Summary: Other than Heath coming to live with the Barkley’s as an eight year old everything is concurrent with the show’s first season, except there is no Eugene.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 6731
Sitting at his desk it dawned on Jarrod that the strange sensations he had been experiencing seemed magnified when in Heath’s presence. Hearing the men cheering his brother on while breaking the new stallion to ride, Jarrod decided a little respite from the paperwork in front of him was in order. As he neared the corral his eyes locked on Heath’s form atop the wildly bucking horse. In his mind’s eye that form slowly changed from the man Heath had become to the child he had once been.
Jarrod had been sixteen when an eight-year-old Heath had come to live with the family. He had just lost his mother and was a confused and lonely little boy frightened by his new surroundings and unsure of how to react to and interact with his new family. He was quiet and solemn, too quiet and solemn for a child his age. He never laughed or participated in childhood games and rarely smiled.
Audra had only been three years old and Nick, at twelve, initially wanted nothing to do with their father’s illegitimate son. Eventually Nick and Heath had formed a bond not only of brotherhood but also friendship. They were now best friends and practically inseparable. In those early days, though, Jarrod had been the one who finally managed to break through the walls of doubt and insecurity Heath had set up.
In his loneliest moments Heath had turned to Jarrod for comfort and companionship. Many nights Jarrod awoke to a small hand gently shaking his shoulder and a face full of tears. Heath would rest his head against Jarrod’s shoulder and wrap his arms around his waist tightly while Jarrod held his little brother until the tears stopped. No words were spoken since none were needed for these two brothers to understand each other. They had also spent happy times together: riding across the ranch, camping, hunting, swimming and fishing. Two years later Jarrod had gone away to college, followed by law school. By the time he had returned home to stay his relationship with Heath had been replaced by the one Heath now shared with Nick.
Jarrod’s thoughts were abruptly jerked back to the present by the realization that the feeling he had been experiencing was nostalgia, a longing to re-establish the bond with Heath that time and distance had erased. Heath had successfully broken the stallion and, spotting his oldest brother, was walking toward Jarrod. Jarrod watched his younger brother, baby brother, approach and was astonished that he had never really noticed before how much of a childlike quality remained in Heath’s handsome features. He had no idea he was smiling until Heath spoke.
“What are you smiling about?” Jarrod shook his head before replying.
“Just relieved to see you break a horse without getting hurt.” Jarrod chuckled at the frown that caused Heath’s brow to crease. “No, seriously, I was just thinking about the good ole days.” Heath’s only response was his very familiar lopsided grin.
“Say, Heath, how would you feel about a camping trip, just the two of us. We rarely get a chance to spend time together anymore and I, for one, would enjoy having you to myself for once and the opportunity to get to know you all over again.” Heath’s eyes squinted as he contemplated the significance behind his brother’s invitation.
“Sure, why not, but if Nick comes back from his cattle buying trip early I will claim you forced me to go at gunpoint.” Jarrod laughed as he clapped Heath on the shoulder. Once again the difference between the mature Heath and the child Heath was emphasized by the muscles Jarrod felt rippling underneath his hand. No longer was he the bigger and stronger older brother who could conquer all of Heath’s fears and enemies. Heath was now a grown man and able to fight his own battles. So much had changed and most of it could not be recovered but Jarrod wanted to try and recapture a little of what he had once shared with his youngest brother.
As deeply as he loved Nick and enjoyed his company Heath found it refreshing to be riding side by side with Jarrod. Unlike Nick, Jarrod was perfectly content to let the silence surround them and did not press for conversation from Heath. Overall, his and Jarrod’s personalities were more suited to each other. They were both quietly contemplative and preferred to be left alone with their thoughts. The main difference could be seen in their self-confidence. Jarrod was definitely much more self-assured in every aspect of his life.
