The starter gun fired, and the settlers ran out, flags in hand, hope in their hearts, and desperation in their eyes. Spreading out across the landscape they ran for their own patch of promised land and the hope of making something of themselves in the process. A ruddy faced, flaxen haired young man flailed his scrawny arms as his willowy legs flung his boney frame over creek and stump, dodging burly-bearded and bonneted settlers alike. The rules were simple: the first to plant their flag, stake their boundaries, and hold their ground gets ownership of the land. But each effort to claim his own patch found him too late to a parcel or too cowardly to hold his ground.
He entered the woods to the south, which was a less popular choice due to the additional work of clearing trees and rocks. Looking around he could see no others, so he planted his flag next to a stream and set to work unpacking his bag. He then took the stakes out of his pack and paced the trees, marking out as close to 60 acres as he could reckon, then tied little bright strips of cloth to the stakes so others could see this land was spoken for.
“I say there boy,” called a voice that had the quality of a feather dipped in honey.
A dapper man appeared from behind him. He wore a top hat, a fine burgundy suit, shoes that somehow still shined as he walked the dusty forest floor, and a cane with a glinting diamond for a grip that sent shots of sunlight through the trees – one or two flashed in the young man’s eyes. The man smiled like a crocodile attempting to placate its prey, striding to the first stake. He tapped his cane on the top of it and said, “I do believe you’ve mistakenly staked in my claim. Oh, it’s no bother at all, it’s just, you see, in my awe of the beauty of this place I neglected to place my stakes. My claim runs from atop the hill, then all the way down past the tree line. So if you could kindly take down your stakes I’ll be ever so grateful and off you can go to find your own little patch.” The young man stood in silence. The dapper man cleared his throat and stated his intentions again. “You hear me, my lad? This is not your land, it’s mine. Now off you go.”
The boy swallowed hard as sweat rolled down the side of his face.
“Well…” the dapper man’s tone now shifted and bore the quality of a honey-dipped crowbar. “If you wish to be difficult about it…”
The dapper man whistled and from the top of the hill came two men carrying axes. They got about halfway to the dapper man when he suddenly waved them off and raised his finger to his lips. Bursting through the trees came a short, round man with a long white mustache and a sash that read “official”. He stumbled through the trees coughing and holding his side. As he staggered to the young man he wheezed, “Nice spot young feller, but I almost didn’t see ya up in these here trees.” The young man looked to the dapper man who stood still with a slight scowl. The official drew some lines on a map he pulled out of his satchel, coughed again, then signed another piece of paper and handed it with a pen to the young man.
“Alright, make your mark here on this deed and this parcel is all yours.”
The young man looked again at the dapper man. “Well ain’t you claimin’ this land or ain’tcha?” the official asked. With a quaking hand somehow the young man took the pen from the official and scribbled his shaky mark. Slapping him on the back the official pronounced, “Welcome home young feller!” Then, seeing the dapper man standing on the other side of the nearest flagged stake he asked, “Well, what about you fancy feller? Where’s your claim?”
The dapper man’s poisonous glare melted into another crocodile smile with the words, “At the top of the hill my good man.” Off they both went, but though the young man was now alone he couldn’t shake the feeling he was still being watched.
By day three, the young man had a tent set up and had begun planning his homestead. A crude road was beginning to form down the center of the open space below, though it was unlikely it would ever connect to his parcel. Each time he left to get supplies he had to hike the long way around other parcels until he could find a gap that would take him to the road. He scrolled out loose plans on the back of the contest poster he had picked up off the ground back home that promised ‘60 acres to the one who can claim and keep it’. He had tucked in the back of his tent when he went to town, but when he returned it was gone. He searched his campsite frantically until he saw the dapper man, leaning against a tree on the other side of the staked boundary, looking the plans over and shaking his head. “My, my, my….” Each tisk dripped like honey full of stingers.
“My boy, you simply have no idea what you are doing, do you?”
