He stood back, running a grimy hand through his dark, sweat-soaked hair, and surveyed his work. The rocks were piled as high as he could reach. That ought to do it. It’d take some truly huge critter to dig its way through that rocky pile. No, he couldn’t think about that, or about them lying there under that weight of stone. Satisfied, he turned his back to the grave, resolute and dry-eyed, and started to walk away. The sound of a tumbling rock caught him up short, almost as though beckoning him back, begging him not to go. He clenched his fists as a stone bounced to the ground behind him and lay still; then he walked on.
“Jed! Time to go,” he yelled.
“Be right there.”
He walked towards the direction the sound had issued from and soon found his eight-year old cousin, Jed Curry, running towards him. Clutched in his hands was a tiny bouquet of blue flowers. The smaller boy had worked alongside him the first hour or so, but he had soon tired and Han had allowed him to drift away.
“What’ve you been doing, Jed?”
Red-rimmed blue eyes looked earnestly up at him and held out the flowers. “They’s Forget-me-nots; Ma’s favorites.” Jed hurried past him. Han turned slightly and watched his little cousin laying his humble gift on top of the largest stone set at the bottom of the rock pile. The one Han had chosen special, like a proper headstone, and levered into place using an old birch limb; just like pa had taught him. Pa used to tell him that you solved your problems like you build a stone wall, take care of the big stones first and the smaller stones will fall into place. He felt the hot stab of bitter tears as he wondered if his father had ever foreseen how practical that advice would become. Knuckling his eyes, he called to Jed, “C’mon, say your good-byes. We gotta get outta here before the soldiers come back.”
“Don’t you wanna say good-byes, too, Han?”
“Already did. Let’s go!” Han started walking again, away; away from who he used to be.
“Doc said you got lucky this time, partner. Now, you lay still and try not to move or you’ll get the bleedin’ goin’ again. I’m gonna set right here while you get some rest.” Kid Curry pulled the ladder-backed chair away from the desk and spun it around on its two back feet, straddling it. He grinned at the bed-ridden man propped up on several feather pillows. A thick bandage was wrapped around Heyes’s right thigh and a small red blotch of blood glowed brightly on the white linen fabric.
“Stop fussing over me. I’m fine,” said Hannibal Heyes, closing his eyes and trying to shut out the pain.
“Yes sir, you look mighty fine; all pasty white and tight-lipped.” The Kid stopped grinning as his best friend grimaced in pain. “You scared the hell outta me, Heyes,” he whispered.
“Didn’t mean to, Kid. Believe me, I ducked, the damn axe ducked with me.”
“Doc says it might’ve nicked the artery. I ain’t seen that much blood since….” Curry’s voice trailed off and Heyes opened his eyes again staring at his partner. The Kid’s own eyes were unfocused, looking into his past.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.” Heyes had felt his life draining away through the ugly gash in his thigh as the Kid had half-dragged, half-carried him away from the tree they’d been felling and towards the logging camp. He’d hit a knot and the sharp-bladed axe he’d swung with all his strength, bounced wildly off the trunk, nailing his leg. He’d been so surprised that he’d dropped the axe and stared stupidly at his own blood spraying from the wound. The Kid had begun screaming off to his left somewhere as he sank to his knees. Only his partner’s quick thinking and a dirty bandana had saved his life.
“I thought you were a goner.”
“No way, not when you still owe me twenty dollars,” quipped Heyes. He didn’t like the look on his cousin’s face. “C’mon, it’s okay. I ain’t fixing to die.”
The Kid exploded off his chair. “They weren’t either, but they’re still gone.”
“Kid, don’t. I ain’t going anywhere.” He didn’t want to talk about this now and felt his frustration growing along with the pain in his leg.
“Don’t what, Heyes? Don’t worry about losing the last family I have?” The Kid had turned away from him and was staring out the window, looking at nothing. Curry spoke softly when he began again, “Do you even remember what they look like? I can’t. Sometimes, I’ll wake from a dream and I know it was about her, about them, but I just can’t see their faces.”
“Please, I can’t…” Heyes shifted on the bed trying to turn towards his partner, and, within seconds, the red blossom on the bandages had grown. He looked helplessly at his leg watching the linen grow sodden. “Kid.”
Curry pulled the curtains tight to close out the darkening night and leaned his head against the thick velvet he clutched in his fists. “I wish I could remember.”
“Kid, get the doc,” said Heyes weakly. Curry turned from the window and saw the saturated bedclothes. He bolted from the room.
A tapping at the door roused him. He rolled over and his angry muscles protested their rough usage. “Hold on, I’m coming.” Kid Curry pulled himself up using the chair. His back was sore from sleeping on the hard floor all night and he could barely make it to his feet. Heyes was still lying on his back, his injured leg in a sling, and pulled above his heart by a rope passing through a screw eye hastily drilled into the ceiling. The Kid was relieved to see the steady rise and fall of his partner’s chest. He crossed to the door and opened it carefully. Mrs. Campbell, the proprietress of the rooming house they were staying in, peeked into the room.
