Summary: A Continuation of the episodes “Forty Rifles.”
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 4300
Nick was still using a cane when I came home from the cattle drive. He had been shot in the leg while we were herding cattle belonging not just to our family but to several others to sell in San Diego. Seeing him shot still sent chills down my spine. I think I realized at that moment how very much my brother had come to mean to me in the month we had known each other. If he had died…well it was a tragedy that would have impacted me far more than I initially would have thought. Now, weeks later, after the cattle drive was completed successfully despite the interference of my brother’s former commanding officer, General Wallant. Now Wallant was dead and the cattle were sold to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Still, Nick’s shooting rankled me, rankled but didn’t surprise. It wasn’t just that Nick’s friend was a military officer. Any man could have plotted to take the cattle. It was the fact that the man posed as Nick’s friend. But then, perhaps when the end came, I knew the man was already insane, living in the memories of a war that was ten years past, rashly believing the Barkley hands would follow him to the death. The whole mess hurt me, so I wondered how Nick felt. Nick, my big brother, wasn’t much in discussing his emotions, and certainly not with me yet. We’d only known each other for a month.
I was standing outside on the porch, watching the horses in the corral. Mother, Nick, Audra, and Jarrod were inside still talking about Wallant and what a stupid waste his death was. Outside I listened, but could only feel contempt and anger for. That instant before the shooting haunted me coming to mind at odd times until I remembered the facts. If Nick hadn’t moved on his horse just when Wallant’s hired gun fired its bullet, well, Nick could be six feet under. The fact that I had been in just as much danger when I was sitting in that shack with more armed machinery than the army had didn’t really bother me. I’d been in those situations before, but knowing Nick could have been killed. It was too much. It wasn’t right.
“Penny for your thoughts,” a soft melodious voice asked. I had to smile. Looking down at the petite lady who had graciously offered to have me call her Mother, I felt the pride mixed with guilt at using that name. She was so much better than I deserved. She treated me with as much love and care as she did my brothers and sister even though I was no blood relation to her. She had asked me about my thoughts before the cattle drive. I had confided in her that I suspected the General of something devious though I couldn’t put my finger on it. I still remembered her words.
“And you can’t prove it?” she had asked, her voice rising a notch. In resignation, I shook my head. To my surprise, her small hand touched my arm. “Oh, Heath, take care. Take care.” Looking down into those maternal grey eyes, I knew she meant every word. I still didn’t understand why she cared so much. I was just glad she did.
“Heath?” she asked again.
“Sorry,” I replied. “Just thinking, I guess.”
“Nick is very proud of you,” she offered. When I didn’t answer, her hand touched my arm again. “Can you tell me what is bothering you?” Her voice might have been tentative, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was filled with warmth and acceptance. I looked out at the horses again.
“I don’t know really. Just a feeling.”
“I think I’m learning to trust your feelings,” she laughed lightly. “Is it Nick?”
“In a way.”
She started to speak, to defend him I was sure. I looked further away and she was silent. When I looked back she spoke. “Heath, in all of the events that have occurred in the last month, no one has really asked how you feel. This has all been very strange I’m sure. I think we assumed that you would be happy with us. Was I wrong?” My heart pattered in fear. Did she want me to go away? Did she regret her decision in asking me to stay? I didn’t think so. If it was one thing you could count on with Victoria Barkley, it was her honesty. If she didn’t want me here, she would say so.
“I…reckon this is a dream come true,” I admitted.
Her return smile was joyous to witness. “For us too, Heath. You’ve given us more than you’ll ever know.” Now it was my turn to be puzzled. What had I done, except root the family right out of their complacent lives? I’d shattered Nick’s belief in our father. I’d trampled on Tom Barkley’s memory without a thought, not that I meant to. But that’s what I’d done, hadn’t I?
“Iff’n you say so,” I answered.
“Heath, no matter what you think, no matter what you do, you have to understand you are a part of this family. I don’t know when that happened. It just did. I think it was when you fought at Semple’s farm with your brothers. I was as proud of you as I was of them.”
