been lost, and several other articles of clothing. He spent several hours at the mine office, then went to the telegraph office and sent a wire to Stockton, before going back to Leah’s house. When Leah got home from work that night, there was stack of split wood piled on the porch, and Tom was at work nailing some loose treads on the staircase.
“Mister Barkley, there’s no call for you to do that,” she exclaimed in delight.
Tom sat on a step and grinned at her. “A man needs something to do with himself. I can’t just sit around all day and do nothing now that, thanks to your excellent care, I’m almost completely healed.”
She blushed at the compliment. “Jus’ promise me you won’t do anything that’ll undo all that care.”
He looked down at his hands. “Oh, I don’t know. I might be glad of an excuse to stay here a while longer.” He looked up at her inquisitively.
She blushed and smiled. “You don’t need no excuse. You’re welcome as long as you want.”
“In that case,” he stood up. “There are a few other things that need doing around here, and I intend to do them. One way or the other, I’m going to earn my keep.” He slid his arm around Leah’s waist and walked her to the table for supper.
When Leah got to work the next night, her brother called her into his office. “Leah, could I see you a minute?” He held the door open.
She walked in, a curious look on her face. Matt shut the door behind her. He put his hands in his vest pockets and rocked on his heels.
“I hear Tom Barkley was in town yesterday.” She nodded, an uncertain look still on her face. “That must mean that he’s pretty much healed up.” She nodded again.
Matt sighed. “Leah, I know you’re a grown woman, a widow even, but I am your brother and, well, . . . when he was confined to bed, that was one thing, but now . . . there’s bound to be talk, and you know a woman can’t afford to lose her reputation.” He looked slightly embarrassed as he spoke.
Leah stiffened. “What’re you sayin’, Matt? What’a you mean, lose my reputation? I cain’t believe what I’m hearin’.”
He reached out and patted her on the shoulder. “Now, Leah, calm down. I ain’t sayin’ you done anything wrong, I ain’t even sayin’ you’re gonna do anything wrong. I’m just sayin’ folks will talk, what with you and a healthy man livin’ in the same house. Maybe it’d be better if he come to stay here.”
“Talk!” Leah spat out the word. “Let’em talk. People oughta know me better than that by now. An’ Tom Barkley’s a fine man, wouldn’t do nothin’ improper. An’ it ain’t jus’ me and him,
neither. Hannah’s there, too. An’ I ain’t askin’ him to leave. That’d be like me sayin’ I think there’s truth in them rumors. Now, I got work to do.”
She stormed out and slammed the door. Matt sighed and shook his head. He looked worried. Leah was still angry when she got home that night, but she did her best not to let Tom see that anything was wrong. After supper, while she was washing the dishes and he was drying them, she said suddenly, “I know! Tomorra’s Saturday, and I don’t have to work. How ’bout I make us up some fried chicken and we go on a picnic? S’posed to be a real nice day.”
Tom smiled and nodded, “Sounds wonderful. I’ll hire a buggy from the livery. Then we can go for a nice long drive.”
“Oh, no, ain’t no call for you to do that,” Leah protested, looking pleased. “I want to, and I insist on it.” Tom turned to Hannah. “What do you say, Hannah? Should I hire a buggy to take us on that picnic?”
Hannah smiled sweetly at him. “Why, that’s real nice a you, Mister Barkley. I think that’s a fine idea, jus’ fine. But you an’ Miss Leah have to go without me. I promise to go help Miss Caulfield finish some shirts. She took sick last week, and got behind, so I say I help her finish them tomorrow.”
“You shore, Hannah?” asked Leah. “You shore you cain’t come with us?”
“Oh, no, Miss Leah. I promise. But I cain help you fry up that chicken in the mornin’. I don’ have to be there ’til later.” She smiled at Leah.
“All right, then, it’s set,” said Tom. “I’ll go out in the morning and hire the buggy while you ladies prepare the food.”
He smiled down at Leah, who was glowing with happiness. They left just before noon the next day. Tom split wood and worked around the outside of the house while the women cooked during the morning. Leah packed a picnic basket, but other than the fried chicken, refused to tell Tom what was in it. She insisted that it was to be a surprise. They drove out of town and followed the road into the woods. It wound through the stands of pines with their bright green needles and cones just starting to ripen and past the groves of oak and maple, their branches standing starkly naked against the clear blue of the November sky. Eventually, it followed the course of a small stream that flowed down the mountain to a larger river below. They continued along the path of the stream until they came to a large, flat, grassy area. Tom pulled the horses to a halt. He got down, then helped Leah out of the buggy. He tied the horses to a nearby tree, then carried the picnic basket and a blanket down to the stream bank. He spread out the blanket while Leah unpacked the picnic basket. She set out the fried chicken, several kinds of pickled vegetables, apples, and a jug of cider. She laughed and pushed him away playfully when Tom tried to look in the basket to see what the surprise was. She sat with her feet tucked under her, while Tom lounged on his side on the blanket. After they had eaten their fill of chicken, pickles, and fruit, Leah cleaned up the scraps and put them away in the basket. She then carefully lifted out a pie tin and presented it to Tom. He looked at it in some confusion.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I know what this is,” he said apologetically.
Leah was crestfallen. “It’s a real treat back in Kaintucky. It’s a brown sugar pie.”
“A brown sugar pie?” Tom said apprehensively. “I have never had brown sugar pie.” He chucked Leah under the chin. “But, from the sounds of it, I’ll love it. You know how I like sugar in my coffee.”
She grinned, “An’ in your tea. I must a heard it three times a day for ‘most a week, ‘More sugar next time.’ That’s why I figured you’d like this here brown sugar pie.”
She cut it into wedges and handed him one. She watched him intently as he ate the first bite. He rolled the pie around in his mouth, savoring it, then chewed and swallowed. “Why, Miss Thomson, I didn’t know such a thing existed. You’d better cut yourself a piece right now, because I intend to eat every bit I can get my hands on.” She laughed and did as he suggested. Although he did not finish the pie, he did eat two pieces immediately. After he finished the second piece, he rolled over on his back and put his hands behind his head. He took off his hat and set it on the blanket beside him.
“Sing to me, Leah,” he commanded.
She laughed. “You are the singin’est man I ever did see!” He smiled wryly. “I don’t often get to lie back and just listen to a lovely lady sing for me alone.”
She ducked her head and smiled. “Well, I don’t rightly know what to sing.” She thought for a moment. “This here’s one a my gramma’s favorites, an’ for some reason it’s been on my mind lately.” She hummed to herself for a moment.
Tell me the tales that to me were so dear,
Long, long ago, long, long ago,
Sing me the songs I delighted to hear,
Long, long ago, long ago,
Now you are come all my grief is removed,
Let me forget that so long you have roved.
Let me believe that you love as you loved,
Long, long ago, long ago.
Do you remember the paths where we met?
Long, long ago, long, long ago.
Ah, yes, you told me you’d never forget,
Long, long ago, long ago.
Then to all others, my smile you preferred,
Love, when you spoke, gave a charm to each word.
Still my heart treasures the phrases I heard,
Long, long ago, long ago.
Tho’ by your kindness my fond hopes were raised,
Long, long ago, long, long ago.
You by more eloquent lips have been praised,
Long, long ago, long ago,
But, by long absence your truth has been tried,
Still to your accents I listen with pride,
Blessed as I was when I sat by your side.
Long, long ago, long ago.
“I think I finally know the meaning of contentment,” he said softly. Leah smiled. “Yeah, it’s nice out here, ain’t it?” She tilted her head back to catch a stray breeze in her hair. Her hair glistened in the sun and her skin glowed, golden and healthy. Tom looked at her pensively. “What do you want from life, Leah?”
She looked startled. “What do I want? Don’t know’s I ever gave it much thought.” She ran her had through the grass and didn’t meet his gaze. “Jus’ the sorts of things mos’ people wants, I reckon. A family ’round me to love and take care of, nice place to live, good food to eat. Friends, a course.”
He shook his head. “That’s all?”
“What else is there?” she asked in genuine surprise.
He smiled grimly. “Wealth, power, position. Land and all that goes with it. Do you want any of those things, Leah?”
She shook her head and laughed, “Now, what would a girl like me be doin’ with them things, Mister Barkley? I wouldn’t hardly know how to live.”
He reached over and took her hand. He caressed it gently for a moment, then looked up to find her smiling lovingly at him.
“Leah, I . . .” he stopped. He sighed. “I think we’d better get back. It gets dark early.”
They packed up the picnic things in a comfortable silence. Tom stored them in the buggy, then lifted Leah up. He held her somewhat longer than was necessary, and she did not protest. He climbed into the other seat, took the reigns, and started the horses back toward Strawberry. Leah slowly relaxed against him and laid her head against his arm. He looked down at her, troubled. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing regular. He drove on, staring straight ahead. The sun was slowly slipping below the horizon. After a some time, he seemed to come to a decision. He slowed the horses, then slipped one arm around Leah and settled her more comfortably in the crook of his arm. He smiled peacefully, and drove the rest of the way home with only one hand on the reigns. It was dark by the time they arrived.
He shook her gently. “Leah, sweetheart, we’re home.”
She blinked her eyes and smiled. He lifted her down and sent her into the house. He followed her with the blanket and basket. Hannah was waiting just inside the door with a lighted lamp.
“I’ll just take the buggy back to the livery,” he said. Leah nodded. He caressed her shoulder, then, as if on an impulse, he kissed her on the top of her head, and left quickly.
“Oh, Miss Leah,” Hannah breathed. “I’s so happy for you. ‘Bout time you got yourself a man.
An’ he’s fine man.”
Leah nodded and smiled dreamily. She sank into a chair at the table. “Oh, Hannah, he’s everthing I ever wanted.”
Hannah nodded. She set the lamp on the table, then unpacked the picnic basket, washed the dirty dishes, and put everything away. Tom returned just as she was finishing. She smiled at him and Leah, lit two candles, took one, and headed up the stairs.
Tom walked over to Leah, put his hands on her arms, and raised her out of the chair. “I’ll see you in the morning, beautiful lady,” he said and leaned down and kissed her softly on the mouth.
She nodded and smiled. He stood and followed her with his eyes as she walked up the stairs, the candle creating a halo of light around her. A look of great peace and tranquility crossed his face. He picked up the lamp and went into his room.
Leah floated down the stairs the next morning, wearing her Sunday best with a blue ribbon in her hair. She stopped on the bottom step and looked shyly around at Tom, standing at the stove putting the coffee on.
He turned, smiled, and held out his arms, “Good morning, Leah.”
“Oh, good mornin’, Tom,” she almost sang as she ran across the room into his arms. She stretched her mouth up to his, and he bent his head and kissed her softly. She nestled back in his arms and sighed deeply.
“Mornin’, Miss Leah,” Hannah called as she walked down the stairs. Leah turned, but kept one arm around Tom’s waist.
“Good mornin’, Hannah,” she smiled at her.
Tom nodded, “Good morning, Hannah.”
“Mornin’, Mister Tom,” Hannah replied. She smiled beatifically upon them. “You comin’ to meetin’ with us this mornin’?”
Tom shook his head and smiled, “No, I don’t think so, Hannah. I’m not much of a church goer.”
Leah laughed and hugged him. “No, you menfolk never is. That’s a job for us women, I reckon.”
When they were gone, Tom shook his head and stood lost in thought for several minutes. Finally, he shrugged, and, picking up a few hand tools, he went outside to do some repairs on the porch. After the women returned from church and they had all eaten Sunday dinner, Hannah once again insisted that they leave the dishes for her and enjoy the late November sunshine. Leah pulled a shawl around her shoulders, and she and Tom went for a long walk. They held hands and talked about everything and nothing. Tom instructed Leah on points of natural history, on the flora and fauna and geography of Strawberry, things he had not thought of in years, except in connection with business or finance. Leah listened attentively, smiling and nodding and laughing when appropriate. They wandered back home just before dark, in time to eat the simple supper that Hannah had prepared.
She shooed them out again to sit on the porch. Tom sat in the rocking chair and lifted Leah onto his lap. She laid her head on his chest and listened to the beat of his heart that was echoed by the motion of the rocking chair.
Tom played with a strand of her hair. “Sing to me, Leah.”
She sat up. “Sittin’ out here, with the moon an’ all, puts me in mind of a song my gramma used to sing. It’s kind of a sad song, but it’s a pretty one.”
