Heath lay pinned beneath the heavily laden wagon now lying on its side. He was being slowly compressed into the thick, gooey mud brought down by the Spring thaw. He and his stepmother had set out late morning with materials and equipment to make ready the lodge for the annual springtime vacation. Because of mud on the track they had reached an impasse so while Victoria drove Heath readily jumped down from his seat to assist the horses by pushing the wagon. Suddenly the chasse supporting the rear axle broke and seemingly in slow motion the wagon proceeded to turn over. Flying through the air Victoria was thrown clear and landed uninjured in the soft mud. Composing herself from the fall she turned and was horrified to see Heath trapped to his middle beneath the wagon in the mire.
On her part, two attempts to free him had proved futile.
ďYou have to try it again. You canít leave it there. You canít leave me like this. Please try again.Ē
ďKnot it, try it again.Ē Heath pleaded desperate to be freed.
Victoriaís heart went out to Heath for she could hear the desperation in his voice but she told him, ďItís not strong enough. I canít take the chance. It might fall back on you. Iím going to get Nick and some of the others.Ē Victoria placed the folded blanket she had found under his head making sure it was lifted out of the mud and cushioned comfortably.
ďOkay.Ē Heath resigned himself to Victoria leaving him.
ďYou think you can hold out?Ē Victoria asked knowing full well it was a stupid question.
ďNo. Iím not sure I can at all. I donít feel too good after the wagon fell on me with the last attempt. I still canít feel my legs, my hip is killing me with shooting pains and my belly is aching. They werenít hurting afore. And this barrel is pressing down on me worse now. No Mother Iím not sure how long I can hold out.Ē
ďIím alright. Itís not too clean but itís soft to lie in.Ē Heath bravely replied trying to make light of the situation. Victoria knelt down and gave him a motherly kiss on his mouth and then struggling through the deep mud she reached the track where she mounted one of the draft horses and quickly rode away.
ďĎWell Heath Barkley here you are in another fine mess.í I can just hear Jarrod talking to me right now. ĎWell Heath my boy I believe this is where you came into the world. Born in a tent in that rotten mining camp of Strawberry during a storm, Ďand the rain beat down and the streets turned to mudíí. I think thatís what I told my brothers because I was somewhat wound up and mad with Nick and all. Perhaps it was a little overly dramatic at the time, after all I wasnít really there, well I was, but not as Iíd know what it was really like other than what my mama told me. Mind you I can imagine well enough. There were plenty times while growing up when the streets were just pure mud. Of course back then it was a booming mining camp so there was plenty traffic of one kind or another coming through the streets so when it rained thatís what you had, mud. Oh yes mud Iím well acquainted with you. My níer do well friend. ĎWell Heath my boy I hope this isnít where you make your exit from the world.í I hope not. I have a whole lot more living I want to be doing.
ďNow just remembering when I was little about five or six, no shoes back then, used to run around bare footed, much as nature had intended. Good fun really. I had to be careful running across the streets ícause if you became stuck in the mud you could likely have been run down. But hell that was all part of the fun. Not getting run down you understand but running across the street dodging the horses and wagons. Mama would have had a fit if she had known the half of it. Trying to run through the mud and feeling it oozing up between your toes. It used to reach up to your knees but often as not youíd fall over in it face down. Of course when Iíd get home Mama would pretend to be angry with me. She wasnít really ícause there wasnít much point. Mud was just part of Strawberry and you sure became used to it.
ďIf it was still raining she used to strip me off and stand me in the garden and let the rain wash most of it off before dunking me in the tub. If it werenít raining sheíd strip me off and stand me on the porch and sheíd pour buckets of water over me alternatively kissing me and scolding me. Weíd use water from the rain-butt so water wasnít a problem. Yes Mama it sure was fun. It seems to me though we never did get rid of all the mud even after a good bath there was always plenty in the bed with me. It would get stuck in the blankets. I noticed in the morning more when it had dried ícause itíd be scratching me. Thatís when the mud wasnít much fun. I wonder if Jarrod, Nick or Eugene ever played in the mud. I canít imagine them having that much mud around where they grew up. I donít know what mother would have done with them. I canít see Jarrod getting muddy somehow nor Eugene neither. Nick maybe? Yeah I can just see Nick. I will have to ask him later, when he comes back with Mother.
ďThe mud sure seemed a lot more fun then than this does now. I still canít feel my legs; still kinda numb and that pain in my lower belly and hip is still there. I just need to take it easy, try not to move too much. Hell what am I thinking about I canít move at all. Well boy you sure are in a pickle right now. I bet from out there you look a little like the decorations on the top of a mud pie. Remember how you used to make them on the porch and then decorate them with small stones and the little models of horses you used to make and all. It was good fun. When they dried out though they used to crumble and Mama, you would have me with the broom trying to sweep it off. That was hard work. The broom was bigger than I was at the time. I used to throw mud balls at the tree as well, see how many times I could hit it. I wonder if Audra ever played with it? Thatís a silly thought you canít really imagine Audra playing in mud or with mud for that matter.
