A Life Stolen
He lay on his stomach in the grass off to the side of the road, half naked, three-quarters dead and totally unaware of either. The thump of his horse’s hooves reached his ears as it was ridden away, but he only vaguely heard it. His heart was beating so hard that it drowned out everything else. But he was too far gone into oblivion to be aware of or concerned with anything. And he didn’t know that he was bleeding to death as his life gradually ebbed.
The large heavy wagon clattered into the stillness as Lee Haymes headed for home along the road that led out from Bantree. He’d gone into town to pick up some much needed supplies with the money he’d gotten from the sale of a cow and calf. It wasn’t much, some nails and shingles for the barn roof, a new axe handle, chicken wire, oats for the horses and a couple slabs of bacon. And with the little extra he’d had left over he’d gotten a sack of candy for Kip and a length of green ribbon for Becky’s long, golden hair.
It was a beautiful morning, and the trees were alive with birds and squirrels. The leaves whispered in the soft summer breeze and the sky was the most glorious hue. Lee had lost himself in the soft white clouds that drifted aimlessly overhead when the horses snorted and pulled at their bits, and his amber eyes came back to earth. “Whoa, take it easy. There’s nothin’…” but he didn’t finish as his gaze lit on something in the grass just ahead off to the left of the fork in the road. He stopped the team with a firm tone and strained to see what it was. “Well, I guess I might as well check it out.” He took the shotgun from under the seat and climbed down and gave one of the horses a pat on the neck. As he cautiously drew closer he could see that it was a man lying face down in only his under drawers. There was a large bruise in the middle of his back, and he appeared dead or unconscious. “Mister,” he said as he edged still closer. “Mister, you all right?”
But still the man didn’t move, even when nudged with the toe of a boot. As Lee crouched by him – the ever-present shotgun at the ready – he could see that the stranger had been badly beaten. Blood ran along the side of his face, and the bruise on his back wasn’t the only one. His knuckles were torn and bleeding, and he’d been stripped nearly naked, even his boots and socks were gone. Lee placed a hand on his shoulder, and his skin was cool and clammy.
“Mister, can you hear me?” Gently, he turned the man onto his back, and he felt sick. The bruising was even more extensive on his chest and stomach. More blood ran from his left cheek, and his bottom lip was split, swollen and bleeding. Near his left temple his heavy black hair was matted with even more blood. Lee winced, and his nose wrinkled as he swallowed hard. If not for his labored breathing it would have been easy to mistake him for dead.
“You’re not dead, not yet.” He shook his head, and his mouth set into a determined line. “You may be too far gone for any help, but I’m not gonna leave you out here.” Pushing himself away from the ground, he went back and put the weapon on the seat. He took the horse’s bits and coaxed them forward, bringing the wagon alongside, then went to the man and sat him up. He half-carried and half-drug the unconscious stranger and got him part way into the bed then got in and finished pulling him in. There was a large piece of canvas that he kept there in case he should need to cover something. Well, he did now more than he ever had. Gingerly, he brought it over the man and tucked it in around him until only his head and neck were out. Then he clambered onto the seat and took the reins. “All right, boys, let’s go,” he said urgently as he slapped them against the horse’s backs and they started off. He glanced back at his passenger and fought the desire to go faster. But this man had been through enough, and he didn’t need any jostling.
Becky Haymes was a lovely young woman with golden blonde hair and clear blue eyes. She’d been married to Lee Haymes for nine years and was happier now than she’d ever been in her life. Granted, things were hard sometimes and money wasn’t the easiest item to come by, but they rarely wanted for anything, and they never went hungry, her husband saw to that. Their house was nothing special or fancy by city standards and it wasn’t very big, a parlor with a cooking alcove and two small bedrooms, but it suited their needs. It kept them warm in cold weather, dry when it rained, and gave them shelter the year around, and who could possibly want more.
She sat at the scarred dining table darning a pair of her husband’s socks while her seven-year-old son sat across from her churning milk into sweet butter.
Kip Haymes was the very picture of his mother. The boy was the light of his parents’ life and the reason for coming west. Lee had grown up in a city, as had Becky, and he didn’t want that for his son, and she had agreed. The child had been barely two when they had anchored roots into this piece of land, and it was the only real home he’d ever known.
The morning was peaceful and serene. The stock had been fed, the cow milked and the eggs gathered, and this was a quiet time for mother and son. But the tranquility was abruptly shattered as the wagon rumbled into the yard. “Becky! Becky!”
Kip sprang from his chair as his mother lay her sewing aside and got up. “Stay here, Kip.”
As she went out onto the porch her husband was already in the wagon bed, and from the look on his face something was urgently wrong. “Lee, what is it? Are you all right?” she asked as she started down the steps, but she got no answer. “Lee.”
When she got to the back of the wagon she saw what he had, and she gasped.
“I found ‘im out by the fork in the road. Somebody had beaten ‘im nearly to death, and I couldn’t just leave ‘im out there.”
“Of course you couldn’t.”
“We need to get ‘im in the house. We can put ‘im in Kip’s room. He can sleep in the parlor on the settee until he’s better or…” But the rest of the words were unnecessary.
“But how are we…?”
“Pa, can I help?”
“I thought I told you to stay in the house, young man,” Becky said as her stern eyes flashed.
“I think maybe you can, son. If you two’ll get his legs, I’ll get a grip under his arms and maybe together we can do it. But I’ve gotta warn you he’s heavy…. And that’s not all.” He carefully pulled the canvas back to reveal the rest of the injuries.
“Oh, Lee,” Becky said, her voice cracking. Tears burned behind her eyes as she saw what had been done to this man. He was marked almost from head to foot with bruises and it made her want to weep. She reached out and touched a cool hand and it twisted her heart.
“All right, let’s get at this,” Lee said commandingly.
Lee got behind him and put his arms under the man’s armpits and clasped his hands together in front of his chest, mindful of any broken and cracked ribs he may have. Becky took one long leg around the knee, while Kip took the other. As Lee came down out of the wagon with his load she grunted and almost lost her grip.
“I’ll go in first,” Lee said as he began backing toward the porch. Continually glancing behind him, he started up the steps, his wife and son coming up after him. They crossed to the door and were finally inside. Lee looked back to make sure he’d have no trouble getting through the doorway. Once they got him to the bed Lee eased his end onto the soft mattress, then his legs were gently placed.
“Kip, go to the cabinet by the stove and get me some towels,” she said as she sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Yes, ma’am,” and the boy darted out.
Her eyes roved over this badly injured man then turned to her husband as her sadness spilled out to him. “You need to go into town for Dr. Robey.”
“That’s no good,” he said as he shook his head. “It’s an hour there and an hour back, and I don’t think he’s got two hours left in ‘im. But it’s only about half an hour to Doc Statler’s, there and back.”
“All right, but hurry, I can only do so much for him.”
As Lee rushed out Kip blustered in past him with an armload of towels and put them on the foot of the bed as she told him. He watched anxiously as she filled the basin on the bed table from the pitcher with water then took one of the towels and wet it.
“Is he gonna die, Ma?”
“I don’t know, dear,” she said as she began softly washing the blood from his battered face.
“He’s hurt bad, ain’t he?”
“Yes, dear, very bad. Now why don’t you go finish your churning?”
“But, Ma, I…”
“Go on. Now scoot. And pull the door together.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said dejectedly then went out and closed the door.
As she sponged back his hair she discovered the bloody spot and found a gash along his temple. This poor man had been beaten senseless and to within an inch of his life. Whoever had done this had taken everything – including his dignity – and left him to die and it made her want to cry. She dipped the cloth in the increasingly red water and wrung it out then lifted one of his fine hands and began bathing the badly bruised and torn knuckles.
“You fought back,” she said as her misty eyes went to his face. He looked to be a handsome man, and she knew deep inside that somewhere he had family who would wonder where he was and what had happened to him. The thought that he could die without them ever knowing tore at her, and if he should pass from this life they would place him beneath the big shady tree behind the house. And Lee would read from the Good Book, and she would sing a hymn and leave flowers. “But what would we put on your marker? We don’t even know your name.” Her hand trembled as she put it to her throat, and the tears finally overwhelmed her eyes.
As Kip worked the churn dash up-and-down he became aware of a sound coming from his bedroom. He stopped and looked toward the door as he realized that his mother was crying, and he wondered if it was because the man had died.
Galen Statler had been in the middle of his dinner when a very agitated Lee Haymes showed up at his small two-room house. When he’d been told what had happened there had been no real decision involved in his going, he was a doctor, and he could do no less than try to save a life. He’d retired six years earlier and come here for peace and quiet and a less hectic life. But he was closer to the people living out this way than the one in Bantree, and he found himself constantly being called on. When they got to the Haymes’ place he was taken directly to the room where the man was, and what greeted him sent waves of anger and revulsion washing through him.
“Lee, told me that he hadn’t regained consciousness before he left,” the tall, silver-haired man asked as he placed his worn black leather satchel on the bed table. “Has he…?” A simple shake of her head made further words unnecessary. He moved closer to get a better look at this terribly injured man, and his mahogany eyes roved the long, hideously bruised frame. He took a long, intricately carved ivory tube from his medical bag and placed the bell end against the man’s chest over his heart then bent and covered the opposite end with his ear and listened. What he heard distressed him even further, but there wasn’t time for that now. If what he suspected were true, judging by this man’s ashy coloring, he was dying before their very eyes. “Lee, why don’t you wait outside while I finish my examination, and Becky, I’m going to need your help.”
She quickly agreed as Lee went out, closing the door behind him. He went straight to the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee – his eyes flicking back toward his son’s room – then went to the dining table and sat down across from Kip. The boy had lost interest in the churn and its contents, though his small hand still held to the handle.
“Pa, is he gonna die? Ma couldn’t tell me.”
“I’m afraid I can’t either son.” He took a sip as the steam rose into his face. “Only the Good Lord knows that, it isn’t our place.”
“But he’s hurt real bad, ain’t he? Ma said so.”
“Yes, son, he’s hurt real bad.”
“Pa, do you think he’s a bad man?”
Lee looked around at him with a quizzical expression that made his forehead wrinkle. “Why do you ask that?”
“Well, he’d havta be a bad man for somebody to do this to ‘im, wouldn’t he?”
“Maybe, but it could be the other way around. He could be a good man, and a bad man did this to him.”
The child’s round blue eyes went toward his room then back to his father. “Pa, why do some people like to be mean to other people? Sometimes when we’ve been in town some of the other children’ve laughed at me and called me names only because of my clothes; one boy even hit me once. Why do they do that?”
“I don’t know, son. Some people are just like that. They seem to get enjoyment out of hurting others, sometimes by calling ‘em names and sometimes by doing what was done to this man. With some it’s makes ‘em feel big and important or better and some just plain don’t know any better, and still others just plain like it.
“I’m not like that.”
“No, Kip, you’re not and never could be, you’re too much like your mother,” he said with a warm grin. “Now why don’t you finish with your churning?”
The churn dash moved slowly and lacklusterly up then down then up, but coffee and butter were not the center of attention.
An hour passed, then nearly two when Becky finally came out of the bedroom with the washbasin. Her face was lined and tired, and the strain of fighting for a man’s life shown in her weary eyes. They connected with her husband’s as she eased the door together behind her, but no words were spoken between them. He watched as she drifted quietly to the front door – only the swishing of her skirt and petticoats making any sound – and went out onto the porch.
“Stay here, Kip, in case the doctor comes out,” Lee said as he put his cup on the table and started after her.
As he got outside she was standing at the edge near one of the posts with her back to him. Her shoulders were slumped, and she’d emptied the basin into the yard.
“Becky,” he said softly as he placed his hands lightly on her arms.
“He’s been brutalized,” she said, her voice thin with fatigue and sorrow. “What was done to him I wouldn’t do to an animal.” She turned to him, and the grief in her face made her look like a little girl. “Oh, Lee, how could anyone do such a thing? How could anyone…” She put a hand to her mouth and fought back the driving tears.
“I don’t know. Some men are just mean that way,” he said as he pushed back a wavy strand of hair from her oval-shaped face. “Did you see the bruise on his back?”
Her eyes danced with blue fire, and her soft brows knit together. “No,” she said flatly.
“It’s a boot print.”
“I’m not one bit surprised. He’s marked all over from being kicked. The doctor says it’s what caused the bleeding inside, and if he hadn’t gotten to him when he did he would’ve surely died.” The corners of her mouth turned into a faint smile as she tenderly touched his cheek. “You did the right thing in bringing him here. He may die anyway, but at least like this it’ll be in a soft bed and not on the hard ground. And he’ll be with those who care.” Her fingers began to tremble, and her lips to quiver. “Oh, Lee.”
