|Hell On Earth --- Carterson, 1865, Part 2|
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. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.
|During the American Civil War (1861-1865)the
United States was virtually torn apart. Three million people (1/3 of those people were
slaves) from the Confederate States of America (CSA) were at war with over eleven million
citizens of the remaining states in the Union. It was a cruel time which is to this day
Prison camps on both sides were rarely survivable. Those men who did manage to be freed where never, ever, the same. The first known medical documentation of "POW Syndrome" began during the post-CW era. The symptoms, facts, and difficulties these men faced are regrettable and astonishingly the same as those documented after the other wars the United States has participated in throughout it's entire history.
The CW continues to effect America each day and in many ways. The price our country has paid, is paying, and will pay for this horrendous time continues to mount. During the CW we fought not some distant enemy across the sea, but Americans fought and killed Americans!
The assumptions for this story are: it is April 1865, the CSA(Confederate States of America) no longer exists, shipments to CSA prison camps which were scant to say the least have been nonexistent for some time, and the Union army raced to known camps as soon as word of Lee's surrender made it out west.
Just in case someone who visits the BV writing desk from around the world doesn't know list:
1)CSA soldiers wore butternut uniforms ... only officers could afford gray material, and gray material was not available in the South after the first two years of the war,
2)common nicknames for CSA soldiers were Johnny Reb, Johnny, John, Reb, or any play on rebel, and
3)common nicknames for Union/Federal soldiers were Billy Yank, Yank, blue boys, blue bellies ... You get the idea.
|By September Heath was able to eat and drink his
fill as long as it was the food from his own camp's mess. Armstrong snuck in a sliver of
apple pie on the lieutenant's birthday. It was like eating a slice of heaven. Apple
anything was now what Heath dreamed of eating more than anything else. Must have been the
wonderful splurge of apple juice the previous 4th
of July reset his tastes. It would be a lifelong passion.
Heath was stronger and if he lived close would have sought one of the precocious invalid leaves. Dr. Mullins wisely stopped him from considering a request with his constant reminders to the men about the special care they all still needed and his unbreakable rule regarding anyone of them traveling alone.
The trip to Strawberry wasn't easy from Los Angeles. Stage coaches, trains, and days of travel would be involved. Despite his ache to go home the boy knew not to even ask. But it was nice to think on getting a leave.
Over the past month many of the men in camp were transferred to other army hospitals. They were moved carefully and with a medic they were familiar with in escort. The army wanted the men as close to home as possible and moved them to the nearest army facility to their home. For Heath and a small group either to weak to be moved or like himself too far from California homes Los Angeles was to remain their base.
Heath spent the morning walking and then brushing horses. Dr. Mullins disagreed with his added activity at first but the exercise was strengthening his arms, legs, and back. Plus there was no denying Heath drew far more satisfaction from being with the beasts than he did from any human counsel. Dr. Mullins' cautiously allowed Heath to work with the grooms.
After he finished caring for Armstrong's horse Heath sought rest under a tree stand behind the corral. This was his favorite spot. He could see over the hill to the large army base with it's massive equestrian depot while enjoying a view of the goings on around his own camp. He felt secure and at peace in this place.
He opened the new book Armstrong lent him and relaxed into the joy he found in escaping from his life into the one created by the author. It wasn't long before Heath lost his fight and leaned his head back on the tree to nap.
It was his most constant dream lately. In a way it was a pleasant break from the Carterson nightmares which normally ruled his sleeping mind. Heath was in Strawberry. He wandered down the street from Mr. Corey's all excited about the colt. When he opened the door to his house Hannah and Rachel were working inside. The women were happy at first as they bustled around preparing for some type of celebration. Suddenly one and then the other began to cry and they hugged for a long time.
In Heath's lifetime these strong loving women rarely cried. It made Rachel's husband's funeral stick out forever in his mind since it was one of the only times they ever cried. With panic he began to look around the one-room house for his mother. The women's tears created tremendous fear in Heath's heart and mind.
Heath was racing around the yard, down the street to the kitchen, and then back home. Where was she? Why didn't she answer when he called? Oh God! Had something happened to his mother that was making the others cry?
"MOTHER? PLEASE, ANSWER! ITS ME, HEATH!"
His panic woke him as it always did. Heath took a few gulps of air and touched the latest letter from Leah safely tucked in his front shirt pocket. These loose fitting pajamas the army provided weren't much but they did offer a man the dignity of pants and a pocket.
He laid his head back still trying to regain control. Heath's eyes wandered around camp. The Strawberry dream was better than the Carterson nightmares but still filled his body with fear which took a while to dissipate.
Heath slowly drew himself up the side of the tree ignoring when the bark threatened to cut though his shirt into his fragile skin. His eyes were frozen as his mind reassessed his consciousness status. The Strawberry dream always ended in the same place before.
