Cutter's Point, CA
Heath allowed himself a few moments to enjoy the beautiful Autunm vision around him. From where he sat in a rustic wood high-backed rocker, he could see the mountains in the background and a rich blue waterway spitting thick white foam as it hurried past. It was a quiet Tuesday, with the sun sitting high in a heavenly blue sky and he had no company on the ample front porch of the Ale's Corner. The family run Inn was in an ideal spot just across from the boat dock. It was almost 2 p.m. and with any luck, they'd be in Mercy Junction by suppertime.
They'd arrived a little over an hour ago, rented a small wagon for they short journey and walked across the road to lunch. After a hearty bowl of fish chowder, some fluffly biscuits and fried chicken and mashed potatoes, they'd shared some stories, had a few laughs and continued what would be a solid friendship. With coffee and a decent pile of cookies digested, Cody was paying the bill.
For the first time since he'd arrived in Dutch Flat, which seemed much longer than a couple of weeks, he had a moment to himself. Tomorrow he'd be on his way to Reno to see Aunt Rachel and get some closure. There were still some questions to be ansered and he wanted to make sure his path would be true.
"No, Ma'am, I'm okay, but thanks just the same."
"I don't think so, and I'm usually right about these things."
Cody's voice brought a smile to his face as he stood up. The other voice was that of Mrs Baker who ran the kitchen and dining area while her husband rented wagons to the travelers. Heath stepped off the porch and climbed up onto the single seat in the wagon. There was enough room in the back for Cody to have a short nap. Despite his denials, he could see the boat trip had taken a toll on the still recovering tracker. He'd seen how he he shifted in the chair during lunch and moved a hand over those broken ribs. In the back were some thick blankets which would provide padding and warmth.
He turned when his friend didn't appear right away. He pushed his hat back and tilted his head, moving his neck to see through the now vacent doorway. Then the lean, six foot male appeared, wearing a bit of a sheepish cast.
Cody gingerly eased his aching body into the back of the wagon. His leg didn't feel too bad but his side hurt a bit and he had a headache. But he would get a quick nap and swap spots with Heath in a couple of hours. He moved the blankets over and the motion caused the driver to turn.
"Whaddya doin"? Heath quizzed, wondering why the blankets he'd centered were now closer to one side.
Heath frowned and his sandy brows furrowed. "I know I'm gonna regret asking this..."
"For the snacks...just a few." Cody saw the question forming in the sky eyes before the words could follow.
"Snacks?" Heath tossed back, just as a young man carrying a box appeared. There was a burlap sac on top of it. He twisted around enough to reach over to open the sac, revealing fruit, muffins in a small box and cookies Underneath appeared containers of water and coffee.
"Tell yer ma, thanks," Cody said, shaking the young man's hand. "Awful nice of her."
"Will do, Cody."
"Glad it was just a few snacks," Heath suggested wryly an began to chuckle. "Boy Howdy, we only walked in over a hour ago. We came any sooner, you might be adopted."
"It's a gift," Cody grinned, laid down and put his had over his eyes.
Once he saw that Cody pulled the blanket to his shoulders, Heath picked up the reins and they were on their way to Mercy Junction. The time passed quickly and before he realized it as the sun was moving and later afternoon set in, a groan, followed by the sound if air being drawn in too quickly past clenched teeth promped him to pull the wagon over. It was a sound he knew all too well, as did anyone who'd ever had cracked ribs. He climbed down and around and pulled the back down, giving the tight lipped older man a hand. Cody settled himself on a large log by a cluster of rocks.
Cody rubbed his throat and started to rise. "Aw, hell, I forgot the water."
"I'll get it," Heath offered, he was thristy too. He grabbed a jug, two mugs and held up a the bag. '"Snack?" But Cody just shook his head with a half smile. He settled next to him, poured them each a mug, which were drained twice in short order. Cody began to shiver and Heath decided the tin of coffee was a good idea. It only took a few moments, and Heath got a small fire going and went to get the beverage.
While Heath did a quick set up to warm the brew, Cody's fingers found lettering stamped into the bottom of the heavy metal mug. He flipped it over and was sorry he did. "Culpeper County, VA" his voice dropped then and a coldness not from the crisp air colored his voice. "...just south of hell..."