He pulled her to him and put his arms around her as she rested the side of her head against his shoulder. Stroking her silken hair, her heartbreaking sobs ran through him. One of the things that had drawn him to Becky was her compassion for others. She was a gentle, nurturing woman and injustice ignited a flame inside her that strengthened her will, grit and resolve. She would fight to the best of her ability to keep this perfect stranger alive because she could do nothing else. He kissed her temple as his hold squeezed around her. “We’ll do the best we can,” he whispered. “That’s all any of us can do, and if it isn’t enough, at least we’ll know we tried.”
He looked out toward the barn and felt as helpless as she did. Then he looked to the sky and felt the need for a few more words. “Guide him through this, and if it’s his time, see him safely Home.”
The hot summer day turned into a soft summer night that was working toward the full moon. The light was already building toward it and eerie shadows moved through the quiet. It was still with nary a breath if wind to stir the leaves or ruffle the grass. A restive horse out in the barn nickered, and a stable mate answered then the stillness settled back.
Lee brought the quilt up around the shoulders of his sleeping son who had bedded down on the settee. He’d been temporarily uprooted from his bed, but the child didn’t mind. It was his own small way of helping, as he’d put it. Lee smiled down at one of the bright lights in his life, and his reason for living. Then he went to the room and slipped in as quietly as he could.
Becky was sitting in a rocking chair by the side of the bed, the family Bible open in her lap. Lamplight filled the room with a gentle aura and cast shadows much different from what the moonlight produced.
“How is he?” Lee said softly as he handed her a cup of coffee.
“He hasn’t moved,” she said and took a sip. “Even through the operation he was still as death, and for that we were both grateful. He’d suffered enough without us putting him through more.” She watched the unconscious man, now covered with a blanket to his waist, and his broad, deep chest had been bound.
“What did the doctor say about his chances?”
“He says that the longer he stays with us the better they are, but he really doesn’t expect him to see the sunrise. He didn’t say so in so many words, but I know…. I wish we knew who he is so we could let his family know.”
“Maybe he doesn’t have anyone.”
“A man like this has to. He’s not like what you usually find out here, and don’t ask me how I know. A woman just knows these things.” She tenderly closed the Bible and laid it on the bed table then leaned forward and placed a hand on his forehead.
“The doctor said there probably would be,” she said with a nod. “He was beaten and kicked and what the doctor called ‘pistol whipped’. Several of his ribs have been cracked, and he had to be cut into to stop the bleeding, it’s only natural that he would have a fever.” She sat the cup by the basin then transferred to the side of the bed and wet a fresh cloth and began bathing his sweaty face. “Is Kip asleep?”
“Yeah,” he said with a crooked grin. “He dozed off right in the middle of our talk.”
“What were you talking about?”
“Him giving up his bed and how he felt good about it, because if a man’s gonna die he should have a soft place. And if he’s gonna live he’ll need it even more.” His grin broadened, and he shook his head. “That’s quite a son you gave me, Rebecca Oldman Haymes.”
“I didn’t do it alone,” she
said as the light glinted in her mischievous eyes.
He snorted and rubbed his nose. “Why don’t you let me take over for a while?”
“I’m all right, and you have work to do in the morning. Now you go on to bed,” she said as she dipped the cloth into the water and wet the man’s dry lips. “We’ll be all right.”
He bent down and kissed her full on the mouth. “Good night, sweetheart.” Then he left.
“Yes, we’ll be just fine,” she said, but doubt edged into her mind. She’d fought off the idea that this man had gotten this far simply to die now. But maybe that was the purpose in his being brought there, so he could die in peace. She took a deep breath and went perfectly motionless. “I do wish we knew where your family is.”
She lowered her head and closed her eyes and prayed for the soul of this man and that he would be delivered from the terrible damage his body had suffered. And that one day he would be reunited with the family that she knew was out there.
Becky didn’t know what time it was when she awoke. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and yawned as she sat up and massaged some of the stiffness from her back. She blinked and yawned again, and as she did she became aware of a low moan. As she looked around she saw that the man was no longer still as his long, tapered fingers opened and closed over the blanket, but that was the only movement. Sitting back on the side of the bed, she found that his temperature had shot up in a very short time.
She began washing his face and neck in the cool water in an effort to bring down the fever that burnt inside him. His fingers continued to curl and uncurl, and his deep voice started an intelligible muttering, yet his hands were the only part of him that moved as if the rest of him was paralyzed.
“Shhh, shhh,” she comforted as she ran the cloth over his already damp hair, careful of the gash. “There’s no one here that’s going to hurt you. You’re in a place where people care about you. Shhh.”
She rewet the cloth and wrung it out, and as she turned back to him she froze as she found herself looking into a pair of beautiful, dark hazel eyes. But they were focused on the ceiling, and she doubted if he even knew she was there. He had gone deathly still and even his hands didn’t move anymore.
“Mister,” she said softly, but it was as if he was carved from a piece of stone, he was so still. “Do you hear me?” But she got no indication that he did or that he was even alive. She placed her hand against his chest and felt the weak but steady thump beneath her palm.
He must have lain that way for a solid minute then his heavy eyelids slowly lowered, and he was gone again. She made sure that his heart continued to beat and was relieved to find that it did.
Looking into those dark, vacant eyes had shaken her, and she wondered what else had been done to him. Until now she hadn’t give any thought to his mind being affected and even if he did live what would he be? She recalled from her childhood stories of a man who had been hit by a wagon and the way his empty eyes were described. He’d never spoken anymore or been able to walk unassisted or feed himself ever again. She knew that if that was the future for this man then it would be better if death took him now.
“If you have to live that way then it’s best not to stay. That’s no life for someone like you…. That’s no life for anyone.”
The bedroom door opened as Lee came in with a plate and cup, steam wafting past its rim. Light had begun to sneak in through the drawn curtains though the lamp still burned low.
“I brought you some breakfast,” Lee said and dubious blue eyes rose to his face, and it made him grin.
Becky looked at the darker than brown bacon, thick gravy, mangled fried eggs and biscuit as they were handed to her. She’d eaten her husband’s attempts in the kitchen a few times before, but this morning she was simply too tired and too hungry to care.
“Is he any better?”
“No, the fever has gone up,” she said and fortified herself with a drink of the strong black coffee. “He was restless for a short time, and… he opened his eyes.” She bit into a strip of bacon with a brittle crack.
“Well, that’s good isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. And if you’d seen the look in his eyes you wouldn’t either. They were so empty and… lifeless.” She sighed and took another drink. “Then he got so still that I wasn’t even sure if he was alive…. What do we do if he can’t take care of himself? We can’t simply turn him out, but it’s all we can do to take care of ourselves.”
“If it comes to that I’ll go into town and see Doc Robey. Maybe he’ll know what to do. But we don’t need to start thinking about that just yet, I mean, we don’t even know if he’s gonna live.” He patted her on the shoulder. “But we’ll do whatever we have to. Now I’d better get started in on my day.”
“Is Kip awake?”
“He was up and dressed and had his quilt folded and put away before I even stirred. He’s been fed,” he said as a wide grin filled his face, “and he isn’t as tactful as his mother is.” He leaned down and kissed her on the side of the head. “I’ll be right outside if you need anything, and if I havta be away I’ll make sure Kip stays close by.” Then he gave a last glance at the bed and went out.
She smiled and tried biting into the deceptively golden biscuit but it defied her teeth. “Not enough lard… again.” It dropped onto the plate with a dull thump, and she started in on the viscous gravy.
The rest of the morning drug by as the sun slowly crept toward its highpoint. Becky stayed close to the bedside while Kip helped his father outside, and the man didn’t move.
It was very nearly when Dr. Statler’s buggy drove into the yard.
Lee came out of the barn with a single-bitted axe with a bran new handle that needed sharpening, and Kip following close behind him. “Mornin’, Doc. You come to check on your patient?”
“I wanted to see how he was doing after the surgery,” the doctor said as he got out with his medical bag. “I haven’t run into anybody that severely injured in a while, and I know how these things can go from bad to worse so quickly. Is Becky with him?”
“Yeah, she hasn’t left him alone for a second since he got here.”
“That’s good. Somebody hurt like he is can take a bad turn at any time. Of course, that’s not good for anybody who has to eat your cooking,” he said as his mouth turned up at the corners.
“Thanks, Doc,” Lee said with a frown.
“I’ll just go right on in.”
“All right, Doc.”
They watched as the doctor went into the house. Kip looked up at his father, and Lee knew what he was thinking. He tousled the soft, blond hair with an understanding smile, and they went toward the work shed.
It was only about twenty minutes later when Dr. Statler came out. Lee was sitting on a bench working the axe’s blade over a whet stone, and Kip sat at his feet with a bucket and dipper. The boy was just pouring water onto the rock as the doctor came down the steps.
“So how’s he doin’? Any bett…” But the look in the man’s eyes stopped him and required no explanation. A cold chill ran through Lee like an icy rod as Statler got back into to his buggy without a word and drove away.
Lee laid the axe down on the bench and rushed inside, Kip close behind. As he burst into the bedroom he was greeted by the saddest eyes. Grief dwelled there and tears ran from their corners. He looked to the bed and the man hardly seemed to be breathing and was as still as Lee had ever seen anyone. “Becky,” he said as he looked back at her.
“He’s only just barely hanging on. The doctor said that he probably doesn’t have much time left. He admits that he could be wrong, but says that if things don’t change for the better soon, he won’t be with us much longer.”
Kip’s wide eyes watched as the dying man fought for every shallow breath. Lee and Becky had never shielded him from death, simply saying that it was another part of life as much as being born. He eased over to stand next to his mother and slipped his small hand into one of hers, and her warm, loving fingers squeezed over his.
Two pairs of soft blue eyes and one of sharp amber watched as he struggled to stay in this world. The slow rising and falling of his broad chest was hardly discernable as his lungs worked only because of years of doing so. He was oblivious to all that went on about him and not even conscious of the dark place he inhabited. His mind had gone to sleep and wasn’t interested in waking up.
The day drifted into evening and nothing changed. Becky continued to sit vigil and trying to bring his fever down. And Lee – much to his son’s dissatisfaction – cooked supper.
Kip pushed the piece of abnormally brown ham around his plate with his fork, his petite nose wrinkling at the thought of putting any part of it in his mouth. Pa was good when it came to horses and cows and other man things. But when it came to cooking he couldn’t beat Ma.
“Eat your supper, son,” Lee said and took a bite of charred potato, which he quickly washed down with buttermilk.
The boy cut the smallest piece of ham he could get by with and put it in his mouth. As he chewed he realized that it was worse than he’d thought. “Pa, when is Ma gonna start cookin’ again?”
“Do you think your stomach’s more important?”
“No, Pa, but I been thinkin’. If she wants to do the cookin’ I can set with that man. I mean, he just lays there and don’t move.”
Kip distastefully eyed his piece of pan seared cornbread. “And, anyway, I’d kinda like to.”
“May I ask why?”
“Well, you and Ma always tell me that it’s important to take care of each other and that it’s always good to have friends, and he don’t have any.”
“All right, when you’re finished why don’t you ask her when you go to get her plate?”
“Can I go now?” Kip asked optimistically as he popped up from his chair.
“No, you eat first then you can ask her.”
Dejectedly, he sat back
Becky was sitting on the side of the bed washing the man’s face when her son slipped into the room. “Yes, Kip, what is it?” she asked without looking around.
“I came to get your plate,” he said as he picked it up from the bed table, about half of the food still on it. He just continued to stand there.
“And what else?” she asked, still without looking at him.
“Well, I was wonderin’ if I could set with ‘im some. Then you could do other things, like cookin’.”
“Are you being selfish?” she asked as she finally looked at him as she dipped the cloth into the water.
“No, ma’am, not all, but I do get awful hungry when Pa does the cookin’.”
“So is that the real reason you want to do this? And I want the truth, young man.”
His brow furrowed in concentration and his mouth pulled down. “Part of it, I guess, but not all. Last night I got to thinkin’ about bein’ all alone without you and Pa and hurt real bad and people I don’t know takin’ care of me, and… I got scared. Do you think he’s scared?”
“I don’t think he knows anything. But I do think that’s a very nice thing, Kip,” she said as she tenderly took his chin in her hand. “And very grown up, even if you did kind of think of yourself too.” His eyes dropped. “I tell you what, why don’t you sit down right here, and I’ll take the plate?” She took it from him and eased him into the chair. “We’ll be right outside the door if you need us, and I’ll be back in a little bit.” She kissed him on the forehead then left, leaving the door ajar.
Kip scooted back in the seat, the toes of his shoes dangling above the floor, and his eyes set right on this stranger that had been thrust into their lives. “Don’t worry, Mister, I’m right here, and my name’s Kip. Maybe someday you can tell me yours.”
The table had already been cleared, and Becky was at the sink washing the dishes as Lee dried.
“I sometimes forget how grownup he’s getting to be,” he said as he finished drying a glass and set it down. “Although I think his stomach kind of told him what to do this time.”
“He may seem grownup sometimes but he’s still a little boy and little boys are always hungry.” She handed him the last plate and glanced back toward the bedroom. “I think I should go take over again.”
