Summary: This alternate scenario for Heath’s arrival at the Barkley ranch explores an interesting ‘what if….’
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 31,500
The young cowboy stopped as he reached the sign and sat atop his horse gazing at the mansion in the distance. It stood proudly amidst several well-kept auxiliary buildings, one of which he deemed to be a sizable barn, by the immense corral adjoining it. He gave a low whistle, wincing slightly as the bruises on his face reminded him of that fight on the waterfront in San Francisco. He’d won a fairly large sum of cash playing poker, but unfortunately, his opponent was a sore loser. As he was returning through the darkened streets to the room he was renting, he was jumped and robbed by henchmen, no doubt sent by the man he’d cleaned up on. It was the final straw – he decided to quit his job on the docks and return to what he liked best – ranching. He’d heard tell the Barkley spread was the biggest and best in the Valley and that they were usually hiring. It took him less than an hour to vacate his room and spend the last of his money on a worthy horse.
He pulled himself up straight in the saddle and dug his heels into the horse’s sides, urging the beast forward. As he neared the great house, he was struck by its imposing size and felt his stomach churn. He suddenly wished there were a way to cover the bruises and abrasions on his face. It dawned on him he might not look presentable enough to work at such a fine place. His clothes were worn and ill fitting, emphasizing his thin frame, but they were the best he had.
Tying his horse to a fence rail, he looked around hesitantly, trying to discern where to begin looking for the man who did the hiring. He spotted a hand in the barn. The man, of Mexican descent, was sweeping out stables. The man spotted him as he stood in the doorway.
“Si, Senor. May I help you?”
“Uh, yes. I heard tell there might be work here, and I’d like to see the man in charge.”
“Ah, that would be Senor Barkley. Nick.”
“Is he around?”
“Si. He’s having lunch. Should be out any time now.”
“Thanks. I’ll wait if you don’t mind.”
“Not a problem,” the man answered, but he noticed the young man already walked away. Ciego shook his head as he watched the boy look around, obviously in awe. To him, he didn’t look much like a cowboy and his clothes and face said he’d seen a fair share of trouble. He resumed sweeping and made a clucking noise. He’d seen it before. Everyone comes to the Barkleys for work, as if the place is their last hope. Some get hired, some don’t. Ciego was betting Nick would turn this young man away.
Hearing the kitchen door to the big house slam and the jingle of spurs, Ciego dropped into the shadows to eavesdrop.
“Howdy,” the boy said nervously. The tall, strapping man dressed in black strode towards him and cast a shadow over the blond as he grew near. Swallowing the butterflies threatening to fly right out of his stomach, he removed his hat.
“Can I help you?” the man asked, all businesslike. He didn’t smile.
“Lookin’ for work. Heard tell you might be hirin’.”
Nick narrowed his eyes and studied the young man standing before him. Nick guessed him to be about twenty or so years old, but his blue eyes told of experience beyond his years; of struggles and bad breaks. His face was marked with a bruise on his right cheekbone and a cut on his chin and above his left eye, indicating he’d seen some trouble recently, although that didn’t necessarily disqualify him in Nick’s mind. He was tall, although not as tall as he, and unnaturally thin, and Nick wondered if the boy would have the strength for the demands ranching required. Not only that, right now they were full, and he didn’t have need for another hand. Still, for some reason, he was curious for more information. The boy was obviously nervous, but Nick was impressed with how he stood tall and looked him right in the eye.
“What can you do?” Nick inquired.
“Little of everything. Herdin’, brandin’, breakin’, you name it.”
“Um hmm. Well, Mr., what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t, but it’s Thomson. Heath Thomson.”
Nick rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Surprisingly, he felt a twinge of regret at having to turn the boy down. “We’re all full up right now, but in another month or so we’ll be getting ready for summer round-up. Come back and see me then.”
In the barn, Ciego shook his head. Ha! I knew it.
Something flashed across the young cowboy’s eyes. At first, Nick would have labeled it disappointment, but it was more than that. It was defeat. For the first time since the conversation started, the young man looked down.
“Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind,” Heath said quietly. He wouldn’t beg. If there were no work here, he’d find it someplace else. He placed his hat back on his head. “Have a good day.”
“Same to you,” Nick answered. As an afterthought he added, “Good luck, kid. See you around.”
Heath swung easily into the saddle and gave Nick a small smile. He nudged the horse forward and rode away without looking back.
Nick stood watching the stranger until he disappeared on the horizon unable to shake the feeling he’d just made a mistake. As a man who often paid heed to gut instincts, Nick Barkley was puzzled. It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time he’d ever turned a stranger away, but there was something about that kid that struck a chord in Nick. What it was, he couldn’t figure. Was it the boy’s obvious need? No, Nick decided; nearly everyone who came here wanting work was in need. Was it the way he swung into the saddle? Could be, as it indicated despite his looks, the boy could ride. But no, Nick decided; that wasn’t it either.
It was the eyes. Yes, the eyes…Nick had seen those eyes before. Blue as the sky overhead, they were eyes that could communicate thoughts or feelings without their owner having to say a single word. They conveyed honesty and sensitivity, defiance and anger, joy and pain, hope and disappointment.
Nick reached into the recesses of his memory, trying to recall of whom the young man reminded him. Nick shook his head at the thought that occurred to him…the only man Nick had ever known with eyes so expressive was his father.
The family was seated in the parlor enjoying each other’s company, as was the after dinner ritual. Victoria and Audra were engaged in needlepoint, while Jarrod and Nick were playing checkers.
“Another game, Nick?” Jarrod asked.
“Of course another game! I’m just getting’ warmed up!”
“Warmed up?” Jarrod asked incredulously, “you already owe me three dollars. I might suggest you cut your losses and quit while you’re ahead.”
Before Nick could reply, there was a knock at the door. “I’ll get it,” he said while rising.
He strode across the huge foyer, spurs jingling with each heavy step. He swung open the massive door.
“Billy! Come on in! What brings you out this way?” Nick boomed.
The young deputy stepped into the foyer while greeting Nick. “Sheriff sent me, Mr. Barkley.”
By this time, the rest of the family had joined them.
“Mrs. Barkley, Audra, Jarrod,” the deputy greeted, nodding.
“Hello Billy. Won’t you come in and sit down?” Victoria asked.
“No thank you, ma’am. I’m on duty.”
“Billy,” Nick cut in impatiently, “you said Fred sent you. What for?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m afraid there was some trouble in town. We’ve got about five of your hands in jail, and unless they pay their fines, they’ll be there for the next thirty days.”
“What?!” Nick exploded. “Would you mind telling me what happened?”
The young deputy flinched at Nick’s outburst. “There was a fight in the saloon and some furniture and glass got busted up.”
Nick shook his head. “What was it over this time?”
“Well, some young guy playin’ poker didn’t like how John Hawkins was makin’ advances on Clara and stepped up to her defense. Hawkins was three times his size, and some of your boys stepped in to help. Seth got a busted hand, and the kid who started it got a bottle busted over his head. Doc Merar’s been the jail to see ‘em.”
“All right, Billy, thanks,” Nick said. “You go on and tell Fred I’m on my way. I’ll be there shortly. Let them boys sit for a while and cool off.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Barkley,” Billy said eagerly. Being in such a fine house unnerved him. He was anxious to get back to town.
Nick closed the door and the family returned to their activities.
“Come on, Jarrod. We’ve got time for one more game.”
Jarrod smiled wryly. “Sounds to me like there are going to be some unhappy fellows come payday.”
Nick sat down and cracked his knuckles before setting up the next game. “Yep. I’ll go down there and pay their fines, but it’ll come out of their pay for the next two weeks.”
Jarrod laughed. “Remind me to be in San Francisco on Friday.”
“You got nothin’ to worry about, Counselor. They’ve pulled this before, remember?”
“Oh yes. That’s why I’m going to San Francisco. You know, Nick, it isn’t our responsibility to bail the help out of trouble, especially for repeat offenses. Some time in jail might just be warranted. ”
“Make a move, Jarrod,” Nick said with a glare, “I need those boys for work tomorrow. I can’t run this place short five men.”
Victoria shook her head and smiled inwardly at the exchange between her sons. Nick would probably work the men twice as hard tomorrow, hangovers and all. His father, no doubt, would have done the same thing. Tom was proud of all of his children, and she wished he were here to see how well they’d done. When he was killed, Nick was only nineteen, and Jarrod was just out of law school. Still a boy, but possessing Tom’s leadership abilities, Nick took on the responsibility of running the ranch despite his own grief. Jarrod, showing both maturity and intelligence, took over the business side of the family’s vast holdings. Victoria knew Tom would be pleased. His sons not only maintained the legacy Tom worked his life to build, they grew it, and they did it together.
As she often did over the past twenty years, she wondered about the son who didn’t survive. Would he be a rancher working with Nick, or a professional following in Jarrod’s footsteps? After all this time, the longing and ache for what never could be was still very much a part of her. Time dulled, but never erased, the pain. She supposed it was because she harbored some guilt over the baby’s loss. If she’d stayed home that stormy night so long ago, would she have carried the child to term, and would he have lived? She would never forget the intensity of her grief when she regained consciousness and the man handed her the tiny, still infant. She remembered how her hand traveled to her stomach, hours before full of life, now empty and hollow, its purpose unfulfilled. She gazed at her dead child. He was a beautiful boy, with curly blond hair. His eyes, though, she never saw. His tiny eyes never saw his grieving mother, but hers saw his lost legacy.
He was christened Aaron James Barkley and buried in a shady glen on the North Pasture. Fifteen years later, his father was laid to rest beside him.
Nick Barkley strode into the sheriff’s office and addressed the man seated behind the desk wearing the badge.
Fred Madden rose to greet the visitor, extending his hand. “Nick, glad you could come. I figured you would want to get this taken care of before morning.”
“Well, you guessed right, Fred. Jarrod didn’t agree, but after explainin’ to him he would have to lend a hand around the ranch tomorrow morning, he saw it differently.”
“What’s the damages?”
“Well, the fine is five dollars a piece, but I’m sure Harry is looking for some compensation as well for the damage to the saloon. He mentioned pressing charges this time.”
Nick put his hand up. “I’ll take care of Harry. Billy said Seth broke his hand?”
Fred chuckled. “Yep. Took a swing at Big John and missed. Connected with the bar. Merar’s been here to see him.”
Nick shook his head with disgust as he plunked the bills down on Fred’s desk. He sat down in an empty chair to await the paperwork.
As Fred completed the forms, he remembered the boy. “When the young man who started the whole thing wakes up, he’ll be surprised to find an empty cell.”
Nick grunted. “He the one Billy says got clocked with a bottle?”
“The one and only. Doctor Merar put fifteen stitches in his head. The kid’s going to have quite a headache in the morning. Good thing he wasn’t drinking.”
“Wasn’t drinking! He took on a man three times his size stone cold sober?”
Fred gathered up the papers and handed them to Nick, who stuffed them in his vest.
“Sure did. It was a good thing your fellas were around to help him out,” Fred said, reaching for the keys.
Nick followed Fred back into the jail’s cellblock area. The Stockton Jail held two good-sized cells, each capable of holding two men comfortably. Any more than that was considered crowded. Nick tried to maintain a straight face. Each cell contained over five men. No wonder Fred wanted the fines paid this evening!
The jangling of keys in the lock of the cell brought the Barkley hands to their feet, looking contrite.
Garrett Thomas spoke for the group. “Sorry, Nick.”
Nick looked stern. “You know this will come out of your pay.”
“As long as we’re clear. Now go on, all of you. Get back to the ranch. Remember, the day starts at six sharp.”
The men silently shuffled out. Remaining in the cell, hunched in the corner either asleep or unconscious, was the familiar form of the alleged perpetrator of the incident. Nick’s eyes widened in surprise as he took in the large bandage wrapped around the boy’s head and the bloodstains on his shirt. The fresh bruises on his face looked purple and painful. Nick winced.
Fred saw the recognition flash across Nick’s features. “You know who he is?”
“Uh, yeah,” Nick stammered. “He was out at the ranch earlier today looking for work. Calls himself Heath. Heath Thomson. I had to turn him away…” Nick’s distracted voice trailed off. A thought struck him. “Say Fred. You plannin’ to hold him all night?”
Fred nodded. “Probably a lot longer. He doesn’t have any money.”
“Good. Just in case, hold him until I get here in the morning.”
Fred’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Whatever you say. I doubt he’s going anywhere anyway with the headache he’s gonna have when he wakes up.”
Nick strode into the cell and gestured. “You plannin’ on movin’ any of them into here?”
Fred shook his head. “No. They’re the other side,” he said wryly.
“All right,” Nick said, grasping Heath under the arms, “help me get this guy on a bunk.”
“Doc said he’s all right?” Nick asked as he and the sheriff lifted the wounded man in one motion. Heath’s pale complexion made the bruising appear serious.
Fred shrugged, still puzzled by Nick’s concern and interest in the young man who apparently was a drifter. If he worked for Nick Barkley, it would be a different story. The Barkleys took care of their employees. But this fellow…well, for whatever reason, Nick Barkley was evidently taking personal charge.
“Says he might have a concussion, but other than that seemed to think he’d be fine.”
Nick nodded approvingly. “Well, I best be headed back. I plan to be up early to get those boys busy with the special day I have planned out for ’em.”
Fred laughed. “Special day, Nick? You mean you’re gonna give them a reward for their escapade here?”
Nick smiled slyly. “Let’s just say they won’t forget tomorrow for a long time.”
“Night, Nick. See you tomorrow.”
As Heath’s consciousness surfaced, his first thought was that he was going to throw up. His second thought was that his head had exploded and he was dead. He opened his eyes and realized he was lying on a bunk, and he wasn’t dead, although his headache made him wish he were. He tried to recall what happened the night before, but everything was indistinct and disjointed. He remembered the saloon, a lady, and a huge beast of a man. Then there was a fight…a fight…he lifted his pounding head and saw the bars. He groaned. He was in a cell all by himself. If he recalled correctly, he’d been jailed with several other men. Where were they? Why was he the only one here?
Then it dawned on him. The others must’ve paid their fines, and he hadn’t. The awful truth was, he couldn’t.
Heath reached a hand up and felt the bandage wrapped around his head. What the hell happened last night?
With a grunt, he forced himself onto his side, and then slowly started to push himself upright. The higher he got, the more his head pounded and the nausea intensified. He fought it down and got himself to a sitting position, lowering his feet to the floor. Now what?
He heard a door open and close, footsteps, voices, then more footsteps. Heath turned toward the sound, causing a new wave of nausea.
“Thought you were going to be out all day. Was just about to call the doctor back to look at you.”
The badge told Heath the man was the sheriff. He would know what happened to the other men, as well as the day and the time.
“Did the others ante up?” Heath asked.
“Yes. The men you were locked up with were released into Mr. Barkley’s custody late last night.”
Heath groaned. “Barkley?”
Fred remained nonplussed. “Yes. Nick Barkley. You know him?”
Heath looked forlorn. “No, not exactly. Don’t reckon I ever will, now. Was hopin’ to get a job at their spread.”
The sheriff felt terrible for the poor kid. He looked like he’d just lost his only friend in the world. Suppressing a smile, the sheriff tried to cheer the young man.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Nick Barkley has seen his share of saloon brawls, and isn’t likely to think less of anyone who gets involved in one.”
Fred leaned his arms on the bars, suddenly understanding why Nick Barkley had taken such an interest in the boy. There was a certain quality…a sense of truth in his character.
“You got any family, son?”
Heath hesitated. The only family he knew of he hadn’t seen in seven years, since the day he spat in his uncle’s face and left. It was Heath’s own personal Independence Day. The years since had been rough, but none as bad as before he left his bitter, abusive uncle.
He shook his head. “No Sir.”
“How old are you, Son?”
“Twenty. I’ve got a birthday coming up in May.”
“No family…how long have you been without kin?”
Heath shrugged. “’Bout seven years.”
Fred gave a low whistle. “Seven years. That’s a mighty long time to be alone.”
Heath shrugged. It was seven years of not getting beaten and verbally abused. “Don’t bother me much, I get by fine.”
Fred sighed. “Well, Son, here’s the thing. Unless you’ve got the money to pay your fine, you’re going to be here for a spell. Now, I got no problem with that, seein’ how you don’t have no place to go and your head is all banged up.”
“How long is a spell?”
“’Bout a month or so.”
Fred watched the relief cross the young man’s features. “Good news for you?”
Heath smiled. There was still a chance…Barkley had said the round up would be in about a month. In the meantime, jail wouldn’t be so bad except he’d get out of shape. He could sell his horse and pay his fine, but then, how could he get a job at the ranch? Of course, it would only take one good night at the table, and he could get another horse. It might be green, but that never stopped him before.
“Barkley said he might be hirin’ in a month. I’d be out in time, but I might start gettin’ soft. I got a horse I could sell to pay my fine.”
“If you sell your horse, how are you going to get a job as a cowboy?”
“Tell you what. Why don’t you think the whole thing out while I get you something to eat.”
Fred wasn’t sure if the young man heard him. He seemed to be lost in thought. Fred left the cellblock area and returned to his office. Nick Barkley rose. Fred motioned for him to step outside.
“Don’t know what you wanted to hear, Nick, but I hope the conversation helped.”
Nick smiled and patted Fred on the shoulder. “You did fine. I wanted to learn a little more about the kid. Gotta hunch, Fred, that boy might have some talent,” Nick said confidently, “you should have seen him vault into the saddle.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Pay his fine and hire him on – or hire him on and pay his fine, however you want to look at it.”
Fred shook his head and smiled. “It’s your money, Nick, but you heard what he said, didn’t you? He’s got no kin. He’s a drifter.”
“Fred, if he can ride, rope, and brand, he can be anything he wants. Let me in there to talk to him.”
Thirty minutes later, Heath was on the way to the ranch, riding next to his new boss, Nick Barkley.
Two weeks later, Nick leaned against the corral fence and nodded approvingly as Heath rode a skittish horse around the corral. He now realized the merit of having taken the chance on the young cowboy. His instincts once again proved true, Heath Thomson was proving to be a good find – a real asset to several aspects of the Barkley horse and cattle operations. The young man seemed to have a way with animals, and was proving to be an efficient and productive worker. Nick was impressed.
He sure was quiet though! Often, he responded with only a nod of his head. For Nick, this was taking some getting used to. Nick was the type of person who thrived on verbal interaction, and rather enjoyed the sound of “Yes, Sir!” when he addressed an employee, especially if he caught them slacking. This Thomson fellow was different. The more Nick shouted, the quieter he became. Nick was surprised by his reaction to Thomson’s reticence. For some reason, Nick found himself accepting of Thomson’s nods and gestures. More than once in the past few weeks, the boy actually anticipated Nick’s next assignment and would have a task nearly completed before Nick ever issued an order. Nick was feeling a sense of camaraderie he hadn’t felt since working side by side with his father.
