Discoveries (by Kellie)

Summary:   (AU) The second and last sequel to A Cry of Innocence, taking place thirteen years later. Because I don’t want to hassle with trying to explain why Matt Simmons is a Simmons and Leah Thomson is a Thomson I have chosen for Matt and Martha Simmons not to exist in this alternate universe and, as is the norm for my stories, neither does Eugene. Jarrod is 21, Nick is 17, Heath is 13 and Audra is 8. Leah is deceased, Tom is living.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   9394


 

Just as assuredly as it was meant for Leah to give birth to Heath it had been meant for Victoria to raise him. If Leah had survived childbirth Heath would have most likely never seen his first birthday. She would have never been able to afford the doctor bills, medications and specialists that it had taken to keep the child alive. Yes, God had intended for this child to be born and for him to grow into a man and the only way that could happen was for the woman who carried him to die.

Heath’s early years had been filled with illness, lots of illness. He had been most prone to succumb to respiratory infections, so he suffered everything from croup to colds to bronchitis to pneumonia. The numerous specialists had informed Victoria and Tom that this was most likely due to the fact that as a premature baby his lungs had not been fully developed by the time he was born and, as a result, were weaker and less able to fight off infection.

Victoria had been the one to nurse him through those long nights and days, holding him in her arms as his barking coughs had drown out all other sounds. Oh, how he had hated the cough syrups and how she had equally hated forcing them down him time after time. He had been too young to understand that the medication would help him, all he knew was that the stuff tasted awful and many times would come back up faster than it went down. Usually, when this happened, Victoria would be as well anointed as Heath was and he would cry and apologize for getting her dirty.

He was ill so often during his first year of school that Tom and Victoria had finally pulled him out of classes altogether. The next two years had ended with the same results so Victoria was not only Heath’s mother and nurse but also his teacher. Ironically the prolonged, solitary time this lead to between them formed an unbreakable bond. Of all her children she was closest to Heath, the child she had not given birth to and, in return, she was the center of his universe.

*****

Only five people besides Tom, Victoria, Rachel and Hannah knew the truth of Heath’s birth. Bill and Naomi Scheffler were their dearest and closest friends. Tom had had urgent business in San Francisco and Victoria, bored with the ranch, had insisted on going with him, even though she was within two weeks of her due date. Jarrod and Nick, ages eight and four, had been left in the Schefflers’ care while they were away.

Little Lucas had come a week earlier than expected so he met the light of day in the city of San Francisco. The doctor had demanded that Victoria recover for three to four weeks before returning home so Tom had written a letter to their friends explaining the circumstances and telling them that Victoria had given birth to a healthy, full term baby boy named Lucas. He had requested they tell the boys only that the baby had arrived but not to tell them his name. Nick had wanted not only a brother but he also wanted that brother to be named Lucas, Victoria and Tom wanted to surprise him themselves.

When Lucas had passed away in his sleep they had written to Bill and Naomi once again to let them know the sad news but another request was made, Tom and Victoria would be the ones to inform the boys of the loss of their little brother. Naomi had responded with a letter of sympathy and had forwarded with it the letter from Rachel. They had no choice but to tell the Schefflers the entire story when they arrived back in the valley with a tiny baby in tow. Bill and Naomi had agreed with their decision to keep the truth hidden. Though they were open-minded people who looked upon Heath with love they knew how the majority of people would feel if they knew about his heritage. He would be scorned and treated no better than dirt so they were more than willing to take the secret to their graves.

Their first priority had been to get Heath to the doctor since the shabby, reprobate they called a physician in Strawberry had refused to even look upon the infant, let alone examine him. Dr. Merar was a trusted, beloved confidant to the Barkleys. He had tended Victoria throughout her pregnancy and one look at the child in her arms told him that the infant was not hers, he knew that her child would have been full term and this one had obviously been born early, quite early. They had seen the look on his face and without reservation had told him everything and, like the Schefflers, he had agreed to go along with their plan.

During the latter stages of all her pregnancies Victoria refrained from venturing the exhausting trip into Stockton. This proved to make it easier to fool the people of Stockton. Because they hadn’t seen her for the last three months of her pregnancy it made it possible for them to believe that she had given birth to a premature infant. Many people knew she was with child but they didn’t know for how long she had been pregnant.

Nearly two months later Tom returned to San Francisco to achieve two goals. He would return with the casket bearing little Lucas to bury him alongside the other two children he and Victoria had lost and he would see an old friend of his. This old friend just happened to be a judge by the name of Wilbur Richards. Judge Richards saw to the details of revising Heath’s birth certificate to list Victoria as his mother and Tom as his father. An honorable man, Tom knew that Judge Richards would never say a word about Heath’s birth mother to a single soul.

The fifth person who knew of all that had transpired was less understanding or accepting of the situation. All of Tom’s family was deceased except for his brother and he had no idea where Jim was so he had no way of sending the news of Lucas’ birth to him. Likewise, the only relative Victoria had left was her Aunt Judith. The same day Tom had mailed the letter announcing Lucas’ birth to the Schefflers he had also mailed one to Judith Davis.

