Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Nick dashed to the counter in the railway station, Heath just behind him. "Has the 6:30 for Sacramento left yet?" Nick asked.
"Nope," said the station manager. He was counting a large stack of bills.
Nick grinned. "Told you we'd make it. No harm staying for that last hand. And I got out of the hole. Two for Sacramento, please."
"That'll be eight-fifty."
Nick laid down a ten. "And if we'd just had another ten minutes"
"You'd be right back in the hole. By my count you're still down forty anyway."
"Well," Nick huffed, "you can't make up your losses unless you playnot by sulking in a corner like you did."
"I told you those two Kansas fellas were cheatin. At least I'm only down two dollars."
"I won the last hand, didn't I?"
"Neither of them was dealing. Trust me, you'd be more than forty in the hole if I'd let you stay for another hand."
"Thanks for the chaperoning, Granny."
Heath looked at his watch; it was nearly ten to seven. "That train's pretty darn late," he said.
Nick looked around. Considering a big cattle auction had just finished this afternoon, and this was the only train out of town, the station was mighty empty. He went back to the station manager. "Any idea when that 6:30 is getting in?"
"Nope," the manager replied.
"Nope? What's the matter?"
"Break in the line. Bout 20 miles out of town. No train coming through tonight."
"No train tonight! When is the next train to Sacramento?"
"When the line's fixed."
"And that will be?"
The station manager shrugged. "Tomorrow, maybe."
"Tomorrow." Nick sighed. "Could you recommend a hotel?"
"The Statler's the best hotel in town."
"Well, Heath, let's go."
"Course, the Statler's full up," the station manager said. "What with the auction and the break in the line, everybody's still in town."
Nick felt his temper fraying. "Could you recommend another hotel?"
"And why not?"
"Statler's the only hotel in town."
Heath said, "I guess we're talking about the stable, then."
"Against the city ordinance." The station manager caught Nick glancing at the long benches in the station. "And you can't stay here.
"Also against the city ordinance, I imagine," Nick growled.
They left the station, but stood on the sidewalk, unsure of where to go next. "Looks like we're roughing it tonight, big brother," Heath said.
"Got no gear," Nick said glumly.
"Well, I still have some money. Buy a few blankets, I guess, and look for somewhere outside town to doss down."
"I could go get back in that game...Are you sure they were cheating?"
"They were signaling. If they weren't cheating they were running a telegraph office."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
"I did, big brother. I thought when I dropped out you'd know I was serious."
"Tell you what," Nick suggested. "You go down to the general store and get us some gear. I'll go over to the saloon and get us a bottle."
"Nick, stay away from that game."
The general store was pretty well tapped out from the auction crowd or maybe it was always this shabby. There were two blankets, but both of them looked army-issue and hard-used. Only canned goods were beans. I'm gonna hear about this, Heath thought. Fortunately there was coffee, still in the bean, so it was fresh ground. He picked up a coffee pot as well. Good thing I got out of the game, he thought, elsewise we'd be sleeping with no blankets at all.
He met Nick outside the saloon. "Barkeep told me there's a little stream down that way. Sounds like a good place."
"That bottle that heavy, or you want to take one of these sacks?"
"Oh, you can carry them. What'd all you buy, anyway?"
"Blankets. Coffee. Coffee pot. Cups. A pan. Didn't see how we'd do without any of it. I know you're too fine a gentleman to drink straight from the pot."
"More talk like that and I won't be sharing my bottle."
"More talk like that and I won't be sharin my blankets. Here, take this."
They found a level spot close to the stream and set up camp. It was spring, but the night was cool and very clear. "No rain, thank God,"
Nick said. "Is that beans you're cooking?"
"Don't you think God made any other kind of food? Is it some kind of law we have to eat beans on the trail?"
"I could hunt up a few bullfrogs if you'd like," Heath grinned.
"You just about killed me with that last time. No, I'll eat the beans. Sometimes I thinkno, Heath, I know, you do this to aggravate me."
"You get plenty aggravated for no reason without me looking for reasons. No, Nick, it's all they had. That was one picked-over store. Only had two blankets. And I wouldn't be surprised if they'd been at Bull Run."
Nick ate his beans with poor grace, further annoyed by Heath's evident gusto. "You don't have to act as if you really like those beans."
"But I do. When I was a boy there were times when I was plenty happy to see beans. They're a treat after peeled cactus leaves. Coffee's not bad."
"Do you have to make it so strong? A spoon could stand in this mud."