Extending itself into the camp with a vision of his mother talking to Armstrong and Dr. Mullins down by the administration building had never been a part of the dream before.
Leah Thomson was beautiful. In her son's eye a more beautiful woman never walked the earth. She was of average height for a woman with small bones and features. Her slim but ample figure was the envy of many but she never seemed to notice. Leah had her long light brown hair pulled up as a cook always would and today wore a new hat borrowed from Rachel Caufield. She was 36-years-old with a teenage son, but most observers would guess her age at least ten years younger.
Leah turned his way when the two men pointed out where her son normally dozed the late morning hours away. She left her bags and headed towards the corrals with the graceful walk Heath knew so well. The woman didn't show any tiredness from her long journey. It took her two days less than expected since she rode anything at anytime as long as it was headed to her son. The money Lieutenant Armstrong lent her for the journey allowed Leah more choices than if she had been relying on her own funds. She also left the day the money arrived and made her trip plans on the way.
Heath remained frozen. If he moved would the dream stop? He missed his mother and longed for her day and night. The older men would make fun of him when he slipped and mentioned her but the boy was a boy and was still very much attached to his mother. Heath hid it well from the others but felt his aching deeply. He dropped his book and watched the scene as the grooms pointed out his hiding place behind the smaller corral.
She was walking this way. Best dream he ever had and Heath wished it wouldn't end.
Leah came around the fence in a near trot. Her anxiety clearly written on her face. When she saw her son .... What was left of him ... Wild horses wouldn't have kept her from running those last few yards. Tears were streaming down her lovely face and her smile gave away the joy springing from her heart. The doctor's stern warnings about not touching her boy flew from Leah's mind despite her reading and rereading the doctor's and Armstrong's letters on the way to Los Angeles and listening intently upon her arrival.
"HEATH! OH, HEATH!"
She ran up and they stood face to face. Heath was leaning back into the tree unsure how to handle a dream with this much of a real feel. Armstrong was running up behind his mother still warning her about Heath's fear of surprises.
Leah was smaller than when Heath last saw her or had he grown? He stared into her green watery eyes and saw his mother's open arms beg him forward. Knowing her son, Leah said nothing while standing in silence offering her boy the safe haven of her arms.
Much to the groom's, Armstrong's, and Dr. Mullins' surprise as they caught up with Heath's mother the boy was not running away, mentally of physically. A moment later they watched the boy fall forward to be wrapped in her arms. They quietly retreated while mother and son stood holding on for dear life. Armstrong waited nearby in case Heath needed him or suffered a panic episode.
Heath and Leah held tight then slid down and sat close on the ground when Heath's legs weakened. Leah kept him wrapped in her arms for a long while then put his head in her hands and looked deeply into his eyes. Her tears were joyous and Heath kept his arms on her shoulder's to prevent her from flying away to wherever dreams go.
"This is the best dream, yet!", Heath's quiet voice conveyed his delight and confusion.
Leah let loose one of her wondrous laughs and pulled Heath into another embrace.
She whispered in his ear, "I'm real, Heath. This isn't a dream."
Heath took her arms and pulled back to take another look. She was beautiful! He relaxed into the moment. Truth was it didn't matter if she was a dream or not ... He didn't care as long as she stayed.
"Please, ma. Oh, please, be real," Heath choked through his tears, "I've missed you. I'm so sorry ... "
Leah placed a gently hand over Heath's mouth while shaking her head.
"None of that, young man. The past is the past and I'm here to help, no, MAKE you get better. You and I are going to convince Dr. Mullins to send you home!"
Heath broke down and started to lower his head to his lap. Leah grabbed him and pulled him over so his weight rested against her and held tight.
Home! Heath thought about the word. His mother definitely said home. Leah's exhausted son did what many of the others would never recover enough to do. It was a moment which would forever separate Heath's recovery and ability to go on with life from many of his fellow Carterson survivors.
Heath Thomson went limp in Leah's arms. The intense bond their joint experiences in life created allowed the boy to forget his fears while remembering it was safe in these arms. His heart reminded him this was his soulmate. There was not another human on the earth Heath trusted more completely. Finally, Heath let himself cry.
Leah watched the pillows of steam rise from her coffee cup and wrapped her arms tighter across her chest. November was cooler this year than in recent memory. She leaned against the fence staring at her son, Heath. As was his new habit the boy was sleeping wrapped in blankets on their small back porch. The small house was too closed in for him and despite the recent weather he stayed outside every night. Quietly Leah closed her eyes and prayed for Heath to rest without the nightmares which normally prevented his finding peace.
She thought of the long road they traveled together from the day in Los Angeles when she found him to the day a few weeks ago when she brought him home. The army medic who escorted them on their journey was wonderful, but Leah and Heath were glad when he finally said his farewells and headed back to base. Somehow the house didn't feel right until it was only the two of them occupying it. Couldn't ask the soldier to stay in Strawberry's hotel since the place was a bug infested wreck.
