A Place to Call Home (by Kenda)

Summary:   This story is set several months prior to the aired episode: Boots With My Father’s Name. It also disregards the events depicted in the aired episode 40 Rifles. However, I am using the character of Barrett from that episode – the hired hand that was so intent on giving Heath a hard time. As well, in Palms Of Glory the show is set in 1876 with Tom Barkley having died in 1870. When Heath arrives on the ranch in ‘Palms’ he says his mother has been dead a few months. However, in the episode The Lost Treasure, Leah Thomson’s gravestone indicates she died in 1872. I know there have been many discussions regarding the errors the BV writers made in regards to dates throughout the show’s 4 year run. Therefore I have taken the liberty in this story to fictionalize that Leah died in October of 1875, and that Heath arrived on the Barkley ranch in late January of 1876.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  38,000


Heath opened his bedroom door and stepped into the wide hallway. He crossed to the banister, silently observing the bustling activity below. Silas scurried between the kitchen, dining room, parlor, and foyer. The black man’s voice never raised above its normal, soft pitch as he gave directions to the four young women who had been hired from Stockton to help with the party. Regardless, Heath could sense a nervousness about Silas. He attributed the house servant’s uneasiness to the fact Silas felt it was his responsibility to see the night went off without a hitch.

Or maybe it wasn’t even that complicated. Maybe it was that Silas, as one of the few black men within one hundred miles, still felt just as out of place in this home as Heath often did. Maybe, even after the twenty-three years Silas had been employed by the Barkleys, he still felt the need to strive for perfection. To prove he was worthy of the shelter Tom Barkley provided him when he’d arrived here as a runaway slave over two decades ago.

Heath had been living with his father’s family for just three months now. He couldn’t imagine twenty-three years into the future. He was still pretty much taking things as they came, day by day. He had a strong feeling that’s the way his brothers, sister, and Victoria were taking things, too. It was funny. Sometimes he felt like he’d lived on this ranch all his life, and sometimes he felt as out of place as a country bumpkin at a high society wedding. No doubt about it, the luxury the Barkleys lived in was far from anything he’d experienced in his twenty-four years on this earth. The home Heath had grown up in could fit in Victoria Barkley’s foyer. It had contained just one main room that served as both kitchen and living room, plus a tiny bedroom that Leah Thomson insisted Heath have despite the fact that as he grew older he tried to convince her it should be him sleeping on the cot beside the cookstove, not her.

Heath’s beginnings might have been humble, but he never thought of his mother and that little home without warmth kissing his heart first, and then deep, deep sorrow burrowing itself into his soul. Their position in the world was hardly anything to brag about, nonetheless Leah kept her home and son spotlessly clean. Or at least Heath was as spotlessly clean as any boy could be until he got out of his mother’s sight. He rarely failed to come home dirty from a hard day at play, or scuffed up from a fight he’d gotten into because someone had referred to his mother as a whore or called him a bastard. At those times Leah would shake her head and give her boy a stern lecture while gently dabbing the blood from his face.

“Heath, you have to learn to turn away from the ignorant words of others and not let your temper get the best of you. There will come a day when I won’t be here to patch you up.”

Of course as a child, Heath could never imagine his mother not being there to patch him up. Or to offer him comfort and guidance. She had been his whole world, just like he had been hers. Despite the hard life that rough mining town had brought Leah Thomson, Heath never fathomed her death would come just six months earlier at the young age of forty-five. He had a lot of regrets about her passing. So many that he didn’t allow himself to dwell on her final days, or how he had failed her. If he could only have the last year of her life back. If he’d only had then what he had now he could have provided for her in a way that far exceeded the few dollars he’d mailed to Strawberry each week since he’d left home at sixteen. If he could have made his mother’s life easier possibly she would have had years and years left her. As Victoria Barkley came into view from below, Heath thought of what might have been and had to turn away.

Before the young man could escape unnoticed down the back stairs Audra swished through the hall in a sea of emerald taffeta.

“Oh, Heath, your tie,” she moaned with mock long-suffering. “Here, let me fix it.”

Heath stood still, lifting his chin and allowing his sister to undo the black string tie at his neck. Her nimble fingers retied it into a neat, straight bow in a matter of seconds.

“Really, I don’t know what you and Nick would do without me. I just redid his tie not five minutes ago. You’d think a couple of grown men who can lasso a wild stallion would be able to tie a respectable knot.”

Audra fussed over Heath a few more seconds. She straightened the lapels on the royal blue suit coat she’d helped him pick out at a men’s clothing store in Stockton, and brushed imaginary lint from his shoulders. After all these years of being his own man Heath would have thought he’d be annoyed at his sister’s ministrations, but he’d found just the opposite was true. Audra never failed to make him feel like an important member of this family. Never failed to make him feel as though his place as her big brother was just as solid and long-standing as Jarrod’s and Nick’s places were. And though he would never admit it to the nineteen-year-old, Heath enjoyed being taken care of by her. Had they grown up together he could easily imagine what great playmates they might have been.

Audra always seemed to sense what Heath was feeling, and tonight was no different. It was as if she could read his mind and knew the prospect of this fancy party had him unnerved. She took a step back and flashed him a confident smile while the musicians warmed up in a corner of the parlor.

“There.” She gave one final tug on the hem of his coat. “Now I’ll be telling the truth when I say you’re the handsomest brother I’ve got.”

The young woman crooked her arm, holding her elbow out to Heath.

“You’d better not let Nick hear you say that,” Heath replied.

Another voice joined the pair from behind.

“And you’d better not let Jarrod hear you say it either, little lady.”

There was laughter in Jarrod’s eyes as he joined his two blond siblings. But then it was rare for Heath not to see laughter in Jarrod’s eyes. If Audra was the baby sister he’d dreamed of having as a little boy, then Jarrod was the big brother his imagination had formed. Smart, worldly, kind, charming, and always ready with sound advice free for the taking. Advice that was dispensed gently and tactfully, in that rich speaking voice that had swayed the opinion of many a jury.

Audra held her other arm out for Jarrod.

“What I meant to say is, Heath’s the handsomest blond brother I have. While you, Jarrod, are the handsomest brunette brother I possess.”

Jarrod laughed. “Then I must echo Heath’s words. You’d better not let Nick hear you say that.”

“Better not let Nick hear who say what?” Boomed from below.

Arms linked, the trio descended to the foyer.

“Audra was just taking stock of her handsome brothers,” Jarrod said. “And your name, Nicholas, appears to be missing from her list.”

Nick crossed his arms over his wide chest. “Oh it does, does it?”

“But then Audra didn’t mention Eugene either, so perhaps she wasn’t done announcing the many virtues of her siblings.”

Audra rolled her eyes at Jarrod and Nick. Heath knew this type of teasing went on between the three of them almost constantly. Though he would have been able to keep up with their good natured banter had he chosen to, he generally remained quiet. Heath wasn’t certain if his comments would be welcome in this playful routine that dated back to childhood.

The blond man felt a tiny hand come to rest between his shoulder blades. He turned to see Victoria join the group.

“Perhaps if Audra was allowed to finish her thoughts they would go something like this. Nick is the handsomest brother she has with hazel eyes,…..”

“Well that’s not hard to come up with,” Nick snorted, “considering I’m the only brother she has with hazel eyes.”

Victoria went on speaking as though she hadn’t been interrupted.

“And Eugene is the handsomest younger brother she has.”

“Again, not a huge strain to the brain there. She doesn’t have any younger brothers besides Gene.”

“Did someone call me?” Eugene asked as he entered from the dining room.

“No,” Nick said.

The young man, who was home from college for the party, looked from one sibling to the next.

“You know, ever since I was a little kid I always missed out on all the fun. I thought that would change once I reached adulthood.”

Nick snatched the carrot stick Gene was aiming for his mouth.

“Sorry, bucko, but you thought wrong. We’re still havin’ fun that you’re missing out on.”

“Hey! Give that back to me!” Gene jumped, swiping at the half eaten carrot stick Nick had pilfered. “Mother, make him give it back to me.”

Audra accosted Nick from behind. She grabbed his wrists and tried to wrestle the carrot from him so she could toss it to Gene in an impromptu game of keep away.

Victoria shook her head at her children’s nonsense. She loved it when they were all home at the same time, even if they did feel the need to relive their youth when they were together. She fought to keep the smile out of her voice as her adult offspring forced her to resurrect her role as mother.

“Nick, give your brother back his carrot stick. Gene, quit jumping in the house. You’ll knock something over. Audra, you stay out of the fray. You’ll wrinkle your dress. And Jarrod, keep an eye on your brothers and sister for me tonight. They’re bound to get into trouble if someone isn’t watching them.”

Nick was still teasing Gene and Audra with the carrot stick, holding it just out of their reach, when the first guests began to arrive. The dark headed man popped the vegetable in his mouth and while still chewing, assembled by the door with his family.

The Barkleys formed a receiving line as music filtered in from the other room. Without conscious effort they stood in the order of their birth from oldest to youngest. For the first time since he’d come to live with them Heath pondered the thought of being the middle child. If he’d grown up in this family how would that experience have altered his personality? The studious, even-tempered Jarrod was eight years his senior, then came the boisterous, head-strong Nick at four years older. Below Heath was the spunky Audra at five years younger and the cheerful Eugene at almost seven years Heath’s junior. No doubt Nick would have been more of a playmate to him than Jarrod or Gene, which was amusing considering he and Nick still weren’t sure what to make of each other. On some days they were one anothers best friend, and on other days they were bitter enemies. That’s not how Heath wanted it per se, but he was a proud man who was used to doing things his own way. He didn’t always take too kindly to Nick’s bossiness. He wondered if he would have been more accepting of it if he’d lived with these people since birth. He’d always heard the middle child was the peace keeper. Having spoken up on behalf of all his siblings a time or two since he’d arrived here made Heath realize he had a good portion of that trait within his personality, but having grown up as an only child also meant he was fiercely independent and not accustomed to having a brother tell him what to do. And telling Heath what to do was something Nick, as the head of the Barkley Ranch operations, seemed to relish at times.

Before Heath could give this further consideration people began flocking in the front door. He watched Victoria. She was a smooth and gracious hostess who greeted every person with a warm handshake and equally warm smile. If anyone in this household yet made him nervous, it was her. Heath was still as uncertain of her motives as he had been the day she invited him to live in the mansion. She’d never been anything but kind to him, even when he didn’t deserve that kindness, yet the fact that he was her husband’s bastard son was never going to change. To put it bluntly, Tom Barkley had slept with Heath’s mother. Regardless of the why’s or wherefore’s, the man had stepped out on his marriage. Plenty of people in this valley held Heath at fault for that, but if Victoria harbored such feelings she kept them well-hidden. But then Heath kept a lot of his feelings hidden, too, so maybe he and Victoria were an even match as far as that went.

Heath swayed from foot to foot, relieved each time a guest passed him without saying more than a, “How do you do?” While he’d met some of these people during his three months here, there were a lot he didn’t know. He supposed rumor of his existence had pretty well reached all ears by now, but even so, there were often moments of awkwardness when he was first introduced to people who were old friends of Tom Barkley.

And speaking of old friends, the second the woman walked in the door Heath knew who she was. Her portly body was stuffed into a maroon gown layered with black netting like a sausage is stuffed into its casing. Her ample breasts made it look as though two ripe melons had been stashed in the bodice. He wasn’t surprised to see the gaudy hat on her head. If his mother was alive to see the woman she’d laugh and tell Heath the hat’s brim was big enough to carry a week’s worth of laundry. And then there were the feathers. An entire peacock must have been plucked naked in order to provide the colorful plume that stuck straight up in the air like an Indian’s head dress.

Nick elbowed Heath. The dark headed man leaned into his sibling and whispered, “Get a load of her. And this is tame compared to some of the stuff I’ve seen her wear.”

Heath wanted to say, “Boy howdy, Nick, the stories I could tell you about some of the stuff I’ve seen her wear would knock your socks off. And her bloomers are big enough to fit a circus elephant,” but he didn’t say that. It would prompt too many questions Heath would rather not answer.

Regardless of what Victoria Barkley thought of her guest’s attire she smiled and shook the woman’s hand.

“Constance. How very nice to see you. I’m so glad you could come.”

The woman’s shrill voice drowned out both the music and the chatter of the other guests.

“I must confess, Victoria, your party came close to having to go on without me. I had one of my spells this afternoon and thought sure the Lord was calling me home just as plain as if I could hear His voice. Why, I told John Peter he might as well summon the undertaker. I was that certain of my demise.”

Victoria’s eyes flicked to Jarrod. She could tell he was biting his lower lip to keep from laughing.

“Well, Constance, I’m happy to see you’ve made a full recovery.” Victoria looked to her guest’s son. “And John, I’m glad you found the time to bring your mother tonight. I know how busy you must be running the ranch.”

“Running the ranch my eye,” Nick whispered to Heath. “He’s the laziest s.o.b. this side of the Mississippi. What he knows about ranching you could put on a saddle horn. His old man was the same way. The only reason their operation succeeds is because of their money. They’ve got the most hired hands of anyone in the valley and a helluva foreman who calls the shots.”

Heath watched the lanky, milk-pale John nod in that superior way he’d possessed since he was a child.

“Yes, yes. Quite busy, Mrs. Barkley. Quite so.”

Jarrod smiled and kissed the back of the pudgy hand Constance offered him.

“Mrs. Vanguard, you’re as lovely as ever.”

“Oh, Jarrod, go on with you now. You’ll make an old woman blush like a school girl. You do have your father’s charm, there’s no two ways about it.”

When the woman reached Nick he simply nodded. The last thing he wanted to do was make any form of physical contact with the old biddy.

“Mrs. Vanguard. Nice to see you again.”

Constance disliked the loud, ill-tempered Nick as much as he disliked her.

“Nicholas. Yes. Good to see you, too. And please, Nicholas, keep your cattle out of our stream.”

“Out of your stream! Lady, the only reason our cattle got to your stream in the first place is because you had a fence down that worthless son of yours is too lazy to,…..”

“Nick. Nick,” Jarrod soothed, while putting an arm around his brother. “Come on now. Calm down. Tonight’s not the night for business discussions.” The lawyer cocked an eyebrow at their rotund guest. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mrs. Vanguard?”

“I suppose not. No, of course it isn’t, Jarrod. You’re correct. But, Nicholas, please. From now on make more of an effort to keep your animals on your own property.”

If Nick had been able to produce steam Heath had no doubt it would be pouring out his ears. The blond man could feel Audra’s body shaking. She hid her face in his back as she tried to suppress her laughter.

Jarrod alleviated the situation by ushering the woman forward.

“I don’t think you’ve had the occasion to meet my younger brother Heath. Heath, this is Mrs. Vanguard. When her husband was living he and Father shared partnerships in several mines throughout the state. Mrs. Vanguard, this is Heath.”

Though Victoria was well-aware tact was a foreign word to Constance Vanguard, she never imagined the woman could be so senseless. Or so cruel. Within seconds of Constance being introduced to Heath the matriarch of the Barkley family was wishing she’d never invited the woman.

Constance looked Heath up and down as though she was expecting to see some outward sign that made him unworthy of living on the Barkley ranch.

“Yes. Yes, I’ve heard of you. People like to talk, you know. ‘Keith’ did you say his name was, Jarrod?”

Heath felt his face begin to burn. Did the woman think he was some half-retarded misfit who couldn’t even tell her his own name?

“Heath,” Jarrod repeated.

“Heath. Mmmm, now that is an unusual name. Very unusual. Certainly not a good Christian name like John Peter, or Jarrod, or Nicholas. Even Eugene has Christian roots you know. Why, I do believe I’ve only heard the name Heath one other time in my whole life.” The woman looked at her son. “John Peter, wasn’t Heath the name of that little bastard boy of our washerwoman’s when we lived in Strawberry? Oh, you remember him, don’t you? Why I used to sell the clothes you’d outgrown to her for the boy, and how did that little urchin repay us? By beating you up.”

“He didn’t beat me up, Mother.”

“He most certainly did. I recall you coming home all battered and crying your eyes out more than once. Oh, but was your father angry with you. He took his belt to your hide for being such a sissy each and every time it happened. Don’t you remember that? Father was furious that such ‘scrawny little white trash,’ as he phrased it, five years younger than you had whipped you.”

Jarrod did his best to move the woman along. It seemed to Heath that everyone in the entire house was listening to her while staring at him.

“Come with me, Mrs. Vanguard. I’ll introduce you to some of the guests you haven’t met.”

The woman wiggled her body out of Jarrod’s arms. Her grey eyes remained fastened on Heath.

“You’ve grown up to be quite a handsome man. Who would have thought it? Every time I saw you your feet were bare and your bangs were hanging in your eyes. But then I don’t suppose your mother could afford to send you to the barber, or buy you shoes for that matter. And speaking of your mother,……..what was her name again? LeeAnn. Yes, that was it. LeeAnn. My, but LeeAnn certainly could get the toughest stains out of clothes. I don’t know how she did it, but I surely marveled at her ability.”

Heath never thought about where he was, or that holding his tongue might be what a polite gentleman does when insulted while attending a lavish shindig. He wouldn’t stand by and let this woman defile his mother’s memory even if he was attending a party at the White House. Heath’s jaw was so firmly set he’d later wonder how any words managed to come forth.

“She got the stains out of your clothes by standing over a washboard until her back ached and her fingers bled. She did it because she was never too proud to labor at an honest day’s work in order to feed her child. She came to your house every day for six years and not once did you do anything but lecture her like some high and mighty priestess because of her ‘bastard,’ as you used to refer to me.”

“Why I never,….”

“You did, too!” Heath shouted. “I wasn’t deaf and I wasn’t invisible! You may have thought of me as ‘white trash’, but I was there with her. I heard you. And at night, long after she thought I was asleep, I’d hear her cry because of how hurt she was by the things you said.”

Nick put a hand on his brother’s elbow. “Heath, come on. Let’s go outside for a few minutes.”

The blond man shook himself free. He gave Mrs. Vanguard a final glare. “And her name wasn’t LeeAnn. It was Leah.”

Heath turned on one boot heel and stomped through the dining room. Audra gathered up her gown, scampering after him.

“Heath! Heath, wait!”

The Barkleys’ guests stood in uncomfortable silence, even the musicians had quit playing. The slam of the kitchen door echoed throughout the house and caused the windows to rattle in their panes.

Jarrod signaled the musicians to start again. At the same time Silas sent the girls in from the dining room bearing trays of hors d’oeuvres. Within seconds people returned to mingling with their neighbors, doing their best to act as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

Mrs. Vanguard looked at Victoria. “I apologize for the upset, Victoria. I didn’t mean anything by it. Why, everything I said was true. I don’t understand why the boy got so upset. But then, I suppose one must forgive his poor manners considering his roots and all. And to think he’s Tom’s son. Well, who would have ever imagined it.”

Mrs. Vanguard moved toward the parlor, the balding John Peter trailing behind her. He shook his head as he passed the Barkleys.

“It’s hardly surprising. He was a no-good mangy little scoundrel as a kid. I can see not much has changed. If I was you I wouldn’t allow Audra to be alone with him. After all, with his kind,…..well, you just never know.”

Nick lunged forward. “Why you,…”

Jarrod thrust out a hand that landed square in the middle of his brother’s chest. “Nick. Just let it be for now.”

“Jarrod,….”

The lawyer stepped closer to his brother. “Nick, the Vanguards have made enough of a scene already. Let it drop for tonight.”

Nick’s eyes followed Constance and her son. “I’ll tell you one thing. As of right now those people are permanently off the Barkley guest list.”

For the first time Victoria spoke. “Yes, Nick, they are.”

And with those words Victoria forced herself to smile and turned to greet the next guest, all the while worrying about Heath.

*****

“Heath! Heath!” Audra stopped and strained to see into the darkness. The path lit by torch lamps meant to guide their guests from the front gate to the house was now behind her. “Heath!”

The young woman lifted her gown again and continued her search. She bypassed the row of bunkhouses. Lights shown from within, no doubt many of the hired hands were awake yet playing cards or shooting the bull over a shared a smoke. Nonetheless, Audra knew Heath wouldn’t have sought refuge within any of those walls. A lot of the men were still unsure of him, their resentment over having to take orders from the newest Barkley evident in their snide remarks or downright defiance of him. Sometimes their orneriness toward Heath made Audra want to spit at their feet. If she’d been Nick she would have sent them all packing. She even said as much to Jarrod one day when she saw Heath walking away from some of the hands in that restrained, proud manner he possessed. One of the men snickered and cursed, “dumb bastard,” loud enough for everyone to hear. Heath stopped for just a moment, but never turned around to confront the cowboy. Within seconds he continued on his way as though nothing had been said.

As Audra watched from the front veranda that afternoon she clenched her fists. “Oh, sometimes I wish he’d lay right into them and let them all have what they deserve. How can he just keep walking away from it?”

A quiet voice from behind startled the nineteen-year-old.

“Because I imagine he’s learned by now that beating someone up every time they say something nasty only gets you two things. A black eye and sore fists.”

Audra turned as Jarrod crossed the length of the porch. “You saw?”

“Yes.”

“It happens a lot.”

“I know.”

“You do?”

“Yes. And before you ask, so does Nick.”

