Caleb Lawson had never been so tired in his life. He stumbled along the dusty road like a sleepwalker, unaware of his surroundings. When the quiet of the nearby woods erupted into a violent crashing and thrashing, his half-closed eyes flew open. What the . . . ? Dazed and startled, he tripped, flying forward. Fighting to stay upright, he felt his right knee twist, and an intense pain jolted him fully awake. A loud gasp escaped his lips before he could suck in his breath and listen.
Bear? Moose? Wolf? Caleb’s mind raced through the possibilities. With only a small knife to defend himself, his options were limited. Damn! I could use a shotgun right now! All I can do is try to run. He knew he couldn’t expect to get far now that he’d hurt his knee.
Several heart-stopping minutes passed with no further loud noises before he allowed his body to relax. Most likely just a dead old tree crashing to the ground. Sure hope so! He didn’t think he could cope with any large wild animals. Got to stay alert! he reminded himself.
To add to the burden of his total exhaustion, he felt as if his throbbing knee might be sprained. Rolling up his pant leg revealed a large bruise and the beginning of a swelling lump. Blast it! Looking around, he noticed what must have tripped him: the tip of a log heaved up from the road. Caleb was so furious, he could have kicked it. “That would really help!” he muttered to himself, rubbing his knee. Blast the log, and blast this damn road! He wiped his sweating brow.
Without the protection of the battered straw hat he’d lost days ago, his fair hair had become filthy and as dry as straw, and his normally pale skin stung from the brilliant red sunburn on his dust-coated neck and face. The burn was the result of falling into a deep sleep in full sun on the same day he lost his hat. He’d only meant to sit down and rest for a few minutes, but heat and fatigue had overpowered him.
Today’s path was wide enough to allow some sun in, so he had been trying to keep to the shady side. He thought of stopping and resting soon but was unwilling to do so, just in case that noise hadn’t been a tree falling but something more menacing. Massaging his knee a little and trying to ignore the pain, he willed himself forward.
It was going to be slow going, Caleb realized after several hobbling steps. He paused and took a deep breath. As he did so, a cool, prickly sensation crept up the back of his neck like icy fingers; he had the feeling of being watched. Whipping around, he almost lost his balance because of his protesting knee and was so shaken by what he was seeing that he felt as if his heart had dropped into his stomach. On the path, not fifty feet away from him, stood an enormous, long-legged creature, the tallest he’d ever seen. A moose bearing an enormous rack of antlers stared him down.
That must be what made all that noise in the bush, he realized. And I thought it was a falling tree! Wow! Those antlers have to be at least five feet wide! He’d heard stories of the damage a moose could do, and here he stood, alone and defenceless. Once again he wished he had a gun. He considered shouting and waving his arms at the giant in hopes of scaring it off but decided that might have the opposite effect; instead he might anger it, and he sure didn’t want to do that!
The moose stretched its neck, its flared nostrils smelling the air for danger. Piercing wide brown eyes seemed to be sizing Caleb up. Blackflies buzzed around those eyes, and the mighty head shook in annoyance. So that’s what brought him out of the woods. He’s trying to get away from the flies.
Caleb stood rooted to the ground, trying to decide what to do. All the while he kept his eyes on the moose. Should he remain still or try moving away very slowly? If he tried to get away, would the towering creature come after him?
Moose only eat leaves and plants, he reminded himself. Still, those antlers could toss me a long way into the bush and those hooves . . . Trembling, he chanced a step backwards.
The moose continued to stare directly at him; then, after shaking its head and those gigantic antlers in a slow side-to-side arc, it moved one long leg forward. Caleb stood as rigid as a tent pole, afraid to breathe. That leg was almost as tall as he was! When the moose took another lumbering step, its body began a slow turn and Caleb realized it wasn’t coming for him; it was moving back into the woods! Still, he didn’t move until he was certain.
Only after the animal’s hindquarters had disappeared into the trees did he let out his breath and dare to turn his back. Taking up his journey again, he continued looking over his shoulder every few steps until he’d convinced himself the moose was long gone. Growing up in the woods, he’d often seen moose before but never one so huge, and never when he’d felt so vulnerable and alone.
Another two miles or so farther on, a copse of young birches at the edge of a quiet field offered an inviting spot to rest. Caleb decided he had probably put enough distance between himself and the moose, so giving in to his pain and fatigue at last, he limped off the road, lay down out of the sun’s reach, and spread out his tired and grateful body. He tried not to think about any other wild animals that might be hidden nearby.