Heath’s thoughts were currently consumed by his curiosity about this sudden trip Jarrod had requested. For the life of him, Heath couldn’t figure out why Jarrod would want to spend several days in the mountains with just him for company. It wasn’t as if he could provide Jarrod with stimulating debate and conversation over current issues. What in the world did Jarrod have in mind when he asked Heath to make this journey with him?
Well, whatever the reason Heath was looking forward to spending some solitary time with his oldest brother. It had been too long since they had last been totally alone together without the possibility of interruption. In fact, he had only been ten years old, could it really have been fourteen years since he and Jarrod had shared a closeness similar to the one he now shared with Nick?
Heath could still recall how much he had adored, trusted and idolized Jarrod as a small boy and, although he still held these feelings for his oldest brother, they didn’t have the same awe behind them as they did when he was eight to ten years old. There had been absolutely nothing he hadn’t been willing to place in Jarrod’s trustworthy hands, except one thing. They had spent many an afternoon at the swimming hole and, although Jarrod skinny-dipped, he had always swam with his underclothes on. He knew Jarrod was curious about the reason he refused to be seen naked but Jarrod honored his decision and never questioned it.
His mother had been deceased for nearly three months before a letter from Rachel had brought Tom and Victoria Barkley to Strawberry to take him home with them. In that time he had been living with his Aunt and Uncle, Matt and Martha Simmons. Both had been unbelievably cruel to him and he had suffered many severe beatings at their hands. To this day his back, buttocks and thighs still bore the scars their beatings had marked him with and would for the rest of his life.
It had taken nearly a whole summer before he had felt secure enough to allow Jarrod to see the marks on his body. As always Jarrod was able to keep his anger in check when he asked about the scars. He had been deeply touched by Jarrod’s compassion for his pain and embarrassment and his vow that as long as he was around he would not allow anyone to get away with hurting his little brother again; a vow Jarrod kept until the day he left for college. A vow that Nick had assumed the day Jarrod left and still served faithfully to this very day.
Jarrod continued to lead the way deeper into the mountains. All he had told Heath was that they would camp at one of his favorite spots. This was new territory for Heath and Jarrod’s quietness allowed him to drink in the beauty around him. He was so absorbed in the view that he almost missed Jarrod’s sudden stop.
“Well, this is the place. What do you think?” Heath could understand why Jarrod kept this getaway private. The small meadow was surrounded on three sides by a dense grove of trees and bushes. On the fourth side there was a small pool of water at the base of a sheer rock wall. Heath could see the tendrils of steam rising from the water and knew he would get to enjoy the warm, soothing effects of a natural hot spring. The smell of honeysuckle delicately wafted on the breeze accompanied by the gentle gurgle of the nearby stream as it flowed over rocks and lapped against the bank. It almost seemed a crime to violate the sanctity of this place with speech.
“It’s beautiful, Jarrod. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
Jarrod watched Heath closely as his younger brother quickly and effortlessly set up camp. Heath’s movements seemed carefully chosen to waste as little time and energy as possible. Jarrod’s thoughts drifted back sixteen years to their first camping trip together.
Heath was so excited that Tom and Victoria had given their permission for him to spend a weekend camping with Jarrod. So excited and filled with anticipation that when asked about previous camping experience he bragged about how often he had spent time in the great outdoors. As they packed for the trip Jarrod couldn’t help but smile as Heath maintained a constant stream of conversation about his many overnight trips in the hills surrounding Strawberry and his expectations for this trip. Jarrod had never seen Heath so animated and had certainly never heard the boy talk so much.
Upon arrival at the camping site Jarrod had chosen it soon became apparent that Heath’s claims were largely exaggerated. He didn’t even have any idea how to erect the tent. Heath was trying so hard but when the firewood he collected put out mostly smoke because the wood was too green he began to cry. Jarrod sat next to Heath, placed an arm around his quaking shoulders and gave him a reassuring hug. Heath briefly glanced at Jarrod before lowering his gaze to the ground.