Leah stayed with Heath at the army base in Los Angeles for five months. Wild horses couldn't have dragged her away, but it was much, much, longer than she originally planned. Rachel and Hannah covered for her all those weeks by working Leah's three jobs. They were amazing women and Leah was sure they would have worked the jobs
longer without ever asking a question. Leah might be Heath's mother but those two were as dedicated as she to his well being.
The army camp was a short walk from a boarding house the medics recommended when Heath healed enough to sleep better at night. Before she agreed to leave him at night Leah accepted a job in the base laundry to support her stay in Los Angeles. She worked her shift and then rushed back to her fragile son. Heath begged her to rest, but gave up knowing the stubborn streak his mother could stand behind.
Heath struggled to gain his strength. The doctor had him exercise, work on building his stomach muscles in order to reduce stress on his back, and stay on a strict daily routine. His back was the main problem. It had been broken and severely damaged while Heath was imprisoned. Dr. Mullins wouldn't let the army push him from the intense care he needed. In gratitude for all the special attention so many people were showering on him Heath worked obsessively to recover.
Leah closed her eyes and went through the long list of Heath's injuries Dr. Mullins read to her one of her first nights in camp. She shuttered when Heath allowed her to help him wash and dress. The men who hurt him were animals, they couldn't be human. Her mind boggled when she walked around camp and realized Heath was not an isolated case. No, the guards at Carterson deliberately, efficiently, and premeditatedly tortured and maimed. Tears didn't help but Leah often shed them anyway.
The trip home to Strawberry did two major things in Leah's mind. One, the exhausting road home in many ways proved how much Heath had healed physically. On the other hand, Heath's first long term exposure to the world outside of camp had been a far more difficult challenge than his mother expected. He fought valiantly for control in more than one situation. The experiences left him weak, tired, and confused.
The doctors, medics, other survivor's family members, and survivors who failed at home and returned to camp talked to her, warned her, but Leah was sure Heath wouldn't have the same problems. Seeing Heath's face full of fear and panic at the first major train station began to prepare her for just how much like the other men her son truly was. Dr. Mullins told her numerous times "these men are changed for life. They must accept this and find a way to go on."
Accept mental invalidity? Never! Dr. Mullins didn't know Leah Thomson or her son and she had no intention of allowing Heath to stop working on his mental and spiritual recovery. There would be no acceptance of the fear which plagued Heath. Her boy was only sixteen! Leah would not allow him to spend the rest of what she hoped would be a very long life living with Carterson in control instead of himself. But how to do what the others said couldn't be done?
"Good morning, son."
As was their habit Heath joined his mother for breakfast long before dawn. They both had jobs to attend but enjoyed briefly being together.
Heath leaned over and gave his mother's cheek a kiss before heading for the coffee pot, answering, "Good morning, ma. Did you rest?"
"Better than you again last night. Do you remember the nightmares, Heath?"
The boy quickly lied, "No, ma. I sleep fine. I'm sorry if I was a holler'in and carrying on again."
"Like I said, I rested fine. Heard a few moans that's all," Leah sighed and got up to leave.
Now they had both lied to each other again. Leah laid on her cot by the kitchen stove crying through Heath's screams knowing she couldn't go to him without making him take a spell. And Heath remembered every horrid detail of his dreams which he swore never to share with anyone.
"Eat that egg and a biscuit, young man! Do you understand?"
Heath sat before the plate and looked down on it with disdain. Food still wasn't his friend but they were working on a forced relationship. After shrugging his shoulders the boy took a big bite while his mother watched from the stove.
"That's the way," Leah rubbed his shoulder and kissed his forehead before heading through the front door to get breakfast started at the kitchen.
Heath waited for a moment to give his mother a chance to get away from the house. Feeling secure Leah hadn't forgotten anything which would make her step back in Heath dumped the egg and biscuit out back for their dog. Grabbing an apple he headed for his job at Mr. Corley's livery.
Mr. Corley was never so glad to see anyone as when Heath returned from the war. Hard to recognize him at first but everyone in town knew he was in Carterson and they all read the reports in the paper. The boy's touch with the animals was definitely intact and Heath still put in a harder working day than any man Corley ever employed. When the livery was slow Mr. Corley did notice Heath would fall asleep wherever he was, but when a customer showed the boy was always up and about in a jiffy.
After breakfast while Leah cleaned at the saloon she decided on a plan. Praying with all her might the young mother tried to seek an answer to setting Heath on a healthy path for the rest of his life. For the first time in her entire career as Heath's mother Leah did not consult Rachel or Hannah before deciding to make a move. Heath might use them for consul and she didn't want him to think they were in on his mother's stiffened demands.