Twas a calm, still night,
And the moon’s pale light
Shone soft o’er hill and vale;
When friends mute with grief
Stood around the deathbed
Of my poor lost Lilly Dale.
Oh! Lilly, sweet Lilly,
Dear Lilly Dale,
Now the wild rose blossoms
O’er her little green grave
‘Neath the trees in the flow’ry vale.
Her cheeks that once glowed
With the rose tint of health,
By the hand of disease
Had turned pale,
And the death damp
Was on the pure white brow
Of my poor lost Lilly Dale.
Oh! Lilly, sweet Lilly,
Dear Lilly Dale,
Now the wild rose blossoms
O’er her little green grave
‘Neath the trees in the flow’ry vale.
I go, she said
To the land of rest,
And ere my strength shall fail,
I must tell you where,
Near my own loved home,
You must lay Lilly Dale.
Oh! Lilly, sweet Lilly,
Dear Lilly Dale,
Now the wild rose blossoms
O’er her little green grave
‘Neath the trees in the flow’ry vale.
‘Neath the chestnut tree,
Where the wild flow’rs grow,
And the stream ripples forth
Thro’ the vale,
Where the birds shall warble
Their songs in spring,
There lay poor Lilly Dale.
Oh! Lilly, sweet Lilly,
Dear Lilly Dale,
Now the wild rose blossoms
O’er her little green grave
‘Neath the trees in the flow’ry vale.
When she had finished, she lay back down against Tom’s chest. “You’re right,” he said meditatively, “It is sad, and it is pretty. Very pretty. And very sad.” They sat quietly until Hannah called them in to go to bed. Tom kissed Leah, and watched her walk up to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, she turned and smiled at him, then went into her room. Only then did he turn and go into his.
The pattern of their lives changed subtly after that day. Tom still lit the stove and put the coffee on, but Leah was downstairs almost as soon as his door opened. She would greet him with a kiss, and watch him while he made the coffee. Hannah would come down several minutes later, closing her door loudly and firmly. There were always repairs to make on the house or its out buildings, and wood to chop and split. Leah followed Tom around as he worked, chattering happily, handing him tools and materials, giving him any help he requested. More than once, when they finished for the morning, he remarked how much he missed doing this kind of work; how satisfying it was to be able to see a problem and fix it immediately with your own hands and know that it was fixed. She always apologized for not being able to pay him, and he always told her that her gratitude and a smile was all the payment he wanted.
Hannah watched them as she worked at the wash tub, and smiled and nodded to herself. She would quietly prepare the midday meal, then call them when it was ready. Leah always apologized for not helping, and Hannah always insisted that she didn’t need help. Hannah and Tom would be waiting for Leah when she came home from work at night. They would sit around the table and talk and eat a bite of supper. Leah continued to share amusing stories of the diners at the hotel, which Tom always enjoyed. She never asked him how he had spent his time while she was gone, and he never mentioned the visits he had made to the mine and the mine office on several occasions. Hannah would do the dishes, then go upstairs, leaving the other two alone. Leah would slip onto Tom’s lap and rest her head on his shoulder. He would stroke her hair and lay soft kisses on the top of her head. Eventually, Leah would sigh and say that it was time for her to get upstairs. Then Tom would tilt her head back and kiss her gently, but firmly, on the mouth.
On Friday, Leah came home to find a wrapped package sitting on the table next to a small cake. “What’s this?” she asked, smiling expectantly.
Tom lead her over to the table. “If I remember correctly, it was three weeks ago today that you, lovely lady, saved my life. This is my poor attempt at saying, ‘Thank you.'” He handed her the package. “I know it doesn’t begin to be enough.” She opened the package. Her eyes grew wide as she lifted out an elegant and stylish woman’s hat, decorated with feathers and flowers and bits of tulle. She perched the hat on her head and turned to Hannah.
“Oh, Hannah, have you ever seen anythin’ like it? Ain’t it just the most beautiful hat?” She tilted and turned her head.
“Miss Leah, you looks so pretty. It shore does suit you.” Hannah smiled at her and at Tom. Leah turned to Tom, “I ain’t never had nothin’ so fine in all my life.”
He gazed into her rapt face, “You deserve such things, Leah, and more.”
They stood lost in each other for several moments. Then Leah laughed and removed the hat. “Reckon I better put this where it won’t get dirty.”
“Oh, let me do that, Miss Leah,” Hannah held out her hands. She took the hat and went upstairs. Leah waited until she was out of the room, then quickly kissed Tom. “Thank you, Tom.”
“It is I who should be thanking you, Leah.”
She smiled at him, then looked at the table. “An’ what’s this here?” “I stopped at the bakery. I thought a little celebration was in order, so I picked up a cake. If you’ll cut it, I’ll pour the coffee.”
She shook her head in amazement. “This here’s better’n a birthday. I ain’t never had no hat so fine, and I ain’t never ate no store bought cake just for no reason. You’re too good to me, Tom.”
The cake was dark and rich, full of nuts and fruit. Hannah came down just as Leah was putting the slices onto plates. After they had eaten, she once again insisted on washing up, then went straight up to her room.
As usual, Leah slid onto Tom’s lap. “You happy here, Tom?” she asked.
“Very happy, Leah,” he answered as he stroked her hair.
“You want to stay here?” she asked again.
“Yes, Leah, I would very much like to stay here.”
“That’s good. I want you to stay.”
He bent his head and kissed her on her mouth. She wrapped her arms around his neck and responded to his kiss with a passion that she had not shown before. He pulled her closer, and met her passion with his. Slowly, their lips parted. He set her carefully on her feet, then stood and guided her toward his room. At the door, she stopped and looked up at him.
“You know I loves you, Tom,” she said in a husky whisper.
“I know, Leah,” he answered softly.
Later, as they lay quietly in his bed, arms wrapped around each other, her head on his shoulder, he whispered very softly, “And I love you, Leah.”
She nodded and sighed, “I been so lonely, Tom.”
“I know,” he whispered, “but you won’t be lonely any more.”
He shifted, so he was lying on his back, one arm over his head, and stared at the ceiling. His fingers caressed her shoulder, but he didn’t look at her or speak.
After a time, she asked quietly, “What you thinkin’?”
He looked at her. His lips twitched in a somber smile. “About some business in Stockton. I’ll have to go there soon to take care of it.”
“Cain I come, too? Ain’t never been to Stockton.”
He didn’t say anything for a minute. “No, no, I don’t think that would be wise. It’s a long trip, and I don’t know how long it will take me. It’s kind of complicated.”
“When you goin’?”
“I have to be there before Christmas, so I should leave in the next couple of weeks.” He kissed her again. “Now, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. You just go to sleep.” She kissed him and sat up. “Reckon I better get up to my own bed. Wouldn’t want Hannah to find me here in the mornin’.”
She slipped her dress over her head, picked up the rest of her things, then kissed him one more time before slipping quietly out of the room. She did not hear the soft footstep at the top of the stairs or the careful closing of a door.
Tom lay awake, staring at the ceiling, until just before dawn.
Leah glided through the next two weeks as in a dream. She went to her work at the hotel as usual and performed the motions of serving meals and washing dishes, but she seemed distant and distracted. Matt watched with concern, but said nothing. She was as lively and cheerful as ever in the mornings, and seemed to wake up again in the evenings when she got home to Tom. Hannah continued to go up to her room shortly after supper, and Leah never saw her watching from the top of the stairs those times that she slipped out of Tom’s room at night. Leah came home from work that first Monday to the smell of rabbit stew simmering on the stove.
“Why, Hannah,” she exclaimed. “Where’d you get that rabbit? We haven’t had rabbit stew since . . . well, since I don’t remember when.”
Hannah smiled placidly and nodded toward Tom, who was sitting in the only armchair, smiling with pleasure.
“Mister Tom, he done brung it in. He went out right after you lef’. He pick up that rifle a his, and he says to me, ‘Hannah, how’d you an’ Miss Leah like some fresh meat for supper tonight?’ An’ I says, ‘Mister Tom, Miss Leah shore does love a nice rabbit stew.’ An’ then he lef’, an’ come back later with this here rabbit, an’ he even skin and dress it himself.”
Leah darted across the room and hugged Tom as he sat in the chair.
“You are too good to me, Tom,” she said again.
He gathered her onto his lap and laughed. “I told you I would earn my keep one way or the other. And, to tell you the truth, I enjoyed it. I haven’t had time to just go out and hunt rabbits for a long time. I loved to do that when I was a boy. I was glad to see I hadn’t lost my aim.”
He brushed her hair back from her forehead, “If you had some tackle around this place, I believe I could even find time to sit and wait for some fish to impale himself upon a hook.”
Leah laughed, “If that means you’d go fishin’, I shore wish we did. But Hannah and me don’t do much in that way.”
“Well, then, game it will have to be,” Tom concluded, laughing with her.
Every night after that there was fresh meat for the table. Rabbit stew, pigeon pie, roast grouse or duck, all from game that Tom brought in and root vegetables grown in the garden behind the house.
One particular morning, Tom left before anyone else was awake, and returned in mid-morning. He was carrying a small yearling buck over his shoulders.
Leah was watching for him from the front door of the house. When she saw him coming, she ran out onto the porch, and called to Hannah, “Hannah, come see what Tom’s brung us!”
She clasped her hands and called to Tom, “Oh, Tom, how did you know I’s partial to venison?”
He smiled at her as he approached, “Leah, if I brought back a scrawny squirrel, you’d tell me that was your favorite.”
“Stewed up with some onions and carrots and taters, squirrel can be mighty tasty, Tom, but it don’t compare to a nice roast venison, or deer stew.”
He shook his head and laughed. “Well, I hope you still feel that way by the time we eat through this. I looked for a small one, but there’s still a lot of meat there for three people. I just hope none of it goes bad before we can eat it.”
“Why, we’ll just share it around is what we’ll do,” Leah said excitedly. “Hannah can take some to
Miss Caulfield, an’ Matt, he likes venison near as much as I do, and Parson’ll know some that can use it.”
“Isn’t that just like you, Leah?” Tom said. “If that’s what you want to do, that’s what we’ll do. But we get the first roast, agreed?”
Leah nodded and agreed gladly.
That Sunday morning, five weeks after Leah had found him beaten and bleeding in the alley, Tom announced that he would be leaving for Stockton the next day. Leah blanched and looked at him with fear in her eyes.
He shook his head and patted her on the cheek. “Don’t look like that, dearest,” he said. “I told you all along I had business in Stockton, and that I would be leaving before Christmas.”
“I know, Tom,” she answered, biting her lip. “It’s jus’, it seems so soon. An’ I’ll miss you so much while you’re gone.”
“I won’t be gone long,” he promised. “Only as long as it takes. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He smiled a soft crooked smile at her. “Now, you and Hannah go off to church. I’ll see you when you get back.”
She nodded and smiled and managed not to cry. She put on her new hat, as she had done for the past two Sundays, and walked out with Hannah. While they were gone, Tom cut and split the wood that remained in the woodshed. He was just finishing when they returned. For the rest of the day, Leah smiled more often and laughed more readily than was usual. They followed their regular habit of dinner and a walk. Hannah went up to bed early, complaining of a headache. It was too cold to sit out on the porch, so they snuggled up next to the stove. Tom asked Leah to sing one last song for him.
She smiled sadly. “I cain’t think of but one song, but I’ll sing it if you wants me to.”
She sang softly, so as not to disturb Hannah,
O can’t you see yon little turtle dove
Sitting under the mulberry tree?
See how that she doth mourn for her true love:
And I shall mourn for thee, my dear,
And I shall mourn for thee.
O fare thee well, my little turtle dove,
And fare thee well for a-while;
But though I go I’ll surely come again,
If I go ten thousand mile, my dear,
If I go ten thousand mile.
Ten thousand mile is very far away,
For you to return to me,
You leave me here to lament, and well-a-day!
My tears you will not see, my love,
My tears you will not see.
The crow that’s black, my little turtle dove,
Shall change its color white;
Before I’m false to the maiden I love,
The noon-day shall be night, my dear,
The noon-day shall be night.
The hills shall fly, my little turtle dove,
The roaring billows burn,
Before my heart shall suffer me to fail,
Or I a traitor turn, my dear,
Or I a traitor turn.
Tom kissed her. “It was the perfect song, my dear.” He led her to his room.
