Charles Merrick was a fifth-generation farmer in the Kennett Mountain range of Northern California. He was the owner of a large farm, a devoted husband, and father to several lovely children, but it hadn’t always been that way. He was the son of Wesley Merrick, a tall man and the son of a farmer himself. Wesley had run Wayward Farm, and it was there that he had raised his family.
It was a good, green land, close to clean water, fertile forests and rich soil, all shadowed by the never-ending range of the Kennett Mountains. Wayward Farm was known for producing the finest beef in the county and for that reason, the Merrick family lived comfortably.
Wesley’s wife, Loretta, was a tall, strong woman, perfectly fitted to play the part of a farmer’s wife. She’d birthed five boys and gone back to mucking out the sheep barn not but two weeks after each child arrived. That was why it came as such a shock when illness struck her during the pregnancy of her sixth child and she died giving birth to a little girl. The boys named their sister Daisy, for she was as frail as the stem and boasted hair like the flower.
Loretta’s illness greatly affected Daisy’s health and she grew up with terrible coughing spasms that would wake the entire household and send them rushing to her bedside. At last, Wesley called for the Doctor who diagnosed her with having fragile lungs. She was not to run and to keep away from dust, a difficult task for one growing up on a farm.
Shortly after Daisy was diagnosed, Wesley remarried a young, Dutch woman of about twenty-three to cook and clean and take care of his children, particularly of Daisy. His new wife’s name was Jolene and she bore him two more sons, twins, named Jack and James. Though Jolene was a suitable wife, she was not much by way of nurturing. It was as if motherly instincts had been lost on her and she often went about her days with a vacant look in her eyes or a distant expression spread across her lips.
Wayward Farm made enough to put clothes on all their backs and a pinch leftover to repair any damages to the house or barns. Wesley even bought a new tractor one year and taught all his sons to drive it through the fields.
The seven Merrick boys grew up healthy and strong, each with predestined futures of becoming husbands and fathers and farmers. Before his youngest son had been born, Wesley had purchased plots of land to the north and south of the family farm to disperse the land when his boys came of age. His oldest son, Roy, would inherit Wayward Farm when he was old enough, his second and third sons, Kerry and Henry, would have the land to the south, and his fourth and fifth sons, John and Charles, would be given the land in the north. Jack and James were still too young, and his daughter would go to whichever brother would take her.
The age difference between Loretta’s boys spanned ten years, with Roy being ten years Charles’ senior. When Charles was eight, the World Trade Center was struck down and the War on Terror began. He watched Roy join the army, and when he was twelve, he watched Kerry, Henry, and John join as well. This made his father very proud and it was always with great bravado in his voice that Wesley boasted to his neighbors— some of whom had only daughters, some of whom had lazy sons— that his four eldest boys had gone off and joined the ranks all on their own accord.
Charles was next in line to join the army and he knew it, but in his eighteenth year he did not go, nor did he go the next four years after that. It was on the eve of Charles’s twenty-first birthday when Wesley finally confronted his son. The men were chopping wood before supper; the light fading behind the lonely mountain range.
“Son,” he said. “Did you ever think of joining the army, like your brothers?”
Charles had known the question would surface sooner or later and he had been given enough time to think up an adequate response. He would go to his land, set up a farm, and become business partners with his father. And so he cleared his throat and said:
“Father, I am not a military man, like your sons before me. I’m a farmer. With your permission, I’d like to go to the land you have given me, set up a farm there, and share the rewards of my efforts with you.”
After he finished talking, Wesley leaned on his ax and fixed him with a queer expression.
“Charles,” he said. “Your brothers will inherit their land when they are discharged from the army and, if they should choose, they can become farmers, just like you wish to be.”
“But they will have something you won’t.”
“Hardening experience. War thickens a man’s blood, it makes his flesh difficult to rip. He can endure the toughest storms. All things a good farmer ought to possess. What will you have if I simply give you the land without first acquiring any hardening experience of your own?”
Charles grew quiet with contemplation. He had seen the changes in his brothers when they returned home on leave. He’d seen the dark, hollowness behind their once jolly, brown eyes and it unnerved him. If this was the kind of hardening that his father spoke of than he did not want it. Wesley was scratching his upper lip, obviously mulling something over in his mind. Finally, he nodded.