“But you didn’t even know me,” I reminded her.
“I knew your father.” She leaned against my shoulder, her trust given so explicitly, so easily. “I knew Tom Barkley probably better than any person in the world except maybe his mother. He was wild, impetuous, intelligent, brave and foolish.”
“Sounds like Nick,” I grimaced, chuckling to myself.
“Like all of his sons, including you. Heath, don’t you see yourself in your brothers? Each one of you carries Tom Barkley inside of you. Each of you has those traits, even that foolhardy courage you use to do what you think is right, even if costs you your life.” Her words slammed into me like a bolt of lightning. She was right. Sitting in that shack, defending myself against Wallant and the men had been foolhardy, but it had been right, and I’d do it again…and she knew it. Jarrod had his causes, and so did Nick and Gene. Nick came off as being blunt and gruff, not really concerned about others, but there was that soft spot in my brother. I wasn’t much for words, but I knew compassion and empathy when I saw them…and they were traits Nick had whether he admitted it or not.
“Tom Barkley treated all men as equals. I meant what I said that first night. No one, no one can take away your birthright, most especially you. We love you too much for that now.” I put my arm around her and hugged her.
“Thank you,” I said. “I guess I needed that.”
“Everyone needs a bit of mothering now and then,” she told me.
“What about you?”
“Oh, I have you children. That’s enough for me.” And it was. That she was devoted to each of us was something I could never refute. Victoria Barkley was an icon of her husband’s ideals. She treated her children the way I imagined he would have wanted to, but maybe didn’t always have the time. I knew his untimely death had almost shattered the family. I couldn’t say I understood for I had never met the man, but this family…each one of them felt so deeply, so intensely, I could think my father’s death had truly been felt and always would be. Shaking myself I turned back to the living room with Mother on my arm. Jarrod and Audra were playing cards. Nick was nowhere to be seen.
“Aha,” Jarrod pounced. “Nick has refused to play a game of pool with me. Brother Heath, I think it’s time I took some of that money you earned from the cattle drive.”
“Think so, huh, Big Brother?” I teased back.
Jarrod’s grin grew. “I do!”
“Well, I reckon I could spare a game or two, but it might be you losing your attorney’s fees, Counselor. First I’d like to talk to Nick. You don’t know where he went do you?”
“He went out to the barn to check on that new bull he bought while you were away.”
“I see. Well if you are all in bed when I get back. Good night.”
“We’ll be up,” Mother answered with a knowing smile. “Just don’t be too long.” Jarrod raised his eyebrows, winking at me. Audra stole a glance at me before returning her attention to her game of Solitaire. I was rather curious about their behavior, but ignored it as I placed my mind on talking to Nick. I had some issues to hash out with my big brother, issues I wasn’t entirely clear about.
I watched him come out of the house, this new brother of mine. He walked with a purpose I could understand, as if he had his mind on one thing and he was determined to deal with it. I guess that determination saved his life and the lives of our men while he was facing down my old commander, General Wallant. Wallant had turned out to be the worst thing that could happen to our cattle drive, much less to my little brother. Heath hadn’t been entirely honest about how he faced Wallant down, alone in a shack, facing all of our twenty men and Wallant with one gun and a shack full of ammunition that could have exploded if a gunfight were to ensue. I had gotten that story out of the men. I understood his reticence in admitting this to Mother or Audra. But Jarrod and me? Why hadn’t he told us?
My brother’s voice rang through the barn. I stepped into the light of the lantern I had hung from a hook on the door.
“There you are. I would a thought ya would be resting that sore leg of yours.”
“I ain’t a cripple,” I growled, perhaps a little more than I had intended. Heath didn’t flinch. Leaning against the open doorway, he watched me with that amused look of his. At the same time, I could see other emotions, some confusion and hurt maybe. I was just learning to read him, but already it seemed as if I knew him better than Jarrod or Gene. I hadn’t figured that out yet. I just knew.