That caused Heath's head to turn sharply. He eyed the pinched features and saw a familiar look in the other man's eyes which were a darkened shade of blue. He knew that look, most men who had served in the war shared that look. It was pain, the kind that isn't physical, a worse kind. The kind that had an ugly hot red breath that scorthes your soul. He knew because he held the same monster inside. He continued to swril the liquid and watched until it began to bublle. He poured them each a mug and waited. Cody's eyes were on a place far beyod the hills they were trained on.
"When?" Heath asked quietly.
"Beginning of February, '64'." He took a sip and appreciated the warmth. And remembered how cold he'd been that day. "We'd been movin' for days, not stoppin' long enough to sleep or eat. And it was freezin', started to snow that morinng. By nightfall it was deep and so dark, you couldn't see. We cleared the woods, marchin' through the fields of some farm near the Rapidan River, there was a huge barn at the end. We heard the firestorm. The Rebs had some outfit pinned down and they were peakin'. By the time we cleared that barn, we were in the thick of it. I dropped down to load and was...layin' out, tryin' to see. But it wasn't...." his voice choked and his throat got thick. Even now it horrified him. "a rise in the ground, it was a body covered in snow. I went to shift and my hand...his face...unseeing eyes..."
Cody took a moment to sip more coffee and Heath understood the need the for the warmth. He savored it, his fingers stroking the metal, stripping if of its warmth. He also understood why Cody's hands were shaking a bit.
"Long night....terrible night. Don't think I was ever that cold. We lost a lotta men that day and the ones that were left were barely holdin' on. Freezin, starvin...dyin' t'slow." Heath paused to pour each of them the last of the coffee. "'til' some treefrog* on top of that barn got some hornets* t'buzzin'"
"You were there!" the astonished tracker gasped. The blond man's head dipped once and then he turned and their eyes met.
"Wasn't for ya'r outfit that night, I wouldn't be here."
For a few moments Fate courted each young man, allowing them to appreciate her ways and understand just how precious life. That one moment in time had created a space for the future to exist.
"We got split up, and had casualities...Nick, he took charge. He told me to go high, he grabbed two rifles from Weaver...from some..." Wells took a moment to reclaim his voice, still seeing Nick moving quickly, overcoming the fact those two men had been with them for over six months and that quickly were gone. "He shoved them and the cartridge boxes at me and snarled to 'make 'em count'. . I stayed up on the roof of that barn until just before dawn. They crossed the river and I caught up later."
"Ya made 'em count alright," Heath complimented, 'Ya forced their hand, they retreated. We got the wounded t'that barn. Ya saved this kid's hide" He offered his thanks for a genuine smile and tip of the mug.
"He sure was somethin', Heath. Good reason he made Lietanent so quickly. Helluva leader, born to it, and we'd have followed him to Hell without a word. Runs the ranch the same way, stands tall, learned that from the best."
Heath wasn't surprised at the shining pride in Cody's voice when he was talking about Nick. And he understdood exactly what he meant by kind of leader Nick was, the best kind. The kind of men who came to it naturally, confident and unwavering. He'd seen that when they were together.
"We best get going," Cody decided, gingerly easing himself upright. He made his way back thorugh the mists of time and approached the wagon. .
"You sure?" Heath asked when Cody headed for the driver seat.
"Yeah," he answered, not turning down the assist to get up to the seat. "I got some puttin' away to do."
"Reckon I got some puttin' away t'do myself," Heath admitted. He understood the need to shuffle through those painful memories, and carefully put them back where they belong. Until another day when someting would open that box again.
They continued their trek, wrapped in a compatable blanket of silence. Heath was healing too and glad for soft blankets and the rocking motion of the wagon. He yawned and eyed the winding path behind them as they moved. He couldn't help think of the fine work of God's hand. During that cold night in Virginia and another group of cold nights in California how Nick saved his life.
"In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will"
He mulled over that thought. It might not be a good idea to keep denying what the Lord saw fit to bring together. That maybe Nick saved him that night so they would meet again. And that helped to give finer lines to the word. It made the word taller, stronger and providing a beacon. It was just beyond the horizon.
*tree frog (Sharpshooter)
hornet - (bullets) civil war slang