“Good morning, Mr. Jones. Is he still sleeping?” she whispered.
“Yes, ma’am. He never moved far as I can tell. Too weak to, I guess.” The Kid opened the door wider for the kindly, middle-aged woman. She had hurried in last night with the doctor and had worked by his side until well after midnight when the bleeding had finally stopped and the fever had set in. Finally, having done everything that could be done; she and the doctor had left, leaving the Kid to his fears. Before he had stepped out the door, the doc had told Curry as gently as he could to expect the worst.
“I brought you some breakfast.” Turning away, Mrs. Campbell lifted a tray off the hall table and passed it to the Kid. “I hope you enjoy the flowers. I picked them from my garden this morning thinking they might cheer you up. Mr. Smith, too, of course, when he awakens,” she added hastily.
“Yes, ma’am, when he awakens, I’m sure they will,” said the Kid sadly, hoping with all his heart that Heyes woke up at all. He took the offered tray and put it atop the dresser without looking at it. He had no appetite.
“I’ll pick up the dishes later on. Good day, Mr. Jones,” said Mrs. Campbell.
“Yes, ma’am.” Curry shut the door and turned back to look at the immobile figure on the bed. How could Heyes look so diminished and frail? He walked slowly back to the chair and sat down, staring at his cousin. Beads of sweat were sprinkled liberally across Heyes’s face and the Kid wiped his brow with the same damp rag he’d used during the night. The fever hadn't worsened, that was something to be thankful for. Finished, he sat back and studied his partner’s face carefully, the features as familiar as his own. Would the day come when he wouldn’t remember Heyes’s face? The thought terrified him and he stood up, pacing about the room.
He stopped in his tracks as he passed the dresser and turned back to stare at the small white vase on the tray and the blue Forget-me-nots it held. A chill ran down his spine as he reached out and gently fingered a petal; his Ma’s favorite flowers. He saw her suddenly as clear as day; her smiling face as she reached out to receive his offering, pulling him into her warm embrace; and his knees went weak with the memory. He snatched his hand back as though burned by a flame and when he touched the petal again, there was nothing. But he’d seen her, he’d remembered.
He picked up the vase and put it on the bed stand to the right of Heyes. They’d be the first thing his cousin would see when he opened his eyes. The Kid wondered if Heyes would remember how his mother loved them, too. Feeling better, he went back to the dresser and picked up the wedge of warm bread, slathering it with the plum jelly Mrs. Campbell had left. He wolfed down the meal and carried a cup of coffee back over to the chair, sitting down, and sipping it slowly as he watched Heyes breathing.
Heyes woke late in the morning, opening his eyes to the bright sunlight pouring through the crack in the velvet curtains. His eyes focused slowly, but when they did, he noticed the small white vase of flowers. Forget-me-nots, his aunt’s favorite. He hadn’t seen those in years, not since…No, he couldn’t think of that, didn’t want to remember that.
Heyes turned away and stared at the ceiling, overcome by his thoughts before becoming aware of the soft snoring to his left. The Kid was asleep sitting up, his head tucked down onto his chest. Heyes could still see the child in his partner when he was sleeping and he lay still, watching him and remembering all the way back to another sweeter, happier life. He let his thoughts sift through memories long forgotten until his eyes grew heavy and he slept again.
“Heyes?” The Kid was plumping the pillows behind his partner’s head. Heyes had awakened before noon and had surprised all of them; his partner, the doctor, and sweet Mrs. Campbell, by his rapid improvement throughout the remainder of the day.
“Hmmm?” Heyes had closed his eyes briefly when the Kid spoke.
“Do you remember our folks?” asked the Kid tentatively.
Heyes kept his eyes closed, feigning sleep. He hated to talk about their folks. It always brought dark, painful memories, and he usually sidestepped the Kid when the subject came up.
Heyes opened his eyes and looked into the searching blue eyes of his younger cousin. He could see how strained the Kid was by the worry he’d been chewing on and he felt a pang of guilt for ducking the question. He turned, looking at the tiny blue flowers on the table and said softly, “Yes, I do.”
The Kid pulled the chair over to Heyes’s side of the bed and sat down, straddling it, and putting his head on his arms which rested on the back of it. “What do you remember?” he eagerly asked with a happy smile.
“I remember your Ma and how beautiful she was. Did I ever tell about the time I was spending the night at your house? We were sleeping in the loft and I woke up. There was a light on below and I crawled to the edge. I sat there a long time, watching your Ma sewing that big, blue quilt your folks had on their bed. She was sitting at the kitchen table and the lamp had burned low, flickering, really, making her hair glow in the light it cast. She shimmered like an angel. I’ll never forget her.”
“Well, remember that time….?” Heyes talked late into the night, as long as his strength lasted, and his partner listened avidly; both of them remembering who they had been and who they hoped to be again one day.