“Jarrod Barkley, if you and Nick know this is happening how can you stand by and let it continue?”

“Audra, this is going to be hard for you to hear, but Heath has to find his own way.”

“What do you mean?”

“He fought his way onto this ranch and into this family. But just because we’ve come to accept him as brother, doesn’t mean everyone he encounters will accept him as a Barkley without making him prove himself to them first. It might not be right, but nonetheless it’s true. If Nick or I step in every time one of the hands refuses to do what Heath asks then Heath won’t learn how to deal with the situation and the men won’t learn how to respect him.”

“What makes you so certain that by not stepping in you’re actually helping?”

“A man has a lot of pride, Audra. Heath more than most. Believe me, honey, we’d be doing more harm than good to interfere. I’ve got a feeling that ounce for ounce that blond brother of ours possesses more perseverance than any of the rest of us put together. Trust me when I say he’ll survive this ‘initiation’ period and come out on top.”

Audra turned from Jarrod and watched as Heath rode out of the barn on Charger. When he was nothing but a speck in the distance she said, “He’s still such a mystery to me. He,……there’s something very sweet and gentle about him. Something very kind and loving. But if you get too close to touching that part of his soul he pulls back, almost like a turtle retreating into its shell. Have you ever noticed that?”

“Yes, I’ve noticed it. We all have. Mother thinks he’s afraid of being hurt.”

“Being hurt by us? His family?”

Jarrod shrugged his shoulders. “I imagine Heath’s been hurt by a lot of people in his life. Whether or not we’re family probably makes little difference at this point.” The lawyer kissed his sister’s forehead. “Don’t you worry. In time, Heath will settle in.”

That conversation with Jarrod had taken place a month ago, and as far as Audra was concerned things hadn’t improved any. Wasn’t tonight with Mrs. Vanguard a perfect example of the prejudice aimed at Heath by the people in this valley? Though Constance Vanguard was known to be outspoken, Audra still couldn’t believe what had come streaming out of the woman’s mouth. And in front of all their guests. Poor Heath. What a humiliating experience it must have been for him.

A soft glow coming from a barn window drew Audra to the large structure. The young woman opened one of the big doors just enough so she could slip in between the crack. Her horse Ladino, or Lady as she’d long ago been nicknamed, whinnied from her stall.

If Heath heard Lady, or knew the sound she made meant Audra was now in the barn, he never indicated it. He sat on a bale of hay in profile to his sister. His jacket and tie were thrown over a stall door. The sleeves of his white dress shirt had been rolled up to his elbows.

Audra traversed the long aisle. She had no doubt her brother knew she was present. The taffeta dress was too noisy to keep her presence a secret. When Audra came to the hay bale she stopped and waited. Heath didn’t look up at her, nor did he move to make room for her beside him.

“Heath, I,….”

“Don’t say it.”

“Don’t say what?”

“Don’t tell me you’re sorry.”

“But I am.”

“For what?”

“For Mrs. Vanguard. For the things she said. For,…”

“They were all true. Every single one of them. I was a bastard kid who didn’t wear shoes and whose mother couldn’t afford to get him a decent hair cut.”

“Heath,…”

The man finally made eye contact with the teenager. “Audra, that’s just the way it was. No amount of your sympathies or apologies will change the facts.”

“But,…”

Heath shot to his feet. He turned his back on his sister, but not before she saw the set of his jaw and the storm in his eyes. Audra hadn’t seen her father angry very often, but at that moment she saw Tom Barkley just as sure as if he was standing in front of her.

“Just go, Audra! Get back to the party.”

“I’d like you to come with me.”

“Why? So everyone can look and see if I’m wearin’ shoes?”

“Heath Barkley, that was totally uncalled for and you know it!”

Heath swiveled to face his sister. “That’s easy for you to say! You don’t know what it’s like to watch your mother count pennies at the kitchen table in the hopes that she has enough extra money to buy you a pair of shoes before cold weather sets in! You don’t know what it’s like to hear your mother cry at night because she’s not sure where the next meal is coming from! You don’t know what it’s like to hear your school mates call her a whore because Tom Barkley rode into town one night and left you as evidence of his visit! You don’t know what it’s like, Audra, and you, with your fancy dresses, and fancy parties, and enough shoes to fill a closet bigger than the bedroom I grew up in, never will!”

Audra’s hand flew to her mouth in an effort to stifle her sobs. Heath had never been cruel to her before, never tried to make her feel as though she was at fault for the conditions of his childhood. She thought he knew she was always the first one to come to his defense. She thought he knew how much it pained her to be aware of all he’d grown up without. She thought he knew how much she’d come to cherish him as ‘big brother’ in the few short months he’d been with them. She thought he knew she loved and respected him just as much as she loved and respected Jarrod, Nick, and Eugene.

But evidently he didn’t. He didn’t know any of those things, and even if he did his words were evidence of how little he cared. Audra wanted to shout that at him, wanted to tell him how ungrateful he was, but her tears prevented her from doing anything other than racing from the barn with blind hurt.

Heath turned, taking two steps toward his fleeing sister. He stopped as he saw green taffeta sail through the open barn door. He whirled around and slammed his fist into a wooden beam. He never noticed the pain throbbing from his hand. The pain in his heart overruled it.

*****

The party was in full swing when Silas approached Victoria. He’d waited until he could catch her alone then hurried to her side. Over the sound of the violins he said softly, “Mrs. Barkley, Miss Audra just ran in from outside. She flew up the backstairs like the house was on fire. She was crying so hard it’s a wonder she could see straight. I thought you’d want to know, ma’am.”

“Yes, Silas. Thank you.”

So as not to draw attention to herself by climbing the front staircase Victoria followed the black man into the kitchen. If any of the guests took notice they’d assume she was consulting with Silas on some issue having to do with the party.

Victoria lifted the hem of her midnight blue satin gown and trotted up the wooden stairs. She knocked when she came to Audra’s closed bedroom door.

“Audra? Honey, it’s Mother. Are you in there?”

Audra didn’t have to answer. Victoria could hear her weeping even through the thick oak barrier.

The woman opened the door to find her only daughter sitting on the edge of her bed. A steady stream of tears rolled down the girl’s face. Victoria moved to sit by her side.

“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”

“Noth,…nothing.”

“Audra, when I find you crying in your room on the night of a party I can hardly believe that nothing is wrong.” Victoria smoothed the hair that had fallen loose of the clasp at the back of Audra’s head. She had a strong suspicion she knew what the problem was. She’d seen Audra chase after Heath. That was one reason she herself hadn’t gone, and the reason she hadn’t sent Jarrod or Nick after him. As long as one member of the family was with Heath the rest of them could put on their party faces and try to undo the damage Constance Vanguard had inflicted. Besides, Victoria thought if anyone could offer Heath comfort it would be Audra. She thought Heath might talk more freely about his feelings to his sister as opposed to any of his brothers.

“Audra, what happened? Where’s Heath?”

“In,….in the barn.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“I,….I tried.”

“And?”

“He got angry. He wouldn’t accept my sympathies over what Mrs. Vanguard said. He,……he basically said I didn’t understand what it was like to grow up like he had to.”

The ever-practical Victoria arched an eyebrow. “Well, do you?”

“No. No, I don’t. But I wasn’t trying to patronize him, Mother. I just,…I just wanted him to know I care. I just wanted him to know that when people say mean, spiteful things to him it hurts me, too. That it hurts all of us.”

“I suspect that deep inside Heath does know that, sweetheart.”

“Then why won’t he let us reach out to him? Why does he pull away just when he needs us the most?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because being a part of family, having three brothers and a sister, is new to him. Maybe he doesn’t realize that when you’re a member of a family you share things that go far beyond the last piece of pie or conversation at the dinner table.”

“I only wanted to help him. I didn’t mean to make things worse.”

“I know you didn’t. And Heath knows that, too. But in Heath’s defense, you have to remember two things.”

“What?”

“First of all Constance insulted Heath’s mother. That was an unforgivable thing for her to do. And second of all she embarrassed him in front of our guests. That was also unforgivable. There’s nothing a man hates more than to be put on the spot by a woman. Especially a man like Heath.”

“Jarrod says Heath has a lot of pride.”

“He does. Whether he knows it or not he’s like your father in that respect. Of course Jarrod, Nick, and Eugene possess large doses of the Barkley pride, as well. But Heath,….well sometimes Heath reminds me very much of your father as a young man. The young man your father was when we first arrived in this valley with nothing but each other and Tom Barkley’s dream.”

Audra looked at her mother with respect shining through her tears. She reached out and pulled the tiny woman to her.

“Sometimes I forget how hard this has been on you. Heath is my brother, and Father’s son, but,….” the young woman allowed her sentence to trail off unfinished.

“But to me he’s just a young man I’ve invited to live in our home. A young man whose mother my husband had an affair with. Is that what you were going to say?”

Audra pulled back. The shock on her face at her mother’s blunt words was plain to read. “No. No, I,…..I,….I guess I don’t know what I was going to say.”
Victoria smiled as she used her thumbs to wipe at the last of Audra’s tears. “That’s all right, sweetheart. Because no matter how hard I try to show Heath there’s much more to it than that, I often get the impression that’s how he feels as well.”

“Will it ever change, Mother? Will things get better for him? For him and for you?”
“I don’t know. Only time will tell I suppose.”

“Now you sound like Jarrod.”

“Then you know where your brother gets his intelligence from.” Victoria pulled the smiling Audra to her feet. “Come on now. Wash your face and join the party.”
“What about Heath?”

“Based on what you’ve just told me I think Heath prefers to be alone tonight.”

“But should he be?”

“Probably not. But he’s made his choice, and if he’s as much like your father as I think he is there’s no use trying to convince him otherwise.”

Audra deferred to her mother’s wisdom. Not long after she arrived downstairs she saw her mother talking to Jarrod and Nick. She could tell Nick wanted to head to the barn, but she saw their mother grab his arm and then saw Jarrod mouth the words, “Leave him be, Nick.” It was Audra herself who filled Eugene in as to Heath’s whereabouts when they shared a dance later in the evening. The youngest Barkley had been away at college almost from the day Heath had arrived. At this point the two men were still strangers to each other.

“Do you think it will ever get easier?” Gene asked as he whirled his sister around the parlor floor.

Audra smiled in a soft, maternal sort of way that made Eugene think of their mother.

“Only time will tell, Gene,” the young woman said. “Only time will tell.”

*****

It was nine o’clock before the Barkleys gathered at the breakfast table Sunday morning. The last guest hadn’t left until two a.m. Any thoughts Victoria had of getting her household up in time for church ended at that moment.

Heath never had put in an appearance the night before, though Victoria heard him come in from the barn,….or wherever he had been, shortly after three. She had pondered getting out of bed and talking to him. If he had been one of her sons she would have. But in so many ways this boy was still a stranger to her. He seemed to hold himself at arms length with her. She got the impression he had no desire to get to know her, nor allow her to get to know him. At least he didn’t call her ma’am anymore. It had taken her weeks to convince him to set aside that form of address to instead call her Victoria. Not that he’d ever referred to her as such yet. Since she’d asked him to quit calling her ma’am he simply didn’t call her anything. Which meant unless she made eye contact with him he basically didn’t talk to her at all. Did he resent her that much for being Tom Barkley’s wife? She often wondered if he looked at her and imagined his mother in her place. And if he did, could she blame him for it? Wouldn’t any one of her own sons feel the same way if their positions were reversed with Heath’s?

Victoria’s mother had often been fond of saying life is full of complications. As Heath sat down at the breakfast table that morning silent and sullen, Victoria imagined her mother was looking down from heaven and saying, “What did I always tell you, Victoria? Life is full of trials and tribulations. The true measure of who we are comes each time adversity crosses our paths.”

Victoria could always count on her second son to put his foot in his mouth and this morning was no different than any other. In an effort to break the uncomfortable silence Nick said, “You missed a heck of a party last night, Heath.”

Heath’s eyes slid to Nick, then down to his plate. Victoria simply shook her head at Nick in exasperation while Jarrod and Gene rolled their eyes. Audra arrived on the heels of Nick’s faux pas. She said good morning to everyone by name as she took her seat, saving Heath until last.

The blond man barely acknowledged his sister. “Mornin’.”

The meal would have been painfully subdued had it not been for Jarrod and Eugene. Victoria could always count on the sunny personality of her oldest, and the enthusiastic personality of her youngest, to pull the family out of whatever gloom it was mired in.

Jarrod engaged Gene in college talk. The two men were fourteen and a half years apart in age, therefore the relationship they had was much more like father and son then that of brothers. Or at least it had been until Gene started school at Berkley. Now he and Jarrod had common ground. They both loved to read and expand their knowledge through studying. Despite their different fields, Jarrod’s being law and Gene’s being animal husbandry, they had a wealth of information to exchange. Victoria enjoyed watching the brotherly bond that was building between them while Nick could be counted on to interject his opinions freely, regardless of whether or not he really cared about the subject matter. The only two members of the family who seemed far removed from the table that morning were Audra and Heath. Victoria knew that for Audra, it was because her tender feelings had been hurt by her new brother. As far as Heath went,……well she was certain his silence had a lot to do with Mrs. Vanguard’s words, but knowing him he’d never confirm that to her, nor to any of them. Eventually the issue would be pushed aside, like so many other issues had been since Heath’s arrival.

Eugene had to make his leave right after breakfast. The noon train would be returning him to school. While Jarrod tied the young man’s suitcase to the back of the waiting buggy Eugene said his good-byes to the rest of his family. He accepted kisses from his mother and sister, hugged Nick, then moved awkwardly to Heath. He didn’t want to treat Heath differently than he treated Nick or Jarrod, yet he was far from sure how to take this often reticent big brother. He finally settled on holding out his hand. Heath shook it and nodded his goodbye.

Jarrod clapped Eugene on the back. “Come on, young man. We don’t want you to miss that train. After all, we’ve got a good deal of the Barkley money invested in your education.”

“And exactly how much money would that be, Jarrod?” Nick asked. “I’d like a full disclosure. You know, just to make certain I think the boy is worth all my hard work.”

Eugene whirled around and knocked Nick’s hat off his head. Before Nick could give chase Gene was in the buggy with Jarrod at his side.

The two men were laughing as they rode away. Heath got the feeling Jarrod and Gene enjoyed teaming up and ‘besting’ Nick whenever they could. He wondered if he’d ever feel comfortable enough with his siblings to be a part of their games, or if like in so many other aspects of his life, he was destined to always be the outsider.

*****

Spring came to the valley that April, and with it an increased work load for all. Every animal on the Barkley ranch seemed to be giving birth, in addition to that cattle needed to be driven to fresh pastures, calves were in need of branding, and a new string of wild horses were waiting to be broken. Nick and Heath worked from sun up to sun down, and though Nick was loath to admit it at times, he was beginning to take quite a shine to this new brother. Heath hadn’t returned to the house yet one evening when Nick was sharing a before-dinner-brandy with Jarrod in what had been their father’s office.

Nick perched a hip on a corner of the desk. “I’ll tell you one thing, that new brother of ours sure isn’t afraid of hard work. He can flat out do the labor of three men in one day’s time.”

Jarrod hid his smile behind the rim of his glass. Whether Heath knew it or not, the quickest way to earn Nick Barkley’s respect was to prove you were willing to give one hundred and ten percent toward keeping the ranch running.

“I imagine there’s been times when he’s had to do the labor of three men just to keep his belly full.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Nick agreed. “From what little we know he hasn’t had an easy life.”

“He’s still not overly talkative I take it?”

“Talkative? Jarrod, that man can go longer without saying one single word than anyone I know.”

Victoria entered the room wearing a smile. “I’d say that might be somewhat refreshing. After all, none of the rest of the Barkleys can be accused of holding their tongues for long. Perhaps our friends and neighbors are finding Heath a welcome change.”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself, Mother,” Jarrod said.

The woman moved to sit in a chair facing her sons.

Nick scowled. “I don’t know. There’s something wrong with a man who’s your brother, that on some days you can’t even get five words out of.”

Victoria smoothed her dress. “Maybe Heath simply isn’t comfortable offering us his thoughts at this time.”

“Maybe. But I still don’t like it. It…it’s downright sneaky if you ask me.”

“He may not say much, but he observes what’s going on around him better than any lawyer I’ve ever encountered.”
Nick looked at his older brother. “What do you mean?”

“You watch him sometime. Especially when we’re at the dinner table. He may not contribute to the conversation, but he’s taking it all in.”

“You mean like eavesdropping?” Nick asked. “See, just what I said. Sneaky.”

“No, Nick, that’s not what I mean. I mean absorbing. Getting to know each of us by the opinions we hold on a particular subject. By the way we interact with each other. By the way we tease or joke with one another. I think he still feels very out of place, and through his silence, is trying to figure out just where he belongs within our family structure.”

“That’s a very apt way of putting it, Jarrod,” Victoria said. “I’ve surmised the same myself.”

Nick stood and walked over to the table that held the brandy decanter. He refilled his glass, then held the decanter out to his brother. Jarrod shook his head no. Nick put the decanter back and walked over to sit in the chair next to the one his mother was occupying.

“I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wish he’d open up and give us the same opportunity. I still feel like I’m spending the day with a stranger more often than not. A mute stranger at that.”

“Be patient with him, Nick,” Victoria urged.

Jarrod laughed. “Nick? Patient? Mother, I think you have Nick mixed up with one of your other children.”

“Hey! I can be patient when I have to. And I have been patient. It’s just that I’m starting to lose my patience on some days.”

Victoria stepped in before her sons’ good natured bickering could continue.

“Nicholas, you need to keep in mind that Heath was raised as an only child. I’m sure finding himself smack in the middle of three brothers and one sister is challenging at best, difficult at worst. Add to that he left home at sixteen. By virtue of that he’s used to being his own man. It may take him a while to learn how to fit into a family. To learn how to be one of the owners of an operation the size of ours.”

Victoria fiddled with the cuff of her dress. “And then there’s me.”

“What about you?” Nick asked.

“I’m not his mother, yet I’m the mother of his brothers and sister. That must be as awkward for him as it is for me.”

Nick and Jarrod exchanged glances. This was the hardest part of the entire situation. Heath was their father’s child as result of his affair with Leah Thomson. They knew that had to break their mother’s heart, just as much as it broke their hearts at times.

Jarrod was the one who spoke first. “What can we do to help you and Heath get past the awkwardness, Mother?”

“There’s nothing you can do. There’s one thing I’d like to be to Heath, but until he’s ready to reciprocate that one thing there’s nothing any of us can do.”

“And just what thing is that?”

Victoria looked from Jarrod to Nick.

“His friend. I’d simply like to be his friend.”

*****

Rivers of perspiration trickled down Heath’s face and neck until they were absorbed in the cotton of his shirt. He lined up the board he was holding, leveling it with nothing more than the naked eye. He swung his hammer until the nail was embedded in the new wood.

The blond man straightened. He took a step back from his work while removing his hat. He wiped a sleeve across his forehead then walked to the shade of the big tree Charger was tied to. He unwrapped the strap of his canteen from the saddle horn and took a long drink of water. He held the canteen in front of Charger’s mouth and tipped it, allowing the horse to get a drink as well.

Heath screwed the canteen’s cap back on then secured it to his saddle once again. He fished into the right front pocket of his jeans and pulled out his watch. He flicked the lid to see it was fifteen minutes after two.

The man’s day had started early. He ate breakfast alone in the kitchen at five that morning, a full hour before Silas would began cooking biscuits and frying eggs for the rest of the family.

By five thirty Heath was driving a wagon out of the barn pulled by a team of horses with Charger tied to the back. Nick wanted him to start building a new fence on a section of pasture five miles from the Barkley house. Heath had gone to Stockton the previous day and purchased the necessary supplies for the job.

Though building a fence was at the very least, a two man project, Heath didn’t mind working by himself. It gave him a chance to think without having to tune out the senseless chatter so many people seemed to feel the need to fill a nice, comfortable silence with. Besides, there was only a handful of the hired men who had come to accept him, and even at that he didn’t consider any of them to be his friends. Oh, some of the older ones who had known Tom Barkley for years prior to his death like the ranch foreman, Phillip Mattson, were nice enough to Heath, but there wasn’t anyone near his own age he felt a kinship with other than Nick. Perhaps that would change in time as new hands were hired who would only know Heath as one of the Barkleys. Maybe under those circumstances he’d be given the respect an employee owes a good, honest, hard-working boss, as opposed to giving him grief and back talk like he generally got now each time he asked one of the men to do a task they’d jump to do for Nick.

Heath glanced at his watch one last time then returned it to his pocket. As he walked toward the fence a rising billow of dust caught his eye. He watched as the riders grew closer. Within seconds he recognized the three men as Barkley hired hands. They reined their horses to a halt in front of Heath.

Lyndall Barrett grinned down from his mount. It wasn’t the kind of grin one perceived as friendly, but rather the kind of grin that indicated to Heath he was once again going to be put to the test. He waited the man out, and when nothing was forthcoming bent to pick up his hammer.