Victoria always described her aunt as a rigid, cold prude. She was consumed with image and status, propriety and manners. She felt everyone had their own class and should not mingle with those ‘beneath’ their own station. She had also been aware that Victoria’s newest addition should have been full term and, unfortunately, she had been waiting at the ranch when they arrived home. Reluctantly, they were forced to also include her in on their secret. She had not been shy about telling them exactly how much she disapproved. One incident in particular showed her disdain and disgust for Heath.

Victoria had been sitting in the parlor chatting with her aunt. Noticing the time she walked over to the cradle and, lifting Heath, she returned to her seat on the settee. Without thought, she began breast feeding her son.

“Really, Victoria, must you do that now?”

“Yes, unless you want to listen to his cries of hunger. It just happens to be his feeding time. Why are you so upset, Aunt Judith? You have seen me nurse both Jarrod and Nick.” Judith was clearly appalled.

“That was different, they are your sons. Really, for a woman of your position to allow a mongrel to suckle at her breast is inappropriate.” Victoria struggled to keep her voice even and calm and her tone moderate, for the baby not her aunt.

“If it bothers you so much, Aunt Judith, I suggest you leave the room. Heath Ryan Barkley is my son, emotionally and very soon legally as well, and that is a fact to which you are going to have to adjust. I must also request that you NEVER call this precious, innocent child a mongrel again.”

“You should have let that PRECIOUS child starve.” Victoria glared with hatred at her aunt.

“Aunt Judith, I believe you have over stayed your welcome. I will ask you politely to pack your bags and go home.” Judith did leave and she hadn’t returned until now, thirteen years later.

*****

Victoria had been reluctant to allow her aunt to visit but the mere fact that Judith had asked for forgiveness and wanted to see her family was astonishing. Judith was not the type of woman to give in to sentimentality and certainly, to Victoria’s knowledge, had never admitted being wrong before.

When Judith had arrived at the ranch Tom and Victoria were both on edge. They hoped and prayed that she really had changed, she had seemed to be a different person. Still stiff and formal, she had at least smiled and warmly greeted them and the children but hugging was an entirely different matter.

All of their children were affectionate, especially with family members or close family friends. It had only been natural for them to welcome Judith with open arms. Heath had commented to Victoria that Judith didn’t seem comfortable with the contact as he watched his brothers and sister greet her. Victoria only hoped that he didn’t notice her heightened discomfort at accepting his arms around her. It saddened Victoria to see it but she had to admit that the woman she had known thirteen years before would not have even allowed the boy near her, let alone touch her.

Heath hadn’t noticed and there was one characteristic of her aunt that helped to keep him in the dark, she wasn’t much more open with Nick. Jarrod was older, already an adult, and she enjoyed his company and conversation. Audra, being a girl, was given the most attention and affection by Judith. Judith, very simply, was not comfortable with boys, especially teenage boys. She didn’t know how to deal with them. She believed that all boys were mischievous troublemakers, only happy when bedeviling others or playing in filth.

Victoria had smiled at the thought. Both Nick and Heath, at various times, fit Judith’s image of pranksters and, although it was a rare occurrence now, when younger both boys and Jarrod, too, had enjoyed nothing more than playing in less than sanitary conditions. It hadn’t been uncommon for all of the boys and even Audra on occasion to come into the house covered in mud or dirt, grass stains on their clothing and smiling ear to ear. One thing none of her children had ever been was a troublemaker. Their jokes and pranks were always harmless and they never set out to hurt anyone or get anyone into trouble.

Over the next two weeks Judith had come to feel more at ease with Heath, much due to his mannerisms. Heath was a child of contradictions. Quiet for the most part he could be very outspoken on a subject he felt passionately about and while he preferred solitude he also enjoyed and reveled in the company of certain individuals. His interests were many and ranged a broad spectrum of varying topics: ranching, horses, agronomy, poetry, reading classic literature, history, government, engineering, medicine and carpentry. He was as eager to do his schoolwork as he was to work cattle or go fishing.

A hard child to pigeon hole into any specific category. While Victoria believed his true love was the ranch and that one day he would take his place alongside Tom and, without a doubt, Nick in running their vast enterprise she couldn’t be sure. He could just as likely attend college and if he did she felt positive it would be in one of two fields, medicine or engineering. She did know that if he chose to make the ranch his life’s work there would be changes in its current operation. He would insist on branching out into agronomy and, his true passion, developing a highly respected equestrian line.

As Judith had spent more time around Heath she had come to realize how highly intelligent he was and how well behaved and respectful. At first she was shocked by his knowledge of the many topics of interest she brought up and was inclined to dismiss his comments but she had to admit that his occasional one liners were thought provoking and stimulating with a strong foundation of education behind them. She also admired that he didn’t ramble, he wasted no time getting right to his point then was once again silent. Victoria was pleased with the impression Heath was making on her aunt but people seldom change, at least when it comes to how they truly feel in their hearts. Deeply ingrained prejudices are almost impossible to overcome.

*****

Victoria would have never believed that a day that had started out so beautifully with peace and harmony could come to a crashing end so suddenly and tragically. She walked into the house with a smile. Her attitude was joyful and happy but Nick’s angry voice shouting at her aunt brought her back to earth.