ďMind you I hear tell theyíre using it now as some kind of skin care, they reckon itís healthy and does you good. I might get you some for one of your next Christmas presents. If Iím still around. ĎOf course youíll be around, now stop thinking about it.í Yeah. Iíll have to buy it though I donít reckon itíll be the same as I wallowed in up in Strawberry. Just think of it Mama we might have been able to make a fortune out of it if weíd have known folks would have been crazy enough to pay for it. Mining for mud instead of gold. What do ya reckon, thatís why I have beautiful skin?Ē
He couldnít help a little chuckle from escaping.
ďAll that mud wallowing I did as a boy.Ē
ďI guess youíd have trouble parceling it, wet and all. No, ya probably buy it dry like and add your own water. Thatís what they probably do add their own water.
ďĎBy the waters of Babylon there we sat down, yea though we wept when we remembered Zion......í
ďHannah used to be singing that while she was washing. She always seemed to be washing. I used to do some washing too for the miners. Able to earn some cash that way. They werenít none too particular about their clothes them being all dirty, dusty and all from the mines. I used to wash them down by the riverside. Bashing them hard against the rocks. Sure was hard work and my arms became real cold. But Iíd get paid for it so it was worth it. Went towards helping you mama didnít it? I wonder how young Chad Tanner is since he went East? He was a great boy pity about his Gramps though.
ďNow the shadow from the trees is growing longer and itís shading me. The birds are starting to wing their way home to roost. The evening is settling in and itís gonna be dark soon. This wagon is feeling heavier and Iím still sinking and breathing is becoming real hard to do. I donít seem to be getting enough air. Must try and push this barrel up. Try and get some weight offa me. Aaarrggh! ooowwurr! aarrooohhh! Canít do it. That wasnít the greatest idea youíve ever had there boy. Shush. Heath ... can hear hoof beats. Yeah, yeah.
He strained to look into the direction the sound was coming from, ďMother?Ē He called out relieved when he saw Victoria.
Swiftly she dismounted and approached him. ďHere. Oh!Ē She was shocked when she saw how much further he had sunk into the mire.
ďYeah.... itís.....ítís.. sinking.íĒ Heath knew what she had been thinking and watched her as she busied herself around him.
ďWhat ..are you ..doing?Ē Heath asked anxiously.
ďHeath, youíll just have to trust me.Ē Victoria took hold of a lantern and placed it on a crate behind and slightly to the side of Heathís head. She then removed a match from Heathís breast pocket and striking it lit the wick. It would afford him some light and maybe a little warmth and comfort when the darkness closed in.
ďTrust you? Iíll trust you with anything. Surely you know that by now donít you Mother?Ē
Much to Heathís horror Victoria went on to state. ďIn case it gets dark before I get back.Ē
ďYouíre not going to leave? Surely youíre not going to leave me not now? Please not now. I donít want to be on my own I donít want you to leave me. Might not ever see you again. Where are ya going? Canít ya just stay?Ē
ďDo you think, do you think you can hold out?Ē Victoria asked very concerned for her stepsonís peril.
ďIím alright.Ē Heath lied.
ďIíll be back with help.Ē Victoria tried to reassure Heath.
ďHurry.Ē He stammered as Victoria struggled through the mud and left him for the second time that day.
ďWell youíre on your own again. Canít be helped. Mother is gonna get help boy. I donít know whether I can last out. You wouldnít think lying on your back could be so tiring. I just feel like sleeping. You donít go to sleep at this time in the day. You have to do everything you can to stay awake. No Heath sleeping is not a good idea. Nickíll be mad with you if you start sleeping on the job. I reckon Nickís gonna have his ruff up anyway when he gets out here. I reckon Iíll be hearing some chin music. I can just hear him sounding off.
ďOh for crying out loud Heath! Why didnít you check the blasted wagon. Werenít you listening to what I was telling you about it needing a little attention. When I saw you splashing around with the paint and all I reckoned youíd done checked it over. Now look at the mess youíre in and the wagon too. You ainít gotten an ounce of horse sense between those ears of yours. I donít have the time to be coming out here today. You hear me boy. Youíre gonna have to make this time up. You know that donít you Heath?Ē I hear you jawing Nick..... Gives me a kinda warm feeling inside. Makes me feel better.Ē
A slight, warm smile played momentarily on HeathĎs lips.