“You just gonna sit up there all day, Barrett, or do you plan on givin’ me some help?”
Lyndall winked at the two young men with him. Neither were over twenty years old, and if forced to be honest would have to admit they had nothing against Heath. But it wasn’t Heath they bunked with each night so it was wiser to go along with Lyndall’s games and mean-spirited humor than it was to rebuke him. The man had a hot temper, and was down right unpredictable when he was drunk.

“Well now, I reckon we’ll just enjoy watchin’ you for a while there, Mister Barkley. After all, I expect you gotta work awful hard to earn your keep now that they got you livin’ in the big house. I’d hate to have to tell ole Nick you’re slackin’ off because of me.”

Heath eyed the man while reaching for a board. “Considering I’ve been out here since six this mornin’ I don’t think that’ll be a concern for either one of us. Besides, I wasn’t aware that it was your job to report much of anything to ole Nick as you phrased it. When I sit down to supper tonight at that fancy table in that nice big house, I’ll make sure I tell my brother you’re lookin’ to be named chief tattle tale.”

Barrett’s sidekicks couldn’t help but laugh at Heath’s barb. The man felt his cheeks burn red. He didn’t like having his words turned against him, especially not in front of an audience, and that’s just what this no account son of a bitch had done. Lyndall had worked for the Barkleys for three years now. He was certain he was just about to become Nick’s right hand man directly behind Phillip when this guy had shown up claiming to be Tom Barkley’s bastard kid. What proof the Barkleys had in that regard which caused them to welcome Heath into their home and slowly make him a full partner with Nick in the running of the ranch Lyndall didn’t know and he didn’t care. All he knew was this smart mouthed punk had been a stitch in his side since the first day he rode onto the ranch. Well, it was time the bastard was brought down a notch or two and was reminded of exactly where it was he came from.

“You sure are high and mighty now, aren’t you, boy? High and mighty ‘cause the Barkleys handed you the key to the whole damn store. Well maybe you’ve fooled Victoria Barkley with your quiet ways and your shy, school-boy-polite ‘yes, ma’am’s’, and ‘no, ma’am’s’, but there’s lots of us who know what you really are.”

“And just what would that be?”

Barrett sneered. “The bastard son of a whore washer woman. The bastard son of a whore who cleaned houses for rich people when she wasn’t layin’ in some rich man’s bed. The bastard son of a ,….”

Lyndall Barrett saw Heath swing the thick board through the air, but had no time to react to anything other than its impact. He screamed in pain as he flew from his horse. He was curled in a ball on his hands and knees, groaning and clutching his injured shoulder when Heath’s boot slammed into his rear end. Barrett somersaulted head over heels. He choked and coughed on a mouthful of dirt. He turned his face just enough to see Heath Barkley standing over him, the four foot long board still in his hands. The man shrunk back when Heath dropped to his knees beside him. He knocked Lyndall’s cowboy hat off and grabbed a healthy chunk of dark hair. He yanked the man’s head back until Lyndall was forced to meet his eyes.

“You can say what you want about me, Barrett. But don’t you ever, ever say anything about my mother again, you got it?”

When Barrett didn’t answer Heath jerked his head so hard Lyndall thought for sure he’d hear his neck snap.

“You got it?”

“Yeah,……..yeah, I got it.”

“That’s good, ‘cause I swear if it happens again I’ll kill you.”

The force of Heath’s release on Barrett’s hair had the man eating dirt once more. As he passed the two wide-eyed cowboys still sitting in their saddles Heath jerked a thumb.

“Help your friend up, then the three of you work on this fence till quittin’ time. One of you can bring the wagon back to the ranch when you call it a day.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Barkley.”

Heath would have smiled at the admiration he heard in the young men’s voices if he had come by it honestly. Trouble was, he hadn’t. All he’d really done to warrant their reverence was to scare them. If his mother was alive she’d tell him that was no way to earn respect.

As he mounted Charger and rode toward Stockton Heath had to admit his mother was right. Beating someone up wasn’t the ideal way to get them to follow you to hell and back, but as of late, he was discovering that sometimes it was the only way.

*****

Heath made it to the bank with just five minutes to spare prior to closing time. He’d barely touched any of the money he’d earned since coming to the Barkley ranch. He kept back enough to meet his weekly living expenses which, given the fact Victoria insist he reside in the mansion while paying no room and board, were very few. He then deposited the remainder of his pay in the savings account he’d opened. This was the first withdrawal he’d had reason to make in three months. He pocketed the cash the teller gave him, then exited the building as the bank president stood to lock the doors.

The blond man mounted Charger and headed south down main street. He bypassed the two places he was most likely to stop when he had reason to come to Stockton, the saloon and Jarrod’s office. The first he had no desire to enter because he didn’t have time to get involved in a poker game today. The second he had no desire to enter because he wasn’t in the mood for questions he had no intention of answering.

Thirty minutes later Heath’s business was taken care of. He swung himself onto Charger and rode toward the ranch.

*****

Victoria Barkley’s family began drifting into the house one by one shortly before the Grandfather clock chimed seven times. During the winter months her children knew supper was served promptly at six p.m. Spring through fall supper was served one hour later. If Nick or Heath couldn’t make it at those times on occasion because they were involved in some project somewhere on the ranch, or if Jarrod couldn’t make it because he’d gotten tied up at his law office, then Silas kept their supper warming in the stove. But by seven chimes tonight Victoria counted all her children present, save for Eugene who was away at school.

Small talk ensued regarding everyone’s day as the main course was passed around the long table. As Nick was taking his first bite of roast beef he turned his head to look at Heath who was seated to his right.

“How many days work you figure you got left on that fence?”

“Three, maybe four depending on when and if you can spare any of the hands to help out.”

“Funny thing there, boy. I did spare some of the hands to help you out, but I hear tell the minute they showed up you vanished lickity split.”

Heath kept his eyes on his plate and swallowed hard in an effort to control his rising temper. “I pulled outta the barn at five-thirty this morning, Nick, and worked right through the noon hour. I think I was entitled to run a few errands when the men showed up to take over for me.”

“They weren’t sent to take over for you. They were sent to work with you.”

“Well, now,” Heath drawled, “I guess Barrett didn’t explain it to me in quite that fashion.”

“You know, boy, I could tear that smart tongue of yours right outta your head with one good yank if I had a mind to.”

Heath turned and met his brother face to face. “You think so, huh?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Before the childish verbal sparing could go any longer Victoria stepped in.

“If you two don’t stop this nonsense I have half a mind to send both of you to your rooms. The purpose of gathering at this table each evening is so we can enjoy coming together as a family. This is not the time or place to discuss business if you can’t go about it in a civilized manner.”

Heath had enough respect for Victoria Barkley to bow to her wishes and keep his thoughts to himself. Nick had a great deal of respect for his mother as well, but he wasn’t an easy man to silence when he was bound and determined to say what was on his mind.

“All I want to know is where the hell he high tailed it to when he should have been working.”

“Nicholas,….” Victoria warned while Jarrod and Audra exchanged amused glances at the way their mother was still occasionally forced to stifle Nick’s impulsive ways.

“Look, you don’t have to step in and defend him every time I bring some issue up we need to discuss. If he’s gonna be a partner in running this ranch then he’d better learn to do things my way.”

Jarrod couldn’t help but laugh, an action that earned him a glare from Nick.

“What’s so funny?”

“Using the word ‘partner’, while in the next breath saying, ‘learn to do things my way,’ is a bit of a contrast, brother Nick. What generally makes a successful partnership work is the celebration of two different personalities coming together and being able to share diverse ideas, opinions, and ways of getting the job done.”

“Look, all I’m saying is,….”

Heath dropped his fork to his plate. He snatched his napkin off his lap, threw it on the table, and stood.

“You’re so anxious to hear what I have to say, then fine, I’ll give you an earful. I started the day at five-thirty and worked nine hours without stopping for more than a few sips of water. Then I went into Stockton on some personal errands that are none of your business. Then I came back here and worked another three hours until it was time to come in for supper. If that’s not enough of my sweat for you, or if that constitutes not doing things your way, then so be it. I don’t have to ask for your goddamn permission every time I wanna leave this ranch! I don’t have to work with hired hands who give me nothing but grief because I’m the bastard kid! And most of all I’m not your boy so quit calling me that!”

Heath turned on one heel and stomped from the room. With his jaw clenched so tightly it looked like he’d pop a blood vessel in his neck Nick flung down his own napkin and started to stand. Jarrod snared his brother’s arm.

“Nick, sit down.”

“Jarrod, he’s just asking for another walloping with my fists like he got the first night he was here. Now let me go,…”

“Nicholas,” Victoria ordered, “do as Jarrod says and sit down.

Nick’s jaw worked in silently fury before he slowly sank back to his seat. He pushed his plate aside and brought his elbows to the table. He rested his chin on his fists for a long moment, then turned to his mother.

“I’m going to ask you again, why are you always the first one to come to his defense?”

“Maybe he needs someone to come to his defense.”

“Oh, Mother, he’s a grown man for crimity sake. He,…”

“Nick, you and Heath are bound to have your clashes in the coming months for a lot of reasons. You had an enormous amount of love and respect for your father. I know that by acknowledging Heath as your brother you’re also being forced to acknowledge your father’s imperfections.”

“Mother, I,….”

Victoria held up her hand. It was long past time the unspoken things regarding her late husband’s indiscretions were said. “But you have no right to take your anger, the anger you’re feeling toward your father, out on Heath. He doesn’t deserve that, Nick. It’s not what Tom Barkley would want you to do. I believe when you calm down you’ll realize that Heath did have the right to go to town this afternoon and take care of whatever personal business he had to attend to. He didn’t allow himself any privilege you wouldn’t have taken. However; he should have let you know he was going to be gone for a little while. And that’s a perfect example of how the two of you need to learn to meet in the middle on a variety of issues. As Jarrod said, a successful partnership is dependent upon two different personalities learning to work together. You and Heath both have your share of strengths and talents. Learn to use those strengths and talents for the benefit of this ranch, and for the benefit of forming a bond as brothers with the last name of Barkley.”

Nick sat clenching and unclenching his fists. When he spoke he looked his mother in the eye. “Are you planning to have this same little discussion with Heath?”

“I am.”

“Good. Because he needs to hear it.”

The man stood without saying another word. Seconds later the front door slammed. No one had to wonder where Nick was going. When he was angry he sought refuge in the outdoors. He might mend a saddle, put a new horse through its paces, or take a ride on Cocoa and check out the orange groves. Whatever he chose to do would generally guarantee he was mulling over his current frustrations and would return to the house in a better mood from the one he was in when he left.

*****

Victoria was wise in the way of the Barkley men and their tempers. She allowed Heath a cooling off period of an hour, then went in search of him. She wasn’t surprised to find him on the small porch that opened from a set of French doors off the parlor. Because of the heavy curtains that hung at the doors it was a secluded area and one not used by the rest of her family. From the porch you could see the barn and corral that sat next to it. Not a particularly stunning view unless you understand the heart of a rancher.

Heath sat with one hip on the railing, his back leaning against a thick granite pillar. Three long legged colts were prancing around the corral. The last rays of the setting sun streaked the sky pale pink, as if to make a perfect backdrop for the frolicking baby horses.

Heath heard the doors open but didn’t turn. He was no in mood for Audra’s sympathies, Jarrod’s words of wisdom, or more of Nick’s temper. Why he never thought his visitor might be Victoria he didn’t know. Maybe because, like Nick, he often found himself wondering why she was so quick to come to his defense when he and Nick butted heads. One would think she’d speak up for her own son long before she’d be willing to speak up on behalf of the man who was proof of her husband’s affair with another woman.

Victoria placed her palms next to Heath’s knee on the railing. She leaned forward, her eyes following his to the foals.

“You know, without realizing it you’ve come to what was one of your father’s favorite spots.”

Heath didn’t make a reply, but then Victoria didn’t expect that he would. The subject of Tom Barkley was a touchy one at best for Heath. Victoria hoped that someday she could give both herself and Heath peace where that was concerned, but whether such peace would ever materialize she wasn’t certain.

“When we built this house I told Tom this was the silliest place for a porch I could think of. He just laughed and told me it was the best place he could think of. He loved this ranch. He loved the animals. He loved to grow things from tomatoes in the family garden to oranges in acres of groves.”

Victoria looked at Heath in profile. He never turned or took his eyes off the colts. The sun was almost gone when Heath broke the silence. As often was the case, what he said was the last thing Victoria was expecting to hear. He made no comment about his father or the things Victoria had shared about the man, nor did he bring up his anger at Nick.

“I’m sorry for ruining everyone’s supper. I apologize for swearing in front of you and Audra. I shouldn’t have done that.”

Victoria smiled. “Heath, your sister and I have been the only two women on a ranch full of men for many years now. There’s hardly anything you can say we haven’t heard before.”

“Nonetheless, you were right. The supper table was no place for the discussion Nick and I had. We should have waited until later when we were both outside.”

“And done what? Beat the tar out of each other?”

Heath simply shrugged a shoulder.

“If I remember correctly nothing was resolved the last time you two went at one other in such a manner.”

“No, I don’t suppose it was.”

“But you’d still resort to that if given the chance.”

“If he threw the first punch, yes.”

Victoria shook her head in disgust. “You thick headed men, I ought to take you both by the scruff of the neck and dunk you in a horse trough until you promise to play nice with one another. Heath, I’m going to tell you what I told your brother after you left the table tonight.”

Heath did nothing other than cock a questioning eyebrow.

“You had every right to go to Stockton this afternoon and take care of whatever business you needed to. You didn’t give yourself any privilege Nick hasn’t seen fit to take on occasion. But in Nick’s defense, you should have let him know you were going to be away from the ranch for a while. As I said to your brother, that’s a perfect example of how the two of you need to learn to meet in the middle on many issues. Jarrod was right, a successful partnership is dependent upon two different personalities learning to work together. You and Nick possess an abundance of differing strengths and talents. That’s far from detrimental if you both learn how to combine the good things within yourselves for the benefit of this ranch, and the benefit of your relationship as brothers.”

The only response Heath gave was a tight nod of his head.

Victoria accepted the nonverbal communication while placing a hand on Heath’s arm. “You didn’t have a bite of supper. Go in the kitchen, make yourself a sandwich, and top it off with a piece of my apple pie and a cold glass of milk.”

A series of fleeting expressions crossed Heath’s face Victoria identified as everything from nostalgia, to sorrow, to anger. He abruptly stood, moving toward the interior of the house.

“I’m not hungry. Goodnight, ma’am.”

Before Victoria could say goodnight in return Heath was gone. Long after darkness settled over the ranch she stood staring in the direction of the barn. She wondered what she had said that had caused Heath to return to addressing her as ma’am. She shook her head as she wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the cool night air. She looked up at the stars blanketing the sky.

Oh, Lord, will I ever really understand this young man? All I ask is that one day Heath and I grow to become friends. Is that possible, or does he carry too many wounds deep inside he doesn’t know how to allow his stepmother to help him heal?

Stepmother, it was a word Victoria had hated for as long as she could remember. The stepmother in every fairy tale she’d ever been read, or ever read to her children, was always a cruel, evil woman, ugly on both the inside and out. She didn’t want to think of herself as Heath’s stepmother. She didn’t want him to think of her as such either. But the other word, the one that brought forth loving connotations, – mother, was one she was beginning to realize would never be used between the two of them.

Victoria had only known this young man three months. He was the child of her husband’s liaison with another woman, therefore the thought of him never calling her mother, or smiling tenderly when she called him son, shouldn’t bring tears to her eyes. But for some reason Victoria couldn’t explain, it did.

*****

Victoria was sitting at the dining room table adding figures up in a ledger book when Nick returned home at nine-thirty that night. She didn’t have to be in the foyer to picture him removing his gloves, gun belt and hat, and laying all three on the marble table. She heard his spurs jingling as he walked through the parlor. She didn’t look up from her work until she felt his kiss on her right temple. He pulled a chair out and sat next to her.

Victoria pushed the ledger aside. “Did you have a good ride?”

“How do you know I went for a ride?”

“Oh, mother’s intuition I guess you’d call it. I wasn’t aware of any saddles that needed mending, or any horses that needed your attention.”

Nick shot his mother a puzzled look but didn’t question her further.

“Huh,……look, Mother, I’m sorry for the blow-up with Heath at the table tonight. I shouldn’t have swore in front of you and Audra, and I shouldn’t have ruined everyone’s supper. You were right, it wasn’t the time for me and Heath to have a disagreement.”

Victoria couldn’t help but chuckle.

“What are you laughing about?”

“You. Heath. The two of you and the stubborn pride you both possess. Which you inherited from your father I might add. Heath offered me the same apology earlier this evening almost word for word. Really, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the two of you on some days. I told Heath I just might dunk both your heads in a horse trough until you promise to get along.”

Nick had cooled down enough to see the humor, and irony, in his mother’s words. He smiled and shook his head.

“I just can’t figure him out on some days, Mother. I know I shouldn’t have jumped all over him because he went to town this afternoon. He was right when he said he’d already put in a full day of work. It’s just that he’s so,……secretive, so private about everything. I guess,……well I guess I’m just not used to that in a man I call brother.”

“I don’t think he’s secretive, Nick. Or at least not in the sense that he’s doing anything wrong or underhanded when he chooses not to tell us about his personal affairs, or chooses not to share a thought or opinion with us. But I do agree with you when you say Heath is a very private man. Maybe in time, when he grows more comfortable with us, some of that aspect of his personality will be shed. However; it may be a basic part of who he is and something you’ll never be able to change about him.”

“I suppose.”

“I also think he’s shy, which may attribute to some of his reserved nature.”

“Shy?”

“I know that’s a foreign word to you, Nicholas Barkley, but yes, shy. As in self-conscious, bashful, unsure of himself in some situations.”

“I don’t know,” Nick wrinkled his nose with disbelief. “He seems pretty sure of himself to me. He wasn’t shy the night he stormed in here demanding his place in this family.”

“Oh, he’s a fighter for what he believes in no doubt. He’s not afraid to stand up for himself, he’s proven that time and time again. But he doesn’t like to be put on the spot either. He doesn’t like to be made to contribute to a conversation before he’s ready.”

“Boy, you’re tellin’ me. And that really puts a burr under my saddle on some days.”

Victoria smiled. “If you want to know the truth, I think it’s kind of cute. So does your sister.”

“Cute?”

“Yes. And so, I would venture to guess, do half the women in this valley who have been making eyes at Heath since the day he arrived here.”

Nick shook his head. “As long as I live I’ll never be able to figure you women out.”

“Believe me, son, we work hard at keeping it that way.”
“Don’t I know it.”

Victoria patted Nick’s hand. “Come on, let’s go in the kitchen and share a piece of pie.”

Nick leaned his chair back on two legs. He looked into the parlor then beyond to the foyer and stairway. “Where is everybody?”

“Jarrod and Audra are in the study playing cards. Heath went up to bed about an hour ago.”

“Oh. I was hoping to see him yet tonight.”

“You can knock on his door. If he’s awake he’ll probably tell you to come in.”

“No, no. That’s okay. We can talk in the morning.” The cowboy shifted his weight, returning his chair to all four legs. “I’m not gonna say that Heath is always right and I’m always wrong.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to because I’m certain that’s not true.”

“But,…..well, you are right about one thing you said tonight in regard to my anger.”

“What was that?”

“I’ve been directing it at the wrong person. When Heath is on the receiving end of my temper it should be for the right reasons as opposed to being for the wrong ones. I,……I got that straightened out on my ride.”

Victoria reached over and squeezed Nick’s hand. He didn’t have to say any more for her to know he had visited his father’s grave that evening. What he said to Tom Barkley, or what feelings he aired, she’d probably never know. But if whatever transpired helped improve his relationship with Heath then that was all the knowledge she needed.

Nick stood. He placed his hands on his mother’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. Quietly he said, “You’re a remarkable woman and I love you very much. No man has the right to hurt you. Not even my father. I wish he was here to explain it to us. I wish he was here to tell you how sorry he is for the pain he’s caused you. I wish he was here to tell Heath how sorry he is for the pain he’s caused him. I wish,……well I just wish I could make it better for all of us.”

Victoria laid a light hand on Nick’s arm. Since Tom’s death Jarrod had become the male head of the household in many ways, but Nick,…..Nick would always be their protector. The one who couldn’t stand to see his mother or his siblings hurt, be that hurt physical or emotional. The Barkley who would always be the first to confront those who would dare to raise a hand to any of his family members.

“I know you wish you could make it better, sweetheart. And as your mother I wish the same thing. I have faith that in time the hurt will be less for all of us. I have faith there will come a day when it will seem like Heath has always been with us. I have faith there will come a day when he will be a member of this family for more years than he hasn’t.”

“Do you really think that will happen? Do you really think he’ll stay that long?”

Victoria looked up into her son’s face. “Would you prefer he doesn’t?”

“To be honest I haven’t thought that far ahead. But with what little we know about his background, the drifting he’s done since he was a kid of barely sixteen,……to tell you the truth I just can’t imagine him being satisfied to stay in one place for long.”

“Oh, I can, Nick. I can. As a matter of fact I think Heath has been wanting to stay in one place for many years now, but has spent a good number of days warring with himself over that acknowledgment. ”

“Is this another one of those mother’s intuition things I have no hope of ever understanding?”

“Yes, son. It’s another one of those mother’s intuition things.”