Late in the afternoon while the other cook watched the oven's which filled the kitchen with the wonderful smells of the supper they would serve Leah walked home to meet Heath for their supper. Since he was old enough not to spend his afternoons with Rachel or Hannah, Heath was instructed to spend his time reading while waiting for his mother. Leah made sure to stomp her feet on the front porch to warn Heath of her presence. No use surprising him and getting this conversation off to a bad start.
"Hi! I was hoping you would be napping?"
"I'm lying here like a big stone reading," Heath laughed, "Actually thought you'd be pleased I wasn't up finishing the work needs tending out back! No pleasing some women I guess?"
Leah tried to hide her smile before heading for their kitchen. Heath had the table set and the basics of the meal complete. His mother fussed over everything which made whatever he cooked taste ten times better. Heath was allowed to eat and drink his fill of anything by now but found many things didn't taste good anymore. On a positive note some items he couldn't stand before tasted fine. He'd never figure it out and decided not to think on it.
When they sat for supper their nightly chess match began. They both fixed their plates in the kitchen before saying the blessing and sitting down. Leah would immediately pop back up with Heath's plate and add to his portions. When she sat Heath would put some of his food on her plate while grinning from ear to ear. These two could go for days without saying a word and still know exactly what the other was thinking. Except tonight Heath sensed his mother was tense and waited for her to speak. Leah waited for Heath to eat at least half of his meal and then proceeded with what was on her mind.
"I'm sorry to bring this up ... We need to talk about finances around here."
Heath continued picking at his meal.
"I know the army is continuing your invalid pay until you go back to see Dr. Mullins in January. But those five months I was away really set us back. I made Rachel and Hannah keep the money they earned. It was only fair. Just 'cause they were doing my jobs didn't stop their bills from rolling in and I know Rachel's shop suffered in her absence."
Leah peeked over but Heath was quietly moving his food around his plate. She had to smile at her son who was so desperate to be a man and yet reverted to behaviors from his childhood such as thinking if he spread out his food the new arrangement would fool his mother into thinking he ate more than he did.
"I need you to go back to work out on Mr. Dobson's ranch. Between Mr. Corey's pay and what you can make as a hand and horse handler we might get back on our feet around here."
Leah didn't add her main goal which was to exhaust Heath to the point of deep sleep and further recover. If only she could get him to put Carterson away somewhere in his mind perhaps it would rule him less and less. She fought tears knowing Heath still worked hard to hide his various aches from her, plus he diligently did the stomach exercises Dr. Mullins
recommended in an effort to get his back pain under control.
"Fine. I'll head out to the Dobson's tomorrow and if they ain't hir'in I'll stop at the Stone's on the way back."
Leah watched but Heath never made eye contact. He took their plates into the kitchen, kissed her cheek while rubbing his hand across her shoulder, and then headed out back to get a few more boards replace in the rotted fence. Leah cried while knowing Heath never minded all the work his life forced on him at a very young age. She hated it for him!
Mr. Dobson gladly hired Heath back on. He worked the livery before dawn, rode a horse Mr. Corey lent him to the Dobson's to put a full day in working various ranch chores, rode back to town and ate on a small table in the back of the kitchen where Leah worked, and then returned to clean and close the livery. While he waited at home for Leah, Heath continued to work on the various household problems which went unattended while he was away in the army. Exhausted he was usually asleep on the couch with one of his books when she came home.
The work did many things. It helped their financial status and began to build up the rainy day money. Heath's body healed as it grew and changed daily. He was going to be a tall, muscular, strong, and sturdy man. Leah often wondered who he looked like since he favored no one in her family.
The nightmares continued but forcing himself to be out and around people also forced Heath to modify his behavior patterns. He returned to his quick tempered reactions to the small community of Strawberry's attitudes towards he and his mother. In altercations with other hands at the Dobson's the boy learned the best way to hold down the Carterson demons was to attack instead of waiting to be attacked. Mr. Dobson wasn't sure what to think of Heath's two personalities: the quiet obsessive worker and the raging firestorm.
Luckily the Dobson's knew Heath before the war, spoke to Leah before acting, and gave him time to settle into his renewed life in Strawberry.
Things were going quite well except for Strawberry's economy. The mine was shutting down bit by bit and the town was packing up and moving at the same rate. There was no future for Heath in Strawberry and they both knew it. With joy in her heart Leah watched Heath gain his strength while evolving into a strong young man. She fought to hold back her sadness in knowing this same man, when he was well and able, would be leaving Strawberry to build his life elsewhere.
Christmas approached as a joyous, thankful, and life renewing season at the Thomson household. Heath and Leah shared their spare moments but they were few as both continued to work multiple jobs. A telegraph arrived reminding Heath of his orders to report back to Los Angeles by the 16th of January. The army seemed a distant dream but those invalid checks had been a lifeline. He made plans with his employers for coverage during his absence.