He felt a clap on the shoulder and turned.
“Well, Counselor, what brings you out here?”
“Oh, I was on my way to town and thought I’d see if I could get a look at this new hand you’ve been raving about.”
Jarrod had been in San Francisco since the day after Nick hired Heath until two days prior and hadn’t yet met him.
Nick nodded towards Heath. “There he is, Jarrod. Watch how he handles that horse.”
The two men watched as Heath spoke softly to the animal. His soothing tone wasn’t lost on the mare, and soon her movements became smooth and responsive to her master’s gentle guidance.
Jarrod nodded approvingly. “Impressive, Nick.”
Nick smiled broadly. “What did I tell ya? I’ve got an eye for talent.”
Noticing Heath dismounting, Nick called to him.
“Heath! Come over here, Boy.”
Heath pulled a kerchief out of his pocket and wiped the dust and sweat from his tan face. He’d begun to fill out, and had spent his last two paychecks on keeping up with his expanding waistline. The bruises that once graced his features were nearly gone, and his healthy complexion and full cheeks made the vivid sky blue of his eyes strikingly deep. The sun had burnished his hair an even lighter gold. Nick was amazed at the difference in the boy.
“Sure Nick. Whatcha need?” Heath asked.
“I want you to meet my big brother, Jarrod.”
Jarrod extended his hand to the handsome young man, and was immediately struck with a strange feeling of familiarity. It was almost unnerving; like he was looking at someone he’d met before, but couldn’t recall the time or place.
“Nice to meet you, Heath. Nick speaks highly of your talents.”
“Thank you, Sir. I’m glad he found room to bring me on,” Heath said sincerely. He did mean it. For the past two weeks he’d worked harder than he ever had in his life, but his belly was full and he had a place to bed down at night. The pay was good, and for the first time in his young life, the future looked promising.
Jarrod was having trouble taking his eyes away from the boy’s face and the resulting awkward silence made Heath shift his gaze to his boots.
Nick thought Jarrod’s behavior odd and decided to intervene. “Heath, its almost lunch and you’ve put in a pretty full morning. Why don’t you take a break.”
“Sure, thanks,” Heath said quietly, then added, “nice to meet you, Jarrod.”
“Same here, Heath. Don’t let Nick work you too hard.”
Heath smiled. “He’s a good boss. I don’t mind doin’ my share.”
Nick clapped his shoulder. “Go on, get goin’.”
After Heath was out of earshot, Nick turned to Jarrod. “What was that all about? You stared at the kid like he was a ghost or somethin’?”
“I’m sorry, Nick. How much do you know about him?”
Nick shrugged. “He don’t talk much. He was in that saloon scuffle a couple of weeks ago and Fred managed to find out he’s about twenty years old, and has been on his own since he was about thirteen, which explained why he was so damned skinny. Why? You seen him before?”
“I don’t know, Nick. When he shook my hand, for a minute I had the feeling I’d met him somewhere or at some time.”
Nick shook his head and laughed nervously. “I know what you mean. What gets me are his eyes. It’s like he talks with ‘em. Reminds me of Father.”
“Yeah. Strange, isn’t it?”
Jarrod stared in the direction of the bunkhouse, where Heath disappeared through the doorway. He turned and looked at Nick.
“Yes. Did he say where he’s from?”
Nick thought for a minute. “Um, I think I heard him say Strawberry, but I’m not sure. The kid’s been around.”
“Strawberry?” Jarrod asked. The family used to have interests there. “Has Mother seen him yet?”
Nick looked warily at Jarrod. “No, and just what are you gettin’ at? You’re not thinkin’…”
“I’m not thinking anything Nick. I ’m just curious.”
Nick narrowed his eyes. “Don’t think, Jarrod. That boy is the best hand I’ve got right now. Whatever it is, you’re dreamin’.”
Jarrod sighed. “You’re right, Nick. I guess it’s hard for me to leave the courtroom behind sometimes. I’ve got to get to town. See you at dinner?”
“Yeah,” Nick answered. He watched Jarrod leave and felt an odd sense of foreboding creeping into his belly. Just what did Jarrod think? Was there possibly a connection between the boy and their father? Nick dismissed the thought. That would mean…?
“Impossible,” Nick grumbled aloud, “he’s seein’ things.”
Satisfied, Nick decided to have lunch in the mess with the men. But no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t quite get the conversation with Jarrod out of his head, or his stomach.
Dinner proved to be an uncomfortable affair. Jarrod kept glancing Nick’s way with a knowing look until Nick finally threw his napkin down in disgust and stormed out of the room, leaving Victoria and Audra sitting stunned.
From that point forward, Nick made a mission of avoiding Jarrod as much as possible by eating either before or after regular mealtimes and leaving for work early and returning late. Whatever Jarrod was thinking or doing in regards to Thomson, Nick wanted no part of it.
Jarrod made several attempts to explain his position to Nick, but the hotheaded rancher refused to listen. Jarrod finally gave up trying after he and Nick had a heated argument in the North Pasture that nearly came to blows. Jarrod managed to track him down one afternoon and found him working alone repairing a fence. Jarrod rode up and dismounted, but Nick didn’t look up or stop what he was doing.
Jarrod pushed his hat back on his head. “Nick, I’d like to talk to you.”
“I’m busy, Jarrod,” Nick said tersely.
“Look Nick, I know you don’t approve of me digging into Thomson’s background, but even you have to admit, his resemblance to Father is rather uncanny.”
“It is a coincidence, Jarrod! Nothing more!”
“I feel it is more than a coincidence. You know, when we were young, Father spent a great deal of time traveling to oversee the mining and timber operations.”
Nick whirled, his anger acute, his eyes burning with rage. “Damn you! How can you even think such a thing?”
“I’m not any more thrilled about the possibility than you are, but we have to know for certain the boy isn’t really here to cause trouble. Think of what this could do to Mother.”
Nick advanced on Jarrod with a look that actually caused a stab of fear in the lawyer. He stepped backwards.
“Now you listen to me,” Nick growled, “I don’t have the time to stop you from doin’ what you’re gonna do, but hear this. I want no part of what you’re up to. You got no right. Father wouldn’t cheat, and if you don’t believe that, then that’s your problem. Leave me out of it!!”
The stared at one another for a long moment, then Jarrod, realizing the futility of trying to reason with Nick, turned and walked back to his horse and rode away. Whether Nick liked it or not, he was going to get to the bottom of this, for all of their sakes.
Victoria did not miss the tension between her sons, although she’d been hard pressed to get either one to sit still long enough to inquire as to what was going on between them. Finally deciding to take the bull by the horns, she strode out to the corral where Nick was supervising a group on men breaking new stock.
Nick recognized the scent of his mother’s perfume before he felt her tiny hand on his back. He flinched involuntarily. The hands were holding an unbroken stallion while Heath adjusted his gloves, preparing to mount. Nick whirled at her touch and placed his body in her line of sight.
Victoria shifted and tried to look around Nick, but Nick shadowed her movements with his broad body until she finally threw her hands up in disgust.
“Nicholas, really! What on earth is the matter with you? You have been sneaking around and moody for the past few days. Is something bothering you Sweetheart?”
Nick realized the ridiculousness of what he’d just done to his mother and inwardly groaned. She knew he was hiding something. The wheels turned in his head. What better way to prove Jarrod was wrong than to have Mother meet Heath? Then it would be settled once and for all. Nick was confident his mother would find nothing unusual or familiar about the boy, and then things could get back to normal.
He chewed his bottom lip nervously. “Well, uh, nothing’s wrong, Mother. I’ve just been busy, is all.”
“I see,” Victoria said, stepping around him and approaching the fence. “Is that the new hand of whom you’ve been speaking so highly?”
Nick watched her expression carefully for any flickers of recognition. So far so good, from a distance anyway.
Nick turned and leaned on the fence. “Yeah. That’s him. He’s good. I was lucky to get him.”
They watched approvingly as Heath made efficient work of the stallion. Nick found his heart was hammering the wall of his chest. Should he call the boy over? He decided yes, then no, a hundred times in a second.
Finally, he waved Heath over. “Heath, come over here!”
Nick watched his mother’s face as the young blond cowboy sauntered over. At first, his heart rose, as he saw nothing change in his mother’s expression. But the closer Thomson got to where they stood, he saw her blink, then her mouth dropped open, and then she gasped, her hand involuntarily moving to her mouth. He heard his mother utter one strangled word.
Nick’s airborne heart crashed back to the hard, unforgiving earth and shattered.
Victoria Barkley tried to gather herself as the handsome young man grew near. He was slighter in height and build than Nick, but imperceptibly larger than Jarrod. Where their hair was dark, this young man’s was fair, like her daughter’s. Those traits alone indicated no definitive commonality to her children. No, what marked this child her husband’s were his walk and his eyes. And what marked this child her own was the definition in his cheekbones and his mouth. But he was definitively more Tom than any of the other three children combined, and for a brief moment wondered why none of her children noticed. Had Tom been gone so long they’d forgotten? Then it dawned on her. This boy wasn’t the image of the Tom her children remembered. He was Tom in his youth, and naturally, Jarrod, Nick, and Audra wouldn’t have known him then. Perhaps Jarrod would, if he reached into the deepest depths of his memory, but Nick and Audra, no.
Nick cleared his throat. Victoria was pale and Nick was afraid she would faint. Heath was already too close to send away.
Nick braced himself.
“Uh, Heath, this here is my mother, Victoria Barkley,” he stammered. This was a nightmare.
Heath extended his hand to the beautiful petite lady standing before him. She had white hair that belied her youth, and the way she carried herself told him she could be a force to be reckoned with. Like the lawyer a few days before, she was eyeing him with a strange mix of curiosity and recognition. What was the matter with these people? Thank goodness Nick was the one running the ranch, because the others seemed too eccentric for such a demanding task.
He felt her palm slip into his and felt a twinge. He didn’t know why, but he had a sense of…completion…for the brief moment their hands touched. When they withdrew, the feeling was gone. Now it was his turn to feel strange.
“Nice to meet you Ma’am,” he said, peering deep into her gray eyes. He was searching their depths…for what?
“You as well,” she managed, barely above a whisper. She tore her gaze from his. “If you boys will excuse me, I have some things to do in the house.”
The words were barely out of her mouth before she turned and walked away, her heart pounding and her stomach inside out. Visions of a stormy night, twenty years ago, whirled through her mind. She struggled to recall the painful event she’d long ago tucked away in the recesses of her heart and soul, and now, as then, the images carried no greater clarity. Yet…now she’d seen proof. Living, breathing evidence of what her heart had all these years told her to be true.
Nick glanced between Heath and Victoria. “You stay put,” he said to Heath as he pursued his mother. Reaching her, he grabbed her arm.
Victoria looked at him, but said nothing. She had to confirm what she’d seen. If it was true…
Nick lowered his voice. “Mother, what is it? What is going on? First Jarrod, now you.”
So Jarrod suspected as well. She looked at Nick, his face riddled with confusion, and she felt a pang of guilt. She couldn’t tell him, not yet. When all the answers were known, everything would have to be revealed carefully and in its own time.
“Nothing. Its warm out here, and I feel faint.” She knew he saw through the excuse, but it wasn’t entirely a lie. She felt weak, and sought only to return to the refuge of the house without further confrontation.
God, how Nick wanted to believe her feeble explanation, but he knew in his heart and soul something was going on. Now was not the time, nor the place, to argue about it. He released the hold on her arm and relaxed his expression.
“Oh, well, guess you oughta go inside,” he said. His eyes bored through hers, searching for the truth.
“Yes, I should,” she said, “don’t work too hard, Dear.” She stood on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Nick stood and watched her until after she went into the house. So Jarrod had been right after all…well, whatever it was, he was going to do some investigating of his own.
Remembering Heath, he whirled. The boy was still standing in the corral. Nick winced. Heath had seen and heard the exchange between them. His face was expressionless, but his eyes reflected confusion and hurt. Those damned eyes! Nick walked over and leaned on the fence, and without looking at the boy, his voice toneless, he issued an order.
“Simon and Charlie will finish this up. Hitch the buckboard and load the supplies for fence repair. You and I are going to the South Meadow for the rest of the day.”
“Yes, Sir,” Heath responded, a feeling of dread washing over him. For a brief moment he thought of packing his things as fast as he could and riding out, but he knew he couldn’t bring himself to do it, and besides that, why should he? He didn’t know who these people were, and to his recollection had never laid eyes on them before. They were obviously mistaking him for someone else. Someone they used to know who was perhaps dead or missing. No, he didn’t understand what was going on, but Heath knew it involved him in some way, and he felt like he was being left out of a private secret; the thought made him angry. Heath knew Nick was taking him to work alone to get some answers. Well, Heath had nothing to hide. In fact, what he had to impart on Nick Barkley pertaining to his past would probably make the man squirm with pity and guilt, as rich folks often did when faced with the less appealing side to life. He’d answer Nick Barkley’s questions, and Nick would see whatever it was, it was all a misunderstanding.
He clenched the hand Victoria Barkley held a few moments before into a fist, marveling how it still stung from her fleeting touch.
Once the heavy front door to the mansion slammed shut behind her, Victoria broke into a run, heading straight upstairs to her bedroom. The exertion only served to make her furiously beating heart race faster. She raced for the drawer where she kept the family photographs. Finally, hands shaking, her eyes fell on the image she was seeking. It was a picture of Tom standing proudly on the site for this very house. He’d insisted on hiring a photographer for the occasion; a symbol of the luxury they could now afford.
She gazed at the image of the man she had loved and made her life with and compared it to the young man she just met by the corral. It wasn’t an exact match, but the striking similarities left little doubt as to the boy’s heritage. Now, how could that be? Had Tom been unfaithful? She dismissed that thought immediately. Surely she would have known or suspected something as serious as infidelity, wouldn’t she?
She closed her eyes and tried to distinguish the images on the backs of her eyelids. She could see rain…and the glow of a fire…she heard a clap of thunder…and a cry…
Victoria knew she needed more information, but from where? Strawberry…she should start in Strawberry.
Victoria jumped at the knock on the door.
“Yes, Jarrod. Come in.”
“Mother, I came back for some papers I left in my suit coat and…” Jarrod stopped, seeing his Mother’s pale face and tormented expression. He noticed she was sitting on the edge of the bed, with a photograph in her trembling grasp.
His mother’s expression almost frightened him.
“Mother, what’s wrong? What happened?” Jarrod asked, sitting down on the bed beside her.
Victoria couldn’t find the right words, so she showed him the picture of Tom.
Jarrod gently took it from her trembling fingers, and knew immediately the matter involved one Heath Thomson, the photograph in his hand, and his mother. Heath Thomson, the blond cowboy in their employ, was the spitting image of the young Tom Barkley. Nick said Thomson came from Strawberry, and the Barkleys once owned a mine there. The eyes…Nick said they reminded him of Father. Jarrod continued to gaze at the photo. There was something else…
Jarrod blanched. Had Tom Barkley engaged in an affair? When? How? His mother was obviously already aware of the possible connection between Heath and the Barkleys, and apparently had more information than he’d been able to uncover himself over the past few days.
“Mother? Heath Thomson looks like…?”
Tears no longer in check, Victoria nodded.
“Jarrod, do remember much about when Aaron was born?”
Jarrod reached into the depths of his childhood memories. He could recall bits and pieces of that time. Tom was away a lot, and he remembered his parents were expecting a baby, and he recalled the sadness that seemed to last forever after they buried the little brother he never knew. The baby was born in Strawberry. What could Aaron possibly have to do with Heath Thomson? Surely, they weren’t one and the same?
“I remember how sad it was, especially for you and Father. Father was hurt, and he didn’t make it home for the funeral.”
Victoria nodded. “That was perhaps the darkest time in our marriage. Neither of us, your father or I, knew how to cope with the loss of the baby. I felt guilty, and he was angry. Since I blamed myself, I thought he was angry with me for having foolishly traveled. To some extent, he was, but most of his anger was directed at God for taking his son.”
“Mother, what exactly are you trying to tell me?” Jarrod asked, confused.
She looked up at her oldest son and met his gaze. “Jarrod, I need to go to Strawberry…now. Will you help me? I’ll explain what this is all about on the way there.”
Without a word, he nodded.
Nick and Heath rode in strained silence out to the South Meadow. Nick Barkley’s mind and stomach churned with only one question…who was Heath Thomson? He drove the wagon looking straight ahead. His hands were clutching the reins so tightly his knuckles were white.
Heath sat miserably beside Nick resisting the urge to jump off of the moving wagon and run. Heath knew Nick was mad; though not necessarily at him, but mad nonetheless and it made him uncomfortable. He tried to focus on questions Nick might hurl against him. Nick would want to know where Heath was born, raised, and where he’d been. Those were easy. Nick would also want him to answer why his mother and brother seemed to think he was familiar. Now there was a question he couldn’t answer, and it made him angry to think he was going to be put through an inquisition for something he knew nothing about. Heath latched onto this anger and grew it until they reached the section of fence Nick purposed to mend.
Each man grabbed a hammer and some nails, and began working, not one word passing between them. To someone passing by, this would not seem unusual, but on closer examination, one would find the tension between the two men palpable.
After setting a post, both stopped to wipe the moisture from their faces. Unable to contain himself any longer, Nick took the first shot.
“Who are you?”
Heath felt his stomach tense. The question was asked in an almost sneering tone. Nick’s eyes were hard and narrow. Heath stared at him for a long moment, watching Nick’s ire build as the silence lengthened.
“You know who I am,” Heath answered evenly and unblinking.
“Do I? My brother and mother seem to think you’re a ghost from somewhere. Now, I’m gonna ask you again, and I expect an answer. Who are you, Boy?”
“A nobody,” Heath mumbled.
“What was that? I didn’t quite hear you, Boy,” Nick sneered.
Heath saw red. A lifetime of pain and struggle and emptiness coalesced and burst forth.
“NOBODY!” Heath shouted, then quieter, pulling himself straight, blue eyes on fire, “I’m nobody. I was born almost twenty-one years ago, I don’t know where…I was left on some man’s doorstep without so much as a note…the man’s sister raised me until she died when I was five…then he took me in. He was a sonuvabitch who worked me until my fingers bled and beat me and cursed at me and told me I was no good…that nobody wanted me…NOBODY WANTED ME!”
