Synopsis: The best gift of all, a sequel to The Belated Gift.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 1,630
Man it is cold today. So glad we got that tree yesterday. What a day that was.
We all were up before the rooster crowed. Even Mother and Audra were up. Audra didn’t keep us waiting neither. Of course, that could have something to do with us telling her if she wasn’t ready, we were going without her to get the Christmas tree. She’s been excited for weeks, talking about the kind a tree we’d have. First it was Ponderosa, then it was fir, not a pine. Didn’t think she knew the difference but she does. Finally, when we got up in the mountains and looked around, we all agreed on a Blue Spruce. Biggest tree I ever saw cut down without stripping the branches first.
I never had a Christmas tree before. Never had the time to go cut one or the money to buy ornaments and frills and such. But I’d seen them at the hotel my uncle and aunt run in Strawberry. Mama didn’t have enough money to make enough cookies to hang on a tree. We needed to eat everything we ever got to make, just enough to say we made cookies. But now I’ve got me a family. Ain’t gone to bed hungry in so long, I’ve almost forgotten what it means to do so; almost but not quite. Don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling; had it for nearly 24 years.
Thought it was chilly in the valley. Mother told me to take my heavy coat. Didn’t think I’d need it. Guess I forgot how cold it gets up in timber and mining country, but then I never had such a warm coat, so I stayed out of the mountains and worked down near Mexico in the winter time. Mostly don’t need a heavy coat down there.
So there we were, the four Barkley boys with Mother and Audra telling us how to cut the tree down and how to tie it up so the branches don’t break. The four of us, we were taking turns chopping at that tree trunk. Mother told me to put on my gloves so I pulled out my ranchers gloves; they’re just simple rawhide gloves to protect from wire and the like, not meant to keep your hands warm. Mother told me to change to my winter gloves and I had to tell I don’t have any. She got a real funny embarrassed mixed with sad expression and told me to put my hands in my pockets while I wasn’t chopping. Did I say how cold it was up there? It sure was windy too. Mother started in about where my muffler was. I had to ask her what a muffler was. She got that look again and explained. She had Jarrod ask me if I’d put on long johns. Had to admit I don’t own any, but I did know what they were. After that, she made me get up in the wagon and put the blanket over my legs because I was shivering so.
After my brothers got the tree in the wagon, we started for home. Mother wouldn’t let me take the lap robe off so I could get down and help. I felt as useless as a one-legged mule. Well, we got down off that mountain quick like. I was still chilled and I haven’t really warmed up yet. Even getting that tree through the verandah doors didn’t get me warm. Laid in bed and shivered all night. Too cold to get up and get another blanket.
Boy, that tree sure is beautiful we’re gonna decorate it tonight, now that the limbs have had a chance to settle back in place. Seems like a lot of fuss for just a couple of days. Then we’ll burn it. What sweet smoke that will make.
Well, that was yesterday. Mother asked this morning at breakfast what we want for Christmas in two days. I told her I have everything I want. I have a place to live, food to eat, and most of all, my family to share it all with. That look was back on Mother’s face again. Not sure what it means; looked like she wanted to cry. It looked like she was embarrassed, too. But then I looked at my brothers and sister and they all had that look. Nick looked like he’d bitten into a lemon. I didn’t say no more.
But I’m still cold and here we are, Nick, me and the ranch hands moving the herd closer to the house. It’s raining something fierce. A pretty steady downpour — Jarrod called it a dilugge or something like that. I’ve been riding point. Nick’s been riding back and forth up and down the slow moving column. He went back to check on the new kid riding drag. He ain’t back yet. Should have been back ten minutes ago.
I drop back and get McCall to take lead. I can feel it in my frozen bones Nick needs me. I don’t think he’s hurt, but he needs me just the same. I quickly ride back to the drag position and the kid tells me Nick went after a steer they heard bellowing. I set off over the rise to see if I can help. Just as I top the rise, the dumb cow moves and Nick goes face first into the mire. If we don’t get that cow out soon, it gonna sink into the mire so far we’ll have to shoot it to put it out of its misery. The mud will push in on the sides of the cow till it can’t breathe and it will suffocate. I can’t bear that to happen; shooting it will be kinder. Nick’s turned himself around and is belly crawling across the top of the mud so as to not sink in as much by the time I get there. As I rode, I readied my lasso, and as Nick’s getting too tired to crawl through the heavy mud, I toss the loop over his head and he manages to put his arms through the loop and I pull him out. He signals he’s ok by slipping outta my loop. I set to work with my lasso and Nick’s still around the wayward steer. Using both horses, I manage to get the steer out and send it back towards the herd.
I look over expecting to see Nick headed my way but he’s just sitting there at the edge of the mud hole, the rain pouring down. I’m concerned so I hurry over, hunker down beside him and start asking him if he’s ok. He seems a bit out of it, so I start checking for bumps on his head or broken bones that could be causing him to go into shock.
Then he looks up at me. He got this look on his face I ain’t ever seen before. I don’t know what to make of it.
He starts speaking, and at first, I gotta lean closer to hear. I’m getting scared now. Yeah, that’s right, Heath Barkley’s scared. I just said this morning I had everything I need. I meant it too. Am I on the verge of losing Nick to some unknown?
Then the look on his face changes. He’s saying something about all he ever wanted was a brother to share the ranch with. His voice is getting stronger and I hear him tell me he knows what he wants. Next he’s correcting himself. Nick always says what he means the first time, so this has me a bit worried too. Then it happens he breaks out that grin that’s reserved for family. He’s never directed it at me before. But there it is. That heart stopping, knock your socks of smile that tells anyone who sees it that all at once that he’s happy – no, what would Jarrod say, exestatic — and he loves you and he wants you in his life. He’s really directing that smile at me. I know I just looked over my shoulder to see if one of my brothers rode up. No, it’s just the two of us. That smile is directed at me. After almost eight months, that smile I’d given up seeing directed at me is indeed directed right at me and I can’t breathe. I feel like some unseen hands have reached down from the heavens and lifted a boulder of crushing weight off my shoulders. I can breathe again and I hear Nick say he has the gift he wants and it’s me. I’m the gift he’s been asking for since he could talk — a brother to work the ranch with. That’s what he’s always wanted and he has it in me. My eyes are watering; must be coming down with something. Nick’s are watering too. I can see the moisture on his lower lashes. I realize that neither of us is coming down with anything. That moisture is drops of ‘family love.’ That’s what Mama always called them when she was pouring her loving on me.
There’s nothing else I can do. I have no more control over it than I have over the rain. I beam my million dollar smile right back at him and I realize I’m warm for the first time since we reached that mountain yesterday. I feel the warmth of brotherly love. I realize I meant every word I said this morning at the table, but I got something I didn’t really know till now I needed. I needed that smile directed at me and it is. Whatever may wait under that tree on Christmas morning can’t hold a candle to this.