“Didn’t reckon ya were,” he drawled. “Just checking on ya.” Yep I knew him better than that. I used my cane for leverage, standing against my aching leg, ignoring the pain there for the ache I was seeing in Heath.
“Ya got something to say, Boy, say it.” Heath cracked a smile, but it was one of sorrow I think.
“Ain’t sure what I want ta say, Nick. I just…wish this whole thing hadn’t happened.” My head snapped to attention on that one. Heath had proved himself on the drive, had saved the herd, not just for our family, but for the five others that had thrown in with us. He had taken abuse from the men, even from me to succeed where even I had failed.
“Boy, are you crazy?” I demanded. “What you did took more guts than most men could come up with a lifetime.” Heath’s anger flashed across his sapphire eyes, those intense eyes that belonged to our father. For a minute I felt as though I were facing him.
“What did it take, Nick? Guts? Barkley guts? Is that what you’re saying? Well I don’t give a damn about that. What I care about is the family in there.”
“What?” I wondered if my voice sounded as dumbfounded as I was.
“Nick, ya coulda been killed by a man you trusted. What would that have done to Mother, Audra and Jarrod? Ain’t they suffered enough…with…with…” He couldn’t get the word out, but I realized immediately what he was saying. He was sensitive, I had to give him that. For the anguish of our father’s murder was still a living breathing part of the family’s lives. Heath was indeed perceptive, especially when it came to a man he had never met. I walked over to my little brother.
“Heath, I didn’t know,” I apologized, not sure why I was, but trying to placate him.
“I know you didn’t, Nick. That’s what makes it so terrible. Aren’t ya mad? You trusted him and he betrayed ya. Ya haven’t said anything about it.” Aha, so that was it. If I hadn’t admired Heath for his bravery against Wallant, I now admired him for his concern for a brother who had been suspicious of him from the word go.
“Does it matter, Heath? Does it really? Wallant is dead. His betrayal wasn’t necessarily directed at me. He just wanted the men. And he found them until you stopped him in his tracks.”
“I killed him, Nick. I could have just winged him, but I killed him.”
I shook my head. Was there no end to Heath’s ability to feel guilty? I almost laughed. Another Barkley trait. Guilt. Heath had it written all over his face.
“What’s so funny?” Heath demanded apparently picking up on what I was thinking. I wasn’t surprised. If I could read him, surely he could read me. It was another string in the link between us, a link that was growing day by day.
“Nothing, Heath. There’s nothing funny about what happened with Wallant. But do you honestly think he would have stopped until he was dead?”
“So it was your life or his?”
“Yeah, probably. I know the difference, Nick. But he was your friend.”
“Heath, who do you think is more important, Wallant or you?”
Heath hesitated. In that instant, I wanted to shove him back against the wall and give him what for. Damn Fool kid, I wanted to scream. When was he ever going to figure out that he deserved what he had been given, a family, a home, a life he deserved every bit as much the rest of us. I wished I knew how to get through to him.
“Heath, why didn’t you tell Jarrod or me about the shack?” I asked switching subjects though I was on track if Heath didn’t know it. Heath’s eyes widened until he had to give me that lopsided grin of his.
“Some men can’t keep their mouths shut,” he grumbled. Walking out to the corral, he leaned against the fence. I followed him, using the fence for support.
“Heath, I asked ya a question. The least ya could do was answer it!” My voice rose several octaves. Heath still didn’t jump. My temper didn’t affect him any more than it affected Jarrod, Mother or Audra. Damn the man. He learned quick.
“I heard ya,” he answered.
“You could at least answer me.”
“Why? I did what I had to, Nick. I’d do it again. Ya got what ya wanted: the cattle back, the men back. What more do ya want?” My stomach churned as I strove to control my patience. I don’t know where it came from or maybe I do. Either way neither of us was prepared for my hand coming out and hitting Heath in the jaw. He fell back on the ground, rubbing his chin, but he didn’t get up.
