**Strawberry California, December, 1869**
The two-room cabin was small. An iron double bed was sitting by the fireplace with a trunk at the foot of the bed. A rocking chair was at the opposite end of the fireplace and a table and four chairs were in the middle of the floor. The old pantry cupboard was on the opposite wall. A ladder beside the pantry cupboard led to the small loft upstairs. A backdoor on the sidewall led to the back of the cabin, where a swing hung from the big oak tree and a water pump was hooked up outside the door.
An older plump woman in her late fifties with graying brown hair was kneeling near the fireplace cooking stew. A young, small, frail woman only 43-years of age with light brown hair and sky blue eyes was lying on the first floor bed. She had tears streaming down her cheeks as she clutched a small photo in her hands and held it protectively to her chest. A cold winter chill could be felt coming through the cracks in the walls.
As the older woman began to fill two bowls with stew and placing them on the table the younger woman began to get up from the bed. “LEAH!” The older woman scolded as she rushed over to hold onto the younger as she stumbled on her way to the table. “You shouldn’t be out of bed!”
“I’m tired of lyin’ down, Rachel, nobody should be resting this much till they’re dead,” Leah replied as Rachel assisted her to a chair at the table.
“Really Leah, you must not talk like that. And you should be saving your strength.”
“To see your son.”
“He doesn’t want to see me. I can’t really blame him. After all I have put him through how could he ever forgive me.”
“You can’t change the past, Leah,” Rachel put her hand on top of her young friend’s, “stop feeling guilty for what you can’t do anything about.”
“No, Rachel, no I can’t change the past. I let my pride hurt my son.” Leah’s hands were shaking as she tried to pick up the spoon. The effort to eat was not working so Rachel moved her chair closer and began to feed her friend.
“Rachel,” Leah growled as her hand pushed away the help, “I am not a child!”
“You’re letting your pride get the best of you again my child!” Rachel looked at her friend sternly, “You are sick and too weak to do this yourself. The reason why you should have stayed in bed.” Her voice softening, “Please Leah, let me help you.”
“I’m sorry Rachel,” Leah relented to her friend as the spoon was raised to her mouth, “It’s just hard.”
“I know, dear, I know.” Rachel decided to change the subject, “The wire I sent Heath should be arriving today or tomorrow which means he’ll be here in two weeks. I should check and see if the apples were ruined by the frost. If not, I believe I’ll surprise our boy with an apple pie when he comes.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Leah asked with tear filled eyes, fearing she wouldn’t see her son one final time before she took her last breath.
“He will, Leah, have faith. Heath loves you, don’t you ever forget that.” Rachel tried to reassure her friend.
Bringing in the herd from the high country and keeping them calm was not an easy task for the dusty cowboys. The cattle were just as cold, tired, and hungry as they were. The cowboys found themselves using more adrenaline just to keep one step ahead of the irritable cattle while also trying to keep themselves warm against the bitter cold. Coming around the bend with shelter on the horizon had brought heavy sighs of relief for the tired men. Once the cattle were bedded for the winter snowfall the cowboys headed for supper.
Standing in line to clean up followed by hot soup and coffee the cowboys would enjoy a long night of rest as the snow began to fall. As the men around the table were eating dinner Jim Campbell, the owner of the Campbell Ranch entered the building. Saying his hellos and congratulating the men on their hard work he made his way over to a back table. A shy young man 20 years of age with sun kissed blond hair and sky blue eyes was quietly eating his dinner as he listened to the conversation around the table. The meal was interrupted when the young man felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Heath, I need to speak to you for a moment.” Jim Campbell quietly spoke before leading the young man to an area on the side that housed the bunks for the men.
“Jim, is everything all right?”
“No, Heath,” Jim fumbled with the paper in his hand, “This wire came today from your Aunt Rachel. It’s your Mama, son. She’s real sick and your Aunt believes you should come home,” he paused and lowered his voice to a whisper, “before it’s too late.”
Heath Thomson’s face turned white with fear, pain, hurt and regret. His Mama was dying! Jim handed the wire to Heath’s shaking hands realizing the young man was trying to keep his emotions in check. “Heath, why don’t you leave tomorrow by first light. I’ll give your pay early so you’ll have something for the trip. And also a little bonus so you can take the train.”
“I can’t accept…”
“Stop right there, son.” Jim looked at Heath, “Don’t let that stubborn pride of yours get in the way. Your Mama needs you.”