“I will give you a herd of our cattle so that you may have something to start with, and when the calves drop in the spring, you will give me a quarter of the babies; that will be your way of paying me back.”
Charles was stunned, he had not been expecting this, but he was pleased, and so replied with a very buoyant, “Yes, sir!”
Wesley held up a hand. “I am not finished. Before I give you cattle, before I help build you your farm, I want you to spend the remainder of summer out there in the land, alone, without a home, without a truck, without a phone, without comfort, without any cattle, so you may experience an ounce of the discomfort your brothers are experiencing. Survive on your instincts and, after the last warm wind of summer has blown, if you do not ride back home, I will help you build you what you desire.”
The offer was on the table, and when an offer from Wesley sat so heavy on the table, like a brick on a glass table, one did not refuse it.
Two weeks after his twenty-first birthday, Charles packed his belongings, saddled up his horse, and set off north to find his land. It was an empty habitat, virgin to man’s touch; wilder than a pack of wild dogs. Above all, it was beautiful. So beautiful that Charles was obliged to stop his horse and wipe away the tear that cascaded silently and without permission down his cheek as he reveled in the overwhelming beauty of this uncharted territory.
Charles pitched his tent in the tall grass and slept beneath the stars. He had never felt so at home, nor so frightened at the great expanse of the untamed. He was free to be unbridled— a mere human nestled in the valley which rocked him in her great bosom each night. The mountains seemed to come alive at night and speak to one another. The wind whispered secrets to the forests up the hill, which were dense, and dark, and sometimes sinister, especially when the last light had faded from its depths.
During his first few weeks there, Charles took his horse and explored. Fields spread for miles all around him and the snow-capped mountains in the distance looked no bigger than his forearm when he held it up in comparison.
Charles loved to watch this world from within the folds of his tent. Deer and elk, foxes, and hares, and occasionally a lonesome moose would wander into his area. He loved to watch the deer with their fawns— the young bucks play fighting in preparation for adulthood and chase poor raccoons, groundhogs, and rabbits through the tall-grass and back into the dense forest. Sometimes snakes would slither through the grass, leaving narrow trails in their wake. Charles was not too fond of them, but they made for decently tasty meals on the nights when he was too lazy to hunt for a rabbit.
There were so many different species of birds including ones Charles had never seen or heard before. They swooped from tree to tree, mating and caring for their young, in a world he would never be permitted to see. Hawks circled the sky looking for their next meal and crows hobbled around in the grass, pecking at worms or other insects, squawking so obnoxiously they shook smaller birds out of their nests.
Despite the abundance of the wildlife around him, the bugs were by far the most prosperous and, as it was the middle of summer, Charles did not go without suffering. He received numerous bites daily, and this worried him, but he had yet to feel any effects from them—apart of severe itchiness—and so none appeared to be fatal.
Lightning bugs lit up the meadows at dusk and Charles would catch them in the palms of his hands, as he had as a boy. The cicada bugs screamed so loudly at night and the crickets bellowed back and the two species would go at it for hours until the wee hours of the morning broke the fight. Of course, both sides never won and they would continue their row the following evening.
The sunrises were Charles’s favorite part about the land. Each morning, he’d sit outside his tent to watch he pale blue of early morning transform into pale yellow. Then the light would hit the western side of the mountain range and careen over it— a great liquid pink and gold— until it hit the ground running and spread covered the entire land, warming everything in its path. By that time, the birds were all chattering away in the trees and life in the valley resumed its natural flow.
The days in the wilderness were lovely and Charles enjoyed himself on horseback, galloping through the fields. One afternoon, he stumbled upon a lake and, stripping down to the bone, cooled off in the clear water before napping under the shade of a tree.
It was freedom such as he had never experienced before. The days were friendly, but the nights… they were something different altogether.
Coyotes patrolled the outskirts of the field, and once, in the not-so-far-off distance, he heard a wolf howl. He worried for himself and his horse on many occasions and spent many sleepless nights keeping the fire going while watching for any movement in the forest with his gun by his side. He was always grateful in the morning to find his horse still alive, grazing only a couple yards from the tent.