Nick Barkley stood, mouth agape. “I don’t…”
Nick intended to say he didn’t understand, but Heath, in his fury, assumed Nick didn’t believe him.
“You don’t believe me? Well, here…here’s your goddamned proof,” Heath said as he ripped at his shirt, some of the buttons popping off. He roughly yanked the garment away and threw it angrily on the ground. He turned so Nick could see the scars on his back; once angry red welts, now old and muted more subtle reminders, but evidence nonetheless, then whirled back around.
“There’s your proof of what I’m sayin’. But wait, it gets better…I thought the woman who died was my mother until I was nine. Then he,” Heath spat, “he told me what really happened. I was nine years old, and I found out when I was born, I wasn’t wanted so they left me…left me on his doorstep, and he made sure he reminded me every single day of that fact. My whole life was a lie. The woman I thought was my mother really wasn’t! Do you know what that’s like? When you were nine, did someone tell you that?”
Heath was panting, and he wasn’t quite finished, though he’d stopped shouting and was speaking in a tone laced with bitterness, his eyes still ablaze.
“I put up with it until I was thirteen, and one day I’d had enough. I spat in the sonuvabitch’s face and I left, and I never looked back. So you see, unless I’ve polished your rich brother’s shoes in San Francisco, or mucked out his horse’s stable, or cleared the table at some fancy luncheon of your mother’s, they don’t know me. I’m nobody. My goddamned name ain’t even mine.”
Heath stared into Nick’s eyes for a few moments, but Nick’s eyes only showed compassion. Heath looked down, feeling exhausted, his rage spent.
Nick felt terrible. His heart ached from what he’d just heard. Nick thought it hardly seemed fair his own life was full of warmth and love while others lived life devoid of these gifts. He was angry with himself for putting Heath in the position where he felt he was forced to divulge these painful secrets, and in another sense, he felt the better for it. Once again, Nick’s instincts hadn’t failed him. The young man standing before him was someone special. Someone who’d had a hard life and made his own way, meeting the world head on. Someone possessing pride and courage, and who persevered against the worst of circumstances. Heath Thomson stood tall in Nick Barkley’s eyes.
Bending down, Nick picked up Heath’s discarded shirt and held it out to the blond man.
“I’m sorry,” Nick said quietly. “Let’s call it a day.”
Still looking down, Heath reached out and took the shirt and shrugged it back on. After loading the wagon, they rode back to the ranch in silence. Heath was numb, dazed with exhaustion and humiliation. Although contrite, Nick was intent and focused on confronting Jarrod and his mother.
When they reached the ranch, Nick saw that Heath made it into the bunkhouse. He was concerned about the stupor Heath seemed to be in, and of course, felt responsible.
“Get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Nick said quietly, clapping him on the shoulder.
Heath nodded slightly in response and entered the bunkhouse. Nick felt somewhat encouraged, but decided he’d stop in later to see how Heath was doing.
Just before Nick turned to go to the house, he spied Jake Wright approaching. Jake was not only the Barkley ranch foreman, but also the unofficial spokesman for the men. He must have seen how sluggish Heath seemed.
“Everything all right, Nick?”
Nick stiffened and didn’t look at the older man when he answered.
“It will be, Jake,” Nick said flatly. He started to step away when Jake’s voice stopped him.
“What about the boy. Is he all right?”
Nick let out a barely perceptible sigh.
“He’s fine, Jake. Leave him be, all right?” Nick knew Heath didn’t need or want to be bothered right now, no matter how well intentioned the other men might be.
Jake studied Nick, trying to determine what happened between the two men, but he couldn’t read anything in Nick other than resolve. Jake was left with no choice but to follow Nick’s order and see to it that the men did as well.
Nick felt himself winding up as he entered the kitchen door.
“Mother! Jarrod! Audra!”
Silas jumped where he was working in front of the stove. “Mister Nick, you sure know how to scare a body,” he said shaking his head.
“Sorry Silas. Is anyone here?”
“Your mother and Mister Jarrod left just after lunch in the carriage. Miss Audra is in the parlor.”
“Left? For where?”
“They didn’t say exactly. Just said to tell you they’d be back when they could and not to wait up.”
Nick looked thoughtful. “Uh, thanks Silas. I think I’ll get cleaned up and meet Audra in the parlor.”
Fifteen minutes later, Nick strode into the parlor. “Audra,” he said as he approached the table holding the liquor decanter.
“Hello Nick. I heard you come in,” she giggled.
“Nothing, Big Brother. Is something wrong?”
“No…did Mother and Jarrod tell you where they were going?”
“Yes, they said they were taking a ride to Strawberry.”
“Strawberry!” Nick exclaimed. He felt his temper rising. They were investigating Heath.
“They said not to wait up for them.”
Nick gritted his teeth and then softened his expression. His sister apparently knew nothing about the controversy surrounding Thomson, or did she? Nick decided to dip his toe in the water.
“Audra, have you by any chance met the new hand I hired?”
“Heath Thomson? He’s very quiet, and he’s nice.”
“So you’ve met him?”
“I think I just said that, yes.”
“Did he look…?” Nick struggled for the right word.
“Handsome?” Audra finished.
Nick choked on his drink. “That’s not what I meant. Did you think he looked like anybody you know?”
“No, not really.”
“What do you mean, ‘not really’?”
“I don’t know Nick, he kind of reminded me of …,”
Nick held his breath.
“You,” she said.
Nick’s eyebrows shot up. “OF ME? In what way?”
“I don’t know Nick. The way he seems so natural with his work, and I think his hands are like yours, and he’s almost as tall as you.”
Silas announced dinner was served, so Nick set his unfinished drink down and extended his arm to his sister. She knew nothing.
“Oh?” he asked playfully. The heavy mood he’d been cloaked under for the past few days was temporarily lifted by his sister’s breezy spirit.
“Yes,” she said, looping her arm in his.
They enjoyed an amicable meal and retired to the parlor to while away the evening.
“Nick, are you going to wait up for Jarrod and Mother?”
Nick had been trying to work on the payroll, but accomplished little. His mind was split between what Heath told him that afternoon, Audra’s chatter, and his mother and brother’s unexpected trip to Strawberry. This approach left little focus for the books.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. I’ll give them a little more time…see if they come in, then I guess I’ll turn in myself.”
She bent to kiss his cheek. “Don’t stay up too late, Big Brother.”
He gave her a half-hearted smile and she left. He looked at the clock. It was now well past eight-thirty, and Nick found himself more and more certain they wouldn’t be back at all tonight. He gave up the idea of getting any paperwork completed, and decided to check on Heath before turning in. What the boy said that afternoon weighed heavily on his mind, and Nick couldn’t seem to erase the boy’s pained expression from his memory.
The bunkhouse was quiet due to the hour. Nick knew most of the men would be turned in for the night, so he really didn’t want to disturb anyone. Those who were still up would be in the mess. He entered the building and returned the men’s greetings. There were four men engaged in a hand of poker, being watched by another and Jake Wright. Thomson wasn’t among them.
“Jake, can I talk to you for a minute?”
The two made their way over to a quiet corner and sat down at a table, facing each other.
“What is it Nick?” Jake asked, seeing the troubled look on Nick’s face.
“How is Heath?”
Jake shrugged. “Fell asleep right away. Didn’t even eat dinner tonight. We left him alone, like you asked us to.”
Jake hesitated. It really wasn’t any of his business, but it was obvious something happened between Nick and Heath.
“Nick, just what went on between you two? The kid was like the walking dead when you came in this afternoon.”
Nick’s expression grew stormy. “Nothin’.”
“Is he in trouble Nick?”
Nick looked surprised. “No, nothin’ like that at all. We, uh, just worked kinda hard. Maybe his head is still buggin’ him from that fight a couple of weeks ago.”
Jake nodded, but his expression said he knew Nick was lying. “Okay, Nick.”
Nick was quiet for a few minutes as if he wanted to say something else, but then he stood and addressed the foreman.
“Well, I guess I’ll turn in. We’ve got a lot to do around here tomorrow. ‘Night Jake…and thanks.”
“’Night Nick. See you tomorrow.”
Jake Wright watched Nick depart. He was now certain something was going on, but what it was, he had no idea. If Nick were angry with Thomson, he would have sent him packing. It wasn’t anger that was troubling Nick, it was concern. Though it wasn’t unusual for Nick to be concerned over a hand when injured or troubled, there was something different about the way he was acting about the boy. It seemed…personal.
Thomson returned from working with Nick not exhausted, as Nick would have everyone believe, but defeated. Perhaps they’d had an argument and Nick felt sorry. Jake was also aware Jarrod and Mrs. Barkley departed this afternoon and as yet hadn’t returned. Nick was probably concerned about them as well.
Deciding that was a plausible explanation, he rose and walked back over to the poker game.
Heath awoke in darkness, wondering how long he’d slept. His mind played the things he told Nick over and over again. That he could recall, it was the first time he’d ever told anyone the awful truth about his childhood. In the aftermath of his heated confession, he felt ashamed. Nick only asked him who he was. He could have answered that in one or two short answers. Instead, he’d let fly with his whole life story. He winced. Nick was his employer, and those things would have best been left unsaid and unknown.
Yet, at the same time, he found himself almost relieved he’d said what he said, feeling a great weight lifted off his chest, and he was certain he’d given Nick the information the man obviously set out to obtain and then some. Nick didn’t fire him, as he feared he might. Would Nick share everything with his brother and mother? Heath groaned inwardly at the thought, then was struck with the certainty Nick wouldn’t. He felt confident Nick would only share what was necessary to communicate to them they were mistaking him for someone else. It was the type of man Nick was, and Heath had to admit he admired the man. Nick was in command of this entire ranch, and the men respected his abilities and obeyed his commands. He had a fearsome temper, yet underneath he was kind. Heath couldn’t recall, in all his travels, ever meeting anyone quite like Nick Barkley. Nick was one of the few people Heath met who actually seemed to care about him. It seemed odd, since they’d only met a short time ago, but Heath felt a strange connection to the man. It was as if they intrinsically understood one another.
Heath could only imagine what it would have been like to have the influence of someone like Nick or his brother while growing up. Instead, an angry, bitter man raised Heath. The man took all his frustrations with the world out on him, seemingly resenting his mere existence, but at least Heath had the satisfaction of having left the man with no one to kick around but himself. The one thing that man never took from Heath though, was hope, and Heath supposed it was the one thing that kept him going from place to place, year after year, searching for the life and the people who might make him whole. He had only one question for his parents, if he ever found them…why?
For Heath, it wasn’t so much that he was left by his parents, it was that there was no explanation, at least of which Heath knew. By not having provided so much as a note, Heath was left with only what his so-called ‘uncle’ offered…Heath wasn’t worthy of their love so they left him. Heath had to know for sure, even if it turned out to be true, because only then would there be closure.
Through his life, Heath derived a million possible reasons for why two people would leave their newborn baby at the door of a stranger. Maybe they planned to return, and his ‘uncle’ sent them away, or maybe they were killed and it wasn’t actually them who cast him aside. Maybe they were too poor, or criminals unable to take a child. Or maybe, just maybe, what he’d been told was true after all. He wasn’t wanted or worth loving.
Heath felt his eyelids drooping. One thing was for certain; he wanted to stay here more than he’d wanted to stay anywhere in his whole life. He wasn’t sure as to why, and oddly enough, he didn’t care. For now, he simply wanted to stay, and for once in his life, to belong.
Victoria could hardly contain her emotions as they rode through the remnants of the town of Strawberry. There was little left to indicate it once was a bustling town full of activity. Tumbleweeds rolled in the dusty streets with each blast of the wind, and buildings stood desolate and in disrepair. If Victoria closed her eyes, she could almost feel and hear them come to life, just as they were twenty years ago.
They spied a horse tethered outside the saloon, and determined it to be the place most likely to find a person with information about the man they were seeking. Jarrod parked the carriage and helped his mother down.
The only customer in the dingy establishment was seated at a table nursing a bottle of whiskey and smoking a cigar. The bartender, a heavy-set older man with white hair, was polishing glasses and whistling a tune. Both looked up in surprise as the obviously well to do strangers entered and walked toward the bar.
The bartender was immediately all business. He hastily stuffed his rag under the bar and stood straight, addressing his potential customers.
“May I help you folks?” the man asked eagerly.
“Perhaps you may,” Jarrod said smoothly, “we’re looking for someone.”
The bartender laughed. “Looking for someone in Strawberry? Mister, I don’t know if you missed it on the way in, but this town is nearly deserted.”
Jarrod remained nonplussed. “Well, that may be so, but you still may be able to help us.”
The bartender shrugged. “I might, but my, uh, memory is a little rusty.”
Jarrod recognized the implication. He reached into his wallet and pulled out twenty dollars. He counted it slowly, and did not miss the look that passed over the man’s face.
The bartender cleared his throat, his eyes never leaving the money in Jarrod’s hand. “I think some things might be coming back to me. Who is it you’re looking for?”
Victoria spoke for the first time. “Simmons. Matt Simmons.”
The bartender looked between both Victoria and Jarrod. “I might be of some assistance.”
“Is he still around here?” Jarrod asked, still holding the money.
“Well, I don’t know…”
Jarrod laid five dollars on the counter.
“Yes, he is,” the greedy man said, taking the money immediately.
“Where might we find him?” Jarrod asked, laying five more dollars on the counter.
“He lives in a cabin outside of town.”
“Which direction?” Jarrod asked, again laying money on the counter. The man was practically salivating.
“North. You won’t miss it.”
“Thank you,” Jarrod said. The bartender waited eagerly for Jarrod to put the remaining bills on the counter, but instead, Jarrod placed them back in his wallet. “You’ve been most informative, sir.”
The bartender’s eyes narrowed as he watched them turn away.
“Mother?” Jarrod said, taking her arm.
“You won’t get far!” the bartender called, “he don’t like no company!”
“We’ll take our chances, thank you,” Jarrod said as they exited.
Wordlessly, they got into the buggy and Jarrod steered north. Not too far out of town, they came across a dilapidated house. The yard was unkempt, shutters not missing hung askew, and the house was in need of a coat of paint. Jarrod pulled to a stop and glanced at Victoria. Her face was set in stone, but could guess her insides were churning as much as his own. He was still trying to come to terms with what she’d told him during the long ride here, and found it hard to believe this man they were going to see could help at all.
“Mother, I think this is it,” he said. His mouth was dry.
“Are you sure you want to see this man?”
She nodded again. “I have to Jarrod. For all of us, I have to know the truth.”
She started to get out of the buggy, but a hand on her arm stopped her.
“Mother…,” Jarrod’s voice trailed off. He wanted to ask her what she was going to tell Heath if it turned out he was a Barkley, but thought better of it. The question could wait for now. He also worried for her reaction if what this man said did not confirm the story she shared with him over the past several hours. “…let me help you down,” he said instead.
He jumped down and assisted Victoria. She grasped his arm as they made their way to the rotting porch. Her legs felt like lead, and she half expected the front door to fly open. She noticed Jarrod removed the clip on his gun.
Jarrod rapped on the door. They waited, but there was no answer. Jarrod rapped again. This time they heard shuffling footsteps from within and a voice.
“Who is it? Whaddya want?”
Jarrod cleared his throat. “We are looking for a Matt Simmons. Is he here?”
“What’s it to ya?”
Victoria spoke. “This is Victoria Barkley. I’d like to talk with Mr. Simmons.”
There was silence. On the other side of the door, the shabby man’s heart lurched. Victoria Barkley! So…she has come. Had the boy…? Today would be the day the secret was revealed, and today he would receive payment on the investment he made twenty years ago. Excitement coursing through his veins, he opened the door a crack and peered out.
The woman, Victoria Barkley, he recognized. The young man with her, he did not, but he could guess he was her son. Her hair, now silver, was once the same color as the young man’s. He had Tom Barkley’s height, and presence. He opened the door wider.
“I’m him. What do you want from me?”
“I want to ask you some questions, Mr. Simmons,” Victoria answered, trying to keep her voice even.
“Questions…,” Matt said thoughtfully. “Don’t know if I have any answers.”
Victoria, gauging the man’s intent, spoke coolly. “Well perhaps we can help you with your memory.” As she spoke, Jarrod extracted his wallet.
“Well, now. Maybe I can help you after all. Won’t you come in?” Simmons said, gesturing with his arm.
The Barkleys entered the house slowly. It was dimly lit, even for the middle of the day. Jarrod surmised this to be because the windows were so filthy they blocked the sunlight. Simmons gestured to two chairs and they sat down. He poured himself a drink, but didn’t offer anything to Jarrod and Victoria. They exchanged glances as the man limped to an empty chair and sat down.
They sat in charged silence. Finally, Victoria spoke.
“Mr. Simmons, I have some questions about the night you helped me. It was a stormy night just over twenty years ago. I was in labor and you helped me.”
Simmons shrugged. “Don’t know if I’ll be much help,” he said noncommittally.
“Mr. Simmons, on that night, you delivered my baby. A stillborn baby boy.”
Simmons looked thoughtful. He wondered how much she knew. Had she started to remember? In her drug and pain induced stupor, did she hear a cry that until now, was thought to be her imagination?
“Um hm, that’s correct,” Matt answered coolly.
Victoria looked right into his eyes. “It isn’t the whole truth, is it?”
Matt stared back at her, his face a mask. “I can’t recall any differently.”
Jarrod placed a hundred dollars on the table. “Perhaps this will help, Mr. Simmons.”
Simmons threw his head back and laughed heartily. “You must be joking! It is going to take a lot more than that to restore my memory.”
“Fine,” Jarrod said. This man repulsed him. Jarrod put one thousand dollars on the table, hoping it would satisfy the vulture.
Matt regarded the money, but did not pick it up. “What makes you think I’m not telling you the truth already?”
Victoria was losing the tenuous hold she had on her emotions. “Because my doctor in Stockton consistently heard two heartbeats! Because I felt life in my womb right up until I lost consciousness! Because, Mr. Simmons, I thought I heard a baby cry!”
Matt was enjoying this. He decided to string her along a little more. These things alone should not have brought her out here to see him. No, there had to be another reason. The truth, she would get in due time. On his own part, Matt wanted to be sure its deliverance would be worth it.
“Well, Mrs. Barkley, if I recall, you were pretty bad off,” he said coyly.
Victoria’s face was expressionless, her tone flat. “Mr. Simmons, I shook my son’s hand this morning, and I want to know the truth about the night he was born.”
It almost took Matt Simmons’ breath away. So the boy had found his way to the Barkleys after all. Now was the time for the revelations that would shake the surviving members of Tom Barkley’s family to the core. It was too bad the Tom didn’t live to hear this. Matt would have loved to see the expression on Tom’s face. He imagined it would have been similar to the two he sat facing at this very moment.