“I’ll pay ya back, sir.” Heath knew fighting Jim was a losing battle, and he did want to see his Mama before she died and if his pride caused him not to see her…well he didn’t want to entertain that feeling.
“Forget about paying me back. I will not accept it so don’t even try it. I give bonuses to all my men at Christmas so this is not charity, son.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me sir?” Jim chuckled as he put his arm around the young man’s shoulders trying to lighten the mood. It was a small effort that helped change the mood of the worried cowboy as he rewarded his boss with a lop-sided grin.
“May God be with you, son, and remember that you’ll always have a place here. So if you want to come back, your job will be waiting here for you.”
“Thank ya, Jim. I can’t tell ya how much your friendship means to me.”
“No thanks needed, son. You’re a fine young man. Don’t ever let anyone tell you any different. I was very lucky to have you on my Ranch. Now go finish dinner and get some rest. Make sure to see me before you leave tomorrow.”
“I will, Jim, goodnight.” Heath left and returned to the table and he tried to eat his dinner. Jim Campbell watched the young man leave. He had come to love this young man in the short six months he was employed with him. Jim had a sad feeling he would never see him again! Heath Thomson was someone special and for Jim Campbell, who never married or had children, wished this young man could have been his son!
It was Christmas Eve and Strawberry was not in the Christmas Spirit. As Heath, rode through his childhood town he couldn’t help but relive his painful past. He hated this town with a passion. He desperately wanted to leave and when he did pain still followed him. He wondered if maybe the townsfolk were right and that he was cursed as the devil’s child and everything he touched would always cause pain and tragedy for him and those he loved. He shook his head to erase his mind of those thoughts as he headed for the livery stable. After bedding down his horse, Heath began the walk to his Mama’s cabin. He was hoping he wasn’t too late. He wanted to see his Mama again.
“Please, God, don’t let me be too late.” Heath’s heart was pounding and the tears were forming in his eyes. Walking up to the door he hesitated. He hadn’t been home in so long he wasn’t sure what to do. Sighing, Heath knocked and after a few moments Rachel opened the door.
“HEATH!” Rachel put her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “Oh Heath, I’m so glad you came home.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she began to sob.
Leah, lying on the bed, opened her eyes and as she saw her son at the foot of the bed tears began to fall. Her son had come home! The Good Lord answered her prayers and allowed her one last time with her son! Rachel finally released Heath from her tight hold and looked up at him. Rachel’s outburst was too much for Heath’s emotions and tears he tried to keep in check were now falling. Heath slowly turned to face his Mama and without a word he went to her.
“Please, sweetheart, sit down.” Heath did as he was instructed and sat on the edge of the bed. Leah’s strength was quickly leaving her and she was unable to sit up. Heath picked her up in his arms and held her close to him.
“Oh Mama!” Heath sobbed as he buried his face in her neck, resting his head on her shoulder. He smelled her scent and he promised himself that he wouldn’t forget the smell of his Mama.
“Shush sweetheart, it’s all right.” Leah mustered up the little strength she had as she enveloped her arms around her son.
Rachel realized that the mother and son who became her family needed to be alone and she quietly excused herself from the small cabin. Walking to her friend Hannah’s home, she would inform her that Heath had come home!
Releasing himself from her embrace Heath took in the frail look of his Mama. Her time was close and he knew it. He received word only one week ago. Jim was right, he realized. He wouldn’t have made it home in time if he didn’t take the train. ‘Thank Ya Jim’ he thought to himself. Taking a small gift out of his breast pocket he handed it to his Mama.
“Merry Christmas, Mama.” Heath gave her the same big childlike smile he always would give when he handed her a present.
Smiling at her son, Leah took the small gift and with her son’s help she unwrapped it. She held in her hands a small wooden cross necklace. “Oh Heath.”
She cried at the beauty of the cross that had the carving of Jesus with a crown of thorns placed on his head. She had over a dozen cross necklaces varying in shapes, sizes and detail safely secured in the trunk at the foot of her bed. They were precious gifts her son made for her. They didn’t have much money and fine gifts from the catalog were not possible for her. But that didn’t matter to her at all. Her son’s precious talents at creating her gifts were far more expensive than any gift the catalog could ever offer.
“I made the cross for ya on the train,” noticing her questioned look he explained, “Jim gave me a Christmas bonus to allow me to take the train home.” Leah realized what Heath had earlier.
