“Nick!” Tom shouted from the bottom of the stairs! “Son, better get a move on. We leave in five minutes.”
“I’m ready, Father,” twelve-year-old Nick answered excitedly as he appeared at the top of the stairs in his riding gear with a satchel slung over his shoulder. He thundered down the steps to join his father and mother waiting for him at the front door.
“You got everything?” Tom asked, hinting to his bare hands.
Nick followed his father’s gaze to notice that he had forgotten his gloves. “My gloves! I forgot them upstairs. Be right back!” He breezed up the stairs, striding two steps at once.
“That boy’s riding the wind today,” Tom observed.
“He’s got to learn the ropes if he is to take over for me someday. It’s not only the ranch but the mining business as well. Besides he needs to get his mind off his horse.”
“It was devastating for him. I am grateful that you didn’t shoot the animal in front of him.”
“I could never do that. But it broke my heart having to do it. Nick loved that pony.”
“I know. He’ll come around. This trip will be good for him.”
“While we’re there I’ll ride past McKenzie’s spread to see if he has any good ponies for sale,” Tom said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Oh Tom. That would make Nick’s day,” Victoria exultation was all the assurance Tom needed to go ahead with his idea.
“I thought perhaps it might be too soon and that Nick would hate me for wanting to replace good ole Champion.”
“Just take him along with you to see the horses and you’ll know if it’s the right time.”
“You’re such a wise woman,” he sighed with eyes shining with admiration.
“I know,” she teased, welcoming her husband’s lips on hers; a kiss that was cut short by Nick’s return.
“I’m ready, Father.”
“All right, let’s go.” Tom leaned in to give Victoria a quick kiss and waited for Nick to place a peck on her mother’s cheek before heading out where Ciego was waiting with the wagon.
“It’s all set, Senor Barkley.”
“Did you check the wobbly wheel I told you about?”
“Yes I did and it’s all better now.”
“Good job, Ciego.” He patted his faithful hand on the back while Nick hopped in the back with his mother mollycoddling him. “Ah mother, I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself,” he whined, his face flushing from embarrassment in front of his father and Ciego.
“Nicolas, mothers always fuss, even with us grown men,” Tom joshed. “I’m her biggest baby, she says.”
“That is true. So Nicolas I trust you will keep an eye on your father as well,” she played along to dissipate her son’s
“I will, Mother,” Nick smiled amusedly.
“Take care you too. Tom. Remember to send a telegram once you reach destination so I’ll know your arrived safely,” she instructed authoritatively.
“I won’t Torie.” He puckered his lips to blow her a goodbye kiss and flickered the horses onwards.
Ciego came to stand by Victoria as both waved goodbye. “The boy will be okay Mrs. Barkley. Did you see his face? I can tell he is thrilled about this trip.”
“It’s not Nick I’m worried about, Ciego.” She glanced his way to convey her qualms about her husband’s likely meeting with an old flame in Strawberry.
On the way to Strawberry, father and son engaged in a healing discussion about Nick’s recent tribulation at school.
“They started school last week and already they are terrorizing every one. I just can’t let this be, Father,” Nick explained about the three new bullies in his class. “On Tuesday, they snatched Peggy Hollingsworth’s books from her and threw them over the schoolyard fence. I had to punch their lights out.”
Tom chuckled inwardly at his son’s passion and bit his lip to retain his amusement in front of Nick as he didn’t want him to know that he approved of what he’d done. Nick was a chivalrous as they came and was proud of his son’s sense of duty when it came to protecting young innocent girls. “Nicolas I won’t say you didn’t do right by this young girl, but you know that violence triggers more violence.”
“I know but did you want me to do?”
“You go to your teacher and explain what happened.”
“I did that, several times but Miss. Carson thinks I’m the one who is over reacting.”
“Well didn’t the girl tell her what happened?”
“She thinks she just said that because she finds me cute.” Tom chortle. “Don’t laugh, Father. It’s not funny.”