“Another thousand, Mrs. Barkley, and I’ll tell you more than you ever wanted to know.”
Jarrod spoke. “We’ll give you two thousand more to tell the truth, Mr. Simmons. The truth…no more, no less.”
“All right,” Matt began, “the boy is yours. You’re right, Mrs. Barkley, there were two. The first was stillborn. The second was born as you passed out from the pain and the medication I drugged you with.”
Matt paused, letting his words take effect. It made him feel exhilarated to see the tears behind Victoria Barkley’s eyes and her and her son’s mouths agape with shock.
“There. You didn’t think it was that simple, did you?” Simmons spat.
“Why?” Victoria whispered. She felt faint. And sick.
Jarrod reached his hand over and grasped his mother’s. He was drawing support as much as giving.
“Why? Because I lost my life in that stinkin’ hole your husband called a mine. Oh, Lady, I’m alive, but I lost my life.” Simmons tapped his leg. “I never could get a decent paying job, and as you see, I never had a wife or sons. When you arrived, I felt Tom Barkley owed me that much. He had sons already, I had nothing,” he shrugged, “so I decided to keep one of his. Call it revenge, call it whatever you like.”
Jarrod cleared his throat and made a supreme effort to keep his voice calm. “Mr. Simmons, what you did I believe is classified as kidnapping.”
“Like I said before, call it what you like. The boy was cared for, and for that,” Simmons said reaching over and taking the money, “this will do nicely.”
“Why?” Victoria whispered again.
“I believe I answered that. I wanted Tom Barkley to suffer a loss. Unfortunately, it didn’t go exactly as I planned, since the ungrateful urchin ran off on me and Tom met his demise before he knew the truth. Seeing the look on your faces, and knowing I’d taken something of value from him will have to do.”
Victoria shook her head. “Don’t you see? Whatever you felt my husband was responsible for, our baby was innocent. You took an innocent child and kept him from what was rightfully his. Mr. Simmons, your plan failed. Though I’m hurt, and my children will be as well, it is Heath who you really punished.”
“No, you’re wrong, Mrs. Barkley. How do you think he is going to react to the news? The boy thinks he wasn’t wanted, and you’ll have a hard time convincing him otherwise. I’d say I was pretty successful. You’ve had twenty years of misery wondering about, and you’ll have twenty more trying to love, a child who hates you for abandoning him.”
Jarrod wasn’t a man prone to using his fists like his brother Nick was, but in a flash he was on his feet, his hands clenched. A tiny hand on his arm and a quiet command pulled him back to his chair.
Jarrod sat as his mother commanded his temple throbbing with rage.
“How?” Victoria asked. “Where did you take my baby? Was he sold?”
“Oh no. While you were, shall we say, sleeping, I took him to my sister. Told her he was abandoned on my doorstep. She was frail and sickly, and unmarried without the hope of ever having a child. She raised him until he was five. When she passed away, I took over.”
The words Matt Simmons spoke were barely heard by Victoria. She strained to listen, as they seemed jumbled and without distinctiveness. Her emotions reeled, her heart and soul ached. All this time, she had been right. She should have insisted. She should have returned here. All those years, her son had been kept from his family.
Jarrod’s blue eyes were hard as he addressed the human monster sitting before him. “By rights, we can and will press charges.”
Matt Simmons laughed. “You go right ahead, but I don’t think you’ll want this whole thing aired in public, do you? I mean, what kind of a mother…?”
It was too much for Victoria to bear. She rose slowly, her face expressionless, and stood in front of Matt Simmons. Without a word, she issued a stinging slap to his face.
“I hope you go straight to Hell,” she said with hatred.
Simmons resisted the urge to rub the sting away from his cheek. Looking at her defiantly, he retorted “then I’ll give my regards to Tom Barkley.”
Victoria refused to dignify the man with a response. She turned to leave, having acquired the answers she sought. Jarrod followed close behind.
“What about my money?”
“You’ll get your money,” Jarrod said tersely, without a backward glance.
It wasn’t until they were in the carriage and turned towards home that she broke down. What started as a few trickles was soon a burst of grief and frustration. Victoria buried her face in her hands and wept.
Jarrod pulled the carriage to the side of the road, his own emotions in turmoil over what he’d heard. He tried to offer comfort to his mother.
“Oh Jarrod,” she sobbed. “How am I ever going to explain this?”
Jarrod held her petite, sobbing form tightly and whispered, “The truth, Mother. There is no alternative, other than not saying anything at all, and I don’t think you want that, and neither do I. I would very much like to get know my youngest brother.”
Victoria continued to sob and shook her head. “Don’t you see, Jarrod? Matt Simmons is right. Heath will never believe anything I say!”
Jarrod grabbed her shoulders firmly and locked her gaze. “Mother, Matt Simmons doesn’t know the Barkleys as well as he thinks, and Heath is a Barkley. He’ll be upset, I’m sure, but when he sees the whole picture and gives it some thought, I imagine he will come around. I have a strong feeling he’s been looking for his family for a long time. He’ll adjust, Mother.”
“And if he doesn’t Jarrod? He may run, and we’ll be right back where we started.”
“Shhh. No we won’t. Nick and I won’t let him leave. We’ll all let him know he’s welcome. The ranch is his home too. Mother, you can’t blame yourself for what happened. The circumstances were beyond your control, and Heath will see that.” He reached for his handkerchief and dried her tears. “Now, we need to get home and bring this out in the open, all right?”
Victoria nodded and tried to smile. “You have so much of your father’s strength, Jarrod. He would be proud.”
“Thank you, Mother, but I got a lot of strength from you as well. All of your children did.”
He snapped the reins and urged the carriage homeward.
Nick was pacing the parlor when they arrived. Audra was distractedly working on a needlepoint, now suspicious that something was afoot.
Nick whirled as Jarrod and Victoria crossed the foyer.
“Well, I trust Strawberry hasn’t lost its charm?” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Victoria had taken the long journey as an opportunity to regain her composure and plan what she would say to her children. They would tell Nick and Audra first, then decide together how they would approach Heath with the news.
“Nicholas, we’ve had a long trip, and it was not without its fruits. If you’ll kindly sit down, Jarrod and I will explain why we went and what we discovered there.”
Her tone made it more of an order than a request. Nick glared at his mother and brother for a moment and then sat down. He’d listen to what they had to say, then hit them with the truth of the matter he’d received from Heath.
Audra laid her needlepoint aside. “I don’t know what is going on around here, but I wish someone would tell me why everyone is so cross with one another.”
Nick spoke up, his temper already wound tighter than a clock. “You want to know, Little Sister? I’ll tell you. Jarrod and Mother seem to think our star ranch hand is someone they know. They went to Strawberry to investigate his background. I say they found nothing. The boy and I talked. He has nothing to do with this family other than the hard work he puts in each day!”
This wasn’t how she planned to break the news, but Nick’s tirade was leaving her few alternatives. She exchanged a furtive glance with Jarrod, who nodded imperceptibly.
“Nick, Heath Thomson has more to do with this family than you think. He is my son, and your brother.”
There was deafening silence for a few moments, then Audra and Nick burst forth in unison.
Surprisingly, Victoria was gaining resolve rather than losing it. “You heard what I said. Now, I will share the entire story, and I expect you to listen carefully. Some of what I am about to tell you will shock you, and will be difficult for you to understand, but I want you to listen to what I have to say.”
Nick jumped to his feet and began pacing. What on earth was she saying? Did she have an affair? Did she abandon a baby who by rights should have been raised with his family? Knowing how Heath had been raised, Nick felt queasy.
“Mother, please explain,” Audra said quietly, her face clearly displaying fear.
Victoria recapped the events of the night Heath was born, and as she requested, Nick and Audra listened quietly to the story. Finally, Nick could contain himself no longer.
“How can that be?!” Nick exclaimed, “how could you not know?!”
Victoria steeled herself against the sting of Nick’s words.
“Nick!” Jarrod admonished.
Victoria held up her hand. “No, Jarrod, Nick has a valid question. It is one I’ve asked myself over and over. Nick, Matt Simmons drugged me, and I was in much pain and grieving a lost child. Heath was born as I passed out, and Simmons took him away while I was unconscious. I never knew for certain there were two babies and had no way to prove it; not until the day I laid eyes on Heath. That is why Jarrod and I went to Strawberry. I wanted the truth from Matt Simmons, and after twenty long and painful years, I finally have it. I wish your father were here to share this joy with me.”
Nick digested what his mother said, and gradually reasoned what his mother was telling them was the truth, no matter how strange it seemed, and at least he’d been right about Father not cheating. So Heath Thomson was his brother. The younger brother he always longed to have. Nick was torn between elation at the discovery, anger with the man who’d kept them apart, and dread of how Heath would receive the information. Given what Heath told Nick the day before, Nick surmised Heath would be hurt and angry, to say the least, and Nick couldn’t say he blamed the boy. Where their lives had been rich both with love and material wealth, his was poor and lonely, along a path of difficulty and sorrow.
“I’m gonna take this Matt Simmons apart limb from limb,” Nick growled.
“Nick! You’ll do no such thing. We’ll decide how to deal with him later. Right now, we have more important things to work through,” Victoria said sternly.
Tears were streaming down Audra’s cheeks as she rose to her feet and moved to embrace her mother. “Oh, Mother,” she sobbed on Victoria’s shoulder, “what are you going to tell Heath?”
“That is something we all have to decide, although it is not a question of what we are going to tell him, but how.”
“I can have Jake send the boy in here,” Nick said gruffly.
“He definitely should be told here in the privacy of the house, but should all of us be present? Perhaps only Mother should talk with him at first.” Jarrod said.
Victoria shook her head. “Jarrod, I gave this a lot of thought. It is hard to tell how he will react, and I don’t want him to bolt out of here. I want him to see his family cares and wants him to be here. I think we should all be present.”
“I agree with Mother,” Audra said, “what do you think, Nick?”
“He, uh, he spoke with me about his childhood yesterday afternoon. I think you oughta know he didn’t have an easy life. That man who stole him from us was a fiend and hurt him emotionally and physically. Heath told me he was nobody. That he wasn’t wanted.”
That he wasn’t wanted. The words sliced through Victoria like a hot knife through butter. How would she ever convince Heath otherwise; that nothing could be farther from the truth? There was only one way to find out, and that was to bring him in and talk to him.
“Nick, what Heath told you is true. Matt Simmons is a hateful, spiteful, terrible man. What he did to your brother is sickening and I wish to God it never happened. We can’t spend our energy on the past, as it cannot be changed. We must bring Heath in, explain as gently as possible what happened, and move on from there. Hopefully, the future will hold a great deal of happiness for Heath and all of us as well.”
There’s one more thing we’ll need to consider, Mother,” Jarrod injected. “While we all agree on our acceptance of Heath and the circumstances surrounding his birth, how do you think our friends and neighbors will react to what happened?”
“I’ve given that issue some thought myself. Our friends will know and understand the truth, especially those who have known your father and I for a long time. Hopefully, their knowledge and support will help offset the rumors that inevitably will fly around Stockton. One thing is for certain; I will not call Heath anything else but my son. We’ll have to deal with the gossips as they come. No matter what we say, they are going to make up their own stories about what they think really happened.” Victoria paused and looked at all three of her children. Each gave a nod of agreement.
“Now, what this means is that there are going to be some mean spirited comments and stares directed at probably all of us, but mostly Heath and I. There will be those who claim the story we tell is really a cover up for a liaison.”
“Do you think that’s fair to Heath?” Audra asked.
“Honey, as cruel as it sounds, it is more fair than asking him to claim he’s a long lost cousin, especially after all he’s been through,” Jarrod soothed, putting his arm around her. “Perhaps Pastor Williams could be of assistance,” he added as a suggestion.
“Seems to me if we had something to prove what happened, they wouldn’t gossip as much,” Nick said. “What about Merar?”
“We could speak with him, but other than saying he thought I was carrying twins, he can’t offer anything. It was the uncertainty of everything that made me believe Matt Simmons to begin with.”
Jarrod looked thoughtful. “It would certainly help, don’t you think Mother?”
Victoria relented. “All right, I’ll talk to him. Are we in agreement?”
One by one, Jarrod, Nick, and Audra each nodded. If asked, all would admit they were apprehensive about what the coming days would bring, but they would face whatever came their way together.
“I’ll have Heath sent in,” Nick said quietly. His stomach was a massive knot.
As they waited, the only sound in the expansive parlor was the ticking of the clock on the mantle. Victoria regarded each of her children. She knew each was feeling a variety of emotions they would spend some time dealing with, yet all three had offered their unfailing trust and support. She was proud of all three of them.
They jumped at the knock on the door.
Silas opened the door to reveal the handsome blond cowboy.
“Can I help you?” Silas asked customarily.
Heath removed his hat, apprehension written on his face. “Jake said Nick wants to see me,” he said quietly.
“Do come in,” Silas said, gesturing toward the foyer.
Heath stepped inside and relinquished his hat to Silas, who proceeded to announce his arrival to the family. He looked around, in awe of the finery and size of the house. And this was only the foyer! The now familiar jingling of spurs and heavy footsteps preceded Nick’s voice. Heath felt a twinge in his stomach and resisted the urge to wince.
“Heath, I’m, uh, glad you’re here. I need to talk to you.”
Heath thought Nick looked and sounded as uncomfortable as Heath himself felt.
“Sure, Nick, I hope I didn’t do anything wrong,” Heath croaked. His throat felt dry.
“No, Heath. No you didn’t. Follow me, Boy,” Nick managed as calmly as he could.
Heath followed Nick down a hallway and through two huge double doors into a dark paneled room. The color of the wood was all Heath had time to absorb before he detected the presence of Nick’s mother, sister, and older brother. It immediately crossed Heath’s mind that this was an ambush, and that he should retreat immediately. He stood in the doorway, frozen with indecision.
Victoria’s heart pounded wildly in rhythm with the butterflies in her stomach as she gazed at the handsome young man standing aloofly in the doorway. Her son…her dead child’s twin, her lost child. Victoria almost couldn’t breathe, feeling she was bearing witness to a miracle. There, very much alive, stood the likeness of Tom and Aaron, and of Nick, Jarrod, Audra, and herself. The fair-haired cowboy standing before her resembled all of them and none of them at the same time, but undoubtedly carried their blood.
Jarrod rose and extended his hand. The bewildered blond grasped it with a firm handshake.
“Heath,” he said warmly, his eyes awash with emotion, “please come and sit down.”
Heath looked from face to face to face, his confusion growing. Had Nick told them about what he said? They didn’t seem shocked or angry with him; no, it wasn’t those things at all. Actually, they were looking at him with wonder, as if they were seeing some valuable treasure, the richness of its glow reflected bright and warm in their eyes.
Jarrod gestured to a couch. Heath sat down, and Jarrod sat to his right. Victoria and Audra Barkley sat on a similar couch directly across from him and Jarrod, and Nick sat in an armchair to Heath’s left. Heath shifted uncomfortably as the silence lengthened. He looked down at his hands, studying the calluses along his index fingers.
“Heath,” Victoria said, “look at me, Son.”
Heath lifted his gaze as instructed.
“I suppose you’re wondering why we asked you here,” she said kindly.
Heath nodded. “Crossed my mind,” he mumbled, looking down again.
“Heath, I have something to tell you, but I want you to promise me you’ll listen to the whole story. Promise me, please.”
Heath’s stomach turned. He brought his gaze even with hers, and sensed urgency and sincerity, and sadness and joy all at once in her eyes. He trusted her. Without knowing why, he actually trusted her.
He swallowed and nodded.
Victoria drew a shuddering breath and began. “Over twenty years ago, my husband, Tom Barkley, was injured in an accident at a mine we owned. I was expecting a baby, and was determined to be with him in his time of need. My friend Irene warned me against making the trip, but for right or wrong I was determined, so I left my sons, Jarrod and Nick in Irene’s care and set out nonetheless. The road was much more difficult to traverse than I anticipated; a journey that should have only taken hours stretched into more than a day because of a raging storm. The wind was howling and the rain was coming down in sheets. Oh, it was only cloudy when I set out from this very ranch, but it soon turned into a full blown gale, and I was out in the thick of it, alone.”
“I wasn’t due for a month or more, and was shocked when the first pains came along with the storm. Since it was not my first child, I knew, too late, I might not make it to my destination before my third child was born. I remember thinking ‘surely it can’t be too far now’ but the pains started coming quicker and I knew I needed to find shelter, or better yet, assistance.”
Victoria glanced at her children. All, including Heath, sat silently listening. Seeing she still had Heath’s attention, she continued.
“I pulled the team to a stop as another contraction doubled me over in pain. I shielded my eyes against the torrential downpour, knowing I needed refuge right then and now. In the distance, I spied a dim light and urged the team forward once again. It seemed to take forever to reach the light, but I finally did.”
“The man who lived in the cabin came out to help me. I told him my baby was on its way. He led the team through the mud and helped me down. He led me inside and helped me to a chair. I asked him to get a doctor, but he refused because of the storm.”
Heath shifted uncomfortably wondering why this woman was divulging such personal information to him, a ranch hand. It slowly dawned on him he might be involved in some way, but he still had no idea how.
“The man did what he could to make me comfortable. The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t remember Jarrod and Nick’s births being quite so painful but then again, the previous babies were single births. Doctor Merar seemed to think I might be with twins this time. There was, of course, no way to be certain.”
Heath startled at the mention of twins.
Victoria continued, “Well, it wasn’t long before the baby arrived. A baby boy, but he was…” Her voice drifted off, unable to complete the sentence.
Heath swallowed hard. The dull ache in his stomach began to intensify and it was all he could do to remain seated. What was going on? Where was this going?
“I lost consciousness then, and when I awoke, the man told me my baby was dead. We buried him here in the North Pasture, and his father, Tom Barkley now rests beside him.”
Heath figured the story was finished, and was trying to formulate an appropriate comment. He still didn’t understand what this had to do with him, and in no way, shape, or form was prepared for what the woman said next.
“Heath, the man who helped me was a man by the name of Matt Simmons.”
At the mention of Simmons, Heath’s fists clenched and his eyes grew stormy, but he said nothing. So that’s it! Somehow they linked him to Matt Simmons. Heath looked to his right and left. Jarrod and Nick perceptibly leaned forward. Heath began to feel extremely uncomfortable, and began planning an escape.
“Ma’am, with all due respects, I think I’d best leave,” Heath said quietly.
“Wait Heath, please,” Victoria implored.