“Jim’s a good man.”
“Yes, Mama, he is.”
“Heath, will ya put this necklace on for me?” Leah asked her son as she held the necklace out to him. Gently placing his hands behind her he placed the necklace around her neck. He would never have this honor again! This was the last time he would present his Mama with a gift. This was indeed the best Christmas for Heath Thomson, and one he would forever cherish!
Leah caressed his cheeks and wiped away the tears before Heath crawled up on the bed lying beside his Mama. She drew her son to her chest and rocked him in her arms. Running her hands through his blond hair and rubbing his back, Leah savored what would become one of the last times she would hold her child in her arms. Having her son so close at this time she couldn’t help but remember the day he was born.
**Strawberry California, May 8, 1849**
The labor had lasted nearly 18 hours before it was discovered her baby was a breech. With only her friends Rachel Caulfield and Hannah James present for the delivery she would put her trust and faith in them that they would know how to save her and her son’s life. As Hannah turned the child, Rachel held onto her friend to help give her the support she would need to endure the pain and the final moments of delivery. Whatever pain she had just endured to bring her child into the world was immediately erased the moment she heard his cry.
He was a small child just over six and a half pounds with golden hair and eyes that were as blue as the sky above. The ladies chuckled at the boy’s fair hair but Leah knew it was a sign that her child was indeed a miracle. He was a piece of Heaven sent to her from God himself!
As Hannah placed her son in her arms the crying of the small child immediately stopped. Holding him close to her chest, Rachel helped show her how to help him take the milk she offered from her breast. Taking in the look of her precious son tears streamed down her cheeks and she began to think of his father. She had never been with a man before him. He was her first taste of love. This older man that knew how to treat her like a princess immediately stole her heart.
She had hoped he could have been here. They were to be a family. But that world she had created for her life was crushed the day she learned he already had a family of his own. He had a wife and two sons to call his own. She knew having him was impossible. She felt shame knowing she had been with another woman’s husband. How could she go on living knowing she had created the worst kind of sin? Then to learn that this man had left her in the family way!
A pain filled her broken heart as she wondered how it should have been. How would he feel knowing he had this beautiful precious child to call his son? Would he even claim him as a son? Her son had two brothers, would they be brothers to her son? How would his wife feel about her husband having a son from someone other than her? She tried to clear her mind of all thoughts related to him. He was gone. In all reality he never was hers to begin with. He had his own family and they weren’t part of it. She would raise her son alone and he would never know the truth about his son. He would have his family and she would have her precious son!
It had been two days since her son had come home. Her time had now come. “Mama?” Heath sat on the bed holding a cup of warm tea.
“Hello sweetheart.” She smiled up at her precious child as he helped her take a drink of the warm liquid. She had lost all her strength and couldn’t even reach up to touch her son. But he knew this and drew himself closer to her and he caressed her cheek knowing she would want to feel his touch, and he wanted to feel hers. This was so hard. How do you say goodbye?
“Sweetheart, we have to talk about your father.”
“No, Mama! I want the last time we have to be special. I don’t want it to be about him!”
“Heath!” Her tone was one that told him she was not to be denied so he did not protest. “Please get my Bible.”
Knowing she held strength from the word of God he thought for a second maybe she had agreed not to approach the subject of that man! Grabbing her Bible he started to hand it to her. “No ya keep it, I want ya to have it. Heath, I’m sorry. I was wrong to keep ya from your father. Ya should’ve known him and he should’ve known ya.”
“Mama, it’s all right.”
“No, Heath, it’s not all right! I didn’t tell ya cause of my pride. I let ya suffer,” he tried to interrupt but she pleaded with him through her eyes. “I need to say this, Heath. I’m sorry it’s now and maybe it’s the coward’s way out. But I have to say this. I know me not telling ya is what made ya stay away from here.”
“No Mama that’s not why I stayed away. This town hated us. They were cruel to us. I couldn’t stay here. I had to get away. And Uncle Matt, I just couldn’t be near him anymore.” Tears streamed down his cheeks as he begged for her forgiveness, “I’m sorry ya thought that it was you Mama. After the war…” he paused as he choked back a sob, “after the war I became messed up. I didn’t want to live anymore, I wanted to die,” he heard her gasp at his words. “I was runnin’ away. Runnin’ away from life.”
“Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry. If only…”
“No if only Mama,” He smiled at her, “I love ya.”
