Barnaby ambled along the rutted road, few travelers passed this way anymore. He would often walk all day and see no one. His staff — a broken branch, really — helped steady his path and aided his every step. His essentials were packed tightly in a burlap bag slung conveniently over his shoulder.
A long white beard seemed to weight his frail body, but in reality it was time that had taken it’s toll. He once ran along this forest road. That was years ago; seventy-three to be exact. But now his steps were steady but slow; calculated and careful.
There were few who remembered the days of Barnaby’s youth. He had been a courier between the towns of Sotherby and Northampton; the only courier, in fact; an enterprising lad. For a pence he would carry a message from town to town and, for a shilling, would carry a package. Good wages for a boy of fourteen and, back then, it was only an hour’s run.
He knew this road, it’s every turn, every stone and every tree. The nesting robins he’d seen before; named them, actually. But he told no one. Tomorrow he would see them again. And again the day after.
Today the trek took him a full day. It was no longer the message that brought him this way, but the memories. The telegraph would have ended his young career, had he not had the presence of mind to change his direction. “Paths are made for a purpose,” he often said, “and when the purpose fails, the path will pale.”
The setting sun offered one last glimmer as its rays sparkled through the canopy.
“Headin’ home, Mr. Barnaby?” the voice of Marcus Williamson III captured the old man’s eyes. Barnaby offered no answer. No answer was needed. He just stopped, looked the young sportsman and, somewhere through a mountain of grayed whiskers, provided a smile. His eyes sparkled. They always did.
Marcus proudly displayed his quarry; a rabbit. He held it high for Barnaby to see, propped his rifle on his left shoulder and nimbly sauntered down a hill, skillfully dodging the saplings along the way.
“Dinner tonight?” Barnaby asked as Marcus came along side.
“Dinner tonight,” Marcus agreed. “And you’re welcome to have a bite with us. Mum won’t mind, I’m sure of it.”
Barnaby didn’t answer. He appreciated the polite invitation but, seeing the meager size of Marcus’ prey, knew it was nothing more than civility.
“Be dark soon, eh?” Marcus noted the cool air and setting sun.
“Happens every day ‘bout this time.” Barnaby said that often. Humor. He smiled again.
“Mum says you’re quite the person, Mr. Barnaby.”
“Does she, now?”
“Says you once walked this road daily. Carryin’ messages and the like.”
Barnaby paused to look at Marcus. “Ran, dear boy. Ran this road most every day.” Two shakes of his finger drove the point home. He walked on. Marcus stayed at his side.
“Then came the telegraph lines,” he recalled. “I stopped runnin’ the road. Took my few shllings and bought the first telegraph machine in Sotherby. No more runnin’”. His eyes widened and he uttered a soft laugh, then said, “They ran to me. Two messages for one pence. It was quite a deal, my boy, quite a deal indeed. Yessir.”
Marcus tried to imagine.
“Oh, Betsy,” Barnaby recollected, “Now there was gal who a real work horse, if ever I saw one. Yes, indeed.”
“And who was Betsy?” Marcus wondered.
He drew a peculiar sideways glance from the old man when he answered, “My work horse!”
“No, sir, can’t send packages through the wire, now could we? Had to carry ‘em. And so I did. Betsy was slower, a might slower, but she could carry a might load more packages than me, lad, and so I loaded her full and when she could carry no more hitched her to a wagon I bought from Rafferty. Traded him twenty messages for one old wagon. A deal for me. A deal for him.
“That was your first wagon?” Marcus nearly fell over a root.
“Watch your step, boy.”
Barnaby stopped, then slowly slung his knapsack to the ground.
“Take this,” he advised. Marcus lifted the chain attached to a glass and tin box. Inside was a candle. Barnaby lit a match, lighted the candle and looked up at his young friend.
“Dangle along as ya, walk, son. It will light your steps. No point trippin’ along the way, now is there?”
“No sir,” Marcus nearly whispered. He dangled the contraption as instructed. Surprisingly, it offered much light. He could see his every step.
“So I figured,” Barnaby continued to walk, “If folks need packages from Southerby to Northampton, they must need them to go from from Northhampton to the towns in the vale.”
“And then London.” Marcus completed the story.
“London,” Barnaby agreed. “Before long I had a stable full of Betsy’s in every town north of The Tower, and few below.”
“Then came the trucks,” Marcus added.
“Truckin’ all over the country for years, now,” Barnaby agreed. “Say t’all started on this road years ago. Years ago.”
“Speakin’ of trucks, Mr. Barnaby, ain’t that an engine I hear whirrin’ down the highway?” Marcus was truly puzzled. There was no highway anywhere near.
“No, lad,” Barnaby explained, “that’s an airplane. And comin’ in a might late, I might add.” He took a few more steps. “Now we’ makin’ paths in the sky.”
“What’s that?” Marcus spied a critter of some sorts dart across the path ahead.
Again, Barnaby stopped, slung his bag and pulled out a lantern.
“What’s this for?” Marcus asked respectfully. “We already have a lamp.”
Barnaby lit the lantern and held it high enough to illuminate a darkened canopy of trees. Marcus could see far ahead.
“Don’t expect to travel the same road all your life, lad. You’ll get yourself nowhere.”
“And wherever you go,” the old man added, “be certain to carry a lamp for your feet and a light for your path.”