ďCanít rightly blame him if he does sound off at me. I hope he checks the rope he brings ícause I sure as hell didnít check the rope we had in the driverís box. I guess it was as old as the wagon the way it broke. Rotten hemp. My belly and hip wasnít hurting me none ítil that damn rope gave way. I know I asked Mother to try again but if she had and it had gone again I really donít know what my belly would be feeling like right now. I donít rightly know I could take any more. Iím glad she has more damned sense than I have.
ďTalking about sense I should have thought for Mother to put a bullet in this barrel sitting on me. It would have emptied the beer and lightened the load some. Mind itíd be a waste of good beer. The way Iím feeling at the moment I donít rightly care. Just didnít think on it, suppose we were in too much of a panic. Well she couldnít have emptied the chest the way itís fallen. The latch is underneath and sheíd never have had the strength to move it to get the lid open.
ďIt seems to be getting colder now and my backís getting kinda numb too. It wonít be long before Iím gonna be numb all through. Creeping numbness thatís what I have. Now stop thinking like that. Theyíll all be here soon. Mother took the faster horse and she wonít take too long to get home. Nick will see that he gets back quick. He wonít waste time. I hope he thinks on bringing that good strong rope and all. I really have made a bearís ass out of this havenít I? Heath stop that shivering now boy. Canít help it. The wagon is still sinking and Iím really very cold. Whatís that? I can hear horses and voices this time. It canít be Nick here already surely. No itís a couple of riders.Ē
ďH.........E.............L..................P!Ē Heath pleaded with his outstretched arm and hand and called to the riders but he couldnít get enough air to put strength in his voice and his effort went unheeded.
ďThey couldnít hear that. I made a feeble effort there. Iím gonna have to do better than that. Mind you they must have seen me. A little like the story of the Good Samaritan that Mama used to tell, them passing by on the other side and all. Brother Nick the good Samaritan will be.. here... soon...........Youíre falling asleep again Heath.Ē
ďYouíve..........got..........to........stay.......awake.Ē Each word spoken took a great deal of effort he could ill afford and yet he forced himself to keep thinking and speaking because he knew what the consequences would be if he fell asleep. ďYou hear ......hear...me. Youíll.... die ......if ..donít.......stay......awakeĒ
ďNick was right I did spend so much time fussing around with that paint to make the wagon look fancy, clean and real pretty for Mother. I never gave any thought as to checking the axle and I should have done ícause I knew it was an old wagon. Nick had told me to check it.Ē
ďSo...proud......paint......job...should......have...checked...wheels.....Wheels?...... Wheels...brought ..... settlers.......cross the prairie......forded.. the.....rivers.. Rolled....up...over....the.....mountains....Should....know....who...invented....the...wheel..... The Egyptians?... Donít....know.. half...enough.... íbout... the..... world... ya... live..... in.. Heath.... Barkley ......Awful.... lot... to....learn.....study....Jarrod studies law...........Nick...studied.......Gene.............good men.....all....fine.. brothers....for a .......man to.. have.Ē
ďThree fine men. Three wise men, my brothers..... The three wise men followed a star in the East to find the babe in the manger. I wonder if the settlers followed a star when they came West? Might not know too much about the wheel but I know about the stars though. Itís dark now. Are the stars out tonight? Well theyíre kind of always out. What I mean is; is it a clear night? If it is then itís gonna be cold. Yes itís a clear night alright and you could say Iím feeling kinda cold already. I donít know when this Barkley luck is gonna catch up with me. Nick always seems to have it. Thereís not much in the way of keeping warm so best not to think about it. Letís look at the stars.
ďMama remember how we used to dream upon a star. When I was tiny and not sleeping well you used to pick me up and carry me outside and youíd sit with me on your knee and weíd look at the stars and youíd tell me your dreams. It seems to me now thinking on it that I was your dreams. All your dreams were about me. Then youíd ask me to pick a star and tell a dream. I canít remember ever finishing a dream because I guess I always fell asleep and when I woke up it would be morning and the stars would be gone. Iíll pick a star now and tell you my dream if you like? Thereís one over there. Itís only small but it has a gentle sparkle just like you. ĎYou are here now holding me in your arms and comforting and warming me just as you did then. Kissing me and taking the hurt away.í A selfish dream I know. About me again but that is what I would like right now. We canít go back in time except in our dreams. I have plenty time to dream now right enough.
ď Mama, as I grew up I stopped dreaming on the stars because a time came when there didnít seem much point. I suppose it was when I was old enough to understand what I was and what you went through because of me. I became angry then with you, with me and everything else even with what the dreams seemed to offer. But now Mama I think you would be glad to know that I have learned to dream again. All those dreams we had all those years ago are here with me now. I found my fatherís family and have been accepted by them and am living with them and am as happy as I ever thought I could be in those far away dreams. I just hope that I havenít brought the dreams to an end this day.