“I love ya too. But ya needed your father. Ya needed a man you could have looked up to. Ya have a family, Heath, a real family with two brothers and a sister. I’m sorry I kept ya from them!”
“The Bible, Heath, open it up to the back. You’ll find the answers you have been looking for, the answers to life’s questions, Heath. Please forgive me! Open it, Heath.”
He looked down at the Bible in his trembling hands and slowly opened to the back as his Mama requested. There was a newspaper article on a funeral announcement for one Thomas Barkley! He looked at his Mama to ask her if this was his father when he saw that she was gone…
The funeral was small with only three people in attendance. The cross for the headstone was made of old wood found in the livery stable. Rachel Caulfield, Hannah James and Heath Thomson stood in front of Leah Thomson’s grave.
Leah Margaret Thomson
Beloved Mother and Friend
July 1826 – December 1869
Heath stood in the middle of the two women who became his family not by blood but by love. Standing in front of his Mama’s final resting-place in the town cemetery tears streamed down his cheeks. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye but he knew he had no choice.
Rachel cited the Psalm 23 verse while Hannah sang “Amazing Grace”. Before leaving the grave behind, the three in attendance simultaneously cited a prayer that was taught to Leah from her mother that was passed down to each generation.
“May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May the Good Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.
Rachel and Hannah gave Heath some time to be alone and he knelt down on his knees. “I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry for all the pain I have caused ya. I was lucky to have ya in my life. I’ll never forget ya and I’ll never forget what ya taught me. I’ll try to live my life in a way that’ll make ya proud. I’ll miss ya. I hope Heaven is as beautiful as ya always imagined. I hope you’re happy.” Heath sobbed uncontrollably as he rocked back and forth burying his face in his hands.
Rachel and Hannah clung to each other as their hearts broke for this young man they came to love so dearly. They wished they knew how to heal his broken heart. The ladies returned to the cabin and allowed their Heath to be alone.
Close to half an hour after crying his heart out Heath curled up near her grave and fell asleep. He was awakened by something wet on his face. As he opened his eyes to the sun shining down on him he forgot for a moment where he was until he saw his Mama’s grave, then he remembered. Feeling something wet again on his face he looked up to see a shadow of someone standing over him. It was his Uncle Matt holding a whiskey bottle in his hand. Before he could react his Uncle’s boot made contact with his head causing the world to spin around him!
“Well I see the bastard has come home!” Matt Simmons snarled at his nephew.
“What are ya doin’ here?” Heath couldn’t help but see the man who always brought out that frightened child in him. No matter how much Heath tried to fight it and be strong his Uncle held a mental control over him. At 20 years of age Heath still felt as if he was a frightened six-year-old in the presence of his Uncle.
“I see ya still have bad manners, bastard, ya didn’t even invite me to my own sister’s funeral!”
“Ya hated her so why would ya want to come?” A swift kick of a boot met with Heath’s ribs as he scurried up to protect himself from his Uncle’s attack.
“Like I said, ya still have bad manners!” Matt flashed an evil grin. Heath could quickly tell his Uncle was yet again drunk. “She never should’ve kept ya. Ya ruined her life, bastard! Ya ruined MY life!”
“No ya ruined your own life from not being able to stay away from the bottle.” He knew very well he was enticing his Uncle, but his Mama had just died and this was her resting-place. How dare he come here and disgrace her memory this way! The back of Matt’s hand forcefully connected with Heath’s face sending him falling on his side and rendering a bloody nose. The already pounding head now was wheeling with dizziness.
“Ya pathetic bastard! Ya should’ve died a long time ago and saved us all the misery of having ya around!” As Matt’s hand yet again tried to make contact Heath’s leg kicked Matt’s legs out from under him sending him crashing to the ground. Heath tried to get up and leave before his Uncle regained his composure. The dizziness in his head caused him to stumble giving Matt Simmons the leverage he needed and like many times before he leashed his full drunken fury on his nephew. “YOU BASTARD!”
Matt Simmons was a lethal piece of flesh that had no humane thought in his mind. He was worse when he was drunk! For Heath learned at a young age that Matt Simmons would become one of two men he would fear most in his life. Receiving whippings, beatings, and constant rounds of verbal abuse from his Uncle, Heath never had any peace in Strawberry. When it wasn’t the townsfolk causing him pain and grief, it was his Uncle.