“Sorry Nick. But from what you tell me she’s not the only one who’s been bullied by those young boys?”
“No, but the others just ignore them.”
“I see we have a big problem.”
“You’re telling me!” Nick harrumphed.
They made a brief stop by a river to allow the horses to rest and quench their thirst. As both father and son walked down to the riverbank to fill their canteens, Nick noticed a small bird on the grass. Fascinated by this tiny creature he was seeing up close he inched up to the bird hoping to get it to leap in his hand. Instead it hopped away without taking flight, which Nick found peculiar. He quickened the pace to catch up with it and gently caught him in his hands.
With gentle touch, Nick picked it up and held it in the palm of his hand. “Look Father, I think its wing’s broken.”
Tom stepped up to Nick to examine his son’s catch. “I think you’re right.”
“Can I keep it, Father? I’ll try to make it all better so he can fly again.”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Thanks!” Nick exulted, flashing a broad grateful smile to his father as he walked past him to find a flattened boulder where he delicately placed his injured friend. Strangely as it seems to Tom, the sparrow didn’t try to leap away. Instead he remained on the spot, studying his caretaker with a curious eye. Nick took his canteen and dribbled a few drops of water onto his bandana. He then proceeded to dab at the crust of blood underneath the wing. The bird chirped his protest, trying to wiggle himself free from Nick’s grip, but eventually stopped griping when it sensed that the boy meant him no harm.
Tom observed with wonderment his son’s caring for the small helpless bird. How was it that this loud, stubborn and often rambunctious boy could be so gentle with wildlife? That thought made his heart soar with pride and joy.
When it came time to head on, Nick wrapped the bird in his neck cloth and placed it inside his satchel, making sure that the little one had enough air but not too much room to try an impromptu leap.
Hours later they arrived in Strawberry and headed straight for the hotel where Tom had booked a suite. Nick hid his little friend until they were safely inside the room. There he opened his satchel and let it leap about freely on the bed as he helped his father unpack their travel bags.
“I have to go see about the mine before we head down to supper. Would you like to come with me?”
Nick hesitated, his heart swaying between following his father and keeping a vigil on his injured bird. “What about Petey?”
“Petey? You mean the bird?” Nick nodded. “I’m sure he’ll wait for you. We’ll make sure the window’s close so he won’t try to fly away, which I doubt he can do,” Tom assured.
“But what if he cries out for me? He’ll alert the entire hotel and they might try to take him?”
“You could take him with you but it might be rough for him.”
“All right, I’ll leave him here. I’ll put him in an open drawer with some water so he’ll be safe.”
“That’s a good idea.”
When Nick’s little friend was safely inside his makeshift pen, father and son headed out the door and took the wagon to the Barkley Sierra just outside of town. On site, miners were busy setting up what was to be the last blast of the day. Tom halted the horses in front of the main office and stepped inside with Nick in tow.
“Mister Barkley! You’ve made it.” The superintendent exclaimed happily, extending his hand to give his boss a hearty handshake.
“How’s it going?”
“So far so good. The work’s been progressing ever since I hired those two men. They are fast workers.”
“Fast isn’t what’s important. Doing the job safely is,” Tom reminded on a warning, though friendly tone.
“Yes, sir,” Connelly hawked, realizing his blunder.
“By the way, this is my son, Nicolas. I brought him along on this trip so he could learn about our other businesses outside the ranch.”
“That’s nice.” Connelly shook Nick’s hand. “Hello Nicolas. Nice meeting you.”
“Me too sir.”
“Can I see the entries?” Tom asked.
“Yes sir. Right away.” Connelly reached for a large book with a hard cover that he handed it over to Tom.
“Father can I go outside and watch?”
“It’s okay if you promise not to stray too far. It can be very dangerous. Promise me, now.”
“I promise. I’ll just be outside.” Tom nodded his approval and watched his little man head out the door.
“He’s a nice kid,” Connelly observed.