“NICHOLAS, stop yelling this instant. You have been taught better than to speak to an adult in such a manner.” Nick’s uncontrolled rage disturbed her but his attire, wet underwear, was not a novelty.

“Mother, you didn’t hear what she said to Heath. He ran upstairs in tears.” Victoria felt sick to her stomach as she turned her attention to Judith while Nick continued to explain the reason for his outburst. “She called him a filthy, disgusting creature.” Victoria’s eyes bored into her aunt, Judith was not phased in the least and she began to show her true colors, the very colors Victoria had seen thirteen years earlier.

“Good Lord in heaven, that boy came into this house wearing only wet, clinging underwear. He might as well have been naked, I saw nearly as much as I would have had he been totally undressed. Disgusting, absolutely disgusting.”

Nick and Heath were unique and kindred spirits. She never knew beforehand when they went swimming if they would do so wearing their underwear or if they would just skinny-dip. However she always knew what their choice had been when they returned home. If only their hair was wet they had bared all; otherwise the waistband of their pants to the knees were also wet where their damp underwear had soaked their britches. Victoria never understood why they sometimes wore their underwear while swimming and she had long ago given up trying to figure out the logic or reasoning behind their decisions in the matter.

They always left the house when they planned on a trip to the pond wearing no shirts. Audra had two very sweet and faithful mixed breed dogs that, unfortunately, would every so often take it upon themselves to follow the boys and steal away with their pants while they enjoyed a swim. She would have thought the dogs would be more interested in chewing on the leather of their boots but they weren’t. Wisely the boys had learned that when they skinny dipped it was in their best interest to shove their underwear into one of their boots for they never knew when Claude and Clovis were going to strike. Apparently one of their haphazard and infrequent ambushes had occurred today.

“Aunt Judith, I would like to speak with you, alone, in the study. Nick, go upstairs and get dressed and check on your brother, please.” With one last glare at Judith, Nick obeyed his mother.

Judith entered the study ahead of her niece. Victoria was infuriated and slammed the doors with such force that they failed to catch. Her full attention, however, was on Judith so she didn’t notice that the doors had swung back open.

“How dare you speak to my son like that?”

“I will not apologize, Victoria. It was an appalling display and the boy needed to be reprimanded.”

“Reprimanded? You think calling a child a filthy, disgusting creature is a reprimand? It is not your place to reprimand or discipline any of my children. And while we’re on the subject, why just Heath? Nick was as equally visible as his brother, yet you said nothing derogatory to him.”

“Nick is a blood relation, Heath isn’t. Talking with him, listening to his thoughts I had begun to think living here with all of you had done him good but I was mistaken. The low breeding he inherited from that trollop of a mother just can’t be overcome…….” Victoria was fighting to keep herself from striking her aunt and almost missed the way her dialogue faded off and the shocked expression on her face, almost but not quite. Judith was staring over her shoulder and even before she turned Victoria knew, she knew that Heath would be standing there and that he would have heard every word Judith had just said.

Victoria had never seen anyone with such a look of devastation and disbelief. His tear filled eyes pleaded with her to deny what his ears had just heard. She had always held the answers, he had always been able to trust her word and count on her to be honest with him. Her failure to find words now explained more than any words could have. As Victoria moved toward him, he turned and ran upstairs.

*****

Victoria had knocked on Heath’s door several times asking for permission to enter but he had not answered. She was torn as to whether she should enter anyway or give him some time alone. Eventually she decided to wait until she could get Tom’s input into the terrible situation now facing them.

Tom had gone into Stockton to conduct some business at the bank and she had instructed Nick to go get him. Nick was confused but most of all he was concerned about his brother. Heath had nearly knocked him down as he had run up the stairs. Nick had seen the same look on Heath’s face that his mother had seen and it scared him.

Secluded in the house with only a heartbroken child lying upstairs she had walked into the parlor and collapsed in tears into a chair. My God, what had they done. Maybe they had made the wrong decision, maybe they should have told Heath the truth once he was old enough to understand. It couldn’t be changed now, the course had been laid and there was no turning back. Although both she and Tom had decided together to allow Heath and his siblings to believe that she had given birth to him, she knew that his feelings of betrayal, hurt and confusion would be attributed more to her part in the deception than Tom’s.

They would have to tell the other children tonight at supper and she knew what a disaster it could be if it wasn’t handled correctly. Even if she and Tom could find a delicate way to inform them, from this moment forward things would never be the same. Jarrod would be angry, of that she was sure. He would also be disappointed in his parents but at least they would be able to discuss it with him calmly and quietly. Audra would be confused and frightened but she would adjust the quickest to the news. Nick would be the problem.

There would be no calm, productive discussion with him. What they would have would be a lot of yelling, fists slamming on tables and angry words. One thing she knew would never change, Nick would continue to love Heath with all his heart. She managed a smile as she thought back on the last thirteen years of their special relationship.

From the instant he saw Heath, Nick had assumed the role of protector. A short laugh escaped her as she recalled the meeting of the two brothers. Nick had been slightly disappointed that his new little brother had been named Heath and Tom and Victoria had felt a twinge of guilt. They would never be able to tell him that originally they had honored his request and for a brief period of time he had a brother named Lucas. Nick couldn’t wait to get his hands on the baby.