Matt Simmons was drunk today, an occurrence that became more frequent in recent years. Matt knew he struck fear into his nephew and for the drunk who felt more like a man when he was standing over a fear-stricken young boy, he took great pleasure in beating his bastard nephew. His life had no promise. He was married to an equally wicked woman named Martha. Martha seemed to be the one who wore the pants in the marriage, a joke the townsfolk would have at Matt’s expense. When Matt would hear the jokes he would turn his anger on the person he knew he elicited fear from, Heath. When the dreams of a successful hotel were crushed Matt would turn his anger on the person he knew he elicited fear from, Heath. When he would drown his sorrows over his ruined life in alcohol Matt would turn his anger on the person he knew he elicited fear from, Heath. When the town would demean him for having a bastard nephew he would turn his anger on the cause of it, his sister Leah.
The town of Strawberry had died out when the mine closed down. Slowly, with each passing day families were packing up and moving away. The once booming mining town was now deserted and a true ghost town. Matt and Martha Simmons remained in Strawberry afraid to leave and start anew. There was nothing left for Matt Simmons anymore.
Matt Simmons could have had it all! He could have received the undying love of a precious innocent child. He could have had a young boy looking up to him as a hero. He could have received a loving family with his little sister Leah and her young son Heath! He could have had it all. But Matt Simmons chose to throw it all away! The child that could have worshipped him instead feared him. The sister that could have adored him instead feared him. He could have had it all, but instead Matt Simmons chose to have nothing!
Heath tried to protect himself from the blows but with each one he received he became weaker and weaker. He was already suffering from a broken heart as he mourned the loss of his Mama. He was now suffering from so much more that was broken. Standing over his bruised and battered nephew, Matt Simmons snarled in disgust at the person he blamed for his present living conditions. Taking the whiskey bottle and with as much force he could muster he broke the bottle across the bastard’s head rendering him unconscious.
“Do us all a favor, bastard, and die this time!” Matt Simmons began to walk away when he stopped and stared at his sister’s grave. “Rot in hell Bitch!” Matt threw the broken whiskey bottle at the headstone shattering it into pieces as alcohol stained the cross, then Matt staggered away from the family that could have been so much more and returned to the wife he despised.
With dinner ready, Rachel took a walk to Leah’s grave to inform her beloved nephew that he should eat something. As she walked closer to the grave she saw Matt walking away and Heath lying on the ground.
“Oh no! Oh not today! Hannah! Hannah, come quick!” Hannah came rushing out of the cabin and as Rachel met her friend half way the two friends turned and ran towards the grave.
“Oh my boy, what’d that evil man do to ya?” Hannah cried as she and Rachel knelt down near Heath. His blond hair was now red with blood from the open head wound. The bruised and battered face made him nearly unrecognizable. He had multiple broken ribs. He was unconscious and a fever was quickly rising.
“Hannah, stay with him! I’m going to get the wagon so we can take him to Pikeston to see Doctor Jones.” Hannah cradled Heath in her arms humming a gospel tune as Rachel turned and ran towards the livery stable. She prayed she would not have to bury another family member so soon!
The ride to Pikeston was slow and painful for the ladies. Heath had woken up and began to cry out in pain. His head was cradled on Hannah’s lap in the back of the wagon as Rachel drove the team. Reaching Pikeston, the ladies were as drained as their beloved Heath. Jumping down from the wagon, Rachel pounded on the Doctors door. “DOCTOR!”
Doctor Jones opened up the door and was quickly summoned to the wagon. “Oh my,” was the Doctor’s only words upon seeing Heath. He had administered to Heath many times after a run-in with Matt Simmons. He needed no explanation of what he saw. “Jimmy!” The Doctor called to the young boy that was just seconds earlier a patient of his, “Go get Peter from the general store and hurry!” Jimmy quickly did as instructed and Peter came rushing from the store across the street with the little boy behind him. Peter helped the Doctor carry Heath inside so he could be examined.
Two hours after arriving in Pikeston the Doctor gave Rachel and Hannah an update. “Well I don’t have to tell you the severity of his injuries. We will need to monitor him for the next twenty-four hours.” Doctor Jones paused, “Heath is in good hands if you want to return to Strawberry and be near Leah.”
“Thanks Doctor, but that won’t be necessary. We buried Leah today.” Rachel spoke with tears in her eyes.
“Oh dear Lord!” The Doctor was stunned, “I knew the time was near but…I’m very sorry.”