It was indeed true.
Over the next few minutes, the dapper man pointed out all of the foolish things that the young man had naively planned for his property and how disastrous some of his placements would be. “My boy, this is why people like you should not even be out here. Listen, let me offer this. You do not know what you’re doing. I and my associates do, so let us just save that little head of yours some time and frustration. Pull up these stakes and I’ll give you what you need to go back home to where you came from. I’ll care better for this ground than you could learn to do if you had a hundred years to learn. Come now, you know this beautiful piece of ground deserves better than you.”
Everything the dapper man said about his planning placements was correct. What he said about the young man’s knowledge and level of experience was also true. The young man knew the next few years would be impossibly hard as he learned so much of what he would need to know from scratch, and there was a solid chance his misadventure would end in disgrace. But by a slap on the back and the words “Welcome home boy” the official had consecrated this ground to the young man, and his heart had begun to believe it. Whether others could do it better or not, it was his to try, so try he would. His trembling voice broke the silence. “M-may I have my plans back p-please?” With a scoff the dapper man tossed the crumpled paper across the boundary and vanished back up the hill.
In the third month, the young man had built and rebuilt seven different shelters. As each effort partially or completely collapsed, the young man learned a little more about what wouldn’t work and sometimes he even learned why. By the seventh attempt, though it shook in the wind and was drafty and damp, and though he had to brace it with more and more braces each day, something resembling a cabin began to take shape. Seeds from the garden back home had taken root and begun to sprout in the little garden he had started. He had dug out the middle of the creek into a small pond for washing & drinking water, which replenished itself with new water while the runoff from the pond continued flowing down the original creek bed.
His homestead was far from his dreams, and far from the state of most of the other parcels he would pass on his way into town, but it was his. When he could quiet the doubts echoing in his mind long enough, even though the work wasn’t going smoothly and even though his skills still lagged so far behind what each task required, he couldn’t help but be just a little proud of his progress.
But there was no more honey in the caustic cackle that bounced off the rocks from the doubled over dapper man.
His derisive laughter washed over each of the young man’s efforts. “I knew it would be a fool’s errand, but in my wildest, I had not imagined it would look like THIS!” The young man tried to continue his work but as guffaws and blasts of ridicule pummeled the young man’s ears his hands shook and the brace he was trying to place knocked into another which fell on another, and within a matter of moments the shelter that somewhat resembled a cabin now completely resembled a pile of logs. Silence now echoed through the trees – the empty noise that only comes when everything has fallen apart. The young man slumped back against a rock and cried.
A log had fallen into a boundary stake and caused it to snap. The dapper man now crossed the broken threshold and walked into the parcel. He strode up to the young man and patted his head. “There, there, boy. I understand. And you do too now, don’t you?” The honey in the dapper man’s voice had returned so thickly that it now seemed there was no menace underneath it, and the young man had no power to care if there was. “My boy, you knew this was never going to end well. It is better to have it done now than have your stubbornness take your life. Come now. Dry those eyes. It’s time to go back home. Simply hand the deed over, and it will be done. No more facing failure after failure after failure. No more seeing everything you put your hand to turn to ash. Aren’t you exhausted?”
The young man was.
He got out the deed from his pocket and looked at it through the tears in his eyes as the dapper man continued pouring his honey into the young man’s ears. “Yes, yes. It was never yours to begin with, was it? Come my boy, it’s time to go home.” The young man sat staring at the deed. Then he heard a small ‘tap-tap’, so he looked up.
A small brown bird was pecking at a log in the pile that was once his cabin. He then noticed a beetle crawling across his foot. A rabbit was munching on some grass about 50 yards from where he sat, and a hummingbird drank from some blue flowers near the garden.
“I am home.”
“I am home.”
The young man stood up and wiped his tears, then looked into the dapper man’s eyes.
