The Belated Gift
By Vickie G.
Here's an early Christmas gift to all my Valley friends. It's not the material possessions which make the holidays special. It's the family and friends that make the season. Hope you enjoy.
What a week it had been in the upper San Joachim Valley. December in this part of California was often cold and wet. This year was no different in that regard. The heavy rains that inundated the valley produced their own share of misery and, most of all, work for the tired rancher. For several years, the rancher bore the weight of his father’s empire on his too young and inexperienced shoulders. It was a weight he bore, not gladly, for he’d much rather have had his father there, bearing the weight and teaching him what he needed to know. But that father was no longer there. That fact had kept a dark cloud hovering over the young man for years. He bore the weight, and as experience taught its lessons with the help of their foreman and his older and younger brothers, he grew into the successful, but unhappy rancher he’d become.
Unfortunately, neither of those brothers was a rancher by heart. They could do the work and do it well, but their hearts weren’t in it. The older was a lawyer -- something their father had allowed but not been real happy about, at least not at first. By the time the father been gunned down by a railroad hired assassin, he’d at least made his peace with his older son’s chosen profession and had finally been able to tell him how proud he was of him.
The younger son was still a boy, just into his teens when their father was murdered, but already Tom Barkley had known that Eugene wasn’t a rancher. He was destined for something else. What the patriarch didn’t know, for even Eugene didn’t know, but ranching wasn’t it.
For a few years there had just been the two boys, Jarrod, now the lawyer, and Nick, now the rancher. Every year since he could talk, Nick had asked for only one thing for Christmas -- a brother, one to work the ranch with. Even at that early age, Nick knew that Jarrod would not be a rancher. Jarrod always had his nose in a book. He’d sometimes, when out of sight of their father, read while he rode around the then small herd. Then finally there was another baby, a boy. Nick couldn’t have been happier. He ran around the cabin the young family lived in at that time, whooping and hollering that David was going to like horses and cattle and be his rancher brother.
Then the unthinkable happened. When David was still just a baby, there was a flu outbreak. The entire family took sick and eventually they all got better, except little David. He was just too young, not strong enough to fight, for he’d been born too early, and when faced with the flu, he died. The parents were devastated. In their grief, they fought about money and the fact that Tom had invested money on a mine up the Stanislaus River they couldn’t afford to invest. The mother, Victoria, felt rightly or wrongly, that had they had the money, they could have prevented little David’s death. The fact that the doctor treated them all, including little David, and allowed them to pay him as they could, didn’t stop the arguments. Maybe Victoria was unreasonable, but maybe so was Tom, the father. For in spite of their decision when they got married to always make financial decisions together, Tom had invested in the Strawberry mine without consulting his wife. That investment prevented Tom from hiring help on their small ranch and Victoria worked long hours beside her husband, herding cattle and working in the vegetable garden that provided most of their food. It was, she believed, those long hours which contributed to David being born too soon and not strong enough to survive the deadly flu.
The arguments escalated and Tom went on a trip to see about the mine. The trip would give him time to get away and figure out how to save his family. It was his inattention to his surrounding as he thought about how to repair his marriage that led to his being attacked. He was left for dead, the little money he did have stolen. While he recuperated, he was tended by young women, named Leah. One night, maybe in thankfulness for saving his life or maybe because things were so bad with his wife, Tom gave in and did the unthinkable. He cheated on Victoria. The next morning, he knew what he’d done was wrong, and though not really healed, he left for home, to try to save his marriage and make his ranch a success.
During the time apart, Victoria realized she had been unfair, and when Tom returned, they had a joyous reunion. A few years later, Tom sold his share of the mine, never going back to Strawberry. It was that mine that had been the start of the empire Tom’s family now cherished. But for Nick, the longing for a brother to work the ranch with continued to be a present for which he would resume asking.
Eventually, Tom and Victoria had another child. But, it was a blond haired, blue eyed, little girl. When presented to her brothers, Jarrod fell in love with the little beauty. But eight year old Nick scowled and demanded they send her back and get a boy. “Girls can’t work a ranch and this is ‘A Working Ranch’,” he bellowed for the first time.
Barely a year later, another son was born. Nick was ecstatic -- finally a boy. A year later, it became apparent that Eugene would not be a rancher. The first time his proud father put him on a horse in front of him, little Eugene screamed. His frightened screaming spooked the horse and it reared. Tom, an expert horseman, was able to bring the horse under control and hand his youngest to his wife. While Eugene eventually learned to ride, he saw horses only as a means of getting from place to place. He never developed the rapport his brothers and sisters did with their mounts.