Leah was known throughout Strawberry and the surrounding area for her Holiday rum cakes. Everyday she left a list for Heath of cakes to be delivered while he was out and about with Mr. Corey's horse. She did all the in town deliveries and Hannah made some stops in-between her cleaning and laundry jobs. Rachel kept extra cakes at her shop and sold them along with Leah's signature Santa cookies as customers got hooked on the samples she bought and left out.
One day Heath smiled as wonderful memories of Mrs. Anderson flooded his mind. She bought three cakes and Leah had her on today's delivery list. Mrs. Anderson was only six years older than Heath. Chronological age meant little in their relationship. Heath was an inexperienced small town boy. Mrs. Anderson grew up in a Sacramento cathouse and was a woman of the world before marrying a drunken Mr. Anderson one lonely Saturday night.
When he was ten Heath took on an extra job tending the Anderson's garden and odd jobs on Saturdays. Mr. Anderson had fallen off a horse while working for the Dobson's and they provided a cabin for the young couple. Being a sixteen-year-old new bride tending for a comatose, paralyzed, and slipping away man was a terrible burden. She often spent the entire week waiting for the boy to visit and help her with the fruit trees and vegetable garden.
Heath might have been a young boy but he wasn't stupid. He along with the rest of Strawberry began to notice the frequent visitors to Mrs. Anderson's house. All were male and all left lighter in their wallets but satisfied. Leah spoke to Heath about his observations hiding a smile but knowing they needed the generous pay Mrs. Anderson offered for his doing her yard work and all sorts of fix'in around her place. In a way she and Mrs. Anderson had much in common. They were Strawberry's outcasts and if luck hadn't intervened a few times in the past few years? Well, Leah tried not to dwell on those times, those thoughts, or those desperate decisions.
When Heath was twelve Mr. Anderson finally passed on. Nobody but he, his mother, and the Reverend Lewis attended the funeral with the young widow. Mr. Corey allowed Heath to borrow a buggy and he drove both women home. After he let off his mother at the kitchen Mrs. Anderson curled up in the backseat and cried the entire ride home. Heath helped her into the house.
He made her sit on the couch after helping with her coat and hat. The woman was still upset so he got her some cool water to drink and put more to boil for tea. When he returned to Mrs. Anderson, she had loosened her top blouse buttons and was using her water soaked handkerchief to wipe her face, neck, and upper chest in an effort to fight the intense early fall heat. Heath should have averted his eyes as he'd been strictly taught but he felt powerless to do anything more than admire the beauty before him.
"How old are you, Heath?"
"Twelve, ma'am," He decided not to lie since she gave him a dollar on his birthday last May and knew very well how old he was.
She smiled as her mind tried to make sense out of the jumble of thoughts racing by. Mrs. Anderson wasn't crying for the man she married in an effort to escape the life she was living which her mother and her grandmother lived before her. Mr. Anderson had been her husband for less than a week when the accident dashed those hopes. No, the man she married turned out to be an anchor holding her in Strawberry and forcing her to make her living the only way she knew how.
Mrs. Anderson was now a mature worldly woman of eighteen and came to realize what she really wanted was choice. She was crying because her life lacked any areas where Mrs. Anderson was in control. Men chose when to see her, what to do, and how much they paid above her minimum.
She smiled at Heath's obvious inability to hide what the temptation of her bare skin was doing to his self-control. Mrs. Anderson reached out and touched Heath's upper thigh. The boy jumped then whirled around and practically ran into the kitchen to make her tea. Oh yes, this was going to be one relationship she'd control and Heath would either accept her choices or go elsewhere.
Heath jumped when her hands softly rubbed his shoulders as she walked right up and leaned into his back.
"Your welcome, Mrs. Anderson. I best be going before my ma worries."
Mrs. Anderson moved her hands around his waist and moved them slowly up his chest while pushing herself into a tight hug on his back. He stood frozen trying to decide how to react. Heath knew he should excuse himself and get home, but Mrs. Anderson was doing things he'd dreamt of for months and his knees felt weak.
"Heath, I happen to know your ma won't be home until late tonight. The same schedule she works everyday, all year, every year!"
He turned around and tried to put the cup of tea between them. She didn't move back but reached for the cup without taking her eyes off him then placed it on the side board. Heath was only an inch taller than the beautiful woman in front of him and found it impossible to break from her gaze. She kissed him, pulled her head back and smiled, then she kissed him again. Heath never even dreamt kisses like she was handing out. He was putty in her hands.
Heath put the basket of rum cakes down next to Mr. Corey's horse and walked over to the creek. Smiling at his memories Heath splashed some much needed cold water on his face and rubbed some through his hair. Even thinking of Mrs. Anderson's lessons still made him feel this way. Good thing she was a teacher with patience especially that first day. She led Heath to her bedroom, helped him undress, and didn't laugh when he found himself to be what Heath considered done before she finished taking off her clothes.