ďYouíre still shivering boy......donít think on it. Now where is The Big Dipper? Itís always there in the sky as long as itís not clouded over. There it is, now find the cup, got it, find the corner star and follow it up to the edge of the cup now carry on in a straight line and there it is the North star. Follow that line and it leads ya North. Thatís what the runaway slaves used to follow to find their ways to the Northern States or to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Now it wasnít underground and it wasnít a railroad but thatís how many of the slaves managed to get themselves away, ícause it was a secret organization. With most of the slaves not being able to read they used to sing certain songs and thatís how they passed on messages and knew to follow the star to go North. Thatís why you was always singing wasnít it Hannah? Iím sure glad I wasnít born a slave. At least I had my freedom I could play around in the mud if I so wanted and get stuck in it too. I remember you telling me the stories at bed time and singing to me. Of course this was way before the war when I was a little boy. Now Heath you donít want to be thinking about the war now do you?
ďNot really but the war wasnít all bad. It took me away from Strawberry, took me away from those mean minded folks, took me out amongst fellas who judged me for who I was and not what I was. Of course Mama you werenít too happy íbout me going off like that but you wouldnít give me the answer I needed that might have kept me home so I up and left, ran off to join. Iím too damned pig headed I guess. Kinda mad I was, just that age when I thought I knew best. The blue bellies werení t too interested in my age as long as I was up to the job. Neither did my circumstances matter to them none. They werenít a bad bunch of fellas. Got paid proper and all. I learnt a whole lot from them. Hell I remember the first battle I was in. I was dirt scared. Shells going off around us and hornets whizzing passed our ears, not knowing where the one that was going to hit you or kill you was coming from.
ďI just wanted to run but I was too scared to do that even, I doubt my legs would have carried me, shaking like a jelly they were. Soldiers were dropping around us, legs one way arms the other, blood seemed to be everywhere. Weíd be splattered in blood not knowing whether it was our own or not. I killed. It wasnít too hard from a distance taking aim and firing. We were taught to go for the Reb brass first then the lesser Rebs. From way back it was a little like target shooting you kinda forgot it was a man you was aiming at; coulda been a turkey or a Jack rabbit for all we cared. But close up was something different. When youíre standing facing them and youíre looking into their eyes then youíre seeing so much else. We were told never to look into their eyes but itís hard not to when youíre up close and thatís when youíd realize theyíre human like you are. Somehow you donít have time to think you have to shoot them before they shoot you. Itís kill or be killed. Then afterwards you remember and you relive it and you go through it all again every ghastly detail, because youíre so damn glad to be alive.
ďWhen the battle is over you have to do the clearing up too. Thatís as bad as the battle. Listening to the moaning of the wounded and the cries of the dying calling out for their mamas. And collecting body parts and corpses and souvenirs. Then when ya had time to rest and to talk youíd find you werenít the only one that was scared. All the fellas were; even the hard seasoned blue bellies. You just learned to live with your fear. And when youíve seen death and faced death as many times as I have ya kinda become numb to it. Even your own. Isnít that so boy? Yep, but you sure as hell still hang on to life.
ďOh yes I killed alright, I killed a lot but I never came to terms with that. Now there were them who thrived off killing but they were but a few. I reckon those types were sick in the head.
ďNow the battles were bad but if it rained the fields would turn to mud and that was another game again. There you were again my níer do well friend. We had to fight the battle as well as you. Not only were we miserable on the inside but we were miserable on the outside. Mud was everywhere. In your clothes right through to your skin. A shell would go off by you and youíd be splattered in the stuff. At first you didnít know whether youíd been hit or not. You sure were relieved when you found it was just mud you were caked in.
ďYou never did sleep well after a battle ícause your mind was still fighting and you could see the eyes of the men youíd killed, dead eyes, vacant and just staring back at you haunting like.
ďNow I didnít really want to be thinking on the war. Far too dismal. Not as gloomy as Carterson? Well Iím not going back there Iíve had enough of that to last me a lifetime. No but the mud was there as well wasnít it? Sure was. Most of the time it was dry, parched and scorching and then the rain would come down and the whole camp would turn to mud. There was no escaping it. Iím not sure which was worse the mud or the parched earth? I suppose the mud brought some relief and if you could catch some of the rain you could drink it. It sure beat drinking the water in the camp. Now that brings me back to Bentell. I sure am having wretched thoughts now. Canít I think on something more cheerful like? Yes well this is kinda more cheerful.