“Yeah but he still has a temper problem.”
“Oh, just like his dad,” the man blurted out, flushing in embarrassment under Tom’s stern expression. “Euh, sorry boss.”
Tom’s stone face melted into an amused smile. “Think nothing of it, Connelly. It true he takes after his father. My wife often tells me that.” Both men joined in a good laugh.
Outside the office Nick honored his promise by sitting quietly on the front porch, elbows on knees, chin resting in his palms, watching the buzzing activity. One worker in particular caught his eye, he reclined back in his seat in surprise at how small the man was. He squinted to make him out and realized with astonishment that the man was actually a boy. Unconsciously disregarding the promise made to his father, he edged up to the entrance of the mine where he saw the boy disappear inside.
“Hey kid!” one of the men hailed him “You working here?”
“No…no. I was…I was just looking around,” Nick stuttered, somewhat overawed by the daunting figure standing over him.
“Well you’d better keep clear. Ain’t no place for a kid.”
“I ain’t no kid!” Nick squeaked with indignation, offended by the comment. “But I just saw one go into the shaft just now.”
“Oh yeah, that’s Heath. He’s our powder monkey.”
“A charge boy.”
“You mean he handles the dynamite?” Nick scorched, appalled by the very notion of it.
“He’s just the right size to squeeze into narrow passages. He’s the best there is.”
“But he’s just…”
“Now you run along kid and let us do our job.” the grouchy miner dismissed with a light shove on Nick’s back, raising the boy’s hackles.
With eyes able with anger, Nick dashed back to the main office. Good manners aside, he irrupted into the room, barge in on his father’s conversation with Connelly. “Father, can I talk to you?” he panted, trying to catch his breath.
“Can this wait, Nick?” was Tom’ sharp reply.
“No, it can’t,” Nick insisted with a pleading expression too alarming to dismiss.
“All right, what is it?”
“Dad, there’s a boy working in the mines.”
“Says he’s a monkey.”
“He sets up dynamite inside the mine shafts, father. I saw him. He’s little. Must be younger than I am.”
Tom turned to his superintendent with a hard inquisitive look. “Connelly, is this true?”
The man shifted position withering under Tom’s scorching glare. “His name’s Heath.”
“I don’t care about his name. How old is he?”
“He told me he was eight.”
“Eight!” Tom shrieked. “Are you out of your cotton-picking mind hiring a boy that age to what?” he turned to Nick for confirmation, “set up charges?”
“I didn’t want to hire him, honest to God I didn’t,” Connelly defended profusely. “But he says his mother was pretty sick and needed the money.”
“Is he one of the two new men you spoke of?”
“No. I did hire the two men…”
“Then let them do the work,” Tom snapped, sickened by the thought of a seemingly decent man tasking a small child with such hazardous work.
“Mr. Barkley, that kid is so small that he can squeeze inside tunnels that other men can’t”
“I cannot believe my ears!” Tom condemned. “How many more kids have you allowed in the mine since I’ve been here last?”
“None! I swear. We were running behind schedule when he showed up and offered to do the work. He seemed to know what he was doing. Since he’s been here we’re back on track.”
“Get out!” he lashed out at the man, angrily tossing the book onto the table with a loud thud. “Pack your things and get out! I’ll forward you your last pay at your home. I can’t believe I nearly sold you this mine.”
“But Mister Barkley,” Connelly started to plead his case but Tom held a hand in the air to stop him from kindling his already consuming rage. “Get out now while I still have my wits about me.” He glowered at the man who warily picked up his personal belongings and cleared out, with Tom’s icy stare escorting him right out the door. Nick looked up at his father with bubbling pride.
“How about you show me where this kid is so I may speak with him?”
“Right away, Father. “ Nick led Tom to the mine entrance where men were seeing hurrying out of the shaft. “What’s going on?”
“Mister Barkley, you’d better steer clear. It’s going to blow,” warned one of them.
