Summary: (AU) An alternate version of Heath’s introduction to the Barkley family.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 1525
As the buggy entered the outskirts of Strawberry Tom ventured a glance at his wife. The anger radiated off of her. She hadn’t spoken a word since their journey began; she had hardly said anything at all since the letter had arrived. She was furious and had every right to be. He had told her about his affair with Leah Thomson when he came back home nearly seven months ago and, though it had been rough going, they had stuck together and managed to make their marriage stronger than ever. Until the letter came.
She must feel unbelievable outrage over the injustice of it all. Lucas had been born a little over a month ago. He had been a full term, healthy baby and then, suddenly, as sometimes happens they went to awaken him one morning to find him lifeless. There was no explanation for his death. Now they were arriving in Strawberry to see another newborn Barkley baby boy, Tom’s son with another woman. A baby whose existence should have never been, according to Tom he had written Leah and was certain that he hadn’t left her with a child. He had failed to tell Victoria that he had never specifically asked Leah if she was pregnant, he had assumed that she would have told him and, since she didn’t, he believed that their union had not produced a child.
Strawberry was teeming with activity as they rode through town. It was also teeming with crime and this was what had led him to Leah. She had found him badly beaten in an alley and took him to her home to tend to his injuries. His wallet, watch and wedding ring had been stolen in the robbery. Because of how easy it was for a ring to slip unnoticed from a finger while working horses and cattle Tom only wore his wedding band when in town or on business so there were no marks to signify that he wore one. Leah had mistakenly assumed that there were no marks because he wasn’t married and he hadn’t bothered to tell her the truth.
The liaison occurred only once. At the time Tom had allowed his passion to carry him away and it wasn’t until the following day that his guilt overwhelmed him. He had informed Leah at that time of his marriage and that he was the father of two sons, receiving not a slap but a balled fist directly to his mouth. He had walked away with more than split lips, he carried deep sorrow and regret for the deception and hurt he had caused a beautiful young lady whom had truly loved him and the betrayal of his wedding vows. A betrayal of the woman he truly loved.
The letter had been simple and to the point with little wasted words or emotion. Rachel Caufield had simply informed him that Leah had given birth to a baby boy three days prior to the letter’s arrival. Leah had been working herself too hard and had gone into labor. The child was born two months early and, sadly, in her overworked condition the delivery had been too much for Leah and she had died within hours of her son’s birth.
Victoria was feeling as though her own child had been exchanged for the child Tom had sired with another woman. Deep down she was ashamed by this feeling but it was still there all the same. She was fearful that she would never be able to look upon this child without feeling resentment toward him for the loss of Lucas but as they pulled up to little more than a ramshackle of a house and she heard the weak, warbling, distressful cry of an innocent baby her heart melted.
She all but ran to the front door in her haste to see if there was anything she could do to comfort the infant. An older, kindly woman opened the door at her knock. She was greeted with a warm, friendly smile that faded to a glare of hostility for her husband. Peering past this woman she could see an elderly black woman holding the infant, trying to still his trembling cries. Stepping inside she approached the woman and held her arms out for the child. As he was placed into her embrace a frail, wrinkled hand touched her arm.
“He be awful hungry, Miz, awful hungry. He ain’t had much since his Mama passed. We tried and tried but the chile jes’ won’t take to a bottle. We done forced some down him with a dropper but it weren’t enough, not near enough. Iffin’ he don’t git more in his tummy he jes’ won’t make it.” Five days, it had been five days since this child was born and apparently he hadn’t had more than a few droppers full of nourishment since his mother had passed away. Victoria was still lactating and without hesitation she sat in the rocker, parted her blouse and urged the infant to nurse. Weak and tiny as he was thankfully he was able to suckle. As his body began to receive what it craved his flailing arms and legs ceased their frantic movements. Victoria started the rocker in motion and began to hum a lullaby as the baby nursed in contentment.
While Tom stared at his wife and child in stunned admiration Rachel and Hannah wept tears of joy and relief. Hannah folded her hands under her chin.
“Praise be to God, praise be to God Almighty.”
He was so exhausted that he literally fell asleep while still nursing. As his slumber deepened he eventually stopped suckling. Victoria eased him away from her breast, cleaned herself with a washcloth provided by Hannah then closed her blouse and continued to rock the baby. Tom and Rachel were in deep discussion at the table so Hannah watched as Victoria looked upon the infant and gently stroked his cheeks while softly singing to him. Quietly she spoke.
“You be good with him. He done taken to you. You be a fine woman, a right fine woman to do what you done.” Victoria smiled.
“He’s just an innocent baby. He was starving and since I just recently lost a child I had milk to give. It would have been a sin for me to withhold it from him.” Hannah nodded her head.
“Jes’ the same, many a woman woulda done jes’ that, Miz.”
“Please, call me Victoria.” Hannah bashfully bowed her head.
“Long’s you call me Hannah.”
“Hannah, what’s his name? Did Leah give him a name before she passed away?” Hannah smiled brightly.
“She sure did, Miz Victoria. His name be Heath. A good strong name for a good strong boy, even though he don’t look it now I think he will be one day.” Looking at his beautiful, tiny face Victoria knew she had already fallen in love with this boy and by nursing him she had formed a bond stronger than could be obtained any other way. Even stronger than childbirth for during that time the pain takes away from the bonding process. It’s the one on one time shared afterwards that seals the bond. By nursing this infant she had given him a part of herself, a life sustaining part of herself he had so desperately needed.
“I think you are right, Hannah. One day he will be a fine, strong man. What’s his full christened name, Hannah?”
“Miz Leah only tole us Heath, Miz Victoria and no preacher in this here town would christen that chile. I thinks you should pick his other name, that way both his Mama’s will have had a hand in namin’ him.” Tom had wandered over to kneel by the rocker and Victoria glanced at him as Hannah made this suggestion. Laying one hand on his son’s tiny chest he squeezed Victoria hand with the other.
“Hannah’s right, you are his mother now and you should have a part in naming him.” Returning her gaze to the child sleeping peacefully in her arms Victoria contemplated on what name would fit him. Nothing fancy or long would work for she had a feeling that he would be like his father and like she believed his brother Nick would grow to be, a hard working cowboy. Heath was a down to earth type of name and she needed to find one similar to go with it. She knew what she liked and it seemed to flow well with Heath and Barkley, the true test would be how it would sound when said aloud.
“What about Ryan? Heath Ryan Barkley?” The room was silent as each person let the name sink in, finally Tom spoke.
“Well, looks as if this little fellow needs to be christened since he now has a full name.” Victoria smiled as she leaned down to place a tender kiss on Heath’s cheek then whispered in her new son’s ear.
“Welcome to the family, Heath Ryan Barkley.”