ďIt was only a few odd months back when I found out that he was the foreman of the familyís logging camp. Boy howdy that was a sickening shock finding him standing there large as life in the sitting room. Now that wasnít a very good time for me no way. I wasnít sure which side the family was on they sure seemed to favor Bentell over me. Brought those damned nightmares right to the fore again. As if I didnít have enough to contend with. They couldnít seem to see him as I saw him. They treated him as a charity case. Felt kind of sorry for him because of the way the war had affected him. No thoughts were given to me on how the war may have affected me. The war had been over for years and they expected me to have forgotten it. Well there are some things you just canít forget, no way. Anyhow the family decided to send me off with him to hold his hand just in case someone thought on trying to kill him. They didnít seem too bothered about me getting killed instead of him. They reckoned it would be good for me to be with him. Get to know him. I told them I already knew him and didnít need to be reacquainted. But they werenít interested in what I had to say. They wanted me to try and bury the hatchet. I knew where I wanted to bury it but the family were not for that. They thought being with him would get rid of the hate inside of me. Well it worked in a way but not the way they thought it would. I nearly didnít come home. It nearly got rid of me all together. Blown into eternity, to become a mere memory.
ďI was up there with him while the flume was being built. At one point I was up and leaving and I wasn't coming home, no way. Iíd just had a confrontation with Mrs Bentell in the barn and wasnít in a good frame of mind. I was riding up the track leading away from the camp when I saw the fire. Now at this point I was ready to leave Bentell and I was ready to leave my family for good but I couldnít leave that beautiful woodland to burn so I went back to warn the men and fight the fire along side them and Bentell.
ďIt seems Gil Condon who was hell bent on killing Bentell had gone berserk and set fire to the forest. We went up there setting off nitro to try and make a fire break. Gil appeared coming after the nitro. I tried to stop him and got myself knocked senseless. It ended up with Bentell saving my life; a little ironic really. I guess I felt somehow beholden to him after that, what with the knock on my head and all, I might not have been thinking straight. And I think he felt responsible for me having saved my life. Anyway after that things seemed better between us. I couldnít rightly say we were best friends nor could I forgive and forget but I was able to handle it better. At least put on a good front for everyone. I came home but I was a little wary of the family for a while. It took me a little afore I could trust them again. I know I am new to this family thing but this didnít seem to me the way family was supposed to work. But they didnít seem to notice, they didnít seem to think theyíd done anything that might have upset me. They couldnít see that theyíd done anything wrong by me. So I let bygones be bygones and the nightmares finally ceased on their own accord. The family never noticing.
ďWhen the flume was finally finished he and his wife, she being a few thunder claps short of a storm, came to stay for a few days and to finish off some business with the family. Then one morning the pair of them set out back to the logging camp. A couple of hours after theyíd left there was a freak storm. Boy howdy the grand daddy of them all. One of these types where you never knew where the lightning was gonna strike next. Forking off all over the place it was. Thunder was clappiní off all around you and the rain was beating down like a real toad floater. It was muddy round home for a while too. Well anyway, what was left of Bentell and his wife wasnít found ítil the next day. It seems they hadnít gotten as far as the logging country when the storm broke. They took shelter under one of the old oak trees. I donít reckon they ever knew what struck íem. Crazy place to take shelter youíd have thought heíd have known better than that. Anyway the tree was struck and them and the buggy and all went with it.
ďďAct of God,Ē Jarrod said. He couldnít blame that one on me nor anyone else for that matter not unless he blamed my prayers. Mama you always said God worked in mysterious ways. Well He sure did this day that was for sure. It just took Him a few years to answer me is all. Pity He couldnít have done it a few years earlier it would have saved me a whole heap of heart ache and grief. Mind you the Barkley luck held out didnít it? He didnít get struck off the face of this earth ítil the flume had been built and was under operation. Anyway justice was finally served as far as I was concerned. I canít say Iíve really rid myself of the hate not yet but I sure feel better. Better than I did after he saved my life even. Maybe.. thatís... wrong.... of..... me...... but....... thatís........ how......... I.......... feel.......
MINE eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory Glory Halleluiah. Glory Glory Halleluiah.
Glory Glory Halleluiah. His truth is marching on.Ē
Heath struggled to sing. His train of thoughts on his wartime experiences and his praises to God for His almighty intervention appropriately and naturally led him to singing the Battle Hymn.