Nick gave up the asking for a brother after the near disaster that was Eugene’s introduction to horses. The desire never diminished. The longing for a brother to share his love of the ranch became an unspoken, unhealed wound which was viciously reopened by the untimely death of Tom Barkley.
A stranger showed up one day. Jarrod told Nick to hire him, even though Nick did all the hiring. There was something about this stranger. When asked, he couldn’t say what it was. But the lack of a brother to share the ranch and the death of his father by railroad hired guns conspired to prevent Nick from trusting this man. Nick knew there was something the blond was hiding and Nick decided to beat the information out of the younger, slightly smaller man. “Tell me who you are?” he demanded. The reply when it came was like a knife twisted in an open wound. “I’m your father’s bastard son.”
Nick fought with everything he had to prevent the blond stranger from having anything Tom Barkley had built. Then a few months ago, that deep wound began to close. First, it was Heath’s handling of the herd after Nick was shot on the cattle drive. Then it was Tom Barkley’s boots that only fit this blond haired man. Then it was the protection Heath displayed for Nick’s mother and sister against the rawhiders, even though Heath had been injured. There were other things as well that pointed to Heath being exactly who he said he was.
Today it was the stupid steer that had waded hip-deep into the mud. Nick came across the cow as they rounded up the herd and moved them to winter grazing closer to the house, just in case some of that snow from the mountains found its way into the valley. Well, it really wasn’t the cow. It was Heath’s appearing from seemingly nowhere, when Nick went face first into the mud trying to wrest the cow from the quagmire. Heath had been riding point. Nick riding drag for a few minutes, checking on the young cowboy they’d hired on his first job on a cattle ranch. Heath should have been miles ahead. But somehow there he was, adding his lasso to Nick’s, giving commands to both his horse and Nick’s. He pulled Nick from the mud, and when satisfied his big brother was not harmed, went back to rescuing the cow.
So there sat an exhausted, mud covered, stinking Nick, sitting on the cold wet ground, being washed by the rain from above. He was just sitting there watching his brother work two horses and a cow. As Nick sat there, his thoughts turned to Christmas coming in just two days.
At breakfast, their mother, Victoria had asked them what they truly wanted for Christmas. Truth was, she’d already finished her shopping. But she wanted Nick especially to think about what he wanted. Nick had quit asking for anything when he quit asking for a brother years ago. But she was Nick’s mother and knew of the gift he hadn’t ever received from Santa. The only thing he had ever asked Santa for -- a brother.
So there sat Nick. Heath became concerned when Nick just sat there. Heath knew he wasn’t seriously hurt, if he was hurt at all. So Heath did one of the things he did best; he finished the job in front of him. When the steer was sent on its way back to the herd, Heath anxiously approached his brother sitting in the middle of the pasture with the rain pouring down. “Nick, are you ok? Did you get hurt in some way I can’t see?” As he spoke, he began running his hands over his brother’s head and limbs feeling for bumps and breaks.
Nick sat in the middle of the field, his little brother hunkered down beside him in the pouring rain. Finally, while Heath pondered what was going on, Nick turned to him and smiled. Not the constrained smile he’d give an acquaintance or even a friend, but the full blown, knock your socks off, stop your heart smile, that Heath had seen beamed at everyone in the family at one time or another -- everyone except for him, that is. But there it was, after nearly eight months, that smile was directed straight at him. An unseen weight was lifted with unseen hands from shoulders that had for far too long borne the brunt of their father’s one and only transgression of his marriage vows. Under the radiance of that smile, Heath’s shoulders straightened as the weight disappeared with the softly spoken words of his much loved brother.
“Heath, mother asked what we wanted for Christmas this morning. I now know what I want – no, I have what I want and I just now realized it. I have, since I could remember, wanted a brother to run this ranch with. You, Heath, are that brother -- my long belated Christmas gift. I love you, Heath.” As Nick spoke, that unhealed wound closed over, at long last healed completely. Both brothers wiped at their faces, though the brims of their Stetsons, one black, one white, kept the rain from their eyes. Both had drops of brotherly rain on their bottom lashes, one set dark, the other light, but both Barkley through and through. Two sides of a coin; the brothers were different in many ways -- Nick, loud and boisterous; Heath, softer spoken and more reserved -- but both Barkley, both rancher. Finally, after 26 years, Nick had that Christmas gift long overdue: his brother, Heath Morgan Thompson Barkley.
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