“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.” – Dakota
The place where you lose a trail is not necessarily where it ends. Heath knew that lesson well enough. A tracker follows not a man or an animal, but disturbances. The ghost of a print in virgin soil. A broken twig. A rock turned wrong side up. A fragment of cloth on a branch.
Due to the quiet, keenly observant nature he had been born with, Heath excelled as a tracker. He had been good enough to scout Apaches for a wagon train several years back.
Heath stopped often in silence, for only then could he tell the disturbances around him from his own. He listened for the sound of crackling branches on the gentle breeze or scolding birds spreading an alarm in their vicinity. His eyes searched for some disturbance of the foliage or some fragment of a footprint.
Nature conspires to conceal every trace of a trail. Wind and rain make a track at best a very temporary thing. A trail must be followed until it gives up its secret or it may be lost forever. The first footprint is the beginning of a very tenuous string.
Once Heath had found that first track, he knew that he could not stop, even now at the edge of his endurance and stamina. He stood winded and bloodied. The briars had ripped the blue chambray shirt and his arms, face and upper body were covered with scratches.
But Heath had to follow on until he came to the end of the trail. He had to do it for Benjy.
Heath bent over with his hands on his knees and drew in some deep breaths. His thoughts took him back to two weeks before when he’d met Benjy.
Heath stood in the Stockton Mercantile trying to decide between the two tins of saddle soap he held in his hands. As he considered the two brands, a smaller frame pressed right up against his side and looked curiously at what Heath held.
When Heath looked down at the top of the five-foot six strawberry blond head, he thought he was looking at a young boy. Then the face turned up to him and Heath realized that it was a man: a man of at least his own age or possibly a few years older. The complexion was fair, and the eyes were blue, but the eyes had a curious slant. They gave the man a distinctively Asian appearance. Heath looked deep into the blue eyes and saw no guile; only a shy childlike innocence.
The man winked at Heath. Heath winked back.
“Benjy!” A small woman with gray hair pulled into a tight bun rushed over to where they stood. “I’m sorry if my son is bothering you!”
“He’s not bothering me, Ma’am. He’s just helping me pick out some saddle soap. Benjy will be fine here with me while you finish your shopping, Mrs…”
“Parnell.” she said. “Edna Parnell.” She seemed a little surprised and hesitant. “Well… ah… alright then, if he’s not bothering you, Mister…”
“Barkley.” he said. “Heath Barkley.”
Heath handed one of the cans to Benjy. “Come on, Benjy, you gotta help me finish my shopping, too. I’ll be in trouble with my big brother if I don’t get back home soon.”
Edna Parnell marveled at the gentle soul of the ruggedly handsome cowboy. He kept up a soft-spoken, one-sided conversation as the two moved about the store. He even let Benjy carry his items up to the counter. Benjy stayed close to the cowboy until he had made his purchases and Heath brought him back to his mother.
“Benjy was a big help to me, Ma’am.”
Benjy smiled, gave Heath another wink and Heath gave him one right back.
Edna Parnell’s eyes welled with tears. “Thank you, Mr. Barkley. I know it meant a lot to Benjy to spend a little time with a man. My husband passed away about a month ago. There’s no one at home to watch Benjy and that’s why I had to bring him into town with me. Most people in this town don’t want Benjy around them. But he’s as sweet as a lamb.”
Heath handed Benjy a little paper bag. “I can see that he is.” he said.
Benjy dug into the sack and pulled out a peppermint stick. “Mama!” he cried as his eyes lit up with delight. Benjy began to suck on the peppermint stick with such enthusiasm and obvious pleasure that Heath just had to smile.
“Thank you again, Mr. Barkley.” Edna said as she took Benjy by his hand.
“Call me Heath, Ma’am.” Heath tipped his hat to her. “Good-bye, Mrs. Parnell. I hope to run into you and Benjy again.”
Benjamin Parnell had already been missing for four days when Heath heard about his disappearance. Heath had dropped by the saloon for a quick beer when he overheard two of the searchers discussing the missing man.
The Widow Parnell had driven to town and asked Sheriff Madden to help in finding her lost son. Benjy had apparently just wandered off. The sheriff had organized a group of searchers and the men had scoured the area around the Parnell cabin. The search team had no real luck in picking up Benjy’s trail. Sheriff Madden had called off the search after the fourth day. The men didn’t believe that someone like Benjy could make it alone in the woods. He was probably dead of drowning, exposure, or taken by a bear or wolves.