“Thank you. Can we see Heath now? We would prefer not to leave him.”
”Why don’t you go over and have Mary get you something to eat and a place to rest. Heath is resting now and I suggest you do the same. We have a long road ahead of us and we need to take shifts.” After much convincing the ladies did as requested and after seeing Heath for a second they left to see the Doctor’s wife.
The three weeks following the attack were a trying time for everyone. The head wound caused Heath to lose a lot of blood and there were many times it was feared he would not survive. The fever raging his body caused him to suffer nightmares. And as if that wasn’t enough the infection in Heath’s body made him an easy target to illnesses and pneumonia had quickly set in. Rachel and Hannah stayed constantly by his side whispering words of love in his ear. Heath was slowly recovering from his injuries. His head had stitches and was covered with a white bandage. His ribs were bound to help them heal. The cuts and swelling on his face were slowly beginning to disappear.
“Hello sweetheart,” Rachel smiled when she saw the blue eyes open and he looked around the room. “How are you feeling?”
“Like my head is about to fall off, Aunt Rachel.” Heath tried to cover his eyes from the light coming through the curtains in the window, increasing the pain in his head.
Rachel ran her hands through his bandaged hair and kissed his forehead. “The Doctor was afraid to give you headache powder because of the head injury. I know it hurts, sweetheart, but try to close your eyes and rest, all right?”
Rachel went over to the washbasin and wet the cloth. The contact of the cool cloth on his fevered face helped offer some relief for the young man. Rachel folded the cloth and placed it over his eyes giving Heath shelter from the bright sun’s attack on his pounding head.
“Mama’s dead, Aunt Rachel,” Heath’s whisper was filled with a pained realization.
“Yes, sweetheart, she is.”
“I was hopin’ it was all a dream and that she was still alive.”
“She’s in Heaven now, Heath. She’ll never be in pain or be unhappy ever again. You have to remember that. She’s safe now.”
Heath smiled and reached for his Aunt’s hand. “I know Aunt Rachel, but it doesn’t help make me miss her any less. I failed her as a son.”
“You never failed her, Heath Morgan Thomson!”
“Yes I did. She thought I stayed away cause of her. I wanted her to come with me, Aunt Rachel. I wanted ya all to come and start a new life away from here, but ya wouldn’t leave and I couldn’t stay.”
“I know Heath. Nobody blamed you for leaving.” Rachel had tears in her eyes, “please just get some rest. You need to get back your strength so you can be well again. Won’t you be going back to the Campbell Ranch once you are able?”
“I don’t know, Aunt Rachel. I feel like I don’t belong anywhere. I feel so lost.”
“Well after you get better, Heath, we’ll have a long talk. I have a feeling I know how to help you find yourself. Now this is the last time I’m going to tell you, young man, get some sleep.”
Heath gave a small chuckle and did as his Aunt told him and allowed sleep to come. Rachel sat on the stool beside her nephew’s bed holding his hand for a long time after he fell asleep. Rachel was thinking of how she would tell her nephew about his family. His Father’s Family! Rachel prayed she would be doing the right thing. He had suffered so much already and she didn’t want to be responsible for more pain.
It had been over seven weeks since Matt Simmons attacked Heath. Physically the wounds were healed but mentally Heath was still suffering from the loss of his Mama. Heath remained in Strawberry fixing up both Rachel and Hannah’s cabins. After the cold winter months and the heavy rains, both cabins were suffering from severe weather damage. Heath hadn’t remained this long in Strawberry since before he left town to join the war at age fourteen. Rachel and Hannah strong-armed Heath into remaining in town until he was fully recovered from the beating. But they were also worried about his refusal to come to terms with Leah’s death. Matt and Martha Simmons knew Heath had returned from Pikeston but neither showed their faces in front of Heath, an act he was grateful for.
On this cool afternoon of this third week of February, Heath was working on Rachel’s roof repairing rotten boards. “Heath?” Heath stopped working when he heard his name being called.
“Yeah, Aunt Rachel?”
“It’s Lunchtime. Why don’t you take a break and eat?”
“I’m comin’,” Heath climbed down the ladder and went over to the water pump and began to wash up before entering the cabin.
“Boy Howdy, Aunt Rachel, is that an apple pie I smell?” Heath smiled when he entered the cabin through the backdoor and gave a kiss to both Rachel and Hannah.