“What about the boy?” Nick inquired, craning his neck out to try to steal a peek inside the dark cavity.
“He should be out any minute.”
“You mean he’s still in there?” Tom bellowed, pushing the men aside to dive head on into the tunnel. Seconds later, a loud blast rent the air, knocking Nick off his feet.
“FATHER!” Nick yelled, hacking his lungs out at the dust he inhaled.
“Damn it!” cursed of the workers. “It blew up ahead of time.”
“What about the boy?” another asked worriedly.
Sorrowful glances were exchanged, but no word was spoken. Many closed their eyes and shook their heads in hopelessness while other expressions registered shock. All stood rooted to the spot with bathed breath waiting for the dust to settle. A bruise and soot-covered Tom Barkley suddenly emerged from the thick billowing mist, wobbling out of the shaft to evade the suffocation. He waited for his coughing to dwindle down before he speaking in a raw, hoarse voice. “Who’s still in there?”
“Jenson, Carter and Holland.”
“And the boy?”
“Yeah,” he answered dejectedly.
“You men. You get inside and get that boy out, NOW!” Tom ordered, his shouting grating his parched throat that triggered another coughing fit.
“The blast was bad, boss. I think the kid used too much dynamite. The shafts could come down on us. We don’t know if it’s safe.”
“All the more reason to get that boy out!” Tom lashed out with an authority that failed to shake the cowardice out of the men.
“You cowards!” Tom vituperated. “You get in there NOW or you’re all fired!”
Still the men hesitated.
“I’ll go with you, Father,” Nick offered with a chest bulging with pride to know that he was the only man brave enough to risk his life for the boy.
“A twelve-year-old child puts you to shame,” Tom spat to the pairs of downcast eyes. He squatted down to Nick’s level and gripped his shoulders. “I want you to get the town’s doctor and bring him here.”
“But Father, you will need me with you.”
“Don’t argue with me, Nick. I will get the men and that boy out but when I do they’ll need to have the doctor here if they are to survive. You understand?”
“I do. I’ll go get the doctor.”
“Attaboy!” He clapped his son on the back and watched him dashed down the street. He then cast one last disgustingly look at the men and started down the tunnel.
“Wait!” hailed an old timer from the back. “I’ll go with you Mister Barkley.”
“You work here?”
“No. I was nearby when I heard the blast. Never heard one as loud as this before. You’ll need help going down there. I used to be an engineer so I know my way around mines.”
“Thank you. Really appreciate.”
“Think nothing of it, Mister Barkley.”
“All right Tom. The name’s Sid. Come on enough pleasantries. Were wasting time,” he pressed on, giving Tom a light shove toward the entrance of the shaft where he picked up a lantern and lit it up.
With water-drenched bandanas over their mouths, they engaged down the main tunnel, squinting through the veil of dust clouding their vision.
Outside two young men from town who witnessed the blast hurried to the frozen bunch of men.
“Why aren’t you helping? You bunch of assholes!” One cursed, hoping to elicit a reaction from the crowd but instead, the men began to disperse.
“I don’t care what he says I’m not risking my life. I have a wife and two children,” one of the miners said, trying to justify his refusal to follow.
“Same here,” Another agreed, glad for the backing.
Inside the dark tunnel, the old timer held the lamp at arms length to light the narrow passage strewn with debris that rendered the journey arduous for our two men. They refused to be swayed from their purpose by the ominous sounds reverberating foretelling of an imminent cave in.
They stopped at the sound of distinctive footsteps. “Anyone there?” Tom called out, accidentally inhaling a puff of dust that the coughed out.
“Mister Barkley? I’m Tommy Shanks. This here’s my brother Harry. We came to help.”
“No sir. Just farmers. We was in town when we heard the blast. We came to see if you needed any help.”
“Much obliged. Three of my men are trapped somewhere. We’re also looking for a young boy.”
“What’s a boy doing in a mine?” Harry condemned.