“Mama, can I hold him?” Victoria was trying to catch up on the happenings in the valley during their absence courtesy of Naomi but Nick wouldn’t be ignored.

“MAMA, I WANT TO HOLD HIM.” This adamant statement was accentuated by persistent tugs at her sleeve. Smiling at him she gave in to his demands.

“All right, Nick, but you will have to sit up here next to me.” He didn’t need to be told twice, in a flash he was settled next to his mother. She told him how to hold his arms and he followed her instructions with great concentration and care. She had gingerly laid Heath into Nick’s arms but had been reluctant to take her hands completely away. Nick was only four years old and she was worried that he might drop his brother but it was plain to see that Nick had no intention of letting Heath fall.

“He sure is little.”

“That’s because he was born two months early, sweetheart. One day he will catch up.” Nick had so desperately longed for a little brother and now that he had one he was the most contented and peaceful she had ever seen him. As he leaned down and kissed Heath’s forehead, Jarrod had walked over to them. The fierce, prepared for battle warrior look that overcame Nick’s features had been somewhat intimidating even to her. Hugging Heath tightly to him, he scowled at Jarrod.

“MINE!” All four adults had raised eyebrows and smirks on their lips. Tom walked to Nick and, squatting down in front of him, laid a hand on the defensive little boy’s shoulder.

“Now, Nick, he doesn’t belong to just you. He’s Jarrod’s little brother, too, and you are going to have to learn to share.” Nick had relinquished his hold with a great deal of resentment and had sulked until Jarrod finally gave Heath back to him.

Even with the four-year age difference between them, Nick had never reached a stage where he didn’t want his little brother with him. He had a circle of close friends that he spent quite a bit of time with but Heath was always a part of the group. Nick had a simple rule, if you wanted to be his friend then you had to accept Heath going along for the ride. If the choice had come down to his friends or Heath he would have chosen his brother every time.

Nick always worried about Heath and during the boy’s numerous illnesses Nick would always sleep in the room with his sick brother. Even when Heath wasn’t ill Nick worried constantly about him. For a long stretch of time when the boys were around five and nine years old Victoria would find Heath’s bed empty in the middle of the night only to discover him sleeping in Nick’s room. She had finally asked him about it.

“Heath, why do you always sleep with Nick? Are you frightened of the dark?”

“No, I sleep with him because he comes and gets me.” That was Nick, he couldn’t fall asleep or be restful unless he knew Heath was okay.

Victoria was startled out of her memories by the sound of the front door opening and her husband’s voice calling her name.

“In here, Tom.” He moved to her quickly, disturbed by what Nick had told him and her red, swollen eyes.

“What on earth happened?”

“Oh, Tom, it was horrible. Aunt Judith blurted out that I had not given birth to Heath and he overheard everything. He is in his room and won’t even answer when I knock.” She watched the storm building in his eyes.

“Where is that…….that woman?” She laid a reassuring hand on his arm.

“I told her to get out and never come back. Silas took her to town.” Tom relaxed at her words.

“I’ll go talk to Heath, try to explain why we chose to handle this the way we did.”

“No, Tom, I think we should do this together. The decision was ours and the responsibility to explain should be ours also.” Tom nodded his agreement and they headed upstairs to their youngest son’s room.

*****

While his mother shed tears and reminisced downstairs Heath had spent his time in tears also. In thirteen years he had never felt this magnitude of confusion and self-doubt. He always had the security of knowing that no matter what calamity befell him; he could depend on his mama for support and encouragement. The knowledge that she wasn’t his mama, that another woman had brought him into this world, was a devastating blow to his sensitive and fragile emotions.

The fact that he was a full fledged member of the Barkley family and had the love that came with that membership had seen him through his rough spots but the new found knowledge that he wasn’t a full Barkley shattered all that he believed himself to be. The blood that flowed through his veins was different than his brothers and sister’s. Very simply, he felt lost, as if his whole world and all he had believed and trusted in had been torn away from him.

By the time his parents knocked on his door the tears had stopped flowing. They didn’t wait for a reply, they just entered. Curled on his side on the bed, staring at the wall he had listened to their explanation. Even in his state of shock he understood that their decision had been based on love and concern for his emotional and physical well being but it didn’t ease the pain in a young boy’s heart. The pain of losing someone more dear to him, more valuable than his own self. Heath had always felt there could be nothing worse than not having a mother to call your own, he had been right.

Tom and Victoria had waited for their son to respond but his gaze stayed focused on the wall and he remained silent. They would have rejoiced to receive any kind of response, tears or anger, just as long as they could have seen a reaction. Victoria moved to the side of the bed in which he was facing. She knew Heath better than anyone and what she saw in his sky blue eyes broke her heart. She could see that he was more than hurt and confused, his vacant eyes and expressionless face told her what he already knew, he was lost.

Naturally and instinctively Victoria embraced him and kissed his cheek only then did she truly understand just how far away Heath had pulled himself from her. Normally Heath welcomed her comfort but now he refused to look directly at her and the familiar feel of his arms encircling her never came. It was more than she could bear so with a whispered, “I love you, son, and I’m sorry,” she had all but run from the room followed by her husband.

