He made his way between the unkempt graves lying haphazardly in his path towards his mother’s final resting place. He could see that hers’ was in better condition than the others showing as Hannah had said that she was looking after it. The headstone was clearly marked Leah Thomson in bold letters and also displayed her date of birth and death. It was one of the few graves ornamented with a headstone. The headstone being small but nonetheless there, simple and unpretentious as was the person who had bought it, her only child born out of wedlock, Heath. This had been the only luxury Heath had allowed himself when he was accepted into the Barkley family and acknowledged as the bastard son of Thomas Barkley the deceased patriarch. He would never have been able to afford it before. Fresh flowers adorned the grave. It had been a long time since he’d visited and he was glad to know that Hannah was still looking after his mother even in death. Removing his hat he went down on one knee and couldn’t help running a hand through the sandy earth that covered his mother’s remains. Fleetingly, fond and happy and some not so fond and happy memories ran through his head. Then a crooked smile touched his lips before he shook his head and started in disbelief.
“A couple of days ago I was Heath Barkley. Who am I now? And more importantly what am I now? A fraudster and a chiseller besides being the son of Charlie Sawyer. Heath Sawyer at your service. Heck I’m already starting to sound like him. From the moment Charlie Sawyer arrived on the ranch it would seem that that is who and what I am . ‘Heath Sawyer chiseller and fraudster at your service.’
“Mama I don’t understand. As you lay dying you told me to fetch your bible. There was something you wanted to show me. You told me to turn to the back of the Bible and when I started to open the pages, a newspaper cutting fell out. I reckoned it came from the back of the book. I never actually looked at the back. I picked up the cutting and saw what it was. “Tom Barkley shot to death whole valley mourns.” It was a report on Tom Barkley’s funeral. What else was I to think? Was there something else that I should have looked at; that I should have seen? When I turned round to you, you were gone. I never knew what you wanted me to find. What else was I to think when that cutting fell out of the Bible? To me it could only mean one thing. That Tom Barkley was my father. That was what you wanted to show me. That is what you were going to tell me before it was too late. I reckon it was already too late. You should have told me before then.
“Mama I just don’t understand. Through all those years you never told me who my father was. For all my asking during all those years when it mattered. When I needed to know. You never would tell me. All you would say was he was a good man; a man to be proud of. That description fit Tom Barkley. The man mentioned in the newspaper cutting. It sure doesn’t fit Charlie Sawyer.
“You know me with my temper. I just took one quick look at it and I was mad and angry. There he was this rich man, lord over the valley, respected and revered by many. More than a thousand folks coming to pay their respects at his funeral. It took me almost a month to decide what I was going to do. Of course I had things to sort out here but I had plenty of time to think as well. So you could hardly say I was rushing into things. But having said that I obviously didn’t think hard enough about it. I just felt sure that Tom Barkley was my father. That’s why the cutting was in the bible you were gonna tell me about him. Why else would you tell me to look in the Bible? All those years and I thought that I was a bastard. All those years being treated no better than the dirt under their feet by folks and living with the torment and scorn from others because of my birth. And in all those years it was a lie. I wasn’t a bastard. I was legitimate. I was living a lie as I have been this last year.
“Of course I knew that you had been married. I knew that you were a young widow. I knew that we were poor. That you struggled to raise me alone. That couldn’t be helped. But why didn’t you tell me the truth? Why couldn’t you tell me? You don’t know what this news is doing to me now. You don’t know how it’s going to affect me. Why did I have to find out now and in this way? It is already eating away at me right in the pit of my stomach. Don’t you think I went through enough torture when I was young because of the stigma of my birth? But to learn now that it was all a lie! And to learn at this moment in time. I just do not understand. If only you could come back and tell me. Come back and explain to me. I’m having difficulty in coming to terms with it right now.