“That’s a good question and believe me the man responsible has been send packing.”
The foursome parted ways to cover more ground with the brothers heading one way and Tom and Sid the other.
It was a good ten minutes later that their search yielded concrete results.
“I found one!” Tom exclaimed. “Throw the light over here!” he motioned to Sid who obliged.
Tom’s nose crinkled in disgust as he shed the light near the mangled body. “He’s dead.”
“Wait! What’s this underneath him?” the old man pointed to the hand protruding from underneath.
Tom rolled the body over and gasped in shock. “It’s the boy.”
“He’s alive. Thank Goodness.” Tom heaved with relief.
“That man’s body protected him from the blow. He took the full force of the blast. He saved his life.”
“For how long?” His breathing’s bad,” Tom observed worriedly. “We have to get him out of here.”
“Easy Mister Barkley. It can be dangerous to move him. You do him more harm than good,” Sid cautioned.
“We can’t just leave him here!” Tom bellowed, fear dictating his judgment.
“And we won’t,” The old man tried to appease. “We just need to proceed with extreme caution.”
“Okay. You tell me what to do,” Tom acquiesced, seeing how Sid had more experience in the field than he did.
Sid guided Tom on how to gingerly dislodge the tiny body from the rubbles without applying pressure to his ribs and spine. Gently Tom lifted the unconscious boy and cradled him in his arms. With Sid leading the way to light the passage, Tom followed very slowly until both men were out of the tunnel. To their relief the town doctor was on sight with his medical supplies and a portable stretcher.
“Lay him down on the stretcher,” he instructed Tom who carefully knelt down to lower the boy on the stretcher.
“How is he, Father?” Nick asked, eyes bulging out in horror at the gruesome sight before him.
“Not good, son,” Tom informed dolefully, running a gentle hand through the blond’s hair. “His breathing’s bad. He must have inhaled a lot of dust, among other injuries.” He waited for the doctor to do his preliminary examination of the tiny senseless body before asking the dreaded question, “Is he going to be all right, doc?”
“I can’t answer that question, right now.” He spread a blanket over the boy and beckoned two men standing nearby to lift the stretcher off the ground. “Please, carry him down to my office, but gently. I must insist you don’t jostling him or you might aggravate his condition.”
The two willing helpers nodded their heads and started down the road. “I’ll send the men back with the stretcher. If you have any more injured men in there, bring them to me.”
“Will do, doctor. And thank you.”
The doc smiled responsively and turned to catch up with the two men carrying Heath to his office.
“Nicolas, you stay here. I’m going to see if our two friends in there need any help.”
“Be careful, Father.”
No sooner had Tom reached the entrance of the mine that the young volunteers were seen trudging out of the shaft with their heavy loads slung over their shoulders.
“How are they?” Both men shook their heads forlornly. Tom closed his eyes in despair and drew in a deep breath to collect his thoughts before instructing them to carry the bodies down to the doctor’s office. Tommy and Harry obliged.
“Sid, my friend,” Tom said hoarsely, coughing up a few remaining speck of dust. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Think nothing of it, Mister Barkley. I was glad to help.”
“You from around here?”
“Yeah. Lives just edges away.”
“Were you aware that a boy was working down in these mines?”
“Sure was,” Sid confessed. “He’s been there for three months. When I found out I went to see the intendant who told me to mind my own business.”
“No one told me this was going on. I can’t believe that…” the escalating revulsion he felt slashed the end of his sentence. His lips were too narrowed in contempt to allow any word through.
“What’s important is that you finally got here and saw what was going on. I like the way you fired those cowards,” Sid jubilated with a congratulatory slap on Tom’s back.
“I can’t stand men who let boys do their dirty work. I’ll need to hire a new crew and a superintendent. Know anyone around these parts who are honest and decent workers?”
“You have one right here,” The old man boasted.
“I can’t let you work in that mine. It’s too dangerous.”