“Well in that case I won’t waste my time worrying about it, I’ll simply take your word for it.” Nick took his mother by the hand and pulled her to her feet. “Now come on. Let’s go get some of that pie before Heath cons Silas into packing it in his saddle bags for tomorrow’s lunch.”

Victoria smiled as she allowed her middle son to lead her to the kitchen. Nick had always been her unpredictable child. One minute he could make her so angry she was ready to sell him to the gypsies as she used to say to Tom, the next minute he could have her laughing so hard tears ran down her cheeks. Tonight she enjoyed the quiet conversation they shared in the kitchen as they ate the sweet pie and washed it down with cold milk. She knew the past three months had been tough on Nick. She tried not to think of what the next three months might bring.

*****

Nick caught up with Heath as the blond man was stepping out of his bedroom at six the next morning.

“Heath, glad to see you slept in.”

Heath looked at his brother, uncertain if Nick was being sarcastic, funny, or truly chiding him for what Nick perceived to be laziness.

For the first time since Heath’s arrival that Nick could recall he was actually able to decipher what his new brother was thinking.

Well, maybe that’s one step in the right direction.

Nick clapped Heath on the back. “Don’t look so serious. I was only kidding you.”

Not knowing what else to do, Heath simply nodded.

Nick finished buttoning his shirt as the two men descended the staircase side by side. “What do you have planned for today?”

“Workin’ on that fence.”

“That’s fine. I’ll send Barrett, Galloway, and Hansen out to help you in the afternoon like I did yesterday.”

“Don’t bother. I’d rather work by myself.”

“Well now, that’s no way to get to know anyone.”

“I don’t need to get to know anyone.”

“Heath,….”

Heath sped his footsteps up and headed toward the kitchen. Just like supper was served at seven p.m., breakfast was served at seven a.m. every day expect Sunday when the morning meal was put on the table at eight. If you wanted to eat before seven during the work week then it was every man for himself which was just fine with Heath.

Nick took a deep breath and followed his brother. He latched onto Heath’s arm, forcing the blond to face him. He could see Silas through the kitchen window. The black man was entering the hen house which meant Nick had only a few short minutes to take advantage of his time alone with his brother.

“Heath, I wanna apologize for last night at the supper table. I had no right to jump all over you just because you had to run a couple errands.”

Heath met Nick’s eyes but did no more than nod, which drove the dark headed man to distraction.

“I swear, you are the hardest person to have a conversation with I have ever encountered in all my days on this earth.”

Heath slathered jam on two pieces of bread. “I didn’t know we were havin’ a conversation.”

“You didn’t know we were having a conversation! I just apologized to you for goodness sake!”

“And I nodded my head.”

“So what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Apology accepted.”

“And you couldn’t have said that?”

“I thought I did.”

Nick silently counted to ten while kneading his forehead. It was much too early in the morning for the start of a tension headache.

“Let’s move on. I’ve got some things to do around here this morning, then I’ll ride out after lunch and work with you on that fence myself.”

“That’s fine.” With one hand Heath picked up the wrapped sandwiches and piece of pie Silas had setting on the sideboard for him, with the other he scooped up the bread he had just coated with raspberry jam. “See ya’ later.”

The kitchen door shut before Nick got out his, “Yeah, see ya’ later.”

The cowboy shook his head with frustration. This was one time he was sure his mother was wrong. There was no way Heath would be with them for the long haul. One day they’d wake up, find his bank account emptied, and find him gone. Nick was so certain of that he’d bet money on it.

He can frustrate me to death, he can irritate the hell out of me, but still I call him brother without even giving it a second thought. And yet someday I know he’ll disappear without saying goodbye. So what the heck is the point? Why should I make an effort to be his friend?

Nick Barkley knew the answer to that question even if he didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Because the man he had loved and respected for as long as he could remember, his father, would have wanted him to.

*****

As the calendar turned from April to May the work load on the Barkley ranch increased. Though warm weather and sunshine usually brought a smile to Nick Barkley’s face, the cowboy was in an ornery mood. A violent spring storm had damaged a good number of fruit trees, a new string of horses had broken out of the corral and taken four days to round up, and to top it off the family received a telegram from Eugene saying he wasn’t going to come home for the summer, but rather was staying at Berkley where he’d been given the opportunity to study with a visiting professor. It wasn’t that Nick begrudged Eugene his education, but he’d been counting on the extra pair of hands for the summer, and the fact he could put Gene in charge of various work crews just like he did Heath, their foreman Phillip, and a small assortment of other trusted men.

It had been a long, hot day of chasing strays when Nick and Heath returned to the ranch at six-thirty one evening in mid-May. The hired men were staggering in from their various job assignments as well. Unless Nick said differently, quitting time was tied to the seasons of the year just like the Barkley supper hour was, which meant right now the hands were working from seven in the morning until seven at night.

The buzz of conversation echoed around Heath as he led Charger to his stall. He unsaddled the horse, paying little attention to the jokes and teasing words the hired men tossed at one another. Even Nick wasn’t immune to their fun and could always be counted on to give as good as he got. Tonight was no exception. Nick became the center of attention the minute he entered the barn with Coco. To a large degree Heath admired that trait about his older brother. Nick was so at ease with the men who worked for him. Somehow he was able to mix being looked upon as ‘one of the guys’ while still commanding the necessary respect it took to boss a crew that sometimes swelled to numbers as high as seventy-five depending on the time of year.

As Heath silently observed his brother he was unaware that what he took to be a natural-born talent was actually a quality Nick had learned at Tom Barkley’s knee. The patriarch of the Barkley ranch had been well known for the fair and humane way he treated those he employed. Despite his growing wealth over the passing years Tom was never reluctant to get his own hands dirty or put in a full day of work under the hot sun. He’d always demanded the same of his children, making them realize at an early age that no one gets something for nothing, not even a Barkley.

But of course these were things Heath didn’t know because he preferred not to talk about the man who had left a young, unwed woman to raise a little boy all by herself in a rough mining town. Sometimes when Heath looked at Nick the hurt he felt was overwhelming. It was no different than the hurt he sometimes felt when he observed Jarrod’s gentle wit and never-ending charm, or Eugene’s overflowing enthusiasm and abundant joy, as though the world had been made just for his exploration, or Audra’s soft heart and kind soul which didn’t allow her to pass a stray kitten without bringing it home, or pass a child looking forlornly into the window of a candy store without giving him money and telling him to buy himself a treat. At those times the observer in Heath would wonder what made him different from these four people who were children of Tom Barkley just as much as he was. Why wasn’t he good enough for his father? Why had he been abandoned by the man? How could the man sleep at night knowing he had a child being raised alone by a woman who could barely make ends meet?

Over the years Heath had learned that those were thoughts best not dwelled on. Tonight was no exception as he watched Nick point a finger at Barrett and tease, “Lyndall, my friend, you might as well not even bother collectin’ your pay at the end of the week, ‘cause come Saturday night you’ll be turnin’ it over to me when I wipe you out two minutes after the first poker hand is dealt.”

Heath paid no attention to Barrett’s reply as he curried Charger. He looked up when Nick leaned over the horse’s stall.

“About finished here?”

“Yeah, just about.”

“I’ll wait for you then.”

Heath nodded. Within a minute’s time he was ready to join Nick in heading toward the house for supper. He ducked beneath Charger’s neck and stepped from the stall. As he walked beside his brother down the barn aisle he said, “I need to be gone a couple days next week. I should be back by Thursday.”

Nick stopped as though an invisible hand had slammed itself into his chest. The laughter that had been in his voice seconds earlier was gone. “What did you say?”

Heath immediately went on the defensive. There was nothing he hated worse than being talked to like an errant schoolboy. Maybe Nick could get away with using that tone of voice on Audra and Eugene, but Heath would be damned if the man would use it on him.

“You heard me.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I did. But no, you’re not going anywhere next week.”

“Nick, I’m not askin’ your permission.”

“Well maybe you should be.”

Heath paid no attention to the silence that suddenly blanketed the barn. Though Phillip did his best to wave the men out of the building in an effort to give the brothers their privacy, almost everyone ignored him. There was nothing more enjoyable to several of them, Lyndall Barrett included, than watching Nick take a chunk out of this new Barkley’s hide.

“And maybe I’m not gonna,” Heath shot back. “A few weeks ago your mother said I should give you the courtesy of lettin’ you know if I’m going to be away from the ranch. So now I’m givin’ you that courtesy, take it or leave it.”

Nick looked around, seeing the eyes trained on him and his brother. He turned his back on the men while putting a conciliatory arm across Heath’s shoulders. “Look, Heath, I know we all need a break from the daily grind every so often, but now just isn’t the time for a vacation.”

“I never said anything about a vacation. I just said I have to be away for a couple of days.”

“And we will go away for a couple of days, I promise. I know it seems like a long time off, but come each November I always spend a week in San Francisco with Jarrod. I guess you could say it’s my way of taking a well-earned break from the ranch, and Jarrod’s way of taking a well-earned break from his office. This year you’ll join us. Jarrod and I have already talked about it and we want you to come along.”

“Thanks, but if it’s all the same to you I can just trade that time for the time I wanna take next week.”

Nick didn’t even attempt to quell his rising temper as his arm dropped from Heath’s side. “Well it’s not all the same to me unless you can give me one good reason as to why you need to leave the ranch at the start of our busiest time of the year!”

Heath made no reply which infuriated Nick even more. The blond man simply resumed walking for the barn door.

Nick snared Heath by the upper arm and spun him around. “Look, boy, you don’t seem to be gettin’ it through your thick skull as to how things work around here. Now I don’t much give a damn if you’ve got an appointment with President Ulysses S. Grant himself, or if you’ve simply got an itch in your pants you’re hopin’ to have scratched by some pretty bar room…….”

Heath’s fist flew back so fast Nick didn’t have time to defend himself. The impact of his brother’s knuckles on his cheekbone brought Nick off his feet. He flew across the barn aisle, his momentum finally stopped by a thick stall door. When Nick’s vision cleared he looked up to see Heath standing over him.

“I’m not like my father,” the blond man said. “I don’t sweet talk some young woman into doing things for me while making promises I have no intention of keeping.”

And with that Heath turned and walked away.

“Why you,…..” Nick struggled to get to his feet. Before he could pounce on his sibling from behind Phillip was clutching his biceps for all the older man was worth.

“Nick, stop it. Stop it now! Your daddy would be ashamed of the way you two go at each other! Now just knock it off.”

If it had been any other of the hired men talking like that to Nick they, too, would have been on the receiving end of his fists. But Phillip Mattson had been the ranch foreman for as long as Nick could remember. The first year after Tom Barkley died Nick had often turned to Phillip for guidance. Each and every time Phillip had willingly dispensed sound advice, while at the same time reassuring the twenty-two-year-old Nick he was quite capable of filling his father’s shoes when it came to running the ranch.

The fight slowly ebbed from Nick. When he stood straight and unclenched his fists Phillip released him. Nick waited until he knew Heath would be in the house, then followed the path his brother had taken.

The men watched their boss exit the barn. When he was out of earshot conversation swelled about what they’d just observed. Lyndall Barrett smiled.

“Mark my words, fellas, the Barkley bastard won’t be here two months from now. One of these days ole Nick is gonna send that boy on his way with a swift kick to his ass.”

Phillip pointed a stern finger at Barrett. “You keep your trap shut. What goes on between Nick and Heath is none of your business, just like it’s no concern to any of the rest of you either. I worked for Tom Barkley for seventeen years, and have worked the past six for Nick, which means there’s none of you who’s been on this ranch as long as I have. The Barkleys are good people, – every single one of ‘em, Heath included. But no, they’re not perfect any more than we are. You leave those two boys alone and let them work their problems out for themselves.” Phillip’s gaze fell back on Lyndall as if he knew something no one else did. “They don’t need any of you fanning the fires. You keep your nose where it belongs, Barrett, or I’ll have you mucking stalls at half your current wages before you can so much as whistle Dixie.”

With that Phillip headed for his own house. Some of the older men, the ones who had also worked for Tom Barkley, exchanged solemn glances and nodded their heads in agreement with Phillip’s words. Some of the younger ones, like Lyndall Barrett, snickered at the prospect of watching the Barkley brothers go at each other again in the near future.

As he finished tending his horse Barrett turned to Jeb Galloway. Jeb was one of the young men with Lyndall the day he’d been sent to help Heath build the fence. Barrett kept his voice low as he vowed, “One way or the other, Jeb, the bastard goes.”

Though Jeb was beginning to like and respect Heath as a boss, he knew better than to voice that to Lyndall. Therefore the nineteen-year-old did nothing more than nod as head as though he was in total agreement with the mischief Barrett had up his sleeve.

*****

Victoria stayed out of whatever the current fuss was Nick and Heath were engaged in. Neither of them discussed what they were at odds about in front of her so she decided it was best to let them work it out on their own. Jarrod and Audra were kept in the dark about why the two men were barely speaking to one another as well. But in that respect Jarrod was in agreement with his mother. As he said to her when they were alone in the house on Saturday evening, “The only way Nick and Heath will learn to run this ranch together is by learning to work through these occasional spats they have without our intervention.” Jarrod smiled as he added, “Unless of course, they ask for our intervention, which I’m willing to bet they’re both too stubborn to do.”

“I’m willing to bet that as well, son. And if nothing else I must confess I am forced to laugh on occasion as I watch this drama unfold.”

“Why is that?”

“Do you recall that from the time Nick was, oh,……four or five years old, all he did was beg me and your father for a little brother to play with?”

“Vaguely.”

“The night Audra was born he cried as though his heart was breaking. He was so certain she was going to be that baby brother he had long awaited. Then when Eugene arrived and I pointed out to Nick he finally got the little brother he’d been wishing for he simply shrugged his shoulders and said quite practically, ‘Mother, I’m eleven years old. By the time Eugene’s ready to play I’ll be a grown man.’ Which, in essence, was quite true. So now Nick has that little brother close to his age that he’s always wanted, but the funny thing is, he doesn’t know quite what to make of him.”

“No, I suppose he doesn’t. But then in Nick’s defense it’s a bit different having that playmate come along when you’re twenty-eight years old, as opposed to when you’re four years old.” Without realizing he was voicing an inner thought, Jarrod said quietly, “I often wonder how different Heath would be if he’d grown up with us.”

“Do you want him to be different?”

Jarrod looked at his mother. “Pardon?”

“You just said you wonder how different Heath would be if he’d grown up here, and I asked if you want him to be different.”

Jarrod thought a moment, then smiled. “You know, I’d have to say I don’t. Like Nick is so often fond of telling us, Heath’s quiet. Maybe a little too quiet sometimes. But like you’ve said, his silence is rather refreshing when compared to the rest of the Barkleys. A person has to work hard to get to know Heath, but to tell you the truth I’m rather enjoying the process. He’s a good man. A very good man. I’m proud to call him my brother.”

Victoria nodded, saying nothing more than, “I believe he’s a good man, too, Jarrod. One worthy of the pride you feel for him.

*****

By Monday morning nothing further had been said by Heath about his plans to be gone. Nick kept his satisfaction over that to himself as he watched Heath lasso a calf for branding.

At least the boy is beginning to learn who has the final say around here. It was one-thirty on Tuesday afternoon when Heath rode into the ranch yard. He’d left the house at six o’clock that morning to ride fence lines. He’d been on and off Charger more times than he could count, repairing boards damaged by the winter storms. He finished his work in the pasture Nick wanted to use for young heifers, and now felt he could attend to his own business with a clear conscience. Heath doubted Nick would see it that way, but then he didn’t really care. He’d done his best to reach a compromise with Nick by saying he wouldn’t partake in the November vacation, but rather stay at the ranch and work. If his brother couldn’t meet him halfway on the issue then so be it.

Heath put Charger in his stall and removed his saddle. He fed and watered the animal, gave him a pat on the neck and said, “See ya’ in a couple days, big guy.”

The cowboy took two other horses out of their stalls and hitched them to a wagon. He walked out of the barn and into the tool shed, totally unaware his every move was being observed from the hay mow.

Heath put a shovel, pick ax, hammer, nails, saw and four boards in the wagon’s bed. He then walked over to a stack of bags. He chose one that was a mixture of sand and gravel. He shouldered it, bent at the knees to grab a bucket and carried both items to the wagon. The last thing he did was lay a tarp over his supplies.

The blond man headed for the mansion. He hadn’t necessarily planned to make his leave when the house was empty, but then he couldn’t say he was disappointed in the fact that no one was around to question him. He’d given little thought to telling any of them where he was going or why. But then he was certain none of his new family members would want to partake in what he needed to do anyway.

Heath entered the silent house and took the stairs two at a time. Every Tuesday Audra spent the day at the Mission Orphanage helping in whatever way she could. Silas always went with her in order to assist in unloading supplies Audra brought from the ranch, or carrying purchases that were made at Krueger’s General Store. Mrs. Barkley, as Heath still forced his mind to refer to the family matriarch, went calling on Miss Cobbs each Tuesday. The woman was an elderly, home-bound neighbor who had been Stockton’s first school teacher. She’d taught all the Barkley children until ill health forced her to retire just as Eugene was entering his teen years. Heath had quickly learned these weekly rituals of the Barkley women were rarely parted from.

The cowboy made quick work of washing up, exchanging his dirty clothes for clean ones, and grabbing his wallet and bank book from his dresser drawer. He stopped in the kitchen last. He spent the next ten minutes packing the food and provisions he needed, which was just enough time for Lyndall Barrett to pack a little something of his own in Heath’s wagon bed.

*****

By five o’clock that evening Heath was two hours north of Stockton. At that exact time Victoria Barkley walked out the front door of the Congregational Church. She and Tom had been instrumental in starting the church not long after they’d arrived in the valley, and in later years a large donation from them had helped fund the raising of this building. Victoria shook hands with the minister.

“Thank you for taking the time to see me, Pastor, and for agreeing to visit Miss Cobbs. Though I know Sylvia is a diehard Methodist, she’ll be thrilled to have you stop by her home once a week despite the protests she’s likely to voice when you first arrive.”

William Dyer laughed. He was new to the area, having ministered at the church for just ten months. As long as he lived Pastor Dyer would never forget it was the Barkley family who first made him and his wife feel welcome when he’d arrived to replace the former minister who had served the congregation for fifteen years. It wasn’t easy for a young man of only twenty-six, and right out of the seminary, to fill the shoes of a popular man like Pastor Langhoff had been.

“Perhaps Miss Cobbs affection for the Methodists will give us good reason to campaign for the resurrection of a Methodist church in Stockton.”

Victoria smiled and teased, “Really, Pastor, I thought the only church you were to have concern for was your own.”

“Unfortunately too many people think that, Mrs. Barkley, instead of realizing that through our many differences we can create strength, rather than dwell in adversity.”

“You make an excellent point, William. And I know of two Barkleys who would benefit from hearing that said in this Sunday’s sermon.”

The pastor didn’t question Victoria as to whom she was referring to. He assumed by now everyone in Stockton knew of Heath’s sudden appearance on the Barkley ranch and the claim he made in regards to his parentage. If the minister had to hazard a guess, he’d say Heath was butting heads with the formidable Nick. But William supposed that was to be expected given the circumstances.

“That’s not a bad idea, Mrs. Barkley. Not a bad idea at all. I’ll see what I can get on paper along those lines between now and Sunday.” The young man gave Victoria an uncertain smile. “If I’m skirting the edge of what’s none of my business then forgive me but,……….”

“But what, William?”

“Well,….I just want to say that I admire what you’ve done for Heath, ma’am. You’re an outstanding example of a good Christian woman.”

Victoria gave her pastor a soft smile in return. She reached out and patted his arm. “No, William, all I am is a woman, plain and simple. Just a woman who sees a heartbroken young man who feels as though he has no one he can turn to and grieve with.”

“Grieve with?”

“For the loss of his mother just seven short months ago. I surmise Heath feels the subject of his mother is not a welcome one in our house, which is far from the truth. Unfortunately, finding a way to let Heath know that is proving to be an insurmountable challenge.”

“If anyone can slay that particular dragon, Mrs. Barkley, it’s you.”

Victoria gave the pastor’s arm a final pat. “I wish I possessed your faith, William. I wish I possessed your faith.”

*****

Victoria rode by Jarrod’s office without stopping. She knew he had been in court all day and was no doubt busy catching up on things his secretary had left on his desk. The woman brought her horse, Misty Girl, to a stop in front of Krueger’s General Store. Victoria had a small list of items Sylvia requested she bring her next Tuesday.

It didn’t take long for Victoria to purchase the black thread, packet of needles, three muslin dish cloths, quarter pound of peppermints, and jar of Carolina mud. She smiled at this last item. Imagine someone paying money for something you could dig up out of your own backyard. But Sylvia swore by the weekly facials she gave herself with the muck, and Victoria had admit for a woman almost seventy years old Sylvia possessed hardly a wrinkle on her still pretty face.

As Victoria exited the store her mind was focused on getting home to the ranch after her long day away. She paid little attention to the man who was traveling toward her on the sidewalk. It wasn’t until he tipped his hat and said, “Good evening, Mrs. Barkley,” that she looked up.

Victoria smiled at the redheaded twenty year old who had been a schoolmate of Audra’s and Gene’s.