As she sat up to leave, he said, “Don’t go.”
“Stay, don’t go.”
“But, Hannah . . .”
“You can go up in the morning. I’ve got to leave before sunrise. You can go up after I leave.”
She nodded and nestled down against his side. She was soon asleep, but he again kept silent vigil for several hours. In the morning, she watched him as he quietly and quickly dressed. He picked up his saddle bags and rifle, leaned down to kiss her one more time, whispered, “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” and quietly crept out of the room and out of the house.
When Hannah came downstairs, Leah was dressed and sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee.
“Mornin’, Miss Leah,” she said quietly.
“Mornin’, Hannah,” she answered. “He’s gone, Hannah.”
“I know, Miss Leah. But he comin’ back, he say he comin’ back.”
She smiled sadly, “Yes, he’s comin’ back. He promised.”
She looked across the room. “Hannah, I think I’ll sleep down here from now on, leastways, until he comes back.”
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. The routine of their public lives did not change. Leah still went every afternoon to work in the hotel dining room and kitchen, Hannah continued to do laundry for the guests. But their private lives followed a new pattern. Every morning, Leah would say to Hannah, “Today’s the day, Hannah, I jus’ know today’s the day.”
And Hannah would answer, “Maybe it is, Miss Leah, maybe it is.”
As the time passed, a note of anxiety entered into her voice, and the statement became a question, “Do you it could be today, Hannah?” And Hannah would answer, “It could be, Miss Leah, it shore could be.”
Finally, one morning in mid-March, the question became frantic and desperate, “When, Hannah, when is he coming back? When?” She laid her head on the table and sobbed.
“Miss Leah, what’s wrong? Why you cryin’?” Hannah sat next to her and stroked her hair. “You ain’t never cried like this in all this tiem. You tell jus’ ol’ Hannah what’s ailin’ you.”
Leah lifted her head and buried it on Hannah’s shoulder, “Oh, Hannah, I’m gonna have a baby. I’m gonna have his baby, and he ain’t come back.”
“Oh, my, oh, my,” Hannah closed her eyes in pain and rocked Leah gently. “What we gonna do? What we gonna do?”
“What can I do?” Leah asked between her sobs. “Nuthin’ but wait, jus’ sit here an’ wait.”
“But, Miss Leah,” Hannah paused, “Don’t you reckon maybe it be better if we leaves this place?
Goes to some place where ain’t nobody knows us? We jus’ tells ’em you a widda woman. That’s shore true enough, and that this here’s your daid husband’s baby. You be’s Leah Sawyer agin’ an’ this baby be named Sawyer. That Mister Sawyer, he ain’t gonna be comin’ ’round to say no diff’rent.”
Leah had pulled back from Hannah and was staring at her almost in horror. “I cain’t do that! What’ll Tom do when he come back and I ain’t here? How he gonna find me? An’ this here be his baby, not Mister Sawyer’s baby. It’s my baby an’ it’s his baby, an’ I’ll never put no other name to it.”
Hannah looked frightened and worried, “But, Miss Leah, what if, what if he ain’t comin’ back?”
Leah jumped up. She clenched her fists and shouted, “He is comin’ back! He is! Ain’t nobody can tell me any diff’rent. Don’t you never say that to me agin’.” She ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.
Hannah stood by the door and listened to her sobs. She stood until the crying quieted, then slowly opened the door. Leah was lying on the bed, her face buried in the pillow. She looked up at Hannah, and stretched out her hand.
“He is comin’ back, Hannah,” she whispered plaintively.
Hannah rushed across the room and clutched at her hand. “Course he is, Miss Leah. Course he is. He be back any day.” She sat on the bed next to Leah. “You gotta take care a yourself, Miss Leah. You gotta take care a that baby. Miss Caulfield, she know about babies and birthin’ and such. She done helped her momma with all that afore she come here. I gets her to come over and tell you what you got to do. ‘Cause you ain’t got no momma to go to now, and I shore don’t know nothin’ bout this kind a thing.”
Leah nodded and sat up. She smiled wistfully. “Yes, Hannah, you get Miss Caulfield. I don’t want no doctor. I couldn’t see no man ’bout this. But, I gotta take good care a Tom’s baby. An’ I been real careful, Hannah, ever since I first ‘spected. I ain’t gone into them woods a tall. Ain’t nothin’ gonna mark this baby. An’ I been shore to carry this here buckeye with me, jus’ to be safe. I’m gonna give Tom a fine, healthy child. He’ll make a good father, won’t he Hannah?”
Hannah nodded and bit her lips. “You goin’ to work today, Miss Leah? Or you want me to tell Mister Matt you sick?”
She shook her head, “No, I’m goin’ to work. I gotta go to work, Hannah. How else am I gonna take care a Tom’s baby?”
Hannah watched her walk out of the room, and shook her head, a look of deep concern and guilt on her face. Leah seemed to become more cheerful after that, and would talk quite happily to Hannah about what a good father Tom would make, and how pleased he would be that they were having a child. She discussed possible names for both a girl and a boy, and began to sew and knit baby clothes and diapers in anticipation. Hannah would always nod and agree with Leah, but she never initiated the conversations, and did not volunteer her opinions about Tom’s possible behavior. Rachel Caulfield came over on a Saturday afternoon and talked to Leah in private for some time. She was a widow herself, although in her mid-forties. Her husband had died in a mining accident shortly after they had moved west from Ohio. Since that time, she had been forced to support herself as a seamstress and as a midwife. Being a Quaker, or Friend, however, she was somewhat suspect by many of the women of the town, who called on one of the others skilled in midwifery. Her main source of income was her sewing business, especially making shirts and doing mending for the single miners. Her calm, quiet demeanor and simple, modest clothing gave Leah a sense of peace and confidence. She listened attentively as Rachel gave her instructions on what to eat, on the changes her body would be going through, and tried to prepare her for the process of birth itself. Rachel warned her that she would not be able to continue doing the work she was doing at the hotel for much longer. She promised to come every week and check on her, and gave her a verbal list of danger signs, and told her to send Hannah for her immediately if she noticed any of them. Hannah walked her home and the women talked on the way.
“How she be, Miss Rachel?” Hannah asked in concern.
“Oh, she’s healthy enough. There’s nothing to worry about there. She tells me she hasn’t experienced any kind of sickness, not vomiting or queasy?”
Hannah shook her head.
“That’s good to hear. Mostly what she needs right now are friends and family around her. No woman should be alone at a time like this. She works for her brother and his wife at the hotel?”
Hannah snorted in derision. “Mister Matt, he maybe try to help, but that Miss Martha, she never give nothin’ to nobody. Soon’s she see Miss Leah havin’ a baby an’ with no man aroun’, she be throwin’ her out. I be all Miss Leah have now.”
Rachel shook her head.
“Does thee know who the father is? I didn’t like to ask her.”
Hannah explained how Tom Barkley had come into their lives.
Rachel shook her head again. “He’s not coming back, is he, Hannah?”
“No, Miss Rachel, I don’t b’lieve he comin’ back. He been gone too long with no word, no word at all. Could be he’s daid, too.”
“It could be. It could be a lot of reasons. I’ve seen it too many times, Hannah. I suppose she loves him?”
“Oh, yes, Miss Rachel. Miss Leah love that man somethin’ fierce. He jus’ like her life to her.”
“And did he love her?”
Hannah looked troubled. “I don’t know, Miss Rachel. It seemed he did, but now, I don’t know. If he love her, how can he leave her an’ never come back?”
“Did he know about the baby?”
“No, ma’am, but he shore know he coulda left one behind him. He know that for shore.”
Rachel sighed. “I’ve seen it too many times,” she repeated.
Hannah’s lips trembled and tears spilled down her cheeks. “An’ it all my fault, Miss Rachel, it all my fault.”
Rachel looked at her in shock, “What does thee mean by that? How can thee blame thyself?”
“I’s supposed to take care a Miss Leah, make shore nothin’ bad happen to her. An’ I, I lef’ ’em alone, even when I knew what was happenin’, I lef’ ’em alone.”
Rachel put her arm around Hannah’s shoulders and embraced her. “Don’t be silly, Hannah. If they were determined, there was nothing thee could have done to stop them. They would have found a way. They aren’t children, thee knows.”
Hannah shook her head. “But, Miss Rachel, I lef’ ’em alone jus’ so’s it could happen. She been alone too long, Miss Rachel. She need a man of her own. An’ I thought, with her lovin’ him the way she did, maybe . . . “
Rachel looked at her and tightened her jaw. She sighed and finished Hannah’s sentence for her. “Maybe that would keep him here?” Hannah nodded.
“Sometimes, Hannah, many times, even, it works that way, but not always. Especially not when the man has no other ties to the community.” Rachel shook her head. “In any case, Hannah, they made their own choice. Thee made it easier, but they had to make the decision to do what they knew was wrong.”
Hannah stubbornly shook her head. “It was me, Miss Rachel, it was me. Miss Leah, she not a bad woman, she never do nothin’ wrong. She love that man, an’ when a woman love a man like she love him, it cain’t be wrong. It was me, I was the one what done wrong.”
Rachel sighed and said nothing. Hannah left her at the door of her boarding house, and returned home, muttering and mumbling to herself.
The next three months passed as expected. The world changed as late winter turned to spring, and Leah saw and felt herself changing as well. She and Hannah turned the soil and planted their vegetable garden as always, although Hannah took a greater share of the heavy work.
Rachel came weekly at first, then more often, to sit and talk with the young woman. Leah would sit in the rocking chair on the porch, enjoying the warm sunlight, rocking and sewing baby clothes, and talking about Tom. About him, and what life had been like while he was there and what it would be like when he returned. About how much they loved each other, and how much they would love their child. She had already decided that if it were a boy, they would name him after his father, but she had not yet decided on a name for a girl. She thought a name from the Bible would be nice, but she couldn’t decide which one.
Rachel would sit on a chair near her, stitching a piece of clothing for a customer or finishing an item that Leah had begun. She said very little, just listened to Leah talk and nodded in agreement, and occasionally complimented Leah on the quality of her fine handwork.
One week, as they sat companionably working together, Leah asked a little timidly, “Miss Rachel, how’s it you come to be out here? Ain’t no other of your people here in Strawberry, so I’s jus’ wonderin’ what brung you here?”
Rachel smile a little and looked pensive. “I was born and raised in Ohio, among a rather large community of ‘my people.’ It was a beautiful community and a very pleasant life. We had a small farm. Of course, I had my chores to do on the farm. And I went to school and to meeting on Sundays. My mother is a midwife, and I learned the trade from her. My life was like most other young women, except in one respect. No young man ever spoke to my heart. I had accepted that it was my destiny to remain a spinster. I was really quite content and had a full life.”
She paused and her eyes took on a dreamy quality. “And then a new school teacher moved into the town. He came to teach the older boys who were preparing for college or for careers in law or medicine. We met in the course of our daily lives.”
She looked down and smiled wryly. “Who knows why two people fall in love? I can say that he was kind, and gentle, and learned, that he had a vibrant laugh, that his hair was a black and shiny as a raven’s wings, that his eyes were full of warmth and compassion. Whatever the reasons, I knew that my life was bound up with his, and he felt the same way as I.”
“However,” she took a deep breath. “He was not of my faith, and there was a fear among many in our community that too many young people were choosing outside of the faith, that our beliefs and our ways were in danger. I was given a choice. I meditated and prayed for many days, and knew that I had no choice. I knew that he and I belonged together. So, we married and I was ‘disowned’ by the Meeting.”
She paused at Leah’s sharp intake of breath, and smiled quietly at her. “We continued to live in the town, but eventually it became too difficult and too painful. He was offered a position as teacher here in Strawberry about a year after gold was discovered, so we came West, hoping to start a new life. When we got here, we discovered that the promised position existed only on paper. We had sold all we had to come here and had no money to return, so my gentle, sensitive scholar took the only work available to him, work in the mines. He never uttered one word of complaint.”
“It wasn’t long before the message I had been dreading arrived, that he had been killed in an accident. A man with more experience would have avoided the situation, but my innocent darling did not know enough to keep out of harm’s way.”
She sat up straight, smiled and said, rather briskly, “And so, here I am, supporting myself with my needle and my small skills as a midwife. Even if I could earn my passage back to Ohio, I don’t know if I would be welcome, or if I would even want to be.”