*****

The family’s evening meal grew cold and went uneaten as conversation about Heath’s birth whirled and eddied in rising tides of frustration, anger and sorrow. Victoria had correctly guessed the reactions of her other three children. At first they had been stunned into disbelief and silence but it didn’t take long for the explosion, especially from Nick, to occur.

Heath was absent from the table and originally Victoria had been saddened that he refused to come down for supper when Audra, as was her usual custom, went upstairs to get him. Now, however, she was grateful that he wasn’t present. In his current state of lowered self-esteem she feared that he would have misunderstood many of the remarks made, taking them to mean that his family no longer loved him.

What Victoria and the entire family was unaware of was that Heath did overhear one comment that was made. A comment that wounded his heart further and burned into his brain, made more damaging because of the voice that said it. He had laid in his room for nearly twenty minutes after telling his sister that he wasn’t hungry, the events of the day playing through his mind over and over.

Finally realizing that he couldn’t avoid his family forever, he decided to go downstairs and get it over with. As he reached the landing at the bottom of the staircase he suddenly heard Nick’s voice raised in anger.

“SO WHAT YOU’RE TELLING ME IS THAT HEATH IS NO MORE THAN MY BASTARD, HALF BROTHER?” Heath couldn’t recall his flight back upstairs. All he knew was that the one person that meant the most in the world to him next to the woman he had thought was his mama had just turned away from him. Losing both his mother and his best friend, confidant and protector in one day was too much for him to withstand. The tears returned and he literally sobbed until he made himself sick.

If he had only stayed and listened for a few moments longer he would have heard the rest of Nick’s statement. He would have known that he was still loved, still valued as a brother and a Barkley and always would be.

*****

Although everyone tried to return to their normal routines it would have been obvious even to an outsider that relationships in the Barkley household were strained at best. The only person who was successful in her attempt was Audra. She was still very young and innocent and didn’t understand all of what had gone on so in her mind Tom Barkley was still a faithful husband and father, Victoria Barkley was still Heath’s mother and Heath was still as much her brother as were Jarrod and Nick.

Jarrod’s anger had dissipated quickly and he was slowly working through his disappointment at his father’s betrayal of his marriage vows and his parents lies and deceptions concerning the truth about Heath. Nick, however, was still infuriated with both of his parents. He just couldn’t understand how they could lie to them about such an important matter, most of all he was bitter and angry at how deeply their lies had scarred Heath.

Cleaning out the stables was one of the least helpful chores for him to do. He had been doing it since he was a small boy and everything was automatic. The task, itself, required no concentration on his part thereby allowing his thoughts to brood on the situation taking place within his family. For a hotheaded, passionate young man like Nick this only allowed his fury to build as he went about his work. Before long he was stomping through the barn, angrily flinging rakes and shovels to the ground and slamming the gates as he went in and out of the stalls.

Unfortunately, Heath unknowingly walked into this volatile environment. He had avoided Nick for the last two days since hearing his words at supper that night. He was lonely and missed the brother he adored so he entered the barn in hopes of bridging the gap he believed existed. Nick had no idea Heath was in the barn and, still fuming, he turned to exit the stall he had just finished cleaning and as he had done most of the afternoon he throw the gate open with a wrathful vengeance. The latch caught Heath full force in the face and knocked him to the ground.

Nick was appalled by what he had just done. Cursing himself for letting his anger take control and being careless he dropped to his knees by Heath’s side. The sight of blood pouring from his lacerated lips and his bloody nose sickened Nick but it was the look of absolute terror in his brother’s eyes that pierced his heart. Nick had never seen Heath look at him with fear before, he had never had a reason to. Heath actually cowered as Nick laid a hand on his cheek.

“Heath, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were…..”

“You’d never hurt a brother. You said you would never hurt a brother.” The softly whispered accusation accompanied the tears flowing down Heath’s cheeks. Heath bolted to his feet and ran out of the barn.

“Heath, wait……” He was gone, Nick considered chasing after him but the fear Heath was feeling would only make him think Nick intended to hurt him further so he didn’t follow. Nick had thought he understood how Heath must have been feeling but this incident brought the full truth home to him.

If this had happened three days ago Heath would have come up off the ground angrier than a wet hornet, yelling at Nick to be more careful and watch what he was doing the next time. He would have known that it was an accident. But now, with the changes that had taken place, Heath had assumed that Nick meant to strike him with the gate, had meant to physically harm his little brother.

Nick now understood that the knowledge that their mother had not given birth to him had altered Heath’s personality almost overnight. He was no longer the same brother he had known for thirteen years, he was a frightened boy filled with self doubt and insecurity, sure that no one loved him or cared about him. Nick stood in the barn for a long time and cried. He cried for the loss of the brother he knew and loved and for the timid new brother he would have to become acquainted with.

*****

Heath’s condition did not escape Victoria’s notice as he rushed to his room. His customary pattern would have been to come straight to her for comfort and solace, she sighed then gathered the liniment, a couple of washcloths, soap and a basin filled with warm water before heading upstairs.

He was sitting on the edge of his bed, tears and blood freely flowing. Positioning a chair in front of him she began to clean and treat his injuries. Although the lacerations to his lips were ugly and deep, she was relieved that they weren’t severe enough to require stitches. Heath patiently withstood her ministrations, offering neither encouragement nor resistance and he certainly made no attempt to explain what had happened so Victoria asked.