"If you wanna drink coffee, I say, drink coffee. Speaking of drinking, whyn't you hand me that bottle?" Heath pulled out the cork and took an appreciative sniff. "Ain't you gonna clean up?"
"Why should I?"
"Well, I cooked."
"In some states that could be attempted murder," Nick muttered, but he took the plates down to the stream and rinsed them off, cursing beans under his breath.
Heath took a long pull on the whiskey and gave a shuddering cough as it went down. "Boy howdy, you could rub down horses with that.
How much'd you pay for that bottle?"
"That's about one dollar too much." Heath wiped his lips, still grimacing, and handed the bottle back. "It's gonna have to get a whole heap colder'n it is now before I take another taste of that."
Nick took a taste. It was awful, but he didn't want to admit it. "More for me. How about a hand or two?"
"Fine. You got cards?"
"No, I don't got cards. You were the one who went to the store."
"Didn't even think about cards."
"You could remember to buy beans and two cups but you forgot the cards?"
"I'm truly sorry, Nick." And he was. It would give Nick something else to growl about when he got tired of the beans. It also meant a long night with nothing to do. He sighed, thinking how much grouchier Nick could be in another hour or so. He started to roll a cigarette.
Nick was watching; Heath's actions made him reach for a cigar. Belatedly he realized he'd had his last in the saloon. Hell, he'd even given two to those Kansas fellas. Cheaters! Now he was even madder. "That's a terrible habit," Nick said crossly. "Messy. Where on earth you pick it up? On that salmon boat?"
"You ain't spent much time on a boat, have you, big brother? No, you don't play with fire on board. I picked it up in the army. And what's so messy? You smoke cigars."
"You're spilling tobacco." After a pause, Nick said, "You know, after the beans and the cards and insulting my whiskey, the least you could do is roll me one."
Heath laughed. "Surely. Glad to see you're back, brother. I thought I'd be camping with a big old bear tonight."
Nick took the cigarette. It wasn't as smooth as a cigar, but it wasn't bad. "You ever see a bear?"
"Sure. But not up close and alive, if that's what you mean."
Nick frowned. "Seems I remember you telling me that Mexican rifle could take the head off a grizzly bear."
"I said it could. I never said it did. Why do I sense a bear story coming on?"
Nick frowned. "An old Indian woman told me once I have the spirit of a bear."
"You sleep enough to be one." Heath sniffed. "Come to think of it, you smell like bear."
"Now how would you know, if you've never been up close to one?"
"Up Oregon way there's some Indians that worship bears. They wear bear grease in their hair. You think buffalo stink, you need a whiff of bear grease." Heath grinned. "Come to think of it, their hair was about as shiny as yours, Nick."
Nick threw a small branch; it missed. "You'd better duck," he said. "I could teach you some manners."
"You and what bear?"
"I whipped you once."
"Yes, that was quite an introduction. But I'd call that more nearly a draw. And that was a time ago. I know your moves a thought better."
"Beat you at that fourth of July wrestling match."
Heath looked down into his coffee. "I was distracted. That don't count."
"How about a fall or two now?"
"I'm not that bored," Heath said. "I think I could take you but I ain't that eager to find out. I prefer you on my side in a fight. You and Jarrod fight much when you were kids?"
"Hardly ever. Jarrod was four years older though, I might say, never that much bigger. But we always had different interests. Jarrod was always bookish. Oh, he could do things around the ranch, but his heart wasn't in it. Me, I'd rather be outside digging fence post holes than reading. We had one or two big dustups, but not much." Nick took a small sip of the whiskey; the second taste went down better than the first. "I ever tell you about the first time I went on a bear hunt?"
"No, I don't recall."
"I was thirteen. Eager as all get-out. I was always begging to be taken anywhere;cattle drive, hunting, anything with Father. But a bear hunt...that was something special. I couldn't believe it when he said yes." Nick smiled to himself. "I was sure I would catch that old grizzly myself, probably bare-handed. I had a little pea-shooter of a rifle, a .22, I think. I had strict orders to stay with one of the trackers and for God's sake, don't try to take the bear down myself."
"I don't imagine you listened."
"I don't imagine I did. We'd been out for about three days. That was one smart bear, Heath. We'd set traps for him. He was too smart for them. He managed to get the bait without getting snagged in a trap. I swear, that bear used sticks to spring the traps so he could get at the bait. After a while it was like he was just playing with us."