“Come on,” I goaded. “Get up!”
“Go to hell, Nick.”
“Get up! Let me beat some sense into that thick head of yers. Don’t sit there and tell me you didn’t feel anything when I got shot. I know you did ’cause I saw it when I left you with the hands and Wallant.”
“So?” Heath laid where he was. He wasn’t going to fight me. I could see that. Lending a hand, I started to help him stand. As I pulled so did Heath and I went down. So much for my intuition.
“What the hell was that for?” I yelled.
“Payback,” Heath replied. He stood, this time helping me to my feet. I could a cuffed him. Instead, I let him help me back to the fence. I was startled as he spoke one word.
“Yeah? Yeah, what?”
“Yeah, I felt something. Ya satisfied?”
“No! Boy, you’re harder to get through too than an iron wall. Did it occur to you that this family has the right to know what you really went through? You put your life on the line, Little Brother, for a bunch of cattle. Don’t ya know your life means a hell of a lot more to us?”
“It wasn’t just me, Nick,” Heath defended. “What if I let Wallant take the men down to Mexico. They’d a died sure down there. I couldn’t let him do that.” For a second I stared at this blond brother, this man who looked so much like my late father, our late father. For a second the world spun around me. Heath put a steadying hand on my shoulder.
“Nick! Nick!” His voice sounded far away. Hastily I brushed away the tear that came to my eyes. Heath started to put his arm around me as if he were afraid I were going to collapse. I brushed him off. With a sense of admiration I stared at him.
“That’s what Father said,” I told him.
“Father…with the railroad. He said sometimes one man had to stand up for the many who couldn’t. That’s exactly what you did.”
“And so did he,” Heath said as if understanding Tom Barkley for the first time. There were no more words needed. In a rare display, we hugged slapping each other on the back, not minding the tears that came, solidifying once and for all the relationship we would never doubt again. Brothers aren’t borne necessarily by living together or sharing meals and chores. They’re borne by experience, respect and love. Heath would put his life on the line many times in the future for the family he loved…but that first time would always live in my heart. I knew I would never forget.
They came into the house together, laughing and talking as if the tension that had been there just a while before had been totally eradicated. Mother, Audra and I exchanged glances. Nick and Heath had settled the unspoken argument between them. I could guess why they were angry with each other, and both too stubborn to admit their feelings. But they must have in the barn. As they walked inside, the sound of their combined laughter was gold to us.
“Nick!” Mother cried. “Must you be so loud? It’s late.”
“Don’t worry, Mother. I haven’t broken any windows lately.”
“Only my eardrums,” Audra moaned in devilish protest. Mother and Audra had been stitching together on a dress they were making. They put the cloth away as the boys came in. I had been reading a book which I set down. As if on cue, Silas came in with a cake. It was chocolate, Heath’s favorite. Silas put it down on the trolley we usually used for drinks.
“What’s this?” Nick asked, not being part of the surprise. Mother walked up to him as he stared at the cake dumbfounded. She put her hand on his arm.
“What do you think?” she queried. I watched Nick closely. His relationship with Heath had been one of my primary concerns since Heath came to the ranch. The two were like fire and ice sometimes. I’d felt like knocking their heads together a few times. That first morning after Heath came to the ranch, I knew my brothers were more alike than Nick and I were. There was Nick on one side of the table, Heath on the other, both of them with a fork in one steak, neither one of them willing to give into the other. I wasn’t sure which one was more filled with steam, Nick who thought Heath was an intruder or Heath who truly believed he belonged to our family. They truly did make a picture. Audra couldn’t control her giggle. I took a knife and cut the steak in half to avoid a war. When they each lifted half the steak, then smiled and laughed a little, I was hopeful. Tonight I was privileged to witness Nick’s joy in Heath’s existence. He grinned at the cake and pulled Heath forward, almost falling in his excitement due to his bad leg. “Look at that, Heath. Now it’s official, your first welcome home party. Better get used to it. The women like to fuss.”