“Would you like to tell me about it?”

“Nothin’ to tell, I just fell.” Victoria knew that wasn’t the truth. If he had just fallen he wouldn’t be crying. She also knew how stubborn he was and that trying to force him to tell her the truth would fail miserably. He had decided on this story and he would stick to it, come hell or high water. Finishing her task she rose to leave the room when his quiet, soft voice caused her to stop.

“Was my Mama a……..a…….like a saloon girl?” With her back to him she closed her eyes for a moment, fighting back tears. Just hearing him call another woman his mama ripped her heart to pieces and the fact that he thought Leah had been a prostitute was hard to take, though understandable. With a deep breath she turned to face him. His eyes were locked on her, waiting for a response. Returning to the chair she cupped his chin in her hand and with a smile answered his question.

“No, Heath, she wasn’t like a saloon girl. She was a good woman.” He never took his eyes from her face.

“Then why did she…….how was I born then?”

“Heath, she didn’t know that your father was already married. She found him severely injured and nursed him back to health. She fell in love, deeply in love with him and that was how you came to be. I imagine that she thought they would spend the rest of their lives together.”

“So she……..she gave me away…..didn’t want me?”

“Oh, no, Heath, from what we were told she couldn’t wait to be a mother to the child she carried, to you, but she died within hours of your birth, sweetheart. So we brought you home to live with us.”

“Who told you that she wanted me?”

“Two ladies named Rachel Caufield and Hannah James. They were very dear friends of your mother and they were with her when you were born.” Heath lowered his head; his next question was barely above a whisper.

“What was her name?”

“Leah…..Leah Thomson.”

“Where?”

“Where what, sweetheart?”

“Where was I born?”

“A small mining town called Strawberry.” Silence once again settled over them. Eventually Victoria stood, placed a kiss on his cheek and left the room.

He had the information he needed, all except a map. The one in the study would do fine. He would have to wait until everyone was asleep before leaving. He couldn’t stay, this place, his home for the last thirteen years wasn’t his anymore.

*****

Alone, in the darkness of night, Heath’s feelings of isolation, abandonment and melancholy were more pronounced than ever. Even during the kidnapping two years ago he had at least had Audra’s presence to keep him company and drive away any feelings loneliness. He wasn’t really frightened; he just missed the laughter, voices and, most of all, companionship of his father and brothers during their frequent camping trips.

He had ridden half the night and had made good time. He figured to be in Strawberry by late afternoon. He felt sure that someone would be able to direct him to either Mrs. Caufield or Mrs. James or both, assuming they were still living in the mining town. If they were he planned on finding out as much as he could about his mama, if not he would look for work. That’s what he figured to do anyway. He knew his small size would be a hindrance but he was an excellent roper and a hard worker. One way or the other he would make some rancher realize this.

Listening to the howl of a single wolf he snuggled deeper under his blanket. Logic told him he had nothing to fear and he had heard wolves howling many times in the past. Before their songs had always been magical and entrancing but that was with the protective presence of Tom, Jarrod and Nick nearby. Before the sound had brought peaceful images to his mind, now all his mind conjured up were bared fangs. Eventually even the howling couldn’t overpower his exhaustion and he fell asleep.

*****

Heath could easily see that the town of Strawberry was dying and soon would be little more than a ghost town. As his curious eyes scanned the scenery they came to rest upon a shabby, overgrown cemetery. He found himself reining Earl toward it. He felt the overwhelming urge to visit his mama’s grave, to pay her the respect she deserved from her son.

The cemetery was small so he just wandered past each marker until he came upon the one with her name etched on it. Glancing at all the other gravesides he could only see two others that were tended but they didn’t come close to the care and obvious love that had been bestowed upon his mama’s grave. Someone in this town still loved her enough to keep her final resting place weed free, decorated with flowers and looking beautiful.

He suddenly felt very uncomfortable, like an intruder in a mystical and special place, a place that he didn’t belong. But this was where he belonged, this was HIS mama and he had every right to visit her so shaking off this feeling he kneeled beside her grave.

“Hello Mama, I don’t really know what to say. The Barkleys took real good care of me so you don’t have to worry about that, I suppose you’re in heaven so I’m probably not telling you something you don’t already know. At least, I hope that’s where you are and that you kept an eye on me from time to time. I wish you hadn’t had to go, I really need a Mama now. I’m so lost, I don’t know where to turn.” Laying a hand on the dirt covering where his mother was buried Heath made a solemn vow to a woman he had never known.

“I have to go now Mama but I promise to come back and visit from time to time. I won’t forget you.” Wiping the tears from his cheeks he walked back to Earl, mounted and continued down the dusty street.

*****

Most of the businesses were boarded up but the general store was still operating so he entered and asked the kindly old gentleman if he knew Mrs. Caufield and Mrs. James. Heath was relieved when the man nodded his head and graciously told him where they lived.