Once again, Heath relaxed as he looked into her eyes. Why did this woman comfort him?
“Heath, what I’m going to tell you next might be hard for you to hear, but I want you to know it is the truth. Heath, Matt Simmons helped me, but he also hurt me. After I lost consciousness, another baby, a boy, was born, but I didn’t know. Matt took the baby away, and when I awoke, Simmons told me there was only the one, stillborn infant. I kept asking him if he was sure, that my doctor said there might be twins. He told me over and over there was only one.”
Heath sat, face expressionless. What was she saying?
“I had no choice but to believe him, until yesterday. Heath, you were the baby Matt Simmons took from me. I knew the moment I laid eyes on you, you are my son.”
Heath’s blue eyes illuminated with comprehension. His face went red, then pale, red again, and his fists clenched so tightly his knuckles were white. He didn’t know what to think at that moment. All the years of planning, he never anticipated finding his parents this way. He always pictured himself knowing who they were ahead of time and approaching them. For a split second he wondered if this was some cruel joke, but one glance around the room told him there was no humor in this situation.
“That means…,” he choked.
Heath felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, and the lawyer spoke to him. “Heath, we know this might be difficult for you to come to terms with right now, but we want you to know we are looking forward to getting to know you and are glad you found your way here, otherwise we might never have known.”
“H…How did…?” Heath stammered.
Victoria held a photograph out to Heath. Heath took it in his shaking hands and gazed at the image of Tom Barkley, his father, immortalized before him, and somehow he knew what this woman said was true.
Nick spoke for the first time. “Audra and I missed it because we didn’t remember Father when he was young, but Jarrod and of course, Mother, did.”
Heath looked from his brothers and sister to his…his mother, and tried to push back the tears. The only thing he could think of to stop their flow was to get angry. Not at them necessarily, but at Matt Simmons, the man who robbed him of not only his childhood but his family as well. Heath knew, in his heart, Victoria Barkley told him the truth. It certainly explained a few things he’d experienced since his arrival…the strange desire he felt to remain here, the uncanny way that he and Nick seemed to understand each other, and the peculiar sense of completion he felt when he met the woman the day before. Still, he was angry with her as well, even if it wasn’t her fault Simmons duped her, she should have known. She should have felt him, and would have, Heath reasoned, if she’d wanted to.
Heath’s family watched as shock was replaced by a variety of emotions in the young man’s eyes. His complexion finally settled on pale, and he rose shakily to his feet.
“I’m sorry, I have to go,” Heath managed to say, without looking at any of them. He had to get out of there. For such a huge house, it seemed to Heath its walls could close in mighty quickly, and he had to get out of there, away from the closeness and their sympathetic gazes. What he needed to do was go to Strawberry. Not to confirm or deny what he’d just heard, but to confront Simmons with the question he’d reserved for his parents all these years…why?
Then he planned to kill the sonuvabitch.
The Barkleys sat stunned as Heath exited the study. Victoria gathered her emotions, fearing Heath might be planning to leave the ranch.
“Nick, Jarrod, go after him! Don’t let him leave. There is no telling where he might go or do right now,”
Before she’d uttered the entire command, Jarrod and Nick were bolting out of the room. They caught up with Heath crossing the yard. He was walking slowly, almost drunkenly, but picked up the pace when he perceived they were behind him.
“Hold it, boy,” Nick commanded.
Heath kept walking. “You got no right to order me around,” Heath mumbled.
Nick grabbed his arm. “What did you say to me?”
Heath whirled. “I said, you go no right to order me around! Now let go of me! I’ve got somethin’ I gotta do.”
Nick tightened his grip on Heath’s arm. “Uh, uh. Nothin’ doin’. You’re not going anywhere, Little Brother.”
That did it. Heath tore himself loose from Nick and broke into a run toward the corral. The phrase Nick uttered rang in his ears. Nick brought him down hard into the dirt with a tackle. Heath rose up onto his knees swinging, catching Nick in the ribs and the side of the face. Nick was only momentarily stunned. He quickly got his bearings and blocked Heath’s next two attacks, then delivered one of his own to Heath’s stomach. Heath doubled over in pain, trying to catch his breath.
Nick was surprised when Heath straightened up and struggled to his feet. Nick matched the movement and dusted himself off.
Heath turned to resume his journey to the corral. Nick grabbed his arm and pulled him around, nearly causing him to lose his balance.
“I said you ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Nick growled.
Heath tried to shrug him off. “I say I am, now let go of me!”
Heath was furious. He brought his right fist up in an effort to make contact with Nick’s ribcage. Nick stopped him by grabbing his wrist and twisting it. Heath yelped in pain, and was all the more enraged. The more Heath struggled and swung blindly, the calmer Nick was, easily fending off the blows.
Suddenly, Heath stopped. Panting, he looked around as if he were trying to decide which way to go, and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. He was exhausted, and all of the fight went out of him. He looked at Nick, his brother, his big brother, and gave a bitter sounding laugh, shaking his head. The magnitude of the truth hit him like a locomotive. Looking up at the sky, he laughed again, and just as quickly, the tears came. This time he was unable to push them back.
Uncontrollably, the silent sobs shook his body. He was oblivious to where he was and who might be watching. At that moment, none of it mattered. The only thing Heath wanted to do was purge himself of his past, of bitterness, of anger, of sorrow. His whole life had been a lie, and the suffering unnecessary. If only she’d come back for him, if only she hadn’t believed Simmons, if only he’d come to the Barkleys sooner, or if only they’d seen him in town. If only, if only, if only…
Nick stood before his anguished younger brother, his heart breaking. He grabbed the back of Heath’s neck and drew his brother’s head forward so Heath’s forehead rested on his shoulder. Heath didn’t resist, and surrendered to Nick’s care. Nick stood silently and let the boy sob his heart out, all the while rubbing the back of Heath’s neck. He glanced at Jarrod, who was herding the hands attracted by the commotion back to the bunkhouse. Jarrod went over to the pump and soaked a handkerchief in cold water, then handed it to Nick. Nick placed the cold cloth on the back of Heath’s neck and held it there until the young man quieted. When Heath stood upright, the last sob spent, Nick handed the wet cloth to him. Heath wiped his face but wouldn’t look at either one of them.
Without a word, Nick and Jarrod flanked their dazed brother and led him back to the house. This time, upon entering, Heath wasn’t aware of the opulence or size of the home. He saw and felt nothing. Victoria and Audra stood off to the side as the brothers passed, leading Heath up the stairs. Both wore tears on their cheeks, but neither uttered a sound.
Jarrod and Nick led Heath to one of the house’s unoccupied bedrooms. They sat him on the bed and Nick removed his boots and his shirt, then settled him back against the pillows. Jarrod covered him with a quilt. Both brothers were concerned by the expressionless look on the boy’s face and his empty, unseeing gaze. They watched him for a few moments then Nick leaned over and spoke quietly.
“Rest for a bit. If you need anything, we’ll be downstairs.”
There was no response. Jarrod and Nick, hearts heavy, left the room and closed the door.
Heath lay for a long time, staring into space. He felt hollow and empty; his mind so full it was blank. He lay still until sleep finally made its claim to his weary body and soul.
Victoria and Audra rushed to the bottom of the stairs to meet Nick and Jarrod.
“How is he?” Audra asked.
Jarrod sighed. “I think he is in shock.”
“Jarrod’s probably right,” Nick added. “All the fight went out of him, and he doesn’t respond to anything. Can’t say as I blame him. I can’t imagine what he’s going through.”
“None of us can, Nick,” Jarrod said. He noticed Victoria remained silent, her thoughts seemingly elsewhere.
“Mother, are you all right?”
There was a long pause, during which her children directed their concerned gazes at their mother. Finally, she found her voice.
“Yes…yes, I’m all right. I’m worried about Heath, but I’m fine.” She wanted so much to comfort her newfound son, but knew it was best at this point not to pressure him. He would come to her, inevitably, when he was he ready. Until then, she would have to be patient no matter how much it hurt.
The Barkley siblings exchanged glances.
Jarrod spoke on behalf of the three of them, taking her frail hand in his. “Mother, he’ll be okay. He needs some time to digest what he was told this evening, but he’ll be fine. Nick and I will check on him throughout the night, just to be sure.”
Victoria smiled wanly. “I suppose there is nothing else to be done tonight. I think I’ll take a hot bath and turn in. If tonight is any indication, tomorrow promises to be another long day.”
They bade their good nights, and watched Victoria climb the long staircase. They noticed she hesitated outside the door to the room they’d placed Heath in, but then she continued.
Audra looked at her brothers.
“I’m going to see if there is anything I can do for Mother, and if she is all right, I’ll go to bed too. She is going to need some extra help tomorrow. You’ll be up for awhile?”
“Yes,” Jarrod answered, “good night, Honey.” He was proud of how maturely she was handling the situation.
“Good night,” Audra said, giving each of them a kiss.
After she left, Jarrod and Nick departed to the study. Nick flopped wearily into a chair, while Jarrod poured them each a whiskey.
“What a night, Jarrod,” Nick said wearily.
“You can say that again, Brother Nick,” Jarrod said.
“You know, I feel kind of numb myself,” Nick admitted. “It’s almost like this is a dream I can’t get out of.”
Jarrod smiled ruefully. “I know what you mean. I’ve had several hours more than you to sort it all out and I have to admit I’m still having some difficulty. You know, Nick, so many years…Mother carried the burden of uncertainty and Heath of loneliness. I wonder what Father must have felt?”
Nick shook his head. “Hard tellin’. Father and Mother never mentioned anything about what happened. This is the first I ever heard the whole story. Up until now, the only thing I knew was that Mother had a baby that died at birth. I can’t remember what went on back then.”
“I remember little more than you. It was a sad time for both Mother and Father. She took the baby’s death hard, and so did he. I suppose they tried to shield us from what happened as much as possible. After all, we were only children at the time.”
“If Heath decides to accept all this and stays, what do you think everyone’s gonna say? Some people are going to be skeptical.”
Jarrod nodded. “You’re right. We’re going to have to let a lot roll off our backs. The comments will be cruel, but as long as we know and believe the true story, and stand together behind Heath, things will eventually settle down. Mother’s right in that no matter what evidence we produce, the gossips will still make their own stories. It is unfortunate, but it is how people are. They hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe.”
Nick swallowed the last of his drink. “Well, we’re about to try this out for size. I’m going to go over to the bunkhouse and get Heath’s things.”
In response to the inquiring expression on Jarrod’s face Nick added “we can’t have our brother sleeping with the help now, can we?”
Jarrod smiled and shook his head. “Are you going to tell Jake?”
“If he’s up.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No…yeah, if you’re up to it,” Nick admitted. “One more thing…what are we going to do about this Matt Simmons?”
“That will be Mother’s decision. He wanted money for the truth, expectedly, but I would like to see him charged and brought to trial so he can’t spend a dime. Lord knows he deserves to be punished. The biggest drawback would be in airing this whole thing publicly. It could very well end up making Mother look bad.”
“What?! Jarrod, how can you say that?”
“Hold on a minute, Nick, and think about it. One of your first questions to Mother was ‘how could you not know?’ People are fickle. They might sympathize with Mother at the outset, and then turn on her when that question is posed. Simmons hinted to the effect he would play that angle if we charged him with a crime.”
Nick scowled. “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
“Exactly. Let’s give this some time to shake out, and then we’ll start discussing our next move.”
“You’re the lawyer,” Nick responded, “and I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“So do I, Nick. So do I. Shall we go?”
Nick set his empty glass on the table and led the way. Both brothers steeled themselves for the first reaction they would receive upon announcing the news of Heath’s status in the family. Hoping for the best and expecting the worst, they walked resolutely out to the bunkhouse.
As luck would have it, Jake was sitting outside on the porch rail of the bunkhouse having a smoke when Nick and Jarrod approached.
“What brings you out here?” the foreman asked.
“We, uh, came to get Heath’s gear,” Nick answered as evenly as possible.
“You let him go?” Jake asked. He knew the boy was in the big house. He’d had a devil of a time getting the hands to settle in for the night and quit gossiping about what happened earlier in the evening.
“No,” Nick answered. After a pause and a glance at Jarrod he asked “Jake, could we talk to you for a minute, in private?”
“Sure,” Jake answered, throwing the cigarette on the ground and crushing it under his boot.
They walked around to the far side of the corral so they could speak out of earshot of the bunkhouse.
“Jake,” Nick began, “the reason we’re getting Heath’s gear is because he’s going to be livin’ up at the house from now on.”
If the foreman was surprised he didn’t show it. “I see.”
Nick didn’t know how much more to tell the man or even how to begin. He looked at Jarrod desperately.
“We found out Heath is our younger brother,” Jarrod said matter of fact.
“I see,” Jake answered.
Nick narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You don’t believe us, do you?”
“Of course I do, Nick. If you say so, it’s so.”
“Come on, Jake, what are you really thinkin’?”
“All right, Nick. I’m wonderin’ how you came to that conclusion about the boy, but the fact is, it ain’t none of my business, and it don’t matter to me. I’m here to do a job. But, you’d better believe the rest of the men are going to eat this thing alive. I had a devil of a time getting’ em all to pipe down about the ‘incident’ out by the barn this evening.”
Nick winced and looked to Jarrod once again for support.
“Jake, do you think it would help some if we told you the story?” Jarrod inquired.
“Might help me squash some rumors, yes.”
“Very well,” Jarrod said.
An hour later, Jake Wright stood in the moonlight and watched the Barkleys trudge back to the mansion, Heath’s saddlebags slung over Nick’s shoulder. He didn’t doubt the sincerity of the story; especially considering the actions of the family he’d witnessed over the past several days, but the fact was the rest of the men, and for that matter, the people of Stockton, were not likely to be so understanding. Jake shook his head. The Barkleys were going to be in for some rough riding in the days and weeks to come.
Heath awoke nauseated, his head pounding. He lifted his head and looked around his moonlit surroundings. Heath let himself fall back across the pillows and groaned. He was in the Barkley mansion, and the events of the past evening apparently weren’t a nightmare. At least not the kind of nightmare one has in their sleep. No, this was worse. It was a real-life nightmare.
He forced himself to sit upright, and absently felt his bare chest. The last thing he could remember with any real clarity was what Victoria Barkley told him about his parentage. Gradually, he began to recall bits and pieces of his rampage through the yard and he groaned inwardly. The other Barkley employees saw the whole thing, and Heath knew they were probably already asking questions. His brothers were there…he fought against Nick…they must have been the ones who brought him to this room and put him in bed.
So he had a mother, and two brothers, and a sister. A father too, but he was dead. He supposed he was happy, or at least should be, but for some reason he couldn’t let that feeling take root, at least not yet. There was the matter of Matt Simmons…Heath felt he needed to confront the man. He owed it to himself and in some ways his mother and family. The man wronged them as well. Heath was thinking clearly enough now to see that.
Heath got to his feet and felt the pain in his gut where Nick landed that punch. Damn, he could hit a fella hard! Ruefully, Heath realized he probably deserved it, running out of the house like that. Running out on her. She’d looked so sad and sincere, and Heath couldn’t help but feel bad for her, but at the same time he was still angry, though not as much as he ought to be. Perhaps it was because she had been duped into thinking he didn’t exist, and she had lost a baby, his twin brother. Heath wondered why he lived and his brother didn’t. He’d always attributed his feelings of incompleteness to not having any roots, but now he understood it was deeper than that. Even now, with a family to be a part of, he would never be completely whole. Would he be eternally punished, always just shy of the happiness he sought to attain? Wonder if they’d both lived? Which of them would Simmons have taken? Would he have taken both? Neither?
Heath massaged his throbbing temples and his eyes searched for a washbasin. He located it across the room and staggered to it. He splashed some water on his face and rinsed his mouth. So many questions, and maybe not enough answers to go around. He dried his face and hung the towel on the bar.
Groping his way through the darkened room he stumbled over an object and cursed to himself. If he made any more noise, he might bring the whole Barkley clan running. Reaching down, he grasped the object he was half standing on. It was his saddlebags. They’d brought them into the house. They planned on him staying. Heath couldn’t help but smile a little. They had accepted him as theirs, much sooner than he was accepting them as his. He thought this was okay. Everything would eventually be okay, when he finally got all this sorted out.
He would start in Strawberry, with Matt Simmons, and proceed from there until he had everything straight not only in his head, but his heart. Heath was unsure of what he would do when he confronted the man. Earlier that evening he was bent on killing the man on sight, but his brothers stopped him. Heath shook his head. He would have a lot to learn if he was going to be a part of a family. While he was touched by Jarrod and Nick’s concern for his welfare, Heath was still driven by his independence, at least for this one last time. He hoped the last seven years had been cruel to Matt Simmons, and that the man was no better off now than he was then. He sure as hell didn’t deserve to be.
“You’re some sort of fool,” Heath mumbled to himself as he shrugged into his shirt. “At breakfast, you were just an orphaned ranch hand, now you’re part of the richest family in California. Why the Hell can’t you just leave it at that and be happy?”
This was one question that had an answer; he owed it to himself and to his family to exorcise his anger, once and for all.
The sound of retreating hooves woke Nick from the doze he’d fallen into. He sat bolt upright and rubbed his eyes. He staggered to the window, but in the predawn darkness, he saw nothing. Pushing his hair out of his eyes, he strained to make out the time, wondering how long he’d been asleep. It was just past four in the morning, meaning he’d been asleep for almost two hours.
Yawning, he staggered into the hallway and down to the room his younger brother would now occupy. He quietly gripped and turned the knob, then stuck his head in the room. The first thing he saw was the now unoccupied bed.
Nick stumbled into the room and turned up the lamp on the nightstand. He took a quick visual inventory…Heath’s shirt was missing from the bedpost where he’d hung it, Heath’s saddlebags and boots were no longer where they’d been placed.
“Damn!” Nick muttered. The rider he heard was Heath.
Adrenaline kicked in and he was instantly alert. He ran to Jarrod’s room and opened the door.
“Jarrod!” he whispered loudly, “Jarrod, wake up!”
“What is it, Nick?” Jarrod said foggily, sitting up.
“Heath is gone. Heard him riding away and it woke me up.”
“What? You were supposed to be awake.”
“I nodded off. Come on, he doesn’t have that much of a lead. We can still catch him, or at least come pretty close.”
Jarrod pulled his boots on while Nick ran to his own room to do the same. Both brothers had laid down fully dressed, since they were alternately checking on their brother throughout the night.
In record time, Nick had their horses saddled and canteens filled. Jarrod exited the house from the kitchen door and tossed Nick a roll left over from the previous night’s dinner. Nick shoved it in his saddlebag and mounted up.