Nick took a third swig; it was getting better. "Anyway, someone hadn't been too careful about putting away our supplies. I woke up to find that bear about ten feet away, helping himself to a saddlebag. I coulda done the smart thing and woke someone up, but I figured this was my chance to prove myself. I slipped that little .22 out of the scabbard and fired."
"Worse. I hit it. But it wasn't enough to bring him down, it was just enough to make him plenty mad. I tried to get off another shot but that little pea-shooter jammed. By this time everyone's up and running around, half-scared out of their wits. That bear came straight at me, like he knew I was the one."
"So what happened?"
"Father was the only one cool enough to shoot. It took three shots, but he brought that bear down about a foot away from me. Right up to the last second I thought I was going to be bear breakfast."
Heath was studying his empty coffee cup. "Was he a good shot, then?"
"Actually no more than fair. It was pretty close range, after all."
"You get in trouble?"
"No, not really. I think he understood. I did get a better rifle, though. He gave me the usual lecture about not trying to do everything by myself." Nick shook his head. "Still haven't quite learned that one, yet. But you know what I really remember? Not the lecture or being afraid. I remember how excited I was when he said I could come. I felt like I was about ten feet tall. That was one of the best days of my life."
Heath didn't respond. Nick wondered what he'd said wrong. "Do you mind my talking about him?"
"Oh, no, I don't mind. Maybe, maybe I'm a little jealous sometimes. I never hear but little pieces. I never really get an idea of what he was really like."
"Stern. He wasn't a man you wanted to let down. And very strong. And very stubbornthat's where we all get it from." A small frown came over Nick. "He wasn't someone you felt close to easily. He seemed to be a giant to me, even when I got older. He might do ordinary thingsyou might mend a fence with him, or shoe a horsebut he never seemed ordinary. I liked to be around him and listen to him. But I don't remember talking to him much. When you had trouble you went to Mother."
Nick shifted uncomfortably. "I don't want to give you the wrong idea. He wasn't a ogre, or mean. He was justbusy. Important. Busy with important things, I guess."
After a few moments, Heath said, "Pass me that bottle, would you? I reckon I'm cold enough to take another nip." Maybe it was the cold,
but it did taste better. "I guess I figure he wouldn't have thought much of me."
"Why do you think that?"
"He sounds like a hard man to please. If you didn't..."
"I didn't say I didn't," Nick said, confused. "You're making this more complicated than I meant. I think he would have thought you were just fine."
"Well, this isn't warming me up one bit. Heath, this blanket isn't old enough to have been at Bull Run. It's old enough to have gone on the ark with Noah."
"Smells like Noah, too, don't it? It's all they had. Better than nothing. Here, take a little more of this. I'm starting to feel a little lit inside, at least."
Nick took the bottle back. "So what was your best day?"
"Best day? How so? Like most important, or most relieved, or most happy?"
"You're worse than Jarrod sometimes, splitting hairs. Either one. Or all three. All three, since you must have ideas."
"Most important. It's not one day but I think coming to you all was the most important."
"Not the most happy?"
"You remember how you welcomed me? You punched me before we ever even shook hands!"
"I had reason. I thought you were a railroad spy."
"Woulda been simpler. No, I'll stick with most important."
"All right. What's next? Most relieved."
"That's easy. The day I walked out of Carterson prison. Up until that day I really didn't think I'd make it out alive. I'd rather be back in battle than face that again."
"Or anything about that war. You know, sleeping out like this, it reminds me of those days."
Heath snorted. "You were an officer. You must have had a tent, at least."
"Yes, but the tent was on the bare ground most of the time. I was an officer, Heath, not a general. We pretty much shared the same hardships."
"Did you like it? Being an officer?"
"Yes, I did." Nick laughed. "That was one time I caught up with Jarrod. He was a staff officer for a good part of the war. I was out in the field. I got a few battlefield promotions and caught up with him. He sure resented being stuck to a desk. He didn't get unstuck til 64."
Heath shook his head. "I can't believe Jarrod was foolish enough to give up a safe berth like that."
"Oh, you misunderstand Jarrod. He seems all cool and rational, but he's as hot as the rest of us. I'm sure he had his own dreams of glory."
"Dreams of glory," Heath muttered. "We were fools."
"You can't mean that! We were fighting for what was right."
"And dyin for it, too, in droves. Don't misunderstand, Nick, I think we were right, too. But it seems to be it could have been done without wasting so many good men. On both sides. Seems to me it coulda been settled if those folks in Washington had wanted to."
Nick shrugged. "Politics. Who knows? But you know, Heath, for all the bad times of the war, I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything. I learned something about myself. About how far I could go, what I could stand. And that I could lead if I needed to."