“After learning about Tom Barkley and reading the cutting I decided that I would take myself to his home to his ranch and see his family; my family as I thought. To see my brothers and sister. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I didn’t know what they would say, what they would think, what they would do even. I was sure they would hardly welcome me as a brother. I thought they would treat me with the contempt I deserved. I decided I wouldn’t tell them who I was. I would just go there and ask for a job and take it from there. After all I’m pretty experienced in all kinds of ranching work; can do most anything as you know. I knew it wasn’t the hiring season but it would give me the chance to get onto the ranch and see my family if nothing else. I thought that was the best thing to do at least it was a start in the right direction. Of course I hadn’t reckoned with Nick or the railroad for that matter. My timing wasn’t very good. I arrived when a battle with the railroad was just coming to the boil.
“I was surprised when Jarrod told Nick to hire me. Apparently I had done Jarrod a favor earlier in the day when I had raced the train and beaten it; him being on it and all. Nick wasn’t too keen and I reckon he’d been worrying on it some since hiring me. That’s Nick he had something on his mind and he wouldn’t let go. And for some reason he came up with the idea in his head that I was hired by the railroad as a gunman. Well if you knew Nick as I know him now this is him all over. He dived in fists flying first because he’d been worrying and having put two and two together came up with his own answer which of course was not the same as the answer he was gonna get from me. What he received from me was definitely not what he was expecting nor what he wanted to hear. He’d come to get me out of the bunkhouse and taken me to the barn. I had no idea what he was getting at at first. “Corning, that the last place you work? That’s one hundred miles from here. You usually travel one hundred miles between jobs with a dozen likely spreads on the way? I asked you a question boy. You’re no more a trail hand than a Modoc. Let’s hear it boy the truth? What you doing here?” He just pummeled me with questions. Of course it ended up with us having one almighty set to and I was pummeled with blows as well. “Who sent you here boy the railroad, Crown, Jordan, they sent you didn’t they?” He just kept at it. I gave him back, “No man sends me any where.” Well you know me Mama I have a temper as good as anyone’s. I just couldn’t fathom what was wrong with the fella. What he was after. I was pretty much black and blue by the time he asked, “Who then, who are you? I want to hear, I said who are you?” He kept taunting me. Well I just lost it. I just blurted it out. All my intentions went out through the barn door, “Your Father’s bastard son.” Anyhow I thought it was hot before then but you should have seen the steam rising at this point.
“Well all hell was let loose now. I’m not sure whether my feet touched the ground or I was flying but the next thing I remember I was standing in the study and being confronted by my three brothers. I wasn’t taking any chances and I smashed a bottle to hold them back. I told them I wanted the talk to be right peaceful. Who was I fooling? I reckon it was me that was getting madder than any of them. Even Nick told me to keep my voice down. I can’t call them brothers now. Well at the time I thought they were my three brothers.
“There was I armed with a broken bottle and a newspaper cutting. The only proof I had of who I was was written in that newspaper cutting. Pretty lame really. I couldn’t even tell them that you had told me because you had died before I had turned round. So there was no deathbed confession as Nick scathingly remarked. I did try to make them feel guilty though. I laid it on real thick. I painted a pretty picture. How I had been born in a tent during a thunderstorm with the rain beating down and the streets turning to mud and you were all alone. And then how just a month prior to my being at their ranch you had died and how I had buried you in a potter’s field because we didn’t have the money for any fancy funeral like Tom Barkley had had. And there weren’t thousands of mourners like he had. For what good it might have done. Oh I really laid it on thick. Mama you really would have been ashamed of me if you had seen or known what I had done. You taught me better than that. Heck I’m ashamed now to think of it.
“The ironical thing about it was that I told them about my father. My real father. Not Tom Barkley but Charlie Sawyer the husband who had gotten himself drunk and for all we knew had been drowned and left you a young widow. Well I stood there and was rude and objectionable about Tom Barkley. If I could only eat my words now. It brings me out in goose bumps and a cold sweat to think on it.
“Mama I thought you loved me. How could you do this to me? I went to Tom Barkley’s house demanding from his family that they give me a name, a heritage, a part of it all and everything that was rightfully mine. I demanded it from them. My share of everything that was Barkley. Believing that it was my right. Believing that it was owed to me. Tom Barkley was not there to refute it. And now I am no better than they then thought I was. A confidence trickster, a cheap opportunist, a thief, a fraud, a liar. All the things that I abhor in a man. That is what I am. That is what you have made me. How do I live with myself knowing that? How can I put things right?