As he tied Earl up outside the dilapidated house he wondered what was keeping it standing. Stepping up to the door he timidly knocked. Butterflies were holding races inside his stomach as he waited for it to open. When it finally did the gentle face that greeted him set him at ease. For a moment he thought he had the wrong house, this lady was much older than his mama would have been, in fact she was old enough to be his grandmother by several years. Her expectant smile finally forced him to say something.

“Are you Mrs. Caufield?” The man who had given him directions had mentioned that Mrs. James was a black woman so he knew that if this was the right place the lady standing before him had to be Mrs. Caufield. He watched her closely as she unfolded a pair of eyeglasses and put them on. Her expression rapidly changed from pleasant to stunned and surprised. Her words rocked him to the core.

“HEATH, what are you doing here?” Peering past him she continued. “Where are your parents?”

“I…..I came here alone. How did you know who I am?” Rachel’s wrinkled hand brushed against his cheek.

“Come inside, honey, the doorway isn’t the place to talk.” Heath did as she requested. The inside of the house was almost as barren as the town but it was immaculately clean, however, what drew and held Heath’s attention were the thirteen pictures hanging on one wall in a neat row. He stood transfixed by his own images. Rachel moved to stand behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Those are how I knew. Mrs. Barkley sent one to Hannah and I every year.” Rachel allowed him several moments to absorb her words.

“Heath, honey, why did you come here?” Slowly Heath turned to face her.

“I was wondering if you would tell me about my Mama?” Rachel gazed in silence at him for a long time. She now understood why he had come. He was confused and felt as though he was a motherless orphan.

“Well, Heath, I suppose all I know about your mama you already know and much more to boot but I can tell you about your mother.” She smiled at the look of confusion that crossed his face. She walked over to the table and took a seat, with a gesture from Rachel he sat next to her.

“Your mother was a beautiful young lady with light brown hair and soft, warm brown eyes. She was very kind and loving and I can tell you that she wanted you very much. She was such a hard worker. She slaved away at three different jobs: cooking at the café and cleaning and cooking for two of the more wealthy families in town. She was pretty enough that she could have taken the easy way out……..hired on at the saloon but she would rather work herself to the bone than to resort to earning money in that way. She truly believed that a woman should only lay with a man whom she loved.” Rachel peeked at Heath out of the corner of her eye to see how he was dealing with the topic of conversation but he seemed comfortable enough so she continued.

“Leah would have been a wonderful, loving mother to you but it wasn’t meant to be that way. Mrs. Barkley more than filled Leah’s shoes in your upbringing and that’s the way God intended for it all to come out.” Rachel rose and disappeared into her bedroom. When she returned she was carrying a handful of letters that she handed to Heath.

“Your Mama loves you so much and has from the instant she saw you and took you to her breast. Heath, you were only five days old and you refused to take a bottle. Hannah and I had tried but you were starving when the Barkleys arrived. She took one look and without hesitation she began to nurse you.” Rachel cupped his chin and lifted his head until their eyes met. “Without hesitation, Heath. That fine lady had just lost her own child and yet she was willing to give you, her husband’s illegitimate son, the milk her own son would no longer need. Can you understand the sacrifice that took and the kind of woman it would take to do such a thing? In that moment you became as much hers as any child she had birthed. You have been blessed beyond measure to have such a lady give you her love so freely, without reservation or regret. Read those letters, Heath. Read the love, joy and pride in every line as she wrote about you then, maybe, you will understand where you belong and to whom you belong.”

*****

While Rachel began preparing supper Heath did read the letters. Victoria had shared all his trials, tribulations, joys and successes with Rachel and Hannah. Each additional letter he read made him miss Victoria Barkley all the more. He was touched by each and every one but one in particular tugged at his heart.

A diphtheria epidemic had swept through the valley when he was six years old. He was one of the first to contract the disease and it had very nearly taken his life. He could still remember struggling to breathe as his parents had repeatedly pounded on his back in an effort to loosen the mucus blocking his airway. Most of all, he could recall that the only time he felt at ease, that everything would be all right was when Victoria would hold him on her lap in the rocker, bathing his fevered body with alcohol and occasionally kissing his forehead and cheeks. He could still hear her soft voice singing lullabies and feel her teardrops as they rolled off her cheeks to splash against his own.

Apparently she had written this letter in the desperate hours of his illness, still uncertain if he would survive. His eyes were locked on the spots of crinkled paper with runny ink that had long ago dried. He ran a finger over one of the places where Victoria’s teardrop had left its mark. When the realization struck him he jumped to his feet and darted for the door. For an elderly woman Rachel was surprisingly fast, before he reached the door she was standing in his path.

“And just where do you think you are going, young man?” Heath could barely stand still or contain his nervous energy.

“I want to go home. I…..I need my Mama.” Rachel smiled and breathed a sigh of relief as she took hold of his shoulders.

“Heath, it can wait ‘til morning. Besides there is no way I’m going to let a young boy like you head out in the dark of night. First thing tomorrow morning we’ll leave for Stockton.”

“Mrs. Caufield, there’s no need for you to go all the way with me.” Rachel offered him a knowing smile.