Heath smiled. "Those are things I'd just as soon not know, I reckon. What's that old Sherman said? War is hell? It is if you're infantry."
"That Sherman was a hard man."
"You were with him, weren't you?"
"Sure was. Army of the Tennessee, Sherman's whiplash. Yes, sir, I marched to the sea with old Tecumseh. No better man wore the uniform."
"I thought Phil Sheridan was about as tough as they come."
"When did you serve under him?"
"Never did. Just heard about him. But he's pretty darn rough on the Indians. As rough as he was on poor old Jubal Early."
"You remember this one? Tenting on the Potomac"
"Shoot," Heath said, disgusted. "Everything was about those boys on the Potomac. You'da thought they're the only ones fightin that war."
"Well, now, I agree with you on that, but don't ever let Jarrod hear you."
"Just think. Someday we'll be toothless old vets, tellin the grandkids how we gave em hell in Tennessee. Course, by then, nobody'll even remember the war."
Nick smiled at the thought. "Isn't it time you fed that fire, boy?"
"Why's it my job?"
"I did the dishes."
"I did the cooking."
"Don't remind me. You forgot the cards."
"I'm beat." Heath went scouting for some more wood. When he came back he said, "Even with a good fire I think it might be too cold to sleep. Those blankets are mighty thin."
"Here, have another drink. Hey! You're the one who's complained about how bad it tastes. Leave a little, why don't you."
"Now, now, there's plenty left."
Nick tucked the bottle behind him. "And the happiest?"
"Day. You already said most important and most relieved. What was the happiest?"
"Why do I have to do three? You only did one."
"You're the one who split the hairs. Fess up."
Heath stretched out, thought. Remembering the rides with Maria, a picnic with Sarah. Finding a waterhole in the Mojave. But one image kept coming back.
"From the time I was just a tacker I wanted to go to the state fair. Didn't even really know what it was when I started beggin. I just liked the sound of it: the state fair. And people would get all excited, talkin about it. I cared more about that than Christmas most of the time."
He smiled. "Least I knew when Christmas was. The state fair I fussed about year round. But it was far away and there wasn't money for that kind of foolishness.
"But one yearI guess I was sevensomeone in Strawberry got the idea of taking a wagonful of folks to the state fair. It meant two days in the wagon each way. Much rougher than the train, but cheaper, too. My mama finally gave in.
"Those two days on the wagon must have been awful for her. It was hot and crowded and most of the other passengers were miners, pretty rough folk. I don't remember myself, I was too excited.
"And for once, Nick, it was one of those things you look forward to and you're not disappointed. All the noise and the people and the exhibits. And the food! I ate myself sick on candy apples. But the best thing of all were the horses. Always liked them, but by that time all that was around were some shabby mine ponies and the reverend's donkey. But these horsesthey were like the horses I dreamed about, with bright coats and thick manes."
Heath smiled to himself. "Poor mama. As I recall I was sick most of the way back. After that I stopped beggin for the fair. Just having seen it the once was enoughto remember it."
Nick said, "I can remember some fine times at the fair, too. I remember Father told me, you'll know you're a rancher when you'd rather see the stock than go to the pie-eating contest."
"In that case," Heath said dryly, "you still ain't a rancher. How many did you put away?"
"Four. Still can't believe that fool got through seven."
"Must not have been Audra's."
"Um...you hear that?"
"Listen. I could swear I hear a train."
They both listened intently. There came a long, low whistle. "Boy howdy, you're right," Heath said. "Must have gotten that line fixed by now."
Heath was gathering up the blankets and the cookware, to Nick's everlasting amazement. "Well, what are you waiting for? C'mon, let's git!"
They both ran for the station, Heath with the bundle over his shoulder. They reached town just as the train was pulling in. Heath dropped his bundle in front of the general store and they went into the train station, which was beginning to fill up; the station manager, in a rare display of energy, was ringing the bell mightily.
The train was crowded. They found a bench well to the back of the train. Nick took the window seat.
"How come you get the window?" Heath asked.
"Age before beauty, my brother."
"Least you're honest enough to admit I'm better lookin," Heath muttered.
They both stretched out, tipped their hats down. By the time the train was rolling they were both asleep. From the similarity of their postures anyone would have guessed they were brothers.
The general store owner was up at dawn to sweep his sidewalk. He was delighted on opening the bundle. He put the stock back on the shelves. After all, there was always another auction coming.