Is it just my perception, or is everyone in this town getting younger?

“Why hello, Bobby. How are you?”

Robert Humbolt Jr. hadn’t gone by Bobby in a good many years now, but the last person he’d correct on that fact was Victoria Barkley.

“I’m fine, ma’am. Thank you for asking.”

“How’s your mother?”

“She’s doing as well as can be expected I’d say. Father’s death came as a shock to all of us as you know.”

“Yes, I’m sure it did,” Victoria acknowledged. Bob Humbolt had owned the only monument business in Stockton, or as some people referred to it, the gravestone store. Bobby had worked alongside his father since he was a boy and had taken over the business after the man’s sudden passing from a heart attack in March.

Victoria smiled at Bobby as she made her leave. “You take care now. And give your mother my best.”

“I will. Oh, and Mrs. Barkley?”
Victoria turned, looking up at the young man. “Yes?”
“Tell Heath if there’s anything wrong with that stone I made for him once he has it in place all he needs to do is come talk to me about it. I would have set it for him myself, but he insisted on doing it.”

“Stone?”

“Yes. Headstone. One of the nicest I’ve ever crafted if I do say so myself. But then Heath didn’t want to spare any expense. He even paid me a sizable bonus this afternoon for finishing the stone in the time he requested. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but he wouldn’t take the money back.”

Victoria had a strong suspicion she knew the answer to her next question before she asked it. “Bobby, do you know who this stone was for?”

“No, ma’am. Or at least not if you’re asking me if Heath told me how he ws acquainted with the woman. But the name he had me carve on it was Leah Thomson.”

“I see. Thank you, Bobby.”

The young man wasn’t certain why Mrs. Barkley felt the need to thank him, but before he could make that inquiry of her she had stepped back into Krueger’s store.

****

Victoria had no intention of wasting time by riding out to the ranch. She purchased the provisions she’d need for a trip lasting three days. Mr. Krueger gave her a funny look when she bought a Colt .45 and a box of ammunition, but then it was doubtful the pudgy asthmatic who hailed from Boston had ever spent a night camping out beneath the stars in the California wilderness.

The woman packed everything in her saddlebags then headed for Jarrod’s office. Neither Jarrod or his secretary were present, which might be for the best as far as Victoria was concerned. It would cause less of a delay to simply leave her son a note.

Victoria found a pencil and piece of paper then sat at Jarrod’s desk.

Children;

Had to leave town for a few days. Must help an old friend. Will be back by Friday evening.

Love,

Mother

Victoria left her son’s office as quickly as she’d entered. She was glad she’d had the foresight to wear her grey slacks, riding boots, and a checkered oxford shirt today regardless of what Sylvia Cobbs thought of a woman who dressed like a cowboy. Victoria mounted Misty Girl with practiced ease and headed north.

*****

Nick arrived at the ranch hot and tired a few minutes past four. He climbed off Coco and walked over to the pump. He untied the bandanna from around his neck with one hand while the other pushed the pump’s handle up and down. He held the blue cloth under the cold water, then used it to wipe the dust and grime from his face. As he looked up he caught sight of Lyndall Barrett and Jeb Galloway in the hay mow. Lyndall gave him a big wave.

“Hey, Nick!”

“Hey, Lyndall. Jeb.”

“We got all that hay stacked like you asked us to,” Barrett said as Nick led Coco toward the barn. “We’re just finishing up.”

“Great. Good job.”

Nick took note of Charger in his stall. He paused as he passed the ladder that led to the mow. He tipped his head and shouted, “Lyndall, you seen my brother?”

“Heath?”

“Yeah!”

“About two hours ago I reckon!”

“Where is he now?”

Lyndall laid on his stomach in the mow so he could look down the opening and into Nick’s face.

“He loaded a wagon and left around two o’clock I guess it was.”

“Loaded a wagon? With what?”

“Some tools, a bedroll, two canteens a’ water, and some food from the kitchen. Looked like he planned to be gone a while.”

“Why that,…….” Nick didn’t finish his sentence before turning for the house. “Thanks, Lyndall. Thanks a lot.”

The man smiled as he watched his boss run across the ranch yard. “No problem, Nick. No problem whatsoever.”

*****

Nick ran into the house.

“Silas! Audra! Mother!”

He raced up the stairs, still yelling, “Silas! Audra! Mother!”

For the first time in the four months Heath had been with them Nick entered the bedroom Victoria had assigned him. He rummaged through the bureau drawers, pawed through the nightstand drawer, and stuck his hands in the pockets of every coat, shirt, jacket and pair of pants hanging in the closet.

I knew it! I knew he’d drain his bank account and high tail it outta here the first time he didn’t get his way. Well that’s just fine with me. He can go if he wants to, and I guess the money he took is rightfully his, but I’ll be damned if he’ll just disappear without thanking my mother for the kindness she’s shown him. I’m gonna find him and bring him back here if I have to track him to the ends of this earth. And after he tells Victoria Barkley how grateful he is for all she’s given him, I’ll be letting him know that he’d better never show his face around here again. You don’t come on this ranch and stake your claim as a Barkley, only to pull it up when the going gets tough.

Nick dashed to his room. He changed his shirt and knotted a clean bandanna around his neck. He secured two sets of clothes inside his bedroll then charged down the stairs and into the study. He grabbed paper from a desk drawer and left a hastily scrawled note for Jarrod. He ran to the kitchen, threw some food together, then headed out the door. He nodded his thanks to Lyndall for having readied Coco for another long ride by wiping him down and making sure he got a long drink of fresh water. As Nick galloped away from the ranch he never thought to wonder how Lyndall knew he’d be leaving again.

*****

Jarrod arrived home a few minutes before seven p.m. with his mother’s note in hand. Audra greeted him at the door with a kiss.

“Silas says dinner will be ready in five minutes. Have you seen Mother?”

Jarrod did nothing other than hand his sister the note. Audra read it, then looked at her brother.

“Who’s the old friend Mother’s helping?”

“I was hoping you could tell me the same thing.”

“I don’t know anything about it. The last time I saw her was right after breakfast when I was leaving for the orphanage and she was leaving to visit Miss Cobbs.”

“Silas!” Jarrod shouted. “Silas!”

The black man entered from the kitchen. “Yes, Mr. Jarrod?”

“Did my mother say anything to you about being gone for a few days?”

“No, Mr. Jarrod. She didn’t say nothing to me about that. But there’s a note for you on the desk in the study from Mr. Nick.”

Jarrod and Audra entered the study together. Jarrod read Nick’s note through once to himself, then read it aloud to his sister.

“Went to find Heath and bring him back. I’ll be damned if he’s leaving here without saying thank you.”

“Bring Heath back from where?” Audra questioned. “And saying thank you for what?”

Jarrod shook his head with puzzlement. “Little sister, I’m stumped. I do believe that, with the exception of you and me, the whole family has taken leave of their senses.”

“So what do we do now?”

“Wait for everyone to return from wherever it is they’ve disappeared to I suppose.”

“Do you think they’re in trouble?”

“By they, just exactly who do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Mother. Nick. Heath. Any of them or all of them I guess.”

Jarrod kissed his sister on the temple as he led her to the dining room. “No, I don’t think anyone is in trouble. Nick and Heath are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and Mother is perfectly capable of taking care of a lot of people.”

Audra shot her brother a skeptical look as they sat down to the mounds of food that had originally been intended to feed five people, two of them hungry ranchers.

“I hope you’re right about that, Jarrod.”

Jarrod kept his confusion, and his concern, to himself as he filled his plate and replied, “There’s nothing to worry about, honey. Now eat up before your supper gets cold.”

*****

Heath made camp late on Tuesday night, but only long enough to get four hours of sleep. At two o’clock in the morning he hitched the horses to the wagon and pushed on toward Strawberry. There was plenty of light overhead from the full moon, but he didn’t need the moon’s guidance to lead him down a path he could have traveled with his eyes closed. He glanced up at the night sky. The absence of any low lying clouds indicated to the man the morning would be free of rain. For that Heath was glad. He didn’t have time to be delayed by a storm. What he had to accomplish needed to be done today, the twenty-second of May. He couldn’t give his mother much else now, but at least he could give her this.

*****

Victoria rose with the first light of dawn. She started a pot of coffee brewing, then made her way to the river she’d camped beside to wash up. By the time she felt clean the coffee was done. A slice of bread and a peach were Victoria’s breakfast. The food was hardly what Silas would have served her had she been home, but that mattered little to the Barkley matriarch. Long before the ranch had been successful to the point it could employ a large number of hired men, Victoria had been on her share of cattle drives. She was an old hand at sleeping on the ground while eating dried beef and beans for the morning meal. Fresh fruit and bread were heaven compared to those days.

It was six-thirty when Victoria rode away from her campsite. If she encountered no problems she should reach Strawberry by early afternoon.

*****

It wasn’t difficult for Nick Barkley to track the wagon Heath was driving. The man spent much of Tuesday evening fuming over this trip he was being forced to take on account of his so-called brother. It took until the hot temperatures of the day began to recede for Nick to view the current situation with something resembling calm rationale.

Why the heck would he take a wagon if he doesn’t intend to come back to the ranch? That just doesn’t make any sense. Plus there’s no way he would have left Charger behind. He can’t make himself any kind of a living working as a cowhand without Charger. And tools. Barrett said Heath packed tools in the wagon. What does he need tools for?

Shortly before the sun went down Nick realized where the wagon tracks were leading. He pulled back on Coco’s reins and sat in the saddle lost in thought until darkness fell around him. As the crickets began to sing Nick dismounted and made camp for the night. He wouldn’t sleep very long, he wanted to get an early start. He was more curious now than he was angry.

An hour later Nick sat staring into the camp fire, his hands wrapped around his coffee cup.

What could Heath be going back to that rundown old ghost town of Strawberry for? Who in the world could be left there that he’s in such a snit to see?

Nick climbed into his bedroll a few minutes later, knowing the only way to get answers to his questions was to head for Strawberry long before light kissed the eastern sky.

*****

Heath tossed his hat aside and sat down on the end of the wagon. With the tools he’d brought from the ranch it hadn’t taken him long to form a base for the tombstone. Now all he had to was set it in place.

With the money he’d earned since his arrival at the Barkley ranch he could have purchased a stone much larger and grander than he had, but Heath knew his mother would have simply turned up her nose and laughed at what she would have referred to as a “foolish expense on someone who has all the rewards they need at the hand of their Lord.” Therefore, for two reasons he chose a three foot high stone that Bob Humboldt had sculpted into a cross. The first reason being the stone’s shape reminded Heath of his mother’s favorite hymn, The Old Rugged Cross. The second reason being, it wasn’t too large or heavy for Heath to handle himself. He didn’t want anyone doing this job for him, nor did he want anyone’s help.

The blond man had ridden into Strawberry at ten that morning. The town was even more desolate than he recalled it being just seven short months earlier when he’d buried his mother. He stopped to see Rachel and Hannah, but neither one of them was home. Because Strawberry no longer contained a store of any kind he assumed they must have traveled to Hartford, a town fifteen miles away where anyone now living in Strawberry had to go for groceries and other supplies.

The only businesses Heath passed that weren’t boarded up were the saloon, and the hotel run by his Uncle Matt and Aunt Martha. The young man saw no sign of his relatives about town, nor did he stop to pay them a visit. There was no love lost between Heath and Matt Thomson. The man had been downright cruel to Heath’s mother throughout most of her life, and had made no secret over his feelings of disdain regarding the circumstances of Heath’s birth. Matt and Martha’s thirty year marriage had produced no children. Matt could have been the father Heath never had while growing up, but instead the man chose to turn his back on his only sibling and her child, judging Leah as though Matt himself had no sins that could be brought to light. That last thought provoked a bitter irony within the blond cowboy. For reasons Heath’s mother would never reveal, his uncle had gone by the alias of Matthew Simmons for more years than he hadn’t.

Matt Thomson hadn’t been present at his sister’s burial the previous October and Heath would be damned if the man would be in the graveyard today. It might be un-Christian-like to not even ask Matt if he wanted to be part of giving Leah proper honor, but Heath didn’t care. He had planned on Hannah and Rachel being here with him, however. Hannah was good at quoting passages from the Bible and saying prayers as if God was standing right in front of her. But Hannah and Rachel were evidently gone for the day, and Heath had promised Nick he’d be back at the ranch on Thursday, so this was just something he’d have to do alone.

The young man set his canteen aside and stood. He tossed back the tarp and stared down at the engraving on the stone.

No matter, he assured himself with a bravado he wasn’t feeling deep inside as his eyes flicked over the words Bob had etched in the smooth grey slate.

Leah Thomson 1830 – 1875 Beloved Mother

I’ve done a lot of hard things alone in my life, and I’ll probably do a lot of hard things alone again before my time on earth is over.

With the same care he’d use to lift an infant, Heath hoisted the stone to his chest and shoulder. He staggered a moment under its weight. He was surprised to feel tears well up in his eyes. He blinked the water away, then walked toward the spot where his mother lay.

*****

Nick watched his brother from beneath the shade of a distant tree. As Heath moved toward the grave Nick knew it would be difficult for him to set the heavy stone down without help. The dark headed man plunked the heels of his boots into Coco’s sides. The horse moved forward at a steady trot. When Nick was just outside the graveyard he dismounted Coco and looped his reins to around a rotting fence post. With silent steps he approached Heath from behind.

At first Heath had no idea whose hands were gingerly helping him lower the stone onto its base. If he turned around and saw his Uncle Matt he vowed he’d deck the man the moment the stone was safely on the ground. But then he took note of the black leather gloves. He wasn’t sure if he was any less angry at the thought of having been followed by Nick, but for the moment he had enough common sense to appreciate the help. No words passed between the brothers as the stone was eased into place upon the damp cement. Nick stood back to eye their handiwork, pleased that the marker stood straight and tall on their first try.

Heath remained on one knee. He looked up, squinting to avoid the bright sun.

“What are you doin’ here?”

“Came to give you a hand.”

“Well I don’t need a hand.”

“I’d argue with you on that point, but over the past four months I’ve learned that you’re too stubborn for your own good on a lot of days. I’ll take this to be one of those days and pass up the opportunity to flap my jaws in useless conversation.”

Heath turned back to face his mother’s stone. “Just go, Nick. Go back to the ranch. I’ll be there by tomorrow afternoon just like I told you last week. If you wanna dock my pay for these two days then go ahead. If you want me to work extra hours to make up for the time I missed then that’s fine with me, too. If you want me to pay you rent for the wagon and tools I used, then I will.”

“Pay me rent! Oh for crying out loud, you don’t need to pay me rent! You have just as much right to borrow whatever you need from the ranch as I do! For God’s sake, Heath, sometimes,…..” Nick allowed his voice to trail off there. He’d be damned if he’d stand in a hot graveyard and argue with his brother.

“Just go!” Heath shouted. “Just leave me alone!”

Nick shook his head and sighed. “Fine. I’ll go. See you tomorrow afternoon then?”

Without taking his eyes off the gray cross Heath replied tightly, “Yes. You’ll see me tomorrow afternoon.”

Nick stood over his sibling a few seconds longer. When Heath said no more the man felt he had no choice but to respect his brother’s wishes and leave.

Right before Nick mounted Coco he turned around to give Heath one last look. His younger brother was now on both knees in front of his mother’s grave, and although Nick couldn’t hear any sounds, he could tell by the way Heath’s body was shaking he was sobbing his heart out.

Nick Barkley wouldn’t deny he was a complex man. Probably as complex of a man as Heath Barkley was. Nick could raise the roof off the house with his temper, but when those he loved were hurting he could be as gentle as an old mama bear.

Nick stepped back through the leaning gates of the cemetary. Without asking permission he dropped to Heath’s side. He wrapped his arms around his brother and held on for all he was worth. He wouldn’t allow the distraught Heath to escape his hold no matter how hard the blond man struggled.

“Don’t, Heath.” Nick whispered. “Don’t push me away. You don’t have to grieve alone. You have a family now to turn to when the load gets a little too heavy for you to carry by yourself.”

Heath didn’t say anything in response, but that fact didn’t surprise Nick. Then again, maybe Heath’s response came in the way he leaned more heavily into his brother’s chest and allowed his tears to be soaked up by the cotton of Nick’s shirt.

Victoria Barkley sat atop Misty Girl just outside the graveyard. Nick caught sight of her, but Victoria shook her head at him before he could alert Heath to her presence. A silent communication passed between them.

Help him in whatever way you can, Nick. He’s turned to you, his brother, for comfort. Help him see that the tears he sheds for his mother doesn’t make him weak or less of a man in your eyes. Help him understand we all have a right to hurt when someone we love dies.

Victoria watched as Nick’s arms tightened around Heath’s shoulders. What he was murmuring to his brother she was too far away to hear, but she had no doubt he was giving Heath permission to grieve for the woman he’d called mother.

*****

When Heath had gained control of his emotions Nick released him and took several steps back. He instinctively knew the blond man was now ready to have some private time with Leah Thomson.

Five minutes later Heath stood. He brushed at the tears still clinging to his lashes and passed Nick without saying a word. Heath briefly glanced at Victoria, but refused to make eye contact. If he had any thoughts or questions regarding her presence he chose not to voice them.

Nick looked at his mother and shrugged as Heath climbed on the wagon’s seat. He walked over to Coco and mounted. Nick and his mother waited until Heath turned the wagon toward home before following its tracks in the dirt.

Victoria would have liked to take this opportunity to nose around Strawberry. Surely there were some people left in this old town that knew Heath as child. Some people who had been friends of his mother’s who might be able to answer some questions for her. Just once she’d heard Heath mention an Aunt Rachel and some woman by the name of Hannah. Was Aunt Rachel a sister to Leah Thomson she wondered? And if so, what could this Aunt Rachel tell her about Tom’s relationship with Leah? And who was Hannah? Victoria got the impression she’d been a friend of Leah’s, which meant she also might be able to shed some light on what had transpired between Tom and Leah.

But Victoria could see that now wasn’t the time to make inquiries of Heath regarding these two women. That was best left for another day. She could always return to Strawberry in the near future. Perhaps in a few weeks Heath would be willing to make the trip with her so that they could both get some answers to the questions that kept them awake nights.

If Nick hadn’t been along Victoria swore Heath would have kept driving through the night until he reached the ranch. He hadn’t said a word since they’d left the graveyard. He’d sat on the wagon seat as still as a stone, never turning his head right or left, barely moving his hands as he steered the horses south.

When they came to the rushing river Victoria had camped by the previous evening Nick said, “Heath, hold up there. It’ll be dark in an hour. Let’s stop here for the night.”

Heath kept driving, though both Victoria and Nick knew he wasn’t being defiant. His mind was so far away from them he’d completely blocked their presence out. Nick finally leaned forward on Coco and grabbed the reins just below Heath’s hands.

“Whoa,” he said to the team while pulling back. “Whoa there.”

Heath didn’t protest his brother’s actions. He simply put the brake on and climbed down from the seat. He was at Victoria’s side as she dismounted Misty Girl. He didn’t say a word to her as he began to remove the saddle, saddle bags, and canteens from the horse. Even Victoria’s, “Thank you, Heath,” went without a response.

Nick unhitched the team from the wagon and led them by their harnesses to the river while Heath unsaddled Coco. He followed his brother to the water with Coco and Misty Girl in tow.

Nick tossed his hat on the river bank. He waded into the water until it reached his knees, cupped his hands, and poured the clear, cold liquid over his head. He repeated this action while the horses drank. Heath looped Coco’s and Misty Girl’s reins around the branches of a low bush. He stood there for a moment making certain both horses could reach the river. When he was satisfied they could drink their fill he dropped his hat next to Nick’s and started crossing the short distance to the campsite. Heath watched as Victoria flung the tarp back from the wagon’s bed. He knew his stepmother well enough by now to guess she was taking inventory of his supplies in an effort to see what she could put together for supper.

The woman’s back was to Heath when he saw it. The snake raised its flat head, poised to strike. The thought flashed through Heath’s mind that it was odd he couldn’t hear the warning sound of the rattles, but he had no time to wonder why.

“Mother, look out!”

Heath flew through the air, his body slamming Victoria square between the shoulder blades. Later he would recall hearing her startled gasp and hoping he hadn’t hurt her. Then he would recall the pain as the snake’s fangs sunk deep into the flesh of his right forearm as though it had been anxiously awaiting the chance to unleash its pent-up fury. Then he would recall Victoria scrambling to her feet and running away from him. He heard her shout, “Nick, a snake! A snake!” and in a surreal sort of way, while the snake hung on for all it was worth, Heath thought it was funny to discover that Victoria Barkley was actually afraid of something. Up until now he thought the tiny matriarch of the Barkley clan feared nothing. Not man, not beast, not even an ornery old rattlesnake with a nasty temper.

Before Heath could grab the snake behind its hinged jaws in an effort to get it to break its hold he heard the boom of a Colt .45. Blood and gore spewed his shirt and face, and for a moment he wondered why Nick had shot him. Several seconds went by before he realized no bullet had passed through him and that the snake was no longer attached to his arm. He heard the horses scream, then felt the ground quake beneath his body as they bolted for the woods. A part of Heath’s brain told him to get to his feet and run after them, but he was so weak and woozy that another part of his brain said the effort wouldn’t get him farther than two feet before he collapsed.