Within moments, they were in pursuit. They knew exactly where Heath was headed.
Victoria stood at the window bearing silent witness to her departing sons, and said a silent prayer for a successful journey. She had slept restlessly that night, her emotions and mind hopelessly intertwined in a whirl of anguish and worry, so the pre-dawn activity engaged in by Jarrod and Nick caused her to awaken. She stood until long after the sound of beating hooves faded and the sun rose over the Valley.
Somehow, Heath eluded his brothers and left for Strawberry. The realization of this thought unsettled her. Victoria feared he might be angry enough with Simmons to commit murder, and such an act would serve no end but to destroy her son and whatever hopes they might have of putting the past behind and moving forward.
Victoria was glad to finally know the truth, as painful as it might seem. She was free for the first time in twenty years. No longer was she burdened with the weight of a heavy heart and cloak of uncertainty. In reality, knowing was only painful from the perspective of what was lost. For what had been found, it glowed with the promise of hope for the future, for Heath, and for all of them. She prayed Heath would not, in a moment of blinding rage, throw away the chance for happiness they wanted him to have.
She left the window and sat down in an armchair. Could Heath ever really be happy? Victoria realized the only person with the answer to that question was Heath himself. Only Heath knew whether he could forgive and accept the circumstances surrounding his birth and childhood. She wished, no, she prayed, for the opportunity to tell him how she felt. He’d left right after she told him about what happened, and hadn’t had the chance to talk further with him. He looked so empty, his eyes so lifeless, as Nick and Jarrod led him in last night, she knew further conversation with him was out of the question. Now she was regretting not having gone in and talked to him, even if he didn’t respond. At least she would have been able to tell him her feelings and thoughts on the whole matter. Some of it might have sunk in. Perhaps he wouldn’t have left for Strawberry. Perhaps she could have made him see Matt Simmons wasn’t worth effort of the confrontation. Maybe she could have convinced him how much she loved him.
A mother’s love is difficult to explain in words, though. It is instantaneous and inherent, the only true love at first sight, certain and unwavering, gentle yet fiercely protective. The fact they only recently met did nothing to refute these truths. A child is always a child to their mother, no matter what the age; nobody waves a wand and says ‘he’s grown now, you can stop worrying’, or ‘your job is finished’. No, a mother is a mother for a lifetime, both hers and her child’s, no matter the distance or the years in between.
The clock ticked off each second with a certainty she didn’t feel as she sat, and thought, and cried, and waited, and prayed….and worried.
Heath rode up into the yard of the ramshackle house he grew up in and felt a certain amount of satisfaction that it was in much worse shape now than before he left.
“Of course,” he muttered, “I did all the work around here.”
He stepped his way through the tall grass and debris in the yard and stepped on the rickety porch. He grabbed the knob and tried to turn it, but the door was locked. His anger refreshed, he pounded on the door.
“Open up, Simmons!”
After several minutes of alternately pounding and calling with no answer, Heath figured the man wasn’t home. He tried to peer in through the windows, but they were filthy.
He went back to the porch and knocked again. Pulling his gun out of its holster, he took aim and shot at the doorknob. Using his foot, he kicked the door open and went inside.
He looked around the small kitchen, dining and living area. Seeing nothing amiss, he made his way toward the back of the house, where the bedrooms were located. His heart nearly stopped when he spied the figure lying in the bed, eyes open but unseeing.
“Simmons?” he asked in a choked whisper.
One touch told him the man was dead. Cold and stiff, he’d died more than several hours ago, most likely sometime last night.
Heath closed his eyes and shook his head. It was like salt in an open wound. Victoria Barkley might have gotten her truth, but Heath would have no such peace, and it widened the chasm between the known and the unknown, what the living crave to know and the dead never tell.
The rage started to burn at the center of his soul. It started as a glowing ember, and flashed bright and hot into a searing flame. He threw his fists against the wall, oblivious of the pain.
“You Sonuvabitch!” he yelled at the dead man, “you couldn’t face me, could ya? You told your dirty secret and checked out! You coward…you no good…,”
With a strangled cry of frustration, he staggered out of the bedroom and out of the house. His legs gave out and he sat down on the steps. He noticed his head pounding once more, and rested his forehead on his knees. What to do now? The decent thing would be to bury him, but the thought nauseated him. He reached for his tobacco pouch, and winced. On top of it all, his damn hands hurt. Blood was smeared on the knuckles of his right hand, and it was beginning to swell. The left wasn’t bleeding, but it was puffy and throbbing.
Heath’s hands shook as he rolled the cigarette. Striking a match he lit it and watched as it started to burn. Noticing the blood smears on the paper, he wondered if he’d taste it.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there when he heard horses hooves pounding in the distance signaling the approach of two riders. Heath rolled his eyes, knowing who they were before he could see them. He should have known they would follow him. Having a family meant that evidently, he wasn’t going to have a moment’s peace.
Jarrod and Nick spied the blue of Heath’s shirt from a distance. He was sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette. Behind him, the front door of the house was flung open. They reined to a stop and dismounted. Heath looked up at them as they approached, and they were relieved to see his blue eyes lucid. It was a welcome sight after the unnerving emptiness of the evening before.
“Heath?” Jarrod questioned, glancing at the open door and the blood on Heath’s right hand.
“He’s dead,” Heath answered matter-of-factly.
Jarrod looked at Nick. Their stomach’s turned and rolled. They’d been too late…precious minutes too late.
Jarrod and Nick walked past Heath into the house. It didn’t take them long to find the bedroom containing Matt Simmons’ dead body. Jarrod stood in the doorway, drinking in the scene. The open eyes made him look away from the macabre sight. Nick brushed past Jarrod and placed his hand on the dead man’s face.
“Wait a minute Jarrod,” Nick said, grasping Simmons’ wrist, “Heath didn’t kill him. He’s ice cold and stiff. I know rigor doesn’t set in that fast.”
Jarrod took a few steps forward. “Are you sure Heath couldn’t have?”
“Of course I’m sure. We were only a half an hour at most behind Heath. Look closer, there isn’t any blood. Heath has it all over his right hand.”
“But how did Heath…?”
“We’ll have to ask him,” Nick said as he reached down and closed the dead man’s eyes. “I don’t see a wound anywhere either. Must’ve died in his sleep.”
Examination complete, Nick reached down and grabbed a quilt folded at the foot of the bed. He placed it over Simmons’ upper body.
The brothers returned to the porch where Heath was down to the last of his smoke. Jarrod sat down next to him while Nick descended the steps and stood in front.
“Lemme see your hands,” Nick commanded gruffly.
Heath held them out, angry, red, swollen knuckles up. Nick shook his head. “You get the name of the wall that hit ya?”
“What happened, Heath?” Jarrod asked.
Heath sighed and looked from brother to brother. “When I got here, there was no answer and the door was locked. I shot it open and found him in the bedroom. I saw him lying there, dead already, and I snapped…I wanted to hit something, so I punched the wall. Last night I wanted to kill him, and probably would have if you hadn’t stopped me. I wanted at least to hear the story from him. Ask him why, you know?”
Jarrod laid a hand on Heath’s shoulder. “You had us scared there for a minute.”
“I’m sorry…about this, about everything,” Heath responded. He looked at his brothers and continued. “I’m not sure about all of this. Thought about it a long time last night and on the way here. I don’t know anything about belonging or being a brother or a son. Don’t know if I’m up to it.”
“You’re never going to know if you don’t give it a chance, Heath,” Jarrod said quietly.
“Look, we won’t lie to you. Things might be rough at first. Some ignorant folks will try to say the family is covering up secrets and that you aren’t who we say you are. There will be days you’ll want to give everything up; but if you tough it out, you’ll find having a family is worth it. We all want very much to get to know you, but part of being a family is supporting one another. So if you decide not to stay, we’ll be behind you, and we’ll be here when you’re ready.”
Nick held up his hand. “Wait a minute, Jarrod. You can speak for everyone but me.”
To Heath he said, “I agree with what Jarrod said, but I want you to know I want you to stay on. Could really use your help with the ranch.”
Heath shook his head and half-smiled. “You fellas just won’t give up, will ya?”
“’Course not,” Nick said. “Barkley’s don’t quit.”
The last three words were said directly in Heath’s face, with Nick jabbing his finger at Heath’s chest for emphasis.
Their gazes met for a long moment, until Heath looked down. They’d given him even more to think about.
“Heath, Nick and I are going to take care of Simmons,” Jarrod said. It was the humane thing to do, as much as Jarrod felt the man didn’t deserve the courtesy.
“You just stay put,” Nick added.
Heath nodded, and Jarrod and Nick left him sitting on the steps. He needed time to think. When they were done with Simmons they would ask him what he was going to do, and Heath had no idea at this point whether he should go back to Stockton with them or head in another direction.
He wondered if the story was already spreading through the Valley like wildfire, and if so what people were saying about the family. It pained him to think of Victoria, such a fine lady, and his mother, being subjected to stares and sideways glances and derogatory comments. Although he really had no experience with her as a son, he was certain by how his brothers turned out that she was a good parent, and it hardly seemed fair that people might say she abandoned a child. She simply didn’t seem like the type of person to do such a thing, and Heath more or less worked out in his mind and heart that she didn’t intentionally leave him with Simmons.
The fact remained that if he stayed with his family all would be subjected to scrutiny and thoughtless comment and Lord only knew what else by neighbors and associates. He couldn’t put them through it. If he left now, even if the story were already out, people would forget about it sooner and it would be that much less disruption and difficulty for them.
“We’re all finished, Heath,” Nick said, dusting off his pants.
Heath looked up and nodded. What was there to say?
“You ready to head home?”
While Heath tried to formulate a carefully worded reply, Jarrod walked up and stood beside Nick. The lawyer’s blue eyes joined Nick’s hazel ones in looking at him expectantly, hopefully.
Heath looked at his brothers, the ache he felt threatening to make him break down. They were both good men who in a short time had shown him loyalty and concern he’d never in all his life ever known. Heath could only imagine what it would be like to have the guidance and support of older brothers like the two who stood before him. At the ranch were a mother and sister waiting to get to know him. A mother’s love…he couldn’t remember what it was like to have a mother to turn to. Leah Thomson died when he was five, and she was the closest he’d ever come to that kind of love. ‘And I can hardly remember back that far,’ he thought bitterly.
Heath forced his mind and heart blank so he could say what he needed to say. He looked at both of them and delivered his reply in his quiet voice, without blinking or looking down.
“I’m not going with you. I’m sorry.”
Nick and Jarrod’s faces showed their disappointment. Nick’s jaw set in a hard line. Heath could tell he was biting back a reply. Jarrod looked down for a moment and then spoke.
“Are you sure, Heath?” the lawyer asked. He was disappointed, but realized the futility of forcing Heath to accept the situation, especially under the circumstances. If he were a teenager or child, it would be different, but Heath was an adult. They couldn’t simply order him to come home.
No, I’m not, Heath thought. “Yeah….yeah, I’m sure,” Heath said, then added, “for now, anyway.” He offered a half-smile he hoped would let them know they might meet again.
Nick cleared his throat. Heath’s refusal to return with them hit him like a punch in the stomach.
“So just like that, you’re going to leave. You’re not even going to try. What about Mother and Audra?” The hurt and anger showed through in Nick’s tone.
Heath stared at him defiantly, but didn’t answer.
“Guess I misjudged you, Boy. Funny, my gut instincts aren’t usually wrong,” Nick said coolly, hoping to get a rise out of Heath.
Heath simply held his ground, staring Nick down until the sting of Nick’s words subsided.
“Heath,” Jarrod said, “what should we tell Mother?”
Heath closed his eyes in an effort to calm his raging emotions. Opening them again, he answered softly “Just tell her I need some time…and I’m not angry with her.”
Jarrod nodded, but said “She’ll be hurt Heath, regardless. Why don’t you come back and at least talk with her; if you don’t want to stay, fine, but don’t leave her hanging this way.”
Heath’s eyes grew dark. “Don’t be talkin’ to me about being left hanging!”
Jarrod held up his hands. “All right, poor choice of words on my part. I was merely trying to point out that you both have a lot to discuss.”
Heath’s expression softened and he sighed. “I’m not ready to talk yet. I still need to think…get it straight in me; then I can talk to her. Please understand.”
Nick stood with his hands on his hips and looked up at the sky.
“Very well, Heath,” Jarrod said quietly. “Will you at least promise to let us know where you are?”
“Here,” Jarrod said, reaching into his vest pocket and pulling out a wad of bills. It was the thousand he’d given to Simmons. They found it hidden under the mattress. “Take this.”
Heath shook his head. “I can’t take that from you. It wouldn’t be right.”
“Aw, come on, Heath,” Nick said, exasperated. “What are you going to do for money while you’re gone? That money is as much yours as it is ours.”
“Heath, it would make us feel better if you took it,” Jarrod said, holding it out to him. “You can consider it a loan, if you like. Payable on your return to the ranch.”
After a brief and uncomfortable silence, Heath wiped his palms on his pants. This was dragging out an already painful goodbye. Reluctantly, he took the money. Not that he’d spend a dime of it, but if it made them feel better, he’d take it and at the first opportunity, get it back to them.
“Thanks. You’ll get every dime of it back, I promise.”
Jarrod smiled. “We’re not worried about it.”
There was another silence. Heath took a deep breath.
“Well, I guess we best get goin’. There’s nothin’ left to do here,” he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. He extended his hand to Jarrod. “Thanks Jarrod.”
Jarrod returned the handshake and patted him on the shoulder. “Take care, Heath.”
Heath nodded and turned to Nick, extending his hand. “Thanks for everything, Nick.”
Nick grasped Heath’s battered hand and shook it firmly, his grip making Heath wince. He pulled Heath into a firm embrace. “Stay out of trouble,” he said gruffly.
Heath broke the embrace and walked to his horse. He couldn’t look at them or say another word. Effortlessly, he swung into the saddle and without a backward glance he rode away, heading south. Only then did he give in to the pain of the decision he’d just made. Only then did he let himself cry.
Jarrod and Nick stood and watched Heath until he disappeared on the horizon. For a long time after he was gone, they remained where they were, trying to gather their emotions.
It was Jarrod who broke the silence. “We should be heading home, Nick.”
“It hurts, Jarrod,” Nick said, still staring at the settling dust. “I thought he would stay. We shoulda tied him up or somethin’.”
“I thought he would stay as well, but we can’t force him. If he went back with us before he’s ready, he might be unhappy and less likely to stay in the long run. At least we know he has some money and he agreed to keep in touch.”
Nick only nodded, knowing Jarrod was right. “Let’s get goin’,” he said resignedly.
They mounted up and turned their horses toward Stockton, each feeling somehow like something of great worth had slipped through their fingers.
Something had…their brother.
Heath pushed his horse as hard as he dared, hoping that with each mile, the pain would lessen. It didn’t. He reined the horse to a stop, his heart hammering his chest, his soul aching. He closed his eyes. Damn, he was tired. Tired, and confused. He opened his eyes and looked around at the unfamiliar terrain. What was he doing? Where was he going? He realized he had absolutely no idea. He didn’t even know what time it was, but judging by the lengthening shadows it was evening, almost night.
Heath tried to clear the images of his family and the events of the past few days from his aching head. He couldn’t do it. No matter what he did, he saw a face or heard a voice that reminded him of what he was leaving behind. He admitted to himself that this wasn’t what he wanted. It wasn’t fair to them, and he wasn’t being fair to himself. But how could he define fair? Would it be fair for him to stay with them and cause inevitable grief? Was it any more, or was it less fair he sent his brothers back to the ranch without him? An image of their disappointed faces flashed through his memory. He knew their disappointment would pale in comparison to what Victoria would feel.
“She’s my mother,” he thought aloud, “she’s my mother and I’m hurting her.”
“But she hurt me,” he reasoned. Or did she? Heath already decided she wasn’t to blame for what happened. So why was he punishing her? He wasn’t punishing her. He was saving her from the humiliation of having to justify his existence to her friends and neighbors.
He urged the horse forward and then stopped again. He was punishing her. By not going back and being her son, he was punishing her. By not letting her into his life, he was punishing her. Punishing her, and punishing himself. For his entire life he’d wanted nothing more than to be part of a family. Now he was, and he was running from it. Heath realized it was already too late to run. He already let them in, and no matter where he went, they’d always be a part of him. For years, Matt Simmons denied him his right to be with his family. For the sake of what might be said, was he now going to let other people do the same? The answer was yes, if he didn’t go back.
Shivering against the increasing chill of darkness, Heath tiredly dismounted and saw to his horse, then built a campfire. Rummaging through his saddlebags he found a can of beans, but once they were warmed he found he had little stomach for them. Laying back in his bedroll, he reached into the inside breast pocket of his vest and removed the money. His eyes widened and his heartbeat increased when he realized how much money his oldest brother had given him, having not bothered counting it until now. One thousand dollars, certainly more than Heath had ever seen in his entire life. It made him nervous and uncomfortable. Of course, his brothers were probably accustomed to carrying that kind of tender around. They’d grown up with it. Heath, on the other hand, viewed large sums of money on one’s person as dangerous. Nothing but trouble could come of it.
The realization of the amount of cash in his possession only added to his melancholy, and he regretted having accepted it, even if it was considered a loan. To add to his troubles of where to go and what to do, he needed to find a way to return a thousand dollars to its rightful owners.
Heath replaced the money into his pocket and lay back, staring at the stars shining brightly against the pitch-blackness of night. There were so many, and they saw so much. They were so far away, yet so close and constant. He wished he could pick just one and have it guide him in the right direction. He wondered which one could lead him home, wherever that might be.
The elder Barkley brothers were silent as the gas lamps illuminating the Barkley ranch came into view. Neither man was in any particular hurry to get home to deliver the news to their mother that Heath was not with them. Each knew she would be devastated. Due to the late hour, they hoped she was already asleep.
They pulled into the yard and led their horses to the barn. After seeing to their needs, the tired travelers approached the house. The front door flew open and Victoria, followed by Audra, rushed out to greet them. Victoria’s face fell immediately when she saw Heath was not with her older sons, but quickly recovered. Perhaps he’s in the barn, she told herself, knowing in her heart that wasn’t likely.
“Jarrod, Nick! I’m so glad you’re home! You must be exhausted,” Victoria greeted them, purposely not inquiring about her youngest son.
Both perfunctorily kissed her and their sister.
“Is Heath in the barn seeing to the horses?” Audra asked.
Jarrod cleared his throat. “Mother, let’s go inside where we can talk.”