”Nicholas!” Mother scolded while I hid a chuckle. Nick was right. Audra and Mother did fuss over all over us. They figured it was their privilege. We granted it reluctantly…and happily at the same time. Nick was right. It was something Nick needed to look forward to. Heath stared at the cake.
“Welcome home, Heath,” the writing on the cake said. It was simple, something Heath appreciated. There were no candles, but I don’t think any were needed. Heath’s face blushed red with embarrassment and delight.
“Speak, Brother Heath,” I encouraged. Heath didn’t say anything at first.
Audra hurried over to him. She hugged him. “We missed you while you were gone,” she told him in her simple manner.
“Thanks, Sis,” my little brother answered. He has such an easy rapport with Audra. They were a pleasure to see together. He picked up the knife to cut it.
“Ah, why don’t I cut that, Mistah Heath,” Silas intervened. “I got lots of practice.”
“Only if you’ll have a slice, Silas, and it’s Heath.” Silas shook his head, smiling. Silas and Heath were going to be at that argument forever I figured. Silas was certain that good manner would prevail and he would call Heath, Mister forever. Heath was just as certain friendship would prevail. My bet was on my little brother. Silas cut the cake, putting it on plates that Mother handed out. We stood around eating cake, all of us. I strode up to Heath, and put my arm around his shoulder. “You know, Brother Heath, it’s official now.”
Heath looked rather askance…and a little bit afraid, I’d have to admit. Hiding my amusement, I slapped him on the back.
“What’s official?” he squeaked out.
Nick slapped him on the back now. “Little Brother if you don’t know the answer to that, we need to have another talk in the barn.”
“What did you talk about in the barn?” Audra asked with her usual ebullient curiosity. I waited as Nick and Heath looked down at their cake and ate without answering.
“Mother!” she begged. “Why won’t they tell?”
“Sometimes, Sweetheart,” Mother said wisely. “Sometimes, brothers need their own privacy.”
“Does that mean Nick and Heath won’t fight so much?” Audra pointed out coyly. I had to hand it to my sister. She knew how to handle her own in a house of men.
“Don’t count on that,” I put in. “But now they might fight over something that makes sense.”
“Don’t listen to him, Sis. Nick’s gonna fight no matter what…I’ll just have ta keep him in line.”
“Now see here,” Nick objected. We all smiled, finally breaking into laughter that was music to all of us. The party continued until we had finished the cake and talked for awhile. I enjoyed seeing Heath hug and kiss Mother and Audra good night. His warmth was filled with ease and care.
After they went upstairs, Heath put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Ready for bed, Big Brother?”
“I still got a bone ta pick with you, Little Brother,” Nick came back with a growl.
Heath chuckled. “Reckon we can take it up in the morning? I been doing your work and mine and I got a powerful need to get me some sleep.”
“Your work and mine? Why Boy, you’re just asking for a whipping.”
“I thought we tried that once tonight, Nick. I don’t need to fight for what I’ve got any more.”
I saw Nick melt in the face of this admission. I couldn’t help asking the question that followed. “What have you got, Brother Heath?”
Heath’s lopsided grin was happier and more content than I had ever seen. He helped Nick to his feet, then looked at me.“Got me a family. Got me the very best family. S’pose that’s more than most men see in a lifetime, hey Counselor?” I couldn’t help nodding as I followed my brothers into the foyer.
“No objection there, Heath. We all have the best.”
“Boy howdy, you’re telling me.”
Nick and Heath bantered back and forth some more. I enjoyed listening to them, enjoyed their presence. The family had been missing Father for so long that a darkness had settled down upon us. I realized that night that we had found a missing link to Father. Heath had brought Father back into the house for us. He was our missing link…and I hoped and prayed that night that he would always know how much he meant to us. Heath deserved the best…and I dared to hope we would always be there to help him achieve the life he deserved. I know we can only do so much but in the end we will do our best…for him, for us and perhaps most important of all for our father who never knew his youngest son.