She went to the door and quietly pushed it open, and as she did a lump rose into her throat and her eyes flooded. With a glance back, she motioned her husband over, and he came up behind her. It was all she could do to keep from crying. She’d never been more proud of her son than at that moment.
The boy stood near the head of the bed lightly patting the perspiration from the man’s face. His small hand moved like a breeze, and his touch was gentle. He wasn’t aware that his parents were behind him as he re-wet the cloth and did the whole thing again.
Lee’s arm stole around her as she leaned her head on his shoulder and the tears ran down her cheeks. Their little boy was indeed growing up.
So that she could cook breakfast Kip climbed into the rocking chair and sat with his gaze locked right onto the man. Lee had offered to do it, but Kip had wanted to, so he went on outside. As Becky stirred the milk into the gravy she could hear her son’s sweet, pleasant voice as he carried on a one-sided conversation and it made her smile. When the food was ready she took a plate and cup of coffee and relieved him.
“I’ll be back when I’m done,” he said and gave her a peck on the cheek then tripped out.
She settled back with her breakfast, and her delicate lips curved. Then they went to an even line as she set her eyes on the poor soul on the bed.
Now that she saw that Kip was capable of doing this she felt more like she could get to things inside the house that had to be done. She wasn’t comfortable with leaving him alone completely; he was – in spite of how grownup he was being through this – only a small boy. As she came from her and her husband’s bedroom she became aware of his soft voice. She crossed to the other side of the parlor and eased his door back and looked inside. Kip was in the chair reading from one of his books, his feet swinging back-and-forth. This one his paternal grandparents had sent to him for his birthday two years ago.
Her heart began to ache from the poignancy of the scene and brought with it a certain dread. She pulled the door together then went to the dining table and plopped down in one of the chairs and felt despair close in around her as her head dropped into her hand.
The minute he came in from outside Lee could see that something was bothering his wife. Since the advent of their guest she’d been trying to take care of three people, and he knew it was wearing on her. And he knew that the constant watching and waiting for this poor unfortunate man’s final breath to leave him was also taking a toll. He went to her, and she didn’t seem to hear him. “Becky, what’s wrong?” He pulled one of the chairs next to her and sat down and began rubbing her back. “Becky.” Her saddened eyes rose to meet his, and he couldn’t miss the anguish that resided there. “Honey, what is it?”
“It’s Kip,” she said with tear-laced words.
“Kip?” His eyes darted toward the boy’s room. “I don’t underst…”
“He’s in there right now reading out loud from Moby Dick.”
“That’s one of his favorite books.”
She nodded. “I’m afraid he’s getting attached to this man.”
“That isn’t so bad.”
“But what if he… what if he dies?”
“Then he’ll learn another one of life’s hard lessons,” he said as he took her hands. “I know that’s harsh, but we live in a harsh country where to some human life has less value than what you can dig out of the ground. But that’s the way it is and the only thing we can do about it is to revere life and teach our son to do the same.”
She leaned over against him for comfort and closed her eyes and felt his consoling arms around her. This man she didn’t know and had never even seen before two days ago, yet he’d touched her and her son in a way she hadn’t foreseen. Something about this dark, mysterious stranger reached out as if asking for help, and she couldn’t turn him away.
The rest of the day and into the night went much the same. When Becky went to get her son for bed he’d gone to sleep in the chair, the open book in his lap. She picked it up and closed it and called for Lee. He came in and gathered up his sleeping son who hardly roused as his father took him back out to the parlor and put him on the settee.
She sat on the side of the bed and checked the progression of his fever and found that maybe it had gone down a little. “I don’t understand,” she said as she bathed his face with the cool water. “When someone has a fever like this they go trough delirium and restlessness, but you don’t make a sound and you’re so still and calm it’s frightening. Not since the other night has there been a peep out of you.” She sighed and pushed back a strand of hair from her face. “I hope that whoever did this to you is stopped before he gets the chance to do it to someone else.” She stopped and just watched him. “If you were my son, brother or husband, and I didn’t know where you were I couldn’t stand it. They may not be aware that anything’s wrong yet, but they will be eventually. I don’t know why I’m so sure there’s someone out there who’s going to miss you, but I am, as surely as day follows night.”
She put the cloth back into the basin then brought the blanket down and peeked under the bandage at the incision. Since the doctor had been there that morning and changed the dressing it didn’t seem to be so red and angry. The large purple area – which Dr. Statler said had been caused by the accumulation of blood beneath the surface – had faded as well. That kind of surgery she’d never been witness to, and the man’s deft hands had preformed it skillfully as she knew they had many times. She pulled the blanket back up to the lower edge of the white sheeting swathed around his chest that bound his cracked ribs. Her mind tried to conjure up images of what it had been like when he was being beaten so savagely, and she fought to ward them off. She didn’t know exactly what he had endured at the hands of some vicious animal, and she didn’t want to. The end result was right here before her and it as was more than she wanted to see.
“If you were Kip or Lee I’d be a wreck.” She held up his left hand. There was no wedding ring and no sign that there ever had been, so at least she was pretty certain there was no wife. Placing it back at his side, she sat back in the chair and took the Bible from the bed table and began to read.
After breakfast Lee was out in the work shed honing the garden implements and Becky was at the sink washing up the dishes. Kip was in what had become a usual spot in the rocking chair by the bed, and this day the door had been left open so his mother could see him. It was four days now that the man had been with them, and she sensed that something would happen soon, and if it was what she feared, she wanted to be able to see into the room.
“You got family?” Kip asked as he sat on the edge of the seat pushing up-and-down with his toes. “Ma thinks you do. Brothers I bet. I always wanted a brother, and I hoped Ma and Pa’d let me name ‘im.” He looked down at his feet. “I like Sam and Micah and maybe even Joe.”
“Joe,” came as a gruff voice.
Kip’s little heart twittered in his chest and the chair stopped as his head shot up because he knew he hadn’t said that. He started to call his mother but she was already at the bedside. His skin felt pin-sticky allover as the man’s dark eyes fluttered open and lazily went to her face.
“You see me this time.” She placed a hand against his forehead, and a slow smile tugged at her mouth and settled into her eyes. “I think the fever’s broken, and your breathing’s stronger,” she said as she glanced at her son. “Welcome back.”
Kip bounded from the chair and dashed out through the parlor. “Pa! Pa!”
When Lee came in with his breathless son Becky turned to him with a broad grin. “Look who’s awake,” she said as he stepped next to her.
“Well, it looks like Kip’s gonna havta sleep on the settee for a little while longer, after all,” Lee said as he took his wife’s hand.
“I don’t mind,” Kip chimed in.
The weary hazel eyes went to the boy and the faintest of smiles turned one side of his elegant mouth. Kip beamed as he leaned forward against the side of the bed and lightly placed his hand over the one that was so much larger and darker.
His brain was still trying to wake up and grasp what was going on. He had no recollection of why he was there or who these people were, but the small blue-eyed face before him made him feel at ease. His body felt numb with a sense of pain mingled in with it, and his very eyeballs throbbed in their sockets. Another attempt to speak was aborted and came out as nothing more than a coarse rasping.
“That’s enough for today,” the woman said kindly. “You just need to rest and get your strength back and then you can talk. But right now you need to sleep and let yourself recover from this. Now close your eyes…. That’s right.”
Soft darkness began to enfold him, but this wasn’t the black endless void that he’d been in for so long. His breathing grew heavy as gentle, restorative sleep consumed him, and his mind began closing out the world. The woman had said something about his recovering. Recovering from what? That would have to wait as welcome slumber took him.
It had been two days since the man had awakened from the coma-like state he’d been in, and for those two days he’d done little else but simply to sleep. Twice he’d been roused by the urgent need to relieve himself and Lee had seen to it, but other than that he only laid there quietly.
Kip had become a constant figure in the room and today was no different. He sat in the rocking chair watching the man as if he might vanish at any second as his mother came in.
“Kip Lee Haymes, give the poor man some peace. I’m sure there’s plenty outside you can do, and your father would probably appreciate some help.”
“You might need me.”
“I’ll let you know if I do.” She pulled the blanket down and checked on the incision and found it had almost returned to a normal color and was on the mend.
“He’s better, ain’t he, Ma?”
“Yes, dear, he’s better.”
“Then why does he sleep so much?”
“He’s healing. When a person’s been sick or hurt it takes a lot of rest to help them get well.” She put her hand lightly against the man’s forehead. The fever was all but gone, and she felt confident that he would soon be able to tell them who he was. “And he’s been hurt so very bad that it’ll take a lot of time and rest.”
“Do you think he’ll stay here?”
“No, I think he’ll go home to those who love him, just like you would. Now let’s go out and let him have some quiet.”
“Can’t I stay a little while longer?”
“All right, but don’t disturb him.”
He promised, and she went back out, but the door was still left open. “Ma says I’m not supposed to bother you so I’ll just set here real quiet,” he whispered.
As he sat there boredom – as isn’t uncommon with small boys – made him begin to fidget and squirm. He thought about reading, but he wasn’t in the mood for that right now. It had been a long morning, and he yawned as he realized that his eyelids were getting heavier. He leaned his head back against the chair and that simply wasn’t good enough, and a soft place was so close. Without much thought to it, he got down and went around and clambered onto the bed and curled up near the stranger’s legs. He felt warm and safe and in a matter of a minute was sound asleep.
Things had settled down in the Haymes’ house since the man had awakened and seemed to be no longer so close to death. And even though he did little more than sleep they felt a sense that the crisis had passed. The doctor would come again tomorrow to check on his patient, as he had every day since the man had been found, and they believed that he would only confirm what they already pretty much knew.
Kip sat on the edge of the faded and frayed settee buttoning the front of his nightshirt as his father sat at the dining table having his last cup of coffee for the day. “Pa, do you think we should be scared?”
“Scared? Of what, son?”
“That man. I mean, we don’t know anything about ‘im. He could be an outlaw or a bank robber,” he said, and his little fingers went motionless. “Maybe he’s even killed people.”
He turned in the chair and looked square at his son. “Well, Kip, even good men are sometimes forced to kill.”
“Like a sheriff or a soldier?”
“That’s right, or a man protecting himself or his family or a friend. There’re as many right reasons for doing it as wrong ones. If you saw a man trying to kill to hurt your mother and you had a rifle, what would you do?”
“I’d shoot ‘im,” he said, conviction wrinkling his brow and knotting his mouth.
“That’s right, you would. You have to take care of yourself and your own, and sometimes you have to help a friend or a stranger.”
“Like we have?”
“That’s right. You see, we’re all in this life together and we have to help each other when we can. Like last year when Mr. Prescott’s barn burned and we all got together and helped him build a new one, and then when our milk cow died in the spring he gave us one of his. The best way to have friends is to treat them like you would want to be treated.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Kip said, the lamplight sparkling in his eyes.
“Exactly, and being there for others when they need you is the best way. Now,” and he took a sip and put the cup on the table and got up, “I think it’s time for you to go to sleep.”
As the boy laid back on the settee Lee bent down and pulled the quilt up over him.
“Pa, I don’t think he’s a bad man. I don’t know how I know, I just do.”
“Well, sometimes you have to go with what’s in here,” he touched the child’s chest over his heart, “and not here,” he tapped the side of Kip’s head. “If your heart is telling you that he’s a good man, then go with it until you know otherwise. But I think you’ll probably find that your heart is right. Now you turn over and go to sleep,” he said and tousled the boy’s hair and kissed him on the forehead. “Your mother and I won’t be far away.”
“Good night, son.”
He watched as Kip turned to face the back of the settee and nestled himself, and he felt a warm glow as he started in on his coffee again. The boy was everything a man could hope for in a son, and he knew that he would someday grow into a fine man.
He put the cup down then went to check on the stranger and found that nothing had changed. Leaving the door ajar, he went and turned the parlor lamp down to a soft nightlight then went to his own room. Becky was already in bed and waiting for him.
“Is Kip settled for the night?” she asked as she turned onto her side to face him.
He nodded with a grin and began undoing his shirt. “Did you know that we have a good man in our house? Kip does because his heart told him so, and we don’t have to be afraid.”
“He told you that?”
“He certainly did,” he said as he hung the garment on the bedpost then sat on the side of the mattress and finished undressing. “He says he feels that he’s a good man and we don’t have to worry about him getting up in the middle of the night and shooting us. He didn’t come right out and say it that way, but that’s what he meant.”
“Today I found him on the foot of his bed by the man’s legs sound asleep.”
He snorted as he glanced at her then got up and traded his clothes for a nightshirt that he slipped over his head. “Children always seem to be able to see the good where adults sometimes miss it.” He put out the lamp then got into bed, and she snuggled close to him as he put his arms around her. “And our boy seems to have a knack for it, and you always know when he feels threatened by somebody or doesn’t like ‘em.”
“I know. That’s part of the reason I married his father.”