Leah looked at her with tears in her eyes. “Oh, Miss Rachel, you musta loved him somethin’ fierce.”
Rachel smiled at her, “Yes, Leah, I did.” She reached over and clasped Leah’s hand. They smiled at each other in shared sympathy and sisterhood.
Over the next several weeks, Rachel began to wonder how much longer Leah’s condition would escape the notice of her brother and sister-in-law. The gathered skirts would not hide her growing figure for much longer. That day arrived all too soon. Martha was passing the kitchen and caught sight of Leah silhouetted in the open doorway. She stopped and looked at the girl carefully. Her lips tightened and her eyes narrowed. She grabbed Leah by the wrist.
“You come with me.” She dragged her into Matt’s office and shut the door firmly behind them. Matt was sitting at his desk, going over the accounts. He looked up, “What is it, Martha?”
“Just look at her,” Martha hissed. “Take a good look. You can’t miss it.”
Matt shook his head. “I know, Martha.”
“You know?” her voice became shrill. “What do you mean, you know? How long have you known? And why haven’t you done anything about it?”
He sighed. “I’ve known for a month or so. And just what would you like me to do about it?”
Martha looked at him with growing disgust. “You’ve known for a month and you’ve let her keep going on, serving tables? Did it occur to you that if you had noticed, our customers would notice? And what do you think they are saying? Do you have any idea how hard I work to keep up the reputation of this place? To keep out the riff-raff and the tramps and the harlots? And we’ve got one working right here, under our very noses?”
Leah caught her breath. “I ain’t no harlot!”
Martha laughed derisively. “No, I guess not. A harlot gets paid for her services. You wouldn’t have the sense to demand payment. But you got something for your trouble, anyway.”
Matt shook his head, “Now, Martha, there’s no call to be using such hard language.”
Martha turned to her. “Do you even know who the father is? Did you ever learn his name? Not that it matters. That child’s got no right to it.”
Leah was trembling with suppressed anger and humiliation. Tears were falling from her eyes, and she seemed unable to speak. Matt sighed and shook his head. “You know as well as I do, Martha, that there’s only one man it could be. It had to be Tom Barkley. And I blame myself as much as Leah. I saw it coming, and I did nothing to stop it. But it’s done now, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.”
Martha laughed derisively at Leah. “Oh, yes, Mister Tom Barkley. One of your charity cases. Take him in, nurse him back to health, and this is the thanks you get. And where is he now? He got what he came for, and a little more, and now he’s on his way back to where ever he came from. And he’ll never look back once to see what he might have left behind him here.”
“He is comin’ back,” Leah whispered through clenched teeth. “He is comin’ back.”
Martha looked at her. “I think you really believe that.” She shook her head. “How long’s it been since he left, Leah? Before Christmas, wasn’t it? It’s June now. That’s almost six months. And have you had one word, a letter or a telegram or even a message from a passing drifter? He could be dead for all you know. One way or the other, he’s not coming back, and the sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be.”
She stood, considering. “The best thing you can do is leave right now, while you can still travel. It’s still risky, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. Go someplace where no one knows you, set yourself up as a respectable widow. Call yourself Sawyer again. At least the kid’ll have some kind of name.” She sighed. “Take Hannah with you. Matt’ll give you the money. You sign over the house to us. After we sell it, if there’s any money left, we’ll send it to you.”
“No.” Leah said quietly and firmly. “I ain’t leavin’. Tom is comin’ back. If he was daid, I’d know it. He promised me he was comin’ back, an’ I got to be here when he comes.” She smiled and stroked her abdomen. “An’ when he comes, this child’ll have a name, his daddy’s name.”
Matt and Martha looked and her and at each other. He shrugged. She waved her hand. “Fine, then I wash my hands of you. That’s the best we can do. And you’d better start looking for some other work today, because I will not have rumors going around about the quality of the help in this hotel.”
“Now, Martha,” Matt said, placatingly. “I’ll agree she shouldn’t be in the dining room, but what can it hurt if she keeps working in the kitchen? Besides, you don’t want it said that we threw our own flesh and blood out into the streets.”
She gritted her teeth. “Fine, but she comes and goes by the back door.” She looked at her appraisingly. “And only for as long as she’s up to the work, which won’t be for much longer.”
She shook her head. “Looks like I’ll have to take over in the dining room until we can find someone else.” She stalked out.
“Oh, thank you, Matt,” Leah hugged her brother.
He shook his head. Grief and guilt mingled on his face.”I failed you, Leah. I knew what could happen, and I just sat by and let it happen.”
Leah straightened “Now, Matt, you got to stop worrin’. I told you, Tom’s comin’ back. An’ when he gets here, everthin’ will be jus’ fine, you’ll see.” She smiled and patted him on the shoulder, then went out to the kitchen.
It wasn’t too many weeks before Martha’s prediction was realized. Leah could no longer stand on her feet for the long hours that the work in the hotel kitchen demanded. Rachel offered to pay Leah for doing the finishing on the clothes she made for her customers, especially the buttonholes and the hemstitching. She also suggested that she move in with Leah and Hannah. She came over daily as it was, and this would bring the added benefit of allowing them to pool their resources. She did not add that she was concerned about Leah’s emotional state as the time drew closer for her baby to be born, and still no word had arrived from Tom. Leah and Hannah both welcomed her steady, comforting presence.
When Hannah went to the hotel to deliver clean laundry or to collect dirty clothes, she would always return with something extra, a few dollars that Matt had managed to slip to her, a parcel of left-over food from the hotel kitchen, a bed sheet that was too worn to keep using at the hotel but might be turned into something useful. One fateful day, she fairly ran home from the hotel and up the stairs to where Leah was rocking on the porch and sewing buttonholes on the front of a man’s shirt.
“Miss Leah, Miss Leah, it come, Miss Leah, it come!” She stood, gasping for breath and beaming at Leah. She handed her a letter. “It come to the hotel, Miss Leah. Mister Matt give it to me. He say it for you, an’ it come from Stockton.”
Leah went pale, and then suddenly flushed as the blood rushed back to her face. She took the letter from Hannah with trembling hands. She stared at the handwriting on the front of the envelope, then clasped the letter to her heart.
“I’ll go now, Miss Leah, I ‘spects you want to read it in private,” Hannah whispered and slid quietly into the house. Leah took a deep breath, and smiled at the heavens. Her fingers shook as she opened the letter. At first, she could not seem to focus on the words, but slowly she began to read and to comprehend. The color slowly receded from her face, and her eyes took on a shocked, glazed look. When she had finished reading, she sat with the letter in her lap, staring straight ahead, looking at nothing. Hannah came out a few minutes later and found her. “Miss Leah!” She knelt and put a hand on Leah’s cheek. “Miss Leah, what’s it say? It don’t say he daid, do it?”
Leah shook her head, without looking at Hannah. “No, no, he ain’t daid, Hannah.” She looked down at the letter. “But he ain’t comin’ back, Hannah. He ain’t never comin’ back.” She stared at some invisible point on the horizon again.
Hannah put her hands to her face in shock. “But he promise. Why he promise?”
She answered, as though in a trance, “I don’t rightly un’erstan’ that part, Hannah. He say somethin’ about a dream, an’ a escape, an’ a fantasy world. An’ he say ’cause he gots other responsibilities, other obligations.”
Leah turned her head slowly and looked at Hannah. “I un’erstan’ that part. He already got him a wife, an’ children. He got two children already, Hannah. Two boys. An’ a wife.”
Slowly, her face began to crumple and she started to cry in great, gasping sobs. Hannah stood, undecided, then ran in the house and up the stairs, calling for Rachel as she went. Rachel came out of her bedroom where she had been engaged in silent meditation, ran down the stairs and out onto the porch. She took Leah’s face in her hands.
“Leah, thee must stop this right now!” she commanded. “Stop it!” Leah’s sobs quieted. She continued to weep, but the hysteria had passed. Hannah put her arms around her and held her as she wept.
“Is this the letter?” Rachel asked as she took it from Leah’s hands. “May I read it?”
Leah nodded. Rachel read the letter, shook her head several times, then folded it and returned it to the envelope.
She put a soft hand on Leah’s face. “Oh, my poor, dear girl. Does thee understand half of what he said?”
Leah shook her head.
“But thee does understand that he is not returning? That he already has a wife and two children to support?”
Leah nodded, then doubled over in pain.
“Help me get her to bed, Hannah,” she ordered. They supported Leah into the house and into her bed. She cried in pain again.”
“What is it, Miss Rachel? What’s happenin’?” Hannah asked.
“It’s the baby. It could have come at any time, but the shock brought it on.”
For the next few hours, Rachel moved swiftly and competently, instructing Hannah, and calming and directing Leah. After much literal blood, sweat, and tears, she hand a small, warm bundle to Leah, who was slumped in exhaustion against the headboard. Hannah stood by her side and looked over her shoulder at the tiny human being in Leah’s arms. Rachel stretched, with her hand in the small of her back, then began to clean up the soiled cloths and sheets.
Leah smiled down in her child’s face. “A little boy, Hannah. I gots me a little boy. An’ ain’t he jus’ the purtiest little boy ever born!”
She touched his cheek, his mouth, his fingers. He opened his eyes, then yawned. “He gots his daddy’s blue eyes, Hannah, he shore does.”
She stroked the top of his head with a light finger, “An’ he gots his momma’s hair. Looks like he ain’t got none a tall, but it’s jus’ real light yeller, like his momma.”
He opened his mouth and turned toward her. She settled back, and humming quietly, gave her son his first taste of the love that would sustain him throughout his life.
Rachel signaled to Hannah. They gathered up the dirty linens and the basins of bloody water and left quietly. After the baby had eaten and fallen asleep, Rachel and Hannah helped Leah to bathe, then tucked the baby snugly next to his mother in the bed. Leah smiled sweetly at them.
“What you gonna name him, Miss Leah? You done decided?” asked Hannah.
Leah nodded. “I been thinkin’ on that. I cain’t,” she swallowed, “I cain’t give him the name I was gonna. It ain’t right. I guess I just gotta give him a name from his momma’s family, ’cause that’s all the family he gots.”
She smiled. “So, I reckon I’m gonna name him Heath. It were my granddaddy’s name. He told me that it’s a sort of a wild place that don’t belong to no man. An’ that’s my baby, he don’t belong to
no man. He jus’ belongs to his momma.”
Hannah wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. Rachel compressed her lips and said nothing.
Leah laughed softly. “An’ Thomson, that’ll be his other name. It’s the only name he gots a right to, ’cause it’s my name. But, it’s his proper name, too, ain’t it, Hannah? ‘Cause he be Tom’s son, an’ so I done give my baby his daddy’s name, jus’ like I said I would.”
Hannah didn’t answer, just nodded and hugged her. Rachel patted her on the arm. “I’ll bring thee something to eat, then I want thee to sleep. Thee remembers what I told thee about feeding him and changing him?”
Leah nodded, “I remember ever word.”
“Good. Now, I’ll be back in a minute.”
She returned in a few moments with a bowl of bread and milk. After Leah had eaten, they both kissed her on the forehead and left her to sleep.
The next day, Rachel left the door to the bedroom open so that she could hear Leah if she called, while she went about her work. Hannah hovered anxiously around the mother and baby. She and Leah murmured over him, telling him how beautiful he was and what a good baby and how sweet. They hummed and sang lullabies to put him to sleep. After she had seen to it that Leah had eaten dinner, she went to the hotel to deliver the laundry she had washed the morning before. When she came back, Matt and Martha were with her. Matt shook hands with Rachel. “Hannah told us Leah had the baby yesterday. We, uh, we came over to see how she’s doing.”
Rachel looked at Martha skeptically, but said nothing.
Martha nudged Matt. He looked uncomfortable, then asked, “It’s not really our business, but we know she got a letter from Barkley yesterday.”
Rachel nodded. “And thee would like to know what it said?”
Matt nodded, sheepishly.
Martha said, self-righteously, “Seems to me we have a right to know what his intentions are. Matt is her brother, after all.”
“Then thee will be disappointed to hear that Mr. Barkley wrote to say that he will not be coming back, due to the fact that he already has a wife and two children in another town.”
Matt grimaced and shook his head. “Poor Leah,” he whispered. “Poor little soul.”