ďLetís get away from the war and back to the stars all of Godís fine creation. The underground railroad and all. The railroad the real railroad? Iíve raced a few trains in my time but that last one was the first one to lead me to a muddy grave. Heath stop thinking on that youíre gonna be okay. They canít be far away now. No youíre right theyíll be here soon. I still havenít felt my legs since I became stuck. Wonder if I ever will again? Cowboyís not much good if he canít feel his legs....... I wouldnít be here now if it hadnít been for racing that train when I came into the valley. Jarrod was on the train and him betting on me won him a heap of money, which he was grateful for and he told Nick to hire me on. Now I donít know whether I should be pleased or not. No I canít be blaming this on Jarrod. After all it was me who raced the train and me who didnít check the wagon. I have only myself to blame for all of this. Even if I do end up a goner Iíve had a good time since I lived with my family. Theyíve been right good to me apart from the Matt Bentell affair. They didnít have to take me in. I suppose at first it was an obligation on their part but now I know it was more than that. It feels just right. It feels that it is where I belong. Jarrod might come with Nick youíre coming arenít you, youíre on your way big brother arenít you? Not rightly sure whether Mother will be home yet.Ē
ďWOLF! Keep quiet boy. Donít let it see you. Might not have noticed me yet. Whereís the gun? Hell Mother you took the rifle and I canít reach my gun. Didnít think ítil now. What to do? Donít panic. Donít draw attention to yourself. It doesnít look rabid thank God not like the beast that attacked Nick. I can feel my heart beating. The damn wolfíll be hearing it too soon. Shut up Heath. Too late heís seen me and starting to slink over this way. Look at those teeth. What do I do?
ďGet back!.....Get back!Ē Heath tried to sound aggressive in the hopes of frightening the wolf but only seemed to draw more attention to himself. ďGit,....get......get, git.........Find yourself something dead. Thereís nothing, nothing here for you..........Git, get, get...git.Ē Heath was now fully awake and aware to the danger he was in.
ďHell thatís no good. Fire. Lantern. Throw the lantern at it. No. I might need it later on. Paper. Yes there was paper under the seat. There I can just reach it. Got it. You just stay there wolf donít come any closer. Iíve gotten a present for you. Put a bit of mud on the end just to weight it. Now be careful you donít wet it all. Thatís it light it. Done. Here you are wolf.
....... ďGITĒ ..........
Good that did the job worked a treat. Thank God. He scampered with his tail between his legs. Just warm my hands a while on the glass before I put the lantern back. Calm the bat wings a little too. They feel better now, could do with a good raging fire right now not a forest fire. Just like to be sitting at home in the sitting room by the fire with my family. I wonder what they are doing right now? They should have finished dinner. Maybe Jarrod and Nick will be playing cards we havenít got the billiard table yet. Iím not sure whether Jarrod ordered it the last time he was in San Francisco. Anyway thatís something to look forward to, a good game of billiards during the long Winter nights. Maybe Motherís just arrived home. Nickíll be swearing and cursing when he knows. My hips are paining more than ever now. Damn wolf.
ďThat didnít do my belly any good neither. Itís aching more than ever too. Take a few deep breaths. Canít. This heap of timberís still sinking. Itís pressing down on my breathing gear real heavy now. If someone donít get here soon Iím gonna be the filling in this here mud pie. Iíd think that was funny if I wasnít being slowly sucked down. It hurts. Iím hurting. Just have to keep my mind off whatís happening. Letís think about someone elseís problems. When Nick was attacked by the wolf. That sure was a worrying time. Not sure we did the right thing him going away and me promising to say nothing. I wanted to tell them so badly but I couldnít. I gave my word. Never break your word Heath Barkley. Never have, never did, never will but I figure this was the hardest promise to keep. I donít reckon we did right by the family there. Iím sorry Mother. I didnít want to worry you. I know you were worrying for Nick but so was I. Believe..... me........ so.......... was............ IĒ
He could feel himself failing. The pressure of the wagon bearing down on him, the creeping numbness throughout his body, the gnawing pain in his hip and abdomen, the cold, the wet, the helplessness of the situation and the thoughts of his family brought a cry of desperation to his lips.
But there was no one there, no one to hear him and no one to answer only the cold night air and it was ignorant of his plight.
ďĎNow what good did that do you? There is no one near. You know that. Mother might be home now. Sheíll get help you know she will. You have yourself a fine family. None better. Theyíll do anything for you.í I know they will thatís why I was here in the first place. I never had a vacation before up at the lodge. The last one we had up at Spring Meadows well that turned into a fiasco. With Hester Converse, Nickís fiancee actiní as though sheíd taken a shine to me and causing Nick to get jealous, he really started raging at me, just wouldnít listen to me, he went out to bust me and it ended up with him nearly breaking his back. Nick you really had no cause to show the green eyed monster because I would never cheat on you. I might play tricks on you but I would never ever chisel you. You ought to have known that. But I can kinda understand you, I suppose I canít rightly blame you. I do blame her though. Any how this vacation is family only.