“I’m sorry I lied to you. I’ve never been camping before.”
“I figured that out about five minutes after getting here.” Jarrod placed his hands on Heath’s cheeks and lifted his face until their eyes met. “Heath, why did you make up all those stories instead of telling me the truth?”
“I always wanted to go camping. I use to beg my Mama to take me but she was always working and couldn’t. Uncle Matt took me once but got mad when I didn’t know how to do anything so he took me right back home. I was afraid if you knew I had never been camping before you wouldn’t want to take me with you. I thought I could hide it from you long enough so I could spend at least one night out.” Jarrod held Heath’s head firmly in his hands, refusing to allow Heath to break eye contact.
“Heath, I didn’t ask you to come with me because of your camping abilities. I asked you because I enjoy your company and love spending time alone with you.” Heath wiped the tears from his eyes and offered Jarrod a tentative and shy smile.
“So we won’t be going back early?”
“Of course not. You’re stuck with me for the entire weekend. Besides the only way you can learn about camping is for someone to teach you.” Heath threw his arms around Jarrod’s waist and whispered.
“I love being with you, too, and there is no one else I’d rather be stuck out here with.”
Jarrod broke out of his reverie to see Heath looking at him.
“This is the second time I’ve caught you staring at me with a far off look. I have to ask you big brother, what’s going on?”
“Well, brother Heath, I’ve just been recalling all the time we spent together when you first came to live with us. I have a lot of fond memories of those days and, lately, every time I watch you perform a task I picture you as a small boy.” Heath appeared uncomfortable as he scuffed the toe of a boot in the dirt.
“I don’t remember very much from back then. Just bits and pieces but not very many details.” No more was said and since night was rapidly approaching they used the last of the waning light to build a roaring campfire to cook by and drifted off to sleep.
The following days found Heath and Jarrod alternating their time between fishing, relaxing in the hot spring and exploring the area surrounding their campsite. As they hiked in the woods and along the stream Heath would occasionally share his knowledge of local plant life. Even though Jarrod was familiar with the plants and had initially been the person who introduced Heath to their identities he was impressed by the additional information about them that Heath imparted, much of which Jarrod, himself, had no knowledge.
In the meadow Heath pointed out Sheep Sorrel with it’s arrow shaped leaves and green flowers beginning to turn red and explained how the leaves could be boiled in water and the water drank to help reduce a fever. He also spied the goose foot shaped leaves of a Lamb’s Quarter plant. On the lower half of the plant the leaves were broad and toothed while those on top were small and smooth edged. The seeds were grayish black in color and had a honey comb texture. Jarrod knew the leaves could be eaten and had a taste similar to spinach but he was unaware that they could be boiled in water to relieve stomachaches and diarrhea or made into a poultice to treat burns.
Curious to learn more he asked Heath to show him some of the plants found in the wooded area. Although he was aware that the leaves of Polk weed could be cooked and consumed he was surprised to learn that this was only safe when they were still young and green. Once the lance shaped leaves with curled edges were streaked with red they became too dangerous to eat. The flowers were small and white to green in color and hung down in long, drooping clusters. The flat, spherical dark purple to ink black berries and the tall, smooth purplish stem, along with the seeds and roots, were highly poisonous and could never be used as a source of food. In fact, Heath was careful not to touch any part of the plant other than the leaves. In a rocky area of the woods Heath located a prickly pear cactus. The pods had flat stem joints and were covered with tiny awl shaped leaves. Broad, bright yellow flowers with red centers and large petals topped the plant. The pods could be peeled and prepared like green beans.
Along the stream bank they ran across Cattails. The leaves were long and thin with bloom spikes that were dark brown in color. The spikes, when boiled, were similar to corn. The core of the stalk had a cucumber taste when eaten raw and, if boiled, tasted like asparagus while the core of the root was starchy and, after a day of drying, could be ground into flour.