“It’s a small thank you for the repairs you’ve been doing,” Rachel smiled as Heath kissed her. Heath sat down at the table with fixings of soup and bread prepared for their meal. Heath began to tear off a piece of nice warm bread when he felt a smack on his hand.
“Heath Thomson! We say grace ‘fore we eat,” Hannah scolded while pointing her finger at Heath. Heath smiled and took the lady’s hand and kissed the top of it.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Hannah.” Heath winked and flashed his lop-sided grin at Hannah, who in return blushed and swatted him.
“Oh stop that.”
Heath chuckled and winked at Rachel, who giggled. “If you are finished teasing Hannah, why don’t you say grace?” Rachel’s giggle turned to laughter at Heath’s groan.
“Dear Lord, thank you for this food you have supplied, in Jesus name we pray, Amen.” After the prayer was spoken, everyone began eating the food.
“How’s the roof coming?” Rachel asked while she passed around the bread.
“I should be done with it this afternoon. I think that clears up most of the repairs on both cabins. I’ll then chop some wood for the both of ya so you’ll have a large supply of it available.”
“So you’ll be leaving soon, then?”
“Yeah,” Heath kept his eyes on his food and refused to look up, “I can’t stay here. I have to leave.”
“Ya could come with me?” Rachel didn’t miss Heath’s hopeful tone.
“We’ve been over this Heath. This town is all Hannah and I know. We need a place to call home. We can’t travel around like you, we need roots.”
“If ya came with me we could find a place to settle.”
Rachel smiled as she put her hand under Heath’s chin and made him look at her. “Would you be doing it for us or for you? You need to find your place in this world Heath and you wouldn’t be doing that if you felt forced to settle someplace because of me and Hannah.”
After supper later that evening Heath walked Hannah to her home and made sure she was settled in her cabin and the door was securely locked before heading back to Rachel’s. Walking into the cabin, Rachel was sitting in the rocking chair sewing one of Heath’s shirts. Heath sat down on the base of the fireplace and held onto Leah’s Bible.
Opening the Bible to the back Heath pulled out the funeral announcement of Thomas Barkley. He had stared at this photo numerous times since his return to Strawberry. He tried to see if he could find a resemblance to the older man. He couldn’t find one. Rachel watched what became a nightly ritual for Heath. She wanted to wait until he was fully recovered before approaching this subject. She didn’t want to have his upset cause any damage to his injuries. She now realized she couldn’t put this off any longer.
“Heath, when we were in Pikeston I told you we would have a talk. I think it’s time we have that talk.”
Without looking away from the newspaper article, Heath replied, “About what Aunt Rachel?”
“Is he…my father?”
“Yes Heath he is.”
“I can’t see a resemblance to him.”
“When he was younger than he was in that photo you looked more like him.” Rachel paused, “Tom Barkley owned the mine here in Strawberry. He came here on business when he was robbed and beaten. Leah was coming home from working at the Hotel when she found him outside of the saloon unconscious on the ground. He had no money, nothing to say his identity except for his wallet with the name ‘Thomas’ on it, and his clothes were torn and tattered…”
Rachel sighed, “Leah brought him here. She nursed him back to health. When he woke up he had no memory of who he was. Since his wallet had the name ‘Thomas’ on it that is what we called him.”
“He forgot his wife and sons?” Heath’s bitterness displayed his disbelief.
“Yes Heath, he didn’t know he was married and had a family. Your Mama fell in love with him and he fell in love with her. I warned Leah to be careful. She had never been with a man before. She was inexperienced and she was living in a fantasy. She wouldn’t listen to any of my warnings. She was certain Tom was the one she would marry and have a family with.”
“What happened when his memory returned?”
“I was the first to realize his memory was returning. Leah just made excuses for his actions. I confronted him one afternoon and he admitted to me that he remembered everything. His wife was Victoria and they had just suffered the death of their 6-month-old son Charles from the fever. He had two sons who were three and eight. He missed them all terribly and wanted to return to them.”
“So what he had with Mama meant nothin’ to him when he remembered?”
“No. No, Heath, he still loved her. That was the personal struggle he was going through. He found himself in love with two women. He didn’t want to hurt either one but he knew that’s what would happen. I made him tell Leah the truth.”
”What’d she do?”