“Well, I’m not letting you head out on your own and I have a feeling I won’t have to go ALL the way with you. As a matter of fact I’m sure that we will meet some familiar faces on the way.” Heath knew she was right and he was tired enough that he didn’t really want to argue so after eating supper he followed her to her guestroom and, climbing into the soft bed, fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

*****

Heath had very nearly busted a seam, Rachel was so poky. He had wanted to start immediately for home but Rachel had insisted on a good breakfast. It took her hours just to fix some bacon and eggs, at least that’s the way it seemed to a boy eager to begin his journey home, his journey back to himself.

Finally they were on their way, Heath riding Earl and Rachel driving an old, worn out buckboard. Heath was too busy trying to think of what he would say when he arrived home and Rachel sensed he was in no mood for idle conversation so she left him to his thoughts. She let her own thoughts drift. What a fine young man Leah’s boy was turning out to be, for a brief moment she felt sorrow that Leah was never given the chance to see her son grow but it passed. She did regret that Hannah had been away and missed seeing the boy in person.

About three hours into their trip they spotted a buggy in the distance headed in their direction. Heath didn’t think too much of it but Rachel smiled to herself, she was positive that the very person Heath was most eager to see would be in that buggy. Her belief proved true as the two parties drew nearer to each other.

Just the sight of Victoria caused a lump to swell in his throat and tears to well up in his eyes. He flew off of Earl’s back, ran to the buggy and clambered onto her lap before Tom even had a chance to bring the team to a halt. He hugged her with all his might as he buried his face into her shoulder. He whispered only one word into her ear but it was all Victoria needed to hear to know that her son had returned to her.

“Mama.” Victoria’s tears mingled with his to soak the material of her blouse. She engulfed him within her embrace, holding tight for fear that it might all be a dream and he would fade away. As his youthful, innocent and trusting face lifted to look at her she caressed his cheek.

“Oh, Heath, you had me so frightened. I was terrified that I would never see you again.”

“I’m sorry, Mama. I shouldn’t have left, I was just angry.”

“I know, sweetheart but you were more than angry. You were confused, hurt and frightened; your world had just been turned inside out. I’m sorry this all happened in such a traumatic way and I’m sorry that you didn’t hear it from your father and I first but I have never been sorry about you. Knowing what I know now I wouldn’t change a thing, including your father’s affair with Leah. Because of their affair I have you. You make this family whole, complete. God has given me four precious gifts, more precious and valuable to me than gold, four beautiful children named Jarrod, Nick, Heath and Audra.”  Mother and son shared several loving moments gazing into each other’s eyes while Tom tied Earl to the back of the buggy and said a grateful thank you to Rachel.

Resuming his seat next to Victoria he patted Heath’s leg. “Let’s go home, son. I know of two young men and a little girl very eager to see their brother.” Heath glanced at his father.

“Not Nick, I heard what he said, that I’m just his bastard, half brother.” Victoria gasped then regained her composure. Turning Heath’s face toward her she refuted his comment.

“Oh, no, Heath, you must not have heard the rest of what he said. He looked back forth between your father and I and firmly, adamantly told us that how you were born didn’t matter to him because you were his little brother and always would be. The very little brother he had wanted and loved whether another woman gave birth to you or not. Nick was devastated when we discovered you had run away and all he told us when we left for Strawberry was to bring his brother home.”

“Really, but he sounded so angry?”

“He was angry, still is to some degree, but at us not you. He was angry that we deceived all of you children and that the revelation of our deception caused you so much pain. You couldn’t make Nick stop loving you even if you wanted and tried.” Heath relaxed against his mother as Tom turned the team and started for home. He had no desire or inclination to leave her embrace, which was just fine because she wasn’t willing to let him go just yet.

*****

Even though in a short amount of time Heath would begin to call Victoria by the more mature and proper address of Mother with an occasional Ma thrown in for good measure, she would always be his one and only Mama. With help from Rachel and Victoria’s letters, Heath had learned a valuable lesson, one of those important and lasting life discoveries. It was one he would pass on to his own children one day.

Anyone who was able to reproduce could be a mother or father but in order to be a child’s mama or papa a person had to be willing to sacrifice. They were the people who tended to you when you were hurt, sat by your side when you were sick, comforted you when you were upset and celebrated in your triumphs. They helped you with schoolwork and always found time to share with you and play with you, no matter how exhausted or busy they might be. They worried when they didn’t know where you were. They provided food, clothing, shelter and safety. They taught you right and wrong and did their best to assure that you would grow into an upstanding, productive member of society. The long and short of it was that they were always there for you and would give their life in exchange for yours.

If anyone had bothered to ask Heath what images were evoked in him to describe what a mama was, his answer would have come easily. To him, a mama was the smell of Victoria’s perfume, the feel of her gentle hands on his face and in his hair, the sound of her laughter and soft voice, the sight of her eyes sparkling with joy and pride as she gazed upon him. Most of all, the memories of curling up in her lap, becoming lost in her secure, warm embrace as her arms wrapped around him.

That was his Mama, Victoria Barkley. Yes, a woman he had never known had given birth to him. A woman named Leah Thomson and he would make sure that her memory would be passed on to her descendants and he would keep the promise he had made at the side of her grave but she had only been his mother. Victoria Barkley was the only mama he had ever known or ever would know and he now realized just how privileged he was to call her Mama. As Rachel had said, he was truly blessed.

  ***The End***

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