“Well after that night when I demanded my rights. Things kinda happened. It happened kinda quickly because by the next night I was part of the Barkley family. I was living in their house with my own room and I was for all intents and purposes a Barkley. I never expected anything like that. They accepted me, took me in, a waif and stray, a wanderer, a wastrel, a drifter, a nobody. They offered me everything that was theirs’. They gave me everything that was theirs’. They shared everything with me and not just the material goods, the spiritual ones too. I became one of them. A Barkley. They gave me love and understanding, trust and respect, a belief in myself. I started to live again. I learned to belong, to give of myself, to love, to feel wanted in a way I had not felt nor known for many, many years. All this they gave to me. I had a family. A family who cared. A family who wanted to make up for all the harm that not having a father had done; all the harm that Tom Barkley had caused.
“Two days ago I had a family, a sister and three brothers and a mother who loved me as her own. I could ask for nothing better or for nothing more. And now what do I have? Nothing.
“Charlie Sawyer arrived at the ranch. A petty criminal, a confidence trickster that’s what he is and stated that he was my father and that he had been married to you. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to believe him. The man you were married to was dead long ago. And here was Charlie Sawyer claiming to be that man, claiming to be your husband, claiming to be my father. I knew what he was. Here was the kind of man who would chisel his own grandmother. He admitted as much. He showed me a marriage certificate and a picture of the pair of you when you were young newlyweds, telling me how difficult he found it to scratch out a living and provide a proper lifestyle for you and then when he found that a baby was on the way, he concocted the drowning episode. He kinda made out that you were being unfaithful to him with Tom Barkley; that Tom Barkley was mooching round you at the time, so if he disappeared off the scene then Tom Barkley would shoulder the responsibility. He also made out that you were in on the scheme. He admitted to taking off and abandoning you. I almost laid into him at the time for what he was saying. But the seeds of doubt had already been sown. I just kinda threatened him is all.
“So I came out here to find the truth. I came back to Strawberry and I have seen Hannah. There was no mistaking her shock when she saw Charlie Sawyer. She recognized him all right as your husband. The man whom you thought was dead and drowned. I felt sick. I still feel sick.
“For a year now I have been an impostor. Living in the Barkley Mansion. Living off them and taking what is theirs’. I am nothing more than a parasite. I obviously take after my father, Charlie Sawyer, because that is what he would do. Like father like son. Isn’t that what they say?
“I can’t understand why you would do this? Why you wouldn’t tell me. I could understand it if you had told me you hated him because he had taken your money and run away or that you had any kind of no good reason for not telling me about him being my father. That for some reason you didn’t want to acknowledge him as my father but you could still have told me who he was. I guess I’m just trying to find excuses for you. Surely you could have told me that Charlie Sawyer was my father?
“Now I have to return to my family, sorry that’s not right, to the Barkleys. This is gonna be one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I only wish the earth will open up and swallow me. I have to go there and tell them how I have behaved and how I have deceived them and try and make my excuses and hope they will understand. This is a fine way of repaying all they have given to me and all they have done for me.
“Why Mama, why!?
“I don’t think you can understand the shame that I am feeling right now. I’ve had a few drinks to try and drown the disgust I feel in myself and maybe I’m saying more than I should. I don’t really mean to be blaming all this on you. I only wish that you had told me the truth all those years ago. That Charlie Sawyer was my father.
“Of course he’s not really interested in me as a son, only really after money, what he can get from me with being a Barkley, but I told him, “I won’t trade on a name that isn’t mine.” He will not get anything from me in any form.”
“Now realistically I guess I only have myself to blame for rushing in when I found the newspaper cutting. I need to think about what I am going to say to the Barkleys. I need to get it right. I have already caused too much hurt. I don’t want to cause any more. I only hope they believe me when I tell them that I honestly thought that Tom Barkley was my father. I didn’t honestly go to them with any false pretences. I so dearly wish with all my heart that Tom Barkley was my father.