Victoria nodded, feeling her stomach sink to her feet, and had to will them to transport her through the front door. Jarrod and Nick dropped their bedrolls and saddlebags in the spacious foyer and everyone retired to the sanctuary of the parlor.
Jarrod poured whiskey for himself and Nick, and a sherry for Victoria. The silence lengthened as Jarrod reached for the right words. He’d rehearsed this moment all the way from Strawberry, but still couldn’t seem to settle on an approach. He glanced at Nick, who was swirling the brandy in his glass and watching its movement with great concentration. Jarrod knew Nick was troubled over Heath’s decision. Troubled, and hurt as well.
Victoria broke the silence in a soft tone of voice. “Are we to assume Heath will not be joining us?”
Jarrod sat down directly across from her and leaned forward. “Mother, he wanted some time to think. When we arrived, Simmons was already dead.”
Victoria and Audra gasped audibly.
“Dead?” Victoria repeated, “how?” She was afraid her worst fear had been realized.
Jarrod shook his head. “His heart failed or he died in his sleep. When we arrived, Heath was seated on the porch, a bit shocked himself. Nick and I took care of the body.”
“Heath didn’t want to come home?” Victoria asked, her voice hardly above a whisper.
Jarrod took a deep breath and exhaled. “Mother, I think he wanted to, but he felt he needed to think things through. He said to tell you he isn’t angry with you.”
“Why did you let him leave?”
Victoria’s words stung like a well delivered slap on the cheek. “He’s a grown man, Mother. We couldn’t force him to come home any more than we could keep him here last night.”
Victoria nodded through her tears and wiped them with a handkerchief Audra proffered to her. “I know…I’m sorry Jarrod. There is so much I need to say to him. Wonder if we never hear from him again?”
“Don’t worry,” Jarrod soothed, “he didn’t sound like he would be away for very long. Just long enough to set things straight in his mind. Nick and I gave him the money we left with Simmons. Heath accepted it as a loan, payable on his return to the ranch, and he also promised to keep in touch. Those things tell me he’ll come around soon. You’ll see.”
Jarrod watched the tiny flicker of hope ignite in his mother’s eyes.
“That sounds positive,” she managed, even smiling a little. She understood, and even expected, Heath’s reluctance to return to the ranch. It didn’t make it any easier to accept, but at least there was the hope he would return and take his rightful place in the family.
“Sure it is,” Jarrod said, reaching for her hand.
Nick, unable to bear the emotion in the room, slammed his unfinished drink on the table and shot to his feet.
“I’m gonna go out and see if Jake is still awake. Lost a whole day gallivantin’ around the state chasin’ that boy,” he grumbled.
They watched him stomp out of the room and startled as the front door slammed.
“He’s upset,” Audra observed, drying her own tears.
“Yes he is, honey,” Jarrod agreed, “I think we all are.”
Victoria was back in control, her face determined. She waited nearly twenty-one years to see her baby, and grown man or not, she wasn’t going to lose him. Regardless of Jarrod’s perception of Heath’s intentions, she wasn’t taking any chances. “We’ll give Heath some time, if that is what he wants, but I don’t want to lose touch with him. Give me your word, Jarrod. I want you to put everything we have into finding him. I want to know he is safe, and I want to know where he is. Will you do that?”
“Understood.” Jarrod knew she wanted to know where Heath was so they could get in touch with him if necessary and assist him should he be in need. Although Heath promised to let them know where he was, perhaps it would be wise to know his whereabouts, just in case.
Still, in some senses it was an intrusion on the young man’s privacy, no matter what the intent.
“Be aware, though, if he should become wise to being followed, it could push him further away,” Jarrod advised.
“Jarrod, I don’t want him followed, I just want to know where he is. I don’t expect you to understand, as you don’t have children of your own as yet, but a parent cannot rest unless he or she knows their offspring are safe. I want to know what city he is living in for my own peace of mind. I waited over twenty years to lay my eyes on my son, and I will not spend twenty more wondering where he is or whether he is alive. Do I make myself clear?”
Jarrod nodded. “I’ll get in touch with Pinkerton tomorrow morning,” he said quietly.
Nick found Jake in the barn brushing Jingo. The foreman didn’t stop when he heard the jingle of Nick’s spurs. He waited patiently for his employer to begin the conversation.
“You’re up kind of late, ain’t ya?” Nick asked.
Jake kept working, brushing the horse with short, experienced strokes.
“Couldn’t sleep. Long day?”
There was a pause. “Yeah, Jake, it was,” Nick conceded. “How did things go here?”
“Well, the boys are about finished with the fence in the South Pasture, and I’ve sent them on to the north. Simon and Charlie finished up with gentling those stallions.”
“Good. Sounds like things are under control,” Nick grunted.
“In some ways, yes,” Jake answered carefully.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nick asked, his voice raising a level.
“There was quite a bit of talk about the boy, as I feared there would be.”
“What kind of talk?” Nick asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Nick, there are so many stories flyin’ around this place it would make your head spin.”
Nick felt his anger begin to flare. “So what did you tell ‘em?”
“I told them they weren’t here to gossip like a passel of women at a tea party, they were here to work, and it was in their best interest to keep their mouths shut if they want to keep working here.”
Nick clenched his jaw. “Well did you tell them the truth?”
Jake quit brushing and whirled. “Yes, as a matter of fact I did, but they don’t seem to believe it. If anything, it gave them more ideas.”
Nick slammed his hands on the edge of a stall. “Oh, that’s just great!” he spat. “I’ll tell ya one thing, Jake, if I catch any of them boys gossipin’ I’m gonna set ‘em straight, and then toss them right outta here!”
Jake nodded. “Understood, Nick. Heath didn’t come home with you, did he?”
Jake watched as Nick’s expression changed from furious to fatigue. “No,” he answered quietly. “He, uh, needs some time.”
“That’s understandable,” Jake answered.
“I suppose, but I wish,” Nick said, taking a breath, “I wish he would have come back. I miss him already, ya know?”
Jake smiled. Heath was a good kid, a capable cowboy, and obviously had already found his way into Nick Barkley’s heart and soul as his brother. “I know, Nick. He’ll come back soon. You know, I didn’t say it over the past few weeks, but I couldn’t help but notice how happy he seemed to be when he was here working with you, and how happy you were having him here.”
Nick laughed bitterly. “That was before Jarrod and my mother’s little discovery.”
“You’re not happy he’s your brother?” Jake asked, eyebrows raised.
Nick shook his head. “Of course I’m happy. It’s just that it seems like right now, it can’t be both ways, and I want it to be.”
“It will be. Give him time,” Jake said reassuringly, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Thanks Jake. For understanding and everything,” Nick said sincerely, his hazel eyes expressing their gratitude.
“Any time, Boss. I’m going to finish up here before turning in. See you in the morning?”
“Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow. ‘Night,” Nick answered, then he turned and left the barn. He wasn’t quite ready to return to the house, although by the number of lights he saw burning he guessed Mother, Audra, and probably Jarrod as well, had already turned in. Jake’s comments about the help continued to eat away at him. It infuriated Nick that anyone should question Heath’s rightful place as a member of the Barkley family. Sure, it was a strange story, but it was the truth, and it bothered Nick that people couldn’t accept it as easily as they did. Father and Mother both said that people envious of the Barkley wealth and position would forever love nothing more than good gossip to share about the family. Nick found it downright intrusive, especially in this case, but it was inevitable he supposed. Maybe it was better Heath was gone, at least for the time being. It would give them some time to deal with the jackals that would take shots at the boy if he were here.
“Let ‘em take them at me instead,” Nick muttered as he opened the kitchen door. “I’ll teach ‘em some manners the old-fashioned way.”
Nick made his way around the ground floor, fully extinguishing the lamps. As an afterthought, he left one burning, just in case his brother changed his mind and decided to come home. Then he too, headed up to bed.
A long night spent sleeping on the hard ground in the middle of nowhere did nothing to lift Heath’s spirits. He awoke feeling as if an angry bull danced all over him overnight. The first thing he did was to feel his vest to verify the money was still there. He sat up and rubbed his stiff, sore hands over his face.
“Well, Heath,” he said to himself, “what are you gonna do now?”
The last few days reprised themselves in his mind, one after the other, a surreal crescendo ending with the vision of Matt Simmons’ corpse lying in bed, wide-eyed and cold. Heath shook his head. He had so many questions he feared would forever go unanswered.
The way he saw it, he could continue south to Coulterville or head northwest toward Sonora. The latter would take him onto the road to Stockton, which is where he supposed he rightfully ought to head to return the money to his family. If he went to the ranch though, they’d most likely want him to stay and he knew he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to leave.
“Is that such a bad thing?” Heath asked himself.
He decided almost instantly that it wasn’t. The truth was, he missed them already and admittedly, he regretted the decision not to return with his brothers. No matter what folks around Stockton thought or said, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as being alone. He’d never admit it to anyone, but he was scared. He was scared of what would come. He didn’t know how to love or be loved. He didn’t know how to belong. He didn’t know if he’d be able to tolerate the stares and whispers of strangers. As he packed up what little he had in the way of supplies though, his thoughts swung in yet another direction. It occurred to him his family might not want him back after the way he rode out. Maybe they were actually relieved. Heath tried to tell himself it didn’t matter, but wasn’t entirely successful.
“Well, maybe it does matter,” he muttered, “but I’ve at least got to get this money back to them.”
Theoretically, he could take the money and ride as far as his horse would carry him, but deep down in his soul, he knew it wasn’t money that he wanted or even needed. The money could be spent on miscellaneous things that merely accessorize one’s existence, but that existence would be empty. The money would be long gone, and he’d have nothing but emptiness. Heath had lived with a lifetime of emptiness. As frightening as going back seemed, he was more afraid not to.
With a sense of purpose, he mounted up and turned towards Sonora. He’d stay the night there, and head into Stockton early tomorrow.
Jarrod sat at his desk and began composing a telegram to the Pinkerton Agency, per his mother’s request. He wasn’t convinced this was the wisest thing to do, but had to admit it would give the family some measure of peace to know Heath was all right. Victoria’s accusation played over and over in his mind.
“Why did you let him leave?”
Jarrod winced every time he heard her voice, and could vividly picture the hurt expression on her face. What bothered him the most was that at the time, he thought his assessment of the situation was accurate. Now, after a restless, worried night’s sleep, he wasn’t so sure. Perhaps Nick had the right idea – they should have tied the boy up and brought him home. Heath belonged with his family. They could help him work things out. In the meantime, they could do little more than anxiously wait, although Jarrod didn’t know how much waiting they could handle. The morning’s breakfast had been like attending a funeral. Mother looked drawn and exhausted; it was obvious she’d slept very little. Audra seemed distant; there was no prattle about her plans for the day. Nick was sullen and dark, hardly eating, his jaw firmly clenched. As for himself, Jarrod attributed the constant ache in his stomach to his youngest brother’s absence – to a sense of failure at having allowed him to leave the fold.
Why this was so was a mystery. They had only known the truth for a short time, yet the young man made such an impact. Strangely enough, it was as if the boy were a missing piece to a puzzle, giving the family a sense of completion. It could be his striking resemblance to Tom Barkley, his gentle demeanor, his work ethic…any number of things, but what Jarrod finally settled on was blood. In the end, Heath carried their blood, and blood ties were the deepest and strongest of all creation’s relationships. It was blood that drew them all together and made them feel comfortable even in such a short time, and Jarrod was certain it would be blood ties that would bring Heath home again.
Jarrod looked up when he heard the familiar rap on the door. “Come in, James,” he called.
James Williams, his long-time assistant hesitantly stepped into the room.
“Good morning, Jarrod. I have the papers on the Whitmore case.”
“Excellent,” Jarrod answered, taking the papers from him. Instead of leaving the room, which was his custom, James remained in front of his desk, shifting uncomfortably.
Jarrod smiled. “Is there something else you wanted to say?”
James startled. “Well, no, not really.”
Jarrod sat back in his chair. “Now James, certainly something is on your mind, otherwise you wouldn’t be standing in front of my desk looking like you wish to speak to me about something.”
The young man blushed. “Can I speak frankly with you?”
“Of course,” Jarrod said, gesturing to one of the vacant chairs in front of his desk. He waited patiently for his clerk to sit down and begin speaking.
“I was picking up some tailoring from Alice Johnson, and she told me some, well, gossip really, I found disturbing.”
“To whom did this gossip pertain?” Jarrod asked, somewhat amused.
“Well, it was about you…actually, your family. Your father.”
“What exactly did she say?” Jarrod asked evenly. He leaned forward and placed his elbows on the desk.
“She said…well, she said your late father apparently had relations which produced a child, and that child is living at your ranch. I, of course, endeavored to tell her that just wasn’t possible.”
“That’s interesting,” Jarrod responded, a smile frozen on his face, “where did she come by this information?”
“Clara, from the saloon told her. It seems she overheard some of the men in your employ telling the story around the poker table.”
“James, I appreciate your honesty, and I can assure you what you heard is not true. The truth of the matter is that my mother was deceived many years ago by a devious man who took her newborn child from her. My mother has been reunited with her lost son, and I my lost brother.”
“How tragic,” James responded.
“Yes, it was tragic for Heath, that is his name, to be lost for so long, but the main thing is we’ve been reunited. I would appreciate your clarification if the subject should come up in conversation again, and also that you came to me with this information.”
“Of course, and you’re welcome,” James answered, trying to maintain his composure. He had no reason to doubt Jarrod’s sincerity, yet his explanation seemed even more outlandish than the idea of Tom Barkley engaging in a relationship with another woman outside of his marriage. Nevertheless, he would honor the request if for nothing else, out of loyalty.
James rose and cleared his throat. “Well, I must be getting back to those transcriptions.”
“Thank you, James.”
Jarrod watched his assistant leave and stared at the door for a long time after he left, lost in thought. So, the grapevine was already buzzing with misinformation. He shook his head slowly and sat back in his chair. What James told him was to be expected, but still, it saddened him. His greatest fear was how Heath would react to such comments, when and if he returned. It hardly seemed fair to have the boy subjected to labels and sideways glances wrought from ignorance and lack of compassion. Jarrod sighed. Eventually, the novelty would wear out and when they make it clear to all that Heath is a member of the family, everyone will come to accept him, no matter which story they hold true. Like it or not, they were obviously going to have little control over the opinions and imaginations of their fellow citizens or the grapevine breathing life into their misguided beliefs.
That didn’t mean Heath shouldn’t be home with his family where he belonged. Public opinion never caused the family to waver from their beliefs in the past, and it most certainly wouldn’t now.
Jarrod put pen to paper and completed the telegram.
“Oh Victoria!” Irene Stillman exclaimed sympathetically. “I can’t imagine what you are feeling right now, although I imagine you are mostly overjoyed to finally know what really happened.”
Through her tears, Victoria expressed her gratitude to her old and dear friend. “I’m thrilled to know Heath survived, but it saddens me he suffered so through his childhood. I’m so angry with the man who did this to him, and to us, that I could scream. Mostly, I’m frightened I may never get to know my son. Heath says he isn’t angry, but if he isn’t, why won’t he come home?”
Irene’s heart ached for her friend. She and Victoria had known each other since the Barkleys arrived in the Valley, some twenty-eight years now. Irene grew up an only child, and cherished her friendship with Victoria. Over the years they’d shared each other’s triumphs and tragedies and hopes and dreams, and had seen each other through good times and bad. They leaned on each other when Tom and Irene’s husband Clay were killed in the fight against the Coastal and Western railroad, spending many an evening giving each other the strength to keep living.
Irene recalled her friend’s pregnancy with startling clarity and knew what Victoria told her to be true. The idea that there weren’t twins never did sit well with Irene, but at the time, what proof did they have other than speculation? After little Aaron was buried, Irene and Victoria talked at great length about what happened, and finally concluded they were mistaken, if for nothing else to help Victoria grieve and move on.
She reached over and held Victoria’s hand in her own. “Victoria, you have to be positive. That boy has been without a mother and siblings for his whole life. He won’t be able to go on without his family, now that he knows he has one.”
“Oh Irene, I do hope you’re right.”
“Of course I am. Now you have to be strong,” Irene answered gently but firmly, squeezing Victoria’s hand.
“Always, Irene. Always.”
Heath arrived in Sonora towards evening. The town was relatively quiet except for the nightlife emanating from the saloon. Prior to his arrival, Heath carefully tucked the money Jarrod gave him into his sock figuring if he encountered any thieves or bushwhackers it would be the last place they would look. Even so, he felt uncomfortable and interpreted every look or casual glance thrown his way as suspicious.
He checked into a room at the hotel, which was housed above the saloon, then went to the Sonora Café to have dinner. His plan was to eat and return immediately to his room, feeling it was risky to get involved with anyone too intimately. Plus, he was exhausted. A good night’s sleep would do him good, and he planned to ride out early in the morning.
After a hearty dinner, Heath returned to the hotel. The saloon was much more crowded than it had been earlier, but Heath found the increased activity and noise of little consequence. He was so tired he figured he could sleep through just about anything.
As he was making his way through the bustling room, he spied a strikingly familiar man leaning against the bar, making him stop dead in his tracks, the hair on his neck bristling. For a moment, the saloon was replaced with the vision of a schoolyard from long ago, and he was once again a ten-year old boy enduring the taunts of a bully.
“What’s the matter little orphan boy? You afraid to fight?”
Heath shook his head, his eyes narrowing, as he stood transfixed. The voice from the past he heard so clearly belonged to Clifford Williams, a boy Heath grew up with in Strawberry. As far as Heath was concerned, when he ran away from Matt Simmons, he’d also obtained freedom from Cliff Williams. Cliff was three years older than Heath, nearly twice his size, and had considered bullying Heath his favorite pastime. For Heath, Cliff made life as terrifying as Simmons, and more than once Heath was convinced they worked in tandem to make him as miserable as humanly possible. Between the two, Heath found little respite from insults and mean-spirited physical abuse. Many times, a whipping from Simmons would be followed with a brawl against Cliff the next day at school.
Heath, lost in the memory he was recalling, wasn’t even aware his fists clenched, nor that he’d drawn the attention of the man’s companion, who nudged his friend and pointed to Heath. The man whirled and spotted Heath staring at him.
“What do you want, Boy?”
Heath startled, the saloon rematerialized. “Huh?”
“You hard of hearing, Boy?”
“Sorry,” Heath mumbled, feeling the red creep up his neck, “thought you were someone else.”
Heath braced himself for a confrontation he had no desire to participate in. To his surprise, and further embarrassment, the man began to laugh.
“Well would you look at that kid blush!” he shouted to the patrons gathered around him.