The last plant they looked at was a blackberry bush. The bush was thorny with large, toothed leaves and star shaped stems that grew erect from the ground. The fruit was a deep purple to a glossy black color. Besides eating the berries the roots could be used to relieve stomach and back aches and mixed with the leaves also used to control dysentery and diarrhea.
Jarrod was proud of how Heath had taken the rudimentary knowledge of plant identification he had taught him as a small boy and built upon it until his knowledge surpassed that of his teacher. Heath might not be the man to help you through a fancy ball or a night at the opera but there was no one Jarrod knew who could better help someone to survive in the wilderness. Heath’s type of knowledge had more practical use in the real world and Jarrod was honored to have him for a brother.
Heath did the honors of cooking their supper that night while Jarrod pretended to sulk. The afternoon of fishing had proven futile for Jarrod. In fact, he hadn’t managed to catch a single fish the whole trip until a few hours earlier. Unfortunately he and Heath weren’t the only ones with a fish supper on their minds. Jarrod’s fruitless hours of patiently waiting for a bite finally paid off and he began to eagerly bring the splashing and jumping trout to shore. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere a large black bear flew by his side in a blinding blur, ran into the stream, grabbed HIS fish and tore off into the woods. Jarrod stood in stunned disbelief while Heath rolled with laughter. Jarrod’s proclamation the that particular bear was a lazy, no good, thieving scoundrel and that he had enough and would no longer attempt to “land a big one or a small one” did nothing to help his brother gain control of his amusement. Neither did his observation that the bear must have been hunkered down watching them fish for quite some time and yet passed up on the numerous trout Heath had raked in to take the one and only fish he had managed to get on his line.
Even now, if Heath chanced a look at his oldest brother he would once again burst out in laughter. Truthfully Jarrod enjoyed listening to the deep, rolling laughter of his brother. Although Heath was much freer in allowing himself to verbally show happiness than he did as a boy it was still a rare and joyous sound that all of the family loved to hear.
Their supper of fried rabbit steaks saturated with the flavor of wild onions, trout sautéed in lemon juice, baked potatoes and boiled stalks of a cattail equaled the gourmet meals served in some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants. And, at least Jarrod had the satisfaction of knowing that he was the one who provided the rabbit for their meal.
They chose to spend their final day exploring further away from their camp. After nearly two hours of walking and talking about nothing in particular they came upon a small pond and decided a cool dip would be ideal before beginning the journey back to camp.
Heath, as always, was slow and deliberate in his movements and Jarrod was already undressed and in the water by the time Heath entered. Seeing the ugly, raised scars on his brother’s backside would never be something he would become accustomed to. Inside his heart broke for not only a brutalized little boy but for how it had affected the man that boy had become.
Closing his eyes Jarrod was transported back in time to the last swimming trip he and Heath had shared before he left for college. Heath was full of excitement and talking a mile a minute as they approached their favorite swimming hole. It was the second anniversary of Heath’s arrival at the ranch and, in celebration, their father had given him his very own horse and the boy was overflowing with joy. His joy and excitement were quickly replaced with discomfort and suspicion upon seeing the pond already occupied by Nick. Although Nick had long ago ceased his verbal and physical hostility toward Heath their relationship was still strained and distant. Sensing Heath’s fear and hesitation Jarrod squeezed his shoulder.
“Come on, Heath. We’re here to swim and Nick isn’t going to do anything to you. Remember my promise? No one will hurt you as long as I’m here.” With a reassuring wink Jarrod disrobed and entered the pond. Heath stood in uncertainty for several moments before finally removing his clothing. As he had done two years ago Heath only undressed as far as his undergarments. As he stepped toward the water Nick noticed his attire.
“Are you coming in still wearing your underclothes?” Heath froze and stared at the ground. From his angle Jarrod noticed Heath’s quivering lips as he struggled not to cry. Nick was unaware of the marks Heath carried and, not being known for tactfulness, he continued to address Heath.