ďNever really had the time, money nor the inclination before I came to live with you. Really itís only the rich that have the time for vacationing. I guess Iím one of the rich now. Well Iím rich in a family that loves me I know that. You canít want for more. Mind I donít know whether theyíll be loving me if they reckon Iíve spoiled their vacation. I was really looking forward to being at the lodge. I think thatís why Mother asked me to come with her seeing as how the last one turned out. I reckon she thought I could have had more time up there helping her and all. I was looking forward to relaxing and fishing with my brothers, just seeing who could catch the biggest fish or the most or what ever. Would have been kinda fun. Doing some game shooting. Hell I hope I havenít broken the beaks offa them duck decoys of Nickís or Iíll be getting another ear chewed off........ It would have been fun just being out here as one with nature and my family. Well Iím as one with nature at this moment in time sure enough. Play a few games of poker and win some of course. A chance to play so to speak never have done much of that ícepting in the mud. Enjoy myself with my family much as Mother was saying. Donít look like Iím gonna be doing much enjoying neither.
ďThis damn wagon. Just a useless heap of timber now. Nick told me that Father made it while Jarrod and he were boys. He must have been quite clever with his hands. At least with carpentry and the like. Making them wheels and all. I bet the blacksmith would have finished the wheels off unless they had a wheelwright here abouts when he made it. I bet he hadnít thought that one of his sons would be stupid enough to get his self trapped under it. At least itís the bastard and not one of the ones you knew about. I guess youíll be glad about that?
ďIs this your final present for me daddy? A muddy grave. The folks of Strawberry always said Iíd come to a muddy end or something like that, same difference anyhow? Sorry Daddy, No that isnít fair on you. This is my doing, all my fault, deserve whatís coming to me. Father I know ya wouldnít have done this. Iíve lived with the family too long now and Iíve heard too much about you from them. At first I hated you, always hated you. But now I find it hard to. You canít live with a family like yours and go on hating you. After Mother went to Strawberry and found out that you didnít know about me well she felt happy and I just went along with it for her sake. I reckon sheíd been hurt enough. But inside of me there was still this notion that you shoulda checked on Mama and you never did and that is what I canít come to terms with. Well you have four splendid children who loved you dearly and who worshipped the ground you walked on. You were a good father to them and you were a good husband to Mother. I donít reckon Iím ready to forgive you yet but I wish we could have met and you could have had the chance to make your excuses to me. I would have liked that. Perhaps weíll get the chance to meet shortly in the not too distant future.........
ďI donít think I can hang on much longer Mother. Iíve been dogged and Iím gonna carry on being dogged. You always said I was more stubborn than the others put together, but I think I may have met a force more stubborn than me. I havenít much strength now. I canít feel any of my body. Itís all numb ícepting for the dull ache in my belly and the paining in my hip. I want to take a deep, deep breath but canít and the stars in the heavens keep on disappearing even though itís a clear sky.
ďThe Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
Yea..... though..... I walk....... through...... the valley of..... the...... shadow.... of death I will....... fear....... no evil;......... For...... thou art...... with me........ thy....... rod and thy..... staff... they........ comfort...... me,......... ..... comfort.......me......Ē
Heath was failing. His body was past shivering and beyond cold. The blanket which Victoria had placed lovingly beneath his head was now soaked through and plastered with mud. Itsí cold, sodden touch was now stealing the remaining heat from his body, by means of his head. He could feel his life force sapping from him as much as his body was being drawn into the soft, thick, cold, wet earth. He was impotent to prevent it. He had always thought that when his time came he would stand facing it fighting as he had done during the war. This was alien to him. And driven more by frustration and desperation than fear he cried out.
ďOh God why doesnít someone come? Why donít they come?Ē
There was a thick, hard, choking lump in his throat and no longer could Heath prevent the flood of silent tears that had long been welling. This being testament to the knowledge that the future would not be his. That he would not see his family again. That for him there would be no more tomorrows.
ďIím sorry Nick I know youíre coming, I know youíll come. I just donít think Iíll be here when you arrive. I donít know how much time I have left. I guess I must have ruined your vacation for you. I didnít mean to. For all the times Iíve often thought on dying I never thought itíd be like this. A damn silly way to go. What does the preacher say when the coffin is in the ground? ĎEarth to earthí well I reckon there is a lot of truth in that. Never thought on it before. Now I donít want you fretting on me none, any of you. I hadnít planned on leaving yet a while but I figure God has it all worked out. Thatís possibly why he dealt with Bentell first just to let me have a little comfort afore he came for me.
ďNow I ainít gonna be complaining about my life because itís the only one Iíve had and if I hadnít have had it I would never have known any of you. It may not have been brilliant but there are plenty of folks who have had it worse than me. I had a good Mama who loved me and took real good care of me the best she knew how. There are plenty who have never known love. We always had plenty love to feed off ítil I was stupid enough to run away to the war. Iím sorry mama for hurting you then. I was selfish just thinking of myself. Well I wouldnít be wanting to be going to war again. The worst was Carterson now I didnít cotton to that none, hell on earth it sure made me think on to where Iíd like to be in the hereafter. I reckon Iím going to be alright from here on in ícause Iíve already done my time in hell.