The attention he’d drawn made the red now coloring Heath’s neck and face even more vibrant. Others joined in laughing, and Heath felt his blood begin to boil. He wanted nothing more than to shove the man’s teeth down his throat, but recalling the large sum of money in his boot and his mission to return to his family, decided a confrontation was the last thing he needed to be engaging. It was too risky – not only would he be delayed in returning home, he might end up getting robbed.
Heath took a step forward to continue on to his room, but his path was blocked.
Heath’s eyes narrowed. He could feel every eye in the saloon boring right through him. In contrast to a moment before, the room had grown so quiet a feather hitting the floorboards would likely produce a deafening roar.
One of the men the man was drinking with intervened. “Come on, Red. He ain’t worth it. You know what Sheriff Timms said about one more fight.”
The bartender, nervously polishing a glass, also made a plea.
“Red, don’t you go bustin’ my place up!”
Heath and the man named Red now stood toe to toe. Heath resisted the urge to blink and flinch as he peripherally saw Red’s hand come up. Instead of a fist though, the man patted Heath on the cheek.
“Well, now, I don’t hardly want to bust up a boy who can blush like that. Go on, get outta here before I change my mind.”
Never blinking, Heath stood his ground for a long moment, his temper seething. Without another word, he turned and went up to his room. The activity in the saloon gradually resumed, its sounds wafted up the stairs and through the floor. As he closed and locked the door, he breathed a sigh of relief. His knees weak, and with shaking hands, he turned down the bed and removed his boots. After carefully tucking the money under the mattress he laid down, each heartbeat thumping rhythmically in his ears.
“Little orphan boy…”
The words, though no longer true, still aroused the all too familiar ache in his heart. The ache of loneliness and the feeling of abandonment that coupled together held his heart in a vice. It didn’t have to be that way, at least, not any longer. He had a home and a family to return to. He had a mother. He let the word settle into his heart, and gradually the pain began to lessen in intensity. Oh, there were plenty of questions to which he still sought answers, but he knew that with Simmons’ death there was only one other person on God’s green earth who might possibly tell him what he needed to know. That person was his mother. No matter how far he traveled, she was still the only person who could give him the answers he sought. Heath realized it was rash to have left. When they told him the truth about his birth, he’d been so shocked and angry he never let her explain.
No, admittedly, he wasn’t going back for the sole purpose of returning the money. He was going back because it was the only place to go. Deep down inside, Heath knew he not only had to return, but also that he wanted to. He now possessed a name and was part of a family, and it was high time he stepped up and took his rightful place. He couldn’t hide from who he was; the mere knowledge of now being aware made that so.
Despite the confrontation in the saloon and his still whirling emotions, sleep came surprisingly easy. His last conscious thought was that he couldn’t wait to get home.
Ray Brown and John Peters were washing up at the pump after a long day of fence repairs. Ray glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot, specifically Jake Wright or Nick Barkley. Seeing no one but Ciego, who was unsaddling a horse inside the barn, Ray leaned toward John and spoke in a low voice.
“So whaddya think the family did with him?”
“You know who I’m talkin’ about.”
John shrugged. “Hard tellin’. One thing’s for sure, if it was really like Jake said, he’d still be here.”
Ray nodded. “My thinkin’ exactly. He’s probably some dirty secret of the old man’s they want to hide away. Probably paid him off and told him to disappear.”
“Pick up your pay, pack your things and ride out. You’re through.”
Both men whirled in surprise and paled at the sound of the voice. There, standing not more than ten feet away from them, stood Nick Barkley. His face was expressionless. It was the dead, flat tone of his voice and the fury in his eyes that made them shiver with fear.
Ray recovered first. “Uh, Nick, we was just…”
Nick cut him off. “I said get out.”
John swallowed hard, having no desire to be physically removed from the premises by an angry Nick Barkley. John noticed Audra standing a few feet behind Nick. The girl’s eyes were wet with tears. They had heard every word exchanged between the two ranch hands.
“Come on, Nick. We were just teasin’,” Ray pleaded.
Nick wasn’t moved. “Nobody talks about my family that way and works here. Get out.”
Ray felt his anger rising. “Let’s go John,” he said, warily looking at Nick. As they walked away, he muttered in a low voice, “The man says we’re through. We’ll go work at the Jacobs’ spread. They ain’t coverin’ anything up over there.”
Nick emitted a feral growl and charged at the man, despite Audra’s shrieked protests. The commotion brought Victoria running from the house and Jake from the mess.
“Nick!” Victoria’s shouted, adding to Audra’s cries.
Jake moved in and pulled Nick off of Ray. “Nick!” Jake shouted, “What’s got into you?”
Panting, Nick wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth. He looked at his mother and sister then he turned to Jake.
“Ray and John are no longer employed here. See that they get off Barkley land.”
“All right, Nick,” Jake answered. The way his employer looked at his mother and sister pretty much gave him the idea of what this was about.
John helped Ray to his feet. The latter was cradling his ribs protectively.
As Jake led the two men away, Nick turned to Victoria. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
“Nick, what happened?” Victoria asked with concern.
“They…it was about Heath, and you. I won’t have anybody on this ranch talkin’ like that.”
Victoria shook her head. “Oh Nick, you aren’t going to be able to stop every single man, woman, and child in the Valley from thinking and saying things about this family. The important thing is that we stand together, and we stand proud. I have no intention of letting ignorant speculation and comments destroy this family. The next several weeks, months, and maybe years are going to test our ability to turn the other cheek.”
“That’s fine Mother, but I’m not going to just stand by and take insults and listen to lies!”
Victoria closed her eyes and shook her head. Nick would do as he saw fit to do, and more often than not, it would involve his fists. She sighed.
“All right, Nick. Just promise me you’ll try to look the other way.”
Nick stood for a few moments, his temple pulsing. He nodded.
“Thank you, Son. Now come on, let’s go in the house. We’ll need to clean those cuts on your lip and face and you’ll need to get ready for dinner.”
They turned to enter the house. After tending to Nick’s wounds, Victoria and Audra retired to the parlor and Nick went upstairs to clean up. As he soaked in the tub, his anger continued to steadily burn until his thoughts traveled to his brother. Then his anger grew tempered by worry. For the millionth time in the past day, he wondered where Heath was, if he would ever return to them, and if he did, if things would get better or worse. Nick finally decided on better. They couldn’t possibly get any worse.
“If that boy don’t come to his senses on his own, I’m going to find him and pound it into him,” Nick vowed, slipping into a clean shirt. The ugly scene an hour earlier and the reasons for which it occurred were, for the moment, tucked to the back of Nick’s mind as he headed downstairs to dinner.
Heath awoke to unexpected brightness and the din of activity on the street below. He sat bolt upright and looked around, for a moment forgetting where he was. He threw back the blanket and put his feet on the floor. Rising, he crossed to the window and peered out. The town was alive with the day’s pursuits. Backing away from the window, Heath rubbed his hands over his face. He’d overslept.
Hastily, he splashed some water on his face at the basin and brushed his teeth. Then he put on his boots and vest. Reaching under the mattress, he grasped the money and pocketed it in his vest. Throwing his saddlebags over his shoulders, he left his room to check out.
“Leaving us so soon?” the desk clerk inquired as Heath signed the register.
“Yes. I have to get to Stockton today. What time is it?”
“About half past nine.”
Heath groaned inwardly. He was about four hours behind his intended departure time. How could he do such a thing? He wouldn’t be to the ranch until well after dinner. There was a good chance the family might already be long asleep before he arrived unless he rode hard.
“Have a nice day,” the clerk said, while putting the bill Heath tendered in the drawer.
“Uh, yeah. Likewise,” Heath answered distractedly. He wasn’t in the mood to chat – he needed to hit the trail. Quickly, he left the hotel and set his sights on the livery. After retrieving his horse he was finally on his way.
The shadows were long and the sky was mixed with hues of amber and deep purple when he finally turned onto the road to the Barkley ranch. Heath was hot, tired, and hungry. He slowed his horse to a trot and felt his pulse quicken as he rounded a bend at the crest of a hill and the beckoning glow of the house came into view. Reining to a stop, he watched with emotion as the blackness of night extinguished the remains of the day. Shifting in his saddle, he looked up at the sky. The stars twinkled knowingly and bright, and the moon illuminated the landscape between where he stood and where he was going. Like life’s possibilities, the view was infinite.
Heath’s gaze settled once again on the house and the neatly kept buildings by which it was surrounded, and compared his feeling now to what it was just a few weeks ago when he laid his eyes on the place for the first time. He laughed out loud and shook his head. Somehow, tonight, he was much more nervous. For one thing, there was a lot more to lose than a job this time. For another, he was awed by destiny’s chance that he should have happened to have come here looking for work to begin with.
With a deep breath, he urged the horse forward. As the distance shortened and the house grew more near, he felt a pain in his stomach and his breathing quickened with anticipation.
Jarrod, Nick, and Audra Barkley sat in silence in the parlor after dinner. Mother had retired to the garden, and the remaining Barkleys were doing their best to pass the time, each engaged in his or her own thoughts about the revelations of the past few days. All three were worried about their mother, who seemed to be growing more and more withdrawn with each passing hour. Their fear was that should Heath not return her grief would destroy her.
Nick and Jarrod distractedly played a game of chess, while Audra was busily mending an apron for one of the girls at the orphanage.
“Nick,” Jarrod said, his chin cupped in his hand, “are you going to make a move tonight or tomorrow?”
Nick startled and glared at his older brother. “Genius takes time,” he snapped.
Jarrod nodded, trying to look serious. “Of course. By all means, Brother. Take your time.”
“Thank you. I think I will,” Nick huffed.
They were so busy bickering, none of them heard the approaching hoof beats. They looked up, as the heavy iron door knocker clunked twice.
“I’ll get it,” Silas said, a dishtowel slung over his arm, hurriedly crossing the foyer. He reached for the knob and opened the door, gasping in surprise at the visitor standing before him.
Heath slowed his mount to a walk and entered the yard. Stripes of golden light from the lit windows painted the dusty ground. Dismounting, he tethered his horse and wiping his palms on his pants, he stepped quietly onto the porch. The heavy oak door loomed imposingly between himself and the unknown. Licking his lips, he tentatively reached up and clunked the iron knocker twice.
He held his breath, his eyes polarized to the doorknob as he saw it twist and heard the click. Squinting in the light that instantly enveloped the doorway, he removed his hat.
“May I come in?” he choked. His mouth was suddenly as dry as the desert.
The butler grinned broadly. “Why certainly, Mr. Heath!”
As Heath stepped into the foyer, he heard a voice bellow. “Silas! Who’s at the door?”
When he heard the spurs jingling, Heath was certain his heart stopped. He stood frozen in place, fiddling nervously with his hat, as his brother came into view.
The hat left his hands as Silas took it from its owner. Suddenly, Heath wished he was anywhere but where he stood at that very moment.
Nick stopped cold when he saw his younger brother standing in the foyer. For a moment, his face registered surprise. Quickly recovering, he placed his hands on his hips and mustered his most imposing expression. Nick had no intention of letting this be easy for his brother.
“Well, well, well,” he said snidely.
Heath offered a half-smile. Inwardly, he winced. There’s still time to escape….
“Nick, who’s…,” Audra’s voice trailed off, then registered surprise. “Heath!” she squealed, running forward and throwing her arms around the blond man.
More footsteps, then Jarrod appeared. The lawyer’s eyes reflected their joy, and his smile was sincere and welcoming as he approached his youngest brother.
“Heath, welcome home,” he said, extending his hand. “We’re glad you decided to return.”
Under the scrutiny of Nick’s cold gaze, Heath forced his voice to cooperate. “I…,” he paused. Remembering the money, he reached into his vest pocket. “I had…no,” he said, shaking his head “I wanted to return this,” he finished, proffering the bills to Jarrod. “Paid in full, like we agreed.”
Nick’s hands dropped from his hips to his sides. Inside, he had to admit he was impressed. There was enough money there for the boy to live comfortably for a long time, if that were all he was interested in.
Jarrod was pleased. Like Nick, he was impressed at the strength of character this brother of theirs possessed. A boy who’d clearly had little his whole life, wasn’t motivated by material gains. That money was given to the boy with no strings other than a verbal agreement to call it a loan. In Jarrod’s mind, there never was the expectation that Heath return the money, whether he came home or not.
The real reason Heath returned was as clear as the crystal blue of his eyes. Clearing his throat, Jarrod gazed at the money and then to his youngest brother, who’s blue eyes shone with pride and something else…was it fear? Pain? Or was it a combination of all three? Jarrod finally settled on a word. Honor.
“Paid in full,” Jarrod repeated quietly. “Are you planning to stay on?”
The words hung suspended in uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Heath fiddled with the cuff of his sleeve.
“I’d like that, if you all would have me,” Heath answered quietly. “I shouldn’t have left like I did and I’m sorry. I’d like to try.”
Jarrod smiled, Audra nodded, tears tracing shiny paths down her cheeks. Nick shifted his stance and crossed his arms defiantly in front of himself.
“Well,” he said gruffly, “Guess my gut instinct is still ridin’ a winning streak.” His weathered features split into a grin, and he extended his hand to his brother. With his other, he slapped Heath on the shoulder.
Heath returned the handshake, and his face relaxed into a smile.
They heard the swish of taffeta before they saw her. As if it were a finely tuned orchestration, Jarrod, Nick, and Audra stepped aside.
Victoria smiled warmly at her youngest son. Ashamed, Heath looked down. “I’m sorry, Ma’am,” he mumbled.
Her tiny hands reached up and lifted his face. “No apology is necessary, Heath. Welcome home, Son,” she said, looking into his eyes, her own eyes welling with tears of joy. He’d come home, and she marveled that prayers really do get answered.
“I don’t…” Heath started. He took a deep breath, then started again. “I don’t know why…I have questions.” The first of which popping into Heath’s mind at that very moment was, what should he call her? Mother? It seemed strange, yet it fit. That’s who she is, he thought with wonder.
Of course he had questions, and Victoria planned to answer each and every one of them, but first, her son was going to sit down to a hot meal and take a long, hot soak in the tub. She would wait up. If he were up to it, they could start tonight. Otherwise, they could start tomorrow. Then they’d continue the next day and the day after that, until he had no more questions to ask and she no more answers to give. Victoria hooked her arm through his and they started walking.
“Yes, we have a lot to talk about,” she said, leading him to the dining room, “but first you’re going to have a decent meal, and a nice hot bath…” Victoria’s voice drifted off as the pair disappeared from view.
Nick, Jarrod, and Audra stood in the foyer watching them depart. All three sensed their mother and brother needed some time alone. Nick laughed and put his arms around Jarrod and Audra.
“Well, that boy’s gonna get used to having a mother pretty quick, I’d say!”
“That’s a pretty accurate assessment, Brother Nick,” Jarrod agreed. “Mother’s got twenty years of catching up to do.”
Jarrod’s statement made Nick laugh even harder. “From the looks of things, she’s planning to work on the first nineteen tonight!”
He sobered as they all sat down in the parlor and Jarrod handed him a brandy. “We’ve got twenty years of brotherin’ and sisterin’ to do too, you know.”
Jarrod nodded his agreement. “But we have our whole lives ahead of us.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” Audra said. “Heath happened to find his way here for a job, and what he got was a whole family.”
“And we got a brother,” Nick mused.
“Well said, and with that, I’d like to propose a toast,” Jarrod said, raising his glass, “to fate, family, and a legacy once stolen, now returned!”
A few weeks later, on his birthday, Heath knelt reverently beside the graves of his father and twin brother and closed his eyes. He felt the warmth of the sunlight trickling through the trees on his face, and felt enveloped by a sense of peace. Unexpectedly, he felt whole.
So far, anyway, things had gone much smoother than any of them could have anticipated, and Heath was now becoming fully, happily, and irrevocably woven into the fabric of the Barkley family. The people of Stockton thus far had been surprisingly sympathetic and accepting, and other than the slightly more than normal curiosity extended to a newcomer, there had scarcely been a ripple over the story. The hands in the family’s employ were adjusting to Heath’s new status it seemed at times, easier than he was.
Heath supposed it would be a long time, if ever, before he’d take for granted having a place that was his to call home and all the trappings that came along with it. Falling asleep exhausted after a long day and waking up refreshed in a comfortable bed; the din of conversation at mealtimes; working at his brother’s side; evenings playing billiards or checkers; a kiss goodnight from his mother and sister; a quiet conversation in his mother’s garden. Each of these things were seemingly routine occurrences of one’s day, but for someone who’d lived a life devoid of this sort of regularity and intimacy, each was a noteworthy event to savor.
Most surprising of all, was how easy Heath was finding it to love and be loved, to trust and belong, and to be a brother and a son. Jarrod had been right. It was worth the effort.
Heath thoughtfully fingered the binding of the book he held in his hands and opened it. His soft voice was mingled with the rustling of the leaves in the gentle breeze as he read aloud.
“Meditating among liars, and retreating sternly into myself, I see that there are really no liars or lies after all,
And that nothing fails its perfect return—And that what are called lies are perfect returns,
And that each thing exactly represents itself, and what has preceded it,
And that the truth includes all, and is compact, just as much as space is compact,
And that there is no flaw or vacuum in the amount of the truth—but that all is truth without exception;”
Heath paused before continuing,
“And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,
And sing and laugh, and deny nothing.”*
Heath closed the book, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he pondered the meaning of the words. His meditation was brief; an approaching horse and a familiar voice calling his name shattered the peaceful stillness.
“Heath! There you are! I’ve been lookin’ all over for you!”
The smile still graced his face as Heath closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Well, you definitely can’t deny that voice,” he said to himself with a sigh as he rose to his feet.
Nick reached Heath as he was getting onto his horse. Realizing where they were, and that he’d interrupted a private moment, Nick felt sheepish.
“Sorry, Heath. I didn’t…”
Heath smiled. “It’s okay. I just thought it fittin’ I spend some time here today, that’s all.”
“You, uh…,” Nick stammered.
“Finished?” Heath completed for his tongue-tied brother.
“Yeah, I was just getting ready to head back. What’s the hurry, anyway?” Heath responded.
“Oh, well, Mother sent me to look for you. Seems she was worried the guest of honor might be late for dinner tonight. She’s planning somethin’ special, this bein’ your first birthday home and all,” Nick said, knowing his brother preferred not to be fussed over.
Seeing the red flush creep up his quiet brother’s face, Nick laughed.
“You get any redder, Boy, and we won’t need matches to light them birthday candles!”
Heath blushed even more vividly for a moment and then he couldn’t help it…he laughed too.
*Author’s note: Excerpted from “All Is Truth” by Walt Whitman