He squeezed her close to him, and his lips found hers. Becky was a good woman and when he was down she was always able to lift his spirits, and he did the same for her. He settled into the soft bed and felt her arm come over his chest. Some people would call him poor, but to Lee Haymes he had all the riches a man could ever want.
It was right after when Lee burst into the parlor as the second piercing scream tore another hole in the silence. With nightshirt tail flapping and bare feet splatting the floor, he rushed past the settee where his wide-eyed son sat with the quilt clutched in front of him and hair ruffled into disarray. As he threw the bedroom door open he could see the man tossing violently in the scant light that spilled in. Lee knew that he could hurt himself, possibly tearing the stitches loose, if he wasn’t stopped. He moved quickly and grabbed the man’s flailing arms, but not before taking a good clout to the chin. Becky ran in and around the other side of the bed as her husband struggled with strength driven by fear and the will to survive.
“Becky, stay back,” he said as she got onto her knees by the man. “He could hurt you.”
Heedless of her husband’s warning she began stroking the man’s hair. “Shhh, shhh, you’re all right, you’re all right. No one’s hurting you now and you’re safe.”
“Stay away from me!” he snarled viciously.
“There’s no one here that’s going to hurt you,” she said soothingly as she continued running her hand over the heavy hair. “You’re in a safe place.”
Kip stood in the doorway as his parents fought to control the man’s wild thrashing. It frightened him that they might be hurt and froze him where he stood. As he watched, the man’s eyes suddenly flashed open and lit right on him as he went abruptly still. Kip’s breathing quickened as the panic-filled brown eyes stayed locked with his. With baby steps, he went to the side of the bed, and his small hand – without hesitation – reached out and pushed back the black wisp that had fallen over the man’s sweaty forehead.
Lee felt the strong muscles go slack under his hands as the man’s body relaxed. He glanced at Kip and saw the connection that had just been formed between this dark stranger and his son. He looked at Becky and saw that she’d caught the same thing. Cautiously, he released the man’s arms and they dropped to his sides. Still panting from the scuffle, he finally looked into Lee’s face, and he could see the exhaustion as the man’s eyelids were having trouble staying open.
Becky smiled reassuringly as the man looked at her, and she placed a gentle hand against his cheek. “You’re all right. Now go back to sleep. We won’t let anyone else hurt you.” She couldn’t miss the calm that came into his eyes as his lids lowered and the dense lashes rested on his cheeks. It pained her to see another human being in such torment. “We’d better check and see if he pulled the doctor’s stitches loose.”
As Lee brought the blanket down they immediately saw that blood was seeping through the bandage. He looked beneath it and his top lip curled. “He’s torn it pretty good.”
She scooted off the bed and came around to the other side. “You two can go on back to bed while I take care of this.”
“Are you sure you won’t need any help? He might start that all over again,” Lee said and looked at him with uncertainty.
“No, we’ll be just fine. I don’t really think he’ll move anymore tonight. Kip, bring me some towels and bandages and the scissors.”
“Yes, Ma,” the boy said then ran out.
“And don’t run with them,” she admonished.
“Are you absolutely...?”
“I’ll be all right,” she said as she lit the lamp then poured water into the basin. “Now you go on and get back to sleep, you’re going to need it today.”
“All right, but if…”
He kissed her on the side of the head then reluctantly went. As she sat on the side of the bed Kip scurried back in with what she’d asked for. She thanked him and sent him on back to bed.
She cut the bandage off and saw at once that he had indeed ‘torn it pretty good’. As she set about cleaning it he never moved. He’d fallen back to sleep very quickly, and other than reopening the incision he seemed to be immensely strong. But fear had a way of intensifying one’s strength, and she’d seen it in the deep eyes. She’d also seen the way he’d responded to her son and the serenity when he’d looked at her.
“You’ll be all right,” she said as she continued to work. “I saw it tonight.”
He fought to open his eyes as he gradually became aware of sensations. His stomach gurgled and complained, telling him that he was hungry and a burning lower down told him something else. His body was stiff and ache ran through every inch of him, if he didn’t know better he’d swear that even his hair hurt. Again he tried opening his eyes and this time succeeded and blinked to clear the film. Light was seeping in from somewhere and stabbed at them like cold, sharp needles and that only intensified the pain in the rest of him. As the haze continued to clear from his brain it became clear that he had to get up; he had to find out where he was. When he tried moving, it set off a wave of the purest agony he thought he’d ever known. Nevertheless, he couldn’t stop, he had to get up, he had to find out where he was and if possible, what had happened to him.
Gingerly, he turned back the blanket and carefully – one at a time – brought his legs over the side. The floor was cold against the bottoms of his feet and it made him gasp. Still he couldn’t stop though. His chest was tight and it made breathing difficult, but he didn’t have time to find out why. He had to get up.
Becky was at the flat-topped cabinet at the back of the alcove kneading bread when movement at the corner of her vision made her look around. With a quick intake of breath her mouth flew open.
“Ma, he ain’t got no clothes on!”
“Yes, Kip, go get your father.”
Kip dashed outside yelling for his pa. Wiping dough and flour from her hands with her apron she went to him. His muscular legs quivered, and his chest heaved beneath the sheeting. She got the impression that he was on the verge of collapse, and she knew that – even with Lee’s help – it would be difficult getting such a big, sturdily built man back to bed and without maybe hurting him. She reached out and lightly touched his arm and the heavy lids rose. The intense misery she saw in the hazel depths and etched in the strong features made her heart turn.
“Where…” he said hoarsely.
The door swung open behind her and Lee was instantly at her side. “All right,” Lee started as he got next to the man and brought a powerful arm over his neck and shoulders, “let’s get you back to bed.” He put an arm around the man’s waist. “If you fall you could tear yourself open again. And I don’t think you want to bleed all over my wife’s nice, clean floors.”
She followed as Lee got him turned and took him back to the bed. She helped in getting him settled again, and Lee brought the blanket up over his lower half.
Lee saw something that his wife and son missed, but he, as a man, knew the expression. The presence of a woman and child, however, wouldn’t do, and this required tact. “Becky, why don’t you and Kip wait outside while we attend to some man-things?”
With nothing more than a nod she steered Kip back out, and they waited until the door opened and they knew it was okay to go back in. His dark head rested comfortably against the feather pillow, and his breathing had slowed down some, but still he was frightfully pale. As Lee sat on the foot of the bed the man’s eyes opened and took in each one of them, lingering on the boy.
“My name’s Lee Haymes and this is my wife Becky and our son Kip. You’ve been with us for seven days now, and we were startin’ to think that maybe you weren’t coming back.”
“That’s right. I found you almost beaten to death by the fork on the way outta Bantree. You didn’t have on a whole lot, so there wasn’t anything that could tell us who you are. Whoever robbed you took everything, and you were robbed, weren’t you?
“Robbed?” His voice was still sluggish, and his eyes having difficulty focusing. “Who robbed? I don’t… I…”
“That doesn’t matter right now; we can take care of that later. But we do need to know who you are,” Lee continued.
“Who… I am?”
Lee nodded. “So we can get in touch with your family or anybody that’ll want to know that you’re all right.”
His mind began furiously turning over what he’d just been told. Had someone robbed and tried to kill him? And his name, why wouldn’t that come? Surely-to-goodness he knew his own name. The fear of uncertainty surged into him as he tried desperately to remember, but it wasn’t happening.
“Family?” he said weakly as he labored to get it out. “I don’t know…. Can’t remember.”
“And your name?” Becky asked timorously
“My name? I… don’t know… my name.”
Becky and Lee were thunderstruck by this revelation, and it was patently obvious.
“Don’t… even know… where… I live.” His eyelids lowered and anyone could see what talking was doing to him. It seemed to take all the strength he could muster just to say a few words. His hands knotted as pain streaked through his face, and he took a ragged breath as his jaw clamped against it.
Becky moved to the bed and began blotting the perspiration from his face with the wet cloth. “That’ll be enough for now. We’ll go and let you rest. Do you think you could eat something later?” He nodded, but his eyes never opened. “All right, I’ll come back when you’re feeling a little better.” She watched as his body went limp, and his hands relaxed as the pain ran its course.
She looked to Lee and a silent message passed between them. They got Kip in tow and went out so that he could continue the healing process.
Becky looked back at the door as Lee quietly pulled it together. “That poor man. To not even know who he is.”
“I can’t even imagine what that would be like,” Lee said as he shook his head. “To not know who you are or where you belong.”
“Well, right now he belongs here,” Becky said forcefully. “I’ve never seen a person need anyone the way he needs us right now.”
“Yes, son, you too,” Lee said as he ruffled the boy’s hair. “I guess all we can do is to hope that this’ll clear up in time, and he can tell us who he is.”
But the looks on the adult’s faces told the story; they weren’t so sure.
It was between dinner and supper when Becky slipped into the room with a bowl of potato broth. Steam rising from its surface carried its inviting aroma and preceded her as she went to sit on the side of the bed. His eyes opened to barely slits and a gentle smile greeted him.
“I said that I’d be back,” she said as she put it on the bed table then placed a towel over his chest. “Just in case we spill any. Now,” and she picked up the bowl again, “let’s try to get some of this into you where it’ll do some good.”
There was a light tapping as she fed him the first spoonful. Then the door opened a crack before she could answer and a disheveled blond head poked through. “Can I come in?”
“Of course you can, dear, but you have to behave yourself.”
He promised that he would then came in and clambered up onto the foot of the bed. His clear blue eyes never left the man’s face. Something about this stranger that his father had found drew the child to him. He was big and powerfully built, yet now he was helpless and vulnerable. Kip lay down on his stomach and propped himself on his elbows then rested his chin in his hands and watched him. As he did the dark hazel eyes met with his, and the corners of the man’s lips turned into a faint grin. And then he winked at the boy and Kip’s mouth spread over his face. He knew he’d found a friend, and no one could tell him any different.
As Lee was getting dressed and ready to start a new fresh day it dawned on him that he hadn’t been awakened by the blood-chilling screams through the night. When he went into the parlor Becky was already up and was just beginning breakfast. As he passed the settee he saw that Kip’s pillow and quilt – wadded and pushed down to one end – hadn’t been put away and the boy was nowhere in sight.
“One of us is gonna have to talk to that boy about putting his things away when he’s finished with ‘em,” he said as he took his hat from the chest by the front door. “Where is he anyway?”
“He’s probably out in the barn looking at that nest of baby birds again.”
“I’ve got a few things to take care outside before I eat so I’ll send ‘im in.” Then he went on out.
Becky continued with getting breakfast ready and paid little attention, but after about ten minutes he came back in.
“I still can’t find ‘im, and I’ve looked everywhere. There’s not a sign of ‘im.”
She looked up from slicing the bacon as her hands went still. Lee’s eyes went to the other bedroom as a stray thought came to him. With a glance at his wife he went and opened the door and looked into the room. “Becky,” he said softly.
She went to stand next to him and what she saw when she peered in brought a mother’s tears. Kip was on the bed next to the stranger with a small arm across the man’s chest. Both were sound asleep and at peace with the world.
“This could be why we didn’t get the screams last night,” Lee whispered then pulled the door together. “We’ll just leave ‘im alone until breakfast’s ready.” Then he kissed her on the cheek and went back outside.
Becky returned to the stove and began laying bacon slices in the hot skillet. Then she stopped and dabbed at her eyes with her apron tail as she thought of her precious little boy. He – like his parents – had seen the torment that this man was enduring, but the simplicity of a child’s mind had known what to do about it. She guessed the comfort and nearness of him had allayed the man’s fears and possibly reminded him of something from home, though maybe he didn’t realize it.
For the next four days the man’s strength gradually but continually built. He still had no idea who he was or where he’d come from and it seemed the harder he tried to remember the further away from him it got. And he was getting eager to be on his feet and getting around.
Lee had gone to one of his neighbors, Turner and Olivia Kelby, to borrow some clothes for his houseguest to wear. Turner was about the same size, though almost thirty years older, and he knew they wouldn’t mind. They were good people with an eagerness and willingness to help anyone whenever they could.
Olivia came out of the cabin’s only bedroom with one of her husband’s shirts and a pair of britches. “These are a little worn around the edges but they’re not too bad. He has an extra pair of gallowses so I brought them to,” she said and draped the suspenders over her arm.
“What’re you tryin’ to do, old woman,” Turner said as he eyed her mischievously, “turn me out in my drawers?”
“Well, you’ve got more ‘n this poor man does, so stop yer fussin’,” she said with an ornery grin. “By-the-by, does he need drawers?”
“No, ma’am, those he had on when I found ‘im.”
“Poor, dear man,” she said as she shook her head. “To not even know who you are.” She shook her head again and clicked her tongue.
“What’re you gonna do about boots and a hat,” Turner asked and took a sip of his coffee.
“An old hat I’ve got, but I’m not sure about the other. He looks to have pretty fair-sized feet. I don’t think mine’d fit ‘im even if I had another pair.”