“Why? Because I’m old?” Sid snapped offendedly. “May I remind you that I’m the one who helped you get that boy out.”
“I agree but to work on a weekly basis. That could be rough on you.”
“Bah!” he dismissed with a wave of the hand.
“You said you used to be a mining engineer?”
“Then how about you work as the superintendent? You can hire the men you want as I’m sure you’ll make a sound choice.”
“I’d like that Mister Barkley,” Sid exulted, reaching out to shake Tom’s hand. “I guarantee you won’t be sorry.”
“I’m sure I won’t. Come and see me by the hotel tonight and we’ll discuss it thoroughly.”
“Come on, Nick. Let’s go see how our little friend is doing.” Tom said with a light tap on Nick’s back.
Nick’s growing concern for the young boy gave him wings and as a result, his legs carried him ahead of Tom to the doctor’s office where a nurse greeted him.
“I’m here to see Heath.”
“You mean the little boy?”
“That’s right,” Tom said as he entered the room. “I’m Tom Barkley and this is my son, Nick.”
“Please to meet you both. Please won’t you follow me?” The nurse beckoned them to the examining room where the doctor was hovering over the tiny listless body.
“How is he, doctor?” Tom asked apprehensively, dreading the answer he failed to read in the doctor’s eyes.
“He’s a very lucky boy. He only has a mild concussion. There are no broken bones and no internal injuries. His breathing a little shallow but that’s due to the dust he inhaled.”
“We found him underneath a man who obviously threw himself on him to protect him from the explosion.”
“That heroic gesture is most likely what saved him. I saw the dead miners. They are pretty mangled up. The force of the blast must have been formidable to tear at their flesh the way it did.”
“But he won’t die?” Nick choked out, biting his upper lip in trepidation.
“I can safely say he won’t,” The doctor reassured Nick who heaved a grateful sigh of relief.
“Do you know this kid?” Tom asked with repugnance at the very thought of parents allowing their child to work as a charge boy.
“His name’s Heath Thomson.”
“Thomson. I recall a Leah Thomson.”
“He’s her son.” The doctor couldn’t help but notice the glaring reaction of shock on Tom’s face. “She’s tries her best to provide for the boy, bless her heart, but without a husband and a meager salary working as a maid at the hotel, she can’t give him everything a boy his age needs. I don’t think she knows that her son was working in the mines.”
“Neither did I. When I found out I fired the intendant on the spot. I can’t believe he would hire a child to set up charges. That’s revolting.”
“I fully agree with you. Trouble is the boy wants to help his mother. He adores her. She’s all he’s got. I saw him working in the stables a few months ago and then he disappeared. When his mother came for an examination a few weeks ago, I asked her about Heath. She told me that he was still working at the livery, which I doubted it to be true. Now I know where he was.”
“I can’t believe this,” Tom condemned, shaking his head in utter disgust.
“Father!” Nick cried out excitedly. “He’s waking up.”
Tom and the doctor approached the bed as young Heath moaned his way back to consciousness. The doctor leaned over the boy to study the corneal reflexes as he peeled open his eyes. “Son, I’m Doctor Conrad. Can you hear me?”
Heath swallowed hard, wincing at the searing pain. “Hurts,” he breathed out.
“I know it does. You have a big bump on the head. I expect you’ll have headaches for several days.”
“We’re going to fetch her for you, son.” The doctor looked at Tom who nodded in compliance.
“Heath, I’m Tom Barkley and this here is my son, Nick.”
“Hi Heath,” Nick enthused with a broad smile.
Heath strained a smile and closed his eyes. “Mama,” he lamented.
“We’ll get her for you, Heath,” Tom assured with a gentle hand on the boy’s arm. He then turned to the doctor for directions to Leah’s house. “Nick, you stay with the boy. I won’t be long.”
“Okay Father.” Once his father out the door, Nick turned back his attention to Heath who was staring at him quizzically.