“Look if you’re worried about…..well, you know…..being smaller, that’s normal. You’re still just a little kid. I’m not gonna laugh at ya.” Before exiting the pond Jarrod applied a firm swat to the back of Nick’s head.
“NICK.” Although he wasn’t too happy to have Jarrod apply discipline in this way he fully well understood that his older brother expected no further comments be made. Jarrod was unable to get Heath to look up so he knelt down in front of him.
“Heath, it’s okay if you want to swim in your underclothes. There’s nothing wrong with that and Nick won’t say anything more. Will you, Nick?” Stinging with anger and embarrassment but not relishing the consequences of defying Jarrod he spoke up.
“No, I won’t.” Heath finally locked eyes with Jarrod and Jarrod was surprised to see a flicker of anger and defiance behind the tears. With a determination Jarrod had never seen Heath show before he slowing began to strip off his underclothes. The instant Nick saw the scars on his little brother he forgot about being silent.
“How in the hell did you get those welts?” Heath’s embarrassment and self-consciousness returned immediately and he withdrew into his shell of silence so Jarrod filled Nick in on the details.
“You mean his Uncle did that to him? If I ever get my hands on the son of a……well, let’s just say no one gets away with hurting MY little brother like that.” Heath’s shocked eyes looked at Nick as he continued to rage about Matt Simmons and what he would like to do to the man. For the first time Jarrod felt a sense of relief. In that moment he knew that his absence would not leave Heath unprotected and without a companion. And despite his hot temper Nick would prove to be as devoted of a brother and protector to Heath as he had been.
Both Jarrod and Heath regretted the approaching end of their trip and they walked back to camp in silence. Spying an eagle Heath neared the edge of a steep slope to watch her flight. Unaware that a recent rain had weakened the soil Heath stopped at the edge. Unable to bear his weight the ground suddenly gave way and caved out from underneath him. Jarrod reached the edge just in time to see his brother’s tumbling body come to a crashing halt against a tree nearly 300 hundred yards down the slope.
Heath was up and moving by the time Jarrod carefully picked his way down to where his brother had come to a sudden stop. Although he was moving fairly well Jarrod noticed he was favoring his right side.
“How bad is it, Heath?”
“Not bad. I’m pretty sure nothing is broken.”
“Let me take a look.” Heath gingerly lifted his right arm and held it away from his side while Jarrod pulled his shirttail free and unbuttoned the shirt. The impact with the tree had halted Heath’s tumble down the steep slope and probably prevented broken limbs or other severe injuries that might have occurred if he had continued to the bottom but at a price.
From his underarm to his hip the entire right side of his body was red and Jarrod knew within a few hours the redness would be replaced with extensive bruising. Low on the belly, just above the waistband of his pants, the rough tree bark had left an ugly abrasion about five inches long and two inches wide that was seeping blood. Jarrod gently but firmly pressed on the ribcage. Even though Heath winced and groaned aloud Jarrod was relieved not to detect any broken ribs.
“Well, little brother, you’ll be sore and tender for quite a while but, luckily, nothing is broken. Let’s get back to camp so I can clean up that wound.” Slowly the two brothers ascended the hillside and headed back to their campsite.
Nightfall was on them when they arrived. Jarrod helped Heath to the ground, built up the fire and returned to his brother with water, soap, rags and a lantern. He kneeled in front of Heath and began the task of tending to the wound.
“Hold your shirt to the side, Heath.” Heath did as requested until Jarrod placed a damp rag against the wound causing three simultaneous reactions: Heath dropped his shirttail, his abdominal muscles contracted and he sharply sucked in air through tightly clenched teeth. Jarrod knew the site was tender and hated that his ministrations were causing his brother further pain but he also knew it had to be done.
“Heath, I’m sorry this hurts but I need you to keep your shirt out of my way.” Once again Heath did as asked. Several times Jarrod was forced to repeat this request before the task was completed. Jarrod tried to take Heath’s mind off the pain by initiating conversation.