Without a word Turner put his cup down on the table and went to a small, rough-hewn hutch at the back of the room. He picked up a round-sided, grey clay pot and took the lid off of it and stuck his hand into it then came to Lee. “Here, you take these half eagles and go buy that man some boots,” he said and thrust it into the young man’s hand.
Lee gawked at the two five-dollar gold pieces with wide eyes then looked to his friend. “Oh, no, Turner, I can’t take this,” he said as he held out the coins. “It’s probably about all the money you’ve got in the world.”
Turner pushed his hand back. “A man should have a good pair of boots to keep his feet from the rocks and the wet. Now you take this and don’t back sass me, boy. I got this for two weeks work at the Widow White’s in town, and I can git some more the same way, and we ain’t entirely broke no how. So you take it and see that that man’s proper outfitted.”
Lee looked again at the money lying against his palm. “All right, Turner, but I’ll pay you back when I’m able.”
“Don’t worry about it, son,” Turner said as he picked up his cup. “If I expected it back I wouldn’t’ve give it to you in the first place. But someday if you’ve got it and can afford to, and you’re a mind to part with it.” He nodded and took a drink.
“I surely will,” Lee said as he stuffed the money into his britches pocket. “But until I do, I want both of you to come to supper some night. You and me’ll go huntin’ and see what we can come up with for the women to fix.”
Olivia’s soft brown eyes glittered. “You git on, you brash child,” she said as she swarped him across the arm with the shirt then handed him the clothes. “And you tell your missus that if she needs anything to just git word to us.”
“I’ll do that.” He kissed Olivia on the cheek than shook Turner’s hand. “And I know he’ll appreciate these,” he said as he touched the clothes then left.
Lee went to the white-flecked roan and stuffed the garments into one of the pouches of his saddlebags, then untied the reins from the tree at the end of the porch and mounted up then brought the horse around and nudged him into a lope. A man should have some decent clothes to wear, even it they were a trifle threadbare. It was more than a little humiliating to lie in bed without a dud on and be waited on by a woman and a boy simply because you had nothing to wear. The way he saw it, this man had been humiliated enough.
He sat on the edge of the bed and clomped his foot into his new boot and winced as it jarred on his ribs. It was a might on the snug side, but he figured that wear would stretch it out some. He picked up the other one and repeated the procedure and the pain.
It had been fourteen days since he’d come here, so he’d been told. He had no clear recollection of the first ones so he had to take the word of these people, and he had no reason not to. He knew that if not for them he’d most likely be dead and they had no cause to lie to him.
The smells coming from beyond the door beckoned to him and the need to get up and around added to it. After all the broths and soups he needed to sink his teeth into something solid. Tentatively, he pushed himself up onto his feet, and his head felt a little woozy, but it soon passed. With measured steps, he went to the door and opened it.
As she saw him, Becky’s heart sank. She dropped the spoon onto the cabinet and rushed to him. It was obvious by his drawn, haggard look that he wasn’t up to this. “What do you think you’re doing?” She put his arm around her shoulders. “Let’s get you back to bed. You’re not up to this yet.”
“I’m fine, and I think if I have to stay in that bed another day I’ll finish loosing the rest of my senses.”
Her soft eyes roved over his face, and no one had to tell her that this was a very stubborn man. “All right, but only until you have your breakfast.”
She helped him over to the table and into one of the chairs. “Now you sit right there, and I’ll get you some coffee.”
“That’ll be fine, just so it’s not anymore broth.”
She smiled as she brought the cup and pot over to the table and filled it for him. “I guess I have kind of overdone it, I’m sorry. But you were just so terribly hurt, and I didn’t want to take the chance of making you sick with solid food too soon.”
He took a drink of the hot, black brew and it did more to rejuvenate him than anything had in a long while. “No apologies necessary. I owe my life to you and your husband. If it weren’t for you I know I wouldn’t be here. Thank you.”
“We only did the Christian thing. It would’ve been wrong to turn you away. Now you drink your coffee and then you can eat.”
“How do you like your eggs?”
“Surprise me,” he said and took another drink.
At that moment it dawned on her what she’d just said. How could she be so thoughtless? “I’m terribly sorry, I forgot…”
“That’s all right, so did I,” he said and grinned.
He had a way of making her feel at ease and not the slightest bit self-conscious around him. Even when he’d later realized that he’d walked in on her naked as a jaybird with only the binding about his chest he’d been careful what he’d said. What he didn’t know was that all she’d seen had been an injured man, and all she saw were those dark, pain-ridden eyes.
She smiled and went back to the stove to finish the meal, leaving the pot on the table.
“You’re up!” Kip said exuberantly as he blustered in ahead of his father. “And you’re wearing the new boots Pa bought you.”
“How do they feel?” Lee asked as he dropped his hat on the cabinet by the door. “They’re not too tight are they?” He sat down at the table. “I had to guess at your size.”
“They’re all right,” he said. “I would’ve had to do the same thing.”
Kip flopped into the chair between him and his father. “You gonna be goin’ outside today?”
“I don’t think so, Kip,” Becky said as she brought the gravy bowl and platter with the ham and eggs to the table. “This is his first day out of bed, and he has to take it easy.”
“You’re mother’s right,” he said as he hugged his ribcage. “If I move too fast, I could find myself flat of my back again, but we’ll have to wait and see how I feel.”
“Well, if you don’t maybe you’d like to read some of my books. My favorite’s Moby Dick. Have you read it?”
“Kip,” Becky snapped.
The boy’s head drooped and his face scoonched. “I’m sorry; I forgot you can’t remember.”
“Kip,” she scolded more firmly as she brought the biscuits.
“It’s all right,” he said as he thumped the boy on the knee and winked at him. “If I have, this way it’ll be new to me again.”
The child smiled as his indiscretion was all but forgotten.
After breakfast he decided that a little fresh air and sunshine couldn’t hurt and might even help. So, much against Mrs. Haymes’ opinion that it wasn’t such a good idea, he went out onto the front porch by himself, with the promise that he’d go no farther.
It was a beautiful, bright morning and the first time he’d seen sunlight that wasn’t filtered through curtains in a while. The soft, summer-scented breeze brushed against his face and lightly ruffled his hair, and he felt some of the life he’d nearly lost restored. This was a nice place for a house, nestled comfortably in a grove of trees that provided shade and shelter. He could see the road from where he was and surmised that it hadn’t been there when the house was built.
He took a deep draught of the fresh air and it made him realize that he was tired and ought to go back inside. As he turned around he caught sight of his reflection in the window glass. His face was a mess: his mouth and cheek were split and bruised. He gingerly touched the gash that was only partially concealed by his hair.
A sudden flush of anger ran through him and vile laughter briefly filled his ears. His hands balled into tight wads, and he felt his stomach bunch. Why couldn’t he remember who’d done this to him? Why couldn’t he remember a thing like that? “Maybe you don’t want to,” he said to himself.
As he stared at the stranger looking back at him, he became aware of a soft voice at his side and a small hand enclosed over his fist. He looked around into the innocent face of the boy and read the concern in the inquisitive blue eyes.
“You all right, mister?”
“Yeah, I’m all right,” he said with a weary tilt of his head. “Just a little tired is all. Why don’t we go back inside, and you can show me your books?”
The boy was all for that, and he had to admit that he was looking forward to it. He riffled his fingers in the wispy blond hair and smiled. Then, with a last look back toward the barn, they went into the house.
As tired of the bed as he’d gotten, he was eager to turn in. He draped his borrowed clothes over the back of the rocking chair and delicately slipped the nightshirt Lee had loaned him over his head. It wouldn’t have taken much for it to be too tight and it came almost to his knees. Right now the only thing that was truly his was his drawers and his boots, and the latter had been bought with leant money.
He sat down on the edge of the mattress and the bed creaked mildly under his weight. His eyelids had a will to close, and he had to fight against it. After blowing out the lamp he carefully swung his long legs around and eased down under the covers. In spite of the hot day the soft, muslin sheets were cool against his skin, but it felt good. His head sunk into the plump feather pillow, and he could almost see sleep coming for him. He didn’t fight it as it crept in and sealed his eyes for the night as his breathing grew heavier and filled the silent room with its whisper.
That hideous laughter assailed him like stones and the teeth in that menacing grin sent anger and hatred through him like nothing ever had. He fought back the best he could but each swing passed through the man’s face like it would a malevolent specter, but still he fought. Then the pain came to his body as each blow landed and took his breath away to the point were he thought it would never return. But then there was a gentle voice, much like an angel’s, and someone was stroking his hair and saying comforting words. The threat began to fade into nothingness and the fear vaporized and was replaced by calm.
Lee sat on the side of the bed still grasping the man’s wrists, as he and Becky watched their son rubbing his finger’s over the sweaty black hair and talking softly. His body went less rigid as the nightmare began to pass, and his breaths were less erratic and jerky. He glanced at his wife then cautiously released his hold on the man’s arms. Peaceful sleep had returned, thanks in no small part to Kip, and he felt like they could leave him. “I think we can go back to bed now,” he whispered.
“Can’t I stay with ‘im, Pa?”
“No, he’ll be all right now. He never has it more than once a night.”
The boy obviously didn’t agree but obediently slid off to the floor and went into the parlor with his mother. Lee looked at the man once again at peace and wished there was something more he could do to relieve his tortured mind. He knew in his heart, however, that such a thing was out of his hands, and he would have to be content with doing what he could.
“I wish there was something I could do about this,” he said and shook his head then got up and left, pulling the door together behind him.
The next morning he decided that this was the day he would begin living a more normal life. He still had no idea who he was or where he came from, and he didn’t know where he would go if he had to leave here. Yet he knew he couldn’t let what had happened to him destroy what had been left to him. He could see, hear, walk, talk, touch and feel even if every memory he’d accumulated in all his years – however many that was – were gone, and he couldn’t dwell on it.
So after breakfast he went out to the barn with Lee, Kip, of course, tagging right along. This was the first time he’d been consciously away from the house and it felt good to be out among nature again and to stretch his legs. His long arms swung at his sides, and his heart pumped blood and life through him. As they got into the building the smell of straw, weathered wood and animals expanded his lungs but aroused nothing familiar. His breathing came fast since the walk – brief and moderate though it was – worked muscles that had been dormant for a bit.
The first thing he noticed when he came through the door was the horses, four altogether. Two of them he knew to be a harness team and the other two saddle horses. A lean roan and a big dapple were in the nearest stalls and both were eating without any concern for anything around them.
“The roan is named Sprinkles, he’s my horse. Kip gave ‘im that name when I first brought ‘im home for reasons you can see.”
He found himself instantly drawn to the gray. With a gentle smack on its rump he went to its head, dragging his hand along its back. “And this one?” he asked as he rubbed the big animal’s face between its eyes.
“We never got around to naming him. He’s just always been the gray. He’s a spare mount I bought from a neighbor who needed the money.”
“Sometimes I ride ‘im,” the boy spoke up and caught a toothy grin.
“He’s a fine animal.” He gave him a healthy pat on the neck then ran his hand down the animal’s deep chest then along both fore legs.
As Lee watched him inspect the dapple he could see that this man knew horses. A rancher, a horse buyer, a teamster or possibly… a horse thief. He held back the notion that this man was dishonest in any way. Since he’d come to them he’d given them no reason to believe anything dark about him except what lurked in his head from what had been done to him.
He gave the horse another pat then left the stall. “This is a good barn, sturdy and well-built,” he said as he slapped his hand against a support beam.
“Turner Kelby helped me build it when I hadn’t been here more than a couple months.”
“Oh, the one that was kind enough to lend me the clothes,” he said as he snapped one of the suspender straps. Then he spied the cot at the back of the barn over by the cow’s stall. “What’s that out here for?”
“It came with me from back East. Sometimes I sleep on it if I have a long night and don’t want to go back to the house, and the few hired men I’ve had’ve slept out here on it.”
The man sat down on the little bed and Kip sat next to him. “Not too bad.”
“No, it’s not.” He wasn’t quite sure how to approach the next subject so he just came out with it. “Look, both me ‘n my wife’ve talked about it and if… if you’d like to stay here, that is, until your memory comes back, I can sure use a hired man. I’m afraid I can’t pay much, but you’d have a roof over your head and my wife’s cookin’. And as long as you’d be here that big dapple to ride.”
It didn’t take long for him to come to a decision, he was without home or identity, and he liked it here. These were good people, and he owed them for his very life. As he looked up light darted into his dark eyes, and he ran a thumb along his stubbled jaw. “All I need is bed, board and beans. With you and the missus and the boy,” and he ruffled the child’s hair and grinned, “and a good place like this to call home, who could want for more? You’ll get a good day’s work out of me, you needn’t worry about that.”
“I’m not worried. Just don’t rush it,” Lee said as he extended his hand.
“I won’t.” He took it and pumped it heartily. “Looks like I’m gonna be here for a little while,” he said as he put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. Now maybe he wouldn’t feel so rootless and adrift. Now maybe he’d finally have a since of belonging somewhere.