By the time Victoria and Nick were at Heath’s side he was feeling like he’d downed a gallon jug of whiskey. He gave his brother a lopsided smile.

“Boy howdy, Nick,……..remind me never……..never to put money against you in a shootin’ contest. I bet,…………bet you could knock a fly……a fly off a bull’s tail at five hundred paces.”

Without bothering to assess the bite Nick jerked his bandanna from his neck. “That wasn’t me, it was Mother.” Nick grabbed Heath’s right shirt sleeve, popped the button from the cuff and ripped the material all the way up to Heath’s shoulder. The distinct puncture mark of the snake’s fangs could be seen in the top of Heath’s arm halfway between his wrist and elbow.

Nick tied his bandanna tight around Heath’s biceps. He knew his window of opportunity was small. He couldn’t allow the makeshift tourniquet to cut off Heath’s circulation for long, but neither could he allow the snake’s venom to travel to Heath’s heart.

While supporting Heath’s upper back with one hand, Nick dug into the right front pocket of his pants with the other. He pulled out his knife and handed it to Victoria.

“We don’t have time to build a fire and sterilize that, but do the best you can to get it clean.”

Victoria nodded and ran for her saddle bags. She retrieved one of the new dishcloths she’d purchased for Sylvia. She raced to the river’s edge, opened the pocket knife’s blade, dunked it in the water, then wiped it off with the cloth. She repeated her actions four times before running back to Heath’s side. She passed the knife across his body. “Here.”

Nick took the tool while grabbing a hold of Heath’s arm just above the bite that was already beginning to swell and turn red.

“Heath, I’m sorry. This is gonna hurt like hell but I have to,…”

Before Nick could finish his sentence Heath interrupted with a firm command. “Just do it.”

Nick’s eyes held his brother’s for a moment, then he nodded. Victoria reached for Heath’s left hand but he yanked it from her grasp.

“No! I might hurt you.”

“He’s right, Mother,” Nick confirmed. “He could break your hand.”

Victoria made no reply to either man, though she moved closer to Heath and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She pressed his head into her collarbone then looked at Nick.

“Hurry. Get it done with.”

Nick couldn’t help but think, That’s easy for you two to say. He tightened his grip on Heath’s arm and pressed his brother’s palm into the dirt. “You hold your arm straight and tight just like I’ve got it. Can you do that for me?”
Beads of perspiration dotted Heath’s forehead. “Yeah, I can do it.”

Without saying another word Nick placed one hard soled boot atop Heath’s hand. He had no time to contemplate what he was about to do. His brother’s life depended on quick action.

With the steady hand of a surgeon Nick gripped the handle of the knife. He slashed the sharp blade deep and long, making a four inch gash directly on top of the bite. He ignored the blood that spurted from the cut, just like he ignored the way Heath arched his back and stifled a cry of pain. Nick pressed his foot down harder onto Heath’s hand in effort to keep him from moving the arm. The knife cut again, this time crossing the gash Nick had just made.

Heath’s upper body sagged into Victoria. His ragged breaths came warm and harsh against the bare skin of her throat. She wiped the sweat from his face with her hands while Nick squeezed the flesh around the snake bite to encourage the open wound to bleed. When Heath felt Nick’s mouth on his arm he struggled to break Victoria’s hold.

“Don’t! Don’t do that!”

Nick looked up. “Heath, I gotta get this poison outta here.”

“No! Don’t! You could swallow it! If you’ve got a cut in your mouth it can,….”

“I don’t have a cut in my mouth, and I’m not gonna swallow it. Don’t worry, I’m an old hand at this. Why hardly a year passes that someone around the Barkley ranch doesn’t get bitten by a snake.”

Heath was fairly certain Nick was exaggerating when he said he was an old hand at sucking the venom from snake bites, but he supposed it was possible Nick had done this once or twice in his lifetime for some cowhand who’d had the misfortune of surprising a rattler.

Victoria was fairly certain Nick was exaggerating as well, but she put on a brave face. “Heath, Nick knows what he’s doing. Now please, sweetheart, just stay quiet and let him finish.”

Heath bowed to his stepmother’s wishes, in part because Nick was still standing on his hand, and in part because he was far too weak and sick to argue with both Victoria and Nick Barkley at the same time.

The slightest pressure in the area of the bite brought Heath off the ground. He tried to remain motionless in Victoria’s arms, but each time Nick squeezed his arm, or sucked blood from the bite, or probed the flesh around the wound, Heath was arching his back in an effort to get away from the pain.

When Nick’s ministrations stopped ten minutes later Heath was barely conscious. He was vaguely aware of Nick and Victoria getting him to his feet, but he wasn’t upright for long. Nick caught Heath’s weight before the blond man could hit the ground. Victoria drew Heath’s left arm over her shoulder in an effort to give Nick what help she could. Between them they got the blond to the river bank. The toes of Heath’s boots left a well-defined trail in the dust as he was dragged toward the water.

Nick indicated to a wide, elderly oak tree. “You sit there, Mother. I’m gonna lean Heath against you unless you think his weight will be too much for you.”

“No. I’ll be fine.” Victoria sat against the tree like Nick requested. She held out her arms as Nick eased the unconscious Heath to a semi-reclining position at her side. The back of Heath’s head came to rest against the woman’s shoulder.

Nick got on his knees and loosened the tourniquet. “We’ll have to take this off soon, but for now we’re going to try something.”

“What?”

Nick took Heath’s injured arm and plunged it into the frigid water of the rushing river. “Between the cold water and the tourniquet we might be able to slow the blood flow way down. Short of cutting him again, I can’t get anymore blood out of that wound. Let’s leave him like this while I get you two settled.”

“Settled?”

“I’m going to have to look for the horses. If I can’t find at least one of them then I’ll have no choice but to set out on foot for the ranch. There’s not much between here and there. If I’m lucky I’ll run across someone on horseback or pulling a wagon. If I’m not,……well let’s just hope I am and leave it at that.”

Victoria’s eyes rested on Heath a moment, then traveled to her middle son.

“Nick, do you think he’ll,………”

“Mother, I don’t know,” he replied when Victoria was unable to finish her question. Nick reached out a gentle hand and laid it on his mother’s cheek. “He’s tough as they come. If anyone has a chance of being bitten by a rattler and living to tell the story it’s Heath.” Nick stood. “You stay right there and keep that arm of his in the water while I gather some firewood. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”

Heath remained unconscious while Nick was gone. Forty minutes later he was just beginning to come around as Nick brought the last of the provisions to the water’s edge. The campfire was burning, Victoria’s saddle bags and gun were at hand, canteens had been filled with fresh water, and the bedrolls untied.

The setting sun caused the air to carry a chill. Heath felt the drop in temperature even more because of the way Victoria was still holding his arm in the river. He shivered and felt the woman pull him closer in an effort to share her body heat.

Nick knelt by his brother’s side. “It’s about time you woke from your nap. Now how about letting me take a look at that arm while I still have enough light to see by.”

Heath nodded, but when he tried to lift the arm it fell back into the water as though the snake had drained his strength. The dark headed man exchanged a concerned glance with his mother. He shifted his eyes back to Heath and gave him a teasing smile.

“You’re just gonna make me do all the work here, aren’t ya’.”

Heath’s words sounded strangely distant and lethargic, like he was talking from behind one of those thick velvet draperies that hung at the windows in the Barkley parlor.

“You deserve it. What with all that,….that bossin’ and yellin’,……you’re always doin’ in my ear as though I’m,…..deaf,…..deaf as a stone.”

“As far as Nick is concerned everyone is deaf as a stone, dear,” Victoria quipped in an effort to keep the mood light.

Nick studied Heath’s arm, giving a preoccupied, “Hey now, you two,” at the teasing.

Heath’s head rolled against Victoria’s shoulder. She could feel the sweat from his hair soak into her shirt. She strained to see what Nick was observing. “How’s it look?”
“Okay, I guess. The swelling’s gone down a little, and it’s not as red anymore. But he’s gonna have a heck of a bruise by tomorrow.”

Victoria couldn’t help but think that if all Heath walked away with was a heck of bruise by the time this ordeal came to an end then someone up above was watching out for him.

Nick’s mouth puckered with indecision. “Maybe we should just leave it in the water while I’m gone.”

Victoria thought a moment. “I’ve got a better idea. Isn’t a poultice made of mud supposed to draw snake venom out?”

“It’s what the Indians swear by. Or so I’ve heard anyway.”

“Look in my saddle bags. No, not that one, the other one. There should be a sack filled with things I bought for Sylvia Cobbs at the general store yesterday. Take the jar of mud out and warm some water in the coffee pot.”

“Jar of mud?”

“I’ll explain another time. Just do it, Nick.”

Nick did as his mother requested.

“Don’t get the water too hot,” Victoria cautioned. “We need to be able to use it without waiting for it to cool.”

While the water warmed over the fire Nick rinsed out the bucket Heath had used to mix the cement base for his mother’s gravestone. Victoria eased out from behind Heath and rested him against the tree. She helped Nick mix the poultice in the bucket, then liberally applied it to Heath’s arm before removing Nick’s bandanna tourniquet. When the doctoring was done she picked up a canteen, uncapped it, and held the opening to his lips. He took four long swallows before sagging back against the tree. Nick grabbed a blanket and covered his brother. He knelt by Heath’s side, placing his hand on the blond’s shoulder.

“Heath, I’m gonna be gone a while. I need to look around and see if I can spot one of the horses.”

“It’s getting dark.”

“I know, but Coco will come to me if he hears my voice. If I manage to find the team I’ll bring them back here, hitch up the wagon, and we’ll have you to the ranch in no time. If I don’t find the team then,…..well, I’ll just have to see which of the horses I run across before I decide what to do after that.”

“Be careful, Nick.”

Nick smiled. “Boy, talk about the pot calling the kettle black.”
Heath smiled in return at the teasing, then sobered. “Nick,…..I’m,…..I’m sorry about all this.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Nick squeezed Heath’s shoulder. “Helping one another is what being brothers is all about. You got that?”

Heath’s reply was drawn out and slow. Nick wasn’t sure if that was because of his weakened condition, or if it was because, for the first time in Heath’s life, he understood what Nick’s words meant. By the way Heath gripped his hand Nick was willing to bet it was the latter.

“Yeah. Yeah, Nick, I,………I got it.”

Nick gave his brother one final order before he stood.

“You take care of Mother now, you hear?”

“I will.”

The cowboy placed his hat on his head then kissed his mother on the cheek. Softly, so only she could hear him, he said, “I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I’ll hurry.”

Victoria leaned into her son for a moment. “Just do as Heath says and be careful. We’ll be all right.”

“I know you will.”

And with that Nick picked up his saddle bags, hoisted them over his left shoulder, and walked off into the night. Right before he was swallowed up by a thicket of woods he turned around. His eyes rested on Heath for a long moment. When he looked at Victoria he gave her a final smile and a wave.

The woman waved back. Though it was dark, she was easily able to read the distress and fear on Nick’s face.

I’ll do my best to keep this little brother alive you’ve been waiting so long for, Nick. I promise I’ll do my best.

*****

After Nick left Victoria rummaged through her saddle bags. She retrieved another new dishcloth, two peaches and some bread. She took the cloth to the river, wet it, wrung it out, then crossed to Heath’s side. He opened his eyes when he felt the damp cloth travel over his face, but he didn’t make any protests. Nor did he protest when Victoria found his hands beneath the blanket, brought them into view, and wiped them off as well.

Victoria rinsed the cloth again, this time using it to clean her own face and hands.

Within ten minutes of eating the sliced peach and piece of bread Victoria gave him Heath knew putting food in his stomach had been a mistake. The stuff came up so quickly and unexpectedly that he didn’t have time to turn away. He didn’t know what was worse, the burning feeling of partially digested food traveling back up his throat and nasal passages, or the horror he felt when he realized he’d just vomited all over Victoria Barkley.

Before the young man could do anything about the situation he vomited again, and then again. Each time Victoria took the sour smelling offerings all over the front of her clothes.

The woman scrambled forward on her hands and knees. She tried to grab Heath’s head just as steadfastly as he tried to break her grasp.

“Honey, don’t! Don’t fight me! Here, turn this way, sweetheart! Lean over on your left side!”

Somehow Victoria manhandled Heath into the position she wanted him. He was still retching, though he had nothing left in his stomach to bring up. When the dry heaves finally stopped he collapsed on the ground with exhaustion. He felt Victoria place a cold cloth on the side of his face, and he was aware enough to rinse his mouth out with the water she gave him from the canteen, but after that everything grew dark and distant.

*****

Heath felt like he was suspended between reality and dream when he heard someone calling his name.

“Heath? Heath? Come on, sweetheart, wake up. Heath?”

He rolled his head back and forth without opening his eyes. “Mother?”

“Yes, honey, it’s Mother. Now come on, wake up for me.”

It was funny, but when everything came into focus for Heath he wasn’t expecting to see anyone other than Victoria Barkley kneeling in front of him,…..the woman he’d just referred to as mother for the second time this day.

Geez, Heath, could you screw things up anymore than you already have? First you puke all over a fine woman like Victoria Barkley, now you’re callin’ her mother as though you have that right just because you’re her husband’s bastard kid.

Heath struggled to pull away from Victoria but she wouldn’t let him. Once again she moved to sit behind him and cradle his head against her shoulder. He shifted enough to be able to tell she’d washed out her shirt in the river while he was oblivious to what was going on around him. She’d also removed his shirt and covered with him a different blanket which must have meant a good deal of the mess had gotten all over him as well.

Victoria barely heard Heath’s whispered, “I’m sorry,” as she continued to bathe his face.

“Sorry for what, honey?”

“Getting sick all over you. I tried to turn away but I couldn’t.”

“Oh for goodness sake, Heath, don’t worry about it. Do you honestly think in my thirty some years of being a mother this is the first time one of my children has thrown up on me?”

“But I’m not one of your children I’m…..”

“That’s how I think of you.”

Heath turned his head a fraction so he could see Victoria’s face out of the corner of his eyes. When he didn’t make a reply to her words she smiled.

“Whether you like it or not, Heath, that’s how I’ve come to think of you in the four short months you’ve been with us. And evidently you must feel something akin to that or you wouldn’t have called me mother two different times since we made camp tonight.”

Heath turned away again so his eyes were on the water. “I’m sorry about that, too. I didn’t,…….I don’t have the right to call you that.”

“Why not?”

Victoria felt Heath shrug a shoulder.

“I just don’t.”

“Perhaps if I give you permission to call me mother that will make you feel better about using the name. Is that what you’d like me to do? Give you permission?”

When the blond man didn’t answer her Victoria rubbed her hand over his shoulder. “You know, Heath, I’ve always thought the feelings people have for one another are more important than who people are to one another. If what my heart feels for you deems that the only adequate way I have of describing our relationship is by saying, “He’s my son,” then no one in this world has the right to question that. Just like if what your heart feels for me deems that the only adequate way you have of describing our relationship is by saying, “She’s my mother,” then no one in this world has the right to question that provided you and I are both happy with those choices. And I, for one, would be very happy with them. How about yourself?”

Again Heath made no reply. In light of what the young man had done today in Strawberry Victoria feared she was being insensitive.

“Sweetheart,….I’m sorry. I don’t mean to,…..well if by calling me mother it would make you feel disloyal to your own mother I understand. I apologize for hurting you.”

Heath lifted his left hand and rested it on Victoria’s arm. “I don’t reckon you could ever hurt anyone. You’re just not that type of woman.”

“I think you over estimate me.”
“No. No, I don’t. I,…..sometimes it’s hard to look at you and not think of her,…….my mother. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or fate,…..but the two of you are a lot alike. Even little things,…..like the way you wear your hair and your apple pie,….”

“My apple pie?”

“It tastes just like hers. It’s been my favorite dessert for as long as I can remember. After I left home somehow she always knew,…..always seemed to know when I’d be showin’ up again ‘cause no matter what, one of those pies was bakin’ in the oven when I rode into Strawberry. But to answer your question no, I don’t guess calling you mother makes me feel disloyal to my own mother. She,……I know she’d understand. As a matter of fact she’d be pleased.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Would you tell me more about her while we sit here together waiting for Nick to return?”

Heath continued to stare at the water. For a while the only sound was that of the river crashing over rocks. When the young man finally spoke Victoria had to strain to hear his words. By the thickness behind them she could tell it was difficult for him to speak, as though he was a child fighting the urge to fall into an exhausted slumber.

“She was happy. Always happy no matter how bad things got. And sometimes,…..well sometimes the money ran so low things got badder than bad. But you’d have never known it by lookin’ at her. She was a hard worker, and not too proud to do what she had to in order to keep food in a growing boy’s stomach and clothes on his back. She was soft-hearted. Always ready to help someone in need as though she herself wasn’t in need most of the time. Strict. She could be real strict with me when it was necessary. When I was askin’ for a whipping she didn’t hesitate to give me one. I guess you could say she knew she had to be both mother and father to me and did the best job at that she could. She was big on education, forever remindin’ me my ticket outta Strawberry would only come with knowledge. She was a stickler for manners. She always made sure I said please and thank you, and ‘no, ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir’ even to people who didn’t deserve to be given that respect ‘cause of how they treated my mama. People like Mrs. Vanguard. It was because of her,…..Mrs. Vanguard and John, that I had to do what I did.”

“It was because of Constance and John that you purchased the gravestone for your mother you mean?”

“Yes. I,…until I came to you I couldn’t afford a stone. When she died last October all I had to my name was twenty dollars. I fashioned a marker in the shape of a cross out of some wood I bought. But I promised Mama that day I’d give her something better just as soon as I could. And then at the party when Mrs. Vanguard said those things,…….called her a washerwoman and couldn’t remember her name,…..I couldn’t wait any longer after that. I wanted the whole world to know that Leah Thomson was so much more than a washerwoman to her son.”

Victoria thought of the words she’d seen, ‘Beloved Mother’, and understood exactly what Heath meant.

She felt his tears splash onto her arm. His words got thicker and harder for him to say, though this time from grief as opposed to injury and exhaustion.

“I knew Nick,…….I knew he couldn’t spare me from the ranch this week, but I had to go. It was important,….important to me that I put the gravestone in place today.”

Victoria kissed the side of Heath’s head that was visible to her. “It’s okay, sweetheart. You don’t have to explain it to me or to Nick. You don’t have to explain it to anyone.”

Heath continued as though Victoria hadn’t spoken. “It’s her birthday. She would have been forty-six. That’s why,…..that’s why I had to do it today. It’s all,…..it’s all I have left to give her.”

As Heath broke down in heaving sobs Victoria unconsciously rocked him back and forth in her arms. She could barely make out the words he said through his tears.

“She,……she gave me so much and all I did was give her grief. I,….when I was a little kid she told me,…..she told me my father was an important man who,……who had no choice but to be away from us. She said,…she said he didn’t want it that way but,……but that’s just how things were and that I had to be strong and brave for him. For a long time I believed her,…..believed that story even when people pointed at me and called me a bastard. But then when I got to be around twelve I started,….I started demanding the truth from her. I wanted to know who my father was and why,…..why he’d abandoned us. But she wouldn’t tell me. And the older I got the angrier that made me until,…..until the day came when I was sixteen and I rode outta Strawberry. I,…..I sent money home to her,……as much as I could spare. And every so often I’d come back to visit her,……but even though she didn’t say it, I knew no matter how long I stayed, it wasn’t long enough. She wanted me,……she wanted me back home with her but I was,……young, and foolish, and angry. So very angry. The last time I saw her before she passed away I,……I told her I wouldn’t come back until she was ready to tell me who my father was. Then six months later I got word she was dying. I rode,….rode home as fast as I could. She was too weak to talk by then,….but it didn’t matter. Suddenly knowing who my father was held no importance, but it took my mother bein’ on her death bed for me to see that. She,….she held me while I cried and begged her to forgive me. Then she pointed to her Bible. That’s when I found the article about Tom Barkley’s funeral. When I turned around to ask her about it she was,……she was gone. And now, after comin’ to live with all of you, after four months of gettin’ to know my brothers and sister, I keep askin’ myself why I wasn’t good enough for him? What makes me different from Jarrod,….and Nick,….and Audra,…..and Gene? I know,…..I know my mother wasn’t his wife. But why,……why couldn’t he love me just like loved his other kids? Why couldn’t he at least have sent Mama money so she didn’t have to work so hard? So she didn’t have to lay awake,……lay awake nights praying she’d be able to meet the needs of a growing boy. Why didn’t he want to be my father, too? Why,……why did he hate me?”

That was the question that caused Victoria to lose the tenuous hold she had on her own emotions. She broke down and cried with Heath all the while holding him firmly within her embrace.

How much time passed while Victoria and Heath cried together the woman didn’t know, but she was the first one who gained enough control to be able to speak.

“Heath, I’m sorry, but those are questions I don’t have answers for. But I promise you this. In a few weeks, when you’re back on your feet, you and I are going to sit down and have a long talk about everything you can remember your mother or her friends ever saying about your father during your growing up years. And after that, with your permission, I’d like to visit your mother’s people in Strawberry. I can’t promise you I’ll come back with any more answers than we have now, or come back with answers we want to hear, but I do promise you that somehow, one way or another, I’ll do my best to bring us both peace where this issue is concerned. All right?”