“This is my home. This is my land. You’re right, I don’t know what I’m doing. But this is my patch of God’s green earth, and I’m going to care for it as well as I can for as long as I can. Maybe it’ll all come to nothing, but it won’t be because I didn’t try. Please leave now. I have a cabin to rebuild.”
“A cab…a…WH…YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY BE SERIOUS!? YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?! YOU ARE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!”
“Remove yourself from my property.”
“Ohhohoho! Look who grew a backbone! Shall we fight for the land my boy?”
“I don’t belong to you, and neither does this land.”
The dapper man’s retort was full of spit and venom but not much was intelligible at this point. In his rage he swung his cane against a tree and the cane shattered. As his malevolent and consternate screams faded back up the hill, the young man walked over to the pile of logs and began laying them straight.
“Alright.” He sighed to himself. “Let’s try this again.”
And the young man would have tried. He would have tried again and again, and after a hundred attempts he may have finally stood on the threshold of his cabin and beheld his finished homestead. But wrath unquenched is all-consuming.
That night the dapper man flew into a snarling rage and charged down the hill wielding an oil lamp. He threw it down towards the young man’s plot and it burst into flames, quickly setting the young man’s homestead ablaze. The young man barely escaped but not without being badly burned. The dapper man’s eyes flickered in satisfaction, but his revelry was short-lived as the trees leading back up the hill caught flame as well. He screamed and ran towards his cabin, scrambling to collect all his possessions but before he could escape the whole hillside was consumed with bright orange crackling flame while giant plumes of smoke curled in on themselves as they rose to the infinite sky.
The dapper man was never seen again.
The young man made it to the tree line before collapsing. He was saved by a homesteader who took him to the nearest doctor. During his long painful recovery he was tended by a young nurse who would eventually become his wife. Even when full use of his body returned to him, his desire to return to that hillside did not. Yet, for some reason kept the deed in a box under his bed. He took a job with his father-in-law’s lumber mill and found he enjoyed turning raw timber into usable wood. Years later, he and his wife would purchase a small farm and slowly his love for caring for the land reawakened. Though he tried not to remember it, his heart never forgot what he didn’t know on that hillside. But as age seasoned him and his skills grew in the service of his growing family, his hands found more surety in what they set out to do.
The deed remained in the box under the bed until the day his wife opened it while looking for their wedding photo. At dinner that night she placed it into his strong work-worn hands, his older eyes fell upon the shakily scrawled mark he made at the bottom. The man felt his young fears come back to him in an instant, but something was different. It was no longer the fears alone that filled his mind. It was everything else he had learned since then.
Oh, he had indeed failed in life. Again, and again. And yet each time he failed he learned. He learned from his failures at the lumber mill. He learned from his failures on their farm. And he learned from his failures as a husband and faither. And now he sat in a house he had built at a table with his loving family as they ate from the harvest of their land. The failures on that hill long ago had not been his end. They had been his beginning.
The next day, the man and his family drove their wagon back to the land that was claimed so long ago. The flatlands were teaming with settlements, but the entire hillside remained free of homesteads. Though the forest had grown back green and lush, the settlers called it ‘hell hill’ and few dared to go near it.
The man and his family drove up to where the road stopped, then got out and hiked through the trees to the approximate spot where his first seven shelters had been built. His kids played in the creek, picked blue flowers, and laughed at the top of their lungs. Their delight bounced off the rocks and washed over the terrain.
The man pulled the deed out of his pocket and took his wife’s hand as they beheld their reclaimed homestead. As he stood on this ground once again a deep joy filled his heart and tears filled his eyes as he whispered to himself…
“Welcome home young feller.”
The featured image, “A Good and Green Land,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
Adam wanders through the arts as a vagabond. Though he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for” he seeks to pull on the golden thread that has been woven through our stories, trusting that it leads Home to the Author of our souls. Adam and his wife Sarah have 3 children and live in Northern Colorado. His writings (and a few other things) can be found at his website.
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