“Poor Leah?” Martha exclaimed. “And what about us? I hope she doesn’t think that we’re going to support the little bastard. It’s bad enough to have one in the family, let alone be expected to provide for it.”
Rachel raised her brows, but said nothing.
“Martha,” Matt said almost in despair. “Please.”
He turned to Rachel. “Does Barkley know?”
She shook her head. “Not yet.”
“Any idea when she’s planning on telling him?”
“No. We haven’t really had a chance to discuss it.” Rachel turned toward the bedroom. “Would thee like to see the baby? Then we can talk to Leah about her plans.”
She led the way into the room. Leah was sitting up, holding Heath and crooning to him. He was staring up at her face as though it comprised his entire world. She looked up when they entered and smiled broadly.
“Matt, I’m so glad you come.” She shifted the baby. “Come meet your little nephew. His name’s Heath.”
Matt shifted uncomfortably, then crossed the room and leaned down to look at the infant. He smiled warmly and put out a finger.
“Hey, little fella,” he murmured.
A look compounded of envy and hatred passed across Martha’s face as she looked at the three of them. “Heath? Wasn’t that your grandfather’s name, Matt?”
“Wonder how he’d feel about having a bastard carry his name? And his only great-grandchild, at that.”
Hannah gasped and put a protective arm around Leah. Rachel tightened her lips. Matt turned toward her, “Martha, there’s no call to talk like that.”
He turned back to Leah. His voice softened. “Rachel told us what was in the letter, about Barkley already having a family.” He paused, then asked, “Leah, when do you plan to tell him about Heath?”
Rachel added, “I think he would want to know.”
“When he comes back,” Leah answered firmly.
Rachel said softly, “But, thee knows he isn’t coming back, Leah.”
“Then he ain’t never gonna know. He lied to me. He told me he was stayin’, or else I’d a never . . . I’d a never! This baby ain’t his ’til he comes back to claim him,” she insisted in a fierce whisper. “Oh, Miss Leah,” Hannah whispered as she stroked Leah’s head. Her face softened, “Besides, he gots a wife, Miss Rachel, an’ it would hurt her somethin’ fierce to know her man had him another woman. An’ she was his woman first. It ain’t right she find out ’bout me.”
“But she wouldn’t have to know, Leah. We can write to him . . .”
Leah shook her head, “She’d know, Miss Rachel. Time’d come she’d know. And his children? I cain’t hurt his children. Two little boys. I cain’t do that, not even for my own little boy.”
She stopped as the realization hit her. “An’ they ain’t only his boys, they’s Heath’s brothers. I cain’t hurt my baby’s brothers, Miss Rachel.”
Rachel sighed and tried another tack, “But, what about the baby, Leah? What about Heath? It costs money to raise a child.”
Martha muttered, “And you won’t be getting it from us.”
Leah sucked in her breath and stared at Rachel, “You mean, you wants me to write an’ ask him for money? How can you say that? If I did that, I’d be jus’ what, what she said I was. I’d be nothin’ but a harlot!”
Rachel shook her head. “Leah, thee knows that isn’t true. Thee knows he would never think such a thing of thee. Thee knows what he said in that letter. And the money wouldn’t be for thee, it would be for his son.”
“Miss Rachel, this here’s my son. I done growed him myself and I done birthed him myself, and I cain give him whatever he needs, myself. An’ I ain’t never askin’ for no money from Tom Barkley. Never. I ain’t that kind a woman.”
Martha laughed derisively, “Maybe you’re afraid he’ll deny that the brat is his? After all, you can’t prove it.”
Leah looked at her in surprise and anger, “No, I ain’t afraid a no such thing. He wouldn’t do that. An’ I don’t need to prove it. He knows same as I do whose child this is.”
Rachel answered in a calmer tone, “No, there is no question but that he would acknowledge the child as his.”
“Well, in that case,” Martha continued in a brisk tone, “since he’s already got a wife and would admit that he’s the father, the best thing would be for him to take the kid. I mean, he has the legal right. And it is his responsibility.”
Suddenly Leah looked very young and very frightened. “Miss Rachel, could he take my baby? Could he come an’ say he’s Heath’s daddy an’ take him away?”
Rachel looked somber and nodded. “Yes, Leah, I’m afraid he could. He is the child’s father, and he’s a married man. And the fact that thee had a child without benefit of marriage, the courts would rule in his favor.”
Leah leaned back and sighed contentedly. “Well, then, since he don’t know nothin’ ’bout this baby, an’ he ain’t never gonna know, he ain’t gonna be comin’ round to take him away from me.
So I got nothin’ to worry ’bout.”
Rachel sighed. She patted Leah’s hand, then turned to Matt and Martha. “I think we should let Leah get some sleep now.”
“Thank you for coming, Matt,” Leah smiled.
“Come on, Matt,” Martha called impatiently and dragged him out of the door. Later that day a cradle was delivered from the carpenter’s shop in town. The boy who brought said that the man who ordered it had not given his name, just directions to Leah’s house.
Hannah and Rachel insisted that Leah spend the next several days resting and getting to know her child. Between them they managed the house and the garden, the sewing and the laundry. Leah was soon sitting on the porch, rocking her son and talking to the women across the yard. It was often all Rachel could do to convince her to put the baby into his cradle to nap, and even then she would often sit on the bed and watch him sleep. The next Sunday, when Hannah came home from church, the minister and his wife came with her. They sat next to Leah on the porch, looked Heath over, and proclaimed him a “fine boy.” The minister asked if she would permit him to offer a brief prayer for her safe recovery and Heath’s health and well-being. She agreed readily and gratefully.
Although Rachel preferred to worship in private, she and Hannah both accompanied Leah and Heath on the first Sunday that they attended church. There was a bit of a stir when they entered, and a few moments of whispered conversation, but the congregation soon settled into the routine of the service. Afterward, no one had the bad grace to make any derogatory comments, but other than the minister and his wife, no one made any remarks of any kind to the three women. This remained the pattern for many years to come. Although not completely rejected by the congregation, they were not fully accepted either. Rather, they were permitted to exist on the fringes of the community. As the time passed, Heath reached an age where Leah could leave him in the care of Rachel and Hannah, and return to her work at the hotel. The mine continued to produce, and Strawberry continued to prosper, and the hotel dining room continued to serve the maximum number of customers possible each evening. At first, Martha insisted that she work only in the kitchen, but eventually the need for help in the dining room overcame her prejudices.
Heath thrived under the constant and dedicated care of his mother and his two “aunts.” His mother was convinced that he was the smartest, cleverest, and most beautiful child alive, although he crawled, teethed, walked, and talked at the same age as most children. His eyes remained as blue as his father’s, and his hair stayed as blond as his mother’s. At times, he would sit quietly and ponder on some mystery, at others he would run and laugh at some private joke. During the warm spring, summer, and autumn days, none of the women could keep him indoors. They soon adapted their habits to his, allowing him to run around the yard while they worked in the garden or at the wash tub or clothes line, or sat in a chair and sewed. He picked the first dandelions for his “momma” and then for his two “aunties” because they were “pretty.” He tried to catch a butterfly for “momma,” too, but was never quite quick enough.
Although he would explore every rock, plant, and animal he came across out of doors, he did not show the same curiosity about the items in the house. Rachel could leave a book on the table without fearing that it would be gnawed or mutilated. He learned not to disturb the piles of laundry or sewing which occupied so much of the space in the little house. While he was an infant, Leah took him to church with her every Sunday. However, as he grew more active and more mobile, Rachel offered to watch him so that Leah could attend her worship services with Hannah. She would smile and say, “This little one and I will just have our own little Meeting for Worship right here.”
Leah moved upstairs to the last empty room, a small room that had been used for storage, and turned the downstairs bedroom over to Heath when he was old enough to be sleeping on his own. She remarked that it was only right that he have that room, but never explained what she meant by that to him. Rachel and Hannah understood without an explanation. When the time came for him to go to school, his mother and his aunts sighed in relief that neither the teacher nor any of the children mocked or teased him. Their hearts broke for him as well that, while he was not abused, he was also not befriended. He walked to school alone every morning, ate his dinner sitting alone on the school steps or under a tree, and walked home alone every afternoon. The time until supper was spent doing chores in the garden and exploring in the woods.
After supper, Rachel would sit with him as he struggled over his homework. He was neither the brightest student in the class nor the dimmest. He wrote a clear hand, and had little trouble with numbers, but found reading to be of little interest. He would complain that he’d much rather play with a dog than read about one. The three women would laugh, and Leah would hug and kiss him and tell him that he was doing her proud at school.
Because Leah worked until late at night, Hannah would be the one to awaken Heath in time to get ready for school in the morning. She often remarked that it was a wonder that a boy who could be up and out before the sun on a Saturday morning could be so hard to wake up during the week. Her favorite method for waking him was to pull open the curtains at the foot of the bed so that the sun would shine on his face, while loudly singing Heath’s favorite song, guaranteed to have him up and singing with her by the second verse. She would only sing the entire song, with all of the animals included, if he got up quickly enough so that there was enough time.
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
Some mornings, especially in the dark of winter when the stars were still in the skies, she would sing a more appropriate song. The first morning that she sang it, Heath ran to the window and demanded to be held up to it so that he could see the stars falling. She laughed and lifted him up. Although he was disappointed that morning, there were times when stars actually were falling. The chance of seeing a shooting star was enough to make getting out of bed on a cold winter morning at least tolerable.
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
An unexpected result of his going to school was that he began to ask about his father. He had noticed that most of the other kids had fathers, either living or dead. Hannah and Rachel always told him to ask his mother. She always told him that his father was a kind, strong, handsome man who had made her laugh and been good to her. She showed him the hat his father had given her, and told him how he had once shot a whole deer just for her. She had loved him very much, but he had to go away and couldn’t come back. Heath asked if he had gone away to heaven, like some of the other kids’ fathers. She shook her head sadly and told him that someday, when he was older, he would understand. The year before Heath started school saw an economic depression, known as “The Panic of 1857,” when most wildcat banks, which had printed scrip without adequate capital to back it, failed all over the West. For a time, Strawberry seemed immune to the disaster. However, within two years, the effects were reaching even that community, at the same time that production at the mine began to drop. Miners were let go, single men in particular, as there was no money for wages. They immediately left town to look for work elsewhere. Saloons subsequently began to suffer from a lack of customers, as did hotels and restaurants. Businesses which served families continued to survive, although they revised their policies on the issuing of credit. The school day was reduced to mornings only and the teacher’s salary decreased accordingly.
It wasn’t long before Matt was explaining to Leah that, as difficult as it was for him, he was forced to let her go. The few customers that the hotel served in its dining room could easily be managed by Martha and a young woman in the kitchen. He did not need to add that the young woman in the kitchen was considerably underpaid, but so desperate for work now that business was down in the saloons that she willingly accepted the pittance he had offered. And, of course, while there would still be laundry for Hannah, the amount and hence her wages, would be significantly less.
The three women sat up late that night, discussing the sudden disaster. The exodus of the miners also meant that Rachel’s business had suffered. They talked about leaving Strawberry, but had no money for the stage fare or to set themselves up in another town. It would be nearly impossible to sell the house, and if they could, it would not be enough to purchase another. The most they could do would be to find additional customers, doing laundry and sewing for the few remaining saloons if necessary, and to rely more on the forest and their garden for food. They would have to do what they could to make the clothing that they owned last as long as possible. None of them needed to voice the thought that a growing boy could not wear the same clothing for long.
When Leah told Heath the next morning that she would no longer be going to the hotel every afternoon, she told him happily that she would be home every day when he came home from school, and that they would have more time to spend together. They would go to the woods to hunt for nuts and berries, and she would teach him how to set snares for rabbits and squirrels. She hadn’t done that since she was a little girl, but she was sure she could remember how. He hugged her excitedly and said he couldn’t wait for the afternoon. Now that she was home to put him to bed, Leah sat in his room and read to him of the adventures of King Arthur and of Robin Hood. He listened with wide eyes, entranced by the exciting and daring adventures of the Knights of the Round Table and the band of Merry Men. They had nothing in common with the insipid characters and dull plots of the McGuffey’s Readers that were used in school.
The teacher had sent the two volumes home with Heath, explaining that they were being discarded because the spines were broken and some pages were torn or missing. They might have been printed on silk and bound in gold as far as Heath was concerned. He had never heard of Emily Dickinson, nor she of him, but her words could not have described the effect that the stories had on him any better if they had been confidants.