Lee Haymes sat on the bench in front of the porch working on the broken leg of Becky’s stool. Kip had been standing on it again and again he turned over on it. He feared it was only a matter of time before his boy got hurt.
Looking up, he watched with a smile as Kip followed the man into the barn. It had been just over two weeks since he’d found the tall, dark stranger dying by the side of the road and brought him home. In that short period of time he’d become more like family than anything. He and Becky thought very highly of him, and his son hung around him like a honey bee. He understood that the boy was lonely way out here without any other children around for a long distance and any brothers or sisters, and he’d often talked about having a friend. Well, now he had one, and Lee wasn’t disappointed about it. He grinned and shook his head and went back to his chore.
The stranger dropped the blanket and pillow onto the cot as the boy stood nearby.
“Are you sure you wantta sleep out here? I mean, don’t you like it in the house anymore? Is my bed too soft?”
“Your bed’s fine, but it’s your bed, and I think I’ve taken it from you long enough,” he said as he stacked the bedding neatly at the foot. “And besides, I’m the hired help now, and I’m doing much better, and I think it’s time I move out here.”
“But Pa hasn’t fixed the roof yet and if it rains…”
“No buts, I’ve already moved and that’s how it’s gonna be. It’s not like I’m leaving or anything like that. I’ll only be right out here.”
“I know,” the boy said as his face pulled into a disappointed scowl, “but it ain’t the same.”
He sequestered his amusement as he watched the child. “We’ll still be friends, and it’s not like I’m leaving,” he said as he rested a hand on his shoulder and the bright blue eyes came up. “Now,” and he eased the boy onto the cot and sat next to him, “I need your help with a little something. I need a name. People can’t just go on calling me ‘mister’ or ‘you’ or some things worse.”
“Well, whadaya wantta be called?”
“I don’t really know that’s why I’m asking for your help in picking it.” He scooted back and spread his arms out. “When you look at me what do you think of?”
Kip put a finger against his cheek and looked him over. Then a light went on in his face. “How about Stretch?”
“Stretch. You know, ‘cause of your long legs and arms and you’re so tall.”
He thought it over for a couple seconds and then his mouth drew into a pucker. “Well, I suppose that’s as good as anything.” He nodded. “All right, Stretch it is.”
“Oh, boy!” Kip gushed as he jerked to his feet. “I’m gonna go tell Ma and Pa so they’ll know what to call you!” Then he ran out.
“Stretch,” he mused and raised one eyebrow. “Not exactly what I had in mind, but I guess it’s better than ‘short shanks’.” His brow furrowed into a puzzled frown. “Now why on Earth did I think of that?” He shrugged and went back to the stall where the big gray was and picked up a brush from the divider and began grooming the dappled coat. “Now maybe I should think about giving you one,” he said as he patted the horse on the neck then ran the brush along his withers. “How does ‘Stretch’s Horse’ sound?”
As Lee went into the barn he got a bit of a start. The man, or Stretch as his son was calling him, was sitting in a corner on the floor over by the cow’s stall. His arms were resting on his knees, and his face was hidden against them. He leaned the hoe against the wall and went over and stooped next to him. “Are you all right?” he asked as he put a hand on the man’s shoulder.
After several seconds his head rose, and he looked around, and Lee almost gasped. He found himself peering into dark wells of the deepest despair and loss. “I don’t know who I am.”
Lee’s heart sank. Up until now he hadn’t thought a whole lot about the fact that this man had nothing. His life as he’d known it had been wiped away. He wondered if it would return, and he wondered if the man was thinking the same thing. “For now,” he said in an effort to sound reassuring. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t return someday.”
“And if it doesn’t? What then? Do I just stay here?”
“They’re worse things.”
“Yes, there are, and I’m living one of them. For all I know I have a wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters, a home of my own. Or maybe…I’m wanted.”
Lee found himself finding this hard to believe. “No, you can’t convince me of that.”
“Why not? Because you like me? Even wanted men have people who like them.” His fingers dug into his arms, and he leaned his head back with a thump. “Maybe it would’ve been better for all concerned if I’d just died out there.”
“Don’t you ever say that,” came from the doorway.
They looked and saw Becky standing there.
She brushed over to them and knelt by her husband. “Don’t ever let me hear you say anything like that again,” she said as she placed an understanding hand on his wrist. “Even if you don’t get your old memories back, you’re still alive to make new ones. Right here you have people who care about you. To Kip you’re one of the most important people in his life. He talks about you constantly, and I don’t think you know how much it means to him for you to share his books with him.”
“She’s right,” Lee said. “I think someday you’ll remember who you are and where you belong, but until you do you have a home right here for as long as you need and want it.”
“And for as long as you need a hired man?” he said with a wicked smirk.
“Yeah, that too. Now, if you think you’re up to it, I’ve got a job that’ll go faster with two men.”
“Just lead me to it,” he said as he slapped his hands against the ground. “You’ll never hear me talk like that again. I promise.” That didn’t mean he wouldn’t think it, though.
He put on a cheerful front as they went outside, but he couldn’t get over the notion that a part of his life was over for good. And not knowing what that was could be a thinly disguised blessing, because how could you miss something if you didn’t know what it was.
The sounds of hammering and men’s strong voices worked their way up into the trees. Lee had finally decided that it was time to get around to patching the leaks in the barn roof. He and Stretch had shed their shirts in the hot sun but kept their hats on to protect their heads and eyes.
“Now I don’t have to worry about getting drowned in my bed,” Stretch said as he positioned one of the shingles, “and this should make Kip rest easier.”
“Becky’s been after me to fix it for almost a year now,” Lee took one of the nails from the canvas bag he had them in, “but your moving in kinda lit a fire under me.”
Just then a wispy blond head appeared as Lee looked around. “Kip, what’re you doin’ up here? How many times have I told you not to get on this ladder?”
“I brought you some water,” the boy said as he brought up a small bucket with a dipper in it. “I thought you and Stretch’d be thirsty.”
“We can always come down and get it. The next time I tell not to do something I expect you to mind what I tell you. Now you go back, and we’ll talk about this later.”
“Yes, Sir,” Kip said dolefully as his mouth pulled into a knot.
Lee looked at Stretch, and he could see the resignation in a father’s eyes.
“All right, since you were so thoughtful and went to all the trouble to bring it you might as well.” He grinned as his son’s head came up with eager enthusiasm. “But wait until I steady the ladder.”
Stretch helped Kip onto the roof with his bucket. He could see how much this meant to the boy and knew that it gave a sense of helping with a man’s work. He got the honor of the first drink and the cool liquid refreshed and fortified his hot, sweating body. “Thanks, Kip,” he said and passed the dipper on to Lee.
After they availed themselves of Kip’s welcomed thirst-quencher it was time to resume work and the boy was allowed to stay, much to his delight.
“Would you like to give it a try?” Stretch asked and got a definitive yes. He put the hammer in the boy’s hand and scrounged a nail from the bag. Holding it in place, he knew he was putting his fingers in jeopardy, but he felt he needed to show trust and confidence in the boy’s ability, even if mainly on the outside.
Biting on his tongue, Kip gave it a tentative whack. Confidence built, he gave it a decisive smack, but this time the tool slipped and hit Stretch squarely on the thumb. Forgetting about the nail, he jerked his hand back and grasped his smashed digit. A lackluster smile thinly disguised the pain as he looked at the boy.
“I’m sorry, Stretch.”
“You hit the wrong nail, son,” Lee said as he his amber eyes flashed at Stretch then he started to laugh.
Stretched wrapped his arms around the boy as his own hearty laughter rose over the roof.
Becky stepped out onto the porch and looked up toward the barn. “What on Earth are they doing?”
Stretch stood in the doorway to the barn, the soft orange glow of a lamp lighting its interior behind him, and the hard packed dirt floor was cool against the soles of his bare feet. His thumb still throbbed from time to time with the rhythm of his heartbeat, but it wasn’t so bad though he expected he might lose the nail. The last window in the house went dark as the family turned in. One corner of his mouth crooked as he thought of Kip nestled snuggly in his own bed.
He looked up at the sky as it continued to darken, and the soft cloak of night wrapped itself over the land. Except for a few plaintive whippoorwills life was in the process of going to bed, something he knew he should do. But at the moment sleep eluded him. He was wide awake as he thought of the events of the day. He’d finally felt well enough to move out of the house, much against Mrs. Haymes’ protests. He’d also acquired a new name, and it made him grin to think about it. Stretch of all things. He’d expected something mundane like Tom or Hank or even Cleve, but Stretch? A child’s mind was a wondrous thing indeed. With a snort, he shook his head and ruffled his heavy hair. “What a boy.”
His arms stretched out in front of him, and a yawn sneaked up on him and reminded him what time it was. Rubbing his back he suddenly realized that he was sleepy. He pulled the door together leaving it partially open so the fresh air could enter and circulate.
First slipping the suspenders off his shoulders, he pulled his shirt from his britches and started unbuttoning it as he turned for his bed. It creaked as he sat down on it a bit harder than he’d intended and removed the shirt then draped it over the foot of the cot. But as he looked around his head dropped with a groan, he’d forgotten to put out the lamp.
Grudgingly, he got up and extinguished it then returned to his beckoning bed and flopped back on it. It was quite dark at first, but as his eyes adjusted, natural, gray light filled the barn. He brought his arms up and put his hands behind his head. As he lay there he tried probing his mind for just a thread of something, anything, that could lead him to who he was. However, he’d done this before and it hadn’t worked yet. In fact, it seemed like the harder he tried the further away from him it got.
Another yawn overtook him, and his eyelids grew more leaden as his body seemed to become increasingly weightless. A sensation of serenity floated through him, and his chest began to rise and fall in heavy, deep breaths. He was losing his fight as his eyes closed, and his senses gradually entered into darkness as slumber moved in.
Outside the light faded to black after the sun’s decent below the horizon. The whippoorwills continued their melancholic song as the trees answered with a soft sighing as a light wind made its way through their boughs. The night and this small part of the world were at peace, but a man’s unconscious mind still harbored the memory of dark thoughts and deeds that receded into a secret place during the waking hours. They allowed a short respite, but once the shade of sleep was pulled down they would emerge from their vault to wreak havoc.
Kip sat up in bed with his arms clasped around his knees and felt his young heart breaking. He could hear him out in the barn going through one of those torturous nightmares. He’d seen what they did to his friend, and he’d also seen how he himself had the ability to comfort and soothe. But his parents had told him to stay in the house when it happened, as they all knew it would. He’d heard his father talking to his mother out in the parlor and then the front door opening and knew that Pa was out there with him.
Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore so he got up and went to his door. As he opened it he saw his mother standing by the table with her arms wrapped around her. She must have noticed the movement for he was so quiet and looked around at him.
“Go back to bed, Kip.”
“Go back to bed, dear.”
“But, Ma, he needs me.”
“Your father will take care of it, now go back to bed.”
With a reluctant ‘Yes, ma’am’ he closed the door and went back to his bed, but he only sat there wishing he could do something. Then the screams and shouts from the barn stopped, and Kip’s hands went to small fists. It wasn’t long when his father came back into the house, and he could hear his parents muffled voices, and then their bedroom door closed. He fell back onto the bed, burying his face in his pillow and cried like a little boy.
Lee Haymes, Turner Kelby and Stretch made their way through the trees and scrub brush, each one cradling a rifle in one arm. The Kelbys had come to spend the day with their neighbors, and the men were out hunting for the main course of Sunday supper. Kip – much to his displeasure – had stayed home with the women. His main argument had been why he couldn’t go with the men, being one too.
Except that it should be a fowl or small animal of some sort, they hadn’t really decided on what they were after and all agreed that whatever presented itself first would be fair game. Lee hoped it would be a covey of fat quail, Turner said he’d give his eye-teeth for duck, and Stretch couldn’t really care less what it was a long as it was edible.
As they made their way through some thick overgrowth they flushed a large buck and it dashed across their path.
“Shoot far,” Turner – who was closest to the animal – gasped as his hand went to his chest, “that dang nigh gave my heart the notion o’ stoppin’.”
“Scare you a little bit, did it, Turner?” Lee asked with a quick glance to Stretch.
“A little? It had me seein’ my folks, and they both been passed on nigh twenty years.”
Stretch came alongside Turner and nudged him with his elbow. “I could always hold your hand for you.”
“Oh, you go off,” Turner said and nudged him back, his black eyes dancing.
With a mischievous snicker Stretch went on ahead, leaving the others to come up behind him.
“I like that boy,” Turner said softly as he moved closer to Lee. “I purely do. It’s a real shame what was done to ‘im. He still don’t remember a thing?”
“No, and he has the most gosh-awful dreams. The first time he busted me in the face, but he didn’t know what he was doin’. And those screams could turn a man’s hair white, though they’re gettin’ so they’re not quite as bad as at first.”
Turner clicked his teeth and shook his head. “A downright cryin’ shame.”