God, she was built! Army life before Carterson exposed him to many woman and few held a candle to Mrs. Anderson. Starting that first afternoon and many other glorious times over the next year and a half Mrs. Anderson taught Heath things he knew for certain most men never learnt. When he knew of his decision to run away and join the army Heath spent his last afternoon in Strawberry trying desperately to pay her back for his many lessons.
Rubbing more water on his face Heath remembered quite a few times Mrs. Anderson's lessons saved him the fee for bedding a saloon girl. Now kneeling here by the creek watching his reflection he wondered if those lessons had been in vain. Carterson ruled his thoughts all night and a good portion of some days. Heath knew his physical abilities had returned but wondered if his "attacks" would prevent his letting a woman close. It was a worry which deeply troubled him, but he shared these thoughts with no one.
Riding up to her place Heath decided to leave the cakes on the front porch and get on over to Mr. Dobson's place. Mrs. Anderson might have changed her mind and perhaps didn't hold memories of their times together with the same high regard he did. Mostly Heath feared his abilities and was panicked thinking of the entire matter.
It was a cold, dark, winter day and began to pour right before Heath made the Anderson place. The house looked dark and empty even though his ma would have told Mrs. Anderson to be expecting her cakes. There were no visitors sneaking in or out. Heath rode up, dismounted, and walked quietly across to the porch to leave the cakes. The front door opened as he stood back up from placing the basket at the side edge of the door jam.
"Good morning, Heath."
Mrs. Anderson, he never could bring himself to call her anything else and she never offered, stood in the doorway. His teacher was an old woman of twenty by now. She wore a piece of red lace which hung temptingly around her figure while not hiding one bit of her wonderful body. Heath stifled a moan.
"Can't imagine Mr. Dobson will be offering anyone payment for working today. It is going to pour for hours. No ranch work to be done unless he's raising fish over yonder."
Her smile was wonderfully warm and teasing. Heath briefly noticed how small she was now that he had grown taller. Mrs. Anderson took his hand and led him through the house to her bedroom. She proceeded to close the door, gracefully shed her lace, and spent the afternoon more than dashing Heath's doubts about his manhood. Little did Heath realize when he confidently answered Dr. Mullins' embarrassingly personal questions less than a month later this was one more area where Heath's recovery was to prove more complete than his fellow survivors.
Heath laid on his army cot in shock. He traveled to Los Angeles expecting a bombardment of doctors to inspect his physical recovery and take him off invalid leave. The army was downsizing big time and he had not doubt his decision to sign discharge papers would be accepted. Heath was only partially correct in his assumptions.
His welcome back to the base was warm and friendly. The old survivor's unit was disbanded and Dr. Mullins now worked with the group of men in his charge in an older building on the main base. Mullins had a small staff of doctors working with him to correlate all the information continually coming in regarding his former patient's progress. He told Heath he would be writing various papers for medical journals in an effort to spread the word of his successes and failures to future physicians.
The other doctors poked and prodded, measure his bones, and took his blood. Heath quickly felt the loss of any control which signified his status as once again being in the US Army. One morning after one of the doctors traced his feet, hands, and measured his head circumference Heath was once again placed in Dr. Mullins hands.
Even though they had formed a friendship during Heath's stay at the old camp the doctor never let that interfere with his desires to study Heath as a type of ongoing scientific experiment. After putting out the word he did not want to be disturbed Dr. Mullins made Heath strip completely and set about a detailed exam of every inch of his body. Mullins made notes frequently and asked an endless list of personal questions. Heath felt himself breaking out into a heavy sweat in the hopelessly cold room.
Heath was never so glad to get out of anyplace in recent memory. He quickly dressed and instead of going into Dr. Mullins' office to talk as he was ordered found himself repeatedly heaving while the bathroom walls spun around. In-between losing arguments with his flip-flopping guts Heath strained desperately against the old demons flooding his mind.
One of the other workers found him and walked over to check on him when Heath didn't see him coming nor had he heard the man enter the room. When the man bent over and touched Heath's shoulder the boy landed a direct hit sending the man across the room and leaving him unconscious on the floor. Heath returned to emptying his stomach which was already more than empty without realizing what he had done.
Unaware how much time had passed when he finally felt himself coming around Heath looked around the room. There was blood on the floor across the way, the room was freezing, and the windows and door to the bathroom where blocked open. Dr. Mullins was sitting reading a book on a chair in the hall where he could watch Heath without threatening him.
"Feeling better, Heath?"
"I'm not sure. I don't know what happened. Boy howdy does my stomach hurt!"
"Take your time and clean up. I'll wait in my office."