He knew things were lurking in the mountains, things that could easily kill him, but Charles was a skilled man, handy with a gun and knife savvy too. Wesley had taught him not to fear wild animals, but to respect them and to defend himself against their power if need be, but Charles had always had the comfort of home to separate him from the wild, the company of his father and siblings. He had never been alone as he was now. It was a much different experience, being alone, feeling like the eyes of predators were upon his back every second of the night and knowing that he would be defenseless against them, if not for his gun.
Sleepless nights, nervous sweats, and hunger pains all began taking a toll on him by the end of the first month. When after five days he hadn’t shot down a meal, he resorted to picking berries in the woods. He’d packed up his things and begun to ride home, only to turn right back around. The thought of his father’s face when he arrived on the doorstep was too much to bear and he knew he could not return home.
Despite the discomfort, Charles loved his land. He knew the wildness would soon end though; that livestock would litter the fields around him and a fence would be put up, along with barns and a house, thereby cutting him off from the rest of the wilderness to an extent anyway. He was excited about the future, but part of him wished to remain a wild-man of the wilderness, just him and his horse, and his gun. He could become one of those loco mountain men his father had so often warned him about… but no, he could not. He would become a farmer and make his father proud.
On the night before his father was to arrive, Charles sat in his tent. It was sometime past nine o’clock. He had just finished off the remainder of his rabbit stew and sat picking his teeth with one of the bones. He could hear his horse pulling up grass outside and the cicadas and crickets were going at one another, as was tradition. By the light of a lantern hanging above him, he read a book of hymns. It had been his mother’s and she had often read it to him and his brothers before bed. He had taken the book with him before he’d left Wayward Farm. He found great comfort in the hymns and often recited them in a whisper on nights when he felt anxiety in his bones. When he turned the page, a shadow crossed over his tent. He glanced up. He heard a rustling in the grass and the moan of a large creature, then the shadow of a long snout appeared on the wall of his tent.
Slowly, quietly, Charles set his book down and reached for his rifle in the corner. He blew out the lantern. The heavy footsteps of the bear indicated it was just outside his tent. His horse had stopped grazing and Charles was sure the poor creature would be killed. His heart thundered against his chest. He dared not make a sound, dared not move, hardly breathed. The bear continued to snort and huff its way around the tent, stopping here and there to sniff at the air. At last, and by some miracle, the bear’s steps wandered away, but Charles did not sleep the rest of the night, nor did he move an inch, not even when the first signs of daylight broke through the holes in his tent.
He dared not move until well past eight o’clock and even then it was with caution. To his surprise, he found his horse still alive and grazing. He gave him water and a pat on the side. His horse might be okay, but his food supply was completely ravaged. Charles set about starting a fire then sat around the flames for a long while, plucking grass from the ground with the nook of his finger.
When his father arrived with Roy and a dozen other men from the county, he did not tell of his happenings during the night. He didn’t know why, there was no reason not to tell them, but he felt it would betray something, perhaps the wild, which had been relatively kind to him these last two months. Betrayals of the wild would, therefore, betray something inside himself. The bear had not hurt him so there was really no reason to kill it and that was exactly what the men would want to do if they ever found out. He would see if it visited him again during the night. If it did, well then it would be met by over a dozen men with rifles and have chosen its fate.
The men slept under the stars, some within tents, some simply sprawled out atop blankets or in the grass itself. They had long fires and they drank their whiskey, then, one by one, they would drop off to sleep and snore like mountain lions into the wee hours of the morning. To keep their spirits up, they swapped stories of their youth, and their father’s youth, and grandfather’s youth; stories passed down through the generations—of travel, wars, and women. Charles would force himself to stay awake after all others had gone to sleep; when all that remained were the embers of the fire and the melody of the bugs. He would suck on the end of a blade of grass, listening, waiting…
For what, he dared not say. It confused him, but it could not be denied; the bear lingered in his mind and the feeling of its presence haunted him each night, yet caused him excitement. And so, he would sit there, straining his eyes against the darkness, but the beast did not come again. On one particular night, he did not realize he was being watched until Roy came and sat beside him.
“What keeps you up at night, brother?”
Charles was startled by the sudden presence of his elder brother but welcomed the company by offering his flask. After it had gone round, Charles replied,
“Did you ever have the feeling that you were suddenly part of something greater than yourself; that life is not guaranteed, that you’re indispensable?”