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!
After she had read the requisite chapter, Leah would sit in that rocking chair that had been moved from the porch to the bedroom, and sew buttonholes or mend shirts, and softly sing her son to sleep.
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
Over the next four years pass, conditions became progressively worse. Money was increasingly scarce, and there wasn’t much to purchase with what little there was. For a year or two, Heath worked odd jobs around town, bringing home twenty-five or fifty cents a few times a week. Leah would hug and kiss him and tell him that it would make all the difference. When he was eight, Heath insisted on going to work in the mine. There was a shortage of skilled labor, and boys were needed to carry candles and water down to the miners, and buckets of dirt and ore back up. After much discussion, Leah reluctantly agreed only on condition that he continue to go to school during the few months that it was still taught. The pain on her face as she watched him trudge home in the evening, a lonely, small figure covered in grime, was replaced by welcoming smiles as soon as he was close enough to make out her expression. There were no more packages of food scraps or worn linens from the hotel. Even there, every bit of food was hoarded and the old sheets were used to make up the beds in the cheaper rooms. The few dollars that at one time had made their way from Matt to Leah now ended up at the saloon, buying bottles of whiskey that he kept hidden in the bottom drawer of his desk.
Where Hannah had sung bright, cheerful hymns while at the scrub board or the clothes line, now the songs took on a darker, sadder cast. On Saturday afternoons, if he didn’t have to work in the mines, Heath would help her by carrying baskets of dirty clothes to the wash tub and clean clothes into the house. He would join her in singing one song in particular, because he liked the way the music plunged and swooped just like a bird in flight.
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home.
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.
By the time Heath was ten, the labor shortage at the mine had worsened. Many of the men had gone back to fight in the “War Between the States,” some for the Union, some for the Confederacy. Consequently, boys were being sent into the mines to do work previously thought too dangerous for them. The richest veins of ore had been tapped, and then the secondary, and now efforts were being made to strip even the lowest-grade veins. Because there were so few miners left, and in order to save money, the management decided to use dynamite to blast new tunnels and to uncover the ore, rather than digging with picks and shovels. The older boys, Heath among them, crawled into the cracks and crevices to sets the charges. They were glad of the work. Not only was it more money, but they considered it to be more exciting and thought it meant that they were now grown-up.
Heath knew without being told that his mother would not approve of his doing this new work. When she asked him why he was bringing home more money, he told her that they had run into a richer vein. However, Hannah returned from town one day to report that she had overheard some of the miners talking about the boys working with dynamite. When Heath got home that night, he saw his mother in tears for the first time in his life. She hugged him and cried over him, and told him that she didn’t even want to think about what life would be like without him. No amount of money was worth risking his life. She begged him not to set the charges, and he promised just to please her. Then she sent him to bed immediately after supper as a punishment for lying to her, although the knowledge that he had made his mother cry gave him the greater guilt. And then the mine closed completely. The last veins were nearly played out, and money, men, and resources were being funneled to the East to support the “cause,” both North and South.
Everyone who could packed up their few belongings and fled to greener pastures. Those who could not were forced to remain and eke out what living they could from the land and from each other. Matt no longer bothered even to pretend to hide the bottles of whiskey. Martha became increasingly shrewish and bitter. Everything in her life was a failure, the mine, the town, their business, their marriage, and, especially, her husband.
The church could no longer support a minister, and had to rely on a traveling circuit preacher who visited every six weeks. The school closed, so the few children who were left in the town began to roam the streets during the day, looking for some way to relieve the boredom. A few found odd jobs, but many resorted to vandalism, petty theft, and bullying.
Hannah’s songs became even darker and more hopeless of relief in this life. Although Heath was often working in the garden when she was doing the wash, and continued to help her when she needed it, he no longer joined her in singing. Sometimes she sang that:
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
And other times she mourned
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
The few resources that the town could offer would not stretch to provide for even the handful who remained. Those who lived on the fringes became the focus of all of the fear and tension and insecurity. The saloon girls too old to start again, the vagrants and drunks, and the three women and the fatherless boy living on the edge of town, often referred to as “the tramp, the Negress, the heretic, and the bastard.” Adults felt justified in ostracizing and abusing and mocking them. The children followed their parents’ example, as children do. Theadolescent bullies among them singled out Heath as their favorite target. He was young enough not to be a physical threat, yet old enough that no adult was likely to stop them from harassing him.
They soon found that he ignored slurs directed at him personally. They also discovered that he would defend his mother’s honor against any number of opponents, especially after a few of the older boys had described in great detail exactly what is was that his mother had done with the man who was his father. His defense was particularly forceful when they accused her of having engaged in similar behavior with other men in Strawberry. Every time he went into town, he would return bruised and battered. He refused to explain what the fights were about, and, on Rachel’s advice, Leah treated his wounds without question.
Shortly after Heath’s twelfth birthday, the circuit preacher, along with Matt and Martha, visited the small house late on a Sunday afternoon. The three women invited them into the house, then stood together to hear the purpose of the visit.
Matt hung back, staring at the floor. It had been years since he had set foot in his sister’s house, and many months since they had spoken in town. Martha stood brazenly upright, with a smile of smug satisfaction on her face. She noted the signs of age and wear in the house and its furnishings, the women’s patched and faded clothing, and the meager meal that had been laid. Reverend Eliot looked compassionately at Leah, and began gently, “Miss Thomson, we’ve come to speak to you about a very delicate matter. It concerns your son. Is he at home?”
“No, sir, Parson. I reckon he’s out in the woods, checkin’ traps or such.”
“I don’t know if you’re aware, but your son has been involved in quite a number of, well, public brawls.” He looked at her pityingly.
“I know he cain’t go into town without comin’ back with some kinda hurt.”
“Do you know the reason for these brawls? Has your son ever explained what leads him to attack other boys in this manner?”
Leah shook her head, uncertain of what to say. Rachel and Hannah each took her hand in theirs. “The parents of several of the boys have complained to the sheriff about your son’s conduct. Apparently, he has attacked these boys without reason or provocation on several occasions.”
She shook her head in disbelief.
He waited for her to speak, then continued, “He could be held in the jail until the circuit judge comes around, and then he could be sentenced to even more time. However, considering his age and . . . situation, the sheriff suggested that they talk to me, and see if we could find some other solution.”
Leah gasped. Hannah put a hand to her mouth. Rachel looked steadily at him. “What might be the names of these boys and their parents?” she asked calmly.
“I am not at liberty to say, ” he answered. “They came to me in confidence. But I can assure you that the boys in question bear the marks of violence.”
He nodded toward Matt and Martha. “I discussed the issue with Mr. and Mrs. Simmons, and Ibelieve we have reached a decision that will be best for all.”
He stopped and coughed. “He clearly lacks the strong hand and moral guidance that a father could give him. I know of a family on a farm about 25 miles from here, near Riverton, who foster such children. I have contacted them, and they are willing to take your son, at least until the case can come up for trial.”
Leah blanched and slumped down. If it were not for Hannah and Rachel supporting her, she would have fallen to the floor.
“No,” she whispered. “You cain’t take my boy. You cain’t.”
Rachel handed Leah over to Hannah. She said firmly, “Thee cannot do this thing. Thee cannot take the child from his mother.”
“Ma’am, either he goes to the family I spoke of, or he will be turned over to the law as incorrigible and held in jail until his trial. There is no other alternative. Unless some reputable member of the community would take the responsibility . . .”
Martha answered sharply, “We already told you, we can’t take him.”
Matt shrugged and shook his head. “Can’t do it.”
Martha smiled spitefully and spoke to Leah, “At least you’ll have one less mouth to feed. You could even leave here, if you didn’t have that brat tying you down.”
Leah was sobbing quietly on Hannah’s shoulder and repeating, “You cain’t take my boy. You cain’t. He’s my boy. You cain’t take him.”
Reverend Eliot looked sharply at Martha, then spoke to Rachel. “I think it will be best if I take the boy with me tonight. Would you get his things together?”
Rachel shook her head. “This is not right. The child belongs with his mother. He will go with thee now, because we have no choice. But we will find a way to get him back here where he belongs.”
He shook his head sorrowfully. “Please believe me, ma’am, it truly is for the best. He will be well cared for until the judge arrives, better than he would be in the jail here.”
Rachel went into Heath’s room to pack his few belongings into a clean flour sack. Leah looked at Matt pleadingly, “Matt, you cain’t let them do this. You cain’t let them take my boy.”
He shook his head, and muttered, “Nothin’ I can do.”
The door opened, and Heath came into the house. He saw his mother crying in Hannah’s arms and rushed to her. She put her arms around him and kissed him through her tears. He kept his arms around her as he looked at Hannah, then at his aunt and uncle.
“What’s goin’ on here?” he asked roughly.
Leah caught her breath enough to speak, “They come to take you away, Heath. They say I ain’t raisin’ you right, and they come to take you away.”
He looked around and saw confirmation in every face. Hannah wept silently. Rachel nodded at him in resignation. Martha looked triumphant, but his uncle would not meet his gaze.
“I ain’t goin’,” he said firmly. “I ain’t leavin’ my mother alone.”
Martha smiled maliciously. “You don’t have a choice. It’s been decided. You can go with the parson or you can go to jail. Take your pick.”
Reverend Eliot had been watching Heath and his mother closely. “Heath, son, there have been complaints that you attack other children without cause or provocation. Your mother admits that you have been in a great many fights lately. Perhaps if you would explain your behavior . . . it might make a difference.”
Heath stared at the minister with resolute eyes. “I had my reasons.”
“Would you tell us what those reasons were?”
“No,” he answered shortly.
“What did I tell, you, Reverend?” Martha gloated. “Incorrigible. That’s what he is, incorrigible.”
Reverend Eliot sighed, “You leave me no choice. If you will not cooperate . . . I’d like you to come with me now.”
Rachel had come out of the bedroom. She handed Heath the sack with his few items of clothing. “Thee must go with him now, Heath. It will not be for long. We will find a way for thee to come home as soon as possible.”
“You’ll take care of Momma?” He made the question into a statement.
Rachel nodded. “Thee knows I will, and Hannah, also. Now go quietly. The Reverend is taking thee to a family on a farm. There will be other children there.” She looked questioningly at the minister.
“Yes, there are quite a few. I believe fourteen, what with their own children and the children they foster.” He looked at Rachel gratefully. “They also have milk cows, goats, and chickens. A few hogs, a small orchard. If I remember correctly, there is a trout stream, and a swimming hole. It really has everything a young man could wish for.” He smiled at Heath.
“It don’t have my mother,” Heath answered. He patted Leah on the back as she continued to weep.
Reverend Eliot shook his head sorrowfully. He spoked directly to Leah. “Miss Thomson, I am truly sorry. Believe me, this really is for the best.”
Heath handed Leah to Hannah, kissed her, and whispered, “I’ll be back soon, Momma. Don’t you worry. An’ Rachel an’ Hannah will take real good care a you ’til then.”
Leah and Hannah clung to each other and sobbed. Martha grabbed him by the arm, “Come on. We don’t have all day. I’ve got to get back to the hotel to fix supper.” She pulled Heath out. Matt followed, his shoulders slumped and head bowed. Neither of them said anything to Leah as they left.
The minister clasped Rachel’s hand. “Thank you for making this as easy as possible. They really are a kind and generous family where I am taking him.”
“I know that thee thinks that what thee is doing is right. But we will find a way for Heath to come home where he belongs.”
He sighed, “I almost hope you do, ma’am. Oh, and I’ll see that the boy gets supper tonight. He can eat with me at the hotel.”
He patted Leah on the shoulder and said a few words of comfort, then left. The others were waiting for him. As soon as he came out, Martha started off down the road, pulling Heath with her. Reverend Eliot followed behind. He seemed lost in thought. Matt shuffled along next to him in silence.
Martha pinched Heath’s arm, “It’s about time we were rid of you. The money we’ve spent to keep you fed and clothed, took the food right out of our own mouths. It started with a 10-dollar gold piece the day you were born and hasn’t stopped yet.”
“You ain’t done nothin’ for us,” Heath protested. “My mother’s the one what takes care of me, and Hannah and Rachel, a course.”
She laughed bitterly. “And she’s well rid of you. You’ve been nothing but trouble to her since the day you were born.”