They rejoined Stretch and went on for another twenty minutes, give-or-take, when they spied a large pheasant just up ahead. Instantly, they stopped but not before Lee stepped on a dry twig and its snapping was enough the startle the bird. It immediately took flight, its great wings beating the air. Lee got off a hasty shot but missed.
“Doggone it all,” Lee griped. “And now it’s too far…”
Before he could finish Stretch’s rifle came up, and the bird was brought down with a clean head shot. Lee’s and Turner’s eyes met behind him and conveyed to one another that neither had seen such shooting.
On their way home Stretch lagged behind carrying their prize, his rifle resting on his shoulder. The shooting came instinctively, and he was surprised and more than a little disturbed at his quickness and accuracy. Both men had complimented him on his excellent marksmanship, and he’d taken it as they meant it, but it bothered him to wonder if animals weren’t the only thing he’d ever shot. Living out here in this wild country he suspected that they weren’t. However, the thing that troubled him the most was the possible reasons for his doing it. Did he use his prowess to keep the peace and uphold the law or to break it? And speaking of the law, which side of it had those he’d maybe killed been on? The answers to those questions and so many others were a constant source of concern that tormented him as much as his inability to remember who and what he was.
“Well, at least it’s not a pistol,” he said under his breath as he continued on.
Stretch had already gone out to the barn and Kip had been coerced into helping his mother and Mrs. Kelby clear the table and do the dishes when Lee and Turner came out onto the front porch. The early evening air – though still plenty warm – wasn’t as hot as it had been through the day and the shady oasis provided by the trees made it all the more pleasant.
“I’ve always said this is a right purty place to put a house,” Turner said then patted his full stomach. “And I’ve always said that your Becky is one o’ the best dang cooks I ever run over. I’m surprised you ain’t big as a hay wagon by this time.”
“I work it off,” Lee said as he finished filling his pipe and clamped its stem in his teeth. He stuffed the tobacco pouch into a pocket and proceeded to light up. “I’ve been thinking on something.”
“And what might that be?”
“By the time you get back home it’s gonna be black dark, so why don’t you and Olivia stay the night and head out in the morning. Kip doesn’t mind giving up his bed for another night.”
“Oh, we hate to do that.”
“He doesn’t mind, and you can have one of Becky’s good breakfasts before you start out.”
“Well, now you twisted my arm.”
“Kip! Kip, come out here son!”
Kip burst out of the house,
drying his hands on the back of his britches.
“How do you feel about giving up your bed for the Kelbys tonight?”
“Oh, boy, I can sleep in the barn with Stretch.”
“Well, now I don’t think…”
“Ah, Pa, please.”
“What have I told you about interrupting?”
Lee took in his son and couldn’t help show his amusement. “All right, son, but I think you should ask him first.”
“Gee, thanks, Pa, I will. And maybe he’d like to read one of my books.”
The boy dashed down the steps and across the yard, his feet thumping the ground like a horse’s hooves.
“That’s quite a lad you got there.”
“I know. He’s got a good heart like his mother does, and he’s always wanting to help somebody or something. I’m sorry he doesn’t have a brother or sister, but he doesn’t seem to mind too much.”
Only way down inside he knew that his boy did mind, though he never showed it or complained. And that was another thing to be proud of.
Kip lay in the grass watching
the clouds float over him as Stretch sat on the stream’s bank, his warm,
reassuring voice filling the boy’s ears and heart. He was reading from Leatherstocking Tales by
James Fenimore Cooper, a Christmas present from his Aunt Grace in
He turned onto his stomach and propped himself on his elbows and watched Stretch. Once, as he turned the page, he looked at the youngster and winked then went back to his reading. Kip had always wanted to grow up to be like his father, and now he wanted to be like Stretch too. He knew that if he could be like the two best men in the whole wide world that he would be a very good man.
As he read, Stretch would sneak a furtive glance at the boy and couldn’t miss how he hung on every word that passed his lips. He also guessed that Kip was tired after his busy day and would be ready for bed before long. He turned the next page and went on with the story and fervently hoped that the life that he’d left behind was as good as this.
When Stretch came out of the stall from giving his horse his oats for the night he saw Kip spreading his blanket on the floor close to the cot. Shaking his head he went over and sat down on the little bed.
“So, you about ready to turn in?”
“Uh-huh,” the boy said as he carefully smoothed his bedding across the floor.
“All right,” Stretch said as he started removing his boots, “you go ahead and put out the lamp.”
Kip eagerly agreed and did as he was told. Once it was dark he went back to his meager bed, but a firm hand gripped his arm and pulled him down onto the cot. “That floor’s too cold and hard, and no friend of mine is gonna sleep on it.”
“But there’s not enough room.”
“There’s plenty of room, and I can scoot back and make even more. Now get in, we’ve got work to do tomorrow, and we need the sleep.”
Without a word the child lay down next to him, and it was a bit cramped, but Kip didn’t mind. His friend was sharing with him – like friends always do – and he was almost too excited to go to sleep.
“Better than that hard floor?”
“Uh-huh.” Then he went quiet for a few seconds. “Stretch, do you really like it here?”
“I sure do. I’m with good people, have my own bed, plenty to eat, a fine horse to ride, and the best friend any man could want.”
“And you don’t want to leave, right?”
“Not right now, so go to sleep, remember you have to get up early.”
“All right. Good night, Stretch.”
“Good night, Kip.”
Stretch had called him his
‘best friend’. Now he knew he could
never go to sleep. As he lay there
drowsiness replaced excitement as the sandman sprinkled sand into his eyes. He could feel Stretch close to him, and he
felt as safe as he did with
The boy’s deep breathing filled his ears and made him smile, and his arm tightened. This must be what it would be like to hold his own child, and it made his heart ache. “Good-night, Kip,” he whispered then settled and let sleep come for him as well.
Lee stood at the barn door the next morning, peering inside. Stretch and Kip were both still sound asleep and totally unaware that they were being observed. He’d knew why he hadn’t heard the man call out as he usually did. He understood his boy’s need for companionship, and felt no jealousy whatsoever. Kip loved and honored his parents, as they loved and honored their own. But this was different; Stretch was a friend and someone new in the boy’s life. One of the things Lee regretted about bringing his family out here was how isolated his son was with no one around of his own age. Lee had grown up around other children and had plenty of friends, but Kip had none. So, when this man came along – also alone – Kip had attached himself to him, and Stretch had responded, and it made him glad that Kip was such a boy.
With a grin, he turned and went back to the house. He would give them a little more time together; after all, it was still early.
After the Kelbys left Lee was in the barn saddling up Sprinkles when Stretch, with that forceful walk he had when he’d set his mind to something, went to the gray and brought him out of his stall and began doing the same thing. Lee watched as he bridled the animal and settled the blanket over his back.
“Do you mind if I ask what you think you’re doing?” Lee asked as he leaned his arms on his horse’s rump.
“I won’t answer the obvious, but I think it’s about time I started helping out on the range,” he said as he retrieved his saddle from its stand. “I’ve been here for well over two weeks, and I think its time I started pulling more of my weight.”
“You don’t hear me complainin’, do you?”
“No,” Stretch said as he threw his saddle onto the dapples’ back with a slight wince that he hoped Lee didn’t catch. “But that’s beside the point. This is my home now and every man has to work to keep that home going. Now I know you have cattle and that’s a full time job in itself.”
“I don’t turn down any offer of help when I can get it, but are you sure you’re up to it? I saw that it hurt when you put that saddle on him.”
“Well, now, there’s only one way I know of to find out.”
The two men just looked at each other standing perfectly motionless, and Stretch could see the wheels turning behind the amber eyes.
“All right, but if we see you’re not up to it yet you’ll head on back here, and I don’t want any argument about it. I am still the boss.”
After several seconds of registering no emotion at all, one corner of Stretch’s mouth turned. “You’ve gotta deal, Boss.”
With that they finished with their horses and led them outside where Kip had just come from the house. “Can’t I come too?”
“Not this time, son. I want you to stay here and help your ma.”
“But I could help out.”
“I said no. Now you go on back in the house and see what else has to be done.”
“Yes, Pa,” the child said glumly and hung his head.
They watched as the boy drug himself back up the steps and on into the house, and they couldn’t help their grins. Then they got mounted, and Stretch adjusted the battered old hat Lee had given him so that the brim would shield his eyes from the sun.
“You ready?” Lee asked.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Without another word Lee turned the roan and Stretch followed. They rode out past the barn and headed out to where the cows and one bad-tempered bull were.
It was a splendid specimen of a summer day and Stretch couldn’t recall ever feeling so alive. Maybe he had but he certainly didn’t remember it. This was beautiful country and the life in it made him feel alive. The sky was clear as crystal without a cloud to be seen anywhere. It was fairly even here with a few rills, bumps and dips and the occasional creek or trickle of water. Trees weren’t as prevalent and a man could see for miles.
It felt good to have a horse between his legs and the one he was riding was solid and dependable. Even the jarring and pain it caused in his ribs he didn’t mind so bad. He leaned forward and gave the big dapple a healthy pat on its sturdy neck then settled back in the saddle.
The two men talked about nothing in particular and took their time in this glorious day. When they finally reached their destination, Stretch could see that Lee was more than a little miffed.
“They aren’t here.”
“Maybe, but more ‘n likely it’s that blasted bull again. He’s found a way to get out, and he always takes the cows with ‘im. This makes the fourth time so far this month.”
“Well, can’t you just fix it so he can’t get out?”
“I will as soon as I figure out how he’s doing it. You know, sometimes I’m half a mind to shoot ‘im, but if I did that I don’t know where I’d get another one.” Lee heaved a disgusted sigh, and his mouth drew in. “Ah, well, we might as well go find ‘em and bring ‘em back. You up to it?”
“Let’s go find out.”
Lee had a good idea where they’d gone since nearly every time he’d found them this was where they’d been. Curry Bottom was green and lush and filled with all kinds of delectable plants, especially clover. It had come by its name because most folks believed it was once an ancient lake and Josiah Curry who’d been killed there by Indians back in ‘49. Now it was part of the Haymes’ spread and the favorite place for a malfeasant bull to bring his harem.
As Lee and Stretch cleared a large cluster of scrub the horses were reined in and Lee’s mouth set. Sure enough there were the cattle and the bull was standing right in the middle of the small herd. He was a large, muscular creature with long, curving horns that tapered out to dagger-like points. He snorted and tossed his head as if daring them to come any closer.
“Uh-huh, I thought so. He’s done this too many times to fool me much.”
“He looks like he doesn’t want to be bothered.”
“He never does, but that’s never stopped me.” Lee snorted and shook his head. “It all comes down to matching his stubborn determination against mine.” Then he went serious as he looked around at Stretch. “The cows aren’t any trouble, and when you drive them he usually goes too. But I learned a long time ago not to try to drive him, it makes him cranky. He’s got a temper and it doesn’t take much to stir it up, and if you happen to catch ‘im in a bad mood you don’t have to do anything. Ah, well, we might as well get it done. You go right, and I’ll cut around to the left.”
“All right, Boss,” Stretch said with a crooked grin and a two-fingered salute then nudged his horse on.
Lee laughed to himself and followed him.
Almost instantly he saw that
this man was comfortable with this. He’d
never seen anyone handle a horse like Stretch did. With gentle, almost imperceptible movements
of his knees, and the way he shifted his weight in the saddle to aid his
The big gray responded to the easy touch of his rider and complied readily with each unspoken command. A cow thought to stray from the herd but was gracefully impelled to rejoin them. The bull on the other hand trailed along behind, snorting and tossing his head, his dark gaze constantly on the men. Hazel and amber eyes kept a cautious watch on him and their horses were held under tight control.
Things were going smoothly and they were well on their way when the bull decided that he wanted no further part of it. With a snort and a bellow he lowered his head and charged through the herd. The animals scattered and Sprinkles reared but Lee hung on for dear life. A cow shot in front of Stretch, and he had to stop short to avoid hitting it. As he resituated himself in the saddle, he brought the dapple around and saw that the bull had his head down and was charging straight for Lee’s agitated horse. With a firm kick he urged the gray into a gallop and headed for the beast. If he could get between them maybe he could get off a shot and change its mind. As he got closer the bull decided that he was a better target and turned toward him. Stretch’s breathing quickened, and his heart ran at breakneck speed as horns intent on inflicting damage were aimed right at him.
Lee caught a brief glimpse of what was going on, and it chilled his bones. Sprinkles came around as he tugged at the reins, and he went cold, the bull was almost on top of Stretch, and he wasn’t trying to get out of the way. Then at the last moment the dapple veered, and the bull passed so close that he feared that horse or rider might have been gored.
Stretch stopped his horse as his eyes came to the bull. It had set its sights on Lee again and Stretch made up his mind that he’d had enough. He pulled his rifle from its scabbard, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger.
The bullet gouged into the ground, kicking up dirt not far from the rampaging bull’s front feet. Jerking his head he quickly changed his mind, or rather, had it changed for him, and started off in the opposite direction.