Victoria felt Heath nod his head. She reached her hand over his shoulder and wiped at the tears running down his cheeks. “I’ll say one last thing on this subject tonight that I want you to know is what I firmly believe in my heart. Your father never hated you, Heath. Tom Barkley was incapable of hating any of his children, regardless of the circumstances that brought them into this world. I don’t know why he seemingly turned his back on you and your mother, but he didn’t hate you, sweetheart. I know he didn’t hate you.”

Heath didn’t say anything, but for some reason he believed Victoria. He knew without a doubt she wouldn’t lie to him regarding this subject. When he spoke his voice was nasally and hoarse. “I’m sorry for the way this has hurt you. I wish,…..sometimes I wish I’d never rode onto the ranch. You believed your husband to be a different man before I came along and I ruined that for you. You don’t know how sorry that makes me. How much I regret comin’ into your lives.”

“There’s no need for regret. I truly believe that one way or another Tom’s,….indiscretions would have come to light. Those types of things simply can’t stay hidden. And I’d venture to guess that if you asked your brothers and sister they’d say they’re quite happy that you’ve come into our lives.”

“Even Nick?”

“Oh yes, honey, even Nick. Especially Nick.”

Heath couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m sorry, but on some days that’s just passin’ me by.”

“On some days it’s passing Nick by as well. But don’t worry, I have a feeling that,….oh, quite recently, he’s come to that realization.”

Before anything further could be said Victoria and Heath heard a shout.

“Mother, we’re in luck! I found Coco and Misty Girl!” Nick broke through the trees riding bareback on Coco while leading Misty Girl by the reins. “Me and Heath will have to ride double on Coco, but ole’ Coco can handle that.” The man jumped from his horse. “How’s Heath?”

“He’s hanging in there, son.”

“Good, good. Oh, you’re wake. Great, that it’ll make it easier on both of us. Let me get the horses saddled then I’ll help you to your feet. You think you can ride all night with me holding onto you? What am I saying? Of course you can. You’re a Barkley after all.”

Victoria watched Nick saddle the horses, then fuss over Heath all the while keeping up a steady stream of conversation. Right before Nick helped Heath stand she gave the blond man’s shoulders one last squeeze and said, “See what I mean?”
Heath looked at her and smiled. “Yes, Mother, I see exactly what you mean.”

Victoria helped Nick get Heath onto Coco before moving to mount Misty Girl. She waited while Nick climbed on Coco behind his brother and watched as he made certain the blanket was wrapped firmly around Heath’s shoulders. Nick put an arm across Heath’s stomach and with his other hand took the reins. Victoria urged Misty Girl forward as Nick pointed Coco for home.

The woman offered up a silent plea as they traveled. They still had miles to cover prior to reaching the ranch. She prayed Heath wouldn’t die in Nick’s arms before they got him there. Looking at Nick’s grim face, and the way Heath was sagging against him in a semi-conscious state, led Victoria to conclude Nick was praying the same exact thing.

*****

At seven-thirty on Thursday morning Jarrod and Audra were at the dining room table finishing breakfast.

“Do you think Mother will be home today?”

Jarrod shrugged his shoulders as he finished the last of the coffee in his cup. “I don’t know. Her note said she’d be back by Friday so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

“What about the boys?”
“I don’t know that either. Nick didn’t say when he planned to be back.”

Jarrod caught his sister’s frown and countered it with a smile. “Now come on, honey, none of that. Everyone’s fine.”

“But I just don’t understand it. It’s not like Mother to leave without telling us where she’s going. And it’s not like Nick to do that either. And as for Heath,……I guess I don’t know him well enough to say whether or not that’s something he’d do, but Nick must know where he is if he left to get him.”

“Yes, he must. So therefore it’s foolish for you to keep worrying. Like I said, I’m sure everyone is fine.”

Jarrod sat back in his chair as Silas entered the room, anticipating that the man had come to clear the table.

“Mr. Jarrod. Miss Audra. It looks like Mrs. Barkley, Mr. Nick, and Mr. Heath is comin’ in.”

Jarrod smiled at his sister. “See. I told you everyone was fine.”

“I don’t know about that, Mr. Jarrod.” Silas crossed to the dining room windows and parted the lace curtains. “Mr. Nick and Mr. Heath are riding double on Coco, and Mr. Heath looks like he’s feelin’ mighty poorly.”

At Silas’s words Jarrod and Audra shot up from the table. They ran together for the front door just as Misty Girl and Coco were coming abreast of the porch. Jarrod raced to Coco’s side. Flecks of vomit clung to Coco’s saddle, dotted Nick’s shirt, and stained the blanket Heath was wrapped within.

“What happened?” the lawyer asked as he reached out to take some of his unconscious brother’s weight from Nick.

“Snake bite.”

“When?”

“Last night about eight o’clock.”

Victoria dismounted Misty Girl and rushed to help her sons.

“Audra, send one of the men for Doctor Merar.”

“I’ll go myself.”

“That’s fine. Just hurry.”

“I will,” Audra promised as she raced for the barn.

Jarrod placed a hand on Heath’s forehead as his brother’s limp body slid from Coco into his arms. Although Heath’s face was once again dotted with beads of perspiration Jarrod couldn’t detect any fever.

“I think he’s in shock.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Nick agreed, as he jumped from Coco to help Jarrod. “He’s thrown up four times since I put him on Coco, and several times before that when he was with Mother while I was looking for the horses.”

Victoria led her sons into the house. She sent Silas ahead of them to turn down Heath’s bed. Once they got Heath settled in his room the family could do nothing more than remove his dirty clothes, wash him up, cover him with a thick quilt, and wait for Doctor Merar to arrive.

*****

Two hours later the doctor exited Heath’s room. The Barkleys were huddled together in the foyer. As soon as Nick heard Heath’s door shut he started up the stairs. He met the doctor halfway to the top.

“How’s he doing?”

Howard Merar kept walking, forcing Nick to travel beside him. The doctor didn’t speak until he was in the foyer with the rest of the family.

“If Heath’s still breathing fourteen hours after a bite from a rattlesnake, which I can assure all of you he is, then I’d say it’s a fair bet he’s going to be just fine.”

The grin on Nick’s face could have outshone the noonday sun. Jarrod put one arm around his mother and the other around his sister, both women leaned into him with relief.

“Nick, Victoria, you can thank yourselves for Heath’s good fortune. The two of you did everything right from putting the tourniquet on, to slicing the wound open so it could bleed, to sucking out the venom. Though I’ve never heard of a snake bite victim being aided by having the afflicted limb thrust in cold water, that was a good idea, Nick. I’m sure it did just what you hoped it would, slow down his circulation. And Victoria, the poultice was another excellent thought. Although a lot of people don’t put stock in Indian medicine, I for one applaud whatever works.”
“What about the vomiting?” Victoria asked. “He was so sick on and off throughout the night, and then he threw up again while we were waiting for you to arrive.”

“That’s a normal reaction with a snake bite, it’s caused by the venom. I doubt he’ll be sick again, but I wouldn’t give him anything to eat until early this evening – which shouldn’t be a problem considering he’s fallen into a deep sleep he’ll likely not awaken from for a good number of hours.” The man crossed to the table for his hat. “I cleaned and dressed the wound. I’ll be back tomorrow to have a look at it. In the meantime let Heath sleep as long and as much as he wants to. When you’re ready to give him something to eat it would be wise to start with chicken broth. If an hour goes by and he keeps that down then you can try something with a little more substance if he’s still hungry.”

Victoria led the man to the door. “Thank you, Howard.”

“Don’t thank me, Victoria. Like I said earlier, you and Nick owe yourselves the thanks.” The doctor looked at the middle Barkley son and pointed a finger. “Oh, and, Nick, I don’t care how much work you’ve got to do around this ranch, Heath is not to be out there mending fences, breaking horses, or branding cattle until I give the word. Which likely won’t be until sometime next week.”

“No, sir,” Nick agreed, his face revealing his puzzlement over the doctor’s comments.

Howard smiled. “That’s what Heath kept mumbling you needed him to do as he tried to fight me for his way out of bed. For a few moments there I thought I was going to have to call you and Jarrod to help me restrain him, but as soon as he got to a sitting position he passed out. Which, I might add, was the best thing for him. So when your brother wakes up please assure him that the only place you want him to be for the next several days is in bed. If you don’t, then I guarantee you he’ll fall and crack his noggin the first time he attempts to put his pants on.”

“Don’t worry,” Nick promised the man, “I’ll see to it he doesn’t leave that bed until you give the word.”

Victoria barely got the door shut behind the parting doctor before Audra started spewing questions left and right.

“How did Heath get bitten by snake? And where were the three of you anyway? Mother, if you were going with the boys why didn’t you just say so in your note? And if,….”

Victoria put an arm around Audra’s shoulders. “I know you and Jarrod must have a million questions to ask us. As a matter of fact Nick and I have a few questions to ask each other. By the smells coming from the dining room I’d hazard a guess that Silas is putting breakfast on the table for Nick and myself. Let’s all go have a seat. We can fill you in on what happened while we eat.”

Thirty minutes later there wasn’t a morsel of food left on either Nick’s plate nor Victoria’s. Nor was there a question left unanswered in regards to how Nick and his mother had ended up following Heath to an old graveyard in the desolate town of Strawberry.

Jarrod stood and rounded the table. He rested a hand on his mother’s shoulder while bending to place a kiss on her forehead. “And to sum it up, all’s well that ends well. I’m going to send one of the men into town to tell Karen I won’t be in the office today. Since you and Nick look like you both could use eight hours of sleep Audra and I will take turns playing nurse for Heath.”

Victoria smiled and patted her oldest’s hand. “Thank you, Jarrod. That will be a big help.”

Nick pushed his plate back and stood as well. “I’m going outside to tell Phillip to have a couple of the men get the wagon we left behind and round up the missing team, then I’m hittin’ the sack.”

Victoria held up a hand. “Before the two of you leave I have something to say.”

The three Barkley offspring looked at their mother, giving her their full attention.

“I want you to know that last night, while Nick was out looking for the horses, I asked Heath to call me Mother. If any of you have a negative comment to make about that I would appreciate it if you say it now, when Heath isn’t present. You know that I’m always willing to listen to your thoughts or opinions no matter how much they may differ from mine, but this is one subject I will not tolerate someone hurting Heath’s feelings over.”

Jarrod looked from Nick to Audra, then down at his mother. He managed to keep his grin from breaking through, but Victoria didn’t miss the twinkle that made his blue eyes even brighter than normal.

“The only thing I have to say is; it’s about time.”

Audra smiled while reaching over to squeeze her mother’s hand. “I second that. As a matter of fact I’d say it’s past time.”

All eyes turned to Nick. Victoria held her breath when his silence lengthened. She knew Nick still had a lot of emotions to work through before he fully came to terms with what his father had done all those years ago in Strawberry.

The cowboy finally gave a slow nod of his head. “Yeah. Yeah, like Audra said, it’s past time. After all, I can hardly have my brother calling my mother Mrs. Barkley, now can I? Talk about confusing.”

When Nick bent to kiss Victoria she wrapped her arms around him and gave him a hug. “Thank you. Your approval of this decision means a lot to me. And it will mean a lot to Heath as well.”

“Heath doesn’t need my approval, Mother.”

“He may not need it, Nick, but he wants it. He wants it very much.”

This time Nick’s nod was minus words. He winked at his mother as he released her, which was his way of saying he understood what she meant.

Jarrod and Nick walked out the front door together while Audra helped Silas clear the table.

Victoria left her family to their various duties and climbed the stairs for bed. She looked in on Heath to find him sleeping soundly with his injured arm resting atop the covers wrapped in a clean, white bandage.

She bent and placed a light kiss on his temple. She remembered how she asked God to keep Heath alive until they got him home. And now, as she dropped to her knees beside Heath’s bed, she remembered to thank God for answering her prayers.

*****

Nick woke up at five o’clock that evening. He slipped into a clean shirt and pair of socks before pulling on his boots. He walked to Heath’s bedroom where he found Audra sitting in a chair reading. The cowboy kept his voice pitched low.

“How is he?”

“Fine. He was awake for a few minutes about an hour ago. Jarrod helped him make a trip to the bathroom, then he drank some water and fell back to sleep.”

“He’s kept the water down?”

“So far.”

“Good. Give a holler if you need my help with him. Otherwise I’ll come up and take over for you in a little while.”
“All right.”

Nick trotted down the front stairs. He could smell supper cooking in the kitchen. He didn’t see his mother anywhere, but the bathroom door had been closed as he passed by and he heard water running from within. No doubt Mother was taking a long, well-deserved soak in a hot tub filled with bubbles and those lilac smelling salts she was so fond of.

The cowboy spotted Jarrod sitting at the desk in the study doing paper work. Before he was able to hail his brother there was a knock on the front door.

Jeb Galloway stood on the porch. He was glancing over his shoulder as Nick opened the door.

“Jeb?”

“Nick,” Jeb nodded. “I’m,….I’m sorry about comin’ up to the house like this, but I really need to see ya’ if ya’ can spare a few minutes.”

“Look, Jeb, I’ve had two long days. Why don’t you speak with Phillip about whatever it is that,….”

“I can’t speak with Phillip. I can only speak with you.” Jeb shot another glance over his shoulder. “And it has to in private. Where no one else can see us.”

Nick got the impression the young man was terrified, but he couldn’t imagine why. He took a step back from the door. “All right then, come in.”

Jeb took off his hat while Nick led the way to the study.

“Jarrod, I’m sorry to interrupt your work, but Jeb here needs to talk to me in private.”

Jarrod rose and began gathering his papers. “That’s not a problem. I was just finishing up anyway.”

“No, Mr. Barkley, you can stay. I,…….well I guess you’d better hear what I have to say, too. I might,….I might be needin’ your advice as a lawyer by the time my story comes to an end.”

Jarrod cocked an eyebrow at the nineteen-year-old. “My advice as a lawyer?”
“Yes, sir.”

Jarrod exchanged glances with Nick as he moved to perch a hip on the corner of the desk. Nick indicated for Jeb to sit on the sofa. Nick took the chair across from him.

“All right, Jeb. What is it you need to talk to me about?”

“Phillip told us Heath got bit by a rattlesnake last night.”

“He did. But he’s going to be fine. He’s upstairs sleeping right now. The doc said he should be good as new in a week or so.”

“I,…” the young man nervously fingered the brim of his hat a moment. He seemed to gather some internal strength from the action because he swallowed hard then spoke again. “I know how that snake got into the wagon.”

Nick smiled in an almost patronizing manner. “Well now, Jeb, I know how that snake got into the wagon, too.”

“You do?”

“Sure. The same way any snake makes its way into a wagon. It slithered in at some point when Heath was stopped for a while.”

“No, sir. No, it didn’t.”

“What do you mean no it didn’t?”
“Lyndall,……..Lyndall Barrett put it there Tuesday after Heath had loaded the wagon and come in the house here to get his gear.”

Nick’s disbelief was plain to hear. “Lyndall put it there?”

“Yeah. He,…..I swear Lyndall’s brain is addled sometimes. He,……well he has this,….this thing for snakes and other critters most people would have the good sense to stay clear of.”

“And what’s that got to do with Heath?” Jarrod asked.

Jeb shifted on the couch so he could see both Barkley brothers. “Lyndall’s hated Heath since the day he came here.”

“Why?” Nick asked.

“Lyndall thought you were groomin’ him to be your right-hand man once Phillip retires. But now he thinks Heath is gonna take that spot away from him. Plus,…..well,…..I guess you could say he’s prejudice.”

“Prejudice?”

“About Heath’s situation. You know, about the fact that your ma ain’t Heath’s ma. It makes Lyndall mad that you let him live in the house here with ya’all and that ya’all call him brother.”

“What business is that of Lyndall’s?”
“I don’t know, Nick. It just sticks in his craw for some reason.”

Nick stood and crossed his arms over his chest. Jeb could feel the sweat spurting from every pore in his body while Nick simply stared down at him with his mouth set in a grim line.

“Maybe you’d better start at the beginning, boy. I’m a little curious as to how you’ve come by your information.”

“Yes,…..yes, sir. I,….see it’s like this. I was with Lyndall on Monday night when he caught the snake. Only I didn’t know then what he was gonna do with it. I thought it was weird when he cut off its rattles, but then I thought he was crazy as a loon to be messin’ with the thing in the first place so I just stayed about fifty paces behind him and didn’t ask no questions. To tell you the truth I didn’t even know he kept it. I saw him put it in the gunny sack that night, but I left him to his fun and went back to the bunkhouse. By the time he came in a few hours later I figured he’d let the snake go. But then on Tuesday morning he was tellin’ me how he still had the snake, and how one way or another he was gonna turn it loose on Heath. I didn’t believe him when he said that. Honest I didn’t. I figured he was just big talkin’ like he does when he wants to brag on himself to us younger guys.

“So anyway, me and Lyndall was up in the hay mow when Heath rode in on Charger Tuesday afternoon. Lyndall signaled for me to keep quiet. Then he watched Heath load the wagon without Heath ever knowin’ we were in the barn with him. When Heath left to come in the house Lyndall scampered down the ladder like his pants was on fire. I didn’t pay no mind to where he was goin’. I knew we had work to do so I went back to stacking that hay. It wasn’t till after Heath was gone that Lyndall started laughing like his mind was half gone. You know, real goofy like. When I asked him what was so funny he said he’d put the bag with the snake in the back of Heath’s wagon. I really laid into him then. I told him that what he’d done was real stupid and that Heath could die if that snake bit him. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Aw shucks, Jeb, the bag was tied with twine. That little ole snake ain’t gonna get out unless Heath gets curious and opens it. And even if he does open it the snake will just give him a good scare is all. He’ll jump back outta the way long before it can ever git to

him.’ ”

“And you believed that?” Jarrod asked.

“No.” Jeb dropped his eyes to the floor in shame. “No,…..I guess I didn’t. Or at least it worried me somethin’ fierce wondering what would happen if that snake did bite Heath.”

“So you were worried,” Nick said, “but you didn’t bother to tell anyone what Barrett had done.”
It took every ounce of Jeb’s will to meet Nick Barkley’s gaze. “No, sir. No, sir, I didn’t. And you don’t know how sorry I am about that fact either.”

“Well sorry just doesn’t cut it, boy! That snake damn near bit my mother! If Heath hadn’t seen it and knocked her out of the way it would have. Now do you for one minute think a tiny woman like Mrs. Barkley would have survived a rattlesnake’s bite?”
“No,…….no, sir.” Jeb whispered, suddenly unable to find his voice. “No, I don’t reckon she would have.”

“You’re double damn right she wouldn’t have! And it’s only by the grace of God and the fact that my mother and I were right there to help Heath that he survived it! If he would have been alone when it happened I guarantee you I’d be digging a hole next to my father’s grave as we speak.”

“Yes, sir. I know that, sir.”

Nick swiveled on one heel and paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. Jarrod took over the conversation, allowing Nick time to cool down.

“Jeb, do you realize that you could be charged as an accessory to attempted murder?”

“I didn’t know the fancy term for it, but yes, sir, I know,…..I know I’m in a peck of trouble ‘cause I didn’t tell anyone what Lyndall did.”

“Then why did you decide to come forward now?”

“Because,……because what Lyndall did was wrong. Dead wrong. And I,….well I know you got no call to believe me when I say this considerin’ what I did and all, but I’m not that kind of man. I don’t,….I’d never hurt anyone. Honest I wouldn’t. I like Heath. I truly do. He’s a good boss. I got a lotta respect for him even though some of the others,….well some of the others don’t feel that way.”

Nick stopped his pacing and turned. “Some of the others don’t feel that way because they’ve given Heath a fair chance and honestly dislike him? Or they feel that way because they’re afraid to tell Barrett to shut his mouth and go to hell?”

“I’d have to say the last, Nick. Or at least I’d bet money on the fact that if Barrett was gone the men who have been givin’ Heath a hard time will put an end to their fun.”

“So you think Barrett’s the ring leader in all this, is that it?”

“I don’t think it, I know it.”

“I see.” Two minutes ticked off the Grandfather clock in the foyer before Nick spoke again. “ Jeb, for now I want you to go back to work and not breathe a word of your talk with me and Jarrod to anyone.”

“No, sir, I won’t. But,….” Jeb looked at Jarrod. “But when the sheriff comes to arrest me can I,….well I will be able to write a letter to my folks, won’t I? To let them know I’m in jail?”

Jarrod looked to Nick for the answer to that question while trying not to smile.

Nick stroked his fingers over his chin, seemingly lost in deep thought. “A letter you say? Well, yes, I suppose Jarrod can arrange that. But now on the other hand, Jeb, Jarrod and I aren’t really the men who should be making a decision regarding your future in this particular situation.”
“Sir?”

“You see, Heath and I are partners in running the ranch so normally I’d say he and I would both have to be in agreement before a final decision is made on any issue. But in this case I’d have to say it’s completely up to Heath whether or not you spend some time in jail, or are asked to pack up your things and leave the ranch, or are told you can stay.”