Heath had immediately ridden out to the Parnell’s. He was cautiously optimistic that the men might just be wrong. Benjy might have the mind of a five year-old, but physically he was a small, wiry, able-bodied man. He appeared to be in good health when Heath had met him in town.
Mrs. Parnell grasped at the slim ray of hope Heath offered. When the sheriff had decided to call off the search, she had been filled with grief and despair.
“Oh, Heath!” She had anguished. “I was busy that afternoon milking the cow and I didn’t even notice Benjy wander out of the barn. When I realized he was gone, I called to him and looked everywhere I could think of. It’s like he just vanished!”
“Were there any favorite places he liked to go?” Heath asked. “Any idea what Benjy would have wandered off looking for?”
“Nothing other than his Papa.” Edna sighed. “Benjy just couldn’t understand that his father was gone. He’d ask everyday about Papa coming home or us going to find him. He thought his Papa might be somewhere out in the woods. My husband used to take Benjy for walks in the woods around here.”
“Mrs. Parnell, what direction did your husband take when they left the cabin?” Hope gave Heath’s voice a measure of excitement.
“Why, they’d head off that way.” Mrs. Parnell pointed.
Heath tied Charger to the small hitching post. His best chance for tracking Benjy would be on foot, just as Benjy was.
“Mrs. Parnell, I’d appreciate it if you’d ride to the ranch and let my family know where I am. Why don’t you stay there with Mother until I get back? I’m not sure how long it will take, but I’ll find Benjy, one way or the other.”
She grasped his hands in her own. “I pray to the Good Lord that you’ll find my son alive, Heath. One of those men in the search party said that I wouldn’t have to be ‘burdened’ anymore and how this might be a ‘blessing’ in disguise. Benjy never was a burden and he was my blessing! Bring him home to me, even if it’s to rest by his father.”
Heath understood why the search party had failed to pick up the tracks. It had taken him two passes before he found the fragments of faint imprint himself. The unmistakable skipping gait led to the thick woods behind the cabin where Benjy and his father had taken their walks.
Heath had begun following the man-sized footprints over twenty-four hours before. Benjy had a four-day head start on him and had covered a considerable amount of ground.
Benjy was one tough customer to track. Even the rankest outlaw would have been easier to trail, Heath thought. There was logic to a fleeing man’s trail. Depending on the outlaw’s prerogative, he’d either go through whatever was in his way or pick the easiest route around it. Either way, the goal was a quick escape.
There was no rhyme or reason to Benjy’s path. He zigged. He zagged. He’d backtrack or go in circles. The trail was a meandering and bewildering labyrinth.
Heath knew it was an erroneous assumption to expect there to be logic to Benjy’s wanderings. Benjy was like a small child. The woods were a wonderful and interesting world to be explored. And yet, he was thankful for Benjy’s inquisitive nature. For each time Benjy had gone off on a tangent to study something of interest, Heath had steadily made up ground.
Heath smiled. Benjy had used the same technique when it came time to ‘bed down’ for two nights in a row. He had pushed up a pile of old, dry leaves and pine needles beneath a tree. Then Benjy snuggled down and buried himself in the ‘bedding’. Probably slept as warm as if he’d had a blanket, Heath thought.
Heath knelt down and spread out the little collection of treasures Benjy had left by the tree. Every quivering leaf that varied in size or shape or color and caught his eye, Benjy must have plucked throughout the day. Heath could imagine Benjy gently stuffing them into his pockets as he went along his way.
Benjy also loved to pick bouquets of lamb’s quarters. He seemed fascinated by the green, leafy plants. Heath had studied the many remains of the broken off lamb’s quarters. He hoped that Benjy would tire of admiring his bouquets and hunger would lead him to taste them. The plants tasted better than spinach when boiled, but they were certainly edible raw as well. Heath had not found discarded plants and that gave him cause to hope.
Heath knew Benjy had found water to drink. He had followed the trail down to a shallow stream. Along the way, Benjy had kicked over rocks or simply scooped them up on the fly. Benjy’s tracks always took on a funny angle when he’d bend down and sweep up a valuable without missing a step.