“She punched him in the jaw,” Rachel chuckled as she remembered her friend’s reaction. “She pretended she didn’t care and that she didn’t love him. She told him to go back home to his wife and sons. He tried to talk to her to apologize but she wouldn’t listen to anything he had to say to her. She didn’t cry in front of him. She waited until he left. He left immediately after he told her. Before he left he told her that if she needed anything to write him. That he never meant to hurt her and that he wanted to repay what he had done to her. After he left she fell onto the bed and cried her heart out.”
“He would’ve done anything?” Heath’s voice was above a whisper as his eyes never left the picture of Tom Barkley. “Does that anything mean a son?”
“He didn’t know about you Heath. Leah never told him about you. Tom wrote her a letter to check up on her, to see how she was doing. She never wrote him back and never once contacted him.”
“BUT WHY?” Heath jumped up onto his feet and began pacing the small cabin. “WHY DIDN’T SHE TELL HIM ABOUT ME? WHY?” Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he clutched the article in his trembling hand, “I DON’T EVEN KNOW IF HE WOULD HAVE LOVED ME. WHY DIDN’T SHE TELL HIM?”
“She was ashamed.”
“Of me?” Heath’s cracked voice was above a whisper.
“NO. SHE WAS NEVER ASHAMED OF YOU HEATH THOMSON. NEVER!” Rachel stood up and clasped tightly to her nephew’s shoulders. “She loved you and she was so proud of you. She was ashamed of herself Heath, never of you.”
“Ashamed of herself? But why?”
“Because she was a virgin who made love to a man out of wedlock who just happened to be a married man, that’s why Heath.”
“But he had amnesia. She didn’t know.”
“But her heart was broken and she was in a situation she never thought she would be in. She was only 22 years old, Heath. She was only two years older than you are right now. She was too young to face such heartache as that was.”
“When he wrote the letter, did she know I was on the way?”
“Yes she knew.”
“Did ya try to make her tell him?”
“I tried Heath, I tried real hard. I thought he had the right to know about you. She couldn’t get over the shame of it all. She thought about his wife and how it would hurt her to know what happened. She didn’t want to go knock on his door and say ‘Hello Tom I’m expecting your child’ she thought it felt cheap. She had more pride in herself than that.”
Heath resumed his pacing of the small cabin and to Rachel he appeared like a caged animal. Unclenching the article from his trembling hand he read part of the announcement out loud in a shaky voice.
“Thomas Barkley, founder of the Barkley Empire in Stockton California was killed by an assassin’s bullet on August 8, 1866. Funeral service for Mr. Barkley will be held Sunday where he will be buried on the Barkley Ranch. All are welcomed to attend the service. Tom Barkley is survived by his wife Victoria, two sons, Jarrod, Attorney at Law age 26, Nick, Foreman of the Barkley Ranch age 21 and daughter Audra age 14.
“Two sons. Two sons.” Heath spun around waving the article in the air, “IT SAYS TWO SONS! JARROD, ATTORNEY AT LAW AGE 26 AND NICK, FOREMAN OF THE BARKLEY RANCH AGE 21! TWO SONS! IT’S A LIE! A LIE! HE HAD THREE SONS! ME! I WAS HIS SON! IT SHOULD SAY HEATH THOMSON HIS BASTARD SON AGE 17!
“Do ya know where I was at age 17? I was wanderin’ the countryside workin’ at whatever job I could get that I hoped would get me killed. I was outta that Army Hospital for 10 months and I was fightin’ demons from Carterson Prison that I couldn’t escape. The war was over for everyone else but it wasn’t over for me, not in my head.”
Heath fell to the floor onto his knees as he rocked back and forth and in a small pained whisper he cried, “If I had a father he would have protected me. I would have been allowed to go to school. I wouldn’t have had to go to work in the mines. I wouldn’t have had to go to bed hungry. He wouldn’t have let Uncle Matt beat me. He wouldn’t have let me go off to war and I wouldn’t have ended up in that Prison.”
Rachel rushed over and knelt down near Heath and enveloped him in her arms. “Would he have loved me, Aunt Rachel? Would my father have loved me? I don’t even know if he would’ve loved me.”
“He would have loved you Heath. He would have loved you. He would have been proud to call you son. I’m sorry Heath. I’m so, so sorry.”
Rachel and Heath remained on the floor holding onto each other for most of the night. Tears flowed between both of them until neither could produce more tears. When it was close to one in the morning both finally went to bed, but neither of them fell asleep. Rachel thought about a hurt boy who desperately needed his father. Heath thought about what it would have been like if he had a father and if that father, Tom Barkley, would have loved him.