“Do you know what happened?” Heath squinted trying to recall the explosion but all efforts came to a naught. He shook his head with eyes desperate for answers to which Nick obliged. “There was an explosion. You were lucky to get out alive. What were you doing in there in the first place?” Nick asked on a fairly accusatory tone.
“Ain’t none of your business,” Heath croaked out.
“Sorry, chum. Didn’t mean to get you all riled up,” Nick fired back. “How old are you?” Heath looked away, refusing to speak. “Ah come on, I just want to be your friend.”
“I don’t need any friends,” Heath peeved, trying to sound petulant but his eyes were telling a different story.
“Bet you don’t have any with that attitude of yours,” Nick taunted to get the boy to vent his obvious anger.
“I say you’re the one with the attitude,” Heath countered, eliciting a chuckle out of Nick. “What are you laughing about?”
“You. I like you, kid.”
“Well I don’t like you.”
In the background the doctor stifled a titter elicited by the verbal exchange. He watched with fascination the interaction between the two and that despite the obvious antipathy Heath held toward the stranger, he suspected Nick Barkley was the friend the young blond had been yearning for.
“Leave me alone!”
“Not until my father returns with your mother.”
“The doctor here can stay,” Heath said, motioning to the doctor who quickly found a pretext to leave the room. “I’m sorry Heath but I need to tend to my other patients,” he affected convincingly. “Give Nick a chance. He’s a nice boy,” he coaxed, stealing out of the room before any protest could be voiced. What followed was a long silence, but Nick was intent on pulling the worms out of that stubborn mule’s nose before his father’s return.
Tom’s heartbeat increased to a throb as he neared the small cabin, unconsciously reining back his horse to a slow amble as he endeavored to collect his thoughts strew all over the place. The prospect of facing the woman he burned with love over eight years ago was hurling him into a tailspin. He halted the wagon in front of the small cabin and paused to recover his bearings. With a long drawn-out sigh he alighted from the carriage and proceeded with faltering steps faltered to the front porch. Three knocks later and Hannah peered through the ajar door.
“Who is here?”
“Hannah. It’s Tom. Tom Barkley.”
Hannah broke into ecstasy at the name and widened the door. “Tom Barkley. Oh Tom Barkley. Come. Please come,” she said, grabbing his sleeve and pulling him inside. “Good to see you. Miz Leah be happy to see you.”
“Is she in?”
“Yes, yes. Sit. I go get her. Sit.” Tom did as told and watched amusedly the black woman scurry down the hall to Leah’s bedroom.
“Miz Leah. Miz Leah,” she called out hysterically.
“Hannah, what is it?” Leah asked, a mix of confusion and fear etched on her face at her friend’s euphoria.
“Mister Tom is here. He come to see you.”
“Tom? You mean Tom Barkley?”
“Yes. Here in kitchen.”
Leah swallowed hard and closed her eyes to keep her wits about herself. She drew in a deep breath and smoothed out her hair with her hands. After a quick once-over to see if she was presentable, she followed Hannah out of the room and to the kitchen where Tom was waiting with bathed breath. One look at Leah and he bolted upright with a gasp. Time stood in limbo as a torrent of memories unleashed their fury.
“You look beautiful, Leah,” Tom gawped in wonderment.
“Thank you,” she choked out giddily, lowering her head to conceal her blush. “You don’t look so bad yourself.”
“Leah, I didn’t come here to stir up the past, but to get you. Your son Heath was hurt in a mine explosion?”
A wave of panic swept over her. Terror crushed her blushing smile at the news. “What?” Mine explosion? What was Heath doing in a mine?”
“That’s my question Leah. He’s been working as a charge boy.”
“My God!” she shrieked. “He said he was working at the livery stable.”
“Not for the last three months. I found out myself today when I went to check out the books. I just couldn’t believe it. I fired my superintendent for hiring him in the first place.”
“Please, take me to him.” She grabbed her shawl draped on the back of the sofa and breezed out the door that Tom held open for her.