Heath sat for a good long while before getting up and washing up. He brushed his teeth with hand soap and his finger. Almost made him heave again but it was better than how his mouth tasted when he came to. When he was steadier Heath wandered into Mullins' office and proceeded to talk with a frankness he would never repeat in his entire life about his "POW-symptoms" as Dr. Mullins' labeled them.
After that the army proved itself to be the old boys network Heath always suspected. General Grant and many others were now out of a job and considering political aspirations. The public reacted negatively to army records showing many boys under the age of eighteen had served the Union cause. These ambitious men used their connections with the remaining army brass and proceeded to wipe out these records.
Heath was taken to the administration building and sat before a three-man officer panel. He listened while they read testimony from medics, doctors, and a few other survivors who heard his mother mention his age while she cared for him. There was no record of Lieutenant Armstrong breaking his promise which made Heath feel somewhat better. The lucky lieutenant was back in Pennsylvania being a farmer again and Heath liked thinking good thoughts about him.
With the boy's presence only a minor detail in a procedure already well underway and decided upon the US Army proceeded to discharge Heath on the basis of his failure to fill out his recruitment papers truthfully. It was not a dishonorable discharge which would have required an all too public court-martial. No this was an administrative discharge which did not carry the label of dishonor but took with it the Silver Star Heath earned at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee and made him ineligible for the Purple Heart Major what's-his-name begrudgingly agreed to recommend for all the Carterson survivors.
Heath traveled home feeling worn, used, and abused by the system without a physical mark on him to prove his injuries. He never mentioned the army's actions to another sole and never intended to for the rest of his life. Heath was in prison by the time his recommendation for bravery under fire was approved in the form of a Silver Star being awarded. Until the army mentioned it he didn't remember the brief ceremony at his bedside in Dr. Mullins' camp. No one expected him to live so the actual medal was never ordered. The papers Heath hid at home now meant nothing. The verification had been scratched from his record. Heath was hurt and very angry.
The following year was a tough one for Leah Thomson and her son. Strawberry continued to decline. By the following holiday season Mr. Dobson could no longer afford Heath's services and had his ranch up for sale. Mr. Corey's livery was never busy and he was forced to cut Heath's pay. The Thomsons knew Heath would need to leave and find work away from home but neither of them would discuss it out loud.
Christmas morning Leah insisted they were both staying home. She could be fired from the kitchen but she didn't care. Besides where were they going to find another cook who would still draw folks into this horrible town? Mr. Corey's livery was pretty near empty so Heath's absence wasn't a problem. They rose early and quietly enjoyed the breakfast they used the last of the rainy day money to buy.
Heath cleared and cleaned the dishes insisting Leah relax. She dressed for their midafternoon Christmas dinner with Hannah and Rachel then found Heath putting away the clean dishes and handed him his coat.
"Too early, ma. You know Rachel never gets the turkey on in time. If we go now she'll get all upset 'cause you'll want to help. Let her give you a day off. You deserve it and she likes to provide it."
"We're not going to Rachel's, silly!"
His mother walked away and right out the front door with a mischievous grin across her face and a lilt to her step. Heath threw on his coat and ran after her. Mr. Corey was waiting at the livery with Heath's Christmas present, a Modock pony he'd been admiring forever on Mr. Dobson's ranch.
"Oh, ma," Heath was still running his hands over his new best friend's coat, "She's a beauty. I can't believe it."
Mr. Corey left them to close up and went home to his own Christmas supper. The smile on his face lit up the dusty streets of Strawberry.
Leah stood back and watched Heath fuss over the horse. Mr. Dobson gave her a good deal but it still took a few months and some extra jobs to make the payment, plus selling her mother's stickpin. It was all worth it now seeing the look on Heath's face.
"Ma, how can we ... "
"None of that, Heath! Remember I did warn you this is Christmas and your eighteenth birthday all wrapped into one."
Heath rushed over and hugged her again. She floated in the air and laughed out loud when he spun around with her in his arms. Leah held onto his shoulders when he let her down before watching him rush back to the horse through tear clouded eyes. It was something she knew and watched but until now denied. When Heath picked her up as if she was a feather and spun her Leah realized how big and strong a man he was growing into being.
If she had doubted her decision to buy the horse and insist Heath leave Strawberry watching him now reinforced the sad truth ... Heath was a young man and needed to out and see the world. Strawberry was nearly dead and there was no future for a man with Heath's abilities here.
Heath took off for a ride and she walked the long way to Rachel's house. When she arrived her two friends wrapped her in extra special loving embraces. They were present the moment Heath took his first breath, present when he fought his way through a rough childhood in Strawberry, present when he returned from a distant war so silent, sad, and changed, and now they were present when his mother set Heath free.