“You’ve really done it this time, little brother.”
“Well, in order to gain Mother’s blessing for this trip I had to promise her that I would keep you out of harms way. I do believe she would have put her foot down and refused to let us come up here if I had not sworn to bring you back unscathed.” Heath’s soft chuckle was followed by a painful gasp.
“You are in trouble. Even if I could hide my soreness she will probably make me strip and check me head to toe to make sure you kept that promise.” Jarrod laughed out loud as he began to briskly scrub the wound. Heath yelped and chastised his oldest brother.
“Boy howdy, Jarrod, you’re rougher than Nick when it comes to patching me up.” Jarrod paused and, glancing at Heath, raised an eyebrow.
“Rougher than Nick, huh? Exactly how often is Nick called upon to patch you up?” Heath blushed, realizing he had imparted a little too much information and would now have to reveal all.
“Too often but we have a deal. Nick patches me up so Mother doesn’t find out I’ve been hurt. Works good for Nick since I usually get hurt because of one of his harebrained schemes.” Jarrod had resumed treating Heath’s injury.
“Sounds like a good deal for Nick but what do you get out of it?”
“Mother never knows I’ve been injured.”
“And you feel that works in your favor?”
“Sure. If she doesn’t know then she doesn’t get a chance to work me over with the liniment but most of all she can’t fuss at me or be worried. Sometimes she makes me feel….I don’t know.…different, I guess.” Both brothers lapsed into silence. Jarrod was disturbed by Heath’s last comment but before he could decide how to probe for a further explanation Heath once again let his shirt fall in the way.
“Damn it, Heath. I’m almost finished. Now move your shirt.” Receiving no reply Jarrod looked up to discover Heath had fallen asleep. Smiling Jarrod held the shirt to the side and finished the job one handed. Since only Heath’s shoulders and upper back were leaning on the tree against which he was propped Jarrod was able to encircle his waist with a long strip of cloth to hold the bandaging in place. Gently he woke Heath.
“Come on, little brother. It’s getting chilly, let’s move closer to the fire.” After settling under his blanket Heath immediately fell back to sleep but Jarrod remained awake late into the night, wondering what Heath had meant when he said different.
Jarrod was up early the next morning after a restless night of tossing and turning trying to figure out what masked emotions had prompted Heath’s statement. Heath was still sound asleep so he chose to prepare their morning meal before waking his brother up but the smell of bacon, eggs and coffee roused Heath from his slumber. Heath’s pinched expression and reluctance to get out from underneath his blanket told Jarrod that his brother was in quite a bit of pain. Breakfast was delayed as Jarrod helped Heath up and over to the hot spring. He couldn’t keep from wincing as he assisted Heath in undressing and saw the enormous bruising which extended from his right armpit all the way down to his upper thigh. While Heath’s stiff and battered body soaked in the warm water Jarrod began to break camp for their return home.
Thirty minutes later Heath indicated that he was ready to exit the water and once again Jarrod had to help his brother. The soothing effects of the heated water had helped but it was obvious to Jarrod that Heath was still very sore. Jarrod was required to dress his brother because Heath was simply unable to bend at the waist. Jarrod noticed the averted eyes and deep crimson blush as he pulled Heath’s pants up and Heath took over buttoning them. Placing his hand on the nape of Heath’s neck he gave the head a gentle shake.
“It’s all right, Heath. You don’t need to be embarrassed. Families are for support in difficult times as well as good times.” Heath’s light blue eyes met Jarrod’s bright blue ones briefly.
“Yeah, I know. I just don’t like having to depend on others.” Jarrod smiled his understanding and gave a brother’s loving squeeze to the back of Heath’s neck. Leaning close to Heath’s ear, he whispered his reply.
“That’s what big brothers are for.”
