Long Way Home - Lynn Austin




JUNE 1946

“I know it looks hopeless,” I told Jimmy Barnett’s father. “But we can’t give up until Jimmy is better. Until he’s home again.” We stood side by side on Blue Fence Farms that summer afternoon, watching one of their brand-new thoroughbred colts get the feel of his legs. Mr. Barnett and I were comfortable with each other and never needed to say much when we were together. He looked at me and nodded, and the sadness I saw in his eyes made me feel like someone had stuck a knife in my chest. Mr. B. took me on his veterinary rounds sometimes, even though I was just the gal who lived across the road from his clinic in the apartment above the auto-repair garage. He said I had a way with animals and they calmed right down when they were around me. But Jimmy was the one who should have been helping his father now that the war was finally over. They should have been driving around the countryside together to all the dairy farms and horse breeders, treating cows with mastitis and horses with colic. Jimmy had been studying to be a veterinarian like his dad before that awful December day when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

“We can’t let Jimmy give up on living,” I said.

Mr. Barnett didn’t reply right away. The new foal pranced around on the other side of the fence, his long, racehorse legs as thin as matchsticks. It made me smile to watch him. But Mr. B. wasn’t looking at the colt. He was gazing into the distance, where the sun lit up the mountain’s chalky cliffs. I thought of the psalm that says, “I look up to the mountains—does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” and I silently begged God to help us.

Mr. B. finally spoke. “Jim has to want our help, Peg. But he doesn’t.” He squinted his eyes as if the sun was shining in them, then added, “He doesn’t even want to live.” He turned and started walking back to his truck. His shoulders sagged, and I thought for the first time that he looked like an old man. He had always seemed so sturdy and strong to me, with a broad chest and arms that were brawny enough to wrestle a horse into a stall or hoist a baby calf into its pen. Yet he had a gentle smile and an easy laugh that made all of the lines in his face smile, too. How it must hurt Mr. and Mrs. Barnett to know that their only child tried to kill himself. Jimmy arrived home from the war more than a month ago, and in all that time he barely spoke to them. He wouldn’t talk to anyone. He just sat in his room and stared at nothing, like he was sleeping with his eyes open. When I visited him, he looked right through me without seeing me. I ran home in tears because for as long as I had known him, Jimmy was one of the very few people who really saw me.

Mr. B. climbed into his truck, an old 1938 Ford that he’d been driving around on all sorts of back roads and across cow pastures since before the war. Nobody was making new trucks during the war, but he’d planned to go down to the Ford dealership with Jimmy and buy a new one as soon as he arrived home from the Army. Jimmy came home but he wouldn’t go with his father. He wouldn’t leave his room, not even to buy a brand-new truck.

I yanked open the door on the passenger side and climbed in. It closed with a rusty-sounding creak. We were supposed to head back to the veterinary clinic, but Mr. B. just sat there with his door open and one leg still hanging out. He was gazing at the mountains again, where cloud shadows moved across the slope below the cliffs.

“Mr. B.?” I said. “I’m sure Jimmy will get better again. He just needs more time.”

“I hope so,” he said with a sigh.

“He must have seen some horrible things during the war, and it will probably take him a while to get over them. But you fought in the first war, right? And you were okay afterwards.” There was a picture of a much-younger Mr. Barnett on the mantel in their living room, wearing an Army uniform. They put Jimmy’s