“Stay?”

Nick shrugged. “Now don’t you tell Heath I said this ‘cause he’ll get ornery as an old bear if you do, but he’s a real soft hearted kinda guy. Oh, he can be moodier than Audra when he puts a mind to it, and he can be stubborn as a mule and tough as that rattlesnake that bit him, but he doesn’t like to see anyone on the receiving end of a bad time if he thinks they can turn themselves around and change for the better. So if you can be a man the next time someone like Lyndall Barrett wants you to do things you know are wrong, if you can look a guy like him right in the eye and stand up for what you believe in regardless of what he says, then I think Heath just might tell you that we still have a place for you on the Barkley ranch.”

“Really, Nick?” The boy’s eyes lit up with relief. “You really think that?”

“I do. Of course you’re going to have to gather your courage and tell this story to Heath face to face. I’m not going to do it for you.”

“No, no. I don’t expect you to. This is something,…..well I know it’s something I gotta do myself no matter what Heath decides. Can I see him now?”

Nick smiled at the young man’s enthusiasm. “No, not right now. Like I said earlier, he’s sleeping. I’ll tell you what though, Doctor Merar will be coming out to check on my brother sometime tomorrow. Before he leaves I’ll ask him when he thinks Heath can have visitors. After I find that out I’ll let you know.”

Jeb stood and held out his hand to his boss. “Thanks, Nick. Thanks a lot. I,…..well I surely appreciate what you’re doin’ for me.”

“I’m not doing anything. The doing will be up to Heath.”

“I know, but facin’ Heath won’t have my heart in my throat nearly in the same way facing you did.”

Nick did his best to look stern when he cocked an eyebrow and said, “Oh, really?”

Jeb decided he’d better get while the getting was good. He turned and shook hands with Jarrod. “Mr. Barkley, thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Jeb. And I don’t want to ever see you in here again seeking legal advice. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir. Very much so, sir.”

“All right then, you be on your way.”

“Yes, sir.”

Before Jeb reached the study doors Nick hailed him. “Jeb?”
“Yeah?”

“Don’t forget, mum’s the word. Don’t tell anyone that you came to see me. And no matter what happens you keep your eyes to the ground.”

“Yes, sir.”

After the study doors shut behind the young man Jarrod turned to his brother.

“No matter what happens?”
“Pappy, I’ve suddenly got me a hankerin’ to have a real private-like meeting with Lyndall Barrett.”

“What about this equal partnership you’ve suddenly formed with Heath that you mentioned to Jeb? Don’t you think you should discuss your plans with him first?”

“Nope. For one last night Nick Barkley runs the Barkley Ranch alone. Tomorrow is a new day, and when it dawns Nick and Heath Barkley run the Barkley Ranch together. But tonight,…..well tonight there’s something I have to do for myself,……and do for my little brother.”

Nick was surprised when Jarrod did nothing more than nod and smile.

“As much as I’m loath to admit this, Nicholas, sometimes I do admire your brand of justice. Provided, of course, it doesn’t land you in a jail cell.”

“Oh now, Pappy, do you really think I’d be that foolish?”

Jarrod laughed while deciding that was one question he’d rather not answer. He put an arm around Nick’s shoulders. “Come on. Let’s go look in on your new partner. I imagine Audra would like one of us to take over for her.”

Nick made no objection to that. But then a little quiet time sitting beside his sleeping brother was just what Nick needed. After all, he’d learned a long time ago he did his best plotting when the distractions were at a minimum.

*****

Laughter and voices raised in full volume reached Nick’s ears long before he opened the bunkhouse door. Darkness had fallen an hour earlier. Kerosene lamps lit the interior of the wooden building. Nick acknowledged the greetings that came his way, then crooked a finger at Barrett.

“Lyndall, deal yourself out of that hand, would ya’? I need to talk to you for a couple minutes over in the barn.”
“Sure thing, Nick.”

Nick waited while Lyndall played his last hand of poker. Jeb Galloway sat at another table engrossed in a game of checkers. He didn’t look up at Nick, nor did Nick attempt to make eye contact with him.

Lyndall was all smiles as he fell into step beside his boss. “What can I do for you, Nick?”
“There’s something I need to get your opinion on. Just follow me.”

“Okay. Oh, and hey, how’s Heath doin’?”
“Fine. He’d doing fine. Doc says he needs to rest for a week or so, but he’s gonna pull through without a hitch.”

“Boy, I sure am glad to hear that. I was real concerned when Phillip told us what happened to him.”

Nick smiled at the man. “I’m sure you were.”

Lyndall followed Nick into the dark barn. He strained to see ahead of him, keeping his eyes focused on Nick’s back.

“Hey, Nick, you want me to get us some light in here?”

“No, no. That’s not necessary. We don’t need any light for what we have to do.”

Nick led the way down the long aisle. The barn was quiet at this time of night other than the occasional swish of a horse’s tail and Coco nosing his feed pan.

Nick opened a door to a separate room that contained two empty stalls. This was where the Barkleys kept injured or quarantined animals when the need arose.

Lyndall’s mind raced with eager anticipation. I bet Nick has got a sick horse he wants my opinion on. It’s about time I get to prove to him I’m just the man he needs to help him run this place when Phillip retires. That bastard Heath is just a waste of everyone’s time. One way or another I’ll make Nick see that yet.

Barrett turned when Nick shut the door behind them. Now it was so dark he could barely see his hand in front of his face. “Nick, I know you said we didn’t need any light but,…..”

Before the man could finish his sentence he was grabbed from behind.

“What the……..hey! Let me go! Nick! Hey! What’s goin’ on? Let me,….what the hell are you doing?”

Two pairs of beefy callused hands tied the struggling man to a thick wooden support beam. Lyndall tried to get a look at his assailants’ faces but the beam hampered his view. He had no idea if there were other men who were tying up Nick as well, or if Nick had managed to escape.

Lyndall’s hands and elbows were yanked together behind the post. He cried out, certain he was about to be split in half when his shoulder blades were thrust around the beam until his chest was forced to stand at attention. His assailants worked quickly and silently like a well-rehearsed team. The horsehair rope drew blood as it bit into Lyndall’s flesh. It was wrapped around his wrists and forearms in the same fashion a cowboy uses to secure a downed calf. Barrett cursed and kicked, bucked and arched, but wasn’t able to free himself. His struggles gave way to confusion when he heard Nick say, “Thanks, fellas. You can go now.”

Lyndall craned his head. He caught a glimpse of his assailants’ backs as they headed out the side door. The man wearing the wide-brimmed cowboy hat might have been Phillip Mattson, but it was too dark for Lyndall to be certain. The other man was tall and lanky, approaching six and a half feet in height. Based on that Lyndall was fairly certain he was a wrangler by the name of Ed Kason. Eddie was another old timer like Phillip who had been among the first employees hired by Nick’s father over twenty years ago.

Barrett tried his best to smile into the darkness. “Come on, Nick. What’s goin’ on? Is this some kinda initiation or something?”

“No. I’d say it’s more like an inquest.”
“Inquest?”
“Yep.” Nick moved to stand in front of Lyndall. “That’s a fancy word I learned from my brother Jarrod that means inquiry. You know, questions, answers, stuff like that. Of course now generally speaking an inquest includes a judge and a jury, but on the Barkley ranch I serve as both of those. And, generally speaking, a defendant such as yourself is usually entitled to a lawyer, but because I’m the judge I’ve overruled that.”

“Nick,…..Nick, I don’t know what you’re up to, but this isn’t funny anymore.”

“No, Lyndall, I guess it’s not.” Nick turned and slipped his hand into a covered bucket. “But then I don’t suppose Heath thought it was too funny when he got bit by that snake last night either. What about you? Do you think Heath found that amusing?”
Lyndall’s heart sped up at this line of questioning.

“Well,……no. No, I don’t reckon he did. But I already told you I was glad to hear he’s okay.”
“Yeah, I just bet you are.”

“I am, Nick. I really,…..”

Lyndall’s sentence trailed off in a choked gasp when he heard the sound. It came closer, the shaking of the rattles indicating the reptile was sensing an enemy.

“Nick,….Nick, what,……ah!”

The snake slithered across Lyndall’s shoulders. The rattles sounded loud and long next to his left ear. The man’s heart rammed against his chest in an attempt to flee his body and his legs started shaking like a fourteen-year-old virgin’s on her wedding night.

Lyndall couldn’t help but cry out when the snake’s tongue flicked against his cheek. He cried out once more when Nick’s fingers did the same against the lobe of his ear.

“What’s the matter, Lyndall? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little old rattlesnake?”
“Nick,….” Lyndall whispered, “Nick,….please.”

“Please what?”

“Please,…..please get it off me.”

The rattles sounded again as the snake slithered down one arm and back up again.

“Get what off you?” Nick asked at full volume. Lyndall prayed the man would lower his voice. All he needed now was for Nick Barkley’s booming baritone to get the snake riled.

“The snake,” Lyndall muttered, hardly daring to move his mouth. “Get the snake off me.”

“Oh, no. Not just yet. Remember I said we were going to hold an inquest.”

“Nick,….”

The snake poked its nose into the open collar of Lyndall’s shirt, its tail rattling an angry warning.

“Now, Mr. Barrett, for the record, how did the snake that bit my brother Heath come to be in his wagon?”

Lyndall stood stiff and still, his only movement was the ever-increasing way his eyes widened in fear. “I don’t,….I don’t know. Please, Nick. Please.”

The snake’s body began a slow decent inside Lyndall’s shirt.

“I’d advise you to think a little harder, Mr. Barrett, unless you enjoy the feeling of my little friend there tickling your belly. Now how did the snake that bit Heath come to be in his wagon?”

“I don’t,…I,…..I,…Nick,….Nick!”

The snake fought to squeeze itself into the waistband of Lyndall’s jeans. The rattles vibrated as it worked its way beneath his belt.

“Lyndall, you’re not answering my questions.”

“I,…Nick, I didn’t have anything to do with,….”

Lyndall felt the snake enter his pants. “Nick,…..please,…..I,….”

Barrett thought he’d faint for certain when the snake slid over his crotch. It stopped there for just a moment and Nick laughed. Barrett wondered how his boss could even tell where the damn thing was considering how dark the room was, but somehow Nick knew.

“Now that would be an interesting place to end up with a snake bite, wouldn’t you say, old pal?”
“Nick,….”

“Lyndall, you beg like woman, you know that? Heath didn’t beg. He didn’t so much as whimper. But I can’t say the same for you now, can I? Not that I’m surprised you understand. You don’t even come close to being half the man my brother is.”

“Nick,……,” Sweat soaked the underarms of Lyndall’s shirt when the snake traveled downward and wrapped itself around his right leg as though it intended to stay there for a good long while.

“You can end it all by telling me the truth, Barrett. I just want the truth.”

For just a moment Lyndall Barrett pondered his choices. But then the snake’s tongue flicked against his knee cap. And then its nose nudged his thigh. And then it slithered back to the region every male holds dear. And then he felt its mouth engulfing his testicles. And then the rattles sounded loud and long. And then Lyndall wet his pants.

“Okay, okay, I did it! I put the snake in the wagon!”

That was all Nick needed to hear. He crossed in front of Barrett, balled a fist, and hit the man square in the stomach. The snake flew from Lyndall’s pants as the beating continued. When the cowboy was finally untied he was battered and bruised, the crotch of his pants wet and cold, and he was crying like a five-year-old who wanted his mama.

Nick stood over Lyndall, the disdain in his voice easy to hear. “You’re not such a big man now, are you, tough guy? Get to your feet, pack up your gear, and get off this ranch. If I ever lay eyes on you again what happened in here tonight will seem like a day at the circus. You come within two hundred miles of Heath and you and I will be having another meeting. You got it?”

When Lyndall didn’t answer him Nick rammed the toe of one boot into the man’s ribs. “Barrett, I asked you a question.”

“Yeah,” Lyndall moaned while rolling to his knees. “Yeah. Yeah,…..I got it.”

Nick leaned over and grabbed the man under one arm. “Come on then. Get moving.”

The other men stared wide-eyed when the disheveled Barrett was flung in the bunkhouse. No one missed the split lip he was sporting, or the

tears on his cheeks, or the wet stain in the center of his pants. The humiliated cowboy wasted no time gathering his things. Fifteen minutes later he was riding out the front gates. When he was gone Nick looked to the cowhand standing closest to him.

“Mike, rouse the men from the other bunkhouses and get Phillip, too. I want everyone to hear what I have to say.”

“Sure thing, Nick.”

In ten minutes time Nick was surrounded by every hired hand the Barkleys employed. He stood in the doorway of the bunkhouse so those inside and out could hear him.

“Men, Lyndall Barrett is no longer employed on this ranch. The reason he no longer has a job here is because the snake that bit my brother Heath was put in the wagon bed by Barrett. It makes no difference to me why Barrett pulled that kinda stunt, what matters is he did it period. If my brother had died last night I guarantee you Lyndall wouldn’t have left this ranch in anything other than a pine box. Now I can’t make any of you accept Heath as boss. All I can do is ask that you give him a chance. If you do, I know you’ll find he’s worthy of the same amount of respect and friendship each one of you gives me. If you have no intention of giving him the opportunity to show you what he’s made of then pack your stuff and go right now. There’s no place for you on the Barkley Ranch any longer.”

Eyes flicked left and right. Everyone was curious to see who might break ranks. Finally one man did, followed by two others. That didn’t surprise Nick. The first man was Lyndall’s cousin, the remaining two were friends of Lyndall’s who had been hired on with him.

Nick looked at the rest of the group. “Anyone else?”

Heads shook back and forth and the man heard, “No, Nick,” voiced from a variety of directions.

“All right then. Thank you. I’ll see all of you in the morning.”

Nick headed toward the barn. He knew better than to ever tell Heath what he had done tonight in regards to his talk with the men, but that didn’t mean he regretted it. As a matter of fact Nick now realized he should have given that speech months ago.

The cowboy stopped just inside the barn. He pulled a match from his pocket, struck it against the wall, then lit a kerosene lantern. He took the lantern off its hook and carried it with him. When he came to the back room where Lyndall had been tied he circled the area. He smiled when he spotted the snake curled up in a far corner. Without the slightest bit of caution Nick picked the reptile up.

“Thanks, fella. You don’t know what a help you’ve been.”

Nick walked out the side door and bent down. He released the snake, watching as it slithered off towards freedom.

The man chuckled as he returned the lamp to its peg in the barn. He blew out the flame, then headed for the house. He reached in his pocket and retrieved the small wooden rattle he’d dug out of the chest in the nursery. He couldn’t remember now if the toy had belonged to Audra or Eugene. No matter, it had served its purpose. Nick gave the rattle a little shake while thinking of the harmless bull snake he’d just released.

Jarrod was sitting in the parlor when Nick entered the house. The lawyer’s eyes tracked his brother’s movements through the foyer. Nick stopped in front of the brandy decanter and poured himself a drink.

“So, Brother Nick, is it safe to ask why you’re wearing that self-satisfied grin while at the same time carrying around a baby’s rattle, or am I better off not to know?”

Nick glanced down at the toy before returning his attention to his sibling. “Let’s just say that tonight I learned necessity is truly the mother of invention, Pappy, and leave it at that. And speaking of mothers, where’s ours?”
“She and Audra are upstairs fussing over Heath. The last time I looked in there one was aiming a fork toward his mouth while the other one was combing his hair.”

Nick grinned. “And I bet his face was redder than a ripe tomato.”

“Nicholas, you haven’t seen red until you get a glimpse of that poor man.”

Nick set his glass down. He patted Jarrod’s arm as he passed and grabbed a deck of cards off the mantel. “Come on, Paps, let’s go chase those women outta there and engage Heath in a game of cards.”

Jarrod stood and fell in step beside his brother.

“Cards? I thought you swore you’d never play cards with Heath again after the last time you lost ten dollars to him.”

“Heck, Jarrod, the man’s sick. As a matter of fact he’s probably ready to go nighty night right about now. The way I figure it this is my chance to win some of that money back.”
“Oh you think so, huh?”

Nick stopped halfway up the stairs. He gave one shoulder a tight shrug. “I just,……the card game doesn’t matter one way or another, you know. I just want to be with him for a while. Last night,…..damn, Jarrod, I was sure he was gonna die before we ever got him back here. I didn’t realize,…….well,……I guess for as angry as he can make me sometimes, there’s no doubt he’s our father’s son. And no doubt he’s our brother.”

“And your friend?”

“I,…..yeah,” Nick nodded, while looking down at the rattle he still carried. “I don’t guess there’s any doubt about that either. Or at least not any longer.”

Jarrod simply smiled while putting an arm around Nick’s shoulders. “Let’s get a move on then. I think it’s high time we rescued your friend from the ladies of the house.”

My friend, Nick thought as he and Jarrod headed for Heath’s room.. I like the sounds of that. I like the sounds of that,……and so would Father.

3 MONTHS LATER

Victoria sat on Misty Girl observing Heath from afar. She thought back to the night he’d been bitten by the snake and all that had come to pass since that time.

Jeb Galloway was still employed on the Barkley ranch. Like Nick had told the nineteen-year-old, Heath had a soft heart. Perhaps better than many men, Heath understood the foolish choices a teenager can make. He harbored no ill will against Jeb, and now they worked side by side with an easy camaraderie that wouldn’t have occurred had Lyndall Barrett still been present.

Heath had begun to form friendships with some of the other hired hands as well. Victoria wasn’t so foolish as to think that every man on the ranch liked Heath any more than every man liked Nick, but as long as they respected him as their boss and as an owner equal to any other member of the family, that was all she could ask for.

Whatever tensions had still existed between Heath and Audra as a result of the words they’d exchanged the night of the party evaporated during Heath’s recuperation. Victoria would often come upon Audra sitting at Heath’s bedside reading to him or playing checkers with him. It warmed the woman’s heart to see them forming a relationship that was slightly different than any Audra shared with her other three brothers. Maybe their personalities so easily meshed because they both had such gentle spirits. Or maybe it was because they both liked to play any type of game from checkers, to cards, to dominos. Or maybe it was because they, of all Tom’s children, were the two who resembled the Barkley side of the family and therefore each other. Or maybe their new formed bond was just part of God’s overall plan to help Heath feel like a cherished member of his new family.

Victoria watched now as Heath finished pulling the weeds, then rose. He stood staring down at the stone. He didn’t turn when Charger whinnied to Misty Girl, nor when he heard the soft approach of Victoria’s boots.

The woman joined Heath at her husband’s graveside. She slipped an arm around his waist and was comforted by the one he immediately rested on her shoulders. She looked up into his face.

“Is this the first time you’ve been here?”

“Other than the day last January when Audra took her whip to me, yes.”

This news didn’t surprise Victoria. No doubt there were many things Heath needed to be assured of before he could begin the process of getting to know his father. Recently, a good number of those things had come to light.

A month earlier Victoria had snuck out of the town where Tom’s memory was being honored with a statue and headed for Strawberry. The journey hadn’t been without its trials, but in the end Victoria had come away with the answers she’d promised Heath the night he’d laid in her arms crying and wondering why his father hated him.

As Victoria told Heath then, Tom Barkley was incapable of hating any of his children. How could he hate a child he never knew existed? Though Victoria’s heart mourned for this young man who had grown up without the influence of a father, at least the letter Hannah had given her brought both Heath and Victoria a measure of peace. Tom Barkley was a man who had made an error in judgment. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t a saint, and his wife was certain he carried the regrets of his actions with Leah Thomson to his grave.

Victoria broke the silence she and her son had fallen into.

“It helps, doesn’t it, Heath? Knowing what we found out after my visit to Strawberry?”

“Yes, Mother. It helps.”

Victoria looked at her husband’s headstone. “Have you forgiven him?”

“I,…..I’m trying. I,…..I guess this is my first step toward doing that. It’s just,…….sometimes it’s difficult to put my childhood behind me. Now that I live with you, and I hear stories Audra, or Nick, or Jarrod tell about when they were growing up, I think about what might have been and I,…..I ache for what I missed out on.”

“I know, honey, I know. But the hurt will ease if you give it enough time. Not even a year has passed yet since you came to us. So many things have changed for you. So many discoveries have been made. Allow yourself time to absorb all you’ve come to learn since your mother’s death. ”

Heath smiled down at the tiny woman. “How’d you get so smart?”

“Years of living. I’m an old woman don’t you know.”

“You’re not that old.”

“Old enough to be your mother.”

Heath pulled Victoria to him and rested his cheek on the top of her head. “Now that I won’t argue with.”

“Me being your mother?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good to hear because it’s an argument you wouldn’t win anyway.”

“Boy howdy, don’t I know it.”

Victoria laughed. She stepped away from her son, bent and pulled a final weed, then walked toward Misty Girl.

“You coming with me, cowboy?”

“Where you goin’?”

“To that place you call home.”

Heath smiled again. He walked to Charger and swung up on the horse’s back. “Yep, I’m comin’ with you. Right off the top of my head I can’t think of one place I’d rather be.”

“Right off the top of my head, I can’t think of one place I’d rather you be. And I can’t fathom that I ever will.”

Side by side, like a mother and her son, Victoria and Heath rode together toward home.

***The End***

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