The sight at the stream’s edge brought another smile to Heath’s face. Benjy must have played on the bank of the stream for some time. He had taken a stick and dug a small trench at the water’s edge. He must have watched in wonder as water filled his little canal. He cut the tiny canal as a water supply to the little rock, stick and pebble ‘town’ that he’d constructed on the bank.
Finally, Benjy had crossed the shallow stream. The prints were deep and easy to pick up on the other side. The terrain sloped uphill again and the underbrush grew tangled and thick.
It was the kind of groundcover that hurt just to look at: a tangle of brush and vines and cat-briars under grown with dense grass. Benjy hadn’t gone around it; he’d gone through it! He had crawled right through a deer run, that small tunnel worn away through the undergrowth by the travel of deer. Heath took a deep, weary breath. It was going to be painful for the larger man, but he went to his hands and knees and went through the tangle the same way.
The briar patch was probably forty yards across, though to Heath it felt like forty miles. He had paid a high price to follow Benjy’s trail to the other side with many a bloody thorn scrape and tear. Heath found where Benjy had bedded down for the third night not far beyond the patch of briars.
Heath picked a handful of lamb’s quarters and eased his tired body down to sit beneath a tree. He munched on his meager meal. Heath leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes. What he wouldn’t give for a hot bath to wash away the mud and bloody smears and then to sleep in his soft, warm bed. But he had no time to daydream and so Heath rose wearily to his feet. Every day that Benjy stayed in the woods, he risked attack or injury.
Heath headed off on the trail that represented Benjy’s fourth day of wandering. This must have been the day that Benjy tired of his adventures: the day Benjy had decided to go home and realized that he was lost.
There was a heartbreaking circular shuffle of helpless tracks near where Benjy had slept. Heath could imagine Benjy surveying the surrounding woods for anything familiar as the frantic circles grew tighter and tighter. Finally Benjy had settled on a direction and he had taken off at a run.
Heath was worried. Once Benjy had realized he was lost, fear had set him running instead of conserving his energy. The footprints went in bursts and pauses as if Benjy looked, decided, and then rushed off on the path he had chosen. But eventually, the gait dropped to a shuffle. Benjy began to toe-in and drag both the heel and toe of his boots. Farther on, the tracks went erratic and began to stagger. The tracks told clearly Benjy’s journey from panic to despair.
Suddenly, the dragging, shuffling gait once more changed to the familiar skip and headed off to the left. Heath could just as easily have followed his nose to the sweetly scented honeysuckle bush. Benjy’s despair had once again given way to childlike fascination. He had picked the small yellow and white flowers, carefully clipped off the stem end and tasted the tiny sweet droplet within. The ground was littered with the remains. Benjy left the honeysuckle bush in a better frame of mind. The hopeless shuffle was gone, but his walk was still not strong. He toed-in from hunger and exhaustion, but he had an endurance born of the desire to find his home.
Heath pushed through the brush and stepped into a small clearing. There he was, lying curled beneath an oak tree. Benjy laid so still that Heath held his breath for a moment. Heath desperately wanted Benjy to be alive. He had managed to survive the obstacles and dangers of the wild for days all alone when no one believed in his ability to do so.
The strawberry-blond head lifted and Benjy turned toward the sound of the familiar voice. His face was dirty except for the streaks where tears had rolled down his cheeks. The innocent blue eyes grew wide and fearful.
If Benjy even remembered him at all, Heath thought of how he must look now: dirty, scraped and tattered. He reached into his front pocket and took out a wadded up little paper bag. Heath fished out a broken piece of peppermint stick and held it out to Benjy.
In that moment, fear melted away into recognition. Benjy jumped up and ran to Heath. Instead of grabbing the candy as Heath expected, Benjy wrapped his arms around Heath’s waist and hugged him with all his might. Sobs of relief wracked Benjy’s body as he let the tears flow as only a lost child who has once again found safe harbor can.
Heath held him tight, this man-child who had been looking for his father – a father who would never come - to find him and take him home. Heath kissed the top of the strawberry-blond head as tears rolled down his own cheeks. At the end of the trail, Heath Barkley had found not only Benjamin Parnell, but also a part of himself.
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