ďWell of course after Carterson I messed up some never anything real bad but I wasnít exactly perfect either. I just couldnít get things straight. I couldnít get settled in myself or my mind. But I survived and I reckon I came out better for it. Iíve spent most of my life hating. Hating what I am, hating Strawberry but mainly the folks there, hating my Uncle Matt, hating Matt Bentell and most of all Father until this last year when you all have taught me so much. You brought love back into my life. You made me look back on all the good Iíve had and helped me forget about the bad. I guess the hate in me was just my way of surviving. Well I survived and I found you. And Iíve had a good year living with you. And all the hate I lived off is buried deep and I have no need of it now. I belong with you and I love you for that. For what you have given me and what you have done for me. Iím just sorry that Iíve cut it short, our being together is all.
ďIíd really like to write this down for you but I canít feel anything now. Iím numb right through. I canít even get my hands to function to get my book out of my pocket so I donít think Iíll be able to get my fingers to work on holding a black lead so Iíll just tell you and happen youíll hear it one day blowing in the wind when youíre thinking on me.
ďI didnít get round to making a will ícause I thought I had more time and besides I donít have much to be leaving other than what I brought with me. But I hope Iíll leave you with memories. I reckon you all know what I would like you to have. I expect Nick to have my rifle, the Mexican blow pipe; youíve always coveted it. Audra Iíd like you to have my Modoc pony ícause I know youíll look after her. Mother will you have my notebooks as a keepsake, other than the one I have on me the rest are in my desk. I hope youíll read them and share their contents because my life is written there way back into the past and most especially with you all, my family. I know Iím not one for talking so what I have never told you, Iím sure youíll find in my books. Jarrod and Eugene you can help yourself to what is left I donít rightly know whether there will be anything that is up to your standard but youíre welcome. I wonít be upset none if you donít want anything.
ďI have no objections to being planted next to Father. We have some making up to be doing. He has some excuses to make and I reckon I have some listening to do is all. Not before time. So donít worry none about that.
ďEugene thank you for being my brother. We havenít had too much time together with you being away at college but the time weíve had has been good. We only had that one falling out over Fatherís boots and you kindly put that behind you as I did. I hope your studies go well and you eventually find what you want to be doing. Goodbye little brother.
ďAudra thank you for being my very beautiful and special sister. You are gentle, sweet and kind and if I end up in heaven Iím hope my guardians will be like you. You are a little spoiled but that is my fault as much as anyone elseís. I can understand why. You are also self willed and so just for me try to think a little more before you act so you donít keep getting yourself in trouble because I wonít be here to look out for you. You hear? Goodbye Little Sis.
ďNick thank you for being my big brother and best friend. It sure has been fun knowing you. Thanks for looking out for me, though I reckon Iíve done my share for you too. So try to think more before you act ícause I wonít be there for you. You make sure you win the next fourth of July wrestling match you hear. You make my losing to you last time worth while. I reckon the Barkley luck is still with you brother because I wonít be there to beat you when fishing. Now when I first came to the ranch I never dreamt weíd ever get as close as we have and I guess thatís what makes this saying goodbye business even harder. Itís been good knowing you Nick and fun too. Goodbye big brother.
ďJarrod thank you for being my big brother. I may not have always shown my appreciation toward you like I should but I am grateful for all you have done for me. Standing up for my rights. Trusting in me particularly when I was up for murdering Libbyís husband. Youíre the best lawyer there is. Iím always bragging about you, ĎMy brother is a lawyer, heís the bestí. I sure am proud of that. You were foremost in helping me become a member of the Barkley family, helping me to fit in, showing me the right way to behave and all. You never belittled me and you could have done so very easily. Goodbye my eldest, big brother, may I say Pappy?
ďMother thank you for being a mother to me, for believing in me, for accepting me and for loving me as one of your own. I know it could not have been easy for you. Iím sorry for all the hurt I have caused you for being what I am. You helped me like only a mother could when Libby died. I can still remember your words to me and you helped me get over the hurt when Maria left. You gave me hope and gave me back the confidence I had lost with my ill fated love. But for you I would never have had this wonderful last year. The opportunity to look at life differently, to know my family and learn about my father, and finish my life happy and peaceful. Thank you for everything. Mother, I love you. Goodbye.
ďThis last year living with you has given me contentment, I want for nothing more. In life I have had it all. I have experienced pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, hate and love. With you I have done the work I enjoy, lived in a beautiful home surrounded by wonderful folks and have been loved by the best family a bastard could ever have. Sorry I messed up this time. I love you all dearly. Until we meet again...............
Iím....... tired, .... so .......so.........tired........Ē
ďThe Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness... for... his names.... sake..... Yeah..... though..... I... walk..... through..... the... valley..... of..... the..... sh... ad... ow.... of..... d....... ea...... th.....Ē
And the rest is history.