With everything packed and ready to go and Heath’s refusal to eat any more of his breakfast or recuperate for another day before heading home the two brothers prepared to mount their horses. Heath’s request for help in mounting Charger let Jarrod know two things. For such a proud man to ask for this type of assistance Heath must still be in quite a bit of pain. And, the fact that he felt secure and comfortable enough to admit his weakness to Jarrod indicated that the separation that time and difference in interests had caused between them had been bridged.
Jarrod still wanted a further explanation about how their mother made Heath feel different and he honestly believed Heath needed to talk about it but how should he approach such an obviously raw and emotional topic in a way that would get Heath to open up? For the time being they rode in silence, Jarrod lost in his thoughts and Heath in his discomfort.
Suddenly, like a flash of lightning, Jarrod knew and his mind reverberated with the answer. Stop thinking like a lawyer. If you start cross-examining him he will clam up. Just be his BROTHER, that’s all he needs right now. Jarrod forged ahead.
“Heath, last night you said Mother sometimes makes you feel different. I would like to know exactly what you meant by that.” He watched as Heath’s jaw set in stubborn silence. “I’m confused. Since the day you came to the ranch she has treated you the same as Nick, Audra and I. She has given you the same love, compassion and understanding that we have received. I’m worried and concerned that I have somehow missed things which have possibly upset you.” Heath’s voice was soft and low.
“Her love, compassion and understanding for me is not the same as what the three of you receive.” Just when Jarrod was convinced Heath would say no more he continued. “Sometimes I feel smothered, Jarrod. She still treats me like a little kid at times. She would never forbid you or Nick from doing certain things but she does so to me all the time. Not in so many words but her facial expressions leave no doubt that she disapproves of some things I want to do, so I don’t do them.”
“Would you mind being more specific?” He listened to Heath’s deep sigh. This emotional stuff was tough on his brother.
“How ‘bout this trip? You had to promise that I wouldn’t get hurt before she agreed to let us or, more to the point, me come up here for the week. If it had been Nick instead of me she would have never asked you to make that promise.” Jarrod couldn’t argue since he knew Heath was right.
“Did you know that she refused to allow me not only to go on the trail drives but also roundup after what happened when I was twelve?”
Jarrod shuddered as he vividly recalled the incident to which Heath was referring. It was the early spring of 1864 and, although Heath would not be going on the cattle drive, he was given permission to help with the roundup for the first time. He had actually been just shy of his twelfth birthday at the time. The first few days of roundup went off without a hitch but on the fourth day the spring showers began, making the work more difficult for both man and beast. Heath had been attempting to turn a stray back to the herd when he got too close to the edge of the ridge and his horse’s hoofs slipped in the mud, sending both horse and rider over the side.
Nick, himself, was still a couple of months from his sixteenth birthday and had been the only witness to Heath’s terrifying accident. To this day Nick still questions his decision to ride back to the herd and send a man to get their father before checking on his brother. At the time he feared that if he had gone to Heath first he would have never been able to tear himself away to go get help. As it was he sat alone with Heath for nearly an hour before the others arrived.
Jarrod was serving in the Union army at the time and received special permission to return home because Heath was not expected to survive his severe injuries. He would never forget his first glimpse of Heath as he lay fighting for his life. The boy’s back, left arm, lower right leg and lower and upper left leg were broken. He also had several broken ribs and a skull fracture. Heath remained unconscious for nearly two weeks and his recovery had been slow and very painful.
“No, I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Well, she did and I didn’t go again until I was eighteen years old.” Jarrod was astounded that he had never known.
“For the longest time I didn’t even go into town with the hands because I knew Mother didn’t like for me to go to the saloon but she never seemed to mind Nick going there. There are times when it seems like Mother is trying too hard to prove to the world that she loves me and that makes me feel like I’m a charity case.” For the first time during this conversation Jarrod allowed his lawyer’s intuition to take over.