“Big blowhard,” Stretch said under his breath, and he waited for Lee to ride over to him.
“Thanks. If he’d knocked me off my horse he would’ve run me through for sure.”
“Don’t mention it, you would’ve done the same for me,” Stretch said as he put his rifle back.
“I don’t think we have to worry about ‘im anymore today, something like this usually cools ‘im down for a few hours. Now why don’t we gather up those beeves and get ‘em back where they belong?”
“Sounds good to me,” Stretch said with a skewed expression. “And it right this minute dawns on me that it’ll soon be time for dinner.”
Lee raised his head and sniffed the air. “I think I can smell the biscuits.”
A funny, far-off look came into the dark eyes, and his mind was miles away. Why would that be familiar to him? It was like someone had said the same thing to him before. Then a light touch on his arm brought him back to where he was.
“Are you all right? You looked like you were someplace else.”
“I was just thinking about what your Becky’ll have waiting for us when we get back,” he said as he brushed it off.
“Then let’s get these cows rounded up so we can find out,” Lee said and gave him a smack on the arm.
“I’m all for that.”
With a shared laugh they kicked their horses into motion and went in search of the wayward cattle. Good home cooking waited and these men were hungry.
After a fine dinner of bacon and biscuits and fried potatoes Stretch had gone back to the barn. He was sitting on a stool applying dressing to the saddle that had come with the loan of the horse. He rubbed the cloth in the cream in the small tin and was working it into the leather of the cantle and seat when Lee came into the barn.
“Did you have enough to eat?” he asked as he hung a long coil of rope on a peg near the door.
“Oh, yeah,” Stretch said as he glanced from what he was doing but never stopped. “That’s one of the things I’ve had plenty of since I got here. And your Becky is a wonderful cook.”
“She is that.” Then the look on his face went pensive, and he went to sit on the side of the cot.
Stretch gave him another glance and could see that he definitely had something on his mind. “All right, out with it.”
“If you hadn’t been out there today, well… it’s no telling what would’ve happened.”
“You would’ve rounded up the cattle and handled that mangy bull just like you always have,” Stretch said with a grin as he got more cream onto the cloth and began rubbing it in. “I just happened to be along this time, is all.”
“But that’s not all. The last time he acted up like that my horse took a horn, and I had to shoot ‘im. That’s how I wound up with Speckles.” He ruffled his wispy brown hair. “You handled yourself like you’d done that all you life, and I’ve never seen anybody ride or work a horse the way you do.” He ducked his head then looked back at him. “Lately I’ve been giving something a lot of thought, and what I saw today made me finally decide to talk to you about it…. I think maybe we should go into Bantree and see if anybody there knows you.”
Stretch went perfectly still, his hand resting on the saddle’s seat.
“You were probably coming from that general direction when you were robbed,” Lee went on. “And if…”
“No? But why not? If there’re folks in town who…?”
“No, I don’t want… Not yet. Maybe later, but I just can’t, not now.”
“Again, why not? Surely you wantta find out who you are. And if somebody there can tell you…”
“I said no,” Stretch said with harsh finality as he slammed the tin down on the wooden box next to him. “I’m not ready. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to take care of something outside.”
Lee watched him as he jerked to his feet and stalked out, his long legs driving him with the purpose of escape. Stretch was afraid; he’d seen it in the hazel eyes that had gone suddenly black at the suggestion of discovering his identity. He guessed that the fear was not so much of finding out who he was as what. He rested his head against his hand. Right now he felt sorrier for this man his son had dubbed Stretch than he had since he’d fought so hard just to live.
That night the dream came as usual, but this time it was – if possible – more violent than ever. A new element had been added this time, a wiry little black-and-white paint and a dark-haired man whose face he couldn’t see. Something about him was very familiar, yet he didn’t try to help and simply sat in the saddle and watched.
“Help me!” he screamed and lashed out and as he did, pitched out onto the floor. As he hit with a thud and a dull grunt he was instantly awake. Sitting up, he became aware of soft, golden light around him and a comforting hand on his knee. He looked up into the fretful face of Lee Haymes.
“Stretch, are you all right?”
“Yeah, it’s just another one of those… You go on back to bed. I’ll be okay.”
“Yeah,” Stretch said with a weary grin and patted him on the arm. “Now go on.”
Slowly, the glow vanished as Lee went back to the house. Just like always, all remnants of the nightmare were gone, leaving behind deep fatigue. In some ways he saw that as a blessing and in others a curse. With a groan he pulled himself up and lay back down on the cot. His eyelids were dropping before he could think anymore about it, and he was soon asleep.
Becky stood on the front porch watching Stretch as he chopped wood for the stove. He’d taken off his shirt and the straps of the suspenders hung over his hips. His arms were well-muscled and his broad, deep chest, now with the binding removed, was covered with tight, black hair that disappeared past the waistband of his britches. His dark skin was covered with a sheen of sweat that glistened in the sunlight that peeked through the trees. He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen, second only to her Lee. The evidence of the surgery was hidden since it was below the belt line, and she was glad. The memory of the day Dr. Statler had fought to save his life was still very fresh and still brought pain to her gentle heart. This was a good man, and she was thankful that their efforts hadn’t been in vain.
Her mind was so focused on the man before her that she didn’t notice the man behind her as he came out of the house. Lee followed her line of vision and smirked deviously. “Do I have a reason to be jealous?”
For several seconds she didn’t move as if she hadn’t heard him. Then the clear blue eyes came around and a warm smile brought sunshine to her face. “There’ll never be anyone but you.” Then the smile was replaced by a frown of sadness as she looked back to Stretch. “Sometimes it makes my heart ache just to see him. He pushes himself too hard and it frightens me that he might hurt himself.”
“Dr. Statler said he’s all right and it’s good for him to get out and work.”
“I don’t think chopping wood with cracked ribs is what he had in mind, especially without the binding. I know that has to be painful, but I’ve not once caught it in his face.”
“He’s a very stubborn and strong-minded man, and he has a lot of anger and frustration welled up in ‘im. I guess this is just a way of working it out.”
“I’ll never forget how he was when you first brought him here.” She went silent again and dabbed at her right eye. “To think that there’s someone out there that doesn’t know what’s happened to him makes me want to cry. What if they think he’s all right somewhere or worse, think he’s dead?” A tiny moan left her, and she wrapped herself in her arms. “Can you imagine believing that your son or husband had been killed? That has to be torture.”
Lee stepped next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. “Yesterday I suggested to him that we go into Bantree and see if anybody knows ‘im there. You’d think I’d asked ‘im to rob a bank or something.”
“He said no?”
“He most definitely said no. In fact, he got mad at me.” He squeezed her close to him. “I think he’s afraid to find out who he is, and I guess I can’t blame ‘im. I mean, what if you find out that you’ve been in prison or are wanted for murder?” He snorted and grinned. “But I’ve always had a feeling that that’s just not the way it is in his case. An outlaw doesn’t handle a horse and cattle like he does.” He kissed her on the side of the head, and she leaned into his hold.
“I got the wood all cut for you, Mrs. Haymes,” Stretch said breathlessly as he came to stand by the steps modestly covering his bare chest with his shirt. “Is there anything else you need for me to do?”
“Well, you could go look for Kip,” she said. “He’s wandered off again, and he still has chores that have to be finished.”
“Yes, Ma’am, and I think I have a good idea where to start looking.” Then he turned and started past the barn, putting his shirt back on.
“He’s a good man, Lee, and nothing anyone can say will convince me otherwise.”
“I know. It’s the same with me.”
Kip was sitting on the bank of the stream, aimlessly pitching stones into it as Stretch came up behind him. The trees were alive with birds, and the bark of an irate squirrel intermingled with their song. It was shady and cool here in defiance of the early July heat.
“Your mother sent me looking for you,” he said as he sat next to the boy. “You still have chores.”
“I know,” Kip said as he threw another stone.
“Then why didn’t you finish them? You’re always pretty good about getting your work done.” He let his eyes rove over the child’s face and couldn’t miss that something was bothering him. “But every now and then I guess a man just has to walk away from a job to catch his breath and think.” He gathered a handful of small rocks and began skipping them over the surface of the water. “Do you want to tell me what the problem is?”
Kip said nothing and another pebble went in. “Do you think you’ll leave someday?” he asked without looking around.
“Nobody knows for sure what they’ll do someday. We all make plans and think that maybe we’ll do this or we’ll go there, and sometimes we do.” Another stone darted over the water only to disappear and sink to the bottom. “And sometimes we just never get around to it, either because we’re too busy or we’re in too much of a hurry or we simply change our minds. Why do you ask?”
“You’ve been with us for almost a month Ma says, and all the others that’s ever worked for Pa haven’t stayed much more ‘n that.”
“Were you friends with them?”
“Not really. Oh, the last one maybe a little, but not like with you.” Kip finally looked around at him. “You’re the only real friend I’ve ever had.”
Now the fear was solid, and he could read it in the innocent eyes looking at him. Kip was afraid of losing his friend and never seeing him again or having another one. “Like I am now you’re the only real friend I remember.” He grinned and threw the remainder of the rocks in all at once. “I wouldn’t worry about what might happen, and right now I’m not going anywhere except back to the house. I have work that needs doing, and I think there’s some of your mother’s gingerbread left.” He gave the boy a pat on the back and came to his feet. “And I’m hungry enough to eat it all by myself.”
“Oh, no, you won’t,” Kip said and dropped the rocks, his fear evaporating into oblivion. “Cause you gotta get there before I do,” and he scrambled up from the bank.
“Oh ho, so you wantta race me is it. Well, take your best shot, buddy. I’ll even give you a head start, but not too much of one,” he said as the light twinkled in his eyes.
Without a word, Kip took off, Stretch right behind him. The long legs – with their ground-encompassing stride – could have easily overtaken the boy, but Stretch held himself back, and Kip stayed just in front of him. By the time they reached the back of the barn they were both well-winded and puffing.
“Whoa,” Stretch said as he pulled himself up, “you win…. You’re faster than I thought you were.”
Kip turned and went back to where his friend stood panting. “I won?”
“You sure did…, so you get all the gingerbread.”
Kip’s nose wrinkled as his face scoonched. “I don’t want it all. Ma’s always told me it’s more fun to share.”
“Your ma’s right.” He put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and they started on for the yard.
“Maybe after we get done and have our gingerbread we can go fishin’. You know, since you been here we ain’t been once.”
As they came around the corner of the front of the barn they didn’t notice the voices around them.
“I bet you’d like fishin’, and Ma fries the best fish in the whole territory.”
“I bet she does,” he said as they stopped near the door. “But right today I don’t think I have the time, and after that race and trying to keep up with you I’m plumb wore out.”
“But you could rest while we fished.”
Stretch grinned and rested a hand on the boy’s neck. “I wish I could, buddy.” Then he turned around and glanced toward the house for no particular reason then back to Kip. “Now let’s finish those chores so we can have at that gingerbread.” He put his hand on the child’s back, and they went into the barn.
He never did notice the young man in the green jacket standing near the well with Lee Haymes’ that was watching him so closely. Nor did he take note of the black-and-white pinto that he’d ridden in on.
Adam Cartwright sat atop the sleek chestnut on a high bluff looking out across the vast spread of land known as Ponderosa. It had never failed to take his breath and inspire awe inside him. The sky today was more of a gray than blue and the clouds resembled slabs of slate. They hung heavy as if too laden with snow to move, and a chill wind blew over him as Mother Nature’s reminder that winter could descend upon the mountains at any time.
It had been a week since he and his family had returned from driving the cattle to the Haymes’ ranch. Seeing Lee and Becky and Kip and their place again had brought everything back as if it had happened only yesterday and not three months ago. Sleeping in that barn – though it had only been for one night – had brought many different feelings rushing back to him. Pain and frustration and doubt were interspersed with memories of compassion and friendship and love for a little boy that fought to overrule the bad.
His gloved hands tightened on the reins, and his back straightened as resolve gained strength inside him. This had been a wonderful place to grow up and would be his home for as long as he lived, but he knew that the time had come for him to move on. He’d felt it for some time, but never any stronger than he had that last night with Pa in the Haymes’ barn. And since returning home he knew without a shade of doubt that he would do it.
It was too late in the season for travel, and he wanted to spend one last Christmas with his family in the big rough-hewn log house that he’d designed fresh from college and helped his father to build. He would wait until the first of the New Year to tell them, and this way it would give him time to build up his courage and figure out how to say it. If he knew Pa, and he did, there would be an explosion that could outdo anything in the war in the East. But he’d made up his mind, and anyone who knew him well enough knew that they could easier change the course of a river.
“Let’s go home, boy,” he said as he leaned forward and gave Sport a pat on the neck. Then he brought the big horse around, and they started back down at a lively trot.
Soon one of his favorite times would come with the snow, a roaring fire, hot, buttered rum and family and he would enjoy it to the fullest. For the memory of it would have to last him for a long time and keep him warm on cold winter nights with his loved ones so far away.