She looked at him slyly. “Did she ever tell you about that? About how you were born? She was living in a dirt-floored shack, you know. And the night you were born, it was raining. Pouring down right through the roof, and it turned that floor all to mud. She was lying there in the mud, and that’s where she birthed you, right there in the mud and the rain. All alone, just like some animal.”
Heath stared at her and said nothing.
She laughed. “And you say we did nothing for you? How do you think she got that house? Who gave her a job when no one else would have her, because of you? We kept her on longer than we could afford to, and even now we pay her more than it’s worth to do the wash. If it wasn’t for us, you’d still be living in that shack like a couple of animals.”
Heath continued to say nothing. Martha ceased her abuse as the minister came up closer behind them. When they got to the hotel, Matt headed straight the bottle behind the front desk, poured himself a stiff drink, and swallowed it in one gulp. Martha looked at him in disgust, and went into the kitchen. Reverend Eliot took Heath up to his room and tried to talk to him about the situation. The boy listened politely, and answered any direct questions with brief, factual answers, but steadily refused to give any information about the cause of the complaints. When it was clear that Heath was not going to explain, he suggested that they go down to supper.
They ate together in the dining room, although Heath toyed with his food more than he ate it, then went back up bed. They left in the minister’s buggy early the next morning.
“Now, who would do such a . . .” Mrs. Murphy stopped as someone began giggling. “Katherine Irene, what do you know about this?”
“Well, I thought, since they liked fishing so much,” Katy couldn’t finish. “All right, then, my dear, you think it’s so funny, you go fish them out.” The door opened.
Micky grabbed a towel, “Ma! I’m naked here!”
“Cover yourself up, my boy, or get the creatures out of the tub yourself.”
“Let her in,” he agreed, sullenly.
Katy slid in, carrying a canning jar and a net. She laughed at the boys. “I thought I might need these.” She quickly scooped the minnows out of the tub.
“Did you get them all?” demanded Micky.
She counted, “Yep, that’s all. Now, maybe the next time, you’ll let me go fishing with you.”
“Fine,” said Micky. “Now, get out.”
The three boys finished their baths with no further incidents. They agreed that it was safer and easier to let Katy go with them in the future, but they would not take her to the secret fishing place.
Clean underwear and nightclothes were left stacked along the table in each person’s place. Heath was surprised to find new clothes in his place, although when he looked carefully, he could see that they had been carefully mended and darned in spots. However, they were clean and fit him better than his old ones.
As soon as they were dried and dressed, the three headed upstairs. Heath found a stack of clothes on the foot of his bed. He hung the shirts on the nails and put the pants and underclothes in the drawer.
They all knelt down at the side of their beds and mumbled their prayers, as usual. Heath whispered the prayer that his mother had taught him and reminded God that he would have to care for his mother and aunts for the time being. Then they all crawled into bed, and Micky started to tell them about the monstrous trout he had caught on other fishing expeditions. Pat and Heath muttered something in response and fell asleep. The next day was Sunday. Since, as Mr. Murphy put it, animals don’t keep track of time, they were still milked and fed and cared for as required, but no other work was done. Before breakfast, after everyone was seated at the table, Mr. Murphy read from the Bible. Afterward, those who cared to, walked into Riverton to church services. Mrs. Murphy explained that, although she had been raised a good Catholic, any service was better than none on a Sunday morning. She sighed and added that she had finally come around to accepting that her daughters would likely not be marrying in the faith. She only hoped that they would find God-fearing men, which, of course, Mary Margaret had. The boys, on the other hand, might find themselves some fine Irish Catholic girls when they left the farm to seek their fortune elsewhere.
The adults spent most of the day around the farm house, reading, writing letters, talking, or sleeping, while the children were allowed to play in the yard and the orchard as long as they were not loud or “rowdy.” At night, after dinner, the youngest children were dressed for bed, and then everyone sat around the parlor and Mr. Murphy read the serialized story to them from the newspaper which arrived weekly in the mail. Micky picked up Sara as he sat down, and Becky crawled up onto Heath’s lap. Both little girls fell asleep before the story was finished. As soon as Mr. Murphy had finished Micky signaled to Heath to follow him, and showed him where to put Becky to sleep. Heath followed his example of laying her down carefully and tucking her in. He patted her shoulder, and when he was sure Micky was not looking, quickly leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. Almost without realizing it, Heath fit into the routine of life on the Murphy farm. During the day, he worked where he was assigned. Sometimes he worked on John’s team, sometimes Frank’s, and once or twice on Mr. Murphy’s. Occasionally, the three boys were given an assignment to work together. On certain days, especially laundry and baking days when Katy was needed elsewhere, one of them was responsible for watching Mark, Luke, and Billy, helping them to work in the kitchen garden and keeping them away from the kettles of boiling clothes or the hot bread ovens. Although it hadn’t be stated explicitly, he was also responsible for Jimmy, Sara, Becky, and Moses.
Since Becky had claimed Heath as her own, anytime he was at the house she was following him or he was carrying her or she was sitting on the ground watching him work. He helped to feed her at dinner and supper, and put her to bed every night. He always kissed her cheek softly, and if she was still awake, she insisted on kissing him good-night as well. If he wasn’t caring for Becky, Mrs. Murphy was as likely to hand Moses to him as to anyone else. Whoever was nearest and not actually working was responsible for watching the babies, changing their diapers, feeding them, and comforting them. Saturday afternoons were spent fishing, swimming, climbing trees, playing cowboys and Indians, or target shooting, and entertaining the younger children. Heath had his first taste of ice cream on the afternoon that Katy’s birthday was celebrated. Mary Margaret and Lucy Ellen had saved up cream for several days, and Mr. Murphy sacrificed some ice from the ice house and bought some rock salt especially for the occasion. Mrs. Murphy baked a cake, and the boys all took turns cranking the handle of the ice cream maker. They had to turn out several batches just so that everyone could have a small dish.
Katy was always included in their leisure activities on the principle of least resistance. Since she was smaller than the boys, she could climb higher than any of them, and reach the ripe fruit at the top of the trees. She had no fear of worms or snakes and was always available to play a joke on one of the older boys or girls. It didn’t take Heath long to forget that she was a girl, and treat her with the same rough affection that her brothers showed her, and she responded in kind. No matter how tired he was at night, from working hard or playing hard or both, he never fell asleep without first remembering his mother, Rachel, and Hannah in his prayers. He seldom spoke of them unless he was asked a direct question, and those usually came from Micky. The adults and older children knew enough of his situation not to press him on personal issues, and the younger children were accustomed to boys coming for a “visit.”
Although Heath had bristled at first when Micky would ask him about his mother or his father, he soon realized that the boy was not malicious, but merely curious. After a while, Heath had no qualms about telling him “It’s none of your business” when he persisted in asking personal questions, as Pat once suggested. Micky would just shrug and go on to the next question. And even Micky knew enough not to ask him, or most of the boys who “visited”, about his father. As he became more comfortable with the family, he did remark that Mrs. Murphy’s biscuits were “near as good as my mother’s,” that Becky’s hair was “almost exactly the same color as my mother’s,” and that “my mother shore would like this here ice cream.” But no one knew of the times he would lie on his back in bed on a Sunday night, one arm over his head, staring at the ceiling with a pensive and worried looked on his face.
The days and weeks had stretched into months. August turned into September and September into October. The nights turned cool and there was often frost on the ground in the mornings. The crops were harvested, some were stored away in the root cellar or the grainery, some were made into pickles or preserves, some were hung and dried. As the end of October approached, Micky started telling Heath about the big celebration they would have on the very last day, All Hallows Eve, the night when the ghosts and witches and banshees roamed the earth, and you had to build great bonfires to keep them away. Pat described the holiday in more prosaic language, and explained that his parents had brought the custom with them from Ireland and made certain modifications to suit their new home.
The day finally arrived. After all of the necessary chores were completed in the morning, Mr. Murphy declared a half-holiday from work. After dinner, he and the older boys took the buckboard out to gather wood for the bonfire. The older children were supplied with pumpkins and knives, and spent the afternoon carving jack o’lanterns for themselves and for the younger children. Heath showed a great facility in carving the faces, using his pocket knife to add fine details to the features. He explained that it wasn’t all that different from skinning a squirrel or a rabbit, just more fun and not quite as messy.
They ate their traditional Halloween supper of colcannon, potatoes mashed with cabbage and onions, and barm brack, a special round bread with currants and other bits of dried fruit. After supper, Mr. Murphy, Joe, and Frank laid the bonfire. Micky, Pat, and Heath set the washtub in the yard nearby and filled it with water from the well, then dumped in a half-bushel of apples. Everyone else was busy fixing candles into the jack o’lanterns and lighting them. They glowed eerily along the back porch and around the yard. When all was ready, Mr. Murphy lit a torch and threw it onto the stack of wood. Everyone cheered loudly as the dry wood caught fire, and sent heat, light, smoke, and sparks high into the air. After the novelty wore off, Mary Margaret and Lucy Ellen supervised the bobbing for apples.
The smallest children were allowed to reach in and fish out an apple for themselves. Billy insisted that since he was now a big boy of four, he could bob for one. After several attempts, he gave up in disgust and just grabbed one. Each child tried in turn, every one getting soaking wet and often splashing the onlookers. There was a great deal of laughter at each try, and cheering when someone was successful.
Heath carefully studied the techniques of the older children. Katy selected an apple with a long stem, and picked it daintily out of the water. Pat had perfected his technique of pressing an apple into the side of the tub, and got an apple on the first try. Micky, as might be expected, took a deep breath, and plunged headfirst into the water, nearly going in, and came up with a large apple clutched between his teeth. Heath imitated Pat’s technique, and was eventually successful, but not until after he had given himself and those around him a good dousing.
Everyone, including Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, participated in the event. Mr. Murphy plucked his apple out using the same technique that Pat employed, and was even more successful, in that he only got his mouth, chin, and the tip of his nose wet. Mrs. Murphy, on the other hand, demonstrated where Micky had learned his method. In the process of plunging into the tub, her hair came loose, and flung water far and wide when she threw her head up, an apple firmly clenched in her mouth.
The festivities were suspended while the littlest children were put to bed, then everyone gathered near the bonfire, to pop corn and listen to stories from the Old Country, tales of ghosts, witches, the Sidhe and the banshee. Mr. Murphy began with the legend of the Jack o’Lantern, for Heath’s benefit. He recounted the story of Stingy Jack, who spent his life thieving, lying, stealing, and cheating his neighbors. He even tricked the Devil himself the first time he came for his soul, left him up in a tree, with crosses in the ground all around. He removed the crosses only after the Devil promised not to take Jack’s soul for another seven years. And after those seven years, Jack died, and his soul went to the place prepared for souls such as his. The Devil refused to let him in, after the trick that Jack has played on him, but he did give him a glowing coal to light his way up to Heaven. The coal was far too hot for Jack to pick up, so he raked it into a hollowed turnip. Then he poked a couple of holes in the turnip to let the light out, and went on up to Heaven. Of course, they wouldn’t have him, either, but sent him back down to where he came from.
Since neither place would take him, there was nothing left for him but to wander from place to place on this earth, him and his glowing coal from a fire that never dies. In bogs and marshes and fields his lonely light can sometimes be seen, drifting through the mists. To follow it leads to dark and dangerous places, and some never return. Folks who know about Jack carve out a pumpkin and put a light inside so he’ll know that their house is some place where the ghost of a thieving isn’t welcome.
Then Katy begged for tales of the banshee, a wee woman with long white hair, dressed all in white, combing her hair as she weeps and wails at the birthplace of one destined to die in the near future. And for stories of mischievous and malicious changelings left by the fairies in the place of human babies. She and Micky teased each other about being changelings, until Mrs. Murphy told them not to joke about such matters.
And of course there were sad stories of lost loves or lost children or lost lives, and cautionary tales of the punishments visited on the thief, the liar, the murderer, the miserly. And even the exciting adventures of those few who had dared to enter the magical realm of the Sidhe, or the leprechauns as they were sometimes called, and discover its secrets and its treasures. Micky and Katy added sound effects to the most terrifying of the stories, suddenly howling or groaning or shrieking.
When the bonfire had burned down, everyone went up to bed. Mrs. Murphy set out a dish of barley and milk to appease the Sidhe “not that she believed in such things, being a good Christian woman, but it wouldn’t do any harm, just in case.”