Roy chuckled. “The wilderness has done you well then?”
Charles nodded. “That it has… that it has.”
Three months into their arrival, not only had the barns and fence gone up, but a house as well. A brown slated farmhouse, two stories tall, and a well that attached to a nearby stream from which his home would pull its water.
Charles was overwhelmed with gratitude thanked each of the men generously by cooking them a feast on their final night there. He allowed them to sleep in his new home and liquored them up so that no one was left standing by the end of the night. His father, he later found out, had promised payment in the form of a very generous supply of beef, and so it was on happy terms that the men departed. His father told him that he would return in one week and with him, he would bring the cattle. Charles said farewell to his father and brother, sent his love to Daisy and his younger brothers, and waved from his new porch, until the men disappeared over the hills, as boisterously as they had come.
The first night that Charles spent in his new home was a joyous one. His horse was safely tucked away in the new barn and his father had left him three mares to keep the gelding company. Charles opened a bottle of wine and drank in front of his new fireplace. Then he put the fire out and retired upstairs to his bedroom where he fell into the deepest sleep he had ever experienced.
Wesley and Roy returned after one week with a herd of cattle, thirty heads strong. The day went by too quickly, as Charles knew it would. He basked in the company of his family, soaked up the moments of them riding in the fields, drinking by the river, and laughing into the sunset. Then they went away again.
Charles had not gone away to war, but the wild acted as his drill sergeant. It woke him up early each day and kept him up late at night. It starved him and made him work for his meals. It taught him about patience and determination. Livestock needed to be fed first thing in the morning and kept in check all afternoon, firewood needed to be split, fields plowed, clothing mended, calves birthed, and livestock butchered for selling.
Chares learned how to cook for himself, how to wash the tub, keep the floors clean, how to bandage himself when he sustained injuries. Perhaps the most challenging task was learning to be alone, having always been surrounded by a slew of family members.
He was so wrapped up in his new-found freedom and life that he had all but forgotten about the bear who had visited him nearly a year before. One night though, sitting in his wooden rocking chair on the porch, sharpening his knife by the light of his lantern, he was reminded of its presence in the valley. Charles looked up when the dog began to bark and growl in a general direction. He stood quickly, brandishing his hunting knife, and shouted,
He was not afraid, this time. He had a home, something to protect. A watchdog helped too. He walked down the porch steps and a few feet into the darkness, still brandishing his knife, his eyes straining to catch any sign of movement. He heard the rustling in the tall-grass, as he had many nights ago. Suddenly, the dog bounded, and then the bear was upon him. It brought him tumbling to the ground, pinning him, yellowed fangs gleaming by the orange light of the porch. A horrible stench of sweat and rancid meat overwhelmed his nostrils causing him to gag and splutter.
Long, matted hair whipped his face and thunderous nails grabbed his skin as he struggled to free himself. He still had his knife and he managed two jabs, one in the cheek, one in the arm, giving Charles just enough time to jump back onto his feet. One of his ribs felt broken and his heart was beating too fast in his chest. The bear, unaffected by the jabs, lunged at him once more, and again Charles found himself on the ground, this time on his stomach. He tired in vain to crawl away, but the bear only yanked him back with its powerful jaws.
The dog’s desperate barking seemed a million miles away as the bear’s snout raised high into the heavens, ready to ascend upon his frail and defenseless human body. With his final bit of adrenaline, the last of his strength, Charles managed to turn onto his back and raise his knife. By some miracle, he brought that knife through a soft spot in the bear’s neck. The bear let out an awful sound then it swayed horribly. Charles crawled backward, away from the body, before it came down hard upon his legs with a thud and a crack. He yelled out in pain, his leg was surely broken under the weight, but he was too weak to move the body. He collapsed backward onto the hard dirt and stared up at the stars.
The bear’s laborious breathing slowed and eventually stopped and its long tongue hung out of its huge mouth. Charles was only vaguely aware that the dog had come to sit beside him. The stars became blurry and the sky blacked out as Charles’s consciousness momentarily left him. He did not realize it then, as he lay there bleeding and spread-eagled in the night, but that was the first time he had battled with fate… and won.
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