It was a special moment that Heath's age wouldn't allow him to truly comprehend. Once he watched his first child leave home his thoughts would return to this Christmas and Leah's gentle nudge which sent him into the world. Heath did notice and often feel warm when he remembered arriving back at Rachel's and noticing Leah's ever present stickpin was gone. She smiled before he could say anything and shook her head. They never spoke on it but he knew the sacrifice.
Christmas dinner was more bountiful than in recent years and the ladies lingered at the table. Heath had no idea why but enjoyed the change. Instead of their usual dessert of some old English pudding which Rachel insisted they would all eventually love, Rachel
proudly served Heath's favorite, apple pie. It was a joy filled day.
Heath and his Modock made a great team. He worked his way all across California and back. The young man finished growing and worked hard to be strong physically, spiritually, and mentally as he promised Lieutenant Armstrong he would so very long ago.
Carterson at times ruled his behavior but with time he no long let it rule his mind and dreams. Life was good as Heath stumbled around enjoying a life without responsibilities. Heath did many jobs well but became extrodianary at one particular job, being a cowboy.
The years rushed by for him and although he thought about his mother, Rachel, and Hannah Heath rarely visited. When he did they all enjoyed but Heath was uncomfortable with their fussing for too long and found himself falling into the old arguments with his mother no matter how hard he tried not too. It was hard to be an independent man one day and the ladies boy the next. The visits continued to decrease but Heath sent money, small presents, and letters to the women back in Strawberry. The young man was too young to understood the difference the lack of his presence would be making in their lives.
One day out on a job the foreman brought him a telegram. Seemed his mother had been ill for quite some time but refused to notify him. Rachel was calling him home without Leah's knowledge because she knew Heath would want to say good-bye. Heath and his beloved Modock flew home to Strawberry with every memory of his mother rushing through his frightened heart, mind, and soul.
Heath arrived in time to spend the last 72-hours of Leah's earthly life attending to her. She was so glad to see him but refused to let him be sad.
"I've been lucky, Heath. I've enjoyed a good life. Honest hard work, good friends, and a wonderful son. I have NO regrets and I'm ready to meet my Maker."
Rachel and Hannah left them alone after saying their final tearful farewells. There was no doctor in Strawberry but it wouldn't have mattered. Leah's young life was ebbing away in front of them all and there was no stopping it. She slept for a long while after her friends left and woke to find Heath kneeling by her bed softly crying while clutching her hand.
Leah reached out and surprised him. Heath didn't flinch for he was lost in a world of grief so deep he felt he would drown. With her special mother's touch Leah began to stroke his hair and relate her love through her fingertips. If only Heath could truly understand her love for him, her gratitude for his unplanned existence, and her pride in calling him son.
But Leah felt her time sliding away. The dying woman quickly made a decision to make an attempt to send Heath to another place for the love, guidance, and sense of belonging she would no longer be able to give. Leah knew the longing in her son's heart and used her
last strength to try and see his desires were met.
For years she'd respected Victoria Barkley and honored her with silence. Now Leah Thomson's last prayer was for Victoria to hear her plea from one mother to another. Leah gave Victoria her most precious gift, her son. Leah's unfaltering faith gave her a sense of calm assurance knowing God heard her plea. Heath was going to be all right.
"Sweetheart, go get the Bible from the drawer over in the kitchen. I need to show you something."
Heath looked up and smiled to see Leah awake. He stood and kissed his mother giving her frail body an embrace then sat beside her looking deeply into her eyes.
"Go'on now, boy."
"I'd rather sit her, ma. Can't it wait?"
She smiled and winked, replying, "I love you, Heath. No, it can't wait! Look in the back I left something there for you."
Heath tightened his grip on her hand before letting go. The young man basically backed from her bed to the kitchen. For only a moment he dropped Leah's gaze and reached in the drawer for his mother's Bible. A newspaper article fell on the floor when he opened the book. Heath reached down and read the headline as he stood back up. Heath turned back to his mother with a confused look on his face ... Leah Thomson was gone.
For a moment time stood completely still. Tears rolled down Heath's cheeks unchecked and unnoticed.
Heath whispered, "I love you too, ma."
The young man stuffed the newspaper clipping in his shirt pocket and returned to his mother's side. They shared their last silence together before he called the others when dawn began to peek in the front windows.
Not too many tears out there. You know what happens ... Victoria Barkley turns out to be every bit and more the woman Leah Thomson thought she would be. Tough, kind, gentle, and smart enough to recognize a wonderful gift when she receives it. Even if the gift arrives in a package which at first appears to be only a raging lump of pent up confusion, anger, hurt, and mistrust aimed against the family and the man Victoria loved!
Victoria let Heath spin around until the young man was tired enough to listen. Setting her mind on her goal Victoria stubbornly fought her way into Heath's heart. Who knows? Perhaps an angel was whispering instructions to Victoria on how to gently break this young Strawberry-born colt and set the man, the son, hiding inside free.