On the way upstairs, Micky and Katy re-enacted some of the more exciting scenes they had heard that night, playing at sword fights and battles. Pat and Heath smiled and shook their heads, but joined in by defending themselves good-naturedly when attacked. That night, Heath dreamed of his mother, and of leprechauns, and of finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and giving it to her.
Now that the work on the farm had slowed, the children were given lessons during the day. Mary Margaret and Lucy Ellen, who had gone to school in the mining camps, taught them reading and writing from the Bible, the newspaper, and a few old magazines that were in the house, and to figure, and gave them a few lessons in geography and history. The older children helped the younger with some of their exercises. In this way, the first two weeks of November passed, and Heath had been at the farm for three months, without realizing it.
The family had begun to prepare for the new holiday of Thanksgiving that President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed two years before for the last Thursday in November. Not only because they had been blessed with a good harvest and with health and happiness, Mrs. Murphy said, with tears in her eyes, but, even though the War Between the States had ceased, every citizen still had the duty to do as the President had asked and “commend to God’s tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we were unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” She had spent many hours committing to memory the President’s words, which had appeared in the newspaper the year before, “because he has such a beautiful way with words. There’s Irish blood in him, and no mistake.”
On the afternoon of the third Tuesday in November, Heath was playing with Becky and Sara and Jimmy in the yard in the front of the house when he heard his name called in a voice he hadn’t heard in three full months. He turned in shock, then ran toward his mother as she climbed down out of Reverend Eliot’s buggy. “Momma,” he called, and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close and crying on her shoulder, his tears mingling with hers.
“Oh, Heath, my boy, Heath,” she murmured over and over, holding him close to her, then at arms’ length to look at him, stroking his hair and his face.
“What are you doin’ here, Momma? How long cain you stay?”
“I come to take you home, Heath. You’re goin’ home with me this very day.” She hugged him tightly.
Heath looked shocked. “Home? You come to take me home, today?”
“Yes, ain’t it wonderful?” She smiled in delight. “Yeah, Momma. It’s, it’s wonderful.” He paused. “And I shore been missin’ you,” he said suddenly and hugged her tightly.
The Reverend and Rachel had quietly stepped down from the buggy. Leah had eyes for nothing other than Heath, but Rachel quietly surveyed the large house, the rich lands, the well-kept barns and outbuildings, so very different from their small, sparse, shabby holdings in Strawberry. The Reverend went to the house and called for Mrs. Murphy. She came to the door, and surveyed the scene. Leah was still standing with Heath, hugging and kissing him and stroking his hair and his face over and over, as if to reassure herself that he was real.
“Ah, isn’t that a sight?” She sighed happily. “That’s his mother, sure. It does my heart good to look at them.” She walked down with the Reverend, who introduced her to Rachel.
Heath pulled his mother over to Mrs. Murphy.
“Momma, this here’s Mrs. Murphy. She’s been real good to me, her and all the others here.”
Mrs. Murphy and Leah greeted each other. Leah never took her arm from around Heath’s waist.
“I got to thank you, ma’am, for takin’ care o’ my boy. You done a real good job, I can see by lookin’ at him. I swear, he’s growed, and he’s shore filled out fine.” She smiled at Heath and ruffled his hair.
Mrs. Murphy smiled broadly. “Well, now, Miss Thomson, it’s been a pleasure, and that’s no mistake. You’ve done a fine job raisin’ this boy. He could teach our Micky a thing or two about manners and hard work, and that’s no lie. And Mr. Murphy will put it into writing for the judge, too.”
Reverend Eliot smiled as broadly as Mrs. Murphy, “Thank you kindly, Mrs. Murphy, but that won’t be necessary. The charges have been withdrawn. The boys have confessed to the sheriff that they lied in order to avoid being punished for fighting. They have admitted that it was they who provoked and attacked Heath, and that he was merely defending himself.”
He looked at Heath closely and shook his head slightly. Heath stared back, the nodded slowly in comprehension. Rachel observed and understood the silent exchange Some things were better left unsaid.
“Well, now,” said Mrs. Murphy, “didn’t we all know it was some such thing? And how did they come to be telling the truth?”
The Reverend cough in embarrassment. “I, er, ah, I preached a rather strong sermon on the evils and dangers of, well, of bearing false witness, the last time I was in Strawberry. It is breaking the Ninth Commandment, after all. And it seems that it planted seeds of truth in at least one small soul. And after one confessed, the others were compelled to admit the truth.” “We’d a been here a couple a weeks ago, but Hannah took sick with a cold and we didn’t like to leave her alone,” Leah explained. “She’s doin’ much better now, but we still should be on our way directly. It’ll take us two days or more to get home.”
“I’m sorry that I cannot offer you ladies transportation back to Strawberry, but I must continue on to the next town that is expecting me.” Reverend Eliot shook hands all around and departed.
“So you’ll be walking back, is that it?” asked Mrs. Murphy.
“Yes, I’m afraid we must,” answered Rachel. “We don’t have the funds for a stage coach ticket, even if there were one to Strawberry.”
“It’s two full days, then? And maybe a bit more?” Mrs. Murphy asked. Rachel nodded.
“Then you’ll not be leaving until the morning, and that’s final.” Mrs. Murphy spoke quite firmly.
“You’ll be staying the night with us, and can set off with the sun in the morning. If you leave now, you’ll be spending two nights on the road, and there’s no call for that. Now, come in and sit yourselves down to cup a tea and a bit of pie. Heath, you come, too, and tell these fine ladies what you’ve been up to these three months.”
Mrs. Murphy herded them into the house, and called for Katy to watch the younger children. Becky toddled after Heath, and sat on his lap and ate off of his pie while he talked to his mother and his aunt. He told them about Pat and Micky and Katy, and Becky, and fishing and picnics and swimming and ice cream, and changing diapers and minnows in the bath, and Halloween and bonfires and jack o’lanterns, and about John and Mary Margaret. He whispered the he and Micky and Pat and Katy thought that Frank was sweet on Lucy Ellen, but Mr. and Mrs. Murphy wouldn’t let them have an “understanding” until Frank was old enough to homestead his own place.
Leah smiled and nodded and laughed without hearing anything he was saying. Rachel smiled calmly, and listened carefully, and looked uneasy and a bit concerned. Leah and Rachel gratefully accepted Mrs. Murphy’s offer of supper and a bed. They were rather overwhelmed when the rest of the family began filing in at the end of the day. They were all introduced as they arrived, but neither Rachel nor Leah had a hope of remembering more than a few names.
Heath held Becky on his lap and Micky held Sara in order to make room on the benches for the two guests. Mrs. Murphy explained the news about the boys’ confession, and the family congratulated Heath on his good fortune.
When she told them that Heath would be leaving in the morning, Micky exclaimed, “But you’ll miss Thanksgiving!”
“Yeah, guess I will,” Heath answered quietly. “But my mother needs me home.”
“Ah,” Micky continued, “Me and Pat was counting on you helping us . . .” His mother interrupted him.
“The lad will be home with his mother, where he belongs, and that’s a cause for thanksgiving in itself,” Mrs. Murphy insisted loudly.
“Yeah, yeah, it is,” Heath answered, and hugged his mother who was sitting next to him. He kissed her on the cheek and Leah beamed. Heath concentrated his attention on Becky for the next several minutes.
Rachel asked softly, “What is this Thanksgiving?”
Mrs. Murphy explained, and Rachel asked several other questions about the holiday, many of which Mr. Murphy answered from the head of the table. By the time all of her questions were answered, the food had been passed around the table, and everyone was intent on eating. Leah ate without tasting the food, keeping one arm around Heath through the entire meal. Rachel noted the vast quantity and the high quality of the food. There was more on her plate, both in amount and in variety, than she would eat over several days in Strawberry. She also observed that the other children, especially Pat, Micky, and Katy, talked and joked with Heath as much as with each other. She could not help but notice Becky seated comfortably and securely on his lap and his attentive care of her.
After the meal, Heath, Leah, and Rachel were left to themselves around the table until bedtime. Heath asked them about Strawberry, and especially about Hannah. Leah told him how much he had been missed, and how anxious Hannah was about him, and how glad she would be to see him looking so well and happy.
When it was time to sleep, Mrs. Murphy showed the two women to their beds in the girls’ room. Rachel again noticed that the bed linens and blankets, although patched and darned in spots, were newer and warmer than anything found in the house in Strawberry, and the mattresses were firmer and smoother. Micky and Pat, as well as Billy, Mark, and Luke, were already in bed when Heath went upstairs. The youngest boys were asleep, but Micky began whispering as soon as Heath came in the room. “Betcher glad to be goin’ home, huh?”
“Yeah. My mother needs me.”
“And back to your own room?”
“Wish I had my own room,” he sighed. “It must be great, your own room, all to yourself. Don’t have to share it with nobody.”
“Nope, not with nobody.”
“‘Course, there’s nobody there to play with, is there? Or go fishing with? Or nothing like that.”
Pat whispered fiercely, “Shut up, Micky.”
“Why? I ain’t waking the kids.”
“Just go to sleep,” Pat said in resignation. “We’ll miss ya’, Heath.”
“Yeah, me, too. G’ night.”
Heath lay curled on his side in bed, staring at the wall, not allowing the others to see the tears that kept filling his eyes. He said his prayers silently, asking God to help him to take care of his mother and his aunts now that he was going home to do it. And to take care of everybody at the Murphy’s, especially Becky and Pat and Micky and Katy. He soon fell into the rhythm of the other boys’ breathing and slipped into sleep They set off early the next morning, right after breakfast. It was an unusually silent meal. Only the youngest children seemed unaffected by the somber mood at the table. Mr. Murphy said that the chores could wait until after they had seen Heath off. Micky, Pat, and Katy just nodded their thanks, and kept their eyes on their food. Heath ate less than usual, and was as quiet as he had been at the first breakfast in the house three months earlier.
When they were ready to leave, Mrs. Murphy handed Heath the sack of clothes that he had brought with him. It clearly held more than it had when he arrived. She told Leah that she had included “some old things that were just taking up space in the attic, no good to anyone” and insisted that Leah was doing her the favor by taking them off of her hands. And an old blanket that the moths had been at, it had a few holes, but would do for Heath to sleep in on the road at night. She did not add that, at that, it was bound to be warmer than the threadbare traveling cloaks the two women were wearing.
She had also packed up several flour sacks full of food for the trip, and “a couple of pumpkins and the like, we never seem to use them all before they go bad.” Leah and Rachel thanked her warmly for the food, the clothes, and especially for her motherly care of Heath while he was in her custody. She insisted that he was a fine boy and it had been a pure pleasure. The family gathered on the porch to wave good bye. Leah and Rachel waited at the foot of the steps, and watched the leave-taking. Mr. Murphy took Heath aside for a moment, and looking him in the eyes, shook his hand, and said, “You’re a credit to your mother, lad. She’s got a right to be proud of you. See to it that she always does.”
Heath nodded, “Yes, sir.”
“I know you will. And, remember, we’re here if you need us.” He gave him a quick hug around the shoulder.
Heath nodded again, “Yes, sir, I will.”
They returned to the rest of the family. Mrs. Murphy gathered him in a warm embrace.
“You’re a fine lad, and that’s no mistake. You take good care of your mother, boy-o.” She let him go quickly, and wiped her eyes on her apron.
John and Frank shook Heath’s hand firmly, and said, roughly, “Glad to know ya’.”
Micky did the same, then punched him in the arm. “Your own room! Some guys get all the luck.”
“Shut up, Micky,” Pat sighed. He shook Heath’s hand. “We’ll miss ya’. Take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, you, too.” None of the three boys looked at each other.
Katy shook his hand, then on an impulse, leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the cheek, and dashed behind her mother. Heath looked startled, and a little embarrassed. The younger children and the two older girls all hugged him unabashedly. Finally, Heath picked up Becky. He kissed her cheek, muttered roughly, “Be good, ya’ hear?” and quickly handed her to Mrs. Murphy. Tears filled her blue eyes and flowed down her cheeks, and her lips trembled as she waved at him, “Bye-bye, Heaf.”
He walked stiffly down the steps to where his mother and Rachel were waiting for him. He did not turn around when the two women smiled and thanked everyone. Then Leah and her son started down the road, going home, unwittingly following the same route that had brought Tom Barkley into Strawberry thirteen years earlier.