“Heath, since the moment Mother saw you as a frightened little boy who had suffered not only the loss of his own mother but also the horrors of child abuse after her death she fell in love with you. She knows no other way than to love with her entire heart and soul and on that day you became her son. Unlike her other children you have experienced untold emotional and physical pain. I believe she has become so protective of you not because she is trying to prove something but because she feels you have seen enough of the ugliness that this world has to offer. I never saw it before but you’re right, she does treat you different because you are different. Whether you will admit it or not, emotionally you are very vulnerable and fragile and it hurts her deeply to see your emotions take additional blows. The physical blows have become a part of that simply because any mother hates to see her child injured. Mother is determined to prevent you from receiving these blows when at all possible.”
“I never thought of it that way. Thanks, Jarrod.”
“For the second time in my life you are the person who has kept my head above water, first helping me learn to trust my new family and now helping me to understand that being different isn’t such a bad thing.”
“You’re welcome, Heath but unfortunately I don’t think you can count on Mother ever changing how she treats you. After all, you will always be her precious,” Heath’s face reddened “adorable,” deeper still “baby boy.”
“All right, Jarrod. I get the picture. Boy howdy, I thought Nick could be ruthless with the teasing stuff but he can’t hold a candle to you.”
The laughter of the two brothers announced their arrival home to the rest of the family. Like any mother Victoria immediately noticed something was wrong with Heath. Jarrod tried to quickly and quietly slip in the door as her hug elicited a gasp from Heath. Her voice cut through the air and he briefly thought about making a dash for it.
“JARROD THOMAS BARKLEY! I thought we had an agreement.” Her back was to Heath when Jarrod turned to face her and he was unable to keep from laughing seeing the knowing, confidential wink Heath gave him. Soon Heath’s laughter joined his and left Victoria frustrated.
“What in the world are you two laughing about?” Heath lost his humor the instant he saw Nick step outside. He couldn’t keep from thinking he and Jarrod would really be in for it now. Nick came to a stop by Jarrod’s side.
“What agreement, Mother? And, just exactly when did I say you were free to go gallivanting across the countryside while I was gone, little brother?” Victoria was busy trying to examine Heath but he finally drew the line when she tried to see exactly how far down his side the bruising extended.
“MOTHER, not out here, for goodness sake.”
“Well, fine but I want to know how far that bruise goes and I want the truth.” Resignedly Heath touched the outside of his leg midway between his hip and knee.
“It’s okay, Mother, just a bruise but I am sore and don’t think I will be much help to Nick for a few days. But I don’t need the doctor.”
“We’ll see about that after I take a good look for myself, young man. And, Nick, the agreement was that Jarrod would keep your younger brother from being hurt on their little foray into the mountains.” Her eyes cast a withering, displeased glance at her first born.
“Well, this is just great. I come home to find both of my brothers have taken a leisurely vacation and now that they’ve returned I find out that the oldest has let the youngest get hurt.” Nick was just warming up to his subject but Jarrod was starting to feel unjustly put upon, after all it wasn’t as if he had pushed Heath down that hillside. Before Nick could continue Jarrod played his trump card. He leaned toward Nick and whispered.
“Before you get too tuned up, brother Nick, you should know that I am aware of a certain ‘patching up’ agreement between you and Heath. It would be a shame if Mother found out about it, don’t you think?” Blackmail was sinking kind of low but he couldn’t have found a better or quicker way to silence Nick.
“Oh, well….ummm….guess I can do without the boy for a couple of days.”
Victoria had finally given up trying to check Heath over until she could get him inside. In disgust she threw her arms in the air. Before she could turn to walk in the house Heath pulled her into his embrace.
“I love you, too, Mother.” As she stepped back Heath saw the burning flames of anger die in her eyes. For the first time he truly recognized a familiar memory of his birth mother in the woman who had taken him in as her own. Reflected in Victoria’s eyes he could see Leah’s shining joy of unconditional love.