“I must think on it. Before I went to the Barkley ranch I was no better than a tumbleweed blowing in the wind. A dirty, flea ridden, cheap, hotel room was all I could afford if that. I had no roots and no place anywhere and I went from odd job to odd job. I desperately wanted a home and a name that could be respected and when I found that paper cutting and saw Tom Barkley and read about his family I honestly thought he was my father. Or was that just wishful thinking and I was trying to make it so because that is what I wanted. I’m not sure anymore. I guess I just wanted him to be my father. Maybe I didn’t want to question it too much. I just have so many questions now and nobody to answer them. I can’t even trust myself anymore. I can’t even trust my own thoughts. Would I really have gone to the Barkleys and told them I was Tom Barkley’s son if I didn’t believe it myself? I’m not sure any more.
“No Heath you have to believe in yourself. You are not like that, you are not like Charlie Sawyer or you would not be feeling this way now. You have to be strong. You have to return home, nope sorry return to the Barkley ranch and tell them everything. No I would not have ridden onto the ranch unless I had thought it a fact. I am not a liar. I would not have lied to them. In all truth I did believe that Tom Barkley was my father. I will not believe other of myself. I have to return now. It cannot be my home any longer. I have to put to rights all the wrongs. I just don’t know whether I can. I have to return to the Barkley ranch and start by making my apologies.
“After I have seen the Barkleys and explained to them and thanked them for all they have done for me I will be leaving California. I think I will leave for Mexico. I will try and make a new life for myself. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget this last year with them. I know I will always want to be a Barkley. I know I will miss them. Hell I’m even gonna miss Nick’s bellowing. The Barkleys opened up and allowed me in and with their love I started to take the barriers down that I had erected many, many years ago for protection to stop myself from being hurt. I let them into my heart. Now I may be able to leave and try and make a new life for myself somewhere else but I will never be able to forget them nor be able to erase them from my heart. I will be hurt, hell, I am hurting now. They will be forever in my memories. They will always be a part of me and the hurt will always be here with me.
“Starting today I’m nothing but me. I know I will find it hard but I will not be Heath Barkley anymore. I cannot be. Hell I am not a Barkley that’s all there is to it. I never really have been. I will not be Heath Thomson again either because those times are in the past nor will I take the name of Sawyer. I will definitely not be Heath Sawyer. I will be known as Heath just plain Heath. I will try to be myself. No more will I try to be someone I am not. I will try to make my own way in the world. And see if I can gain respect without the Barkley name.
“Mama I think I have to leave now. Charlie has just come out of the saloon being escorted by those two fellas. I don’t think they are up to much good at this moment. I reckon I’d best go and help him. Of course I could just let them finish him off or do as they will with him and then I could forget about ever having met him. No Mama that’s not me talking. I just wish I could find the funny side to this. Surely there must be one. Do you ever have the feeling that someone is getting a laugh at your expense? Because I do, particularly at this moment in time. Someone else is having the last laugh here. I am not amused by any of it. I am bemused and distressed by it all. No matter how much I would like to Mama it’s not in me to disregard what Charlie Sawyer has told me. That’s not the way I work. You taught me better than that. You taught me compassion and I have it. You taught me truth and honesty and that’s what I’m facing right now. I only wish you’d taught me how to cope with feelings inside of me because they are tearing me apart. If only you had told me what I needed to know all those years ago. This would not be happening. But it’s too late now.
“Goodbye Mama. I’m not blaming you although it sounded like I was. It’s just been one huge, horrible misunderstanding and I’m caught right in the middle of it. The misunderstanding was mainly on my part. I have to go now and see if I can set things to rights and I’m afraid there is only one way that I can see that being done.”
Placing his hat on his head Heath stood up and with a last plea of hope in his eyes he looked at his mother’s grave. He had come to Strawberry for answers he didn’t want to know. In life his mother hadn’t given him the answers and in death she remained silent. His heart was heavy for he knew what the answers he had found meant and he knew what he must do. He left the graveyard and followed Charlie Sawyer with the two men up the street. And as he followed, Heath looked towards the gallows, a grotesque symbol of his own thoughts.
And the rest is history.