Sweet-smelling grass and the chirping of heat bugs lulled him, and even though an annoying fly buzzed near his head, within seconds he was dreaming—not pleasant dreams of happy times, but terrifying ones of his little sisters screaming in the dark, crying because their bellies were empty and calling his name.
“Caleb! Where are you? Come home! We need you. Please, Caleb. Please come home!”
Tossing around on the lumpy ground, he tried to find a flatter and softer spot. The horrendous dreams were not new; they had terrorized him for several weeks now and were the reason for his journey. The nightmares haunted him, refused him rest, and propelled him home. What does it all mean? he wondered.I have to find out.
Stretched out in the shaded patch of long grass by the side of the road, Caleb felt for the old sock sewn inside the waist at the back of his trousers. Still there! Good. With its weight evenly distributed, it appeared flat. No one would suspect what he carried. To some, it wouldn’t be much, but to him, it was treasure. He hoped it would also be a peace offering of sorts.
Why did I just sneak away that morning? Makes me look like a coward. I hate that! Could have at least left a note, but heck, I was only thirteen! Couldn’t think how else to do it.
Now he wondered what to expect when they all saw him. After all, it had been more than two years. Would his parents be angry? Would his mother cry? Sure hope not. I couldn’t take it. I’d feel even more guilty. They probably all hate me!
He hadn’t been able to talk to his parents about how he was feeling because he could see they were struggling and worn out too. Besides, in the last few months before he left, his outgoing father had become more and more withdrawn and quiet, and that was scary.
His sisters would have changed in two years. I wonder if little Chantal will even remember me. The thought that she might think he was a stranger made him sad. He knew he’d changed too. He’d been slim to start with, but now his ribs showed, and he’d grown so tall he looked like . . . “like a string bean!” A familiar, teasing voice seemed to whisper the words in his ear, interrupting his gloomy thoughts. Mother! For a moment, Caleb’s heart lifted as he looked around, almost expecting to see her, until he realized he was simply recalling a long-ago moment when his mother had used that expression.
He pictured his sisters as they had been when he left home: Samantha, a cheerful nine-year-old: Briar, six, quieter and shy; and Chantal, barely three, still a baby in his eyes. He knew Samantha and Briar had adored their big brother. They’d remember him for sure, and he had a feeling they’d also be relieved and glad to see him. After all, they were calling to him in those dreams.
He’d missed all of them and hoped that his parents, especially his father, wouldn’t be so angry with him that they’d tell him he wasn’t welcome and ask him to leave. He had no idea what he’d do if they did, so best not to think about it.
Soon all these thoughts made him anxious, and he continued to worry about what his dreams might mean. Rising with some stiffness, Caleb stepped onto the road once more. To keep his mind from dwelling on his painful knee and his encounter with the moose, he sang a marching song he remembered learning when he was little. Why not? There’s no one around to hear. Besides, it might help scare off anything else that’s lurking out there!
“The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
Then marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only half-way up,They were neither up nor down!
Caleb laughed to himself, That one’s all right, but it’s really a baby’s song. +Besides, it was too short to keep repeating for very long, but he did love stories and songs about soldiers. He began to sing one of his favourites.
“O’er the hills and o’er the main,
Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain.
King George commands and we obey.
Over the hills and far away.”
There were several more verses, but today he was too tired to remember all of them.
He began a tuneless humming, just for the sake of making a noise and feeling less alone. Before he knew it, he was singing strange words that seemed to belong to the tune.
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.”
Bewildered, Caleb scratched his head and wondered, Where the heck did that come from?
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah . . .”
A memory surfaced of the lumber camp where he and his father had worked and the men sitting around an occasional campfire, swapping tall tales and singing. There were a couple of Yankees on the crew, and when they sang this song it became one of his father’s favourites. I wonder if Father went back this year? It was so cold and lonely, Caleb remembered, Hard work too! We would never have left Mother and the girls alone on the farm for so long if we hadn’t needed the money so bad. Most of their neighbours also needed the extra money they could earn logging through the winter.
Caleb finally realized there was no use trying to shut out thoughts of his family. The closer he got to home, the stronger both his memories and his nervousness became.
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.”
If he kept up this pace, in perhaps two days he’d be home, and then at last he’d have the answers to his questions. Why were his sisters haunting his dreams? Would his parents turn him away or welcome him home? What would the answers be?
Clink! A metallic sound outside the cabin interrupted Samantha’s troubled dreams. In an instant she was wide awake and listening.
What was that?
Glancing at her younger sisters, who still slept deeply, she wondered if she’d imagined it, but probably not. Creeping up to the tiny loft window above their heads, she peered down and her breath caught in her throat. She wasn’t dreaming; this was a real-life nightmare! In the rosy glow of dawn, she recognized her mother’s tall, lean form slowly backing away from an enormous black bear!
Samantha opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. In her chest, a large drum beat a wild tattoo. Clutching the windowsill, she watched the bear stop to investigate the spilled contents of an overturned bucket while Mother retreated, slowly placing each foot behind her. She moved as carefully as someone on a dangerous precipice.
Mother must have dropped the bucket when she saw the bear. The sound I heard was probably when it hit a rock, she thought.
Unable to take her eyes off the bear, Samantha didn’t realize that she had been holding her breath until she heard her mother quietly open the door downstairs and enter the cabin. When she relaxed, all that pent-up breath rushed out. Mother’s safe! It’s a miracle! A quick glance out the little window again showed the bear was gone.
Scrambling over the loft floor to the ladder, she almost slid down it in her haste to be with her mother. Somehow she had managed not to awaken her sisters. Another miracle! Her mother leaned against the door, her eyes closed and hands over her heart, as if to stop its pounding.
“Oh, Mama! You’re all right.” Samantha rushed across the room, threw her arms around her surprised mother’s waist, and squeezed her so tightly that her arms began to ache. When her mother hugged her just as tightly in return and kissed the top of her head, Samantha started to cry. She really wanted to be brave, but this had been too close a call.
“I saw the bear, but I didn’t know what to do!”
“It’s all right, darling. I’m safe.” Her mother patted Samantha reassuringly on the back. “I must admit, I had quite a fright! That bear took me completely by surprise, but I’m sure I surprised it too. I hope it’s gone.”
“It is. I looked, and there was no sign of it.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s far away by now, but we’ll have to keep a lookout, just in case it decides to come back. Are Briar and Chantal still asleep? I can’t believe they haven’t woken up,” said her mother.
“They didn’t hear anything.”
“Well, that’s all for the best, don’t you think? I’m going to ask you to keep this a secret, dear. It’s better if your sisters don’t know.”
“All right, Mama.”
Her mother looked deep into her blue eyes, so much like her own, and gently stroked her hair. “You’re such a good girl. I don’t know what I’d do without you. I’m afraid you’ve had too much to deal with in the past two years, but I want you to know how proud I am of you.”
Samantha couldn’t reply. She was still tearful and didn’t want to let go of her mother. It was less than two years since she’d lost her father and her brother, and she wasn’t about to let anything happen to her mother!
“Now I’ll put the kettle on!” Mother announced in a cheerful, brisk manner. “I could use a good, hot cup of tea after that bit of excitement. Would you like some breakfast now? I don’t suppose you feel like going back to bed.”
“I don’t think I could go back to sleep, but I don’t want breakfast right now either. I just want to keep hugging you,” Samantha said, savouring the warmth and comfort of her mother’s arms.
“I understand.” Mother’s voice was soft again. “I know I couldn’t go back to sleep now. But I am going to have that cup of tea, and I just might take it outside so I can listen to the birds waking, like I usually do. Their morning songs will calm me.”
“Outside?” Samantha couldn’t believe her ears! She threw her head back and regarded her mother with amazement. “What if the bear comes back?”
“I think it’s taken off for more interesting places. Besides, I’ll just be sitting on the little stump right by the door, and I’ll keep an eye out.”
Samantha’s doubts must have shown on her face. “I’ll be fine, dear,” her mother insisted. “The bear is gone. Try not to worry. If you do go back upstairs, go quietly. I’m not ready yet for Chantal’s antics this morning!”
With reluctance, Samantha left her mother’s embrace and watched her fill the kettle from the water bucket and put it on the stove. A sudden exhaustion overcame her. “I think I will go back upstairs after all,” she said, yawning.
As Samantha climbed the ladder, Chantal moaned and rolled over as if she were going to wake up. Samantha stopped where she was and remained still.
Please, don’t wake up! She silently pleaded with her sister. That was the last thing she needed right now. As Chantal settled, Samantha tiptoed to her own mattress beside her. She lay down on top of the blankets, her mind racing.
That bear could have killed Mother! Then we’d be orphans! What would happen to all of us? Who’d take care of us? Maybe we’d be put in an orphanage! Oh, Papa, why did you have to die? I miss you . . . and you, Caleb! Darn it, where are you? Why did you leave us? Why don’t you come home?